It's smaller than the glitzy cocktail bar he and Kris went to last Thursday after work. The smell of cigarette smoke is thick in the air, though no one is smoking inside, and Joonmyun runs his tongue over his teeth. He tries not to breathe it in. They've got a fire going tonight, and most of the small circular tables in the first floor lounge are taken. The candles on the tables don't provide enough light to keep Kris from banging his shin on the leg of an occupied chair.
Kris hisses as Joonmyun tries not to laugh at his pain.
"Toxic air," says Kris. Joonmyun smiles at him, a hand on his forearm to prevent Kris from bringing up further grievances.
"It's better on the rooftop," Joonmyun says, nodding toward the stairs. "Fresh air. A great view, as well."
The view of Namsan Tower from the roof of RUFXXX is spectacular. On the deck, Joonmyun can see the hills of Itaewon below him, and he feels above the ruckus of a Thursday night.
"So this is your kind of hangout?" Kris looks out of place in his designer suit. The bar is filled with plenty of foreigners, just as blond as Kris, (although some having come by it more organically) and a few just as tall. But Kris's suit gives him away as not-quite-belonging in this sea of worn in jeans and casual shirts. "It's more like a house than a bar."
"Good beer," Joonmyun says. "Import." He'd left his suit jacket in the car, and rolled up the sleeves of his crisp white button down. He's not as imposing as Kris is, in any aspect. It's easier for his expensive suit to get lost in the crowd without the broad shoulders and big hands. "Better cocktails. Interesting ones. Fancy ones."
"They serve fancy cocktails here?" Kris laughs, flashing small teeth. "I may have to raise my estimation of the place."
The places they usually go have seats for the both of them and whiskey glasses made of crystal. Kris has expensive taste.
Joonmyun prefers RUFXXX. Here, he can undo the top four buttons of his shirt and let the autumn air caress his neck as he looks out on the city. "Hmmm," he says, leading Kris past a few men leaning on the railing of the stairs with drinks in one hand and cigars in the other, "I don't come here for the drinks or the atmosphere, though."
"What do you come here for, then?" Kris ducks his head to avoid a low hanging tree branch as the stairs transition from indoors to outdoors. "Doesn't this place get noise complaints? This isn't really Itaewon. This is more Gyeongnidan, right? Residential?"
Joonmyun shrugs, running a hand through his hair to push it from his eyes. He'd had a careful part, but he assumes it's gone now. It doesn't matter. No one cares if his hair is messy. "I come here for the music."
He grabs Kris's wrist and pulls him through the clump of grad students cradling iced mugs of the beer on draft at the top of the stairs, and then weaves them both through the tables.
"Don't we listen to enough music?" Kris leans against the railing. "All day, every day?"
"That's business," Joonmyun says. He wipes his sweaty hands on his slacks. He has to send them to the dry cleaners anyway. "This is pleasure." He closes his eyes to attempt wetting his dry contacts. "Besides, I'm sure you've never heard anything quite like what you'll hear tonight."
He looks over to the stage. Whomever's performing tonight has already set up, two mics and the echo speakers, but they haven't come on stage yet. Joonmyun hasn't heard them before, but Yixing had nothing but praise for them.
"Do you really do things for pleasure?" asks Kris, tapping Joonmyun's shoulder with the back of his hand. "I'm shocked. Doesn't that take valuable time away from being lonely in your studio at every conceivable hour?"
"I allow myself the occasional indulgence," replies Joonmyun, accepting the teasing as he scans the rooftop. He sees some familiar faces, but none he'd put a name to. Then he sees Yixing, hunched over a table in heated conversation with a man wearing a Batman shirt and a beanie, not pulled down far enough to cover his ears. "There's Yixing." He nods toward the back, near the stage, and Kris looks in that direction.
"That's a Chinese name," Kris says. "Is he the one who looks old enough to be in a bar, or…"
Joonmyun looks up at his tall friend and smiles. "Why don't I go say hello and pick us up a few drinks?"
"I'll wait here," Kris says, lips curling down in displeasure at the thought of venturing back into the swarm.
"I told you to leave your jacket in the car," Joonmyun teases. "You look like an executive at a cool kids party."
"I am an executive at a cool kids party," says Kris. "That is a completely accurate description of what's happening here."
Joonmyun laughs. "Don't give yourself promotions because you're overdressed. You work in publicity. I'll be right back. Don't wither away from elitism while I'm gone."
"Like you aren't Gangnam born and bred," Kris calls after him, and Joonmyun laughs and slips back into the crowd.
Stopping behind Yixing, he rests his hands on Yixing's shoulders, finally getting a good look at the man he's been talking to. Even up close, he still looks young. Too young to be here. Joonmyun scans his face, taking in thin lips and dark lined eyes. He doesn't look like the usual performers that Yixing asks Joonmyun out to see. There is no elaborate costume, or feigned disinterest as he stares right back at Joonmyun.
"Joonmyun!" Yixing tilts his head up to look at Joonmyun over his shoulder, and Joonmyun looks down to meet his gaze. "You made it!"
"I did," says Joonmyun. "I left the office early and everything."
"Joonmyun-ah! It's nearing eleven at night." Yixing is grinning at him fondly, one of his hands coming up to rest atop Joonmyun's. "You're a workaholic."
"No," Joonmyun says. "I just like my job."
Yixing chuckles, flicking his hair out of his eyes. He squeezes Joonmyun's fingers once before letting go. "Sure, I know."
"I'm getting drinks for my friend and I. I just wanted to let you know I was here." Joonmyun drops his hands from Yixing's shoulders, taking a step back.
"Wait, wait," Yixing says. "Let me introduce you to Byun Baekhyun." Joonmyun returns his gaze to the man across from Yixing. "He's helping Chanyeol perform tonight."
Chanyeol isn't a name that means much to Joonmyun, but he's not surprised about that. Yixing's network of odd people extends in too many directions to keep track. They'd met randomly one night, years ago, details clouded in a haze of soju, but Joonmyun does remember the way Yixing had typed his number, with a concentrating gather between his eyebrows, into Joonmyun's phone and saved it as ‘Ray'.
"Oh?" Joonmyun bows, business manners, and the man, Baekhyun, smiles, revealing a set of perfect teeth. "It's a pleasure to meet you. My name is Kim Joonmyun."
"You don't look like the type to enjoy a place like RUFXXX," Baekhyun says. "No offense."
"None taken." Joonmyun is aware that even with his shirt unbuttoned and his missing tie, he still looks like a businessman with only one foot out of the office. It's funny, because he usually wears jeans to work. "I like good music. Yixing lets me know when things are happening that might interest me." Joonmyun's been on the lookout for some inspiration lately. His own well seems dried up.
"I hope you like the show, then," Baekhyun says. "I'd hate for you to have left work early for nothing." A quirk of his lips that betrays his amusement, and Joonmyun grins at him.
"There are always the drinks," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun's eyes flash with surprise. "Perhaps I'll run into you after the show," he whispers to Yixing, and with a final nod, he moves on to the bar.
"Ah, Kim-ssi," Jinho says. "It's been a long time. The usual?" The bartender is one of three Joonmyun knows on a first name basis here. Jinho's in his last year of a business program. Joonmyun's heard him sing, though, and he's fairly sure Jinho could make it, if he pursued a contract. But he's never asked Joonmyun to help him make contacts, or offered him a demo, so Joonmyun keeps quiet on the subject. Not everyone, he knows, wants the scrutiny of popularity. "We missed you around here."
"There's a lot going on at work," Joonmyun tells him. "Between you and me, we're working on a pretty big comeback and the pressure's high." He runs his fingers along the varnished wooden polish of the bar. "I think I'll have something different tonight, to drink. Surprise me with two of them, but no gin." Gin gives Kris hangovers, and they have an important meeting at eight with Kangta.
"Oh, did you bring a friend along? That's unusual."
"An old college buddy," says Joonmyun. "I do have friends besides Yixing, Jinho." He points over his shoulder with his thumb in Kris's general direction. "He'll be the one you see sticking out like a sore thumb back there."
"I see him," Jinho says, grinning. "He looks like a bourbon man."
"Close enough," Joonmyun says, winking. Jinho laughs and slides two glasses across the counter toward Joonmyun. Joonmyun offers his card to pay. "Don't bother with a tab." As he waits for Jinho to hand it back, he watches Baekhyun move around the stage with a much taller man, big ears and curly hair. They're both wearing jeans and they just don't look like the normal type of performers you get at RUFXXX.
Taking the two drinks back over to Kris, Joonmyun leans against the railing as people from the lower floors all surge up. "That bartender knows you," Kris says.
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "Why?"
"How long have you been coming here?" Kris yanks on his tie, the perfect Windsor knot loosening in his grip.
"Since it opened," Joonmyun says. "Jinho is new, though. I guess he's been here for about a year."
"How did I not know you came here?" Kris takes a sip of his drink and smiles in approval. "That's smooth."
"The drinks are good," Joonmyun says. "This isn't some dive."
Kris shifts uncomfortably in his suit jacket. Joonmyun bites down on his lip to keep from saying I told you so. "Do you mind if we stay back here? Out of the crush?" Kris asks, and Joonmyun chuckles.
"I don't think this will be as visual as the performances I usually watch, so that's fine with me." Joonmyun prefers front-row-center when he flies overseas for once in a lifetime exhibitions. There's nothing once in lifetime about two men in jeans.
Big Ears leans into the microphone. He's careful of the barrel drum hanging from his neck, one hand resting on the rounded edge of it as the other holds the microphone stand. "Hello, everyone," he says. "I'm Chanyeol. Thank you guys for coming out to hear my new drum composition." He has a velvety, low voice. "I've asked my friend Baekhyun to sing with me today. He'll be playing a gig next Thursday in Hongdae, which you guys should all go check out." Obligatory cheering.
Baekhyun waves. His shirt really does have Batman on it. In the light from the mosquito candles that line the edge of the bar, both the men on stage look mysterious.
"Is this a cult meeting?" Kris asks, when an anticipatory hush falls over the audience. "Have you dragged me into an initiation?"
"It's performance art," replies Joonmyun, speaking quietly enough for most of his words to get swallowed up in the gentle quiet. "RUFXXX is known for its more… offbeat shows."
Kris nods his understanding, and Joonmyun turns his eyes back to the stage. He can barely see as the remaining space in front of the performance area is filled with people all substantially taller than he is, but he'd gotten enough of a look before.
Chanyeol's drum starts to beat a slow steady rhythm, an alternating high pitch to low pitch sound. He's using his hand at the drum's center for the low beats and a yeolchae to the edge for the high ones. Joonmyun's no expert on drums. It sounds exciting, though, the beat escalating until it's a varied and dynamic rhythm that's not nearly as traditional as the instrument it's being played on.
"What's that drum called?" Kris asks. Joonmyun takes a sip of his drink. "I remember seeing it before, in Insadong. When we went to the Children's Day Festival with Luna and Minseok, you remember?"
"It's called a buk," Joonmyun says, remembering his own samulnori lessons as a kid. He'd banged on the jing for three weeks in their elementary fourth year music class, and it was with relief that their teacher had confiscated the instruments from all of them at the end of the unit. "It's one of the folk—"
He's interrupted when Baekhyun begins to sing, his voice slipping and sliding through the drumbeats to cast a spell on the audience. The way he sings lyrics is weird. It's an arrhythmic chanting that vaults up into higher pitched wailing and falls back down into a nasal whine. He's so caught up in the style that it takes him over a minute to recognize that what Baekhyun is singing isn't exactly lyrics, but a familiar story. It's ‘Sugungga', one of the five traditional pansori tales, and Baekhyun is narrating between Chanyeol's precise, if strange, strikes to the drum with both hand and stick.
"He's singing old Korean," Joonmyun says, at Kris's mystified expression. "This is the story of the Dragon King, the Terrapin, and the Rabbit."
"This sounds like the stuff you listen to on repeat before holidays," Kris says. "Only cooler."
"This is a cool kids only party," Joonmyun says, partaking in another large swallow of his drink. "It's pansori. It's musical storytelling."
Chanyeol begins to beatbox into the mic, and Joonmyun is hooked.
Baekhyun's voice is rough and raw. He screams instead of singing, sometimes, and he cracks when he has to shift pitch. He's completely untrained.
Joonmyun has heard stronger voices. He works with stronger voices every day. But something about Baekhyun's… is sticky. Memorable. It worms in through his ears and tunnels into his brain, and Joonmyun forgets to clap, for a few moments after Chanyeol and Baekhyun go silent after the first number, because he's trying so hard to catalogue the sound.
Kris's elbow in his side brings his palms together in applause. "You have the strangest look on your face," says Kris. "What's that for?"
"I'm interested," Joonmyun says, purposefully vague, and Kris nods, turning back to his undoubtedly better view of the show. "This is interesting."
Baekhyun delivers the comedic lines with a sly lilt, and the melodramatic plot turns with a touch of satire. It's deft and sure and even when his voice is too hard his delivery is soft. The audience, more prepared for this than Joonmyun and Kris, clearly, yell out the replies when necessary. Joonmyun, over the sea of people taller than him, sees Baekhyun's lips tilt upward at the corners before he opens them to sing again.
"This is a cult meeting," Kris whispers harshly to Joonmyun, but Joonmyun ignores him, caught up in the music.
Chanyeol's mouth percussion gives the traditional song the strangest vibe, but it's Baekhyun's odd phrasing that clings to Joonmyun like summer humidity, even though it's an autumn evening. His throat is dry, and his drink is empty.
When Chanyeol plays the last beat on his buk, an hour later, Baekhyun's voice trailing off after an extended wail on the end of only a fraction of the entire madang, Joonmyun is disappointed. He wants to hear more of the odd fusion sound, hip hop and pansori and ballad all at once, a jumble of noise that somehow falls together into beauty. He wants to hear more of Baekhyun's voice.
The rooftop slowly empties, people wandering downstairs to get one last drink or to close their tabs. RUFFXXX closes around 12am on Thursdays, and it's approaching that now, if the exact hour hasn't already passed.
"So what did you think?" Yixing asks. He'd clearly been closer to the stage and to the lights. Sweat shines on his chest and neck, and his hair is damp. Joonmyun wishes he had a jacket to offer him. There's a sharp breeze. Yixing catches colds easily. He always has. "Worth your time, workaholic Kim Joonmyun?"
"Definitely worth my time," says Joonmyun. "Thanks for giving me the heads up."
"You always liked pansori, back in the day," Yixing says. "I had a wave of nostalgia crash into me when I saw what Chanyeol and Baekhyun were planning."
"He still likes it," says Kris, butting in. "Every Chuseok, the four days before he heads home, he listens to it nonstop."
"Really?" Yixing smiles, like that pleases him, and Joonmyun tentatively smiles back. "And you are…?"
"I'm Kris Wu." He holds his hand out for a shake before he drops it and shrugs. "Sorry, habit. I deal with a lot of Americans day-to-day."
"No apologies necessary. I'm Zhang Yixing. Joonmyun and I are old fishing buddies." Yixing says something different every time. Joonmyun has gotten used to it.
Joonmyun laughs. "I've never been fishing in my life," he says, and Kris gives him a look which he ignores. "So… they don't usually play together? Chanyeol and Baekhyun."
"No," replies Yixing. "They're friends, and they sometimes have these tiny… projects." He scratches at the back of his neck, where his hair has grown out. It's far shaggier than the last time Joonmyun had seen him. It looks nice. Joonmyun could never pull it off. "I only really know Chanyeol. He works at Gyeongbokgung, actually."
"At the palace?" Kris is still staring at Joonmyun, like he's trying to pick him apart with his eyes, even as he directs the question to Yixing.
"He plays the buk in those reenactment-ish shows they put on for tourists." Yixing drains the rest of his drink. Joonmyun's is long empty, the empty glass a prop in his hand. Kris's is still half full, but he isn't much of a drinker, even when he is in a place he feels more comfortable. "I met him at some show of Lu Han's. I only met Baekhyun last week."
Baekhyun's voice is still resounding in Joonmyun's head. He'd like to hear him again. "Baekhyun-ssi said his band was playing next week…" Joonmyun hints, and Yixing gives him an odd stare.
"It's a completely different thing," Yixing says. "It's Baekhyun and another friend of his, apparently, and they play mellow acoustic stuff."
"He doesn't seem like a mellow guy." Joonmyun pulls on the neck of his shirt, the starched collar tickling his throat. He undoes another button and then drops his hand down to his side to prevent himself from adjusting his hair. "He doesn't have a mellow voice."
"You're curious about him," Yixing says, surprised. "I didn't expect that." He prods at Joonmyun's arm. "I thought you didn't get curious anymore." He prods again. "Thought you'd seen it ~all~, big shot."
"Guess you don't know me as well as you used to." Joonmyun sits his empty glass on the table, and cuts his gaze to where Baekhyun and Chanyeol are chatting with each other next to the bar. Baekhyun is wearing a backwards baseball cap, now, in a bright red that clashes with his outfit. The beanie is nowhere to be seen, and the contrasting colors make him look even younger. Chanyeol has an arm around his shoulders, and they're laughing loud enough that it echoes across the rooftop. "Yes, I'm curious. His voice is sticky."
"Sticky," Kris says. "Like gum?"
"Like glue," Joonmyun says. "Like a very sticky glue."
"I think Joonmyun has been awake too long," Kris says. "And we have a meeting in the morning."
"The life of a busy career man," Yixing jokes. "Can't say I envy it."
"You never did well with structure," says Joonmyun. "You free spirit, you."
"Is that your nice way of calling me a flake, Joonmyun?" He shakes his empty glass, half-melted ice cubes clanging against the glass. "I'm going to go for one last refill."
"Be careful," Joonmyun says. "You're a lightweight."
Yixing rolls his eyes. "I'll see if I can find out where he's playing for you," he says. "I'll be in touch."
Joonmyun steals one last look at Baekhyun as they go downstairs and out the way they came. Kris doesn't speak again until they've walked all the way back to the car, a ten minute stroll in which they both spend most of the time replying to e-mails on their phones.
"Do you have a secret life?" Kris asks, as Joonmyun slips his suit jacket back on to fight the chill until the car warms up. "Bars I've never heard of, a separate set of friends…"
"If it's a secret life," Joonmyun says, "I'm not doing a good job with the secret part, am I? Introducing you, and all."
"I've known you ten years," Kris says, "and I've never known you go to that bar on Thursday nights or that you even had a friend named Yixing."
"Sure you did," says Joonmyun, turning on the radio. Jongin's voice is the first thing he hears, and he grins. "You probably just forgot."
"How do you even know him?"
Leaning back, Joonmyun fastens his seatbelt. "We're fishing buddies," he says with a smile. "I'm allowed to have friends that aren't you, Kris. I'm twenty-nine. I've been an adult for a long time now, and you're not my father."
Joonmyun is old enough to cut short interrogations.
"You're right," Kris says, starting the car. "Well, I'm glad you dragged me along tonight. The performers were good. Give me advance notice next time so I can wear something more casual."
"Do you own anything more casual?"
"I'm sure I have a pair of jeans or two," Kris answers, changing the station. "I'm so tired of listening to Kai. "
Joonmyun rests his head against the headrest and closes his eyes. "I met Yixing while you were gone. Right after college, remember?"
"Oh," Kris says. "When I went to Canada."
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "When you went to Canada."
Kris doesn't ask more questions. They speak of inconsequential things until they're back in front of the office. Kris pulls up alongside Joonmyun's car and Joonmyun climbs out.
"See you in seven hours," Kris says. "Thanks again for taking me to your weird performance art bar."
"You're welcome," Joonmyun says, and gets into his own car to go home.
Two mornings later, Joonmyun's Line blinks a notification at him, the green application bubble sliding up to the center of his screen and making a quacking duck noise before he can stop it. He grabs it, quickly keying in his passcode to check the message.
It's Yixing. i found out where baekhyun's playing next week~ the message says. want to go together?
I'll let you know, he replies, setting his phone back down and looking back to his laptop screen.
He resets the track and plays it from the beginning, frowning at the transition between Jongin's part and Soojung's. It isn't right. Joonmyun had come in this morning at seven-thirty to try to get it right, and now it's swiftly approaching noon. The album is due, complete, in four days. Joonmyun had been well ahead of schedule until this song had tripped him up.
He closes his eyes and tries to listen to the melody again. Maybe he'll find something there.
And exactly like every other time he's tried to focus, over the past couple of days, thin strains of a modified ‘Sugungga' play in his head. Joonmyun sighs, heavy with frustration, and looks back at his phone. want to go together?
Joonmyun does. Only he is unsure if that would get Baekhyun's voice, jaggedly scraping at the fourth verse of ‘Sugungga', out of his head, or if it would entrench it even deeper, making a home for itself in the recesses of his brain.
The morning after the performance at RUFXXX, Joonmyun had woken up in a kind of hazy stupor, tripping over the previous night's discarded clothes and brushing his teeth lethargically. He'd attempted to listen to music in the car on the way to his meeting, but he'd found himself unable to, Baekhyun's voice nibbling and chewing at his brain so strongly that he'd ended up tapping the beat of the buk on the table during the meeting, until Kris had awkwardly cleared his throat and Joonmyun had realized he was being rude.
He pulls at his sweater. It's too warm for inside this studio, and not warm enough for outside. Joonmyun can feel tiny beads of sweat bubbling up at the center of his back.
Perhaps it's time to try a different tactic.
