Jihoon should never have switched his phone back on.
He knew what would be waiting for him, how awful the messages would be, and that’s what spooked him, that final, toneless, dangerously confident, ‘we’re going to find you’. It made him panic, made him get off the bus in the middle of nowhere, hours before he was meant to.
He feels stupid now, standing at the side of a country road, listening to the chirping of crickets from the forest edge. There’s no way Sehun and his pals would have known where he was going; he paid for his ticket with the cash he’d managed to squirrel away, dyed his hair and changed his clothes at the first rest stop, left everything that could be used to track his movements behind. Everything but that stupid fucking phone.
It’s gone now, left behind on the bus—which is probably the second mistake he’s made today, because now he’s stranded in the middle of nowhere, freezing his ass off, with no choice but to walk to the nearest town or hitch a ride.
Still, it beats being back there, where he had no control over his life.
He hears the vehicle long before he sees it; that’s how quiet this stretch of road is, how dark it’s getting now. His eyes aren't really in focus anymore, but he knows the sound of a gas guzzling Jeep pretty well. It’s travelling in the same direction he’s been walking in for the last hour, its lights dipped, and it occurs to Jihoon suddenly that a sensible person likely won’t stop for some randomer standing at the side of the road this late at night.
He holds his hand up anyway, figuring it worth a shot, and miracle of miracles, the car stops.
Jihoon’s so relieved he doesn’t even question who could be sitting behind the wheel, who’s reckless enough to offer rides to strangers hitchhiking on a deserted road. He’s just grabs his bag and legs it over, more than happy to get out of the cold.
Then he slides into the front passenger seat and thinks—oh shit. He can't make out much of the man's face in the darkness, just the deep eyes, full lips, and dark ruffles of hair peeking out from under a black baseball hat, but there’s no disguising how intimidatingly well-built the guy is.
Jihoon’s well used to everyone being taller than him, but they’ve never been this significantly bulkier too. Like they could snap his neck without trying.
Too late to back out now though, and who knows when another car will come by.
Once he's shut the door behind him, the man takes one glance at Jihoon before reaching to turn up the heat.
“Where are you heading?”
Jihoon shrugs and suppresses a shiver. “To the nearest town I guess.”
The guy nods and puts the car in gear, pulls out of the ditch.
They don’t talk much—or at all for that matter, and Jihoon’s okay with that. He’s pretty beat and not in the mood to make conversation with strangers anyway. It’s only when they drive past an old sign—tilting and paint peeling and rusted—that Jihoon turns his head to read it and catches sight of the guy giving him a discreet once-over.
Startled, Jihoon throws about for a distraction.
“Uh—thanks for stopping by the way. You know, you’re the first person to even slow down, but I guess I’d be pretty wary of someone hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere, especially this late. I could be a serial killer for all you know. ”
That earns him a quiet huff of a laugh.
“I think the likelihood of two serial killers winding up in the same car is pretty slim.” The guy says, then looks at him.
Jihoon stares back, fingers twitching at the tingle of anxious apprehension he can feel building under his skin.
He can't tell if the guy’s joking or not, can’t read much of anything in his expression, and in the next heartbeat the man’s eyes are back on the road where they belong and Jihoon is stomping heavily on the bubble of panic that threatens to overwhelm him.
It’s just a joke—he tells himself—a really bad, unfunny joke.
He slouches in his seat, tries to make it look casual as he shifts the duffel between his legs.
Next to him the man is silent, unhelpfully offering no distraction whatsoever. His eyes stay glued to the road, finger tapping arrhythmically against the wheel, and that's the first Jihoon realizes there's no music playing, nothing to fill the air between them—air that's suddenly filling his lungs with dread and making his heart race.
Then the guy moves, shifting sideways to reach for something tucked into his car door, and Jihoon actively freaks the fuck out.
He grabs the steering wheel and yanks it hard toward him, slamming into the door as the car yaws violently to the side. Whatever thought process there is behind that—if the car’s not moving, I can get out—shudders to a halt when the man quickly reaches out and counters the move, righting the wheel without hitting the breaks.
It’s the last thing Jihoon expected.
The guy’s not just a psychopath, he’s a skilled one, and he knows how to handle a vehicle under extreme stress.
He doesn’t even look phased that Jihoon’s tried to flip the car—he just looks amused.
“Why did you do that?” He asks, while Jihoon gapes at him in open-mouthed horror.
Jihoon doesn’t remember when he unbuckled his belt, but he’s scrambling for the door handle now, and even though the car is still moving at full speed, he has no choice but to hurl himself out.
Jihoon wakes up to the sight of a television bolted to a mint-coloured wall, showing some garish talk show that is thankfully muted. Even without the noise, his head is pounding, and the rest of him doesn’t feel much better.
He’s safe in a hospital at least. Or maybe it’s a clinic. He’s not sure—but there’s a monitor beeping close by and the quiet murmur of the nurses outside the open door puts him at ease.
He turns his head, neck stiff from falling asleep at an odd angle, to search out for anything to tell him what time it is, and nearly jumps out of his skin when the empty chair by the bed turns out not to be so empty after all.
The guy from the 4x4—the serial killer—is sitting there, silent and watchful, and it's only the fact that they’re in a hospital, a public place with lots of people, that keeps Jihoon from screaming his head off.
It’s a close thing though, because the guy doesn’t look any less intimidating stuffed into the decrepit hospital chair. He does look really tired though; his whole frame bowed forward and his elbows on his knees, fingers steepled together in front of his mouth. A pose he’s clearly been holding for hours.
Jihoon’s startlement fades to anger, which fades in turn to something else when he notices the deep-set, earnest intensity in the man’s eyes. He can't place it, can't read it, and the man blinks it away quickly enough—leans back in the chair and drops his hands, face masking over with calm indifference.
"I would like to apologize for that poorly timed serial killer joke," he says, and actually sounds like he means it. "I realise now that was what probably set you off, and I’m sorry. I didn't mean to scare you, I just...I don’t spend a lot of time around people, and I forget how to say the right thing sometimes. When to not say anything at all.”
Jihoon pushes himself up a little, setting aside his own hint of apprehension.
“Well, I guess if you were a serial killer, you wouldn’t have brought me to the hospital.”
The guy starts out nodding, like he's aiming to reassure, except halfway through the gesture he catches his lower lip between his teeth and changes direction, shaking his head from side to side instead.
"Well actually, that’s not true. I could be planning to see you nursed back to health just so I could hurt you in other ways. That’s what a real truly sick fuck would do; lull you into a false sense of security, then strike. I imagine to a serial killer, there’s no enjoyment in hurting someone you haven’t hurt yourself.”
Jihoon squints at him, incredulous, “Wow, you know what—you’re right. You don’t know when to shut up.”
The man cringes a little, and Jihoon feels a kick of irrational guilt at putting that look on his face.
“Look, it’s fine,” He tries to smooth over. “I’m just a little testy right now with the pain. I’m sure I’ll look back at this one day and laugh.”
“You’re still in pain? Do want me to fetch the nurse?” the man asks, quickly getting to his feet.
There's a hint of worry in his voice now as he drags a hand through his hair, knocking the baseball cap off his head.
“No, it’s…it’s…fine.” Jihoon's words trail away to nothing as he looks the man over from head to toe, and realises with a start how shockingly handsome he is.
It’s probably weird to be having these thoughts while he’s trussed up in a hospital bed, pissing through a tube. It’s definitely weird to be checking out the guy who put him there, but—fuck—there’s no helping it; the messy dark hair, full lips, doe eyes and a strong jaw somehow coalesce into one of the hottest human beings Jihoon has ever seen.
The guy must take offence because his eyes narrow, locking onto Jihoon’s in a staring contest he doesn't remember starting. The moment, as awkward as it is, feels almost electric. It leaves him frozen for what feels like an eternity, until he finally snaps out of it enough to avert his eyes.
“I’m Jihoon by the way. I uh, didn’t get a chance to introduce myself earlier.”
The guy startles a little at that, some of the intense focus lifting away.
He collects his hat off the floor and turns towards the door, only to pause, shift back and hesitantly reclaim his seat.
For some reason, Seungcheol sticks around.
Jihoon has no idea why—it’s not like it’s his fault Jihoon has a fractured radius, a twisted ankle and a serious case of road rash. Well, okay, maybe it is, but it’s not entirely his fault. It was just a misunderstanding and Jihoon accepted his apology, so there’s no reason for him to still be hanging around, fluffing Jihoon’s pillows and fetching him hot chocolate from the vending machines.
He feels guilty, obviously, is probably worried Jihoon is going to try and sue him or something, but even after Jihoon says ‘Listen, no hard feelings. You’re free to go,’ he’s still sitting in the chair by the bed the next time Jihoon wakes up, frowning down at the hands clasped together in his lap.
“I can put it in writing if you like—” Jihoon says groggily, shifting uncomfortably on the bed, “If you’re worried about me suing you or something. I can write out a statement that says it wasn’t your fault.”
The look of surprise on Seungcheol’s face says he’s been thinking along entirely different lines, but hey—at least he's not frowning anymore.
“That’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Then why are you still here?” Jihoon asks, because he can't think of anything else to say.
Seungcheol looks unsure for a moment, lower lip trapped between his teeth like maybe he's about to suggest to something he's not too comfortable with.
“I have a spare room if you need a place to stay while you recuperate.” He finally says.
Jihoon closes his eyes. Perhaps, he thinks, if he keeps them closed long enough, he will fall back asleep and not have to deal with this. Or maybe Seungcheol will come to his senses and slip out of the room.
No such luck though.
When he cracks his eyes open again, Seungcheol’s still sitting there, waiting for his answer.
“That’s a very kind of you to offer, but it’s not necessary. You apologised and I accepted, and even if I hadn’t, I’m not the type to intrude on someone’s life like that.”
Seungcheol laces his fingers again, then turns them, thoughtfully contemplating their undersides, the palms of his hands. “You wouldn’t be. I live alone, and I have plenty of room. It’s the least I can do.”
He says each word like it costs him blood, but he wouldn’t be repeating himself if the offer wasn’t genuine.
Jihoon pretends to consider it—then actually considers it.
He has nowhere to go, and he doesn’t even know where he is. He only planned as far as getting on that bus, and this whole mess has just highlighted how unprepared he was for even that much. The nurse has told him he needs to remain supervised for the next 48 hours at least, and his ankle is killing him even with crutches bearing his weight, so he decides to do the kind thing for Seungcheol, and the convenient thing for himself, and accepts the guy’s invitation.
"Okay then," Jihoon says. "Uhm. If you’re sure. That'd be great."
Seungcheol nods, though he doesn't look any more relieved now that the decision has been made.
It’s not until the doctor comes around to discharge him that Jihoon realises he’s been admitted under a completely made-up name.
Normally, he would worry about that, but he figures Seungcheol didn’t have time to poke through his stuff to find his wallet, and probably thought it best to pretend they knew each other and offer up any name, than admit that Jihoon had thrown himself out of the car before he could learn it.
That makes sense.
Except, when they leave the hospital and climb back into his car, Seungcheol fishes his wallet out of the glove compartment and hands it over.
“If you knew where my wallet was all along, why did you give them a fake name for me?”
“You had a lot of bruises.” Seungcheol answers simply.
Jihoon would love to quirk an eyebrow at that—but the scabs over his cheek burn like hell. He settles for sarcasm, “No shit. You’d think I’d fallen out of a moving vehicle or something."
That earns him a heavy sigh.
“These bruises were old,” Seungcheol grits out, staring straight ahead. “I thought, just maybe, you were running away from something, and I didn’t think letting the hospital contact your next of kin would be appreciated if you were.”
Jihoon takes a moment to process that. At the end of the moment, he mostly feels incredibly stupid.
“Oh.” He swallows, “Uhm, yeah. Thanks.”
Seungcheol glances at him again and offers tentatively, “Is there anyone you do want me to contact?”
“No,” Jihoon murmurs, averting his gaze. “I haven’t got—no, I’m good.”
Seungcheol’s frowning now, but he doesn’t look annoyed. More like contemplative. Jihoon can feel the heavy scrutiny burning into the side of his face, and just when he's beginning to think he can't take it anymore, Seungcheol nods and keys the ignition.
An awkward and unmistakable silence starts to grow between them as they pull out of the parking lot. Jihoon doesn’t really feel like breaking it, but after they drive for a few miles, he’s forced to admit, awkwardly:
“It wasn’t anything illegal. I’m not…I’m not a wanted fugitive or anything, I just needed to get away.”
Seungcheol nods, and says good-naturedly, “Make a fresh start.”
Staring out at the bleak skyline, Jihoon sighs. “Yeah.”
Seungcheol’s gaze flicks towards him and away again, “I understand.”
He says nothing else, and neither does Jihoon. The topic seems dropped, for the moment at least. Now the question is how long it'll stay that way. That and why Seungcheol would know anything about making a fresh start.
Jihoon must fall asleep at some point.
