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~* 1 *~

The day outside is bright and warm, the evening hours sighing in drowsiness while the late summer’s sun floats over the city calmly, pooling in the air like a glinting haze. A vast blue sky stretches over buildings of brick and stone, paved streets with blooming roses on their fringes reflecting the delicate paint strokes of vermillion and amber curling on the canvas, as the sun begins to set over sloped rooftops and rustling tree leaves. The light sneaks around the billowy curtains of the practice room, creating a frame of golden lining around the floor to ceiling windows. The evening breeze is slightly balmy, on the first notes of autumn, glossing over the polished instruments scattered in the room, still and pristine, imposing in their silence. The elaborate notes of Chopin’s Nocturne have cast a spell in that small corner of the world, the piano melody resounding and filling the air with an elusive tranquility.

He stares at the blindingly white curtains, dancing hypnotically in front of the window panes, while delicate hands coax the notes into a serene, increasingly ornamented composition. He watches as the sunlight tumbles into the room under the flair of the curtains, scattering like luminous specks of dust all over the dark wooden floor, his thoughts absently following the notes, his practiced fingers fiddling, idle and restless in his lap. With each note, the world is in transience, from summer to autumn, from day to night, and time is slipping through his empty fingers, like the warm caress of the sun. The day’s colors blend, blurring on the edges into the purest color, soft and gentle, and Chanyeol is chasing hues, trying to reach that refined sliver of fading light that leads beyond the sky, an everlasting promise of coveted, sempiternal beauty. He yearns to move closer, reach further, but he doesn’t know how; like a caged bird that has forgotten how to fly, Chanyeol watches as colorful flocks swirl into the sunset, and he is left behind in his lonely, wistful longing.

The smooth transition of the melody to its playful lilts before the end reminds Chanyeol of his surroundings, and he blinks away his daydreams, habitually straightening his back and fixing his posture on the edge of the piano bench, just in time.

“How was that for an E flat major?” the pianist smirks cheekily after performing the final note, turning to Chanyeol with mischievous confidence dancing in her eyes, the thrill of performing radiating off of her rosy cheeks; if she noticed his aloof inattentiveness earlier, she doesn’t comment on it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Chanyeol didn’t need to pay close attention to know that her performance was nothing but perfect, as usual; she has always been exceptionally talented for her age, mastering advanced compositions so quickly that he oftentimes wonders if he is even needed as her teacher anymore.

“It was excellent, Joy” he approves with an encouraging smile, a genuine expression he can display even when his thoughts are still a little absent, scattered. As the world begins to take coherent shape again, he notices his student’s eyes crinkling a bit further in satisfaction, a jolly expression he is well familiar with, after years of being her piano teacher. She was one of his very first students, when he was still fresh off his first diploma and she was missing a front tooth; Chanyeol still remembers her when she was half his size, with ribbons in her braids, but now the roundness of her cheeks has started to fade, her lips are painted in pretty pinks every day, dainty earrings and hints of perfume making an appearance. Seeing her growing into a refined, elegant young lady of a certain social status, he wonders where all the years in-between have gone missing, just how much time has escaped him.

“Thank you, I know” Joy retorts playfully, even though the way she pushes her brown hair behind her ear is a bit self-conscious; they know each other a little too well by now, Chanyeol can read her like an open book, but certain pages he chooses to ignore, and this is exactly one such occasion. With one last look at her teacher, Joy averts her eyes and starts playing a tune on the keys distractedly, her lashes lowering over her cheeks. Chanyeol focuses fully on her curling fingers and their lesson again, drumming his fingers on his knees over the stretched brown fabric of his trousers, as his mind jumps from note to note, trying to identify the piece. “We have five more minutes…” Joy starts, and Chanyeol automatically checks the old pocket watch he always carries around, assessing the remainder of their class; she is right about their time left. “Play something for me?” she asks coyly then, stealing his attention and chancing a side-glance at him, smiling to herself shyly when she’s caught.

Chuckling and shaking his head, Chanyeol gives her an obligatory disapproving look, but he is already stretching and flexing his fingers in preparation; she is always an endearing little girl in his eyes and he can’t resist being swindled by her antics. Joy instantly drops her hands from the piano in anticipation, never touching the keys when Chanyeol is playing, out of respect for her teacher, even after all the years they’ve been having lessons together. There is a lapse of momentary silence in the room, before Chanyeol’s fingers take over with a spirited tune, his hands moving on their own, playing from memory one of her favorites, La Campanella; he thinks it suits her, a little sweet and very playful, an amalgamation of the little girl she were and the young lady she has grown to be. He has barely played a handful of notes, however, when a small giggle captures his attention; he turns to look at his student inquiringly, fingers never faltering.

“I meant the sax, Chanyeol” Joy says demurely, biting her lip right after, slightly bashful. Addressing him so informally is part of a discreet list of benefits, which come after years of knowing each other and having watched each other grow; another such benefit is that she sometimes gets to hear her teacher play another of his instruments, if he is feeling more generous than his professionalism usually allows. His fingers slow down, a sarcastic smirk directed at himself curling his lips as he drops Liszt’s composition entirely; he should have guessed it sooner.

“Oh, but of course” he rolls his eyes for show, but his smile ruins the acerbic effect. He should have guessed she’d want to listen to him play the sax; it’s much more popular nowadays, with jazz music playing in every joint around the corner, companies selling hundreds of records. In spite of the fashionable impression of the instrument, however, most people still prefer the piano for their children’s education, something less progressive and more prestigious. Chanyeol’s musical proficiency has been certified multiple times in multiple instruments, even long after he perfected the piano and a couple of other esteemed ones, and his skills happen to include the saxophone; for himself, he originally picked it up for its beautiful and complicated structure, enchanted by the rich, soulful notes it produces –certainly not because it happens to be involved in popular music culture. Every melody remains regardless of the instrument.

He leaves his shared seat by the piano bench with Joy’s excited claps in the background, shaking his head at her childish enthusiasm and smoothing down the wrinkles of his shirt beneath his suspenders –the day is too hot for him to keep his jacket on at all times, being cooped up in a practice room for the best part of the day with just an open window for consolation. Chanyeol doesn’t own many instruments, his salary and his cramped apartment not allowing for such luxuries, but he does own his saxophone. He carries it from home to the conservatory almost every day, in case he can steal time to practice between his classes, a silent companion in its unimpressive holder, waiting to be touched. The case is discreetly tucked in its usual corner, blending unsuspectingly with the rest of the lustrous instruments; Chanyeol kneels beside it and opens the clasps with ease. The saxophone glows in its golden brass colors as the sunlight floods its smooth curves, looking like it’s on fire, but it’s cool to the touch when Chanyeol’s fingers curl around it familiarly.

He has the instrument adjusted in his hold when he stands up again, and he turns to his audience of one with a small smile; Joy is practically thrumming with excitement in her seat. Chanyeol places his fingers on the soft pads and closes his eyes, taking a breath and exhaling the first deep note. It starts with a short improvisation, a couple of notes to warm up his fingers and adjust his breaths, and then he seamlessly transitions to Autumn leaves. The melody is smooth and warm, a preamble to the coming season of crisp leaves, soothing rains, dancing winds and intermittent sunshine. He keeps his eyes closed or lowered to his hands skipping on the instrument he is holding, feeling the time flowing under his fingers with the notes, pouring into it his every breath and being rewarded with ephemeral moments of peace; when Chanyeol plays, he can see his own colors, his hues blending so far from the sky. Still, so, so far.

Naturally, he doesn’t notice when another man slips into the practice room, stealthy as a cat, following the shadows and standing quietly in the corner while Chanyeol performs the heartwarming melody. But when the song is finished and he lowers the mouth piece from his slightly numb lips, there are two pairs of clapping hands that greet him; the overly excited, light hands of his student and a slower, sturdier pair of hands that belongs to the man, who finally steps into the light. His unexpected, unannounced appearance brings a smile to Chanyeol’s lips, but it startles his student.

“Maestro!” Joy exclaims, instantly rising from her seat to bow respectfully.

Kim Heechul, the Grand Maestro and lifelong manager of the conservatory, is a refined man whose age and experience only shows on his graying temples, the rest of his appearance seemingly remaining unchanged through the years. His features are usually arranged in a cryptic smirk, sharp eyes piercing everyone as if reading their soul, and his movements always have the fluidity and authority of a maestro, coming to sharp ends and artistic flairs, depending on his mood. The maestro follows the golden light as he comes closer to the teacher and his student in the room, his eyes shining deep brown, and he nods politely in acknowledgement to the girl, opting to stand unobtrusively by the string instruments area –he is an unparalleled master of the violin, after all, it’s as if he naturally gravitates to the strings. His musical craftsmanship takes him far beyond one instrument of course, but the violin remains his instrument of choice, regardless of his directing position in most of the concerts he participates.

“Ever the prodigy, Mr. Park” the maestro says with his usual, lopsided smirk that makes you wonder what dark secrets he’s keeping. Chanyeol accepts the compliment professionally, with a smile and a small bow before he puts away his saxophone. Heechul’s eyes refocus to the piano sharply, where Joy is still standing and fidgeting nervously, and his lips morph into a friendlier smile. “Extracurricular, I presume?” he asks with a slight bite in his voice, raising an eyebrow, much to her fluster; he can seem very intimidating to students, his demeanor and his experience placing him on a pedestal, and Joy is no exception. She stares at him, speechless, meek and embarrassed, at a loss for a proper answer; Chanyeol knows the feeling firsthand, since his own days as a student.

“We finished early today” he quips, disrupting the awkward staring completion between the other two people in the room as politely as possible, saving the poor girl from the inquiring gaze of the maestro. “Our Joy is making great progress” he adds praise for his student with a smile, hoping that his approval will make up for the maestro’s teasing. Heechul turns to Chanyeol with a mischievous glint in his eye; it only confirms Chanyeol’s suspicions that the maestro enjoys teasing the students with his authority from time to time, finding their fluster quite entertaining. Chanyeol prefers being more gentle, even though, in practice, it doesn’t make any great difference in their students’ eyes, who mostly consider him as successful and unapproachable as the maestro. Heechul hums approvingly in response to Chanyeol’s words, but the girl flinches slightly at the sound of her name from her teacher’s lips, and she blinks away her daze, her cheeks coloring bright pink.

“I should get going now, my mother is expecting me for dinner” she excuses herself from class, scampering to gather her music notes from earlier and holding them to her chest. She regains her graceful posture under the watchful gaze of the maestro and fixes her hair a bit, before nervously facing her teacher. “Thank you, Mr. Park; Maestro” she bows to both men accordingly, her manners impeccable. The maestro doesn’t bother straightening his fluid posture by the cello, nodding once to dismiss her in all his authority.

“See you on Friday, Joy” Chanyeol calls after her with a friendly smile, admittedly feeling slightly entertained too, as she makes her hasty escape, small heels tapping against the wooden floor. He doesn’t miss how she drops her head even lower and squeaks in response, her face glowing crimson. Sometimes, it feels like not a day has passed since she were little.

“Oh dear, add another one to the list” Heechul sighs dramatically once the girl is gone, asking for Chanyeol’s attention.

“What list?” he asks curiously, dropping the formal pretences and approaching the piano, as the maestro slips into a seat by the bench. In spite of the age gap between them, after having worked together for nearly a decade, seeing each other almost every day, their mutual respect has turned into a comfortable friendship, and they are more informal when in private, unobstructed by the prying eyes of their students. The slight hum of city life unraveling below is slipping in through the window now that the music has stopped, steps and mumbles of people returning home from work climbing the walls of the conservatory and mingling with stray notes from neighboring practice rooms, a discordant soundtrack that both men are accustomed to on such summer evenings.

“The endless list of students who have a crush on you” Heechul deadpans to answer his question, looking unimpressed, causing an unintentional, short-lived chuckle to burst out of Chanyeol’s lips, half in awkwardness and half in amusement. Ah, that silly list. “Don’t you laugh, Chanyeol; all your students and more than half of everyone else’s have a crush on you!” the maestro bristles, wagging a reprimanding and imperative finger at him, but his lips stretch into a wide smile, giving away his own jauntiness. “It’s the sax that seduces them beyond their wits, I bet it is; you should see how they swarm the hallway and swoon behind the door whenever you’re playing” the maestro rolls his eyes in mock exasperation.

And oh, Chanyeol knows –of course he knows. It’s hard to miss a dozen pairs of intrigued, awed eyes gathering outside the door of his practice room every day, trying to catch a glimpse through the door without being seen, girls and boys alike. It’s hard to miss the bubbly, infatuated giggles, which are never discreet enough, whenever he politely greets students in the hallways. Even his own students, even little Joy, trying to be coy, getting flustered, staring at him with dreamy eyes when she thinks he is not looking; those are things Chanyeol chooses to ignore, as long as they don’t interfere with his work and his good relationship with his students. It’s somewhat natural for aspiring musicians to be drawn to more experienced masters, much like Chanyeol was awed by Heechul at first, and, being younger and less intimidating than the maestro and the majority of the other teachers at the conservatory, the students tend to romanticize his figure. In truth, he is a clumsy, slightly awkward, unusually tall music teacher; there is nothing particularly flattering or romantic about that.

“They’ll find something new to fuss about soon enough” he dismisses with a vague gesture, unaffected by the news; there are always new developments in his students’ posh family gossip that they usually opt to chatter about, surely a fleeting infatuation will be forgotten in no time. Heechul appraises him from head to toe, rubbing his chin pensively, eyes full of thoughts; the scrutiny would have felt uncomfortable, if Chanyeol weren’t used to it, but the maestro forgets to be subtle more often than not.

“Hmm, maybe” Heechul hums noncommittally, but it’s not convincing to Chanyeol’s ears, who knows him well enough to be able to see that the maestro is still thinking of something deeply. Chanyeol has to be patient only for a moment longer till the maestro reveals his thoughts further. “Say, Chanyeol, you don’t have many students for the saxophone, do you?” he asks offhandedly, and Chanyeol tilts his head in bewilderment, frowning at the unexpected question. Most of his students are in the conservatory, there are very few he teaches in private nowadays, and all of them are for the piano, young ladies on an education and boys who are just starting in music –and Heechul is very well aware of that already. Seeing his confusion at the sudden turn in the conversation, the maestro resumes in a more official fashion. “Would you be interested in playing for a band?” he proposes grandly, voice imposing.

Chanyeol is not impressed, however, and he purses his lips for a moment, eyes narrowing in suspicion; he has heard that one before. “If this is about the Philharmonic-”

“No, it’s not about a concert, I promise” the maestro is quick to assure him, shaking his head adamantly, like the philharmonic is the last thing on his mind at the moment –in spite of it being at the forefront of the maestro’s thoughts and priorities on any other occasion. It wouldn’t be his first time trying to set Chanyeol up with the orchestra, trying to involve him in elitist music and pompous events, because, according to the maestro, his talent is wasted as a teacher. Chanyeol begs to differ, and that would have been a conversation he’d be prepared for, but it’s bizarre that the maestro doesn’t even care to involve the orchestra this time.

“Oh?” he frowns slightly in puzzlement, leaning his hip against the side of the grand piano; the maestro licks his lips and scoots forward slightly, speaking low, tone serious.

“I have a friend who owns a joint downtown; it’s a decent place, no shady business” he adds early on, to reassure Chanyeol about the genuine intensions of his proposition. No matter, Chanyeol is already a little skeptic, but he lets the maestro continue out of curiosity; the maestro’s life outside of the conservatory is widely considered a mystery –most people rightfully assume that the man is too immersed in music to have a life outside of it in the first place, so this alleged acquaintance of his seems intriguing. “We talked a few days ago, and it happens that his quartet is one man short these days. I’ve heard them play, they are good musicians” the maestro continues “I wouldn’t suggest this if they were any lesser men. And the club is nice, fancy even. They might require your presence a few nights a week, and you will be rewarded handsomely, of course. So, I could ring my friend, if you’re interested” he finishes with a casual shrug of his shoulders, his sharp eyes looking up at Chanyeol expectantly, not hiding any secrets this time.

The taller gazes down at the maestro contemplatively, biting his lip, feeling torn by the proposition. He thinks he could handle a night job without great strain on his schedule, and the financial boost would be a convenient reprieve after his grandfather’s surgery last spring, but working at a night club

“I’m not sure, Heechul; I’ve heard many unflattering tales…” he trails off, certain that the maestro has heard them too, and they need not be explained. In recent years, nightly entertainment establishments have often been linked to underground clubs, the mafia, gambling, and all sorts of illegal activities that don’t need musical entertainment but require it anyway. The decadence is tolerable to a degree, no society is without imperfections, but it usually remains a passive newspaper font in the background of one’s life, hardly ever stumbling upon law abiding citizens like Chanyeol; it seems imprudent, if not outright foolish, to willingly walk into the wolves’ den. Club musicians are not untouchable; they can, and they have been involved in transactions they shouldn’t be part of, and all sorts of horror stories have remained of them. But Heechul shakes his head resolutely in denial.

“He’s not that kind of person, trust me” the older man says earnestly, his graying temples hinting at his wisdom in life, and Chanyeol is tempted to believe him; he wants to consider the proposition, despite everything that warns him to refuse right away. More than the inconsequential promise of money, or the enticing opportunity to play his saxophone for an audience more than just himself, it’s his unwise, naïve curiosity that lurches in his gut and itches for him to find out what would happen, tempting his desire to experience, to feel the intoxicating thrill of life. Chanyeol’s spirit is always uneasy, daydreaming, escaping, wanting; it is a whisper upon his consciousness which he has learnt to ignore, afraid of its reckless potential, but this unexpected proposition is already starting to tease his imagination.

“Are you sure I’m the right person for the job?” he asks doubtfully, his concerns expanding disproportionately in mere seconds –because, as absurd as it might be, he is reasonably considering the offer besides just vain fantasies, and this issue is just as important. “Musical skills aside, I’m not exactly what you’d call a proficient showman, or a natural charmer” he gestures at himself awkwardly to prove his point, all his one hundred and eighty-few centimeters standing without a hint of poise by the piano. Club musicians are elegant creatures of the night, men that overflow with charisma and ladies who sing as beautifully as they smile; Chanyeol has been told he is easy on the eyes, sure, but to play onstage one needs to be captivating, charming, capable of carrying a decent conversation with their audience, at least. Chanyeol is gangly, unimpressive; a good teacher, perhaps, and a great musician, but that is all. Heechul raises an eyebrow in defiance.

“You sweep people off their feet with your sax all the time; it’s not that different if you get paid for it too, is it?!” he retorts, throwing his hands in the air exasperatedly in a move that oddly reminds of him on a pedestal, leading the orchestra to a crescendo, as if his hands are ordering Chanyeol to just do it. The analogy lightens Chanyeol’s mood and brings a faint smile onto his lips, idly wondering if such a choice could be as easy. Seeing the shift in his expression, Heechul deflates and slumps into his seat, the tension evaporating and leaving him looking uncharacteristically transparent for once. “The owner is an honest and kind man; I’ve known him personally for years. He protects his staff, and he’ll treat you well if you take the position” he reassures, but he seems to acknowledge the fact that Chanyeol will need to mule over his dilemma more thoroughly before taking the plunge; it was all very sudden, after all, so Chanyeol doubts he’d have to answer right away. “And you can always audition for the part, try it out on a few nights and see how it goes” the maestro suggests casually, drumming his fingers against the bench.

“Just who is this man?” Chanyeol retorts curiously, noticing that the maestro seems very keen on him accepting the position, to provide this highly esteemed, nocturnal businessman with the best saxophonist he knows. Chanyeol’s eyes narrow in suspicion and his curiosity flares in a more conversational aspect, but, as if sensing the impending onslaught of questions, the maestro clears his throat and stands up, swiftly smoothing down his dark clothes.

“Well, you’ll have to find out. Now, I’m late for my next class, so I have to leave you, but let me know when you decide, okay?” he chirps his last words with a smile, vaguely dismissing Chanyeol’s question; this is clearly the end of their conversation, as it is to be expected during their work hours, but, as the maestro strolls to the door, his gait slightly more urgent than usual to exit the practice room, he flashes Chanyeol one last, hardly reassuring smile, that has the taller teacher stumped in curiosity and bewilderment. Chanyeol can’t say this sort of behavior is out of character; the maestro is a man who thrives in the mystery he surrounds himself with, and he is not shy of blatantly choosing ambiguity, even amongst his friends, not always keeping the graceful pretences he saves for the rest of the public. After all, what would a maestro be, without a few idiosyncrasies?

Chanyeol is thus left with his questions and his gnawing curiosity, whispers of accepting and dismissing the proposition mingling in his head. He exhales slowly once he’s left alone, his thoughts a tangled mess, and he glances at his pocket watch, seeing he has about an hour until his next class. He sometimes uses this otherwise inconvenient free period on his schedule to take a walk in the nearby park and stretch his legs, mingle in the throes of pulsing city life and perhaps grab some dinner, but he doesn’t feel like it today. His mind is too restless to leave the comforting embrace of music, so he decides to stay in his practice room, closing the door for privacy and positioning himself by the open window, seeking some fresh air.

The sky is glowing pink and lilac now, the light washing over the bustling city more softly. He leans against the frame, resting his head against the wood and pushing all troubling thoughts out of his head with some effort, clearing the canvas and splattering notes against it to soothe himself. It works for a while, but despite the rejuvenating breeze tangling in his hair, he senses the haunting feeling of staleness creeping up his spine, alongside the summer heat.

His life has been mostly smooth; a peaceful childhood in the countryside, building up to years of hard work in school, transitioning to hard work in musical scholarships, then leading to a stable adult life and a respectable job in the city –and he is honestly grateful for his good fortune in life, allowing him to follow his path relatively painlessly. He doesn’t have the explosive or melancholic temperament of other musicians, adjusting to changes easily, committing to his passions unperturbed. His hands were small when melodies first staked their claim on them, and after nearly twenty years, music is natural to him, like breathing. Songbird his grandfather used to call him affectionately when he was little, but only now does Chanyeol realize how crippled he has been rendered in his years of safekeeping in a music room, his fear of choices greeting him on the precipice. He has forgotten how to fly, even as the sky is calling for him, and he is terribly tired of this solitary, cold cage.

With a heavy sigh, Chanyeol closes his eyes against the fading patterns of light in the sky; he wishes he could stretch his wings and dive into the night.

~* 2 *~

Walking down the busy city streets, shoes are noisy against the stones, shiny car wheels slowly rolling by with a groan, coats and hats flooding the sides, voices and rustling creating a rambunctious cloud of life that tumbles down every corner and rises above the pedestrians. There are splashes of color everywhere, decorated shop fronts, warm scarves and coats whirling against the gray undertones of the cityscape; the afternoon is colder than usual, the weather jumping into autumn too aggressively in just a few days, and even though the sun is shining high in the sky, the slight wind sneaking through the city is nippy and humid on the skin. The unlit lamp posts of metal painted black are rooted against the stream of people, flowing around and circling them with purpose, stumbling sometimes, accepting a helping hand and moving on. In the midst of people, save for his plain instrument case, Chanyeol looks like just another man, with just another job, on just another day.

Today is not just another day, however; it’s a tentative new beginning, an introduction to a world completely different from everything Chanyeol has ever known. For the past week that seemed like an eternity, haunting doubts, numbing fear and crippled confidence had been battling with a sense of obligation and the burning desire to experience the tingle of life under his skin, the siren song of something new; today, this losing battle he’d been fighting with himself is finally reaching the turning point of a choice. Chanyeol knows his cage is small and barren, he knows the overwhelmingly narrow, self-imposed confines of his own life, but today he is breaking free; it’s an intimidating opportunity, but he’d like to consider himself smart enough to avoid any unfortunate situations he might stumble upon, regardless of the maestro’s abundant reassurance that there won’t be need for such provision. He is not entirely sure he’s ready to embrace the fractal of the city that wakes after sunset, but he is determined to see this through, he promised himself as much when he asked the maestro to book a first meeting for him.

His steps lead him steadily towards his destination, the short address written down on the lines of an unscripted music parchment, in the maestro’s cursive handwriting. Following the instructions and trying to keep himself committed to his decision as his thoughts struggle and strain rebelliously against him, Chanyeol turns into a wide street and has to adjust the black lapels of his coat momentarily, the wind pinching his cheeks. His steps halt for a few moments, instinctively waiting for a chance to be herded into pedestrian traffic; he has been in this area downtown before, but always passing in haste, never really having any business here.

The street is long and lively, lined by tall, impressive buildings, with narrow windows and spacious shops on their ground floors, a picturesquely urban neighborhood, without the stifling glumness of other city centre locations. The people ambling about are well-dressed, top hats and canes escorting pretty dresses in dainty gloves. The cars passing by are polished and colorful, long, with round wheels, indifferent to foot traffic and concerns outside of their steel frames. The road and sidewalks are well tended and clean, every corner so proper that Chanyeol almost doubts he has the right address, rereading the note in his hand for good measure.

He had pictured a more shady and concealed location for a night club; perhaps something in the side streets of the avenue, where the walls of the surrounding buildings are so tall that they look like they’ll collapse against each other any second, with mossy stones, echoing squeaks and scraped off posters. And yet, he can see his destination right across the street, with only a gloomy, narrow alley separating it from the lively bakery next door, nothing to suggest it looks out of place. The wall of stone is mostly hidden behind the greening vines of a myrtle, an airy white curtain is flaring in the wind through the open window on the first floor, harmless and charming; there is an arched door which looks heavy as it is tight shut, and a sign of dark wood is hinged on the black ironwork above it. The Black Pearl is engraved artfully on the sign, bathing in the afternoon sunlight without a hint of remorse.

Chanyeol allows himself a moment of hesitation as he stares across the street, uncertainty twisting into a knot in his stomach. For the briefest of seconds in time, his thoughts seem as chaotic as they were on the very first day he heard of the maestro’s proposal, but the weight of his saxophone in his hand grounds him to reality, reminding him of his commitment to a decision he hasn’t made lightly, and he shakes off the feeling of unease, forcing down the lump in his throat, even if it makes him feel a little sick. Without noticing, Chanyeol realizes he has already crossed the street in a dizzying push of adrenaline, lost in his over-thinking daze, and he is now standing in front of the arched door of the club, other pedestrians not even batting an eyelash at his presence. A small cat sashays lazily into the alley a few meters away from him with comfortable, unperturbed simplicity, such a simple part of life, just a step.

The door opens with a bit of effort under his hand, hinges creaking slightly, and Chanyeol finds himself surrounded instantly by pleasant warmth, almost palpable against his skin. There is no window to allow natural sunlight inside, but the room is full of light nonetheless, elegant appliqués hanging on the red-tiled walls, casting a cream golden glow all around. A rural painting decorates the far right side, deep greens obscuring the signature. The room is not impressively large but it is commodious, considering the sole piece of furniture it contains is a vintage, prestigious desk on the left; there is also a pair of double doors on the wall across the entrance, and a curtained-off section behind the desk. It might look more lively with patrons filling the spaces, but Chanyeol has to admit it already has a warm, hospitable quality by itself. It’s very unlike what he had imagined, not in the least intimidating or foul, and it makes him feel a little lost.

“Good evening, sir!” a male voice greets him cheerfully as soon as he’s properly through the door, the heavy material slowly swinging shut on its own. Chanyeol turns to the left with a startle, the man the voice belongs to emerging from behind the curtain, dressed in a dark suit that matches the near black color of his hair. In spite of being shorter than Chanyeol, the man looks admittedly daunting, visibly strong and muscular with a stern face to match, but his expression is polite and calm, welcoming. Chanyeol nods graciously in acknowledgement, his heart still beating oddly in his chest due to the man’s unexpected appearance in the room. Said man leans forward over his desk, the gesture accommodating. “I’m afraid we’re not open yet, may I help you?”

“I’m here to see Mr. Byun Baekhyun” Chanyeol inquires politely, taking a step closer to the man. He memorized the name from the maestro’s note and he hopes he’s not mispronouncing it; it feels awkward to call a stranger’s name to an equal stranger, but he keeps his composed appearance, trying to look more confident than that. Still, he is inwardly too nervous to miss the quick glance the man casts down his body, discreetly appraising him; Chanyeol feels slightly underdressed in his gray suit and coat, colorless and plain as expected of a music teacher, but the man doesn’t seem the least concerned over his dressing style. As soon as his gaze lands on the instrument case, a flash of recognition glints in his eyes and a genuine smile starts curling onto his lips, his initial reluctance turning into excitement.

“Oh, you’re the musician the maestro sends! The boss is expecting you!” he chirps with a bright grin, which crinkles his eyes and transforms his face into an innocently jovial beam. Chanyeol lets out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding at the reassurance of his timely and expected arrival, and a small smile of relief appears on his lips, his stomach unclenching at last. “I’m Ravi, I work the entrance. Let me take your coat” the man offers politely, walking around his desk to approach Chanyeol with practiced grace; the taller surrenders his coat and hat willingly, expressing his gratefulness and shaking hands with the man. “The boss should be on the ground floor around this time of day, otherwise he’ll be in his office upstairs. Just look for the most handsome man in the room” Ravi advises, winking at him conspiratorially; the playful gesture confuses Chanyeol a bit, being unaccustomed to such candidness, especially from practical strangers, but he appreciates the guidance, however inconclusive.

With his case in hand, he follows Ravi to the double doors, which the man opens wide for Chanyeol’s convenience, ushering him inside the main hall of the club; Chanyeol’s coat is still neatly folded over his arm, and there is an eager, excited smile on his lips, so unexpectedly warm that Chanyeol feels more tempted than ever to believe in Heechul’s reassuring words. Surmises by frightening, harsh depictions of nightclub goons and heathens now seem inconsequential; everything is so different from what he had expected, but that can only be a good thing in this case, even if it leaves him feeling disoriented.

The space Chanyeol enters is neither particularly deserted nor quiet, as he had always imagined clubs to be before starting business for the night. People are scattered in the room, tending to their various tasks peacefully; a lady is dusting the seats on the right, a man is reading a book in the far right corner by the stage, a few people are setting the tables chatting animatedly, and others are restocking the bar. Chanyeol is awed by how normal they look; quiet, ordinary people one crosses on the street every day, not hardened, cruel outlaws, or ethereal creatures of the night. The space is also nothing like the underground, muggy and dirty clubs Chanyeol has ever heard of. The main hall is wide and spacious, with tables arranged across the room, some tucked behind a pair of columns on the right, others sitting primly in the middle. The lights cast a warm, ambient glow in the room, making it look cozy and luxurious, two elaborate chandeliers hanging decoratively from the ceiling. The chairs have seats of velvet, each table decorated with a bouquet of camellias, their sweet scent chasing away any lingering hints of smoke.

There is a modest stage right across from the entrance, not as large and high as theatre stages but neat and approachable, with a black grand piano on the right and a drum set on the left, both polished and glinting imposingly in the separate lights that beam onstage. A small section of the floor right in front of it is cleared of tables, serving as a dance floor, but also allowing a better view of the performers. And of course, the bar occupies nearly half the left wall, made exclusively of carved wood and glass, setting the mood for the entire room. The burgundy tint of the smooth wood looks almost fluid, as all the parts have been crafted, aged and embellished so masterfully, dark bottles of liquor and crystal glasses sparkling, making the place look stylish and dainty. There are stools with leather seats surrounding the wooden counter, small spotlights illuminating the surface, just enough not to overwhelm the mellow tones of the overall ambience.

Chanyeol is not sure for how long he remains in his entranced stupor, but he snaps out of his observation when a pair of servers pass him by, jointly carrying a box that clinks distinctively as it is jostled with every step, containing bottles. He watches them head to the bar, only belatedly remembering the reason he is standing by the door, idle and lost; his impressed eyes are making him feel even more out of place with every passing second, time now starkly clear to his awareness. He bites his lip, wondering who would be less disturbed if he approached them to ask for the person he is looking for, the most beautiful person in the room unsurprisingly turning out to be inadequately indicative.

“Can I help you?” the next server passing by takes pity on Chanyeol and stops on his course, tucking an empty tray under his arm to focus solely on the visitor. He is wearing the standard server uniform, black slacks and a white shirt, with a black tie peeking over the rim of the black apron, which cinches around his waist; his hair is nicely combed and his shoes polished, all the staff bearing a distinctly tidy and tended appearance.

“Yes please, I’m looking for Byun Baekhyun?” Chanyeol trails off, a bit flabbergasted when the man smiles at him warmly, a pair of dimples denting his smooth cheeks, his eyes curving appealingly; the smile is genuine, youthful and carefree, but Chanyeol is not used to such pretty people smiling at him.

“Oh, he is right over there” the young man points subtly at one of the occupied tables, just off the centre of the room; Chanyeol thanks the server for his help and the latter leaves with a small bow, just when the other servers call for him from the bar.

There are two men at the table he’s been directed to, but at least now Chanyeol’s options are significantly narrowed down in an entire room of strangers. One of the men is blond, lounging on one of the chairs, legs extended in front of him comfortably and crossed at the ankles, and the other man is perched on the table casually, legs crossed elegantly as he carries a conversation between the two of them in a composed manner; they both look unintimidating and approachable enough, so Chanyeol takes a breath to fortify himself and steps forward, trying to build his confidence with every step he takes. His curiosity is enough to distract him from his disgracefully shaking knees, as his eyes observe the men more closely; they both look far too young to be Heechul’s friends, but then again, so is Chanyeol.

The men look comfortable with each other, their aura confident and arresting in the room. The blond one is skinny, wearing black pants and only a white button down, his tie missing; his appearance is messier than the rest of the staff, but decidedly far from unappealing. His hair looks the color of sand, dark eyes ending in sharp edges and long lashes, but his lips are the most alluring, curling at the corners when he talks or smiles. The other man, however, is so stunningly beautiful that Chanyeol’s heart does a strange hiccup in his chest when he notices him more closely. He is wearing gray pleated pants and a matching vest, the herringbone fabric looking expensive over the pressed white shirt, wrapping around his body in the way only tailored and slightly silken suits might. His tie is black silk, his shoes made of quality leather; everything about him looks expensive and refined. His hair shimmers like satin strands of brick brown, warm and slightly fiery with hints of red, contrasting his hazel eyes, sloped downwards at the corners. His skin looks soft, spotless, a perfect canvas for his pouty lips. Chanyeol doesn’t think he has ever seen a creature so exquisitely empyrean before, shimmering like an idle flame yet blazing like a wildfire.

“You look lost, sugar” the blond man with sharp eyes croons into the conversation, and suddenly, both men are looking at Chanyeol with an amused glint in their eyes. Chanyeol’s eyes widen in fluster realizing the compromising situation, the remark surely having been directed at him; he didn’t think he’d be noticed, watching unobtrusively and keeping his distance, but perhaps he underestimated his towering height. And as if staring at two beautiful strangers wasn’t embarrassing enough, Chanyeol fails to find proper words to answer in good time, the silence short but stretching a beat too far for his anxious preference. Meanwhile, the blond man flashes a knowing smirk and proceeds to bite his lip, checking him out from head to toe unabashedly. “Can I take you home?” he concludes in a low, sultry tone, at the sound of which Chanyeol gapes cluelessly, this sort of forwardness being entirely foreign to him, momentarily ruining his composure.

“I don’t think he is lost at all, isn’t that so, bunny?” the beautiful man retorts to his rescue, voice husky and more acquiescent, despite the startling term of endearment. When Chanyeol’s gaze locks with the man’s droopy eyes, soft but twinkling mischievously, pink lips curved in a lopsided smile, Chanyeol can feel his heart stammering in his chest alarmingly; he can’t even remember the last time his heart had this reaction to someone, so sudden and thrilling –but this is hardly the time and place for such excitement. He takes a deep breath and tries not to frown openly as he disciplines himself, forcing his uneasy spirit to quiet down and somewhat regaining his self-control.

“I didn’t mean to intrude, I’m sorry” he manages to apologize earnestly, hoping he hasn’t offended anyone over the short span of his presence in the room. The man in gray smiles faintly, lips twitching in amusement and eyes widening indecipherably for a moment at the sound of Chanyeol’s always unexpectedly deep voice, before they curve benevolently from his smiling cheeks. It is almost overwhelming once more, and Chanyeol has to glance down at his shoes momentarily, chasing down that thought that keeps escaping him –until he finally remembers. “I’m looking for Mr. Byun Baekhyun?” he queries, bracing himself before lifting his gaze; he has a proper introduction and an entire conversation to go through, and to that end he needs to ignore the unanticipated, unsettling signals of his body.

“That would be me” the well dressed man confirms, his crossed legs swinging slightly as he leans forward, clutching the edge of the table with pretty hands on either side. The shadows shift on his face, eyes darkening in an alluring way, but his small grin remains intact, albeit a little illusive. “But I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure, Mr…?” he trails off, the cadence of his voice making Chanyeol’s stomach squirm; there is something in the way he talks, his words creating music note after note, that is entirely captivating, such a rare and distinct occasion to a musician’s ear, and Chanyeol has to refrain from being enchanted by it –strictly from an artist’s point of view, he lies to himself.

“Park Chanyeol” he introduces himself confidently, in the dignified, sharp yet calm manner all musicians do. “The maestro sends me” he adds, in case his occupation is more indicative of his presence than his name; he doesn’t know what the maestro has conveyed about him, but it seems he has been expected in some way, judging by the flash of recognition on both men’s faces and their lips mirroring each other in a welcoming grin, as polite and bright as the rest of the staff has been.

“Ohhh the sax cat” the blond man exclaims right away, clapping his hands once and finally noticing the instrument case Chanyeol has been carrying all along, his gaze lowering down the taller’s body with poorly concealed appreciation, making Chanyeol swallow self-consciously. “The maestro didn’t mention you’re such a looker” he adds with a haughty wink, as if testing Chanyeol’s limits, and the taller presses his lips in a tight line, trying to will down the blush that threatens to surface on his cheeks; he had expected more liberate morals but not such forwardness. Byun Baekhyun purposefully kicks the blond man lightly with the next swing of his legs, making him jump in his seat a little and whine loudly in a high-pitched voice.

“Stop flirting, Jongdae, Mr. Park is here for serious employment” he chastises gently, but the warning is clear in his light, playful voice. The blond man raises both hands in surrender at the strict look he receives for making guests uncomfortable.

“I get it, I get it” he mumbles, surrendering effortlessly, even though he generally seems rebellious enough. He then turns to Chanyeol, eyebrows slanted pitifully over his eyes, like a deeply reflecting person. “Sorry, dove, it’s not personal” he apologizes, and even though Chanyeol is not quite sure what that means, he accepts the apology with a small nod; the man never seemed to have ill intensions, just an affinity for teasing a flustered, unversed musician –it wouldn’t be the first time Chanyeol has found himself in that position. When the blond man rises to his feet, too soon for comfort, Chanyeol tenses slightly, but said man only stretches his arms harmlessly with a lazy grunt before offering a handshake; his boss wrinkles his button nose in distaste at the display of lacking manners, but he is ignored. “I’m Jongdae, bar and floor manager” the man introduces himself with a winning smile, so charismatic that it convinces Chanyeol to take a step closer and shake hands with him amicably. He is significantly shorter than Chanyeol and his grip is strong, heartfelt.

“Nice to meet you” he dares a tentative smile, Jongdae’s lips curling wide, catlike and charming in response.

“Well, you already know my name; I’m Byun Baekhyun, owner of this fine establishment” the man on the table adds his own full introduction, not to be left out, one elegant hand gesturing around vaguely, indicating at the club with a flair of his wrist.

And only after he says it so directly does Chanyeol finally notice how astoundingly Byun Baekhyun has defied his expectations, much like everything else this evening, if not even more so. He looks too young, too soft, too innocent to be the owner of such a large nightclub with so many people underfoot; a successful businessman in the perilous, treacherous night scene, who looks nothing like the villains that lurk in corners, underground clubs and urban tales, but still looks a little mysterious in his own way, his eyes glinting as if they know your secrets before you can keep them. Chanyeol secretly finds this misleading riddle that the man is, unusual and intimidating –and very enticing.

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance” Chanyeol bows his head formally, voice polite and respectful, as he has always been taught while dealing with figures of authority. But when he straightens to his full height again, Baekhyun looks somewhat stupefied, eyes a little round like he’s been caught off-guard, and Jongdae whistles low in amazement, eyes equally wide and trained on Chanyeol; it’s a bit confusing, verging on embarrassing, and Chanyeol stands there awkwardly, his eyes bouncing worriedly between the two men. He thought he’s the most transparent, harmless person in this establishment, whatever did he do out of character to provoke such a reaction?

“Pleasure’s all mine, Mr. Park” Baekhyun finally puts an end to his bewildered fluster, his smile stretching a bit wider, boxier than before, eyes curving into moon-like crescents. Chanyeol has never seen the world spin slower as he looks on, dazed and awed; he has never met a person more attractive in his life, and he barely knows the man. Oh dear. Distracting himself from such unnecessary thoughts as swiftly as possible, Chanyeol starts counting beats in his head, following a random melody he’s not sure he’s heard before, loud and fast, to keep him conscious of his surroundings. “Now please, tell us…do you like cats?” Baekhyun asks out of the blue then, effectively throwing Chanyeol off of his contemplative balance and making him crash-land into reality again.

“Excuse me?” he asks, unsure he heard the question correctly.

“Cats” Baekhyun repeats “Soft, fluffy bundles that meow and purr?” he elaborates, starting to swing his legs again, not exactly childish neither exactly seductive, inadvertently showcasing his nice calves and dainty ankles.

“I…I do like them” Chanyeol answers cautiously, failing to see how his employment could be related to his preference in pets “but I’m afraid I don’t see how that is relevant” he admits honestly, his eyebrows curling in bewilderment, hand clutching his sax case nervously.

“That was meant for me, darling –it’s about our previous conversation” Jongdae lets Chanyeol off the hook, comfortably squeezing him on the shoulder to reassure him that he is not in trouble, and rolling his eyes obnoxiously at Baekhyun who beams victoriously, with all the mighty righteousness of a five-year-old. Jongdae counters with a harmless snarl, and even though Chanyeol finds himself caught up in an exchange he doesn’t quite understand, he doesn’t think he minds either; he could cautiously say it’s somewhat entertaining, in fact. “You can keep your silly strays for now, Baekhyun, but I ain’t bringin’ any of them inside, and I’ll street them if you do” Jongdae warns, wagging a disrespectful finger at his boss, but the latter is not dismayed, smirking preeminently at the blond man and his terms.

“Can I have a private moment with Mr. Park now?” Baekhyun changes the subject, a certain intent lurking in his voice which slightly changes his demeanor to a more serious one.

“Sure” Jongdae shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly, probably having expected this, dropping his hand from Chanyeol’s suit and making to step further away. “Would you like me to bring you anything from the bar, sugar?” he turns to the taller before departing, with the relaxed confidence of the resident bartender.

“No, I’m quite well, thank you” Chanyeol declines politely; he doesn’t really like alcohol and alcohol usually doesn’t like him either, so he’d prefer to avoid it if he’s not offending anyone offering, especially when he is about to sit down and have a talk with his potential future employer. There are many musicians seeking their muse in spirits, but Chanyeol performs better with a lucid mind and, considering he is not a particularly charming performer, he should at least try to be a good one. Jongdae hums noncommittally and leaves in wide strides, shoving his hands in his pockets casually as he heads for the bar.

“Please, have a seat, Mr. Park” Baekhyun’s voice captures Chanyeol’s attention wholly once again, and he turns just in time to see the man slithering down from his perch, graceful as a feline. He is shorter than Chanyeol, perhaps half a head or a bit more, and his body has a lithe shape, with broad, sturdy shoulders. Chanyeol walks to the chair Jongdae had been occupying previously, but he waits for Baekhyun to sit down across from him first before taking a seat. Baekhyun laces his pretty fingers on top of the table professionally, silver cufflinks glinting in the light; he looks ten times more attractive when doing ordinary things, elegant in his heedlessness, if that’s humanly possible. It causes a funny, ambiguous feeling inside Chanyeol, like he doesn’t know what he is stepping into, but he tries to keep up and stay afloat. “I trust the maestro has relayed to you the details of the proffered position?” the man begins, adding to his words a smile so charming, even if it’s just a civil courtesy.

“Indeed, he has” Chanyeol doesn’t miss a beat to answer, pinning his hands between his knees to prevent himself from fidgeting unbecomingly the rest of the conversation. He already knows the alluded details; this meeting is a nonessential formality, arranged mostly to appease Chanyeol’s hesitant conscience and lingering doubts. The maestro proposed this first meeting to ease Chanyeol’s way into the nightclub, but not before he divulged more details about the club’s predicament to persuade him; he has explained about the previous trumpeter deciding to pursue a proper musical education and leaving the quartet short of one instrument, which is the position Chanyeol is here to fill.

“To be completely honest with you, the maestro has told me quite a bit about you too” Baekhyun’s words are uncharacteristically forthright, despite it being a delicate matter, adding a touch of relentless honesty to the amalgamation of mystery and playfulness the man also possesses; quite a complicated man, Chanyeol feels the intrigued whisper in his veins. The smile fleetingly twitches on Baekhyun’s lips, a mystery by itself that Chanyeol has no hope to decipher, but then he collectedly proceeds with their interview. “He tells me you’re a very talented musician, a prodigy. I have to admit, I expected someone older, based on your accomplishments, but you still fit into our demographic just fine. Have you ever played in a band before?”

The question is harmless and benevolent after the praise, predictable enough, but the smile freezes a little on Chanyeol’s lips nonetheless; he’d been hoping he wouldn’t have to deal with that right away, even though the alternative of introducing his accomplishments would have been no less stressful. With his instrument case neatly tucked beside his chair, Chanyeol only has his own fingers to clutch onto nervously, his gaze lowering to the polished table; he told Heechul, of course this would come up. “I have participated in many concerts, but I’ve never been on such a stage” he admits, trying to phrase it neutrally and keep his voice steady, although he might still sound a little insecure of his shortcomings –despite his many talents– to a more experienced ear.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Park” Baekhyun reassures him as if he can see right through him “you come with stellar recommendations; I’d be a fool to dismiss you because of lack of specific previous experience” His smooth voice rings with the unconditional, sincere encouragement that is usually reserved for people of fondness, far from recently acquainted strangers, and Chanyeol lifts his eyes perplexed, trying to figure out the gleam in the man’s insightful eyes across from him; but Baekhyun sends him a smile just then, a small and distractingly attractive one, ruining Chanyeol’s best efforts. “Now, I advised the maestro to be thorough in the explanation of the schedule requirements, but one can never be sure with him, so I’m afraid I have to ask you personally as well; do you think you can join us as often as we’ll need you?”

Chanyeol composes himself, his fingers finally tangling and staying still in his lap. “I have reviewed my personal schedule, and I don’t think there will be a problem” the musician answers straightforwardly. Baekhyun raises a brow in mild surprise at the confidence in Chanyeol’s swift response; the uneventful life of a teacher is probably something foreign to him, causing confusion, but, just as Chanyeol had originally guessed, his teaching schedule doesn’t require any of his time after the conservatory’s closing hour, similarly for his private classes, and he usually spends his nights at home, so working after hours shouldn’t make any great difference. “I don’t usually have pressing matters to attend to” he admits quietly, to amend any disbelief on Baekhyun’s part, his hands now clasped so tightly that the knuckles have turned white; he is not used to discussing so many vulnerable topics of himself in such quick succession, and he wishes something, anything, would imminently save him from the unavoidable awkwardness.

“You are blessed with a peaceful life, it seems” Baekhyun hums, voice gentle again, as if he understands his uneasy state, even though it’s beyond Chanyeol how he could have guessed this time, the only sign of discomfort being his hidden hands. “Even so” Baekhyun continues conversationally once he knows he has Chanyeol’s full attention, composed and calm “I’m not planning on exhausting you. You’ll have to take at least two nights a week off, maybe three –if you’re still interested in the position, of course” he adds a playful lilt to his voice in the end, so perfectly placed that Chanyeol’s lips naturally curve into a small grin, the tension in his body thawing. Baekhyun reciprocates the smile openly, letting a few moments escape in comfortable silence, but then his eyes glint with interest, as if catching a reflection from his cufflinks. “We’ve never had a saxophone player before; do you think you could play something for us?”

Chanyeol is taken aback by the unexpected request, and his expression shifts at once, eyes widening; Baekhyun is just like a flame, flaring when you don’t expect it. “Right this instant?” he asks, disbelief obvious in his voice. Baekhyun tilts his head to the side, the light swathing over his bouncy cheeks.

“I’m afraid the rest of the band has not gathered yet, but it would be a good chance for you to see the stage, don’t you think?” he quips, looking so compellingly handsome; Chanyeol blinks, his hands now playing melodies on his thigh, a self-soothing gesture in the face of another choice he is afraid to make. There are no patrons in the club yet, but, according to Baekhyun, he’ll have to perform alone on stage, which makes him feel a little nervous; he gradually becomes more aware of the soft hum of voices and playful banter in the room, employees moving around and going about their duties. He is not used to performing like this, all his public appearances being in orchestras and quartets. But…it can’t be that different, right?, he tries to reason with himself, hooking onto the melodies that always resound in his head and letting them ease his worries.

Chanyeol licks his lips, still slightly uncertain, but his decision has been made. “If you think that would be okay…” he accepts tentatively, and he is rewarded by Baekhyun’s widest smile yet, his lips shaping up a small rectangle and his eyes almost disappearing in crescents, delicate fingers jumping on the table in evident excitement.

“Oh, I’m sure everyone would love a tune! If that would be okay?” he checks again for good measure, truthfully giving Chanyeol the option to refuse without any repercussions, but the musician nods convincingly, adding a little smile; music is the reason he is here for, it’d be a shame to turn down this opportunity. Baekhyun stands up then, still smiling, and Chanyeol mimics him hastily, picking up his instrument case from the floor and hitting his hand on the underside of the table in the process; Baekhyun doesn’t comment on it if he notices. “Follow me, please” he invites instead, walking ahead of Chanyeol as they start weaving through the round tables in the hall.

Chanyeol observes Baekhyun’s height again; he seems taller in the confident way he carries himself, but if they were to stand close, he’d probably reach just about Chanyeol’s nose. He has very attractive shoulders, his body tapering slightly at the waist and then flaring out to shapely, strong legs. There is something entrancing in the way he moves, absolutely captivating, as if he draws all the softer hues of light in his pass, gathering a gentle, otherworldly glow, so fluid and yet so tangible. Chanyeol notices his hands, pale and long fingers dotted with little moles; how charming.

The same hands move, gesturing gracefully as Baekhyun slows down, and Chanyeol halts behind him, realizing they have already crossed the room and they are now standing on the side of the stage, where three small steps lead to the elevated wide flat of polished wooden planks, the stage lights beaming down almost blindingly. Chanyeol has performed before, sometimes as a soloist in concerts, but never alone on stage; it feels a little daunting when it looks so empty. He blinks apprehensively at the bright lights, but he has to look away too soon, when Baekhyun signs the opposite way, to the man lounging by the stage, reading his book peacefully.

“This is Yixing, our piano man” he introduces, and at the sound of his name, the man lowers his book to look at the newcomers. He has a permanently dazed expression, eyes dreamy, face relaxed, his moves so tranquil that you’d think he has found a higher balance in life, absolutely no worries tormenting him. He has a pianist’s hands, his appearance a bit unkempt, even though his outfit is perfectly put-together, black hair slicked back to accentuate his forehead and cheekbones. Chanyeol is familiar with such musicians, usually hiding an eccentric genius under their harmless exterior, and he finally feels like he knows what to do accordingly, bowing and smiling politely at the pianist. “Yixing, this is Mr. Park, the saxophonist” Baekhyun wraps up the introductions, sneaking a little grin at Chanyeol in the process. The piano man simply stares at Chanyeol for a few long moments, blinking up.

“Don’t be nervous about playing, handsome, you can do no wrong. Half the staff is already enamored with you anyway” he says unconventionally instead of a greeting, voice slightly accented, and then he returns to his book, turning the page unperturbed. Chanyeol blinks in bewilderment, the musician’s words not really sinking in, in spite of his calm and intelligent tone of voice. Is everything going to be so confusing from now on, words, people, smiles? Baekhyun clears his throat subtly, dispelling any awkwardness and calling for Chanyeol’s attention again.

“Well…after you, Mr. Park” he proposes on cue, ushering Chanyeol on stage like a perfect gentleman, and Chanyeol can only oblige. His legs are long enough to skip a step, but he walks up properly, trying to be on his best behavior; he might not be particularly charismatic, but he is polite and educated, clumsy, but a gentleman too.

He doesn’t expect Baekhyun to climb on stage after him, yet he soon finds him following casually as Chanyeol crosses the distance with lukewarm expectations, depositing his instrument case on the side, his moves tentative; the entire staff in the room must have shifted their attention on him by now, noticing his unfamiliar presence under the spotlight and quieting down noticeably, but he tries his best to ignore the feeling of eyes following his every move and focuses on opening his case mechanically. He can’t help but be overly aware of Baekhyun though, standing somewhere to his right, keeping a civil distance but being close enough to inspect his work curiously; he did mention they’ve never had a saxophonist before, so maybe, what is second nature to Chanyeol is completely foreign and new to the shorter man. How ironic.

Chanyeol straps on the saxophone and works his fingers on the pads, warming up, mind focusing on imaginary notes, when suddenly, Baekhyun slides closer beside him, almost close enough to breach his personal bubble.

“Our Yixing is a bit unconventional, but you really don’t have to be nervous” he says, voice kept low enough for only Chanyeol to hear. The taller blinks down at him, the unexpected sincerity in Baekhyun’s voice catching him by surprise once again; Chanyeol has had teachers less sentient and considerate than this man who hardly knows him. “Our stage has hosted far less decorated and distinguished musicians; we are easy to please. You’ll do great” Baekhyun continues, encouraging the saxophonist with a small smile and a light pat on the back, his touch friendly and certain. Chanyeol can only nod, dumbfounded and rendered speechless by the genuine interest; all the unexpected experiences so far, mingling with his nervous jitters, make him feel like he is entirely surrendered to the unforeseen singularities of the Black Pearl and its people, even though that’s very unlike a musician who is always in control of his notes.

With one last, tiny nod of affirmation, Baekhyun turns around on his heel and leaves the stage gracefully; it instantly feels more intimidating, Chanyeol standing alone in the middle of the stage, the lights casting a hazy filter through his lashes. One glance at the audience and most of them are already staring back at him, as predicted; it feels different to an audience of students, the staff’s eyes being more experienced, less awed. Chanyeol shuffles his feet a little under the scrutiny, but then he notices Baekhyun, dismissing everyone with vague flairs of his hands, addressing the entire room on his way, until everyone returns to their chores dutifully and no one is actively paying Chanyeol any attention. The shorter man decides to stand in the middle of the empty dance floor in front of the stage, leaning against a table and assuming a commanding position right across from Chanyeol, winking at him with a cryptic smile that instantly lightens his demeanor. Chanyeol’s lips quirk in response, but he quickly lifts the instrument to start playing before his cheeks catch fire.

The melody he chooses to play sounds a bit lonely without the piano, but it showcases his skill. Smooth tenor notes flood the space, acoustics carrying them further and further, until they drape over every corner like a velvet blanket. The lights turn more dim, reflected on his instrument, the song sorrowful but also bittersweet, a sound you fall in love with, without even noticing. It’s the first time Chanyeol performs on such a stage, and each note carries him further, painting beautiful colors of warm burgundy, deep violet, cream golden and star-studded midnight blue around him, as if he is performing in a never ending twilight. He is immersed in music and he is alone, blind and deaf and unimportant to the rest of the world for the while he gives breath to the melody –that’s why he is slightly startled when, after the last note of his music, an endearingly disjointed, loud applause answers him enthusiastically, cheers and smiles mingling in his daze. He opens his eyes, confused to find all members of the staff with the addition of a few newcomers gathered around their boss, standing in front of the stage in a flock and clapping for him, smiles bright in amazement.

“Attaboy! He hits on all sixes, doesn’t he?” Jongdae cheers louder than the applause, sharp eyes wide in wonder. “Now, that’s a brass man with plenty of wind!” he exclaims joyfully, and even though Chanyeol is not sure he quite understands what the man is saying in slang, everyone seems to agree on his compliments, which in turn makes Chanyeol blush pink, smiling and bowing to the audience for the warm reception.

“Pipe down, Jongdae” Baekhyun doesn’t even need to raise his voice for the people gathered around him to hear, collectively quieting down, only retaining the bright grins on their faces. Chanyeol focuses on Baekhyun and looks only at him in breathless anticipation, the man’s copper hair framing his sparkling eyes, the light in them so lively that you’d think it gives sparks. His posture is relaxed, the same as when Chanyeol started playing, not giving away anything, but his excitement is clear on his features, dancing wild in the corners of his lips, round the curves of his eyes, just on the tip of his nose; it makes Chanyeol’s heart slam forcefully against his ribcage, making him feel faint. “Thank you, Mr. Park, that was positively stunning” Baekhyun commends, voice carrying in the silence and making Chanyeol bashful of the clear admiration with which it resounds. “I must say, you look good on our stage, sitting pretty, and we’d love to have you…if you’ll have us” the businessman finishes with a smart smile, playful and inviting, brighter when he can see it in Chanyeol’s eyes, that he has already accepted.

Chanyeol feels all the air leaving his body in relief, and he is pretty sure he is floating, thrilled by the rush of excitement in his veins; he smiles painfully wide and nods multiple times in agreement, too afraid to open his mouth lest his heart jumps out. This is exactly what he had been hoping for, an excitement that doesn’t fade, the rush of opening his wings to the wind coursing through him. Baekhyun gives him a short nod of affirmation and then his face blurs behind the staff, who break out in loud cheers again, coming closer to the stage and clapping, welcoming Chanyeol, congratulating him, and calling him down amongst them to greet him properly. Chanyeol turns to put away his saxophone, his blood still thrumming with adrenaline in his veins so full of life, and when he goes down, the small crowd engulfs him right away, their animated chattering and an overly excited Jongdae pulling him closer by the hand.

“That was berries, mate!” the blond bartender exclaims cheerfully, slapping Chanyeol’s back harder than one would expect from such a scrawny person.

“Thank you” he says with a pained smile, and he is instantly swarmed by the rest of the staff, shaking his hand, patting his shoulder. Chanyeol accepts all their kindness with a smile, trying to distinguish each face, the ones he has already glimpsed at and the new arrivals, but as he throws a quick glance around, he notices someone is missing. “Where is Mr. Byun?” he asks with a small frown; he’d been hoping to properly shake hands with him as the new resident saxophonist, not expecting him to disappear so soon.

“Oh no, never call him that, sugar!” Jongdae answers him cheekily, too loud for a person standing right beside him. Chanyeol looks at him in bewilderment, and the blond elaborates. “Boss or Baekhyun is fine, just make sure you address him respectfully in front of customers” he explains, waving as in a self-explanatory indication. Chanyeol nods in understanding, storing the information in his head for future reference –he expects he’ll have a lot to learn from now on– and he forgets to mind the lost chance to thank Baekhyun; he supposes he will get another soon. Yixing the pianist pats him on the back, flashing a sleepy, reassuring smile, which Chanyeol reciprocates with a small grin of his own. Then Jongdae speaks again, voice sounding louder than the rest, seemingly its natural volume. “So, the boss is caught up in business, and that makes me your inside man; any questions, requests, complaints, you bring them to the manager” he says, pointing at himself with his thumbs proudly, lips curling in a cheshire grin.

Someone snorts and there are decidedly a couple of muffled giggles, teasing in manner, irking Jongdae. “Isn’t he the bartender?” a youthful man asks Yixing in a whisper which was not quiet enough, earning an elbow nudge from the pianist and an annoyed glare from Jongdae. The kid cowers and hides behind the doorman, Ravi; Jongdae huffs at the collective mockery but takes the blow good-naturedly, his mood turning lighthearted again soon enough, and he resumes his speech in a more uplifting tone, defusing any remaining tension.

“Let me start by introducing you to our distinguished staff, how ‘bout it, sugar?” the blond bartender suggests, changing the subject and hooking his elbow around Chanyeol’s arm, resting his weight on the taller and acting entirely too comfortable with him so soon. The people around them have shimmered down slightly but they’re still very enthusiastic, eager to meet Chanyeol properly, sending him warm smiles.

“Just call me Chanyeol, please” the tall musician manages to mumble, his cheeks already dusted pink from everyone’s attention on him. He thinks it will be much better if everyone calls him by name, much like they call each other already, so that he will fit in sooner –it will also sound less formal than Mr. Park, which often reminds Chanyeol of his strict teachers and shrewd examiners. Jongdae and his flirty ways don’t seem likely to cooperate, however, if it’s anything to go by when said man waves a hand nonchalantly and shamelessly insists on calling him by every possible endearment other than his name.

“Sure thing, cupcake”

~* 3 *~

It goes round and round like a carousel, in bright shapes and strange colors, lights reflected in mirrors he is only now beginning to see.

When the night drapes its dark veils over the sky, the cityscape transforms to a sparkling banquet of sweet liquor and music, modern notes pouring out of every alley and tangling in the wheels of polished cars, strolling leisurely down the streets with boisterous passengers. The streetlights float over the pavements, not quite as high as the stars but brighter, just as the passersby need them to be, their amber luminosity chasing away the darker shadows to walk through comfortably, elegant, expensive heels tapping against paved stones. For a few long hours each night, the streets are crowded with sequins that reflect the lights like diamonds, and satin that makes the moon look pale, elaborate hairstyles and imported garments, tailored coats and pretentious indifference, turning the same old streets into a show far from plain; all sorts of extravagance can be found in this moonlit world, where everything seems more entitled, more impulsive, with an overflowing gaiety that forgives all minor indiscretions.

Bubbly champagne flows down fragile towers of glasses to the rhythm of upbeat music, exotic cocktails seduce the senses to twirl carelessly under bright lights, whiskeys so rare and old that younger patrons have never heard of are humbly served in the midst of gossip and conversation, slowly releasing inhibitions until laughter permeates the room freely, reigning over every exchange, however fleeting and inconsequential. People who know each other rejoice on impulse; people who pretend not to know each other anymore turn their noses the other way snobbishly; strangers greet each other unreservedly and forget about it in a moment –but it seems a common consensus that the nighttime is for merriment, any foul mood being buried under layers of music and gin, artificial glow and whispers which seem so very entertaining.

The party lasts well after midnight, regardless of the day of the week lurking round the steady fling of the earth, although the weekend seems a special occasion. The street lanterns seem to shine brighter, overflowing lights and upbeat notes spilling out and flooding the boulevards, clothes so flamboyant that they seem to carry sparkles everywhere, sprinkling colorful, luminous dust on their path; there is something indulgent and self-important about those nights, life lived so sharply, so abundantly, that it overshadows the glumness of an entire week. It’s fleeting, blindingly bright and sadly forgettable, unfailingly drawing people in for one more night, one more drink, one more inviting smile from across the room and a short taste of liberating, unconditional joy.

The Black Pearl is not as exuberantly superfluous; it has a cozy, sociable quality that feels more humane and approachable, less intimidating and demanding. Under the ambient lights and luscious drinks, the Pearl has perfected the art of slow enjoyment, providing a savoring experience for its patrons, well into the night. The music might be vigorous on some nights and calm on others, to humor the regular and alternating crowd of well-dressed men and women lounging at the tables or lingering by the bar, the entire staff always flawlessly efficient at serving them with a gracious smile, even on busy nights. There is something in the way Jongdae seduces everyone with a promising smirk and sweet words over drinks, in the way Ravi makes sure no trouble arises in the club till the very final hour of the night, even in the way the servers are tasked with the crowd they attract the most; Hongbin effortlessly charms the high class patrons of the private areas the furthest across the bar, the most popular middle section belongs to the fastest server, Doyoung, and the fickle areas closest to the bar are for Hyuck, the youngest of the Pearl, sometimes clumsy and naïve, but still delightfully charming.

Time flows smoothly, immaterial and inconsequential, from dusk till near dawn, from one day to the next, changing the season with natural, graceful ease. Under the waxing moon, the nights seem to dance in Baekhyun’s rhythm; comfortable, elegantly lavish but also beautifully simple, with just a hint of romance. He is the Pearl’s crown jewel, gorgeous as men have ever seen and absolutely enthralling, orchestrating each night like an experienced maestro, with gentle waves of his hands and artful expressions, but also playing his very own part in it, his smiles ringing like the most subtle yet sweetest of music in the golden-gilded symphony of lights after dark.

Chanyeol settles in seamlessly, performing alongside his band mates every other night of the week and on the weekends, like on this fine Saturday evening. Yixing is always present, as if he lives and breathes on this stage, so charmingly melancholic behind his piano; his kind smiles are always tinged with a gentle sadness, his fingers flying over the keys, the notes stealing away his thoughts absently. Across the stage there is Taemin, the drummer, a creature as temperamental as his beats, seductive and handsome, lithe in the way he moves and smirks; he has a reputation of stealing and breaking hearts, but people closest to him insist he really has a heart of gold. Their quartet is completed by the cellist and vocalist, Kyungsoo, a man who smiles sweetly, bites back just as sharply, and whose eyes are so large it makes one wonder if they should be intimidated or endeared when he stares; but he is an excellent performer, his voice deep and smooth as velvet, his roguish glances and heart-shaped smiles at the audience having everyone smitten in a breath.

In spite of their differences, the four of them have similar sense as musicians, a sixth sense that allows them to communicate in an unscripted language of notes, adding songs to their repertoire without much need for rehearsal –which is frankly very convenient for Chanyeol’s daily schedule, especially considering the lost sleep he has to catch up on in the mornings. The long nights feel tiring and disorienting sometimes, but the entire staff of the Pearl has been very kind to him, taking good care of him like the newest cherished part of their close-knit family. He might not be the youngest amongst them, but they treat him as if he were, their experience outweighing his by months, or even years; they protect him, in that sense, by showing him the ropes of nightlife and how to keep himself safe from the shadiest corners of this nocturnal world.

Chanyeol has already been acquainted with some of the patrons, the regular ones at least, elegant men and women who eagerly offered him drinks from his very first week on the job as an excuse to introduce themselves to the club’s most recent addition. He knows some of them are respectable men of politics and commerce, but some others are illegal businessmen of the night scene –people Chanyeol always thought would look frightening and dangerous, but they only look expensive and well mannered in the serene ambience of the Pearl. The nightclub scene is treacherous and perilous, it’s easy to stumble into trouble, so Chanyeol is always mindful, but he doesn’t feel threatened interacting with people of either reputable or questionable occupations in the club, since any sort of unlawful activities are strictly forbidden here, at the penalty of an irrevocable ban for all parties involved. Baekhyun’s rules are perfectly clear on such matters and, given how fiercely protective of his staff he is, no man or woman dares defy him.

The band performs the last notes of Summertime with a short, added improvisation, the lights bathing Kyungsoo’s crooning form aglow and making the audience look hazy beyond the edge of the stage, although by the sound of their clapping hands, it must be a full house tonight. Kyungsoo bows elegantly when the song officially ends, yielding the music to the zealous ovation of the audience, the singer no doubt sending them a disarming smile; he gracefully gestures to the rest of the band while the applause lasts, and they bow in turn. Chanyeol being the only other person standing on stage, his long body clearly visible, had to choreograph his lanky limbs painstakingly to perfection with Kyungsoo’s help before their first appearance, in a bow he can execute fluidly by now, flourished with a small smile. There are a few cheers directed especially at him in the crowd, and he bows again, like Kyungsoo taught him.

Over the few weeks he’s been performing at the Pearl, he has picked up a number of crucial advice on how to present himself better on stage and how to connect with the audience; one could say he blends in with the other musicians unsuspectingly now, less stiff and impersonal than on the first night he performed. Under Jongdae’s intensive coaching and Kyungsoo’s constant supervision, Chanyeol can now sneak a charming smile when patrons admire him from afar, he can accept a compliment smoothly when the boldest among them come closer for a better look. He has learnt to carry himself with a quiet, elusive confidence, which allows him to appear a bit more captivating on and off stage, assimilating the enticing promise of romance all club musicians seem to bear under their skin. The change is subtle, but Chanyeol feels like the stale waters around his life have finally started to ripple.

When the crowd quiets down again, three of them leave the stage, as it is their regular time for a short break; Yixing stays behind, unrepentantly devoted to his piano as always, playing an instrumental version of Glad to be unhappy. There is a noticeable change of mood in the room, the piano colorful yet calm, the stage lights dimming to illuminate a more dreamy, tranquil picture.

Many people greet the musicians on their way to the quietest corner of the bar, where they usually perch to rest for a bit before returning on stage. There are glasses being raised knowingly, coy smiles as they meet strangers’ gazes in passing, even a couple of flirty winks sent their way; it’s a harmless ordeal that Chanyeol has learnt to go through gracefully, much like his stage bow. He recognizes some of the patrons in the crowd, perhaps having been introduced over a brief conversation with them on some slow evening; they are always polite when they approach him, balancing noticeably on the edge of a flirty advance but in the end respecting the careful distance Chanyeol keeps. All of Baekhyun’s black butterflies swirl in the club enchantingly for everyone to admire, but never to touch.

“It looks like a busy Saturday” Kyungsoo comments offhandedly, sliding on a stool on the far edge of the bar’s polished counter and crossing his legs in a perfect pose. Chanyeol takes a seat beside him, his longer legs touching the ground, while Taemin opts to remain standing, leaning on the counter on Kyungsoo’s other side; they don’t need to be poised now, the attention they usually attract offstage having been exhausted on their short walk to the bar, and only sparse, stolen glances remembering them every now and then. It’s a necessary, short escape on endless nights spent under a blinding spotlight.

“Do you think the night will drag?” Taemin asks, habitually ruffling his raven bangs with his fingers into a perfectly tussled hairdo. He doesn’t sound particularly fond of the idea, but the truth is, busy nights are always longer, and in spite of being more profitable for all, they are also cripplingly tiring; Chanyeol wakes up with a headache and sore fingers after such nights. He might be inexperienced still at discerning the telltale signs about each night, but even he can foresee the weary kiss of dawn on them by the time they’ll be arriving home tonight.

Kyungsoo doesn’t seem invested in the conversation at the moment, however, and he hums noncommittally, leaving the question unanswered as his wide eyes search for Jongdae’s gaze with purpose. The blond man looks busy, his hands full of shakers and bottles and glasses that are exchanged for one another so fast, it’s as if he’s barely touching them at all while preparing drink after drink; it’s Jongdae’s most convenient talent that he can do all that blindly, eyes meeting with each customer unfailingly and creating the illusion of undivided attention, his charm overflowing in easy smiles and flattering compliments. Even in the midst of endless orders and agreeable small talk, however, it’s admittedly difficult to ignore a pair of eyes as big as Kyungsoo’s staring at you intently, so the bartender glances their way soon enough –but only to send them an apologetic look before returning to work, mirroring his current customer’s smile, clearly unavailable for a while. Kyungsoo’s fingers dance on the counter impatiently at the implications.

“Wonderful as always, gentlemen” a husky voice compliments them with a smile out of the blue, Baekhyun appearing in front of them on the opposite side of the counter, dressed in his expensive suit and styled impeccably as always. On difficult nights like this, when there is barely time to breathe behind the counter, Baekhyun comes to Jongdae’s rescue, assisting him in any way he can and distracting the awaiting customers, socializing pleasantly until it’s their turn; he is certainly a sight to behold, with his wine red hair curling on his forehead and over his brow on one side, his eyes reflecting glimmers of cocktail glasses like jewels.

“Thank you, Baekhyun” Kyungsoo answers with a fleeting, gentle smile, and he oddly sounds more thankful for the man’s presence than for his usual, rewarding praise to the musicians. Taemin grins brightly at their boss, always acting so childlike and playful with him, and Baekhyun taps his nose, endeared. Chanyeol barely manages to flash a tiny smile when it’s his turn to fleetingly have Baekhyun’s attention, still feeling a little flustered whenever it happens; Baekhyun always makes sure to give everyone proper attention, even if he can afford to do that only briefly, but to be under Baekhyun’s gaze and those wonderful hazel eyes of his, always feels a little unsettling.

“Jongin is not here yet” the man answers Kyungsoo’s question before the latter can even ask, his gaze turning sympathetic when the cellist’s shoulders subtly drop in disappointment, all his eager agitation from before evaporating in a breath. Nothing has ever been confirmed, but there seems to be an implicit understanding that Kyungsoo is in a close relationship with one of the most handsome regulars at the club, Kim Jongin; Chanyeol would say that the singer’s poorly concealed look of anticipation after almost every performance is pretty self-evident. Interestingly enough, the very same look is currently directed at Baekhyun by the drummer as well, the lithe man with raven hair looking at the shorter with wide, expectant eyes. “Taemin” Baekhyun acknowledges him and then clears his throat, his demeanor turning slightly more reserved. “Mrs. Kim asked me to relay that she’d love the company” he says with an underlying flat tinge, as if delivering the message is a less than pleasant obligation for him.

The drummer lights up instantly at the news, unwisely unaffected by Baekhyun’s reluctance –which is understandable, considering the lady in question is married to one of the most wealthy uptown businessmen, who is also a regular at the club. “Well, that’s my cue” he chirps, unraveling his body fluidly and running his fingers through his hair, leaving it as messily perfect as it was before. “I’m sorry, gents, it’s love” he excuses himself, swooning as he glides away to meet his awaiting dame with a fatal simper, and making the men he leaves behind chuckle in amusement at his love-stricken antics.

“Is it, now?” Kyungsoo mumbles quietly, to no one in particular. Chanyeol risks a glance at him out of the corner of his eye, in the midst of lights and voices blending with the piano, and he sees Kyungsoo turning his gaze to the counter pensively, his fingers nervously tugging on the bracelet he always wears on his left wrist, a bitter smile curling his lips; Chanyeol is not keen on making assumptions, so he doesn’t attempt at guessing the reasons behind Kyungsoo’s unexpectedly downcast voice, but it sounds quite hurtful.

“Would you like a drink, Soo?” Baekhyun offers accommodatingly, not missing a beat, his smooth, uplifting tone of voice successfully dispersing any looming dullness in the singer’s expression –Chanyeol has realized over the short span of his employment that it would be a great offence to underestimate or doubt Baekhyun’s skills in handling people and situations; the man can make the world spin on his fingers whichever way he likes with just a smile, and that’s not even the most elaborate of his tricks. Kyungsoo perks up in his seat, looking up at Baekhyun and lacing his arms on the counter.

“No, just water, please” he says, and Baekhyun nods agreeably, immediately shuffling and searching the glasses and bottles behind the counter to pour some water for the singer. “I’ll wait for Jongin” Kyungsoo adds more quietly after that, sounding somewhat long-suffering but hopeful. If Chanyeol knows anything, usually, Kim Jongin arrives late at the night, catching just the last songs of their performance much to Kyungsoo’s displeasure; there are also times, however, that Chanyeol has seen him around since much earlier in the night, sipping his usual drink by the bar and listening keenly until the very end of their repertoire, leaving for home with a significantly more content Kyungsoo afterwards. But no matter how late it gets, even on nights when Jongin arrives so belatedly that he ends up waiting outside the club while the rest close up for the night, Kyungsoo and him always leave together in Jongin’s fancy car; it’s a routine everyone accepts de facto, vicariously enjoying the domesticity.

Most people don’t really bother with indiscreet questions nowadays, but Chanyeol has been told it was quite scandalous when people first suspected the affair. It even made it on the papers, full of absurd gossip and false rumors, a typical sample of modern journalism at its finest; it cost Kyungsoo his previous job and eventually led him to Baekhyun’s doorstep. Jongdae says Jongin is just a wealthy lollygagger and a sneaky rascal, not to concern oneself with, and certainly not to meddle with his business; he said the last part in a warning tone, the one he uses to imply illegal dealings, and Chanyeol can only take his word for it, since Jongin looks truthfully quite harmless. In fact, on one rare occasion when Jongin came to the club early in the evening together with Kyungsoo, he and Chanyeol were introduced, and the man seemed very friendly and amusing during the hours of preparation before the club’s opening, full of witty remarks and gorgeous simpers, making even Baekhyun smile when he teamed up for mischief with Taemin. His business matters little to Chanyeol in any case, because he has often witnessed the way Jongin makes Kyungsoo smile, and that is more than enough for him to rest assured.

“Mr. Park?” a voice calls his name, echoing slightly above the buzzing of the people around him. His surroundings seem mostly indifferent, blurred in muted colors and lights, but there is a pair of eyes staring right into his, innocently droopy, in an odd shade of green; slightly golden, maybe gray? Chanyeol realizes who is standing in front of him with a startle, the world recoiling in full blast and jostling his dazed brain back into proper function; the music sounds distinctly again in the midst of the conversations around him, and the colors have meaningful shapes. Baekhyun seems slightly concerned if the curl of his brow is indicative, and Chanyeol fervently wishes he could disappear into the void out of embarrassment for spacing out –it’s a recurring trait of his, but this was decidedly not supposed to happen in the middle of a conversation with his boss. Said man picks up on the subtle evidence of Chanyeol’s regained awareness, and smiles. “Hello there”

“I’m…” Chanyeol forgets what he meant to say the next second, his mind stealing the picture of Baekhyun smiling in amusement and running away with it instead, noticing at random the golden hue the light reflects on his skin and the perfectly pressed collar of his shirt. It takes him a moment too long to finish his sentence, and Baekhyun almost turns concerned again; Chanyeol shakes his head, trying to focus. “I’m sorry, can you please repeat that?” he asks, embarrassed to be wasting Baekhyun’s precious time so pointlessly, his fingers pinching the crumpled fabric of his slacks around his knee so aggressively in retaliation that he fears it might accidentally tear. His cheeks burn so brightly in shame that it must be noticeable, surely even in this lighting, and that thought somewhat worsens his fluster; he can only hope Baekhyun will assume it’s just a trick of the light, and that not many people are currently interested in this area of the bar to witness his flushed cheeks as well.

“Are you feeling tired? You should rest, if you need to” Baekhyun answers instead, shifting his body slightly to address Chanyeol more directly. Chanyeol might be feeling more tired than usual –working two jobs in one day tends to have a tolling effect–, but he doesn’t want to seem ungrateful, so he takes a breath to refute the considerate remark; but before he can spew a polite lie, Baekhyun continues with a small frown etched between his eyebrows “I know you are still adjusting to this lifestyle, and the maestro tells me you have quite a hectic schedule-”

“Oh~ You speak so sweetly for our dear saxophonist” Jongdae interrupts, suddenly appearing with a theatrical exclamation and latching onto Baekhyun’s entire right side, nearly knocking him out of balance out of nowhere. He is clearly being playful, making the most of the transitory minutes of free time he has available, and he seems to be finding some entertainment in Chanyeol’s surprised flinch and Baekhyun’s panicked grip on the counter to keep in equilibrium; it seems they were both equally surprised by the unforeseen attack, previously too immersed in their exchange to notice him approaching. Kyungsoo though, who doesn’t seem spooked at all, laughs at the disapproving glare Baekhyun sends Jongdae, and Jongdae grins with all his teeth back at Baekhyun. Chanyeol is just thankful no one seems to have really noticed Jongdae’s words, because it would be rather mortifying to be crowned the boss’ pet.

“He’s still fairly new, I need to ensure his wellbeing” Baekhyun retorts regardless, defending that Chanyeol is not receiving special treatment. He swats away all of Jongdae’s body parts in vicinity in retribution, but the blond still leans closer, because he has a strange perception of personal space, Chanyeol has noticed –and he is even starting to get used to it. Baekhyun stares at him as if he’s contemplating a lecture on borderline inappropriate behavior during work hours, his impressive balance between friendship and authority put to the test.

“There are certain high-society people over there asking for your attention too” Jongdae informs before there’s a chance he ends up being reprimanded, and he points Baekhyun in the right direction with a subtle nod. Baekhyun dismisses his mild annoyance in an instant –he knows which battles are worth fighting, and Jongdae is unanimously a lost cause–, and he glances over his shoulder at the swarm of people across the bar.

It’s not unusual that patrons ask to see him, be it for light socializing or for more personal business; to be graced with Baekhyun’s presence, after all, seems to be a great privilege amongst his many admirers. It doesn’t matter that Baekhyun never leads them on, entertaining them only out of politeness, to keep good record with his customers; to have Baekhyun’s interest even for a brief exchange is a blissful accomplishment for those who, secretly or openly, worship the ground he walks. It might be unsurprising for a man so gorgeous to have his fair share of devoted followers but, flattering as it might be, it quickly loses its charm; such admiration, however ardent, seems rather dreary at the end of the day. Baekhyun locates the right person halfheartedly, after a brief examination across the counter, and he excuses himself, leaving the musicians in the capable hands of the bartender; Chanyeol watches him go, wondering what such a burden feels like and how he manages to endure it unfailingly every night.

“Chanyeol darling, now that I have you for myself” Jongdae calls no sooner than Baekhyun has left them, the blond man’s hands working up a tornado on the other side of the counter when Chanyeol’s eyes turn to him aptly. It’s unusual for Jongdae to need something of him, much less in the middle of their shift, and it piques his curiosity, eyebrows furrowing over his eyes questioningly. Jongdae is smiling as always, but it’s not as genuine this time; it doesn’t reach his eyes effortlessly like it did a moment ago, when he was bantering with Baekhyun. The bartender flips the shaker in his hands for show, an artful distraction for privy gazes, and Kyungsoo sips his water casually beside them, as if there is no conversation at all, although Jongdae’s frown tells a different story. “You know, I hate being the bearer of bad news, but Oh Sehun has offered you a drink, and if I consider myself your friend, I have to strongly urge you to accept” he enunciates quietly, his smile long gone by the end of it, replaced with a faintly stern expression, which is somewhat alarming, considering the man’s usual, ever so carefree demeanor.

Jongdae knows Chanyeol doesn’t drink alcohol, so he is a sort of self-appointed manager on the matter; they have an arrangement wherein Jongdae advises Chanyeol which drinks to accept, when important people are offering, and which to ignore, when it’s not really worth to bother. They both know that accepting a drink for Chanyeol means just holding it for a while, or making a toast, and never so much as smelling its alcohol, but it’s a gesture of fine courtesy, a way for every musician in the band to seem more approachable and gracious to the patrons. It’s the first time Jongdae seems so agitated over this matter though, usually being more playful and teasing Chanyeol about his conquests in the audience –yet this time he is not jesting in the least, so the matter must be truly serious.

“I thought he might be here tonight” Kyungsoo comments, sounding disgruntled or maybe bored about it, and his expression is not easy to decipher either. Chanyeol would go with the former if he had to pick, noticing the corner of Kyungsoo’s eye twitching, like it does when he is annoyed; they spend their nights under constant scrutiny, so they often have to mask unpleasant emotions, but Chanyeol is starting to figure out his coworkers’ less obvious hints. “It’s been, what, a month? That’s way too long for his standards” Kyungsoo scoffs, bringing his glass of water to his lips and taking another sip as if he’s trying to wash away bitter poison.

“Why exactly is he bad news?” Chanyeol can’t help but ask, turning to Jongdae for answers; whoever this customer is, he seems to be important, but the way the two men speak about him is confusing, and Chanyeol is becoming increasingly concerned. He has accepted drinks before, from powerful politicians, businessmen and even mafia handlers, always under Jongdae’s protection and care, so who could it be, to turn this matter more pressing? Should Chanyeol be worried?

“He is not entirely respectable, sweetheart, but that’s a conversation we can’t have on the table right now” Jongdae answers, using his cautious tone, serious and dismissive, his hands mechanically tipping the shaker’s contents into a glass and coloring the ice cubes a glassy, translucent green. “Just pick up your drink, wave at him with a smile to show your appreciation like I taught you, and ignore this ever happened for the rest of the night, or the rest of your life, preferably” he pastes a notably artificial grin on his lips at the end, slipping a napkin under the glass, as he elegantly deposits it on the counter in front of Chanyeol; the musician stares at it as if it’s a ticking bomb, eyes wide and a little frantic.

“Who is he? Where am I supposed to look?” he whispers urgently, his thoughts rattling in his head distraught, not knowing what to expect or what to look for in a faceless crowd, his hands rubbing on his thighs uncertainly.

“He’s the one in the hideous white suit” Kyungsoo answers, voice sour and condescending, his lips curling in contempt, which he hides behind his glass, washing it away with one more gulp of water. Chanyeol nods and picks up the glass with numb fingers as he slowly turns, hoping not many fashionable attendants have chosen to wear a white suit tonight; and indeed, the moment Chanyeol turns his head in the direction Kyungsoo had been glaring previously, there is only one person in a blindingly white suit, the figure outlined amidst the lights and people like a painfully bright vision, perched by a table just off the centre, towards the more luxurious areas.

Everything else seems faded in comparison, the man wearing the suit being a comfortable, elegant figure, lounging in his seat, as if he owns the world. His fingers are toying with the glass in front of him, something dark and probably exuberantly expensive he doesn’t care to taste; he has an air of superiority about him, not quite noble, but arrogant and scornful, his gaze almost disinterested. The stage lights are just far enough not to overshadow him, the light of the room illuminating his sharp features and styled, ash blond hair; and yet, despite his seeming lack of interest in his surroundings, his wandering gaze falls focused and intent on every person in its path, assessing them for all they’re worth in a glance.

Chanyeol meets eyes with the man almost instantly in a heart-arresting moment, and he can see a spark of recognition flashing in Oh Sehun’s dark orbs, his features softening politely. Chanyeol raises his glass, high enough to be seen –not as high to be inelegant–, and he paints a close-lipped smile of anticipated acknowledgement onto his lips, keeping the pose as statuesquely as he can for a few moments. He sees the man’s thin lips curl into a smirk, reciprocating with a subtle raise and tip of his glass. It’s as simple and short as that, over with all too soon, and Chanyeol can finally exhale, relaxing in his seat and returning his attention to his coworkers.

“You could see him a mile away” Jongdae hums disapprovingly, in continuation of a snarky, judgmental conversation he has been carrying with Kyungsoo; Chanyeol’s ear has caught on some much more discourteous remarks he couldn’t attest to, but he will have to agree that the man’s suit of choice is quite obnoxious, even if it does suit him in a way, impressive and cold as it seems. Chanyeol doesn’t join the conversation right away, watching quietly as Jongdae simultaneously mixes more drinks behind the counter in mild agitation, his gaze shifting mostly between the cellist and the ever gathering and dispersing crowd around the bar, yet stealing some non-too-appreciative glances at the person he is talking about in-between. “He thinks he’s so much better than everyone else, doesn’t he?” he snarls in annoyance, throwing a lethal side-glance in the general direction of the man, which Chanyeol doubts could be interpreted in any other way, and Kyungsoo grumbles in harsh, halfhearted agreement.

“Everyone seems to love him around here” Chanyeol mumbles with a slight quirk of his brow, the slight sarcasm in his voice being a hue he can get away with when he’s around Jongdae and Kyungsoo, the former having no filter when it comes to inappropriate words and the latter excelling at the art of acidic sarcasm; Kyungsoo even snorts into his glass at the remark, while the bartender chuckles darkly, his sharp eyes gaining a dangerous glint as he fixes Chanyeol with his gaze. He looks a little like a deranged man, about to tell an amusing, disturbed secret, and it makes the hairs on Chanyeol’s neck rise, his stomach squirming in discomfort.

“Oh we do love him…to death” Jongdae deadpans in all seriousness, making the macabre joke even more unsettling.

~* 4 *~

If you listen closely, there’s a rhythm to routine that changes with the season and the years to a different tune, its notes enriched by every fragment of life you go by. In such a soft rhythm, the hesitant drizzles of September gradually give way to October’s cinnamon kiss, freshly baked pastries and the scent of coffee lurking at every corner, promising a sweet escape from the peripatetic rains, which are sparse over the city but pouring when they do, blanketing the sky in glum colors and then disappearing just as soon, playing only a prelude to the oncoming thunderstorms of deep autumn. The days have grown shorter, the night holding its constellations above the city for a little longer each time, and the leaves have started to turn, exciting yellows and promising auburns kissing most treetops and slowly melting onto other branches to the very tip of them; they contrast against brick walls and mirror on windows, in dense paint strokes of warm colors which await the day they flutter to the ground in a heap.

Yet it all looks the same when the night falls, the streetlights shivering in the humid cold but shining just as steady, guiding the urban dwellers through the dark; the colors are deep in the artificial gleam of lanterns that float solid in the air, and the nightclubs spill their notes onto the street alongside bright flashes of light. The night knows no allegiance to a season, arriving timely and inescapably over every boulevard and corner with its own story to tell, as it has always done. But there are still small details to be found in the darkness that give away the season; walking the empty streets to his apartment late at night, Chanyeol likes the scent of rain, the glassy film it leaves over the paved stones, and the quiet shuffling of his shoes in drenched silence. He likes feeling the cold touch of night air on his face, playing the piano for the stars in his head as he strolls with a sigh under the moonlight, and he likes that, at times, it all reminds him of his childhood in the countryside, the rhythm of this routine resounding faintly similar.

There are many new notes to it though, tinkling in his chest and splashing lively colors on his every day; Jongdae whining loudly about Baekhyun playfully meddling with his alcohols and turning them into poison, threatening him to stay away since the latter has no apparent talent in concocting liquor; Taemin and Jongin dancing the foxtrot extravagantly to the rest of the staff’s clapping rhythm, after losing a bet to Hongbin; Yixing and Kyungsoo engaging in a staring competition that no one else besides the two knows who won, because everyone else didn’t have the patience to keep up; Baekhyun smelling of cinnamon and bringing fluffy rolls for everyone at the Pearl on a whim, personally serving each of them and looking so happy to be taking care of them. It’s the little things that make every long night worthwhile, wrapping up and heading home on a cheerful note, even when it’s the weary hours before dawn.

Day by day, Chanyeol finds his own place in this small, irregular family, and he enjoys being part of it unconditionally; he’s even grown used to Jongdae’s complaints about everything and anything under the sun, and, absurd as it may seem, he thinks it has grown on him to the point he prefers it to the silence of his apartment. Even on exhausted evenings, when Chanyeol goes through all of his advanced students on the same day before clocking in at the club, it’s comforting to be around his coworkers; they always have a smile for him, a question in genuine interest, a joke or a kind gesture that will alleviate his mood. The more comfortable he feels with the scene at the Pearl, the more he fits in with the bigger picture, his confidence and charm as a nighttime musician improving, alongside his social skills –something that even his students have started to notice. He’d positively say he genuinely enjoys performing at the club, even after especially long days at the conservatory, dispelling the lingering phantoms of demanding, complex compositions in his head with cheerful notes and soulful tunes; it has become his escape world, a different sky where he can express himself and slowly heal, after the years of confinement in music rooms and insecurities.

A lady saunters to the bar beside him, waving down Jongdae to ask for her drink in a delicately flirtatious voice. Chanyeol is sitting on the side unobtrusively, absently watching patrons come and go while sipping water on his break, a short yet necessary respite on such a lively night, which relies heavily on the musicians for entertainment. They can afford to have only one musician missing from the stage at a time, and only for a couple of songs, personal requests and their prearranged repertoire challenging them to exert their performing endurance.

Wednesdays are generally considered slow days at the Pearl, but it’s a subtle change of pace more than anything else; the club attracts the average amount of people just the same, only with simpler expectations. That doesn’t necessarily make for an easy night, but it has such potential, allowing them a less hectic routine when the crowd prefers more laidback entertainment, when quiet songs of one instrument will suffice. The night might vastly differ, however, calling for dance songs till dawn, vibrant arrangements overflowing with notes for each step and twirl –and it seems there is such a festive inspiration tonight, people scuffing their shoes on the floor in the midst of jumps and spins, song after song, in a richly glittering kaleidoscope of dancing pairs.

“May I buy one for you, too?” the lady beside him asks unexpectedly, directing the question and an inviting wink at Chanyeol, long lashes fluttering over her suggestive smile. Chanyeol blinks and turns to her, slightly taken aback by her youthful looks; she looks young enough to be one of his students, and although it’s not unusual for him to attract the attention of much younger girls and boys who sometimes try to introduce themselves, they’re hardly ever so bold. It’s always a surprise to receive such interest, but he has learnt how to reject it graciously, so he blinks again, this time collecting himself and arranging his lips in a patient smile.

“I’m afraid it would be wasted” he declines politely, always courteous to the patrons like Jongdae taught him –only significantly less suggestive that Jongdae’s teaching insinuated. “I don’t really drink” he explains further to appease her, and the lady tilts her head, black beads from her headpiece falling onto her cheek. She doesn’t look curious or surprised, however, as if she only means to observe him from a different viewing angle, rather than expressing an emotion.

“I’ve noticed” she replies casually, sounding like she had been expecting the answer given, but Chanyeol is slightly shocked by hers; she has noticed him before? Her eyes stay glued on him intently, in a way that makes his hands self-conscious, fingers pinching the cuffs of his blue striped suit, but Jongdae conveniently serves her drink then, something red with a peeled ribbon of citrus. She thanks him with a short glance and a trivial wave of her hand before drawing the glass closer and directing a sultry look under her lashes at Chanyeol. “You don’t really dance either, but one of these days I’ll find an excuse. You’re too cute to give up on as easily” she says, red lips curling into a flirty grin as she departs to rejoin her company with her fresh drink in hand, the fringes of her dress swinging with each step, graceful and lively. Chanyeol gapes a little at the daring words coming out of such a young mouth, but then he refuses to look as dumbfounded as he feels and instead sends Jongdae a bewildered look.

“Girls these days” the bartender shakes his head in disapproval –even though he’s not really one to talk, having a habit of frivolously flirting with everyone in vicinity, alluded leading a promiscuous life. He’s an acquired taste, but a good friend nonetheless. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed the pattern, dove, but you’re a magnet for rich, young ladies around here” the blond man continues, wiping glasses behind the counter while looking right at the saxophonist with a mischievous smile; Chanyeol lets out a discrediting scoff at the remark, and Jongdae laughs lightheartedly over the music, not one to take offence at Chanyeol’s shy defensiveness. The truth is, such offers of interest have become a common occurrence for him lately, surprisingly common, but he attributes them to his imminent presence onstage alongside his fellow musicians all night, regardless of Jongdae’s opinions; the bartender simply likes to tease, completely at peace with himself as he whistles the song under his breath.

Chanyeol glances at the dancing couples, noticing the song has changed, counting down his remaining rest time. “Do you really not dance though?” Jongdae asks then, reclaiming his attention –ever so non discreet about eavesdropping conversations. Like Chanyeol said, he’s an acquired taste. The blond looks up at Chanyeol with an eyebrow quirked in disbelief, as if half-expecting him to refute, a reasonable assumption for a man his age; Chanyeol is not yet too old for dancing.

“I’m not a good dancer” Chanyeol verifies instead, in a quiet, slightly bashful voice, shaking his head and pinching his cuffs uneasily again. It’s not about knowing the steps, or having no rhythm, like the song Kyungsoo is currently singing quotes; he is a musician after all, he can count his steps just fine. Unfortunately, that’s not all a dancer needs, and Chanyeol is lacking in key areas of the sport; his limbs are too long and look graceless when he moves, not to mention that, due to his height, his steps are bigger than his partners’, and they usually end up being stepped on or struggling to keep up –ultimately, he has no confidence, always feeling so nervous, resulting in a stiff, indifferent image of him as a dancer. Chanyeol doesn’t wish to subject himself or anyone else to this process, so he simply doesn’t dance. Jongdae looks surprised though, maybe even a little scandalized at the night’s revelations, so Chanyeol decides to explain. “There has been no need for me to dance in years and, when I was younger, there never was anyone to teach me properly, or practice with me. There wasn’t any great interest for dancing where I grew up in” he admits, lowering his eyes to the counter, a little wistful.

Maybe life would have been different with a dancing partner, but all of Chanyeol’s steps in music have been decisively out of chorography; there’s never a need for him to dance, and there never was at his rural hometown. He remembers birthdays and random summer evenings of his childhood, when his grandma would dance with him in the living room, or barefoot on the summer grass outside their house; Chanyeol was smaller than her then, and he would stumble and giggle for every twirl she tried with him, his grandfather watching them with a happy smile in his rocking chair. Dancing was a rare sort of fun for Chanyeol, until many years later, when, while studying hard for his scholarship, he unintentionally stumbled upon his grandparents slow dancing together in the kitchen one morning; they were both old enough by then, and dancing was the last thing on Chanyeol’s mind, but he couldn’t help but admire them from the shadows, lost in their own world and still so in love after everything they’d been through. Dancing meant something different then, and Chanyeol had no one to share it with –he’s never had anyone to share it with. And that’s perhaps the primary reason why he doesn’t dance.

“We could show you” Jongdae quips, oblivious “and be warned, you’re the only one who doesn’t dance amongst us” he adds with a playfully ominous lilt to his voice, to make his offer more compelling. Chanyeol looks up, abandoning his nostalgic mood, and sends the bartender a grateful smile; of course his second family so far away from home and so many years later would be more than happy to help him in any way they can –besides, they’re all in the business of music and dancing, it makes sense they’re skilled in every aspect of their profession. But Chanyeol would like to hold onto romance a little longer, think of it more special than simple fun, although he doubts he’ll have that choice for much longer, unable to fend off the propositions forever –and there are surprisingly many requests each night. He’ll have to bring himself to the dance floor at some point, and maybe then dancing will become mere fun again. Jongdae hums pensively, still musing on the subject. “I’m sure Baekhyun could teach you a move sometime” he proposes as the best solution, shrugging his shoulders casually –and Chanyeol chokes a little on his water.

Him? Dancing with…Baekhyun?

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him dance” he says misleadingly, punctuated by a few rude interruptions of remaining coughs. He tries to sound conversational, hoping the lights will hide the sudden fluster unreasonably overtaking his cheeks; Jongdae sends him a concerned look, but he soon dismisses Chanyeol’s minor discomfort, since the latter seems well enough to talk. His earlier words linger in Chanyeol’s head, however, nudging some idle, surreal ideas; dancing with Baekhyun would be…well, Chanyeol doesn’t have adjectives to describe the strange feeling he gets when his body reacts at the thought, that’s why he shifted the course of the conversation slightly.

“Well, he’s no floorflusher, but he practices the occasional spin” Jongdae chuckles, wiping the counter and moving glasses around with little clinks, almost inaudible under the lively music and Kyungsoo’s playful vocals. Chanyeol chuckles when Jongdae proceeds to whine under his breath that he just polished that spot where a customer has left their empty glass on the counter, the saxophonist indulging the bartender’s familiar, amusing lamentation of his woes for a while, before their conversation reverts to the previous topic by Jongdae’s initiative. “Sad to say you’ll probably see him dance today” the blond says, his tone less animated than it was during his complaints, words a little mumbled and lips curling in disappointment.

“And why would that be sad?” Chanyeol questions, eyebrows frowning in confusion; he surmised that Baekhyun is a good dancer earlier, when Jongdae deemed him the best teacher for Chanyeol. Besides, Chanyeol would very much like to see Baekhyun dance, his lithe body moving fluidly, his footwork fast, broad shoulders standing proud and beautiful hands flaring gracefully, all bright smiles and flushed cheeks from the heat; Chanyeol can only imagine what a lucky lady Baekhyun’s partner would be. Confusingly enough, however, Jongdae scowls darkly, and even though it’s clearly not directed at Chanyeol, it makes the taller a little apprehensive.

“Because of Oh Sehun” Jongdae murmurs viciously, this particular name never leaving his lips on a bright tone; you’d think the man has killed Jongdae’s most beloved in the world with the malignant way the latter always refers to him, but Chanyeol happens to know that Oh Sehun is not in that kind of business.

“What about Oh Sehun?” he prods with a quirk of his brow. The man has personally introduced himself to Chanyeol by now, being one of the regulars, and most of Chanyeol’s questions about him have been answered, either by the man himself or by the rest of the staff. He is not very well liked amongst them –admittedly, he’s not very likeable–, but he is tolerated by everyone with a secret, heavy sigh, or a stabbing glare concealed under a smile. Chanyeol has yet to find out why everyone hates the man to this degree, but no one answers that question for him, at least they haven’t done so yet.

“That shylock is squeezing Baekhyun like a tacky pair of shoes” Jongdae growls through his teeth, his face displaying a complex succession of emotions, as fast and vengeful as his words “He beats his gums and looks all spiffy now, like he can go places, but Baekhyun is hard boiled, just you wait till that scam gets pinched and we’re all free of him” he tells Chanyeol in a confident tone –as if the saxophonist can follow his train of thought on the subject–, while wagging a stern finger at him warningly, his gaze burning with injustice; quite frankly, Jongdae looks intimidating in this moment, about to take down one army by himself if necessary, and Chanyeol blinks wide eyes at him in uncertainty.

“I’m sorry?” he asks meekly, not sure he understood everything correctly, Jongdae’s slang and the missing details of the story making this outburst confusing to Chanyeol. Jongdae’s aggression vanishes instantly, as if he just realized who he has been discussing with, and his expression transforms as he bursts out in loud peals of laughter, nearly doubling over in hysterics. Chanyeol can only look on alongside a few others while Jongdae’s laughing fit lasts, wondering if his friend is perhaps mental.

“Oh bunny, you slay me when you look so lost” the man manages to articulate once the worst of it passes, wiping little tears from the corners of his eyes. Chanyeol gives him a look far from amused, realizing he was the one on whose expense Jongdae had been laughing unrepentantly, but the blond man doesn’t seem to pay him any heed, mumbling to himself and giggling still; many a time Chanyeol is the source of such benevolent amusement for the staff, each time completely unintentional and out of his control. He is like a child amongst them, clueless on some matters, not speaking their language properly, expressing himself too formal; he doesn’t grudge them in the least for his occasionally wounded pride though, because they never mean to harm or offend him, always trying to help him fit in, in their own way. In retrospect, he’d probably find himself funny too, if he were in their shoes.

Jongdae excuses himself to serve the newest addition to the bar once he is stable enough, and Chanyeol idly watches his hands work, swift and precise when mixing liquor, adding ice with a flourish. On such busy Wednesdays that no one wishes for, a fatigued unwillingness seems to be clinging onto everyone of the staff, constantly dampening their mood as an afterthought to all the cheerfulness, as if they’d all rather be somewhere else. Certainly, an early night would be ideal, just to catch a bit more sleep to last them for the rest of the week; but since that is unlikely, at least they have each other through thick and thin, finding a reassuring presence that relieves the tension everywhere they look. They mutually share a sense of unhurried ease, a casual, comfortable feeling which allows them to fulfill their required expectations at their own pace for one day, being each other’s source of comfort and support throughout the night.

Chanyeol is in the middle of daydreaming about a relaxing bath first thing in the morning when Jongdae returns, carrying a one-sided conversation about some of the patrons; the saxophonist listens to him absently, not filtering most of the information Jongdae spews in his exhaustion, except for those that pique his interest.

“One of these days, Kim’s gonna give that gold digger his declaration of independence, and poor Taemin will be left holding the bag” he says frowningly, concerned about the drummer like the rest of them, triggering Chanyeol’s thoughts. It is no secret that a certain Mrs. Kim, wife to the one and only Kim Junmyeon, has been enjoying Taemin’s company for a few months now, asking him to accompany her in long walks downtown and buying him expensive gifts as if he is her pretty doll, and Taemin obliges more than happily, because she currently holds his affections. Even today, Mrs. Kim gifted him an expensive pair of ruby cufflinks and she has been staring at the stage voraciously ever since, despite her husband sitting less than a meter away from her. No one knows how faithful to her husband Mrs. Kim has remained behind closed doors, but many are willing to assume, and if there will be a divorce, Taemin’s name will most likely be involved; it’s for his welfare that everyone worries, but they can only advise caution and respect his choices in the end. Besides, the Kims are a very strange couple, in Chanyeol’s personal opinion.

