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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.

 

//



Chapter Text

“It’s a party... for what?” Jaebum asks, eyebrows high.

“A mandatory party,” BamBam says, pointing a finger.

“Stop, no, it’s not like — it’s not just a party,” Kihyun insists, attempting to shoo BamBam away from the perimeter of his office.

Instead, BamBam and his assistant art director Minhyuk press in closer, prodding the editor in his elbows teasingly.

“It’s the Daily’s anniversary gala, for our 15th year celebration.” Kihyun sighs, ignoring the pokes. “There’ll be lots of alumni there, including obviously great journalism contacts, and in your case, some people who work at some pretty cool media outlets. We have grads who’ve gone on to do stuff in TV, film, whatever you’re interested in.”

Minhyuk claps excitedly. “Networking!”

“Jaebum’s favorite,” BamBam says wryly.

“Also it’s not strictly mandatory,” Kihyun continues, watching Jaebum’s nose wrinkle. “But it would be sort of... fucking dumb to not go. You could get some leads on an internship at least.”

“I hear you,” Jaebum says with a sharp nod, already worrying about asking his mom to keep Yugyeom especially late. Even for one night — even for something with real promise. Though he doubts she'd be opposed to a sleepover, the guilt still gnaws at him. “I hate going to stuff like this but I know I need to try.”

“Suzy will be there, right?” Minhyuk asks, the picture of innocence.

Kihyun side-eyes him. “Probably,” he says, voice high and thin.

Jaebum shrugs as they all turn to look at him conspicuously. He can do this. He can play it cool.

“Oh god,” BamBam warbles. “Is that your best ‘everything’s cool’ face?”

 

//

 

“And then he looked completely constipated,” BamBam recalls later, to their friends who’ve gathered for lunch.

“That’s not a bad strategy,” Youngjae says after a bark of laughter. “He can run and hide in the bathroom.”

Jackson shakes his head with a grim smile. “Suzy would know. She knows his real need-to-shit face.”

“A line you should have never crossed in the first place,” BamBam says, pointing a judgmental finger.

Mark rolls his eyes in annoyance from farther down the table. “Let me know how pretending you never poop works out for you, in all of your long term relationships—! Oh, wait. You’re terminally single.”

Youngjae cackles loudly, and even Jaebum peeks up with a smile to watch as BamBam deflates a bit.

“No one has been up to par,” he says. “So why would they need to know when I poop?”

“I’m sure one day, somebody will be worthy,” Jackson teases, squeezing BamBam’s cheeks until he yanks away with an eyeroll.

“So you want to avoid your ex?” Mark asks Jaebum.

They haven’t known each other as long as the others. Mark barely deigned them worthy of eating with after weeks of wheedling from Jackson. Even now, Jaebum thinks Mark might still find them a little juvenile for his tastes. But every now and then he’ll cackle just as loudly as Jackson, and Jaebum finds they all fit well.

“It’s not just any old ex,” Jackson says, over top of Jaebum’s attempt at an unaffected shrug. “He nearly proposed,” he barrels on, ignoring every signal Jaebum makes to try and avoid the conversation.

Mark gapes at him in shock. “You were that serious?” He asks.

“Not quite,” Jaebum grits out, kicking Jackson in the shin. “We didn’t even date that long, nearly a year. But it was through a lot of big... changes in my life, obviously.”

“Yugyeomie,” Jackson underlines his implication.

Jaebum focuses on chewing through his leftover, lopsided kimbap thoroughly and tries not to get irritated. Everything’s going to be fine, he promises himself.

“You should bring a date then,” Mark says after a moment of consideration. “Ask somebody hotter than her.”

“More beautiful than Suzy?” Youngjae mumbles, looking skeptical.

BamBam narrows his eyes at him. “You’re embarrassing. She’s not exactly exotic,” he says.

“You’re  being degrading,” Jackson says, moving to squeeze his cheeks again. BamBam swears, flailing out of his reach.

“I’m serious,” Mark continues. “She’ll politely say hello, but she won’t want to make too much conversation. It’s the best choice.”

“It would make you seem like… you’ve got it together.” Jackson says agreeably. “More together.”

“I’ve got it together,” Jaebum argues. The kimbap in his chopsticks chooses that moment to unfurl. He squishes the fallen rice around into another clump and scoops it up anyway.

“But like, a new boo? That’s next-level togetherness.” Jackson says, eager.

“You could even tell her you guys have been going out a while, if you really want to seem unavailable. What does she know?” Mark says.

“I’m not faking a relationship to get through one party,” Jaebum scoffs, through his mouthful.

Jackson pointedly wipes a stray grain of rice off his face.

“But Kihyun hyung said Suzy noona would stick around through winter break,” BamBam points out. “To help with the redesign. So you’ll definitely see more of her. Wouldn’t it be good to just seem… super unavailable?”

“Lock yourself down,” Youngjae chuckles.

Jaebum doesn’t want to admit they’re onto something. He does hate the prospect of playing it cool with Suzy. It’s been a long time since they were together but he knows she’ll see through him right away, will know that he’s just as stressed and unsure as he’s always been. And she’s never been judgmental about that, but that’s part of what worries him.

He’s worried about mistaking her kindness for affection, her affection for commitment. Suzy had always been there for him in the past, until she wasn’t. He knows she probably doesn’t want to run back into his arms and become a part of his life again. But he’s worried about himself — he’s worried about what he might want.

“Didn’t she get with that older guy, anyway?” Jackson offers. “Maybe you don’t have to lie at all. She might not even be available.”

“It doesn’t matter if she’s with someone,” Mark says. “They always want to reconnect, have a coffee, whatever. That’s where it starts to hurt. You start remembering all your old dates, how nice it is just to sit across from each other – what a fucking nightmare.”

Jaebum tries to conceal a sigh, lips pressing together tight, but everyone at the table looks at him sympathetically. Jaebum feels a blush rise up the back of his neck and he waves them off brusquely. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Everything will be fine. I can handle one awkward night.”

They glance at each other warily then, but the discussion moves on as they continue eating.

It’s not until they’re starting to get up and some of them have already left when BamBam reaches across and tugs at Jaebum’s sleeve.

“What about a boyfriend?” He asks. “Like, what would make you more unavailable than a really yummy guy? She can’t compete with that.”

Jaebum snorts, shaking his head firmly. “I’m not fake dating you, Bam,” he says.

BamBam literally stomps his foot in frustration. “Don’t be gross!” He whines. “I’m being helpful.”

Jackson is still lingering beside them, and he looks thoughtful. “You’ve dated guys before, right?” He says. “It’s not a bad idea — maybe she’d be more intimidated.”

Jaebum rolls his eyes, and he can’t believe they’re still entertaining this idea, let alone expanding on it to such detail. Yes, he’d been interested in guys, but only a few, and never to any serious extent. Wouldn’t she find it less believable?

Besides, Suzy had known he was bisexual, but she’d never seemed intimidated before. Why would it matter now?

“Someone handsome,” BamBam is still talking. “But more importantly, somebody who can put up with you – or at least, somebody who can act like it.”

“Or does anybody owe you any huge favors?” Jackson asks. “Or money?”

“I have to head back to real life,” Jaebum says, swinging his backpack over his shoulder and turning away. “Have fun with the dream casting.”

 

//

 

“How old is Yugyeom?” Jinyoung asks quietly in class, neatly sketching out the frames of a storyboard. It’s been over a week already, and after some workshopping they’re allowed to use most of the periods for focusing on their project.

Jaebum’s fingers pause over his keyboard, and he looks up from their project outline in surprise.

“Three,” he says, mouth feeling dry.

Jinyoung looks up through his lashes, but he doesn’t look pitying, or hateful. He looks curious, eyes deep and sparkling. “You must have been pretty young,” he says.