Joonmyun opens WMP and scrolls through his files, stopping when he finds Park Songhee. It has a pretty high play-count. Joonmyun frowns, because it's almost Chuseok again.
The familiar tempo begins to play. ‘Sugungga', in a traditional arrangement. Joonmyun has the full thing on his computer. Baekhyun and Chanyeol had only performed the first portion, the first two songs. Maybe it's stuck in Joonmyun's head because the madang, even in this odd incarnation, remains unfinished.
(When Joonmyun was young, maybe only four or five, his grandfather used to play pansori on an old record player, for hours. "This is the heart of music," he used to say. "When music was art instead of noise. Listen to the whole story, from start to finish, Joonmyunnie." When he'd died, Joonmyun had kept and tucked away the abandoned collection of forty-fives. They gather dust in the closet and he stares at them sometimes, but doesn't touch them.)
It's when he arrives at the fifth track, well past where Baekhyun and Chanyeol had stopped, that Joonmyun realizes he can still hear Baekhyun's voice. Still constant. Still unavoidable.
He rests his forehead on the table. "Too sticky."
"Is… something wrong, Joonmyunnie?"
Joonmyun snaps his head up and looks toward the door. He thought he'd locked it. Apparently not. "What?"
It's Sunyoung, her hair hanging loose and her nails painted a soft pink. A few days ago, they'd been purple. Joonmyun doesn't know why he still notices her nails. He doesn't have to, anymore, but habits like that are hard to break.
"You're in here alone listening to pansori," Sunyoung says. She leans against the studio door, legs long in her high black heels.
Joonmyun shakes his head to clear it. "What are you doing here? It's Sunday."
"I'd ask you the same," she laughs, "but you're always here." She approaches. "Always, always, always."
"Not always," replies Joonmyun. "Sometimes I'm at home. Or at the bunsik restaurant across from my apartment. Or at bars with Kris—"
"One day a week not in this room doesn't do much to convince me."
"I'm not trying to convince you." A break in the conversation. It's filled with Park Soohee's rising vocal, surging through the speakers.
"So, tell me… Is something wrong?" she repeats, more firmly, sitting across from him in a spinning chair and crossing her legs. "I thought pansori was reserved for visits with mom."
"Am I that obvious?" Joonmyun rubs at his temples. "Actually, nothing's wrong. I'm just trying to get someone's voice out of my head."
"Someone's voice?" Sunyoung looks down at his laptop. Joonmyun clicks play again, and Soojung's voice blasts through the speakers. "You're still working on DoubleK?"
"The mixing isn't quite right," Joonmyun says. "Something with the levels, but I don't know what." It's boring. Everything Joonmyun's touched lately is boring. He knows it, even if no one has said it, not even Jongin. "I should take it out of the box. Maybe make it a stereo mix instead of a mono mix." It might mean starting from scratch.
"Perfectionist." Sunyoung stands, walking around Joonmyun to stand behind him. Her hands start rubbing at his shoulders, thumbs digging in hard. Joonmyun groans in pleased satisfaction. "Is that why you never sing your own songs?"
"I'm not Kyungsoo," Joonmyun says. "My songs deserve better than me singing them."
"You're Joonmyun," Sunyoung replies. "You always," she pauses, before squeezing hard enough that Joonmyun winces, "underestimate your voice."
"Speaking of always, you have always given the best backrubs," says Joonmyun. "I can't remember why we aren't married already."
"Because you broke up with me," Sunyoung says. "Remember?"
"I'm really stupid, huh?" Joonmyun says, looking over his shoulder to smile at her, and she stops her massage to slap him lightly on the upper arm. "Why are you still my friend?"
"Because I adore you," Sunyoung says, smiling down on him. He likes her new hair. It swings down over her shoulder in a subtle dark navy. In the light, she looks like a mermaid. "Everyone adores you. Punk." Her nails dig into his shoulders briefly.
"You're too nice to me." Joonmyun sighs and pulls at his sweatshirt.
"You're right. I'm a goddess and you are lucky to have me in your life. So tell me what's up."
"It's this kid," Joonmyun says. "His name is Baekhyun. He sang this… modified pansori… ‘Sugungga', actually, at RUFXXX last night. I can't get his voice out of my head."
"That good?" Sunyoung sits back down again, her knees bumping his. "Wow, maybe I need to meet the kid. I've been looking for someone fresh to feature on my next album."
"It's not…" Joonmyun leans forward to rest his head on his arms. "It's not that he was that good. He's clearly untrained, and he sings out of his nose."
"But…" Sunyoung has a knowing lilt to her voice that Joonmyun recognizes. "Still, here you are, trying to tweak the DoubleK album and thinking about him."
"Not him," says Joonmyun. "His voice. I'm sure I'll get over it. It was probably the pansori thing that got me so into it." He needs more sleep, too. That would also probably help. "I should get back to work."
"Me too," Sunyoung says. "But hey, if you ever want to go track the kid down for a listen, let me know? I'm curious."
"Will do," agrees Joonmyun.
She leaves, closing the door behind her, and Joonmyun is left alone in the studio again, with an unfinished DoubleK track blasting loudly now and still not drowning out Baekhyun's odd tone and odder arrangement. His phone is there, ominously still displaying Yixing's last message. want to go together?
Where and when? he replies, and turns the music off.
This time, Joonmyun takes the subway. Finding a place to park in the Hongik University area is always a pain. Joonmyun isn't a real heavyweight, either, and he has no idea how long he'll be out tonight with Yixing. He figures on taking a cab home, but sometimes it's nice to take the subway.
Yixing is waiting for him outside Exit 8, hands in the pockets of his jeans and wearing a sleeveless ribbed shirt too thin for the weather. "You made it, workaholic."
"It's been a long time since I've been out here," Joonmyun checks his watch and is pleased to find he's right on time.
"That's because you're getting old, Joonmyun." Yixing grins at him, quick and fleeting in the light-flooded streets. "I'm going to get you a cane next year."
"You think you're cute?" Joonmyun pulls down on the waist of his navy sweater. The air is chilly. "I don't need the reminder, okay? I looked in the mirror yesterday and I swear I saw a gray hair."
Yixing laughs, crisp in the air, like a bite of a fresh apple. Joonmyun loves that sound. Yixing reaches out and grabs a handful of Joonmyun's sweater and pulls. "Come along, silver fox, we've got a show to see." He releases it when Joonmyun starts walking on his own.
"How do you know Baekhyun, again?" It had rained while he was on the train. It always rains in September. Joonmyun's boots splash through puddles and dampen the hem of his jeans.
"He's one of Lu Han's," Yixing says. "Lu Han mentioned he'd be playing and doing some kind of pansori thing with Chanyeol and I passed it right along to you."
"I don't know whether to thank you or not." Joonmyun coughs as some college kid walking in the other direction blows smoke into his face. "I can't get the performance out of my head."
"Is it professional interest or personal?" Yixing cups his hand around Joonmyun's bicep and pulls him left at the roundabout. He does not look at Joonmyun. Joonmyun presses his free hand to his stomach at a sudden attack of nerves.
His throat is dry. He hates how much people smoke in Hongdae. "Professional," he says, following a long deliberation. "I have a personal interest in pansori, but he's… got something."
"He does," agrees Yixing. "Most people think so. Lu Han said to warn you he doesn't want to go professional with music. I think he and Baekhyun have known each other awhile."
"Is that so?" Yixing frowns at Joonmyun. "Are we going to Strange Fruit?" That's a club Yixing's taken him to a few times, with a dive bar feel and a lot of indie bands. He hasn't been there in a couple of years. He tries to imagine Baekhyun, with his perfectly even teeth and bright red baseball cap, lounging among the usual guests there, but Baekhyun seems too bright for Strange Fruit. There's already a disco-ball hanging from the ceiling. They don't need another on the stage.
"Someplace new." At the second roundabout, Yixing veers right. They pass right by Strange Fruit, going up the hill. Joonmyun's boots continue to splash water. "I doubt you've been there. Not your type of place."
"What is my kind of place?" It's dimmer up here, noraebangs less frequent, and clashing live music pours out of the doors. "I love the places you take me."
"You might love the music," Yixing says, "but you'll forever be a high-class Gangnam bar kind of guy, Joonmyun." Stopping in front of a club without much of a queue, right underneath the orange sign, he shrugs. His sweatshirt slips off his shoulder, revealing a stretch of collarbone. "You're the kind of guy who flies to New York City for three days to go to the MoMA, just to see some European painters take off their clothes and then use their hands to smear paint all over their bodies."
"You remember that?" That had been three years ago. Sunyoung had gone with him. He'd thought, then, as she'd stared at the performance exhibit, watching with fascination and intrigue as yellow paint trickled down between bare breasts, that she might be the perfect woman for him.
Sometimes things aren't meant to be. Joonmyun has always known that. It's why he's single and also why he has spent his life writing songs for other people and never for himself.
"Lu Han still brings it up when we have dinner together sometimes. He can't believe people like you exist, I think, even after having known you for years."
"That was an amazing exhibit," says Joonmyun. "And it has nothing to do with what kind of bars I'm allowed to go to."
"You're allowed to go where you want," replies Yixing, attaching himself to the end of the line. "But that doesn't mean you don't stand out." He plucks at Joonmyun's sweater. "This sweater costs more than Club Bbang will make tonight in drink sales."
Flushing, Joonmyun combs his nails through the hair at the sides of his face. "This is just how I dress."
"You look nice," Yixing says, wrapping a hand around Joonmyun's thin wrist and pulling him closer. "You always do, even when you wear a suit to RUFXXX."
"I didn't have time to change. I left my jacket in the car," Joonmyun says. Yixing licks at his lips. "Kris didn't take my advice on that."
"He's an interesting one." Yixing's hair is falling into his eyes. "Let me guess, you've known him since Seoul-Dae?"
"Yes," says Joonmyun. "Management major. You would have met him before, but he was in Canada." The line begins, suddenly, to move, as people start to shuffle out. "What's happening?"
"There's only a fifteen minute break between artists, here." Yixing pulls out his wallet, handing the man at the door 30000 won, and pulls Joonmyun inside. A wave of heat hits him, and he scans the floor, taking in the fold out chairs and the stage. Slatted wood turns the stage area into a half diamond. Joonmyun notices immediately that it's there to facilitate wiring. "Grab seats, I'll get us drinks."
Joonmyun has to stop himself from reaching for his wallet. Yixing has never deferred to Joonmyun's age or to his financial situation. They'd only fought about it once, and neither of them had yelled. Somehow, Joonmyun had lost that fight. "Right. You want near the front?"
"Wherever you want to sit," Yixing says. "You know where it'll sound best."
Joonmyun picks a couple of off-center seats to the left. The white fold-out chairs aren't comfortable, but they're also not uncomfortable. Joonmyun leans back, and only has to fend off another patron twice before Yixing comes back and claims the seat next to him. He hands Joonmyun a beer and smiles.
"Not a lot of drink choices here," he says, nodding over at the bar. "The bartender is also the sound engineer." He takes a long sip. "Baekhyun's up next."
Joonmyun's throat is still so dry. The beer doesn't help. In his head, he hears Baekhyun singing pansori.
"Is Lu Han coming?" Joonmyun asks. The second half of his question is swallowed up in sound as the couple behind them laughs. Yixing leans closer. His breath is hot on Joonmyun's cheek. It smells like cheap beer and peppermint. It makes Joonmyun think about the Cheonggyecheon at four AM, setting off illegal fireworks and hoping he's not too drunk to make it home and that he won't run into anyone he knows.
"I think so," Yixing says. "He'll be late, of course."
"Should we have saved him a seat?" Joonmyun looks around, seeing if there are any unoccupied chairs. There aren't.
"He knows what it's like here. If he comes in after Baekhyun goes on, he won't really be allowed to walk around, anyway. This place is pretty serious about the showcases."
"Showcases?" It makes sense to call them that. Joonmyun has gotten too used to watching shows like this in bars without much seating, and in live clubs where the band's last set is lost in the midst of grinding bodies and drunken shouting.
Club Bbang is clearly not that sort of venue.
He has more questions, but then Baekhyun is there, in the center of the stage. It's a hot pink Superman shirt this time, yellow comic font. He's still wearing the red baseball cap. It's on sideways. His ears stick out. Cute.
Tonight he is alone. Joonmyun had thought he was performing with a friend, but he's by himself on stage. He has a guitar slung across his chest, and he sits down on the stool set up behind a doubleset mic. He adjusts it, lowering them both so that one mic is set to catch his guitar and the other one is set to catch his voice.
"Hello there," Baekhyun says, and Joonmyun shivers. His voice is… Joonmyun would not describe it as pretty. Lu Han's voice is pretty. Kyungsoo's voice is pretty. Baekhyun's voice is rough. He talks out of his nose just like he sings out of it. Joonmyun could coax it out sweeter, though, with just a few hours in his studio and Baekhyun behind the glass. "Thank you for coming out. My friend couldn't make it, so I'm doing it by myself tonight." He laughs. "Pretty much everything I'm singing tonight is new. Don't worry, I won't mess up."
The set is soft, gentle acoustic stuff that lets Baekhyun take deep breaths. He isn't a good guitar player, not by a long shot, but his voice is so crisp and clear tonight that Joonmyun leans forward in his seat. This is his first opportunity to really watch Baekhyun sing. At RUFXXX Joonmyun had barely caught glimpses. Baekhyun's whole face twists up and his lips stretch and the veins in his neck stick out as he strives for the high notes.
Within fifteen minutes, Joonmyun can tell that Baekhyun's voice isn't going to be leaving him alone anytime soon, and it has nothing to do with the pansori.
"You're really into this," Yixing says, when Baekhyun stops to take a drink of water.
"His voice is sticky." Joonmyun shifts. His thigh brushes Yixing's, denim along denim.
"Is that some kind of industry buzzword, or something?" Joonmyun tilts his neck to look at Yixing. "You said it last time."
"No," says Joonmyun. "It's just the perfect way to describe it." Licks dry lips. "Extremely memorable. I'm jealous."
When the set ends, Joonmyun peels himself out of the white plastic chair and follows Yixing back outside. Lu Han is waiting for them, leaning against the building with crossed arms. His hair is a bright purple, now, as vibrant as the neon bar signs on Hongdae's main streets.
"Joonmyun," he says, pleased. "You're not dead."
"What?" There's a fresh dampness to the concrete. It had rained while they were inside. "Had you suspected an untimely demise?"
"I haven't seen you since March. It's September, asshole. I thought you might have finally left your body and become one with your expensive-ass laptop."
"That's creepy, Lu Han," says Yixing. "Joonmyun's been working on albums for the past few months. It seems only your Baekhyun could pry him out of the studio."
"So I hear," Lu Han replies. "Don't bother asking him about professional work, Joonmyun. It's a waste of time. What a fucking waste." Lu Han might teach elementary school students Chinese, but it hasn't improved his vocabulary, Joonmyun notes.
"Yixing warned me," says Joonmyun. "In all honesty, I was just hoping that hearing him again would get his voice out of my head."
"Will it?" Lu Han lifts himself away from the wall. "Because, if I know you, Joonmyun, you'll just—"
"You're here." Joonmyun jerks around to see Baekhyun, his guitar case hanging loosely in his hand. His hair is sweaty and damp under his cap. "You're the guy from RUFXXX last week." He smiles, less teasing and more pleased, and his eyes crinkle up. He looks sweet and soft and very, very young.
"It's Kim Joonmyun." He bows again, smiling up at Baekhyun.
"Kim Joonmyun-ssi," he says, "who wears suits on a Thursday night at RUFXXX."
Baekhyun sets his guitar down, pulling out a shoulder strap from the side pocket of the bag he's carrying, and hooking it at both ends. He settles the case over his far shoulder, the strap crossing his chest and crumpling his Superman shirt beneath it. "Are we getting drinks or not?"
"Why do you think I'm still here?" Lu Han says. "It's certainly not for the thrilling conversation."
"Rude!" Yixing swats at Lu Han, and Lu Han shoves him back into Joonmyun. Joonmyun stumbles. Baekhyun steadies him with one hand on his lower back as Yixing wraps an arm around Lu Han's neck. "You just know you're not interesting unless everyone you're talking to is drunk."
"Baekhyunnie thinks I'm interesting, right?"
"Sure I do, hyung," Baekhyun says, quirking his lips into more of a smirk. "I'll think so even more after a few shots of 151, though."
"You little asshole." Lu Han looks betrayed, and Joonmyun and Yixing look at each other and laugh.
They wind up in a less crowded jazz bar. Joonmyun pays the cover before any of them can take out their wallets. Baekhyun raises his eyebrow and then shrugs. Lu Han leads them to an unclaimed booth in the back. There are empty glasses all around, and a harried looking waitress all in black rushes over and clears the table as they settle.
The music isn't too loud for conversation, as long as it's with the person next to you. Lu Han immediately takes all of Yixing's attention, the two of them conversing in faster Chinese than Joonmyun can understand as they sit across from him. So he turns to Baekhyun, who is pressed in next to him, elbow digging into Joonmyun's side.
They quickly order drinks, hard liquor instead of beer, and Baekhyun leans forward onto the table, resting his cheek in his cupped palm. "So tell me about yourself."
"There's not much to say." Joonmyun smiles at him gently. "I like music. Golf."
"That's a rich kid hobby," Baekhyun says. "The golf." He puckers rose lips around his straw. Despite the fact that he hasn't taken his eyes off Joonmyun, Joonmyun feels like he's being dismissed.
"Maybe it is." Joonmyun can taste the heaviness of the gin in his drink. "What do you like, then?"
"Music." Baekhyun is bigger than Joonmyun, even slumped forward, but Joonmyun has always been small. He's warm, too, but Joonmyun has also always been cold. "Underwear models." His eyes twinkle. "Video games. Samgyeopsal."
Joonmyun is being teased again. "Those sound like teenager hobbies," he says, to gain back ground.
"I'm old enough to come in for a drink," replies Baekhyun. "I have a young face."
"No," Lu Han says, and they both look across the table, "I have a young face." He's leaning on Yixing, and Yixing is smiling at Joonmyun. The waitress leaves refills on the edge of their table as Baekhyun sits up to look directly at Lu Han. "You are just young."
"I'm twenty two." Baekhyun takes another long, triumphant slurp of his alcohol. "Not that young."
"Some people at this table have reached their third decade of life," Lu Han says, shaking lavender hair from his eyes.
"No, hyung," Joonmyun says. "Only one person at this table." Yixing laughs and throws an arm around Lu Han's shoulders in the guise of comfort. He's silly drunk already, cheeks flushed and eyes glassy.
"Throwing stones from your glass house, Joonmyunnie?" Lu Han slides his fresh drink over from the edge of the table, immediately taking a sip. "Next year there will be two of us."
He can feel Baekhyun's eyes on him, so he turns to return the stare. "Surprised?"
"I'd wondered why you dressed like an old man." Baekhyun smiles again, with those pretty straight teeth and those dark-lined eyes.
Joonmyun isn't offended. Jongin, bless him, is straightforward enough that he speaks before he thinks about how it might sound, so Joonmyun's accustomed to jibes about his fashion sense. ("Hyung, that shirt was meant for someone, like, fifty years older than you.")
"He walks like an old man, too," Lu Han says. He pats Joonmyun on the back of the hand, and Joonmyun shakes his head at him. "You'll make a cute young thing a nice sugar daddy someday."
"I'm not in the market for that, thanks," he says, and he's about to add in something about maybe not being in the market for anything when the band starts. There's a great saxophonist, Joonmyun notes, craning his head around Yixing to catch a glimpse of the band.
They all relax and take in the music for a few songs, steadily ordering drinks. Baekhyun keeps his eyes on the stage, and Joonmyun keeps his eyes on Baekhyun. He's singing along to the Miles Davis cover, humming more than parsing the lyrics, but Joonmyun can still make out the distinct tone of his voice.
"You don't know the words to this song?"
Baekhyun startles, and leans back against the padded booth. His bright pink shirt is muted in the blue-tinted light. His cap is not.
"I've been told, many times, that I don't have a good memory," says Baekhyun, "and I'm shit at English, even if I did."
"But you can remember entire verses of pansori?"
"That's from practice, though." Baekhyun's fingers around his glass. Long and thin. Piano hands. "I've sung it so many times I'd have to be empty up top to forget."
"What about tonight's songs then?" The set ends. Joonmyun knows, from having been to so many shows, that it won't be a long break. They play recorded stuff over the speakers and it's as loud as the band but less focused, like a wash falling across the entire club floor as people continue to dance and drink.
"That's different," Joonmyun thinks Baekhyun says. It's hard to hear him. But Joonmyun watches his mouth and he's pretty sure that's what Baekhyun had said.
"Did you write all those?" It barely cuts through the noise, and Joonmyun should not try for real conversation. He's had a couple drinks too many, as well, though, and he's ever so curious. "The ones you did tonight, I mean."
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "Why? Did you like them?" He leans in toward Joonmyun, looking at him through his eyelashes. He's wearing mascara, Joonmyun thinks. His lashes are dark and they curl. Even in the darkness of the bar they're striking. "Did you, Kim Joonmyun-ssi?" He pronounces each syllable of Joonmyun's name, as though to prove he's remembered it, this time.
"I did," Joonmyun says, leaning right back. They're pressed together, arm to arm, and he can see the freckles on Baekhyun's pale skin. His breath tickles at Joonmyun's ear.
