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the ballads of caged birds

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“LIFE IS A MONOTONOUS CYCLE OF SUFFERING AND THE ONLY RELIEF IS DEATH.”

“DITTO.”

Donghyun pokes his head into the living room, half eaten almond butter breakfast bar in one hand and a mug of black tea in the other. “Everything okay in here?”

His lovely, sweet, adorably dramatic husband is currently deflated into their overpriced armchair ottoman set, pouting at his phone screen. “No.”

“ALDKFSOIFHSNDVKL!” Daehwi shrieks from the FaceTime call. Donghyun sets down his drink on the coffee table and walks over to gracelessly shove himself into Woong’s lap. Woong squeaks under his weight but otherwise accepts his fate.

“Three weeks into quarantine and you’re already falling apart. This real time dystopian young adult novel’s pacing is shit,” Donghyun half jokes as he takes a bite of his breakfast bar. The youngest lets out an incomprehensible screech. He had probably been holding that one in for a long time.

“My life is supposed to be more Rowling and less Rand-!”

“Two names we do not speak of in this house,” Donghyun quickly cuts him off. “Society has progressed past the need for the conflated white feminist ego.”

Daehwi grumbles as Woong shrugs in agreement. “Caucacity aside, 2020 sucks so far. I’m BORED, Dongie. I miss yoga! Work! Shopping! A functioning society! If I have to swat Woojin’s hand away from the thermostat one more time I WILL be acquiring a criminal record.”

The eldest wiggles under Donghyun, resting his chin on a broad shoulder. “It’s pretty much a free couple’s retreat without all the fun and good stuff.”

Donghyun lets out a scandalized gasp. “Et tu brute? I’m a blessing to be around.”

“So we just lying now, huh—“ Daehwi gets cut off when Donghyun unceremoniously hangs up on him. Woong wheezes out the cutest laugh Donghyun has ever heard, and the taller can’t help but steal a kiss when he stands up. “My job here is done. I’ll be in my office.”

“I CAN’T BELIEVE HE HUNG UP ON ME-“ follows Donghyun down the hall, harmonized with Woong’s giggles.

All jokes aside, Donghyun and Woong have set a semi spoken rule of not spending every living second together, even during quarantine. They were madly in love or whatever, but Donghyun was a slow going introvert and Woong was an extroverted busy body. They complemented each other in certain doses, but understood that chemistry was a delicate thing. They arranged their schedules to avoid a nuclear meltdown.

It was easy, Donghyun soon realizes. The younger usually spends his time in his office, typing away or editing or researching his newest novel. His agent was pissed about not being able to do meetings in person (Donghyun was well aware and very amused of their very obvious crush on Woong) but ecstatic about Donghyun being more or less hurled over whatever writer’s block loomed around the corner. And hurled he was. He’d been hoarding word counts like a madman, and even though he wasn’t sure how many words would be worth hoarding in the end, he was convinced that the quarantine had been a blessing in disguise.

His husband was adapting a little less well. Woong flutters around their home like a hummingbird. Here and there and here and there. Arranging cushions. Arranging furniture. Polishing floors. Color coding their clothing . Donghyun wants to bring it up, but Marie Kondo can only be channeled so many times throughout a quarantine, and he figures that Woong’s cleaning will cease when he runs out of things to clean.

What Donghyun didn’t anticipate were the hobbies.

“Those— those aren’t real,” Donghyun says questioningly before leaning in to sniff at the flowers in question. “No they’re definitely not.”

Woong swats him on the shoulder. “I ordered them online. I’m taking a class on floral arrangements! Fun, right?”

While Donghyun would rather backflip off a roof than arrange plastic flowers in a pitcher turned makeshift vase, Woong looks so excited and so pretty behind the flowers that Donghyun gives a fond smile. “You’re so lame.”

“I’m channeling my inner creative!” Woong squawks. “I think our house could use a little…. flair. Since we’re stuck in here, anyway.”

“Fair enough. But you’re the only flower I n—“

Woong fake gags but there’s the telltale flush dusted over his cheeks. “Get out!” They share a laugh and a kiss, and Donghyun steals a daisy just to have Woong chase him down the hall and into a much needed makeout session.