“I was,” Jaebum agrees, stomach twisting. He doesn’t like to remember himself in the last year of high school; he wishes he could block out every decision he made before Yugyeom came along, and start fresh.

“Does his mother—,” and Jaebum shuts his laptop with a snap.

“Please,” he says, terse, throat full of gravel. “I’d rather not talk about personal stuff while we work on this. I just — let's just not.”

Jinyoung sits back a bit, but he doesn’t look surprised for long, soft features settling easily into one of resignation. He murmurs an apology, and looks back at his sketch pad with his lips pressed together. There’s an air of disappointment now, hanging heavy between them.

As Jaebum opens his laptop again, he can’t help but feel embarrassed by his overreaction.  Let's just not, he’d said, like an actual twelve year old? Jinyoung is just trying to make conversation, and Jaebum can’t blame him for being curious. Still, he can’t restrain his own instinct to recoil, to bat away polite questions with bitterness. He’s been doing it for too long.

Jinyoung isn’t even supposed to know Yugyeom exists. But he supposes it’s a little too late to amend that.

“Are you free tonight?” Jinyoung asks, when they’ve managed to get through the rest of the class work period without incident.

Jaebum’s spine goes tense again. His mom is dropping off Yugyeom early tonight. But there’s no real point in skirting around his existence any more, so what could it hurt?

“Sort of,” says Jaebum. “I’ll be home by 5. I try to get Yugyeom in bed by 8. You can come over after then or….” And he stares at Jinyoung nervously, unsure what reaction he’s hoping for.

Jinyoung seems to hesitate also, and Jaebum knows he’s trying to parse this invitation against Jaebum snapping at him earlier about personal stuff.

“I could pick up dinner, for all of us,” Jinyoung says, finally. “I don’t mind hanging out around Yugyeom if… if you don’t mind my being around.”

Jaebum swallows heavily, mind already racing as he tries to think of a response. Tries not to frantically put up walls and conditions and rules for Jinyoung interacting with his son.

“If that even – if that helps, I mean,” Jinyoung adds hastily, in the absence of a response from Jaebum. “If you think we can’t get any work done, that doesn’t make sense either–!”

“No,” Jaebum interrupts. “That would be fine. Thanks.”

“Is there anything you or Yugyeom are allergic to, or don’t like to eat?” Jinyoung asks as they head out of the classroom together, stepping aside in the hallway. Jaebum looks across at him and slowly takes in how they’re almost the same height. How it’s surprisingly comfortable to look him in the eyes, after avoiding them for so long. Jinyoung is in a snug pair of slacks and a soft-looking sweater. Jaebum would never wear either, both too fitted, too simple, maybe a little too elegant for classes. But Jinyoung looks natural, looks comfortable in them. And Jaebum can’t help but find it attractive.

“We eat everything,” Jaebum finally manages to say. “Actually, he really loves these rice combos from a halal place at the end of our street. I can pay for half if you’d like.”

“Of course not,” Jinyoung says, a hand plucking nervously at his collar. “Since you’re opening your place up, it’s fair this way.” His eyes lift and look beyond Jaebum then, and his lips quiver unreadably. “Um, I guess I’ll catch you later.”

Jaebum raises his eyebrows at Jinyoung’s uncharacteristic mumbles, and watches him walk away swiftly. Jaebum finds it slightly strange, since Jinyoung rarely seems to be rushing anywhere. But his thoughts don’t linger on it, as instead he helplessly watches the way Jinyoung’s slacks cling to his thighs, straining just slightly with each step.

Licking his lips, Jaebum tries not to dwell on this either. Jinyoung had sounded so willing, so soft about bringing dinner, even asking about allergies. It was only polite, he assures himself, turning around.

“Jaebum oppa,” chirps Suzy in greeting, waving from where she’s been standing outside his classroom.

Jaebum can feel the healthy flush drain from his face all at once, and finds it replaced by a cold sweat. He isn’t ready for this. He had hoped he’d be able to make it to the gala, had hoped he’d be in a nice jacket, with a drink, and a date. Not like this – ambushed in a hallway after a long day of classes, as he’s leering at someone’s bottom.

“Hi,” he croaks out, hand rubbing his neck as he shuffles closer.

“How have you been?” Suzy asks, all warmth. She doesn’t hug him, but she presses her hand to his arm and squeezes it firmly, the way she used to when they’d been together. When she used to be by his side.

“Good,” Jaebum says, trying to sound as confident as possible. “I heard you’ve already got a job lined up, congratulations. Must have had a hell of an internship.”

Suzy smiles, natural and dimpled and beautiful. “It’s been so cool,” she says. “I’m really excited to start at Faces but I’m also so happy to be back here for a little bit! Everywhere feels so nostalgic.”

“I bet,” Jaebum tries to chuckle, but it’s stiff. He figures it must be nice to be able to distance herself. To come back to something and think it unchanged; to feel bigger than something small. Jaebum hasn’t had the luxury.

“How’s Yugyeomie?” She asks, shifting her weight. Jaebum tries not to look too closely at her still small figure, which used to fold so easily into his own.

“Great,” Jaebum says, finally truthful. “He’s amazing. He’s three now.”

Suzy sucks in a breath, sounding genuinely awestruck, but then her face falters. “That’s a long time,” she says. “Are you… letting yourself be happy now?”

Jaebum feels like he’s been slapped. He often thinks he lives in a kind of limbo, for long periods of time — not thinking about the past. Whenever he’s reminded, again, of the scope of his failures, it’s always raw like this. The fresh, familiar sting of truth.

Yugyeom’s mother, Jaebum’s high school girlfriend, had died giving birth.

Maybe it hadn’t really been his fault — that’s what people try to tell him, when they’re being generous. When he lets them get close enough to even know.

Getting pregnant had been carelessness on both their parts, sure. But her passing — it would eat him alive, if he thought about it too closely. How could it be anything but his fault?

Suzy had been just a friend then, and then his strongest support through the flurry of trying to get his own life back on track when he’d been kicked out, helping him get into university a little late and applying for scholarships and jobs.

It was just friendship for a long time, but he’d relied on her more and more, until inevitably, they’d found some comfort in each other. Suzy had always seemed like she had some kind of gravitational pull to her; he’d fallen into her gentle touches with whispered apologies between kisses, like it was his inevitable, unfortunate orbit.

He had thought more and more of them as a family, as his second chance at making things right, at least by Yugyeom.

But Suzy was her own person — and she had admitted she thought he’d made a mistake keeping custody of his son. You’re so young, she’d said. Nobody would blame you for letting this part of your life go, completely. And then, Yugyeom deserves a whole family.

The tension had merely simmered until she’d said that. He’d taken both her and her commitment for granted, as a part of his fantasy of fixing things.

But she’d never been on the same page and it crystallized when she took an internship abroad without even telling him she’d applied. It was all very quick — he’d hardly taken the time to process how it had felt. How he felt.

In some ways, maybe it was best that she made it clear they didn’t want the same thing. And maybe better still that he learned a whole family didn’t need a man and a woman, least of all a pairing forged out of pity and exhaustion.

But he’d always been alone in this, anyway. Yugyeom was his responsibility, and his alone. His father had made it clear, and then Suzy. He would have to be more than enough for Yugyeom — they would be a whole family on their own.

So while he didn’t hide his son from some of his closest friends, Jaebum was very careful with dating. Very specific with academic and personal boundaries. He doesn’t want to misinterpret someone’s politeness for something it isn’t again. It’s going to be just him and Yugyeom, for a long time, or maybe even forever. And Jaebum thinks he might finally be at peace with that.

“I’m really good,” Jaebum assures her. “School is good, I’ve made more friends, especially at the paper, you know? Even Yugyeom loves hanging out with Jackson and BamBam.”

Suzy’s smile shifts a bit then. “I’m glad, but what about you, personally?” She prods. “Are you dating anybody? You know you deserve a little break from being a dad.”

