❦ ❦ ❦
He moves to sit with his legs crossed daintily, like they're at a posh restaurant instead of the tiny bunsik restaurant near his and Zitao's apartment complex.
"No one asked for your opinion," Jongin says, running a hand through his hair. "If you must know, I'm writing about a woman who travels to France to study French ballets and, like, finds the inspiration to dance again while she's there. And I'm hoping to find some inspiration there myself."
His phone vibrates. Chanyeol. I found an article about cute animal clothes. Thinking of you.
"Wow," says Sehun. "How will you find a way to make that story tragic?" He pokes Jongin's cheek with his chopstick, smearing stew on his skin. "Is her true love going to leave her for someone else on the eve of her first return performance?"
"I never should have let you read my first novel," mumbles Jongin, stabbing at his omurice.
"Yeah," Sehun says. "You shouldn't have. Post-romance." He shakes his hair out of his face. "What the fuck does that even mean? Only you would come up with some pseudo-intellectual dystopian anime-derived explanation for how you've spent years not getting laid."
"It wasn't about sex," says Jongin, taking his spoon and scooping up a huge bite of egg and rice. "It was about love, and the way we throw the word around without meaning, and how, in the end, we're all looking for practicality above romance." He chews slowly, to buy himself time. There's no one else in the bunsik restaurant with them, and the TV playing above the kitchen is showing a program Sehun likes way more than he likes Jongin. "I wasn't writing about our world, anyway, just a theoretical one. It was a story, Sehunnie."
His phone again. Also lab-tech brought fried chicken for lunch. Are you jealous? Jongin smiles, and types back: no, at lunch with sehunnie, he's cooler than you.
"A story that made you famous," says Sehun, looking away from the TV and back at Jongin. "I suppose people empathized with a character who’s afraid of being lonely instead of looking for love." He's only teasing, same as he always does, but Jongin slumps down in the uncomfortable plastic chair and crosses his arms, omurice forgotten. "Or they envied a character who didn't believe in love." Sehun squints. "Are you sure it wasn't autobiographical?"
"Of course not. I believe in love," says Jongin. "I just don't believe in it for me anymore."
"That sounds wonderfully misanthropic." Sehun gives him a deadpan look of superiority. "Wow, Jongin, you have such a positive outlook on your love life."
"Why is it that every time I have a conversation with you or Zitao these days, it comes back to me being single?"
"Because we're worried about you," Sehun says. "Or, well, Zitao is. I'm only moderately concerned, but you know how it is: Zitao's worry is infectious, and when he's worried, I don't get sleep, which is something that affects my happiness."
"You're a real friend, Sehun." Jongin pulls a face. "You really go that extra meter for a pal."
"I try," says Sehun. "But no, seriously, Jongin."
"There's no reason to be worried," replies Jongin. He picks up his spoon again and resumes the casual deconstruction of his rice omelette. "I'm not lonely. And there's nothing wrong with choosing to be single. You don't need a significant other to live a fulfilling life, and not everyone gets that kind of happily ever after!"
"While normally that would be true," Sehun says, stirring his stew and pursing his lips like he tastes something sour, "and is true, for plenty of other people…"
"Let it go, Sehun."
"Not you, Kim Jongin. You've always been a romantic, even back in middle school, scowling at rom-coms but writing love letters to cute third-year girls in your secret diary."
"It was secret for a reason, Sehunnie—"
"Then you shouldn't have left it out on your desk in plain sight when we had sleepovers," Sehun says unapologetically. "My point is, Jongin, that if I looked up ‘believes in fairytale romance' in the dictionary, up until about four years ago, it would have been your picture there next to the definition."
Jongin's stomach revolts. "Please don't do this."
"Okay," Sehun says. "I won't. But you write these sad stories about love that doesn't work out and people who don't believe in it and it worries us, because you won't talk about what happened with you and Soojung and--"
"It's because real life isn't a fairy tale," Jongin says. "Sleeping Beauty never wakes up."
Sehun's mouth becomes a thin line. "Sorry," he mumbles.
"Stay out of my business," says Jongin. "I'm perfectly fine the way I am."
Sehun watches him, and Jongin sighs.
"I have my family, and Taemin, and you guys, too. I have Joonmyun-hyung and Chanyeol-hyung—"
"Ah," Sehun says, subdued moment passing as he becomes the cat who got the cream, "you do have Chanyeol-hyung, I forgot."
"No you didn't," Jongin mutters. "Asshole. You were lying in wait to make something out of nothing."
"What does Chanyeol-hyung think of your determination to never fall in love again, hmm?"
"I doubt he has an opinion on it," Jongin says. His omelette is cold now, and much less appetizing. Grease congeals on top of the egg and on the plate underneath it.
"I doubt that he doesn't," replies Sehun. His hair falls into his face, and this time he uses his hand to push it back. "After all, it's not like you don't write him into every single one of your books like some creepy confession letter."
"I don't know what you could be talking about," says Jongin, and he averts his eyes.
"Poor Chanyeol-hyung," Sehun says. "His only flaw is his terrible taste in men."
"It's not like that." Jongin tries to infuse as much insistence into it as he can, but he flushes pink and pouts, and Sehun laughs, returning to his food. "It can't be. Stop instigating," Jongin says, after a while. Sehun pins him with an even stare. "Really. I'm happy with the way things are, Sehun."
"All right," Sehun says, with an arched brow. "I'll get off your case. For now."
"Thanks," Jongin says wryly, and then he glances at the clock on the wall and chokes. "Shit, I'm late! Joonmyun-hyung is going to kill me!"
"Naw," Sehun says, waving his hand dismissively as Jongin drops ten-thousand won, enough to pay for both their lunches, onto the table. "He'll just think about it as he smiles paternally at you. You'll be fine. He's not Kyungsoo-hyung after all."
"Later, ass," Jongin says, wrapping his scarf around his neck and buttoning his coat as he walks out of the restaurant with a quick bow for the ajhumma making kimbap at the front.
"Tell Chanyeol-hyung to call me," Sehun yells after him. "You'll see that mad scientist way before I do!"
"Yeah, yeah," mumbles Jongin. "Text him yourself, punk."
He checks his phone. You don't actually think Sehun is cooler than I am, it says. Jongin laughs.
❦ ❦ ❦
He's taking a 10:15AM plane with Air France. He'd looked up flights on a whim a little past midnight, and woken up with the airplane tickets waiting in his inbox.
The travel agent he'd called the next day had taken care of everything else. ("It's a good thing," Taemin had said, "that they're used to idiots like you planning things last minute," when Jongin had called his best friend to tell him. "You'd better bring something nice back for me. And your mom, too, I guess.")
His sister had asked him which came first: writing a novel about Paris, or wanting an excuse to travel to Paris, and Jongin had told her he wasn't quite sure as he swallowed and tried not to think about plans he'd made a long time ago.
And this morning he'd called Joonmyun to ask if there was any way they could change their appointment, and Joonmyun had, as usual, been extremely obliging, especially after Jongin had told him why.
Of course, after Joonmyun was so accommodating, Jongin is late.
Three stops from his, at Jamsil, there's a flux of people getting onto the train, and Jongin almost misses the vibration of his phone.
Are we still on for tomorrow?
Jongin smiles. Chanyeol always asks, like they don't meet up every single Thursday. Jongin likes that Chanyeol never assumes. Taemin shows up at his house at eleven at night without calling and puts his feet on Jongin's table, and Chanyeol double checks that he has the right time when Jongin invites him four days in advance, and usually also brings food.
no, i've changed my mind, Jongin types back. i never want to see you again
So, I'll see you at 7, then? :3
Jongin starts to respond, but it's his stop, so he tucks his phone away and walks out into Samseong station, the heat of the train left behind in the chill of the station as he walks up the stairs and out onto the street.
Even at midday, with the sun out, it's bitterly cold. Jongin shoves his hands into his pockets as he walks down towards Joonmyun's office.
When he arrives, Joonmyun is putting something into a file cabinet, hunched over the open drawer and wriggling his butt to horrible Christmas music.
"Christmas was three weeks ago," Jongin says, and Joonmyun jumps before turning around quickly, laughing.
"Jongin, you surprised me," he chides. "And you're late."
"I know," Jongin says. "I somehow got trapped in an intervention at a bunsik restaurant."
"Zitao has been calling everyone trying to figure out the last time you went on a date," Joonmyun says. "I told him that you were an adult and could make your own romantic decisions."
"At least you realize that, hyung. I am twenty-nine," Jongin says. "I have at least earned that power, right?" He unzips his coat and takes off his hat, running a hand carelessly through his hair.
"That's a nice scarf," says Joonmyun. "I haven't seen it before."
Jongin fingers the knit of it, smiling. "Thanks," he says. "It was a gift." He sits down in the chair in front of Joonmyun's desk, and Joonmyun sits down behind it.
"Congratulations on your new release hitting shelves," Joonmyun says. "I saw the poster in the bookstore window on my way into work this morning. There was this adorable gaggle of high school girls taking pictures of it on their mobile phones. You're a big shot now, huh?"
"Couldn't have done it without you, hyung," Jongin replies, and Joonmyun gives him a tiny little smile as he looks through the stack of papers on his desk and pulls out a purple folder. "Is that mine?"
"Sure is." Joonmyun always edits by hand, leaving notes in his tiny neat hangul in the extra-large margins, like Jongin, did you mean to change tense here or Jongin, this character is ruder than Sehunnie! or help, i'm smiling into my teacup! and all of them are really cute, in a Joonmyun way. "Are you ready to talk about the next one?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "What do you think?"
"I think," Joonmyun says, "that if you weren't already going to Paris for research, I'd send you there myself." He sighs. "There's also the end, Jongin."
"The end?" Jongin shifts uncomfortably. "What about the end?"
"It feels unfinished. Like you didn't know how it should end, so you gave up."
That's truer than Jongin wants it to be. "I'm working on it. Maybe I just need to experience the story more to make it feel more real, and then I'll know how it's supposed to go." He hopes so. As he'd started the last chapter, he'd realized that the story was lacking the finish it needed: the finish that his novels are known for. "I think… Don't you think it needs a happy ending?"
Joonmyun studies him for a moment, before folding his hands together and sighing. "That's not for me to decide, Jongin."
"But you think it does, don't you?" Jongin has never really written a happy ending before, even in the stuff he never even dreamed of trying to get published. He'd written a sad ending, for his first novel, and an open ending for his second, leaving people debating in Daum forums over whether things had turned out all right in the end or not. Even in the shorter things, happy endings have always eluded him, feeling like so much sand on a beach, easily washed away in the ocean of his metaphors and cynicism.
"I've left you some general revision notes for the beginning sections, that take place in Seoul," says Joonmyun, after a long pause. "Would you like to go through those?"
"Sounds good." Jongin leans forward. "I value your opinion."
"I know," Joonmyun says. "That's why I still edit for you."
"You still edit for me because it's your job now," says Jongin, and Joonmyun laughs.
"It didn't have to be," Joonmyun reminds him. "Out of all those manuscripts I was shuffling through when I first started working here, I chose yours."
"Thank goodness," Jongin says, thinking back to the day he'd put that very first manuscript in the mail, after he'd gotten the request from Joonmyun to send the rest of it. Chanyeol had taken him out and gotten him drunk afterwards, and then he'd stayed with Jongin the whole next day as he threw up. He'd felt too ill to be nervous. "I was terrible at school. I don't know what I'd be doing now, if it wasn't this."
"I knew quality when I saw it," Joonmyun says, patting Jongin's hand. "And I still do. So believe me when I say chapter one needs a lot of work."
"I know," Jongin says. "I'm going to have to overhaul the whole thing."
Joonmyun hesitates. "Your main character…"
"What about her?" Jongin asks. "Do you not like her?"
"I like her a lot," Joonmyun says. He taps his fingers on the edge of the table before he leans forward, his hair falling into his face as he gives Jongin his most knowing of smiles. "Is she based on someone?"
"Who would she be based on?" Jongin asks, frowning. "I hadn't really planned on her being modeled on anyone." That's not exactly true, but he doesn't want to explain.
"She reminds me a lot of you," Joonmyun says. "I thought that might be why the ending feels so unfinished."
"Because I'm so unfinished?" Jongin blows his hair out of his eyes. "Gee, thanks, hyung."
"No," Joonmyun says, smile gentling. "It's because the lesson that Hyejeong has to learn is one that you haven't learned yet."
"What lesson is that?" Jongin plays with the end of his scarf, running the weave of it between his fingers.
"That it's okay to try again," replies Joonmyun, and Jongin looks away. "Or, you know, something like that."
"Let's start with chapter one," he says quietly, and Joonmyun nods, opening his purple folder and leaning back in his chair.
❦ ❦ ❦
"Why are you here?" Jongin asks, walking barefoot into his living room and setting his bag down on the table, unwinding his scarf to hang it over the back of an unoccupied chair. "You need to let me know when you're crashing."
His phone vibrates. It's Chanyeol again. It's a link to a review of Jongin's new novel. Can I read this, or will there be spoilers?
Laughing, Jongin replies i dunno, hyung, live dangerously and tucks his phone away again.
"I'm sorry," Taemin says. "I was unaware you had a social life for me to interrupt."
"Just because I'm not constantly going out like you," Jongin says, "doesn't mean I can't be busy." He sets his takeout, for one, on the table, and Taemin laughs.
"Oh, gosh, Jongin, I didn't mean to interfere with your up-close-and-personal night with old episodes of Card Captor Sakura."
"Shut up," Jongin says, taking off his coat and throwing it at Taemin's face. "I meant that I have to pack tonight."
"I know," Taemin says. "For your information, I came to help."
"The last time you helped," Jongin says, "you took everything out of my closet, threw it all on the floor, and then called Sehun to whine about how you'd never seen anyone in the world who owned so many ugly pairs of harem sweatpants."
"I'm prepared this time," Taemin says. "Plus, I'm wiped from dance practice, I don't have the energy to take apart your closet." He opens up Jongin's dinner and starts to eat it. "What's with the sad face, though?"
"There's something missing from my draft," Jongin says. "The new story I'm working on." Joonmyun had been kind but firm about it: what Jongin has is not up to standard, and needs a complete rewrite.
His phone vibrates. He fumbles for it with one hand as the other snatches a piece of tangsuyuk from the open container on Taemin's lap, getting the orange sauce all over his fingers. The pork is crispy. I'll save it for after I read, then. I'm going to pick it up tomorrow on my way to meet you. Is the Coffee Bean all right for you?
"What's it about?"
"I don't think I know," Jongin says. "Maybe that's the problem." wherever you want, hyung
"Stop texting Park Chanyeol and come eat pork with me," Taemin says. "How can you write a story and not know what it's about?"
"Sometimes you don't figure it out until the end," says Jongin. "Like... it was staring at you the whole time, but you only really realized it when you looked back on it. ‘Oh, is that what this was about?'"
"When things stare at me for long periods of time," Taemin says, "I close my curtains and call the police."
"You're not helpful." Jongin slumps onto the couch next to Taemin, cradling his phone as he waits for Chanyeol's reply. See you there, Jonginnie ♡
"What do you want from me? I'm a dancer. I don't write novels. That's what you do." Taemin smiles, and shoves a piece of pork into Jongin's mouth. "Go to Paris, have a blast, come up with some amazing idea while you're there that blows everyone out of the water again."
"Is that a vote of confidence?" Jongin asks, and Taemin chuckles.
"Well," Taemin says, "We've been friends since we were twelve, and you haven't choked yet at this novel thing."
"Gee, thanks," Jongin says, but he does feel a little better. "Don't eat all my food."
"We can always order more."
❦ ❦ ❦
"It seems to me," Lu Han had said, when Jongin had showed him the first bit of a draft, "that you're writing a love story."
"It's not a love story," Jongin had said. "It's a story where there's love, but then there isn't, and she has to keep going on despite that."
"The professor she meets, in the second section. She's totally going to fall in love with him."
"No, she totally isn't. That's not why he's there."
"Why is he there, then?" Lu Han had asked, genuinely curious, and Jongin had bitten his lip.
"I'm not sure yet. When I figure that out, I'll let you know."
"It's just like your real life, Jonginnie," Lu Han had said, and Jongin had scowled at him until Lu Han reached over and ruffled his hair. "All the pieces are there, but you…"
"Yeah, yeah." Jongin had shrugged away from Lu Han's touch. "Never mind."
Jongin had lain awake that night, though, contemplating what he wanted this story to say, and all he could think about was that, at the end, Hyejeong would be doing what she loved, but there would always be a missing piece of her heart.
Jongin wonders if Joonmyun is right, and Hyejeong is Jongin, looking down the road at a future that will never be quite as full as everyone else's.
❦ ❦ ❦
"I'm always early for you," Chanyeol says, and then his smile gets broader when he looks down. "You're wearing the scarf I gave you."
"It's winter." Jongin flushes slightly under the scrutiny. "It's not a big deal."
"I like it when you wear the things I give you," Chanyeol says. "It makes me all warm and fuzzy."
"Stop making it weird," Jongin replies, and Chanyeol laughs before shaking the Bandi & Luni's bag in his left hand. He opens it and pulls out the contents for Jongin's inspection.
"It looks like you've got another bestseller," Chanyeol says, holding Jongin's new book, shiny cover fresh from the packing box. "It was a struggle to find a bookstore that wasn't sold out of every single copy. I bet it's because your picture's on the inside flap."
"Shut the hell up, Chanyeol." Jongin has never let Chanyeol have an ARC, and never let him read anything he's writing early. He doesn't know why. Maybe because it's tradition, for Chanyeol to go out and buy it on the day it comes out, and Jongin likes their traditions. More likely, it's that Jongin wants what Chanyeol sees to be the perfect final draft, because Chanyeol, of all his friends, has the most discerning taste in literature, and Jongin wants to put his best foot forward, every single time. He wants Chanyeol to love his novels because they're good, not because Jongin wrote them. "Have you started it yet?"
"I'll have to wait until I'm in the mood," Chanyeol says, laughing. "They always leave me a little teary-eyed."
"You get teary-eyed when you watch other people get hurt in dramas, Chanyeol." He smiles to soften it, and Chanyeol beams back at him. "Don't pretend that compliment means anything. I bet you say that to all the writers you know."
"But I'm not their biggest fan." He puts the book back into his bag and leans forward to drag Jongin into a hug. Jongin's face mashes into his neck, and he gets a hint of a new aftershave. Chanyeol hugs too hard, so Jongin hits his back as a warning to let go, and then shoves him off. "Not like I'm yours." Jongin takes a deep breath as Chanyeol throws an arm over his shoulder and leads him toward the coffee shop.
"I don't know," Jongin says. "Some of those girls lined up overnight at my last signing. You might have some competition for that spot."
Chanyeol rolls his eyes as he picks up a tray, starting to fill it with sweets and breads. "Nah," he says. "I've had the biggest fan position on lock since second year of university." He laughs, catching too much attention, and Jongin picks up his own tray, moving away so he'll stop picking up hints of Chanyeol's new scent.
"Did you change brands?" Jongin asks. "Of aftershave, I mean." He keeps his gaze resolutely focused on the two pastries in front of him.
"You noticed?" Chanyeol's voice is warm honey with pleasure, and Jongin flicks his gaze to the menu, ordering a caffè latte as they move down the line toward the register.
"When you hugged me," Jongin mumbles. "It was different from last week."
"I ran out, so I'm finally using the stuff Kyungsoo gave me for that gift exchange last year." Chanyeol shrugs. "I kind of like it. Do you?"
"Doesn't matter if I like it," Jongin says. "Smell like whatever you want." He fumbles for his wallet, but Chanyeol shakes his head and pays the cashier for both of them. He nudges Jongin with his elbow toward their usual table, and Jongin follows.
"How's work?" Jongin asks, expecting Chanyeol to start overflowing like a man-made lake in rainy season with research anecdotes, but Chanyeol shrugs.
"It's all right," he says. "We're working on something new. It's sort of a secret."
"Sounds dangerous," Jongin says, frowning. He wishes he had a pen. Drawing on Chanyeol's receipt would give him something to do with his hands, and Chanyeol saves his receipts and records all his purchases in spreadsheets so it would be something for him to laugh at, later.
"Aw, Jonginnie, are you worried about me?" Chanyeol taps the toe of his shoe against Jongin's under the table. "It's not dangerous. Not really, anyway. It's just a new procedure that will make life easier for a lot of people."
"I'm not worried about you," Jongin says. "You've always been able to take care of yourself. You're the genius, not me."
"Only one of the people at this table is famous, though, and it's not me~" He says it as though he's singing, and Jongin kicks him, laughing anyway because Chanyeol is silly and cute. That's why Jongin has kept him, all these years. That, and Chanyeol's unwavering devotion to meeting every Thursday and hugging Jongin hard enough to break bones, that had led to texting everyday and a friendship that sometimes feels like the closest one he has.
Jongin rolls his eyes, because Chanyeol's face had been plastered all over the internet news trends when he'd made key strides in treatment as the member of an Alzheimer's research team only a year and a half out of medical school overseas. "Everything you say is stupid. I was wrong. You're not a genius."
"Don't be mean to me, Jongin." Chanyeol gives him a big lopsided grin.
They chat about inconsequential things, like Jongin's agent's baby, and the new apartment Chanyeol is buying, closer to his job and coincidentally further away from Jongin. "That's too far for me to drop in on my way back from Joonmyun's," Jongin complains, and Chanyeol's whole face lights up. Jongin's heart squeezes.
"It's a big place," Chanyeol says, "but it's nice. The neighborhood can't be beat, and it's not like I can't afford it." He chuckles. "Not like I spend money on anything else. And it has a really nice kitchen."
"I've been thinking about moving," Jongin says. "My neighbors are so loud."
"You should move in with me," Chanyeol says. "I'll have the space."
"There are such things as leasing contracts, Park Chanyeol." Jongin watches as Chanyeol stares at his coffee, swirling it around and debating with himself over more sugar. He's so transparent, sometimes. "I have one on my current place."
"So buy out of it," Chanyeol says. "What could be more fun than living with me?" Jongin leans back in his chair and eats to avoid saying anything sharp, like how Chanyeol never keeps his voice down when he sings along with his guitar or how Chanyeol is they kind of guy to bring home stray animals and people without warning, or how Jongin writes best in absolute solitude and Chanyeol makes solitude impossible with the way he crawls into Jongin's space with the constant hugging.
"I can't move right now," Jongin says. "I'm going away for a while."
"On a trip," Jongin says. "Research for my new novel."
Chanyeol crosses his arms. "A trip? Since when?"
"Since three days ago. I meant to tell you. I'm going to Paris."
"Paris?" Chanyeol sighs. "I want to go to Paris."
"You'd only go if you found magical coupons that said fifty percent off for the airfare."
"That's probably true, but I'd go if you were going." He frowns. "And you are going. I'm jealous." He licks his lips and then does this goofy thing with his eyebrows, wiggling them playfully. "Any hints on what you're working on right now?"
"No," Jongin says. "But, well… I am going to Paris."
"That doesn't mean you're writing about it." He suddenly reaches across the table and wipes Jongin's lower lip, pulling back with pastry cream on his thumb. "If you are, I guess that's a good enough reason to go on such short notice."
"Can't write about somewhere you've never been, right?"
"I'm not so sure about that," Chanyeol says. "After all, people write about space."
"That's fantasy, Chanyeol." Jongin sighs.
"And on a metaphorical level, you write romance novels, and you claim you no longer believe in love."
"That's not true." Jongin scrapes at the bit of pastry that sticks to his tray. It's sticky caramel, that Chanyeol likes and Jongin only tolerates. He's not sure why he got it, when he knew Chanyeol was only going to eat it off his plate. It isn't like Chanyeol doesn't have his own tray of pastries. It could be that buying pastries he won't eat is a tradition now too. "I just don't think I'm meant for it."
"That's because you're stubborn." Chanyeol smiles at him, softer this time. "Don't worry, it's one of your good qualities. I wish you didn't feel that way, though."
"I know, I know, I've heard it all before." Jongin shrugs. "The point is, I'll be gone, and after that, I'll still have the lease on my place. Find someone else to take the extra room in your apartment."
"Or I could just wait for you to come back," Chanyeol says. He's playing with the stirrer, the cap of his coffee long since abandoned and now making an extra large hockey puck for him to slide across his tray. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather live with than you. How long are you going to be gone?"
Ah, and there it is; he's been waiting for it. That familiar lurch in his gut that Jongin thinks is guilt. Sometimes it leaves him feeling flushed, too, especially under the full weight of Chanyeol's stare. He thinks about Sehun yesterday, over lunch. What does Chanyeol-hyung think of your determination never to fall in love again? and he swallows. He can pretend as much as he wants to that he doesn't know, but then he's lying to everyone, and most of all himself.
Suddenly, it seems like too much to bear, the weight of ignoring it and ignoring it, and Jongin thinks he should maybe... He grips the end of his scarf and kneads it between anxious fingers.
"I'll be gone for a month, Chanyeol."
Chanyeol's lips part in shock. "A month?" He looks down at his tray. "I'll miss you a lot." His thumb drags along the tray’s edge. "What will I do with my unlimited texting plan?"
"Besides, I don't think that's such a good idea," Jongin says, finally, fingering the scarf around his neck. It sort of smells like Chanyeol, which is odd, because though it hadn’t had tags when he'd gotten it, he’d known it was new. "Us living together, I mean."
"Why not?" Chanyeol asks, eyes shiny and lips split in his familiar uneven grin. "I already know everything terrible about you, and I practically live with you during your deadlines anyway. You have nothing to hide. I have seen you at your worst, and you know I make great seafood stew."
Jongin clutches at the pocket on the front of his hoodie, staring at his coffee instead of at Chanyeol. It's starting to get cold. He takes a deep, calming breath. "Because living together might mean something to you that I don't want it to mean, hyung."
He looks up just in time to see Chanyeol's lovely smile slip from his face, eyes shuttering. Jongin buries his nose in the scarf, and wishes he could close his eyes and make himself disappear.
"Oh," says Chanyeol, and Jongin winces. "I…" His voice is so unsteady, and Jongin watches him with horror as he tries to moderate it.
"Yeah," he says. "I just don't want to… I don't know. It just seems like a bad idea."
"It doesn't have to be," Chanyeol says, too late to sound as careless as he tries to make it. "It doesn't have to mean something. Anything, really. I just thought it would be fun."
Jongin isn't oblivious. He knows that Chanyeol, well, likes him. Has liked him for a long time, maybe even since they'd met, Jongin stumbling his way through college by the skin of his teeth as Chanyeol basked in the glow of still being a big fish, even in a really big pond. Eight years is a long time to be liked and never notice, even if for a few of those years they'd lived on opposite sides of the world. Jongin did not become an author because he's unobservant.
When Chanyeol touches Jongin's elbow to get his attention, or stares at him for just a moment too long, it would be impossible not to notice.
"Maybe it would be better if you found someone else to share your place with," Jongin says, stomach twisting. "That's all."
Chanyeol's shoulders hunch forward, and Jongin watches him surreptitiously, his face tilted down toward the table. It's amazing, sometimes, to watch the way Chanyeol forces his shoulders back, and makes himself grin. Jongin can't do that. When he's upset, it's like there's a dark raincloud following him around, but Park Chanyeol just makes his own sunshine. It's one of the reasons Jongin always wants Chanyeol around.
He's not making any sunshine right now.
"I always figured you knew," he says. "That I…" He laughs, dryer than usual. "I sort of thought you would have shut me down a long time ago, but you never did."
"I thought you would get over it," Jongin admits. "So I'd never have to. Sometimes…" He swallows. "Sometimes I thought maybe I was being arrogant, and I had it all wrong. It's not like I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it's not like you aren't popular enough with other people." There's that woman, Jongin thinks, at Chanyeol's lab, who gives Jongin a searching look every time he drops by unannounced for lunch and watches after them longingly, and the woman at the stationery store that they always drop by when either of them needs a new specialty pen. Jongin is sure there are men like that, too. Men that are better for Chanyeol than Jongin is. "Plus, you know I'm not--"
It's the line he's memorized by rote. Jongin isn't looking for a relationship. The words get stuck. Chanyeol deserves better than a line, but Jongin hadn't expected to talk about this today, and his words are always better when he writes them down.
Chanyeol shrugs, everything about him reading casual except the hand that shakes holding his cardboard coffee cup. "You're not as easy to get over as you think you are." He takes a sip of his coffee, and Jongin swallows again. "I'm not… expecting anything from you, Jongin. I'm your friend, that's it, I know that." Chanyeol shakes his hair, and the dark strands catch on his ears. "I didn't stick around because I wanted more from you; I stuck around because your friendship means a lot to me."
"Okay," Jongin says. "I… It's only ever going to be like that, Chanyeol. I'm sorry, if I…"
This was supposed to make Jongin feel better, but it doesn't. Instead he just feels horrible, and he can't stand the look on Chanyeol's face: It's the fake one Jongin remembers from that one party in college, when some guy on Chanyeol's basketball team had called him a fag, and Chanyeol had pretended it didn't bother him at all. It's the fake one that means Chanyeol doesn't want sympathy, or pity, but he's hurting, and Jongin hates that it's him who’s put that look on Chanyeol's face this time.
"No, no," Chanyeol says. "It's not your fault, Jongin. I'm just…" Chanyeol's eyes are a little wet, Jongin notes, and he shivers. "You've never even said you were into men. I never assumed… I mean, I always knew it was one-sided, especially since…" The corners of his mouth pull down again. "It's just harder hearing it than I thought it would be." He makes a show of looking down at his watch, an exaggerated motion that wouldn't even have fooled a stranger. "I've got to go back to the lab. Our annual conference is only a few months away, you know, and... We're about to make a breakthrough, so we're all putting in extra hours. I’ll probably be too busy to hang out much, anyway. I won't even see my bed." His Adam's apple bobs. "I'll see you next Thursday?"
"I'll be gone," Jongin says softly. "On my trip, remember?" Chanyeol's mind is a trap, and the fact that he's rambling means that mind is somewhere else.