When he wakes up, there's a decidedly alpine freshness to the air, and the view is more mountains than forested. The air is cooler too, the sun off to the west and balanced precariously on the edge of the horizon, staining the clouds pink and orange.
It’s fully dark when Seungcheol finally pulls the car to a stop, jumping out briefly to open a heavy wooden gate.
It’s a steepish incline after that, and they drive along mostly empty dirt for a minute, patchy and pebble-strewn with the occasional scruff of grass, before they arrive outside what appears to be a small log cabin.
It’s too dark for Jihoon to get a proper look at it—he can just about make out the trees that surround it in every direction, mostly birch but also some thicker, leafier trees that he doesn't care enough to identify, and he’s currently too exhausted to try. He just has enough energy to accept the helping hand Seungcheol offers him and limps his way inside.
Seungcheol brings him coffee in the morning.
Jihoon wakes up confused, breathing into the strange softness of the pillow to the smell of it steaming somewhere not too far away. It smells like good coffee too—good quality grounds—and there’s two custard egg tarts perched on the side of the plate it’s sitting on, along with his morning dose of pain relief.
It’s…kind of sweet.
Jihoon has one tart, washes it down with a few sips of coffee and knocks back his pills, then reaches for his crutch and hobbles out to explore his surroundings, quickly discovering the cabin is a hell of a lot bigger, and swankier, than what he’d expected.
Turns out, the rough-hewn two room hunting lodge he’d partially glimpsed the previous night was just the entryway, and Seungcheol’s cosy cabin is actually a split level four-bedroom architectural wonder, constructed of smooth river stones and exquisitely finished pine board flooring.
There’s a massive wrap-around porch on the north side, as well as a fire pit and hot tub—and while there isn’t much of a back garden—the cabin is built right into the slope of a mountain, so the level ground tapers off into a steep hill in short order—there is a private path leading down to a lake, and an abundance of greenery in every direction.
Jihoon’s bedroom is on the second floor, has its own bathroom and balcony, and even if the water smells a little sulphurous, he can hardly argue with the accommodations.
This is by far the nicest place he has ever stayed in. More luxurious than most hotels he knows.
“Wow, this place is...wow. The architecture is incredible.” He says, when he’s standing in the middle of the living room; a beautifully appointed high-ceilinged room, with rustic chandeliers, two log burners and a massive floor to ceiling window.
Seungcheol, who had appeared out of the ether to help him down the steps, glances around, looking for all the world like he’s just noticing his own home for the first time.
“I guess it is nice.” He shrugs, “I didn’t really pick it for the architecture.”
“Oh yeah? What did you pick it for?”
“It offers the perfect vantage point from all angles, and the trees provide solid cover.”
Jihoon stares at him; he must have heard that wrong. “Huh?”
Seungcheol frowns, clears his throat uncomfortably, “It’s...got a nice view.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a beautiful view. Spectacular view actually,” Jihoon throws a glance around the surrounding trees, not quite able to wrap his head around the immensity of nature on all sides. “Do you have any neighbours?”
Seungcheol nods, pointing down the hill to the left and Jihoon follows his gaze down a steep slope bearing a thin scattering of birch trees. Near the bottom, he can just about make out the fluted corner of a building with rough wood walls and a patched roof.
“They’re a semi-retired elderly couple with no dependants, in their late to mid-60’s. He used to be the local mechanic until a back injury forced him to sell his business, and she was the principal of the local elementary school. She still substitutes there some days, and he still repairs the occasional vehicle for sport—or so they say. Personally, I find their behaviour highly suspicious, and I don’t like them.”
Jihoon’s too stunned to say anything for a moment; he’s a little weirded out by the way Seungcheol has evaluated his neighbours—like everything he knows, he read in a file. Like he’s researched them.
“Why do you say that?” He finally asks, “Why suspicious?”
Seungcheol’s expression darkens. “The day I was moving in, they came over and asked if I needed help. I told them no, but then they came over anyway, offering me a cactus and honey cookies and freshly baked bread. Who does that?”
He looks bewildered.
Jihoon is bewildered.
“Uh, friendly people? Good neighbours that you should feel lucky to have? That’s a normal thing nice neighbours do when you move into the neighbourhood. They bring you food, then you return the dish with a gift and an invite to dinner for after you’ve settled in. That’s how you cultivate good neighbourly relationships.”
Seungcheol blinks at him without responding, looking more confused than anything, and Jihoon is compelled to ask, “What did you do with the stuff they gave you?”
“I refused it.”
It’s Jihoon’s turn to blink, “Dude, really? But…that’s so rude.”
Seungcheol continues to look confused, mumbling something like, “I’ve never had neighbours before.”
Sometime after lunch Seungcheol announces he has to get to work, then disappears into a room near the back of the cabin. He doesn’t remerge, and his car remains parked out front, so after a few hours of lounging about in front of the TV, Jihoon’s curiosity finally gets the better of him and he limps down the corridor to investigate.
He’s expecting to find a small workshop at the back, where Seungcheol spends his day whittling little wood figurines to sell at the local market. Or maybe a dark room, where Seungcheol develops photographs for National Geographic, or hell, maybe Seungcheol really is a serial killer, and he keeps a private dungeon out back where he’s currently butchering the remains of his last victim, to make space in his fridge for Jihoon.
Anything’s possible. Jihoon doesn’t have a lot to work on right now.
Instead, he finds Seungcheol sitting behind the desk in what appears to be a private study.
A very bare looking study.
There’s nothing but a desk, a chair, and the laptop Seungcheol’s currently sitting in front of. There aren’t even shelves or paintings on the walls—there isn’t even a rug. It’s weird, but what’s weirder is, Seungcheol’s just staring at the laptop, and from this angle, the screen doesn’t even seem to be illuminated.
“Uh, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was curious—what do you do for a living?”
Seungcheol gives him a look so long and serious that Jihoon almost flinches, and very seriously considers backpedalling out of the room, until Seungcheol sighs and says, “I’m a writer. A novelist.”
All that does is pique Jihoon’s curiosity even further.
“Oh—oh wow. That’s amazing. Are you published?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a few books out,” says Seungcheol, eyes already darting back to the work that isn't getting done.
Jihoon suddenly feels like an unwelcome intruder for barging in, but he pushes himself to ask, “Anything I might have read? I’m guessing you write under a pseudonym, since I haven’t come across your name before, and I do a lot of reading.”
Seungcheol makes another inarticulate sound of pure frustration.
“I do use a pseudonym, but I doubt you would have read any of my work. My agent isn’t very good.” He mumbles, closing suddenly off again.
There's something dismissive in his tone—a careful wall of do-not-care that washes over his face—and Jihoon is struck by the realization that he's supposed to think this man is cold. Curt and unfriendly and not worth his time. But Jihoon's got a different feeling under his skin, one that tells him there's no way he's just walking back to his own room and keeping his distance.
“So, uhm, what are you working on right now? Can I read an excerpt?”
For an instant – almost too quick to catch – fear darts through Seungcheol's eyes. He closes the laptop over.
“No, it’s uhm, it’s nowhere near finished yet. Sharing anything now would disrupt my creative process.” He hedges, and even though he looks distinctly uncomfortable Jihoon hobbles closer, gives him a warm smile.
“Okay then, but you can give me a synopsis, right?”
Seungcheol doesn’t look happy about that either, but proceeds to share a shaky plot holed filled summary of his novel anyway, which Jihoon immediately identifies as a ridiculous mashup of two movies: Finding Nemo and Die Hard, except with a cast of human characters instead of animated fish and less corny one-liners. He doesn’t do a very good job of concealing the fact he’s lifted the plot right out of two, very popular Hollywood movies—his main character is called Nemo McLane for fucks sake—but Jihoon makes a point of nodding and looking enthused anyway, because there’s something really adorable about how flustered Seungcheol looks when he’s trying to lie through his teeth.
Jihoon just can’t figure out why he needs to lie about what he’s really writing—it’s not like Jihoon’s in a position to steal his ideas.
But hey—maybe it’s a contract thing?
Or maybe, just maybe—Nemo McLane really does breakout of a cage in the dentist’s office and reunites with his father to rescue all the hostages being held at gunpoint at the Sydney Aquarium by the nefarious villain, Hans Gruber.
Between the pain medication and his hindered mobility, Jihoon doesn’t learn much more about Seungcheol in those first few days, only that he likes to lock himself away in his study and work for long stretches of time.
Then he starts to wean himself off the painkillers and starts to notice more. First and foremost is Seungcheol’s depressing routine, that involves working out multiple times a day and mainlining protein pills like he’s training for a decathlon. When Jihoon asks, he claims that he isn’t—but Jesus, there’s got to be more of a reason than just wanting to stay in shape. Jihoon’s no stranger to exercise—he used to hit the gym regularly himself—but he feels out of breath just watching Seungcheol crank out all these sadistic body weight exercises like his life depends on it.
At the end of the first week, he notices other things too—weirder things. Like all the high-tech security measures Seungcheol has installed absolutely everywhere, how the cabin is always spotless and meticulously organised even though the guy doesn’t hire a cleaner, and how Seungcheol only ever seems to wear black. Black t-shirts, black pants, black tracksuits, black kitten soft, designer cashmere sweaters. All black, all the time.
The weirdest thing by far is realising Seungcheol can’t cook.
Though to be fair, that’s based on a hunch than any real experience.
Seungcheol does his grocery shopping once a week at the local Emart, and his kitchen is equipped with a lot of high-end utensils, but apart from two hard-boiled eggs at breakfast, the guy never cooks. He only seems to eat salad, ramen, and several variations of sandwich, like maybe those are the only things he can make with confidence. Or maybe he’s just used to eating on the go?
Regardless, by the end of the second week, Jihoon is dying for some variety in his diet, and so tentatively suggests:
“Maybe I could go with you next time you head into town. I’d like to get out of the house for a bit.”
He’s not expecting Seungcheol to have any objections, but he certainly isn’t expecting the guy to immediately drop everything, grab his jacket and herd Jihoon out to the car—like he’s just been waiting for a chance to show Jihoon around.
It’s a little cute.
“Where would you like to go first?” Seungcheol asks, once he’s seated behind the wheel.
“I don’t mind. But I would like to pick up a few things. Maybe a grocer?”
The nearest town turns out to only be a five-minute drive away, and before long they’re cruising down a picture-perfect little main street, peppered with tidy storefronts and coffee shops, and Seungcheol’s pointing out a Café he likes that serves good Mango bingsu.
Jihoon’s honestly surprised by the feel of the place; it’s larger and far more contemporary than the rural surroundings would suggest, like a little corner of the city has been chipped off and dropped into the middle of the countryside.
It’s more Upmarket than he was expecting too, but not obnoxiously so; the houses they pass aren't gated mansions or anything like that. But they are generously sized and very clean and every single one seems to have a meticulously tended front garden. There's no graffiti, no litter, no boarded-up windows. It's like no place Jihoon has ever lived, that's for sure.
Even the grocery shop Seungcheol takes him to has a surprisingly wide selection of goods on offer despite its small size. There are no shopping carts available—the aisles aren’t wide enough for that—but there are baskets, and of course Seungcheol insists on carrying his because:
“You’re small. And injured…And small.”
“Is there a fucking echo in here?”
When they get to the check-out though, Seungcheol tries to pay for his groceries, then gets super pouty when Jihoon insists no, he’ll pay.
They argue about for a whole five minutes while the cashier looks awkwardly on, before Seungcheol finally relents with a huffy “Fine” and storms out of the shop. At which point, Jihoon pats his jacket and realises he can’t actually find his wallet, which is mortifying but also really strange, because he knows he slipped it into his jacket pocket before they left. He even made a point of checking it when he jumped out of the car.
He’s carefully retracing his steps, hoping he’ll find it lying on the floor somewhere, when Seungcheol returns, bearing his wallet, claiming to have found it in the passenger footwell. Jihoon sighs in relief and flips it open, and then blinks when he counts out his money and finds an extra 1 million won has been added to his funds.
He doesn’t mention it till they get back to the car.
“Did you like...reverse pickpocket me?”
Seungcheol meets his eyes, smirking, and quickly pulls back, as if alarmed. “Uh—yes?”
“That’s not cool Seungcheol. That’s not cool at all. You stole my wallet.”
“But I gave it back—with more money.” Seungcheol says, calculated caution in both his voice and his face. “What are you complaining about exactly?”
Jihoon doesn’t actually have a good answer for that, so he doesn’t say anything, even though he’s still annoyed.
Seungcheol stares at him quietly for a minute, before starting the engine. “Where would you like to go next?”
“Back to the house.” Jihoon says, crossing his arms and steadfastly ignoring the tiny kick of guilt in the pit of his stomach at Seungcheol’s answering, "Oh."
It’s the kind of 'oh' that denotes some disappointment, probably about cutting their trip short, which is good because it was part of the plan to make Seungcheol realise his mistake. Jihoon is pissed off that Seungcheol took his wallet, and he needs him to know it.