Someone then calls for Jongdae from across the bar in the middle of his speech, and both men turn to see none other than Kim Junmyeon himself calling, looking determined for all intents and purposes. Chanyeol glances at the Kims’ usual table and his wife is still there, gazing at the stage dreamily, yet her husband seems completely indifferent to her antics, more interested in the bartender’s attention instead. Jongdae raises an eyebrow at the inconvenient interruption, slightly perplexed by this sudden appearance on the other side of his counter. “Speak of the devil…be right back” he excuses himself once again, putting forth his best smile to accommodate the wealthy, uptown businessman; Jongdae is so convincing when pretending, it sometimes seems no one can ever truly know what’s going on in his head.

Chanyeol is left alone for all of five seconds before someone slides in the seat right next to him smoothly. “Hello, Mr. Park”

It’s a familiar voice, timbre even and composed, perpetually lacking interest in everything in existence. Chanyeol can recognize it after having spoken a couple of times with the man, but even if it weren’t so, it’s hard to match such a dispassionate voice to any other face; and Oh Sehun has a beautiful face, but it’s always colorless and barren of emotion, as if it might break like glass under a swinging hammer by the smallest exertion of a smile.

“Mr. Oh” Chanyeol acknowledges civilly, trying to be on his best behavior, as advised. Sehun is not just another powerful gangster or an influential politician; he’s somewhere in-between and nowhere near that, so one needs to be careful when dealing with him. He comes from money, that much is obvious in his extravagantly expensive suits and whiskey tastes, but he also handles money, as a thriving loan shark, according to Jongdae; he is suspected to be in league with some other mafia handles, but his business is always done so discreetly that there’s never any proof, his ancestry opening doors for him to the city’s finest houses. Some say he’s in business with the mayor, some say he’ll be running for the position soon, but it all seems indifferent to Chanyeol, like the man’s apathetic face; he has other, more tangible reasons to be wary of him.

“It’s a beautiful night tonight, isn’t it?” Sehun comments pleasantly, and Chanyeol can see in him the same vapid, vane and superficial upbringing of his students; people who are intensively trained to seem important, agreeable, superior, when they are in fact only too scared to face their own mortality. Unlike his students, however, Oh Sehun has reached the desired end of this course, becoming a man who might as well have been sculpted in marble; Chanyeol is distrustful of such cold beasts, and he’d rather keep his distance. Sehun presently plays with the precious stone ring in his hand as he talks to Chanyeol, a habit as absent as the life in his eyes, wandering around as if he’s trying to find at least one interesting face. “What a nice atmosphere, so many people are dancing; dancing is for romance, don’t you think? Holding your loved one close, whispering in their ear…You know, you played a very befitting song before –what was it…” he trails off in thought, turning to Chanyeol with the slightest of frowns, finger touching his jaw pensively in a poised, picturesque gesture. “Ah, yes; The very thought of you. Could you, perhaps, play it again?” he requests once he remembers, his sharp eyes melting almost into kindness. Even the way he speaks makes the words sound like a burden for him.

“Certainly” Chanyeol readily agrees; it’s Kyungsoo’s turn to take a break after him, but he can play his saxophone to make up for the lost lyrics. He can’t fathom why Sehun would ask for that song –he doesn’t seem romantic or in love, he hardly seems sentient in the first place–, but Chanyeol has a job to do, and he does it well for everyone, regardless.

“Good” Sehun nods appreciatively and then turns his gaze elsewhere again, still searching in a bored fashion. He is undoubtedly handsome, with his ash hair styled to the last strand and his emerald suit pressed to the last crease; he also has a natural beauty, porcelain skin and chiseled features, which anyone would be envious of. It’s really unfair that someone stole his soul and froze his heart, no matter what sort of hateful things the man has done in his life since.

Chanyeol’s reverie is broken by another voice, suddenly exclaiming “I’ll give my entire fortune for one tango with you!” so passionately it’s almost inappropriate. It’s close to them too, just on the other side of the bar area, where Kim Junmyeon is kneeling on one knee with a wonderstruck expression on his gentle face, awaiting acquiescence from a stoic Baekhyun –ignoring Jongdae’s judgmental glare. It’s not the first time something like this happens, Junmyeon being rather open and expressive of his admiration for Baekhyun, often resorting to grand gestures to communicate his love to the man publicly, like bringing him twelve bouquets of roses or requesting love songs just for him, even though Baekhyun always rejects his advances. Chanyeol doesn’t understand Kim Junmyeon’s persistence, or his marriage to a woman who is equally showing her preference for someone else in her life for that matter, or how they manage to turn a blind eye to such a widely known anomaly, as if it makes perfect sense to them.

“What do you think of this puppy crush Mr. Kim has on Baekhyun?” Sehun asks him on a whim, his voice calm but his eyes unforgiving and hard as he watches Baekhyun help Junmyeon to his seat at the more private area of the hall, quietly resolving the issue. I think I’m not supposed to have an opinion, Chanyeol mumbles in his head, unconvinced of what Oh Sehun wants to hear.

“It happens” he states as neutrally as possible, his fingers slowly spinning his glass on the counter. Kim Junmyeon is neither the first not the last of Baekhyun’s admirers –perhaps the most extravagant, but he is fundamentally harmless, and that’s probably how Baekhyun manages to tolerate him and treat him with such patience. Chanyeol doesn’t judge the man’s preference either; it has never been stated explicitly, and Baekhyun is as courteous to men as he is to women, always polite above all. But even if he swings that way, and even if he likes or doesn’t like Kim Junmyeon, at the end of the day, Baekhyun lives his own life as he reckons best, and Chanyeol is just the saxophonist in it, not in a position to have an opinion; he cares about Baekhyun, like everyone else at the Pearl does, but he also has faith in him, because Baekhyun is far from gullible and fragile.

“I think it’s amusing” Sehun answers his own question, his mouth curling around the words as if he’s saying the exact opposite. “Quite entertaining, in fact. The sheer impossibility of such romantic notions makes them seem ridiculous to me; to watch men fall like this…” his voice is nearly dripping venom, and Chanyeol knows what feeling stings like this, he has seen it masked and cruel in his students too; Oh Sehun is mad jealous –and, alarmingly enough, it’s the clearest emotion he has ever displayed.

Chanyeol doesn’t understand this either, in all honesty; Sehun is not like the others who court Baekhyun, hopelessly falling for Baekhyun’s charms and vying to win his affections, being the only one to whom Baekhyun returns an interest in, and yet he is the most demanding of them all. He needs Baekhyun’s attention whenever he visits the club, for Baekhyun to greet him personally and look after him like a king, and Baekhyun does. He wants him by his side, to monopolize for hours in small talk, holding his hand tenderly, and Baekhyun stays. He likes to show him off on his arm like a precious acquisition, dance with him and walk him to his office, and Baekhyun accepts. Sehun is the only one who is given so much, and he takes it all for granted, as if he is entitled to it by some higher cause; and yet, he turns scarily possessive of them at the flimsiest threat, like a child who eats three cakes every night as it pleases and gets mad at a cherry on top missing.

He notices a subtle wave of Sehun’s hand, elegant and well practiced, and Chanyeol’s eyes follow the direction reflexively, surprised when his gaze meets Baekhyun’s across the room. It feels unsettling to find him at the receiving end of Sehun’s gesture, like an obedient dog beckoned by its master, and his expression seems grim, less good-natured than usual, as if this is not the same person who meanders around Chanyeol familiarly every night. The rest of him doesn’t look different though, his steps steady, shoulders confident, body swaying tantalizingly as he crosses the isles between the tables. He is wearing a sapphire blue suit with satin lapels that contrasts his hair to a deep wine red color, his features so beautiful, like a starlit fragment of the midnight sky. But as he gets closer, Chanyeol can see something intense and dark hiding in the lines of his face, his eyes blazing with fire, like a raging inferno is consuming him from within. He is angry, Chanyeol realizes, and he’s coming closer, like fire Sehun summoned to burn them alive.

“You called?” Baekhyun displays terrifying discipline sometimes, and Chanyeol swears never has such a lovely, smooth voice made him shiver so dreadfully before; there is no speck of sentiment in his question, not even annoyance or interest, and his face remains impassive. Sehun takes Baekhyun’s hand in both of his warmly and brings it to his lips for a flattering kiss, which seems more like an unpleasant burden to Baekhyun than a compliment. The redhead risks a glance at Chanyeol, his gaze looking uncharacteristically guarded, and then he abruptly pulls his hand away from Sehun’s clutches, assuming one of his usual, graceful positions, leaning fluidly against the bar’s counter. He looks up at Sehun expectantly, with a hint of impatience, clearly unhappy to be here.

“Mr. Park plays the blues so sentimentally; I thought you might be in the mood for dancing tonight” Sehun explains, the corners of his lips curving slightly in a charismatic, wooing smile, his eyes looking only at Baekhyun –and once again, he is taking Baekhyun’s kindness for granted, directing his every move like a puppeteer, which doesn’t seem to sit well with the shorter man, the line of his jaw hardening. Baekhyun momentarily breaks the staring completion to glance at Chanyeol when the saxophonist stands up dutifully, having understood that the praise for his performing skill wasn’t purposeless; it’s his cue to leave. He nods politely at Baekhyun, and for a moment Baekhyun’s hazel gaze softens, turning indistinctly sad and apologetic, before hardening again, revolving to Sehun with a vengeance.

“Is that a question?” he asks in the same empty voice as before, only this time, his anger leaks in his glower like a challenge, stabbing Sehun’s pride, defiant and demanding. Chanyeol doesn’t know what sort of relationship this is, why Baekhyun puts up with so much willingly but then needs to tear Sehun apart a little to keep going; this fervent hatred of Baekhyun’s is another puzzle piece that Chanyeol can’t comprehend, but it’s also the only one so strong to be slowly rubbing off on him.

Sehun takes Baekhyun’s limp hand again and holds it to his chest this time, giving Baekhyun a vaguely patronizing look before smiling at him again. “Dance with me, darling?” he asks, voice sweet like honey, forced to comply with Baekhyun’s wishes because Oh Sehun is a smart man, and he knows that one small degradation will grant him the prize with certainty. Baekhyun’s sought victory is thus short lived, leaving him with no choice but to outright accept or refuse the proposition; his lips twist in contempt and repulsion the longer he glares at Sehun’s smile, and this must mean he has decided on only one possible answer.

“Fine, darling” he spits through his teeth almost hostilely, absolutely seething to be the one losing the battle, his voice wrapping around the endearment like a curse. Sehun takes what he can get though, leaving Chanyeol behind without so much as a glance, to lead Baekhyun to the dance floor by the hand with the smile of a man who won a shooting star at the lottery; Baekhyun keeps staring daggers at him menacingly, until his expression evens out by default when they reach the dancing crowd, not one to give an excuse for gossip amongst the less noble of patrons. It’s a pity he has to suffer like this, like he owes anyone anything in life, but the thought is out of Chanyeol’s mind as the couple turns out of sight, the saxophonist hurrying onstage under bright lights.

~* 5 *~

On an unusually sunny autumn day, the golden hour spreads in the sky like a symphony of flaming colors against the clouds, their edges set afire from the sun’s dying glow. It has only just begun, the sky’s blue dome turning a hazy white, the sunrays pale, with a slight gold tint to them, washing through the city kindly, reminiscent of brighter days after weeks of dull, smoky gray smudges. There are colors today, rich ambers and crimsons and little splashes of yellow, wavering in the trees and shyly falling onto the stone pavement here and there. The air is crisp, true to the season, the temperature unkind, but Baekhyun couldn’t resist a walk today, a rare chance to observe autumn’s majestic hours as nature slowly sinks into slumber, without the dull washout of the rain.

He is strolling down one of his favorite neighborhoods, tidy and cozy, with a narrow street lined by picturesque cafés and little shops, large trees and buildings of a classic architecture style shaping the skyline. There is a fence with curled ironwork across the street, signaling the fringes of a city park; the branches far above the fence arch over the pavement gracefully, and the sun paints the paths and planes on the other side in inviting vermillion and golden hues, shapes obscured by playful leaves and the browning ivy vines wrapped around the iron railing. Baekhyun breathes in autumn’s fresh air and the scent of bitter coffee, with just a hint of parchment and dried varnish from the music shops around, displaying polished instruments behind their glass windows. People look so chic and calm as they amble by, admiring the quaint accents of fine arts in the area, the neighborhood fitting the sunset perfectly, warm and colorful.

Even though he doesn’t often get the chance, Baekhyun likes going on long, soothing walks in the city, carrying nothing with him but the coat on his back, all worries and daily responsibilities fading behind him. He is usually too busy to have personal time with himself, owning a demanding and time-consuming business; it was his dream to start a nightclub and fill it with people like himself, who have been wronged, kicked aside and left with nothing in life, and the spark of that dream hasn’t faded, trying to make something beautiful out of something so ugly. He has grown used to the hardships over the years, and he has fought hard for his dream; now he has a nightclub and a loving family, and even though the struggle never seems to end, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He has learnt to live with the ghosts haunting his mind and plaguing his thoughts, embedded in everything good he has accomplished; he always watches them in the shadows and kisses them good night, it’s how Baekhyun has always lived. But there are times when he feels like he will suffocate under the constant pressure, and these long walks are his escape, mindless and uneventful as they are, helping him forget who he is and what he’s done, carrying him away from a reality equally sweet and painful, and allowing him room to breathe.

His dark shoes bring him to a corner shop that caught his eye, probably due to its burgundy wall around its wide windows, adorned with crisp and darkened vines. It seems to be a café, not exceptionally crowded and rather quiet in its sophistication, with porcelain teacups and pink cyclamens on the tables; but it’s the pastries display that ultimately draws Baekhyun inside, his mood craving for something spiced and sweet. The little bell over the door dings as he enters but the patrons don’t bother with his arrival, pleasantly dazed by the indoors warmth and the aroma of coffee mixing with the scent of cookies in the air. A song is playing softly, lulling the sparse, humming conversation of the people occupying the small number of tables to a comforting harmony, and Baekhyun leisurely walks to the display, feeling a sense of serenity blooming like a flower in his chest, as if this place has been made for moments exactly like this, for him to stumble upon this evening.

“Good evening, sir, how may I help you?” the man behind the counter offers politely, the unusual switch in roles startling Baekhyun a little; he is the one saying the very same words every night for years, to more people than he can remember, and he is not used to receiving them from others. He manages a smile for the man nonetheless, wordlessly acknowledging him before peering at the mouthwatering sweets behind the glass display; it’s always so hard to pick just one.

“I’d like an apple scone, please” he decides after a moment of contemplation, the cinnamon and clove spice tingling his nose, promising comfort on a cold day in fall.

“Oh, we will have fresh ones out of the oven in a few minutes; would you like to wait?” the man offers kindly with a hint of excitement in his voice; it’s the tone that gives away his love for the job, his service immaculate and polite. Baekhyun knows firsthand it’s not always easy taking care of customers, so he admires and respects the man for his zeal.

“Yes, I’d like that, thank you” he agrees, estimating he has enough time until he needs to open the Pearl; the man leaves for the kitchen with a smile, releasing a strong whiff of baked goods into the shop when he opens the back door. Baekhyun could get used to a place like this. He tries to appease his impatience by gazing at the pastries on display, which look just as fresh and gorgeous as the one he has ordered, his mouth watering even more at the promise of something hot and delicious on his tongue; but he’s willing to wait for a bit, in order to indulge his soul. It’s the little things that can turn a good day into a great day, and a few minutes of patience are a small price to pay.

Having currently no one to interact with, Baekhyun runs his eyes over the assortment of sweets in front of him again, each looking more appetizing and pretty than the next. With a contented smile, he lets his gaze wander over the mint-and-white striped wallpaper, at the lights hanging overhead and at the view outside the window, a pedestrian alley and a tended garden at the opposite corner; it’s a really pretty café and its location is also very nice, he should remember to visit again next time, maybe on a different season too.

He is not sure why his gaze strays a little, but he eventually finds himself observing the customer by the window; he knows it’s not appropriate to stare, he was raised a gentleman, but there is something about that man in a gray suit, holding a handful of papers densely inked with notes, that he can’t take his eyes off of him. Raven black hair, combed neatly to the side and back, contrasting against a fair neck that leads to strong, wide shoulders; the man is leaning against the back of his chair comfortably, a pair of endless legs crossed at the knee under the table creating a picture of inadvertent, effortless elegance. The stranger has nice hands, and endearingly pointy ears- wait.

Baekhyun squints a little, the bright sunset lighting bathing the man through the window making details almost indiscernible, but he is certain; if it isn’t his very own Park Chanyeol.

The saxophonist looks quite engrossed in his work, plump lips occasionally pouting or being bitten by sharp white teeth. A small frown mars his forehead momentarily, till he finishes the difficult part of whatever he is reading and his expression smoothes out again. His skin is glowing in the sunlight, hints of intensely illuminated rose and amber shades wrapping around his beautiful features and playing in the shadow of his lashes; Park Chanyeol is a very handsome man, with wide, almond shaped eyes and noble face structure, his lips shaped beautifully like petals, his skin soft. Baekhyun personally finds him very pleasing to look at –something Jongdae never fails to tease him about–, and he sometimes tries to hold the gaze of those deep eyes, warm as molten chocolate, but shy, blinking and turning away before Baekhyun claims what he wants from them; he wonders what his reflection in them looks like, or how it feels to sink in them, if only Chanyeol would let him.

Baekhyun had been wondering what Chanyeol looks like in daylight, in natural soft light instead of bright artificial one, and the picture doesn’t disappoint; he has something pure and ardently beautiful about him, an unintentional and entirely captivating charm in the way he turns the page and nudges his cup, bringing it to his full lips. Baekhyun can see little pieces of the saxophonist he knows, and some slightly different, revealing new facets of the man; his interest sparks, intrigued by the uncharacteristic image of Chanyeol doing ordinary things, urging his imagination to other things that are perhaps ordinary for him, like playing the piano or ordering his favorite dessert. What melody did his skillful fingers play last? How does he drink his coffee in that pale cup? What does he look like in the mornings? Baekhyun is always trying to guess such little things, not possessing the necessary confidence to ask; Chanyeol probably wouldn’t refuse to answer, always so kindhearted and innocent, but it’s himself Baekhyun is unsure of. If they become close, closer, Baekhyun fears he will not be able to stop. Chanyeol’s pull is too strong on him, who secretly enjoys being tempted by those big eyes and soft lips of his a bit too much; Baekhyun’s curiosity is always dangerous, like a candle near a curtain, so he’d rather keep his distance, admiring from afar and wondering to himself but never breeching the fine line between the two of them.

However, he thinks that the occasional praise that paints the most delightful pink color across Chanyeol’s cheeks will remain one of his guilty pleasures.

Watching him read so peacefully, undisturbed by his surroundings, Baekhyun wonders what Chanyeol might be studying so dutifully. Oh, but of course, he realizes then; the conservatory is close by, so he must be on a break between his classes. Baekhyun starts daunting himself, arguing in his head whether he should walk over and greet Chanyeol or if it’s best not to interrupt him. He doubts Chanyeol would ignore him –he is prone to devoting his full attention to Baekhyun whenever the latter asks for it–, but the two of them meeting outside of the club for the first time might come as a great surprise to the saxophonist, and fluster him unfairly on such a quiet afternoon. Besides, Baekhyun is not sure he can hide that he has an especially soft spot for him when no one else is around to act as a distraction, so perhaps it’s wiser to stay on the sidelines this once and silently appreciate Chanyeol’s finer details to himself.

“Sir?” a voice asks for his attention, and Baekhyun snaps out of his daze, turning his head to the front and finding the baker holding a tray of marvelously scented, steaming scones. Baekhyun hopes his daydreaming wasn’t too obvious a moment ago, and he clears he throat awkwardly, his lips twitching into a hopeful little smile at the sight of the baked pastries; this can be officially announced a great day now. “Would you like to be served here or should I wrap it for you?” the man proceeds customarily, discreetly opting not to comment on Baekhyun’s inappropriate ogling at another customer a while ago.

“Wrap it, please, thank you” he requests politely, straightening his posture and automatically searching for his wallet in his pocket. He had originally intended to enjoy the pastry here, but that would have been impossible to do without making himself known to Chanyeol; despite his qualms on their relationship, it would be rude to ignore the musician like so, and Baekhyun would never mean to hurt Chanyeol’s feelings in any way. They are part of the same nocturnal family, after all, and Baekhyun loves each one of his pearls equally and dearly. The man behind the counter prepares his package right away, complete with a ribbon around the box, and Baekhyun bites his cheek, deep in thought as he watches the man tie a bow on top. “Actually,” he adds as an afterthought, and the man turns to him instantly “would you please serve one more for my friend by the window? But please, don’t tell him it was from me” he decides on a whim, buying something delicious for Chanyeol, because why not, it’s just a friendly gesture no one will ever need to know about.

The man glances in Chanyeol’s direction, reluctant to believe that they’re really friends, so when he looks at Baekhyun again, the auburn haired man adds a convincing smile, one he knows most people can’t resist directly; it works like a charm this time too, the man turning flustered and agreeing easily, setting one more sweet pastry aside to be served, right in front of Baekhyun’s eyes. For once Baekhyun feels pleased with himself, using his looks harmlessly for a good cause; it’s a blessing and a curse that people find him attractive, but more often than not it’s a constricting noose that no one can see or understand.

“Thank you very much, have a nice evening” Baekhyun wishes the man after paying for both servings, picking up his box and maybe heading to the park, to enjoy the sweet pastry over a walk in the crunchy leaves. He feels inexplicably giddy, satisfied to be spoiling the saxophonist in secret, and the bell rings again over his head as he leaves the café, the most cheerful note he’s felt all afternoon.

~* 6 *~

On most nights, the Pearl shines bright until the morning sun takes over, soft notes and Kyungsoo’s melodious voice escorting the late patrons home; but every once in a blue moon, there are nights everyone secretly hopes for, when the crowd thins out and disperses naturally over the course of the midnight jolly hours, and they are all able to go home earlier than usual for a good night’s sleep. Baekhyun seems more at ease on those nights, seeing everyone off with a comfortable smile, evidently feeling relieved that his staff will get some proper rest –Jongdae just might be the exception, claiming an early night to be a prime opportunity to go out, clearly unwilling to miss out on whatever questionably appropriate activities Jongdae’s idea of fun involves, but he seems to have an endless supply of energy in the first place, so no one worries for his good condition.

Such an early night happens to bless them on a rainy midweek, and the club is closing for tonight but no one seems to mind –if anything, they have all been anticipating it for a while. Chanyeol certainly has, feeling like the luckiest man in the world to be free to go home and crash, bundled in blankets; he’s had quite a grueling day at the conservatory this evening, most of his students coincidentally starting on new compositions, therefore demanding a great deal of effort and attention from him. He’s been longing for his bed since the afternoon, and a numbing sense of relief is sloshing peacefully in his chest, knowing he will be reunited with his pillow soon.

The last of patrons have been cleared out by Ravi and everyone is helping to tidy up the place so that they can all go home faster, picking up glasses, helping to wash them, even sweeping the floor and taking out the trash. Such chores might not be included in their job description, but they all lend a hand willingly; they know they can rely on each other, and it feels fulfilling to be able to help even a little bit. Hyuck seems disconnected from reality, wiping the same table over and over mechanically, Taemin is trailing after Hongbin like an exhausted zombie, and Yixing is patiently keeping company to Ravi’s wife, a very pregnant Sejeong, who is no longer allowed to help around in her advanced condition. Chanyeol brings another tray of dirty glasses to the bar, feeling faintly proud of himself for managing to deliver them intact; if it were up to him, he’d much rather assist in chores that don’t involve something as fragile, but Hongbin has more confidence in the clumsy musician than is probably wise, trusting him with carrying glassware around unsupervised –and Chanyeol has prayed to every god he knows for help, successfully so far.

“You’re also on sailor duty tonight” Jongdae pipes up behind the counter, reaching out for the tray in Chanyeol’s hands with a wicked grin; Chanyeol groans tiredly, wounded by the rude reminder the blond man seems so keen on announcing. They all get sailor duty on rotation, but he especially hates it when it’s his turn –and for good reason.

Resident drunken sailor, also known amongst the club’s staff as bell-bottom Minseok, is a short man, harmless and splifficated beyond his wits most of the time. He is short and fairly friendly, typically wearing his sailor uniform at all times, albeit it ends up a bit ruffled and untidy by the end of the night. No one knows exactly where this man serves on duty, or why he chooses to spend every other night in this club, drinking enough alcohol to put down an ox, but no one bothers with such questions, since Minseok never causes trouble and he can find his own way home safely –not to mention he’s most often in no condition to give comprehensible answers to any questions, even basic ones.

His presence is charming in a way, the consistency of his attendance cultivating a weird sense of familiarity between the man and the staff, and his drunken helplessness can seem endearing sometimes. There is only one thing about him that troubles Chanyeol deeply; his unreasonable, stupidly persistent infatuation with the saxophonist.

It is truly a mystery why the man would carry a torch for him, of all employees; Chanyeol even considered it to be a joke the first week, but alas, he wouldn’t be as lucky. Minseok’s bold, flirty manners and cheesy one-liners used to make him a bit uncomfortable at first, but he has grown used to them by now, waving him off indifferently every time the sailor offers a drink or an absurdly flattering compliment. From someone who had never been particularly well-versed in the face of romantic interest, thanks to fending against Minseok’s undeterred advances, Chanyeol has transformed into an elegant heartbreaker, gracefully declining even the most intricate attempts of other patrons to woo him. By far, however, Minseok is the most tenacious among them, unrelenting in his pursuit.

But nothing can be done since it’s Chanyeol’s turn to walk Minseok to his cab tonight; they take turns leading him safely out of the club every night, taking pity on his intoxicated vulnerability. Chanyeol is not very excited at the prospect of another flirtatious encounter, but he’s better than avoiding his duty for something as trivial as a few romantic words he can pretend he never heard. To him, it’s more concerning that everyone else is looking forward to this interaction he can't stand, because by some collectively twisted sense of humor, they find it amusing when Minseok clumsily tries to court Chanyeol; Jongdae is chief instigator of this entertainment on Chanyeol’s expense, and if Chanyeol was any less mature, he’d punch the smug smile off the blond man’s handsome face, because that’s what friends are for.

“This is unfair and you’re all heartless” Chanyeol whines under his breath with no real bite in his words, pouting childishly at Jongdae and Doyoung behind the counter; as expected, he receives no sympathy from the cruel bartender nor from the ever busy server washing a pile of cocktail glasses. Jongdae shrugs his shoulders as he wipes another glass pointedly, his sharp eyes looking at Chanyeol yet remaining entirely unaffected by the taller’s miserable expression; Chanyeol puffs out his cheeks indignantly, knowing he has no choice, and Jongdae’s lips curl in a satisfied simper, with a tinge of superiority. The saxophonist ruffles his hair, pointlessly wishing there was a painless way to do this.

His steps are heavy and unwilling as ever as he marches away from the bar and across the hall, exhaling forcefully and then trying to compose his sour expression, mentally bracing himself. Some are already watching him with interest, abandoning their work for a while –even Hyuck pauses his fruitless cleaning of the same table to watch. Chanyeol gets a few sympathetic looks, but he chooses to focus on coping with the hand his fate has dealt him; of course his biggest admirer would be a drunken sailor from nowhere. His mind tries to convince him that it’s not that bad, he even received an apple scone as gift from a secret admirer last week, but the argument doesn’t work very well with him at the moment.

He approaches the familiar, shadowy corner and the small table with the single chair that lies tucked away there; the table has been cleared of empty glasses and bottles already but, regrettably, why would anyone help Chanyeol by shooing out this patron sooner? The man seems to have passed out on the table, face uncomfortably squished against the surface, hands dangling limp, his black hair falling all over his face. Sometimes, Chanyeol feels pity for this man more than anything else, wondering why he needs to bring himself in this condition every time and what could possibly be so abhorrent to fuel such drinking passion.

Chanyeol stops to stand across the table at a safe distance and clears his throat loudly –which, predictably, yields no result. The man continues to slumber even after Chanyeol has cleared his throat and called his name out loud a couple of times. His coworkers are already giggling and Chanyeol pouts to no one in particular, his expression the very countenance of misery, inwardly trying to decide if it’s worth to kick the table –but maybe Baekhyun would not approve of that. He sighs in resignation and walks around the table in the end, noticeably annoyed, grabbing the back of the chair and jostling it harshly; it even jumps on the floor a bit, catching the attention of everyone who hadn’t already been looking. At this point, even Baekhyun might be watching from the corner he’d been sweeping with a broom, but Chanyeol has greater imminent concerns to face.

Minseok startles in his seat when the floor shakes, straightening his body with characteristic army rigidity for a moment but soon falling limp against the back of the chair again, his brain too inebriated to keep the rest of his body in control, limbs numb. Chanyeol stands beside him with his arms crossed over his chest, a deep frown shading his eyes while Minseok looks around disoriented, eyelids heavy, hair sticking out everywhere. Chanyeol catches out of the corner of his eye Jongdae snickering at the confused sailor, or perhaps at Chanyeol looking like a mighty angry puppy, but he ignores all thoughts about the bartender when Minseok finally focuses on him; his red cheeks fluff up in a gummy smile and dazed eyes blink up at him, the usual smitten reaction whenever he sees Chanyeol.

“Yello, darlin’” Minseok slurs, trying his best to sound and look seductive despite his limbs not cooperating, slapping his own face somewhere in the process. Jongdae is already cackling shamelessly behind the bar, some others of the staff joining him, only more subtly. To be completely honest, Chanyeol would have found this entire ordeal somewhat funny too, if he weren’t the object of the man’s affections. There really is something genuinely funny in the way Minseok tries to rest his head in his hand and ends up punching his jaw, eyes barely open, limbs nearly falling off the chair as he sways whole, not with counting his ridiculous crush on Chanyeol –like any decent human would ever take an interest in him for something other than his musical prowess. The taller exhales through his nose to keep his composure, not to do anything in the heat of the moment that would disgrace the reputation of the Black Pearl, a reputation Baekhyun has strived to build over the years.

“I’m afraid we’re closed for the night” he delivers the customary message curtly, not that politeness makes a difference to Minseok; apart from the fact that he can’t see straight from the amount of alcohol in his system and Chanyeol is probably double in his vision –if the unfocused, assumedly seductive gaze is anything to go by–, Minseok is also so irrevocably love-struck with Chanyeol for unfathomable reasons, that he wouldn’t mind if Chanyeol literally kicked him in the gut or swore at him worse than he hears every day at the port. Given how unexceptional Chanyeol is and how poorly he has treated Minseok ever since the short man met him and started flirting with him –very distastefully and persistently–, Chanyeol has concluded there’s something wrong in the head with this one, and that’s about it.

“How much for a kiss, darlin’?” the sailor asks boldly, voice slightly giggly but confident, his lips stretching into a kitten-like smile. Someone gasps in shock in the background, whispers spreading, Jongdae is still laughing and enjoying himself, but Chanyeol is not even shaken by the scandalizing, upfront suggestion; believe it or not, he has heard much worse from him. It’s still an uncalled for, inappropriate comment though, one that makes him look like an item for sale, so he raises his eyebrows in disbelief, jaw clenching in anger.

“Excuse me?” he growls low, but Minseok’s smile widens unreasonably in response.

“I’ll pay four, ten times that!” he exclaims jovially, slamming his hand on the table so awkwardly that it slips on the edge, probably painfully so. Chanyeol is thoroughly confused and horrified, but his offended, bewildered expression does nothing to hinder Minseok from going on his drunken rant, waving his short arms around and nearly hitting Chanyeol, who is forced to take a step back for safety reasons. “I’ll buy the entire Khan Al Khalili for you, I’ll pay the world’s fortunes for your liiiips!” he wails, his body teetering out of balance due to his theatrical movements; he leans backwards, too far, and gravity pulls him down the rest of the way.

With a noisy, graceless tumble, Minseok falls out of his chair, lethargically kicking his legs and flailing his arms out of synch, none of which help break his fall; he ends up landing flat on his back with a loud thud, body sore and sprawled on the floor, nearly unconscious. The spectators laugh in chorus, but Chanyeol flinches at the clumsy fall he witnesses up close, guessing the throbbing pain it must have caused; the sailor is lucky he is so drunk, unfeeling of major discomfort.

“Serves him right” Ravi mutters grumpily, coincidentally passing by with a tray of glasses just then, refusing to even glance at Minseok on the floor; he doesn’t hold any personal grudge against him, but he is certainly not fond of Minseok either. Ravi is very protective of the people in the club, showing claws when needed, and he has expressed his dislike for the way Minseok flirts with Chanyeol since the beginning. Minseok is all talk though, never lifting so much as a finger on Chanyeol to give Ravi the excuse he needs to grab him by the collar and throw him out; as long as he behaves, they ought to be civil.

“Look here, Minseok” Chanyeol sighs tiredly, pulling the chair the man had been sitting on previously and sitting down himself, nudging Minseok on the knee with his shoe; the man stirs, the alcohol numbing the pain, and sure enough, when he looks up and sees Chanyeol, a silly, sappy smile spreads on his lips. Chanyeol refrains from rolling his eyes and tries to maintain eye contact with the man’s hazy gaze very calmly, demanding his attention as he tries to explain. “I am not for sale; any part of me.” He states with finality, and the man on the ground opens his mouth to retort but Chanyeol doesn’t let him. “I am also not interested in engaging in any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with you, is that clear?” he has to word it very explicitly, much to the audience’s amusement, but Chanyeol tries to remain unaffected by their reactions, focusing on the sailor and trying to get his point across for the nth time.

For a moment, Minseok is mindlessly silent, which gives Chanyeol slight hope that he has finally understood and accepted the musician’s rejection –but then his expression turns to one of…longing?

“You’re so hot” he bemoans loudly from the floor without any shame, and Chanyeol hides his face in his hands in embarrassment and frustration, the others hooting and laughing at his vain attempts. Of course it’d be like this.

“You’re so drunk” he counters, gathering his wits quickly; he shouldn’t take anything this man says seriously, he’s obviously not sober and he might be suffering a concussion, after all. Minseok giggles unreasonably, nonsensically, as if to prove Chanyeol’s point, and the taller sighs in surrender; at least he tried. “Come on, there is a cab waiting for you outside” he says, less harsh than before, his previous words not lessening the compassion he feels for the man. Chanyeol helps him up on unsteady feet, but soon it turns out to be impossible for Minseok to walk or even stand by himself, so Chanyeol supports his weight against his own body, throwing Minseok’s arm around his shoulders and curling his longer arm around the shorter’s back.

“You smell nice” Minseok mumbles at some point while Chanyeol is trying to balance him, the shorter’s once polished shoes dragging on the floor, ankles twisting uncomfortably, incapable of walking. Chanyeol opts to ignore the unconventional compliment and the clingy man it came from as a whole, pretending he is carrying a mute sack of potatoes. By this point, everyone knows the show is over and they’re back to minding their business, letting Chanyeol lag the semi-conscious man across the club’s hall in peace; for all his naughty talk, Minseok is pretty tame in Chanyeol’s hold, limp and confused, possibly not even realizing that someone is carrying him –and for an adult man his size, he is heavy.

Chanyeol is striving to reach the door, almost there, when a second supporting arm appears unexpectedly on Minseok’s back and the short man’s weight suddenly lessens. Chanyeol glances over the sailors black hair to find Baekhyun, kindly helping him carry the small man the rest of the way.

“’xcuse me, can’t you see we’re kinda in the middle of somethin’ ‘ere?” the drunk man in question slurs in Baekhyun’s face, mildly affronted. It’s doubtful he can see past his nose and recognize the club owner beside him, but Chanyeol is acutely aware of Baekhyun’s identity, and he feels his ears burn by the unfounded implications in the sailor’s words; somehow, it’s even more embarrassing that it has to be Baekhyun listening to such indecent references, instead of anyone else amongst the staff who constantly jest with him. Baekhyun doesn’t seem to pay any attention to Minseok’s words, however, as anyone within common sense would do; he has a similar case of Kim Junmyeon in his hands every so often, after all.

“Okay, sir” he soothes the man’s temper with a polite, pretty smile, and proceeds to ignore his inebriated wishes, throwing the sailor’s free arm around his sturdy shoulders to support his weight better; Minseok doesn’t seem to mind, under the influence of alcohol, passively accepting any help he can get not to face-plant to the floor.

Together in their silent consensus, Baekhyun and Chanyeol manage to bring Minseok outside safely, the sailor muttering incomprehensibly when the cold air hits his face and being promptly ignored by both men. There is a cab already waiting for them outside, the driver waving at them in greeting from his seat –there aren’t many drivers working late at night, so the few of them who do, know the staff of the Black Pearl already. It takes a bit of effort to get Minseok in the taxi, his limbs too limp and numb to cooperate, bumping against everything, but they succeed and close the door eventually, the cab driving off down the street right away.

Chanyeol and Baekhyun wait on the sidewalk until the car turns the corner, standing beside each other under the yellow glow of a streetlamp, faint after burning for so long tonight. They are practically never left alone like this and Chanyeol feels severely out of his comfort zone, but the silence between them is comfortable, songs from other clubs nearby echoing distantly, the cold night air biting their cheeks. There is no hurry to go back inside, the calming emptiness of the wide street being a welcome change to the noisy interior of the club. It looks very different out here at this time of night, the stones glistening in humidity after the rain, the buildings towering like solid black shadows on either side of the street, and the starry sky extending like a glittering veil overhead. The night is clear after a day of heavy drizzling, but the light is sparse, the lamp posts too lonely to lift the darkness dripping from the sky and breaking apart near the bronze brightness of the lanterns; occasionally, a car might drive by and flash its lights into narrowed cat eyes in the alleys, or steps might break the silence in staccato as someone heads down the street. This lifeless picture of the city would have been much more eerie if it weren’t for the gentle hue of the night, ever so peaceful as it falls with a round moon, soothing all worries in its dark embrace.

The illusion that time has stopped in his thoughts is suddenly broken when Chanyeol feels a nudge to the elbow, and he flinches slightly at the unexpected contact. Remembering where he is and who is with him, he turns to look at Baekhyun beside him, shoving his hands in his pockets awkwardly; he needs to stop spacing out around his boss, tarnishing the reputation of his good manners. He always feels meek around Baekhyun, the man’s charm being utterly disarming, but he needs to do better if he hopes his boss will think of him as a worthwhile person. There is a pale amber glow on Baekhyun’s skin and sparks reflected in his eyes, his brick red fringe in disarray across his forehead.

“Are you okay?” the shorter man asks quietly while looking at him straight in the eyes, the dark obscuring his expression, but his voice carries his concern perfectly; Baekhyun asks this question often, not just when it comes to flirty customers who act out of line but when the staff seem tired or anxious too. He always tries to take care of everyone in the best way possible, even going so far as to reprimand or refuse to entertain a patron for their unwanted advances and agitating presence; he doesn’t hesitate to make difficult decisions if he needs to protect his staff, and Chanyeol has to admit that he is thankful, as much as he admires him for it. The taller sighs, knowing that it’s always best to answer the question honestly.

“Thank you, I’m fine” he assures calmly, looking away and rubbing his hands on his arms a little, as he feels the cold starting to seep through the fabric of his jacket and shirt. He can tell Baekhyun is still watching him intently, the dim lights of the street glinting in his droopy eyes as he looks up at Chanyeol, perhaps unconvinced but patient enough as not to say anything yet. Chanyeol frowns at the pavement under his shoes, ruminating Minseok’s words over and over uselessly, trying to decide if he feels any different because of them. “He sounds pretty absurd sometimes, it can be a little unsettling; who would ‘buy all jewels and spices for my eyes’, or buy oriental markets for a dance and a kiss?” he scoffs in the end, feeling slightly lighter after sharing his thoughts; apparently, he needed to get that off his chest, all the compliments he has received, however irrational and ridiculous and obvious, sitting heavy on his fragile self-esteem, suffocating him slowly. It’s difficult for him, to be told he is worth so much by strangers, crushing his confidence even worse than being ignored. Baekhyun listens well as always, even to such silly matters, and Chanyeol is once again grateful.

“I would buy a market” Baekhyun says then, unexpectedly, and Chanyeol turns his head so fast he almost gives himself whiplash, his breath coming out in a shocked little rasp.

He’s not sure he heard correctly, and he wishes he could see Baekhyun’s expression better in this lighting, his heart beating too hard for articulating words, his stomach rolling on the ground. Baekhyun prolongs the agony, letting a moment of silence sink in, his gaze steady, but no matter how hard Chanyeol stares back with disbelieving, enormous eyes, all he can figure is that Baekhyun is not smiling, the shadows playing too much on his pale skin for Chanyeol to read the subtle lines of his expression and decipher it. He must have misheard, or misunderstood the implications, but that doesn’t prevent his cheeks from turning rapidly beet red.

“It seems interesting” Baekhyun says in the end with a small shrug of his shoulders, voice light and simple, keeping appropriately quiet. Now Baekhyun is smiling, probably that lovely mischievous smile of his, and Chanyeol inwardly sighs in relief, admitting to his delusional exhaustion, the mortification still burning on his cheeks; Baekhyun probably meant the market would be interesting all along, and that’s why he’d buy it, absolutely nothing to do with Chanyeol and his kiss whatsoever. Of course. How could Chanyeol assume otherwise, he shouldn’t even have allowed himself to be confused over this. Stupid Chanyeol, so small and naïve.

After a while of silent staring, when it’s clear Chanyeol has nothing more to say for himself, Baekhyun touches the taller’s elbow again, a little hesitantly before lightly curling his fingers around Chanyeol’s arm. “Let’s go inside; I think you’re slowly freezing into a breathing statue out here” he chuckles quietly, tugging softly on Chanyeol’s arm until the taller moves. Chanyeol nods in agreement silently, not daring to utter a single word in his fluster, and hoping his cheeks are not too visibly red, Baekhyun’s sweet manners making the butterflies run rampart in his stomach with unreasonable enthusiasm.

Baekhyun turns them around on the sidewalk, leading Chanyeol back inside like a lost child, but the taller plants his feet on the ground after a couple of steps, a sudden thought leading him to a very different direction. The shorter stops beside him without protest, hand still hooked on Chanyeol’s elbow tentatively, warm as the rest of him, standing in the empty street and waiting for the saxophonist’s epiphany; Chanyeol feels uncertainty gnawing with the words in his throat, but he decides to voice out his thoughts before he abandons the effort like a coward.

“Are you okay, Baekhyun?” he asks nearly in a whisper, looking down at Baekhyun with cautious eyes; it’s rare that he calls the man by name, and they both notice the unusual occurrence in mild astonishment, the silence turning heavy between them. It must seem strange to him, since Baekhyun is the one always asking after everyone’s wellbeing, and Chanyeol is just the saxophonist in Baekhyun’s life, a little like a friend sometimes but not really, since he barely knows anything that matters about him at all. It’s none of his business to return any fond concern, but he hopes Baekhyun will allow him just this once, because someone needed to ask that question tonight, to make sure Baekhyun is safe and well. Chanyeol hasn’t felt so much interpersonal pressure before as the shorter man looking at him in the eyes right in this moment, giving him rapt attention with an underlying tinge of a look Chanyeol hopes doesn’t mean Baekhyun has taken offence from his ineloquent, clumsy concern; the knot in Chanyeol’s chest becomes increasingly all the more difficult to swallow.

He is troubled, like anyone would be, because he remembers Baekhyun coming downstairs from his office earlier to announce they’d be closing early for the night, smiling and joking when his staff rejoiced, but Chanyeol didn’t miss his distressed frown when he’d been coming down the stairs. He remembers Baekhyun’s smile not reaching his eyes as he walked out the last few customers, and the way he avoided to look at Jongdae in the eye, subtly keeping his distance from the person who knows him best. He remembers seeing Oh Sehun standing grimly behind Baekhyun on the stairs and watching his every move like a hawk, leaving with Jongin and Kyungsoo earlier than the rest, only because Baekhyun insisted that Kyungsoo was free to leave, masking his eagerness with playfulness –but everyone could predict that Jongin and Sehun would follow. Something must have happened in his office to set him on edge, and Chanyeol doesn’t need to know about it, but he is allowed to be concerned.

He just can’t get it out of his head. He knows Baekhyun and Sehun have a strange relationship mixing business and personal issues, infatuation and hatred, and he might never understand it, having no place to try and do so. But he understands that Baekhyun’s mood turns morbid whenever the man visits or asks for him, even worse if he asks to talk to him in private, and Chanyeol has no idea what they do privately, but he also understands that Baekhyun spits the word darling at Sehun as an insult he has reserved for that man alone, and he looks like he would stab him a thousand times if he could. Chanyeol has been sensing something is very amiss between Baekhyun and Sehun for a long while, and he is starting to feel worried.

“Why wouldn’t I be fine?” Baekhyun answers deviously, a confused smile appearing on his face, his expression now slightly more clear in the light coming from inside the club, through the front door they left wide open. Chanyeol has no way of knowing if his puzzlement is genuine or just a trick to deflect the question, but he knows where his limits lie, and it wouldn’t be wise to cross them by asking anything more specific about Baekhyun’s complicated exchanges with Oh Sehun. Even if Chanyeol is truly onto something, Baekhyun’s avoidant answer should be enough to deter him from asking any further; it’s painfully clear Baekhyun won’t be answering any questions tonight, and the musician respects his wish. Chanyeol drops the topic quickly, coming to his senses as if someone just threw a bucket of cold water all over him.

“It’s…nothing. I’m probably being silly, I’m sorry” he apologizes, shaking his head dismissively and pressing his lips in a thin line. He makes to head inside again, but Baekhyun unexpectedly stops him, bringing his other hand on Chanyeol’s elbow too, holding him back and tilting his head to the side endearingly when Chanyeol glances at him in confusion.

“Don’t apologize” he says quietly, his voice sounding sweet but also a little nervous to Chanyeol’s trained ears, like it’s combining thankfulness, endearment and fear, all at once. How strange…He frowns, trying to figure out why Baekhyun is looking at him like this, slightly pleading and sad, perhaps regretting not addressing Chanyeol’s worry honestly, even though he does appreciate the concern. Chanyeol is not sure this means his interest is welcome; he’s always had a little trouble figuring out how to be comfortable around Baekhyun, regarding him as part of the Pearl’s family, but a distant one he doesn’t know how to approach.

A loud thud from inside the club and the following blended murmur of voices break the spell between them, and the moment is gone, both of them recoiling from the eye contact and opting to look at the door instead. Chanyeol steals a few glances as they walk the rest of the short distance inside, but it’s hard to break Baekhyun’s shell and he doesn’t get the slightest read before the club’s warmth engulfs them, as soon as they cross the threshold. Chanyeol is about to thank Baekhyun politely for his help, dismissing any tension or awkwardness between them, but no sooner than they step inside, Baekhyun disappears from beside him, leaving no trace as he blends in with the rest of the staff gathered in the hall. They all seem excited, putting on their coats and getting ready to depart, helping each other, giggling, discussing their plans for the night.

A familiar gray coat is shoved under Chanyeol’s nose before he has time to utter a peep, offered by an overly excited Jongdae chattering a mile a minute about his leisure and drinking plans, half of which Chanyeol is unable to pay attention to, with the way the shorter is trying to help him get his coat on faster, resulting in an awkward, clumsy dance around each other; Jongdae is not really paying attention to him either, and Chanyeol is chasing him in twirls to get his hand through the sleeve.

He forgets about his conversation with Baekhyun in the commotion, and he doesn’t even notice if the man leaves with everyone else or if he’s left behind.

~* 7 *~

Autumn rains sometimes boast an unfair ruthlessness, pouring down over the city endlessly, with biting cold winds and flashes of white light washing over stone and glass briefly, followed by earth shuttering thunder. The sky is overcast with ominous clouds, melting in fat raindrops which fall so densely, that the rain obscures far silhouettes like a trembling, blurry curtain. The entire city sounds like an inked, violently crumbling sheet of paper, roaring thunder reverberating between buildings and throbbing underfoot; paved streets glisten and run with rivulets, every corner and curve drips noisily, and raindrops cling onto the evergreen pines like dim diamonds. It’s oddly beautiful, colorless and dull as it may seem, but there is a cathartic, crisp melancholy to the scene.

The city remains aloof in this downpour, shuffling steps and quiet whispers echoing in the streets halfheartedly, umbrellas floating like black flowers in gray streams, the occasional car sloshing its wheels in roadside ponds. It must be sunset on the other side of the sky, but it’s too dark to tell under the clouds. Chanyeol frowns at the raindrops as they splash around his shoes, sticking to the hems of his trousers and soaking the fabric in a progressively larger stain; it’s a bad day to forget your umbrella, especially when the rain decides to pick up. Lashes blinking and lips pursed against the rainfall, he crosses the road hurriedly, scowling when the Black Pearl’s sign graciously trickles down more water on his hat; what has he ever done to it.

A wave of relief surges through him the moment he crosses the threshold, finally safe from the rain, and he promptly shuts the door in the face of the downpour outside. He sighs, feeling heavy and uncomfortable, drenched as he is and messy from walking all the way here from the conservatory in the mercy of the elements, without an umbrella. His hat is ruined, his coat has absorbed enough rain to wet the shoulders of his suit jacket underneath, his pants are floppy with water at the hems and his shoes have splotches of mud all over; he looks about as groomed and distressed as a sopping wet street cat. How charming for a saxophonist who will soon have to perform on stage…

“Welcome, Mr. Park” a familiar voice rings behind him airily, and Chanyeol spins on his heel instantly, inwardly cringing at the squeak of his shoe against the floor. He had been expecting some of the staff to be at the club already, as always, some clocking in earlier than others, but it’s no less surprising –or mortifying– that the first person to see him in this unflattering condition is his boss. Flawless, elegant Baekhyun, with his dazzling smile and compelling presence, who has been giving him deeply pensive and absentminded looks all week, ever since that night Chanyeol dared ask if he was okay. Chanyeol tries to reciprocate the friendly greeting but he ends up gulping down any coherent words in nervousness, struggling with words, because he’s never been remarkably proficient with them. How wonderful, he must take me for a complete fool now.

In the wake of his silence, Baekhyun decides to approach him for a closer look, walking around the entry booth with calm grace, hazel eyes assessing the damage. “You got caught in the drizzle too?” he quips jestingly, tilting his head with an amused smile, his sharp eyes falling to the taller man’s rain-stained shoulders. Chanyeol stutters in his fluster over the incriminating evidence on him, nearly swallowing his heart, tensely clutching his instrument case in his hand.

“Ah, yes, so it seems” he mumbles quietly, taking off his hat in nervousness –but only then realizing a moment too late that his hair must have been ruined underneath it as well; a few wet strands flopping in his eye is all the evidence he needs, and he shrinks his shoulders in embarrassment, not used to sporting such an unkempt appearance in public. There is a great deal of unfairness plaguing his luck, Chanyeol thinks, cringing at the uncomfortable slide of a raindrop down his neck and wishing for the ground to open and swallow him already; he feels helplessly stranded, with no one around to save him and nowhere to hide from the jeweled gaze focused on him intently, in such an unattractive state. Baekhyun observes people often, as if he’s trying to see under the surface and figure their life stories, guess all their sadness and read their thoughts, and he often observes Chanyeol too in the context of this harmless hobby of his; but it hasn’t happened before that his twinkling eyes watch Chanyeol’s every mistake with an endeared look on his beautiful features, soft and playful, and like there are words on the tip of his tongue, which Chanyeol is almost afraid to hear.

“Let me take your coat” Baekhyun offers obligingly in the end, defusing the pressure sitting heavy on Chanyeol’s chest, and he crosses the few steps between them to help, even though he doesn’t really have to go through such trouble; Chanyeol knows he shouldn’t burden him, and he wouldn’t want to stain Baekhyun’s elegant outfit with his drenched clothes, but he still finds it difficult to refuse the offer when Baekhyun looks so happy and willing to help, like he always does when he is taking care of the Pearl’s people. He can be irresistible in so many ways, that sometimes it seems impossible in this entire universe to refuse Baekhyun anything.

Chanyeol murmurs a small thank you, letting Baekhyun do as he pleases; it feels a little like losing his sense of gravity when Baekhyun is standing so close, as if the man has his own gravity, inviting everyone close to him into his own universe with a vague force. It might be just giddiness though, because Chanyeol is not used to people fawning over him, spoiling him with attention on insignificant matters about himself, and Baekhyun hardly ever comes so close or circles around him, pulling Chanyeol out of his comfort waters once more.

Baekhyun likes making an effort to pamper his staff, but his casual touches rarely extend to Chanyeol, despite his behavior towards him being always comfortable and friendly; it never felt like any tactile exchange was necessary between them, short conversations and small smiles being all the attention they gave each other, so Chanyeol has to admit that this sort of interest strangely makes him feel like he has breached the next level of closeness. His cheeks catch fire when the shorter looks up and gives him a bright smile while helping him take the garment off his shoulders, the wet stain on his suit under the coat surely becoming noticeable without outerwear, but Baekhyun doesn’t comment a word, putting away the coat tidily, as if it’s not halfway ruined. Chanyeol shuffles his feet, cold and self-conscious, but the room seems a little cozier when Baekhyun smiles at him, motioning for Chanyeol to follow him inside the club.

“It’s just you and me for now, the others have probably huddled somewhere, waiting out the worst of the rain” the shorter man explains as he meanders inside the empty hall, some tables already set and others left bare since last night. It seems Chanyeol was the only one rushed in by the downpour, granting the very first time in weeks of him working at the Pearl that he is completely alone with its owner; he’s not sure if he feels more relieved than restless to be here instead of wandering in the rain outside, but Baekhyun doesn’t seem to mind his presence, or everyone else’s absence for that matter, confidently crossing the space to the stairs leading to the second floor. The taller lingers at the foot of the stairs, hesitating to follow Baekhyun to his office, lest it’s indiscreet; he is safely indoors now, there’s no obligation for Baekhyun to keep him around. As if the shorter can read his mind, or sense that Chanyeol is no longer following him, he pauses on a step and turns to look at him. “Come upstairs, I’ve lit up the fireplace in my office” Baekhyun invites with a brief glance over his shoulder, solving Chanyeol’s dilemma as simply as that, and even though the saxophonist still feels a bit reserved, he obediently climbs up the stairs after him.

As promised, it’s comfortably warm once they reach Baekhyun’s office, a small fire dancing in the hearth and bathing the room in a golden glow. Chanyeol has been here before, on the first days when they had to sign contracts, and on occasion that he needs to fetch Baekhyun for a matter that requires his presence with the rest downstairs, but the small space has never seemed more hospitable before, the warmth touching Chanyeol’s cheeks like a tender caress. Baekhyun walks to the window, pulling the curtain to let in more of the weak, natural light under the clouds, the colors in the room escaping the range of solely amber tones. There is a leather couch in the corner to the left, big enough for two but not long enough to reach the window on the same wall, a wooden coffee table lying in front of the seats, carrying a few piled books and a small potted plant. The desk is situated across the window with a view of the street and the neighboring buildings outside, papers and files stacked neatly in little fortresses, a few decorative trinkets adorning the front. There is Baekhyun’s chair behind it, and two more armchairs in front of the heavy desk, black and carved beautifully for guests, the design old and expensive. A large painting is hung on the left wall, a dark, detailed and stunning scene of marine battle in raging seas, but Chanyeol is more drawn to the wall on his right, where the fireplace is breathing its red sparks.

Chanyeol doesn’t know the purpose of this building before Baekhyun remodeled it into a nightclub, but whoever needed a fireplace so big and ornamented must have been important. The stones inside are blackened with smoke but they seem to glow from the heat in the wake of the fire, flames dancing perkily on charred wood. Baekhyun’s suit jacket is hung on the back of a chair by the fireplace at a safe distance, not entirely dry yet, and Chanyeol realizes a detail in Baekhyun’s earlier words he hadn’t noticed until now; he got caught in the rain too, not just Chanyeol but Baekhyun too. It helps alleviate his embarrassment a tiny bit, knowing he’s not the only one wandering in the rain unarmed like a loon, out to catch his death.

There’s a light tap on his shoulder and then “May I have your jacket? It will dry faster beside my own” Baekhyun offers kindly, and Chanyeol turns to him, still feeling a little uncertain of this unusual, surreal interaction between them; Baekhyun gives him a small, close-lipped smile of expectation, and Chanyeol surrenders his water stained jacket, even though he regrets it almost instantly, feeling underdressed in just his morning shirt and suspenders, compared to Baekhyun’s fashionable vest. He hopes the ink stain on his left cuff is not noticeable. Baekhyun is a perfect gentleman though, wordlessly taking Chanyeol’s suit jacket and arranging it carefully beside his own, smoothing out the creases without a single comment on Chanyeol’s blunt wardrobe choices. “It should be dry again soon. Is your sax in good condition?” he asks with genuine concern, glancing at the case Chanyeol left by the door; it’s very thoughtful of him to worry about Chanyeol’s instrument, even though the owner himself hasn’t bothered to check, since he knows his sax is safe in its case, having survived worse through the years.

“I’m sure it is in better condition than I am” he mumbles, trying not to pout at his misfortune this evening, and stretching his bone cold fingers against the gentle heat emanating from the fire instead, searching for a balance of positive things that have happened. At least he is not walking in squeaky shoes out in the rain anymore. At least there is a fire to save him from pneumonia and save his numb fingers from cramps that feel like icy stabbing. At least there is Baekhyun.

“Nonsense” said man denies with a simper, effortlessly hopping up to sit on the edge of his desk, by a strange preference of his to perch on tables. “You look handsome as ever” he compliments in a quieter voice, which makes his words seem more earnest if not a little absentminded, and Chanyeol looks at everything that isn’t Baekhyun in fluster, the fire spreading to the tips of his ears. A moment of silence sinks in and Baekhyun starts swinging his legs slowly, creating beautiful lines. Chanyeol’s eyes hesitantly find their way back to Baekhyun’s face, and it feels like the fire is scorching his skin but he doesn’t care; Baekhyun looks pale in the light of day outside, but the fire lends him a strange glow, tangling in his smoothly combed red hair, glinting in his grayish green eyes, sliding over the slope of his nose, over his sharp cheekbones and jaw, between his slender fingers and over his lips, pale pink like cherry blossom flowers, with a little mole over one corner. Little does Chanyeol notice he is being subjected to the same scrutiny, as if the both of them are truly seeing each other for the first time after weeks. A sinful tongue darts out to wet pouty lips, making them glossy. “In fact, you should wear your hair down more often; it suits you” Baekhyun says, more confident in his praise this time, and Chanyeol has to look away, half ashamed of his ruined appearance and half mortified by the blush he can feel rising to his cheeks.

“You seem to be in a good mood today” he points out to shift the focus of the conversation, clearing his throat a bit, but the constricting feeling remains; it’s been a long time since someone complimented him for something other than his music skills and it makes him feel self-conscious, as if no one has ever told him something nice before. Baekhyun is not a frugal man with praise, adding it in little quips of polite or playful sentences, but he is usually not this personal either; complimenting the musicians on a song and expressing his preference on Chanyeol’s appearance is two entirely different things.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Baekhyun answers him with a playful tilt of his head and a pretty smile that shapes his eyes into little moons “I’m in a good mood because I am in good company” he says, smile stretching wider to a full rectangle –and there he goes again with the subtle flattery that flusters Chanyeol, so sincere and candid that makes the latter believe Baekhyun is gifting his time to him wholeheartedly, as if there’s nowhere else he’d rather be and no one else he’d choose to be stranded in the rain with. He looks pleased, happy to be with Chanyeol and talk to him by the fireplace, the same sense of unhurried ease taking over, like the night they were standing alone outside the club; only this time it’s more comfortable, less dark, warmer, and Baekhyun seems more approachable.

“I, uh…” Chanyeol mumbles incoherently, too embarrassed and confused to form a proper reply, the last time they were alone and this evening colliding incompatibly in his head. What could he possibly reply in the first place? He is Baekhyun’s only company at the moment, and he is not being particularly eloquent, charming or pleasant for that matter; he doesn’t know what Baekhyun sees in him that qualifies as good company, moreso to justify his high spirits, and all he can think of uttering is an apology for occupying his precious time rather dully. If only he were more charismatic, more interesting, more deserving of the attention of a beautiful man like Baekhyun.

“Oh.” Said man breathes out mutely, his expression fading from a bright smile to seriousness and then slight concern, eyebrows drawing closer over his eyes. He hops down from the desk and walks to Chanyeol, standing in front of him after only a handful of steps; he is shorter but it doesn’t seem like it, his shoulders wide and confident. Chanyeol blinks apprehensively, not quite able to guess what Baekhyun’s ‘oh’ meant, or why he decided to come closer at this given moment, but all his doubts become momentarily overshadowed by the unexpected pout settling on Baekhyun’s lips, almost too cute combined with the sad impression of his eyes, looking up at Chanyeol, unintentionally endearing. “I’m sorry, Mr. Park, I never meant to make you feel uncomfortable” he says, regret and apology earnest in his voice, as if he has committed a serious offence he needs to take responsibility for; Chanyeol’s knees grow weak in discomfiture, and he shakes his head so firmly it adds to his dizziness.

“There’s no need to apologize-”

“Of course there is” Baekhyun interrupts him determinedly, before Chanyeol has a chance to apologize himself for being such an awkward and shy person. “You are red as a beet, and lovely as it may look on you, I didn’t mean to make you blush” Baekhyun announces with a stern face and an absolutely clear shake of his head, voice calm and showing his adamant belief in each of his words –even the bit about Chanyeol being…lovely blushing. The more Chanyeol thinks about it in the following seconds of tense silence, sizzling like electric currents between them as they stand close to each other, the more he feels his cheeks burning, and Baekhyun is looking at him in the eyes with his beautiful ones, like rare jewel stones that glaze over with golden twinkles from the flames beside them, fire mixing in his hair and turning them a shimmering wave of sparks as well.

Chanyeol could honestly stare forever, no matter how flustered he feels at the moment to appreciate the view.

“I just did it again, didn’t I?” Baekhyun realizes, but his question is flat, rhetorical, as if he had expected this to happen. Chanyeol blinks away and bites his lip, inwardly wondering just how red he looks and why does it have to be like this, his social ineptness getting in the way of a simple conversation he’d like to have, no matter how much he has improved in the past month. Baekhyun sighs, and Chanyeol has himself half convinced that it’s about time he’ll be dismissed, obviously not the company Baekhyun’s time deserves. “Please, do forgive me, Mr. Park” Baekhyun says unexpectedly, sounding displeased with himself to have to apologize twice on the same matter because of tendencies which are ultimately not his fault. Chanyeol turns to him to assure him of it, but Baekhyun disarms him with a tiny, hopeful smile. “I haven’t had the chance to get to know you very well yet, but I’ll learn” he promises optimistically, and Chanyeol is flabbergasted the man is willing to make even the slightest effort for him.

Baekhyun probably means he’d like to get better acquainted with Chanyeol as a part of the Pearl’s family, but it’s still more than Chanyeol would have asked of him or hoped for in his wildest dreams. He definitely hadn’t planned for this in his life, and he would have never expected that Baekhyun would express an interest in him on a day like this. The silence on Chanyeol’s part drags a bit too long and he can’t remember what he’d been trying to say last, gradually growing frantic at the creeping silence, but Baekhyun saves the situation from turning awkward with a lighter question. “I hear you are a piano teacher” he quips, a conversational smile painting his lips and putting Chanyeol at ease, the subject being far more familiar. “The maestro says you are exceptionally well loved by your students”

Chanyeol smiles bashfully at that, his fingers wringing behind his back. “I couldn’t say about that” he retorts, not one to praise himself, and Baekhyun nods in understanding at Chanyeol’s humble preference –a quality which the maestro decidedly lacks, alongside discretion and restraint, praising Chanyeol to Baekhyun behind the musician’s back. “But I like teaching” he answers instead, trying to make a decent contribution to the civil conversation Baekhyun is trying to instigate; the latter seems very pleased with Chanyeol’s response, his eyes widening and his smile twitching, sensing the reciprocated effort.

“How are your classes then?” he poses a question alternatively, rocking his weight on his heels in poorly concealed excitement; Chanyeol has to admit he shares the feeling to an extent, this moment feeling as important for them, new and thrilling, as it seems surreal.

“It depends” Chanyeol answers with a small smile, speaking easily for something so common for him, his thoughts flowing fluidly in his head and effortlessly turning into words. “I have students of all levels; my eldest ones already have their first diploma, so their classes can be hectic, but it’s always very rewarding to see them learn and grow. The maestro believes I should be in the philharmonic, but I’d miss the joys of teaching if I were. I feel better giving something to my students than taking something from the audience, even though teaching takes more time and it’s hardly ever recognized” he explains, and Baekhyun nods, his eyes trained on Chanyeol at all times as if afraid he’ll miss the tiniest expression; it’s not as uncomfortable as Chanyeol would have expected, Baekhyun’s devoted interest showing commitment to know him better, without, however, adding any pressure for Chanyeol to impress him. He already knows how ordinary Chanyeol is, and he still wants to know him better, so Chanyeol feels like he doesn’t have much to lose. “One of my youngest ones has just learnt her first composition and she’s very proud of herself; she wants to play it all the time” he shares with an unintentional, fond smile, thinking of his little student, with her curls and small fingers, and the brightest of smiles when declaring him her most favorite teacher in the world.

“What do you do with her?” Baekhyun chuckles, endeared, as Chanyeol had hoped he’d be. He has a soft look in his eyes, gazing up at Chanyeol, and the taller glances at the fireplace for a moment, a little awkward.

“I let her play it all the time” he admits with a bashful chuckle, one hand rubbing the back of his neck guiltily, feeling a bit embarrassed to admit he is such a pushover for his younger students; in his defense, no one could refuse such happiness to a child, and they grow out of their excitement for previous accomplishments so fast, he might as well allow them –and himself– to enjoy it while it lasts. Baekhyun laughs openly, entertained by Chanyeol’s words, giving him reassurance that he is not a complete waste of Baekhyun’s time if he can make him laugh. It’s a beautiful sound, loud and unguarded, slightly husky, and Chanyeol wishes he’d hear it more often; it also scrunches Baekhyun's nose in the most endearing way.

“No wonder you’re so loved by your students then!” Baekhyun points out, gradually quieting down and smoothing a hand over his vest to recompose himself, then turning to Chanyeol with a mirthful smile. “You are a very talented musician, Mr. Park, and I’m sure you’re a great teacher too” he affirms his belief, and Chanyeol smiles demurely, shrugging his shoulders; if there’s one thing he is good at, it’s music, and teaching is something he’s been doing for so long now, but it is more often than not considered lesser to performing. Baekhyun is one of the very few people who don’t seem to think so, either because of his personal opinions or just because he respects Chanyeol’s point of view; in any case, it feels nice for Chanyeol to be acknowledged for both performing and teaching equally, despite his general discomfort with compliments.

They lapse into comfortable silence, Chanyeol’s thoughts tuning in to the fire’s idle dance in the hearth while Baekhyun stares out the window as raindrops slide down the glass pane. Time does a funny trick with them, slipping through their fingers too fast or forgetting to budge altogether.

“May I ask you a question?” Chanyeol almost doesn’t recognize the words in his voice, blurted out of his lips without being filtered; his eyes widen a little when he realizes his absentminded question, risking a sideways glance at Baekhyun and inwardly praying the shorter wasn’t paying attention. To defy his hopes, Baekhyun is already looking back, his expression looking so innocent and naïve for the first time, resembling a puppy in Chanyeol’s head –so very unhelpfully.

“Of course you may, any time” he agrees readily. Chanyeol stalls, however, turning his gaze to the fire again.

“Everyone here calls me by name, except for you…why is that?” he asks, trying to keep his voice level and not shrink meekly at asking such an uncomfortable question out loud. It’s a genuine question though; ever since the first day, Baekhyun only calls him Mr. Park. The staff picked up his name fast, some even feel comfortable enough with him to use endearments by now, but Baekhyun, no matter his higher status or at least the affection he displays for all his staff in different ways, has never once called Chanyeol differently than his surname, even though his speech is clearly not as rigidly formal most of the time. At first Chanyeol didn’t really mind, but as he grows closer to the rest, it makes him feel a bit left out, or as if he is doing something wrong –in which case, he’d really like to know.

Baekhyun seems surprised when Chanyeol finally manages the summon enough courage to turn to him, as if the question was completely unexpected –and it probably was, Baekhyun might have not even noticed for himself the distinction Chanyeol just pointed out. “It seems you’re well loved in my club too” he muses, his lashes casting a fleeting shade over his eyes as he glances to the fire with a fond smile, his gaze pensive for a moment before he takes a breath, turning to Chanyeol more decisively. “My apologies, I hadn’t even realized I called you differently” he says, his eyebrows making him look a little troubled, and then smoothing out into a more serene expression. “Would you rather I called you by name too?” he asks, tilting his head to the side again, a few fiery strands of hair falling into his eye, and he blinks them away, droopy eyes looking pure, so beautiful with their strange, hazel color.

Chanyeol suddenly feels like this choice is not entirely wise, because what if Baekhyun looks up at him like this and calls his name in the future? How will he keep a straight face, or even prevent himself from melting into a puddle on the floor? It’s always so confusing for his body to find the most appropriate response to Baekhyun, impulsively rebelling against Chanyeol’s better judgment, but he has gotten so far now, he can’t back out. “I think so, yes” he acquiesces tentatively, his fingers playing a tune as fast as his heartbeat, out of Baekhyun’s sight. “It makes me slightly nervous when you address me so formally” he adds, just to clarify that this is not considered as any sort of special treatment, and Baekhyun is certainly not obligated to comply. Baekhyun’s lips curl into a smile, soft in its curves and sharp at the edges, understanding Chanyeol clearly, and his nods once.

“Chanyeol, then” he enunciates, rolling each syllable of the name slowly on his tongue for the first time and savoring it, trying to figure out what the sound feels like, as if tasting a new dessert, fluffy and sweet on his lips. Chanyeol hasn’t felt this strange tickle of excitement on his heart in a long time, his chest giving one loud beat and then picking up the pace in unnoticed anticipation, splashing a blooming color onto his cheeks. “Is that okay?” Baekhyun asks to be sure, his gaze swimming in Chanyeol’s eyes; there are streaks of gray in his own eyes, the green splattered with flecks of gold and glowing golden crimson in the light of the fire. Chanyeol gives a tiny nod of confirmation, his lips hesitantly curving in a smile which grows more heartfelt when Baekhyun reciprocates it brightly; he is pretty sure they haven’t looked at each other for so long before, or he’d remember this feeling of drowning in Baekhyun’s eyes.

Have you ever seen bridges burn into the night and bringing people closer, having kept them apart all this time?

“Boss? Jongdae? Hello? It’s raining pitchforks out there!” a loud voice echoing in all the rooms interrupts them, a little distressed and probably freezing as it reverberates up the stairs. Chanyeol flinches a little, startled out of the daze Baekhyun’s eyes put him in, and he glances at the always open door of the office simultaneously with Baekhyun.

“Oh, we’ve got company” the shorter points out, sounding just slightly disappointed; Chanyeol turns to him curiously, puzzled by his tone, but it’s already gone, Baekhyun sending him a polite smile instead. “I should go check on them, if you’ll excuse me” he says, leaving Chanyeol to stand alone by the fireplace and hurrying out the door, most likely to bring the next person here to dry and stay warm until opening hour. The saxophonist kicks the edge of the rug like an idle child, trying to warm his fingers before switching places with someone else who hopes to avoid catching a dangerous cold. He is lost in thought, looking at the flames but not really seeing them, as his mind wanders to the students he met today and trying to remember where he last saw his umbrella.

“Chanyeol?” the call of his name is unexpected, still unfamiliar in this voice, but Chanyeol turns to the door instantly.

“Yes?” he answers, bewildered by Baekhyun’s reappearance so soon; he doubts there was enough time for him to go down the stairs properly, he probably turned around halfway and came back. He looks like he’s somewhat in a hurry, opting to linger half-hidden behind the door with only his head fully visible, inquisitive eyes peering at the taller.

“Can you play something about the rain tonight? For me” Baekhyun requests, speaking the words almost hesitantly; it’s unusual for him to request songs, leaving the repertoire entirely up to the musicians’ better judgment each night, and even though Chanyeol hasn’t consulted with his band mates on this, he doubts he should refuse. He’d been contemplating something similar too, for one thing, and for another, if there is something he can do for Baekhyun for once, he’ll gladly oblige –and he is sure his band mates share the sentiment. Maybe they can play September rain tonight.

“Sure” he agrees, and he is rewarded with a bright, pleased smile from Baekhyun, so wide and toothy that makes him look even younger; it scrunches his nose in an endearing way, his eyes almost disappearing in cute curves, and Chanyeol is fairly and thoroughly convinced that there’s no escaping Byun Baekhyun’s wishes.

“Thanks, doll” Baekhyun coos and disappears, leaving Chanyeol to blush eleven shades darker in his wake; was that…his first endearment?

~* 8 *~

If you stand completely still in the middle of an empty street in darkness, you’ll notice that some nights fall heavier than others, but there is something undeniably gentle about them, a primal sense of serenity that sinks in your chest like starlight in a tranquil lagoon. It’s quiet, but comforting, immersing you into a state of an untroubled heart and an unhurried mind, as if everything in life is into place, as if the only measure of time that matters in existence is your heartbeat. Everything seems to slow down effortlessly, into the easy rhythm of a lovely song that always remains neglected in memory, resurfacing on those nights with a familiar sweetness and then submerging again into oblivion.

In the wee hours of such a night, when the moon has passed its peek but the Hesperus is not yet cooing the call of dawn, there is a strange music resounding inside the Black Pearl, a little scratchy and a little distant, muffled in the corner where a long disused gramophone spins the record. The hall is empty, the lights are dim, there’s a picturesque touch of stillness in the space, and invisible ghosts of shuffling shoes are lingering by the dance floor, long after everyone is gone for the night. Chanyeol has never stayed at the club so late before, later than everyone else, but the night outside is sluggish and the warmth inside is mellow, soothing his tiredness better than his pillow at home would have; he didn’t feel like he needed it as much as poor Doyoung tonight, who insisted to work despite feeling sick all evening, so Chanyeol offered to relieve the server of his nightly chores at least and sent him home to rest, trading his lonely bed for quiet hours at the Pearl. He could have finished sooner to be honest, there is not much to folding tablecloths and piling them in a box to be sent to the drycleaner’s tomorrow, but he is taking his sweet time, secretly enjoying the night’s peacefulness, the hushed music, the feeling of being into place.

Ever since he started working at the Pearl, Chanyeol knew he’d be able to feel comfortable and safe here very soon, the love and care of his coworkers turning this place into an irregular sort of home away from home; but especially after Baekhyun started warming up to him, Chanyeol has been feeling more and more assured and confident that he belongs here, just like felt when he first sat behind a piano. The difference between Baekhyun’s politeness and Baekhyun’s friendliness is very slight, yet it changes the entire experience of the Pearl; he expresses himself more freely now and stands a bit closer without pretense, he asks questions and he is not hesitant to hold longer conversations with the saxophonist. Chanyeol even has his very own endearment, being the only person Baekhyun ever calls doll, consistently avoiding any other endearment he might use for the rest of his staff; they have all grown used to it by now, including Chanyeol, even though he still gets a little flustered every time he is addressed that way by Baekhyun.

Without the restricting layer or professional politeness between them, Chanyeol discovers that Baekhyun has a great sense of humor and he loves making people laugh, that he is a deeply caring person who will go at any lengths to give you that one good moment you need on a bad day, that he likes being playfully flirty with those close to him and hates having to put up a charade for people he doesn’t like –but he performs it perfectly nonetheless. Yet Chanyeol feels like Baekhyun is hiding something sometimes, a small mystery he keeps to himself like a sworn secret, that lingers on the pensive lines of his mouth, on the shadow of his eyes when no one is looking, in the way he seems to seek comfort in company and small gestures of care make him feel better, even though he never admits or discusses about whatever is perpetually troubling him.

Chanyeol finishes with the last table, closing the box and picking it up, silently crossing the room to deposit it on its regular place; the gramophone music echoes only in notes in some corners, and he is trying to guess the song absently, sending one final look at the empty hall as he walks to his saxophone case.

That’s when he notices the motionless figure by the bar, seated on a stool and hunched over the counter, the slum of its shoulders lonely, the curve of its back tired. There is only one person with such graceful bodylines even in such condition, and the tailored granite suit is familiar, polished shoes kicking dainty ankles idly, beautiful fingers tangled in auburn hair; it hasn’t been a good night since Oh Sehun asked for Baekhyun in his office, his eyes hard and cruel, his unfriendly appearance spoiling the mood for the rest and making them worry, until they saw Baekhyun coming down from his office, uncharacteristically letting a notably more placid Sehun see himself out. Whatever might have happened between them, the night seems to have fallen heavy on Baekhyun, weighing him down to his nearly untouched glass of alcohol and artificial music, the lights of the bar casting shadows that hide his face. Chanyeol has never seen him like this before, and it’s distressing to see a person so bright like a flame being as weary and frail as the smoke of a burnt candle.

His first steps are hesitant, uncertain of what he should do; Baekhyun doesn’t seem to wish for company, he is probably unaware of Chanyeol’s presence altogether, but it feels wrong to abandon him like this, without so much as making an effort. Maybe it’s the worst time for Chanyeol to see him, and maybe he doesn’t want to be seen; but Baekhyun deserves everything in Chanyeol’s mind, the kindness, the patience, the concern he shows to others, the interest, the compassion, the affection. Chanyeol would be more than happy to provide.

As he approaches, the lyrics of the song clear up in his ears, sad words of longing and loss and torment ringing familiar; it must have been a rough night behind closed doors for Baekhyun to be like this, his index finger tracing the rim of his glass in despondent circles. It’s another thing Chanyeol has discovered in the past weeks; Baekhyun has to fight a lot to keep everything they have afloat, clandestine battles that everyone suspects and no one ever witnesses, exhausted smiles that Baekhyun never talks about, scars that he pretends do not exist. It’s confusing and unfair, and a secret they are not supposed to talk about, and it hurts Chanyeol because Baekhyun is too good to deserve this, but he can only stay in the sidelines with everyone else and keep lending his strength to Baekhyun when he needs it; a chirper song, an expression of concern like that one night under the city streetlights, a small smile from the stage –or a late night conversation with him, when no one is around to hear and the lights are soft.

“May I join you?” Chanyeol asks quietly, trying to keep a hint of optimism in his voice; there is a good chance Baekhyun wants to be left alone to carry his burdens in solitude, but he might, just might prefer Chanyeol’s humble company in his glum mood. He’s been here all evening after all, his presence is not entirely indiscreet. Baekhyun, however, nearly jumps in his seat at Chanyeol’s unexpected appearance and snaps his head in the taller’s direction, his eyes wide and scared like a deer in headlights.

“Chanyeol” he mutters, breathless from the startle, staring at him in fright. Chanyeol doesn’t say anything, giving him time to calm down from the unintentional scare that has rendered him pale as wax, and indeed Baekhyun recovers soon enough, blinking up at him, his expression turning confused. “It’s- it’s late, what are you doing here?”

“Well, my bed is expecting me, but I can afford to be a little late” Chanyeol jests lamely, shrugging his shoulders and inwardly cringing at his own embarrassing words; what a wonderful way to display your uneventful, tedious life, was it not? He doesn’t mean to be so astoundingly void of charisma around Baekhyun, and he resents how often it happens, but it’s entirely out of his control, as if everything in his head starts spinning and tumbling into an incoherent, impulsive mess whenever the beautiful man is near. Yet his self-deprecating joke seems to work somehow, and Baekhyun’s lips twitch a little in the corner halfheartedly, with a small exhale indicating amusement. He seems tired as the tension of the first scare melts off of his stiff posture, his eyes rimmed with dark circles that touch his cheekbones and almost extend to his temples; it looks like he hasn’t slept properly in days, and Chanyeol wonders if anyone else has noticed. “May I join you?” Chanyeol repeats, holding higher hopes this time, since Baekhyun didn’t outright send him home at once; Chanyeol is not particularly skilled at noticing things outside his bubble, usually staying out of people’s way, but he is ready to reach out to Baekhyun if he needs him, and he hopes it’s not too late for Baekhyun to accept.

“I have to warn you, I’m not very good company tonight” the shorter says, but he doesn’t sound hostile or resentful, so Chanyeol doesn’t take that as a rejection either. Baekhyun only sounds surrendered, like a ship that has been left to sink in the deep, one breath away from collapsing and suffocating. The man turns his gaze away from Chanyeol’s thoughtful one, toying with his glass, swirling the sloshing brown liquid in it with a graceful bend of his wrist. His lashes are casting dark, spidery shadows over his eyes and cheeks, like purposeful scratches of ink on paper, striking out line after line of text crossly so that no one can read it. It’s unlike him, a strong and fearless person, to look so defeated and overcast, and something painful grips onto Chanyeol’s heart, to the point it nearly bleeds. He wordlessly takes a seat on the stool beside Baekhyun, who doesn’t even bat a lash, lost in thought again. There’s a lump stuck in Chanyeol’s throat, and he knows he doesn’t have to say anything –his presence is a silent comfort he can offer just as well–, but it feels like there are too many things that scream in this silence, strangling him the longer he ignores them.

“You’re not okay” he mutters in the end, unable to hold it in any longer, and Baekhyun glances at him out of the corner of his eye. It’s not a question anymore, it’s not an anxious need for affirmation; Chanyeol knows the answer, he can read it all over Baekhyun, on his pale skin and downturned lips, in his murky eyes, his tired spine and indolent movements. He can’t pretend he doesn’t see it like he might have done many other times, and he doesn’t think Baekhyun wants him to either, because instead of mere glimpses of this fatigued misery that escape him sometimes, tonight he is completely honest about it, uncaring of baring his vulnerability to Chanyeol; maybe he is too tired to weave an elaborate illusion of normalcy to appease Chanyeol’s worry, with half a smile and a kind expression of gratitude.

“I almost never am” he mumbles, lips curling a little bitterly as if he’s berating himself, averting his gaze to the counter, away from Chanyeol. “I keep living in yesterdays; I just can’t seem to be able to leave them behind. I follow each night into the same circle, over and over” he whispers, sounding as if he can’t understand, as if he is accusing his fate of being unfair, but that’s something Chanyeol has absolutely no hope to grasp. Instead, the words keep echoing in Chanyeol’s head like the static silence between songs on a record, uncomfortable and eerie, with illegible scratches that must mean something he can’t quite comprehend; but there are still notes floating around them, words touching the silence and creating ripples, little waves that mingle with Baekhyun’s desolate mood and pull the strings in Chanyeol’s chest.

Chanyeol takes a good look at him, comparing him to the perfectly polished yet not entirely happy image of him this evening; his appearance is more unkempt now and it somehow seems to match him better tonight. It’s the first time to see him so disheveled, with his burgundy tie hanging undone like a ribbon over his dark vest, the first buttons of his white shirt undone and the collar open. His hair is rumpled after the many times he has run his fingers through it, deep red and copper strands sticking out and maintaining only slightly the neatly brushed side part he had on previously. The downward slope of his eyes seems sincerely sad, and there is a softer hue on his features, like an ember that refuses to burn out even though it wants to, the lines of his lips tinged in disappointment and sorrow. He is still beautiful, but not in the way common eyes can see.

He jostles his drink again, and something near his pristine white sleeve cuff catches Chanyeol’s eye; there’s a shadow, blue and peach and red, colors mingling like a bracelet embedded on Baekhyun’s skin around his wrist. It peeks for a moment and then disappears under the clothes again, but the image is imprinted behind Chanyeol’s eyelids; it’s red and blue, and it seems fresh and painful. His breath hitches in horror when he realizes it’s a bruise, one that doesn’t seem like an accident, marring Baekhyun’s skin; he is certain of it yet he finds it hard to believe, that someone would hurt Baekhyun, grab him from the wrist and yank him or squeeze him maliciously, Baekhyun, who is so nice and kind and caring and-

“Please, don’t ask” Baekhyun says, voice somber and a little ashamed. He must have noticed what Chanyeol is staring at with wide eyes full of terror and hurt –he hasn’t even been breathing in utter shock–, and he tugs on his cuff to lower it further over his hand, hiding the mark on his skin as if he can believe it doesn’t exist if no one knows. Chanyeol’s feelings quickly shift to anger and disgust; who would do that to Baekhyun? How could someone act so vile towards another person? Why would they- Chanyeol exhales slowly and measures his breaths, trying to calm down; it’s not his place to get angry, it’s not to ask questions and bring further discomfort to Baekhyun, who is already wrecked enough at it is. He forces his eyes to look on something else and push his thoughts out of that track, focusing on a random bottle on the grand display at the back wall of the bar and trying to convince himself that guessing Baekhyun’s drink is something he’d rather be doing.

He hates this feeling. It’s like when his parents died in the car accident when he was little, and he was too small and confused to understand what was happening. It’s like when his grandpa broke his hip last year plowing the fields, and he was too far away to help his frantic grandma take him to the hospital. Baekhyun is family too, and he is right here, and Chanyeol still can’t help him, and it’s driving him mad.

“You have a sweet way of caring, doll” Baekhyun muses, and it’s the slight smile Chanyeol detects in his voice more than anything else that catches his attention; he turns to Baekhyun with bewildered, wide eyes, to find the most gentle little smile curling his mouth, his hazel eyes just barely touched by it. He is holding his head in his hand, slightly tilted, and his hair is falling into his eyes, but it can’t hide their twinkling green gaze, focused on Chanyeol.

Unexpectedly, Baekhyun lifts his free hand and cradles Chanyeol’s jaw gingerly, his thumb brushing over the edge for a moment, sending tingles on the skin and a jolt of electricity through his bones; Chanyeol feels his cheeks turn strawberry red and his face grows numb, stunned by Baekhyun’s tender touch. It’s unprecedented contact, far more intimate than the occasional pat on the shoulder or brush of arms, and Chanyeol holds completely still, not knowing what to expect; Baekhyun is looking at his hand, warm on Chanyeol’s skin, as if observing the shape of it against him, as if Chanyeol is a canvas or a work of art Baekhyun is allowed to touch, the shape of his lips softening in a dreamy mien. It lasts only for a few moments, yet it seems an eternity to Chanyeol, until Baekhyun drops his hand, his smile reverting to a more tangible one, and it seems like it all went by so fast, it’s as if it didn’t happen, if only there weren’t lingering tingles Baekhyun’s hand has left behind on the skin.

“You were clenching your jaw earlier” Baekhyun explains, and Chanyeol lowers his gaze, rubbing and soothing the skin over his jaw line with his own hand, inadvertently hiding half his face from view, apprehensive that Baekhyun could read him so easily. Chanyeol tends to spend a lot of time inside his head with his thoughts, but for all his silence, he never were particularly mysterious; he is an open book for those who know him a little better, and he hasn’t learnt to hide and lie. It’s embarrassing enough that his emotions concerning Baekhyun were so obvious to the man in question, so he remains silent. “Thank you for respecting my wishes” Baekhyun adds then, voice colored tenderly like he always speaks when Chanyeol is uncomfortable, fond like a mother speaking to a child, and sincere, like he’d sign his words in blood to prove he believes them with all his heart.

“I don’t necessarily agree with your wishes though” Chanyeol notes, his lips curving in a displeased pout at his hands; Baekhyun knows his feelings already, so he might as well be honest with him about his jaded heart. Even if Baekhyun doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s a serious matter if someone is hurting him like this, and his wish to sweep it under the rag only makes it more frustrating for Chanyeol, like so many other things he can’t understand or change because Baekhyun wouldn’t let him. Baekhyun is stubborn and independent to a fault, and no, Chanyeol doesn’t agree with this at all, because he cares for him, and it’s hard not to.

Baekhyun chuckles quietly, as if Chanyeol is an endearingly petulant child, to dismiss the solemn mood rather than to dismiss Chanyeol’s genuine concern –and to be fair, Chanyeol might have sounded a bit more disgruntled than he originally intended. He should feel mildly offended at Baekhyun’s reaction, but strangely enough he only feels relieved to see his mood turn around, even for the slightest moment. “Spoken like a true romantic” the shorter says, straightening his sore back for a moment like his spirits are literally lifting, his waist arching in a fluid curve. “It fits you, being an artist and weaving worlds of music; I was like that, too, once” he nearly whispers at the end, his shoulders drooping, gaze catching a thought hiding in the glasses behind the bar and turning forlornly pensive again.

Chanyeol observes him patiently, hoping for an explanation; Baekhyun was a musician once too, or just a romantic? It’s not impossible to imagine his slender hands on a piano, and he did seem to know of classical compositions when Chanyeol and Yixing had a relevant conversation one day, but Chanyeol has never heard him play or even seen him touch any of the instruments.

“How old are you, Chanyeol?” Baekhyun suddenly quips, turning to the taller with a naively concerned frown between his eyebrows, his lower lip jutting out slightly in a pout he probably doesn’t realize.

“I’ll be twenty eight soon” Chanyeol answers automatically, his heart suddenly beating in his throat the longer he observes Baekhyun; it’s not the time and place for such thoughts, but Baekhyun looking like this is almost illegal, with his flawless skin and darkened gaze, lashes a little drowsy under the sadness pooling in his eyes, lips soft and hair tussled. Chanyeol has also noticed that the cadence of Baekhyun’s voice doesn’t change whenever he articulates his name, always stressing the first syllable slightly more prominently, husky hints wrapping around vowels and soft consonants as if they’re naming something dear. Chanyeol almost gives in to temptation, to ignore the bizarre, unanticipated question and be mesmerized by Baekhyun’s presence instead; but there is something in Baekhyun’s green eyes that shine like jewels, which shifts and smoothes out into his previous somber mood.

“I’m thirty two” he provides, before Chanyeol has a chance to ask –and for a moment, the saxophonist is stunned at the stupendous admission. Objectively, he had guessed Baekhyun should be around thirty years old –to be a successful businessman at an earlier age would have been impossible in this economy–, but he always seemed too young for those expectations whenever Chanyeol tried to find evidence of time on him, his smile too youthful, his manners too playful, his skin and body too firm to have been under wear and tear for three decades; suspecting the truth makes it no less astounding in this moment though, looking at Baekhyun closely and still not finding any verification. It’s like time hasn’t touched Baekhyun in a decade, too afraid it’d ruin his beauty with the slightest wrinkle or spot; Chanyeol doesn’t believe such details would make Baekhyun any less beautiful or less attractive. But said man scoffs humorlessly, looking more drained than before, the years sitting heavy on his soul despite not weighing a speck on his appearance. “Two years past my prime and suitors still won’t leave me be, what to do…” he laments quietly, almost speaking to himself in abdication, hiding his face in his hands and rubbing his eyes tiredly. Chanyeol can’t say he wouldn’t expect that, knowing what a tasteless and onerous ordeal Baekhyun has to go through every night with various admirers, a reality everyone in the club accepts, no matter how unpleasant.

“I can’t blame them” Chanyeol’s mouth blurts out without permission, having the audacity to sound truthful! Well, it’s true that Chanyeol finds Baekhyun worth pursuing, but he didn’t mean that he agrees with the persistent and sometimes embarrassing methods of his suitors, or that he would wish to be among them –he’s perfectly content with Baekhyun being his boss and tentative friend. Unfortunately, his statement didn’t fall on deaf ears, and Baekhyun detaches his hands from his face to look at Chanyeol with a puzzled, intrigued expression, which pushes the taller into panic. “I mean, you are a good person!” Chanyeol defends, raising his hands to bid his innocence, eyes wide and flustered. Baekhyun seems to believe him, but he still keeps his gaze fixed on him, hazel eyes looking like they can read through Chanyeol’s soul, and the taller man’s heart is close to leaping out of his mouth to save itself. “You seem like you’d be…a great…partner…for someone…” in his frazzled state, Chanyeol defaults to talking pointlessly, digging a hole for himself, deeper and deeper with each word, igniting an amused smile on Baekhyun’s lips; by the time he stops his mouth, his ears are burning a million degrees, and he brings a hand over his eyes in despair, just so that he won’t have to look at Baekhyun anymore, after everything he just said.

Chanyeol was born an awkward songbird, fluttering his wings clumsily at everything that doesn’t involve music, but Baekhyun chuckles at his words, the first real, audible sound of lightheartedness tonight, not as rich as it might be on other days, yet genuine and beautiful; it’s a pity Chanyeol is too mortified to laugh along with him at his silliness. “Thank you, doll” Baekhyun says with an amused smile still lurking in his voice, and Chanyeol is not sure if he means to thank him for the words he definitely didn’t need to hear from him, or for making him forget his worries for a while. He is glad Baekhyun is taking his awkwardness so well though, because he wouldn’t want to insult him, or make him even more miserable than he seems tonight. The thought helps him feel slightly better, and Chanyeol lets his hand fall with the other in his lap limply, his shoulders hunched in shame and his gaze flying around the smooth surface of the counter, praying his cheeks are not too flushed. He feels an unexpected nudge on his ankle then, Baekhyun’s leg tapping him gently to get his attention. “How about you? Do you…have a partner?” Baekhyun asks, sounding curious but hesitant at the same time, and Chanyeol turns to him, hands fidgeting at the unusual shift of their conversation focus.

“Just music really” he admits quietly, shaking his head and pressing his lips into a thin, meek line, his hands sprinting notes on one another. He knows he is old enough by now, that most people his age have a relationship or a romantic interest at least, but Chanyeol has never been one for courtship; romance yes, courtship no. He doesn’t have the confidence to approach someone, he doesn’t have anything interesting about him to hold someone’s attention, and besides all that, he wouldn’t say he’s ever been particularly smitten with a person; he has had a couple of casual flings in his younger years, but it seemed he always prioritized music, and in the end he returned to his studies unbothered. It’s not flattering to admit out loud and he could do with less stray flirty advances, but he otherwise doesn’t mind being a bachelor; he doesn’t even know what the person to change that should be like.

“But there are many ladies who carry a torch for you, I hear” Baekhyun teases, being playful, but it’s muted, half serious and more conversational than mischievous, his weary mood far from gone, simply alleviated by an amusing distraction for the time being.

“From Jongdae, to be sure” Chanyeol deadpans, playing along, sounding a little accusing even to his own ears. Baekhyun chuckles again at that, but there’s still something holding him back.

“Yes, many, beautiful young ladies” he reaffirms, and Chanyeol shakes his head, his mouth curving in mild disapproval, in an expression that dents his cheek with a dimple. Baekhyun’s eyes wander to it for a moment, his lukewarm mirth fading to pensive melancholy again. “…boys, too” he adds in a whispered mumble, like an afterthought he’s not sure he wants to voice out, his gaze dropping to Chanyeol’s collar and then turning away. He looks hurt, like his own words lashed at him brutally and soundlessly inside his head, his eyes downcast and dark. There are shadows dancing in them, haunting and more somber as moments pass, his eyes glued to his fingers absently as he rubs over the little moles dotted all over them. “At least they treat you like a man; I lost that privilege long ago” he confesses, sounding wounded and bitter, pink lips wobbling for a moment.

“What else could anyone possibly think of you?” Chanyeol frowns, confused and uncertain that he wants to hear Baekhyun’s answer. He knows there can be many less than decent opinions out there, but Baekhyun seems pretty manly to Chanyeol, even for the standard and not just his subjective definition; Baekhyun dresses and behaves like a gentleman, he certainly looks and sounds like a man if you’d like to be superficial, and he is overall one of the most admirable men Chanyeol knows. He is an independent businessman, a confident charmer and a kindhearted person, all of which don’t predetermine he’s a man but don’t exclude it either, and if he identifies as a man, it’s the most reasonable conclusion that he is one; he is so much more beyond that as well, but it didn’t sound like Baekhyun was referring to his many other merits. The shorter runs his hand through his deep red hair again, soft strands finding their way to their original combed hairstyle, almost perfectly so, but there are clouds brewing over his expression, darkening and swirling in his eyes.

“I’m a possession, Chanyeol, a prize; a pretty thing to be bought and sold and played with, like something fragile and powerless” he says in contained indignation, his anger leaking in hissed words and wild sparks in his eyes. Chanyeol hasn’t seen him like this before; he is ravishing and dangerous like a blazing inferno, kindling the same resentment in Chanyeol’s chest too, because Baekhyun seems to have that ability of transferring emotions to him. He can see the choked smoke and charred land of Baekhyun’s mind as he explains those poisonous thoughts, which Baekhyun burns as they fall from his tongue, lighting fires to the sky as if to return this injustice to the universe. “At best they want me to be a damsel, to be wooed and danced. Being considered pretty kind of changes the rules; nobody cares that I’m a man, or what I’d prefer” he concludes resentfully, his anger slowly shimmering down and his jagged breath evening out to normal. Then he gradually turns mournful, the transition to another side Chanyeol hasn’t seen before progressing almost tangibly on his features, his eyes turning heavy and glassy with sadness, his lips being bitten in an effort to keep from trembling, eyebrows drawing together. “I feel like it’s been so long since I had a choice” he ekes, voice coming out with difficulty; and Chanyeol understands that, he does, because he knows the flipside of that coin and he knows both sides are equally terrifying.

He wants to help Baekhyun, he wants to give him a choice, ask just for the sake of giving Baekhyun the chance to choose an answer, but at the same time…“I feel like I shouldn’t ask” he blurts out unintentionally, immediately panicking when he realizes his mistake; it’s a delicate matter, a person’s personal preference, and Chanyeol is not supposed to ask Baekhyun about it, but he just had to reveal his thoughts like that, didn’t he? Baekhyun turns to him with misty, perplexed eyes, and oh my, what if he thinks he has to answer now, no; Chanyeol feels near spontaneous combustion. “I’m sorry” he apologizes, covering his red cheeks with his hands, because they are very blushed and very noticeable, and doesn’t need to embarrass himself any further tonight. Baekhyun blinks and his gaze clears slightly, then he giggles.

Baekhyun giggles.

“That’s cute, doll” he mumbles, sniffling and wiping the corners of his eyes a little, even though no tears had fallen. There’s a small smile on his lips, one that puffs up his cheeks a bit, and Chanyeol stares incredulously for a long second; he can’t believe he is the cause of Baekhyun’s cheer, just when he was about to cry. He hadn’t planned to, with his clumsy and embarrassing slips of the tongue, but the universe seems to have granted him mercy for a moment in his maladroit, unlucky life. Chanyeol doesn’t notice a smile slowly finding its way onto his own lips too, his hands still holding his cheeks childishly, but Baekhyun does, and his smile twitches wider after a glance at Chanyeol’s lips, pearly teeth making an appearance; he looks softer than ever, a little wrecked and very real, the most unguarded Chanyeol has ever seen him. Sometimes pearls are hard to reach beyond the shell, unless they reveal themselves to you, and Baekhyun looks so exquisite, entrusted in Chanyeol’s hands like this.

Baekhyun’s eyes twinkle in the lights of the bar when he glances somewhere behind Chanyeol, his face lighting up subtly with an idea. “Would you like to dance?” he asks out of the blue, just as the song changes, his voice breaking the silence of the needle jumping on dead air with a hopeful hint of excitement. Even though he expressed himself perfectly clear, Chanyeol still finds himself perplexed.

Dance?

“I’m not a good dancer” he shamefully gives Baekhyun his customary answer, hoping it will suffice as a warning to deter Baekhyun from dancing with him, even though for some reason he doesn’t expect the excuse to work as seamlessly as any other time. In spite of his inner fluster, Chanyeol manages to keep a neutral, composed expression; he remembers distantly a conversation with Jongdae about Baekhyun’s dancing prowess, how charming and captivating he looks as he twirls, and Chanyeol’s heart remembers to do a little summersault inside his chest. He knows Baekhyun dances only with a selected few, and he has seen him spin on the dance floor with elegant ladies and gentlemen occasionally; Chanyeol hasn’t seen such magnificent grace and dazzling beauty combined in anything other than Baekhyun’s dancing figure. He is certainly flattered by the offer greatly, but Baekhyun’s skill is such a far cry from Chanyeol’s ungainly moves that it would be ridiculously embarrassing for Chanyeol and unfair for Baekhyun to dance together; the man has had a rough night, he could do without Chanyeol stepping on his toes. The saxophonist shall cherish the proposal, however, because never in a million years would he dare dream that Baekhyun might ask him to dance someday, even if he is the only available person in the room.

Baekhyun shakes his head with a gentle smile, sliding off his stool and thus triggering alarm bells in Chanyeol’s head; he has a looming feeling the universe has chosen to ignore his pleas and leave him stranded this time, at the mercy of Baekhyun’s irresistible wishes, skillful hands and breathtaking smiles. “I don’t need you to be a good dancer” he says quietly, looking into Chanyeol’s eyes with his hazel gaze deep as a river –and it sounds so easy, so innocent, even though it feels so tempting and terrifying at the same time. He offers a hand expectantly and Chanyeol blinks at him, his heart bruising against his ribs and bemoaning how compelling Baekhyun looks; without his impeccable, well orchestrated and guarded exterior, he looks even more flawless and charming, with his red hair falling into his eyes, his droopy gaze clear as sparkling crystal and completely open, vulnerable, no secrets hiding behind his soft lips. His gesture carries the most simple request; he genuinely wants to dance with Chanyeol, merely swing to the rhythm of a slow song, and it’s the least the musician can do for him.

So, in spite of all his insecurities and doubts plaguing his mind, Chanyeol finds himself taking Baekhyun’s hand apprehensively, leaving his seat and following Baekhyun’s pleased and secretly excited smile, like an enchanted butterfly follows a flower.

They don’t make it to the dance floor, on the contrary, they don’t even reach very far from the bar; Baekhyun brings him just far enough to have some room around them to move, and it’s oddly more comfortable than the expectations of an empty dance stage they’d have to fill. The shorter lets go of Chanyeol’s hand but doesn’t release his gaze, keeping him entranced under his spell, anticipation drumming in the taller’s chest, nearly overshadowing his nervousness and the music. He just stands there, lost and afraid to move, looking at Baekhyun and having no idea what to do; his limbs faintly remember how he used to hold is grandma to dance, but he doesn’t have the confidence to hold Baekhyun close, overly conscious of his lithe body and soft hands, of the graceful curves of his waist. He’s never been so close to such an attractive person before, and his heart is doing all sorts of spins inside his chest, confused and excited and nearly crazy.

All initiative is left on Baekhyun, and Chanyeol is so bewitched by Baekhyun’s hazel eyes, by the flecks of gold in the green streaks against gray irises, that he feels strangely awed at the first touch, when Baekhyun takes his hand; it’s warm against Chanyeol, his hand slender, but almost the same size, their fingers toying a little experimentally before they find a way to fit. Baekhyun smiles a bit demurely, his eyes curving into crescents, little creases forming around them that Chanyeol wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for the proximity between them.

“Do you mind, if I…” Baekhyun trails off hesitantly into a silent request, his other hand lightly touching Chanyeol’s jacket at waist high as an indication. His smile fades a little into a quietly shimmering expression of reserved hope, and Chanyeol’s lashes flutter, trying to withhold his flustered thoughts from Baekhyun’s perceptive eyes searching into his. Chanyeol has never been asked about this before, being taller than most and rarely dancing in the first place, but he doesn’t think he has ever been asked to dance so considerately, tenderly and meaningfully by any other. It’s a small surprise to himself when he realizes that no, he wouldn’t mind, not for Baekhyun, and he shakes his head slightly to clear the daze.

“No, not at all” he agrees, sounding a little breathless. The concern lining the rims of Baekhyun’s lips breaks and transforms into a more content smile, unreserved and shining beautifully like a faraway star as Baekhyun’s confidence returns; it means a lot to him to have this rare chance to lead the dance, and even though Chanyeol has never danced in these shoes and he’s worried he might stumble, he has a feeling deep down that he might enjoy it even better if Baekhyun is holding him and guiding him, instead of the other way round. He can trust Baekhyun’s capable hands, his stomach quivering at the prospect, and he only hopes his heart will stop beating so loud lest Baekhyun hears it.