"Right," Chanyeol says. "Right, yes, of course. I'll see you when you get back, then." He grins again, but Jongin can see right through it. "You can come check out my new place with Kyungsoo."
"Sure," Jongin says. "I'm sure I'll see you as soon as I get back."
"Great!" Chanyeol says. There's caramel from Jongin's pastry at the corner of his mouth. "Bye, then. I'll let you know what I think of your novel! You can sign it for me, then, right?"
Jongin thinks he should maybe say something-- another apology, a plea for Chanyeol to still be up for coffee at midnight before deadlines when he gets back— but Chanyeol is gone, not having waited for an answer, and Jongin is left to clean up both trays as Chanyeol disappears into the night.
Don't worry, Chanyeol texts him, ten minutes later, in perfect grammar with perfect punctuation, I'll be sure to get over you by the time you get back.
i'm sorry, Jongin types back, i shouldn't have said anything and ruined it, right? and Chanyeol, for the first time in a long time, doesn't reply to Jongin's text at all.
❦ ❦ ❦
"If you hadn't fucked with Chanyeol's feelings, I wouldn't be doing this."
"I'm trying not to fuck with his feelings," Jongin says, kicking at the dash. Kyungsoo looks ready to pull off the road.
"If you kick my car again, Kim Jongin, I will throw you in the fucking Han river with lead weights on your ankles and watch you drown. It is too fucking early in the morning, do not test me."
"Where would you get the lead weights?" Jongin mumbles.
Kyungsoo honks at another driver before he hisses "you don't know what I keep in my trunk" at Jongin, and turns up the radio.
A few minutes later, when he's more awake, Jongin dares to turn the radio back down, and Kyungsoo heaves an expectant sigh. "What is it, Jongin?"
"How do I fix this?"
"What is there to fix?" Kyungsoo says. "Just give him some space. He's Chanyeol. He's hopelessly devoted to you, like that dog from Up or something, and he's never going to give up your friendship because of this."
"You didn't see his face," Jongin says. "It was…"
"I did, actually," says Kyungsoo. "Baekhyun and I spent the night at his place. With sleeping bags and soju. Baekhyun and I talked a lot of shit about you, but Chanyeol is, as you know, your biggest fan."
The soju explains most of Kyungsoo's mood. He's glad Chanyeol had someone to talk to, though. Jongin had spent the night alone, face buried in his pillow, trying to forget the wet sheen of Chanyeol's eyes. He'd checked his phone, too, but Chanyeol hadn't texted him, not even by two AM, which is when Chanyeol usually sends him silly, half-lucid texts about some new rock artist he found on one of his late night forum searches.
He rubs his hands on his jeans and looks out the window.
"Do you think I'm cruel?"
"It's isn't cruel not to return someone's feelings, Jongin. No one blames you for that, not even Chanyeol. Especially not Chanyeol." Kyungsoo gives him a side eye.
"Then why do I feel like I was cruel?"
Kyungsoo seems to think about it carefully, his expression guarded, like he's trying to be less blunt than usual. "Honestly?"
"Yeah," says Jongin, "honestly." He braces himself.
"Cruel isn't the word I'd use." Kyungsoo leans back stretching while keeping his eyes on the road. "I think that, because you care about him so much, you don't like the guilt that comes along with knowing you hurt him, even if it's not your fault."
"Yeah." He blinks. "That… makes sense?" It does make sense, but Jongin's not sure it explains the complicated mess inside him right now.
"Does it?" Sucking on his lower lip, Kyungsoo hesitates. "May I ask you a personal question?"
"Are you going to throw me in the Han if I say no?" Jongin says, trying to laugh but not quite succeeding.
"You know you're wearing the scarf Chanyeol gave you again, right? You've been wearing it every day since you got it."
"I like it," Jongin says. "I'm allowed to like a gift I was given."
"You smell it, sometimes, when you aren't paying attention," Kyungsoo says. "Did you know that?"
"It smells like Chanyeol," says Jongin. "I can't figure out why."
"He made it," says Kyungsoo. "He knit it for you. Of course it smells like him."
"That's—" Jongin hadn't known that, but it makes sense. Chanyeol's good at that stuff. It's weird, to imagine Chanyeol knitting this scarf for Jongin between whatever wild experiments he gets up to in his lab, hair pushed back from his face with his glasses and all of his posters of outer space on the walls behind him. It's an adorable image, and despite everything, it makes Jongin smile.
"It's not just the scarf," Kyungsoo says, with frustration, and Jongin returns his focus to his friend. He hopes Kyungsoo doesn't drive them off the road. "It's about the mug he gave you on your 'friendship anniversary' that you never let anyone else use, and the fact that he keeps a toothbrush at your house so he can sleep over when you have deadlines, because you can't write without his presence when you're stressed." Jongin's eyes widen. "It's about the fact that you hold his hand at the movies, and text him every day so you know how his day has been. Don't you get it?"
"You don't understand," Jongin says. His voice sounds so small, but he doesn't know how to make it louder.
No one really understands, but Jongin doesn't expect them to, not when it's so twisted up and complicated in his own mind that he doesn't understand it himself.
"I'll believe you if you say that all you want from Chanyeol is friendship," Kyungsoo says. "No one can tell you what you're supposed to feel, Jongin. I'm just saying that if that's true, you should have been more up front with Chanyeol, when you realized how he still felt about you. He wasn't going to go anywhere, and you know it. He didn't go anywhere the entire time you were with Soojung, did he? He stayed, because he cares about you as a person, Jongin. You're one of his favorite people. But you should have let his heart go if you didn't want it."
"How was I supposed to do that?" Jongin asks, but it's mostly rhetorical.
"I think you know," says Kyungsoo, answering anyway.
A terrible silence descends between them, as Jongin searches for the right thing to say. Kyungsoo has never had a problem, like the one Jongin does, of finding exactly the right words to say to get to the heart of the matter. Kyungsoo has definitely gotten right at Jongin's heart, too, slicing him open and stabbing him with the horrible truth.
"Maybe I do," says Jongin.
"I'm still not so sure, though," says Kyungsoo, "that you don't..." He trails off, and Jongin lets the conversation die, knowing better than to push with Kyungsoo.
For a while, they just listen to the music, Jongin doing his best to untangle his thoughts as Kyungsoo drives.
"I thought he would drive me to the airport today," Jongin says, eventually, turning away from the window. "And I could talk to him again, face to face, before I left for a month, you know?"
Kyungsoo puts on his blinker to switch lanes as they drive across the gray landfill of sludge and ice leading to Incheon Airport. "I wouldn't let him do it," he says, after a long silence. "My word is law. I'll let him pick you up, though."
"Okay," says Jongin. "I'm… I'm sorry. I know this is a mess for all of our mutual friends, and I don't know why I chose now to do this, only I started thinking and then talking and I couldn't stop--"
"It's because you knew you were leaving, and the selfish part of you wanted to run away from the consequences." Kyungsoo shrugs. "It's understandable. All people are selfish, even sweet guys like you." He drives steadily forward, a little faster on the long straight stretch of the bridge. "But we should try harder not to be selfish with the people we're closest to, don't you think?"
"I know that," Jongin says. "I do."
"Good," Kyungsoo says. "Try to remember it, then."
Kyungsoo leaves him at the check-in with his two suitcases and his carry-on duffel. Chanyeol would have stayed and talked to Jongin until he'd had to go through security, but Kyungsoo is not Chanyeol. No one is Chanyeol.
Pulling out his phone, Jongin sends Chanyeol a text: you'd better not be too hungover.
There's no response, so he writes another. staying under the name kim jongin at hôtel le bristol if you ever want to talk He spells the French name carefully using Roman letters, and then sends it, turning his phone off and scrubbing his face with his hands.
"Kim Jongin leaves a mess in Seoul and escapes to France," he narrates under his breath, like the start of one of his books, and then his check-in desk opens, so he grabs his suitcases and joins the line, ignoring the strange look from the woman who'd been sitting across from him as he waited.
❦ ❦ ❦
Sehun's first e-mail is a website. 'Things for the solo traveler to do in Paris'. Sehun has written the comment a guide for losers in the subject line, and Jongin chuckles as he adjusts the weight of his carry-on bag, waiting for his luggage to come out on the belt.
The second e-mail from Sehun turns out to be from Zitao, wishing him a great vacation, and Jongin smiles.
The e-mail from Kris, Chanyeol’s friend from college who lives in London, is unexpected. Chanyeol mentioned you'd be in Paris. It's not a long train ride for me, so let me know if you'd like a friend to spend the day with.
Jongin smoothes his thumb over Chanyeol's name and sighs, because Chanyeol always... That might be nice, he writes back, and his chest is tight.
❦ ❦ ❦
On the third day, Jongin gets out of bed and stays out. He showers, washing his hair and his face, and puts on his warm winter sweater and a pair of shoes good for walking.
He downloads a bunch of maps to his phone using the hotel Wi-Fi, of the main streets he mentions in his novel, and starts to walk.
Paris is gorgeous.
Jongin had chosen to set it here because he'd wanted Hyejeong to be out of her comfort zone and forced to think about tough things. He knows from experience that it's all too easy to avoid the harder thoughts when you can bury them in routine. That's what dancing had been for him, that last year of college. Dancing, and midnight dinners with Chanyeol and Sehun, and Taemin dropping by every Saturday to make sure he was still alive. He needs to strip all of that away from Hyejeong, and leave her with nothing, so she'll have no choice but to confront her inner demons.
Walking down the streets, dropping into coffee shops and bookshops and buying crêpes from rather questionable street vendors, Jongin gets lost in the atmosphere. Paris is nothing like Seoul, and everything is new. He drinks up the sights with his eyes, and for a precious few hours, it all feels like a dream. He has never minded traveling alone, and it's refreshing to know he has all the time in the world.
Later, though, as he looks up at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, with its gold-lined windows to match the gold lettering above the entrance, he thinks he might want to come with someone to Paris one day. To ask someone else what they think of the architecture, or if they've puzzled out the word for bakery in French. (All Jongin has managed is that it starts with a ‘B')
Soojung had talked a lot about Paris, when she and Jongin had first started dating. "We should go one day," she'd said, and she'd smiled up at him with one of her small, understated smiles, tucking her hand into his. "The City of Lovers."
"One day," Jongin had said, "I'm going to write a book about Paris. Just for you."
"You keep saying you're going to write a book," Soojung had tossed her hair back over her shoulder. Her eyes had been playful even as she’d kept her expression more stern. "You should hurry up and do it."
"These things take time."
"Yes," Soojung had said imperiously. "But I don't want to wait years and years for my present."
"On the other hand," Jongin had mumbled, pressing his nose into Soojung's hair as he hugged her from behind, embarrassed and pleased and kind of sappy, "isn't it nice that we have years and years?"
Soojung had spun in his arms and given him an unimpressed glare that made him laugh, then. She'd always been good at saying so much with so few words.
And, well, now...
Jongin is different now. More grown up. Still, he thinks he might like to bring Chanyeol here someday, when things are better again. He bets Chanyeol would look up a million random facts about the architects who built every building they passed, and tell them to Jongin one by one just to see his annoyed reactions. He would take so many pictures with his phone that, later, Jongin would have to steal it away from him and delete all the ones where the camera is pointed right up his nose, and he'd have printed out detailed maps, drawing little flags everywhere Jongin had said, even in only the briefest mention, that he wanted to see.
It wouldn't be as peaceful, but Jongin would love it anyway.
He goes back to the hotel around six, as the sun starts to set over the Seine, and picks up the last of the day's bread as he passes a bakery, fumbling with a few words of French he'd memorized on the plane. (Thank you and Delicious and Please) When he gets to his room, he lies down across the chaise longue and looks out his window at the city. Paris at sunset is gorgeous, even in the winter, and this, he decides, will go into his novel.
Jongin doesn't even notice that the hotel phone is ringing at first. Only it keeps ringing, so he rolls off the chaise longue, and walks over to the bedside table. He picks up the phone and holds it up to his ear, hoping he isn't going to be expected to produce any semblance of French with a member of the hotel management.
"Jonginnie?" He'd been drowsy, but at the sound of Chanyeol's voice, he's suddenly wide awake.
"Were you expecting someone else?"
"No, of course not." Chanyeol laughs, clumsy and thick, and Jongin winds the old-fashioned white plastic cord of the phone around his finger. "But I wasn't expecting you."
"Baekhyun confiscated my phone," Chanyeol says. "He told me I needed distance and perspective. I told him you were in France, and that I've never had very good perspective." He giggles, and Jongin's whole heart unshrivels at it.
"Are you drunk?" Jongin asks, and Chanyeol's hiccup is answer enough.
"I'm sorry I didn't drive you to the airport," Chanyeol slurs, and Jongin smiles. He can imagine Chanyeol worrying about that, rolled up in a ball on the center of his bed, socked toes curled under as he wallows in guilt.
It reminds Jongin, all over again, of why Chanyeol hadn't driven him to the airport. "I understand," he says.
"How's your hotel?"
"You'd hate it," Jongin says. "It's huge and overpriced and I was just taking a nap on a extra long chair with gold-plated arm rests. There's even a courtyard."
"So wasteful without me, Jonginnie," Chanyeol says. The sound of his voice is like home, and if Jongin let him, Chanyeol would talk him to sleep like this, soft-voiced and tipsy and one-hundred percent focused on everything Jongin says. "There was a study, you know, that people only need four square meters of personal space to live a happy life."
"Is that true?" Jongin holds the phone closer to his ear. "That sounds like made up science stuff."
"So you should trust me," Chanyeol says. "I'm the scientist, after all."
"You study how neural something-or-others work," Jongin says. "Not behavior."
"I study a lot of things. A lot of really important things."
"Not like me, right?"
"Novels are important. You know I think so."
"Well, I needed lots of space to write my very important novel," Jongin says with a laugh.
"You just wanted to have a bunch of different things to fall asleep on, right?" Chanyeol clicks his teeth. "I bet you slept your whole first day away without me there to wake you up." He burps unattractively, and Jongin, with a start, realizes Chanyeol is still drinking. "Or was it the first two?"
"Hey," Jongin says, "Chanyeol-hyung?"
"What is it, Jongin?"
"Next time, you should... come with me," says Jongin. "To Paris. We can stay in a hostel and take pictures of every tourist trap there is. It'll be like the time we went to Beijing."
Chanyeol goes so quiet, and Jongin holds his breath until Chanyeol speaks again.
"I can't do this right now." Chanyeol gives a ragged sigh. "Not even the alcohol helps, after all."
Jongin holds on to all his breath for a moment, then lets it go all at once. "I'm… I'm sorry."
"You shouldn't be sorry," Chanyeol says. "We don't choose who we like." He laughs, but it's a shadow of the laugh Jongin likes, the loud one that rings in Jongin's ears long after Chanyeol's moved on to something else.
"That's what Kyungsoo-hyung said."
"He's right," Chanyeol says. "Secretly, though, I always thought there was a chance you might feel..."
Chanyeol's smile. Chanyeol's fingers plucking at his guitar. Chanyeol's broad shoulders and pretty eyes and laugh that makes Jongin feel like a Seoul July because it's so warm.
There's so much to like that Jongin would be silly not to have noticed. He's always noticed, even when he and Chanyeol were just mutual friends of Sehun who only saw each other in passing when they accidentally crossed paths.
"Chanyeol…" Jongin presses the hotel phone to his ear, trying to hear more, and wondering what to say. "Hyung, I can't, not when…"
"Sometimes," Chanyeol says, "we see only what we want to see." He laughs again, and it's the ugliest sound. Jongin looks at his bare toes so he doesn't have to focus on the hollowness in Chanyeol's tone. "It's no surprise that I wanted to see you being in love with me. That isn't on you, you know that."
Jongin cannot absolve himself as easily as Chanyeol has. He knew Chanyeol liked him, but he didn't want anything to change. He knew telling Chanyeol that he was aware of his feelings meant Chanyeol would want to take some time away to get over him, and Jongin could only imagine how lonely his Thursdays would be, without Chanyeol's bright smiles, and how much he'd miss discussing new episodes of their favorite shows on Saturday mornings.
He'd mostly been afraid that Chanyeol would find someone new to like, and that he'd be left all alone, with only his memories to keep him company.
Jongin's bad memories outnumber the good ones.
Jongin hates that he'd felt, still feels, that way. He's been selfish, and dragged it on and on, and now Chanyeol is drunk and calling him long distance in Paris, trying to pretend that his feelings don't matter when they do.
"You're a dolt," Jongin says. "I'm not sorry for not…" Stumble, tongue tripping over itself. "I'm not sorry for not liking you, hyung. That's not why I'm apologizing. I'm sorry for not being direct with you. For being selfish. For ignoring your feelings for as long as I could. You should be mad at me."
"I tried," Chanyeol says, so quiet that Jongin strains to hear. "But it's very hard to be mad at you. Almost as hard as it is to get over you." He chuckles. "I really am sorry that I've made everything complicated with my feelings."
"You're one of my best friends," says Jongin, urgently. "You're very important to me."
"I know," says Chanyeol. "It's just, I've been in love with you for forever, Jongin, and even talking to you right now is breaking my heart."
Jongin clenches his free hand around his blankets, feeling lost and unsure. Sober Chanyeol never would have said that, but it doesn't mean Jongin can't feel the truth of it in every raspy word he speaks. "You should go to bed, Chanyeol."
"You're right," Chanyeol says. "We're almost finished that project at work." He hiccups again, and Jongin can see, clearly, in his head, the red in Chanyeol's cheeks. Chanyeol always leans on Jongin, when he's drunk, his long limbs folding onto and around Jongin any way they can. "I can't tell you about it just yet, Jongin, but it's going to change lives."
"Sleep," Jongin says again, and Chanyeol sighs.
"I will." He pauses, and Jongin hears the sharp intake of breath. "Can I…"
"Can you what?"
"I know it's cowardly, because we're on the phone, and that it's expensive, because it's long distance, and that I'm probably unintelligible, because I've had two bottles of soju all by myself after Baekhyun brought them over…"
"What is it, hyung?"
"I realized I never actually confessed to you," says Chanyeol, and Jongin closes his eyes. "I just sort of let you fill in the blanks, and maybe that's why it doesn't feel right, that you know."
Jongin grips the phone too tightly. There's an itch at the small of his back, and his lips are chapped. His stomach is tied up in a hundred tiny knots, or maybe it's folded up into a thousand of those tiny paper cranes Chanyeol makes out of the used Post-its that his research assistant throws into the recycling. "Okay."
"Jongin," Chanyeol says, his voice low and wobbly. "I love you. I love the way you make fun of me. I love how shy you can be, and your laugh, and the way you draw tiny cartoons on all your receipts from the grocery store and leave them around your apartment. I love the way you buy that pastry that you don't even like because you know I'm going to eat it off your plate, and I love—" he chokes on his words, and Jongin wants to hug him, and feel Chanyeol's heavy head resting on his shoulder. "I love the way you write, Kim Jongin, I love it so much… I love everything about you. Everything."
It scares Jongin, how much the words make him feel like he's melting. How much he wants to take all the sadness in Chanyeol's voice and make it go somewhere far away, where Jongin never has to hear it again. "I…"
"That's all," says Chanyeol, low and melancholy. "I just needed to say it once. I'll never say it again, I promise."
"Okay," Jongin replies, lost and aching and wanting to hold Chanyeol's hand. "I wish..." Jongin wishes a lot of things. It doesn't really matter, in the end.
"Goodnight," says Chanyeol. "Or good afternoon in Paris, I guess." He laughs. It makes Jongin feel cold. "And au revoir."
"That's goodbye," says Jongin.
"No," corrects Chanyeol. "It means 'until we see each other again'."
"You're a know-it-all, sometimes, Park." He waits for a rebuttal. Instead of a reply, there's the dial tone.
Jongin lies back in his hotel bed, staring at the ceiling for a long time before he picks himself up, puts his shoes on without socks, and goes back out into the cold in search of inspiration, but only finds Chanyeol's voice, repeating I love you over and over again in his head.
❦ ❦ ❦
He has more fun at the ballets.
He scrawls letters to his mom, and sends postcards to his sisters. He sends a postcard to Sooyeon, too, and writes for Soojung in the blank spot where he'd written messages on the others. He calls Taemin on a Sunday to check on how his dogs are doing, because if he asks his mom she'll laugh at him, and he already has enough trouble with getting her to see him as an adult instead of the kid he was when he was eighteen that he doesn't want to remind her that some things haven't changed.
He takes pictures. A lot of them.
He goes on a cruise of the Seine at night, and sees the Moulin Rouge. He eats fresh baked meringue cookies right out the oven in a small shop that had almost disappeared into the two buildings on either side of it. He buys comic books in French that he can't read, and laughs at them regardless because the art is so visually descriptive that he knows exactly what's happening anyway.
Most importantly, after he's exhausted the list Sehun gave him, he writes.
He finds coffee shops and orders cup after cup as he fleshes out scenes that had previously seemed hazy into scenes that come to life with actual Parisian flair, and he describes the way the stone of the building and the smell of the air (baking bread, buses, cigarettes, coffee), feeling authenticity seep into his manuscript.
Hyejeong seems to sparkle more as a character in this draft, too, her fears and discomforts becoming more tangible as Jongin's understanding of displacement crystalizes, his lack of English and French making even small tasks arduous.
And in the midst of it all, there's Chanyeol, or the lack of Chanyeol. Jongin has caught himself opening blank e-mail drafts and writing a few lines (hey, chanyeol, today i went to the louvre, and i guess i'd better stick to thinking about dance, because without you i kinda just looked around at all the pictures and tried to decide how much everyone looked like taemin on a scale of one to ten or chanyeol, honestly, you'd hate how much i paid for five cups of coffee today or this scarf is so warm, you could leave research and go full time into scarf making) before remembering that Chanyeol maybe doesn't want to hear from Jongin just yet.
❦ ❦ ❦
"Long time no see," Jongin says, as Kris's serious expression breaks into a silly, open smile. He pulls Jongin into a hug and pats his back, and Jongin lets him. It has been a long time. Kris and Chanyeol had been friends back in college, on the same basketball team. They'd both been outcasts of a sort, Kris with his awkward Korean and more awkward mannerisms, and Chanyeol… They'd bonded, and Jongin had been glad Chanyeol had someone to watch his back at practice. Then they'd adopted Zitao, too, and Chanyeol hadn't wanted to quit the basketball team anymore.
"It's been, what, three years?" Kris replies, opening the glass door leading in and gesturing for Jongin to precede him. "Since I went to visit Chanyeol and Zitao in Seoul?"
"That sounds about right," Jongin says. Kris orders drinks for them both, much more at ease speaking English than Jongin has ever seen him in Seoul. "Thank you for coming all the way out here. I know I've been pretty bad about keeping in touch."
"I've been bad about it, too." Kris undoes his coat. "I can't believe I had to hear you were coming from Chanyeol."
"Yeah, sorry about that. You didn't have to come, you know?"
"It's a nice day trip," says Kris. "And so inexpensive on the train. Chanyeol said that you probably hadn't planned your itinerary too well, and you'd be needing something to do right now."
"He's sorta right," says Jongin. "Everything was all really last minute, hyung. I only really came here to write, so the tourism things are just coming as I need them."
"This is a big city in terms of things to do," Kris says. "The first time I came here, I was so overwhelmed."
"I have a whole month." Jongin takes a sip out of his water glass as a man in a crisp black uniform pours them wine that he'll probably only have a couple of sips of. "I think I'll see everything I have to."
Kris laughs. "You think that," he says, "then suddenly there's only one day left of your trip and you're scrambling to see seven things at the last minute." He smiles, eyes squinting unevenly and dyed blond hair falling into his face, and he picks up his own water glass with a hand covered in rings.
"London must suit you," Jongin says. "You seem happier."
"I prefer most things about it. I mean, I miss the friends I made in Korea, and I miss home, still, too, but at least in London I speak English every day, and my job is as enjoyable as a job in bank consulting is ever going to be." Kris laughs. "You look happy, too, Jongin. Being a novelist must suit you."
"The travel is nice," he says. "Can't beat the hours, either."
"I'm trying to read your latest," Kris says, "but it's a bit over my head, language-wise." He shakes his head. "Chanyeol said he hadn't read it yet, which surprises me. He always reads them when they come out, even when he's busy with work."
Jongin's throat goes dry, and he looks down at his plate. "He probably doesn't want much to do with me, right now."
Kris's thick eyebrows lift questioningly, but their waiter chooses then to ask for their lunch orders, and Jongin fumbles over a bunch of unfamiliar words to order some baked chicken dish with mushrooms.
When the waiter has nodded, disappearing with their orders, Kris folds his hands and leans forward, like he did during finals week, when Jongin was pretty sure he was just one test from flunking out and Kris took it upon himself to talk him down. "Did something happen?"
"Chanyeol-hyung…" and maybe he needed that wine, after all, "told me he was…" The words get stuck in his throat, so he drinks water to hopefully unstick them. "He said he was in love with me."
"That's news?" Kris looks confused. "He's been in love with you for a long time." He shakes his water glass, and the melting ice cubes clink against the sides. "I'm pretty sure that's been the subject of every e-mail Zitao has sent me over the past three years. You can't tell me you didn't know."
"I knew he liked me," Jongin says. "In a more than friends way." The wine is a white, and sweet on his tongue. "But I thought if I never acknowledged it, it would go away."
"That's not how Chanyeol works," Kris chides gently. "He dedicates himself to things until he figures them out. That's what makes him such a good researcher and cook and musician. You know that better than anyone." He frowns. "But that doesn't explain why you think he doesn't want anything to do with you."
"I told him that I was sorry," Jongin says. "To get over it." Another sip of wine. "He said he would, but that right now it hurts to even talk to me."
Kris deliberately unfolds his napkin, his massive hands making the napkin look small between them, his rings glinting in the light. "Ah," he says. "So you finally killed that hope."
Jongin shivers. "Do you have to put it like that?" he asks.
"After what happened with… Well, we all know you decided not to get involved like that with anyone else," Kris agrees.
"I can't," Jongin says. "It's not like I chose that."
"Which is why Chanyeol never said anything. He respects that." Kris pulls on one of his earrings. "But it was hard, I guess, not to hope that one day, you'd…"
"Change my mind?" Their food arrives, and Jongin isn't that hungry anymore.
"Well," Kris says, "if anyone was going to change your mind about that, it would have been Chanyeol, right?" He pushes his hair out of his face.
"Right," Jongin says, his rich lunch tasting like so much chalk in his mouth.
"It'll be fine. Chanyeol's tough. He'll smile his way through it until he's not pretending to smile, anymore."
"That's what I'm afraid of. I hate that fake smile."
"Eat your chicken," Kris says. "Everything will work out." He looks like he's about to stand up and walk around the table and bear-hug Jongin. "Really. Chanyeol seemed okay when I talked to him yesterday. He was really excited about work. He'll bounce back before you know it."
Yesterday, it had been over a week since Jongin had heard from Chanyeol at all.
"Yeah," Jongin says. "I hope so."
❦ ❦ ❦
Jongin writes it down carefully in the small notebook he carries with him around the city, and he has to read it every single time he mentally prepares himself to ask another one of the hotel bellhops for directions to a good spot for lunch.
He calls his parents on Seollal, and they make much of him being gone for the holiday, but they're delighted to hear about his trip. He talks to them for almost half an hour, and then, when he hangs up, his fingers hover over his contacts, because Chanyeol's number is only two away from his parents' in his phone. He doesn't.
And as Kris had promised it would, the last bit of Jongin's trip passes in a blur. The final day he spends in Paris, Jongin goes out to buy a few final souvenirs and comes back to his hotel to organize his notes, making sure he's been down every street Hyejeong does, and that he's peeked inside every building.
He's sad to see Paris go, but he also misses Seoul, and he hopes, so much, that a month has been long enough that things will have settled down with Chanyeol. He also hopes that Chanyeol will still be the one to pick him up from the airport, like Kyungsoo had said he would when he dropped Jongin off.
Chanyeol will have a big smile and a big hug waiting for Jongin, if he's there. Jongin looks forward to that, because that's when he'll know he's truly come home.
❦ ❦ ❦
"I thought Chanyeol-hyung would pick me up," replies Jongin. "He would, at least, have grabbed one of my bags."
"You got them this far," Kyungsoo says. "You can get them the rest of the way to the car."
"You're all heart," says Jongin, throwing his arm around Kyungsoo in a half hug and squeezing, draping his weight on his smaller friend. "I missed you, hyung."
Kyungsoo grins at him, and reaches up to mess up his hair. "If you really missed me, you would have sent me more than three e-mails, and they would have said more than still breathing, hyung. I thought you were a writer, Kim Jongin. Not that I was concerned or anything." He ruffles Jongin's hair again, a bit more aggressively.
Jongin scowls, combing his bangs back down from where Kyungsoo had mussed them. "Why does everyone do that to me? I'm not a kid anymore."
"You still look like a fluffy puppy," says Kyungsoo. "Even with that beard."
"Doesn't feel like it's been that long since I've shaved." He rubs at his chin. "I've been a bit lazy. Only Chanyeol ever really nags me about it."
Kyungsoo pulls out of Jongin's casual embrace, smile slipping. "Grab your other bags," he says, picking up the lightest one, the duffel that Jongin's got packed full of all the stuff he'd wanted with him on the plane. "We should start the drive home."
Kyungsoo is quiet until they get to the car, answering the rest of Jongin's questions ("So how's your girlfriend?" "Did Joonmyun-hyung mention when his wife's birthday party is?" "What have you been up to?") with one word answers.
Jongin puts up with it until he gets into the car, and then he turns, putting a hand on Kyungsoo's thigh, making him look up. "Okay, hyung, what's wrong?"
"It's about Chanyeol," says Kyungsoo, quietly. "There's something you should know."