Donghyun finds flower arrangements in every. Room. Hydrangeas in the bathroom, lilies on their dresser, daffodils in the kitchen, carnations in his study. Woong spends hours on the floral arrangements for a week or two.

Then it’s knitting.

Then French. That one’s Donghyun’s favorite. There’s something about a beautiful man speaking poorly pronounced French that gets to him.

Followed by sculpture, astrology, and to Donghyun’s utter horror, cooking.

Donghyun returns from his run in the morning, expecting to shower and then make them both breakfast as he always does. He quite likes his designated stereotypical housewife role— cooking Woong breakfast and dinner, packing him lunch, doing the laundry and shopping. It’s nice in a domestic way. A novelist’s schedule (and mental stability) is notoriously flexible, breaks between pages or paragraphs or words were easily filled with trips to the market or chores. And although he’d never admit it unless he’s six shots of tequila deep, he likes doing things for Woong. Loves seeing his sleepy eyes light up when he spots food in the morning or the way his mouth forms a tiny ‘o’ when he comes home from work and notices that Donghyun bought him a snack that he’s been dying to try.

This day, however, he knows the world has gone into full-blown Twilight Zone when he walks into the kitchen and sees Woong standing over a stove (turned on and everything!) pouting.
“I tried to make blueberry pancakes.”

Tried, yes. That’s exactly what Donghyun would call the lopsided half cooked plates of batter. The younger presses his lips together to suppress a laugh.

“Why would you ever—“

“I don’t know! I figured I could just try just this once. You know, everybody’s talking about how much they cook during quarantine and I thought that I could too. The Food Network lady made it look so easy!” Woong rambles and presses his face into Donghyun’s sweaty chest with a whine. “Please don’t laugh.”
Donghyun coughs to hide his snicker, hands rubbing Woong’s arms. “Me? I would never laugh at you. Wasn’t even thinking about it.”

“Cooking is hard.”

“You’re just… kitchenly challenged.”

“Kitchenly isn’t even a word,” Woong grumbles.

Cleaning the mess of flour, eggs, and baking powder is an adventure in itself, and at the end of it, Woong insists on IHOP via UberEats. Donghyun doesn’t complain, especially when he’s stuffing his face with the best stack of whole wheat pancakes he’s ever had, sitting in the living room with the love of his life and a 90s sitcom playing on the tv.

— *****
They fuck. They fuck a lot. Even without a quarantine in place, Donghyun can boast that they have a rather healthy sex life. Now that quarantine has cleared their schedules and stripped Woong of his afterwork exhaustion and equipped him with newfound boredom, Donghyun feels like he’s being pounced on every other hour. And yeah, he knows he’s the luckiest guy on the planet.

“Dammit, we’re out of condoms,” Donghyun groans into Woong’s mouth, one hand fumbling through his desk drawer as the other grips his husband’s bare hip. Woong wiggles in his lap, flushed to his toes and on the brink of tears from their foreplay. The little minx had sauntered into Donghyun’s office, all pouty lips and soft hands and sweet eyes.

“So?” the elder pants, licking into Donghyun’s mouth. Despite Woong’s shyness in every other aspect of life, the right touch, lick, stroke, could render him shameless. Donghyun still can’t believe that he had been graced with the opportunity of exploring Woong’s sensitivities. The way he jolts at the slightest touch over his middle spine, his ticklish hips and telltale sighs. Nevertheless, he and Woong were not the reckless teens they used to be. Sex had to be as practical as it was enjoyable as two working adults.
“What do you mean? You hate the mess—“

“It’ll be okay. We can just… have some fun with it.”

Donghyun raises a brow. “Elaborate.”

“You can clean me up, can’t you?” Woong’s voice is breathy and unbelievably sexy as he traces Donghyun’s lower lip with his thumb. “You’re so good with your tongue. Let’s put it to use.”

“Oh my god you’re the love of my life. You’re an angel from heaven. The sweetest color I’ve ever seen. A fucking— rainbow in human form you’re my SOULMATE, Woongie,” the younger rambles as he struggles to get his own pants down. Woong squeals in delight as he’s jostled and manhandled, peppering Donghyun’s face with kisses and kitten licks.