“Thank you” the shorter man says expressively, gazing right into Chanyeol’s eyes, and the saxophonist asks himself if there is anything he wouldn’t do to see this expression on Baekhyun’s sharp yet gentle features. Baekhyun’s arm carefully snakes around the taller’s torso, bringing them closer ever so slightly, and Chanyeol’s eyes timidly drop to the charming mole over Baekhyun’s lip corner; his cheeks heat up a little when Baekhyun’s hand lays onto the middle of his back and then absentmindedly slides down, following his spine to his waist, settling there securely. He lifts his own hand on Baekhyun’s shoulder hesitantly, the fabric of his vest smooth and warm under Chanyeol’s hand; he has nice shoulders, broad and proud, strong and certainly defined under his shirt. Chanyeol’s eyes follow the fair curve of Baekhyun’s neck to his undone collar, sculpted collarbones peeking from the shadows. He has never touched Baekhyun, no matter whether Baekhyun sometimes touches him on a whim, and his throat is constricting in nervousness until it’s hard to breathe, heartbeat wheezing in his ears.

“Relax, doll” Baekhyun coaxes, his fingers on Chanyeol’s waist pressing against his stiff spine in a soothing motion, making Chanyeol realize how tense his body is; he looks away and takes a breath, focusing on the notes of the song playing on record to lull his apprehension, and his bodylines slowly thaw, turning pliable enough for Baekhyun to sway. They start a slow rhythm, swaying from side to side in the trajectory of a circle; Chanyeol examines their familiar surroundings, avoiding Baekhyun’s eyes, which he can feel intently focused on his face, observing him closely. Maybe he is looking for signs of discomfort, his touch very attentive as he guides the taller with practiced ease; Chanyeol effortlessly follows his lead on such simple steps, still a little reserved but slowly growing used to the proximity and the tender touch. “Well, handsome, it looks like you can dance” Baekhyun teases with a cheeky smile on Chanyeol’s peripheral vision, and Chanyeol sputters at the spoiling praise.

“I- I didn’t say I couldn’t, I’m just not good at it” he defends in fluster, his lips pouting a little without his permission; he risks a glance at Baekhyun, cheeks pink, only to find him staring back with a wide, boxy smile, which stuns the taller completely with the blinding brilliance of the sun, the lights glowing on Baekhyun’s skin and over his pink lips, catching in his eyes and making Chanyeol doubt he is real, or a mere vision he can touch. How could anyone doubt Baekhyun’s charm, looking so heartbreakingly handsome and adorably sweet, stealing your heart with just one smile, always so sincere, making you fall for him with just a touch, always so warm; he is sparkling like falling stardust, and Chanyeol can feel his heart fluttering like a butterfly’s wings in his chest, the world filling with blushing red colors of sunset clouds and violet blues of twilight stars.

Chanyeol’s knees grow weak, and he forgets to move, inadvertently tripping Baekhyun, who stumbles and tips out of balance, falling against Chanyeol’s chest. Thankfully, Chanyeol catches him easily and manages to keep them both upright, but his stomach drops to the floor in mortification.

“Are you trying to prove your point?” Baekhyun chuckles, amused with his own stumble, but Chanyeol feels unparalleledly appalled with himself for ruining the moment, and he presses his lips in a thin line instead of making any excuses, turning his head away to stare at the bar remorsefully. You’re such a fool, such a fool…He has stupidly, singlehandedly shattered this unique opportunity to have one dance with Baekhyun, by being absentminded and getting carried away with notes and thoughts and Baekhyun’s intoxicating presence; it feels like his soul is melting in disappointment, and he wishes he could pour out this depressing melody suffocating him. He thinks he should get some air, just a whiff of cold rain before apologizing to Baekhyun for not being able to live up even to his simple, only request, but he finds he can’t move away.

He turns his head in puzzlement, and Baekhyun is not smiling up at him anymore; instead, he is gazing at Chanyeol’s neck fretfully, his teeth biting down on his lower lip as if he is uncertain, fearful, insecure and perhaps a little awkward –emotions that Chanyeol hasn’t seen on Baekhyun before, confusing him further. Baekhyun doesn’t notice Chanyeol is staring at him for a few moments, realizing only after he steals a glance up at him and their eyes meet; the shorter averts his gaze just as quick, almost guilty.

“Is…this okay?” he mumbles quietly, avoiding Chanyeol’s eyes, and it takes a moment longer for Chanyeol to grasp what Baekhyun means.

They are…closer. Very close. Baekhyun’s hand wrapped around him for support when he stumbled, now slithering across Chanyeol’s waist and keeping Baekhyun at a closer distance, their bodies only breaths away. He can see the small spots on Baekhyun’s cheekbone and temple, his can feel his auburn hair tickling his nose, he can smell his cologne and sense his jittery heartbeat not far from Chanyeol’s own chest. Normally, Chanyeol would be a nervous wreck, worse than Baekhyun’s tentativeness in such a situation, but oddly enough, he feels at ease. Baekhyun’s fit against him is comfortable, and there is something comfortingly safe in the way he overtakes nearly every single one of Chanyeol’s senses, the taller’s heart slowing down in his chest.

Long moments of silence sink in the small space between them, and Baekhyun feels compelled to look up eventually, searching Chanyeol’s expression timorously. The taller parts his mouth to answer, but he momentarily loses the words in Baekhyun’s wounded puppy eyes and the rejected pout of his lips, the corners denting downwards with a silent question that’s meant to reaffirm rejection.

In the end, Chanyeol nods, wordlessly agreeing. He makes sure to look into Baekhyun’s eyes, so that the shorter can read in his gaze the words he cannot bring on his lips, and, after a moment of silent observation, Baekhyun seems to be convinced, reciprocating with a small nod of his own and fixing his hold on Chanyeol’s waist a little; in turn, the taller wraps his arm around Baekhyun’s back, fingers sliding over his shoulder and closer to his neck. They cautiously resume dancing like this, Baekhyun looking over Chanyeol’s shoulder, his nose almost touching the taller’s jaw, and Chanyeol looking down at Baekhyun’s vest, watching his slow breaths. It takes a few lyrics until they are completely comfortable with being so unprecedentedly close to each other, until the apprehension melts to an unexpected sense of peace, and Chanyeol feels like this is the most enjoyable dance he’s ever had, effortless and soothing, reflections on crystal floating like stars around them. It feels like the entire empty room has been reduced to the space around them, everything about Baekhyun and everything about Chanyeol being included in a separate bubble, detached from their surroundings. He wonders if slow dancing after a lifetime feels like this, if this is the sort of meaning he’s been looking for.

“You’re awfully silent” Baekhyun comments half a spin later, his voice sounding dismal and hushed against Chanyeol’s shoulder, his fingers twitching in Chanyeol’s hand. “I’m worried I’m ruining your night too” he admits, voice tinged with a sad smile, his chin resting on the taller’s shoulder as if his head is too heavy to hold. Chanyeol’s eyebrows curl in a troubled frown, his eyes trying to sneak a peek of Baekhyun’s expression, but all he can see is his shimmery red hair and his ear, a part of his smooth cheek and a small, poignant dent next to his lips.

“It’s not that, I just…don’t know what to say” he admits. He has always been better with notes than with words, and he doubts there is anything Baekhyun would like to hear that someone else hasn’t already phased ever so poetically and eloquently for him. Besides, he doesn’t really know what he is supposed to say when Baekhyun seems so different, when this entire situation seems so surreal he’d be convinced it was a dream if Baekhyun wasn’t holding him as tightly bound to reality; Chanyeol can’t dream so beautifully.

“Say my name then” Baekhyun asks, tilting his head back a little to look up at Chanyeol, his face just on the verge of being inappropriately close. Chanyeol lifts his eyes to look back at him in bewilderment, finding his request so strange; he frowns, but Baekhyun seems perfectly serious about this, his eyes blinking wide, innocent and expectant as they bounce from Chanyeol’s eyes to his mouth and back.

“Why?” the taller asks, unable to guess what use it would be calling Baekhyun’s name when they’re alone and dancing close, hardly needing any words between them.

“I like how you say it” Baekhyun says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, shrugging his shoulders a little. Chanyeol’s lips part slightly in fluster, eyes widening at the corners, his ears tinting pink; he hadn’t noticed that he says Baekhyun’s name a certain way. A certain way that Baekhyun likes. “It sounds sincere from you, full, caring; it sounds like you’re calling me, the real me, not just the image of me in your head” Baekhyun muses, the subtler lines of his expression shifting with fleeting emotions, his hazel eyes staying focused solely on Chanyeol, who blinks down at him helplessly, cluelessly, still a little confused and shy. Do I really call him like this?, he wonders. What does he do differently from the rest? Baekhyun is…himself, Baekhyun, how else would he call him?

Said man smiles, partly amused and partly playful; it’s a beautiful and mesmerizing sight up close, like stars swirling in the sky and falling in silver rain on summer nights. “And you do have a nice voice” he compliments, some words turning into a soft purr at the edges, eyes half lidded and alluring, but maybe not entirely deliberate. Chanyeol can only chuckle awkwardly, self-conscious and bashful of the way Baekhyun delivered the praise rather than for the compliment itself. Baekhyun’s smile in response is bright and self-satisfied, as if he takes pride in making Chanyeol blush, as if he doesn’t realize how utterly seductive he is being in the taller man’s arms. He twists his body slightly, close enough for Chanyeol to feel the shift against him, and he leans his head on Chanyeol’s shoulder, to look up at him at a more comfortable angle for his neck; he seems relaxed and perhaps a little sleepy, his small smile drowsy and his head heavy on the taller’s shoulder, silken hair brushing against Chanyeol’s neck and jaw. “Will you say it, please?” he pleads quietly, his request serious beyond the fun and games, warm breath brushing over Chanyeol’s neck.

The saxophonist is not sure what he should do, but he knows what he wants to do, Baekhyun’s wishes being impossible to refuse. He chuckles breathlessly at himself once more, faintly amused in the midst of his fluster, at Baekhyun’s childishly naïve playfulness and how fast the night changes. He licks his lips in preparation and tries to sound as natural as possible, calling a name without any other intension other than to say it out loud.

“Baekhyun”

It sounds normal to his ears, nothing special, and he is still wondering what rings so differently for the man in question. He casts a short glance down at the shorter man, not really able to see him clearly, but he does see his pink lips curling in a satisfied, dazedly happy grin, his eyes fluttering close, as if Chanyeol has confided in him something uniquely precious, or as if he’s singing him a lullaby. The musician doesn’t understand, but if it makes Baekhyun happy, even on such a depressing night, it’s more than reason enough for him. He feels Baekhyun’s arm around his waist squirming, bringing him a little closer, dangerously close to being flush against each other when Baekhyun is already snuggled against him. Chanyeol wonders if Baekhyun always needs so much contact for comfort, if beyond all the polite and careful distance he keeps, he craves nothing more than to be cuddled like a sad puppy. Chanyeol’s lips unnoticeably curve into a fond smile.

“Again” the shorter pleads whisperingly, and Chanyeol smoothes his hand over his back in a soothing caress.

“Baekhyun”

“Again”

“Baekhyun”

It keeps up for some time, the record long finished, the sound replacing it being Chanyeol’s call of Baekhyun’s name and Baekhyun’s pleas to hear it always one more time. Chanyeol keeps stroking Baekhyun’s back as if he’s trying to put a child to sleep, and Baekhyun keeps breathing against Chanyeol’s neck with his eyes closed, leaning on his shoulder; it’s the first time he is so defenseless and tame, like a flame Chanyeol can touch without burning his fingers. They have long stopped dancing, simply standing and hugging each other in search of consolation, the night’s hours sweeping slowly over the streets and delaying the first light of day. Some moments between them feel sad, some feel content, some feel perfectly right and comfortable; Chanyeol thinks he could do this strange ritual forever, something serene and twinkling pooling in his chest, beautiful as those mystical lagoons where stars bathe on nights like this.

Until Baekhyun lifts his head, hiding his face in Chanyeol’s neck and hugging him close with both arms, holding him against himself with all the gratefulness and affection he can bear. “Thank you”

~* 9 *~

“Are you listening to me?”

“Mhm…”

“Applesauce!” Jongdae exclaims, clearly annoyed that Baekhyun is not paying him the inexplicitly required amount of attention, as he rambles about this or that and the stray cats Baekhyun keeps at the side alley of his joint, the blond man flailing his arms indignantly and whining loudly after accidentally hitting the desk –typical, but he is still unrepentantly ignored. Baekhyun doesn’t even glance at him, maintaining his handsomely brooding pose –as Jongdae likes to call it–, half hidden behind the curtain by the window while looking at the street outside from the first floor of his office. The perspective is strange, making the people he sees every day look smaller and more lanky, like cartoons, but there is some new interest to be found in the familiar and usually dull street today.

It all started from the bakery next door, which suddenly flooded in broad daylight this noon, something about their confectionary materials clotting the drains and creating a mess of puddles that spreads as far as the sidewalk; people have been tiptoeing around them all afternoon, frustrated that there is mud on their shoes even on a rare day without rain in the heart of autumn. Their business neighbors had to contact the mayor’s office to cut off the water supply, in order for repairs to be made, and unfortunately, that has left the Pearl without water’s supply as well; the buildings have been standing side by side for years on this street, and since the time they were built, some of their functional installations are interconnected, leaving the Pearl no other choice than to stay closed until the repairs next door are done and running water becomes available again. The poor baker has already apologized to Baekhyun a million times, but Baekhyun can see for himself that the situation can’t be helped; he feels worse for the baker than he does for his own profitable business, in all honesty.

In the spirit of being good neighbors, and in hopes that the mess next door will be fixed perhaps sooner, the Pearl’s staff offered to help out this evening, since they all came in to work anyway, unsuspecting of this predicament. They have been carrying new pipes and tiles and paints for about two hours now, joining the repairs group till sunset; Baekhyun wishes he could be with them, but his bad knee wouldn’t have let him be of substantial assistance, rendering him a nuisance more than anything else. So he has been watching from afar, admiring his staff’s teamwork and camaraderie, while entertaining Jongdae’s never-ending monologues –it seems the man was born to talk every breathing moment–, which not always require his full attention; it would have been practically impossible, even if he tried.

“If you keep staring at him, people will start to notice” Jongdae directs at him, piquing his interest with his knowing tone, a subtle tease lurking in his voice. Baekhyun glances at the well-dressed strangers passing by in the street as if to prove him wrong momentarily, and then decides to lean to the side as a precaution, away from the transparent glass where he might be visible, hiding behind the wall.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about” he lies, fighting the smile that tries to spill onto his lips, his reflection in the window looking amused. He can practically hear Jongdae rolling his eyes at him from where he’s lounging in one of the desk chairs, his predictable reaction reminiscent of similar conversations they’ve had in the past.

“The only one who might not know is him, and that’s because he’s a clueless, oversized, innocent puppy, not because you aren’t being obvious enough” the blond man accuses, and Baekhyun turns to disrespectfully grimace at him, childish and avoidant, instead of outright telling him to mind his own potatoes. Jongdae huffs and frowns, mock offended, and he starts wagging a reprimanding finger at Baekhyun. “Don’t you play games with me, young lad, I know you better than you know yourself!” he warns, and Baekhyun smiles privately at how true it rings –and he delays deciphering the true meaning behind Jongdae’s words.

They’ve known each other for a decade now, have worked sweat and tears to build the Pearl from the start together. Jongdae was the first and closest associate Baekhyun chose, unafraid of making a friend out of a shady conman; Jongdae always had a knack for telling you exactly what you want to hear, and he was as well-paid as he was resilient in the business of seduction and financial scams. As the son of no father and a poor, prostitute mother, Jongdae had to learn fast how to survive on the street, but for all his gifted insight and persuasiveness, he was still a criminal when Baekhyun first met him; he could see in him the raw potential to be a decent human being though, a great friend and an exceptional business advisor, so he picked him off the street, offered him an honorable way to make a living and a civilized way to live, watching from then on as Jongdae discovered more of his talents and the good in him, turning into this strange amalgamation of characteristics he is today. If anyone would be expected to pick up on Baekhyun’s imperceptible special interests, it would be Jongdae; too bad he can never keep quiet about them and leave Baekhyun surrendered to his guilty pleasures.

“You’ve been staring at Chanyeol all evening, aren’t you tired of standing there?” the blond complains, stating the matter too bluntly to be ignored this time and slumping in his seat, as if he is the one who should be tired. Baekhyun lets him be dramatic and turns his gaze out the window again, the tip of his shoe subtly kicking the wall.

Maybe. Maybe he has been staring at one person all evening and he’s been just pretending to supervise his staff; he has been checking on everyone of course, but maybe his eyes have a soft affinity for following Chanyeol around. In his defense, it’s hard to resist temptation right under his nose; since everyone has taken off their shirts and jackets not to soil them with construction materials, the weather allowing for lighter attire and their labor keeping them warm, Chanyeol too is clad only in an undershirt that leaves little to the imagination. Baekhyun can see Chanyeol’s biceps flexing and bulking as he picks up one end of a long pipe to help Taemin, subtle ripples of muscles and tendons lining his entire arm under his glossy skin, hands strong and gentle; the white cotton of his t-shirt clings to his back, outlining his shoulders and the moving muscles of his body, his waist looking so slender and his legs stretching endlessly, thin and tall and only slightly muscular. Something inside Baekhyun’s chest is swooning at how Chanyeol stands taller than the rest, his smiles brighter, his voice deeper like the night’s dark velvet, and no one could ever convince him to regret staring, not even Jongdae.

Baekhyun is helplessly and irrevocably fascinated by every side of Chanyeol, every shy blush and concerned frown, his kind thoughtfulness and gentle care; even by his anger and his exhaustion, his endearing awkwardness and endless patience. He admires the way Chanyeol trusts, how he believes in people so wholly and has faith that life will make sense in the end; he appreciates the way Chanyeol respects others’ limits and privacy, even if it frustrates Baekhyun sometimes how he doesn’t push matters further. He likes how Chanyeol always listens attentively and notices the smallest things about the people close to him, never hesitating to lend a helping hand; he is infinitely fond of the way Chanyeol plays quiet lullabies on the piano for Sejeong’s baby bump before their shift, and of the way he can make Baekhyun feel better, even when he’s at his worst.

And yet, in this kind soul that Chanyeol is without his reserved outer shell, Baekhyun can see a raging tempest; he has a storm inside of him, untamed and unrelenting like tidal waves crashing against rocks, crashing against himself. It’s beautiful and full of undiscovered music, symphonies and sonnets, gentle and secretly wild; it keeps beckoning Baekhyun to take a closer, enthralling look, to peel a couple of forbidden layers off of Chanyeol to touch his soul. It takes conscious effort every day to hold himself back, chained on the rocks instead of diving wholeheartedly into Chanyeol’s sea, but Baekhyun wants to, so much it keeps him awake at night.

The men outside seem to have finished contributing for the day, the sun painting the clouds a murky golden color as it sets surreptitiously over the city; the group of workers hired for repairs thank the rest for their assistance and bid them goodnight before they go, the evening’s regular crowd dispersing on the sidewalk all too soon. It seems Hyuck has said something funny after the crew is gone, because his coworkers laugh while he hides shyly behind Chanyeol’s taller frame; and that alone is a sign by itself. Hyuck is a young man with great intuition, despite being naïve and gullible and very afraid of the world he lives in, where an abusive father thinks him dense and stupid even though he is a genius with numbers and he has a beautiful, pure soul. Even amongst the staff of the Pearl that he loves and cherishes like nobody else, Hyuck doesn’t choose to shield himself behind just anyone; he chooses Ravi, and Doyoung, and now Chanyeol too, as if he subconsciously thinks they can protect him better. It makes Baekhyun wonder sometimes, but deep down he is happy his people get along well, without much need for explanations. There’s a moment of conversation amongst the men on the sidewalk, and then Chanyeol ruffles Hauk’s hair, looking endeared.

“Cute” Baekhyun mumbles to himself absently, watching the scene from behind his window and getting carried away in his thoughts, a smitten smile curling his lips unknowingly.

Jongdae clears his throat pointedly then, and Baekhyun nearly gets a heart attack, suddenly noticing that the blond man is no longer somewhere behind him but standing right across from him, on the other end of the window frame. Baekhyun clutches his chest, trying to make sure his heart is still in the right place as he regains his breath; when did Jongdae even come over, how long has he been standing there?

“Stop this absurd infatuation, Baekhyun” the blond man says blankly, with an echo of a warning reprimand, sharp eyes not the least bit worried of his best friend’s frazzled state –which he is responsible for in the first place. His words of advice hint at the sensible greater good, but Baekhyun glares daggers at him, partly for his insensitivity and partly because this is not an ‘infatuation’ –it’s not, it sounds like a derogatory term to describe what Baekhyun feels.

It’s feelings, tangled in an obscure mixture that has no name in Baekhyun’s head, but even so, it’s not something over which Baekhyun has conscious control; Jongdae might be a man well acquainted with casual flings and lustful encounters, but Baekhyun can’t shoot his feelings dead point blank like Jongdae can, like the barman often does to protect his heart from his frivolous love life. Baekhyun knows it’s absurd, he knows he should stop it, but how does he protect himself from something as chaste and mellow as the fluffy tangle of feelings he’s been catching lately?

“I can’t help it, Jongdae, it’s like…gravity” he tries to explain, moving his hands in useless gestures that don’t offer any valid indication. Jongdae doesn’t look impressed but he stays quiet at least, giving Baekhyun another chance; the latter turns away from the window and his friend and walks to the desk, frustrated that he can’t find the right words. That’s what you get for scorning feelings all your life.

He tries to grasp onto the slightest clean line between himself and Chanyeol to start unraveling his thoughts, but they have all been blurred, night after night of orbiting around each other unconsciously. More than anything, Baekhyun can’t stop thinking about that night unfailingly whenever he is alone, how Chanyeol effortlessly took all the anger, hatred and bitterness, and turned them into the sweetest note of Baekhyun’s name in his voice; he held Baekhyun in his arms with no complaint, he accepted him with all his ugly emotions, and he offered comfort, being supportive and warm and safe, drawing Baekhyun in like a moon in the darkest night. Baekhyun can’t escape him; he can’t help sinking under Chanyeol’s waves and marveling at the light filtering under the surface, he can’t help gathering his feelings close to his heart, to keep them, precious and splendid, like the most beautiful secret. There is simply no sky he can see without thinking of Chanyeol, of depthless chocolate eyes and dazzling smiles.

He leans against his desk tiredly, anchoring himself on it with both hands, taking a breath and closing his eyes. “How am I supposed to stay away when he keeps pulling me in?” he sighs, opening his eyes to a concerned frown on his best friend’s features; and perhaps Jongdae is right to be so worried. Perhaps Baekhyun is doing something wrong in chasing something so beautiful, but he can’t fight it. The blond man approaches him calmly and lifts a supportive hand, heavy onto Baekhyun’s shoulder, like everything that keeps him tied down, away from the infinite sky he longs for.

“I know, Baekhyun, I do” he says quietly, but every word is firm, heartfelt and sincere, his dark, sharp eyes clear as glass under his messy fringe. “He is insanely handsome and kind and perfect, I know; and you deserve him, I know; but we both know he must stay out of reach. It’s not safe” he reminds Baekhyun, voice low so that no one but themselves and Baekhyun’s ghosts can hear.

”Of course it’s not safe” Baekhyun scoffs sadly under his breath; his interest is always dangerous and he’s more worried about Chanyeol than he cares about himself, his haunting demons dragging their claws over his heart and tainting the delicate emotions in his chest. He knows everything could tilt off of its perilously balancing axis and spiral into chaos with just one harmless heartache, or a smile he can’t refute; he can’t do that to someone as wonderful as Chanyeol, he has no right to look beyond the darkness he walks in on his chosen path. He can’t feel mad at Jongdae for waking up his demons either, for reminding him what he always knew, so he simply stares back at his friend silently, his fingers scratching the polished surface of his desk. Jongdae’s brows curl pitifully over his eyes in concern, seeing right through him better than Baekhyun could ever explain in words.

“I care for both of you, and I’d hate to see either of you get hurt” he confesses, rarely being so honest about his feelings and fears in words, and Baekhyun acknowledges his worry with a small nod of his head, looking away; he has every reason to fear of what could happen to Chanyeol more than the bartender would ever guess, but he doesn’t say a word, opting to keep his secrets for now, some of them just for himself. Jongdae drops his hand from Baekhyun’s shoulder, and it oddly makes Baekhyun feel lost, as if thrown in a dark pit without guidance.

“What do I do, Jongdae?” he whispers, feeling too tired and heavy, trapped under indivisible ropes that he can’t escape. It’s an unfair question, and Jongdae shakes his head, giving him a look of sympathy that Baekhyun at least feels grateful for.

“Boss?” the moment is suddenly interrupted by someone calling from downstairs, and both men in the office shake off the somber mood; the Pearl is their life, but it’s also a business they need to run regardless of said life, so they head down the stairs to the main hall as if nothing ever happened, despite both of them being in a rather fragile state of mind. Most of the staff has gathered in a corner, discussing amongst themselves in hushed, excited tones, while Hongbin updates Baekhyun and Jongdae on the situation next door; it seems the damage is greater than they thought, and the construction crew doesn’t work on the weekend, which practically means the Pearl will be closed for another three days. The information would have been a shock at any other given moment, but after the conversation Jongdae and Baekhyun have just had at the office, Baekhyun feels a little numb to the news.

He thanks Hongbin and dismisses him, allowing Jongdae to finally have the predictable mental breakdown over profit loss and payment management, giving him time to let it out of his system and focusing on guiding him to the nearest table instead. It takes some time for Jongdae to calm down, after running a thousand different scenarios on his tongue, and he is still agitated afterwards, but it’s more manageable; he has come to terms with the unavoidable idleness over the next few days, and he keeps spinning random business ideas instead, occasionally punctuated with a distressed or indignant remark about the situation. Baekhyun listens to him patiently, forgetting about his personal troubles for a while and spinning his own business ideas in his head.

“How about I go visit the mansion this weekend?” he proposes at a moment when it seems like a good idea. Jongdae turns to him with a deep frown etched on his forehead, but his eyes are gleaming with intrigue, not entirely opposed to the suggestion, so Baekhyun continues. “It needs to be done, it’s part of business, and this way I won’t be missed, if the club is closed” he shrugs his shoulders, turning to Jongdae expectantly, waiting for him to approve his reasoning. The blond man presses his lips in a thin line, the corners not quite straightening from their ever curling shape.

“I guess you could” he concludes, rubbing his jaw pensively, and then his eyes glint with a second thought. “But you’re not planning on driving that rickety ol’ jalopy there, are you? Because there’s no way I’m letting you” he forbids resolutely, his distaste for Hongbin’s car clear in his voice. It’s the only available car though, besides Jongin’s expensive breezer, that Baekhyun can borrow to drive to his hometown, so in spite of it being old and having malfunctioned more than once, Baekhyun was admittedly considering it as an option for the weekend. Jongdae seems quite convinced of his opinion though, and Baekhyun doesn’t wish to upset him more after everything he’s had to hear and cope with tonight.

“Fine, I’ll take the bus and ankle the rest of the way” he relents, glad to see Jongdae’s posture relaxing a bit, his expression seemingly pleased, even though his mind still looks preoccupied, his gaze indecipherable under the bar’s nearby lights.

“Who’s coming with you?” he bates, intelligent eyes fixing on Baekhyun, but he sounds like he’s already suspecting that Baekhyun’s plan doesn’t involve anyone else besides himself.

“I don’t need a babysitter” the older by few months man retorts, letting it be known in his voice that he is opposed to the suggestion of bringing someone along. Jongdae seems to be on a stubborn streak though, because he crosses his arms defiantly across his chest and glares at Baekhyun in a way that’s hinting at the benefit of reasonable doubt. Baekhyun catches onto his track of thought instantly and frowns, puffing his cheeks, still embarrassed and slightly mad that Jongdae won’t let this one die. “That was one time I came back hangover” he protests, undeserving of being reminded of that horrible day years ago that he felt sick to his gut, especially when being reminded just so that it can be used against him; Baekhyun has an otherwise excellent record, long before and long after than day. “They sell liquor; they were being nice and wanted to take good care of me! It’s not like I go on a toot every time I visit” he defends, offended at the implicit accusations in Jongdae’s stance.

Baekhyun’s alcohol tolerance is close to nonexistent and that’s why he doesn’t drink; that time was a rookie’s mistake, accepting a couple of drinks after the first one to please everyone and ending up experiencing a premature death simulation on the floor of his apartment the next morning. He knows how to politely refuse now, accepting only one glass of wine at most whenever he visits. Jongdae keeps looking at him contemplatively, probably trying to assess the probability of another misdemeanor which is sure not to happen, but Baekhyun is not paying him much attention, trying to ward off the cringe worthy flashbacks of that fateful morning after the first and last time he got drunk in his life.

“I have an idea, but promise you won’t get in a lather” Jongdae says at long last, and Baekhyun turns to him with a brow raised in suspicion; it’s impossible to guess what sort of idea Jongdae has in mind from his carefully composed expression, but he is usually trustworthy in general terms, so Baekhyun tentatively agrees not to get mad and braces himself –rightfully yet belatedly unsettled by the maniacally wide grin that spreads on Jongdae’s lips once he gets permission. “Chanyeol sweetheart, get your broad shoulders over here for a moment, please!” the blond man hollers across the hall unexpectedly then, and Baekhyun’s eyes widen to Kyungsoo’s abnormal, enormous size; bad idea, bad idea, Jongdae!

“Jongdae, no” he hisses firmly, leaning towards the blond man with a frantic expression. “He works two jobs, he needs to rest-”

“And he is welcome to refuse” Jongdae interrupts him, holding up one finger as if he’s in a supreme position to point out the obvious “everything’s still jake and you can go alone; but if he accepts-” he stops himself short abruptly, his eyes shifting focus to somewhere behind Baekhyun, and his expression transforms entirely, into a cheshire smile, friendly and too innocent not to be hiding something. “Well, hello darling” he says, and Baekhyun whips his head around, realizing who he’s talking to.

Chanyeol is standing a few steps away, dressed in his suit properly by now –even though that doesn’t prevent the mental pictures from revisiting Baekhyun’s head. His cheeks are still a little flushed from his earlier physical exertion, and his dark hair has fallen out of its style, into its natural brush over Chanyeol’s forehead that makes him seem so much younger and naïve. His large eyes blink innocently at the two men, their chocolate color so sweet and molten under the shadow of his long lashes; have you noticed how heartbreakingly adorable he looks when he’s confused? “Is something wrong?” Chanyeol asks, no doubt startled by Jongdae’s unnecessarily loud exclamation earlier; it’s part of Jongdae’s package, and you just have to live with the uncertainty of whether he wants to tell you something random or if the place is on fire. The blond man taps his shoes on the floor excitedly, which only adds to his bizarre behavior, starting with the megawatt smile –Chanyeol has every right to be confused.

“Just wondering what you’re doing this weekend is all” Jongdae quips, and Baekhyun wishes he had a very heavy book in his hands, to whack all those crazy ideas out of Jongdae’s head; he needs to stop falling victim to his best friend’s ploys, as if his constant teasing in private of Baekhyun’s soft spot for Chanyeol is not enough. Yes, a very heavy book.

Chanyeol contemplates his answer for a while, his plush, mauve pink lips jutting out unintentionally, into a small pout. Baekhyun’s eyes fall on the tiny mole Chanyeol has under his chin, the one he noticed the other night when he was in Chanyeol’s embrace, and he wonders; does he know how tempting he looks, all smooth skin and pretty lips? The taller makes up his mind quickly, his hand toying with the chain of his pocket watch. “I’ll probably stay at home and grade tests, why?”

“Swell!” Jongdae commends enthusiastically, and Chanyeol tilts his head in bewilderment, the perfect impersonation of an oversized puppy. Baekhyun raises an eyebrow at Jongdae, daunting him not to confuse the poor man any longer. “Would you be interested in grading your tests in the countryside?” Jongdae suggests cheekily, and Baekhyun barely restrains himself from rolling his eyes at the choice of words. “See, Baekhyun here is going to pay our respects to the gin mills, the whole thing is child’s play to be honest, but there’s less chance of taking any wooden nickels if I send two of you, so what do ya say?” he says in one breath, adding a wink and a confident, convincing smile at the end, as if he’s trying to deploy as many tricks as possible to convince Chanyeol, who is blinking at him rapidly, his expression frozen in shock. Baekhyun is astounded that Jongdae managed to find an even worse choice of words; he’d be impressed if Chanyeol managed to decode half of his slang.

Chanyeol turns to Baekhyun after a few moments of stunned silence, his expression hopelessly baffled and pleading for an explanation. His large eyes search for Baekhyun’s, and he is already looking back, not missing a chance to explore the unfathomable depths of those gentle, chocolate orbs. “I have some business on behalf of the club in the countryside this weekend, and Jongdae doesn’t want to send me alone” he summarizes calmly, trying to memorize every detail as Chanyeol’s expression shifts to one of enlightenment, eyes blinking wide, eyebrows rising under his fringe, his lips parting in an unheard, inward ‘oh’.

“Yes, exactly!” Jongdae agrees, approving of Baekhyun’s simpler, more humane explanation, and Baekhyun turns his eyes to the blond man with an unamused look; sometimes, he feels like Jongdae sets him up on purpose, too sneaky to be caught yet too aware to be so naively oblivious. It doesn’t matter either way, because Baekhyun’s mediation is the last detail to mind in the conversation between Jongdae and Chanyeol, the former trying to assure the latter than he needn’t worry his pretty head that he knows nothing about the business, because he won’t need to prepare anything. Baekhyun has all official matters covered, and if anything, Chanyeol will be a cheering company for him on this trip, someone to talk to on the long bus ride and comfortably have lunch with, a reassuring presence to brighten Baekhyun’s day. Baekhyun lets his mind wander while Jongdae chatters optimistically, thinking of the bus tickets he has to arrange, alongside the gifts for the suppliers, hoping for good weather, because he’d hate to walk the distance from the village to the mansion on a muddy road in the rain. Maybe he could show Chanyeol around a bit if they have time; it’s prettier in spring but autumn has its charm as well…

“Unless you’d like to rest this weekend, of course…” he picks up on Jongdae saying, his voice clearly tilting to disappointment if Chanyeol refuses –and that’s one thing Baekhyun could never do, always giving someone a choice as impartially as possible, prioritizing to respect their wish rather than have the most auspicious outcome for himself. He feels almost guilty himself that Jongdae is using such tactics on Chanyeol, and he is about to intervene and point out that it’s understandable if Chanyeol would prefer a break from his hectic routine, rather than following Baekhyun to unfamiliar, not particularly interesting and possibly quite muddy places in the countryside; but before he has time to articulate a sentence, Chanyeol’s eyes sparkle with a smile, stealing Baekhyun’s breath from his lips.

“It should be fine” he agrees, directing his smile at Baekhyun all of a sudden, and the older man barely has half a mind to compose his stunned expression, closing his gaping lips shut and allowing a soft smile on his features. It’s something he wouldn’t have even thought to wish for, but he can feel it slowly sink in, that Chanyeol has just accepted to escort him on a trip out of town –and he accepted for no reason or benefit other than to keep him company. Have you noticed what a big heart he has, bigger than the universe and warmer than the sun? Baekhyun finds it hard to believe this is reality and not just an elaborate skim of his fantasy in a dream, and even though he is lost for words, he knows that his exited smile mirroring Chanyeol’s is conveying enough.

“Excellent” Jongdae approves, struggling to hide how thrilled he is that his plan worked out, voice wavering on too high octaves. Mercifully, someone calls for Chanyeol just then, distracting him from Jongdae’s eagerness and Baekhyun’s unusual silence; the taller’s smile fades a little as he glances across the room, uncertain if he is dismissed. “Go, go, we’ll talk specifics later” Jongdae reassures him, but Chanyeol turns to Baekhyun too, waiting for his small nod of affirmation before he goes.

Baekhyun watches him being engulfed by the staff right away, showering him with interest about whatever it was they’d been discussing, and he tries to imagine what it would be like, being around Chanyeol for a day without distractions, outside of the predetermined conduct frame of the club. He thinks about it as he watches Chanyeol laugh, his right eye slightly twitching, one of his endearing traits, and the more Baekhyun lets his mind loose, the further it takes him, to places it’s dangerous to daydream about, and yet his heart is responding well, foolishly falling for their promises.

“What have you done, Jongdae…” he groans under his breath, pressing the palms of his hands against his eyes and cheeks and jaw, to soothe the tension of an oncoming headache.

“I arranged a weekend getaway for you and your crush” Jongdae quips, thankfully not as loud as usual, but his unashamed nonchalance does earn him a glare from Baekhyun. Realizing that this is far from being a joking matter, almost giving a stressed headache to the latter, Jongdae backtracks and gets more serious, raising his hands in surrender. “No listen, Baekhyun” he apologizes for his recklessness, eyes shining with the confidence of a good idea –which can be neither proved nor denied unless put to the test, unfortunately–and he continues the explanation of his reasoning, which lead to this unforeseen outcome in the first place. “You have a day with him away from everything, from anything that needs your attention and anyone who might recognize you; so woo him, spoil him, take him to the stars and back, just get it out of your system and come back less…” he gestures widely towards Baekhyun with a weird expression, a mixture of amusement and aversion; it almost takes him long enough to find a word for Baekhyun to feel insulted, being pointed at with such an expression. “…goofy” Jongdae finishes, the term being harmless enough by itself, but carrying a much less flattering meaning behind it in Jongdae’s voice.

Baekhyun chooses to ignore all of the consequences in Jongdae’s words and only slaps his arm, in retaliation for the revolted look Jongdae has sent him, mocking his precious feelings. The blond man laughs, not even feeling the sting, and Baekhyun excuses himself to his office; he has a weekend to plan.

~* 10 *~

Chanyeol jolts awake, the world being instantly flooded by harsh white light, almost painful to his awareness, his body swaying along to the lulling movement of the bus. He scrunches his nose and tightly shuts his eyes to shield them from the blinding glow, letting the warmth of the sunrays against his skin, the steady thud of his blood in his ear, and the soft scent of cotton and sky –with a hint of something more comforting– soothe his affronted senses.

“Hello there, sleepyhead”

Oh.

His consciousness spikes again at the sound of a familiar, husky voice, and Chanyeol fights his pained tears against the blurry, radiant shapes in his vision, trying to focus; blue seats and slender hands, pale, bespeckled fingers resting against a folded mint green jacket, white shirt cuffs and a choco-chip mole adding beautiful contrast to the pastel hues. He knows this cotton and almond scent, with a touch of cologne fading against smooth skin. Oh. It’s all coming back to him now.

He risks a glance to his left, where Baekhyun is bathing in the sun, perfectly relaxed and carefree in his seat, a lopsided smile playing on his lips, right over the corner where he has a little mole –and one more on his cheekbone, and one more on his temple, sweeping on his skin diagonally. Chanyeol closes his puffy eyes again and brings a hand over them, letting out a strangled whimper as he detaches his head from Baekhyun’s shoulder, rubbing the drowsiness off his eyelashes with his thumb and forefinger; he pretends not to hear Baekhyun’s little sneaker at him. Did he really fall asleep? He doesn’t even remember when he last looked out the window before waking up here. The scenery outside consists mostly of autumn fields and a few wild, green swirls up the hills, right below the blue sky on the horizon. The day is sunny, soft breezes running through the grasslands and jumping on the last few flowers that grow in this cold season.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry” Chanyeol mumbles guiltily, his cheeks turning pink as he finally meets Baekhyun’s kind, sparkling eyes. “Why didn’t you wake me, or push me away, at least?” he says, blinking away the last of sleep and deeply regretting staying up late last night to finish grading tests, even though he knew he’d have to be up at the crack of dawn this morning; but he figured he had no other choice if he wanted to have this entire day free of any other obligations, so that he could enjoy it with Baekhyun to the fullest –a naïve plan which is already failing.

He had one job on this trip, and it certainly did not entail falling asleep on his boss’s shoulder and letting him be bored to death at the bleak, passing scenery; that was inappropriate, as well as embarrassing, because Chanyeol is made of too much material and Baekhyun didn’t have to accommodate his limbs overflowing into his own, equally small seat.

The shorter doesn’t answer right away, stretching his arms over his head and purring like a lazy cat, satisfied to get rid of the numbness in his bones momentarily, small smile never faltering on his lips. “It’s okay, I didn’t mind” he exhales, reclining back into his seat and turning to look out the window with renewed anticipation. But mere moments later, he turns to Chanyeol again, a small, pensive pout curving his lips. “To be honest” he says quietly “even if I did mind, you look so innocent and peaceful when you’re asleep, I wouldn’t have the heart to wake you” he confesses without a hint of bashfulness, flashing a charming grin at Chanyeol before returning his attention to the window. Chanyeol can only blink wide eyes at him, completely stunned; Baekhyun is never frugal with inadvertent praise, but that doesn’t change the skittish feeling in the taller’s chest whenever he is the recipient of such compliments, especially when they come out so personal and private, when it’s just the two of them.

Chanyeol devotes his interest to the shifting scenery outside like Baekhyun, distracting his thoughts with songs that are oddly spirited for the season, cheerful like the day in the sky. Had you asked him two days ago, he would have imagined that on this fine morning he’d be on his way to the city park for his customary walk, and then for a short caffeine indulgence at his favorite coffee shop near the conservatory. Even when the day is sunny like today, he doesn’t plan trips out of town often –he hasn’t been on many, save for those times he takes the train to visit his grandparents at his rural hometown. This trip, however, is a welcome change to his routine city life, as unexpectedly as it might have come along; the change of scenery is invigorating, even though he’s not quite sure what he is supposed to be doing on this trip, other than offer companionship to Baekhyun. Jongdae’s slang was not very helpful when he tried to explain the purpose of the business meeting Chanyeol will be attending with Baekhyun at their destination today, talking too fast about funny birds who know their booze, swell fellas the lot of them, but stay away from giggle water or you might never get a wiggle on your onions.

He is clueless to say the least, but since Baekhyun was generous enough to invite him along and cover for all his expenses, Chanyeol doesn’t want to seem ungrateful and burdensome by asking him about it again.

Twiddling with his fingers –his little musician’s habit–, Chanyeol stares out the window, uncertain if he should break the silence between them; it’s not uncomfortable to him, but he can’t guess what it might feel like for Baekhyun. He doesn’t know how he is supposed to interact with him outside of the club’s confines, this being Chanyeol’s first time around him as a regular person, Baekhyun’s authority not following them here. Chanyeol’s gaze gradually shifts to Baekhyun without him noticing, becoming mesmerized by the man beside him, suffused in sunlight; his hair looks auburn, fiery copper strands looking more prominent in natural light, simply combed to the side, and he seems even paler than usual, like his skin hasn’t been touched by the sun, a true creature of the night. His complexion has a very subtle undertone, smooth and unblemished skin wrapping around the sharp angles of his jaw and cheekbones, the slope of his nose giving just the right amount of emphasis on his bow shaped lips, satin pink and naturally pouty.

“You’re staring, Chanyeol” Baekhyun notes offhandedly, and Chanyeol realizes to his horror that he has been doing so indeed, probably for some time now as well. It doesn’t matter how Baekhyun knew, even without his gaze ever straying from the fleeting scenery, and it doesn’t matter that there wasn’t the slightest hint of accusation in his voice; it was discourteous of Chanyeol to stare, and he was raised better than that.

He sputters in fluster, trying to word a clumsy, awkward apology, and making an even greater fool of himself with how his hands flail on his lap in panic, his ears catching fire when Baekhyun turns to him inquiringly, curious about Chanyeol’s strange behavior. Golden flecks sparkle in his eyes, hair tinged cinnamon in the sun, and Chanyeol finally laces his hands and keeps them still, his eyes wide like a deer’s. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to” he stutters out at last, “You just look so different in daylight” he finishes quietly.

That was said with best intentions, but Chanyeol can feel the blood draining from his face in mortification when the double entendre in his words registers, because maybe Baekhyun didn’t catch the bewitched undertone in Chanyeol’s voice and found his answer wounding; the slight curl of Baekhyun’s eyebrows in a frown certainly doesn’t seem flattered, casting ominous shadows over his eyes. But then Baekhyun tilts his head and his expression takes on an entirely different meaning, light playing in his eyes again, cheeks looking velvet in the sunlight, his lips looking almost pinched in a smile from this angle, as if he’s just appraising Chanyeol inquisitively, nothing sort of being upset with him. Chanyeol still feels compelled to keep still, submitting to Baekhyun’s gaze, splotches of pink slowly spreading onto his cheeks.

“Huh” the shorter mumbles in the end, husky voice low “You look just the same in daylight”

Chanyeol doesn’t know how to feel about that, but he is probably thankful.

In spite of seemingly having concluded his observation, Baekhyun keeps gazing at him, hazel eyes slightly pensive, and Chanyeol can feel his heart picking up the pace as he stares back; this might be the longest look anyone has ever bothered to give him, and it doesn’t help at all that Baekhyun is so gorgeous himself. The world seems suddenly so harmoniously graceful, so perfect under the sky, like stars appearing slowly on warm summer nights in melodies that call for the night faster, and Chanyeol can feel something delicate and innocent and shy, like cherry blossoms, blooming in his chest. It’s not the perfect time to realize such quietly nurtured feelings that keep unraveling the longer Baekhyun looks at him, especially considering that he’ll have to follow Baekhyun around all day, his puppy love materializing in the most embarrassingly literal way; but it’s a moment as perfect as any, gazing into Baekhyun’s eyes and feeling oddly fulfilled that he’s looking back, without anything between them but tranquil sunshine.

A bump in the road jolts the bus and throws them out of focus, the moment broken and engraved idle in the past, but still promising something, like the hopeful slit of a flower bud, still closed yet letting the petals peek through. Baekhyun breaks out of his daze, eyes taking in the bigger picture around them, and he sends Chanyeol a short, slightly apologetic grin as if he doesn’t have any words to say, his expression indecipherable as he turns away, looking out the window once more. Chanyeol presses his lips in a thin line of secret disappointment, like failing to hold onto a note that lasts too short to be magnificently beautiful, and he looks at his hands, not particularly charming, with veins on the back and hardened skin on his fingertips from years of playing various instruments; Baekhyun’s touch is a distant ghost in them, delicate and certain, and he wonders why he’s craving for it now, wishing he could have the slightest tangible contact with Baekhyun beside him, proof that he is still here, even though he seems so far away.

It’s not long before they reach the bus terminal, the driver’s voice cutting through Chanyeol and Baekhyun’s mutual reverie, requesting passengers to disembark. He looks at the quaint village out the window while waiting patiently in line on the bus aisle, confined in the small space between seats, his legs somewhat numb from spending so much time unmoving in his seat. Baekhyun is right behind him, so close Chanyeol can practically feel his breath on his neck and his folded jacket brushing against him as Baekhyun shifts it in his hold; they remain stuck like this for a while, the bus full of boisterous, excited people on a weekend getaway that need to get off before them in line. He blushes a little, idly wondering if they’ll spend the rest of the day in such proximity by default, having to stay close one way or another. He nearly jumps off the stairs to get out of the bus faster, feeling a little lightheaded during the last few steps to the door, but it fades easily with a bit of fresh air. He puts on his hat and busies himself with fixing his appearance, smoothing down his suit, while he waits for Baekhyun as he exits the bus gracefully, stretching his sore limbs and slipping his arms into his jacket; people around are already staring at him in fascination, admiring his beauty, but Baekhyun ignores them as if they don’t even exist.

“I need to pick up something in town and then we can head out, okay?” he says, looking up at Chanyeol against the bright sunlight, eyes squinting. He seems like himself again, with an undeniable cheerfulness lurking at the corners of his lips, his hair aflame and his eyes bright green under the autumn sun. Chanyeol doesn’t have any definite plans for the day, so he nods in agreement without objections, even though he doesn’t know what Baekhyun’s plan involves exactly, or what he means by ‘heading out’. The shorter grins at him dazzlingly, and motions at him to follow his lead, looking confident in navigating around the place.

They don’t need to walk far to find themselves in the heart of the small town, busy, loud and colorful. Chanyeol subtly tries to keep a polite distance at first, staying one step behind and gazing at the shop fronts to keep his pace slower, but Baekhyun catches onto it almost right away, maneuvering smoothly and appearing next to Chanyeol out of the blue; he doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t even glance at Chanyeol, but the latter is not as dense as to misunderstand Baekhyun’s intension, so he doesn’t try to regain his distance. Baekhyun absently mumbles to himself that he should have brought his hat too, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun with his hand, and Chanyeol vaguely hums in response, his eyes drinking in everything new the town has to offer.

The walls of each building are painted in bright colors, life and the savory scent of food pouring out of open windows, children chasing down the street and making flower crowns out of weeds. People seem happily preoccupied, tourists and locals mingling in the street with hardly any cars in sight, cats napping on the window ledges and basking in the sun. The scent of sweet bread in the air brings a smile on Chanyeol’s lips, and he notices that Baekhyun beside him is not unaffected by the jolly atmosphere of this town either, having a small spring in his step as he strolls next to Chanyeol. They slow down near a florist’s shop at some point, full of blooms, a slight scent of them wafting in the air, fresh and gentle.

“Don’t wander off too far, okay doll? I’ll be back soon” Baekhyun instructs with a smile and a mischievous wink, which effectively renders Chanyeol speechless as he watches Baekhyun cross the street and enter a shop with all sorts of foods on display. Once he’s left alone, Chanyeol feels a little disoriented under the sun, Baekhyun’s playfulness always affecting him like the turn of a key that makes his heart beat faster, as if it’s a music box. He falls easily for Baekhyun’s confident smirks and pet names, for the unconventional, flirty affection he shows to the people he likes; it doesn’t bear any great romantic significance, Chanyeol knows that, but the butterflies in his stomach run rampart acutely whenever Baekhyun plays with him, as if he ought to feel gleeful for being Baekhyun’s person of choice.

Sometimes, he gets the impression that maybe Baekhyun likes choosing him just as much, from the way he stares at Chanyeol a little longer, the way his voice softens around Chanyeol’s name, the way all his happiness seems summoned in his eyes when Chanyeol calls his name. But that’s just probably an intricate illusion of his mind, a thought which is unsafe to linger on, so he dismisses it quickly.

Chanyeol opts to admire the flowers while he waits, entertaining himself with their intricate colors and soft petals, guessing how soft they would feel under his musical fingers and imagining combinations that would make even the smallest ones shine. He smiles when he spots his grandma’s favorite, the one his grandpa always brings her on her birthday, and he marvels at the exotic blooms he has never seen before; the town must be near a port, which would explain its abundance of rare goods and exploring guests. He doesn’t notice the florist lady observing him as he examines the flowers on display, and he’s a little startled when she greets him politely, sending him a bright smile. He reciprocates the greeting, taking a step away from the flowerpots, for fear he might knock them down if he’s not careful enough.

“I can help you find flowers for someone special, if you wish” she baits him, giving him a sharp, appreciative once-over, looking a little interested in him like the students in the conservatory’s halls. Chanyeol feels a little self-conscious, even more so for being mistaken as one of the couples sauntering up and down the street with their beloved on their arm, enjoying romance in such good weather. But before he has time to reject her offer politely, another voice interrupts.

“Are you buying me flowers, sweetheart?” Baekhyun’s mellifluous voice and himself appear beside Chanyeol, a slender arm curling around the taller’s elbow. “I like dahlias” the shorter man adds with inexplicable, swooning happiness, contentedly leaning a little against their linked arms; Chanyeol can only blink at him in disbelief, surprised by how comfortable and natural Baekhyun can be when he is playful like this –because he is clearly being only teasingly possessive, acting out of character to make Chanyeol smile. The latter can’t help the amused grin curling on his lips at Baekhyun’s charming antics. The lady at the florist’s excuses herself and heads inside a bit sulkily, halfheartedly leaving Chanyeol in Baekhyun’s hands, and the redhead uses his hold on Chanyeol’s arm to stir him down the street again, steps right on schedule. “We have business to do first, we can do flowers later” he teases with a naughty grin which even reaches his green eyes, obviously being in a good mood today; his cheerfulness feels contagious to Chanyeol, urging him to chuckle at Baekhyun’s joke lightheartedly.

“I wasn’t going to buy you flowers” he feels the need to clarify, looking at Baekhyun beside him out of the corner of his eye. Baekhyun’s smile tones down to a tamer hue, eyes focused ahead, his hair shimmering as they cross an ivy-shaded sidewalk, and he shrugs his shoulders, bumping against Chanyeol’s rib a little.

“I know, I wouldn’t want you to” he assures quietly, sounding more content with that than if Chanyeol had really bought him flowers, his smile twitching with a private thought. It makes one wonder what is going on inside that pretty head of his, but Chanyeol knows well by now that Baekhyun opens up in his own terms, and it’s worth all the patience, so he doesn’t prod further on Baekhyun’s answer and focuses on enjoying their trip as it comes instead.

Baekhyun doesn’t let go of him the rest of the way as they walk across the town, keeping their arms linked together, unfazed by the indiscreet looks it earns them on the street. He seems more at ease than Chanyeol has seen him in days, keeping Chanyeol close on one side and occasionally swinging the basket he’s holding on his other side, in a childish display of gratification. It’s a completely different side to Baekhyun, looking so happy with so few, simple things, and Chanyeol is starting to think that this day is the greatest blessing he has received in months. He can almost see the bright notes of a song surrounding them, humming in the comfortable silence between them as they walk under falling leaves, ringing clear in Baekhyun’s endearing laugh when Chanyeol stumbles on a jutting stone on the pavement, too entranced gazing at the kaleidoscope of yellows and ambers overhead to watch where he is going, and smoothing out to a more peaceful melody when Baekhyun picks a couple of leaves out of Chanyeol’s hair, apologizing to the pouting saxophonist for laughing at him earlier. Chanyeol likes this music, he likes how it feels, and he wishes he can keep it in his memory unblemished to compose it someday.

They head out of town, leaving the last buildings behind and taking a wide dirt road that leads into the woods. It looks essentially well-tended, instead of the abandoned wilderness one would expect looking at it from afar, and Chanyeol can see tire tracks in the soil, even though there is no car to be seen. There seems to be no one in vicinity, only Baekhyun and Chanyeol walking amidst the evergreen woods surrounding them, and Chanyeol wonders to what kind of place Baekhyun is taking them for business, reluctantly letting Baekhyun guide them in an carefree stroll right in the middle of the road. The temperature drops under the shade of the branches arching overhead, but they stay close to each other and tirelessly keep moving, only stopping shortly to let a red fox cross the road in front of them. Baekhyun seems peaceful in nature’s quiet embrace, enjoying the day not as vibrantly as before but more relaxed, thoughts crossing his eyes leisurely, steps unhurried and assured; there is only one direction to follow really, but Chanyeol is always anxious of getting lost in unfamiliar places, so Baekhyun’s confidence helps keep those worries at bay. He tries to see this as a walk in the park, enjoying the absence of city noise, his mind playing compositions only he can hear.

It must have been at least half an hour of walking distance, when a sign of people nearby appears before them, in the form of an enormous door with ornate iron bars, blocking the way from side to side, and Chanyeol realizes that the road they’ve been following is made solely for this destination, connecting the village town to this place –so it must be important. Chanyeol hesitates, intimidated by the elaborate, old-fashioned style of the door that seems to be three times his size, but Baekhyun finds a smaller door with practiced ease, a human-sized, sectioned-off part on the grand design, and he singlehandedly pushes it open, slowly because it’s heavy but with no sign of uncertainty, probably having done this before. The hinges creak and jam when the gate is pushed further than it needs to be for one person to pass through, and Baekhyun sighs, letting go of Chanyeol’s arm for the first time in a while, slithering through the open gap first and waiting for Chanyeol to reluctantly fit himself through it after him, before closing it again.

One look around and it’s clear as day they have entered some sort of wealthy mansion, one with gardens built around fountains, gazebos overlooking ponds and picnic areas, canopies of flowers arching over pathways and different styles of rose gardens around. The house itself is quite massive to miss, three stories high with many windows and different rooms, a couple of towers and parts of tiled roof that indicate overwhelmingly large common areas. There is evergreen ivy blocking some windows in part, as if they are in disuse, but the mansion is otherwise in perfect condition, even the decorative statues standing pristine and clean. It looks like a fairytale picture under the blue sky, but it seems more unapproachable and daunting than a sketched picture you can run your fingers over, guessing the lavish interior in awe. Chanyeol falls behind a little, staring at the castle with wide eyes, until Baekhyun calls for him from further down a path that doesn’t seem to be leading directly to the house. Chanyeol jogs to catch up, too insecure to be left alone in such a place without Baekhyun’s reassuring guidance.

“Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?” he whispers, blinking wide eyes at Baekhyun, sounding doubtful and slightly nervous, even to his own ears. He still doesn’t know what to expect of their business meeting today, but this was certainly something he wasn’t expecting when he agreed to come along. It does seem like private property, nothing like the welcoming atmosphere of the Pearl, and it makes him a little uncomfortable, like someone might come out and chase them, to throw them into the dungeon for trespassing; it’s been too lovely a day to end like this.

Baekhyun snorts in bitter amusement at Chanyeol’s question for reasons unknown, and it’s oddly the most endearing scoff Chanyeol has ever heard; Baekhyun doesn’t seem to think so though, quickly covering the lower half of his face with his hand. “I’m sorry, that was unbecoming” he apologizes, glancing at Chanyeol bashfully before looking ahead again, in a strangely meek manner that Baekhyun doesn’t usually express. He recomposes himself quickly though, too soon for Chanyeol to fully appreciate the shy, innocent charm he showed a moment ago, and when he lowers his hand, he seems calm and collected as always. “Yes, we’re allowed to be here” he replies confidently, to dispel any lingering fears on Chanyeol’s part, and then he points with his free arm somewhere down the path they are following. “See there? That’s the Pearl’s grand stash; our liquor suppliers use that shed” he explains with a smile, his droopy eyes turning round in excitement and looking up at Chanyeol, who fortunately remembers to look at where Baekhyun is pointing before he gets lost in the shorter’s hazel eyes.

“You need such a big shed just for the Pearl?” he gasps instantly, eyes widening at the sight. The building might have been the castle’s stables once, its design simple as a box with a roof, tall, with few tiny windows and one large door at the front. It looks nearly half the size of the mansion, and that means there must be a lot of open space inside available for any kind of use; it looks like it can hold tons of alcohol in cases of bottles, and even though the Pearl has quite an impressive number of patrons each week, it should be impossible to consume even a quarter of the liquor quantity stored inside that building. Baekhyun laughs, his voice carrying over the open planes of the mansion’s gardens, and for a moment the entire estate seems brighter. Chanyeol loses his breath when he looks at the auburn-haired man beside him, his nose cutely scrunched, his eyes nearly disappearing in mirthful curves; he is so fascinating when he’s unreservedly happy like this, that it seems the entire universe stops and stares.

“No, our business imports alcohol and consequently supplies other joints too” Baekhyun clarifies nonchalantly once his laughter dies down, the wide smile on his lips refusing to fade; Chanyeol’s lips gape in shock, however, registering those small details in Baekhyun’s words. Our business? Baekhyun owns a successful nightclub and this highly profitable importing business, too? The poor musician blinks in rapid succession, feeling disoriented in the middle of a castle garden, standing beside an extraordinary human who’s full of surprises; Chanyeol hasn’t come prepared for this in the boring teacher’s suit he picked out this morning. Baekhyun notices his silence, unavoidably, and turns to him with slight confusion in his eyes, the rest of his expression still mirthful; Chanyeol is about to dare a first question, but he doesn’t get a chance, both men’s attention stolen by an unexpected commotion.

It seems the people expecting Baekhyun have finally spotted them approaching, and Chanyeol can see about half a dozen men gathering in the wide doorway of the shed, waving at them enthusiastically and calling Baekhyun’s name; they seem very eager to meet him, making a fuss to express their happiness. Baekhyun chuckles and waves back with his arm high over his head, his steps picking up the pace to the point Chanyeol has to stride even wider than normal to keep up; if he had to guess, Baekhyun is excited for this meeting too. Chanyeol doesn’t know why he didn’t think of that sooner, expecting anything different of this business meeting; of course Baekhyun is excited, of course these people anticipate him with their heart on their sleeve too. Baekhyun’s business means family, so these associates must be like distant relatives –the kind you actually like and miss if you don’t see them in a long time, not those you just tolerate.

They don’t make it to the shed to greet those people, the men covering some distance to meet them sooner halfway near the shed; their impatience is heartwarming, and so is seeing grown men acting like children around Baekhyun, those much older hugging him repeatedly with fond smiles on their wrinkled faces, those younger or about Baekhyun’s age jumping around him and waiting for a chance to touch him, to hug him and bump shoulders with him, circling in uncontainable excitement and coming back for one more smile. Baekhyun is well loved here, more than if those people were his real family, loyal and infinitely grateful to him, ushering him to the shed to accommodate him and asking about his life since they last saw him, overflowing with interest and affection. The basket of gifts he’s brought them seems insignificant compared to the joy his presence has brought, and Baekhyun laughs a lot, trying to keep up with everyone asking for his attention, shaking their hand again and again. He introduces Chanyeol to them proudly, as the Pearl’s saxophonist, an excellent musician and a good friend, and all the men rush to greet him and welcome him too, asking about his job and his interests and his life, reminding him of his loving grandparents bombarding him with questions whenever he visits them.

They make their way to the shed eventually, the men hovering around the two of them like bees around blooming flowers, and Chanyeol is amazed by their energy as much as he is by the shed’s interior. The walls are covered by stacks of bottle cases, neatly arranged and categorized, intermittently creating little nooks and corners to accommodate the needs of the thriving business. There are lights hanging overhead, casting an ambient glow inside the space, warm as they reflect on the wooden insulation, and leaving a few shadowy areas where the piles of boxes block the light. There is a tall closet of iron on the left, next to a single desk, and one of the men is already bringing boxes of files out of the closet, arranging them on the desk in a semblance of order. There are a few sticks of stray hay on the ground, confirming Chanyeol’s assumptions that this building was once a stable, but it’s otherwise very clean and tidy.

“It seems I’ll be busy for a while, doing some very tedious reading with these fine gentlemen over here, so feel free to wander around and explore, okay doll?” Baekhyun addresses him for the first time since they met with the rest of the men, and even this moment is stolen, the elder ones among the shed operators already sitting down around the desk with their glasses of wine, getting ready for serious paperwork. Chanyeol sends Baekhyun a slightly unsure look, reluctant to stray too far away from him in case he is needed or in case he gets lost in the maze of bottle cases, but Baekhyun gives him a patient, encouraging little smile, waving off the person who called his name without even glancing away from Chanyeol; it’s Chanyeol’s moment and everyone understands that with the way Baekhyun has eyes only for him.

“We could show him around” a couple of the crew’s younger men suggest, and Baekhyun’s smile twitches with interest at the idea, his gaze never leaving Chanyeol’s eyes. “The gardens are not blooming, but it’s nice for a walk.”

Chanyeol ends up accepting the offer, figuring he needs to keep himself busy somehow while Baekhyun works, and it doesn’t hurt being surrounded by people who like him and will take good care of him.

“Have fun then, boys” Baekhyun wishes them with a genuine smile, and Chanyeol drifts closer to his group as Baekhyun backtracks nearer to the desk where his associates await him, his hazel eyes lingering on Chanyeol as if he doesn’t really want to let him out of his sight. “Take good care of my doll” he tells the two men on either side of Chanyeol, who giggle when Baekhyun winks at them mischievously, before turning around and heading to work. Chanyeol blushes a little at the shorter’s last words, his stomach jumping in bashfulness; Baekhyun has openly called him ‘doll’ so many times already around these people, that he wouldn’t be surprised if they remember him as Baekhyun’s doll rather than by his own name.

The men show Chanyeol around as promised, first walking him through the shed and the entire inventory, explaining to him about their business affairs and how they manage the transportation of fragile goods, showing him exceptional bottles and rare labels, sharing funny stories of their days working amidst mountains of glass and alcohol; it should be boring but Chanyeol finds himself unexpectedly intrigued and entertained, listening closely as they explain to him the differences between two whisky types, and wholeheartedly laughing along with them when they joke around. The unreserved openness and kindness these people display make it easier for him to open up, answering their questions about his two jobs in the city and his musical studies, informing them about the rest of the staff’s wellbeing and trying not to divulge much to his curious audience about the people who court Baekhyun every night, to their slight disappointment. They seem to have many entertaining stories involving Jongdae to share, however, and after Chanyeol mentions him the conversation stirs in that direction.

“Did you hear about that goon who got pinched at a nightclub the other week?” they ask Chanyeol eventually, the big news that buzz in the city and fade in a day reaching here in the countryside with a much more sensational and mysterious aura; his grandparents ask him too from time to time, about important headlines that he has already forgotten. “The police had been after him for months but with no evidence, and they thought they caught him red handed at the club when they made the arrest, but turns out his lawyer proved the transaction hadn’t been completed prior to the arrest, so they only jailed him for intent; he got half his dues, it was a disgrace for the department” They are far better informed here than he’d ever care to be in the city, so he listens idly as they stroll around a garden full of late summer’s weeds turned dark in the cold. He thinks he read something a few days ago about this arrest, but he doesn’t read the papers very keenly, always missing the details; he doesn’t miss the feeling of the breeze on his fingertips though, the sun against his cheeks, the vines bending under his exploring touch.

“Oh there you are, boys! I’ve been looking for you” Baekhyun’s voice suddenly rings in the overgrown garden, unintentionally interrupting their conversation; the three men have to actively search for his figure behind the bushes, forgetting all about their previous topic in their best attempts to spot the newcomer behind green leaves and spidery branches. Baekhyun sounded close but he’s nowhere to be seen in vicinity, and if the other two hadn’t heard him as well, Chanyeol would think it was just a trick of his mind, wishful thinking summoning Baekhyun away from his piles of paperwork; Chanyeol absently wonders how much time has passed since they parted ways at the shed. He wouldn’t be surprised if time flew much faster for him in good company than for Baekhyun, hunched over papers with tiny numbers.

The three men smile when they finally spot the redhead, walking down a path Chanyeol would have never detected in the carpet of green, his hair contrasting the effervescent trees behind him. Baekhyun waddles closer in his pastel mint suit and finally reaches Chanyeol who’s standing the closest to him, presenting himself with a bright smile that makes his cheeks look soft. Anyone looking at him couldn’t possibly resist smiling back, and Chanyeol feels a relieved little smile pulling up the corners of his lips, delighted to see Baekhyun again. But there is something different about the shorter man, something that definitely wasn’t there this morning; a pair of round, transparent eyeglasses, rimmed with thin wire, is sitting on his button nose, making his eyes look less droopy and his cheekbones more round. Chanyeol stares without meaning to, surprised to see Baekhyun wearing glasses for the first time; they suit him well, but Chanyeol didn’t know Baekhyun needed them, even if just for reading. Who would have thought…

“Boss, your glasses…” one of the men says, snickering and exchanging a knowing look with his coworker, as if sharing an inside joke. Chanyeol would have let him wear them a while longer though, if it were up to him, appreciating the way they bring out the cuteness in Baekhyun’s professional, modern appearance.

“Hm?” Baekhyun blinks at the two of the staff inquiringly, still oblivious, but then it suddenly dawns on him and he touches his temple to check, eyes widening when his fingertips trace the wire. “Oh, right” he murmurs, taking the glasses off swiftly in a fluid motion and tucking them securely at the inside pocket of his jacket; then he smiles brightly again, as if none of this ever happened. Chanyeol feels a hand gingerly touching the small of his back, and Baekhyun shuffles closer, as if he is slowly reestablishing his presence beside him, reclaiming him for himself. “Well, I hope you had fun boys, but I’m afraid I have to steal my doll away now; we have more things to do” he quips, grinning up at Chanyeol and holding him more confidently, inviting the butterflies in Chanyeol’s stomach to a lively dance. The taller ignores the burning swipe of color he can feel on his own cheeks and looks at Baekhyun questioningly instead; what else besides this business meeting has he planned for the day?

The two men protest a little, mostly acting cute to Baekhyun and complaining that they haven’t had enough of Chanyeol, making him promise to bring the saxophonist again on his next visit. In the end, Baekhyun walks out of the garden victorious with Chanyeol by his side, his hand still resting on the taller’s waist without any second thought about the impression it might give; Chanyeol is not brave enough to point it out to Baekhyun either though, so he commits to fending off his blush instead, his fluster threatening to spill onto his cheeks any moment. After a couple of minutes of walking in the sunny fields of the mansion just the two of them, Chanyeol can tell that Baekhyun’s bright mood hasn’t chipped off in the least, despite all the monotonous, dull reading he’s had to do; on the contrary, his smile is dazzling as ever, petal lips curled joyfully for the longest time Chanyeol has witnessed. It makes him wonder what is making Baekhyun so happy and how he could make it last; Baekhyun is the most beautiful when he is happy, and it has little to do with his outer appearance.

“Where are we going?” Chanyeol feels morally obliged to ask, noticing the small basket Baekhyun is carrying, a smaller version of the one he brought to his friends full of gifts. They are heading the opposite way from the shed now, the mansion looking even more impressively large from a different angle. They are walking away from it too, heading to the fringe of forest trees off the path, some of them shedding their leaves for autumn, creating a near perfect ring of colorful leaves around their roots.

“There’s something I want to show you” Baekhyun answers, voice promising, but before Chanyeol can find comfort in his determination, Baekhyun drops his hand from Chanyeol’s waist and makes one step ahead, peering intently through the spaces between tree trunks, as if searching for something; Chanyeol stays put, waiting patiently for Baekhyun’s sake. For the life of him, he can’t guess what Baekhyun might be looking for in the quiet autumn forest, unsure if it’s even considered part of the same property or bordering wild land, but he is willing to wait, cautious not to ruin the good mood swirling lazily under the sun.

The two of them have already crossed the threshold of the woods by now, Chanyeol’s shoes stepping on a carpet of vibrant, leaf shaped patches; he looks at the tree behind him, rough and old, and at the garland of moss hanging from the branches. Chanyeol grew up in a field town, where trees didn’t grow so big or so densely together; there were wide grasslands to sprint through in the summer and around this time of year, ripe crops having been harvested, leaving behind dry cut stems and little mud puddles to splash your shoes into. He’s been to city parks, where the gardening design might resemble a small forest, but he’s never ventured into the real thing, the prospect making him slightly nervous. His eyes wander to the mansion, with its closed windows and invisible inhabitants, and he feels even more uneasy, biting his lip. Baekhyun is so excited about this, Chanyeol cannot allow himself to disappoint him, so he’ll just have to brave through his fears this once.

“Are you not coming, doll?” Baekhyun’s voice is playful and bright, like the sunlight slipping through the foliage and bouncing on the ground in a scattered, kaleidoscopic dance of faintly golden honey glow as the leaves rustle. Chanyeol turns his gaze to Baekhyun again, finding him a few steps further ahead, standing on the mossy trunk of a fallen tree and waiting patiently, straw basket in hand. His leather shoes look incongruously polished, sinking slightly into the greening carpet of the forest, but the rest of him is a mirage of perfect beauty, flecks of light clustering on his face and combing through the copper strands of his hair. Perhaps he can read Chanyeol’s apprehension in his eyes, because his expression shifts to a delicately considerate one. “I promise we won’t get lost” he assures the taller, smiling softly and extending a hand for Chanyeol to take, chasing away all reservations.

Chanyeol hesitates for the shortest of moments, still uncertain of following Baekhyun into the woods, but soon he finds he can’t resist the invitation, his feet carrying him forward step by step. Before he knows it, he is holding Baekhyun’s hand, delicate but strong around his own, as the shorter helps him over the obstacle of the fallen tree with a bright beam, pleased that Chanyeol is cooperating with his plan; he doesn’t let go after that, continuing to hold onto Chanyeol’s hand securely in a non-verbal expression of support as he leads the way through the forest.

It’s nothing like the haunted forests that fairytales depict surrounding castles; there is plenty of space to walk through and the trees seem friendly, playing with the sunlight. It’s not stiflingly close-knit either, a slight breeze and fragments of sky reaching them on their way; Baekhyun playfully complains that he gets freckles in the sun, laughing with Chanyeol, the sound wafting in the air around them and perching on the branches. Chanyeol is enjoying creating a memory like this, sunlit and carefree, with a gorgeously smiling Baekhyun walking beside him and fresh air filling his chest. There is a smile almost permanently etched on his lips, as he listens to Baekhyun mindlessly chattering about how his business meeting earlier seemed to take forever, numbers dizzying and never-ending; he doesn’t dare interrupt because he likes seeing Baekhyun like this, expressing himself without thinking the purpose behind every word he speaks, his voice flowing freely in beautiful notes. He doesn’t have his armor, or any sense of personal space, and Chanyeol feels so content to let Baekhyun be like this around him, honored that Baekhyun trusts him enough to show this side of himself.

“We really won’t get lost, you know” Baekhyun reassures him without being prompted to, after they’ve walked a few steps in silence. Chanyeol is surprised to realize he hadn’t thought of that in a while now, getting carried away with Baekhyun’s voice and perfectly imperfect, not orchestrated or poised expressions. He sends Baekhyun a comfortable smile, letting him swing their hands a little, his playfulness meant to be reassuring. “I know my way around this place like the back of my hand” the shorter says with a cheeky smile, making a careful step around the jagged edge of a stumpy boulder, that seems to have been there for so long that flowers grow on it, even in autumn.

“How come?” Chanyeol prods, intrigued by Baekhyun’s confidence in himself; strangely enough, however, that same confidence dims after Chanyeol’s question, Baekhyun’s gaze lowering blink after blink, his smile fading into a pensive, slightly uncertain expression. His thumb rubs circles on Chanyeol’s hand self-soothingly, a gust of wind sweeping in the silence between them and ruffling strands of Baekhyun’s hair into his eyes.

“I grew up here” he admits quietly, blinking away the red wisps of his hair, keeping his eyes focused on the ground ahead of them. There is something vulnerable in his voice, even though he tries to hide it under a nonchalant tone, as if something so simple about him is somehow very important. Chanyeol watches him patiently with interest, not missing the short, hesitant glance Baekhyun’s hazel eyes steal at him, his pink tongue darting over his lips before he continues. “This is my family property” he confesses in a hushed voice, no louder than the swishing of leaves round them, as if he is anxious of Chanyeol’s reaction, as if he can deny ever saying it if it doesn’t sit well with him. Chanyeol’s eyes widen, eyebrows rising on his forehead.

“You grew up in a castle?” he asks in disbelief, unfailingly astounded once again today, by a side of Baekhyun he would have never imagined; it’s not that Baekhyun couldn’t have grown up in a castle, his looks and manners rather princely, but he never seemed to be coming from such a background, always working hard for everything he has accomplished, humble and gracious to everyone. It’s funny to think Chanyeol was initially concerned about the owners of the mansion being hostile, when the actual owner has been with him all along, moving around confidently because this is a very familiar place to him.

Baekhyun’s lips curl in a jaded smile, his eyes still looking at the ground but seeing beyond it, as if his mind is riddled with unpleasant thoughts that overtake everything else. “Yes, a haunted, dark one” he answers in a bitter mumble, jostling something foggy and distasteful in Chanyeol’s chest, as if transferring the emotion through their clasped hands; Chanyeol doesn’t like this turn of the conversation, but he doesn’t want to put boundaries on Baekhyun either, appreciating the expression of his happiness just as attentively as the expression of his sadness, so he keeps quiet, attempting to comfort Baekhyun by massaging his hand soothingly. They make a few more steps in silence, and Baekhyun seems to slowly resurface from his depressing bout of thoughts, his gaze clearing up and his shoulders squaring with the tendrils of renewed vigor. “It’s somewhat ironic, I suppose” he says, more conversationally this time, his lips pulling into a hopeless, mirthless curve. “I tried so hard to win it back and I never once set foot in that house ever since” he kicks a leaf on his path halfheartedly, lifting his eyes to the foliage over their heads and smiling tentatively at the little bits of sky peeking through. Chanyeol is very perplexed by Baekhyun’s words, missing parts of the puzzle, but he sets all those thoughts aside, for now feeling content and relieved that Baekhyun seems to be regaining his high spirits.

“I grew up in the countryside too” he says, voice a little bashful to be entirely casual, offering a different topic of conversation to cheer Baekhyun up, no matter if it’s somewhat more personal for Chanyeol than usual. He is not particularly deft at self-disclosure, but it might help take Baekhyun’s mind off of things that make him sad, and he doesn’t deserve to be sad on such a sunny, carefree day. Baekhyun takes an interest in the new direction right away, turning to Chanyeol with sparkling eyes swarming with a million questions.

They walk slower now, and Chanyeol stutters a lot, reminiscing stories of his youth and sharing them with Baekhyun, who listens to him in rapt attention, as if there’s something fascinating to be found in Chanyeol’s unimpressive childhood; he does have a lot of affection and happy times to talk about, however, his own mood lifting the more old tales he narrates. That time he spilt hot cocoa on the blanket his grandma was knitting and he cried for hours, even though she didn’t scold him at all; the time his grandpa brought him along to the fields to harvest, but Chanyeol ended up spending his day making homes for snails; the first time they took him to a concert and watched Chanyeol’s heart being stolen by music, his grandpa coming to his room later that night to give Chanyeol his father’s music notes for the piano. He even remembers a couple of funny stories, giving Baekhyun an excuse to laugh at his naïve misfortunes as a child, but he has to talk about the death of his parents in a tragic car accident too, Baekhyun’s expression turning serious and then mellow, his eyes searching Chanyeol’s gaze as he squeezes his hand comfortingly.

Baekhyun is enticed to talk about his own life again, telling Chanyeol about his years of piano lessons, with the maestro no less, friendship growing roots between them ever since that time Heechul closed the door to the angry voices of Baekhyun’s quarreling parents and played a beautiful song to cheer up his small student; he tells Chanyeol about the surgery he had on his knee when he was little, which still hurts sometimes, making him feel old and triggering Jongdae to tease him that he is old; he tells him about his older brother too, who is married and has an adorable baby girl Baekhyun loves to hold and tickle, and about how he had always wanted to have a field of puppies here but never got around to it. The day is a happy one again, and time flows indefinable between their intertwined fingers, lost amidst nature’s tranquility. The only change comes when Baekhyun recognizes something in their surroundings, eyes widening, and little bells seem to go off in his head.

“It’s this way” he announces in shimmering, breathless anticipation, tugging Chanyeol by the hand and picking up the pace, leading him with certainty and a childish persistence which is hard to resist, piquing Chanyeol’s curiosity as to where they’re heading this time. They unexpectedly break out of the woods in just a few steps, stumbling on roots and grassy stones; Chanyeol stops short and squints against the midday sun, blinding him compared to the softer illumination floating under the forest verdure. Baekhyun is practically thrumming with excitement beside him, he can feel it without even having to see it, and he smiles at the endearing image of Baekhyun’s wide eyes and brilliant smile, stealing a glance of his glowing expression and committing it to memory, a crescendo to the melody he’s been devising all day to capture Baekhyun’s happiness.

Once Chanyeol’s vision adjusts and he is able to focus, he realizes this part of the landscape is different, not quite as naturally growing wild as the forest but not as tended and trimmed as a garden either. There is a gully carpeted with mossy pebbles ahead of them, abruptly dipping down afoot a small hill, and there might have been a creek once too, long before the house was built, because there is a very old bridge arching over the chasm, linking the bank to the hill on the opposite side; it has collapsed on one side, just an aisle of stones and a small one-sided ledge remaining, gray and smooth after all the rains, little weeds growing in the cracks between the stones. Baekhyun lets go of Chanyeol’s hand and sprints to the willow tree at the base of the overpass, fearlessly jumping onto the bridge and crossing it eagerly, his body silhouetted against the sun on its highest point. Chanyeol doesn’t stay far behind, initially reluctant of stepping onto such a derelict bridge, but following with no hesitation after Baekhyun’s valiant example, a thrill rushing in his veins.

“Ah, she’s just the same” Baekhyun exclaims happily when he’s across, his voice echoing in the wind as he runs to the shade of the sole oak tree standing old and wise at the crown of the hill. It’s beautiful, branches spreading wide and still so green, looking like the final frontier till you touch the sky, standing higher than all surrounding trees. Baekhyun spreads his arms and twirls in its shade in glee, smiling up at the branches like greeting an old friend, and it’s the most beautiful sight Chanyeol has ever seen. The wind tangles in his hair and caresses over his squishy, smiling cheeks, the rustling leaves of the tree sputtering sunray spots on him as he walks to the edge of the tree’s shadow, gazing at the light on the horizon. Chanyeol leisurely reaches the tree and stands under the shade too, looking up at the effervescent branches, taking a deep breath and feeling instantly calmer, a smile playing on his lips.

“I always came here when things got rough at home, sitting and staring into the distance, daydreaming” Baekhyun muses, his voice lilting a little absently, tinged with good memories. He looks peaceful here, and Chanyeol can’t take his eyes off of him; Baekhyun’s hazel eyes are taking in the horizon, reflecting greens and blues and lone sparks of light, his lips twitching and smoothing in many different smiles, a bit more pensive, a bit less burdened, a lot more happy. A sense of serene reverence perches in Chanyeol’s chest, now that he knows they are standing in Baekhyun’s little sanctuary, this fragment of the world that has belonged only to him all his life, and now he’s sharing it with Chanyeol for a while. Chanyeol gazes at him, cast half in shadow and half in light, finding new notes in Baekhyun, more rich and deep and tranquil. “Here is where I first dreamt of the Pearl; I wanted to start the business with my brother, but he got a corporate job…so I got Jongdae instead” the smaller chuckles at his confession, pearly teeth flashing in the sun, the lines of his face showing lighthearted amusement; it’s like Baekhyun has shed the weight of the world off his shoulders, finally stealing a few moments to himself to enjoy living.

Chanyeol wishes Baekhyun would allow himself to do this more often, caring for and spoiling himself a little every now and then.

“Chanyeol?” Baekhyun calls, sounding a bit more hesitant than a moment ago, and the taller turns to him immediately, noticing how Baekhyun is playing with his hands close to his chest, pressing the fingers of his hands against each other and bending his wrists, like a bashful child. “These are all undisclosed facts; I’d appreciate it if they stayed between us” he says, tentatively putting his trust in Chanyeol, hazel eyes looking more green in the shadow, honest and wide.

“Of course” Chanyeol promises quietly, a little surprised and a little flattered deep down that Baekhyun is sharing widely considered secrets with him. There is so much more to him than a castle and a childhood hiding in someday dreams, but Chanyeol enjoys uncovering these sides of Baekhyun, rare and unique, so captivated by him that he wants to explore every thread woven into his life; he is glad Baekhyun is opening up to him, letting him peek in all the beautiful colors he hides behind dark curtains, a creature that lives in darkness, hiding a sky of stars. He receives a friendly smile from Baekhyun, one that makes his eyes soft and his cheeks plush, the pouty curve of his lips denting the corners of them adorably.

They settle under the shade at the base of the tree, sitting side by side with their backs against the giant bark, the branches looking so tall like a second sky or tangled leaves under the light blue paint strokes of sunrays that sneak through them. The view is beautiful, green valleys curving into hills and forests that shiver in the breeze, occasionally throwing yellow and crimson leaves to the wind, their green scope broken by autumnal colors on trees that have succumbed to the season. The sky is pale, the sun too bright at noon, and the grass under Chanyeol’s fingers is cool. The basket Baekhyun had been carrying turns out to be a picnic basket full of edible delicacies, which they share lazily, small bites of fruit and savory dishes, a glass of sparkling water –since neither of them really drinks alcohol– and pumpkin pie for dessert. The breeze ceases after a while and the day turns warmer, so they discard their jackets somewhere to the side, Chanyeol remaining in his beige vest over his shirt, and Baekhyun in just his white button down, which has a beautiful pattern stitched in the corner of his collar.

It’s a nice day to be outdoors, and even nicer for them, secluded in a bubble of beautiful surroundings where their voices and laughter echo every so often. It’s unhurried and yet exciting, full of life, even though it feels so soothing; they have a lot to say, little things and important things, their personalities fitting with one another like two notes of a symphony, resounding different but beautiful in synchronicity. Baekhyun promises to bring Chanyeol to the sea next time they visit the village town together, and Chanyeol bites his smiling lips, thinking that there is no need for promises, this is already more than enough. Baekhyun talks about himself more freely now that Chanyeol has promised not to tell, and the musician catches himself absently thinking of Baekhyun as a friend one moment and as something slightly different the next. He likes the privacy, he likes how they are being themselves without restriction, how he nearly falls to the ground laughing at one of Baekhyun’s jokes while Baekhyun chokes with his water on a giggle, and they both laugh louder at that; he likes how Baekhyun’s eyes are the most playful and curious he’s seen them and they turn wide in amazement when he finds out Chanyeol can play five different instruments; he likes how the earth spins slower, just for one day.

Chanyeol is in the middle of telling Baekhyun about his studies and his students over the years, Baekhyun’s half piece of pie lying in its plate forgotten, all the dishes scattered around them on the picnic cloth, but not between them. For no apparent reason, Chanyeol starts growing a little flustered under Baekhyun’s steady gaze as he narrates, the redhead listening to him with evidently devoted attention and genuine interest; Chanyeol’s heart skips a beat, all at once becoming overly aware of Baekhyun sitting so close that Chanyeol can smell his linen-and-sky scent, count his lethargically blinking lashes if he wants to, reach out and touch him if he lets his right hand fall from his lap. When did they come so close?

“I feel like I’m saying too much” he chuckles nervously, glancing at the view to break free of Baekhyun’s gaze for a moment and covering his mouth with one hand, his bright mood invincible despite his cheeks turning a dusty, shy pink color.

“I like listening to you” Baekhyun counters, his kind smile amplifying to a fonder one on his lips, crescent moon eyes turning tender and endearingly smitten as he tilts his head. His fringe has parted in a parenthesis over his brow, wine red locks sweeping over his forehead, and Chanyeol can’t keep his gaze away, following the curve of his cheek, the sharp angle of his jaw, the pale line of his neck, and returning to his button nose and soft lips, so so close, something warm stirring inside of him and caressing invisibly over his skin, raising goose bumps.

“You don’t have to be so kind to me” he says, averting his gaze to his hands, fiddling in his lap, his smile turning close-lipped. Baekhyun is always kind, always giving, always deserving more, and Chanyeol for the first time wishes he could give him everything, his heart trembling dangerously close to escaping; heavens know how much he’ll be struggling with himself after today, after so much of Baekhyun unknowingly seducing his heart. Jongdae once jokingly told him that there’s no escaping Baekhyun, that they all fall for him sooner or later, even just a little and then they move on, but Chanyeol is scared of his vanishing inside Baekhyun’s charm, hurting himself inescapably; Baekhyun would never look at someone like him and Chanyeol would have no hope of keeping someone like him. The musician smiles to himself sadly, shifting his crossed legs a bit to the left and right, shins extending past the picnic blanket on the grass. “I know I’m not very interesting” he mumbles, letting the day’s sunlight gradually soak into his bones, dissolving any blue feelings and pacifying his heart, coming to terms with the truth he can forget but not escape.

“You are” Baekhyun says unexpectedly then, voice steady and gentle, floating in the ambient glow of the sunlight under the foliage like a small note. Chanyeol blinks and turns to him curiously, a bit confused over Baekhyun’s intensions; he is always milder and sweeter when placating Chanyeol’s uncertainties, never saying a word he doesn’t mean with all his heart, but this time Chanyeol is so perplexed, sensing something else he can’t quite identify in his words and husky voice, something like a little nudge on his heart that makes it beat faster. Baekhyun looks back, so perfectly at peace with Chanyeol’s eyes on him, voice calm and quiet, lips slowly curling into a dazzling smile meant just for Chanyeol. “To me, you are”

~* 11 *~

Days flow into one another and weeks pass, sunrises and sunsets slithering into the past. It’s always raining in the mornings now, raindrops gathering on withering leaves and slowly showering down the rest of the day, gray skies and cold winds blanketing the city, but the nights are sometimes kinder, cloudless and still, slumbering silently over the city. The first wines of the season make their fruity rounds in glasses, and the first hours of the night are always flamboyant, keen to push life forward, ignite it, send it spiraling into a splendid show of luxury and delight, to chase away the loneliness plaguing each gloomy day.

Chanyeol likes his birth month, how it transitions steadily and uneventfully from one season to the other, but people tend to seek excitement, squirming impatiently in their routine until they stumble into the next thrill. The Pearl is exceptionally crowded these days, a recurrent pattern of people pursuing distractions from their daily lives that lasts up until the Christmas holidays, according to Jongdae –and then business picks up even more. It’s an admittedly draining process, and Chanyeol takes all the hours of sleep he can get, lulled by the morning drizzle against the bedroom window.

He is currently helping Hongbin take out the trash, shoes squeaking on the wet stones of the alley between the Black Pearl and the bakery. It leads to a dead end on one side, a stack of boxes the bakery might had been using for storage once being home to stray cats, shuffling in the darkness; sometimes you can see kitten eyes staring through the cracks, spooked by the slightest noise, scampering out only when Baekhyun comes to feed them, separate from the adult cats. The trashcans are near the side entrance of the building, closer to the main street for easier pick up by city services, the alley being too narrow, musky and almost claustrophobic, due to the tall stone walls of the nearby buildings, seemingly raising the sky higher. Chanyeol watches a cat watching them unmovingly, shielding itself at the small sliver of a window with iron bars, which supposedly sheds its light into the Pearl’s basement; in truth, there is not enough space for light to sneak through even on good days, except for a few minutes near sunset hour on sunny evenings.

When they head back inside, Hongbin thanks him for the help and bids him goodnight, the last voices of the rest of the staff murmuring the same to each other near the foyer. Chanyeol sends Hongbin a smile goodnight and stays behind to lock the side door; it’s usually Ravi who takes out the trash and locks up after, but he had to take Kyungsoo home this time, passing his chores to the others. Everyone was flabbergasted when the singer asked Ravi to take him home tonight, breaking the tradition of catching a ride with Jongin, and even more scandalously, Jongin was at the Pearl tonight already; nobody asked for an explanation, but it wouldn’t take a genius to suspect the pair has had a tiff. Baekhyun spent a lot of time with Jongin in his office earlier tonight, probably mediating for the couple, and Kyungsoo was quite brooding when singing Don’t explain, not just coincidentally looking at Jongin’s area; Chanyeol offered his concern to Kyungsoo, asking if there’s anything he can do for him even if it’s just to listen, but Kyungsoo waved him off, sipping on his gin and assuring him that this too shall pass, and he’ll be okay with Jongin, but he first needs to make a statement in their relationship, so Chanyeol doesn’t need to worry for him.

Chanyeol is still thinking about him, about how hard Kyungsoo can bite if he needs to, even if it hurts his loved ones, and the saxophonist nearly misses a step on his way to pick up his instrument case by the stage. It’s clear he is more tired than he thought, and he rubs his eyes, the hall completely silent after everyone else has clocked out. He shouldn’t waste time showering when he gets home, heading straight to bed if possible; at this point, Chanyeol is dreaming of his pillow even when he’s wide awake and his head is not touching it yet.

“Oh, if that isn’t a little night owl~” a smiling voice coos, breaking the silence inside the hall with its mellifluous notes, calling Chanyeol closer like a siren across the vast sea; Baekhyun’s voice always rings with its own musical quality that intrigues the musician’s ear, conveying so many different emotions and subtler tones. Chanyeol’s weary eyes spot Baekhyun behind the bar easily, the lights casting a bright, warm glow in the area, reflected on glasses and bottles; they are the first lights to turn on and the last to turn off each night, Chanyeol has learnt, after his few late shifts at the Pearl. Baekhyun grins widely, a playful line curling his lips at the corners. “May I have a moment, gorgeous?” he calls, inviting Chanyeol over teasingly, and the saxophonist is too tired to even consider to refuse, making his way to the bar, much to Baekhyun’s delight. He sits down on a stool in front of him obediently, on the opposite side of the counter, letting his saxophone case rest by his feet, patiently waiting to go home. Baekhyun takes a good look at him once he has Chanyeol’s full attention, a frown tugging on his brow. “Are you feeling unwell?”

The taller sighs, rubbing the corner of his right eye with his fingers before he rests his head in his hand, elbow propped on the counter. “I’m sorry, I’m a little sleepy” he mumbles with a small smile to assure Baekhyun he’s well enough –or he wouldn’t be here at all. He knows that sometimes his dark circles look huge under his eyes, which also tend to look bloodshot, scaring people around him, but it doesn’t feel any different for him than when he’s equally tired and it’s not showing. Baekhyun looks unconvinced, still observing him mutely, as if trying to weigh the situation. He is wearing a tan beige suit with a brown tie and his hair is fresh from a haircut, a little shorter than it were but still long enough to fall into his eyes when it’s not combed to the side; there’s one thing unusual about him though, and that would be the cigar hanging from his lips, unlit as if he has just taken it out of the box, even though Chanyeol thinks he saw him around with it earlier as well. “I didn’t know you smoke” he says absently, and Baekhyun blinks away his pensive daze, taking the cigar out of his lips hastily.

“Oh, I don’t” he reassures Chanyeol, looking relieved to throw it in the trash behind the counter, as if it’s something he’s been wanting to do all evening but forgot about it for a moment there. “It’s just a prop –Jongdae’s idea, don’t ask” he shakes his head discouragingly, but it still looks only half serious, somehow playful in spite of the late hour’s fatigue. Chanyeol smiles hazily, his lids becoming gradually heavier, so he straightens his back properly in his seat, in an attempt to keep himself from falling asleep to Baekhyun’s beautiful smile. “So, what’s your poison?” said man quips, smirking seductively and blinking slowly under his lashes, tone imitating Jongdae’s playful and flirty one-liners, eliciting a chuckle out of Chanyeol’s lips; he is a little flustered to tell the truth, Baekhyun’s hazel eyes and pink lips looking exceptionally inviting.

“I don’t have a preference, since I don’t really drink” he babbles, legs swinging a little under the counter in awkwardness, but he hopes the faint blush he feels is not too visible on his cheeks. His stomach is twisting a little strangely at Baekhyun’s sultry advances, even though he knows the latter is only teasing him; his exhaustion has lowered his defenses, and it has never really been the same when they’re alone with one another ever since their trip to the countryside. Baekhyun is still kind to him as ever, and oftentimes mischievous or attentive like he is with the rest of the staff, but there’s something different in the way Chanyeol sees him after that day, and the same sentiment is reflected in the way Baekhyun looks back at Chanyeol; his gaze is a little more relieved, his touches are more comfortable, those few reservations that stood in the way of a close friendship having been erased, allowing them to cross the remaining distance at their favored pace.

Baekhyun pouts, an expression he’s been showing a lot more after he started opening up to Chanyeol, and he gestures vaguely at himself and the bar counter in protest. “But you have the most special bartender in town, you must get something!” he insists, his lips somehow managing to keep their adorable pouty shape as he speaks. He looks younger when he’s being like this, droopy eyes looking so innocent and eyebrows lifting slightly at the front on his forehead.

“Whatever you’re having then” Chanyeol relents, unable to refuse the offer by the ‘most special’ bartender in town; Baekhyun is probably risking a limb meddling in Jongdae’s turf after hours, and he looks so naively proud of himself while he’s sneaking around like this, his inner mischievous side rejoicing. Chanyeol can’t believe he’s being so soft for Baekhyun tonight, letting him turn him into an accomplish without so much as a proper objection; Jongdae will probably have his head too if anything goes wrong, but if you ask Chanyeol in this moment, it’s all worth it, because of Baekhyun’s happy, cheeky smile, spreading toothy on his lips, complete with eyesmiles.

“Excellent” he says, trying to keep his voice natural but it clearly verges on thrilled to Chanyeol’s trained ear. Chanyeol chuckles, shaking his head, surrendering his fate to Baekhyun’s not particularly proficient hands when it comes to alcoholic fusions; Chanyeol will be probably sleeping till noon tomorrow, one sip of anything can’t do much harm. Besides, Baekhyun looks so content preparing a drink for Chanyeol, picking the right pair of glasses and then shuffling bottles searchingly for the right one he has in mind; Chanyeol is sure he could devise an excuse to himself about Baekhyun being an important individual, which would justify why he accepted the proffered drink, if he decides to think too much about it.

Baekhyun has to search for a little longer under the counter until his attempts are fruitful, his pretty fingers pulling out a bottle of whisky that’s very rare and very expensive. Chanyeol’s eyes widen in alarm, partly thinking how exuberant the bottle price seemed to him when he first heard it from their associates at the shed, and partly fearing that Jongdae will kill them both if he finds out. Baekhyun opens the bottle with ease, but he stops short before he pours the exclusive liquid into the first glass, sending Chanyeol a knowing look and bringing his index finger to his lips as if instructing him to keep a secret. “We won’t tell Jongdae” he whispers conspiratorially, eyes twinkling with mischief, and Chanyeol nods fervently in agreement; Baekhyun could probably bail them out even if Jongdae found out, easily affording the bottle and the right to do as he pleases in his club, but it’s honestly just better if Jongdae never finds out in the first place.

Baekhyun carefully serves just a little for each of them in shot glasses, closing the bottle again and returning it to its place unsuspectingly, not a drop being spilt. He picks up the glasses in his long fingers and offers one to Chanyeol, the taller receiving it with both hands even though the glass is quite small; he wouldn’t want to make a mess after they’ve gotten this far. Baekhyun giggles at his cautiousness, holding his own glass much more comfortably and elegantly, and Chanyeol huffs in amusement at himself too, thinking of how ridiculous he must seem, big clumsy hands and small fragile glass mingling in the picture strangely after midnight. Baekhyun scrunches his nose at him endearingly, one teasing step further, and Chanyeol chuckles. “I like it when you’re in a good mood” he admits, blaming his drowsiness for his uncharacteristic forwardness. It’s a simple and fairly innocent statement, but Baekhyun’s smile widens, as if Chanyeol just told him the words he’d been waiting to hear all evening.

“Sleepy, tall musicians happen to be my favorite company” he counters, adding a wink as he clinks their glasses cheers, fingers brushing against Chanyeol’s unavoidably. Chanyeol is a little stunned, his thoughts tangling in his head and his heart skipping a beat at Baekhyun’s words, and he can only stare at him without making a sound, hardly breathing; the shorter seems to think of something else, his expression shifting back to a mischievous mien. “We won’t tell Jongdae that either” he adds as an afterthought, giggling as he raises his glass, and Chanyeol mirrors his action this time, tipping the glass against his lips. The alcohol tickles down his throat, leaving a burning sensation on his tongue which slowly turns into a sweet aftertaste, like chocolate or spices. One sip is more than enough for him though, not really interested in being spoiled into expensive liquors, his general distaste for alcohol making room for exceptions as long as they are kept to a minimum.

“So, am I here just for entertainment?” he questions, returning his glass to Baekhyun, who sets both empty shots aside on the counter to be forgotten. Chanyeol’s voice was light, but it is answered with a serious frown between Baekhyun’s eyebrows, the question somehow not sitting well with him.

“If there’s one thing I value more than your company, doll, it’s your good health” he says straightforwardly, surprising Chanyeol a little with his sincerity. The latter can only watch as Baekhyun folds his arms on the counter, leaning forward until he’s close, very close to Chanyeol’s face, his breath reaching Chanyeol’s lips when he speaks, making the taller’s heart jump to his throat; it’s unclear why he felt the need to approach him so daringly, as if he has whimsically decided to count his lashes, but Chanyeol wouldn’t say it is unpleasant. Quite the contrary, his heart seems very excited. “I wouldn’t keep you just for anything. There are schedule details I need to clear with you” Baekhyun explains, but it sounds more quiet than it should, as if he is a little distracted, as if those words are not what he’s really thinking, his eyes glancing at Chanyeol’s lips before returning to his eyes, his breath warm and faintly sweet leaving his lips and glossing over Chanyeol’s.

“Oh?” the musician mumbles meekly, not daring to move the slightest, his hands clutching the hem of his jacket tightly, as if scared. Chanyeol’s heart is squirming and struggling in his chest to break free, his mouth turning a little numb. He dimly recalls having a similar conversation with Baekhyun a couple of days ago, only he was the one to initiate it and they were definitely not standing as close then. “Did something change for New Year’s?” he stutters out with difficulty, trying to keep an air of casual normalcy, and not succumb to the surge of flustered emotions cascading down on him, making him feel drunk on Baekhyun’s intoxicating presence.

They agreed on Chanyeol taking New Year’s Eve night off, and working on Christmas Eve instead, after Heechul practically guilt-tripped him into agreeing on participating in the philharmonic’s annual concert on that last night of every year; Baekhyun seemed on board with the idea, agreeing easily and even promising to come to the concert for the first half before returning to his duties at the club. Chanyeol couldn’t imagine any problems arising to this plan, and Baekhyun seems to concur with that thought, shaking his head with a lazy smile, nose almost touching Chanyeol’s, in a way that tempts Chanyeol to tilt his head and bump its button tip cutely.

“No, I was thinking of something in the more imminent future” Baekhyun clarifies, pulling back and straightening his body behind the counter, allowing some room for Chanyeol to finally breathe. He still feels a little disoriented though, lashes fluttering over his eyes. “We host a ball masque every year at the Pearl, and it’s been scheduled for next week; it’s not on your shift, but I was wondering if you’d like to join the band” the shorter explains, his voice lilting into a proposal at the end, which Chanyeol barely notices in the midst of his relief, his body still trying to tune back into its natural rhythm, unexpectedly disrupted by being in proximity with Baekhyun. The man looks at Chanyeol patiently, little thoughts jumping on his lashes, urging him to add a few more words to his offer. “It would be a great relief to the rest of the musicians, and, well…” he pauses, shrugging his shoulders and smiling a little, his mood changing imperceptibly “…you’d be here. You’re invited to the ball” he states, a secret bashfulness lurking in his voice.

Chanyeol blinks at the unexpected news and the unanticipated invitation; he’s never been to a ball before, at least not like this one. He is sure the pompous, boring functions charity foundations host every now and then for their wealthy or simply charitable sponsors to raise money for their cause cannot compare to the merriment and glamour of a social event at the Black Pearl. It must be quite a formal and high-class event too, if Baekhyun personally inviting him is any indication, and Chanyeol’s spirit stirs restlessly, enticing him to accept what Baekhyun is so generously offering. He doesn’t really mind having to work one more night, his schedule still clear after a certain hour in the evening; if anything, he prefers enjoying the night with his band mates onstage to staying homebound. Baekhyun did mention it would be a relief to their strenuous night of performing after all, even though the invitation mostly sounded like Baekhyun wants Chanyeol there, just to be there, like he wants to share as many good things as he can. It’s an easy decision to make really, and Chanyeol doesn’t hesitate a moment longer.

“It would be a pleasure, thank you” he accepts politely, trying to keep his smile from growing unattractively wide on his face, but it keeps escaping at the corners of his lips. His feet are tapping the shoe railing in excitement, and he can’t wait to ask Kyungsoo about his costume –it’s a mask ball, after all, and Kyungsoo will probably be in charge of coordinating the band’s outfits, or Taemin just might turn up dressed in something too sparkly and Yixing dressed as an onion or something alike. Chanyeol can’t remember the last time he was so excited about being invited to an event like this one, but he was most likely too small to remember in the first place.

Baekhyun seems to share the excitement, his smile sparkling in the lights as he rocks his weight on his heels. “You’re an angel, doll, I swear” he says, looking into Chanyeol’s eyes with so much emotion, so much life, that the taller forgets all about his drowsiness; he’ll be lying wide awake in his bed till dawn, thinking of this delighted expression on Baekhyun’s beautiful features, heart racing the seconds to daybreak.

~* 12 *~

The party is in full swing.