Jongin hasn't heard from Chanyeol since that one phone call. His two e-mails this week had gone unanswered, and he hadn't called, figuring Chanyeol would reach out if he wanted to talk. The silence between them has been a source of constant thrumming anxiety in the back of his mind, coloring his every thought as he tried to make the most of Paris in the winter. They've been apart before, for longer periods than this: when Chanyeol had been going to med school in the U.S., and when Jongin had gone and spent two months in Jeju last year.
It hadn't felt like this, though, and Chanyeol had never felt this far away.
But if Chanyeol had been sick, or something, while Jongin had been wandering around a European city, without Jongin to burn his stew and make a mess of his apartment trying to take care of him… "Is he okay?" He thinks about the drunk phone call, and the confession that kept him up all night, going through every conversation he and Chanyeol have ever had. "Why didn't you stay with him? I could have taken a taxi." He pauses. "He's not in the hospital, right?"
"He's fine," Kyungsoo says. "It's nothing like that." He turns the car on, and the heat starts to come up from the floor of his fancy Kia. Chanyeol drives a Hyundai from 2001, because it still runs, so there are some benefits to Kyungsoo picking him up, and that includes seat warmers.
"Then what is it?" A hundred horrible scenarios have filled Jongin's mind, and then, unbidden, a completely different one. "Did he not want to see me?" He’s still wearing the scarf Chanyeol gave him, and he buries his face in the warm wool.
"Chanyeol's been working on something with his team," says Kyungsoo, with no small amount of trepidation. "A project that made use of some of what they found out during their Alzheimer's research."
"That secret thing he wouldn't talk about?" Jongin nods. "He did say it was almost finished."
"It's completely finished," says Kyungsoo. "They finished it, and then it was tested on Chanyeol. Or, well, Chanyeol volunteered to be the first test subject."
Jongin grips his own knees hard, nails digging through the jeans. "He did what?"
The radio is blasting Bruno Mars as Kyungsoo continues to look forward, out of the car window. "He tested it on himself. And he's fine." He adds the last part quickly, trying to sound reassuring but only ending up making Jongin more nervous.
"Where's the ‘but'?" Jongin's chest is tight with fear, bile at the back of his throat at the thought of Chanyeol being anything but okay. "What are you not telling me? You wouldn't be saying anything about this now if there wasn't a catch."
"It's not a catch, Jongin. The procedure was successful. It did exactly what it was supposed to do, according to Jongdae."
"The new guy on Chanyeol's research team," Kyungsoo says, slipping into his cold and robotic voice. "He sat me down and explained it to me, a couple of weeks ago, and—"
"Just tell me!" Jongin has never seen Kyungsoo so hesitant, fidgeting in his seat as he looks for the words despite his calm and detached tone.
"He doesn't remember you," Kyungsoo says, after a silence that seems interminable. "Well, he does, but… The project he was working on… It had to do with erasing emotional memory connections. Like with the Alzheimer's patients, Jongdae said, but in reverse."
"What does that mean?" The words are more of a croak, but Kyungsoo gets it. He licks his lips. "What do you mean, he doesn't remember me?" Icicles form on the insides of Jongin's ribs.
"You know what? I can't explain this to you. It's too complicated." He puts the car into drive. "Jongdae can explain it better than I can, and he said he'd be there today, even though it's Saturday."
Okay," Jongin says. "Then let's go talk to Jongdae." His hands are shaking. "Can't we just tell him?" he says. "Chanyeol-hyung, your experiment went drastically wrong, and—"
"No," Kyungsoo says. "We can't tell him. Because then we'd have to tell him why he did it, and everything that happened will have been for nothing."
"All for nothing," Jongin says. "Right. Of course."
"Calm down," Kyungsoo says. "Maybe…" He swallows. "Maybe this will all be for the best." He gives Jongin a thin smile, eyes still on the road. "This is your chance to be friends with Chanyeol without the complicated parts. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"Maybe," Jongin replies, then closes his eyes.
❦ ❦ ❦
The guard on duty recognizes Jongin. "Haven't seen you in a while," she says, and Jongin nods, not in the mood to smile.
"I've been overseas," he says. "Paris."
"Oh," she says, "is that why Dr. Park put up that map of France in the lounge?"
Jongin's gut lurches. "Maybe," he says, signing his name on the visitors log. Kyungsoo signs in after him, frowning and dating both his and Jongin's entries.
"Dr. Park isn't here today at all," the security guard says. "Only Dr. Kim Jongdae."
"We're here to see Dr. Kim," Kyungsoo says. "If you could buzz him?"
"Of course," she says, picking up the phone and dialing three numbers on it. "Dr. Kim, you have two visitors? A Kim Jongin-ssi and Do Kyungsoo-ssi?" She waits, and then smiles. "See you in a moment."
She hands them each a visitors badge, and Jongin pins his to his shirt out of habit. He's been here hundreds of times.
They wait in silence, Jongin pulling on his badge to straighten it.
"Kyungsoo," says a voice, and Jongin looks up to meet a smiling face. "And you must be Jongin. I've heard a lot about you."
"Likewise," Jongin says. Chanyeol had been enthusiastic when he'd started working with Jongdae ("I get so tired of working with old people, and Jongdae is really fun!") and though Jongin had never gotten the chance to meet him, he looks exactly like Jongin had thought he would, from Chanyeol's description. "I'm not trying to be rude, but—"
"We can't talk about it here," Jongdae says. "Come back to the labs."
Jongin and Kyungsoo follow Jongdae through the hallway until they get to the elevator. Jongdae scans his badge and the doors open. He presses the button for floor six, and Jongin furrows his brows. "Aren't you on the fifth floor?"
"We do most of our experiments on the fifth floor, but our new… project…" He gives Jongin a half-smile. "That's on the sixth floor, for testing."
"I see," Jongin says.
"Just wait, Jongin," says Kyungsoo. "Jongdae will explain everything."
"Dr. Park specifically asked me to make sure I explained everything to you." The elevator stops and the doors open, revealing a hallway that looks the same as the fifth floor one that Jongin's been to a few times. Usually he just waits for Chanyeol in the lounge on the fifth floor, never venturing into his labs where he does his work. "Granted, the notes he left are no longer accurate."
"That's not like Chanyeol," says Jongin. "To leave inaccurate anything."
"Things didn't go… exactly according to plan."
"Kyungsoo-hyung said he was fine!" Jongin hates being here like this, without Chanyeol waiting for him, warm arm across Jongin's shoulders to make sure he doesn't get lost.
"He is," Kyungsoo says. "Shut up, Jongin."
"No," Jongin says, as they stop at the last door of the hallway. Jongdae uses his ID card to open it, and the steel door unlocks. He pushes it open, and instead of the laboratory from a cartoon show that Jongin was expecting, he sees an office, with two desks and multiple computers on each one. "You tell me Chanyeol can't remember me, but not to panic, and then you bring me here and don't let me ask questions and I want to know what's going on."
"Have a seat, Kim-ssi." Jongdae's face has lost its playful expression. "I'm going to explain everything."
"It's Jongin." Jongin's brain is fuzzy, from the flight and the stress and the slow simmer in his stomach of missing Chanyeol. He holds his phone in his hand, feeling seconds away from calling Chanyeol right now. "Is this some kind of joke?" He sounds pleading, and he bites his lip as Jongdae shakes his head.
"Not at all," says Jongdae, moving his mouse to start his computer running again. It brightens. "It's, instead, the culmination of two years of Dr. Park's research."
"He said it was going to change lives," Jongin remembers. "I was joking with him, that his work was more important than mine, and he said novels were important too. But whatever he was working on was a big deal?"
This all seems so distant from that conversation they'd had as Jongin listened to Chanyeol's soothing voice from across the ocean. Chanyeol's work has always been an abstract for Jongin, even when Jongin has seen evidence of its influence first hand, like when they'd both attended the Seoul mayor's charity benefit for children's medicine and all the doctors in attendance had been thrilled to meet 'the amazing Dr. Park.'
But now, here in this office, much less organized than the one on the fifth floor, Jongin is sitting amongst Chanyeol's notes, his ugly hangul letters all over crane-folded Post-it notes, and Chanyeol's work seems scarily real.
"We're going to revolutionize traumatic memory treatment," Jongdae says. "But Dr. Park, well, Chanyeol, he said the first human tests were going to be risky." He clicks something on his computer, and turns back to them. "He said he couldn't, in good consciousness, test it on someone else, especially considering the government regulations we still haven't cleared."
"So—" Jongin struggles to comprehend what Jongdae is telling them. "So he just—"
"Well, he didn't do this on a whim," says Jongdae. "We've been working on this for a long time. Chanyeol realized the potential back when he first started working with memory." He pulls on his lab coat lapels. "If we can make memories come back, can we also make them disappear? That was the premise of our project."
"What's the point?" Jongin asks, and Jongdae gives Jongin an inquisitive smile. "Why would you want to do the opposite?"
"Haven't you ever had anything you wanted to forget?"
Jongin looks down, at the scuffed toes of his winter boots. He thinks about the way Soojung's hair used to hang down over her shoulder when she leaned forward to flick his forehead. He thinks about the way her eyes always turned so red when she cried. "Sure I have," he says. "Doesn't everyone have something like that? That doesn't mean…"
"What if you could choose exactly which memories?" Jongdae presses. Jongin remembers the wires, and the steady beep of the monitor. "What if you could get rid of one specific memory and help yourself move on from something horrible that happened to you?"
"We can't get that specific yet. What we can do, with the new technology, is to remove memories associated to extremely pointed query. For example, we could remove the memories of a kidnapping victim who'd been locked for a long time in a room and developed claustrophobia. Can you imagine how much that could help a small child who'd experienced unspeakable horrors?"
Jongin tries to digest what Jongdae is saying, but it all keeps coming back to Chanyeol. "He thought it was a good idea to test this all out on himself? With what? 'Jongin'?" There's dirt under Jongin's nails. He should cut them.
"Chanyeol…" Jongdae frowns. "He didn't mean to forget you, Jongin-ssi," he says, and Jongin slowly lifts his head. "That's not… what the query was."
Jongdae leans forward, computer screen forgotten as he looks into Jongin's eyes. "That's what we call the emotion we're targeting," he clarifies. "The queries are complicated, with multiple qualifications and refinements. For Chanyeol, we put so many limitations on it, but— " He stares at Jongin, who must look as lost as he feels. "In simplest terms, I was looking for memories that triggered feelings of romantic love toward you. It's not perfectly precise, because love isn't an exact measurement. I followed all the lines that lit up in response to the queried emotion, and burned them out."
"Burned… them out?" The ice in Jongin's chest freezes his lungs still, keeping him from breathing. "How can you…?" He can feel his face go red.
Kyungsoo rubs circles into his back. "Calm down, Jongin."
"Did you know about this?" Jongin asks. "I mean, before he did it?"
"No," Kyungsoo says. "I would have told him not to do it. So would Baekhyun."
Jongdae scratches at his hair. "It should have been simple and low risk. It was simple. He basically had me scrub being in love with you from his mind.” Jongin shivers. Like Jongin is a traumatic event. "The idea was that it would leave behind only friendship, and you would both be happier. That's what Chanyeol thought, and Chanyeol knows this research better than anyone else on the team."
"What if he'd lost all of his memories?" Jongin says harshly. "What if you'd turned him into a new person?"
"There's a safety mechanism built in," says Jongdae. "That couldn't have happened. That kind of undertaking is impossible with the technology as it is now."
"So what happened?"
"We waited until most of the team went home," Jongdae says. "I stayed, as did a few of the other researchers. We set everything up, launched the viewer—" Kyungsoo clears his throat. "Sorry, it's just mumbo-jumbo from there, right? Well, we carried on with the procedure, and everything was fine. No errors, no problems. Only when he woke up…"
I love everything about you, Chanyeol had said, and Jongin is on the edge of vomiting. "When he woke up, all his memories of me were gone."
"I was the one who noticed it," says Kyungsoo. "When I was helping him move. I asked him how he was doing, because he hadn't talked about you all day, and he said…" Kyungsoo narrows his eyes "He said: 'Oh, funny you should mention Kim Jongin, I just got a couple of e-mails from him today. I don't think I've heard from him in years?'" Kyungsoo's hand stills on Jongin's back. "Then he started talking about work, and about finishing his research. Moving into testing, and I—"
"Called me," says Jongdae. "Asked me if anything strange had happened." His hands fold together anxiously. "That's when we realized…"
"That you'd messed up?"
"The procedure was a complete success," Jongdae says. "If it sticks. But unfortunately…"
"He remembers your name," Kyungsoo interrupts. "He remembers knowing you in college. You're not a total stranger to him, but…"
"Those first memories," says Jongdae, "must have been untainted with the queried emotion. It was only the later ones we had to eliminate."
"Later ones," Jongin says. "Do you mean the past eight years are just… Gone for him?" His knees feel weak. Those early morning phone calls, when it had been evening in the U.S., Chanyeol babbling on and on to a sleepy Jongin about his classes and his friends. That trip to Beijing they'd taken, last year, Jongin insisting that they climb all the way to the top of the Great Wall and not wanting to walk back down until Chanyeol promised him food and a backrub. The movie marathons in Jongin's living room and the late nights curled up on opposite sides of his mattress, Jongin's notes scattered around him as Chanyeol did his best not to peek. "All of it?"
"Not all of it," says Jongdae. "Just you." His eyes soften. "I know this is hard to take—"
"You don't know anything," says Jongin, balling his hands up into fists. "One of your best friends didn't erase you from his life like you'd never been there."
"He was trying to make things easier for both of you," Kyungsoo says firmly. "He wasn't trying to erase you completely, Jongin. It was an accident."
"An accident," Jongin echoes. "It's always an accident." This time, though, it won't be Chanyeol that helps him cope. "And I'm always left alone."
He squeezes his eyes shut and hopes that when he opens them, this will all have been a bad dream. Everything. Paris and the Coffee Bean and maybe even before that. He'll wake up and he'll be back in his bed, Jjanggu sleeping on his face as Taemin snores from the living room couch. His bags will be half-packed, and it will all be fine again.
He knows from experience, though, that it isn't going to go away. Bad things never do. They just linger, following you around and making all the good things that happen afterwards seem a little less important.
"You're not alone," Kyungsoo says. "You still have us. We're not Chanyeol, but—"
Jongin acknowledges Kyungsoo's words as much as he's able. "He knows who I am," he says. "He remembers my name."
"Yes," Kyungsoo says. "He does."
"Okay," Jongin says, and it feels like he's dying, not like ‘okay', but there's nothing he can do about this. Jongin had been selfish, and he'd lost Chanyeol anyway. "I guess it's a start."
❦ ❦ ❦
He can taste sleep in his mouth, sour and sticky, and he yawns, dropping his phone onto his chest. Jjanggu is yapping by the edge of the bed, demanding to be let outside, and Jongin moans, not wanting to move
"You can do this, Jongin."
"You're more likely to do it if you stop talking to yourself and get out of bed," Taemin says, still wearing his coat. Jongin's other two dogs are barking at him aggressively, demanding attention, and Taemin distractedly pets Jjangah as he smiles at Jongin. "I'm just offering that up as advice. What is it that you have to do?"
"Admit that yesterday wasn't a horrible dream," says Jongin. "More immediately, take the dogs out. Write."
"I…" Taemin licks his lips. "I heard about Chanyeol-hyung." A pair of sweatpants hits Jongin in the face. "You don't want to talk about it, do you?"
"No," Jongin says. "Not really." He takes the sweatpants and sits up, pulling them up to his thighs before he gives up, rubbing at his temples. He looks again at his phone. For some reason, the text he's been waiting for from Chanyeol still hasn't come. It's starting to sink in, really sink in, and Jongin just feels sicker and sicker.
"Are you sure?" Taemin asks. He's clearly been up for hours, and Jongin's not even going to mention how gross Taemin's hair looks right now. "Because if you cry, I promise not to laugh."
"I'm not going to cry," Jongin says. "Kyungsoo-hyung says…" He swallows around a thickness in his throat and stands, pulling his sweats the rest of the way up his hips. "He says this is my chance to get it right, with Chanyeol."
"That implies that you got it wrong, before," Taemin says. "I don't really buy into that."
Pulling a shirt over his head, Jongin sighs. "Are you sure about that?" His fingers catch on knots as he runs his hand through his hair. "It wouldn't be the first time. I must have made him pretty miserable if he wanted to delete me."
Taemin snorts, grabbing Jongin by the wrist and pulling him out of his bedroom and into the living room, where the dog leashes are hanging from a hook near the front door. "I'm only hearing this second hand," he says, "but I get the impression that he just wanted to get rid of the touchy stuff?"
Jongin snaps Jjanggu's leash onto his collar, and then Janggah's, as Taemin does the same for Monggu. "It was all touchy stuff, apparently."
"Sehun told me that Chanyeol wanted you to move into that big new apartment of his," says Taemin. "Seems like a good reason to get rid of unrequited romantic feelings, don't you think?"
"Stop making sense," Jongin whines, standing up and reaching for his coat. As he's putting it on, his scarf falls to the floor. Jongin quickly picks it up, before Jjanggu can tear into it with his teeth and nails. He presses the soft gray wool to his cheek. "It makes me want to be less angry at him."
"Angry at him, or angry at the whole situation?" he asks, as Jongin wraps the scarf around his neck. "Are you wearing a scarf and no socks?"
"Shut up," Jongin says, slipping into his sneakers. "And I don't know what I'm angry about."
"That should help with the writing," Taemin says. "You always write faster when you've managed to confuse yourself."
"Are you trying to be supportive?" Jongin shakes his head, jerking on the leashes to keep Monggu from walking Jongin instead of the other way around. Jjangah walks peacefully beside Taemin as his two boys tangle their leashes together. "You need to stop trying to do that."
They turn off onto the walking path, where Jongin usually takes his dogs, and Taemin starts speaking again. "Just try to remember that Chanyeol didn't want you gone from his life. He wanted you to be happy. Just like you wanted Soojung to be happy, right?"
"Don't talk about Soojung," says Jongin. "That's different."
"It is," Taemin says, switching Jjangah's leash from his right hand to his left so he can grab Jongin around the shoulders. "But in the end, it comes down to trying to do what's best for someone we care about." He smiles. "And unlike Soojung, Chanyeol's still here. You haven't lost him forever."
"But I have," Jongin says. "The Chanyeol I knew is gone. We'll never share the same experiences again. It's not like I can remake that many years." He doesn't understand why people insist on looking on the bright side. His phone is silent. Chanyeol isn't texting him to ask him what he wants for dinner tonight, or to tell him about some woman he saw buying a weird combination of supplies from the convenience store. Jongin feels cold, and the scarf Chanyeol made for him, right now, is only making him feel colder, because this Chanyeol, the one that barely knows him, would never have even given it to him.
"His heart is still the same," Taemin says. "That's important, right? You can make new memories with him, and maybe…" He frowns, then, lightly: “Maybe Chanyeol won't get hurt this time."
Jongin clenches his fingers around the leashes, knuckles turning white. "Maybe," he says, staring straight ahead.
❦ ❦ ❦
With it all spread around him like that, it's easier for Jongin to write, putting aside Chanyeol and delving into his protagonist's story to save him from his own.
Over the course of his time in Paris, Jongin had written an entirely new skeleton for his story, so that the tendrils of disappointment and fear were woven as much throughout his story as they were in his real life. Now, armed with this new outline, Jongin can write in earnest, spending hours in front of his laptop and ignoring calls from his friends.
He's glad when Lu Han shows up on his doorstep that Thursday, though, with a cup of coffee in each hand. "Thought you might be lonely," he says, handing Jongin a cup and bending down to pat Monggu on the head.
"That's why I have dogs," Jongin says. "They're better than people and I never have to be lonely."
"Dogs can't rescue you from your self-imposed exile." Lu Han takes a sip of his coffee as he leaves his shoes at the door and walks further into the apartment, eyes scanning around and landing on the pile of crumpled up notes Jongin had somehow carried with him out from the bedroom. "Or read your drafts. Go take a shower, Jonginnie."
When Jongin gets out of the shower, Lu Han is curled up on his couch with Jjanggu on his lap, Jongin's laptop in front of him as he reads.
Lu Han was the first person to ever read one of Jongin's stories. After literature class one day, during Jongin's first year of university, Jongin had started scribbling ideas into his notebook and Lu Han had peeked over his shoulder, chin digging in. "Thought you were doing those doodles of yours," he'd said. "But you're writing. Do you write poetry, or what?"
Lu Han was one of Jongin's favorite people in that class, and Jongin usually worked with him on homework assignments in the library on Fridays after Lu Han was through with soccer practice. "Just, I dunno, stories." He'd shrugged, dislodging Lu Han's chin, and Lu Han had grinned.
"You write great papers," he’d said. "I know I'm not a native speaker, but I can recognize good writing. You should let me read some of your work, sometime."
"It's not very polished." Jongin had stuck the pen in his mouth and chewed on it. "Probably not worth reading."
"Well, you don't need to impress me. Besides, sometimes letting someone else read it can help sometimes. Offer you a different perspective."
Since then, Lu Han has always been the first person to read Jongin's drafts. Chanyeol used to get jealous, ("Why does Lu Han get to read it early?") but Jongin had always… Jongin had never folded, on this.
His coffee has gone cold, but Jongin drinks it anyway, foam sticking to his lip, as Lu Han makes a thoughtful noise in the back of his throat.
"You shaved," Lu Han says, forty minutes later, finally looking up from Jongin's laptop. Jongin had managed to clean the kitchen as Lu Han kept reading, and he's washing his hands when Lu Han starts talking. "I'm oddly disappointed."
"I'm not finished yet," Lu Han says. "But I can tell you…"
"Hyejeong is still in love with your professor," Lu Han teases, and Jongin wipes his wet hands on his clean jeans and offers Lu Han a frown. "I'm mostly kidding, but Jongin, this reads so much better than the last one you sent me."
"Yeah?" He walks over and plops down next to Lu Han on the couch, and Monggu tries to jump into his lap but is beaten by Jjangah, who blows air through her nose right onto Jongin's bare stomach.
"The setting is definitely more rich." Lu Han clicks his nails on the edge of the laptop, "and Hyejeong feels more real. It's like…" He taps his finger to his lips and gives Jongin a look out of the corner of his eye. "Well, it's stronger, that's for sure."
"Did you want to stay for dinner?" Jongin asks, and Lu Han shakes his head.
"No," he says. "Meeting Yixing at eight for meat." Lu Han uses his knee to nudge him. "You want to come along? It'll be like old times."
Old times would be Chanyeol showing up halfway through dinner, carrying his guitar and conning all three of them into heading out to Hongdae and singing in the park, Jongin sitting next to Chanyeol as he and Yixing take turns playing. It would be Jongin and Chanyeol drinking beers outside a convenience store at three in the morning, laughing and telling stories about Sehun until they inevitably call him and laugh at him together over the line.
"It won't be," Jongin says. "Not really." Lu Han pats his head solemnly, like Jongin is still his underclassman and still a teenager, and Jongin, briefly, wishes he was. Everything had been easier when he was nineteen. Ten years later, and Jongin can't believe he'd complained about anything at all.
"I can't wait to find out what happens next," Lu Han says. "I still think they're going to fall in love." He takes Jongin's computer and sets it on the table.
"No. Hyejeong has given up on love."
"She may have, but it certainly hasn't given up on her."
"If you don't leave now, you'll be late," says Jongin.
❦ ❦ ❦
"I don't think I can do this," Jongin says. "I don't…"
"You will do it," Kyungsoo says. "Because it's too late to turn around, and Chanyeol is fussy when I'm late. Also, I told him I was bringing a friend, and that friend is you, so buck up, kid."
"You're a year older than me, hyung," Jongin says, staring out the window. It snowed last night, but the roads are clear. He closes his eyes. "So don't you even start."
"Chanyeol's not some stranger," Kyungsoo says. "I'm not taking you into the wolf's den."
"That's just it, hyung.” Jongin pulls on the seatbelt to give himself room to breathe. "To Chanyeol, I am some stranger. I'm the only one who remembers all the inside jokes and all the travel stories and that time with the underwear in the refrigerator—"
"The underwear in the refrigerator?"
"Yeah, well," Jongin says, "he had to be punished for teasing me so much." His fingers move from the seatbelt to tangle in the weave of his scarf. It's late February now, and soon, enough, he won't need to wear one. "He won't… remember that."
"Jongin…" Kyungsoo impatiently taps his hand on the steering wheel, and Jongin realizes they've parked. "You just have to make the best of it now." He sounds annoyed, but Jongin knows that's Kyungsoo's way to worry without anyone knowing he's worried.
"This the place?" Jongin asks. They're in a nicer upper Gangnam neighborhood, with tall, pretty apartments that go up higher than the ones in Jongin's area. It reminds Jongin of Joonmyun's apartment. He doesn't think they're far from there, actually. From here, he bets it's only a short taxi ride to the open party streets that Baekhyun is often dragging Chanyeol to.
"Nice, huh?" Kyungsoo laughs. "I never thought Chanyeol would move to a place like this." He walks in easily, and nods to the doorman. "Chanyeol is on the top floor."
"Just like the last place," Jongin says, and Kyungsoo nods. ("I like the top floor because I feel like the king of the whole world when I look out the window," Chanyeol says, and Jongin laughs.)
They get into the elevator, and Kyungsoo elbows Jongin in the side. "Stop with the seasick look."
"I'm scared," Jongin says, quietly, but it echoes in the empty elevator. "What if I do something wrong, and he doesn't like me?"
"What if he's Chanyeol, and he likes everyone?" Kyungsoo says. "Oh wait, he is Chanyeol, and he does like everyone."
"It'll be fine," Kyungsoo says. "He's… mostly the same, as before." He frowns. "He's less… focused. Like he's wondering why he's doing things. But he's still Chanyeol, Jongin. Remember, you're not meeting him for the first time. He knows who you are."
The actual first time that Jongin met Chanyeol, it had been at Sehun's house. Sehun's mother had answered the door, smiling gently. "Oh hello, Jongin," she'd said. "Sehun has another friend over, too. I guess both of you are going to help him pack."
Jongin had politely bowed back at her, and trooped up the familiar stairs that he'd known like the back of his own hand since elementary school. He’d heard a booming laugh coming from Sehun's room, and opened the door to find a stranger sprawled out across Sehun's bed, cheeks flushed and shirt riding up a smooth flat stomach.
"Jongin, what are you doing here? Not that you need a reason," Sehun had said, pinching the stranger's arm until he’d yelped and sat up. "This is Park Chanyeol. He's on the basketball team."
"Hi," Jongin had said, nibbling on his lip and wondering what to say. "Uh, I'm Kim Jongin." He’d coughed into his hand. "I was bored and thought we could play games, or something?"
"Don't be shy," Chanyeol had said. "Come sit next to me." He’d patted the bed, and Sehun looked put out, sighing when Jongin looked to him for permission. "I don't bite."
Jongin had gingerly sat down. Up close, Chanyeol wasn't as big as he looked from far away, but he was still so long and lean. He had a pretty mouth, too, and Jongin had quickly glanced away as soon as he'd noticed.
"Sure you do," Sehun had said. "But even if you didn't, Jongin is afraid of strangers."
"Not scared," Jongin had said, kicking out at Sehun and barely missing his shin, before turning back to Chanyeol. "Are you a first year, too?"
"No," Chanyeol grinned. "A second year. Sehun is taking a math class with me and it turns out we like the same kind of music."
"Chanyeol-hyung befriended me and couple of woodland creatures like a regular Snow White the other day," Sehun had added. "Somehow, he is now in my home.
“Jongin likes to dance.” Jongin had nodded, happy that Sehun was holding up his end of the conversation for him. "He likes basketball, too."
"You like to play?" Chanyeol had grabbed Jongin's hand. "I have a few friends who like it too. We could play sometime?"
Chanyeol's hand had been warm, and Jongin had snatched it away quickly when his insides had started to turn to soup. Chanyeol was so… bubbly, and Jongin didn't really know anyone else like that. "You're on a team, right? Wouldn't you rather play with them?"
Chanyeol's face had fallen, just momentarily, before his grin had come back even wider, and Sehun had scowled. "I don't really get along with most of the team," said Chanyeol, lightly. "So I usually play pick-up games with friends."
Jongin didn't know how he was already in that category, but he didn't really mind it. He did mind the way Chanyeol, who had been so bright, was suddenly too bright, fake bright. "Sure," Jongin had said, carefully watching Park Chanyeol and finding he kind of liked him. "We could play some time." Chanyeol's smile had gone right back to sincere, and Jongin's stomach had dropped right out of his body and rolled across the floor. "It's no big deal."
Smile softening, Chanyeol had stared at him for a moment. "Kim Jongin," he'd said. "You're very cute, and I think I'll keep you."
"Stop," Jongin had said, leaning away from Jongin as Sehun cackled, amused.
"Why don't you just get married, then?" Sehun had joked, and Chanyeol had laughed, hands on his stomach and mouth wide to show all of his teeth and the pink of his tongue. Jongin had flushed a miserable red.
"It's too soon for that . But Jongin-ssi, you should give me your number."
"He never replies to texts," Sehun had said. "Don't even bother."
"It's okay if he doesn't reply." Chanyeol hadn't seemed deterred in the least. "You'll read them, won't you, Jongin-ssi?"
"Yeah, whatever," Jongin had said, pretending to be annoyed, but really, he hadn't disliked being the center of Chanyeol's attention at all.
Now, standing in front of an unfamiliar apartment, next to Kyungsoo, who doesn't seem worried in the least, Jongin wonders how this meeting will go.
Kyungsoo presses the buzzer, and they only wait a few moments before Chanyeol opens the door. He's wearing a baseball cap that keeps his hair out of his face, and a sweatshirt with the hood up that Jongin's worn more than once while shuffling around Chanyeol's old apartment, which never heated up quickly enough in the winter.
The floors are hot under Jongin's feet when he steps inside this new apartment, though.
"Kyungsoo-yah, I was just about to call you!"