Jaebum tries not to react too sourly. “I don’t have to take a break,” he says, trying to be careful with his words, so she can see exactly how they differ from hers. “I can be a dad who dates.”

And then lunch flickers back through his memories, Mark being certain he should say he’s in a relationship, BamBam insisting it be a yummy guy.

“And I... am,” Jaebum stammers, before he can stop himself. “I am a dad who’s… dating someone.”

Suzy lights up, mouth falling open in surprise and she reaches out to playfully slap his arm. “What?? Why wasn’t that the first thing you said? Who’s the lucky girl?”

Jaebum’s tongue feels thick, throat suddenly tight and he struggles to swallow. A stubborn, perverse part of his brain plays back the visual of Park Jinyoung walking away in tight pants. “Um,” he gestures vaguely. “It’s a guy, and it’s… everything is still just really new. I don’t want to introduce everybody yet — I’m trying not to scare him away.”

Suzy tilts her head curiously, and they’re both quiet for a moment. Jaebum’s stomach plummets, and he’s certain she’ll call his bluff. But then she’s beaming at him again, clasping her hands together eagerly.

“Well I hope I get the chance to meet him, eventually!” She says. “You could at least bring him to the gala, right?”

Jaebum can hardly breathe, shocked at how smoothly this has gone. He half-shrugs, hesitant about how much deeper of a grave his words might dig.

But Suzy is waving and heading out then, and he’s breathing slow and deep to try and calm down. And distantly, he thinks about texting a thanks to Mark & BamBam. But the sinking feeling in his gut has him reconsider.

 

//

 

Jinyoung appears promptly at 5:30, a bag of Jilhal Bros in hand and a nervous smile on his face. Jaebum is struck with the secret shame of how he nearly blurted out his name to Suzy as a fantasy boyfriend, and mumbles and leads him inside without meeting his eyes. But Jinyoung doesn’t know about that, and he’s cheerful and friendly to Yugyeom upon reintroduction in the kitchen.

Jaebum plops a booster seat beside himself in the breakfast nook, and Yugyeom starts to stamp his feet in protest.

“What are you on about—?” Jaebum sputters, watching as Yugyeom points stubbornly and whines at Jinyoung’s side, even starting to try to clamber up onto the bench next to him.

“Oh,” Jaebum murmurs, “you want to sit with our guest.”

He looks sort of shyly at Jinyoung then, stretching to place the little plastic inset beside him instead, and peeks sideways as he shrinks back across the table. He doesn’t really want to see Jinyoung react uncomfortably, if that’s what happens.

Instead, Jinyoung reaches down and lets Yugyeom take hold of his hand and forearm, helping him climb up and into the seat. His eyes sparkle down at Yugyeom, scooting a bowl toward his grabby hands and opening it up for him.

“I asked for all the sauces on the side,” Jinyoung says, distributing some cups. “I wasn’t sure if they might put something too spicy on there, and I don’t know what you guys like.”

“More!” Yugyeom calls out, after upending an entire serving of white sauce on his rice.

Jinyoung reaches for another but Jaebum stills his hand and tries to ignore his wide, startled eyes and the soft tremble of his fingers beneath his own.

“Is that how you ask for something?” Jaebum asks.

Yugyeom blurts out an oops and shakes his head. “I meant can I have, I like more, please,” he corrects himself meekly.

Jaebum draws back and lets Jinyoung slide some more sauces over, watching the toddler with a sigh as the bowl reaches shakier, stickier heights.

Yugyeom moves to mix it choppily with his spoon and a few chunks of rice and lamb topple out.

“I have an idea!” Jinyoung says, snapping the cover back down over Yugyeom’s bowl again. “Do you know how to dance, Yugyeom?”

Yugyeom eyes him suspiciously, glancing back and forth between Jinyoung’s eager face and his now sealed bowl in confusion. Still, he nods stubbornly.

“Dancing can help you mix things up,” says Jinyoung, and he helps his hands lift the bowl and then shimmies his shoulders, mixing the ingredients audibly like a rice bowl tambourine.

Yugyeom giggles and twists as he takes it from him and imitates the movement, delighted by the new game. Jinyoung hums a simple ditty for him, and Yugyeom keeps beat with his rice.

“Just feel it, bboom bboom~!” Jinyoung sings at Yugyeom, who now wobbles his fluffy head around in circle. There’s a soft thud as he hits it against the back of the bench, and Jinyoung gasps, reaching out and cradling the nape of his neck protectively.

But Yugyeom giggles through it anyway, unbothered and eager to peel the lid off his dinner again. He dives in with gusto, still humming.

Jinyoung looks up at Jaebum sheepishly, hand curling away from the toddler.

Jaebum peers across at him, simply chewing through the moment. Jinyoung looks like he had expected Jaebum to snap again, or accuse him of breaking his child.

But Yugyeom is hardy, and Jaebum almost chuckles at how Jinyoung might react to the story of how the toddler had bitten straight through his lip when he was two. Obviously, Jaebum still gets concerned, but it’s better to underreact if it’s just a bump.

For now, he shoots Jinyoung a crooked grin of reassurance and is rewarded with a pretty flush at the tops of his cheekbones. And that’s… interesting, Jaebum has to admit.

 

//

 

“He bought you dinner,” Jackson says with a dreamy sigh.

“I bet Yugyeom was pleased,” says Youngjae.

“I’m still Yugyeom’s favorite though, right?” BamBam demands. “I can’t let Jinyoung pull ahead.”

“He’s a baby,” Jaebum waves him off. “His new favorite tomorrow will be a talking tree from the TV.”

“But today,” BamBam nods gravely. “Today it’s that Park guy, hmm? I know when I’ve been ousted.”

“Yugyeom must be a sucker for pretty faces,” Mark says with a smile.

“Where do you think he gets that from?” Jackson snickers.

Jaebum shakes his head, brushing off the speculation. Yes, Yugyeom had been immediately fond of Jinyoung, but he was a friendly child, rarely too shy to get close with any willing parties. And Jinyoung had been more than willing — Jaebum was impressed with how naturally they’d interacted after dinner.

Jinyoung had been patient, always up to the task of entertaining Yugyeom’s questions while they’d worked in the living room together. He’d even pulled away from their project multiple times to compliment Yugyeom’s scribbles — his own imitations of their storyboarding.

Beyond this, their teamwork, now that Jaebum was allowing himself to cooperate, was steadily blossoming. Tomorrow, Today was becoming a project he was certain they’d be proud of — and it made him genuinely excited.

And honestly, it had been quite a while since school excited Jaebum this way. He’d been careful with choosing subjects to study that he was sincerely interested in — but the daily grind of it still wore his enthusiasm down. Being paired with Jinyoung had breathed new life into his academics.

“You have to at least admit, he’s handsome,” Jackson is saying.

“I don’t remember ever saying he wasn’t?” Jaebum grumbles, taking too large a bite of his salad.

And herein lies a different surprise in getting to know Jinyoung. He’d known, peripherally, almost scientifically maybe, that Jinyoung was handsome. But it had never felt particularly important, never made Jaebum look twice, never made him nervous or anything.

But knowing Jinyoung now — seeing his pouty lips as he speaks, hearing his smoky voice as he says something infuriatingly insightful, following the smooth flick of his fingers across his phone screen, watching the kick of a bare ankle crossing over the other one in ridiculously tailored, pleated pants which should not be sexy—! It gives handsome new meaning.

Maybe this sudden spark in interest could also be attributed to how long it’s been since Jaebum has even fooled around with somebody. Since he’s had hands on him, since he’s pressed up into the center of someone, since he’s just unraveled.

“Are you attracted to him?” Mark wonders, sly and smiley.

“Does that matter? It’s honestly been … a while,” Jaebum admits. “Sometimes I think I might be attracted to the ahjumma who drives my bus.”