The entire room is swathed in bright lights, silver streamers hanging in decorative fringes, every corner sparkling opulently, golden champagne bubbling in elegant glasses. The space has been cleared of tables for the night, allowing ample room for the spinning couples on the dance floor, colorfully blending in an animated kaleidoscope of flaring fabrics, priceless jewels and flushed faces. Over the guests, modern music is playing, vibrant and lively as the crowd, echoing and jumping off the walls, slithering under shuffling feet and on the rims of rich cocktail flutes. The air is filled with laughter and cheer, the spoiled crowd conversing and twirling in merriment, radiating brilliantly in its self-righteousness, enjoying the pinnacle of nocturnal entertainment which the Pearl provides once a year in its spacious hall.

Only the crème de la crème is gracing the floors of the Black Pearl tonight, invitations and carefully planned lists of guests having tormented Baekhyun for weeks to this end; eminent figures of society, politicians, businessmen and artists have gathered, movie stars and journalists, bringing ethereal creatures on their arm. Everyone who is someone is blending into the celebration unreservedly, flirty smiles and gossiping giggles lost in the give and take of extravagant costumes and wandering hands. There are tailored costumes for gallant knights and promiscuous duchesses, rotten poets and fancy pierrots, vulgar pirates, bold witches, eighteenth century nobles and studded toreros, maharajahs and eastern dancers shrouded in veils and rubies, all forgetting their responsibilities for a night, all searching for a smile and a glass of champagne.

It’s not an easy night, especially exhausting for the people of the Pearl, who have to tear into a million pieces to satisfy every whim and fancy, all hands on deck. They are all dressed in black and white, easy to spot in the meandering crowd of guests; so far, Baekhyun has personally checked on a domino piece, a penguin, even a panda, to make sure they can cope with their assignments on such a busy night. The band is the focal point besides the bar, song after song weaving a dazzling canvas for the lighthearted crowd; Yixing is dressed as Beethoven by the piano, curly wig and all, Kyungsoo is the Phantom of the Opera with his white half-mask, Taemin is a warlock, his pointy hat bobbing with every motion of his head, and Wonwoo on the trumpet is dressed with the Pearl’s casual server uniform, undoubtedly borrowed from one of the stuff.

With one last sweeping glance over the crowd to make sure the party is moving along nicely without a hitch, Baekhyun abandons his overseeing spot, passing his duties to Ravi with a simple look; the man standing by the door, dressed as a raven, nods in acknowledgement right away and resumes his duty, to make sure no one causes any unnecessary, unpleasant fuss tonight. They have guests of eminent standing and they need careful handling, especially when inebriated in a generally loud setting.

As the host of the party and the owner of the club, Baekhyun is quite popular tonight, and he has to stop many times along his way to the bar, to entertain and greet any and all guests who ask for his attention; feigning interest and shaking hands, he encourages the patrons to enjoy themselves, offering champagne. He flatters the ladies and charms the men, declining engaging offers with a smile as he heads to the bar, in dire search of a drink, even just a mild one, the first of the night since he has spent every moment so far socializing and meeting new people. He needs to loosen up before his head explodes.

Several hands try to lure him to the dance floor, but Baekhyun gracefully declines, not ready yet to join the dizzily festive atmosphere, fuelled by the talented band, not willing to condescend his mood for people who see him as an effeminate puppet or a beautiful prize. He hasn’t danced since the beginning of the ball, but he did have the first dance of the night, a sort of opening act from him and Jongdae they always love to orchestrate; they danced to Buona sera seigniorina, which the bartender consistently claims to be ‘their song’. It is the perfect mix of a romantic tango and a cheerful quickstep, giving them an excuse to dance with each other and have fun faking the passion and poise, laughing at themselves and at the world swirling in their vision while luring any onlookers to the dance floor, setting a joyful, inviting tone for the next dance, their guests taking over effortlessly. It was certainly very entertaining when Jongdae lunged Baekhyun for the ending pose, the latter giggling uncontrollably under the music while Jongdae whined about his sore back under his breath.

Said blond bartender, busy as ever wiping glasses and mixing drinks while wooing customers, spots Baekhyun approaching in an instant, cordial smile never fading as he serves the guests. He is dressed as a cat, his blond hair sticking out on the sides like ears and whiskers painted on his face to enhance his natural feline charm, but Baekhyun is particularly fond of the small bell hanging from his bowtie, finding a twisted sense of humor in the fact that Jongdae opted to dress as a cat when all he does is complain about the strays Baekhyun looks after at the back alley; Baekhyun has a habit of looking after stays, felines and people alike. Jongdae sends Baekhyun a tiny gesture, a subtle tilt of his head to his left, probably indicating an opening for Baekhyun at the crowded bar, and the club owner stirs to the right smoothly, keeping his eyes open for an empty spot. There seems to be hardly any breathing space along the counter, warm bodies pressing against it, hands, discussions, laughter and empty glasses amongst colorful cocktails covering every centimeter of the wooden surface.

It is to his utter delight, however, that he finds an opening just wide enough to slot his body, and a mischievous, naughty smile stretches on his lips upon recognizing the man sitting right next to him, obliviously toying with his untouched drink. Now, isn’t that grand. Bless Jongdae. He has to lift himself on the tips of his toes and steady his weight with a hand on the man’s strong shoulder to reach his ear, intruding his personal bubble like everyone needs to do around them to be heard over the noise; this disregard of personal space is so common over the thrumming music and jovial chatter, that the man doesn’t even flinch, eyes watching the bartender serve drinks absentmindedly –Baekhyun hopes he’s enjoying himself as much as his sparkling almond eyes suggest, because that’s what Baekhyun had in mind when he invited him; to give him a taste of the entertainment they offer each night, with an added touch of extravagant lavishness.

“Hello, handsome” Baekhyun practically purrs in Chanyeol’s ear, feeling satisfied at the way Chanyeol turns to him in a heartbeat, blinking wide eyes at him and blushing softly; he can never get over that lovely rose color, having a special weak spot for it after he got a chance to see it up close when they were visiting his little sanctuary a few weeks ago. Baekhyun slowly lowers himself on his heels next to the stunned male, his affinity for teasing him evident in his mischievous smile; he is tormenting himself more and more the longer he lingers close to Chanyeol, so pleasurably tempted by his plush lips and wide eyes. Obligated by his line of work, Baekhyun has charmed many people into the night, but no one is ever charmed quite like Chanyeol, so beautiful and adorable, his eyes looking at Baekhyun like he is the only one who can really see him; it makes Baekhyun feel alive and bubbly, but also possessive and demanding.

“Baekhyun” the taller mumbles, breathless at the nearly diminished space between them, his hands dropping to his lap to keep his long limbs as contained as possible in the little corner of the bar they are given. It takes a moment for him to piece together Baekhyun’s appearance, his eyes skipping on the details disjointedly; from his vampire costume, complete with frills on the undershirt, to his hair, painted black with temporary dye for one night. Baekhyun has put a lot of effort into his costume, making his face as pale as possible with powder and staining his lips red, darkening his eyes and adjusting two black studs on either side of his nose; he knows he looks good, but to see it reflected in Chanyeol’s eyes makes him feel more confident, proud, preening under the attention and inwardly enjoying every moment of it. “Your hair…you look gorgeous” at last Chanyeol compliments him in his velvet smooth voice, and Baekhyun smiles more coyly for him, like on every rare occasion Chanyeol takes initiative; he has heard the same words a million times before, but he likes them better coming from Chanyeol.

“Thank you” he says, allowing himself the guilty pleasure of briefly glancing down at Chanyeol’s costume once, before looking up again, smiling at the tall musician. “You look quite charming yourself, my prince” he muses appreciatively, completely endeared by the dusting of pink that spreads on Chanyeol’s cheeks at his words. It’s true that Chanyeol suits the prince costume nicely though, with the fitted black suit and the row of medals on his breast, even the red cache that drapes down his shoulder and across his body. His hair is styled into a comma against his forehead, as if to enhance the alluring frown of his eyebrows and his sparkling almond eyes, his features strong structured and regal, even when he’s mildly flustered by Baekhyun’s compliment; he can’t help himself sometimes, the urge to flatter Chanyeol and tell him just how gorgeous or wonderful he is surpassing his self-restraint. There is suddenly a fresh glass of champagne on the counter in front of Baekhyun, appearing as a gift for him straight out of Jongdae’s magical fingers in the midst of all the chaos surrounding them. “How come I find you here?” Baekhyun queries conversationally, picking up the glass and sipping on its contents; the bittersweet taste tickles down his throat, granting him only half the satisfaction everyone claims to be found in drinking.

“We’re taking breaks on rotation, but it won’t be long till I have to join the band again” Chanyeol informs dutifully, fidgeting with his drink on the counter again, skillful hands almost never ceasing playing music. Baekhyun grins and puts away the unsatisfying glass he is holding, forgetting about it since he has such better company to alleviate his anxious, strained mood, feeling like he’s floating in a bubble that separates him and Chanyeol from the rest of the world; he likes this closeness, he craves it so much, and even though Jongdae would think him a fool if he knew, Baekhyun doesn’t want this to stop like he had originally planned, he doesn’t want to let go of Chanyeol and his feelings for him.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asks, tilting his head naturally, a cue to help Chanyeol relax; he is not under questioning for not being on stage, on the contrary, Baekhyun wishes all his employees will get a taste of the party tonight, even if they need to neglect their duties for a bit; they deserve it to say the least. Chanyeol is just about to answer when someone rudely shoves Baekhyun to the side and sends him clumsily tittering out of balance; he fears he’ll have to suffer a spectacular, mortifying fall for a split second, but a steadying hand finds its way to his waist and reels him in back to safety, no stranger hands attempting to reach out to him anymore. Baekhyun is grateful for Chanyeol’s quick reflexes saving him the humiliation, and he answers the taller’s worried frown with a smile of relief; he can’t begin to describe how attractive Chanyeol looks when he shows concern, handsome features turning even more compelling.

“It’s very…festive” Chanyeol reverts to their former discussion tentatively, and Baekhyun hums to encourage him, getting comfortable and leaning his hip against the bar. He doesn’t bother regaining his personal space, tilting his body closer to Chanyeol with the excuse of noisy, careless patrons swarming around them –and Chanyeol doesn’t remove his hand from Baekhyun’s waist, leaving it to rest there protectively and reassuringly, deliciously warm through Baekhyun’s clothes, like his favorite pastry. He can smell Chanyeol’s cologne this close, count his eyelashes and watch the sheen of his lips under the lights; he could easily slide into his lap if he wanted, too, he could. The opportunity is always under his nose, inviting like Chanyeol’s unconscious lip-bite, and Baekhyun has to place a hand on Chanyeol’s thigh to keep measure of his distance, preventing himself from doing anything stupid; he feels unexpectedly intoxicated under Chanyeol’s presence, something he’s felt before when they’re alone but he didn’t think it possible in public. There are too many people around to take chances on his self-control, especially when Chanyeol looks so exquisite. Said man either doesn’t notice Baekhyun’s hand on his thigh or doesn’t mind, because he gives no reaction to it, continuing with his reply. “You certainly know how to throw a party” he says with an impressed smile, and Baekhyun’s lips stretch into a lazy, confident smirk, his eyes begging to glance at Chanyeol’s smiling lips once more time.

“The key is in socializing –but to mingle is an awfully tiring business” he feigns exasperation, being rewarded with Chanyeol’s lighthearted chuckle, the one that makes his eyes crinkle cutely; in that moment, he shines more brilliantly than all the lights combined in Baekhyun’s eyes. He can’t help but smile too, feeling content just to watch Chanyeol like this, the little lines around his eyes, his pearly teeth, his laugh soft and pure, unguarded, and absolutely beautiful. He wants to hold him at times like this, envelop him in his arms and keep him just like this, a strange flame lurching in his gut; he is positively fascinated, and before he has time to realize, his lips are already blurting out words he hasn’t thought through. “Would you like to dance with me?”

Chanyeol startles a little at the unexpected proposition, doe eyes looking at the shorter a little spooked, but Baekhyun can’t bring himself to take it back. Propriety be damned, he is allowed to dance with a handsome prince if he wants to; he could keep Chanyeol to himself for the rest of the night if he decided to, talk to him, make him laugh, show him off like the beauty he is and teach him how to mingle, introduce him to all the right people, and maybe, by the end of the night, he could teach him how to kiss the way Baekhyun likes best, seduce him just a little, just to see his lips red and his eyes full of wonder, just for Baekhyun to feed his confusing, secretly growing feelings. He doesn’t know how many of the promises flaring in his chest like flames Chanyeol can read in his eyes, but the taller’s cheeks gradually turn rose-colored, words stuttering on his lips in such an endearing way that Baekhyun doesn’t even bother to hide that he is looking at him and smiling fondly.

“I-I can’t” Chanyeol declines shortly, and for all his cute, remorseful mumbling, he might as well have hammered Baekhyun’s heart of glass to pieces. “The band will need me soon…”

“Ah, you’re very right, I’m sorry” Baekhyun agrees, trying to hide his disappointment behind the rim of his champagne glass, the imaginary bubble around them bursting deafeningly. You fool…He got carried away so naively, he even allowed himself to hope for practically impossible things; Chanyeol is here to work tonight, and Baekhyun has his own job to do as well. Why ever did he think Chanyeol would cater to his wishes; he is an absolute sweetheart, but his professionalism is impeccable at the end of the day, and there are more people to consider besides the two of them. Baekhyun drops his hand from Chanyeol’s thigh to avoid any awkwardness and pretends to be fleetingly preoccupied with his drink and the decorations hanging overhead.

Chanyeol looks like he is about to say something more, eyebrows heartbreakingly quirked and lips set in a lovely pout, but a tune of the trumpet catches his attention and he whips his head around to glance at the stage. Baekhyun reminds himself to breathe, feeling relieved he won’t have to lie, had Chanyeol asked if everything is fine; there is nothing wrong, to be precise, but what Baekhyun is feeling is definitely not ‘fine’. The taller turns his clear gaze on Baekhyun again, eyes full of thoughts and hesitation. “That’s my cue” he mumbles quietly, almost as if he regrets having to say it. Baekhyun forces a smile, ignoring how disappointment stings his stomach.

“You should go then” he chirps brightly, taking a step back to give Chanyeol room to move, and the taller’s hand drops from his waist by default; it’s bad to think Chanyeol was holding him while Baekhyun was brewing this hurtful feeling in his chest, and the worst part is that Chanyeol always looks at him as if he can see through him, as if he is exposed right to the core, and that is simply too much for Baekhyun’s pride. And so he does what he knows best, muddling the waters by being playful, leaning close to Chanyeol again, not failing to notice his shoulders are slumped this time, and whispering into his ear. “I’ll keep an eye on you; maybe I can steal a dance later” he teases, pulling back with a little wink.

Chanyeol’s lips quirk pensively, Baekhyun’s tricks weakening against his perceptive eyes the closer the two of them grow, and the shorter absently wonders till when he’ll be able to hide behind ploys, before Chanyeol catches onto his feelings; Jongdae thinks of him a clueless puppy, but Baekhyun knows that’s only because Chanyeol always chooses to respect others and pretends not to understand, unless he becomes directly involved. If Chanyeol’s storm has the power to crack Baekhyun’s walls, it can certainly breeze by lesser obstacles. With the expression Chanyeol is making his dimple shows, as if to make it as hard as possible for Baekhyun to send him away, but thankfully, Chanyeol doesn’t say anything further, or Baekhyun would have found an excuse to keep him; with a polite nod, the taller jumps of the bar stool and heads for the stage, not sparing a single glance behind him as the crowd pours between them, flooding the vacant spaces and echoing in Baekhyun’s vastly empty chest.

Baekhyun sighs tiredly and treats himself to Chanyeol’s former seat, wishing he can have just a few moments to himself –and he’s going to spend them all looking down at his glass of champagne in disappointment. Oh, Baekhyun, quit being dramatic, he scolds himself and lifts the glass to his lips, trying to find solace, but it tastes more bitter when he takes a sip and he grimaces. He can’t help feeling like he is the only person who is alone tonight, abandoned in a sea of people; he can hear the sax, improvising alongside the trumpet, but he can’t see it behind him and past a crowded dance floor, and he grits his teeth, wishing he was somewhere more private than his own party, somewhere where he could scream and smash a glass against the wall in frustration.

As if summoned by Baekhyun bitterness, Sehun proudly appears in his vision, and Baekhyun growls menacingly, hostile mood concealed under the makeup and the noise, but just barely. His hatred for Sehun is the kind that he wants to jump on him and claw his cunning eyes out, stab him with a knife till the knife breaks, or at least spit at him the most hateful endearment, to remind him just how unloved he is, how he can’t have what he wants most, how Baekhyun will never love him. He will hate him forever with burning passion, no matter how many gifts and sweet words and threats he receives; aside from him being a horrible person, there’s something about Sehun that Baekhyun just can’t stand, his looks, his manners, the very essence of his soul. It’s the greatest curse he’s ever received, to be plagued by Oh Sehun, unable to refuse him but also feeling an urge to make him feel pain constantly, even when Sehun is not doing anything –but most of all when he does, when he mingles in Baekhyun’s business, when he demands pieces of his life, when he lifts even a finger to touch him. He loathes the man, and he is stupid enough to keep hurting Baekhyun, cornering him against his better judgment, and Baekhyun doesn’t want to think of what he might be capable of, if Sehun pushes him to his limits.

“Hello, darling” the dreaded voice appears next to him too soon, and Baekhyun has to put in conscious effort to keep a civil façade, reminding himself of all the people watching him tonight. He puts down his half-empty glass of champagne as calmly as he can manage, not grudging himself for the slight, infuriated tremble of his hand, but before he has time to insult Sehun with an endearment, said man leans uncomfortably close to him, trying to steal a kiss.

“Bank’s closed” Baekhyun shoots him down coldly, flinching away to keep his breathing space and just about preventing himself from showering Sehun with the rest of his champagne. It’s not the first time Sehun has tried to kiss him, and it’s not the first or the last time Baekhyun refuses like he always does, the idea alone seeming revolting to him, but usually the blond man is not so bold, attempting it in private or over the course of a slow dance, as if that will help Baekhyun warm up to the possibility; he’s probably being so audacious tonight only because he’s hiding behind a mask, like most people in the venue. Baekhyun doubts he honestly expected to succeed in stealing a kiss, given the place and time, and the crowd surrounding them, but he can’t guess what possessed him to even try in the first place. Thankfully, he doesn’t push his luck with a second attempt, taking a step back and giving Baekhyun his personal space back.

“Shall we dance?” he offers a hand as always, and Baekhyun turns to him properly, glaring at his old-era military uniform, with ostentatious golden buttons down his chest and a polished sword by his hip, ironed and tailored to perfection. He’s wearing a black mask over his eyes, making it hard for Baekhyun to hate his face to the full extent, his ash blond hair sleeked back. Of course he’d ask for a dance, with that unnerving smile of his, so lukewarm and unfeeling, that it’s offensive. A dance; like Baekhyun is a pretty doll he likes to play with, trying to woo him when he doesn’t even have the heart it takes to move another person. It’s all a game of pretend, and Baekhyun doesn’t understand why they keep it up, why he is not allowed to put an end to it, when it’s obviously insane to hope for a different result by repeating the same circles.

“Sure” he answers, short and sharp under his fake smile, opting for this answer to Sehun’s more inconsequential demands and saving his refusals to fight bigger battles. He ignores Sehun’s proffered hand though, pretending he didn’t seen it, sliding down from his seat and walking to the dance floor one step ahead of the taller man; he finds a cruel, covert satisfaction by making Sehun wait idly behind him as he greets the people who reach out to him in his path, as if in doing so he wins a small battle of self-respect in a losing war for independence.

They reach the dance floor too soon for Baekhyun’s liking, just as one song ends. Kyungsoo bows and steps away from the microphone stand, obviously unable to sing for every song tonight or his voice wouldn’t last; Yixing sings by his piano sometimes, or they simply play songs instrumental. The couples rearranging on the dance floor is an unnoticeable procedure, although most of those who were dancing before stay for one more dance; that’s why the Pearl’s dance floor is constantly packed, those who are not willing to wait for an opening resorting to dancing in other areas around the hall, creating little pools of dancers in the crowd. Baekhyun is almost impassive as Sehun pulls him closer to get into a basic dancing position, not caring to cooperate more than absolutely necessary; Sehun pretends that it’s normal behavior, as always deluding himself even though he’s fully aware of everything, preferring his version of the world instead of trying to participate in creating it with the rest.

The music starts and they sway to typically choreographed steps, dancing being the only thing they can actually do together, oddly enough. They don’t speak a word to each other, because that’s how it is; the only way Sehun and Baekhyun can communicate is by yelling threats and insults at each other, and when that is not appropriate or required, they just don’t speak but a mere dozen words to each other. Sehun’s hands are impersonal on Baekhyun, leading him in the dance, and Baekhyun stares over the man’s shoulder blankly, trying not to see any of the intrigued gazes people around observe them with, naturally interested in the whereabouts of the party’s host –so that they can gossip about it later. Attraction, love, romance are not supposed to be this way.

“Blue moon~”

At the sound of the voice, Baekhyun’s eyes swing to the stage sharply, surprise and confusion muddling his vision for a moment, under the bright lights and blindingly metallic streamers; but there is no mistaking the tall figure standing at the centre of the stage, brass sax hanging from his neck on the side, prince costume flattering every long, slim line of his body. Baekhyun is a little more than just stunned, mind going blank and lips gaping slack for a moment before he remembers to recompose his expression, lest prying eyes notice his reaction, brows arching in disbelief instead. Is that Chanyeol, my Chanyeol? Sehun tries to steer Baekhyun around in a circle as they dance, but the shorter stubbornly doesn’t budge –he can always blame the throes of couples around them for the lack of available space later, but he doesn’t want to miss a second of this, the sight sparking interest and awe inside of him, hidden under his dispassionate, cold appearance as his shoes follow the rhythm.

He didn’t know Chanyeol could sing, the thought hadn’t even crossed his mind, but oh, it should have, because the performance more than meets the expectations. Chanyeol is a man of many talents, his skills with multiple instruments alone being quite impressive, but there’s an entire new charm to him when he’s singing, deep voice gentle and entrancing, like the moon slowly melting in a silver river over the waters of a midnight sea. Yixing is playing the piano coyly, Taemin is shimmering his drums and Kyungsoo is almost dancing with his cello, rocking from side to side as he plucks the strings, a proud smile on his face; this must be a work of his own doing, though Baekhyun can’t fathom what it would take to convince a person as shy as Chanyeol to take the stage and sing in front of a large crowd, with glittering lights focused only on him. Perhaps it took a bit of courage, a princely disguise and a lot of encouragement, but Baekhyun is thankful for it all, because otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten the chance to gaze at the beautiful musician turned singer on stage tonight.

Chanyeol is singing as if he’s telling a story, choreographed moves elegant and fluid; his hand touching the microphone stand tentatively, fingers sliding down after a couple of lyrics, then his arm gracefully flaring and extending towards the shimmering lights over the dance floor, the movement of his hands as flowing and soft as the unraveling wings of a swan. His chocolate orbs catch all the reflections when he looks up, lights pooling in his large eyes like gleaming diamonds, his expression as innocently awed as the song suggests, so captivating for the eyes and hearts of the people watching him perform; many have already fallen victim to his overflowing charm, watching him with undeniably smitten faces and swooning when Chanyeol picks up his sax to play an intermediate, instrumental part. Baekhyun feels proud, so satisfied to see Chanyeol on the Pearl’s stage like this, and his heart swells, knowing that this wondrous creature is the same man who was blushing and smiling at him just a while earlier.

The saxophone yields the floor to the trumpet and the crowd coos at the exchange between the two instruments, the musicians being playful tonight to encourage a cheerful atmosphere. Baekhyun tilts his head ever so slightly over Sehun’s shoulder, marveling how well Chanyeol gets along with all his staff, without exception, and admiring him from afar as he performs onstage; he is usually standing further back, so this is one of the few times he’s not obscured behind Kyungsoo’s wide charisma, and Baekhyun is reminded of the first time Chanyeol stepped on the Pearl’s stage, which honestly feels like a lifetime ago. They’ve come so far since then, and yet Baekhyun thinks, he is absolutely gorgeous, with alluring shadows on his beautiful face, talented fingers skipping on the pads to let out the most touching notes, now joyful and bright for this song, before he turns to the microphone again.

On the second verse, similar to the first, the orchestra fades to the background again and Chanyeol’s eyes wander over the dancers and observers in the room, standing close to one another under lights not as bright as those showering him in thousands of little sparkles, almost visibly floating around him. He seems to be having fun being in a singer’s shoes, expressions animated and utterly endearing, blinking wide eyes with naïveté and sneaking attractive smiles for those who hold his gaze for a moment amongst the patrons. Baekhyun has almost forgotten about Sehun dancing with him for the first time since they started this hateful ordeal, as if he and all the evils he comes with don’t exist, as if Baekhyun is standing alone in front of the stage and Chanyeol is singing only for him with no care in the world. His lips pull into a small, unconscious smile the more he lets himself immerse into his self-fulfilling daydreams, but then suddenly, Chanyeol’s gaze stumbles on Baekhyun by nearly impossible chance, and Baekhyun’s breath hitches, being caught staring at the saxophonist in a fascinated daze.

“…now I’m no longer alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own~” Chanyeol sings, focused solely on Baekhyun, his eyes curving in a smile his singing lips won’t let shine to its fullest; but Baekhyun knows that smile, it’s Chanyeol’s happiest, the one that makes the world seem magical and full of wonders, and he cannot resist the small pull of his own lips reciprocating it, tentative and uncertain, pale compared to Chanyeol’s, but genuine. It’s dangerous to show more of his foolish, excited heart, because Baekhyun is literally into Sehun’s arms and everything could fall apart spectacularly in mere seconds, a lifetime of hard work crushing and twisting into a pitiful disaster of thorns, with the tiniest wrong move. It’s a delicate balance, and he’s never been more tempted to break it, fight it, because in his silent and abandoned life, Chanyeol is the lone star in Baekhyun’s desolate midnight, setting sail and riding the wind, watching over him and shining brighter every time Baekhyun looks up.

And Baekhyun wants to be free to fall in love with the sky.

Chapter Text

~* 13 *~

By the twirling hands of the clock, November turns into December unnoticed, cold winds and wild rains darkening the sky over the city, until it’s hard to remember the color beyond the clouds; autumn hasn’t lost its vibrant tint yet, but it keeps washing out into grayer tones more and more each passing day. The trees at the park grow lonelier, shedding their leaves, and the raindrops pitter-patter against his umbrella unobstructed, sometimes sweeping in the wind. Chanyeol celebrates his birthday at the Pearl, with a big cake, many candles and birthday kisses on both cheeks from everyone, but aside from that, the rest of his days are a blur, of classes, rehearsals with the philharmonic, the nightclub’s stage and small, daily obligations that keep stumbling and tangling in his bed sheets; he dreams of lights on different stages, and of chasing notes down the street, spending his rare late mornings lying wide awake in bed, too restless to catch a wink.

He can’t wait for the holidays, when the streets and stores will be decorated pretty, and the bakeries will be overflowing with deliciously sweet treats, making up for the wintry chills; the days will be more exciting then. The nights, however, are already exciting as ever, busy and progressively merrier, as per Jongdae’s predictions; nightly escapades in the city are turning more luxurious, exuberant outfits and lavish entertainment fueling the anticipation for the days to come, in view of the festive season. It’s a competition amongst the patrons to spend the best holiday, and their gaiety has already been unleashed so early on in the month, treating themselves to a hint of vanity and to nights of spoiled fun, shoes spinning on the dance floor and cocktails serving auspicious toasts inside each glass –yet nothing shows out on the street, coats tight shut against the biting cold, the nightclubs providing the only bright escape from dreary, rainy skies.

In the small corner of the Black Pearl on a lively Wednesday night, the band is about to take their customary break after the first set of songs for the evening, jolly conversation humming in the hall without musical accompaniment, voices mingling with glasses of sweetened alcohol. The lights are bright and the night is promising, but Chanyeol uncharacteristically retreats to the quieter side of the stage after taking his bow, preferring it to a seat near other patrons by the busy bar as usual; his mind is too burdened tonight for the vibrant ambiance of Jongdae and his crowd, deeply troubled thoughts meddling even with his performance on stage. Chanyeol sets his saxophone aside, sending it an apologetic look, shoulders slumped in disappointment; it’s been a rough day.

“Hey, Chanyeol, what’s up with you today? Are you sick?” Yixing approaches him soon after, kind and considerate as always, plopping down in the far corner of the stage beside him and swinging his shorter legs over the edge; he doesn’t usually stray so far from his piano, but he does make exceptions, being a good friend tonight and reaching out to the saxophonist, drowsy eyes looking at Chanyeol in genuine concern. His interest is heartwarming, one of the few good notes of the night, and Chanyeol tries to send the pianist a small, reassuring smile.

“No, I’m fine” he denies quietly, shaking his head dismissively and lowering his gaze to his fingers, idly tangling and fiddling with them in his lap; he is not sick, but even if he were, it’s not like he could go home –and that’s the problem.

Chanyeol woke up this morning to a drenched kitchen, a ruined couch and a puddle of water on the floor; his first thought was that this old building and its little damages every now and then are inconvenient, but he was optimistic that they can be fixed soon. Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there, because as it turned out, some pipes had burst a couple of floors above, and to be repaired the construction crew will need to replace every inch of plumbing in the building, so all the apartments had to be evacuated immediately and will be closed off for the next couple of days. And that’s a lot more than just inconvenient, because Chanyeol has no other place to stay; he’s been searching all day, asking around the city and everyone he knows, but his efforts have yielded no solid benefits. Without his apartment, or a hotel room he can afford, the deeper the night falls, the more his hopes diminish, and he knows it’s already too late at this hour, even if he’s been denying it to himself, struggling to remain hopeful.

“You’re all clams and clinkers, so spill, what’s bugging you?” Kyungsoo joins the chat unexpectedly, opting to stay with his band mates and sitting down on Chanyeol’s other side, instead of scouting for Jongin by the cocktails counter as usual. The saxophonist turns to him in surprise, and catches the blank look Kyungsoo is giving him, enormous eyes not faltering, leaving little room for the conversation to go astray; Kyungsoo is the type of man who gets things done, and he can be brutally level-headed and honest if necessary, a friend who is not afraid of challenging situations. Chanyeol takes a good look at him, at the patient expression of anticipation, deeming Kyungsoo probably won’t let him off the hook easily if he tries to deflect the topic, and he doesn’t think it’s worth to lie; he had originally planned not to say anything, not meaning to be burdensome, but he’s not as good at pretending as he’d like, and it was naïve of him to think that the people who know him so well by now wouldn’t pick up on his troubled state of mind.

So Chanyeol opens up to his band mates about the day’s misfortunes, because his head keeps squeezing worse than his chest and he is slowly growing more disheartened and desperate the longer the night progresses, his near future splotching in depressive blues and fearful purples in his mind. The last thing he needed during such a hectic period in his life was to lose the one thing he had for certain, a safe bed and a pillow to rest his head at night, and he doesn’t know what he is supposed to do, with a small suitcase of necessities and his saxophone at hand, if he has no place to spend the night. He even asked Heechul, in case he could stay at the conservatory and sleep inside his music room for a couple of nights, but the result remained the same; how is he supposed to rest or prepare for his classes in the coming days without a place to stay? One dry change of suit and two folders of music notes don’t make any substantial difference, like a useless luxury.

His saxophone glints gold in the lights, propped up against its case, as if to look hopeful; Chanyeol’s worries are met with unreserved interest and compassion, small pats on the back and comforting words helping him through his narrative of the situation, which sounds worse to admit it out loud, even more despairing that it already seems to him. He is thankful for the support of his fellow musicians, and the care they show as friends in trying to find a solution with him. Yixing offers his humble attic, which is barely big enough to fit himself, but he is a frugal man who can squeeze someone else into his space if needed; Kyungsoo apologizes that he can’t bring Chanyeol to his apartment, because it’s not exactly his, and at this mending stage after his fight with Jongin, he doesn’t think he can have anyone over. They start considering others of the staff, univocally ruling out Jongdae, because no one in his right mind would walk into his layer of seduction and lust, but Chanyeol has to stop them short on their tracks, because it doesn’t feel right to impose on anyone, and he hates to receive so many apologies; he feels genuinely thankful for all their kind consideration, but there is no reason for them to feel apologetic if they can’t find a viable plan to salvage the homeless shoes on his feet.

“Screw that polite nonsense” Kyungsoo snaps in the end, and they all know it doesn’t mean he’s less concerned; on the contrary, he’s very worried for Chanyeol under his otherwise composed exterior, and the bubbling pot sometimes pops the lid. A short silence befalls them after his outburst, a little disappointed and a little pensive, but slowly smoothing out to something lighter; it’s reassuring to be surrounded by people who care for him so deeply after years of living as a lone wolf, and Chanyeol appreciates every moment of the feeling, letting it soothe his distress. It doesn’t fix things, but it helps him stay afloat against the sinking thought of spending the night on some cold, abandoned park bench. “But, you know, there is someone else you could ask…” Kyungsoo muses after a while with a contemplative frown, his eyes sparking with an idea.

And that’s how, a few hours later on their second musical break, Chanyeol finds himself at the foot of the stairs that lead to the second floor, with his heart in his throat. The golden lights are warm over the narrow, wooden staircase, an inviting glow pouring out of the open door of Baekhyun’s office at the top of the stairs, but Chanyeol hesitates, second thoughts chasing after his decision, which was not very firm in the first place; he’s only going through with this because Kyungsoo can be very scary when he’s trying to convince you to do something, and he also presented a very valid argument that Baekhyun would get mad if he found out Chanyeol preferred to freeze to death rather than share his concerning position with Baekhyun. The uplifting melodies they’ve played have helped alleviate his mood a little, and the faint light at the end of this dark tunnel of insecurity keeps him going; he glances at the bar, where Kyungsoo is sitting with Jongin, and the singer is already staring right back at him, eyes threatening to push Chanyeol up the stairs himself if he has to; Yixing is still playing the piano on the stage, and an oblivious Hyuck smiles at Chanyeol for no reason from across the hall.

Step after step he takes, Chanyeol is trying to compose a polite and proper speech, rearranging and organizing his thoughts into nervous sentences that fly out of his mind the next second; he tries to argue with himself that he doesn’t need to be so worried about this, since the others assured him that Baekhyun has helped them all in the Pearl through worse, and he’d gladly offer at least the couch in his office for Chanyeol, with no trouble whatsoever. Kyungsoo’s warning that Baekhyun would be upset if Chanyeol didn’t give him a chance to help in his time of need is ringing very realistic in the taller’s mind, and he’s counting on that, hoping that Baekhyun won’t refuse him, or that he might have a better idea in any case. The air gets warmer as he reaches the top of the stairs, and he takes a fortifying breath –though heavens know his heart is palpitating fearfully in his chest.

Chanyeol stops at Baekhyun’s door, always wide open unless the club owner’s dealings are too important to be interrupted, and although he’s ready to present himself, he stops short; Baekhyun seems too busy to notice him in the doorway right away, and Chanyeol’s stomach jumps with one last doubt before he crosses the line and disturbs him. There is ample light floating inside the room, from the small fire in the fireplace and the regular light on Baekhyun’s desk, the floor lamp in the corner and the tableside one next to the couch; it makes Baekhyun’s hair look more fiery than ever, crimson and copper with golden accents blending in a neatly combed style on his head. He has a penchant for not wearing his suit jacket, dressed only in his white shirt and olive colored vest, his beautiful fingers scribbling on paper furiously, his head bowed over his desk, thin-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose. He is the epitome of serious business, features sharp and focused, intelligent with a touch of style.

Deeming it would be more awkward if Chanyeol keeps standing here long enough till Baekhyun notices him staring entranced, the musician decides to take the leap and knocks on the open door shortly, to get Baekhyun’s attention.

“Come in, doll” the man answers right away, without lifting his head, or casting even the shortest glance Chanyeol’s way; the taller takes a small first step inside the office, perplexed by Baekhyun’s confident invitation, assuming he had no idea it was him at the door. The warmth of the fire envelops him instantly, the patrons’ chatter and Yixing’s piano from downstairs sounding distant.

“How did you know it’s me?” he questions curiously, dispersing any concealed doubt Baekhyun might have had about his identity with the characteristic sound of his voice. He approaches the desk slowly while Baekhyun seems to jot down something last, long fingers in a hurry around his black pen, squeezing a bit before he sets it down for good. He lifts his head to look up at the taller, face lighting up with a smile.

“No one else would bother knocking when the door is wide open” he explains cheekily, and Chanyeol freezes mid-step, eyes widening slightly; but he always knocks, is he not supposed to, all this time? “You’re my pride and joy when it comes to manners –and music, of course” Baekhyun elaborates lightheartedly, looking right into Chanyeol’s eyes when he mentions music and sending him a short wink, that threatens to make the taller’s cheeks bloom so soon into their interaction; there are days when Baekhyun is more expressive and playful, and it’s harder for the saxophonist to control his reactions then. He hopes today is not such a day, because he has very important things to say, and he can’t possibly be expected to articulate properly if Baekhyun keeps being a sultry little fox. Said man pushes his chair back and casually rises from his seat, smiling at Chanyeol compellingly. “Come in, have a seat” he invites like an exemplary host, gesturing elegantly at one of the armchairs in front of the desk, and Chanyeol takes the proffered seat obediently with a small expression of thanks, sitting polite and prim like years of piano practice have instilled in him. Baekhyun moves closer, walking around his desk, but instead of sitting in the armchair across from Chanyeol to converse with him, he opts to remain standing in front of him, subtly leaning back against his desk in a fluid, graceful pose. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asks, smiling down at Chanyeol as if his announced visit is the most pleasant, unexpected thing he has ever encountered in this office.

Chanyeol stutters a little, his hopes of Baekhyun being in a more manageably subdued mood dispersing in the wind. On the contrary, he seems to have every intention of being mischievous today, with the way he poses himself, the line of his waist and hip curving statuesquely under his olive suit, shoulders broad as he laces his hands across his chest, a tiny smirk never leaving the corner of his reddened lips; his eyes look more gray-brown in the color he is wearing, but they’re still glinting with flaming mischief under his lashes. “I apologize for bothering you, but I am in a predicament” Chanyeol finally finds the words to say, and Baekhyun’s smile fades, a pensive, alarmed frown marring his forehead.

“That’s unsettling” he muses, his arms dropping to his sides, hands curling against his desk, as Chanyeol begins to explain the difficult situation he has unpredictably found himself in tonight. He spares Baekhyun most of the details about his unfruitful search for housing, simply explaining that he has no place to stay for the next couple of nights on such short notice; some of his eloquence returns to him while Baekhyun listens to him silently, and he is able to express himself as he’d like, in a decently dignified and composed fashion. It makes him feel a bit more at ease that Baekhyun is letting him talk freely about his concerns, listening closely with utmost attention, eyes catching every minor expression passing like a shadow over Chanyeol’s face. It would be foolish to think Baekhyun can’t see through him, with his insightful gaze and intuitive mind, always guessing even the subtler elements of Chanyeol’s disposition, since the saxophonist is not particularly skilled at hiding them in the first place, so he has to avert his eyes every now and then, the prolonged, intense eye contact making feel on the edge of being overwhelmed.

“And I was wondering if, perhaps, you wouldn’t mind…” he pauses for a second, resolve wavering under Baekhyun’s serious, hazel eyes, but he has already said everything he didn’t plan on saying, his intension never being to worry anyone, so he might as well finish what he started. “…if I slept on the couch here, just for a night or two?” he requests, voice barely above a whisper –he’s not sure Kyungsoo would be proud of him. His heart is beating so fast in his chest that he’s not sure he won’t faint in the next few seconds, Baekhyun’s following silence sitting heavy on Chanyeol’s chest, like a rock helplessly suffocating him; the shorter man’s expression doesn’t change, making Chanyeol feel small and naïve under his watchful gaze, his lips quirking indecipherably for a moment.

“I’m afraid I cannot allow that, Chanyeol” Baekhyun says then, voice somber, punctuated by a slow shake of his head. The rock feels like a mountain now, crushing Chanyeol and burying him underneath it, the last shreds of hope flickering out in the distance; so, he is going to have to spend the night on the street.

“Oh…” he breathes, trying to restrain his disappointment and the tears behind his eyes, looking away and babbling to distract himself from his discomfiture, for the while he is in Baekhyun’s presence at least, fingers secretly clawing the side of his thigh to let out some of the tension, a desperate attempt to hook himself onto the present. His throat hurts as if it’s melting on the inside, his breath comes shallow in his chest and his stomach is rolling on the floor, but he still manages to speak somehow. “It’s okay, I understand-”

“There is no way I can let you sleep on an old couch, in a room unequipped with proper heating, all alone in the middle of a dark city, when I have a perfectly available guestroom at home” Baekhyun interrupts him, voice strict and confident, as if he is reprimanding Chanyeol and ruling out every other possibility, while simultaneously inviting him to a very different option, regarding his accommodation. It takes a moment to sink in, and Chanyeol gasps, turning to the shorter instantly, doe eyes looking up at him in disbelief.

“I- excuse me?” he chokes out, feeling very flustered from what he just understood from Baekhyun’s words; it sounded like he offered his guestroom to Chanyeol, as in, his house, his private space, and it’s a tad bit too much for the taller’s poor brain to decode after the stressful day he’s had. Baekhyun seems pretty confident in his suggestion though, his stern expression morphing to a bright grin.

“Why would I let you sleep here, doll?” he questions smilingly, voice turning more gentle, eyes softening; he seems to lean back a little further, more contented with his plan than Chanyeol’s original idea, and the taller looks at him wide-eyed, still at a loss over this unforeseen turnout of the conversation. Kyungsoo and Yixing never mentioned this might happen, and Chanyeol has never heard of someone being a guest at Baekhyun’s house before, so maybe he has every reason to turn the question around at Baekhyun; why wouldn’t he let him sleep here, and offer to host him personally instead? Baekhyun shrugs his shoulders endearingly as if it’s self-evident. “It’s uncomfortable, and it might get cold at night. I’d much rather bring you home with me, it’s much safer –and I wouldn’t mind the company” he says, adding a playful smile at the end, lashes curling on the edges of his droopy eyes. Chanyeol opens and closes his mouth like a fish for a moment, too flustered to catch the words before they slip from his mouth, and then the next moment he is voicing them all at once, inside one anxious breath.

“I wouldn’t want to burden you, that’s not at all why I-”

“I know” Baekhyun stops him, noticing his fluster and trying to pacify him, his voice gaining a more serious edge again. Chanyeol looks at Baekhyun speechless, as the shorter shakes his head, one hand held up in honesty. “The maestro called this afternoon, worried about you, so I knew about your predicament” he admits, and every intension to speak up seems irrevocably shattered in Chanyeol’s thoughts; he should have figured the maestro would tell Baekhyun, his conscience not particularly appeased by Chanyeol’s assurances that it was fine if he couldn’t stay at the conservatory, since it has not been made for that purpose, after all. The maestro probably thought telling Baekhyun was the next best thing, since he is also Chanyeol’s employer and friend –and he knows that Chanyeol has difficulty sharing his troubles with others; still, it would have been nice if Chanyeol had a say in all this first, because it’s so far from his intensions. He is not as stubborn as to refuse the gesture, however, so he remains silent on that matter. “I was already planning on inviting you to stay with me, in fact; I even sent Hyuck to fetch you since I’m busy, but you beat me to it” Baekhyun continues with a small smile, fingers playing randomly at the edge of a notebook. Chanyeol gives him a skeptical look.

“Are you sure about this?” he asks, clearly unconvinced but placid, genuinely appreciating Baekhyun’s offer, no matter how it came about. “I don’t mean to impose, Baekhyun, and I really wouldn’t mind the couch, considering the alternatives” he words carefully, making sure to look into the man’s eyes, trying to express himself to the fullest. Baekhyun’s lips widen in a carefree grin.

“Of course!” he reassures Chanyeol without hesitation, bringing his hands on his sides again and then slowly turning more serious with each word, lightheartedness appropriately yet not entirely defining his important decisions. “Any one of you is welcome to my house any day, especially when you need my help. Besides, I live alone, Chanyeol, I wasn’t lying when I said I wouldn’t mind the company” he says, husky voice quiet and commanding, softening a bit at the end.

Chanyeol bites his lower lip unconsciously, looking at Baekhyun deep in thought; it shouldn’t be any different than living with Yixing, only Baekhyun probably doesn’t live in an attic. Besides, it’s just for nighttime, since Chanyeol has a teaching schedule tomorrow, and he’ll be at the conservatory for the biggest part of his day; there is no reason for him to feel self-conscious if Baekhyun can offer him a spare bed and a warm blanket, because that’s all he’ll need. He keeps looking at Baekhyun and yet he is so absentminded that he doesn’t notice the shorter slowly leaning forward, lowering himself almost to Chanyeol’s eyelevel, until he flashes a winning smile that pulls Chanyeol out of his daze.

“I’ve thought this through, and I still think you should come with me. Would you leave a homeless puppy in the street?” he says quietly, voice smooth and deep and enchanting, with a slight teasing lilt at the end; he can pull the strings so masterfully that Chanyeol feels he never stood a chance against his plan, a refusal to him being a sin against angels in heaven.

“I’m not a puppy” he counters though, frowning a little at the comparison, and Baekhyun glances at his lips, which may or may not be pouting, a small smile playing on the edge of the shorter’s mouth in response.

“Are you sure?” he quips, but it’s not loud enough to be heard beyond the two of them, mischievous and inviting, especially with the way he tilts his head and his eyes catch the light of the fire, cheeks smooth and curved playfully, smirking lips so close Chanyeol can see their satin texture, soft like flower petals. It’s not the first time this tension sparks between them, almost familiar by now, with Baekhyun poking against Chanyeol’s bubble and mesmerizing him at the same time, drawing him in with an irresistible force, as if he’s a small moon and Chanyeol’s orbit is too close to miss it. His eyes fall to Baekhyun’s smiling lips, slightly red and shimmery in the amber reflections of the flames on them, but then a sudden call makes both of them flinch, shuttering the moment.

“Boss, the Kims are here” a familiar voice announces, excited and cheerful, and they both turn to the door, Baekhyun straightening his posture and Chanyeol squeezing his knee to fight down his fluster. Hyuck is standing in the doorway, tie endearingly crooked, innocent gaze almost obscured under his fringe. “Oh, hi Chanyeol” the young one chirps, sending him another smile that Chanyeol understands now, and he can’t resist reciprocating with one of his own; the young man is the last person on earth who would intrude deliberately, always a little slow when it comes to social cues but never with ill intensions.

“Thank you, I’ll be right there, Hyuck” Baekhyun dismissed the boy, his smile close-lipped, patient and kind, and only after the server scampers back down to the hall does he turn to Chanyeol with a knowing look, as if to rest his case on his earlier point of Chanyeol’s notable politeness. Chanyeol’s lips crook into a one-sided mien of que sera sera, and Baekhyun scoffs out a chuckle. “So, I’ll see you when we close up, okay?” he proposes, and Chanyeol is about to open his mouth to protest again, that there is no reason for Baekhyun to feel any obligation towards him and go out of his way, but the shorter holds up a finger in warning, effectively shushing him. Chanyeol can recognize the determination in Baekhyun’s eyes, so he sighs in surrender, shoulders slumping a little; Baekhyun seems satisfied with that, his lips stretching into a wide smile. “I’ll walk you downstairs” he decides brightly, and Chanyeol has no choice but to indulge him, even if it means he has to walk with him into the main hall, attracting the patrons’ attention –because Baekhyun always does.

Some prying eyes follow Chanyeol to the stage, even after Baekhyun has changed his course to the Kims’ table, indiscreet whispers wondering what has transpired between the tall saxophonist and the attractive club owner, but the former one concerned tries not to think about such impressions, picking up his instrument and rejoining the band.

Several hours later, Chanyeol is bidding Ravi goodnight outside of the Pearl, sending him home to Sejeong with a smile and staying behind, the last one of the staff. The night is dark and the cold bites his cheeks above his scarf, wrapped up to his nose, but there are fairy lights wrapped around each streetlight, twinkling and reflecting faintly onto the wet shin of former rain on the pavements, and it’s kind of beautiful. The street is empty, and mostly quiet, enough for his shoes to tap audibly on the ground as he hops from side to side, trying to keep warm; Kyungsoo told him not to wait outside for Baekhyun, since the latter does a full round of the building after everyone is gone, but Chanyeol didn’t want to stay inside when everyone else stepped out to leave, and that’s how he’s found himself enduring the cold right outside the Pearl’s arched door. There’s a suitcase beside him on the ground on one side, and his saxophone case on the other, his hands stuffed in his pockets to steal a little of the warmth the rest of his body produces. There’s a strange feeling in his stomach, like jumping jitters, and his chest feels a little tight, but he distracts himself from his nervousness with the blinking fairy lights and the depthless granite sky above.

“Are you ready, handsome?” Baekhyun’s voice breaks his trance, making him flinch a little in the silence his ears got accustomed to while he’s been waiting out here. He turns to the smaller instantly, cheeks tinted red for reasons other than the cold this once, and he catches Baekhyun smiling to himself as he locks the front door, a military-style, olive coat draped over his shoulders; he looks comfortable with this, as if he’s not returning home with the added weight of Chanyeol, a suitcase and his saxophone.

“Baekhyun, are you absolutely certain about this?” the taller asks once more, though it’s futile at this hour, but he still feels like he should; there’s still time for Baekhyun to change his mind and give him the couch. The shorter sighs, slipping the keys inside his coat’s pocket before looking up at Chanyeol in the eyes.

“If you keep asking me that, I’ll have to scoop you up and carry you home like an actual stray puppy” he warns, playfully, but it’s still a word of warning for Chanyeol not to defy him, or he really wouldn’t hesitate to use other means to take him home. Chanyeol nods into his scarf, surrendering his argument without further fuss, and he looks away, Baekhyun’s persistence translating to his amount of concern for Chanyeol and making the latter feel shy. Baekhyun buttons up the very top button of his coat, his button nose and cheeks slowly turning flushed in the cold night air. “My house is a short walk from here; do you need any help with those?” he offers confidently, glancing at Chanyeol’s luggage.

“I can manage” the taller assures him in a murmur, picking up a case in each hand and balancing them in his hold; he’s been carrying them around all day, a short walk is nothing, especially with the sweet promise of a safe place to rest at his destination. It doesn’t even cross his mind that he is so easily rejecting Baekhyun’s chivalrous offer, but the latter is already being too kind to Chanyeol, so the musician has to try to be as little of a nuisance as possible in the coming days. Baekhyun waits beside him unmoving, eyes measuring Chanyeol up and down carefully, until he seems convinced.

“Good” he concedes, slipping his hands into his pockets and swaying the material of his coat slightly, as he smiles at Chanyeol and nods in the right direction to get them going. Their steps echo in the street, Chanyeol’s shorter than usual so Baekhyun can keep up, and Baekhyun’s louder than usual so Chanyeol can follow. They pass by unlit shop fronts and locked doors of tall buildings, the stone under their feet slippery; it reminds Chanyeol of the time he walked the streets of a small town with Baekhyun, but it was more relaxed and less stiffly formal in his memory. He chances a glance to the side, and he discovers a smile on Baekhyun’s lips, a small, puzzling one under the amber streetlights that watch them walk side by side, which might be proud or pleased, Chanyeol can’t guess the finer details in half darkness and silence.

And that’s when it hits him, that for all the trouble Baekhyun is willingly undergoing for him, Chanyeol hasn’t even thanked him yet.

“Thank you” he whispers right away, fearing to disturb the night and its stillness, but it can’t be delayed any longer. Baekhyun hears him easily, his eyes shifting away from admiring the fairy lights and turning to Chanyeol, his smile becoming less absentminded and more bright; he looks like a mythical creature of the night, who wanders next to lost travelers and seduces them with a smile and a blink of his pretty eyes, so pale and radiant of his own, so much like a kindling flame.

“My pleasure, doll” he answers just as quiet, and it dispels the ethereal aura, because a creature like that wouldn’t have a voice so soft and heartfelt, so honest and soothing, like a nocturnal symphony. He smiles, and Chanyeol forgets the earth’s rotation for a moment, losing the ground under his feet from how beautiful Baekhyun looks, sincere and bright in the middle of the night.

When Baekhyun steps closer and wraps his arm around Chanyeol’s, anchoring his fingers on his elbow since the musician’s hands are full, the saxophonist doesn’t even flinch, falling into the gesture naturally, and there’s the smallest hint of warmth coming from Baekhyun, alongside a scent of cotton and charred wood. It’s more comfortable and familiar to walk next to each other like this, their height difference making it an easy fit of one close to the other, and it feels like a heavy chain drops to the ground, lying forgotten on the rained down pavement as they gain distance, steps and hearts lighter. A whiff of comfort sneaks into Chanyeol’s chest and promises him he is safe and cared for; and he is not supposed to be this close to losing his heart over it, but it’s harder to resist its persuasive pull with every step they take, glowing like embers inside of him, like kisses of warmth on his soul the imprint their lasting mark for hopes of many more nights like this. Baekhyun keeps him close and doesn’t let him go for the rest of the way.

~* 14 *~

Baekhyun wakes up with a startle when a bloodcurdling scream lodges in his throat, suffocating behind his lips, unable to get out. He shoots out of his pillow so fast that he can feel the world spin before he even opens his eyes, the covers falling from his shoulders in his sitting position and being replaced by the stale, algid air of his room. Blackness still scuffs his vision, the gray mist of his dreams almost palpable. It was just another nightmare he tells his racing heart, painfully knocking against his ribs and making it hard to breathe, which doesn’t help at all with the dizziness, slowly ebbing away to welcome a piercing headache. With a growl of discomfort, he raises a hand to his forehead, grimacing in distaste when he feels the sweat matting his hair on his skin, and he presses the heel of his palm on his aching head, wishing away the foul pain. He hates waking up like this.

Slowly coming to his senses, he looks around his idle bedroom, blinking away sleep from his heavy lashes. Slim rays of light sneak through the shutters with dust dancing and glimmering lazily through them, outlining the furniture and shading the soft fabrics in the room; it’s morning. His heart rate slows down in the safety of familiar surroundings and daylight, the cold claws grasping for him in the dark dispersed and locked away in his memory –until tomorrow night at least. Baekhyun wiggles his numb toes and brings his knees to his chest, curling into a ball of shivering limbs outside the covers, so willingly abandoning their warmth to gain the flimsy reassurance that one more night is over. He needs to be small for a bit, to gather himself into that little space of glimmering tranquility in his mind; it’s hard to wake up feeling so drained and helpless, but he is no stranger to it. Baekhyun has made his peace with his demons, but they still come to pay him a visit from time to time, ruthlessly haunting him on bad days.

He slides out of bed when he deems he is sober enough, noticing how uncharacteristically tidy his room looks; when he comes home exhausted from the club every night, there is no time or concern to be organized and neat, considering all Baekhyun wants during the deepest hours of midnight is to shed his outfit and crash dreamlessly in his comfy bed. But today there are no clothes from last night strewn across every surface, and that makes no sense; his eyes narrow in suspicion, trying to find anything else out of place, but then, he remembers.

Oh, last night was different. He brought Chanyeol home. Like a lost, homeless puppy he picked up from the street –a lost, homeless, adorable puppy. Baekhyun allows himself a smile, remembering how timid and wide-eyed Chanyeol looked inside his house during their short tour, small suitcase and saxophone case in hand.

But then Baekhyun feels a mean pinch of panic in his bones, because oh god, Chanyeol is here, in the house, really here! Glancing down on himself, Baekhyun realizes how utterly not presentable he looks, and he rushes into the shower, letting the warm water wash away any leftover traces of drowsiness. When he comes out, fresh and wide awake, he starts contemplating on his outfit; maybe pjs look too messy, but isn’t slacks too much for a casual morning inside the house? Should he style his hair, should he wear a hint of cologne, or will that make him look like he’s trying too hard? Damn it, he shouldn’t be feeling so nervous, this shouldn’t be so difficult, and why the hell are the butterflies in his stomach so excited? With a mildly indignant huff, he decides to wear soft trousers and a plain button down, but with his favorite sapphire robe de chambre over everything, leather slippers and no perfume, but he combs his hair neatly.

Glaring at the mirror while brushing his teeth, he tries to convince himself that this is normal, he’s feeling jittery just because he hasn’t had guests for the longest time –it has nothing to do with the gorgeous saxophonist and his sparkling, pretty eyes, which Baekhyun oh-so-happily brought on himself by the sheer power of perseverance, thank you very much.

He steps out of his room soundlessly, his eyes instantly landing on the open guestroom door across the hall; Chanyeol is up, but nowhere in sight. Baekhyun feels his stomach squirming up but he stomps down any bubbly, unnecessary feelings so early in the morning, and heads down the hall to the common areas with quiet, lithe steps. There is an abundance of light washing through the glass windows and flooding the living room, almost blinding him as soon as he steps out of the hallway and making him want to hide back in the shadows, but a comforting, promising scent of food lures him further in. He ambles to the kitchen, slightly hypnotized by the sweet smell, curious and impatient to find the source.

It comes as the most pleasant sort of surprises, when he finds Chanyeol shuffling pans in the kitchen, humming a tune under his breath while merrily cooking breakfast. Gone is the timidity from last night, replaced by a comfortable, joyful attitude; Chanyeol adjusts fast in every situation, it seems. He has his back turned to Baekhyun unsuspectingly, so the shorter decides it’s worth the risk to lean on the furthest end of the breakfast bar, watching unobtrusively as the oblivious musician expertly flips something out of the pan. Baekhyun lies to himself that he is not being remotely creepy at the moment, and that his interest is not piqued by the attractive man cooking in his kitchen; his observation is merely curious, without a hint of admiration whatsoever.

Only it’s hard not to admire Chanyeol in the kitchen, with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up as strong hands handle cooking utensils with practiced ease, the nape of his neck looking so fair under his silky black hair, sculpted shoulders tapering to a slightly narrower waist, long legs clad in a brown pair of pants. He is wearing Baekhyun’s yellow kitchen apron, and Baekhyun has an insane urge to walk up to him, undo the string on his waist and kiss his neck, hands feeling the material of his shirt just to see if it is as crisp as it looks.

“Good morning, handsome” Baekhyun purrs, biting his lip to hold back the inappropriate thoughts. Maybe some other time, maybe never; Baekhyun knows painfully well that Chanyeol is off limits, but he can’t stop himself when the taller keeps stumbling invitingly into his territory –and please don’t comment on how he brought that on himself too. The musician whirls around, forgetting all about the food on the stove momentarily, his eyes wide and skittish, having been caught red-handed.

“Oh. Baekhyun” he says breathlessly, and Baekhyun smiles a little, his eyes naturally drawn to Chanyeol’s plush lips as he articulates his name; they look so lovely, a milky shade of pink, much lighter than the strawberry blush that slowly settles over Chanyeol’s nose and cheeks. “Good morning” the taller mumbles, eyes round and guilty –one more hint to convince Baekhyun that the man is in fact a giant puppy in human form. The shorter leans languidly on the counter, not-so-secretly enjoying Chanyeol’s meek, flustered reaction.

“I see you’ve made yourself acquainted with the kitchen” he notes, if only to see the color on Chanyeol’s cheeks turning more vibrant, his warm brown eyes lowering to his fingers, fiddling with a kitchen towel. His lashes flutter shyly against his smooth cheeks, and maybe Baekhyun wants to lift himself on his tiptoes to peck the taller’s nose and ruffle his hair, but he tightens his fist on the counter instead, choking back a cooing sound. These feelings have grown enormous after the ball a few weeks ago, overwhelming him when he least expects them.

“I thought I’d make you breakfast, to thank you for your hospitality” Chanyeol mutters low in his deep voice, and Baekhyun smiles softly at the gesture; Chanyeol always goes out of his way to be kind to others. He’s slightly taken aback when the latter lifts his eyes to him again, gaze honest and clear. “I’ll clean up everything afterwards, I promise!”

Baekhyun chuckles, but before he has time to utter a word, the kettle rudely starts to whistle, and Chanyeol has to turn around, removing it from the stove and setting it aside. He gets busy with the rest of the food right away, their breakfast demanding his attention, and Baekhyun pouts, displeased. Judging by how quiet and reluctant Chanyeol looks now, a stark contrast to his cheerful presence in the kitchen before Baekhyun made an appearance, the latter feels like he has ruined it a little; he just wanted to tease Chanyeol a bit, he didn’t mean to end the conversation with an accusation, however ingenuine and teasing. It makes him feel heartless, sounding so ungrateful, and such a bad host, something he naturally excels at due to his line of business.

Walking closer to the man cooking, Baekhyun knows exactly when Chanyeol spots him by his side, a quick sideways glance at Baekhyun giving him away. He still doesn’t say anything, lips pressed tight in embarrassment as his hands work in skillful patterns, the tips of his ears endearingly red. Baekhyun feels a pang of guilt, and he gingerly places a soothing hand on Chanyeol’s back, fingertips lingering on the immaculate fabric of his shirt.

“So, what are you making?” he asks, the brightness in his voice slightly uncertain, but when Chanyeol turns to him and blinks his large, pure eyes at Baekhyun, the shorter doesn’t hesitate to smile at him widely, reassuring. Chanyeol’s body relaxes imperceptibly under Baekhyun’s hand, his guiltiness appeased, and he even smiles a little, that tight-lipped smile that dents his cheek with an adorable dimple.

“French toast” he answers, poking the food in question, sizzling inside the pan and filling the air with a sweet aroma. Baekhyun nods approvingly and decides to make himself useful as Chanyeol dutifully goes back to cooking, picking up the kettle to pour the hot water in the coffee pot the taller has already prepared. “It’s simple for breakfast, but I didn’t know how you like your eggs…” Chanyeol adds quietly as an afterthought, keeping his eyes bashfully glued to the pan, feign nonchalance. Baekhyun’s breath catches in his throat for a moment, Chanyeol’s considerate decision even on something so simple, striking a sensitive chord inside of him, as if he is merely an instrument surrendered to Chanyeol’s skillful hands. It’s different when his heart thumps in daylight, without the guise of nighttime obscuring the consequences, and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it. He never did, not even when he had Chanyeol to himself for an entire day at the mansion.

“Sunny side up, with a side of bacon” he divulges tentatively, even though Chanyeol didn’t exactly ask; but it can’t hurt if he knows. At least someone will know, someone that matters. Baekhyun really doesn’t know how to handle these feelings, always confessing things that he normally wouldn’t; he might just confess something he is not supposed to as well if this keeps up. Chanyeol turns to him curiously, brows slightly curled in a frown, and Baekhyun’s butterflies fly to his throat, his mouth almost blurting out how temptingly delectable he looks like this, but he swerves last moment, voice coming out quieter than usual. “But I think I prefer french toast to eggs” he admits with a coy smile, his fingers absentmindedly playing with the edge of his robe sleeve under the counter, an unnoticed, rare sign of nervousness.

“Me too” Chanyeol agrees with a light grin, his lips still shy at the corners, looking at Baekhyun with those charming eyes of his, the color of molten chocolate, his black lashes contrasting his spotless skin. Baekhyun feels enveloped by a serene feeling all of a sudden, and for the short while they hold each other’s gaze, he absently thinks that he really needs to control his butterflies, because they’re running wild and free in his body with the most delightful aftereffects –but he refuses to regret drowning in Chanyeol’s eyes, hunting down every opportunity he can get and living it to the fullest, hooked ever since that first time at his oak tree.

Until Chanyeol has to go back to his cooking, averting his eyes before he can witness how flustered Baekhyun is by the unfamiliar feeling of domesticity floating in the sunlit air around them, belatedly realizing that he never managed to fool himself into thinking of Chanyeol as a simple guest, no matter how much he argued with himself on that before making the proposition to him. He picks up the coffee pot wordlessly, not minding the heated surface against his skin, instead pressing his hands onto it to ground himself. He heads for the dining room first, listening to Chanyeol shuffling behind him as he turns off the stove and starts to follow, but Baekhyun stops at the threshold between the two rooms, eyes widening in surprise.

He passed by the dining room carelessly before, too intrigued by the scent of food to give it a proper glance, or he would have definitely noticed the effort Chanyeol has put into setting the table for breakfast. There are white porcelain dishes and silver cutlery laid out against a white tablecloth, little vases of honey and marmalade glinting in rich, glassy colors. There is a glass of juice for each, and an empty teacup, a couple of red apples and other porcelain or glass tableware arranged prettily; Baekhyun didn’t even remember he owned all this.

“Is…everything okay?” Chanyeol asks apprehensively, setting down a big plate of piled french toast slices amongst the rest. He has removed the obnoxious apron now, his shirt exposing his forearms and the seductive curve of his throat under the first couple of undone buttons, and Baekhyun gulps subtly, his hands tightening around the pot until it hurts.

“Yes, I mean…” he stutters, setting down the hot pot before it burns his skin and blinking at everything, seeing it up close. “You didn’t have to do all this –you even set the table. I can’t remember the last time someone did so much for me” he admits, feeling slightly at a loss; Baekhyun has been the recipient of many courteous gestures in his life, but no one has ever been as sweet to him as Chanyeol. “It’s very…sweet” his mouth lets out in a whisper without his permission, and he bites his lip right after, a bit flustered, risking a glance at Chanyeol. The roles have somehow been reversed all of a sudden, and Baekhyun is the one shuffling his feet bashfully, while Chanyeol smiles at him gently.

“I thought I should do it right” the taller explains simply with an innocent shrug of his shoulders, the corners of his eyes crinkling adorably; Baekhyun finds himself returning a wiggly smile, heart twirling enthusiastically in his chest. Jongdae would crucify him if he ever knew any of this. Chanyeol gestures to the table politely then. “Let’s sit down before it gets cold, hm?”

Baekhyun nods wordlessly –a strange and unsettling occurrence for him, to be played a fool by elusive words– and takes the proffered seat at the head of the table, Chanyeol sitting next to him on the right side. They occupy just a small corner of the table, but for Baekhyun it’s more than he’d ever need, more enjoyable and more stunning than expensive candlelit dinners and bouquets of roses; that’s why he likes being around Chanyeol, because he makes things easy, he makes simplicity beautiful, and he lets Baekhyun choose without compromising his own self. Chanyeol serves him first, placing the most golden slice of toast on the smaller’s plate, and Baekhyun can see excitement dancing in his large eyes, a delicate smile playing on his lips; Baekhyun smiles fondly and blinks away the stupor, reaching for the apricot marmalade, while Chanyeol serves himself with a slice, topped with honey, which Baekhyun notices out of the corner of his eye. It’s strangely interesting. Everything about Chanyeol is unexpectedly intriguing, even more so in daylight.

When he first bites into the fluffy slice of toast, cinnamon and sugar glossing warmly over his tongue, Baekhyun nearly moans at the delicious taste, eyes fluttering close; when was the last time food tasted so good, he could eat this forever. A small sound of satisfaction escapes his throat but he masks it with a hum. “Hmm, this is amazing” he mumbles, trying not to open his mouth too much, unappealingly. Chanyeol smiles at him brightly before taking a bite of his own toast, and the way the sunshine casts a hallo around his hair, skin velvety as an apricot and eyes sparkling, makes Baekhyun curl his toes in his slippers. Chanyeol hums in approval at his own work as he chews, left cheek puffing cutely. “Who taught you how to cook like this?” Baekhyun inquires curiously, teetering on the edge of discretion but he doesn’t care; he might never find another chance like this with Chanyeol and he wants to know everything, know him whole. His desire can’t be quenched, especially not in just one morning, but it still burns his skin, impossible to be ignored.

“My grandma did, but she makes everything better than I do” Chanyeol provides easily, chuckling bashfully as he cuts another piece with his fork and knife; Baekhyun belatedly realizes he is eating with his hands like a child, but it’s too late to change that now, oh well. Baekhyun is once again enchanted by the steady, sweetly reminiscing voice Chanyeol uses to talk about his past, so full of light and happiness that it shines through to the present. He stares at the taller without even realizing, how his eyes move on the plate under his lashes as he shifts around the food, how his hands move so prettily and smoothly, and oh, how would those deft fingertips feel on his skin; Baekhyun sucks his lower lip into his mouth with want, a subtle heat curling in his stomach. “From the amount of groceries in your pantry, I’m guessing you can cook too?” Chanyeol prods subtly, pulling Baekhyun out of his reverie.

“Of course I can” he quips with a cheeky smile, an invitation to a home cooked dinner hanging on the tip of his tongue but he holds it in for a later time; he can’t decide when his heart is beating behind his teeth, when Chanyeol looks at him with the most earnest, dedicated eyes, keenly paying attention to every word Baekhyun has to say. The shorter licks his lips and tries to calm his heart before he starts blushing for no reason, sending Chanyeol a tiny smile. “I never had someone to teach me though, I’m what you’d call self-taught” he adds, his voice coming out a bit dull; he instantly regrets letting that slip. He doesn’t want to spoil a great morning with sad memories of his childhood, the bitter material his nightmares are made of.

“Oh” is all Chanyeol has to say, small and mindful; he has no doubt sensed the shift in Baekhyun’s mood, and the latter pinches the corner of his toast, angry at himself for letting that happen. “How do you drink your coffee?” Chanyeol unexpectedly changes the subject, and Baekhyun looks up in surprise. The taller is already serving Baekhyun with coffee from the pot he brought to the table earlier, and Baekhyun blinks, a little flabbergasted. Chanyeol is attentive, smiling so soft and mellow as he tries to offer Baekhyun a nice breakfast, unknowingly giving him perhaps the best morning of his life.

“With lots of milk” he mumbles in the end, blinking dumbly when Chanyeol grins at him as bright as the sun. He still feels a bit dazed from the shock and vulnerable, so tenderly exposed from the smallest details of his life Chanyeol has so effortlessly uncovered once more in one morning; Baekhyun doubts anyone else knows how he takes his coffee, or how he likes his eggs. As gently as the night falls, as unsuspectingly as the stars peek out and as all-consuming as the deep veils of midnight surround the moon, Baekhyun finds himself engulfed in a warm feeling, affection washing over him as if he’s standing on the edge of Chanyeol’s sea, swirling around his heart and pulling him in. Drowning has never felt so right before.

Chanyeol adds milk to Baekhyun’s cup but leaves his own plain black, Baekhyun notices, and then he glances at Baekhyun one last time to make sure everything is okay and to his liking. Baekhyun manages a smile this time, picking up a teaspoon to swirl into his coffee; Chanyeol flashes a proud little smile before going back to his food. “Did you sleep well last night?” Baekhyun picks up the small talk, being a good host –but mostly because he likes listening to Chanyeol in the morning. His deep voice sounds like honey in the sun, bright and soothing, perfectly comforting after a rough night, cold mornings, a lonely life.

The taller rushes to chew and swallow, wiping a few stray honey drops from the edge of his lip with his finger, eyes widening. “Yes! And, thank you once again-”

“No need for that, Chanyeol” Baekhyun stops him by holding up a hand, not very keen on receiving another long offer of thanks for something so simple as giving Chanyeol a warm, safe bed for a couple of nights –with cooking skills like this added to his looks and character, Baekhyun wouldn’t mind keeping him home for a much longer time. The taller is hesitant to keep quiet, worrying his lip with his teeth slightly as his brows curl in that oh-so-charming frown, but in the end he only lets out a sigh and quirks his lips, surrendering. Baekhyun smiles triumphantly and takes a big bite of his toast, marmalade smearing on his lip, so he licks it away swiftly, smiling. They take a few more bites in silence, until Baekhyun gets an idea. “Say, you’ve never been to the club as a customer, have you?” he asks, crossing one leg on top of the other under the table and swinging it playfully in the air; he knows the answer already, of course, but he waits for Chanyeol’s confirmation, a confused shake of his head that throws a few raven strands in his eyes. Baekhyun’s mischievous smile widens just a tiny bit. “Then how about you go with me tonight?”

Chanyeol chokes on his food at the sound of the proposition, and hastily takes a big gulp from his cup to ease his throat, grimacing at the overwhelming bitterness of his coffee. His nose scrunches up so cutely when he does. “W-what?” he stutters in the end, eyes wild in disbelief, cheeks bright red. Baekhyun pretends to be unaffected by the commotion, even though deep down he was a bit alarmed for a moment there.

“You’ll have to join me after you’re done with your private classes, of course, but you deserve a night to relax and enjoy the music after all your hard work. Besides, it will be easier to return here together at night, don’t you think?” he explains lightheartedly, trying to sound as reasonable as possible, going as far as taking another bite to show how natural it seems to him. He remembers Chanyeol’s schedule, even on the nights he doesn’t work at the club, and he knows that the musician is usually free on those nights; so instead of giving him the keys and leaving him to grow bored back here, he’d much rather entertain him as a special guest at the club –it might be a bit self indulgent too. Baekhyun hasn’t had special guests in a long time, since his brother last visited. Chanyeol ponders for a moment, gazing at Baekhyun with that skeptical look that makes him even more handsome.

“That makes sense, I guess…” he accepts reluctantly, and Baekhyun bristles a little inwardly, even though the decision is according to his wishes; the reasons behind it are not, however, and he’s not sure if he should be mad at himself that he has fed them to Chanyeol, although they did all the work to persuade him in the first place. Why should it make sense that they go together out of convenience, rather than Baekhyun wanting to take Chanyeol on a night out? It’s far more simple and interesting if they call it a date, and Baekhyun is suddenly burning and bursting at the seams to call it as such, even if it’s the last thing he’ll do. He places his elbow on the table with childish stubbornness and rests his head in his hand, his entire body leaning closer to Chanyeol, who blinks at him in confusion.

“So, will you be my date? Please?” he pouts, in the way he knows most cannot resist, hoping this will be the case with Chanyeol as well. It certainly causes a bit of fluster, Baekhyun can recognize as much in the taller’s expression, eyes blinking rapidly and cheeks tinting cherry red, plum lips gaping mutely. So cute, he’ll be the death of me. It’s been forever since Baekhyun wanted someone so much, to the point he spends hours staring at the wall and imagining his lips, his smile, his music, his hands; in another life, he wouldn’t have waited for so long. Chanyeol would have been his already, his little star.

After a couple more efforts, Chanyeol takes a breath and manages to utter out a small “Okay” his large eyes blinking away shyly, lashes fluttering. It’s all the consent Baekhyun needs, a clear and simple agreement to a date he’s been wanting for so long, ever since Jongdae nearly swindled Chanyeol into going with Baekhyun to the countryside, or perhaps ever since he first saw him in daylight at that small café; it’s difficult to determine when his feelings started, when they thrived and how they are defining each of his days, making the rainy sky seem bright and blue for Baekhyun today, and he smiles the widest at that.

“Excellent!” he cheers, shifting back to sit properly in his seat again, his eyes curving so happily he can see his own lashes in his vision; he probably looks unreasonably excited, maybe a bit flushed too, giving himself away, but Chanyeol doesn’t comment on it if he notices, biting his lips cutely as he cuts a piece of his breakfast in his plate, eyes suspiciously focused on it alone. Baekhyun’s heart lurches, inappropriately urging him to lean in again and give Chanyeol a peck on his smooth cheek, like he did for him on his birthday, or maybe nose along the strong line of his jaw and breathe in his scent, searching for a spot that tickles. So much excitement so early in the morning, Baekhyun reprimands himself, but he’s not even listening, his mind prancing down other routes that make him giggle, catching Chanyeol’s attention; he quickly reins in his thoughts and pretends to be innocent under the taller’s gaze, taking another little bite of his french toast while hiding behind it.

~* 15 *~

“The night is too beautiful to be so cold” Baekhyun mumbles, voice languorous and a little wistful, in a way that makes you want to hug him under the stars and blissfully float with him for a while, closer and closer to the moon, just to touch a few more elusive moments of his happiness. His head is resting comfortably on Chanyeol’s shoulder, his weight leaning on him sleepily, eyes looking up at the starry sky, and Chanyeol smiles to himself as he takes off his glove to unlock the door, cold air nipping at his hand.

There are no clouds tonight, every detail of the constellations outlined on the night’s dark velvet like clear-cut diamonds, the city dressed in cyan grays and silver shadows against smooth stones; the moon is too low and curved in the sky to obscure the stars, and the wintry air seems sweeter somehow, wrapping around the skin and embracing you whole in a mellow drowsiness. They have the sky and the night all to themselves, the prim neighboring houses lethargic and quiet at this hour, streetlights flickering weakly, like Baekhyun’s voice whispering you’re so warm close to Chanyeol’s ear before vanishing into the dark. The shorter is curled against his arm, trapping warmth and comfort between them, his red hair tickling the side of Chanyeol’s neck, his sated smile almost touching skin; Chanyeol’s heart thumps at these comfortable moments of intimacy, just as Baekhyun steals them from the world unsuspectingly and paints them in beautiful, quiet notes, only for the two of them to hear –and oh, Baekhyun has been quite the sly little fox tonight, stealing moments, and Chanyeol’s heart along the way.

When Baekhyun invited him to the club this morning over breakfast, Chanyeol thought that, beyond the practical convenience of them returning home together at night, it was mostly a courteous gesture; he’s never been to the club on a night off and he has never enjoyed the spirit and the music of the Pearl as a regular guest, so Baekhyun was looking to spoil him a little with a night free of worries, perhaps to comfort him after his misfortunes in the past few days. He seemed very eager for Chanyeol to accept the offer, even pouting so cutely, and Chanyeol doubted it would be polite to refuse such a personal invitation in any case, so after he finished his classes for the day and freshened up a little, he set course for the Pearl, expecting to be given a seat and a fancy cocktail by the bar, gracefully entertained by Jongdae’s company and music performed by someone else for once. Maybe he envisioned socializing a little, and sitting pretty like he’s seen countless of other patrons do every night in the club, enjoying his drink and his friends’ company without the slightest concern. It all would have been more than enough, complete with a late night walk home with Baekhyun, and a more personal wish goodnight under the same roof.

He didn’t expect, however, Baekhyun staying true to their date agreement and arranging for him the most perfect date he could have hoped for in this lifetime; he didn’t even think much of it when Baekhyun suggested the term, assuming it was another of his endearing persuasion tricks, but he shouldn’t have underestimated him. What Chanyeol got at the Pearl tonight was nothing shy of royal treatment, with a nice table reserved for him near the stage and impeccable service, with cheerful smiles and a couple of knowing winks, even Jongdae subtly flirting as if he hasn’t been rubbing elbows with him every other night for the past few months; the only thing that met his more reasonable expectations was the fancy cocktail, and that he hardly touched throughout the night, the hours blending into a beautiful fractal of lights and songs and wooing smiles.

Chanyeol was a guest of honor for all intents and purposes, and it couldn’t be that Baekhyun wouldn’t keep him company; when he asked why the busy club owner would bother give him so much of his time, he received a cryptic smile and an answer as simple as astonishing –if not you, who else, Mr. Park? The words kept repeating, echoing, picking up into a melody and turning back into a words in Chanyeol’s head all night; he is confident he has never seen Baekhyun give so much of his attention to anyone before, and he felt flustered at first to say the least, but Baekhyun’s easy charm thawed his nervousness eventually, and he enjoyed the night and all its gifts, falling to Baekhyun’s fascinating orbit, like tides swaying in the moonlight.

Baekhyun spent the best part of the night at Chanyeol’s table, sitting next to him and engaging him in easy conversation and delightful smiles that sparkled brighter than the lights. Dressed in a black striped suit that followed every graceful line and elegant move of his body, he looked effortlessly chic and handsome, his playful smirks heartbreaking, his cheerful laughter dazzling; Chanyeol could tell he was happy, responding to his coyness in kind, enjoying his bright mood more than anything else tonight. Although he has to admit, it was quite enjoyable to receive all of Baekhyun’s other little gestures of attentiveness too; his hand brushing affectionately against Chanyeol’s on the table, his smiling eyes softening while listening to Chanyeol in the middle of a conversation, his arms pulling him closer boldly to dance, giggling after Chanyeol stumbled on the dance floor when the crowd was in full swing. It was indulgent, in a way, to have Baekhyun all to himself, and Chanyeol wishes he could experience this night again and again and again.

The lock finally yields under the key and the door opens with a soft click, to a dark room with faint outlines of furniture and the sculpted railing of a staircase. Baekhyun’s lips let out a sigh, his breath brushing under Chanyeol’s ear and tickling the skin, making him blush, but he pretends it’s the cold kiss of the night that stains his cheeks red. His side feels oddly empty without Baekhyun’s weight against him, a feature he got used to on their way here from the club, down quiet streets of stones and sleeping neighborhood gardens; he bites the inside of his cheek at the unpleasant feeling of gravity changing, and of Baekhyun’s hand slipping out of Chanyeol’s warm hold.

“It’s so cold in here too” Baekhyun murmurs drearily in disappointment when he steps inside the house, right hand flipping the light switch mechanically as he slips off his shoes. Chanyeol follows him inside, the promising warmth of the space against his skin feeling very slight; it’s not as cold as the slumbering street outside, but it doesn’t meet their expectations for comfort once they close the door behind them. Baekhyun leaves his expensive shoes in the entrance way messy as they are, sock clad feet heading for the stairs; he doesn’t even take his coat off first, its long tail wavering after him as he disappears up the staircase.

Chanyeol stays behind, locking the door and taking off his shoes, taking his time tidying both pairs in the doorway next to one another. He takes off his coat and hangs it neatly inside the small closet space under the stairs, next to the colorful array of luxurious, shorter coats Baekhyun stores in there, except for the one he is wearing each night. His eyes fall onto the white camellia on the lapel of his coat as he smoothes down the fabric, the small flower stolen innocently out of the bouquet arrangement at their table and given to him by Baekhyun earlier, for no apparent reason; the saxophonist’s heart rate spikes at the memory of Baekhyun’s charming smile, which provided reason enough for him to accept it. His gaze shifts and he bites his smile a little, noticing the way his coat nearly sweeps the floor in comparison to Baekhyun’s shorter ones, the size difference endearing.

He doesn’t waste any more time thinking to himself when he could be in so much better company, and he swiftly climbs up the stairs to find Baekhyun, his eyes adjusting to the light as it dims behind him; it’s still enough to spot Baekhyun in the narrow lobby though, the engraved white tapestry of the wall contrasting his form, dressed in black. His coat and suit jacket are tossed onto the stylish armchair next to the round, mahogany drawing table, and there is an artistic, effortless quality in the picture of Baekhyun’s nonchalance, his house subtly luxurious, yet welcoming and humble. The man himself is currently tinkering with something behind one of the decorative frames on the wall, his eyes glinting like a cat’s in the dark when he finishes and turns to Chanyeol.

“It should be warm soon, I’m sorry” he says quietly, eyes looking so innocent as they blink up at the taller, dark lashes outlining their adorably droopy shape; it’s like he has shed an entire armor with his coat, looking so much more lithe and soft in the darkness, comfortable in his space and approachable, so temptingly within reach.

“It’s okay” Chanyeol assures him with a smile that flashes in the dark, feeling grateful for the thoroughly enjoyable night and the gracious hospitality –no need for apologies on any counts. Besides, in his very vivid recollections from the past day, Baekhyun has provided him with a warm, fluffy blanket at the spacious guestroom, which Chanyeol more than happily snuggled all night yesterday, and woke up this morning feeling more rested than he’s felt in weeks, quite content that the blanket was hugging him while shielding him from the winter’s cold. Baekhyun’s expression shifts in the shadows as he gazes at the taller in silence, his eyes turning sharper, his lips tugging into a lopsided smile.

“You look good in blue” he unexpectedly compliments Chanyeol naturally, as if he can see the color of Chanyeol’s suit in the darkness just as well as he could see it for the rest of the night under bright lights; it’s impossible, which means Baekhyun had been keeping that compliment in store for a while now, and Chanyeol blushes shyly, thankful for the guise of the night, hiding his colors. He is sure he’d look embarrassingly red had Baekhyun told him sooner; he only has two suits available in the first place, the only clothes he had time to pack with his music notes, but he is inwardly glad Baekhyun finds him appealing in them at least.

The darkness can’t hide the self-conscious silence, giving away Chanyeol’s bashfulness, and Baekhyun’s body sways slightly, rocking on his heels, his eyes crinkling and his lips letting out a quiet chuckle, as if he can guess exactly how flustered Chanyeol looks in the shadows, finding it the most amusing thing in the world. The saxophonist feels a strange beat on his heart, regardless of his embarrassment, falling victim to the husky notes of Baekhyun’s voice; you’d think his heart would know better after an entire night of Baekhyun toying with it in his gentle hands.

“Would you like some tea?” Baekhyun asks then, changing the subject unpredictably once more, and Chanyeol flinches in surprise, but agrees to it easily; there’s no hour for tea, and he could use something warm and relaxing after the monumentally exciting night he’s had. With a responding small nod of his head, Baekhyun steps into the common areas of the house first, navigating to the kitchen ahead, seemingly confident that Chanyeol is following close behind; he still looks for him, however, when he turns on the lights in the kitchen area, his round, searching eyes meeting gazes with the taller and then flashing a small smile, before he proceeds to put the kettle on.

Chanyeol discovers there is a covert, highly fulfilling pleasure in watching Baekhyun as he moves around the kitchen, each gesture certain and choreographed confidently, like a ballet dancer on a stage he knows like the back of his hand, only he has something more relaxed and fluid about him, his silhouette outlined beautifully in each turn and bend, with the supple comfort of domesticity. He is not wearing a vest tonight, black suspenders running up his chest and down the centre of his back over the pressed white fabric of his shirt instead, his tapered waist enhanced in the stark contrast between his shirt and black slacks like a thin ring. His figure is sculpted beautifully in flesh, broad shoulders and flaring hips, his forearms exposed under his rolled-up sleeves, skin fair and tender, long lines ending in polished, elegant fingertips. Baekhyun is physically very desirable, bringing men and women to their knees, even when his attitude is so candid, and Chanyeol finds his eyes more deliberately interested than he’d thought.

But it’s the smaller details that really entrance Chanyeol; the way Baekhyun sets the teacup handles on the same side, the short stretch to his tiptoes as he reaches for something in his pantry and the excited smile when he finds it, the little giggle to himself when he lays out meringue puffs for both of them, saying they are for sweet dreams, and the way his eyes curve a little more, almost shy, whenever he glances at Chanyeol and consistently finds him standing by the breakfast bar, watching him silently. Baekhyun looks content beyond words can capture, subtle yet beautiful like the glow of a distant star, dancing on the edge of his lips and jumping to his cheeks, smoothing around the moon curves of his eyes and sliding down to the tip of his nose, dusting it pink. There are shimmering flames in his hazel eyes, absolutely gorgeous, and Chanyeol loses his breath when their gazes meet, surrendering the last fortress of his heart tonight.

Chanyeol likes Baekhyun, like this, unguarded and a little naïve, but most of all happy.

After Baekhyun fishes out the teabags, deeming everything is ready, he picks up the cups in their meringue-adorned plates and carries them out of the kitchen; but, instead of settling down beside Chanyeol to enjoy their warm drink, he passes him by with poise, and Chanyeol is left with no choice but to spin on his heel and follow him curiously, towards the dark living room.

“Where are we going?” he asks, half a step behind and looking over Baekhyun’s shoulder, puzzled but careful as can be with his step, in the unfamiliar, murky –and very fragile– surroundings, that probably cost a small fortune objectively. Baekhyun glances over his shoulder confidently, hands full and eyes brimming with twinkling promises, a small smile playing on his lips.

“Stargazing” he answers simply, voice a whisper, like those bubbling with the excitement under the white petals of shy moonflowers. Chanyeol is still bewildered and disoriented, but the darkness hides his concerned frown from Baekhyun and he chooses not to elaborate, following him quietly for the short remaining distance, observing him as he navigates in the half-dark seamlessly and trying to stay behind his lead. Baekhyun sets down the cups on the coffee table in the living room and invites Chanyeol to take a seat like a perfect gentleman, courteous smile noticeable even in the dark; Chanyeol feels the short touch of graceful fingers brushing over his arm, before Baekhyun disappears to the kitchen again, to his own, incomprehensible devices.

He decides to humor Baekhyun in these late night escapades, having faith in his plans after the wonderful night he has already had thanks to him, so he tentatively takes the proffered seat, the closest to him being the upholstered armchair. Its velvet fabric feels soft under his hands, cushions comfortable, but no sooner has he sat down, than the few dim lights that there were in the house go out completely, the kitchen switch clicking off. The difference it makes is not great, but Chanyeol still struggles to see in the dark, squinting his eyes in the general direction Baekhyun disappeared to and contemplating on taking his chances at crossing the shadows to find him, in case this total darkness was not intentional. With worries in mind, he nearly gets a heart attack when a shuffling noise comes from somewhere close, his eyes wide and frantic on the shapeless figures around him, watching the heavy curtain move and not registering the movement; it takes a beat of sheer panic further until he realizes Baekhyun is moving it, swiftly pulling the dark fabric aside, to reveal floor to ceiling windows in front of Chanyeol.

And now he understands what Baekhyun meant by stargazing, because there is a magnificent view of the night sky outside, unobstructed by the neighboring buildings and artificial lights, draping over the biggest part of the glass panels on the wall. The sky looks deep blue in color, stretching far and infinite, with glittering mists swimming in its depths. The streetlights are too poor to compare to the massive radiance of millions of stars, decorating each corner of the sky in elaborate patterns and flickering silver sparks that break through the darkness of the universe; there is the thin crescent of a waning moon leaning towards the horizon, surrounded in pale lilac and violet peplums over the midnight blue, outlined sharply in the cold, cloudless air. A gentle, silver radiance is filtering through the glass of the windows, slipping over the edges of the furniture and pooling on faint colors, giving Chanyeol a sense of direction.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Baekhyun says quietly, a smile coloring his voice as he approaches the taller, cup of tea in hand, and takes a seat on the armrest, perching on the same armchair as Chanyeol and leaning his back in the space next to him comfortably; he could have picked any other seat in the living room to look out the window, but he chose to slip into that narrow space beside him. Something stirs in Chanyeol’s stomach at the thought, but he ignores it. He brings his own cup to his lips instead, stealing one glance at Baekhyun over the rim, and the shorter seems perfectly comfortable with the proximity, bodylines lax and graceful beside him, so Chanyeol convinces himself to relax in his seat too and enjoy the night.

He has no words to describe the sky tonight, hypnotized by the playful winks of small stars behind brighter ones, marveling at the graceful way they are scattered against the firmament; like drops of silver dew, or tiny diamonds no one can reach, lanterns for the lost and for the dreamers, promises for the romantics and the lovers. The brightest of them all is reigning peacefully over the west, with its crown of steadfast silver glimmers surrounding it, but it is lonely in its magnificence, orchestrating the rest of the stars in the sky from afar, being so close and yet so distant to them. It’s been a long time since Chanyeol placed his last childhood wish upon that star, but he has not forsaken it since, turning his eyes to it for hope and comfort on long nights, like the smile of an old friend; he wonders if he still has a wish left, if there are things he can still wholeheartedly entrust to the universe.

Chanyeol feels like he had missed stargazing, always too tired to turn his eyes to the sky, and the minutes slither peacefully, like the shadows gliding over the rim of his teacup where his lips touch, the bittersweet drops slowly diminishing in their cups. The nocturnal tranquility shrouding them is punctuated by the occasional deep sigh, both of them feeling tired and a bit more drowsy than before, as the temperature turns more comfortable in the room, lulling the senses; but Chanyeol doesn’t want to go to sleep yet, he doesn’t want to let go of the night, even in these final notes of silence, clinging to their echo like the last note of a song. The dawn delays across the sea, and Chanyeol’s eyes flutter close, his chest feeling so absolutely full tonight; he tries to engrave his memories and feelings to the stars, borrowing their silver ink and writing invisibly, just for the moonflowers to know.

“Thank you for staying up with me so late” Baekhyun’s voice flows into his reverie like a shower of petals in the wind, creating little loops and circles on smooth waters where they land. Chanyeol opens his eyes and looks up at him, finding Baekhyun’s face much closer than he had expected; with the way he is curled up next to him on the armrest, they’ve managed to come closer without even realizing. Chanyeol forgets what he’d been meaning to say, all thoughts and senses lingering at the shy space between them, his nose mere centimeters away from Baekhyun’s lips, Baekhyun’s soft hair sweeping close to his forehead, his scent warm and heady. He is not wearing his bowtie anymore, the first buttons of his shirt undone, and Chanyeol’s eyes fortuitously focus on Baekhyun’s softly smiling lips, on the small mole in the upper corner, smooth skin flowing down to his neck, elegant lines disappearing under the collar; he can see every breath, subtly stirring his chest, and the tiny wrinkle when Baekhyun’s smile twitches.

“You’ll miss the stars if you keep staring at me” he muses, the corners of his eyes curling adorably, fueling Chanyeol’s heart to beat faster and louder in his chest, each beat so hard that Baekhyun can probably hear it too. He feels gravely flustered when Baekhyun points out his fairly obvious scrutiny, but he can’t bring himself to look away, when Baekhyun is so invitingly close, so alluring and innocently unraveled for Chanyeol’s eyes alone.

“I don’t mind” he whispers quietly, lips moving without permission to articulate an even more incriminating answer, a small voice in his head wailing in distress that he is being so awfully inappropriate and he’s going to ruin everything; but Baekhyun’s gaze softens at his words, his smile looking more pleased than anything, furtively flattered instead of offended. He doesn’t choose to move away, staying near and open to Chanyeol’s wandering gaze, bearing himself vulnerable with no pretense. And he is so beautiful. The starlight is faint and pale, but it suits him tonight, his skin glowing silver, like the tips of his hair; it has curled a little at the front, since the smooth, combed style it had at beginning of the night, but it’s perfectly imperfect like this, the color a deep shade of red, like dark wine. There is an utterly lovely curve on the shape of his lips, and his lashes flutter whenever Chanyeol looks into his eyes, their hazel color obscured; but Chanyeol can see an entire universe reflected in those eyes, catching the twinkling fragments of faraway starlight in his orbs, soft and gentle, glowing on his expression.

There is something in his gaze, a longing or perhaps a wish, a secret perching on the edge of his smile as he gazes into Chanyeol’s eyes. He blinks slowly and hesitates for a moment, but the touch of his hand soon feels warm on Chanyeol’s jaw, careful and reverent; his fingertips slide over the bone, as light as a butterfly’s wings, curious and searching. Baekhyun’s eyes follow his touch as he smoothes his fingers down Chanyeol’s neck, dipping slightly under the collar and then coming back up again, calmly tracing curlicues at the hollow behind his ear. He takes his sweet time exploring, chasing the starlight and the shadows on Chanyeol’s skin, grazing his fingertips over the shell of his ear and then following the structure of his cheekbone, teasing the skin on his cheek with little affectionate strokes. His eyes lift above Chanyeol’s gaze, as he swipes his index finger over his forehead and eyebrow, and Chanyeol closes his eyes, staying perfectly still while Baekhyun maps the hollow around his lashes, his touch ghostly, wispy on the tips of his eyelashes and slow over the lines in the corner’s of Chanyeol’s eyes.

The taller opens his eyes again to a small smile of amusement on Baekhyun’s face, as he slides his index finger down the bridge of Chanyeol’s nose, drawing a small circle at the tip, as if there is something cute about it. His finger then jumps to his chin, hooking under it and rhythmically curling against the tip, teasing the skin and spurring on the butterflies in Chanyeol’s stomach. He seems to be enjoying every second of his inspection, every little blush and tiny expression on Chanyeol’s face, eyes hooded and full of wonder, eventually dropping to Chanyeol’s lips; they fix on them more intently, slowly darkening with indecipherable, consuming thoughts.

Chanyeol feels the slight pressure under his chin, Baekhyun’s finger guiding his head back a little, and he obediently tilts his head till it rests against the back of the armchair. Baekhyun’s fingers turn more careful now, as if he’s trying not to break something fragile, as the soft pads of his fingers risk a touch on Chanyeol’s lips; his index finger leisurely runs over the outline of his upper lip, then gently traces the lower, other fingers dipping into the corners and tugging down the most plush curve of Chanyeol’s lips slightly, to watch his mouth turn pliant and part a little. Baekhyun’s focused eyes flood with dark fire at the sight of the full, plump shape of Chanyeol’s lips, and the taller’s eyes drop to Baekhyun’s lips in a daze, also parted and breathing out hot puffs of air slowly, a slight sheen over their pale color in the moonlight tempting him for a forbidden kiss.

“Chanyeol?” the very same lips call in hushed tones, curling around his name beautifully, letting out the most appealing notes, tinged with something more potent and yearning than innocence; Chanyeol’s breath hitches, and Baekhyun’s eyes flicker up to meet his, holding Chanyeol’s gaze with the molten, hypnotizing lure of dripping chocolate. Chanyeol’s head fills with Baekhyun’s perfume as he leans closer, noses brushing, lashes fluttering, until he is breathing against Chanyeol’s lips. “May I…steal a kiss?” he asks so softly, a little hesitant, his mouth close enough for Chanyeol to feel the words against his lips better than he can hear them; he is conscious of Baekhyun’s hand still holding his jaw delicately, his touch making his heart jump in his chest, threatening to fly out of his mouth if he makes a sound.

It takes the slightest nod of Chanyeol’s head for Baekhyun to lean in completely, lips meeting in a calm touch, pressed tenderly together. Baekhyun’s lips are even softer than they seem, warm and strangely sweet, slotting perfectly against Chanyeol’s more plump ones. The kiss is chaste, hearts beating fast and floating in the clouds, and Chanyeol blushes at Baekhyun’s gentleness, his actions speaking louder than words; he is kissing Chanyeol as if telling him he is the most treasured creature in existence for him, as if he is trying not to scare him, pouring his affection in a small, pure kiss. It ends too soon, Baekhyun pulling back a bit unwillingly, lips jamming together for a second, and Chanyeol’s eyes flutter open slowly, blinking up at Baekhyun bashfully; he hasn’t been kissed in a long time, and he feels uncertain, not knowing what to expect from Baekhyun next. His heart grips uncomfortably for a torturous second of unbearable insecurities, but the tension melts a little when he sees Baekhyun’s lips curling in a slow, satisfied smile, absolutely sinful. Chanyeol flushes a deep rose color, thinking those lips were touching his a moment ago; Baekhyun’s lips.

Baekhyun kissed him.

“It’s sweet” the shorter whispers, claiming Chanyeol’s attention before he has time to fully process the consequences, keeping him bound to the spell his heart and senses are under at the moment. Baekhyun’s words cling to the corner of Chanyeol’s mouth, and his pink tongue darts out distractedly to lick his lips, as if his own words are begging for confirmation; the movement is too close to Chanyeol’s lips, Baekhyun’s tongue almost touching them, teasing. Chanyeol bites his lower lip to hold back a whimper, his head swimming, the sugared aftertaste of the meringues and the natural sweetness of Baekhyun’s lips imprinted on his. Baekhyun’s thumb strokes the rim of Chanyeol’s lower lip, just at the corner, making him reflexively release the flesh from his teeth, lips parting unintentionally, inviting Baekhyun’s breath. “You’re so beautiful” Baekhyun tells him, his words carrying a heartfelt confession, so sincere that Chanyeol feels the words flow inside his heart like soothing drops of affection, flooding his cheeks in the most pleasant way. His lips twitch into a small smile, shy from the praise, the blood humming in his veins content, and Baekhyun smiles too, mirroring the expression spontaneously at this proximity.

A pair of hazel eyes drift back to Chanyeol’s, a bit more focused and sober now, but still fuzzy with a blissful feeling; he chuckles breathlessly, letting everything sink in unhurriedly, and the sound urges a small scoff of a giggle out of Chanyeol too, helpless to refuse the eyes smiling at him and twinkling with mischief, in the most adorable way that fills Chanyeol’s heart impossibly more, his happiness expanding like the stars in the sky. There is a warm hand searching for his, Baekhyun holding it in his gently once he finds it, but he doesn’t take the invitation to lace their fingers, guiding the taller’s hand to his waist instead; Chanyeol freezes a little, flustered to be touching Baekhyun so intimately, but Baekhyun is certain of what he wants, confidently pressing Chanyeol’s hand against the slender curve of his body to anchor his touch there, eyes curving into eyesmiles. It is only a small prelude, and Chanyeol is given only a short moment to adjust, before Baekhyun slithers down from the armrest and nestles onto Chanyeol’s lap, his weight resting comfortably on Chanyeol’s legs, his warm presence crowding the space inside Chanyeol’s personal bubble.

It should be unsettling, scandalously provocative and forward as it is, but the tension oddly vanishes once Baekhyun settles down, the two of them fitting like puzzle pieces; neither is used to such physical expressions of intimacy, so they take their time getting accustomed to the pleasing proximity between them, observing each other closely, curious. Chanyeol’s hands tentatively perch on the sides of Baekhyun’s waist, his body feeling warm and dainty under the crisp material of his shirt, and Baekhyun seems comfortable with the touch, biting his lips and exploring the boundaries too, slowly smoothing his hands over Chanyeol’s shoulders, round his collar and over his pectorals, a wicked smile escaping him when he feels Chanyeol shivering at the touch. He leans in a little closer, lips curving into a softer smile when Chanyeol tilts his head so that their noses won’t bump, as if to him Chanyeol is the most endearing little thing in the world; his weight shifts invitingly on Chanyeol’s legs, his deft fingers seductively caressing and drawing loops on the underside of Chanyeol’s jaw and down his neck, searching for his weak spots, measuring each little breath and goose bump. He seems distracted though, because he keeps on leaning closer, as if there is something pulling him in, until his nose is almost touching Chanyeol’s cheek, his lashes quivering as he blinks down at the taller’s lips, his breath warm against them.

“Your kiss is sweet” he mumbles, right before his lips land on the lower right corner of Chanyeol’s mouth, so warm and soft, in an inquisitive, intentionally misguided kiss. “Your lips” Baekhyun mumbles again, drawing back the slightest bit before placing a kiss on the upper right corner –and Chanyeol catches onto his little game, chuckling quietly but trying to stay still. Baekhyun smiles when he pulls back this time, heavy-lidded eyes and voracious interest never leaving Chanyeol’s mouth, even though his kisses are always gentle. “Your laugh” he says, kissing the next upper corner. “Your voice” he says more quietly than before, closing the circle with Chanyeol’s lower left lip, lingering a little, as if he has just found his favorite spot; Chanyeol kisses back the slightest bit he can, unable to resist the little mole over Baekhyun’s lip being right on target between his lips. He smiles after Baekhyun pulls back, his body heavy but his heart light as in a dream; Baekhyun gets uncharacteristically shy at the sight of his smile, maybe a little at the hint of a kiss too, the loveliest pink blush dusting his cheeks invisibly in the dark as he blinks bashfully. He dips his head to hide in Chanyeol’s shoulder, nuzzling over his shirt affectionately, and Chanyeol rubs comforting circles on his shirt, right next to the suspender strip on Baekhyun’s back.

They stay like this for long moments, the stars washing their light over them quietly, like gentle waves against the windows, soothing and calm. Baekhyun is resting comfortably against him, tired and sleepy but thrumming with a tame, sated happiness, his red hair fanning over Chanyeol’s shoulder, eyes blinking slowly. His hand is absently rubbing up and down Chanyeol’s bicep, and it’s a little tingly as far as sensations go, but Baekhyun’s weight against him anchors him to a much more serene reality. Baekhyun seems so peaceful, in a different way than before, breathing against him, breathing him in, as if he has found the place he’s been chasing all night, making up for the lost time by cuddling against Chanyeol sweetly; he might be shorter but he is by no means small, and Chanyeol likes how his limbs fill all the spaces against Chanyeol’s body, connecting seamlessly as if they were once made for this.

