The bus leaves him at the front gates. Jongdae curls his toes inside his sneakers for a few moments as it drives away, empty save for the few passengers coming out from the city instead of into it at this time of day. The incessant clock in Jongdae’s head ticks the seconds at him as he watches the bus go.
Then he inhales deeply, and lets all the air out through his nose in a whistle that’s part summer allergies and part purposeful noise making. Then he adjusts his backpack and hooks his thumbs through the loops on his jeans, and starts walking away from the main gates, back around until he gets to a much smaller side entrance that requires the use of the three keys he keeps on a separate ring from his apartment keys. These keys are attached to some random anime keychain Jongin had given him to keep him from losing them. Again. For the fourth time in as many months. ("In an alternate universe, I think of you as a responsible hyung," Jongin says, and Jongdae sneers playfully, replying with "In an alternate universe, your opinion matters to me," before nudging his roommate with a bony elbow and laughing at his wounded expression.)
There’s no wind today, only a thick and murky humidity, and Jongdae’s shirt is sticking grossly to his back already. The sun isn’t even high in the sky yet, which bodes horribly for the afternoon temperature.
"Welcome to hell," Jongdae whispers to nobody as he lets himself in through one of the staff entrances at the back of the park. It creaks ominously, and he’s tempted to shriek like Jongin in a movie theater at the horrible noise. "I can’t believe it’s even possible for a place to get this quiet."
Everland, it has always seemed to Jongdae, is a place that has too many nooks and corners and crannies to ever truly be sure all the children have been sent home at night. He always expects, come morning, to find one or two children snugly asleep in Aesop’s cottage, or a bedraggled teenage couple holed up in the Peter Pan, seatbelts digging into their sides. He never, ever expects the brutal silence that greets him most mornings, only the slow hush of wind through well-worn metal gears echoing in the air.
Empty amusement parks are the scariest. Jongdae is totally macho and resilient and stuff, but he can admit that his knees shake whenever the staff door whines at him for oiling. "Not my job," he tells it, stepping into the park and shutting and locking the staff gate behind him. "Tell Kris, silly." (And hey, Jongdae probably shouldn’t talk to gates.)
What Jongdae’s job is requires him to put on his flowery costume, and sing and dance. It’s pretty close to the job he always wanted, except that in practice, it is nothing like the job he’s always wanted, because his audience isn’t watching him from stadium seats or their televisions, and his tights itch his crotch something fierce as soon as the temperature breaks twenty Celsius.
He knows the way to his locker room with his eyes closed. It’s adjacent to Kris’s office and hidden behind the Castle of Oz in the back of Magic Land. (The problem with Everland, Kyungsoo always says, Is that there’s no coherency to, well, anything.)
Jongdae thinks the problem with Everland is that he has to dress up like a ‘Faerie of Laciun’ for approximately two-thirds of his summer. He still isn’t sure how he got this job, this most embarrassing of jobs, except that Jongin had oh-so-earnestly told him his friend Kris was looking for more singers and... Jongdae might have given up on becoming a professional singer, but he certainly hasn’t stopped loving to sing.
He maybe owes Jongin a tarantula or two in his bed for setting him up on an interview at Everland, but Jongin is scared enough of his own shadow that Jongdae could probably just buy a few plastic ones from the Halloween section at Wow City and call it a day.
Then again, it’s good money, working at Everland. Better money than Jongdae made working at that stationery shop in Jukjeon, and while he works long days, at least he’s doing something it takes his specific talents to do, rather than painfully organizing gel pens in ROY G BIV order. And with his salary, he’ll most likely be able to afford his tuition payment without asking his parents for help. That’s his biggest motivation, especially since they have a hard enough time staying afloat without having to worry about Jongdae, their rebellious son who wasted so much time trying to grab hold of dreams that were more like puffs of smoke.
Jongdae adjusts his backpack again, resettling the weight of his two big bottles of water and clean clothes and lunch.
It’s the beginning of summer, so everyone has to come in an hour earlier to prepare for the earlier opening time. But even with the staff trickling in one by one to fill the locker rooms, Everland is still significantly less bright and cheery until the gates are set to open at nine. Jongdae always feels like he’s walking to his death when he arrives, especially if he gets in after the sound techs, who start playing the eerie park music over the speakers as soon as they get the system up and running.
Walking briskly across the park, past still-as-stone rollercoasters and abandoned snack vending carts, Jongdae leaves his headphones out of his ears in case any creepy amusement park monsters decide to attack. Jongdae wouldn’t really make a tasty meal, especially since he’s kinda small and probably tastes as sharp and acidic as his tongue tends to be this early in the morning. But just in case, he doesn’t listen to his music, bearing instead with the cheerful bells, flutes, and whistles of the Magic Land soundtrack.
He peeks his head into Kris’s office, expecting to see him sitting folded under his too-small desk, gainfully scribbling these earnest drawings that Jongdae thinks are supposed to be diagrams of their choreography for the ‘Summer Splash’ festival but end up looking more like the angry efforts of a particularly untalented kindergartener.
Instead, he finds only Baekhyun, with a cloud of candy in his right hand and one of Kris’s toys in his left. Jongdae frowns, because first of all, he needs to talk to Kris about taking that Tuesday off in a few weeks, for Jongin’s nephew’s one-year ceremony, and secondly, because Baekhyun doesn’t seem to have the same problems getting up in the morning as every other normal human being in the world. He’s already humming obnoxious children’s television show songs to himself. And Kris is nowhere to be found.
Jongdae sighs and steps inside anyway, grabbing one of the foldout chairs and stretching it open to have a seat, preparing to wait for his boss. Kris is totally the last person anyone would expect to be in charge of the faeries at Everland, but Jongdae thinks he does a bang-up job at what is, pretty much, thankless work. Plus, all his languages come in handy, especially since half the faeries come from places outside Korea.
Baekhyun slurps at his candy, spidery fingers of it clinging to his nose as he happily stuffs it in. Jongdae sighs again, and finally notices Kyungsoo is in the room too, out of the corner of his eye. Kyungsoo is a black hole in the back of the room, curled up with a pen in his mouth and staring at his notebook propped on his folded knees.
"Morning," says Jongdae, waving pathetically and dropping his backpack before falling into his chair.
"Wow," Baekhyun says, drawing the word out as obnoxiously as he can, twirling a piece of cotton candy around his index finger before shoving the digit in his mouth. He already has an obvious sugar-high and little bits of cloudy candy sticking to his lips. "Could you look any less happy to be here today?"
Jongdae gazes disgustedly at the candy in Baekhyun’s hand. "Do you even know how old that is?"
The machines haven’t even been primed for the day, so Jongdae knows Baekhyun hadn’t snuck off to make it when he’d gotten in, not more than a half an hour ago, even if that’s totally something Baekhyun would do. (Jongdae is ninety-nine percent sure that Baekhyun’s hands start to shake if he doesn’t eat enough of the treat every day. It’s a blessing, he’d decided long ago, that Baekhyun, with his high-pitched giggles and whiny laugh, doesn’t like coffee.)
"Sure I do," Baekhyun answers, bouncing up to sit on the desk. He promptly scatters the papers that Kris, their boss, had painstakingly organized Saturday afternoon. He also knocks several of Kris’s stuffed toys onto the floor in the process. "It’s from yesterday. Drag your underwear out of your butt and pull out the cheerful smile I know resides inside you."
"There is no happiness inside me," says Jongdae, stealing the tiniest tendril of candy and eating it. It’s really stale. No way cotton candy that tastes this old is from yesterday. He gives Baekhyun a judgmental glare but Baekhyun is disgustingly shameless and just wriggles his ass all over more of Kris’s papers. "Besides, it’s six in the morning." The clock ticks. It’s probably closer to six-thirty, by now. Where is Kris? "No one is happy to be here."
"Kyungsoo is happy to be here," Baekhyun says. Kyungsoo, at the sound of his name, looks up from where he’s been staring blankly at his secret notebook to look at them. His eyes are eerily empty, and Jongdae has to cover his mouth with his hand to hold in a sadistic laugh at Baekhyun’s surprised squeak. "Well, kind of?"
"Absolutely thrilled," deadpans Kyungsoo. "Excited for another day of work at the Happiest Place on Earth—"
"This isn’t Disney," Jongdae says, now smiling in earnest because Kyungsoo is furrowing his eyebrows at him. Baekhyun is too occupied chewing on disgustingly stale cotton candy to talk back, too, so why not smile? "We’ll have to settle for being ‘the Happiest Place in Korea~"
"Don’t forget Lotte World," Baekhyun says. "Maybe we should stick to ‘Happiest Place in Gyeonggi Province’ or something."
"Everland is bigger than Lotte World—"
"Bigger isn’t always better," says Baekhyun, wiping his hand on his jeans and leaving behind a thin pink film on the thigh of them.
"Is that what you tell yourself when you get out of the shower in the morning?" Jongdae asks Baekhyun with pseudo-pity. "It’s okay, Baekhyun-hyung, I’m sure there’s a girl for you out there somewhere who doesn’t mind—"
"I hope there’s one out there for you even after I rip—"
"Anyway," Kyungsoo says, rolling his huge eyes exaggeratedly, "the moral of the story is that we’re about to put on really stupid outfits and really thick makeup and perform for thousands of children for 16 hours. So forgive me if I’m not smiling." He shakes his head. "And to think, I thought I was too cool to be an idol."
Jongdae’s gut rolls like he’s on that awful pirate ship ride. He remembers, vividly, handing his card back to the audition organizers, his shoulders hunched with defeat. He remembers the way the card had felt hanging around his neck as he botched the dance moves over and over and over again…
He shoves it aside as quickly as it had flooded in, but it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth that has nothing to do with practically ancient amusement park snacks.
"I think you mean ‘not cool enough’," Jongdae corrects, and Baekhyun’s snort would be more gratifying if Baekhyun wasn’t the sort of guy to eat week old cotton candy in the morning to prevent sugar withdrawal. "I’m the only one of us that’s cool enough to have been an idol. I’m clearly the most talented and handsome faerie in Laciun, let’s all be honest with ourselves now."
Kyungsoo’s chuckles are lost beneath Baekhyun’s loud groans of protest.
Jongdae pushes his hair out of his face. He would have made a great idol. If he’d ever made it past auditions, that is. Only, well, he’d never made it past auditions, because he’s got two left feet and maybe even a third left foot for good measure and no one wants an uncoordinated, three-legged trainee. And he’d had bad experiences, with auditions, that had left this horrible taste in his mouth. Well, anyway, now he’s one year from a college degree and he’ll make an even greater accountant. Probably.
"Hey!" Baekhyun says, smacking him with the empty cardboard candy cone. Some of the spun sugar left clinging to it sticks briefly on Jongdae’s cheek. "One Park Chanyeol is enough around this place, so watch it with the ego."
"I don’t know," interrupts Chanyeol from the doorway. His shorts are hanging so low on his hips that Jongdae isn’t sure whether they’re over or under his backside. "I’m so great maybe there ought to be two of me."
"You’re late," Kyungsoo informs him, with about as much emotion as he musters for most things in life that aren’t singing.
"Naw, man," Chanyeol says. "I was with Kris and the new guy."