But now Seungcheol looks so sad.
“Fine, we’ll go get some bingsu.” Jihoon says through gritted teeth. “But don’t ever steal my wallet and add money to it again. That’s like…I don’t know what that is, but it’s not cool Seungcheol. It feels very intrusive.”
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Seungcheol says, managing to sound apologetic even as his cheeks dimple with a smile.
The first time he cooks for Seungcheol, (No, no more sandwiches, we’re eating actual cooked food tonight, put the baguette away) the corner of Seungcheol’s mouth twists pensively when Jihoon puts the bowl down in front of him.
It’s only Chicken Mushroom Fettuccine Alfredo, some garlic bread and salad he grabbed at the store, but Seungcheol looks taken aback.
Jihoon feels—embarrassed, maybe. It hadn’t seemed embarrassing with Seungcheol leaning against the counter, watching him cut mushrooms, but maybe it was. Nevertheless, Seungcheol ducks his head and picks up his fork and begins to eat.
“It’s really good,” he says, three mouthfuls in.
He has seconds, then thirds, and Jihoon’s barely finished half his portion by the time the entire saucepan is empty, and the heartbroken look Jihoon catches on his face is comical: a forlorn stare at the bottom of the bowl.
Jihoon does his best not to smile.
So the guy likes his food. A lot. Jihoon can totally work with that.
"Here—have mine. I’m feeling full," he offers, and the instant brightening of Seungcheol's expression is almost too much for Jihoon's heart—like an eager puppy, or a hopeful child, except for the contented, downright obscene sound he makes after each mouthful.
“When was the last time you had a home cooked meal?” Jihoon asks, a little fond as he watches Seungcheol devour everything within reach.
Seungcheol blinks, then does this weird head shaking, shrugging combo, like he doesn’t even know how to begin answering that.
Frowning, Jihoon nudges the plate of garlic bread closer in encouragement, “I suppose being a busy writer, you’re used to eating out a lot, or having a personal chef cook for you at home.”
“Not really.” Seungcheol shakes his head. “I’ve lived out of hotels mostly, so I used to order a lot of room service. This is the first time I’ve had an actual house and kitchen of my own, and I guess I really don’t know what to do with it. Cooking wasn’t a skill I needed.”
Jihoon takes a sip of his wine as he mulls that over. “What about when you were younger?”
He sees a startling progression of emotions fly across Seungcheol's face: eyes lighting up for a split second, then a cold splash of fear before the deliberately distant wall slams back into place.
“I don’t really remember much about that.” Seungcheol mumbles, and abruptly gets up to clear the table. Like he's got nothing else to say, or maybe like he's got a skeleton or two hiding stubbornly in his closet.
Jihoon can relate to that, more than a little bit.
“Do you ever make use of the hot-tub?” Jihoon pushes himself to ask one morning. “I imagine it would be really nice having a soak out there, you know, with that view. Maybe crack open a few beers while you’re at it. Bet it would be really relaxing.”
He’s been eyeing the hot tub longingly for a while now, wondering if Seungcheol would mind him making use of it, especially now that he’s off his pain meds and feeling achy all over. He doesn’t feel comfortable enough to just ask Seungcheol outright though, he’s not sure why, so he’s hoping a few offhand comments about how lovely it is to have one will prompt the guy into offering it up.
And Seungcheol does looks perceptive to the idea. For all of five seconds.
“That does sound like a nice idea, but it’s hardly worth spending all day cleaning it out and filling it up. Besides, if I want a swim, I go down to the lake, and if I want a hot soak, there’s a perfectly good bathtub inside.”
Jihoon nods, even though neither of those options is a decent substitute for a nice, long soak in a 33 jet hot-tub.
Oh well, he did try.
He’ll just have to settle for having a hot bath.
A few hours later though, he’s stretched out on his bed, flipping through a magazine, when he hears the distinctive sound of hammering through his open window. Setting the magazine aside, he follows the noise down the corridor, through the living area and out onto the wrap-around deck, where he finds Seungcheol kneeling in front of the hot-tub, fiddling with the motor.
“What are you doing?”
Seungcheol sits back on his heels to look at him, “The motor’s busted. I’m fixing it so you can use the hot-tub.”
Jihoon balks, an involuntary yip of bemused laughter escaping him, “Oh, hey, you don’t need to do that. Seriously, I was just curious as to why you’d never used it, and I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do.”
Seungcheol’s expression is difficult to discern from this angle, but Jihoon thinks he smiles a little.
“Not really. Can you pass me that wrench?”
Jihoon does, then stands back to watch as Seungcheol detaches the motor, fiddles around with it for a bit, before reattaching it again with an approving nod. It takes forever to clean it out and fill it up for its seasonal debut, a lot longer than it needs to, because Seungcheol refuses to let Jihoon help and risk injuring himself further. But then it’s full and the water is bubbling, and Jihoon is groaning in relief as he sinks into one of the seats.
Seungcheol even fetches him a bucket of ice and a few beers, cracks one open for him, then nods and…just stands there?
“Uhm…aren’t you going to get in the tub too?”
Seungcheol looks at him, his tongue flicking between his lips, the way it always does when he is nervous.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll go change.”
Jihoon watches him head back into the cabin, wondering when he’d started noticing that particular habit, or what the hell even Seungcheol has to be nervous about. They’re just going to be two guys, chilling in a hot tub—five feet apart cause they’re not gay. Except that Jihoon is gay, and Seungcheol is incredibly good looking and—oh wait—
Is Seungcheol worried Jihoon’s going to come on to him? Is that it?
That’s pretty presumptuous, not to mention, offensive. Just because Jihoon likes men doesn’t mean he’s going to jump the first guy who floats in a hot tub with him. That’s not how it works, and Jihoon’s pretty sure he’s never given Seungcheol a reason to think that.
He decides he’s going to have to set the record straight the second Seungcheol gets back—be like, ‘Look, you’re not even my type’ or something. Except, at that very moment, Seungcheol decides to emerge from the cabin in slow motion, wearing the tightest, brightest, whitest pair of swimming trunks ever made and Jihoon’s throat goes dry just looking at him.
He knew Seungcheol worked out, but Jesus—his clothes really don’t do him justice. His stomach is a precise arrangement of diamond cut hollows, and his back and shoulders are all ropey, unforgiving coils of muscle, and his thighs are—
Okay, Jihoon’s running out to ways to describe things, but it’s good, it’s all good, the thighs are incredible, and then Seungcheol stops at the top of the steps to stretch, skin glistening under the sun, and suddenly Jihoon’s having flashbacks to that fucking Dolce and Gabbana Light Blue commercial, wondering if there’s even enough room in the hot tub for Seungcheol to swan dive in.
It hits him that he's staring, and he flushes and looks away, muttering a quick rush of, “Wow.”
“You’re right, this is nice view.” Seungcheol says, taking in the scenery, still stretching.
“Yeah,” Jihoon swallows thickly, “It sure is.”
“Hey. I’m heading into town. You need anything?” Jihoon asks one afternoon, swinging past Seungcheol’s study on his way out.
Seungcheol’s getting better at having him in his private space, but he still tenses up all over whenever Jihoon appears in his study. Like he’s afraid of getting caught doing some dirty—watching porn or filing his tax returns incorrectly. He’s no different today, but at least he doesn’t quickly jump up to slam the laptop shut when Jihoon ambles over. He just frowns.
“I…I can drive you there.”
Jihoon waves him off quickly, “Oh no, that’s okay. I’d prefer to walk. I need to stretch my legs, and I kind of want to explore the place a bit.”
Seungcheol just nods, not meeting his eyes, though his face cycles through a half dozen expressions, before settling on the blank, jaw-tightened look that Jihoon has learned to recognise as disappointment.
Jihoon doesn’t understand what he’s got to be disappointed about, then suddenly he does and has to laugh.
“You’re welcome to come along too, obviously.”
Obviously that hadn’t been very obvious to Seungcheol, who makes a please, surprised noise and rushes off to grab his jacket.
It’s only an hour into town on foot, and the entire walk is downhill, shadowed by huge trees and a bare scattering of houses on either side.
They hold silence between them most of the way, but it doesn’t take long for Jihoon to realise that compared to how he interacts with his neighbours, Seungcheol’s actually been downright chatty with him. The few walkers they meet along the road—a young woman pushing a stroller, a man walking his dog and a young couple walking hand in hand—Seungcheol says nothing to them. Not even hello.
Even when Jihoon stops to pet the very friendly St Bernard and chat with its owner, he stands off to the side, glowering, waiting for them to finish.
It’s possible he just doesn’t know these people, and feels awkward initiating conversation, though the more Jihoon thinks about it the more he realises Seungcheol doesn’t know anyone. At least, not in the way people who live in small towns know each other. It’s kind of sad how deliberately he’s isolated himself from everyone, sadder still that he clearly hasn’t meant to. He just does it, seemingly without much thought. Like it’s been wired into him.
“How long have you lived here?” Jihoon asks quietly, when they stop for lunch at a café in town.
It’s a nice little place, with a surprisingly modernised menu—but when they waitress came over to take their order, she spoke to them both like they were seasonal tourists. ‘You here to hike the trails or just passing through?’ Understandable, Jihoon thinks, if she were just referring to him.
“Six months.” Seungcheol murmurs, folding his napkin into smaller and smaller squares.
“And where did you live before that?”
“Here and there,” Seungcheol says, a little stiffly. He hesitates, and then adds, in a clipped off, uncertain voice. “I never really settled down in one particular place, until now.”
Jihoon would appreciate a little specificity but he knows better than to probe further; asking Seungcheol too many questions will have him closing up tighter than a duck’s ass.
“What about this town. Do you like living here?”
Seungcheol shrugs, looking out the window. “It’s alright. It’s peaceful and quiet. Uncomplicated.”
Jihoon tilts his head, considering, “Just alright huh? Why’s that?”
Seungcheol’s face crinkles a little, rueful. “Sometimes it’s too quiet. But I guess that’s my fault.”
It’s almost a month into his stay before Jihoon meets Seungcheol’s ‘highly sus’ neighbours. The Chans.
They don’t come knocking—Seungcheol’s probably put them off that idea for good—he more just bumps into them when he nips down to the bottom of the drive to fetch the mail, and they get to talking.
As Jihoon suspected, there’s nothing strange about them—they’re just a sweet, elderly couple who’ve lived in the same house their entire lives, very involved in the local community, and were really excited about having a new neighbour.
Until they actually met Seungcheol of course.
They’re polite about it, but it’s clear from the way they talk about Seungcheol, that they think he’s got some kind of social disability, and honestly, Jihoon can’t say he blames them. Especially when Seungcheol spends the entire conversation staring out at them from the window of his study, eyes narrowed like he’s five seconds away from grabbing a big stick and chasing them away.
The second Jihoon returns to the cabin, he’s at Jihoon’s side, expression stoic yet somehow stressed at the same time.
“What did they want? Were they bothering you?”
Jihoon lets out an extravagant snort, “Would you relax. They were just inviting us over for dinner.”
Seungcheol frowns at that, like an invitation to dinner means something completely different to him. Maybe something that involves bringing along a machete. Jihoon just rolls his eyes and tells him they’re going—be ready at 6.
Suffice to say, Seungcheol is not happy about that. At all.
He huffs about it all morning, claiming he has too much work to do to entertain the thought of eating, then at 5:30, he starts making noise about not having anything to wear. He even tries to hide out in the shed at one point, like an actual giant baby, but Jihoon’s having none of it. He marches Seungcheol back to the cabin and into the shower, helps him pick out some clothes, then gives him a nice bottle of wine to gift to the Chans.
Dinner is…okay. Not amazing, but not a terrible social disaster either.
Jihoon has to do most of the talking because Seungcheol’s still huffing, evaluating the Chan’s and their generosity like it’s all some huge front. He does clear his plate, which makes Mrs Chan happy, and he has three helpings of desert, and when Mrs Chan offers to wrap the rest to take home with him, he says, ‘Yes,’ then after Jihoon elbows him under the table, he remembers to add, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’
There are only two Cafés in town, and Shua’s is by far the most popular. Jihoon manages to snag himself a few afternoon shifts after chatting with one of the owners, with an eye toward taking over a few more once school starts and all the temps leave.
He knows he should probably be looking for work that’s offering more than the minimum wage, but Shua’s is a relatively new establishment, still building its business, and it’s the only place that isn’t asking for a reference—something Jihoon really cannot afford to give right now. That, and a place of his own.
Jihoon has a little money saved—discreetly siphoned off into a bank account he set up when it became clear he needed a fresh start—but it’s not nearly enough to afford rental on any of the properties in town. Most of the population here is comprised of families, who need large houses, and the few apartments he could find double as an Airbnb’s during the tourist season, completely out of his price range.
His only options are to move on, find another town, or have a really awkward conversation with Seungcheol.
He’s used to have awkward conversations with Seungcheol at this point, so he decides to give it a go.
