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Charade

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Jaebum feels wrung out. It’s not entirely exhaustion, not wholly a physical drain. Instead, there’s an unsettled feeling that aches in his bones. It’s coupled with doubt – is he doing enough? He works part time, in addition to his responsibilities at university, but is it going to be worth it? Or will it distract from his studies and jeopardize his scholarship?

There are too many questions.

Jaebum doesn’t dream of anything extraordinary in his future. He moved past that long ago. But he wants to feel secure. He wants this ache of questions to melt away, wants to live comfortably. He just wants to know things will be okay.

It’s a dull sort of weight, and it seems to drag behind him even as he strides through rivers of loud, similarly stressed students. Jaebum uses what’s left of his strength to propel him across the crowded campus in the lean ten minute break between his classes.

Finals are coming up, and winter break is already beckoning in the crisp bite at the end of every breeze. Jaebum fiddles with the collar on his jacket and hopes the new year will bring real changes. Not just for himself, but for everything around him.

He settles into his seat towards the back of his Short Film class with a bit of resignation. He’d hoped this term there might be something to actually show for his degree, but it's been mostly analysis. He’s done a few more freeform explorations on his own, trying to figure out how he’ll use the more technical aspects of what they've been learning. But he’s still unsure, nervous about how deep into the film major he is without knowing if he fits.

His professor comes in with a pep in her step, and Jaebum suspects their next project must be a big one if she’s this excited.

“I hope everybody is ready!” Professor Hong declares. “Our last project, which will account for the bulk of your final grade, is an actual short film. Entirely conceived, written, and shot by you.”

Jaebum’s eyes slide across the class, dizzy already from the buzz of anticipation rippling throughout the room. Maybe if his schedule was lighter, he’d feel more positive about it, but Jaebum often feels stiff, faintly nauseous at the idea of big projects.

“I know you guys can’t wait to get your hands on some cameras and start shooting everything,” the professor says with a grin. “But this project will account for the bulk of your grade. So I’m expecting you to take it seriously and we’ll be checking in every week with landmarks: outlines, storyboarding, and we’ll even workshop your concepts in small groups.”

Jaebum’s nose twitches. Group work puts him especially on edge; relying on others to prioritize his schedule rarely works out. But hopefully it will just be a few class sessions.

“In fact,” she continues, smile spreading, as she seems to find some sadistic satisfaction from the tension in everyone’s faces. “This will be a paired assignment. You will work in teams of two,” and the students all sigh and start shuffling anxiously, exchanging uneasy glances.

“Which I have already selected,” she purrs, brandishing a sheet of paper dramatically.

The groans erupt in earnest now, and Jaebum curls tense, uncomfortable fingers around his flimsy little side desk, jaw ticking in irritation.

In the corner of the room, Park Jinyoung uncaps a pen smoothly, writing out a note without bowing his head. Jaebum finds his small, seemingly unaffected movement the most aggravating. Of course, this kid doesn’t seem stressed – Jaebum’s gathered he’s some sort of business heir. School must be pretty cushy with a safety net like that.

Jaebum hasn’t glanced his way for more than a few seconds, when Jinyoung blinks stiffly and turns his head. His nose and mouth barely come into view, and Jaebum watches, distracted, as his plump lips peel apart. In another instant Jaebum realizes Jinyoung is looking at him — he’s felt his gaze.

Embarrassed, Jaebum tears his eyes away, focusing on the teacher again as she writes out sets of names on the whiteboard.

The timing of it all feels ludicrous. A blink away from Jinyoung, and then he sees those very syllables written out with a squeak of the marker. Jaebum’s gut lurches, and he knows what’ll be written next before it appears:

Park Jinyoung - Im Jaebum

Jaebum glares at it, as if the ink can be wiped away through sheer intimidation. Instead, the professor just carries on with her list, until the entire roster is paired up neatly on the board.

With a brush of her fingers, she swivels around, beaming at the sea of dismayed faces. “I promise this will be fun,” she says. “Every quarter it’s like this; everybody’s grumpy at first, but collaboration is key to finding your artistic voice. Disagreement, conflict – it’s all a little uncomfortable. But the compromise,” she trills. “That’s where we find harmony, and that’s where your raw ideas get honed into something powerful.”

Jaebum can sense Jinyoung is peering back at him curiously again, and he pointedly ignores it.

