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The first time he snuck into Magenta, it had been with clammy hands and a pounding heart. That wasn’t to say it was particularly difficult by any means; the compound was open to anyone who was looking for “salvation,” and he simply had to pose himself as a man who wished for a better life to be taken in by one of the many disciples.

But entering the castle was hardly the same as infiltrating, and his nerves had hummed as he snuck into back hallways and avoided patrols, managing to snag an unused robe and disguising himself, in particular his distinctive hair color, that way.

Since then, his visits had mostly been in secret and relatively low risk, gathering information and memorizing the layout of the building. Several times, he found himself having to skirt suspicion or attention from higher ranking members, but it soon—perhaps too soon—became second nature to duck his head, mumble an apology, and leave without arousing too much suspicion. Between the grief from the other members of the RFA and his own private nature, he had been able to learn quite a bit in the first six months.

And then she had arrived.

The girl had appeared out of nowhere, suddenly entering their private chatroom and almost immediately, he suspected. Of course, there was no true evidence, and anything she said could hardly be taken at face value, but…

But he knew Rika and her motivations, and from his time in Magenta, he knew that she had a plan. And he also knew that this Eunbyeol was, more than likely, an innocent, caught in the web that Rika was slowly weaving around the RFA.

Around him.

V ducked into a small alcove as he heard footsteps approaching. This part of the building had recently been declared as an area to avoid, with orders from one of the Savior’s most trusted advisors himself. That alone was enough to raise his suspicions. He peeked around the wall as the two figures, both cloaked and hooded, passed by, not seeming to notice the extra shadow ensconced between the ornamental statue and the wall.

Once the footsteps faded, he snuck back into the main corridor and continued walking. Surely there was something, some sign, that would either confirm or deny his suspicions…

“Hey, what are you doing here?”

His hands, hidden in the voluminous sleeves of his robe, clenched into fists at the interruption, but he turned, responding as evenly as he could to the questioning and subsequent conversation, though his mind was elsewhere, enough so that he nearly missed the veiled threat behind the questions about corruption. Time was running out…

“Wait. Out of my way, you all.”

In spite of himself, his head jerked up, recognizing the voice, so like Luciel’s. He hadn’t formally met Saeran since Rika had taken him away, but he knew. But this Mr. Ray, as he was styling himself was carrying… flowers?

For someone important?

Even before his mind consciously made the connection, his heart leapt into his throat. It had to be. He was right.

He had found her.

Chapter Text

Zen finds her after the show where he always does, lounging outside of his dressing room with a smile, several large bouquets of flowers, and a bottle of water. He's fairly certain that his smile must be splitting his face in two, but he can hardly find it in himself to care as he accepts both the water and the kiss she offers him.

“That was amazing!”

He laughs as he unlocks the door. “You say that every time.”

“That's because it's always true.”

“You're hardly unbiased, babe.”

At the slight scoffing noise she makes, he turns to find her with her arms crossed, looking rather adorably affronted. “And that’s a problem why? Besides, Jaehee agrees with me.”

He hides a smile. “Well, if she agrees…”

“Oh, so you’ll trust Jaehee’s word over mine?”

Carina’s expression is indignant now, and he backtracks immediately. “No, that’s not what I meant, babe. Of course I trust you. You’ve supported me through everything! But that’s why I’m saying you’re—”

He cuts himself off as her expression morphs from offended to amused, laughter dancing in her eyes and ringing in the small room. Instead, he mock-scowls, though he's sure she can detect his own good humor in his voice. “Since when did you switch places with Seven?”

She presses a hand to her chest. “Who, me? I can't believe you'd accuse me of such a thing!”

Still grinning, he rolls his eyes before nudging her gently out the door. “Stay right there and don't move. I'll be out in a bit and then we’re going on a little trip.”

Even with the door closed between them, he can hear the incredulity in her tone. “A trip? Don't you have another performance tomorrow?” Her voice sounds more curious than impatient, but even so, he hurries to change, if only to be reunited with her quicker.

She's leaning against the wall when he exits, so effortlessly gorgeous that he can't resist grabbing her by the waist and kissing her. He grins as she makes a muffled noise against his mouth, and pulls back before she can deepen it any more. “It's just for the rest of today,” he says cheerfully to her earlier question instead. “Now come on, before everyone else finds us.”

He knows he must look ridiculous, sneaking along the hallway grasping Carina’s hand with her dark lipstick smudged across his bottom lip, but he doesn't care as he leads her out back to his car, pointedly ignoring her questioning and cajoling.

They've been long on the road by the time she clearly accepts that he's not planning on telling her anything and settles down, staring out the window instead, watching as trees fly by in the late afternoon sun. He resists the urge to watch her instead of the road with some difficulty, but the twists and turns soon capture his attention; navigating them in a car is at once both easier and more difficult than on his bike.

Several sharp turns later, he pulls to a stop at the small overlook before glancing towards Carina again. It takes her a few seconds to realize that they've stopped, but only a moment longer to turn to him, her face lighting up. “Is this…?”

“My secret place, as everyone calls it? Yeah.” He gets out of the car quickly, grabbing the picnic basket he prepared with one hand, and hurries around to the other side of the car to grab her hand with the other. “It seemed like a nice day so I thought I would bring you here. I know I’ve been so busy with rehearsals that we haven’t had much time to ourselves so I thought we could make up for it now.”

She laughs, easy and light. “Okay. Now where are we going, then?”

He says nothing, only holds her hand tighter as they make their way down the road, still near enough to the cliff that he can look out and see the city stretched before them, warm and sparkling in the sunlight. It has been a long time since he has come this far, but he relishes in it, at every step with Carina at his side.

Beside him, she is finally starting to lag when they arrive at the clearing. A small stream meanders across the grass, bubbling and beautiful in the warm day, surrounded by the wildflowers of late spring, and with a laugh, she is off, sandals left behind in the grass as she runs, barefoot, towards the water.

In the second it takes for him to bend over and grab her shoes, she’s already sitting by the creek, feet hanging into the cool water and waving him over. “This is beautiful.”

Sitting beside her, he drops the basket and blanket on the ground before pulling her close and catching her lips in a long, deep, kiss, his fingers curling in her hair as she moans, shifting closer.

He’s not sure he’ll ever get used to how good, how right, it feels, like the happy ending to their fairytale.

He’s not sure he wants to.

Chapter Text

It's late by the time the conversation comes to a lull. Long forgotten boxes of takeout lie, empty, on the small table in front of them as they sit, side by side on Eunbyeol’s couch. At some point, they have shifted so his arm wraps around her waist and her head rests on his shoulder, so gentle and warm and right that he doesn't want to move.

Still, he can't stop himself from yawning and she jerks up immediately, her expression a mix of embarrassed and concerned. “Oh my god, I'm so sorry I didn't notice how late it is. You must be exhausted.”

He shakes his head, a tired grin dancing on his lips. “It's fine. I can't say I noticed either. And I'm happy to be here. With you.”

A bashful smile crosses her face, dusting her cheeks with a faint pink glow. “You're welcome to stay,” she murmurs, so quietly that he almost misses it.

“I…” He blinks. “I wouldn't want to impose…”

“You're not,” she says more steadily, her confidence clearly boosted by her exasperation. “Besides, it's far too late now and you haven't been to your apartment in two years.”

She's right and he knows it. “Then thank you. You're right. This is definitely easier.”

Her body inexplicably relaxes, even as she gets to her feet. “Okay, good. Do you have a toothbrush and toothpaste or…?”

He nods towards the hallway. “In my suitcase. I should be fine with just a pillow and a throw, if you have any extras.”

At that, she turns, confusion clear on her face. “Why…? Oh.”

For just a second, her face falls, so quickly that he almost misses it, before she forces a smile back onto her lips, but it is enough that he is up and at her side almost instantly. “Eunbyeol? What is it?”

She laughs, a sound that is strangely awkward, almost distant in its mood, and a far cry from the woman he has spent the past hours chatting with. “I’m sorry,” she says at last, focused on a point somewhere beyond his shoulder. “I didn’t mean to presume…”

“What are you…?” he begins, but she cuts him off with another, louder but no less fake, laugh.

“Jihyun,” and the sound of his name on her lips, at once foreign and so very natural, is enough to cut him off. “You’ve been sleeping in hotels and planes and who knows where else for the past two years. I think I can give up my bed for a single night.” Her cheeks are slowly staining a bright red, but she still meets his gaze steadily. “I apologize for forcing you into staying if you aren’t comfortable with the idea. I suppose I got a little ahead of myself, especially given the circumstances.”

Oh.

He swallows, hard. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s fine. I understand. I don’t want to push you, especially given everything, and you’ve only just come back, and I’ll be right back. I just need to get—”

He grabs her hand before she can hurry away, bringing her to a stop. Warm brown eyes meet his, wide with what appears to be slight panic, and he gives a self-deprecating laugh. “Eunbyeol.” He waits until she opens her mouth, pauses, and closes it again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even think… Well…”

This time, her laugh rings real. “You’re an idiot,” she informs him.

“That I am. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Does this answer your question?” she asks, before stretching upwards to kiss him. Without thinking, he leans down, burying a hand in her hair as he deepens the kiss.

He’s still not used to this, he thinks to himself as she pulls away, a faint blush on her cheeks.

They prepare for bed quickly, carefully sidestepping each other in an awkward dance, but he’s fairly certain that he cannot stop smiling any more than she can. His eyes drink in the sight of her, casual and comfortable and his.

He’s not sure he ever wants to be used to this.

Under the covers, she gravitates towards him, sighing as he pulls her against him.

“Good night,” she murmurs, her breath warm against his skin.

He smiles, kissing the top of her head. “Good night, my love.”

For the first time in too long, he falls asleep, not alone, but warm and loved.

Chapter Text

Jihyun is a study in concentration when he is working on his art. His head bows over the paper in front of him, hardly noticing anything else. One hand idly toys with an eraser while his pencil flies over the page, leaving bold, strong lines in its wake. He pauses, staring out into the distance, focused on something only he can see, before he returns to reality, mumbling quietly to himself as he erases something, as meticulous as he was free only moments prior.

Eunbyeol stands in silence, watching him. It's rare for her to catch him in such a state, so lost to the world that he doesn't notice her enter his workroom, and it is breathtaking to witness, a master at work.

She doesn't realize she's staring until turquoise eyes suddenly meet hers, his widening in surprise before softening. “Eunbyeol. I'm sorry for ignoring you. How long have you been there?”

“Only a short while. It's…” She pauses, searching for the right word. “It's peaceful to watch you so focused. Is that okay?”

He smiles, sitting back and stretching his hand. “You're always welcome. Do you want to see what I've been working on?”

She steps forward eagerly, enough so that he laughs, reaching a hand out. She accepts it, laughing herself as she finds herself tugged into his lap, arms warm around her.

“Here.” His breath tickles her ear as he reaches for a sketchbook, an arm wrapped around her waist to keep her secure. She takes it with reverence, smoothing a hand over its cover until he laughs. “Well, go on.”

There is a note of not quite apprehension to his voice and she pauses, turning to him. “If you don't want me to look, I don't have to…”

He shakes his head. “I offered, remember? I just don't usually show anyone anything more than the final product. This is different. But in a good way.”

At that, she smiles before flipping to the first page. A mountain range stretches out before her, captured in light, careful lines, just enough that she can fill in the details with her mind’s eye.

“It's lovely,” she breaths. “Where?”

“The northern Rocky Mountains in Canada,” Jihyun says, running a finger over the outline of a tree. His chin rests lightly on her shoulder, a warm, comforting weight as she turns the page.

Landscapes and natural beauties dominate the book, transporting her to Europe and New Zealand and everywhere in between. Now and then, figures capture her attention: a mother with her son in her arms here and a young couple walking hand-in-hand there. Two teenage boys, throwing a frisbee and laughing in the grass. A group of friends on the beach, lounging and grinning at what can only be inside jokes.

A woman with long hair and warm eyes kneeling next to what she can only imagine is a younger version of him.

To the last, he says nothing, only tightens his arms around her waist and presses a kiss to her cheek, and she knows better to ask.

Instead, she turns another page to find herself, face alight with amusement as she looks up from a book. Her eyes take in the details, the curl of hair that never stays tucked behind her ear and the careful shading of her lips, and turns to find him watching her with affection.

“You drew me?”

“Of course I did.”

Her eyes widen as she turns page after page. Her smiling. Her focusing on her work. Her talking with Jumin or laughing with Jaehee. Sketches of her in all different angles and expressions, both busts and full body drawings. Some are in finer detail and others quick sketches but all have the same care, the same love, in every pencil stroke, in every shaded touch.

When she flips to the last one, she can only stare. It is not her, but them. She sits on their couch, her head thrown back in laughter, each sweeping line drawn with impeccable care, so detailed that it almost feels like she can hear her illustrated mirth. Meanwhile, he reclines across the rest of the couch with his head on her lap, face upturned to watch her, adoration shining clearly out of his expression. Along the bottom, in small script, is written “nae sarang.”

My love.

“I… Do you like it?” There is a hesitance in his voice that she hasn’t heard since she started looking through the booklet.

When she opens her mouth, it’s to find that there’s a strange lump in her throat, and she has to swallow hard before she can force her words out. “I love it. The pictures. I… They’re so beautiful.”

His eyes are soft, as tender as the hand that cups her cheek, brushing away a stray tear. “Not as beautiful as my muse,” he counters, his voice very soft.

Her responding laugh is shaky. “Flatterer.”

“Not at all.” He shakes his head, face more serious than she has seen in some time. “I draw what I see. And you, Eunbyeol, are the most beautiful person I know. Inside and out. I love you.”

She draws an unsteady breath, blinking suddenly stinging eyes. “I love you too,” she whispers before leaning in, capturing his lips with hers.

Chapter Text

Eunbyeol wasn't entirely sure when she had begun to care for him.

Looking back, it was certainly foolish to believe what Ray told her; going through all of that trouble to transport a young woman to a mysterious location under blindfold for the sole purpose of testing an app game was hardly believable. A kidnapping to a mysterious fortress with a comfortable room and a working phone was actually one of the better outcomes she should have expected.

But at least for a while, it was nice. The programmed, or at least she thought, members of the RFA were interesting, varied, and, in some cases, so incredibly funny. They laughed and argued and teased like a family.

And he watched over them all. The man who went only by V, who was at once leader and friend to them all. The former fiancé of the woman who had ordered her arrival to the compound. The man who had been invariably thoughtful and kind to her, who had orchestrated her safety when she had first been offered the so-called elixir. Who had given her his name, his true name, just to keep her safe.

Ray hadn't trusted him, called him a hypocrite and a liar, but Ray had also tried to feed her poison and lied to her about everything.

She couldn't trust anything that Ray had said. Not anymore.

The car jolted, bouncing over a rough patch of road, and V groaned as his head jostled in her lap. “Eunbyeol…?”

Her heart clenched. “I'm here.” She bent over him, watching as his eyes, hazy with delirium, tried to focus on her face. Without thinking, she took his hand in hers. “You're safe now, V.”

She couldn't tell whether he fully heard her but he relaxed nonetheless, though his face remained contorted with pain. “Thank you… Eunbyeol…”

“Shhh. You need rest.” Hesitantly, she reached down, gently brushing sweat-soaked strands of hair off of his forehead. The only response she received was a soft sigh, and she pressed her lips together as she continued, her fingers threading through his hair.

After a moment, Seven spoke from behind the wheel. “I called in some assistance from… We’ll call him a friend. He's the closest person we have right now to a discreet medical professional.”

She looked up, catching his gaze in the rearview mirror. This was Seven-oh-Seven in full business mode, gold eyes serious, without a hint of the jokester he was in the chatroom. She nodded, and his face softened, ever so slightly.

“V will be fine. He's survived everything up until now. He won't give up now. Especially not like this, when you're here to take care of him.”

She nodded again, though this time with the corners of her mouth drawing upward into the barest hint of a smile. Seven was right. He'd be fine.

He had to be.

Chapter Text

Zen has always been elegant in his movements and incredibly light on his feet. His musical theatre training and routine exercise means he is always in peak shape, and has incredible control over his motions. She has seen him perform incredible feats of acrobatics on stage, all while singing his heart out. Indeed, for the most part, Zen is grace incarnate.

Except, it seems, when it comes to the cherished winter pastime of ice skating.

Carina laughs softly to herself as she comes to a neat stop in front of him, just out of range of his flailing when he takes a cautious step only to have his feet slide out from under him. “Have you never skated before?”

He glares at her from his position sprawled on the ice. “No, I haven't. I never went as a kid and once I moved out on my own, I spent the time practicing or rehearsing.”

“That makes sense.” Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Jumin making quick, elegant laps around the edge of the rink, taking great care to avoid them, and Jaehee scolding Seven for spinning Yoosung too quickly in the middle. “You know, it's not unusual for beginners to get a chair or something to practice with at first.”