"The new guy?" Baekhyun leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Papers crinkle ominously. "Tell me more."
"What if I don’t want to?" Chanyeol asks, and Baekhyun’s eyebrow arches dangerously.
"You want to," Baekhyun replies. "Because you remember, suddenly, that I’m just the right height to punch you in the—"
"There’s a new guy," Chanyeol says. "Another munchkin for the munchkin club."
Baekhyun bristles and mutters something about Chanyeol’s "abnormally long torso," and Kyungsoo looks back down at his notebook, scribbling something into it before smiling softly. Jongdae wonders, sometimes, if Kyungsoo’s making a hit list.
"Like, is he going to be one of the faeries, or…" Jongdae trails off, looking down at his closely filed nails. The last new guy they’d gotten had been Jongdae himself.
"Yeah," Chanyeol says, adjusting his baseball cap. "He’s so excited, too." Chanyeol seems amused. "He’s a total dork so he’ll fit in with the rest of you."
Without hesitating, and in a single fluid motion, Baekhyun picks up one of the plush toys on Kris’s desk and throws it straight at Chanyeol’s head. It bounces off the rim of his baseball cap, but his eyes are as wide and startled as if Baekhyun had hit him smack in the forehead. "Go away, Chanyeol," Baekhyun says.
"Why are you throwing Alexander?" Kris gently pushes Chanyeol aside to give himself room to enter his office, scooping the soft toy—Alexander, Jongdae supposes—off the ground. He dusts off the plushie and smiles at it.
"Where’s the new guy?" asks Kyungsoo, and Kris sets Alexander carefully back with the other toys as he looks with barely concealed dismay at the mess Baekhyun has made of his desk.
"And what’s he like?" Baekhyun asks, sliding down from his seat, unrepentant despite Kris’s clear distress. "Is he pretty enough to be here? Does he have a cute personality, or is he made of acid like our Jongdae, smiling as his touch burns holes in your skin like--"
"I’m going to put acid in your expensive Sephora face wash," Jongdae says pleasantly. "Then you will know the difference between that and what I’m made of."
Kyungsoo pats him with the barest brush of fingertips in approval, and Jongdae smiles benignly at Baekhyun.
"You’ll meet him tomorrow," Kris says. "Get changed! Get out of my office! How did you even get in here?" Baekhyun opens his mouth, and Jongdae wants to roll his eyes in advance about whatever lie Baekhyun is going to tell that circumvents the fact that he’s had a key to Kris’s office as long as Jongdae’s known him. "Nevermind, I don’t want to know, because it’s going to give me a migraine. Don’t you guys remember that the gates open an hour earlier during the summer season?"
"You need to relax," Jongdae says. "Have a drink or something."
"The fact that you’re suggesting drinks at six-something in the morning explains so much about you," Baekhyun says and Jongdae pointedly gives Baekhyun’s pink, candy-stained fingers a once over. Chanyeol is laughing and Kyungsoo is closing his notebook with finality.
"Oh, Baekhyun, you’re still here." Jongdae pretends to be surprised at his presence, and Baekhyun blusters.
And then they’re being herded by Chanyeol out the door, Baekhyun still peppering Kris with questions even as Jongdae wraps fingers around his wrist and pulls him toward the lockers. Chanyeol just laughs and makes the same pompous faces at them he’ll make later when he’s dressed up like the enemy prince, and Jongdae ignores all those teeth for the welcoming air conditioning of their locker room.
It isn’t until Jongdae has one leg into his sky-blue tights that he realizes that in all the commotion, he’d forgotten to ask for that Tuesday next month off.
"Well, I’ve put it off this long, what’s one more day?"
"What have you put off?" Kyungsoo asks quietly, and Jongdae grins without much feeling behind it.
"Pretty much everything," he replies, thinking about Jongin and his tuition and his homework and that call he still hasn’t made to his mother, smoothing his tunic and nibbling at his lip. Time passes more quickly when there are so many deadlines to meet. "Nothing for you to worry about."
Located in the heart of Gyeonggi Province, Everland is actually the biggest amusement park in South Korea. Jongdae remembers, when he was a kid, getting super excited for that ‘once a summer’ trip to ride on all the rides and see all the magical creatures that wander the park. He’d eat his fill of sugary snacks and hot dogs, and beat his friend in all the arcade games, and relish the shrieks of his mother when he made her get on the T-Express with him, when he had finally gotten tall enough to ride. He’d enjoyed the weird blend of fairy tales and global cuisine and spaghetti westerns, never stopping to question what Magic Land and American Adventure were doing next to each other on the park guide.
Now, though, from beneath five layers of BB cream and a blue crushed velvet vest, he has a much different view of summers at Everland.
"It’s almost time for the first show," Lu Han says, creeping up behind him and immediately resting his hands on Jongdae’s hips. "Happy Saturday! Although how we’re going to do the show with just Kibeom’s timid understudy, I have no idea."
"I’d managed to block that upsetting reality from my mind," Jongdae says, spinning around in Lu Han’s grip to face him. "Why did Kibeom-hyung have to leave right after we started Summer Splash?"
"Apparently medical school is ‘very demanding’," Lu Han says, making exaggerated quotes in the air as he lowers his voice. "I don’t get what’s so hard about cutting people open." He mimes a stabbing motion and Jongdae shudders at the image of Lu Han helming an operation.
"I mean, I guess his reasons are valid," Jongdae says. "I just wish he’d given Kris time to find a replacement." Kibeom had just sort of… quit two days ago, hands in the pockets of his cut-off denim short shorts as he talked about devoting more time to his true passion of ‘aesthetic perfection’. "But if he really wants to be a plastic surgeon, he does need to devote all his time to it." Jongdae bares his teeth. "After all, he wouldn’t want to make any mistakes."
Heaven knows Jongdae himself should devote more time to school. He’s been taking it slowly this year, two classes a semester, so he only has to go in to actual school on Monday and Wednesday. It enables him to work a full time job. There still never seems to be enough time. He finds himself doing assignments at three in the morning for a class at nine, and he hasn’t been on a date in two years. Not that there’s really been anyone he wanted to go on a date with. Not that there’s been anyone that wanted to go on a date with him.
"Soooo~," Lu Han breaks Jongdae’s train of thought, "maybe that’s what the new guy is for." Lu Han’s pink wig is askew as he creeps closer into Jongdae’s personal space. "To replace Kibeom."
"Did you see the new guy this morning?" Jongdae smiles and waves at a toddler clutching an oversized lollipop in each hand, wriggling each finger separately until the child giggles back at him. Jongdae is good with children.
"No." Lu Han pouts. "Only Chanyeol and Kris saw him. But I’ll bet you cash-money he’s going to replace Kibeom as the Summer Prince in the show."
"I’m not taking that bet." Jongdae tugs his sleeve down to cover his wrist. "It makes sense to me."
"Baekhyun could do the role, probably." Truth is, Jongdae could do it. But Jongdae has an important role to play in the show already, as the faerie prince’s best friend that gets trapped with him in the Winter Prince’s evil plot. It’s a role with a lot of high notes.
"His voice isn’t… sweet… enough," says Lu Han delicately. Jongdae wouldn’t have been so delicate. Baekhyun has a great voice but has a tendency to screech when he’s excited, like a cat in heat. Besides, the Summer Prince is supposed to be mellow. Baekhyun is a lot of things, but he’s certainly not mellow, by any stretch of the imagination. "Anyway, we’re doing the show with the helpless kid today, three times, so you’ll have to pick up his slack since you work most closely with the Summer Prince."
"Yixing-hyung already warned me." In his own way. With a lot of airy hand gestures and spacy looks up at the sky. Jongdae had found it cute. "He told me to protect his masterpiece."
"I see." Lu Han slides his hands provocatively up Jongdae’s sides one last time for good measure before stepping away. "Well, I’m going to go reapply my rhinestones and drag Baekhyun back into his ribbon jacket. See you at the fountain!"
"Good luck with that." Baekhyun is notoriously difficult to get into his complete costume, especially since he’s started putting in extra hours at the gym and has buff arms. "Don’t get any bruises or Kris will nag you to death."
"I’d like to see him try," replies Lu Han, smirking. "And Byun Baekhyun is no match for me." He cracks his knuckles, and Jongdae winces.
"Hey," he says, just as Lu Han starts to walk away, "you could do it."
"Do what?" Lu Han’s wig slides back into place at the cock of his head, and Jongdae lifts both eyebrows.
"The role. Kibeom’s role. The Summer Prince." Jongdae shrugs. "You’re definitely good enough."
"Oh, probably," Lu Han says, jaw unhinging like a python with a too-big laugh. "But then who’d be Tinkerbell?"
"Someone more…" Lu Han scratches at his balls after a quick look around to make sure no one’s watching, "Tinkerbell-ish."
"No way," says Lu Han. "Catch you later, kid." He pauses. "Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you complimented me just now."
"Good," Jongdae says. "I have a reputation to uphold."
This year’s Summer Splash is a lot different to last year’s. For one thing, Yixing was given charge of the whole script from start to finish, and with Chanyeol helping him with the sound mixing when he wasn’t too busy ogling Krystal, it’s actually… pretty good. Still cheesy, because Yixing is Yixing and a tiger can’t change his stripes, but good.
Jongdae has the role of the Summer Prince’s faithful sidekick. The Summer Prince is trapped in a complicated mirror world of the Winter Prince’s design, and Jongdae is trapped with him. He and the prince have to find their way out before the clock strikes midnight or they’ll never be able to rescue the Summer Princess from the Winter Prince’s ~evil clutches~.
Kibeom’s understudy, a sturdy looking man named Hyunsik who looks nothing remotely like a faerie, manages not to stumble up too badly during the first show, although he blushes furiously beneath his caked on make-up when he has to kiss Krystal Jung on the cheek after he saves her from the tyrannical Chanyeol.
(Chanyeol can smell fear, and cackles extra-evilly at the poor guy. Jongdae will get him back by putting food coloring in his toothpaste later. The only way to get revenge on Chanyeol is by threatening his appearance. Jongdae learned that his first week here, when Chanyeol had had a small panic attack about a piece of lettuce stuck between his front teeth and Kris had needed to talk him down with toothpicks and a soft tone.)
By the end of the third show, however, Hyunsik looks worn thin, skin transparent beneath his lavender eye shadow, and his large hands trembling. "I don’t know how Kibeom-hyung did this," he says. "I don’t know how you do this."
"Practice." Jongdae claps the much larger man comfortingly on the shoulder. "It gets easier."
"Ugh, I’d rather go back to being in the chorus," he says, and Jongdae smiles at him more gently than he’d smile at most people. "I can’t wait for the new guy to start."
"So he is the Summer Prince?" Jongdae had known Lu Han’s wager was a sucker’s bet. "We all thought so."
"Yes," Hyunsik says. "Definitely. And he won’t look so out of place with you guys." He laughs. "Kris told me all solemn, like he thought I’d be disappointed to no longer be the oversized member of the cast."
"Was that a short joke?" Jongdae’s hand tightens on Hyunsik’s shoulder. "Because Chanyeol’s just over there and I’m sure he’s dying to go over your performance with you."