"I'm here, I'm here," Kyungsoo says, socking Chanyeol in the arm when he gets pulled into a hug that dwarfs him. "I had to pick up this drama queen."
Chanyeol looks up. "Oh?"
"You remember Jongin, don't you?" Kyungsoo says blithely, and Chanyeol's buoyant grin is turned on Jongin.
"Of course I remember Kim Jongin," says Chanyeol. "How could I forget?" He winks. "You graduated in Sehun's year, right?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "That's right." There's open friendliness in Chanyeol's eyes, but none of the warmth that Jongin associates with Chanyeol's gaze on him.
"I'm Chanyeol, in case you forgot."
"I didn't forget," Jongin says. "Sorry to intrude—"
"You're not intruding," Chanyeol says. "I was just starting some jjigae." He smiles. "I can't remember, do you like jjigae, Jongin?"
"I do," Jongin says. Especially yours.
"It's looking really good in here, Chanyeol," Kyungsoo says. "Already all organized."
"My bedroom is a disaster zone," Chanyeol says, smiling conspiratorially at Jongin. Jongin shoves his hands in his pockets to keep from balling them up into anxious fists. "Worse than Baekhyun's even."
"I doubt it," Jongin says, and Chanyeol and Kyungsoo both turn to stare at him. "Baekhyun-hyung does that thing where he always wants the shirt at the bottom of the pile and never puts back the ones he had to take out to find it."
Baekhyun and Chanyeol used to live together. Jongin has tripped over so many of Baekhyun's clothes over the years he can still recall how to navigate that room with the lights off, carefully, on his toes.
"Yes," Chanyeol says, "maybe you're right." He scratches at his neck. "Baekhyunnie is kind of a mess."
The rice cooker starts to sing, and Chanyeol immediately leaves them to go to the kitchen, and Kyungsoo follows. Jongin is more tentative, not sure where his boundaries are. If this were his Chanyeol, he'd already be sitting on the table, and Chanyeol would probably be trying to feed him spoonfuls of too hot stew as Jongin tried to lean away and demanded he blow on it first.
This isn't his Chanyeol.
"Come in here, Kim Jongin!" Chanyeol yells, and Jongin enters the kitchen slowly, unsure. "I don't bite."
Jongin winces, and hovers in the doorway.
"You might as well sit down," Kyungsoo says. A flash of sympathy. Jongin ignores it, scratching at his chin and watching Chanyeol move so comfortably in front of the stove. "We'll probably eat in here."
They do. Chanyeol sets the pot of jjigae on a potholder in the middle of his kitchen table, stacking all the incomprehensible science articles that had littered the table on a clean corner of the counter, next to a book. "Sorry," he says, when he catches Jongin staring, "I've only just moved in."
"I have three dogs," Jongin says, heart thudding painfully because Chanyeol had helped him bring Jjangah home, and had sat with him at the vet one night for eight hours when Monggu had swallowed something weird while Jongin was out. "My apartment is always a mess."
Chanyeol laughs and opens the rice cooker. "You must really like puppies?"
"I love them," Jongin says. "They're loyal and cute and they love you no matter what, even when you make mistakes."
"There are people like that," Chanyeol says, serving three white bowls of rice. "Probably."
"I know," replies Jongin. Chanyeol takes all three bowls, two in his right hand and one in his left, and joins them at the table.
"What do you do, again, Jongin-ssi?" Chanyeol pushes two bowls of rice across the table to Jongin and Kyungsoo. "I can't believe I haven't talked to you in so long. I remember how we used to play basketball with Kris and Zitao on the Sogang outdoor courts in the summer when you were a first year." He pulls on the brim of his cap. "I guess we all get busy."
"I guess we do," says Jongin.
"I heard you were in Paris." Chanyeol leans forward, and the string from his sweatshirt hood dips dangerously close to his stew. "I've always wanted to go to Paris."
Jongin clenches his jaw, and forces a smile on his face. "I'm a novelist," he says, taking a spoonful of rice and smashing it into his soup. The orange broth swallows the rice and he scoops most of it back onto his spoon and eats it. "I was in Paris for, well, research."
"Oh?" Chanyeol's eyes light up. "I have copies of your books! There are two of them, right?" He sets down his spoon. "They were in my room. I must have been waiting to read them."
"Let me know what you think," says Jongin. "If you feel like reading them."
"They were next to my bed when I was packing up my room," Chanyeol says. "I don't…" He furrows his brow. "I'm usually pretty strict about keeping them on the shelf, so I must have…" He scratches at the table with his fingers, eyes going wide with confusion. "I must have really wanted to read them."
"You mentioned them," Kyungsoo says. "Don't you remember?"
"I…" Chanyeol sets his spoon down. "I guess I do."
It takes Chanyeol a minute or two to get back into his groove, and he takes on the burden of conversation, talking with his deep voice about everything from the news this morning to interesting work anecdotes. ("Jongdae set his instant ramen on fire," he says, lips turned orange from the jjigae. "How do you manage that?")
Jongin takes the opportunity to drink him in. It's been six weeks, really, since he's seen Chanyeol at all, and though he hasn't forgotten anything about him, from the shape of his ears to the way he always perfectly enunciates the last syllable of every verb, he stares at Chanyeol, re-memorizing his vibrant expression.
"Is something wrong, Jongin-ssi?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin drops his gaze down at his own lap. "If you don't like the stew, you don't have to keep eating it."
"No, it's delicious," says Jongin. "Don't… be so formal with me. We were friends once, right?"
"Jongin-ah," Chanyeol says, eyes squinting with amusement. "I never stopped considering you my friend."
Jongin drops his spoon.
Kyungsoo sighs heavily. "You have a great view of the city from here," he says. "I bet we'll be able to catch a great sunset."
"It's gorgeous," Chanyeol says. "But I prefer the nighttime. All the lights come on, and it's exciting. Everyone looks like ants from up here." He claps. "Jongin-ah, do you want to see? You haven't had a chance to look." He stands up and grabs Jongin's hand, pulling him from his seat.
Jongin falls out of his seat and trails after him, not focusing on the way Chanyeol's fingers still fit nicely between his own. Chanyeol lets go of him when he's gotten Jongin over to the windows, which form the fourth wall of the room. "It's pretty amazing," Jongin says. It's exactly the kind of window he’s always dreamed about having. "The first thing you do when you wake up is look out of this window, right?"
Kyungsoo is leaning in the kitchen doorway, and Jongin feels him watching.
"Yep!" Chanyeol says. "You're absolutely right." He grins. "Am I that predictable?"
Jongin crouches down. "No," he says. "That's just what my kids—" he looks at Chanyeol "—of course, I'm talking about my puppies— would do." He grins up at Chanyeol, and the light from outside gets in his eyes, making him squint. "Do you press your nose up against the window, too?"
"And bark at strangers," Chanyeol says with pseudo-solemnity, and Jongin laughs, one of his loud hiccupping ones, before he can catch it. Chanyeol beams at him, and Jongin looks away because even the sun is less blinding than that.
"You're so cute," Chanyeol says, crouching down next to him, and Jongin sneaks a glance at him. "You don't need to be so shy with me. We aren't strangers." He moves in just enough that Jongin has to look at him, or it'll be obvious he doesn't want to. "I've always liked your laugh, Jongin."
Jongin's mouth is so dry. "Can I have your number?" he asks, and Chanyeol's eyes widen, just slightly, before he grins, and Jongin hurries to finish with: "So we don't fall out of touch again."
"Sure," Chanyeol says. "Maybe we can play basketball again. Kris is coming to visit next month, so everyone will be around. Two on two." He hands Jongin his phone, and Jongin offers his own back. They're the same model. They'd bought them at the same time, after they'd both gotten caught in a rainstorm last rainy season and drowned their phones as they laughingly ran home.
"That will be fun," Jongin chokes out.
"That's funny," Chanyeol says, after he types his number in. "I'm already in here."
"Oh," Jongin says, snatching his phone back and returning Chanyeol's own. "I lost my phone to the rain last September and got all of my numbers from Sehun. He must have put it in."
"That explains it," Chanyeol says, shrugging it off. "Well, now you have my number, Jongin."
"Thanks," Jongin says, and it's all too much. "I should go."
"Already?" Chanyeol's face is the perfect picture of dismay, and Jongin stands up quickly, too fast, and blood rushes back to his lower legs as he looks pleadingly at Kyungsoo. "But we haven't finished our soup."
"Jongin promised to help me pick out a White Day gift for Minah," Kyungsoo says. "And we can't leave his dogs alone at the apartment for too long."
"Oh, I see," says Chanyeol. "You live alone?" He directs that toward Jongin, and Jongin nods. "You don't have hours like mine, then, if you can take care of three pets on your own."
"My friend Taemin helps out, sometimes, but he's at dance practice all night." That's true, he'd complained about it on the phone this morning. Jongin suspects he was just trying to distract him from all of this. "So I do have to go."
"You'll come back some time?" Chanyeol gestures around the apartment. "When it's all finished?"
"I'd never pass up the view," says Jongin, and Chanyeol's eyes are so…
They say goodbyes quickly, Jongin mumbling through them as he holds his phone tightly in his hand, squeezing it so hard it might break. Kyungsoo guides him out the door, and says nothing until they're in the elevator.
"It wasn't so bad, was it?" Kyungsoo asks, sounding doubtful. "He was happy to see you."
"This is all wrong," Jongin says. His phone is smudged on the screen, from Chanyeol's thumb. "Kyungsoo-hyung, this is all wrong." The elevator is one of the noisy ones, that whirrs the whole way down, but the only thing Jongin can hear is his own heartbeat in his ears.
"It's not supposed to happen," Jongin says. "People aren't supposed to start over, hyung. We're supposed to learn from the past, even when it sucks, and that helps us… grow. Become stronger and face new obstacles." He thinks about the way Chanyeol's voice had cracked, from nine-thousand kilometers away, and he shivers. "Even when it's horrible, we're not supposed to just… forget it. We're supposed to take it and use it."
Jongin is shaking, and Kyungsoo firmly puts his hand on the back of Jongin's neck, silent and comforting. "I'm sorry, Jongin."
"Memories are important," Jongin says. "Even the bad ones."
"They are," says Kyungsoo. "Come on, Jongin, I'll drive you home."
❦ ❦ ❦
He has known small losses: the death of his first pet, a goldfish he'd won at the children's day festival at his school in his third year of elementary, that his mother had callously flushed down the toilet when she'd discovered it floating at the top of his bowl. The time he'd blown out his knee from strain in his final year of university and had been unable to dance in his last show. Things like that.
And then there were the greater losses, like when his second year writing teacher told him his words were nothing and he should find something else to love, and he'd stopped writing for a year. Or when he'd realized that his blown out knee was never going to get better, be good enough to dance on again.
Then there had been Soojung, and that had taught Jongin to be truly afraid of loss. That some things can't be replaced and that there are no do-overs.
Losing Chanyeol like this, the man still there but the one who had known most of Jongin's secrets no longer inside that big warm body, is one of the worst things Jongin has ever felt. Wrapped up inside of layers of guilt and shame and misery is Jongin's longing heart, full of all the things he wishes he'd acknowledged, at least to himself.
There had been moments when Chanyeol had been Jongin's strongest anchor, and maybe that's why Jongin is steadily floating away from shore in his own thoughts, lost at sea.
❦ ❦ ❦
no, he texts back.
good. Jongin can envision Kyungsoo's exaggerated stare in between that text and his next one. ask him out to coffee or something, I don't know.
okay texts Jongin, and he tries to gather the bravery to actually do it.
❦ ❦ ❦
"I smell smoke," Sehun says. "Jongin, are you thinking again?"
He puts his legs in Jongin's lap, and Jongin pushes them off as Zitao comes over and sits down next to him on the other side. Sehun and Zitao's shared apartment doesn't have a very big sofa, so Jongin is cramped in between them. Sehun uses the distraction to put his legs back on top of Jongin, and Jongin sighs in defeat.
"Call," Zitao says, poking Jongin's cheek. Jongin smacks his hand away. "He gave you his number."
"Chanyeol would give a mass murderer his phone number," Jongin says, "if they asked for it in the correct part of speech."
"Then a good thing you aren't one," Sehun says. "Now quick, call him and steal some of his time before he makes a date with some random homicidal grammarian."
"I'm scared," whines Jongin. "What if he's annoyed that I'm calling, or if he just gave me his number to be friendly—"
"The man was willing to undergo an extremely dangerous, memory-erasing procedure on the off-chance that it would make you more comfortable in your friendship." Sehun levels him with a glare. "The least you could do is get off your sulking ass and call him."
"Everything is a low blow with you," Jongin says, and Zitao rests his head on Jongin's shoulder, a cat in a body that's too big for him. It helps, and the icy fingers of despair thaw some, even if they're still gripped tightly around his heart.
"What Sehun is trying to say is that we're here for you, Jongin. Plus, even when we were in college, Chanyeol was so, so fond of you. So even if those are the only memories he has, he'll be really happy you're trying to get back in touch with him."
"Right," Jongin says, thumb still hovering. "Right."
Sehun rolls his eyes and snatches the phone, pressing call on the touchscreen before shoving the phone back into Jongin's hand. "Quick, before he thinks it's a prank call."
Jongin brings the phone up to his ear just as Chanyeol answers with a "Hello?"
"Hey, it's Jongin," he says, voice cracking, and Chanyeol laughs.
"Your name showed up when my phone rang," Chanyeol says, still chuckling. "You clairvoyant or something? How did you know it was my lunch break? I just finished something, and the phone was ringing, like magic."
Chanyeol takes his lunch at exactly the same time every day. Jongin hadn't even thought about it. "If you’re busy—" he starts, and Chanyeol quickly interrupts.
"No, not at all," he says. "I was surprised, but it's a pleasant surprise. When we exchanged numbers, I honestly thought I was going to have to call you."
"You would have called me?" Jongin asks. Sehun makes this disgusted face at him, but thankfully remains silent.
"Oh, sure," Chanyeol says. "It was so nice to see you again. I was always so curious about you in college, and we have so many mutual friends, so I thought it might be nice to catch up?" He laughs again. "Or something."
"Yeah," Jongin says. His palms are sweaty, and his back has gone all tight. "That's why I thought… uh… maybe we could get coffee?" Zitao pats him on the shoulder, giving him an encouraging smile. "My treat. As a thank you for lunch the other day."
"That was nothing," Chanyeol says.
"When you're as hopeless at cooking as I am, it's definitely something."
He can hear the pleasure in Chanyeol's voice when he replies: "In that case, coffee sounds nice, Jongin." It's always been pretty easy to make Chanyeol happy. He thrives on small compliments like that, and Jongin can imagine him preening. It makes him smile, just a little.
"Great," Jongin says, not sure how to go on. He doesn't make plans. He's never been good at it.
"How about we meet on Thursday?" Chanyeol asks. "My personal calendar after work is empty that day, and my assistant didn't schedule anything as far as I know." Jongin can hear the sound of turning pages. "How does seven sound?"
"Thursday at seven," Jongin says, his throat suddenly tight. "Sounds perfect. Whatever you want."
"All right, then, Jongin, I'm going to go and get some lunch. Talk to you soon?"
"Okay," Jongin says, and hangs up, staring at the phone and trying to figure out how he feels.
"You going to make it, Jongin?" Sehun asks, as Zitao squeezes with the hand on Jongin's shoulder, face soft and sympathetic.
"Probably," Jongin says. "I hope so."
Jongin knows Sehun is worried about him because he doesn't complain when Jongin switches the television channel to old reruns of Doraemon, and Jongin is thankful for both him and Zitao right now, as he replays the phone call in his head, over and over and over again.
❦ ❦ ❦
How do you feel about coming out to Hongdae?
Jongin stares at his phone. It's there, Chanyeol's name in his messages, the text sitting alone as their last exchange via text had been almost two months ago. hongdaes fine.
There's a place called Coffee Lab replies Chanyeol. It's out exit 8.
Jongdae licks at the corners of his mouth. know it
There's a blend there, called the Mad Scientist. Chanyeol had made him try it around eleven at night once, after they'd stayed out too late with a drunk Baekhyun. "Want to grab some coffee?" he'd asked, after Zitao had pulled Baekhyun into a taxi to get him home. "I know a great spot around here that serves one of the best blends around."
Are we still on for 7, then?
The cashier at the convenience store clears her throat, and Jongin looks up in surprise, pulling out his wallet and quickly fumbling to pull out two thousand won bills to pay for the curry. "Sorry," he mumbles, and the cashier smiles.
"Girlfriend?" she asks, pointing at the phone, and Jongin squirms. "You were looking at your phone so intently…"
"No, no," Jongin says, his neck going red as he averts his eyes, fixing on the hichew packages by the register instead of the cashier's amused gaze. "It's nothing like that."
He takes the small black bag and leaves, waiting until he's walked about a block before scrolling to the last message again and pulling up the keyboard to reply. yeah its fine
I look forward to seeing you again, Jongin~ is the last text, and Jongin doesn't feel like curry anymore.
He walks into his apartment and feeds his dogs before going into his bedroom and lying face down on the bed, still in his clothes and wearing his coat and his gray, hand-knitted scarf around his neck. He takes slow, steady breaths, trying to ease the constant pain in his chest, but it only gets worse. He clutches at his sheets, and thinks about Paris.
❦ ❦ ❦
He takes a right after he goes out exit 8, and walks past the pharmacy and the food vendors and the eyeglass store where Chanyeol had gotten his most recent pair of glasses after he'd accidentally stepped on his old pair in December. ("Do these ones make me look handsome?" he'd asked Jongin, fluttering his eyelashes, and Jongin had frowned and pointedly looked out the window. "Don't ask stupid questions.")
Past the CU, he turns down the side street to Coffee Lab, and Chanyeol is there already, leaning against the railing, the red coffee bean sign behind him. He has his nose buried in a book, but he looks up just in time to see Jongin, closing the book immediately and greeting him with a huge grin.
"Jongin-ah," he says, and Jongin shivers, either from the cold or from the sudden warmth at Chanyeol's low voice, he's not sure which. "You made it."
"The subway wasn't too bad," Jongin says. "Lots of kids already getting started on the night, though."
"Kids," Chanyeol says, laughing. "I can't believe you just called them kids."
"I'm almost thirty," Jongin says. "I've earned a ‘kids' every now and then."
"You still look the same," Chanyeol says, "as you did when you were their age." He slips his book into his bag and grabs the sleeve of Jongin's coat. "Let's get coffee."
When they get inside, the line is already long. Chanyeol doesn't seem to mind, undoing the buttons of his coat to reveal a fitted white sweater underneath. Jongin almost reaches out to touch it, because he remembers how soft it is, and how it feels against his cheek when he gets pulled into one of Chanyeol's surprise hugs. "I like your sweater," he says.
Chanyeol smoothes a hand down the front of it. "Thank you," he says, then grins wider. "Me too."
The barista, dressed in a crisp white shirt and a black vest, asks for their order, and Chanyeol gestures for Jongin to go first. Without thinking, he orders for himself and for Chanyeol, making sure to tell the barista not to put too much milk in Chanyeol's.
He doesn't realize he's done it until Chanyeol gives him an odd look, mouth curving downwards with confusion. "How did you know about the milk?"
Fiddling with his wallet, Jongin pulls out his credit card, Chanyeol looks like he's about to protest, then he stifles it, letting Jongin pay for both of their drinks. "I have a good memory," Jongin says.
"I used to think I did," Chanyeol says, "but it's weird. Lately I've been forgetting all kinds of things."
"Yeah?" Jongin asks, taking his credit card back from the barista as Chanyeol picks up the tray with both of their drinks.
Chanyeol's brow is all furrowed up, and when he notices that Jongin is watching him, he loses the expression, forcing a smile onto his face that makes Jongin's stomach lurch. "You probably don't care," Chanyeol says. "I just—"
"I care," Jongin says. "Very much."
Chanyeol's mouth parts, with surprise, and then he smiles again, much more sincere. "It's silly, anyway," he says. "It's probably just because I've been so busy at work. We have this great new project we're working on in my lab, and Jongdae is handling the first tests while I work on expanding the limitations of the research—" He laughs. "Now that, you definitely don't care about." He wrinkles his nose. "I get really excited about my research."
"There's nothing bad about that," Jongin says. "Feeling passionate about something." His coffee is too hot but he takes a sip anyway. This is the blend Chanyeol likes. It's smooth and rich.
"Is that how you feel about writing?" Chanyeol asks, wrapping both of his big hands around the small white ceramic mug. "Wait, that reminds me, I wanted to ask you about Paris. We didn't get to finish talking about it when you and Kyungsoo were over."
"What about it?" Chanyeol's glasses are sliding down his nose again, and he pushes them back up with his middle finger. Jongin's lips twitch, because at least, somehow, there are some things that will never change, like Chanyeol's mannerisms when his brain is working fast.
At least he can have these little moments, tiny oases in the unending emotional desert drought of Chanyeol's absence.
"I bought this book a couple of months ago, about France. I must have done it on a whim, or something—" he pauses, expression suffused with frustration, glasses slipping again but this time not bothering to fix them "—but I really want to go now."
"It was beautiful," Jongin says, looking up because the rapt attention on Chanyeol's face makes him inexorably achey. The ceiling is covered with portafilters, and they look like silver fish swimming in a progression above their heads. "The architecture, and the shows… It was all very beautiful."
"Even in the winter?" Inquisitive, almost teasing, and if Jongin closes his eyes maybe he can pretend…
"Especially in the winter," Jongin replies. The snow that had crunched underfoot on some days, and lingered on the tree branches long after it had melted to gray slush in the streets, hadn't bothered him at all. "It was quieter." When he finally looks back down from the ceiling, to look at his companion, Chanyeol's eyes are piercing.
"Kyungsoo said you'd been having a tough time." Chanyeol reaches across the table and rests his hand on top of Jongin's. "I asked him if I'd offended you, when you went out of your way to leave so quickly last weekend."
"No," Jongin says. He feels exposed under that stare, he always has, and Chanyeol is unrelenting when he thinks he has something important to say. "Sorry, you must think I'm the world's worst conversationalist."
"He said you'd recently lost someone close to you," continues Chanyeol. "That you were kind of drifting because of it."
There's sympathy waiting for him there, and Jongin covers his face with both hands so he doesn't have to see it. The irony of it, of sitting across from Chanyeol and somehow being expected to convey the depth of what Chanyeol has meant to him, over the past eight years of life to Chanyeol himself… It's remarkably, Jongin thinks, like the last time they'd been in a coffee shop like this, sitting across from each other. Jongin, still, has no idea what to say.
He drops his hands from his face and grabs his coffee instead.
"I know we haven't been close in a long time, but if you want someone to talk to…" Chanyeol's voice is warmer than the coffee Jongin is holding on to, white knuckled.
"Thanks," Jongin manages. "I'll keep that in mind."
"You do that," Chanyeol says, looking satisfied to have said his piece. His hair gets into his eyes, and he shakes it away, finally pushing his glasses up again. Jongin swallows, but his throat stays dry. Chanyeol pulls on the neck of his sweater, and takes a breath. "Did you see any shows, in Paris?"
"I did," Jongin answers slowly, trying to will the shake out of his hands and the tension out of his spine. "An opera.” He cringes. “Ballet."
"My memory might not be the best it's ever been," Chanyeol says, "but I remember how much you've always loved ballet."
When they leave Coffee Lab, thirty minutes later, all the heated seats outside the shop are taken, and the small side street is filled with noise. Chanyeol leans closer so he can hear Jongin talk, and his arm keeps bumping Jongin's as they walk back toward the main road.
"You said you took the subway?" Chanyeol asks, stopping at the corner, next to the CU.
"I don't drive," Jongin says. "It's not too far from here."
"I could drive you home," says Chanyeol. "I mean, I don't know where home is, but—"
But, Chanyeol, Jongin thinks, pressing his hands to his stomach, you keep a toothbrush there. "It's fine," he says. "I'll make it. I'll probably take a bus this time instead of the train."
"If you're sure," Chanyeol says, and Jongin nods. He's tired, and torn, because as much as he wants to stay with Chanyeol, being around him is so difficult.
It reminds him of what Chanyeol had said, during that phone call Jongin cannot even begin to forget. "Even talking to you right now is breaking my heart."
"I'm sure," Jongin says.
Chanyeol smiles at him, looking so much like he wants to reach out and mess up Jongin's hair. "Thank you for the coffee, Jongin. Next time, it's my treat." He laughs, fiddling idly with one of the buttons on his coat as his other hand emerges with the keys to his 2001 Hyundai. "Assuming you even want to get coffee with me again."
As if Jongin could just write him off like that. Jongin has spent too long trying to keep Chanyeol close to give up because it's hard. "I'd like that," he says, as he walks away from Chanyeol, back toward the eyeglass shop where the bus to Ahyeon stops, and barely resists the urge to turn around and see if Chanyeol is watching him go, like he used to.
❦ ❦ ❦
Chanyeol asking him again, about Paris, had made him think about old promises.
The store is right near his apartment building, less than a ten-minute walk. They only charge two hundred won per regular size print, and it's as good a deal as he'll get anywhere else.
He hands his USB to the clerk behind the counter, a bored looking man in his mid twenties who takes Jongin's pictures and money without even looking up from his phone. "Come back in an hour," he says, and Jongin shuffles out as quickly as he'd entered.
He starts to walk home, planning on where he'll take his puppies running today, when he hears "Kim Jongin!" behind him.
He turns around, and it's Kim Jongdae behind him, running to catch up with him from across the street. Jongin waits for him. Jongdae takes huge puffing breaths when he stops in front of Jongin, finally straightening up to grin at him.
"I didn't know you lived around here," Jongdae says, and Jongin gives him a long look before he nods.
"Just around the corner.”
"I was just about to get something to eat," Jongdae says. "You wouldn't happen to want to come, would you?" He smiles. "Just to talk."
"Sure, yeah," Jongin says. "I have to wait an hour anyway, for my photos." He points at the Kodak store behind them, and Jongdae makes a thoughtful noise.
"From your trip to France, right?" He grins. "My mom always prints every single picture when she goes on vacation, even the ones where she accidentally photographed the inside of her purse."
"These photos aren't for me." Jongin pulls on his scarf.
"Oh," Jongdae says.
They end up at a kimbap place, Jongdae ordering six different rolls of kimbap without consulting Jongin. "You're bound to like at least one of them," he says, when Jongin gives him a questioning look. "And I'm a growing boy."
Jongin laughs, and Jongdae's eyes twinkle. "No you're not," Jongin says.
"Chanyeol always said you had a gorgeous smile," says Jongdae. "Unfortunately, thanks to the circumstances we met under, I hadn't had a chance to see it yet. He was right, though."
"I went out to coffee with him last night," Jongin says. "It's amazing how much I keep expecting him to remember me."
Jongdae folds his hands together. "Did he seem… confused?"
Jongin frowns. "What do you mean?" He stabs a roll of cheese kimbap with the metal of his chopsticks. It falls apart halfway to his mouth.
"Around the office, sometimes he stops and stares at things, just studying them… Like he knows something is out of place."
"He told me he's been having trouble with remembering things," Jongin says. "It's not… he's going to be okay, right?"
"Yes," Jongdae says. "He will. Chanyeol is very smart, so naturally discrepancies are going to bother him." He gives a pleased hum as he eats a piece of beef kimbap, swallowing it before speaking again. "As far as he knows, we're still waiting to do the first test of the procedure. It's strange…" He takes another piece "Keeping it all so secret. Dr. Kim… That's Kim Taeyeon, you know her, right?" Jongin nods. She'd been assigned to Chanyeol's team last year. She was efficient and stubborn, Chanyeol had said. He liked her. "She says this kind of testing, without a control, is very unorthodox. We all…" Jongdae sighs. ‘There's a moral element to this, you know? Even though Chanyeol volunteered, and we knew the procedure was safe, the fact that we can't tell him we did it makes it very hard to test the exact effects of the procedure."
"It was successful in removing me from his head," Jongin says, bitterly. "What other effects do you need to know?"
"I'm sorry," Jongdae says, and Jongin doesn't doubt his sincerity. "We really didn't think—"
"I know that," Jongin says. "And I've accepted what's happened. But I still don't…" He sets down his chopsticks. "I still don't think you should dig around in people's heads. Even if…" He shakes his head. "It's time for me to go pick up my pictures."
"If you notice anything strange," Jongdae says, "you should give me a call at the lab."
"I will," Jongin says. "I promise."
He picks up the photos and walks home. The dogs aren't at the door when he unlocks it, and sure enough, when he looks into the living room, they're all scrabbling to get on top of Taemin, licking at his face. He sets the photos on the table. "One day, you're going to see if I'm around before you come over."
"Jongin-ah!" Taemin says, "you need to give the dogs haircuts."
"It's winter. They'll get cold."
"They're shedding everywhere. Or have you forgotten that Chanyeol is mildly allergic—" He stops. "Sorry, I forgot."
"It's fine," Jongin says. "I forget, too, sometimes. I was writing a few days ago and I almost called him. Can you imagine? Some guy you haven't talked to since college except one time calling you sleepily and demanding you come over and play guitar to keep him awake?"
Taemin stands up and brushes himself off. "What did you bring home?" Jongin shrugs, and Taemin walks past him, picking the envelope up off the table. "I thought you already printed out those cheap copies from your bullshit printer."
"Those are for Soojung," Jongin says, as Taemin peeks into the envelope. "She always wanted to go to Paris."
"I didn't know that," Taemin says. "You want company when you take them to her?" He pulls the photos out, flipping through them one by one. Coffees at bakeries and theaters and the cobblestones by the river. Jongin turns away. "You chose good ones."
"You know, during fourth year," Jongin says, "when my parents were hounding me about joining a company and thinking about my future, I told Soojung I wanted to be a novelist."
"Did she laugh?" Taemin asks. "She always used to laugh at you when you said over the top stuff."
"No," Jongin says. "She asked what I wanted to write about. I told her I'd write her a novel about Paris." Jongin looks at Taemin's hands instead of his face, watching him put the photos back into the gold envelope. "She told me we'd have to go, so it would be accurate."