Jackson does a double take. “No, you’re not. I’ve seen her,” he says, and then waits a beat before he starts smirking. “You can just admit Jinyoung is sexy, you know.”

Jaebum squints and takes a deep swig of his strawberry milk, and lets out a long, sarcastic hiss like it was a shot. “Jinyoung is sexy,” he declares with a shrug.

“Are you talking about Park Jinyoung?” A voice says, and everyone at the table startles, turning to find Suzy standing beside them.

All of Jaebum’s bravado whistles away, as if in a passing breeze, and he slouches down as he picks up his fork carefully. Once again, the timing in his life seems utterly ludicrous. Is she a ghost? How does she keep appearing when he's least expecting it? God, please don’t let her bring up the boyfriend thing.

“That’s the one,” Youngjae says cheerfully. “Maybe you’ve met him, noona? Do you think he’s handsome?”

Jaebum can feel Suzy’s intense gaze, and it’s with physical difficulty that he lifts his chin again to meet it. It’s hard to read her expression, and he tries not to gulp too cartoonishly.

“I haven’t met him personally, yet,” she draws out the word. “But I’ve seen him in a few plays around campus in the past, and yeah, he’s — he’s certainly goodlooking.”

There’s a pause then, and Jaebum glances around the table in surprise at the lull in conversation. Everyone is looking at him.

“Oppa,” Suzy says teasingly, and he finally looks pointedly away from Jackson’s sadistic smile.

“Jinyoung must be your boyfriend?” She asks. “The one you mentioned? That you didn’t want to scare away? It kind of seems like everybody knows, after all.”

Mark breaks into a coughing fit, reaching for his water bottle with furrowed eyebrows. Of course, it’s Jackson who nearly screams with laughter. BamBam puts a finger to his smiling lips, tilting his head. Jaebum feels his soul leave his body, his mind struggling to follow the leap she’s made on her own, his open mouth fluttering silently.

“Oh my god,” Suzy giggles, lifting a hand over her smile. “You really didn’t tell anybody? Jaebum said he was seeing someone but it was really new,” she blathers on.

BamBam feigns surprise, mouth a perfect O.

“I honestly thought he was making something up,” she blurts out. “But it must be true! Oppa, I’m sorry. I really think it was obvious though, you should have seen your face!”

Jaebum nods stiffly, committing to it now before he can come up with anything to say. “It’s fine,” he finally croaks. “Totally fine. They know him, so I guess it would have all come out… anyway.”

“Of course!” Jackson says, smug. “Everything eventually comes out between friends.”

Jaebum shoots him a lethal glare, and Jackson turns away at least, but it’s just aside to make wide, crazed eyes at Mark, who still looks disbelieving.

Youngjae scoots a bit closer to Jaebum’s elbow, to make room on the bench. “Noona,” he says quietly. “Did you want to join us?”

“Thank you,” Suzy says. “But I have to catch Kihyun in the library before he heads to the office. I just wanted to say hi really quick.”

Jaebum sighs and waves at her, willing himself to remain polite. “See you around,” he offers.

“Yep!” She brightens. “Be sure and catch me at the gala, I’ve invited some of the editors from Faces and I think they'd be interested in meeting you.”

Then she’s swept away as softly as she’d appeared, and Jaebum’s gut is in knots about the gala again.

“Well,” says Mark, crisply.

“You’re dating Jinyoung,” Jackson whispers, clutching at his chest.

“You don’t have to do this,” Jaebum says, frowning stubbornly at his salad.

“Park Jinyoung is dating you?” Mark counters, eyebrows high. “That’s the lie you went with? For one party.”

“Exactly,” BamBam points his chopsticks at Mark. “It's just not realistic.”

“You really don’t have to react to this at all,” Jaebum grits out.

“And how on earth,” Jackson perches his chin on his hand again, pouting sweetly. “How did your closest friends not find out until now?”

“They’re both pretty private,” Youngjae suggests.

“Also, it’s embarrassing,” BamBam says.

“For Jinyoung,” Jackson snickers.

“This is pretty embarrassing, for me too,” Jaebum says, although he knows that’s not mounting much of a defense.

Instead, everyone looks at him with a skeptical expression, and Jaebum rolls his eyes before attacking his salad again. “She cornered me after Short Film,” he admits. “She asked about dating — said her whole spiel about me not just being a dad. So I panicked. Hard.”

“You buy a guy Jilhal Bros one time,” Jackson murmurs, “and he thinks you’re dating.”

“I guess Jaebum’s easy,” Youngjae chuckles, and the rest of them devolve into giggles too.

“You realize,” Jackson says a while later, after they’ve finally quieted down. “Now you’re going to have to actually ask Jinyoung to the gala?”

“As your pretend boyfriend,” adds BamBam.

“Why?” Jaebum sputters. “I’ll just tell her it didn’t work out. Or he’s busy or something. It’s short notice, anyway.”

The others glance amongst themselves.

“Hyung,” Jackson says slowly. “That’s even less believable. She already said she thought you had been lying. We sold it for you, if anything.”

“I’d really, really rather not,” says Jaebum. “There’s no point in asking. He won’t do it.”

“Why are you so sure?” BamBam asks. “It’s just one night.”

“I mean, can it really hurt to ask?” Jackson says. “If he doesn’t want to do it, then fine: tell her you broke up after all. But if he’s willing to help out, isn’t that easier?”

“She seemed happy for you,” says Youngjae. “Isn’t that kind of the idea? To keep her from worrying?”

“I thought this was for Jaebum,” BamBam frowns. “To make him look better?”

“But Jaebum only followed through with it after he talked to Suzy,” says Youngjae. “Isn’t this more about her, then?”

A moment passes between them in silence, as Jaebum purses his lips and tries not to look too affected.

“Is it really?” Mark asks. “I thought you didn’t want her back.”

“I don’t,” Jaebum says stubbornly.

The others exchange glances again, and Jaebum’s neck prickles in irritation. He hates being misunderstood — it’s just not that simple. He’d wanted to make her jealous, sure. But not enough to win her back. At least, he’s pretty sure.

“Then ask Jinyoung,” says Jackson. “You’re finishing your project soon, right? So it shouldn’t make things too awkward.”

 

//

 

They’re shooting some final footage for Tomorrow, Today, when Jaebum thinks about actually asking. They’ve come out to some of the most scenic roads they can find, within drivable limits, and have spent most of the day shooting and picnicking.

BamBam has tagged along as an extra pair of hands for the camera or Yugyeom, whenever both of them need to be in frame or are otherwise occupied. As a fine arts major, Jaebum trusts his eye. And as a babysitter, he knows Yugyeom still likes BamBam best.

At the moment, Yugyeom is flopped peacefully under a blanket in the backseat of Jinyoung’s parked SUV. It’s a tasteful looking car, rather than showy, which means it’s probably even more expensive than Jaebum imagines. But he finds himself grateful that at least it’s not a sports car, and the seats look like they can be wiped down in case Yugyeom spills anything. But Yugyeom has been well-behaved all morning, and now after lunch is sleepily enthralled with a movie on Jinyoung’s iPad, almost napping, which makes shooting scenes with him just out-of-frame easier than expected.

“I know it’s stupid but I wish we had an older car for these scenes,” Jaebum blurts out. “Something that feels more secondhand seems like it’d be more appropriate.”

Jinyoung finishes adjusting the sunroof and hums pleasantly. Jaebum realizes he could have taken it as a criticism, or seen Jaebum as ungrateful, but Jinyoung seems to see through a lot of their potential arguments, and he appreciates the image he’s describing.

“An older truck maybe,” Jinyoung says, swinging open the door to peek at the stills BamBam has taken for them. “That would’ve given us more light overall, a whole open bed in the back.”

“You want me to pop down to the corner store and grab one?” BamBam jokes, taking the camera back with a laugh.