Zen’s scowl deepens. “And be the laughingstock of the RFA for the next few weeks? No thanks. I'll be fine. I just need to…” He trails off as he attempts to push himself back onto his feet, only to come crashing down almost immediately.

This time, she can't quite hold back her laughter, earning her another glare, though it rather loses some of its effectiveness when he’s collapsed on the ground. Instead, she shakes her head, offering him a hand. “Here, let me… Now kneel. Good, and then get one foot up at a time… Keep your feet under your body…”

She gets him back to his unsteady feet with some maneuvering, grinning outright as he grabs the wall of the rink for support, his cheeks endearingly bright. When Jumin announced that he booked out a rink for an afternoon to simply relax after the latest RFA party, she certainly wasn’t expecting this.

Everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, at least. As Zen teeters by the wall, she looks around again. Seven and Yoosung, made up once more, race each other across the length of the rink, Seven cheering as he narrowly ekes ahead. Jumin has stopped at the edge, glancing at his phone as he times the two race towards him. Jaehee, ever serious, seems to be making laps of her own, her technique flawless. Meanwhile…

“Are you okay, Zen?”

Carina looks back as her cousin’s voice registers, a mix of amused and concerned. Eunbyeol stands behind them with Jihyun, skates in hand. “Sorry we’re late. Someone wanted to finish his sketch before leaving.”

Jihyun smiles a little sheepishly. “Sorry. But we made it, and it doesn’t look like we’re too behind.” He pauses, takes in Zen trying to shift forward inch by inch. “Well, at least not compared to Hyun,” he quips.

“Haha, very funny.” Judging from the pout in his voice, Carina’s fairly certain that Zen would have skated away if he had the ability to. Instead, he only manages to wobble a few steps further along the wall, clutching it tightly the whole while.

“Right, we’ll leave you to it, then.” Eunbyeol’s eyes are positively dancing now, but she says nothing else as she finishes lacing up her skates and steps onto the ice, Jihyun right beside her with their fingers laced together. “Good luck!” she tosses over her shoulder.

“I can’t tell if that’s for you or for me,” Carina comments before turning her attention back to her still-sulking boyfriend, who’s muttering quietly under his breath.

“I can run and dance and ride a motorbike. But ice skating…” She presses her lips together to hide her smile but he notices it anyway.

“You just need practice…”

“Right, practice.” He sighs, glancing across the ice to where Jihyun and Eunbyeol are, still moving smoothly, hand-in-hand, before straightening back up with determination. “Okay, now what?”

Chapter Text

The room is crowded but dimly lit when he enters, and he blinks in surprise. While it has been quite some time since he’s officially been to an RFA party, he’s fairly certain that they have never been arranged like this, with the tables for guests pushed against the sides of the room, a space cleared out in the center, and a live chamber orchestra on the stage.

His astonishment is short-lived; from her position beside the orchestra, Jaehee soon spots him and waves him forward, her clipboard, as always, clutched in her grasp, covered in her neat script. Nonetheless, her expression is warm as she looks him over with what appears for all the world like a small smile of approval. “Mr. Han’s idea,” is all she says, however, as she leads him around the back towards the hosts’ preparatory rooms.

“Jumin?”

She raises an eyebrow at him. “Is there any other in the RFA?”

“I…” He’s saved from formulating a full reply as she glances behind him, her face lighting up.

“Ahhh, there you are, Eunbyeol! I believe Mr. Han was looking for you.”

He vaguely thinks he sees a smirk on Jaehee’s lips as he turns on instinct at the name, but that and any other coherent thought is wiped from his mind as he stares.

Earlier, Eunbyeol left some time before him, citing some task that Jumin and Jaehee assigned her to take care of before the party began. Distracted as he was with his own preparations, he didn’t even stop to consider she was hardly dressed for the party. Now, he realizes that the whole thing was a ruse.

She’s dressed in a long, turquoise gown that fall in a swirl of cloth to the floor, shifting and rippling like water with her every step. Brilliant sparkling beads adorn the straps and the waistline, emphasizing her figure, while her hair hangs, styled but loose, around her shoulders and down to her waist. Someone must have coaxed her into heels; she stands taller than she typically does, though she still has to stretch up to kiss him on the cheek, leaving a faint scent of flowers drifting behind her.

She is absolutely captivating.

The faint sound of laughter brings him back to the present, and he finds Eunbyeol beaming at him, her eyes dancing. “I think your jaw is slack, love. I guess I’ll have to thank Jumin and Zen later, though?”

He manages something that sounds faintly like agreement and she laughs again before turning to Jaehee. “Where is Jumin?”

“I believe he should be making final arrangements for the music…”

The rest of her sentence is cut off by the gentle first notes of a waltz wafting in from the main room, accompanied by the rustle of cloth as couples alight from their seats to the cleared floor. His eyebrows raise without thought; including a dancing component to the party is new, but the guests, at least, seem eager enough. Beside him, Jaehee chuckles. “Well, I’m certain Mr. Han will be distracted now as it is, if only in avoiding the many women who would try to claim the first dance with him. I’m sure you can find him later, Eunbyeol. Why don’t you enjoy this?”

Before either he or Eunbyeol can react, she opens a door leading back to the main room and melts into the crowd, leaving them standing, nonplussed, in the hallway.

After another moment, Eunbyeol laughs, shaking her head. “Why do I get the feeling that this entire party was all an elaborate set up?”

“Knowing everybody… it probably was,” he agrees, before pausing. “Though they did do a wonderful job. I don’t think I told you. You look… stunning.”

Her cheeks flush a rather becoming shade of pink. “Thank you. I have no idea what magic they worked to take care of everything like this, though it does explain why Jumin was so insistent that I took proper ballroom dance lessons recently. And you look quite dashing yourself.”

“Thank you. And ballroom dance lessons?” He clears his throat, silently thankful that he has not forgotten the etiquette lessons he once absorbed when he thought he would take over his father’s company, and offers a formal bow while extending a hand. “In that case, may I have this dance, Miss Lee?”

To his surprise, she dips a graceful curtsy before accepting his hand. “With all of my heart, Mr. Kim.”

A proper young man should not be openly grinning quite as much as he is, he knows, but he hardly finds it in himself to care as he leads her into the main room and onto the floor. She settles into his arms with precision, if not confidence, and he pauses to offer her a warm, hopefully comforting smile, before sweeping them into the sea of twirling couples.

Eunbyeol must have been a quick learner; they swirl on the floor, her responding lightly to his every gentle pressure and cue. They pass by Jumin, dancing with whatever young woman managed to claim him first. Hyun and Carina spin by, he leading her patiently through the steps. Luciel nearly runs into them, pivoting his partner wildly and laughing openly as he catches himself at the last minute. And still, they move on, as fluid as water.

A light push against her back sends her flying into a quick outside turn as he shifts himself perfectly to catch her. Now even she is smiling a bright, excited grin as she returns to his embrace, sliding into position so easily and naturally it is as if they have been dancing together all of their lives.

In the dim light from the chandeliers overhead, her eyes are warm, shining with both exhilaration and love, and he finds himself lost in their depths, in the feel of her, gentle and supple in his arms. His star. The love of his life.

As the music draws to a close, he can’t resist the urge to pull her closer, drawing her in against his chest. “Have I told you that I love you?” he murmurs, quiet in the rustle of bodies around them. “Because I love you, Eunbyeol. Very much.”

She beams at him. “I love you too,” she manages to whisper, before, heedless to the crowd and the orchestra starting up the next piece, he leans towards her and their lips meet.

Chapter Text

He wakes to darkness and warmth in an unfamiliar room. That in it of itself is not unusual; after all, in the past two years, he has traveled across the world, changing locations often enough that most rooms he has stayed in are unfamiliar.

And yet… it has been long, so long, since he has woken up with a soft, calming presence at his side, with gentle arms holding him, that, as he slowly turns, he wonders if he is still dreaming.

But no, Eunbyeol lies beside him, her face serene in slumber, so beautiful that he cannot tear his gaze away. How many times did he think of her, those long years when he was determined to better himself, to make himself worthy of her? How many times did he dream of waking up like this, to her in his arms and in his heart?

How does he deserve this?

He’s not sure how long he spends beside her, simply enjoying her nearness and the quiet rise and fall of her chest before she stirs slightly, dark eyes slowly blinking open. “Hmm, Jihyun? Are you awake already?”

Her quiet, sleep-roughened voice is tender, even barely awakened, and he cannot resist the urge to stretch forward, pressing his lips to hers for a brief moment before pulling her closer, into his arms and against his chest. “Good morning. I’m sorry if I woke you up.”

He can feel her laughter shake her body. “Are you really, now?” she asks, pulling away just enough to glance at the way he has her ensconced in his arms before burying her face back into his chest. “But it’s okay. I think reality is better than my dreams right now.” There’s pause as she blinks again, slowly. “That sounds so cheesy, sorry.”

“No, I understand,” he murmurs into her hair, and feels her lips curl into a smile against his neck. “I feel the same way. Though if this is another dream, I never want to wake up.”

At that, she pulls back and meets his gaze, eyes incredibly solemn. “This is no dream, Jihyun. You’re here. You’re home. And I love you. All of this is real.”

He can barely let her finish her sentence before he claims her lips once more, tugging her closer, closer. She freezes before responding with equal vigor, her arms encircling his neck, warm and sweet and right, and he can’t get enough of her. He swipes his tongue across her lower lip, reveling in her gasp, and pulls back, unable to keep the smirk entirely off of his face as she shifts to follow him until he moves out of reach.

“Tease.”

His smirk widens at the breathlessness of her voice. “Maybe.”

“You’re lucky I love you,” she says with faux hostility, settling back down beside him.

As he wraps an arm around her shoulders, his expression turns sincere. “I love you too, you know.”

Her scowl drops instantly. “I know.”

For some time, they lie in silence, he enjoying the feeling of her in his arms, before she stirs again. “Is it just me or is it getting brighter out?”

He squints at the still-dark window. “Possibly?”

“Then come!” Eunbyeol shrugs out of his hold and springs to her feet with surprising vigor, holding out her hand for his.

He raises an eyebrow at her, even as he obediently takes her hand and allows her to pull him upright. “What are we—?” Before he can finish his sentence, a morning from two years prior flashes through his mind and he cuts himself off. “Oh. The sunrise?”

She pauses in gathering the blanket, instead turning to him with a strangely shy smile. “You remembered. Yes, the sunrise.”

“How could I possibly forget? It was one of the most wonderful mornings in my life.” He takes the blanket from her, wrapping it around her shoulders as she leads the way to her balcony. “Second maybe to this one.”

“Considering you were in the hospital that time, I should hope so,” she retorts, but even so, he suspects that the faint red on her cheeks isn’t from the pre-dawn that is slowly lighting the horizon with streaks of silver.

Instead of saying anything, he simply leads her to the small bench and sits beside her, sliding an arm around her waist as she wraps the blanket around them both and leans her head on his shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says, very softly.

He turns to find her face bathed golden in the first rays of dawn. “So am I,” he agrees before pressing a gentle kiss to the top of her head. “So am I.”

Chapter Text

It’s almost strange to be going on what would typically be considered a “first date” with Eunbyeol. After all, after everything that has happened between them, they’ve progressed far beyond that stage of their relationship, but at the same time, Jihyun can't deny that a bit of normalcy is also extremely appealing.

Perhaps that is why he agrees to meet her at the restaurant after not having seen her for nearly a full week, even if it requires rescheduling two meetings. Between her job and his continued return to the world of art, they have had little time to see each other, staying in touch mostly by phone. It’s only been a week, but somehow each minute apart has been more agonizing than a full day while he was traveling.

The feeling would be terrifying if it weren't so exhilarating.

Chuckling at his own exuberance, Jihyun jogs the last few steps to the entrance before checking the time. He's nearly ten minutes early, of course, and he can only grin wryly to himself as he waits, feeling for all the world like a young teenager waiting for his first girlfriend rather than like the man in his mid-twenties that he is.

It's only intensified when he hears his name and looks up to find Eunbyeol rushing towards him, a bright smile on her face. “And here I thought I was early. Were you waiting long?” she says, coming to a stop a few feet short with a bashful smile, looking as though she can't decide the most appropriate way to greet him.

He shakes his head, shifting to close the distance between them and give her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Not at all. I guess we were both eager.”

“Very much so.” She smiles, a faint hint of pink dusting her cheeks. “I was changed and ready to leave nearly an hour ago but I figured it would be a bit much to arrive that early.”

He laughs, but sobers quickly. “And you look beautiful.” Dressed as she was in a soft pink blouse and matching skirt, he doesn't think he has ever seen someone look so sweet, especially as her cheeks darken to match her outfit.

“Thank you. You look quite handsome as well.”

“Thanks.” He pauses, glancing again at his watch. “I think we should be okay to go in now. Shall we?”

She laughs as he hurries to hold the door open for her. “We shall, and thank you, although you know I can open the door myself, Jihyun.”

Her voice is more amused than annoyed, and he smiles, relaxing just a little as he offers her his arm. “I know, but allow me anyway?”

She returns the expression with one of her own as they are led to their table. “How very gentlemanly of you.”

He hesitates, waiting for the servers to leave before taking the plunge. “And if I say this is on me?”

Her response is instantaneous. “No, this dinner was my suggestion. I can cover it.”

“You paid for dinner last time,” he counters.

“That was take-out! It's hardly the same thing.” She crosses her arms across her chest, giving him a rather mulish expression. “Besides, you had just gotten back from Hawaii.”

“Eunbyeol…” He's not entirely sure what he's going to say, but it doesn't really matter as he's interrupted by the waiter, who seems to be eyeing them both with amusement.

“You know we can do separate checks as well, right? Or not, that works too,” the man adds as he and Eunbyeol shake their heads at the same time. “Well then, I'll leave you two to figuring it out, though I'll take your orders now. Any appetizers?”

They silently call a truce as they order, though that doesn't stop the waiter, now grinning openly, from wishing them both a good luck.

Before she can start again, Jihyun changes the subject, asking about her work, and, to his relief, she accepts the new topic of conversation with nothing more than a suspicious look.

By the time he excuses himself to the restroom at the end of dinner, she only sits back with a sigh of contentment and a teasing look. And if he happens to swing by the counter and pays before returning to the table…

Well, she'll catch on eventually.

Chapter Text

The violin Eunbyeol finds lying in the closet is a beautiful instrument, far too valuable for where it’s being stored. She frowns as she unzips the hard case, brushing her fingers lightly over the strings and wincing as they vibrate, out of tune and dissonant.

But even in spite of that, she can hear the quality of the sound, knows that it must be very finely crafted, and stands back up with the intention to ask Jihyun about it before remembering that he has gone out. Instead, she takes it out, holding it in her left hand and again plucks at the strings, listening to the discord and, more importantly, to the potential. It is enough so that she cannot resist the urge to bring it to the small, upright piano that Jihyun purchased as a hobby for when he needs a break from his art.

Naturally, he takes to music like he does to what seems like anything related to art: with aplomb. It's almost enough to make anyone jealous, or would be if he weren't so endearingly modest about his own capabilities.

Nonetheless, ten years of violin lessons growing up have not been completely lost on her as she settles on the piano bench, fingers finding the half-remembered d-minor chord, and she begins to tune. The strings are old, nearly brittle with age, but another inspection of the case reveals new ones, purchased recently. They are not quite the same professional quality, but certainly carefully selected, and she changes them with a careful hand before returning to her tuning.

After several more minutes, she nods. The strings are still stretching but for now… She runs her thumb along the strings, listening to the familiar ring of the notes with satisfaction. For now, this will do.

The bow, too, is old but very fine. She discovers a worn piece of rosin, tucked with care into a pocket, and drags the bow across, watching as the pale yellow hairs cover in white dust. They will need to be replaced at some point but this should do in the meantime.

Rising to her feet, she finishes tuning by ear, making the final touches before she is satisfied. Each fifth sounds with richness, filling the room with warmth, and her smile only widens as she runs through some scales. The strings bite into the soft pads of her fingertips and she knows she'll have callouses in the morning, but it is nothing to the beautiful sound that fills the air, as full and golden as the afternoon sunshine. If this is what it sounds like after what must be years of neglect, she can't imagine what it must have sounded like at its best.

She has never played a professional instrument before but this must be what it feels like.

Sufficiently warmed up, or at least as much as she can be given that she hasn't played in years, she moves to the window and waits, the bow resting lightly on the strings as she considers what she remembers. Something warm, romantic...

Perhaps there is music with the case?

She returns to the closet and rifles through the large cloth bag still lying on the carpet. Inside, she finds pages of sheet music, yellow with age but still legible. Vivaldi, Kreisler, Bach...

Beethoven.

Without a music stand, she contents herself with using the piano, putting down the sheet music and flipping it open to find the two romances. Pencil marks adorn the pages, highlighting passages and circling tempo markings. Angry slashes and gentle reminders, lasting imprints of the last person to peruse the music.

Her hand settles into the appropriate position on the fingerboard before she even consciously decides which piece to play. The notes are awkward at first, the double-stops fumbling and out of tune, but her fingers remember more than her brain does, and she finds herself standing, taking occasional glances at the music when muscle memory fails her.

