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So Silver Bright

Chapter Text

Preface - The Fools

This city is a place of both flowers and ravens.

One of them is said to bring pain, the other comfort. But you? You understand none. Why would you, when you don’t need them? You’re not lost, you don’t need guidance; you know precisely what you want.

You got the job because you needed the money. You want the money so your mother would stop nagging at you. You say you want to help because that’s what people want to hear. But what you do, in the end, is wearing your black mask and walking into the little, clean rooms at the clinic, looking at the patients in the eye and asking them why. You were always good at talking to people, weren’t you? At convincing, and smiling, making others open up. And they are dying to share how sad they are, after all, so you have it easy.

They have flowers taking root in their lungs because they can’t recover from the death of their children. They have flowers blooming at the bottom of their throats because their dearest friend now hates them. They cough small pink petals, fragrant and sweet, or torn and stained with blood, because the one they want doesn’t love them back.

Love lost. Love forlorn. Love unrequited. And you listen, but you never care that much. You’re just another step, a gentler point in the middle: the strong ones get over it, the weak make up their minds and sign the papers so the actual doctors can cut their chest open and take the swarm of flowers out.

One way or another, it always ends the same.

They’re fools, and you’re the cowing bird pretending to tell them what they want to hear.

--

Referral Information:

The following patient has been referred for the second, experimental phase of the Chronic Flower Coughing Syndrome (CFCS) evaluation and treatment.

Patient ID: Subject #04 (Second Phase)
Primary care supervisor: Dr. Kim Junmyeon.
Date of Scheduled Exam: Wednesday, June 3rd, 2038.

Disease evaluation report:

CFCS evaluation specialist: Please fax or mail this form to the Primary Care supervisor listed above upon completion of the patient visit.

Report status: Final
Result: Presence of stems of Prunus sanguinea in its initial stages in the lungs of the patient.

Pulmonary examination findings: Starting signs of reduced airflow in the lungs. Patient can breathe in normally, but partial obstruction narrows the tubes during expiration, making it hard for him to breathe out.

Usual symptoms as follows:

[x] Chronic cough
[x] Spitting or coughing flower petals ( Prunus sanguinea )
[  ] Traces of blood when coughing
[  ] Shortness of breath during light physical activity
[  ] Air hunger or shortness of breath in rest period
[  ] Weight loss
Other: N/A

Recommended follow-up: 2 weeks

Additional comments/Treatment plan: The disease remains stable in a moderate phase: normal lifestyle advised and  extraction surgery not yet suggested.

Chapter Text

What do you hold in
your hands of springtime?
A rose of blood and
a lily of whiteness

 

Are you sure you want to go today? Yoora had texted him. Have you checked the news? It might get messy.

Chanyeol was checking the news. He had no other better thing to do as he sipped on his second cup of iced black coffee and waited for Sehun who, of course, was late again. At this rate, I’ll arrive at the place by the time the speech is over, he texted back.

Better, Yoora wrote. Maybe.

Not quite, Chanyeol thought, putting down his phone. I have a thesis to do.

Minseok was going to be mad, if they appeared back in university empty handed - or well, not mad exactly, but very passionately disappointed. Sources! he’d said. You need sources! Or, at least, different sources than Chanyeol himself. He was a first hand witness of everything CFCS related, of course, but every good informative report needed different points of view to elaborate on. At least, if you wanted to get good marks. And Park Chanyeol pretty much did.

Biting the green straw on his plastic cup, the boy looked up at the screen that took half of the wall of the cafe. They were broadcasting one of those 24 hours news stations (not cozy enough for a cafe, if you asked Chanyeol, but he guessed that it went kind of well with the modern atmosphere they’d been going for) and a middle aged woman was speaking in a hushed monotone, made intelligible by the sounds in the room, as subtitles flew past below.

CFCS takes the life of yet another mortal victim. A woman of 42, who allegedly started showing symptoms of the disease last year, after the passing of her teenage son. The casualties by Chronic Flower Coughing Syndrome rise to 34 this year, making it the highest up to date. Authorities inform that 90% of fatal cases could have been prevented with a timely diagnosis or with adequate flower extraction surgery. On that topic, representatives of the Government of Arcadia and of EDN-Pia Industries have arranged a new meeting for…

“Hey yo! Park Chanyeol.”

Sighing, the boy tore his eyes from the screen and turned on his stool. Of course, arriving almost forty minutes later than their meeting hour was Sehun’s idea of being fashionably late, and of course his friend has probably overslept, but there he was, with his dark hair carefully combed back and every single piece of his attire looking very new, and very expensive, and matching in a way one only could achieve after pondering what to wear for at least thirty minutes.

Chanyeol should be angry. He should have scolded Sehun because, absolutely, that was what he deserved, but his friend looked so upset that he had to laugh. “Hey yo yourself, Oh Sehun. What’s with that face?”

“Nothing,” Sehun replied. He kept speaking, however, when Chanyeol did as much as raising his eyebrows at him. “It started with my father nagging at me when I was going to go out, because there can be riots, riots! In that meeting you’re going to and we can surely call school , which led me to leave home later than I thought. And it kept getting better and better when I went to queue at the bookstore and found out that every single issue of the Velvety Garden magazine was already sold out.”

“Velvety Garden?”

“They interviewed Kai,” Sehun explained, nonchalantly, as if that explained everything.

It pretty much did, and Chanyeol half-scoffed, half-smirked as he got up from his stool. “And, out of curiosity, how many stores did you visit to try to find that magazine before you came here?”

“Many, but I didn’t find it.”

Chanyeol snorted as he led the way out of the store, his to-go coffee cup still in his hand. He took another sip and made a face at the watery taste of the remaining liquid. He loved iced coffee, but hated it when he forgot he was supposed to drink it and the ice went and melt. “That’s karma for you,” he said over his shoulder.

“Chanyeol, he’s been on artistic hiatus for weeks. I need to get all the material before the drought comes. I’m just a concerned admirer.”

“A concerned admirer that was late today. For your magazine, for our meeting...”

“It’s not my fault that my father works at the government administrative office and thinks everything is dangerous for me. He wouldn’t let me go out.”

“If we are too late for that speech, you’ll be the one to talk to Minseok. It’s part of your frustrated fanboy duties, I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

Sehun glared at him like an angry cat, but didn’t complain much further and proceeded to follow him instead, as they crossed the street towards the monorail station. It was a nice late spring afternoon, which meant people had gone out to go shopping or eat after work or school. Arcadia City was the prettiest those times, when weather wasn’t too cold nor too hot and night was just starting to fall. The streets just started to light up as the monorail car was leaving the station and Chanyeol watched them silently, leaning his temple on the door window. There were pale red neons signaling restaurants, green and blue banners on the walls over the stores and a pastel pink ad from EDN-Pia on the front of the New Station building, with a young girl in a white dress, surrounded by a cloud of pink flowers. She looked almost like she would start dancing at any moment, as she left the soft petals behind her and smiled at the broad street below.

Chanyeol’s hand went to his chest, his index finger tracing a line over the place where his scar was under his hoodie. EDN-Pia’s marketing campaigns were always so aesthetically pleasing, but he doubted the people attending the meeting where they were headed to would like them.

“So Sehun,” he said. “Your father says there might be riots.”

His friend was checking his phone, his back against the metal wall of the train, and didn’t even looked at him before he shrugged. “He loves exaggerating. Most protests don’t get violent. Cancelled? Yes, often. Silenced? Most of the time. But dad was phrasing it like I had decided to walk into a fight.”

“You father loves his baby boy, doesn’t he?”

“My father works at the government office and wants his son as far as possible from problematic activists.”

“Sucks, huh?”

“Yeah. I’m almost relieved we’re late. There’s always press there; imagine I get caught on camera with the Byun kid. If that happens, my dad would be annoyed at me for weeks.”

“Come on, I’ve met your dad and he’s not that bad. There’s no way he would scold you if you went and took a photo with a random protester.” Chanyeol looked up, at the line map at the top. According to the map, they had three more stops to go through before their own, which, considering the hour, meant that perhaps they’d be able to reach the very end of the speech and pray that Minseok would consider that notes on the last ten minutes were accurate enough. He didn’t really want to have to come to more anti-treatment events like those, even if Dr. Kim had said that it wouldn’t necessarily trigger something bad in his condition. When he looked back at Sehun, however, and for some reason Chanyeol couldn’t quite understand, his friend had decided to abandon his immersive social media checking and was deadpanning at him. “What.”

“You do know the one speaking last is Byun Baekhyun, right?”

Blinking, Chanyeol (sort of) nodded. “Yeah. That’s what you told me when you agreed to come instead of Seungwan.”

“He’s the reason I offered to join you after your pretty girlfriend ditched you, Park. And you just called him random.”

“What’s with him?”

There was this ability that Sehun was proud in having, and that consisted in him not doing a single thing or looking any different while still being able to make you feel like he was judging you, hard. It was funny to witness when you got used to it. Sehun kept the face of disappointed disbelief as he tapped something on his phone and turned it around to show Chanyeol. “This one,” he said. “Don’t tell me you don’t know.”

There was a photo of a boy, open in the browser, a young man with silvery white hair and a kind, almost cheerful smile. He didn’t exactly look intimidating. “What is this? Another of those older, pretty boys you have a crush on?”

Now Sehun was definitely looking at him like he had hit his head with a very hard, pointy surface. “He’s your age, that’s not older, ” he said, practically accusatory. After a second of silence, he sighed. “You really don’t know who he is.”

“Should I?”

“He’s famous in the anti-EDN subscene--” he started, then gazed at Chanyeol for a moment and sighed once more. “Scratch that. Still, that doesn’t excuse you for not realizing that his surname should be familiar. Byun Baekhyun? As in Byun Youngha?”

The doors of the train car opening, and a group of high school students came rushing in, between Chanyeol and Sehun. “Byun Youngha the politician?” Chanyeol asked as soon as the group has passed and the monorail was in motion again. His friend nodded.

“Byun Youngha as in the guy in the Ministry. My dad’s boss. And Byun Baekhyun’s father.”

“Ah,” Chanyeol said, very eloquently. “But hey, wait, why is a top politician’s son giving anti-EDN speeches? Is that why he’s famous?”

By the time he tried to regain his attention, Sehun had already gone back to his phone. “Kind of,” he whispered. “You’re going to his speech and didn’t even look him up. I see.”

They had two more stops to go, and Chanyeol turned towards the window again, focusing on the pale blur of colored light below the railways. “I didn’t really want to spend much time looking up protester’s profiles online,” he defended himself, even if Sehun wasn’t listening at all anymore. “They’re not my kind of people, that’s all.” He remembered Byun Youngha, however, now that Sehun had mentioned him: a middle-aged man, with a kind face and a hard gaze. His father used to like him a lot, if he recalled correctly; he had mentioned him a couple of the times he had accompanied him to post-surgery rehab instead of his mom, said he was strong-willed. If he liked him, that probably meant his mother didn’t, though - they had never agreed in stuff like that, not even before the divorce. And as for Chanyeol… he did agree with the Ministry’s alliance with EDN-Pia, but hadn’t looked much into the man himself. He wondered how he was. What did he think about a son of his openly opposing a measure that was taken to help everyone.

What was wrong with the son himself.

He would know soon, he guessed.

He was two stops away.

--

The event was being conducted in an old sports center of the Northern University area, and the venue was packed. Even as Chanyeol and Sehun got off the monorail car, they saw more people at the station leaving through the same gate they used, most students their age but also adults, some carrying small banners, all of them wearing light blue bands on their right wrists.

“See? This means we aren’t really that late,” Sehun commented, sounding slightly proud.

“Not that late? Only an hour.”

Throwing his disposable cup to the closest bin with a sigh, Chanyeol followed his friend - and the people - out. That zone was mostly a student residential area, an area that has seen its glory when the old Northern University had been built but that had left its better days in the past. Now, the best students always applied for Pia Garden University, or for Arcadia Central like Chanyeol himself, and the zone that surrounded Northern had always felt too worn and too empty the couple of times that Chanyeol had been there.

Not that time, though. There was a constant inflow of people, enough to be remarkable, walking down the street and waiting in front of the venue doors, chatting or resting or checking out their phones. Someone was speaking, a steady female voice, and Chanyeol tried to make out the echo of her words as he cut through a group of girls his age to walk step into the actual meeting place.

The first thing he realized was that it was hot in there.

Chanyeol was familiar with that kind of places, as there was one that looked almost identical in his old high school. All of them looked the same - not to big, high ceiling, concrete walls and the kind of flooring that made a high-pitched, screeching sound when your feet slid on it - and all of them always felt a bit too cold and a bit too empty. Like the sports hall at his old school, that one had quite a musty smell, like it hadn’t been aired out in a while, but it was full to the point of Chanyeol having to apologize to move forward.

“How close do you want to be?” Sehun asked him.

“Enough to be able to see,” replied Chanyeol. “I might come back with little content for Minseok, but I want the one I get to be high quality, thank you. He’ll be grateful, my grades will be grateful.”

“Your hopes of becoming a crow will be grateful too,” Sehun replied.

“As well as your hopes of not failing this subject.”

“Excuse me--” Sehun started to say. Chanyeol never knew what he was supposed to excuse, because his friend practically collided with him when he stopped, close enough to the makeshift stake at the far end of the room.

“Here we are.”

“Can’t we get closer?”

“I tried to, sort of, overtake those guys over there and they glared at me, so no. We’re near enough to see.”

“Boh.” Sehun gave him a look, then stared past him at the trio of men Chanyeol was trying to inconspicuously point to. One of them was staring back at them, looking certainly unfriendly at their attempts of cutting through the the crowd, and Chanyeol vaguely thought that, at least, he was grateful for Sehun and him not being the only ones without a pretty blue wristband. “What an unpleasant face.”

“I guess all kinds of people come here. More types than I thought,” Chanyeol had to admit. Why would they, though.

The woman who had been speaking when they had walked into the place was just finishing her speech. She looked around the age of his mother but tinier, with thin black hair and an oversized grey dress, and she scanned the crowd, solemnly, before she bowed. People cheered, she bowed again and then she left, stepping down the stage with a last look at their side.

She doesn’t look very happy exactly, now does she? thought Chanyeol, one hand in Sehun’s shoulder, the other absently unlocking his phone. “I hope, I hope , that the event hasn’t finished and that this boy of yours is really coming here to speak.”

“I bet that boy of mine is the reason Minseok was so insistent about you coming, so shut it. Do you see people leaving?”

“Not at all,” Chanyeol had to admit. There was a low murmur, growing in the crowd now that the woman’s speech was over. It was like the buzz of an insect, a constant hum that started to get under his skin, like an itch he couldn’t scratch. No, people weren’t leaving at all, he realized - the ones outside were coming in, and all of them were pushing forward, like that moment as a concert just seconds before the main act walked up the stage, that instant of nothing before the music started playing.

Chanyeol hadn’t wanted to be there, not exactly, but he found himself looking at the front and holding his breath all the same.

For some minutes, there was only the buzz over the silence, the people moving and shifting and trying to see, Chanyeol and Sehun practically being pushed over the not-nice trio at their size.

Then came steps, and the sound of someone clearing his throat. And then a young man, smiling.

He was undoubtedly the boy in Sehun’s photo, the one with the soft features and his hair dyed a flashy shade of silver grey, and, like in his photo, he was grinning while he waved to the crowd. Unlike the woman who had come before him, he was dressed in slacks and a pressed white shirt, the top two buttons undone, and he should have looked out of place, with his fancy rich boy clothes in the middle of an old sports hall, but it didn’t seem like he felt he was, and Chanyeol found himself wanting him to speak.

“He looks like a celebrity,” he whispered to Sehun.

“He’s been doing this for a while after all.”

The boy was not carrying notes on him. He just walked to the microphone in the middle of the stage and stayed there for a while, his smile disappearing into the shades of his face as he bowed his head down. He had long bangs, of the kind that covered his eyes when he had his head bent, long and thin fingers that he wrapped around the mic stand.

“Baekhyun!” someone called, the voice loud, and male, and coming from somewhere behind Chanyeol. At least, it hadn’t been the unpleasant men.

When he heard his name, the young man looked at the audience and laughed. “Hey,” he said. He had a nice voice, a slightly husky way of laughing. Chanyeol had expected him to say something solemn or serious. “So many of you came today, eh?”

Everyone cheered back, Sehun included. Chanyeol felt slightly betrayed.

“Ah, well, I see. How many of you are first grade victims, eh? And how many of you have been left behind?” The crowd replied again, with a low roar. Byun Baekhyun took the mic from the stand and walked to the edge of the stage. “We’re here to cherish our memories. We’re here to cherish our feelings. We’re here so we are not forced to give them away to the greedy hands seeking them. Now, are we not?”

All the people around Chanyeol erupted in a collective hum of approval. What are you talking about? the boy would have wanted to ask, but the whole group of people was moving again, closer and closer to the stage, to the front and to the side as a human tide. “Excuse me,” Chanyeol said, when he unwillingly elbowed someone. He had hoped to be able to take notes with his phone, but there was no way he could look down to write like this - that and he didn’t really want to stop looking at the man who was currently kneeling at the edge of the stage, eyes scanning the crowd and softness all but gone from his features. Suddenly he was sharp. Suddenly he sounded honest in his deliverance of the climax of an act Chanyeol hadn’t watched.

“You have heard the voices, the testimonies before me. You know what this is. What it means. What our beloved government of Arcadia wants is an easy way for the CFCS victims to stop dying. What EDN-Pia wants is the right to save us in spite of what and who we are. They want to join to preserve our lives and take away everything else.”

Chanyeol took a step forward, in the limited space around him. He released Sehun’s shoulder, and felt his friend looking at him. What the boy was saying was nonsense, the typical gibberish of those who didn’t know, how being sick was. He didn’t know, who those people in the public were. They were the ones he was writing a thesis against. The ones choosing an option he was unable to understand.

The crowd had turned still, at Byun Baekhyun’s voice raised, steady. Someone pushed Chanyeol, at his right, and the boy realized a second too late that it was one of Sehun’s unpleasant guys. The impact was so sudden that he was about to drop his phone. “Hey,” he started, but the other man didn’t seem to mind him, even with Chanyeol was more or less his height. “Rude,” he muttered.

“What price are we willing to pay for salvation? For happiness? It’s that treatment - that surgery - the only way? Why does it need to be pushed onto us? For money? For peace of mind? For our own good? For us to be kept alive?” Baekhyun kept saying. Chanyeol looked up at him, convinced, with sharpened edges of resolution. He looked down at the public and frowned.

“Sehun,” he said, voice a little urgent, pulling from his friend’s sleeve. “Those guys--”

“Hey, I’m trying to listen,” the younger boy whispered back.

“We need to be heard, we need to raise our voices,” Baekhyun kept reciting, voice clear, lips curving once more into the semblance of a smile. It was not a kind one. “I won't allow them to--”

He couldn’t finish the sentence. “Why don't you die already, then?” someone else said, and Chanyeol flinched. The words had startled him, but not the person they came from: one of the unpleasant guys, the one who had glared at him before. He and his two friends were directing the whole disgust of their looks to Baekhyun, the sneer in their voices too loud for the young man to ignore them. For a moment, there was silence, unnatural like discontinued heartbeat. The cheers had faded, the voices had dropped and Byun Baekhyun was alone in the middle of the stage.

He sighed. “That,” he stated, “is not a nice thing to say.”

“And your little speech is,” Unpleasant Guy number two replied. “Your little lies are. I’m fed up to see you talking and talking around my campus, going on about memories and feelings when people are dying. They want the right to save us, you say. They want to include CFCS surgery in the basic health program and you oppose.”

“I am not opposing to patients getting treated. I am opposing to those patients being put through a surgery that may have severe secondary effects,” Baekhyun replied, calmly. He had his arms crossed over his chest, his head held high. “If you listened to what I’m trying to say--”

“I know very well what you want to say! Everyone knows who you are! You make me sick!” the guy who had pushed Chanyeol replied, raising his voice. It was a little unfair, Chanyeol thought, that despite the venue being full, people were pushing and making a circle, giving space to the three men. It felt a little unfair that no one was speaking up for the man they have come to see, even when the third unpleasant guy turned around to speak to them directly.

“So that’s what you like? A little faggot telling you that you should let yourselves die because feelings? Bunch of idiots.”

Chanyeol flinched. In front of him, Byun Baekhyun raised an eyebrow. “If you don’t like the topics we are discussing here, I encourage you to leave.”

The man who had spoken first took a step forward and spat on the floor. “You don’t tell me what to do.” He took a second step, and a third, and people parted around him like there was something in him that burned them. He had his right hand curled in a fist. He was so close to the stage and people were doing nothing. “Fuck you, spoiled brat.”

“Rude,” said Baekhyun, whistling.

The man grabbed onto the edge of the stage, fingers white with the pressure. He looked like he was going to take impulse. “I swear I’m gonna--”

“Wait!”

Chanyeol realized a bit too late that he was the one who had spoken aloud, that he had taken a step to the front and had left the safety of the crowd behind. He had lost Sehun somewhere in the multitude, but he heard him call him by his name all the same. He guessed that, if the press was really there, he was the one who was going to have his photo taken now. Park Chanyeol, stepping up to defend the famous politician’s son even though he didn’t believe at all in what he had to say.

How nice.

“What do you want?” the grunt closest to him asked. And at least his friend had momentarily stopped his attempt of climbing to the stage. That was something.

Now, Chanyeol was a tall guy. If he could at least intimidate them… “You’ve been told to leave,” he said. “You should listen when you’re talked to.”

Great attempt. Byun Baekhyun was looking at him from the stage, eyes wide in surprise - and well, at least he had sort of impressed someone, because the man he had been talked to laugh, in some sort of grumpy snicker. Chanyeol had never seen someone who looked so unamused while doing so.

“Who the fuck are you?” he spat.

“Listen, not to argue with you or anything, but you guys should get out of this place,” started Chanyeol. His attempts didn’t seem to be going very well, so he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder for emphasis.

He shouldn’t have done that. Probably. “Fuck off,” the guy said. Then he went and headbutted him, hard.

Oh, Chanyeol though for a split second. Then he felt the pain exploding on his nose, the impulse as the strength of the blow threw him backwards. He had never gotten in a fight before, he thought, and he definitely didn’t want in one, but everything had started moving so fast and he was on the floor, fallen on his butt and out of breath as the people around him started shouting.

“Chanyeol, holy--” someone said, and when he looked around he saw Sehun, kneeling beside him. There were people in front of them now, blocking the way between Chanyeol and his aggressor, practically screaming at him.

If that kept like that, there were mere seconds away from the start of a real fight. And it was Chanyeol who had taken the first step. He would have to tell Seungwan. “So these are the riots your dad was talking about.”

Sehun pulled from his sleeve. “We should leave.” He saw Chanyeol scanning the crowd and repeated the motion, harder. “You will be forgiven by Minseok for not staying until the end as soon as he sees your nose.”

It wasn’t Minseok’s forgiveness that Chanyeol was looking for. “Wait--” Where is…

A tall woman had pushed one of the three thugs. He looked about to punch her in the face, but she moved aside to avoid the blow. She raised her own arm.

That was it. And it was going to be messy. There were too many people there.

“That’s enough.”

Chanyeol held his breath. The world turned silent. Byun Baekhyun had jumped down the stage and was there, in the middle of the circle, hands in his pockets and head slightly tilted to the side. The tall woman lowered her arm, the man who was about to be hit glared at him with a grunt. Byun Baekhyun barely reached his nose.

“If you think you can--” he started.

“I don’t really want people fighting in my meetings,” Baekhyun cut him off. “You and your friends, get out.”

Chanyeol leaned on Sehun to get up. His nose throbbed uncomfortably, but he wanted to see.

“You don’t tell me--”

“Get. Out. You don’t want me to call the police on you, don’t you?”

The thug opened his mouth to speak, but paused. He looked around, at the people and the place and Chanyeol’s bleeding nose. He gestured to his friends after that. “Let’s go. Let them rot if that’s what they want.” He walked to Baekhyun, though, went so close that their chests were almost touching. “People are sick,” he hissed.

The young man looked up. “I’m aware.”

“Yeah. You are,” Unpleasant Guy replied, snorting, but he finally turned around and left. The crowd parted, murmurs rose and finally the three men were out, leaving a restless crowd behind and a thick atmosphere above their heads. Those people wouldn’t cheer anymore, Chanyeol thought, at least not for that day.

It was, in a sense he couldn’t quite explain, a shame.

“Well, I guess we’re finishing early this afternoon,” Baekhyun stated. It was almost like he was joking about it, the sharp shards of ice completely gone from his voice. “Ah, I’m sad that it has come to this, but what can we do? At least we could say today’s speech was exciting.”

Chanyeol shouldn’t have been looking at the guy, not that much. Up close and smiling, he looked a lot like the boy that he had seen on the photo Sehun had shown him - young and kind and not at all menacing. Not the kind of boy who would make a crowd go silent.

An elbow - Sehun’s specifically - dug deep on his side. “Ouch!” Chanyeol said. It was then when he blinked and realized that Byun Baekhyun was looking at him, directly. He was very, very conscious, then, that he had been staring and that he was, well, nosebleeding onto his sweater. Such a great way to be noticed: Baekhyun seemed startled-slash-confused by the general state of his face and Minseok would be greatly satisfied for this chance to talk to someone relevant for their research.

Be eloquent, he could almost hear him recite. Start with something innovative to catch his attention.

“Hi,” he said. “Pleased to meet you, I guess…?”

“Um,” Baekhyun replied. He paused. “Are you... okay?”

“Ah, yeah. I was headbutted in the nose, but I’m okay. Just bleeding a little.”

Baekhyun stared at him in silence for quite a long moment, and it was then when Chanyeol fully realized that now it was the two of them in the middle of the circle. If the press was there, they would take his photo now, and his mother would call when she saw, worried about him not being okay, after all that he had gone through.

“Just bleeding a little,” Baekhyun repeated. He looked a bit too serious, and Chanyeol’s mind didn’t know if he should worry because he looked concerned or if he should panic a bit because hey, maybe the sons of politicians didn’t like random people to introduce themselves during meetings. Baekhyun came closer, frowning while he looked at his nose. But then, he smiled. It was a small one, just curving up the corner of his lips the smallest bit. “My savior,” he whispered.

“Uh?”

“I should have taken that hit, but I guess my face thanks you for interrupting. What a noble sacrifice.” The crowd laughed, and Chanyeol blinked, and Baekhyun looked around, hands on his waist. He looked pretty competent, much more than Chanyeol himself had ever been. “Well, well, sorry for the inconvenience, but it’s time for all of you to go home. We’ll meet soon, though. I’m really counting with your collaboration for the march we’re organizing, so save your time for it, and tell your friends. I’ll elaborate on the details this following weeks! Meanwhile, take care, okay?”

People were chatting again, and breaking the circle, bidding their goodbyes to Baekhyun - and other people, who probably were the ones who had spoken before him - before turning around and starting to leave. The boy was all smiles and waves and bows, almost purposely oblivious about how the whole atmosphere had shifted around him, and the stillness had shattered like broken glass.

Chanyeol hadn’t been taking notes, so he should be writing down what he had learned on his phone before he forgot the details, but he didn’t feel exactly like it. Sehun, at his side, still looked a little pale, fingers a bit too close to the sleeve he had been pulling from before.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Baekhyun asked him.

And Chanyeol had wanted to smile, but instead he made a face, pointing at his nose. “Please tell me you have a kleenex.”

--

Byun Baekhyun was very openly against EDN-Pia and their CFCD final stages of treatment. He was also good at talking to a crowd. That Chanyeol knew, and Chanyeol had considered normal for someone like him. What he hadn’t expected was Baekhyun being decent at bandaging noses and stopping them from bleeding. Or at least, not terrible.

“Get yourself checked at the hospital if you think it’s hurting,” he told him. “I don’t know how much I would trust myself if I were you.”

Chanyeol’s nose was still throbbing, a dull, low kind of ache. Probably, his face would be all swollen when he went back to university the following day. War wounds, he supposed.

“Thank you for this,” he said. He was sitting on a chair close to the wall of one of the empty changing rooms. The other people that had joined Baekhyun at the event had come by to get their jackets and bags, but they had already left. Only the both of them and Sehun remained in the now deserted sports hall, and there was always something weird, a bit haunting, in spaces that big and that empty - spaces that weren’t supposed to be. “I’m sorry, though. About you having to endure that kind of people.”

“Ah, well. They’re not the worst I’ve seen. This is what you get when you speak your mind about something ugly.”

“Uh,” Chanyeol replied, scratching the back of his head. “Those guys… They maybe had a point in what they were saying but there was no reason for them to tell you those things.”

“I see. Really?” Baekhyun observed his handiwork for one last time before turning towards his own belongings. There was a jacket, carelessly thrown onto one of the benches, of the kind that looked a bit too warm for that time of the year. He took the phone out from one of the pockets, checking his feed on the screen. “You really think that?”

“That they treated you badly? How wouldn’t I?”

“Not that,” Baekhyun looked at him with a small smile, eyes narrowing under the silver strands of his hair. “That those men before had a point.”

Chanyeol had to stop himself not to jump from his chair. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it once more. “Well, yeah. Sort of?” he blurted. He heard Sehun snicker and cursed him silently. “What I mean is… You’re against CFCS treatment, aren’t you?”

“I am against EDN-Pia’s way of treating CFCS,” Baekhyun clarified.

“Even if EDN-Pia’s way is the only way?”

“Even so.”

Chanyeol’s hand went to his chest, to white line on the flesh below his clothes. “I’m in favor of it.”

He thought that, perhaps, Byun Baekhyun would be angry, or upset, but the boy covered his mouth with one hand, like he was trying to hide that his lips were curving up. It wasn’t working. “Then why did you come to my speech?”

“Ah, that.” Chanyeol considered coming up with some kind of excuse that would make him look great, but his mind was pretty much blank and Baekhyun was paying genuine attention. So well, what better than to be known as a honest man? “University research? I’m doing a thesis.”

“On CFCS?”

“On its impact on society. On how people see it.”

“And you got hit in the face for the sake of research? That’s dedication.”

“I got hit because those guys were about to punch you in the face.”

After a small pause, Baekhyun pointed at Chanyeol’s own bandaged nose with his open hand. “Me.”

“Well, you’re the one between us who speaks in public, aren’t you? Better for me to take the damage. Even if it's only for aesthetic reasons.”

“If you say so…” Baekhyun conceded, looking somehow between amused and unconvinced. He took a deep breath and coughed, soft and low.

“I say so,” Chanyeol affirmed. Baekhyun snorted at him - and Sehun did too, from his place at one of the empty benches - but he said nothing more. He was putting his jacket on, carefully, pulling the zipper up, folding the sleeves so they wouldn’t be too long on him. It was then when Chanyeol realized that he was preparing himself to leave, that, of course, he had no reason to keep talking. “Hey, wait!”

Baekhyun slid his phone in his pocket and turned to stare at him, lips slightly parted. “Yeah?”

“I-- Can I interview you?”

“What?” Sehun whispered from his bench.

“Yeah, what?” Baekhyun repeated.

“Uh... for my report? We came for the event but we arrived a little late and then this happened, so I thought that, well, I’d get scolded if I came back empty handed so...”

“You’re trying to solve it like this,” Baekhyun finished with a big grin. “Such a good student.”

“So you’ll help me?”

“Nah, I don’t think so.”

From Chanyeol’s right, Sehun snickered. “I like this guy,” he affirmed. Chanyeol just tried not to look too stupid, or too whiny, or both.

“Eh, why not?”

Baekhyun buried his mouth in the collar of his jacket and coughed again, softly. He shook his head, hands slipping in his pockets. “I’ve done a couple of interviews for the newspapers here in Northern Campus, and also for Pia Garden uni. Maybe you should check those? Don’t get me wrong, mister student, you seem like a nice guy, but I can’t go accepting every random university kid’s request to ask me questions for their assignments.”

He was kind of right, but still-- But still.

“Random kid-- Ah. Sorry, that’s true. I haven’t introduced myself by name, haven’t I? I am Park Chanyeol, from Arcadia National University, pleased to meet you!”

“Pleased to meet you too, but do you think telling me your name is going to make me change my mind?”

Chanyeol got up from his chair, nodding while he approached the other boy. “I’d be very grateful,” he insisted. He didn’t know what else to do to not appear as some kind of creep, so he smiled. He seriously hoped his smile wasn’t creepy. “I’d also really like to talk to you about it. Your point on view on this, I mean.”

Baekhyun cleared his throat. He looked at him for a long while, his head tilted to the side again, his lips still parted. “You have a pretty smile. Or at least, well, wide,” he said. “Okay, you look like a nice person, and you stood up for me, so I guess I could talk to you. Once.”

Chanyeol felt very light in the stomach. He could have jumped out of relief. They were going to talk. “Now?”

Making a face, Baekhyun shook his head no. “Nah, today is impossible. Tomorrow, or in a couple of days, maybe? Write your number on my phone and I’ll text you. Here.”

“Ah, okay.”

Baekhyun’s phone had the contacts tab already open, and Chanyeol rushed to write his number down. He was double-checking it when he heard Baekhyun cough again, and then another time.

“You have it?” the other boy asked him, his voice a little hoarse.

“Yeah, here,” Chanyeol replied, handing the phone back to him. He would have sworn Baekhyun looked a bit pale. “Hey, are you okay?”

Nodding, Baekhyun reached out for his phone. “Yeah, I’m just--” His fingers grazed Chanyeol’s. He had cold hands, the tip of his fingers slightly rough. He took them away, though, before he could reach his phone, to bring them to his throat when he coughed again, louder. He cursed, his voice breaking, he bent his head down and covered his mouth with both hands. When he removed them, Chanyeol saw wet, pink petals on his palms, dark red stains on his lips.

Baekhyun curled his hands into fists, crushing the flowers inside. “Shit,” he whispered, his voice so raw. “Hey,” he told Chanyeol, tone deceivingly cheerful. “What were you expecting? Don’t look at me like that.”

Ah, the boy thought. “I’m not-- I’m sorry.”

But he couldn’t avoid it. He couldn’t unsee it. He hadn’t expected that.

What were the first two symptoms of CFCS? Always the same two things.

Flowers and blood.

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Raven

 

When you get the job, they give you a costume. Black gloves, black boots and a long black coat, a hood to cover your head and a beak-like mask to hide your face. The EDN-Pia guys have everything figured out, you get told. They call the ones like you Shepherd , because you’re supposed to be guides. They’ve hidden who you are because Flower Coughing patients are more keen to confide in a total stranger. They’ve given you all costumes because they believe that offering the sick a symbol instead of a person will help them speak, and listen, and heed.

To you, the garment they’ve given you feels stiff and bulky and looks ominous. You’re not a savior, you won’t bring them comfort; you’re the modern-day version of a Plague Doctor, here to check on the victims of a pandemic, to listen and to diagnose and to count how many sick people there are, not to cure them.

You can’t cure those who don’t want to be saved.

You get the costume. You get your mask. You sign your contract and promise to be discreet. The rules are simple enough for your liking, right? You can’t give your name, you can’t talk about your own life (you’re not here to speak about yourself, are you?); you have to be nice, you can’t be rude, you have to be kind and understanding and let them trust you; you can’t reject any patient, but you’re not allowed to treat people you know. You start the job and earn your keep. You sweet-talk people. You’re such a good boy, such a good crow, and you enjoy the praise.

Out from your patients, one is intelligent enough to get well from Shepherd treatment alone. You convince the other three to sign their petitions for Flower Removal Surgery.

You hope to get a raise. What you get, instead, is a request.

You’ve gotten problematic patients before, right? Surely you’ll be able to take care of this one.

They trust you, they trust you, and you like to be trusted. Like everything else, you go and turn this into a matter of pride.

Of course you were going to accept, don’t you see?

--

Psychological Report - Arcadia University Hospital

All personal information collected and used is protected from unauthorized disclosure by the Arcadian Privacy Act . The recorded opinion about an individual is considered personal information belonging to that individual. Please ensure that only information relevant to the client’s situation is included in the report and routinely indicate the source of information.

Data belonging to the patients of the second phase of CFCS treatment must not be disclosed outside of the program.

Patient ID: Subject #04 (Second Phase)
Referred by: Dr. Kim Junmyeon.
Examiner: Dr. Kim Junmyeon.

Purpose for evaluation

Fourth patient admission. He was admitted due to symptoms of Chronic Flower Coughing Syndrome (CFCS) in its initial stages, and referred for further diagnosis as he appears reluctant to follow the natural treatment process for his disease. The purpose for the current evaluation was to assess the patient’s general mental condition and clarify the nature of the underlying rejection to treatment.

Mental status examination

The patient's attitude has been open and cooperative. Affect was appropriate to verbal content and showed broad range. Memory functions were intact with respect to immediate and remote recall of events and factual information. His thought process was intact, goal oriented, and well organized. Thought content revealed no evidence of delusions, paranoia, or suicidal/homicidal ideation. There was no evidence of perceptual disorder.

Despite of good mental results, the patient has consistently voiced a clear rejection to submit himself to later phases of the treatment, despite the process being recommended by his doctor and his Shepherd. The patient claims to be aware of the consequences of this action and remains adamant in his choice, stating that submitting himself to surgery goes against his personal beliefs.

Recommendations

It is recommended that efforts to establish a trusting relationship with this patient be continued, in order to keep exploring the underlying reasons for his sickness as well as his reluctance to be treated. Individual therapy will be more productive than group interventions, and a new Shepherd will be assigned for his biweekly sessions. Once his guardedness has been relaxed, the patient will benefit from encouragement to willingly submit to the next phases of the treatment, shall his condition worsen.

--

Three hundred red roses
Your shirt now carries.

 

“You scored a coffee date with Byun Baekhyun,” Minseok said, voice too neutral to be good.

They were all sitting at the school cafeteria, Chanyeol and Seungwan and Sehun - and Minseok himself, who technically was a Teaching Assistant and not a student, but that was also young enough to sit on their table every once in a while to be excited about the thesis he was helping them with. That was what his mother had wanted for him when she had told him the doctors recommended a change of air for him, Chanyeol guessed: for him to get friends, and a girlfriend, and to get along with the teaching staff.

Especially to get along with the teaching staff.

“It’s not a coffee date, it’s an interview. I asked him if we could talk about all the stuff he did and he agreed, that’s all.”

“That would be much less impressive if he allowed people to interview him regularly, Park Chanyeol, but the thing is that he doesn’t. You’re a special case, the envy of everyone in this department!”

Chanyeol took a sip of his coffee, rolling his eyes. “You’re exaggerating, stop exaggerating.”

“But Chanyeol, he’s not. Not a lot, at least,” Seungwan chimed in. She laughed when Chanyeol turned to look at her, raising his eyebrows in incredulity and, very possibly, betrayal. “You really, really act like you live under a rock sometimes. It’s not that he comes into our university a lot, but he’s kinda famous among young people. I mean, he has all the ingredients for being infamous, don’t you see? He’s young, he’s good looking and he used to be the golden son of a politician before breaking up with him completely because of his views. He’s the perfect romantic hero.”

Chanyeol frowned. But he’s--

“I also tried to speak with him personally, but he rejected my proposal. Why you?” Minseok leaned forward across the table as in examining him from a closer angle could unveil the mystery. At his side, Sehun clicked his tongue.

“Maybe because Chanyeol saved him,” he stated, pointing at his friend’s damaged nose. “Or tried. It wasn’t very heroic but I’d say he tried his best. None of the others in the public helped so… Maybe Byun Baekhyun was into that.”

“Poor Chanyeol,” said Seungwan. She looked a bit thoughtful. “But, yeah? Maybe he was impressed?”

“Well, you know what the rumors about him say.”

“What do they say?” asked Chanyeol. Sehun took a sip of his own coffee - one of those posh boy lattes with caramel syrup and a lot of sugar - and shrugged before replying.

“Many things? That he’s a bit of a masochist? That he’s into men?”

“Ah,” said Chanyeol. He hadn’t been expecting that, exactly, and he didn’t know what to say. Luckily for him, Minseok came to save him.

“Hey, I am a man too and I was rejected!” he protested.

“Maybe he doesn’t like you,” teased Seungwan.

“Not pretty enough,” added Sehun.

“Did you know that he’s sick?”

All three of his friends turned towards Chanyeol, laughter dying in their mouths. The boy was holding his cardboard cup of coffee in both hands, half to warm them, half so he’d have something to do with his own fingers. Seungwan placed a hand on his arm. “Baekhyun, you mean? Ah, yeah, that’s another thing that makes him popular, I suppose. He’s not just another random guy who is against Flower Removal surgery because his dad or his friend or his lover forgot about him. He has a reason to stand by what he preaches, personally.”

“That’s why he’s popular too,” Minseok added. “He’s genuine.”

“He has CFCS,” repeated Chanyeol. “That’s not exactly a reason to turn someone into an idol of the masses. Shouldn’t he be getting treated?”

“You’re going to interview him. Those are the kind of questions you should be asking him.”

“I… guess?”

But Chanyeol didn’t know what to ask, or what to think about that person. He remembered Byun Baekhyun talking to a crowd, smiling down at them as if he knew them. He remembered the people who had come explicitly to insult him turning back on their heels as soon as he had ordered them to. He could practically still see that boy, staring at one of those bullies in the face when he had been told that people were dying. I am aware, he had said. And he had to be, considering the way he had covered his mouth while he coughed later, his lips and fingers stained with flower petals and blood.

Why is he… How can he be like that? Doesn’t he care?

It was Baekhyun himself who had messaged him, just as he said he would, while Chanyeol watched anime at his dorm the night before. The message was simple in itself, a question asking if he wanted to meet in a coffee shop near Chanyeol’s campus and a smiley emoji, but the boy had stared at the screen and slightly panicked for half a minute before even considering what to reply.

For a moment, after he was back in the safety of his own room, he had thought that he maybe wouldn’t want to see Baekhyun (aka a CFCS patient who didn’t want to be saved) another time, and had automatically chastised himself about it because, hey, Park, don’t you want to become a Shepherd? Because you shouldn’t avoid the problematic patients, if so. But then, Baekhyun had messaged and Chanyeol had been so surprised that he had almost dropped his phone onto his already damaged nose when he had seen the sender’s name.

“Oh, shit,” he had whispered. So yeah, now that he had been faced with Baekhyun actually wanting to meet him, he could admit that he was curious enough to really want to see him, but even then, and even now , hours after in the crowded cafeteria of his university and surrounded by his very supportive crew of friends, he didn’t know what to ask Baekhyun exactly, once they were alone.

“Ah, I really can’t believe it,” Minseok was saying, probably for the tenth time that morning. “Make the best out of this chance, boy. This is the kind of information that would grant you a great final mark. Don’t forget to transcribe it, you hear? Word by word. I want you to be methodical.”

“You always want me to be methodical,” replied Chanyeol. “Let me tell you that it’s not working.”

“Don’t you have classes to prepare, by the way?” Sehun told Minseok, raising a very pretty eyebrow. He had his hair combed back, like he had come to some kind of elegant fashion reception and not to class. Chanyeol wondered if he should have gotten dressed, too, for what he had to do after. Was one supposed to get dressed for an interview?

“You’re trying to get rid of me,” Minseok was accusing.

“Obviously,” Sehun deadpanning. Seungwan laughed, and hit him in the shoulder, playfully.

“We have to go to class soon, too. He just wants to be broody and enjoy his coffee in silence.”

Chanyeol found himself smiling. “Yeah, he thinks it makes him attractive.”

“You’re the one who’s always drinking coffee.”

“Because, guess what, I’m always attractive.”

Sehun deadpanned at him in a way that should have been considered rather offensive if Sehun wasn’t… well, Sehun. “Who deceived you,” he whispered.

“Maybe I did,” said Seungwan.

“Stop treating him like he’s better looking than me.”

“You can’t stop me from being biased.”

Minseok left shortly after that, to go, in fact, to prepare for the class Sehun had sort of warned him about. They didn’t have much time left before they had to go back to their own student schedule, and Chanyeol used the remaining minutes to check his phone again. He had made himself a list of questions, that looked so stupid and so small now that he had confirmed yet again that Byun Baekhyun was some kind of lowkey superstar. Besides that, his phone looked very sad - he had no chat messages, and no emails. The only people who had written to him that morning had been Sehun and his sister, and Sehun had done so to ask him for his notes.

Chanyeol locked his phone, biting his lip, as they got up to finally leave.

He liked university at that time of the year. Arcadia City took pride in its gardens, and Central University was no exception. The buildings were short, unobtrusive, scattered across a yard like they were part of the landscape, walls covered in ivy and glass and solar panels in the ceilings concealed from view. In winter, the outdoors path from the cafeteria to the building where they had most of their classes was paved with snow, and in spring the flowers and the cherry blossoms along the way bloomed, but summer was getting closer, now, and despite the petals having fallen, the grass in campus was green, and the air was warm, and the wind was fragrant.

Chanyeol liked warmth, much more than cold. It had been winter when he had started rehab, one year and a half ago. He was okay now, but he hadn’t been okay before.

“Ah, see you in a moment! Toilet break,” stated Sehun as soon as they walked through the doors of their building.

“We were just in the cafeteria. Why didn’t you go there?” asked Chanyeol, pursing his lips in mocking annoyance.

“You’ll be late to class if you take too much time,” Seungwan warned him with a smile.

“I’m a fast man.”

“You always spend five minutes in the toilet for no reason.”

“Whatever. The teacher will forgive me,” Sehun said, shrugging, as he threw his bag to Chanyeol. The boy grabbed it with a huff, blinking in surprise. “Hold this for me, please?” he asked, which was fun on his side considering he had almost hit Chanyeol in the face with it already.

It was impossible to reason with Sehun, so Chanyeol didn’t try. Swinging his friend’s very special, very branded bag on his shoulder, he checked his phone once more and sighed. Their class was on the the second floor of the building, so he followed the other students towards the staircase with Seungwan in tow, tilting his head up as he started to ascend. Buildings in Arcadia Central Uni had been designed with light in mind and the ceiling over the stairs opened in a glass vault that continued down the main gallery on the second floor.

Chanyeol closed his eyes, fingers on the handrail. He had to stop right on his tracks when he was about to collide with the boy just before him. “Ah! Ah, sorry!” he said, apologetically.

The boy waved a hand at him with a smile, and Chanyeol decided that it would be better to focus on where he was going from that moment on.

“Hey, are you okay?” Seungwan asked him when they reached the second floor gallery. Their class was at the end of the corridor, one of many green glass doors.

Chanyeol turned towards her, lips parting in a tiny O. “I… Yeah? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’ve been spacing out all day.”

“Ah,” he said. He maybe had, a bit. “I haven’t, though. I was just… thinking, I suppose?”

“About…?” Seungwan stopped a couple of meters away from the class entrance, her left hand on her hip. “Do you want to tell me?”

There were many things and none. It was the blood and the flowers, and the scar in Chanyeol’s own chest, and the constant question of why. Why would someone speak against the only known treatment against a lethal disease. Why would someone sick choose such an option. Chanyeol had always thought that opposers were mindless, that they were the kind of people who would also insist on their children not getting a blood transfusion because they thought it’d taint them.

Maybe they were. Maybe Byun Baekhyun was.

Maybe?

“Do you… Do you think I should have paid more attention at people against the CFCS treatment? As someone who wants to be a Shepherd after graduation, I mean.”

“Could be? Shepherds’ work is talking to people after all,” replied Seungwan. “But you’re going to speak with one, later today, so you could make amends.”

“Yeah,” said Chanyeol. He must have sounded really unconvinced, because Seungwan smiled to him. Reassuringly.

“You’re nervous about that,” she stated as if it was obvious. She remained silent for a moment, and after a short while she bent forward a bit and went to hold his hand. The gesture was simple, more her wrapping her fingers around his wrist than anything else. “Do you want me to go with you?”

Seungwan was a nice girl. That was his sister had said when she had met her, and it also was what his mother had stated, too, when Chanyeol had showed her a photo of them both in his phone. She had warm hands and kind eyes and a pretty smile, and was always willing to listen. You’re a nice boy too, Yoora had told him. I’m happy for you.

Seungwan would go with him, if Chanyeol just asked. But he being nervous didn’t have to do with him going to see Byun Baekhyun alone, at all. “Nah, I’m okay,” he said. “This is my interview, you have your own part of the work to do.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

He took out his phone, when they walked into the classroom, and kept it half hidden even after the lecture started. At first, he was just going to go through his mail for a while, but in the end he had to open his browser to check. He had read a couple of articles the night before, recent reports of speeches and informative acts, but that time he went further, typing Byun Baekhyun’s name and scrolling down the screen.

He discovered that internet users in Arcadia seemed to love talking about that boy. There were new photos of him talking, or sitting, or giving out flyers, and old ones that showed him with black hair instead of silver, going to events with his family - his pretty mom and his very smiley brother and his dad, looking proud. There was a report on the visit of an ambassador, and Byun Baekhyun bowing to him, arm still around the waist of a girl in a red dress, and an entire blog dedicated to his apparent love life, including shady photos of him going into a hotel with this or that guy. There were interviews, of him talking about his support and respect for his father, and articles on how they were not in speaking terms anymore.

Truly, a golden child fallen from grace, the headlines said, word after word in the white glow of Chanyeol’s screen.

What they didn’t really expanded much about was the fact of Baekhyun being sick. They stated he was, yes, they speculated about it being about him arguing with his father, and commented on how he didn’t really looked like someone with a serious illness should, unless you saw him cough. They spoke and theorized and called him a hero, or a martyr, or a fool, but they didn’t exactly wondered why.

--

Classes were over, Chanyeol was on his way to the cafe where they had arranged to meet, and Baekhyun hadn’t stood him up yet.

That was a good point, he guessed, definitely a great point, even if his list of questions was still too poor and he looked like an idiot with a bandage on his nose. He had tried to compensate for that last point wearing one of his newer hoodies, that coincidentally was red instead of black because his sister, who had bought it for his birthday, said the color looked good on him, but he still felt a little anxious as he saw the entrance of the shop coming closer and closer as he walked towards it.

The cafe itself was nothing too fancy - just one among the dozens of those cozy-looking chain stores in town - half-filled with university students, tourists and middle aged ladies. A bell chimed happily when he pushed the door to walk in and a female voice welcomed him with a little too much cheer to sound completely sincere.

It took Chanyeol exactly seven seconds to check that there was no trace of Baekhyun inside of the store, and five more to realize that he couldn’t exactly wait for him by just standing there in the middle of the place. There were enough free tables to grant him a seat even if he ordered before claiming one, so he queued behind a group of young girls while he checked the menu above the counter, mainly consistent of sandwiches, cakes and a whole array of differently tasted lattes, of the kind that didn’t have much coffee to begin with.

He was ordering his usual cup of iced black coffee when the entrance bell chimed again. “Do you want sugar for your coffee?” the guy at the counter was telling him.

“Nah, I just want the regular ice in it. And a straw.”

Suddenly, a hand landed on his shoulder. “Wow, that thing you ordered looks so disgusting,” someone said.

Chanyeol had to execute all of his self control not to jump in surprise, but he couldn’t help to turn around, eyes wide open. He had recognized his voice, but he still flinched when he saw actual Baekhyun there, releasing his shoulder to wave at him with his right hand. He wasn’t dressed as fancily that time, having abandoned the shirt and slacks for a soft grey sweater and a pair of torn jeans with a specially big hole on his right knee. He looked so… normal.

“It’s not disgusting, it’s coffee,” said Chanyeol, slightly rising his voice at the end of the sentence. “You don’t like it?”

“You do?”

“You were the one who decided to meet in a coffee shop.”

Baekhyun pursed his lips, and for a moment Chanyeol feared that he had treated him with a bit too much of familiarity, but the other man just chuckled. “True that,” he admitted, “but I’m a born rebel. Can I get one lemon tea, big size? Thank you.”

He was smiling as he paid, smiling as he scanned the room for an empty table, and he looked at Chanyeol up and down as they sat at the far corner of the room, his eyes so dark they seemed almost black. He had pretty fingers, Chanyeol noticed, as Baekhyun drummed them on the wood of the table. He gulped.

“Hey, thank you for coming,” he said. “You’re really helping me and my friends a lot with this. I heard you don’t do this a lot.”

Baekhyun’s hands went to wrap around the warm surface of his cup. “Yeah. Didn’t I tell you? I usually don’t.”

“Then why me?”

“I was feeling generous, I suppose? I can indulge someone, sometimes,” replied Baekhyun, lips curving slightly up. He hummed, as if considering. “You should be thanking me, maybe. Or you could have bought me a slice of cake. I don’t get to eat much cake nowadays.”

Judging by his tone, it was impossible to know if he was being serious or not, but, as Chanyeol realized, with a late, shameful kind of dismay, they had met there at his own request and still he had forgot to even offer to pay for Baekhyun’s drink. Oh, shit. He stood up. “Do you want cake?”

Baekhyun chuckled out loud. “Nah, not really. Sit down, will you? That was just me teasing, I’m okay.”

“Ah.”

Ah.” There was no bite in Baekhyun’s voice, and that was the only thing that made Chanyeol not feel like a fool as he returned to his place. “But anyway, here we are, right? You, me and that report. What were you studying, again? I think you didn’t tell me?”

“Oh, true,” Chanyeol realized. “I’m doing applied sociology, here at Arcadia Central.”

“Master’s Degree?”

“Nope. If I look too old for being a regular university student, that’s probably because I changed majors. Transferred universities, too, from Garden. I managed to get some of my former university studies validated to an extent, but of course that couldn’t be done for every subject, so here I am, in class with people two years younger than me.”

“So you’re the responsible one who’s tasked with field work?”

“I am the only one who cares about to do it,” Chanyeol confessed with a groan. “Do you remember Sehun, the friend I went to your speech with? I can only ask him to bother himself to come with me around once a year, and I’ve already used my quota. And the other person in my group doesn’t really need as good grades as I do, so I guess this is really up to me.”

Baekhyun leaned forward on his seat, taking a slow sip of tea. “I was sort of right, then. You’re a good student.”

“I have to be. I mean, I’d like to take the Shepherd qualification tests once I graduate, and they’ve been asking for very good resumes since they changed the normative. I can’t allow myself to take risks with my grades, exactly.”

Baekhyun’s index finger drummed on the lid of his cup, a quick, rhythmic sound. “I suppose,” he said, tone curt, eyes lowering to fix in his own hand. He looked like a person who wanted to say something, a person that making an effort not to speak.

That wouldn’t do, when Chanyeol had come to do exactly that.

“You don’t like it.”

“What? You wanting to become a crow? Don’t take it personally: I don’t like their line of work at all, or the company they work for.”

“But… Why? They help people.” They helped me. “Even your own father’s office is working in a deal with them.”

“Ah, yeah, my dearest dad.” Baekhyun was still grinning, but his smile had an edge, sharp like his teeth were made of shards of glass. “It would be fun, don’t you think? That a part of this was all to annoy him. Such a bad son, I am. Me and me alone, trying so hard to boycott all of his efforts. He and EDN-Pia want compulsory surgery for every patient in advanced phases, uh? Well, allow me to sabotage that.”

He took a long sip of tea and leaned back on his armchair. He sat in a way that took up space, like we was almost demanding to be stared at. Chanyeol did, gaping. “But you’re sick,” he blurted.

He didn’t look like he was. CFCS patients tended to grow pale, and sickly, and thin. Baekhyun was on the lean side, but he looked healthy enough for Chanyeol to have doubted that he was ill in the first place, if he had only seen the articles on the internet and not the flowers with his own eyes. “I am.”

“Why? Is it because of your dad?”

Baekhyun’s eyes narrowed, just a tiny fraction. “And why do you ask? Are you going to analyze me for your thesis?”

Chanyeol hadn’t wanted to offend him. He didn’t know if he had offended him. He shook his hands in front of his face with a grimace. “Ah, no, no. This was not for my report at all. I was just wondering.”

Leaning forward, Baekhyun stared at him in silence. The only reason for Chanyeol not to freak out completely was that his face had softened, every sign of wariness dissolving into a tiny smile. Chanyeol held his breath, only for a heartbeat. “Very well, then. If you must know, I am not sick because my dad has said that I’m not his son anymore, or because I’m thirsty for justice. I’m sick because of the most cliché reason ever. You know, the one they make movies about.”

CFCS was a strange thing. It was triggered by intense emotional pain, they said. It was triggered by the kind of loss that could shatter you. There was a growing number of patients, getting sick because a growing number of reasons, but blockbuster romance films and aesthetic internet blogs always narrowed them all into a single cause. They’d upload pastel images of a skeleton with flowers growing in its ribcage and talk of feelings unreturned.

“Wait, you’re sick because of unrequited love?” he asked, shaking his head. Baekhyun was still smiling, with a soft kind of air that felt so wrong when compared with his previous cheerfulness, the confidence that had displayed before. Chanyeol lost every word, tried to make his throat go unstuck while he thought, and wondered, and remember younger Baekhyun, still black haired, arm wrapped around a woman in a red dress. “Did your girlfriend leave you or…?” He was interrupted by a loud, amused huff and, when he focused on Baekhyun once more - instead of fixing his eyes on his own hands - he saw that, at least, he looked normal again. Normal and… entertained. “What?”

“Not a girlfriend,” he said. Chanyeol stared at him blankly. “Not a girl, in general.”

Ah. Ah. “Oh, true, sorry. I had forgotten-- I read about it on the internet.” He realized a bit too late that admitting having looked up someone on the internet probably wasn’t very great as an introduction card. Sometimes, he wished he could stick his big foot into his equally big mouth so he could think before speaking. “I mean. You told me there were articles about you around, so I searched for stuff…?”

“Nah, you’re being honest, I like that. It’s not like I want to keep it a secret: I’ll say I’m gay, if I’m asked. What I never tell them is why I got sick - you know, what I just said to you - but you know, people speculate anyway. They love finding me tragic ex boyfriends.” He looked at Chanyeol, chin resting on his fingers and a gleam of amusement in his eyes, like he was expecting him to say something, or to basically continue with the conversation.

“Um. I’ve got a girlfriend.” He realized as soon as he said it that something like that in that moment would probably come off as assholish, or rude, or both. He wondered if he was still in time to stick both of his feet into his mouth to prevent further fuck-ups. “Not tragic,” he tried to fix, “in my case.”

Baekhyun let out a short, sharp laugh. “Really.

Oh, god. “I swear that wasn’t any kind of asshole statement.”

“I figured you’re just an awkward kid,” replied Baekhyun. There was this low undercurrent of teasing, his voice just lowering down a little bit, and Chanyeol supposed that was a good thing, but he still felt his ears burning. “I’ve been called uglier things, and with much worse intentions. You’re just cute.”

“I… hope I am?” said Chanyeol. He remembered the guys who had interrupted his speech, the hardness of their words and how Baekhyun has been alone on the stage, mouth set and eyes darker than black.

“To an acceptable level, yeah. But anyway, to get back on topic, as I told you my own father may think I do all of this to shame him but annoying daddy isn’t my main goal here. Even if I’m always looking for new, awesome ways to do that.” The boy picked his cup again, fingers wrapping around the cardboard again, but he didn’t drink. He made a face and coughed instead, a long, rattling sound. “Buy hey, you came here to interview me and everything you’re asking are personal questions,” he added, not giving Chanyeol time to ask if he was okay. “I have limited time, you know? You should make sensible use of it and all.”

All around them, the cafe had grown fuller, more students coming. Baekhyun was the one facing the door, so Chanyeol hadn’t exactly realized how many people had come in and out, or how much time had passed. Probably not much, but he didn’t know how many minutes the boy was willing to spare. “Can I ask anything I want?”

Baekhyun considered. “A question. I’ll elaborate on it, though. Seems fair to you, Park Chanyeol?”

One question seemed too little, but Chanyeol liked the way his eyes went to lock on his when saying his name. “I’ll take it.”

“So?”

He considered for a moment. “I asked this to you before, and you didn’t exactly answer, so. Why are you so strongly against the CFCS cure? It’s not… for personal reasons or preference only, right?”

For a moment, Baekhyun just considered. He dipped his finger in the space between the paper cup and the lid and pressed, like he wanted it to come off. “How much information you have, exactly, about me and my opinions?”

“I--” Chanyeol had to make an effort not to tear his gaze down. “Not much, I suppose? But I want to know,” he said, and he realized, as he voiced it, that he really wanted to. Baekhyun was well spoken, and nice, and seemed normal, completely opposite as the group of stubborn zealots he had imagined most of the anti-EDN activists to be. And yet, there he was - coughing, in a way that made his shoulders shake, and still asking him about what he knew like he was the one speaking nonsense. It was so… He just wanted to…

“Tell me something else, then,” added Baekhyun. He pressed his finger deeper into the paper of his cup, and the dark plastic lid finally came out with a pop. He picked it, obliviously, when it fell onto his lap. “What do you know about the CFCS and the way it’s currently cured?”

“I know about it,” Chanyeol shrugged, making an effort to keep his tone calm. “It’s a recent sickness, used to be rarer but it’s more common now. There’s this species of cherry blossom-like flower, the Prunus sanguinea , that starts growing in your lungs, like some sort of parasite that feeds on your own emotional pain - death, loss, unrequited love - and slowly expands until you can’t breathe. The current treatment, the one EDN-Pia developed, has two phases. The first one consists of assigning every patient a doctor, a psychologist and an emotional guide to help them cope - a Shepherd.”

“A crow,” Baekhyun mused, just the tiniest bit of disdain in his voice. “Yeah.”

“That’s always the method for the patients in the initial stages of the sickness: talk to them, help them cope,” continued Chanyeol. “But then, if that fails and the symptoms get more severe… When the patient gets weak and is always tired and starts coughing blood… Then they ask for their consent to move to the next stage of the treatment, before it’s too late and they asphyxiate. That’s where the surgery comes.”

“You seem to have done your homework well,” commented Baekhyun.

“I haven’t, really,” replied Chanyeol, taking his own hand to his chest, and closing it over the fabric of his hoodie. “I know this because I went through the process myself, up to the very end. If I’m here, it’s because EDN-Pia’s Flower Removal Surgery saved my life.”

In front of him, Baekhyun was looking at him, lips parted and eyes wide. “I--” he started. “Yeah. Um. Sorry.”

“I didn’t tell you before, you couldn’t have known,” replied Chanyeol, grinning at him with a shrug. “And besides, it’s nothing traumatic. I was sick, and I accepted the risks to get better, and I got better. I heard it was pretty bad for a while, but look at me now, taking hits to the face in the name of justice.”

He expected Baekhyun to snort at his enthusiasm - at least - but the boy looked at him, attention focusing on him, but not exactly in the way he had wanted. “You heard?” he repeated, sounding wary. “What does that mean? You don’t remember?”

Ah, Chanyeol did remember. He remembered suffocating, losing his breath completely as he took his hands to his neck like he could rip the skin off. He remembered petals and blood on his lips and the floor. He remembered the dull pain on his chest after, the bandages over it as his mother and sister welcomed him back when he had awoken from surgery, and the scar on his flesh when they had been removed. “I remember fragments,” he admitted. “It’s part of the after effects. You forget things.”

Baekhyun nodded, serious. He coughed again, a reminder, and covered his lips with his fingers. They didn’t come blood-stained, at least, but Chanyeol couldn’t help but to stare. “And aren’t you upset about that?” Baekhyun asked, and he sounded so determined about it that Chanyeol almost flinched.

“Upset?” he repeated.

“You ask me why am I against EDN-Pia’s way of dealing with this procedure, even if you have been sick. But you should know, don’t you? When their surgeons open a patient’s chest, the flowers aren’t the only thing they take off you - they also remove whatever it is the Prunus sanguinea feeds on. Your memories, your feelings, your thoughts... You wake up after surgery and they are gone, like those doctors had cut your heart and your brain with their knives. You get saved, right, but at what price? Doesn’t it make you angry, or at least frustrated?”

“That’s not fair,” protested Chanyeol. In front of him, Baekhyun raised his eyebrows, as if prompting him to keep speaking, but he didn’t exactly know how to explain what he wanted to say. Baekhyun was the son of a politician, of course he knew how to speak to people; Chanyeol, on the other side, was just trying to learn how to listen. “I’m pretty much happy about my life. It’s not like whatever’s missing doesn’t allow me to be functional. The only thing that makes me different from the rest of the people is that I failed all my exams when I was sick, and that doesn’t even matter because I changed majors later. You make it sound way worse than it is.”

“So you would recommend it?” asked Baekhyun, with a short, dry laugh. “That’s why you’re aiming to be a crow? So people can be more happy than not?”

“I… guess?”

“Could you even say that you’re the same person that you used to be, before those EDN people dug into your chest and surgically extracted part of your feelings?”

“They took the flowers.”

“It’s the same thing.” Baekhyun’s fingers curled into fists on his lap, even if his expression was more firm than angry and his voice hadn’t raised a single bit. He had a mole in his thumb, Chanyeol noticed, a dark circle close to his nail. “Maybe you, Park Chanyeol, are the lucky one. Maybe you don’t miss whatever thing you’ve lost, but I’ve talked to others, a whole lot of people, and many of them don’t feel as fortunate. And I’m not talking about people who died in the process, I’m speaking about people who survived. And me… I’m not taking the risk. I’m not signing to give my permission for a fancy, very professional surgeon to cut my chest open and remove something that is supposed to be a part of me. I won’t let anyone touch me.”

His voice has finally risen, not in tone but in pitch, just before the end, and Chanyeol felt the urge to apologize. “You sound scared,” he whispered. Not the best thing to say, possibly, but Baekhyun laughed anyway, and that made him feel a little better.

“I am,” he admitted. “But I also know what I want, and signing to go under surgery is not it. And I am in my full mental capacities, ain’t I? I can decide for myself.”

“Yeah,” said Chanyeol.

“Then, why should the government and EDN-Pia sign an official agreement to make this whole treatment mandatory? If they did, they would make every patient in later stages of the sickness go on through surgery by default, including me and those like me. How is that fair, tell me?”

Chanyeol’s coffee was on the table, the ice in the plastic cup mostly melted, the drink all watered down. He stared at it, then rose his head to look at Baekhyun, that still had steel in his eyes and the kind of smile on his lips that spoke of defiance. He shrugged when Chanyeol didn’t say anything.

“You asked why I was against this pact between EDN and daddy dearest and his friends, right? Well, you got your reason.”

“But… Do you prefer to die?”

Baekhyun nudged the foot of the table with his foot. He wore red sneakers, of the expensive kind, but worn. “I prefer to choose . And anyway, I am not dead yet, right? My symptoms aren’t that bad. Maybe EDN or the government could end up healing me if they spent their time in developing a cure that didn’t mess up with their patients’ souls instead of going for the easy solution. This doesn’t kill them? Oh well, let’s keep doing it.”

Chanyeol had spent many hours at the hospital. He has seen the people there, he had been through rehab. He didn’t know what people Baekhyun had spoken to, but the ones with him had been happy. The bad feelings that had caused the sickness had been removed from his chest along with the flowers, but it wasn’t like any of them could feel the absence. “Doing that is better than nothing.”

“Not for everyone,” replied Baekhyun, simply. “Not for me.”

But… Chanyeol thought. But. “Why would you like to keep something that hurts you?”

Baekhyun looked at him with a smile. “Because that something belongs to me.”

Hours later, when he was back in his room, staring at the ceiling in silence, Chanyeol would remember Baekhyun in that second, sitting on that armchair with his back straight and his hands on his lap, speaking with the soft kind of voice that could move mountains. He didn’t look like someone giving an interview, just like a young man speaking his mind, and there was a pull in Chanyeol’s gut, the kind of weight that made him double-check Baekhyun, and lose his breath somewhere in his throat, and wonder. What is it, that he’s so scared to lose?

But back then, they were still at the cafe, the world spinning around them, full of life, Chanyeol’s drink all watered down, the condensed drops outside the cup forming a puddle in the wooden surface of the table between them.

“Well, that’s it, right?” stated Baekhyun, taking his own drink to finish it up in one long gulp. He tipped his head back to do it, the column of his neck exposed, then he cleaned his lips with the back of his hand - and Chanyeol watched, watched but said nothing. “Your question, replied. Do you think you have enough info?”

“Ah, yeah. Or, really, I’m not sure. It’ll work, I guess,” the boy finally replied, when he realized that he was staring and that he had no reason to. He knew that Minseok would be ecstatic, and that Minseok being happy basically meant that he had triumphed. And still, Baekhyun was already standing up to go and he didn’t feel at all like a winner. “Baekhyun,” he called.

“Thank you for the company,” the other man told him, looking around, cup in hand, to locate the closest disposal bin. “It feels surprisingly nice to talk with someone who doesn’t agree with what you think but isn’t an asshole about it. It happens every once in a while.”

He crossed the room and Chanyeol followed, apologizing when he accidentally kicked the leg of an empty chair, almost sending it flying. “You’re leaving?” he asked lamely, when they reached the door.

“What, you’re gonna ask me to stay?” the other boy teased, looking up at him for just a second, before pushing the door and walking out. “Or are you going to buy me a cup of tea this time, to thank me for my services?”

Chanyeol swallowed. For some reason, he had the distinct sensation that Baekhyun didn’t really want another drink. He would have bought it. Maybe. “Do you think we could meet again?” he asked.

Freezing, Baekhyun turned around, a boy in the middle of an empty sidewalk, at sunset. “What for?”

“To talk?” added Chanyeol, lamely. He didn’t exactly know why had he asked, but there he was, himself, a person happy with the help he had received, a person who wanted to graduate and help others, and there was Byun Baekhyun, the kind of man who had been born with everything he could want at the reach of his hand, and that had looked at him in the eye and said that he didn’t want help. He was sort of brave, that boy, and Chanyeol was sort of curious.

And before he had stopped, Baekhyun had been about to leave. “Talk about what?” he asked then, like he was still in the middle of teasing him. “How much text about me do you need in that thesis of yours?”

Not really that much, Chanyeol should have said. “A lot of it,” he answered instead.

“Let me give it one second of consideration,” replied Baekhyun. He walked towards him after that, step after step after step, until he was standing in front of Chanyeol and the sunset was dyeing his hair blood red. He looked up at him through dark eyelashes, hands still in his pockets, smile dancing on his lips. If Chanyeol hadn’t known he was sick, he would have thought he was a liar. “No way,” he heard him tell him.

“What?”

“I said no way. We’re not meeting anymore, you and me.”

Chanyeol felt a weight dropping in his stomach. It took a while for him to recognize it, and one more second to try to swallow it - disappointment. “But, why?”