"It wasn’t, I swear. I would never!" He waves his hands wildly before excusing himself, leaving Jongdae to wait for Kyungsoo, who has his key to the locker room.
"Don’t pick on the understudy," Kyungsoo says, slinking up behind Jongdae without Jongdae even having noticed he arrived. "Not everyone has your confidence."
Jongdae’s confidence. Right.
"I wasn’t picking on him," Jongdae defends. "I was just reminding him that although I can be nice, mostly I am dangerous."
"Sure you are," says Kyungsoo, without moving a single facial muscle. "Extremely dangerous. Let’s go gather Baekhyun up from the cotton candy vendor at the far edge of Zoo-topia and hope he hasn’t lost his jacket."
"I pray he hasn’t," Jongdae says. "I’m kind of in a hurry to get home."
"Oh, right," Kyungsoo says. "Doesn’t the last bus leave soon?"
"Yeah," Jongdae says, "though if worst comes to worst I’ll get a taxi." It might get him home fast enough that he’ll snag one anyway. He has about three hours’ worth of accounting homework for his Monday morning class and he knows the weariness will have set in too deeply by tomorrow night for him to put it off until then. Weekends are always the worst, because weekends are when they do the shows. The rest of the week is a relative breeze, just wandering around and smiling at children and maybe their parents, and using his limited English to try valiantly to communicate with all the foreigners they’ve got on staff to play various members of the Laciun fairy tale brigade.
"You’ll make it," Kyungsoo says quietly, and Jongdae grins at him.
"Of course I will," Jongdae says. "But possibly only if the new guy is any good."
"We’ll find out tomorrow," replies Kyungsoo, and Jongdae feels an itch of excitement at the base of his spine, although it might just be the polyester of his undershirt.
"You’re home late," Jongin says, shoving pieces of boneless chicken into his mouth one by one and not moving his eyes from the television screen. "Like, an hour late."
"I got held up at work," Jongdae says. Baekhyun had lost his jacket and Lu Han had lost his ability to not tell Kris about the lost jacket and Jongdae had lost an hour of his life helping look for the damn lost jacket. "Stupid stuff." He throws his backpack onto the floor by the sofa and resists the temptation to slump down beside Jongin. He probably smells of sweat and velvet and children, and he doesn’t want it to sink into the upholstery.
"Oh," Jongin says, turning to him as the commercial begins. "Do you want some chicken?" Jongdae considers taking some just because Jongin looks so earnest. "It just came like twenty minutes ago."
"That’s okay," Jongdae says. "I watched Baekhyun eat enough cotton candy over the course of the last two hours that I think I’m put off eating for the next couple of days."
"If you’re sure…" Jongin gives him this look, like he doesn’t trust people who turn down chicken, but then he turns back to the television. "I love this commercial."
"It’s for tinted moisturizer, Jongin."
"It’s Lee Hyori, so who cares what the product is?" Jongin wipes at chicken grease on his mouth with the back of his hand, but just ends up spreading it from his lips to his cheeks and chin. "You’d have to be blind to think she isn’t hot."
"Mmm," Jongdae says, noncommittal, and Jongin looks over at him again. His eyes tell Jongdae he thinks he may need a new roommate since Jongdae clearly is an alien monster who doesn’t like Lee Hyori or fried chicken. "I mean, yeah," he corrects, "she is."
Jongin sighs and rubs his hands on the thighs of his jeans. "Are you headed to bed?"
"Homework." Jongdae grimaces at him. "Not something you’d know much about, I wager."
"Sure I know about it," Jongin says. "I just don’t, you know, do it." He surveys the carnage of what used to be his takeout. "No one in my class can ever know this chicken happened, though. We’re supposed to be preparing gourmet at home all week." He tilts head sideways. "Does that count as homework?"
"You still don’t do it," Jongdae says. His skin is crawling. He needs to shower.
"Well," Jongin says, "I am a genius at what I do."
"Bully for you," says Jongdae. "I wonder what your classmates would say if they knew this fried chicken catastrophe happened once a week?" Jongdae walks into the kitchen and pours himself sweetened tea. "Is that a mark of shame in culinary school?"
"I don’t know," Jongin says, and his mouth is still slick with chicken grease. Jongdae figures he knows why Jongin prefers his fancy French Cuisine Only classmates not to know about his late night takeout indulgences. "But I’d prefer not to find out."
"I’ll keep your secret," says Jongdae with a laugh that feels like it takes more energy than he has. "On the condition that when you open your big fancy restaurant, you let me eat for free."
"What if I hire you to do the books?" Jongin grins at him. "Goodness knows I don’t have any other friends who can do math." Jongin’s grin grows. "But be warned, it’s going to be a very popular restaurant that makes a lot of money, so it won’t be an easy job."
Sometimes Jongdae is envious of the way Jongin’s face still lights up when he talks about the future. Jongin has so many things he wants out of life. Jongdae used to have big hopes but every rejection whittled him down until he felt small enough to fit inside the box his parents had always hoped he would. It’s fine, because Jongdae is going to make a great accountant. And look, he’s already got his first job offer.
He knows he’s not as good as his career-minded sister without being told.
His throat feels sore, so he drinks more tea. "Yah, you’ll need to get through culinary school first, Kim Jongin. Do your homework."
"I will," Jongin says. "I worked too hard to get in to let anything kick me out."
"I know," Jongdae says. "I should work on my homework." He rolls his shoulders. His whole body aches from three shows. "It’s not going to do itself, unfortunately." But he’ll shower first, with the hottest water he can manage.
He goes back into the kitchen to rinse his cup, and after he’s set it onto the drying rack he walks back into the living room to grab his backpack. He groans when he bends over, and tries not to think about how many times he’d jumped on the trampoline today during the show finale.
"Hey… hyung…" Jongdae looks at Jongin. His face is all screwed up, mouth puckered. "Make sure you get some sleep? Every fight is easier if you’re not also fighting to stay awake."
(It’s the same thing Jongdae had told Jongin, when they’d met in high school. Jongin had a tendency to fall asleep standing up, in dangerous places, back then, and Jongdae hadn’t known it was because Jongin spent late nights trying to study French and practice making soufflés. "Hey you," Jongdae had said. "One fight at a time, okay?" And Jongin had given him a sleepy smile that had made Jongdae want to take him under his wing.
Besides, Jongin had never really minded the stuff about Jongdae that made it harder for him to make friends, like the constant singing under his breath or the reflexive sarcasm. Or the whole ‘attracted to other dudes’ thing that Jongdae has never actually ever broached with Jongin, but he’s sometimes pretty sure Jongin knows anyway.)
"I’ll do my best," Jongdae says, and feels like this time, his grin is more honest.
"Did you ask for that Tuesday off yet?" Jongin calls, and Jongdae cringes and makes a mental note. "My sister called to confirm."
"I will," Jongdae calls back. "Tomorrow morning. I won’t forget."
"You look like you’ve been run over by a truck," Yixing says. "A delivery truck, one of those really heavy refrigerated ones with whole butchered cows in the back."
"Gee whiz, thanks, hyung," Jongdae says, and winces at the dryness of his throat. He pops in another lozenge, and hopes it soothes it. He’d managed to catch two hours of sleep last night, but his morning alarm had made him want to curl up in a cave and seal himself away until next summer like a bear or something. "And I feel great too, thanks for asking."
Yixing doesn’t reply. Instead he grabs two of the plush toys on Kris’s desk and starts making them do a weird little dance. "What do you think?" he asks Jongdae after a minute or two, and Jongdae blearily blinks at him.
"The choreography," Yixing says patiently, like whatever weird crap he’s doing with the two stuffed toys makes sense. "Do you think it would look good for the Horror Night Festival?"
Jongdae blinks again. He’s ninety percent sure that Yixing is a creature from Planet Weird, but the other ten percent of him has lived with Jongin for two years and seen him make his labeling sharpies have conversations. "I don’t know. Isn’t it early to be thinking about Horror Night?"
"No," clarifies Yixing. "It. Is. Not." He crosses his arms and looks at Jongdae impatiently.
"Okay." Jongdae scratches behind his ear. His nail catches on a mosquito bite, and he does his best not to irritate it more. "Then I think the choreography is fabulous. Encore, bravo."
"You weren’t really even paying attention," says Yixing, and Jongdae is at a loss.
"You’re right," Jongdae says. His face itches, but he’s already wearing his make-up so he can’t claw at it. "You should make Alexander and…" he studies the second stuffed animal and tries to remember a name. "Ace? Do the choreography for me again, so I can be sure." He keeps a straight face, despite the odds.
"No time for that," Baekhyun says, walking into Kris’s office already wearing the bottom half of his costume. "It’s time to meet the new guy."
"Where’s Kris?" Jongdae pulls at his shirt, black cotton already slightly damp with sweat. His costume is going to be murder today. "I need to talk to him."
"He’s on the phone with the big boss man," Baekhyun says. "He left the new guy with Chanyeol and Kyungsoo." He taps his foot impatiently. "Aren’t you the least bit curious?"
"I am," Jongdae says. "It’s just that I promised Jongin I’d talk to Kris about something today, and once the park opens, it’s pretty much impossible to get a word with him."
"It’s impossible now, too," Yixing says. "Go meet the new Summer Prince. I picked him myself."
"Did you?" That mostly guarantees it’ll be someone eccentric. Kibeom had been a living, breathing, spectacle, so Jongdae can only assume… "Oh boy."
He follows Baekhyun out of the office, past the locker rooms and out onto Main Street. They walk for about five minutes, Baekhyun chatting about this and that as he pulls pieces of ice-blue fluff off his cotton candy cone and shoves them into his mouth, until they get to the stairs that lead down to the Rose Garden. In front of the stairs Jongdae sees Chanyeol, with his baseball cap turned sideways, talking to Kyungsoo and another man who is looking up at him, patient and affectionate already, which Chanyeol is soaking up chia pet style like it’s his due.
And when they’re close enough that Jongdae can completely make out the man’s features, his brain supplying recognition, he thinks he might throw up.
"And here’s Baekhyun, another of our faeries here in Laciun," Chanyeol says. "He works mostly with Kyungsoo during the show, as head of the Summer Guard." Chanyeol smiles. "And this is your right hand man, the Summer Prince’s best friend."
And, oh no, he’s still just as attractive as he’d been on Jongdae’s first day of high school. Calm, friendly, and collected, with his hand outstretched for a shake as Jongdae had tried to keep his glasses from falling off his face.
"Hi there," says the man. He still has an infectious smile, and Jongdae's heart is beating way too fast. "I'm Kim Joonmyun."
"I know," Jongdae says, before he can stop himself, and he feels stupid, in his black shirt and his blue wig and painted face. He feels stupid because he's standing in front of Kim Joonmyun, and he looks like a complete idiot. "I mean... I..."
"Smooth," Baekhyun murmurs loud enough for Jongdae and only Jongdae to hear, and that deserves a kick to the knee-cap, but Jongdae is too busy making a fool out of himself to carry that out.
The Rose Garden looks nice today. It might be a good place to bury Jongdae’s corpse should he die right here and now.
Joonmyun narrows his eyes, looking at Jongdae more carefully, and then they widen again with recognition that Jongdae had sort of hoped would not flare. "Oh!" says Joonmyun. "It's... I didn't recognize you, Jongdae!"