“I’ve prepared a packet with more details and all of our most important dates,” she says, and the stack of papers slams on her desk ominously. “Come on up and grab them, then find your partners and start brainstorming. Let’s make some magic!”

Jaebum tries to delay it all, moving in slow motion, tucking the folding desktop away with a drawn out squeak.

But then Jinyoung meets him halfway up the stairs, two copies of the packet held in those deliberate, neat fingers. Jaebum sways slightly on the step above him, gesturing around the small auditorium to offer him a choice of their new seats.

Jinyoung ducks past him with a smile into the closest row, settling with an expensive looking leather satchel on a seat beside him and gesturing for Jaebum to follow. The bag is seated closest to Jaebum, who stares at it with a faint air of irritation. Numbly, he places his own dingy backpack into the same seat, trying to look anywhere besides the deteriorating handles and the enormous ink stain from high school.

He settles into the seat on the aisle, grateful for the prospect of a quick escape once the period ends.

“I want to do something really natural,” Jinyoung is already rattling off, reaching across their mismatched bags and pulling out Jaebum’s desk for him. The packet slaps down on it a moment later and Jaebum swallows heavily, resigned to the fact that at some point, he will have to verbally respond.

“They say write what you know,” Jinyoung continues. “So maybe if we share a little bit about what's on our minds, first — it would help?”

Jaebum finally lets himself look up, and immediately regrets it. There are Jinyoung’s wide, warm eyes. His eyebrows are thick, but neatly groomed, and a little raised bump on his cheek is tastefully blended out with something like tinted moisturizer. At least it’s late afternoon, and Jaebum can see a shadow of facial hair creeping in around Jinyoung’s jawline. The sight of it is slightly reassuring – he’s certainly well kept, but he’s still a real human.

“Go ahead,” Jaebum says, as Jinyoung looks expectant.

Jinyoung draws back slightly with a hum, and the tone is strong, a pinch melodic.

“I’m not unhappy,” Jinyoung starts, and the frankness takes Jaebum by surprise. Who starts there?

“I’m at a point in my life,” Jinyoung continues, looking thoughtful. “Which is not quite a turning point. I’m not yet at any sort of adult crossroads, you know? We’re still in school, of course, so we’ve already set something in motion – film, acting, whatever I thought was interesting to focus on. But I don’t quite have to decide what to do with that yet, and especially with my family, and my lifestyle, there are lower stakes. But there’s still this road out ahead in front of me,” Jinyoung pauses, and his pen has been moving while he’s talking, doodling on the packet in what Jaebum thought was an aimless pattern. But now as he glances down at it, he sees the long, parallel lines Jinyoung has been drawing, and where they split apart, into two opposite curves.

“I wish I knew where I was going,” Jinyoung murmurs. “Tomorrow.”

Jaebum gapes at the paper, and then up at Jinyoung’s soft frown. This was not the brown-nosing, plucky student he’d sneered at around campus.

At first, it repels Jaebum a bit, as Jinyoung turns back to him, face bright and questioning. Jaebum finds himself struggling not to shrink back, and instead scratches his neck stubbornly, flushing. “I wish I knew too,” he offers, feebly.

Jinyoung blinks, but he doesn’t seem unimpressed. He stays quiet, expectant.

“I–,” Jaebum feels his voice waver and he frowns, teeth clicking as he snaps his jaw shut. He decidedly clears his throat again, fingers anxiously winding up the corner of his papers.

“I feel more like, my road has already been decided without me,” Jaebum admits. “And I can hardly see a thing. But I can’t turn – I can’t turn around.”

Jinyoung’s breath hitches slightly, shifting in his seat.

“I wish I could see a longer road out in front of me,” Jaebum admits. “But I can barely see a few feet at a time. I make decision after decision, on my own, because I have to. And time just keeps moving on and on. I’m stuck in a fog, and I don’t know what’s up ahead or which way to go – all I know is how to survive moment to moment. I can only think about today.”

Jinyoung gazes across at him with the same warm, open expression. Jaebum can’t bear to face it head on, chewing his bottom lip as he flicks through the dates in the packet in a flustered state. In his peripheral vision, he sees Jinyoung writing something down neatly beside his more fluid scribblings.

Jaebum reads it in one glance - it’s just two words:

Tomorrow, Today

 

//

 

Jaebum can’t quite explain his distaste for Park Jinyoung. On the surface, maybe they’d seem quite compatible: both majors in film studies and minors in literature, both regular contributors in campus circles like the newspaper and the theatre, both consistently at the top of their classes.