“Someone hit you in your pretty face, so I was willing to make amends and do you one favor, for one time, but I told you, right? That’s all.” Baekhyun looked all cheerful as he said it, and Chanyeol felt a little, just a little, betrayed. By himself, more specifically. “You’re sort of advocating for accepting the rule by my dad’s government, do you? Or you agree with it, at least, which makes you my enemy, kind of.” He wrapped his finger around one of the straps of Chanyeol’s hoodie. “And my number one rule is that I shouldn’t get along with the enemy. Sorry but not really sorry, Park Chanyeol.”

And there it was: his ending - or his beginning, really. Made of Chanyeol himself, gaping in front of the window of a cafe, and Baekhyun turning around without an apparent care in the world, waving him goodbye as the sunset painted his skin in scarlet.

Are you happy, really?

What would make you happy?

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Boy

 

She’s reacting well to treatment, the girl in front of you. She’s young, and pretty, and understands she was being unreasonable. She’s scared of the bloodstained flowers coming out of her mouth, and after three or four sessions she’s already asking you to be saved.

When she signs the papers, her fingers are shaking. She has beautiful hands, you realize, thin and slender, just like you like them. You would have liked this girl, maybe, if you had met her at a club and not in a hospital room, with your own face hidden behind a crow mask. You would have gone straight for her, had you been out with your friends.

You always knew which ones were the easiest.

This girl is lovely, but her session ends soon and you’re glad about it. You’ve been up until late last night - brand new place with your friends and a lot of fun that was good while it lasted, but that is paying a toll on you hours later. Your mother is always telling you that you should rest well, but you’re sure that napping in class is not what she meant by that. And you can do that at school, yeah, but your fancy Shepherd part-time job requires you to be attentive and concentrated, and one can only pretend so much when the only thing he wants is darkness and silence and sleep.

You’re tired, which means you don’t want to be here today, which also explains why you curse under your breath when you realize you have one more patient to see today before you can leave for good.

That problematic kid they gave you.

Fantastic.

You have to go see Doctor Kim before you go to the assigned therapy room, though, because of course there’s a patient protocol and you have to swear to comply every single time. Yes, you understand the importance of your job, you say. Yeah, of course you’ll do everything in your hands to help him, and you’ll keep the wellbeing of the patient above all else. You’ll strive to make it quick, and painless, and aseptic - some talks for the hopeful, a sign for the ones who cannot be helped.

You get the patient’s profile, or at least everything of him that’s not confidential. He’s one of the kids in that Second Phase treatment, and you don’t even know why he was chosen for it considering that he doesn’t want to cooperate.

You shrug, and pocket the documents, tell Dr. Kim you’re ready to start. Let’s get this over with, right? It’s your introduction session with Subject #4 anyway, you don’t need to talk to him for more than five minutes and see if he likes you enough to accept you.

You hope he doesn’t, don’t you?

The session rooms for Shepherd therapy are small and clean. They’re sparsely decorated, but the furniture inside it’s meant to be comfortable, and the carpets on the floor and warm colors on the walls are supposed to be relaxing. Even the light is soft, yellowish, carefully selected for the patients to feel at home. Which is a little ironic, you think, when the person assigned to talk to them is a stranger in a crow mask.

In this one there’s a bed, as always, and two armchairs at opposite sides of a low table, stacked with an assortment of magazines to read. The patient is already there, but you don’t look at him before you have closed the door behind yourself.

It’s then when you freeze, your breath hitching in your throat.

Your newest patient is a boy, yeah. A boy in a sweater and jeans, who had been looking at a magazine, his gaze hidden under a fringe of silvery hair, but that has now risen his head to look at you as you stay where you are, gaping under your mask. He looks kind enough, although not necessarily pleased to see you. He looks slightly confused, like he’s wondering what is his own crow doing, standing all still, without introducing himself.

But you’re too tired for this.

You just wanted to sleep.

And your bosses have sent you to treat a problematic boy.

This fucking boy.

A boy that, of course, you know.

---

Arcadia University Hospital
CFCS Department, Shepherd Division

Dr. Kim Junmyeon,

This letter is in reference to Second Phase treatment Subject #4 and the petition from the Board to have a new Shepherd assigned to him after the failure of the previous one. As instructed to me, I have conducted the protocolary interview with the patient, inquiring about his history, his present circumstances and his state of mind. I also proceeded with the standardized compatibility tests and conversations (transcript attached) to determine if the patient should be assigned to me, for me to guide him as his Shepherd.

First of all, the behavior appreciated matches that of Subject #6, who has been recently referred for surgery after a short period of rejection, although he expresses no current desire in giving his acceptance for undertaking the procedure, himself, shall his condition worsen.

In regards to the compatibility test results, the result has been positive and, when prompted, the patient has stated that me becoming his Shepherd is okay with him. Accordingly, and following the standard protocol, I will assume the corresponding functions from this moment onwards, and until further notice.

Please contact Shepherd Division if you have any further questions.

---

One half full of fire,
one half full of coldness.

 

Doctor Kim Junmyeon’s office had an entire wall made of glass, overlooking the garden below. The first time Chanyeol had been there, he had been slightly taken aback by how the room seemed to open to a three-storey free fall and fought to ignore the low drum of vertigo that made his stomach clench, but after getting used to it he had to admit the view was impressive - the carefully planted trees and the artificial pond and the patients and their families traversing the  paths on the grass. He had liked going to that garden back when he was hospitalized, and now that he had been back at home for a while, sitting in his former supervisor’s office didn’t feel like being trapped in a cage of glass anymore.

“So tell me, Chanyeol. How has your life been since the last time we saw each other?” Doctor Kim asked. His desk was positioned so the man’s back was facing the window, and the afternoon sunlight gave him a warm halo. He was one of the younger doctors, and a nice man. He always seemed genuinely concerned. Everyone at Arcadia University were, but Chanyeol had always liked him the most. “Is everything going well?”

“Ah yeah. Classes are fine, as always. Remember I told you we started to work on our thesis? That’s going great so far, to the point where our assistant is far more excited about it than we are.”

“That’s good to know. What was it about, again?”

“Generally speaking? The impact of CFCS on modern society. How people see it, and their reaction to their origin, evolution and treatment. It’s interesting.”

“We know a lot about that here. We’ve been the talk of the whole Arcadia city these last months,” Doctor Kim said with a small sigh. He had his fingers laced on his desk, his posture relaxed. “Part of me really want to see the final results of such a report.”

“I could always show it to you, when we finish,” Chanyeol rushed to say. “You know, I still want you to recommend me for the Shepherd Program, so if that could help…”

“So bribing me, I see,” said Doctor Kim with a laughter. Flustered, Chanyeol opened his mouth to reply that, certainly, that was not the case, but the other man dismissed his concerns with a gesture. “You know we’ll take you into account, don’t worry about it.”

“Ah. Yeah.”

“You’re still adapting well, then, I assume? You didn’t experience any sudden weakness, or dizziness, or memory lapses, did you?”

Chanyeol watched as Dr. Kim’s fingers went for a black and golden lacquered fountain pen and uncapped it. He could never see what his doctor wrote about him, or if it was good. He wanted to believe it was. “I’ve been adapting well for more than a year.”

“So it’s all well?” asked Dr. Kim. Chanyeol nodded. “That’s good.”

“Any reason you’re asking?” he inquired, then. He remembered a boy in a cafe, fingers pressing between his paper cup of tea and the plastic lid. He had been wondering for days, about what Byun Baekhyun had told him. Doctor Kim was still writing something down on his notes, but looked up in surprise when he posed the question. “I mean, I’ve been well for a while but you always do.”

“You went through a very straining process, Chanyeol. Not asking about your condition, even after recovery, would be a disservice to you. Consider it part of the protocol, if you would. Everything should be okay in your case, but the recovery process for every patient needs to be monitored. It’s our basic working method, and we must be specially strict now that our treatment will go government funded soon.”

“Yeah, I see. I’m glad I’m helping.” Chanyeol frowned, looking past Doctor Kim and towards the garden beyond and below. The people over there looked so small, some of them in casual clothes, others in the white uniforms of the patients that had been admitted for treatment. There was a moment when the amount of people hospitalized had been growing steadily, but now the numbers had stabilized - which was good, in a sense, because even then all those in Arcadia affected by CFCS, in any phase of the sickness, could be treated in a single, specialized hospital. Specifically, that one. “Ah, Doctor,” he said. “Do you know Byun Baekhyun, the son of Byun Youngha, the politician? Does he come here?” Doctor Kim stared at him in silence, pretty fountain pen still in hand, and Chanyeol tried to find a good reason for him to be asking. “He’s my-- I’ve met him a couple of times to talk and he’s… He doesn’t really look very sick but he is. So I realized, he should be coming here, right?”

Still, Doctor Kim took a while to reply. “His family is very concerned about his situation, as you’d surely understand, so of course he’s getting treated. He has regular visits scheduled with his department.”

Of course he would. Back when he had been sick, and before they admitted him for surgery, Chanyeol had needed to come to get checked four or five days a week. “Are you his doctor?” he asked. Doctor Kim always got all the young patients, maybe because of how young he was, himself, for someone with his resume. But of course, whichever was the case, everything Chanyeol got as a reply was a slightly exasperated press of the lips on the other man’s side.

“Chanyeol,” he warned.

“I know you’re possibly very, very sworn to secrecy. I was just hoping he’d be getting help. I guess you also know what kind of speeches he makes.”

“I assure you he’s in good hands.”

“That’s… good.” Chanyeol drummed on his leg with his fingers, trying to smile his best nice guy grin at Doctor Kim, who looked just the tiniest bit exasperated. It was clear that he wouldn’t get more answers, and he had realized that from the start, so he didn’t even know why he had asked, but at least he had learned that Baekhyun, too, was obviously getting treated. He came to that hospital as well, and Chanyeol had never realized - perhaps because he hadn’t been looking, either.

He got out from Dr Kim’s office about ten minutes later, when the sun was starting to lower in the sky at the other side of his fancy glass windows. Even though the hospital was the busiest at that time of the day, with patients waiting for their afternoon checks and families coming for visit hours, the main building of Arcadia University Hospital still seemed too big, and too tall, and too empty. Built around six years ago, once the joint venture between EDN and Pia reached its peak, it was supposed to be their beacon of success, a clinic that combined their research department and the hospital where patients were treated in one big, tall, airy building made of steel and glass. The whole concept was supposed to be modern and light, with its polished floors and straight lines and recovery-themed posters on the walls, but the main corridors were a bit too broad, and the ceilings were a bit too high, and no matter the amount of people waiting or walking around, or the amount of nice personnel that came to tell him if he needed help or offered to walk him to places, Chanyeol had always felt that the place was too empty, like there was too much space around him and above. The only rooms that weren’t disproportionately big were the ones where the Shepherds spoke to their patients, and those weren’t supposed to be happy places, exactly. They were made to make people speak, and heal.

He came across a couple of Shepherds when he was making his way towards the waiting room on that floor. They were in full regalia: black cape-like robes and masks that covered their whole faces, the front of them shaped as avian beaks. Both of them were rushing toward the patient area, their garments floating after them like dark wings, and Chanyeol turned around to watch, like he was one of the kids in the corridor that stopped and pulled at their father’s sleeve because the crows were coming.

Who are you going to see?

Seungwan was in the waiting room, sitting in one of the chairs along the wall, reading a book. She didn’t see him, and Chanyeol scanned the whole place, eyes travelling through everyone’s faces, before he walked to pick her up. Everyone there were people he didn’t know, and all of them had dark hair - a fact that disappointed him just-so-slightly.

“Hey,” he called, once he’d closed the room to stop in front of his girlfriend. She didn’t notice him until his shadow was falling on her, and, for a second, she seemed confused, but she stood, smiling at him, as soon as she looked up and realized who he was.

“Ah hey,” she said. She had been listening to music, humming to the lyrics of of some song as she was concentrated on her book, and Chanyeol felt slightly bad for having to interrupt her. She was a nice girl, really. “You finished early today.”

Had he? Chanyeol shrugged. Doctor Kim hadn’t kept him much longer after he had started to ask about Byun Baekhyun. “Well, you know, it’s just the usual routinary check on my health. An X-Ray check to see if my lungs keep being okay and the set of questions he always asks.”

“And everything’s in order, then?” asked Seungwan, reaching for his hand. Her fingers were warm on his skin, soft.

“As usual. They keep making me come, though, to say the same things over and over again.”

“At least you know what to tell them,” Seungwan stated, shrugging, as they walked to the door. “Maybe they have a thing for making you come back time after time.”

“Yeah, Doctor Kim likes me too much. I’m his golden patient, his favorite child, and he’s going to make me come visit forever. In case you get worse, he’ll say. Even if there’s no way I can. That they know, don’t they?”

Seungwan tilted her head up to look at him, raising an eyebrow. “That’s what they say, at least. But they’re monitoring you to be certain, right? The cure for CFCS is a relatively new thing, in response to a relatively new syndrome. You can’t blame them for wanting to be sure that you’re fine.”

He was supposed to be. That was what extraction surgery was supposed to do. Prunus sanguinea was said to feed on rejection and loss, and those feelings were uprooted along with the parasite flowers. It was a complicated procedure, but the core of it was cutting the problem away, right from the very core. You couldn’t exactly relapse if the cause for the sickness was also gone for good, cauterized and extracted like a tumor. Could you even say that you’re the same person that you used to be? Baekhyun had said. “I don’t blame them. I’m happy to come. It’s just a little tiresome sometimes, coming to visit Dr. Kim all these times a month. Do you remember my family? I think I spend more hours talking to my doctor than with them.”

“Well, you said it yourself. At least you got assigned to a nice one.”

“It’s always nice to be monitored by a nice guy.”

They have walked back to the lobby, the room most big and most white and most full of glass walls in that whole crystal tower. It was always noisy, that room, full of people talking and people waiting and people asking the receptionists for the way to go. One could also head out to the public section of the gardens from there.

Chanyeol looked around. He only realized that Seungwan had asked something when he felt her fingers squeezing his. “Sorry, what?” he muttered.

“Distracted, huh?” she told her with a grin. “I was just asking what do you want to do now. We’re finished with this place for today, so. Do we go for the usual?”

Thursdays were the days where Chanyeol went to hospital to get checked. After that, on the occasions when Seungwan came with him, they usually went eating. Arcadia University Hospital was, after all, in one of the fanciest parts of town, which meant there certainly was a wide variety of places to choose from without having to walk much. One could find literally everything, from those fancy places with tiny portions of foreign food and abusive prices to the all-you-can-eat buffets or weird, thematic cafes, and practically be assured that whatever they’d get to eat would be, at least, decent.

Hell, even the food at the hospital cafe was pretty good. “What if we eat here too?”

Seungwan frowned. “Here? Here as in at the hospital, you mean?”

“Have you ever tried the garden cafe? It really isn’t hospital-like at all. You know how everything works at this place - they’ll do their best to make you forget you’re in a clinic and not in some modern, fancy hotel. And it works for their restaurant service, at least.”

Looking around one last time, Seungwan shrugged. She gave him a lopsided smile. “Weird,” she said, “but I guess we can go if you’re feeling nostalgic.”

“I used to go with my mom a lot. You’ll see, it was nice.”

And yeah, the cafe was nice. Half of the tables, the ones made of white-painted steel, were set in the garden itself, carefully placed so they wouldn’t be too close to one another. To their bad luck, apparently many more people had decided that having something to eat there was a good idea and, by the time they went to grab a table, only the one closest to the lobby was free. It wasn’t a good place, especially considering that most of the other tables were far enough from the floor to ceiling windows of the lobby to ignore the existence of the building completely, but Chanyeol decided he wanted to be a gentleman and offered Seungwan the seat facing the garden. From his own chair, he could see the people coming and going in the lobby, at the other side of the floor to ceiling windows. There was someone with flaming red hair close to the garden doors, but still no trace of silver.

Obviously.

The waiter came to take their orders soon. He had forgotten how overpriced the place was, so in the end he had to settle for an obnoxiously expensive sandwich, that at least was of a decent size and included potato chips and mayonnaise to dip them in. He grimaced when he went to bite it - he had forgotten that the side effects of his wounds of war were still there, even if he had finally removed the bandages. Seungwan saw him and laughed, taking a bite of her own overpriced sandwich before she spoke.

“Still hurts?” she asked.

“When I open my mouth a lot. I got hit pretty hard, if you want to know.”

“You’ve been whining about it all week, though. Proudly, but whining.”

Chanyeol dropped his sandwich on the plate. “I haven’t!”

“What a crybaby,” Seungwan almost sinsonged. “A proud one but still.”

Chanyeol looked around, vaguely searching for someone - even the waiter - to tell them how unfair that statement was. There was no one but Seungwan, so in the end he turned towards her once more, even though if she was there just eating without any kind of regret. “Hey, everyone there thought I was brave.”

“That’s not what Sehun said.”

“Sehun was pretty impressed by my performance. He’s just stingy when it comes to praise.”

“And mean in general.”

“Exactly!” Chanyeol ate a handful of chips. Offendedly (he hoped). “You should not listen to Sehun at all. I landed the interview and saved the day.”

“...which you’ve also been mentioning for a whole week.”

“Because it’s true!” replied Chanyeol. “Who else in our whole group managed what I did, huh?”

“You forgot half of the things Byun Baekhyun told you, though. And didn’t transcript the thing.”

“I didn’t know if it was allowed to record.” Which was sort of true, because he couldn’t have known. Mainly because he had forgotten to ask. “I felt like I was interviewing some kind of celebrity.”

“Did someone recognize him or…?”

“Nah, not really. It was just…” Chanyeol pointed at himself, palms towards his own chest. “The general feel of him? He’s one weird guy.”

“Weird?”

“He’s… nice, I suppose? But--” But he asked me questions. And not only that. He had admitted he was scared. He had made it clear that he didn’t want to die. But he had said that he wanted a choice - the option to keep some sort of twisted, unrequited feelings that probably weren’t good for him anyway. They belong to me, he had said. That and could you even say that you’re the same person that you used to be? Chanyeol had thought about that a lot - not only the words, but his tone, his voice, the thrum of rage under them. “I just don’t know? He talks a lot, and the things he says… Some of them make sense.”

“And you don’t like them making sense?”

“What?” Chanyeol in the middle of the bite he had intended to take. He cleared his throat. “It’s not that. I don’t mind if they do.”

He realized then that Seungwan had almost finished her own tiny sandwich while he’d spent his time staring at his, first because he was offended, then because he was confused. He took a half-unwilling bite and looked at the lobby again, eyes wandering through a sea of dark hair, like Seungwan’s, and his own, and everyone else at school.

Stupid.

“I wonder,” he added. “If they’re working on another kind of treatment too, in the research area of this place. One that isn’t so aggressive to patients.”

“Probably?” muttered Seungwan, frowning. “But according to the news, the ratio of patient survival has really gone up in the last couple of years. It’s kind of a risky surgery still, I think, but not as much as…”

She pressed her lips, words hanging quietly between then, like dust on the evening air. Not as much as it used to be when you undertook it.

Seungwan and he hadn’t known each other by then, but sometimes she still got worried. Not that she said it out loud, but Chanyeol had been in her class for two years. He would know.

“I’m just not talking about the success ratio of the surgery exactly. I was thinking about the feelings that come out with the flowers. The ones that cause the infection for each person.”

“What about them?”

“What if someone wanted to keep them?”

“Why would anyone want to keep them?” replied Seungwan. She was cleaning her fingers with her napkin, until a gust of wind came from nowhere and freed a rebellious strand of hair from behind her ear. Chanyeol hadn’t realized she had most of it up in a high ponytail.

She had said the same thing he had told Baekhyun at the cafe the other day, and he felt a churn in his stomach at the thought. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I suppose every person is different. That’s what people complaining speak against, you know?” Or what he speaks against, at least.

“Well, it’s true that the surgery is intrusive, but…Does that mean they should allow people to die?” asked Seungwan.

“No,” said Chanyeol, right hand travelling to his chest, resting over his sternum. The first thing about Seungwan that had made them get along, back when they were just two classmates hanging with the same group of friends was that they tended to have the same opinions in every important matter. She understood him, she voiced what he also thought, before he could even find the words to voice the idea.

And he agreed with her, or should be agreeing, but he still ate the rest of his sandwich in thoughtful silence, a weird knot in his throat.

The hospital was way emptier when they paid and left, most patients back to their rooms and visitors already gone. Seungwan and him had already walked across the glass main doors when Chanyeol saw the black car and stopped in his tracks.

The door, that had started to close behind his back, froze in mid motion for a second, before the sensors checked he wasn’t moving and made it slid open again. “Chanyeol?” asked Seungwan.

A man in a black suit was talking on a comm next to the vehicle, back very straight and eyes on the same door they had just come through. Night had fallen, visit hours were over, most check-in turns for patients would always be. With a low gasp, Chanyeol turned around.

“Could we--” he started to tell Seungwan, without knowing exactly what to say to her without coming out as a weirdo. Perhaps he was a weirdo, trying so hard to look for someone in the crowd when he had already been told he was the enemy. “I need to go to the bathroom,” he lied.

“But you went to the toilet like half an hour ago?”

“I drank a lot of coke.”

Stupid, Park Chanyeol, stupid.

But still he took one last look around as he was crossing the hall towards the men’s toilet next to the counter. And he saw them, talking in the corridor closest to where he was: an unmasked boy in what looked like a black, ghostly Shepherd uniform and another young man, in a white shirt and branded jeans, lower half of his face covered in one of those cheap white masks sold at convenience stores.

He wasn’t wearing a hood, however, and his silver hair was clearly visible under the white, aseptic light.

Chanyeol stopped, in the invisible crossroad between the way to the bathroom and the corridor where the two men were. “Baekhyun?” he called, tone genuinely surprised despite everything.

Both he and the unmasked Shepherd looked up, Baekhyun’s eyes opening wide when he recognized him, the crow’s arms crossing over his chest when Chanyeol finally decided to approach. He looked small and sort of angry, eyes big and black, lips pursed, and his crow-like, full head mask tightly secured under his arm. Not the kind of person Chanyeol would have expected to work at helping people overcome their pain and loss, most certainly.

“You keep getting into trouble,” Shepherd guy was telling Baekhyun by the time Chanyeol entered into hearing distance. “It’ll be a mess, again.” He pressed his lips and looked Chanyeol up and down when he stopped before them, and then deadpanned. “I think I’ve seen you around.”

Chanyeol blinked. “Here at the hospital?”

“Where else?”

“You never were my assigned Shepherd, right?” asked Chanyeol, before realizing that saying that while sounding kind of obviously relieved could actually be considered as rude-ish.

“No,” deadpan crow guy said. “But I work here.”

“Chanyeol, hey,” Baekhyun called to him, then, probably to save them both from the wall of general indifference. “What are you doing here? Came to get checked?”

“Yeah. Bimonthly date with my supervisor. You know, routine.”

“Supervisor checks last until this late?” asked Baekhyun, voice raising a bit in surprise. “Wow, I wasn’t aware.”

“They don’t,” deadpan crow guy butted in. “They end at seven.”

“Ah, that. I came for my check earlier, but then I stayed for dinner.”

“At the hospital?” asked Baekhyun.

“Yeah. The garden cafe is nice. Haven’t you tried?”

“Do you really like hospital food?”

“You don’t?” Baekhyun shook his head no and, with that topic dead, Chanyeol found himself parting his lips to speak but without knowing what to say, there, in the middle of the END-Pia clinic hall and with a strange boy in black looking at him like he was wondering what he was doing here. A question that Chanyeol was also asking himself, to be honest. “Is this guy your Shepherd?” he inquired.

“Would I be able to see his face if he was?” Baekhyun asked back. “This is Do Kyungsoo, certified crow and all that. Maybe you should exchange numbers to talk about crowy stuff, now that I think of it. Hey Soo, did you know Chanyeol here wants to be one of you people? You could help him with the basics.”

The Do Kyungsoo guy looked up at him, unimpressed, and Chanyeol swallowed. “There’s no need,” he assured.

“You sure? He’s not as evil as he looks.”

To be honest, Do Kyungsoo didn’t look exactly evil - the accurate interpretation would be that he looked pissed at Baekhyun. “I have no time for your games,” he told him.

Clicking his tongue, Baekhyun turned towards Chanyeol. “He’s always like this. Are you really sure you want to work in the same place as this guy?” he told him, with an overly exaggerated sigh and a lopsided smile on his lips. “And oh, I haven’t realized but your nose looks well. A little swollen still but healthy nonetheless. I’m glad it didn’t get broken, it’s a pretty nice nose.”

At his side, Do Kyungsoo let out a huff, while Chanyeol tried to find something to say in return. His mother always said that one had to compliment people back when one was praised, and he stared at Baekhyun’s own face, wondering if he saying something about his own nose would be considered repetitive. His gaze drifted down. He realized Baekhyun had a small mole over his lip. He tore his eyes away.

“Chanyeol?”

The boy flinched and turned around just in time to see Seungwan arriving. She stopped at his side, curious, eyes going from Chanyeol to Kyungsoo, and then widening when she recognized Baekhyun.

“Eh, hi.”

“I thought you were going to the bathroom.” She was still looking at Baekhyun, and Baekhyun was looking at her. Whatever that spell was, it broke when he coughed, covering his lips with his fingers over the white mask. Seungwan looked actually flushed, when she saw him do it. “Ah, ah sorry, I was staring but… Aren’t you Byun Baekhyun?”

If he was offended in the least, he didn’t let it show. He actually chuckled, slightly bowing his head as a greeting. “Yeah, yours truly. I believe we haven’t meet in person? So I hope I look better up close than how I look from the public in meetings, or in photos on the internet.” He coughed again, removing the mask from his mouth his time, and bending over a bit. He smiled at them apologetically and turned towards Kyungsoo. “Do you have a kleenex, Mr. Crow?”

“I do,” offered Seungwan, retrieving one paper tissue package from inside her bag. Baekhyun grabbed one tissue, covered his mouth with it to clean his lips in one fast swipe. When he took it off, Chanyeol could see a stroke of pink and red over the white.

“What a nice lady,” said Baekhyun, grinning. “You didn’t tell me your name.”

“Son Seungwan.”

“She’s the girlfriend,” explained Chanyeol, because Baekhyun was shifting his gaze between them, looking a bit smug.

“Heh, I didn’t expect you to have good taste in women,” he stated, and Chanyeol felt his stomach drop.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“He seems like a nice guy, this one,” Baekhyun told Seungwan . “Although I have to say he has questionable career choices.”

“You do speeches for a living!” protested Chanyeol, incredulous.

“Not really? Technically I am a Master’s Degree student,” replied Baekhyun very matter-of-factly, laughing when Chanyeol stared at him, mouth agape. “I thought you have checked my profile online? Such a terrible research you did, let me tell you.”

“That’s not my point?” said Chanyeol. “How many time does all that anti EDN stuff you do take you every day? I bet you practically give it job treatment.”

“You can bet I do. But hey, I never said that my own choices weren’t questionable.”

“He’s the most questionable of them all,” added Kyungsoo.

“All ganging up against me, this is not fair,” Baekhyun raised both hands to his head in surrender, but he was smiling all along. He turned to Chanyeol after that. “But nah, I was just teasing. Not that I agree with what crows or END-Pia in general do with their resources, but then again it seems you have your life more figured out than I do: you’re studying something you apparently enjoy, you know what you want to do later and you have a very pretty significant other. Now, once that nose of yours heals, everything will be perfect. Lucky kid, aren’t you?”

“I… guess?” Chanyeol supposed he was, but Baekhyun sounded a bit too confident saying it out loud, and for a moment a part of him wanted to protest. “Seungwan has helped me a lot; she’s been very patient with me and my whole recovery process. So at least I’m lucky for that, I’d say?”

“No wonder, if she agrees with you taking her out to the hospital cafeteria. Seriously.” He laughed out loud when Chanyeol rolled his eyes at him, but his eyes softened after. “Nah, just teasing again. I’m happy for you. It must be nice.”

He bit his lip then, the small mole on the corner of his mouth like a tiny, dark drop on his skin. He looked like the Baekhyun at the cafe again, not the one that had smirked while telling him they wouldn’t see each other again, but like the boy sitting in front of him on a overly padded armchair, digging his finger into the space between his plastic cup and the lid.

Chanyeol still didn’t know what was the deal with that boy, but still he felt like he had just bragged, or fucked up, or both, and that was something he really, really, didn’t want.

“Hey, Baekhyun--” he started. There was nothing more he could say, however, because something else was faster than him.

“Sir! Here you are, we were expecting you!”

Because he had been staring at Baekhyun after all, Chanyeol saw the other boy huff. It lasted just a second, a sharp puff of air before he schooled his features into amusement.

“Ah, if it isn’t Mr. Cho. My knight in shining armor,” he exclaimed. Chanyeol couldn’t help by remember that Baekhyun had called him my savior the first time they had spoken. Perhaps that was something he usually did. “Time to leave already?”

Walking towards them was the man that Chanyeol had seen next to the black car before, a sturdy guy in a black suit with a comm in his ear. Behind him came another one, who looked so much like him - in an intimidating, impersonal way - that he could have been his twin brother although their features weren’t alike at all.

“You’re running late, sir. Any problem on your visit?”

“Problem?” repeated Baekhyun, raising both eyebrows. “What problem did you want me to have inside a hospital in the middle of Arcadia City?”

“We’re here to ensure your safety, sir.”

“Yeah, imagine how terrible it’d be if I got lost in the way to my own apartment.” Sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans, Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol and Seungwan from over his shoulder. “Do you see, how nice my dad is? He sends his security minions to the hospital with me so he can make sure I don’t skip my treatment.”

None of the men commented on the matter. Instead, they just waited for Baekhyun to finish speaking and surrounded him, like a flock of really protective black birds, as if they were really aiming to guard him against some sort of undefined, improbable menace. Standing between them, Baekhyun looked surprisingly small, and even though the way he rolled his eyes at them made him appear more disdainful than actually intimidated, Chanyeol still felt a weight in his own stomach.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, you two. Geez, it’s not like I had anything better to do than being escorted back to my place,” Baekhyun was saying. Chanyeol swallowed.

“You could come with us,” he stated. He was going to offer Baekhyun an invitation to dinner, but he realized just in time that Seungwan and him had already eaten. “To grab coffee, I mean. You’re finished with today’s treatment, aren’t you?”

Silent, Baekhyun considered him for a moment, and Chanyeol really though he had said something bad before the other boy chuckled. “Ah, heaven precious, I don’t want to be the one to break it out to you, but you’re being a terrible boyfriend. First you take this poor girl on a date to the hospital cafeteria and now you want me to randomly tag along?”

The boy stole a glance at Seungwan. She didn’t look angry at all, which was good. “This wasn’t a date at all,” she mentioned herself, almost laughing. “I just come with him to the hospital sometimes.”

“Still, Park Chanyeol, be thoughtful.” Baekhyun turned around and started to walk towards the exit, leaving his two bodyguards momentarily surprised. He grinned up at them like a naughty child, twirled again so he was walking backwards and waved at Seungwan and him. “I am sorry to reject your offer but one,” he raised a finger, “I told you I don’t really like coffee. Second,” he put another digit up, “I have to comply to whatever daddy dearest says so he can allow himself to keep pretending he doesn’t have a youngest son. And third,” he waved his hand again, showing him three fingers, his smile breaking into a bright thing full of teeth that felt like cold winter sunshine. “What did I mention about fraternizing with the enemy? Have you forgotten?”

“Could you stop with the enemies thing?” Chanyeol demanded. He had to raise his voice, because Baekhyun already was in the middle of the hall, and it felt so loud and so weird, echoing in the almost empty foyer.

He must have sounded annoyed, because Baekhyun snorted at him. “Oh, come on, if you really want to see me that much you should do it like everyone else, you know? And come to my events like the rest of non-conformist Arcadia. The next one is this Sunday. I’m raising funds for this really big protest march, so your cooperation would really be appreciated.”

Chanyeol gave him a Kyungsoo-the-crow-worthy deadpan face. “You’re seriously asking for my money?”

“This is some important hit to these people I’m going for here. You know, a way for what I say not to be ignored anymore. Had to try, right?” replied Baekhyun. He was standing in the middle of the hall now, hands risen towards the metal and glass ceiling, and Chanyeol was certain that some part of that boy loved the attention, but right then and there, as he stated his intentions in enemy territory with the nonchalance of someone fearless, Chanyeol thought that Byun Baekhyun had the aura of a warrior.

He was… kind of admirable, that boy, in his own twisted way. He always appeared so full of feelings. Winter sunshine and flowers in bloom.

His triumphant speech was interrupted when Baekhyun bent forward to cough. Chanyeol saw the blossoms crushed between his fingers when he slipped the hand he had used to cover his mouth in the pocket. He frowned, took a step forward at the same time Kyungsoo did.

“Stop overdoing it,” the Shepherd told him.

“I’m not overdoing a thing,” said Baekhyun, then he turned one last time towards the door and proceeded to gesture to his father’s bodyguard. “Let’s go, my men. I don’t want you to work that many extra hours because of me.”

And just like that, he waved one last time and left, the front doors sliding closed behind him as he stepped out. After he did, there was silence, and a couple of curious onlookers going back to their business or lowering down the phones they had took out for video or photo. Chanyeol wondered if their conversation would be up on some shady internet blog by the following morning.

Not that he cared much. He hoped that Seungwan didn’t, either. She still looked a little shocked, eyes still wide and fixed on the door.

“Wow,” she said. “That was one passionate guy.”

“Yeah,” agreed Chanyeol, as Kyungsoo-the-crow made a little, low angry noise.

“He never learns. He’ll get in serious trouble one day.”

Seungwan still has her eyes to the door, and her foot tapping on the marble floor. Finally, she looked up at him, considering. “What do you think? Are you going to go see his fundraising thing?”

And well… Chanyeol didn’t even know if Baekhyun was being serious when he had told him about the event, so he probably should have said no. It was the better option, he supposed - not getting involved with someone who, in the end, was both some sort of internet celebrity and an anti EDN-Pia protester with an influential father, but he couldn’t help the tingling in his fingertips at the thought of going to this meeting, the knot in his throat at the idea of not having an excuse for looking for white-silver hair in the crowd anymore. He was an interesting kid, that one, with his loud voice and his clear ideas and his deeply rooted convictions.

Chanyeol wondered if he’d one day be able to believe in something as much as he did. Listening to him, he almost wanted to.

“I don’t know,” he whispered. “Do you think Minseok will be satisfied with my level of commitment, if I go?”

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Pretender

 

Your dearest patient tells you in your first session that he met a boy at a university party.

He doesn’t go that much to those, he insists, but his friend dragged him for this one, just this once, so he put on some new clothes and decided to have fun. How charming.

He didn’t know what would happen, he says, he doesn’t know if he would have gone if that has been the case, but he did, right? And now he’s here, holding a handkerchief to his mouth while you scowl under your crow mask. Of course, he was pretty enough to draw attention, with those handsome features and that flashy silver hair, and of course his friend wanted him to get laid with a woman - that was the purpose of going there - but the kid had to get drunk, and start acting like a loud idiot, and end up sitting in front of a man.

“I gave him my autograph,” he says, like that was the normal thing to do. “He asked me who I was, so I did. I think he still keeps it.”

He’s one of these people, this guy. Of the kind who get drunk and kiss boys at parties, and then get heartbroken when those boys leave them the morning after. He’s annoying, isn’t he? Not because he has an interest on being fucked by other men - let him enjoy the ride, if that makes him happy - but because he’s the type of guy who reads too much into the whole thing.

He’s here because he had sex with someone. He’s here because he did it once, twice, thrice, kept going back because he couldn’t read the signals and ended up being attached. He’s here because he had some sort of stupid epiphany and decided that he was oh-so-gay and that he wanted to come out, and then the guy he was messing around with told him to fuck off when he told him he wanted to announce his great love to the whole fucking world.

How idiotic and naive and disgusting. Of course he was going to end up heartbroken.

And here he is now, coughing his life away in the prettiest form of self-destruction. He has petals in his hands, the first traces of blood in his lips, and still refuses to comply.

And you , you haven’t asked for this. You do get paid for it, and you’re good at your job, but you don’t want to sit in front of this boy and try to convince him to be nice when what you secretly want to tell him is that he deserves it for being an idiot.

Time extends and stretches, seconds turning infinite and bleeding into minutes that never seem to end. You’ve only been with your newest favorite patient for an hour, but by the time it’s over you’re relieved that you can finally leave. The air in that room seems stagnant, hot despite the temperature control, and by the time you’re out you’re sweating, the Shepherd robes sticking to your skin like the black, drenched feathers of a bird.

There’s this stupid report you have to complete, talking about this boy, the flowers he coughs and his hopes and dreams. That’s the part where you state your adamant will to save him, where you analyze every little detail trying to guess how to approach this.

Hearts bleed, pain suffocates and flowers take root, and you’re the one who tries to poison them before doctors have to cut, as they stem and spread through the lungs. This boy has them, growing, blooming inside of his body, curling in the empty spaces beneath the flesh. Such a stupid, exquisite form of torture.

You don’t want this.

You don’t want this at all.

After the results of the Shepherd-Patient compatibility test are positive, there are only three reasons for a person like you to be removed from your duties:

The boy can reject you, like he rejected his two previous Shepherds.

You can be reassigned, if the boy gets worse.

Or you can be mandatorily removed from your duties if your patient is someone you know.

Shepherds have to be neutral, don’t they? It’s a part of who they are. Prior knowledge comes with baggage, and baggage makes the results unpredictable - humans want to save those they love, don’t you think? They want to condemn those they hate, right?

Right.

What a naughty boy you are. Every resigning application needs to state the reasons. And there are some things you don't want your supervisors to know.

You can't tell them you went to a university party, looking to have some fun for the night. You can't tell them you saw this boy, with his bright silver hair, laughing out loud. You can't tell them he was looking at you, and that you saw an opening and bought him a drink, and that the idiot gave you his autograph in a napkin because - he stated - you could sell it for a ton when he became rich and famous.

He had soft lips. That probably was the only good thing about him, on the long run. Soft lips and a pretty smile you soon started to find annoying.

“I have never… With a boy, I mean…” he told you after.

“I'll teach you,” you replied. They’re always dangerous, his kind, but who are you to deny him if he lives for the pain?

And here you are now, aren't you? Annoyed for that time and the the ones that followed. And annoyed for the guy being sick and here.

Fuck him, really.

Don't you need a way out? You want a way out. But telling the doctors why you know this boys also means exposing yourself.

--

Arcadia University Hospital
CFCS Department, Shepherd Division

This is a response to your request dated August 27th 2038 in regards to your functions as Shepherd for Second Phase treatment Subject #4, where you asked to be relieved from your duties. We received your request on date August 30th and assigned it file number 1485.

Upon review, it was decided by the Shepherd Division Committee Board that the dismissal you seek was to be rejected, as we require all of the requests on this matter to comply to one or more of these criteria:

  1. An expressed desire from the patient.
  2. A clear worsening in the general condition of the patient.
  3. A signed statement from the Shepherd, in the case of them recognizing the patient as a person they’re acknowledged with, following the official template and declaring the nature of their relationship.

In light of the fact that your request has been denied, you are advised of your right under section 44 to complain to the Committee Board in writing within thirty days of receiving this notice. You should include a statement as to why your appeal should be granted and a copy of this letter to be enclosed.

Any additional queries pertaining to this matter can be directed to Mr. Zhang Yixing in the Shepherd Division.

Sincerely,

Park Sooyoung
CFCS Department

--

T he rose was
not looking for wisdom, or for shadow:
the edge of flesh and dreaming,
it looked for something other.

 

Kim Minseok was happy. Very happy. So happy that he hadn’t realized that there was a coffee stain on his desk, which was pretty surprising for someone as obsessed with the act of cleaning as he was. For a moment, Chanyeol thought about telling him, just so he’d know, but he decided against it when Minseok gave him and Seungwan a full smile.

“This is wonderful!” he told them. “Sublime! The best news ever!”

Sometimes, Chanyeol thought he would do better in life by giving as little fucks as Sehun did and casually oversleep, like his friend had done, through half of the meetings with Minseok. That way, he would have at least been spared from that visit to Minseok’s tiny, windowless and extraordinarily clean office at the sociology department. Even the books in the shelfs were organized by color - color! - like some kind of weird sepia rainbow. Everything was so carefully placed and thoroughly scrubbed into immaculateness that the single coffee stain at the corner of the desk was almost starting to annoy him. And Chanyeol was in no means a tidy person. “It’s just a meeting,” he tried to speak. “Byun Baekhyun didn’t even invite me expressly.”

“But you’re going anyway. To a speech where he’ll be talking about that march he’s organizing! Did you know he’s apparently trying to get it featured on TV? Imagine the impact, yes? If he succeeds, his little march will be all over Arcadian TV. It will stir up conversation, Chanyeol. Ah, definitely you have to get all the information you can hoard.”

“You’re as much of a Byun Baekhyun fanboy as Sehun is a Kai fan. You should meet up, you know? To talk about your idols,” Seungwan chimed in. “If you’re so excited about all this, why don’t you go yourself?”

“What if I get photographed? My bosses here at uni wouldn’t be happy. You are the students here, you need all the data you can get for research purposes. No one will say a thing and I will be able to read what you get in peace.”

That if Chanyeol remembers to record his events this time. He has forgotten every single time that Baekhyun and him have had a conversation,” observed Seungwan. She tilted his head to look at him, a tiny smile on her lips. “Do you want me to go with you?”

He wanted, really. Or maybe, didn’t, he wasn’t sure. There was this thrill, humming deep in his bones, about the idea of going alone and setting to watch in a crowd that didn’t know him. “You’ve got plans for the weekend, don’t you? Don’t cancel them for me, I’ll manage not to get hit in the face this time around.”

“You better,” said Seungwan. Her hands were on her lap, fingers intertwined. For a moment, she looked like she wanted to fight, but it was true she was a busy woman - Chanyeol hadn’t even known anyone else who was signed up for so many extracurricular activities, including sports and choir, and managed to pull it all off, including good results in exams - and the boy felt a wave of relief wash over him when her shoulders dropped a bit. “Be careful, though. That Byun Baekhyun… He seems like a peculiar guy in a very peculiar situation.”

“Ah, he is,” Minseok agreed, sounding suddenly interested. “Any reason you’re saying it, though?”

“I’ve been thinking about him,” Seungwan replied, and great , that at least meant that Chanyeol hadn’t been the only one to do so. “We saw him at the hospital, like we told you, with some of his father’s men to take him to treatment. It is known they don’t get along, and that Baekhyun hasn’t been seen in his family’s house for more than a year, as far as internet blogs have informed, at the very least. But making his bodyguards, what? Pick him up from wherever he lives and drag him to the hospital? That’s-- I don’t know.”

“Do you think he wouldn’t get treated if his father wasn’t forcing him?” asked Chanyeol.

“Maybe not? You know the things he talks about.”

Chanyeol pressed his lips. He wasn’t sure about that. Baekhyun had twirled around at the hospital hall and talked about his plans of delivering a big blow to them like it was the next big number coming up in a show he only understood, but still he seemed to full of life to be someone who would let himself wither. “I don’t think he wants to die,” he muttered. “But what’s with his dad anyway?”

“You could ask him that,” proposed Minseok. He had just noticed the stain on his pristine desk, and he frowned slightly, opening a drawer to look for something as he kept speaking. “The father thing, I meant. I assume inquiring about his opinion on death would be a little rude.”

“Obviously,” confirmed Seungwan, under her breath. “But anyway, as far as I know, they’re said to have a very antagonistic relationship. Take it as you will. Byun Youngha is a very conservative man, not to mention a public figure, and Baekhyun is…”

Chanyeol swallowed. “Gay?”

Seungwan took her sweet time in turning her head to look at him, eyebrows risen. She looked like a tiny automaton doll, observing him with big, pretty, slightly incredulous eyes. “Yeah? I was going to say Baekhyun’s openly against the law his dad is trying to pass and being very open about it, but I suppose his father doesn’t exactly look like an LGBT advocate either.”

“Ah, the law,” Chanyeol repeated. Probably something much more obvious to think about in that situation than someone’s sexuality. He guessed. Especially when it was none of his business. He cleared his throat. “How’s that going? The law thing.”

“Steadily moving forward, I’d say?” Minseok had procured a cloth from somewhere inside his drawers and was trying to remove the stain as he spoke, but the thing didn’t seem to be coming out from the wood soon. He sighed in annoyance and tried to scrub it harder. “You know how it’s been going recently: there’s public opposition, but not enough for the government to need to do something about it. So they won’t, and the law moves forward to approval.”

“He’s organizing a march,” observed Chanyeol. “Byun Baekhyun.”

“I know!”

“And do you think it’ll be of any use?”

With pursed lips, Seungwan shook her head while Minseok stopped scrubbing to scratch the back of his head. “Well, maybe?” he tried to concede. For such a Baekhyun fanboy, he didn’t sound very enthusiastic. “His plans are to get it broadcasted on TV.”

“Huh,” muttered Seungwan.

“And how does he intent to do that?” asked Chanyeol.

“I don’t know? By making noise. He’s not giving out every detail, you see, and even though, everything he says is not on the internet. That’s why I want you to go and learn. For science!”

“Science.”

“Or for me to be well informed. You’re the one trying the hardest for this group, and I’ll take it into account. Have you seen how demanding the requirements for Shepherdness are, since they changed the rules for applying? I’ll write you a nice recommendation letter!”

It look pretty unbelievable, how Minseok could scrub his desk and tell him that with a collected, teacher-like face while piercing him with a stare that was anything but. He’d drown in joy, Chanyeol guessed, if he managed to introduce him to Baekhyun himself, but for some reason, a very upset part of Chanyeol’s brain struggled to push the idea away as soon as it occurred to him. His stomach did some sort of backflip, not of the good kind, and then the thought was gone.

“I’ll take on your word,” he said. “If I get photographed by the press and expelled or something, I’ll blame it on you all.”

--

For the first time in what it seemed like forever, Chanyeol had stopped for a long time in front of the closet in his dorm, wondering what to wear. The place wasn’t exactly big - his whole dorm room was this shoebox with a bed and a desk and a closet and just the amount of space in between for him to have books and dirty socks and his bag on the floor, posters on the walls and a heap of shoes at the entrance - and he wasn’t a hopeless fashionista like Sehun, so he got away by always wearing the same clothes. There were infinite combinations a man in his early twenties could manage with a couple of different jeans and a decent number of hoodies, and she was the living example of this theory.

If he needed to dress up, he could always change his usual sweater fashion style for a shirt. If it was too cold outside, he would throw a coat over whatever he was wearing, and if it was hot, he could just remove the hoodie and tie it around his waist. He’d be okay, as long as the t-shirt underneath didn’t have holes on the collar. It had happened to him once, in the middle of a date with Seungwan, and the thought of trying to woo a person looking like a total mess had made him feel mortified for around five minutes.

Every day, his dressing routine consisted in picking whatever thing he had left on his desk chair somewhen the week before and throwing it on hoping that the shades of black more or less matched. He had decided to make an effort and wear blue the first time he had gone to see a speech of Baekhyun’s, because the other boy’s cooperation depended on him convincing him to talk to them and Sehun had complained about his terrible fashion sense the night before, but what he wore shouldn’t matter for that second time and still there he was, fresh from the shower, with his newest jeans on and looking at the inside of his closet like he could will decent clothes to materialize out of a rip in the space-time continuum, if he just wished for it hard enough.

He took a shirt out. Placed it back. Chose his favorite hoodie instead and groaned when he realized it had a stain. In the end he remembered that he owned a rather cool-looking leather jacket, of the kind that he could certainly appreciate but would never buy by himself (it had come from his mom, or maybe Yoora, he thought?) and settled for that and a t-shirt, that he went to dig from the bottom of a pile of not-exactly-folded clothes that collapsed on him.

“What a mess,” he muttered to himself, doing his very best to put all of the clothes he didn’t need in the shelf they had come from. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he was retreating, black hair still wet, shirt and jacket in hand, still unworn, and a pale line on his chest, from one armpit to the other and around the sternum, over the hard expanse of his ribs. He traced that one with his finger, shrudding at the unnatural softness of it before hurrying to put his shirt on.

That was the only mark his surgery had left on him, a pale thread of scar tissue going around his chest like a noose. It was also what Baekhyun would need to get, what he should get, a red gash to kill the flowers, on the smooth skin of his chest. They were the unbranded kid and the scarred one, and he wondered, if Baekhyun would find that disgusting.

He bit his lip and pushed the closet doors closed.

He only realized that the weather was too hot for a leather jacket when he had already walked half of his way to the metro station.

This speech of Baekhyun’s was, again, in the Northern University, but that time he hadn’t set it in a random sports hall, but in the campus instead. Chanyeol didn’t really go to the north districts of Arcadia often; Northern University was where Baekhyun did his postgrad stuff, he believed, but it still wasn’t a popular destination. It was the place where the ones prone to riot lived, Sehun’s dad would have said, the part of their heaven-like Arcadia City where the buildings and sidewalks and roads felt worn, where gardens weren’t as abundant and lush and where EDN-Pia’s posters offering help against CFCS were either torn or outdated, old pictures that the company hadn’t bothered to change as seasons passed by. The one at the Northern University Campus station was, in fact, from the campaign around the time Chanyeol had been sick. He remembered the boy and girl holding hands in the poster, the flurry of petals around them, flying around their heads and withering at their feet. Cherry blossoms, fleeting, in a pretty image that he had seen plastered around the hospital so many times that he felt the impulse to run. In the end, he didn’t, but he kept his gaze low as he exited the place, only allowing himself to look up from his phone once the map app he had been using guided him successfully to the campus of Northern University.

The first thing he noted was the lack of gardens. Arcadia had been designed to be perpetually pretty, eternally in bloom, its land fragrant in summer and quiet in winter as it waited for the promise of a new spring. Even at the coldest times of the year, there were winter flowers on the earth, the naked branches of dormant trees surrounded by evergreen, a dreamlike landscape enclosing the city buildings of steel and sandstone and glass. Arcadia Central University had been built to match the landscape of town, as well of Pia Central - Northern University, with its old reliable stone walls and concrete heavy outer lanes, was a memento of old times back to when their grandparents were young and Arcadia had another name.

Cherry blossoms used to bloom then, in parks and gardens and school lanes like that one, when spring came. They used to symbolize beauty and renewal, even rebirth, before CFCS had come and turned them into a symbol of self-destruction. Chanyeol’s grandmother used to tell him that they had bloomed in winter sometimes, when the weather was hot enough to deceive the tree into believing the sun had finally come. Every trace of cherry blossoms had been removed from all the Arcadian gardens a long time ago, but Chanyeol could almost feel how the trees would have looked in a place like that - a lane of trees that were no more, leading to a school seemed, itself, dormant waiting for the spring to wake up.

Only, that year as well, the spring was already gone.

According to the campus webpage, Baekhyun would be speaking at the Assembly Hall. Chanyeol had never been in Northern Uni, and the map provided on the internet was the most inaccurate thing he had ever seen, but finding the place was as easy as he had expected anyway. It was still Sunday, which meant there were no students there for class, and that all the people there - a decent amount, coming from the station, and sitting outside the vending machine zone - were all there for that event and that alone. Following them was simple enough. What wasn’t as easy was mingling with the crowd, especially when one, like Chanyeol was half a head taller than the rest of the guys there.

But you have come here to be seen, don’t you? a little, disgusting voice in his head told him, when he looked around for the closest shadowed wall. He could conceal himself, he guessed, if he stood far away from the stage. But again, it would have been easier for him not to be noticed if he had worn a black hoodie.

He looked around again. He doubted. In the end, he walked to the front and the right, not just below the stage but close enough. If he didn’t want Minseok to comment about how bad he was at this whole documentation thing, he should record the audio of the event, but the only reason he took his phone out of his pocket, before shoving it back in again with clammy hands, was to check the time.

Fifteen minutes until it started, and people were coming in, filling the empty spaces.

Ten, and the old Assembly Hall, with its chipped walls and the ancient red curtains converting the stage seemed a bit more alive, like the whispers and laughter inside were waking it up from its slumber.

Spring is coming.

Seven, and Chanyeol hid his sweaty hands in his pockets, fingers wrapped around his phone.

Five, and he wished he had brought something with a hood.

Three, and he looked around, stifling a gasp when music started playing.

Two, and time had passed so fast.

One last minute, neverending.

Then there was silence, and steps shattering it like the beat of a heart, the curtains drawing back on its rails and a single boy on the stage.

He was the same Baekhyun he had been when Chanyeol had first seen him: the youngest son of the politician in his pressed shirt and slacks, hair carefully groomed and all smiles as he bowed and waved and welcomed them all. The crowd cheered for him, even before he started to speak, heads turned and eyes on him, like flowers opening under the sun, and he seemed to thrive on the feeling, eyes bright and voice clear.

“We have to make it big, you see?” he told them. Chanyeol wondered, if Baekhyun had seen him, if he had recognized his head sticking out in the crowd. “A way for us to be unforgettable, a way for all of those who ignore us to see us. We need hands to carry our banners, lips to smile for the show, voices to let all the ignorant ones know what’s the real meaning of someone opening up your chest and cutting your feeling out. We won’t allow ourselves to be violent, but neither will we stand back and be silenced. We deserve this.” He knelt down at the front of the stage, gaze low, arms stretched towards the public, and he lowered his voice, a meditated measure that made everyone in the old Assembly Hall go silent. “We’re not demanding them to stop treatments after all. We’re just here, pleading, asking for a choice. No compulsory treatment, no more erasing of who we are.” He took a finger to his lips, pressing just the tiniest bit, and looked around like a kid sharing a secret. Chanyeol found himself leaning forward, like his own body feared missing whatever Baekhyun had to tell them. He wasn’t recording that. He should be recording that. “All of us, we will march at night.”

The crowd trembled, like leaves in autumn. “When?” asked someone, and Baekhyun grinned.

“Excited?” he asked, still not rising to his feet. “Ah, well, the truth is that I still don’t know. We have to gather the people to talk, you see. Famous people, other than me.” Some people laughed when Baekhyun bowed his head, a smile still peeking from the corners of his lips. “I don’t know the day, but I know this: we’ll be out once the sun sets. Arcadia loves beautiful things, and we’ll fill their streets with light. They look away from the gruesome, the ugly and the sick, so we’ll charm them - we’ll give them an excuse to give us the attention, then we’ll hit them with the truth before they can run away.”

He stood, finally, hands on his hips and silver hair falling into his eyes. He was close, pacing around a stage that Chanyeol would have been able to touch if he just reached out, but he wasn’t looking at him. Uttering a groan, Chanyeol tried to distract himself by finally going to unlock his phone and fumbling around the menu for the camera.

“Who is going to talk besides you?” a woman asked.

“Ah, it’s a surprise. I’ll let you know when it’s time, but it’s going to be awesome. You excited?” The crowd cheered back and he laughed, as Chanyeol finally focused his video recorder on his face. “Ah, but meanwhile, let’s talk about the ugly stuff, shall we? I have a lot of good intentions, you see, but not a single bit of my father’s infamous money, so if you’re willing to fund us, I’ll let you know that--”

Chanyeol saw the crease in Baekhyun’s brow before he heard the noise, and turned around at the same moment the other man stopped speaking. Because of this, he was among the first ones to see the people walking through the door, half a dozen of men and women in the blue uniforms of the Arcadia City Police. He stared at them, blinking, from the screen of his phone, before realizing that they were, in fact, there, and staring directly at Baekhyun. When he turned around to him once more, he saw he was still smiling - the gesture plastered on his face now like an amateur painter had tried to recreate it like he thought it would be, rather than what it really should.

“Excuse me?” Chanyeol heard him say, as the people around him started to notice what was going on and murmurs arose. “Is there any problem?”

The tallest policeman in the bunch, an angry looking guy with short black hair, stared up at him with his arms crossed over his chest. “Vacate this venue,” he said. “This event is over.”

“I beg your pardon?” There was an undercurrent of something angry under Baekhyun’s small tilt of head and polite tone, a measurement of control on every little movement he made.

“You are conducting an illegal meeting in a public building, Mr. Byun Baekhyun.”

“I have my permissions in order.” The policeman hadn’t asked for his name before using it to address him, and Baekhyun made no comment on that. There was no trace of surprise in him at all, Chanyeol realized, only something akin to annoyance, low and intense and cold. “I’ve come to speak here before. I’ve got an authorization from direction to use the place.”

“I’m sad to announce that your permission has been recently revoked.”

“When?”

“This very morning.”

“Why?”

“Our department heard word of you wanting to use Arcadian Official facilities for non approved purposes.”

“Is speaking not approved now? Who are we bothering exactly?”

The leader of the Police team said nothing.

“Tell me, who did this? The order, who gave it? Am I not allowed to ask, or to get a reply?”

The policeman didn’t reply, and Baekhyun jumped from the stage to the floor. The crowd parted for him, the same way they had done when the disgusting-looking guys that had buttkicked Chanyeol in the nose had started to insult him. He was half a head shorter than the Police team leader, and lacked a badge and a weapon, but he still looked at the guy in the eye.

“Tell daddy dearest I said hi,” he whispered, his voice carrying in the silence like fire on gunpowder. “Also, say to him that he can’t do this. Revoking permissions and all that? That doesn’t seem fair.”

A police woman went to step beside his companion. “Mr. Byun, you have been ordered to vacate the place. You’re not just talking, sir, you’re funding yourself. This, in a situation where you lack the permissions to do so, goes against the Arcadian Code of Civil Conduct, Article 14.6. We really want to be lenient about the issue, sir. We wouldn’t like to have to arrest you. Not you, not any of your collaborators or the public here.”

Baekhyun had started to stretch his arms towards the woman, palms up in what looked like mock submission, but he froze mid way. People were whispering around him, talking among themselves in rushed tones. It was that scene all over again, the moment where Baekhyun and him had met.

“All of you,” the Police team leader said. Chanyeol realized that the camera in his phone was still recording, and he showed the phone in his pocket. He started to travel towards Baekhyun across the crowd, the only moving person in a sea of quiet stillness. He would have sworn that he saw Baekhyun look at him for the first time, from over his shoulder. “By staying here, you’re supporting him. We could arrest you all for this.”

“This is not fair!” exclaimed Baekhyun, voice raising, anger controlled. “You can’t threaten us. You can’t arrest someone for--”

“Please, remain quiet.”

“You’re bluffing. Of course you wouldn’t.”

“This is your last chance,” the police woman cut him. He wasn’t talking to Baekhyun, however: she was facing the public, like that one was her own little speech and she was enjoying the attention. “I’m giving you all the chance to vacate the place. Leave before we have to start to get serious.”

For a moment, no one said a thing. No one moved but Chanyeol, that had managed to make his way to almost first row in front of were Baekhyun was. Don’t go, he thought, closing his hands into fists. It was true that the boy’s event had been approved - it had to be, considering how it had been announced online on the official Northern Uni website. And still, the police was there, and Baekhyun was standing in among them, looking angry and troubled and pale, but not at all surprised. It felt wrong, in a way that brought a knot of disappointment to Chanyeol’s throat. It felt unfair. Don’t go, he thought again, and he couldn’t help but think that Baekhyun was also innerly asking for the same thing.

The murmurs rose in waves and Chanyeol felt a little but like drowning.

For a whole second, everything was still, and then.

“Heavens above, I’m leaving.”

It had been only one sentence, a single angry voice and one person sticking out from the crowd, a young man who passed in front of Baekhyun and the police officers shaking his head, but it was enough to break the dam. He was the first time, yes, but not the only one, and Chanyeol kept his eyes on Baekhyun as more and more people started whispering again, and walked among their peers to walk through the door. Someone pushed Chanyeol, making him collide with the man beside him, a short-ish guy in a perm. “Ah. I’m sorry,” he said. The guy in question looked him up and down, but he never replied.

He was the only other one in the whole crowd that didn’t move, either.

The Assembly Room of Northern Uni was a big place, and it had been practically full. In barely minutes, however, it was only them inside - Chanyeol, perm guy, the police officers and Baekhyun, that had turned to watch everyone leave, hands in the pocket of his slacks, head tilted, expression unreadable.

“Well, officer, it seems you got what you wanted. Still going to arrest me?” he said, tone light. “It wouldn’t be worthy, if you asked me. My father wants his son quiet, but not spending the night in a cell. Just in case you don’t know.”

It was the woman who replied to him, hands on her waist. “It was our duty to cancel this meeting. Not that it’s not being conducted, we can be forgiving with you.”

“Wow, generous,” muttered Baekhyun under his throat, just loud enough for his voice to be heard. “So, are you walking me out or am I at least allowed to put a bit of order and retrieve my stuff?”

“You can get your things by yourself. Our men will be stationed around campus, however. Feel free to seek any of us outside if you need something.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Baekhyun gave them that big, condescending smile until all of them finally left. He saw them out, closing the door behind them, and it wasn’t until after that moment, when the boy dropped the mask and let his brow frown and his hands curl into fists, when he realized that he, in fact, had been left alone in a big room with him and that random perm guy. He looked a bit familiar, that one, like the kind of stranger you crossed paths with every once in a while while grocery shopping or walking your dog around, but at the same time Chanyeol was sure that he hadn’t seen him before.

Perhaps he was around somewhere on those internet articles on Baekhyun? he wondered, letting his gaze travel from one man to the other - and realizing both of them were, in turn, staring at him.

That was true. He had come to the speech, but he hadn’t told Baekhyun he was coming. And there he was, one of the last three men standing in that empty venue, with the kind of fancy leather jacket that he never wore on and with his phone still in hand, recording.

“Park Chanyeol,” said Baekhyun, like he was reticent to let the words out of his mouth. “You came here…?”

“You invited me, at the hospital?” Sort of. “You say you needed funds, right?”

“And you came to help me? How nice of you.” Baekhyun was close to the closed door still, and he leaned against it, hands resting palm-down on the metal surface of it. “What I need now though are less feeble people, I guess. Look at them: they get threatened by the police and they… poof , leave. They wouldn’t have arrested all of them.”

But maybe they would have arrested you. “Are you okay?”

“Me? Just a little tired. Speaking in front of people has its strains, you know. As dramatic as it would be, I don’t want to gain my public’s approval by coughing flowers on them. So I will myself not to.” As to prove a point, he coughed, then, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. Chanyeol felt the temptation to run towards him, but he didn’t. He remained where he was, close to the silent perm guy.

“I’m sorry about this.”

“Did you do something, for you to be the one apologizing? You took my mock invitation to heart, that’s your fault here. All of the other stuff… My father just decided I was being problematic, as usual. Don’t you even worry about this. All these people left, yeah, they tend to be feeble like that but… They’ll be back next week. And they’ll be sorry, so they’ll donate to make up for it. I wish it was different but at least that way I can get my march funded. What I need now is for them to want to attend, you see?”

Chanyeol was about to say something else, but perm guy chose that exact moment to click his tongue. “Baekhyun,” he said. There was a strain to his voice that Chanyeol couldn’t quite place; there was anger, yes, but that wasn’t everything. Baekhyun smiled at him, though, with that usual grin of his, that kind of made him look like he was the keeper of some very funny secret that he wasn’t willing to share.

“Ah, hey Jongdae, I hadn’t seen you there. Everything okay with you?”

“It’s just me and this guy he-- What are you doing?”

“Me? The usual? Almost getting arrested yet another time?”

“Not about that. I can’t believe that you-- Baekhyun, you’re sick, you shouldn’t be--” Perm guy, who apparently was called Jongdae, interrupted himself with a huff. Chanyeol could feel his eyes on the side of his head before he realized the other man was glaring at him, but the killing stare only lasted for the second it took the guy to school his features and stride towards Baekhyun, grabbing him by the arm. “Come with me for a second. We need to talk, without an audience if possible.”

Baekhyun looked slightly apologetic as he tilted his head up to search for Chanyeol’s eyes. “Ah, sorry Mr. Audience, but I’ll have to go and listen. You can leave if you want, you already got your whole phone video footage, no?”

The phone was still in Chanyeol’s hand. Recording. There had been a time when the thing had been in his pocket, but still he supposed that Minseok would be happy to have partial video and full audio proof of a police operation to stop Baekhyun from speaking. That wasn’t a thing that happened every day. Or shouldn’t be, at least.

He pressed the stop button, unsure if he should apologize for not having asked permission to record or something, but the other boy didn’t look offended.

“I’ll be right back,” he announced. He stopped for a moment, considering him for a moment and shaking his head. “If you wanted to speak to me, that is. If not-- I told you.”

“Yeah,” said Chanyeol, before he could even stop himself. “I’ll wait.”

“Guess you’ll do,” singsonged Baekhyun with a short, sharp laughter, before turning around and leaving, pulling the door to close it from the outside. He did it a bit too fast, however, and the building was old, so it remained cracked, a ray of afternoon light filtering through the space and painting a white-yellow line on the floor.

Chanyeol sighed, turning away from the door to observe the interior of the place. Without the public filling the empty space and Baekhyun standing from the stage, the place looked too ancient and too worn and too… deserted, like those old hospitals in horror movies that were unsettling because they were wrong, empty when they should have been full, silent when they should have been full of life. Not simply dead, but slowly withering into oblivion.

Baekhyun had made the place feel alive.

His permissions had been removed.

The police had come to boycott the speech.

Baekhyun’s father had done that.

“What a bastard,” muttered Chanyeol. He had remained behind to talk to Baekhyun. He would have liked to know what he could tell him, or do for him. He wanted to do something for him.

May I tidy this up, maybe?

Thankfully, the place wasn’t too dirty - just a couple of paper tissues on the floor, and a half empty bag of chips that someone had dropped by mistake. A banner was hanging over the stage, and there were posters on the wall, printed in colors - vibrant yellow and pink and blue - but Chanyeol didn’t know if he was supposed to remove those. In the end, he didn’t, and focused on getting the trash on the floor and throwing it to the bin close to the exit door.

It was then when he heard it.

“Heavens above, Baekhyun. What the hell do you really want?”

Chanyeol didn’t exactly mean to eavesdrop. It was not okay and he knew that, he knew, but it was the Jongdae guy speaking, and he seemed upset, and Baekhyun was meant to answer, he supposed, but the only thing that he could hear was a long, deep fit of coughing.

Oh, shit.

That sounded bad, and Chanyeol didn’t think much before rushing to the door. He had half pushed it open when he heard Baekhyun speak. It was a rough complain, a hoarse whisper that made the boy stop where he was and look at the two figures standing just outside through the crack in the door. Baekhyun was bent forward, Jongdae keeping him in place by the shoulders, until he was forced to release him by the boy taking a step back.

“I’m sorry,” said Baekhyun. “I’m sorry. But there are some things I need to allow myself.”

“Byun Baekhyun,” warned Jongdae.

“Kim Jongdae. What? I know what I’m doing. I know how far I can go, you don’t need to tell me.”

He sounded so bitter. Now that they were alone, Jongdae looked so determined, and upset, and sad. Chanyeol felt a weird pang in his chest; a needle under his ribs, going in. He breathed in. Out. In. Concentrated on it.

“Don’t I? Look at yourself. You say you know how far you can go, but your father is stepping on you. You know how hard can you fight, yeah, but here you are coughing flowers while--”

“I know I’m coughing flowers, Jongdae. What? Do you feel like helping me to solve that after all this time?”

“This is not only about you, Baekhyun,” said Jongdae, voice hardening like sharpened stone when Baekhyun made an attempt to turn around and leave. Chanyeol saw a glimpse of his face - he was pale, ashen skin and dark, dark eyes.

“Yeah, I am aware. That’s why you’re here scolding me, right?”

“You’re all alone in this. Baekhyun,” Jongdae warned, again, but the boy just scoffed.

“I have… much stuff to do, Jongdae. So please just--”

“Promise me you’ll end it.”

Baekhyun bit his lip. He was coming towards the door, and Chanyeol recoiled from it like the surface of it was burning his fingertips. He had managed to stand close enough to the center of the room when Baekhyun finally walked back in, alone. His face was still white as raw bone, his breath slightly ragged, but he looked at him directly, with eyes so black that Chanyeol couldn’t read them.

“You’re back,” he said. “Want me to help you tidy up? With the banner and all.”

With his back pressed against the green metal surface of the door, Baekhyun just observed him. “What for?” he whispered.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” replied Baekhyun, voice hoarse. “I told you before, I am. My speech took a turn for the shitty, my father is being a bastard again, Jongdae’s here and I’m left with only you, but yeah, I’m used to this. That law is being passed in a little more than a month, and I’m still doing everything I can to stop it.”

Chanyeol didn’t know, what was the whole thing that Jongdae had told him, but they seemed close, and he had sounded angry, and now Baekhyun looked anything like the cheerful young man he had been, even when his public had left. Who was that Jongdae guy? Why did he think it was okay to be that upset?

You say you know how far you can go, but your father is stepping on you, he had said.

That’s being unfair to someone who’s trying that hard.

“Can’t you talk to your dad. He’s paying for your treatment after all, and that thing is expensive. Doesn’t that mean he loves you a bit, at least? He’s obviously hurting you like this, isn’t he?”

It had sounded logical in his mind, but Baekhyun still laughed at him, his voice resounding, bitter, in the empty space of the venue.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Of course he does. He thinks I’ll forget about all this if I get a brainwash. That I’ll turn back into a good, dutiful son. Again, I’m sorry to disappoint.” He stopped to cough, fingers shaking as he took them to his mouth. Even from where he was, Chanyeol could hear him curse, saw the stains of red in the tip of his fingertips.

“Baekhyun,” he called. The boy was still leaning against the door, with his palms against the metal surface and his head tipped back on it. He suddenly looked like he was about to collapse.

He coughed again. “It was my mother, if you have to know, who interceded so I could get crow sessions. My dad was the one who decided to add the bodyguards into the mix.” He bent forward, smiling with red, red lips. “Well, but I can’t complain much, can I? Therapy is fun. I get to annoy little Shepherds like Kyungsoo, you see? I think he genuinely dislikes me. Him and all of his workmates, considering the amount of times I’ve switched crows. But what to do; I am the client. Making them busy also allows me to question people at the hospital. It’s not like they can throw me away. That's the good side of my father being a bossy asshole.”

“Baekhyun, you’re--”

Almost like he was outside of his own body, Chanyeol realized that he had rushed towards Baekhyun, that he was standing in front of him, as the boy cleared his throat and gazed up at him with half-lidded eyes, as dark as a cloudy winter day.

“What are you gonna say? Dying?” he asked. “My sickness has been mild for a while. I told you I don’t want to be too dramatic with it, but this, it helps me get my point across. I’m not speaking because I believe that stopping that law will be better. I’m doing this because I know . I’m sick, I’m willing to die for this. So yeah, a bit of backstage coughing every once in a while also helps me.”