“I got a job at that Café in town. You know that place, across from the park?” He tells Seungcheol over breakfast one morning, pretending to be engrossed in the pages of a local newspaper.
In his peripheral vision, he sees Seungcheol glance up, frowning.
Maybe he suspects what Jihoon intends. Maybe he's bracing himself for what's apt to be a discomfiting conversation.
“Yeah,” Jihoon flips the page, “I bumped into the owners the other day. They’re really nice, and when I mentioned I was looking for work, they offered me a few hours.”
“I like that place,” Seungcheol says, even though he looks less happy than he did five seconds ago, “They make nice waffles.”
Folding the paper shut, Jihoon considers how to phrase his request. He feels desperately silly for how badly he wants the answer to be yes.
“They’ve only got a few shifts going now, but I hope to get more, and them I’m gonna start saving up for a deposit and look for a place in town. Until then though, would it be okay if I stayed here for a bit, and paid you rent?”
Seungcheol frowns harder, “I don’t need your money. I have a lot of money.”
“Oh, right. Of course.” Jihoon mumbles, completely mortified.
God, he feels like such an idiot for asking now. Of course, that was going to be Seungcheol’s answer, of course, he doesn’t want Jihoon staying here longer than necessary; the guy wants to have his privacy back and he’s entitled to it. Jihoon’s been recuperating here for nearly two months, and he’s outstayed his welcome. Time to move—
“You’ll stay here rent free.” Seungcheol says then, effectively derailing his entire thought process.
Jihoon watches him spear a strawberry on his plate, thinking—seriously?
“Uhm, wow. Okay, that’s…very generous of you. I wasn’t…” Jihoon says, eyebrows so high his face is starting to hurt. “Could I pay a little rent? Or, I dunno, contribute to the bills or something? Sorry, I don’t mean to sound rude, it’s just you’ve already been very generous, and I don’t feel right living here completely rent free.”
Seungcheol’s got that look on his face again, like he's thinking too hard as he chews, but when he swallows his expression lightens.
“Why not? You’re poor. Poor people need to spend less money on rent.”
Jihoon can only stare at him, speechless, not sure whether to feel angry or amused.
On one hand, the fact that Seungcheol can just say that to him, about him, feels like a slap in the face. On the other, the way he says it, in the same tone someone would say ‘water is wet’ is just more proof the guy has absolutely no idea how to communicate with people.
He’s not trying to be disrespectful, obviously, his ignorance is just really hard to handle.
Still, the anger wins out, and Jihoon has to get up and walk out of the house before he gives into the urge to smack Seungcheol in the face.
He goes for a long walk to cool his nerves, down the drive and half-way into town, cutting back through the park. When he returns to the cabin, two hours later, Seungcheol’s sitting on the front porch, waiting for him.
He’s looking as stoic as ever, except for the way he’s twisting his hands together—the only outward sign he knows he said something wrong, and he would like to fix it.
When Jihoon’s within hearing distance, he opens with:
“I realised that I may have come across a little boastful earlier when I said I had a lot of money. I didn’t mean to be boastful. I just meant to say, I have a lot of money, so I don’t need yours. You should keep the money you earn, because you’re poor.”
Jihoon has no idea what Seungcheol’s been doing for the last two hours, but he clearly hasn’t been reflecting deeply on their last conversation. Seriously. It’s almost hilarious that he thinks reiterating all the stupid things he said earlier, but with more words, somehow makes it better.
“Yeah, I think you made that pretty clear Seungcheol.” Jihoon huffs, pushing past him to reach the cabin door.
He freezes as Seungcheol's hand closes on his arm, fingers circling his skin just above the wrist. He can feel Seungcheol’s pulse beating in his thumb, quicker than he expects, and Seungcheol’s eyes when he meets them are heavy with emotions he can't decipher.
“You’re still angry.”
“No shit.” Jihoon snaps, exasperation quickly catching up with him.
Seungcheol looks down at his shoes, speaking quietly, as if half to himself. “I’m obviously saying the wrong thing here, but I’m not trying to. I just…I want you to stay Jihoon, I like having you here.”
When he raises his eyes, his walls are down, startling and complete, and Jihoon can see a broken, uneven sadness that catches his breath in his throat and drives every thread of irritation from his mind.
Suddenly he feels like the asshole here.
Worse in fact; he actually feels kind of like someone who accidentally stepped on his dog's paw and is being haunted by that horrible, pitiful whimper that makes you feel like the worst person in the world.
“How about this,” Jihoon cringes, shakes his head shortly, “How about I stay here rent free, but you let me buy the groceries and do all the cooking? I think that’s a reasonable compromise.”
Seungcheol smiles, just a little, and lifts his palm up, and Jihoon almost flinches before he realizes that Seungcheol’s not about to hit him, he’s offering Jihoon a high five.
Seungcheol insists on dropping him off for his first shift, and even before Jihoon steps through the door, he can see everyone inside stop what they’re doing to stare.
Jihoon doesn’t get what the big deal is, why he’s become so fascinating all of a sudden, until a few hours into his shift and a local finally asks him, “Hey—Is it true you’re living with that cold fish up at Hill Lodge?”
“Uhm—” That’s one way to describe him, Jihoon thinks, almost guiltily.
“Junhui!” Jisoo scolds, swatting him with a menu, “Don’t call him that. Just because he’s quiet doesn’t make him a cold fish. He’s entitled to his privacy, and I’m sure Jihoon doesn’t appreciate you insulting his friend.”
Junhui manages to look appropriately shamefaced. “Sorry.” He levels a smile at Jihoon, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Jihoon says, his own smile a forced pleasantry. He begins to move away, then forces himself to stop and turn back, “His name is Seungcheol by the way, and I can totally understand why you’d think he’s a cold-fish, but Jisoo’s right, he just a very private person. When you get to know him though, he’s incredibly sweet. Very generous.”
It continues like that for most of the day, people stopping him every now and then, asking about Seungcheol. And Jihoon gets it, he does. It’s a small town where not much happens. People are gonna get curious about the quiet, wealthy, handsome man who buys the biggest house in town and never talks to anyone.
Jihoon himself is still a little curious about Seungcheol, and he lives with the guy, so he can totally understand where the fascination is coming from, he just doesn’t feel comfortable fielding some of the intensely private questions.
He’s just Seungcheol’s housemate—not his PR rep.
“I’m afraid you’re going to be getting a lot more of that working here,” Jeonghan tells him later, while they’re cleaning out the coffee machine. “Hill Lodge is the most expensive property in town, and the last person who lived there was this huge movie star who died of a drug overdose in the hot-tub, so naturally everyone is a little curious about who’s living there now. Half the town think he’s one of those paranoid tech billionaires, the other half think he’s a television soap star hiding out here to avoid a scandal. Personally, when I first saw him, I thought he was an underwear model. He’s got the body for it.”
Jihoon groans internally: as if he needed any additional reasons to picture Seungcheol naked.
“Well, he’s actually a novelist,” He offers, trying to shift those images out of his head, “He moved out here because he wanted some peace and quiet to work on his next novel.”
Jeonghan glances over at him thoughtfully, then shrugs.
“Huh. I guess that does make more sense. Writers need to get into a particular head-space, don’t they—need a lot of peace and quiet for that. Still though—he looks like he could be an underwear model.”
Jihoon ducks his head, fighting back a grin for no reason at all. He busies himself wiping down the counter, and when he turns to fetch more cleaning solution, he finds Jeonghan standing there assessing him, questions glinting in his face.
“How long have you guys been together?”
Jihoon feels his ears get hot. “Oh, we’re, we’re not—”
“Oh hey—don’t worry,” Jeonghan says wryly. “I know this is a small town, and there’s usually a certain mentality that comes with that, but this place is pretty laid back. That’s why me and Jisoo moved up here and started our business, and we’ve never had any problems. So please, don’t feel the need to hide your relationship—everyone thinks you guys are together anyway.”
Jihoon is too amazed at the casual tone to say anything for a moment, and by the time he realises he should probably set the record straight, Jeonghan’s already stepped away to serve a customer.
“I don’t understand. I’m not an interesting person. I just wanted to find someplace quiet to work on my novel. I never thought—I didn’t mean to draw attention to myself. That’s the last thing I wanted.” Seungcheol says, when Jihoon divulges the PR frenzy that was his first shift over dinner.
Jihoon had left out certain details, mainly the ‘everyone thinks we’re together’ thing, because Seungcheol really, really doesn’t need to know about that. But he’d shared everything else, including some of the more wackier occupation theories, figuring Seungcheol would find it funny.
Seungcheol does not look amused though. If the looks he has given him before have been considering, then the look he levels on Jihoon now is downright pensive. Deep and thoughtful, like he's weighing the pros and cons of some enormous equation.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jihoon says, reaching out to pat his hand. “It’s not like people are asking for your shoe size and blood type, it’s just the natural level of curiosity you’d expect in a small town. It’ll die down eventually.”
Seungcheol nods, but the gesture looks forced. He’s still eating, chewing and swallowing one bite of food after another without taking his eyes off of Jihoon. When he finally looks away, his plate is empty, and Jihoon is nearly aquiver with inexplicable nerves.
“Hey,” He wets his lips, and grasps for something to clear the air. “Did you know a movie star overdosed and drowned in your hot-tub? Freaky right?”
That earns him a derisive snort.
“Don’t be so quick to believe rumours Jihoon,” Seungcheol says, with false gravity. His eyebrows climb his forehead. “They were actually murdered…in your bedroom.”
Somewhere in his chest region, Jihoon’s heart starts to do things better left to professional gymnasts—until he catches sight of the tiny, and slightly guilty smirk at the corner of Seungcheol’s mouth.
“Oh my god, Seungcheol, that is not funny.”
Jihoon gets up in the middle of the night to get drink of water. He usually brings a glass to bed with him, keeps it on his bedside table for just such occasions, but tonight he forgets, and when he pads quietly down that stairs and into the kitchen, he nearly wets himself at the sight of a figure standing in the shadows.
He’s on the cusp of cardiac arrest when he realises it’s just Seungcheol—just standing there, staring out the windows at the woods like a giant creep.
Keeping an eye out for old Mr and Mrs Chan, probably, in case they try and feed him again.
Jihoon shakes his head, but instead of going back down the hallway he finds himself pulled into Seungcheol’s orbit, trying to catch a look at the man’s face in the barely extant light from the window.
“Seungcheol?” He asks, padding closer, “What are you—”
Seungcheol quickly brings a finger to his lips, requesting silence. He tilts his head towards the window, as if he’s straining to hear something, and then his face lengthens with a thousand-yard stare.
“Did you hear it too?”
“Hear what?” Jihoon whispers, voice soft with terror, but the words have scarcely left his lips before Seungcheol is drawing a knife out of nowhere and sliding open the doors. He slips out of the house on bare, silent feet, disappearing into the darkness like a fucking shadow, only to reappear a few minutes later, looking bored as fuck.
“False alarm. It was just a bear.”
The knife vanishes as fast as it had been drawn. Jihoon doesn’t even see where it goes, probably because he’s too busy being hysterical about the fucking bear that’s apparently lurking outside their home.
“Just a bear? What do you mean—just a bear?”
Seungcheol shrugs, too easy. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. It was a bear, a brown bear. This is a pretty mountainous region, there’s probably hundreds of bears lurking around here after dark.”
Jihoon boggles momentarily at the image.
“Great. That’s just great.” He throws his hands up, “I feel so safe now. Thank you for that Seungcheol.”
“You’re welcome.” Seungcheol says, simple and unhelpful, then walks away.
Jihoon fumes as he heads back to his own room, then takes one look at the huge floor to ceiling window at the foot of the bed, and decides—fuck that. The glass may be triple reinforced, but just thinking of a bear lurking out there, watching him sleep and possibly rubbing it’s paws together as it drools over how delicious he looks, is enough to have him marching down the corridor to Seungcheol’s room.
Seungcheol’s lying under the cover when he barges in, looking all corpse like: arms folded over his chest, staring up at the ceiling. He doesn’t say anything, though there’s definite surprise on his face when Jihoon crawls across him to get to the open space on the other side of the mattress, settling with his head against the second pillow.
A moment later, the surprise gives way to a more amiable expression, but the one-sided quirk of Seungcheol’s lips makes Jihoon feel like he's being laughed at.
"What?" He demands.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. If it’s any consolation, it wasn’t a very large bear. It ran away the second it saw me.”
Jihoon gives a low, tired laugh. “Why? Did you share with it one of your jokes?”
Seungcheol's face pinches unhappily, but he says nothing, and Jihoon is forced to roll over onto his back so he doesn’t have to contend with his adorably confused face.
He wonders if he'll be able to sleep and isn't surprised when minutes stretch out and leave him just as wide awake as before. It's not just the sensation of Seungcheol warm and bulky against his side, distracting though that is. The encounter has left him with questions. Some he doesn't want answers to and others he's desperate to understand.