"I'm sure she'll like the pictures, Jongin," Taemin says. He squats down to fluff the matted hair on Monggu's head, and more quietly: "It's not your fault, you know."
"She was angry at me," Jongin says. "Because—" He swallows. He can't say it. "I'll go by myself."
Only one person has ever gone with Jongin, and that's Chanyeol. Maybe it's because Chanyeol had been there, that night. Had come to see Jongin as soon as he'd heard, and wrapped Jongin up in a hug as Jongin had tried to hide away from everything in the warmth of Chanyeol's shoulders. It had seemed silly not to let him come along, after that.
But Chanyeol doesn't remember that.
Jongin will go by himself.
"All right," Taemin says. "You could at least let me give you a ride."
"If you really want to," Jongin says, and Taemin looks at him for a moment before he smacks Jongin hard on the shoulder. "Ow!"
"You don't have to do it by yourself," Taemin says. "You have friends who love you, Jongin."
"Your love hurts," Jongin says, but the knots in his chest loosen, just enough that he can breathe.
"Go get in my car," says Taemin, threatening tone belied by the softness of his expression.
"Okay," Jongin says. "I'm going." He takes the envelope from Taemin, smoothing his thumb along the closure.
❦ ❦ ❦
"Lu Han helped," Jongin says, shifting restlessly in the chair in front of Joonmyun's desk. Surrounded by all these printed out novels in various states of completion, Joonmyun looks like Jongin's third year literature teacher, the one Baekhyun had been mildly afraid of after he'd yelled him up the sociology building and down the other side of it when he'd caught Baekhyun not picking up his used cigarette butts. Jongin and Sehun had made fun of him for days afterward, and Chanyeol had tried to be disapproving but always ended up laughing as soon as Jongin did. "I don't know why, but sometimes his really obvious questions help me pick out what I haven't said."
"Another set of eyes usually helps," Joonmyun says. "Especially a set of eyes you're so comfortable with."
"So the draft was better?" Jongin asks, and Joonmyun nods. His eyes are tired, but he smiles.
"It is," Joonmyun replies. "I read the whole thing straight through. But the ending…"
"I haven't written it yet," Jongin says. "I'm still trying to decide what Hyejeong does, that last night in Paris."
"Oh, good," Joonmyun says, reclining back in his spinning chair. "I thought you were ending it there."
The first ending Jongin had pictured in his mind left Hyejeong alone at her hotel, looking out at the Seine and watching the tour ships float by. In that first, tentative draft, Jongin had imagined leaving her there wondering if the rest of her life was going to feel just like this, happiness within her grasp but being too afraid, too broken, to take it.
Jongin's real life is like that, though, and as much as Jongin has stopped believing in fairy tales, he still wants to write Hyejeong the ending he wishes he could give himself.
"It can't end there," Jongin says. "There are too many threads left untied." He scratches at his head. "Even if life is like that, I don't think… Hyejeong doesn't deserve to be left in limbo, like that."
Joonmyun sets down his bright purple marking pen and smiles at Jongin. "I look forward to whatever you come up with."
"Your guess is as good as mine," Jongin says. "I don't think I know how to be happy anymore."
❦ ❦ ❦
"Jongin," Chanyeol says, and Jongin almost drops the phone.
"Are you busy right now?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin grips the leashes tighter as Jjanggu tries to keep running. "You sound out of breath."
"I'm out running," he says. "Jjanggu, sit. With the dogs, you know?"
"So you are busy," Chanyeol says, sounding disappointed. "I was hoping you weren't."
"Chanyeol-hyung, it's a Saturday afternoon," Jongin says. "I can be un-busy."
"In about an hour?" Chanyeol sounds skeptical, and Jongin laughs. "I'm sorry to be so last minute, but there's a really interesting exhibit at a museum in Janchung-dong and I was going to ask Kyungsoo to come, but he hates museums, and Baekhyun can't keep still or quiet to save his life."
"I can come," Jongin blurts out. He'd meant to ask what the exhibit was about, or some other question, but really, he's so glad that Chanyeol is inviting him that he doesn't really care.
"If you're sure it's not an inconvenience," Chanyeol says.
"I could meet you," Jongin says, already turning around and starting to walk back toward his apartment building. If he runs, it's only seven minutes away. He can take a quick shower and shave, and be ready to go in twenty. "Where are we going?"
"There's a special artist exhibit at the Jong Ie Nara." Chanyeol chuckles. "Not too late to back out, Jongin. You're still in your twenties, you don't have to go down this old man road."
"Hyung, you've always liked weird stuff. Age has nothing to do with it." Jongin can feel the sweat sticky on his back, and at this pace, it's starting to cool. He's only wearing a sweatshirt, because he'd planned on running the whole time and coats are bulky, even in under zero Celsius, so he shivers. "Where should I meet you?"
"How about I pick you up?" Chanyeol asks. "Where's your apartment?"
"I live in the Ahyeon New Town apartments," says Jongin. "Right past where they tore down the overpass last month."
"I saw that on the news," Chanyeol says. Jongin had been in Paris, and it had been weird to come home to a new view out of his window. "I know where that is. Text me your exact address and I'll be there in…" He pauses. "Is forty minutes all right?"
"Yes," Jongin says. "Just fine."
He hangs up the phone and jogs home, just getting warmed up again as he gets to his door. He lets his puppies off the leash and they all start running around the apartment. Jjangah bumps into a table full theater schedules for the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, knocking them all to the floor.
"Calm down, kids," he says half-heartedly, not really able to punish them when it's his fault their exercise got cut short and they're excited. He strips, climbing into the shower and rapidly scrubbing himself. He spends extra time on his hair, making sure to get it clean, because Chanyeol usually finds some way to mash his face into it--
Jongin's arms drop, and he rinses it out.
He pulls on a relatively clean pair of jeans and an undershirt, and he's just slid his arms into a button-up shirt when his doorbell rings.
He answers the door, and Chanyeol's eyes widen at Jongin's appearance. Jongin self consciously runs fingers through his wet hair. "I'll be just a minute," he says, and Chanyeol grins, his expression changing as Monggu squeezes in between Jongin's legs to get closer to their guests.
"Um, I'm sorry," Jongin says. "I know you're kind of allergic but they get cold in the winter so—"
"How'd you know I was allergic?" Chanyeol asks. "Kyungsoo tell you that?" He shrugs. "I'm most allergic to cats, not dogs, Jongin. Don't worry about it."
"Come in already. I'm just going to do a couple more things."
"Take your time. I'm a few minutes early." He always is. Jongin doesn't think of it as early, anymore, and hasn't for a few years. He just mentally subtracts ten minutes from whatever time Chanyeol gives him.
"Sorry for the mess," Jongin says. "I didn't have time to clean up. I'm in the middle of revisions on a book."
"Your Paris book," Chanyeol says, and Jongin nods.
"Yeah." Chanyeol in his apartment is all at once familiar and strange. Familiar, in that Chanyeol had helped him move in to this apartment, right after college. He'd sprained his wrist helping Jongin with his splinted knee wrangle the sofa he's staring at in speculation right now into its spot. He'd smiled as he applied the ice pack Jongin gave him to the sprain, and told Jongin it was no big deal, and then they'd sat and watched a movie, Jongin with his head on Chanyeol's shoulder. Soojung had shown up with dinner for all three of them, but Chanyeol had left, claiming he had things to do, but he'd smiled the whole way out the door.
He'd only had one dog, then.
Jongin goes to the bathroom and brushes his teeth, superficially drying his hair and neck.
When he goes back out into the hallway, Chanyeol has moved to the kitchen looking around curiously.
"Can I get you some water, or—"
"I was looking for your dog treats. I don't know why I thought you'd keep them in the cabinet…"
"I do," Jongin says. "That one, right in front of you."
Chanyeol takes the bag out and offers a treat to Jjangah, who follows him around as faithfully as usual. She knows Chanyeol is weak to her charm, even if Chanyeol doesn't.
He puts the bag back before Jongin's other two dogs come running, and Jjangah yaps happily as Chanyeol leans down to scratch under her chin. "So fluffy," he says. "Just like Jongin."
"I'm not," Jongin says, starting to button his shirt to give himself something to do with his hands that isn't wringing them together anxiously.
Chanyeol straightens, and his eyes alight on Jongin's mostly unused kitchen counter, where Jongin has left a strange assortment of things. Chanyeol pauses for a moment, his face in that strange spell of too strong concentration, and picks up a small folded shape from among the multitude of objects. "Paper cranes?"
Jongin watches him carefully as he does the last button of his shirt. Chanyeol's fingers instinctively straighten the wings, and Jongin wonders if he remembers folding that crane, a few months ago. He'd torn the piece of discarded printer paper into four even squares and then the edge into two smaller ones, folding each square into another tiny crane. He'd left them all in the center of Jongin's bed, and when Jongin had finally, finally, mailed a draft off to his agent, Minseok, he'd found them there. Somehow, they'd migrated out into the kitchen, and Jongin still hadn't thrown them away, because he'd remembered the way Chanyeol's hands had so meticulously manipulated the paper.
"Yeah," Jongin says, holding his breath. "I collect them. Sort of."
Chanyeol sets it back down, giving it one last searching look, before lifting his gaze to Jongin.
"I like to fold these, too," Chanyeol says. "Out of scrap paper and stuff. I learned how from my older sister, back when I was in my second year of elementary school."
"Really?" Jongin hadn't known that. Chanyeol has always folded cranes, and Jongin hadn't thought to ask when he'd learned.
"There was a cute girl in my class who was really into origami," Chanyeol says. "I wanted to impress her, so I learned how to fold a crane."
Jongin briefly wonders if when Chanyeol had folded these cranes, he'd wanted to impress Jongin.
"We always think it's easy to impress girls when we're little, huh?" Jongin laughs when Chanyeol makes a chagrined face.
"It worked," Chanyeol says. "She agreed to go out with me, and I thought it would be nice to make her a thousand of them."
"Then what happened?" Jongin asks, looking for his nicer shoes on the shoe rack by his door and setting them out in the doorway. Then he walks back into the kitchen. Chanyeol watches him the whole time, and Jongin, instead of finding that overwhelming, finds it comforting. "Clearly you didn't live happily ever."
"She dumped me before I even got past seven hundred," Chanyeol says. "I didn't learn my lesson, though. I'm still always making things for the people I like."
Jongin's gray scarf is hanging in the closet by the door, on the hook. He licks his lips. "I'm ready to go."
"I can see that," he says, and Jongin chuckles nervously. "I'm not trying to hurry you out, or anything. My apartment isn't much to look at."
"Are all the papers everywhere notes for your current novel?"
"Yeah," Jongin says, "or what's left of the ones my dogs haven't torn to smithereens." He scratches his neck. "Now you definitely can't stay."
"Why not?" Chanyeol asks. "Afraid I'll find some hidden plot twist on your living room floor?"
"No," Jongin says, "but it's bad luck for you to see anything but the finished novel."
"Oh really?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin freezes, running the words through his head again and wincing at what they were. "Me in particular, Kim Jongin?"
"Don't be silly," Jongin says. "People in general. Only Lu Han and Joonmyun read my unfinished stuff."
"I have a good eye for grammar," Chanyeol says. "But you probably have that under control."
Really, it's that Jongin has his own habits when he wants to impress.
"You might not even like my books," says Jongin.
"I stayed up all night finishing your first novel," admits Chanyeol. "I started it just before I went to meet you for coffee, and that night I read the rest of it."
"What did you think?" Jongin takes his coat off the hook, and Chanyeol reaches to help him with it, smoothing the fabric over Jongin's shoulders before quickly withdrawing.
"Sorry," he says. "I..."
"Don't worry about it," says Jongin. It's easier to pretend, in moments like those, that nothing has changed at all. He runs his own hands over his coat, hoping to quell the tingles, but he can still feel the ghosts of Chanyeol's hands. "I don't mind, if you…"
Chanyeol grabs the hat Jongin had dropped to the ground, a black beanie that might have belonged, at some point, to Baekhyun. "You'll catch a cold," he says, jamming the hat down on Jongin's head, lower than he likes to wear it, covering his ears. "Your hair is still wet."
"Oh," Jongin says, adjusting the fold so it isn't catching on his eyebrows, and Chanyeol smiles at him.
"How did you survive without me?" Chanyeol teases, and Jongin almost tells him he didn't.
"I loved the novel," Chanyeol says, after Jongin bends over to say goodbye to each puppy, denying them all kisses because he's going out. Jongin pulls his door shut and waits for the beep of the automatic lock. "I couldn't stop reading it. I was exhausted at work the next day."
"Should I apologize for that?" Jongin asks, his heart in his throat.
"Not at all," says Chanyeol says. "I love a good book." They take the elevator down to the parking lot. "My copy is signed."
"Is it?" Jongin says vaguely. He watches the numbers drop as they descend.
"It says ‘Chanyeol, tune your guitar, from Jongin'."
(Chanyeol had been particularly annoying that night. He kept playing loud things as Jongin had struggled to concentrate on his e-mail to Minseok about a book signing. "You haven't signed mine yet," Chanyeol had said. Jongin had glared at him and said, "Hand it over, then.")
"Sehun is probably playing a joke on you," Jongin says. "I haven't heard you play guitar in years."
"I think we stopped spending time together when I was in fourth year?" Chanyeol scratches at the side of his face. "Why did we fall out of touch, again?"
"Who knows? Maybe you got tired of me."
"It's more likely that you got tired of me."
Jongin shakes his head. "I don't think that's possible." They walk out of the elevator and into the parking lot. "There are so many interesting things about you."
"That's my line," Chanyeol says. "I'm the Hyundai."
"Isn't that the same car you drove in college?"
"Maybe," Chanyeol says. "It still drives."
Chanyeol plays old Radiohead albums in the car, pushing CDs into the player between the vents and singing along loudly as they drive. Jongin's glad he doesn't have to talk, letting Chanyeol interrupt himself every once in awhile with stories about what's happened in the past four days since Jongin's seen him.
"The exhibit we're going to," Chanyeol says, "is going to be really cool."
"I don't even know what the Jong Ie Nara museum is," admits Jongin. "I only know the stationery company."
"Then why'd you agree to come with me?" Chanyeol's tapping along to Radiohead still, drumming his thumbs against his covered steering wheel. "I wouldn't have been offended if you'd said no."
"Because you invited me," Jongin says, using his coat to cover the lower half of his face. "Why'd you bother?"
"Actually," Chanyeol says, "I remembered that you used to be really into comics and stuff when we were in college."
"Still am," Jongin says. "My big sisters are always teasing me. Sehun bought me a Digital Monsters lunchbox from Homeplus for my birthday this year."
"The Jong Ie Nara museum is a paper museum," Chanyeol explains, turning off the main highway and onto a smaller two-lane road. "They have exhibits on the history of paper and its uses. Stuff like that. But they also do a lot to showcase the really cool creative things people do with paper."
"And one of those things is comics?"
"Sculptures," Chanyeol says. "Of comic book villains, made completely out of paper." He pulls into a garage. "Actually, I thought of you first, but I thought it might be weird, to invite you out of the blue. I didn't want to scare you off."
"I'm glad you invited me," Jongin says, when Chanyeol's parked and taken the keys out of the ignition. "I wasn't sure…"
"Oh no," Chanyeol says, making Jongin jump at the loud sound. "I'm completely weak to cute pouting faces, so don't make them at me." He pats Jongin's thigh lightly. "Call me any time you want, Jongin."
"I don't make cute pouting faces." Jongin opens the car door.
"You do," Chanyeol says. "Your lower lip sticks out just enough that I want to grab it."
"Don't you dare," Jongin says, and Chanyeol laughs, loudly, attracting the attention of a family that's just getting out of their car, the two small children staring at them as the two adults carefully don't. "Let's go look at your paper."
"We have three hours until closing," Chanyeol says, pulling again at Jongin's sleeve, as he'd done back at his apartment when he'd wanted Jongin to see the view out of his apartment window. "We got here just in time."
There's no admission to the museum, and Chanyeol is as good as any tour guide. They start at the top, where he says the old stuff is. He's right, and the second floor is full of older patrons peering into glass cases at calligraphy or marveling at old handmade paper. He tells Jongin everything about how to make the mulberry paper that makes up a lot of the historical artifacts on exhibit on the museum's first floor, and then tells Jongin about a childhood incident where he'd stepped right through a screen door made of it in his grandmother's house.
As he talks, he makes wide gestures with his hands, and it lulls Jongin into a comfortable peace. The thing about Chanyeol that Jongin has always appreciated most is his ability to fill all the empty space around him with warmth. Just being close to him makes Jongin feel toasty and content.
Soojung had been, Jongin thinks, more like a sweater. She had cut the cold, and kept Jongin warmer than he would have been without her. But in comparison, Chanyeol has always been a furnace.
Maybe that's why in Paris, Jongin had found the weather so cold.
Chanyeol briefly presses his hand to the small of Jongin's back to get his attention, and Jongin leans into it, his body recognizing Chanyeol's touch and missing it more than he ever would have thought he would, back when he had it whenever he wanted.
"The more modern art is on the first floor," Chanyeol says. "And the special exhibitions. I haven't been here before, but…"
"You researched the whole place online before you came?" Jongin grins at Chanyeol, and Chanyeol's gaze flicks down briefly, to his mouth, before coming back up to his eyes. "You're predictable."
"Hmm," Chanyeol says, his voice suddenly slightly lower. "We should go downstairs."
The first floor of the museum is filled with children, walking between rows of brightly colored jongi-jeopgi: everything from windmills to complex folded flowers. A docent is teaching a bunch of small children how to fold a flower, and a young boy at the back struggles with following the instructions.
Chanyeol drops down, bouncing a little to get comfortable in a squat so he doesn't tower. "Can I give you a hand?" he asks, as the boy's mother watches. Jongin smiles at her reassuringly, then turns back to Chanyeol. "It's not so hard. I can do it for you slower?"
The boy nods, undoing what he's already done, and Chanyeol winks at him.
He takes one of the boy’s two pieces of paper and shows him slowly how to fold the flower, never getting frustrated and never hurrying. It reminds Jongin of when Chanyeol had tried to teach him how to beatbox, making the most ridiculous faces so Jongin wouldn't feel self-conscious figuring out how to move his mouth. He'd never quite mastered it, and Kyungsoo, who'd long ago become almost as proficient as Chanyeol, had stared at him judgmentally every time he practiced, but they'd had fun.
When Chanyeol's finished, both he and the boy have perfect paper flowers. "Not so bad, right?" he asks, and the boy shakes his head no, leaning back as Chanyeol stands up and gets taller before his eyes.
"Why are you looking at me so intently?" Chanyeol asks, when he returns his attention to Jongin, and Jongin flushes and looks away.
"When I write," Jongin says, "it's all about the details. The slope of someone's nose, or the way their lips move when they smile." He puts his hands into his pockets. "I think I'm always trying to commit every detail to memory, so I stare."
"What do you remember about my face?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin shoves him lightly.
"I thought you were telling me about the art," he says, and Chanyeol laughs, reeling off into another long spiel about turning paper into a sculpting material, walking them, finally, toward the exhibit they came to see.
"The thing about these kinds of sculptures is that they're so painstaking to create. My tiny jongi-jeopgi tricks, folding Post-its into birds and the like, are nothing in comparison to the hours the artists spend even just treating the paper to make it ready to sculpt." He takes a deep breath, and then catches himself. "You're probably bored," Chanyeol says, apologetically. "I just get really excited, and I tend to think everything I say is interesting. Kyungsoo tells me it's chronic narcissism, and Kris doesn't understand half of what I say, anyway, so…"
"No," Jongin replies, "I'm not bored. I really like the sound of your voice." He hadn't meant to say the last part. He crosses his arms anxiously. "And the paper stuff is kind of interesting."
"Really?" Chanyeol says. "Or are you just saying that?"
"I don't ‘just say' much," says Jongin. "You know that."
"Do I?" Chanyeol tucks the paper flower he's just made into the fold of Jongin's hat, and then tentatively puts an arm around his shoulders, and Jongin freezes, the heavy weight snatching his breath away before he forces himself to relax. Chanyeol's smile grows a fraction.
They go to McDonald’s for dinner. Chanyeol orders enough fries to feed forty people, but he and Jongin eat them all. Jongin draws a Squirtle on the edge of his own receipt with a pen Chanyeol had produced out of thin air, and Chanyeol coos over it.
"Can I keep this?" he asks, and when Jongin gapes at him, torn between wanting to cry and wanting to throw up all the fries he's eaten, he backtracks. "Or not, if you'd rather I didn't. Is that weird, that I want to keep it?"
"No," Jongin says, giving Chanyeol back his pen, the receipt rolled around it. "Do what you want."
"I've always liked your tiny doodles," Chanyeol says, slipping the receipt into his wallet. As he does, he hesitates. "Haven't…I?"
Later, when Chanyeol pulls up in front of Jongin's apartment, he parks and turns to Jongin, looking at him seriously, even as his lips twitch.
"I'm glad you came with me today," he says. "It's cool, how years can pass and people can still fit together. It's like we were never really apart." He searches Jongin's eyes, and Jongin has to turn away, in case Chanyeol finds something in them Jongin doesn't want him to.
No it isn't, Jongin thinks, but he smiles at Chanyeol anyway as he gets out of the car, those icy fingers closing around his heart again as soon as he closes the door.
He finds the paper rose still in his hat when he takes it off, and carefully sticks it to the wall with a piece of tape, right next to a grainy photo of the Louvre that he'd taken in low light.
❦ ❦ ❦
The dismal quiet of Jongin's life since he came back from Paris once again fills up with Chanyeol, in little ways that ease the pain.
Jongin had thought he knew how integral Chanyeol had become to his life in the past eight years, but he'd vastly underestimated how many things about his day Chanyeol made better just by being Chanyeol.
It's not like before, where the silly texts would be interspersed with the more personal ones, asking Jongin about whether he needs some company to fight off the sadness he always feels in the winter, but it's something.
It's something, and it helps Jongin not miss Chanyeol so much.
❦ ❦ ❦
It's the only thing that explains how all of Jongin's valid arguments, about having a deadline ("bring your laptop, then") and needing his notes to write ("just pack the ones you really need") and consistency helping him get into a groove ("now you're just being a drama queen again") fall on unrelenting ears, and Jongin ends up headed into the Baektudaegan mountains in the second week of March for a five day trip, sandwiched between Baekhyun and Sehun in the backseat of Chanyeol's car.
It's mostly the way Kyungsoo looks up at him, from underneath his hair, and says "Chanyeol was hoping you would be coming," that has Jongin begrudgingly pulling his smaller suitcase out from under his bed, the white airport tags with ICN >>> CDG still hanging from the top handle, while calling Taemin and asking him to take care of his dogs. "At this point," Taemin says, "you're not even going to have dogs. They're going to forget about you and accept me as their new lord and master."
Zitao has claimed the front seat next to Chanyeol, pouting until he'd gotten his way, but he keeps turning around to talk to Sehun, leaving Jongin in the middle of a three-way conversation when he'd rather be asleep.
Kyungsoo is in the car ahead of them, alone, leading the way to the resort. "Someone has to drive the luggage," he'd said, when they'd been talking about how to split up for the journey. "Plus, if I drive for three hours with any of you I'll hate you before even we get there." Jongin thinks he just wants to talk to his girlfriend the whole way there without a heckling audience.
Chanyeol is pretty quiet as he drives, rapping along to some generic pop on the radio. Jongin can't see much of him from the back seat, but it's reassuring to look ahead and see Chanyeol there in front of him.
"All you do is travel, Jongin," Baekhyun says, loudly popping his gum. "Must be nice to make your own hours."
"I shouldn't be going on a trip right now," Jongin says. "I need to turn something in to Joonmyun-hyung soon."
"You can work on it while we're there, right?" Sehun asks. "Maybe Chanyeol-hyung will keep you company."
"I'd probably just get in his way," Chanyeol says. "I'm sure Jongin would prefer the quiet."
"But you always—" Sehun stops himself, shrinking back into his seat. "Never mind."
Jongin leans his head on Baekhyun's shoulder, slumping into him, and Baekhyun absently strokes Jongin's knee as he attempts to tickle Zitao's neck surreptitiously, poking his skinny finger into the space between the headrest and the seat.
"I'm sorry," Sehun whispers, a few minutes later, when Zitao has engaged Chanyeol in a conversation about some television show they both watch. Chanyeol keeps interrupting Zitao to correct his grammar, and Zitao huffs indignantly every time but repeats the sentence again, carefully. Chanyeol can't help but instruct, Jongin thinks, because he is, in his own way, kind of a know-it-all who never admits when he can't do something. "Really."
"It's fine," Jongin says. It seems that ‘it's fine' is what he's always saying, these days.
"It's hard to get used to," Sehun says. "Chanyeol-hyung being all… distant with you." His face crumples into one of his weird frowns. "I mean, not distant, but not…"
"Not Chanyeol," Jongin says. "How do you think I feel?"
"Probably shitty," Sehun says.
"I'm getting strangely used to people I care about being here but not here," Jongin says bitterly, then regrets it immediately, curling into himself in the middle seat.
"It's nothing like that and you know it," Sehun says harshly. "So stop thinking about it in the worst way possible."
He's loud enough that he catches the attention of everyone else in the car. "Sehunnie, don't pick fights in the car," Chanyeol says.
"Yeah, whatever," says Sehun, and he turns to look out the window. Jongin tries to go to sleep. Sehun, a few minutes later, pats his hand in the Sehun version of an apology, and Jongin accepts it with a nudge of his shoulder.
When they get to the condo they've rented, at the top floor of one of the fancy hotels, Jongin looks around in surprise.
"Not bad, right?" Baekhyun says. "Kyungsoo picked out a nice place."
"I can't believe you got Chanyeol-hyung to go for this," Jongin says.
"Me either," Zitao says. "Hyung is a total tight-wad."
"It's the tail end of the season," Kyungsoo says. "Next week is the last chance to really ski before it starts getting warm, and last week was the last good snow. So the prices were low."
"Makes sense to me," Sehun says. "Who cares about snow? Did you see that hot tub?"
Chanyeol is the last one upstairs, carrying his suitcase and typing with one hand on his phone. "Sorry," he says. "Was replying to Kris's e-mail."
"How is he?" Jongin asks, and Chanyeol grins.
"Good," he says. "He's coming to visit in April, did you know?"
"I told him," Sehun says. "I felt he had to be warned of the excessive bromancing to come."
Chanyeol good-naturedly chuckles. "Have we chosen rooms yet?"
"No," Kyungsoo says. "Do you have a preference, Chanyeol?"
"I want to be with Jongin," he says, and Sehun smirks.
"No surprises there," he says. "Guess I'll stick with Zitao."
"Am I being punished?" Kyungsoo asks dryly, looking at Baekhyun, who bats his eyelashes at Kyungsoo playfully.
"Of course not," he says. "You're being rewarded. After all, I'm the most entertaining roommate."
"Is ‘most entertaining’ code for ‘most annoying’?" Kyungsoo asks.
After moving their things to the separate rooms, they spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the grounds, learning the layout of the resort area and looking up at the mountains.
"I can't even ski," Chanyeol says. "It should be interesting."
"I'll teach you," Jongin says immediately, and Chanyeol looks down at him, pleased.
"Really?" It's colder up in the mountains, so the tip of Chanyeol's nose is red. He makes a pretty adorable reindeer, in Jongin's opinion.
"Yeah," Jongin says. "I—"
He’d promised Chanyeol, once, that he'd teach him how. That had been two years ago, though, when Jongin had gone skiing with his parents and sisters for the weekend. He'd come back with a knee that ached badly enough that he'd needed to ice it for all of Monday, but he'd been happy anyway. "If it makes you smile that much," Chanyeol had said, dropping by with takeout so Jongin wouldn't stand around burning things on the stove, "it must be pretty fun."
"Sorry," Jongin says, looking away from Chanyeol and back at the snowy mountains in front of them. There are plenty of people on the ski lift, even as the day gets later. "I would love to teach you. My family is really into it, so I've had a lot of practice."
"I'd really like that," Chanyeol says.
When Chanyeol and Baekhyun go out to get groceries for them, Jongin tries to hole up in his and Chanyeol's room and write. He stares at his computer screen for a solid hour before he sighs, closing it and pushing it to the edge of his bed and slumping forward.
"You look like a hedgehog," Chanyeol says, walking over and sitting next to him. He spreads his hand out on Jongin's back.
"Your hands are cold," Jongin says, wriggling away, and Chanyeol laughs.
"It's getting cooler outside," Chanyeol admits. "And I didn't take my gloves." He rubs his hands together as Jongin watches him through his hair. "Anything in particular you want to eat?"
It's like… it's like when Chanyeol used to come over when Jongin had deadlines. It feels like that, but not… not exactly.
"No," Jongin says. "I'm not hungry."
"Even if I make chicken?" Chanyeol teases. "You really liked that, in college."
"I still do," Jongin says. "Hey, do you think…"
"What is it, Jongin?"
"Do you think, after dinner, you could just…" He doesn't know how to ask. "Sit in here with me?"
Chanyeol looks at him consideringly, and then gives him a tiny smile. "I have some reading to do," he says. "So it would be no problem at all."
Jongin writes more that night than he's written in weeks as Chanyeol curls up in bed with Jongin's newest published novel, the one he'd never gotten around to reading before, his tongue sticking out as he concentrates.
"Any good?" Jongin asks, as they're going to bed, Chanyeol sticking his bookmark between the pages about a quarter of the way through.
"I'll let you know when I'm finished," Chanyeol says. "Are you going to sign this one, for me?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "If you ask nicely."
❦ ❦ ❦
He seems to enjoy the lift more than he enjoys the skiing, tugging at Jongin's jacket and saying "Look! Isn't it pretty?" every time they get high enough to clear the lowest mountaintops.