“You really don’t look good right now.”

“I am fine.”

You’re all alone in this, Jongdae had said. And it was unfair, unfair, so unfair, that he had to be. That Baekhyun was a boy, standing by himself against the whole of Arcadia.

“I can call a taxi. We should get to the hospital. Maybe they could give you suppressants for the flowers.”

“I’ve been taking suppressants,” Baekhyun interrupted him. He looked up at Chanyeol, breath labored, and he looked angry. “Maybe you should leave.”

He was pushing him away, with his eyes unfocused and his voice shaking. And maybe Chanyeol should leave after all.

“Do you want me to?”

“I-- Park Chanyeol, what I’m doing here, you can’t understand it. You’ve got your thesis and your world and your pretty life and you--” He wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked dead serious, in a way that was completely un-Baekhyun but felt so much like him at the same time. He had his lips parted, his brow frown in determination, and he started to speak like there was something important he wanted to say, but he never managed to let the words out. “Shit,” he managed to whisper before the sound of his voice turned into a hiss. He took both hands to his throat, palms pressing into his skin like he was choking. And he sounded like he was, breath shallow and labored like the sound of a rattle as he tried to inspire. He reached forward, fingers clasping on air.

They found nothing at first. Then, they clung to Chanyeol’s shirt, as the boy stepped into his personal space to prevent him from falling.

He was burning. He was shaking all over.

That was bad.

“Flowers?” asked Chanyeol, voice low. Baekhyun was now grabbing his shirt with both hands, like he was half-planning to push him away, but the boy didn’t let him. He remembered himself at the hospital, years before, the suffocating feeling of pink flower petals on the inside of his throat, the struggle to get them out. He placed his left hand on Baekhyun’s chest, his right between his shoulder blades, forcing him to bend forward. He could feel his lips on the expanse of skin between his neck and the hem of his t-shirt. “Hold it. I’m going to--”

Baekhyun nodded, the intake of breath he took sounding like a broken whistle. The light grip on Chanyeol’s shirt turned to iron as the boy hit him between the shoulder blades, hard, with the heel of his hand. Baekhyun choked and shook and wobbled forward, but he didn’t release him.

Shit, Chanyeol though, before hitting him again.

The second time, Baekhyun’s body reacted. With a sound between a retch and a grunt, Baekhyun bent forward, trying to push himself away from Chanyeol’s grip, and coughed up once more, cleanly, before a messy mass of crumpled pink and red came out from between his parted lips, falling onto the floor with a wet, sickening sound.

“It’s out,” he muttered, breathless. “Got stuck, uh?” he added, before coughing up once more, an echo of his attack before. He had a full sakura blossom, about to break but still complete, stuck to his lip, and Chanyeol realized, alarm ringing at the back of his mind, that most of what he had thrown up had been entire flowers and not only petals.

He grabbed Baekhyun by the shoulders, fighting not to shake him by them, hoping the boy would look up at him. “What CFCS phase is this?”

“Not a worrisome one, don’t you be all concerned,” replied Baekhyun, voice still hoarse. He slumped against Chanyeol when the boy removed the hand from his chest. The grip on his shirt was still hard, angry, like Baekhyun was still trying harder to push Chanyeol away than to use him for support.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”

“The attack has already passed, right?” muttered Baekhyun. “So why, now? It’s pointless.”

He had his lips in the crook of Chanyeol’s chest, still. They were warm, and his breath was all hot, and Chanyeol moved a hand to his waist and tried to suppress a shiver when he felt Baekhyun tense against him.

“Listen--” Chanyeol started.

“I hate this.”

“I-- Pardon me?”

“I hate this, ” repeated Baekhyun, voice raspy and words hard. Chanyeol could feel the movement of his mouth as he spoke, the way they trembled just a little bit while trying to shape the sounds.

“The sickness?” he asked.

“The weakness that comes with it. You were sick too, so didn’t you despise it? This… helplessness.”

Chanyeol wondered what would happen, if that Jongdae guy walked in now. If the police officers did, wanting to know why they weren’t already out of there. What they would think, about Baekhyun holding on to his shirt like he wanted to punch him, and about the mess of full flowers and blood over the concrete floor. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t remember well. But you don’t feel helpless? Sick, maybe, but helpless… You feel too upset to be.”

“Don’t you say, Park Chanyeol,” groaned Baekhyun. “I can’t even stand.”

“Now, maybe. But you will, won’t you? Once you’ve caught your breath.” He took his hands away, both the one on Baekhyun’s waist and the one on his shoulder. He grazed his hair with that one, and swallowed when he realized it was soft. What are you doing? He considered saying something more, the thing in the back of his mind. He did, in the end. “You’re sort of admirable, you know?”

At that, Baekhyun flinched against him, and finally found the strength to take a step back. Chanyeol felt the cold, then, of the lack of him, lost his breath when he realized that Baekhyun didn’t exactly look flattered by his comment.

“Why would you even say that?”

“Because you keep moving forward, no matter who tries to bring you down. That’s… I wish I was like that.”

“You shouldn’t wish you were me. You’re not.”

“I know that, but I--” Chanyeol didn’t know why Baekhyun was closing up like that. He didn’t even know if Baekhyun liked him. But he-- “Let me help you?”

“Eh?”

Baekhyun blinked up at him, not frowning anymore, all the fight gone from his face. He didn’t look like he hated Chanyeol, at least.

“You’re doing this alone, aren’t you? The march thing. You don’t have anyone to help you. Let me try.”

For a moment, Baekhyun didn’t speak. “Why?” he asked, but there was no bite in his voice. “You don’t even-- You told me before you don’t even believe in what I do. It’s the opposite view of what you support.”

“I don’t know,” Chanyeol whispered. That was supposed to be his opinion, yes. That’s why his group was doing a thesis on the subject anyway. But Baekhyun looked too convinced when he spoke, even though the internet seemed more preoccupied in his personal life than in what he was talking about. Even though his father sent the police forces to try to stop him. Baekhyun stood, back straight, in an empty hall, flowers on the floor and dry blood on his fingertips. Chanyeol had stains on his own shirt now, on the spots where the other man had tried to hold for dear life. “But you… Try to convince me? Isn’t that what you do? It may make no sense to you, but I really want to know.”

“To know what, exactly?”

“Why you do what you do.”

“You’re right,” said Baekhyun, huffing. “It really makes no sense.”

Chanyeol swallowed again. “Listen to me. I was supposed to only go to one of your speeches, but here I am. I keep coming and coming back. What you’re saying, and the way you’re saying it… It resonates with me somehow. It’s been you against the world until now. Let me help you.”

“So I’m not alone?” Baekhyun scoffed.

“Not exactly. Not only.” Baekhyun was leaning against the door again, afternoon sunshine in his face, and Chanyeol stared at him in the eye, trying to find the words, the truth. “I want to be as passionate about something as you are about this. I want to know why you believe in it. I-- I am okay about many things, I support certain ideas, but not as much as to risk something for their sake. I want to understand why you do. What is that important about this that you’re putting the only thing that would cure you in line to achieve it.”

“What are you--?”

“I feel I’m empty. When I come here. When I look at what you do.”

Baekhyun stared at him in silence.

“Really?” he asked, finally.

“Really.”

“That’s the lamest way that someone has ever used to ask me to collaborate. But it’s okay, I guess, since you’re some kind of helpless individual and not an internet press outlet. Help yourself, if you wanna.”

Baekhyun’s face was regaining its color, little by little. He had regained his smile too, and he looked weary, but also a little mischievous. Chanyeol stared at him, a bit uncertain, a bit ashamed by his own speech.

“Does that mean that you’re accepting me?”

“Accepting him, he says. You don’t know what you’re getting into. I have a march to prepare, you know? Many forms to fill, many people to talk to, many heavy material to carry around. Are you sure you want that?”

“Didn’t I just ask?”

“I am one problematic guy. You're aware of that, right?”

“I’ve just seen the police emptying your venue, Baekhyun.”

“Point taken.” The boy looked at him for another long moment, arms crossed over his chest, bottom lip trapped between his teeth. “You’re really going to keep tagging along to my events if I just tell you no, right?”

“If you told me not to directly, I wouldn’t.”

“Right,” muttered Baekhyun, so low that Chanyeol barely heard him. “Right. Oh well, whatever. Tag along if you want to. You have my phone number, don’t you?”

Chanyeol fished for it in his pocket. He knew it was there, but he checked his contacts anyway. “Yeah,” he said. “Got you.”

“Okay,” replied Baekhyun, and he finally smiled at him, mischievous. He looked healthy again, and perhaps a bit… relieved? And Chanyeol felt relieved too, looking at Baekhyun, bathing in the afternoon light, looking like he was about to burst out laughing. “Let’s see for how long you can keep up.”

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Mistake

 

This boy and you, you’re not the same.

You’re good at knowing which fights to pick, aren’t you? You’re good at knowing when to pursue something, when to give up.

You’re good at knowing when something is fun and games and when something has gone too far to be enjoyable.

He’s obviously not.

You do know what he says, right? That he likes you over the other Shepherds because you’re blunt, and honest. You tell him ugly truths instead of sugar-coated lies to make him obey. He must be a masochist or something.

Or perhaps he’ll be choosing you for therapy, no matter what you do to dissuade him. There are punishments we all must endure, you see. You should consider this your responsibility, for leading the poor boy on.

“He’s in denial,” he tells you, sitting in his chair in his neat and little treating room, and you scoff because he sounds so pointlessly determined, and because he’s talking about you and he doesn’t know.  “About wanting to be with me.”

“Is he? It doesn’t look like that, for me. Aren’t you here because he doesn’t want you? You’re the one who’s not giving up on him.”

Oh, look at you, making the poor kid sad. He shrinks on his chair and he looks so tiny, but he still stares at the crow mask on your face, defiant. “I would say that it’s me wanting too much if it wasn’t because he’s the one that won’t admit he’s gay.”

He told you that to your face too, with sweeter words, and begging you to consider, but he was as wrong then as he is now, and he’ll get nothing out of it. What an upsetting creature, he is, with his failure to understand even basic concepts.

You might go with boys sometimes, but what about it? They are less prone to call you later, the way you do it. They are less problematic. They intercede less in your life and they’re fun sometimes. What do you care, if the person panting below you is a boy or a girl, if you’re too drunk to care who you are sticking it into? What he doesn’t get is that you don’t want the thing to go on once the sun is out. You don’t want breakfasts together, or long conversations, or to see him outside his room. He was your unstressing method, not a potential… whatever. Isn’t it simple enough?

Apparently it wasn't, because the idiot kept calling you, going all “hey, you're free? Let's go! Let's go out!” while he smiled, as irritating as sunlight on your eyes.

And apparently, it isn’t even now, because he’s here trying to convince his Shepherd about how right he is.

He’ll fight blindly, pointlessly, until his eyes are red and his fingers bleed. Until pink cherry blossoms bloom in his lungs.

What an adversarial idiot.

“Haven’t you considered that maybe he’s not attracted to men and you’re making things up?” you say. Doesn’t his family pay you so you tell him the truth? Well, there he has it. You hope he enjoys.

And still, he denies it.

“He hooked up with me,” he replies, as if that had weight of some kind. “Repeatedly. How else, pray tell, do you define a guy who has willing, consensual sex with men multiple times?”

You should have realized then, the way you do now, how messing around with this boy was a big, fat, mistake. He was okay, you suppose, for a quick, messy fuck after a university party, but you should have stopped it there, and not called him again when you were all horny and bored.

There were many times where you could have backtracked.

You should have realized when he started messaging you more often. You should have known when it started to be obvious that the boy had feelings.

You should have been sure when he told you that everything was okay but then he got up in the middle of the night to puke.

You should, before you saw sweat on his forehead and woke up to Prunus Sanguinea on your mattress.

How sad, how sad, what a stressing situation. What a mistake you made. In fact and in awareness and in negligence. You never were a good person, and you’re okay with it, but well, he didn’t know that at first.

And here he is. And there you are. At least, out of the two of you, you’re the one getting paid.

You made your bed, didn’t you? Now lie in it.

--

Referral Information:

The following patient has been referred for the second, experimental phase of the Chronic Flower Coughing Syndrome (CFCS) evaluation and treatment.

Patient ID: Subject #04 (Second Phase)
Primary care supervisor: Dr. Kim Junmyeon.
Date of Scheduled Exam: Wednesday, September 29th, 2038.

Disease evaluation report:

CFCS evaluation specialist: Please fax or mail this form to the Primary Care supervisor listed above upon completion of the patient visit.

Report status: Final
Result: Presence of stems of Prunus sanguinea in a moderate to advanced stage in the lungs of the patient.

Pulmonary examination findings: The alveoli walls are becoming inflamed and damaged due to the presence of a moderate and spread invasion of Prunus sanguinea specimens. Airways present a narrowed state, and there’s presence of small pockets of stagnant air in injured areas. Patient shows signs of difficulty when breathing out.

Usual symptoms as follows:
[x] Chronic cough
[x] Spitting or coughing flower petals ( Prunus sanguinea )
[x] Traces of blood when coughing
[x] Shortness of breath during light physical activity
[  ] Air hunger or shortness of breath in rest period
[x] Weight loss
Other: Starting signs of muscle waste accompany weight loss. Patient breathes through pursed lips. Patient has stated waking up in discomfort after lying down to sleep at night.

Recommended follow-up: Twice a week
Additional comments/Treatment plan: The presence of Prunus sanguinea has spread across the whole expanse of the patient’s lungs, so progression to next step of the treatment is recommended, and surgery advised by both his specialist and his supervisor. Due to personal desire and per family request, the patient hasn’t been admitted into the hospital, so his number of appointments with his specialists has been doubled. It’s recommended to check levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in every future visit.

--

Ay, Love,
vanished down the wind!
Ay, Love, that went,
and never returned!

 

Baekhyun seemed to like colorful posters. Not the kind of overly optimist ones that the EDN-Pia guys had hanged in every single district in town, with their soft colors and flurries of cherry blossoms and overly smiley teenagers, but colorful in a sort of striking way. There was blue and red and warm yellow over black and navy, like light blinking at night. It seemed fitting, considering they were advertising a march that was going to be celebrated after the sun had set. The image in itself represented a small group of people, carrying both banners and lamps, making their way, like fireflies, through a city that had been preparing to fall asleep.

They won’t be able to look away, Baekhyun had told him, looking very determined and very, very certain. This city likes beautiful things.

He was one to know, Chanyeol had thought. Arcadia as a whole, after all, couldn’t help but keep its eyes on him.

Baekhyun had made that poster with a graphic designer, he had said, and the final one looked pretty enough for Chanyeol to be charmed by the design.

Or he would have been, if the first time when he was seeing it hadn’t been that specific moment - in a printing store, in the middle of the afternoon and after being told by Baekhyun himself to go fetch the copies he had ordered. Which would have been fine if the little bastard hadn’t requested for the store to make a thousand of them.

“One thousand of anti EDN-Pia propaganda sheets,” he whispered. “That I now need to carry to Arcadia University Hospital. As in the clinic owned by fucking EDN.”

“Are you sure he isn’t serious with all his dissuading you to be my partner in crime kind of thing?” asked Sehun, deadpanning.

“I asked him, and he says that he just enjoys giving his dirty work to someone,” stated Chanyeol. He had brought a backpack, at least, and he kneeled on the store floor, opening it to try to fit the immense amount of pamphlets somewhere between his own university notes. If only Baekhyun had told him that he’d need to carry all of that, he would have brought a bigger bag, but at least he managed to fit most of the colorful paper sheets inside. “Hold these for me, will you?” he asked, handing the rest to Sehun, that didn’t even bother to bend when he grabbed them, while he zipped his backpack closed. “And he’s having fun, the little tyrant.”

“You sound like you are too.”

“A bit. It’s kind of endearing.”

“Is it now?” Sehun sounded like he was judging him. He looked like he was judging him. Not in a bad way, though, just in his usual Sehun style - that thing he did where he stood there in style with his branded clothes and let you know wordlessly that he was done with you. Only, he really wasn’t.

Chanyeol got up, brushing the dust off his knees and muttering an apology to the middle aged woman under the counter for having kneeled in the middle of her store. The place was empty, though, and he had been fast enough not to bother much, he supposed, so she just waved her hand and smiled. “Anyway, Sehun, you going somewhere yourself? You look more… stylish than usual.”

“Nowhere important. Just an event.”

“Ah. University event?”

“Fanart event.”

It was Chanyeol’s turn to judge now - or it would have been, if he wasn’t a gentleman. “Bring me a pin or something.”

“You don’t even care about Kai.”

“I don’t, but I support independent fanartists.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Chanyeol checked the lockscreen of his phone, distractedly. He had a message from his sister and a couple of them from Seungwan, asking him when he’d finish that afternoon. Making a mental note to reply when he had delivered all those pamphlets safely, he placed it back into the pocket of his hoodie just seconds before Sehun handed him the stack of said pamphlets he hadn’t managed to fix into his back. Now that he had the thousand of them on his person, one way or another, he decided that they were heavy and Baekhyun was a cheeky little shit. “Enjoy your event, okay.”

“Yeah, and you enjoy your… What are you even going to do?”

“Help with this march.” Chanyeol pointed at the people carrying lanterns, almost shoving one of the posters at Sehun’s face for emphasis. “We’re talking to people.”

“At the hospital?”

“Yeah.”

Sehun rolled his eyes at him. “It sounds really amusing.”

“Maybe I’ll invite you in next time,” replied Chanyeol, grinning at Sehun even though - or perhaps because - his friend looked anything but pleased by the idea.

They parted ways shortly after, Sehun heading to the closest metro stop and Chanyeol continuing his way down Bridge Avenue, towards the glass and metal building of Arcadia University Hospital. He pressed the pamphlets against his chest while he was walking through the main doors, even though that time of the day was visit hour and there was too many people for it to be highly unlikely for anyone of the staff to wonder what exactly was written in the stack of glossy paper he was carrying.

He should still brood at Baekhyun. Or sulk at him for the task. If he could find him, at least.

He was struggling to get his phone out of his pocket while not dropping his pamphlet collection when he felt the press of a hand on his back.

“Hey, hey,” someone said, and Chanyeol literally flinched and let out a choked exclamation that was, certainly, on the unmanly shriek side, before turning around and realizing that the person in question was, of course, Baekhyun himself. He was wearing comfortable clothes that afternoon, and was smiling under a cloud of slightly messy, silver hair, like the wind has disheveled it. Fluffy , Chanyeol though. It fell over his eyes, but still couldn’t hide the sparkle in them when Baekhyun noticed the pamphlets. “Ah, my posters! So you managed to get them for me!”

“You asked,” replied Chanyeol, and Baekhyun laughed. That was one of those days where he looked ridiculously healthy, no traces of sweat, or pallor, and barely any coughing fit. He had been like that for the whole week he had been ordering Chanyeol around. “But in case you didn’t notice, there’s a lot of them.”

“Yeah, yeah. That’s why I trusted you with them. You bring them here, I take them home: this is how collaborating feels like, see?”

“That’s a bad excuse.”

“Maybe. But come here, come.”

The place where Baekhyun actually took him was one of the benches in a corner of the room. Most of the seats were occupied, but he found a bit of space between an elderly couple and a family with too many kids. There wouldn’t have been enough room for a person to sit, but Baekhyun, Chanyeol realized, was also wearing a backpack, and that was what he left on the seat.

“Hand me those,” he instructed, unzipping his bag. Chanyeol handed him the pamphlets he had been carrying around - they weren’t crumpled at all and that was an achievement - before he kneeled on the floor again to open his own backpack. “Here.”

“Oh, thank you. You’re so nice to me. By the way, you’re going to need that?”

He was pointing at Chanyeol’s bag, that the boy had hung once more from his back. “It’s not uni stuff, so… not immediately?”

“Okay, great. We need to be light and fast, you see.”

He tapped Chanyeol’s shoulder and pointed at the main counter, before leading the way. He looked around, so serious, eyes wandering from one information employee to the other until they stopped on a person. He smiled, wide.

“Hey, Seulgi!” he called. The girl had no customer in front of her at the moment, and her eyes widened in surprise when Baekhyun leaned onto the counter between them and waved a hand. She was younger than the others, pretty in a catlike way, and eyed the boy with a bit of mischievous suspicion before returning the greeting.

“You don’t have an appointment for today,” she pointed out. “Came to see Doctor Kim?”

“Nah, it’s his free day today.” Baekhyun shrugged. “This is Chanyeol, by the way. I don’t know if you know each other? I’m here with him today.”

“Ah, yeah, I’ve seen you around before,” observed Seulgi with a smile. Chanyeol tilted his head to look at her. He didn’t think he had noticed that girl before, but he was sure he could have said the same of any of the information assistants at the hall. He had been going to that hospital for years now, but he didn’t think he had stopped to consider who the personnel were, or how they looked like.

He had never paid attention, and now that he had it in mind, it came to him as something weird, rude even. He would have never said of himself that he was a rude person, though.

His bad, he guessed.

How wrong.

When he looked up, he noticed that both Seulgi herself and Baekhyun were looking at him, and he realized that he, technically, had forgotten to answer. “Ah, ah sorry,” he said, with the biggest smile he could manage - which was, in fact, pretty big. “Pleased to meet you.”

Baekhyun’s gaze fell from his face, and into Seulgi’s. “Anyway, there’s this little favor I want to ask of you. An important one.”

“Oh, I see. Tell me then?”

“Please keep our bags here with you while we go wandering around?”

Seulgi didn’t look exactly impressed by the relevance of the task. “Really?”

“Really. I have… important stuff inside. Very important.”

“It's against the rules for me to keep your personal belongings,” protested Seulgi, but she stood up anyway, to get Baekhyun’s backpack. He grimaced when she grabbed it. “Oof, heavy. What are you carrying here? Stones?”

“Take a look if you want. Not at Chanyeol’s things, though. Apparently, it's uninteresting uni stuff.” Baekhyun crossed his arms over his chest, looking overly satisfied. “You’ll be here until closing time, right? We’ll be back in a while.”

“If you’re up to what I think you’re up to, don’t get yourself in trouble. Or don’t let Kyungsoo see you.”

“I’ll avoid him.”

It wasn’t until they were half to their way towards the elevator when Chanyeol decided to ask who the girl was, exactly.

“You seem close,” he tried to justify himself when Baekhyun raised his eyebrows at him.

“Well, you’ll see her at the march once it’s organized. She… thinks the same as I do about the CFCS treatment and surgery, you know.”

“But… she works here?”

“I have spies everywhere. That, or I can be very convincing.”

The main elevator set of the building were at the far end of the hall, and they headed for them directly. That was the time of the day where most working adults got out from the office, and there were a lot of workers in suits around - parents, Chanyeol supposed, or big brothers or sisters, or spouses. They’d have to squeeze themselves with a whole bunch of them for going up.

Definitely, that wasn’t the best time for a university student to come to that place. If they had arrived one hour before, or one hour later, he wouldn’t have needed to apologize to the aggressive-looking grandpa that hit him with his cane when the human mass trying to board the elevator pushed him too close.

They probably were over the recommended weight limit, and Chanyeol imagined the elevator stopping to work and trapping all of them there for a long, terrible heartbeat. It wasn’t until they came out that he felt that he could breathe again.

“Why did you make me come here at this time of the day?” he practically whined when he found himself in safe ground. “Or, let me rephrase, what are we doing here, period? You didn’t explain.”

“You’ve been helping me,” replied Baekhyun, simply.

“I know that?”

“Yeah. You gave me this speech about wanting to be as passionate as I am, but then you don’t know why I do what I do, so you technically don’t know what is at stake.”

“Well…” started Chanyeol, stammering a bit.

“You’ve collaborated with venue cleaning and poster printing, but I… I’ve been thinking and I’ve decided that you need to know things, if you’re going to be stuck with me like some kind of overgrown puppy. You have something golden retriever-ish in you, you see. More specifically, you are like a golden retriever stuck in the rain.”

He laughed while he said it, even though he seemed somewhat serious, and that was why Chanyeol didn’t have it in him to feel offended by the comparison. “So you’re going to teach me things,” he said. “By talking to people. Here.”

“Yep.”

“Friends of yours?”

“Sort of. More like people I’ve met here. I’ve come and gone from this place for quite a lot of time, so I’ve had my time to build up relationships. I am a pretty sociable guy.”

“I… see,” said Chanyeol, swallowing and looking around. He had always thought that he was one, too.

“We have three stops today. Three people I want to speak to, so they’ll talk at the end of my march. Remember that speech section I told you about a couple of days ago, the one after we stop walking around town?”

“Yeah.” Baekhyun wanted to have some relevant people speaking, or so he had said. Chanyeol hadn’t known, by then, that he had meant to recruit them at the EDN-Pia owned hospital . “So. Follow me. First one is the easiest one.”

“To convince them, you mean? To speak for you?”

“No,” Baekhyun told him, with the kind of cheeky smile that made his whole face light up. He came closer to him, and poked him in the chest with one long finger, just below the point where the pale line of his scar crossed his chest. It was weird, felt weird - Chanyeol swallowed. And then, of course, Baekhyun kept speaking. “No, to get to talk to them without us being kicked out. I don’t technically have visit permission to see any of these guys.”

Chanyeol blinked. “What.”

“And at least our first two friends aren’t in a restricted area.”

Looking around, Chanyeol tried to grab Baekhyun by the shoulder, but the boy had already slipped out from his reach. “Where are you even taking me?” he replied, lowering his voice to a hiss. It was hard to forget, sometimes, that Baekhyun was, after all, the kind of guy who actively protested against government laws, and that they were, in fact, there, as just another form of rebellion. But his mind had just fallen back in track in time to remind him that, hey, Baekhyun had dragged him to one of the floors exclusively destined to patient rooms; that, according to the bear print on the corridor walls that wasn’t a normal floor and that the hospital kept a full sheet of him, with his photo and all of his contact data, that would give them very easy access to who he was if they got arrested or something. “We’re on the pediatric ward!”

“Yep.”

“Wait, do you want children to talk in your march?”

Our march. I thought you were in with me, helping?”

There were people on the corridor, people outside the rooms, many less than in the hall but still enough to not make them stand out. Chanyeol had known there was a pediatric ward in that hospital - obviously - but never in his time as a patient had he paid a visit to the place. It seemed to follow the same structure: a nurse counter in the hall just beyond the elevator stop, and two corridors splitting from it, all with their pristine white floors and bear-printed walls.

At least, Baekhyun seemed to know where he was going, since he crossed the hall without a second glance at the nurse desk, falling into an easy rhythm with the rest of the visitors and looking as entitled to be there as they seemed to be. Out of all of the people there, Chanyeol was (most probably) the only one who was innerly panicking, and he hoped it didn’t show much.

“You hadn’t told me about visiting people in restricted areas,” he protested, trying to whisper the words, and bending awkwardly as they walked so he could speak them as close to Baekhyun’s ear as possible.

“Oh, come on, be strong, we aren’t even at that part yet. Besides, you can always give up if you feel this is not for you?” Chanyeol was already starting to protest when Baekhyun looked up at him, all bright and cheerful and amused. “You know, you’re my apprentice now, in this field. This is supposed to work as a lesson for you too.”

A lesson…?

They had reached the end of the corridor by then. Like in the other patient floors, there was an open space there, that served as both a relaxation zone and a waiting room, a one of those pretty rooms at the hospital with three full-glass walls and soft carpets on the floor. If he thought of it hard enough, he vaguely remembered having spent time at the version of that room in his floor when he had been admitted as a patient. He had sat there with his mother, or with his sister, reading, or resting after a corridor walk, or just looking at the outside world.

The room he had spent his time in had been all perfect, with no color pencils spread on the coffee tables or toys on the white-carpeted all. In the room he had spent his time in, there had been no children.

In that one, sitting on a dumb, bear-shaped armchair, there was a boy, and he was the one Baekhyun talked to.

“Hey hey hey, how’s everything? Is your dad around?”

Without saying anything, the kid nodded. He couldn’t be older than ten, that one, and had been staring at the garden beyond the glass wall, not unlike Chanyeol did, every time he went to visit Dr. Kim Junmyeon’s office. He still didn’t speak, not when Baekhyun smiled at him and thanked him, nor when Chanyeol was told to wait for a second until he took care of some issues.

“I’ll be back,” he said. “Just wait for me for a bit?”

“Here?”

“What better place than an actual waiting room?”

That made sense, and anyway there wasn’t much that Chanyeol could’ve done except for listening to him. Baekhyun was gone in the blink of an eye and he was left by himself in a place that looked like a glass cage paved with toys. An elderly couple was sitting close to one one the ceiling to floor windows, a girl was reading a book by herself in the middle of the room, and Chanyeol should have probably followed their example and check his phone messages by his lonesome, but the kid on the bear armchair was staring at him, eyes huge as black mirrors. He wasn’t wearing a patient gown, that one, and he didn’t look sick at all, but still Chanyeol couldn’t gaze away.

He hesitated. It was not his business, really. But still.

Still.

“Hey,” he called, going to the kid and kneeling before him. He smiled at him, open.

The kid kept staring at him, with an intensity that made Chanyeol swallow, but he remained silent.

“What’s your name?” he tried. He still got no response. “Uh. Are you waiting for your mom here?” Silence. Perhaps that hadn’t been that good of an idea. “Ah, sorry. Want me to leave you be?”

No reply. Again. But when Chanyeol was standing up, he felt a pressure on his sleeve. Tiny fingers were closed on the fabric of his hoodie, loosely enough for him to free himself if he only pulled a bit, away.

Chanyeol didn’t.

“Ah, so I stay? I can, until Baekhyun comes back. You know Baekhyun, right?” The kid nodded, lowered his gaze down to his lap. He had sheets of colored paper there, some of them carefully torn away from some kind of book, the one atop of them all folded, so many times that Chanyeol could see the marks all over its pretty surface. “You’re doing origami? Want me to help?”

Wordlessly, the boy handed him the book. I was about making origami, in fact, more specifically paper flowers: roses and daisies and even lilies and tulips. There was not an origami version of cherry blossoms - there never was - but flowers in general were not exactly liked in places like that one. Not in the gardens below, but up, up above, beyond those glass walls.

“Who gave this to you? Your mom? Do you like flowers or do we try something else?” The kid tilted his head up, blinking, and Chanyeol took that as a sign to check on his phone for alternative ideas. He swiped away the message notifications he had on his lockscreen and opened a search page. He found quite a lot of options for kids: dogs and cats fishes, even koalas and penguins. “Look at all this! Which one do you like better?”

The child squinted at the screen, then pointed at a bird in mid-fight. Easy enough, considering that the thing took only eight steps to make.

“Okay, let me try that. Do you want us to try together?” The kid shook his head no. “Do you want me to make us for you?” A rather energetic nod. “Very well. But don’t complain if it ends up looking terrible, eh?” The kid just stared.

For the next ten minutes, Chanyeol folded and folded origami birds for his one-man audience. He had only intended to do one, maybe two, but the first one he had made had looked rather… aesthetically unpleasant, and of course the kid had grabbed it and looked at it up close with a silent and very judgemental little face.

He had told the boy in advance that he wasn’t to blame if the result wasn’t to his satisfaction, but that book came with a lot of origami paper. So now the kid looked interested and Chanyeol had a multicolored swarm of crippled paper birds.

Except for the twelfth one. The twelfth one looked pretty damn fine. “Hey, here you go! This one’s a perfect, mythical creature! Satisfied?”

The kid held it, observing it from every angle. Then, he finally grinned, wide and bright, and looked up… only that not to him.

“Baekhyun!” he exclaimed.

Baekhyun?

When Chanyeol turned around from where he was sitting on the floor, in front of of one of the coffee tables, and indeed saw Baekhyun standing at the threshold of the waiting room, looking rather surprised at the boy practically running towards him.

“Baekhyun, look at this bird I have!” the kid said again, making the girl who was reading gaze up from her novel. Now he speaks, what a traitorous child.

Baekhyun chuckled. “Hey, Jisung! Did you make this?”

“No, not really. He did!” The kid pointed at Chanyeol, who was just getting up.

“He apparently... made a lot of them.” Baekhyun pointed out, raising his eyebrows at the avian collection on the table.

“Because all the ones he made at first were ugly!”

Definitely a hellspawn child, that one. Just like Baekhyun, who seemed to be enjoying himself.

“You worked hard,” he told him. “There’s at least fifteen birds there.”

“Twelve,” corrected Chanyeol, as if that made a difference. For Baekhyun it didn’t seem to, because he kept laughing anyway. “The first ones were sort of ugly. I have my pride, you know.”

“I can see that.” Baekhyun was looking at him kind of fondly, and Chanyeol could feel the tip of his ears going red. If the other man realized he was staggering a bit, he decided to spare him the embarrassment of commenting on it, and turned towards the kid in front of him instead. “Hey Jisung, guess what: I found your dad. He told me your aunt is coming for you soon. Good news, right?”

The kid’s face fell. “So you’re going,” he muttered. Baekhyun ruffled his hair, looking, indeed, a bit apologetic.

“Regretfully, yeah. I am busy today, so I can’t really help it.” He sighed. “But I’ll come another day this week, okay? Tell me when it’s fine for you and I’ll come to talk or… to try origami too.”

“You don’t look like you’d be very good at doing origami,” observed Jisung. There hasn’t even been a trace of malice in his voice: he was commenting on a fact very, very honestly - and precisely was what made Chanyeol break into a loud guffaw. Baekhyun turned towards him, arms crossed.

“Hey, you.”

“Sorry to say, but I agree with him.”

“I am blessed in the arts if you must know,” said Baekhyun. “I have the hands of a skillful man.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“Probably, yeah? When I was five or so? But, come on, it can’t be that hard? It’s just that Chanyeol’s fingers are too thick.”

Jisung didn’t seem exactly convinced. “You can have this for practice,” he stated, giving him the origami bird Chanyeol had tried so hard to craft for him. All of that hard work and he was getting rid of the thing like that. How terrible ungrateful that was.

But Baekhyun was gazing down at the bird with the tiniest smile, hands delicately holding the paper figure. The thumb of his Chanyeol could see was the one with the mole near the nail, strikingly dark against his skin. “Can I keep it?” he asked, and Chanyeol stuttered.

Serious, Jisung nodded, and Chanyeol realized that the question had been meant at the kid, and not exactly himself. Just in case, he proceeded to nod too. “As long as you don’t dissect it or something,” he added. Oh great, now he was making a fool of himself too, and at least Jisung had noticed it. Baekhyun just grinned at him.

“Nah.”

The origami bird was put into Baekhyun’s wallet, just before they left the waiting room. According to him, they didn’t need to walk much, but still Baekhyun hummed to himself all the way, eyes at the front and hands in his pocket.

“Hey, Chanyeol?” he said, after a while. “I’m glad you decided to play with Jisung. He’s a nice kid, you know? Strong, too. He’s only eleven, and he already spends so much time here.”

“But is he sick?” asked Chanyeol.

“No, not him,” replied Baekhyun, after a while. “He’s just a bit angry.”

“Angry?”

“You could come with me sometime, now that you’re my assistant,” said Baekhyun. He stopped in front of one of the white doors in the corridor and knocked, softly, looking around. It was then when Chanyeol remembered that they didn’t have a visit permit, that they weren’t supposed to be there at all. “He’d appreciate it.”

And would you? The thought just appeared in Chanyeol’s mind, all of a sudden and uninvited, and remained at the back of his head, like a buzz, a whisper. “I’m your assistant now?” he asked out loud, and Baekhyun nodded, satisfied. “At least I’m the good one at origami.”

Baekhyun chuckled, just as the door opened. “You haven’t even seen me trying. Competitive much?” Then his expression got schooled back into a polite smile, just as he dragged Chanyeol inside of a hospital room before he could even say not really.

At least, they had omitted the bear print design in those ones. The walls were white, clean, like the ones in the room where he had stayed back then after his own surgery, but there were splashes of color here and there: a videogame console on the bedside table, a big, brown dog plush sitting on a chair. The boy sitting on the bed was wearing bright red, too, a hoodie over his patient gown.

“Baekhyun! Hey, Baekhyun!” he called. He had color on his cheeks, and looked much more healthy overall than his father, that was placing a bouquet of light yellow daisies in a vase on a table next to him.

Chanyeol had been brought flowers too, back then, but he didn’t think they had been daisies. He observed the father let the ones in the vase be as Baekhyun high-fived the kid and produced what looked like a videogame cartridge from the back pocket of his pants.

“Here, this is the one I promised when I last came, to celebrate another step of successful post-surgery recovery!” Baekhyun gave the game to the kid, who very obviously was Jisung’s brother, perhaps older than him by a year or two. He looked so much like him, with the same expressive face and dark eyes, and Chanyeol couldn’t help but to stare at him, between surprise and relief. Of course he was still at the hospital, and of course he looked healthy even though. He had probably been too obvious with the staring thing, because the kid gazed right back at him.

“Who’s this?” he asked.

“This? Chanyeol, Park Chanyeol! He’s coming with me today because I wanted him to be here while I talk to your dad. He’s a good guy, just a little bit confused.”

Am I, now? “I’m a surgery survivor, too,” said Chanyeol, because the kid was still staring and that was the most interesting fact about him he could come up with. Luckily for him, the boy seemed to like it, because he bounced on the bed and grabbed the hem of his red sweater.

“Really? You’re the first one I meet! Do you also have a cool scar on your chest? Wanna see mine?” He seemed just about to pull his own sweater up, but a sharp voice interrupted him.

“Don’t. You’re still not healed.”

The father. Chanyeol had forgotten about him for a moment, but he had moved to stand between Baekhyun and him and his son now, and was looking at them with something akin to accusation.

“Nah, don’t. You still have it bandaged anyway, don’t you?” Baekhyun told a very pouty kid. He turned towards the father later, with a face Chanyeol was starting to recognize as his politically correct face. “The recovery is going good, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Can we talk?”

“You came for that, didn’t you?” The man paused. Then, he sighed. “Let’s take a walk.”

Baekhyun waved at the kid as they were walking out of the room. “Try your new game, okay? I want to know your impressions when I’m back!”

From that place, they went to one of the terraces of the floor above in a silent stride. There was a visitors-only cafeteria there, and some small balconies over the garden, and it wasn’t until they found an empty one that Baekhyun spoke, fingers over the handrail and eyes trailed on the patch of grass and flowerless trees down below.

“Did you think about what I told you?” he asked, and he didn’t sound overly cheerful, or confident, like the son of a politician should be. He was just… inquiring, in an honest voice. His honest voice. That was what made Chanyeol stare. “I still don’t know when my march will be, but we’re organizing it to be before they pass on that law. Will you talk to us?”

The man let out a long breath. “Byun Baekhyun,” he said, head bent, hands in his pockets. “You know how I feel about this.” He wasn’t an old man, probably he wasn’t even forty, but still his shoulders were sunk and he looked pale.

That’s what CFCS does, but not to the sick ones. Not only to them. Chanyeol’s mother had cried, back then - he still remembered her, hugging him until he couldn’t breathe. That was the reason she insisted on him visiting at least once a week. The reason, too, for his sister to message him every day. And that - Chanyeol’s end, that man’s son - that had been the happy ending.

For other people, there wasn’t one. And for people like Baekhyun… What was there to wait?

Swallowing, Chanyeol looked up at him. The wind was tousling his hair - a mess so silver white.

“I know you don’t want the law to be passed,” he said.

Baekhyun wanted him to listen, so he listened. He wanted him to observed, so he stared at the man as he flinched and got his words stuck in his mouth.

“I appreciate you, Byun Baekhyun. You were nice to my son during therapy, and he loves you. I know what you want, and I know you’re in the right but… doing what you ask of me could be bad, for both him and his brother.”

“You could help others with this,” whispered Baekhyun. “Wouldn’t you have liked to know?”

“I would have liked many things.”

Chanyeol kept staring, as Baekhyun’s fingers turned white on the handrail. He turned towards the man, pleading. “Mr. Park, we need your voice.”

He was a Mr. Park, too. And he looked sad. Genuinely so. “Maybe you do. And maybe it’d be the correct thing, but you can’t ask me not to prioritize. You know what the doctors have said.”

“CFCS surgery is irreversible.”

“But my son’s mental state is not stable!” the man snapped, brusque and sharp, and making Baekhyun flinch. He took a step backwards, shoulders colliding with Chanyeol’s chest, who just held it in place, before the other boy could turn around or apologize to him. “I am sorry.” It was Mr. Park who, in fact, said it, and he looked the part, but he still shook his head no. “You want people to talk for you, to lead that march. To appear on TV and speak to a whole crowd and have them listen. You’re a good man, Byun Baekhyun, and you mean well, but some of us are worse than you. Some of us will be bad if that means protecting those we love.”

Baekhyun slumped against Chanyeol’s chest for a heartbeat. “I understand,” he finally whispered, “but the only thing I can do is keep insisting.”

Mr. Park turned to the door. It was of the automatic kind, and it slid silently to let him through. “I’m sorry,” he told them, looking first at Baekhyun, then at Chanyeol, as he had also disappointed him. “Thanks for the videogame, Baekhyun, and for staying with Jisung in the waiting room. For that, at least, I’m always grateful,” he added, like an afterthought, just before the door slid back into place, a wall of clear glass that muted half of his last word.

“Yeah,” Baekhyun muttered, when Mr. Park could not see him. “Always happy to please.”

He was warm against Chanyeol’s chest, shaking slightly, full of some kind of energy that seemed to vibrate through him. He was so alive, that boy, always, even when he was rejected and upset. Chanyeol should step away. Definitely should.

“What was that?” he asked. He didn’t move.

Baekhyun was the one who moved forward, at last, and, when Chanyeol saw his face again, he found him smiling, and all-too-much pretty expression with tiredness overflowing between the seams. “He’s a coward,” he stated. “He’ll curse at this whole place while no one can hear, but he won’t speak. It’s hard to be under the spotlight, I guess.” He coughed, then, shaking his head in disgust when he had to cover his lips with one hand. “Oh, come on, I had been well all day.”

“You alright?”

“I… Yeah, but don’t ask. I’ll do better if you don’t.”

“Okay. What was that about, then?”

“Suddenly asking a lot, eh?”

“Wasn’t that your goal in bringing me here?”

“Was it? Maybe.” There was no trace of Jisung’s dad in the room at the other side of the door, but Baekhyun still took a long look around before he stepped out of the balcony. He signaled at Chanyeol to follow, one hand on his hip, the other one stretched towards him. “Come on, come on. We still have another visit to make, and this one is… riskier. Only if we get caught, though.”

Baekhyun’s idea of proceeding consisted in them going to the far end of the cafeteria and beyond - more exactly until the emergency stairs. That building was full of elevators, big ones, small ones, panoramic ones over the central garden, and of course that man wanted them to go on foot.

“We shouldn’t be able to access this floor without a card, but guess what, they are not exactly allowed to seal the fire exits shut. Security measures. Fancy, no?”

“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol called. His only option had been to climb after the other boy, but he was starting to feel a knot of dread in the pitch of his stomach.

“From now on, we have to proceed with caution. Two more floors up and we will be--”

Baekhyun.”

The boy froze on the stairs, turned around to look at him, eyes wide. The emergency stairs seemed to be the only part of that hospital that wasn’t made of steel and sandstone and glass; they were inside a rectangle of concrete, the light over their heads yellowish and too artificial.

“What?”

“Tell me what’s going on.”

The boy doubted, face cast in shadows. “I want you to see until the end.”

“You want me to blindly follow you into a restricted area,” Chanyeol specified. “Those kids were nice and I want to help you, but I want to know what I’m getting into. I could get into trouble if I get caught, I’d like to know why.”

“Do you?” asked Baekhyun, voice low. He sighed, silvery bangs falling all over his bangs. He hadn’t combed his hair back to order; he looked a bit messy. Lovely. Perhaps upset. “Of course you do, how dumb of me.” He paused, eyes trailing the flickering light of one of the fluorescent tubes over his head. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Go on.”

“Jisung, in the waiting room. Do you think he’s happy?”

Chanyeol parted his lips, but no sound came out. “I… don’t know? He was a bit angry at first but he seemed alright?”

Baekhyun nodded. “And his brother?”

The kid had been sitting on his bed, bright sweater other his hospital gown, big smile on his face when Baekhyun had given him the videogame cartridge for his console. “I suppose?”

“What about his dad?”

“I don’t think so. Not now at least.”

“But he should be, don’t you think? His son is safe.” Baekhyun chuckled, humorless. “Let me tell you a story.” He wasn’t looking at Chanyeol. “Imagine a normal family, two parents and two kids, all ordinary. Imagine them going on summer holiday, like every year. But imagine something terrible happens. It’s late at night, the car slips and gets out of the road. The dad was driving but it’s not him who dies.”

“That’s--” Chanyeol started, but Baekhyun gestured him silent.

“Suddenly, the mother is gone. Imagine how that was. And all the family is hit with the loss, but at least all of the others are together. Right? Right.” Finally, Baekhyun lowered his gaze towards Chanyeol, that was half a dozen of steps below him. “They call CFCS the Beautiful Death, and no death is beautiful, but the things that sickness does are a beautiful mess. So imagine this: that sickness feeds on loss, and in pain, so the death of the mother takes its toll on the oldest child, and the flowers start eating him from the inside. So what does the father do? He takes him to the hospital, of course. He gets admitted, he gets treated, but he gets worse and worse. The little brother is sad, because he loves him, and because they are close, and the father, who also does, doesn’t know what to do. His son is coughing on flowers, and he’s a minor, and there’s only one way he sees, so he signs, on his child’s stead. The boy’s thirteen, he’s dying, so imagine, why ask him? And he signs.”

He stared at Chanyeol, long and solemn, like he expected him to say something. The boy didn’t. What else did you want him to do?

“You know how these surgeries work. They open your chest, from side to side. They cut every flower from your lungs. They clean your throat. This doesn’t always work: sometimes the lungs don’t hold on; sometimes they do, but the sickness is uprooted with the flowers, and with it go the sadness and the loss, and your feelings and memories and soul with it. So it’s your spirit that collapses, too empty for you to be you. So don’t patients don’t survive the surgery, some do but never wake up. Those are considered as failures, cried and regretted and buried. But our boy? Imagine it all went well. Imagine that he wakes up, happy. Imagine that he vaguely remembers his mother, and he doesn’t hurt about her anymore. Imagine the boy is strong and recovering and pampered by every single doctor and nurse.” Baekhyun’s gaze went to Chanyeol’s eyes, unrelenting. “Imagine his eleven year old brother walking into his room and our boy being all confused about who Park Jisung actually is.”

Chanyeol’s throat went dry. He tried to force the words out, but they were stuck, stuck like pieces of clear glass. “What are you even saying?”

“The surgery was a success, you see? Just another pretty file to add to their list of reasons of why a surgery treatment should be compulsory for every severe CFCS case but… That boy is happy. He’s being taken care of. But his body and his mind are still frail, so doctors have advised against him being reunited with any memory or feeling or sensation that could negatively affect him. That’s why Jisung is at that waiting room almost every single day. His father leaves him with his aunt and uncle sometimes but… There’s days where he can’t, days when Jisung stays here for whole afternoons. He can’t see his brother, and he still has to sit by himself, knowing his brother doesn’t even know who he is.”

Baekhyun always looked so strong, but his bottom lip was trembling. He bit it, and Chanyeol followed the movement out of the corner of his eyes.

“That’s unfair,” he whispered. He felt the dread setting, ice on his tongue and frost on his skin. He was glad for his twelve origami birds, for Jisung laughing and saying they were terrible.

“It’s a success,” Baekhyun replied. “Let’s rejoice, I suppose. You’re a fortunate survivor. I guess not everybody is as lucky as you are.”

“I--” Chanyeol was frozen, wide awake. Baekhyun sounded just a bit too bitter.

“Whatever is taken out along with the flowers is gone. That’s the truth of this method, the real truth of it. Mr. Park signed to save his son, but would he had, if he had known?”

“His son was dying,” Chanyeol muttered. But it sounded silly, and Baekhyun laughed again.

“Yeah, but he wasn’t told anyway. He would have waited a bit longer, perhaps. Or he would have asked his son about what he wanted. He would have been prepared for this, if the doctors had told him that this possibility was another kind of failure, but he had no say in the matter. This place called that whole mess a success, and told him to be happy. Because it’s okay, right? As long as people don’t die. As long as that kid looks happy.”

Chanyeol realized, a second too late, that his fingers had closed into fists. “Where are you taking me now?”

“To get a second opinion on this mess. This kid lost a parent and was in terminal stages of the sickness, so what about taking a look about another person’s situation? One that wasn’t a matter of life or death to begin with. Wanna see?”

Baekhyun looked a little defiant, still staring down at Chanyeol with the intensity of someone who was almost expecting a no for an answer.

And they were really heading into a restricted area, and even though the other boy was acting confident, they would get in trouble if they got caught. Both of them. Chanyeol wasn’t the only one that had a profile sheet in the hospital files. Perhaps Chanyeol had been compliant and had left himself be dragged along for a bit too long.

Heavens above, Park, you’ve gotten yourself into quite the situation, haven’t you?

So he should say no, maybe. Even though he had come this far. Even though Jisung had to wait every day in a steel and glass cage of a room, even though his father looked so sick and there were other cases around them.

This was what Baekhyun was really fighting against.

Not everybody is as lucky as you are.

The air around him seemed all too heavy. He breathed in, like he would suffocate.

He wanted--

“Let’s go,” he conceded, shocked about the weight in the way his own words came out. So did Baekhyun, apparently, because his eyes widened for a moment, just before his gaze softened. “But let’s also try our best so we don’t get caught.”

Baekhyun laughed at that, shoulders relaxing. “I have experience on this.”

“I’ll trust you.”

“Ah, you will?” He turned around and resuming his way out, humming to himself again. He checked that Chanyeol was indeed following him before resuming speaking. “The room we’re going to is close enough to the emergency exit, so we don’t have to walk much. We should be okay, unless someone calls security on us. If Dr. Kim Junmyeon was on duty, he’d probably appear in the place out of the blue to kick us out, but I always choose to do this on his free day for a reason.”

“Dr. Kim Junmyeon?” It didn’t took long for Chanyeol to match Baekhyun’s pace on the stairs and reach him. The boy was breathing a little hard. “He’s my doctor. Does he treat you too?”

“He’s my supervisor, yeah. He’s bossy.” Baekhyun gave him a toothy grin, and Chanyeol almost lost his rhythm for a second. “Not a bad guy overall. He’d just kick us and take me to the crow room so Kyungsoo can scold me for being nosy and bad. That’s not something I’d look forward to.”

“Is he really that bad?”

Finally, Baekhyun stopped at a landing. He leaned against the wall, closing his eyes as he breathed in. “Sort of, but not to everyone. We have a past, you see. You could say he despises me.”

He said it calmly, almost cheerfully, and the nonchalance of it brought a pang to Chanyeol’s chest. He felt the urge to ask, but it was not his place, and Baekhyun had already caught his breath and was pushing the emergency door slowly. He looked through the crack, bottom lip again between his teeth, and he finally gestured to Chanyeol before going out to the corridor.

Restricted meant restricted, not exactly high security. That was the zone of the hospital where they took the ones that had to be isolated from the others for some reason. The ones who had rejected surgery and still had asked to die in the clinic and by themselves. The ones that had went through the process and hadn’t woken up, and didn’t have family members who would come for them. There, there was no floor-to-ceiling glass windows, or teddy bear prints on the walls. There was no room for the soothing or the fancy in such a place. It looked, and felt, and smelled like the hospital it was.

Chanyeol had spent a lot of time being treated, but he didn’t recall having come to that floor ever before. And he didn’t even know what he was expecting - a person in a coma, maybe, or some twisted, terrible thing - so he had to admit he was a bit surprised when Baekhyun just walked down the corridor and knocked on a pretty normal-looking door. He had been right: that place was right by the fire exit - and apparently the person inside was conscious and well enough to go and open the door to them.

“Jongin, hey Jongin, man, hurry up,” called Baekhyun as they waited, shifting the weight of his body from one leg to the other.

A man appeared in the threshold - a guy around their age, with dark hair and tanned skin that invited them in with a smile.

There were three things Chanyeol noticed. The first one was that the one person seemed oddly familiar. The second was that, whoever he was, it was impossible for them to know each other, because Chanyeol would remember it if he had ever talked with a person that looked so much like a model. The third, obviously, was that the guy had to be some kind of model or movie star, because the guy seemed healthy enough and still had his own pretty room in the restricted access area of the hospital.

No, not exactly a room. A whole ass suite. The kind with a living space with sofas and a widescreen TV, and a bedroom with a balcony over the garden and a queen-sized bed. Everything screamed fancy, and expensive, even the obviously high-end brand robe that the guy had messily thrown over his hospital gown.

That guy, he lived the life of the rich, and probably paid more for that room a week than what his mother earned in half a year. And still, Chanyeol wondered what the problem was with him. He had never stopped smiling, but he looked more polite than happy.

“Hey, Jongin, how’s everything going?” Baekhyun asked, making himself comfortable in one of the couches. Chanyeol then decided that the best course of action was to slightly bow at the owner of the room and go sit as well.

“Fine, I suppose. Thanks for visiting me.”

“Are you progressing with rehab?”

The Jongin guy sighed. “Yeah.”

“By the way, this is Chanyeol. Sorry to bring him unannounced, but he’s a nice guy.”

“Hey,” Chanyeol said, awkwardly.

“Fan of mine?”

Oh, crap. So he was famous. “Ah,” he said. “Not really.” He realized a bit too late that just stating it like that could - just could - come off as assholish, so he cleared his throat. “But I really appreciate what you do.” Whatever it is.

Jongin nodded, very solemnly, but judging by the way he smirked, Baekhyun had seen right through his bullshit. “Look at this, how unbelievable. Your loyal followers always say that every person in Arcadia is a Kai fan, and here you are, meeting the only guy who’s very casual about it.”

Chanyeol blinked. Kai…? Then he remembered Sehun hours before, dressed all fancy and neat to go meet his fanboy friends at a Kai The Idol fanart event.

The same Kai that had appeared in the magazine he had almost ditched Chanyeol for the day they had met Baekhyun.

Kai, also known as that person.

“Oh, shit,” he said. Baekhyun snorted at him but Jongin looked genuinely confused. “I just remembered that I have this friend who is a really huge fan of yours.”

“That’s good to know,” replied Jongin. Sehun would probably pretty much die if he knew the almighty Kai had said that. “Do you want me to sign something for him?”

Oh, yes. Sehun would totally die.

One autograph in a piece of paper later, Baekhyun - who was still looking very amused - leaned forward on his sofa, combing back his messy hair with his fingers.

“You’re always such a nice guy,” he commented. “But you know why I’m here for, right? Have you thought about what I asked you? You should already be out of the hospital in about a month, right?”

“I... guess,” replied Jongin. He had seemed at least content when he had been signing the autograph for Sehun, but he lowered his head then, eyes fixed in the place in his lap where his hands rested. “Me being discharged from this place also depends on what my company and my managers think. They’re trying to delay the moment, you know? There’s news we have to share once I go out.”

“So not even with rehab…”

“My body moves. You know that’s not the problem.”

“Yes. And that’s precisely why I want you to speak for me.” Baekhyun sighed. “We’ve known each other for a while, Jongin, and you have a voice. People would listen to you. They would hear, and act, and mobilize things. Your fans are loyal, they--”

“Baekhyun,” interrupted Jongin, pressing his lips. “My fans are mostly young people.”

“Yeah. The ones that would actually move to make things change.”

“The ones that shouldn’t be pressurized to dive into a political issue just out of their love for me.”

“This is much more than a political issue. You’re aware of this.”

“And you know that I have an image to maintain. An agency to respond to and a contract to abide by.”

“A contract you won’t be able to keep following once you’re out!”

Jongin flinched on his seat. Chanyeol’s gaze flickered from him to Baekhyun, who once again looked as affected as he had been back on the stairwell, we he had talked with all that passion, and frustration, and rage. He cared about that, Chanyeol knew, but Jongin’s face was closing, mouth pressing shut, eyes hardening into obsidian black. He was getting up.

“Jongin,” Baekhyun whispered. He had paled, color fading away from his cheeks.

“You’re in for a good cause, but I can’t go to a protest march and talk against a big corporation, no matter how much you want the media coverage. My company is thinking about not disclosing any of… this, and I think I’m going to agree with them. It’s better, I believe.”

Still, Baekhyun left out an incredulous breath, but there was no fight in it. “Better, really?” he asked. It made Chanyeol sad for him, for the way his eyes were lidded and his eyelashes casted shadows on the skin of his cheeks. “Better for who?”

“Better for my fans. Better for me. I don’t want them to know that I--” Jongin choked with the words. He shook his head no. “Sorry for this,” he told Chanyeol. “This is not how I want people to see me but… Baekhyun. I think you should leave for today.”

There was only silence for a moment, then the boy stood up. “Yeah,” he whispered. “You’re right.” He walked to the door. His hand was already in the handle when he stopped to catch his breath and turned around. “Sorry,” he offered. Finally, Jongin smiled, dim.

“Look at the things I lost, all to save myself from a heartbreak.”

Baekhyun laughed. “Right.”

He didn’t say anything else, not as they walked out of the suite, and the restricted area, not as they started to walk down the stairs. They hadn’t been caught after all, but it didn’t exactly matter.

“So he won’t speak for me,” was the first thing Baekhyun said, once they had descended a couple of floors. He had been walking fast, and he had needed to lean against the wall again to catch his breath. “No one wants to, in the end. I keep saying they will come back, or come around, but there must be something very wrong with me, right? Because they won’t, and I’m stuck.”

Perhaps, Baekhyun was a bit too passionate about that. Perhaps, that made him be a bit too intense, talk a bit too hard when he had to convince someone on a one on one conversation. But still, he still was that man Chanyeol had seen from a crowd in the meeting - the one who could gather multitudes just to listen to him speak. The kind of man who believed.

The kind of man who would drag you around a whole hospital, just so you could see.

The boy with flowers in his lungs, sunshine in his hair.

“But you’re right,” said Chanyeol.

“About what? How stuck I am?”

“No. Of course not. About pain existing in this place. That was what you wanted to show me?”

“Yeah.”

“I do really want to help you.”

Baekhyun smiled to him, and it was sad and warm. “At least you do.”

“Jisung’s brother’s case is supposed to be a success, but it’s bringing pain to people. And you say they didn’t know before. No one told them. It’s just… unfair.”

“Cruel. No one is ever told, not in detail. About the things that go away when the flowers are torn out.” He paused. Hesitated. “Were you?”

It was Chanyeol’s time to consider. He felt the sensation before he recognized it as some sort of fear, the kind you felt in your stomach before you jumped from somewhere high. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think not. I’m not sure.”

He hadn’t stopped to consider, but he hadn’t lost a thing. Baekhyun had called him lucky.

Fortunate survivor.

He wasn’t sure of wanting to press Baekhyun further, but he had to know, even though the boy looked uncharacteristically vulnerable - because he would be honest, still, all the way.

“What’s happening with Jongin? Is he… another success?”

Baekhyun half-huffed, half-laughed. “It depends on who you’re asking,” he said. “He’s retiring as an idol. You friend will be upset.”

I figured. “But why is he?”

“It was all handled very quietly, so even his fans don’t know. But can’t you figure? Long story short, he fell in love with someone, but that someone didn’t love him back. So he got sick. Your typical CFCS scenario,” he explained. What he didn’t add was the just like me that seemed to hang from the tip of his tongue. “The beautiful death, they call it. The death of a fool. And still, life wouldn’t allow someone like Jongin to have such a sickness, you see? People like Jongin aren’t supposed to be in love. People like him are supposed to be happy. So he and his company made a decision - not to lose time on useless crow therapy and just move forward. Extract all evil, open his chest and have all the flowers out.”

“And?”

“And. It was successful. His lungs were clean, the sickness with it.” Baekhyun closed his eyes. “But uprooting the flowers can take other things with it. Do you know what kind of idol Jongin is? How his performances are?”

Sehun had a whole collections of concerts and MVs downloaded to his phone, but Chanyeol had never watched one. He was sure he had seen them played on TV, but he had never bothered to pay attention. His videos and songs had… just been there. “He sings, I think. And he dances.”

“He’s very good at dancing, passionate about it. That’s what I always liked when I saw him perform.” Baekhyun looked at him then, breath finally back to normal, body slumped against the wall. “But Jongin… That person he fell in love with was someone he had grown up with, a friend that went with him to dance school.”

Chanyeol’s breath froze in his throat. “Does that mean…?”

“No one told him. No one considered. Those feelings were intertwined - the ones he had for that person, the ones he had for the thing he loved most. So when one thing was out, it took the other as a price. That’s the thing about this fucking treatment - there’s always a price. You may not know, you may pay it without even realizing it, but you’ll be paying it nonetheless.”

“Wait,” whispered Chanyeol.

“When he woke up, it was gone. Like it had never existed. He had his own concert DVDs as proof. He had the good shape of his body. He has the letters from his fans, telling him to get well soon now that he’s on hiatus. But the dancing? It’s not there.”

It felt like a cold wind. Like a bucket of freezing water to his face. “But can’t he…? Didn’t you guys say he’s going through rehab?”

Baekhyun smiled at him. “Yeah. So he regains his full stamina. So he can move and jump and run, even perform. But that’s not it. He doesn’t exactly remember the steps, but he could relearn them. He has tried, and succeeded, but that’s not the thing. Because when we start something, when we fight for something hard… isn’t it because we have a drive to succeed? We fail and we struggle and we keep trying because we love it. It’s that passion, what shows. That passion, what was taken away from Jongin. He can repeat every step all over again, but there’s no trace of magic in the final result. He doesn’t even try anymore, because he doesn’t care. Even if he tries hard to love what he used to do, he can’t. There’s nothing there. He doesn’t even want to do it. It’s gone.”

Chanyeol parted his lips. No sound came out. Baekhyun kept looking at him, all solemn and certain and raw. Beautiful, even, in a weird, twisted way.

“So there you have it again,” he said, like he wanted to scream it but could only get to whisper. “That’s why I won’t let anyone touch me. I am entitled to keep everything that makes me… me, if I want to. Feelings are not as simple so a bunch of doctors can just remove what is inconvenient. Hearts are fragile things.”

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Heartless Child

 

He thinks you’re like him.

He thinks you need time.

He thinks you’ll come around.

He thinks you’re the same.

He tells you in your face sometimes, like he owns the absolute truth and is in his right to wave it like it is the banner to his cause. You just wanted him to leave his own personal shit aside when you met, but of course he had to develop feelings for you and insist about you two, what? Being together? As if.

“I have news for you, but if you’re sleeping around with guys then you’re not exactly straight,” he tells you when he’s mad.

Like he had any idea.

“We can go together, to talk to your friends, or your mom, or anyone you want,” he says when he obviously doesn’t.

Like you wanted them to know. Like you hadn’t been trying that hard to hide from them what you do on weekends. You don’t keep a stupid part time job for him to decide the good option is letting everyone know those things you want buried.

“Please,” he simply says, when he’s begging.

Oh, how you despise the sound of it.

Oh, how you’re starting to fucking hate him.

Everything about him, you do.

You hate that he insists.

You hate that he calls.

You hate that he asks for you when you’re horny, and that you still can use him for that.

You hate that he’s adamant about wanting you to admit you want him - which you do -, that you like him - which you don’t, but that he’ll still beg when he’s panting below you.

“Please,” he’d say, fingers digging in the flesh of your hips.

“Please.”

A moan, a whimper. Lips on the pulse on his neck and silvery strands of hair on the pillows.

“Please.”

“Shut up.”

You hate that you can deceive yourself about what he’s begging for. You hate that you could turn a blind eye away until you realized he’s sick.

You hate that you have to be the one to end it. You are cruel, you know you are; you’ve always been a heartless child, and proud of it, but you’re not completely soulless. There’s so much you can endure, of him being a fucking idiot and destroying himself for things he’ll never get.

“Please,” he says, before he unravels, before you unravel, and the intensity of it leaves you angry and confused.

“It’s over,” you whisper against his collarbone, when you’re done, he’s done.

It’s done.

Your thumb grazes the corner of his lips later, when you’re both dressing in silence, to remove the wrinkled pink petal that he hasn’t noticed there. You hate that he’s so open about everything, that he always has worn his heart on his sleeve, except for this one thing.

“Go to the hospital,” you say.

And that’s how it ends for him.

How it should have ended for you.

Sadly, sometimes we don’t get the things we want.

And we don’t want the things we actually get.

--

Consent to Surgical Office Procedure
Arcadia University Hospital

I consent to the medical/surgical procedures outlined below to be performed by Dr. Kim Junmyeon and his staff, associates, or assistants to whom the physician performing the procedure may assign designated responsibilities.

The proposed surgical procedure is a Prunus Sanguinea plant extraction for the treatment of Chronic Flower Coughing Syndrome (CFCS). The procedure has been explained to me in terms that I understand. The explanation included:

  1. The nature and extent of the procedure to be performed.
  2. The most frequently occurring risks of the procedure involved, and those risks which are unlikely to occur but which may involve serious consequences, include but are not necessarily limited to the following: temporal or perpetual state of coma, partial amnesia, memory lapses.
  3. General risks which may include pain, scarring, bleeding and infection.
  4. The benefits of the procedure.
  5. The estimated period of incapacity or convalescence.
  6. The risks and benefits of any reasonable alternatives to this procedure including having no treatment at all.

I was given the opportunity to ask any questions I have regarding the procedure and I have had those questions answered to my satisfaction.

I understand that I may consult or could have consulted with another physician about this procedure.

I understand that I have the right to refuse any surgical treatment recommended at any time prior to its performance.

I authorize my physician to perform such additional procedures which in his judgment are incidentally necessary or appropriate to carry out my treatment.

I am aware that the practice of medicine and surgery is not an exact science, and I acknowledge that no guarantees have been made to me concerning the results of this procedure.

I acknowledge that I have read and fully understand the above information. Furthermore, I certify that all my questions and concerns regarding the procedure, its attendant risks, benefits and alternatives have been explained to my satisfaction. I hereby authorize my physician to perform the above discussed procedure.

Date: October 6th, 2038

Patient’s Signature: I DO NOT CONSENT

 

Witness to Signature:

 

I verify that I have explained the information contained in this document to the patient or person giving consent. It is my opinion that the person granting consent has fully understood all subjects discussed.

Physician Signature: DR. KIM JUNMYEON

--

I want the river to lose its way.
I want the wind to quit the valley.
I want the night to lose its sight,
and my heart its flower of gold.

 

The music started slow, a rhythmic throb, a drum like a heartbeat. There was a single figure on the stage, arms raised high, wrists together as if bound by invisible chains. He had been still, but he moved which each beat. One step, another, his body bending forward, his arms extended towards the crowd, a prisoner stumbling towards freedom.

His body turned lax as the music stopped. He looked like a doll, lifeless and discarded and broken. His head was bent, his hair all over his eyes. For a second, there was silence. Then, the music exploded.

The man’s hands broke apart, chains destroyed. The melody was loud now, fast, a rapid succession of notes surrounding him like a whirlwind, and he twirled and spinned, following the rhythm, like he was the one being dragged around by the sound. Sweat glistened on his forehead, breath heaved in his chest. He gazed around, his face twisted in something akin to confusion, eyes unfocused, looking without seeing.

He crossed the stage, seemed to stumble to it, strength masquerading as weakness, precision as hesitation. He turned around, looked at the lights over the stage, blinded, covering his head with his hands as the music reached his climax, then he fell to his knees as it stopped.

And then there was silence once more. Silence and the sound of the dancer’s ragged breath, audible even through the speakers of Chanyeol’s phone.

The video was over after that, and Chanyeol pressed the back button to exit full screen mode, then locked the device as he stared at the ceiling of his dorm room. The only thing he could see was a ray of moonlight, filtering through the crack between the curtains, and the shadow - dark grey over black - of the posters on the nearest wall.

Sehun had always insisted on them all watching Kai’s videos on the internet. Seungwan and the others, of course, have done so to indulge him, but that had been the first time that Chanyeol had followed his advice and typed down his name on the search engine.

He could see now, why Sehun liked him. He could see why he had so many fans, or why the guy was called the Pride of Arcadia. He couldn’t understand why a person like that could ever be retiring because it wasn’t possible for him to dance.

He doesn’t even try anymore, because he doesn’t care, Baekhyun had said. There’s nothing there. It’s gone.

Gone.

Gone.

Kim Jongin’s passion for dancing. Like Jisung’s brother’s memories of him. They had been taken away along with the flowers, leaving only the dent of a scar behind.

Chanyeol’s fingers went to his own chest, the tips of them finding the line under his shirt. He turned to his side of the bed, trying to suppress a shudder, eyes trailed on the patch of sky beyond the curtains. He sighed, unlocked his phone again, closed every tab of his browser and went for his message app.

He had messages from Seungwan, asking him where he was - Earth to Chanyeol, the last one said. You’ve been out all afternoon . He replied: I’m home. I’m sorry. I was with Baekhyun. He had a couple of messages from Baekhyun himself as well, mainly talking about having received the initial permissions for his march.

That was good, and congratulations were in order. He should be writing down all the happy and heart emoticons he could find, so Baekhyun would laugh and be happy after such a tiring day. I saw a couple of Jongin’s concert videos, he typed instead. Dance solos. Songs, too.

The boy replied fast. And? Message received. How was it?

How could he, Chanyeol started typing. He stopped. Looked at the screen. Pressed delete. It feels so… impossible, to think someone like that doesn’t like performing anymore.

Yeah, Baekhyun replied. I’m sorry.

What for?

Having shown you. Maybe you didn’t want to know. Most people don't.

I asked. Indirectly.

Yeah.

Chanyeol hesitated, still staring at the chat window. He closed it. He still had that unanswered message from his sister, a red number one over a white background, next to her name written on the screen.

Chanyeol clicked on it. Stopped to consider. Yoora had written to ask him how his day had been, and he wondered if he should tell her. That he had met one boy, and that they weren’t exactly friends but still were working on something together. That he had acted by instinct at first, but he had gotten himself into something important, and scary.

Should it be scary?

Hey, he typed. It was late. She would be sleeping. Part of him hoped that she would be sleeping.

But again, she was as much as a night creature as he was. They took after one another, his mother and Yoora and himself. Hey, he says, came the reply. Where were you?

Hospital.

Uh? Was today treatment supervision day?

Nah. Went to ask a couple of things.

With the girlfriend?

No, Chanyeol tapped with his finger on the side of his phone. I went by myself.