But Chanyeol’s mind turns down darker paths the longer he gazes at the unbound sky, thinking of the two of them outside of these moments, when the magic of the stars will be over, when they will have to live with a kiss that will forever hurt them, reminding them of what they could never have. Baekhyun can’t afford the liberty of such affections and Chanyeol cannot uncover the beautiful words and confessions left unsaid between them all this time. His heart is twisting painfully at the consequences, he can hear it screaming and aching, wilting in his chest like a crushed flower, and it feels like he might never breathe again if he doesn’t embrace his fears; it only makes him dread worse that a night as beautiful as this amongst the stars will have to be caged cruelly in regret. At least he can have something to hold onto if he speaks now. “Baekhyun?” he mumbles uncertainly, his heart palpitating in discomfort.

“Yes?” Baekhyun answers readily, voice soft, his hand travelling up Chanyeol’s shoulder and skittering up his neck to the angle of his jaw, holding him caringly as he lifts his head to place a tender kiss on Chanyeol’s other cheek, giving him his attention in every way, encouraging him, spoiling him, wanting him; it feels like he does, under his touch and his every kiss, even if it’s against the odds to hope that his feelings run so deep for someone like Chanyeol, that his heart is just as bound as Chanyeol’s.

Chanyeol closes his hand around Baekhyun’s wrist affectionately and then lets his fingers trace over the tenderly exposed skin of his forearm as if he’s playing music, smooth as satin under his touch; it’s intimate like he might never have the chance again, to touch Baekhyun where his skin is weak and feel him shiver in his hold, play melodies against him and feel his warmth in contact. He doesn’t dare lift his eyes to glance at him, but he knows Baekhyun is waiting for him patiently, sensing his concern and kissing his cheek again, as if to remind him that he’s here, that they are together. Chanyeol trusts him in this moment with everything he has, and he finds the courage to quietly ask “What are we doing?”

There is a moment of stillness, so short and so terrifying, as if he’s suspended on a cliff over a raging sea, waiting to embrace him in its darkest depths; Baekhyun pulls back calmly, just enough to lift his head and look at Chanyeol in the eye, demanding his gaze until he is certain that Chanyeol is looking all the way to his soul. His hand lingers on Chanyeol’s neck, as if he’s afraid to let him go, and it gives Chanyeol hope that they can salvage this little flower, softly blooming between them in the quietest hours of darkness.

“We are stealing a night; just one night” Baekhyun says, and it sounds like a promise, his voice serious and fearless, soothing Chanyeol’s worries, playing the right melody for him. His eyes are fathomless as he looks into Chanyeol’s, reaching to his heart and tying it with silver strings, caressing it in tender hands, embracing it in loving arms; Chanyeol can see now that they don’t need artful confessions, they never did. The feeling is already there, taking shelter under the deeper roots of their hearts, and growing into a beautiful flower, safe from the world. Gazing deep in Baekhyun’s eyes, Chanyeol feels reassured that at least they have tonight, one night to remember and cherish in this shy, shared love, his heart fluttering at the inadvertent confession that his feelings are reciprocated.

His lips curl into a tiny smile, meek but unmistakably content, and Baekhyun allows himself a small smile too, knowing his message has reached across to Chanyeol, like little candle flames flickering in longing across from each other and then unsuspectingly tilting closer. Chanyeol feels at ease once more, his heart floating under the stars again, and the corners of Baekhyun’s smile relax into a pleased, illegal smirk. His hands are playing with Chanyeol’s ears, stroking the shell, massaging the lobe, tracing lightly over every line until they turn red, the color slowly sipping through to Chanyeol’s cheeks; his hand leisurely caresses once, up and down Baekhyun’s back, too restless to stay still –and he is awed at the feeling of Baekhyun’s spine arching under the touch like a cat, inch by inch of stretching pleasure. Baekhyun melts in his embrace right after when his body relaxes, chest falling flush against Chanyeol’s and echoing the beat of his excited heart.

“Kiss me again, before tomorrow comes” Baekhyun whispers, stealing the breath right from Chanyeol’s lips, his fingers tangling in the musician’s raven hair, pressing against his scalp just right. It’s a compelling invitation on which Chanyeol wouldn’t mind elaborating, so he smiles and starts leaning closer –but he freezes midway, eyebrows frowning, eyes blinking away the daze for one second of stark lucidity.

“Do I have to give up on you when tomorrow comes?” he asks, fearing to speak the words too loud, his heart trembling the possibility of imminent heartbreak, but still so willing to fall. Baekhyun blinks at his question and his gaze seems to clear too, his expression turning serious, eyes previously hooded now looking up at Chanyeol perfectly round.

“Never give up on me” he rasps, in a tone Chanyeol hadn’t heard from him in a long while; it’s a cross of insecurity and vulnerability, fear and longing mixed in strange notes. It makes Chanyeol want to reach out to him and protect him, promise him whatever his heart desires and committing to it, regardless of the consequences; he doesn’t care if it shreds his heart to pieces in the end, as long as he can be a star in Baekhyun’s sky, carrying wishes and promises, and a new kiss on awaiting lips.

Chanyeol’s kiss is all the answer Baekhyun needs, the taller’s gentle lips met with relieved ones, pressing against his softly, as if he is Baekhyun’s first breath of air. It’s still chaste and curious, exploring with little tilts of the head and shyly inviting, parted lips, pecked on the edges instead. Baekhyun’s hand caresses Chanyeol’s hair lovingly, while his other hand reaches for Chanyeol’s again, this time guiding it from his waist, over his hip and to his thigh, warm and supple under Chanyeol’s hand; he doesn’t notice right away, with Baekhyun distracting him and baiting him with little kisses that massage against Chanyeol’s lips a little before letting go. It takes an absentminded stroke of his thumb against Baekhyun’s clothes for Chanyeol to realize, the cloth different to the one of his shirt, and his eyes flutter open a little, especially at the choked whine behind Baekhyun’s lips, lithe fingers curling slowly against Chanyeol’s chest, nails scratching over his shirt. He doesn’t get to ask Baekhyun if he’d rather stop, because Baekhyun answers him anyway, bumping his nose against Chanyeol’s with a smile, a playfully affectionate gesture, their breaths mingling before their lips attach again and warmth envelops them comfortably.

Baekhyun kisses him longer and longer, until Chanyeol loses count of their kisses, lips turning numb and heart combusting in bliss; it’s always innocent and slightly timid, hands wandering just a little, chasing the night beyond the horizon.

~* 16 *~

The wind is indolent today, whispering amongst tree branches constantly but very seldom scooping down to the ground. It sweeps in capricious gusts, hurtling dry leaves and dust in its wake, artistically dispersing colors on the pavements. Autumn has passed and it is slowly fading into the deep layers of winter; traces of color have almost disappeared, silence has become heavy in the streets, and the gentle pitter patter of the rain drenching the city has given way to cold days under frigid skies. There’s still time left for little walks, the scent of the drizzle subsiding to one of charred wood and frost, leftover leaves crunching underfoot. Even though most trees stand bare against the pale sky, spindly branches curling like blackened wrought iron, stains of amber and vermillion can still be found in splotches of brown on the ground, some tree limbs tinged with yellow and burnt orange fringes. Nature has gone to sleep, and the city is calm further away from the rambunctious centre, unraveling fiery colors against the cold kiss of the wind.

They have been walking for some time into the morning now, strolling past the familiar, busy streets, and into an artfully developed, wealthy area of tended mansions and gardens that has no reason to be lively at this time of day, only a couple of other pedestrians walking indifferently down the avenues and tidy streets; but they soon leave behind the evergreen fences and marble steps too, ambling into a sparsely frequented park. The tall city buildings stand in a jagged skyline in the distance, not always visible due to the vegetation and landscaping in the park. A lady walking her little dog and a gentleman reading his book are the only people they come across near the entrance; just the wind and the mischievous rustling of leaves in the silence greet them the rest of the way. Quiet roads of pebbles leading to picturesque rest areas, stairs shaded by trees clustered on the slopes surrounding the paths and elaborate lanterns that glisten dully in morning dew can be appreciated at this hour, the subtle, unhurried beauty that lies in nature’s stillness sinking in effortlessly. Time seems so inconsequential, that it’s easy to believe into a fragile crystal peace, as if you’re walking through a painting, alone in the world.

Chanyeol has never walked this far in the city before, and he has no idea where they’re going, if anywhere at all. Baekhyun never said where he’d be taking him when he asked Chanyeol to accompany him on a walk this morning, and it didn’t matter, it doesn’t. They both know why they’re on this long walk, and every second they steal away from the world is both blissful and painful. The words linger between them in the silence, they echo frighteningly in every step, they scream in every inaudible sigh leaving Baekhyun’s lips; the glass is cracked from side to side between them, but no one dares break it. Baekhyun might be just as lost in this foreign place, and maybe that was his intension. It’s easier to lose something into the void, than having it mangled and bleeding in places you can look for it every day.

He thinks it’s a sweet gesture, a gentle touch to the inevitable end; bringing Chanyeol here is Baekhyun’s way of alleviating the pain, giving him something beautiful to remember. They don’t have the luxury of parting ways in life, and they can’t undo what’s done; they can only kill it silently, peacefully, mercifully. Watching crimson and copper hues tumble by his feet as they walk down glistening gray stone steps, Chanyeol idly thinks that this is a pretty place for your heart to break.

Baekhyun has been uncharacteristically quiet today; the thrumming energy that usually lurks in his every word and move is subdued, his eyebrow creases with troubling thoughts every now and then, his lips quirk on the verge of words that remain unsaid. He doesn’t look at Chanyeol but he walks beside him dutifully, gazing at the colorful leaves painted against the sky overhead or looking ahead with the resigned, peaceful mien of a man who has accepted his fate. It makes him look older, the lines of his expression sharp and rigid. He looks more simple today, more humanly flawed, in a caramel coat that blends in with the scenery, brown slacks and a white shirt peeking, unbuttoned at the top, over the coat’s collar. Even like this, Baekhyun is part of the painting, part of the beauty, whilst Chanyeol is a smudge of gray, a shadow beside him.

They slow down a bit, strolling completely alone in the area, walking down the path to a rest spot on a spacious slope, where the trees are not very densely grown, allowing a better view. There is a bench of dark wood and black metal, the seat overlooking downhill, svelte trees with naked roots and a carpet of fallen leaves extending till the next path. There is a very large tree close by, the bark rough and weathered, but it still holds some leaves of various warm colors, and Chanyeol walks to the edge of the path, standing under the branches and looking up like a curious child. The sky is dimly illuminated in a graying shade of white and the tree limbs look almost black against it, tangling and bending in sturdy lines; the leaves sway precariously in the breeze and Chanyeol squints, seeing a kaleidoscope of red, burgundy, amber and yellow, almost blending all together into a messy, multi-colored paint stroke. He smiles to himself as the colors play against the light, shoving his cold hands into the pockets of his gray coat.

He has noticed the distance Baekhyun has subtly put between them, keeping himself a few languid steps behind for the first time since this morning, since last night; it’s like gravity suddenly changed.

“Chanyeol?”

The call of his name is soft, gentle and almost meek, but it still feels like a stab to the heart. He closes his eyes for a moment, letting the husky notes of Baekhyun’s voice sink in. Ice looks beautiful fractured and dissolving in pieces, flower petals rain down more gently and softly than snow when blooms die, autumn bleeds so majestically on leaves so they may fall; it is inevitable and irreversible, but there is an unsuspecting collateral beauty in transience that no one can touch or hold onto. We can only smile for the fleeting moment it lasts, and let it go. It’s painful, so sweetly painful.

Chanyeol smiles, and lets it go.

Baekhyun is standing just a few steps away, patient and perfectly still with his hands in his pockets, but it feels like he is swiftly floating away, like a broken shard of ice on water. His expression is utterly tranquil and indecipherable, except for the traces of sadness that cling onto his lashes and make his eyes seem umbrous. Chanyeol is confident that the stoic suffering he can see deep in Baekhyun’s calm gaze is reflected in his own eyes, the irrevocable certainty of what is about to unfold between them stroking his heart comfortingly, but scraping it raw at every touch. He hardly slept last night, thoughts of this moment haunting him till he was too exhausted to fight against it anymore.

They allow several beats of silence pass, savoring each other before things change, helplessly unable to turn back time.

“I can’t fall in love; you know that, right?” Baekhyun says, reaching the end, his voice steady but soft, heavy as the world falling on his shoulders; he doesn’t need to say more, their mutual understanding filling in all the dreaded words that pierce them menacingly, even unsaid. Baekhyun is the braver one, breaking the glass cleanly while keeping his composure, slightly resigned; but Chanyeol knows better. Baekhyun can be blazing fire, scorching to ashes everything on his way, but he can be cold stone too, receiving harsh blows and chipping off, yet never moving; either way, it doesn’t mean he’s not hurting or that he doesn’t care.

He cares deeply, and Chanyeol blinks back each tear because he cares too, and if he does, he has to be strong and not burden Baekhyun with his pain. His lips purse slightly and his hands curl to fists in his pockets, but he keeps his hurt and anger chained; Baekhyun knows, he shares the sentiment, but they can’t stop this moment, they can’t hold onto it, so instead of fighting only to end up with ugly scars, they smile and let go. Baekhyun’s expression melts, lines softening to adoring, vulnerable endearment, and his copper hair gets tussled in the breeze, contrasting against his pale skin. His lips curl into a sad smile, scattered leaves shuffling colorfully on the ground by his feet; it’s the first time Chanyeol sees him so broken in daylight.

“I know” Chanyeol whispers, his voice refusing to come out with his breath, but somehow, he finds the courage to smile a little, wounded but surviving. Some kisses are meant to be forgotten, buried with everything they’re linked to, and this is the place and moment in time that Chanyeol and Baekhyun are sealing the memory, yesterday night feeling so far away already. There is no relief yet, but there is reassurance, closure. When Baekhyun comes forward, Chanyeol is almost expecting it, and he allows the shorter to sneak his hand into his pocket, cold fingers prying his fist open without resistance and linking their hands clandestinely; it’s comfortingly intimate.

“For you, I wish I could” Baekhyun says softly, looking up at Chanyeol, his eyes slightly glassy despite his smile, still pinned on his pink lips. Baekhyun said he can’t fall in love; Chanyeol thinks he already has. Maybe Baekhyun knows it too, because he brings their intertwined fingers to light and kisses the back of Chanyeol’s hand, reverent and final; his lips burn against Chanyeol’s skin, living an invisible mark.

“Someday, you might” the taller says with a soft smile, wistful but struggling to be playful, trying to lighten up the air between them. It might take a while until they find a new normal, but they’ll be in this together. Baekhyun blinks at him and grins wider, a hopeful, open smile that seems more like him, some of his natural radiance returning and sparkling in his curved eyes as he nods subtly. It doesn’t feel like a futile, appeasing lie, and that turns Chanyeol’s resigned smile into a more genuine one, a tiny and shy grin. The way Baekhyun looks at him endearingly and tugs his hand to get them moving again makes Chanyeol’s broken heart skip a beat; that will probably never go away.

“You are the promised kiss of springtime, that makes the lonely winter seem long~” Baekhyun starts humming as they continue their leisurely stroll, hand in hand, the tension no longer looming over their heads. Things come and go like this between them, comfortable and unsuspecting, and Chanyeol smiles, listening to Baekhyun’s gentle voice, holding his hand securely and following him wherever they’d get lost together, singing along in his thoughts.

Someday, my happy arms will hold you and, someday, I’ll know that moment divine…When all the things you are, are mine.

~* 17 *~

On Christmas Eve the club is brimming with sparkling people and champagne. There is a touch of elegance in the crowd, in the way they are dressed in their finest attire and speak in their best voices, soft dialogue and light giggles being exchanged over the pristine rim of a coupe glass. The gentlemen have exchanged their fancy suits for tailored, black and white tuxedos, and the ladies have forsaken their black sequins for long gowns and luxurious furs, matched with elaborate headpieces and expensive jewelry; they look like guests to a royal ball, posed and spiffy like living dolls amongst the velvet tablecloths and crystal vases of dark flowers. The music floats in the warm haze of the lights, weaving through the slow dancing couples, silky and flimsy under the glinting chandeliers, shining brilliantly over every glance and smile and flattering whisper. The celebration tonight is bubbling delicately, like the sparkling wine fizzing lazily in the patrons’ glassware.

The club’s decoration adds just a touch of seasonal joy; there is no ornamented tree like the one Chanyeol remembers from his childhood, the small one he outgrew at the age of twelve, with ribbons that his grandma liked to arrange meticulously. Instead, there are long strings of fairy lights dripping in twinkles around the bar, and festive wreaths of pine with red bows dusted in gold, hanging on every column. The band sparsely plays carols in their repertoire, revised to fit in with their overall music style, and there are dancing couples on the floor for every song, sometimes crowding close and other times twirling unhurriedly just on the edges; Chanyeol has performed on a holiday before, away from home and with a less festive spirit, in formal concerts with opera audiences as bleak as the bare walls of his house, but there is something far more pleasant in the music tonight, notes lived and shared instead of simply echoed by lonely instruments.

If he looks past the vague dim of the stage lights, he can see Jongdae spoiling his customers with crystal glasses of golden wine and cranberry colored cocktails, his sand blond hair combed and styled neatly, a real bowtie wrapped around his neck, paired with his black button down for the occasion; his roguish smiles seem even more intriguing, opposite his exceptional, proper appearance. Servers come and go, polite and swift as always, receiving generous tips from lighthearted patrons for every bottle of champagne they pop, with an accented note of joy resounding each time; the crowd is very giving tonight, in cheer and mirth, in fruity sparkling alcohol, auspicious toasts and praise.

It is a few minutes to midnight, the band is performing something slower, soothing, before the bustling merriment of Christmas hour. The calm pace of the song makes it sound a little more romantic, each word falling from Kyungsoo’s lips in heartfelt emotion, and everyone is admiring the smooth timbre of the singer’s voice more quietly, the sax playing softly in the background; daydreams unravel silently in mesmerized gazes, and fleeting memories spark momentarily before they disappear in courteous smiles amongst the audience. Yixing is playing his sweetest notes, Taemin is shimmering his drums inconspicuously, like the drifting reflections of the lights on champagne glasses, and Kyungsoo dictates the pace of every heartbeat in the room with his lyrics, mellifluous as they swath over the room like a lucid spell.

Chanyeol’s gaze across the room starts habitually ephemeral as he breathes his notes, just to catch a glimpse of the night’s ambiance and rich colors, but he finds himself unintentionally lingering after a short glance at the bar, eyes slowly focusing on the unexpected, marvelous detail that has caught his attention; there is a pair of hazel eyes, glimmering with stray twinkles in the fairy lights, gazing right at him, and Chanyeol is instantly bewitched by Baekhyun’s gentle radiance. The older man looks stunning as ever in his black tuxedo, elegantly designed and modified to fit him like a glove, lapels falling perfectly over his shoulders, his bowtie sitting impeccably straight on his collar; his hair is styled alluringly in a wave over his forehead, shimmering like copper strings, his features sharp and translucent like glass ornaments. He is effortlessly the most dazzling person in the room, softly coaled, green-gray eyes gazing deep and molten, pouty lips sloped more gracefully than any jewel; his expression is serene as he watches Chanyeol play, observing him appreciatively in quiet admiration.

It’s been weeks since that night, and all is going well; they have found a way to go back to how the used to be, or to something similar at least. No one suspects what might have happened that night, an indulgent secret only the stars know about, and sometimes it’s easy for Chanyeol to convince himself it didn’t happen; it could have been a dream, a very real, very beautiful dream, that he might reminisce wistfully from time to time, imagine of Baekhyun’s warmth and softness when the nights are particularly cold, but it all remains locked in the highest towers of his mind, unreachable, unattainable. He sometimes catches Baekhyun’s gaze lingering on him, but it’s only slightly different to how he looked at Chanyeol before, and they can pretend it’s all the same, for just a little while longer, until it will be. In love and heartbreak, Chanyeol and Baekhyun are never really holding on, and they are never really letting go; they keep orbiting around each other, in a dance presumably never-ending –because some things, sometimes are made like that, infinite.

A slow smile curls on Baekhyun’s lips when he realizes he’s been caught staring, pink mouth stretching in a playful, wide grin, and his eyes curve into beautiful crescents, not the least bit shy to avert their gaze; on the contrary, he knowingly sends Chanyeol the most expressive, unrepentant look of fondness, features gentle and glowing, as the lights dim and the world turns more quiet around them. Chanyeol can see him perfectly clear, every dancing spark of the flame in his eyes, every softened coil and press of his lips as Baekhyun mouths along the lyrics of the song, just for the saxophonist to know in a room full of graceful, oblivious strangers.

I’ll be looking at the moon…but I’ll be seeing you~

Chanyeol’s heart does a strange hiccup when Baekhyun winks at him, as if flirting with Chanyeol is a guilty pleasure for him now, before his smirk fades into an unruffled smile, so satisfied and confident, that it takes only one tiny pull of his lips to perch beautifully on the edges of his pout. The musician’s heart beats stronger in his chest, swept into the tender feeling of the song and Baekhyun’s breathtaking, longing gaze, the lights shimmering in his eyes like stars on a moonless lake. Sometimes they are not so good at pretending, but well, it’s almost Christmas, and everyone deserves the gift of love and kindness. When he closes his eyes again, Chanyeol can imagine just the two of them, swaying close to each other on the dance floor, under dim lights and dark stars, as if they’re alone in the world. He can imagine the cadence of Baekhyun’s voice as he’d whisper he same syllables quietly in Chanyeol’s ear, and graceful hands holding him, warm on his waist, as Baekhyun would sway them slowly, charming smile just shy of Chanyeol’s jaw. For a brief moment in time, Chanyeol can imagine the music, the miracles of nights that never pass, but the moment fades with the notes of the song, his last breath chipping his heart.

The applause comes like a rainstorm, escalating quickly and filling the space, sounding as a murmured hum that the band customarily bows to. Chanyeol smiles politely at the figures in the crowd, his eyes wandering idly and unmistakably returning back to Baekhyun, who is swelling with pride as he applauds for his musicians alongside the rest, his smile dazzling and so pure, like midnight snow shimmering in the moonlight; it takes Chanyeol’s remaining breath away, so delightfully smitten, with a hint of awe. It sometimes seems like Baekhyun’s happiness is the sole reason transient, lovely things exist, to put into words the fleeting, joyful emotion that the world bestows upon Baekhyun occasionally; he wishes he could paint more of his smiles, give him unconditional joy and tenderly bright moments every single day, but the years for wishing have long passed for Chanyeol it seems.

The patrons are steadily becoming more ardent as the night progresses, and the excitement rubs off on the musicians, leading to wonderfully soulful performances, like the one they just completed; so Kyungsoo takes another bow, dressed and styled pretty as a doll himself, and Jongin claps more enthusiastically than ever, effortlessly handsome at his special, reserved table. Kyungsoo is happy tonight, and Chanyeol thinks he knows what it feels like, thinking of Baekhyun smiling at him and serenading him in secret. He glances at the bar again, where even Jongdae has stopped pouring drinks to praise the band to the patrons and clap for them loudly beside Baekhyun, his smile genuine and excited. Chanyeol can taste the crowd’s anticipation for the next song, the expectations high for the last one before midnight, and he thinks he catches a hollow sound echoing faintly under the ovation, probably an impatient champagne cork.

But then there’s another, and another, and Chanyeol can’t see anyone really bothering with champagne, even though the sound is starkly clear. It seems more people have noticed too, the crowd somewhat quieting down in inquisitive uncertainty; Chanyeol turns to Jongdae with a slightly perplexed expression, only to turn wary at the reluctant look which has replaced the bartender’s smile. There is a pensive –or perhaps annoyed– frown settled on Baekhyun’s brow as his eyes become set on Ravi, the man appearing swiftly through the door and making quick advance to the bar area; the doorman walks up to the owner of the club, exchanging a few confidential whispers with Baekhyun, and then they both leave for the door with determination, Baekhyun stepping out to the foyer first without so much as a glance to anyone, and Ravi following soon, after explaining something brief to Hongbin. All probing eyes are on the young server now, hungry for information about the unexpected, hollow cracks and Baekhyun’s apparent displeasure.

“It was only a few firecrackers against the wall, no need to worry” the server announces for everyone to hear, his handsome smile reassuring even the most suspicious of minds, his charming, angelic dimples dispersing all questions. “We are so close to Christmas after all; please, enjoy the music” he finishes with a flourish towards the stage, and Yixing is already playing the prelude to a song, as the patrons fall back to their former, cheerful interactions, letting themselves be entertained and spoiled, free of qualms and queries.

The moment ends like it never happened, the staff returning to their tasks with sweet smiles and pleasing music. Chanyeol plays his saxophone in time, charming the patrons smoothly, even if he only halfheartedly believes in Hongbin’s explanation, nagging at the back of his thoughts; on one hand, it might as well be true, and Baekhyun is needed outside to inspect the damage. On the other hand, all the staff knows Hongbin is the best liar of them all, and if something was wrong, he’d be the man to cover it up. But the show must go on if Baekhyun said so, and Chanyeol performs his integral part in it flawlessly, Yixing’s piano and his own saxophone making the most melodious introduction to Kyungsoo’s voice, luring people to the dance floor. Many couples are soon twirling to Kyungsoo’s playful song, an uplifting dance piece they thought would be perfect before the faster tunes they have prepared for the celebration after midnight. It seems their choice is widely commended, because almost everyone has invited each other to dance, if not on the crowded dance floor, then on the sides and corners in-between the tables, wide smiles and laughter floating with the music in the air.

Chanyeol still can’t help but feel his gut twisting the longer seconds tick by without Baekhyun in sight.

“Hey, Chanyeol?” the call of his name is subtle, but startling and unusual mid-performance, and the saxophonist spins to face the side of the stage instantly, feeling his stomach kick uncomfortably. He sees Hongbin, signaling him to come closer with an indecipherable expression, and Chanyeol shuffles to the edge cautiously, as discreetly as he can, considering he is part of tonight’s focal point of entertainment. He peers down at the server anxiously once he is mostly hidden behind the drummer, and Hongbin unexpectedly takes him by the hand, guiding him down the stairs without explaining; Chanyeol is confused to be removed from the stage in the middle of a song, but he senses greater worries in the server’s unusual behavior. “They need you outside, I’ll take you there, just pretend to be dancing with me” he instructs calmly, looking at Chanyeol in the eye and adding a dimpled smile at the end for show. Chanyeol feels instantly alarmed, his heart squeezing in his chest, but he tries to remain composed as he sets his saxophone aside at the back of the stage and accepts Hongbin’s arms around him.

They pretend to dance and twirl, while in fact taking uneasy steps across the room, smiling and greeting people as they pass; it’s difficult for Chanyeol to act natural with his heart in his mouth, but he tries to keep his thoughts slow and under control. He has a strange, looming feeling that this dance is the one dance he was never meant to have, his heart gulping blood uneasily in his veins. Beautiful people are sparkling all around and it’s as if everything in his vision is in slow motion, music echoing, smiles frozen, shadows creeping out under shuffling shoes; every step is leading him to the ominous corner of the double doors, where the lights are dimmer and the cold slips inside, a gray area that feels barren compared to the vibrant atmosphere inside the club. He loses his footing, almost stumbling in fright the moment they reach the doors and a gust of cold air clutches his being; Hongbin nudges one side open and pushes Chanyeol through with no sign of hesitation, shutting the door after him in one seamless, swift motion that no one would suspect.

Chanyeol winces at the sudden change, his knees shaking and his feet almost taking another dancing step, albeit in an unwilling, terrified mood. Wet touches of arctic air blooming on his skin is the first sign of discomfort, needles making his legs numb and turning his knees to jelly, his entire body feeling like it’s hanging on loose strings. He coughs, feeling sick, and he presses a hand on his mouth to keep down the bile suddenly rising to his throat; he feels so inexplicably upset that it’s almost dizzying, like he can’t breathe enough, and his body is too heavy to move. The soft lights of the empty entrance hall blur, and he has to lean against the doors behind him to stay on his feet; the music sounds like dull thuds through the door, and his heart feels like it is buried in flames, the rest of his body growing weak and cold. A pensive figure standing by the arched main door spins around when Chanyeol coughs again, his lungs hurting, and before he knows it, Ravi is standing beside him, a warm hand squeezing his shoulder.

“Are you okay?” the man asks worriedly, dark eyes peering at Chanyeol’s ghastly expression, and it’s like his voice brings the whole world back into focus, screeching and rumbling, shapes falling into place. The Pearl’s door is open to the winds sweeping over the snowed streets outside, and it’s very quiet all around, except for the whispery notes behind the closed doors. Chanyeol shakes his head to dismiss the doorman’s alarmed question, feeling slightly more coherent now, and he makes an effort to stand straight on unsteady feet; there’s still a knot in his stomach but he can’t afford to faint now, not before he finds out what happened, why he’s been excluded, or where Baekhyun has mysteriously disappeared to in the middle of the festive night. Ravi gives him a good look, still uncertain of his wellbeing, but Chanyeol glares back with a relentless hurricane that needs answers, and the doorman lets him be, exhaling slowly and straightening his posture, his fingers twitching on Chanyeol’s shoulder.

Have you ever experienced that split second of gut wrenching revulsion before the bubble of ignorance that has been keeping you safe bursts?

“He’s been asking for you” Ravi says quietly, serious and full of hidden words in his taciturn simplicity, looking at Chanyeol in the eye with a struggling composed look, voice steady but frightened to the trembling leaves of his heart.

That’s the deafening, bloodcurdling scream the bubble lets out in Chanyeol’s head, with a vicious stab of sheer horror to his soul.

“What?” he gasps under his breath, his thoughts too dismayed to make sense of the puzzle pieces, hardly recognizing the words coming out of Ravi’s mouth. He frowns, trying to ignore the ground spinning under his feet, and he focuses on the man’s lips, in case he can read the words better; but all he reads are anxiousness and torment on the small, sad quirk of the doorman’s lips, and Chanyeol’s eyes fly up to lock the man’s gaze, demanding and unyielding. He tries to hunt down the thoughts juggling in his head and make sense of them, his heart thudding in his ears and not helping the situation one bit, unnerving him even further.

“Chanyeol” Ravi starts, voice gentle and pacifying, yet tinged with a macabre solemnity that makes the saxophonist’s fist tighten in discomfort. “I need you to stay calm; there’s been an accident” he says, placing his hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder again for support, and this time the words are starting to make sense –a twisted, incredulous, grim sense. Baekhyun? “It was not firecrackers; it was shots exchanged between rival gangs. They were driving cars, Baekhyun stepped out at the wrong time-”

No.

Chanyeol makes a run for the door faster than he would have ever thought himself capable of in such condition, lightheaded and sick to his stomach, long legs stumbling painfully, but nothing can stop him, like an arrow released from a tense and deadly bowstring; he has heard enough, more than his nightmares ever needed, but he needs to see for himself, he needs to know, he needs to scream.

“Wait!” a strong hand grabs his jacket and he suddenly finds the world whirling around him, the wintry air coming in burning his nose and slapping his skin; his stride falters to a tangled mess of weak limbs, and the only reason he somehow remains standing is the unforgiving hand gripping the lapels of his jacket and pinning him to the door. The air gets knocked out of his system when he harshly collides with the wooden surface, and he blinks at Ravi in panic, clutching onto the man’s sturdy hands, pressing against his chest to keep him in place.

“Calm. Down.” Ravi commands, low and clear as a warning, his face stone cold and detached; it’s the first time he treats Chanyeol so roughly, so unlike his soft and caring demeanor, and even though it feels imminently threatening, it also succeeds in making Chanyeol comply, his body reacting to the order compulsively, the blood slowing down in his veins. Ravi holds him like a trapped, scared animal for moments that feel like hours, blocking his view of the snowed pavement outside, and he follows the doorman’s indications to breathe, feeling more sober with each breath. His eyes focus on Ravi’s concerned, scrutinizing gaze, which melts a little in relief when he can see that Chanyeol has come back to his senses. He lets go of Chanyeol reluctantly, ready to catch him if he falls.

“An ambulance is already on the way, Doyoung is managing the bleeding, we have every reason to believe he will be fine” he explains, voice more hushed than before and a little less composed, exposing the raw fear the man is trying to fight by repeating those reassuring words to himself. Chanyeol nods, trying to find an emotion to hold onto but his chest feels empty; Ravi looks out the door and sighs heavily, his eyes returning to Chanyeol, pleading. “But he’s been asking for you, and we can’t really refuse him” he whispers, taking a step back with a pained expression to let Chanyeol through.

Chanyeol doesn’t hesitate, but he doesn’t recklessly blast through these vital moments like before either; his step is certain and calm as he crosses the threshold, his polished shoes making the slightest sound on the wet, gray stones of the pavement. The night is blue, strangely tinted behind the stars, without the softest cloud in the sky; the street is empty and silent, slumbering in picturesque stillness, basking in the calm moments before midnight. There are fairy lights twinkling under the golden glow of each streetlight, glinting against the glistening stones of the street soundlessly, every hint of life veiled under the snow; it rests pale and unblemished on the sides of the street, melting slowly on top of the lanterns, shinning like a mirror where it’s pressed solid over the stones, or dancing by in fluffy white puffs. And just on the edge of the sidewalk, there is a pair of warm breaths, Doyoung kneeling on the pavement beside another body, lying on the ground completely relaxed, as if someone has fallen asleep on the snow.

One step closer and Chanyeol’s heart threatens to cave in on itself and obliterate his consciousness in seething pain, but he manages to keep himself together at the gruesome sight; there is a small pool of blood, glistening on the cold stones. It looks almost black, perhaps burgundy where amber reflections of lights reach, smooth and liquid as a puddle of mercury, slowly sipping through the edges of the snow and making it bloom red like roses in the winter, ice crystals drenched in a vermillion shade of life; it’s a little poetic and wistful, but it grips Chanyeol’s soul excruciatingly, the silence where the roses bloom turning stifling. Doyoung says something, words leaving his mouth in a cloud of breath, and a pale hand twitches on the ground.

That is when Chanyeol truly sees him, Baekhyun, lying on the ground in a pool of blood, staining the snow red with his hair, his skin more fair and beautiful; the world has clear colors in the middle of the night, enchanting and dark, and they instill a melodic silence inside Chanyeol, keeping him focused and composed, but so full of emotions, his chest is painfully expanding to contain. Baekhyun seems conscious, a hopeful sign, his body lax on the ground in beautiful murky lines against stone and snow; he is talking to Doyoung in voices that can’t be heard, as the server presses both hands on his abdomen, hazel eyes twinkling like the snow. Chanyeol can’t resist the pull that brings him closer, like a magnet that has nowhere else to escape to, the million strings that tie him to Baekhyun yanking him forward all at once, glimmering silver in the moonlight; it brings him to his knees, falling with bruising force beside Baekhyun, his hands picking up the graceful, limp hand gently and trying to keep it warm, like a delicate flower stranded in the snowstorm. Baekhyun’s eyes widen at the contact and he turns his head, light flashing in his expression with an elated, wounded hope.

“Chanyeol” he breathes, reverently and lovingly, as if it’s all he has ever wanted to say, but before Chanyeol gets a good look at him, he feels pressure in his hands, Baekhyun’s fingers twisting and squeezing his painfully, using their hold as leverage to lift himself off the ground in an unexpected show of strength, leaning up far enough to give Chanyeol a kiss on the lips. It’s cold and chaste, lips hurrying to find salvation against Chanyeol’s, and it’s so familiar and full of longing, of fervor and affection, that the rest of the world fades to oblivion. They’ve been keeping it caged in for weeks and now it overflows, on softly blossoming lips and tender breaths, and Chanyeol kisses back with all his heart, uncaring of the eyes on them, of the cold street, of the snow melting in red; it’s just the stars again, Chanyeol, Baekhyun and the same secret, the same unspoken feelings that shine brilliantly inside of them.

It’s over too soon, like a snowdrop melting in your mouth, and Baekhyun falls back to the ground with a gasp, having exhausted the last hint of energy in his body.

“Shh, I’m here, I’m right here” Chanyeol assures him, placing a small kiss on his temple and soothing him with little caresses on his hair and on his cheeks. Baekhyun looks like he wants Chanyeol so much it hurts, and Chanyeol needs him to the shores of the moon and back, finding it impossible to let him go, even for just one moment. His hand combs through Baekhyun’s wine red hair comfortingly, the tips wet and cold, and then his fingertips smooth over the waxy skin of his cheek, down to his jaw, as if he’s touching something frail. Baekhyun’s eyes screw shut in pain, his nose scrunching and his lips pressing in a tight line as he muffles a moan behind pale lips, his body convulsing. Chanyeol turns to Doyoung in alarm.

“Keep him down” is all the server says, severe in his nursing education, eyebrows frowning as he tries to keep the wound covered with a bloodied cloth and sticky, stained hands. He glances at Chanyeol and his expression changes to a more aware one, but he doesn’t say anything, about Baekhyun asking specifically for him, about the kiss, about anything they might say and do in this little fragment of space and time; Chanyeol knows their secret is safe, he knows it is met with respect and compassion, with a gift of a few moments to themselves, and he nods at Doyoung gratefully before returning all his attention to Baekhyun.

Chanyeol can’t really remember how long it’s been since Baekhyun left the safety of the main hall –wasn’t it a moment ago, hasn’t it been forever?– but he can see the last picture of Baekhyun clearly behind his eyelids every time he blinks; radiant, beautiful, the most dazzling and lovely flame that has ever been. But now, it seems that every second is stealing away a bit of his light, making his glow dim and fragile, wrapped in cold shrouds and slowly bleeding away every flicker of its warmth. With every breath, Baekhyun seems to wane like the moon, the shadows growing darker like the black-clad hands that grip Chanyeol’s heart. There are so few specks of stardust left in the hourglass, and Baekhyun’s eyes are heavy, black pools of foreboding ink rippling in his green-gray irises. Chanyeol leans over him, blinking back hot tears and curving his lips into a smile to keep Baekhyun calm; for every time the world ends, Chanyeol wishes he can hold onto Baekhyun tightly like this.

“I’m sorry the dream has to end like this, doll” Baekhyun whispers shakily, the hazy mist in his eyes melting into tears of fear and regret, crystal droplets clinging on the edge of his eyelashes before they slip past his temples. His lips are curved in a trembling, sorrowful pout, and he looks so heartbreakingly miserable that Chanyeol can feel something physically rip inside of him. Baekhyun’s fingers are holding onto Chanyeol’s warmth with everything they have, scared and sad, lonely as a dying flame.

But Chanyeol smiles, through the numbing fear and tender hurt, because when Baekhyun is crying in the shadow, he needs to be the shining light that gives him hope, that makes the world seem a little better. “You’ll be fine, Baek” he promises because he wants it to be true, bringing Baekhyun’s hand to his lips and kissing his fingers gently. The world is quiet and Baekhyun’s lips twitch into a tiny ghost of a smile at the sound of the endearing nickname, his eyelashes fluttering; he looks tired and weak, as if he is finally succumbing, and Chanyeol combs the burgundy strands of hair out of his eyes with a gentle stroke on his forehead, his heart bleeding. “I’m not letting you go” he whispers a promise he can keep, because he knows there is absolutely no possibility in the universe that the stars can keep him apart from Baekhyun, come what may.

Like a small circle of a spiral, Baekhyun’s consciousness ebbs away for a moment, eyes falling shut and not fluttering open again, his expression smoothing out to one of peaceful sleep, only a small frown remaining between his eyes, and Chanyeol grips his hand tighter in panic, turning to Doyoung. “Just talk to him, keep him awake” the server instructs without even glancing at him, hissing, slightly frantic as he rearranges his hands and keeps applying pressure. The crowd cheers indoors, oblivious of life outside their little self; it seems it’s the hour after midnight, the time for miracles. Chanyeol threads his fingers in Baekhyun’s hair, softly stroking his cheekbone as if trying to lure life back onto it, and little by little the small ember inside Baekhyun sparks, his hazel eyes opening and focusing on Chanyeol with difficulty. He looks disoriented and suffering, but most in need of holding onto Chanyeol’s reality, his bone cold fingers twitching in the taller’s hold; Chanyeol bites his lip, his eyes burning with unshed tears, but he needs to hold onto Baekhyun’s reality too, they both need to believe this so desperately.

“Baekhyun” he starts, taking a breath to steady his voice, his heart shaking and shuttering in his chest, so fearful of the silence and the snow surrounding them; but he won’t be afraid if he believes in Baekhyun, in a dream that hasn’t ended yet, if he can see beyond the dark corners of the street and into the vast embrace of the sky. “Look at the night, how full of stars” he says quietly, just for Baekhyun to hear, mellow and smooth, like only Baekhyun deserves in Chanyeol’s voice. The wounded man blinks, silently lifting his eyes to the sky beyond Chanyeol’s form; there are instantly silver twinkles reflected in them, glassy like a tranquil lake, deep as the night, so clear as if the stars can reach his soul. Chanyeol tilts his head and leans in, his breath warm against Baekhyun’s cold lips. “They’re shining just for us” he says, kissing him as if for the very first time; and maybe, like this, the world starts again.

I love you.

~* 18 *~

It’s unusually sunny for a day in January, in one just as unusual sequence of such days, which have melted away most of the snow, leaving behind only small white piles, dripping under shadowy rooftop tiles and street corners. The festive spirit has long faded, but the city is lively, basking in the sunlight, its busy inhabitants circling about in the streets dressed in their heavy coats, gloves and hats and luxurious scarves, concealing their elegant attire underneath, yet still giving away some of its graceful, delicate craftsmanship. The season’s cold is undeniable, even under the sun, sneaking through the buttons of his coat with every gust of wind round the corner and sinking its baby teeth into his fingertips, slowly numbing them to the knuckles. Just another one in the crowd, his scarf whirls undone around his neck, falling playfully over the lapels of his coat, and his shoes tap in rhythmic, long strides against the pavement, bringing him closer and closer.

For a man in a gray coat it’s easy to blend in with the crowd of this neighborhood, cheerfully as it ambles past well-tended houses of urban design, modern windows and polished streetlights glinting in the sunlight; there is so much sky overhead, light blue and crystal clear, comfortable, as the afternoon rush fizzles out to a peaceful evening. Some passersby glance at him once he stops at the door of a house which is familiar only to him, but they don’t pay much heed, continuing their stroll undisturbed as perfect strangers. Chanyeol has to place his instrument case down on the pavement stones to ring the bell, nervously fixing the uneven sides of his scarf and straightening his back to his best posture while he waits. His heart is beating fast and countless thoughts are racing in his head, but he tries to keep them all quiet and counts beats instead, to keep his composure, trying to guess when it would be appropriate to ring again so that it won’t be impatiently soon –this final delay couldn’t be more nerve wrecking.

It’s been twenty four days.

In retrospect, they seem as long as a century and as trivial as the blink of an eye; in any case, he is glad he can finally break the disorienting spell surrounding him during those days. He can proudly say he has made an effort today, picking one of his most dashing suits and combing his hair to the last tidy strand, polishing his shoes and adding a hint of cologne onto his collar –he’s never felt more nervous and excited to leave his house on a Saturday afternoon, and his heart still palpitates uneasily if he lets himself get carried away in thoughts and implicit hopes. The past weeks in comparison seem like an unexciting blur of daily obligations, executed routinely; teaching, performing, sleeping, and start all over again. But today is different; today he’s going to see Baekhyun again, and the world suddenly has colors.

It all faded during the first few days of Baekhyun being in the hospital in critical condition, when the club was operating on sheer willpower and mutually exchanged consolation; but, even after the doctors’ assurances that he’d make a full recovery, it all seemed colorless without Baekhyun, days spent empty, while anticipating the next one. Chanyeol couldn’t see Baekhyun at the hospital, since only family members were allowed, and ever since he was allowed to return home to complete his healing cycle without need for constant medical attention, only Jongdae has been visiting him for a short while in the afternoons, relaying news to the rest back at the club. It feels surreal that the bartender decided to pass down that duty to Chanyeol for one day, seemingly on a whim, and Chanyeol was so lost at first, as if he hadn’t thought the time to see Baekhyun again wouldn’t come, one way or another.

It takes a few more seconds of restraint and patience stretched thin until the door opens, just halfway, and a man in his forties appears behind it. It’s hard to miss the resemblance.

“Hello?” the man answers the door in a civil voice, his eyes briefly glancing at the bouquet of flowers in Chanyeol’s hands before looking up into his eyes again. His height is similar to Baekhyun’s but his built is broader, less refined around the edges, and his face is missing the doll-like softness and the alluring hazel color of the eyes; instead, this man has brown eyes and chestnut brown hair, the fine lines of his face testifying to a life well-lived. But there is no mistaking the hands, the droopy eyes, or the sharp edges of his chin; he must be Baekhyun’s older brother. Jongdae mentioned Baekbom has taken leave from work to look after Baekhyun this week, so Chanyeol is not surprised to see him, even though that doesn’t help him at all with his internal fluster; not many people know of Baekhyun’s brother, let alone having seen him in person, and Chanyeol tries to make a good impression, smiling as naturally as possible.

“Hello, I’m here to see Baekhyun?” he requests politely, the smooth charm of a club musician combining with the well-bred manners of a respectable music teacher; he’d like to think he is on his best behavior, in hopes of looking eligible enough to see Baekhyun in the eyes of his brother. Baekbom is convinced that Chanyeol is not just an errand boy bringing flowers by now, his conduct and bearing being too polished, and he straightens his posture, shoulders proud, but still several centimeters shorter than Chanyeol’s.

“He’s resting at the moment” the man says, taking a second, good look at their tall guest –who tries not to let his disappointment show at the news of Baekhyun resting. The frowning wrinkles on the shorter man’s forehead deepen a little between his eyebrows in puzzlement. “Who are you, sir, may I help you?” he asks directly, forward and honest like his brother.

“Oh, I’m Park Chanyeol” the taller offers with practiced nonchalance and a genuine smile, extending a hand for a handshake, certain and firm. “I’m the saxophonist at the Black Pearl, and Baekhyun’s friend” he adds, slightly more bashful, and that seems to ring a bell for Baekbom, whose expression transforms to one of enlightenment as he retracts his hand.

“Of course” he muses, a friendly smile slowly tugging on his lips, and Chanyeol notices that his smile looks a lot like Baekhyun’s too; their lips and eyes have a similar shape. “I’m Baekbom, his brother” he introduces himself officially, and Chanyeol smiles graciously; he knows a few things about Baekbom’s family and his job, but he doesn’t mention that he’s heard about him from Baekhyun, lest it ruins the comfortable, amicable mood of two people meeting for the first time –Baekhyun did say that everything he confided in Chanyeol that day is somewhat confidential, after all. Baekbom’s eyes glance at the instrument case on the ground and he immediately opens the door wider, stepping aside. “Please, come inside, I’ll see if he’s awake” he invites, ushering the musician indoors; the comforting warmth on his skin is almost as promising as Baekbom’s intension to wake Baekhyun so that Chanyeol can see him.

Chanyeol thanks Baekbom for his hospitality, leaving his saxophone case in the corner he used to place it during his brief stay in this house a something little more than a month ago, and he takes off his shoes neatly; Baekbom seems a little surprised by his height when they’re standing on the same level, but he covers it with a smile. Chanyeol hands over the bouquet by necessity, to take off his coat, and Baekbom takes a closer look at the flowers with a smile. “Are these for him?” he asks, returning the flowers to Chanyeol’s hands and relieving him of his coat in exchange. Chanyeol chuckles bashfully, balancing the flower arrangement in the grip of his fingers.

“Yes” he admits, feeling only slightly shy to be bringing flowers to Baekhyun, since he did pick them specifically for him, but this is not exactly part of any wooing romance. “The rest of the staff sent me to check up on him today before I go join them, and they were very particular about the flowers” he explains, at which Baekbom laughs, with a few stray husky notes, like Baekhyun. It’s true that everyone back at the club was very insistent that Chanyeol should bring flowers when he visits on everyone’s behalf, and he was determined to make a good selection of blooms for the bouquet, spending quite some time at the florist’s, discussing about the color scheme and the arrangement. Baekbom is still chuckling as he heads towards the stairs and Chanyeol follows after him, smiling to himself for having managed to make a good first impression.

“Chanyeol, you said?” the man stops at the foot of the stairs suddenly, turning around on his heel to look at him again; the taller freezes a little at the unexpected focus thrown on him, struggling not to make any awkward response and ending up simply standing there, like a friendly statue. “I think I’ve heard your name before…” Baekbom muses to himself, his hand touching his chin pensively. Chanyeol is not sure if this sudden change of tone is auspicious, but it’s not impossible that the man has heard of him, either from Baekhyun or Jongdae; the only two likely sources are highly unlikely to have said something unseemly about him though, so Chanyeol tries not to worry too much about what Baekbom has heard of him. The man ponders about it for a moment longer, his eyes searching Chanyeol’s face as if trying to read something underneath, and then he seems to reach his conclusion with an unmistakably mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Yes, I’m sure of it” he confirms to himself, piquing Chanyeol’s curiosity, but he doesn’t elaborate, resuming his course instead. “Please, come upstairs, I was just making tea” he invites lightheartedly, unknowingly triggering a sense of déjà vu, and Chanyeol makes sure not to stay too far behind.

The house upstairs is just like Chanyeol remembers, the kitchen tidy, the living room full of sunlight. There are a couple of books piled on the coffee table and a blanket tossed aside on the armchair, but no sign of Baekhyun. Baekbom offers Chanyeol a vase for the flowers, and the taller arranges them as delicately as he can to keep the original shape, while the shorter man takes out a second teacup and puts the kettle on; he seems familiar enough with Baekhyun’s house, inviting Chanyeol to a seat by the breakfast bar and asking him how he takes his tea. Chanyeol’s fingers are jumping in melodies on his thigh under the counter while he waits, his heart beating excitedly now that he is so close to Baekhyun, everything around him reminiscent of him, his scent lingering in the corners.

“So, what do you think of my little brother?” Baekbom starts conversationally, as he pours hot water into the cups with a smile, and Chanyeol blinks at the strangely forward question, his thoughts jumping and tangling in a mess for a second, until the question registers fully.

“He is a wonderful person” he answers honestly, his hands slowing down, thumb rubbing over his wrist. Baekbom sends him a mischievous side-glance, his hands preoccupied with the tea.

“You mean, a beautiful person?” he counters, with a cheeky, knowing smile, and Chanyeol frowns, bewildered by these sudden questions; of course Baekhyun is beautiful, but that is not all Chanyeol thinks of him, the reason he admires and respects him –or the reason why he loves him.

“I mean full of wonders” he clarifies, without a hint of hesitation or embarrassment in his deep voice, his gaze steady and serious on Baekbom, leaving no room for doubt or misinterpretation. He thinks highly of Baekhyun and he is very fond of him –and that is not something he is afraid to admit to his bother, or something he should be ashamed of; he has never been bold in his affections, but Chanyeol is a person who gives his heart without remorse, be it in music or people he holds dear. His immediate answer seems to surprise Baekbom, his eyebrows rising on his forehead when he turns to look at the musician in the eyes, as if he had expected a less absolute, more compromising answer from Chanyeol.

“Huh” he breathes, already finished with the tea and bringing over the two cups, each step made in a contemplative daze. “Interesting…” he murmurs, setting the teacups down onto the breakfast bar and sliding one closer to Chanyeol; the latter keeps staring at him, a bit reluctant to look away first, as if it will undermine the weight of his given answer, although he doesn’t really comprehend why it seems interesting to Baekbom. The latter dissolves the tension by himself soon enough, however, with an easy, heartfelt smile slowly booming on his lips, happy and satisfied, as if Chanyeol just passed a test with flying colors; he even looks away first as a sign of goodwill, tasting the tea he made and wetting his smiling lips before he speaks again. “I think I can see why he has a soft spot for you now”

Chanyeol sets the cup he had picked up moments ago back onto the plate with a startled clink. “Pardon?” he quips in fluster, his mind refusing to accept so lightly what his blushing red ears just heard, without at least some short of confirmation; what has Baekhyun told his brother about him, exactly? Chanyeol tries to think of roundabout ways to ask about this, but before he even gets a chance, it’s clear he won’t be getting any answers, not from Baekbom’s lips at least, humming innocently behind the rim of his cup. Chanyeol frowns, seeing the playful genes of his brother in him, unapologetic as ever; he tries not to be swayed this time though, by the charming smile and little eyesmiles which are impossible to refuse.

A gasp from neither Chanyeol’s nor Baekbom’s lips resounds in the kitchen, and both men on either side of the counter drop their staring competition to look in the direction it came from. It seems Baekhyun is no longer resting in his room, probably having heard some conversation down the hall and decided to get out of bed. His appearance is completely and adorably ruffled, in just soft pajama pants and a pair of slippers, his sapphire blue robe tied crookedly around his dainty waist. His bedhair is fluffy, tufts sticking out on top of his head and catching fire in the sunlight; he looks so unlike his usual, poised self, so much younger and softer, but also much more tired. There are dark circles lightly rimming his eyes, and his skin is pale, his cheeks more hollow than they were; Jongdae said Baekhyun is still weak, recovering his appetite slowly, his body needing to sleep until it turns numb, hours on hours of rest hindering anything interesting from happening in his life. But here Chanyeol is, an unexpected guest, bringing a bright spark back into Baekhyun’s eyes.

“Chanyeol?” he whispers uncertainly, as if he’s not sure he’s not simply imagining the man having tea in his kitchen, eyes round in surprise, lips gaping in hesitation. Chanyeol feels just the same, his heart thumping loud in his chest, making it hard to breathe; the world seems to spin slower, Baekhyun glowing in the light, and Chanyeol can’t take his eyes off of him, captivated and blinded by the majestic wave of colors in Baekhyun’s presence. He turns in his seat slowly, the space around him feeling like a deep chasm he might disappear into if he tilts and falls out of balance, his minds swimming in the sky as he watches a stunning, bright smile slowly curling onto Baekhyun’s lips, then on his cheeks, then in his eyes. “Chanyeol, you’re here!” he exclaims, this time certain and undeniably happy, running like an excited child and jumping into Chanyeol’s embrace without reserve, strong arms wrapping around Chanyeol’s shoulders and clinging onto him with all their might. Baekhyun’s warmth is more comforting than any touch, his scent filling Chanyeol’s head and reassuring him to the brink of tears that Baekhyun is okay; his heart melts like metal on fire to have him back after he nearly lost him, painful but warm.

So he wraps his arms around Baekhyun and brings him closer, softly pressing him against his chest to feel his heartbeat, and Baekhyun buries his face in the crook of Chanyeol’s shoulder, fitting himself against him as much as he can, touching him as much as he can, as if he has missed Chanyeol more than words can say.

“Easy there, Baekhyun” Baekbom admonishes, seeing his reckless little brother stretching his wounded body on his tiptoes, straining his weary muscles; it’s a concern Chanyeol shares, even in the midst of such an astonishingly affectionate greeting, but Baekhyun’s embrace is too sweet to let go of just yet. He whispers a small hi in his silken red hair, giggling silently when Baekhyun kisses his neck in response, swift and soft. Baekbom doesn’t say anything if he suspects this long hug to be something more than one would expect between two good friends, and Chanyeol is grateful he is allowed to enjoy this moment, holding Baekhyun so close his heart might break, feeling him curl his fingers in his raven hair to keep him near a little longer, finally free of the worries he’d been carrying all this long, Baekhyun being safe in his arms and still in love. So, so in love.

A minute wince Chanyeol wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been holding Baekhyun flush against him marks the physical limitations of Baekhyun’s body, and Chanyeol manages to disentangle himself with some effort, since Baekhyun stubbornly refuses to let him go, even though it hurts. He looks displeased, lips pouting, but he doesn’t protest, letting Chanyeol help him onto the seat next to his; it seems redeeming that Chanyeol’s hands fuss around his hips, his smile turning haughty for a moment before joy overwhelms him again.

“I’m so glad to see you, this is such a nice surprise” he says, hazel eyes gazing into Chanyeol’s with gentleness and delight, his smile brilliant but soft on his pink lips, looking so enamored that Chanyeol chuckles bashfully, his cheeks dusting pink. Baekhyun is unabashed and wholehearted in the vast amount of emotion he is exuding without noticing, his mind excited and restless, jumping to the next topic. “You already met Baekbom?” he asks, turning to his brother inquiringly; his hand grips Chanyeol’s under the counter once the taller has settled in his seat beside him, the gesture bold and absolutely intentional.

“Yes, and I like him much better than the other one” Baekbom remarks, sipping his tea without minding his little brother’s dotting affection towards Chanyeol, even when Baekhyun very obviously brings their linked hands over to his lap, interlocked fingers resting on his silk-covered thigh. Chanyeol pretends he is not blushing to the roots of his hair, and tried to focus on what he thinks was a compliment to him in Baekbom’s words, but he’s admittedly a little lightheaded and confused to connect the dots; Baekhyun rolls his eyes at his brother endearingly, playful and insolent.

“Jongdae would be wounded, Baekbom” he deadpans, and Baekbom laughs heartily at the joke; even though Jongdae is too flirty for his own good sometimes, he has a thick skin, it’s difficult to bother him with trivial matters such as a person’s personal preference and whether it includes him. Baekhyun chuckles too, his thumb rubbing reassuring circles against Chanyeol’s stiff hand in his hold, until he relaxes a little; he can trust Baekhyun, if Baekhyun trusts his brother will take their mutual feelings well. “But I can’t blame you” the redhead adds mischievously, winking at Chanyeol with a handsome, lopsided smile, that makes the taller drown in embarrassment, his soul melting in a pool of mortification over Baekhyun’s blatant flirting in front of his own brother; it’s like Baekhyun had missed that too, teasing the butterflies in Chanyeol’s stomach just to make his heart beat faster. Baekbom ignores his brother’s playful comment, which was clearly directed more at Chanyeol than him, and he passes the shorter a warm cup of tea he has prepared in the meantime. “Thank you- oh! You brought me flowers?” Baekhyun asks, smiling gleefully when he turns to Chanyeol again with sparkly eyes, excited, as if Chanyeol has offered him the most rare treasure in the world.

“It’s from everyone back at the club, with all their best wishes” he answers with a smile, watching Baekhyun as he brings the vase full of flowers closer to inspect them in every angle and not getting enough of them, eyes curved in glee and dreamy, his cheeks only slightly more pink than usual. His hand tightens around Chanyeol’s fingers meaningfully as he runs the beautiful fingers of his other hand over the smooth edges of the flower petals, lingering around the dahlias; Chanyeol knows he’s been caught, even if Baekhyun won’t say anything. He is the only one who knows his favorite flower, and he might have requested for it specifically for the bouquet, in hopes of cheering Baekhyun up; he hadn’t thought it’d be so embarrassing if Baekhyun realized, however, even though he can currently feel his ears burning scarlet at the tips.

“How is my Pearl? I’ve missed everyone, doll” Baekhyun sighs at the flowers wistfully, and then turns to Chanyeol with a lighter mood. “I dread every hour of every day it spends in Jongdae’s hands, but my expensive doctor and lovely brother won’t let me join you yet” he sends the jab Baekbom’s way, complete with a halfhearted glare and a reprimanding tone, as if they are the ones wishing they broke the rules and not himself; Baekbom scrunches his nose at him in defiance, unrelenting in his stance on Baekhyun’s home confinement, and he finishes his tea without even bothering to argue. Baekhyun knows it’s for his own good too, even if he has started growing restless after a month of isolation and rest, away from most of the things that are important to him. It’s Chanyeol’s turn to squeeze his hand reassuringly.

“The Pearl is in good hands, you don’t need to worry” he says, voice calm and confident; the Black Pearl is a beautiful illusion of life for the people who come and go, seeking something indefinable in the nocturnal world, merely passing without leaving a single footprint behind, and Jongdae is more than capable of keeping the ship afloat, assuming leadership and stirring everyone safely through night after night. Baekhyun doesn’t seem pleased with Chanyeol’s answer though, his lips curving into an endearing pout of a kicked puppy, shoulders drooping, perhaps feeling a little left out, so Chanyeol decides to change the subject. “How are you feeling?” he asks quietly, voice gentle and almost lost in the clutter Baekbom makes while doing the dishes –inadvertently giving them some privacy. Baekhyun sways a little from side to side in his seat, hazel eyes blinking at the ceiling in thought before he turns to Chanyeol.

“It hurts a little less, I’ll live” he settles in the end for an answer, lips faintly smiling, hazel eyes gazing deep into Chanyeol’s; he can see all the fears and insecurities, all the agonizing moments of uncertainty the taller has had to suffer, and he dispels them wordlessly with his steady gaze, nightmare after nightmare. Chanyeol doesn’t know how many sleepless nights he has spent, thinking of the hourglass that has been broken, and the moments they had ever had been given having scattered; he could never hope to find them alone, searching for them painstakingly as he might, like a blind man looking for tiny stars in the sky, and his heart shrunk in fear at the thought of such a life. But Baekhyun is alive, and they are still on the same side of the horizon, giving Chanyeol courage and hope, promising him with his tender eyes that they can touch the stars now, feel them dazzling in their hold, no longer shielded behind an invisible glass that keeps them distant. Chanyeol is afraid to believe in such dreams, but Baekhyun is holding promises and his hand, caressing the knuckles affectionately, a side he only ever shows to Chanyeol, enticing him with soft and vulnerable looks that travel to the stars, with that small smile that moves worlds and glows like the sun; and Chanyeol can’t help but fall into the flames.

The afternoon is spent with the Byun brothers in good company, playful banter, teasing, and a little bit of self disclosure carrying them through the hours. Chanyeol tells a curious Baekhyun more happenings about the Pearl during his absence, about Ravi and Sejeong’s baby being expected any day now and giving them false scares at the club on a couple of nights, about Jongdae’s most recent scorned conquest coming by night after night to get drunk by the bar like a second version of bell-bottom Minseok, about Hyuck secretly feeding Baekhyun’s cats at the risk of Jongdae finding out while the club owner is away, about the songs Kyungsoo sings and Kim Junmyeon renouncing the sun every night he doesn’t get to see Baekhyun; he doesn’t tell about Sehun stopping by for the same reason on some nights, sitting at his usual table and looking disinterested in his expensive whiskey as always, noticeably growing more and more impatient to see Baekhyun again, his emotions bubbling black under the surface, his demeanor gradually turning more possessive and abrupt. He doubts Baekhyun would want to hear that the only reason Jongdae hasn’t lashed out on the man for his imperative, supercilious manners yet is Kim Jongin, saving the say by taking Sehun home before he turns too drunk, throwing passive aggressive tantrums like a spoiled child, true to his upbringing, unable to manage his mood when actual feelings are involved.

Baekbom eventually changes the subject, much as the former one seems to fascinate Baekhyun, saying that his brother mustn’t get too carried away with things he cannot go back to just yet; Baekhyun counters that he’ll be back at the Pearl in a week –on limited work hours, but still allowed to be present, according to his doctors–, and Chanyeol perks up at the news, certain that everyone at the club will be overjoyed to hear that. However, Baekhyun’s excitement remains unparalleled when he speaks of his return to the Pearl, clutching Chanyeol’s hand tighter in anticipation, even promising to sing a song for everyone and bring them baked delicacies to celebrate when the day comes; Chanyeol might be a little more enchanted than before by the joyous excitement shinning innocently on Baekhyun’s smile as he makes plans, and he couldn’t be happier to be part of them.

They relocate to the living room when Baekhyun grows a little tired of sitting upright, rubbing a sore spot under his stomach, and they bring the flowers with them to decorate the coffee table, because Baekhyun claims he likes looking at them, so innocent, as if he doesn’t send a provocative, mischievous wink Chanyeol’s way when his brother is not looking. Baekbom is a protective older brother, telling Baekhyun to fix his robe when one shoulder slides off a little, exposing his clavicle, but he is also very lenient with the whiny patient he is nursing, succumbing to Baekhyun’s requests without protest. Intentionally or not, he ends up taking a seat in the furthest armchair, letting Chanyeol have the one closest to the couch where Baekhyun is reclining, but he still actively participates in the conversation; Chanyeol and him soon find out that they get along surprisingly well, in spite of the age difference and barely there familiarity between them, joking and laughing under Baekhyun’s watchful gaze, a quiet, sunbathed smile curling on his lips peacefully.

After Chanyeol mentions his teaching job to Baekbom, Baekhyun perks up with the same vigorous intrigue he had when Chanyeol was narrating news from the Pearl, asking about Chanyeol’s students and his classes, as if his mundane life is something just as interesting and important; it makes Chanyeol feel a little bashful, especially because of the proud smile on Baekhyun’s lips, but he entertains them as he can best, learning a few things about Baekbom’s office job in turn.

Time flies and, unfortunately, Chanyeol cannot accept the gracious invitation to join the two brothers for dinner, the sun slowly setting in the sky and washing over the city in amber and crimson colors; it has been an exciting and enjoyable visit, but Chanyeol still has to be at the Pearl tonight, to perform with his band mates. Baekbom makes him promise to come by again, instead of that chatterbox Jongdae, and Chanyeol laughs at his remark, agreeing to do so if his schedule allows; Baekbom also insists they must have dinner too sometime, to introduce Chanyeol to his wife and daughter. Baekhyun might have turned a little embarrassed at that, judging from his wide eyes and pink ears, and he ends up practically back-hugging Chanyeol in his effort to steal him away from his brother’s friendly clutches as soon as possible, assuring Baekbom he is feeling well enough to see Chanyeol out and yes, he can start on dinner until Baekhyun comes back. It’s endearing how the brothers act like children around each other, making Chanyeol chuckle at the spirited, cheerful banter as he goes down the stairs with Baekhyun, following after him.

He doesn’t expect to be shoved against the wall right next to closet under the stairs without warning, as soon as his feet touch the ground, his back hitting the cold surface with a thud, his shocked eyes blinking down at a very enthusiastic Baekhyun, pinning him on the wall. Chanyeol feels a little disoriented, but he faintly knows this corner is completely hidden from view to someone upstairs, so he thinks he understands Baekhyun’s plot; Baekbom might not have a problem with Chanyeol and Baekhyun hovering close around each other, but he probably doesn’t need to witness such proximity either. Baekhyun is very eager to steal a few moments of Chanyeol to himself, not wasting a moment or compromising an inch of closeness, wanting it all and wanting it now, as if they haven’t just spent hours together, sitting right next to each other, relishing each other and seeking out warmth; the musician’s heart is beating erratically inside his chest, absolutely thrilled to have Baekhyun so close, but also shy for the very same reason. Baekhyun is a whirlwind of affection, tiptoeing to peck the tip of Chanyeol’s chin and releasing the lapels of his jacket to get more comfortable while cornering a very willing Chanyeol, running his hands over the taller’s shoulders, then slipping them under his jacket intimately, resting them near Chanyeol’s clavicles, definitely aware of the loud heartbeat in his chest, but perhaps not of the goose bumps on his skin, hidden under the fabric of his shirt.

“I missed you” he says quietly, looking up at Chanyeol with round puppy eyes, their hazel color murky in gentle sadness. He looks a little exposed, the rare admission meaning a lot more coming from him, and his lips quirk cutely as he gazes deep into the taller man’s eyes, his fingers playing absently on Chanyeol’s clavicle in slight nervousness; he is looking at him expectantly, soft and small for Chanyeol, a little timid in his arms. It’s been weeks since they last saw each other, raising inhibitions, but at the same time Chanyeol can clearly read the sincere, profound want in Baekhyun’s eyes, like a beast just waking in its cage; it makes him feel a little flustered, but he is not afraid of this flaming creature, knowing how it purrs tamely in his hands, just for him.

“You scared me” he whispers, his voice sounding wounded without meaning to, still frightened since that night, his heart trembling in his chest at the memories. He doesn’t think of anything but Baekhyun’s presence as he wraps his arms around the shorter’s waist, bringing him closer and gathering him in his chest naturally; he needs him closer, he wants to feel his heartbeat and his breath against his own, and be enveloped in his warmth and his comforting scent. Baekhyun doesn’t hold back, melting against Chanyeol’s chest with a relieved sigh and wrapping his arms around his neck in a close embrace. The silk of his robe is slippery under Chanyeol’s fingertips, and his brick brown hair is smooth against his cheek; Chanyeol tightens his hold around him impossibly, closing his eyes and taking the first breath he’s breathed for himself in a while. He can’t hide enough against Baekhyun, who is safe at last, rising steadfast through the tempest like the stars over the clouds, his hand stroking Chanyeol’s hair soothingly, trying to appease his thundering heart. They bask in silence for a while, Baekhyun’s body shivering when Chanyeol’s hand lovingly caresses up his spine and down to his waist again.

“I’m sorry I missed your concert” Baekhyun mumbles, pulling back slightly to look into Chanyeol’s eyes. He looks genuinely disappointed, his lips pouting for forgiveness, droopy eyes blinking up adorably; Chanyeol’s lips curl in a small, amused smile, and he shakes his head reassuringly. He doesn’t care about the New Year’s concert Baekhyun missed, he doesn’t even remember it clearly, his mind too fogged with worries after Baekhyun’s surgery at the time; there will be other concerts, and Baekhyun will someday get to see him perform, as long as he is healthy and well. As long as Chanyeol plays, Baekhyun will be creating the most beautiful symphonies out of Chanyeol’s simple melodies. A small smile perches on the corner of Baekhyun’s pink lips, his pout shifting a bit, and he lifts himself on the balls of his feet to place a gentle kiss on his preferred corner of Chanyeol’s mouth; it’s short and almost too soft to feel any pressure, but it’s sweet, a little apologetic and a little bashful, like Baekhyun feels right now.

Chanyeol caresses a calming hand across Baekhyun’s back as the smaller falls back to his height, leaning his head on Chanyeol’s shoulder and hiding in his neck, his breath warm on Chanyeol’s skin. “I thought about you every day when I was in the hospital” he confesses quietly, and Chanyeol would be lying if he denied having done the same all this time. Every day and every hour he was reminded of Baekhyun, seeing him the simplest of things and recalling the color of his eyes in the sky or the color of his hair in the sun, and every night he’d think about him till he’d fall asleep, wondering if he’s in pain, if he’s lonely, if there’s a hand for him to hold; what an agonizing prelude to the kisses they’ve still never had.

Still holding him close, Chanyeol keeps rubbing circles on Baekhyun’s waist absentmindedly, until the shorter man decides to take his hand by the wrist and guide it elsewhere; Chanyeol waits attentively, patiently following Baekhyun’s lead, until his hand is splayed just below the shorter’s stomach. Baekhyun presses Chanyeol’s hand against the warm, silken fabric of his robe, and Chanyeol can feel the edges of the gauze lying under the flimsy material, Baekhyun’s skin more supple in comparison under his touch. It’s a little intimidating, to be touching Baekhyun where he is hurting, to be touching that small wound that did so much damage to their souls, scraping them raw inexorably, but Baekhyun holds Chanyeol’s hand in place with certainty.

“They said it’ll leave a scar. Personally, I don’t care, but…” he muses quietly, voice pensive until it turns a little insecure. He lifts his head from Chanyeol’s shoulder and looks up at him with wide eyes, licking his lips timidly. “I kept thinking it’s a pity you didn’t…see me before…” he mumbles, leaving so many intimate innuendos hanging in the air, that even his own cheeks swiftly glow bright scarlet; Chanyeol appreciates the honesty, but he chooses to ignore the implications, certain that he would feel even more embarrassed than Baekhyun if he let himself think his words through.

“It’s just skin” he says, unexpectedly still feeling composed enough to let his sincerity show; he would never think of Baekhyun as less attractive because of something as superficial as a scar, he has learnt to appreciate people deeper than their skin. Baekhyun tilts his head in curious interest, a little surprised by his answer; his hair falls into his eyes and he blinks the strands away adorably.

“I used to be pretty proud of my skin” he counters, a mischievous smile curling his lips now, as he lifts his arm over his head, letting the silky material of his sleeve slide down his smooth skin seductively. Baekhyun’s arm is pale and slender, sculpted in subtle muscles and dotted with a few moles, the skin almost translucent in some areas; it’s temptingly inviting, Chanyeol has to admit, and he can see why Baekhyun would be proud of his skin and all his physical assets, but this is not the time for such thoughts and Chanyeol has to hold his ground, no matter Baekhyun’s mystifying efforts to lure him with his playful, sultry actions. So Chanyeol lifts his hand from the covered scar and reaches for Baekhyun’s hand instead, pressing his palm against his and tangling their fingers, slowly bringing them down; Baekhyun’s eyebrow quirks as he blinks at Chanyeol, mildly confused that the taller seems so unfazed by his charms –if only he knew how much Chanyeol wishes he didn’t have to be so responsible at times.

“Your scars are yours too” he elaborates in a tender voice, a fond smile playing on his lips, and Baekhyun’s expression instantly softens, turning mellow, touched by Chanyeol’s encouraging, adoring words. Chanyeol doesn’t think it’s a pity at all; it’s his greatest pleasure to see Baekhyun, even a little scarred and weary. Baekhyun threads the his fingers through the taller’s raven hair, his hand cradling his cheek, warm and soft, making Chanyeol’s skin blush.

“Where have you been all my life?” he whispers, leaning up with his pretty lips parted, begging to be kissed, his hazel eyes dropping to Chanyeol’s lips for a moment before they flutter close; Chanyeol can feel his breath on his skin when he closes his eyes, crossing the remaining distance to the yielding, charming bow of Baekhyun’s lips.

It’s shy and curious for a moment, always a little incredulous and inquisitive, hearts pounding in excitement; but there is something more this time behind their lips too, urging them to kiss a little deeper, explore a little further, feel a bit more, to make up for all those long days of absence. It starts innocently, with a naïve tilt of Chanyeol’s head, which guides his plush lips to slot against Baekhyun’s so perfectly, seamless, as if the curves flow into one another naturally. Baekhyun is tempted into slow, subtle sucks and soothing strokes of his lips against Chanyeol’s, venturing over every corner and rim of Chanyeol’s mouth, as if his lips are uncharted waters, exciting and fascinating; he arches his waist to reach better over the corner, pressing his body deliciously against Chanyeol in the process, and the taller gasps at the sensation, something warm coiling down his spine. Baekhyun doesn’t miss the chance to slip his tongue between the unguarded, parted lips, flicking it over the tender seam of Chanyeol’s inner lips and humming huskily against Chanyeol’s chest at the softness. His breath is sizzling against Chanyeol’s mouth when he whimpers at the progressively tightening hold of Chanyeol’s hand against his waist, so keen to want and be wanted.

He is a small flame, kindling bright in Chanyeol’s arms, singing to his soul and seeking his touch, promising to be tame and sweet, and it’s exhilarating, the temptation to taste Baekhyun’s breath before it leaves his lips, steal sweet, heady sounds from the edges of his mouth, bite into the soft flesh and listen to his voice helpless in desire; but Chanyeol pulls back, just enough for Baekhyun not to reach him blindly, and the shorter has to open his eyes, gaze glossing over Chanyeol’s lips before shifting up to his eyes, less focused than before.

“Baek” Chanyeol calls endearingly, hoping it will make up for the ferocious disappointment imprinted on Baekhyun’s lips, the beast in his eyes roaring and struggling in its cage for more of little caresses of pleasure. The silence around them is heavy, and Chanyeol’s thoughts are a little clouded by Baekhyun’s scent, his stomach lurching when a pair of hazel eyes focuses on his numb lips again, dark and promising; Chanyeol gulps, barely holding his body and heart from a complete surrender, just like Baekhyun is barely holding back a lustful pounce. “What are we doing?” he whispers with difficulty, the sense of déjà vu successfully cutting through Baekhyun’s daze in an instant. The shorter blinks clear eyes at him, his desire melting into a lighter, more playful mood, and his lips stretch in a rectangular smile, eyes turning into half moons that seem to spark like embers in conspiratorial exhilaration, his cheeks blushing softly as he gazes up at every detail on Chanyeol’s face, committing it to memory just for this moment.

“We are keeping a secret”

~* 19 *~

It passes in the dancing shadow of snowfall against paved stones, it slips through the keys of the saxophone and lurks in warm corners, it overflows like the light of a newborn star in the darkness and it whispers in little voices to excite Chanyeol’s heart; the secret he is keeping is told between words of poems and in sunset symphonies you cannot hear, written in unnamed colors that swirl down from the stars and float over dreaming eyes.

Two weeks pass in fragile peace, balancing between long hours of work, quietly hurried city walks in the snow and ardent daydreaming; the days ripple on the surface of time and disappear, days lost in morning dewdrops and gray puddles, and droplets clinging on the edges of windows, days hidden, waiting to be picked up by curious fingers and turn special. The world is cold and covered in powdery snow once more, the sky always looking like a bundle of fluffy cotton from dawn to dusk, but there are little sparks that come alive at night in the heart of the hibernating city, life swaying in jolly notes and tangling in between shoes dancing the blues. The night’s champagne is sparkling, the crowd lively and refined in its pleasures as ever, casting the bitter cold aside and diving into a world where bright lights resemble stars and merriment hangs the moon.

Baekhyun returns to his rightful place at the Black Pearl amidst celebrations, excited patrons greeting him with flowers and showering him with gifts, praising him infinitely and finding him even more gorgeous than before; there is only one patron whose excitement is twisted in an ominous way, but Oh Sehun only briefly gets a chance to greet Baekhyun one evening before he disappears on a business trip. Cocktails twirl and music flows, with Baekhyun sitting majestic like the crown prince behind the bar, directing the night to his cadence with ease and grace, with magical hands that flawlessly orchestrate nocturnal life. Life hadn’t strayed during Baekhyun’s absence, and back to routine it goes, the band playing enchanting songs while couples dance the night away till the first light of day, the servers charming the stylish crowd with a smile, and Jongdae flirting incorrigibly with patrons over drinks; the days fly away unsuspectingly, stealing moments and sunlight as they go.

On the first day of his return, Baekhyun is moved near tears with the warm welcome he receives from the family of the Pearl, tight embraces and heartfelt words feeling a lot like home; they had missed him dearly, and they make sure to spoil him with all their care and affection once they finally have him back, glad to offer a little something, each in their own way, to the man who has given them so much all these years unconditionally. Every evening before the night starts, there is laughter and warmth inside the Pearl, hearts lighter now that Baekhyun is with them. As it turned out, however, Jongdae’s expert skills at running the club for the past month don’t translate on paper, so Baekhyun finds himself isolated in his office and drowning in paperwork on most days, joining the fun only if someone delivers him a personal invitation. He has found another way to keep in touch with everyone though, by oftentimes calling one or the other upstairs at random, on early evenings and slower nights, to keep him company while he works; just their presence and small talk is enough, lifting his mood and giving him strength to recover faster.

Chanyeol is the exception to those expectations, because that one time Baekhyun called him to his office, it wasn’t for amicable companionship and long conversations; it was to sit him on his desk and kiss him indulgently, paperwork forgotten, whispering sweet nothings in his ear and making Chanyeol blush with stolen pecks and little touches. The saxophonist can’t say he didn’t enjoy it, his legs wrapped around Baekhyun’s hip, lips soft against his, musical fingers tangled in auburn locks, just the two of them surrounded by the fire’s warmth and by papers full of notes and numbers. It all had to end spectacularly though, when Jongdae almost walked in on them obliviously, Chanyeol scrambling to fix his tie and get comfortable on a chair, while Baekhyun put on his glasses and pretended to be reading a stray paper; it is unlikely the blond man’s sharp eyes missed the redness of their lips or the unruly tufts of hair on Baekhyun’s pretty head, but Jongdae didn’t say anything, as if there was nothing to be said.

Sometimes Chanyeol wonders if they all know about his secret and they just don’t tell, like they all silently know about Kyungsoo and Jongin.

It’s a little while after midnight on a winter’s Wednesday, and the wind on the street is freezing cold, the snow piled on the sides of the pavement muffling all distant sounds. The shadows of the sky drape over the streets like satin, glistening and smooth, the streetlights looking more colorful and warm against the sharp lines of black and gray on the snow. A single car passes by, slow and careful on the slippery road, its lights reaching empty corners and casting a long shadow of two figures walking side by side. Jongdae is talking up a storm beside Chanyeol, his tone of voice varying according to his narration, echoing in the alleys sometimes, boots squelching in the snow. They finished early tonight and Jongdae is walking with him on the part of the route they share halfway home; it’s not the first time but it’s not an entirely common occurrence either, Jongdae usually meeting company after he leaves the club and Chanyeol usually basking in the sweet silence of the night.

It never fails to amaze Chanyeol though, how much Jongdae resembles a street cat at this hour, when the streets are empty and he walks them confidently like it’s his turf, owning every stone he steps on, eyes flashing in passing headlights and voice occasionally rising to a whine.

“So, the other old sport goes –all wet!– and you know me, mate, I’m not one to back out of a challenge, but I was at my wit’s end that day and-”

Chanyeol is only half paying attention to Jongdae’s story at its climax, carrying his saxophone and hiding in his coat and scarf against the mean pinches of cold air on his cheeks and ears, but he genuinely enjoys the company, Jongdae’s familiar voice shaking up the stillness of the sleeping world around them and making the night seem a little less lonely, less heavy in his chest. Jongdae’s grand gestures are entertaining, struggling against the stiffness of his coat to convey them and nearly hitting Chanyeol in his zealous effort a couple of blocks ago, his shifting expressions visible only on the top half of his face, showing above his scarf, and yet they are conveyed perfectly to the last nuance, his nose scrunching every now and then because of the scarf tickling it.

They pass by the window front of a clock smith’s shop, all hands on display telling the time in faultless synchronization, and Chanyeol’s eyes widen when he realizes how late they are pointing; time sure flies in good company, so he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s so late already, but he decides to check his own pocket watch too, just in case he didn’t see very well due to the reflection of the streetlights on the glass. He needs to check the time so that he can plan ahead his miniscule activities before bed; he has to wake up and get ready for a class first thing tomorrow morning, and it’s a private class, so he can’t afford to be late. He pats the usual pocket of his suit in search of the watch mechanically, but it feels empty at first, so he tries again, tapping all around; he can’t seem to locate the familiar, round object though, and he panics for a moment, searching other pockets and trying to remember where he saw it last.

“Everything okay?” Jongdae stops his storytelling to ask, noticing Chanyeol’s fluster. The taller frowns, about to start searching in his sax case right in the middle of the empty street, but that’s when it hits him that he placed his pocket watch right next to his saxophone case earlier in the night, because it got tangled with the strap as he was taking off the instrument; he probably left it at the back of the Pearl’s stage without noticing, picking up his case when he was about to leave, without remembering to pick up the watch too. It’s a silly mistake which will cost him precious sleep, but chances are his watch is still there, since all the staff left the club together tonight, and Chanyeol needs the watch, so he turns around on his heel and starts speed walking the way they came, deciding to retrieve it tonight.

“I think I forgot my watch at the club; I have Ravi’s keys tonight so you go ahead without me –sorry, Jongdae!” he calls over his shoulder in haste, waving goodnight at his disoriented friend, whose fur hat –an eccentric souvenir from a foreign affair– crooks and nearly falls off his head from how fast he scrambles to follow Chanyeol’s long strides.

“No, Chanyeol, wait!” he calls, eyes wide in alarm, but Chanyeol doesn’t notice at all, and Jongdae gets intercepted by a group of people who suddenly spring out on the street from an underground club, loud and rowdy. They hinder the shorter from catching up to the saxophonist by dragging him the opposite way in their unsuspecting merriment, and Chanyeol doesn’t get to see the frantic look on the blond man’s face as he struggles to bypass the crowd, already loosing Chanyeol from sight round the corner.

Chanyeol jogs back to the club as fast as would be safe, considering the slippery ice coating the pavements, and he keeps thinking how naïve an oversight it was to forget his watch, something so useful in his hands at all times of day. It was the first thing he bought with his own money, and even though it is now old and unimpressive, it’s his loyal companion to every class and long walk in the park, to official performances and little errands; it must be the only thing to have heard so much of his music. The night seems a little colder because he moves faster, and a streetlight has gone out since they passed by it earlier –a rather pointless detail to notice in the abandoned, midnight streets. He thinks it must have taken him half the time to reach back to the familiar street of the club when it finally comes into sight, the Pearl’s sign partly covered in snow but the path to the door tidy and clear, the myrtle on the wall carrying ribbons of snowflakes along its branches.

He reaches for the keys in his coat pocket swiftly, the set which Ravi gave to him before rushing home to his very pregnant wife; they are anticipating the baby on pins and needles and the future father gets anxious sometimes when he’s away from her. Chanyeol unlocks the door and slips inside quickly, leftover heat numbing his skin with its infinitesimal caress; he leaves his saxophone in the corner after he closes and locks the entrance, his plans short and precise but not willing to risk his wellbeing. He doesn’t linger, in hopes of reuniting with his bed as soon as possible, and he pushes through the double doors to the main hall –but his step falters when he sees the lights still on, a very unusual happening after hours.

It takes a long moment of bated breath as his eyes scan the room for anything else out of place, until his gaze finally finds the lone figure standing on the stage, and he sighs in relief; polished oxford shoes and elegant, champagne pink, pleated slacks, flowing into a beautiful figure, with a matching jacket, red hair shining subtly under the stage lights. Baekhyun is preoccupied, holding something and examining it in his hands, and Chanyeol can guess it’s his watch from the familiar loose chain; having stayed behind to finish his work, Baekhyun probably found it after everyone left while doing his last rounds, just before locking up and leaving for the night too. It seems Chanyeol came just in time, this instance of the two of them being alone at the Pearl later than the rest feeling somewhat reminiscent, and he smiles to himself, his heart skipping a beat.

“It seems you’ve found my watch” he calls, voice echoing a little with a smile inside the vacant room, as he starts making his way across the hall to the stage. Baekhyun’s head snaps up in startle at Chanyeol’s unforeseen announcement, his shoulders turning stiff, gaze zeroing in on the musician like a spooked animal stunned under the gaze of its predator; it’s a disproportionately shocked reaction, but Chanyeol attributes it to the late hour and the weariness that haunts long nights, continuing his advance towards the stage in eager strides, undeterred. “I must have forgotten it earlier, but I’m afraid I’ll need that watch tomor…row” he trails off at the end, his steps slowing down to a halt as if he’s just stepped in quicksand, all traces of playfulness and enthusiasm draining from his system. He can see Baekhyun clearly now, standing just a few steps further in front of him, and he swears the world has stopped spinning and stands tilted and heavy on its axis, gravity tugging at Chanyeol’s knees, his stomach twisting uncomfortably.

It can’t be.

But it’s hard to refuse when it’s clear to Chanyeol’s eyes, under so many bright lights, that the shadow on Baekhyun’s face is not a passing trick of the light, but a bruise.

“Chanyeol, where are you- oh.” Jongdae’s frenetic, anxiously pitched voice bursts into the room somewhere behind Chanyeol out of the blue, ending on a short, solemn note. The musician is both confused and flabbergasted that the bartender has run after him through the snow, completely beside himself, only to catch up to him now and end up in apparent disappointment, having arrived a few seconds too late. Baekhyun’s eyes turn cold and hard as steel, so unlike his usual, playful expressiveness, and they focus sharply in the direction of the door, where Jongdae is probably standing with his coat and hair in disarray; a menacing silence befalls the room, a wildfire blazing vengefully in Baekhyun’s eyes, outraged for reasons Chanyeol’s couldn’t guess, and it’s beyond incomprehensible that he is directing that look at Jongdae, his best friend of all people. Chanyeol would turn around to look at Jongdae in this moment too, grasping at straws and trying to understand, but he just can’t take his eyes off of the mark on Baekhyun’s face.

He is sure it wasn’t there before; Baekhyun came in this afternoon with a box of sweets for Sejeong and treats for everyone else, smiling and carefree. He chuckled at something Jongin said, he reminded Yixing of the papers he has ready the pianist’s passport renewal, he winked at Chanyeol from afar before heading to his office, and he stayed there uneventfully for the best part of the night. The image of a happy, radiant Baekhyun is so vivid in his mind, that it’s hard to believe the person in front of him is the same creature; long gone is the warmth, the gentleness and joy, leaving behind a cold statue, unfeeling and cruel, as if someone stole all the life from him and left him drained and unmoving to sink in icy depths, in just one night. The dark shadow brewing in Baekhyun’s eyes scares Chanyeol like few things in his life have ever frightened him, his heart beating faster, making him feel lightheaded; and then there is the bruise, angry red and purple, spreading over the left side of Baekhyun’s jaw, painful over the bone and splotched like watercolor over his cheek.

It tears Chanyeol’s heart to shreds to see Baekhyun hurt again, so soon after he started recovering from his previous injuries, as the scars have started to calm against his skin. Even when he does something as simple as clenching his jaw, Chanyeol can see that Baekhyun is faintly wincing in pain, the bruised skin pinching on his bone. He wishes he could take the pain away, or do anything to help –or that Baekhyun would have at least told him.

“Of all the people, Jongdae, you had to let him in…” Baekhyun growls, words painful to his body and just as venomous, voice seething in a brutal echo of the beautiful, melodic voice Chanyeol loves. Is this really Baekhyun? Such a broken, bitter creature doesn’t resemble the same Baekhyun he knows and loves with all his heart, the one Chanyeol has kissed under the stars. He wishes this was just a dream, that he might have slipped and fell, hitting his head on the ice, but Baekhyun is painfully real under the lights before him, the shadows staining the air around him like foggy poison, and Chanyeol struggles to make sense of this reality that doesn’t seem his. Just what happened to flip the world like this?

“Some people I’m not meant to keep out, Baekhyun” Jongdae retorts, more solemn and composed than Chanyeol has ever heard him, with a voice that carries the wisdom of a tormented lifetime, and it suddenly dawns on Chanyeol that they are talking about…him. He is the one Jongdae was meant to keep away, at Baekhyun’s request. His stomach falls at the realization. But it doesn’t make sense; Baekhyun had been asking for him desperately when he was severely wounded, and Chanyeol was there to witness him bleed to unconsciousness, he was holding his hand and kissing him when he thought he’d lose him, this bruise is the least he could have shared with him! Baekhyun has proven that he is not as fragile as he looks, but he needed help for once, damn it, why would he want to stay hidden from everyone, and especially from Chanyeol? Aren’t they…?

Chanyeol’s breath turns a little strained, a knot tying in his chest when he realizes there are no words to describe it. There are no words. Aren’t they…what? What is he in Baekhyun’s life? What does Baekhyun owe him?

Another sinister memory creeps into Chanyeol’s mind then, returning dark and stifling; a bruise that was once around Baekhyun’s wrist and an enraged feeling of helplessness in Chanyeol’s chest, which comes back to bite at his heart again. The musician is confused and furious to a point, but he feels more anxious and concerned than anything when he looks at Baekhyun, a baleful unease seizing him whole.

The man onstage seems to contemplate Jongdae’s words in steely silence, his eyes never leaving their fixed spot by the door. He grips the watch in his hand more and more tightly, until his knuckles turn white, and then he relaxes his hold all at once, his expression turning more tired than livid with a deep sigh. “I’m sorry” he murmurs, voice low but clearly repentant for having spoken to Jongdae so unfairly harsh; even if he had asked of the man to keep everyone away, it wasn’t Jongdae’s fault Chanyeol forgot his watch, or that he dashed back here without listening to him first. He doesn’t know if Jongdae accepts the apology but he supposes he would, their friendship being stronger than a short, bitter tiff; they can forgive and handle each other, that’s how they’ve lasted through ups and downs all these years.

“I’ll go now” Jongdae excuses himself calmly, and quietly takes his leave. Baekhyun nods in acknowledgement, persistently refusing to look at Chanyeol in front of him and staring after Jongdae instead. He will have to deal with him eventually though, because Chanyeol is not leaving; he won’t surrender just because Baekhyun is too stubborn for his own good. The night has taken a sour turn when he least expected it, but Chanyeol builds his resolve adamantly, gathering courage and bracing himself with patience for the remainder of it –only to feel his heart chip off when Baekhyun looks at him at last, eyes raw with emotion that lashes at Chanyeol like a whip of thorns.

The initial shock has faded from his countenance and he seems less stiff now, but still so unapproachable and cold, his features sculpted in stone into a stern expression, impartial to feelings. Only his eyes give away the hurt and conflict for a split second, his gaze turning heavy, tiredness and anguish clinging onto the droopy corners of his lashes, but then he looks away, as if it never showed, and calmly walks to the stairs on the side of the stage, climbing down with a casual air of dominance that is meant to be insolent and unnerving. Chanyeol has seen him walk like this before, towards people he hates –but he is not about to start doubting Baekhyun’s feelings, not when he knows his heart so well, not when he has stolen them from his lips and felt them in every corner of his heart. He can’t guess why Baekhyun is trying to upset him though, and that is what truly makes him worried.

Baekhyun approaches Chanyeol in silence, each step echoing too empty, like music without soul, the tension between them mounting, insubstantial as the snowflakes and crushing as an avalanche; he stops a couple of steps in front of him and simply stands there, shoulders proud, bruise vibrant, the watch secured nervously in his fist like a challenge, a defiant punch hiding right behind it. Chanyeol deems it wiser to be cautious, but he can see it in Baekhyun’s eyes that he doesn’t hope to hurt him, gaze riddled with second thoughts, as if he doesn’t really want to do this. Perhaps he wishes he were somewhere else right now –Chanyeol certainly does–, but they are both here, each with his own conviction, and this is how things are.

“What happened?” Chanyeol manages to ask in a composed voice, quiet on the surface, but the rhythm of his heart is desperate, searching for the lost sun inside Baekhyun. A beat of silence passes, his words sinking into the empty air of the room around them like shipwrecks in the darkest depths of the ocean, and even though it’s not easy, he holds Baekhyun’s gaze, bold and unrepentant. The shorter remains impassive, black and blue and red emotions slashing through the hazel cloak of his eyes, until they settle on cold-blooded, compulsive denial.

“Nothing” he answers flatly, his detached expression making him feel so far out of reach; his words are the deafening rumble of thunder, the caving sound of the ground splitting between them and the daunting shadow of a stone wall rising so high it obscures the sky. Chanyeol can feel Baekhyun drifting away from him in just one word, pushing him so far that he may never recover the distance, but he refuses to allow this, not after everything they’ve been through, not with his heart still calling distraught to the frozen flame in Baekhyun’s chest; he must be hurting too, no matter how convincing he is making his words sound.

“But you’re hurt” Chanyeol whispers, fingers flexing in concern, and he can feel his heart bleeding in his chest, his eyes turning red-rimmed and prickling; the air is turning suffocating and his temper is flashing its teeth in exasperation, forcing him to struggle against himself to stay calm. Baekhyun is relentless, and for some reason he wants to push Chanyeol to his limit tonight, something in his eyes begging Chanyeol to object just so he can lash out, growing tired of smothering his own feelings under this cold façade. But Chanyeol knows how to fight a losing battle, he knows how to surrender in order to salvage everything that remains and live to fight another day, so he won’t do Baekhyun that bitter favor.

“It’s nothing” Baekhyun insists, his eyes turning indecipherable, ricocheting every thought reaching out to him in honest concern. Chanyeol presses his trembling lips in a tight line, trying to find a way to stand a chance, but his heart uselessly keeps breaking, restless and befuddled. Why is Baekhyun doing this? Can’t he see they are both hurting? Why does it have to be like this? Something tells him Baekhyun is too proud and too stubborn to tell Chanyeol the reason, even if he tried asking and begging.

And perhaps he’s crazy, but Chanyeol still loves Baekhyun like this, even when he’s driving him mad.

He bites the inside of his cheek, unable to find words to say, and Baekhyun takes this crippled victory in shame, his gaze breaking away to glance at his hands. His fingers run over the edges of the old pocket watch, nudging its polished chain, and there is only a short breath of indecision before he steadily extends his hand to Chanyeol, palm up, returning him the watch and many more moments that never unfolded. “Goodnight, Chanyeol” he says, final and tired, the words neither speaks muddling his eyes.

Chanyeol’s gaze falls to the bruise again, defeated, and he has no choice but to take the proffered watch, his hand trembling slightly; he stores it in his pocket carelessly, cursing it to the ends of the world and back, because he needs someone to blame for all this, for an ending he never wished for. Sometimes losing means winning; at least that way they won’t hurt each other any further, he tries to convince himself.

He doesn’t say anything more, turning around to leave, and to hide the tear that escapes from the corner of his welling, blurry eyes, his heart aching and hemorrhaging on every thought, his hands turning cold. But two steps later he decides that no, he is not done fighting today, so he turns around again, wiping the tear on his sleeve promptly and walking up to Baekhyun with certain steps, closer than before, to place a careful, soft kiss on his bruised cheek. Because he loves him, even like this.

Baekhyun’s eyes widen slightly in surprise, eyelashes fluttering as he tries to hide it with the rest of his stolen, locked emotions, but Chanyeol takes this small victory too, much more proudly than his loss, fueling the conviction in his heart. “Goodnight, Baekhyun” he says decisively, a clear declaration that this is not the end ringing in his voice, and then he walks away, like Baekhyun wanted.

~* 20 *~

As his shoes lead him up the narrow flight of stairs, familiar shadows casted on the walls in fiery light, Chanyeol feels as disorganized as he has felt all day, his stomach tied in loops and knots. Since last night, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t focus on his work, fingers messing on the piano, notes stumbling in his thoughts; he can hardly tell how he has reached this far, his mind completely scattered. He was almost run over by a car on the street on his way here, and he doesn’t even flinch at the recollection, so inconsequential and faded in his mind already; the entire day has been shifting lights and silhouettes for him, hints of routine moments that make sense here and there, and then this vast empty space in his head, all plain, with scars thoughts have left behind in their passing. His mind is a battleground, ugly, ghostly feelings dragging their claws and clashing painfully, ripping pieces off of each other and bleeding noxious smoke before they leave; and it’s empty again.

Chanyeol still doesn’t understand why it has to be like this; there is simply no credible explanation in his view for this strange, unreasonable fight Baekhyun has instigated between them. He tried to find answers on his pillow, beyond the dawn over the horizon through his bedroom window, asking himself on every step and ‘round every other breath; he just can’t understand. And it scares him, like a monster from his nightmares slowly crawling near, because he doesn’t know what it means; he has faith in Baekhyun, he trusts him and he believes in their reciprocated feelings, but if he can’t see where all this starts and where it ends, how is he supposed to figure where the shy, unidentifiable bond between them fits? It was hard enough before, let alone when everything is suddenly in danger.

He is glad no one has tried to stop him ever since he set foot in the club; there is only one person he needs to see, and he can’t afford a single moment to spare before this gets settled. Most of the staff have no clue, not even Jongdae knows the specifics about last night, but everyone must have noticed something is wrong with Chanyeol today, his normally polite and cheerful greetings to everyone suddenly being replaced by passive eyes and a cold shoulder; he feels bad for treating them this way, but the miniscule conscious control of himself he has is entirely focused on keeping his mind on the course he has set for himself. Jongdae stole a knowing glance at him earlier as he passed by the bar, figuring his intensions with his sharp eyes right away, and he subtly discouraged the innocently unaware from following the saxophonist, appeasing their worries with his sweet tongue and giving Chanyeol some space to confront Baekhyun –for which he is grateful.

But he is still so, so confused.

His fingers knock twice against the open door curtly, a pointless courtesy turned into a habit, details about all of which he could care less right now. The office is quiet and still in the light of the fire, a soft hue of evening light filtered through the clouds giving the colors a more natural texture, half finished piles of papers leaning drowsily on the desk, with Baekhyun’s glasses tossed on top. Said man is standing by the window, his desk too small to fit him today, his gaze finding a small escape into his accustomed view of the outside world. Everything about his appearance is immaculate, from his slim-fit suit to his club collar, his auburn hair parted on the side and combed slickly; even his skin looks pristine and spotless, without the slightest discoloration in sight. It’s somehow more disturbing not to see the bruise which Chanyeol is certain lies under the makeup, its gruesome shape clear in his memory.

Baekhyun is so invested in looking at the pale, gray sky outside, his eyes reflecting the dull light of day, that he doesn’t hear Chanyeol knock; it’s a passing sound to him, like a creak of the Pearl’s sign or the hushed mumbles from downstairs. The flames flicker in the fireplace, cracking on wood, and Baekhyun’s breath fogs against the window, the picture looking so deceptively peaceful yet being so unforgivingly turbulent beneath it all, ready to throttle the first thing in its grasp. Yet Chanyeol crosses the threshold unafraid, carrying his own storm with him; it’s another day and he is ready to throw himself into battle. He closes the door behind him gently, the background noise shimmering down; he knows the others would respect their privacy either way, wide open doors or closed shut, but he doesn’t know how much of what will be exchanged they’d want to hear.

The sound of the door closing startles Baekhyun a bit, catching his attention, and he turns to Chanyeol with stunned, blinking wide eyes; he’s not the same as yesterday, Chanyeol can already tell. He is not rigid as a statue, and his emotions leave little hints and marks on his expression, his demeanor much less daunting and unwieldy, with no trace of hostility. It’s as if all the aggression has burnt out and there are only slumbering embers left behind; it makes Chanyeol hope for a better outcome, a breakthrough, even though Baekhyun raises his guard against him the moment their eyes meet, shoulders stiffening. “Good evening, Chanyeol” he greets politely, voice attempting to be void of any emotion other than an unruffled, collected expectation, but it cracks a little around Chanyeol’s name, too difficult to pronounce today, too full to sound empty. Baekhyun clears his throat and looks outside again, pretending to observe something inconsequential across the street, his eyebrows frowning, hands curling to fists inside his pockets; he wishes he could hide better, Chanyeol can tell, and he knows that Baekhyun has enough determination inside of him to achieve that goal if Chanyeol wastes any time.

“Can we please talk about this?” he pleads calmly, readily grasping at his chance while Baekhyun is still trying to recompose himself, hoping he can reach out to him even just by slithering through the cracks of his shell; Baekhyun is always in control of how much of himself he exposes, and Chanyeol has no hope of cracking his armor unless Baekhyun willingly opens up to him. His request doesn’t seem to come as a surprise to Baekhyun, probably having expected this from Chanyeol sooner or later, but he still takes a moment to himself to think it through, and Chanyeol lets him, leaning against the closed door patiently.

Baekhyun’s lips quirk at the corners in conflict, his eyes lowering to the ground and getting shadowed by his lashes. The fireplace is unleashing a comfortable warmth inside the room and Chanyeol is feeling a little tired, his sleep-deprived eyes heavy-lidded and burning. He keeps holding onto his hopes that today will be better than yesterday, ignoring the painful twist in his stomach the longer this silence stretches; but for all his wishful thinking, he still doesn’t expect it when Baekhyun takes a graceful step back and he tilts his head to the side naively, his expression and his entire body posing so alluringly it’s almost distracting, such a puzzling reaction, no less unsettling in being docile than if it were an outright scream.

“What do you mean?” the shorter questions, tone pretending to be entirely oblivious, his puppy eyes blinking at Chanyeol with virtuous innocence under his lashes; it takes the taller by surprise, this transformation into a living fantasy of demure sultriness out of the blue, with just a bit of outward effort from Baekhyun, batting his eyelashes and utilizing his natural appeal in every way. It is dangerously unpredictable, just like a baiting flame, tempting and enchanting, harmless as a trick of smoke and mirrors to lure its victim closer; it’s nothing but a carefully planned act, desperate, albeit unhelpful and unnecessary, because it’s just the two of them now, and Chanyeol knows him better than that, remaining unaffected.

“I mean the bruise you’re hiding on your jaw” the taller says bluntly, voice a bit more stern and impatient than he’d like, eyebrows creasing forebodingly over his eyes as he stares right through Baekhyun’s prettily fabricated façade; it’s devastating to go through pointless games, when his heart is already beaten and bruised, and Baekhyun already knows that all too well, abandoning his hopeless attempt to deflect Chanyeol’s concern with a heavy sigh. His shoulders deflate and his expression turns tired, pale and exhausted, as if Chanyeol’s words have added decades to his years by calling out the elephant in the room.