They move in similar orbits, along parallel paths, and have several mutual friends.

But Park Jinyoung is rich, doesn’t seem interested in meeting new people, and has a sort of effortless grace. Jaebum isn’t dirt poor and besides, he isn’t typically begrudging about it – but he’d had to work hard for what he had and often had to wait for what he wanted. Jaebum is certain Jinyoung had never wanted or waited, and can see it in how he seems to glide about without a weight on his shoulders.

And below the obvious similarities, Jaebum and Jinyoung are interested in what seem to be the opposite ends of the same things. Jinyoung is interested in acting, having already been in several of the school’s smaller stage and seniors’ film productions. In contrast, Jaebum is attracted to directing, thanks to some experience with amateur photography; he’s fascinated with capturing a vision.

Jinyoung seems adept with the consumption of literature, and he often gets referrals from professors for help with proper analysis. Jaebum, while just as voracious a reader, is more interested in the writing, and becoming an author himself.

So when they’d been first introduced, it had been strangely stiff. Sentences awkwardly dropped off, opinions quickly sniffed out and mutually dismissed.

Jaebum remembers, that evening, at a long communal table in the most popular barbecue spot near school. He remembers Jinyoung opposite him, voice quiet and clipped, his eyes struggling to meet Jaebum’s.

When their friend Jackson had swept in and lured Jinyoung away with another group for a second round of drinking, Jaebum had felt nothing but relief.

He’d watched them leave together, Jackson’s arm looped around Jinyoung’s waist, and he thinks they might have been dating then. Because Jinyoung had blossomed under his touch, a wide smile unfurling uncovered, cheeks pink and eyes turned crescent.

And as they had stumbled out into the night, he’d heard Jinyoung’s laugh for the first time. Loud, stilted, a little too literal of a ha ha ha for Jaebum to quite believe. He’d hated it, soju souring in his mouth as he’d thought: fake.

Fake Park Jinyoung was too fake to even offer his dumb, fake donkey laugh during their conversation, or show him the wrinkles around his eyes when he’d smiled.

At least Jaebum had found out early — to avoid meeting those round eyes and shaking those graceful fingers.

Until now.

 

//

 

“You’re partners?” Jackson looks genuinely surprised.

“Guess it was bound to happen eventually,” Jaebum sighs, fingers skimming a scuffed keyboard, trying to figure out a better headline for a concert review. “We’ve always had a lot of classes together.”

“That’s right,” Jackson murmurs, shifting where he’s laid out on a couch in the newspaper production office. The rest of the basement space houses cubicles for different section heads, copy editors, the ads team, and the editor-in-chief’s office.

But this area is very proudly lorded over by BamBam, the art director, and Jaebum can tell he’s listening into their conversation while sketching something for his homework.

“Bam,” Jaebum sighs. “Does this have to be two lines? Can we not bump the photo up a little bit?”

“You took a shit photo,” BamBam says, looking insulted. “Why would I want to punish everybody by making it bigger?”

“I didn’t take it,” Jaebum protests. “My writer did.”

“Jinyoung-ah and you have the same major and minor, but you hate him.” Jackson bulldozes on, arms crossing. “Even though he’s handsome and smart and kind, with the same boring interests, he’s not good enough for you.”

“I could drop in a pull quote,” BamBam offers, “if you have a good line?”

“I don’t hate him,” Jaebum says over his shoulder, and then blinks back at the monitor. “There’s nothing to really highlight,” he admits to BamBam. “It’s kind of a shit story, too.”

“Then maybe your headline will fit if it says ‘don’t read this,’ up front.” BamBam says, with a sideways smile.

Jaebum types it in slowly to humor himself, lips pressed tightly together.

“You don’t hate him, but you’re complaining to me about having to work with him,” Jackson says, and the old leather couch groans as he sits up instead.

“I’m not complaining,” Jaebum insists, backspacing loudly.

“You called him a dick,” says BamBam, hunched back over his sketchbook.

“I just hate group work in general,” Jaebum says. “People don’t take me seriously when I explain how busy I am — so I either do all of the work on my own or my part doesn’t end up fitting.”

“It’s only one other person,” Jackson says. “And I bet Jinyoung has already agreed to meet you anytime, anywhere.”