He didn’t know why he was hiding it, or if he was hiding it. He just didn’t want to talk about Baekhyun with someone else that night.

Is everything alright? asked Yoora, then.

Yeah, Chanyeol wrote. He typed the next sentence, pressed the send button before he could delete the message. Hey, tell me one thing. Do you think I’ve changed?

Changed? she asked in a heartbeat.

After I went through surgery. I’ve heard some people change.

That time, the reply took a while to come.

Who told you that?

I heard.

The status tab showed Yoora writing. Then she stopped. She started writing again and the message appeared on the screen.

I don’t think you have? You’re still my baby brother.

Chanyeol sighed, staring at the screen in silence. From just one message, he couldn’t tell if there was a chance he was lying.

--

For a week, Chanyeol had done his best to at least go see Jisung for a little while every day before he went home. Technically, he would have needed a visit permit to see the boy’s brother, but not him: the waiting room on the Children’s Ward was free territory, and he used that as an excuse to go say hi, sometimes with Baekhyun, sometimes by himself. He didn’t know what the kid liked, exactly, so he had bought his own origami guide and brought paper animals every day.

Baekhyun had told him he was getting good at that. “You’re going to steal Jisung from me with your awesome craftsmanship skills,” he had said, but he had smiled while he did, so Chanyeol supposed it was okay.

And besides, it was not like the kid was dropping Baekhyun from his #1 place on his affection list anytime soon.

“So Baekhyun’s not coming to see me today?” he always asked, when Chanyeol came by himself, even that same afternoon, as the boy walked in.

The little monster. Chanyeol suspected that his obvious bias came from Baekhyun having given him Kim Jongin’s autograph soon after they had met. It turned out that Jisung was one hell of a Kai fanboy - which reminded Chanyeol that he still had his own Jongin-signed paper to give Sehun and possibly gain his unending affection. He had kept that one for five days. Shame on him, but he had to admit he felt a little attached to it after all of the performance videos he’d been watching.

“Hey, is that a way to greet the person who’s giving you a handcrafted origami army?” he said, feigning annoyance. There was no one else at the waiting room that afternoon, not at that time of the day. “I made you a sea otter this morning. Look at this child: it’s lying on his back.”

Oh,” said Jisung, taking the little paper animal from Chanyeol’s hands. That was great, because he actually sounded pretty impressed. Which was a great thing, because perhaps that meant that he was on his way to surpass Baekhyun on Jisung’s affection list. Hell, perhaps he was more competitive than what he had believed himself to be.

“It looks like a beaver.”

“It’s lying on his back.

“A beaver lying on his back,” said Jisung, grinning. “But hey, thank you. How come you’re in so early today?”

“Ah, I have a check up. I was supposed to come by a little later, but I called my supervisor to have it a bit before. I’m going to meet a couple of friends later.”

He had thesis stuff to discuss with Sehun and Seungwan. That, and Baekhyun was going to be on TV. Not on one of the biggest channels, sadly, but he’d be there, talking about the march they’d been organizing. Chanyeol hoped the others wouldn’t mind him streaming.

“So you’re not staying much longer?”

“Nope, not today, kid. Sorry.”

Despite everything, he still had about half an hour of time left, that he conveniently used to teach Jisung how to fold pieces of paper himself to make his own otter. By the time he had to leave, he had achieved a half-decent result - the kid was talented, and he looked all gleeful observing the little animal he had managed to create. Chanyeol wondered, how much he’d have to wait until his aunt came for him or for his father to be finished with his brother.

“Hey, Jisung,” he said, and the boy turned towards him with a smile. “Would you say you’re happy?”

The kid made a face at him. “What’s with the sudden question?” he inquired, and Chanyeol just shrugged. Back in the stairs, a week ago, Baekhyun had asked him what he thought, and even now, Chanyeol wouldn’t have known how to reply. “I don’t know, that’s a strange thing to ask. Are you happy?”

Chanyeol didn’t know how to reply to that either. “I guess?”

Jisung snorted. “You’re weird.”

“I’ve just been thinking.”

“About me being happy?”

“You. Or me. Or Baekhyun, I guess. We all.”

That time, Jisung rolled his eyes. “Still weird,” he said, voice light. “Didn’t you have to leave, by the way? You’ll make your doctor wait, and that will certainly get you scolded.”

--

“Chanyeol,” said Sehun. “ Park Chanyeol.

“So... I’m guessing you like it?”

“...This has to be a fake. Are you giving me a fake?”

Chanyeol exaggerated a sigh. “So you’re here, receiving my present with distrust,” he fake-protested. “After the lengths I went to so I could get it. It’s even signed to your name. Directly.”

“Sorry, but I don’t understand how someone like you would have been able to get Kai’s sign. You don’t even know him.” He raised the paper to the ceiling, observing it under the fluorescent lights of the study room. “It seems authentic, though.”

“It’s legit. Baekhyun knows the guy,” he explained when Sehun raised his eyebrows at him, a bit too sceptically for Chanyeol’s taste. “He’s trying to convince him to help him with the march he’s organizing. I talked to Kai; he’s a nice guy.”

Sehun deadpanned at him. “The whole city is wondering where he is and you, among all of us, are the one to talk to him. Injustice.”

“More like Baekhyun’s contacts.”

“Past you didn’t even know who Baekhyun was. Or cared about Jongin.”

“I watched a couple of videos of him.”

“Still unfair,” insisted Sehun, voice monotonous. “I’m going to become Baekhyun’s friend too.”

Chanyeol was kind of glad he had decided to give Sehun the autograph after they had finished the work in their thesis they had for that day. It was going to be impossible to make him concentrate after that - Chanyeol was almost sure that his friend was already thinking about how to frame it and hang it on his bedroom wall. Or maybe put it on his bedside table so he could kiss it goodnight.

It was… upsetting that his friend didn’t know that Jongin wouldn’t be making another comeback. That he couldn’t tell him.

They’d all know in, what? A month? Then they’d all be heartbroken.

“Hey.” Chanyeol heard a voice to his right. When he turned around, he saw Seungwan looking at him, eyes lidded in worry. She had been picking her own notes from the table, sorting them to put them inside her bag, but she was now keeping a stack of papers against her chest. “Everything okay? You look worried.”

Chanyeol took his hand to his cheek “Do I?” Shit.

“Yeah, and that’s not… The usual for you. Is everything okay?”

“I-- Yeah.” He smiled at her. She still looked slightly unconvinced so he bent forward and tucked a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Nothing’s wrong. I’ve just been doing a lot of extra work.”

“True,” she replied. “You’ve been busy lately.”

Her voice sounded a bit off, and Chanyeol realized that they haven’t met on the weekend, or after his doctor appointments, with the exception of that day, during the last two weeks. Damn, if a rank of boyfriends existed, he’d probably be on a really, really bad position.

“Ah, yeah, my life has been a little chaotic, sorry for that. Do you want to go to grab something to eat, later? I could update you a bit about how everything has been.”

Seungwan beamed at him. “Sounds great! There’s this film I want to see too, on the weekend.”

“We can look that one up, later.”

“Oh, good, good.”

In front of them, Sehun groaned. “Now that you have a plan, could you stop being coupley? We are doing a project together.”

“We finished,” corrected Seungwan.

“Ah, true. What time is it?” Chanyeol looked around. The campus garden at the other side of the windows was already dark, illuminated only by lampposts and moonlight, and the common room of the library, at the other side of the soundproof glass, was practically empty.

“Seven twenty-five.”

“We have the room reserved until eight, right?” he asked. “Can we use the wifi here to stream for a while? Baekhyun is having an interview on TV at seven thirty.”

Sehun rolled his eyes. “Heavens above, you have it hard with the kid. But yeah, I guess, go on.”

Chanyeol took out his phone. He had the streaming app downloaded, his external battery fully charged. He looked around for a free plug on the table, though, and connected his phone to the last one. “He’s… just working hard on what he does, you know? He has it tougher than what I expected. I went with him, to talk to many people, and he’s right about what he says, but even though most of them understand that and listen, they won’t help him. Which I’d like them to. And I can’t do much, but he had to beg a lot to finally appear on TV, so I want to contribute in the way I can.”

“By streaming.”

“Yeah. He told me not to come.”

“He rejected you. Sad.”

Chanyeol huffed, opening the app. “It’s not like that.”

Technically, he had a check-up appointment, and a meeting with his friends to talk. It was him who, at first, had approached Baekhyun to tell him how busy that week of his was. You’re just helping me with all this march thing, I’m not your employer or anything, so do all of your life stuff if you want to. I’ll… be around, Baekhyun had told him.

It was just that people were hard on him. Everyone. From Jisung’s dad to men like Dr. Kim Junmyeon. Chanyeol had seen his doctor before after all, and the man had asked him a question just when he was about to leave.

I’ve heard you’ve been coming to the hospital a lot?

Chanyeol frowned.

“Ah, look, there he is!”

Being thrown out of his reverie by Seungwan’s voice, Chanyeol concentrated once more on the screen. The only thing on the app since he had turned the stream on had been ads - seriously, that was why he didn’t watch TV anymore - but now the chime of the program was ending and a lady in a red dress was announcing Baekhyun to the public.

“Byun Youngha’s son, and an activist against the CFCS Treatment Law that’s being passed on next month - Byun Baekhyun, 24!”

After a very long, fabricated applause, the boy walked into the studio, bowing at the men and women on the round table before sitting on his own reserved chair. He was Serious Baekhyun again, with his black shirt and slacks, a blue tie and his most polite smile sewn onto his lips.

“Good evening,” he said.

“Good evening.”

He was asked how he was, how he has been, what he’d been doing. He replied, kindly, laughter soft and voice shooting, even when the MCs wanted to know what kind of opinion his father had when it came to Baekhyun’s type of preferred activities.

“We have our differences,” he admitted, and Chanyeol snorted in the room.

“They have more than just differences. The man is… kinda bad,” he explained to Sehun and Seungwan, when both turned to look at him in surprise. “A total bastard, in fact. He doesn’t treat Baekhyun well.”

“It is known,” Sehun replied, simply.

“Yeah, but…” The interview went on, and Baekhyun kept speaking. He was talking about the march now, his ideas for it, the way they would take the city at night, lamps in hand and hearts on their sleeves.

“We’ll walk in silence,” he said, “so Arcadia listens. And when they do, when the march is over, we’ll speak.”

“Who is speaking for you?” one of the woman at the table asked.

Chanyeol held his breath. “Oh, you know, I can’t tell you yet,” replied Baekhyun, laughing like he didn’t have a care in the world. “But it’s going to be pretty big, so you better come and check, yeah?”

Chanyeol sighed, deflated. When he looked around one more time, Sehun was half checking the screen, half texting on his phone (sending his Kai autograph to his friends, no doubt) but Seungwan was staring at him.

“He sounds like a great guy, doesn’t he?” she said.

“Baekhyun?” Yeah, if guys who bluff themselves to death were to be awesome. The lady was laughing with him, all charmed, and the people Baekhyun was meant to have speaking after his march were still all gone. “He rushes things a bit, sometimes.”

“He’s also a bit good looking,” whispered Seungwan. Eh? But when Chanyeol turned back to look at her, she had her eyes on the screen.

“You think?” he muttered back. Baekhyun laughed at a question, eyes scrunching up, and he lowered his eyes to the table. I guess…? “He looks a little pale, though.”

No one said a thing.

“Are you going to the march?” asked Seungwan after a while. She wasn’t looking at him, but to Sehun.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so? My father would be mad at me if I got caught, and I’m not so much of a Baekhyun fan for that. So you know…”

“It’s not really about being a fan of him,” Chanyeol absently replied. Baekhyun had stopped speaking, and the chime of the program led them straight into a baby milk ad. There was nothing on TV to pay attention to anyway, so Chanyeol turned towards his friend. “It’s about what he’s doing. Didn’t I just told you? He’s right. The government his father works with is passing a law that’ll make the current CFCS treatment mandatory and that… That shouldn’t be allowed. It’s not developed enough!”

“Chanyeol,” said Sehun, with a sigh.

Hearts are fragile things, Baekhyun had said. They were frail enough to splinter, like the glass most of Arcadia was made of. Frail enough so flowers grew in between the cracks. He really didn’t want to argue about that.

“What?”

“Byun Baekhyun is one admirable guy. A celebrity, even. But… That march thing he’s doing won’t take him anywhere. The law’s moving forward. I heard at home.”

“But that treatment doesn’t work like it should! It’s a solution, but not the solution!” Chanyeol bit his lip. On his phone screen, there was a videogame being announced, a colorful shooter with flashy, rock music. “I visited a kid at the hospital the other day. His brother, he… Got surgery because of the loss of his mother and forgot him. He wasn’t… his family didn’t know that could happen. They got misinformed.”

“But people know that kind of side effects can happen sometimes.”

“You sure?”

“Don’t people sign something? You should have signed it too.”

Chanyeol had. He supposed. He couldn’t remember what it said, or what the marked effects had been; the time he had spent in the hospital before his own surgery had always been a bit too blurred about the edges. But he was sure that Jisung’s father and brother hadn’t been told that he would be forgotten, or that Kim Jongin hadn’t been informed that there was a possibility of him stopping to love dancing.

“People lose more than what they sign themselves for,” he protested. He turned to look at his girlfriend. “Seungwan?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Chanyeol, they saved you.”

You were lucky. A fortunate survivor.

“Not everyone’s like me.”

“Your mom had the money to pay for EDN-Pia’s fee,” replied Seungwan. “Not everyone does. The government wants to fund the treatment. Baekhyun probably means good but… I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” added Sehun. “Most people are happy, I think.”

“But many people are not. Don’t you see?”

Sehun shook his head no. “Who?”

“You’d know if they spoke out. You’ll know when you do.” Chanyeol remembered Baekhyun with his march pamphlets. He was watching the boy on TV just now, laughing to the rhythm of all of those people’s voices. “That’s why the march is important. And why you should go. To know.”

That was why Jongin should be there, why Jisung’s dad should speak. What Baekhyun heard every day.

“I’m still not sure it’s fine,” replied Seungwan.

“Yeah.”

The chime of the program was back, and soon the MC lady with the red dress appeared on screen, welcoming her audience with a big smile. Chanyeol blinked in confusion when the camera zoomed out to focus on the whole studio again. All the other men and women were there, but Baekhyun wasn’t on his seat. There was no trace of him anywhere on the set.

Weird. “Where…?”

“Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen,” the lady in red said. “We need to apologize for the inconvenience, but we won’t be able to continue our interview with Mr. Byun Baekhyun.” Eh? “He was needed to be rushed out of the studio because he was feeling indisposed.” Eh?!   “We ask for your understanding and hope that we can continue this interview another day. Meanwhile, you can check his official website in--”

“What the hell…” he muttered.

“That was sudden,” commented Seungwan. “Will he be okay?”

Chanyeol wordlessly stared at the screen. He knew Baekhyun. He knew Baekhyun well enough to know that he wouldn’t cancel. He swallowed. He unplugged his phone and turned the stream off. “It can’t be,” he whispered. He opened his chat with Baekhyun, stared at the last message, fingers frozen over the keyboard. He shouldn’t be worried, right? Baekhyun would laugh at him. But to hell with it, Baekhyun was sick. With a chronic, severe illness.

Are you okay? he typed. Baekhyun?

The reply came in less than five seconds.

Yeah. Then, after a little while. Why wouldn’t I?

I was watching your interview, Chanyeol typed back. It was just interrupted.

Ah. Silence. That. More silence. Don’t worry. More silence and then nothing.

It’s been another CFCS attack?

Baekhyun sent him a happy face. No. Not that.

Chanyeol stared at the emoji he had just gotten, breath hitching. Where are you? he wrote down.

No reply came, so he stood up, reaching for the charger of his phone, that was still plugged, and unceremoniously pushing it into his pocket. “I’m leaving,” he said. He saw Seungwan blinking up at him from her chair and he felt a wave of guilt. “I-- Something urgent came up. I’ll make it up to you on the weekend, okay? It’s just-- I really need to go.”

“Baekhyun?” she asked.

“He might be sick. He says he’s not but… Something’s wrong.”

“That sounds bad.”

“It is. I’m sorry.”

Baekhyun still didn’t reply, not when Chanyeol walked into the common room of the library, not when he rushed down from second to ground floor, without even bothering to wait for the elevator. The only thing on the chat screen was Baekhyun’s short no and that obnoxious smiley emoji above it.

He looked for his number and pressed the call button as he rushed out of campus. And there it was, the line connecting, the tone sound slowly beeping in his ear. Come on, he thought. Come on!

Baekhyun didn’t pick up. And Chanyeol didn’t know where he was. Somewhere close to those TV studios, probably, at the Arcadia finance center. Close to their hospital, where the buildings were tall and made of steel and glass, wrapped in moss and ivy, all lonely and beautiful.

He could check on the internet. He could take the money in his pocket to take a taxi.

He called again.

Come on. Come on, come on, come on.

One beep, another beep, like heartbeat. Then silence, and Baekhyun’s voice.

“Why are you calling?” he asked, he sounded tired. Chanyeol had just reached the road and he looked around for the green light of a taxi. He realized then that he had messaged Baekhyun a lot, but that he had never, ever called him, and the thought made him stop in his tracks, suddenly shy.

“I--” he started. “The interview thing. I was watching it, I just told you. I was just worried you were--”

“I’m not sick.” Baekhyun interrupted him. “I messaged you.”

“Yeah, but you sounded odd.”

“It was a chat message , Chanyeol. It couldn’t sound odd. It just was the truth.”

But you’re sounding odd now. Chanyeol bit his tongue. At the other side of the line, a different, muffled voice spoke.

“Chanyeol,” came through the speaker. “As in Park Chanyeol?”

“Who’s that?” asked Chanyeol, and Baekhyun sighed.

“No one.”

“Listen, what’s going on? If you’re feeling bad, if something’s wrong I can just… I can go where you are: I’ll take a taxi?”

“What?” replied Baekhyun. “No!”

Was he upset? He certainly sounded the part. Was it something Chanyeol had done? “Baekhyun?”

The other voice asked something. Chanyeol was almost sure he had heard it somewhere, sometime, not too long ago. “He says he want to come.” A pause. Baekhyun drawing a sharp breath in, muffling a cough. And then the stranger, his voice clear from Chanyeol’s side of the phone.

“How dare you?”

Chanyeol’s fingers tightened around the phone. “How dare I? What…?” he whispered.

What came next was Baekhyun’s voice. “Chanyeol, listen,” he said. “I’m not sick. I didn’t have any kind of attack. If you want to know what happened, my father decided to call me in the intermission and tell me my little games were off. He’s a big guy in town and decided to cancel my march. That’s it. It’s off.”

Chanyeol felt suddenly cold. “No.”

“Tell that to him. He won’t let me have this. Of course he won’t. He’ll interfere and execute his authority and fuck us all over to save face and his pride!”

The stranger’s voice resounded again in the line. “Baekhyun.”

It sounded like a warning. Like a threat. How dare you. “Baekhyun,” Chanyeol said too, voice urgent. “Tell me where you are. We’ll discuss it, we’ll think about something, okay? He won’t cancel it on us, you hear me? I have this friend, his father--”

“No.”

“Baekhyun, please!”

“Heavens above, Chanyeol, why do you even care so much about this? It’s not even your thing! You just decided to help me for some weird reason.”

There was a green light in the darkness, coming closer. Chanyeol had been about to raise his hand to stop it. He froze midway and then let it run past him.

“Yeah?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“I thought it had become partly my thing the moment you stopped making me print posters and just dragged me along for the ugly part. Didn’t you want me to get it?”

“I-- Yeah.” Baekhyun’s voice lost just an inch of firmness. He sounded sad now, again. Defeated.

Chanyeol didn’t like it a bit. He didn’t like Baekhyun being sad. He didn’t like being upset at Baekhyun. He could have hung out longer with Sehun just before. He could have gone for dinner with Seungwan as he had promised her. And instead, there he was. He didn’t like feeling like an idiot, like the sort of fool with a fragile heart.

“Chanyeol,” he heard Baekhyun call. He had forgotten, for a second, the way the other boy always said his name. He coughed, and Chanyeol could picture him, covering his lips with his fingers. “Wait Jongdae, wait,” he added.

Wasn’t Jongdae perm guy? Baekhyun was with him. Who was he?

How dare you.

It was still hot outside, but he felt so cold.

“You don’t want me to go, I get it, okay. You’re upset too, I suppose, and not having an attack at all, which is great. I’m going back to my dorm right now, so if at some point starting tomorrow you decide that you still want my help and that this can have turned into my thing as well, then please let me know. You have my phone number and my chat ID.”

“Chanyeol,” said Baekhyun again. He sounded alarmed now. How endearing. How great.

“I was a bit worried about you. Glad you’re okay. Take care.”

It was unfair, perhaps. Of Baekhyun to shout at him just because he was upset with his father. Of him to get all offended because, for Baekhyun, all that protest march stuff had been a passion project for a much longer time than what it had been for Chanyeol. They were idiots, a couple of idiots, but he was upset and Baekhyun was with that Jongdae guy and didn’t want his help.

He could have gone back to his friends, but he turned around and walked to his dorm. He felt too tired to joke around, or to kiss Seungwan goodnight.

He kicked his shoes out as soon as he walked through the door, and threw himself on his bed, still with his street clothes, checking the black screen of his phone with a frown. He had left the window open when he had left, and it smelled like a storm was coming.

A flower storm. he thought. His room was in a floor high enough to see the skyscrapers and the flying gardens of the city center. The wind was blowing, between the buildings and between the trees, like a whistle, like a whisper. They didn’t like flowers in Arcadia, but they had them everywhere. A flower storm of self destruction.

Dr. Kim Junmyeon had asked him a question, when he was about to leave for the library, after his check-up.

I’ve heard you’ve been coming to the hospital a lot?

It had been a weird question. Chanyeol had said yes, but of course his doctor had known the answer even before he had voiced it out. Baekhyun had said he was an intelligent man.

Does it have anything to do with the Byun boy? he had asked later, and of course Dr. Kim knew but Chanyeol had felt surprised all the same.

We’re friends, he had replied, even though they weren’t, really. Not at 100%. Because did Baekhyun even want to? I’m working with him. Helping him out.

Do you? Dr. Kim had regarded him carefully. He can be… problematic, Chanyeol. I’d advise you not to.

People were starting to know what he was doing. His doctor knew, people at the hospital did. And they were calling Baekhyun problematic.

He closed his eyes. Was he problematic too? He’d never been.

He’d just wanted to become a crow, before.

I just want to help people. That, he had told his doctor. But he wanted to know, too. He wanted to see. He wanted Byun Baekhyun to let him in.

He saw the other boy, just after he closed his eyes, pink flowers in his palms and red flowers on his lips. He was the kind of person who could make flowers bloom in cracked hearts, the kind of person who shouldn't have had them curling around his ribs and taking room in his lungs.

He was upset with Baekhyun.

But Baekhyun seemed to be upset with many things. Fighting them all.

Chanyeol was already fast asleep when the screen of his phone lit up in white, with a single message, one sender, three words.

He had forgotten to plug his phone to charge it, the cable still deep in his pocket. When he woke up, the poor thing was dead.

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Bleeding

 

You feel like you’re the one in therapy, when you sit in front of this boy in your black crow clothes. You’re the one who’s angry, the one who has to control his voice and his words, the one who feels all observed even if he doesn’t know who you are.

“He isn’t signing,” you’re told.

“Why aren’t you signing?” you tell him.

“I don’t want to.”

So simple. Hah. You hate him. You would get up and slap him. You would punch him in the face until he stopped being an idiot and signed his fucking surgery paper.

“So what do we do? We sit here and wait until your throat is full of flowers and you die? You have a family. What do you believe they’re going to think?”

He doesn’t reply. Of course he wouldn’t.

“Do you realize you’re killing yourself?”

He shakes his head no.

“I’ve been with people in therapy,” he says, like it explained anything. “People get their hearts mutilated when the flowers are extracted. They change. They’re not the same anymore.”

Mutilated! And now the idiot has a flair for the dramatic.

Like he wasn’t walking to suicide with his head high because he wants to keep… what? His heart? What’s all that supposed to be?

You should let him.

You should walk away and watch him self-destruct.

You should punch him in his stupid, pretty face until he learns to be reasonable.

You’ve done more than what you were expected to.

No one could say that you haven’t tried, now could they?

Heavens above, he’s annoying.

“People love you,” you say, an accusation. His mother, at least, comes with him to the hospital, you’ve seen. How selfish of him to be like this. “You’re seriously choosing a dumb crush over everything else?”

“It’s not about that anymore.”

As if.

Selfish.

Selfish.

“Enlighten me, then.”

“If it was just that crush, I would choose to forget it to save myself. The problem is it’s not only that what they’ll remove.”

You huff out loud. Look at how upset he made you. You get up.

Get out, come on, get out. It’s what you want, now, do you?

“Why do you even want me to keep treating you? It’s obvious we don’t agree about a single thing.”

“Because you talk to me.”

“I don’t get paid enough for this.”

You turn around, your black crow garments floating around you like a dark cloud as you step away from the room.

Therapy is over, but just for today, just for this time. You get scolded by your superiors, because the patient they’re trusting you with is still not signing his authorization for surgery.

They used to believe you were good at that - good at that job, the best at making people do what you wanted them to do - and he took that away from you too.

You hate him to the point where you can’t even hide it. You hate it to the point where you wished you never met him. You wish you hadn’t. You wish he’d fucking disappear.

Careful with what you wish, boy.

It happens two days after, when you’re in your next work turn, heading to your next therapy session with him. And you hear his voice first, a succession of throttling sounds, like he’s gagging. You recognize him, you recognize what that is. You rush forward and around the corner.

He’s in front of your shared therapy room, hands to his throat, nails digging into the skin of his neck, eyes wide open, unfocused. He does not see you.

How fun this is.

You hate him.

You hate him.

You despise him.

And still you pale and lose your breath and run to him when you see him falling to the floor.

There’re screams around you, people calling for the doctors. He’s making these horrible sounds, choking out full flowers, pink stained in red. You see so much blood, on his lips and on his clothes, on your hands and on the floor. You call for him and he doesn’t listen. You try to keep him on his knees, but he collapses anyway.

He’s spasming. Then he’s still. The doctors come and push you away.

“I’m his Shepherd,” you whisper. How fun. No one listens to you. Only you hear.

Everything is a mess of color and sound around you, but there’s a long beep, and then your world falls silent.

--

Arcadia University Hospital
CFCS Department

To Doctor Kim Junmyeon,

This is to certify that Subject #04 under your Second Phase of CFCS Treatment has been admitted in our hospital, in the Chronic Flower Coughing Disease Department, under emergency on October 25th, 2038 at 6:19 pm.

At the time of his admission, the patient suffered a seizure caused by the germinated Prunus sanguinea roots in his lungs causing internal damage, and a peak on the patient’s condition, who had to be reanimated.

The provisional diagnosis is a widespread and ever-growing invasion of the parasite. Further analysis to be immediately conducted. Extraction surgery is strongly recommended.

 

Shim Changmin
Emergencies Attending Authority

--

The light is buried by chains and by noise,
in the shameless challenge of rootless science.

 

I am sorry.

That was what Baekhyun had written to him, in a short message that had arrived after Chanyeol had fallen asleep. He didn’t see when he woke up, because he had forgotten to plug it and the thing had decided to die in the middle of the night. He didn’t see it in class, either, because he had been still upset when he left his dorm and he forgot his portable battery on the bag he didn’t bring - which, considering he only had two of them, only managed to make him more annoyed. He only saw when he was sitting with Jisung on their usual waiting room, sitting on the floor and playing videogames.

Jisung’s brother liked videogames too.

“Hey,” the kid told him. “Have you seen Baekhyun today?”

Chanyeol lowered the portable console he had stolen from Sehun. He had just wanted to smash a couple of things. “No,” he replied.

“He asked me if you were coming in the morning.”

“I had classes.”

“He looked upset. I asked him and he said you were probably angry.”

He told you? Chanyeol rolled his eyes, went for his phone just so he wouldn’t have to look at Jisung in the face and realized that he had left it plugged to charge on one of the low tables close to the only non-glass wall. He apologized and went for it so he wouldn’t have to answer, and that was when he saw the message.

From: Byun Baekhyun
I am sorry.

“Yeah.” He had sounded almost alarmed when Chanyeol had hung up on him the night before. His father had managed to cancel his march, and he had ended up leaving the TV set. He hadn’t wanted Chanyeol there, yeah, but perhaps it had been too childish to get upset about something like that. Baekhyun may have pushed him away, and that wasn’t nice, but still--

You okay? he wrote, then deleted. You were a mess last night. Nah, that wouldn’t do. He deleted again. Baekhyun, he typed, and pressed send.

He saw the message appear on the screen. It was marked as read soon after, and Chanyeol blinked at his own phone. He had just texted him his name in reply to his apology. I accept, he added as an afterthought. Your apology. I mean.

Good, came the reply. I thought you were upset at me.

I was. I forgot my charger at home and all. I’m with Jisung at the hospital now, and I plugged it in here.

Terrible, responded Baekhyun.

“Hey, you were talking to me. Who are you texting?” came another voice, and when he looked to one side, Chanyeol saw Jisung, one hand falling on his shoulder and head tilted up to try to spy into his phone screen. “The girlfriend?”

Chanyeol locked the screen. “Baekhyun.”

“The tips of your ears are red.”

“They’re not.” Jisung was half judging him and half having a great time, and Chanyeol just moved to get out of the reach of his gaze. “I typed something dumb to him, that’s all.” He unlocked the screen, and realized that Baekhyun had written something else.

But still. I was really frustrated and paid it on you. You were just trying to be nice, so I’m sorry about that too. What I said when you called me… I didn’t mean it.

It’s fine, Chanyeol typed back. I shouldn’t have insisted. You were in your right to want to be alone.

He realized after he had sent the message that Baekhyun hadn’t exactly been alone the night before. There has been another voice - perm guy’s, Jongdae’s. Who was he, really? And why did he know who Chanyeol was? Don’t you dare, he had said.

“What the hell was that supposed to mean?” he muttered to himself.

That Jongdae guy had been accompanying Baekhyun, probably somewhere on backstage during his interview. And the thought came to Chanyeol’s mind, uninvited but it remained there, expanding until it took all the space like a big, red, obnoxious balloon: Baekhyun was in love with someone, with someone who had made him sick because they didn’t love him back.

And Baekhyun had always said - to him, to everyone who’d ever asked - that he was gay, so the they had to be a… he.

So who was it? That guy?

Why do you even care?

“Um, hey, Park Chanyeol, are you listening to me?” someone called him. Jisung. Chanyeol stared at him with what probably was his very own Terrible Face of Nosy Shame. “Why do you look so constipated?”

Still, Baekhyun had written on the chatroom. I acted like an asshole. Let me buy you something someday. Do you still like coffee?

I always like coffee. So I’ll take an Americano from you. But, Baekhyun. Chanyeol stared at the screen. Only if you let me help you. Or not help you. Work on this with you. We’re in this together.

Okay, replied Baekhyun. But my father has still cancelled our permissions.

We’ll think of something. Let me try. Okay?

...Right.

“You know, watching your face as you type on that thing is starting to be very amusing.” Jisung, again. Chanyeol locked his phone once more and slipped it into his pocket. The kid looked talkative today. Talkative and… happy.

Chanyeol reminded having asked him once if he was.

He breathed in. Baekhyun came a lot to the hospital to try to help. Baekhyun knew Jisung, and his father, and his brother, and was fighting for them, but then he couldn’t-- Maybe Chanyeol himself could try. “Hey, Jisung,” he called. “About those texts I was making all the faces for… Do you know that Baekhyun is planning a march?”

“A march?” repeated Jisung. They were both alone in the room again, two people in a semicircle made of glass. Jisung walked to the window, stared down at the garden. “I’ve heard something, yeah. I asked dad, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

“I think I have a poster somewhere, wait.” A bad idea. Perhaps that was a very bad idea, but now that he was at it, Chanyeol went forward with it anyway. He just hoped that the kid’s father didn’t forbid him to go there from that moment on or something. He checked his pockets, checked his bag, until he finally came across a wrinkled piece of paper, folded over itself half a dozen times. “Here, look.”

Jisung did, frowning as he took it in. Even though Chanyeol hadn’t exactly taken care of the poster well, it was still pretty enough, the letters bold and clear over the background. “So it’s true it’s an open march against these people.” He raised his arms, as if trying to cover the room around him.

“Not against them. Against the law making the current treatment mandatory. It’s not exactly the same thing.”

Jisung rested his head against the glass of the window. “I guess you could say that.”

He didn’t look so happy anymore, and Chanyeol felt a little bad about having changed the topic of the conversation. His phone buzzed in his pocket, but he ignored it and took a long breath. “How do you… How do you feel about this?”

“About what?”

“About this.” This time, it was Chanyeol who tried to cover the whole room with a gesture. They were still alone, separated from the rest of the building by a thick, soundproof door. “The first day I came here, Baekhyun took me to see your dad. Your brother too. I know you’re here because… well, him.”

For a second, Chanyeol thought Jisung would be angry, but the kid sighed, hands in the pockets of his jeans and eyes still trailed outside. “My father is very upset, you know? Or not that, exactly. He won’t let me stay at home by myself. I must always be with my aunt, or with him, even if that means staying here for hour after hour. I think he’s scared, or maybe lonely. Or… scared of me being lonely. Also afraid of being with me.”

“Has he talked to you?”

“About my brother, you mean? Nah. He tried, but no. He lies to me. He sat me down in our living room once, told me that I had to be patient and wait because they were trying to heal my brother. That he’d be okay and he would remember me eventually, like I was six and didn’t own a smartphone, and didn’t know what CFCS was. There’s people who are anti EDN-Pia on the internet; Baekhyun is the most sensible of them. I knew who he was before my father did.”

“Baekhyun likes you.”

“I know he does. And he tells the truth, I like that about him.”

“What do you think about the march he’s organizing? It’s supposed to be this big thing.”

“You’re working with him on it?”

“Yeah.” Chanyeol still had the poster in mind, faced to Jisung’s general direction, even if the boy wasn’t looking at it. Chanyeol could see his face, though, or at least his reflection on the window glass. “He… We want it to be on national TV. So everyone sees us. Everyone hears what we want to say.”

“Sounds important,” said Jisung. “I’d like to go. Maybe I will.”

The march had been canceled. Baekhyun would kill him, maybe. “We wanted your father to speak on it.”

That time, Jisung did turn around. “Dad?” he repeated. “Let me guess. You guys asked him and he won’t listen. He’s afraid, I told you. Afraid he’ll hurt my brother further, or me. I guess the document he signed stated memory loss as a symptom, but he never guessed it would involve losing half of the life he used to have. Better half than everything, I suppose. But still… Still.”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol whispered.

“Yeah. Tell me one thing.” Jisung lowered his voice. “If I told you I hate this, would you think I’m selfish? I should be happy right? My brother lives. My brother was saved. And still I hate this. Being here. Am I selfish?”

Chanyeol looked down at the poster. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t know. What would you want, if you could choose?”

“My brother to be alive,” replied Jisung after a while. “But this is not being a success, you know? Someone apologizing, you know? My dad not being treated like he should be glad. Me being allowed into that hospital room. Hey, I’d say. Did you know that you have a brother? You don’t remember, but this is me. I folded a thousand cranes for you. That’s what I really want to do. Is that selfish? Is that fair?”

“Fair, I’d say.”

“Well, with things as they are, I won’t get it.” Jisung went to grab the poster from Chanyeol’s hands. He traced the silhouettes of one of the lamp-carrying figures with a finger. “Hey, tell me one thing.”

His voice was so low. “Yeah?”

“You are a surgery survivor, right?”

Chanyeol swallowed. “That’s it. I went through it a couple of years ago, yeah. I still have to come for check-ups every once in a while.”

“And how was it?”

“I’ve got a scar on my chest. I guess it could be nice for seducing someone or something. I could tell them to kiss it and assure them it’s a battle wound.”

Jisung rolled his eyes. “Don’t be lame,” he cut him off. However, the ghost of a smile disappeared from his lips as soon as it had started to appear. “But that’s not-- What I meant is-- How was it when you woke up? Did you lose something?”

Chanyeol had tried to think about it recently, and he did now. He remembered a white hospital room. He remembered his doctor congratulating him. His mother hugging him. Getting up from his bed and going back to therapy. He had returned home soon after that, and then he had moved away. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t remember. I moved out, and changed majors, but it wasn’t because of something specific. I just thought it would be better than what I was doing before.”

Jisung tilted his head. “Why?”

Why. “Because I wasn’t really motivated, and I had already lost a full year, so…” He had transferred to Arcadia Central, he had started a new major with people younger than he was. He had met Sehun, he had been introduced to Seungwan. He had wanted to help - being saved himself had inspired him. He had cared about that. The people. His friends. The city.

Cared?

What had he been doing, up to the moment when he had gone to interview Baekhyun for his thesis research?

Going to class.

Heading back to his dorm.

Coming to the hospital for his check-up sessions.

Sleeping.

“Well, that’s great. I suppose not everyone has the same amount of bad luck my family did. That’s why you guys want us to speak in that march.”

Chanyeol swallowed. He blinked, trying to focus his vision. “I guess.”

Jisung was still staring at the poster. “I like this idea, though. I don’t really like to be told to smile. The things that happened to us, I want them out.”

With that, Chanyeol returned to reality, like someone had snapped their fingers in his face. He had started all that for a reason. Alright. “Wait, would you speak?”

“I’m a minor, I don’t know if I can,” replied Jisung, chuckling. “But I can talk to my dad. We don’t talk anymore. And we should, right?”

“Just… Please, tell him not to have me banned from the hospital for giving you bad ideas.”

At that, Jisung laughed out loud. “No problem, I won’t.”

It wasn’t until Chanyeol was already out of the hospital that he checked his phone again. He had a couple of messages from Baekhyun, another one from Seungwan. And he stared at that last one, frowning slightly and contemplating his choices.

He was having an idea, a thought creeping into his mind - a curiosity to ask, and to know, and to get some answers. It’s nothing, probably, right? You’ll get told that it’s nothing.

Hey, he typed to Seungwan. Please don’t get mad at me, but I think I can’t make it on Saturday. There’s a place where I really, really need to go.

--

Jisung talked to me. Did you really tell him to go and speak to his dad?

Chanyeol saw Baekhyun’s message on the train, while he was on his wait to the city center. They hadn’t seen each other since Tuesday, and spoken outside text messages since Wednesday, when he had argued on the phone. Chanyeol had to admit that he missed him a little bit - it was not the same looking at Baekhyun’s smiley emojis through chat than hearing the boy laugh.

He had a really dumb laugh.

Technically, I didn't. I just started to speak with him about the march, showed him one of your posters, and after a very enlightening conversation, he decided he would talk with his dad personally.

I never mentioned the march to him, Baekhyun wrote back. I didn’t want to get him involved, I suppose. I thought he was too young for it. Guess I was wrong.

He wants to go. He told me.

We’ll see about that. We don’t even have a march anymore, to begin with. Jisung will be alone on the street with his lamp at this rate.

Chanyeol sighed. Still nothing?

Nope. I told my mom, but of course she doesn’t want to stand up to my father. This is so fucking annoying because we had the permissions. Revoking them is sort of illegal.

Tried telling him that?

Believe me, he was very aware of it when he took those permissions away. He’ll think he’s doing a good action. You know, preventing his shameful son to further embarrass him.

The train shook slightly as it went from the underground tunnel to one of the elevated tracks over a lower part of the city. The center of Arcadia was always pretty, with its tall, beautiful crystal buildings, wide avenues and green, broad gardens. The train tracks were purposely made so they could show their people, so the citizens would know. Green and white, plants and glass, like the heart of the city itself was also blossoming with its own flowers.

The march would travel those streets, once the sun had set. If they managed to make it happen.

I still don’t understand why he thinks you’re shameful, he wrote to Baekhyun.

Do you want a list of reasons?

I can figure them out, thank you. But still, he should listen to you.

Probably he would pay more attention to a total stranger than to me. He loves me that much. I’ve never seen anyone to go to such extents to ignore me. It’s quite the impressive achievement.

The train came to a stop, and the speakers on the ceiling left out a chime before the doors opened. Chanyeol bent his body to the right to check the name of the station - two more left, still. He turned his attention to his phone again. Doesn’t it bother you?

What? replied Baekhyun, almost immediately. That my dad is a bastard? Not really, I’m used to it. All those posters with his face around the city center and his little speeches on the news are all that I need to know that he’s still in good health and going strong, so it’s not like I need to talk to him for anything.

That’s shitty, Chanyeol typed. Probably not the best answer, but Baekhyun sent him a laughing emoji anyway. Chanyeol could almost picture him, chuckling at the screen.

I’m better off without him anyway. He gave me hell when I started advocating against EDN, hell when I came out… You see, the usual stuff.

Chanyeol’s fingers froze on the keyboard. He bit the inside of his cheek. Ah, he wrote. That must have been bad. He was a genius. Well, if we need to talk to your dad, I’ll be the one to go, then.

Ah, please do. He’s in his fucking office every day. Go say hi.

Will do.

Hey, by the way, Chanyeol, can we meet?

The stop chime echoed through the train again, and the doors opened and then closed. It was a Saturday after lunch, at that quiet hour where most people were still at home. He should have taken that train in the morning, he had planned to, but he had been about to cancel that visit overall. He would still have been able to back off, hadn’t he called Yoora already to tell her he was coming.

Today? he replied to Baekhyun.

Yeah, he texted back. I owe you a drink.

I’ll let you buy me the biggest coffee ever, but I can’t today. I’m visiting my mom and sister downtown.

Uh, family obligations.

More or less, yeah.

He didn’t tell Baekhyun that he didn’t really go there that much, even if both his mom and sister message and spoke to him regularly. He didn’t say that he was the one to tell his mom he wanted to go visit them both in their childhood home. His fingers were still over the keyboard, and he felt the pull to tell the other boy, the urge to explain, but then Baekhyun had his life, and his problems to deal with - and he did want to see his face while he explained, not to write it down in a message on a chatroom.

Heavens above, I really want to see you.

There was silence for a moment. Oh, boy, came the reply. And after that. Eager.

Chanyeol stared at the phone. He could practically feel his throat drying up. Baekhyun was into guys and he swore he wasn’t trying to sound flirty. I’m just craving that coffee, he wrote, and his brain made him the favor to re-read it with a stupid, teasing voice as soon as he sent it. He heard a chime somewhere above his head.

Sure you do, Baekhyun typed back. Chanyeol gaped at his phone, trying to read the replies as a normal person. Just hit me back when you finish family duty or whatever.

Yeah, Chanyeol replied. He looked up just in time to see the doors of his metro car starting to close.

“Oh, shit, that's my stop!” Or had been, before the doors fell shut on his face. “Great.”

He groaned throughout his whole walk of shame - out of the train in the next stop, up and inside again from the opposite platform, and one stop back until his original destination. So he wasted fifteen minutes, had the people at his original metro car looking at him all strangely, and Baekhyun laughed at him ( “seriously, Chanyeol, there’s even that little music thing playing when the doors open” ) but in the end he made it all the same.

Since the divorce, and his father leaving Arcadia, his family had settled in one of the residential districts close to the center of town. It had been his mother and his sister and him at first, in the tenth floor of a tall apartment building, close to one of the biggest parks in the area. His room technically had views to the avenue just outside, and the door, but when he was a kid he had bragged about being able to see the trees and the lake, and even the fountains in the park, if he just opened the window and stuck his head out far enough.

Those were good memories, clear as crystal in his head. He had lived in that place, and been happy, back until the moment he had decided to switch majors to a thing he could only study at the other side of the city.

It had never felt strange to go back and visit his mother, even if they mostly tended to meet elsewhere, but it felt weird now. Weird as he saw the building for the first time, as he was walking from the station; weird as he recognized the window of his own room, facing the road; weird as the entrance hall doors opened for him and he walked into the vestibule of the window, temperature dropping when the AC refrigerated air hit him in the face.

“Good day,” started saying the concierge, just before he recognized him. When he did, he smiled. “Ah, if it isn’t Park Chanyeol! Coming to visit your mother?”

He nodded and swallowed before boarding the elevator. It was strange too, standing alone in the panoramic semicircle as it went up in absolute silence. It felt a bit like walking through an abandoned mall, or an empty hospital - as looking around and finding oneself alone in a place that wasn’t supposed to be deserted.

He watched the street below him, and it became smaller and smaller, until an artificial, metallic voice announced that he had reached floor ten. Everything in the hallway at the other side felt like coming back home - the smell of their neighbor’s air freshener, the perfume too strong for its own good, the three doors on the hall, the sound of the bell as he rang it - and still he held his breath when he heard steps heading through him, a cheerful voice saying ‘I’m coming!’

He had expected his mother to open the door, but what he got was his sister, in a blue dress and with her hair up, very, very reminiscent of the last time they had met for lunch. When had that been, a couple of weeks ago? A month?

“Hey,” she said. “You’re late.” She beamed at him and he realized that he had missed her.

“I skipped my station,” he admitted as he dragged him in.

“You fell asleep on the train or something? Are they that hard on you at university?”

“Nah, I was messaging someone on the phone and I missed my stop.”

Yoora raised his eyebrows at that. “Messaging who?” She sounded teasing. “Seungwan?”

Chanyeol tried to conceal his flinch by immediately turning to take off his shoes. “Not really.”

“Whatever you say.” She turned towards the hallway, and started to head towards the living room with a spring in her step that was a bit too springy. “Mom! Chanyeol is here, come say hi!”

The woman in question came rushing from her bedroom when Chanyeol was mid-way into the house. Everyone said that the three of them looked alike, and Chanyeol could see where the comments came from, but ever since he had left childhood behind, she had always been so… tiny. Tiny and kind to him - and that kindness was what the boy was there for anyway.

“Chanyeol! You should have come by for lunch!” she greeted, and he guessed she was right. That had been the original plan after he had almost decided to cancel.

“Yeah, sorry. I had uni stuff to do. You know how it’s being lately,” he lied. He raised the small gift bag he’d been carrying. “I brought you cookies, though.”

“That’s nice of you. You’re staying for dinner?”

“Um, maybe. If you want me to?”

“Don’t be silly, of course we want you to. Yoora came back home today to see you, too. We need to catch up. Go sit, yes? We have tea.”

“Do you want me to help?”

His mother took the bag with the cookie box from his hands.

“Absolutely not. You’re back for once without me having to nag you about it, so and your sister go sit and I’ll be with you as soon as I serve some of these cookies in a plate.”

His mother had made some changes in the living room since the last time he’d visited. She had already messaged him about it, with quite the big amount of photo proof, but she had changed their old red sofa for a white one and bought a bigger set of bookcases. It was in one of those where she had neatly arranged a whole collection of his and Yoora’s childhood photos: his sister on the park with a big straw hat, himself on the beach with a bucket full of seawater and a drenched oversized t-shirt. There was a photo of Chanyeol at his theater play in high school, with a stupid elf costume, and Yoora hugging him from behind looking so smug framed in red and gold, next to a couple of photos of the two phases in Chanyeol’s life when he had decided that wearing ‘fashionable’ clothes and bleached hair was the ultimate way to be suave. Close to it was Yoora’s university graduation picture, and Chanyeol’s entry ceremony ones - both of them. He was widely smiling in one photo, stern in the other one, and he couldn’t quite recognize himself in any of them.

He turned around, went to sit on the sofa until his mother arrived.

“Good memories, huh?” Yoora told him. She had been watching him as he checked the photos, but he had his back to her. Chanyeol stared at the carpet as his mother finally walked in.

“Yeah. How’s work going, by the way?”

“Great. I told you I got promoted, right? Have you checked me out in the news? I’m an anchor every day at ATV3. Night program.”

Chanyeol had checked her out. Once, before falling asleep on his face. “You appear in the 3AM program. Talking about the Arcadian stock market. There’s only so much I can endure.”

“I’m on my way to professional success. Everyone has to start somewhere.”

“I record it every night,” his mother chimed in, with the such an obvious streak of pride in her voice that Chanyeol clucked, restlessness forgotten for a second. “She’s good, I’ll mail the files to you. Want a cookie?”

Chanyeol shook his head. His mother had served cups of tea and he took a sip out of his. “I’m not really hungry.”

“Come on. Look at you, you’re so thin.”

“I’m not.”

“Come on, mom, he’s been getting his weight back.” Yoora, sitting beside him, poked him in the arm. “Take a look, he’s a healthy boy.”

“Well, the reports of the doctor have been good for this last year. We should all be happy for that,” their mother admitted.

Chanyeol’s stomach churned. “Yeah.”

“Were you told when you would be finally discharged?”

“I haven’t yet” replied Chanyeol, shrugging.

“Probably after the law is passed on?” suggested Yoora.

“Yeah, that’s what I heard too,” agreed Chanyeol. He drummed with the tips of his fingers on the white surface of the sofa. “It won’t be long until they do, I guess. There’s not much more they can do with me anyway.”

“We’ll go celebrate when it happens,” his mother said. She was happily munching one of the cookies Chanyeol had brought. The boy watched her as he swallowed, cleared his throat when the woman noticed him staring.

Should I? he thought. Should I?

That apartment looked and smelled and felt like childhood, but he hadn’t gone there to reminisce.

“What do you think about that?” he asked. “About all that law stuff. They’re making CFCS surgery mandatory for every severe patient.”

Yoora looked at him, eyes lidded but his mother tapped her lips with her index finger, considering. “It’s nice, I believe…? Treatment costs are expensive. I’m not entirely sure everyone in Arcadia could fund them without a lot of money or an insurance. So that the government is taking care of them is a step forward.”

“It’s good to have a definite cure,” agreed Yoora.

Chanyeol stared down again at his hand on the sofa. “Is it though?” he asked. “The cure? Good?”

His mother and Yoora exchanged a look. “What do you mean?” his sister asked.

“It’s the cure there is ,” replied Chanyeol, after taking a deep intake of breath. “But I… Do you know there’s people against it?” Do you know you could say I’m becoming one of them? he wanted to say, the words heavy on the tip of his tongue. He hesitated for a moment, parted his lips and closed them when he realized he was being observed. “I’ve been talking to people about this.”

“What people, exactly? Someone at the hospital?”

Kai, the idol. A boy in a waiting room. Byun Baekhyun, Byun Youngha’s son. “You know I'm working on my thesis, the group one with Seungwan and Sehun. We had to interview people about that. Different ones. Other patients, like I was.”

“And? What did they tell you?” his mother asked, voice soft. She was looking at him kindly, as kind as always, but his hands still closed into fists on the sofa. He brought them to his lap, took a deep breath.

“Mom, Yoora,” he started. “Do you think I’ve changed? After my own surgery, I mean. Do you think I was different from what I used to be?”

His mother and Yoora exchanged another long look. Something in the air seemed to pull at Chanyeol, forcing him still.

“What makes you think that?” his mother asked.

That wasn’t funny at all, but Chanyeol felt like laughing. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve seen some people having a really bad time, and I can’t say I’m like that, or that I’m in pain or unhappy, but I feel that… I’ve been doing nothing for more than two years.” Chanyeol gestured around him, trying to cover the room, his family, himself. He clicked his tongue. “I’ve been studying, of course. I’ve been getting good grades. I made friends, and I… got Seungwan, I suppose, but I… I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know why. Why did I change my studies? Why did I decide I wanted to do all of this? Everything just feels so superficial.”

“Don’t you remember?” Yoora noted. “Doctors said you needed a change of air, so we asked you if you would be okay with trying something else.”

“And I did,” Chanyeol finished. He sort of remembered that, yeah, if he thought about it hard enough. It appeared that his brain hadn’t considered that to be important enough to deserve something else than a little, residual memory at the back of his head. “It just feels so apathetic. Everything about me. Like I spent two years not caring at all. I said I wanted to help fellow CFCS patients but I didn’t even stop to listen to them. I believed that I had friends but I hadn’t even heard the songs they liked. This is… was I always like this?”

His mother had picked another cookie from the table, but she wasn’t eating it. She kept turning it in her hands instead, the tips of her fingers stained in brown because of the melted chocolate chips. “You came to visit to ask this, don’t you?”

“But that should be good, right?” asked Yoora, to no one in particular. “It’s a good step.”

“What is?”

His sister watched him like she was considering, but it was his mother who spoke. “We were told, after the surgery, that it could take some time for you to readjust. It’s still an intrusive process, what you went through, so they said it was normal for you to be a little detached about some things.”

“Detached…?” repeated Chanyeol. It must be the aircon. He felt so cold. It had to be the aircon. He stood up. “So you’re saying I did change.”

He walked to the window. That was the only one in the whole house that was directly over the park. They had a terrace there, wrapped in ivy, like human lungs got wrapped in cherry blossoms.

“Doctors said to leave you be. That they’d check on you.”

“So that’s why I’m going for check-ups even two years later?” He hadn’t meant to, but Chanyeol raised his voice. He felt cold all over, limbs numb but core hot enough to make him see red. He would have punched the window, just to see if it cracked, and to check if the it was so obvious voice mocking him in his own head finally shut down. “Is that why they do check-ups on every single one of us?”

“It’s a new treatment--” started Yoora.

“Why wasn’t I told about this?” Chanyeol snapped back. He would have punched the glass. He wanted to punch the glass. He breathed in and fumbled with the handle to open the window - he needed the air to get out, the noise of the city to burst in. But of course, Arcadia was always silent. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

When he turned around, his mother was not looking at him. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“You didn’t tell me.” He should run. He wanted to leave that place now.

“Chanyeol…”

“What did you want us to tell you?”

That had been Yoora, who had stood up. Yoora, that was looking up at him like she was some kind of cornered animal, decided to attack instead of backing off. She looked furious, and Chanyeol flinched, his head red and white and spinning too much for him to be able to think.

“Maybe the truth?”

“You went through aggressive surgery and woke up. You almost died because of all this! Doctors told us we were lucky, and you were there, and were so happy about it!” Yoora replied, voice rising. She laughed then, humorless. “What did you want us to tell you, huh? Oh, Chanyeol, we’re so glad you’re redoing your life again but you used to be more passionate about things before, you know? Would that have been fair? Is that what we were supposed to do?”

No, Chanyeol thought. Yes. Maybe.

“I- I don’t know.”

A lucky survivor, Baekhyun had called him. He’d said that hearts were a fragile thing. How easy to break has his been, really? How hardened, after?

“Tell me another thing,” he said. His heart was a drum in his chest, trapped like a bird in the hollow of his ribcage. Those bones have been lined with flowers, once. Pink flowers, taking over everything, blooming in sorrow and blood. There always was a price, Baekhyun had said: a price and a reason. “Why was I sick? What was the reason I got CFCS in the first place?”

No one said anything, and Chanyeol wasn’t even angry anymore.

“Mom,” he insisted, voice low.

She wasn’t still looking at him. “I don’t know,” she said. “I only know parts, but should I tell you? Even though you signed to forget. Should I tell you? You’re asking now, yeah, after all this time, but what do I do?”

“Do what you think is right,” stated Chanyeol. He went to his mother, kneeling before him so he could look at her in the face. The cookie in her lap was all crumbled, her hands stained deep brown. “Mom, please.”

“It’s not my place,” she whispered. She was smiling, almost like she was about to cry. “Do you know what the problem here is, son? I love you. I love you, and I don’t know what is right or wrong at all when it comes to this.”

--

He wanted to see Baekhyun. He needed to see him. And so he phoned him.

“Hey, what's with the sudden call? You didn't even message me first. Missed my voice?” the other boy told him. And he did, but that was not the issue.

“Baekhyun,” he said. “I've fought with my family. I've run away from my mother’s apartment.”

“Wait, what?” The amusement was gone from Baekhyun’s voice as fast as it had arrived. “Where are you? Chanyeol.”

He looked around. He didn’t know. He had left the apartment and started walking, first towards the park, and then across it. The usual metro station he took to get back home was somewhere in the other direction, lost behind a barrier of trees and concrete, and he should turn back, maybe, head home and shut himself and sleep, but the only thing he felt like doing, right then and now, was running away, far from Arcadia and its hospital, the traces of flowers in his chest and the string of text messages from his sister. His phone was vibrating even now, where he pressed it against his ear to listen to Baekhyun’s voice.

“Chanyeol,” he repeated, voice so steady that Chanyeol found himself clinging to it like it was the only thing that could prevent him from falling. “Listen to me. Why did you fight with your family? What happened?”

“I asked them,” the boy whispered. There were others around him, families enjoying a Saturday out and couples walking hand in hand, normal people living an unremarkable day without their world feeling like it was crumbling. “I went to see my mother because I wanted to know if there was something that had changed in me after the surgery. And I wanted them to say no. I really wanted them to tell me that I was exactly the same as I used to be.”

There was a long silence at the other side of the line. “And they said you weren’t,” Baekhyun finally whispered back. Around him, people looked all calm and happy, and Chanyeol left the main earth path as soon as it took a right turn. He wanted to be alone; he needed to be alone, and the messages kept coming in.

“They said I was detached ,” he murmured. “And what’s that supposed to mean? That I turned less passionate, apparently? That I spent years not caring about shit? That I was just… there? What a fucking good way to exist. I didn’t even bother to ask myself what I was sick in the first place. How fucking funny.”

He heard Baekhyun draw in a sharp breath. “Where are you?”

“Is it important? They won’t find me here. Even if they look for me, they won’t.”

“Chanyeol. Where?”

The boy left himself fall at the foot of a tree. He covered his eyes with one hand. “Eden Park,” he breathed out.

“Really? What part of it?”

“North side, I think. Under some tree.”

“Send me your GPS position. Can you do that?”

“What?” Chanyeol laughed under his breath. “Are you coming to pick me up or something?”

“Yeah.”

The stupid, humorless chortle that had almost been out of Chanyeol’s throat died in a low, whiny noise. “Don’t. You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Why.”

“Because you called me. And I want to.” Baekhyun paused, voice softening. “Let me come. I’m heading out; tell me where you are.”

Chanyeol still felt like laughing, like punching things to see if they broke and in how many pieces he could shatter them. He still wanted to be alone until the shock passed, and he still hung up the call, but he sent Baekhyun a GPS marker with his location anyway, fingers shaking on the chat menu. The other boy replied something to him, but Yoora was calling now, and Chanyeol put the phone on plane mode and let it fall on the grass.

He didn’t know how much time passed. A family with a dog came, the poor creature coming to sniff his toes, wiggling his tail, but they left after a while, and Chanyeol was left where he was, with his face buried in his knees and his only open eye lost in some point between the ground and the sky.

The clouds were moving, up above. The wind was starting to howl. Another happy family passed in front of where he was, the youngest child turning her head to look at him for a moment.

Then nothing.

Wind.

The wet grass under his hands.

Voices, a bit too far away.

And steps coming closer, fast and rhythmic.

“Chanyeol!”

The boy saw him before he heard him: Baekhyun, in a very big hoodie, frantically looking around. His hair was a bit too messy, like he had dug his hands in it or forgot to brush it, and he was wearing the kind of dumb tracksuit pants that were too old to take out of home. He still hadn’t seen him, even though he was getting closer, and he stopped to check his phone for a second, impatiently tapping on the screen and biting his lip.

He was sort of lovely when he did that.

And he was lovely when he saw him and his eyes fell wide open.

“Chanyeol,” he called again, and he sounded just the tiniest bit upset, but still worried. He had been practically running, but he came closer slowlier, almost carefully, with his phone in his hand and his breath still ragged. Chanyeol didn’t move when the boy knelt before him, he didn’t raise his head but still he spoke.

“Hey.”

“Don’t hey me. Didn’t you hear me calling for you?” he started. Then he swallowed, fingers digging in the hem of his sweater. “How are you?” he asked, voice softening. His bangs were falling into his eyes. Silver white - what a pretty color.

“You’re here,” Chanyeol muttered.

“Of course I’m here.”

“I-- Just don’t know how to feel. It’s not that bad, is it? I haven’t-- As far as I know, I don’t have a secret twelve-year-old brother, or a lifestyle I know hate. I’m just making a lot of drama out of everything.”

“That’s not true.” Baekhyun smiled at him. He sounded sad, even though he shouldn’t be. “Hey, I still owe you that coffee. Do you want to go somewhere and speak about this? My treat.”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want me to take you home, instead?”

They have fought, the last time they have spoken, and that was the first time Chanyeol had seen him since even before that day. And he-- He just-- “I don’t want to be alone.”

Baekhyun nodded, like it was normal. He stretched his hand towards him, with an absurdly solemn expression. “Okay, come with me,” he said. His sleeve almost covered his entire hand, and still he held it between them, like he expected Chanyeol to grab it. “Look at the sky, it’s going to start raining soon.”

It was. The wind was blowing, and the clouds kept dancing in the sky, grouping themselves and going from grey to black. It was coming, a summer storm, and Chanyeol barely had time to stretch his own hand before Baekhyun’s fingers closed around his wrist.

They were so warm, and he shivered. They were stronger than they looked, and they wrapped around his flesh as Baekhyun pulled him up, and never let go after, even when they started walking, making their way back to the main path.

People would look. People would stare.

He didn’t mind.

“Where are we going?”

Baekhyun looked back at him, as if taken aback by the question. “My place,” he explained. “The apartment my father exiled me into. Are you okay with that?”

“There’s no one there, right? No one else.”

“Not really.”

The wind had grown fast and wet and cold by the time they left the park, going north and north and north, and the first drops had begin to fall as they ran down the street. Baekhyun’s apartment wasn’t far, thank the heavens, and they managed to find solace inside the building as the storm finally took shape around them. The air smelled of wet grass and rain around them, even after they had reached Baekhyun’s floor and entered his place.

“Ah-- Sorry, I left the windows open,” he muttered, rushing to close them. Only then he released Chanyeol’s wrist, and the boy stared at it numbly before he bent down to remove his shoes.

He could not see Baekhyun from the entrance, but still he could hear him moving around - a dragging sound, then something closing, then the boy’s steps as he moved. Chanyeol breathed in and walked forward, just in time to see Baekhyun sliding the balcony door closed.

“You have your shoes on,” he whispered, and he felt exhausted but still he chuckled when he saw Baekhyun flinch and curse under his breath.

“Just after walking through dirt, wonderful,” he heard him groan. Chanyeol walked to the center of the place and stood there, hands in his pockets and head still low. Baekhyun’s was one of those one roomed apartments, with the kitchen on one wall, an unmade bed against the other and a low table in the middle of the place. He kept books on it, close to a half-full tea mug that was, most probably, already cold. “Ah, just-- sorry if it’s messy, but make yourself comfortable, okay?”

Chanyeol nodded. When he went to sit on the desk chair, he noticed the big EDN-Pia issue anti CFCS poster on the wall before it, one of those ones that depicted a pretty, melancholic girl in a flurry of cherry blossom petals. “You keep one of these?”

“To remind myself,” said Baekhyun, behind him. “But don’t sit there, take the bed. You look tired.”

“I’m not,” replied Chanyeol, but it was a lie, and he had already gazed down and seen the boxes of painkillers stacked in one corner of the desk, so he obliged. Baekhyun’s bed had light blue sheets, and smelled like him, and Chanyeol awkwardly sat in one corner of it, hands on his lap, even though the thing was big enough to comfortably fit two people.

“I said make yourself comfortable,” Baekhyun told him with a chuckle.

“What do you want, me to lie down?”

“You could.”

“If it makes you happy…”

God, Baekhyun’s bed smelled so much like him, and he was in no position to fight the urge of closing his eyes and breathe in. He felt like falling asleep like that, and waking up only in the morning, with all that mess already behind him. If it could go away. Would go away. He thought it wouldn’t.

“Do you want me to order take-out? Are you hungry?”

“Not really.”

“I-- Do you want to talk about this?”

Chanyeol didn’t know what to reply, so he didn’t.

He must have fallen asleep at some point after all, because before he even realized, the sound of the doorbell was echoing through the whole place, and the weight of the bed shifted as Baekhyun crossed the apartment to open it. He greeted someone, thanked them, and by the time Chanyeol raised his body enough to look he was coming back with a very wet bag in hand.

“I feel a bit sorry for the guy, making him come with all this rain. But here, I just ordered this for you. I didn’t know what kind of coffee you were into, so I just got creative.”

Chanyeol took a sip. It was so sweet, the taste heavy on his tongue, but he didn’t complain. That was the kind of drink his mother would have made or ordered for him while trying to cheer him up. He sighed down at it.

“Don’t like it?”

“Nah, I do.”

“Liar.”

Baekhyun kept framed photos on his bedside table, Chanyeol noticed when he went to leave his cup on it - one with a middle-aged woman that could only be his mom, another one with Kyungsoo and a cheerful group of people, one last one with Jongdae. In all of them, Baekhyun looked younger and happy, his hair still black and his cheeks fuller and his smile all wide.

“Those are pretty photos,” he said. Or, at least, Baekhyun was pretty in them.

“Do I look good?” he asked, tone slightly playful, and Chanyeol would have blushed in slight embarrassment, had he not been so numb.

“You don’t keep any photo of yourself and your dad?” he asked instead. “Not there. I suppose you wouldn’t want to have one on your bedside table but… You know, around.”

“Nah, he never was a man for lovely family photos, unless they were official and going to be uploaded somewhere. He liked those pretty much. He still does, I suppose - I’m the one who doesn’t”.

“What kind of man was he?”

“The kind that doesn’t want a son like me but is too prideful to let go of him completely. I did tell you, right? Everything you see here, he paid for it.” He fell and seated on the bed, at Chanyeol’s side, arms stretched towards the ceiling, mocking, and cheerful, voice not shaking a bit. “So no one could say he doesn’t treat me like a prince, eh? This is a really good zone in town.”

“But you got along with him before, didn’t you?” Chanyeol asked. “I saw on the internet,” he rushed to add, when Baekhyun raised his eyebrows at him. He had no food on his hands, no coffee, and Chanyeol vaguely wondered what he had ordered for himself.

“Ah, the internet, that place where no one ever lies,” he snorted. “But yeah, we got along. He called me his pride and all that, while I did what he wanted. Right until the moment I decided I was tired, and that I wanted to come clean. Then he punched me in the face and exiled me.”

“Literally?”

“Yeah.” Baekhyun gave him a grin and a shrug. “If you asked me, he would have preferred his son to blatantly lie to him than for me to be honest and disobey him. He’s just so used to being listened to.”

Chanyeol lied on the bed once more, fingers tracing the seams of the duvets, eyes on the curve of Baekhyun’s jaw. “And you never think that you would have preferred it?”

“Preferred what?”

“The lie.”

Baekhyun’s eyes opened wide when he turned to look at him, but it wasn’t long until they softened. “Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? To keep the lie going and going. It’d help, you think. It’d make you happy, you think. I wonder, sometimes… It’s just that, from my experience, I don’t think a thing like that would hold on for long. You’d keep trying and trying to keep your eyes shut, but truth is like sunlight, I feel: it’ll blind you all the same, even through your closed lids, until you either open your eyes or just turn your head away.”

Letting out a shaky breath, Chanyeol tried his best to curl into a ball, knees against his chest, head on the duvet.

“Hey,” Baekhyun said, chuckling, when he saw him taking most of the space in his bed. He sounded fond enough, and he didn’t attempt to confine him to one side, so Chanyeol decided it was probably okay to act like a selfish child and keep most of the surface to himself for a bit.

“I don’t know why I asked,” he admitted. “The moment I went with you to the hospital, when I started talking to people and realizing what was going on, I knew that something had to be taken from me too. Everyone paid a price, you said, and that could not only mean people like Jongin, or Jisung’s family; there was no reason for me not to be included in all that so. I am not special here, but I hoped I was. I didn’t want to ask, but I asked anyway.”

“And you got disappointed?”

“I got upset. They hadn’t told me. I went to my family, and there was something different in me and they hadn’t told me. Even when I asked, they felt reluctant to tell.”

“So you ran.” He felt the weight of something warm on his shoulder - Baekhyun’s hand, squeezing it. Chanyeol let out a whisper and closed his eyes. “Do you blame them? For not telling you post surgery, that they thought you were different somehow?”

Yeah, Chanyeol wanted to say, but when he parted his lips the words didn’t come out. “I’m not sure,” he admitted in the end, and his chest felt less heavy when he said it. Twisted and bruised, yeah, like his ribcage was made of glass and someone had dug a nail into it, but a bit lighter still. “I should, maybe, but my sister said they didn’t even know what or how they could have told me and… they had a point? The idea of going to someone who just recovered from a terrible sickness and telling them that yeah, they used to be much nicer before sounds kind of cruel.”

“Very,” admitted Baekhyun, and Chanyeol could not see him, but he heard the smile in his voice all the same. “I don’t know how much you are willing to listen to my advice, but if I were you, I wouldn’t hate them. They sound like good people.”

“Yeah.”

“So be angry for a while if you want, and then let them come back to you.”

“My phone’s in plane mode,” whispered Chanyeol. “Again, am I being too dramatic about this?”

“No. When we speak about CFCS, it’s never an easy thing. What to do, how to act, what to choose… It’s always such a mess.” Baekhyun’s fingers had went up from his shoulder to the side of his neck, soft on his pulse and burning hot on his skin. It was soothing. “My dad, you see, is enraged and ashamed by my decisions, but I fought with my mother and my brother too. They think all this I’m doing is a glorified form of suicide. And don’t they have a point after all?”

Chanyeol’s breath hitched in his throat. “No,” he muttered. The word came out hoarse, and the boy could not hear the sudden fear in it until it was there, floating between them. “That’s not it, right? You don’t--”

“I don’t feel like I’m killing myself at all. And I don’t want to die at all , but am I not dying? I could be saved with an incision and a cut and some stitches, and I still choose not to. Every day. So what do I do, Park Chanyeol? What would you do? Do I lose my life or do I lose myself?”

He was still warm, and soft, and smiling, and Chanyeol felt too tired to move. He didn’t really want to think about that.

“Do you know what?” he asked, voice stuttering just a bit. “I signed my own authorization, and I went through surgery, and maybe that’s what changed me enough to say this but… I don’t think I would have agreed to flower removal, if current me was the one to have the choice.”

Baekhyun chuckled, low and a bit hoarse. “My, I’m such a bad influence on you.”

“You should be proud.”

“Really.”

Baekhyun’s fingers were on his hair now, distractedly combing through the messy black locks, in a slow cadence that seemed to find Chanyeol’s own heartbeat. For a moment, he remained silent. “What do you think it was?” he asked after a while. “The reason I got sick?”