It isn't until she finishes with a flourish that she realizes she has company; sometime during her performance, Jihyun has returned home, and she carefully sets the violin back down before rushing to his side. “I'm sorry I didn't hear you get ba—” She cuts herself off as soon as she gets close enough to see the tears sparkling on his cheeks. “Jihyun? What's wrong?”

He laughs shakily, swiping at his face with one hand. “I… The violin…”

“Oh, I'm sorry! I just found it in the closet and you weren't home to ask and…”

She snaps her mouth shut when he shakes his head. “No, I'm glad. It… I let it sit for far too long. I'm glad it still sounds good. I just…”

“Jihyun.” She waits until he's looking at her, instead of through her, and takes his hand, pulling him to the couch where she sits beside him. “This violin… It’s yours?”

“No. Well, yes, it is now but… I never played it. I never learned.” His fingers reach out as if to ghost over the wood before he withdraws them and takes her hand, clutching it tightly. “I… My mother… I don't believe I ever told you… She was Yeona Park.”

“The professional violinist who lost her hearing after an accident?”

The hint of a sad smile crosses his face. “Yes. I suppose you must have heard of her, since you play. I… She stopped playing after she lost her hearing, as you know. She always just kept her instrument put away. And then… the fire…”

“Jihyun, you don't—”

She cuts herself off as he takes a deep breath. “No, I should… I want you to know.” In spite of his words, he says nothing for a long while, his fingers vice-like around her own. “You may have heard that she died when our house caught on fire?”

Instead of saying anything, she simply nods, shifting until her shoulder is pressed against his, as warm and comforting as she can be.

“I… She shouldn't have. She went back to save me. She… By then, she wasn't living in the main house, hadn't been for a long time. But she saw that I hadn't made it out… So she... She went back. I hadn't seen her since I told her I never wanted to see her again and she… She died saving me…”

Even though he doesn't say it, she can hear the question in his agony, in the voice that cracks and threatens to break with every word. Why?

“She loved you,” she says, very softly. “What you told her in a moment of anger doesn’t change that, and she knew it. And…” She hesitates, squeezing his hands tighter until wet turquoise eyes meet hers. “And I think she would be happy to know that you kept this, and proud at everything you've done. You're keeping her legacy alive, Jihyun.”

For one, long, moment, he says nothing and she wonders if she has overstepped her bounds before his face crumples. Silently, she wraps her arms around him as he buries his face into the crook of her neck, shoulders shaking with the force of his grief. She feels more than hears the apologies murmured against her skin, but she knows that they are not for her, not now, and she cannot help but wonder if this is the first time he has ever let himself grieve for the woman whom he had been almost ashamed to have loved.

Eunbyeol has never met his father and knows almost as little about him, but she has never been so inclined to dislike somebody on principle in her life.

She’s not sure how much time has passed before he pulls away, eyes red-rimmed but soft and with a gentle, if watery smile. “Thank you, Eunbyeol.”

“I said nothing that isn’t true, Jihyun.”

“Nonetheless… I needed that. Thank you. Truly.”

At that, she softens. “Then of course." She shifts to press a kiss to his cheek. "I love you, you know.”

“I know. And I love you too.”

For several more moments, they sit in silence, before she gets up, wiping the violin carefully and storing it back into its case. “Here,” she says, holding it out to him.

To her surprise, he pushes her hand away. “No, keep it. I think…” He pauses, as if searching for the right words. “I think she would rather it be played than kept away as it was. And I don’t think I could part with it to anyone who would respect it, or who she would respect, as much as you.”

“I…” She coughs, clearing a suddenly tight throat. “Thank you, Jihyun. It would be an honor.”

Chapter Text

“You’re sure about this?”

For as long as V had known him, Jumin Han had always been an exceptionally serious individual. After all, there weren’t many young children who would react to running a toy car into a neighbor’s house by calmly calling insurance to ask about compensation, nor agree readily to a friendship in lieu of said compensation with all of the formality of a professional business agreement.

Still, he had before never seen Jumin quite this solemn, arms crossed and brows knitted together with severity, and he couldn't help but smile. His friend was often described as confident to the point—and sometimes beyond—of arrogant, but he knew better; Jumin Han was indeed capable of being quite charming when he wanted to be but he’d known him long enough to see behind the impartial mask to the deeply caring individual underneath.

“I am,” he returned simply.

“And have you told her?”

“Ah.” He glanced to Eunbyeol, chatting with Jaehee, her face beautifully alight. As if sensing his gaze, she turned and offered him a small, tender smile that warmed his heart, even as it ached at the thought of leaving her behind. “Not yet.”

He received a disapprovingly quirked eyebrow. “She comes by almost every day to help with whatever you need. She practically lives here. She deserves to know.”

“Yes.”

V.”

“I know, I know. I’ll tell her before I leave. I just… don't want to ruin her happiness. Not yet.”

The condemning scowl directed at him made him feel vaguely as though he were a young child being scolded, but Jumin only sighed. “I don't suppose I'll be able to change your mind.”

He blinked at the sudden shift in mood. “About?”

“This. All of this.” Jumin only indicated their surroundings with a quick look, but he knew it was the equivalent of wild gesticulation for any other man. “Disappearing on a trip of unknown length to who knows where. Not telling Eunbyeol about this plan of yours. Hasn't the RFA had enough secrets?”

Something lurked in Jumin’s gaze, a dark, pained look that made his insides twist with guilt, which may very well have been the intention in the first place, but he only shook his head. “It's no secret, Jumin. I have no intention of hiding what I'm doing. Not anymore.”

“I’m delighted to hear that.” Jumin’s voice was deeply sardonic. “But simply saying that doesn’t mean anything when you’re running away from everything. Again.”

“I’m not!” He shouted the words without thinking, catching the attention of everyone else in the room. Before Eunbyeol could react, he shook his head as placatingly as he could. Much to his relief, she relented, only offering him a concerned look and delivering a glare at Jumin before turning back to Jaehee. Lowering his voice with some difficulty, he turned his attention back to Jumin. “I’m not. I have no intention of running away from all this.” He took a deep breath, reigning his emotions back with some difficulty. “Jumin, I know you took care of everything while I was in the hospital and I’m sorry for leaving you with all of the fallout. But this has nothing to do with that.”

“Then tell me.” The slight pleading in Jumin’s tone, so clearly audible even with his quiet voice, took him entirely by surprise. “We all thought we had lost you, V, once when you went to rescue Eunbyeol and Seven was only barely in time, and again when we heard that you’d been stabbed. Even before that, with Rika, I had to stand and watch as you pulled away. You were quieter and smiled less and I didn’t know how to help you.”

“I’m sorry.” The words fell from his mouth without thought, so woefully inadequate, but they were all he had. “I didn’t—”

“You didn’t want to hurt us.” Jumin finished, suddenly quiet and without judgment. “I know. But we’re your friends. That means you can rely on us if you need anything. Sometimes, pulling away to protect people only makes things worse, especially if something goes wrong.”

He couldn’t help but glance again towards Eunbyeol, and thought he saw Jumin doing the same. “I know.”

“Then…?”

“I’ll tell her tonight. But this is something I have to do. Alone.” Dark eyes bore into his, but he held his ground, and at last, Jumin nodded, relaxing his stance, though only just.

“Very well. But will you at least explain why?”

He took a deep breath. “Because I care about her,” he said simply.

Whatever answer Jumin was expecting, that clearly wasn’t it; his eyes noticeably widened, though his voice remained steady, almost sarcastic. “I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“I'm not ready.”

Jumin blinked, clearly trying and failing to process that. “Sorry?”

He sighed, running a hand through his hair with an inward grimace. In the past months, ever since Rika’s departure, it had grown, long and unkempt, wilting with the same lack of care he had shown to his physical well-being. But then again, that was it entirely, wasn't it?

“I'm not ready,” he repeated. “I… She's already seen me at my worst, I know, but…” He shrugged, a little helplessly. There was no easy way to say that he was still afraid, afraid that he would shatter another chance, that he would corrupt another innocent.

Afraid that he would flounder and drown without a purpose, without his true purpose.

However, Jumin only nodded, his gaze sympathetic even as he saw straight to the heart of the problem. “You want to find yourself first.”

“I want to be a man worthy of her, who she can be proud of,” he agreed. “And… Remember when I told you I was scared to draw?”

“And I told you to try photography instead as a compromise.”

He smiled, small but genuine. “That’s right. You did. You always know how to find a balance.”

“Of course I do. But…?”

Subconsciously, he straightened, meeting his friend’s gaze with his own, strong and determined. “But I want to draw, to paint. I want to be me.”

A rare, open, smile crossed Jumin’s face. “It's an honorable goal. I understand. And I think everyone else will too.”

Instinctively, he glanced again towards Eunbyeol, who met his gaze with a questioning look and hurried over. “Is something the matter?”

“No, not at all. We were just finishing up. I believe I've taken up enough of his recovery time.” Before he could say anything, Jumin stood, his polite, impersonal mask firmly back on, though his eyes were still soft when he nodded towards Eunbyeol. “Thank you for taking care of him. And let me know if there's anything I can do to help, though he seems to be in good hands.”

She smiled, a brilliant expression that lit up the room. “Thank you, Jumin.”

“Of course.” A hand moved into his vision and he looked up as Jumin offered him a warm, firm handshake. “And Jihyun? Good luck.”

He didn't realize until after Jumin and Jaehee left, until after he and Eunbyeol talked and he obtained her, albeit somewhat reluctant, blessing, that for the first time in years, Jumin had not called him by his alias.

Jumin had not called him V.

He had called him Jihyun. His name.

And, though it felt strange and fit a little awkwardly, it was right.

It was him.

Chapter Text

Jihyun Kim has always liked summer; after all, it is a time of brightness, of sunshine and warmth. As a child, he loved running through the cool, thick grass, admiring the richness of colors around him, all under the sun. When he grew older, summer was a time of laughter, of birdsong at dawn and crickets at dusk. Of Rika at her most vibrant.

Like the sun, he is at his strongest, at his peak then.

But Eunbyeol is different. At the first chilly morning, the first hint of autumn, she is all beaming smiles and bright eyes, switching out summer dresses for thick sweaters with unadulterated delight. The sun rises later each morning and she cheerfully sleeps in, still waking up in time to catch each breathtaking dawn.

She drags him out on the weekends, to long walks through parks and cozy cafes. On rainy days, they curl up by the window, wrapped in blankets with mugs of tea, warm and content. She tells him about the American traditions of apple picking and pumpkin carving and Halloween, her eyes sparkling, and he silently resolves to bring her to the United States someday to wander the corn mazes and go on the hay rides she describes with enthusiasm.

Winter brings with it the first snowfall, gentle flakes that are more rain than ice crystals, and he is struck by the way they cling to her hair, the way she turns her face to embrace their descent, her cheeks rosy in spite of the scarf tied snugly around her neck. She is beautiful, all purity and innocence, as she loops her arm around his and he presses a gentle kiss to her cheek.

There are quiet mornings in each other’s arms and cold afternoons walking hand-in-hand in the snowy landscape. There are warm evenings among their friends, their family, with shared dinner and laughter. There are cozy nights, wrapped in blankets and dozing off on the couch, and cheesy winter movies where Eunbyeol always pretends not to notice when he gets embarrassingly sentimental.

Christmas passes with his little found family and gifts and good cheer. He has not gone to church in years and Eunbyeol never has, but he still stops to think of Rika and his mother and to send thanks for Eunbyeol’s presence, always warm and loving and supportive. This New Year, he looks forward, to a better life and future creativity and many more years of happiness.

When the wind turns soft and warm once more, when flowers bloom and trees bud with new life, she smiles, her face as gentle as the blossoms that wave and bob in the breeze. He takes her out into fields of wildflowers, sketchbook in hand as she unpacks picnics and dances, carefree, in the grass. They go boating and swimming and always, always, get up early to watch the sunrise.

If he is the sun, he thinks, then she is the stars in the night sky, present no matter what clouds obscure his view, gradually changing as seasons come and go, but always beautiful.

And always, eternally, his.

Chapter Text

The quiet sound of music filters through the house as Eunbyeol enters the front door. She blinks in surprise; as of that morning, at least, they didn't have a piano, and Jihyun isn't the type to listen to music while he works, but there’s no mistaking the notes dancing through the late afternoon air, light and expressive.

“Jihyun?” She doesn't receive a reply but neither is she expecting one.

She wanders through their home, stopping to drop off her bookbag in the study, and finds herself standing outside their little library, which, at some point while she was gone, has apparently been converted into a music room. The bookshelves have been pushed against a single wall and the squishy armchair now occupies the corner by the windows. Against the newly freed wall, shining a rich brown in the afternoon sun, stands an upright piano.

And on the bench, head bowed over the keys, is Jihyun, fingers flying across the keys with a precision that takes her by surprise. As she watches, he pauses, studying the music with intensity before making a few marks, so focused that he doesn't even notice her enter the room.

“How long have you been playing?” she asks softly.

Even so, he starts, whirling around so quickly that the sheet music flies off the stand and onto the floor. “Eunbyeol. I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come back. How was class?”

“I figured not. You seemed quite focused.” She smiles, moving to grab the papers and hand them to him. “Class was fine. Lots of information but that's pretty typical, since we're moving on to clinical soon.” Leaning over his shoulder, she cranes her neck to read the name of the piece. “It’s Your Day?”

“Yiruma.” He pauses, tilting back to rest lightly against her. “I took piano lessons as a child for a while, simply because I thought that having some basic knowledge of music would be important to run my father’s company more efficiently. My father agreed for a while, before deciding that I had learned all I needed to after six or seven years.” Absently, his fingers close around her hand, bringing it to his lips, but his eyes are still far in the past. “I realized when I was in Austria that I actually really enjoyed it and wanted to pick up piano again.”

She blinks, processing this. “But we haven’t had a piano…?”

His responding smile is sheepish. “No, we didn’t. I wanted to surprise you and knew that it would take some time before I could reach a level that I thought was worth sharing. Until now, I’ve been playing either at the piano in the C&R building or at the university practice rooms. It’s a good break from painting and drawing.”

Laughing, she shakes her head. “Only you would find another artistic endeavor to work on as a break from art. But does this mean I ruined your surprise?”

“That depends. Were you surprised?”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting to come home to find that we suddenly own a piano,” she says teasingly.

“Then no.” Turquoise eyes dance at her, even as he reaches for another set of music. “Though that wasn’t the whole surprise.”

He sets the pages down on the stand and she makes to move to the armchair, but before she can, he catches her arm. “No, you can stay here.” When she gives him a questioning look, he rather endearingly colors, but his voice is steady. “I want to see you.”

As she obediently settles down beside the piano, her own cheeks a little brighter, he turns his attention back to his music, eyes scanning over the entire piece before beginning.

Jihyun performing is a new sight entirely. His fingers dance over the keys, surprisingly sure in their jumps and runs, but instead of focusing solely on the music or his hands, his eyes shift, from the stand to the keys to her, soft with affection that takes her aback in its intensity. She can hear his emotion in every note, can feel it ring in every fiber of her being, even as the melody cradles her, gentle and warm.

It’s elegant and tender and so very him that it makes her heart ache.

When he finishes, there’s a pause that she’s loathe to break. It’s not until she draws a deep breath that she realizes her chest is tight, and she has to clear her throat before she can force her words out. “That was… beautiful, thank you. What it is?”

“I’m glad you liked it.” His smile lights up the room, far more than the afternoon sun. “It’s another piece by Yiruma,” he says softly. “Sojunghan.”

Beloved.

Words escape her, but when he stands, moving closer to cup her face, and their lips meet, she finds that perhaps they aren’t necessary after all.

Chapter Text

The summer breeze is warm today, pulling at her skirt and tugging strands of hair out of her braid as she waits, casting her eyes out over the field. Her hands fiddle with the camera that Jihyun has gifted her “so you can save memories with more than just your phone.”

From behind her, a quiet click makes her jump and she turns around to find Jihyun grinning at her from behind a camera of his own.

“You scared me!”

He laughs then, warm and open, and she can’t help but stare. It’s been nearly a year since he’s returned to Korea, nearly a year of their relationship, and she still can’t quite get used to how much he’s changed from the man he was, how absolutely beautiful he is like this, smiling and in love with life and himself.

Then again, she’s not entirely sure she wants to.

“I’m sorry,” he says, though he doesn’t look nearly as repentant as his words would imply. “I didn’t mean to scare you. You just looked so natural that I needed to take a picture.”

His words melt her heart, and she holds out her hand eagerly. “Can I see?”

He shakes his head, still smiling, though it’s softened, more tender than amused. “Maybe later, but let’s get some pictures before the clouds come in.”

She looks up. The morning promised a beautiful day, with warmth and soft clouds floating in a sea of blue, but the summer wind has blown in darker ones, slowly approaching from the horizon. “That’s probably a good idea,” she agrees.