Their third time down, they meet another newbie skier, and Chanyeol immediately strikes up conversation with him. Jongin watches as Chanyeol gets more and more interested in the man, and he joins them on their descent.
Chanyeol and his new friend are laughing with each other, and Jongin looks at them uncertainly before deciding it shouldn't bother him.
"I'm going to go try one of the harder slopes," Jongin says, when they get to the bottom, and Chanyeol gives him a big hug, their ski goggles crashing into each other as Chanyeol unbalances himself. "Is that all right?"
"It's fine," Chanyeol says, turning to the stranger, who does, Jongin admits, have a nice smile. "You'll keep me company, right?"
"It would be my pleasure," the man says. Jongin feels funny leaving him there, but he'd promised Sehun he'd go at least once with him down one of the more difficult slopes.
"Okay then," says Jongin. "I'll see you later." Chanyeol is already laughing along with the new guy, and Jongin doesn't like the way Chanyeol looks at him at all.
"There you are," Sehun says, when Jongin sits next to him on the lift to go up to one of the higher slopes. "I didn't think you'd be with Chanyeol the whole day, but I should have known better."
"He's otherwise occupied right now," Jongin says, and Zitao, looking over his shoulder from the seat in front of theirs, grins.
"Let's see if you're still any good," he says, and he takes a picture of both Jongin and Sehun giving peace signs with his phone before resuming his texting.
Jongin doesn't see Chanyeol again until late that afternoon, after he's already turned boneless in the massive hot water pool on the first floor of the resort lodging they're staying at. He, Sehun, Zitao and Baekhyun had come down all at once, and Kyungsoo had joined them shortly after, all of them drifting to different corners of the pool, worn out.
"Are you meditating, or can anyone come in?"
Jongin jumps, and then grins. "It's not my pool," he says. "Be careful though, it's hot."
"Hot is okay," Chanyeol says, testing it with his toes and deeming it passable before moving closer. "Ahhh," he hisses when he slides into the water next to Jongin, and Jongin looks away, to watch Sehun try to take pictures of Zitao despite the steam. "Is it even safe for Zitao to have his camera in here?"
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Jongin says, watching as Sehun pretends to drop the phone into the water, making Zitao squawk indignantly, before turning to watch Baekhyun flirt with an entire group of girls, a cup of beer in one hand as he uses the other one to anchor himself to the wall of the large pool. Kyungsoo is just slumped against the back of the tub, eyes closed and entire chest red from the steam and heat. "I mean, the worst thing that happens is that he breaks it?"
"That would ruin Zitao's whole vacation," Chanyeol jokes. He wades closer to Jongin, so that his wet arm slides along Jongin's. Jongin leans into it, slightly.
"I only went down the hill twice more before Jinyoung-ssi and I came back to the resort," Chanyeol tells him. "I was much less successful without you."
Jongin smiles at him. "You're alive," he says, flexing his knee. "And you look mostly unwounded."
"I'm not so sure," Chanyeol says. "I think my butt is broken."
"Not much there to break," says Jongin, and Chanyeol gives him a devious smile.
"Oh, you noticed?" Jongin frowns at him, unimpressed, even as his stomach clenches. "Yah, Jongin-ah! I'm flattered."
There's a splash of water, and suddenly they're joined by a third person. Jongin recognizes that smile.
"Hey, Chanyeol-ssi. And Jongin-ssi, right?" Chanyeol and Jongin both turn to see the man from the slopes earlier smiling at them. He's even better looking without the goggles on, and Jongin sinks deeper into the water as the man wades closer to them, his whole smile reserved for Chanyeol.
Jongin has never felt invisible next to Chanyeol before. Chanyeol is one of the people in Jongin's life who gives him his entire attention, even though Jongin doesn't go out of his way to demand it. This stranger though, Jinyoung-ssi, from the ski slopes earlier, has all of Chanyeol's attention right now, his hand entirely too comfortable on Chanyeol's arm and his eyes frequently wandering down to the breadth of Chanyeol's shoulders and the lean muscle of his chest.
The steam is making him lightheaded, and that doesn't help. He should get out of the water, but he can't bring himself to leave Chanyeol here without him, because…
"Jonginnie," Chanyeol says, suddenly staring down at him, "are you all right?"
"I'm—" Jongin blinks at him dazedly. "Jonginnie, huh?"
"It just slipped off my tongue," replies Chanyeol, abashed. "You don't mind, do you?"
"No," Jongin says. "Not at all." Chanyeol's eyes are entirely on him again, and Jongin ruthlessly keeps them there. "I think I'm going to get out of the water."
Chanyeol nods, before turning to the man next to him and apologizing, excusing them both. The man smiles ruefully, looking at Jongin speculatively, and Jongin's ears burn. He hopes the heat of the hot tub will excuse the redness in them.
Kyungsoo is staring at him, frowning, when he looks around for his friends. Jongin doesn't meet his stare, letting Chanyeol push him toward the ladder even as he mumbles about being able to climb out from where they are.
"Not if you're dizzy," Chanyeol says. "What if you fall?" He pushes a piece of wet hair away from Jongin's forehead, his hand lingering on the side of Jongin's face, and Jongin offers up no further complaints.
They wrap themselves up in big fluffy towels, Chanyeol taking extra time to dry Jongin's hair with his.
"We're just going upstairs," he says, and Chanyeol grins at him.
"But what if there's a draft in the halls?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin gives him an unimpressed frown even though Chanyeol's worry makes him feel…
When they get back up to the group's shared condo, Chanyeol ushers Jongin into the kitchen and pours them each a glass of cold water. "Dehydration is often what makes you dizzy like that in steam." He taps Jongin's nose, and Jongin stares at him with wide eyes.
Chanyeol is looking at him so fondly. Jongin had missed it, so much, and he wishes he could grab Chanyeol's finger and waspishly ask him "do you remember what happened the last time you did that," and have Chanyeol say "yes."
Jongin drinks the water, and it clears his head.
Chanyeol is staring at him when he puts the glass down. "What?"
"Nothing," says Chanyeol, and Jongin opens his mouth to protest, but there's the sound of Sehun and Zitao's combined laughter as they walk into the condo, and Jongin lets the moment pass.
They both come into the kitchen, arguing about Zitao's phone, Zitao whining about how bad his face looks from the angle Sehun took the picture and Sehun returning fire that all of Zitao's angles are bad angles. After gulping down glasses of water, they both disappear, Zitao going into the room they're sharing and Sehun unreservedly going into Jongin and Chanyeol's room. The water turns on in both bathrooms simultaneously.
"Sehun is so shameless," Chanyeol says, and Jongin laughs.
"He's been that way since we were little kids," he says. "I don't think he's ever had enough people in his life tell him no."
Chanyeol shakes his head, lifting one arm to slide fingers through his hair, and Jongin's eyes pick up on something.
Jongin grabs Chanyeol's arm, pulling it to him for inspection. "You've got bruises." He’d noted them earlier, in the pool, but hadn’t realized how dark they were. He runs his thumb over darkening skin, and Chanyeol chuckles.
"It's not so bad. I had fun." His eyes are darker than usual, when Jongin looks up from the bruise to his face.
"You should be more careful," Jongin rasps, and Chanyeol lopsidedly grins at him.
"That was me being careful. I am many things," says Chanyeol, "but I can't count graceful among them. Not all of us are ballet dancers."
"Skiing uses different coordination skills than ballet," Jongin says. "And I haven't danced anything in years."
"Which is a shame," Chanyeol says. "I used to really enjoy watching you dance."
"I'm going to start dinner," Kyungsoo says, interrupting their conversation and making Jongin flinch, as he walks into the kitchen dressed in a sweatsuit that’s so large it looks like Baekhyun bought it. "So you both need to get out of my way."
"Would you like me to help?" Chanyeol asks, and Kyungsoo arches an eyebrow. "As your servant, of course, not because I think you can't do it by yourself."
Kyungsoo smiles then. "No, Chanyeol, I've got things under control."
"Then I'm going to change clothes," Chanyeol says. "Since I think Sehun is in the shower in our room."
"Okay," Jongin says, letting go of Chanyeol's arm. Chanyeol brings his own hand up to wrap around where Jongin's fingers had gripped, and he smiles to himself as he leaves the kitchen.
"You know," Kyungsoo says, when they're alone, Kyungsoo with his eye on the boiling mandu, "when I said this was a second chance with Chanyeol, I didn't mean a second chance to make the same mistakes." He looks away from the dumplings and stares. "Sometimes, you can be really selfish."
Seeing Chanyeol flirt with that guy, someone who wasn't Jongin, had triggered all those same fears that he's lived with for so long. That Chanyeol would finally get over Jongin, and Jongin would have to let him go. Selfish is the best word for it. The only word, really.
"There are certain mistakes I won't make again," Jongin says. His mind skips immediately to four years ago, sitting out on the balcony of Baekhyun's house, Chanyeol's hand on top of his. Chanyeol's breath had smelled of vodka, and his mouth had been— "There are some things I've learned."
"You've had a rough time," Kyungsoo says. "And I know… I know you have your reasons, for being the way you are. But Chanyeol… he deserves happiness, Jongin."
"I know that," Jongin says, "I do."
Sehun walks back in after a while, poking with one of the cooking spoons at the dumplings until Kyungsoo smacks his hand.
"What's with this atmosphere?" Sehun asks, and Kyungsoo rolls his eyes.
"Go get everyone for dinner, Sehun," he replies, and Sehun gives Jongin an appraising look before he does.
Kyungsoo thaws out over dinner, as they eat dumpling and rice cake soup, and the table is loud as Baekhyun pretends to feed Zitao but smashes food in his face instead, which has Sehun laughing and Chanyeol watching them with a contented grin on his face, happy to let Baekhyun make all the noise.
"It feels like we're back in college, doesn't it?" Chanyeol whispers into Jongin's ear, sending a shiver down his spine. "They're all acting like teenagers. Well, except Kyungsoo, but he was already thirty when we were still nineteen."
"It does feel kind of like college," Jongin says.
Except if it were college, Jongin would be sitting across the table from Chanyeol, Soojung at his side, her small hand on his thigh. If this were college, Jongin would be longing for something and not understanding why, when he had everything that he could possibly want.
If this were college, Jongin would still be looking forward to something, instead of always, always looking back.
❦ ❦ ❦
"Yeah," Jongin says. "Sure."
"You don't have to waste your whole vacation helping me, though," Chanyeol mumbles, like he's not really awake. He probably isn't. Chanyeol does have a tendency to talk in his sleep.
"You've taught me plenty of things," Jongin says. "I'm returning the favor."
"Like how to beatbox, right?" The words are muffled, Chanyeol's mouth covered by something, or maybe mashed into his arm.
Jongin must have misheard. "Hyung, what?" But Chanyeol has rolled over, turning his back to Jongin. Sitting up in bed, Jongin is suddenly wide awake. "Hyung, did you just—" He gets out of bed and walks over to Chanyeol, dropping onto his bed. "Tell me what you just said."
"That you don't have to ski with me tomorrow?" Chanyeol says blearily. He rubs at his eyes, and up close like this, Jongin doesn't have to imagine the darkness of Chanyeol's eyebrows or the roundness of his lower lip. "You don't, you know."
Jongin swallows harshly, clutching at Chanyeol's blankets. "Right," he says. "I—"
"What did you think I said?" Chanyeol's eyelashes flutter as he tries to force his eyes to stay open.
Jongin could tell him. He could tell Chanyeol all about those afternoons spent lazily sprawled on the floor in Chanyeol's old apartment, the summer sun leaking in through the windows and catching in Chanyeol's bleached-red blond hair, back before he'd let it go dark.
Then he remembers Kyungsoo, looking at Jongin darkly and calling him selfish, and he can't.
For better or for worse, like this, Chanyeol isn't hurting, and Jongin won't take that happiness away from him. Not when Chanyeol has already given up so much for Jongin.
"Don't worry about it," Jongin says.
He leaves the room once Chanyeol has fallen back asleep, walking out into the living room with his phone.
He calls Kim Jongdae. It's late, so he half-expects Jongdae not to answer, but Jongdae does, sounding grossly chipper for after one AM. "Jongin-ssi, what can I do for you?"
"You said to call you, if anything strange happened," Jongin says. "Chanyeol… he remembered something, I think. Only he doesn't remember remembering? Maybe?"
"Okay, slow down," Jongdae says, and Jongin says it again, more calmly, trying to give as many details as he can.
"And he doesn't recall saying it?"
"I don't think so. That's it. It's probably nothing."
"I'm not so sure about that. This procedure is just being tested, Jongin. He could get all of those memories back, or maybe just one or two. Maybe he won't get any of them back, but it seems to me that his brain is trying to correct what it thinks is wrong—" Jongdae sighs. "Let's just say that the human brain is truly miraculous. It's how we figured out how to treat Alzheimer's. We just help the brain help itself, which it's already very good at doing. That's why people wake up from comas after years of being asleep."
Jongin's stomach plummets, and he grips the phone tighter. "Most of the time, though," he says quietly, "people in comas don't wake up." It's cold out here, and he’s suddenly exhausted, wanting nothing more than to go back to bed. "I should go, before I wake everyone up."
"Thank you for calling me, Jongin-ssi. I'll add this to my research notes on Chanyeol's case."
"Okay," Jongin says, hanging up.
Back in bed, he has trouble falling asleep, instead just watching Chanyeol, who snores and flops around as he sleeps, mouth slack. Chanyeol isn't going to wake up tomorrow and remember anything, so Jongin shouldn't get his hopes up.
After all, he's learned the hard way that things don't work out just because you think they should.
He curls up under all his covers, and tries to make the thoughts stop. They don't.
❦ ❦ ❦
Jongin finds it hard to think about Paris surrounded by the Baektudaegan, but easy to think about hundreds of other things, like the fact that it's almost spring and soon he won't have any more time to procrastinate.
Spring is always hard for Jongin. He'd wanted to get married in the spring.
Chanyeol comes back earlier than everyone else, dragging Jongin out of his thoughts with warm hands on his shoulders. "Did you get much done today?"
"Not at all," Jongin admits, and Chanyeol laughs.
"It's almost like you work better when I'm here to distract you," says Chanyeol, and Jongin closes his eyes and relishes the casual strength in Chanyeol's hands. "How did you write without me?"
Jongin didn't, but he smiles up at Chanyeol. "Feel like playing?" He knows Chanyeol brought his guitar with him, because it's been sitting in the corner of their room unopened the whole trip.
"What do you want to hear?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin shrugs, stretching his fingers and watching as Chanyeol settles his guitar into his lap, hunching over it and testing the strings.
"Anything you want to play.”
No one says anything to them, later, when they're all home, eating leftovers from last night for their final dinner, but Jongin can feel Kyungsoo staring at him, and ignores the looks.
And maybe it is selfish, but Jongin will let himself slide, just this once.
❦ ❦ ❦
Jongin gets the front seat this time, and he sleeps through most of the trip, letting Chanyeol's voice humming along to the radio relax him into it. He wakes up when Chanyeol shakes him lightly. "Jongin, you're home," he says. Jongin opens his eyes to see Chanyeol leaning in close.
"You remembered where I live," Jongin says, and Chanyeol smiles. "If only you remembered everything else, too." Chanyeol gives him an odd look.
"I remember that you have three dogs, and they probably missed you," Chanyeol says. "Even if Taemin has been looking out for them."
"He doesn't look like me," Jongin says, undoing his seatbelt. "My dogs know the difference."
"No one looks like you to me, Jonginnie." Chanyeol laughs, and Jongin can feel the heat in his cheeks.
"Don't say weird stuff like that.” Jongin quickly gets out of the car.
"Do you need help with your bag?" Chanyeol calls after him and Jongin bends down, looking at him.
"No," Jongin says. "I've got it."
Taemin and his dogs greet him at the door, and Taemin takes one look at him before he says "I'll put on coffee."
"I think I'll just go to bed," says Jongin. "So don't worry about it."
Jongin sleeps, and for the first time, wonders if he was given the opportunity to forget, if he would take it.
❦ ❦ ❦
He’s only wearing a thin jacket and his scarf when he goes to meet Chanyeol at an out of the way coffee shop near his labs. As night falls, it gets colder, and Jongin buries his face in his scarf as he walks from the bus stop to where he's supposed to find Chanyeol.
He's shivering when he gets there, and Chanyeol pulls him into a hug. "Hi there," Chanyeol says. "Where's your coat?"
"Wasn't that cold when I left," Jongin says. "No big deal."
Chanyeol pulls him inside. "Your lips are going blue."
"Don't worry about it." Jongin jerks away from Chanyeol as he gets a whiff of his aftershave. It's not the stuff Kyungsoo gave him, but the older stuff, that Jongin associates with Chanyeol.
As they order coffees, Jongin realizes Chanyeol is frazzled today. His eyes are tired, and his mouth, when he's not looking at Jongin, is dropped into an absent frown.
"Is everything okay?" Jongin asks, as they sit next to each other in comfortable high-backed chairs in the back of the shop, away from the windows and the college guys laughing loudly at each other as they mostly stare at their phones.
A fake smile is Jongin's answer. "I… I'm not sure."
"Is something wrong at work?"
"Not really," Chanyeol says. "There's a lot of pressure on us to talk about our research at the national conference in a couple of months, but that's par for the course in neuroscience."
"You told me," Jongin says, "the first time we had coffee" - and he chokes on the word first - "that if I needed to talk, you were here for me." He pulls at his scarf, watching Chanyeol's hands as he bends the stirrer into a bow shape. "Can I offer you the same?"
"I think I've lost something," says Chanyeol, after a minute of deliberation that has Jongin squirming in his seat. "Sometimes it's small things, like not remembering when I bought a book," he smiles at Jongin, but it's strained, "and sometimes it's big things, like trying to think back to a trip overseas I know I took and not remembering huge chunks of it."
"I went to Beijing," Chanyeol says. "When I try to think about it, I remember where I stayed. I remember meeting up with Zitao and Lu Han and Yixing during the second week I was there. But I can't remember… All my photos are at my parents' house, and I should go look at them, but I'm so used to being able to remember things…"
Jongin isn't sure what to say, so he stays quiet, letting Chanyeol speak. Chanyeol stops, though, and Jongin wants to tell him everything about Beijing.
But telling him everything about Beijing means telling him everything about Paris, too, and Jongin doesn't know if that's fair. If he should ruin the freedom that Chanyeol has fashioned for himself.
"Jongdae says I'm fine, but…" Chanyeol's ears stick out from under his hair. "I don't think he understands what it's like to follow a thought and then follow it to nothing."
"He probably doesn't know how worried you are," says Jongin. "How much this is bothering you." He fusses with his scarf, and it falls from his left shoulder, and Chanyeol watches him.
"I have wool yarn like that," Chanyeol says. "Half a skein just like it."
Cautiously, Jongin wraps his scarf back around his neck. "This was a present," he says. "I got it for my birthday."
Chanyeol takes off his glasses and rubs at his eyes. "I'm sorry," he says. "I'm not the greatest company tonight."
"I'm never the greatest company," Jongin says. "So I forgive you."
Laughing, Chanyeol's face eases. "I feel like you know me so well, Jongin. It makes it easy for me to talk to you." He leans across the table. "I feel like I could tell you all my secrets."
"I—" Chanyeol's foot brushes Jongin’s shin under the table, and his whole body reacts to it. Chanyeol's lips are curled up slightly at the edges, and his lips are pink. "I'd let you," Jongin says. "If it wasn't so scary to tell you mine."
When they leave the coffee shop, Chanyeol pockets the receipt, and then stops Jongin at the door, taking the ends of his scarf and wrapping them carefully around each shoulder, covering his neck and mouth. "Stay warm on your way home, Jonginnie."
There it is. That light in Chanyeol's eyes that Jongin knows is reserved only for him, and Jongin is terrible because he wants it to stay there. He tentatively pulls on Chanyeol's woolen peacoat lapels, knuckles dragging across Chanyeol's chest. Chanyeol's breath stutters, and Jongin drops his hands. "You too," says Jongin, and leaves. This time, he's sure he feels Chanyeol watch him go.
❦ ❦ ❦
"What are you staring at?" she'd asked, as Jongin had stayed after class to watch her run through a cool down, stretching her toes and making her petite frame look so tall.
"Your extensions," Jongin had replied. "They're gorgeous. You look so much taller with those lines." She'd looked surprised, and then she'd smiled, and Jongin had found her beautiful.
"I met a girl today," he'd told Chanyeol later, as they sat on the floor in his and Baekhyun's apartment and played video games. "Her name is Jung Soojung." Chanyeol had looked over at Jongin quickly, not pausing the game.
Jongin's eyes had noticed the tightening of Chanyeol's jaw, but then his eyes, as usual, had skated to take in the curve of Chanyeol's ears and the slope of his nose, and by the time he'd realized he was staring, his character had died and Chanyeol was carefully setting down the controller.
"Do you like her?" Chanyeol had asked, and Jongin had thought, wildly, no, I like you before he'd pushed it down, away, back.
"Maybe," Jongin had said.
They went on five dates before Jongin had asked her, haltingly, unsurely, to be his girlfriend, and she'd accepted with another of those enigmatic smiles. It hadn't felt wrong, but it hadn't felt quite right, either.
He'd told Sehun that same day, and Sehun had gaped at him before schooling his face into indifference.
"But I thought…" Sehun said before he seemed to change his mind. "She's super hot."
"She's a great dancer," Jongin had said. "She knows what she wants too. I like that." It was better than Jongin, who could never really figure out what he wanted but was scared it might be something he shouldn't.
"Then congratulations," said Sehun. "If that's what you want."
"What are we congratulating?" Chanyeol slipped into the seat next to Jongin, soap-fresh and probably straight from practice.
"Jongin asked that girl from his dance class to suffer him on a more permanent basis," Sehun said, and Chanyeol had smiled, small and wry.
"Jung Soojung, right?" He'd stolen a sip of Jongin's soda, looking down at it afterwards, and Jongin had turned to Sehun instead. Sehun had been watching Chanyeol, though.
"That's her," Jongin had said, and thought of Soojung - quiet, headstrong Soojung - and decided he was happy.
❦ ❦ ❦
He's gotten to the climax of the story in his rewrites. Hyejeong is lacing up her ballet shoes, and preparing to go to her last rehearsal, and Jongin… doesn't know where to go from there.
He dwells on it, going back and redoing older sections and changing the pacing of his dialogue until he can't bear to look at the beginning anymore.
"You know," his oldest sister says, dropping by to visit after work on a Tuesday, still wearing her business clothes, "most bears hibernate in the winter." She reaches out and cups his fuzzy jaw, and Jongin tries to remember the last time he shaved.
"I have a full first draft due to my editor the first week in May," Jongin says.
"How close are you to that goal?"
"Not… very," Jongin says, then laughs. "I think I've lost my touch."
"I doubt it," his sister says. "Why don't you go take a shower, and I'll make some tea for both of us. Something decaf since you look like you have caffeine running through your veins instead of blood."
"Pretty accurate," Jongin says, picking Jjangah up. "What do you think, Jjangah? Should daddy take a shower?" She licks his face, right up his cheek to his forehead. "I think that's a yes."
When he gets out of the shower, he feels and looks much better. He inspects his face in the mirror, and his dark circles are out of control, but otherwise, he seems to look all right.
"Much better," his sister says, pressing a mug into his hands. "I did your dishes because I felt sorry for you."
"Thanks," Jongin says, as he sits down on the sofa. She sits down next to him, and Jjanggu, spoiled as he is, sits imperiously in her lap, getting his brown fur all over her skirt.
"I saw Sooyeon yesterday," says his sister, after a few minutes of easy silence. Neither of them are very talkative, and it's never been a problem for either of them. "At E-mart."
"How is she?"
"She's okay." She flexes her stocking toes. "She said to pass on her thanks for the pictures of Paris you put up in Soojung's room."
"I thought she might like them," Jongin says, shrugging. "I always wanted to take her. It's the best I can do, at this point."
"You still visit pretty often, Sooyeon says." His sister sets her empty mug on the table. "It'll be four years, in May."
"I know," Jongin says. "You don't think I know that?"
"Sooyeon wants you to meet up with her next weekend," his sister says. "She'll probably call you about it."
"Why?" Jongin asks, and his sister sighs.
"I'm not sure," she says, "but I suspect…" She smiles at him wanly. "Well, Jongin, I don't think she's going to—"
"I should get back to work," Jongin says, interrupting her.
"Make sure you eat," she says, letting it drop. "You're looking thin."
"You sound like Chanyeol-hyung." Jongin picks up her mug, and takes it, along with his own, dropping them in the recently emptied sink. The rack is full of Jongin's now clean coffee mugs.
"Chanyeol-ssi's a smart guy," his sister says, picking Jjanggu's fur off of her skirt. "You should listen to him." She's walking to the door when Jongin walks back into the living room. "I saw something about him on the news yesterday."
"Oh?" Jongin helps her with her jacket. Spring has finally brought warmth, and it's not so cold outside anymore.
"Apparently his research group won another award for some research he's doing on the brain." His sister frowns. "I like him a lot, Jongin."
"Doesn't everyone?" Jongin pulls her hair out where it's trapped under her jacket, letting it fall down her back.
"It's been four years," she says, grabbing Jongin's hand. "You're allowed to move on." She bores into him with her gaze, and Jongin knows what she isn't saying.
"Soojung is still here," Jongin says. "And you don't know how much I need to tell her."
"Okay, Jongin," she says, patting his cheek like he's still ten instead of damn near thirty. "Good luck on your deadline."
"Thanks," he says, as he shuts the door behind her.
Jjangah is sitting in front of him at his feet, and he looks down at her. "Should I get back to work, or should we go to bed?" he asks her, and she barks twice and walks toward his bedroom. He takes one last look at his laptop and leaves it on his desk, entering his bedroom papered in pieces of Paris, and tries to sleep.
❦ ❦ ❦
Chanyeol is standing at his door in a light sweater. His hair has just been cut, and it falls neatly across his forehead. His glasses are sliding down his nose again. In each hand is a bag of groceries, fresh market veggies in the right and just caught fish from the market in the left. "Sehunnie said you were doing your deadline thing, and thought you might appreciate some company."
"Oh," Jongin says, and Chanyeol gives him a big beaming grin.
"I brought things to cook, too," he says. "I remember how much you got done when I was just around playing guitar or reading, and I thought you might not mind."
"Come in," he says. "I'm sorry, it's going to be worse than last time in terms of mess."
"I don't mind," Chanyeol says. "I think your mess is interesting. Almost as interesting as you!"
"Says the man who studies human brains," Jongin replies. "My sister saw you on the news."
"She knows me?" Chanyeol takes everything out of the bags, lining them up by color on the counter. "Do I know her?"
Jongin takes the empty plastic bags from Chanyeol's hands and rolls them up, sticking them under the sink. "You are rather famous," he says.
"My sister knows you." Chanyeol chuckles, and Jongin hides a grin. Yura does know Jongin, but not just as an author. "You're more famous than I am. There were a bunch of girls talking about you at the book store when I went to pick up something for my mom." He looks up from his organizing and winks. "So dreamy, Jongin."
"Do you like saying weird things?" Jongin asks, picking up a coin from the very edge of the counter and throwing it at Chanyeol, who laughs, calling the dogs into the kitchen.
"Hello, Jongin's children," Chanyeol says. "Which one is Monggu and which one is Jjanggu?"
Jongin watches with amazement as Chanyeol navigates his kitchen, finding the bowls and spoons on his first try. His brows furrow when the pepper paste is exactly where he checks first, and Jongin wonders if he's run into another one of those odd blanks in his mind.
Chanyeol cracks eggs into a bowl, collecting the shells into another as Jongin shuffles around, looking for something to do but instead enjoying the way Chanyeol looks with his sleeves pushed up.
"Jjanggu is the one with the thick middle," Jongin says. "I take him out for lots of walks, but he's the best at begging, and Taemin is so weak."
Chanyeol laughs, but he frowns when he moves to put egg shells into the trash and finds all of Jongin's used coffee filters and one ramyun package. "Jongin, you haven't been eating right, have you?"
"I've been busy," Jongin says, thinking about Hyejeong, who is still walking along the Seine, debating whether or not to answer a call from her professor.
"Still," says Chanyeol, "you have to eat."
"I've never been a good cook," Jongin says. "My mom always jokes that I'll have to marry a nice girl who knows her way around the kitchen." He picks up a clean spoon and starts drumming on the counter with it.
Monggu licks at his leg, nose catching on his track shorts, and Jongin laughs. Chanyeol smiles over at him, hands steady as he cuts the spring onions. "I'm definitely not planning to marry any nice girls," Chanyeol says, his smile turning slightly more brittle. His eyes search Jongin's face, and Jongin realizes that Chanyeol is trying to tell him something. "I like to do my own cooking, anyway."
Jongin looks frankly back at him. "There are plenty of nice boys out there who are good at cooking, too," he says. "If that's what you're looking for instead."
Chanyeol's smile gets slightly larger, relief in the curling edges of it, and Jongin recalls, vividly, the first time Chanyeol came out to him. They'd been sitting down in the center of one of the outdoor basketball courts at Sogang. Jongin's shorts had ridden up his thighs, and the warm concrete had burned the backs of them.
They'd just played a pick-up game with Kris and Zitao, and they were both worn out, energy sapped from the exercise and the summer sun. Chanyeol's face had been shiny with sweat, and his lips had been chapped. His arms had rippled as he stretched them out, before grabbing their discarded ball.
"Do you want to get dinner?" Chanyeol had asked, and Jongin, sweaty and hot and tired from their game, looked up to find Chanyeol bouncing the basketball between his legs, lightly. "Kris and Zitao have abandoned us."
"I'd love to," Jongin said, "but I'm getting dinner with my girlfriend." Soojung had made it clear she would be displeased if he was late, and Jongin had laughed and kissed her on the nose, vowing to be exactly on time.