"Did you really like the pansori thing?" There is a flash of insecurity, gone so quickly that Joonmyun must have imagined it. He's drunk enough that he probably did. Baekhyun hasn't shown him anything other than a casual confidence, and there isn't any reason for that to have changed over the course of their conversation. "I'll have to talk to Chanyeol about arranging the rest of it. He's amazing with stuff like that. Plays a lot of instruments."
"It's been stuck in my head," Joonmyun says. He's proud that he doesn't slur. "That's why I came out tonight." With steadier than expected fingers, he taps the beat of ‘Round Midnight' along the edge of the table. "To listen to you."
"Well, I hope you weren't disappointed." Baekhyun is teasing him again. He really does have pretty hands. "Your fancy sweater smells like beer and Club Bbang doesn't have the drink selection of RUFXXX."
"Turns out I didn't need the drinks this time, either." Joonmyun laughs. Baekhyun's eyes do half of his smiling for him. The charisma oozes from him. "At least not during the show."
"So," says Baekhyun, "my songs are okay to listen to, but later you have to drink the pain away?"
More accurately, Baekhyun makes Joonmyun…. Anxious. Joonmyun has always been skilled at making good first impressions, and second impressions, he supposes, but he has no idea how to do that with Baekhyun. He can't even tell if Baekhyun is sincerely smiling at him, or if he's tolerating Joonmyun because of Lu Han.
"I write music, too," says Joonmyun, eyes briefly dropping to his empty glass before flitting back up. Not meeting someone's eyes when they're speaking is rude. It had been a harder rule to follow when he was younger. "Not that sort of stuff, but…"
"Lu Han said you were some kind of a producer." Baekhyun digs a pack of gum out of his pocket. He shoves a piece into his mouth and doesn't offer one to Joonmyun. It's bright purple, staining his mouth and tongue. "You write, too?"
"I make music," Joonmyun says. "Melodies, hooks, lyrics… Whole songs. And then I make sure whoever sings them does a good job."
"Hmmm." Baekhyun licks his lips, tongue lingering in the corners. "Is your music any good?" He pulls on the brim of his hat as he looks directly at Joonmyun, pinning him in place with piercing eyes.
Joonmyun considers a modest approach, but for some reason, he doesn't think Baekhyun would appreciate it. "It used to be."
But there are only so many songs he can write about feeling unfulfilled. About feeling lonely, and maybe like he's waiting for a bus that's already come and gone.
"But I've lost my inspiration," Joonmyun says. "The wily thing escaped!" He laughs, and Baekhyun grins, leaning away again. Joonmyun hadn't realized he was holding his breath. Too much charisma.
"Well, have you gone out and looked for it?"
"When Chanyeol's dog disappeared, we put up posters and combed the city." Baekhyun's drink is empty. Joonmyun has lost count of how many he's had. How many either of them have had. Across the table, Yixing and Lu Han are lost in one of those conversations that seem to block out the rest of the world. "Have you gone out and combed the city?"
"To look for my lost inspiration?"
"Yeah." Baekhyun's cheeks are pink, flush with liquor, and his smile is sweeter this time. More genuine. "How else are you going to find it? Sitting in your studio?"
The band starts up again, and Baekhyun knows the melody of this tune too, singing along whimsically and too loudly. "You might be right," Joonmyun says, not sure if Baekhyun will hear him.
But his ears are better than his memory. "So you can teach an old dog new tricks," Baekhyun teases, biting down on that lower lip with his straight, straight, white, white teeth.
"You're a brat," says Joonmyun, fond and amused and so completely intrigued.
Baekhyun doesn't reply, but the look he shoots Joonmyun says yeah, but you're going to like me anyway, and Joonmyun doesn't doubt that he will.
It's another twenty minutes of listening and casual conversation before Joonmyun discreetly pays the tab and they make their way outside. It's actively raining, but only a light drizzle. Joonmyun's lips are numb but he can feel the dampness of his hair and sweater with crystal clarity, a sensory overload.
Yixing is swaying where he stands, and Joonmyun casually moves closer, so he can lean. Yixing rests his head on Joonmyun's, arm finding Joonmyun's waist as Lu Han angrily curses about the inconvenience of the rainy season.
"Shouldn't you be heading home?" Joonmyun nudges Yixing gently.
Yixing gives him a sleepy, intoxicated glare. "I'm not the one who has to catch a taxi," he mumbles. "I live around here."
"I'm not the one who has to teach a Saturday morning hip hop class." Joonmyun pulls up Yixing's sweatshirt so it's solidly on his far shoulder, the closer shoulder pressed too tightly for him to move the fabric there, then he zips the sweatshirt all the way up. "Don't get sick."
Baekhyun watches with interest, his eyes following Joonmyun's hand until Joonmyun pulls back, uncomfortably, embarrassed and not sure why. He looks at Lu Han, instead, who has abandoned his rant on the weather and is now watching Yixing with serious eyes.
"I'll walk him home," Lu Han says. "I'll see you when I see you, Joonmyun." He pulls Yixing's arm over his neck and plants a hand firmly on his hip, pulling him away from Joonmyun. Yixing is pliant and unprotesting, falling into Lu Han with the ease of familiarity. "Let's go, you drunk," he says, in Chinese, and Joonmyun laughs as Yixing mumbles something back at Lu Han as Lu Han guides him away.
Joonmyun and Baekhyun are left alone on the street. Music is spilling out of the doors of the club behind them.
"I should get going, too." Baekhyun's lips are tinted purple still, and his eye makeup is smeared from the rain. He's turned his cap to protect his face, but his cheeks and neck are shiny from the drizzle anyway. "Work tomorrow."
"Me too." They walk toward the station, where there will be more taxis. Joonmyun manages to hail one quickly, smiling at Baekhyun and opening the door for him. "Thank you for the show."
"Thanks for coming, Kim Joonmyun-ssi," he says, ducking into the taxi and looking up at Joonmyun with that curious, unreadable smirk. Then he closes the door, and Joonmyun is left alone at the side of the road, people walking by him on either side, still caught up in the mystery that is Baekhyun.
He moves forward, intending to catch the taxi that's just dropped off three college girls and claim it for his ride home, but his foot catches. He looks down at his boots, and lifts his left foot. Bright purple gum is adhered to the sole.
"Sticky Byun Baekhyun," he laughs, garnering a weird look from a guy walking by, but everything is funnier when he's tipsy and this is no exception.
He hails himself another taxi. Maybe he'll sleep late tomorrow. He probably won't.
As he gives his address to the driver, he collapses back into the seat, the alcohol making everything swim and hotter than it should be. He taps a beat on the edge of the seat, and Baekhyun, singing not pansori but a soft love song made darker by the husky roughness of his voice, haunts his entire trip home.
He wakes up with a splitting headache. You're not young enough to do this anymore, Joonmyun! His limbs are like lead, but the clock at his bedside tells him it's ten in the morning, so he peels himself up. There is the acid taste of alcohol behind his teeth and on his tongue as he roots for clean underwear and socks in his drawer.
A hot shower leaves him feeling much better. His headache has faded to a repetitive throbbing behind his eye sockets, but nothing he can't work through. The throb is to the beat of Chanyeol's buk drum.
It gives Joonmyun an idea. He muses on it his entire drive in to work. There's no one to hear him, so he sings out loud, filling the car with his own voice as he works out a melody.
"You look terrible, hyung," Jongin says, an hour later, when he comes into the studio to find Joonmyun hunched over his computer keyboard, a stack of five paper coffee cups sitting next to him.
"Ah, really?" Joonmyun uncurls himself, stretching his arms above his head. His stomach rages, angrily reminding him he hasn't had anything to eat since lunch yesterday. "I'm sorry."
"What are you apologizing for?" Jongin mumbles. His eyes are half-lidded. He looks like Joonmyun has just woken him from a nap in his big soft pants and sweatshirt. His hair is a mess. "I'm just saying." He crosses his arms and frowns.
"I went out last night." Joonmyun smiles softly at Jongin, resisting the urge to ruffle his hair. "With a couple of friends."
"You go out?" Jongin drops down in the empty seat next to Joonmyun.
"I'm not that old!" Jongin laughs at him. "We went to see a performance." Joonmyun sets the track to the start. "In Hongdae."
"So you're hungover," Jongin says, smiling as Joonmyun flushes and chuckles.
"Yes," he says. "Definitely." He cracks his knuckles, and Jongin scoots closer so he can rest his chin on Joonmyun's shoulder. It digs in, but Joonmyun is used to it. "Where's Soojung?"
"She's on her way," Jongin says. He's closer than Baekhyun was last night. But Joonmyun isn't woozy with it. Joonmyun also isn't drunk. "What's this about, hyung? I thought we'd finished recording the vocals?"
"I've… made some changes to the single."
"You're cutting it close, aren't you?" Jongin's breath smells like diet soda. "Minseok-hyung is sending it off to the choreographer tomorrow. We need at least a month after that to learn the choreography…"
"Just listen." Joonmyun starts the track, and Jongin immediately sits up straight, abandoning his slouch and sliding the swivel chair closer to the computer.
"What's that drum beat?" Jongin is tapping his foot. It's a good sign, when Jongin can't stop himself from dancing.
"It's a buk, isn't it?" Soojung is out of breath. Her hair is caught up in a hastily made ponytail and she isn't wearing any makeup. "It sounds like a buk."
"It is," Joonmyun says. "I also rearranged the bridge, so I need to rerecord a few vocals. Sorry about calling you in like this."
"Whatever." Soojung shrugs. "It's not going to take that long, is it?"
"Not at all," Joonmyun says. "Do you like it?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "It sounded…"
"Flat," interrupts Soojung. "It sounded flat, before."
"But now it's…" Jongin scrunches up his whole face.
"Dynamic," Soojung finishes, punching Jongin lightly in the arm. "Jonginnie, do you want to write your thoughts down?"
"Shut up, Soojung!"
Joonmyun holds in his laugh as Jongin bristles. "So let's get it done so you can go home," he says, and Soojung nods as he moves ahead in the master. "This is the new bridge."
It only takes them an hour. Soojung leaves as soon as she's finished, citing lunch with friends as her pressing engagement. "It's Saturday, oppa. You should have lunch with friends too."
"You could have lunch with me?" Jongin asks, and Joonmyun weighs it out. He hasn't spent time with Jongin outside of the studio in a couple of months, and the song will be waiting for him when he gets back. And he's hungry.
"Sounds good." Joonmyun grabs his jacket off the back of his chair. Jongin grins at him and drags him out of the studio, barely giving him a chance to shut off the lights.
They get ddeokmanduguk at a bunsik restaurant close to where Joonmyun had spent most of last night. Jongin is wearing a beanie to cover his hair and ears, and sunglasses half the size of his face. Joonmyun isn't famous, and it's easy for them to escape notice when they're getting out of Joonmyun's nondescript Hyundai and in a neighborhood not frequented by celebrities.
The ahjumma here plays music from an old phonograph machine. Records Joonmyun remembers from his childhood. This is the music his grandmother likes.
"She's playing old people music, hyung," Jongin says, blowing on the soft dumpling on his spoon. "I bet you like this stuff." His beanie and sunglasses rest beside him on the table next to the box of chopsticks and spoons. It's empty in here today.
"It's called trot, Jongin. It's not old people music." It is, maybe. But Joonmyun likes all types of music. "And I'm not old."
"Clearly not too old to go out and get drunk." Jongin frowns at him.
"What's with that face?" Joonmyun takes a sip of his soup. "I'm not allowed to go out?" Everyone seems to have an opinion on who Joonmyun is supposed to be, lately. He'd kind of thought he'd escaped that when he left home against his parents' wishes, abandoning his business degree to pursue music. "I love small-time music shows, and live bands."
"Sometimes you say stuff and… I realize how little I actually know you," says Jongin, and Joonmyun sets down his spoon. "Like, I know you used to date Sunyoung-noona, but I don't know why you aren't anymore. The only friend of yours I know that isn't also a friend of mine is Kris-hyung. I don't know where you went to high school or if you like anyone, or…"
"That doesn't mean you don't know me," replies Joonmyun lightly, smiling at Jongin.
Jongin's frown grows deeper. "But you probably know all those things about me, hyung. And I've known you for five years, now."
"I went to Daewon," Joonmyun says. "I studied English, Japanese, and Chinese."
"You went to Daewon?" Jongin's spoon hovers above his bowl. "That's for like, really smart kids." He frowns. "And kids that come from money."
"My father is a university professor," Joonmyun says. "There was a lot of pressure to be successful academically."
"I can imagine." Jongin shudders. "I was totally crap at school. I always wanted to be dancing. Or sleeping."
"You've got a one track mind." Jongin sheepishly smiles at him. "So now you know where I went to high school. Am I less secretive, now?"
"Maybe." A shy grin. "Who'd you go out with last night?"
"Back in high school, I was really struggling in Chinese. I took weekend classes at a hagwon but I still..." The memory of that bone-deep exhaustion makes the kind of tiredness he feels these days seem like nothing. "My older brother found me a tutor. A friend of a classmate of his from Beijing. We got along really well, because we both like to sing and make music."
"You like to sing?"
"Not really," Joonmyun prevaricates. "I mostly like writing songs."
"Did you really go out with your Chinese tutor?"
"I went out with my friend Lu Han, who used to be my Chinese tutor," Joonmyun corrects. "But that was eleven years ago. Now he's just… Lu Han."
"Hyung," Jongin says, scooping up a thin sliced circle of ddeok, "you're really old."
"No," Joonmyun says, "you're just really young." He thinks he said that last night, to Baekhyun. Jongin isn't as young as Baekhyun. He seems more innocent, though, and there's less… darkness hiding in the corners of his smile.
"Do you have to go right back to work?" Jongin is smiling his happy-puppy smile again, so Joonmyun is inclined to say no, despite the hardline deadline on DoubleK's album. "I think the comic shop I've been meaning to check out for the past few months is around here."
"Comic shop?" Joonmyun is surprised. "A shop that sells… only comics?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "I can never convince Kyungsoo-hyung to go with me, and you know I rarely get time off like this. Won't you?"
Joonmyun stands up and pulls a crisp man won bill out of his wallet and looks down at Jongin, who has tilted his bowl to his mouth to get the last of the broth. "So you asked me, because you know I can't say no."
"Is that a yes?" Jongin asks, wiping his lips on the back of his hands, and Joonmyun pulls on the bottom of his jacket. "It's not wrinkled, hyung, you don't have to pull at it."
He stands up, too, throwing an arm around Joonmyun's shoulders. "You don't wear clothes that wrinkle," Joonmyun says, plucking at Jongin's sweatpants. "I can't trust you." He ducks under Jongin's arm, to get Jongin's beanie and sunglasses. "Suit up, Clark Kent."
Jongin has been obsessed with comics as long as Joonmyun has known him. Jongin had been nineteen the first time Minseok had brought him to Joonmyun's studio, telling him "the kid wants to write his own songs."
Jongin had scrawled lyrics he had in mind for DoubleK's debut mini from margin to margin of his Beyblade notebook, and Joonmyun had been surprised to find that "the kid" was pretty good. Really good, actually, and more mature than Joonmyun would have guessed from the way he slouched in his too big sweatshirt and looked moments from falling asleep.
"Soojung told me she liked my lyrics," Jongin had said. "Do you like them, seonbaenim?"
Joonmyun had smiled, and told Jongin to call him hyung.
It isn't surprising that Jongin's love of comics hasn't faded. As they approach the shop, his eyes light up. Jongin does not get to go out much, like this, without a manager and a bodyguard. He's too distinctive and too famous. Joonmyun is surprised, but pleased, that they've made it this far without being spotted.
They walk past the station exit Joonmyun had gotten off at last night. He wonders if he looks, he'll still find Baekhyun's discarded purple gum stuck to the concrete.
The comic shop doesn't look like much. It's smaller than the large buildings on either side of it, and while the red, yellow, blue and white siding might have once given the shop animation, the white has long since turned to gray, the red flaking off to reveal bare metal below. A red banner with cute cartoon girls stretches above the glass doors "ComicsPlease?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. He pulls the door open. Posters line the walls of a wooden staircase headed down. "I've heard this is the one of the best places in Seoul."
"Then how have you not been here?"
"This is Hongdae, hyung," Jongin says. "DoubleK is huge here. Kai and Krystal are on posters around every corner." He looks over his shoulder as he stops midway down the steps. "You're like my disguise."
"So that's why you wanted me to come," laughs Joonmyun. "It's all clear to me now."
"That and I missed you," Jongin says. "You've been so wrapped up in work, between this DoubleK album and Kyungsoo-hyung's album, that you've barely had any time."
Yixing had said the same. "I know," says Joonmyun. "I'm—"
"Don't apologize," Jongin says, shuffling down the last few steps. "All of us know you put work first, and everything else second. That's just who you are."
Joonmyun's throat is dry. He swallows. The pounding of the buk behind his eyelids, and Baekhyun's voice, the rabbit teasing the terrapin. "So what are we looking for?" It's bigger than Joonmyun had pictured from the outside. Aisles and aisles of comics.
"The new volume of this manhwa I've been reading," Jongin says, carefully taking off his sunglasses. "It's about this Japanese guy who falls in love with a Korean girl." He starts talking faster, and Joonmyun knows his fans think he's cool and cold but Joonmyun can only see him as an excitable boy. "So he moves to Korea to become a policeman but he ends up caught up with this gang—"
"You must be looking for Sun-Ken Rock." Joonmyun's chest constricts oddly at the sound.
"That's it!" Jongin enthuses, as Joonmyun turns to look.
Red baseball cap. Purple lips. Big smile that has his eyes disappearing. "Baekhyun?"
"Hello there," Baekhyun says. "It's been a while." He's wearing the Batman shirt he'd been wearing that first night, when he'd performed with Chanyeol.
"About twelve hours," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun reaches out and casually runs a hand down his arm.
"But you missed me so much that it felt like forever, right?" Baekhyun's hand falls back to his side, but he's still close enough that Joonmyun can smell the sweetness of his blueberry? flavored gum and see the small patches where he'd missed when shaving this morning. "Right, Kim Joonmyun-ssi?"
Joonmyun laughs at the unexpectedness of it, and he grins. Jongin looks back and forth between them. "Hyung?"
"Ah, sorry, sorry," Baekhyun says. "We have the new issue of Sun-Ken Rock. Or were you hoping for the latest volume release?" He slips his hands into his pockets. This is the first time he's seeing Baekhyun in full light. His jeans are tight and holey, and his boots look larger than his feet can possibly be. He has an apron tied around his waist, and a nametag that says Baekhyun in fat hangul blocks. "We keep translated imports separate from native Korean manhwa. Unless you want it in Japanese?"
"No," Jongin says. "I'm not a Daewon boy like hyung."
Joonmyun nudges Jongin with an elbow and laughs. "Be quiet, dongsaeng."
Baekhyun leads Jongin to the comics he's looking for. Jongin picks up three volumes immediately and starts skimming through them, and Joonmyun is going to drown in his own fondness at the intent concentration on Jongin's face.
"You work here?" Joonmyun asks Baekhyun, when Baekhyun doesn't seem in a hurry to walk away.
"My day job." Baekhyun shrugs. "It's fun."
"Do you have others of these?" He presses his index finger to the Batman logo on the shirt, and realizes too late that this isn't the jazz club, and Baekhyun is practically a stranger, despite the game he'd played with Joonmyun at the bottom of the stairs. "Of these superhero shirts, I mean." Jongin loudly slides the first volume back on the shelf, probably satisfied that he's read it before. "You were wearing Superman last night."
"I've got a few," Baekhyun says. "Comes with working at a comic shop." He shrugs. Joonmyun had thought Baekhyun's hair was blond, but now he thinks it's orange. He wonders what it looks like under the cap. "You look really hungover, by the way."
Baekhyun's speaking voice sends shivers down Joonmyun's back. He hasn't felt like this since he'd met Yixing. Like he wants to take Baekhyun's scratchy, weird voice and bottle it up, so he can listen to it whenever he pleases.
"I am." Joonmyun's hands slide easily into his back pockets. "It was worse this morning." Jongin has only one volume in his hands now, and two thin issues of something else. "I stepped in your gum, by the way."
Joonmyun points down at his foot. "Last night. Your bright purple gum. I stepped in it."
Baekhyun stares at him for a minute before he laughs, too loud for a bookstore, even one that sells only comics. Joonmyun winces, worried they might have disturbed someone, but no one seems to mind, although a few teenage boys look in their direction. Joonmyun relaxes. Baekhyun's eyes narrow and Joonmyun offers him half a smile.
A dark haired man with a strong nose and piercings all along both his ears leans around the nearest bookshelf. "Too noisy, Baekhyun-hyung."
"Sorry, Tao," Baekhyun says, before he looks back at Joonmyun. "I have to get back to work. Restocking the new X-Men. I've been putting it off since lunch."
"Oh, of course you do." Joonmyun hesitates, before he pulls out his phone. "May I… may I have your number?"
Baekhyun stares at him for a long moment, before neatly swiping the phone out of Joonmyun's hand. He's familiar with the model, apparently, easily keying himself in and saving it. Then he texts himself. "Now I have yours, too, Kim Joonmyun-ssi."
"You should text me the next time you have a gig." Joonmyun looks down at his text messages. One outgoing text to Baekhyunnie♫, and one unread message from Sunyoung.