And now Jongdae is thankful for all the make-up, because at least the slow crawl of a blush up his neck to his cheeks is hidden under layers and layers of it. "I didn't expect you to, what with all the..." He gestures to his face, and Baekhyun, that asshole, is still laughing. Kyungsoo is quiet, taking everything in, and Chanyeol is glancing back and forth between Joonmyun and Jongdae in fascination.
"Trust me, your smile is hard to forget," Joonmyun says lightly, like he's not grabbing Jongdae's heart between his hands and squeezing it dry until it's just a wrung out husk of its former self. Joonmyun, Jongdae recalls, is always saying sweet and lovely things like that, with his eyes glinting and his cheeks pulled in an effortless grin. He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s not flirting.
That knowledge doesn't stop the butterflies. Jongdae is suddenly sixteen all over again, with his JYP audition invitation in one hand and all his insecurities sealed in a handwritten confession letter in the other, and it sucks.
"So you two know each other?" Chanyeol asks, fixing his fringe as he talks, and Baekhyun mutters obviously, you oaf, under his breath as Joonmyun takes a step closer to Jongdae. Jongdae barely resists taking a step back.
"We went to high school together," says Jongdae breezily, like it isn't a huge deal, and like Kim Joonmyun wasn't the person that made Jongdae realize that maybe preferring to watch porn on his dad's laptop that starred men was probably something that applied in his real life as well. Like Kim Joonmyun wasn't Jongdae's first crush. Like Jongdae has ever gotten over it, even though it's been a few years and Jongdae is supposed to be practical and realistic now, all those dreams he’d had as a smart-mouthed teenager punctured like so many leftover party balloons.
"Jongdae was a first year when I was a third," Joonmyun adds. "We were in choir together." Joonmyun takes another step closer. Jongdae can smell his cologne. It’s a light and fruity scent. "Jongdae always refused to eat lunch with me when I offered, though." Joonmyun looks chagrined. "I was never sure why."
"Because his heart is made of ice and venom," answers Baekhyun, and Joonmyun, surprised, flickers his gaze to Jongdae. And, oh, he's a tad shorter than Jongdae, now, and his face is more mature but his eyes are still exactly the same.
"I was nervous," Jongdae blurts out, and then regrets it immediately as everyone stares at him. "Because, uh, you were so much...older..." And also beautiful and kind and basically every other kind of wonderful, Jongdae doesn't add, because this is already the most awkward conversation he's had since he ran into his old vocal coach last year and told him he'd given up on singing as a career.
"Oh," Joonmyun says. "I always thought I had done something to offend you, the way you were forever running away." His expression is playful now. The sunlight hits him and… There's a red tint in his hair. It suits him. Everything suits him. It really isn't fair at all.
"He ran away?" Baekhyun is never going to let Jongdae live this down. Kyungsoo seems to be longing for his notebook.
"No, no, no, please, I was fifteen--"
"This is so good." Baekhyun says. "Rattlesnake-mouth Jongdae running away from his seonbae because he was nervous."
"Shut up, shut up, shut up," Jongdae hisses, and Joonmyun’s mouth is curled up in a lovely smile with just a hint of mischief. Jongdae is going to melt and for once it isn’t because of the heat and humidity. "I will tear you to pieces and feed you to Lu Han."
"Kinky," Baekhyun whispers back.
"Anyway, Jongdae, it’ll be a pleasure to sing with you again."
Jongdae wants to point out that they had never actually sung together in choir. He’d made sure to shift himself out of sight as often as he could, because he didn’t understand the way he felt when Joonmyun’s gaze landed on him. (Or, possibly, he hadn’t wanted to understand, because it would have made things more complicated than they already were and Jongdae’d had auditions to think about.)
"Yeah," Jongdae says. His voice is steadier than he’d thought it would be. "A pleasure."
"Joonmyun will just be observing today," Chanyeol says. "Since the show is fractured, taking place all over the park at different times, he’ll just follow Kris on his rounds and see mostly his own parts."
"That makes sense," says Baekhyun, "considering he’ll really need to see the blocking. Most people have never participated in a moving show before."
"Because it’s weird," Jongdae says. He tries to fall into his familiar role. It mostly works. He’s still unsettled. He avoids Joonmyun’s gaze.
Chanyeol reaches out to shove him but he ducks. "I think you mean awesome. Everything happens in different places in the park, which gives us a lot of sets."
"I think I get it," says Joonmyun. "So when, in the script, the Summer Prince and his best friend get tricked into the lion’s den, that takes place in the Safari Zone. So that way, people in the Safari Zone get to see part of the show, and later, if they head to Global Fair, they’ll see another part?"
"Right!" Chanyeol’s grin turns megawatt. "Isn’t that awesome?"
"It is," Joonmyun responds, looking completely serious. Of course he is. Jongdae’s rib cage is collapsing catastrophically.
"And let me guess," Kyungsoo says, "next week we’ll have double rehearsals?"
"You got it," Chanyeol says. "Don’t worry, we’re all making overtime for it."
Jongdae closes his eyes. Double rehearsals mean skipping mealtimes and maybe even sleep to get his assignments done. Double rehearsals mean taxi rides home instead of the bus, which is okay every once in a while but eventually starts to add up, cost-wise.
"Is everything all right, Jongdae?" Joonmyun asks, and when he opens his eyes, Joonmyun is staring at him. No one else is. Kyungsoo is trying to stop Baekhyun and Chanyeol from ripping out each other’s throats over who-knows-what. Jongdae must have missed an insult somehow.
He pastes a smile on his face. "Yup," he says. "Everything’s fine."
"I’m sorry there’s going to be extra work because of me." Joonmyun’s cologne just smells so nice. In high school, he’d just smelled like boy and like dry erase markers. This is way worse.
"It’s not your fault," Jongdae says, and gives Joonmyun a more genuine grin. "Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out."
"That’s good," Joonmyun says. "I’d hate to stress you out right after seeing you again for the first time in years."
"I stress myself out just fine," assures Jongdae. "I don’t need any help to do that." And he should head to the locker room, now, because they’re running out of time to change. Jongdae wants to add another layer of white cream make-up to his neck, too, because he thinks his skin is so flush that three layers can’t possibly be enough to conceal it.
"I’ll keep that in mind." Joonmyun delivers another devastating grin and Jongdae can feel it all the way down to the tips of his toes.
Later, in the locker room, after Baekhyun’s made at least three jokes at Jongdae’s expense ("No, don’t run away, Jongdae, I’m not done yet—" "You’d better run away," Jongdae replies, "or we’ll see if maybe you can hit my high notes, after all." He makes a threatening vice-like motion with his hands and then twists.) and Jongdae has fumbled his way into his tights without snagging them anywhere, Kyungsoo catches his wrist in a surprisingly firm grip.
"Is there something…" He makes a noise in the back of his throat that Jongdae could almost mistake for concern, but that’s not really one of the emotions in Kyungsoo’s repertoire. "Is having Kim Joonmyun around going to make you weird?"
"What are you talking about?" Jongdae straightens his collar in the mirror, pushing out wrinkles in the fabric. He rubs a thumb over each shiny button on his vest and tugs at the sleeves of his jacket.
"You’re…" Kyungsoo puckers his large lips in a momentary flash of frustration before his face goes placid again. "Did you… have some sort of problem with him? In high school?" His gaze flickers left. Baekhyun is bickering with Lu Han over his jacket, so he isn’t paying attention.
"Kim Joonmyun is perfect," says Jongdae, after a long moment of thought. Kim Joonmyun is smart and funny and kind. He dresses in designer clothes and doesn’t make a big deal about it. His family is rich and his brother studies something fancy at Sogang and he’s probably got some super hot girlfriend. Perfect. "How could I possibly have a problem with that?"
"You tell me," Kyungsoo says, and Lu Han chooses then to hop over with far too much energy and shove them both into the costume lockers.
"Let’s go, slow pokes! We’re going to be late for the opening of the gates ceremony!"
During the second show of the day, Jongdae swears he can feel Joonmyun watching him. He chastises himself with he’s supposed to watch you, Jongdae, he’s going to play opposite you in the show but it doesn’t stop him from getting anxious every time he has to belt out a challenging verse in one of Yixing’s ridiculous songs.
With the way things are going, he might not survive having to actually act with Joonmyun, or sing with Joonmyun.
"Pull yourself together," Lu Han says, after they pass through the Rose Garden and up into European Adventure. "I thought you were going to fall into tiny sprinkles of faerie dust right there at the end of that last song."
"I’m just tired," Jongdae says, ignoring the way his stomach is staging a full-out rebellion.
Lu Han wags his fingers in Jongdae’s face. "Faeries don’t get tired. They only get more magical. So pep up!"
"Who died and made you in charge of anything?" Jongdae snaps, and Lu Han pinches his cheek.
"And there’s my Jongdae," he coos. "I missed you belittling me today."
"I never miss Jongdae’s smartass comments," Baekhyun says, green cotton candy like silk threads between his long fingers. "I’m thinking I like this new Summer Prince a whole lot."
"Joonmyun?" Lu Han looks speculative. "Joonmyun makes Jongdae quiet?"
"Don’t be ridiculous." Jongdae stares at the toes of his shiny blue pleather shoes. "I just have finals coming up and I haven’t slept more than four hours a night in the past two weeks."
When he chances a look up, both Baekhyun and Lu Han seem mildly alarmed. "That’s not a lot of sleep, kid," Lu Han says, finally.
Jongdae hadn’t meant to tell them that. He must be more exhausted than he’d previously thought. He tries to keep his personal problems out of the workplace.
"I’m not a kid," Jongdae says. "And hey, I guess I must be getting really magical."
If Lu Han and Baekhyun are nicer to him for the rest of the day, he doesn’t notice. He’s too distracted by the two-ton weight of Joonmyun’s eyes on him as he sings to Hyunsik, encouraging him to enter Aesop’s Garden to rescue the Summer Princess.
"Your voice is really beautiful," Joonmyun tells him, at the end of the day. "I’m not quite sure how I’m supposed to keep up with you."
"Your voice is beautiful too," Jongdae says. "Seriously."
"You’re just saying that," Joonmyun says. He laughs. His teeth are so white. Jongdae is going to wither away into nothingness. "You haven’t heard me sing in years."
Well, yeah, but Jongdae remembers the sweetness of Joonmyun’s tone. The gentleness.
"I’m not," says Jongdae. "I don’t say nice things just to say something, you know."
"Then," and Joonmyun grabs Jongdae’s gaze and holds it, "thank you very much, Jongdae."
"You’re welcome," Jongdae says faintly, before he mumbles an excuse and disappears into the locker room to change.
"Did you ask your boss for the day off?" Jongin asks, when Jongdae gets out of the shower. Jongdae’s toweling his hair dry as Jongin peeks in, hands up in the sleeves of his sweatshirt.
"I didn’t have the chance." Jongin’s face falls. "I promise I’ll get the day off, Jongin. Things have just been really hectic—"
"If you don’t want to go, it’s fine," Jongin says, interrupting him. "You don’t… have to go."