"Cheol," he says, knowing his companion isn't asleep either. “What did you think was lurking outside?”
Seungcheol yawns, but when he speaks, he sounds far away, and Jihoon knows that hollow, vacant stare is back on his face.
“Not a bear.”
“Who wants to know?” Seungcheol says, tensing, eyes searching Jihoon’s face.
Jihoon stares back, coffee cup half-way to his lips, marvelling at the heavy intensity he sees there.
He could have sworn he just asked Seungcheol when his birthday was—but from the look Seungcheol is giving him now, there’s a big possibility he got his words all jumbled up and actually asked him the pin number for his bank account instead.
“Me. I want to know. That’s why I asked.”
Seungcheol just looks and looks. His jaw flexed in that stubborn way he has. “Okay, let me rephrase. Why do you want to know?”
“I dunno. So I can pencil it into my calendar? So I can remember to buy you a present? Dude, what’s your deal? We live together, I’d like to know when your birthday is.” Jihoon laughs, aiming to sound more exasperated than pleading and he mostly succeeds.
Seungcheol looks away then, confusion and nervousness bunching the muscles in his shoulders.
“The 8th of August.”
“That was a month ago.” Jihoon realizes, voice soft with shock.
Seungcheol looks at him like he’s nuts. “Yes, I know. I have a calendar,” He says, and it hits Jihoon all at once that Seungcheol doesn’t celebrate his birthday. Has perhaps never celebrated his birthday.
That is unacceptable in Jihoon’s opinion and he resolves to do something about it. And not just for next year.
The following day, he nips over to the grocery store during his break and picks up everything he needs to bake a cake, then heads over to the craft shop to buy some shiny wrapping paper and ribbon. He technically already has a present for Seungcheol—a cashmere scarf he picked up from the local market—one he’s been planning to gift him as a thank you for being so generous with his space and his time and his money, so he figures it can just double as a belated birthday present too. It’s grey though—so he’s hoping Seungcheol won’t object to the dramatic addition of colour to his wardrobe.
He doesn’t get around to baking the cake for a few days though, because he manages to get some overtime in the café and he doesn’t want to turn it down, but then on Friday, he finally manages to roll up his sleeves and gets to work.
Keeping Seungcheol out of the kitchen while he does everything was something he worried about, but in the end proves to be laughably easy. All Jihoon has to say is ‘Hey, have you noticed that car with the blacked-out windows parked outside?’ and Seungcheol spends most of the day in his study, rewinding through a week’s worth of security footage and standing at the windows with a pair of binoculars.
By the time that excuse reaches its inevitable dead end, and Seungcheol comes bursting into the kitchen to say, “I need you to describe that car again” Jihoon’s already wrapped his present, cooked dinner and decorated the cake, and is ready to spring his surprise.
And boy is Seungcheol surprised. Jihoon actually has to stop singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and blow out the candles to rush over and check he isn’t having some kind of catatonic seizure, then has to take Seungcheol’s hand and guide him closer to the table, seeing as he can’t seem to move under his own steam.
“Sorry, I made up that thing about the car,” Jihoon laughs, pushing him into a seat, “There was no car—I just needed you to stay out of the kitchen for a bit while I baked.”
Still eyeballing the cake, Seungcheol mumbles something incomprehensible, then seems to shake himself out of his stupor. “Wait—you…you made this?”
Jihoon can’t help it—he preens. “Yeah. I followed a recipe I found online. I hope you like black forest Gateau.”
Seungcheol eyebrows tick up, the tip of his tongue darting across his lips. “Can I have some now?”
Jihoon snorts messy laughter, “Of course. It’s your belated Birthday. You can have whatever you want. Let me relight the candles first though. You have to blow them out and make a wish.”
Seungcheol almost looks not patient enough for even that, but he manages to hold back long enough for Jihoon to fetch the matches.
“What did you wish for?” Jihoon asks him, when he’s cutting him out a big, birthday boy wedge.
Seungcheol blinks at him. He already has a fork and plate at the ready, and a napkin tucked into his collar. “A slice of cake.”
If Jihoon stares at him a little too fondly as he eats, well, Seungcheol’s too busy stuffing his face to notice.
The fact that everyone in town thinks they’re gay husbands now...that’s kind of Jihoon’s fault.
Well, the ‘husbands’ thing is his fault at least, the ‘gay’ thing was kind of a work-in-progress.
It’s a small town after all, and two guys living together, in an architecturally aesthetic house in the middle of the woods, is bound to get people thinking along those lines anyway.
It probably doesn’t help that Seungcheol insists on driving into town to pick Jihoon up from work every day, like an attentive, caring boyfriend, or that he refuses to say "I" when discussing anything about their living arrangements: we live just outside town, we need to find a good electrician to sort out the wiring, the Yakgwa is for us. The last isn't even true—Seungcheol ate all the honey pastry before Jihoon could get any.
Still though, Jihoon had plenty of opportunities to set the record straight and never bothered. He could have easily said, uhm actually—we’re not together, we just live together, to pretty much anyone who asked, and never did.
He doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t worry about it because it’s not like he actually said ‘Seungcheol is my boyfriend’ out loud to anyone. People just figured they were together, and he didn’t feel the need to correct them.
The ‘husbands’ thing though, yeah…
He doesn’t know what he was thinking.
It all happened when he was in town by himself for a change, buying supplies from the general store, when the woman in the shop came up to him and said, "Oh, by the way, that man of yours, the quiet one, he ordered some part for your sink last week and he hasn’t picked it up yet. I hope he hasn’t forgotten; I paid a lot of money to order that in."
As far as Jihoon was aware, Seungcheol had sourced the part he needed online, but he also knew the value of not making the local shopkeepers angry, especially when you live in a community that relies on each other.
So he made a decision, a stupid one. He smiled, paid for the part, and said, "Sorry about that. Hubby forgets these things, sometimes. He’d forget to close his eyes at night if I didn’t remind him,", and the woman had awed like their domestic strife was the cutest shit ever.
He was acutely aware as he was leaving the shop, that at least five other people overheard that conversation, but he just pushed it to the back of his mind. Seungcheol rarely talked to anyone, so it wasn’t like he would ever find out.
He was wrong.
A few days after Jihoon gives himself a false husband, his not-husband arrives at the café to pick him up, and Jeonghan calls out to him from behind the counter, “Hoonie, Hubby’s here for you” and Seungcheol, half-way to the counter, tenses.
Jihoon sees the moment when it registers with Seungcheol, the flicker of confusion followed by understanding.
Seungcheol doesn’t say anything though, he just offers Jeonghan a polite smile as he waits for Jihoon to untie his apron and grab his things.
In the car, Jihoon keeps shooting him anxious little glances, wondering when he’s going to pull over and say, ‘What the hell Jihoon? I let you live in my home and you told everyone I’m your gay husband’ because that would be a completely fair thing to lose your rag over, but Seungcheol never brings it up.
Then, two days later, Jihoon wakes up, trudges into the kitchen to make coffee, and spots his name written on a folded piece of paper on the counter, pointing to a small velvet box.
There’s a silver wedding band inside. It fits the third finger on his left hand perfectly.
“What— ” His voice cracks, “—the hell is this?”
He’s not even sure who he’s addressing, because Seungcheol’s not even in the kitchen. Then suddenly he is, because he’s the stealthiest motherfucker on the planet.
“Your wedding ring.”
“And why do I have wedding ring?” Jihoon prompts, because he knows if he doesn’t ask, doesn’t keep this conversation going, Seungcheol will probably just nod and walk off. He tends to do that a lot.
“You told everyone in town we’re married, I figured I should get you a ring to really sell the story.” Seungcheol says, in that frank way that only he can manage. When Jihoon continues to gape at him, he goes on, “I have a ring too, but I keep it in a chain around my neck because I want to keep it close to my heart. Or at least, that’s what I plan on telling anyone who asks why I haven’t been wearing. I don’t know what you’re going to tell everyone. I suppose you can say your ring got damaged and needed to be sent off to be mended, and you’ve just got it back.”
Jihoon resists the urge to just...rub at his face and sigh.
“First of all, I didn’t tell everyone we’re married—” He says, and is immediately aghast. He certainly hadn't meant for that to be his first salient point.
He quickly presses on, “Secondly, just because I tell one little lie, doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. It doesn’t mean you have to buy us rings, and concoct ridiculous reasons why we haven’t been seen wearing them. Jesus Seungcheol, you’ve just taken it to a whole new level. What’s next? Are you gonna photoshop some pictures of us at the ceremony and start hanging them up around the house?”
There is a moment of perfect silence. Seungcheol looks at Jihoon, Jihoon looks back, then Seungcheol’s eyes dart nervously to the fireplace, and when Jihoon looks that way too, he spots a silver picture frame sitting on the mantle that definitely wasn’t there before.
Jihoon can’t see what’s inside from this distance, but he really doesn’t have to.
“Oh, for the love of –“
“It’s just one picture,” Seungcheol interrupts quickly, “We only have one because we lost our wedding album in a house fire.”
“Oh really? A fire.” Jihoon throws his hands in the air, “You’ve concocted a fictious house fire too.”
Seungcheol nods with his whole head, “Yep. It destroyed most of our worldly possessions. You were devastated, because it was our first home together, and you didn’t have a back-up of our wedding photographs. But now you say you don’t mind because it was the best day of our lives and the memory will live in your heart forever. Me on the other hand, I’m a little forgetful, so I got the date tattooed on my hip. That way, I can never forget our anniversary. In case you’re wondering, it’s the 19th of October 2016—happiest day of my life.”
Jihoon passes a palm over his face, thinking—oh my god. This is insane.
“Would you like to see our marriage certificate?” Seungcheol chirps, because he’s shit at reading the room.
Jihoon doesn’t know what he finds more disturbing—the fact that Seungcheol somehow knows enough about Jihoon to include the names of his parents and where he was born, or that he’s managed to legitimize the document with a very official looking stamp. There are even crease marks on the paper, and a little tear in one corner, just to give it that extra authentic ‘languishing in a drawer somewhere’ feel.
“God Seungcheol. This…this looks really real.”
“It is real. We’re married now.” Seungcheol says, sounding more pleased than the words themselves would suggest.
Jihoon makes a face at him and hands back the paper, “Yeah, right. Tell me another one Cheol. Though, I’ll admit to being a little impressed you managed to pick a ring that fits me so perfectly.”
“I measured your finger when you were sleeping.” Seungcheol whispers, like if he says it quietly enough he's not really admitting anything
Jihoon can't tell if he's bullshitting or not, but decides to accept the statement at face value.
Seungcheol ducks his head, then look up at him through his lashes with the saddest, most confused expression and says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you angry. You can file for divorce if you want.”
“No, no—I’m not angry Cheollie, I’m just—” Jihoon cuts himself short when he realizes that he’s got both hands curled around Seungcheol’s upper arms, is gently kneading his biceps through his t-shirt. He lets go as casually as she can, but Seungcheol’s eyes drop the point of contact and then watch him retreat.
“We should probably have a backstory prepared, you know—for when people ask me about the ring.” Jihoon says, looking away and hoping his face isn't red. “You know what folks around here are like. They’re going to want to know who proposed and where.”
Seungcheol shifts to lean back against the counter, “Well, uh actually, I already have a backstory prepared.”
“Really?” Jihoon blinks, “Uhm, okay. Let’s hear it.”
Seungcheol smiles, though there's a tilt to it that looks mischievous.
“I proposed, but you said no the first time, because I was in the middle of working on my second book and you felt like I wasn’t invested in our relationship, and you didn’t want to be married to someone who was married to their job. But we stayed together, and I promised to be more attentive. Then a year later, I finished the book I was working on and gave you the first copy—when you opened it, and started reading, you realised I was writing about us. The book I was working on was dedicated to you, and all the reasons I wanted to be with you for the rest of my life. The second to last page was my proposal, where I asked you to marry me, and I left the last page blank, so you could give me your answer, and to signify how my life was incomplete without it.”
“Wow,” Jihoon breathes, heart fluttering unevenly in his chest. “That’s the most romantic proposal I never had in my life.”
Seungcheol blushes a little at that.
“I know. That’s why you said yes. We got married four months later, under the tree in the park where we first met. Just you and me, the officiary and couple of squirrels that were nesting in the tree at the time. We didn’t need a big wedding, because we had each other and that’s all that mattered. Also, I didn’t have a lot of money because I spent two years writing a book that I couldn’t exactly publish. But I made it up to you when I sold my second novel; I took you for a belated honeymoon to Paris and made love to you at the top of the Eiffel tower.”
That all sounds fucking ridiculous. That last part especially is patently ridiculous; there’s no way they would be allowed to decorate a landmark like that. Still though, Jihoon’s feeling a little breathless just thinking about. His knees feel weak.
It’s absurd, but he doesn’t care. He’s completely sold on this insane, fictitious life Seungcheol’s built for them, so he sinks into one of the breakfast bar stools and says, “What else? I wanna hear more.”