Baekhyun hummed. “Something important,” he muttered, fingers carding through his hair. “It always is, for us.”

It happened, then. Baekhyun’s nail grazed his scalp, close to his nape, and the sensation made Chanyeol open his eyes wide. He must have made some kind of stupid, breathy sound, he wasn’t sure, but now Baekhyun was staring at him, the unguarded expression in his face closing into shocked embarrassment.

“Ah- Ah, sorry,” he said. His hand froze for a whole second, fingers still on Chanyeol’s hair, before he attempted to remove it. “I shouldn’t have--”

Chanyeol didn’t exactly think. At one moment, something in his brain had gone on overdrive, and one fraction of a second after he had already wrapped his fingers around Baekhyun’s wrist, keeping him in place. He sensed the boy’s muscles tense, saw the hitch in his breath - maybe because he had been staring at his mouth while he spoke.

“Chanyeol?” he whispered.

His wrist was thinner than it looked, skin over tendon over bone. Don’t you die on me. “It’s just... It’s fine. What you were doing, I-- it was helping me to sleep.”

Oh, crap. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “You should sleep a bit, yeah. You really do look like shit,” Baekhyun told him when he was released, but he didn’t leave him be, or go away like Chanyeol thought he would. His hand went back to his hair, a little hesitant at first, but soon regaining a rhythm. “You can stay the night here if you want. It’s still raining outside.”

“Is it?” It was a dumb question; Chanyeol could still hear the downpour at the other side of the window. Baekhyun shrugged at him, and huffed, body relaxing against his, and Chanyeol’s head was still spinning, but he wondered, just for a crazy second of lucidity, how would it be like to kiss him.

Baekhyun, who had come when he had called him. Baekhyun, who was in love with someone else.

And he shouldn’t mind. He didn’t.

“You know?” he whispered, voice groggy. “Who would not love you?”

“What?”

“I don’t understand how anyone wouldn’t love you back.”

He hadn’t wanted to make Baekhyun sad, but he had managed anyway. He was such an idiot. “It just happens,” the boy replied, laughing a bit. “Go and try to sleep.”

He’d almost felt like arguing, but Baekhyun’s fingers were still carding through his hair, and he might be a fool, but he was the exhausted sort of idiot, so in the end he listened and closed his eyes and let reality around him fade into stillness.

--

He half awoke at some point, when the world at the other side of the window had already turned pitch-black, because he felt movement on the mattress and a rattling sound, like a broken whistle. A shadow was crossing the room, steps wobbly and irregular, hands stretched towards the front. There was a small crash - flesh against wood and wood against the concrete of the wall.

“Oh shit,” he heard. The second word got interrupted by a long, muffled cough, another one, the scramble of cardboard boxes, and steps that walked away from the room.

Chanyeol could still hear the noise, even as a door closed between the bedroom and the bathroom; he could still see how the stripe of light beyond the threshold darkened as the person in the other room paced around and kneeled and choked and fought for air.

Was he dreaming? Could he move? Was it his place to?

Then it went away, like it had never been, and his eyes felt closed.

He dozed between consciousness and dreaming, when the bathroom door opened back, when slow, steady steps made it back to the bed, when he felt the mattress shift and a hot, irregular breath on his nape.

When he finally woke up, the sun was already up in the sky, and Baekhyun was sleeping in the same bed - his bed - with his back to his and his hands curled into fists against his chest. His hair was messy, stuck against his temples, but besides that he looked peaceful, so peaceful - a boy sleeping, surrounded by a cloud of pink petals.

It was a new day, and Chanyeol’s mind was clearer. It was a new day, and Chanyeol had invaded Baekhyun’s apartment for hours on end and had fallen asleep in the middle of his bed. Something like that was probably considered rude in more than ten different countries - specially when the other person was sick and had to curl in one corner of his own bed because there was approximately 1.85 metres of human being having the nap of his life in one half on it.

“Baekhyun…?” he called, quietly. Was it a good idea to wake him up or should he let him speak? The boy mumbled something, scooting towards him, and Chanyeol felt his own breath hitch. “Baekhyun, I-- I have to go?”

He had fallen asleep on the covers - probably because Chanyeol, in his infinite intelligence, had decided to rest on them too, instead of under them - so Chanyeol made his best attempt at trying to tuck him in before he left. He was satisfied enough with the result: a sleepy Baekhyun who was muttering something that slightly sounded like threats, but that didn’t wake up, and a lot of pink petals thrown into the trash bin. He wrote a thank you note on a piece of paper, left it on the bedside table, trapped under the photo frame with the picture of the boy and his mother and cleared his throat before sparing him one last, long look.

“Well, I’m leaving,” he repeated. Baekhyun replied with a very loud snore. “You know,” he added, letting his hands into his pockets. “We’ll make it. We’ll stop this whole law from being passed, I’ll make sure of it.”

As expected, Baekhyun didn’t reply, and just turned around instead, face all calm and body limp, no trace of flowers in his lips or shallowness in his breath. When he was like that, it was easy to forget that he was sick - and Chanyeol tended to do so, time and time and time again.

“How bad is your condition, really?”

Wasn’t there another way for Baekhyun to heal, that didn’t involve losing too much? His life, or his memories, or his heart, wasn’t there a way to keep it? Maybe it would, if Baekhyun’s love was reciprocated - it would not save everyone, but it would save him. Or maybe, you know, that annoying voice at the back of his head sinsonged, he could fall in love with someone else.

Chanyeol shook his head. He turned around. “Rest well, okay?”

He had asked that one question to Baekhyun the night before: who would not love you?

And it was clear, right?

Who would not love you?

Obviously, whoever it was the one that mattered the most to him.

--

So it seemed clear that Chanyeol had changed, somehow, that he couldn’t tell who he has been and why he was different. Knowing there had been… changes in him made him feel weird, like the streets and the concrete and the tall glass buildings of the Arcadia city center were somehow casted with a cold, foreign light.

There wasn’t much he could do about having spent two years of his life as some kind of detached doll, as his own sister had called it. But there was something else he could do, right then. He had told Baekhyun that he was going to do anything possible to stop the CFCS law being passed forward, and that he’d do.

And so, there he was, post midday on a Sunday, sitting in the same fancy waiting room where he had been for the last three hours, surrounded by heavy velvet curtains, and arched stained glass windows, and an immense Byun Younha poster on one of the walls.

Advocating for welfare , the text at the bottom of the sign said, in bold blue letters. Despite the tight line of his mouth and the general sternness of his expression, there still was something of Baekhyun in him - they had the same jaw, and the same eyes, from the shape to the intensity of them. And it made sense, in a way. It was ironic how Baekhyun seemed to be pretty much his father’s son.

At least, and even though Baekhyun had called him the enemy at first, he had never kept him waiting in an intimidating-looking room for three hours. But now then, Baekhyun was a twenty-four year old activist-slash-student, and not a high ranking politician.

With a sigh, Chanyeol got up from the sofa and walked back to the reception desk on that floor. Arcadia had always been pretty, but the Government Building had been made to make people feel small, with its tall, arched walls, stained glass windows and stone floors. Sunday wasn’t a busy day, and Chanyeol’s steps echoed on the hallway as he advanced, distractedly checking his phone.

He has missed calls from his mother and from Yoora, messages from Seungwan because of course, of course , his family had told her that he was upset.

You’re not in your dorm, right? I went there and there was no one. Are you okay? Do you want to speak? she had written. He had replied to her, as soon as he had seen the texts, telling her that he had been with Baekhyun. She was so nice, and he felt like a traitor.

Even Sehun had written to him, telling to call. He had really worried everyone, hadn’t he?

When he arrived at the reception desk, there was a different person there than when he had arrived. Last time he had check, there had been a girl there, but now the person in uniform, playing some kind of game on his phone on his workplace, was a young guy.

“Excuse me,” he called. “I don’t know if you have been told, but I’m that person who’s waiting for Byun Youngha to receive me. He was in a meeting when I arrived before…”

The man at the desk raised his eyes from his game, and reluctantly put it away. “Are you here for an interview? University paper? We receive students on Tuesdays.”

“Ah, I’m not here for an interview, really.”

“You came to apply for an internship, then? That’s on Fridays.”

“It’s not that either.”

“Then?” the guy asked him, reaching for his phone again. He sounded incredibly bored for someone who only had had to speak for thirty seconds.

“My name is Park Chanyeol,” he said, for the second time that day. “I came to talk to Mr. Byun Youngha about CFCS.”

“Ah,” reception guy replied, entirely unimpressed. He unlocked his phone. “So a protester, then?”

Chanyeol hesitated. “An ex-patient.”

“I see.” Reception guy peered at his computer screen. “Mr. Byun was in a meeting before, and after that he needed to leave for a scheduled visit. He should be back later today, but he’s a very busy man, you see. He could maybe receive you between his appointments. We’ll inform him that you’re here to see him.”

The boy would have been more keen to believe it if the woman in the previous turn hadn’t told him the same exact thing three hours ago. “No scheduled weekday for citizens like me?”

If the guy had managed to catch the sarcasm, he didn’t let it show. “Sorry, there’s not much I can help you with if you don’t have an appointment.”

“Yeah. Right. Let him know I came, alright?”

For a moment, Chanyeol was tempted to say that he knew Byun Youngha’s son. Perhaps, that would stir the man’s curiosity. Or maybe that would only grant him a kick in the ass. He stared at the man’s poster once more, once back at the waiting room outside of his office. The photo’s eyes were staring directly at the front, and seemed to follow him as he went to stand in front of him.

“Nice to meet you, sir,” he murmured with a snort.

So maybe that had not been the best of ideas, he’d admit that, but he had still needed to try. Baekhyun’s dad wouldn’t discuss that with his son, and they couldn’t move forward with a march that had had its permissions revoked. All that had come from the government, even if not them or Byun Youngha had any legitimate reasons to revoke their permissions, but one couldn’t call out the guys who ruled the city about being illegal without… being able to talk to them first.

It was no use. Baekhyun’s dad was only one guy in a whole government bureau, and still he was making it that difficult.

With a groan, he went to reluctantly seat on one of the blue velvet sofas. The thing was too fluffy, to the point where the seat swallowed him, trapping him in his own human-shaped hole before he could even finish taking his phone out of his pocket to complain.

He was wondering to how many different people he could send an ‘I’m bored’ text when he saw Sehun’s name on his chat up. He would have sworn his heart stopped for a whole second.

That’s it , he thought, practically jumping from the sofa and rushing down the corridor on his way out from this place. He already knew that, no matter how much he waited, the almighty Byun Youngha wouldn’t speak to him. And his alternative solution… perhaps it wasn’t something he would have tried under normal circumstances, but extreme situations called for extreme measurements as well.

His heart was pounding hard in his chest while he dialed Sehun’s number.

The connection was established.

His phone went beep, beep, beep, beep.

“Come on,” the boy whispered. “Come on.”

The sound stopped. “Chanyeol? Where are you? Everyone is still upset at you. And worried.”

“Sorry about that. Things were… a little bit rough yesterday,” he replied. “But hey, could you do me a favor? Something really, really important.”

“What are you into, now? And what do you want?”

Chanyeol drew in a shaky breath. “Well, you see, I don’t know how to ask this from you exactly but, your dad. Could you talk to him about something?”

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Downfall

 

You’re his Shephard, you say, and eventually they let you in. You’re their last chance, after all, the voice of reason that should be talking to him, telling him not to be a fool. The doctors want you to be there, his family wants you to be there.

No one asks you.

And you don’t want to be.

Or you do.

You want to go and see him.

But oh god, he’s so sick.

He looks so young. He looks so frail. He’s sitting on his bed, dressed in one of those white hospital gowns. Someone has brought him flowers - not of the pink sakura kind, but blossoms of red and yellow and blue. The type that people buys for their beloved, to the sick, to their deceased.

Ornaments for a swansong.

So tell me - how do you feel about him dying?

He’s not your first patient, nor your first lover, but he’s your biggest problem, your first failure, the kind of wound that leaves a scar behind. And you’re upset with him, still are - the amount of frustration and fear you’ve started to accumulate in your heart is frankly endearing.

After all you’ve done.

“You’re sure about this,” you tell him.

You shouldn’t be speaking now, would you? How angry you used to be, when people didn’t listen to you.

“You know what I think,” he says.

You two don’t even speak anymore. Not with your mask on, and not without it. You’re here, but he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t know who you are.

Little boy, so pale.

Little boy, fighting death in broken breaths.

His eyes are the same, though. The way he smiles.

Did you ever notice that smile?

“People loves you,” you insist. You used those same words before, to provoke him and to accuse, but hah, you really feel them now, don't you? Weighing on your tongue like a hopeless plea.

Oh, look at how the mighty have fallen.

Flowers grow and curl around his ribs, soon to tear flesh and crack bone. Fragrant snakes, tearing everything apart, crushing him in an embrace that will choke him into extinction.

You do visualize it, don't you?

But it's not your fault, right?

Not your fault.

Not your fault.

But your failure.

Little boy, with a heart of gold, a heart of glass.

Little boy, who never listens to you.

“Why did you even chose me?” you ask him again. You still don't know that it will be the last time you're allowed to see him. “I'm not even good at arguing with you.”

He smiles at you, and for once he looks all sad.

“Sorry about that,” he apologizes. “You always reminded me a bit of someone else.”

--

Arcadia University Hospital
Refusal of Treatment against Medical Advice

It’s the policy of Arcadia University Hospital to give our patients enough information about the purpose, importance, benefits, risks and possible costs associated with proposed tests, referrals or treatments, to enable patients and their families to make informed decisions about their health. However, patients have the right to seek a second opinion or refuse recommended medical advice or treatment. If you choose to refuse the recommended medical advice or treatment of our medical practitioners, we are required to record your decision


Thursday, November 11, 2038

I have been advised and it has been recommended by my supervisor physician Dr. Kim Junmyeon that I undergo a CFCS flower removal surgical procedure.

My physician has satisfactorily explained the above treatment to me, the subsequent risks and benefits, the alternatives to this recommendation and the probable consequences of not receiving the procedure. In addition, I have had the opportunity to ask questions about the proposed treatment and have had these answered to my satisfaction.

Notwithstanding the recommendation of my physician and with the knowledge I have:

  1. I declare that I am REFUSING the advised treatment of a flower removal surgery.
  2. I understand that the consequences of failing to follow the medical advice given to me might result in significant disability or eventual death.
  3. I understand I can change my mind at any time and return for treatment.

By signing below, I assume responsibility for all the risks and consequences of my refusal. I also release Dr. Kim Junmyeon and other persons participating in my care from all responsibility for any unfavorable or bad results that may occur as a result of my refusal to accept/permit the proposed recommendation.

--

Every song
is the remains
of love.
Every light
the remains
of time.
And every sigh
the remains
of a cry.

 

“So you’re telling me you really told your friend that Kai would be speaking at our march?”

In his favour, Baekhyun was trying his very best to look like he was scolding him. It would have been believable if it wasn’t for the way that a smirk was creeping up his lips. And what he was saying would have had some effect on Chanyeol if the boy hadn’t spent the whole previous night considering all the adverse consequences that technically lying to Sehun could have on his future.

At least, if Kim Jongin didn’t go to their hypothetical march - a small, tiny detail that could very possibly happen, considering how his last conversation with Baekhyun had been.

“Look, Sehun didn’t want to get into trouble. His father works at the government too, but when I called him to try to make him help, he went on terrible deadpan mode and asked me if I was crazy.”

“So you mentioned Jongin.”

“Yeah.”

“And told him he would be there if the march got reapproved.”

“I might or might not have promised him a personal fanmeet,” added Chanyeol. Baekhyun’s eyebrows raised to infinity. “Hey, don’t underestimate the power of a fanboy. He already messaged me to tell he was on it.

Baekhyun snorted. “Well, now you’re bound by what you promised. So that’s why you wanted to talk to Jongin again.”

“One had to try.”

“Agreed. We need more people now that Jisung’s dad has promised me to consider coming too. If there’s a march, that is.”

“Ah, I am glad we managed to talk to Jisung about that.”

“I’m glad you did,” Baekhyun told him with a smile. “You are really into this, aren’t you?”

“And you’re asking me this even now?” Chanyeol asked back, feigning offense with enough of a convincing tone to make Baekhyun burst out laughing.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, eyes narrowing into tiny slits as he stopped to face him on the hospital stairs. He didn’t stay there for long, soon joining the rest of the visitors on his way to the main hall of the clinic, but it was long enough for Chanyeol to lose track of what he was thinking.

Baekhyun looked all happy that day, more than what Chanyeol remembered him being in a while. He waved hi at Seulgi on the information desk and even said hi to a very pissed-looking Kyungsoo that they saw as they closed the room towards the elevators.

“Baekhyun--” the man started.

“I’ll call you later, okay?”

Jongin wasn’t going to be in his room that day, Baekhyun had told him, but on rehab. According to him, he would be out of the restricted rooms for that, and hence easier to reach, and so he proceeded to take Chanyeol up to one of the recovery floors.

“He’ll have one security guy with him, yeah, but I know the guy. He used to work for my dad, that’s why. I have my contacts, you see.”

That still sounded an awful lot like them sneaking in, most possibly against Jongin’s company’s desires. “Does Kai even know that we’re coming?”

“Yeah, he does. I texted him. I don’t know how happy he is about this, though. Probably not a lot: you remember what he told me last time.”

Chanyeol could hear music, at the other side of some of the doors. The ones leading to the biggest rooms were made of glass, and had recovery patients hoarded around their instructors, trying to regain the stamina they’d lost - most of them would be out soon, with scars in their chests, hope in their eyes and just the tiniest void in their hearts. Chanyeol had also gone through rehab once, when he had been too weak even to stand without falling, or trying to run without losing his breath.

“He said that because you were being too… intense to him, Byun.”

“Well, that’s me: intense. What to do, if I’m passionate about this.”

“Um. Focus it differently, maybe? So people at least don’t feel attacked?”

Baekhyun let out a very big sigh. “Okay,” he said. “We can do this. Help me out?”

The security guy Baekhyun knew was one very big and very broad young man, with shaved hair and a black suit. For a moment, Chanyeol felt slightly threatened by his general presence, but then the guy saw Baekhyun and he beamed. Wide.

“Ah, if it isn’t young master!”

One second after, Baekhyun was laughing out loud with that dumb laughter of his and patting the guy’s back. “Hey, how’s life going?”

“Great as always, sir! I see you’re thinner, though. Is Byun senior still having it hard on you?”

“I’m still exiled from his presence. No big deal,” said Baekhyun, shrugging. “But hey, can we go in?”

“Yeah. Don’t do something stupid, though, or I’ll have to kick you out.”

The guy waved at Chanyeol, all nice, when he moved away to let them pass through the door. He didn’t know if he should be relieved because of how chill he was about letting him in, or still a little threatened about all the effusiveness.

“He calls you young master?” he whispered, practically into his ear as they crossed the door. Baekhyun looked up at him, all mischievous.

“What can I say, I like being treated as a prince sometimes.”

Then he was laughing, and Chanyeol’s mind was left ringing with the sound of it, and then they crossed the threshold and were met with one big, luminous room.

Chanyeol had never been to a ballet studio, but if he would have needed to describe one, an image like that would have come to mind. The room was big and spacious, one wall covered in mirrors, and the other one in glass, bars all along their surface. There was a part of the floor covered with mats, and a boy was lying on one of them, eyes closed and a blue exercise ball on his chest. He turned his whole body towards them when they walked in - even in sweats and an old t-shirt, he looked way more gracious than what Chanyeol could ever aspire to be.

“So you came in the end,” he said.

“Hey, Jongin. Back at it, I see.”

The boy huffed at the words, but still took Baekhyun’s hand to sit up when the other boy offered it to him. He weakly smiled at Chanyeol when he saw him. “As if. My company wants me to try, but look at how this is going. It’s still hopeless.”

“When are they releasing you?”

“I asked for next week.” Jongin sighed. “We won’t be able to push it back further, I think.”

Chanyeol saw Baekhyun squirm slightly, restless, words in the tip of his tongue, like they were almost burning his tongue, behind his pressed lips. And the boy could almost hear them - our march is in a couple of weeks, you know? Couldn’t you consider changing your mind?

His words still came from good intentions, but in the end that still wouldn’t work. He had been standing close to the door, but he took a deep breath and walked right to where the other two were.

“Hey,” he said, stopping to rearrange his thoughts when Jongin tilted his head to stare right at him. That was the same boy whose performances Chanyeol had seen on the internet. That was the same boy, but not the same anymore. “How are you feeling?”

“About what exactly? Me heading out?” he asked and Chanyeol nodded. “I’m not really sure. It’s been a while since I have been there.”

“Have any plans?”

“Once rehab is done? I don’t know.”

“Try going on holiday,” Chanyeol suggested, and Baekhyun stared at them both, eyebrows raised.

“Really. Do you know when it was the last time he had one of those?” he asked. “Probably predebut. It wasn’t just the concerts and promos and all that: I’d swear I always see this guy at every single charity event I went to represent my father in.”

“Some of us are busy,” stated Jongin.

“Some of us.”

“But… It’s true that it’s going to be weird.” Jongin made the ball bounce on the mat. It made that loud, splashing noise as it touched the plastic before springing back up. “Not having a packed schedule from now on. Free time is not something I was expecting to come out with when I came here.”

The ball came almost straight to Chanyeol’s hands, and he grabbed it. It was so soft against his fingers, slippery, almost. “Yeah,” he said. “I get that, in a sense.”

“Really?”

“Ah, right, I didn’t tell you last time we came here. I am a CFCS surgery survivor too. I went through it a couple of years ago.”

He threw the ball to Jongin, who catched it effortlessly. He leaned on it, brow slightly frowned, beads of sweat in his temples. “So you’re one of the recovered ones. What made you sick?”

“I don’t really know.”

“And what did you lose, to make the flowers go?”

“Not sure. No one told me. I became less passionate, I was told after, but apparently that didn’t affect me as much: I just kept normally living my life.”

“Lucky you,” said Jongin in a whisper. “Doesn’t it make you relieved?”

Chanyeol kneeled down on the mat, so he would be face to face with the other man. He could feel Baekhyun’s eyes, digging holes in the back of his head. “It makes me angry,” he admitted. “Angry precisely because I went back to my life without noticing a thing. Angry because what and how and why should have been questions that I should have asked myself these last two years, and still I was too numb to even think about them. Angry because I didn’t even notice, and especially mad because my family did realize I have some… missing part in my brain and they never told me anything. And they couldn’t, right? How could they? When telling me that Chanyeol, you used to be different before would have been so ugly?”

Slowly, Jongin nodded. “I guess that you’re not so lucky, then.”

“I can’t even ask. Who would I go to? My family won’t speak, most of my friends I’ve made after the process, and my doctors here are probably instructed not to. Because I’m okay now, right? And my past killed me, so it must be ugly. And we don’t really like the ugly here in this town.”

Chanyeol felt the mat shift, as Baekhyun fell on his knees beside him. He was serious, still, but he did not say a thing. Jongin was staring at him too, lips pressed and exercise ball in his hands. “So that’s why you’re helping Baekhyun here, with his march?”

Chanyeol nodded. “Look, I’m aware that I barely know you, and sorry if this is intrusive or rude or something but… Last time I came here, I didn’t know who you were. I recognized your name, of course, because my best friend is a fan, but I hadn’t watched a single performance of yours, and I did later. After I knew what was wrong with you, and when I was wondering what was wrong with me, and I… Even someone as casual as I was could see that you were talented, and see that you were loved. You put the kind of passion into it that made hearts stop.”

Jongin swallowed and lowered his gaze, but at least didn’t push him away, not yet. “Well, that’s gone now,” he whispered, voice sharp and dry. “I don’t even remember enjoying this. It’s like that person on the internet was a different me.”

“And still, you’re bitter about what you lost.”

For a moment, Chanyeol thought he might have gotten too far - and by his grip on his shoulder, Baekhyun was thinking something similar too - but Jongin sighed, breath coming out shaky from his lips. “I’m going to go out in a matter of days, to a world that cherishes me and supports me while I don’t… Do you know that my fans send me letters and postcards? Even after months, they’re waiting for me to come back. And they care because I used to. How am I not expected to be bitter when I was the first one to enjoy what I did and now I don’t care? They’re supporting empty space, I don’t have it in me, and that makes me want to punch all the mirrors in this room until they break, break, break.

“But that wouldn’t help, right?” said Baekhyun, hands on his lap. He had stated once, that hearts were frail, that they could shatter like glass. Would that help?

“You could do another thing,” tried Chanyeol. “Baekhyun’s march still stands. We got our permissions revoked, but we’re working on getting them back. What if you try being one of the guest speakers, if we manage to get it approved? You could help a lot.”

Jongin let himself fall on the mat once more, eyes on the ceiling and sweaty hair out of his brow. “Didn’t I tell you? I don’t want my fans involved in any kind of political discourse. I’m not here to tell them what to think.”

“And you wouldn’t be,” replied Chanyeol. “That’s the thing. You would be telling them the truth. Why you can’t dance, why you are leaving. How you weren’t expecting this when you went under the knife, but you were misinformed and things went wrong. That’s not telling people what to think: that’s giving them enough information so they can decide what to stand for.”

“Don’t hide it from them,” Baekhyun added, nodding. “Hiding things is never the wisest choice.”

“So do you propose I do what? Tell everyone I’m leaving and then appearing to speak for you? Or just going up your stage and telling everyone I’m retiring?”

Chanyeol considered. “You could do that. It would have an impact,” he said, even though Jongin laughed at him.

“People wouldn’t like that.”

“And what can you do, in your situation, that would make them happy?”

There was no reply, as Chanyeol watched Jongin’s chest go up and down, fast and shallow. “Do you know,” he started, trying to shape a thought into an idea, and that idea into a thread of words. It was harder than he thought, for the moment it took his throat to clear. “All of this… I think there’s a problem with this city. People here don’t like the ugly. They don’t like it and they won’t see it. They demolish the old concrete buildings and make skyscrapers of steel and glass. They build garden over garden, but remove every single cherry tree from them as soon as people started coughing sakura blossoms - just for the aesthetics of it, so people don’t have to see a replica of the flowers that are killing their friends. They tell sick people to get treated by using pretty posters of girls in pink petal fields, when the solution they had is everything but gentle. Even the people against EDN-Pia’s agreement with the government go to see Baekhyun speak because he’s good looking, and charismatic, and know how to hold a crowd, but even if they share the same opinion, even if they support him the most because he’s pushing this all forward despite being sick, they won’t stay if the police comes to interrupt his meeting. They don’t like it either if he bends forward and coughs blood in the middle of one of his speeches. Because that’s not pretty, right? Because it’s not nice being hit with the ugly in the face.”

Baekhyun had tilted his head to look at him. “That’s--”

“You know I’m telling the truth. We’re used to this. My family didn’t tell me the truth because, hell, that’s one of a fucking ugly thing to say, right? And it’s a bit of the same thing when it comes to you too, right, Jongin? How can you tell your fans you’ve lost the thing they loved you for? How can you tell them that you got a treatment to erase a part of yourself that was killing you and things came out to this? It’s ugly, right? However you look at it, it’s a no win choice - and Arcadia doesn’t like that.” Chanyeol stopped for air. Both Jongin and Baekhyun were now looking at him, their undivided attention on the expression on his face and the movement on his lips. He swallowed. “That’s why I think you should join us and show them.”

He was not like Baekhyun, not the kind of man made to stand in the spotlight and make crowds part with the sound of his voice alone, but in that very moment he felt powerful, untouchable.

“Do you think that’d help in any way?” Jongin asked him.

“It’d do. People here, they are not bad. They just avoid the difficult choices by sticking to the easy ones. Let’s go and call CFCS the Beautiful Death, and let’s pretend it can be cured by making some cuts in the lungs. Let’s pretend secondary effects are just casual or unavoidable because the other choice is way more fatal. Let’s just say Kai retired because of some dumb generic reason, because admitting he suffered and fought and was screwed up wouldn’t allow us to be happy about the EDN-Pia ads on TV, or about what this sickness does to us. We might be researching, for something better or that doesn’t hurt as much, but we can’t be allowed to be lied to while they do. And you, we , we can let people know. We can wake people up. This is what this march is really about - the ugly. The kind of things we hide.”

For a moment, neither Baekhyun nor Jongin said a thing, but finally the latter nodded, solemnly. “It makes sense,” he said. Chanyeol’s heart was pounding in his chest, like a frenzied drum, the echo of it resounding in his ears.

“Does it?” he whispered.

“Yeah, I’ll think about it. When you say it like that, all this might be something important that I can still do,” Jongin replied, with a small nod. “After all, even someone like me would like to say goodbye with a last, big stage.”

“And all of Arcadia will be your audience. I’ll make sure of that.”

When Chanyeol turned to look at Baekhyun, he saw him sitting, back straight and head up, lips curved up after speaking and eyes gleaming with that same fire that he’d had when Chanyeol had gone to watch his speech and he had took the stage by storm. He was just one boy, sitting in the corner of a mat in a hospital room, but still he looked like he could take over the world - and Chanyeol loved that.

Baekhyun looked at him, then, eyes softening when they met, the smile blossoming on his lips into something that seemed just meant for him, and that, that, left Chanyeol breathless and confused and yearning for something he could not quite identify.

Baekhyun was looking at Jongin, cheeks slightly flushed in excitement, gesturing in excitement as he spoke about the night, the lamps, the march, and Chanyeol heard the words without listening, stared at his profile and waited for the feeling to recede.

Only, it never exactly did.

--

To his dismay, Chanyeol’s heart still stupidly sped up when Baekhyun appeared two days later in his university, carrying a paper bag into the empty study room where Chanyeol was supposed to meet Seungwan and Sehun later. He had texted him, asking where he was, and Chanyeol had sent him his location without expecting him to appear so soon, or to look so happy.

He had a really pretty smile, when he was genuinely beaming. Like sunshine in winter, all silver bright.

“Baekhyun?” he called.

“You made it!”

“What?”

“You really did! Jongin called me today. He has been discharged, and already talked to his company, and they are not very okay with it but it’s not like they can stop him after all this mess. He’s speaking for us!”

“Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, and he got convinced by what you said. I just wanted to come here and tell you in person.”

For some reason, the idea of Baekhyun deciding he was going to come and walk into his university only to tell him that was making him nervous. Not the bad kind of nervous, he thought, only a sort of giddiness that made his palms sweat. He hid his hands in the bottom of his pockets and stood up as Baekhyun, still looking impossibly bright, went and sat on the table - not on the chairs around it, but on the thing himself.

“You were around the area?”

“Sort of,” replied Baekhyun, and Chanyeol felt a second of childish disappointment. “I was in the middle of doing stuff when I got Jongin’s call, and since it had been a while since I’d had an event at your school, I thought well, why not?”

“Stuff to do?”

“Yeah, a couple of things to get printed.”

“All the way down here?”

Baekhyun scoffed. “Shut up, Park. I like the paper of a store nearby so I may cross half the city if I want to.”

“I didn’t oppose to it, I was just asking.”

“Of course you were. But let me show you something, then.” Baekhyun brought the paper bag to his lap and opened it to extract some kind of folded paper thing from within. The material was sturdy enough, for being paper, colored in a very pale shade of pink. Baekhyun unfolded it into some sort of weird rectangular stravaganzza half covered into what looked like shapeless paper flowers. “I had an idea.”

“And what’s… that?” asked Chanyeol, pointing at the thing. It appeared hollow on the inside.

“My idea.”

“Which is supposed to be…”

“Obviously, a lamp. A paper lamp for our still-technically-not-approved march,” explained Baekhyun, rather enthusiastically. And Chanyeol would have sworn to anyone that he didn’t intend to laugh at the other boy’s abstract piece of art, but he couldn’t help a muffled chuckle, which made Baekhyun stare at the thing he had built and bite his lip. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. Maybe it doesn’t look very… coherent, but it’s not the final design, it’s just a prototype. I’m not a master of origami like you are, excuse you.”

That made Chanyeol feel a sudden rush of pride on his paper folding skills. “Well, I did practice a lot. It takes time, you see.”

“What’s with the smug voice?” Baekhyun raised his eyebrows at him. “I didn’t come here to watch you brag. More like to brag myself. Do you have a lighter?”

Chanyeol shook his head. “I don’t smoke, so not really.”

“You better not.” Baekhyun was registering his own pockets, tongue sticking out from the corner of his lips, and Chanyeol followed the movement of it distractedly. He was snapped out of his trance when Baekhyun smiled wider and looked up at him, not noticing the way his breath got stuck in his throat. “Look at this, I knew I had some matches left. Now hold this.” He passed the paper lamp monstrosity to Chanyeol before he started rummaging through his paper bag again, until he finally got a packet of small candles out. He tore the packet open and held one between his fingers. “Give that back to me and pay attention. It may be ugly as hell, but it works.”

He was taking one of the matches out the package when Chanyeol pointed at the ceiling. “You know that there’s a fire alarm on the room, don’t you? What are you doing?”

The other boy tsk-ed at him, shaking his head like he was some kind of impossible case. “That thing is not so sensitive. So just shut up and let me show this to you.”

“You’re going to burn this whole room.”

“I tried this lamp at home and it worked. So quiet.”

He shouldn’t have, maybe, but Chanyeol still listened and let him struggle with the match so he could light up the candle without burning the whole lamp in the process. That would have made the world a favor, if he was honest with himself, but at least the fire preventing system had not gone off and Baekhyun was staring at his lamp pretty fondly, with soft eyes and a big smile.

Chanyeol cleared his throat. “Is… really working,” he said.

Baekhyun snorted. “Turn off the lights.”

“You’re being a pain.”

“You’re supposed to be my assistant.”

“Am I, really?” Chanyeol would have preferred by far the term 50/50 associate but he still walked all the way to the lightswitch close to the door and flicked it off. It had been a lucky coincidence that the teachers had assigned his group one of the old study rooms in the ground floor, and not one of the glass-walled cubicles on the library floor, because as soon as the lights went off, the place fell into absolute darkness.

Or almost, he would need to say, because Baekhyun’s lamp was still on the table in the center of the room, its light casting flower-shaped shadows onto the white walls.

They were pretty shapeless, as shadows came, but Chanyeol still had to try hard to hold back a smile.

“You see now?” Baekhyun asked him. Chanyeol couldn’t see him. “What do you think?”

“It’s for the march, right? And you wanna do what? Make thematic lamps or...?”

“Sort of. Well, I don’t know. It’s just an idea.” Chanyeol heard him inhale. It was the sharp, raspy sound of someone with a cold, or with a different kind of strain in his breath. “I keep thinking about it, you know? About what you told Jongin. Of Arcadia’s problem being that we don’t want to look at the ugly in the face. That I did it too, myself, hiding the unpleasant parts of my own sickness every time that I go and speak.”

“That’s not--” Chanyeol started. If he looked with enough attention, he could see Baekhyun’s silhouette, black over the red of the flame and the white of the walls, like the flowers on the lamp. “It’s true that I mentioned you, but I wasn’t talking about you. You’re at least speaking out. You organized all this. You were trying to show everyone where the problem was even before I knew there was one.”

“Maybe,” replied Baekhyun. “But still I hide what I don’t like, what other people wouldn’t like, so you were right. And that, that got me thinking.” He sounded all passionate, a bit on edge. He didn’t ask Chanyeol to turn on the lights. “This march is supposed to be a big step. If it gets approved back, it’d be the first of its kind. People marching through the city center, and doing it at night. Together, for a cause, walking in absolute silence until it’s time for the ones who want to raise their voices to speak. It’ll be televised, you know? Because Jongin will be speaking, and I’ll be speaking, and nothing like that has been done before. I chose the lamps and the night and the silence on purpose, just for that. And it was supposed to be a symbol, but I don’t think that it is anymore, not by itself. Arcadia likes pretty things, so I’m giving them pretty lamps for them to stare. What a dumb thing to do, when what we should be doing, as you said yourself, is to show them the ugly.”

There was this undercurrent in his voice, and Chanyeol didn’t know how to react to it. “They won’t stare at you, if you show them just that.” He would know, really. He hadn’t started to take interest in what was going on until Baekhyun had appeared in his life. He hadn’t made himself question. He had been sleeping and with no will of waking up. “You’re really doing well. You’re probably the one who’s inspiring this city the most. You made all this.”

“Yeah?” Baekhyun whispered. Chanyeol turned the lights on after that, if only to look at his face, and he found him staring at the lamp, brows drawn. It wasn’t much longer after he smiled again, however, happiness sweeping back into him, making him glow, only a little less bright that he had shone before. “But anyway, I started to think. And you’re right, Park Chanyeol: people in Arcadia need prettiness, and flashiness, and glittery lights for them to want to look at something. But what if we still make them stare at something beautiful and show them what they’ve been avoiding at the same time? We make it pretty, so we caught their attention, and then we show them the ugly so they can’t look away. Makes sense?”

“And do you want to do it with flowers?”

“Arcadia’s a town of gardens, but I have never seen a single cherry blossom that doesn’t come from CFCS. They chopped off all the trees when I was a child. They killed them off so people wouldn’t be reminded that a flower so similar was so deadly. Flowers must be pretty, and sakura is a taboo.”

“And you want to make custom paper lamps.”

“So the shadows we cast as we walk by are cherry blossom shaped.”

He looked certainly proud, standing beside his creation, and Chanyeol felt almost bad to shake his head no. “But, Baekhyun, are you planning to make all the lamps match?”

“Yeah. We can make them. With a little bit more of practice on my side, I suppose.”

“Um. And how many people are you expecting to come to the march?” Chanyeol asked, and instantly saw Baekhyun’s face fall. “That’d be possible if you hoped fifty, one hundred, maybe two hundred people to come, but I thought we were hoping for at least a thousand. This originally was a bring-your-own-lamp kind of idea; it would be hard for the two of us to fold that much stuff in the span of a week and a half?”

Baekhyun parted his lips. He closed them. “Maybe we could ask Jisung too? He liked the origami stuff too,” he proposed, but he already sounded unconvinced. “It was a bad idea, huh?”

The sudden knot in Chanyeol’s stomach seemed to dance beneath his bones as he walked to Baekhyun. The other man had been so happy about his plan, passionate about it to the point of having folded a lamp and brought it there. That was so-- “Hey, listen. The whole paper lamp thing is impossible, but the concept is great. The cherry blossom thing. I think it could work.”

Baekhyun tilted his head. “How?”

“What if we print stickers and give them out or… What if we tell people to bring their own things?” Chanyeol started. He thought it first and said it later, but the idea sounded great in his mind, as soon as his words were out. “People could bring… banners, or lamps, or slogans, or even, I don’t know, sakura glittery make up. We could give stuff out, for the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t. We could tell Jongin to wear it all, and distribute posters with his face.”

Expectantly, he waited for Baekhyun to reply. He had looked a little startled, up until that moment, but Chanyeol saw the grin creeping up his face before it fully appeared. “He would look so stupid,” he said. “I love it.”

“So you think that’s good?”

“Of course I do! The original concept is my idea after all, and it is known that eighty percent of my ideas are flawless.”

“What about the other twenty percent?”

“Life-wrecking disastrous, but we’re not talking about those.” Baekhyun took his fingers to his mouth to cough slightly. It was a fast movement, and his mouth was away from his lips before Chanyeol could ask. “A cherry blossom march, huh? I hope your friend’s contacts do the thing, because that’ll be a sight to behold.”

“Yeah. We’ll have to change all the ads and posters, though,” commented Chanyeol with a laugh. “And design and print the giveaways.”

Baekhyun patted him in the shoulder before Chanyeol could know what was coming to him. “Ah, I’ll leave that in your care, Mister Assistant.”

He sounded so cheeky. His hand was warm. Chanyeol found himself blushing and pretty deceived. “You’re overworking me again?”

“Basically.” Baekhyun laughed again, the sound a long, cheerful hehehe thing, but he soon fell silent, eyes shifting to his lamp once more, and fingers intertwined over his stomach. He bit his lip, the flushing skin turning white for the second it took him to finally speak. “But hey, Chanyeol. I noticed... that you’ve been around for a while, and you’ve helped me a lot, and I never got the chance to properly thank you. So well, yeah. Thank you.”

He was looking at him with eyes so determined that Chanyeol didn’t exactly know what to say. “I’m happy you let me help. You know I’m different from when I started, and it’s been thanks to you. So it’s mutual, I guess.”

“Yeah,” whispered Baekhyun, eyes still onto his, body moving closer so he could lean one hand on the table. He smiled, softly. “Of course. But I’m still unfair sometimes, am I not?”

Chanyeol tilted his head in confusion. “Unfair?”

“Yeah. You always-- I shouted at you, didn’t I? That time when this march was cancelled, and you called to ask where I was. That was nice of you, but what I did was to tell you to fuck off and never properly apologized. And still, here you are. You must be some kind of masochist.”

“Well, you came to me when I asked you for it,” replied Chanyeol, and he felt Baekhyun shifting, gripping the table and clicking his tongue.

“That doesn’t change the fact that I apologized via text, and even though you weren’t mad at me. Even when you should. And still here you are, helping me. I look and you keep coming back.”

There was that something in his voice again, and Chanyeol found himself a little breathless, his brain blank. He felt like a kid in a room full of pieces of glass, aware that he could move, he could shift, and be the cause for everything to shatter.

A city of glass, and glass hearts, and he felt as frail as he really had one.

“I told you - I’ll keep coming back if it’s important for me,” he whispered, smiling when Baekhyun flinched, and turned to look at his lamp again. “But again, if you want me to accept your apology in person, I can do that too.”

“I-- Yeah.” Baekhyun nodded, lips parted. Chanyeol saw the hesitation in him, the way the words seemed to turn and turn around in his brain before he let them out. “In my defense, I was nervous when it happened. My dad was really fucking up with me, and Jongdae was there and he wasn’t helping.”

Jongdae? Chanyeol remembered the guy, remembered his words, and the air he had lost in his lungs turned into weight in his guts. “Who is that guy, anyway?”

He shouldn’t have asked. Baekhyun flinched, and he was close enough to feel it on his own skin. There was tension in Baekhyun’s shoulders and he shouldn’t be asking. “He’s a good friend of mine. He means well, but he has his own point of view about some things.”

“He said something to me that time.”

“To you?”

He shouldn’t be asking. “ Don’t you dare, I think. Through the phone, before you hung up.”

Baekhyun’s hand swept over the table, the sound of flesh colliding against paper resounding on a very far away corner of Chanyeol’s mind. The other boy’s eyes went up to his, wide open and dark as black holes, then down to his chest. “That’s because-- Don’t mind him, he’s a really nice guy. You may not know him, but I can swear to you he’s always been.”

He shouldn’t want to ask. He really shouldn’t. But maybe Baekhyun was right after all, and deep down he was some kind of masochist. “Wait, is he the guy you’re sick for?”

Baekhyun’s face was drained of all color. “I-- What?” he muttered. Chanyeol was intruding; he shouldn’t have intruded. There was no reason for him to feel bad about that, no explanation for the weight in his chest to push him down and down into sad realization when Baekhyun didn’t owe him a thing and he had Seungwan.

It shouldn’t even be the same thing.

He didn’t--

He wasn’t supposed to be--

“Oh, fuck!”

He turned, still out of breath, when he heard Baekhyun curse - and then he stopped on his tracks.

“Shit!” he hissed. It was true that Baekhyun had knocked the lamp with his hand just before, but he had forgotten the thought, and now the thing had caught fire, the pale pink paper crumbling under the heat of the flames. Baekhyun himself had bent over the table, desperately trying to turn the fire off.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, the alarm!”

Chanyeol didn’t exactly think. He took his own sweater off and threw it over the burning lamp, trying to suffocate the fire. For a terrible second, he feared that his own hoodie would be caught up in flames, but the poor lamp gave in under the thick fabric, and the fire was soon reduced to ashes on charred paper. Chanyeol took the sweater out, crumbling it into a ball against his chest.

“That was...” he started, as Baekhyun blinked at the ceiling.

“You know, the fire alarms at your university are kind of bad. It would have been messy if the thing had gone o--”

Just as like he had called for it, there was a loud-as-hell beeping noise, and the sprinkler opened in the ceiling. Chanyeol had never showered with his clothes on, but the rain of freezing water that fell all over him in the span of two seconds was a similar enough experience. And that by itself would have shameful enough, as a concept, but of course then came the neutral, mechanical female voice out of the speakers of the whole fucking building.

Attention. Fire detected on first floor. Attention. Fire detected on first floor of the Humanities building. Everyone, please proceed towards the closest exit and remain calm. Please, everyone proceed--

Baekhyun looked up in disbelief. He had water on his hair, on his shoulders. “Did I just cause an evacuation?”

“Told you the let’s light the lamp indoors thing was a bad idea. That, and you jinxed the alarm.”

Snorting, Baekhyun moved, wrapping his fingers around Chanyeol’s wrist and pulling towards the door. “Shut up, man, and evacuate.”

The voice on the speakers had told everyone inside the building to remain calm, but judging by how fast people were rushing down the stairs, people weren’t feeling very inclined to listen. Thankfully, it was late enough to be dark outside, and for most people to have gone home - only around thirty people were out by the time Chanyeol and Baekhyun stopped on the grass. It was great it was almost summer, because the sprinklers seemed to have gone off in more than one room for rome reason, and around half of those people were wet.

“Oh, god, that was a mess,” exclaimed Baekhyun. He was bent forward, breathless, but Chanyeol still saw the glint of color on his cheeks. It was nice, hearing him laugh, even if his laughter was interrupted with short, shallow coughs. He felt surprisingly flustered when he realized that Baekhyun hadn’t released his wrist yet, that his forehead was almost resting on his shoulder.

“We’re gonna get scolded, when they find out.”

If they find out. And if they say something to you, you can say I did it. It’s sort of true, right? And I’m not even a student here.”

He was shaking a bit, voice raspy, t-shirt stuck to his body like a second, dark layer of skin. It had a low cut kind of collar, collarbones showing beneath the hem, droplets of water falling onto them from the curve of his neck. He was thin, that boy, but still he had a strong grip, and broad shoulders. Chanyeol swallowed, and blinked away from the shape of bones under skin. He still had the sweater he had taken off before in a mostly dry ball against his chest so he wordlessly offered it to the other boy.

Baekhyun could have silently accept it, but of course he didn’t. “And this…?” he asked.

“It’s dry. You’re wet.”

“So are you.”

“You’re the one coughing here.”

Baekhyun did that thing to him, where he raised his eyebrows and tried his very best to look equally amused and unimpressed. “It’s not like I’m doing it because I have a cold, Park Chanyeol.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure catching a pneumonia would be highly recommended for any flower-coughing guy. So take it?”

Finally, Baekhyun released him, if only to grab the black hoodie Chanyeol was offering and struggle putting it on, collar too wide and sleeves way too long. The hood fell over his head, casting his eyes in shadows until he pushed it back with one hand. His hair was a mess - silver, oh so silver white - and the sweater, already oversized on Chanyeol, made him look all tiny when he wasn’t, naked under the fabric even though he was fully clothed.

“Don’t get offended, but this thing smells like you. A bit too much,” Baekhyun protested, scrunching his nose. And maybe it was the way he was trying to sound disapproving without being able to hide the traces of laughter in his voice, or perhaps how natural it seemed for him to be walking around in his clothes, or the single droplet of water that fell from his hair to his neck, and then stopped in the hollow of his collarbone, stuck there like a moonlight tear, but he was so fucking beautiful and Chanyeol felt a sudden pang of want for him that left him breathless.

Baekhyun had caught him staring, and was now searching his eyes, tongue peeking through his lips to wet them. “Chanyeol?” he murmured. He sounded doubtful.

“Ah, Chanyeol!” someone else called him, and he knew that voice, and he gasped, and flinched, and turned around like a sinner.

Seungwan had been waving, almost at the brink of laughter, like finding Chanyeol wet like a giant dog after the fire alarm had gone off was something that she thought amusing, but she stopped on her tracks when she realized he wasn’t alone.

“Byun Baekhyun?” she asked, and her face fell a little, almost imperceptibly, and Chanyeol felt like a damn traitor again, because she was looking at them like a stranger would, after walking somewhere uninvited and realizing she was intruding. And then there was him, thinking she sort of had.

“He came to say hi,” he said, feeling tense, a wooden doll with human bones. “Hasn’t it been a while since you two have seen each other in person?”

Seungwan had worn his clothes, sometimes - she had stolen them very occasionally, mostly to bring them to class - and Chanyeol had thought she looked cute, but he had never been turned on by it. He had never been turned on by just thinking that she would be wrapped in something that smelled like him.

She was a really nice girl. Pretty and kind. And he suddenly felt like total and absolute shit.

“Ah, hello,” said Baekhyun. His voice was kind, polite, but there was this tiny thing that felt off, like a thread about to snap. “It was nice to see you guys, but I should be leaving, really. I’ve already overstayed my welcome.”

“Will you be okay?” asked Chanyeol, half-assedly. He didn’t want Baekhyun to go, but there wasn’t any reason for him to remain there - not even an excuse. He gestured at the boy when he attempted to pull his sweater off. “Hey no, keep that. You’ll give it back to me next time we hang out.”

For a moment, Baekhyun looked like he would protest, but in the end he nodded and kept the sweater. He pulled the hood on before he left, taking a deep breath and directing a small smile at them before finally turning to go. Chanyeol really, really would have liked him to stay.

“What did he mean, he overstayed his welcome?” Seungwan inquired, when they were already left alone, in the middle of the small student crowd.

There was no bite in her voice, she just sounded curious. And Chanyeol felt bad, because she didn’t seem mad - even if there wasn’t no objective reason for her to be. Not for that, at least. For Chanyeol cancelling dates on her, maybe. For him having taken one day to reply to her calls when he had argued with his family and Yoora have phoned her to ask if she knew where he was, maybe. But not for anything that had happened today.

“He came to show me something, for the march we’re working on, he lighted a candle indoors and… Well, here we are, casted out from the building and wet.”

Teachers were around, telling the students to remain there, even though the alarm had already stopped resounding through campus. Drawing a rebellious strand of dark hair behind her ear, Seungwan stared at two of them as they entered the Humanities building.

“Maybe we should leave. You don’t want to be here when they asked who was in the room where the fire started. Unless you want them to scold you,” she said. And she wasn’t, usually, one for disobeying. He would get scolded anyway, when teachers checked who had reserved the room for the hour, but he didn’t really feel like opposing her on the topic, or like staying there anyway.

They left when both teachers had completely disappeared inside of the building, walking around the corner and then out of campus like Chanyeol wasn’t drenched and all that had nothing to do with them. Wordlessly, Seungwan handed him a handkerchief when they reached the street.

She was a nice girl, really. A person he cared for. The kind of girl any guy on his right mind would love to have walking around in his old, oversized sweaters.

“Sehun was supposed to be coming a bit later, but I don’t think we’ll get much work done at uni after all that… or with you wet.”

Chanyeol took in a shaky breath. “Yeah, I--” She was looking at him, and she was familiar, and they were close, but it was as if he was seeing her for the first time. Just as he had seen Baekhyun before, when he had looked up at him, hair messy and eyes a little vulnerable. His stomach did a weird twist, just thinking about it, about all that. “Hey, Seungwan. Can we-- Can we go somewhere and talk?”

He saw the fight in her eyes, the way the excuses flickered across them. He still knew her enough to realize she was nervous - and even though, she nodded. “That cafe close by?” she asked.

That one cafe was the one where he had met Baekhyun for that first interview attempt, once upon a time when Chanyeol had had a bandaged nose and Baekhyun had dug his fingers between the border and the lid of his plastic cup, and still had laughed and called him the enemy. They sat close to the door, two mugs of steaming coffee between them. Chanyeol didn’t exactly feel like touching his anytime soon.

“So?” It was Seungwan who reached through the cloud of silence that had seemed to form around their heads.

And Chanyeol must be stupid, or a coward, because he had this thought lingering in the back of his head, and he wanted to let it out, but he didn’t know the words, or the way.

“I’m-- I’m sorry,” he managed to start, and that at least wasn’t a lie. “I’ve been a terrible boyfriend, haven’t I?”

She looked wary. She smiled. It was scary, because she laughed a bit and still Chanyeol couldn’t read her face. “Come on, you’re not so bad.”

She had always gone to the hospital when he had asked. Without him asking. Until he had stopped telling her he was there.

“No, but I am,” he insisted. “Especially these last weeks. I have been ignoring you. And I don’t-- The last thing I want is to hurt you. I suppose?”

“You suppose?” she repeated. There was a faint trace of humor on her voice, but then she fell silent. When she continued, her voice was oh so soft. “You got me worried for a while. You seemed different. Not exactly bad different, but, you know…”

“I found out stuff.”

“Yeah. Your sister told me. They’re worried about you, by the way.”

“Yes, I know.” Yoora had been writing to him, for both her and their mom. He had replied to the messages, of course, told them he was okay, and studying, and busy, but he still hadn’t had the heart to reply to their calls, or to talk - really talk about it.

“For a moment, they didn’t know where you were. None of us did, you weren’t home, and it was raining so bad that afternoon.”

“I was alright,” Chanyeol replied. There was an invisible thread of rope, tense around his throat, and his heart, and his lungs, and he wanted it to break, to snap and let him breathe. He had been sleeping, and he had woken up choking, kicking up like a newborn child. He forced the words out, the smile “I was with Baekhyun. I called him. He came. I was with him.”

Seungwan nodded. “So that was it.” She hesitated.

“Yeah.”

“You’ve been close lately.”

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask?” Seungwan’s voice was almost cheerful. It made Chanyeol’s heart crack. “What’s the relationship, exactly, between you two?”

It was like Chanyeol had a sponge in his chest, growing bigger and bigger and draining him of everything. He had mentioned Baekhyun, he thought, because he wanted her to ask, but now it was his turn to reply, and his hands were shaking.

Baekhyun was the boy who stood up to his own father, to his own city; who had nagged him for coming along at first, but shown him what the problem was, what his own reasons were. He was the person who had begged him to understand, in some hospital emergency stairs, the one who had come for him when Chanyeol had pushed everyone else away. He was the man who had let him lay on his bed and had played with his hair. The man who he’d wanted to kiss back then, and just a while ago.

And that thought, it alone, was more stubborn a kindle than any trace of embers he would have ever felt while touching his own girlfriend.

“Tell me one thing,” he whispered. He stared at the mug of coffee before him, at the steam coming up, white, white, white, smoke. Baekhyun had said that hearts were fragile, and his own was made of cracked glass. “What would you think-- What would you say if I told you I’m gay?”

He looked up, and she was pale, fingers clutched on the fabric of her own skirt. Maybe she’d hate him. He didn’t want her to hate him.

“If I had to say something,” she said, voice as weak as his. “Then I’d tell you you probably like that boy. He’s all pretty, right?”

Yeah, and he doesn’t love me.

He felt like such a bastard, for even thinking that.

“I didn’t know,” he stated, because it was the truth after all, and he didn’t want to lie to her. “It was nice with you, really nice, and I-- I though that was it? What it should be? It never was about leading you on or something like that, I just didn’t know?” He swallowed. “Say something, please?”

“It’s been a year, Chanyeol,” she muttered.

“I--”

She raised her hand to stop him. “Should I have known?” She wasn’t looking at him. “It’s been a year and-- At first I thought it was the sickness. That maybe you were really not that… enthusiastic about some things sometimes because you were recovering and that had made you apathetic. I talked to your sister and she thought the same, and you were kind to me, and I liked you enough, so I thought: maybe it’ll get better. But then that boy appeared and you were all over him like a lost puppy.”

That sponge in his chest was constricting his throat. He felt a spike of panic. “Seungwan, I swear to god that Baekhyun and I never--”

“I guess so, but still it’s him you like.”

Chanyeol had no clue about what to reply to that. “I didn’t know,” he repeated. “I promise I didn’t. I realized right now and I… I had to tell you.”

“So we can break up,” Seungwan snapped, and Chanyeol stared at her, eyes wide like a deer caught in the headlights. Seungwan’s voice lowered, she shook her head. “We’re breaking up.”

“I didn’t want to lie to you.”

He tried to reach for her, to make her look at him. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea, because she flinched as if stung. “I know!” she exclaimed, voice both hurt and loud enough for a couple of patrons to look their way. A couple of old women looked him up and down, obviously deciding that Chanyeol was an asshole. And maybe he was, but he had to do what he thought best. There was no good choice, when it came to certain situations. And still he had chosen all the time, when he hadn’t replied to her messages, when he had stood her up. Him being mistaken about being into girls wasn’t related to him acting like a terrible boyfriend. “I know,” she replied in a whisper. “But I am still upset. I can be upset, right? I- I always tried my best.”

“You could punch me, I guess.”

“I don’t want to punch you.” Seungwan made a small noise, between a laughter and a cry. “I’d punch that boy, though. He’s still too pretty.” She had her head hung low; she reached for her mug and wrapped her fingers around it. It must be warm still, the coffee she hadn’t drunk. “But Chanyeol.”

“Yeah?”

“I support you, okay? I want you to know that I do. What you are, and who you are… I don’t know if you didn’t know before, or if the surgery made you confused, but your friends appreciate you, and I support you. Don’t think I don’t, I feel grateful you told me; it’s just--” She looked up, and her eyes were glassy, and Chanyeol felt too light and too heavy, wordless and grateful and devastated. “It’s just I don’t really want to see you right now.”

It was over.

“I’ll leave, if that’s what you want,” he said. She nodded.

“You better. For now. Yeah, you better do.”

It was over. All over. Cracked, like a mirror splintering.

It was over. But he had spoken, and the words were out, and he felt strangely free.

--

He went back to his dorm room and stayed awake, curled in his way-too-small bed, lights off. Baekhyun texted, his phone screen a lonely star in a pitch black sky.

Did you manage to do anything productive this evening, in the end? his message asked.

Chanyeol snorted. It took him a while to make his numb hands move. I broke up with Seungwan.

His locked screen lit up after a minute of dark.

What? One time.

But why? Two times.

Wait, are you okay? Three times, and Chanyeol turned the phone around, screen against the mattress so it’d drown the light.

He still grabbed it when the vibration kicked in, picked it up because he knew who it was and he wanted to hear Baekhyun say his name.

“Chanyeol,” it came in, and it was lovely. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Do you… want me to go there?”

“It’s one AM.”

“I know. I can take a taxi. And I can bring… what do you want? Videogames? A hard drive full of bad action movies? Vodka?”

The concern was so obvious in his voice, as well as the wariness under it, no matter how well he was trying to conceal it. he sounded like a boy talking to a wounded dog, and Chanyeol sure as hell felt like one. “I think just I prefer to be alone.”

“Oh.” Baekhyun said. A pause, and then. “Is there something I can do for you?”

Chanyeol closed his eyes. He was hyper aware of the boy’s breath at the other side of the line, and he should say no and hang up - because everything was a spiral of Seungwan, and himself, and then him - but he must have a weak heart after all. “Can you talk to me?” he whispered.

He couldn’t see him, but he was sure that Baekhyun was frowning, scrunching his nose, maybe, like that afternoon, when he had told him that his sweater was smelly. “Talk to you?”

“Yeah. Or just read something? Your textbook, or a pamphlet, or anything really. So the room is not silent.” He pressed his thumb and index finger over the bridge of his nose. “Sorry if it’s weird.”

Silence, and a chuckle after that. “You called the right man. I love, love talking.”

Chanyeol didn’t tell him that it was technically Baekhyun who had called him.

He fell asleep at some point between the boy giving him a live commentary of some streamer getting massacred at a shooter game and him completing a what would your superpower be online test, and he dreamed. Of Seungwan disappearing under a wall of darkness, of his sister calling him baby brother, and of a glass city being devoured by green vines. And of Baekhyun, clothes black and hair snow white, with sakura flowers on his eyes, his lips, pinned to his fingers like dissected butterflies.

When he woke up, to the annoying sensation of his phone vibrating in his ear, Baekhyun’s voice was gone and sunlight was streaming down his window. The day was too bright, and the sun too high in the sky, but his limbs were still heavy.

He had to pick up the call, if only for his phone to stop making that sound. “Who is it?” he grunted.

“Chanyeol? Where are you? Why didn’t you come to class?”

His morning classes. Great. “I overslept through them. Rough night.”

“Lazy. Both Seungwan and you have abandoned me today. I had to spend my coffee break alone with Minseok. But, anyway.” Sehun cleared his throat. “You decided to fall asleep and rain on my parade the only day I had something important to tell you. So I’m calling you anyway.”

Chanyeol turned around on the mattress to stare at the ceiling, vision still slightly unfocused. “What are you talking about?”

Sehun made this very long, very proud dramatic pause. “Start moving those contacts of yours around, Park Chanyeol, because I pulled from my dad-strings,” he declared. “And guess what? You got your permissions back.”

What?”

“What you hear. Habemus march.”

Chapter Text

Interlude - The Lie

 

It’s a normal day today.

You go to school, you have lunch with your friends, you’re asked to go out later and you decline. You’ve done that a lot of times, lately, haven’t you? You tell them you have to leave. You tell them you have to work - don’t you love partying anymore?

Ah. Poor you.

It’s a normal day today, and you don’t know what’s coming for you.

It’s a normal day today, and you’re not even dressed as a crow yet when you get called to Doctor Kim Junmyeon’s office.

You stand there like a stranger, in a sweater and ripped jeans, as the guy smiles at you and hands a new file - Patient 38, he says; moderate state of CFCS, he says; you should start on Thursday, he says.

You think. You frown. And then you realize. There’s a tingling at the tip of your fingers, frost under your skin.

“But Thursdays at this hour… I have my sessions with Patient Four, right? Have those been switched to another day?”

All of your alarms raise when you see Doctor Kim’s expression. You feel the blow before it hits.

“Ah, about that… I’m afraid to say your services are not longer required.”

Oh, look at you, getting what you wanted.

Congratulations, boy. Are you happy now?

Smile for the camera.

“But why?” you ask. Frost is taking over the expanse under your skin. You don’t want it to, but your voice cracks, like ice breaking. “He’s still sick.”

“He won’t be needing treatment anymore.”

Fear. Hope. Dread.

“But why? Has he accepted to go through surgery?”

You see it in Doctor Kim’s face. You know it in your own heart - that he wouldn’t. That no matter what you said, no matter what anyone said, he wouldn’t.

“Not exactly,” you get told.

“What the hell is ‘not exactly’ supposed to mean? Did he reject my services as a Shepherd? Is that it?”

Doctor Kim shakes his head no.

“Then what’s it? What’s going on?”

“I am sorry, but I am not allowed to tell.”

“What? Why?”

“It falls out of your area of competence, I’m afraid.”

You’re not wearing your mask, so he can see your face. You wished you had your mask, don’t you?

But hey, don’t be shy. Show your face to everyone. Those eyes are such a sight.

That’s the thing about this job, what you wanted.

You’re just a Shepherd.

You’re anonymous.

You come.

You talk.

You convince them and you leave.

Crows just guide.

You wanted him to go away.

He isn’t dead… right?

It’s not your fault.

It can’t be your fault.

It can’t be, right?

Right?

You’re the very fucking best at your job.

Are you going to cry on me, now?

--

SUBJECT: Re: Formal request for information - General medical files for Patient #4, Second Phase.

Dear sir,

I am writing about your request for access dated November 17th, 2038 where you sought access to the current medical reports to one of your previous patients inside the Shepherd Project. We received your request on Friday, November 19th, and assigned file number 48/11.

I regret to inform you that, upon review, Arcadia University Hospital is unable to provide access to the documents you have requested, as patient personal records are exempt from disclosure, due to them being private data out of your competences as an employee.

As your request has been denied, and under the Arcadian Freedom of Information Law, section 36, you have 20 working days from the receipt of this letter to send a petition for this decision to be reviewed.

If you wish to do so, please provide this department with:

  1. Your full name and address.
  2. The department of Arcadia University Hospital where you work, and the name of your supervisor.
  3. The reference number assigned to your request.
  4. The type of request that you made.
  5. A copy of this decision letter.
  6. The reasons and grounds upon which you are requesting the review, and why your petition should be granted.

If you have any additional queries regarding this matter, prior to initiating a formal review process, they can be directed at privacy@auh.com or you can request a personal meeting with this department with your supervisor.

Sincerely,

Jung Taekwoon
Arcadia University Hospital
Information and Privacy Department

--

It’s useless to silence it.
Impossible
to silence it.

 

“They won’t come.”

“You’ve been saying that almost every day for the last week.”

Baekhyun groaned, exasperated, and Chanyeol had to control the impulse of ruffling his hair until it was all messy, and disheveled, and the boy forgot to complain.

“No, Chanyeol, seriously, what if no one comes?”

“You’ve been giving out pamphlets for a week and a half, and you’ve run out of them. You’ve done interviews for three papers. I had to skip class the other day to help you reply all of your fanmail because it was too much for you to handle by yourself.”

“It was not fanmail,” groaned Baekhyun.

“No, it was just dozens of people saying that they admired you and asking for sakura origami tips.” Chuckling, Chanyeol did the next best thing to ruffling his hair while still remaining inconspicuous, and patted his shoulder, mouth breaking into a grin when Baekhyun made a face at him. “You should tell them not to ask that, though. You’re still terrible at making anything out of folded paper.”

“Well, it was you replying to emails, so they’ll never know how much I suck. I didn’t have time for making flowers anyway.”

“Seriously, Byun. How many hours have you slept this week?” he asked. He sounded kind of worried, and Baekhyun must have realized because that time he was the one to pat Chanyeol.

“There’s no rest for the wicked, Park.”

“But you’re still sick. Shouldn’t you rest?”

“I’ll be equally as sick, no matter if I do it or not. I feel good, see? I’m full of energy.” He spinned in front of Chanyeol, like a chipped ballerino toy in a music box. “And anyway, today’s the great day. I’ll sleep all night once this is over.”

It was true that, at least, he looked very excited - twitchy too, but that meant he was lively at least. Much livelier than how Chanyeol felt after spending half of his free time walking around Arcadia to convince people to join their march and the other time designing and printing four kinds of stickers, making paper flowers out of folded paper and trying to find out new ways to bring Baekhyun caffeine without giving him actual coffee.

So here he was: telling Baekhyun to sleep and still supporting his unhealthy lifestyle anyway.

But it would be over that day, that night. Baekhyun was right: their big moment had come. Just some few hours more of preparations, and they would be walking the city, flowers on their skin and lamps in hand.

The march day had come, and the dress code was white.

“I have to go all the way down to Victory Park to check how the stage preparations are going, and then go to speak with Jongin’s manager. He wants to talk to me about the security measures to keep his boy safe. For the tenth time in the last three days. Jisung’s dad should also be arriving with him soon, so I’ll see them after,” Baekhyun listed, nodding to himself. “The guy wanted my advice with his speech.”

“Do you want help with something of that?”

“No, but you could go and check on our volunteers. They should have enough stock of stickers to give out, but even though…”

“I’ll go take a look.” Baekhyun was frowning, muttering something that was probably organization-related, and Chanyeol bopped his forehead with his finger, laughing under his breath, to make him look at him. He felt stupidly proud of himself when Baekhyun, did, blinking up at him in both mild surprise and confusion. “Do you want me to get a couple of stickers for you? Or, you know, some of those fancy paper sakura petals that people were sticking to their faces with glitter. Did you already get yours?”

The boy made a face at him. “No time. I’ll go get my share later, right now everything is a bit… chaotic.”

“Wait, I have one around,” replied Chanyeol, digging in the back pocket of his jeans to try to fish it out. He had stuck his phone there, and his keys, and his metro pass, so when he got the sticker out it was crumpled enough for him to frown at it like it had personally offended him. He tried to flatten the thing out with his fingers before offering it to Baekhyun. “Just please don’t leave me alone with this sakura cosplay thing.”

The dress code for the march was white - and Chanyeol was wearing a white shirt, white jeans and white sport shoes - but Baekhyun was still wearing black. They both had come with the idea together, and Chanyeol would have complained about being the only one walking around dressed like a waiter in some posh garden party, but Baekhyun had been wearing the sweater he had stolen from him for that whole week, and he was certainly not going to be arguing about that.

He’d change later, Baekhyun had said before. “Ah, I’ll be sure to get a couple of these stickers before the march starts. This one, no offense, looks a bit like shit,” he said then, grinning with a bit too many teeth.

“You sound a lot like you’re lying,” Chanyeol complained, only because he knew that Baekhyun would laugh if he did. “And there I’ll be, looking like so weird, decorative flower plot while you get to keep your dignity.”

“The concept sounded good to you when you came up with it.”

“I feel strange in white clothes!”

“You’re whining, Park Chanyeol.” Baekhyun licked his lips while he tried to peel the sticker off its sheet, nail digging between plastic and paper. He made a small noise when he managed, looked up at him and walked close. “And for no reason at all.” Chanyeol was going to protest, or joke, or short-circuit a bit to be honest, but he found the wrinkled flower sticker on his chest and Baekhyun staring at his from below his lashes. Up close his eyes were dark brown, warm. “See? Still handsome.”

Definitely, his brain was going to short-circuit. “You’re distracting me so you can get away.”

“I’m not,” replied Baekhyun, but he was still grinning, and pretty much still lying. “But hey, look at us, we have work to do and we’re still here.”

“You’re the one who stopped me to say no one would be coming.”

“Yeah, yeah. But go go go.”

During that last week and half, Chanyeol had started to come to terms with Baekhyun’s silly laughter being endearing, and with the boy ordering him around and him doing what he wanted anyway. Baekhyun had called him when he was sad, went to look for him when he had been upset, and he was still nervous about wanting to kiss him, but Baekhyun was a good guy, and he looked hot in his clothes, and Chanyeol had decided he wasn’t going to fight it.

Seungwan was still upset, but not at that, and when he had told Sehun the true reason for them breaking up, his friend had patted him in the shoulder and told him that better now than never, then. And he had treated him the same, even if for a moment he had thought that everyone in the world, somehow, would know that there was something different in him and point fingers while he passed.

Even though it wasn’t.

Even though he had realized that he cared less than he thought he would.

He’d just move forward, baby steps. And he’d try to do his best.

He hadn’t told his mom yet, or his sister. He didn’t know if he wanted to, that soon; they hadn’t even talked about the argument they’d had because of his surgery after-effects. He’d need to sit down with them, after the march, to fix that at least, and then he’d see.

What would they think about that, about everything, if he brought a man like Baekhyun home?

He still wanted to know, if someone that had fallen sick with CFCS because of unrequited love could ever be cured if they started liking someone else.

Because maybe--

He shook his head. No time for that now. Baekhyun was right: he had work to do.