Jongdae knows if he doesn’t go, Jongin won’t go. Jongin had barely mustered up the courage to RSVP to his sister’s ceremony, knowing that his parents would be there. It had only been Jongdae’s quiet promise to accompany him that had gotten Jongin to fill out the small white card and Jongdae had been the one to slip it into the mailbox after four days of Jongin’s waffling.
"I’m going, Jongin. Of course I’m going. I really have been overwhelmed at work, okay?" He tries to keep the strain out of his tone, but Jongin must hear it anyway.
"I’m sorry," Jongin says. "I know I’m being a baby right now." He gives Jongdae a pitiful stare. "You’ve never broken a promise to me, so you won’t start now."
"Absolutely," Jongdae says. "I’ll get the day off, I swear."
"Okay," Jongin says, and burrows himself deeper inside his sweatshirt. "I trust you." Jongin takes a closer look at Jongdae. "And sleep. Don’t think I didn’t hear you making coffee at four AM last night."
"This morning," Jongdae corrects. "Four AM this morning. I was waking up."
"That’s inhumane," Jongin replies, smiling wide enough that his eyes wrinkle up, suddenly less boy and more oversized puppy. "Sleep, sleep, sleep."
"Okay, okay," says Jongdae. "I’m sleeping now, so go away."
"G’night." Jongin starts to close Jongdae’s door, but then opens it wider again. "And… thank you."
"For nothing," Jongdae says, and Jongin shakes his head, fluffy curls bouncing with the action.
"For everything," Jongin says. "I hope that, one day, all the good things you do are paid back to you somehow, hyung."
"That’s not the way the world works, Jongin," Jongdae says. "We just have to be the best people we can be and hope we make it through the gauntlet."
"That’s really sad, hyung." Jongin leans against the doorframe. "What do you want from tomorrow? From the day after that? From next year? Five years from now?" Jongdae looks at Jongin, who wants to open a big fancy restaurant and show everyone his food. Jongin, who earned himself a scholarship to a big-time culinary school and went, even when his parents basically told him it was his dreams or them. He wishes he still had that kind of optimism.
Jongdae shrugs. "Nothing," he replies. "If I don’t want anything, I can’t be disappointed when I don’t get it." He stares at his feet. Jongin is indecisively standing in the door. He wants to say something, Jongdae can tell. Wants to argue.
"Goodnight," Jongin whispers, and Jongdae lets his towel fall to the floor, damp from his hair.
"Goodnight, Jongin." Jongdae has time to sleep three and a half hours before he has to wake up again. He should take advantage of it.
"I bought you a coffee," Zitao says, sliding it across the table. The small student lounge area isn’t crowded today, which is unusual. Jongdae thinks it’s the only thing that’s gone right today so far. "Maybe you should skip your second class today and take a nap."
"I pay for these classes," answers Jongdae. "I can’t just skip them because I’m a little sleepy on a Monday morning."
"You’re not ‘a little sleepy’, though." Zitao rubs Jongdae’s back in slow circles and Jongdae’s eyes feel even heavier. "You’re about to pass out."
"We’ve got a new guy at work to replace Kibeom-hyung." Jongdae curls into Zitao’s touch and Zitao laughs. "He’s a pretty quick study but it’s still double rehearsals." And also, post script, I used to be head over heels for him when I was a kid and wow you’d think these things would go away.
(Jongdae has learned, however, that everything he used to like about Kim Joonmyun hasn’t changed, and neither has the nauseating feeling Jongdae gets when Joonmyun unleashes that sweet smile on him for too long. Jongdae lives with the constant fear that he’s going to throw up on Joonmyun. That’ll make an impression.)
"That sucks." Nudging the coffee even closer, Zitao sighs. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not really." Jongdae takes the coffee between both hands and sips it. It’s just the way he likes it. Zitao always remembers. That’s why Jongdae is nicer to Zitao than he is to everyone else. "It’s just homework and singing and singing and homework. And Jongin hasn’t been home in a few days, so feeding myself occasionally." Jongdae chuckles because it makes him feel better to laugh at everything.
"Things will be better when you graduate, right?"
Jongdae isn’t so sure of that. While it has never been his dream to work at Everland forever, it does add an excitement to his life he doesn’t get anywhere else. After he finishes his last two classes, in January, he’ll have a boring degree and he’ll probably get a boring job, and he’ll come home from work everyday and have nothing to talk about with anyone because his life is boring. He’ll have plenty of time to watch television and see the people he auditioned with in high school perform on music shows. Maybe if he watches them enough he’ll become immune to the creeping sense of inadequacy.
At least money won’t be as tight. It will be easier to look after Jongin, if he makes more money and doesn’t have to spend it all on tuition.
"My life is depressing. Let’s talk about yours."
Zitao groans and falls forward onto the table. Jongdae is glad he hasn’t set his coffee back down because it would have sloshed out of the cup with the force of Zitao’s weight. "Mine is also depressing."
"Tell your hyung all about it."
Zitao peeks up through his hair. He’s really fucking cute, like, all the time. Jongdae winks at him, and Zitao frowns, which is not what Jongdae expected in response.
"I want to," says Zitao, "but I’m kind of worried."
"Worried about what?" Jongdae drinks from his coffee again. The hot liquid sliding down his throat feels nice since he’s been sitting in the air conditioning so long today.
"That you won’t like me as much anymore." Zitao is nibbling on his lower lip.
"Not going to happen," Jongdae says. "Unless you killed a man." He stops. "Did you kill a man, Huang Zitao?"
"What if I did?" Zitao says, relaxing a fraction.
"Then why the hell wasn’t it Byun Baekhyun?" replies Jongdae, not missing a beat. "He makes my life so hard."
"You love Baekhyun-hyung, though." Zitao sits up again completely, before looking left and right to make sure no one is listening to their conversation. "I kind of…" He rubs at his arms. "There’s someone I… like." He emphasizes the ‘like’. Jongdae knows exactly what he means.
"And this is supposed to make me look at you differently, how?" Jongdae sets the coffee down to give Zitao his full attention.
"It’s Sehun from our Linear Algebra class," Zitao says quietly, and Jongdae licks at his lips.
"Oh," he says. "But Sehun’s…" Sehun has this funny way of talking and is always accidentally doing aegyo and wrinkles his nose up when he laughs. He looks like someone’s pet kitten and Jongdae shouldn’t be surprised that Zitao’s into that.
Jongdae hadn’t known that Zitao was into boys, though, so it’s still somewhat a surprise. His hands feel sweaty, and a part of him is wondering if he’s supposed to admit something back. Maybe he’s supposed to tell Zitao about how much he wishes Kim Joonmyun would kiss him on the cheek and hold his hand, like he’d seen him do with his girlfriend back in high school, as Jongdae had tried very hard not to notice.
Zitao’s shoulders are drooping. "I know," he says. "A guy." He cocks his head to the side. "Is that… an issue?"
"I was going to say Sehun’s got the strangest hair, actually," Jongdae quickly answers. "I hadn’t really considered the other thing. Is that supposed to matter to me?" He strains for nonchalance, even though Zitao’s face is lighting up. He feels like a big fraud for not telling Zitao right now that…
He’s being crushed in a hug. "Thank you," whispers Zitao into Jongdae’s hair. "Thank you."
"For what?" Then he’s reluctantly squirming free, because time is ticking and Jongdae has another class to survive. "I wish you luck with your rainbow kitten, I guess."
Zitao sparkles at him like a comic book heroine. Jongdae pats himself on the back for a good handling of the situation.
"I wish you luck, too," Zitao says. "With your double rehearsals."
"Noooooo," Jongdae moans. "Don’t remind me."
"What’s the new guy like, anyway?" Zitao asks, and Jongdae wills himself not to flush.
"He’s great," says Jongdae vaguely, and puts in great effort not to think about how much he’ll have to look in Joonmyun’s eyes during their first rehearsal together after classes.
The first time he sees Joonmyun in costume, that afternoon, Jongdae decides that his life is just inevitably unfair. Joonmyun looks… really good in his costume. Like he’s a legit faerie prince and not just some dork in a costume pretending to be one.
"Does it look all right?" Joonmyun asks.
"You look fantastic," Jongdae says, bleakly. Then Baekhyun is barging in, holding cotton candy with one hand and zipping his pants up with the other, and Jongdae pins his gaze on his untied shoelaces.
Joonmyun has apparently been learning the ropes all day. He’s taken to Everland with a sort of childlike delight. He loves all the horribly cheesy names for things and he likes all the silly traditions, and being around him is making Jongdae wonder if he’s been missing out on all the joy this job has to offer.
"I’m glad you think so," Joonmyun whispers into Jongdae’s ear, as Baekhyun starts telling them all about some little kid that Kyungsoo can’t seem to get to let go of his hand in European Adventure. Jongdae shivers in his velvet jacket at the sound of Joonmyun’s voice.
They run lines together, and Jongdae is not tired. He can’t be. Joonmyun is extremely enthusiastic, constantly leaning closer to Jongdae to ask for clarifications. It has Jongdae’s nerves on end. He’s usually a fairly touchy person himself, never shy about hugging Baekhyun or Zitao or Jongin or even Lu Han. He pokes Kris in the non-existent ass with a demanding finger when he wants his attention, and regularly invites and then dodges Chanyeol’s hugs just to make a fool of him. But Joonmyun’s touch makes him all… mushy inside. Like a bunch of wriggly earthworms or something gross like that.
It leaves him uncharacteristically jumpy, and witty retorts to Baekhyun’s really dumb insults seem a second too slow on Jongdae’s lips.
Before he knows it, it’s closing time, and Jongdae and Joonmyun are guiding straggling families out of the main gates toward the parking lot. One little girl starts to cry, exhausted but not wanting the day to be over, so Jongdae sings her a bit of the Summer Princess song, until she’s smiling and burying her face in her grateful mother’s neck.
When they finally leave, Joonmyun is watching him thoughtfully.
"In high school, I never knew your voice was so pretty," Joonmyun says, when it’s just them, standing in front of the Fable House. Joonmyun’s small hand seems fascinated with the plastic flowers that wind up the cobblestone walls. "Back then, you never sang loud enough for me to notice." His fingers are warm through Jongdae’s sleeve.
Velvet in the summer is an awful idea, now that Jongdae is trying to think about anything but how close Joonmyun is sitting.
"I didn’t know myself in high school," Jongdae says. "I didn’t want you to notice me."
"But I did," says Joonmyun. That kind smile. Jongdae tries to clear his eyes by rapidly blinking, but it just emphasizes the way the night lights of the park catch in Joonmyun’s eyelashes. "Do you know yourself, now?"
In some ways, would be the appropriate answer. He knows his limitations, at least. "I know all my lines," Jongdae responds slyly. "Do you?"
"Touché." Joonmyun laughs, nudging Jongdae with his elbow. "I know most of them."
"Are you sure?" This is safer ground. "So after the Winter Prince casts his spell, and we’re trapped in the mirror world of his design, what do we do?"
"We have to find the three keys!" Joonmyun is so tickled by Yixing’s fairy tale. "My faithful friend, how are we going to find three keys before the clock strikes midnight?"
"My prince," Jongdae replies, biting his lips briefly before reaching out and pulling gently at Joonmyun’s wing. "Did not the Winter Prince give us clues?"