Seungcheol’s definitely served in the military at some point, Jihoon determines, and not just the compulsory conscription period expected of every adult male. He’s clearly taken part in active warfare at some point in his life, and probably the high-level operative kind you never hear about on the news, because the guy shows some pretty obvious signs of PTSD in stressful situations.
Stressful situations like…trick-or-treaters showing up at the cabin at Halloween. Though to be fair, Jihoon did neglect to inform him he left the front gate open for that very reason, so when the intruder alarm is activated (Seungcheol’s got the entire place secured tighter than Guantanamo Bay) the guy naturally looses his shit.
“Get to the panic room. I’ll take care of this.” He says, deathly calm, even as he pulls a bullet proof vest over his head and reaches under the fire-place to pull out a fucking shotgun.
Jihoon blinks at him from where he’s sitting on the couch, curled around his bowl of popcorn, and thinks—wait, we have a panic room? He shakes his head to clear it, then he has to jump out of his seat and sprint across the room to catch up with Seungcheol—who’s somehow collected two throwing knives, an AK47, and a Beretta M9 on his way towards the front door.
“Oh my god, Cheol, it’s just the trick-or treaters. I left the front gate open so they could come collect candy.”
Seungcheol frowns, confused.
“Yes! It’s Halloween. What did you think all that candy I bought was for? Why do you think I wouldn’t let you eat any of it?”
“I…I thought you were angry with me about something.” Seungcheol says, staring down at the floor sadly. A patently ridiculous expression when he’s holding three guns.
Somehow, by some miracle, Jihoon convinces him to lay down his weapons just before the doorbell rings, and arms him with two big bowls of candy instead.
Seungcheol is clearly very bewildered about the entire concept of Halloween, and trick-or-treating, and why he has to share his candy bars with these small, annoying, strangely dressed children while Jihoon chats with their parents and compliments their costumes, but he goes along with it. More importantly, he doesn’t attack anyone, which is enough to earn him a large candy bar all to himself.
“No, I don’t want that one. I want the one with marshmallow bits.”
Jihoon keeps it held behind his back, “And you’ll get it, right after you tell me how many weapons you’ve got hidden around here.”
Seungcheol sighs for so long he starts to go blue in the face, before announcing, “Five.”
Jihoon purses his lips as he considers that, then tosses over the bar. “Okay, I guess that’s not too crazy—wait. Do you mean in the whole house, or just this room?”
Seungcheol’s too busy stuffing chocolate in his mouth to answer.
Seungcheol’s routine changes once Jihoon starts working at the Shua’s full time, and Jihoon can’t help but feel it’s a change for the better.
Jihoon’s shift doesn’t start till 11, so they still spend their mornings together, having breakfast and if the weather is good, heading down to the lake for a swim, and Seungcheol still drives into town to drop Jihoon off for work before returning to the house to get some writing (staring at the laptop) done. Only now, when it comes to picking Jihoon up, Seungcheol will arrive an hour earlier than usual, buy a coffee and a slice of pie, and sit in the corner and read a book.
It gets him out of the house more, which is really good for him—he needs to spend time around other people—but Jihoon also finds it weirdly comforting to just have him there, to be able to glance up sometimes when he’s serving a particularly snappy customer and see Seungcheol sitting there, glaring daggers at the back of said customer’s head.
Most people know to leave him alone to his reading, and if they don’t, Seungcheol does a pretty good job of scaring them off anyway. But one afternoon, Jihoon glances up to find the town’s policeman, Mingyu, leaning over Seungcheol’s table, talking to him in a low, confidential murmur.
Seungcheol is perfectly still, elbows propped on the table, hands clasped, leaning slightly forward but without giving the impression of having anything to say. To a casual glance, he seems completely at ease, but Jihoon knows him well enough to see the fine lines of tension in his shoulders, his jaw.
He is very unhappy about whatever Mingyu’s saying to him, and before Jihoon knows what he’s doing, he’s grabbing a second slice of pie and heading over to the table.
“—I just think, if you took part, we’d do a lot better than we did last year.” Mingyu is saying, using his puppy dog eyes.
Fool. Doesn’t he know the puppy eyes don’t work on other puppies. Seungcheol’s the largest puppy of them all. He’s immune.
“Hey Gyu,” Jihoon cuts in neatly, setting pie down in front of Seungcheol; that should keep him content while he finds out what’s going on. “Can I get you your usual?”
Mingyu rears back, looking sheepish. “No, uh, thank you. I’m not actually on lunch at the moment, I just stopped by to ask Seungcheol a favour.”
“He wants me to take my clothes off.” Seungcheol grumbles around a mouthful of pie.
At Jihoon’s murderous glare, Mingyu flushes and chokes out, “It’s for a good cause!”
“Oh, well, if that’s the case,” Jihoon holds up a fork, “Get out. Don’t ever talk to me or my puppy again.”
Mingyu holds up his hands, “Wait, just, hear me out. Okay? Look...Every year, all the local emergency service personnel band together for this naked calendar, you know, to raise money for the charities and local services that struggle to get funding from the government. This year we’re trying to raise money for the local hospice, but this is a small town, and we don’t exactly have enough guys in uniform to take part. We usually get a few locals helping out too, and I thought, you know—" He jerks his head towards Seungcheol, “He wouldn’t be completely naked obviously. He’d be hidden behind something. Or holding a helmet, or a baton, or a fire hose.”
Jihoon gets swept up briefly, in the thought of Seungcheol posing in all those ways, and determines this is something that has to happen.
He needs that calendar.
“Well, if it’s for charity, I can hardly object. And it sounds like it could be a lotta fun. Right Cheollie?”
Seungcheol makes a grumbling noise that sounds like a no.
“He said yes.” Jihoon smiles, stroking his hair fondly.
No surprise that Seungcheol bitches about that all the way home.
“Why me? Why do I have to get my picture taken and spread all over town? Why can’t I just donate money to this charity of theirs? I’ll happily donate the amount they’re looking to raise.”
Jihoon smiles to himself, “Well, I’m sure they’d appreciate that too Seungcheol. But the enjoyment if seeing you shirtless will last far longer than—"
“Woah, what?” Seungcheol croaks, stiffening in surprise next to him, his head jerking sideways.
“—the money will,” Jihoon finishes.
They’re stopped at a red light, and when Jihoon looks over, Seungcheol’s staring at him, his mouth a little open. He’s still looking weary and pissed off and everything else he was before, but there are brand-new lines on his face.
Shock and awe.
“Oh, fuck off,” Jihoon scoffs, defensive, “You know you’re hot. Stop pretending like you’re not this incredibly gorgeous, attractive man that everyone salivates over.”
If Seungcheol’s eyebrows could get any higher, they would be floating in the stratosphere.
“You think I’m attractive?” he asks quietly, shifting into gear as the light turns.
Jihoon levels him his best ‘cut the bullshit’ look; this had to be some kind of fake-out on Seungcheol’s part, and Jihoon isn’t going to fall for it. And yet, that expression of shock does not budge, only intensifies.
Jihoon blinks very slowly, something like disbelief building thick in his throat.
“Yes, I think you’re attractive. You’re very attractive. Probably the hottest guy I ever met.” He frowns, “Someone must have pointed that out to you. You must have heard that before. From someone.”
Seungcheol doesn’t answer immediately. They’re nearing the cabin now anyway, and he has to jump out to unlock the gates. When he gets back in though, he doesn’t drive up the slope yet, he just sits there, tracing his finger along the dash, almost petting at it.
Jihoon stares at him unabashedly for a few seconds, the cut-off angle of his face and the tension in his shoulders that seems part of his basic design, built into his body alongside muscle and blood and marvels that he’d never seen it before. The insecurity.
“Nobody’s said that to me before.” Seungcheol finally says, cutting a quick look at him. His face might be flushed; it’s too dark to tell. “When I was younger, people used to poke fun at my ears.”
Jihoon lurches forward in shock, gets dragged back by the pull of the seatbelt. “That’s crazy. I love your ears. They’re one of your stand-out features.”
“Yeah, I think that was the whole point Jihoon,” Seungcheol says, but there’s an edge of a smile in it, his voice about fifteen degrees warmer than Jihoon had ever heard it.
They’re both quiet for a few excruciating moments, just staring at each other across the gearstick. Jihoon feels himself helplessly starting to blush – not from embarrassment, but from rising awareness. That hot scraping feeling in his stomach he only gets around Seungcheol.
“Listen, if you don’t want to take part, that’s perfectly understandable. I will speak to Mingyu tomorrow and tell him to beat it. But if you’re saying no, because you don’t think you’re attractive enough or something—I’m telling you right now that’s bullshit. You are a very handsome man, and I personally feel incredibly lucky to be your fake husband.”
Seungcheol cuts him a look out of the corner of his eye. “I’m your real husband Jihoon.”
“Oh Jesus,” Jihoon rolls his eyes, “We’ve been through this before Cheollie, just because you make a fake marriage certificate on Microsoft word—”
“It’s a real certificate.”
“You can check the official government records if you don’t believe me.”
Jihoon waves him down, “Fine. Okay. Whatever. What would you like me to tell Mingyu tomorrow?”
Seungcheol drums his fingers on the steering wheel for a second, then flashes Jihoon a small smile, “It’s just a local thing, right?”
Seungcheol is in a prissy mood on the day of the shoot, because he couldn’t find his favourite black T-shirt (no not that one, the other black one. It’s extra black) though his irritation just ramps up the hotness level.
Jihoon accompanies him, because Seungcheol insisted, and honestly, even if he hadn’t, Jihoon would have insisted anyway. He suspects someone is going to try and take some unofficial photographs for their own personal use, and just no, there’s no way he’s letting that happen.
His presence does nothing to reduce the ogling though; once Seungcheol undresses and straddles the desk, even the photographer, a seasoned professional who’s managed the previous shoots, gawks and drops his camera.
Seungcheol is supposed to be Mr August, but Jihoon’s pretty sure it’s going to be August in everyone’s fucking houses all year round, because the final picture—Seungcheol posed in front of the desk, dangling a pair of handcuffs from one finger, holding a hat over his private parts (does he even need to? The hat could probably be held up without use of his hand)—is droolworthy.
They raise three times as much money for their charity of choice than the previous year, their highest total yet, and Jihoon buys ten calendars and frames Mr August all over his room. Just, you know, to remind himself how fucking charitable he is.
As well as being the most stressful, Christmas has always been Jihoon’s least favourite holiday of the year. Even when he was a kid, when it should have been the most exciting, the holiday had been marred for him permanently by his parent’s bitter divorce—then again years later, by his mother’s death. When he was older, and he’d moved in with his first boyfriend, it was nice for a while. They would do all those cutesy traditional things together, the things Jihoon has missed out on and he really enjoyed it. That relationship didn’t work out though, and when he met Sehun, well—that asshole had a way of sucking the joy out of everything.
Jihoon always promised himself he would end that pattern one day. That he’d go all out and celebrate it in style, the way it should always have been celebrated. He’ll get a tree, he’ll decorate, he’ll bake like crazy, he’ll even wear the fucking eyesore jumpers and pelt snowballs. He’ll do it all, just, you know—when he gets back on his feet.
He mentions this to Seungcheol one day, when they’re standing outside the craft shop in town, admiring the Christmas display.
He’s not trying to garner sympathy or anything, he’s just throwing it out there. And okay, yeah, maybe trying to gauge Seungcheol’s opinion on the whole festive season at the same time. Because he’d like to get a tree for the cabin—a real one—and he wants to know if Seungcheol will mind.
If Seungcheol has an opinion on Christmas though, if he objects to any of the religious/materialistic elements, he doesn’t share it. He just nods and continues staring at the display in the window, until Jihoon sighs and shepherds him on.
So yeah, Jihoon resigns himself to not going crazy with the celebrations this year.
That is until the next day, when Seungcheol arrives to pick him up from work, carrying a giant chainsaw on his arm like it’s a fucking purse, and walks right up to him and says, “It is done.”
It’s one of the most terrifying things Jihoon has ever heard.
His first reaction is to wonder how long they have to skip town before the police arrive to cart Seungcheol away, because he’s obviously snapped and spent all morning mowing people down with a chainsaw. Then he stops panicking long enough to follow Seungcheol out of the café, and that’s when he sees it.
Tied down to the roof of the 4x4, is the largest, most beautifully lush Douglas Fir Pine tree he’s ever seen. It must be at least twelve foot long, and it’s so perfectly symmetrical, with barely a branch missing, it looks like one of those too perfect trees you only see on Christmas cards.
“I thought, you know, we could decorate it together. Maybe put it up near the large window in the living room.” Seungcheol tells him, setting the chainsaw down.
He looks flushed, like he’s been out in the cold for hours, hunting down the perfect tree, and the scatter of pine needles along his right shoulder suggests he probably carried it a good distance too. But he doesn’t look tired—he looks proud, accomplished, and that expectant smile is aimed right at Jihoon.