“That’s nothing” Baekhyun dismisses, sounding so much like an echo of himself from last night, but this time it’s not spiteful and final; he says it like he’s trying to convince himself too, or trying to undo it. His lips set in a somber line and he turns his face to the fireplace, the shadows shifting on his features, as if to remind Chanyeol what lies underneath; it ticks him off, this persistent denial, the lie so blatant it’s offensive, and he clenches his jaw to keep his indignant words back, his fingers curling into fists on his sides. It might be hard to face the truth, Chanyeol understands that, but is it so hard for Baekhyun to acknowledge his concern at least? Can’t he see this scornful behavior is tearing Chanyeol to pieces? He is so set on refuting the truth that he misses Chanyeol’s anger, boiling and bubbling the more he worries about Baekhyun, pushing him to the edge of his self-control.

It feels like he is little all over again, obligated to accept the facts with no power over his life, no hope to save what he loves and cares for, and it’s violently suffocating him, pulling him under with every breath he struggles to take. Baekhyun walks to his desk slowly, steps absentminded, shaking his head in surrender as if he is finally succumbing to his own lie with now will left to fight. “It’s nothing”

“Stop telling me it’s nothing!” Chanyeol explodes, blood rising to his head and making him see red, fists so tight they nearly bleed. His voice thunders in the space around them, and Baekhyun spins around gaping at him in shock, eyes wide and flustered; Chanyeol is shocked with himself too, his temper rarely getting out of hand and his voice very seldom rising like this, but he can’t help himself against this insanity, going in circles and hoping to make the problem disappear if they ignore it hard enough. He doesn’t know what’s the point of all this, but he can’t fight it if it’s nothing, and he wants to fight, because he is not ready to give up on Baekhyun yet. He crosses the room in a furious daze, walking closer to Baekhyun and cornering him against the desk, bodies so close he is practically towering over him, and Baekhyun needs to strain his neck to look up at him.

But Baekhyun lets him, he accepts all the heated passion Chanyeol is swarmed with if it means to have him near, and he doesn’t try to push him away again, like he’s been doing obsessively until now. He finally lets him close enough to feel his exhausted, pained heart.

“Don’t tell me you being hurt is nothing” Chanyeol says in hurt, anger dispersing as fast as it gathered and turning his voice softer, whispery, his deep concern for Baekhyun and his sadness tinting every word. Baekhyun looks up at him with fluttering, timid eyes, glazed over and almost in tears, and he places a gentle hand on the taller’s chest, uncertain but so needed, a small contact that links them in sweet salvation across the space they’ve pushed between them.

“Chanyeol-”

“It’s something, something important to me, Baekhyun” he continues while he still has the courage and while Baekhyun still has his guard down, allowing Chanyeol to reach out to him with everything he has. “I hate to see you like this, and I know we’re a mess, but I want to be there for you, I want to help, I want you to be happy. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand, if you keep secrets, if you hurt me, it doesn’t matter at all; for all the shady things you do behind closed doors and all your confusing decisions, I still want to be here and help you; but I need you to let me” he pleads, expression turning heartbroken, and he places a hand over Baekhyun’s on his chest, holding it there securely; his heart might be faring better at expressing his feelings, beating fast and loud in his chest like a marching opus, losing blood with every beat yet still struggling to convey all his earnest concern and affection, completely vulnerable at Baekhyun’s mercy. Baekhyun’s pink lips tremble in sadness, his hazel eyes turning misty and sorrowful. “Is it so difficult for you to trust me? I’m not a fool” Chanyeol whispers, blinking the first tear out of his lashes and lowering his eyes dejectedly, too self-conscious to hold Baekhyun’s gaze after baring his heart to him like this –and what he is really saying is that he wants Baekhyun to trust him, he wants to be worthy in his eyes, to be someone a little more special, like Baekhyun is to him.

Of course he is a fool. He’d give his heart to Baekhyun in a breath, even if it were for certain that it would burn to ashes in his pretty hands, but he thinks some things are worth burning for.

A long moment of tranquil silence stretches around them after his outburst, a short time to breathe after the fight, and Chanyeol’s tears keep spilling on his cheeks; there’d be no point to hold them back, so he lets them cut through the stillness with a sweet blade that’s sinking in his chest, the pain having no voice inside him as he weeps but weaving words of thorns and wrapping them around his heart. Everything is slowly crumbling to ashes in the silence, but Chanyeol would still take it, he’d seal Baekhyun’s mouth with a thousand kisses if he had to, just to keep this moment in time for a little longer, to keep the most genuine connection they’ve ever had. But then, Baekhyun’s trembling voice breaks the silence, and it’s so meek, so soft, as if afraid.

“Be a fool” he whispers, as if he’s giving Chanyeol a blessing, his utmost wish, lifting both hands to Chanyeol’s face and cradling it tenderly, wiping away the musician’s tears. Chanyeol looks at him in the eyes, a little confused and still hurting, and he sees Baekhyun’s tears cascading down his pale face in quick droplets, for the first time looking so bent and broken. “Be a pretty fool for me, believe everything I say, please” he begs desperately, his lips gasping and glistening with tears, brimming eyes red but so unbearably honest, like Baekhyun doesn’t have a single defense in this moment, baring his soul as it truly is for Chanyeol; with scars and pain and an unquenchable longing that rattles in his bones. The taller gazes into his hazel eyes, more green today, like the deep color of emeralds, and he is drowning again, drawn to their unknown depths more than he cares for breath.

“Why?” Chanyeol mumbles, out of breath, the question haunting him in his sleep and following him everywhere by day, a ghosting shadow so mighty he can barely fight it by himself; he wants to believe in Baekhyun’s words too, but it’s simply impossible to believe in a lie that hurts the person he loves. Baekhyun’s fingers keep stroking his face, even though there are no more tears left for now, soothing Chanyeol while his own heart is shattering like crystal roses at his feet.

“Because I can’t stand it if you see my like this” he sniffles quietly and then his face contorts, eyebrows screwed in pain, the corners of his lips pulling into an expression of grief so profound, that his fire is burning black and crimson, pooling in Baekhyun’s eyes as though wailing over charred terrain in misery. He is hurting more than one would guess his body can contain, worse than when he was shot and bleeding on the pavement; this kind of pain is constant and unyielding, tearing his soul with vicious bites and scratches until it’s hanging in shreds. Chanyeol reaches for him, breath lodged in his throat, but before his hand touches Baekhyun, the shorter man recoils away from him, like an avoidant magnet. He strides to the fireplace, full of bitter pride and grief, trying to hold himself together in vain.

Chanyeol stays behind, lost and heartbroken, seeing Baekhyun crying to himself, looking so small and lonely by the fire. His body trembles, back turned to Chanyeol and hunched in pain, and the musician wants to walk over to him and hug him, if only to offer flimsy comfort, but there is something stopping him, keeping him rooted in place a few steps behind in silence. Baekhyun is hurting, and he has been for a long time, but the hints of black sparks Chanyeol would see sometimes in him are now presenting themselves ominous and dark as smoke before his eyes, swirling wide and poisonous on Baekhyun’s soul, like they always were.

It takes a few moments of pin drop silence until Baekhyun’s sniffles and gasps die down, his breaths measured to calm himself, fists clenching and unclenching rhythmically. “This is not new to me, you know” he rasps quietly, and Chanyeol’s bewilderment is only a distant thought compared to the immense sadness gripping his heart. Baekhyun wipes his eyes with his hands hastily before he turns around, taking one more breath to compose himself, but his thoughts are running wild in his gaze when he looks at Chanyeol, like forgotten carousels of broken lights and shadows. “I went straight from an abusive father to another abusive man who has power over me. I’m such a fool” he mumbles sullenly, struggling to regain his composure and stop his tears with wide blinks, straightening his suit reflexively, one hand rubbing right over his scar on his stomach in a self-soothing gesture. He mentions it so casually, but it’s a past Chanyeol is shocked to hear about, and he is sure it’s taking its toll on Baekhyun to remember too, even if he won’t let it show.

Chanyeol doesn’t have words or melodies for this sinking feeling in his chest.

“I shouldn’t have dragged you into this, doll” Baekhyun murmurs apologetically, witnessing Chanyeol’s speechless reaction; and Chanyeol hates himself in that moment, because he is losing his chance like a lovesick fool. Try as he may to find the words he wants to say, the silence between them keeps painting itself into a false color; the sunset has stolen his words and he’s hunting them down but they keep escaping him, hiding, leaving him feeling frustrated and disappointed beyond description. I want to tell you that I love you, can you hear me? Baekhyun is looking at him with gentle, remorseful eyes, more like himself than he’s been all this long, ending the battle in a contrite truce –he even called him doll, and the thought offers the faintest reassurance that not everything is lost between them just yet.

But then he sighs, his hands dropping limp to his sides, his hazel eyes shining earnestly in the light of the fire as he looks at Chanyeol, a halo of flames casted around his figure and radiating on his crimson hair like the last fires of the world; he is the perfect image of an angel of destruction, and Chanyeol’s chest squeezes ominously. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry” Baekhyun apologizes, delivering the blow Chanyeol had feared of, each time stabbing the dagger deeper into Chanyeol’s chest.

It breaks, so quietly, and lies resignedly in shards.

Don’t be sorry, please, please...Chanyeol keeps begging in his head, but his lips won’t move, and his heart starts beating faster in his throat, his body turning heavy, his blood freezing in his veins and splintering. This is not the ending he wants, not with Baekhyun regretting what they have, not left without a chance, taking the blame and tossing everything into oblivion. Is it pride, fear? Chanyeol will fight against it all, he will defy the wind and go through the storm, because he wants to hold Baekhyun again, and stay with him when he’s happy and when he’s sad, he wants to be a star in Baekhyun’s sky and whisper to him things a little more gentle, and lovely, and warm. He wants to follow the night with him and be allowed to love him; why can’t he?

The door knocks, sharp and staccato, breaking the moment into jagged pieces on the floor. It must be something urgent, or they wouldn’t interrupt Baekhyun and Chanyeol, the closed door clearly signaling the need for privacy; but some things can’t be helped, because Baekhyun is still the owner of this joint, beautiful as ever hiding his wounds, and Chanyeol is only passing by before the night begins. The saxophonist fidgets, the tension too much to hold still now that he is no longer buried in his thoughts, and Baekhyun wipes his cheeks again, checking his hands for any evidence of tears, before offhandedly calling “Come in”

The door opens to the most unexpected of guests, dressed in a burgundy suit and holding a large bouquet of roses. “Good evening” Oh Sehun greets them both, polite and composed as always, his ash blond hair combed back to emphasize the sharpness of his features. He looks handsome and prim, but Chanyeol feels like wrenching out the measly contents of his stomach at the sight, resenting the fact that, of all people, it had to be Oh Sehun behind the door. The man takes a good look at them, scanning them from head to toe in dark suspicion. “Am I interrupting something?” he guesses, voice causal, but there is a possessive need to know in his eyes, curious and jealous; normally, Chanyeol would do anything to avoid this macabre, capricious bloodlust lurking in the man’s twisted mind, but tonight he’s simply too exhausted to care.

“Oh, no” Baekhyun takes it upon himself to answer, and Sehun reluctantly averts his eyes from Chanyeol’s expressionless, grim countenance, turning to Baekhyun with interest; the shorter man’s voice sounds forced, unnatural, but he keeps his composure and even manages to place a haunted smile onto his lips. “Mr. Park simply wanted to discuss tonight’s entertainment, but I believe we’re done?” he lies, hazel eyes turning to Chanyeol with a sharp light in them, a warning to play along. Chanyeol is terrified of the answer he has to give.

“Yes, we’re done” he articulates nonetheless, his voice coming out blank as the snow, or perhaps sounding tired at best, since he is not remarkable at pretending. He wonders if they’re really done, if this is the end of a battle or the end of a scathing war, or if Baekhyun is referring to something more than just music in his artful lie; but it’s still a lie.

They are just beginning, and Chanyeol is determined to sail the storm until he tames it or he drowns.

“Very well then, if you’re done…” Sehun notes affably, his suspicions seemingly appeased and forgotten, that something which resembles a good mood returning to his expression. His words are clearly meant to dismiss Chanyeol, and the saxophonist suddenly has a rebellious impulse to stay put out of spite, but that would be rather futile, wouldn’t it? So he nods his head in understanding, collecting himself and wishing Mr. Oh an enjoyable night, sparing one more glance at Baekhyun before he goes; Baekhyun looks uneasy, tense and nervous, but also furious and scared under his carefully arranged expression, and that’s when Chanyeol really grasps the meaning of his earlier words.

From one abusive man to the next…as in, to Oh Sehun?

He turns around at the door, brows furrowed in concern and lips pressed in a thin, enraged line, thinking of all the times Baekhyun has been hurt in secret, hiding the marks expertly so that no one would see, and the times Sehun has left his office angry and with no hint of shame for his despicable actions; it seems surreal that he still has the nerve to show himself in front of Baekhyun, and suddenly all of Baekhyun’s concealed hatred and the staff’s dislike for the man don’t seem enough to balance his atrociousness. A spoiled child throwing tantrums, needing the attention he somehow extorts from Baekhyun and lashing out on him whenever he wants, coming back to beg for forgiveness with flowers and gifts and promises that he knows as well as Baekhyun won’t last. Chanyeol has never felt the need to punch someone in the face more acutely in his life, but he only grits his teeth and steps out of the office, because that’s what Baekhyun wanted, keeping his eyes on the other two for a moment longer, worried and appalled. The two have long forgotten about the saxophonist, however, immersed in their little bubble as Sehun approaches Baekhyun to give him the roses, the petals burning orange like the light in his colorless hair.

“What are you doing here?” Baekhyun growls through his teeth quietly, wincing away from Sehun’s attempted touch on his bruised jaw. Chanyeol can only see Sehun’s back, but Baekhyun’s expression is defiant and irate, the wildfire in his eyes scorching heaven and earth as he stares at Sehun like he wants to throttle him and toss him to the deepest pit in hell. It’s menacing and murderous, but Sehun doesn’t seem affected, approaching Baekhyun to take him in his arms; the picture shoots like an arrow through Chanyeol’s heart, infecting it with a sinister color. He can see Baekhyun is only enduring all this, his body straight and stone cold as a statue in Sehun’s embrace, eyes closed in irritation and fists shaking on his sides, but at least he is safe for now.

Chanyeol doesn’t stick around for this cruel charade any longer, stealthily making his way down the stairs with Sehun’s pleading voice following him in desperate mumbles of “I’m sorry, darling, please forgive me” and blind promises of the like, that it won’t happen again, that he didn’t mean to; he will undoubtedly be forgiven, and just as certainly, he will make the same mistake again. He is the type of man who hates his mistakes, himself, others, but he never learns from them. For whatever reason Baekhyun has to suffer from him, Chanyeol tries not to think about it much, focusing on one emotion at a time to keep it all under control. It’s Baekhyun’s life, Baekhyun’s decision, and to Chanyeol it’s only pain.

The musician finds a small yet vibrant crowd already gathered downstairs, anticipation for the night slowly building in the main hall. Servers pass him by with trays full of fresh orders, pretending they are not concerned, postponing it for later –except for a short glance Hyuck sends him, biting his lip nervously for a moment before his customer reclaims his attention. Jongdae sends him a worried, questioning look from behind the busy bar, and Chanyeol simply nods reassuringly in response, as he makes his way to the stage; he might confide in Jongdae, at a least a part of all the things that burden him, but he’d rather not do it today, with his wounds so fresh. He wordlessly picks up his saxophone and climbs onto the stage, his ears blurring the patrons’ chatter into a monotone, recognizing the notes much more easily in their comforting familiarity; the band is already past a few songs under the bright lights of the stage, but they all understand and no one objects when Chanyeol decides on the next song and starts playing, leading the rest into it. Kyungsoo sends him a cautious, examining gaze, but he sings the lyrics nonetheless, and Chanyeol lets out all the tension through his notes, releasing this irrational feeling for good once the song ends.

~* 21 *~

It keeps repeating.

There are snow piles on the window ledges and more delicate flakes are falling from the sky, wafting in the air unhurriedly, twirling around themselves and against a backdrop of gray buildings and white skies, until they land soundlessly on a bed of snow the ones before them have made. The curtains are drawn, and pale white light is casting a hazy veil inside the practice room through the window, floating dull over the instruments and leaving shadows lurking in the corners, painting the room with a gray overwash. It makes the notes his fingers are playing on the piano sound wider and lonelier, like the song of a love lost and broken. It’s strange, Chanyeol thinks, how summer notes fit into winter so well, and he plays them for the snow from memory.

It keeps repeating, with a few improvised keys as a liaison, and again.

His eyes are focused out the window, his thoughts lulled to the melody he is playing; they keep revolving around long silences where there used to be whispered affection, around cold nights spent sleepless, around slow dances that below to others, and a pair of hazel eyes that avoid him as if he is not even there. It’s been a week and Baekhyun still won’t look at him properly, not when he greets him with a polite nod, not when Chanyeol is performing onstage and he is dancing right in front of him, not even when he is sitting right on the other side of the bar and the musician whispers his name, just one stranded hope Baekhyun will acknowledge his presence. No matter how many songs Chanyeol plays for him, or how many secret, longing glances he dedicates to him without intension, the only reaction he has evoked so far was a hardly reassuring, murmured ‘I’m fine now, thanks’, when he held his umbrella over Baekhyun’s head while the latter locked the club’s door one night and asked him if his bruise still hurts.

The interlude is darker now, a little turbulent, before the melody falls back to the familiar notes.

They haven’t talked since that evening in Baekhyun’s office, assuming a semblance of normality in their interactions, as beings from stranger planets who might have once kissed. The cold attitude between them doesn’t go unnoticed to the rest, but Chanyeol tells Kyungsoo the same thing the cellist told him once, that he needs to make a statement in this fight; he is still saving it, waiting for the right moment. The storm is wild and the winds adverse, there is no map but he can’t stop until he puts the rough waters to sleep and reaches Baekhyun over the faraway horizon; on some days he crashes against the rocks, on other days he manages to stay afloat, but every day is surely and steadily exhausting him, wearing down his resolve. He is the only one fighting in this battlefield, the enemy reaping misery without exchanging a single blow; Baekhyun’s surrender is out of his hands and the sky has turned into a vast, void space he doesn’t recognize.

The next note is pressed harder than it should, unfitting the gentleness of the melody, but Chanyeol pretends that his fingers stumbling is not his heart’s fault.

The worst days are when Oh Sehun visits the club, and he’s been around quite often lately, as if on purpose. He is probably just keeping tabs on Baekhyun, his controlling jealousy having led to his violent outburst in the first place, so he appeases his worries every night by watching Baekhyun like a hawk through the smoke of his cigarettes, and dancing with him to show him off like a pretty possession. Baekhyun doesn’t object to it, he doesn’t fight it as ferociously as he used to, and Chanyeol’s hart is breaking every single time he sees Baekhyun dancing to his music in Sehun’s arms like a lifeless doll. He still doesn’t understand the relationship between them, he still remembers the bruises and the pain clearly, he can hear ghosts of Baekhyun’s whispers and cries and apologies, and he is always trying to dispel them with the music in his head, which always resounds grim these days.

Loving Baekhyun hurts like a wound nobody knows of, an incurable dream that turns to dust every waking moment.

“That sounds so sad” a familiar voice calls softly, interrupting Chanyeol’s absentminded thoughts, his hands lifting from the piano and hovering still over the keys at the interruption. He turns to the door and sees Joy, bundled up in her teal scarf and black coat, with snowflakes melting on her shoulders, her notes safely kept inside the briefcase her gloved hands are holding. It must be time for their class already, but she doesn’t come into the practice room without his permission first, preferring to hover at the threshold and listen to him play, her shoes lingering by the doorframe almost unwilling to come in just yet. Chanyeol stands from his seat to welcome her, managing an amicable curl of his lips, his teaching hours being the only time of day he can feel relief.

“Why would you say that?” he asks, his voice a little self-deprecating, but his small smile remains intact as he motions her to enter and come close. Joy closes the door to curious student eyes outside, and hangs her coat next to Chanyeol’s longer one with a small hum that sounds thoughtful, her usual, bubbling energy shimmering low today.

“I can hear it” she confesses in the end, ambling closer and stopping right by the piano bench where Chanyeol is standing, sending her a questioning look. “You taught me how to discern the finer tunes, the fleeting notes under the score that betray the pianist” she says quietly, lacing her hands behind her back and looking up at him under her lashes shyly, unsure if she is allowed to be so insightful when it comes to her own teacher, or if it might be considered disrespectful. There is a black ribbon with pearls in her hair, and she looks a bit more serious in her black velvet dress, with buttons that reach up to her neck; she is beautiful and elegant, but still so small under the surface. Chanyeol’s smile relaxes a little on his lips.

“I’ve taught you well, haven’t I?” he muses, inadvertently praising his student, her pink lips curling into a small, tentative smile. She looks a little older today, she keeps growing when he is not looking, but her eyes and her smile are just the same since the first time he saw her; it’s hard to believe so many years have passed, so many hours spent with each other and their craft, so many ups and downs for the both of them. But he feels older today too, as if all his troubles are weighing him down more than the actual years that have passed. “Let’s do something different today” he decides, turning around and heading to the bookshelves on the wall, overflowing with music scores and notebooks. He searches briefly till he finds the one he is looking for, and carefully retrieves it, fingers opening to the page he wants on his way back, setting it on the piano. “Here, this is your music sheet” he says, as she gracefully takes a seat by the piano, fixing her dress, curious eyes glued on the papers with a bright spark in her eyes, always there when she receives new music.

He is already halfway across the room when she speaks up –and he’d been wondering how long it’d take her to notice. “Chanyeol?” she calls timidly, and he hums vaguely in response, to show her she has his attention, smiling to himself as he picks up the cello. “This is half a melody, it’s incomplete” she says, eyes perplexed when he turns around and their gazes meet, but then her lashes open wider, when she notices her teacher is carrying another instrument.

“I know” he assures her confidently, walking in wide strides and taking a seat on the chair by the window, accommodating the large instrument between his long legs. “I’ll be playing the rest”

Joy frowns, uncertain and confused by this unusual request for their class, since it has been years since she started training as a soloist for the piano exclusively. “We’re playing together? I’m…accompanying you?” she asks for clarification, and Chanyeol nods at her words to confirm it; she doesn’t seem opposed to the idea –he’s her teacher, after all– but she is rightfully puzzled over this turn of events. “Why, after all these years?”

“Because, as your teacher, I have to ensure you don’t forget the more modest aspects of playing the piano” Chanyeol reciprocates, sounding perfectly rational and composed, even though he’s telling only half the truth; Joy is too good to forget how to accompany by simply reading the lines and keeping pace, when she can master symphonies in mere days and discern harmonies just by reading the notes and playing them in her head. There is a reason why she is his best student, and that’s not just the hard work Chanyeol and her have invested in their piano lessons all these years; it’s also her undeniable, innate talent. “We’ve been practicing and focusing on solos each time, and you’re doing wonderful, but I ought to refresh your memory on accompaniment every once in a while, don’t you think?” he finishes justifying with a hopefully convincing smile; she takes a good look at him, knowing him too well, but she nods in agreement reluctantly in the end, taking the papers in her hands to go over the notes one more time before they perform, her eyes serious as they scan the pages, breath matching the rhythm she will be playing.

Chanyeol gives her time, running his index finger over a cello string gently, feeling it dent his skin sharply; it’s been a long time since he last played it, but this particular melody is imprinted in him, alongside many others. Heechul always told him he plays this piece a little sad, and that is why he wants to play it today; the full truth is that Chanyeol is sad, and he can’t stay away from music, seeking comfort and expressing himself in melodies, turning his proverbial cage into a safe space. The sun is colorless through the glass, making the world look like a drawing on paper, little shadows fluttering on the floor as snow keeps falling.

Joy’s fingers touch the first notes with gentleness, and Chanyeol’s lips tug into a small smile, absently thinking he wouldn’t rather anyone else to accompany him today. She has known him for so long, she knows how his fingers bend and how his emotions step on the notes, how he looks when he’s tired and how he sounds when he’s absentminded; it’s an honor to embed his feelings in music they create together, especially today, when his feelings seem a bit too close to the wounds of his heart. He lowers his eyes to the chords, his smile fading away as his lashes flutter over his cheeks, fingers drawing out the first note.

The melody reminds Chanyeol of starry nights, with diamond skies over a beautiful scenery, dancing constellations and a single flame, burning for him like a flower blooming in silence. He thinks of Baekhyun’s eyes, sparkling in green and gray with flecks of gold hiding under his lashes, of his lips, slowly curling into a smile that turns boxy in happiness, cheeks that get sputtered with little freckles in the sun, and hair like wine and fire, tangled into a passionate, silky head of locks with copper endings. He thinks of Baekhyun’s troubled frowns and playful pouts, his husky laugh and stubborn persistence; then he remembers the softness of his kiss, his tender and loving gazes, the longing and gentle little touches, and Chanyeol’s eyes close for a moment in fear and agony, for the small things that have vanished in the shadowy corners of his heart. It’s too much to take, making something inside of him crack like glass, so fragile and close to falling apart; the stars refuse to look at him, kindling in the distance with Baekhyun in their embrace.

Maybe Chanyeol who has forgotten how to fly and Baekhyun who crushed his wings against the wind can still find the promise of eternal happiness in the sliver of sky over the horizon, but it is beyond the notions of his mind how to reach so far.

The last note is slender, and Chanyeol sinks inside it, letting it linger in his mind while Joy plays the last of the melody on the piano. Then it’s quiet again.

“You’re heartbroken” her quiet voice breaks the silence, sounding like a profound realization with a sad note of empathy, thoughts scattering on the floor like a loose string of pearls. Chanyeol lifts his eyes to her calmly, and she gazes back with brown, glassy eyes, affected and clearly concerned. He can’t bring himself to deny it when she has felt it for herself in their shared melody, their music combining further than the scripted notes. “This song, the way you play…” she mumbles, pausing for a moment and searching for the right words, pulling her lower lip between her teeth. She looks distressed, her eyebrows slightly furrowed, but she avoids saying anything further in the face of Chanyeol’s silence, serene pain floating in his gaze. She knows him too well to miss the details, the unusual shadows of rare emotions running wild inside Chanyeol’s eyes under his composed appearance.

“Let’s practice your latest piece, shall we?” he suggests calmly, dismissing the tense air in the room and standing up to return the cello to its place; Joy looks troubled, but she doesn’t object her teacher, taking her notes out of the bag and arranging them neatly without another word before she starts playing. Chanyeol stares at his polished shoes deep in thought, after he secures the cello to its rightful place, feeling a twinge of remorse for shutting her out like this when she is one of the people closest to him, caring for him like a little sister after all these years; but, on the other hand, he can’t give her the answers she wishes to hear.

She knows there is someone in Chanyeol’s life, courtesy of the maestro chattering about the ball masque at the time, about Chanyeol’s performance full of charm which seemed to be for someone in the crowd; someone captivating and special, someone like no other. Chanyeol never allowed more details around her, of course, deeming it unprofessional and a little cruel, since he knows about her little infatuation with him. Now he knows how it feels to be unable to express your feelings and seeing them crushed before they even bloom on lips, and his chest feels heavy, eyes turning sad and misty now that he’s out of her sight.

“I overheard the maestro and you talking the other day, just the end of it really” she starts unexpectedly, her hands performing smoothly and her tone of voice almost casual; she is still reluctant to push the issue, but she has definitely caught Chanyeol’s attention.

“Eavesdropping is not very ladylike” he chastises lightly, turning around and focusing his eyes on her in suspicion, even though she is not looking his way at all, reading notes and swaying along to the composition she is playing. She smiles to herself at his words, her hair touching her chin as she leans to the side to reach different notes, and she is quiet for a while, focusing on a difficult part.

Chanyeol doesn’t leave his place by the string instruments, thinking of the conversation she might have overheard, also courtesy of the maestro. It would be naïve to expect Heechul wouldn’t notice the subtle undertones in Chanyeol’s playing, having studied it firsthand as his teacher, and when he confronted him about it, concerned over Chanyeol’s wellbeing, the latter told him simply that things with Baekhyun are not exactly ideal at the moment; he didn’t specify the strain he was referring to was on a personal or a professional relationship, but Heechul confided in him as if he assumed the former.

He told Chanyeol about the life he knew of Baekhyun, when he was his teacher and Baekhyun was a small boy, scared and deprived of affection in his castle. He was brilliant and hardworking, but neglected and terrorized, a beautiful doll stripped of every joy of being a child; he never played and laughed like children do, spending his time reading and hiding in the shadows behind the curtains, seemingly having no interest in anything he achieved, as if he’d exchange everything for just one hour of running in the sun. His mother was a beautiful woman, wealthy and refined, who unfortunately married his father, a man of no reputation and too much pride, who was either drunk playing cards, or drunk beating his family, with a tremendous viciousness, as if they had wronged him in his previous life. He left the house some when, abandoning his family, and that’s how Baekbom had a chance to study –but even those years were dark for Baekhyun, because his mother blamed him for his father’s disappearance. That’s when Heechul’s classes with Baekhyun stopped, but he learnt the rest when he met Baekhyun again, later in life.

It wasn’t long after their mother died, leaving the children and the estate to their father’s care once more, who surely returned just for the money; he hardly made an effort to meet with his children, spending his time drinking and gambling. Under his management, all family fortunes and assets disappeared, leaving the children in shambles; Baekbom found a job that led him to his peaceful life as a family man, and Baekhyun took his own path, until, some years later, he somehow managed to buy their mother’s estate back and cut all ties with his father. He started his precious business, the Pearl, and he has been working hard every day and night of his life since then, expanding to a trading business too. He is still reserved under the surface, a miraculously kind man who burns with a wild flame so bright that can’t be missed, intelligent and willful, admirably capable and hoping for so much love, that he is afraid to miss even a fragment of it; that’s why he is so protective of his family at the Pearl, that’s why he trusts his selected few closest ones with his whole heart. A man like that is worth your patience, Chanyeol, Heechul told him, be patient and he’ll come around. Whatever it is you disagree on, Baekhyun is not a fool to lose you; you are important to him, that I know.

“I’m still young enough to be a child sometimes” Joy retorts, the melody nearing its end, executed perfectly by her nimble fingers. Chanyeol winces subtly, being reminded of his current reality, but he remembers to stay quiet and composed until she reveals something further, lest he gives himself away. Joy finishes the piece, her fingers holding the keys like her gaze, before they calmly drop to her lap, posture perfect. “He told you to have faith in someone, that you’re important to them” she says, lowering her eyes to her hands, fingers pinching each other nervously, like Chanyeol does too sometimes; she looks disappointed, shoulders drooping down, her own words making her think of things that make her sad. Chanyeol doesn’t want this for her, he doesn’t want to see her hurt, regardless of the reason behind it. “I don’t know who the maestro was talking about but I assume…I assume it’s the same person who is special to you” she frowns now, her fingers pinching skin till it turns white. “That’s the same person who is hurting you now, isn’t it?” she guesses quietly, voice barely above a whisper.

When she turns her eyes to him, wide and dejected, Chanyeol looks away; she can see so far beyond her age, and he doesn’t think he can hide his aching soul from such insightful eyes. It has stopped snowing outside, a strange tranquility ruling the world, and he frowns at the pale mist obscuring details behind the glass; he is perfectly transparent, on the other hand, like the picture of the puzzle you can already see without even having the pieces in your hands. It’s painfully unfair.

“I knew you wouldn’t devote your performances to just anyone” Joy speaks up again, her age more noticeable in her tone of voice, a bit naïve with romance. Chanyeol is tempted to turn around, and sure enough Joy is not looking at him anymore, her eyes back to the piano, as if she’s reading something on the black and white keys. There are small shadows on her face, her eyes deep and somber, her pink lips slanted in a miserable line; she is not a child anymore, someone Chanyeol can cheer up with her favorite song and a pat on the head, her worries succeeding his powers, but he still wishes he could. Joy licks her lips before she turns to him again, lashes heavy with the first traces of tears, eyes wet and slightly red, like on the first day they met. “The thought of someone having your affection so unreservedly and throwing it away is inconceivable to me, Chanyeol” she says, the most forward she has ever been about her feelings, and it truly breaks his heart that he cannot return them; she deserves the world, so nice and loving and sweet, but he’s not the one to give it to her.

There are little sniffles mixing with the notes that sneak into the practice room from the neighboring ones, the familiarity of the evening bringing a sense of calm to the pair of silent musicians. The window is dripping with snow like the tears from Joy’s eyes, small and shy as she tries to hide them; it’s reminiscent and endearing, despite it being heartbreaking, and Chanyeol pulls out his handkerchief, silently making his way to the piano bench.

He sits beside her and she scoots slightly to the side, turning her back to him like an embarrassed, crying child; but his hands are long and he still manages to offer her his handkerchief, a small, chivalrous comfort. She looks at the proffered item for a long moment before she decides to accept it tentatively, taking it from Chanyeol’s hand carefully and wiping her tears. There was a time he used to do it for her, when she was little, looking up at him with wobbly lips and welled-up eyes, when she used to think he could make miracles happen, as he offered reassuring words to her with a smile, the same smile that pulls on the corners of his lip snow.

“You have my affection, too” he says, for the first time in a week feeling a little lighter, more comfortable in the spaces his life consists of. They are many and not nearly enough, some sunlit, some dark as rainstorms, and some a little lonely.

“Of course I do” Joy scoffs, slightly bitter under her breathless voice. She slowly turns around in her seat, facing the front again, and Chanyeol can see little smudges in the corners of her eyes, her nose red and stuffy, her hair a little tussled at the ends. “I’m your best student all these years, aren’t I?” she mumbles, which is slightly ironic between them, because Chanyeol was always the one reiterating those words, whenever she was anxious about a performance, or disappointed after a missed test. It’s true, she is the most talented and studious musician amongst his students, soon to be a sought-after performer, but that’s steadily becoming of lesser importance to him as the years pass, something he’d wish for her, if she’d want it in the first place; but after so long in intertwined lifetimes, watching and helping each other grow, confiding secrets through music and sharing warmth and pieces of themselves, he can’t say she is his best student anymore.

“No” he refutes calmly, and Joy turns to him sharply with wide, betrayed eyes; maybe she is not a child anymore but some things never change. “You’re my friend” he confesses softly, and her expression melts, something sad, and something relieved, and something wistful dancing in her eyes; he’s never called her a friend before, even though the way he treats her is more befitting of a little sister than a student, but saying it to her is like recognizing she has grown in his eyes, that she is someone who won’t disappear from his life and best wishes once their classes end. Chanyeol would like to see more of her, succeeding and chasing new dreams, perhaps starting a family or saving the world or both, and he wishes he can be there for her as a good friend whenever she might need him. Chanyeol smiles at her encouragingly, feeling sentimental. “You’ve always been my friend, even since that first day, when you were shyly hiding behind your mother and you were too scared to touch a piano so huge compared to you; you ended up falling asleep next to me while I was playing children’s songs, do you remember?”

Joy chuckles at the recollection and he joins her, the memory precious and unique to both of them. Chanyeol has many more, like that time she lost her voice after eating too much ice cream and they had to communicate through a notebook, which eventually wrote in squiggly letters you’re the best teacher in the world, and he still has that page saved inside a book back home; or that time she surprised him by playing her favorite song, a little clumsy since she had been studying it by herself, but she played it anyway because it sounded cheerful and Chanyeol was feeling sad, because it was the anniversary of his parents’ passing. They’ve been in each other’s life through so much, her first trip to the beach, his first saxophone class, her first concert at school, his first concert with the philharmonic, her first love, his first heartbreak; she is still too young to understand a few things, but Chanyeol is grateful for her presence in his life.

“It’s been a long time since then” Joy mumbles quietly, a smile mirrored on her lips now, perhaps thinking of similar things; he likes seeing her in a better mood, smiling genuinely, with the mischievous light in her eyes and the dust of color on her cheeks, almost overshadowing the tear tracks on his cheeks and her red nose.

“It has” he agrees, still a little lost in memories; it’s been more than half their lives.

He is surprised when she reaches out to touch him, placing her small hand over his in a comforting gesture, and he flinches a little, snapping out of his daydreams and really seeing her, the sincere look in her eyes, the heartfelt expression, and the tiniest smile a young broken heart can show. “You should be happy” she says, and Chanyeol can feel the ice that has pierced his hear melting just a little at her genuine encouragement, renewing his conviction. A small, appreciative smile blooms on his face, close-lipped and dimpled, as she stares deep into his eyes. “You always tell me to chase my dreams; now I’m telling you to chase yours”

~* 22 *~

The music is slightly softer today, Yixing’s slow melodies weaving like a tangible spell of golden threads in the air, leading Kyungsoo’s voice into deeper, most heartfelt tunes. There is a hint of shimmering anticipation flickering every now and then, the lights slipping around rich colors fluidly, in creases of velvet and folds of silk, the conversations a little more whispered and romantic, notes and words spoken gently, falling like mesmerizing snow over the room and scattering, light as feathers, over the polished dance floor, to fade and dissolve peacefully at the edges of the main hall. It’s too calm for his dismal state of mind, which has nowhere to escape to –but then again, he wouldn’t exactly wish it weren’t.

Kyungsoo is singing in deep, melancholic tones, like a lullaby for lonely souls that wander in the night. The only lights onstage are focused on him and on Yixing by the piano, little specks floating on the edge of the shadows around them like a nearly visible veil of music; the repertoire is much more serene and comforting tonight, the musicians performing just in pairs to create a soothing ambiance. It’s just how Baekhyun prefers slow nights at the Pearl, more tender and a little dreamy, like a journey under distant skies you might never reach but still try to touch on the water’s smooth surface. Sitting in his usual corner behind the bar, perched quietly, skies and sunsets and glowing mornings are all Baekhyun can think about, all dressed in Chanyeol’s colors.

It was a day, and then it turned into a week, and half of that more, and silence keeps gradually establishing its unforgiving reign between them. Chanyeol sounds more desolate with every song he plays, and it tears Baekhyun apart to know it’s his fault for ruining something so beautiful, hurting someone so pure; the dark roots of this dreadful seed are slowly starting to grow out of his chest, painful and macabre, plaguing his mind with so many distressing thoughts in wake and sleep, that he can no longer outrun them. It’s too painful to breathe sometimes, like Chanyeol is the only one who can give him air and yet Baekhyun has willfully locked himself away, to watch his heart crumble in ruins and cry out in pain against his pillows at night, all alone and cold. His torture is prolonged and cruel, slowly clawing his heart out and tainting it black. There is no one that could be so sad as Baekhyun for every lonely day he spends like this, haunted with all the blame and memories of days gone by, which slip into his mind like a picture slideshow of a heartbreaking love that drives him mad.

There is bouquet of flowers beside him, admiring him with their shivering white petals, and he glances at them without really being able to appreciate their beauty; they were a gift delivered personally by one of his most persistent admirers, Kim Junmyeon, but he hasn’t found the motivation to bring them to his office yet, not feeling strong enough to move, so he just tucked them away beside him earlier, now sitting unobtrusively at the back of the bar with him, as if he and the blooms are both stuck in a cursed little fragment of eden. Some of the patrons smile at him if their gazes cross, some even lean over the bar to praise him for his earlier performance, and Baekhyun accepts their kindness with a halfhearted smile, alluding he chose the song with entertainment in mind; but Baekhyun is not a performer of that sort, preferring to keep his art to himself unless he desperately needs to express it.

He is glad Yixing gracefully agreed to accompany him on the piano, playing softly and quietly, so that all the pain, the loneliness and pining in Baekhyun’s voice would be conveyed; Baekhyun has never serenaded anyone before, he has never been so forlornly confined and vastly sad before, seeking refuge in a song to express his feelings for him. That’s how helplessly, severely, selfishly Baekhyun misses him.

But everything has frozen, as if sweeping winds and terrible storms have stolen it away; and it’s so brutal for him to realize, just as his fire fades, that there is only one person it would ever burn for, the one person he can never have.

They are surviving but just barely within each other’s reach; it was easier the first time they kissed, now even that distant memory has mounted to the constant, excruciating pain. His gaze flutters to the side, trying to steal a glimpse, so inconsequential and yet so necessary to mend his sorrow, to fleetingly numb the hurt of his broken heart. Chanyeol is sitting on the side of the bar as per usual, dressed in that blue suit that makes him look so handsome, with his chocolate eyes and dark hair, combed to the side neatly. Baekhyun has missed his voice, his laugh, the sweet innocence of his large, almond eyes; a part of him always wants to throw everything to the wind and just go kiss him till the world fades, hold him like a wish and keep him till the end. He wants to tell him how infinitely he loves him; he loves him, and he never once shared his heart with him, his choices now punishing him with relentless whips of regret.

Alas, Baekhyun is not allowed the freedom to want in this lifetime, he cannot covet something as beautiful and brilliant as Chanyeol; he comes from darkness and there he must remain, riddled with ghastly voices and suffering their bruising blows. He’ll end up mangling himself, eventually; his heart hasn’t leant its lesson still, and it keeps singing for Chanyeol mournfully inside his chest whenever the musician is near, trying to pick up the pieces and look pretty, letting out distorted notes of broken love in hopes they’re beautiful enough for him.

But just look at me…A man who has never been truly loved, a man miserable and haunted, a slave to his past and a disgraceful coward; what more could his love do for Chanyeol? He is so talented and kind, generous and gentle, he has the most wonderful colors of the universe in him, and Baekhyun could only ever hurt him and ruin him with his shackles. He wants to cherish Chanyeol like no one else, but there are others who could protect his happiness so much better than Baekhyun ever could; perhaps one of them is the lady on Chanyeol’s arm tonight, not the first nor the last of Chanyeol’s well-deserved admirers, seeking for his attention and time, trying to make him smile and woo him just a little. She is young and beautiful and filthy rich, with her modern hairdo and expensive dress, her dark lashes and charming lips –nothing like Baekhyun, who is just a poor, envious creature staining the corner of the bar.

He sees the lady leaning towards Chanyeol, clinging so close to the man that he can probably smell her perfume, and Chanyeol doesn’t lean away, letting her come close and flirt with him. It honestly never bothered Baekhyun before, and deep down he knows he is not entitled to an opinion, let alone have the right to be this mad, but he is seething, like a furious beast snarling ferociously, ready to go through flames and thorns to retrieve something he so willingly lost, so agonizingly pushed away. The twisting of his stomach gets worse when the lady searches for his gaze and motions him to come over, forcing him to swallow the bitterness on his tongue and approach them with a fake smile, pretending not to notice her hand sliding down Chanyeol’s arm.

“Hello, may I help you?” he offers politely, keeping his voice as civil as possible and trying to ignore the way Chanyeol can unknowingly pull the strings of Baekhyun’s heart just by standing in vicinity. He keeps his eyes solely on the lady, not to challenge his composure, but it proves to be a difficult feat for different reasons, as he watches her hand curl around Chanyeol’s forearm, sharp red fingernails contrasting against his deep blue suit, reminding Baekhyun of a cat that’s about to tug out the threads of the fabric under its claws. He feels an unreasonable anger flaring in his gut, almost pushing him far enough to snap, but he gulps it down, reasoning with himself that touching is not a forbidden practice, and if Chanyeol doesn’t feel uncomfortable enough to pull away, then Baekhyun has no nagging reason to defend the saxophonist’s general shyness. The touch seems to be making only Baekhyun uncomfortable, with its presumptuous familiarity and the way it is allowed, whereas his touch, like any form of contact on his behalf, is banned. It’s a little unnecessarily pitiless that he has to witness Chanyeol turning into the object of someone else’s affection.

“One manhattan for me please, and whisky for the gentleman” the lady orders with a smile, fluttering her lashes at him bashfully, though it doesn’t move him in the least –if anything, it annoys him more. Oh, so she orders for him too now?, he grits his teeth. It’s just a drink, a perfectly usual, courteous gesture in this setting, but it still rubs the wrong way with Baekhyun’s jealousy; yes, Baekhyun is not above such petty feelings when they’re thrown to his face, and he has to tighten his fist to the point his hand turns numb just to restrain himself from a sarcastic remark. His lips are smiling politely as always however, because half of Baekhyun’s life is spent in the inquisitive eyes of strangers and he has spent years perfecting frustrating pretences, expected to be a pretty doll with no emotions of its own, simply smiling and fulfilling other’s wishes like a magical creature from an oriental myth.

Before he fulfills this wish in particular though, he has to confirm Chanyeol wants to accept the offer; a small voice inside Baekhyun hopes he won’t, although chance of that is slim, considering he’s been entertaining the lady for some time now and he probably agreed to her offer before she even decided to order. It’s still Baekhyun’s duty to ensure his staff’s comfort first, it’s his rules after all, and he is not as selfish as to put himself before Chanyeol; it’s difficult for him to look at Chanyeol in the eyes, for the first time in days that feel like a small lifetime, suddenly feeling even greater of a stubborn fool, but if anyone’s happiness matters most to Baekhyun, it’s Chanyeol’s.

He braces himself as he can best before he turns his gaze to the musician, his eyes wandering over his plush lips and smooth cheeks and tall nose, missing the target at first, until they find his eyes; Chanyeol is already looking back, with those wide, molten eyes of his, sweet as chocolate and depthless. Baekhyun feels a little flustered, almost surprised to see Chanyeol so close, just on the other side of the bar, after days spent watching him from a distance; his heart picks up the pace unhelpfully, but he keeps it under control, his composure unbreakable after a lifelong practice of hiding his emotions. The shadows of Chanyeol’s lashes in his eyes seem to be turning his gaze into a knotted, unreadable swirl of thoughts as he looks back at Baekhyun, who is helplessly trying to remain afloat in those eyes, feeling their unsuspecting currents slowly sweeping him away and pulling him under, despite his best efforts.

But since Chanyeol has not objected yet, Baekhyun has to assume he does accept the drink, and that thought kicks in his stomach, almost making him sick; if Chanyeol hasn’t denied her a drink, he might not deny her a dance, and the growing weeds in Baekhyun’s chest make him slowly lose his mind over progressive thoughts of Chanyeol with someone else, holding them, kissing them, loving them. He actually feels nauseous now, and a little lightheaded, and the unpleasant feeling helps him break out of Chanyeol’s spell, wrenching away his eyes and directing his attention to the lady once more. It’s been weeks and it still doesn’t hurt any less to look away from Chanyeol without showing any emotion.

“As you wish, madam” he obliges, hoping his smile is convincing, despite his wobbling knees; at least she forgets about him as soon as he turns around and leaves their post, approaching Jongdae on the other side of the bar while she remains preoccupied with Chanyeol. The world twirls a little under his step, but there is not much room to stumble, so he ends up gripping the closest shelf and following it across the wall, feeling so weak all of a sudden. He has to sit down as soon as he reaches his usual place at the back, grabbing the leather seat for balance and sighing discreetly in relief that he made it without the finesse of a spectacular fall in front of everyone, his pride wouldn’t bear it.

He doesn’t care much for grace as he sits down, but nobody else cares for that either –except for a pair of concerned brown eyes that Baekhyun doesn’t see, having turned his back to them like he always forces himself to do over the past week. Admittedly, it feels a little better to be seated, the world seeming more solid, and he absently thinks that this dizziness and feebleness resembles those first days on medication after the surgery a couple of months ago; but at least he didn’t have to pretend he was well back then. Now he has to smile as the world is blurring at the edges and the air is too much and too little, his collar chocking him, his body reassembling itself inwardly, and it’s one of those few times that Baekhyun hates his job, hates being so important for nothing.

Thankfully, the blond bartender approaches him to take the order before he even finishes mixing the drinks for his current patrons, and even though he notices Baekhyun’s paleness, asking him if he is feeling unwell with a dismal curl of his eyebrow, Baekhyun tries to focus in their tangible interaction and assures him he’ll be fine, relaying the order to him; Jongdae nearly drops his shaker in shock, asking Baekhyun if he is sure, but of course he is sure, painfully so, that Chanyeol has in fact accepted the drink from the pretty lady, no matter how unusual it seems. Jongdae frowns as he serves the last cocktail, stealing glances at the musician and the young lady draped over his arm like a clingy harlot, and he promises Baekhyun to be right back before he leaves to tend to them, ordering the redhead to sit tight; unbeknownst to him, it’s not like Baekhyun’s legs can take him anywhere, frail and boneless as they feel, and he secretly scoffs to himself.

He doesn’t look that way again, but his ears are overly aware of words that rise over the humming chatter and music, and some of them belong to Jongdae as he tries to keep a polite conversation with the lady patron, who is clearly more interested in Chanyeol, even though he doesn’t utter half as many words. It’s tempting to peek, like the call of the medusa, but Baekhyun doesn’t wish to turn his aching heart to stone; instead, he pretends he can’t hear anything in particular and reassumes his previous pastime, watching people absently and smiling at them void of mirth if they happen to look back, while letting his thoughts travel with the music. He prefers it when Chanyeol is playing, his fondness for the man instilling a subtle preference for his instrument too, but that thought only leads him to think of Chanyeol’s absence from the stage and his close companion again, so he shoves it aside and focuses on Jongin, watching Kyungsoo with a wonderstruck look in his eyes, as if it’s always the first time to see him.

It works for a while, with a great deal of conscious effort, and he manages to trick himself into finding an interest in the lights and the colors, and even his sickness fades away, leaving him more sober and steady on his feet –he still prefers not to take chances though, and he remains sitting, his eyes scanning over the room lazily, from the doors to the fringes of the stage lights.

“Are you okay?” Jongdae’s voice suddenly appears beside him, and he nearly jumps in fright, one hand clutching his chest from the scare. Jongdae ignores the theatrics and Baekhyun’s spooked, wide eyes, sneaking himself between Baekhyun’s legs and the counter like a stealthy cat; no wonder Baekhyun didn’t hear him in the midst of the crowd’s voices and the music’s soft lull, especially considering he had been trying to ignore him, alongside the tall musician and his lady friend and everything that might have unfolded in that corner of the bar. Jongdae doesn’t push him for an answer, seeing the honest distress right through him, and giving him a short while to figure it out; Baekhyun slowly returns to his senses and sighs, the weight in his chest never really going away, like a mountain of stones.

“I haven’t been okay in days, Jongdae” he mumbles, quiet enough for prying ears not to hear, a brutally honest answer which is unavoidable, considering Jongdae knows more than half of it anyway, and he’s pretty good at guessing the rest for himself.

He has not explicitly asked about what happened between Baekhyun and Chanyeol since that fateful night Chanyeol appeared unexpectedly and found him bruised by accident, and Baekhyun thinks Jongdae blames himself in part for not keeping Chanyeol away, that’s why he’s been trying to give them space. If that incident hadn’t happened, Baekhyun would have found a much gentler way to sneak some safety distance between himself and Chanyeol, and his bruise would have never been on the taller’s mind. It’s one of his greatest regrets, and will probably always be, that Chanyeol has seen him that way, and that he let everything unravel the way it did afterwards. Every self-inflicted, hurtful moment during the past week only serves to remind Baekhyun how much of a coward he is.

It’s all his own fault, his choices and his past, confusing signals and a bewildered heart.

“Baekhyun” Jongdae starts softly, and Baekhyun takes a deep breath to exhale in a tired sigh, running his fingers through his hair and messing it a little, just to keep his hands busy and prevent his shoulders from slumping forward till they drop in Jongdae’s comforting embrace –at least not in front of their very eager-tongued audience, but he might seek out some comfort after the lights go out. He is just so tired. Jongdae looks at him with worry in his eyes, sincere and a little hesitant, his hand coming to rest on Baekhyun’s knee to soothe him a little. Baekhyun appreciates the gesture and looks at his friend, whose expression hints that he has something more to say. “I know I’m the one who discouraged you from the start, but if you feel this way about him…just give the poor puppy a chance; we’ll all help” Jongdae suggests quietly, not entirely willing to butt in and point out the obvious but taking the plunge anyway for his stubborn best friend. He called Chanyeol a puppy, how befitting, Baekhyun thinks in distant amusement, but the image of Jongdae staring at him with watchful, pensive eyes, and lips set in a troubled frown is more prominent in his thoughts.

Baekhyun has thought about it too –it was the most evident solution to the problem, and he started toying with the idea almost immediately after the fight; he is not proud of his dependence on Chanyeol’s smile, but the days seemed insurmountable to him without Chanyeol’s happiness and warmth. He sometimes still thinks about it in rather desperate urges, to walk up to him and kiss him until he is forgiven, confess everything and let the whole world burn to the ground for all he would care. But the more the days pass, the more difficult it seems to explain everything, and the harder it becomes to look at Chanyeol in the eyes, remembering their last words and the humiliating condition Chanyeol has seen him in; he sometimes catches Chanyeol staring, and the first thing he feels is self-consciousness about the bruise, which has faded by now but it feels as if it were still on his skin.

Chanyeol tried, he did, like a true sweetheart and a perfect gentleman, but most importantly like a man with scorned feelings and a broken heart –and how could Baekhyun not hate himself every time he looks at what he’s done. At first, Chanyeol whispered Baekhyun’s name and hovered around him, but only when he knew Baekhyun wouldn’t be overwhelmed, respecting Baekhyun’s wishes and giving him privacy, never coming to the office again; maybe, if he had, Baekhyun would have attacked his lips with kisses, mumbling apologies and confiding in Chanyeol, until he would have unfolded his entire heart for the taller to see. But reality doesn’t work like Baekhyun’s daydreams, things only getting worse the longer he won’t find the courage to change them. Days passed, and Baekhyun feels like Chanyeol is starting to give up, running out of words to say and simply letting everything float away peacefully, not expecting anything from Baekhyun anymore, not even an explanation; and although it seems like that’s what Baekhyun wanted all along, to keep him away and therefore safe, his heart is broken and it keeps breaking every time he ignores Chanyeol, every night he dreams of him crying because of Baekhyun, every moment of the day he spends thinking of him adoringly, possessively, longingly.

He keeps telling himself that he is a fool, that they could have had a chance and be safe with everyone’s help if Baekhyun’s recklessness and pride had let them; he is sure the staff would have been delighted to help them keep a secret, and Sehun would never have to find out before they found a way to be rid of him for good. But, looking at Chanyeol growing more tired every day, like a flame that curls in on itself to preserve what little embers it has left, and now seeing him entertaining someone else so unaffected, Baekhyun is starting to lose hope that Chanyeol would ever want him again in the first place. It’s a dismal thought that makes the world seem empty and frail, even to someone like Baekhyun; he has always been alone, you’d think, what difference would it make to stay that way? And yet, Chanyeol makes all the difference, from winter to spring and round every season, from day to night, shining like a star in the darkness that has been shrouding Baekhyun all his life.

“What if it can’t be helped?” Baekhyun mumbles, sounding small, and he glances Chanyeol’s way in despondency, unable to control himself –but he regrets it right away. The pretty lady is now more boldly leaning on the musician’s arm, batting her eyelashes and looking up at him in wonder, her red lips curling into a coy, seductive smile as she speaks, and Chanyeol is listening to her attentively, feigning it or not, his fingers playing with the short glass served for him on the counter, whiskey sloshing untouched. It’s a picture full of ‘maybe’s about Chanyeol’s future in Baekhyun’s eyes, one that involves a home full of happiness and doesn’t involve Baekhyun, his figure just a dull, gray smudge on the edge of the fairytale; it’s a picture Baekhyun never wished to see, and it hurts the fragments of his heart like a comb of knifes, shredding what little is left of it. Jongdae knocks Baekhyun’s knee with his fist to get his attention.

“Applesauce, you know this is not real” he chastises under his breath, eyes sharp and serious, lips set in a strict line that still curls at the corners, but it looks so certain. Baekhyun looks at his friend in the eye pensively, weighing his words and his conviction; Chanyeol’s friendliness might be just service, polite and sociable gestures everyone would do if they’re comfortable enough, to keep a genial atmosphere inside the club –and Baekhyun would know, especially him. He knows best, under his own skin, the smiles, the charm, the flirt, the little interest and attention that aren’t real…but they could be. They could be, because they look so real to his deranged mind, and he can’t bear to witness this every now and again and keep wondering to himself if it could be real, desperation, anger and longing tangling in a black ball inside his chest and swallowing him whole.

This is not what Baekhyun wanted in life for Chanyeol and himself. It’s like the ink bottle has tipped over, smearing black stains all over Baekhyun’s plans, all those secret wishes he made, all those hopes and those moments he dreamed of, just to watch them shatter like a castle of glass.

Jongdae sighs in the wake of Baekhyun’s silence, and he drops his stern stance, raising his hands, palms forward in surrender. “Fine, it’s your heart, you do what you want, just think about it” he amends, giving him one last, concerned looked, inconspicuously tinged with empathy to show his irrevocable support, before he turns around to tend to his newest patron. My heart is not mine anymore, Jongdae, Baekhyun thinks, twisting the little cufflink between his fingers and neglecting everything else for a while, except for the gentle melody Yixing is playing on the piano, his only consolation in his mind’s castle, where only broken thoughts keep echoing in misery. When will love be through with him, Baekhyun would really like to know.

~* 23 *~

Chanyeol stops in front of the familiar arched door, watching stray snowflakes sweep by in sparse gusts of wind that swirl low on the ground, scattering them on the dark pavement under his shoes. The night is clear and crisp, shapes in the light of the street lanterns and shadows against the snow sitting perfectly still and holding their breath at the cold promise wafting in the air, touching skin and making him shiver with the same anticipation. The street is quiet, having long fallen asleep, every corner and outline frozen gracefully in the pale golden glow of the black lampposts, a picturesque scene of the slumbering city awaiting the snow that no one will witness; the only sign of life is Chanyeol’s warm heartbeat and his breath leaving his dry lips in white puffs, curling like smoke and dissolving into the night. He stretches his fingers, nearly numb under his gloves, and it feels almost painful to hold the weight of his umbrella and his saxophone case in the same hand in this freezing chill; his free hand curls into a fist, aching to push the door open and let himself in, but hesitating, his eyes blinking glassy in the cold, his nose and ears burning.

Without Jongdae’s persuasive influence on him anymore, his resolve has faded into a nervous bundle of thoughts and keeps diminishing the longer he stays standing out here; he admits it sounded like a good idea at the time, when Jongdae convinced him to leave the rest of their company and return to the Pearl tonight, to finish this passive war he and Baekhyun have been fighting, finally wafting closer to the last ripples on water before they disappear. The rest of the night’s company, being the Pearl’s family, approved of this and encouraged him to bring the light back in Baekhyun; they bought him another drink at the late-hours club they’d been gathered after work, to celebrate Sejeong’s and Ravi’s baby, and sent him on his way with their best wishes, hoping he can make miracles happen. Their concern and optimism gave him the courage to be fearless, steps certain and decisive on his way here, through snow-gilded streets and silent crossroads, but as he stands moments away from the end, he feels stuck and afraid to move, as though he can keep the flimsy illusion of hope safe inside his chest if he holds his breath a little longer, or everything might shatter.

Jongdae said Baekhyun would be alone at the club tonight, but surely there; it’s very late, but Baekhyun sometimes stays behind, spending some private time at the Pearl like a weary captain seeking the comfort of isolation on his ship. He didn’t seem to be feeling very well earlier, his mood quite troubled and somber under his smile as he dealt with customers, but given Sehun’s absence tonight, it must have been something else bothering him, to the point he sent everyone on their way to have fun without him this once; Chanyeol noticed his stumbling steps behind the bar earlier, and he worries Baekhyun might be sick, the only reasonable explanation he can think of for Baekhyun declining such a compelling invitation to celebrate the thing he values most, his family’s happiness. It doesn’t matter to Chanyeol if they are in a strange balance of passive indifference; he still cares for Baekhyun and watches him from afar, immeasurably regretting that he can’t be the one reaching out to him, not without hurting him more.

Ravi’s keys are heavy in Chanyeol’s hold as he gazes at the lock, as if he is expecting something from it; last time he let himself in, he came out with a broken heart. But he forces himself to take a shaky breath, his entire body feeling in pain like it’s seconds away from freezing into an ice sculpture on the empty sidewalk, and he turns the key in the lock, going in quietly, leaving no trace of his presence behind on the deserted street. The entrance closes with a soft click after him, the lights burning low, but the shadows are warmer than the bruising cold outside, traces of warmth and life that have been left behind lingering like ghostly echoes of music. He gives himself some time to adjust, eyeing the double doors warily, left slightly ajar, a weak light pouring through them; of course Baekhyun is still here, following the night to its final hour. Chanyeol sets his things aside, shrugging off his coat with a small sense of relief to feel the warmth of the room without any hindrances, and he folds it over the desk, placing his gloves on it absentmindedly; his thoughts are racing in shapeless bursts of hazy figures, mingling and piercing through each other, confusing his heart, but he somehow finds the resolve to cross the doors to the main hall.

It’s not entirely quiet inside, the slight scratch of the gramophone against notes echoing low and distant; they combine into a melody after a couple of steps further into the hall, resounding under dim lights and around still furniture, over glimmering glass and crystal, in the middle of a deep, empty silence. Chanyeol’s steps are hesitant and slow, his breath tight and measured, shoes soundless against the heavy veil of stillness that seems to drape over everything. There is an ironic coincidence to the lyrics of the song serenading the moment, as if they are saying too much when neither of the two men in the room could find enough to say in the past weeks, and it makes him sigh under his breath in disappointment. This war keeps marking them with scars that run invisibly, deeper than the skin, making both of them slowly fade in the days’ passing.

He has almost reached the stage in search of Baekhyun, starting to doubt he is around at all, despite the music playing, but then he catches a white shadow out of the corner of his eye, where it would normally be just velvet couches and luxurious tables, at the secluded, concealed corner of the private area. He closes his step and turns towards that area, but he doesn’t cross the small final distance, standing wordlessly a few steps away and listening to the music coming from the gramophone, perched on the side of one table. His eyes take in the unusual sight, while Baekhyun remains oblivious and lost in thought, under the soft lull of music.

There is a crystal glass on the table, stray glints of light catching on the rim, half empty of an amber-tinted alcohol, transparent and fragrant. The bottle is right next to it, carelessly left open and already mostly consumed. There might have been flowers once, but now only torn petals remain, white like the snow outside, but much more gentle and tender, curling at the edges as they rest on the table, spreading in a beautiful mess all over the couch, some fainting to the floor every now and then, where more of them splay a carpet of torn beauty at Baekhyun’s feet. They give an air of artful, elegant debauchery to the picture, Baekhyun’s fluid posture as he sits on the velvet couch in the midst of flower petals looking even more seductive and alluring in the delicate shadows bathing him.

He is not wearing his jacket, or his vest and tie, the first buttons of his white shirt undone and revealing smooth, sculpted collarbones underneath; the pristine fabric outlines his body perfectly, from his broad shoulders to his tapered waist, his torso curved to the side as he is leaning on his arm, propped up against the armrest. He seems languid, legs comfortably bent to shapely, tangled lines, and his fingers are curled gracefully against his temple, supporting his head, wine red hair messy and fluffy, falling over his eyes. He looks raggedly handsome but tired, so tired, lashes heavy and eyes downcast, his pink lips pouting unconsciously. It’s not exactly what Chanyeol expected to see, but it’s not far from it either; the haunting shadow of misery and heartache that has been plaguing Baekhyun is not unfamiliar to him. It feels like they have both turned extremely fragile and frail, leaving behind pieces of themselves like a fraying, torn veil that was once woven beautifully, now falling apart against the thorns.

The unseen, vanishing stars in the distance shine coldly tonight, upon the harmonious sorrow of souls that count the days in tears, and Chanyeol’s heart is mumbling their song.

There is nothing special about the moment Baekhyun reaches for his glass, his body moving lethargically, as if he is dragging with him heavy shackles and chains; but his eyes blink more aware when he notices Chanyeol’s shoes first, and then they race up the taller’s body, focusing on his face sharply. There is a disbelieving spark passing in his hazel gaze, surprised to see Chanyeol standing before him out of thin air, and he frowns, the lines of his face fluctuating between a hard expression and a softer, breathless one.

“What are you doing here?” he demands in lieu of a greeting, his voice quiet but not entirely harsh, as if the night is too late and he is too tired, as if he doesn’t mind it awfully if Chanyeol is here. The musician walks closer calmly and Baekhyun leans back in his seat in tandem until his body hits the back of the couch, his hand absently taking the glass with it as he goes; Chanyeol doesn’t know if the look on Baekhyun’s face is more shocked, confused or relieved, but it ultimately doesn’t matter, because Baekhyun has finally acknowledged him without rejecting him the next moment, and Chanyeol’s heart slowly comes alive.

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” he retorts just as quiet, his eyes wandering over the mess of flower petals that have suffered from Baekhyun’s grief and the bottle of alcohol that seems entirely too much for just one person. Baekhyun’s fingertips keep rubbing against his glass nervously in guilty silence, gripping it tighter when Chanyeol leans over the table to turn off the gramophone, the needle jumping on the margin of the record, the songs finished. “How are you feeling? Have you had too much to drink?” Chanyeol asks him in concern as he stands to his full height again, the questions coated in a voice that sounds too gentle to be anything else. His eyes soften when he sees how nervous Baekhyun looks under his best efforts to hide it, his body stiff and his posture closed off, although he raises a sarcastic eyebrow and scoffs bitterly when Chanyeol meets his gaze.

“I haven’t drunk nearly enough” he mumbles tiredly, bringing the glass to his lips and tipping it back until it’s empty. Chanyeol feels a pang in his chest at the wrecked picture, at the significance underlying the words; they keep hurting each other without meaning to, unfailingly renewing their wounds just by existing close to one another. Baekhyun licks the sheen off his lips as he sets the glass on the table again, his moves flowing in natural grace, and then he sighs tiredly in surrender as he leans back in his seat. Like the record on the gramophone, they have exhausted themselves, spinning in circles. “Shouldn’t you be with the others?” he questions, voice barely carrying any hint of emotion, but he looks up at Chanyeol curiously, one eyebrow curling in suspicion, and he has every reason not to expect him, but for once he doesn’t seem defensive, there is no armor to keep Chanyeol away.

“Why shouldn’t I be here with you?” Chanyeol counters evenly, in spite of asking with much more than just one night in mind, his heart trembling in his chest uneasily at all the moments of vibrant life he can include in a single question. It’s hard to do what he came here for, it’s hard to ignore Baekhyun’s sadness and not offer him comfort for the sake of a confrontation neither wants and both need, but Chanyeol’s well aimed words bear fruit, a tiny flicker of sentiment in Baekhyun’s eyes that Chanyeol has been searching for, for nights on end; the shorter can guess the hidden meaning of his words easily, and his expression smoothes into one of regret, his eyes turning sad and tired, his lips curving downwards at the corners with the weight of the unspoken words they carry.

“Because it’s dangerous, doll, and hurtful” he whispers, words too soft, as if he’s afraid to bestow them upon the world; it’s a harsh truth they both know a little too well by now, but Baekhyun’s voice is gentle and affectionate around it, his eyes unbearably honest, mirroring the tender hurt that Chanyeol can feel stirring in his own chest. His gaze clings to Chanyeol for a long moment with a wistful gleam, as if he can see mountains and rivers between them, and Chanyeol as a shimmer of light on the horizon, which Baekhyun desperately needs to reach. But he averts his eyes and crosses his arms over his chest instead, stubborn to stay sinking in dark waters, staring at the gramophone with an ominous shadow reflecting on his face, his eyes turning a little glassy and his voice whispering low. “Why would you want something like this? You have so much music in you, and such a gentle heart; I was pathetic enough to break it once, so please, let go of fantasies with someone like me”

The words float heavy in the silence, touching the torn petals and making them shiver. Someone like me. He makes it sound like a horrible thing. Chanyeol feels a little heavier than before, the snow swirling in his heart over the mangled pieces, his eyes never leaving Baekhyun’s stoic countenance. He can break himself so effortlessly, face the mess of shattered feelings and let his fire curl small in misery inside of him, so exquisitely cracked and haunted. The world stands still in the moments that follow, but Chanyeol’s heart refuses to surrender, beating erratically as seconds slip away.

Without really thinking it through, without any heartbeats to waste, he takes a seat by the table, his moves decisive as the thunder over the earth, but calm as the snow falling from the sky.

“What are you doing?” Baekhyun asks, confused and surprised, his head whipping around to look at Chanyeol as he settles in his seat; and the world is suddenly in motion again, but so much faster, and Chanyeol needs to appease his restless heart with sweet lies that they can make it work this time. It feels like the first time and the last time, it’s strange. He picks up the bottle with a remarkable steady hand and serves a few drops in the crystal glass, which puzzles Baekhyun even more, but Chanyeol keeps his eyes on the glinting liquid enigmatically.

“I’m drinking with you” he answers quietly, picking up the glass and drinking the contents in one go, his nose scrunching when he feels the alcohol burn his throat but he keeps on, till the final drop; it’s a first step of conviction, and he’ll do whatever it takes to stop Baekhyun from destroying himself. He couldn’t live with himself if he simply watched the quiet, excruciating screams of Baekhyun’s heart and remained idle for one more day; he has waited long enough. This war needs to end, history demands an epilogue, because all they’ve been doing is die every day.

“Why?” Baekhyun asks with a frown, Chanyeol’s obvious answer doing little to untangle his bewilderment. The taller leaves the empty glass on the table again, his chest tingling with fire uncomfortably, not used to the alcohol, but he ignores the sensation.

“Because you shouldn’t be drinking alone” he explains, looking at Baekhyun with a dormant challenge in his eyes, to share another glass; Baekhyun doesn’t seem keen on the idea, perhaps recalling Chanyeol’s aversion to drinking. Either way, Chanyeol is not letting him go through this night without him, because now he knows what he is fighting in the storm, a monster of no name that has always been hiding inside Baekhyun, crawling out after dark and stealing away his happiness. “Sometimes you forget, Baekhyun, that you’re not alone” Chanyeol says quietly, his voice steady and sincere; it’s entirely too difficult for Baekhyun to trust others, but there are many people readily waiting for that moment of privilege, to have him rely on them. Baekhyun’s expression changes, darkens, his confusion turning into shimmering anger, tinged with loathing and offence.

“Oh, no” he whispers, the lines of his face hard, his eyes void of passion, like hazel stones that live buried in a sinister lake. “I’m painfully aware of my loneliness” he counters harshly, gaze piercing through Chanyeol and biting at his heart viciously, like a vengeful arrow that was never meant for him; it’s meant for Baekhyun, a pain he can no longer endure inside of him, locked up and left to tear him apart with cold claws. Chanyeol doesn’t look away, accepting all the wounding sorrow and letting his heart breathe it in, growing it out in black daffodils inside his chest.

“You’re wrong”

“I am.” Baekhyun’s answer is sharper than Chanyeol’s words, as unexpected as it is certain, rekindling a dark flame in Baekhyun’s eyes that burns on him almost palpable, on the edges of his angry lips, on the white knuckles of his tight fists, on his wild blazing hair and his spotless, waxy skin. “I’m full of mistakes and bad decisions, dangerous and hurtful words, and ghosts you couldn’t begin to understand” he whispers furiously, a creature of the night so far from the dawn that it has lost its way, limping in pain and snarling at every shadow, hurting itself futilely, over and over. It scares Chanyeol that Baekhyun hates himself so much, that he has injured his heart so deeply when no one was looking; but it only makes him love him more, for all his mistakes and spiteful words, just a small piece of a broken picture which still seems so full of wonders to Chanyeol’s eyes. Baekhyun keeps his gaze on Chanyeol as his ire dissipates slowly, melting from his irises to his lashes and then fading in blinks, as he shakes his head in regret, for every moment he has hurt Chanyeol, near and distant. “So let me be, Chanyeol; stop reminding me of everything I desperately crave and cannot have” he says, much more gently than before, pleading the taller with his eyes.

There is an apology hanging on the tip of Chanyeol’s tongue, a merciful truce, but they both know there is no room for it between them.

“You know, Baek…” Chanyeol says quietly, voice strained and wounded, words slipping on his lips straight from his heart. He cant’s stop it anymore, hurt as it is, breaking the chains, just to see the sky for a moment, one last time before it bleeds out in his hands, selfishly lashing on them one final scar. “…sometimes, something incredible happens in life, and to me, that magic is you. Of course I want you, and of course I don’t deserve you; but you are so full of wonders, and you make the stars sing when I can’t see the sky. You create entire worlds and dreams, and for a moment in time, I strangely thought I could have a place in them; it’s hard for me to let go of those miracles, just as hard as it is for you to believe in them” he blinks away the tears that threaten to spill from his eyes for a moment, taking a breath before he looks deep into the tearful eyes of the man next to him again, this marvelously broken man that he wishes he could have had a chance at happiness with, not the last of those hopes fading behind the stars, sailing too far away to reach. “Please forgive my foolish heart; my mistake is my own, and I’m sorry Baekhyun, but I love you” he confesses, his feelings finally flowing into words.

Still, still I love you.

And he has been loving him for a long time, so long, and yet it feels like there’s nothing else he has to say; in the simplicity of those words, he can write his entire heart. He looks at Baekhyun in silence, not really expecting an answer but lingering so that the moment might last a little longer for them, bitter and sweet like the last piece of chocolate you keep in your mouth to melt. It would always be missing if he hadn’t done it, one small confession to close the cycle and relinquish them both. Baekhyun blinks, eyes wide and a little stupefied, lashes wet, lips gaping, lost. The implications of this long overdue confession are nothing bizarre and spectacular; it’s a serene acceptance, the storm brewing and raging over them finally finding its peaceful end, only a vast ocean under the stars remaining, smooth as glass and sparkling as the heavens. They finally have a place under the sky, but they can’t stay; the world is forever transient, and the night is growing deep.

Chanyeol has to go before the snowfall, so he wipes a tear from his chin and stands up, leaving the remnants of his heart into the past; the hour is closing its loop with all the memories it holds, and Chanyeol doesn’t linger, gently placing his handkerchief on the table for Baekhyun and looking at him one last time before he turns around to leave. His steps are a heavy but mechanically familiar ordeal, not the kind of steps that bring you somewhere new but the kind that take you away from something past; there is no sign of movement or sound behind him, and he doesn’t tempt himself to turn around for one more look, one more word, one more heartache. Let things be, let the dream be beautiful, stabbed onto their hearts.

He slips out to the entrance hall and leaves the door slightly ajar like he found it when he came, leaving as if he was never here. There is a strange, dejected yet peaceful sense sloshing in his chest having played his final card, having laid out his heart for Baekhyun to see, and he picks up his coat like any other day, his gloves accidentally falling to the ground; he puts on the overgarment, not bothering to button it, and he picks up his gloves, stuffing them in one pocket. He feels a little tired, long days piling into long weeks, long hours of torment that have finally found closure; he thinks he feels a little empty, as he picks up his things and leaves quietly, just like he came, but he is feeling a lot lighter, like floating, he supposes.

The cold outside is sweet as a blade, kissing his cheeks the moment he leaves the building, and he opens his umbrella, the snowflakes already descending and sticking to the clear paths on the pavement like a thin cover of melting paper. He regrets not buttoning his coat properly and not wearing his gloves, too absentminded to think of the cold that now greets him, squirming through his clothes and pinching his skin, but he can disregard the discomfort, more fascinated by the soft crunch of thawing snowflakes under his shoes, their little shadows as they pass in front of the lanterns, the absolute silence that traps every other sound in the snow. Maybe part of him is also trapped under there.

“Chanyeol!” a voice suddenly calls, breaking the silence like a dainty bell, echoing near, breathless like the sighing drops of cotton falling from the sky. Chanyeol turns around a little perplexed, surprised by Baekhyun’s sudden appearance in the picture; it would be impossible for him to mistake the voice he loves most for somebody else, but he simply did not expect another circle to be kicked open so soon between them, he thought they’d reached the end of their course tonight. Baekhyun is holding onto the door of the Pearl, probably having burst out of it just now; he is not wearing his coat properly, his neck exposed to the cold, which makes Chanyeol frown deeply with concern –he can’t be expected to stop caring in a flash, after all. Baekhyun is quite a sight to behold, however, his shirt white like the snow, his coat a little too big for him, nose and lips red, his burgundy hair catching snowflakes like little flowers that bloom against it in the midst of winter. His eyes are wide, a little puffy but beautifully round, innocent and scared, harboring stray glints from the amber lanterns, but also sparking with their own flame; Chanyeol had missed that.

And before he knows it, Baekhyun is running, strong legs pushing him forward on the glassy stones and bringing him straight to Chanyeol, his body colliding against the taller and immediately holding on. Chanyeol nearly loses his balance from the unexpected impact, his umbrella falling from his numb hand to the ground, and all his breath leaves him in a shocked gasp, creating a white puff that dissolves from his lips into the air. It takes a few heartbeats till he becomes gradually aware of Baekhyun’s proximity, his scent, his warmth, his breath, and then all at once, his arms around Chanyeol’s waist, his body pressed against his own. It almost doesn’t feel real, and Chanyeol tentatively wraps his free arm around the shorter’s shoulders, fingers disbelieving for just a moment; but then the snow starts swirling again, very real and soft, and he pulls Baekhyun closer, feeling his heart beating faster in his chest. Baekhyun’s hands are cold where they’ve sneaked under Chanyeol’s coat, but his tears are hot as they fall against Chanyeol’s neck, a cold nose nuzzling his throat.

“Please, please, I’m sorry, so s-sorry” Baekhyun mumbles earnestly, his chest trembling against Chanyeol’s. After so long of being apart, it almost feels surreal to hold Baekhyun like this, to have him small and hurt, but also hopeful and full of affection in his arms. Chanyeol’s heart is trembling too, every beat painful because it’s new, reborn, and he can feel fresh tears welling in his eyes, burning against the cold. “Didn’t I tell you to never give up on me?” Baekhyun says quietly, voice still a little ragged, squeezing Chanyeol almost painfully, as if afraid he’ll disappear, as if deprived of warmth.

Chanyeol’s tears finally overflow, escaping in the corners of his closed eyes and falling on his cheeks, turning cold soon; only Baekhyun’s tears are scorching against his skin, their warmth slowly thawing his frozen heart. “I love you” he whispers again against Baekhyun’s hair, indulgently, just for his lips to say because he needs to, because it feels like his heart is expanding and growing flowers out of the thorns, his chest filling with an indescribable tenderness that shines like a small sun in the middle of the night, leaving a sweet aftertaste on his lips; he could say those words again and again forever. He doesn’t expect Baekhyun to give a small nod against his neck, wordlessly accepting his feelings in the middle of whirling snow, under stars that can’t be seen, but it’s so fulfilling it’s unbearable, and Chanyeol can only cry harder, holding him as close as he can and treasuring every moment.

Sometimes, a lonely star in the sky grants wishes, in enchanting blizzards and gentle hearts.

They hug each other as close as possible, chasing away the cold and feeling each other’s joyous heart singing in glee and dancing clumsily in excitement, finally free to fall in its destined place. The kiss of snow is tickly on the skin, melting alongside tears on their cheeks, tangling in their hair like a crown, perching on their lashes before it flutters away with a soft caress. It gathers on Chanyeol’s shoulders and bespeckles Baekhyun’s coat, sticking in rogue constellations on Chanyeol’s sleeves and creating a small mountain inside his upturned umbrella on the ground. It’s so quiet he can hear the smallest sniffle of Baekhyun’s nose and sigh of his lips, and it is so cold he can’t feel his fingers, but there’s nowhere else in the world he’d rather be, every other corner of the world under the sky seeming incomparably pale; there is a radiant color in this moment, the one that leads over the horizon.

“I don’t want to let you go” Baekhyun mumbles after a while, time unidentifiable as they try to tentatively start healing, slow and careful, but together. The shorter pulls back a little, his breaths steady in spite of the persisting sniffles from the cold, and he looks up at Chanyeol, cheeks and eyes so red that it’s noticeable even in the night, the tear tracks glistening in the mild glow of the streetlights. His hair is even messier than before, curling on his forehead and flying in stray tufts over his head, and his eyes seem droopier from this angle, lips soft and bashful, a small tongue wetting them nervously. It’s the most adorable thing Chanyeol has ever seen, and his heart is keen to agree, picking up the pace. “Will you please come home with me?” Baekhyun whispers, and Chanyeol can read in his voice the soft blush the night and the cold are hiding unjustly, Baekhyun’s lashes fluttering, his clear gaze vulnerable but patient. Chanyeol’s lips slowly curl into a smile, and Baekhyun’s eyes widen attentively, trying not to miss any details in the dark; the taller nods approvingly and feels Baekhyun’s fingers twitch in excitement on his waist.

The snow falls denser by the time Baekhyun finishes locking the door of the Pearl, reluctantly leaving Chanyeol’s side and stealing glances at him every other second, as if to make sure he is still there. Chanyeol picks up his umbrella after he fixes his coat, closing all the buttons to trap any leftover warmth from Baekhyun against him, and he slips on the first glove, but he is intercepted before he can put on the second one, Baekhyun appearing beside him remarkably fast and stealing it from him, wearing it on his own hand instead. Chanyeol is a little confused and a little tired by now, feeling like a piano playing the right notes out of tune, but he lets Baekhyun do as he likes when he also takes the saxophone case from Chanyeol and holds it in his gloved hand, sending the taller a tiny smile.

Chanyeol is left holding just the umbrella in his glove, the snow no longer falling on his shoulders, but Baekhyun doesn’t let his other hand be idle, gently taking it in his own and intertwining their fingers, both cold and a little stiff, but the gesture warms their cheeks as if it’s the first time. Baekhyun smiles more openly now, innocent but also a little playful, and Chanyeol looks at him in wonder, his moon-shaped eyes twinkling in the night, his flushed cheeks puffing youthfully, the corners of his lips turning just a little boxy, white teeth flashing underneath. He pulls Chanyeol closer beside him with a short tug, slipping their joint hands safely into the pocket of his coat; it’s a little warm from Baekhyun’s body, soothing over Chanyeol’s skin and allowing him to feel Baekhyun’s hand a little better, the soft skin, the elegant curves, the colder knuckles. Baekhyun beams up at the taller, looking so happy with himself, and Chanyeol chuckles quietly, whispering softly that his love is adorable, an undeniable truth. Baekhyun swells with pride at the compliment, his smile shining brighter than the moon above the sky of clouds.

They walk down the familiar road to Baekhyun’s house in silence, each neighborhood asleep, missing the beautiful snowfall; only the two of them see it, with full hearts and minds at peace. The flakes start gathering on the paths, covering everything in their white veil, a pair of shoe prints lasting for mere seconds before it disappears, blending in with the rest. Soft cotton flakes slide over the edges of the umbrella all around, making the blizzard look like a dancing, twirling mistress of winter, so pure and so calm, despite the biting cold. It’s a beautiful night to be in love, Chanyeol thinks, walking beside Baekhyun with a tranquil heart and a carefree mind, as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist as they know it, but they’re walking through a fairytale instead. The soft clouds of breath, the quiet squish of snow, and two warm heartbeats jostle the stillness the city with hints of life that soon disappear, ephemerally lending their brilliance to the night.

“Chanyeol?”

“Yes?”

Chapter Text

~* 24 *~

It’s quiet, and warm, and there is soft light behind his closed eyes. His head feels heavy, a good night’s sleep still swirling in his mind and meddling with his thoughts, his body feeling rested but far from comfortable; he kicks something just by trying to stretch his cramped legs and his back aches as if he’d been playing the piano all night, his neck protesting with a crack at the slightest turn, as if he’s been sleeping confined in a box. It is ridiculous to feel so weary so early in the day, so he simply gives up on moving around for a while, staying still and enjoying the beautiful things this morning has to offer.

It’s unusually quiet, without echoes of distant traffic or mumbles of strangers passing by, only subtle shuffling and a couple of stray clinks reaching his ears; he could fall asleep again to such soft music, the infinitesimal touch of sunrays on his skin lulling him back to sleep. It’s warm, something fluffy is wrapped around him, fuzzy against his fingers; it seems he slept in his clothes, the waist of his pants a little too tight, the fabric dissimilar to the soft ones he prefers to sleep in, the buttons of his shirt straining against his curled body, the collar pressing his neck –he can even feel his socks if he wiggles his toes a little. The light gradually turns into color as he cracks his eyes open curiously, a shade in velvet fabric he has seen somewhere before peeking through his hinged lashes, and there is a faint scent of coffee in the air, promising and comforting.

He recovers last night piece by piece in his memory, trying to figure out the situation this morning; he remembers making a toast to their newest baby girl, then he remembers Jongdae and more toasts, then walking in the snow, arriving at the Pearl, confessing to Baekhyun. They left the club together, and Chanyeol walked Baekhyun home at the latter’s request, but the snowstorm was too heavy and the night was too lonely to send Chanyeol home afterwards, so he ended up staying.

For the best part of the night, they talked in hushed voices over warm tea, sitting close to each other on the couch; Baekhyun told Chanyeol the unedited version of his cruel childhood, how he started the Pearl and how Sehun came into the picture, with a personal loan for the business which Baekhyun is repaying in blood, under a constant threat of mafia hits and executions he won’t know about until it’s too late. He cannot plea to the police, even though he is genuinely afraid, and he kept lamenting that he brought it all on himself; a man who has something to lose has every right to cry, and Baekhyun did, sobbing in Chanyeol’s arms until he was exhausted. And even then, when the obscure light of dawn was faint above the clouds, he stayed in Chanyeol’s embrace, listening to him whispering soothing tales about the snow and lullabies. Chanyeol can’t remember falling asleep on the couch, but Baekhyun probably didn’t want to wake him afterwards, wrapping him in a blanket securely and leaving him to rest here.

A soft waft reaches him as someone passes by, and Chanyeol blinks his eyes completely awake, carefully turning himself around.

“Good morning” Baekhyun greets him softly with a gentle smile, fitting himself in the aisle between the couch and the coffee table with ease; Chanyeol’s eyelashes flutter against the brighter light, and he misses a few details as Baekhyun sets a cup of dark liquid on the table and then kneels beside him on the floor, just next to Chanyeol’s waist so that they can look at each other comfortably. He looks so supple and calm in the morning light, his face relaxed and his skin glowing, eyes a little droopy and lips a little pouty, though they are currently curled in a small smile. He is wearing his sapphire robe de chambre, the silk material shimmering like his hair, fluffy and tussled as if Baekhyun has just run his beautiful fingers though the auburn locks. Chanyeol’s heart swoons a little without permission, especially at the way Baekhyun’s crescent eyes are twinkling happily, not just a candle flame but an entire sun burning inside them brightly.

“I love you” Chanyeol mumbles, the words slipping from his lips unsuspectingly, because it’s all he ever wants to say and all that he can think of –admittedly, however, it wasn’t the wisest choice of a morning greeting, his excited heart getting carried away. His eyes widen in embarrassment the next second, his cheeks tingling with all the blood his heart is sending to his head, and he brings a hand over his mouth apologetically, inwardly promising to himself to keep any other such professions a bit more private for now; he’s never been particularly charismatic when he’s fresh from sleep, and to think this is the first thing he had to say after the night they’ve had is crushing. Thankfully, Baekhyun laughs, a husky, musical sound that bounces off the walls and makes the sunshine sweeter.

“I feel like I could watch you say that all day” he muses, lips fighting a blindingly wide smile in favor of his fond, glinting eyes as he gazes at Chanyeol. There is a lovely dusting of pink on Baekhyun’s cheeks, but he seems completely comfortable with it; Chanyeol guesses he would be unapologetically happy too, if Baekhyun told him the same thing. He doesn’t, he hasn’t yet, and that’s perfectly fine for both of them. Instead, Baekhyun’s hand rests naturally over the blanket and starts rubbing circles around the area of Chanyeol’s stomach, so soothing and relaxing that the taller’s eyes start feeling temptingly heavy again; oh, wouldn’t it be perfect if he could doze off to Baekhyun’s belly rub, spoiling him affectionately since the first hour of the morning…

“What time is it?” Chanyeol gasps, suddenly wide awake with worry about a thought that hadn’t crossed his mind earlier. Baekhyun tilts his head, smiling brightly, looking like one of the angels in beautiful paintings, the gloomy light of day casting a hazy halo around his fiery hair.

“Does it matter?” he questions, letting his hand fall from the blankets as Chanyeol sits up on the couch, his legs finally getting some room, but his spine cracks awkwardly; he ignores it, anxious eyes searching around for his pocket watch, though he can’t seem to be able to find even his suit jacket and tie in vicinity –because, perhaps, he left them elsewhere last night, but his thoughts are still a little fuzzy from sleep around the edges.

“I have class early in the afternoon” he explains to Baekhyun, while gathering his legs close to him to get a better look around the couch. He doesn’t notice the flash in Baekhyun’s eyes, which turns into a mischievous smile as the shorter lifts himself from the floor, just enough to slither onto the couch, fitting his hips snuggly next to Chanyeol’s bent legs, his chin almost touching the taller’s knee; he certainly has Chanyeol’s attention now, and it’s not like the taller could bypass him to stand up from his seat, trapped against the couch.

“Then I should probably let you know that your class is cancelled” Baekhyun announces confidently, with a hint of something playful, and Chanyeol frowns in confusion; how would Baekhyun know about his class? Baekhyun basks smugly in Chanyeol’s bafflement for a few moments, but then he relents, his smile relaxing to its natural lines. “We’re snowed in; the entire city is” he says, nodding his head at the window in vague indication. The information takes a moment longer to sink in for the taller, but when it does, it splashes like a rock, scattering around his thoughts; he can’t remember the last time it snowed so much in the city, how is it possible that they got snowed in overnight?! “The snow has reached the window, if you want to look” Baekhyun quips as if he can read his mind, sensing his disbelief. Chanyeol does look out the window on reflex, but he doesn’t get to see the snow’s level, only white flakes wafting down from the sky and sticking to the glass. He is willing to take Baekhyun’s word for it, however, his mind thinking ahead, rescheduling his classes and errands on instinct –still missing the not-so-little, implied details. “Coffee?” Baekhyun suggests with a smile then, holding up the cup for Chanyeol, and the taller accepts it graciously, because if anything, he needs to get his mind to work.

It’s silent inside the house for a while, both men taking their time to fully wake up in comforting companionship. Baekhyun had brought a second cup of coffee for himself which Chanyeol hadn’t noticed earlier, though his is black as he prefers it, unlike Baekhyun’s choice of milk; he tries not to think too much into the considerate gesture, focusing instead on the warmth transferring from the cup to his fingers and to the strong taste on his tongue, nudging the last pieces of his consciousness awake. Besides rescheduling his work, he realizes there are more practical problems at hand, since he is stuck in Baekhyun’s house without any personal items or a change of clothes –not to mention, he is stuck in the house with Baekhyun, a reasonable conclusion, but for some reason, Chanyeol suddenly feels like one of his students, flustered over something so simple. Baekhyun, on the other hand, who has had time to come to terms with the situation, seems perfectly at peace when Chanyeol steals a glance at him, just as his smile is disappearing behind his cup, eyes speculative and gleaming contently; he looks a little like he’s seconds away from humming a song, mysteriously enough.

“Is there any chance I can borrow a toothbrush?” Chanyeol asks timidly, cutting through Baekhyun’s reverie by necessity, his fingers nervously dancing around his cup. Baekhyun turns his attention to him instantly and lowers his cup from his lips, smiling widely, his eyes scrunching at the corners, looking at Chanyeol as if he’s an endearing little thing.

“Of course, doll” he agrees easily, with the effortlessness of a well-prepared host; it’s not the first time he gets to have the taller as a guest, after all. Chanyeol nods, fighting off an apprehensive blush for the burden he is unwillingly imposing on Baekhyun, and he resolves to hiding the color of his cheeks behind his cup, the only viable solution; Baekhyun doesn’t seem concerned in the least, confident that he can afford an unplanned guest for a day, and perhaps this won’t be so bad, giving them some much needed privacy to discuss the tentative beginning of something more heartfelt between them after last night –at least, Chanyeol hopes so. Baekhyun sets his cup on the table, almost empty, and then leans against Chanyeol’s knees, his arm resting on top of them casually. “You can shower too” he adds obligingly, and Chanyeol hums inside his cup, already feeling lighter at the prospect. He should have seen the next one coming though, by the sly glint in Baekhyun’s eyes and the self-assured smirk, gaze hooded, full of innuendo. “You can even shower with me, if you want” he purrs, fingers teasing the musician’s knee.

Chanyeol chokes on his coffee.

~//~

Chanyeol is standing by the large living room windows, leaning his shoulder against the narrow space available on the wall on one side of the wide panes, just next to the drawn curtain. He is in a bit of a daze, gazing outside, the day a little later than before but still fairly sunlit, the cold reigning over the silence. The sky is full of clouds from corner to corner, not a sliver of pure sun peeking through; the sunlight only filters through the fluffy blanket in the sky, pale and misty, carrying small pinches of the white clouds down with the rest. The snow swirls over the rooftop tiles, piling on the edges and eventually onto the street, to the point it has reached near the windows on the first floor, like an enormous, fluffy pillow –Baekhyun was being absolutely honest about it earlier. Each house door is blocked, buried under the snow, rendering the entire city trapped into its most comfortable spaces. The snowstorm seems to have been quite busy overnight, and it has not retired since, all morning picking up in flurries of snowflakes, erupting into the air, and then slowing down to a more relaxed, atmospheric snowfall. Nothing is moving outside besides the blizzard, dancing in front of gray buildings and sashaying from window to window, the white cover it has created on the ground shimmering in the faintest of light, unblemished and smooth.

His small sigh fogs the window, which is already decorated with melting drops all over due to the heat indoors, obscuring the sight of the falling snow a little bit, but it’s infinitely preferable to the lesser facilities of his own apartment. The city was not prepared for such an intense phenomenon, announcements on the radio hardly concealing the state of panic at the mayor’s office, having to clean so many streets of so much snow and ending up doing nothing at all thus far; but Chanyeol has Baekhyun and he is not worried, since Baekhyun seems to be so casual about it, enjoying the snowfall more than one would expect. Rather than being confined to the house due to the snow, it feels like a small vacation at home, or a lazy weekend off work; there are no obligations demanding their attention, and there is no hurry to make plans, the day moving at their own pace. Baekhyun was right; time doesn’t really matter, since they spend every hour as they wish.

Currently, Baekhyun is spending his second full hour in the kitchen, shuffling pans, who knows to what end. He’s been cooking leisurely, soft hums of jazz songs and mouthwatering scents escaping the kitchen every now and then, but Chanyeol was not allowed to stick around, with the excuse that Baekhyun needs to concentrate to prepare the impressive meal he wants to make for him, to make up for the fluster he caused this morning. It’s furtively disappointing for Chanyeol to be missing out on the delight that is watching Baekhyun in the kitchen, but he can always fill in the details using his imagination, since Baekhyun has been anything by quiet while cooking, sounds painting the picture. He sounds really happy, finally, after so long, and Chanyeol smiles to himself as he absently listens to Baekhyun humming along to a sax bridge, almost hitting all the notes.

Needles to say, spilling hot coffee all over himself was the necessary motivation for Chanyeol to take up Baekhyun’s offer to use the shower, and Baekhyun apologized to him a million times, somewhere between concern and laughter. He said that, although the offer was genuine, he mostly meant to tease Chanyeol goodheartedly; he gave Chanyeol the softest fresh towels, a clean shirt and as much time as he wanted in his personal, en suit bathroom, as a sign of goodwill. The shower felt so good for his aching bones, and Chanyeol feels much more comfortable now, but he didn’t get to thank Baekhyun half as much as he’d like, given that the shorter has been busying himself in the kitchen, keeping at a safe distance ever since Chanyeol finished freshening up. Chanyeol is not sure that this is a good sign; yes, he appreciates Baekhyun’s thoughtfulness, giving him space to calm down, but he didn’t mean to discourage his advances altogether –although, knowing Baekhyun, he probably shouldn’t worry about that happening.

It’s just that, Chanyeol hasn’t been intimate with anyone in a while, and Baekhyun’s forward confidence makes him a little nervous, but that doesn’t mean he is not attracted to Baekhyun physically, and Baekhyun seems quite capable– wait, what is he thinking, he is shouldn’t be luring himself into temptation, stop it.

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Chanyeol focuses on the snow again. It falls like soundless notes, tiny shapes mingling, crossing paths and twirling in a little waltz around each other. He can see a few buildings in the distance, but they are vague through the blizzard, pale gray shapes over the closer, darker gray ones, the world looking rather void of color. He was lucky he didn’t try to go home last night; his apartment is not as well equipped against the colder seasons, and he’d probably be freezing under a pile of blankets right now, the frost creeping in through the old, thin walls and biting at his toes. He shudders at the thought, tightening his crossed arms over his chest.

He doesn’t hear the quiet shuffling of slippers behind him, but he is only pleasantly surprised when two slender arms wrap around his waist, snaking from his back to his front and lacing over his stomach, bringing warmth and comfort with them. Chanyeol relaxes into Baekhyun’s hug, his back leaning a little against the shorter’s chest, and Baekhyun lifts himself on his toes to hook his chin over the taller’s shoulder; his shoulders are as broad as Chanyeol’s, making for a very comfortable place to rest as the taller inclines against him. Chanyeol finds it hopeless to fight the smile curling on his lips, and he can feel Baekhyun’s cheeks also bunching up into a squishy smile next to his jaw; it feels nice, just with Baekhyun holding him into his chest and Chanyeol leaning against him, holding his soft, elegant hands, which are laced over his stomach. The musician’s fingers caress over the cute moles absently, Baekhyun’s fingertips digging pleasantly into Chanyeol’s shirt.

“I’m sorry” Baekhyun mumbles after a while, husky voice quiet and a little guilty. Chanyeol squirms until Baekhyun’s arms loosen enough for him to turn around, still staying in Baekhyun’s hold, but this time he leans his back against the wall, his arms draping over Baekhyun’s shoulders.

“Hmm?” he hums with interest, idly suspecting this is meant to be another apology for the earlier accident; he has assured Baekhyun he wasn’t hurt, and it’s completely fine after the initial shock passed, but Baekhyun keeps apologizing. To an extent, Chanyeol doesn’t have the heart to stop him, to be honest; he just looks so cute, with his pouting lips and puppy eyes, all soft apologies and sweet words, his hands placing soothing caresses over Chanyeol’s shoulders, arms and stomach, as if apologizing on their own. Sometimes he just combs his fingers through Chanyeol’s hair, or places a hand on the small of his back; it makes Chanyeol feel a little flustered, but just for today, for the while it’s just the two of them, these little touches of affection are meant only for him, and that makes him smile widely, in spite of his blushing ears.

“I’m sorry” Baekhyun repeats, lips curling into a small, pink pout for a moment before he turns more serious. It’s impressive, how his posture is comfortable and fluid, despite the great proximity between them; he is close enough for Chanyeol to see the fine line of his neck as it curves under the first undone button of his shift, flowing into beautiful collarbones, broad shoulders tapering into a narrower waist which is so close too, their bodies mere centimeters apart. Baekhyun is radiating warmth, inviting and unguarded, and Chanyeol’s fingers curl behind Baekhyun’s head, resisting a sudden desire to touch. Baekhyun’s hands squeeze on Chanyeol’s waist as he leans in a little, turning out to be less unaffected than he seems, and his nose brushes over the taller’s jaw affectionately, as if he can’t resist touching him, before he pulls back again, just enough so he can look up at the taller in the eyes.

Baekhyun looks more fascinating than the storm, his hair combed yet stubbornly refusing not to curl on the side of his forehead, his hazel eyes twinkling like jewels, deep and honest. Chanyeol gives him a quiet, dimpled smile, inadvertently accepting the apology, which seems to encourage Baekhyun, hazel eyes sparkling. “Being playful is the only way I know of, to show you how much I…want you” he admits, voice starting brave but ending up a little timid, his lower lip getting caught between his teeth in nervousness as he waits for a reaction.

Chanyeol won’t deny that the unexpected confession takes him by surprise, his eyes blinking wide in near disbelief at the words he never anticipated to hear. Not only did Baekhyun say he wants him, deciding to just come by and say it because he felt like it, but he also revealed a small part of himself, exposing his vulnerable habits to Chanyeol; his honesty is a first step to show that the most important thing for him now is that Chanyeol understands him, no longer keeping secrets. It makes Chanyeol’s heart summersault in his chest, stumbling and falling happily into the swirling butterflies inside his stomach. It’s hard to grasp how many things have changed since yesterday, in a natural procession, like the snow falling from the sky and painting the city white. He gapes, a little lost. “You…”

“I want you” Baekhyun says it again, more confident this time, leaving no room for doubt and second thoughts; it’s absolute and simple, and so certain, like Baekhyun’s hands stroking the sides of Chanyeol’s waist. The taller blushes, both at the touch and at Baekhyun’s words, flattered and flustered and elated that Baekhyun, so full of beauty and grace and wonders, actually wants someone like him, a boring music teacher, too tall and somewhat clumsy. It’s starting to sound real, shy and warm swirling around them and tying tender heartstrings from one’s chest to the other with care. Sometimes, loving moments bloom inside your chest like flowers of light, in little feelings that combine with the eyes of the one you love, gentle and unforgettable like universal symphonies, and Chanyeol can hear the echo of the stars in Baekhyun’s voice, see their light hiding under his lashes.

“I want your heart and your soul; I selfishly want your every thought to be about me. I want it all. I want my name in your voice, my lips on your neck, my touch on your body” Baekhyun says it again and again like he can’t get enough, running a little short of breath; he is glowing like a brilliant, tame star in Chanyeol’s hold, his fathomless eyes in gray and green entrancing Chanyeol and his poor heart irreversibly. Baekhyun glances at Chanyeol’s stunned lips for a moment before he looks up again, his words more quiet and gentle now, like the quiver of petals instead of a surging stream. “And I want you to be the only one singing me my favorite songs in my ear, smiling at me when I’m crying, hugging me when I’m being unreasonable; I want to be with you” he confesses softly, blinking at Chanyeol with all the innocent, earnest affection he can carry in his gaze.

“You are the first and the last star of the night for me” he whispers, falling silent.

It’s the most beautiful silence Chanyeol has ever felt on his skin, so perfectly in place, so tenderly expressive. Baekhyun has so many different words to say such a simple little thing, feeling it inside of him like an overflowing music which he needs to sing for Chanyeol, share it with him like a moment and a lifetime, and perhaps that’s part of Baekhyun’s magic too. Chanyeol has never been loved so profoundly and unreservedly before, and he smiles, his heart so full, basking in the glow of Baekhyun’s eyes.

He needs to lean down just slightly, slowly and carefully, to kiss Baekhyun’s lips, a quiet acceptance of his feelings, gleeful and sweet, like Baekhyun’s lips tasting of sugar and something else he’d been baking. The shorter tilts his head to deepen the kiss just a little, his heart beating so fast in joy and amazement, and Chanyeol is brought closer to him, Baekhyun’s hands pulling him away from the wall and into his safe embrace. Chanyeol’s fingers tangle in Baekhyun’s hair, affectionate and a bit bashful, his lips curling into a smile under Baekhyun’s own, so infatuated and tender and soft, mouthing the words against Chanyeol’s lips and making him chuckle breathlessly, feeling their invisible notes and reciprocating fervently.

I love you, too.

~//~

“Do you miss me that much?” Chanyeol laughs happily in amusement, after he gets an armful of Baekhyun, as soon as he steps out of the kitchen. He just finished doing the dishes after dinner, despite Baekhyun’s initial reluctance and mighty pout, fixed on not letting Chanyeol do chores today. It wasn’t easy to defy him, but Chanyeol managed to convince him in the end, insisting that Baekhyun has spent enough hours in the kitchen for one day, preparing meals with the best of intensions to take good care of Chanyeol; he finished swiftly without trouble, already knowing his way around the house, but he certainly wasn’t gone long enough to justify such a tight, impatient embrace awaiting him, although he’s not opposed to it.

“Mmm, more” Baekhyun mumbles incoherently, hiding his face in the taller’s chest, and Chanyeol chuckles again, shaking his head; such playfulness makes Baekhyun seem so much younger, feeling small in Chanyeol’s hold.