"I'll try to remember," Baekhyun says. His smile is as… as sticky to Joonmyun as his voice is. His incisors are sharp. Puppy-cute.
"And Baekhyun?" Joonmyun says, as Jongin walks toward him triumphantly with an armful of comics.
"Hmm?" Baekhyun asks, spinning the brim of his cap to the other side.
"It's just Joonmyun." Jongin stops in front of him. "Or hyung. When you input my name into your phone, I mean."
"Right," Baekhyun says. He smiles, a smaller, softer one this time. It's just as bright. "Your friend should put his glasses back on, by the way. There's a group of teenagers toward the entrance who might recognize that pretty face." He winks and disappears down another aisle.
Jongin pouts, and Joonmyun chuckles and lifts Jongin's sunglasses from where they hang on the neck of his shirt. He slides them on to Jongin's face. "Let's get these bought and get out of here."
"Yeah," Jongin says. "That sounds good."
It's not until they're halfway back to the agency that Jongin broaches the subject. "Who was he?"
"Byun Baekhyun." Joonmyun tightens his hands on the steering wheel. "I saw his show last night."
"He was flirting with you."
"I get the impression he flirts with everyone," says Joonmyun.
"Like you," Jongin says. "You flirt with everyone too, even if you're more subtle."
"No, I don't," protests Joonmyun. "I try to be polite."
"You're a flirt. And so is that Baekhyun. It felt like I was watching Guerilla Date."
"He's a very interesting singer." Joonmyun carefully pulls into the parking lot, shifting the car into park as Jongin unfastens his seatbelt. "I want to hear him sing more."
"Ah," Jongin says. "I should have known it was about music." He grins. "I thought I'd figured out the reason you'd broken up with Sunyoung-noona, for a minute there."
Joonmyun feels the bottom drop out of his stomach. "Don't be ridiculous, Jonginnie. Adults break up for all sorts of reasons. Not all of them are scandalous."
"I know, I know," Jongin says. "I think I'm going to go dance for a few hours."
"I'm going to go finish the song," replies Joonmyun, climbing out of the car himself, Baekhyun's laugh in his head, a new melody.
Eleven at night is too late for a phone call. Joonmyun's tired and it'd taken him some time after he and Jongin had returned to the building to find his focus.
It's Joonmyun's brother, so he picks it up anyway. "Are you at home?"
"No," says Joonmyun. "At work."
"Mom says make sure you come home Wednesday night, not Thursday morning. Thursday morning is when we're going to visit our grandmother."
"I know." Joonmyun sighs and pulls on the sleeves of his sweatshirt. He should go home and go to bed. The beginnings of a migraine lurk behind his eyes. "I'll be there. I don't know why she thinks I won't be."
"I told her there was no way you wouldn't want to see Grandmother," his brother says. "That if there was one thing that ensured you came home, it was that."
"I come home every year," Joonmyun says. He does. Chuseok and New Years and Seollal. Every single year save for one. "I'll see you next week."
When he ends the call, he saves and closes the track he's working on, and puts on ‘Sugungga'. He wishes, despite tradition, he had a recording of the version he'd heard that night at RUFXXX.
He plays the finished album for Minseok and Kris, through the surround-sound speakers in Kris's office. They've heard it all before, save for the single. When it comes on, the last track on his demo, he nibbles on his lower lip.
"What do you think?" Joonmyun leans forward as Minseok bobs his head to the beat. The buk adds depth to what had previously been a track done mostly with synthesized piano. The thump of the drum is a breath of life.
"It's catchy, Joonmyun," Minseok says. "Very catchy."
Kris winds the necktie he'd taken off earlier around his fingers, weaving it over and under and catching it between his knuckles. "It's that instrument again, from RUFXXX. The traditional drum."
"Ah!" Minseok slaps his thigh. "I thought I recognized the wood-edge sound. It's a buk, right?"
"Exactly." Joonmyun's eyes are so dry. He hasn't gotten a good night's sleep in two days. He'd napped a few hours this morning, and he has to drop off the master of DoubleK's album in four hours. "Do you like it?"
"I love it," says Kris. "It sounds different from the dub-step flooding the market right now, and Soojung sounds fantastic on the chorus." He smiles softly, and Joonmyun files it away for later thought.
"Listening to Chanyeol and Baekhyun at RUFXXX ended up being good for more than just a night's entertainment." Joonmyun rubs at the back of his neck, where a knot of tension has formed. It's been a long homestretch. He's wrung out.
"You were really into it, that night," says Kris. "I'm not surprised you found some way to incorporate it."
"Well, the song sounds fantastic to me." Minseok gathers his things. "I have to go and escort Soojung to her radio interview now."
"I don't know why they make DoubleK do those," Kris says. "Neither Jongin nor Soojung has much skill with interviews."
"They're idols," says Joonmyun. "They're idols, and it's their job to promote, whether they're good at interviews or not." He cracks his neck. "That's why I'm not an idol."
"You would be great at interviews," Kris points out. "You'd probably have been a good idol, what with the face and the sappy songs."
Joonmyun wryly smiles. "Don't forget my amazing dancing skills."
"Well, no one's perfect," Minseok says, and they all laugh.
"We could send you on interviews with DoubleK as a buffer. They need a buffer."
"Precisely," Minseok says. "And since Soojung doesn't have her own personal Joonmyun, I don't want to make her late. She'll be grumpy enough about having to pretend to like people for an hour on air."
Minseok leaves Joonmyun and Kris alone in Kris's office. Kris restarts the last song, and they listen to it again in silence.
"It's weird," Joonmyun says, "but I feel like watching other people step outside the box has made me want to do it, too."
"Not surprising." Kris rolls his necktie up neatly and sets it to the side. His large hands find a pen to play with instead.
"I never imagined, when I threw away everything to do music for a living, I'd get trapped all over again."
"Do you want to be doing something else?"
"No," says Joonmyun. "I want to be doing this, but better."
"You're already the best, Joonmyun."
"I've been in the same place for a couple of years, now. It's all starting to sound the same, even to me." Kris looks like he doesn't know what to say. His eyebrows knit together, and Joonmyun breathes out, careful not to sigh. He smiles, carefully, sweetly. "Ah, but I'm sure it will pass." He laughs.
Kris's shoulders loosen in relief. Joonmyun is relieved, too. He doesn't want anyone to worry, especially not Kris, who seems to want to use his superior height to stand guard over everyone in the entire world.
"Are we on for Thursday, as usual?" Kris is leaning back in his chair, spreading his legs and surveying the notes scattered across his desk. "It's only Tuesday and I could already use a drink."
"I won't be here on Thursday," Joonmyun says. "It's Chuseok."
"Oh right," says Kris, "I'd forgotten." He pushes his glasses up on his nose. "Chuseok." He hesitates. "Are you… You'll be all right? I know you don't like…"
"Of course," Joonmyun says. "I'm going to drop this off and then go back to the studio. Sunyoung wanted to work on something."
"Yeah, okay," replies Kris. "I'm not going to say anything cheesy like ‘if you want to talk, I'm here', so I'll just assume you know that."
"It's Chuseok." Joonmyun stands up. "It happens every year."
"And every year," Kris replies, "you're sad."
"Not sad." Joonmyun moves toward the door. Sunyoung is probably in the studio waiting for him. "Just nostalgic."
"I hope you weren't busy." Sunyoung looks tired. There are dark circles under her eyes. She's in the middle of a promotion cycle, so it isn't unexpected. Still, Joonmyun thinks she should be asleep. "I just really wanted your help with this."
"I'm never too busy for you," says Joonmyun. "Besides, I've turned in the DoubleK album. This really was the right time to catch me."
"I'm glad." Sunyoung grips her pen tightly. "The CEO wants me to write my own song for the album."
"Oh?" Joonmyun leans closer. Her perfume smells like cherry blossoms. "Why?" Usually, it's Seohyun who writes most of Sunyoung's songs. They are usually sweet piano ballads with just enough edge that people buy one Luna album after another.
"He says I'm getting old. And that I'm getting predictable and boring." Sunyoung laughs. "I'm twenty-eight. That's not old, is it?" She pulls at her denim shorts. "Anyway, he said writing my own music would give me a graceful maturity that would make me marketable to an audience my own age."
"I see." Joonmyun rubs at the back of his neck. "I'd love to help you, Sunyoung, but I'm getting old, predictable and boring, too."
"Never boring." Sunyoung smiles. "And only predictable in that I know, for sure, that I'll never have any idea what you're thinking about."
"My thoughts are usually not that exciting," Joonmyun says. "There isn't really anything about them worth sharing."
"There's nothing exciting about all my problems, either. Sharing them is a form of catharsis."
"For you," Joonmyun says. "For me, it's a form of dwelling on them. I write music for catharsis."
"Speaking of writing…" She taps her pen on her notebook. "I have ideas. I just don't know how to make them… into a song."
"Song-writing isn't a science." Joonmyun scoots closer to her and away from his computer. "If it were, my family would have been happier about my career choice."
"Your parents are nice," Sunyoung says. "Friendly. They certainly don't treat you like the black sheep."
That's because it's important to save face, Joonmyun thinks. "That's because they like you."
"Even though I'm an idol?" Sunyoung grins.
"Despite that one obvious flaw." Joonmyun looks down at Sunyoung's notebook. "So what do you have?"
"The song is about soulmates," Sunyoung says. "And about how the idea that there is only one person in the world for you is so limiting."
"That's not very romantic," teases Joonmyun.
"I think it is." She hands him the notebook. There are sentences, and words circled. "The idea that in this world, there are many people who might add to your happiness in different ways." Her face is smooth, her mouth curled down in the tiniest of frowns. "It's a different kind of romantic, right?"
"You're a beautiful person," Joonmyun tells her, and she beams at him, her smile stretching across her face. That same smile had captivated him the first time he'd seen it. He'd been twenty-four and trying desperately to convince himself that… "Inside and out."
"You're an incurable flirt, Joonmyun." She slaps his thigh, and he laughs at her. She's so pretty and bright.
"I'm not flirting," protests Joonmyun. "I'm just offering an honest opinion."
"Your honest opinions are very flirtatious," she replies, and Joonmyun hands her back her notebook.
"Jongin said the same thing to me a few days ago."
"You flirt with Jongin?" Sunyoung looks down at her scattered ideas, rereading as she speaks. "He's a bit young for you. And the wrong gender."
"I'm not interested in Jongin." His stomach hurts. Too much coffee and not enough sleep, probably. Joonmyun's going to get ulcers again if he isn't careful.
"You're not interested in me, either," she says, quietly, and Joonmyun runs his tongue along his teeth.
They work for an hour on Sunyoung's song. They have the beginnings of a chorus and some solid direction on her verses when Joonmyun's phone rings.
He contemplates ignoring it. "It might be important," Sunyoung says, and Joonmyun picks his phone up off the table and looks at the caller identification.
He'd given Baekhyun his number four days ago. Baekhyun has only sent him one text message: a screencapture of his phone with Joonmyun's name typed in as Joonmyun-hyung. Joonmyun had sent back a thumbs up.
"Joonmyun-hyung?" He likes the way that sounds, coming from Baekhyun.
"Ah," he says, flicking his gaze to Sunyoung and wanting, weirdly, to keep Baekhyun to himself. "Hello."
"Are you busy right now? Or in a little while, I mean." Baekhyun is teasing him again. That's the tone Jongin had mistaken for flirtatious. "There's something I'd like to show you."
"Kind of," Joonmyun says, peeking at Sunyoung, who is watching him curiously. "But I can be free."
"Where are you right now?"
"In my studio," Joonmyun says. Baekhyun makes a noise that sounds like a snort. It's an ugly sound and it makes Joonmyun's stomach, which has been uncomfortably hurting for an hour, loosen its knots. "In Apgujeong," he clarifies. He thinks Baekhyun knows where he works. He'd recognized Jongin as SM artist Kai, even if he hadn't said so directly.
"I've just met you and I'm not even surprised."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means you work too much for someone in the arts," says Baekhyun.
"Can I meet you in an hour?" Joonmyun asks, and Baekhyun laughs.
"Make it an hour and a half," replies Baekhyun. "But not any later. We don't want to miss sunset." Joonmyun looks at his watch. It's only three. He's not sure how they can possibly miss the sunset. "Meet me at World Cup Stadium Park."
"Where? It's… kind of big."
"Take a taxi to the station. Meet me outside exit 1."
"I have a car," Joonmyun says, and Sunyoung tilts her head. "If you wanted."
"I don't want," Baekhyun says. "I don't know where you'd park it. Are your shoes comfortable?" Joonmyun looks down at his sneakers.
"Yes?" Joonmyun should ask why it matters if his shoes are comfortable, or why he's meeting Baekhyun in front of an agricultural center. But instead, he's just… interested. "I'd rather not get gum on them, though."
Baekhyun laughs again. He laughs a lot at Joonmyun, but Joonmyun loves the sound of his laugh. It's loud and high and rough, but it reminds him of the way Baekhyun sings. "Good, see you at four-thirty."
"Right. Okay." Joonmyun ends the call, and Sunyoung combs her hair back from her face.
"Who was that?" She closes her notebook. Her nails are burgundy now. An autumn color.
"An acquaintance," Joonmyun answers, and he sets his laptop to shut down. "He has a lot of music in him."
"You used to say I had a lot of music in me," teases Sunyoung. She slides her notebook into her purse. "I won't keep you."
"You're never keeping me." Joonmyun reaches out and tucks her hair behind her ear.
"In more ways than one," Sunyoung says, before she leaves Joonmyun alone in the studio, staring at the empty chair where she'd just been sitting moments before.
Baekhyun's sideways red cap makes him easy to spot. Joonmyun pays the taxi driver and hops out of the vehicle, wondering what he's doing. It's not like him to drop everything and go.
"Do you ever sleep?" Baekhyun asks. He leans forward in greeting, more than a nod and less than a bow. "Or are you auditioning for a zombie movie?"
"I was going to go to bed early today." Joonmyun looks up at the sky, and is surprised to see it's cloudless. "It doesn't feel like rainy season."
"It's supposed to be clear tonight." Baekhyun smiles at Joonmyun, and Joonmyun thrums with it. He's had too much coffee today, and it runs through him instead of blood. But the creeping exhaustion fades in the wake of Baekhyun's easy grin. "Do you remember the flooding back in 2010 during Chuseok?"
He starts to walk, and Joonmyun follows, falling into step beside him as they head out onto a walking trail. It's clearly marked, light brown gravel making for easy traction underfoot. Comfortable shoes for walking. "I do remember. It was worse that following July, though."
"I don't think I minded in July, it was so hot," Baekhyun says. "But I remember that September. The rain never stopped. My uniform pants were wet up to the knees for what felt like three days straight."
"You were still in high school." Wonder sneaks into his voice. Joonmyun had been twenty-six, and preparing for a trip to New York while he sat cross-legged on the floor of his childhood bedroom. His father had been watching the news instead of the Chuseok variety programming. He had been texting Sunyoung and worrying about whether airport bus schedules would be affected.
"I was. A third-year." Baekhyun shrugs. "Doesn't matter. It won't rain today." He twists his cap until it's backwards. There are a few patches of faded pink in his hair. It's a patchwork quilt of bad dye-jobs. "I wanted to be sure, before I asked you to come out here. It's a three kilometer walk."
"I wasn't expecting you to call me until the next time you had a gig." Joonmyun hopes it doesn't sound accusing. He's oddly glad Baekhyun called. Or maybe not so oddly, since Baekhyun's voice rings in his head every time the other music that fills his life stops. Every word Baekhyun says gets catalogued in Joonmyun's personal library of Baekhyun-noises.
"I was bored." Baekhyun bumps into him as they walk. Their elbows keep brushing. Baekhyun is warm, so Joonmyun doesn't move away. He doesn't mind the way their hands touch with every step. "And I don't understand you, yet."
"I'm easy to understand." Joonmyun trips on nothing, toes of his sneakers kicking up the tan-colored dirt. Baekhyun laughs at him as he catches himself, and Joonmyun has had this body for almost thirty years, so he should know where all the limbs are going by now. "And still not capable of walking, I guess."
Baekhyun shoots him an indecipherable look. "At the jazz club you said you used to make good music." Non-sequitur? Joonmyun tries to keep up.
"There's something… stale about what I'm creating these days."
There are other people on the trail. A group of young women behind them and an older couple in front of them. Baekhyun pulls at the arm of Joonmyun's sweater, tugging him left at the fork and down a winding path. Now they are alone. "The other way is coffee shops and restaurants. But that's not what we're here for."
"What are we here for?"
"I was bored, so I decided we should comb the neighborhood." He smiles, sharp incisors dangerous in the last of the afternoon light. "I want to find your inspiration. Lost pets don't usually run far from home." Their arms brush now with every step, a full press.
"Inspiration isn't actually like a lost pet," Joonmyun says. His shoulders shake with laughter, and Baekhyun leans in further. "You can't just put up posters and ask people around town if they've seen it."
Baekhyun shrugs. He doesn't have broad shoulders, so the movement causes his sweatshirt to slip. He pulls it back up in annoyance. "But it is something you can't just count on coming back on its own."
"So we have to walk three kilometers to find it?" Joonmyun doesn't mind walking, really. Baekhyun has a way of winding his tongue around every final syllable that mimics the way the trail cuts through the grass, and each step, to the cadence of his speech, is a pleasure.
"No, we have to walk three kilometers to find something else." He's smirking, only the corners of his lips turning up in a smug expression that makes Joonmyun want to steal his cap and mess up his hair. He satisfies the urge by bumping his hip into Baekhyun's, causing him to stumble sideways.
"Brat," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun looks at him, startled, before it turns into a grin.
They walk a few minutes in easy silence. There is the faint sound of traffic, but it's distant enough that it really feels like they're walking by themselves. Joonmyun doesn't mind the quiet, but it seems to bother Baekhyun. He hums, first, then he starts to sing.
It's one of Joonmyun's songs. He'd written it three years ago for Kyungsoo. Baekhyun probably doesn't know that. No one really looks at the song credits.
Joonmyun wishes he could close his eyes and just listen, but he knows that would end with him flat on his face in the dirt. Baekhyun's voice is so raw, so unique. Joonmyun has never heard anyone with a tone quite like it, husky and rough and sweet, too, all in the same breath. It's untrained, though, and his inexperience shows in every weak note that doesn't quite soar.
"You sing through your nose," Joonmyun says, interrupting Baekhyun mid-song. Baekhyun catches the beginning of the next line in a hiccup, and Joonmyun chuckles. They're really cute, the puppy yips that Baekhyun makes when he's surprised or curious. They aren't as calculated as some of the other cute things Baekhyun does, like look up at Joonmyun through dark, heavy eyelashes as they sit side by side in a dark club. "You should be using your chest voice."
"What?" His tone is sharp. He moves away from Joonmyun, and his absence reminds Joonmyun that it's fall in earnest. The path evens out and comes to a wide bridge, inviting them deeper into the World Cup Park complex. "You're not a singer."
"That doesn't mean I don't know anything about it." Joonmyun shrugs. "Have you ever had anyone teach you?" He pulls his sweater sleeves over his hands. It's cold for him, even if Baekhyun looks perfectly comfortable in his thin sweatshirt. "About singing, I mean. How to get the most out of your voice."
"Nope," Baekhyun says. He drags his feet. Digging into his pocket, he pulls out his package of gum. Blueberry mint Xylitol. He shakes five pieces into his hand, and then pops them into his mouth. "I don't do well with teachers, anyway."
"You didn't even have a high school teacher who…"
"I didn't do well in high school." Baekhyun returns the gum to his back pocket, and then puts his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt. "Not even in music class. I was too distracted."
"Distracted by what?"
"Stuff. I don't know." Baekhyun looks up at the sky. "We need to hurry."
"This is Haneul Park," Baekhyun says. "One of the best places to see the sunset in Seoul."
"I've never been here before," Joonmyun admits. "I haven't seen a sunset in who knows how long."
"That's your problem," says Baekhyun. "You can't make good music if you don't really live."
It shouldn't feel like Baekhyun has punched him in the gut, but it does. It makes Joonmyun think of how many songs he wrote sitting by the river's edge in Yeouido, Yixing strumming his guitar as he soaked in the smell of the fresh summer grass. That was a long time ago, though, years and years ago, and Joonmyun might be too jaded now to recapture that kind of magic.
Besides, those weren't songs for other people to hear.
They stand at the foot of a zigzag staircase, and Baekhyun whistles. "I don't remember it looking this intimidating."
The stairs are numbered with blue signs. Joonmyun's eyes aren't strong enough to see all the way to the top of the first zag.
"When's the last time you were here?" They begin the upward climb, Baekhyun's breath coming in short puffs as they ascend. Joonmyun's own chest feels tight at barely halfway, but he can already see some of the bridge and the Han river. It will be a fantastic view.
"My brother took me here when I was eleven," Baekhyun says. "There are two-hundred and ninety-one stairs here, and he practically dragged me up the last fifty."
"You have a brother?" He puts his left hand out to hold the steel railing. The wooden stairs give nicely underfoot as he and Baekhyun walk up in step with each other.
"He's your age." Baekhyun shrugs. "Just about, anyway."
Joonmyun can tell Baekhyun doesn't want to keep talking about it, so he doesn't pry. It's simple enough for him to stem his curiosity, and focus on the top of the stairs. The trees are thinning as they rise above them.