"One where the flowers bloom most profusely, another in the wilds where the beasts roam free, and the third where the waters rush fastest…"
"One can only imagine," Jongdae tries to channel the pompousness of his character, "that the Rose Garden is where we should seek our first key, Your Highness?"
Joonmyun taps his chin with a single finger, and opens his mouth to reply, before his eyes widen and he starts to laugh. "I’ve forgotten the next line," he admits.
"You remembered a lot in only a couple of days." Jongdae smiles deviously. "You might even be able to spare poor Hyunsik his trials next weekend."
"He looks so beleaguered!" Joonmyun crosses his arms. "Acting is supposed to be fun!" He squeezes his own biceps. "Why do it if it’s not fun?"
Somewhere along the line, Jongdae had forgotten this was all supposed to be fun, but he has a sneaking suspicion Joonmyun is going to make that harder to forget. "We all have our own reasons, seonbae."
Joonmyun frowns. On the cusp of speaking, Lu Han interrupts him. "Joonmyun? Yixing would like to speak with you."
"Oh? Right, yes, I’m coming." He looks at Jongdae apologetically. "Sorry, I guess duty calls." He actually looks like he regrets ending their conversation, and Jongdae is… No. Jongdae is unaffected, because Jongdae is an adult and it doesn’t matter if they’re wearing wings, this isn’t some fantasy in his head.
Batting his eyelashes, he pretends it’s Baekhyun he’s talking to. "Don’t pine for me too much, okay?"
Joonmyun laughs loudly, his whole face brightening. Jongdae can’t breathe. "I’ll do my best." He winks, and Jongdae’s rib cage feels like the bars on the polar bear cages in Zootopia. His heart, of course, is one of the polar bears.
Lu Han and Jongdae are left behind in front of the house, Lu Han tapping his foot repeatedly. "Minseok asked me to make sure you’ve been eating," he says.
Minseok is Lu Han’s best friend. He and Jongdae had been the only Koreans in their Chinese history class a few years ago. Jongdae had corralled Lu Han into attending Minseok’s graduation with him because Jongin had been busy, and the two of them had hit it off famously over drinks that night. Jongdae had been pleased, even if outwardly he’d just made not-so-subtle references to that Jay Park bromance video.
So it’s feasible that Minseok is worried about Jongdae. But Lu Han is shuffling his feet and seems far too fascinated by the lights going out one by one on the other side of the park. "Minseok asked you, huh?"
"You know Minseok," Lu Han says. "Always worried about people. Even though you’re tough as nails and would probably say something if you needed help, you know?" Lu Han’s glittery eye make-up sparkles.
"You can tell Minseok I’ll be fine once our new Summer Prince gets settled in and finals are over." And he and Jongin survive his nephew’s one-year ceremony, with all that entails. And if Jongdae can put off calling his parents a little longer. "So he doesn’t have to worry."
"Good," Lu Han says. "I’ll let him know you’re doing fine then." Lu Han scratches his balls again, breaking the moment, and Jongdae’s laugh is more like a bark. "By the way…" He squints. "You know your part, this year… in the show? Yixing wrote it for you. So no one else could do it." Jongdae hadn’t known that. "So don’t keel over before the end of Summer Splash, kid."
"You got it," Jongdae says, bewilderedly scratching at his face. His hand comes away white, and he grimaces. "Time to clean up, Jongdae."
He’s relieved not to run into Joonmyun in the locker room. He only has to deal with a half-naked Baekhyun yelling enthusiastically into his cell phone at his girlfriend of the week about eating pork belly at midnight, which is so excruciatingly normal it restores balance to his off-kilter evening.
He catches Kris on the way out. "I need the day off on the sixth," he tells him, and Kris nods. "Can I take it?" Jongdae hates the part of him that wants Kris to say it’s impossible, so he can keep himself and Jongin home. But it’s a small part of him that’s easily quieted by Kris’s easy nod.
"You never take time off," Kris says. "Of course you can."
One thing off his checklist, at least.
Jongin massages his shoulders. "Hyung, go to bed."
"Just a few more questions," Jongdae replies. "Then bed." He would’ve finished faster if he could stop thinking about Joonmyun’s eyes. "I took the day off for Hyunsu’s dol, by the way."
High school was a long time ago. So why does Jongdae feel like he’s stuck there all over again?
"You keep sighing." Jongin’s hands are lulling Jongdae into a twilight sleep.
Maybe that’s why the next words slip unbidden from his mouth. "Kim Joonmyun is the new guy at work."
Jongin’s hands stop, and Jongdae wakes up. "Joonmyun-seonbaenim from high school?" Jongin asks, and Jongdae nods. He narrows his eyes at the next question in his textbook. "Um."
"It’s not a big deal. It was just a shock."
Jongin’s noise is skeptical. "Not a big deal? You were so—" He stops, and Jongdae, with trepidation, spins to look at him.
"Nothing," Jongin says. "It’s nothing, hyung." So Jongdae’s suspicions about Jongin knowing more than Jongdae’s told him are probably true. It’s still easier for Jongdae to deal with if they don’t talk about it, though.
"Anyway, I just have two more questions." Jongdae rubs at his eyes. "Then I’m going to bed."
"I’ll leave you to it, then," Jongin says. Then, more quietly, "I’m sorry you have to work so hard."
"Shut up and sleep," Jongdae says. "What are you sorry for? Didn’t you make me a job offer? I have to get my degree to take it."
Jongin disappears off to bed, leaving Jongdae to contemplate the upcoming two weeks with a sense of dread that’s only worsened by the flop of his stomach every time he thinks about Kim Joonmyun.
"Jongdae, would you mind running lines with me?" Joonmyun asks on Tuesday afternoon. Jongdae is still kind of rocked by the way Joonmyun had come to work this afternoon, wearing a suit and claiming he’d had a ‘family luncheon’. It had fit nicely at the shoulders, and it had reminded Jongdae of the way his uniform blazer had fit. Like Joonmyun was the model they’d designed the damn thing to flatter.
"I don’t mind at all," Jongdae says.
Baekhyun looks at Jongdae speculatively. "Who is this person that comes to work with your face these days?" he asks loudly enough that a parent turns to look at them, her arms full of toddler. He waves his hands apologetically, smiling to show each and every white tooth, and Jongdae watches her melt with disgust.
"It’s repulsive to me that she thinks you’re remotely sweet," says Jongdae, and Baekhyun smirks.
"I am sweet."
"Only because cotton candy runs through your veins. It’s got nothing to do with your temperament."
"At least I can pretend to be nice." Baekhyun scrunches his nose and does something cutesy with his hands. "That’s why I always have dates and you never have even one."
Jongdae forces himself not to be embarrassed as Joonmyun looks at him. Thanks, Baekhyun, he thinks. Now Joonmyun can be totally sure I’m a loser.
"It could be," Joonmyun says, "that Jongdae is a tad more… selective." Joonmyun’s face doesn’t change, still smiling neutrally, and both Baekhyun and Jongdae stare at him for a moment before Jongdae cracks up.
"There you have it, hyung," says Jongdae, and Baekhyun glares.
"You’ve brainwashed him already. Now I see why you’re so willing to practice lines. It’s all part of your secret plot to turn him to your cause."
"Oh, is that why you’ve had me chanting ‘Baekhyun is the enemy’ at regular intervals, Jongdae? I thought that was part of the script." He winks, and Jongdae licks his lips and tries to keep the thread of the conversation as his insides quiver.
"It is part of the script," Jongdae says. "Trust me, seonbae."
Joonmyun’s mouth slips into that tiny frown again, but he doesn’t say anything as Baekhyun distracts them both by whistling low. "Babe at four o’clock," he says. "Such legs!"
"Why is she wearing high heels at an amusement park?" She is pretty. She’s totally Baekhyun’s type, too. If ‘way too good for him’ is a type.
"You’re just mad because she’s taller than you," says Baekhyun, before he’s off in pursuit of winning her number while wearing a pink ribboned costume. The worst part is that he’ll probably get it, and be insufferable for the rest of the evening until Chanyeol sinks claws into him.
"Lines?" Jongdae says lightly, pulling a bubble wand and bubble soap out of his pocket so he can blow bubbles at the cluster of children waiting to get on the Dragon Coaster.
They laugh and try to clap down on the bubbles, jumping up to get the ones that float too high as their chaperone smiles indulgently. Jongdae blows another gust of them before he wanders away, leading Joonmyun with him.
"It seems more relaxed here on weekdays, when there are no shows." Joonmyun clasps his hands. "It’s so delightful?" Joonmyun is so taken with everything. He looks like one of the kids.
"It’s easier," Jongdae says. "Then we’re more like moving set pieces than actors, which is less exhausting." He can feel the sweat on his neck. He’ll have to touch up his make-up soon. He and Chanyeol sweat the most. Joonmyun looks like he barely feels the heat, even in his heavy lavender and white ensemble. "Which part are you having trouble with?"
"It’s right before we rescue the Summer Princess," Joonmyun says. "After we get the third key from the end of the Amazon Express."
Jongdae summons the scene in his mind. "It’s only a few lines." He takes a breath. "My Prince! You have to hurry! We need to get all three keys to Aesop’s Fable House to unlock the door! There are only minutes left!"
"What will I do if my princess is lost forever?" Joonmyun says. "What if we’re too late!"
"We will be if you don’t trust in your own heart, Your Highness!" Jongdae resists rolling his eyes as he speaks. Cheesy. Yixing is full of lines like that.
"That’s where I keep forgetting the line," Joonmyun says. "I know it has something to do with the princess, but…"
"You say I trust in my love for the Summer Princess," Jongdae says. "And I will rescue my beautiful bride from the clutches of the Winter Prince!"
"And then I just have that scene with Chanyeol in front of the Castle of Oz."
"And the scene with Krystal at the Fable House before we stage the faerie wedding in front of the Magic Tree." Jongdae blows more bubbles, watching as they nestle in a couple of teenage girls’ permed ponytails. They squeal and pretend they aren’t just as excited by them as the children had been earlier.
"Oh right," Joonmyun says. "I forgot about that."
"How could you forget about the kiss scene?" Jongdae teases, eyes going up to follow the descent of the T-Express as it goes down its first dip. The passengers all have their hands in the air as they scream. It mimics the fall of Jongdae’s stomach.
"Hmmm," Joonmyun replies. "I suppose I was more worried about other scenes." He grins. "That one will be easy, right?"
"Yeah," Jongdae says. "Wouldn’t be too hard to kiss Krystal Jung." He tries to muster the expression Jongin has when he watches that Lee Hyori commercial, but it feels unnatural on his face.
"No," Joonmyun says, plucking at one of the gold buttons of his costume thoughtfully. "I guess it wouldn’t be."
"It’s like someone put drugs in your coffee," Kyungsoo informs him on Wednesday afternoon. "You’re so jittery." They both have the afternoon-only shift tonight. Kyungsoo has some kind of rehearsal for his choir on Wednesday mornings, and Jongdae has accounting. "Which makes me never want to drink the coffee in Kris’s office ever again."
"It tastes like chalk, anyway. I bet Kris makes it."
"I know he does," Kyungsoo says. "But desperation is the fall of many a man."