Jihoon steps off the pavement to close the distance between them, reaches up to comb his fingers through Seungcheol's hair as a warm swell of affection fills his ribcage. “You are the sweetest man Cheol, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
It’s too adorable for words how Seungcheol goes all shy on him. A little colour comes into his cheeks first, then after a moment his eyes come alight with happiness, his generous mouth twitching slightly.
“So, uh, should I order a turkey?”
One Thursday in late January, Seungcheol calls Jihoon at work to tell him he’ll be leaving town for a few days for an emergency meeting with his publisher, and that he can’t pick him after his shift, and to take care of himself.
Jihoon tries not to take it personally when the line goes abruptly dead without a proper goodbye. It's how every call with Seungcheol ends really. Quick, rehearsed, impersonal—the guy never likes staying on the line long.
This time though, Jihoon gets a bad feeling in his tummy and immediately calls him back. He’d like to know where the meeting is, how long Seungcheol expects to be away—but when he dials Seungcheol’s cell, it goes straight to voicemail, and the landline just rings and rings.
He tries not to worry about it, and arranges to catch a ride back to the cabin with Mingyu after work, because he’s sure Seungcheol will have left him more information at home; a flight booking, a copy of his hotel reservation, a contact number for his publisher. Something.
Seungcheol’s a private guy, but he’s a thoughtful one—he wouldn’t just leave Jihoon in the dark.
Except when Jihoon finally gets home, all he finds waiting for him is an envelope containing a copy of their marriage certificate, the deed to the cabin, and a mystery key. If the first two weren’t disconcerting enough, it turns out the key belongs to a safe deposit box in the bank, and when Jihoon goes to investigate the following morning, he finds twenty-two billion Won in cash and a Post-it note with a smiley face.
Needless to say, Jihoon freaks the fuck out.
He calls in sick at work, rushes home, and buries the key under a large rock in the garden, then spends the rest of the day turning the cabin upside down, checking every closet and under every bed, trying to figure out where the fuck Seungcheol could have gone.
He finds nothing. Not a goddamn thing. Not even a slip of paper or a ticket stub or a receipt. Nothing that could give him a clue, and there’s something very wrong about that—that Seungcheol can manage to up and vanish for a last-minute meeting and leave no trace of his plans behind.
Jihoon frets about what to do for days, staving off worry and fear and anger, then realises there’s nothing he can do but wait. He goes back to work and makes out like everything’s normal, keeps one eye on the news, the other on his phone, waiting to hear something. Anything.
Then, two weeks to the day he disappeared without a trace, Seungcheol returns.
He just shows up in the middle of the night, appearing at Jihoon’s side while he’s standing over the stove, warming up some milk, and says:
“Hello.” And then, “Can I have some milk too?”
Jihoon drinks in the sight of him—the slicked back hair, the soft look in his eyes, and is smothered by the desire to kiss the hollow of his throat and tangle his fingers in the uncut hair that’s curling at the nape of his neck. Instead, he takes a moment to switch the stove off and carefully turn the milk pan handle in, before thumping Seungcheol in the shoulder. Hard.
“Where the fuck have you been?” He snaps, one finger pointing accusation at Seungcheol’s nose.
Seungcheol actually looks taken aback by the force of his hostility, a surprised blink betraying his reaction before the same familiar shields slam back into place and leaves Jihoon staring at a brick wall.
“I was meeting with my publishers. I called and told you.”
Jihoon clicks his jaw shut, narrowly avoiding biting his tongue. “Yeah, but you also left me the deed to the house, a forged marriage certificate and twenty two billion in a safe deposit box. That’s not the kind of shit you leave when you’re just going to meet with your publishers. That’s what you leave behind if you’re fleeing the country and starting a new life.”
Seungcheol clears his throat, “I just wanted to make sure you had everything you needed in case I never made it back.”
Jihoon’s heart drops into his stomach.
“W-why would you need to plan for that kind of contingency if you were just meeting with your publishers?”
Seungcheol has no answer for him.
He stares at Jihoon, face deliberately blank.
Jihoon opens his mouth to repeat the question, when he notices a dot of blood spotting through the material of Seungcheol’s t-shirt, right where he’d punched him.
“Oh my god, did I—oh fuck,” He gasps, confusion and anger melting away, replaced by the beginnings of dread as he starts to fumble with Seungcheol’s shirt, pulling at the collar and then hiking it up, trying to get a proper look.
Seungcheol’s captures his wrists before he can see much of anything, but now that he’s looking for it, he can see the definitive outline of padding over his right shoulder—one of those large, post-operative dressings they slap on in the hospital after they gouge something out of you.
Jihoon feels faint.
“Oh my god, what is that? Have you been shot?”
Seungcheol offers him a demure smile, “No, no—it’s just a stab wound.”
“Oh, thank god.” Jihoon breathes, before belatedly realising, no, wait—that’s just as bad. “You were stabbed!”
Seungcheol huffs irritably, but the sound is more hurt than angry, “Why are you yelling at me?”
“Why am I yelling at you?” Jihoon barks a humourless, disbelieving laugh and says, “I’ll tell you why Seungcheol—because you’ve been gone for two fucking weeks and I’ve been worried sick about you. Then you come home, bleeding, telling me you’ve been stabbed and acting like it’s all perfectly normal and—and—and--”
And he's pretty sure he had something else to say. He was making a point, he'd swear to it, except the words are gone in an instant when Seungcheol cups the back of his neck and drags him into a kiss.
It's sure and hot, Seungcheol’s lip catching on his own, his mouth devouring and demanding, his tongue licking its way past Jihoon’s lips, teeth scrape over his lower lip, and okay. Woah. That's intense on a level Jihoon can't even process, and it takes him an extra beat to get with the program.
He catches up fast, though, and then he's pressing closer, body shuddering hard as he clutches at Seungcheol’s shoulders, his hair, opens his mouth for the possessive thrust of Seungcheol's tongue.
It’s just a kiss, and he’s kissed guys before, but this is different—he’s already breathless and hard and eager in a way he can't remember ever being before.
"Wait, wait," he gasps, breaking away from the kiss when Seungcheol’s hands slide up under his shirt to catch around his waist.
He steadies himself against the counter, swallows around the dryness in his throat. He doesn't have full use of his lungs, has been inhaling little gasps of air that taste like Seungcheol.
Seungcheol isn’t breathing so great either, uneven and shocky and too-excited, pressing up against Jihoon like he can't wait. It makes him so much harder in his jeans.
“You better not be doing this just to distract me Cheol. I know you hate when I ask you questi—.”
Seungcheol’s already shaking his head, “No, no, I wanted to do that for a while now.” He looks away, a flush rising on his neck, reddening his ears. “You…you make me really happy Jihoon, and didn’t know If I would ever see you again. I promised myself if I did make it back, I’d finally do something about it.”
Jihoon scans his face, a glow starting in his chest he can't contain. Then he twines his fingers in Seungcheol's hair and tugs his head into place for a kiss.
They end up fucking, right there in the kitchen—primitive and graceless and still so ridiculously hot.
There's no time for finesse, no time for gentle, explorative touches through the impatient thrum of need in Jihoon’s head. There's only this—Jihoon naked and on his back on the table, Seungcheol’s hands hooked under his knees, holding him open, pants shoved down just far enough to get his dick out and wet and in him.
And okay, Seungcheol’s an oddball who doesn’t know how to navigate his way around most social situations, but he a total expert in this. In sex. He knows how to make someone feel good, knows how to milk slow, painful—gorgeous—orgasms out of Jihoon's body. He takes Jihoon apart with his tongue, then his fingers, then his dick. Then pulls out and goes back in with his tongue again, eats Jihoon out like he’s been thinking about it for months.
Jihoon’s already orgasmed twice by the time they make it somewhere soft—the couch, because the bed is just too fucking far away—and he pushes Seungcheol down and straddles him, starts to slowly fuck himself on Seungcheol’s cock.
It feels even better now with the edge off, a low rushing heat building in the base of his spine.
Seungcheol looks thoroughly debauched already, swollen mouth and black half-lidded eyes as he shudders and moves underneath him, rolls his hips up in smooth, coordinated thrusts. Jihoon rides him for as long as he can, slow and hard, and then faster and harder, listening to the slap of skin against skin, his own happy cries, the way Seungcheol’s breath catches in his throat when he comes.
He’s even quiet during sex. What a weirdo—Jihoon thinks affectionately, in the moment before he throws his head back and comes himself.
When they finally make it to a bed, Seungcheol drops off to sleep almost immediately, a combination of jetlag, pain and post-coital lassitude leaving him too drained to do much more than slip under the sheets and drag Jihoon into his arms.
Jihoon’s pretty wrecked too, but he can’t sleep, too transfixed by the peaceful unconsciousness softening Seungcheol's features.
He had Seungcheol pegged for his mid to late twenties, but lying here asleep he looks painfully young. Young and more than a little bit sweet. His lips are gently parted, chest rising and falling with each quiet gust, and the cut of moonlight through the windows smudges the thick sweep of the lashes against his cheekbones.
If Jihoon thought the man was beautiful before. Now he's really doomed.
Shifting carefully so as not to wake him, Jihoon frees his arm to inspect the dressing on Seungcheol’s shoulder. It came loose earlier, when Seungcheol had pulled off his t-shirt, just long enough for Jihoon to glimpse a neat row of stiches.
Seungcheol had quickly slapped it back into place, declared ‘I’m fine—really’.
Looking at it now, Jihoon feels a surge of something new, a fierce protective instinct that makes him want to squeeze Seungcheol tight and never let go. He settles for pressing a kiss to Seungcheol's forehead, smiling a little as he twitches in his sleep and holds Jihoon tighter.
Jihoon’s expecting some awkwardness the following morning.
You don’t just go from living with someone, to having hot sex with them on the kitchen counter, then the couch, without some degree of awkwardness. It’s a given, so he tries to minimise it by slipping out of bed before Seungcheol wakes up and making a start on breakfast.
They’ve got all weekend to broach to topic of ‘okay, so, that happened’, and he’s learnt from experience that nothing lowers Seungcheol’s guard better than food.
He makes waffles, because they’re Seungcheol’s favourite, and he’s still mixing the batter when Seungcheol stumbles into the kitchen, unshaven and sleep rumpled and anxious. So, so anxious.
“H-hey.” Jihoon calls out, pausing in his stirring.
Seungcheol pads over immediately, rubbing at his eyes. He's in yesterday's clothes and barefoot on the cold tile of the kitchen floor, and his hair is a ludicrous riot of curls and cowlicks sticking up in every possible direction.
Jihoon feels that protective urge shudder in his chest again, like being drawn to magnetic north. He sets the spatula down, turning to face Seungcheol’s fully as he stops a few feet away.
“Are you okay?” Seungcheol croaks, words tinged with a hint of distress.
“Yeah, I’m great,” Jihoon smiles, “Are you?”
There's a fidget in Seungcheol’s stance, an edgy intent that Jihoon can't place at first.
And then he hugs Jihoon, big arms wrapping his middle with an endearing, awkward hesitance. Jihoon hugs him immediately back, and smiles as his arms tighten at the tangible reassurance. When Jihoon extricates himself to smooth back Seungcheol’s hair, he thinks just maybe the guy's eyes are a little bit wet.
"Why don't you brew some coffee and set the table?" he asks, gentle and distracting. "You can have the first waffle."
"Okay," says Seungcheol, smiling.
If he sniffles as he gets to work, Jihoon pretends not to notice.
They do talk, but not much. Seungcheol’s always been a man of few words, usually the wrong words, and it’s clear he’s deliberately keeping the conversation on his side to a minimum in case he comes out with something hilariously offensive.
Jihoon can’t bring himself to mind though, because Seungcheol demonstrates his feelings in other ways; his palm pressed against Jihoon's chest like a benediction, his teeth dragging across the skin of Jihoon's shoulder, his fingers curled possessively around Jihoon's hip as his tongue dips into his belly button. He prefers the tactile, the concrete; come, sweat and tears over words.
He touches Jihoon easily and often now that the dam has broken—pressing up behind him while Jihoon makes coffee, idly rubs his fingers along Jihoon's hairline while he reads, kisses him until they're both breathless and shaking with the need for more—and Jihoon welcomes every moment of contact.
He also welcomes the pretty spectacular sex life he’s suddenly having, how Seungcheol doesn’t shy away from anything.
They’re messing around on the bed one evening. Clothing scattered in all directions, anticipation heating the very air between them. A generous bottle of lube dents the comforter, and even this is enough to set Jihoon's pulse racing with excitement before Seungcheol flips them over, eases Jihoon flat on his back and begins to lower himself on his dick.
“No?” Seungcheol blinks, his expression is wide-eyed and innocent, even as he lowers himself another inch.
“No. I mean, yes, yes—keep going.” Jihoon says, panting and laughing.
Seungcheol’s responding grin is nothing short of wolfish, and then his mouth is falling open around a soft moan, and he’s taking Jihoon’s cock all the way in.