The march was set to start in Eden Park, the one close to both his family’s house and Baekhyun’s, and then move from that to the business center of town, down Garden Avenue until it opened into Victory Park - from garden to garden, they’d create a road of flowers.

Baekhyun had probably taken a taxi to make his way to Victory already, so if one of the volunteers had some trouble, he’d be the person in charge. Which sounded much worse than what it actually was, because things in general seemed pretty much in track. Three hours previous to the start of the event, people were starting to come, dressed in bright white and soft grey and even pale shades of blue, and carrying folded banners and paper and metal lamps that were still unlit. Some of them had fabric or paper cherry blossoms sewn to their clothes, other had painted flowers onto their hands and faces. A middle aged guy, tall and big and wide, was sitting under a tree, wearing a costume that seemed completely made of flowers.

There certainly wasn’t a crowd there, not yet, and despite what he had told Baekhyun before, Chanyeol couldn’t help a churn of nervousness in his guts, but the people there were more than the ones reunited one hour ago, and there was still time.

Everything would be alright.

It had to be.

Their volunteers were distributed all around the park, bags of stickers and pamphlets in hand and blue STAFF accreditations hanging from their necks. Chanyeol had one of those too, in the back pocket of his jeans along with the rest of all the stuff he had squeezed inside and had to stop for a moment, to take it out and put it on.

It wasn’t long enough until he saw Kang Seulgi, the girl who worked at the information desk in Arcadia University Hospital, with a half empty eco bag and her own staff card. “Hey, how’s it going?” she asked him, when she saw him coming closer. She had this impressive makeup done, with pink cherry blossoms drawn on her eyelids and falling down her left cheek. She had a big sakura pin on the lapel of her white suit jacket, and petals drawn on her hands.

“Do you want me to be honest? I’ve had enough flowers for a lifetime,” he replied.

“Well, like most people coming, I’d say. Have you seen the sakura cloud cosplay guy? If someone wears something as ridiculous, it’s because he has a point to prove.”

“I just passed in front of him, yeah.” Chanyeol tried to sneak a peek inside of her eco bag. It was more empty than full, he thought. Maybe. “How’s the sticker giving mission going, by the way? I’m here to technically check. Will you be needing more?”

“Don’t think so. Not soon. You guys printed a lot, that’s why.” Seulgi smiled, apologetic.

“I guess...”

He had printed a lot, that was true, but they also had a lot of volunteers giving them out. There was still time, but they needed people. And it was not the same, asking for info that going. It was not the same, going to see Baekhyun speak at an old sports hall than sewing cherry blossoms onto your shirt and marching for a law not to be passed.

It was not the same, and they needed people for the press. They had speakers, they had Baekhyun and Kim Jongin, they had Arcadia’s curiosity.

They needed, they needed, they needed, but he didn’t know if they’d had enough, and he couldn’t do a thing about it.

“Just let me know if you run out of them, okay? Or if you need something else.”

“Okay, okay. Don’t worry about this, we’ve got it.”

He was being irrational, he had to be being paranoid, and still he couldn’t help the nervousness as he checked on the other volunteers. They were active, most of them talking to people or helping them put the stickers on. It would be alright, it had to.

At least, the weather was good, the sun still bright as it started to hide under the buildings, making the glass walls alight in yellow and orange and crimson red. No clouds were crossing the sky, and there was just the softest wind, cooling the late afternoon and messing with his hair. He closed his eyes and remained where he was for a moment, trying his best to even his breath before he started his round once more.

He had barely taken two steps when his phone began vibrating in his pocket. The caller’s name was Oh Sehun, displayed just below a photo of said boy, posing before the camera with a set of very fancy-looking clothes and an expression of studied disinterest.

It was Sehun who had set the contact photo himself three months before, and the only reason Chanyeol hadn’t changed it yet was because, this way, he felt legitimated to snort at it every time his friend decided to call.

He took the phone to his ear. “Sehun?”

His friend cleared his throat at the other side of the line. “Chanyeol, where are you?”

“Eden Park? I’m working here. Or… volunteering.”

“Oh, great. Come meet me.”

“Where…? Wait, you’re here already?” Chanyeol paused. “No, that’s not the question. Why are you here ? Here as in Eden Park. You were supposed to go to Victory.”

“I know that,” replied Sehun, sounding so, so done - with him, exactly. “I am supposed to go to my personal meeting with Jongin, yes - one hour and a half later this evening. I just wanted to see you before.”

“Me.”

“Yeah, can you come to the south entrance of the park?”

Chanyeol looked around in mild exasperation. “I’m at the north side now. If it’s nothing super urgent, can’t you come over here? I told you, I have to check on the volunteers and--”

“It is urgent. I need to leave for somewhere else in less than an hour after all. Oh, come on, I helped you guys before, I promise it won’t take long.”

Oh, heavens above. “Okay, send me your location, I’m coming.”

As Sehun had kindly reminded him, he had been a great help with getting the march approved in the end - and the little bastard knew it - so there wasn’t much left for Chanyeol to do but to comply and spend his next fifteen minutes walking across a huge park, just to find Sehun at the other side, sitting on a bench and surrounded by… things.

“What the hell is all that?” he muttered, after he came into his friend’s hearing range.

Like him, Sehun was wearing full white: jeans and a shirt, just as he did, and some kind of thin summer trench coat, and yet for some reason beyond Chanyeol’s understanding, he looked like the runway star of some high-end brand while he felt like the kind guy who would be in charge of cleaning his pool.

“Do you want a friendly piece of advice?” his friend asked him, lips pressing in a line. “You're wearing an undershirt, right? Then unbutton your shirt.”

“Why?”

“You're not gonna get laid like that.”

Chanyeol deadpanned at him “I’m organizing an event .”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night.”

“I don’t know what you are even talking about. I just went through a breakup, too.”

“Because you realized you were into someone else. But whatever, man, if you don’t feel like looking attractive then just let your shirt as it is? Where did you even buy that?”

“I had it at my dorm. My mother got it for me for my sister’s graduation some time ago, I just recycled it for the cause.” He started to unbutton the thing, and frowned at Sehun watching him like some kind of smug vulture. “What? You said it looked ugly.”

“It does. It’s too small on you,” replied Sehun, without batting an eyelash at the slander. He tilted his head. “Does he like you back?”

Chanyeol made a small, stifled noise. “ What--? ” he started again, but had to stop when Sehun gave him the kind of gaze a parent would give his child after finding him elbows deep in a forbidden jar of biscuits. “I guess no? Or maybe a bit? Or something? He’s in love with someone else but-- How the hell do you want me to know?”

“You’re impossible.”

“And I came here to talk to you because you wanted something, so why are we having this conversation?”

“Because you obviously need my advice,” stated Sehun, but he must have thought that it was okay to stop torturing him already, because he got up from the bench and signaled towards the things that he had lying around on the bench. Chanyeol saw boxes, a banner, a lot of bags, lined one after the other, that seemed to belong to rather high-end brands, and a very big, very obnoxious black paper fan with Kim Jongin’s name written in neon yellow and surrounded by flower stickers. “But anyway, I need you to help me with this.”

“How did you bring this all here?”

“I took a taxi.”

“And again, what’s it supposed to be?”

“Fan support. From Kai’s Unofficial Arcadian Fan Union. To wish him a fast recovery.”

“And why is it here? Instead of being mailed to Jongin’s company or something.”

Sehun stared at him like he was an ignorant child. “Because I am going to meet him, of course,” he said, like it was so fucking obvious. “I can’t waste the opportunity to wish him a happy recovery.”

Chanyeol felt the very urgent, very sudden need to facepalm. “You can wish him a happy recovery without trying to bribe him with designer shoes,” he replied. Sehun was still too much into all that, and him being so enthusiastic about Jongin being in public again made him feel bad. “This whole thing… He’s not here to talk just because of courtesy to Baekhyun, you know? You should be prepared to hear what he’s going to tell you.”

For a heartbeat, Sehun’s face fell. “I know that, I know.” But he must be a very strong guy, or maybe something very persistent, because he immediately schooled himself into insistence. “But still, that doesn’t have to do with us supporting him. We worked so hard, we made a banner - and all of us will be coming later.”

“And you’re telling me all this because you want me to…?”

“I was talking with Jongin’s management before, and they said that the only thing I was allowed to bring with me in our meeting was a single piece of official goods for him to sign.” Sehun explained. He was being especially effusive about all that, and for someone like his friend to look downright offended was a big deal. A family of three, passing by them, had the father shaking his head, and a young man a bit further away was staring, immobile. “And they started putting restrictions today, when I had already taken my taxi. What am I supposed to do with all this if I can’t give it to him?”

“I’m sure that his company still accepts presents if you send them by ordinary mail.”

“I don’t have time for that. Post offices are already closed and I have to meet Jongin in an hour.” The family was already gone, but Staring Boy was still there, out of the path and between two large trees, curled hair reddish-golden under the setting sun. It was familiar somehow, even though Chanyeol couldn’t quite locate him. He frowned. “I can’t leave all this lying around either. Those are expensive presents, bought with the Union’s money. What am I supposed to do?”

“Send someone else to pick this all up? Someone from your Union? You have a lot of people, don’t you?”

“I don’t have time!” protested Sehun. Staring Boy had noticed Chanyeol looking, and he tilted his head, eyes locking with him. Chanyeol froze - the sharp features, the cat-like eyes… He’d seen that guy once, heard him another time, and if he was there then, the boy was sure that he wasn’t staring because Sehun had been loud for once. He gritted his teeth, but still he couldn’t look away. Focus. “And the management is being unreasonable. So my idea was for you to call Baekhyun and ask him to please intercede so we can all be spared this waste of… Chanyeol, are you listening?”

The boy in front of him had turned around, taking a first step towards the other side of the tree, and Chanyeol gulped.

“I-- Yes. I’ll message him,” he said.

Sehun’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yeah, he’s in Victory Park now, so I’ll tell him to try his best.” Chanyeol attempted a smile, but his heart was beating too fast and his eyes drifting to the place where the stranger had disappeared. He possibly couldn’t… He shouldn’t, but the boy had been staring at him. “You should go to him,” he told Sehun.

“Yeah, no much time left until I’m called in. But hey, could you help me carry all this to a taxi?”

Again, Chanyeol felt bad. But he didn’t want to stop to think, so he just shook his head, apologetic. “I’m sorry but I-- I’m really busy. There’s a place where I should be right now.”

“Oh,” said Sehun.

“You can handle it, right? I’ll text Baekhyun so he waits for you close to the stage. I’ll text him.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry. I just remembered something important. I’ll see you around, okay? Call me if you have any other problem later. Just… Tell me, okay?” Gesturing at himself for one last time, Chanyeol muttered an apology, then a goodbye and he turned around. He could feel his friend’s eyes on the back of his head as he started walking to the place where Staring Boy had disappeared, but the sensation was long gone as he moved further away from the main path.

People were still around, coming with their banners and their signs, a blur of white among the browns and greens of the park, but still Chanyeol felt as nervous as if he was chasing someone through a deserted place, silence resounding in his ears, the thrum of his own steps muted by the drilling pound of his heart.

He was chasing someone. He. Someone that Baekhyun wouldn’t have liked him following around.

But that boy had been the one to find him, and to stare first, and Chanyeol could still feel the remnants of the knot of disgust at the base of his throat.

He was Jongdae, that guy. And judging by how he was waiting for him at the sidewalk just outside of the park, hands in his pockets and calm eyes on Chanyeol as he neared him, he had been expecting that exact same outcome.

“Park Chanyeol,” he said, like some kind of greeting, when the boy stopped beside him after sending a quick text message to Baekhyun to inform him about Sehun’s situation. He was still shorter than him, still more on the thin side, but Chanyeol felt a little bit threatened by the intensity of his gaze. “Do you know who I am?”

“You came to see Baekhyun to that speech. He was the one who said your name - Jongdae, right?”

“Kim Jongdae, yes,” replied the guy. “Pleased… to meet you, I suppose.”

“Did you come to see Baekhyun?” asked Chanyeol. He’s in Victory Park, a part of his brain wanted to say, only so he would leave. Other part of him just wished for him to say no. No, I’m not here for Baekhyun. No, I was just passing by, so I’ll leave.

“Sort of,” he replied instead. “But I know he’s somewhere else in this moment. I came here, now to talk to you.”

Chanyeol exhaled, breath warm on his lips. He licked them. “What?”

“I didn’t have the occasion before, and I thought it was better if I did, preferably with no Baekhyun around. So could you talk to me? But not here. Let’s go to a cafe or something. My treat.”

“You want to talk about what?” asked Chanyeol. It hadn’t been his intention to sound rude, but his voice still rose up more than he had intended, steel under the edge. Judging by the way his lips pressed, Jongdae noticed, but he didn’t comment on it.

“Byun Baekhyun,” he said, simply.

And Chanyeol knew that he shouldn’t listen, but the moment he heard the name, he was already lost.

His heart was still beating like crazy. It pounded and pounded and pounded like a drum, marking the rhythm of his breath as he followed Jongdae to the store of a coffee chain, a couple of streets away from the park. He wished the other man could walk faster, stride, and skip the queue, and just sit in front of him and talk, but Jongdae took his sweet time in guiding him towards the cafe, and waiting after a group of girls with sakura flowers painted onto their shirts to order. Most people were dressed in white, even there, but Jongdae was still in a red sweater and dark blue jeans, the colors so bright, his eyes so dark.

“Do you want something?” he asked Chanyeol once they reached the counter. “I said I’d treat you.”

“A coffee?” replied Chanyeol, his voice raising up a bit at the end. He wasn’t exactly thirsty, but declining wouldn’t have been polite, exactly. “Iced americano.”

“Is that so.”

They went to an empty table after that, at the far end of the store. Jongdae had gotten something warm, and again he was unbearingly slow in removing the lid to pour sugar in and stirring the mix with one wooden stick. Chanyeol didn’t know where to look at, eyes wandering from the guy’s head to his hands, to his half lidded eyes. He was frowning; he looked angry - probably at him.

What in the world did this guy even want?

Finally, the guy stared at him, bending forward, chin resting on one hand.

“So, Park Chanyeol. Do you know who I am?”

Telling him he was Jongdae to try and avoid the question would probably not suffice, so Chanyeol swallowed. “In regards to what?” he asked back. “Baekhyun?” Jongdae just stared at him, and the boy felt his head spinning. “Am I supposed to know?”

“You’re not supposed to be here in the first place.”

He had talked lowly, words muttered but voice still clear. It made a chill run down Chanyeol’s spine. It also made him sort of mad.

“Well, you asked the question first, and I still don’t know but… who are you to say that?”

“Someone who worries.”

“Worries about what? Is he your boyfriend? Because even if he is, you have no right to drag me around and tell me that I shouldn’t--” He had to stop when he noticed that Jongdae was staring at him, directly for the first time, eyes wide open. “What?”

“He has no boyfriend,” he said.

Chanyeol’s traitorous heart leaped in his chest. But it was not the moment, not the time, and he struggled to push the feeling down. “Still, is it you he’s coughing flowers for?”

It was a big guess, but Jongdae’s face hardened all the same. “This, all this, doesn’t concern you. I worry about him, and believe me I’m worrying about you too when I tell you to stay away from Baekhyun.”

Okay, he was mad now. “Why?” he asked, trying not to sound too upset, trying to keep calm. His hands closed into fists still, the pain numb when his nails dug into the skin of his palms. “And why the hell am I supposed to listen to what you say? I have no idea on why Baekhyun is friends with someone like you, but we don’t even know each other.”

“Ah, and do you know Baekhyun? You’ve been, what, following him around for a couple of months?”

“I do know him!”

“He’s dying .”

Chanyeol lost his words in a flurry of quiet, quiet silence. “I-- What?”

That place was decorated to be cute, warm, in a chocolate brown and pastel orange kind of way, but Chanyeol felt like he was frozen, a statue made of salt.

“He’s sick with CFCS, you’re aware of that.”

“How wouldn’t I be?!”

He heard the desperation staining his voice before he realized he was afraid. Of that boy, and his words, and of him having reasons. “And so, do you know him enough to know how severe his condition is? He’s been getting worse: he should be in a hospital, not organizing marches. Has he told you that, considering you know him so well?”

“But he’s--” He had looked healthy, that same morning. They had been working together for a whole week and he hadn’t had any crisis, or coughed blood in front of him. Not more than normal.

But he lost his breath always. He always did, when he had to move fast.

“He’s high on painkillers. He numbs himself so he doesn’t hurt and he doesn’t cough, but that won’t do a thing about him having a bloody cherry blossom plant growing in his chest.”

Chanyeol had seen those, that same night he had stayed in Baekhyun’s room and he had gotten up from bed to throw up. And still Baekhyun wouldn’t say and he’d choose not to listen.

“And what does that have to do with me?” he asked. Should he feel bad about that? Yes. Guilty? Scared? All? Nothing? What did he have a right to do?

“You’re… supporting him in this,” whispered Jongdae. “You know he’s overworking himself.”

“He was doing all this when I came! It’s not like I brainwashed him and--” Chanyeol paused, unsure. He was upset, and Jongdae still looked angry, but he couldn’t completely read his face, and that was what was making him scared. “What’s with you? Do you want him to go through surgery or what?”

He had managed to sound accusing, and Jongdae flinched. Well deserved, he thought. “I-- No. That’s not it. I’ve talked to him, true, but I can’t force him when I understand his reasons.”

“What do you want me to do, then?” Chanyeol didn’t want his voice to shake, he didn’t want to sit there and listen to that man speak.

“To stay away. He’s been hurt. He’s getting worse. He could even die. I don’t want him to be in pain, or any of you to suffer any consequence.”

“That,” whispered Chanyeol. For some reason, he wanted to burst out laughing. “That just now sounded menacing.”

Jongdae sighed. “Not my intention.”

“And what are you doing, then?”

“Just warning you. Think about it, please.”

And Chanyeol had. He couldn’t not to, sitting there at that cute cafe, surrounded by determined people in pink and white and with Jongdae bending forward on the chair in front of him, looking at him like he expected him to listen and consider and say he was very okay with that. Yeah, he had.

“So what’s your idea here?” he muttered, said of out loud because he needed to hear the sound of it, the words resounding. “Do you want me to get up, and run to my dorm, and abandon this march a couple of hours away from it starting? To block Baekhyun’s number and chat ID on my phone because… he’s sick? Do you think that’s enough of a reason?”

“I’m just asking you to consider,” replied Jongdae. Chanyeol still couldn’t read his expression, but he looked at him all the time - as he bent forward on his own seat and lowered his voice, as he frowned and dug his nails so much into his flesh that he really, really felt the pain for once.

“What kind of person do you think I am? I am not going to abandon him!”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“Will all due respect, he’s twenty four, and enough of an adult to choose his own companies. Don’t be an asshole.”

But Jongdae was an asshole, so everything he did was clicking his tongue and getting up. “Very well. I did what I could, and I had to try. But yeah, you’re right, you both are old enough to decide to get heartbroken.” He took his phone from his pocket, clicked something on the screen and took it to his ear. Soon after, Chanyeol felt the vibration of his own phone in his back pocket. And he blinked in confusion, stared up at the other man. “There you have my number. Feel free to contact me, if at one point you fuck up and want to know how to get out from your own mess.”

Chanyeol hesitated. “No, thank you?” he managed after a while, incredulous.

“I really hope you don’t need it.”

“I won’t.”

Jongdae nodded, and turned around, and left, his beverage abandoned on the table, warm still. Chanyeol was left there, eyes on the cup and mind blank as he fished for his phone. An unknown number was written there, blinking over the background like it was mocking him.

So he cursed and almost threw the phone on the table, closing his eyes and trying to think, think, think but hoping, at the same time, that he didn’t have to.

He stayed there for a long time, really - until the people in the surrounded tables had left, and new ones came; until one concerned girl cleared her throat in front of him and asked if he was okay. He was, he said, but he really didn’t know. He couldn’t even start to imagine what the fuck Jongdae wanted, but he had stated Baekhyun was worse, that Baekhyun was dying, and he couldn’t have said that he was unaware of him being sick but--

Death sounded so final. Was final.

And it was all this abstract concept until you realized that it wasn’t, and that Byun Baekhyun was there dancing with it in some sort of ominous waltz. Spin, after spin, after spin, after spin.

It made him dizzy until the point of wanting to throw up. It made the tips of his fingers cold. The sakura flower Baekhyun had stuck onto his shirt was still there, at the front of his unbuttoned shirt, and he peeled it off, crumpling it into a ball as one waiter came to see if he wanted to drink something else.

He took his untouched coffee with him as he walked out of the shop, only so he had something to distract himself with as he walked back to the park, and only then noticed that the sky over his head was already dark and that the space between the trees was aglow. His phone started vibrating again in his back pocket, and the fear of it being Jongdae paralyzed Chanyeol for a moment, but when he took a look at the screen, it was just Seulgi.

“Hey, where are you?” she asked as soon as the boy picked up. “You asked me to call if we ran out of stickers and, surprise, we have. Can you bring more?”

“I can try.”

That was good, for not thinking. Calling the organizers, asking to get access to the small commercial office where they kept their extras, bring a box to a very happy Seulgi and the other volunteers.

“This is great,” she told him. “Look around! It’s so pretty.”

And it was. It was.

Hours ago, Baekhyun had been freaking out because he was afraid not enough people would come for them to make an impact. But he had been wrong. He had been out in that cafe for who knew how long, but now that he was back all the park was ablaze with lanterns, like the grass and the tries and the gravel paths were brimming with fireflies.

He had a lamp too, still unlit, hanging like a deadweight from his right hand.

“It seems this all was a success,” he whispered.

There was a crowd, a whole crowd, mumbling, and Chanyeol saw Baekhyun before the boy saw him, and forgot how to breathe for a heartbeat. He was already back from Victory Park, and directing the multitude, gesturing so they would form, banners first and lamps to their sides.

“We need this whole city to see us!” he exclaimed. Then he must have noticed he was being watched, because he tilted his head and looked around until he noticed Chanyeol and he smiled. And it had to be true, that hearts were as fragile as glass, because his shattered, just a tiny bit.

“Baekhyun,” he called, because clearly the boy had to excuse himself and come to him.

“Hey, hey. I was told by my network of contacts that you were slacking off. Is everything okay?” he replied. His wrists were thin, under the thick black fabric of the hoodie he was wearing. The march was probably about to start, and he’d said he would change before that happened, but he still was in full black and Chanyeol didn’t have the heart to remind him.

“I-- Yeah,” he said. “I was… I got distracted.”

“Long coffee break?” asked Baekhyun with a teasing smile. “I don’t pay you for this. Or well, technically speaking, I don’t pay you, period.”

He was so beautiful when he laughed, and Chanyeol kind of, sort of, pretty much liked him, and Baekhyun had always seemed close, though a little distant, but now the boy felt like he was trying to reach him underwater, and there was a sea between them, pushing him away.

That was Baekhyun’s great day. If he looked around, it was obvious it was about to be a success. And Chanyeol believed in that.

Believed.

Really believed.

But Baekhyun was all excited, and his breath was already strained.

“Hey,” Chanyeol said, lowering his voice, so Baekhyun had to come closer to listen, and no one else could hear. “You’re not overdoing it with painkillers, right?”

The question was sudden, and Baekhyun’s smile faltered. Chanyeol felt like shit.

“Why are you asking that?” Baekhyun inquired back.

“I saw the boxes in your room.”

“But why did you choose this moment to ask?”

I saw Jongdae, he wanted to say. I saw him, and he told me. But Baekhyun seemed nervous, and he was freaking out, so he went for the second best option. “I’m worried about you.”

Baekhyun tilted his head up to look at him. He had his bangs all over his eyes again, too long, white against the dark hue of his lashes. He bit his lip. “Not now,” he said. He hesitated for a moment, eyes flickering down, then up to meet his, warm brown melting into pitch black in the lamp-lit park. “I need you to support me now. You do, right?”

Right?

“Yeah,” whispered Chanyeol. “Of course I do.”

--

They were an ocean of lights. A whole sea, marching down.

There was no trace of sound, except for the noise of their steps, and the rustle of their clothes, and the occasional clang of metal. There were no voices, no whispers, there was no laughter. Only light - pale light, yellow light, orange light, red light, and pink light, and white, burning bright - coming from a thousand candles, a thousand lamps, reflecting on the glass walls of the buildings like the whole street was burning.

Chanyeol still felt like he was trying to breath underwater, the air around him heavy, and the line of pale flesh of his scar a cold thread on his chest. He didn’t know how many people had come in the end, but there was a lot of them. Seulgi and the volunteers, covered in flowers; Sehun, with a stern face and his presents gone; Jongin and his bodyguards; Jisung and his father; he’d even seen Seungwan, with Minseok, even though he hadn’t expected to find them in such a place, in such a time. Many more had come, dozens growing into hundreds and bleeding into thousands. Were they supporting them, truly? Were they there out of curiosity? Because they wanted to know how it’d be, to walk across a city that had banned cherry blossoms, with pink sakura petals on their clothes and hands and faces?

It didn’t matter, really? What seemed the most important was they were there.

Arcadia was burning, in light and silence, and Chanyeol couldn’t breathe.

His was a place of honor, marching at the front, with the organizers. He was good with his hands, he’d discovered, if he just sat down and practiced, and he had made the prettiest lamp, the glass cage around the light tinted so the glow would come out modified, flower shaped. It casted cherry blossom shadows, on his hands, on his clothes, casted petal-shaped shadows on the side of Baekhyun’s face.

He couldn’t breathe, really, even if he was doing it and he kept moving, solemn step after solemn step.

At the front of the flower road, Baekhyun looked like he didn’t care. Everyone had respected the dress code, but not him, who had no blossoms on his clothes and still wore Chanyeol’s old sweater, the sleeves too long and the collar too low over his collarbones. He stuck out over everyone else - a full moon in reverse, on a sky painted pink and white.

Baekhyun looked like he didn’t care, but his fingers had paled, gripping his hand and his banner, and his eyes never left the front of the road.

Support me, he’d said. A plea, or an order, or a prayer, and that night Chanyeol would have walked at his side beyond every boundary, until people looked and listened and stopped to stare.

He’s sick , Jongdae had told him. Sick as in getting worse. Sick as in dying.

And still Chanyeol believed in what he said.

He was seeing the march.

He was in the march.

And he knew they would be remembered.

They reached Victory Park. They made it ablaze with multicolored lights. The stage was set, as Baekhyun has directed. The press was there, as Baekhyun had wanted. The speakers were already preparing their speeches, mumbling lost words under the deafening silence, and the boy turned to smile at him.

“Hold my lamp?” he asked Chanyeol, like he hadn’t been inquiring about him being high on painkillers. He was grinning like he didn’t have a care in the world, with a growing wind rustling his hair, melting the silver away from the brown of his eyes. “I can’t carry this with me up there, now can I?”

“Ah, but maybe you should.” Chanyeol smiled back. “You know, for effect. Or so you look like you belong to this place and you didn’t just sneak in for the free food.”

“We have no free food here. And I didn’t have time to change, but everyone knows me all the same. See?” Baekhyun turned around, and waved at the people at the side of the stage. He was greeted back with a rain of photo flashes, and he laughed at it, brushed it off. “Hold my lamp and come with me to the side of the stage? I have to talk, you see.”

People were forming a circle around said stage, silence and formation both broken, their ocean of flowers opening into stirred waters. The lights remained, casting the scene into an otherworldly glow. They were looked at, when Baekhyun grabbed Chanyeol’s sleeve and dragged him to the part at the back where the other speakers were.

Jisung and his dad were there - one determined, the other looking very pale - and Jongin was mumbling over the lines of whatever he was going to say. There were more people that Baekhyun had called: a young girl, a woman, a man with a scar, and they all stopped doing what they were doing to greet him, them.

“So this is it. You’re making it,” said Chanyeol, when they both were left alone. “Excited?”

Baekhyun chuckled, the sound so low that it made something in Chanyeol’s chest awaken, slowly, like a phantom flower. “What are you saying?” he asked back, a bit too loud, almost scolding him even though there was no bite in this voice. “I’m terrified.”

Chanyeol still felt he was reaching towards him with his head underwater. “You’ll do well,” he told him. “Don’t make me push you up there. Go.”

“Cruel,” joked Baekhyun. “What if I change my mind and don’t want to?”

“Would you?” And Chanyeol almost wished he could.

“Change it?” Baekhyun’s smile turned wide. “Of course not.”

He stepped up to the stage after that, back straight and head held high, voice booming out across the park when he greeted everyone. He was there to introduce everyone, to remain at their side while they spoke, and Chanyeol realized, as he saw him tell his audience the name of the first woman, that he had watched Baekhyun speaking in public many times, but it had always been from the front, as part of the public, and never from the back.

He had never noticed how he clasped his fingers together at his back, or how he shifted his weight from one feet to another. How he walked everyone down, patted their shoulders, rushed up to introduce the next person. People weren’t cheering for them that time - the park was full, from the center to the outer edges - and everyone was silent, everyone was listening.

“I have two sons.” That was Jisung’s dad speaking, his son looking up at him with determined eyes at Chanyeol’s side. “My oldest went through surgery, because of the loss of his mom. After the procedure was deemed a success, we discovered that the memories of his younger brother had been taken away too, along with the sickness.”

Stillness. Whispers. A long speech, and Baekhyun saying something to him when he finished, voice low, and warm, and gentle.

They were right to speak. Everything they said was a truth that Chanyeol believed in.

“Jongin, your turn,” called Baekhyun, rushing down the metal stairs to guide him and his bodyguards up. Jisung and his dad had left after they had finished their part, joining the public like all the other speakers, and the boy bent forward and coughed once Jongin had already headed to the stage. Only Chanyeol and him remained there - and the weight of the phantom water between them.

Chanyeol ran to him. “Are you okay?”

Baekhyun cleaned the blood on his lips with the back of his sleeve. “Fine as always,” he answered. “I talked a bit too much. It’ll be fine, just let me breath in.”

Oh god, he was so beautiful under the multicolored light of the lamps, as he kept dancing his own deadly waltz, bowing at the public and offering them his own hand to grab for the dance. and he’ll keep at it, spin after spin and turn after turn, until the music trapped him, or freed him, or stopped.

“I am Kai. You know me, right?” Cheers, for the first time. Hearts about to get crushed. “I have come here to speak, but it’s not because I have good news for you. I walked onto this stage to announce I will be retiring.”

Silence. A cry. More words. And Chanyeol curled his hands into fists.

There was injustice in Jongin being misinformed, about such an artist forgetting why he had been creating his art in the first place. It was there, in every case, creeping in Jisung’s family and in Chanyeol’s own.

That march, that speech, that crowd, were part of a sense of rightness Chanyeol believed in. They wanted the words, and the information, and the choice to accept the risk or to remain as they were, the chance to heal, or to live, or to die.

Chanyeol approved of that, but he knew what Baekhyun would choose. He had always said it out loud, no lie about it. He’d walk forward, resolutely, bowing his head at Death before the ball.

He wondered, if he could be saved.

“I must have felt so trapped, loving someone that didn’t love me back, to the point where I decided I’d rather have that out. So I went through it, and I thought it would be better. I obviously did, even if everything went wrong when I did.”

Baekhyun was young, full of life, eyes bright and fingers lived where they were still interlocked at his back. He didn’t want to die, he’d said. He struggled every day and raised his own voice, much more than Chanyeol had ever had.

He was an admirable boy with a flurry of cherry blossoms in his chest, and he deserved for them to rot and die and disappear.

So could he be saved? Could Chanyeol try?

He wished he could try.

“I didn’t know it’d come to this. I wasn’t told. I didn’t expect this. This me, the one before you, is not the one you used to love. I’ve been reborn, but in a life I hadn’t asked for. I’m healthy, and safe, and that’s what EDN and this city take pride in calling a success, but at what price?”

Silence, and Jongin’s voice under the quiet of a starry sky, and Baekhyun listening with his head tilted, like a bird. Chanyeol knew he would commit that to memory - the black clothes and the white hair, the edge of his jaw and the shell of his ear; an image everlasting in the blink of an eye.

“And I want you to think. I want you to go home and consider. You came here because you had doubts, right? You came here because you know that, no matter what we do, there’s no good choice in this. We either get sick and die, or get sick and heal, or get sick and claim a cure that make us lose ourselves. But at least that should be ours. Our choice. Our mind. Our heart. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I tell you my story and ask you to listen to me.”

He bowed, and he left, and the voices of his fans followed him in the wind when he stepped down the stage.

“I made it,” he told Chanyeol, and his voice wasn’t angry or dull like in his hospital suite, or loud and clear like moments ago when he’d been speaking. It just seemed lighter somehow. “I needed that. Thank you.”

His smile was soft, genuinely happy, and when Chanyeol looked up, from him to the stage, he saw an almost exact replica on Baekhyun’s face. Except for one thing, maybe - the weight of it.

Chanyeol didn’t want to save Baekhyun, exactly. He just wanted to keep him close. To turn the winter sunshine of his smile into summer, so layer after layer after layer he didn’t look sad. He still wanted to know if there was another way for the flowers to go. Anything, really. Related to him or not.

“So well, everyone, our little meetup is over here.” Baekhyun leaned towards the public, soft, like he wanted to keep them, not even staring at the flashes that were raining over him, over his audience and the park and the stage. “I hope you’ll think about it. I hope you’ll raise your voice. I hope you can still consider what the best option is, for you.”

For the first time, a voice rose almost immediately: a young woman, judging by it. “But I am sick,” she said. “What am I supposed to do? Is there any other choice for me?”

Baekhyun closed his eyes, smiled. “There has to,” he replied. “We’ll find it. After all this, we’ll try.”

And Baekhyun was just one man with no power, but then the girl spoke again. “A different choice,” she said, and it wasn’t an answer, nor it felt exactly like a plea. It sounded like a statement. “A different choice,” she repeated, and by the time she went to say it again, another voice joined. “A different choice. A different choice. We want a different choice.”

It spread, like fire over dry grass, like stars exploding, and soon it was the whole crowd saying it, every person at the park, raising their lamps, stomping their feet, repeating the sentence like a mantra over and over again.

He’d made it. Baekhyun had made it. And there he was, atop the stage, looking around and smiling like a madman. A really, really happy madman.

“You’ve got it!” screamed Chanyeol, even if his words were muted by the crowd, when Baekhyun turned around, eyes searching for him at the empty backstage. Chanyeol V-signed at him, so he could see, but Baekhyun came to him anyway. “You’ll be in every single piece of news tomorrow!”

“It’s a fucking miracle,” was everything he heard the other boy literally scream before he reached the border of the stage and jumped towards him, flying over the stairs and knocking him back on the ground when Chanyeol tried to grab him before he landed. The floor was hard and cold and wet with night dew, but Baekhyun’s smile was brighter than the stars. “You were supposed to catch.”

Chanyeol snorted. “You’re heavy, Byun.”

“Pure muscle,” Baekhyun told him, hands on his shoulders, legs straddling him, eyes wide. “But have you heard that?”

“How not to? I almost can’t hear you.

Baekhyun laughed out loud, and it sounded like music. “It’s done,” he whispered, breath on his face.

“You made it.”

“No. We. We made it. I wouldn’t have done a thing if you haven’t arrived.” His bangs were still too long, but his face was glowing underneath. “This-- I-- This is--”

Chanyeol didn’t want to save Baekhyun like some knight in shining armor. But he would have given everything in his hand to see him always healthy, always as openly happy as he was just then.

“Hey, Baekhyun,” he whispered. “Can I do something?”

He was drunk with joy, and Baekhyun didn’t move away when he kissed him. He felt him gasp - a wet, muted oh against his lips - he felt him freeze, body stiff against him, nails digging in his shoulder, even through his t-shirt and his overshirt, and for a moment he freaked out.

Then, Baekhyun kissed back.

He kissed like a star exploding, sudden and violent, a blast of white, fingers pressing harder on his flesh and lips parting. He kissed with hunger, pressing against him, sighing in his mouth when Chanyeol’s hand went to his waist to bring him closer still. He left this sound out, a breath between a laughter and a pant, and the wall of water Chanyeol had felt between them came down with a sizzle and a hiss. Baekhyun bit his lip, so hard that he could have drawn blood.

This was what he had wanted. This, this, this, this.

But hearts were made of glass, and his seemed to crystallize when Baekhyun stilled in his arms.

It was a heartbeat, but he could tell. “Are you okay?” he murmured, putting distance enough to look at his eyes. They were open wide, warm brown draining into black. He stared at him, gaping, and then he pushed Chanyeol back and pulled himself away, until he was standing on his two feet, breath ragged. “Baekhyun?”

“Heavens above,” he hissed. “Not this. Not you. Not the fucking you.”

He sounded upset, more than Chanyeol had ever heard him be, but it wasn’t only that. There was something else, an edge Chanyeol couldn’t quite place and that scared him to the marrow of his bones - was that… disgust?

He didn’t understand. He tried to stand on shaky legs. He could taste the metallic aftertaste of blood on his lips when he licked them. “Wait. What are you-- Is it something I’ve done?”

Baekhyun took a step back, and Chanyeol felt like suffocating again. “What you shouldn’t have done was that just now.”

“But--” But you kissed right back, he was about to say, just before the sound of the shutter made him stop with a flinch.

No one had been close enough to see a thing when Baekhyun had come down from the stage, but they were not alone anymore - three men were next to the stairs, armed with three black cameras pointed directly at the space between them. The next flash blurred his vision in white.

“How long…” he muttered, blind. His heart was pounding, wild, and his brain in overdrive.

When his vision went back to normal, Baekhyun was in front of them. “Don’t you fucking dare,” he hissed. One of the men chuckled on his face and turned around.

At the other side of the stage, the chanting had already started to die.

Chapter Text

Interlude - The End

 

You amuse me to no end.

Remember what you used to say, back at that time when you still went to university parties? You were there for the fun, you said. You did what you want, and then you left. You came in, and wrecked, and left untouched because you were untouchable.

So then, care to explain what are you doing now, at your supervisor’s office when you know he’s not there, hands deep in the drawers at his desk.

You look around.

You open and close.

You know he keeps his extra ID cards there, you’ve seen him storing them.

Oh, boy.

Oh, boy.

You, untouchable as you were, are up to your neck in shit.

It’s impossible not to laugh at you: the crow, the heartbreaker, the fake and the liar.

You find the card, with its IC chip and Kim Junmyeon’s name and photograph.

All access, it says - well, guess now you’re a thief too. Make sure to write it on your resume when you’re looking for a new job after this, yeah?

Desperation must have made you methodical, because you know how to do this. Doctor Kim Junmyeon is resting today, but you know the passcode to his office. The personal computer inside has fingerprint-granted access, but the ones at the archive at the third floor are an older model, and will work for anyone who has an all-access card. And you personally requested to be assigned to the last turn of the day, so you’ll finish working when people doing office work have already gone home.

Why are you so nervous?

The only thing you want is to check his profile, right?

To make sure he’s fine.

To make sure he’s not dead.

To rule it out, be assured that this is not something you’ve done to him.

Not your fault.

Never your fault.

Not your fault at all.

It can’t be.

He’ll be fine.

Has to be fine.

You get to third floor. The door beeps when you use Dr. Kim’s card to open it and you freak out, looking around like a scared animal. No one comes. You walk in.

You turn one of the computers on.

He’ll be fine.

The screen greets you with blue light. You’ve never worked with that database before, but it’s easy enough. You’ll manage.

Not your fault.

You have to use the card again, to access Second Phase files.

He’ll be fine.

He’s #04. Atop of the list. You click. You see his photo and swallow.

Not your fault.

You see his profile, scroll down to his files. There’s too many of them.

He’ll be fine.

You go to the last one. The most recent.

Not your fault.

You click on it.

He’s fine.

It’s on the screen.

He-- is--

You see. Read.

It’s not your fault. Not your fault.

Not your fault.

Notyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfaultnotyourfault

Not… Your...

Oh, boy, what were you expecting?

--

Arcadia University Hospital
Discharge Against Medical Advice

This is to certify that I, as a CFCS patient at Arcadia University Hospital, at my own insistence and without the authority of and against the advice of my attending physician and supervisor, Dr. Kim Junmyeon, am refusing further treatments and request to leave against medical advice.

It has been explained to me that this is against the advice of the clinical staff caring for me. I acknowledge that I have been fully informed of the potential risks and benefits, and I accept full responsibility for my actions and any consequences arising from discharging myself in this way. Due to this, I hereby release the medical center, its administration, personnel, and my attending and/or resident physicians from any responsibility for all consequences.

The medical risks have been explained to me by my supervisor and the clinical staff and I understand that my condition is severe and that those imply:

  1. Additional pain and/or suffering.
  2. Permanent pulmonary damage.
  3. Permanent disability.
  4. Death.

I understand that even if I sign this document, this does not prevent me from coming back to the hospital should I so wish and that, indeed, this is strongly recommended should I have any questions or the slightest problem.

Date: November 22nd, 2038
Time: 16h45

Internal note, for Doctor Kim Junmyeon: Patient to be discharged on November 29th, after the last batch of tests have been done and delivered. For patient’s current pulmonary condition, please check the report added to his file last week.

--

Wound of love that will grant my life
endless blood and pure welling light.

 

Chanyeol had never thought that he would become the most famous guy at his university, or that it would happen like that.

The march had been everywhere the following day: articles on newspapers, blog entries all over the internet and featured spots on the news - they were there, a silent stream of flowers and light crossing the city from park to park; the assistants and the speakers, Jisung’s dad, and Jongin talking to his fans with his hand over his heart, and Baekhyun, watching the crowd in awe as they started to chant.

It’d been a success. Yes, it had.

But his and Baekhyun’s photos were out there as well. Kissing first, then arguing, all over the internet, on social media profiles and on gossip magazines, with wonderful headlines that went from DOES BYUN BAEKHYUN HAVE A NEW BOYFRIEND to BYUN BAEKHYUN ARGUING WITH HIS NEW BOYFRIEND.

Which was terrible enough by itself, because some of those people had even managed to get his name and university, but now his sister was calling him (he hadn’t picked up), Sehun had messaged him in panic, and people had stared at him all morning when he had decided to go to class, against his best friend’s advice; but it was made worse because Baekhyun was rejecting his calls.

He must be upset. Anyone would be, after Chanyeol had decided it was a great idea to go and kiss him in a place with people, and the press, and had gotten their face and apparent relationship problems all over Arcadia fucking City.

But the problem wasn’t that, not as much.

The problem was Baekhyun being livid before, looking at him like he… what? Like he despised him?

He didn’t even know. He didn’t understand, and Baekhyun himself wasn’t helping, and Chanyeol had given up in trying to call him, because after five missed calls and an unanswered apology message, it wasn’t more than obvious that the boy didn’t want to talk to him and he already felt like enough of an idiot to add over insistent asshole to his list of sins.

He shouldn’t have come to class. Sehun was a brat 85% of the time but, surprisingly, he tended to be right about quite a lot of things. You’ll be old news soon, take it easy, he had texted him, but Chanyeol couldn’t exactly bear the idea of staying alone inside of his dorm room, and now he was alone in the middle of the school cafeteria, his hood pulled down and his music blasting from his earphones, like that could keep the whispering assholes away.

Even though apparently, some people were unable to take a hint, because when he looked up from his book and his coffee, he saw a guy standing in front of his table - one of those first year pretty boys, with a very new jacket, a very smug face and a very invested group of friends staring at them from their own table close by. Chanyeol was tempted not to remove his earphones and just ignore him, but the guy was blocking the light so in the end he complied.

New Jacket Dude looked all satisfied at that, like he had reached some great milestone in history. He was carrying a folded newspaper in his fancy jacket pocket and he took it out for Chanyeol to see. The photo at the cover, in black and white, was of he and Baekhyun kissing at the back of the stage and it probably would have had much more of an effect on him if he hadn’t been seeing it everywhere for the last twelve hours. “Hey, Park, I didn’t know you were into this,” he exclaimed, loud enough for his friends to hear.

Ah, how fun. “Ah, I didn’t know we have talked to each other before,” he said, voice calm, tone steady, “for me to tell you what I am or not into.”

The guy flinched, and Chanyeol snorted, and just when he was going to return to his music and his book, someone appeared from behind the stranger and hit him on the side with a rolled up magazine. To his surprise, that someone was Seungwan, followed by Sehun and looking very pissed.

“Seriously, fuck off,” she hissed, and it was weird because Chanyeol was almost sure that he hadn’t heard her swear with such intensity ever before. The guy, in fact, looked potentially scared and mumbled an apology when she hit him again. “You and your friends, all of you.”

“But this is the school cafeteria,” the boy tried to argue. “We have a right to--”

“Oh, heaven glorious,” muttered Seungwan, rolling her eyes. She leaned on the table. “Hey Chanyeol, it’s almost summer, so let’s go outside, okay? We don’t need to be here.”

Chanyeol’s gaze went from her to Sehun, who was also sort of glaring at the guy and his cheering group. “Yeah, let’s leave,” his friend said. “The food here is shit anyway.”

They were looked at as they left, but the stares died when they reached the garden. It still was pretty at that time of the year, students laying on the ground or sitting on the benches, but Seungwan and Sehun passed across every single sunny spot, not stopping until they reached a patch of grass under the shade of the Humanities building. At that time of the year, people still preferred the sun, so there was no one there, and Chanyeol felt a wave of relief when he sat on the ground. The grass was slightly wet under his fingers; it felt soothing, somehow.

“Oh, those idiots.” Seungwan sighed, and suddenly Chanyeol remembered that the last time he’d seen her, he’d left her sad and upset at a cafe. She had avoided him after that, and the only thing he thought he could do was to give her time, especially when he had a march to focus on, but that also meant that they were face to face that day for the first time in two weeks. And she still looked mad, but not at him. He hoped it was not at him. He was worried enough at Baekhyun either being completely out of reach or giving him the silent treatment to feel even more like shit about her too.

“Hey, how are you?” It was Sehun who asked, placing his own sweater on the grass before sitting at his side.

“Enjoying the fame, I guess?” he replied, trying his absolute best to laugh it off. “I wanted to be a celebrity when I was a kid, you know? A Kim Jongin for the masses. Guess I made it, in my own way.”

“You look pale.”

“So I will look ugly on the next photos they take of me?” As soon as he said it, he found himself looking around. They hadn’t followed him, right? The press wouldn’t come there, they wouldn’t be allowed in, would they? There didn’t seem to be anyone, or at least he couldn’t see them, so he laid back onto the grass, sighing. “What a great day. My sister was calling me. She and my mom had shocking news to wake up to, I guess. I couldn’t even tell them myself. All of… this.

“It’s a mess,” Seungwan said. “Unfair.”

“Not like they care much about outing people or anything.” Chanyeol closed his eyes. “But maybe it was my fault. I mean, it didn’t even cross my mind those guys could be interested in my love life.”

“How are you, really?” Sehun asked again, voice soft. Chanyeol considered. He had been asking himself the same question.

“I don’t… know?” he replied in the end. “I’m not as affected as I thought I’d be about people knowing but-- I’m terrified about my sister’s calls, you know? I keep being shitty and avoiding her. And I don’t like all those guys staring at me. At all. It makes me upset.”

Seungwan groaned. “You’re not alone in that,” she said, and Sehun nodded.

“I told you, the news will grow old eventually. It’s shitty but--”

“We can only hope. And Sehun and I will punch them if any of the idiots around say something to you.”

“Hey, I didn’t agree to that.”

“Don’t be difficult.”

Chanyeol couldn’t help but to smile a little. Maybe it would be okay too, if she talked to his mother and sister. And there she was again, Yoora, calling at his phone. He was tempted to pick for a second, but in the end he couldn’t make himself do it. He wrote a text to her too, to tell her he was in class and okay, at least.

Call me when you’re out, she wrote back. Please. It’s about you and that boy.

Of course it was about him and that boy. Everything that day was about he and that boy.

“The good news about this is that we are everywhere because the march is everywhere. Not gossip sites or shitty newspapers or magazines. Just-- no matter where I look, I see it.” It made Chanyeol feel a bit proud, if he thought about it. The lights and the people marching down, and Baekhyun beaming on stage when people had started chanting. “We’ve reached people, right? At least, it’s meant something.”

“Well, considering that Byun Baekhyun is meant to appear and speak on national TV…” started Seungwan.

Chanyeol sat up on the floor, turning towards her. “What…?”

“He was asked about it this morning. Wait, let me look for it.” Seungwan took her own phone out of her bag, and typed for a couple of seconds. “News feed, news feed, not this one… Ah, wait, here it is! Let me send it to you.”

What Chanyeol got was a link to Arcadia TV’s own official news site. They had a video there, about Baekhyun being stopped somewhere around Eden Park that morning and surrounded by press like a wounded animal surrounded by vultures. He was smiling at them, though, his hair all combed, this clothes all new and smart and fancy.

“I’ll be so glad to go and speak about this at Arcadia TV yes,” he was saying, his laughter strangely metallic on the speakers of Seungwan’s phone. “We have a voice and it must be heard, and a point that must be proven. So yeah, I’ll be there, if you’ll have me. Please expect me there next week.”

He looked like a politician’s son all the way, even when he excused himself to cough. And of course, he wasn't wearing Chanyeol’s sweater anymore, and he really shouldn't be sad about that, but he felt the pang in his chest all the same.

He is coughing a lot, isn’t he? He couldn’t help but think. He was acting all charming and lively, but the image was high definition enough to notice the sticky-white color of his skin under the silver of his hair. And obviously, no one was noticing. “What the hell is he doing?” he murmured, frowning. He was torn, now, between being worried as hell and still feeling like shit.

“Hasn’t he told you about the interview?” Sehun asked him. “It sounds like good news.”

Chanyeol stole one glance in Seungwan’s direction. He was hoping he wouldn’t get caught, but she saw and nodded towards him anyway. “You can talk about him with me here, okay? This is not the day for me being upset.”

“Ah, sorry,” said Chanyeol, biting the inside of his cheek. “Or well… Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it. Told you, I would support you, even if you’re an idiot sometimes. Now, what happened?”

Chanyeol still was holding Seungwan’s phone, the video over and the image frozen on Baekhyun nodding at the press, the back of his hand over his lips. “It’s good news, maybe, but he hasn’t told me. He’s not talking to me. He hasn’t replied to my calls or my messages since yesterday night.”

“What have you done to him?” asked Sehun, half surprised, half amused, turning serious only when Seungwan glared at him. “What I meant is: is there any reason?”

“Have you guys seen the articles? You know, the Byun Baekhyun argues with his new boyfriend ones? The boyfriend bit is not true, but the rest is sort of accurate.” Chanyeol sighed.

“So you argued?”

“Kind of, but not really? Or-- I don’t know. Everything was fine at first but then he pushed me away and got mad.”

“In the middle of it?” Sehun had managed to get a hold of the magazine Seungwan had used to hit New Jacket Dude back at the cafeteria, and was staring at the cover. He turned it around, so Chanyeol could see it: it was one of those daily gossip publications, with a photo of Jongin’s very solemn face taking eighty percent of the page (“Kai breaks our hearts at the anti CFCS march”) and Baekhyun and he at the bottom right corner of the page (“Byun Youngha’s rebellious son gets a college sweetheart?”) in yet another version of their infamous kissing photo. “He seemed pretty invested here, though, if you ask me. He's on top of you and all, and pushing you down on the gra--”

Chanyeol tore the magazine from his hands. “When did I ask for a description?!”

“I was just stating facts.”

“I don’t need you looking closely at it.” Despite himself, Chanyeol ended up ignoring his own advice and staring at the cover, intently, for a second before throwing the magazine on the grass, ears burning.

“He’s eating your face up.”

“That sounds disgusting.” Chanyeol protested. He could still see the picture, where the magazine lied on the floor, right until the wind made the pages flip and hid the cover from view. Sehun seemed to still be up for a fight, when it came to kissing details, but the only thing he could feel right then was the aftertaste of it bittering in his mouth. “But well, no matter what you say, he still pushed me away and that’s weird. It felt weird when he did.”

“Maybe he noticed the press?” tried Seungwan.

Chanyeol shook his head. “No? Or well, maybe, but I don’t think that’s it. He turned towards the press later, so I think he saw them after, when I did. But he was looking at me before, after he pushed me, and now he’s not picking my calls. And you know, it’s not like he’s out of signal or anything; he’s out there, giving interviews to Arcadia TV.”

“Have you written to him?”

“Yeah.”

“And did he see the texts?”

After checking his chat app, the boy let out a humorless laugh. “Left me on read. So he doesn’t really want to talk to me, I guess.” He had the whole app silenced, thanks god, because besides his sister’s message, there were other ones from people from class, and his former university, and even some girl from middle school who apparently was a fan of Baekhyun’s. “He looked… His face was… I don’t really know what I did to him, or if I even did something.”

“Do you think you could have?” asked Seungwan.

“I think I didn’t, but I told you, I don’t know? It’s like the pieces don’t add up, he’s not usually like that.”

“Well, thank heavens,” said Sehun. “Because if he was, that means he’d be a full-time asshole.”

“Sehun...” Chanyeol started.

“I’m right,” his friend interrupting him, deadpanning. “If he wanted you to fuck off, he could tell you instead of doing what he’s doing.”

“You can’t know if something’s wrong,” argued Seungwan. She turned to Chanyeol, after, face softening. “Try calling him again later, or write to him. Until now, he’s always replied to you, right?”

“Yeah.”

“He’ll come around, you’ll see.”

“I hope.”

But Chanyeol wasn’t hoping much, not really. He was starting to have a bad feeling, the kind that twisted his guts and made the tip of his fingers cold, and it stayed with him all day, suffocating him as he tried to call Baekhyun again in the afternoon, and keeping him awake when he got into bed at night.

At some point, phone calls to Baekhyun had stopped connecting, so he had stopped calling. He had messaged him too, his ‘Baekhyun, we need to talk’ bleeding into ‘I’m begging you, talk to me’ and ‘if I’ve done something wrong or you’re angry at me, just let me know’ until it died with ‘just say something’ and a last ‘please’.

Was he okay, at least?

Chanyeol could barely sleep at all, and when the sun came up at the other side of the window, he didn’t know if he should be angry, or worried, or just sad about all that. Considering how exhausted he looked when he saw his face in the mirror, he should have listened to Sehun and have stayed at home watching puppy videos instead of going to school, but being alone with his thoughts in a room didn’t really sound like a great idea, so he got dressed and headed out to uni anyway. It was one of those really sunny days outside, the kind that blinded you if you dared to look up, and normally he did like good weather, but he spent his whole day wishing for clouds to appear.

“You look like shit,” Sehun told him, when he arrived at class and sat just beside him at the back of the room. He had brought him a plastic cup of coffee, at least.

“Thanks for the drink.”

“Yes, be grateful.” His friend watched him as he took a sip. “So still no news, I assume.”

“You assume correctly.”

“What’s wrong with him? Go to his house or something.” He sighed when Chanyeol glared at him. “Isn’t there anyone else you can call, at least? A brother, or a friend, or one of the guys that helped you organize the march?”

“Do you want me to try to explain this to the march organizers? So I can tell the guys who assembled the stage for us to try to convince Baekhyun to talk to me? It makes a lot of sense.”

“I was just trying to help.”

The professor came a couple of minutes after Chanyeol had finished gulping down his coffee, and it was when the boy was messing around with his phone in the middle of an astoundingly entertaining lecture on economics when he realized that, hey, maybe Sehun’s idea wasn’t that bad. He didn’t even need Baekhyun to talk to him at that point, only to know if he was okay, and if there was any reason for him to be ghosting him like that.

And Baekhyun knew Seulgi, he knew Jisung. And they both have texted Chanyeol the morning before, after the mess with the photos, so perhaps they would have talked to Baekhyun too. He wrote to both.

Ah, yeah, I sent him a message too, but the only thing he said is that he was fine, Seulgi replied, almost immediately.

He didn’t reply when I congratulated him about that interview he’s doing, now that you mention it, wrote Jisung, almost half an hour after. Why? Is there something wrong with him? Do you want me to call him and try?

Chanyeol didn’t immediately reply to that. He focused his gaze on his professor, biting the tip of one nail. Could you? he finally wrote after a while.

There was a long pause. When he opened his app again, he saw one new message from Jisung over the sea of unanswered ones. Sorry, no luck.

Chanyeol clicked his tongue so hard that probably everyone at the class heard. He’d known Baekhyun for a while, but even after all those weeks, they didn’t have friends in common, and Chanyeol didn’t know of any classmates of his, or people who worked with him, or joined him in his events or speeches. It was like he was a ghost, like he’d turn into smoke and disappear if Chanyeol blinked or turned around.

For Baekhyun it was just him, and his cause, and his father, Kyungsoo the crow, and Jongdae.

Chanyeol’s finger went still in the middle of his contact menu.

Jongdae .

He made his way to his missed calls list, and yeah, there it was, under his sister and Sehun’s calls: an unknown number, from the evening of the march. And he shouldn’t, really. Jongdae had given him that, in case he fucked up , he had told him, and Chanyeol had already decided the guy was an angry asshole, but he had said that before the kiss, before the press, before Baekhyun had decided to disappear. Chanyeol should be sensible and not listen to him, but Chanyeol and good judgement hadn’t exactly gone hand in hand since he and Byun Baekhyun had gotten involved.

What remained of his class seemed to last forever, and as soon at it was over, he excused himself from Sehun and walked out of the building to call. He had one last thread of doubt, but it snapped as soon as he saw his own missed calls to Baekhyun. The Jongdae guy was an idiot, yeah, but he couldn’t make things worse than they were, right?

He pressed call.

The line beeped at the other side.

One.

Two.

Three.

He bit the nail of his thumb, doing his very best to even his breath.

Four beeps.

Maybe Jongdae wouldn’t pick up.

Five.

Chanyeol saw Sehun walking out of the room.

Six.

Three girls looked at him as they passed in front of him, through the garden. One of them muttered something.

Seven.

The call wouldn’t go through.

An eight beep, interrupted. And a voice. “Ah, so Park Chanyeol,” Kim Jongdae said, and the boy didn’t know if he should be feeling relieved or just freaked out.

“Hi,” he said, hesitating awkwardly for a full second. “You told me I could call you if I needed to speak. So, um, can you talk?”

“What about?”

He sounded so calm, too calm to be really ignorant. “What do you think I want to talk about?” Chanyeol asked back. Calm yourself. “Baekhyun isn’t talking to me. I’ve tried to call him and to text him, but it’s been one day and a half, and I’ve even seen him on TV, but he’s giving me the silent treatment.”

“Oh, Heavens,” replied Jongdae at the other side of the line, graciously exasperated. “I told you, Park Chanyeol: don’t you get involved. I went out of my way to warn you, didn’t I? And you go and reply by kissing Baekhyun. On that same day. In front of the press. Do you really think that was an intelligent move?”

Looking around, Chanyeol got himself further into the campus garden. He found a lonely bench under a tree, and only noticed that Sehun was walking in his direction when he was already sitting. “I don’t need you to tell me it wasn’t! I didn’t call because of that.” Chanyeol sighed. “I-- Is Baekhyun okay?”

There was a long pause at the other side of the line. “Yeah,” said Jongdae.

Chanyeol’s stomach did a weird twist anyway. He felt slightly dizzy. “Did you talk to him? At some point after the night of the march?”

“I did.”

“And did he tell you why he isn’t replying to me? If I made him upset or something? It really wasn’t my intention to make him uncomfortable if that’s what’s keeping him away. What I did, I-- It was an impulse, I’m not really expecting anything of him in return. So please--”

Jongdae sighed. “Chanyeol. He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Certainty was there, in his voice with the weight of a stone. It scared Chanyeol, and made him upset all the same. “But why? Not even to clarify things?”

“No.”

Chanyeol took a deep breath, grasping the phone as strong as he could to avoid his fingers from shaking. Sehun had just arrived to the bench, and was looking at him, expression neutral as he sat at his side. “Listen. I understand unrequited feelings. It’s not something I was looking forward to if it happened, but I get it if he doesn’t like me back. I’m just asking for that much, for him to at least tell me something instead of cutting me out all of a sudden.”

“Chanyeol, you don’t understand--”

“But we are friends. At least that. We are.” He still didn’t know if he should be upset or sad. He didn’t understand the softness in Jongdae’s voice when he replied.

“Before, I said he’s okay, but that’s not really accurate. He’s still sick. He’s still dying, you know?”

“He was sick as well two days ago! So what does seeing or not seeing me have to do with him dying in the first place?”

His breath was ragged again. He had almost yelled the words, and only managed to calm down when Sehun placed one hand on his shoulder.

“Chanyeol,” said Jongdae, with another sigh. He kept and kept sighing, and it was so annoying. He also kept and kept saying his name. “Let it be for now. I’ll talk to him.”

“What?”

“I will. You’re right, he owes you some closure. I’ll take care of it.”

“But I--”

“Take care, Chanyeol. He’ll call you, I promise, but now I have to go.”

“Jongdae,” the boy started, but the other man had already hung up, leaving him sitting, with the phone pressed so hard against his ear that it hurt and his heart beating like a frenzied drum beneath his ribcage. Sehun was watching him, carefully.

“What’s going on?” he asked, and Chanyeol shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he answered. His head was starting to spin. “He doesn’t want to talk to me. And he’s sick. And Jongdae will convince him to give me closure.” It was the best he had managed to achieve, and he would have to thank Jongdae if it worked, but he still couldn’t shake the uncanny feeling off his chest.

“It’s about closure now, huh?” replied Sehun with a snort. “So he’ll drop you.”

“I guess?” He didn’t know what to feel but that wasn’t even only about Baekhyun anymore. Jongdae kept saying that the boy wasn’t in a good condition, but Chanyeol had been sick too. Perhaps it was that. Maybe it was that both of them have been ill. The only difference between them was that one of them had gone through surgery and the other one was opposed - even then. “Hey Sehun, tell me something.” His friend just stared at him, face expressionless. “Why do you think I got sick with CFCS exactly? There was probably something that was hurting me, right? What do you think it was, what I got taken out?”

For a moment, Sehun said nothing. “What do you think it was?” he asked after a while.

“I don’t know,” admitted Chanyeol. “At first I thought it could be my dad being gone from Arcadia but… I still love him, he’s still there and I talk to him every once in a while. He wouldn’t have left, you know? If that would have made me sick. So it had to be something else. Something terrible, or shameful or sad.”

“So something like…?”

“There was only one thing I discovered about myself recently, and that’s the same thing that has made me famous all around town. I get asked dumb shit by idiots in the cafeteria and there’s opinion blogs on the internet about how gay I am. Related or not, Baekhyun isn’t talking to me either, and I wonder. I’ll be twenty four this year, and I didn’t know. I had no clue at all, not even doubts, until I went and met that boy and--”

“It could have happened like that. Just like that. You may not have been aware of it before, is all,” Sehun told him, but Chanyeol shook his head.

“Maybe,” he whispered. “But what if this was part of what I wanted to forget? What then?”

Sehun closed his eyes. He had the sun on his face, casting leaf-shaped shadows on his cheeks. “Not that I agree with what the press has done but the cat’s out of the bag now. The whole Arcadia knows. You couldn’t be worse than you are, if you thought that either being gay or being out was bad. So, if you could do whatever you pleased, is this someone you would forget, or be ashamed of?”

“Well, the fame part is a bit… overwhelming,” Chanyeol admitted, and he found himself laughing, a bit incredulous. “If I could rewind time, I would go and kick those photographers in the ass for taking decisions out of my hands and for being nosy bastards but-- That’s it, I guess? I’m slightly panicked and I haven’t still been able to talk with my mom and sister about it but beyond the going public part, I told you guys, I’m pretty okay? So I don’t know, that’s not something I would want forgotten, I guess? It is a part of who I am, so I wouldn’t have fallen sick because of being sad, or guilty, of ashamed of it. Or… not current me, at least.”

Sehun huffed. “So that’s what’s worrying you.”

“The person I am now wouldn’t like anything forgotten at all, Sehun. I wouldn’t have signed if I was sick, I didn’t think I would. But past me did. Past me fell sick and forgot and got a scar, and I feel like he was a totally different guy. I do not know him.”

“But I do know you, even if it has only been post-surgery you,” Sehun replied, smiling. And wow, that was the bright kid kind of smile that Sehun only showed to the world every once in a while. That had to count, at least a little bit - and was definitely making him feel somehow reassured. “And you wouldn’t be my friend if you were the kind of person to feel ashamed about something like that.”

--

In the end, Chanyeol had stayed at school after class, all by himself in one corner of the library, working on his share of their thesis. By the time he realized he had just been spacing out, Jongdae’s voice still ringing in his ear and his words echoing in his head, it was already dark outside.

It was when he was exiting campus when he noticed the lonely black car parked outside, under a lamppost.

He stopped mid-step, a shadow under the big gate between Arcadia and his university, the beat of his heart bringing him clarity back. He was sure he had seen that car before, what seemed like an eternity ago, outside of Arcadia University Hospital. It had been waiting for someone, then, as it seemed to be doing now, but when Chanyeol looked around he realized he was alone in the street.

It couldn’t be, he thought, as he took a tentative step towards the car. He knew all too well who that car used to take around, but he wouldn’t be coming to see him in that vehicle, would he? Not even if people were stopping him around town because of the march, he wouldn’t.

Unless he was coming back from the hospital. Jongdae had said after all that he was sicker than he looked like. High on painkillers.

Baekhyun.

Before he could stop himself, he was walking towards the car. His breath hitched when the tinted window at the driver’s seat slid down, and the face that appeared, stoic, was one Chanyeol recognized. Mr. Cho, Baekhyun had called him, at the hospital a whole eternity ago.

“Park Chanyeol?” he asked. It made Chanyeol startled, that the man knew his name, but he did his very best to school his features back into curious calm. At Mr. Cho’s side was the other men in black that had come to pick Baekhyun back then, but he couldn’t see if the boy was actually at the backseat. To his dismay, the thing actually looked empty.

He nodded anyway. “That’s me.”

“We’ve got orders to pick you up. There’s someone who wants to talk to you.”

There it was again. His heart, caged in his chest, catching up speed and sending blood pumping to his ears. How easy was it for him to fall, when the moment of truth was upon him. “Someone?” he repeated.

“Mister Byun, sir. He asked for you to be taken to him.”

“Now?”

“We’ll bring you to him if you please get into the car.”

Chanyeol nodded and did, closing the door after him with a loud thud. The seats were made of pale leather, expensive to the point where he almost feel bad for dropping his old school bag on them at his side. Everything, in fact, looked expensive, from the personal mini-TV on the back of the front seat for the passengers to see to the soft classical music coming from some hidden speakers. Arcadia City soon was a blur at the other side of the windows, and Chanyeol guessed that he would have enjoyed the trip much more if his throat wasn’t dry and his stomach in shreds.

Jongdae must have spoken with Baekhyun, because the boy had called for him, and he had been begging the heavens for an opportunity to talk to him, but now that he had finally gotten his wish granted, he didn’t really know what he wanted to say.

You got me worried there, maybe, or you made me upset.

What did I even do to you? Or, you know, I like you.

If you don’t like me back that’s okay.

Or most importantly - Jongdae says you’re really sick.

Are you okay?

Please be okay.

Are you happy?

He had been watching Arcadia through the window as they advanced, but he only realized that they didn’t seem to be going to Baekhyun’s apartment when they took a turn away from Eden Park and into Victory Road. The street was alit, most shops and official buildings closing, but still full of people.

“What--” he started to ask.

“Mr. Byun is waiting for you at his office. We’ll be there soon,” Mr. Cho told him.

Chanyeol hadn’t realized that, when they have told him Mr. Byun wanted to see him, they hadn’t meant the son.

And in fact, they stopped in front of the Government building. The thing looked much more ominous at night than what it did when he had been there last on a Sunday morning. It had been obviously already closed to the general public, judging by how the only people inside seemed to be the cleaning personnel, but Mr. Cho led Chanyeol inside as his silent partner drove away with the car.

He had walked those corridors before, up to the stairs towards the first floor and down the corridor towards Byun Youngha’s very own waiting room, but that time they went past it, beyond the empty attendant desk and his secretary’s office and right into a pair of solid wood doors. Mr. Cho knocked. “I brought the boy,” he announced.

“Come in.”

Mr. Cho opened the doors for Chanyeol, but he remained outside as the boy walked in, and closed them after.

The first thing Chanyeol noticed about Byun Youngha’s office was that it was a very big room with only one medium sized window. Everything in it looked antique, like it belonged to an era that had already passed. Everything was pristine, though: the books in the shelves along the wall had been carefully dusted so not a speck of dirt remained, the lamp on the ceiling had been scrubbed until the metal of its arms gleamed and Byun Youngha’s poster hanging on the back wall seemed ten times bigger and brighter than the man sitting at the mahogany desk in front of it.

“So you’re Park Chanyeol in the flesh,” he said. He had the authoritative voice of one used to give orders. And his features were similar to Baekhyun’s, but there was almost nothing of Baekhyun in the way his lips pressed. Both were good at fake-smiling, it appeared, but at least Baekhyun didn’t look threatening when he did. “Please, come take a seat. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

Saying no to such a request would have been rude, so Chanyeol had no choice but to obey, accommodating himself in one of the big armchairs in front of the desk. Byun Youngha kept smiling at him, as a crow would have smiled, had he got lips to do so. He wore a three piece suit, all black, with the golden chain of a watch dangling from the pocket of his waistcoat.

“I heard from my assistant that you tried to arrange a meeting with me a couple of weeks ago, but I had a strict schedule to adhere to, and I wasn’t informed that you had come to visit me until you had already left,” he continued. “I hope that didn’t cause a very big inconvenience to you. If there’s something you want to tell me, however, please know that I’m all ears tonight.”

Chanyeol’s hands were all sticky against the dark red velvet seat of the armchair. He shook his head. “Ah, that was about asking you to check some official permissions. Sir,” he replied. He had to stop the urge to swallow when he heard the title coming out his own lips. “I don’t have any request anymore.”

“I am glad to hear.” Byung Youngha kept smiling as he leaned forward a bit. “But I am afraid I invited you to come because I do have one for you.”

“A request?”

“A favour. Something that you could do for me.” He opened a drawer and placed a very new, very glossy magazine in the desk between them. Chanyeol had seen that one everywhere, that and the one before. He recognized the photo that took most of the space of the cover. “I see that you’re getting along very well with my youngest son?”

At first, Chanyeol thought he wouldn’t be able to speak. “What’s this?” he managed to mutter. They had barely started talking and he already felt like he was walking on glass, barefoot among the splinters of a broken mirror.