"You poor thing," Jongdae says. "Forced to drink Kris Wu’s coffee."
"My lot in life." Kyungsoo’s ruffled sleeves shake with his laughter. He looks like a walking advertisement for the On the Border at COEX. "Oh, hey, Jongdae, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something."
"Like what?" Jongdae asks. "If it’s part of Chanyeol’s plan to stage an intervention for Baekhyun’s cotton candy problem I’ve already said I don’t want to be a part of that."
"No," Kyungsoo says. Then he hesitates. "It’s an audition."
Jongdae frowns. "An audition?"
"For a musical," Kyungsoo carries on. "Nothing huge, but it would be something good on your resume. I was just thinking you might be interested."
"Why would I be interested? I’m going to be an accountant."
"And that’s a waste of your voice," Kyungsoo says. "They need multiple roles. We wouldn’t actually be auditioning against each other for the same type of part."
"I don’t know, Kyungsoo…"
"Sign ups for the open audition don’t close for another week or so." Kyungsoo closes his locker with finality. "Think about it."
Kyungsoo pins him with a stare that makes him feel sliced open like a frog in biology class. "Yes, you do," Kyungsoo says. "Because you might not love this job but when you’re singing and people are clapping, you’re happy. That’s what makes you happy."
"I don’t do so well at auditions," Jongdae says, and Kyungsoo shakes his head. "I don’t like them. They scare me."
"This isn’t the idol flesh market," he replies, with an understanding tone. He doesn’t understand though, so it doesn’t reassure Jongdae in the slightest. "This is a whole different game."
"We’ll see," Jongdae says. "Kyungsoo, I don’t know. I’ve got finals and things with Jongin are—There’s a lot going on right now, and I don’t want…" Jongdae doesn’t want to put himself on the line right now. He’s finally started to accept his extremely average life and he doesn’t want to tiptoe back out to where there might be more, because if he doesn’t get it…
"It’s so tense in here," Joonmyun says. "Are you fighting?"
"Fighting takes too much energy," Kyungsoo says.
"Energy Kyungsoo could better use to write my name hatefully a hundred times in his Death Note," Jongdae agrees, forcing a grin.
"It’s a journal," Kyungsoo says. "And I only have to write your name once if I use red ink."
Jongdae laughs, and puts auditions out of his mind.
"Thanks for having me over," Zitao says, peering around the apartment. It's cleaner than usual, but that's because Jongdae took all of his and Jongin's copious amounts of stuff, threw it haphazardly into Jongin's room and closed the door. Jongin is doing some cooking thing that has him working around the clock right now, so Jongdae can clean it up before he comes home. He'd mumbled vaguely, sleepily, about croissants and how it's a two day process as he zombie-walked out of the door this morning even earlier than Jongdae, letting Jongdae shove a banana into his hand and a soda into his bag before he left.
"I thought it might be easier to study here," Jongdae admits. "I'm short on time, too."
"I know," Zitao says, ruffling Jongdae's hair. "I don't mind, hyung."
"I didn't think you would," Jongdae replies. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Nope," he says, following Jongdae into the kitchen and dropping his bag in the middle of the floor. "Let's just get started." Then he hums. "Hey, what's this?"
Jongdae, who'd been pouring himself sweet tea, looks over his shoulder to see Zitao holding that damn flier. He'd found it in his locker at closing on Wednesday night. Kyungsoo must have left it in there before he left, the sly bastard. It's for that silly audition that Jongdae isn't going to go to. When’s he supposed to prepare for it, anyway? It's the same day as Jongin's nephew's doljanchi, besides. Jongdae would have to somehow get from the auditions to the ceremony in like, an hour, and that's only if the auditions ended on time. He's got better things to do than set himself up for rejection. To set himself up for…
"Just some audition Kyungsoo is doing."
"Are you doing it, hyung?"
"No," replies Jongdae.
"Why not?" Zitao sits down at the table. He digs in his designer bag for his textbook, even though Jongdae's got his out already. "I've never heard you sing, but everyone says you're pretty good."
"Who is everyone?" Jongdae asks jokingly. "I'm not that good, or I wouldn't be going to school for accounting."
"Jongin says you used to want to be an idol."
"That was a long time ago, Zitao."
"You act like you're forty right now instead of twenty-two. A long time ago is what, four years?"
"Why is your Korean only this good when you're harassing me?" He gulps his tea. "Let's study. These finals aren't going to be as easy for me as they will be for you."
"That's because I'm meant to deal with money," Zitao says, flashing his designer watch. "Maybe you're meant to do something else?"
"Life lessons from the man who wants to date the rainbow kitten in the front row of class." Jongdae pokes Zitao's calf with his big toe. "Perhaps you'll be so distracted we'll be on equal footing for the exam, after all."
"I'm going to ask him out," Zitao says. "But only, um, after finals, so if he says no I never have to see him again."
"Okay, lover boy, hit me with the equation to find an eigenvector."
"Thanks for coming out with me." Jongin is still exhausted, and there’s flour trapped under his nails. "I know you don’t actually have the time."
"I do have to get on the bus in about an hour or I’ll be late for work," warns Jongdae. "So don’t be too indecisive."
"I just need help to pick a ring," Jongin says. "I don’t know anything about rings."
"And I look like I do?" Jongdae sighs. "You should have asked Zitao, when you were telling him about all the auditions I failed in high school."
Jongin stumbles before righting himself. "I didn’t tell him about that stuff." He winces. "Any of it. Just that you used to want to be a professional singer. He was worried about you. And curious about your job."
"I shouldn’t have introduced you to each other," Jongdae says. "I am filled with regret."
"Zitao’s nice." Jongin shrugs. "He really cares about you."
"Zitao really cares about the spiders that get drowned during the rainy season, though. Zitao cares about an ice cream cone someone dropped on the other side of the world. He probably thinks about its feelings."
"Unless it’s wronged him," Jongin says. "He’s discerning. He’s just nice."
"Who’s been teaching you big words?" Jongdae asks, and Jongin pouts. "I’ve never been to a one-year ceremony in my whole life. Let’s get a plain ring to give."
"My parents are going to judge whatever I get," Jongin says. "They already know I don’t have a lot of money." His face crumples into a worried mush, like a wet paper bag, and Jongdae hates it.
"You’re not going for your parents. You’re going despite them." He pats Jongin’s arm gingerly. "You’re going for your sister and your baby nephew, who love you a lot." He sighs. "Well, the baby might not really actually know who you are yet, and he might actually have taste when he gets older, so he may never love you, but your sister, the poor thing, she doesn’t know any better."
"You’re the best, hyung," Jongin says, and he’s smiling again. "Even if you’re trying to be mean again."
"I am mean," Jongdae says. "And heartless. Accept it."
"Heartless people wouldn’t have freeloaders like me hanging around," Jongin says. "I’m going to make this up to you someday." Jongin only gets a small stipend with his scholarship. Jongdae pays for everything else. It’s fine, because Jongin helps Jongdae out in other ways. And also Jongin is Jongdae’s best friend and that counts for a lot. He’d been there during the lower points in Jongdae’s life. Friends are supposed to help each other out.
"I’m counting on it," Jongdae says.
As Jongin peruses the collection of small gold rings, looking for the right one to give to his baby nephew, Jongdae tactfully double-checks the front pocket of his backpack, making sure the notification about their rent rising next month is tucked away so that Jongin doesn’t find out. Jongdae can afford it, especially with all the overtime in the summer. And then it’ll be only a few months before he graduates, and it’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine, it always is.
"What about this one, hyung?" The thin gold band is flecked with tiny embedded chips of precious gems.
"I think it’s a good choice," Jongdae says, and Jongin’s pleased expression is worth cutting it close for work.
"Happy Friday," Jongdae says to an uncaring audience when he walks into Kris’s office to say hello. He doesn’t find Kris there, though. Instead he finds Chanyeol and Baekhyun arguing about nothing, bickering like an old married couple as they search. "What’s wrong?"
"This dumbass lost the prop keys," Baekhyun says. "The ones we use for the show every weekend.
"Whatever," says Chanyeol. "Those keys are small and at least I don’t lose the clothes off my body on a regular basis."
"No, you just lose really important set pieces. Wow, Chanyeol, you’re so right, you are so much better than I am."
"At least you’re finally acknowledging it," Chanyeol says. "Your denial was really painful to watch."
Jongdae takes a deep breath. "There is a spare set of the keys," he says. "In the locker room. We can use those until you find the lost ones. I’m not staying late tonight to look. I’m supposed to study tonight."
Chanyeol and Baekhyun both look at Jongdae, chagrined. Baekhyun, who looks like he hasn’t had any cotton candy in hours, sighs. "Why is it only two o’clock?"
"I just got here and I’m asking myself the same thing," Jongdae answers, before heading to the locker room to acquire the spare keys and get suited up.
It’s really hot. Jongdae thinks there are probably nine-to-fivers making their way home right now to the promise of the weekend and air conditioning. He is momentarily jealous.
Then he remembers it could be him next year, and the jealousy flees.
Joonmyun shadows him closely, and Jongdae realizes that he must be nervous, what with the first show tomorrow.
"You’re going to do fine, you know?" Jongdae says, trying not to make a big deal out of it. "If you mess up, Chanyeol and I have done this so many times we can cover for you."
"I’m not—" Jongdae doesn’t look at him, but arches an eyebrow anyway. "Am I that transparent?" He’s holding a balloon, and a little boy is looking at it enviously from atop his father’s shoulders, so Joonmyun walks over and hands it to him, making sure to sprinkle some glitter when he does, to make the boy giggle.
"Very transparent," says Jongdae. "Don’t worry so much."
"You don’t even have to act," Jongdae says. "You already act like a prince all the time."
"Do I?" Joonmyun laughs, and Jongdae had not meant to say that out loud. "You’re sweet."
"I’m really not," Jongdae says. "I’m only being nice because you’re new."
"Oh, I have to work my way up the ladder to disrespectful nicknames and casual disregard?"
"Exactly," says Jongdae. Without thinking, he brushes a piece of glitter off Joonmyun’s cheekbone, like he would if it were Lu Han standing next to him. Then he draws back quickly, realizing it’s too familiar, a little too late. "You have to earn it."
"I’ll make it a goal," Joonmyun says. His throat bobs, and his tongue peeks out.
Jongdae blows more bubbles.
They pass the day in snippets of script as banter between them, Jongdae showing Joonmyun where kids like most to hide from their parents.
When they find them, Joonmyun uses his silky tone to coax them out, and Jongdae just does his best not to swoon. Of course, he thinks, Joonmyun is an actual Prince Charming. The universe would accept nothing less in the quest to make Jongdae’s life ridiculously unfair.
A while later, after quick dinners of turkey sandwiches, they’re back out into the early twilight. Joonmyun presents two three-year-old girls reluctant to head out with matching roses from the Rose Garden and promptly wins their hearts. Jongdae thinks he should start a club for people who’ve had their hearts stolen by Kim Joonmyun.
Joonmyun has so many questions, about Laciun and the mythos, and Jongdae finds himself giving Joonmyun the same long, drawn out answers he’d give a pack of kids waiting in line for the Rotating House. Joonmyun’s eyes light up with interest and it’s… oh, it’s so cute, and Jongdae finds himself patting Joonmyun’s elbow or smiling at him too long.