Arms reaching around her waist, he shows her the basics of changing the lenses and how to adjust them properly, of how to decide the best angle and where to stand. His breath tickles her ear, and she finds herself actively having to focus on his words instead of the feeling of his arms around her.

Her first photos with the camera are mediocre at best, especially considering the time she spends on them, but Jihyun’s beaming nonetheless, and she doesn’t miss the quiet click from him whenever she’s wandering around looking for a new subject, or focusing on getting the perfect angle. Besides, she isn’t the only one; it seems he can’t resist the call of nature’s splendor and wanders off on occasion, absorbed by a flower or a tree’s silhouette or a bird soaring across the sky.

To her immense satisfaction, her own subtle photos of him turn out much better, though she’s not sure if it’s her own skill improving or simply his natural beauty at work, making up for her considerable lack of talent. Regardless, she’ll take it.

Entranced in her attempts to sneak photos of him, she doesn’t notice how much the sky has darkened above them until the first drops fall on her head. “Jihyun! It’s raining!”

He looks up from his focus on a flowering mugunghwa with surprise, just as the few droplets become a downpour. Utter shock crosses his face for a second before he shakes himself, figuratively and literally, darting towards her and grabbing her hand. “The cameras! They shouldn't get too wet.”

They run, hand-in-hand, back towards her car, slipping slightly in the tall grass, now slick with rain. In spite of the fact that she’s already drenched, she can’t help but laugh as she bends over her camera, shielding it as best she can. Luckily, they haven’t wandered too far, and they stumble over a short while later, carefully putting their equipment down in the backseat, she still laughing as she tilts her face towards the sky.

“You’re soaked through,” Jihyun murmurs as he turns to her. “We should get back.”

She grins, lowering her gaze to meet his. “And you’re not? Besides, we’re already wet enough now. A little longer won’t hurt us.”

“And if we get sick?” he counters, and she can’t help but shake her head with affection. With his brow furrowed with concern, his once styled hair now plastered by rivulets to his forehead, and clothes absolutely dripping, Jihyun is the most endearing she has ever seen him, especially when his eyes widen as she steps closer, wrapping her arms around him.

“You’ll just have to keep me warm then,” she whispers before, heedless to the pouring rain, she stretches up and kisses him.

“Foolish woman.” She feels more than hears his reply over the deluge around them, but then he is kissing her back, warm and passionate, and, just as she suspected, she is anything but cold.

Chapter Text

Formal visiting hours were drawing to a close when a nurse stopped in his room to inform them that someone was waiting outside to have a word with him.

V looked up, surprised. With the mess that was the explosion at Rika’s apartment and the canceled RFA party, as well as his corneal transplant surgery, he hadn’t been expecting any visitors other than Eunbyeol, who was already at his side and had been for as long as she was allowed to.

She turned to him, slim fingers tightening around his, but said nothing and he sighed. Between all of the excitement from last night and this morning, between his recovery and the surgery, he wasn’t particularly looking forward to another hard conversation about everything that had happened… except he owed it to the RFA, to his friends. Especially to Jumin and Seven, the two most likely visitors.

Instead, he rubbed at his eyes, wishing, admittedly rather futilely, that it would be enough for his vision to clear. “Who is it?”

Before the nurse could reply, a head poked into the room. “It’s me. Can I come in?”

He squinted, making out what seemed like blond hair matching the voice. “Yoosung?”

“Yeah.” The figure walked in hesitantly, standing a little away from the bed. “I talked to Jumin earlier and he said that you’d be getting your surgery today but it shouldn’t take too long and that I might still be able to come by. I… How are your eyes?”

He shrugged. “Not much better at the moment, but the doctors say it could take a while before my vision clears up. It shouldn’t affect my recovery time at all, at least.”

“That’s good. And… everything else?”

“Doing better. They think I might be able to be released in a few days, as long as I promise to take it easy for a while at home.”

“Everyone will be glad to hear that.”

A stilted silence, heavy and oppressive, fell across the room, broken only when Eunbyeol got to her feet. “Yoosung, it’s so nice to finally meet you in person, even if this isn’t the best circumstance. Actually, I hate to ask this of you immediately, but I need to go check on something. I’ll be back in a bit. Can you keep an eye on him please?”

“Um, sure, I guess?” He wasn’t sure if it was any consolation that Yoosung sounded almost as taken aback as he felt.

Her smile was evident in her voice. “Thanks.”

Part of him longed to stop her, but almost as though she could sense his thoughts, she paused, squeezing his hand reassuringly before exiting the room, so quietly he practically couldn’t hear her footsteps.

“Has she been here the whole time?”

“For as long as she’s been allowed to stay here. I think Jumin pulled some strings to allow her to stay overnight as well.”

“I see.” There was a short pause. “She’s beautiful.”

At that, V couldn’t help but smile. “That she is. Both inside and out.”

There was another pause before Yoosung spoke again, his voice very soft. “I always thought I’d meet her at the party, but I guess that never happened.”

His chest tightened. “Yoosung… Eunbyeol told me about what happened at the apartment. I know it doesn’t change anything but… I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry about?” Even as hazy as his vision was, he could see the golden head jerk up, could sense the blazing almost anger directed at him, in spite of the crack in Yoosung’s voice. “You didn’t have anything to do with the decision to blow up the apartment. That was all Rika’s doing.”

“I…”

“I know. It’s not what you were expecting me to say, is it?” Yoosung sighed, the sound suddenly making him seem so much older than his twenty years. “I got a phone call from Jumin around noon today. He told me… that in spite of the party being canceled, there was someone still there. Rika was still there.”

In spite of himself, he stiffened. “Rika?”

“Yeah. I don’t know how, but she must have escaped the apartment before the explosion. I guess she must have wanted us to think she blew up so we wouldn’t think to check the party… V, are you…?”

Until Yoosung’s words registered, he hadn’t realized that his hands were clenched into fists at his sides, his nails digging into his skin. He carefully relaxed each finger, clearing his throat. “I’m fine. Go on,” he said, the words still gruffer than he intended. “What was she doing?”

“She… She had bottles of wine with her. She was so insistent that they take them, that they would bring everyone happiness. And I knew…” For a brief moment, Yoosung’s voice caught in his throat, masking a sob, and V’s heart ached for the young man who had so respected, so loved, the Rika he had known and who, in the timespan of only a few short days, had the illusion ripped so cruelly from him.

“Yoosung…”

“Don’t, please.” His voice was choked but determined. “I didn’t want to believe it at first, when Seven and Eunbyeol told us what she’d done. I thought there was a misunderstanding, that if I talked to her, I could know the truth. But then… Then I knew. She wasn’t who I thought she was. I had never really known her.”

V cleared his throat, reaching out blindingly to rest a gentle hand on Yoosung’s clenched ones. “Yoosung, you did know her. You knew the Rika who was kind and gentle and wanted to make everyone happy. Maybe that wasn’t all of her, but that was also a part of who she was, and that was the part that I wanted everyone to remember her as.” He took a deep breath, unsure if the blurriness of his vision was from his injury or from the tears that threatened to overflow. “I know now that it was wrong to try and hide everything, to try and spare everyone from the pain, and for that, I can’t apologize enough.”

For several heartbeats, the room was silent, before…

“I hated you.” The whisper cut through the room, sharp even in spite of the gasping sob it was forced around. “Even from the beginning, I thought you just stole Rika from me. And then she disappeared and you wouldn’t tell me anything other than the fact that she had committed suicide and I hated you with every fiber of my being. I thought that you had somehow killed her, when really, it was almost the other way around.” He drew a shaking breath. “I hated you and you were doing so much to protect us and I’m so sorry.”

The final apology was muffled as Yoosung buried his head in his hands, shoulder shaking with the force of his tears, and V sat up, wincing slightly as his abdomen, still sore from the trials of the past few days, protested the movement. Still, it didn’t stop him from laying a hand on Yoosung’s shoulder. “I’m to blame as much as you are. I shouldn’t have kept everything from you, or anyone else. But I’ve learned that I can’t keep thinking about what might have been. We can’t change the past, and Rika made her choice, just as we did.”

As close as he was, he could see Yoosung blink, violet eyes lost before determination settled in his gaze. “You’re right.” His chest heaved as he took a deep breath. “Thank you, V.”

“Of course.” He hesitated, his fingers squeezing Yoosung’s shoulder. “I don’t know if this will help but… She really cared about you, you know. She really did see you as a younger brother… and I know the rest of the RFA does as well. Myself included.”

He stiffened, taken entirely by surprise as thin arms wrapped around him in a fleet but strong embrace, and in spite of the pained gasp that escaped his lungs at the sudden pressure, he smiled. Nonetheless, Yoosung let him go quickly. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot.”

“That’s all right.” V waved his hand casually, even as he sunk back against the pillows. “Though I’m afraid that that might be enough excitement for today…”

“Of course!” Yoosung leapt to his feet, and he couldn’t help but smile at his responsiveness. “It’s getting late as it is. I’ll go find Eunbyeol and tell her that everything went well.”

He chuckled softly. “I’m sure she’ll be relieved.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t need to see Yoosung’s face to hear his grin. “I’m sure she will be.” Soft shuffling met his ears before, from the doorway, he paused. “Oh, and V? Thank you. For everything.”

Chapter Text

Kissing Eunbyeol is addicting, a warm feeling that he'll never be over. She is gentle in his arms, hair falling loose around her shoulders and down her back, thick and fine and he buries his hand into it as he tilts her head back, swallowing her quiet moan. Her lips are soft, impossibly tender, and she tastes of sweetness and wine and belonging. Of love.

He kisses her like he's dying of thirst and she’s a clear stream, like he’s suffocating and she’s fresh air.

Like he’s a sinner and she is benediction itself.

After too long and still not long enough, he pulls away, gasping. She stands before him, swaying slightly, her breath warm against his skin and eyes wide with surprise. At that, he pauses, wondering—fearing—if he’s gone too far too fast, but almost as if she can sense his thoughts, she stops him before he can pull away.

“What—?” But he never gets a chance to finish as she grabs the front of his shirt, fingers fisting in the thin cloth, and drags him down to her. Still, even in spite of her eagerness, her mouth is gentle, tender and coaxing, and he finds the answer to the question he hasn’t asked.

He’s not sure who moves first but her arms are wrapped around his neck, her body pressed against his, soft and warm and open, and he clings to her, wanting, needing, to ground himself. And yet…

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she breathes, the warm puff of air fluttering against heated skin, and he can’t suppress a shiver at the emotions that lurk in her gaze. The desire and candor and, above all else, love.

She takes his hands in hers, leads him towards the bed, and he follows willingly before reclaiming her lips, before their roaming hands carefully remove each layer of their personas, each barrier between themselves and the world. Before exposing themselves, their true selves, to each other without concealment.

Before surrounding himself, losing himself, in her, all beauty and sweetness. His love, his guiding light.

His star.

“Eunbyeol,” he breathes, half plea, half prayer to the angel of his heart, and he feels her shudder beneath him, her arms wrapping around his chest, warm and solid and his, an anchor as he buries himself into everything that she is.

“Jihyun. My Jihyun.” Her whispered reply is scarcely audible, almost lost in their desperate breaths, yet warms every fiber of his being, and his heart aches with adoration, with the fervent need to ensure she understands what she is to him. That she is everything to him.

But as he looks down at her, at the woman who has supported him at his worst, has loved him through everything, who is watching him with trust and devotion the likes of which he has never before known, words fail him. Instead, he can only claim her lips, can only touch her with worshipful hands and hope that she understands.

Can only hold her, tender and almost reverential, as they fall, together, wrapped in each other’s arms.

Her breath comes in sharp pants, her face flushed, as she lies in his arms, and he is certain that he has never seen anything so breathtaking, so perfect, in his life. It takes only a light tug for her to slide closer, skin warm against his and her head resting on his chest, against his still-racing heart.

He shifts, catching her gaze as she turns her head up to look at him, and tightens his arm around her waist. “You are… so beautiful,” he says, voice hoarse. “I don’t know how I ever got to be this lucky.”

“Jihyun…” She shifts, pushing herself up to meet his gaze more easily, eyes serious. “By being you, nothing more and nothing less.” Even in spite of her words, a bashful smile spreads across her face, and he can’t resist the urge to pull her closer, pressing a chaste kiss to her lips before she settles back down, her head pressed against the crook of his neck.

“I love you,” he murmurs into her hair, and she tilts her head, drowsy eyes warm as they meet his.

“I love you too.”

Those three words are hardly sufficient to say everything that he means, but the look in her eyes, gentle and angelic, says that she knows, and that, for him, is enough.

Chapter Text

She glares, arms crossed over her chest and fingers digging into her skin. Of course, in contrast, Jihyun looks calm as ever, his face as peaceful as though they were simply discussing their plans for the upcoming weekend.

Eunbyeol generally prides herself on being a patient person, understanding that poor choice of words often masks good intentions and tranquility only benefits reasonable discussion, but…

But right now, his serenity is only more infuriating.

“Eunbyeol,” and even her name on his lips, soft and placating, is enough that her fingers dig harder, painfully, into her skin. “Please, just calm down. I only meant—“

I don’t care.” The words escape her mouth in a hiss, quiet but vehement, cutting off whatever platitude he was planning to offer, and she takes a perverse amount of pleasure in watching him take a step back, his façade fracturing just enough for her to see the maelstrom of emotions bubbling underneath the surface.

A crack in his calm, at last.

She takes a corresponding step forward, close enough now that when she points at him, she nearly pokes him in the chest and, for one moment, she almost wishes she did. “We both know what you did say, so go right on ahead and just say what you think, instead of whatever you think I would rather hear. You don’t have to pretend that you don’t think I’m wasting my time or not contributing enough or whatever it is that you meant.”

It’s a bit of a low blow, enough to make him flinch, but she can hardly find it in herself to care, watching dispassionately as he opens his mouth, only to close it, once, twice.

After a moment, she nods and, when she speaks, her voice is so cold that it takes even her by surprise. “I see, then. Thank you for informing me.”

“Eunbyeol, please, wait!” Before she can turn away, a hand on her wrist stops her, though he falls back when she glares, icy cold, and tugs her arm free.

The hurt in his eyes unexpectedly makes her chest tighten, and she turns her gaze away, her jaw clenched.

At this point, she doesn’t remember the exact wording that set her off anymore, only remembers something about stress and support and the sudden, crushing realization that he doesn’t think she can do this, that he’s preparing for her to fail. She knows for certain that she’s never blown up like this before, alternating between bitter coldness and raging inferno, but any lingering confidence after her failed exam, especially in the face of another test tomorrow, has been obliterated by his words and she’s fairly certain that the righteous anger coursing through her veins is only several moments away from melting into tears that she really doesn’t want anybody to witness. Least of all him.

Especially not now.

“Just… do whatever you want and leave me alone.” The words fall out of her mouth, softer, more vulnerable than she intended, and, eyes averted so she doesn’t see the concern that’s surely filling his gaze, she sets her face before striding out of the room, keeping her gait steady until she’s out of sight.

Only then does she run for her study, one of the few places in the house that’s hers and hers alone. Trembling hands lock the door behind her, checking it with a light pull for good measure, before she sinks to the floor, shoulders shaking. The grade, the burning disappointment, haunts her mind, swirls along with the pages and pages of notes that she should have remembered, the anatomical positions and hormones that mix and muddle. The look on Jihyun’s face, the tone of his voice, as he offered sympathy and words that only served to cut into her heart, that slithered, insidious, into her mind.

It’s all too much, and she can only bury her face in her hands and hope that it is enough to keep her cries muffled. Judging from the scuffling by the door, it isn’t, but he doesn’t say anything and she only curls in tighter on herself as her tears slow, his words still echoing in her mind. Always tired. Too stressed. No need.

No need...

Perhaps he is right in that, but then again, it’s not about need, has never been about need, but want. She sits up, not entirely sure how much time has passed, but that doesn’t matter. She has the whole night before her if she needs it, and she’ll use as much of it as necessary. For her own goals and dreams.

This was never about him.

With a resolute nod, she climbs to her feet and reaches for her backpack for her notes. She has work to do.

Hours later, she looks up to find that, other than the warm yellow lamplight, the room has gone dark, the sun having long since set. Blearily, she blinks, only to realize that, perhaps subconsciously, she has focused on the picture frame resting on the corner of her desk. Without thinking, she picks it up, lips curling at the sight of Jihyun grinning behind the glass, his arm flung around her shoulders, and remembers his pride when it was taken, celebrating her official acceptance into the medical program.

She has an apology to make.

Gentle fingers set the photograph back down in its place of honor before she hurries to the door, his name on her lips. Before she can call, however, she’s arrested by the sight of him, leaning against the opposite wall and asleep, neck cricked at an angle that’s sure to leave him sore when he awakens.

A smile rises, unbidden, to her lips as she kneels beside him, reaching out to lightly shake his shoulder. “Jihyun?”