A beat passes, Jaebum trying a new headline.

“Hasn’t he?” Jackson presses. “You probably already have something scheduled.”

“It’s at my apartment,” Jaebum admits. “He agreed to come over whenever I get done here.”

Jackson and BamBam glance at each other conspicuously then, eyebrows high.

“He’s waiting for your call?” BamBam asks. “So this guy is like — bending over fucking backwards to make this easy on you.”

“What a dick, right?” Jackson chuckles.

Jaebum wilts under their glares, sending the page to the printer so he can drop off a hard proof with the copy editors.

“I’m out of here,” he says brusquely.

Jackson huffs, crossing his arms and settling back into the couch. “I still have at least another hour until Jooheon gets back with the football wrap up.”

“Maybe you should just have hate sex,” BamBam suggests, thrusting his pencil suggestively as Jaebum hovers by the ancient laser printer. “That’ll help the project. And maybe your stress levels, in general.”

Jackson bursts into laughter. “I don’t think Jaebum could pull it off,” he says. “Even with all that weird synchronized tension they’ve got going.”

“I guess you would certainly know I’m not his type,” Jaebum sniffs, scanning over the page one more time.

Jackson looks genuinely confused. “What?”

“Back in sophomore year,” Jaebum says, moving toward the door. “When I met him — when we all went out. You two seemed pretty close. All-over-each-other close.”

Jackson’s smile spreads slow and suspicious. “Ah,” he says. “We’ve definitely flirted around, sure. But it’s never been serious. I don’t know if he has a type, actually.”

“See you,” Jaebum shoulders his way out the heavy door.

“It’s sweet you remember all that!” Jackson calls teasingly after him.

Jaebum glares down at the Entertainment section in his hands, littered with music and movie reviews. A promo for a melodramatic romance features a sparkly eyed actor. His windswept, stylish hair and pouty lips remind him reluctantly of Jinyoung.

This could work well for them, Jaebum thinks, trying to be optimistic. Jinyoung featured like this dreamboat, and Jaebum behind the scenes. If he could split their project load up like that, maybe it’ll go more smoothly.

“Jaebum,” a voice calls, and he glances up to see their editor-in-chief, Kihyun, peering around the wall of a cubicle.

Jaebum heads over hesitantly, not wanting to linger too long so he stays on schedule. As he rounds the corner, he’s startled by all of the copy team and a few other section heads crammed close together, looking gossipy.

“Ah, what’s up?” Jaebum greets them, handing his section printout to one of the editors. She snatches it with anxious hands, paper audibly crumpling.

“Have you heard?” Kihyun asks, features sharp.

Jaebum tilts his head, scanning everyone’s faces for a clue but finding nothing. “I guess I haven’t,” he says.

“Suzy sunbaenim,” Kihyun says slowly, watching him for a reaction. “She’s come back from Europe.”

Jaebum’s mouth goes dry, cheeks flushing. “Oh,” he says, and he suddenly wishes he hadn’t handed his page over yet, wishes he had something to crumple up in his fist as well. Instead, he jams his hands into his pockets, rocks back on his sneakers and tries to nod casually. “How cool.”

“She ended her internship over there early so she could be home for the holidays. She’s starting up at another magazine here soon, but she said she wanted to help us out.” Kihyun says. “She thinks we could get a redesign done together over the break.”

“Cool,” Jaebum repeats, raising his eyebrows in an attempt to look more cheerful. “I bet Bam will be super excited to work on that.”

“Is everything…” Kihyun pauses, glancing around at the other editors, who all seem too eager to be around for this conversation. He sighs. “Everything’s good with you guys, right?”

Jaebum feels like his eyebrows have likely disappeared into his hairline at this point, skin tight with effort. “Yeah!” He says. “Of course, it’s all cool. We’re totally cool, friendly, whatever. We haven’t um, talked in a while? But yeah, we’re… cool?”

“Uh huh,” Kihyun hums, looking unconvinced. “Sounds cool. Anyway, we’re asking all the section editors for some feedback, requests for the new look, so if you think of anything let us know. Entertainment is a really important part of the paper, and we’d love for it to become more visual. So don’t be afraid to reach out, we’ll be trying to get a leg up on it before finals, and then through til the new term.”

Jaebum nods, focusing on breathing and smiling, and then he hurries home, numb and nervous.