“Love you too,” the eldest promises and Donghyun swears there’s no better place than anywhere with his husband.

— ****

One thing Donghyun never quite understood about Woong is the energy he has for socializing. Sure, Donghyun is sociable when he wants to be, well mannered, and likes to think that he can carry a conversation pretty well, but he’d be lying if he said that wasn’t all exhausting. Cocktail parties were well attended but overall dreaded. Trips to the market were much easier when he didn’t bump into someone who knew him. The book signings he’s held were some of the best moments of his career, but they were usually followed by him becoming a hermit— recharging with only Woong and his soap operas to keep him company.

Woong, however, thrived on interactions. His social butterfly status was carefully and healthfully maintained throughout quarantine. FaceTime becomes his best friend, and Donghyun can hear his husband chatting for hours on end with multiple people throughout the day. It’s puzzling and sometimes a bit annoying when Donghyun’s earbuds are charging, but nonetheless endearing. The elder feels the same way about Donghyun’s introversion— he’s expressed how cute it is when Donghyun curls up in his burrito blanket. Woong also respects Donghyun’s social battery and its limitations. He’s never been one to push or pout to get him to stay a little longer at a party or to be his plus one for a company event. Opposites attract, Daehwi had teased and taunted when he set them up all those years ago. He was right, but Donghyun’s afraid that giving him credit will give him a big head as well.

So it’s surprising when Woong gestures Donghyun over to the couch while on a FaceTime call. The taller had been pacing. He always paces when he’s on the brink of a great metaphor— a perfect line that will summarize the despair or happiness or monotony of his characters’ predicament. “Writer stuff,” he can hear Woong explain to the phone in his hand. Donghyun stands behind the couch and leans down till he’s in frame, not wanting to sit down and fall into the temptation of a mid day cat nap with his head in Woong’s lap.

“Gon wants to propose to Seunghun,” Woong singsongs, obviously excited.

Donghyun makes a face he always seems to make when he talks to Gon, his designated What Are You Saying To Me Right Now type of countenance. “What are you saying to me right now. I thought you proposed months ago.”

“I told you I was going to propose months ago. I did not, in fact, propose months ago.”

“I’m not seeing the speed bump between point A and point B.”

“Look with your eyes, Kim.”

“If it were not for the laws of this land I would have showed up at your doorstep and challenged you to a duel.”

“I love this proposal discourse,” Woong chimed in as semi mediator semi delighted audience.

“I just don’t want it to be. Like. Stupid,” Gon sighs and spins around in his chair a few times. “I want it to be memorable and sappy and dramatic and all that. The whole…. pandemic thing sort of put a damper on it. But I just need some romantic brainpower.”

Donghyun and Woong exchange glances. “Then why are you consulting us?”

“You’re the most sickening couple I know. How did Dongie propose? A rented out cruise ship? A published book of poetry? Disneyland?”

Woong stifles a laugh as Donghyun’s eyes go dead. “Ididn’tgettopropose.”

Gon blinks. “What?”

“Say it with your chest, babe.”

“I DIDN’T GET TO PROPOSE.”

Gon blinks again. “But? You’re? Married?”

“Yes. Yes, I know.”

“I beat him to it,” Woong clarifies. “He was planning something, but I ended up proposing first He was pissed.” Donghyun remembers that day with fondness despite the despair. He had woke up one morning to Woong, beautiful and warm as always, pulling out a ring from under his pillow and sweetly asking “will you marry me?”. In hindsight, it was perfect. The glow of the early morning, the songbirds perched on their roof, and Woong popping the big question despite Donghyun’s bedhead and the drool drying on his pillow.

“God you guys suck,” Gon groans. “I don’t know any other married couples. I need that sweet, sweet consultation!”

“Google is free,” Woong deadpans. “As is youtube,” Donghyun adds almost immediately.

Gon scrunches his nose in disgust. “White people proposals? In my decolonized household?”