“Just try to keep the frame tight on us inside,” Jaebum calls, and watches with soft eyes as Jinyoung interacts warmly with their junior. Jaebum had been a little nervous about introducing them, mostly in anticipation of BamBam’s teasing. But BamBam could also come on a little strong, a little rambunctiously independent, and Jaebum often felt protective of him in bars and other social settings where harsh characters felt like they had to take him down a peg.

Obviously Jinyoung was far from that type, and being so close with Jackson, Jaebum was reasonably certain he could handle a few degrees of extra. But still, Jaebum was nervous, like he was introducing another child.

Luckily, Jinyoung and BamBam seemed to get along quite smoothly. And while they both seemed amused with each other’s idiosyncrasies, they seemed even more entertained by Jaebum. Several times, he’d caught them smiling at each other when he’d fussed particularly fatherly over Yugyeom at lunch.

So Jaebum was grateful, but also wary about pitting this unlikely team up against himself.

“I think we should get a good amount of light from the sunroof,” Jinyoung is saying to him, as he settles back into the driver’s seat. “But maybe one day we can revisit this in something vintage. Our director’s deluxe edition.”

“I’m still not even sure about this shot,” Jaebum murmurs, but he tries to keep his face neutral as BamBam’s started recording. “Am I teaching you to drive?”

Jinyoung takes that as a cue to look a little nervous, hands stiff on the wheel. They pantomime in silence for a few beats as he seems to think it over. “I think it sort of fits the coming of age narrative, doesn’t it?” He asks. “It’s a little, you know: virginal.”

Jaebum turns to look at him in earnest, as he tries to quell an instinctive concern. Yugyeom wouldn’t have any idea what they’re discussing — and he has earbuds in anyway. Still, it’s a strange word to hear in context around his child, and also since he doesn’t think he’s ever heard anyone say it out loud.

“Virginal,” Jaebum repeats, brow furrowing. But he moves his hand to slowly play along anyway, adjusting Jinyoung’s grip on the wheel. Jinyoung’s knuckles shift easy and soft under his fingertips, pliable, and Jaebum thinks he hears his breath hitch slightly.

“Why am I the one teaching?” Jaebum asks, quietly.

“You’re the one with a kid,” Jinyoung cracks, glancing at him. Jaebum can see the corners of lips quivering, with something like a smile.

“Ha ha,” Jaebum says, hand dropping away as it suddenly burns, turning to look out the window to restrain his own chuckle. His face feels warm, and he’s left a bit in disbelief. Park Jinyoung is funny, too? Park Jinyoung is handsome, intelligent, funny, and doesn’t mind vaguely joking about Jaebum fucking him? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask after all.

On the way home, BamBam hums happily to a song on the radio. Yugyeom bounces happily beside him in his carseat, watching him until he’s deliriously tired and literally drooping. Jaebum watches as discretely as he can through the rear view mirror, until he’s passed out.

Jaebum feels the tension flood out of his shoulders. He sinks deeper into the passenger seat, finally relaxed.

Beside him, he hears Jinyoung let out a soft, similar gust of breath. Jaebum glances aside and catches Jinyoung’s eyes flicking away from the rear view with a small smile, and every hair on Jaebum’s arms seems to stands up in quiet, shivering appreciation. That’s new, Jaebum thinks in alarm.

Jinyoung lowers the radio volume after they drop BamBam off by his dorm and they continue to Jaebum’s apartment in near silence. He pulls up to the familiar curb and puts his hazard lights on quietly, moving to unbuckle his belt.

“Hey,” Jaebum rumbles, stomach backflipping. “I wanted to ask you something, and it’s going to sound, sort of awkward.”

They both shift in their seats, Jinyoung letting his belt go loose and curling up a leg so he can face him directly. The ticking reminder of Jinyoung’s lights feels like a countdown to get out his question, and being confronted with the full attention of Jinyoung’s gaze isn’t helpful either.

Jinyoung has slipped his glasses on and his facial hair is already growing in after a long day out, and Jaebum wishes this bit of realism would downgrade his image, wishes it made him less nervous. Instead, he thinks Jinyoung’s lips look redder and fuller next to the shadowed grit of stubble, and the round wire glasses remind him Jinyoung’s not perfect. He’s made of hot flesh and blood, with faulty vision and physical needs. Not that Jaebum is thinking about anything like that.

“I accidentally promised somebody, that I was… going to bring my new boyfriend to the paper’s anniversary party,” Jaebum says, carefully.

Jinyoung’s eyebrows rise. His lenses flash a bit as his head tilts up fully, and Jaebum feels laid bare under his scrutiny. “You have a boyfriend?” He asks.

“No,” says Jaebum. “It was a lie. To… impress my ex.” He ruffles his hair as a shiver of agitation traces up his spine. Can it really hurt, he bitterly recalls Jackson’s question. “I said I was seeing someone, and then she actually thought – there were was a misunderstanding – she thinks it’s you.”

Jinyoung’s lips fall apart, and Jaebum wants to scream.

“I’m sorry,” Jinyoung murmurs, a hand coming up to cover his gaping mouth. “I’m a little confused. What are you saying?”

“Could you please, just come to a party next week,” Jaebum says, pitiful. “And pretend to be my boyfriend?”

Jinyoung seems frozen for a moment, eyes wide and unblinking. Jaebum feels dread drop over him like a curtain. The dark of night outside seems to crowd in, and the dim cabin light suddenly feels like an angry bulb in a police interrogation. All of its power seems focused on Jaebum’s forehead – burning, blazing, as Jinyoung looks queasy.

“Jaebum-ssi,” Jinyoung finally attempts to speak, voice strung tight with discomfort. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how she could have come to that conclusion. But this seems a little too personal. I thought we had agreed we’d work on this project without… taking any part in each other's private lives. You were so serious about it, before.”

Jaebum rubs his face into his hands until he’s effectively hiding, embarrassed and frustrated. That's true. It’s all true.

“We have to finish shooting this weekend,” Jinyoung says, “and editing next week. And then I’ll be out of your hair, and you —,” Jinyoung’s voice wavers, and Jaebum peeks between his fingers to see the pretty flush he’s become accustomed to looking for. And there it is, even Jinyoung’s ears are red with it, as he shifts in his seat uncomfortably. “You’ll be out of mine.”

Jaebum lets his arms drop, nodding solemnly.

“I understand,” Jaebum says. “I knew it would be weird to ask, but… I guess I felt like I had to try. I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable.”

Jinyoung doesn’t reply to this, nodding as he turns back to stare out the windshield, face blank, or is it bewildered, and ears pink.

Jaebum feels like they’ve slid back weeks now, feels like he did when they’d just been paired up and could only look at Jinyoung’s expensive clothes as obstacles. Only now, it’s Jaebum’s own foolishness wedged between them instead, and try as he might, he can’t even blame his annoying friends.

Why had Jaebum asked? When he’d left them that day, he was certain he wouldn’t. But after spending the day with Jinyoung, he’d felt stupidly hopeful. And he can’t help but keep thinking about how good Jinyoung would look beside him, how good of an actor Jinyoung is turning out to be, and how it'd be nice to stop avoiding questions about his personal life.

But Jaebum had just torn up whatever truce they’d struck, and he had known it would unravel this way. Why would Jinyoung even consider it? Jaebum was nowhere on his level — not in looks and not economically — and they weren’t even friends.

Humiliated, Jaebum thanks him for the ride again in a murmur, and then unlatches Yugyeom's car seat faster than he’s ever managed. He moves swiftly and silently to get out of Jinyoung’s way, and back into the safe haven of his quiet, empty apartment.

Later, as he returns to his homework, he wonders if they still have time to cut his dumbass out of the project entirely.

 

//

Chapter Text

“It sounds like you two are pretty close,” Professor Hong says, straightening up from where she’d knelt beside Jinyoung’s desk to view some of their final cuts.