 

//

 

Jinyoung looks absolutely startled when Jaebum flings open the door to his apartment an hour later, hair still wet from a shower.

“What?” Jaebum asks, ushering him inside and towards the couch. They settle a cushion apart, Jaebum melting into the back and Jinyoung’s spine remaining straight.

“Your moles!” Jinyoung says, low voice melting off into a small smile. The tone of it makes Jaebum think of bitter, semisweet baking chocolate. “They’re real.”

Jaebum blinks at him in genuine bewilderment. “What?” He asks again.

“Before,” Jinyoung murmurs, his finger tapping his own brow. “I’d wondered if maybe you drew them on. You know, they’re sort of unusual. I thought you did it to make yourself look more dramatic.”

Jaebum flushes, chest automatically puffing up like he’s been challenged. “I don’t wear makeup,” he sputters.

“You did for your set at Skyway,” Jinyoung says smoothly, leaning back in his seat a bit even as he knits his fingers around a knee.  Jaebum’s pulse shoots through the roof. Jinyoung had seen him perform? Jinyoung went to Skyway?

When Jaebum has – very fractionally – more spare time, he composes songs and sometimes even performs them with one of his juniors, Choi Youngjae, at a lounge near campus. Youngjae plays piano and helps him with melodies, and has the loudest voice and the brightest smile Jaebum’s ever seen.

It’s been quite a while since he last had time to visit Skyway for more than drinks, but apparently Jinyoung is familiar with his history there.

“I don’t wear makeup, at school,” Jaebum amends. “In daylight, around – real people.”

“Only for all us fake people,” Jinyoung says, lips trembling as if the effort of holding back a smirk is physically strenuous. “Listening to you at night.”

Jaebum tries to keep his eyeroll in check but makes a note to crow angrily about this later to Jackson.

“So, the project,” Jaebum presses. “I’m thinking we can keep this really simple. Streamline things a bit.”

He explains his proposed delegations, as delicately as he can manage. Jinyoung shifts around a bit, eyes wobbling back and forth as he seems to process the meaning.

“You don’t… want to be in it?” Jinyoung asks.

“Well I don’t think it’s required, right?” Jaebum says, flipping through the packet again as he props his feet up on his coffee table.

Jinyoung follows the movement with just his eyes, and Jaebum knows he must be being judged for it. Crossing his ankles and wriggling defiant toes, Jaebum finally finds the page he was looking for. “Here,” he says, “page three. Neither of us need to appear in it, technically. So I just figure, it’ll be easier on both of us if one of us writes, and another one focuses on the acting.”

“You don’t want me to write any of it.” Jinyoung says, face gone stony.

Jaebum lowers the pages with a sigh, finally making eye contact with him. “It’s not like, I don’t want you to, I’m just trying to make things easier. For both of us. If we both have less to worry about, we can do it more wholeheartedly.”

“Professor Hong wants us to collaborate,” Jinyoung says. “She talked about conflict and working through it.”

“Collaboration doesn’t always mean–,” Jaebum starts, and then quiets as Jinyoung runs a frustrated hand through his neat bangs.

“I thought we had a good discussion in class,” Jinyoung grits out, cheekbones dusted with an angry, splotched shade of pink. “I was really excited, I’ve been thinking about how we talked about roads, and direction...”

Jaebum stares in mute surprise. Park Jinyoung is frustrated –  ruffled, even  – his hair mussed from where he dragged his hand through it, face flushing. He rambles on about some mood imagery, tearing open his notebook to flip to a handsomely highlighted mind map.

But Jaebum struggles to concentrate on the neat writing, eyes flickering up to take in Jinyoung’s angry flush again. The sparkling eyes, the way Jinyoung was wringing his fingers together and then snatching up his pen again. The way Jinyoung is so tightly wound, his unraveling is that much more compelling to watch. Jaebum can’t help hungrily following each twitch of his fingers, his lips.

Jinyoung slams his notebook and pen down on the coffee table, hard. Jaebum blinks back into consciousness and draws his feet back nervously, sitting up straighter.  

“You’re not even listening to me now,” Jinyoung says, opening his satchel and stuffing his things away.

“I – I was,” Jaebum stammers.

“I’d figured you might be reluctant about being paired up,” Jinyoung says, standing abruptly. “You’ve seemed like you always disliked me, but I thought at least with respect to our grades, you’d be willing to compromise a little and work hard on it anyway.”