“Okay well! Why don’t you just…. do it. I dunno. Proposals are overrated. If anything they’re just fun to clown at parties.” Despite his affinity for socialization, Woong wasn’t one for the overly public when it came to romance, which settles well with Donghyun’s old school lovey dovey antics. Their wedding had been simple and intimate and their honeymoon was spent at a beach house they allowed themselves to splurge on. Their best moments were their own and they both liked it that way. Donghyun swoons and sighs fondly thinking about it.

“Because! Seunghun deserves everything good in this world! Fireworks and a rose garden and a fucking— a fucking orchestra performing on top of elephants. I want to propose to him like he deserves to be proposed to.” Donghyun’s about to comment on how stupidly sweet that monologue was until—

“You’re planning on proposing?” Seunghun’s voice rings from out of frame. Gon screams.

“BYE.” Woong ends the FaceTime call and looks up at Donghyun. “We did good.”

“That we did. You know, you should start charging for your services.”

Woong snorts. “Maybe when I manage to convince Woojin to finally go ring shopping I’ll earn my certification.”

“It’s only a matter of time,” the younger predicts. He eyes Woong’s lap, which looks ridiculously comfortable at that point. Woong smiles and pats the space next to him. “Wanna watch a mothman documentary with me? Or are you doing your writer stuff?”

“I’m doing my writer stuff, but—“ he circles the couch and plops down next to his husband, cushioning his head with Woong’s thighs like they’re the most luxurious pillows in the world (they are). “Solitude is overrated. Commence the conspiracy theories.”

“Dongie,” Woong tries as he picks at his spaghetti. It’s a nickname that Woong weaponizes when he’s about to breach a particularly sensitive topic, so Donghyun reflexively scans his brain for anything he might have done that was out of line that week. A poorly timed steamy comment? Did he forget a birthday? An anniversary? Did Woong find the red wine stain he thought he had cleverly covered up by reversing the cushion of the couch? The anticipation was killing him.

“What’s up?”

“Do you think that I could,” the elder watches the noodles twirl onto his own fork to avoid eye contact. Donghyun can’t help but smile, painfully endeared despite his anxiety. “Read what you’ve written so far? And give you some pointers?” There’s a beat of silence before Donghyun lets out a breath of laughter. Definitely not his most intelligent moment.

Woong immediately tenses and huffs. “Never mind. Sorry—“

“No, I didn’t mean it like that. I just,” Donghyun scrambles to recover from his knee jerk reaction, putting his utensils down as if that will help gather his thoughts. “You’re just not. The best. When it comes to proofreading my stuff, you know?”

“It’s fine. I get it,” Donghyun knows that Woong is trying to sound assuring but he’s never been good at hiding his embarrassment or hurt.

“I’m not saying you’re dumb or anything, you know that right? I have my editor and Youngmin look through my drafts because they have a trained eye for this sort of thing.” Youngmin had a PhD in comparative literature and zero regard for Donghyun’s dignity— marking up is manuscripts like a standardized test and scoffing at every adverb. His editor was a well paid saint and veteran of the business. Donghyun was privileged enough to have a more than competent team behind him. Woong was part of that team, but not because of his keen eye for grammar.

“No, I get it. Forget I asked.” And even though Donghyun wanted to say more to defend his thoughtlessness, he lets silence settle between them instead. Woong needed some time, probably. So Donghyun just sighs and finishes his dinner, feeling like a jerk.

Later that night, as Woong is in front of the bathroom mirror patting toner into his skin, Donghyun slides behind him and nuzzles his neck. It smells like expensive skincare and cotton. “You know I think you’’re very smart, right?”

Woong rolls his eyes before smiling at the younger through the mirror. “Yeah, yeah I know. Sorry. I was being not so smart at dinner—“

“Don’t apologize for having feeeeeeliiiiiiings,” Donghyun whines as his hands move to squeeze his husband’s arms. “The only reason I laughed is because last time you tried to give me pointers on my writing you just drew smiley faces and hearts all over my drafts. You’re not great at being objective, babe.” Not that the doodles or kisses went unappreciated. They just weren’t going to make Donghyun’s novel any more ready to be published.