“I think we’ll be able to finish up most of the editing by Wednesday,” says Jinyoung with a nod. “So submitting on Friday should be no problem.”

The teacher puts a finger to her lips, glancing between them conspicuously. “I meant – ah, I mean, your project looks nearly finished for sure. But I meant the two of you, close to each other. You seem to be very compatible. This project feels almost like one person put it together.”

Jaebum straightens up in his seat, glancing awkwardly at Jinyoung, who’s simultaneously stiffened and turned to him as well. Professor Hong chuckles.

“You even mirror each other’s movements, sometimes,” she says. “Have you been friends for long?”

“This is our first time working together,” admits Jaebum. “We didn’t really know each other before this project.”

The professor looks surprised, and then a little embarrassed. She politely bids them a good afternoon and says they’re free to take off early, or keep working through the period.

Jinyoung starts to put his things away carefully, and Jaebum can’t help but watch, unable to look away from the pink staining his cheeks, the deliberate pace of each movement. He might actually miss this, Jaebum lets himself think too honestly. He thinks he’s definitely going to miss watching Jinyoung work.

“Can I ask you something,” Jinyoung says quietly, when they’ve both packed up and have slipped quietly out of the classroom.

“I’m free the usual times,” Jaebum blurts out. “I can make dinner tonight if you want. Or I mean, my mom brought over more side dishes than usual, and I can reheat my kimchi jjigae. It’s pretty good.”

“I wanted to ask, actually, about your proposition from the other day.” Jinyoung admits, biting into his thick bottom lip. It traces white, then pink, then red as he releases it, springing back. “When you asked me to pretend to be your boyfriend.”

Jaebum gulps, and he hopes it doesn’t echo down the hallway as loudly as he imagines it does. It’s less busy than between class periods, but there are always people around.

“Why me?” Jinyoung wonders, faintly.

A beat passes as Jaebum tries to figure it out. He can’t admit it was BamBam’s fault, planting that seed about a boyfriend. And he can’t admit his brain had short-circuited from ogling Jinyoung’s tight slacks. Can’t admit Jackson had been forcing him to agree he was sexy. That Suzy guessed it from his face. But then again… who would disagree with Jinyoung as a picture-perfect boyfriend?

“Mostly, it was an accident. You were mentioned, and — you know, you’re my biggest competition,” Jaebum says, eventually. “You’re somebody I don’t have to worry about making look good. You’re a rival, and that means I… respect you.”

“Still, I don’t understand why you need to pretend you’re in a relationship at all,” Jinyoung says. “With a rival or anybody else, even somebody you think... looks good.” He looks a little more embarrassed here, features soft.

“I don’t want her to think I’m a failure,” Jaebum blurts out. They both go silent at this point, equally surprised by the slice of Jaebum’s sharp honesty. The quiet unfurls between them, their distance seemingly magnifying, distorting with their matched discomfort.

“You’re supporting a child on your own,” Jinyoung finally says in disbelief. “All while you’re at the top of your classes, and a section head at the paper, and performing music you compose yourself. Where is there failure anywhere in your story, Im Jaebum?”

Jaebum is surprised — his breath knocked out of him for a moment so that he nearly sways backward.

“You’re at the top of my classes,” Jaebum says, a bashful smile peeking through.

Jinyoung flushes handsomely at this, and he tucks some hair behind one of his rosy ears, eyes flitting away from Jaebum’s. Is this possible? He wonders. Can he really talk Jinyoung into this? Does Jinyoung really think that highly of him?

“Come on,” Jaebum tries, after another moment. “It’s just for a little while. I play pretend with my son all the time. Why can’t we?”

Jinyoung bursts into a laugh at this, a hand hastily covering up his loud ha ha, and Jaebum watches the wrinkles around his eyes. He’s relieved to see them, relieved Jinyoung isn’t resentful after having rejected him initially.

“It’s not exactly the same thing!” Jinyoung cries. “You don’t think it’s kind of… crazy? And dishonest?”

“Think of it as an acting exercise,” Jaebum shrugs. “And sure, it’s dishonest,” he admits. “But, being honest and real can feel, kind of fucking shitty after a while.”

He looks away for a moment, embarrassed by the admission. It is about his feelings, in the end. He’d like to spare his own feelings, for once. And if that means bending the truth a little, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Jinyoung looks back up at him, and the slow trace of his gaze from Jaebum’s shoulders, along his neck, and then lingering at his mouth, feels like a trail of fire. Searing, his eyes lock again with Jaebum’s, and they both lick their lips. Jaebum feels suddenly nervous, forehead clammy and cheeks flushed like he’s staring down into a volcano about to erupt. This may be a very bad idea.

“I can try,” offers Jinyoung, finally. “But I’m a very good actor. You have to promise—!”

“Not to fall in love with you,” Jaebum drones. “Please,” he sighs, turning away. “I’m an editor. Let’s try to avoid too many cliches.”

Jinyoung follows him a little farther down the hall, wearing a smug smile as he swings his bag over his shoulder. “Is it cliche, or archetype?”

Jaebum stops and turns so swiftly on his heel, they nearly collide. Jinyoung is merely blinking innocently at him now, as if his comment was entirely curious and not a snide attempt to test Jaebum’s patience.

“It won’t happen,” Jaebum promises, sternly. He’s smarter now, more responsible. He has somebody to think about before himself  – and he isn’t going to get burnt again.

Jinyoung glances around the corridor, eying the students and faculty buzzing around. “When would we have to start?” He asks, shuffling his foot in the space between them. “We’d have to keep it up around campus for it to be believable, right?”

The squeak of his sole catches Jaebum’s attention and he glances down, neck already rigid as he’s on edge with the whole scenario. If he sees a decorative tassel, he swears to himself he’ll call the whole thing off. But instead, he finds some kind of broad-banded, chunky sandals, with Jinyoung’s toes peeking out at him.

“Yeah, I guess, any time?” He murmurs, distracted by the ambiguous footwear –  are these dumber than loafers? He wonders, thinking about asking BamBam later.

Suddenly, there’s a hand on his chest, Jinyoung’s fingers sliding down to curl slow and ticklish around the strap of his bag. He tugs him a little closer, and Jaebum lifts his head to frown, but Jinyoung is already brushing his lips against his cheek. His breath is warm, his cheek even warmer as is slides a bit past Jaebum’s own, and Jaebum’s heart seizes in his chest.

It’s all so brief, so peripherally disorienting, that even when he hears the soft smack as the other man’s lips draw back, he isn’t certain any of it really happens.

“Text me,” Jinyoung tosses over his shoulder, already walking away.

Jaebum watches him go for a moment, before he catches a few inquisitive glances and sputtered laughter from familiar classmates down the hallway. Softly biting off a flustered curse, he turns and heads the other way to avoid them, even though his next classes are in the opposite direction.

 

//

 

“Oh no,” BamBam murmurs, staring down at Jackson’s offered phone.

“What?” Jaebum asks, settling down at their usual lunch table.

“You two look good together,” BamBam says, visibly disappointed.

Jaebum nearly topples off the bench as he takes his backpack off, swinging it around to grip it anxiously to his chest. “What… who look good together?” He asks, but he thinks he might already know.

“You and Jinyoung-ah,” Jackson says, reaching his phone across so Jaebum can see the screen. And there, even through the afternoon glare and the smudged fingerprints, is a shaky, sly photo of Jinyoung kissing Jaebum on the cheek.

Jaebum watches, silent and glum, as Jackson flicks through what turns out to be a whole sequence of photos – from Jinyoung stretching to kiss him, his breezy exit, and Jaebum’s flustered, pink face in the aftermath.

“What,” mumbles Mark. “What exactly is going on?”

“He... agreed to come to the party,” says Jaebum.