It’s dark outside, the streetlights still buried in the snow, leaving the city to disappear under the heavy cloak of the night; distant shimmers break the darkness, pouring out of warm windows and houses still awake, like fireflies studded in the sky. It’s a pity the skies are still cloudy, lazily shifting snow in the darkness, or the stars would look magnificent tonight. The snow is not as visible after dusk, but the snowflakes that come nearer to the window seem to make a path that continues to the sky, catching the light’s shadow as they fall. They leave a gentle after-image floating inside the warmth of the house, moments stolen from the world and gathered under one roof, waiting patiently to be united with the stars, through dreams that will probably melt by tomorrow; but at least those moments will still exist in dreams, walking in secret with the stars.

The day is slowly coming to an end, and so is their time together, full of precious memories that they will have to keep safely between themselves; the rest at the Pearl might suspect it, but it’s a secret they won’t tell. They’ll have to be very careful and patient from now on, but it’s a risk they are both willing to take with each other. Throughout the day, Baekhyun has been chasing Chanyeol’s warmth, holding his hand, embracing him, sitting close beside him; it’s not because he doesn’t care to give Chanyeol his personal space, but because he knows how valuable every moment they spend together is, and he is trying to fit as many of them as possible in their given time. Chanyeol wonders when they’ll be able to make time for just the two of them like this again; there is so much of Baekhyun he wants, so many tentative future plans to make. Such plans will have to wait for their turn on some other late night, however, because tonight is so vibrant with the present that it can hardly fit a speck of the future.

Chanyeol gathers Baekhyun a little closer, committing to memory everything about this moment, how happily Baekhyun is surrendered to his arms. His head is resting on Chanyeol’s shoulder, red hair streaking crimson against the taller’s neck, his body so relaxed you’d think he has fallen asleep. He feels warm under Chanyeol’s hands, which are wrapped around his shoulders, and the fabric of his shirt is crisp, creased just a little around his waist, where his black pants cinch in the shirt. His breath is ghosting over Chanyeol’s collar and his arms are draped around Chanyeol’s body, a little low, closer to his hips than to his waist, but the taller doesn’t mind; they have been building this sort of confidence slowly all day.

The attraction is playful, but also sincere; Baekhyun’s hands are curious, his words flattering. Interestingly enough, he hasn’t called Chanyeol ‘doll’ today, consciously favoring his name to express his appreciation more straightforwardly, but he treats him in ways that make Chanyeol feel even more precious and more beautiful; little things, like telling him he looks gorgeous when he’s smiling like that, just as Chanyeol was finishing a story about his hometown, complimenting him that he smells good in Baekhyun’s own almond soap when he kisses his cheek, admitting that he had wanted to kiss Chanyeol for the longest time before he finally did. It’s those little things that make Chanyeol blush, more than the lingering touches on his back and the tentative squeezes of Baekhyun’s hand on his thigh. He might not be very well versed in physical contact, but Chanyeol finds he doesn’t mind Baekhyun’s touches, steadily warming up to them. In turn, Baekhyun is scandalously open about his preferences, which also make Chanyeol blush, but they intrigue him too, tempting him to explore further.

“Chanyeol?” Baekhyun mumbles, tilting his head so that he can look at the taller’s face, his own looking so soft in smooth curves from this angle, with his button nose and pouty lips and droopy hazel eyes. Chanyeol looks at him patiently and attentively, his lips tugging into a hint of a smile; he can’t help that his heart is beating so excitedly when Baekhyun is so near, melting in his arms in deep heartbeats against him. The smaller licks his lips pensively, pink tongue making a teasing appearance that catches the taller’s eye, lips gaining a slight sheen, so inviting and silky. Baekhyun’s gaze drops to Chanyeol’s lips too for a moment, before blinking up again. “Do you think it would be okay to…kiss a little, before going to sleep?” he suggests inquisitively, voice quiet, as if he is not sure he’s not asking for too much, but there is a hint of fire in his eyes, wanting and wild under veils of conscientious silence, which calls to Chanyeol like a siren, stealing his breath and distracting his thoughts.

“Yes” he mumbles, his lips having a mind of their own to claim their kisses, reciprocating Baekhyun’s whispery voice, as if he is thinking the exact same thing; his eyes widen a little in embarrassment at how effortless his answer was, but then again, he wouldn’t have been able to deny Baekhyun’s kiss, offered so captivatingly. Baekhyun’s lips curve in lopsided, amused smirk, his eyes turning just a little darker, fascinating, like a night without stars, mysterious and prowling under your skin.

He has to move out of his comfortable perch in Chanyeol’s arms slightly, but one of his arms curls tightly around the taller’s waist, fitting snug and certain under his ribs, keeping him close; Chanyeol’s heart skips a beat at Baekhyun’s arresting confidence, his stomach squirming at the proximity when Baekhyun’s hips lightly brush against his in the process. Baekhyun’s hazel eyes are mellow as they gaze into Chanyeol’s, but his smile is more mischievous, a slender hand that lifts to comb through the hair over Chanyeol’s temple being slow and careful; Baekhyun is wrapping himself around him little by little, like the night comes over the horizon, irrevocably proving to be the most alluring creature Chanyeol has ever laid eyes upon. The taller holds his breath in anticipation, letting Baekhyun tilt his head slightly as he leans closer, breaths fluttering against Chanyeol’s mouth; the last thing he lingers on before closing his eyes are Baekhyun’s bow shaped lips, parted in soft sighs.

Baekhyun’s lips are sweet and warm, like a dusting of spices over chocolate, so delightful when they give a kiss and receive one in return. Chanyeol can feel the softness of Baekhyun’s lips gently molding against his, over and over, his mouth taking each of Chanyeol’s lips and sucking lightly, making Chanyeol gasp; a small flame flairs in his chest, hypnotic and sensational. Chanyeol’s hands are weak on Baekhyun’s shoulders, his body swooning to this kiss that feels so different from those they’ve stolen before, less curious and reserved, more assured and wholehearted; his fingers slide over Baekhyun’s arms, slender but muscular under his shirt, one arm flexing tighter when he pulls Chanyeol completely flush against him. Chanyeol is lost in the moment and in the gentle force of Baekhyun’s lips, turning slick against his, making the fire drizzle from the musician’s chest to his stomach, sweet like honey. Baekhyun kisses him breathless, Chanyeol’s heart straining in his chest with an increasingly faster pace, the world gradually fading, until he is finally allowed a breath of air.

But Baekhyun is holding him securely, keeping him right where he wants him in his arms, his lips following the line of Chanyeol’s jaw to his ear, his thumb rubbing over it and stroking the shell, making Chanyeol’s toes curl when his lips kiss just amiss the lobe. “And if I kissed your neck, would that be okay too?” Baekhyun whispers, seductive and promising, and the saxophonist lets out a deep hum, voice purring a little in his chest, as Baekhyun guides his head backwards, finding delectable access to Chanyeol’s neck. The taller’s eyes flutter open for a moment, but there is no shape he recognizes against the ceiling corner in his fuzzy vision, so he closes his eyes again and surrenders to the soft kisses Baekhyun’s lips are brushing over his throat, smooth and warm with his breath; the feeling sends shivers to Chanyeol’s chest the slowly melt in pleasure, Baekhyun’s arm around him being the only reason he hasn’t dissolved in a puddle of satisfaction yet.

His descending lips stop at the collar of Chanyeol’s shirt, opting to nose along the rim instead, making Chanyeol’s neck feel even more sensitive. “And if I undressed you slowly, explored your body with my lips all over…” he mumbles, his nose following the curve of Chanyeol’s throat to his jaw, “would you whisper my name and scream in pleasure for me?” Baekhyun finishes his speculative wondering with his most risqué suggestion, moist lips tugging a little against Chanyeol’s skin. But he stops there, waiting in absolute stillness, like a wolf lying in wait, bodies pressed close; he gives Chanyeol a moment to think, although most of his thoughts are broken and scattered, disorganized under the skillful ministrations of Baekhyun’s lips. Chanyeol hadn’t thought a kiss like this had been lurking behind Baekhyun’s smile, so compelling and thrilling, making the blood in his veins sing in exhilaration, yearning for more.

“Baekhyun…” he mumbles breathlessly, not really thinking of anything else; he can recognize the first tingles of arousal in his body, his heart beating a notch too fast, seduced to the beautiful, scarlet dream Baekhyun is weaving in Chanyeol’s imagination, sultry desire and tender affection mingling in a promising suggestion for a night Chanyeol is sure he’ll never want to let go.

“Hmm, that’s it” Baekhyun hums, and it sounds a little soothing, as he brings Chanyeol’s forehead against his own, lips temptingly close but not overwhelming. He disentangles his fingers from Chanyeol’s hair, letting his hand join the other on the taller’s waist, his arms now holding him close lovingly but not needing to imply anything further. Chanyeol feels more collected than before as his breaths even out, his body turning from a submissive doll to a man again, fully aware of his choices and actions. Baekhyun’s game was only teasing, and even though his promises are still squirming at the back of Chanyeol’s mind, the shorter seems much more unruffled, soft and tame, and only a little dazed in love. “That’s how it starts, with your lovely blushing cheeks and trembling breath, and my promise to show you just how much I want you…” he says quietly, his voice still playful but no longer luring Chanyeol into a game of seduction; it’s sincere, like his eyes gazing deep into Chanyeol’s, as if trying to guess his soul. “…but only if you want this too”

The proposition is honest and full of love, genuinely giving Chanyeol a choice. It’s a decision his heart has already made. “Yes”

“Yes?” Baekhyun repeats Chanyeol’s quiet but firm answer, his hazel eyes sparking with excitement and glee; Chanyeol loves him even more, noticing the soft pink hue on cheeks, endearingly naïve, giving away his true colors. Baekhyun’s personality is playful, and he is naturally very charismatic and seductive, but under those layers there is a man in love, and he is simply so happy to be accepted by the one he loves, making Chanyeol’s heart thump a little harder; he wouldn’t have Baekhyun any other way, but just as he is. The shorter’s lips curl in a smile, the corners sharp, but his eyes are still soft, shaped in crescent moons and twinkling joyfully, full of life. “Then take us to our room, Mr. Park” he announces cheerfully, fumbling to take Chanyeol’s hand in his own and pecking the edge of his lips, giggling sweetly. Chanyeol’s lips stretch in a wide smile, cheeks flushing, heart beating very enthusiastically.

The short distance to the bedroom is marked by impatient, stolen kisses and tightly clasped hands, their burning anticipation making every step seem too slow, and yet, Chanyeol wishes every second lasted longer, to memorize each detail, each shift of the shadows on Baekhyun’s face, too beautiful to forget. Halfway down the hallway, Chanyeol trips over his slippers and clumsily stumbles forward, but Baekhyun catches him easily in his awaiting arms, sealing their lips in an unplanned kiss, slippers and cold, bare feet forgotten; the taller giggles embarrassedly at his silliness at a time like this, but Baekhyun smirks into the kiss, as if everything about Chanyeol in this moment is absolutely perfect and desirable. It’s nice, kissing Baekhyun’s smile, and Chanyeol feels himself being pulled closer, Baekhyun stealing his breath, and almost twirling the rest of the way to the room with Chanyeol in his arms. Chanyeol is completely surrendered, wobbling along as Baekhyun spins him in circles, step after tip-toed step; he feels disoriented beyond hope in this strange dance, but so happy his heart could burst.

Once through the bedroom door, Baekhyun pulls back a little, his hand slipping from Chanyeol’s waist as he lowers himself to stand properly on his heels; Chanyeol keeps his eyes on their clasped hands as Baekhyun reaches for the light switch, both pale as snow but so much warmer. A soft glow floats in the room, pastel as the bedside lamps where small amber sparks burn low; it’s just enough to see Baekhyun clearly without dispelling the dreamy haze in Chanyeol’s vision, the edges of their figures blending with the shadows. The subtle lights help Chanyeol feel slightly more sober than before, no longer lost in the details the shadows were making obscure before.

When his gaze meets Baekhyun’s dark hazel eyes, he finds the shorter already looking back, his gaze gentle while he silently observes Chanyeol, as if treasuring all the imperfections; there is something serene and warm swirling in his eyes, which puts Chanyeol’s heart at ease, reassuring and comfortable. It instills a sense of safety and a bit of confidence in him, and he tugs on Baekhyun’s hand, warm inside his own, bringing him closer, smiling at him as he wraps his arms around Baekhyun’s broad shoulders; the shorter returns the smile, soft and dazed, and he places both hands on Chanyeol’s waist as they slowly amble closer to the bed, smiling at each other like two perfect fools in love. Chanyeol watches the shadows slip over the edges of Baekhyun’s face, indifferent to anything but the man in his hold. He can see the longing dancing wild in Baekhyun’s eyes, clinging to the shadows of his lashes, and he can picture Baekhyun’s lips, kissed red like cherries under his own.

“You’re so beautiful” Baekhyun steals the words from the tip of Chanyeol’s tongue, pulling him in by the waist until their bodies are pressed flush against one another and their lips are just shy of touching. They’ve reached the bed but neither cares to even glance at it, Chanyeol’s every thought revolving around the softness of Baekhyun’s lips; it takes one small tilt of Baekhyun’s head to kiss Chanyeol, as seductively and affectionately as he wants, his kiss growing a little deeper as he snakes his arms around Chanyeol’s body properly, locking them securely around his waist and pressing him closer in need, his warmth almost overwhelming. Even though they have stopped moving, it feels like the world is shifting and melting away around them, and Chanyeol lifts a hand to cradle Baekhyun’s face soothingly, shifting the pace slightly, by first stroking Baekhyun’s sharp jaw with his thumb, then dipping it gently into the corner of his pouty lips, until they part dazedly, tame and responsive to Chanyeol’s curious, wandering tongue.

Baekhyun is not rushed to return the kiss, his tongue lingering at the corners of Chanyeol’s mouth teasingly, as one of his hands trails up the taller’s spine. He caresses over his shoulder blade leisurely, scratching lightly to raise unseen goose bumps on Chanyeol’s skin under his shirt. Then the same hand slithers down again, and although Baekhyun is doing a wonderful job of distracting him with his mouth, Chanyeol becomes more aware of Baekhyun’s warm hand the further down it slides, his heart picking up the pace and ringing warning bells; it slips on his hip and on the side of his thigh, circling to his backside. It’s thrilling, but also foreign; Chanyeol doesn’t think he has ever been touched there, he doesn’t remember anyone really caring to treat his body this way, as if it’s something desirable in every aspect, so satisfying to lay a hand on. Baekhyun’s touch is slow, experimental, as his hand squeezes the swell of Chanyeol’s ass; Chanyeol gasps into their kiss, losing focus, and even though his eyes are closed, he knows Baekhyun is smiling, like the little tease he is. His hand palms, out of sight, closer to the centre seam of Chanyeol’s pants, and softly grips on the flesh again, making Chanyeol blush at the intimacy, a thrilling jolt of electricity running down his spine.

“You always blush so prettily” Baekhyun coos, so quiet and husky it’s almost a whisper, the most adoring one Chanyeol has ever had the privilege of hearing. He opens his eyes only to find Baekhyun staring at his face with a tiny, fond smile, which turns slightly wicked when his nimble fingers sink into Chanyeol’s flesh one more time, the taller’s eyelashes fluttering at the sensation, his cheeks burning more; it feels oddly embarrassing and arousing that Baekhyun is close enough to read every minuscule detail of Chanyeol’s expression, watch the effect of his ministrations so unashamedly. “How about…” Baekhyun hums innocently then, meeting Chanyeol’s gaze and blinking up at him, almost naïvely “…you help me undress? I’ve got my hands full at the moment” he teases, and he can’t hide his satisfied smirk at the pun, his lips curling at the corners no matter how hard he tries to prevent it, mischievous and perfectly charming. Chanyeol chuckles, still very much conscious of Baekhyun’s hand loosely gripping his backside, but he can’t resist him.

“You’re horrible” he accuses, even if there is no hint of bite in his voice, lips smiling wide when Baekhyun leans up to kiss him chastely in response. Chanyeol follows him down when the shorter falls back to his natural height, chasing after his lips and molding their pouty shape against his, making Baekhyun hum quietly into the kiss, expressing his approval.

But Chanyeol cuts the kiss short, favoring Baekhyun’s jaw line instead, as his hands start toying with the collar of his shirt, slipping underneath the fold and tinkering with the first button until it pops open. A couple more buttons become undone blindly, and Chanyeol’s lips move down to Baekhyun’s neck; his skin is smooth, tender, inviting and scented of almonds, like a delicious treat under Chanyeol’s leisurely kisses. He can feel both of Baekhyun’s hands squeezing on his waist, their firm hold twitching whenever Chanyeol brushes his lips over certain spots; he pauses to give them more attention, with gentle kitten licks and nips, savoring each taste of skin as it gradually turns a deep shade of pink. Baekhyun clings onto Chanyeol harder and whines, a stressed sound that is also deep with pleasure, and the musician relishes it more than any note he’s ever played. Chanyeol’s hands resume unfastening the buttons, his touch moving further down as his kisses trail up Baekhyun’s neck, lips insistent before a small suck at the hollow behind his ear, just as the last of Baekhyun’s buttons falls apart.

Baekhyun is panting softly right beside Chanyeol’s ear now, a slight hiss escaping him when his body becomes exposed to the tepid air of the room; there is anticipation and arousal, and complete trust of his body to Chanyeol’s capable hands. Baekhyun likes to be touched, he likes being felt, so Chanyeol’s hands slip under his shirt on the shorter’s back, leaving the garment ajar at the front. His nose hovers close to Baekhyun’s cheek, his position giving him a teasing yet not too revealing view of the half naked body in his arms. Baekhyun’s skin is warm and smooth under Chanyeol’s touch, soft like satin and occasionally dented subtly with muscles on his back, goose bumps rising under Chanyeol’s fingers as they travel over the bumps and dents of the shorter’s ribs, making Baekhyun shiver in his hold. When his hands start massaging gently on Baekhyun’s stiff upper back, the shorter hums and lets his body grow progressively loose, warming up to Chanyeol’s touch as the tension melts into comfort, little trembles of tentative pleasure flowing unreservedly under Chanyeol’s skilled hands, like cherry blossoms shaking their petals in the wind. Chanyeol slowly kisses his neck again, especially the blooming mark he left on the skin earlier, so kindly signifying Baekhyun’s weak spot –the first of many on Baekhyun’s body, waiting to be discovered and conquered. His hands move to Baekhyun’s front, sneaking under the open collar of his shirt and pushing it apart steadily, pulling back to marvel at him when Baekhyun’s torso is revealed.

Sharp, elegant collarbones stand prominently, over a chest as broad as his shoulders, pectoral muscles slightly defined to match the abdominal lines rippling under the skin of Baekhyun’s body, down to his belt. He is very pale, blue veins appearing like shadowy rivulets on the surface near his pelvic bones, and there are freckles, scattered near and around his shoulders, a constellation of tiny moles dotting his stomach. His waist tapers slightly, giving his body a voluptuous shape, his chest expanding in shallow, bated breaths; Chanyeol is completely mesmerized by the fluid, lithe lines, his eyes fluttering close and slightly opening again to steal glimpses of naked skin, as he places a first kiss on Baekhyun’s collarbone. Baekhyun tastes warm, his body relaxing in a relieved exhale, followed by a few short, deep breaths, which Chanyeol chases with his lips as he kisses down Baekhyun’s sternum. The lower his lips travel, the lower his hands push Baekhyun’s shirt down his arms, and soft sighs fall from Baekhyun’s parted lips; there is a breathless giggle when Chanyeol bites on Baekhyun’s stomach, but then suddenly, Baekhyun freezes.

It feels like time stops for a few long moments between them. The shirt is already bunched around Baekhyun’s delicate wrists, but Chanyeol has stopped moving, his gaze focused on a spot just below the smaller’s stomach.

“Yeol-”

“Shh…” Chanyeol soothes the subtle nervousness in Baekhyun’s voice, seeing the world and Baekhyun perfectly clear.

It’s the scar. Only a few centimeters lower than Baekhyun’s stomach, the skin is marred by a wine red scar, shaping almost a perfect circle; the edges are a little irregular and white lines are stringed around it, stitches from the surgery which are already fading. But the scar is a lifelong mark, a permanent part of Baekhyun –and even though it hurts Chanyeol, he can do nothing but love it, just like he cherishes every other little thing about Baekhyun. He kneels on the ground steadily to have a better look, but Baekhyun hastily tries to bring his hands between them to cover the scar on Chanyeol’s eyelevel, clearly insecure about it, possibly the only thing he is unconfident in himself; Chanyeol acts swiftly, however, using the fact that Baekhyun’s hands are still tangled in the shirt to his advantage and pulling on the fabric, until the smaller’s hands are constricted, pinned behind his back. When he starts to lean closer, Baekhyun still tries to avoid him; his stomach keeps retracting, shying away, but there is a limit to how far from him Baekhyun can stay, and Chanyeol readily breaks it, his lips touching the scar chastely, reverently.

In that moment of perfect stillness, Chanyeol has Baekhyun trapped under the spell of a simple kiss, exposed and venerable and raw, and he loves him. He loves him so much.

Silence stretches into long moments, tense and thin as paper, until there is a quiet sob over his head, and Chanyeol gently yet surely pulls the shirt off the rest of the way, releasing Baekhyun’s hands. Beautiful fingers tangle in his hair instantly, but they don’t push him away, threading through his dark locks instead, over and over in an adoring way, wordlessly accepting Chanyeol’s gesture. Baekhyun finally breathes without restraint, deep and filling, cradling Chanyeol’s head gently, as the taller brings his arms around Baekhyun’s hips, hugging him close and pressing his cheek against the scarred skin, closing his eyes.

He loves him so much.

Baekhyun’s fingers remain tangled in Chanyeol’s hair as the taller resumes kissing his skin, slowly descending the planes of his abdomen, low on his stomach, next to his bellybutton, just above the line of his pants. Baekhyun shivers imperceptibly under his lips each time, desire and anticipation mingling in a painfully enduring potion; when Chanyeol’s hands undo the belt and the button of his slacks cautiously, Baekhyun’s entire abdomen tenses reflexively, muscles pulling taught deliciously, and Chanyeol can’t resist tracing the dented lines with short kisses, nosing along the muscles, as he gingerly peels off the fabric. With his palms pressed flat against Baekhyun’s warm skin, Chanyeol slowly pushes Baekhyun’s pants down his legs, following the ample lines of his hips down his full thighs and strong calves, as if sculpting them. He undoes the sock garters around Baekhyun’s shins and pushes them down as well, taking them off with a little help from Baekhyun, who lifts his legs a bit, one by one, to kick off the garments.

He now stands almost bare in front of Chanyeol, and the latter takes his sweet time appreciating him, his fingers circling the dainty bones of Baekhyun’s ankles, then tracing the curve of his calves, blunt nails scraping slightly behind his knees before his hands become full of supple flesh, warm and malleable in his hold; there is an hint of vigor in Baekhyun’s statuesque body, as if anxiously expecting to be touched. Chanyeol’s heavy gaze lingers on Baekhyun’s front, his hands marveling the soft skin of his thighs with gentle strokes.

It’s futile to resist staring; Baekhyun’s member is visibly outlined though his underwear, half hard and inviting, so close that he can probably feel Chanyeol’s breath, hot against the flimsy fabric. But Baekhyun stands perfectly still –an illusion which shatters when Chanyeol leans in and mouths at the bulge on impulse, feeling it burn and twitch. Baekhyun keens then, his hands falling from Chanyeol’s hair to his shoulders, to help hold himself upright as his knees buckle at the unexpected jolt of pleasure; if Chanyeol’s eyes weren’t closed, he’d see the flustered blush dusting Baekhyun’s cheeks and all the way down to his shoulders, lips parted in a silent moan, as Chanyeol’s mouth presses over sensitive areas. With a gentle finger curling under Chanyeol’s chin, Baekhyun signals him to stop and guides him to his full height, embracing him as soon as Chanyeol stands before him.

“It seems to me” he says quietly, stamping a kiss on the right corner of Chanyeol’s lips “you are much too clothed for the occasion” he whispers close to Chanyeol’s mouth, lips almost brushing, before he kisses the opposite corner. Chanyeol’s lips curl into a smile, which Baekhyun mirrors naturally against his jaw now, blinking up almost too innocently to suspect his hands are unfastening the buttons of Chanyeol’s shirt at the same time, his fingers feeling like fluttering wings of butterflies caressing down his skin. He is still faintly flushed, his cheeks more rosy than usual, but before Chanyeol has time to appreciate the view, Baekhyun tiptoes to kiss him chastely for a long moment, as if his lips can no longer stay away and they just have to touch; Chanyeol is momentarily distracted, his eyes falling shut, but then he notices a small tongue touching the edge of his lower lip, even after Baekhyun’s lips are no longer substantially present against his, only his breath flowing warm over the contours of Chanyeol’s lips. It remains lingering there curiously, drawing a small line, licking over the inseam slowly, and then tracing the rim in a teasing invitation.

Chanyeol tries to capture that small taste of Baekhyun, tilting his head and parting his lips further –but it’s a little surprising for both when Chanyeol’s slacks slide to the floor loosely, Baekhyun not having accounted for their soft-fitting waistband and Chanyeol not having noticed how far down Baekhyun’s fingers had been tinkering, and they both end up pulling apart slightly.

“Oops” Baekhyun giggles unrepentantly, glancing down with a devilish smirk in evident appreciation and placing his hands on Chanyeol’s hips, his hold shifting a bit until secure and comfortable, to guide the taller away from the pooling garments on the floor. Chanyeol’s cheeks are beet red from the contact, his bare toes sinking into the carpet nervously with each deliberate step Baekhyun directs, but his heart misses a beat for a different reason when he stumbles on the edge of the bed, falling backwards, disoriented.

He lands on his back with a soft gasp, his shirt falling open, his long legs bending over the edge of the mattress. Baekhyun hums, a husky sound like a purr, and Chanyeol’s eyes refocus on him sharply, suddenly feeling soft fingers stroking up and down his thigh leisurely; Baekhyun flashes a mischievous smile at him when their gazes cross, slipping his hand over Chanyeol’s hip and under his undone shirt, holding his waist and coaxing him to slither up the bed as he crawls after him, until they reach the pillows. The blanket is soft under Chanyeol’s hands and he curls his fingers into the fluffy material, feeling as if he’s melting into it the closer Baekhyun hovers over him, his heart beating in his throat.

“Feeling comfortable?” Baekhyun quips with a smile, strawberry red lips stretching wide, little fangs peeking, his eyes turning into half moon crescents. He looks beautiful, with the soft glow of the bedside lamps bathing his skin and his wine red hair falling into his eyes, which seem more green than honey gold. Chanyeol smiles at him shyly, relaxing his limbs on the bed. He can see more pale freckles splattered on Baekhyun’s shoulders, arm muscles flexed to hold him steady without crushing Chanyeol under his weight; his other arm is more relaxed, snug under the warmth of Chanyeol’s shirt, rubbing circles over the skin of his stomach. A sharp breath ricochets in the corners of the room when Baekhyun’s knee accidentally sinks too close for comfort between Chanyeol’s slightly parted legs, and Baekhyun recalibrates his weight carefully, his warm, lithe limbs brushing against Chanyeol’s bare skin every time he shifts, their legs tangled. “Kiss me” Baekhyun whispers, just as breathless, as if it’s all he’ll ever want, leaning down with both arms supporting him on either side of Chanyeol’s head, sinking into the pillows. Chanyeol lifts his head just enough to meet Baekhyun halfway as if spellbound, his hands reaching tentatively for Baekhyun’s waist.

Baekhyun unabashedly sets a passionate pace that has Chanyeol gripping the smaller man’s waist to ground himself, his head spinning the more Baekhyun deepens the kiss, his sinful tongue working wonders to slowly corrupt Chanyeol’s sanity; it’s the kind of kiss that licks the sweetness off of your lips like candy, stealing the warmth of your breath before it leaves your mouth, tongues curling as if to claim back something they lost, to taste something they crave. There is a faint hint of a bite when Baekhyun takes Chanyeol’s lower lip into his mouth, making Chanyeol groan quietly, and Baekhyun lowers his balanced weight, drawn closer to the taller’s sensitive body as if chasing the sound, searching for it again. Baekhyun’s body is so warm, supple in some areas, taut muscle and sculpted bone in others, teasingly hovering a hair’s breadth apart from Chanyeol’s; the taller runs his fingers up Baekhyun’s spine, curious and tender, feeling every bump and ridge under his soft skin, and Baekhyun whimpers like a kitten. Chanyeol likes the taste of Baekhyun’s voice on his tongue, and his fingers tangle in Baekhyun’s hair, lips sighing into the heated kiss; Baekhyun is relentless, his fire burning insatiable inside Chanyeol’s chest, sending jolts of pleasure down his spine.

He hasn’t been kissed like this before, so intimate and sweet and fervent, feeling every emotion pouring out of Baekhyun as if his lips are whispering it to his heart in the most beautiful colors, singing in the most magical notes, as if he is giving Chanyeol his heart with every stroke of his lips against his.

Chanyeol gasps for air when Baekhyun releases him, feeling a little lightheaded as the man peppers butterfly kisses on his jaw and then lowers to his neck. Chanyeol tilts his head back into the pillows, exposing more of his neck just for Baekhyun to kiss, his hands slipping from Baekhyun’s hair to his arms, caressing down his silken forearms to the bed; he can feel Baekhyun mouthing slowly over the curve of his throat, sucking a little whenever he finds a line that fits under his lips perfectly and licking near the base, teeth teasing skin. Chanyeol’s hands slither over the blanket sensually, feeling the softness under his fingers, nails digging into the fluff when Baekhyun uncovers skin still hidden under the collar of his undone shirt, kissing and licking every sensitive nerve, making Chanyeol’s entire body shiver. The soft light of the lamp blurs in his vision as his lashes flutter in pleasure, and he looks at Baekhyun, his heart beating loud in his chest, as elegant fingers float to the crumpled pieces of fabric still perched loose on Chanyeol’s torso.

Baekhyun slowly pushes aside the collar around Chanyeol’s neck, the rest of the shirt’s fabric fluttering against trembling skin and following to the side; he does it with such care, dark eyes focused, pale fingers cautious, bit by bit revealing the rest of Chanyeol’s body and making the taller blush a little self-consciously at the close attention he is receiving. His body is not impressive, his muscles filling his frame to match his height but his limbs are still too long, unlike Baekhyun’s heavenly figure, swelling and tapering and rippling with muscle in all the right places. Baekhyun still looks at him as if he’s a little in awe, his thoroughly kissed lips parted in a silent hum, his fingers absently trailing down the middle of Chanyeol’s chest in exploration, feeling the skin and his breath gently. Chanyeol’s stomach tightens, anticipating Baekhyun’s touch, but his graceful fingers swerve to the side instead, pushing the shirt off of Chanyeol’s ribs and tracing the ridges up to his arm, moving the fabric away from his shoulder. His strokes are light as he loops curlicues over Chanyeol’s shoulder bone, his clavicle, the hollow below, and Chanyeol blushes, feeling tingles all across his chest.

“You’re so soft here” Baekhyun muses quietly, his hazel eyes dark but gentle, curving in a fleeting smile of endearment before they rest to licentious languidness again. He looks absolutely ravishing, with his wine red hair messy and soft, lashes heavy over his jewel gaze, smooth cheekbones flushed and jaw sharp against the faint light; his top lip seems slightly fuller in this angle, cupid’s bow flowing into pouty curves, mesmerized with Chanyeol’s skin. His finger ventures lower on Chanyeol’s chest, circling a nipple lightly, and the taller squirms at the teasing feeling, his throat letting out a whine that sounds completely breathless, piercing the silence; the praising words, the taunting touch, they cloud his thoughts and make the fire coil in his gut, begging for more. Baekhyun’s eyes instantly shift to his lips, intrigued by the sound, the corners of his mouth twisting into a smirk. “So cute” he whispers, arms flexing as he lithely lowers himself to Chanyeol’s chest, hot mouth replacing his teasing fingers.

Chanyeol nearly doesn’t recognize the wanton moan that escapes his lips, deep and sinful reverberating inside the room, his back arching with pleasure spreading all over his body like a wave, his hands gripping the blanket and pulling helplessly as more quiet gasps and whimpers fall from his parted lips, mind going hazy at the sensation. Baekhyun runs a soothing hand down Chanyeol’s body, from his chest, to his waist, down his hip and thigh, then tracing the same path upwards again, his tongue relentless and wet, lapping the sensitive nub lazily, lips stroking against it teasingly. “B-Baek…” Chanyeol calls brokenly, one hand tangling in Baekhyun’s red hair, breath hitching when his beautiful mouth sucks a little, the taller’s body convulsing under Baekhyun’s lips, seducing his senses.

“You have such a beautiful voice” the latter mumbles absently, voice husky as he mouths across Chanyeol’s chest with his eyes closed, reverently showing his appreciation for the smallest details, like the single mole on Chanyeol’s right lower ribcage, where Baekhyun flicks his tongue, drinking him up to the last inch of his body. Chanyeol’s breath is still short but the flames in his gut are not as ardent, quieting down and letting him breathe at least, his fingers threading through the man’s silky hair, feeling their ghostly touch on his skin, loving the contrast of their deep red color against him. He gets distracted, utterly surrendered to the path Baekhyun’s lips are gratifyingly mapping on his skin, and when Baekhyun sucks the other pink bud into his mouth, the taller wails, body coiling like a bow in Baekhyun’s arms; a slender limb slips under Chanyeol’s waist swiftly, lifting him off the bed, Baekhyun’s butterfly kisses ascending to his ear as he brings Chanyeol to sit upright in front him.

Chanyeol blinks away the daze with slight effort, his hands slipping from Baekhyun’s hair to his neck and keeping him anchored to reality. Baekhyun looks beautiful, like a painting of fiery colors to a god of beauty, so painfully desirable, his body built gracefully, so statuesque, with the softest breathing skin and fingers that steal your heart and set your soul on fire. Chanyeol’s heart is making the world turn slowly, utterly stunned, his breath drawing deeper with want. Baekhyun strips the shirt off of Chanyeol’s shoulders, and the taller disentangles his arms through it by himself, throwing it behind his back and to the floor blindly. The light falls like a vision over the soft contours of Baekhyun’s body, supple curves and taut lines, freckles on his shoulders that drizzle to his back looking so irresistible; Chanyeol lifts a hand and ghosts his fingers over Baekhyun’s marvelously carved collarbone, caressing his shoulder before he leans down to kiss the faint sunspots, enamored.

Baekhyun sighs softly, his hands tracing over Chanyeol’s knees, long legs stretching on either side of Baekhyun who is kneeling between them; his graceful hands slowly start massaging Chanyeol’s thighs, and the taller whimpers against his shoulder, his own hand cascading down Baekhyun’s gorgeous body with a soft touch, feeling him shiver deliciously, luscious lips whispering Chanyeol’s name.

It turns into a sensual moan of pleasure when Chanyeol rubs his hardness, Baekhyun’s hands squeezing his flesh unconsciously. Chanyeol steals a glance at his face, cheeks red to his ears, wine hair tussled, his expression so wrecked, mouth sinfully parted to let out unreserved sounds of thrilling satisfaction; his husky voice translates to tantalizing sparks of lust in Chanyeol’s stomach, Baekhyun’s bone-deep contentment and his scrumptious, affected reactions edging him on, his fingers teasing the waistband, palm still massaging over the sensitive swell of Baekhyun’s arousal. “May I?” he asks quietly, and Baekhyun flutters his eyes open just enough to send him a dark look under his lashes, biting his lip and giving a couple of enthusiastic, desperate nods. Chanyeol helps relieve him of his underwear, his fingers eagerly wrapping around Baekhyun’s arousal the moment he kneels back in his place, and treating it with long strokes and attentive squeezes, slightly rough fingertips teasing the veins and rubbing the head. Baekhyun melts into a babbling mess of mindless pleasure in his deft hands, slumping against Chanyeol and panting vulnerably, mumbling and moaning loud on his skin, hands scrambling on the taller’s neck and shoulders. “Is this good?” he asks, voice dark as he flicks his wrist.

“Yes god, Chanyeol, yes” Baekhyun keens, his voice raising shivers on Chanyeol’s skin, and he tentatively rubs the head a bit more insistently, Baekhyun’s hips bucking into his hand; the redhead whines and bites his lip in satisfaction, but suddenly, his breath hitches and a firm hand wraps around Chanyeol’s wrist, holding him still. “Wait” Baekhyun whispers breathlessly, lips so red from hard bites of pleasure, and Chanyeol does wait, patiently, chastely kissing the edge of Baekhyun’s lips in affection. “Are…are we really…?” the shorter asks, not entirely coherent but lucid enough to realize what he’s talking about, voice a little raw and strained, still feeling Chanyeol’s touch. The taller hums, tilting his head and kissing Baekhyun’s ear, noticing the little shudder running down Baekhyun’s spine; it’s a clear answer between them, one Chanyeol doesn’t hesitate to give, so certain and devoted. They’ve already reached this far, and he’s never felt more wanted and revered, so comfortable and aching with need; if Baekhyun still wants this, so does he. “Do you want to…” Baekhyun asks then, voice a bit more sober and hesitant, dancing around a more delicate decision.

Chanyeol lingers close to him, their noses almost touching, Baekhyun’s lashes blinking close to his cheek as he looks up at him, blown eyes gazing sincerely into his. He thinks about it for a moment, biting his lip, and then shakes his head; not this time. “Should I…then?” Baekhyun concludes, eyebrows raising slightly in disbelief. Chanyeol’s lips stretch into a bashful smile, the flush on his cheeks darkening faintly.

“I don’t mind” he whispers, his heart fluttering at the look of wonder Baekhyun sends him. He’d love to have Baekhyun singing his name while he’d be inside of him, inviting curves teasing the most decadently indulgent fantasies in Chanyeol’s head, but in this moment, just the thought of Baekhyun filling him in the most intimate ways makes his heart and the rest of his body thrum in exhilaration. Baekhyun’s gaping, stunned lips slowly melt into a smile, a beam so bright you’d think someone offered him the world, his eyesmiles twinkling happily, and he leans up a little to kiss Chanyeol’s lips with a muffled huff –because of the situation down there. Chanyeol reciprocates the playful kiss, chuckling at how candidly pleased and excited Baekhyun is with his decision, letting the shorter guide him back to the pillows, gently pinning his hands on the bed next to his shoulders and hovering over him.

“In that case…” he murmurs, stealing one more kiss from Chanyeol’s tingling, smiling lips “I want you mine; is that okay?” Baekhyun whispers, looking down and holding so much love and desire in his gaze, that Chanyeol blushes brightly, nodding meekly. Mine.

Baekhyun makes himself comfortable between Chanyeol’s legs, his eyes glinting impiously above his wickedly smiling lips, as mischievous fingers slide over Chanyeol’s abdomen, round his navel, just over his waistband, lingering a little longer. The taller is so enchanted by the subtle hues of happiness in Baekhyun’s expression, mingling with carnal emotions and potent ones of the heart, that he doesn’t pay any special notice to Baekhyun slowly pealing his last garment off his long legs, taking his time, smiling ravenously as he leaves Chanyeol completely bear, thoroughly kissed and splayed on the bed; Chanyeol senses the relief to be free of his last confines, but he forgets to be shy, languidly watching Baekhyun as he retrieves something from the bedside table before returning to the bed, prowling closer, muscles moving under his skin in a marvelous, seductive display.

But before he reaches his former place again, Chanyeol gathers his legs close, his body curling bashfully on the bed, and Baekhyun freezes instantly, his eyes blinking round, looking at Chanyeol over the taller’s bent knees in concern. Chanyeol bites his lip in hesitation, but there is no way around this, no matter the embarrassment burning on his cheeks and stealing his voice. “It…it’s been a while” he admits quietly, his heart loud in his ears in apprehensiveness, but Baekhyun doesn’t seem disappointed, his smoldering eyes softening, his smile growing fonder; just that small, doting reaction is enough to disperse the insecurities, assuring Chanyeol that he is wanted and accepted, his heart quieting down.

“Don’t worry, doll” Baekhyun says, smooth voice calm and certain, chasing away even the last trace of doubt “I’ll take good care of you” he promises, his hand wrapping around Chanyeol’s ankle and rubbing the bone reassuringly, melting the tension from Chanyeol’s body until he is fully relaxed again. He coaxes Chanyeol’s legs apart, coming closer, his eyes raking over the sight of the taller’s lower body but occasionally stealing glances to make sure Chanyeol is comfortable; the taller nudges him with his knee on the shoulder a little playfully, trying to assure him he is no longer so nervous, seeing how cautious Baekhyun is being. The shorter’s lips curl into an amused grin, acknowledging the gesture, and Chanyeol smiles back, his fingers playing on the covers at the sweet exchange. “You look beautiful like this” Baekhyun mumbles gently, his voice quiet and fond, like secrets spilled from absentminded lips, but as Chanyeol sees him, standing between his parted legs, fingers stroking the taller’s thigh soothingly, his hair and skin bathed in a soft glow, Baekhyun is the beautiful one, and Chanyeol’s heart soars, because Baekhyun is looking at him with a serene gaze, as if he is looking at the stars.

It’s easy for Chanyeol to trust him, surrender to his hands without reserve and feel, enjoying every moment that Baekhyun spends exploring his body, tender touches and soothing caresses igniting under Chanyeol’s skin, like a fire that slowly encircles his entire being, spreading in his veins. There is a faint scent of flowers in the room, Baekhyun’s sleek fingers wounding Chanyeol tighter and tighter like a string, gently tuning his pleasure to his rhythm, a slow, lustful waltz that has Chanyeol experiencing sensations he has never felt before, losing his breath and coherence. Baekhyun tenderly kisses away any signs of discomfort, on Chanyeol’s brow and in the corners of his eyes, trapping his lips into distracting kisses, until only pleasure remains, Chanyeol’s chest panting deeply, every nerve ending in his body quivering, deep moans and rambling whimpers falling from his lips.

When Baekhyun purposefully strokes against that sensitive spot inside of him, a flash of white hot pleasure shoots through him, his body drawing taut with a reverberating scream, waist arching off the bed. Baekhyun gives it a bit of special treatment, rubbing against the bundle of nerves until Chanyeol chokes on his voice, tears pooling in his eyes, his body feeling like it’s tearing apart in the most splendid way possible, wisps of warmth curling around his bones and making him convulse on the bed in bliss.

It feels so frustratingly empty for a moment, when Baekhyun pulls out his fingers and leaves Chanyeol whining pitifully on the verge of unfulfilled satisfaction, and the shorter chuckles darkly in amusement, slipping on a condom. In spite of his thorough preparation, he is still very careful when entering Chanyeol’s yielding body, slow and punctuated with little hisses and deep breaths, mumbles of Chanyeol feeling so tight, being so beautiful, and the taller watches every moment of it intently, the pleasure gradually rekindling and overshadowing by far any initial, slight discomfort. Baekhyun’s pale hand squeezes Chanyeol’s hip once he is fully seethed, and Chanyeol tries to keep his body still, slowly adjusting; but he feels so full and it feels so good that he can’t hold back a drawn out moan, soft and deep, his head sinking into the pillow, eyes falling shut.

“Am I hurting you?” Baekhyun whispers, voice struggling and wheezing a little, but clearly concerned. His hand strokes over Chanyeol’s waist to pacify him, reluctant to lean over him just yet; the touch helps the taller focus, and he shakes his head, his hair flying around on the pillow.

“It feels good” he mumbles, blinking up at Baekhyun sincerely, and the shorter lets out a relieved breath; but before he can recover it, Chanyeol shyly swivels his hips, legs tightening around Baekhyun when the sensation inside of him rings so satisfying, and a loud gasp escapes his throat, echoing in Baekhyun’s deep, breathless groan. The shorter’s hips thrust tentatively, elegant hands running up the sides of Chanyeol’s thighs to his knees and down to his pelvis again, hips gently pulling back and pressing forward in delightful friction.

The pace Baekhyun settles on is mind-numbingly slow and deep, each move pulling Chanyeol deeper into the thrumming tendrils of pleasure; he steadily loses every last fragment of thought, with the wide draws and slides of Baekhyun buried inside of him, his unhurried movement making Chanyeol writhe with the mounting pressure in his body, the fire that can’t escape. The torture is so sweet, stealing Chanyeol’s breath in loud vocalizations of elation, his heart beating in his throat, vision turning hazy; but even like so, he can see Baekhyun in acute detail, his broad shoulders breathing deep, the beautiful line of his neck, the muscles on his abdomen taut and beautifully outlined, his lips whispering inaudibly, mumbling with no sense in delirium. He looks so wrecked, so tender, his hair falling into his eyes, skin flushed, pupils dilated and dark in want, body lithe and wonderfully aroused, so irresistibly inviting to Chanyeol’s hands, reaching for him.

A touch on Baekhyun’s muscle-lined forearm breaks his concentration and a pair of hazel eyes focus on Chanyeol instantly, looking absolutely taken with him and falling madly; Chanyeol’s chest aches with affection, but his heartbeat quickens for different reasons as Baekhyun lowers himself over him sensually, every move he makes emphasizing the lines of his body. How is he so perfect? Chanyeol’s hands hold onto his broad shoulders gently, clinging a bit more desperately when Baekhyun’s thrust hits just right inside him in this angle, eyelashes fluttering, lips letting out a strung whine that fuels Baekhyun’s intent, drawing back and pushing in hard, making Chanyeol see stars.

He keeps pleasuring Chanyeol like this, bodies falling into a synchronized pace that responds to each other’s music perfectly. Baekhyun kisses him, deep and deliberate, full of passion roaring in his chest, his quiet gasps and sinful moans joining Chanyeol’s whimpers and disjointed mumbles in harmony, voices filling the room until they are only whimpers against each other’s mouth, helpless and heated. One of Baekhyun’s hands reaches for Chanyeol’s erection, teasing the head until Chanyeol cries, so close to the edge with every passing second but he fights it off, trying to hold onto Baekhyun a little longer, feel him, touch him, call his name with his entire soul on his lips, waiting to bloom against Baekhyun’s lips. Their kisses grow shorter but sweeter, whispering to Chanyeol’s heart like Baekhyun does against his lips, stealing his breath and coloring it beautifully, turning it into music. I want you, I want you, “I love you”

The look in Baekhyun’s hazel eyes is so profound and molten as he looks down at Chanyeol, hair slightly dark and sticking in curves on his forehead, falling over his eyes, his gaze burning like dark embers, lips chanting it over and over against Chanyeol’s lips; but this faintly lucid moment shatters too soon, with one well-aimed thrust and a purposeful flick of Baekhyun’s fingers, breaking Chanyeol’s consciousness like a wall of glass, pleasure flooding his body and pulling him under, so sweet and absolute, wrapping him in oblivion as he cries out against Baekhyun’s lips. It’s only a couple of deep thrusts until Baekhyun follows him, body trembling for long moments and slowly coming down from the high, his expression so heartachingly beautiful, eyes closed, nose a little scrunched, lips parted in bliss.

When they’ve both regained their breath a little, Chanyeol leans up to kiss Baekhyun full on the lips, innocent and loving, short and tender, his hands rubbing up and down Baekhyun’s arms and shoulders soothingly. Baekhyun’s lips tug into a smile as his eyes flutter open, and they are still a little unfocused, pupils large against the green-gray canvas, but he looks at Chanyeol like he is the most gorgeous thing he has ever seen, the moon and the stars shining in his eyes.

“I love you” Baekhyun says it again, this time fully aware and unbelievably happy, his cheeks pushing his eyes into crescents as his lips smile a little wider. Chanyeol’s heart skips several beats, and he bites his lip through his smile; Baekhyun’s grin twitches as the taller strains his neck to steal another soft kiss, just a slight brush of lips before he falls to the pillows with a breathless chuckle. Baekhyun delays opening his eyes, saving the moment and lingering before he does, his lashes outlining gentle, droopy eyes over his heated cheeks. “I love you” he mumbles, gazing deep into Chanyeol’s eyes, holding all the sincerity it did the first time –only this time, he doesn’t wait for Chanyeol’s kiss, but he sweeps down to claim it for himself instead, playful and impatient and infatuated. Again and again, their kisses linger, tasting sweeter on Baekhyun’s words before nearly each one, lazily bringing them both back to reality, bodies sated and debauched, pleasantly heavy. Chanyeol combs his fingers through Baekhyun’s hair, parting his lips, and his lover kisses him deeply, indulgently, a couple of smiles escaping onto his lips.

But it gets a little hard to breathe, with Baekhyun stealing his breath and resting comfortably heavy on his chest, so Chanyeol turns them around, both whimpering and groaning weakly when Baekhyun pulls out, still a little sensitive. With their kiss broken, Baekhyun takes the chance to toss away the condom, and Chanyeol cleans himself hastily with tissues he finds on the nightstand, his cheeks burning a little with fresh memories. Baekhyun doesn’t care to hide under the covers, lying down on top of the white blanket completely naked and soft, pulling Chanyeol closer without delay, confident, seeking affection in Chanyeol’s warm touch. Chanyeol lets him arrange his long limbs as he likes, until he is lying half on top of Baekhyun and half on the bed, their legs a little tangled, his heart beating over Baekhyun’s. They both look scandalously defiled and ravished, but it’s warm and Baekhyun’s skin is the softest thing Chanyeol has ever touched, his toes curling in satisfaction as Baekhyun starts playing with his hair, Chanyeol’s head fitting in the crook between Baekhyun’s neck and shoulder. He sighs happily, his arm around Baekhyun’s waist drawing himself closer.

“How are you feeling?” Baekhyun asks quietly after a while, his voice echoing a little in his chest against Chanyeol’s ear, but it’s more gentle through his lips, the delicate feelings more refined. The snow is falling outside, the soft light of the beside lamps floating around them; somewhere behind the clouds, a lonely star is twinkling, as happy as they feel in each other’s arms.

“Honestly?” Chanyeol hums, smiling with his eyes closed as Baekhyun’s fingers trace circles from his elbow up his arm, over his shoulder and to his back, the light touch trailing down Chanyeol’s spine; he has never felt so soothed before. “I feel like I’m in heaven” he mumbles, voice drowsy but joyful, making Baekhyun giggle. His hand withdraws to his side again, only the one playing with Chanyeol’s hair and occasionally brushing over his ear remaining, treasuring him close to his heart.

“I want this forever” Baekhyun whispers absentmindedly after a while of comfortable silence, his voice carrying so many dreams and hopes, a little wistful and hurt and quiet, but furtively shimmering with so much passion, like a secret, blooming garden. Chanyeol lifts his head a little, resting his chin on Baekhyun’s chest and looking up at him.

“That sounds nice” he mutters, voice purring a little in his chest, and he sends Baekhyun a bright smile when the shorter glances at him apprehensively, any sign of somber mood slowly melting into a reciprocating grin. Chanyeol likes it when Baekhyun is happy, when he is smiling, when he dreams of forever in his arms and looks at him with those puppy eyes so full of wonder, as if the only person who could make all of it possible is him. Baekhyun also looks like he really wants to kiss him right now, but, being too comfortable to move, he brings his own hand to his lips and kisses his index finger, then presses it onto Chanyeol’s smiling lips endearingly. Chanyeol chuckles, a little breathless due to the angle of his throat, and Baekhyun ruffles his hair, bringing him back to his shoulder.

It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed, because for all they know, time is suspended in forever, wrapping around just the two of them, peaceful and comforting. Chanyeol’s lashes blink against Baekhyun’s skin, his cheek warm, lips breathing softly over the planes of Baekhyun’s chest. He has a marvelous view from this position, all the way over Baekhyun’s sculpted pectorals to his softly breathing stomach, muscles loose, his waist tapering, supple legs extending seductively over the fluffy material of the blanket. Chanyeol’s hand starts getting restless, being tempted and begging to touch, and it starts playing a melody on Baekhyun’s waist, just under his ribs, then slowly spiraling a little further, over his moles, in the ridges of his sternum, gentle over his scar and teasing near his navel, tracing over the prominent pelvic bone, glowing skin shivering under his touch, as he uncovers sensitive spots. This unhindered exploration is arousing, his desire for Baekhyun’s touch and kiss lighting a small flame in his chest and growing in his veins like a chant, an irresistible call that makes him lick his lips in anticipation, memories and fantasy blending in his mind, encouraged by the tempting, responsive skin under his fingertips. His hips shift a little, trying to hide the twitch of his awakening member against Baekhyun’s body, but the man feels it anyway on his hip and he breaks out in peals of laughter.

“Oh god, Chanyeol, pity me! Have some mercy on this old body of mine!” he exclaims in amusement, his husky chuckles still echoing in his chest. Chanyeol blushes and pouts, lifting his head to look at Baekhyun, resenting the comment on his stamina; but before he gets to say a word, he is really struck by the sight of Baekhyun, giggling softly in the midst of pillows, his red hair fanned out in a halo of flames, his cheeks softly pink, skin glowing. His lips are shaped in a wide smile, boxy and adorable, ecstatically scintillating, green eyes curved and lined by fluttery lashes, his gaze so blissful, as if the entire universe is a beautiful place. So pretty. Chanyeol loses his breath, convinced that Baekhyun is an angel from the heavens, and he forgets what he had meant to say. Baekhyun notices him staring and he looks back, little giggles still jumping from his lips every now and then, but as he looks at Chanyeol, his expression shifts, something more playful and intriguing squirming on his smile, eyes gaining a naughty glint. “But I could entertain you until then, I suppose” he purrs, gaze darkening as he lifts himself from the pillow and flips them over, Chanyeol landing on his back, a little lost.

Baekhyun proves to be very good at entertaining him, slowly leading Chanyeol to insanity with touches and kisses that light up his whole body, then with his mouth hot on Chanyeol’s arousal, pushing him to the edge with sinful hums and wanton sucks that make Chanyeol scream at his mercy, just to pull back and lick the crown devilishly with a wicked smirk on his beautifully swollen lips. Chanyeol is a broken mess of pleas and helpless whimpers by the time Baekhyun starts teasing with his fingers inside of him, and he grows deaf to his own voice, being loud and unashamed, because it feels so so good. Baekhyun holds Chanyeol’s hands pinned over his head against the pillows as he thrusts inside of him, hard and tender, their bodies moving like waves in the sea, tireless in curves and vast in kisses, and Chanyeol comes with a delirious string of mumbles of Baekhyun’s name on his lips, so lost in pleasure, bursting in flames and scattering like stars all over his sensitive body, when he feels Baekhyun coming inside of him with a small whisper of Chanyeol’s name against his parted lips. It’s the most loved Chanyeol has ever felt, his heart burning in Baekhyun’s hands and being reborn like a phoenix.

~* 25 *~

The line dips down into a curve, shadows tinting deeper and deeper. Lower, creases are piled artfully, outlining a long body against the stark contrast of clear daylight. The pencil draws the line of sculpted shoulders in gray, not doing justice to the fairness of the neck and the natural peachy blush of the skin, depicting the dark strands of hair splayed on the pillow with rough precision; it’s in monochrome, but still, a sight to behold. So lovely.

The day is quiet outside, the city still covered in a thick layer of snow; another night of heavy snowfall, another day of peaceful seclusion for everyone in the city. It’s like a present, a gift from winter’s cold embrace to everyone who suffers in life outside of themselves; for him, it’s an immeasurably precious gift, his personal miracle. The cityscape looks much like his drawing, gray and white, dull sunlight filtering through a cotton blanket of clouds that covers the entire sky, and glistening on the unblemished, fresh snow, looking as pretty as its deathly bite, for those who would try to defy it. The air is crisp after the snowstorm, details from far on the horizon which are rarely visible now shaping the irregular line between the clouds and the city, further away behind the curtain of the bedroom window.

He smiles to himself, doting a little mole under the right shoulder blade; cute. The house is silent, drenched in the tranquil warmth trapped inside it, only his pencil scratching on the paper and soft breathing echoing in the room. Baekhyun doesn’t know for how long he’s been awake, huddled in the armchair near the bed and sketching Chanyeol’s sleeping form; he stumbled on the sketchbook in his search for a spare blanket, and he decided on a whim to appreciate the view of the sleeping male in his tussled bedspread, keeping a small, material fragment he can tie to the memory. Time passes slowly, adding shadows and small details to his drawing. It feels oddly fulfilling, watching him sleep, observing every tiny imperfection that makes him perfect, lulling his thoughts to the graceful rise and fall of his breathing body; Baekhyun never dared dream of mornings like this, of a person his. Every foul memory seems faded in the morning sun, like it happened in another lifetime; in this moment, in this peaceful corner of the world, he has all the blessings of the stars bestowed upon him. Or maybe, just one.

Baekhyun follows the night. Walking on tightropes in the shadows of the moon, he is a creature of the dark. Beautiful and dirty, dazzling and half-blind, he is tainted black and cursed to dread of tomorrow, of the harsh, real daylight he can’t stand. But Chanyeol…he appeared like a lone, beautiful star in the eternal darkness of Baekhyun’s sky, radiantly yet gently bearing the mellow promise of the Hesperus. He is brilliant and enchanting, like stardust swirling magnificently into existence, and Baekhyun is afraid to hold him but he is also compelled to, bound to him like a broken creature, enamored and devoted to the only sliver of starlight from the sky that ever reached him, so deep into the shadows, breaking the evil spell.

He loves. He is loved.

Beautiful. Baekhyun hinges his lashes against the light and sees sparkles in his vision; Chanyeol looks exquisite in a sea of white sheets and tangled blankets, sleeping on his side, his entire back bare and exposed. The covers ride low on his hips, shading his skin alluringly, inviting the softest touch over the waistband of the soft pants he wore to bed; Baekhyun is still wearing the silken shirt of the same pajama pair, legs naked under the spare blanket he has wrapped around him to keep himself cozy outside of bed. He bites his lip as he shades the line of Chanyeol’s lower spine on his drawing, his gaze glued on his paper but his mind skipping and squirming under heated sheets; just the memory of Chanyeol’s body arching in pleasure, still fresh in his memory, has his stomach squeezing, and his grip unconsciously tightens around the pencil.

He is almost done and yet, he still hasn’t decided how truthful his sketch should be; he could draw just Chanyeol’s skin, or he could draw his marks on Chanyeol’s skin. There is a faint red shadow right under his ear, a scatter of red dust on the sides of his waist, a small bruise on his side. Baekhyun’s eyes are drawn to the imperfection and he finds himself staring at the small mark blooming like a sole violet flower high on Chanyeol’s ribs, just under his arm. Baekhyun sucked that bruise with his own two lips against Chanyeol’s smooth skin, when he climaxed for a third time last night, his lover moaning lusciously under him on his hands and knees, fists tightly gripping the headboard. Baekhyun could draw from memory how the shadows rippled on his back as his muscles flexed, skin glistening, his hair falling into his face out of sight, his flesh tinted like a tender rose, squeezed under Baekhyun’s unforgiving hands on Chanyeol’s waist.

He pleasured him again, just with his hands and lithe fingers, while they were having a bath, later into the night. Chanyeol was evidently tired by then, his back heavy against Baekhyun’s chest, long body limp between Baekhyun’s thighs and submerged in fragrant, calming warmth; but he accepted Baekhyun’s advances with no hesitation, indulging his insatiable drive to please him once more, keening low at the small caresses that led to bolder strokes, arching his spine into the touch. He was more quiet then, meek whines echoing from the bathroom walls, swollen lips parting in a silent, final scream. Baekhyun can’t find colors to paint the tiny, deeply sated smile that perched on Chanyeol’s lips when the taller relaxed against him, eyes dazed but so content, face flushed pink from the warm water in the tub. Baekhyun can feel the blood rushing to his cheeks at the recollection, his skin suddenly too sensitive against the silken sleep shirt he is wearing.

“Baek?”

The call for him is quiet, timid, only slightly above a whisper. Baekhyun’s eyes focus on the bed sharply, his heart stumbling a beat at the endearing term, spoken in that deep, raspy voice –a combination that should be illegal. Chanyeol doesn’t seem to be entirely awake, his body stirring until he lies on his back, one arm extending searchingly on the empty space beside him; the covers twist around him, letting the daylight illuminate the rippled planes of his torso. Baekhyun’s eyes gleam voraciously at the sight, Chanyeol looking so chaste and soft in the mess of blankets, his black hair falling into his face like sweeping ink strands, luscious lips pouting in displeasure for not finding Baekhyun under the covers. He blinks his large eyes, looking still slightly sleep-dazed and delectable, a row of perfect pearly teeth flashing when he finally spots Baekhyun in the room.

“Why are you so far away?” he mumbles, some syllables resounding like a drowsy purr that rumbles in his chest, unintentional and innocent but so very tempting at the same time. Baekhyun can’t help the smile that perches on his lips, feeling endeared and protective of this giant puppy who just woke up searching for him, setting his sketchbook aside and letting the blanket slither down his legs as he leaves his seat.

“Shhh” he soothes his lover, crawling on the bed seductively, naked legs shamelessly on display. Chanyeol watches him with a quiet, patient smile, his warm hand wrapping around Baekhyun’s bare thigh when the smaller kneels beside him; the difference in temperature outside of the covers is noticeable in how hot Chanyeol’s touch feels on his skin. Baekhyun leisurely plants his hands in the pillow on either side of Chanyeol’s head, leaning to hover over him; his smiling lips twitch wider when Chanyeol’s hand slides down his thigh, in an accidental yet very pleasurable caress, due to Baekhyun’s motion. Chanyeol blinks up at him and giggles mischievously, his hair falling into his eyes, and Baekhyun carefully lifts a hand to swipe it away.

It feels surreal. The way Chanyeol is gazing up at him with those molten, doe eyes of his, barely focusing out of sleep and looking at Baekhyun like he is his favorite star in the night, the only thing he can see, is making Baekhyun’s chest brim with reciprocating emotions. It feels like he has never seen the sky before, suddenly finding it in a vision of raven strands spread against white pillows, plump lips and rose-pink cheeks smiling at him shyly, chocolate brown, starry eyes and an angelically sculpted face, only for him.

“You’re gorgeous” he whispers absently, leaning down slowly; his heart beats faster at the small flutter of Chanyeol’s lashes as his eyes drift shut, at the expectant parting of his lips, at the blush that overtakes his features at the compliment. Baekhyun savors the feeling for a moment longer, hovering over Chanyeol on the verge of a kiss, lips almost touching; he can count his lashes in such proximity, he can feel his bated breath, feel the warmth of his unclothed body, and it’s pulling him in, so inexplicable and inescapable. The kiss is soft, slow, reminiscent of their first kiss –slightly curious, comfortable and affectionate. Chanyeol breathes him in and parts his mouth, fresh from sleep and defenseless, but Baekhyun only nibbles on his soft lips with his teeth, smiling at the slight hitch of Chanyeol’s breath, and the he pulls back. “You need to drink some water, doll” he says, stealing another peck from Chanyeol’s dazed lips before he has time to complain “I have to keep you in optimal condition” he adds with a flirty wink, hinting at their escapades last night, greatly enjoying the red tint that appears on the taller’s cheeks.

Chanyeol accepts the glass of water Baekhyun offers him, quietly thanking him without further comments, and sitting up on the pillows just enough to drink; he holds the glass with both hands childishly, to avoid any clumsy accidents, his eyes blinking slowly over the rim. Baekhyun observes him, sitting by his side and feeling like a perfect, love-struck fool who could do this for hours; how can he be so infatuated with the smallest, simplest, silliest of things about Chanyeol? He keeps gazing at him fondly, his hand rubbing Chanyeol’s knee above the covers absentmindedly, but when the taller catches him staring, he averts his eyes in embarrassment and lowers the glass from his lips, placing it back on the bedside table and gluing his eyes on the covers over his lap; Baekhyun smiles at his bashful lover, being so adorable and shy, even when his sinful body is so invitingly exposed –but that’s a thought he saves for later.

“It’s still snowing outside” Baekhyun says softly, his grin tinting with a twinge of personal satisfaction at the way Chanyeol instantly looks up, eyes sparkling with incredulous hope at the unexpected news. He wants to stay –stay with me.

“I-it is?” he stutters in breathless disbelief, curiously glancing out the window and wincing slightly at the bright whiteness that washes over his vision. Baekhyun muffles a giggle, waiting for Chanyeol to adjust after he turns his eyes to Baekhyun again, blinking a few times and smiling coyly, like a child waiting for a gift. “I’m…staying?” he mumbles in a small voice, a bit disoriented and unsure, but undeniably happy; so happy he could compete with the sun in how brightly he is glowing, when Baekhyun smiles and nods slowly in affirmation.

“Well, unless you want to leave…” he teases, chuckling when Chanyeol shakes his head innocently with the widest smile on his lips, his hair falling across his forehead again. Baekhyun leans closer and closer, mirroring Chanyeol by shaking his head playfully, closer and closer in a childish game that makes them both smile wider, until Chanyeol has to lean back so that their noses won’t bump, further and further, abdominal muscles flexing, till his head reaches the pillow again. Baekhyun finally slips under the covers next to the taller man in a stealth motion, his legs being instantly engulfed in comforting warmth; he has to shift around a bit, sitting with his back against the headboard and fixing the covers, before he invites a patiently expectant Chanyeol into his arms with a soft “Come here”

Chanyeol doesn’t need to be told twice, squirming closer as if he had been preparing for this all his life, wrapping an arm around the shorter male’s waist and nuzzling his nose and cheek in Baekhyun’s chest. It tickles a little, making Baekhyun giggle, but once the taller settles, he welcomes the reassuring weight of his long body against his side, relaxing and getting comfortable in Chanyeol’s hold, combing his fingers through his lover’s hair. They keep quiet for a while, Baekhyun enjoying the closeness and being almost lulled back to sleep, his eyelids feeling heavy; it might have something to do with the soft sunlight, with the cozy warmth under the covers, with Chanyeol’s scent surrounding him, or with the affectionate hand stroking his back comfortingly, evidence that Chanyeol is not fully asleep anymore. His fingers press around Baekhyun’s spine, until every last nerve in his body is relaxed and pleasantly loose, and then they start following the natural curves and lines of his body, ghostly tracing the space in-between his rib bones, dipping under the outline of his scapula, toying with the skewed and undone collar of his pajama shirt, as if his fingers are curious explorers, expressing a blind, reverent appreciation that makes Baekhyun secretly blush.

He can feel every touch through the silk, holding back sensitive shivers, but his breath hitches instinctively when Chanyeol curls his fingers in Baekhyun’s hair and then combs them down gently, fingers dragging to the nape of his neck; he has always been a little sensitive there, feeling ticklish or aroused depending on the situation, and well, he can guess which one it’d be this time. If Chanyeol notices Baekhyun’s hesitation, he doesn’t show it, innocently playing with Baekhyun’s hair for a while longer before his fingers brush over his neck again, this time a bit more intentional, sending brief sparks of electricity down Baekhyun’s spine; mercifully, they take an interest in his back again, giving him a chance to cope with the triggered oversensitivity all over his body.

Chanyeol’s hand moulds itself over his shoulder blade, slowly sliding down his back to the curve of his waist, and then over the swell of his hip, fingers catching on the hem of the silken shirt and playing with the seams. Baekhyun can feel only tiny touches after that, but they keep descending on the naked skin of his thigh, a meek index finger drawing circles at the hollow behind his knee; he bends the joint out of reflex, and that’s when Chanyeol’s fingers turn confident again, curling around the back of his thigh with a strangely pleasing fit. Baekhyun smiles at first, enjoying the warmth of Chanyeol’s hand on his body, but he soon finds himself a little confused; Chanyeol’s fingers keep jumping on his skin, dancing in no particular rhythm, just pressing gently onto his flesh and then releasing, crafting combinations and sometimes slipping into more intimate territory. It inadvertently makes Baekhyun feel a little bothered –he is in bed with his gorgeous, half-naked lover, after all.

“Yeol, what are you doing?” he questions, lips tugging in a slow smile; Chanyeol has started nuzzling his chest now, too, warmth and silken touches combining with the teasing strokes and presses of fingertips on sensitive skin, and steadily coaxing Baekhyun closer to physical arousal. Chanyeol hums sleepily, his voice reverberating against Baekhyun’s body.

“Music” the taller mumbles in Baekhyun’s shirt, and the latter can feel the musician’s plush lips curling into a drowsy smile against his chest. “I’m playing a song” he whispers, his fingers picking up the pace for a few notes before they return to their leisurely rhythm. Baekhyun raises his eyebrows incredulously at the revelation, but he is not entirely opposed to the idea; cuddling in bed with Chanyeol feels nice, and especially endearing if he is playing music on Baekhyun’s body. It’s romantic even, considering music is Chanyeol’s passion in life, and to share it with Baekhyun this way is very flattering; he could have picked a more innocent body part to transform into his instrument of choice, but ultimately, Baekhyun is not complaining.

The morning flows over them serenely, the snow hiding them from the world, their bodies keeping each other warm; it feels like the only morning Baekhyun will ever need in his life, and he wouldn’t mind waking up to this every day. He thinks Chanyeol might be improvising notes after a while, his fingers playing for longer than anticipated, or perhaps he is playing more than just one song; Baekhyun thinks he is playing the sax, but only with one hand, which would explain the unhurried, expertly deliberate presses and strokes. He wonders what song it is, if it’s one Baekhyun knows the lyrics to, but Chanyeol is too endearingly lethargic to ask him; even so, Baekhyun is content with feeling Chanyeol’s touch on him as part of something he treasures, a gesture which carries so much tenderness and meaning.

However, it seem his dexterous hands are still a little clumsy with sleep, because just this once they turn a bit sluggish and lose their intended notes, sliding over Baekhyun’s skin to end up on a caress over his inner thigh, causing little nerves to stir and make him shudder, his muscles contracting and making his leg bend further forward; he luckily stops himself before he accidentally knees Chanyeol in the gut, but he ends up making another interesting discovery when the tension dissipates and the realization registers, calling to his teasing bone of playful seduction, tempting like a succulent strawberry. His leg has lodged between Chanyeol’s legs and, coincidentally, his knee and thigh are snuggly pressed against something half hard. Oh. He glances down at Chanyeol in his arms, broad shoulders naked, eyes closed and raven hair adorably messy, and Baekhyun bites his lip, feeling a little torn and uncertain; would it feel like he is taking advantage of his young and innocent lover? He has always found it hard to resist strawberries…

While Baekhyun keeps thinking, Chanyeol starts moving, little wiggles of his hips that might indicate discomfort, so Baekhyun decides to prioritize Chanyeol’s trust over his own teasing tendencies –there can always be time for that later. But as he pulls his limb away to find a less compromising place for it, a deep growl rumbles in Chanyeol’s chest, his hips jerking forward as if chasing Baekhyun’s leg; he still looks like he’s lightly dozing off, but it doesn’t seem to be the case, a frown curling his eyebrow and a pout appearing on his lips when he doesn’t find the satisfying friction he’d been looking for. Baekhyun is pleasantly surprised to say the least, and he smiles wickedly, sliding his knee up Chanyeol’s thigh slowly, the taller’s legs yielding easily to accommodate him; then he presses his thigh against the bulge in Chanyeol’s pants and starts a deliberate pace, slithering his leg back and forth, pressing a little with his knee. Chanyeol’s body is quick to respond, lean thighs flexing and hips starting to follow Baekhyun’s cadence, muffled grunts and sleepy whines leaving his lips as his arousal grows under the silken slide against Baekhyun’s naked thigh. Baekhyun bites his lip to hold back his own whines, not unaffected by Chanyeol’s responding body, his own lower regions turning aroused as they inadvertently grind on Chanyeol’s hipbone.

Little sighs escape them against the sheets, perching on the pillows and sneaking under the blankets, and Baekhyun likes this more than he thought he would, his hands fisting in the sheets over Chanyeol’s head, eyes fluttering shut; but Chanyeol soon whimpers and stirs away, abandoning Baekhyun’s embrace and turning around under the covers, with his back to Baekhyun and his knees curled to his chest. The shorter has a lucid moment after he lets him go and starts inwardly panicking that he did something wrong, too caught up in the moment to notice, so he squirms closer carefully, leaning over Chanyeol’s back to check on the saxophonist’s face.

“What’s the matter, doll?” he queries, trying to hide his anxiousness and give the taller enough space under their little cocoon of blankets. Chanyeol pouts and whimpers again, but this time it’s longer and it resembles words slightly; too soon? too soft? too slow? Baekhyun can’t make sense of it, so he combs his fingers through Chanyeol’s dark hair soothingly and kisses his neck adoringly, infatuated with his giant puppy, even when he can’t decode his somnolent mumbles. He’d be content to simply watch Chanyeol sleep in the hazy morning light, running his fingers through soft locks and peppering little kisses on his shoulder, letting moments skip by blissfully. His desire slowly alleviates, less demanding as he settles peacefully beside the taller, marveling at how cute Chanyeol looks when he yawns, nose scrunching and mouth stretching so wide, only to let out the softest sigh. His eyes flutter open again, lashes untangling and irises swirling to their warm brown color slowly; he frowns and pouts at the light casting a glow through the window, looking adorable and seductively handsome at the same time, with his serious eyebrows and plush lips; he turns around searching for Baekhyun hovering over his shoulder, and his expression instantly melts into a small smile.

“Still sleepy?” Baekhyun asks quietly, pecking his favorite edge of Chanyeol’s mouth, where his lip is just right to fill in all the spaces against his own.

“Hmm” Chanyeol murmurs, closing his eyes in contentment and stretching his long legs to his calves and ankles under the covers, outlined beautifully in the sheets draped over them. Baekhyun watches him with a fond smile, his eyes mapping out his face in this light, noting the charming little mole under his jaw which he might just kiss if no one stops him. “Do you still want to…um” Chanyeol mumbles, his eyes glancing down at the sheets and hiding under his lashes again, his cheeks dusted in a soft pink color. Baekhyun chuckles at the most innocent, bashful innuendo he has ever heard, and his hand caresses down Chanyeol’s arm, his hand closing over the taller’s as his bubbly laughter fades.

“Would that be okay?” he asks, his voice more gentle than mirthful, searching for Chanyeol’s eyes, and Chanyeol’s chocolate orbs look into his own as if summoned, his hand squeezing Baekhyun’s fingers reassuringly as he nods shyly. Baekhyun smirks enigmatically, his eyes dropping to Chanyeol’s pouty lips. “Hmm” he hums appreciatively, leaning down to capture the taller’s luscious lips in a kiss.

Chanyeol is exceptionally pliant, just like a doll but softer, more addictively responsive; he lets Baekhyun take initiative, parting his lips for Baekhyun’s tongue when he asks for it with a small lick, and giving in to all his touches and ministrations. The display of trust makes Baekhyun’s chest swell with satisfaction, making him seek to take better care of Chanyeol in all the ways he likes, and the taller simply enjoys the tender treatment in his lingering, half drowsy state of mind. Baekhyun riles him up with little caresses all over his skin, his nails ghosting over sensitive areas, making Chanyeol’s breath come short; he traces a finger down the centre of Chanyeol’s abdomen while he seduces him with a deep kiss, flicking his tongue against Chanyeol’s just as his finger flicks his bellybutton, eliciting a sigh of breathless anticipation.

He strokes teasingly all around the waistband of Chanyeol’s pants before he takes them off his long legs, dragging the covers down too by default and revealing Chanyeol completely naked and splayed languidly on the bedspread, his figure breathtaking and inviting to the worshipful hands, his skin looking like velvet in the sun, shadows flushed over intimate dips and curves. Baekhyun is already hard when he coats his fingers in oil, and Chanyeol’s coy, dimpled smile seals the deal, as he turns to his side fully and gathers his knees to his chest again, sending Baekhyun a knowing look under his lashes before he closes his eyes and stretches his arms in front of him, yawning adorably as if he’s going back to sleep, his waist arching seductively in the process; Baekhyun bites his lips, the hunger in his gut growing like wildfire all over his body.

Chanyeol is still a little loose from last night’s escapades, but Baekhyun stops when he notices a small wince of Chanyeol’s head amongst the pillows, when his hand touches the rim. “Does it hurt?” he asks in concern, eyes searching for any other signs of discomfort on Chanyeol’s face, which seems otherwise relaxed, to the point sleep seems very credible. But Baekhyun waits for Chanyeol’s answer patiently, his pleasure being a priority in Baekhyun’s mind, and he starts massaging Chanyeol’s hip instead, just to keep some much needed physical contact, which Chanyeol’s body relishes with a small tremble. The taller shifts his head on his pillow, turning to Baekhyun.

“I’m just a little sore” he mumbles meekly, his eyes blinking slightly more awake. He glances at Baekhyun only briefly, out of the corner of his eye, and then turns away again to press his face back into the pillow bashfully. Baekhyun smiles at the adorable sleepy traits his lover has, even at a time like this. “Please, be gentle” Chanyeol murmurs timidly, his morning raspy voice almost shy, and Baekhyun kisses his shoulder affectionately.

“Of course, doll” he reassures him with an endeared smile Chanyeol doesn’t see from where he is hiding his blushing face, even though his equally red ears give it away. There is no reason for him to feel embarrassed, Baekhyun thinks; if anything, it’s Baekhyun’s fault, for touching him so much last night –but he wouldn’t say he regrets even the most innocent of his actions. However, he would never want to hurt Chanyeol, so he leans over him and kisses the crook of his neck, before whispering into his ear. “Let me know if it starts to hurt” Baekhyun warns, and Chanyeol nods into the fluff of the pillow, trusting Baekhyun to resume his advances, and even though Baekhyun doesn’t get to spend as much time as he’d like, preparing Chanyeol and spoiling him with pleasure afterwards, he makes sure to make him feel good without minding the pain.

When he enters Chanyeol’s body, he tries to be as careful as possible, holding the taller by his lithe waist, this time arching in pleasure and not in drowsiness, and a sense of pride grows in his chest, seeing Chanyeol so comfortable that he is almost still sleeping, whispering Baekhyun’s name once as if he is calling for him in his dream. He is so completely surrendered, body silky and yielding in Baekhyun’s arms, malleable under his hands, so trusting, so unreserved. His strong hands are gripping the crumpled bed sheets, his lips are parted in irregular breaths, drooling on the pillow, and his eyes are fluttering open and close in bliss, wandering between the pleasure in his dream and reality. Chanyeol is vocal in the morning but not as sinfully loud as the night before; he is breathlessly, soothingly responsive, his deep voice soft and gentle against the whispery rustling of the sheets, and Baekhyun is irrevocably infatuated with this side of him;

with the melodious, soft moan that Chanyeol sighs when Baekhyun clamps his lips around the shell of his ear, flicking it with his tongue;

with the slight hum in Chanyeol’s chest when Baekhyun slips two of his fingers into his mouth, massaging his tongue until his lips are glossy like cherries;

with the breathless little ah that escapes Chanyeol’s lips when Baekhyun’s dump fingers ghost across his collarbones and chest, teasing a nipple on their way down;

with the soulful call of Baekhyun, when the latter’s fingers touch the heated crown, so delectably red against his white sheets.

He wishes this moment would last forever, with him buried deep into his lover’s body, as his beautiful Chanyeol is coming undone under his ministrations, unhurried and soft, vulnerable. Baekhyun’s chest physically aches at the tenderness, his heart expanding painfully to engulf all of Chanyeol’s being, his every breath and heartbeat, every whimper and every whisper. Baekhyun is drunk in more than just bodily pleasure, the satisfaction running deeper in his bones when he thinks how utterly Chanyeol has given himself to him in this moment; he is Chanyeol’s entire world, all he knows and all he loves, Baekhyun’s name being the only coherent thought Chanyeol articulates, with such passion, such devotion, such absolute adoration.

“I love you” Baekhyun thinks he says it out loud, with all the might of his soul crushing his heart in his chest, the words tasting sweet on his tongue. He bites his lip, surprised himself at how sincere his words carried in his voice, but he doesn’t regret them; he is sure, so sure, that this is the love he has been waiting for all his life, the love that consumes you and fulfills you, blinding you like the glow of a thousand suns and leading you blind, in trust, to the most colorful of galaxies where you can feel the beauty, hear it sing in your smile, hug it warm to your chest; and then you can see again, the person your soul calls for, the one you never want to let go of. Baekhyun feels such simple, unadulterated happiness by being united with his lover, holding him close, pleasing him, knowing his heart, having him.

Chanyeol undulates his hips, trying to feel Baekhyun inside him and thrust in his hand at the same time, dancing beautifully to Baekhyun’s rhythm. Somehow, Chanyeol’s hand finds Baekhyun’s, the one which is half trapped under the taller’s body and holding him by the hip, squeezing him closer whenever Baekhyun grinds deeper inside of him, grazing that spot that makes Chanyeol whine and clench around him. Baekhyun stops mouthing at Chanyeol’s neck and moans wantonly at the sensation, heat curling low in his gut. Chanyeol laces his fingers with Baekhyun’s, intertwined knuckles bruising the skin of Chanyeol’s hipbone. One more thrust and stroke, and their orgasms crush down on them like the brilliant light waves of a supernova, pleasure tearing them apart and putting them back together in sweet bliss.

Baekhyun peppers slow kisses all over Chanyeol’s shoulder, small, loving pecks that help his heart return to its normal beat, as they gradually come down from the coital high; Chanyeol sighs contentedly, curling into himself and gathering his numb limbs close, resulting in a sticky mess no one cares about –they will just shower together later, when they’ll both be feeling more awake. Maybe Baekhyun can make breakfast, kissing the jam off of the corner of Chanyeol’s lips, and maybe, Chanyeol will play with Baekhyun’s hair, as they both huddle near the fireplace to keep warm. Maybe Baekhyun can let himself believe in just one day of happiness, daydreaming while gazing at the beautiful being that has graced his life, his bed, his arms, his heart.

And when Chanyeol shifts in his hold just enough to turn his head around and look at him, a lazy smile denting his cheeks and a pink shadow of color spreading over his nose, his large eyes are heavy with sleep and satisfaction, eyelashes shading the corners, but in his molten gaze shimmers the unmistakable twinkle of the evening star. The weak light of the frigid day outside is reflected on the pure white snow, pouring into the room more brilliantly, and Baekhyun knows he has lost his heart, as Chanyeol leans up to kiss his lips chastely.

“I love you too, Baekhyun”

~* 26 *~

The night is cold and damp in the empty street, the dark sky starless and swarmed with clouds; what an ominous mood for the night of lovers and romance. Baekhyun sighs wearily into his scarf, his steps echoing against slippery, rain-soaked stones, the lampposts dim and drowsy like himself, burning still, so far into the night. Only ghosts are roaming the streets so late, keeping him company on his way home as always, silently and tenebrously swirling in dark corners to acknowledge him amongst them. His ears are abuzz with whispers of former music, notes mingling in a murmured, dizzying song, and there are scintillated silhouettes lingering in his vision every time he closes his eyes, dancing the night away and twirling into a festive frenzy that could give him a headache. All those colors and warmth and laughter have fizzled out to a withdrawn figure, fatigue and loneliness shading his outlines as he trudges down the familiar city streets, hands shoved deep inside his pockets for any traces of warmth he can find there.

He is feeling more than a little bitter and forlorn, unfairly banned from the comfort of a lover’s embrace on such an aloof night. His curse bends but it doesn’t break, spitefully biting him back for every kiss and every glance he steals, cruelly denying him of a touch, a smile, a flower of happiness in a life that has been forever barren; he can hear whispers of it, but no matter how madly and completely he loses himself in Chanyeol, his happiness won’t bloom freely, trapped under all the macabre layers life has unraveled for him. Baekhyun kicks the hard stones under his feet in anger, wishing he were strong enough to send everything to hell and elope with Chanyeol to a better, brighter place.

The rains of February and the odd sunny day have melted away the snow, leaving only glassy surfaces behind, wherever the relentless cold of winter decides to freeze over and make invisible mirrors for the sky; they usually reflect the dark gray clouds, sometimes ricocheting the rain, but their most favorite is to slip under the pedestrians’ shoes last minute, rendering the sidewalk a treacherous path to walk. Baekhyun is always mindful of his step, especially at night, and as he approaches the familiar corner of his house, his eye catches a flash of headlights rounding into the street a few paces behind him on the road, bathing the wet ground in a pale yellow glow for a moment, before they’re switched off; the wheels of the vehicle slow down, but the engine keeps running noisily into the silence, any semblance of secrecy irreversibly shuttered. Baekhyun scoffs. Amateurs.

The matter of subtlety is questionable, if not laughable, with those idiot lowlifes Sehun has sent scampering after Baekhyun; are they really the best he could do? They are the newest addition to his daily life, following him for weeks now, trailing close after him to any place at all times, and they have been quite maladroit at their job, their presence becoming apparent to Baekhyun from the very first day; Sehun must have seriously underestimated him, if he thinks someone as paranoid as Baekhyun wouldn’t pick up on something as painfully indiscreet as the surveillance he has stuck on his tail. Those goons have been smart enough not to bother him at least, so they are just a speck in a myriad of other problems Baekhyun ignores daily; he is wise enough to be more cautious lately though, especially when it comes to Chanyeol, because sometimes foolish people cause disproportionately the greater damage, and he doesn’t want Chanyeol to get hurt because he has carelessly ignored Sehun’s possessive, jealous streak. He wonders how far he’ll take it this time, how much further Baekhyun has to hate him until he can have his life back.

He unlocks the door with unnecessary force, stabbing the key into the lock in annoyance. The car parks very indiscreetly at the corner across his house, the two men getting comfortable in the darkness for their nightly stakeout, and Baekhyun has half a mind to walk over and scream at them to go away, to leave him alone and miserable for just one night, but instead he grits his teeth and slams the door closed, bolting it viciously while growling abominable curses at the men and their heinous boss, for personal satisfaction.

It doesn’t occur to him yet that the house is warmer than usual, but he does get his fair share of bewilderment and spooks when he blindly stumbles on something by the doorway in the dark. He barely holds back a screech as he flips the switch to turn on the lights, letting out the biggest breath of his life –and what feels like parts of his soul, too– when he realizes he just tripped on a harmless pair of shoes. He stares at the perplexing yet no foreign items in suspicion for a moment, his coat, which was already halfway down his arms, sliding off completely against his frozen, stiff frame; he catches it last second before it falls to the floor, a slow smile curving his lips.

Chanyeol is here.

And suddenly, the most depressive and frustrating night doesn’t seem so glum anymore, Baekhyun’s morose and angered mood spinning upside down; he always gets jittery and excited to have Chanyeol around at home, where he can touch and kiss him without fear. He glances upstairs once, the apartment seemingly drenched in darkness, and he puts away his shoes and coat quickly, padding up the stairs; the space is warm, a sign that Chanyeol has been here for a while now. Baekhyun’s heart is beating loudly in anticipation as he looks around the living areas, lights turned off so that their shadows can’t be seen from the windows; Chanyeol implements well all of Baekhyun’s absurd, excessive rules for secrecy without complaint, and Baekhyun would like to think those very same, paranoid rules have ensured their safety all this time.

He likes it best when Chanyeol comes over and stays the night, cuddling him in warmth till morning, their secret safe between the night, the stars and themselves.

Baekhyun is already on his way to the hallway when he spots him, his eyes discerning a tall figure in the shadows, leaning against the wall and watching Baekhyun snoop around the house like a clueless puppy in search of his human. He can’t hold back the newfound confidence in his step or the wide smile that spreads on his lips, and Chanyeol notices the change, grinning brightly, his teeth flashing in the darkness. Baekhyun practically sprints the rest of the distance to Chanyeol’s awaiting arms.

“Welcome home” Chanyeol’s deep voice rumbles a little, low and soothing, as he wraps his arms around Baekhyun’s waist, pulling him closer and letting his hands fall naturally to the small of his back. Baekhyun smiles and loops his arms around the taller’s shoulders, tiptoeing impatiently to peck Chanyeol’s chin in the blind, a little clumsy, but very affectionate; Chanyeol giggles and Baekhyun decides that coming home has never felt better.

“I didn’t expect you’d come here tonight” Baekhyun whispers as he lets his weight fall back to the soles of his feet, Chanyeol steadying him in his arms with no trouble; Baekhyun is not usually this playful, but tonight he is too excited and eager to control himself. He wants to dance and smile in elation, squeeze Chanyeol in his arms and breathe him in, banishing his scorned misfortune for the night; he had expected to find a cold house and a silent bed to rest his tired bones, so this moment feels almost unreal. But the warm embrace around him is very real, the intoxicating scent invading his senses, the soft breath fanning on his skin, the shy fingers playing with the hem of his vest on his back; they are all little hints that he is not dreaming yet, thoroughly exhausted as he may be.

“I thought you’d want me to; isn’t tonight a celebration for lovers?” Chanyeol retorts with a furtive smirk, so very cute and irresistibly alluring, his voice dipping lower in an entirely illicit way that has Baekhyun melting deliciously against him. Of course I wanted you to come, I always want you to come. Baekhyun has surrendered irrevocably, waiting utterly still with bated breath as Chanyeol leans down slowly to kiss his lips, chaste and soft, so much like Chanyeol.

“Maybe I was hoping you’d come” he acquiesces cheekily, and oh, how true it rings with longing, giving himself away. Chanyeol hums, pleased, and his hands start kneading gently on Baekhyun’s back, undoing the knots that keep him tense after a stressful day at work; celebrations of any kind tend to draw in bigger crowds, and Baekhyun has to plan and prepare for days before the event, the accumulated stress taking its toll on his body. Baekhyun sighs and tilts against the taller completely, resting all his weight on him; Chanyeol has to take a step back and lean on the wall for support, but he doesn’t mind, his hands casually massaging Baekhyun’s back. “But you know I’m not fond of Valentine’s –love is not defined and experienced in a day, you said so yourself. As much as I love spending every night I can get with you, maybe tonight is too dangerous” Baekhyun frowns up at him, his hands smoothing down Chanyeol’s shirt collar, until his tie tangles in Baekhyun’s fingers and he starts toying with it. It’s too late to negotiate about it, with Chanyeol being already in his house, but he loves Chanyeol, and he’d never risk his safety for a whim.

“As opposed to you serenading me in front of a crowd of strangers, which is not dangerous at all?” the taller retorts without any real bite, raising a challenging eyebrow, and Baekhyun feels his cheeks burn at the mention.

He might or might not have sung a love song tonight, for everyone inside the crowded club to witness, and he might or might not have spent the entire duration of the song staring at the saxophonist. He tried to look inconspicuous, sitting back to back with Yixing on the piano bench and gazing in Chanyeol’s general direction, but as the song progressed, he couldn’t take his eyes off of him; bathed in the sparkling lights above, eyes soft and lips holding back a smile, Chanyeol was the only person Baekhyun ever wanted to serenade, regardless of the patrons’ entertainment. No one seemed to pick up on his unusually focused, longing gaze, except for the sole object of his focus, and it’s a bit embarrassing in retrospect, that Baekhyun could be so unashamedly, unreservedly romantic given the excuse, but he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

“Touché” he mumbles with a mischievous smile, secretly proud of himself, the darkness hiding his blush. Chanyeol lifts a hand to brush aside stray tufts on Baekhyun’s forehead, his touch as tender as the look in his eyes.

“Thank you for the song” he says quietly, his lovely bashfulness twinkling in his large eyes and certainly painting his cheeks in a pretty pink hue Baekhyun wishes he was able to see; at least he can feel the jump of Chanyeol’s heart in his chest against his own, the quicker pace it sets in excitement, and the butterflies in his stomach start jumping too. He catches Chanyeol’s hand before it returns to his waist, his other hand, still around Chanyeol’s neck, pulling him down for an unexpected kiss; it’s short and simple, but the burn of Chanyeol’s plush lips against Baekhyun’s and their intertwined hands make it very gratifying; Chanyeol is initially stunned by Baekhyun’s playfulness, but only for a moment before he kisses back, meek and absolutely happy. Baekhyun feels happy too, imagines how hot Chanyeol’s skin would feel if he kissed his flushed cheeks or his ears, and he draws back with a quiet chuckle.

“You’re very welcome” he muses, his smile stretching wider when Chanyeol chuckles too, childishly flustered. “I wish I could do it more often; I wish I could sing to you and dance with you every night” Baekhyun continues, his voice growing more quiet, less playful, more wistful, almost a whisper. He tangles the fingers of their clasped hands, and Chanyeol’s smile softens too, his dark eyes searching into Baekhyun’s, mirroring the same emotions. There is love, and regret too, an undying, consuming want, a hint of wounded hope, and unbound devotion; Baekhyun has never been looked at like this before, he has never felt so much before, emotions pouring out, but he is without words to describe them. “I wish I could hold your hand in the street; take you out to candlelit dinners, and drive you out of town into the night, just to kiss you with a view of the city streetlights in the distance” he says softly, gazing up at Chanyeol with all the pain and yearning his daydreams leave him with.

He lifts his hand tentatively, releasing Chanyeol’s eyes for a moment, just to touch his smooth cheek, his fingertips feathering down to the corner of the musician’s plump lips. He feels them moving in the dark soundlessly, and he has to focus a little harder to make out the words, his eyes missing syllables in the dark. I like this life with you, Chanyeol is saying, his lips curling into an impish smile when he leans into Baekhyun’s touch a little, and Baekhyun’s lips wistfully tug into a smile, too. The thought of such a blissful life with Chanyeol, where they could be just themselves, just two people in love, just happy, takes root deeper in Baekhyun’s heart than he can afford in this reality, but knowing that Chanyeol shares such thoughts, no matter how painfully unattainable they seem, makes Baekhyun consider them with a maybe, just might.

Imagine I were free to love you as I’d like; wouldn’t that be wonderful…

“What do you want to do tonight?” Baekhyun whispers, trying to disperse the heavy, bittersweet feeling from the air and their hearts, wishing to spend every moment he has with Chanyeol enjoying him, spoiling him, savoring him. He doesn’t want to worry about a future he cannot see; his love is here, right here, and there is nothing more Baekhyun could ask for in life, a love of his own that makes him feel like he owns every star in the sky. He thought love was through with him since a long time ago, but he couldn’t be more wrong, every day with Chanyeol being a beautiful gift he’ll treasure infinitely in his most happy dreams.

Chanyeol’s eyes are twinkling prettier than the stars in the dark, enchanting Baekhyun like a stargazing explorer amidst a wide ocean, and his hand caresses over the taller’s smooth cheek to his neck and shoulder, just to make sure he is real. Chanyeol’s lips curl into a wide, toothy smile, and he unexpectedly swoops down to peck the edge of Baekhyun’s upper lip, around where there’s a tiny mole; how interestingly playful. Maybe Jongdae is right; maybe Baekhyun is corrupting this fine young gentleman with his mischievous ways.

“Let’s do anything” Chanyeol answers readily, his arms tightening around Baekhyun as if to add, as long as they’re together. Oh, Yeol… Baekhyun bites his smiling lips, eyes glancing to the pair of luscious ones that just stole a kiss from him, his mood responding to the playfulness unfailingly, despite his weariness after a long night at the club. How very innocently naive a proposition to someone as impious as Baekhyun, and Chanyeol doesn’t even seem to suspect it; Jongdae can rest assured that Chanyeol’s virtue is still pure and chaste, in spite of his body dancing to Baekhyun’s most sinful shenanigans behind closed doors. He just can’t help himself, when Chanyeol is so gorgeous and willing…

“Shower with me, then?” he proposes coyly, voice carrying a quiet, sultry lilt, leaving little room for misinterpretation. The way Chanyeol’s eyes widen in surprise and his smile freezes a little at the unexpected twist of an indecent proposal seems so endearing and amusing to Baekhyun, urging him to play with Chanyeol’s innocent mind a little longer. He slithers in Chanyeol’s hold, pressing his body against the taller man’s warm figure, and he lifts his hands to Chanyeol’s lovely ears, fingers caressing and pinching and massaging. “I promise, I’ll be nice and tame” he purrs seductively, blinking up at his lover from under his lashes, lips jutting in a begging pout. Chanyeol’s ears are warm under Baekhyun’s teasing fingertips, and his heart is beating a bit faster in his chest.

“Okay” he whispers, large eyes blinking adorably, voice indecipherable, lips pressing in a thin line of thoughts; he is always so delightfully corruptible, so keen to follow Baekhyun’s steps into the dark, and Baekhyun likes nothing more that pleasuring him in the dark, where stars shine just for the two of them. But perhaps not tonight; teasing aside, Baekhyun has had a rather exhausting day, and he’d be far more comfortable taking a shower and then spooning Chanyeol to sleep –or being spooned and lulled to sleep by Chanyeol’s heavenly voice.

“I’m serious about the shower” he clarifies, breaking character by breaking into a wide smile, his hands falling to Chanyeol’s shirt, harmless and nice “the rest, I’m not so sure about”

“I’m just joining you for a shower then” Chanyeol mumbles and shrugs his shoulders, lips curling into the faintest simper; no one should be allowed to be so arrestingly handsome after midnight, stealing hearts so easily, but Baekhyun likes Chanyeol’s confidence, he likes how he is so full of affection and makes loving Baekhyun seem so easy. It makes him want to keep him just as he is, safe in his heart. Chanyeol’s hands are playing a melody on the base of Baekhyun’s spine absentmindedly, waiting for him unhurriedly, and Baekhyun tilts his head, committing to memory every detail of Chanyeol gentleness in the darkness, just for a little longer, while the stars are watching.

They walk to the room hand in hand, the bedroom lights burning low; Chanyeol lets Baekhyun undo his tie, the shorter’s fingers careful and doting, and once he is done with the knot, he lifts himself on his tiptoes to chastely kiss the corner of Chanyeol’s mouth, pulling the fabric like a ribbon all at once. Chanyeol chuckles, and since Baekhyun has worn no tie today, opting to leave his top button open for a more effortlessly charming look, Chanyeol’s hands toy with the buttons of his suspenders on the waistband of Baekhyun’s pants; but he doesn’t undo them, instead tugging on them a little before he leans in to kiss Baekhyun. The shorter hums into the kiss, the seamless slide of Chanyeol’s lips against his feeling highly enjoyable, and his arms perch on top of Chanyeol’s shoulders, wrapping around his neck loosely. Chanyeol slips his hands under the suspenders, his touch warm on the fabric of Baekhyun’s shirt, and he strokes all the way up from Baekhyun’s stomach to his shoulders with his palm pressed flat against Baekhyun’s body, following the line of the black fabric against white; it sends a thrill to Baekhyun’s core, body shivering under Chanyeol’s touch, and he pulls back halfheartedly, while he still has fragments of sanity left.

“Chanyeol?” he whispers against the taller’s lips, and the man opens his beautiful almond eyes to look at him attentively, pupils large in the dark, irises sweet like melted chocolate, with a hint of intrigue. Baekhyun’s breath uncharacteristically comes a little short, his hands playing with the hair at the nape of Chanyeol’s neck, because he just can’t keep them to himself when there is this gorgeous human in the picture. He licks his lips, a little nervous, even though he knows there is no reason to be. “Would you mind terribly if we…don’t…” he trails off, glancing down at the small distance between them meaningfully, his heart kicking in his chest unreasonably, despite him trying to convince it to calm down; it wouldn’t be the first time they discuss about what they will and won’t do, always making sure they are on the same wavelength and comfortable. Chanyeol’s eyebrows curl in bewilderment at the implications in Baekhyun’s words.

“Of course not” he reassures Baekhyun, voice sounding as if he is saying the most natural yet most important thing in the world; he never gets disappointed or frustrated, valuing Baekhyun more than anything else, and Baekhyun is not used to being treated with so much consideration, but he appreciates the safety it makes him feel, the self-assurance, the appreciation. “Why would I mind?” Chanyeol shakes his head, refusing even the possibility, and his lips curl into a small smile of certainty. Baekhyun bites his lip.

“Because most people have certain aspirations on this night” he admits quietly, feeling a little embarrassed to share it with Chanyeol but also so much lighter, and he prefers to be honest than leave him wondering and doubting himself. He averts his eyes to the floor, his fingers now pinching the collar of Chanyeol’s chest a little nervously. “I’m sorry I’m too tired to be…intimate” he apologizes, his heart squirming again inside his chest, and he can feel his lips curving into a sad pout. He does think it’s pity, deep down, the romantic in him wanting to make this night more cherished and special, especially since Chanyeol went through the trouble to sneak in, just for him. A gentle finger curls under his chin, guiding his head up, until he is looking into Chanyeol’s eyes again, unspeakably fond.

“There are many ways I can be intimate with you” the taller says, the knuckle of his finger poking gingerly the plump corner of Baekhyun’s pouting lips, his own lips pressed in a line that makes his dimple show. Baekhyun sighs, gazing up at the most wonderful person in the world and allowing himself to feel less guilty, thinking of nicer outcomes for their night; they can still kiss and touch, they can still take a shower together, he can still spoon Chanyeol and mumble dreams in his hair. “I’d be more than happy if you let me cuddle you to sleep tonight, I’d be elated really” Chanyeol proposes with a bashful chuckle, and Baekhyun stands corrected; he is being spooned tonight, with Chanyeol’s lips on his neck and his strong arms wrapped around him in a warm cocoon. He smiles at the sound of that, ringing very satisfying and relaxing. Chanyeol’s smile is effortlessly bright in the middle of the night, lighting up the entire room, and Baekhyun leans closer into his arms, feeling as if his soul is gravitating to the taller’s warmth. Chanyeol wraps one arm around his waist, supporting him better against him, caressing Baekhyun’s cheek gently with the knuckles of his other hand, and Baekhyun relishes the treasuring treatment and Chanyeol’s touch. “You can always make it up to me tomorrow morning…” Chanyeol murmurs against Baekhyun’s mouth, his lips curling in a lopsided smile, so tempting and so near.

He grants Baekhyun’s implicit wish to kiss him, his lips soft and plump, fitting against Baekhyun’s thinner ones perfectly; the feeling makes Baekhyun’s heart soar above the clouds, his thoughts floating. One of his hands plays with the butterfly ends of Chanyeol’s collar, his other hand coming to rest on the taller’s waist, squeezing a little; Chanyeol feels so warm, always so lovely under his touch. Baekhyun is pulled closer securely, one musical hand curling behind the nape of his sensitive neck, the touch lighting up a tingling current all across his skin, numbing his toes and making his fingers twitch; Chanyeol uses that hold on him to tilt his head, the angle becoming just right to kiss his sweet lips, and Baekhyun sighs, utterly content. His lips are yielding under Chanyeol’s gentle ones, parting with the smallest nudge of the taller’s lips between his; Chanyeol smiles, tasting so wonderful, and Baekhyun takes a chance to tug on the soft flesh with his teeth, nursing it with a chaste kiss, just on the edge. Chanyeol’s breath hitches for a moment, but then it washes warmer over Baekhyun’s lips, and a soft tongue touches the corner of his mouth; he expects it to go further, opening his lips more, but Chanyeol only lingers instead, pulling on his heartstrings with every curlicue he traces across his lower lip, swirling over the rim and teasing the inner seam. It’s so entrancing, Baekhyun’s heart beating faster but distant as if it’s inside someone else’s body, a small heat curling in his stomach with every wet touch and soothing stroke of lips, the contact amplifying after the teasing but not being nearly enough to satisfy the fire in his veins, lulling it to flow lazily instead, keeping him tame and lowly kindling like a shy candle flame.

When he feels Chanyeol’s teeth, brushing against his lips and then sinking a little into the flesh, he can’t hold back a groan, his heart returning to his chest and lurching against his ribs. He tries to chase Chanyeol’s kiss in need, whining when the taller squeezes his neck to keep him still, making goose bumps curl down all of Baekhyun’s spine. Chanyeol is not rejecting him though, sensing his wants and diving in for a deeper kiss, his tongue entering Baekhyun’s mouth and licking over his lips, rediscovering and claiming every nook, caressing his tongue and massaging it in the most pleasurable way. Baekhyun keens, slowly turning into a pliant, moaning mess of jumbled thoughts and heavy limbs in Chanyeol’s arms, heart beating so hard that the taller can probably feel it against his chest, and it’s so good, so full of Chanyeol and his affection, a little playful with the way he teases Baekhyun’s tongue and his imagination.