Jihoon grips his thighs, head spinning with the intensity of it, barely resisting the urge to fuck up into that tight heat.
Wriggling a bit to get settled, Seungcheol smooths his palms up Jihoon’s stomach, then starts to ride him, a little languidly at first, and then quickly sets a rhythm, using his knees and thighs to grind his hips down harder.
It’s something—an experience, really—to lie back and watch him move, overwhelmed by how good it feels, how gorgeous Seungcheol looks bouncing on his dick—his ass hot, tight, slick, his eyes closed and thighs trembling. It’s different to their first time; Seungcheol’s just as excited, just as massive and taut and deeply miraculously interested in Jihoon's own less imposing body as he was before, but he’s hungrier for it, louder. Breathless ah's escaping his mouth with every drop down onto Jihoon's cock.
He’s clearly enjoying it, clearly been wanting to get fucked good like this for a while—maybe never trusted another guy enough to be like this with them. Jihoon smooths his hands up his chest to tweak his nipples and imagines how Seungcheol might have fingered himself, needing more—wonders if maybe he even had a toy or two, if he fucked himself with them, wishing it was real cock, and groans aloud at the thought.
Seungcheol groans alongside him, moving faster now, his dick slapping wet and obscene and untouched against Jihoon’s stomach.
Jihoon ends up totally embarrassing himself with his speed across the finish line, but Seungcheol seems to take it as a compliment, makes a noise in his throat that sounds somewhere over the edge of pure smug.
He squeezes the base of his dick to stop himself from coming, pulls off and shimmies down to play with Jihoon’s balls, sucks his softening prick into his mouth.
Jihoon’s fully hard again in no time, guiding himself back into that tight, slick heat. Seungcheol doesn’t stop moving this time, sets a punishing rhythm for himself, keeps riding Jihoon’s dick past one orgasm and into the next, until Jihoon’s chest and stomach is sticky with his come.
“Where’d you get this?” asks Jihoon thoughtfully, once their kisses have subsided into lazier nuzzling and Seungcheol’s rolled off to the side a little.
Seungcheol looks down the line of his body, where Jihoon is tracing over the serrated edges of a scar with the tip of a finger.
“I got mugged on my way to the airport.”
Humming noncommittally, Jihoon expands his explorations, tracing the outline of what appears to be a bullet hole over Seungcheol’s left shoulder.
“Another mugging,” Seungcheol yawns and stretches, “Outside the bank where I used to live.”
Jihoon hums again.
He can see a pattern here; a pattern of lies.
“What about this one? It looks really old. Gonna tell me you mugged for your lunch money in the school playground?” He asks, raising an eyebrow meaningfully.
Seungcheol stares into his face, quiet. Then palms Jihoon’s cock.
“Son of a—” Jihoon hisses, bucking up into the touch instinctively. Seungcheol goes on working his cock, less jerking off and more just groping him thoroughly, smirking in that ‘I win’ way that makes Jihoon want to roll them over and fuck him all over again.
Seungcheol catches a viral URTI in early February that completely knocks him off his feet for a solid week.
It’s the first time Jihoon’s ever seen him looking less than impeccable so he can’t help but be a little alarmed when the sniffling starts, followed shortly by the coughing and the sneezing and the shivering, and finally the croaky ‘Jihoon, I think someone’s poisoned me’.
The most alarming (read: hilarious) thing though, is how genuinely baby Seungcheol is about the whole thing. Hearing him whine, you’d think he’d never been sick his entire life, and Jesus, maybe he hasn’t.
Maybe all the wheatgrass shots, activated almonds and stupidly expensive multivitamins actually do something, because Seungcheol’s clearly new to the whole man-flu thing.
At first, he tries to just soldier through it without a single adjustment to his routine, (he still goes for his morning swim in the lake) which is probably why by day three, he looks like death warmed over and Jihoon has to take some emergency holiday to make sure he actually stays in bed.
He makes him soup and tea and toast, bundles him up in blankets and brings him regular supplies of lozenges and cough syrup and the softest tissues available, and Seungcheol looks adorably, pathetically grateful about the whole thing.
“You don’t have to do this, you know.” He says in a completely unfamiliar voice—a decrepit little rasp, “I don’t expect you to.”
“Sure, I do,” Jihoon smiles, leaning against the door. “In sickness and health, remember? I distinctly recall committing to that aspect of our fake wedding vows.”
When Seungcheol laughs, it sets off in motion another round of hacking coughs that leave him pale and shivering when he slumps back into the pillows. Exhausted.
“You poor thing.” Jihoon grimaces, stepping over to the bed to check the cold flannel is still sufficiently cool, “Is there anything else I can get for you? More lemon tea? Some aspirin?”
Seungcheol shakes his head weakly. “Would it be okay if you just…sat with me?”
His eyes are closed, and there’s a ruddy feverish blush rising up his neck into his cheeks. As Jihoon slips under the cover and throws an arm around him, his eyes flutter open, big and shy and stunned.
“You…you’ll get sick too.”
“Don’t care.” Jihoon says, hitching closer to kiss behind his ear.
Seungcheol smiles and shifts, rolling slightly onto his side, tucking himself in neatly to the bend of Jihoon’s hips. The not-so small spoon for a change.
Jihoon doesn’t usually clock-watch during his shift, but it’s been a busy afternoon—on account of the shitty weather driving people to seek shelter—and all he’s been able to think about is heading home and getting a start on his weekend with Seungcheol.
A shower is in order first, and then dinner, and then hopefully sex. Or maybe they should skip the shower portion of the evening and head straight for the kitchen, then later introduce Seungcheol to the concept of shower sex. They haven’t tried that yet.
He’s still planning it all out, when suddenly there is a crash near the door and Jihoon looks up to see two men have just walked in, knocking down a customer who was trying to leave.
An honest mistake, he thinks at first, until he gets a second look at the guys.
It isn’t unusual for people to be unknown around these parts—the town is small, but it’s growing, and it’s got a thriving tourist industry—backpackers and families on their annual camping trips are often milling about, looking for directions or stopping in for a bite to eat.
These men, though, look rough and mean, scoping out the café with twisted sneers. They don’t look like backpackers or family men. They look like trouble, and when they step around the man they knocked down instead of offering to help him up, Jihoon knows immediately what they plan to do.
He doesn’t have a chance to warn Jisoo though, who quickly rounds the counter to help the customer up, and by then, the first guy, the one with a hat pulled down low over his head, has already pulled out a gun and aimed it squarely at Jisoo’s head.
The café erupts with horrified gasps and scraping chairs, as customers slide out of their seats and shelter under the tables. The second man remains by the door, blocking it now with his own gun drawn so there’s nothing for anyone to do but hit the floor and watch as Jisoo is shoved back and instructed to empty the register.
Jihoon presses himself tightly against the front of the counter as Jisoo moves past him, head lowered, trying not to draw attention to himself. He only has a second to hope Jeonghan doesn’t do something stupid and try an intervene, when there’s a loud smack—and the man by the door collapses on the tiles, unconscious.
Jihoon jerks his head up in time to see Seungcheol standing there, emptying the clip, mouth pulled into a sullen sneer, his eyes glittering fiercely. In an instant, Seungcheol is across the room, catching the second man’s wrist from behind and pulling it straight to the side, disarming him in one motion, and then he’s bringing his leg up to knee the man’s elbow hard, just once.
There is a sickening crack, the echo filling the café loud enough to almost hide the collective gasps of the other patrons. The elbow now bends the wrong way, bone piercing the skin, a sharp white contrasted against all the blood that begins to pour onto the tiles. The man screams and falls to the floor, writhing in agony. He continues to scream until he passes out, and then there’s nothing but silence and shock hanging heavy in the air.
Jihoon takes a deep breath, rising carefully to his feet. He doesn’t need to look around to remember who’s witnessing this: the place is packed full of their regulars, their neighbours, people he has come to know and like. People who like him and Seungcheol in turn. He can feel them all staring even though he can’t take his eyes off Seungcheol—who’s now just standing there, staring at the pool of blood at his feet, looking more than a bit lost.
“I’m…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make a mess.”
Jihoon opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. His chest feels rickety, pounded out of shape by his ceaselessly battering heart.
It’s Jisoo who answers. “Oh honey, it’s okay.”
Jihoon manages to get his shit together shortly after that, or at least enough to heard Seungcheol into a seat and kiss him on the head while Jeonghan contacts emergency services. He’s maybe a little bit tetchy when the police and paramedics show up, especially when practically half the town accompany them to rubberneck and peek through the windows, asking questions of their own.
Weirdly though, every single witness in the Café plays down the entire thing, either claiming to have been too busy cowering to see how it all went down, or acting like what Seungcheol did wasn’t that impressive. Just a brave bystander, stepping in and getting lucky.
Disarming two men and snapping a guy’s arm in half, that’s you know—totally normal.
Even Jisoo and Jeonghan, who Jihoon knows witnessed it all, just shrug it off like it was no big deal, and when Mingyu asks to see the CCTV tape for the report he has to file, they both shake their heads and grimace.
“The one time something interesting happens around here, and the camera wasn’t even on. Can you believe it.”
Mingyu just laughs and shakes his head. “That’s a shame; I would have loved to see that. Anyway, I think I have all I need. Have a nice evening fellas.”
He pats Seungcheol on the shoulder on the way out, and then he’s gone and taking most of the crowd outside with him.
Jihoon doesn’t wait around to help clear up. His shift officially ended two hours ago, and Jisoo and Jeonghan seem to understand he’d like to get Seungcheol out of here as quickly as possible. Seungcheol who hasn’t moved from his seat in the last two hours and is looking more troubled by the minute.
Seungcheol, not especially chatty on a good day, is terse on the drive home.
Thankfully, he eases up when they get inside, and it doesn't take much convincing to get him naked and into shower, though when he persists in standing near the door, like he’s just waiting to be kicked out, Jihoon has to say something.
“Cheollie, what’s wrong baby?”
Seungcheol closes his eyes, looking grey. He answers dully, “I don’t know. It just…I thought you might be uncomfortable around me after what happened earlier.”
Jihoon swallows thickly, casting around for some smart remark that will break the tension, but his brain is an echoing blank. He stares at the resigned slump of Seungcheol’s shoulders, the awkward shivering shape of his mouth, and sighs.
“If you’re worried that I’m gonna find out what you really do for a living, well I got news for you. I already know you’re a hitman Cheollie.”
Seungcheol’s surprised exhalation is like a sudden, barely audible shift of wind. He snaps his head towards Jihoon, looking at him now with a slack mouth and haunted eyes; everything he’s ever been afraid of showing is right there on his face.
He looks honestly terrified. But that's only fair.
Jihoon smiles and tugs him closer, easing their bodies together in a slow press of skin and warmth, under the rushing fall of water, then lifts both hands to Seungcheol’s face, tilts it down and kisses him gently, again and again, until Seungcheol’s mouth starts to move against his in a desperate, sweet kiss that sends shivers down Jihoon’s spine.
“How long have you known?” Seungcheol whispers when they break apart, dark and low, hands settling over Jihoon’s hips.
“Around about Halloween, when you nearly gunned down those trick-or-treaters. I mean, I had my suspicions before, but that really cemented it for me.”
A swallow that looks painful moves Seungcheol’s throat. “You never said anything.”
“Because it didn’t matter,” Jihoon smiles, stroking his thumb along Seungcheol’s cheek. “I realised pretty early on that you were retired, or trying to retire, anyway. That’s why you moved out here, right? A fresh start. You wanted to get away from that part of your life.”
Seungcheol nods, slow at first, then more determined, “I…I don’t do that stuff anymore. I never wanted to do it, but I didn’t have a choice. They just came and took me out of the orphanage one day, told me I had been adopted. I was five.” His face crumples a little, anguished with sorrow and fear and remorse. “ I didn’t know what they were training me to do. I didn’t understand who I was hurting until it was too late to take it back.”
Jihoon looks at him, throat tightening. “How did you manage to get out?”
Seungcheol’s reply is more than a touch shaky. “I had this old contact, a mentor who left the programme before I did. I thought he’d died, but he was still alive, and managed to get out somehow. He got in touch one day, and offered to help me leave, start a new life. It’s like a support chain you see; when you leave and settle down, you need to try and help someone else leave too, so they can’t use us anymore. That’s why I left for those two weeks—It was my turn to help the next guy.”
Jihoon takes that in, mind running triple-time, skyrocketing through the possibilities. “Well, did you succeed?”
Seungcheol moves one shoulder, half a shrug. “I think so. It’s still to early to say. Getting out is the easy part, it’s finding a reason to keep going that’s hardest.”
Jihoon eases back to look at him, trying to work up the courage to ask what he needs to.
“Have…have you found yours?”
Seungcheol’s hands go tight on his naked waist, pulling him impossibly closer, until their wet skin slides together. He doesn’t say anything, but there’s warmth in his eyes and his smile is the brightest Jihoon has ever seen it.