“Well!” Woong hurries to defend himself. “It’s not my fault I’m married to the greatest writer in the history of ever.” And it’s so sappy and stupid but Donghyun can’t help but beam at the praise. Woong was all the critical acclaim he ever needed.

“You’re so sexy when you flatter me. But honestly, Woong.” As much as Donghyun could listen to Woong’s praise all day, he wants to get to the bottom of his husband’s sudden interest in editing. “You’ve never asked to read any of my rough drafts before. Are you taking a writing class or something?” Donghyun had asked Woong a few times in the past, admittedly, for an ego boost. Other than that, Woong usually kept out of Donghyun’s writing.

Woong chews on his bottom lip as he dabs some moisturizer under his eyes. “No, I’m not. I. Hm. Ugh. Okay, promise you won’t call me a pathetic capitalist drone?”

“Babe. I would never.” It’s a soft reassurance despite Woong’s half joking demeanor. Donghyun takes his political call outs very seriously. He rubs soothing circles into the smaller’s hips and can feel Woong relax.

“You know with the quarantine and everything… I can’t go to work. I can’t do the one thing I do around here, you know? Make money every day. Do the nine to five nonsense and call out ‘honey I’m home!’ I just feel sort of…. I dunno. Useless around the house. And I’m not, like, blaming you or anything. I’m really not. I just feel….. bad. You’re practically super husband. I can’t barely boil water without burning the house down AND you’re still working on top of being handsome and charming and well rounded.” It all spills out at once and Donghyun can see Woong nearly wince at the word vomit, but there’s no need to. Donghyun loves when Woong is honest, even if it’s ugly or painful. It means they’re that much closer to making it better. Donghyun gently nudges Woong to turn around so they can face each other.

“You’re not useless. Not ever. You’ve cleaned this house in one week more than I have in the years we’ve been married. And those flower arrangements? They’re gorgeous. They brighten the whole house.” Donghyun can practically feel Woong suppress an eyeroll. So he leans in to kiss him. Once. Twice. And three times before pulling back to speak again. “And even if it were true that you do nothing around the house— and its definitely not true— I’d love you just as much. Your worth isn’t defined by how productive you are, Woong. Call me biased, but I fell in love with your dorky self, not your production value.”

“And all this time I though I was a sugar daddy providing for my artsy baby,” Woong jokes as he plays with the hair on the nape of Donghyun’s neck. Donghyun snorts.

“I’m serious, Woongie. You know you’re so much more than whatever you feel the need to slave away at, right?” Rich coming from a writer, but he knew more than anyone the dread of non production, of sitting in a chair and blinking at an intimidatingly blank screen. Donghyun was intimately acquainted with equating himself with his work. Additionally, he was bedfellows with the crash and burn and existential crisis that comes along with such an intimacy. Woong was there to comfort him through the deep sobs and the scattering of his manuscript. Donghyun knew that he was writer. He would always identify as a writer, no matter his output (or lack thereof), but would also take ‘Donghyun’ or simply ‘Woong’s husband’ over that pompous title any day.

“My logical, human brain knows,” Woong promises with a soft smile. “But my programmed capitalist brain is still screaming.”

“Damn Milton Friedman.” That gets a giggle out of Woong, and Donghyun can just stare at him fondly. “How about this? You can help me with meals until this quarantine stuff is over, okay? And no, you won’t have to cook anything. You can do prep stuff. Or whatever else. It’ll be fun.”

Woong’s face twists from absolute terror to thoughtful, playing it over in his head before giving a sure nod. “You’ve got a deal, captain.” He tiptoes up to bump his nose against Donghyun’s. “Thanks, Dongie. I love you. A lot.”

“I love you too,” he gives Woong’s butt a playful swat. “Now get out of the way. I need to exfoliate.”

The elder raises an eyebrow before squinting in faux scrutinization. “Oh, yeah. You definitely need this mirror more than I do.”

“New novel idea! It’s a tale of brutal betrayal—“

Woong lets out a gorgeous, melodious laugh as he lightly shoves Donghyun’s shoulder.

Better than averted, the crisis had been conquered.