Jaebum can’t stop himself from springing to his feet as well. There’s a sharpness in his gut now, the low burn of a rekindled grudge. Maybe this is good? Maybe he’ll get a new partner. “I’m always willing to work hard,” he snaps. “Nevermind you wouldn’t know a thing about working.”

Jinyoung doesn’t budge. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He asks. “I’m at the top of all my classes – and I work really hard for that.”

“But I have to do a little more than homework,” Jaebum says. “I have two jobs for a reason, you know. I live on my own so I pay on my own. I’m just trying to split the work up fairly.”

“Well it’s not fair,” Jinyoung hisses. “It’s not fair to strip me of all creative input on a project just because you think that’s easier. I understand you’re a busy guy, but I thought I’d made it clear I’m willing to work with whatever odd hours you had available.”

Jaebum sighs, and he feels physically hot – like there’s steam hissing out of him slowly. He struggles to accept that Jinyoung is being completely accommodating — they’re fighting, but it’s not about reality. It’s about what he expected Jinyoung to be like, and it’s turning out untrue. His mind doesn’t want to accept it, but here Jinyoung is, having already made time for Jaebum. Digging his heels in to keep working with Jaebum. Ready to expand on a genuinely intriguing concept.

Mind churning with the leftover dredges of impotent, useless anger, Jaebum shrugs impatiently. “Fine!” he bites out.

“We’ll split it however,” Jaebum says. “I like the idea of roads, too. That’s… fine.”

“It’s fine?” Jinyoung prods. “I don’t want to make something fine. I want to make something really good.”

Jaebum rubs his hands over his face with another sigh. “It’s good,” he says, voice lowering as he sinks himself back into the couch. “It is honestly, sincerely good. I just … you’re right that I was reluctant to do this. So give me a minute or two to try and get on board here.”

Jinyoung hesitates another beat before returning to his seat. He takes out his notebook but stays quiet for the time being.

“The stuff you said in class,” Jaebum says, eyes still shut after a long moment of trying to get the inflamed gears of his brain turning again. “About being unsure, about… not knowing where you’d go tomorrow, but not even being there yet. It’s good. Relatable. I guess, everybody feels that way, even when to somebody else,” and he gestures tiredly at himself. “To someone on the outside looking in, it seems like you have your whole life set up for you.”

“By who?” Jinyoung asks.

Jaebum opens his eyes then, and he’s surprised to find Jinyoung not looking insulted.

“You think my life is set up for me,” Jinyoung says. “Who set it up?”

“Your parents,” Jaebum mutters. “Your… rich parents.”

Jinyoung hums, leaning back a bit. “I know there’s a safety net there,” he admits. “But they haven’t decided anything for me. If I want to go into business, they can help me there, for sure. But honestly, they want me to choose my own path. And that's scary.”

This fact doesn’t do a lot to change Jaebum’s impression, but the waver in Jinyoung’s voice sounds sincere. The distant fear in his eyes is a familiar one. Fear of choice.

They do some more brainstorming, Jaebum finally contributing some ideas about a tentative outline. Time starts to pass quickly, and it’s getting close to 6 o’clock when they start to wrap things up.

“You seem kind of weighed down,” Jinyoung says, putting his things away with a steadier hand this time.

Jaebum nods, until Jinyoung peers up at him expectantly. Jaebum clears his throat. “It feels like that sometimes,” he says. “Not all the time, but often.”

“I don’t want this project to be another source of stress,” Jinyoung says, getting to his feet.

“It doesn’t have to be,” Jaebum says. “Especially if you really mean it about scheduling.”

“I’ll email you our notes once I’ve typed them up,” Jinyoung offers. “We can probably start on the outline more seriously in the next class.”

“I’ll get started on some mood photos,” Jaebum says. “Then we can see what is and isn’t working.”

Jinyoung nods slowly, and they start to walk out together. It’s uncomfortable still, but there’s no angry pressure between Jaebum’s temples.

Jinyoung pauses halfway to the door, looking conflicted.

“What?” Jaebum prompts.

“When I said you’d always disliked me,” Jinyoung says. “You didn’t deny that. You said you were reluctant, and you didn’t tell me otherwise.”

Jaebum feels the hairs on his arms stand up. Why does Jinyoung feel the need to confront him on this? And why does Jaebum feel any shame? So he doesn’t like him. Big deal.