Up here, the sky looks like a watercolor painting. If Joonmyun weren't already winded, it would take his breath away.
"Wow," he says, and Baekhyun pushes at Joonmyun's lower back with a splayed hand.
"This way," he says, and guides them through lush growing wildflowers. "Can you believe this used to be a landfill?"
"Were you even alive when this used to be a landfill?" The stadium had only been completed in 2001. Joonmyun can remember the World Cup fever that had struck his classmates, a hushed frenzy underscoring mathematics class that no one, not even Joonmyun, had been able to ignore.
They're along a dirt trail again. On either side of them are rows of wind turbines, spinning rapidly as they amble past. "Haha, very funny," Baekhyun replies. He blows a bubble with his big wad of gum. It's starting to stain his lips. "I'm not that young."
"I didn't know Xylitol had enough dye in it to change the color of your tongue."
"Only if you chew six pieces at once," Baekhyun replies. "I'm preventing cavities."
They have the park almost to themselves. Maybe because it's a Tuesday, and no one else is free. Maybe because there's a nip in the air. Either way, Joonmyun can feel the tension of the past few days oozing out of him and blowing away in the gentle wind. Baekhyun pulls them off the trail when they get to a lookout point. The dirt becomes brick, and smooth silver benches that look like something out of a sci-fi movie that Jongin would make him watch sit behind a high wooden safety railing. They're shaped round like stones, but that doesn't deter Baekhyun, who immediately stands on top of one, balancing with his arms held straight out to his sides, gaze fixed on the city view.
"Get down," Joonmyun says. "You'll hurt yourself."
"No, I won't," Baekhyun says. "I'm standing on a bench. Not exactly dangerous, hyung."
"But…" Joonmyun sighs.
"Come up next to me," Baekhyun says.
"Definitely not," Joonmyun replies immediately.
"The view is really spectacular." Baekhyun looks down at him. "And I won't let you fall, old man."
Joonmyun sighs and pulls himself up onto the bench, wobbling as he straightens his leg. Baekhyun's arm immediately circles his waist to steady him, and Joonmyun's breath quickens.
It's because he's always been afraid of falling. It doesn't have anything to do with how warm Baekhyun is.
"See? Now look out."
Gayang Bridge crosses the Han in front of him, and Baekhyun was right; the view is spectacular.
The sun is just starting to set, now. The sun's reflection glimmers in the water of the river, and Joonmyun forgets, sometimes, how beautiful the city can be when the only thing he sees for weeks on end is the road between his studio and his apartment.
The sounds of the wind pushing the turbines and Baekhyun humming under his breath and the crowing of the birds as they prepare for sleep serve as a soundtrack to the sunset, and Joonmyun can hear his own heartbeat like the sound of a firm hand striking the flat of a buk drum.
Baekhyun doesn't let go until Joonmyun completely relaxes, laughing as he drops his arm. "See? Your skull isn't cracked open or anything."
"You must read too many comic books," Joonmyun says. "Cracked skulls are not funny."
"I never said they were." He blows another bubble with his gum, and it pops on his face. He flinches as he tries to suck the gum back into his mouth. It sticks to his nose and lips and cheeks. "You're funny though."
Sticky Byun Baekhyun. He laughs, quietly, and Baekhyun glares at him, using one thin finger to pull the gum off of his face. "Hmm."
"What do you think?" Baekhyun asks, as the sun sinks into the horizon. "Do you feel inspired?"
"A little," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun jumps down from the bench, looking up at Joonmyun until Joonmyun jumps down too. Baekhyun smiles.
"Chanyeol and I arranged the next part of the pansori last night." They start to walk again, rejoining the dirt trail. It's been a long time since Joonmyun let someone else lead him like this, but he can tell Baekhyun likes to be in charge. It reminds him of Soojung, who prefers being the person calling all the shots during recording and bristling whenever Jongin refuses to bend to her will.
Baekhyun grabs Joonmyun's arm and pulls him closer. "Do you pay attention when you walk?"
In front of where Joonmyun had been walking, the path dips. "It's dark," Joonmyun says. "I'm not an owl."
"Not an owl, not a singer. What are you, then?" Once, Joonmyun had wanted…
"A songwriter," Joonmyun says. "A producer."
"Do you want to hear it?" Baekhyun's hand is warm on Joonmyun's arm. It's a casual touch. Joonmyun does it to Kris all the time.
Baekhyun smells like blueberries and mint. "The pansori."
"We're not alone in the park," Joonmyun says. As dusk falls heavy, Joonmyun can finally see other people. An old couple holding hands walk the trail in front of them.
"So?" Baekhyun leans into Joonmyun, enough to chase away the chill slowly starting to sink into him. "Who cares? We're outside! It's a park!"
Joonmyun had never played in the park as a child. Had never run around for fear of ripping a hole in his uniform slacks or getting his shirt dirty. He'd never screamed or shouted. He'd stuffed his emotions down deep and presented a calm face to the world.
His mother had looked with disdain at people who shouted, tightening her grip on Joonmyun's arm and pulling him along. ("It's a sign of class," she always said. "You must always present yourself with dignity.")
Sometimes Joonmyun thinks that's why he finds it so hard to sing his own songs. Why he writes them and gives them away to other people to sing.
But Joonmyun's mother isn't here. There is only Baekhyun, who is looking at him expectantly. Joonmyun hates to disappoint expectations. "Only if you use your chest voice," he says.
"I don't even know what that means." Baekhyun frowns. "I thought you liked my voice."
"I love it," Joonmyun says, honestly, and Baekhyun, face illuminated by the floodlights, smiles. "It's wonderful."
"Then shut up and listen."
Up here, where it seems like he's on top of the world, the evening air crisp and fresh and Baekhyun singing at the top of his lungs into the night, Joonmyun feels so free.
"Thank you," he says to Baekhyun later, after Baekhyun has conned him into getting KFC instead of eating at a real restaurant. The grease sticks to his fingers, but Baekhyun's eyes are glittering with mischief.
"For what?" Baekhyun asks, leaning back in his chair so only two legs are on the ground. His ankles brush Joonmyun's calves. "I was bored. And you bought dinner."
"Brat," Joonmyun says, but he smiles down at his fries.
On Chuseok, it rains all day.
The window of his parents' condo is a blurry watercolor of the streets outside, and Joonmyun sits perfectly straight in his seat, hands together in his lap as his mother pours tea.
Joonmyun hadn't slept last night. The bed here is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. He'd had dreams during the night that had kept him awake, too. Memories, really, of his grandfather sitting next to him on the piano bench and showing Joonmyun where to put his hands. He'd barely been able to hit a seventh.
Now he's awake, and he's sitting in an armchair by himself as his mother looks at him from across the low living room table, the tea set between them.
"How is Sunyoung doing?" she asks. Her voice is soft and low but it still cuts through the silence.
"Well," Joonmyun replies. "She's working on a new album right now." He cautiously picks up the ceramic cup of tea in front of him. It's hot, but Joonmyun is cold. The air conditioning is on too high. The warmth seeps into his hands. "She's busy."
She always asks. Joonmyun always answers just like this.
He clutches the teacup between his fingers. He can't grip it as tightly as he would like, because he doesn't want to break it. It's import. Expensive. His mother had acquired it on a trip overseas she'd taken while Joonmyun was sitting for his university entrance exams.
His brother clears his throat, and both Joonmyun and his mother turn to look at him. "It's time to go see Grandmother," he says, and Joonmyun takes a sip of his tea. It burns his throat but settles warm into his stomach.
The care facility is busy. It always is, on holidays when everyone is off work. The rain hasn't kept anyone away, but the floors are dangerously slippery on the first floor, puddles from outside making their way in.
His grandmother is on the second floor. She'd been on the first floor for a while. Then they'd realized she might never get well enough to go back home. That was when she'd been moved to the second floor, down the hall from the woman who always screams, who Joonmyun has met once and often greets with a "Good Afternoon Mrs. Gu" as he leaves.
Chuseok is one of two times a year his whole family visits at once. Joonmyun knows his grandmother looks forward to these visits the most because she still hopes that the family will somehow magically fall back together. Joonmyun does not have it in him to break her heart with the truth.
Joonmyun's father, carrying a briefcase full of things to grade, takes the chair at the back of the large single-occupant hospital room, after kissing his mother ‘hello' on the forehead. "Too many students this semester," he mumbles in excuse, and Joonmyun angles himself so that his father and his blue marking pen are blocked from his grandmother's view.
"How are you today, halmeoni?" asks Joonmyun warmly, and his grandmother grins up at him.
"Another Chuseok," she replies. "How are you doing, Joonmyunnie?"
"Busy," he says, resting his hand on the back of hers. Her skin is soft and he can feel the veins. She looks brighter. Healthier. Joonmyun is happy to see the flush in her cheeks. "But never too busy for you."
"You're a charmer," his grandmother laughs as his brother perfunctorily kisses her cheek. "That's why the girls all liked you in high school."
"They did not," Joonmyun protests. "They were just friendly."
"Think what you want," she says, "an old woman like me knows what infatuation looks like." She coughs, and it shakes her whole body.
"Don't strain yourself," Joonmyun says, squeezing her hand.
"You remind me so much of your grandfather," she says, not for the first time. "Do you have any new music for me?"
"Nothing worth sharing," Joonmyun says. "I've got my eye on someone talented, though. Maybe I can get him to record something for you."
"If you haven't done anything worth sharing," his mother says, "what's keeping you too busy to visit home?"
"My work," Joonmyun says, and his brother puts a hand on his mother's shoulder. She quiets, leaning into Joonmyun's older brother's side as if to console herself that at least the first son turned out right.
"I look forward to hearing him," his grandmother says, and Joonmyun looks down at her with a grin.
"I'll see what I can do," says Joonmyun. "He's unpolished right now."
"A diamond in the rough," his grandmother says wisely. She always understands. "I'm still looking forward to hearing you. Maybe one day."
"Maybe," Joonmyun agrees.
In the car on the way home, his father turns up the news on the radio loud enough that no one has to talk. Joonmyun's brother is on his phone the whole time anyway, answering e-mails from work and texting his girlfriend. Joonmyun looks out the side window and watches the downpour.
They eat clear japchae noodles with their dinner, and songpyeon. Joonmyun, as a child, used to help his grandmother prepare the ricecake treats, always choosing the red bean ones to make more of because those are his favorite. He fills the silence at the dinner table by singing ‘Sugungga' to himself in his head, only it turns into Baekhyun halfway through and Joonmyun doesn't bother to fight it.
Baekhyun had sung, at Haneul Park, without any accompaniment. Now there's the clang of metal chopsticks against expensive plates to provide a beat.
After dinner, Joonmyun helps his mother wash dishes. They don't talk, really, but their hands brush as he takes the plates from her and carefully dries them. It's a temporary truce. His father disappears into his study and his brother is on the phone. Joonmyun can hear him through the door when he retires to his own room. It's probably his girlfriend.
Joonmyun's childhood bedroom still looks the same. Bare white walls, to help him study, and rich mahogany furniture. He sits on the edge of his bed and taps his fingers against his headboard to the tune of DoubleK's new single. The thump thump of the buk is as rich in his imagination as if he were actually listening to it.
His phone quacks at him. He slips his hand into his pocket and pulls it out, expecting a ‘Happy Chuseok' message from Sunyoung or Minseok or even Jongin.
Instead, he finds a message from Baekhyunnie♫.
what the fuck is a chest voice is all it says, and Joonmyun laughs easily and sincerely for the first time all day. He can picture Baekhyun's face, thin purple-stained mouth curled down and cheeks puffy with frustration.
It's Chuseok. Shouldn't you be paying attention to your family?
not from seoul, Baekhyun quickly texts back. at my place alone watching chuseok specials. idol olympics is on. your friend is pretty athletic. He must mean Jongin. Joonmyun is still smiling.
Joonmyun's family are all in separate rooms. They wouldn't miss him for the night. So you're not busy?
im very busy Baekhyun writes back. im watching tv and reading comics and eating ice cream kkkkkk
I could teach you, Joonmyun types. He sends the message before adding a qualifier. I could teach you how to get more out of your voice.
Yes, replies Joonmyun, looking around at the blank walls of his room and feeling the smoothness of his blankets under his thighs. It's boring and stifling and Baekhyun is anything but. If you would like to, of course.
where shld i meet u?
"I expected more modern art," says Baekhyun, as he looks around Joonmyun's apartment. "Lu Han said you were into pretentious stuff." His hands are swallowed by the sleeves of a shirt that's too big, and his basketball shorts hang far past his knees. He's a child playing dress up in his big brother's clothes. Baekhyun is wearing a different cap today. It's dark blue, and the blue strap cuts across the brightness of his dyed hair. He'd been easy to spot when Joonmyun had walked down to meet him at the Gangnam subway station. "But this is nice. Not too cold, either. How long have you lived here?"
"About seven years." Joonmyun says as he walks into the kitchen. Lu Han and Yixing had helped him move the last of his things in. Yixing had sat on the kitchen table and laughed as Lu Han tried to lift the heaviest boxes by himself. "Even if the place was empty for two of them. Sunyoung watered my plants, though." Joonmyun stretches. "I am into ‘pretentious stuff'. And I don't like the cold."
"I don't like the cold, either. It's just the right temperature in here. Nice and warm." Baekhyun's thin fingers make themselves at home flicking through Joonmyun's CDs, occasionally pausing when Baekhyun comes across something unexpected. "You have a lot of music."
"It's one of my hobbies." Joonmyun watches Baekhyun's face carefully. He looks exhausted. Maybe Joonmyun shouldn't have asked him to come out. But he had asked and Baekhyun had accepted. He gets the feeling Baekhyun doesn't really do anything he doesn't want to do.
"Along with golf?" Teasing. Joonmyun's lip twitches in amusement. It's been a long time since anyone has pushed at him like this.
Joonmyun chuckles. "I thought your memory was bad, Baekhyun."
"It can be," Baekhyun says. "Sometimes I get lucky, though." He smiles down at the CD he's slid out of place. "You have golfing gloves in the shoe cabinet in your entry way. It reminded me."
"I don't know why," Joonmyun says. "My brother and I haven't played in over a year. Mostly I catch it on television now."
"That sounds as exciting as watching paint dry," says Baekhyun.
Maybe Baekhyun would think paint drying was, well, exciting, if he'd seen the MoMA exhibition Joonmyun had seen. There had been a thrill, watching the clean canvas of a naked body get slowly covered in paint. It's how Joonmyun feels, when he hears a really amazing song. Like he's being slowly coated in color.
"Golf can be exciting," says Joonmyun. "Most things can be exciting if you understand them."
"I'm serious. It must be a rich kid thing." Baekhyun is still teasing him. Still smiling that daring half-smile. He's drowning in his clothes and smiling down at one of Joonmyun's CDs, and Joonmyun is taken with how cute he looks like that, lower lip captured by one of his sharper white teeth. "I always liked kickball, myself. Or basketball. Playing, not watching."
Joonmyun hadn't been allowed to play sports as a kid. Maybe if he had, he wouldn't be stuck with the grace of a wobbly newborn kitten. "Can I get you something to drink?"
Baekhyun looks up from his perusal of Joonmyun's album collection to meet Joonmyun's amused gaze. "What do you have?"
"You're welcome to look," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun takes him up on the offer, opening his refrigerator.
"You don't strike me as the soda type." He grabs an orange Hwanta, and closes the refrigerator again.
"I'm not." Joonmyun pushes his hands into the pockets of his slacks. He wishes he'd changed before he'd gone to pick Baekhyun up. "Jongin likes soda."
"Jongin is Kai, right?" Baekhyun leans back against the kitchen table, like he's been here dozens of times and belongs. It's weird. Sunyoung had visited four times before she'd even sat down on the couch without Joonmyun inviting her to have a seat. Baekhyun's already routed his CD collection.
"Does he spend a lot of time here?"
"He used to." Jongin is famous now. He and Soojung are DoubleK, Kai and Krystal, and they have Asia-wide tours and music show performances. They have radio interviews to fumble through and songs to record and variety shows to attend. Joonmyun is busy, too. DoubleK is far from the only artist he makes music for. "Out of habit, I keep his favorites in the fridge."
"Does he like wine coolers, too?" Baekhyun looks more like a kid with a ring of orange around his mouth from the Hwanta.
"That's my ex-girlfriend's favorite." He walks into the living room and sits down on the couch. It's a soft suede. Kris swears, every time he sits on it, that he's going to get one of his own someday.
"The thing about having a shit memory," says Baekhyun, "is that I don't have habits that remind me of how lonely I am." Baekhyun sits down next to Joonmyun. The couch is large. Joonmyun expected Baekhyun to sit on the opposite end, but instead he leaves barely a hand's breadth between them. Their knees bump. "I can't remember my ex's favorite drink."
"Who says I'm lonely?" Joonmyun leans forward and snatches Baekhyun's hat, setting it on the table. His hair is as messy as Joonmyun had suspected, patches of it dyed all sorts of colors. At the roots, it grows out a dark brown. "And maybe she's your ex because you couldn't remember her favorite drink."
"Naw, I can't even remember Tao's favorite drink, and he's like, my closest friend."
"Your co-worker at the comic shop."
Baekhyun whistles. "You're good. Yeah, that's Tao."
Joonmyun's memory is amazing. In high school, he excelled at standardized tests, and at his father's important university parties, he remembered everyone's names and topics of study. His mother had trotted him around like a show-pony. Yes, he goes to Daewon and Yes, he has the top scores in his class. "What's your favorite drink, Baekhyun?"
Waggling his eyebrows, Baekhyun leans back, folds of his huge shirt shifting around him. There's a random splotch of pink in his hair. "I'm not going to tell you. That way, when I forget what you like, we'll be even." He laughs - maybe nervously? - and it rings through the apartment. It's a bright, lovely sound for Joonmyun to hoard away with the rest of Baekhyun's distinctive noises.
Truly, Joonmyun isn't lonely, because he doesn't mind filling the quiet with music instead of conversation. But Baekhyun makes his apartment feel full in a way it hasn't felt in years. "We will not be even," Joonmyun says, licking behind his teeth. His mouth is dry. "You'll just be a forgetful brat."
Surprised, Baekhyun meets his gaze straight on, and then his eyes crinkle. "You'll still like me though," Baekhyun says, and he kicks Joonmyun with a socked foot. Joonmyun pulls his leg up onto the couch for safety.
How did he get here? Baekhyun is practically a stranger and he's kicking Joonmyun on his own couch. "Does everyone like you?"
"At first," Baekhyun says. "It's because I have so much aegyo."
"You are very cute," Joonmyun says. "Like a puppy."
"Lu Han also told me you adopt people." Baekhyun tilts his head to the side, contemplating. Joonmyun stares right back. "I'm not a child. You know that, right?"
"I know." There's nothing childlike in the way Baekhyun approaches people. Joonmyun's side had tingled with the heat of Baekhyun's alcohol-heavy body. "I really do."
"You have a lot of CDs." Baekhyun is staring at him challengingly, and Joonmyun lets him change the subject. "A lot of pansori."
"My grandfather loved pansori," says Joonmyun. "We listened to it a lot when I was a kid. I have his records, too."
"Like forty-fives?" Baekhyun seems to have regained his natural confidence, the off-kilter look vanished from his eyes. "That's cool."
"Yes," Joonmyun says. "Like forty-fives. He left them to me when he died."
"My brother collects records. Or he used to. He doesn't really collect stuff, these days."
"Why not?" Joonmyun is not actually expecting an answer. Baekhyun seems to know that, delivering a tiny, twisted smile that he follows up with a more cute one, the now familiar mischievousness oozing out of him. "Do you collect things?"
"So was it the song choice that made you want to hear me again, or…" He's teasing again. His knees brush Joonmyun's. His words have a way of lilting upward when he teases, like he's coaxing flies with honey. Joonmyun is not a fly. Honey is too sweet for him.
"Your voice," Joonmyun answers. "The song choice helped. ‘Sugungga' is a favorite."
"What if I'd sung Chunhyangga?" Baekhyun sits forward again. Orange Hwanta. He sets the mostly-empty bottle on Joonmyun's low catchall table. "Mongryrong and Chunhyang meeting at Gwang Hanru--"
"I like your voice," says Joonmyun. "It's sticky." Sticky like blueberry mint Xylitol and sticky like smiles at sunset. "The pansori just grabbed my attention."
"Your breath smells like songpyeon." Joonmyun cups a hand over his mouth and breathes. Sure enough, the distinctive pine-needle smell lingers. "I haven't had songpyeon in years." Baekhyun leans closer still. "Did you save me any?"
"I was at my parents' house." He hesitates. "Why didn't you go home for Chuseok?" Joonmyun finally asks, and Baekhyun's hands, lost in the too-long sleeves of his shirt, gather the fabric in his hands. He looks up through his messy hair at Joonmyun, eyes dark and serious even as he smiles playfully.
"Why were you so eager to leave home on Chuseok?" he asks in return, and Joonmyun swallows.
"That's…" He rubs at his temples. "Complicated."
Baekhyun laughs, scratching at his ear. His shin is completely against Joonmyun's now. It's warm and comfortable. "So don't pry, hyung. Just play with me."
"I'm too old to play."
"You're never too old to play," says Baekhyun. "Teach me about chest voice."
"Sing something for me."
"Hmm." Joonmyun stands, walking over to his keyboard and sitting on the bench. Baekhyun follows him, bumping Joonmyun with his hip, telling him to scoot over and make room. "How about ‘Three Bears'?"