"Oh," Chanyeol had said, smiling down at his knees, gripping the ball in both hands. "Tell Soojung I said hi, all right? I haven't seen her in a while." He’d wrinkled his nose then. "I wonder if Jinri's free to grab something."
"Are you seeing her?" Jongin had asked, and Chanyeol had looked up, surprised.
"Jinri?" He laughed, shaking his head. "No," he replied. His face had gotten more serious, then. "She's not exactly my type."
"What kind of girl is your type, then?" Jongin had pushed sweaty hair out of his eyes, and then plucked at the damp fabric of his shirt, lifting it to bare his stomach. Chanyeol's eyes had flickered down, then away.
"Well," Chanyeol had said slowly and deliberately, "there aren't any girls that are my type." He'd squared his shoulders, then, and Jongin's stomach had dropped. It was impossible, he'd thought then, his mind racing, that Chanyeol might…
"Oh," he'd said, and Chanyeol had winced, like he was waiting for… Jongin had swallowed, and kicked out at Chanyeol's foot. "Then what kind of boy is your type?"
Chanyeol had stared at him, then, too, the same way he is now, softly, like he wasn't expecting any acceptance but was so pleased to find it. "Cute boys," he'd said. "Boys who will let me take care of them."
Jongin blinks to clear the memory away, and Chanyeol is staring at him, bemused. "You still in there?"
"I was just… remembering something," explains Jongin. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No," Chanyeol says, bumping Jongin with his hip. "Let me take care of you today."
Jongin drops the spoon in his hand, and Chanyeol turns to look at him with alarm. "Are you sure you don't need to sit down?"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "I'm sure. It's fine."
The pajeon Chanyeol makes is delicious, as delicious as it's always been, and when Chanyeol makes the motions to leave, hours later, halfway through a book from Jongin's bookcase, Jongin thinks: You have a toothbrush here, and clothes in the back of my closet that you left here in December. Just stay.
"I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome," he says. He avoids Jongin's eyes. It occurs to Jongin, that while he might have known that Chanyeol is gay, Chanyeol hadn't known that he'd already told Jongin, years and years ago.
"It doesn't change anything," Jongin says. "That you prefer men instead of women. You can stay as long as you want, and it's impossible for you to overstay your welcome."
He could add more, like that Chanyeol's team in college had been cruel but that Chanyeol had survived it. That Jongin had been there, that one time Chanyeol had gotten punched at a bar when he met a foreign guy there for a date, had gone home with Chanyeol in the same taxi and pressed ice to his cheek as Chanyeol had whined about his handsome face. Had spent the night next to Chanyeol as Chanyeol had stared at nothing and pretended everything was okay.
But what he has said seems to be enough, because Chanyeol smiles. "It's also Sunday," he says. "I have work tomorrow, in preparation for our conference. It's in Jeju this year."
"I love Jeju," Jongin says, petting his dog as he tries to makes sense of all the memories he's sure must be showing in his eyes.
Chanyeol steps closer, and pulls Jongin into a hug. "Thank you," he mumbles into Jongin's hair, and Jongin hugs him back, arms around Chanyeol's middle.
He misses Chanyeol so much, even when he's here, but it's less right now, when he can smell nothing but Chanyeol's aftershave and feel nothing but Chanyeol breathing in his embrace.
"I know I've said this before," Chanyeol says, "but I feel like I've always known you."
With Chanyeol here, Jongin had gotten through Hyejeong's last day in Paris, and when Chanyeol leaves, he takes Jongin's words with him, along with his smile.
Joonmyun finds paper cranes made of notes he's sure he'd crumpled up and left on the living room table all over the couch. One of them is hanging out of Jjangu's mouth. "You'll eat anything, won't you?" he asks Jjangu, who barks happily as Jongin rubs his belly. Both he and Monggu, who had whined pitifully as Chanyeol left, follow Jongin to the kitchen where he dumps the handful of cranes to reside with the others, taking up more and more of Jongin's kitchen counter space. He doesn't mind.
❦ ❦ ❦
He takes the train, crowded in with all the commuters, and buys flowers from an older lady at Irwon station when he gets off. It's a habit. He's made this trip so many times over the past few years that he can do it in his sleep.
Sooyeon is waiting for him when he gets to the front entrance of the clinic. She's wearing high heels, and she looks so much like Soojung that Jongin does a double-take when he sees her.
"Jongin-ah," she says, "it's been a long time."
"I know," Jongin says. "I tend to visit during the day, and I guess you're at work."
They walk into the clinic. It's been designed to look more like a home than a hospital. Jongin thinks it's because all of the patients here are long term.
Soojung's room is on the second floor. There's a painting of a ballerina under the hangul of her name.
When he opens the door, the first thing he sees is Paris.
"Soojung always wanted to go," Sooyeon says. "She was so into Paris fashion."
"We were going to go for our honeymoon," Jongin says, setting the flowers down on the edge of the bed and going over to the vase at her bedside to get rid of the old ones. He throws them away. "I told her I'd write her a novel about Paris, and I'm finally doing it. I think I'm a little late, though."
He takes the vase into the small bathroom attached to her room and rinses it out, filling it a third of the way with fresh water. He takes it back out to her room, and puts the new flowers in. Bright, spring flowers that she used to secretly like.
"Jongin…" Sooyeon takes his hand in hers. She has fingers a lot like Soojung's, but her nails are longer than Soojung ever liked to wear hers. "My parents… they think it's time."
"But…" He tries to think of something to say, but what can he say? This isn't some manhwa. There's no magic that can put Soojung back inside the body in front of him. Jongin has had four long years to come up with a goodbye, but he still hasn't managed it.
"She would have wanted you to be happy," Sooyeon says, "not spend your whole life trying to punish yourself for not being stuck with her. You loved, still love her, Jongin. That's enough."
Jongin wonders if Sooyeon would say that if she knew that the only reason Soojung was here, was like this, was because Jongin hadn't loved her enough. That the last thing Soojung had said to him, maybe the last thing she'd ever said to anyone, was that she wished she could take her heart back.
Soojung doesn't wear her engagement ring. It's in a drawer by her bed. She'd still been wearing it, when the ambulance brought her in. Jongin doesn't know what that means.
Jongin looks around at all the pictures of Paris he'd put up, along with the fresh flowers he always brings. "When?" he asks, and Sooyeon squeezes his hand, smiling gently. He'd thought she was cold, the first time they'd been introduced.
"Soon," she says, and Jongin nods his understanding, watching the steady rise and fall of Soojung's chest, remembering the way her shoulders used to shiver when she laughed.
He calls Chanyeol when he leaves. Chanyeol answers, laughing. "Jongin, I was going to call you! Kris got here this morning and we wanted to know if you were up for a game. Zitao said he'd only play if you played."
"I don't know," Jongin says, and whatever Chanyeol hears in his voice has him pausing. "Maybe tomorrow."
"Are you okay?" Chanyeol's so loud and firm when he speaks, but sometimes, with Jongin, he softens, a special way of speaking that's just for Jongin.
"I don't know that either," he replies, and Chanyeol's side of the phone is suddenly muffled.
When Chanyeol's voice comes back, he asks: "Where are you, right now?"
"Near the Tancheon," Jongin says. "Behind COEX. Near the bike rental.”
"I'll meet you there in thirty minutes," Chanyeol says.
When Chanyeol finds him, Jongin can barely tell that any time has passed. He looks up at Chanyeol from his seat at a picnic bench, and Chanyeol squats down in front of him, like he'd done with that child at the museum, and brings both his hands up to cup Jongin's face, using his thumbs to wipe moisture from Jongin's cheeks. "It's raining on your face," Chanyeol says, and then he tilts his head back to take in the sky. "It's going to rain everywhere else, soon."
"I'm sorry," Jongin says. "I shouldn't have called and interrupted your time with Kris."
Chanyeol makes a chiding sound with his tongue to the back of his teeth. "Kris will barely notice I'm gone. He and Zitao were arguing over face soap brands when I left."
"Normally," Jongin says, closing his eyes because Chanyeol's smile is too gentle, "there's someone I always call when I don't know what to do." Chanyeol had come to see him, that night. He'd gotten to the hospital before Jongin's parents and sisters, and he'd scooped Jongin up, Jongin shaking like he'd spent the whole tight and stressed, and he’d been so happy to see him that he'd clung back just as hard. It's always been Chanyeol. "But you're the closest thing I've got to him, right now."
"I'm here," Chanyeol says. "I told you I would be."
Jongin thinks of all the times Chanyeol has said that, and how even now, without all the memories that bind them together, Chanyeol sounds just as sincere.
"I have a fiancée," Jongin starts, and Chanyeol's body goes still, before he pulls Jongin in tighter.
"Tell me about it," Chanyeol whispers, and Jongin, with shaking hands, clutches at Chanyeol's back, wanting him closer.
"Jung Soojung. Do you remember her?"
"She was a dancer," Chanyeol says. "In one of your classes? You brought her…" He takes a moment. "To Sehunnie's birthday party."
"I proposed to her two and a half years after we graduated college." Jongin wants to breathe, he really does, but he can't seem to inhale. "At her parents' house. Both our parents were there. Her dad liked that. He liked me."
"That was over six years ago," says Chanyeol. "That's a long time to be engaged." He says it quietly, telling Jongin without words that he doesn't have to explain himself.
"She's in a coma," says Jongin. "She has been, for four years now."
It starts to rain. Jongin wants to laugh, because of course it's raining. Raining like it was the night Soojung was yelling at him, and Jongin was trying to explain himself, and the crosswalk light still had fifty-three seconds left before it turned into a stop.
"Oh," Chanyeol says. "I didn't…" He swallows. "I didn't know, I'm sorry." He kisses Jongin's forehead, over his hair, but Jongin still feels it.
"She's going to die," Jongin says. "Or she did die, and now it's going to be real. She's never going to wake up."
Jongin doesn't believe in fairy tales or happy endings.
"Oh, Jongin," Chanyeol says, wrapping his arms around him. Jongin doesn't care if they're standing right at the edge of a biking path, in plain view, or that it's raining harder now, developing into one of torrential spring rains that Jongin always gets caught in with his dogs. Jongin is going to pretend, just for now, that this Chanyeol knows everything, remembers everything, and that he's comforting Jongin because he loves him. "I'm so, so sorry."
"She's actually been dead a long time, if I'm honest," he mumbles, lips against the skin of Chanyeol's neck. "But I don't know how to accept that, because it's my fault." His whole body quakes. "I wasn't sure what I wanted, and I lost her."
"I'm here," Chanyeol says again, mouth slick against Jongin's cheek as he buries his nose in Jongin's hair.
"Are you?" Jongin asks, but he clings on anyway, and for a while, Chanyeol just holds him, and lets him cry, tears mixing with the raindrops.
"I hope so," Chanyeol replies.
❦ ❦ ❦
Kris and Chanyeol are far taller, but Jongin and Zitao have always made a good team, because they're athletic enough to make up for shorter arms and smaller hands.
They still lose, mostly because Jongin can't take his eyes off Chanyeol. Neither one of them have talked about what happened after Chanyeol had found Jongin on the Tancheon path, driving Jongin back to his own apartment because, when Chanyeol had asked, that's what Jongin had requested. "There are no photos of Paris there." Chanyeol had dried Jongin's hair and made him coffee, and Jongin had watched Chanyeol, then, too, feeling numb.
He'd slept, at some point, waking up wrapped in Chanyeol's arms on Chanyeol's bed, knees banging into each other and Jongin's mouth pressed to Chanyeol's throat. Chanyeol was snoring quietly, his breathing even, and in an unfamiliar apartment, Jongin was the least out of place he'd been in months.
In the morning, Chanyeol had made breakfast, and they'd eaten it looking out of his big window at the city.
"The person you would have called," Chanyeol asked. "Is that the person Kyungsoo said you'd lost recently?"
"Yeah," Jongin replied, eyes on the skyline.
"Then I'm glad I could be here instead," said Chanyeol, and Jongin had rested his head on his knees and felt like all kinds of liar.
"You're staring," Zitao says, when their game has wrapped up, loss cemented at fifty-five to twenty, as Kris and Chanyeol high five, Kris tripping over an untied shoelace and Chanyeol laughing but grabbing his elbow to keep him on his feet. "You've been staring all day."
"I want to go back," Jongin says, "to how it was before."
"Before what?" Zitao asks. "Before graduation? Before Soojung got hurt?"
Jongin shrugs. "I don't know."
"I think," Zitao says, "that we all have a lot of times in our lives where we wish we could have changed things. Should I have tried harder to make things work with my ex? Should I have quit that boring job? Would I be happier now?" Zitao bounces the ball, and tries to spin it on his finger. Jongin catches it when it falls, and hands it back. "But the truth is, who knows?"
"Chanyeol's research lets him go back," Jongin says. Chanyeol laughs, and his skin is shiny with sweat, his gray shirt sticking to him. His teeth are straight and square.
"No," Zitao says. "It doesn't. It just lets him forget where he's been." He rests his head on Jongin's shoulder. "But it seems to me, he's just walking down the same path all over again."
They have lunch at Zitao's, and afterwards, Chanyeol volunteers to drive Jongin home. "We should get lunch alone together before I leave," Kris says. "With the others around all the time, we haven't gotten a chance to talk."
"We should," Jongin says. "I'll e-mail you."
He follows Chanyeol out the door, leaving behind a loud shriek from Baekhyun that could mean any number of things. "He's probably not dying," Chanyeol says.
"Kyungsoo-hyung isn't here," Jongin agrees, and Chanyeol laughs as they walk out into the underground parking.
"I don't… I didn't know you were so close with Kris." Jongin's head whips around to stare at Chanyeol. "I heard him asking if you wanted to have lunch alone."
Jongin shrugs. "I think he wants to follow up with me on a conversation we had in Paris."
"You really need to learn how to drive," Chanyeol says, when they get in the car, and Jongin laughs.
"I already know how," he says. "Kyungsoo-hyung taught me." He laughs again. "Hyung wouldn't let you teach me, because he said you'd go too easy on me." He blinks. "Wouldn't have," he corrects, belatedly. "He wouldn't have let you teach me."
Chanyeol doesn't start the ignition, instead leaning back in his seat. "Sometimes talking to you gives me such an odd feeling of déjà vu," he says. "The way you laugh. Small things, but I feel like… Sometimes you tell me things about yourself, and I feel like I already know them."
"It's not like we're strangers," Jongin says thickly. "We were friends, once, Park Chanyeol." He looks out the window.
"Jongin," Chanyeol says, "are you sure that I don't…"
"That you don't what?" Jongin turns to look at him, but Chanyeol is slumped forward and resting his forehead against the steering wheel.
"I'm sorry," Chanyeol says. "I try not to talk about it with anyone, but I think there's something wrong with my brain."
"No, there isn't," Jongin says, reaching out and cupping the back of Chanyeol's neck. Chanyeol leans into the touch, turning his head so he can meet Jongin's eyes. "You fix brains, remember?"
Chanyeol licks his lips. "You have a deadline coming up, right?"
"Sooner than I'd like to admit." Jongin still has to find an ending. "I'm having trouble writing lately."
"Do you want to go to Jeju with me?" Chanyeol asks. "To my conference? You said you liked Jeju, and that you can write when I'm around, so…"
"Yeah," Jongin says. "I'll go."
"That's great," Chanyeol says. "We'll have fun."
"I always have fun with you," says Jongin, and Chanyeol beams.
❦ ❦ ❦
"Korean food is great," Kris says. "But Mexican food is even greater."
"I think this is some mix of the two," Jongin says, putting red pepper sauce onto his chicken burrito. "But close enough."
"I think Chanyeol is starting to remember things," Kris says abruptly, and Jongin sets his burrito down.
"I know," Jongin says. "It started… Well, I think it started in the beginning, actually, but it got worse when we all went skiing last month."
"His friend," Kris says. "And co-worker, Kim Jongdae. I went to Chanyeol's lab to visit and he pulled me aside and mentioned that Chanyeol has been having problems."
"He remembers moments," Jongin says. "But not events, I think." He’s lost his appetite. "He remembers where everything is in my kitchen, but not that he's cooked there before."
"Jongin…" Kris's huge hand grabs his shoulder. "If I'd known…"
"Everyone says that," Jongin says. "But for someone we thought was transparent, he sure managed to get this one by us."
"He did. I thought Chanyeol told Kyungsoo and I almost everything, but he didn't tell us he'd even consider…"
"He didn't remember coming out to me. He told me again, and I pretended like I didn't know already." Jongin swallows. "Do you know what that means, Kris?"
"What?" Kris asks, quietly. A group of Yonsei students come wandering by in their school jackets, wearing cleated shoes and making a lot of noise. It's the beginning of handball season, Jongin figures.
"It means that when Jongdae was burning out the memories of being in love with me from Chanyeol's mind, they went all the way back to when I was a third year in college," he says. "Twenty-one. Park Chanyeol was in love with me for eight years. That's a long time."
"It is," Kris says. "I think we all only realized it when we got older. When Chanyeol stopped trying to date and just…"
"Settled for what he had with me instead," Jongin finishes. "That's why… That's why I haven't told him. He shouldn't have ever settled for that."
Kyungsoo calls him as he's making his way home. "I'm at that bar at the Siram stop," he says. "So get off one stop early."
"Why do you always phrase your requests as demands?"
"Because they are demands," Kyungsoo says. "Hurry up, I don't have all day."
Kyungsoo is wearing his navy suit, and it's easy to spot him this early in the afternoon, when the bar is empty and everyone else wearing suits is still at work.
"Chanyeol says he's taking you to Jeju," Kyungsoo says. His beer is almost empty, but as he takes the last sip, it seems he's already ordered two more. They sit on the table between them as Kyungsoo gives him an even stare. "Would you like to tell me why?"
Jongin takes the beer into his hands, feeling the cold of it. "I like Jeju," he says. "I like the wind."
"We all saw you at the resort, when Chanyeol took an interest in someone else." Kyungsoo shakes his head. "What are you doing, Kim Jongin? If you don't love him, why can't you let him go? Are you going to do this to him again?"
"You don't understand," Jongin says.
"You're right," Kyungsoo says. "I don't." He looks at Jongin over his beer mug. "So explain it to me, or you might end up in the Han river after all."
"When I first met Chanyeol-hyung," Jongin says, "the first thing I noticed about him was his laugh." Chanyeol, stretched out on Sehun's bed, happy and bright and wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey. "He has a great laugh, you know? It makes you feel warm."
"He does have a great laugh," Kyungsoo says. "But you're getting off topic." He takes a sip of his beer and frowns.
"I'd never really thought about attraction," Jongin says. "I'd had crushes on girls when I was younger. Things about them I liked." He pushes his beer away, and rests his cheek on the table, looking up at Kyungsoo through his hair. "But it had never been… It had never been like Chanyeol-hyung."
Kyungsoo's eyes narrow, his full lips pursing. "What do you mean?"
"I thought something was wrong with me," Jongin says. "It made me confused that the way I'd always seen the guys in dramas feeling about girls… that I felt that way about Chanyeol hyung."
"Are you saying…"
"Everyone keeps assuming," Jongin says, "that I don't like men. That because I'd wanted Soojung it meant that I never wanted Chanyeol." He drops his eyes from Kyungsoo, not wanting to see his face. "I thought there was no way that he'd ever…" He takes a breath, and smells beer. The taste of pepper paste lingers on his tongue. "Soojung was exactly what I needed."
Kyungsoo kicks him under the table, and Jongin lifts his head. Kyungsoo's face is impassive, but he isn't scowling anymore.
"We'd already been dating two years when Chanyeol told me he was gay. I'd never paid much attention to rumors, so I'd had no idea that's why his team didn't like him." Jongin shrugs, and Kyungsoo takes another sip of his beer.
"You stayed with Soojung."
"Soojung was important to me. She wasn't…" Jongin grasps for words. "It wasn't like she was a replacement for Chanyeol. She was someone who fit me. I loved her."
Kyungsoo is the dangerous kind of calm. Jongin doesn't know what to do, so he keeps talking.
"I started to realize, after graduation…" He wishes it were still winter, so he could hide his face from Kyungsoo in his scarf. "That maybe I only liked men. But I didn't want that to be true, because Soojung…" He bites his lip. "Our families liked each other. She wanted the same things I did, out of life. I'd talked her into one kid, and she likes… liked dogs. It seemed… solid. Safe. So I asked her to marry me."
"Jongin," Kyungsoo says. "Would that have been enough?" He's so serious across from Jongin, and the anger that had been in his eyes when Jongin had sat down has faded away.
"At the time," Jongin says, "I thought it would be. But then Chanyeol-hyung came back from graduate school." Jongin remembers the first hug Chanyeol had given him, when Jongin had gone to his parents' house to see him. He'd lifted Jongin off the ground with the force of it. ("Missed you," he'd said. "Missed you so much.")
"It's funny," Jongin says, "that I only realized then that he liked me. That he felt the way I felt."
"That's when I noticed he liked you," Kyungsoo agrees. "The way he looked at you." Kyungsoo reaches across the table and takes Jongin's beer, pushing his second empty mug aside. "I noticed you looking back, but you tend to stare at people, sometimes. And you were happily engaged."
"The night that Soojung…" Jongin says, "that night, we got into a fight."
Kyungsoo's gaze sharpens. His cheeks are flushed, because no matter how tough he is, he's still small, and beer goes quickly to his head. "What did you fight about?"
"It was the night of Baekhyun's birthday party," says Jongin, feeling heavy, "do you remember that?"
"You were drunk," Kyungsoo says. "I remember."
"Not that drunk," Jongin says. "Just tired. I fell asleep in Chanyeol's lap for a little while, out on the balcony. When I woke up, he was looking down at me, and I thought I was dreaming. The light from inside was making his hair all shiny and stuff." He rubs at his face with both hands, and feels the roughness of his cheeks. "He asked me if I felt better, and I reached up and…"
He'd tangled his hand in Chanyeol's hair and pulled him down. Chanyeol's eyes had widened. Jongin could see the slickness of his lower lip, and had wanted…
"Jongin," Chanyeol had said, "what are you doing?" His breath had been hot on Jongin's lips. It had been enough to wake him up, and he’d let go, sitting up and trying to stop his heart from beating so fast.
Jongin drops his hands. "That's when I realized," he says. "Soojung came to pick me up later. I think… I think she was on her way back from her sister's place, anyway."
Kyungsoo gets up out of his seat and walks around to Jongin's side of the table, sitting in the chair next to him. It's Kyungsoo's version of an open invitation, so Jongin slumps into him, cheek pressed into the padded shoulder of Kyungsoo's jacket.
"In the car," Jongin says, "she asked me how the party was. I should have said it was fine." He closes his eyes. "Instead I said I almost kissed Chanyeol."
"Tell me the rest of it," Kyungsoo says.
"She laughed. I think she thought I was joking. But I said… I said that I'd always wanted to kiss Chanyeol, but I was confused, because I loved her."
Her hands had shaken when she’d dropped him off. "We'll… we'll talk about this tomorrow, Jongin," she'd said, and adjusted her mirror. "When you're sober."
Kyungsoo is rubbing his back. It's soothing.
"Maybe if she hadn't been so upset, she would have been more careful."
"Maybe," Kyungsoo says. "But it was late, Jongin. She was hit by a taxi driver who was probably going too fast. There's no way to know what would have happened."
"Every time I think about dating Chanyeol, I remember her face," Jongin says. "When I told her I almost kissed him and she realized I meant it." He rubs at his face. "I know she's gone. I know it. But I still feel like I…"
"Jongin-ah," Kyungsoo says. "You can't change any of that. You have to look forward. Do you remember what you said to me, when we visited him at his new apartment for the first time? You told me we were supposed to take the bad memories and use them to overcome obstacles." He pats Jongin's back, hard. "Not let them tie us down."
Jongin leaves the bar an hour later, after he calls Kyungsoo a taxi. He checks his phone, and there is a missed call and three texts from Chanyeol.
The missed call is from Kim Jongdae. He tries to call the number back, but Jongdae doesn't answer, and he hadn't left a message.
Don't forget your laptop reads the last text from Chanyeol, and despite everything, Jongin smiles.
"You need to decide," Kyungsoo had said as he’d gotten into the backseat of the taxi, "before you break his heart again."
Jongin thinks about the ring in the drawer beside Soojung's bed, and about Chanyeol's eyes, and he's still as confused as ever.
❦ ❦ ❦
Taemin reads it over his shoulder, chin digging painfully into Jongin's collarbone. "If you don't finish, I bet his e-mails will look just like that, only with more exclamation points," he says, and Jongin laughs.
"I don't want to disappoint him," Jongin says. "He was one of the people that really believed in me, you know? He edited my first book before Minseok even became my agent."
"Eh," Taemin says, "you worry too much. About everything. When we were kids, you used to worry too much about manhwa characters, and now you sit and overanalyze everything in your life."
Monggu yelps agreement, and Jongin stares at his dog, betrayed.
"Maybe that should be the end of my book," says Jongin, with dismay. "Hyejeong comes back to Seoul and realizes that her life is empty and meaningless, because her puppies don't love her anymore. Lu Han would murder me over an ending like that."
Lu Han had read Jongin's latest complete draft, yesterday. "It keeps getting better," he'd said. "But how does it end?"
Taemin snorts obnoxiously, lifting his head up from Jongin's shoulder so he can get even more in his face.
"I told you if you kept going away, your puppies would like me better than you." Taemin messes up Jongin's hair. Jongin should shave his head.
"They do not," says Jongin. "You take that back."
"Except maybe the puppy you're going away with," Taemin amends. "I don't think he'll ever like anyone better than you."
Jongin jolts back, away from Taemin. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" he asks.
Taemin shrugs. "That's up to you."
❦ ❦ ❦
"I hope your flight was all right," he says, and Jongin laughs.
"It was much shorter than my flight to Paris," he replies, and then he hefts his bag. "And I have much less stuff."
"I'm glad you could come," Chanyeol says.
"I'm still not sure why you invited me," admits Jongin. "I mean, I get a fun trip and time to write. What do you get?"
"To spend time with you," Chanyeol says. "Isn't that obvious?"
"Oh," Jongin says. "I guess it is."
Jongdae is surprised to see him, giving him odd looks from time to time. He seems busier than Chanyeol. "That's because Chanyeol planned ahead," Jongdae says. "Whereas I put off everything as long as I could."
Chanyeol spends a lot of time doing work things, so Jongin ends up spending a lot of time outside, wandering around in the hills and taking buses far from the conference center to see historical sites.
One of the days, Chanyeol goes with him, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and they take a bus to Hyeopjae beach. It's too cold to swim, so they walk beside the ocean, Jongin squeaking every time his shoes get lapped with water and punching Chanyeol in the arm each time he laughs about it. As usual, Chanyeol knows something about every stone statue they see. "These are dolhareubang," he says. "Carved from volcanic rock." He grins at Jongin, and it makes his ears wiggle.
"Sehun calls them dick rocks," Jongin replies, making Chanyeol sputter with amusement. “When we were kids, we came here with my oldest sister and her boyfriend as some kind of insurance for my mom that they'd have something to do besides make out, and Sehun thought they looked like penises."
"Well," Chanyeol says, slinging an arms around Jongin's shoulder, falling into him, "they are a symbol of fertility."
Jongin blushes and looks down at the sand under his feet, and when he looks up again, Chanyeol is staring at him with a mix of wonder and joy that makes him blush dark and look away.
But in the evenings is when Jongin likes Jeju with Chanyeol best. Chanyeol brought his guitar with him, and he makes a soundtrack to Jongin's writing, the clacking key sound lost in the simple melodies Chanyeol plays.
Jongin fashions an ending to his story to Chanyeol's deep voice. Hyejeong's professor finds her in Seoul. Lu Han was right and there'd been a love story hiding in there after all.
He stops, on the second to last night of Chanyeol's conference, to look at the man sitting on the edge of the bed. He's changed so much, from that first meeting, but he still makes Jongin's heart beat faster with the smallest thing.
"What are you looking at?"
Jongin startles, and Chanyeol smiles at him.
"I don't know," Jongin says. "Someone noisy."
Chanyeol pats the bed next to him, and Jongin moves from his seat to join him.
Chanyeol starts playing again, and Jongin lies down to listen, closing his eyes and just breathing. His fingers are sore, so he flexes them.
After a while, Chanyeol stops playing. "Can I talk to you?"
"Can I stop you?" Jongin teases, but then stops when he sees the serious expression on Chanyeol's face. "Of course.”
Chanyeol sets down his guitar and lies down next to Jongin, stretching out until they're pressed together side to side. He grabs Jongin's hand, and pulls on his arm, so that Jongin is half on top of him, his arm across Chanyeol's stomach.
"So many things about you are so familiar," Chanyeol says, sliding his fingers up the inside of Jongin's arm. "More than just some guy I knew in college."
Jongin's breath catches.
"There were too many coincidences." His lips brush Jongin's temple, and Jongin wonders if he can feel his heartbeat. "Things you knew but shouldn't, things I knew but shouldn't."
"When did you figure it out?" Jongin asks, and Chanyeol's fingers still.
"I don't know," he says. "In some ways, I think I've known for a while. Was it when you knew how I took my coffee? When you wore a scarf that looked like something I made, wrapped around you like a security blanket?" He swallows, and the arm supporting Jongin's head shifts. "It might have been the way you watched me standing in your doorway like I was a ghost."
"I wanted you to remember me so much," Jongin says. "I didn't want…"
"I think, most of all, though," says Chanyeol, and Jongin sits up so he can see Chanyeol's face, "it was how much I needed to see you, Jongin. How much I was always thinking about you, and feeling like I was supposed to know how your day was going. When you showed up on my doorstep with Kyungsoo, looking so small and scared of me, I just wanted to hug you close. But I didn't know how you would take that."
"I might have cried," Jongin admits.
Chanyeol laughs and cups Jongin's cheek. "Am I the person you call when you're sad, Jongin?"
"Always," Jongin says. "It's always you."