He stirs, blinking several times before suddenly pulling her against his chest, arms wrapped around her so tightly that she’s not sure if he’s still dreaming.

“Jihyun?”

“I’m sorry.” His voice is muffled against her shoulder, but he pulls away enough to meet her gaze. “I shouldn’t have—”

She shakes her head, laying a finger against his lips. “No, it’s my fault. I’m the one who should be apologizing.” She takes a deep breath, studying his face carefully. “You were right. I was stressed after getting my scores back and I misinterpreted what you said and took it all out on you and I’m sorry.”

To her relief, he only laughs, pressing his forehead against hers. “We are a mess, aren’t we?”

At that, she has to smile back. “I suppose we are. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chapter Text

Zen has been a bit too fidgety all day.

Sure, as a musical actor, he’s got near boundless energy, but this is another level entirely; Carina would almost suspect it to be nerves if it isn’t already the closing night for the Monster of the Opera and if Zen hasn’t already brought the house down in every single performance in the past two weeks.

Thanks to Jumin’s finagling, the RFA has the best seats in the entire hall, front and center. When she tried to protest the placement, he only cut her off with his usual cool detachment, though she still suspects she saw something—amusement?—lurking deep in his normally unfathomable gaze.

Beside her, Eunbyeol is nearly vibrating with excitement, clutching the program listing Zen as the titular monster so tightly that she’s not sure whether the paper will even be legible by the time the musical starts.

She leans around her cousin to grin at Jihyun, on Eunbyeol’s other side. “Someone’s eager today. When did she start preparing for this?”

He smirks. “Maybe two hours ago. Maybe earlier? I think she was pestering Hyun about what to wear and what she was and wasn’t allowed to bring at least two days ago.”

“Hey!” She stifles a laugh as Eunbyeol elbows him in the ribs. “Don’t encourage her. I don’t need my cousin and my boyfriend teaming up against me. And I’ll have you know that you can never be too prepared for an exciting night at the theater, especially when it’s The Monster of the Opera.”

Carina’s grin widens. “Yes, yes. We both know it’s the musical you’re excited about and not just because you have a major crush on the Monster.”

“I—What are you talking about? He just has a nice voice…”

Jihyun’s eyes fairly dance with amusement as Eunbyeol’s voice cracks. “Oh, is that why you’ve been counting down the hours for nearly a week? Should I learn to sing and play the organ as well, now?”

“Better start lurking under opera houses as well,” she quips.

“Don't forget rowing boats across mysterious underground lakes to a secret lair.”

“Writing operas with extremely unsubtle metaphors about sex.”

“Dropping chandeliers on party-goers’ heads.”

“Are you two done?” Eunbyeol’s glaring at both of them now, but is also failing miserably at hiding the way the corners of her mouth twitch, threatening to ruin her look of annoyance.

She opens her mouth to reply in the negative just as the lights dim in the room and Eunbyeol offers her a prim, almost arch, look, sitting up and folding her hands in her lap.

That doesn’t stop her from leaning back across with a stage whisper. “Strangling and hanging people by lasso?”

The sound of Jihyun’s hastily choked back laughter is totally worth the sharp elbow that’s jabbed into her side.

Nonetheless, as the overture begins to sound, she sits back herself, content to enjoy the show and her boyfriend’s performance once more.

It’s always been one of his dreams to play the monster, she knows, and he leapt at the chance to audition for the musical as soon as he heard about it. As she watches the young Kristey and listens for his first appearance, she can definitely appreciate the effort he put in, so much that she had to drag him out at times before he could push himself too hard once more. But in the end, it’s worth it.

Insolent boy, this slave of fashion, basking in your glory!” His voice rings out, strong and clear and true, and without thinking, she grabs Eunbyeol’s hand, squeezing tightly as he appears in a haze of white mist, dressed all in black and bedecked in the famous white mask.

Even with half of his face covered and the thick caking of stage makeup, he is absolutely stunning, and she can hardly look away as he leads his soprano through the mirror and down to the aforementioned lake, singing all the while, strong and commanding and undeniably irresistible.

The music changes as the pair alight their boat, turning soft and slow, and she can’t help but close her eyes, remembering the tenderness in his voice and the warm arms that wrapped around her whenever he sang that particular song at home, at once alluring and comforting. Just like he himself.

God, but she loves him.

She shakes herself as the tale continues: the first unmasking, the notes that she and Eunbyeol never fail to laugh at, the absurdity of Scarlotta. The comforts and promises between Kristey and her young suitor Rolf. The perceived betrayal at the top of the opera house and very real anguish that roughens Zen’s voice, that screams out of his every motion and is nearly enough to draw tears to her eyes, even as the chandelier falls and the first half comes to a close.

Intermission passes in a blur. As the lights brighten, she vaguely notices Eunbyeol dart out of the auditorium, coat on and hands shoved into her pockets, but Jaehee turns to her with a comment on the intensity of Zen’s acting and, in the ensuing discussion, she forgets all about her cousin’s curious behavior.

She does notice when Eunbyeol returns, dropping into her seat with a sigh of relief just as the lights dim once more. “Where were you?” she hisses, but Eunbyeol only shakes her head, tilting her head towards the curtains.

When Zen returns to stage during the masquerade ball, there’s something different in his acting now, as though he is throwing himself even more into each note and gesture. As though he is determined to fully embody the Monster, pouring his soul into the role, and win over the girl. As though something is building, sizzling in him, contained only through force of will.

She’s pretty certain that his performance of Point of No Return, even as carnal as it usually is, has never been so electrifying, so utterly seductive. She’s spellbound, cannot look away from the push and pull, the constant friction. The intoxicating chemistry.

Until suddenly, he freezes, his hood gone.

It’s a part of the story and she knows this, but even so, her heart nearly stops in her throat at the raw vulnerability in his gaze, at how he stands, frozen. The pause stretches, each second strangely feeling like an eternity, until, suddenly, Zen’s eyes stray, shifting from his co-star out to the audience. To her.

Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime. Lead me, save me from my solitude. Say you want me with you, here beside you.” At last, he looks away, back to the woman standing across from him, but she can still feel his gaze lingering, impossibly gentle. “Anywhere you go, let me go too…

She sits, unable to move, hardly noticing as the story moves on, the tension bubbling over. The scream of agony and the descent. The mob and the fight and the kiss. She vaguely senses when Eunbyeol turns away to Jihyun, and wonders briefly whether the sniffling she hears is from him or her or both. But the musical’s end doesn’t sink in until the stage is suddenly dark, light illuminating the single white mask, the audience is on its feet, and an elbow nudges her side, though gently this time.

Almost mechanically, she stands, clapping and watching as the cast files on, one-by-one, to cheers and wild applause. Rolf and Kristey enter, meeting in center stage for an embrace that is met with screams and wolf whistles. And then…

For a moment, she thinks she’s going to go deaf from the sheer amount of noise that heralds Zen’s return to the stage, and she stares in surprise. Unlike all the other curtain calls she’s seen, he’s changed into a suit, his wig and costume, other than the mask that Mel still carries, nowhere to be seen. He takes his bow with perfect elegance, a grin of absolute triumph on his face as he gestures to the rest of the cast and the crew and the pit orchestra, and then he simply stands, hands by his side, while the rest of the cast files silently off stage.

Beside her, Eunbyeol is nearly dancing on the spot, clutching at both her and Jihyun so tightly that it’s a wonder that her arm is still getting blood.

Finally, the room quiets enough for Zen to step forward, his eyes roaming across the audience, taking in the crowd.

“I know you’ve all been here for quite a while and I hope none of you are in any rush but just in case, I’ll try to keep this short. As I’m sure at least everyone who has read their programs tonight knows, I’m Zen, and I played the Monster in tonight’s performance. I—”

Before he can continue, the crowd bursts into applause once more, and from her position, she can see the faint blush it brings to his face, the pleasure and confidence that straighten his spine as he waits once more for calm.

“I know it’s unusual for anyone, even the leading role, to stop and give a speech after a performance, but there are a few people I’d like to thank for helping me be where I am today. To all of my fans who have supported me through everything. To my friends, who have in the past few years become like my family, giving advice and telling jokes and sometimes even making things an absolute mess. And…” Slowly, his eyes shift along the row, coming to rest on her, bright and warm and oh so loving. “And to one person in particular.”

He takes a deep breath. “I don’t talk about my past very much, and it’s for a reason that isn’t entirely relevant so I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that I spent much of my first years as a musical actor living alone, struggling to survive and accepting whatever roles I could get. Acting was, and still is, my entire life. All of my time outside of rehearsals was spent practicing, and I had no social life to speak of. I couldn’t risk my career.

“But then I met someone who could see beyond my exterior, who loves me for who I am and who I was. Who has never wavered in her support, even in the face of scandal, and who stayed even when I couldn’t find myself. And who has been waiting, never complaining when she has to stay in the background. And I don’t want her to wait any longer.”

Suddenly, he gives a little laugh, sharp and nervous. “I know this is the part where I should say something beautifully romantic and moving and bring everyone to tears, but everything I can think of is from some musical or another, and this should be a time of my own words. So I’ll just say that I love you, Carina, for now and forever. I know you’ve said that you’re willing to wait however long it takes, but I’m an impatient man.”

She draws a shaking breath as he lowers himself to one knee on stage, pulling small box out of his jacket pocket. “Carina Lee, will you marry me?”

“Oh my god.” The words barely escape her lips, choking around the sudden lump in her throat, and so quietly that she thinks only Eunbyeol can hear. Before she can try again to speak, a shove on her shoulder sends her moving on numb legs, and the crowds part as she stumbles her way to the stage, to where Zen is still waiting, endlessly patient.

She comes to a stop before him with his face upturned towards her, shining with adoration so clear that her eyes sting with tears and the rest of the room simply melts away. “Carina?”

“Yes. Zen, yes!” Again, the words catch in her throat, but even so, pure bliss crosses his face as he rises to his feet in the still-silent room, taking her hand and sliding the ring onto her finger before lifting her off of her feet entirely, laughing as cheers erupt.

In the uproar, he sets her back on her feet, though his arms remain around her waist, almost as if he never wants to let her go, and she looks up, catching his gaze. “I love you, Zen.”

Her words are not nearly as poetic as everything he said, but as he leans down to capture her lips, she knows that that’s really all they need.

Chapter Text

Eunbyeol checks the clock before resuming her pacing in the kitchen. There’s still plenty of time before she needs to leave, and she knows that, but that fact doesn’t do anything to change her impatience.

It’s strange, almost funny, really, just how agitated she is. For two years, he was gone, completely out of contact other than the occasional updates from Jumin and even rarer messages from him. And yet, this past week when Jihyun is at a meeting abroad, feels like it’s been one of the longest of her life.

Absentmindedly, she pulls out her phone and opens the last message she got from Jihyun, a quick “Boarding the plane now. Love you. See you soon.”

It occurs to her that if she knew a few years ago that she’d be mooning over a simple text message, especially after only five days of not seeing her boyfriend, she’d have never let herself forget it. Except…

Except then, she had no idea what kind of a man she would meet, and now she can’t imagine her life without him. Not anymore.

Her phone vibrates in her hand, and she laughs quietly to herself. Before he left, Jihyun asked to set a reminder on her phone, just in case she got caught up in her studies, and judging from its name, he knew how likely the situation actually is that she’d forget.

Then again, “you can leave for the airport now” is quite possibly the most Jihyun thing to tell her at the moment.

Still smiling, she slips her phone back into her pocket as she grabs her coat and purse. It rings again as she walks to her car, and she stops, pulling it out to find another preset message.

“Drive safe. I love you.”

She’s fairly certain she’s grinning like an idiot as she pulls out of the driveway, but she can hardly find it in herself to care. Not when his plane is due to arrive in under an hour, and he’ll finally be home.

And with her.

Traffic has never felt so frustrating before, each red light and slow driver an obstacle keeping her from reaching her destination, and she finds herself drumming her fingers against the steering wheel, quick and mechanical, as she waits. It’s enough that she almost wishes she accepted her friends’ offer of company, so at least she wouldn’t be alone with her impatient thoughts during the drive.

When she turns on the radio, it’s to find a recording of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, set so appropriately to play the second movement that she can’t help but wonder whether Jihyun had any control over that as well.

Her phone vibrates again as she’s pulling into a parking space, this time with a text message that makes her gasp and hurries towards the entrance as soon as she reads it. “Off the plane. Just need to get luggage.”

Of course, she forgets that actually waiting for checked bags takes forever, and she’s standing in the greeting area far too early, but frankly, it would only be worse to be waiting in the car or stuck in traffic. At least here, she’s not alone.

Travelers begin to trickle through the exit, curving around the tinted glass that blocks them from view, and her pulse quickens, searching for him in the growing crowd. For a minute, she wonders whether she’s missed him entirely, before she spies the distinctive, familiar turquoise among the rest.

She’s moving before she even realizes it, darting around embracing couples and excited grandparents without a second thought. He seems to notice her approach and has just enough time to set down his luggage before she throws herself at him, his embrace so tight that it lifts her off the ground entirely.

“Welcome back.”

His laughter tickles her skin, warm and gentle and familiar and it’s enough to make her chest tighten. “This is a nice reception. Have you been waiting long?”

“Only every minute since you left.” She pulls away just enough to look him in the eyes. “I missed you.”

“We talked all the time.”

Her lips draw into a pout. “That’s not the same thing and you know it.”

His eyes sparkle at her with amusement. “I know. And I’m glad to be back. I missed you too.”

“Even though we talked all the time?” she asks, teasing.

His gaze suddenly serious, he leans forward and presses a quick kiss to her lips. “Whenever you’re not with me.”

At that, she can only smile, blushing slightly at the affection shining in his expression.

After a moment, he appears to shake himself before bending over and picking up his suitcase. As he straightens back up, she moves to take his free hand, lacing their fingers together, fitting perfectly, just as they always have.

When she looks up, it’s to find him beaming at her, eyes soft with adoration, and her fingers tighten around his in response, even as she steps closer and presses another, quick, kiss to his cheek. “Welcome home, love.”

Chapter Text

It’s rare for anyone to enter her study when she’s working, and Eunbyeol looks up as soon as she hears the door open, only for her lips to draw into a smile. “Jihyun. This is a rare treat.”

His answering smile is sheepish, even as he steps to her side and makes a face at the thick textbook open on her desk. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I only wanted to see whether you’re free for a break soon.”

She frowns, considers her notes. “Let me finish this chapter? It’ll only be a few minutes.”

He smiles. “Of course.”

Said studying is considerably harder with him beside her, watching over her shoulder, but she has to admit, at least to herself, that she wouldn’t change his company one bit.

Whatever he has planned, he’s certainly looking forward to it; as soon as she closes her book, he grabs her hand, pulling her to her feet. She obliges with a laugh, though she raises her brows as he leads her to the garage. “Where are we going?”

The grin he offers in response is teasing and almost childlike in his eagerness. “You’ll see. Come on. I’m driving.”

That only leaves her with more questions than it answers, but it also doesn’t seem like he plans on explaining in any more detail. Instead of bothering to ask, she sighs with feigned annoyance, which only turns his smile into a smirk, and follows in silence, even as she heeds his advice to dress warmly and wear sensible walking shoes.

She’s almost tempted to ask if she should put on a blindfold, but she also doesn’t want to know if her question will actually encourage him.

To her mild relief, he asks her to do nothing of the sort and only pulls onto the road, heading towards the outskirts of the city. She watches as trees and houses flash by, hardly paying attention to their route until they suddenly turn into a wooded park, and he stops the car.

“Jihyun?”

This time, as they get out of the car, his smile is gentle with no hint of mischief. “Come. Let’s go for a walk.”

She nods, returning his smile and taking the hand he offers as he steps towards the small path she can make out through the trees. His fingers fold around hers, warm in the chilly autumn air, and she moves closer, so that their shoulders brush together as they walk.

After some time, she stops, eyes roaming across the rich reds and oranges and golds that adorn the trees. “What brought this on? Searching for inspiration for a painting?”

“Not exactly.” He’s halted a little ahead of her, the distance spanned by their joined hands, and the tenderness in his eyes as he turns to look at her melts her heart. “You said something a while back about how much you love the leaves changing colors, and you’ve been really busy these days. When was the last time you left the house?” She opens her mouth but before she can speak, he shakes his head. “I meant for something completely unrelated to school.”

“I… Ah…” She blinks. “I’m not sure?”

“Exactly.”

He doesn’t say anything else, but he doesn’t need to. Instead, a gentle tug gets her moving again, only this time, he wraps an arm around her shoulders, as gentle and supportive as always.

They’re a little further down the path, approaching a small river that cuts across the colorful forest, when he speaks again, his voice thoughtful. “This would make a good painting, wouldn’t it? Though,” and now he’s grinning, a teasing gleam in his eyes, “anything you’re in is beautiful.”

She wrinkles her nose, even as she laughs. “That was terribly corny.”

He shrugs. “It’s autumn. Is there a better time? Besides, it’s true.”

She grins, stepping around to face him. “Flatterer.”