“You asked him on a date… for real?” Jackson asks, lowering his phone slowly.

“What?” Jaebum startles, confused by Jackson’s tone. He didn’t seem to be teasing. “Of course not – he just agreed to pretend, to impress Suzy. So he’s willing to like, play it up on campus a little.”

Mark’s eyebrows haven’t come down again for quite a while. BamBam is humming suspiciously as he chews through a big bite of chicken. Youngjae and Jackson are both quiet for the first time in years.

Jaebum doesn’t trust any of them.

“What?” He asks.

“It’s just… is that entirely necessary?” Mark wonders.

“You’re the one who suggested I pretend to be in a relationship in the first place,” Jaebum growls. “Now you don’t know if it’s necessary?”

“It’s not just faking a date,” Mark says, wincing slightly. “It’s all the detailed extra stuff, kissing around campus. What about Jinyoung’s reputation?”

As soon as Mark says it, it seems like he regrets it – but it’s out already, and everyone at the table shifts and reacts differently.

“What is that supposed to mean?” At least Youngjae sounds offended on his behalf. “Dating Jaebum would hurt his popularity or something?”

Mark sighs, ruffling a hand through his hair in exasperation. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he says. “I mean he doesn’t date a lot of people. I know Jinyoung, okay? I’ve hung out with him and some of his inner circle. Wonpil, Seungwoo, Jisoo – there’s a level of seriousness to them–.”

“They’re rich,” Jaebum interrupts. “You’re saying it’s weird because he’s rich and should be dating a rich guy.”

Mark snaps his head to the side in anger. “I didn’t mention anything about the enormous fucking chip on your shoulder about money, actually,” he says. “I mean serious like: tonally. Jinyoung doesn’t play around, and a lot of his friends don’t either. But yeah, some of that has to do with money too, and you should think about it. A lot of them have arranged marriages lined up for their family businesses, and try really hard to keep their private lives private.  So if it looks like he’s dating somebody, it’s going to be seen as a bigger deal than just – you two hooking up or whatever. He might even get written up somewhere.”

“Is his family really that important?” Youngjae asks.

“Well,” Mark raises his eyebrows. “I don’t know – does your family have an air conditioning unit installed?”

BamBam chokes on a sip of water. “P-Park Air?”

“What do you fucking want from me,” Jaebum snaps at Mark, neck hot with anger as he slams his lunch onto the table. “I’m just trying to get through one party, and you’re acting like you think I’m trying to drag Jinyoung through the dirt or something.”

“I don’t think you are,” says Mark, steely. “But other people might.”

Jaebum wants to lash out, wants to shout, but he knows it won’t do any good. “It was your idea,” he repeats in frustration.

“I didn’t tell you to pick Jinyoung,” Mark snarls.

There’s a long pause as everyone takes it in.

“I think Mark is honestly trying to look out for you,” Jackson offers. “Even I — look, we both know Jinyoung, and it surprised me too. But if he agreed to it, then I’m pretty sure everything should be fine.” He nods at Mark here, as if to placate him.

Mark looks stiff, but tilts his head to acknowledge the point.

Jaebum remains irritated, feeling like he’s been trapped. Above all, he knows he’s made all of the decisions that have led him here, so it’s Jaebum’s own fault if either of them gets hurt. The news about Jinyoung’s family doesn’t particularly surprise him — maybe the notoriety is a bit more extreme than he expected. But it’s just another reminder of their differences, and the impermanence of their situation. By this time next week, it’ll all be over.

Jaebum rolls his eyes and takes his anger out on his rice. As soon as he’s managed two enormous spoonfuls, a bag drops past him on the bench, and then Jinyoung’s lean form follows.

Jinyoung settles beside him just in time to find Jaebum’s mouth comically stuffed with rice, a few grains spilling as he stares at him in surprise.

“Hi,” says Jinyoung, smiling but having the courtesy not to laugh.

Jaebum nods brusquely, as everyone else at the table seems to practically vibrate with excitement.

“Jinyoung-ah!” Jackson says, sitting up straighter. “I didn’t know you’d be joining us.”

“I usually eat lunch over by the library,” Jinyoung says, eyes shuffling a bit nervously between the others and Jaebum. “I just thought today, I should maybe say hi?”

Jaebum is still chewing, but he offers a feeble wave of his spoon in greeting. When he glances back at Jackson, he just knows he is about to fuck something up.

“So Jaebum tells us you two are dating now,” Jackson says cheerfully, just as Jaebum tries to gulp down the rest of his bite with some water.

Jaebum chokes, and curls over into a coughing fit as he struggles between trying not to suffocate and trying not to spit his lunch up.

The table simmers with tense, scattered laughter, and by the time Jaebum is sitting up again, he can see Mark gaping at Jackson, just as shocked.

But: “Oh,” hums Jinyoung, eyes gleaming. “Don’t tell me you’re feeling jealous?”

Jaebum feels Youngjae and BamBam turning in sync with him, and they all boggle at Jinyoung’s teasing expression. This is a new perspective to Jinyoung they haven’t seen — not just attractive, but searingly confident.

Jaebum becomes abruptly aware of Jinyoung’s leg as it presses against his own. The combination of his expression and the heat in his thigh sends Jaebum spiraling into confused intrigue. Jackson doesn’t seem intimidated, however.

“Of being with you? A little bit,” says Jackson. (And that’s interesting, Jaebum thinks.) “But you know Jaebum hyung is really precious to us too, right?”

Jinyoung seems taken aback now, and he glances at Jaebum with softer eyes before nodding slowly. “Of course,” he says softly.

“We don’t want him getting hurt,” says Jackson. “You’re not just playing around, are you?”

And Jaebum wants to stop him there — thinks it’s sort of cruel to tease Jinyoung into scrambling for some kind of mushy answer when they all actually know the truth. He came to say hello, not be subjected to a fake boyfriend drill.

But now, Jinyoung’s softening all over, shoulders rolling in a bit as he purses his lips in thoughtful consideration.

“It’s all pretty new,” he says quietly. “But I really admire him. He’s always seemed like he’s out of my reach — on the other side of things.  So many times, when I think of something clever to say in class, he’ll say something that turns everything upside down instead. Then I’ll think about it all day.”

Jaebum’s face is burning, and as Jinyoung turns, cheeks a pretty matching pink, he has to look back at his lunch again. It’s too raw, too intimate and bare to be manufactured, he realizes. Jinyoung really doesn’t think he’s dirt.

“And you’ve seen him with Yugyeomie, haven’t you?” Jinyoung is continuing, and Jaebum can’t look up, his neck will snap, his heart will burst. “It’s really handsome when he knows just how to take care of him — I mean, Jaebum-ssi has always been handsome, but—!”

“You fail!” Mark interrupts loudly, looking concerned.

Most of the table turns to him in surprise.

“I’m sorry,” Mark blurts out. “Jackson was just testing you — teasing you, but we already know: this fake dating thing is just for the gala. But you failed your first test.”

“I liked it?” BamBam interrupts, looking offended. “I mean it got cheesy towards the end, but that’s a good time for hyung to sweep in all manly and kiss him quiet.”

“Ah,” says Jackson, and he points a finger at BamBam. “You just touched on where he went wrong, BamBam.”

Jaebum finds Jinyoung looking just as bewildered as he is, once he finally manages to peek at him again.

“Jaebum…ssi,” Jackson purrs. “He’s our Jaebum hyung. I know you guys are going with it’s new. But that’s a little too unfamiliar, don’t you think?”

Jinyoung’s not blushing anymore, face bright with what seems to verge on delight now, and it reminds Jaebum of his enthusiasm when they’d brainstormed their project. “Oh no,” he says. “I didn’t even think about that. You don’t mind if I practice for the gala, do you, Jaebum hyung?”