__

Date nights are a challenge during quarantine. For multiple reasons.

One: restaurants are out of the question, including their favorite Thai food place with the waiters who know their orders by heart.

Two: Date nights seem less and less urgent with all the time they spend together. Usually Woong proposes a night out when he had been working overtime, or when Donghyun was mid book promotions. In other words: there was considerably less time they felt the need to catch up on.

Nonetheless, Woong surprises (or at least Donghyun lets him believe that he surprises) his husband with a romantic dinner out on their patio. To be fair, Donghyun was surprised at how beautifully Woong had renovated the previously neglected outdoor space. He had ordered some new dining furniture, strung up some lights, fluffed some pillows, and voila! Their backyard had transformed into a Better Homes and Gardens spread.

“This looks amazing, Woongie,” Donghyun commented in awe. Woong beamed with pride.
The dinner is an order in from aforementioned Thai restaurant and Donghyun could cry with how good the crab fried rice is. They talk about how Woong should start a pollinator garden in their backyard.

“Seriously Woong,” Donghyun starts. “You’ve really made our place incredible. Too bad no one else can come over to appreciate it.” It was the first house they owned, moved in upon marriage after they had decidedly outgrown their apartment in the city. Suburban life suited them, but they were amateurs when it came to spacious living and backyards. Woong had finally found the time to make it the home he would have once envied and gawked over. Donghyun wasn’t one for interior design, though he did take over the organization of the kitchen and the semi new cabinets. He knew to keep out of Woong’s way when it came to every other area of the home.

“Oh don’t worry,” Woong hums. “I show it off whenever I have the chance. Daehwi wants me to do their backyard once they find a new place.”

Donghyun can’t help but stare fondly, overwhelmingly proud of the man he married and his talents.
They finish their meal and Woong, in all his artful persuasion, manages to get Donghyun to slow dance with him while Etta James plays from his phone. Donghyun places his hand on Woong’s lower back as they sway together, at first jokingly and theatrically but soon they slow. Donghyun squeezes Woong’s hand and tells him he loves him because it’s one of the few things he knows for sure. He loves Jeon Woong so much it’s unreal.

Woong pulls back to look at him— his best friend. His husband. His dork and soulmate and worst roommate ever. “You know,” Woong begins quietly. Almost shy. Donghyun kisses his cheek to let him know that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

“All this talk about our home and renovating. I think we need. Just. One more thing, yeah?”

“Oh yeah?” Donghyun answers, just as softly. They speak to each other in hushed tones, not out of fear of being heard but knowing that the only person who needs to hear is the man in his arms.

“Maybe we can start thinking about,” Woong kisses him, eyes shining. “A baby?”

The word tumbles directly into Donghyun’s heart. It was an idea he had been mulling over himself, noticing the warmth in Woong’s expression whenever a happy, chubby baby crawls across rugs during commercials. He notices it in himself, in the pestering thought of how beautiful Woong would look with a baby on his hip, of how warm and comforting a snoring baby would be on his shoulder. Donghyun had been afraid that he was romanticizing parenthood. Was scared that Woong’s interest didn’t hold beyond the cooing of cute, very far away babies that didn’t cry or poop. But now.

“Like— like a human baby?”

Woong laughs. “Yes, a human baby. Our own human baby that we raise into a human adult. Hopefully.”

“Oh my god,” Donghyun breathes out and kisses Woong. Hard. “I love you. Yes. God, I want a baby with you so badly. Our baby. We can be parents. Dads.” He’s rambling by now but he doesn’t have the capacity to care. “When?”

“Soon, hopefully. We’ll need to do our research, and, you know, with the pandemic and all, it might be a challenge, but….” Woong presses his palms to Donghyun’s cheeks. “I think we can do it. I want to start a family with you, Dongie.”

Donghyun wastes no time in scooping Woong into his arms, the elder letting out a shriek of surprise that runs off into giggles. “Let’s go make that baby!”

“That’s not how this works!” Woong squeals as Donghyun shoves open the sliding door into their home.

“We’re just not trying hard enough!”

And maybe quarantine isn’t so bad when you have a home— a real home— to spend it in.