"Is there something in my teeth?" Joonmyun asks, once and Jongdae is mortified.
"No," says Jongdae. It’s just that you’re exactly as wonderful as I thought you were.
Before Jongdae knows it, it’s closing time. He’s never had a day pass so quickly before.
"Hey, Jongdae?" Joonmyun asks. "Earlier today I saw some kids standing inside the Magic Tree on Main Street with their hands folded together."
"Oh, yeah," Jongdae says. He faces Joonmyun. "It’s because of the wish."
"The wish?" Joonmyun is puzzled.
"Didn’t you ever come here as a kid?" Jongdae asks. "Like for your birthday, or…"
Joonmyun shakes his head. "No." He looks rueful. "My parents weren’t… Well, why would they take us to a place like this when they could take us to a fancy restaurant and still have us home in time for hagwon?" His laugh is dry. The dark blue eyeshadow on his eyelids makes him look ethereal in the park’s nightlights, the bright glow from the carousel creating a sort of angelic outline around his wings.
Jongdae swallows. "Maybe that’s why you’re such a big kid around the park now." He nudges Joonmyun with his elbow. "Denied childhood and all that."
Joonmyun’s eyes shine. "Maybe." His hair is damp with sweat. He pushes it back with one hand, still looking at the tree. "So tell me about the wishes?"
On impulse, Jongdae grabs Joonmyun’s hand. It’s as soft and warm as he’d imagined it would be. A long time ago. When he’d been prone to imagining. "I’ll show you," he says, pulling.
Joonmyun does not resist, letting Jongdae drag him back to Main Street. The tree lights up blue at night, lovely against the dark sky, and with the park closed, it’s kind of… romantic.
Jongdae pushes that thought aside. This is about showing Joonmyun a piece of his missed childhood, not Jongdae’s stupid crush that probably won’t ever go away. "We have to go inside," Jongdae says, and Joonmyun laughs.
"I’m following your lead," he replies. Jongdae is still holding Joonmyun’s hand. Joonmyun doesn’t seem to mind. Jongdae keeps it, trying to memorize the softness of Joonmyun’s palm before it’s taken away.
The hollow center of the tree would be a tight fit for Chanyeol or Kris, but it’s fine for Jongdae and Joonmyun, who can fit inside it shoulder to shoulder, and rest their hands on the fake insides of the tree that sparkle with glitter and faerie lights. "I always like it more at night," Jongdae says. "I always had to come here one last time as we were leaving."
"I can see why," Joonmyun says. "It’s really lovely, and it must be even more so when you’re still a child."
"I think you still see things like a child, sometimes," says Jongdae, without meaning to. He blushes, but it’s hidden here, even though they’re standing close enough that Jongdae can practically hear Joonmyun’s heartbeat.
"Sorry about that."
"No, no," Jongdae squeezes Joonmyun’s hand before finally letting go, "it’s nice. It’s one of your best qualities."
"Really?" Joonmyun’s smile is audible. "My friends are always telling me that I’m too…"
"You’re not," Jongdae says. "You’re fine just the way you are." He coughs, choking on embarrassment. "More than fine."
"Thanks," replies Joonmyun. Soft, gentle. His voice is like a lullaby. Jongdae remembers, clearly, the first day of high school. Joonmyun had said hello and Jongdae’s heart had fallen into the pit of his stomach, like the T-Express right before the last drop.
"When we were in high school," Jongdae says, "I swear you were the only person who could get me excited about extra practices before festivals. If it hadn’t been for you, I would have been so upset."
"Really?" Crinkling eyes are Jongdae’s greatest weakness, he decides.
"You approached them like adventures," Jongdae tells him. "You were so enthusiastic about all the silly choreography and tasteless song choices that I couldn’t help but find them somewhat charming in the end." An awkward silence that’s probably only awkward for Jongdae.
"Thank you," Joonmyun says. "My older brother told me all the time when I was growing up I was never going to be cool."
"You made your own cool." And it would be rad if the snakes from Zootopia were around to eat him whole like Chanyeol is always threatening they will.
"So tell me about wishes?" Joonmyun’s shoulder is warm against his.
"Okay, so… Close your eyes," Jongdae says. Briefly, the Magic Tree seems actually alive, thrumming with energy. It is only Jongdae’s imagination. "In your head, you have to ask the Tree to make your wish come true."
"What can I wish for?" Joonmyun whispers, like they’re working a real spell or something.
"Anything at all," answers Jongdae. "Let’s wish together, okay?"
"Okay," Joonmyun says, and in the darkness, he finds Jongdae’s hand again. It doesn’t mean anything, Jongdae, he tells himself. You remember high school. That’s just how he is. "On the count of three?"
"Sure," Jongdae says, and he closes his eyes. "One." Joonmyun’s fingers feel nice. Jongdae wants to forget about Jongin’s nephew’s doljanchiand the audition and his finals and the rising rent, just for now. It’s easy to, when Joonmyun’s hand is so silky smooth.
"Two," Joonmyun says. Jongdae wants to hear Joonmyun talk more. He wants to have a whole day to hear Joonmyun talk. To take a day’s break from his life and just learn more about Joonmyun, because Joonmyun seems like such an amazing person and Jongdae has always thought so.
"Three," Jongdae says, and before he can stop himself, he wishes he could take a time out from life and just… get to know Joonmyun. To grow closer to Joonmyun, even if it’s just as friends.
It’s a ridiculous wish. You can’t take a time out from life. Jongdae knows that, just like he knows things don’t happen just because you want them enough. Joonmyun is as untouchable for Jongdae as the stars in the sky, even when he’s right next to him.
They’re both quiet for a while. "Did you make your wish?" Joonmyun asks, breaking the silence.
"Yeah," Jongdae says. "I did." He licks his lips and drops Joonmyun’s hand again. "We should get changed or I’ll miss my bus."
"I could give you a ride home?" Joonmyun asks.
"You’re so nice," Jongdae says. "But no, it’s all right. I don’t live anywhere near you, I don’t think. It would be out of your way." He puts some finality in his voice.
"I don’t mind," Joonmyun says anyway.
"I won’t take advantage of you," Jongdae says firmly. "But I appreciate the offer."
"You wouldn’t be…" Joonmyun stops. "Okay, then. Let’s go get cleaned up so you don’t miss your bus."
"Right," Jongdae says, and he walks ahead of Joonmyun, trying to calm himself down. "I don’t want to miss my bus."
He makes it, barely.
Jongdae has three missed calls from his dad on the home answering machine because Jongin never answers the phone. Jongdae really should call them back, but it’s harder to talk to them, lately. Jongdae doesn’t know why, since things between them are better than ever, especially since Jongdae has succumbed to the inevitability of accounting. (Although, Jongdae thinks it might be some lingering resentment that they prefer him all worn down like this. When he lets himself think about it at all.)
It’s also easy to avoid his parents’ calls since they don’t seem to understand the concept of cell phones and home phones, and it’s simple enough for Jongdae to say "I haven’t been home" if he’s asked why it took so long to ring them up.
Jongin is asleep on the floor. In his hand is the small satin ring box from earlier. He still has flour under his nails. Cutest.
Jongdae drapes a blanket over Jongin, stolen right off Jongin’s bed. Jongin shifts in his sleep.
In the darkness, like this, Jongdae allows himself to remember the way Joonmyun’s hand had felt in his own. Just for a minute.
Then he shakes himself for being silly, and goes into the kitchen to make himself coffee for the long night of studying ahead. He sees Kyungsoo’s stupid flier still sitting on the table, folded into the airplane Jongdae had made during the third hour of linear algebra studying. He unfolds it slowly and looks at it one last time.
Jongdae has rent. He has finals. He has Jongin and these damn feelings and he doesn’t… he can’t prepare an audition, physically or mentally, especially not for that day of all days.
He crumples the flier up into a ball and throws it into the trash. "Just start your review sheets, Jongdae," he says to himself. "No use fantasizing any more than you already have today."
He wakes up for work in the morning feeling bleary-eyed. Jongin is still asleep on the floor right where Jongdae had left him, and the coffee machine won’t turn on. "Great," Jongdae says, stumbling out the door and barely remembering to grab his backpack.
He just makes his bus, and when he gets off at his stop, the park seems even more eerie and abandoned than usual. Maybe the park is like one massive Kim Jongdae mood ring and it knows he’s particularly apathetic today.
When he fishes out his jongin-anime-whatever key ring, undoing all three locks to the back entrance, the gate doesn’t squeak.
That wakes Jongdae up.
Nothing in the park is running. It’s dead quiet, and Jongdae feels like he has stepped out of reality and into an Indiana Jones movie. Soon, he thinks, the mummies are going to come out, and fuck, maybe Jongin’s been onto something with his zombie-survival books and weird tin-foil hats and it’s Jongdae who was the actual fool.
The first noise he hears makes him squeak, and at Joonmyun’s chuckle, Jongdae can feel the slow drip of humiliation down his insides like machine-churned cart ice cream in August.
"It’s just me," Joonmyun says. "Sorry to scare you. I got here early and no one’s here."
"No one?" That’s extremely strange. Baekhyun is always here, munching on cotton candy and braying like a donkey in Chanyeol’s general direction, even at six AM. Jongdae glances at his watch. It seems to have stopped at six-fifteen, which is what it had read when he first walked in through the back gate. "Ugh, great, I need a new watch battery."
Joonmyun digs into his pocket for his phone. "Huh," he says, and Jongdae leans closer to read the screen over his shoulder shamelessly, before remembering that this is Kim Joonmyun and he wears a sinfully attractive cologne every day. "My phone seems to have stopped, as well?"
"Chanyeol watched a documentary on hauntings once," Jongdae says. "Super creepy. Mostly about how electricity levels in the air can make youthink there are ghosts or that something supernatural is happening, but really, it’s just like, sound waves or—"
Joonmyun laughs, combing his fingers anxiously through the hair in front of his ears. "Sound waves stopped our clocks?"
"Yeah," Jongdae says. "Or something." He reaches out to grab Joonmyun’s arm, because his first impulse when he’s scared is always to cling, but as soon as his hand touches Joonmyun’s skin, the world is suffused in the most vibrant colors: reds, pinks, golds, and oranges, just like the Magic Tree in the fall.
"Sound waves," he hears Joonmyun say, before he feels, wildly, like his feet are no longer on solid ground. He faintly repeats the mantra of the T-Express operators under his breath as he starts to fall. Fasten your seatbelts. Be mindful of the faeries, they’re up to no good! Keep your hands inside your car and hold on to any personal items you have not left behind. And enjoy the ride!
That’s when everything goes a bit fuzzy, then shifts back into a crystal clear image.
Only, it’s not the same place it was moments ago. Or it is, but at the same time, everything has changed.
"I don’t suppose this is some form of newbie hazing," Joonmyun says, and Jongdae gulps and tries not to pass out. Instead, he grips Joonmyun’s hand. It’s as warm as it was last night.
"No," Jongdae says. "Lu Han would have just hidden your costume and replaced it with one two sizes too small."
"Then it appears," Joonmyun says, "that we are in a situation."