Baekhyun pulls a face, and Joonmyun pats his knee. "Are you kidding?"
"No," Joonmyun says. "Just try it." He plays a few bars of it on the piano, to give Baekhyun a start, and Baekhyun pouts at him but sings it anyway. He goes flat on the second verse, but Joonmyun doesn't stop him. He just listens.
When Baekhyun's done, he takes a deep breath. "How was that?" He's smiling at Joonmyun again, his eyes crinkling up. His eyelashes are only a medium brown without mascara. He's close enough that Joonmyun can see them individually.
Joonmyun brings a hand up to Baekhyun's throat and rests his hand on it gently. Baekhyun's eyebrows pull together in alarm, and then relax in confusion as Joonmyun runs his thumb in a small circle just under Baekhyun's Adam's apple. "You're not singing with the richest part."
"What do you mean?"
"You're not supporting your voice," Joonmyun explains. "You're singing entire songs in your head voice, and it ends up sounding nasal and breathy. You're missing out on the best part of your range." He slips easily into teacher mode. He'd taught Jongin this once. He doesn't remember Jongin sitting this close to him, and he definitely hadn't touched him. "You need to settle in deeper." He slides his hand down, palm flat against Baekhyun's breastbone. "Down here. Where you speak." Baekhyun's heart beats steadily under his hand. "Although you tend to speak high and nasal, too."
"So I sing and talk all wrong, is what you're saying."
Joonmyun chuckles. "No," he says. "Actually this is an easier problem to fix than if you sang everything in your chest voice. If you'd tried to belt some of those notes you go for from down there you'd have really messed up your vocal cords."
"It's just singing," Baekhyun says. Raised hackles. Baekhyun is the opposite type of student from Joonmyun, he can tell already. Resentful of authority and defiant on principle. Joonmyun had needed to learn rebelliousness, when he was Baekhyun's age. Baekhyun already has it in spades.
"The voice is an instrument you have to learn how to use, just like a piano or a violin." Joonmyun lets his hand fall from Baekhyun's chest to his thigh. He leaves it there to keep Baekhyun's attention. "This time, I want you to sing from your chest. Let it resonate there."
"I'm not sure I get it," says Baekhyun, and Joonmyun pats his thigh twice before turning back to the piano.
"We have all night to get it right," Joonmyun replies. Baekhyun leans into Joonmyun, breath hot on Joonmyun's neck.
"Seonsaengnim~" Baekhyun purrs at him, and Joonmyun elbows him away, until Baekhyun laughs and pulls himself straight, eyes following Joonmyun's fingers along the keys. "Why don't you sing for me as a demonstration?"
"I don't sing," Joonmyun says. "I write so other people can."
"Let someone else feel for you, right?" Their hipbones dig into each other's. "Don't sing or can't?"
"Don't," Joonmyun says, pressing down and sending an F out into the air. Baekhyun's laugh tickles his cheek. "I know all the tricks but I don't have the voice."
"I want to hear you," Baekhyun coos, and Joonmyun distracts him with quick playing and a challenge in his eyes.
For the first time in a long time, Joonmyun's apartment is too warm.
"Where did you go last night?" his brother asks him, the next morning before breakfast. "I went into your room to ask you a question last night around ten, but you weren't there."
Joonmyun tucks in his shirt, smoothing away wrinkles and fastening his belt.
He can still feel the warmth of Baekhyun drowsily falling into him, cheek to Joonmyun's hair, body heavy and hot and lax as Joonmyun played the Park Songhee version of ‘Sugungga' through his surround sound. "Hyung," Baekhyun had said, "if you're trying to put me to sleep, it's working."
Baekhyun's voice is huskier when he's tired, all slurred phrases and unrolled consonants.
"Music stuff," Joonmyun replies, smiling at his brother. His mood is impossibly good. He'd left a practically soporose Baekhyun at a bus stop around six. Baekhyun had sung in the car. Three Bears.
"I should have known," his brother says. "I was hoping you had a secret girlfriend, or something."
"Not at all," says Joonmyun, as he sits down and pulls clean socks onto his feet. "I'm not nearly that interesting."
"I don't know," says his brother. "When you were a kid, I thought you were boring, but… You're the one that dropped out of college and became a big time music producer. I should expect the unexpected from you now." He smiles. "Maybe you have five secret girlfriends."
Joonmyun smiles back. "I was listening to Park Songhee at four in the morning," he says. Baekhyun's skin is damp and soft when he's asleep. "You have nothing to worry about."
"Chuseok is over," Kris says. "Why is your studio still filled with the sounds of wailing old women?"
"I enjoy it," Joonmyun says. "And it's my studio. I'll listen to what I want when I'm not mixing."
"It sounds so sad." Kris is too big for the doorway of Joonmyun's studio. He is sloppily folded limbs and a hunched back as he waits for Joonmyun to shut everything down. It's Thursday, and it's time to go get drinks. Kris chooses the venue this week.
"It's not sad at all," says Joonmyun, as he cuts the music off. "It's a satire."
"What? Really?" Kris's hair looks blonder than it had yesterday. It might be the light, but Joonmyun doesn't think so.
Joonmyun slips his arms into his jacket, the silk lining static against the wool of his sweater. "Yes, really," he says. "Your hair is different."
"You're always the only one who notices." Kris frowns, and curiosity tugs at Joonmyun unexpectedly.
"Is there someone else you want to notice?" Joonmyun locks the door as Kris walks down the hallway toward the elevator. It's a little past nine, and everyone else on this floor has gone home. He can hear noise above him, though. Trainees, probably, dancing in the fifth floor mirrored studios, and Jongin, who still has the mentality of a trainee sometimes.
"Maybe," Kris says, punching the elevator button. "But tell me about the song first."
"'Sugungga' is the fifth of the five pansori songs," says Joonmyun, as they walk out to the parking lot, waving at the guard as they pass. "A turtle lures a rabbit back to the palace to save his beloved Dragon King, whose illness can only be cured with the liver of a rabbit. But the rabbit is much cleverer than both the Dragon King and his loyal turtle and tricks his way out of the palace." Joonmyun waits for Kris to unlock his car, and then trips his way into the passenger seat. "Ow."
"Only you would hurt yourself getting into a car, Joonmyun." Kris laughs. "We're going to a bar where I won't stick out like a sore thumb this week."
"It must be so difficult being tall and handsome," says Joonmyun, and Kris scoffs.
"So does the Dragon King die?" Joonmyun looks up from fastening his seatbelt. "In your song. If the rabbit escapes, what happens to the Dragon King?"
"I don't know." Joonmyun rubs his hands together to warm them up. It isn't truly cold, but Yixing always jokes that Joonmyun has cool hands and bad circulation. "That's not the point of ‘Sugungga'. The point is that the commoner outsmarted the aristocrat and got away with his life."
"Ah, I see," says Kris. "So the Dragon King died?"
"Well," Joonmyun says, leaning back, "now you've made it kind of sad."
Joonmyun is definitely underdressed for the bar they go to, but he's wearing expensive shoes and an even more expensive watch, so no one says anything at all. Some of the staff seem to know Kris. Maybe he takes people here after meetings. People with jobs more like Kris's.
They drink wine. Kris orders a bottle of some pinot noir that costs as much as dinner for ten at a meat restaurant. Kris, for all his size, goes pink cheeked and soft after a couple of glasses, and Joonmyun keeps his friend anchored in the conversation with a hand on his forearm.
"So tell me about the person you like," says Joonmyun. He swirls the wine around in his glass, already feeling lightheaded himself. He can tell that he needs to stop drinking now, so he can drive Kris's car back to the office and then maybe drive Kris home, too. He sets the glass down on the table and focuses fully on Kris. "Do I know her?"
Kris purses his lips, turning an already small mouth into a minuscule one, and it's such a silly expression that Joonmyun laughs at him. "This is why people think you're flirting with them all the time," Kris says. "This."
"What are you talking about, Kris?"
"That thing where you look at people when you're talking to them like they're the only person that matters." Kris pulls his arm away from Joonmyun and takes a generous sip of wine. "You're doing it right now."
"It's not wrong to pay attention when you talk to people." Joonmyun subtly gestures to a hovering server that he needs a glass of water. "It's only being polite."
"Not the way you do it." Kris runs a hand through mussed hair. He has a natural part in his hair, right down the middle. He hates it, but his hair always falls into it by the end of the day. "You have a way of making people feel like they're the only person in the world that can make you smile."
"Aww, Kris," Joonmyun coos, unsettled, "how romantic."
"Those aren't my words," Kris says. "They're Sunyoung's."
"You talk to Sunyoung about me?" The server slides a glass of water with lemon onto his table, and Joonmyun flashes her a smile. She blushes, and Joonmyun quickly turns back to Kris, who is smirking at him now. "Shut up."
"I didn't say anything," Kris says. "But if you were wondering, that's why she isn't over you."
"She is over me," Joonmyun corrects. "She…" The water is cold, and the ice bumps his teeth. He grabs the straw and sticks it into the glass. The second sip is less brutal. "We're talking about you, not me."
"It's Soojung," Kris says. "I know it's a bad idea, but…"
Kris always likes ice princesses. Joonmyun shouldn't be surprised. "Why is it a bad idea?"
"Because she's an idol," he replies. "And she's so young."
"And because she doesn't notice your hair?" He smiles to take away the sting, and Kris laughs, revealing tiny teeth darkened by wine. "She's not that young." Joonmyun's gut is tight and uncomfortable. Wine is never good on an empty stomach.
"She's only twenty-three, Joonmyun." He spreads his hands on the table in front of them. "I'm a lot older. I've dated a lot more people."
Soojung is only a year older than Baekhyun. He's not sure why that thought pops up, but it's irrelevant, so he pushes it back down. "Do you think Soojung is the sort of girl who doesn't know what she wants?"
"Not at all," Kris replies. "That's what I like about her." He's blushing and Joonmyun can't help but laugh at him, putting a hand in front of his mouth to hide how amused he is. "You shut up."
"I didn't say anything," Joonmyun says. "But Soojung is not ever going to be the girl who tells you she likes your hair or compliments you constantly." Joonmyun's jeans are out of place, but he isn't. He gets the server's attention easily, and she brings a second glass of water for Kris. "So don't get bogged down by that."
"You have such good love advice," Kris says, and Joonmyun shakes his head, stealing Kris's lemon slice and putting it in his own drink. "I don't understand why you aren't constantly in love."
Joonmyun thinks about how much he'd thought his heart would burst, back when he was twenty-two and so afraid to feel like he was falling. "I'm constantly in love," he says. "With music, and people, and life."
"That's not a real answer," Kris says, finishing his wine and setting it aside. "But I should probably learn not to expect those from you."
Joonmyun drops a sleepy Kris off at his house, and as he drives himself home, Baekhyun's version of ‘Three Bears' playing itself on repeat in his head is a relief from the crushing weight of his thoughts.
"Something big is in the works," Minseok says. "We signed someone today. Full seven year contract."
"Really?" Joonmyun sets down the printed music sheets he's made for Sunyoung of her song and gives Minseok his full attention. Minseok cradles a cup of coffee like it's his child and grins. "A solo artist?"
"Apparently one of the best voices Ryeowook has worked with in years. He's only been a trainee for three months."
"That's it?" It's unheard of. Joonmyun's spent almost eight years working with talent at SM and it's never really happened.
"Apparently he can't dance, but he's being groomed as a solo singer, so…"
"So that doesn't really matter," finishes Joonmyun. "Wow. I wonder who's doing his debut album?"
"I'm sure we'll find out soon," Minseok says. "I think Kris mentioned something about Song Qian being his manager?"
"Lucky kid, right?" Joonmyun laughs. "Speaking of Kris, does he look okay? I dropped him off at his place extremely drunk last night."
"I can tell," Minseok says. "He walked into his office door twice this morning after two failed unlock attempts. Soojung was laughing like it was Christmas."
"Speak of the devil," Joonmyun says, as Kris peeks his head into Minseok's office. "Are you doing all right today?"
"I've felt better," replies Kris. "The boss wants to see you."
‘The boss?" Rarely does Joonmyun ever interact with Lee Sooman, especially when Joonmyun is not working on a D. Orchestra or DoubleK album. "Why?"
"Ask him," Kris says. "In five minutes. Which is when he expects you in his office."
Joonmyun gathers up his music sheets, tapping them against the table until they form a neat stack in his hands. "Wow, okay," he says. "See you later."
Lee Sooman's office is always cold. He keeps the air conditioner on maximum, even late into the fall. It does make the long room, with Lee Sooman's desk situated in the back, all the more intimidating. Joonmyun swallows, tasting the bitter remains of his own morning coffee.
Today, Song Qian and a man-boy that Joonmyun doesn't know are sitting in the two chairs in front of his desk. Joonmyun nibbles on his lower lip and debates between standing and pulling over a chair.
"Kim Joonmyun," he says. "Bring one of the extra chairs over. This won't take long."
"Yes, sir," Joonmyun says, following instructions. He still gets the anxious churn in his stomach that he got the very first time he'd entered this office with sweaty hands and an overstarched shirt.
"This is Kim Jongdae," Lee Sooman says. "SM Entertainment has just signed him. Song Qian will be functioning as his manager."
Kim Jongdae stands up and bows, and Joonmyun bows back, more slightly, meeting Song Qian's eyes and winking when she smiles at him.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Kim Joonmyun-ssi," Jongdae says. There's a confident tilt to his eyebrows, and a strong curve to his cheeks. He's beautiful, Joonmyun notes. He has the face of an idol, and when he speaks, his voice is soft and mellifluous and warm. "Please take care of me."
He reminds Joonmyun of Baekhyun. Possibly it's the way teasing lurks at the corners of his mouth.
"Of course," Joonmyun murmurs.
"Kim Joonmyun-ssi," Lee Sooman has old, swollen hands. The wrinkles in his face are strong, like his face is covered in crinkled up sheet music instead of skin. "I'm sure you've figured out why you're here now."
"You want me to write a song for Jongdae-ssi," says Joonmyun. "Right?"
"I want to put you completely in charge of his sound," Lee Sooman says, and Joonmyun grips the papers nervously, crushing them between his hands. "We're looking for something completely new with a twist of classical to show off his strong vocals. Almost everyone has said you are the best choice, and I'm inclined to agree."
It's a big opportunity. Even with DoubleK, Joonmyun has to run everything by Yesung and Kibum. Kyungsoo's songs all go through Ryeowook, who decides whether or not they're really Kyungsoo songs after all.
That person will be Joonmyun, for this fresh-faced kid with the pretty cheekbones and prettier voice. "I would be honored," he says, smiling gently.
"Good," Lee Sooman says. "Jongdae has vocal lessons now, but perhaps you two can become better acquainted this afternoon."
The three of them leave the office, and Joonmyun turns to Jongdae.
"I'll be in my studio," Joonmyun says. "Sunyoung and I are polishing a song for her new album, but you're welcome to join us whenever you complete your lessons."
"Sunyoung as in… Luna?" Jongdae asks. "You write songs for Luna, seonbaenim?"
"Just Joonmyun-hyung will do," he says, and Jongdae beams at him. "And yes, I do. Would you like to meet her?"
"I'm very happy just to meet you, hyung," Jongdae says and Song Qian chuckles.
"Another convert to the cult of Joonmyun," she says. Her hair is soft curls. A deceiving mane for SM's tigress. Joonmyun gives her a more genuine smile.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he says, as Jongdae shines at him like a young adoring sun.
"Sure you don't," Song Qian replies, and Joonmyun is left to stare bemusedly as the pair walk down the hall, leaving him alone in the hallway.
It's a big opportunity. Joonmyun looks down at the music in his hands. Twenty-two year old Joonmyun would have embraced this challenge, but twenty-nine year old Joonmyun is just anxious and afraid.
"My parents aren't too sold on this whole idol thing," Jongdae confides in him. "They think I'm chasing a pipe dream."
"Sounds familiar." Joonmyun plays back Jongdae singing his scales, the sound so clear and rich in the studio headphones. It's far more polished than Baekhyun's. It's rich and filled out and he knows how to sing.
Joonmyun shouldn't think about Baekhyun while he's working with Jongdae.
"They still can't believe I got signed."
"You have a wonderful voice," Joonmyun says. "Of course you did."
"That's not all it takes to get signed," Jongdae says. "There's more to it than that."
"True," Joonmyun says. "But you have it all, don't you?"
"I'm a horrible dancer." Jongdae laughs, and he's still looking at Joonmyun with those big eager eyes that remind him… Maybe of how Sunyoung used to look at him, a long time ago. A long time ago. "Something I hear we have in common. But yeah, I guess I do."
Joonmyun looks down at his cell phone and slips the headphones around his neck. "Let's make good music together." He rests his hand on Jongdae's elbow. "But not dance tracks, probably."
"Not dance tracks," Jongdae agrees. "Were your parents okay, when you started producing music?" He has nervous hands. "Didn't you ever want to be a performer, yourself?"
"I was supposed to be a businessman," Joonmyun says. He's almost thirty, and his water bottle is nearly empty. "I think my family might have found that a more respectable career choice."
The son of a professor with no college degree.
"Mine want me to be a doctor," Jongdae says. "But they'll come around."
"I'm sure they will," Joonmyun says. Jongdae smiles, big and sweet, and therein lies the biggest difference between Jongdae and Baekhyun. Jongdae is still soft in all the ways Baekhyun is already hard. Baekhyun, who has never learned how to sing without hurting himself, is as rough as his voice. "Tell me, Jongdae-yah, what kind of music do you like?"
Joonmyun starts mixing music when he is fifteen.
Daewon is an academic high school, one of the best in Korea, but there is a focus on extracurriculars - after all, that's what American universities are looking for, and Joonmyun wants, sincerely, to make his mother happy by attending one.
So as a first year, he joins musical theater. He's always loved singing, and making up his own songs that he only sings in the shower where no one can hear him. He takes a chance and joins the club. That's where he meets third year Cho Kyuhyun.
"You're always tapping your fingers to the beat, Joonmyun," Kyuhyun says one day, after a long rehearsal that has left the director in tears and the female lead angrily stomping around backstage. Kyuhyun is the male lead this time, again. He's always a performer. Joonmyun is not. He plays the piano during rehearsals and helps with costumes. He doesn't expect Cho Kyuhyun to even remember his name, but clearly he does. "Like you can't stop. Even when you aren't playing the piano."
"Sometimes in my head," replies Joonmyun, "I change the songs around. The tempo or…" He shrugs, and then nervously combs at the hair in front of his ears as he forces himself to meet Kyuhyun's eyes. "I can't help it. Thinking about the ways the song could sound better."
"I have a friend who does that," Kyuhyun says. "Makes songs. And fixes songs." He smiles. "He says he's an artist but I think he's just anal. You should meet him."
And Joonmyun is still confused about the fact that Cho Kyuhyun is talking to him, but he finds himself agreeing to meet Cho Kyuhyun's college-student friend Shim Changmin and somehow, from there, Joonmyun falls in love with soundboards and samplers and FL Studio and Pro Tools. He falls in love with the tiny studio Changmin and his friend Junsu rent in Beotigogae, and with the way songs transform beneath his fingertips. He squirrels away time for it between exams and Chinese tutoring and rehearsals for the Lunar New Year's show. He buys a new laptop that can handle the mixing software and squeezes new mixes onto the demos Changmin and Junsu spin at the parties they DJ on campus.
"It's something I really love," Joonmyun tells his grandfather one day, when he steals Joonmyun away from his books for the day, two weeks before his Korean university entrance exams. He's decided to stay in country for college, to study business, just like his brother. His mother is proud of him, and Joonmyun is sufficiently resigned. They walk the sedate path up to Namsan tower, and Joonmyun can't remember if he'd always had to slow his steps this much for his grandfather to keep up.
"I think in life," his grandfather says, "we all deserve to find the thing we truly love to do."
"Even if it's not politics or medicine?" Joonmyun asks, thinking about the way his mother's face had lit up when he announced his intentions to pursue business.
"What's the point of living a long life if it isn't a happy one?" his grandfather answers. He folds his wrinkled hand around Joonmyun's wrist and maybe it is Joonmyun who is a few steps slow and can't keep up.
When he drops out of college six months shy of his degree to take a job at SM, one he hadn't even thought he'd get when he applied, his mother stops talking to him.
"She'll come around," his grandmother says, setting a plate of fresh kimbap in front of him. The smell of sundubu on the stove is comforting enough that Joonmyun does not feel like crying. Joonmyun has never disappointed someone in his life, and as liberating as selling his textbooks had been, there is an anchor that's pulling him to the bottom of the ocean and there isn't any air to breathe down here. Only water rushing into his mouth and filling his lungs. Rebellion doesn't taste as sweet as it looks in the movies. The saltwater of freedom turns sour on his tongue in the wake of unmet expectations. "You have to live your own life, Joonmyunnie."
"I know," Joonmyun says, and there's so much about him that he's tried to put away, measures of all the ways he doesn't quite fit. Yixing had helped him pack up the apartment his parents had bought for him and had laced his fingers with Joonmyun's own when Joonmyun had refused to meet his eyes.
Joonmyun has always been the type to ask permission to run away from home and never ignores his mother's calls. Maybe no one in the family knows what to do when Joonmyun says ‘no', not even Joonmyun.
"Just put your heart into your work," his grandfather says. "And eventually… eventually everyone will come around."