He loses track of time, it could be moments or forever of being kissed like this, and all he can think about is Chanyeol, his star, so warm and soft and gentle, loving and desirable and insanely seductive when he wants to be. He realizes he had lost his breath only after Chanyeol pulls back, lips swollen and slick, a little red to match the faint color on his cheeks; he looks just as wrecked as Baekhyun feels, panting breath and blown eyes, so so breathtakingly handsome that Baekhyun’s heart screams, at his soft skin and plump lips, at the stray tufts of dark hair that have fallen over his forehead, at the gentleness lurking under his lashes, chocolate eyes swirling with emotions.

“Who taught you to kiss like that?” Baekhyun whispers, a little breathless, his mind still a little disoriented and reeling, searching for the senses in his body, so overwhelmed with Chanyeol’s presence; his body is warm against him, his breath ghosting over his lips, his hand trailing down from Baekhyun’s nape to his waist following the line of his suspenders to join the other one, his gaze so enchanting and deep. Chanyeol smiles, red lips looking less innocent than before, hovering close to Baekhyun’s mouth.

“You did” he answers simply, pecking the mole over Baekhyun’s upper lip, chaste and adoring, making Baekhyun’s weak heart flutter helplessly in his chest. A small voice in the back of Baekhyun’s head chastises him that he should have guessed, but Baekhyun has absolutely no regrets –or objections– to revel in his own teachings.

They help each other undress, but there is nothing naughtily intimate about it; it’s caring and comforting, Baekhyun’s hands undoing Chanyeol’s sleeve cuffs and then caressing his wrist, and Chanyeol taking his hand in his hold and bringing it to his lips for a kiss. Chanyeol helps Baekhyun take off his shirt, disentangling him from his suspenders and letting them hang loose on either side of his thighs, unbuttoning the front attentively while Baekhyun tugs the taller’s shirt out of his belt. Baekhyun’s shirt falls in waves of pooling fabric round his feet, soon followed by the black fabric of his slacks, and Chanyeol’s shirt is pushed down his arms by Baekhyun’s long fingers, stroking the warm skin of his arms and forearms; there is a small bruise on one of Chanyeol’s biceps, so caringly bitten and sucked by Baekhyun on his skin a few days ago, still blooming in faint red where the muscle lines Chanyeol’s arm. The same arm and its strong pair wrap around Baekhyun, bringing him into a comforting embrace, and even though Baekhyun’s heart rejoices in excitement, his stomach kicking at the unhindered contact of skin, he can only feel soothed in Chanyeol’s arms, breathing his scent, sharing his warmth, his hands mapping the ridges and bumps of bone and muscle on Chanyeol’s back, skin soft as velvet.

Clothes are discarded on their way to the bathroom, Chanyeol’s slacks, and pairs of socks and underwear, so unbothered to be gracing the floor. The water feels nice on Baekhyun’s skin, washing away some of his tiredness and any remaining worries that his responsibilities at the club have left behind for the day. The almond scent of the soap is comforting, a little sweet and silky, fogging the mirror and the glass-slide doors of the shower, helping Baekhyun’s mind and muscles relax, familiar and calming. Chanyeol washes Baekhyun’s hair, massaging his scalp, his neck and shoulders, fingers tangling in red before pressing expertly on Baekhyun’s sore body; it feels like Baekhyun is dismantling in his parts, tension unwinding, bones feeling nice and loose. His voice echoes in the bathroom a little, grunts and whimpers of satisfaction falling from his lips with strings of praises for Chanyeol’s hands on his body, making him feel so comfortable he could fall asleep. He washes Chanyeol’s back in turn, admiring the movement under the skin as Chanyeol washes his hair, the sponge in Baekhyun’s hand, covered in soap bubbles, alternating with his hand, caressing down Chanyeol’s ribs, tracing curious fingers around the taut lines and massaging the muscles on his lower back, before slipping to the front and tickling Chanyeol’s stomach playfully, making him giggle. Baekhyun closes his eyes and smiles to himself once he’s under cascading water, feeling so pleased and sated, wondering how he could ever assume tonight would be disappointing.

Chanyeol wraps him in a fluffy bathrobe once Baekhyun steps out of the shower, attentive and caring, and Baekhyun lets it hang loosely around his body, lifting himself on his toes to kiss Chanyeol fondly with a smile, hands cradling his face affectionately; he is used to being a fairly independent man, but he has to admit it feels nice to have someone looking after him when the night is so late and he is so tired. Chanyeol wraps a towel around his waist, waiting patiently and obediently for Baekhyun to dry his hair, something the latter has found out he really enjoys doing for some reason, tussling the black locks and combing them, rubbing Chanyeol’s ears as if he’s a good puppy; it lifts his mood, and even though it could be just because he gets to spoil Chanyeol a little, or to see his hair falling over his forehead naively, making him look so soft and handsome, Baekhyun also finds joy in this, sharing time with Chanyeol, appreciating him in small ways, thanking him for loving him.

Once they stumble out of the bathroom, Baekhyun latches onto Chanyeol’s back, seeking his warmth, the room feeling a little colder till they get used to the different temperature. Chanyeol chuckles at his childish antics but he doesn’t complain, reaching the closet to retrieve some pjs –and although Baekhyun enjoys seeing Chanyeol so familiar with his house and acting domestic, this time he perks up in protest, letting go of Chanyeol’s back and tugging on his arms to turn him around. “You don’t need that” he says with a mischievous smile, guiding Chanyeol closer to the bed, and the taller follows him, in spite of his reluctance.

“But I’m cold” Chanyeol whimpers in his deep, delicious voice, his skin attesting to his words by shivering, muscles tense, and Baekhyun’s eyes can’t resist raking down his figure. How wonderfully skimpy, all soft skin and subtly defined muscles. A towel is too little fabric to cover Chanyeol’s long body, leaving his endless legs on display, strong calves and slender thighs, and above, his lean waist and stomach, that adorable mole looking like a teardrop on his lower ribs, broad chest and sculpted collarbones flowing into strong arms and a pale neck. Baekhyun licks his lips appetizingly, crossing the final distance to the bed; he wants to feel it all, sleep with Chanyeol just as he is, warm and fresh from a shower, and wake up in his arms just as bare and close.

“I’ll keep you warm” he purrs, suddenly wrapping an arm around Chanyeol’s waist and twirling him, making him lose balance and fall on the bed, dragging Baekhyun down with him –but then again, Baekhyun was prepared. He adores the lost, disoriented look on Chanyeol’s face, wide, almond eyes blinking, their chocolate color so deep in this soft light, lips parted in a gasp, cheeks a little flushed. Baekhyun has to rearrange himself only a little to straddle Chanyeol’s waist, coaxing him back to comfort with little pecks on his cheeks and jaw, his warm hands wandering over the taller’s exposed torso, teasing but also reassuring; he loves Chanyeol splayed under him like this, vulnerable and beautiful and soft under Baekhyun’s pacifying touch. His hands move to Baekhyun’s waist once he is fully aware of their compromising position, but he doesn’t push him away, chuckling and scrunching his nose when Baekhyun pecks the tip; his eyes are sparkling happily, cheeks rosy and smooth, and Baekhyun has an urge to devour him like strawberries and cream, his smile turning a little wicked as he lowers himself flush against Chanyeol’s chest and whispers seductively into his ear. “And maybe, in the morning, I’ll sneak my hands in your hair, and then trail them down your spine while kissing your shoulders; and you’ll let me suck little marks between your ribs while I’ll be stroking your thighs-”

“Baekhyun…” Chanyeol whines, cutely squirming under him in fluster, cheeks even rosier than they were before, lush lips pouting at the unfair teasing, eyebrows curled in a frown that shouldn’t be this handsome. Oh, definitely in the morning…, Baekhyun promises himself, smiling lips playfully sealing a kiss over that heartbreaking pout, soft and yielding and so warm, until Chanyeol’s lips mold into a smile too.

And when the morning comes, Baekhyun indulges in Chanyeol thoroughly, gentle and a little sleepy, just as he likes. Sheets tossed out of the way and bathrobe splayed on the bed. Baekhyun is kissed and touched and loved, so tenderly exposed to the dazzling morning light, a lethargic daze still lingering, numbing the edges of his mind pleasantly, toes curling into fluffy blankets. Chanyeol is dancing in his lap, hips swiveling slowly as he rides Baekhyun, so sensual and languid, eyes drowsily closed in half-dreams and pleasure, lips bitten and plump like cherries. He looks so positively wrecked, with hands splayed on Baekhyun’s chest for balance, the muscles of his body contracting and squirming under his velvet skin, spine shuddering, dark hair fluffed up whichever way and falling into his eyes; he is the only thing Baekhyun wants to see, beautiful as an angel in the morning glow, the only thing he wants to feel, touching him unreservedly, writing his love on every inch of skin with kisses and adoring caresses, speaking beautiful words just for Chanyeol and reaching the stars with him.

~* 27 *~

The water pours into the cup, scalding and steamy, the tea bag bleeding out swirls of color right away; it’s rushed and probably burnt, but he doesn’t care. It’s not like his cup wouldn’t taste bitter. The aroma is still there, calming his nerves a little as he stirs the brewing cups, trying to force them to be done sooner; he normally likes having guests, but not this time. For this particular guest, half of him is fervently wishing he had never opened the door in the first place, or that he had made an excuse at least, while the other half is urging him to just hurry up and be quiet until this ordeal is over. He is only half paying attention to his task at hand, perhaps stirring the same cup over and over, his mind preoccupied with worried thoughts of the man snooping around in his living room; he can’t guess why he decided to come by all of a sudden, but he looks too calm for comfort, like a beast stalking its pray, and Baekhyun feels all the more unsafe being alone with him.

His stomach clenches, the scent of tea suddenly nauseating, but he tries to remain calm, staring at his kitchen cabinets and feeling another emotion bubbling red in his gut. If only he had rat poison available.

When the bell rang earlier, Baekhyun was in the middle of making himself breakfast, dressed for the day but hardly expecting any guests. He thought maybe it was the postman, sometimes bringing him packages from the mansion, full of fruit and other goods his people there gather from the estate; it has been left to their care and to their enjoyment, Baekhyun keeps the house out of mere pride after all, but they still share everything with him, once even sending a box full of flowers from the garden. With a touch of curiosity, Baekhyun made his way down the stairs, only for the polite smile to freeze on his lips the moment he opened the door; Oh Sehun was standing right outside, with a flashy, light blue suit and a grimace of a smile. Baekhyun had never felt more cursed on a sunny winter’s day.

Of course he was obliged to entertain him; whenever is he not? Neglect is a punishable offence in Sehun’s book, even when it can’t be helped, even when Baekhyun had been recovering from a gunshot and a surgery, just to be punched for having been gone for so long in the end –what a nice way to be missed. For all his sinister, demanding, unquenchable soul, however, Baekhyun only ever had to suffer from Sehun at the club; today marks the first personal visit to his house, an unexpected, unwelcome and utterly baffling visit. He has always known Baekhyun’s address of course, sending his lackeys to stalk him, but he had never dared show himself here before, not even when things were still rough into their twisted arrangement and his need to keep track of Baekhyun was obsessive and overbearing. He didn’t clearly state the purpose of his visit when Baekhyun answered the door to him, practically inviting himself inside, with such ease and impudence, leaving Baekhyun with no choice but to grit his teeth and curse him to the ends of the world and back under his breath, fearing this ominous aura around him and wandering what he might have done wrong by Sehun’s rules to deserve this visit.

He fishes the tea out of the cups, impatient, annoyed, and terrified. Only his heart knows how many reasons he has to be afraid of this unusual predicament, his mind flashing behind his eyes fragmented images of all that he has to lose as he rounds the corner of the breakfast bar, two cups of tea in hand.

“You have quite a charming collection” Sehun says, almost pleasantly, standing in front of the wall and admiring Baekhyun’s collection. It used to be his mother’s, the only beautiful thing she had in her life, and it goes far beyond charming, including priceless works of art that Baekhyun keeps nostalgically, for the sake of the hours he used to spend as a child staring at their colors and devising stories in his head out of the details, happier lives he could escape to in his imagination. It unnerves him that Sehun has noticed them; maybe he should have sold one of them instead of getting a loan from Sehun, when the import business first started and the competition was rough, making cash a scarce commodity.

“Hmm” he hums noncommittally to answer Sehun, hiding his feelings behind a cold, unfeeling mask. He can be polite if not provoked, civil enough, but he’s had to be around Sehun for so long that all his patience and good will has run out, so he no longer cares to conceal his emotions under a gracious front; besides, they have exchanged some very bitter words with Sehun during their occasional fights, and some things can’t be unsaid or forgotten, always lingering in his mind every time he sees him, fueling his aggravation. He sets the cups on the breakfast bar calmly, Sehun’s hat perched further on the counter, and Baekhyun sits on one of the stools, passively inviting Sehun to join him if he’s finished evaluating his possessions, like the disgusting loan shark he truly is under his refined exterior. Sehun’s hands fix his suit around his buttons, his sharp brown eyes lingering on the paintings for a moment longer before he turns around, stride confident as if he owns the place, approaching Baekhyun and taking a seat beside him, elegant and poised as always, like a wax doll someone made pretty, but forgot to give it a heart. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Baekhyun prompts, trying to stop his mouth from curling in repulsion around the last word and hiding it behind the rim of his cup.

The tea is bitter.

“Darling, I don’t see you enough lately” Sehun says saccharinely, casually sipping his tea as if the taste has not been ruined, then setting the cup back to the counter gracefully. Baekhyun observes him for a moment, finding his moves too well-practiced, trying to guess what’s lying underneath. There must be something. Sehun’s answer, inconclusive and vague as it might be, doesn’t sound as possessive as it usually does, and his expression is far too agreeable to decipher; he might be the only person whose inexpressive, blank face makes Baekhyun feel more comfortable than any of his expressions, even his smiles.

“Is that so?” he replies feigning indifference, as if it’s something he genuinely wouldn’t have noticed, something that happened by chance; sometimes his business calls too strongly for his presence and he gets distracted and busy, it could be something like that. Or, it could be that he has been avoiding Sehun, discreetly keeping him at a safe distance from all the good things in his life; most often it’s a mix of both, but Baekhyun might be more guilty of conscious avoidance this once. His finger rubs on the handle of the cup nervously, expecting Sehun’s next words with a nauseating knot in his stomach.

“Yes…” Sehun confirms, voice gentle like the purr of a panther, intelligent eyes looking at Baekhyun as if he’s reading his every breath closely. “On Valentine’s day, for example, you were nowhere to be found; I had plans for us, you know” he says, voice dipping to slightly deeper notes, carrying a slight reprimand, or perhaps disappointment. The curl of his lip is definitely disapproving, ash blond hair making him look unnaturally pale in daylight, like an austere figure of old paintings, lifeless, but still showing a hint of shrewd emotion. Baekhyun gazes back at him composedly, refusing to be intimidated by Sehun’s discontentment at his scorned plans.

“I didn’t know” Baekhyun answers sincerely, keeping absolutely still under the scrutiny of Sehun’s eyes, searching for any signs of discomfort or dishonesty.

“Where were you then?” the taller baits, eyebrow twitching into a faintly challenging expression; it’s far from polite and discreet, but Baekhyun is used to it by now. Sehun loves to doubt his words as if it’s a sport, always competing, trying to coax Baekhyun into saying the things he wants to hear instead of the truth, and he can be quite aggressive in his efforts; Baekhyun supposes it’s easier to mangle the truth to fit your view rather than shattering the imaginary picture of the world you carry in your head, if only Sehun’s wasn’t so twisted.

“I was at the club, then I was here” Baekhyun provides with a casual shrug, his lips curling smugly into his cup for a moment, because would you look at that, he has the testimonies of two brainless goons to back up his story to Sehun, how lovely to defy his expectations and rightfully win this battle.

“Hmm” Sehun hums pensively, surly recalling the corroborating information he has received from his underlings. Baekhyun looks at him impersonally, raising an erroneous brow. “It seems you’re still capable of telling the truth” Sehun concludes without much interest, picking up his cup and sipping on his tea, which this time seems to taste a little foul in his mouth, more because of Baekhyun’s tiny victory in this game of doubt rather than for the actual taste. “Where you alone?” he follows up his interrogation offhandedly, but he’s not even looking at Baekhyun, eyes more interested in the design of the cup; the shorter tenses imperceptibly at the question, his stomach squirming in discomfort, but he tries to soothe himself, reassuring his uneasy heart that there is no way Sehun would know Chanyeol was here, his goons only saw Baekhyun returning home at night, and if Sehun did know through other means, he certainly wouldn’t be so casual about it, he would have raised hell long ago.

“As you can see, I do live alone” he points out objectively, voice carrying little emotion, and Sehun hums in disinterest, eyes glancing to the living room and gazing at the sunlit sky out the window. Baekhyun feels a surge of anger flooding his chest, his dignity feeling once again insulted by this constant, mistrustful treatment; why does he have to apologize and explain himself to a man who is nothing but a hateful mistake to him? It all ends either in anger or flippant indifference anyway, he is not building anything new in this sick charade of a relationship with Sehun, except a wall of hatred, brick by brick reaching to the sky. “Would that be all?” he proposes after a while of silence, his patience running thin; if Sehun’s objective was to check on him like he often does, fishing for indiscretions he can fantasize in jealousy, then he can leave reassured now, objective acquired in blissful ignorance.

But the shadow that crosses Sehun’s face tells Baekhyun a different story, making his stomach flip in warning, as if his suspicion of the way Sehun looks like a monster on a hunt is about to be confirmed.

Sehun pushes his cup a bit to the side, as if literally making room for serious business on the table, his face turning into an expressionless carving of stone. “No…” he says, voice cold and razor sharp, bitterly foreboding. “What happened to the money, Baekhyun?” he asks solemnly, eyes growing dark and full of demanding menace in the sunlight, restrained but clearly irked, gnawing its teeth against the iron bars of the cage where Sehun keeps his feelings. Baekhyun frowns, perplexed by the sudden turn of the conversation.

“I already paid the monthly due” he points out, something they both know through the joint link of the bank withdrawals and deposits. Baekhyun is always very punctual on the payments of his loan, struggling and stressing but hoping to be rid of it as soon as possible. Sehun peers inside his unfinished cup, expression conscientious and macabre.

“And interest?” he asks, turning to Baekhyun again, eyes inquisitive and secretly impatient.

“Yes, right on Valentine’s day” Baekhyun answers with certainty, momentarily pushing his annoyance at this second questioning aside and allowing himself to acknowledge a twinge of worry; if there is one thing in the world Sehun wants more than Baekhyun, it’s money. It makes for an ironic obsession, considering he already has more money than he will ever need and he still has means to make more every day, he can buy the world ten times over and it’s still not enough for him; he can go mad with fury if a debt is scorned, no matter how big or small, because for Sehun to have means to be, money is the entire essence of his existence, greedy and controlling and selfish. Said man clenches his jaw, the way he does when he’s about to accuse Baekhyun of a lie he is not saying, eyes growing hard as stone.

“Then why was the sum 500 less?”

Shit.

“Maybe there was a mistake at the bank” Baekhyun tries to reason evenly, inwardly panicking at the discrepancy that could be the sole trigger of Sehun’s visit; Sehun surely didn’t come here out of courtesy, or for the tea, and although he tried to butter Baekhyun up with sweet talk of missing him, in the clumsy, insulting, infuriating and egocentric way he tried to do so, Baekhyun hates that his instinct was not wrong. Sehun is here to hunt him down, angry and scorned and ready to rip out his throat, because the few things in life Sehun can experience are black and destructive.

“Is that so?” he challenges, sarcasm evident in his voice, lips dripping poison. Each moment that passes keeps fueling his anger more, brow ticking in rage, lips twisting in resentment, and Baekhyun can’t do anything to stop it, because Sehun is the sort of man who winds himself tightly as a punishment to his feelings, pushing and slashing at them until they burst in a frenzy, taking control and wrecking havoc in everything they cross on their path. “Are you sure you’re not trying to swindle me, hm?” he demands, paranoid and impatient, and excuse Baekhyun but he takes offence at that, for crying out loud, not hesitating to show it on his face. “Perhaps you’ve been picking up that barman’s ways” Sehun spits through his teeth, unnaturally pale, and the mention of Jongdae jostles Baekhyun’s good sense a little.

The two of them have never been on good terms; they are civil around each other, but only when they have to interact directly, curt and resentful, hating every moment of it. It’s glaringly obvious they despise each other to their bones, not even Jongdae’s acting skills or Sehun’s expressionless face being able to hide it, and it has been like this from the start. Baekhyun has managed to lead them to a fine balance where they see as little of each other as possible, but the bad blood between them is still there, in Jongdae’s bitter words, in Sehun’s ever-growing suspicions. All this makes Baekhyun especially worried about his best friend, because he is sure that if Sehun ever made good on his threats to hurt those that Baekhyun loves if he doesn’t comply to his wishes, Jongdae would be on top of the list. It’s inevitable that Sehun’s direct mention of Jongdae puts Baekhyun on edge, and he tries to calm down, avoiding to face the situation hotheadedly.

“I pay you four times that, Sehun, I have no reason to swindle you” he points out, trying to be the voice of reason against the unfounded suspicions encouraging Sehun’s raging paranoia, while trying to put his adrenaline into good use, searching for a quick solution; Sehun looks intolerant enough, lips pressed in a thin line, anger scorching in his eyes, nostrils flaring when a second too long nearly passes; Baekhyun decides to bet on the most obvious idea. “In fact, let me give the money to you right now, that should solve the problem” he says as reassuringly as he can manage, making to stand from his seat, but Sehun’s raised voice holds him back.

“It’s not about the money, Baekhyun- sit down, I’m not finished” he growls, and that tone of voice connects to a darker place inside Baekhyun, compelling him to obey, even though he hates himself for it, making him regret his entire life in that split second of forced, passive-aggressive submission in the face of life-threatening commandments. This path is predictable; they will probably end up screaming and throwing insults at each other, Baekhyun ripping off pieces of Sehun’s soul, Sehun leaving bruises on Baekhyun’s body. The outcome is still unpredictable but the path to it is certain, and Baekhyun is always prepared to fight for his life with the abominable creature that is Oh Sehun. “It’s about trust” Sehun continues, subtly seething under the smooth surface, his eyes glinting stark raving mad “I need to know you take our relationship seriously”

“Oh, I do” Baekhyun quips, voice hollow and bitter, yet piquing Sehun’s interest, “–like the plague” he deadpans, eyes cold, lips twisting around the words with malice.

If there is one thing Baekhyun learnt through his childhood, it’s how to fight for himself. There is nothing that can control him when his mind goes wrong, crimson wrath and black poison running furiously in his veins, soul erupting into consuming flames that stop at nothing, until he has destroyed his opponent and perhaps a bit of himself along the way. He opts to be civil but he can be rather vicious, taking his revenge in painstaking tortures he inflicts upon the souls who hurt him, retuning all the pain in spiteful malice, leaving them damaged and impaired, useless as they deserved to be considered from the start. He didn’t even pity his own father, who never was more than a worthless drunkard to him, a man who made his mother quit dancing because he broke her leg, who called his brother worthless, who bashed Baekhyun’s knee when he was still a little child and then left in a fit of rage, to return after years, sinking in debt, pretending to be in charge, ruining everything the brothers couldn’t salvage and leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But years later, when Baekhyun had grown a stranger to him, when he was ready after learning all the gambling tricks from none else than the current capo of the city’s gambling scene, Baekhyun played his father to win the last piece of property the man had to gamble, unknowingly losing it to his own child, who took literally everything he had and left him to drink himself to death, stealing the remnants of his soul. Baekhyun is a beautiful face with a kind soul, until you force him to be a cruel fire that bites back and burns until there’s nothing left.

How foolish of Sehun to think he won’t suffer the same fate at this rate.

“Don’t make me mad, Baekhyun” Sehun warns, voice dark and ominous, the lines of his face so hard you’d think it’s about to break; but his words can’t intimidate Baekhyun, they never did. He is afraid for the sake of the people he loves, but he is sure he can take care of himself well enough, even against Sehun’s unreasonable, uncontrollable outbursts of anger, violence and spite; Baekhyun has done it before, and he might be bruised, but he always survives.

“God forbid, Sehun, or you might really kill me this time” he scoffs sarcastically, picking up his cup and leaving the table defiantly, every muscle in his body taut and quivering with rage, despite his calm demeanor and composed movement; he knows better than to lose his focus in a fight, bringing reckless defeat upon himself.

He’s not even two steps away from his former seat when, suddenly, he is being shoved and grabbed and twirled around so fast he loses his sense of direction, somehow ending up pushed against a wall, the air knocked out of his lungs. He hears rather than sees the cup breaking against the floor, shuttering into a dozen pieces, and maybe there were two cups fallen victim, in Sehun’s haste to catch up to him. Baekhyun tries to break away out of reflex, still disoriented but very much uncomfortable with the way Sehun is crowding him against the wall, hands holding too tight onto Baekhyun’s shoulders until it’s almost pain. He tries to push the taller away but Sehun doesn’t budge, and there are insulting words at the tip of his tongue as Baekhyun wounds up a fist to punch Sehun in the face to escape, but he finds himself unexpectedly gasping for breath, Sehun’s hands grabbing him by the neck and pinning him completely against the wall.

“Listen here, you little bitch” Sehun snarls in his face, uncaring of Baekhyun scratching and fighting against his hands, trying to get them off, his heart beating fast in his chest and throbbing unnaturally loud in his throat, his feet stumbling around to keep him standing on his tiptoes the way Sehun has lifted him off the ground. Fuck him and his overpowering build. “I could kill you, I could have killed you a long time ago” the blond man scowls menacingly, his eyes glinting treacherously, but Baekhyun bares his teeth, just as furious and dangerous.

“Why don’t you?” he challenges, as loud as his voice can make it, feet kicking Sehun’s calves as hard as he can, but it’s still not enough to set him free, not with the way he can barely breathe if he’s not balancing on both feet. “Just rid me of your miserable presence in life” Baekhyun hisses into the taller’s face defiantly, face gradually turning red, eyes blazing wild with all the raging hatred he feels for the man. He tries to claw at Sehun’s face but the taller swats his hands away with echoing slaps that leave Baekhyun’s skin burning, his throat letting out an involuntary whine when Sehun’s fingers squeeze tighter.

“Don’t say that” he whispers, breath fanning over Baekhyun’s face and making him feel sick to his stomach, choked coughs leaving his mouth at how difficult it’s becoming to breathe; it feels like his breaths are growing shallower, not deep enough to reach his lungs, the blood buzzing in his ears. Sehun’s deranged look softens strangely, a perverse affection painting over his face while he’s strangling Baekhyun with his own hands, and Baekhyun glares at him harder, feeling no remorse to wish a horrible torture for him and his deeply disturbed mind. “Why do you always say such hurtful things?” Sehun pleads, looking at Baekhyun, at his trembling lips and red face, until his gaze comes back to his eyes, and Baekhyun is prepared to show him the most detestable look he can manage, even through the tears burning behind his lids.

“Because I want to hurt you” he wheezes spitefully, bile rising to his throat, his hands still trying to push Sehun away, but they are growing weak from the lack of oxygen. Sehun’s eyes gleam in red hot ire, sharp features hardly discernible in Baekhyun’s vision, slowly blurring with the rest, numbness creeping up his legs; but Baekhyun can clearly see the chip of Sehun’s soul he just tore apart, dying in the taller’s dark eyes.

“You love me” Sehun hisses, crazed and absolutely livid. Baekhyun holds onto the last whispers of his voice in consciousness as tightly as he can, just to bite back with all the gruesome loathing he has brewed in his soul for this man.

I hate you

“Argh!” Sehun roars, finally letting Baekhyun go moments before the black spots in his vision take over, and he lets him go completely, taking a few steps back in furious resentment, uncaring of Baekhyun collapsing to the floor clumsily, hurting every limb he can still feel. The room echoes with Sehun’s bellows and growls of frustration, but Baekhyun can hardly listen to him, ears hammering with his racing heartbeat, his lungs burning, coughing endlessly and heaving to regain his breath; it’s painful to feel his body again, and he weakly tries to sit up a little, blinking away tears, the ghostly imprint of Sehun’s hands on his neck still pinching his skin. To hell with Sehun, let that bastard rot in hell. “Look what you made me do, Baekhyun” said man calls, and Baekhyun uses as much antipathy as he can manage to glare up at Sehun, the blood still thrumming in his veins.

Of course it’s someone else’s fault; of course Sehun can’t recognize himself, and of course he won’t stop.

Baekhyun doesn’t know if he’s more repulsed or infuriated to see Sehun regaining his temper, as easy as flipping a switch and waiting for the heated wire to cool off, all emotion dissipating from his expression and his body turning into a graceful wax figure again. Oh god, he really don’t have a heart. Baekhyun watches appalled as Sehun calmly picks up his hat from the breakfast bar and smoothes out his suit, tutting in disapproval at the angry red scratches on his hands but ignoring them as if they mean nothing, eyes completely void of emotion as he looks at Baekhyun, still trying to regain consciousness on the floor; if he could, he would throw something at him, yell at him to at least be human, but he doesn’t have the strength or the breath to shriek as resoundingly as he needs to in order to reach Sehun’s caged and half dead soul.

“I’ll give you till tomorrow to deposit the money” Sehun says, as if discussing the weather, and Baekhyun chokes on a disbelieving scoff “don’t ignore my deadline, or someone might get hurt” he warns, gaze unfeeling and brutal, as if Baekhyun needs to be reminded, as if he doesn’t live with that sword hanging over his neck every day. The blond man gives him one last look of disdain, expression revolted as if he’s looking at a repugnant creature in the gutter, always hating what he loves, and then he turns around and sees himself out as if it’s an ordinary day, before Baekhyun can curse at him or even look straight without feeling dizzy.

Sehun disappears quietly into the morning frost, leaving Baekhyun alone to scream his throat raw at the walls and cry, curled into a ball of frail limbs in the corner.

~* 28 *~

In a soft sunset hour, on an unusually sunny day, the Pearl is quiet and still; the breeze rustles outside and nudges the sign over the door with a quiet creak, but there is only silence in the entrance hall, the appliqués burning low in a creamy haze, giving depth to the rural painting on the wall. Inside the main hall, the piano glistens, black and sleek in the faint lights from over the bar that never quite go out, glimmering on glass and polished, rich wood; stray glints slither faintly between the tidily arranged and empty tables, before scattering to the far, dark corners of the room. The illumination doesn’t reach the stairs, shadows swirling heavy at the foot of the staircase, but there is a faint glow pouring over the top, the pale light of day overflowing from the office. It floats inside through the window, the sky milky blue with streaks of orange light across it, and those last sunrays waft inside, dripping over piles of paper, stylish armchairs and a smoked, unlit fireplace. It seems a quiet and peaceful affair, but there is hot blood dancing in the basement, and a pair of breaths coming to light through the dark tunnel of the stairs.

The basement is the cellar of the Pearl, where the walls are hidden behind piled boxes of bottles, and little alleys form in between rows of crates and wine libraries. There is a window so small you’d barely fit a hand through, and it is located so high it touches the ceiling, level with the stone paved alley outside; the light slips inside, indiscernible on most days and hours, except for when it shoots like an arrow straight from the horizon, sunrays radiant as they filter through colorful liquor and the thick glass of fancy bottles, painting a kaleidoscope on the floor, in shadows, color and bright light.

And there, by the furthest wall where they keep the expensive wines of certain years in a library of rhombic boxes, Baekhyun’s back is pressed against that wall, his beautiful skin adorned with crimson, illuminated shadows that filter through wine bottles, smooth and patterned over his fair chest and neck. He is the most enchanting creature Chanyeol has ever seen, burgundy hair ruffled and messy, eyes closed and lashes fluttering over his cheeks, his nose sloping down into a button tip, jaw sharp and slack, pink, bitten lips parted in pleasure, in a sinful shape. His head is thrown back, exposing his long neck, slender as a swan, little freckles on his shoulders wrapping around his strong upper arms too, muscles strained and veins rippling under the skin as he clutches onto Chanyeol’s shoulders. His chest puffs out with deep breaths, broad pectorals dipping down to a line of abdominal muscles and a narrower waist, where Chanyeol’s hands are squeezing the skin. With Baekhyun’s shapely legs wrapped around his hips and his smooth heat enveloping him, Chanyeol gasps out Baekhyun’s name like a string of prayers, and Baekhyun’s moan rises to a loud, deep and husky wail of pleasure that rattles his bones, seducing Chanyeol’s senses all over again.

They are not supposed to be doing this here; Baekhyun laid out a rule for himself that he mustn’t fool around with Chanyeol at the club, both because it’s dangerous and because they wouldn’t want to scar any of their coworkers for life. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, with Baekhyun’s insatiable, teasing nature, and Chanyeol’s weak spot for anything Baekhyun asks of him; today, Baekhyun eloped with him to the basement as soon as Chanyeol arrived this evening, earlier than usual thanks to a cancelled class, locking all the doors behind them. Chanyeol should have known, but it was just a matter of time under Baekhyun’s persuasive pout and naughty, wandering hands, until he gave in to sweet lips full of promises, just to feel Chanyeol inside of him this once. It’s not the first time –and it probably won’t be the last either– but Baekhyun is always so tight and smooth and warm, clouding Chanyeol’s thoughts with a sweet intoxication and making him feel so unbearably close with each thrust.

There is something strangely exhilarating in this setting, rare and picturesque, the air cool against their naked skin, sweat drops leaving a cold trail down Chanyeol’s spine, and raising goose bumps on Baekhyun’s skin as his body keeps the rhythm, hips swiveling and rocking back and forth with little arches and curves of his waist, in his attempt to grind his arousal against Chanyeol’s torso; it’s been left painfully unattended, no hands available as they both try to keep upright, Baekhyun clinging with bare arms and legs onto Chanyeol, and Chanyeol leaning his weight on him against the wall, knees buckling in a jolt of pleasure that slides down his spine. His hands slip back to their original place, kneading Baekhyun’s underthighs and parting his buttocks a little more; Baekhyun whines at the sensation and squeezes his legs around Chanyeol, pulling him in deeper by default and making them both moan languidly in pleasure, voices combining to a wonderful symphony.

When Chanyeol leans down, blinking stray hair strands away from his eyes and parting his lips to ghost his breath over a pink bud on Baekhyun’s chest, the redhead whimpers his name in desperation, his hand twisting to curl into the hair at Chanyeol’s nape; Chanyeol watches the rosebud rise to his breath, tender and begging like Baekhyun. He loves holding Baekhyun like this, stranded in pleasure and completely indulgent, pliant and full of desire, surrendered entirely to him and his ministrations. He cries out when Chanyeol sucks the nub into his mouth, hips jerking violently and nearly throwing them both out of balance, Chanyeol growling against his skin at the tight squeeze inside.

However, as much as he loves leading Baekhyun through the throes of carnal pleasure like a leisurely stroll in the sunset, at the very back of his head he keeps a bothersome thought that the clock is ticking, and they need to be done before anyone else arrives for their shift; Chanyeol knows Baekhyun will make it up to him when it’s time, perhaps with a sensational dance or a home cooked breakfast. Anything, as long as they’re together.

He rearranges his hold to hug Baekhyun closer to him securely, and then detaches him from the wall, peppering kisses on his jaw to soothe him when Baekhyun’s throat lets out a little squeak of surprise. He trusts himself to make just one step with Baekhyun’s added weight like this, and then he drops down to his knees as safely as he can, his balance saving them from a painful tumble, but his knees still hit the floor with clumsy bruises he could care less about. There is a white sheet conveniently laid out on the floor, after Baekhyun accidentally pulled it off its place earlier, when Chanyeol first lifted him in his arms –its purpose involves something about covering the bottles from the sun, but now it looks like a sea of white ripples, Baekhyun’s red hair fanning, beautifully sinful against it. He lays Baekhyun down, both of them grunting and panting at the shift in position and its wonderful results, and Baekhyun drops his toned arms from Chanyeol’s shoulders, letting them fall limp against the hard ground, hands landing naturally on his torso, relaxed and graceful, a perfect picture of debauchery. Chanyeol kisses his chin, Baekhyun’s lips being busy, trapped under his teeth to hold back excessive noise; Chanyeol knows they have to, but he still wishes he could hear Baekhyun’s voices of pleasure more unreserved and blissful.

He looks even more beautiful, with rosy cheeks and unruly hair, sticking out in every direction, catching copper tones at the edges. He is gazing at Chanyeol under his hinged lashes, hazel eyes dark and lustful, burning with flames as his bitten lips curl into a sultry smile; he knows Chanyeol is so helplessly taken with him, enraptured and bewitched. There is no mistaking the glint in his eyes as he slowly caresses a hand down his torso, tracing the center of his chest and over the little moles on the defined planes of his luscious body, slender fingers leading with certainty to his hardness, teasingly stroking up the length just with his fingertips and moaning, body dancing in waves of pleasure at the touch, lips falling open and eyes fluttering close.

Chanyeol could get off just on that, and it fuels the fire inside of him, his hands lifting Baekhyun’s hips off the floor as he resumes an oil-slicked slide, deep and right against Baekhyun’s sweet spot. It’s invitingly tight and deliciously warm, but it’s even more arousing to watch Baekhyun lose control so fast, falling apart for Chanyeol and calling his name amongst blessed out wails and incoherent exclamations, especially wrecked when Chanyeol grinds against that spot inside of him; Baekhyun likes to call his name and praise him, but he is not always this loud and lost in pleasure, so Chanyeol engraves every breathless sound to memory, as he chases the heat in Baekhyun’s body desperately.

In a couple of well placed grinds and right paced pumps, Baekhyun comes on his fingers and stomach with a drawn out cry; Chanyeol barely resists the mind-blowing tightness and stays put, his thumb rubbing comforting circles on Baekhyun’s hip, soothing him to the end. Baekhyun slowly relaxes and his body turns heavy and loose, expression turning sated and content with a light sigh. Chanyeol pulls out, achingly sensitive and aware of Baekhyun’s whimpered protest; he helps himself to his silent, stealthy orgasm, compared to Baekhyun’s fireworks, lips parted in a breathless gasp, eyes closed and flashing pictures of Baekhyun, ruined and wanting in illicit vocalizations, sending tingles down his spine until they burst in white flames. Afterwards, his body is too weak, tense muscles turning sore and numb, and he flops onto the sheet next to Baekhyun with a grunt, his body, almost unexpectedly to him, meeting with the unyielding hardness of the floor underneath. Baekhyun giggles beside him and Chanyeol peeks one eye open to look at his little tease, mind still hazy with post coital bliss.

“Hello, handsome” Baekhyun purrs, husky voice deeper and still a little wrecked, pupils blown and eyes glistening with the little tears that escaped him earlier, when he was crying Chanyeol’s name in pleasure. His hazel eyes run down Chanyeol’s naked, vulnerable body, a hungry flame still dancing in them but seemingly more tame after Chanyeol’s touch, less demanding and deprived than before. Chanyeol’s lips tug into a small smile, his own eyes shifting to Baekhyun’s hips as he sways them seductively, the ample lines and curves of his legs looking deliciously fair and succulent, begging to be bitten –but maybe after Chanyeol finds his body in the tendrils of after-pleasure and is actually able to move again.

Baekhyun turns onto his side lazily, propping himself against his elbow, his brick brown hair falling into his eyes adorably as he looks down at Chanyeol. He looks so breathtakingly gorgeous in that moment, with his glowing skin bathed faintly golden in the dying sunlight, strands of his silken messy hair catching fire at the tips, so defenseless and so curious, a bundle of serene emotions and sparks of happiness reflected in a sated smile, his petal lips tinged red like a rose, his smooth cheeks dusted powder pink and glowing. From his dark lashes to his glorious skin and perfect physique, Baekhyun has nothing to envy from a single being in this universe, more captivating and charming than the brightest of full moons, and full of wonders. Chanyeol could stare at him like this for hours, like a work of art, perhaps a statue to an ancient god of light. Baekhyun’s lips twitch into a shy smirk, catching Chanyeol’s attention.

“Do you want to know a secret?” he whispers, his gaze kind and gentle, like the fingers lightly running down Chanyeol’s arm to the crook of his elbow, then slowly tracing curlicues on his forearm, pirouetting to a more intimate, neighboring touch on Chanyeol’s stomach, down to his pelvic bone. The taller nods very slightly, his thoughts a bit more sober, blushing at Baekhyun’s wandering touch, which raises goose bumps on his sensitive skin. Baekhyun smiles more openly, his eyes turning into sparkling crescent moons. “I like how you space out sometimes, staring right through the world to the magic beyond” he confesses, and even though Chanyeol is the one who should feel bashful, Baekhyun blushes shyly despite himself, his lips smiling brightly, as if it’s a secret too dear to part with, but he is still willing to share it. The musician bites his lip through his smile, his shyness unavoidable at such a personal remark, that shows just how much Baekhyun notices his details and likes even his quirky sides.

“Do you want to know a secret?” Chanyeol mumbles innocently in kind, and Baekhyun seems surprised for a moment, eyes widening with interest, nodding in the end with a curious hum and an excited spark in his eyes, tilting his head to the side like a naïve puppy. Chanyeol licks his lips, his heart beating nervously in his chest and thumping against the cold floor. “When I’m with you, I sometimes forget the music” he says quietly, his smile fading to a heartfelt look of timid affection, his eyes blinking at Baekhyun from under his lashes, waiting for his reaction. Baekhyun looks stunned for a moment, searching in Chanyeol’s eyes as if hesitating to believe it, but that’s truly how important he is to Chanyeol.

Where there used to always be melodies in his head, different for each occasion, now there sometimes can be a tranquil calm, like the moonlight reflected on the sea in a shimmering path. He doesn’t know what triggers it; it’s sometimes when he wakes up next to Baekhyun in a pool of tangled sheets and twined limbs, sometimes when he holds his hand secretly in the pocket of his coat, sometimes when Baekhyun is shaving and Chanyeol is wasting all the remaining hot water in the shower because he is distractedly watching the man in front of the foggy mirror, shirtless, with just a towel around his hips, hair still wet from his shower. Sometimes it happens when Baekhyun smiles at him and the entire world stops, the music in Chanyeol’s head receding to gentler notes and nearly fading to a fulfilling silence; he doesn’t know why, maybe it’s love, but it feels good that Baekhyun knows now, it’s something worth sharing.

The shorter man must have found what he’d been searching for in Chanyeol’s eyes, because his smile widens and he giggles cutely, nose scrunching and little lines showing around his twinkling eyes, the most perfectly, gleefully empyrean creature to ever exist. Chanyeol smiles back at the light of his life, savoring every moment of Baekhyun’s happiness beside him.

The longer they stay inside the cold basement, with a lingering scent of cork, the more the air around them turns noticeably different to their skin’s temperature. Baekhyun turns around to retrieve any article of clothing he can reach to cover themselves with, and that’s when Chanyeol notices the bruises again, the ones fading around Baekhyun’s neck like a restricting, violent collar –how befitting an analogy.

Chanyeol knew about them from the very first day, Baekhyun calling him to his office to show him that same evening, because he doesn’t want to keep secrets anymore. Even though Chanyeol appreciates the honesty, he hates knowing such marks exist, that they ever appeared on Baekhyun’s skin, one way or another. It’s still inconceivable to him that someone would hurt Baekhyun, even after having witnessed the motives and circumstances and results firsthand; it hurts him more than he can tell, to see traces of such hatred and pain on the person he loves most, but the only way to be there for Baekhyun is Baekhyun’s way, which involves Chanyeol respecting his aversion to talk about it, out of a misplaced shame upon himself, and Chanyeol letting him handle this problem according to his better judgment. It’s a great compromise for Baekhyun that he has revealed so much of his past to Chanyeol, and that he chooses to reach out to him and let Chanyeol hold him after a terrorizing, bruising encounter. But Baekhyun never lets anyone pity him, working hard to prove himself, striving against all odds to be the man he wants to be. His fire is bright like the stars in the sky, collapsing on itself and being reborn, restless and so enchanting, powerful and enduring, even through the greatest darkness.

They probably don’t have much time left before a snoopy Jongdae or an innocent Doyoung arrives at the club, but Baekhyun scoots closer to him on the uncomfortable surface of the basement floor to cuddle; he cleans them both with a handkerchief first, which feels a little ticklish, and then he snuggles closer to Chanyeol’s warm chest, trying to cover the taller's exposed body with his jacket, while staying under its protection himself as well. He notices Chanyeol’s sad gaze on his neck before the taller does, who realizes only when he feels a finger curling under his chin and guiding his face and eyes upwards. Baekhyun’s gaze meets his, deep and meaningful, but not very heavily reprimanding, and Chanyeol presses his lips in a dimpled, apologetic expression; Baekhyun evidently forgives him right away, with a sweet, patient smile, no words necessary between them as they seamlessly go back to sharing affection for the fleeting minutes they have left to themselves.

~* 29 *~

“Hey, sugar, why so blue? Did you miss the spring?” Jongdae quips from behind the bar, voice cheerful and sharp, kitten lips curling into a smile with especially charming corners. Chanyeol mirrors the expression but infinitely more dim, his amused grin small, eyes still a little pensive.

“There’s plenty of spring ahead” he refutes in good humor, shaking his head, the serene lights of the bar scattering in fractured sparkles all around as they reflect on the pyramid of champagne glasses behind the counter, one of Jongdae’s schemes to impress the crowd later in the night, now standing just for Chanyeol to admire, light gathering on the glass rims and filtering through them to project on the floor and against the polished wood of the counter. It’s a fragile construction which took Jongdae quite some time to complete, with care and excessive concentration, in spite of it being meant to be taken apart piece by piece as the night progresses. It is now beautiful, standing suffused in light, in some places decorated with blooming flowers, sitting pretty inside the glasses that are far too covered by others to be filled with champagne once it starts flowing like a bubbly, golden waterfall over the pyramid; pink and red, yellow and white, the flowers look delicately trapped in a castle of glass.

It’s just the first days of March and the weather has been so nice, rains holding back for a while and letting the sunshine warm the city, soothingly drying its paved streets and bringing life back to greening parks. There are no blooms yet, but there will be, a promise of gentle spring ahead floating in the sunlit haze that lurks just around street corners, over tiled rooftops and under tended window ledges, dancing in the breeze and tangling in tree branches. He wonders idly if he’ll get to visit his grandparents this season, reminiscing the fresh grass on the fields and the endless flowerbeds that swathe over the ground like a sea of colors, making his hometown very picturesque and pretty around this time of year; maybe he could take Baekhyun with him too, help him escape his responsibilities and relax for a few days, gazing at the cherry blossoms. Chanyeol is a city man who was once a country child, and he has missed the fresh air and the quiet in the wild, the endless skies of stars that become visible at night; he longs to share them with Baekhyun, if only just to get lost with him amongst strangers, hold his hand and kiss his lips with nothing but happiness under the sunlit blossoms.

“And yet, you seem so sad” Jongdae hums with a playful pout, loitering behind the counter without doing much after he finished with the champagne pyramid. He is waiting for the others to restock the bar, to bring him the liquors that he effortlessly turns into magical potions for the patrons; they don’t have to do it every evening but, when Jongdae made his inspection and sent the servers to fetch alcohols from the cellar, as if they’re his willing minions, the list he gave them was comprised of an elaborate combination of bottles required, which might take some time for just the two servers to find, the fastest of them still attending his evening classes to get his degree as a nurse. Sometimes, it seems only Doyoung and his quick wit could accomplish such a juggle of responsibilities; but his absence leaves Jongdae without company for longer than usual, so he is idly passing the minutes chattering with Chanyeol, until the hour will be ripe for the Pearl to open business for the night.

“I’m not sad, I’m troubled” Chanyeol confesses with a small sigh, ruffling his hair a little before running his fingers through it to comb it back in place. He wouldn’t say he is sad; his life is pretty fulfilling as it is, between his regular classes at the conservatory, his nighttime performances at the Pearl and Baekhyun. He has the love and care of his friends, his lover’s devoted kiss, and endless melodies to play under his fingers, his heart brimming with emotions every day, heartbeats painting the sunset in his chest. But in all the sunset hues, there are bound to be darker ones too, shadows that creep around the brightness of his merriment and sometimes bite his happiness, their sting not fatal but certainly concerning.

Chanyeol understands now. He knows about Baekhyun’s troubles, about the ghosts haunting him and the monsters he carries within him, but that doesn’t make Chanyeol any less helpless to help him; he can only love him more every day, show him how much he does through little things, and hope his dreams of someday might come true. They have to be so careful, hide and pretend, as if they’re not singing each other’s name under the covers, as if Baekhyun doesn’t crave to kiss Chanyeol like he’s air, as if Chanyeol doesn’t perform with all his heart, just to see Baekhyun’s beautiful hazel eyes twinkle like stars when he notices a song is meant for him. Instead, they can lie in each other’s arms only under deep, moonless nights, Baekhyun can only sneak a kiss behind closed doors, and Chanyeol can only dream that someday they will be free to be each other’s call of springtime.

Even so, he doesn’t regret being with Baekhyun in secret, he’d take it all any day if it means he can be with him; but like turtles hiding inside their shell, they can be safe only for so long, since the problem won’t go away. It remains, lingering persistently, so close he can feel it on his skin, and Chanyeol knows it’s not just one thing or just one person, it’s a series of choices and misfortunes growing roots into so many aspects of Baekhyun’s life and slowly draining him of it –but Chanyeol often finds himself childishly thinking of only one person to blame for stealing his happiness, breaking it and claiming it in fragments.

Cold as an ice prince. with possessive hands that leave bruising marks on everything they so lovingly touch, Oh Sehun is to Chanyeol the most dangerous beast of all; to him, love is a charade to mask feelings he doesn’t know how to express, something strong and maddening that makes him constantly want more, never having enough. It’s his frustration on Baekhyun’s skin, his anger at himself, a twisted sense of the world making him transform to a jealous shadow full of teeth; and the shadows lurking in people’s souls are the most poisonous, the most hurtful, and the only ones impossible to fight. As the seasons change, winter to spring, Baekhyun lives on time spared and borrowed, moments counted; like a ticking clock, Sehun’s folly will reach midnight someday, and Chanyeol can’t bear to think what would happen then.

“Has Baekhyun not been cuddling you enough? Is he not treating you right, should I have a nice, honest talk with him?” Jongdae frowns, expressive eyebrows curling half-serious and in part always a little playful, his voice lowering to a conspiratorial whisper, even though there’s only Chanyeol in the room to hear; the servers are busy downstairs and Baekhyun is obliviously sorting paperwork upstairs. Chanyeol’s eyes widen at Jongdae’s proposition, a wave of fluster cascading down on him at the shorter man’s forward approach and painting his cheeks red.

“No, nothing like that” Chanyeol reassures him, shaking his head fervently to convey that there is absolutely no reason for such initiative on Jongdae’s behalf; although he appreciates the concern and the thought behind the gesture, he’d never live it down if Jongdae scolded Baekhyun for not cuddling Chanyeol enough –it sounds ridiculously absurd just thinking about it, for crying out loud. He wouldn’t even be able to look at Baekhyun in the eye again, mortified at the insinuation, that he has confided their personal life to someone else –and it’s not that Jongdae doesn’t already know about it, his sharp eyes would be hard to fool, even if they’d made their best efforts, but there is a delicate difference between Jongdae knowing for himself and Jongdae knowing from Chanyeol’s lips. Before he gets a chance to say anything further to dissuade Jongdae from this embarrassing plan that would be nothing sort of helpful, however, Kyungsoo appears beside Chanyeol out of thin air, sliding onto an empty stool by the counter with graceful ease.

“That’s private, Jongdae” he chastises, deep voice serious and calm as always, but there is a clear warning in it; and if that weren’t enough, the short man glares at Jongdae for good measure, unnaturally large eyes looking legitimately intimidating. Chanyeol is thankful to the cellist, for saving him from this awkward conversation Jongdae had been teasingly leading him to, even though he can’t be sure how much Kyungsoo has actually heard; sometimes, that’s Kyungsoo’s way of a greeting, assimilating himself to the scene, just at the right place and time. Chanyeol blinks, a little disoriented by the singer’s sudden appearance, and he deplorably forgets to thank him for taking his side, but Jongdae has one too many defiant bones in his body, and he scrunches his nose in displeasure at the singer, looking like he’s ready to contradict Kyungsoo’s very reasonable and obvious logic with the most absurd argument in the world.

But just as he takes a breath to let out the first whiny peep, Jongin joins them unexpectedly, probably having arrived with Kyungsoo and following after him to the bar. He is always nice to be around, but Chanyeol panics a little this time, because he is not sure how much of his personal life Jongdae might babble in front of the man, and it’d be more embarrassing than anything really, considering that he is in a very subtle relationship as well; Chanyeol still doesn’t know how to prevent the embarrassment if such need arises, because Jongdae’s mouth is an inescapable force of nature by itself. Chanyeol might have to rely on the force of Kyungsoo’s glare again. Jongin doesn’t seem curious about the conversation though, leaning over Kyungsoo’s shoulder, the proximity coming to them comfortably and naturally, making Chanyeol wish he could be more like them with Baekhyun, allowed to hover close to him, touch his waist and make him smile with a peck on the temple, be with him as he deserves, wholly and proudly his.

“Hey, Jongdae, butt me?” Jongin says after he briefly greets them politely, his dark hair always styled in a casually tussled fashion, his suits crisp and dark, expensive, though he doesn’t flaunt it, always being very humble and agreeable. He has an impressive presence, commanding and charismatic, but also playful and naughty, a mix of a very serious, well-versed man and a child, perpetually planning his next mischief. At his request, Jongdae takes out an opened packet of cigarettes and a lighter, holding out the former to Jongin, who fishes out a cigarette with his graceful hands, mumbling a small “Thanks”. He naturally expects the lighter in his hand too, the cigarette being quite useless otherwise, but he gets a playful Jongdae instead, holding the lighter out of his reach –which is only feasible because of the counter between them, or else Jongdae is too short to have any physical advantage.

“Cash or check?” the blond bartender quips at Jongin, making kissy faces at the taller by pouting his lips and fluttering his long lashes, teasing as always but clearly playful, considering he is standing right in front of Kyungsoo, who wouldn’t hesitate to whack him if Jongdae ever tried being flirty with Jongin. This time Kyungsoo only rolls his eyes, as if he’s seen this so many times over, and he doesn’t interfere, letting the two men sort it out amongst themselves. Jongdae must not be feeling particularly relentless today though, because when Jongin leans in, over the counter and Kyungsoo’s legs, cigarette hanging from his lips, Jongdae willingly helps him light it.

“Bank’s closed” Jongin answers lightly then, straightening his body and shuffling closer to Kyungsoo without noticing, holding the cigarette between two fingers and blowing out a puff of elegant smoke; he shrugs his shoulders and smiles at the bartender mischievously, easily looking as charming as Jongdae when he smirks, which makes one wonder if those two are deep down made of the same stuff, so different in appearance but both so effortlessly handsome and attractive, captivating and irresistible to common mortals. Jongdae gasps dramatically, his now empty hand clutching his chest, lighter and cigarettes tucked safely into his back pocket again; Kyungsoo chuckles darkly, the most common form of Kyungsoo’s amusement, when the blond bartender huffs, playfully affronted.

“Then stop bugging me, aye?” he shoes Jongin away, flailing his hands as if trying to shoo away one of Baekhyun’s cats, and the tall, dark haired man laughs, loud and open, so pure and delightful. He doesn’t stick around to tease Jongdae further though, saluting humorously before he turns around and walks to the side of the hall, casually heading up to Baekhyun’s office, steps unintentionally lithe and sensual as always, more graceful than a dancer. Jongdae might have spent a second too long admiring Jongin’s retreating figure, because Kyungsoo pinches his arm in retaliation without warning, making Jongdae jump in his place and whine loudly, nursing his arm and apologizing to a stern-looking Kyungsoo.

“So, as I was saying” Jongdae starts decisively once Jongin is out of sight and he is done complaining about his minor pain, lacing his fingers on the counter in a semblance of professionalism and turning to Chanyeol, his intensions clear; but Kyungsoo interrupts him again, before he reverts to their former subject.

“It’s still a private matter” the singer repeats in the same, discouraging tone of voice, his expression unimpressed and unrepentant when Jongdae turns to him with a pout, a little miffed.

“It’s okay, Kyungsoo” Chanyeol decides quickly, raising his hands to appease them both, before they start bantering; there is really nothing to be mad about. Both men turn to him in concern, Kyungsoo’s perplexed frown more evident than the glint of anticipation in Jongdae’s eyes, waiting for Chanyeol to explain. “I need to tell someone anyway” the saxophonist sighs tiredly, hands falling to his lap, shoulders slumping. He realizes that he does need to share his mind with someone, someone who won’t be Baekhyun, because he is afraid that would only be a burden to his lover, maybe even making him feel guilty, and Chanyeol would never want that. But Jongdae and Kyungsoo are both trustworthy and kind, hardly ever pressing him to confess his troubles for his own good but always open and ready to listen to him if he wants to talk, about anything really.

The topic of conversation this time is not a lighthearted one; it’s relegated in quiet whispers and mumbles that stir in the shadows, the illuminated corner of the bar where the three men are gathered looking as still as a photograph for a few long minutes. The near silence of the hall is punctuated by hisses and gasps from the two men as Chanyeol narrates his fears, even though he doesn’t go into details like Baekhyun’s bruises, important yet extremely delicate. He has to speak vaguely of the stolen moments he and Baekhyun share, but he doesn’t hesitate or reconsider, knowing that, besides all the good-natured teasing, neither Jongdae nor Kyungsoo would do something to hurt either Chanyeol or Baekhyun, and they can keep a secret, that much has been proven true time and again. He tells them about Sehun making life difficult for Baekhyun, about how Chanyeol worries about him every day and how he pointlessly wishes he could help. Kyungsoo pats his knee, a rare sign of proffered comfort on his behalf, listening attentively and humming in understanding; Jongdae, though, seems to sink deeper and deeper into his thoughts while Chanyeol speaks, his expression unusually grim and overcast, eyes darkening as they stare into the void, his hand slowly stroking his chin pensively, as if he’s planning the world’s great demise.

“That bastard, I should have ripped his throat out long ago” Jongdae mumbles ominously once Chanyeol’s account seems finished, and the latter is surprised with the uncharacteristic hostility in the barman’s voice, always so bitter and sour around topics that include Sehun but never being so overtly, murderously vitriolic before. It’s almost like he is a different person in Jongdae’s skin, his eyes hard and sharp, lips twisting into a snarl that looks much more intimidating on the curling corners of his mouth; he looks as lethal as he has the potential to be, his background in life having equipped him with a couple of unholy abilities and charms. And while Jongdae seems to be seething, furious enough under the surface to actually implement his schemes, Kyungsoo raises a hand to stop him.

“Now now, Jongdae, we can’t harm Oh Sehun” he says, voice strangely soothing, as if he is reminding Jongdae of something they both know, which oddly seems to pique the blond man’s anger but also calm him. It’s a strange reaction, even from someone as strange as Jongdae, but whatever black magic Kyungsoo is practicing on him seems to work; Jongdae’s frightening ire slowly dissipates from his countenance while he keeps examining Kyungsoo’s stoic face, jaw relaxing, the thunder in his eyes reined in, until the blank expression is merely a sign of protest, disappointment and frustration mixing on his lips, but they are harmless now.

Jongdae decides to be the better man today and he leaves the other two to give himself some space; the first batch of liquors has arrived, Hongbin and Hyuck slipping back to the cellar unsuspectingly, coming and going without a word. Jongdae busies himself behind the counter, grumbling exasperatedly under his breath, shoulders slumped in resignation as he shakes his head every now and then, muttering to himself things that don’t make sense to the rest of the world outside his head. He spins around like a hurricane as usual, putting things in his preferred, ritualistic order for the night; with such a heavy and intense workload on his shift, it’s easier if things are in place at least, just under his hand when he reaches for them while entertaining customers. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention, hand movements automatic and mind preoccupied with thoughts, and Chanyeol watches him for while in caution, second guessing his decision to confide in them today; perhaps it’s an off day for Jongdae, which Chanyeol failed to notice, and even though he is sure the blond bartender would never grudge him, he still feels culpable for leading him to this condition.

“The situation with Sehun is delicate” Kyungsoo takes it upon himself to explain, voice quiet and discreet, with a hint of resignation in it, and Chanyeol turns to him instantly, patient to hear his side of things, noticing the somber cloud that seems to be floating over his head. “I assume you already know about the loan Baekhyun needed to take from him, right?” he asks for good measure, and Chanyeol nods his head, hands joining together on the counter, ears attentive. Kyungsoo nods back in acknowledgement and licks his lips before he continues. “Well, that’s where it all begun. Baekhyun took the money for the business and committed to pay off his debt by himself, not wanting to bring any one of us into it; Sehun was the only option at the time, since banks wouldn’t trust a club owner with their money, and it seemed safe enough, given Sehun’s high status. The loan worked out for the business and he started paying it back; but his payments started to seem miniscule compared to the sum that kept on fattening with absurd interest rates. Sehun is a smart man, he didn’t let Baekhyun sort it out no matter what he tried –even nearly starving himself to amp up the down-payment sum. But Sehun clearly had the upper hand, and then he found leverage to get close to Baekhyun” he explains, and Jongdae hisses under his breath from the other side of the bar, clearly following the conversation even though he has chosen not to actively participate in it. Kyungsoo sighs, as if what he’s about to say is dreadfully dreary.

“He started coming to the club, keeping an eye on things, on Baekhyun; of course he likes Baekhyun, to the point he’d do anything to have him, because love in Oh Sehun’s vocabulary is possession –and oh, Baekhyun is priceless” Kyungsoo shakes his head in amazement for a moment, “But the thing is, Sehun already had a price on him, and he used every last penny to extort favors out of our Baekhyun, company and appearances in public as a couple –you know all that for yourself. Baekhyun didn’t really have a choice, because Sehun is also part of one of the most powerful gangs around town” he says, looking down at his wrist bracelet for a moment, fingers toying with it nervously, as if he is trying to decide about something, before he continues.

“Sehun is something like their accountant, really smart, really rich, really shrewd with money, and without a heart; a man of high profile on top of that, beyond suspicion –but his methods are the same” Kyungsoo’s eyes darken a bit at that, as if his personal experience flashes in bad memories behind his eyes, but Chanyeol doesn’t ask about it, it’s not the time. “I don’t know the specifics, but if I had to guess, I’d say he extorts Baekhyun with our safety, or his family’s safety; there aren’t many things Baekhyun is afraid to lose more that the people he loves. I don’t think Sehun has transferred the debt to the mafia, because they wouldn’t have been as patient to collect the money; so, in a way, it is convenient that he holds it till it’s repaid in full, and then we can just kick Sehun out, instead of risking him doing something more harmful” he finishes, and his words only make Chanyeol’s heart clench worse in fear.

He knew Sehun was dangerous, he knew his occupation and suspected ties to illegal organizations despite his prim upbringing, but he hadn’t thought of such a violently disastrous alternative if Baekhyun tried to refuse him what he wants. He has already pushed as much as he could, refusing him the most extreme and personal of his wishes, and he has paid for every single one of them, in Sehun’s screams and punches. It’s all so complicated and insurmountably dangerous, that it feels like a tidal wave waiting to crush against the shore compared to Chanyeol’s tiny self, leaving him once again to feel helpless and hopeless to save the person he loves most. At this rate, with Sehun’s demands and outbursts, Chanyeol doesn’t even know how much longer he’ll be able to comfort Baekhyun and be there for him, much less assist him in any way.

“How do you know these things anyway?” Chanyeol asks Kyungsoo in bewilderment, still processing the information, but a part of him is also very curious; it’s unlikely he found out through Baekhyun, who is only just beginning to confide in Chanyeol, let alone anyone else. Kyungsoo snorts, amusement too faint but lingering in the corners of his mouth, his fingers stopping their fiddling with the bracelet, as he lifts his wrist to the light. There is a discreet engraving of Jongin’s name on it, Chanyeol has noticed it before, but he’s never seen Kyungsoo flaunt it so confidently.

“Jongin is the gambling capo, of course I would know such things” he says, completely collected and cool, and Chanyeol gapes at a loss, after everything he’s being told today. The same Jongin who smiles so sweetly and is always so polite and good-natured, is a powerful lord of the underground scene; the same man who hugs Baekhyun like an old friend and treats him like a brother, the same man who is so kind and loving to Kyungsoo, who jokes around with Jongdae, and sometimes keeps company to Chanyeol with interesting conversation and lighthearted smiles. It’s hard to wrap his head around it, imagine Jongin in his element while doing business, sharing a life with Kyungsoo without fear, being neither a friend nor an enemy to Sehun, always careful around him despite their familiarity; but he is a good person, Chanyeol knows that, and suddenly the news seem less shocking, more like another inevitable part of life, like clouds passing in the sky.

He has changed so much since the beginning, hasn’t he?

“You know what, I’ve had enough!” Jongdae suddenly exclaims, decisive and irritated, as he slams his hand onto the counter with a loud bang, startling the two men on the other side. Chanyeol looks at him vigilantly, his thoughts too scrambled from the fright to realize which topic Jongdae is referring to with that deranged look, wisely choosing to cautiously keep his curiosity to himself for the time being. Kyungsoo looks just as perplexed, eyebrows frowning over his eyes, expecting an explanation from the blond man, almost peeved that he spooked them with his theatrics. Jongdae looks like he has made up his mind though, while he’d been left to his own devices, and he wags a finger knowingly. “I know a fella who can help get that scum pinched” he says, a bit more quietly, as if it’s not for everyone to hear, or as if he’s still processing that thought. It piques Chanyeol’s interest, if only for the significance Jongdae stresses on his point, though Kyungsoo seems to hold lesser hopes of the blond man’s conviction, snorting and raising a challenging eyebrow.

“Baekhyun knows the chief of police, who else would you know?” he points out, and Chanyeol’s shoulders deflate so soon, realizing the truth in Kyungsoo’ words. Baekhyun does know many powerful people, and even rich people who could fund him if he asked, people in various high places who all like him and admire him, but if not even those people could help him escape Sehun, then who could possibly make a difference…Jongdae accepts Kyungsoo’s skepticism with no bitter feelings, perhaps even expecting it beforehand, lips quirking pensively as if he’s already thinking ahead.

“Oh, you know him too, Kyungsoo” he muses, his voice more candid than his eyes, a strange and dangerous combination which is always present in Jongdae; a man with such a quick mind knows how to multitask, setting his thoughts on different paths from his actions, just another form of what he does every day for the entertainment of patrons. Kyungsoo frowns again, eyes dark, confused and growing impatient, but he knows better than to lash out on Jongdae. “He is an undercover cop” the blond man explains, so casually, as if he’s talking about the weather. “He comes by the club often, waiting for a bust like this; I could talk to him, pick his brains, see if he has any ideas...” Jongdae trails off in thought, completely ignoring the shock of the two men listening to what he’s saying, utterly dumbfounded.

There’s been an undercover agent here all along? For how long? For whom? And how did Jongdae know? He could have at least warned Kyungsoo much earlier, for Jongin’s sake, and that thought seems to be on Kyungsoo’s mind too, the singer glaring daggers at the blond man, lips twisting to hold back his angry words. Chanyeol purses his lips, considering he has been here long enough to know most of the patrons, and he can’t help but wonder if it’s someone he has been introduced to, if they’ve talked at some point about something. He can’t remember anyone conspicuous or inconspicuous enough, and he starts wondering if Baekhyun knows too, if Jongdae has told him; no illegal activities are allowed in the club, so Baekhyun should be safe, even the not-so-respectable patrons are safe since they wouldn’t ever be caught red handed in here, and perhaps what Jongdae meant about the undercover waiting for a bust, was that this man, whoever he is, has been lurking around to gather information more than anything.

“Stop wishing horrible deaths upon me and mumbling satanic prayers under your breath, Kyungsoo, Jongin already knew” Jongdae states plainly with a disapproving tut, but otherwise remains unbothered, in the world inside his head. Kyungsoo looks dumbstruck for a split second, then he defaults to an expressionless, somber grimace as he process the news; but of course, just because they didn’t know doesn’t mean other persons of interest didn’t either, especially someone as dear to the Pearl’s family as Jongin. Both he and Jongdae are men who keep honor among thieves, if the other thief is worth it, and Jongdae, having been on the wrong side of the law one too many times in his past, wouldn’t put Jongin in such peril. Chanyeol is still not sure how he should react to the news and to Jongdae’s track of thought, so he watches the blond man silently as his sharp eyes stare into the distance; he grits his teeth momentarily, as if recalling an unpleasant memory before he continues, mostly to himself.

“It sure will be awkward; I mean, I didn’t even know he was a cop when I bedded him, he just seemed hot, but then things got complicated when I saw him in here, and we’re not on particularly good terms since then –I mean, why didn’t he tell me he was a cop from the start, things could have gone down so different in the bedroom if I had his cuffs and-”

“Oh god, Jongdae, stop talking” Kyungsoo closes his eyes in a pained expression, lifting a hand to stop Jongdae from revealing anything further about his colorful sex life, before it’s too late and they’re scarred for life. For the first time today, let’s just say neither Kyungsoo nor Chanyeol are particularly surprised, about the fact that Jongdae managed to uncover an undercover cop, or that he has slept with him too. Because, well, it’s Jongdae.

~* 30 *~

Chanyeol is sitting behind the piano, trying to calm his nerves by enveloping himself with melodies, his fingers sliding over the keys in complex combinations.

Spring has finally arrived after a winter so long and cold, replacing the variant black and white of winter with strokes of color all over the city; there’s a glimpse of green in parks at midday, early blooming roses with velvet soft petals, and tiny buds of future flowers on the tips of branches. The wisteria that arches over the door in front of the conservatory has started to prepare its lilac blooms too, and the ivy running up to the windows is gradually turning vibrant again as new. The day has been fairly sunny, the sky looking cyan outside the window, the clouds against it sparse and thin as if someone has combed them, leaving white streaks behind; one of the windows has been left ajar and the air coming in is slightly cool, not uncomfortably so but noticeably, the white curtains flaring in the breeze. It’s quiet at this hour, only one practice room in session and the pedestrians on the street rather discreet, so Chanyeol’s piano melody resounds all around him like a substantial presence, flooding the corners and coming back like waves, strong and overwhelming, drowning any thought and emotion the piece is not meant to inspire.

He is expecting someone. The practice room at the conservatory is an unusual meeting place for anyone besides his students and coworkers, but Jongdae said it would be the safest option; Chanyeol is expecting an undercover cop, after all, and whoever he might be posing as at the club scene, he can’t be seen out of character anywhere near Chanyeol in public, whereas here, inside the conservatory, his presence could be considered a coincidence, assumed to be a visit for personal interest, or having an appointment in the premises with someone else entirely. There won’t be a chance of Chanyeol being involved in his secret identity that way; however, the musician is more than curious to uncover the real one, to find out the face of this man who has them all fooled all this time.

He’s been wrecking his brain in search of a face or a name that might have at some point seemed suspicious, but nothing came to mind; unless, of course, the officer has been posing as one of the shady crowd, one of the illegal businessmen that occasionally frequent the Pearl, in which case, it’s hopeless to guess amongst such people, who are already suspicious enough. He tried to extract information from Jongdae, if only to know roughly what to expect today, but the blond bartender refused to give away the secret identity of the man before having a talk with him first at least, a begrudging decision made by necessity. He reasoned that in case that person couldn’t come up with a plan to serve their purpose, then revealing his identity too soon would do more harm than good in the long run. Chanyeol supposes it makes sense, and since Jongdae is the one with real experience of the unlawful and legal world, Chanyeol opted to trust his decision, although it did nothing to appease his curiosity. However, it’s only a matter of time till all his questions are answered now, the designated time of their meeting drawing near.

What truly troubles Chanyeol today, is not something as trivial as curiosity; it might be easy to forget the initial objective after all these discoveries and revelations, but the truth is, there is only one purpose to which all these wheels have been set in motion: to build a solid case which will lead to Oh Sehun’s arrest. It can’t be rushed, Jongdae said, because similar criminals have been set free with weaker legal cases, and it’d be easy for Sehun to slip the hands of the justice system with his money and fancy lawyers, so the police will need a very well-founded case to lock him away for good. To that end, however, the plan is not Jongdae’s to make; not one of them knows the law as proficiently as something like this requires, and they are obviously not trained policemen. That’s why Jongdae’s intimate acquaintance is a decisive factor in a series of events that are largely out of their hands, despite the significance they’d have in their life.

It’s strange, however, that this undercover cop has asked to meet with him of all people, with all the necessary secrecy and every precaution, before the rest have even heard of his real name. He doesn’t even know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the officer asked to meet him personally, but his hands seem to have made a decision, playing a rather ominous Handel piece. He is halfway through the arrangement when there is a light knock on the door, calling for his attention; it’s almost too quiet compared to his piano playing, but his ears are as alert as the rest of him, mind and heart uneasy, picking up on it right away.

“Come in” he calls, clearing his throat to rid any persistent traces of nervousness, his hands falling from the piano. He tries to keep his composure impeccable as he turns to the door, rising from his seat to greet his guest.

“Hello darling”

No way.

“Minseok?!” he gasps in disbelief, eyes blinking wide as if doubting he is not dreaming, perhaps slumped against the piano mid-performance due to his anxious insomnia in the past couple of days. But still, not even in his wildest dreams would he have been able to conjure up the picture of the man standing by the door, so unlike himself but hard to confuse with someone else; black hair, sharp eyes like a cat, a gummy smile which bears a strange childishness, his height, his build, even the shape of his eyebrows. There is, however, one tiny point which might not be as fundamentally true as those listed above, so Chanyeol reconsiders momentarily. “I’m sorry, is that your real name?” he asks, still a little helpless to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

It can’t be, it simply can’t. The man standing before him looks like a proper gentleman, in his double-breasted gray suit, ironed and spotless, his shoes polished, his hair combed neatly to the side, a stylish hat in his hand; he looks nothing like the drunk sailor, who is always messy in his crumpled uniform, shoe laces undone, his hair unruly, constantly hugging an alcoholic drink of some sort. The man Chanyeol knows is in a ridiculous, consistent state of intoxication; this man, although resembling him greatly, is completely sober and respectable, so very different. This one can even walk in a straight line as he quietly enters the room, whereas Chanyeol has vivid memories of dragging him in stumbles out of the club on multiple occasions; even as the distance diminishes between them and the man comes close enough to extend a friendly hand to him, Chanyeol finds it hard to believe his eyes.

“I am detective Kim Minseok, at your service” he introduces himself affably, his voice ringing the same, only with very improved articulation. Chanyeol shakes his hand tentatively, mostly out of habit, but the gesture barely registers for him, still a little disoriented and incredulous; maybe Minseok has been doing his job a little too well, making so much ruckus to pass as the least conspicuous person, it must truly be a talent, and if there was ever hope of someone uncovering him, it all rested with Jongdae’s sharp perception, which by its unconventional means didn’t disappoint in the end. Minseok lets go of his hand with a furtive smirk, eyes actually focused as they look at Chanyeol for once, instead of the disoriented mess the musician usually has to face. “You look surprised” the man says, sharp eyes glinting in the light, and Chanyeol feels embarrassed all of a sudden, realizing he must have been doing a very poor job of keeping control of his expressions, his shock so great and Minseok’s presence so familiar that he forgot he’s dealing with someone completely new, the real person, a police officer who has asked to see him for some unknown reason.

“I’m sorry, detective, I just never thought-” he starts apologizing, hands flailing a little in fluster, eyes frantic, but he is interrupted by Minseok’s loud laughter, airy and earnest.

“Oh please, just call me Minseok” he says assuredly, waving a dismissive hand at the polite term, his eyes curving mirthfully like they do sometimes at the club too, perhaps a sign they were real. “You’ve seen me more drunk than I’ve seen myself, so formalities seem strange, don’t you think, darling?” he points out, just as lighthearted and relaxed as when he’s half seas over, only now it’s entirely conscious and actually makes sense, compared to jumbled sentences that make Minseok giggle to himself when he is drunk. Chanyeol doesn’t have anything notable to respond to that, so he remains silent, lips slanting pensively, his large eyes gluing themselves to this paradox of a human standing before him; he is himself and someone else, and even though Chanyeol has met them both he can recognize neither.

Minseok doesn’t seem to mind the scrutiny, probably having expected one such reaction after months of pretending to be someone else, lacing his hands behind his back, chest expanding in a prideful posture, grinning at Chanyeol once more before inviting himself to a short walk around the room, inspecting the place, perhaps out of profession’s habit. He marvels at the instruments on display without touching anything, as if they are museum exhibits, surely spotting Chanyeol’s saxophone case in the corner as he passes by the open window, his hair falling a little out of place in the breeze, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He eventually slows down by the strings area, almost having made a full circle, and he comes to a full stop beside the harpsichord the practice room is currently hosting.

“I’ve never been to a conservatory before, this is interesting” he says, eyes wide with wonderstruck inquisitiveness when he turns to Chanyeol, one of his hands pointing at the instrument that caught his attention. Chanyeol shrugs his shoulders, leaning by the piano, all this seeming very normal to him, being part of his everyday life –and something he is certainly less keen to discuss with this man at the moment, with far more pressing questions at hand. Minseok’s expression changes, smile turning mischievous, eyes looking at Chanyeol in a way that always makes him dread of what will follow. “Ah, I should have picked up music; maybe I could have picked you up too, then” Minseok says, winking obnoxiously to flourish his flirty line, and Chanyeol barely holds back an exasperated roll of his eyes; this side of the man he wishes he didn’t know, either in intoxication or sobriety, as well as he does.

“Detective- I mean, Mr. Minseok, I don’t think you need to pretend here” he admonishes, trying to keep his voice neutral, holding back the judgmental, annoyed tinge such words of rejection and disapproval directed at this particular man usually carry. It seems his flirting skills are not any better when he’s not inebriated, not that Chanyeol had been hoping for an improvement, he had been hoping not to have to find out at all; he feels peeved enough that all this time Minseok had everyone fooled so successfully, as if it’s something he should have picked up on, and to have him mock Chanyeol so obviously in such a state of affairs is taunting his good manners. Minseok quirks an eyebrow at him.

“What made you think I was pretending?” he counters with no sign of hesitation, his voice conveying that he has had an honest interest in Chanyeol all this time. The insinuation makes the taller feel strange, a little flattered perhaps, but mostly awkward, because the doings of the night are the daylight’s infamy. His expression remains stoic and composed, refusing to answer that question, because he needs not compile a list of all the outrageously absurd and embarrassing declarations and affirmations of interest he has had to suffer from Minseok’s lips; he can feel the tips of his ears turning red, unclear if it’s in irritation or lingering, second-hand embarrassment, but he hopes Minseok doesn’t notice. Said man gives him his best charming smile, all little teeth and sharp lips. “But well, we do have a lot to say, so I’d better save it for a more appropriate time and place” he relents, and Chanyeol is not sure he detects an apology in that, but he figures anything he might say can be used against him, Minseok clearly not being the type of man who can be dissuaded; it’s just harmless flirting, after all.

Minseok lazily walks to the window, patting down his pockets for a moment, until he takes out a pipe, which fits too comfortably into his fingers not to be a regular habit. “Do you mind?” he asks for permission before he lights it, turning to Chanyeol with honest, round eyes.

“Not at all” the taller answers a little absently, Minseok’s earlier words ringing in his head like a puzzle he’s been given to solve. We do have a lot to say… He watches as Minseok lights up two matches before he manages to transfer the flame to his pipe, eyes absolutely concentrated, eyebrows frowning; his lips try to keep up with the flame until the pipe is lit, and that’s when he takes a leisurely drag, lifting his head and blowing the smoke out the window, looking relieved. He slowly rounds up the nearest chair to the window, examining the seat all around before he actually takes it, sitting back and crossing one leg over the other, his hat resting on his thigh; there is a certain unhurried elegance about the picture, confident and relaxed, and a little pensive. Chanyeol crosses his arms over his chest, hips still balancing against the piano like when he is examining his students, and he frowns a little in bewilderment, deciding it’s high time he asked the question. “Why did you ask to see me?” he inquires forwardly, because all this has been complicated and mysterious enough, he’d like an answer as clear as possible now, at least as forthright as his question.

Minseok’s lips curl into a smile behind his pipe, patient and roguish. “Hmm” he hums, blowing out the smoke and turning to Chanyeol with wicked, intelligent eyes, an intriguing yet slightly concerning look. “Because you, darling, will be the star of my show” he states, voice lilting happily, and Chanyeol can confidently say he doesn’t understand a thing.

~* 31 *~

By the time the spring equinox arrives, nature is rejoicing with the wonders of spring. The weather has grown mellow and full of sun, a fresh breeze that carries the aftertaste of rain and the warmth of daylight is strolling down the paved streets, and the sky is dressed in blue every morning, the stars shining clear as diamonds at night. The city is a beautiful bride in March, crowned with the first blooms, the small ones that quiver perched on treetops and spread all over parks and roadsides like blushing kisses, or cotton frayed-off of fluffy, white clouds. Near iron fences, the ivies grow fresh foliage, in tended gardens sunshine daffodils and apple blossoms bloom, pink rosebuds and purple violets, passion red poppies and daisies of two colors; even in-between the sidewalk cracks, humble chamomiles tremble, peeking at the sun with a smile. The rains visit occasionally, spring showers appearing suddenly, lightly drizzling in a lulling and exciting rhythm, and then dispersing to make way for the sun again. Butterflies and bees make their appearance, playing in the shade of freshly trimmed shrubs and high atop the branches where flowers call to them eagerly, and kittens start appearing in unsuspecting time, popping their curious ears out of flower beds like valiant explorers, or strutting down the street in the corners of the sidewalk like accustomed urban citizens already.

Chanyeol’s lips curve slightly in a smile, thinking about the two little ones Ravi rescued from the effervescent myrtle branches outside the Pearl the other week; eyes still blue and ears too big, they’ve stolen everyone’s heart and Yixing’s tuna sandwich. One of them is white with black spots, like stracciatella ice cream, and Baekhyun is especially fond of it, always letting it curl in his lap or on his desk to sleep, whenever he smuggles them inside in secret from Jongdae; Chanyeol can tell it’s only a matter of time before he decides to adopt it and asks to bring it home. Undisclosed as it shall remain, Chanyeol has seen Jongdae play with the other, tiger-striped kitten, on evenings when he thinks no one might see him, despite pretending to scold Hyuck whenever he brings it inside, for everyone to spoil it with cuddles before their shift starts, its sibling yipping at the stairs until Baekhyun comes to pick it up and take it to his office with him to work. And just like that, with little paws and large ears and radiantly blooming flowers, spring has reached the Pearl, too.

It’s a sunny day today, colorful coats and panama hats are starting to make an appearance on the sidewalk, and the breeze is playful, carrying fragile petals with it occasionally, sprinkling them over the pavements and letting them gather on the edge of the road. The cafe has large windows, allowing a view of the sunlit street where people come and go, strolling by the shops and blooming trees, talking amongst themselves, basking in the sun, carefree and smiling. The tall buildings across the street are modern and the cafe is playing subtle music under the chatter of its patrons; it’s not what Chanyeol would typically choose for himself, but it was chosen for him this time, public and central enough to be safe.

There is a vase of freesias on the table next to his untouched coffee, and their scent reminds him of his parents’ grave.

Shaking his head, Chanyeol looks out the window again, distracting himself with passersby’ figures and the sliver of blue sky he can catch over the neighboring rooftops, his seat next to the window allowing for a better view. It feels a little stuffy, the collar of his shirt too tight since he buttoned it up this morning, the clinks of spoons on porcelain sounding a little unnerving; he overshadows the cacophony with music in his thoughts, humming under his breath as he waits, playing the notes on his thigh under the table. There is still time for him to leave if he regrets his decision, but he is determined to see this through, so he tries not to look conspicuous, according to Minseok’s instructions.

There is a plan.

Chanyeol is the puppet to the detective’s ingeniously cunning instructions, which he made sure to study and memorize, secretly from Baekhyun of course. No one can know about this plan but the detective and him, for solidarity, the detective said, but Chanyeol knows Minseok is as perfectly aware as Chanyeol is, that if anyone else at the Pearl knew about this plan, they would have never let Chanyeol take part in it. Baekhyun would have probably killed him before he’d get a chance to risk his life by himself, and Jongdae would similarly off the detective in a raging fit. But Chanyeol is not a fool, he knows how to take care of himself, and the detective is always close by, probably pretending to read his newspaper across the street; the plan is as harmless and painless as a civil conversation, and Chanyeol can always change his mind and back out at any given time.

There is a voice recorder under his seat, disguised as a saxophone case. All Chanyeol has to do is talk with Sehun about an alleged amount of money he needs to borrow, make an incriminating deal he’ll never have to follow through, and let Minseok handle the arrest later, after submitting the evidence tape to the judge –and the detective is sure that once the police has evidence to start an investigation, more of Sehun’s indiscretions will surface to bury him in the mud; a man so prominent in the complicated and far from innocent business of money laundering might look pious enough, but there is bound to be dirt hidden underneath, or else, simply put, Sehun wouldn’t have survived this long, let alone so successfully. Minseok has been pretty thorough with his plan, like any ambitious man on a mission ought to be, coaching Chanyeol on his reactions and preparing dialogue templates for him, constructing the recording device and choosing the right place at the right time; the hour is not too busy, so foreign voices won’t jumble the recording, and rumor has it that Sehun usually does business in public cafés like this one, where meeting someone will seem innocent enough, above any suspicion, and there are no chances of his clients turning against him, should the exchange end up less than cordial. Chanyeol wonders if Sehun met Baekhyun in a similar place too.

There is a reason why it has to be Chanyeol here today, though, and not just any undercover officer or an actor in his shoes. Sehun knows him, which means that he should be both more willing to take him as a credible client and more comfortable expressing himself about his business during their exchange. However, Chanyeol is not someone he knows too well, someone who can’t improvise a believable lie about his life, and Sehun already thinks of him to be harmless enough, pleasant even, with counting their past interactions at the club, always friendly and polite. Besides, Chanyeol is foolish enough to be willing to play the part, because yes, Baekhyun would definitely kill him, but if he is their best bet on getting rid of Sehun for good, then it doesn’t hurt to try.

“Hello, mister Park” Sehun approaches the table quietly, disturbing Chanyeol’s composed expression for a moment, eyes widening in alarm before he settles down to his usual demeanor again; Minseok said it’s okay to look a little nervous, considering he is supposedly here as a man desperate enough to borrow money from a loan shark, but if he acts too far out of character it will ruin the deal; it’s unlikely Sehun might suspect him of anything, but he will sense that Chanyeol is not in position to be trusted with money, so he will walk away with only phrasing the intents and objectives of his business delicately enough to be innocent on tape.

“Hello” Chanyeol answers politely, watching as Sehun takes a seat across from him, yellow striped suit, peak collar and expertly crafted hat looking so unnecessarily luxurious. He takes off his hat and smoothes our his ash blond hair, charming and elegant and poised as he rests in his seat, one arm touching the table comfortably; he doesn’t look different in daylight, pale and expressionless, face too handsomely delicate to break from its stillness, dark eyes sharp and yet holding such little interest in life, gazing at Chanyeol in lukewarm anticipation –the only sign of being remotely expectant regarding this meeting, that he actually cares about his work. Chanyeol is about to proceed with his scripted dialogue, but it momentarily slips his mind when he sees two large and ominously stone-faced men coming to stand behind Sehun, dressed in plain black suits and remaining utterly silent, like intimidating puppets that have no will of their own.

“Please, don’t mind my associates” Sehun dismisses inconsequentially with a wave of his hand, almost too bothered to make even that small gesture. Associates? Since when does Sehun go around with bodyguards? “I understand you want to talk business?” the blond man prods, his question sounding more of a statement than an inquiry, and Chanyeol’s hope, undermined by the unexpected presence of bodyguards, now perks up again; if Sehun is so comfortable to talk business with him right away, then this should be over much quicker than Chanyeol thought. He gives a generic answer, plain and only slightly hesitant, at which Sehun nods in perfect understanding. “Well then, please join me for a ride” he says, picking up his hat coolly, as if he has a schedule to follow, but it’s been timed perfectly so he won’t have to rush his appearances. Chanyeol’s heart jumps to his throat, suddenly very aware of his given instructions.

“I’m afraid I can’t be gone for long” he gives Minseok’s carefully planned excuse, should such a situation arise; Chanyeol honestly has classes later in the afternoon, but his response is supposed to imply his lack of intension to leave the cafe for practical schedule conflicts, rather than because of his unwillingness to end up somewhere Minseok won’t be able to oversee his progress and safety. Sehun doesn’t seem surprised by his answer, deeming it fairly credible, but he doesn’t seem pleased either.

“My business is done my way, Mr. Park” he states somberly, and Chanyeol’s heart picks up the pace, at the unyielding response and the choice he’ll have to make. Sehun’s eyes are dark and hard, somewhat more guarded than before and glinting in warning. “You should remember that in the future too, if you wish to go forth with this” he notes in a low voice, perfectly composed and polite, very clearly in control. And there lies Chanyeol’s choice; to refuse to leave the café with Sehun and raise suspicion, ruining the plan, or to go with him and extract the recording, finishing this once and for all?

There was a plan.

“Okay” Chanyeol agrees quietly after a long moment of thought, and a trace of stiff suspicion leaves Sehun’s shoulder. Even somewhere other than this café, Chanyeol can acquire the evidence Minseok needs if he takes the saxophone case with him, and he’ll be back here after a undisruptive drive around town. It sounds close enough to the original plan. Minseok strongly advised him against it, perhaps, but it’s not impossible to pull through, so Chanyeol trusts his good stars with this and follows Sehun’s lead, standing up from his seat and reaching for the recorder in the case. “But I really can’t be gone for long” he adds convincingly, and Sehun nods in acknowledgement as he puts his hat on.

The walk to Sehun’s long, green car is short, and the brisk air helps Chanyeol clear his mind, for no apparent reason making him feel more confident that he can do this. They look like just two men strolling in the street in companionable silence, Sehun’s appearance attracting obvious attention that he is completely indifferent to, walking like he owns every inch of the ground he steps on, with a prestigious cane in his hand, his attitude embossed with nobility. Chanyeol must seem as inconsequential as the flower petals tumbling by on the gray stones of the sidewalk in comparison, despite being taller. Once they reach the car, the driver already waiting inside, one of Sehun’s goons opens the door for him, while the other crowds Chanyeol’s personal space to do a brief body search; the musician is very reluctant, yet he has nowhere to escape to in the shadowy corner behind the mouth of the alley where the car is parked. But Sehun makes a noise resembling a faint mumble, waving his hand from the other side of the car as if to shoe his guard away from Chanyeol, such measures deemed unnecessary this time; he does trust him, after all. The guard escorts Chanyeol to the trunk instead, where he is told to deposit his instrument case; Chanyeol’s stomach churns in anxiousness, but he does his best to place the recorder so that there won’t be much interference between them talking on the other side of the seats and the microphone, and then he gets inside the car, as instructed.

Soon, he finds himself squished between Sehun and his bodyguard in the backseat, the other one sitting at the front with the driver. Sehun doesn’t even have to name a destination for their silent ride to begin, first around the shopping district, where Sehun gives a few short directions to his driver about his preferred route, but once they reach the next busy location of the city centre, the driver seems perfectly confident to follow the memorized, planned course, without need for clarifications. That’s when Sehun strikes up a conversation, with the same ease and bold character he usually does, asking Chanyeol about his intensions and needs, amongst other, less important things. Chanyeol has never lied so much in his life before, serving one fallacy after the other according to Minseok’s plan, as credibly as possible. He is supposed to be in need of money for an unexpected, critical surgery his grandpa has to undergo, requiring the money immediately, and credit terms more lenient than the bank, so he won’t have to pick up a third job. Sehun seems to believe his story, little hums leaving his lips, questions showing interest and fragments of expressions crossing his face; Chanyeol hasn’t seen him so invested before, and it’s strangely satisfying to fool such a horribly shrewd man, but he doesn’t let himself get carried away and let his guard down, knowing full well that even if Sehun looks harmless, he is far from it.

He is still an unfeeling monster who is hurting the person Chanyeol loves –and who knows how many more– and who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt Chanyeol too, if he suspected anything amiss, that would trigger the beast in him.

It’s all going very smoothly and Sehun has already disclosed details of his business that should do the job for Minseok, telling Chanyeol about interest rates and contracts that only one truly desperate person would agree to; Chanyeol pretends to be paying attention, asking the questions Minseok wanted him to ask and receiving casually incriminating answers. In spite of this seeming success, however, there’s still an uneasy feeling in Chanyeol’s stomach, a knot that is constantly on the verge of making him nauseous, hands gripping his knees tight in nervousness, shoulders stiff, his heart palpitating from time to time, if his wide eyes glance outside and don’t recognize the scenery right away. Traffic fluctuates, buildings and gardens pass by in gray shadows and green sputters of color, and Chanyeol has always been afraid of cars, ever since his parents died in one, so he can’t help this looming feeling of apprehension lingering in his chest.

When the driver steps on the accelerator all of a sudden, the passengers gasp, being pushed into their sheets, a split second of silent curses ruling the car. “What the hell” Sehun demands in a quiet hiss, eyes glinting in annoyance as he stares at the driver, the conversation with Chanyeol forgotten for a moment.

“We got a tail” the man says, checking through the rearview mirror, just as sirens start blaring behind them in warning. “Hold on tight back there”

It’s confusing and terrifying to be involved in a car chase, and Chanyeol never wanted to find out but he doesn’t have a choice, being thrown right in the middle of it. The engine is roaring as the driver steps on the gas, and they have to resort to holding onto every surface of the car they can reach, body desperately fighting to stay still, movements rigid in fear and spasmodically fast. Each sharp corner is a frightening encounter with near death, shaking the passengers like dice in a box, limbs clumsily bumping against each other and recoiling out of reflex, the backseat space too narrow to fit three tall people being hauled around like lifeless dolls. Cars and people blur into hard lines out the window, immobile like rocks in a storm, all gray and brown with flashes of sky and color that is so fleeting Chanyeol doesn’t have time to realize it in his vision, far less recognize where it belongs to; the only things that turn terrifyingly clear for seconds before the car passes them by too, are things that they nearly collide with –a dumpster, a fire hydrant, a lady and countless other cars.

It’s an experience that pushes his body to the edge, heart beating so fast it feels like it’s breaking, pumping adrenaline to the last of his cells and making his stomach turn, breath coming short and shallow, growls escaping his gritted teeth after a few extremely close flashes of danger. People jump out of the way with exclamations of shock, anger and fear, honks are constantly present, and so is the loud wail of the sirens. Chanyeol risks a glance behind him, and he sees at least two police cars, their lights looking like beacons of hope; if Sehun gets caught now, right now, it will all be over. He doesn’t know if Minseok is behind this, if he’s in one of those cars, screaming orders on the radio, or if he will be proud of Chanyeol’s work when they catch up, but all he can think about is Sehun’s arrest and Baekhyun’s safety, the freedom and happiness he can almost taste on his lips.

Sehun is probably thinking of his arrest too, only in a much different light, his face pale, the lines of his expression grim, lips set in a thin line of fear. His goons curse every now and then, but he remains completely silent, dark eyes fraught with thoughts that gleam scarily in his eyes. His fingers are white where they are griping the door, and Chanyeol catches glimpses of a real expression amidst his own discomfort; Oh Sehun looks afraid.

A sharp maneuver to bypass another car has everyone shaken violently, and Chanyeol’s grip on the front seats tightens till he nearly rips the fabric. Sehun grunts as he is pushed against the door again, breath short, ash blond hair falling into his eyes. “How much longer, Mr. Lee?” he demands, voice indirectly reprimanding the driver for his incompetence in its harsh, acidic tone, his eyebrows frowning over his dark eyes, crumpling the white skin of his forehead like paper.

“Just after the bridge; if i can cross fast enough, they’ll lose us in traffic” the man behind the wheel says confidently, but his voice is strained, teeth clenched as he keeps glaring between the mirrors behind him and the road ahead, leading the car onto the long, straight line of the bridge over the river. The view quickly alters to steel columns and ropes, murky blue water meeting the city skyline on the horizon on both sides, the path seemingly less perilous but much more amped with speed.

“Fine, fine” Sehun mutters under his breath grudgingly, glancing out the window and getting a little comfortable in his seat, now that there are no sharp turns anymore, just fast wheels over the bridge. He looks like a man impatient and annoyed, but he is no longer afraid, confident he’ll make his escape this time too –and perhaps he will, because the sirens grow more and more distant, stuck in traffic behind them since the cars can’t make way on the limited space of the bridge. Chanyeol can only see confused and scared drivers behind them now, not a hint of hope anymore, and he gets a crazy impulse, because this is working out horribly and he needs to do something.

“Wait!” Sehun yells in bone-shuttering panic, when he catches the movement out of the corner of his eye, but it’s already too late.

Chanyeol lurches forward and pulls the handbrake, hard; the car swerves on screeching tires, the force throwing the musician against something and pain shoots in his veins, but before he has time to blink, the car tilts and flies over the bridge, disoriented screams and deafening fear turning the world upside down, and then it all fades to darkness.

center>~* 32 *~

The sky is blue outside, a clear color that turns teal on the edges, adorned with puffs of white clouds, a gentle breeze carrying them lazily across the city. There is a single window overlooking the garden, green treetops swaying in the breeze, dancing leaves and flower petals quivering with the enlivening touch of spring, but it’s all so very quiet. The light pours amply into the room, reflecting on the white walls and squirming trapped under the heavy curtains; the furniture is few and plain, colorless like pale, grayish blue touches on a canvas that is mostly white, except for a splash of crimson that seems to brighten even the sun, giving it life and contrast, making the sunrays looks more joyful. There is a small table by the window, where a bouquet of passionate red tulips are resting their satin petals, their gentle bells illuminated dazzlingly, bathing in the sunlight. There are silent machines tucked away in the corner of the sterile room, and a narrow hospital bed, where Chanyeol is resting under white sheets.

You foolish, foolish love of my life.

Baekhyun holds Chanyeol’s hand a little tighter, perched on the edge of the sheets, cradling the musician’s good hand delicately in both of his and letting himself be reassured by its familiar warmth. He still can’t thank the stars enough that Chanyeol survived that accident, with just a concussion that has faded and broken bones that are already mending; it might take a few months before he plays music again, but at least he is alive, and he will recover fully, in time. It probably looks much worse than the painkillers are making Chanyeol feel, with the bruises covering his arms, the bandages around his body, the cast on his arm and leg. He has a small cut on his lip and dark circles under his eyes, his face pale and sullen, missing its dazzling, radiant beam that can light up the heavens; he looks exhausted, lashes fluttering over his waxy cheeks, breaths leaving his chapped lips softly in his sleep. He looks serene in the sunlight, regal features slack in deep slumber.

It has been the two most terrifying days of Baekhyun’s life. When he first got the news from Jongdae, he lost the ground under his feet, and he can still remember that wretched plummeting of his stomach, the wheezing in his ears, the cold that suddenly bit his bones; like a candle flame blown out, he felt breathless, floating, dissolving, the world turning gray as smoke. His heart has been beating irregularly since, so scared it’s hard to contain inside his chest, bruising itself against his ribs and making him feel like he is chocking on air sometimes. He can hardly remember the rest of that day, alongside long hours of the days after that, his mind missing the details, sleep coming to him scarce and full of nightmares; he wonders if this is how Chanyeol felt, too, last time Baekhyun was hospitalized. It’s so full of fear and so full of pain; even hope feels like it’s struggling excruciatingly in his chest, even now.

Many things changed in the past couple of days, it feels like a lifetime. It passes in newspaper headlines in Baekhyun’s head; ’horrifying accident during police car chase, passengers rushed to the hospital, three out of five pronounced dead in the ICU’. Then, ’shocking execution within hospital walls, suspected links to criminal organizations’, and, ’the accountant is dead, long live gang feuds; police arrests a fine selection of criminals wrecking havoc in the city following the incident, multiple shootings reported’. Lastly, ’disgraced lord, Oh Sehun, passed away, memorial service to be held, condolences may be made’, et cetera; Baekhyun didn’t attend the funeral, he wasn’t even in town, but he did send flowers. Whatever happens to Sehun’s soul, Baekhyun doesn’t want to hate him anymore, he doesn’t want to remember that man at all.

There was one event that almost made it to the papers, ’enraged bartender nearly strangles to death next-in-line chief of police’; Minseok’s shocking identity had barely been revealed to them when he came by the Pearl with good news about Chanyeol’s recovery –his only redeeming asset–, and the next second Jongdae had him pinned to the ground, shaking him by the neck and nearly frothing at the mouth. Amidst their astonishment and fluster, it took four people to hold back a furious Jongdae, swearing at the future chief rather colorfully, expression livid; at least Minseok didn’t seem to take any of it to heart, admitting to Jongdae that he probably deserved that, and they parted on lukewarm terms after the fuss died down. Baekhyun hopes the man has some good sense to stay away for a while, or Jongdae might poison his drink next time and they won’t have a chance to save him.

There is a small cough, rough and raspy, as Chanyeol’s torso hiccups, nose scrunching in discomfort, and Baekhyun instantly gathers his hand closer with bated breath, attentive eyes watching every tiny detail, wide in anticipation. Through everything that has happened, the only thing Baekhyun has been able to feel is worried about Chanyeol; he doesn’t care for spies in his club, for his indefinitely revoked debt, for his newly established freedom to live his life as he pleases; he only wants to be free to love Chanyeol, to have him a star in his sky, to be happy with him, because without him, none of this matters. His heart flutters in his chest, and for the first time in days it doesn’t feel painful; it feels lighter, more excited and sentient near him, tenderly singing for him. It’s all in life Baekhyun ever wants to do.

Chanyeol’s eyes slowly blink awake, disoriented and still tired, chocolate orbs gazing dazedly at the ceiling for a moment, then slowly drifting down, lashes hinging against the light from the window and then fluttering open again, his gaze focusing on Baekhyun. Hi, Yeol. Baekhyun waits patiently while Chanyeol’s eyes examine him curiously, as if he is not entirely sure he is awake yet, or that his eyes are not hallucinating things he’d like to see; Baekhyun can’t hold back a smile on his lips, fond and amused and relived, carefully stroking Chanyeol’s knuckles with affection to pacify him. He looks still a little fragile and confused, his eyebrows quirking in a small frown, almond eyes promising but uncertain.

“Hello, my love” Baekhyun says quietly, his voice soft in the silence of the room, not to startle him. There are evermore beautiful words swarming in his chest like a field of excited butterflies, he has so much more of his heart to share with Chanyeol, but he doesn’t want to overwhelm him in such a delicate state, so he holds back his tears and only gives him a wide smile of happiness, because Chanyeol makes him so happy, and sometimes simple words can be so meaningful; Baekhyun has never greeted his lonely star more lovingly before. There is a spark of recognition in Chanyeol’s eyes, his gaze growing so unreservedly joyful and warm that it melts the ice fortress that had seized Baekhyun’s heart, and the shorter basks in the comfort of familiar chocolate eyes twinkling in happiness.

“Baekhyun” Chanyeol rasps, voice hoarse from disuse but deep, soft as a purr, rambling in his chest like the elated thumping of Baekhyun’s heart that’s soaring amongst the stars; he had missed his name on Chanyeol’s lips, so beautiful and tender around the sound. It’s still difficult for Chanyeol to talk, however, and his breath gets caught in his throat, making him cough again. Baekhyun quickly lets go of his hand to take the provided glass of water from the bedside and bring it to the taller’s lips; he holds the glass with one hand, the other cradling Chanyeol’s head up as he assists him, his lips tugging into a tiny, wistful smile to see Chanyeol so worn and weak. But he is here, and Baekhyun tries to reassure himself with that thought, like eyes that always turn to the stars in trust