Chanyeol's eyes glitter. "I thought… there was something about the way you looked at me…" He drops his hand. Jongin sits up, separating from Chanyeol when his palms start to sweat. His thoughts are buzzing in his ears. "The night before we left for Jeju, I went back to the lab to pick up something I'd forgotten. There was that book on France on the side of my desk. I just… Jongdae's password on his computer is just password, so it was easy for me to get in. I went to see about test subjects, and I found my own name. The query was… It was about you, Jongin."
"I know," Jongin says. "I came back from Paris, and you'd forgotten me." He wipes at his eyes. "You told me that you were working on something that could change lives. I hadn't realized you meant your own. Mine."
Chanyeol's face is pale.
"It was easy, after that," Chanyeol says. "To comb back through my life. I'm so organized that when I want to find something, I can, and there was so much of you that I didn't know where to start." He laughs. "Did you know that I keep a box of receipts that you've drawn on? I'd already packed them, before I… before, and I only unpacked them last week. I opened the lid and I have hundreds of them, Jongin. Hundreds of your weird drawings on coffee receipts and dinner receipts and napkins from weird places. It's a record of all the time I've spent with you, in a box, just like that."
"When I went to Paris," Jongin says. "You confessed to me. I'd known… I mean, I'd been pretty sure that…" He falters. "You said to me I promise to get over you by the time you get back."
"I don't think I meant to forget you," Chanyeol says. It's nothing everyone else hasn't already told him, but hearing Chanyeol say it makes it truer. "I think I just wanted to forget some things. The collection of moments that made me impossibly in love with you, you know?"
He lifts his hand up and taps Jongin's nose. "I hadn't realized, I don't think, that it was every moment."
Jongin still remembers every single word Chanyeol had said to him, during that phone call in Paris. Remembers every single agonizing second of wishing that…
"I'd started folding them into cranes," Chanyeol says. "The receipts, I mean. Folding them and stringing them. I don't know when. I hadn't even realized that's what those were until I found the box of receipts. You can see the little faces you draw on the bird wings."
Chanyeol folded cranes to impress the girl he liked in elementary school.
"There's so much about you I should know," Chanyeol says. "But I'm afraid."
"Why are you afraid?" Jongin plucks at Chanyeol's shirt, and Chanyeol catches his hand and laces their fingers together.
"I'm afraid that whatever I felt for you was something that ruined our friendship," he says. "I'm afraid that if I remember, I'll be in the same situation."
"It wouldn't have," Jongin says. "Because I never would have…" He squeezes Chanyeol's hand. "I don't know what to do without you, clearly."
"Mostly I'm afraid that whatever I've forgotten was enough to make me think it was better to forget. I don't want to feel like that again," Chanyeol says, looking away from Jongin. "I can't remember everything, but I remember that." He stares at the wall, or at his guitar, or at anything but Jongin. "I wanted to get over you so badly, Jongin."
"Do you still want that?" Jongin asks, quietly. "To not be in love with me anymore?"
"Yes," says Chanyeol, rolling over so that Jongin can't see more than the long curve of his back. "It only makes things hard for both of us, right?"
"Right," Jongin says. There have been thousands of times he's shared a room with Chanyeol, but never has it felt so heartbreakingly silent.
Jongin stays up all night writing the end of his novel. At around four AM, he types the last of it and sends it to Lu Han, before closing his laptop and packing all his bags.
"Even now, I can't write without you," he says, as Chanyeol continues to sleep.
❦ ❦ ❦
"Chanyeol has said he wants to remember more," Jongdae tells him in the car. "That we need to go back to the drawing board on the effectiveness of our procedure for people who want to forget more than a specific incident."
"Probably," Jongin says. "Although I think you shouldn't do that to anyone else."
"Chanyeol will provide valuable insight into the emotional side-effects of the procedure that we hadn't been able to predict."
"I'm glad," Jongin says. He looks out the window and watches the hills and mountains pass in a sea of green and clear cloudless skies.
"No, you aren't," says Jongdae. "But that's all right. Chanyeol will be all right, too."
"I want him to be happy. So much."
Jongdae sighs. "In life, we all have to do what we think is right, but I don't think you should have left without saying goodbye."
"I'm ready to stop being selfish," says Jongin. "Chanyeol was willing to let someone play around inside of his head to make me happy. The least I can do is let him get over me."
"I think what Chanyeol wants is for you to be happy," Jongdae says, pulling into the parking lot.
"I don't know if I can be. Not yet."
"Have a safe flight," says Jongdae, and Jongin waves goodbye to him, and to Jeju.
❦ ❦ ❦
He doesn't answer. But then it starts ringing again, and Jongin answers it, gut filled with dread.
"You left," Chanyeol says. "I woke up this morning, and you were gone."
"I'm sorry," Jongin says.
"I don't know why you have so much power over me," Chanyeol says. "Why the fact that you were gone this morning made me so upset."
"I thought it might be better if I gave you space," Jongin says. "To think."
"Maybe you're right," says Chanyeol. "I've tried getting over you in so many ways, Kim Jongin. I've dated other people, I've watched you propose to someone else. I've had someone remove you from my memories, and still you're here."
"I'm still here," Jongin agrees quietly.
Chanyeol's voice cracks. "You're everywhere. I think about you when I'm working, when I'm playing guitar. Hell, Jongin, I think about you whenever I see someone with a dog." Chanyeol takes a breath. "So maybe the only way I'm going to have any success is if I don't see you anymore."
"I don't know what else to do," Chanyeol says. "Even talking to you right now is breaking my heart."
The words are a punch to the gut. Jongin has heard those words before, and been the cause of them. "Hyung," Jongin says. "There's…"
"I have to figure things out," says Chanyeol. "I don't know how long that's going to take, Jonginnie."
"I understand," Jongin says. He does. He really does. Jongin has spent most of his adult life trying to untangle his feelings, and he's still trying. It's his greatest work in progress.
"Then…" Chanyeol's throat sounds raw. "I guess this is au revoir."
When Chanyeol ends the call, Jongin tells himself, over and over and over again, that au revoir doesn't mean goodbye. It just means 'until we see each other again', and Chanyeol won't be gone forever.
❦ ❦ ❦
What Jongin isn't fine with is being lonely. He usually isn't, because Kyungsoo always makes time for him, and Taemin is known to drop by unannounced at a moment's notice. ("I brought pizza, and I promise not to feed any to Jjangu.") Sehun or Zitao, and sometimes both of them, drag him out at least once a month to do something, whether it's shopping or bowling or playing video games at the big arcade near their apartment. ("Stop wallowing," Sehun says, "just because you're the only man in the world who gets dumped by someone he refused to date.") He has his other friends, too, like Baekhyun, who is always up for a drink ("it's hard to think about sad things when you're too drunk to think") and even Joonmyun-hyung, who can be just as silly as his other friends when he loosens up.
Chanyeol is different. If Jongin's life were a dance, Chanyeol would be the soundtrack, each of Jongin's tiny decisions made to the beat of Chanyeol's ebullient laughter. If Jongin were a novel, Chanyeol would be every adverb, and every adjective.
When Jongin had come home to a Chanyeol who didn't remember him, he'd thought things were falling apart.
It's nothing compared to coming home from Jeju away from a Chanyeol who remembers him and maybe wishes he didn't.
Days drip by, slowly, quietly, and Jongin looks at his phone and anticipates, always emptily, a message from Chanyeol. He goes running every morning with his dogs, and jokes with Jjangu to run a little faster, and then he comes home and edits.
Lu Han helps him, bringing some joy into his apartment, but when he leaves, it doesn't linger, not like the way Chanyeol's laugh did, and when he's gone, it's Jongin and the dogs again.
He looks up on the internet how long you can keep a toothbrush before you throw it away, and the answer is less time than Chanyeol's toothbrush has sat unused in the cup next to Jongin's sink but he can't seem to toss it, even though he thinks about doing it every time he walks in and remembers the way Chanyeol elbows for room in front of the mirror when he's running late for work. ("Some of us have schedules," Chanyeol had teased, and Jongin had rested his forehead against the space between Chanyeol's shoulder blades.)
The toothbrush stays, and so do the cranes on his countertop.
When edits are finished, he sends everything to Joonmyun, and prints out a copy for himself. His printer is low on ink, so the last thirty pages come out progressively grayer. Hyejeong's ending is faded to almost nothing.
He takes the printed copy with him to visit to Soojung. No one ever visits in the middle of the day here, and so it's just Jongin in the hallways, walking down to Soojung's room and claiming the soft brown chair by her bed.
"How are you today?" He runs a hand through her hair, and it snags. Her face is serene as he takes the brush from her bedside table and combs out the knots in the piece of hair closest to him. Soojung used to like it when Jongin played with her hair. "Seoul skipped spring again this year and went straight to summer, so it's hot outside."
Jongin takes the book out of his bag. He's clipped the pages together messily, and the corners are curled where they'd been jostled during his train ride.
"I finished your book," he says. "I printed it out so I could read it to you. I don't know if you can hear me, still, but I wanted you to hear this before…"
He starts at the very beginning, reading calmly. One of the nurses loiters in the doorway as he reads for a few minutes, and Jongin stumbles over a few words before he consciously decides to ignore her and carry on. He continues for four hours, stopping only to takes sips of water, and at the halfway point, he stops.
His throat is sore, when he leaves.
He goes back the next day, adding fresh flowers to Soojung's vase before he pulls out the bundle of papers and sets them on his lap. "Yesterday," he says, "we got to chapter 18."
He reads all afternoon, until he's squinting from the lack of light, leaning over and fumbling with the lamp until it flickers to life. It's by that faint glow he reads to Soojung the end.
"You're the first person to hear it," he says, when he's finished. He's wrung out, and it feels like the room is full of everything he'd wanted to share with Soojung, when he was in Paris. "I thought it was only right."
When he leaves that night, long after dark, he's empty, like so many of his final regrets were left in that room, with all the words and all the photos of a place Soojung will never go, and a future she'll never see.
Unfortunately, all that's left, then, as Jongin rides the train home, is the miserable burn in his chest that accompanies Chanyeol's absence from his life. He goes home, and curls up with all three of his dogs on his bed, and together, they're almost as warm as Chanyeol is, when he used to wrap himself around Jongin.
Like that, he manages to fall asleep.
"So?" Jongin asks, when he meets up with Joonmyun in his office the next day. His pen today is sky blue and sparkly. ("A gift," he'd explained, when Jongin spotted it earlier. "I always have trouble saying no to gifts.")
"Jongin…" Joonmyun smiles. "It's wonderful."
"Yeah?" Jongin asks.
"Yes," says Joonmyun. "It really is." He opens the folder with Jongin's printed out manuscript, and smiles. "You know what, though?"
"What?" Reclining in his seat, Jongin allows himself a small measure of relief.
"That you could write this makes me think that you secretly still believe in happy endings, Jonginnie."
"Can we go through the corrections?" Jongin asks, because Joonmyun's just making him think about all the things Jongin is missing, now.
❦ ❦ ❦
When they're finished, Sooyeon turns to Jongin. "Thank you," she says. "For your help." She smiles. "And for Paris."
"Anything," Jongin says. "Anytime."
The whole trip home, Jongin can't stop fingering the ring box in his pocket. He'd bought it with money from his savings from his part time job. It's nothing fancy, but it had looked gorgeous on her slim hand.
He puts it on his counter, among the coins and the cranes, and leaves it there.
Kyungsoo goes with him to the service. He remains stoic and calm as Jongin crumbles beside him, but his eyes are a little wet as they walk up to pay their respects to the Jungs.
When it's over, they sit in Kyungsoo's expensive car, not talking, just listening to whatever's on the radio as Jongin takes deep, shuddering breaths.
"Thanks," Jongin says. "For coming."
"What did I tell you, Kim Jongin?" Kyungsoo says. "You don't have to be alone." He hesitates. "You're going to be okay, you know that, right?" He cracks his knuckles, offering Jongin a thin smile. "You'd better be. Or else."
"Or else what?" Jongin asks, with a watery laugh that's thick with all the tears he refuses to shed until he gets home. "You'll feed me to the tigers at the zoo?"
"Not enough meat for the tigers," Kyungsoo replies, starting the car. "Maybe the hyenas."
❦ ❦ ❦
Taemin tells him it's good to take a break from writing, and he should use the opportunity to play with his dogs and go pick up a new hobby, but Jongin turns off his phone and watches the entirety of One Piece.
Kyungsoo and Sehun show up together during the third week of his marathon. They drag him out of his home and make him go to the movies and get dinner out. They eat samgyupsal and go out for drinks and spend long hours doing noraebang, but Jongin has always preferred conversation over coffee.
But after that, it's easier to slip back into regular patterns, even if years and years of Chanyeol next to him have made it hard for him to find any kind of normalcy in a life without him constantly around. Jongin never makes plans on Thursdays.
He express mails the first advanced copy to Sooyeon, and when he leaves the post office, package mailed and slip in his hands, he feels light, as though Soojung has climbed inside of his book and decided to stay there.
By October, it's cold enough for Jongin to need a coat to go outside, even just to go to the corner store to pick up something from the convenience store. When he takes the heavier coat off its hanger, he finds the scarf Chanyeol made for him stuffed into the left arm so it won't get lost. Jongin clutches it with both hands, and thinks it still, miraculously, smells like Chanyeol.
He wants to call him, text him, show up at his doorstep and tell him: Chanyeol, don’t give up on me. Don’t get over me.
It’s time, though, that what Chanyeol wants, needs, should come first. Jongin has taken so much, and he wants Chanyeol to have even a fraction of the time he had given Jongin to sort through what’s in his heart.
That doesn’t make it easier. His dogs don't make fun of him like Sehun does when he cries, holding the scarf up to his face and pressing the warm gray wool against his cheek.
❦ ❦ ❦
It's an instant bestseller, just like his second book had been, and Minseok tells him that the same publishing house has optioned him for two more novels.
Jongin is supposed to be excited, but he hasn't written anything in months, not since final edits for this one.
The second week of November, he has a small book signing in Jongno, at a nondescript bookstore not too far from its much bigger rival, Youngpoong. Minseok had set it up, but he's just left, back to his wife and baby, patting Jongin on the shoulder with a "good job" as they wrapped things up.
Jongin's packing his things, having already finished up with the last customer in line and chatted with the owner, thanking him for his help. He hates this kind of thing, but at the same time, it's nice to see people who like his novels, and to meet those who talk about his writing on internet forums.
The door chimes, and he hears some quiet talking, before the owner comes over. "Would you be willing to sign one more book, Kim-ssi?" she asks, and Jongin wrinkles his nose.
"Uh, sure," he says, still zipping up his bag. He pulls out his favorite marker and sets it on the table, pulling out his phone.
A book slides in front of him, and Jongin licks his lips. "Who should I make it out to?" he asks, checking for calls. There are none, just another text from Taemin that Jongin will answer when he's done here. He doesn't know why he still hopes, sometimes, that there will be one from… He locks his phone and sticks it back into his pocket, picking up his marker and preparing to smile for one last fan.
"Make it out to ‘my biggest fan'," says a familiar deep voice, and Jongin freezes, not daring to look up. "Or hyung, if you'd like."
He feels like there should be a warning system, when people walk back into your life after months and months of being gone.
"I wasn't sure when I'd see you again," Jongin whispers, uncapping his marker and opening the book to the title page. "After…"
"Jongin," Chanyeol says, and Jongin finally lifts his head. Chanyeol is, indeed, standing in front of him, glasses perched low on his nose and hair perfectly combed. He's wearing a thick wool sweater underneath an open coat, and he's smiling uncertainly. "I... I remember."
"What?" Jongin searches Chanyeol's face, finally meeting his eyes, and what he finds there scares him as much as it thrills him. "You what?"
"Before," he says, "it was tiny things—" Like where Jongin keeps the spoons and teaching Jongin to beatbox. "But the past few months, more and more has been coming back. Do you remember when I made you climb all the way to the top of the Great Wall?"
"That's not what happened," Jongin says. "I made you--" He stops, lips parting as he looks at Chanyeol with disbelief and too much hope bubbling in his chest.
"Oh," Chanyeol says, "that's right, I only had to make you walk back down."
He gives Jongin a smug little smirk, and Jongin reflexively smiles back.
"So it's… You can remember everything?"
"Not everything," Chanyeol says, and then he laughs. "But so much, Jonginnie. I remember… I remember when you bought Jjangah." He pushes his glasses up on his nose. "I remember that time you put my underwear in the refrigerator."
"Good," Jongin says thickly. "That was an important lesson."
"I also remember what I said to you, that night I called you in Paris." Chanyeol scratches at his cheek with his perfectly groomed nails. "I told you that you were hard to get over, Kim Jongin." He tugs lightly at the neck of his sweater. "I even fell in love with you twice."
Jongin's hands are shaking, but he puts the tip of the marker to the book, addressing it carefully, making sure it's prettier, neater, than the inscriptions he's been writing all afternoon. After all, it is for his biggest fan. Halfway through, he stops, his vision going a bit blurry. "I really missed you," he says, finally, and his voice is embarrassingly wobbly. "I really, really missed you."
"I'm sorry," Chanyeol says, crouching down so he's closer to eye-level with Jongin. He folds his arms on Jongin's signing table, and now Jongin has to look down. "I thought it would be better, if I could forget all the inconvenient feelings." He reaches out and puts his hand over Jongin's. "It turns out that everything was all tangled up together and I lost it all." His smile gets bigger. "I overestimated how far I'd come with my research, and I lost you. Then I was so freaked out by how much I must have wanted not to be in love with you that I did that to myself, and I pushed you away."
"Were you happier?" Jongin asks quietly, biting his lip.
Chanyeol shakes his head. "No," he answers. "I never really thought I would be. I was out of ideas, though, and I think… I think I was just being a coward."
"That makes two of us then, doesn't it?" Jongin says, and Chanyeol frowns at him.
"I took the easy way out," Chanyeol says. "I tried to escape from it by pressing an undo button on life." He squeezes Jongin's hand. "But there is no undo button. We just have to keep moving forward, right?"
Jongin thinks about Soojung. He thinks about Paris, and about tall grass in Jeju. He thinks about the way you can see the skyline of Seoul so perfectly from the window of Chanyeol's too-big-for-one-person apartment. "Right," he says.
"So I've been taking this time away from you to go through my feelings," Chanyeol says, pulling back and standing up. He holds Jongin's gaze, and that look is there again, like Jongin is the brightest star in a very bright nighttime sky. "I want your friendship very much, Jongin, but I still have to get over you."
"No experimental procedures or fancy gimmicks this time," says Chanyeol. "I promise."
"How unlike you," Jongin says, breaking eye-contact. "You like the flashy stuff."
"Just… give me a little more time, Jongin," says Chanyeol. "Just a little. Your friendship is one of the most important things to me, and even when I couldn't remember you, I knew, intrinsically, something was missing from my life." He chuckles wryly. "These past few months have just proved it."
Jongin looks back at the page, at his unsigned dedication. for my biggest fan is written in neat, neat hangul.
Chanyeol sighs, and continues: "I want to be your friend and not want anything else. I think I can do it, but I don't want to give you up to make that happen."
Jongin doesn't want that either. There's so much to say, about how lonely it had been, to have Chanyeol beside him but quite himself. To have a Chanyeol who didn't know every inside joke and fit into Jongin's apartment like he belonged there and fall asleep in Jongin's space. Then, finally, to not have Chanyeol at all, only the phantom of him in Jongin's apartment and in Jongin's heart.
"Please don't go away again," Jongin whispers, quickly finishing the inscription in Chanyeol's copy of the book and closing it before Chanyeol can read it. "If you won't, I won't, no matter what."
"Never again," Chanyeol says. "Because one way or another, Jongin, I'm always going to love you."
What Chanyeol is offering is what Jongin had told Chanyeol he wanted, not with words but with actions, and Jongin's whole chest constricts.
It isn’t what Jongin actually wants. He tries to say it, but something else comes out.
"Why do you…" Jongin swallows. "Why me?"
"What do you mean?"
"Out of all the people in the world," Jongin asks, "why me?"
"I guess I'm a sucker for cute boys who need me to take care of them," Chanyeol says. "What can I say?" He takes his book. "I'd better go. But just for now. I'll text you, sometime." He pauses, smoothing his hand over the cover of the book. "Soon, okay?"
"Okay," Jongin says. Chanyeol grins at him, gives him a slight wave, and turns around, tucking the book into a bag as he goes.
The door chime rings again, and Jongin reaches for his own coat. He grabs his scarf by accident, fingers sliding through the knit, and Jongin realizes he’s going to miss the chance to say what he’s been wanting to say to Chanyeol for a month now. What he’s felt for far longer than that.
Chanyeol turns around, both eyebrows raising as he takes in Jongin with his coat hanging off his arms, scarf in one hand and bag in the other.
He runs forward and grabs Chanyeol by the wrist, tugging him back around the bookstore, into the alley between it and the bunsik restaurant next door. Chanyeol pouts at the cigarette butts, but steps over them to follow Jongin where he's pulling him.
The alleyway leading to the bookstore is empty. Out on the main walkway, the crowds pulse toward and away from Myeongdong's noon square. Late afternoon is turning to dusk as shoppers with bags hanging from both arms pass by, laughing with their friends.
No one will pay any attention to them here. It's just Chanyeol and him here now, which is exactly what Jongin wants.
"Did you forget something?" Chanyeol smiles at him. He adjusts his bag on his shoulder, and then reaches forward to drag Jongin's coat up onto his shoulders. "You need to be careful, Jongin," he says, buttoning Jongin's coat before reaching for his scarf and winding it around his neck.
"No," Jongin says. "I need… I need to say something."
"Did you want to get coffee?" Chanyeol starts to turn, maybe to scan for a shop on the main road, but Jongin grunts disapprovingly, making him immediately turn back.
"I think about what you said to me, that night on the phone, when I was in Paris. I think about it every day." Jongin puts his hands in his pockets. "You're so honest, hyung. I want to be honest, too."
"I finished it already. Your novel about Paris. That was some ending." His lips quirk. "More importantly, I saw a lot of you in your hero." Chanyeol's eyes are so clear. "Your books are honest in ways you can't be, Jongin."
"I know," Jongin says. "That's why you're in all of them." Chanyeol's eyes widen, his mouth softening. "Because I need you."
"I'm not going to leave you again, Jongin." The wind blows, and Chanyeol squints. "I'll do anything for you."
"So cheesy," says Jongin. "Don't say weird stuff like that."
"I think you kind of like it," Chanyeol says. His glasses are sliding down again, and Jongin unthinkingly sighs and pushes them back up.
"Do you know that ever since I met you, I haven't been able to believe you're real?" He punches Chanyeol in the arm, and Chanyeol laughs and rubs it. "How can you be real?"
"So violent, Jonginnie." His laugh reveals all of his teeth, and the tips of his ears are pink. He looks tired, in more ways than one, but he's standing here, in front of Jongin, smiling at him for the first time in six months.
"And the longer I know you, the more I think…" Jongin blows his hair out of his eyes. "The more I think that I imagined you. That you're some character from a manhwa come to life. Because I don't deserve someone like you."
"You're amazing," Chanyeol says. "Of course you do."
Jongin tugs at his scarf, and his stomach drops. This is it. It seems so much clearer now, than it's ever seemed in his life.
"I started dating Soojung because she was exactly what I should like. Pretty and smart and serious. She had all the focus I lacked and I thought she would be good for me. She was good for me. I fell in love with her." Jongin blinks to clear his eyes, balling the memories of Soojung up and pushing them deeper into his heart, where they'll always stay. "But really, Chanyeol, I started dating her because she was so different from you."
Chanyeol freezes, his whole body visibly stiffening. His jaw tightens, like he's bracing himself. "What?" His voice is raspy. "Jongin, what do you mean?"
"Everything was so complicated. I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know if I liked guys, or if you liked guys, and my emotions were all mixed up, and there she was, a port in the storm."
Chanyeol's bag slips down to hang in the crook of his elbow, but he doesn't pull it up, his eyes riveted on Jongin.
Jongin rushes on. "You didn't come out to me until two years after we'd started dating, you know? I loved her, by then, but I still…" He wraps his arms around himself, because it's so cold, and Chanyeol suddenly steps closer, pulling Jongin into him, resting his cheek on the top of Jongin's head. "It made me sick, how much I still wanted you. But there was Soojung, and I'd picked out a ring, and…"
"Jongin, are you…" Chanyeol’s words are muffled in Jongin's hair, and Jongin fists his hands in Chanyeol's sweatshirt. He takes a deep breath. Chanyeol's aftershave, the old stuff, the smell he's always associated with Chanyeol and all-nighters and Thursday coffee.
"I didn't know what to do," Jongin says. "What I really wanted. Everything that had seemed so solid had shifted under my feet." He squeezes his eyes shut. "That night, at Baekhyun's, when we almost kissed—"
"You remember that?" Chanyeol interrupts. "I thought you didn't—"
"That night was the last time I ever saw her awake," Jongin says. "That night, we fought, because…"
"Because of me," says Chanyeol, wonderingly, like Jongin has been in shadow this whole time and now he's finally stepped into the light. "You fought because of me." Jongin can imagine him reorganizing everything in his mind, with that look of concentration he gets, his tongue peeking out of the corner of his mouth.
"It's not fair," Jongin says, "but I couldn't just… I felt like if I let myself…"
"No, no, Jongin, no," Chanyeol says. "You never told me—"
Chanyeol's arms tighten around him. Jongin's needed to say this for so long. He's just been too scared to do it, and now he's too scared not to. There are things worse than Jongin's most horrible secrets, and losing Chanyeol, losing the love he's wanted to accept for so long, is one of them.
"I'm sorry," Jongin says. "I'm sorry that you had to wait so long for me to figure things out. That I wasn't ready to move on, even when everyone else told me I should. I felt so guilty—" He gulps air, and it's cold, stinging his lungs. "So guilty and horrible, and you were so warm and kind, and it was enough. Just friendship was enough, and whenever I wanted more, I reminded myself that Soojung had…"
But Soojung is gone, now. More importantly, Jongin has finally let her go.
"But it's been a long time," Jongin says. "For both of us. And I still…" He pushes back, so he can look up at Chanyeol, into his eyes. "You weren't seeing things just because you wanted to, Chanyeol. I've always loved you back."
Chanyeol is gaping at him, his eyes so wide that Jongin almost laughs, but whatever he almost does is stopped by Chanyeol's mouth finding his own. Chanyeol's hands come up and sink into Jongin’s hair as he uses his grip to tilt Jongin's head up, and his mouth slants sideways to kiss him deeper. Jongin catches his hands in Chanyeol's sweater, eyes closing completely as he tastes Chanyeol's lips for the first time.
Chanyeol tastes like coffee. Jongin isn't even surprised.
He pulls away with one last chaste peck to the corner of Jongin's mouth.
"Have I invented a procedure that makes dreams into reality?" Chanyeol says, and Jongin punches him in the arm again.
"You have to stop saying things like that," Jongin says, laughing and flushed and not feeling at all cold anymore. "It's mortifying."
"But it's cute when you're embarrassed." Chanyeol leans down and nuzzles his nose against Jongin's, then kisses him again quickly. "You're cold," he says. "Maybe for your birthday, I'll knit you a hat to match that scarf."
"What do you want for your birthday?" Jongin asks. "It's in three days, you know. You didn't leave me a lot of time."
"Are you kidding?" Chanyeol asks. He steps back from Jongin, and then grabs his hand, lacing their fingers together. "I got you."
Then he lets go of Jongin's hand, and Jongin shoves it in his pocket, biting his lip. It still tingles.
"I really would like to get coffee, though," he says, and Jongin grins.
"Sounds good to me," he replies.
❦ ❦ ❦
“Are you going to ask me that about everything we do this year?” Jongin replies, as Chanyeol drapes his arms over Jongin’s shoulders, pulling him back into his chest and pressing their cheeks together.
“Yes,” Chanyeol says. “Absolutely.”
The third day of their trip, Jongin goes on a walk by himself as Chanyeol answers work correspondence. He walks far, all the way to the river’s edge, crossing the bridge after the Hotel de Ville into the Ile de la Cite, strolling along the left banks.
From his pocket, he pulls out Soojung’s ring. He’d left the box back in Seoul, empty, and it sits now, in the palm of his hand, the single diamond sparkling.
He can see lovers taking pictures further down the banks. He closes his hand around the ring, and smiles. “I brought you to Paris,” he says, and he waits one beat, then two, remembering Soojung at her best, her most radiant. “I’ll never forget you, Soojung,” he whispers, and then he tosses the ring into the water, letting it disappear.
When he gets back to the hotel, Chanyeol looks up from his laptop and smiles at Jongin. “I’m almost done,” he says, and Jongin walks over to him and takes the laptop out of his lap, sitting it on the bed next to him and straddling him. He grips Chanyeol’s shoulders and kisses him, softly, their noses bumping as Chanyeol’s hands come up to hold his hips.
“Hey,” Jongin says, leaning back. “I love you.”
Chanyeol’s eyelashes flutter, and he meets Jongin’s eyes firmly, surely. “I love you too.”
And Jongin is sadder, this time, when it’s time to leave. He and Chanyeol go on one last stroll through their favorite part of the city, pinkies discreetly linking as they walk closely enough that their shoulders brush with every step.
"Did you know," Chanyeol says, slinging his arm around Jongin and reeling him in with a hand at his hip, "that Paris has one of the top Global Domestic Products in the world?"
"Hyung," Jongin says, leaning into Chanyeol and feeling his warmth. He'd left his jacket back at the hotel, because it's warm today, especially for early spring. "No one cares."
Chanyeol laughs, and kisses Jongin's cheek. "You like my voice, so you can pretend to care, just for me," he says, pulling his phone out of his pocket and aiming the camera to catch both of their faces. In the background, you can see a fraction of the Arc de Triomphe. "Right?"
"Just for you," Jongin agrees, and Chanyeol takes the picture.
He shows Jongin the photo, afterwards. “For our memories,” he says, and Jongin grins.
“Yeah,” he says. “Our memories.”