"Do you really think so?" Joonmyun asks, and his grandfather smiles.
"You don't have to be someone else for us to love you," he says, but Joonmyun has his father's grim face and the cold twist to his mother's mouth that tells him how untrue that is.
ive got a gig on Friday if youre free
is what Baekhyun texts Joonmyun on Wednesday night. Joonmyun is surprised. It's been almost two weeks since he's heard from Baekhyun. Since they'd fallen asleep for two hours on Joonmyun's couch and then split up at the line of bus stops near Gangnam station.
Where? replies Joonmyun, and waits.
why dont u meet me at the comic shop and ill take you, Baekhyun says, and Joonmyun sets his phone down on his bed. He walks into the bathroom and splashes his face with cold water. He squirts toothpaste onto his toothbrush and then scrubs at his teeth.
What are you singing? he types instead of a reply, when he gets back to his bed. The blankets are the soft fleecy ones he puts out in the winter. They still smell musty from his closet, but there's the lingering rose of the detergent he likes.
its a surprise
The music note after Baekhyun's name is cute. Cute like Baekhyun's text messages, which are rude and childish and still manage to make Joonmyun feel like he's being taunted.
im off at 9, Baekhyun responds, and Joonmyun feels a tingle of excitement.
Looking forward to it, he types.
"How are things going with Jongdae?" Minseok looks exhausted. He has the same circles under his eyes that Joonmyun had seen in passing as Jongin sleepily wandered through the hallways and Soojung had curled up next to the vending machine on the seventh floor with a disposable cup of what was maybe coffee in her hand, pink nail polish chipping.
"He's really talented," Joonmyun says. "His voice is powerful. Beautiful." And Joonmyun's songs are boring. Boring and lifeless and nothing like what Jongdae needs for his debut album.
Where there used to be a river as wide as the Han of inspiration, now there is only a thin branching stream. The rest of the bed is dried up. Sometimes Joonmyun can feel the brackish water lapping at his ankles, and he remembers when it surged high enough to drown him.
"He's a catch," Song Qian says, walking into Minseok's office, pleased and radiant on a day when everyone else Joonmyun has interacted with is wan and sedate. "Lee Sooman was right to snatch him up."
"He's going to do well," Joonmyun says, and Minseok nods.
"Maybe with another artist in rotation DoubleK can take a break for a few months. I'm worried about Jongin's back injury."
"Is that still bothering him?"
"He hasn't complained, but…" Minseok frowns. "I worry."
"Maybe you should speak to the boss?" Joonmyun is thankful he isn't a manager. He would be good at it, but he worries enough about each and every one of his friends without having to add their schedules and their relationships with Lee Sooman to the mix.
"I may have to," says Minseok. "But Jongin and Soojung would probably throw a fit. Better if they think the break is for the promotion of another artist than for their health. You know how the kids are."
"You probably shouldn't call them kids." Song Qian laughs, pink lipsticked lips stretching around her smile. "At least, not where they might hear you."
Joonmyun grins in reply, making a mental note to check on Jongin's back. Maybe take Jongin out to lunch next week and make sure he's okay.
"It's Jongdae who's the kid," Joonmyun says. "He's old enough to drink, right?"
"He's twenty-two, Joonmyun," Song Qian says. Same as Baekhyun. Jongdae feels so much younger, with a gentleness hidden in his smile that Joonmyun's never seen in Baekhyun. Baekhyun's smile, even when he's relaxed and being cute, is full of sharp edges.
Joonmyun should stop comparing apples and oranges.
"Is he really?" Joonmyun smiles. "I thought he'd be younger. Lee Sooman doesn't usually sign them that old."
"Rumor has it that he follows you around like a puppy." Minseok chuckles. "It's like you have some kind of magic power."
"The Kim Joonmyun effect."
"You're being silly." Joonmyun's noticed. He just hasn't figured out if it's something he needs to be concerned about or not. It's only been a week. Jongdae doesn't know Joonmyun at all yet. He'll realize that Joonmyun is better for a simple, casual attachment soon enough. "He's just new and a bit star struck. He looks at Sunyoung like if he blinks she'll disappear."
"A lot of people look at her like that," Song Qian says. Is it accusing? Joonmyun swallows.
"How is Jongdae doing in dance classes?" Minseok presses his lips into a thin line, feline eyes darting between Joonmyun and Song Qian with curiosity.
"No one's perfect," she says, somewhat defensive, and when Minseok snorts, she laughs, the tension in the room lifting.
"Most of us aren't even close," says Joonmyun. "Not too well, then?"
"Ryan's frustrated. We need fresh blood for the choreography," says Song Qian. "Someone who can choreograph for both Jongdae and his backup dancers. It won't be like working with Jongin, you know?"
Jongin is a natural. His limbs obey every instruction Jongin gives them, which is more than Joonmyun can say for most people. "So someone who can work well with beginners?"
"And just… someone different," Minseok adds. "Everything around here is getting stale." Joonmyun pulls on the collar of his dark gray sweater, making it easier to breathe. "Not that you-"
"I have someone in mind," Joonmyun says. "Let me give it a shot."
"Sure," Song Qian says. "There's no rush. You haven't written anything for his album yet, right?"
"Not yet," Joonmyun agrees, releasing his sweater and plucking at his pants leg instead. He's relieved when Kris peers into Minseok's office to see if they're still on for tonight. Joonmyun is happy to say of course and follow Kris out the door and into the hallway, leaving the stifling room behind.
The clientele at ComicsPlease is different at night. A few business men linger in the back, shirttails untucked and suit slacks wrinkled from a long day at the office. Young men in grungy T-shirts with dyed hair chat with the pierced guy Joonmyun had seen the last time—Tao?—and Baekhyun is flirting with an older woman who leans on the counter and smiles at him like he's all the stars in the sky.
Baekhyun looks over at the stairs, where Joonmyun leans back against an overflowing shelf of new releases, and grins. He murmurs something to the woman, and she frowns with faked sadness as she pulls out her wallet and hands Baekhyun a few manwon bills as he pushes a sky-blue bag toward her across the counter.
After she leaves, Joonmyun saunters over to the counter himself. "Are you carrying a backpack?" Baekhyun asks, and Joonmyun laughs.
"I came straight from work. Sorry I'm early," he says. "But Jongin gave me a list of comics to pick up."
"Did he?" Baekhyun says. "Let's see it." His lips aren't purple today. They are chapped. There's makeup smeared on his left cheek, inexpertly covering a red blemish. He looks tired. "Only twenty minutes until closing time. Not that early."
"It's busier." Joonmyun shuffles through his phone's notepad, through half-thoughts and reminders, until he finds Jongin's list.
"The after work geeks," Baekhyun replies. "The part time fanatics."
He takes Joonmyun's phone and studies the list. Only four comics, nothing Joonmyun would have trouble remembering on his own but he'd wanted to be sure. Jongin had looked so tired. His hand had braced the small of his back and it would be nice if Sunyoung's new album promotions could start sooner rather than later.
"These are all in the same place," Baekhyun says. "Your friend Jongin has pretty predictable taste in manhwa."
"He likes the ones with magical animals and robots," Joonmyun replies. "I have a thirteen year old cousin that had the same taste when he was seven."
"Yeah, sounds about right," laughs Baekhyun. He's wearing the same faded, ripped jeans he'd been wearing last time Joonmyun came into the shop. "What does your cousin like now?"
"I don't know," Joonmyun says, hands finding their way into pockets as Baekhyun leads him down an aisle. Baekhyun hooks his finger on the spine of a volume of something called Digital Monsters, pulling it off the shelf and leaving a gap in the line of comics. His nails are shorter, but still perfectly rounded and glossed. "Do you play piano?"
He'd suspected Baekhyun might, the way his eyes had remembered the keys back on Chuseok. "Why?"
"You have piano hands."
"I have my mother's hands," Baekhyun says. "She plays piano."
"Hmmm," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun hands him the comic. Joonmyun pulls one hand out of his jeans to take it, and their fingers brush. Baekhyun's hand is very warm. The comic shop is underground, and there is barely a draft from outside. "My mother doesn't play the piano. At least, I don't think she does."
"Who taught you? Expensive hagwon lessons?" Further into the back of the shop.
"My grandmother," says Joonmyun. "She's better than I'll ever be, but I'm good enough to get my ideas down."
Baekhyun goes up onto his toes to grab another volume. His shirt, Wonder Woman this time, isn't long enough when his arms stretch out, revealing a stripe of belly. The brim of his backwards cap hits his shoulder blades as he tilts his head back. "Here are the second and third comics on the list."
Joonmyun holds the three comics to his chest. Baekhyun starts to hum, tapping his cheek right where it wrinkles when he grins, nibbling lightly on his lower lip as he thinks.
"That's why your lips are so chapped," Joonmyun says. "Because you lick and bite them."
Baekhyun narrows his eyes at Joonmyun. "Don't pay attention to things like that."
"That's the sort of person I am," Joonmyun says. "The sort who pays attention."
"I'm the sort who forgets," Baekhyun says. "I don't bother to pay attention when I'll forget whatever it is I see."
"Is it convenient, to be forgetful?" Joonmyun looks down at the comics in his hands. He thinks his cousin did like one of these, once upon a time. Joonmyun had bought something very similar for a birthday, a few years back. He remembers the thin lines and the outlandish costumes.
"Hey, Baekhyun-hyung." Piercings guy is standing casually with his hands on his hips, dark hair falling into his eyes and lower lip pouting. "A couple of people at the register."
"Would you mind checking them out, Tao?" Baekhyun's hair is frizzy at the ends. "Don't bother to sign out of my register account. I trust you."
Baekhyun is rewarded with a warm smile that transforms the boy's face. "No prob," Tao says, and he gives Joonmyun a curious look before he meanders away from them, back toward the front.
"Tao is very cute," Baekhyun says. "He looks hard and tough, but he's just really cute."
"The opposite of you, then," teases Joonmyun. He adjusts his backpack.
"Am I cute?" Baekhyun asks, batting his eyelashes coquettishly and leaning his head to the side like some kind of drama heroine. "Really, hyung?"
"I'll cut your eyelashes off," Joonmyun says. "Flutter them at me then." Baekhyun's eyes flash with surprise before he's smiling again, big and wicked.
"You're a contradiction yourself, I think." He takes a few steps back, and it's only when Joonmyun can't smell candy and sweat that he realizes that Baekhyun had been standing too close. "Let's get the last one before closing, shall we?"
Baekhyun hums as he swings around the corner into a new aisle, past a Honggik student in a school sweatshirt. It's the same song, Kyungsoo's song, that he'd hummed on their sunset adventure.
"I wrote that, you know," Joonmyun says, offhandedly. Baekhyun turns to look at him. "For Kyungsoo. For D.O., I mean."
"Everyone knows his name is Kyungsoo," Baekhyun says. "D.O. is a stupid stage name." He snags the final comic on Jongin's list and hands it to Joonmyun. Joonmyun wants to comment that Baekhyun had only seen the list once and hadn't needed to check it again. He doesn't, though, and just carefully lines up the manhwa volume spines in his hands until they're a neat stack. "So is Suho."
"It's not a stage name if you're never on stage." Joonmyun's palms are sweaty. "You don't look like the type to read liner notes."
"You mean I don't look like the type to read, don't you?" Baekhyun smirks, and Joonmyun smiles back, not disagreeing. "Chanyeol says the same thing. All he does is read when he's not dressing up and running around the palace." Baekhyun brushes past Joonmyun, up toward the register. "Or knit."
"He doesn't strike me as the intellectual type, either," Joonmyun admits, and Baekhyun laughs. "But I haven't really talked to him."
"Maybe we'll see him out tonight." Baekhyun spins his hat, brim now to the side. He has freckles on the back of his neck. "Although Saturday is usually an early and busy day for him so maybe not."
Tao is watching them as they approach the counter. Joonmyun slides the four comics across it, and Tao takes them. Baekhyun stands next to him, taking off his apron, his sweatshirt clad arm constantly rubbing against Joonmyun's side. The zippers on his backpack jingle with each brush.
Joonmyun smiles at Tao as he casually slides the comics into a bag. Tao lazily blinks at him, before smiling back. "I'm Zitao," he says. "Baekhyun's best friend."
"I'm Kim Joonmyun." His sweater is soft in his hands as he pulls at the bottom of it. "Baekhyun's acquaintance, I think."
"No," Baekhyun says, leaning against the counter, "you're my seonsaengnim, remember?" His lips quirk, and Joonmyun's stomach burns with a strange heat. Putting the purchased comics in his backpack is a good distraction. "Do you want to leave that at my place?"
"Is that okay?"
Baekhyun shrugs, and Zitao fiddles with the cross earring that hangs against his neck, eyes going from Baekhyun to Joonmyun and then back, again, to Baekhyun.
"I wouldn't have offered if it wasn't," Baekhyun says, and Joonmyun pulls on a strap. Carrying it through Hongdae does not sound appealing.
"Then yes, I'd like that." Too stiff and formal. "If it isn't inconvenient."
"Mister Polite," Baekhyun says, mocking. "And a cup of tea, as well, if it won't be an inconvenience."
"Are you going to Baekhyun-hyung's show tonight?" Zitao asks.
"You aren't?" Going to gigs seems like a best friend duty to Joonmyun. He doesn't have a best friend, so maybe it's something he can't make conjectures about.
"I can't go to these night shows," Zitao says. "I can't leave my daughter at home at night. She's scared when she's left with a babysitter. So we're having movie night instead."
Zitao looks too young to have a daughter. He's looking down at Joonmyun's receipt as though he thinks Joonmyun will say something along those lines. Baekhyun has keys now, in preparation for locking up, and he's tapping one key steadily against the countertop like a warning. "How old is she?" Joonmyun asks, and Zitao beams.
"Four!" he says. He fumbles into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet. The girl in the picture is young and cute and smiling wide.
"She's lovely," Joonmyun says, and Zitao smiles down at the picture before he closes his wallet and puts it away. "I hope movie night is fun."
"I'm leaving the keys," Baekhyun says. "Lock up?"
"Of course," Zitao says, and he shoos them both off like he's the hyung instead of Baekhyun.
It's raining outside when they emerge out of ComicsPlease. The rain is cold now, because it's autumn in earnest. The drops sting Joonmyun's cheeks. Baekhyun looks up at the clouds and scowls at them, as though that will make the rain stop, and Joonmyun laughs. "You look like a puppy when you frown like that." In the dark, the makeup smeared on Baekhyun's cheek and the freckles on his neck are invisible. Joonmyun can still make out the dryness of his lips. "Don't you have a jacket?"
"Zitao loves you already," Baekhyun says. "Most people can't hide the surprise as well as you did."
"About his daughter?" Joonmyun pulls out his umbrella and opens it, inviting Baekhyun under with a short pull to his forearm. Baekhyun's body is so warm against Joonmyun's as they fit together under the umbrella.
"Yeah," Baekhyun says. "He's young, but he's a good dad. Better than most dads." Walking down streets that have cleared as people hide in shops from the rain, Baekhyun's voice is lower than usual. Serious. It reminds Joonmyun of the way sand sounds when crushed between his fingers. The tiniest pieces of glass.
"I used to be super afraid of the dark," Joonmyun says. Baekhyun jolts, and covers it by digging in his pockets. Then there's blueberry Xylitol and peeks of Baekhyun's tongue as he chews it. "I'm not sure…" The light in Joonmyun's father's office was, is, always on so late, but Joonmyun had known never to go in there, no matter how scared he was.
"I'm not afraid of anything," Baekhyun says. "I'm a hundred percent fearless."
"I'm afraid of everything," Joonmyun says. He laughs, and water sloughs off the umbrella and down their fronts as he tips it. Baekhyun curses, and Joonmyun apologizes with a small smile.
"Maybe I am too," Baekhyun says. "It's hard to say. I wonder if you can get so used to being afraid that you don't even remember what it's like to do things without feeling like that?"
Baekhyun puts his arm around Joonmyun's waist, underneath his bag, to pull him up onto the sidewalk and around a puddle, then lets his arm fall. They're deeper into a neighborhood now. The rain is letting up, too, fat drops coming down slowly as they wind up a side alley. "You can," Joonmyun says. The back of his neck is damp and he's lucky his backpack is waterproof. It's an umbrella meant for one, not two. "But I admire people that push through that just as much as I admire people who are fearless."
"So I've earned your admiration either way?" Baekhyun asks.
"Yes," he replies. Joonmyun likes to feel safe. Safe in his studio, behind the glass, penning the words and melodies and not having to face the reaction to them. Distance from his thoughts and his feelings. The man next to him writes songs and then sings them. Joonmyun has never been able to do that. "But don't get cocky."
"Me? Cocky?" Baekhyun smirks. His face is damp from stray raindrops. "Never."
Baekhyun lives fifteen minutes from the store. His neighborhood is nothing like Joonmyun's, where all smoking is done on private balconies and security guards have their own desk on the bottom floor of the building. Baekhyun hollers "be careful!" at some teenager on a bike who rides past yelling "what's up Byunbaek?!", and cheerfully greets a tired looking ahjumma with a single bag of produce and a worn out leather pocketbook hanging from a sloped shoulder.
"This is it," Baekhyun says, stopping in front of a glass door. He punches a three-digit code into the keypad.
Baekhyun's apartment is more like an officetel. A single room with his bed tucked into the corner and his washing machine underneath his sink.
"It's so clean?" Joonmyun says.
"Yeah, well," Baekhyun says, "it's not as big as your place so I can't leave stuff on every available surface like you do."
"Are you any good at cooking?" There's a pan in the sink and neatly stacked plastic containers on the counter next to it.
"I keep myself alive," Baekhyun says. "I'm not getting a job at a five-star restaurant anytime soon, but I eat."
"Kyungsoo is an excellent cook," Joonmyun says, sliding his backpack off and resting it by the shoe closet next to the door. He opens the front pocket and pulls out his black wool hat, and his wallet. "Thank you for letting me leave my bag here."
"Thank you for coming to my show." Baekhyun opens his closet and pulls out a plaid shirt in turquoise and black and pulls it on. "It's at a crowded club tonight. The backpack would be a bad call."
"Probably," Joonmyun agrees. "I didn't have time to stop by my place before I met you."
"You didn't have time, or you couldn't pry yourself out of that studio of yours?"
"Both," Joonmyun says. "I was recording a song with Sunyoung." Joonmyun's bangs are wet, so he combs his fingers through them as Baekhyun reapplies makeup to the pimple on his cheek. "We finished at eight-thirty, and I'd said I would meet you at nine-thirty, so."
"What do you do when you aren't making music?"
Baekhyun fingers the wet brim of his baseball cap and leans forward. The makeup on his cheek is uneven, so Joonmyun takes his thumb and smoothes it, carefully evening out the blend, as he's done for Jongin countless times before. Baekhyun's skin is hot like fire beneath his thumb tip, and Baekhyun's soft exhale is sweeter and lighter than any other sound Joonmyun has ever heard him make. The smell of blueberries fills the small space between them.
"Going with Kris to bars. Listening to live bands. Traveling." He drops his hand. "Taking care of kids who put their makeup on like amateurs."
"I'm not a kid," Baekhyun says. His eyes are dark. There are very few people that Joonmyun cannot read, but Baekhyun is one of them.
"I know," Joonmyun says. "I'm only teasing you." He pushes with both hands at Baekhyun's shoulders, and Baekhyun grins, sharp canines and crinkled eyes, the strange heaviness in the air gone.
"Let's go, hyung. I can't be late."
The rain has stopped when they leave Baekhyun's building. Good thing, because Joonmyun had left his umbrella upstairs and Baekhyun's shoes are a thin canvas. "You aren't cold?"
"I don't like to take a lot out with me," Baekhyun replies. "I always lose it." He wraps his fingers around Joonmyun's wrist, pulling him so they're walking side by side. The Xylitol has dyed his lips purple again.
There's the beginning of a melody in his head that matches perfectly with the way Baekhyun speaks when he's talking about something he cares about, like Zitao and his daughter, or brothers who drag him up the last fifty steps to see the sunset.
Joonmyun needs to write songs for Kim Jongdae, though, not Byun Baekhyun, who seems to have no problem writing his own songs.
Joonmyun's phone rings. "Hello?"
"Joonmyun," Kris says, "where are you?"
"I'm out with…" He looks at Baekhyun. "I'm out."
"Kyungsoo is back from Japan," Kris says. "We were hoping you could go out for drinks tonight."
"I'm sorry," Joonmyun says. Baekhyun grabs a fistful of his sweater and stops him from crossing the street as the pedestrian sign goes from walk to wait. He smiles up at him quickly, and Baekhyun adjusts his cap. "I made plans for tonight."
"With that Yixing guy, or Lu Han?"
"No," Joonmyun says. "Someone else."
Kris sighs and doesn't press. "Dinner around eight tomorrow, then?" he asks. Baekhyun is still holding onto him. Joonmyun can feel his knuckles hot through the sweater knit.
"That is something I can do."
"Good, I'll text you the time and place."
He puts his phone back in his pocket.
"That your friend you brought to RUFXXX?" Baekhyun asks. "Tall and overdressed?"
"Kris," Joonmyun says. "A friend of ours has just come back from overseas. He's been gone a couple of months, so we missed him."
Baekhyun shrugs. "If you'd rather—" His jaw is tight, but he's smiling. Baekhyun is so damn hard to read.