“Yup.” Turquoise eyes twinkle at her, so full of life and affection that for a second, they steal her breath. “And you love it.”

Rolling her eyes, she reaches out, grabbing him lightly by the scarf wrapped snugly around his neck, and gently pulls him down until she can stretch up and cover his cold lips with her own. “Correction,” she counters as she pulls away, “I love you.”

Chapter Text

Jumin Han is an exercise in contradictions.

Ever since she first stumbled into the RFA, he has always been calm, collected… unless he isn’t. He does not allow his emotions to control him, and treats the other members as though he expects them to do the same. He is nearly aristocratic in his mannerisms, speaking with the authority of someone who expects to be heeded. He is widely held to be one of the most eligible bachelors, with money, connections, and looks supplemented by a charming personality, but only when he wants it to be.

And yet…

In spite of his aloofness, he cares deeply, trusting V without hesitation and sending bodyguards to the rest of the RFA without a second thought, even if he does delight in tormenting Zen a little bit extra. Even his treatment of Elizabeth the 3rd, though extreme, was done out of love. He’s endearingly inexperienced in the ways of the middle class, believing Seven’s rule about sweet and salty foods without question and taking atrociously shaky photographs.

And even his treatment of her…

She probably should be more concerned for herself, she knows, but at the same time, she cannot help but feel for the man nearly drowning in a sudden influx of emotion, so lost and trying desperately to sort out the tangled mess in his heart. The anxious little boy she sees in his eyes, forced to grow up too quickly and who still hasn’t had a chance to learn to deal with loss. The man who was simply afraid to show his true self to the world.

The room is dark, lit only by a soft glow that she expects is the optimal light for sleeping, but even in spite of that, sleep remains elusive, flitting about her, just out of reach of her frantic mind. The presence of a warm body beside hers, far enough that they do not touch, but near enough that she can sense him, can feel the heat radiating from him, seems to only make it harder.

Judging from his breathing, he is no more successful than she is, though whether it is by necessity or choice, she can’t quite be sure.

If she is to be perfectly honest, she’s not sure for herself either.

Exhaling just slightly louder than normal, she forces her body to relax, loosening too-stiff muscles, and, after a moment, thinks she hears Jumin do the same.

“Thank you, Suhee.” The words are soft, hardly louder than a breath, but in the stillness of the room, they ring through the room, warming her heart.

She says nothing, only, finally, shifting her hand, sliding against smooth cotton until her fingers brush against his hand. To her surprise, he doesn’t react other than slowly lacing their fingers together, light and tentative, almost as though he expects her to pull away.

Instead, she tightens her grip, a silent promise, and she doesn’t need to look at him to know that he is smiling, a small, genuine expression that softens his eyes. That she doubts he has ever shown anyone in the RFA, except maybe V.

She falls asleep to the lull of quiet breathing and the simple warmth of his hand in hers.

Chapter Text

Though people say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, she finds that Jihyun’s hands are sometimes closer to a true reflection of who he is.

She has seen them, folded across his chest and trembling as he lay with his head on her lap and his eyes closed, body wracking with the effects of the poison coursing through his veins. They have clutched at bedsheets in the hidden cabin, knuckles white and shaking, and pressed against his stomach, fingers staining a horrible dark crimson.

She has felt them, cool and nearly lifeless in her own, almost as pale as the hospital sheets, as she desperately waited and hoped for him to awaken.

But these days, they are often colorful, dappled with paint or smeared with charcoal, just as much of a masterpiece as his paintings and sketches, if not moreso for the evidence of the effort he puts into each and every one of his creations. She loves catching him unawares in his studio, watching as slender, elegant fingers bring life to a simple illustration, weaving a story of brilliant colors into his canvas or, on rare occasions, onto those blank puzzle pieces that he has painstakingly assembled. He works magic, then, breathing life into stillness and highlighting remarkableness in the mundane.

She learns that the same skilled hands work magic in the kitchen. Too often, when she is home, she finds herself having to drag him out of his studio for food, and part of her worries whether he eats at all when she is in class and he simply loses track of time, as he is all too wont to do. But still, those rare moments when she finds him standing before the stove of his own volition, the ridiculously flowery apron gifted by Seven wrapping around his thin frame, are a treat, and she is never disappointed.

That those days are often when she is the most stressed, when she snaps at everything and scarcely has the energy to drag herself to her bed, let alone the kitchen, only makes them all the more meaningful.

She has felt them on her, gentle and loving, at first hesitant but then with growing confidence and dexterity, leaving sparks in their wake. Hands cradle her face, warm and right, and she leans into his touch. Fingertips trace her body, as though he is memorizing her curves, mapping her figure to his mind’s eye. They trail against her skin, soft and attentative and slowly setting her ablaze.

Jihyun is a quick student, teaches himself, from quiet moans and sharp gasps, to play her as he does his instrument, with love and soul, until she is completely open, writhing and at the mercy of his clever hands and endlessly gentle reverence. Until she burns with desire, his name tumbling from her lips.

Until everything else fades and there is only him.

She reaches for him, pulling him into her arms, his head pillowed on her chest, and feels him smile as she presses a kiss to his forehead.

His fingers trace gentle, calming circles on her waist as she falls asleep.

Chapter Text

The pain hit him first, claws that seemed to slice, burning, through his veins and tear at his flesh. For a moment, or maybe forever, it was all he could do to stay quiet, muscles tensing in a futile attempt to stave off the torment.

After what felt like an eternity, he slowly opened his eyes, calm enough now for memories to trickle back into his consciousness. Rika and Eunbyeol. Luciel’s rescue. The escape from Magenta. Their arrival to the hidden cabin. His long convalescence.

Biting back a groan, he sat up, carefully tucked blankets sliding to pool on his lap. The chair beside the bed was empty, but through the open door, he could hear voices, soft and indistinct, talking in the other room. Eunbyeol and Luciel and the other man, though he couldn’t make out what they were discussing.

Even so, he had some guesses, and none of them boded well for Rika.

Then again, things were never supposed to turn out the way they did. He had weighed his chances, had long since decided that saving the sweet, innocent girl he had somehow come to treasure outweighed his survival by far. And he had been certain that it would cost him his freedom and his life.

Luciel was more resourceful than even he had ever given the boy credit for.

But where did that leave him? V closed his eyes, resting his head in his still-trembling hands. They had successfully escaped but he had no doubt that Mint Eye had no intention of giving up yet. They were still waiting, still planning its revenge on him. On the entire RFA if necessary.

On her.

His face sunk deeper into his hands, fingers pressing against his eyelids as though that would help ward off the headache he could feel building in his temples. He had to focus, had to find a way to save her. To save them. No matter what it took.

Even if it took everything.

Rika… She knew now, at least. Knew that he had failed her, that it was his fault she had withdrawn from his light, that he had pushed too hard, too far. That his obsession had led to everything. Surely she knew to blame him, and not them. And not her, who had been caught in this web of suffering through no fault of her own.

Then… he had to try again, and succeed. Maybe only then, the friends he had come to regard as his family would be safe.

V looked up, casting his eyes toward the window, where clouds hung, low and grey, over the sky. Still, it was brighter out than he remembered seeing in a long while, and he needed to clear his head, wanted another look at the world while he still could.

For a moment, he listened at the voices from the other room, at what seemed to be a lilting conversation between Eunbyeol and the voice he didn’t quite recognize, as Luciel muttered to himself, still working on blocking attacks to their app at every turn. They would volunteer to accompany him, he knew, would insist that he find another way.

He couldn’t let them know.

Each slow, jolting step sent streaks of pain through his body, but still he pushed on, hobbling to the door as quietly as he could. There, he paused, drawing deep breaths as he glanced back, checking for any indication that someone had noticed his movement. Luckily, there were none, and he exhaled, though whether in relief or agony, he couldn’t quite be sure.

Outside, trees surrounded the small building, obscuring them from the main road, and V stopped on the dirt path, taking in a breath of fresh air. A gentle breeze tugged lightly at his long, stringy hair, almost a gentle caress. Almost as though it were just another day, and as though his life would continue on without a hitch.

As if his struggles with Mint Eye and Magenta were behind him.

Luciel’s car was parked a little distance away, just far enough to mentally free him from the confining cabin without overexertion. Even so, he climbed in with some difficulty before relaxing into the soft leather with a silent chuckle. It was very much like Luciel to buy such an ostentatious and expensive vehicle and then use it to aid the RFA without thought, to use flippancy to hide his true, sensitive nature.

Luciel would fight him every step of the way if he knew. Was already planning to, based on the discussion with Eunbyeol while he had been sleeping. Luciel, who had always trusted him, had always done whatever had to be done for the RFA with an intensity that was nearly terrifying, and always heartbreaking.

He wondered briefly whether Luciel would feel the same way about him if he knew the truth about everything.

He wondered whether he would ever know the answer to that.

With a sigh, he shook himself. There was no use thinking about that, not given everything that had already happened. Luciel had other things to focus on, had enough pressure already on his slim shoulders simply protecting them from Saeran’s incessant attacks. And even he himself had better things to think about. Had to find some way to protect them. To protect her.

Instead, he stared out into the leafy foliage, at the dirt that split into two paths, one that led back to the main road and, presumably, to Magenta and to Rika, and the other that disappeared into the trees, leading… somewhere out of sight, to a location still frighteningly uncertain.

A sudden vibration in his hand pulled him from his reverie and he looked down to find that he had already slipped his phone out of his pocket. On its screen, a small notification blinked at him, informing him that he had an email, but he ignored it in favor of the small RFA messenger app resting innocently on the screen.

He opened the chat room almost without thinking. It was possible that whatever he wrote would be seen by Mint Eye, but this time, he wanted it. Regardless of what happened, he had to meet Rika once again, to find something, anything, that might ensure everyone else’s safety.

It was only what he owed them all after creating this monster through his own twisted attempt at love.

But… He watched as another suddenly joined the room, as though drawn by his presence. Eunbyeol, of course. She cut straight to the heart of the problem, seeing through his facade to the truth, to his guilt and burden, hidden underneath, leaving him at once exposed but also freer for it.

And as ever, she remained endlessly patient, all gentle words and unwavering support. It was almost enough to make him believe that perhaps there was another way, that he could still live a better life. A beautiful life. It was almost enough to make him want to believe that there was, if only to ensure he could keeping her presence, steadfast and compassionate, in his life, and, if he was lucky, if he could somehow make himself worthy of it, by his side.

But regardless… She worried for him. She cared for him. And that alone was enough to light the first sparks of life in his empty heart, to make him move back indoors, to return to her warmth presence.

As he got out of the car, squinting in the sunlight that suddenly shown into his eyes, he looked again down that path, leading towards the unknown, before slowly making his way back towards the cabin, where Eunbyeol stood anxiously in the doorway.

The path would wait for him, however long it took.

Chapter Text

It’s late by the time they leave the restaurant, the sun having set a few hours ago, but Jihyun looks unperturbed as he takes her hand and leads her back to their car, slow and unhurried in the cool air.

Instead, he glances up with a smile. “It’s a cloudless night,” he says, satisfaction clear from the twinkle in his eyes.

“That it is…”

She’s fairly certain that he can hear the question in her voice, especially since his grin widens, but he simply keeps walking, and she knows him well enough to know that he’s not planning on answering, regardless of how much she wheedles or cajoles.

Still, she’s not expecting him to drive in the direction opposite of their house and merge onto the highway, and she jerks her head up to shoot him a questioning look.

Her scowl at his responding smirk only makes him laugh. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

She glances out the window, to passing trees and open fields. “Back with civilization?”

“And I’m not?” He presses a hand to his chest, face so full of mock consternation that she can’t help but roll her eyes with fond exasperation.

“Not when you’re like this.”

He shrugs. “Fair enough. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me though.”

“There are far worse fates than to be trapped with you in a moving vehicle going to who knows where at an absurd hour of the night.”

“Oh, come on. It’s not that late.”

She crosses her arms, though she’s grinning now too. “I notice you didn’t counter anything else I said.”

He shrugs again, though this time, he doesn’t take his eyes off the road as he takes the next exit. “It’s all right. You’ll find out soon enough. We’re almost there anyway.”

She peers outside, though she doesn’t see anything of note. “Where’s there?”

“Here.” He navigates with unerring precision before pulling into a small field, dark other than for their headlights and the faint light from the heavens. Other than for them, it’s still, deserted.

When she hesitates, his smile softens. “I heard that there’s supposed to be a meteor shower tonight so I thought it might be a fun surprise and this sounded like one of the best places to watch from. It’s too bright at home.”

She blinks, surprised in spite of herself, especially when he turns around and grabs a pile of blankets off of the backseat before getting out of the car. “How long have you been planning this?”

For a moment, he looks sheepish. “A few days. It took a while to find a good place to watch until Jumin recommended that we come here. Something about wanting to set up a cherry farm closer to home so he doesn’t have to fly out and leave Elizabeth the 3rd behind, but they haven’t gotten all of the logistics worked out yet so he just owns an open field.”

At that, she can’t help but laugh; it’s just like Jumin to purchase a field for the sole purpose of being closer to his cat at all times, but then volunteer it for his best friend without thought. She’ll have to thank him at some point.

The feeling of Jihyun taking her hand pulls her out of her thoughts, and she grins as he leads her farther in before spreading a blanket on the ground. She settles down beside him, leaning her head on his shoulder.

“Where should I be looking?”

“Up.”

She can barely see his face, but even so, she knows he must be smirking, and she elbows him in the ribs. “I know that much, thank you.”

Barely suppressed laughter is clear in his voice. “Just making sure. As for the actual direction…” He pauses for a minute, studying their surroundings with intensity before pointing out. “I think it should be that way. We should still have a little time left.”

She hums, casting her own eyes skyward, and gasps in spite of herself. Though she’s always loved looking at the night sky, it has always been with lights nearby, blocking out all but the brightest stars. She has never seen it like this, each star a crystal hanging in a sea of inky black, bright and alive, so many that she can’t even begin to count them, with a streak of what almost looked like clouds cutting across towards the horizon. The Milky Way.

“It’s beautiful.” To her surprise, the words catch in a sudden lump in her throat, and she swallows hard, blinking away moisture that threatens to blur her vision.

“It is.” Jihyun’s voice is very quiet. “It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s always incredible.”

She lowers her gaze to his, intrigued. “Have you stayed up looking at it very often?”

“Here and there. When you go far enough out into the wilderness, at night, there are only stars to keep you company, and I found that I enjoyed taking pictures of them. I tried painting it once, but it never really worked out.” He laughs, a little self-deprecating. “It’s so much easier to capture them in a photo. Especially—”

“Wait, look!” A streak of bright light catches her attention, and she calls out before she even realizes she’s cutting him off.

His body shakes with his silent laugh, but he says nothing more, instead wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her in, so close now that she can feel his chest move with each breath, as more meteors follow the first, pinpricks of light that soar across the sky in quick succession, leaving glowing tails in their wake. They’re magnificent, ethereal in their fleetingness.

She can’t look away.

“Make a wish.” The words are a breath in the still air, so quiet she almost misses them, but strangely serious, and she finally tears her gaze away from the sky to find Jihyun watching her, turquoise eyes so full of warmth and love that her breath catches.

“I love you,” she says instead, just before their lips meet.

Chapter Text

V looked up. The knock on his door sounded strangely foreboding, or maybe that was simply because he knew who it must be.

“Come in.”

As he expected, a second later, scruffy red hair poked into the room. “V? It’s me. Jumin said you wanted to see me?”

He sighed, even as he gestured for Luciel to sit beside him. “Yes. First, I wanted to thank you again. For everything.” Before Luciel could open his mouth, he shook his head. “You know I couldn’t have done any of this without you. I don’t know what would have happened to me, to any of the RFA, if Rika…”

“I know. And you know I would have done everything I could to protect this.” Luciel’s face was solemn, every inch of the serious young man he had first met, so many years ago now, desperate to do anything to help his brother escape their abusive past.

It nearly broke his heart.

He forced a smile, wondering if it looked as fake as it felt. “I do know. And words cannot express how much I’ve appreciated your trust… even when I don’t deserve it.”

“V?” Luciel sounded unusually worried, and he looked down to find his fingers clutching at the sheets so hard they strained, threatening to rip.

Loosening each finger took more concentration than he cared to admit, after which he drew a deep breath. Perhaps it was a coward’s move to close his eyes as well, but then again, his previous actions had already confirmed that.

“I lied, Luciel. I’m sorry.”

A long silence reigned, during which time he opened his eyes but couldn’t quite bring himself to look up from his blanket-covered lap. Even so, he could feel golden eyes, nearly burning, fixed on him with such intensity that he wondered whether he’d turn to ash before too long.

“When?”

In spite of himself, he flinched. There was no curiosity to the question, no emotion. Nothing but ice-cold certainty, as though Luciel already knew the answer and only wanted to hear him confirm it.