“Exactly what it seems, if I’m not mistaken? I have my contacts in the press, logically, and I was told about the whole scene between you two at that anti-EDN parade my son insisted in making. I know about you too - I did my background check, of course. My son’s age, university student, in a happy relationship with a girlfriend before my son appeared… I do not blame you, he can be convincing when he wants. And stubborn. Those are traits we both share.”

The guy looked so kind now, understanding like a strict dad would, and Chanyeol had to make a serious effort to kept his expression neutral, and his gaze locked with him. “What do you want from me?” he asked.

He was expecting the obvious, yet another don’t go close to Baekhyun ever again coming from a different member of that family, but Mr. Byun didn’t take his mask off. “I want you to speak with my son. He didn’t listen to reason when he started with all this madness, but perhaps he’ll reconsider if he discusses the matter with a friendly soul. You both are friendly.”

The way he said it, it didn’t really sound like a good thing. “He doesn’t want to talk to me.”

“Ah, stubborn child. He might say that, but he will, if only you knock on his door insistently enough. Despite himself, I know him well.”

Do you? “Baekhyun has nothing to reconsider about.”

“You think so? I presume he would have tried so hard to hide it from you, but no matter what he tries, his situation is critical. He had been stable in his sickness this last year, but he has lately taken a turn for the worse. The parasites in his body have been vicious these months; they thrive and thrive, and they’ll break through flesh soon. You were sick yourself, now weren’t you? You know what something like that means. And I’m not lying to you: you can read these. I can ask for extra sealed copies from the hospital, if you want.”

He took a folder from the drawer and placed it next to the magazine, open. Chanyeol recognized the letterhead of Arcadia University Hospital, and Doctor Kim Junmyeon’s sign. He tried to focus, focus, focus, not to be scared. The letter atop the others had those big, red words at the bottom of it - CRITICAL CONDITION.

“Why are you telling me this?” whispered Chanyeol. He had been a little upset at Baekhyun before, now he didn’t even care that the boy was shutting him out. Was this the reason?

“Don’t you like him? My poor, sick son. Well, he’s coughing flowers because of an old love, so it seems obvious that he doesn’t return your… affections.”

What?” It stung, in more ways than what Chanyeol would have cared to admit.

“You shouldn’t have any reasons not to talk to him into being reasonable. You don’t want all this to end in a tragedy, and neither do I, and it would be good for you if my son got the sickness taken out of his body. He wouldn’t be in pain, he would be happy and free. You should want that, and he’d listen to you if you explained it to him.”

Chanyeol stared at him, mouth agape. “Do you want me to go to Baekhyun and tell him to get CFCS surgery?”

“Don’t say it like that. You’re a treatment survivor. Let me ask you this question: are you really willing to let him kill himself?”

That time, Chanyeol’s mind went completely blank. He could hear his own pulse, his breath. It was coming out in rapid, shallow exhales, and he knew Byun Youngha could tell. “Why are you asking me this? Baekhyun is… What Baekhyun wants…”

“I told you. My son is one stubborn child. He’s pushing forward with those opinions of his only because he’s stuck with some old memories of an unrequited love. It all stems from that - what he does, what he wants, and what he thinks. And you should understand that I cannot allow a son of mine to play the fool like this and oppose the government of this very town because of a childish infatuation.”

Until that moment, Chanyeol hadn’t known what he had been doing there exactly, and why such a man had summoned him to speak, but then the pieces clicked, and he could really see. Truly see him for the first time. He felt so cold. “So you want me to talk to him into getting surgery as soon as possible,” he said, smiling.

“Yes.”

“To save him.”

“He’s my son.”

“And so he’ll stop acting like he does, since his own sickness is what started making him protest out loud. He started all this out of love of someone, so if we take the flowers out, they’ll take more than just those feelings. No more speeches, no more marches.”

“It is a possibility. But he’s deeply unhappy as he is, anyway.”

That man would know, and Chanyeol would have laughed in his fucking face. “So,” he said. “You want me to go and convince Baekhyun of getting surgery because you want him to stop protesting against you and your CFCS law?”

“I could help you too in return. Don’t you want to be a Shepherd, when you graduate university? I could talk to my contacts, find a good position for a boy like you.”

“A boy like what ?” Chanyeol was still smiling when he stood up, still smiling when he pressed his closed fists on Byun Youngha’s desk to lean forward. “Fuck you, daddy dearest.”

The other man’s own grin froze on his lips. “I think you don’t understand--” he started, cold, but Chanyeol clicked his tongue. He couldn’t wait to go out from that place and put some thousand metres between him and that man.

“No, it’s you who doesn’t get it. It’s you who doesn’t understand what kind of son you have. You keep saying it, don’t you? My son, my son. But I haven’t heard you say his name, not even once. You could support him, but well, you must think that trying to step on him is the better option. So yeah, fuck you. I hope his speech on National TV crushes you and this place to the ground.”

He was angry, and worried sick, but he wouldn’t give that man the satisfaction of rushing out of that room. He turned around, slowly, took his time in walking all the way to the exit door, his steps resounding, deafening, on the marble floor. His hand was already on the handle when he heard the other man’s voice, amused.

“Look at you, Park Chanyeol, so brave, a true hero. You come here, talking about love and support, but I am not the person who has made the flowers in Baekhyun’s chest go haywire, now am I?”

Don’t listen to him. Chanyeol stopped. Turned around. “What the hell are you talking about?”

At the other side of the room, Byun Youngha chuckled. “Ah, so you have really forgotten him, haven’t you?”

--

Chanyeol didn’t even stop to take a taxi. He ran up Victory Road, then across Eden Park, that was all too big and too lightless now that the night was over them. Everyone had gotten home in that part of the city, and Chanyeol felt like running through a void, darkness before his eyes and silence at his feet, his whole body at war as he pushed it further, to stride faster, to breathe deeper, to move forward, ignoring the burn in his throat.

He could feel every single muscle in his body aching when he finally saw the lights of the buildings beyond the trees, but didn’t stop until he was leaning against one of the concrete wall of the houses. He felt like throwing up, but he wasn’t sure if it was because of the strain, or because of something else.

Baekhyun’s father was a professional manipulator. He had to be lying. There was no way that he had something to do-- That he was to blame for--

The ache in his throat and lungs was already receding. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to stand without leaning on a wall, but he did anyway, and he moved, because he could see the front door of Baekhyun’s building from there and now, now, he really needed to see him.

One woman was heading out as he reached the door, and held it for him, and Chanyeol almost forgot to thank her before rushing up the stairs. He couldn’t allow himself to wait for the elevator. Stopping meant giving himself time to think, and if he had enough of that he’d end up crying, or screaming, or too scared to ask.

And he needed to ask now, or he wasn’t sure that he’d be brave enough to do it.

He’d been there before, in Baekhyun’s building, in Baekhyun’s floor, in front of Baekhyun’s door. Never in his life he’d been so scared of a piece of wood and metal. His breath felt loud as thunder over the silence. He breathed in, out, in, out, in a cadence that was making him nauseous.

He gritted his teeth and rang the doorway.

The sound was there, brief and muffled in the room at the other side. Then there was nothing, but still Chanyeol waited, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, eyes on the door. The light of the landing went off, and the boy didn’t even move to make the sensor detect him. He finally did, to ring the doorbell once more.

He heard the voice then.

“Jongdae? I told you that--”

“Not Jongdae,” said Chanyeol. “It’s me.”

Silence, of the kind that could kill a man.

“Baekhyun, open up. I really need to talk to you.” Still no reply. “I know you’re still there. Please.” Baekhyun was still so terrifyingly quiet at the other side of the door, and Chanyeol felt like choking. He’d come to talk, he had a last card, and he used it. “Baekhyun, I spoke with your father.”

Chanyeol heard the lock turning around, and then the door was open and Baekhyun was in the threshold, barefoot and with a mess of white silver falling over his eyes. He was pale, even from the dim light coming from his apartment, and Chanyeol didn’t know if it was because he was sick or to match the livid expression on his face. “You did what?” he whispered. He was wearing the big back sweater he had stolen from Chanyeol over torn jeans, the sleeves rolled up so they wouldn’t cover his hands, and the sight of him made Chanyeol’s whole being react, a thread tensing. Oh god, he had missed him - and the worst part was that he didn’t even know if he was allowed to do so.

“Your father sent your bodyguards to get me when I was getting out of school. I thought you were the one who had given the order, so I went with it.”

Chanyeol wouldn't have been able to tell if Baekhyun was upset about it or not. There was restlessness behind the stillness of his features, water running under the stone. “What did he tell you?” he asked.

“Can I come in?” Baekhyun hesitated. “Do you really want to have this conversation on your landing?”

After one nervous look around, Baekhyun stepped back, heading down the corridor. By the time Chanyeol could remove his shoes and reached the room, Baekhyun was already sitting on the bed. He accidentally kicked the photo frames off his bedside table with his hand when he turned to look at him, and Chanyeol stopped moving on the spot.

He was there. He’d come. And he realized that it was the first time he was seeing Baekhyun in person after he’d kissed him. If that mattered.

“So,” Baekhyun said. He wasn’t looking at him. “What happened with my father?”

“I told him to fuck off.” That, at least, made Baekhyun stare. “He wanted me to come talk to you and convince you to get surgery. He said he wouldn’t allow a son of his to, how was it? Play the fool and oppose him.”

“That’s news. As far as I was informed, I was no son of his anymore.”

“He said he wanted the one to talk to you to be me because you’d listen.”

Baekhyun let out a short, sharp laugh. “ Really .”

“That’s when I told him to go to hell.”

“Literally? You’re probably the second person who ever told him to fuck off.” He snorted, humorless, with a weird, twisted smile painted on his lips. “So that was it? What my father wanted from me?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks for telling me. Is there something else you want? You came all the way through here.” He got up, schooling his face into that same stone-calm expression he’d had when Chanyeol had walked in, and the boy realized just then that he was moving towards him to see him off. His heart sped up again, when Baekhyun came close. That wasn’t it. The reason-- It wasn’t it.

“Baekhyun, we need to talk.”

The other boy flinched - almost barely, a reflex he couldn’t subdue. “What about?”

What about, he said, when Chanyeol couldn’t even start. “How sick are you?”

“What?”

“Your father showed me a folder full of reports from the hospital, saying you’re critical. Jongdae said you take painkillers. Remember that? I asked you about that at the march.”

“I’m not the only CFCS patient on painkillers, Chanyeol,” protested Baekhyun, shaking his head.

“Maybe, but you’re not answering. How sick are you, really? Shouldn’t you be at the hospital if it is that bad?”

Baekhyun took one small, hesitant step back. “I’m okay.”

“So then what? Is everyone lying? Were those reports fake, or was Jongdae wrong? Just tell me. Please.”

Another step back, and Baekhyun was frowning. “Seriously, how sick I am is not your business,” he replied, tone hardening.

He was slipping away, and Chanyeol felt it again, the weight of all that - that face, those words, that silence - pulling him down. “Of course it is my business!” he hadn’t wanted to raise his voice, but he realized he was doing it anyway. “You act like I didn’t care about you! You helped me, Baekhyun, when I was drowning in my own shit, but when you’re sick, or when things go wrong for you, or when the situation between us gets… weird, then you go and turn around and lock me out.”

“Why do you even want in?” Baekhyun snapped back, aggressive, like a cornered animal. And he was - cornered. He had managed to trap himself in one of the corners of the room, like shouting at him from a distance could help him prove whatever his point was. But the place was too small, the air was too hot and Chanyeol wasn’t feeling like giving up on that.

“Because aren’t we friends, or partners in crime, or, I don’t know, something? I just told you, I care about you, I worry about you! Of course I want you to let me in!”

Baekhyun let out something close to a snort. “Who asked you to? Because I didn’t. I don’t know what you think our relationship is, but from the start I’ve--”

Weird. He was acting weird, so different, and that only made the fear that had taken Chanyeol to that place catch fire again. Fuel, it was made of fuel, the kind that would burn your throat as the words came out. “You’ve come to me when I phoned you. You’ve messaged me at 3 am. You’ve talked me to sleep. So you what? What were you gonna say, that we’re nothing? That it doesn’t have a meaning for you?” He locked gazes with Baekhyun, who was now biting his lip. “I’ve kissed you, Baekhyun. And you kissed me back. We’re not going to talk about that either?”

Shut up, that annoying voice said, at the back of his head. You don’t want to know it. Shut up. But it had been the elephant in the room from the start, and now that he had made Baekhyun face it, the boy looked somewhere in between from being very angry and being very scared.

“There’s nothing to talk about--”

“Why not?”

“It was just a kiss.”

“Was it? And that’s why you cut all contact with me for two days? Are you that cruel or do you just think I am stupid?” Baekhyun flinched and pressed himself against the wall. He had made the tiniest sound, and was staring at Chanyeol like he had been slapped, and the boy should have stopped, maybe, he did want to, but that Baekhyun over there looked much more like the person he knew, and less than the cold-faced man who kept pushing him away, so he stepped closer instead. Red fear was boiling in his veins, spreading to his stomach and his head and his fingertips. “You say it was just a kiss, like it meant nothing to you,” he continued. “And you’re the one trying so fucking bad to push me away while going around in my clothes when you think I won’t see you. Don’t bullshit me, Byun Baekhyun.”

Baekhyun shook his head, eyes wide. “That’s not--”

“Tell me something, now that you’re being so honest. When I spoke with your father, he said something else. That you were getting sicker because of me.”

“What…?”

“That I had forgotten about you.”

He was half expecting Baekhyun to laugh it off. It didn’t happen. He didn’t protest. He didn’t deny. He didn’t reject the possibility. The only thing he did was stare at Chanyeol with those wide, dark eyes, standing out like coals in the face of a ghost.

Chanyeol had been angry. He wasn’t anymore, he thought. He felt weird - weak. Almost like laughing, almost like crying. “Care to explain that to me?”

Baekhyun shook his head. He looked positively terrified, and Chanyeol felt the fight leave him. What was he even doing?

“Do you want me to go?” he asked. Obviously, Baekhyun didn’t reply, and that time, Chanyeol had to laugh. He hated that it sounded so fucking broken. “Of course you want me to go. That’s what you’ve been wanting me to do from the start.”

He turned around, scanning the room as a whole for one last time with a sigh. He had barely taken his first step towards the exit when he felt fingers closing around his wrist. They were warm. He froze.

“Chanyeol.” Baekhyun. There had always been something about the way that boy said his name.

He shouldn’t be turning around. His breath shouldn’t be hitching when he saw Baekhyun’s face. He had to catch the boy when he bent forward in a sudden coughing fit, and he had to hold him in place, but he shouldn’t have lingered after. “Fuck,” he whispered. “Are you okay?”

Baekhyun’s fingers pressed deeper into his sleeve. “Don’t go.” He was breathless. And Chanyeol must be dumb. He totally was.

“Okay.”

“You come here and you ask. And you have a right to that. But.” He punched Chanyeol on the chest, no strength in it. His head was tilted down, bangs covering his eyes. “Do you think it’s easy for me, to push you away? I’ve tried. Do you think I know what to do, or how not to hurt you? You’re a gentle one, now aren’t you? So how the fuck do I do this?”

“How the fuck do you do what?”

“They call CFCS the fool’s death, and the beautiful death, but you know what? There’s not even a thing about such a way to die that is beautiful. Premature death is always so fucking ugly. So unfair. I hate that the most. I fucking hate it.”

Chanyeol couldn’t see his face. He was terrified, because he had Baekhyun in his arms and he was strong - a man in his twenties with broad shoulders and a grip so strong as he held his grip that he was hurting him - and still he sounded so afraid when he talked about that.

He couldn’t see his face, so he did what he had been wanting to do for weeks now and he moved the silver strands of Baekhyun’s hair away from his forehead. He was half expecting him to draw back, so his heart went right into overdrive when Baekhyun tilted his head up. He heard him laugh, breathless.

“So what do you want from me? Another kiss?” Baekhyun asked.

It sounded like a bad idea.

“Because, being honest. I really want you to kiss me.”

That wasn’t the plan. He had come to talk, for answers.

“So please, please, can you kiss me?”

He leaned into Chanyeol’s touch when he lowered his hand from his forehead to his cheek, and then the line of his jaw, eyes lidded and dark - a starless night sky.

“Yeah,” whispered Chanyeol.

Three cheers for terrible choices.

He’d kissed Baekhyun before, that one time under the light of the lamps of the march, and it had only been two nights ago but heavens, had he missed that. Back then, it’d been an explosion. Baekhyun had been too happy, a man with the world at his feet, and Chanyeol had been choking on feelings and acting on impulse because he wanted him, like that, forever. Now he was still a drowning man, but Baekhyun felt more like the moon than like a raging sun, shaking under his touch but still cautious.

He had splinters in his eyes, that boy, splinters in his heart and in his fingertips. Chanyeol could see them when they parted, and when Baekhyun looked at him while slipping his hands under the hem of his sweater. “Kiss me again?” he asked, slightly breathless, and Chanyeol was complying before he could think, the voice in his head fading away behind the drumming pulse in his ears.

He kissed him on the lips, on the eyelids, on the soft skin under his ear and on the mole at the corner of his mouth. He kissed him, and heard him gasp when he sucked on the pulse of his neck. “Good,” Baekhyun whispered, and it was so easy to forget that something was slightly off when you had his lips parting for you, and his nails scratching the skin of your stomach.

“Your hands are freezing,” he said with a breathy laughter.

“I’m always cold, that’s all.”

It was simple to forget the shards of glass in Baekhyun’s eyes when his head was blanking, and all the blood in his brain was heading south. It was simple when Baekhyun turned from receptive to needy, fingers digging in the small of his back and head tilting up to lick his mouth, demanding.

He moaned when he was slammed against the wall, the sound guttural, and the way he tried to wrap himself around Chanyeol doing things to his brain. He could see him in full detail, now, the shape of a panting boy with his legs wrapped around his waist and messy locks of silver hair stuck to his forehead, being engraved into his brain and committed to memory.

“Stay the night,” Baekhyun said, tone demanding but voice raising at the end, a question.

Baekhyun’s memory he’d store, in that place of his head where all the good things were.

He shouldn’t.

He shouldn’t, even if the boy was so warm, or his own chest was exploding.

He knew why he shouldn’t.

“But I--” he started, but Baekhyun kissed him again, tongue curling around his teeth, fingers pulling from the short locks of hair at his nape. He saw white and lost himself in his heartbeat, pressing Baekhyun hard against the wall, fingers gripping his ass. His head was spinning, the room was so hot it was making him dizzy, and stars were exploding in his cheeks, and his stomach, and burning the tip of his ears. Baekhyun was looking at him, and the words shifted and came as a traitorous whisper from Chanyeol’s mouth. “I have never… With a boy, I mean. I--”

Baekhyun smiled, and it was sad, and he was beautiful when he stared at Chanyeol in the eye. “Of course you haven’t,” he whispered, “but I don’t care.”

And that was good, Chanyeol thought, because Baekhyun saying it made him believe it, and the other boy was laughing, all smug, when Chanyeol dropped him on the bed to kiss him further. The laughter broke, though, not because of a grin or a moan or a kiss, but because Baekhyun started coughing as soon as Chanyeol was over him.

He had forgotten that for a moment, the flowers in his chest.

“Are you sure you can do this?”

“I’m okay,” Baekhyun whispered, even if he had to know that his lips tasted like flowers and blood.

“Baekhyun.”

The boy’s body arched on the mattress, clashing against him, curling in a space that didn’t even exist. “Please,” he said.

It felt like a flurry of sakura flowers - Chanyeol surrendering and Baekhyun whimpering in his mouth before he pushed him back until he was the one straddling him, pale cheeks shadowed in red and hair a mess of silver and white and grey. It felt like a whole storm of them burning on his skin as he went to undress him, fumbling with the buckle of his belt and pulling his pants down as Baekhyun grabbed the hem of his sweater. Petals that were impossibly bright, like summer fireflies, as Baekhyun stared down at his chest once they were both naked, following the trace of his scar with the tip of a shaky finger.

Chanyeol had also forgotten that the mark was there. And his body reacted, but the last rational part of his brain didn’t want Baekhyun to stare, or for him to bend his head and kiss the wound, his lips so warm and his hair so soft against his flustered skin. “Don’t do that,” he breathed out.

“Why not?”

“It’s shameful. The scar. To have it.”

Baekhyun kissed him senseless after that, seeking his mouth and reaching down to touch him. He wanted to lead and Chanyeol let him. Even if it was so obvious that he was losing his breath a bit too easily, that his pants were too harsh in Chanyeol’s mouth. He would have taken anything from Baekhyun, though - that boy’s hands were so fucking pretty, and he was so sensitive that he screamed when his fingers wrapped around him.

He was gone, he was falling in the middle of a bursting universe, and he could have come like that, with Baekhyun’s eyes on his and his fingers tracing the veins of his dick, even if the boy’s rhythm faltered and his pulse shaked.

When Baekhyun drew back, he whined like a child, and the other boy’s smile was almost sadistic when he pushed his hands off his skin.

“Needy,” he told him.

“Just come back.”

“Whiny.” Baekhyun was looking for something in the drawer of his desk, the hollow of his ribs apparent under the pale yellow light of the lamp, embracing the protuberant curve of his spine. He noticed Chanyeol staring when he turned around, and he didn’t cover or look away or even talk, but he switched the lights into night mode as he made his way back. Chanyeol could still see him, a moonlight child with cold hands and dark, dark eyes being dragged back into his arms.

He wanted the contact, he needed the friction and Baekhyun gave it to him, mouth against mouth and hip against hip in a wet, hot mess. Chanyeol arched underneath him, lips parted in a silent moan and nails digging into Baekhyun’s back as the other boy moved, breath shaky and hoarse in his ear, raw like sawpaper. His rhythm faltered again and he slumped on Chanyeol, hands grasping the sheets and a cough muffled in Chanyeol’s shoulder, and the boy found himself groaning at the absence of friction. His hands wandered then, went from his shoulder blades to trace the shape of his spine, and Baekhyun’s shiver made him dizzy and breathless.

It was easy not to think when Chanyeol could turn around and have Baekhyun pressed against the mattress, when he could make him squirm and say his name as he sucked bruises into the skin of his inner thighs. It was so simple to forget when Baekhyun wanted him not to think and not to stare too hard at the hollows of his ribs, and when being with him was about feeling. He was that boy that, even flustered and panting, went and grabbed Chanyeol’s hand to kiss his knuckles and stared at him in the eye when quietly coating his fingers in lube.

“You wanted to know how it’s done. Well, you do it like this.”

It was terrifyingly simple not to think when he had Baekhyun straddling him and pushing his fingers into him, when he was biting his lip and failing to contain his voice nonetheless, and when the heat was overwhelming, even though it was just two fingers and he was slightly freaking out and already too turned on to care. He crooked them, just to try and the boy arched his back and mumbled something incongruent, eyes rolling to the back of his head, like he was a toy made of threads, all too tense and about to snap.

“So do you want me to…?”

“Yeah.”

“And if I hurt you?”

Baekhyun laughed, his smile soft. “It’ll be easier for me to take you than the other way around. So shut up.”

“Okay.”

Simple, it was so simple, when he was on display for him, chest going up and down under the weight on his breath, cock heavy on his stomach and eyes darker than the sky, than the shadows of the room and the crust of dried blood at the corner of his pink, pink lips. It was too easy, when he felt overwhelmingly hot and was still looking at him in the eye, even with his body tense and his fists gripping the sheets, even when Chanyeol was trying to be as slow as he could and he already felt like he was about to combust.

He could forget, and surrender to the lightheadedness, and the tension in his muscles, and the moon-shaped marks of Baekhyun’s nails on his back, digging in as soon as he started to move, but that , that was what Baekhyun had been trying to make him do from the start. Forget, surrender, unsee, and not notice that the flush on his cheeks was not caused by desire alone and that his exhales of air had the hoarse cadence of a broken whistle.

He wanted him - oh god he did, he did, he did, he was aching to… - but that would not do.

“Baekhyun,” he called. “Baekhyun.”

The boy looked up, a whimper at the lack of movement cracking into a choked cough as he did. He pressed himself harder against him, body slick with sweat and hips snapping up, erratic. Chanyeol’s eyes went wide, groaning as he tried to fight both himself and Baekhyun and remain still.

“You’re choking,” he told him.

“I’m okay.”

He said that, but he had to turn his head to the side and move his hand to his mouth, because his exhales had turned erratic and there were cherry blossoms on the sheets and blood on his lips. He had to put his fingers in to take the rest of the flowers out and, he crushed them in those pretty hands of his.

“I’m okay,” he repeated, almost defiant.

“You can’t breathe.”

Baekhyun’s hand went to Chanyeol’s cheek. “Please.”

“Oh god, come here.”

It was easy to forget that Baekhyun hadn’t still told him how sick he was, that his father had said to Chanyeol that the flowers in his chest were getting worse because of him, that Chanyeol himself was supposed to remember something about him, but he had a scar on his chest and no idea about why Baekhyun’s face had been so livid when he had asked him about it. Until that happened and he realized that he didn’t want to. That not forgetting was exactly what all that was about.

He pulled out, brought Baekhyun up with him when he sat, and groaned when the boy took the hint and sank back on his dick with a moan. His breath was still too loud and somehow broken, but he was breathing more cleanly, and his lips trembled when Chanyeol reached out to remove a single bloody petal from the corner of his mouth.

Chanyeol smiled, even if he couldn’t have said he was exactly happy. “Better?”

Baekhyun stared at him, panting. Then he wrapped his arms around his neck and kissed him.

“Yeah,” he whispered, forehead against his when they broke apart. His face was solemn. “Good.”

And there it was again, the heat, enveloping them in that flurry of sakura petals as they moved, skin on skin, Baekhyun’s head in the crook of Chanyeol’s neck and the crackle of his breath echoing in Chanyeol’s chest. And Chanyeol had wanted to kiss him, and so he did, in his mouth and in his face, and in his shoulder and in his collarbones, until he was too gone and too breathless to keep doing it anymore. He felt viciously satisfied when he jerked his hips up and Baekhyun fisted his hair and pulled so hard that his vision blurred in white.

He couldn’t forget that, he wouldn’t forget, that Baekhyun still had bloody cherry blossoms curling around his ribs, and that the ghosts of them were there in that room, on the pillow and on the sheets and in his mouth, and that they wouldn’t stop coming even if Baekhyun was as close to him as he could bring him - but maybe if he tried hard enough, maybe, he could make Baekhyun dismiss it from his mind and pay attention to him alone.

Baekhyun was saying his name, syllabes blossoming into staccato little cries as their rhythm went erratic, and Chanyeol realized then, all over again, like he had done in the march that it was this what he really craved for. For Baekhyun’s hands not to be cold. For his smile not to be sad. He wanted to paint on his skin, with his hands and his breath and his lips, and make him bloom - not with sakura, but with colorful summer flowers.

Baekhyun’s voice completely broke when Chanyeol went for the pulse in his neck, and Chanyeol lost it when the boy sank his teeth in the space between his neck and his shoulder in retaliation. They fell on the mattress in a tangle of limbs, Baekhyun’s hand searching his, Chanyeol’s body seeking completion as his eyes tried to focus in a haze of white and red, looking for Baekhyun’s face without really seeing a thing. He found him, finally. He was staring at him when he saw the silent implosion of completion hit him, his mouth falling open and the splinters in his eyes fracturing in a million shards of glass.

He needed nothing else to follow, to tip over the edge and collapse on Baekhyun, crushing him as the boy used his body to ride his own orgasm.

And he knew then, way before the wave passed and his mind started to clear, way before he pulled out and rolled away from Baekhyun to let him breathe, that his face in that very moment was something that he would keep engraved in his memory, no matter what happened after. He got to have that at least, that little something that no one would ever take away.

This and that moment, their now , a second in which Baekhyun was looking at him with wide, unguarded eyes.

“You okay?” Chanyeol whispered.

Baekhyun smiled and nodded. Then he closed his eyes and coughed something out - one of those sakura flowers, a full one, with his petals barely stained in blood. It fell on the bed between them, just next to the discarded wrapping of the condom they had used.

For a heartbeat, Chanyeol reached out, as if to touch the petals.

In the end, he got up to throw them both away.

--

It was weird. It felt weird. To be sleeping so close to a person you cared for that much and wake up to the sound of him retching flowers. To lay there with his eyes closed as Baekhyun cursed and choked and rushed to the bathroom.

That was the taste of things unrequited. It felt like Baekhyun grazing his forehead with his fingers when he came back to the room for the first time. It was Baekhyun running away once more and that terrible gurgling noise coming from under the door.

How much time had passed since he had fallen asleep? He didn’t know, but the sky was burning in crimson, and Chanyeol hadn’t gotten his reply about how sick Baekhyun was, but he was sure he was quite a lot.

So he got up. He got dressed. He was sure that Baekhyun locking himself in was just another desperate attempt on his side to hide that from him, but he’d had to ask anyway.

Baekhyun’s dad had said that the flowers thriving in his son’s chest were Chanyeol’s doing. He’d said Chanyeol had forgotten.

But he did not know what was he talking about.

Or how Byun Youngha could be insinuating that his son was coughing flowers for him if it was obvious that Chanyeol had come, that Chanyeol did love him, but instead of getting cured Baekhyun seemed to be worse than he had ever seen him.

So what if Baekhyun’s dad was lying.

What if.

What if.

Baekhyun would have told him, if they had met each other before.

He got up from the bed, squinting to try to see his socks on the floor. What he felt was the cold kiss of a fragment of glass. Confusion made his head spin for a bit, but then he remembered that there used to be photo frames on Baekhyun’s bedside table, and the boy had pushed them away to the floor when he had sat on the mattress for the first time.

Sighed, he crouched down to pick them up - those seemed important to Baekhyun after all, and a very loud part of his mind was dreading the moment in which he would have to go open the bathroom door and face the boy to talk. They were all there on the floor: Baekhyun’s photo with his mother, the one with Jongdae and the last with Kyungsoo and that unknown group of people. He placed them on the bed and was about to get up when something clicked: all three of those photos had their frames intact, but there were pieces of glass on the floor.

He frowned and squatted again, looking around him and under the bed. He finally saw something, trapped on the space between the wall and the bedside table: a fourth frame.

He picked it up, turned it around and looked. He froze, throat going dry.

He stood up and turned the lights on, even if the dawn was already bright enough for him to see.

That photo had been taken in some kind of university party, and featured a group of people that included Jongdae, and Baekhyun - and him, pressing a very sloppy kiss on the other boy’s cheek.

He felt like he was about to throw up.

“Chanyeol?” The voice was soft, a bit wary, and Chanyeol turned around to see Baekhyun at the threshold of his bathroom door. He was wearing his sweater again, and for a moment Chanyeol only wanted to rip it off him.

He raised the broken frame so Baekhyun could see it, and saw his face go white when he recognized what it was.

“What--” he started.

“So we did know each other? What’s this?”

Baekhyun stood still like an animal caught in the headlights. He shook his head no, a single, sharp movement.

He looked terrified.

Why did he look terrified?

Chanyeol took a deep breath. He didn’t want to ask the question. “This right now… Are you sick because of me?”

Silence.

“Did I do this to you?”

Baekhyun didn’t reply.

And Chanyeol must have cut his foot with a shard of glass, because he couldn’t feel the pain but there was blood on the floor.

Chapter Text

No.
I don’t want to see it!
There’s no cup to hold it,
no swallow to drink it
no frost of light to cool it,
no song, no deluge of lilies,
no crystal to silver it.
No.
I
don’t want to see it!!

 

Baekhyun was staring. He looked so scared, terrified of him.

“Did I do this to you?”

Baekhyun didn’t reply.

“Did I?”

 

You thought he would stabilize, didn’t you?

You’re an expert at deceiving yourself.

It was obviously a lie, but there you were, hoping. And hope is poison for the sinners - you think everything will get fixed, you think it’ll be okay because it has to be.

The thing about bad news is that everyone thinks they’ll never be the ones to receive them.

But well, here we are now.

You’ve read his clinical records.

And he’s going home to die.

 

He wasn’t only panicking, Baekhyun. When the wave of fear passed, it gave way to something sad.

Chanyeol felt sick to the marrow of his bones. “Let me rephrase that again,” he murmured. “Am I the cause of you having CFCS?”

“It’s not like that...”

“Am I?”

Baekhyun covered his lips with his fingers and looked away from him to cough. He had to get the bloody flowers out from his mouth himself, and Chanyeol watched them fall down to his feet like dead butterflies. He took a step closer to Baekhyun before he could even think of what he was doing, but stopped when the boy saw and flinched, shoulders bent forward and fingers white where they were wrapping the frame of the door.

“You are,” he whispered.

“And you’re scared of me?” He felt like laughing at himself. “Just how bad was I to you?”

That time, Baekhyun looked at him with wide, black eyes. And Chanyeol didn’t know if he was going to remain silent or if he was finally going to speak, but the air in the room stenched of sex and blood and heaved like needles of glass on his skin, and there he was, trying to breathe it in.

He was smiling, in that photo he held, with Jongdae and a Baekhyun that looked double the boy than this one was.

He threw the frame on the bed.

Then he turned around and ran.

 

This is to certify that I, as a CFCS patient at Arcadia University Hospital, at my own insistence and without the authority of and against the advice of my attending physician and supervisor, Dr. Kim Junmyeon, am refusing further treatments and request to leave against medical advice.

 

He’s leaving.

And you’re useless, you’re filthy but you still want to see him.

You’re not on duty today, so you just rush in as soon as you finish school, your black cloak and black mask and voice distorter forgotten in your locker. Those have not served you before, have they? Even with them on, you’re pathetic.

But hey, he still loves you, right? He won’t listen to the crows when they come to guide him, but he’ll listen to you.

You run, out of breath.

Poor little boy, you feel like crying.

You reach his floor, run towards his room - and are stopped by a familiar shape.

“What are you doing here?” Dr. Kim Junmyeon asks you.

That man wouldn’t understand, but you try.

“I’ve heard my patient will be released tomorrow. To die?”

“That’s not your fault,” he says.

Ah, but it is, isn’t it? All yours and your alone. You know it and it’s killing you.

It’s killing him.

“I’m his Shepherd,” you declare. “And he can still be saved, right? If I convince him.”

“I have tried to convince him.”

“You’re not me.”

You have to run, and you do, carrying the folded document he gives you.

You run, and your lungs burn so bad, but when you reach his room, you see the door is half open, and he’s not alone.

You should knock.

You should walk in.

Or you should leave, maybe, but you feel a pull deep in your bones and what you do instead is coming closer and peek.

He’s inside the place with a woman. She has her back to you, but you know she’s his mother because of the way she’s talking to him and how fragile her voice sounds.

“Why all this?” she asks. “You told the doctors this is for a person, right?”

“Not only for a person,” he replies, and you can see him. He’s so thin. He’s so pale, and you feel like throwing up. “It’s more about how I am, and my memories. I don’t want any cure, if that means changing who I am.”

“But why did this all come to this point?” his mother insists. “Who made you sick? Who is that woman?”

She doesn’t know.

You hold your breath.

She doesn’t know but he’s smiling, with the kind of smile that brings peace.

“I’m sorry I haven’t told you before, but I really didn’t know how to,” he replies, and you drink from his voice. You stare at him and stare at him, from your suffocating space at the other side of the door, because you want to remember him. “That person’s not a girl. I don’t think I could ever fall in love with one. No-- What I… The person I’m talking about is a man, mom.”

You should run away now, should you?

Run away from the words, and the simple way he had said them.

Run away before you have to hear or watch her hurt him.

“Oh,” she whispers. You barely hear her.

There’s nothing else, a silence. It cuts through you, so bright and so sharp and as silver as your boy’s hair.

“Yeah,” he replies. He’s still looking at her, his face the same he made at you the night you left him. You can still remember his whispers in your ear - please, please, please. “Sorry I didn’t tell you before. I just wanted to, now that I--"

The next thing you know is that she has practically thrown herself on her son’s bed and is hugging him, so, so tight that she could almost break him.

“And do you think I care about that? You’re my son,” she states. She releases him and grabs him by the shoulders, looking at him in the eye when he huffs in protest. “Who is he, then?”

He keeps smiling.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he says.

She reads through it, like you read through it.

“But who,” she murmurs. “Who wouldn’t love you?”

This is someone who loves him, who loves that boy deeply, and you suddenly feel the weight of the shame of being so close to her, so close to him.

You thinking she’d hurt him, when that’s what you do.

You, thinking you’re worthy, with your speech about Shepherds and that tiny, filthy sheet of paper you want him to sign.

“I don’t know, mom,” he says.

You take a step back.

You should run, right?

Unworthy.

You should run.

You filthy piece of shit.

You do.

x. I declare that I am REFUSING the advised treatment of a flower removal surgery.
x. I understand that the consequences of failing to follow the medical advice given to me might result in significant disability or eventual death.
x. I understand I can change my mind at any time and return for treatment.

 

Chanyeol didn’t know what to do, or where to run to, so in the end he went to the park just below Baekhyun’s house. He wandered around until the sky went from red to blue, until he didn’t have the strength of spirit to walk anymore and just collapsed against the thick trunk of a tree.

It was just like that one day when he had confirmed with his mother and sister that the surgery for CFCS had changed him and he had ended up running away because he felt too lost to think. Back then, he had called Baekhyun and the boy had rushed to get him. He had talked to him, he had made him calm; he had taken him to his apartment and told him not to hate his sister and mom.

Back then, Chanyeol hadn’t known that his past self, whoever the fuck he had been, had hurt Baekhyun.

The boy hadn’t told him. He hadn’t said a thing, and even then he had tried to push Chanyeol away when he kept saying he wanted to help. He had been lied to, but how could he blame Baekhyun for that - how would he feel betrayed after what he had discovered?

He’d wanted for Baekhyun to be happy.

He was just one hell of a fool.

And no matter how much he tried, how he dug his nails in his cheeks and forced himself to think, think, think , there was no way to remember. He couldn’t remember. For him, his first memory of Byun Baekhyun was that evening at the sports hall close to Northern University, when Chanyeol had earned a headbutt to the nose and Baekhyun had looked at him, eyes wide, from the stage. It had been a fond memory, up until that moment. But the only thing he could currently think about was that Baekhyun’s hands were freezing.

He was getting worse.

He was getting worse.

Baekhyun was--

Chanyeol was crying.

He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to be there, he didn’t want to be alone, and he didn’t want to call Sehun or Seungwan and have to explain to them that he had discovered that his past self was causing someone he loved to die, so in the end he ended up calling his sister.

It was too early for her to be awake, but she sounded more angry than sleepy when she picked up. “Park Chanyeol,” she exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing? I’ve been calling and writing to you for two days - two days - and after worrying me to death you decide to make yourself known at six thirty in the morning and--”

“Sister,” he called.

She went quiet mid sentence. “Wait. Chanyeol, are you crying?” He didn’t reply and she took in a long breath. “What happened? Where are you?”

“Do you… Do you know who Byun Baekhyun is?”

Everything was so quiet that he heard Yoora gasp. “Oh god,” she said. “Chanyeol, Chanyeol, where are you?”

“At the park. The one close to home.”

“Send me your location. I stayed to sleep with mom. I’ll come get you.”

“I don’t know if I want to go back--”

“Chanyeol. Location. Don’t make me walk through that whole park until I find you. I just want to talk to you.”

That felt so reminiscent to another moment, and he obeyed, because his sister sounded worried and he didn’t want to be an asshole in that version of his life as well - even though he probably already was.

She took less than ten minutes to get there, and came with one of her running jackets over her summer PJs. Her hair was a mess, probably as much as his, but under the unbrushed bangs her eyes were big, and warm, and concerned.

“Chanyeol,” she called. She sat next to him on the ground, bent knees against her chest. “You’re okay? What happened?”

“I did something terrible?”

“Something terrible like what?”

Chanyeol covered his face with his hands. He had stopped crying at one point, at least, but he still felt ridiculously small and stupid. “Remember Baekhyun? I was with him, and we just-- we did-- I was horrible to him. But I didn’t know. It doesn’t excuse me, right? But I really didn’t know.”

“To Byun Baekhyun?” repeated Yoora. She sighed, one hand going to his hair, soothing. “Why is it always Baekhyun?”

“Why do you know about him?”

“Because you told me. You never told mom his name, but you did tell me.”

“About him being in love with me?”

Yoora’s hand went to his cheek. “No,” she said. “About you being in love with him.”

Chanyeol opened his eyes. “What?”

Yoora smiled at him. “Don’t make that face. You met Baekhyun at some party. You started to like him a lot at some point, but you didn’t know he was an important kid, and well, he was, and also he didn’t love you back. You fell sick because of it at one point.”

Chanyeol had a scar on his chest. The one he hadn’t wanted Baekhyun to touch. “But he… He’s sick because of me.”

“Is he?”

“I know I hurt him. His face… When I last saw him, his face was…”

“Would you listen to me if I told you?” someone asked.

It wasn’t Yoora. It was a man - Baekhyun, looking very messy and very pale, still in Chanyeol’s old sweater.

Yoora practically jumped on her feet. “You--” she started, visibly angry, and Baekhyun considered her for a moment before turning to Chanyeol again.

“Can we talk? I need to tell you something. So, please, can we?”

Chanyeol didn’t feel strong enough to stand on his own feet.

Still, he nodded.

 

I consent to the medical/surgical procedures outlined below to be performed by Dr. Kim Junmyeon and his staff, associates, or assistants to whom the physician performing the procedure may assign designated responsibilities.

The proposed surgical procedure is a Prunus Sanguinea plant extraction for the treatment of Chronic Flower Coughing Syndrome (CFCS). The procedure has been explained to me in terms that I understand.

 

You ran away once.

You have no right, do you? To come to the house where he lives with his family, to rush and hush and cross street after street until you reach it.

You know where it is.

You’ve been here before, to have a great time and fuck him while his family wasn’t home.

Will they be there now?

Do you want them to be?

Maybe they will help you convince him, don’t you think? To sign the folded paper you’re carrying in your coat pocket?

You’re breathless, everything hurts, but it’s not like you can stop now, do you?

You’ve tried to stop yourself, you’ve tried.

To stay away from him.

Now that he’s like this, that he’s gone from the hospital and you can’t reach him anymore.

But you can’t.

You can’t let him die.

So you breath.

Run.

Push open the door of the building and rush into the elevator.

The eyes that meet yours on the mirror glass are dark and scared, and this face doesn’t look like your face. You don’t want him to see you like this, but maybe if he does, he’ll reconsider.

But what will you do, huh?

What will you tell him?

You’ve been his crow, week after week, but he hasn’t seen you in months. So what influence do you have in him, besides the fact that he loves you?

What can you do?

What?

You want to see him.

You want to look at him in the face and tell him ‘please, please, please, live’,

The elevator stops with a cheerful bell sound, but when you step out you feel like throwing up. You can see his door, right in front of you, hear your own breath, feel the folded paper you carry inside of your coat, over your heart.

You ring the doorbell.

Wait.

Ring again.

No one replies.

Isn’t his family home?

Is he sleeping?

He shouldn’t be out - it’s the beginning of December, and about to snow.

And then you start to feel it: the fear.

What if he isn’t there because something has happened and they have taken to the hospital, even if he doesn’t want to go?

What if he’s inside, but he’s too weak to move?

What if something’s wrong?

What if he needs help?

He’s not replying.

He’s not replying.

You still know the door code, you remember him telling you, all proud, that it was the birthday of a dog they used to have. You choke a sob while you punch it in and hear the lock slide open.

“Someone there?” you call, voice shaky as you step inside.

The only reply you receive is a choked cough, and then another, another, another one, like hammer blows in your chest.

You stop, as the door falls closed behind you with a click.

Then you rush in, calling him, not even bothering to take your shoes off.

He keeps coughing, he does, and your heart is glass in your chest, cracking as you go.

You already recognize the smell of blood, don’t you?

 

I was given the opportunity to ask any questions I have regarding the procedure and I have had those questions answered to my satisfaction.

I understand that I may consult or could have consulted with another physician about this procedure.

 

They had gone to one of those early opening, chain store cafes close to the park, that was mostly empty at that hour, except for one group of students with their textbooks open and a lonely girl in the table closer to the door. Now that he thought of it, the place was the same where he and Jongdae had sat just before the march, when the boy had stared at him, all serious, and told him that he was old enough to have his heart broken.

Jongdae had also been in that old photo at Baekhyun’s house. It had been the three of them, smiling. He hated that - he hated not knowing, he hated having asked Yoora to leave, and he hated the tired expression in Baekhyun’s face.

He hated him, even.

Yoora had said that he used to be in love with Baekhyun. That he had fallen sick because Baekhyun, back then, hadn’t loved him back.

“What’s going on here?” he asked the boy. He was starting to despise that, too, how his emotions were so clear in his voice when he wanted to guard them and lock them just in case.

Baekhyun had brought him a coffee, and he placed it on the table, even though Chanyeol made no attempt to pick it up. “What do you want to know?” he asked. “I’ll tell you everything. I should have, when you came to see me before, but I-- I’m sorry about that. I’ll tell you now.”

Chanyeol huffed. “Okay. So you knew me. Way before that speech where I got hit in the nose.”

“Yeah.”

“How long?”

“Almost three years ago. Back when you-- When we both studied at Pia Garden Uni. I used to party a lot, back then. You didn’t, but you went to one of the big ones, anyway, at a pub. We had one friend in common, and he introduced us.”

“Who was he?”

“Jongdae. You know the one. He went to class with you, you guys were close.”

“With Jongdae? ” So that’s why he was there, with both of them in that photo. Jongdae, Kim Jongdae - Chanyeol closed his eyes, but he realized with a pang of panic that there was absolutely nothing about him in his mind: not who he was, not what he liked, nothing but the stern face of a boy warning him against heartbreak. “Why did I forget that person?”

“Collateral damage, I think. Like with Jisung and his brother?” replied Baekhyun, shaking his head. “He introduced us. He took me to fuck off one thousand times. He told you to stop seeing me.”

Chanyeol hated that, hated his heart and the scar on his chest. Hated Baekhyun now, for certain, and him being so solemn and so sad. “So,” he said. “Was I in love with you?”

Baekhyun licked his lips. Hesitated. “Yeah.”

“And you weren’t in love with me.”

“No.”

“But we what? Hooked up?” The other boy wasn’t looking at him, and for a moment Chanyeol had the urge to grab him by the front of his sweater and shake him, doing until he talked. He saw him swallowing. “Baekhyun.”

“We met at that party. I went to uni parties to pick up boys, you see? I was my father’s precious son, you see? Much better in everything than my brother was. I didn’t want him to know that I didn’t care about that precious girlfriend he wanted me to have, so I went to events with her, kissed her goodbye at her door and then went to get boys and have fun. It was easy. Most of them knew who I was. It was so easy. Always so easy.” He bit his lip. “I’m so sorry.”

“So who was I? One of your fanboys?” The mere concept sounded revolting, Baekhyun talking about it sounded revolting, but the boy shook his head no.

“You didn’t. You were one of those people who vaguely knew my father and didn’t know that he had a son. At first, at least. Back then, that first night. Jongdae introduced us because he knew what I did with boys but he didn’t thought I’d go for you. And I shouldn’t have. You were one of those confused boys, you know? The kind that would have figured it out eventually, and got a boyfriend and a house and a dog. That type… I really didn’t like it, but you were looking at me and I liked the attention, and you were -- back then, you had your hair dyed silver, you see? Almost like this.” He trapped a strand of his own hair between his fingers - and it was true, that Chanyeol’s hair had been light in that photo, even if it had been too dark to guess which color it had actually been. “I liked it. It was the kind of color that my father wouldn’t have approved, and you were drunk and looked so fucking pretty in it, so, you know… You had never been with a guy before, but I bought you a drink and yeah. It was easy after that. As always.”

“You make yourself sound so caring.”

“Because I didn’t? I told you, I just wanted to have fun. I didn’t care about you.” Baekhyun bent forward, hair falling on his eyes, hands hidden in the depths of a sweater that was too big for him. He stared at Chanyeol in the eye and flinched, but he didn’t look away and he didn’t stop. “I hated you, you know? Even when we made it a regular thing, I hated you so much. You wanted me to go out with you, even though I made it clear that you were nothing. And I was an asshole to you. Before you fell sick and when you did. I left you after that. I severed all ties. You were in love with me and I…”

It was Chanyeol’s time to shake his head in disbelief. He couldn’t believe that Baekhyun - the boy who fought so hard, the boy who had always called him when he was sad or distressed or scared - was the person being described. He couldn’t believe, but he couldn’t remember , and Baekhyun wouldn’t lie to him about that, right?

Right?

Baekhyun, who had been hiding all that away from him.

Who was that boy, really?

“So you played me and hated me and broke my heart, then decided not to tell me when we met again,” he said. “Something else?”

Baekhyun swallowed. “Yeah.”

Chanyeol sort of wanted to punch him in the face. Or leave and go back to his sister and hug her, until all of that passed. This was Baekhyun talking about a stranger. Baekhyun talking about him. Baekhyun lying and telling the truth. And he wanted to scream at him, and forgive him, and make him shut up, all at once. “There’s more ?”

Baekhyun tried to speak, then he stopped. Despite everything, he didn’t cry, and Chanyeol didn’t want to be the first one. “I needed money back then, earned without my dad knowing so he couldn’t ask where I was spending it, so I used my contacts and got a part-time job as a Shepherd after school.”

“But you need formation to be a Shepherd.”

“Now maybe, but that was almost three years ago, and I was good at talking to people. And so, I thought I’ve gotten rid of you, but apparently fate was playing me dirty. I got you as a patient.”

“What?”

“You were a difficult one, so they gave you to me. And I went along with it.”

Chanyeol’s body went cold. “But that’s not allowed,” he whispered. “You can’t be my crow if we know each other.”

“Yeah. But I was wearing a mask and a voice distorter, so you didn’t know it was me. And I… I didn’t want to say. Going to my supervisor and explaining that I couldn’t treat you would have ended up with them asking me why I did. And asking you. And you would have told them.”

“Of course I would have told them if we were fucking involved!” screamed Chanyeol. Baekhyun shrank on his chair, and the students looked around in their direction, but he didn’t mind. He had to make an effort to remain where he was, sitting on his chair without moving, without simply telling that boy to fuck off. “There’s reasons, Baekhyun, reasons for that!”

“I know!” the other boy exclaimed back, lowering his voice to a whisper after. “That’s why I tried to make it fast. If I convinced you to get surgery you would be safe, and healthy, and I would have to stop going to see you.”

“Sounds like a great plan, yeah.”

“Yeah, except for the part of you not wanting that surgery.”

“What?”

“You kept rejecting it, but you didn’t reject me, and all of a sudden I was there, talking to you, and you didn’t know.”

“So fucking great.”

“I saw you getting worse. And I… By the end you got admitted into the hospital because you were too sick to stay home, I realized that I… cared about you. That I said I hated you but I-- I really didn’t want you to die, you know?”

“So in the end, what?” Chanyeol was smiling now, the kind of angry, twisted smile that curved your lips upwards when you wanted to punch things and break them. “How does this go? I signed and I forgot you and you discovered you were in love with me?”

Baekhyun bent his head, hair covering his eyes in bright silver - and for the first time, Chanyeol felt thankful for that.

 

I understand that I have the right to refuse any surgical treatment recommended at any time prior to its performance.

I authorize my physician to perform such additional procedures which in his judgment are incidentally necessary or appropriate to carry out my treatment.

I am aware that the practice of medicine and surgery is not an exact science, and I acknowledge that no guarantees have been made to me concerning the results of this procedure.

 

You find him in front of the balcony door, hands on the glass and eyes unfocused, coughing himself to death.

There’s blood on the glass, on the floor, on his clothes and on his skin.

Silver blood on your hands as you approach him.

“Chanyeol,” you call him. “Chanyeol.”

He falls to the ground, turns towards you with glazed eyes and chuckles.

“Really,” he whispers.

It’s a choked sound, like he can’t breath.

The Prunus sanguinea must have pierced his lungs.

He really can’t breathe.

He’s dying.

Because of you, little boy.

He’s dying.

“Chanyeol,” you call. You run to him and kneel before him, trying to make him sit. You can’t, but you place his head on your lap. His hair, so silver bright under the moonlight, gets streaked with blood. “Chanyeol, we have to go to the hospital now. Where’s your mother? Or your sister, I-- We really have to call.”

“What for?” he manages to breathe out. And oh god, oh heaven precious, he’s coughing so much.

How do you stop this?

How do you stop this?

You’d do anything to stop this.

“Please, listen to me. I don’t want this. I don’t want this at all.”

He isn’t listening. He’s half unconscious. You can’t let him fall asleep.

He fell sick because of you.

You wish you could cure him.

You look down at him and realize.

That he fell sick because he was in love with you.

Unrequited.

“But I love you,” you whisper, because he's fallen, and he's dying, and you would do anything in your hands to keep the few threads of life he has, and you realize, with a cold wave of horror, that you really do. “Oh, god, Chanyeol, please, I do love you.”

He stares up at you, a moment of lucidity, a flinch of hope - and he has never looked like he hates you as much as he does now. “Please, don't lie to me,” he says.

Then he collapses.

You don't know what to do. You can't breath. You can't move. You're having some sort of stupid panic attack. You thought those three words would save him, but you’re too late, even for that.

 

I acknowledge that I have read and fully understand the above information. Furthermore, I certify that all my questions and concerns regarding the procedure, its attendant risks, benefits and alternatives have been explained to my satisfaction. I hereby authorize my physician to perform the above discussed procedure.

 

He’s unconscious.

He’s convulsing on the floor.

There’s blood on your hands, blood on your clothes as you reach inside, blindly.

He’s dying. He has to go to the hospital, but he has rejected that.

He has to go. He’s dying. He has to sign.

He has to sign, but he can’t sign.

He’s dying.

He can’t sign.

But he gave his sign to you, that night you met, in an autograph on a napkin that you still carry around.

He’s dying and he can’t sign.

But you can’t allow this.

You would burn yourself in hell if that means he gets to smile another day.

You’re this crow, and you’re already beyond redemption, so you do it yourself.

 

Date: December 2nd, 2038

Patient’s Signature: PARK CHANYEOL

Witness to Signature: BYUN BAEKHYUN (as Shepherd)

 

You just want him to live.

You just want him to be happy.

Ah, the cruel things we do for love.

 

“You did what? ” asked Chanyeol. That couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

Baekhyun wouldn’t do that.

“You went through surgery because I faked your sign. You didn’t want your memories out, I just took them.”

“Why?”

The other boy wasn’t looking at him. “You were being unreasonable. You didn’t want the help. And everyone was listening to you, so the me from back then just thought-- I thought it would be a good idea to…”

“So I got my memories extracted because you thought it was the best for me?”

Baekhyun wouldn’t do that. His Baekhyun wouldn’t do that. The boy he knew and who always tried so hard for everyone to choose, for them to understand, wouldn’t have done that to him and remained quiet.

“I am sorry,” he whispered. He sounded scared again.

Of course he was. And of course he was panicking.

He should have been terrified of him finding out.

“So you did that? Just like that? You woke up one day and decided it was an awesome idea to go and have everything I was stolen from me?”

Baekhyun was ashen white. “You were dying.”

“So what? Has that ever stopped you? What are you trying to do now? To fix it, with that self-righteous discourse and your stupid silver hair? What’s that, a fucking memento of how much of an idiot I am?”

Everyone was looking at them now, and Chanyeol couldn’t stand it. He got up, almost knocking back his chair, and he strode out of the store. He had hoped to be alone, for Baekhyun to let him be, but the boy had followed him out.

“Chanyeol, please,” he started. He tried to touch him, but froze when Chanyeol recoiled.

He should punch him. He should really punch him, but Baekhyun looked so lost, so he’d had to settle for the next best thing. “It must have been so fun, not telling me. So yeah, did you have fun?”

“Chanyeol…”

“Did you?!” That was pointless. “Fuck you. I cannot believe this, I-- fuck you.

He needed to go back - to his mother, to his sister, away from that boy. He turned around.

“I’m sorry,” he heard him say.

Then, nothing.

 

You call for an ambulance. The one to pick up the phone at the hospital is that Do Kyungsoo kid, one of your fellow crows.

“How do you know his address?” he asks. You tell him there’s no time to explain.

Luckily, Doctor Kim Junmyeon is around, and he’s much more of a practical man.

You tell him Chanyeol has finally signed and he knows as well as you that he’s dying, so he doesn’t ask you how you convinced him and just orders for him to be picked up.

Chanyeol’s mother comes back just as the ambulance is arriving.

She cries and screams and looks at you in the face without recognizing you as a politician’s son.

She probably can’t think, and neither can you.

She rides to the hospital with her son, and you rush outside, looking for a taxi.

You run and run, bloody and breathless.

The first taxi driver you stop sees your hands and doesn’t want to pick you up.

You run, and it has started snowing.

You keep running, and the snow that night falls like a storm of sakura.

You reach the hospital.

You wait, away from his mom, away from his sister.

They come and cry and thank you, but you still stay away, and run to Dr. Kim Junmyeon’s office instead.

There you wait until he comes back to congratulate you.

Until he finally tells you he’s safe.

You’re left alone, and you sit on one of the empty chairs on the waiting room. Your own family is at home, your father is not used to you ignoring his calls, so he phones you and phones you. You suddenly don’t feel like pleasing him anymore if living like this is going to be part of the price to pay.

You’re still there in the morning when Do Kyungsoo finishes his turn. You don’t even try to avoid him when he sits at your side. He’s not wearing his uniform, but he still looks a bit like a crow - ten times the Shepherd than you will ever be.

“You knew that boy, right?” he asks.

“What?”

“Park Chanyeol. You knew him from before. You knew where he lived, and I checked your files and you demanded to be relocated when they assigned him to you. You had never asked for relocations.”

That boy’s not your friend. You work together, yeah, but you never cared to talk to him much, and in fact he doesn’t look friendly as he stares at you, frowning.

But he knows. And you should lie to him, right?

That’s what you do best.

Except not really.

Not anymore.

“Yeah,” you whisper.

Maybe he’ll go and tell. He looks like someone who would go and tell. But you do you care?

As long as Chanyeol is okay, you’ll pay for it.

“You are aware that something like that’s not allowed, right? You could have ruined that boy’s life.”

Oh, he better believe that you know that.

“He didn’t deserve that,” you say.

“This is not what Shepherds do,” he tells you, accusing, like that was the thing that should make you ashamed.

What a rotten system this all is.

Obviously, you weren’t made to be a crow in the first place.

 

Dr. Kim Junmyeon,

I am writing to you to notify you that I am resigning from my position as a Shepherd at Arcadia University Hospital. My last day of employment will be December 10.

 

You go to see him one more time as a crow when he wakes up, hidden under your uniform and your mask, because you’re so brave. He’s awake, with his mother and his sister and surrounded with get-well-soon flowers.

He doesn’t look so sick, he doesn’t look so pale, even if he still has to stay at the hospital for a while for rehab, and he looks at you with interest.

His mother thanks you again for all you’ve done.

“How are you?” you ask Chanyeol.

He looks at you with interest, then he smiles. “I feel great,” he says. “I heard you helped me a lot. Thanks for saving me.”

He sounds so honest.

He sounds so happy.

You stagger and hesitate and fight to regain control.

You have to get out of this place.

“Can I bring you something?” you ask him. “From the vending machine, or the cafeteria, something to celebrate.”

The word tastes like ashes your mouth, but he looks surprised and he nods. “Oh, good, can I? Doctor Kim says like I shouldn’t, but I’m really craving coffee.”

“Any coffee?”

“Americano?”

“Okay.”

You leave. You had to leave. He looks all small in his bed, doesn’t he? With cables surrounding him like spiderwebs, all those flowers surrounding him, and his hair back to black.

He’d asked you for an americano.

Even if the Chanyeol you used to know hated coffee with a passion.

‘How can you drink that?’ he used to ask, way before, long ago, and he asked laughing at you and ruffling your hair, and with warmth in his eyes.

Do you start to realize what you have done?

 

I appreciate the opportunities I have been given during my time here, as well as your professional guidance and support as my supervisor.

 

You go to visit one last time, before you leave his life forever.

This time, you have already given your uniform back, so you knock on his door with your face bare and your heart on your sleeve.

“Come in!” he calls.

You freeze.

You obey.

You’ve come almost at the end of visiting hours, and his mother and sister are not there anymore. He’s dressed in one of those stupid hospital garbs, and his eyes are slightly glassy but he looks better, healthier, foreign to you.

You’ve done this to him. You. You’ve turned him into half the boy he used to be.

“Ah, hello,” he says, and he sounds cheerful. You stare at the plastic cup of coffee on the bedside table.

“Um,” you start.

“Uh, sorry, do I know you?” he asks. He sounds genuinely concerned, that’s certain, in some way that makes your chest ache. When you look at him, he’s giving you a smile that you finally recognizes - the bright, open thing he always gives to strangers.

You take one step back.

“I’m sorry,” you whisper, and he blinks at you. “Wrong room,” you try again. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“Ah, no problem,” he says, shaking his head.

You apologize again, turn around and leave, and then you start running.

You have never wanted to disappear as much as you do right now.

 

I wish you and this department the best of success in the future.

Yours sincerely,
Byun Baekhyun.

 

Your father isn’t home, and your mother doesn’t come into your room after you deny her a couple of times, so you can stay in bed and bury your face under the blankets. You can rest for a couple of days, because you have never felt so sick.

It has been snowing for almost two weeks at the other side of the window, and you have never cried so much in your life.

But why do you cry, boy? Didn’t you get your wish?

You wanted Park Chanyeol to forget you, and now you made it. You’re not in his heart anymore, are you? He doesn’t even know your name.

You took everything from him.

You've been uprooted. Erased.

But well, maybe that’s what you deserve.

You feel them, growing in your chest before you cough the first petals. And it hurts, oh, it does! It hurts like hell and you don't even know anymore if it is because of the flowers taking root in your lungs or because of your heart breaking.

Chapter Text

Look at that white gallant
Look at his wasted flesh!
It’s the moon that’s dancing
in the Courtyard of the Dead

 

Hearts are fragile, aren’t they? Made of glass, so silver bright. They break so the plants can take root in their cracks.

That’s what you think as you lay there, your back against the glass of your balcony door, tiny cherry blossom petals on your lap.

Will you die?

Your father doesn’t know, but he’ll send you to the hospital as soon as he learns you’re sick. They’ll give you the very best there - the best treatment, the most luminous room, the fanciest pen so you sign the authorization for surgery.

Chanyeol didn’t want that, and you get why now that you’re sitting there alone with a burning chest, remembering his smile when he asked who you were. You don’t want that, no - you don’t want to wake up one day to some weird, fabricated happiness in which you don’t remember what you have done.

This is yours alone and you’ll keep it.

Twice the burden, you’ll carry - what you stole and what belongs to you.

You get it, don’t you?

You do.

Why people would want a cure, to have their chest open and the flowers cut out.

Or why people wouldn’t want to, like Chanyeol did, like you do?

Will Chanyeol be happy, at least, even if he’s lacking part of himself?

And you?

Will you die?

Do you want to die?

You close your eyes. You remain there until you’ve stopped crying and your head is not spinning anymore, and then you think about it. You got the countdown of flowers you deserved, but you’ve also got your memories, and you’ve got time.

You were the biggest fool in the world, but now you know it. You’ve got purpose. It’s not like you can help Chanyeol anymore, or like you can get him back, but you can stay here and wither or you can stand up and walk by yourself.

You didn’t know what that surgery did to people - or maybe you did, but you only cared at the end. You’ve got the knowledge now that you’re fallen. So now, boy, what are you going to do?

You grit your teeth.

You take a breath.

And you stand up.

--

You call your girlfriend and leave her, tell her you’re sorry as she cries. That’s your first step.

The second is going to see your father as soon as he’s back. You’re still his favorite son when you come in, and he receives you with a smile and a pat in the back. He bids you farewell with a punch in the mouth.

“I won’t have a son that brings me shame,” he tells you.

“Bad for you, then,” you reply.

This was what you were so afraid of, and you realize that it hurts you, but that in the end you don’t care.

Your dad calls you, but you don’t listen. “Baekhyun,” he says, a last warning. “I won’t allow this in my house.”

“Bad for you,” you repeat.

He tells you you won’t last a night, but you still pack your things and leave. You go for Jongdae for the first couple of nights, and even though he’s angry at you - because the ripples of your fuck-ups have also gotten to him and Chanyeol doesn’t remember him - he still lets you in.

He’s lenient, you think, because you still cry at night sometimes, and because you have to get up from the sofa to throw up. You’re getting used to the flowers, and to the constant pain and lack of breath that comes with them.

“What are you gonna do?” Jongdae asks you.

“What I think it’s right,” you reply.

And you have already started moving.

You change majors, and universities. You get a normal part-time job. You start talking to people, and getting informed - about those who had fallen victims to CFCS and its surgery, about those who didn’t know, or could have known better.

You hurt someone and made him sick, and you took away the choice from that person. And you can’t exactly stop people from hurting one another, but you can try to grant a choice to those in pain.

Your father never approved of you dying your hair, but the first time you go up a stage to speak, you’ve made it pale silver.

Is he watching you?

As you speak, is he?

You start becoming famous in the anti-surgery sector. And things are not easy, because your sickness also gets worse.

Your father butts in, because your mother talks to him. You have to give up on your part-time job and leave the apartment you’re living in. You have to start to get treatment, and go to the hospital every week with the family’s bodyguards, and you get a parent-financed apartment in exchange. You don’t don’t like it, do you? But your mother loves you, even if she won’t stand up to your dad, and your father will think it’s even more shameful to let you die.

He tells you to stop doing what you do, you don’t comply, and he’s the one keeping you like a secret after all, so in the end he’s helpless to force you.

He rents your apartment in a building too close to where Chanyeol used to live. Probably to scorn you, because he knows who he is.

He’s working on a law, your father, to give free assistance to the sick and make the surgery mandatory. And do you know why, right? Because he wants to force you into it.

It’s both good and bad, that law.

It’s the ripples of your fucks up, tickling your feet as you run.

So you keep speaking, and keep moving, and the flowers in your chest become one with what you are - you can live with the numb pain and with the voice whispering you’re guilty at the back of your head, as long as you know what to live for. You’re content, even with it. Your heart is glass, and sakura flowers bloom in the cracks.

You wonder, sometimes, if Chanyeol is happy. If he has seen you sometime, on the internet or in some magazine. What would he think about that boy who wants to fight the whole of Arcadia?

It’s better if he doesn’t see you, though.

You don’t want him to see you.

He wouldn’t know you, if he did, because some days you can’t recognize yourself in old photos, not your face, not your smile, not your eyes. And it’s better this way.

And still you never get what you want, do you? Or maybe you always do, even when you shouldn’t.

You don’t know if you’ve caused this somehow or if this is the last big wave of all your fuck-ups coming to drown you, but you’re in the middle of a speech one day and you see him.

He’s staring at you.

Why is he here?

Does he remember you?

He doesn’t, right?

Of course he doesn’t.

He looks like him and still he looks off, like he’s a completely different person under the same skin, but he gets hit in the nose for you and so you owe him. He wants to interview you and you say yes because it’s only one time, and it’s not like you could deny him, because there it is again, that bright smile of his he always gives to strangers. You feel the pierce of the flowers blooming in your lungs, even if you’ve been on painkillers for months, and come on, boy, shouldn’t you be stopping this?

He wants to become a Shepherd, he says. Don’t you think it’s fucking fun?

Apparently you do not, because you spend that whole night bent over the toilet.

You try to push him away.

He comes back.

And you should try harder to make him leave, but you know what the problem is?

He doesn’t hate you.

He doesn’t remember you but he doesn’t hate you.

So you give yourself one more day.

One more week.

Because he’s not exactly the same, but you crave this one wish, and anyway he’s not going to fall in love with you a second time.

You’re terrible, you really are.

But he seems so… off, like he doesn’t care about the things he used to, like he’s just walking through life instead of living it. So you stop denying him, because the times he comes to ask you he has stars in his eyes and you’re definitely not shutting those down.

So you tell him about what’s important about this, and he still remains, and that makes you feel the kind of happiness you don’t deserve.

Chanyeol is different at first - then he starts blooming into the Chanyeol he used to be. Only he’s stronger. Angrier against injustice. And deep down you’re fucked, because you like him even better this way.

You don’t know if you’re getting better.

You don’t know if you’re getting worse.

You should tell him.

Jongdae tells you to stop.

And you should tell him.

The flowers are feeding on you.

Chanyeol is happy now.

But he deserves the truth.

You should tell him.

You lay down in bed and wish, with your eyes closed, that he would kiss you.

(Tell him. But he’ll hate you.)

Then he really does - why in the world did he kiss you? - and the flowers thrive and devour you.

--

Chanyeol had finally gone home. It hasn’t been in his plans to return angrier and more heartbroken than he had left, but his feet had taken there naturally. It was only obvious to go there - Yoora would be worried, and his mother as well - but he wasn’t expecting the wave of relief washing over him when he saw them both waiting for him at the other side of the open door.

He hadn’t been expecting his day to be so long when he had left for school the morning before. But there he was now, after telling a high-level politician to fuck off and learning he had been played by a person he’d cared for. It felt so strangely right to end it all with his mother rushing to hug him.

“You’re good now,” she murmured, and he didn’t think that was true, not really, but he felt grateful for both the intent and the warmth.

He felt his own voice crack. “I’m sorry. For not having called back or come visit since we argued that time. I really am.”

“Don’t worry,” his mother replied. He hugged her back and, oh god, she felt so small in his arms. “Do you want to eat something? Take a bath?”

He laughed, a little breathless. “Just sleep.”

And perhaps being left alone in a room wasn’t the best of ideas, considering the amount of thoughts spinning in his head, but he felt so exhausted that he fell asleep as soon as he slipped, still dressed, under the blankets. He didn’t know how much he slept, but when he opened his eyes it was already dark at the other side of his bedroom window.

At first he blinked, still disoriented and unaware of what he was doing in his childhood room, but as soon as he heard the knocks on the door he started to remember. It was a gradual thing at first, until Baekhyun’s face and eyes and voice came to mind, and after that all fell on him like a downpour.

Not all, mind him. Never everything.

By the time his mother came in he was already debating between throwing up and punching the closest wall. That or going to sleep again, even if he didn’t think he could.

His mother had brought him a steaming cup of tea, and she smiled as she handed him the mug. Behind her, Yoora loomed at the door before coming in. She had probably gone to work and back again, and the thought of it made Chanyeol feel bad again for ignoring their calls.

“How are you feeling?” his mother asked. She was just standing there, close to the corner of his bed, and Chanyeol motioned her to sit.