"I'd rather do what I was going to do tonight," Joonmyun says. "If it's all the same to you."
Chapped purple lips tilt upwards at the corners. "Well, naturally," Baekhyun says. "Nothing could be more enjoyable than listening to me sing."
"Have you been practicing what I taught you?" The crowds are thicker now than they'd been forty-five minutes ago. Hongdae is coming to life. "I'll know if you haven't been."
"What will you do if I haven't been?" Baekhyun slowly smirks. "Punish me?"
"Brat." Joonmyun fusses with his bangs again. "My hair's probably a mess."
"It looks fine," Baekhyun says. "You always look fine."
"Thanks," Joonmyun murmurs, and though it's swallowed up by the shouts of a gaggle of college students walking past them, he thinks Baekhyun hears him.
Baekhyun's gig is at Club Freebird tonight. Here, Joonmyun has definitely been. It's an older venue, going on twenty years old, and Joonmyun has watched shows here more than once.
Baekhyun waves at the bouncer, and he and Joonmyun are waved in without cover. Joonmyun gives Baekhyun a smile. "Usually it's me getting other people into parties."
"You don't have the right kind of clout to pass lines in Hongdae," Baekhyun replies. "Sorry, big time music producers aren't exactly the type us small timers like."
"You like me, though, right?" Joonmyun pokes Baekhyun's side, and Baekhyun puts on an exaggerated thinking face.
"I might." He chuckles. "You're interesting, though."
"Not really," Joonmyun says. "I'm just a regular guy."
"I'll keep you around until we find your lost inspiration," Baekhyun says. "I've always had a soft spot for causes."
"So I'm just a cause, that's what you're saying?"
"No, of course not," Baekhyun answers. "You're also free vocal lessons."
Joonmyun laughs loudly enough to catch the attention of a couple of other people at the bar. "When do you go on, then, student?"
"A half an hour from now," Baekhyun says. "Plenty of time to have a drink, don't you think?"
"Not good for your voice," Joonmyun says, wagging his finger.
"I'll have a vodka-cranberry, then," Baekhyun says. "That's almost like not drinking."
"Says who?" Joonmyun adores the way Baekhyun's voice sounds when he's smug. It reminds him of smug American boys making eyes at Sunyoung in New York coffee shops, and maybe of American coffee, too, richer and smoother than Baekhyun's normal speaking voice.
"Mmmm, Oh Sehun," Baekhyun says. "I'll introduce you some time."
"Will you?" Joonmyun turns to the barkeep and orders Baekhyun's vodka-cranberry and a gin and tonic for himself. "People might start to think we're friends."
"Don't get ahead of yourself there, Gangnam-oppa," replies Baekhyun. "You might not be cool enough."
"I'm definitely not cool enough," says Joonmyun, but he kicks at Baekhyun's shin. "Still, I'm your hyung."
"You're the same age as my hyung," says Baekhyun. "But you're not anything like him, so I'm not planning on treating you like I treat him." Baekhyun takes a sip of his drink as Joonmyun hands the bartender his bank card to start a tab.
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" His own drink is perfectly mixed. Joonmyun takes a larger sip the second time.
"We'll see," Baekhyun says. "Will you be all right here on your lonesome?"
"You'll be playing, right?" Joonmyun leans onto the bar counter. "I'll be listening."
Baekhyun nods and heads toward the stage. There are two women up there that Joonmyun hasn't seen before, but one has a guitar and since Baekhyun doesn't, Joonmyun assumes they're playing together.
"Joonmyun?" Lu Han's hair has changed to a dark red, and it takes Joonmyun a moment to respond. "What are you doing here?"
"Baekhyun," he says, and Lu Han's eyebrows crush together in confusion.
"I didn't know he was here tonight. Unless he's performing with Jinri."
"So you came to see one of them?" Joonmyun points discreetly up to the stage, and Lu Han's eyes catch on one of the pretty girls. She sees him too, and waves until he nods at her and smiles.
"Yeah," Lu Han says. "She comes to pick up her friend from Yixing's studio sometimes. She's cool."
"Do you like her?" Joonmyun asks.
"No." Lu Han looks down at Joonmyun suspiciously. "Don't flirt with her," he adds immediately.
"Why would I?"
"You flirt with everyone," Lu Han says. "She'll think you mean it. You'll break her heart." He smiles. "Flirt with Yixing, he's almost immune to your charms now."
"I'm not flirting with anyone," Joonmyun says mildly.
"Has Lu Han warned you off from Jinri already?" Yixing asks, and Joonmyun smiles in greeting. "Surprised to see you out here in Hongdae tonight without me having been the one to drag you." He looks up at the stage. "Ah, your new favorite songbird brought you."
"He's not mine," Joonmyun says. "Pretty sure he'd resent the implication that he was anyone's at all."
"True," Lu Han says. "But when did you two become all buddy-buddy?"
Joonmyun doesn't think of them as ‘buddy-buddy'. Just two people with mutual interests and something to offer each other. "I want to help him train his voice," he decides on, because it's the safest answer. "I like the way it sounds, and think a lot about the way it could sound."
It's a solid set. Baekhyun tries to use his chest voice more, and it resonates nicely through the club. There's a lot of synth in the music Baekhyun's performing tonight. It sounds more like trap than rock.
Yixing likes it, dancing a little in place where they stand. "You should get out there on the floor," Joonmyun says into his ear, and Yixing smirks back at him.
"Not until I've had a few more drinks," he yells back, and Joonmyun nods before looking back at the stage. The strobe lights are going now, and the stage is illuminated with blue lights instead of yellow. Joonmyun is hypnotized.
Baekhyun catches his eyes as he goes into a high note, and holds them, and there's that clench in his stomach again. Joonmyun gestures to the bartender for another gin and tonic, and realizes upon first sip that it's actually his third drink tonight, the second one consumed in between Baekhyun rolling his hips at the microphone stand in the first number and licking his dry, dry purple stained lips at the end of the fourth.
When it's over, Baekhyun approaches them sweaty and triumphant, his eyes gleaming and his chest rapidly swelling and falling as he sucks in air. "What did you think?"
Lu Han claps him on the shoulder. "Good show, Baekhyunnie." Yixing quickly concurs, and they're pushing toward Jinri and the other girl with her to congratulate them.
Baekhyun is looking expectantly at Joonmyun. He has one hand on his hip, but Joonmyun sees more eagerness than demand in the posture, no matter what Baekhyun is trying to give off. "You used your chest voice well," Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun grins at him wide enough that the strobe lights are briefly nothing in comparison to the flash of bright that is all of Baekhyun's teeth up close like this. "If you're up for a few more free vocal lessons, I can teach you more about how to transition to those high notes without screaming." He orders another drink, for him and for Baekhyun, and when the vodka-cranberry slides across the bar, Baekhyun picks it up with a pleased lip bite.
"You liked it," Baekhyun says.
"I did," Joonmyun agrees. "Every gig is something different. Which one is most you?"
"They're all me," Baekhyun says. "If everything was always the same, I'd get bored."
"That's why I like performance art," Joonmyun says. "It's never the same twice." He lets the conversation drop as Lu Han and Yixing come back, two girls in tow.
"We got a table," Lu Han says. "Apparently they'd had one reserved for these guys."
"Oh, right," Baekhyun says. "I forgot about that."
Joonmyun covers his mouth with his hand so hopefully Baekhyun will miss that he's laughing at him. With the way Baekhyun's oversized canvas sneakers try to crush the top of Joonmyun's leather loafers, he probably isn't very successful.
The six of them swish into a booth made for four. Baekhyun is the furthest in on their side, across from Yixing, and Joonmyun is crushed into him, thigh to thigh across the table from Lu Han. Jinri, and the girl who introduces herself as Amber, sit next to Lu Han and Joonmyun respectively.
Baekhyun's Wonder Woman shirt keeps catching light on the gold foiled sections of the front design, and Joonmyun, now on his fourth drink, thinks it's lovely. "Jongin would love that shirt," Joonmyun says. "Even if he'd never wear it."
"Tao buys them for me," Baekhyun says. "He loves Superman and Batman and all the DC comic heroes." His voice is pitched perfect for Joonmyun to hear it cutting under the noise of the current band.
Amber has them playing the cup tapping game. Joonmyun and Yixing have both always been horrible at it, and Baekhyun is strict, slapping Joonmyun's thigh with every mistake and leaving his hand there to draw circles just above Joonmyun's knee. Liquor sloshes over the side of the cup and leaves Joonmyun with sticky hands as Baekhyun threatens to lick up the wasted alcohol.
Lu Han is watching him, and Joonmyun tries to reassure him that he'll survive with regular smiles but Baekhyun steals most of his attention with inappropriate jokes and warm hands.
So Joonmyun steals a sip of Baekhyun's drink, something citrusy and strong, and then steals another when Baekhyun gives him an offended look like he hasn't been sneaking gulps of Joonmyun's drinks all night.
Joonmyun's head is spinning by the time Jinri looks down at her cell phone and says she has to go, so he leans back against the booth and lets Baekhyun hold his cold glass against Joonmyun's forehead.
The girls say their goodbyes, and Joonmyun thinks he tells them bye, but he's distracted by Baekhyun giving up on subtlety and taking his whole glass, and Lu Han sliding out of the booth to escort them to the front door.
"Bathroom," Joonmyun says, peeling himself out of the tangle he'd somehow gotten into with Baekhyun on their side of the booth, and staggers to the bathroom.
As he's washing his hands, Lu Han walks in. Instead of walking toward the urinals, he stops in front of the second sink, just looking at Joonmyun as Joonmyun rinses his hands.
"Do you… need something?" Joonmyun ventures to ask.
Lu Han licks his lips. "Well, it's sort of…" He turns the faucet on and soaps up his hands. The pink foam soap bubbles between his fingers, and Joonmyun is momentarily fascinated, thanks to the alcohol. "Don't get mad at me."
"Have I ever?" Joonmyun asks. "I don't get mad."
"Your friendship with Baekhyun is weird," Lu Han says. "Too close."
"What?" Joonmyun shakes his head. It's a mistake. His brains slosh around, like canned soup. "Baekhyun's a brat." He puts his hands on his cheeks. They feel hot. "I wouldn't say we're close. "
He can taste Baekhyun's drink on the back of his teeth.
"I like Baekhyun a lot, but Joonmyun, you don't want to get too attached to him."
"I like his voice," Joonmyun says. "He likes pansori."
"Baekhyun has a tendency to get close to people and then disappear," continues Lu Han. "He'll eat you up and spit you out."
Joonmyun wants to laugh. "You don't know me as well as you think you do," he slurs, and Lu Han rinses his hands thoroughly, soap bubbles collecting around the drain as he shuts off the water. "Maybe I'll chew him up and spit him out."
"No," Lu Han says. "You chew very slowly, and you never really stop chewing."
"What does that mean?"
"What do you think it means?" Lu Han asks. Joonmyun is too drunk to figure anything out right now. "I'm worried about the both of you, stupid."
When they get back to the table, Baekhyun has Yixing in stitches, curled over the table and laughing so hard tears are gathering in the corners of his eyes. "I was about to send in a search party," Baekhyun says, when he finishes whatever story he's telling Yixing, something about a children's television show on SBS2.
"No need," Joonmyun says, sliding back into his seat. "I found my way back."
"I finished your drink." Baekhyun's fingers clutch the empty glass.
"I probably didn't need the rest of it, anyway."
Baekhyun puts his head on Joonmyun's shoulder. "I didn't need it either."
"I might have trouble making my dinner date tomorrow," Joonmyun says, mostly to Baekhyun, but Yixing perks up.
"Date?" he asks.
"A friend back in town," Joonmyun says. "Kris is trying to get some of us together for a sort of welcome back party."
"Is it early?" Baekhyun's hand falls easily to Joonmyun's knee. His voice lilts, and it's been turned gravely by gin and whisky and a long night of singing.
"Eight in the evening," says Joonmyun, laughing, and Baekhyun's own chuckles tickle the skin of Joonmyun's throat. He looks across the table at Lu Han and Yixing. Lu Han is smiling wryly and Yixing is pink with intoxication and amusement. "Speaking of dates, I need to make one with you, Yixing."
"With me?" Yixing points at himself with his index finger, mouth dropping into an adorable ‘o' of surprise. His lower lip is smooth, not chapped. It isn't purple, either.
Joonmyun tries to clear the haze from his eyes by blinking. "Yes. Can I drop by your studio on Monday?"
"I have beginner classes at three-thirty if you want to brush up on your dancing,"
"I need you to help someone else brush up on their dancing, actually," Joonmyun says. "But it'll be top secret." He winks, and Yixing laughs loudly.
"Sure," Yixing says. "Drop by, then, you international man of mystery."
Lu Han rolls his eyes and orders another drink, curling an arm around Yixing's shoulder and pulling him into a half-hug.
Then the last band of the evening comes on. It's pure dance music, and it has Baekhyun wriggling in his seat as Yixing scrambles over Lu Han's lap to get out of the booth. "Let's dance, guys," he says, and Lu Han shakes his head.
"As drunk as you and Joonmyun are, it would be more like 'let's fall'."
"Joonmyun and I are adults," Yixing says, "who can definitely manage staying upright on the dance floor." He extends a hand to Joonmyun.
"Speak for yourself," Joonmyun quips, but takes the offered hand anyway, letting Yixing pull him out of the booth and away from Baekhyun's comfortable heat and out into the more oppressive hotness of the dance floor. "You'll probably have to drag me around," he says to Yixing, who glows with excitement as he brings Joonmyun deeper into the crowd.
"Just like old times, then," Yixing says, hands finding Joonmyun's hips as they both start swaying to the beat. When he thinks Joonmyun has the rhythm, he lets go and steps back, so that they both have plenty of room to move.
Joonmyun isn't sure how long they dance. Yixing's face is shiny with sweat and Joonmyun can feel beads of his own perspiration around his hairline. The burn behind his eyelids from the strobe lights is irritating but he no longer feels the heat of the crowd.
Hands come up from behind him and grip Joonmyun's waist. Pretty hands that Joonmyun likes and knows. Lu Han is grinding on Yixing comically, and Yixing is laughing and wriggling and in general being the star he always is on the dance floor, and Joonmyun grins at the sight. "Did you get bored?" he yells over his shoulder, and then Baekhyun is pressing closer, his chest to Joonmyun's back and his chin digging into Joonmyun's shoulder.
"What was that?" Baekhyun asks, and Joonmyun repeats himself. "No, no, not bored," Baekhyun answers. "But you two looked like you were having too much fun without us." His lips tickle Joonmyun's ear so Joonmyun closes his eyes and tries to find the bass line of the song again, settling into it with gyrating hips and grace he only possesses when he's too drunk to worry about how badly he actually dances.
The club doesn't really start to empty until five in the morning. Joonmyun hadn't realized how much smoke had gotten into his lungs until he's outside again and breathing in the air on the street, which isn't fresh but is fresher. He has an arm around Lu Han and the other around Baekhyun. "Let's put you right into a cab home," says Lu Han, looking at Joonmyun with a smirk.
"No," Joonmyun says. "Baekhyun's home."
Lu Han frowns again, eyes curious and mouth discontent. "Why?"
"My stuff is there," Joonmyun says. "Everything."
"I'll make sure he gets home," Baekhyun says. He's hoarse. Voice ragged like he's just run a kilometer full out. "I promise."
Joonmyun looks up at him, intending to remind Baekhyun that it's Joonmyun who's the hyung, and that Baekhyun is just as drunk as he is, but he's distracted by the way Baekhyun's skin shimmers with sweat and the way his chapped lips pull when he's smiling friendlily. The makeup is long gone and the bump on his face is super red and his eyes are red too, from tiredness or tequila or something else, but he's still so damn pretty that Joonmyun is momentarily stunned.
The thought drifts away, and Joonmyun pulls free of both Baekhyun and Lu Han so that he can gently shove back at Baekhyun with both hands. "I'll get myself home."
"I have no doubt," Baekhyun says, genial smile falling into the more familiar mischievous lip curl. His red baseball cap is backwards again, and Joonmyun has the juvenile urge to snatch it off.
"Then into a taxi with both of you," Lu Han says. "I'll call you later, Joonmyun."
"Sure thing," Joonmyun says. His head is starting to feel heavy. Baekhyun gets into the taxi first, rattling off his address as Joonmyun falls in behind him, leaning on Baekhyun's shoulder to keep from jerking as the taxi speeds off toward Baekhyun's neighborhood.
A fifteen minute walk is only a five minute taxi ride. Joonmyun hands over a 10,000 won bill for a barely 2,000 won trip and gets out of the car before the driver can offer change. Baekhyun laughs and climbs out after him, moving past him to punch in the building keycode again. They stumble up the stairs, laughing loudly even though they're trying to whisper, and Joonmyun feels twenty all over again as Baekhyun slips his key into the lock of his front door.
"Lu Han told me to watch out for you," Joonmyun says. "That you're a friend eater."
"I am," Baekhyun says, as Joonmyun toes off his shoes so he can use the bathroom.
"So am I," Joonmyun says. "So I don't know why he's so worried."
"You're nicer than I am, that's why." Baekhyun puts both hands on Joonmyun's shoulders. "You're nice and I'm not nice." His mouth isn't so purple anymore. He hadn't chewed any gum on the way home. Joonmyun takes Baekhyun's hat and puts it on his own head.
"How do I look?"
"Like you're trying too hard," Baekhyun says, taking the hat back and dropping it back on his head. Then he runs a hand through Joonmyun's hair and Joonmyun swallows.
"I'm…" he says, and then points at the bathroom, and Baekhyun nods.
"Knock yourself out. I'm going to pour a glass of water for myself. You want one?"
"Sure," Joonmyun says. "Yes. Please. That would be nice."
When he emerges from the bathroom, face wet from splashing himself with water, he sees Baekhyun leaning up against the refrigerator, his head thrown back and a glass of cold water pressed to his throat. "You all set?" There's a second glass on the counter but Joonmyun doesn't want it anymore.
The room spins. "I should go home," Joonmyun says, searching for his backpack. Hadn't he left it right by the shoe closet? It's all kind of fuzzy. His knees wobble.
"Are you going to make it?" Baekhyun asks. He's opened his eyes, now, and set the water on the counter. "You look too drunk to function." He wraps a hand around the back of Joonmyun's neck to steady him. "Getting too old to keep up?" His fingers catch pieces of hair between them, and his nails scratch soothingly against skin.
And Baekhyun is not really his friend, so Joonmyun doesn't know what to call the warmth that slithers down his spine at the touch. The back of his mouth is dry and sticky. "I'm just going call a taxi," Joonmyun slurs. "I'm not going to walk further than the corner, you brat." He has two taxi companies on speed dial.
"You're not as polite when you're shitfaced," Baekhyun says. His face is flushed, and there's another freckle to the side of his mouth that is fascinating through Joonmyun's liquored haze. "I didn't think you had it in you to be less than perfect."
"I'm never perfect," Joonmyun says. "That's why I've gotten so good at pretending I am." He leans down to pick up his backpack, and Baekhyun's hat falls down between them as Baekhyun's hand falls from his neck. The world spins. "Isn't that all there is, to human interaction? Pretending and pretending so no one asks too many questions?"
"Just… Hyung, you should…" Baekhyun is pulling him up and then backing him into the bed. Joonmyun's shoes and backpack are further away now. "Just stay tonight. You can go home in the morning."
"But…" His own bed and his own toothbrush and his own painkillers are waiting at home. Baekhyun's hands on both his arms are warm, though, and Joonmyun likes the tiny whines Baekhyun makes when he sleeps. "Okay."
Baekhyun keeps pulling him, and this is a bad idea. Joonmyun knows it is, because he's drunk and everything Joonmyun does when he's this drunk is a bad idea. Laughing, he falls on top of Baekhyun into Baekhyun's nest of covers, straddling him.
"You're bony. That hurt."
"You're pretty soft, brat," replies Joonmyun. "I'm getting the better end of the bargain."
"You probably snore like a grandpa when you're drunk," Baekhyun mumbles. "You'd better not sleep-talk about golf."
"You're not cute at all," says Joonmyun, fisting his hands in Baekhyun's Wonder Woman shirt and scowling down on him. Baekhyun's sides are hot between his thighs and Baekhyun is pretty and flushed. His hair is frizzy and all too many colors. His eyes shine and he looks young enough that Joonmyun has to close his eyes because it makes him dizzier. "It's hot."
"Take off your sweater and the temperature in here will be perfect." Baekhyun helps Joonmyun free of the dark knit. Baekhyun is right. He keeps his apartment at about the same heat Joonmyun does.
Baekhyun sings pansori to him as Joonmyun plays the drum beat with flat palms against Baekhyun's chest. "Silly tortoise," he sings, and Joonmyun laughs and drinks up the cadence of Baekhyun's voice same as he'd done with those gin and tonics at the bar. Sticky, sticky, sticky.
And Joonmyun might not know which way is up but he knows that right now, he is full to the seams, full to bursting, with music.
Two pairs of jeans and Joonmyun's sweater end up in a pile at the end of the bed. Baekhyun's bed isn't really big enough for both of them. They make it work, though, Baekhyun's legs hooking around Joonmyun's and Joonmyun's face fitting into the curve of Baekhyun's neck. He smells like Xylitol and cranberry-vodka drinks, and his measured breathing is a lullaby that sends Joonmyun right to sleep.