It was all too tempting to take the words back, to keep his own council and keep the burden of responsibility on himself and himself alone. And only a few short days earlier, he might have. Only a few days ago, he did, lying to him with shaking hands and a conscience sick with grief and self-loathing and a thousand other emotions. Except…

Except he had also learned that life almost never worked out the way he wanted it to. That someday, the truth would get out, and to let it fester, untreated, would only make it so much worse. For both himself and for Luciel. Especially for Luciel.

Hiding the truth wouldn’t protect him anymore.

V drew a deep breath, willing his voice to remain steady. “The hacker.”

This time, he couldn’t look away, could only watch as Luciel’s brow crinkled, as his quick mind drew the relevant connections between his confession and Rika and the hacker who seemed to share his style, who seemed to practically read his mind, making the leaps from his words to their inevitable conclusion. Could only watch as the lifelessness faded, replaced by fury.

“What happened?” When he didn’t answer, Luciel stood, moving closer to tower over him. “What happened to my brother?”

He looked back down at his hands, this time in helplessness. “I don’t know,” he said, very softly.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” V had never been so thankful that the room’s door was closed and that the walls appeared to have some amount of soundproofing; he half-expected nurses to rush in at the volume of the shout, but thankfully, they remained alone, a small blessing in the chaos. “You promised me he would be kept safe and happy! That if I went with you, he would be able to live a normal life! And he ended up like that? And you lied to me about it?”

For a moment, Luciel reached out as though to grab him, but stopped himself at the last minute, hand instead clenching into a fist at his side. “You’re lucky you’re already in a hospital bed,” he spat. “What, you’re not going to say anything?”

V drew a shaking breath, closing his eyes again, briefly. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can say that will make up for not telling you the truth earlier.”

“You’re right.” The cold, controlled rage as Luciel sat back down, visibly drawing his emotions back under his control, was all the worse, was a testament to just how much he had done to irrevocably change his life. “But you can at least start by answering my questions, I assume?”

The razor-sharp smile he received when he nodded cut deeper than any physical wound, but Luciel only leaned forward, eyes blazing. “How much did you know?”

He pressed his fingers against his closed lids, wondering whether the sudden cloudiness of his vision was a lingering effect of his surgery. “After you… left, Rika and I went to visit the house, and… persuaded your mother to let him attend church school. For a while, we kept an eye on him there, but Rika always paid special attention to him. And then, one day, she came to me and told me she had found a way to get him to a safe place, that she had taken some pictures for you and that she would keep an eye on him from then on out, but that we didn’t have to worry about his wellbeing anymore.”

“Rika…”

“Yes. I trusted her. I shouldn’t have, but then, I trusted her.” His voice sounded muffled, even to his own ears, but still he pushed on. “Back then, she was already starting to gather people to form Mint Eye. I don’t know how long he’s been with them, but it must be years already. The elixir… You saw its effects. He wouldn’t have taken kindly to any intervention.”

“You don’t know that!”

“Luciel…” Without thinking, he reached out, putting a hand on Luciel’s, but it was jerked away from his touch.

Don’t. We could have saved him, gotten him out somehow. He’s my brother and we left him to die.” His voice cracked on the last word, and V’s heart broke as he buried his head into his hands, shoulders shaking.

“Luciel.” He waited until golden eyes turned back to him, though he hesitated before pushing on. “I’m sure there was a contingency plan in case they were discovered. Rika may have somewhat lost her sense of what is right, but she wouldn’t have sacrificed all of those people she was trying to help. There’s a chance that he—”

“He was my twin. I know. He’s gone.” The reply was so certain, so beyond hope that V said nothing, could only lower his head, blinking back his own tears as Luciel stared out into the distance, face void of any emotion. “I… guess I have nothing left now, no purpose.” A dry laugh sounded in the air, flat and unnatural. “It’s just like what’s expected of people like me, now.”

The flatness of Luciel’s voice hurt more than any amount of anger could have. The anger he deserved, but the sudden listless detachedness, especially in Luciel, who hid his own insecurities from the rest of the RFA under a mask of foolish joviality, was so much more dangerous.

He drew a careful breath, shifting closer but knowing better than to do any more. “That’s not true, Luciel.”

“Who else is there, then?” The eyes that met his were not angry or lifeless, as he expected, but lost, and so achingly like the young teenager he had seen, praying at church, years ago, that he couldn’t help but reach out, breathing a sigh of relief when Luciel froze and ignoring the way the shoulder stiffened under his touch.

“The rest of the RFA—”

“They know 707. They don’t know me.” The words were not harsh, not condemning, but even so, he shook his head.

“You never gave them a chance to. You know them everything about them, don’t you? So what do you think? Or do you think so little of them that you think they would abandon you? That I…” He trailed off, biting back the rest of his statement, but even so, the golden eyes that met his were cautious.

“Do you really think…?”

“The RFA is my family,” he said, very quietly. “And…” He hesitated again before squeezing the thin shoulder. “That includes you. So trust them. Trust me.”

There was a long pause before he nodded. “I’ll try.” For a second, something seemed to glint on Luciel’s cheek, but it was gone the next, and he couldn’t tell whether it was a trick of the light. “But… thank you. For telling me. And for the apology and for gathering everyone in the RFA. I… really appreciate it.”

He smiled, the first genuine one in some time. “Of course, Luciel. And thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”

To his relief, he received a shaky one in return. “I couldn’t do anything else, I suppose. Not for my family.”

Chapter Text

Before meeting Jaehee, she’s never thought about working in a little cafe.

Honestly, before meeting Jaehee, she’s never thought about a lot of things. Never thought about how the gentle curve of a soft smile can make her pulse race, about how the warmth from an accidental brush of fingers can persist, leaving her skin tingling minutes and sometimes even hours later.

Never thought about how much having a friend, having a partner, like this can feel like both a cherished privilege and an agonizing curse.

Some days, when their eyes meet and hands linger just a little bit longer, she can’t help but wonder whether Jaehee might feel the same way, might sense the same push and pull, the same almost magnetic connection.

Jaehee calls her “pretty” sometimes now and even more often, “her partner,” offers hug and late nights in her apartment watching Zen’s musicals until they both fall asleep on the couch, but she’s not quite clear whether she’s reading too much into every passing glance, every brush of their shoulders. For so long, Jaehee had seemed lonely, working tirelessly for Jumin, but then and even now, Minjeong’s still not sure for what kind of companionship.

She wonders sometimes whether Jaehee herself knows.

The sun barely crests over the horizon when she arrives at work, but like every morning, Jaehee has already started, a cup of coffee beside her as she plans the day’s line of treats.

“Good morning.” The words leaving her mouth are more of a yawn than anything else, but Jaehee only looks up with a laugh, brushing long chestnut curls out of her face as she replies in kind.

By the time she has put her purse down and donned an apron, a fresh cup of coffee is pressed into her hand, cool, slender fingers brushing against her own, setting off sparks against her skin. “Maybe this will help?”

“Always.” She looks down into the warm eyes that smile at her and wonders whether she’s only imagining the flicker of… something that makes her heart flutter.

The next second, Jaehee’s stepped away and she draws a deep breath as she remembers to breathe. Almost mechanically, she raises the mug to her lips, hoping that the rich aroma will clear her mind.

It only partially works.

Still, she clears her throat. “What do we need to make today?”

Jaehee turns, checking the carefully maintained inventory sheets before looking back down at the papers in front of her. “There seems to be enough of the most popular pastries today. I thought we could experiment with some fall themed foods instead?”

She shrugs. “What are you looking at?”

“I have a few printed out, if you want to see…”

Before Jaehee can move, she shifts to stand behind her and read over her shoulder. “Apple bars… Pecan pie… Pumpkin cannoli?” The page bears a picture, warm golden brown crust with soft creamy filling, and that alone is almost enough to make her mouth water.

“It does look good, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t look too complicated either. I think we already have everything we need.” Jaehee turns so that they’re facing each other, eyes glinting with excitement. “Shall we?”

“Yes, let’s.” The words come out easily enough, but it takes her a few moments longer to tear herself away from where she’s standing, directly before Jaehee, not staring at the way she worries her bottom lip when she’s thinking, the pale, beautiful flush of her cheeks in the warm cafe that deepens as the seconds stretch on.

“Minjeong?”

She jerks away, nearly tripping over herself in her haste, and she suspects her face is almost as red as Jaehee’s is now. “Sorry, sorry. What do you want me to do first?”

For a moment, something inscrutable flickers across Jaehee’s face before it’s smoothed under a look of concern. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” The half-truth escapes her lips easily, dancing through the air as lightly as her fingertips do when, in spite of herself, she reaches out, brushing them lightly over Jaehee’s under the guise of reaching for the recipe. “Should I get to work on the filling?”

The only response she receives is a stunned nod and she has never been more thankful that the ricotta and puree are stored in the back room. Leaving Jaehee still frozen in place, she walks into the back before she finally allows herself to take a deep breath, pressing still-tingling fingers to her mouth. It was a foolish thing to do, an impulsive gesture that she’s beginning to fear went too far for friends. For business partners.

But then again, the sharp definition of their relationship has long been blurred, even before this endeavor ever started. Even back before the RFA party, several months earlier, there was always a spark, a hint at something more.

A sign that there is no reason to give up hope.

Squaring her shoulders, she nods at herself before gathering the relevant ingredients and returning to the front room.

Jaehee has already set to work, preparing the shells with quick elegance. Slender fingers fly over the crusts, carefully molding them into shape on a baking sheet, though she pauses to look up and smile.

“These will have to bake and cool before we can add the filling, so take your time.”

She pauses, putting down her supplies. “Do you need a hand?”

“I…” Jaehee pauses, swiping a strand of hair off of her cheek with one hand, leaving a faint streak of flour, before looking ruefully back down. “That… might be helpful, actually, if you don’t mind. At least so they can be baking before the morning rush.”

“Not at all.” She sets to work, though she has to admit that hers take considerably longer and don’t nearly have the same level of grace. Then again, she’s not entirely sure whether it’s simply lack of skill or the way she keeps finding herself captivated by the woman working beside her. It’s a wonder how Jaehee can focus so diligently on whatever task is at hand, a small smile gently curving her lips, and Minjeong finds herself distracted far more than she has any reason to be.

Still, between the two of them, they finish just in time for the trays to be put in the oven before it’s time to open the doors for breakfast, and the usual steady trickle of customers make their way through. She juggles between completing orders and preparing the filling, watching as Jaehee somehow manages to work both the coffee machine and the register without faltering and with the same, pleasant smile on her face that softens every time their hands brush and eyes meet.

She's incredible.

Other than removing the shells from the oven, they don’t have a chance to return to their cannoli until the morning workforce dissipates, leaving the cafe almost strangely empty in its wake. She scoops the filling into a large piping bag before squirting a small amount onto her finger and licking it, ignoring the amusement and disapproval that cross Jaehee’s face in quick succession.

“Tastes good!”

“Must you?” She receives an eyeroll for her shenanigans, and shrugs before offering her the bag.

“It should be good to go, if you want to do the honors.”

Her declaration earns her a quiet laugh that somehow makes her chest squeeze before warm hands slide over and replace hers, expertly filling the first shell.

Before Jaehee can move on to the next, she’s reaching for the first, holding it out in front of Jaehee’s mouth. “Don’t you want to try it?”

For a moment, brown eyes widen in unadulterated shock and her name is so quiet she can barely hear it. “Minjeong…?”

“Come on. Take a bite.”

She briefly wonders if she’s ever seen Jaehee as red as when she takes a bite, but her eyes widen immediately in surprise. “It’s good!”

“Is it?” She pops the rest into her mouth, impressed in spite of herself. “You’re right.”

“We should finish making these and serve them—”

“Hang on.” She waits until Jaehee turns back to her, a questioning look on her face, and then laughs softly to herself. “You have some cream on your face. Here…” Keenly aware of Jaehee’s eyes on her, she reaches out, slowly brushing her thumb against her upper lip and wiping it clean, pretending she isn’t noticing how soft her lips are, or the way Jaehee’s breath hitches.

But instead of pulling away, Jaehee leans into the touch and suddenly, there’s longing in her eyes, and she can't resist the urge to lean down.

Jaehee tastes of pumpkin and coffee and perfection.

Chapter Text

It’s a strange thing, how quickly she becomes a constant in his life. When he was traveling the world, she was never far from the forefront of his mind, a reminder of his goals and ideals, of the man he wants to become, strives every day to become. He wasn’t exaggerating about the number of canceled flight, the fact that he missed her every day.

Once he returns, they settle into a pattern. Within a week, she has given him a key to her apartment, to be used as he sees fit, especially since her schedule, with classes and study sessions and volunteer work, she hardly has the time to sleep, let alone granting him access every time he should want it. He takes it without comment and silently adjusts his schedule, ensuring he is around on her busiest days and providing anything she could need to lighten her load.

In the beginning, he wanted to properly court her, to get to know her in a way that felt natural, that was normal, but at the same time, they have already been through so much together that it seems unnecessary. She has already seen him as his worst, at his most desperate, and she has stayed by his side regardless.

Plus, between her busy schedule and his tendency to lose track of time, he ends up spending most of his nights, and not an insignificant portion of his days, there regardless.

It’s a simple thing, in all honesty, and one he doesn’t even consider until Eunbyeol looks over at him, packing up as she cooks breakfast. “Is there really a point in doing that when we both know you’ll be back later today?”

He pauses, halfway through folding his shirt, and stares while she turns back to the stove, expertly flipping the omelette and apparently completely oblivious to the bombshell that her matter-of-fact words are.

It takes her another moment to realize that he’s staring, frozen, and she simply looks at him with confusion. “Jihyun? What is it?”

“I…” He’s not sure what exactly he wants to say. She’s right in that it would certainly be more practical, considering how long he actually spends in an apartment that, if he were to be honest with himself, reminds him too much of her anyway. But at the same time… “You make it sound so simple.”

He tries to make the words sound lighthearted but evidently fails; Eunbyeol’s eyes widen immediately, even as she pales. “Oh, I didn’t realize… I’m so sorry. Forget I said anything.” Before he can react, she turns back to the stove, fiddling with their utensils until she deems breakfast ready.

As he settles at the table, he notices that hers looks slightly overcooked, but he says nothing as she busies herself with aligning her knife just right, eyes fixed downwards, on the table.

It is only when the silence has stretched uncomfortably long that he clears his throat. Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees her jump, but he ignores it. “What do your plans look like for today?”

She noticeably relaxes. “Nothing terribly busy, thankfully. I have class in an hour, but that shouldn’t be too bad, and then it’s just studying for the test next week.” For a second, she looks up, the hint of a smile on her face, before her eyes dart back down to her plate, too quickly to make out the myriad of emotions lurking in her gaze. “What about you?”

“Mmm, I promised Jumin I’d meet with him about the latest project he wants to work on. I told him that I don’t work as a photographer anymore but he insists on having me take the preview images for whatever new business he’s working on.”

At that, Eunbyeol actually laughs, meeting his gaze once more. “Starring Elizabeth the 3rd, I expect?”

“I would assume so.”

She shakes her head, though the smile still lingers on her lips. “Poor Jaehee.”

“Indeed. After that… Maybe get some groceries before making dinner? I think we’re running low. Actually, is there anything in particular that you want?”

For several moments, she says nothing, and it’s not until he looks up, sees the shocked expression on her face, that he realizes what he said without thinking.

That he realizes he means every word.

“Eunbyeol?”

“Anything is fine.” The smile she offers him is too fast, distracted, but he knows her well enough to wait as she organizes her thoughts, as courage gathers in her soft eyes. “I… You don’t have to. I really didn’t mean to push you. I simply—”

“I know.” He says the words simply but her mouth snaps shut regardless. “But you’re right. And more importantly…” He looks around the cozy kitchen, the brightly lit living room and the balcony that overlooks the city at dawn, and then back at the woman he loves, who makes his day every time she enters a room, who can make any place in the world feel like home to him. “My heart is wherever you are. My belongings are far easier to move than that.”

“That’ll still take some time though,” she answers flippantly, but her eyes are shining. “Do you need any help?”

“Only if you have the time to spare.”

At that, she laughs, this time warm and full, matching the lightness of his heart. “It would be quite selfish of me to not help you move into our apartment, would it not? I’ll make time, and then we can get groceries afterwards?”

“Of course.” He grins as he stands with his finished plate, pausing on his way to the sink to press a kiss to the top of her head. “And thank you for putting up with me,” he murmurs by her ear.

He doesn’t go into any more detail, but the smile she gives him is cheeky. “Love you too.”

Chapter Text

When Eunbyeol steps out of her exam and turns her phone back on, it’s to find a flurry of texts from Jihyun. She shakes her head with amusement, only to pause as the words of one of them filters into her consciousness. “You should tell Carina and Zen that they probably shouldn’t visit in the future.”

She frowns, nearly stopping in the middle of the hallway in confusion as she scrolls back through the messages until she finds the first: “So… I have good news and bad news. Good news: We have a new family member. Bad news: We need to cat proof the house.”