The mug was comfortingly warm in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Chanyeol had moved on his bed, so he was sitting on it, back against the wall. The surface of it was cool on the skin of his arms. He breathed in. “Remember when I got mad at you because you knew things in me had changed and you hadn’t told me? When I ran away because there were questions you couldn’t answer?” he asked. It sounded almost amusing, in retrospect that he had run to Baekhyun back then. “Well, I just came from talking about all the things I forgot, with the person who was the cause of me not remembering in the first place.”

His mother nodded. “The boy in the magazine?” she asked, calm.

“Yeah, he’s-- I was working with him these weeks, in the anti EDN-Pia march. I knew him from before, it seems, even if I didn’t remember.”

“Yes,” agreed Yoora. “He’s Byun Youngha’s son.”

“He’s an activist against the use of CFCS surgery being mandatory,” corrected Chanyeol on a whim. Then he shook his head, huffing. “For some reason.”

“I see,” their mother said. He was still smiling at him, and she kept doing so as Chanyeol sipped from his tea, to try to ease the dryness in his throat.

“Did you know?” he finally whispered. “She knew about it,” he added, pointing at Yoora.

“About him or about you?”

Chanyeol cracked a tiny smile. “Both?”

“I didn’t know who he was, but I knew about you. You told me yourself back at the hospital.”

“And...?”

His mother’s hand went to his wrist, warm. “You probably don’t remember this, but I’ll tell you the same thing I said back when you first asked: you’re still my son, and I’ll be okay with anyone you love. I don’t mind if the person you bring home is Seungwan, or that boy, or someone else as long as they care for you.”

Chanyeol closed his eyes. That was fine. That was fine, and he felt so relieved.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. Or… For a second time.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s so weird , you know? And so frustrating.” That was fine yeah, but at the moment it seemed like the only thing not crumbling in his life. He leaned his head against the wall, eyes focused on a crack on the ceiling. “I know now and for certain that there’s things I should remember, things that I’ve been told I said or did and that are important, but I… I thought that there would be a blank space in my head, or a haze, or some sort of white blur - something telling me that there’s something missing. But there’s really not? I wouldn’t even be aware of all of that if I hadn’t been just told. And I only know it’s the truth because it matches, but it could be all lies, for all I know, and I wouldn’t even realize. It makes it even worse that I didn’t even want this to happen to me in the first place. According to Baekhyun, of course.”

Saying his name still made him want to scream. “It’s true that you didn’t want to; that’s why you became so sick. But you really fought for it, you fought until the end,” his mother told him.

Chanyeol could almost imagine the crack on his ceiling going wider, wider, wider. “That’s not it,” he said, hesitating. He remembered Baekhyun looking at him like he had just been slapped outside of that cafe. And that boy didn’t have the right - he didn’t, after doing what he had done and hidden what he had hidden. “I never signed the authorization for surgery. Baekhyun faked it. That’s what he told me: he treated me like shit, then he got assigned as my crow and didn’t want to tell we knew each other, so he kept quiet, and in the end he decided it was just a great idea to come here and sign me in for surgery. I didn’t give up, he surrendered me .

He stopped speaking, breath ragged, and he got silence in return. His mother looked pale, his sister’s eyes were wide, and that crack in the ceiling was still there, a single blurred line breaking the surface in half. “What?” whispered Yoora after a while. White shock was starting to fade in her face, dissolving into crimson anger. “That’s illegal.”

“Go and say that to him.”

“And he told you that ? He admitted it? Are you aware that you could go to the hospital with this?”

Their mother turned to her. “Yoora…”

“This is negligence on their side. Not to start speaking of that boy. I thought he had been unfair to you, but this…? There has been some way to prove it, because of course the boy will remain silent if you asked him to confess.”

Chanyeol kept seeing Baekhyun’s face if he closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he murmured. “Maybe he would admit it.”

“Then you should speak. It’d be one hell of a scandal, with the law going on. You could get them to acknowledge you.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m being serious here,” insisted Yoora, and Chanyeol knew she was, but maybe he had been asleep for too long, because his head was starting to hurt.

What would they do with the law, if suddenly someone appeared after having been robbed of the choice of declining surgery? Maybe they would paralyzed it all, even for a while. If he went in public against Byun Youngha’s son, that was.

Baekhyun, who’d been cruel to him. Baekhyun, who had taken him to the hospital. Baekhyun, who he’d cared for, and who he didn’t feel like seeing again anymore. What was with him? Why him?

He had that in his hands, the possibility to move forward and crush him. People wouldn’t support Baekhyun anymore if he just spoke.

If he just did it.

“I don’t know,” he repeated.

“But--”

“That surgery’s already done ! I don’t want to appear on magazine covers again, thank you. I don’t want this kind of attention to be all over me again!”

“Then what kind of attention do you want?” his sister asked.

He paused. “I don’t know,” he answered once more, like that was the only thing he could actually say. He wondered how he used to be, before having his own flowers extracted, if he had talked to others about it, just like Baekhyun did, or if he had just accepted he would eventually died. Who had he been? What had he wanted? “Maybe the kind that doesn’t require me to break someone else for me to get recognition.”

“So then, what? You let him get away?”

“I let him get away. I am okay, as long as I don’t have to see him or talk to him again.”

Yoora sighed. “Good luck with that. He’s going to be on TV soon.”

“Yeah.” Chanyeol had sort of forgotten. He groaned, taking a sip of his tea to get distracted. Sadly for him, it wasn’t working much.

His mother must have noticed his inner turmoil, because she remained even when his sister wished him the best of luck and left. She was still sitting on his bed, watching him intently with a slightly sad smile that Chanyeol couldn’t completely interpret.

“Do you want to stay here for a couple of days?” she asked him.

“I have school, mom.”

“I’ll call them. You could use the rest.”

“Considering the kind of stuff some assholes are saying about me, yeah, maybe.” Chanyeol replied, rolling his eyes. “But I’m not sure about resting. I’d prefer to be busy, instead of just staying here. I don’t really need thinking time.”

His mother nodded. “I can make you clean the house, if you want. It’s about time someone helps me with the windows.” She said it so honestly that Chanyeol felt a pinch of panic for one second.

“Do you want me to?” he asked, slightly alarmed.

“I could use your collaboration, yes, but it’s up to you if you want to go back to class instead. I’m just offering you alternate possibilities.” She laughed, softly. “I just want you to be okay.”

Chanyeol left this mug of tea on the bedside table before falling with a sigh over the blanket. He was still dressed with what he’d worn when he had left for school one day ago. “I am.”

“But you sound like you’ve been hurt,” his mom insisted.

Because maybe that’s the truth. The room was quiet, so quiet, and he still was upset but he didn’t know if he still wanted to punch Baekhyun or not. “I wasn’t expecting things to be this way.”

“Is that boy still important to you?”

Chanyeol parted his lips. “I’m mad at him.”

“Do you hate him?”

“Maybe? He faked my sign and he hid it after. After telling the world he’s dedicated to the cause of letting people choose, this is what he does.”

“He isn’t doing this after,” his mother corrected. “He did all the other things before.”

“Eh?”

“Your sister is furious,” his mother said. “And I understand why. We cared so much for you, we stayed with you when you were at the hospital. We were worried sick, even when you started getting better, so of course she would be upset at the person who caused your sickness in the first place, especially if he was dishonest to you when you met for the second time but… I don’t know if it would be fair for me to hate that boy. Not when we were the first ones to hide part of the truth from you.”

“Ah, yeah,” Chanyeol murmured. “That.”

“We did it because we thought it was the best thing for you. Or maybe because it was the easiest thing for us. Because, how to do it? What to tell you? That’s what your sister also said - do we just tell you to sit down and make you feel half of the person you used to be because of the treatment that saved your life? There was no easy choice, so we chose to do nothing. And I’m really sorry we made you upset, but I honestly don’t know what I would do if I had to make the choice again. Since that day you left us, I have been thinking about it. Should I have broken your happiness, even if I didn’t know back then that it was the truth what you preferred?”

Chanyeol stared at her in silence for a while. He wasn’t angry at her anymore, he thought. Even though. “Yeah,” he said. “The truth is the truth. And my choices are my choices. You maybe didn’t know what was best for me, but in Baekhyun’s case… He knew what I wanted. When he signed that, he did. He said so. He shouldn’t have done it.”

“Well, that’s easy to say in retrospective,” his mother replied, going for his wrist again. Her fingers were cool and slightly calloused, tracing patterns over the veins under his skin. “Believe me, I know.”

“Are you defending him?” asked Chanyeol, blinking.

“Am I?” she smiled, sad. “I am on your side, son. I’m not going to turn my back on you and side with someone who hurt you, but I thought you wanted to talk about this with someone. Or maybe someone to talk to you?”

Chanyeol turned on the bed to face her. “I… guess.”

“Do you want to know something? Now that you’ve mentioned that he was the one to sign your authorization, I remembered that he was here in this house. I was out then; your sister and me used to stay at home with you, but I had to leave you alone just for a while, and you said you’d be okay but got really sick right then. It was this boy who found you here and called the ambulance.”

“Baekhyun?” Chanyeol repeated, brows raised. “He was in this house? Did I let him in?”

“I don’t know. I never asked him. In fact, I don’t think we got to talk, except for him telling me that you were being taken to the hospital. He was there too after that, sitting in the same waiting room, and I didn’t know who he was, but I remember being grateful to him for being there when I wasn’t, and for doing what I hadn’t been able to do.”

“What? Getting surgery done on me?”

“Saving you.”

“He didn’t save me, and I don’t think I ever asked. I would have signed myself, if that’s what I wanted.”

“I guess so, but you are alive all the same.” His mother’s eyes were warm brown, kind as they stared at him. “You know what that boy did, but did you ever learn why he did it?”

Chanyeol snorted, humorless. “I asked him,” he replied. “He said that I was being unreasonable. Great reason, if you ask me.”

“And do you think that’s the truth?”

“Oh, heavens precious, why wouldn’t it be?”

“He took a great risk himself. That, and he’s now suffering the same sickness you had, and speaking against the same thing he did to you. Consider this: we humans don’t always make good decisions, and sometimes we hurt others because of them, but even if it’s not good, or if it doesn’t justify our mistakes, there’s always a reason behind every choice. And what he did actually had this great of an impact on his life, so why did he?”

Chanyeol groaned. His head definitely hurt now. “So what are you asking me to do? To go to him and forgive him?”

“Not necessarily,” his mother replied. “That’s your own decision to make. What I want is for you know my point of view, that’s it, and for you to think about everything once you’ve calmed down. I’m still on your side and always will be, so whatever you choose to do I just want you not to regret it later. Because sometimes, you know, we do things and then we realize it’s too late to take everything back.”

--

Classes passed in a blur, when Chanyeol went back to university. He had his thesis to work on, and a whole lot of assholes to ignore, not to mention his whole choice of career to reconsider, so he busied himself with school work and stayed at the library with Sehun until late every single afternoon for the three following days.

Baekhyun hadn’t called, or written. He was gone, like his whole presence had vanished from Chanyeol’s life except for the occasional photo on a magazine or mention of his interview on TV. He was doing his very best not to look at those either, and not to think about how little his expression in that official photo matched the one on his face when he had seen him last, or about his mother’s voice, soothing and frustrating and confusing all at once.

Jongin had said at the march that sometimes there wasn’t a good decision to make, and he knew it was his turn to choose something, but he just didn’t know what to do.

Perhaps the correct thing to do would be letting Baekhyun slip away. Baekhyun, who had lied and deceived him. Baekhyun, who’d been cruel in a past Chanyeol didn’t remember. Baekhyun, the one who had allowed him to join him after.

That boy he’d kissed, and who had asked please, please, please for Chanyeol to kiss him.

“Why would he do it?” he’d asked Sehun.

“Why are you asking me?” his friend asked back with a deadpan. “And how much do you actually care?”

Chanyeol was pretty much trying not to, so he left the conversation be and focused on keeping himself busy. That was easy with all the work he’d been neglecting, and it felt good to go to bed exhausted and fall asleep to the muffled soundtrack of the superhero movies he kept rewatching to keep his mind occupied at his dorm.

He did text Baekhyun once, in a whim just before closing his eyes during that second night without him, to ask him how his general condition was - because despite everything he had looked so pale last time he had seen him, and he had told him that his CFCS was caused by Chanyeol in the first place - but the only thing he had achieved was feeling bad on the next day when he had woken up to Baekhyun replying to him with a single, impersonal yes, I’m fine.

So just like that, he was back into his easy, grey routine - no more pamphlet printing, or even organizing, or quick origami visits to the hospital to see Jisung. The only thing breaking it had been the phone calls, complete with messages on his voicemail.

He didn’t recognize the voice when the first call came, even if he was sure he had heard it before, so he was only slightly surprised when the man introduced himself, low and authoritative. Good afternoon, Park Chanyeol. This is Byun Youngha speaking and I would very much like to talk to you. Please call me at this number as soon as you’re available.

What the hell that man wanted, Chanyeol didn’t know, but he didn’t bother to check. And he kept it that way, even when the man continued calling, almost daily.

Baekhyun should be okay, he thought. He’d probably be; had to. And if he didn’t want to have anything to do with someone, it was with his fucking father.

So his first day became the second and then the third, and just when he thought he was starting to relax the world decided that it was not something he deserved, because the moment he dared and decided to leave school before he was met with a figure he recognized on the way to his dorm.

He stopped on his tracks in the middle of the sidewalk. They were in a narrower street, the side closest to the road decorated with a row of trees, and there was no one else but he and the other boy, who had been walking towards his university, but even if they had been surrounded by people it would have been painfully obvious that the person in question was there for him. There was no other reason Kim Jongdae would have been walking towards his school after all.

It was weird, because that was a perfectly normal afternoon, and still he was wearing a dress shirt, slacks and one very uncomfortable looking pair of fancy shoes that contrasted vividly with the worn backpack over his shoulder.

“Park Chanyeol,” he greeted him when he had walked close enough to stand right in front of him. And it felt weirder and weirder because now Chanyeol was aware of the fact that he had a story with that boy, back in a reality when both of them and Baekhyun could take photos together smiling at university parties, but the person he was now wouldn’t have been able to tell when his birthday was or what he liked to do on the weekends.

“Hey,” he said, trying his best to sound relatively friendly instead of plain awkward. Judging by Jongdae’s expression, he probably wasn’t very successful. “Going somewhere?”

At least, the boy didn’t look angry by default anymore when talking to him. But even though, he deadpanned. “Arcadia TV,” he said, like it was obvious.

For a moment the words didn’t make sense at all to Chanyeol - then he remembered. “Is it today?” he asked without even thinking that he indeed had a million reasons not to be interested in that. He hadn’t been counting the days, but his heart sped up in his chest all the same.

“Baekhyun’s speech? Yeah.”

He shouldn’t worry about it, really. “How’s it going? It’s quite a big deal.”

“It’s happening,” replied Jongdae, serious. “So I’m here so you can convince him to stop.”

Chanyeol shouldn’t worry about him. He had fought too hard not to care for a whole week. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t look at me like that. I am not against him doing this. I understand why he wants to but… He’s not okay. He’s been at the studio since morning but you know where should he be? The hospital.” Jongdae explained, clicking his tongue. He came one step closer towards Chanyeol, gesturing vividly. “I told him he should postpone the thing, but he won’t listen.”

“Wait, what?” whispered Chanyeol. The weather was almost a bit too hot, but he felt the cold wave of a shudder creeping up his back all the same. “Last time I saw him, he was--” Last time he had seen Baekhyun, he had looked like shit. He cursed. “How bad is he? I wrote to him once and he told me he was okay.”

“And you believed him?” Jongdae asked back. “Look, I-- You don’t know who I am, but I know about you. And I know that Baekhyun told you the truth about you two, and that you argued with him pretty badly, but this , Chanyeol, this was why I was telling you both to stay away from each other. But of course none of you would listen to me. I still can’t believe that Baekhyun is so much of a masochistic idiot, and that you fell for him two times.”

“Well, maybe I wouldn’t have if someone had told me the things he’d done to me the first time it happened,” Chanyeol argued. “How was I supposed to know, if the only warning I ever had was you being all cryptic? Baekhyun was… He was really nice to me the whole time!”

“Because he is nice! A little too dumb, to be honest, but deep down he is much, much less of a bad person than what he believes himself to be.”

“But he treated me like shit! All this-- the surgery, he caused it.”

“Almost three years ago! But people change, even if you don’t believe it. Even if he can’t believe it. You know how Baekhyun used to be because he came forward and explained, but you don’t remember him first hand, right? I do. I went and punched him in the face when I realized the things he’d done, but I also know what kind of person he is now, and he’s grown. Look at how he is now. At what he’s doing. If he hurt you by not telling you the whole truth… Well, that’s not what he meant. He probably just wanted to be happy.”

“That’s a very weak excuse,” Chanyeol started to protest. But Baekhyun’s image came to mind - telling him he’d keep the origami birds he’d made in his wallet, or just looking sad at the hospital, or at the march, or while talking about his father. He hesitated, and cursed himself for it. He had all the reasons in the world to be mad. “He should have told me what was going on before he was found out. He still hid it all, no matter what you say, and spoke when he had no other choice.”

“I’m not asking you to forgive him, but you have to admit that secrets like those are a heavy burden. They’ve hurt you, yes, but they’re hurting him too. Letting them out is not as simple as meet up with you and go full hey Chanyeol, I have something very funny to tell you. I know I said he’s changed, but up to today, he’s still growing up.”

“But he even faked my sign,” Chanyeol protested.

He saw Jongdae blink in front of him. “He did what?” he asked, and he paled when he saw that Chanyeol was looking at him, very serious. “Oh, Baekhyun…” he whispered.

“The sign in my authorization for surgery,” Chanyeol insisted. “He was my crow so he signed it.” He was expecting some kind of recognition of the fact on Jongdae’s face, but it wasn’t coming, and that made him nervous in a way he couldn’t quite explain. “You do know about that, right? That’s the worst of it all. The other stuff… I could maybe sit down and try to understand, but that--”

Now, Jongdae was looking sad. “I-- The only thing I can say is that he cares a lot about you. He maybe didn’t when it mattered, but that boy you’ve known… That boy does. About you and about what he’s doing. He really believes that letting Arcadia know about how bad the CFCS treatment side effects can be will help everyone, and so he’ll use this chance to speak on TV, no matter what costs him.”

He didn’t know…?

Chanyeol parted his lips to ask about that, heart speeding up in his chest, but the words that came out were different to what he had attempted from the start. “What costs him…? You didn’t answer to me before: how bad is he, exactly?”

“His condition… He’s been degenerating a lot for the last three days.”

Three days ago had been the start of the week. When Baekhyun’s father had called Chanyeol, and when he had run to see the boy after. He’d been bad then, already coughing full flowers and choking when he lied down.

Baekhyun had also looked up at him when they were together, told him that he was okay.

He cursed again.

“What did you come here for?”

“I told you. He loves you. He’ll listen, if you go and talk to him at the studio. Tell him to rest, give him some closure. Do whatever you want but… He’s in no condition to go up and speak. That’s why I came to you, so please do something. Don’t let him kill himself over this in front of the whole of Arcadia.”

But it’s what he wants, a very annoying voice seemed to say inside of Chanyeol’s head. Shouldn’t you allow him, if that’s the case?

The last time they had talked had been three days ago. The last thing Baekhyun had told him was that he was sorry, and the last thing he had told Baekhyun was to fuck off. And it was okay to be angry at him, and he still was, but he realized in the span of a second that his mother was right when she had told him that some things couldn’t be taken back once you’d made a choice. That was right for Baekhyun deciding to fake a sign, and for Chanyeol having to decide what to do in that very moment.

Some situations were like standing at the edge of a big, dark cliff, and the only options were back off or close your eyes and jump forward.

Did he want to see Baekhyun, right there?

Did he want to talk to him?

He loves you , Jongdae had said.

Chanyeol had told him to fuck off. And it was fair, maybe, but those were also the kind of words that could burden a person down. Baekhyun didn’t want to forget, but were those the words of him Chanyeol wanted him to remember?

“What do you want me to do? How do I do this?” he said.

And he felt it - the urge to run, and to move: himself taking impulse and jumping right into the darkness of the cliff.

“Baekhyun’s at the studio now. He’ll be on air in like an hour, I think,” Jongdae explain. “But guess what? I’ve got passes. You coming?”

Chanyeol nodded. He felt so aware of the weight of the scar on his chest.

Please be okay.

“Of course I am.”

Chapter Text

I ask for who I ask for,
say, what it is to you?
I come seeking what I seek,
my happiness and my self.

 

Chanyeol’s phone kept ringing during his and Jongdae’s taxi ride to the studio. The caller tried three times, one after another, even if Chanyeol just stared at the screen, frowning, instead of replying.

“Who is that?” asked Jongdae, who up until that moment had been staring through the window of their taxi, fingers drumming on his thighs. Chanyeol had that number saved, of course, and stared at the screen, finger looming over the reply button.

“Baekhyun’s father,” he said, lips pressing when he heard Jongdae gasp.

“What does the bastard want?” hissed Jongdae. And it was true that Chanyeol didn’t remember a thing about that boy, for a moment he felt a thread of camaraderie linking them together.

“Now? I don’t know. He called me to his office once, to make me convince Baekhyun to get surgery so he wouldn’t get in the middle of his political plans. Such a nice guy. How much of a bastard has he been to Baekhyun?”

“You have no idea.”

“Well, I think I can sort of figure out.”

“Are you gonna pick up?”

“Do you think he has any important detail on Baekhyun that we don’t know?”

Jongdae thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Baekhyun’s been ignoring his calls.”

“Then to hell with him.”

They had managed to get a taxi almost right away, but the studios of Arcadia TV weren’t exactly close to Chanyeol’s university, and even if the traffic wasn’t that bad at that time of the day. When the rush hour had already passed, the boy was painfully aware that he suddenly wanted to see Baekhyun but he was far away and they had barely no time.

Come on. Let me go see him. Come on.

Arcadia TV was practically out of town, in one of those industrial parks at the outskirts. Buildings there were not made of glass anymore, and the green of the gardens started to darken into the ashen brown of barren lands and the grey of concrete. It’d been years since Chanyeol had travelled out of Arcadia by land, and the rings of wasteland surrounding the metropolis didn’t help to make him feel calmer about everything that was going on. He started to get more and more restless as the taxi finally took them through the entrance of the industrial park, driving through deserted, broad avenues towards a square building, with metal and concrete walls painted the pale pink of sakura flowers. That one did have glass walls on the second floor, so wide and out of place outside of Arcadia that they made Chanyeol frown.

Baekhyun was there, inside, and he’d find him.

The fare they had to pay was so high that Chanyeol wondered how the hell they were going to return after all that, but he stopped thinking about it as soon as he was met with the security clearance to enter the studios. There was a single man in a sentry box-like booth at the right side of the door, and he looked at them, between bored and skeptical, when they approached the pedestrian entrance.

“Ah, you. Back already?” he said, staring at Jongdae. He turned to Chanyeol after, raising a very thick brow. “And you? Do you have a clearance card, sir?”

With a pang of panic, Chanyeol realized that he didn’t. “Byun Baekhyun called for me,” he started to lie, even though the man looked very unimpressed. He didn’t want to be left out. He didn’t want that guy to start arguing with him when Baekhyun would be going on air in… how much longer? He didn’t even know if Baekhyun would like to see him, if they called him to check.

“Clearance card?” the guy repeated, and Jongdae took a step forward.

“Here, I have one for him too.”

“I see. Very well, second floor then.”

And it was strange, how the inside of the studio was lively - full of men and women in fancy Arcadian fashion walking through warmly lit corridors with the walls covered on posters of their most famous stars, printed on glossy paper and framed. He looked out of place there, as he rushed up the stairs with Jongdae in his elegant dress shirt, but he was close and he suddenly felt too nervous to care. Getting on the move and knowing that he was finally going to talk to Baekhyun had opened some sort of dam in his chest, and he felt the fear, the dread, the uncertainty and the trepidation of longing pushing him forward.

Where is he? He was looking at his sides, at every closed door. Where is he? Is he alright?

They finally stopped in front of an entrance that had been labelled Dressing Room number 04. One woman in a very expensive looking baby pink suit was standing close to the door, and looked up at them with her brows furrowed as soon as she recognized Jongdae.

“Ah, here you are. Mr. Byun was asking for you,” she said. “He seemed concerned that you weren’t answering to your phone.”

“Is he fine?” Chanyeol asked loud, and the girl blinked in surprise.

“Of course, but excuse me sir, who are you?” She stared at him for a moment, and then her eyes went wide. “Oh. Oh . You’re that guy in the magazines.”

“I brought him as a visitor, for him to talk with Baekhyun,” Jongdae interrupted her before she could speak no further - and it was a great thing, because Chanyeol didn’t know what he could have said to her. “He can go in, right?”

The girl checked the watch on her wrist. “He’s going live in like, fifteen minutes.”

“We’ll make it quick,” Jongdae argued, patting Chanyeol in the shoulder. And she was still looking at him in some sort of very interested way that he didn’t like, but at least she ended up nodding.

“Okay, I’ll go to see how preparations are going. But make it quick, yes?” She knocked on the door. “Mr. Byun, you have visitors! I’ll come for you later!”

She left after that, and Chanyeol was left with Jongdae in the corridor among a flurry of passing people. Jongdae sighed, holding the door handle and giving him an encouraging look. “You go alone,” he told him. “Good luck.”

If he had to be very honest, Chanyeol wasn’t prepared for that. He had spent the last three days thinking that he didn’t want to see Baekhyun, and the last hour yearning to speak to him, but now that he was there, walking into a fancy dressing room just before his most important live show, he didn’t know what to say. His whole mind had turned into some sticky white goo, and the fact that Baekhyun was there in front of him wasn’t helping.

“Come on Jongdae, where were you?” he started to say. He was sitting on a chair, his back to him and the silver of his hair almost moonlight white over the skin of his neck and the navy blue jacket of his suit, but he started to turn around almost immediately. “I’ve been calling you for almost two hours. I’m about to be retransmitted to the whole country, a little support on your side would be… Oh.

Oh. That was what Chanyeol thought too when he finally saw his face. He had been wondering how it’d be, to be alone in the same room with that boy again about everything that had gone between them, but he still got weak in the knees at the sight of him. He was still mad at him, of course he would be, but he was beautiful all the same - even if he looked like he was slightly panicking.

“Chanyeol?” he called, tentatively. They’ve done his make-up and prettied him up so he would look handsome on TV, but Chanyeol was closer now, and the lights in the room were unforgiving and bright, so he still could see the pallor sickness under the layers of foundation. They shook him, somehow, even if Baekhyun hadn’t looked exactly well when they had seen each other last.

Was that his fault? Was it? His mother had basically told him not to hate Baekhyun, Jongdae had looked for him so he could go to him and give him closure. But Baekhyun’s illness originated in Chanyeol, the same way that Chanyeol’s had originated in Baekhyun. What did he want? What did the other boy want?

What had he come there to say?

He parted his lips. “What are you doing?” he whispered, coming closer to the chair Baekhyun had been sitting on at the same moment the other boy stood up. That whole scene was already started to feel like a twisted deja-vu of the moment when he had run to Baekhyun’s apartment to ask him what the hell was going on and the boy had looked so scared at him. He bent forward now, covering his mouth with his whole palm as if that could avoid the sudden coughs from going out, but that wasn’t working, and the broken sound of his breath made Chanyeol sick. “Jongdae came to look for me. He says you’re not okay.”

“I am,” replied Baekhyun, sharp and brusque, and fighting to inhale. And yeah, that did sound so true, when spoken with lips painted blood-red and traces of flowers peeking out from his closed fist. “Do you have a tissue?”

“Can you stop lying?” Chanyeol cut him. He hadn’t intended to sound so angry, or so desperate, but the words just came out before he could bite his tongue. Baekhyun flinched on the spot, cherry blossom petals falling on the floor when he had to take his hand to his lips once more. He was holding his head as high as he could and grabbing the back of the chair he had been sitting so hard that his knuckles had gone white, trying to look like a public-friendly prince to the very end.

“I am not lying about this. I am fine.”

“That’s not what was written in those medical reports of yours your father showed to me. He’s been calling me too, these days.”

“So you’re siding with him, now?”

Baekhyun looked hurt, on edge, and Chanyeol hadn’t come there to argue, but the statement still stung when he heard it. “What the hell are you saying? When have I ever? Am I suddenly the bad guy or what?”

“No! Or I don’t know. What have you come here for? Jongdae brought you, yeah, but I thought you didn’t want to see me anymore?”

“I didn’t say that!” replied Chanyeol.

“Well, you told me to fuck off. And I wasn’t expecting something different, after what I did to you, but I… Why are you here then? What do you want?” He gestured around, looking so angry. He finally saw a tissue on the vanity and he went and grabbed it, cleaning his lips with shaky fingers. Chanyeol felt the sudden urge to grab him by the wrist to stop that, but he couldn’t move.

“Jongdae said you should be at the hospital,” he insisted, and Baekhyun scoffed.

“For what? Tell me, what would they do? I have my chance to speak now. This is what I managed with the march, and with all that time speaking around this town. The final step. So yeah, if I go and miss it who says it will be scheduled again?”

“But… it will?”

“My father is pulling strings, Chanyeol. He’ll stop me, and you won’t be there to call your friends this time. That and I am now a trend, and trends pass. What will they do to me if I’m taken to the hospital? Keep me confined in a room for one day, one week, one month?” He bit his lip, releasing both the bloody tissue and his grip on the vanity to stand on his two feet. He looked powerful right now, with his eyes so bright and his voice so clear, and Chanyeol would have liked to know how hard it was for him to keep that whole charade up and going. “They can’t cure me at this stage, Chanyeol. I don’t want them to try.” He grit his teeth when he swayed on his own feet, and Chanyeol thought he’d fall, but he didn’t. He just kept coughing - that horrible, choked sound.

What are you doing? he thought.

“But you’re-- Baekhyun, you’re dying.”

The other boy let out a humorless laugh. “And you think you’re telling me something new?” he asked. “What do I do, eh? Just what do I do? I know what’s wrong with me. How sick I am. I know. And you come here to what? Stop me? I expected that of my father, or even from Jongdae, but you…?” He looked upset, like Chanyeol was the one in the wrong. He still looked afraid, like Chanyeol would turn around and run. And Chanyeol was starting to panic himself, because he was starting to feel like Baekhyun would fade and crumble if he did as much as blink too hard. He wouldn’t go down without a fight, but he would go down fighting.

But this is what he wants. What are you doing?

“I care for you, that’s why I’m here!” he found himself exclaiming. “You might be sick, but you’re still overdoing yourself.”

Baekhyun shook his head. He looked about to say something, face softening for a long, agonizing second, but then he shook his head and the determination was back. “I’m not.”

“Of course you are!”

“This is what I have to do!” He took a step forward and that was were the coughing attack caught him, so violently that he fell forward in the middle of a step. Before he could even think, Chanyeol had run towards him, trying to catch him before he fell but being dragged down with him too. Under the make-up and the pressed suit, Baekhyun was feverish hot and shaking. “So what are you going to do to stop me?” he whispered. He had flowers in his mouth, petals crushed against his teeth and pressed on his tongue. “Drag me to the hospital, even if I don’t want to?”

Chanyeol’s mouth was dry. “What if I do that?” he replied. What are you even saying to him.

Baekhyun chuckled, fingers gripping on Chanyeol’s sweater and forehead on his chest. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” he affirmed. He sounded bitter, and hurt, and Chanyeol bent forward to listen, despite himself, and the place they were in, and the lack of time. “You were really upset when I told you that I took your memories from you. And I understand, but then why would you speak of doing the same thing to me?”

Chanyeol couldn’t breathe. “It’s not the same thing--” he started, but Baekhyun placed his own, pretty finger on his lips.

“It is. Because I didn’t tell you, right? You don’t remember. When I signed your authorization, it was because you were dying. I hadn’t thought about doing it from the start, you know? I didn’t go to your apartment to do so. I only went because you were sick. Because I was worried. And I didn’t know what I’d do once I reached the place. Talk to your mom? She seemed nice. Convince you? I really wanted to convince you. But then I arrived there and no one was there, only you, and there was so much blood.”

Chanyeol could still feel Baekhyun’s heat, his strength where he was holding his sweater, and his breath, resonating with his own below the scar on his chest. “Blood? You didn’t tell me that.”

“What for? So you’d pity me? I wanted the truth out, and only that.”

“But I was bleeding?”

“You were dying. I talked to you and you couldn’t hear me. And the blood was all around me, and on your hair, and on my hands. And I couldn’t help you, so I thought--”

“Heaven precious, Baekhyun.”

The boy wasn’t listening to him. He wasn’t looking at him either, just trying to get a hold on his shoulders to push himself to stand. “Jongin was right, you know?” he said. “Back at the march, when he spoke in front of all those people and told them that sometimes there’s no good choices. And I took mine, because it had been my own decisions what had brought you to that point, and I… I thought I would give everything up, even your memories of me, if that meant that you could be alive and happy, but that wasn’t-- I realized from the start that it wasn’t my choice to make. Not anyone’s but yours. And I took that away from the person I loved. I changed a person. I changed you.”

He managed to stand up, even if Chanyeol couldn’t. “You didn’t tell Jongdae that,” he murmured. “About the fake sign. He didn’t know.”

“No one did. Because they all remembered the old you and were so fond. That wasn’t a burden from them to carry.”

“And it has to be, for you?”

Baekhyun went and grabbed another tissue from the vanity. He was at it again - his back all straight, his eyes determined, his suit pristine. He had managed not to get flowers or blood on the white collar of his shirt, but he still looked tired. “Do you remember what people were shouting at the end of the march? They were screaming for the right to have a choice, a different one from what we’re told. But sometimes those choices aren’t there, and sometimes some of us don’t deserve them; so I’m here to call out for the right of everyone else. The memory of you I carry, I won’t let them take it away. What I am, what I’ve learned - I won’t let them delete it. Even that voice in my head that doesn’t let me sleep, that’s mine too. Who am I to allow myself to just erase that? Who are EDN or Pia or my father to decide that it must be done in every case? Maybe some people do. But you didn’t. Neither do I. And I’ll show them: if I collapse on stage let them enjoy the show.”

“But Baekhyun--”

Chanyeol had asked many times what the boy wanted. He had nodded and believed that time when they had met and, when he had asked Baekhyun why he was sick, he had been told that the cause was unrequited love .

But it wasn’t that, was it? That wasn’t exactly it.

There was a knock on the door, and the voice of the girl in the pink suit, cheerful. “Mr. Byun? You’ll be on air in five minutes, I’m here to escort you down.”

Chanyeol saw Baekhyun take air, keep his back straight, his head up. For a moment there, he looked all healthy - the perfect mirage in bloom. “Baekhyun,” he called him. “Don’t go.”

The boy turned to him, smiling. “You should go home with Jongdae,” he said. “I’ll go back by myself after.”

Liar, Chanyeol thought. He stumbled to get to his feet, but by the time he managed to stand up Baekhyun was already in the corridor, smiling wild at both the girl and Jongdae.

“You can go sit in the public, if you want. Or you can wait on backstage. We’ll be counting on you to cheer for him,” she told them.

And just like that, Jongdae and him were left all alone.

“Just in time,” the other boy told him. “We have another problem, a big one.” He took Chanyeol to the closest big glass window, over the parking lot. There was a big black car, stopped in front of the stairs, and three men in suits arguing with the guy who had been in the security booth at the entrance. Chanyeol recognized all of them, the same way he did recognize the person who chose that moment to open the door of the car and get out. “You did mention that Baekhyun’s father had been calling you, right? Well, it seems that he has grown tired of you and has decided to do the work himself. Did you have any luck with Baekhyun, by the way?”

The answer was obvious, but Chanyeol shook his head anyway.

“Well, for once in my life I don’t know if I want that bastard to succeed.” Jongdae pointed down, at the white vehicle that Byun Youngha had brought with him.

It was an ambulance, from Arcadia University Hospital, and Chanyeol didn’t know what to think about that.

His heart was drumming, drumming, drumming, like it wanted to break through his ribs and escape. He pressed his lips. “They’re too late,” he said. “And that’s not it.”

Then he turned around and started to rush down towards the stage.

Baekhyun would be live too soon for any of them to reach him.

--

Everything was set when Chanyeol managed to get a spot on backstage. He could see it all from there: the public waiting, the host checking his notes and a young woman retouching Baekhyun’s thick layers of make-up.

They weren’t going to fix it like that. Even though both the boy himself and the time were doing their best to make him look all handsome, he still looked sick under the lights of the set, but those people didn’t seem to notice - or maybe they didn’t want to.

Baekhyun saw Chanyeol soon after, and stared at him in silence out of the corner of his eye before he turned to say something to the host with his best poster smile. It was so frustrating, and perhaps the boy should walk in there and try to tell everyone at the studio that they had to stop the show, but he couldn’t bring himself to move.

You were bleeding, Baekhyun had told him. And the blood was all around me.

His mother had said that he should ask the boy why he had done what he had done. And he’d known that he had been sick, even the first time, but the fact that Baekhyun had hidden that they’d been alone and that Chanyeol was dying.

Was he still angry?

He’d come to save Baekhyun.

Did he still have feelings for him?

Baekhyun had never stopped coughing flowers. He’d gone way worse, even since Chanyeol had kissed him.

Hadn’t he wanted him to be happy?

I thought I would give everything up, even your memories of me, if that meant that you could be alive and happy, Baekhyun had told him.

Who am I to erase this?

That was something that Baekhyun needed to do, so he had to let him speak.

He saw Byun Youngha come into backstage with his bodyguards when the live show had already started. Chanyeol didn’t know what had taken him so long, but he smiled to himself when he saw the girl in the pink suit shaking her head at him in dismay. She was speaking vehemently, her voice hushed, but Chanyeol already knew what she was saying: the show’s on air.

From where he was, Baekhyun would be able to see his father for sure, and he looked at him, yes, but he did nothing more, turning to smile at the host as the chime ended.

Come on, Chanyeol thought. Push on.

“Good night, ladies and gentlemen. This is Arcadian Nights, and I am Park Jungsoo, keeping you company like every evening,” the host started. Yes. He turned to Baekhyun, smile wide. “As you all already must know, we have a much expected guest with us tonight. So let me introduce you to the one and only Byun Baekhyun.”

The public cheered and the boy bowed his head. He looked calm, almost relieved, even if he stole the shortest glance ever in Chanyeol’s direction. Jongdae was there now too, hidden from the cameras as well, barely one meter away from Chanyeol.

“I am really pleased to be here.”

“And we’re happy to have you. You must be aware, but you’ve been the talk of the town for this last couple of weeks. You were the plotting head behind that shocking march, and one of the main figures in the anti EDN-Pia fight. We’d really love you to tell us your views on the matter.”

“That’s good. But hey, now that I got permission to speak, and since it’s my first time to be on such a big TV station, I would like to do two things. The first one is to say hi to my grandmother in the countryside. Hey!” The public as a whole laughed at his statement. Go, come on. “And the second one,” he added, face shifting back into solemnity, “is to clarify that, no matter how I’m called by the press or the general public, I am not exactly an anti EDN-Pia activist. I’m not opposed to what they’re doing. I’m not opposed to them healing people the best they can. I’m against people in this city, in this country, being misinformed about what the secondary effects of said treatments are, and about the law that’s going to be passed by the government in Arcadia to make this kind of treatments mandatory to every single person who falls sick of CFCS.”

He stopped to cough, apologizing for the interruption, the same moment Chanyeol felt Baekhyun’s father stopping at his side. “You haven’t been answering my calls,” the man hissed somewhere below his ear, like he had some right to demand an answer.

“Sorry,” Chanyeol murmured back. “No time.”

“You have to stop this, boy?”

“Me?” Chanyeol glanced back. He could almost feel the start of a smile forming on his lips, despite the tension and the worry and the fear. “Since when have I been able to tell Baekhyun what to do? I came to stop him, you know? At first.”

“Then try harder. He’s my son.”

“Cute, how you always remember when it’s convenient.”

“I just don’t want him to die.”

Chanyeol turned to look at him, blinking. In front of them, at the set, Baekhyun had stopped cleaning his lips with a tissue and was giving his best smile at the host again. Park Jungsoo seemed slightly alarmed at the splotches of pink and red on the tissue, but made no further comment when Baekhyun nodded at him.

“Sorry for that. As you may have noticed, I am sick with CFCS myself. Well, I think the whole town knows by now, right? But it’s always helpful to clarify.”

At least, the public didn’t laugh that time. “That’s true. And excuse me if the question is too private for your liking, but you have a clear stance on this issue, and on the current CFCS treatments. Until what extent has your own condition influenced you and inspired your fight?”

“Ah, of course that question’s good for me to answer! Don’t worry, that’s what I’ve come here to talk about, right?” He had to stop to catch his breath after just another fit of coughing, and Chanyeol had to stop himself not to run into the set just to hold him upwards. The host was starting to look a little green now - probably he hadn’t been told what to do in case his guest was much less healthy than he looked like - but he couldn’t say anything before Baekhyun recovered. “I’ve lived through some… experiences in my life that had made me realize how things are when it comes to this treatment. Part of them come from external people, like Kai, who I’m sure this whole city knows of, or the other people who spoke at the march. Others, of course, come from my own experience, both my own and what happened to people I care for. And the sickness is part of that, yeah. When I started all this, it was because I had to face what meant for other people to lose their memories, and how it had changed people I cared for, and then compare it with what I wanted for me. I’ve done things right and I’ve done things wrong, and I realized that I didn’t want the ones I loved to forget the choices I made. That I didn’t want to forget them myself. The CFCS surgery as we know it removes memories from our brains, and memories, you see, are not only some kind of memento of a past we can’t fix anymore… they’re there, and they’ve made us grow, and they’ve made us into what we are. They are how we see and what we know of our family and friends, and what make us love the things we cherish. I understand that someone would prefer to forget, and that people would choose to change if the other option is to let those memories kill you but, does it has to be like that for everyone? By law? Is that fair?”

“So would you say then that it is fair to let people choose to die?”

Baekhyun took a deep breath. “It’s not letting them die, not only. It’s letting them wait until the people in charge keep investigating for alternative solutions. It’s leaving them enough time to try to heal. And yeah, perhaps it involves letting them passing away as a last instance, if they reach a critical stage and still don’t want to undertake surgery but… Isn’t literally cutting their feelings and memories off like killing a part of themselves anyway? I’m not advocating for death here: I am sick myself, and I tell to you all that I don’t want to die.” He stopped again to cough, taking the tainted tissue to his mouth. He had one small pink petal on the corner of his lip when he continued, breath shallow but voice still audible. “I’m sorry, I-- I have a voice. I realized I did when I started to be scared of it… being taken away and I… I’ll use it. Watch me use it.”

Park Jungsoo stretched one arm towards him, as if to grab him. “Are you okay, Mr. Byun?” he asked. At Chanyeol’s side, Baekhyun’s father was mumbling something, upset, and Jongdae came to his side.

“We have to stop this,” he whispered.

Chanyeol bit his lip.

He had asked himself, after all the mess after the march had happened, if he had ever known who Byun Baekhyun really was. And it was true, that he didn’t know a thing about who the Baekhyun almost three years ago used to be, but he knew that one - his voice, his words and the glint in his eyes.

And what a silly, admirable guy he was.

“Let him talk,” he replied.

“He can’t barely speak .”

“He’s doing it, isn’t he?”

He got it. He really got it now.

“Chanyeol, listen…”

“This is important for him.”

On the stage, Baekhyun was leaning on the table, knuckles white again, but his face was determined and he shook his head no when the host tried to speak. “I am talking about all of this because… Think about it, will you? Passing this law, make the treatment mandatory… It will make it appear as a success. It will be free, it will be fast and people… The people who make it… they’ll be treated as successes too, no matter how different their souls are, and that’s… We cannot allow the cure as it is to be treated as anything else than a momentary patch, a faulty solution until EDN, or Pia, or whoever it is, come up with a treatment that doesn’t do this. So consider it like that. A temporary fix. Make it free, for the ones who want it-- Or need it. But let us choose if we submit to it or not. So people from Arcadia. Don’t… be okay with this law. Don’t erase someone like me. Don’t erase us.”

He felt quiet, not even the host dared to speak after him. And Chanyeol felt a strange wave of pride that started to rise and then died when he saw Baekhyun’s face. Now that he had finished speaking, his eyes were unfocused, even as he bent forward to cough.

The girl in the pink suit had come close to them too, and Chanyeol turned to her as the air started to become all too heavy around him. “Make an ads cut,” he told her in a grunt.

“But we still haven’t--”

“Have you seen my son? Cut this program into publicity. Now!” Byun Youngha ordered, and Chanyeol had never been happier about that guy butting in.

“Yes, sir.”

The chime started half a second after when Baekhyun collapsed.

He did so coughing, falling to the side from his chair and clawing at his shirt. It took Chanyeol one second to get there, before Byun Youngha, Jongdae or even the staff could, and he tried his best to hold him up with shaky hands so he could breathe, pulling to unfasten his necktie and the top buttons of his shirt.

It didn’t seem to be working.

“Baekhyun,” he called. “Baekhyun.”

His throat burned. He couldn’t think. The boy was staring up at him, a thread of blood painting a red line down his chin and his eyes glassy. He coughed again, and the amount of blood coming out wasn’t small anymore. It was on his neck now, on his white shirt - vivid strokes of red beneath pale sakura petals.

“My speech,” he muttered. Chanyeol tried to make him look at him, but his eyes were unfocused. That was bad. Oh, shit, that was... “What I said. Did I-- Did it go well?”

“You did great,” he replied, because it was true, and it had been important. “But Baekhyun, listen to me…”

Byun Youngha arrived there, bodyguards running behind him, and he kneeled close to them to try to grab Baekhyun. He huffed, enraged, when Chanyeol didn’t let him. “Enough of this nonsense. I brought an ambulance with me. We’re taking my son to the hospital and cutting that damn sickness out of his system.”

Baekhyun reacted to that. He squirmed and shook and pressed himself harder against Chanyeol’s chest, coughing blood all over his sweater when he tried to speak. “NO!” he let out.

His father was staring at him, livid. He looked more desperate than angry when he turned towards Chanyeol. “Hand him over,” he demanded.

The staff was all over them now, talking and asking and trying to grab their attention. Jongdae was there too, and he looked so terrified when Chanyeol looked at him. He bit his lip, hesitating, when the boy brought Baekhyun closer to himself. “Chanyeol,” he started. He paused, then spoke again. “Maybe we should.”

“What are you saying? We should what ?”

Baekhyun was shaking, in a way that was not normal, and he kept making those sounds, loud and weezing and broken, like he could not breath. He kept holding onto him, though, with a grip so strong that Chanyeol didn’t think that he could push him away even if he wanted to. And maybe he should, though, because the boy was pale, sweating and still coughing blood.

There was so much blood.

“He’s dying!” Jongdae exclaimed, and the room fell silent.

And was he?

Was he?

Baekhyun’s fingers fell limp and the boy bent forward on Chanyeol’s chest like some broken rag doll. He could see his face again; he had his eyes open, but they were unfocused, lightless.

The smell of the blood was so strong, the weight of Baekhyun so heavy in his arms now that he was barely moving. Someone save him, he thought, because he didn’t know how to. Because he was just a boy and all of that was too big and too scary. Please, I’ll do whatever it takes, but someone save him.

“Tell the staff at the ambulance to come. We’re taking him to the hospital,” Byun Youngha was instructing.

They shouldn’t be doing that, those guys.

Or maybe they should.

They came in their white uniforms, with their stretcher and their emergency kits, and Baekhyun was still conscious, but the only thing Chanyeol could hear was his breath.

Maybe they knew what they were doing more than he did, because they looked all professional as they took Baekhyun away from him, checked his pupils and his throat. Both medics looked at each other, one of them shook his head.

They were carrying a comm, and the other guy was speaking through it.

Critical condition, they said.

Chanyeol couldn’t think.

Moving him to the hospital, immediately.

What if that was better?

The world was spinning, too fast, too loud, and the lights over his head felt way too bright. The only thing he could see was Baekhyun on the sketcher, immobile and pale.

What if that was…?

“We can stabilize him for the time being, sir, once we reach the hospital, but it won’t be of much help if the flowers keep growing. He needs immediate attention.”

“What are the documents needed? I’ll sign them as his father.”

“Sir, but we can’t--”

“He’s unconscious. Do you know how you’re talking to? I’ll sign those documents. He’s my son.”

Chanyeol remained there, frozen.

Was that better?

Was it?

They’d save him.

He couldn’t die.

He wouldn’t allow him to die.

He was the reason Baekhyun was sick in the first place.

He went to search his face, one last time, as the staff moved around him and the medics prepared to lift him up - and saw Baekhyun staring at him, eyes strangely lucid.

He had stopped coughing, he was only looking at him, like he understood, like it was the last time he saw him.

And Chanyeol understood then, what he had been about to allow.

“No,” he said. “Wait.” He stood up, and he had blood on his fingers, and on his neck, and he felt so nauseous. “That’s illegal. He hasn’t given his consent. You can stabilize him, but if you’re thinking of taking those flowers out through surgery, with the law as it, that’s something you cannot do.”

Byun Youngha turned towards him, with his lips pressed and his hand raised, like he was about to hit him. “If you think I’m going to sit and watch my son die, you’re--”

“And your idea of not letting him die consists of faking documents?” interrupted Chanyeol. “Sir, you’re at a TV studio, surrounded by people, and the whole city of Arcadia knows what Baekhyun’s position is on CFCS surgery. I won’t remain quiet, and there’s witnesses here, and cameras rolling. And we all know who you are.”

“Are you threatening me, boy?”

“I’m just telling the truth. And maybe your son would like you better if you stopped once in a while to listen to what he has to say.” Chanyeol had no more time to waste talking to that person, so he ran towards Baekhyun instead. The boy was wheezing between small cough and small cough, fresh blood on his lips, but he was still looking at him, with eyes glazed but lucid. And Chanyeol was scared, very scared, of fucking it all up, of making the wrong choices. Baekhyun had said it himself, that sometimes there wasn’t a right one. So he’d had to make the one he thought was best, and stick to the consequences. He would, because he now really understood some things that had happened three years ago. “Hey, Baekhyun,” he said, kneeling close to the sketcher to grab his hand. “You do know that I like you a lot, right?”

The boy choked on a breathless laugh. “Please, don’t lie to me,” he muttered.

He kept coughing, of course, no matter if Baekhyun believed him or not. And he would, because regardless of what Baekhyun’s conviction was about Chanyeol’s feelings, it was never that what had made him sick in the first place.

“I wouldn’t. And eh, do you know what, too?” Baekhyun was looking at him, breath shallow and skin sticky with sweat but eyes hungry, and Chanyeol found himself smiling, soft. “For all that you did three years ago, I forgive you. I get what happened, I understand what happened, and I don’t think you have to punish yourself over that.”

Baekhyun’s eyes opened wide. “Don’t--” he started to whisper.

“Told you, I’m not lying.” Chanyeol smiled wider, only for him. “I’m okay now, see?”

There were many things Chanyeol wanted to remember: the feeling of his mother’s hand around his wrist and her words when she had told him that some choices wouldn’t be there to take them twice; Sehun and Seungwan coming to support him when his whole school was talking behind his back; Baekhyun’s face when he had asked him to stay the night and the smile on his lips at the end of the march. And he knew right then that he would also keep that expression of his in that place in his heart where the good things were: the way his mouth opened in surprise, and his eyes going wide, and the splinter of hope cracking them open - silver, so silver bright.

--

Baekhyun was taken away after that, with the paramedics and his father and even Jongdae. It was him who went in the ambulance with him, and who asked Chanyeol to take his place, but the worst of Baekhyun’s attack has passed, and there was something he had said to him before being carried to the ambulance.

Chanyeol, my speech.

So he turned to Jongdae. He’d had to trust him. “Go with him, you hear? And if his father tries something weird, punch him in the face. I don’t think he will, anyway. Too many people here, knowing it would be his fault. And I don’t think he’s up for more scandals.”

He was left alone after that in one hell of a messy studio, with Park Jungsoo looking worriedly flabbergasted and the girl in the pink suit running from one place in the studio to the other, going about way too long commercial breaks and boys collapsing on prime time.

Chanyeol was too tired and didn’t exactly like her, and he was but one boy, dressed in worn black clothes and really not too experienced when it came to speaking in public, but Baekhyun had asked something of him and he would do it.

“What are we going to do?” the girl was exclaiming, like he was about to suffer some kind of very bad aneurysm. “We can’t just cancel like this!”

“What about letting me close the speech?” he asked her, shrugging when she looked at him in disbelief. “You said it yourself: you can’t cancel. And I’m the boy on the magazines. Remember me?”

She considered him. She nodded. “Go get washed, then. We have no time.”

And that was the story about how someone like him ended up sitting on the host chair of Arcadian Nights, with his face clean and his sweater gone because it has been too bloody - a simple boy, staring at the whole city right in the face.

“Baekhyun can’t be here. He was really sick, as you know, so he had to be taken to the hospital,” he started, casting aside the indications that the pink woman had given him about what to say. “You may know me from the magazines as someone who knows him, but what I really am goes beyond that. I am the kind of person who wanted to study to become a Shepherd, to help people as sick as he was, and also the kind of guy who started to help Byun Baekhyun because I wanted that, to be of assistance to others. But then I started to learn, and to know. He has taught me many things, and I think I can help many of you more if I just say this.” He paused and inhale, looking at the blinking red dot of the camera in front of him. His stomach was in knots but he proceeded. “I am a CFCS survivor. I have a scar on my chest. I am a victim, too, of the kind who got very important memories taken away without knowing that they had. And I thought I was happy until I realized what had been taken from me exactly. Because as someone who lost it once, I have to say I want my sadness, too. I want to be aware of who I am, and mourn, and heal, not for my feelings to be hidden under a rug of dirt. And I understand that this may be the only choice for some of you because, what can you do when you’re dying? There’s no good choice here and I’m aware, but I’m still here, and I’ve got this life, and I’ll do everything in my hands so death and oblivion are not the only ones. So what I’m trying to say is - meanwhile, just meanwhile, while someone else comes with something, try to listen to your loved ones. Don’t make them choose one thing or another. Don’t try to make it better by not talking about the things that have made them ill. CFCS… it comes from the heart. It should be able to be cured from there too, not by speaking with crows but by talking to people.”

Chanyeol was a boy who had never spoken in public before, and he had admired Baekhyun for that when he had seen it at first, because he was only one man as well, but he always managed to pull his crowds in, to make them cheer, and listen, and part for him - but maybe what had happened from the start was that Baekhyun was a person who had something in his heart he needed to share.

He had passed the baton to him now, to close of the only speech he hadn’t managed to finish, and there were no cheers in the studio when he stopped talking, but he was met with silence. And he didn’t mind the lack of applause if the quietness he was going to get was as solemn as that.

Maybe he wasn’t the kind of person who could make whole crowds part for him, but he hoped to be the type to crack the heart of a city of glass.

Perhaps that way the cherry blooms could wither, and fall, and then be reborn into something that didn’t bring pain anymore.

--

Chanyeol only managed to see Baekhyun when the morning came, when he was taken out of the Intensive Care Unit where he had spent the night.

Chanyeol had slept at the hospital too, sitting on a way too uncomfortable chair and with his head on Jongdae’s shoulder, and only because he had been too exhausted to remain awake until dawn. Baekhyun’s mother had been there too, and his father, and even if they hadn’t spoken, at least they hadn’t tried to make Chanyeol go away.

They let him into Baekhyun’s room as well, barely thirty minutes after he had been moved out of the ICU, and he rushed right in, scared but hopeful, always hopeful. And they gave him time alone with him, at least, as his father guided his very dishevelled-looking mother to the cafeteria on the ground floor.

“You go first,” Jongdae told him. “I’ll join you guys when you have said hi to each other.”

Baekhyun still looked so pale and alarmingly thin in his hospital gown as he stared at him, half lying and half seated on his reclinable bed. He had tubes and cables going into his skin, but at least the mechanical ventilator at his side was disconnected, and he had no breathing device connected into his mouth as he smiled, not anymore. “Hey,” he said to Chanyeol, and his voice was weak but sort of warm too. “Has someone told you that you look terrible?”

During all that night, Chanyeol had carried hope within his chest, a silver lining around storm clouds. He’d wanted the attack to cease, and Baekhyun to stop coughing, and he had said what he had to, chosen the best he could, but now that he had the boy in front of him, he didn’t know if that was enough for saving someone.

But he’d try to believe. So he smiled back. “You were busy getting better, so I had to wait out there for you. Jongdae’s here too; he’ll say hi in a while.”

Could words heal? Could feelings heal? Could what he had to say be enough to relieve someone he cared for from his own burden? He wondered.

“Well, thanks then, to both of you.” The beeping on the machine behind Baekhyun was regular, steady.

“How are you?”

“I’m… good, I think. Good enough for now,” he replied. That was enough for the silver cracks of hope in Chanyeol’s chest to grow wider, but at the same time it wasn’t because that was the same thing Baekhyun always said. He looked more peaceful now, however, the tension in his shoulders gone and his smile softer. “Come sit here?” he asked, patting the empty space on the bed close to where he was.

Hope, hope, hope kept soaring, raising. What if, maybe…?

He obeyed. Baekhyun’s hand was resting on the mattress, near his own leg, and he still had the prettiest fingers he had ever seen,

“So, my mom said you spoke on TV,” the other boy started, his voice all raspy. “You stole my hard-earned spotlight.”

Chanyeol found himself chuckling, because that was the Baekhyun he knew, and he had been missing him until that very moment. “Only half of it. And hey, I worked hard for this too,” he protested. “And besides”, he added after a while, swallowing, “you were the one who told me to.”

Baekhyun stared at him in silence and Chanyeol felt himself panicking slightly. Perhaps he didn’t remember. Perhaps he just looked okay but he wasn’t. Maybe he had gotten it all wrong and--

Another hand found his, fingers warm as winter sunshine as they grazed his knuckles. “Yeah,” replied Baekhyun with a smile. “Thank you, Chanyeol.”

“So you remember last night?”

He nodded.

“And what I said to you?”

Another nod.

“And you know that I wasn’t lying to you, right? Because I was being honest, really honest, the most I’ve ever been, and I don’t want you to ever feel again that you have to carry any burden or be sad about--”

He was interrupted by Baekhyun suddenly freezing in place and taking his hand away from his to cover his mouth. He bent forward and made some short, choked sound, the machines behind him speeding up as he coughed one, two times. When he stared back up at Chanyeol, Baekhyun had an apologetic expression clouding his face and the palms of his hands covered in pink sakura petals.

It couldn’t be, but-- Of course. He had been wrong from the start, right? Forgiving wouldn’t make it; trying his best to fix that heart wouldn’t be enough, maybe. But then he’d keep going. There had to be a way, and he’d find that way, no matter how long it took him, and then…

“Hey, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun called him, and he held his breath and stared at him. Because of course he would - he’d do every little thing he could to make him happy. Even if Baekhyun was already sort of grinning and he was the boy with the prettiest smile in the world. “Do you know that Doctor Kim Junmyeon came to see me, a little while before you came in? They made some tests on me when I was admitted here last night, and he came to personally tell me how the results had come out this morning.” He coughed again, voice all raspy and weak when he cursed. “Oh, hell. It is annoying to try to speak like this.”

“Baekhyun, don’t--”

“Will you let me? I have important things to say, you impatient ass, and I’m struggling with air here. But as I was saying, Doctor Kim came and told me that they still have to run a lot of tests on me, and that they’ll need to keep me here at least for a couple of months because of the general condition of my lungs right now, but if everything goes well I’ll be able to go back home after.”

He said that as if it was all easy, when Chanyeol just wanted to start punching walls. “But Baekhyun, even if you go back home, you are…” He pointed at the petals on the sheets. “I-- What can I do to help you?”

And he couldn’t understand a thing because suddenly Baekhyun was laughing. “You? Keep being yourself, I guess?” he said. He went for Chanyeol’s hand and brought it to his lips with warm, glinting eyes. “What Doctor Kim told to me, you see, is that the Prunus sanguinea in my lungs is starting to show signs of withering. That’s why I’m coughing all this: the plants seem to be receding, but all the flowers have to fall anyway.”

Chanyeol felt his own mouth falling open. “But-- Baekhyun, what?”

And Baekhyun was beaming - oh, god and heaven precious, he was. He let go of his hand and caught one of the petals on the sheets, pink and just slightly wrinkled. “See?” He held it there, a soft, fragile thing, and a sign. “No traces of blood.”

He didn’t know how Baekhyun was expecting him to react, but the bone crushing hug certainly caught him by surprise. He let out a gasp and a breathless laugher, though, and Chanyeol couldn’t have cared less about everything else as he brought him closer to him and sank one hand in his hair and his face in the crook of his neck.

“Oh god,” he muttered. “For a moment I thought--”

He heard the low rumble in Baekhyun’s chest when he hummed. He could almost feel the cadence of his breath too, still a bit shallow but already a bit stronger than it had been. “You’re crushing me,” the other boy told him, but his own fingers were curled on the short hair of Chanyeol’s nape, and he was still laughing when he let go.

“So you’re really going to be okay.”

“Yeah. Really, really,” Baekhyun replied. He stopped and scrunched his nose, and that time instead of coughing he sneezed, the sound all loud and sudden, and a new flurry of petals coming from his mouth. “Oh shit, this is inconvenient.”

He looked like a very annoyed, overgrown puppy, but Chanyeol felt way too happy to care as he went to remove a lonely cherry blossom petal from the corner of his upper lip. “Don’t worry, I will bring you tissues next time.”

“Ah, so you’ll be coming to see me.”

“Of course. Daily.”

The flowers were everywhere, on the sheets, on their hands and in Baekhyun’s lips as he bent down to kiss him, but now that they were coming out from his lungs without any trace of blood, Chanyeol thought for the first time that they looked pretty surrounding him.

Chapter Text

Epilogue - The City of Glass

 

Time passes and move forward, and you want me to go. We’ve been together for so long, but it seems like you don’t need me anymore.

You have to stay at the hospital for quite a long time. Everyone is scared that you might fall right into my arms again, and sometimes you’re a bit concerned too, but there’s Park Chanyeol keeping his promise and coming to visit every day and he tells you that it won’t happen.

He makes you happy when he says it. And after all he’s right: the flowers will go away if there’s nothing in your chest for them to feed on. You almost lost, but in the end you made it.

Doctor Kim Junmyeon seems very, very relieved. You were always a little of a pest to him, coming to the hospital to talk with his patients behind his back and walking uninvited to the restricted zone, but even if he tends to scold you when you get into his nerves a little too much he’s a kind guy and cares about you and what you have to say.

“We of course know that the sickness is mental,” he tells you in one of your daily check-ups, because you have discovered you enjoy talking to him, both about your own ideas and about the things Chanyeol tells you. “The flowers grow because of the patient’s own feelings after all. You see all those CFCS romance novels out there, where someone falls sick and is saved because the person they used to love suddenly discovers they return those feelings, but things aren’t that simple. You can be loved back by your partner or your family and still think you don’t - and that will make you ill. That’s why the Shepherds always treat the patient, and not the people in their environment.”

You know that well. You made someone sick, even after you developed feelings for him. You remained sick, even after he cared for you - right until the last moment. You understand all of that better than anyone else could, because you’ve had me with you for years and only now you’re getting ready for goodbyes.

“But do you think that’s the best option?” you say. “Treating only us, and doing that with people with crow masks?”

“Well, Chanyeol doesn’t agree,” Doctor Kim replies to you.

“Ah, I don’t either.” You shrug. “What made me sick was the thing that was eating me up from the inside, but in the end what I needed wasn’t talking about it to a stranger, or having it removed. I thought it would made it worse, if Chanyeol learned about what I had done, but I felt so relieved when he understood. You really have no idea.”

“I do agree about the Shepherd system not being perfect, but it’s not something that can be changed in a while just because your CFCS got better,” Doctor Kim tells you with a sigh. “I think alternative ideas are worth trying and I’ve… talked with people about it, but you know how slowly those things move. And still, Park Chanyeol is giving them hell, isn’t he?”

“What can I say, Arcadia loves him.”

“Yeah, him and that Jongin boy, too.”

They do, so much it’s funny. And your father is very, very angry about it.

He’s come to visit you five or six times in these two months - not as much as your mother or your brother, who come almost every day of the week, but it still surprises you. He doesn’t talk much, and even when he does he spends half of the time ranting about all the difficulties he’s going through at work because you and your friend’s violent activism and the other half talking about how your mother’s worried, or your brother’s worried, or how the doctors are optimistic about your condition, but you guess it’s something. And it gets a bit on your nerves at first, that you have to be the one trying your best to go from hostile to at least cordial, but Jongdae, and Seulgi, and Jongin, and Jisung, and even Chanyeol (who is that one guy who told your father to fuck off, repeatedly) insist that he’s trying.

Well, your dad’s way more hopeless than you are, it seems, and that three-years-ago version of you that caused all this mess was one big, ugly son of a bitch, so you’ll have to give the guy at least one more opportunity.

You can always send him to hell with your best regards if he goes full asshole again, or that’s what Chanyeol says. And Chanyeol tends to be right, so you listen to him.

He’s happy, Chanyeol. You know because he tells you, and also because he really looks the part, and it makes you feel all warm inside. He laughs at you, the idiot, because it’s been months and you keep coughing flowers, even if you haven’t been producing new ones at all.

“It’s not only that: you keep sneezing them,” he says, trying to justify that half-amused, half-fond face he makes every time you end up throwing a sakura projectile to his chest or to his face. “How many of them did you have in there to begin with?”

“A whole garden, apparently,” you reply, feigning an annoyance you really don’t feel. But you know that he knows, right? The bastard. “Almost three years worth of them. They won’t let me out until all of them are gone.”

“And until your lungs work, mister.”

After making them for Jisung during all those weeks, Chanyeol has taken a liking to the origami thing, so he brings colorful figures to you every day that he comes - which means you already have over fifty of them. He makes these ridiculously difficult figures, maybe because he thinks he’ll impress you by folding a paper one hundred times, and well, you are impressed but you’re not going to tell him.

He knows, probably.

He’s so smug about it every time he takes a new one out of his pocket.

You keep them all in your room anyway, because it makes him happy and he makes you happy too.

Disgusting, you two. So disgusting, but what do I know.

“Do you know what? The government has postponed that law again,” he tells you, beaming.

“I know. I’m here all day, I have nothing much to do except for watching the news. They mention Jongin in them.”

“Him all the time and not me, huh?” he complains, even though you know he has no reason to. He doesn’t love the attention that much, so even if he’s on TV with Jongin every once in a while, he’s mostly working backstage both with him and with favorable figures at the government, EDN-Pia and the hospital to try to push a new crowless therapy system forward. That way, he also has a pretty good excuse to come to see you. Not that you’re complaining.

“Well, you’re doing your own thing. And you haven’t told me how that is going.”

“Uh, let’s see.” You’re both sitting on the private balcony of your very expensive private room, and even if you don’t like the luxury, at least you appreciate the late summer sunshine on his hair, and the privacy of the place. “I’ve went with Doctor Kim, and Jongin, and a couple of people to meet the head of the EDN-Pia Shepherd system, and I left the place with one internship offer from them and another one for this hospital. They could use my skills, they say.”

You raise your eyebrows. “Ow. Successful.”

“Yeah. And badass. I turned them down.”

He looks anything but as he smiles down at you, and you laugh. You love this. You love him. Oh well. “The biggest ones in town. I’m impressed, Park.”

“You better be,” he replies. “I think I’ll be joining that project Jongin is making, once university is over. He’s managed to get quite a group of talented people, and he’s invested a lot of money for research purposes. I don’t mind being the face to that, I know he’ll listen to me.”

You hum.

“What about you?” he asks.

“I don’t know.” It’s not like you can appear on TV, when you still have weeks left to remain at the hospital. But even then… “Maybe I’ll take a little break when I get out from this place. To focus on studying, and living in general.”

“And dating me.”

You try your very best to scoff at him. “You’re at it again, eh?”

“Listen to me, Byun. Half of this city started to watch me speak because for them I am The Boyfriend. It feels kind of weird not to really, one hundred percent be. It’s like I’m fake-dating you.”

“Deceptive advertising,” you tell him. “You’re playing with their feelings.”

“Technically it’s not a complete lie.”

“You’ll be able to tell them all it’s official once I leave this place.”

“Alright,” he says. He has the guts to go and sit on your lap, even though the idiot is big and heavy and sort of crushing you. You don’t seem to mind much though, because you laugh and curl one lock of dark hair around your finger when he tries to accomodate on you and manages to sink his head in the crook of your neck. “But you did all this in case I decided to change my mind about us and I’m not changing it, Baekhyun. Not a bit.”

“Yeah,” you murmur, and he’s warm, and cute, and you love him.

You feel a bit sorry, sometimes, about having told him to see and try before going for the whole boyfriend thing - and Jisung scolded you about it, one of those days he came to meet his brother - but you’re stubborn and Chanyeol seems to understand anyway. You want him to know you , and you want to know this version of him, even if you already like it as much, or even better.

Don’t hurt him, Jongdae warned you, even if there was no bite in his voice, and you want to be fair to yourself, to Chanyeol and even to him, since they both are trying to learn to know each other again. That also makes you warm inside, and you wonder if you’ll soon be able to take another photo like the one you have in your room. The three of you, smiling.

“Well, not much more until you’re free of the glass room and the ugly hospital gown, so I have almost gotten the boy.”

You should tell him that, in your humble opinion, you’re the one who should brag about getting the boy, but you just grin. “Almost, almost,” you tease.

“So I could technically kiss you. To reinstate my claim. And so you know.”

He’s done that before. And you’ve done that too. It’s still hard not to feel breathless sometimes, but you’re getting stronger. Better.

And Chanyeol loves you, even if you thought something like that could never, ever happen.

You feel his lips on your neck and you shiver. Your free hand grips the fabric of his sweater, on his back.

Oh, you’re going to make Doctor Kim so upset if he finds out.

But, “Hey, Chanyeol,” you whisper. “How partial are you to making out in hospital rooms?”

He retreats just enough to look at you. He blinks, then he smirks. “Very,” he says, and he kisses you.

The flowers inside your chest are withering, but you feel like you’re blooming.

This is a city of flowers and ravens, where every heart is made of glass, and yours is mended and beating, so I think it’s finally my time to sleep.

May your futures always blossom, painted oh so silver bright.