“I didn’t know you,” Jaebum says, with a shrug. “You seemed a little stuck up. So yeah. I’ve felt that way.”

Jinyoung swallows, shifts his weight. “But is it going to be a problem? For our project?”

Jaebum looks into his eyes then, warm and creased with concern. It’s only one project. They won’t die. “I really don’t hold anything against you,” Jaebum assures him. “If we both work hard, I think we’ll be grateful to each other in the end.”

Jinyoung nods, lips pressed together in a smile that doesn’t look quite as forced as Jaebum’s. But it’s close. His eyes dart around the small apartment as they continue to the door, and Jaebum starts to feel a little exposed.

There are photos everywhere – each wall a gallery that’s maybe a little overloaded past even Jaebum’s personal tastes. Fragments of his life, matted and framed and placed with care on what few walls he has. Jinyoung takes it all in, silent but likely judging.

“I’ll text you again about when I’m free,” Jaebum blurts out, gesturing to the door. “Tomorrow I work later than usual, but Wednesday should be similar to today.”

Jinyoung blinks away as if in a daze, nodding along. He seems to take the hint he’s being herded out, and a moment later Jaebum sags against the shut door, grateful for solitude once again.

He doesn’t have much time left alone now, but he needs to at least get a head start on the rest of his homework. So he settles back into the couch with his laptop and tries to concentrate.

The peace is shortlived, of course, because he’s only just managed to finish a take-home quiz before his mother stops by to drop off his son.

“Hi sweetheart,” his mother calls out. Jaebum pushes his laptop aside to get up from his seat, but he gets shoved back by a bundle of giggles wrapped in a thick parka.

“Yugyeom-ah,” he murmurs softly, and brushes the hood back to reveal his three year old son’s blinding smile.

“Appa,” Yugyeom says, stepping on Jaebum’s feet and clambering up so he can kiss him on the cheek. “Today we had cooking class.”

“We made kimbap,” Jaebum’s mother says, a hint of humor in her voice. She peels back the lid of a covered dish for him to peek. “Sort of. About a million slices of… almost kimbap.”

“Delicious,” Jaebum says wryly, helping Yugyeom fumble out of his coat.

“I’ll put it away,” his mother offers, “I brought some more kimchi and sikhye, too.”

“Thank you,” Jaebum calls, directing a wriggly Yugyeom to the closet and trying to get him to put his parka on a hanger. “What do we say to Halmeoni, for teaching us how to make kimbap, and always giving us extra treats?”

“Thank youu~,” Yugyeom cranes his neck around and calls back toward the kitchen, losing his balance and tottering under the weight of his own coat. Jaebum plucks it away and hangs it for him anyhow.

“I hope you enjoy it!” Jaebum’s mother reappears, swooping in to squeeze Yugyeom’s pink cheeks.

“I will see you again tomorrow, little man,” she says.

Jaebum watches with a sigh, as he shuts the closet.

“Thank you — for everything,” he says meaningfully.

His mother looks up once she’s released Yugyeom, who hurries back to the living room to turn on the television. She reaches out to touch Jaebum’s cheek similarly. “It’s seriously no problem,” she assures him. “You know I adore spending time with my grandbaby.”

“Dad’s been on my case more about daycare again,” Jaebum admits. “Says if I was really committed, I’d be doing it without you guys.”

She shrugs, moving toward the door and zipping her jacket up. “If you can pay for it someday, that’s fine. But you’ll never really do it without us,” she says. “That’s not how family works.”

“Love you,” he manages to croak out, throat made thick with guilt.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she promises with a smile, and after a peck on his lips, she leaves.

Jaebum heads back to the living room, already converted to Yugyeom’s tastes, with the coffee table storage flung open and his favorite Moomin plushie situated safely in his arms.

A cartoon clamors on the television as Jaebum shuts a few books and tries to tidy up his homework until he can return to it later.

“Whaaaa..!” Yugyeom suddenly warbles, looking up at Jaebum in alarm.

“What’s up?” Jaebum wonders, as the toddler scoots off the couch.

“The sofa’s hungry,” Yugyeom says, and he moves slowly until he’s safely hidden behind Jaebum’s legs. Jaebum frowns at the couch in question, but he doesn’t see anything amiss.

“Listen!” Yugyeom insists. “Its tummy is rumbling.”