At that, she does freeze, at least until a backpack clips her shoulder, followed by a quick apology. She waves it off with one of her own before turning her attention back to her phone. The rest of the texts appear to be a running commentary on his whereabouts as he purchases the necessary items for their new pet, followed by applications for a name intermixed with suggestions of his own, each seemingly more outlandish than the last.

She rolls her eyes at how the messages end abruptly, presumably when he remembered why exactly she hasn’t replied, but can’t help but smile when she hears a familiar voice calling her name.

Jihyun is waiting for her, parked by the side of the road and grinning as she approaches. Much to her amusement, more than a few of her classmates eye him with interest, and, she suspects, not only because of his unusual hair color, as they walk by, which he seems rather adorably oblivious to, all of his attention apparently focused on her.

God, she’s so lucky.

“How was it?” he asks as soon as she gets close.

“Not too bad, all things considered.” An arm snakes around her waist as she stretches up, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek. “Not that I’m complaining, of course, but what are you doing here?”

He offers her a look of false hurt. “What? You don’t believe that I would just come to pick up my girlfriend after she finishes a test?”

She raises a playful eyebrow. “Judging from the way my phone blew up earlier, you completely forgot that I had one for a while there. Too excited?”

The grin she receives in response is sheepish. “Something like that. But since I was already out getting supplies for her, I thought we could swing by to pick you up.” He nods towards the backseat, where a small carrier rests, alongside what appears to be a litter box, cat food, a scratching post, a bed, and several bags of toys.

Shaking her head ruefully, she gets into the passenger seat. “You never told me exactly how you found her, anyway.”

Jihyun shrugs. “I found her when I was taking a walk, and she followed me all the way back home. I tried looking to see if anyone had reported a lost cat, or whether the vet could find any information, but she really doesn’t seem to have an owner. And she looked so sad that I couldn’t just turn her out.”

She shakes her head, laughing. It’s just like him to be so soft-hearted that he can’t resist taking in a stray, though she has to admit that were she in the same situation, she would likely have done the same.

Lord, someone will have to keep an eye on them before their entire house turns into a rescue shelter or something.

It isn’t until they pull into the driveway that she speaks again. “Have you thought about a name? And no, Marie Antoinette doesn’t count.”

“Why not? It’s a perfectly respectable name…”

“She’s a cat, Jihyun, not a queen of France. Honestly, why I thought you had good ideas for naming pets, I don’t know.”

“Jumin quite liked ‘Elizabeth the 3rd,’” he protests with a straight face, though she spies the telltale twitch of his lips.

She rolls her eyes, though it takes significant effort to stop herself from laughing as well. “Fine. He thinks that you’re quite talented at naming things, but that’s also Jumin we’re talking about.”

In what can only be a pique of immaturity, he sticks his tongue out at her, and she gives up any pretense of holding in her laughter, even as she reaches for the carrier.

“I’ll get the rest of the stuff inside. Let her out in the spare room. It’s the only one that she shouldn’t be able to get into any mischief in at the moment.”

She nods, making her way over quickly before opening the carrier door, revealing a small grey tabby who immediately walks out almost regally and settles on the ground beside her.

Several minutes later, Jihyun walks in to find her gently petting the cat, lounging in the sun purring. “Do you have any ideas for a name, then?”

She looks up, though “How about Haru?”

He pauses before nodding. “Fine. I suppose I’ll have to tell Jumin that his cat remains the only one with an elegant name.”

“Pretentious,” she corrects, laughing, as she gets to her feet. “But that’s okay. I love you anyway, terrible naming ability and all.”

Chapter Text

Lightning streaks across the dark sky, lighting up the living room. In spite of herself, Eunbyeol shivers from her position on the couch, though it doesn’t stop her from staring out at the storm raging outside, beautiful in its violent splendor.

As if on cue, Jihyun drops down beside her, carrying two mugs with a blanket thrown over his arm. She reaches out immediately, ignoring his laugh as she inhales the comforting scent of jasmine, and leaves him to juggle both the remaining cup and the throw.

After another moment of watching him struggle, she relents, taking his cup with a small grin. He only rolls his eyes, though the hands that tuck the blanket around her shoulders are tender, as is the kiss he presses to her temple. “Enjoying the storm?”

She smiles. “It’s exciting.”

“That it is. And made nicer by the fact that we’re warm and comfortable.”

At that, she hums in agreement, leaning back against his side as he drapes his arm over her shoulder. “How was your morning?”

She feels him shrug. “Uneventful, for the most part. I’m glad I got the groceries done before the storm really hit. I wouldn’t want to brave this weather for anything.”

As if to emphasize his words, another flash of lightning shoots across the sky, so bright that she blinks then jumps as thunder crashes over them almost instantaneously, nearly sloshing tea all over the couch. Jihyun isn’t quite so lucky; she must have bumped his arm when she jerked, and she turns to find him looking down with dismay at the splash on his lap.

“I’m sorry!”

He looks up with a quiet chuckle. “It’s all right. I suppose I’ll just have to change, then.”

She sits forward, silently mourning the absence of his warmth, and he gets to his feet. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

When she nods, he drops a kiss to the top of her head before heading to their bedroom. She turns, watching him turn on the light and disappear into the hallway, before turning back to the window with a sigh, to the rain still lashing against the glass panes, simultaneously electrifying and calming.

Another flash of lightning, this time far closer than she expected, heralds a thunderclap so loud that she cries out in spite of herself. At the same moment, the hall goes dark, and as she gets to her feet, she vaguely thinks she hears a crash.

“Jihyun?”

“I’m fine. The room went dark and I ran into the dresser.” In the faint light from the window, she sees him slowly navigating his way back to the living room, sliding an arm around her shoulders when he reaches her. “I guess the power must have gone out.”

She moves to the window, he keeping pace beside her, and looks out at the equally dark buildings around them. “It would appear so. There goes studying this afternoon, I suppose.”

He laughs. “I think this is a good enough excuse to take the afternoon off. Besides, you’ve deserved it.”

She leans against him slightly as the arm around her shoulder tightens in a gentle hug before turning back to the room, frowning. “Well, we should probably get some light source other than our phones. I think I kept some flashlights somewhere…”

“What about candles?”

She blinks. “Candles?”

The shrug she receives is casual, but even in the faint light, she can see a slight flush on his cheeks. “Yeah. It’ll be nice to just take the afternoon off, and they’re more romantic, aren’t they?”

“Jihyun Kim, are you trying to court me?” She can’t quite keep the amusement out of her voice, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“Is that a problem?”

She laughs, then, before moving closer, arms sliding up to curl around his neck, even as he leans down towards her as if on instinct. “Not at all, though it’s kind of unnecessary.”

“Oh?” There’s merriment in his gaze, in the lighthearted tone of voice, but underneath that, there’s a flicker of fire that seems to fill her veins with warmth, that squeezes her chest with how much she loves him, and she drops all pretenses of coyness.

“I’m sure you know that you already have my heart,” she breathes instead, before stretching up to kiss him.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Jihyun?”

For a moment, he doesn’t answer, but she can’t say she’s too surprised, considering he’s staring out into the distance with the expression that she knows means he’s thinking about some new art project. Instead, she only laughs quietly to herself, slipping her hand into his as she waits for her words to filter into his consciousness.

After another few seconds, he turns to her, a sheepish smile on his face. “Sorry, did you say something?”

She shakes her head. “Nothing of importance. I just wanted to ask you something.”

“Of course.”

“How do you feel about hosting a Halloween party?”

He blinks. “A what?”

“A Halloween party. I was talking to Carina the other day and it sounded like a lot of fun. Dramatic costumes and fun decorations and themed food. Nothing big, just for the RFA and maybe a plus one.”

She receives a semi-suspicious look. “Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to play matchmaker?”

“Who, me? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The reply rolls off her tongue, glib and as innocent as she can make it, but even so, he laughs.

“Don’t even try to deny it, my dear. What are you thinking?”

She concedes, though to be quite honest, she’s not sure if it’s because of the way he’s seen entirely through her admittedly flimsy plan, or due to the softening of his voice when he calls her that, as though she’s something wondrous, something irreplaceable.

Instead, she clears her throat. “I thought I saw Jaehee lingering around that new coffee shop by the C&R building recently.”

“Considering how much she works for Jumin, it’s no surprise that she likes coffee.”

“I’m not sure it’s just the coffee she likes.” When Jihyun gives her a skeptical look, she only laughs, squeezing his hand tighter. “I was studying there just a few days ago when I saw her talking to the owner. I’m pretty sure Jaehee’s focus wasn’t exactly on the latte that was going cold in front of her.”

“I take it you approve?”

Her grin widens. “Yup. Minjeong Park seems like a lovely woman and genuinely enjoys hearing from Jaehee, it seems like. So I mentioned the possibility of hosting a small party and got her address.”

As she brandishes an envelope, Jihyun raises an eyebrow at her. “You already have invitations written?”

“Of course!”

“And if I said no?”

She shrugs. “I figured I could convince you otherwise if I had to.”

At that, she earns a quiet chuckle, even as he tugs her forward, into his arms. “So you think you have me all figured out then?”

“Something like that.”

“Oh?” He leans in closer, so that she can’t help but close her eyes, her breath catching in anticipation. A heartbeat passes, and then he chuckles, low and teasing, before tapping her lightly on the nose. “Not quite, then.”

When she pouts, he only laughs louder. “Only trying to prove a point, love.”

“Very well. You’re extremely unpredictable,” she recites, doing her best to keep her voice flat and bored, but given the look of genuine affection on his face, she’s not convincing him of her insincerity anymore than she expected she would.

“That’s more like it,” he says, his voice husky, and she only has time to put the envelope down, out of harm’s way, before his lips are on hers, warm and passionate, and any thoughts of the party are wiped from her thoughts.

Chapter Text

The house always feels too empty when he’s gone.

Eunbyeol sighs, wandering from room to room. It’s strange, really. Much of the time he’s home, he’s hidden away in his studio or else reading a book or practicing or doing something that’s confined, quiet. And yet, now that he’s gone for two weeks, the silence is deafening.

Almost as if on cue, she feels a slight bump against her leg and looks down to find Haru weaving around her ankles, somehow appearing both calm and also anxiously searching. She squats, reaching down to stroke her head with a gentle hand. “You miss him too, don’t you?”

Bright green eyes blink at her solemnly before Haru stretches and saunters to curl up by the foot of the couch, where Jihyun usually sits, and Eunbyeol isn't sure whether to laugh or cry at the impatient, almost imperious, look she receives and from a cat, no less. Nonetheless, she obeys, settling down on the seat and letting Haru clamber onto her lap before resuming the petting. “It’s only fifteen days. He’ll be back soon,” she says quietly, though she’s not sure if it’s to the cat or herself.

Quiet purring is the only reply she receives, but it’s somehow more comforting than any sympathetic words she would receive from anyone else. It’s times like these when she thinks she can understand Jumin’s former obsession with Elizabeth the 3rd.

Unlike Jumin, however, she still has plenty of work to do at home so she reaches for her textbook with a sigh, flipping it open to the relevant page.

It’s perhaps a testament to just how distracted she is by Jihyun’s absence that she doesn’t notice the note, scribbled on plain paper and tucked in an envelope against the inner crease of the page, until a bored paw pokes experimentally at it.

A reprimand is halfway out of her mouth before it registers and she puts down her notes, picking up the envelope with slightly trembling fingers. Her name is written on it in Jihyun’s flowing hand and she can only shake her head with a smile. She has no idea when he managed to slip it into her work without her noticing while finishing up his packing, but at this point, she’s come to accept that there are some things she will never understand about Jihyun’s ability to sneak thoughtful gestures past her attention.

She slides a thumb under the flap, flipping it open to find a folded sheet of paper, dated from a day ago. Hardly noticing as Haru hops off of her lap and disappears into the kitchen, she unfolds the page, smoothing it on her lap as she reads.

Eunbyeol,

It’s strange to write this letter to you while you’re working across from me, knowing that by the time you read it, I’ll be off, on a trip longer than any I’ve been on in the past two years. Even just thinking about that makes me miss your absence more than I could ever say. I have grown used to seeing you at my side, of having you in my life, and even two weeks apart seem like they will stretch on for eternity.

I know you know all of this already, just that I know you will miss me as much as I do you, but I simply have to remind you yet again of how much I love you, about how much better my life is now that you’re in it. You brought out the best in me, taught me to be a better person and to love myself, and helped me get to where I am today. Ironically enough, you are the reason why I am leaving tomorrow for so long, though I don’t begrudge you that at all. You are my angel, my star. My greatest love.

Of course, reading the words is nothing to hearing them, but as much as I plan on calling you whenever time allows, I cannot be with you often while I am away. Until then, I hope these words, and more, as time goes on, will comfort you in my absence.

May these two weeks pass quickly, so I can be reunited with you once more, my love.

Jihyun

P.S. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I feel it might be worthwhile to advise you be quite diligent in checking everything, especially when you cook. Just in case.

For several moments, Eunbyeol just sits, staring at the page, the beautiful words that Jihyun has left to keep her company while he’s gone. It’s not until she tries to reread it that she realizes her vision is blurry and she can’t help but laugh shakily at her own silliness.

At how lucky she is.

It’s not until she’s in the kitchen, preparing dinner, and discovers a sticky note stuck to the side of a pot, that she realizes her face hurts from smiling.

Chapter Text

Eomma!”

Eunbyeol looks up at the cry, watches as Chanseong hurries over, beaming, with Chanmi toddling behind him on unsteady legs.

“Trick-or-treat!” he announces, carefully enunciating the words the way his Aunt Carina taught him.

She laughs, squatting as Chanseong watches her with one expectant eye, the other covered by a small cloth patch. “Have you already had a lot of candy?”

“Noooo.” He offers her a chocolate-smeared grin, as if to contradict his own words, and she laughs again, rolling her eyes.

“You little scamp. Your mouth is covered in chocolate.”

His mouth closes comically quickly, just as Chanmi moves closer with the flutter of cloth wings, the small antennae headband perched on her hair slipping back precariously. “Eomma! Trick trea’.”

“Good job!” She fixes the wayward accessory with several bobby pins, then runs her hand through her daughter’s hair. “Did Auntie Carina teach you that?”

Chanmi nods so vigorously that the small yellow puffballs bob in the air, nearly hitting her in the face. “Candy!”

“Okay, okay, little bumblebee.” She gets back to her feet and pulls out two small bars of chocolate, though she pauses, holding them just out of reach of the outstretched hands. “These are your final pieces for today, understood? Too much candy isn’t good for you.”

Chanseong has the good graces to look rather chastened and she has to fight a smile as he takes his piece with utmost care. “Thank you.”

She smiles, brushing his bangs out of his face and ignoring the face he makes at the gesture. “Go on, then. And don’t forget to wipe your mouth when you’re finished!”

A quiet chuckle sounds by her ear as the two scamper off, hand in hand and bearing identical grins. “They’re an unlikely pair, aren’t they? A pirate and a bee?”

Eunbyeol turns, grinning, to face her husband, finally clad in the black suit and cape she had set aside hours earlier, though she notes with some amusement that he clearly chose not to wear the accompanying wig.

“Jihyun. I was wondering where you were.”

She sighs as he wraps an arm around her waist and leans into his embrace, paying no mind to the way her hat tilts to one side, threatening to fall off entirely.

“Fixing my teeth.”

She mock scowls at him. “What’s wrong with the fangs? And where's your wig? Vampires don’t usually have turquoise hair, you know.”

“Have you tried them yourself? I can barely talk in those teeth. And I don’t think pirates and bumblebees have blue hair either.”

“Yes, well, technicalities.”

He laughs, tapping gently at the brim of her witch’s hat. “We can’t all have costumes as nice as yours. Besides, the vampire was your idea, not mine.”

“You helped me make mine and theirs,” she points out. “And if I left you to your own devices, you’d have just gone as yourself or something.”

“How well you know me, my dear. Guilty as charged.” He grins, face lighting up with affection that will never fail to make her heart squeeze in her chest. “Well, if I’m in costume, I might as well ask if you have a trick or a treat for me.”

She makes a show of searching through her pockets, coming back up empty handed. “I’m afraid I’m all out of treats. Those rascals must have taken the last ones.”

“I was hoping for something sweeter than that.”

“Oh?” She tilts her head back, quirking a playful eyebrow up at him. “What could you have in mind, I wonder. Could it be… my blood, perhaps, Count Dracula?”

“Nothing quite so… coarse, my dear,” he replies, his voice low. In spite of herself, she shivers at the heat in his tone, at the way teal eyes seem to caress her body with their gaze, at once seductive and adoring. “Perhaps… a kiss?”

Before she can even move, he shifts closer, his arm around her waist tightening, only to be blocked by the brim of her hat. She can’t resist the urge to snort as he pulls away with a very real scowl, muttering something about costumes and Halloween and stupid hats, and nearly throws said hat aside.

She almost, almost, wants to tease him about it, wants to remind him that their friends and family are in the other room, but then his lips are on hers, and she finds that she doesn’t care at all.