Jaebum leans in with an ear, and sure enough - there’s a vibration. “Oh,” Jaebum says with a smile, “sounds like it gobbled up Appa’s phone. No wonder it’s still hungry.” He slips a hand between the cushions and pulls out a device.

“Phones aren’t food,” he shakes it meaningfully at Yugyeom.

The toddler seems satisfied with this explanation for a whole two seconds, before returning to the coffee table and digging out several food-themed toys.

“Does the couch like strawberries?” He wonders with a giggle, jamming a plushie between the cushions.

Jaebum’s face pales, realizing his mistake in playing along. Now he’ll be pulling junk out of the sofa for a month.

Before he can string together another wholesome life lesson to distract Yugyeom from his current mission, two things happen at once.

The phone in his hand rings again, humming low and insistent, and the doorbell buzzes. A photo of Jackson appears on the screen, and Jaebum squints at it in confusion, sure he’s never seen this shot before.

“Did Halm’ie bring more food??” Yugyeom is tottering off to the door already. Jaebum doesn’t connect the dots until the phone in his hand vibrates once more, and he finally looks past it at his own, slightly older model still on the sofa.

“Halmeoni,” Jaebum murmurs in correction as it suddenly clicks.

A low, sweet murmur at the door. Park Jinyoung doesn’t know he’s — “Appa!”

Jaebum steels his expression into something he hopes is neutral, even as he feels his face burning. Numbly, he joins his son at the door, where Jinyoung has crouched down and is apologizing.

“I must have gotten the apartment number wrong, don’t bother your father—,” he’s saying, cheeks round with his smile, until his lashes flutter up and he finds Jaebum towering over them. The sparkle in his eyes wavers, mouth falling open.

Jaebum waggles Jinyoung’s phone awkwardly. “Slipped into the couch,” he says.

Jinyoung straightens abruptly, clearing his throat. “Thanks,” he takes it hastily, slipping it into his pocket again.

“I didn’t know—,” he startles, as Jaebum begins to shut the door. “Oh,” he says, stepping away. “Sorry, I’ll see you later.”

Yugyeom’s small hand smacks surprisingly loud on the wood of the door to stop it. “Wait!” He shouts.

“Hello, my name is Im Yugyeom,” he says excitedly, extending the same little palm. “It’s nice to meet you. Halm’ie taught me how to introduce myself like a good little man.”

Jinyoung’s face lights up again, and he dips back to Yugyeom’s level before Jaebum can tell the boy he’s being a bother to someone very busy.

“Hello~, I’m Park Jinyoung,” Jinyoung says, taking Yugyeom’s hand and shaking it firmly. Yugyeom wobbles with the force of it at first, and then he breaks into a full fit of giggles as Jinyoung continues to playfully shake his whole arm until he’s swaying back and forth.

Jaebum feels inexplicably seasick – unsure how to steer Yugyeom and Jinyoung away from each other and make things slot back into their proper places.

Park Jinyoung is part of his school life, and Yugyeom is his entire private world. It’s not as if he’d worked to keep his son a secret from everyone – plenty of his close friends and some coworkers were aware. But Jinyoung didn’t fit neatly into either of those positions, and so it feels awkward. Like he’s answered the door in the nude.

Thankfully, Jinyoung gets back to his feet only a moment later, quietly and demurely bidding them both goodnight. Jaebum can read his expression, even as he turns away quickly; he can tell how uncomfortable Jaebum feels.

But it wasn’t the time to discuss it, or even apologize. It was time for them to part ways, and salvage what was left of a peaceful evening, and what was left of Jaebum’s image.

The door’s heavy click shut and the excited patter of Yugyeom’s socked feet back to the living room offer Jaebum only temporary, dizzy relief.

It’s not until later, when Yugyeom falls asleep with his face in Jaebum’s neck, that he can completely relax. They’ve sprawled out on the rug in front of a nature documentary, as they often do now that Yugyeom is a little obsessed with sloths. He will carefully sit them both up, flick off the tv, help Yugyeom sleepily brush his teeth, and tuck him into his bed. He’ll do it like he has done, so many nights already.

But not yet. He’ll lay here a little longer first, soaking in his son’s sweet scent and the hum of his deep breaths, until he’s matched their rhythm with his own. This is home, Jaebum reminds himself, pressing his lips gently against Yugyeom’s messy hair. This is family. And he will make sure they are going to be okay.

 

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