And Jinyoung and Jackson are talking now, somewhere, in the distance, about how many days are left. But Jaebum — Jaebum has drifted far away, outside of himself it seems. Because isn’t that interesting? Jinyoung’s soft, smoky voice calling him hyung. That’s certainly something.

 

//

 

“Is there anything I should know about you?” Jinyoung asks, leaning forward to point something out in the editing software, as Jaebum takes a turn on his laptop.

They’re side-by-side in his breakfast nook tonight, needing to have both sets of eyes on their project as they attempt to finish it up.

But Jinyoung’s leg is pressed against Jaebum’s again and Jaebum is just trying to act like it’s not an immensely distracting sensation, so he nearly misses the question.

“W-what?” Jaebum asks, settling back into the bench. “What do you mean?”

“Like, what’s your favorite color or something?” Jinyoung clarifies. “Or how do you take your coffee, hyung? If you even drink coffee.”

He sits back as well, his own shoulder overlapping Jaebum’s broader one, and Jaebum tries not to go too stiff.

“I like, um—iced mochas,” Jaebum admits, and Jinyoung raises his brows.

“Sweet stuff,” Jinyoung murmurs, and his eyes flutter down as he seems to track the movement of Jaebum’s lips.

“I don’t know if I have a favorite color,” Jaebum says slowly, and all he can really think about is how long and dark Jinyoung’s lashes look. “Black, maybe? But I don’t think they’re um, going to quiz you again or anything.”

But in a blink his eyes are on Jaebum’s again, and Jaebum feels himself swallow hard. It’s raw, mouth suddenly dry, tongue feeling heavy behind his teeth. Jinyoung’s eyes are deep, warm and rich like molten chocolate, but glassy and unreadable.

“What about public displays of affection?” Jinyoung asks, softly. “I kissed you before,” and now Jaebum can’t help but look at his lips. “But I should have asked first.”

Pink, and plush. The way they pout as he talks, almost childishly, like he might trip over them into a lisp. Softly glossed as he must have just licked them. And the thought — the memory of how they’d pressed into his cheek before. He wishes he could remember it more clearly; was it softer like a breeze? Or did they drag into the flesh of Jaebum’s jaw, against his skin, like a brand on his property?

Jaebum feels himself flush, still transfixed by the soft curl of Jinyoung’s mouth — why is he smiling at him?

“A little bit is... okay,” Jaebum mumbles, wanting to remember.

“Appa, my movie is jumping again,” Yugyeom says loudly, suddenly beside him with hands slapping at Jaebum’s thigh.

Jaebum clears his throat, looking down in alarm. Jinyoung’s hand slips away from his other knee — when had it ended up there?

“Okay,” Jaebum repeats, still in a bit of a daze as he follows Yugyeom out to the living room. Their secondhand DVD player is humming angrily, as it often does, and Jaebum has to unplug it and restart it so he can get the disk out. Once in hand, he polishes it with the corner of his t-shirt, and then he offers it to Yugyeom.

“Magic duster,” he instructs.

Yugyeom purses his lips and blows loudly across the surface of the disk, and then Jaebum loads it back into the player. The main menu loads again and Yugyeom cheers.

Jaebum selects the chapter he knows is after the disk’s deepest scratch, and once Yugyeom has curled back up on the couch with his Moomin, he turns back to find Jinyoung watching from the kitchen doorway.

“I think that one’s on Netflix,” Jinyoung says when he rejoins him. “If the magic duster doesn’t do the trick, some day.”

Jaebum manages a smile, but it’s tight and small. “Haven't got around to a Netflix account.” They don't have cable, either, so it's just the public channel's edutainment, a little Youtube, and well-worn DVDs that keep Yugyeom occupied between his other pursuits. Maybe he could frame that as more responsible childrearing, if he was really trying. But he thinks Jinyoung can understand the way monthly subscriptions can add up, no matter how small.

Jinyoung looks a little embarrassed, nodding briskly. Jaebum can tell now, that he’s not trying to judge their situation – he’s just trying to be helpful. Jaebum is still quietly self-conscious as they settle back into editing.

But it’s quickly forgotten, chased away by distractions like Jinyoung’s clean cologne scent, and his warm thigh pressed into his once again.

And when Jinyoung heads out, they both seem to sway toward each other, hovering in the doorway for a beat longer than necessary. And then Jaebum watches Jinyoung’s lips, saying goodbye a second, and then a third time to a sleepy Yugyeom, and all he can think about are public displays of affection.

 

//

 

There’s only a day left before the party, and they’ve already submitted their project. Screenings and grades won’t start until late next week, but Jaebum hasn’t expected time to slip by so unassumingly.

He supposes he ought to be more grateful — they only have to survive the gala and then they can go their separate ways. He’d anticipated all of it being difficult, but being around Jinyoung is easy, almost instinctive.

Neither of them crowd each other, but Jinyoung seems to find every subtle point where their schedules overlap and that’s where he’ll gently appear. He’s brought Jaebum coffees, snacks, and accompanied him up and down campus every which way.

Jaebum is surprised by his willingness, but he’s more surprised by the easiness of it all – has Jinyoung always been just a couple steps away? Surely he can’t be going out of his way to do it – but Jaebum isn’t certain which would make him feel guiltier. Jinyoung lavishing special attention on him, or Jinyoung having just always been in arm’s reach, without Jaebum noticing.

Jaebum’s trudging out of the paper offices, feeling a little rootless realizing he won’t be meeting up with Jinyoung for homework as usual. Jaebum thinks of Yugyeom and wonders if he’ll ask, or even notice.

Then he’s certain he must be going crazy. He must be thinking too much about Jinyoung, because he thinks he spots him farther up the walk, smiling charmingly at somebody else.

But as Jaebum draws closer, his collar feels hot, stifling, because it is Jinyoung, and he’s beaming up at someone tall, with a handsome haircut and an expensive-looking coat.

Jaebum finds himself drifting toward one of the potted trees lining the walkway, debating with himself about spying.

“Jaebum oppa!” A voice rings out from behind him, and years ago it would have felt like music. Today it’s like a blaring alarm, and Jaebum lurches awkwardly behind the palm and prays it will conceal him.

“Oppa,” says Suzy, blinking in surprise at the scraggly plant Jaebum’s trying to casually lean a hand against. “Are you okay? I hope I didn’t startle you.”

This is an unfortunate way to die, Jaebum thinks to himself, heart hammering away in panic. Caught between his ex-girlfriend, his fake boyfriend, and his fake boyfriend’s probably-real-boyfriend.

“Hi,” says Jaebum weakly. “I’m fine. Things are fine. How are you, today?”

Suzy wrinkles a suspicious nose at him, but it’s familiar and sweet. “I was wondering if you wanted to get a coffee? And catch up.”

Jaebum’s stomach twists, thinking again of Mark’s certain words. Have a  coffee, whatever. That’s where it starts to hurt. He hums in thought, praying to be struck by a divinely inspired excuse.

“Oh hyung,” says Jinyoung, appearing beside Suzy without his companion from earlier. “There you are.”

Jaebum glances between them blearily, finally managing a few small nods. “Jinyoung-ah,” he offers in greeting.

“This is Park Jinyoung... my boyfriend,” Jaebum says to Suzy, gesturing. The words settle between them heavily, Jaebum realizing it’s the first time he’s tried to say it. “And this is my old friend Bae Suzy,” Jaebum continues. “She’s back in town after taking an internship abroad.”

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” says Jinyoung politely.

“You too,” says Suzy, smiling wide. “Although Jaebum oppa has been a bit secretive, so I hadn’t even known he was seeing anybody for a long time.”

Jinyoung looks across at Jaebum with a strange, almost proud smile. “He’s very careful with who he brings around Yugyeom, as I’m sure you know,” he says. “But I didn’t mind being his little secret for a while.”

Jaebum feels his neck burning hot with embarrassment. But the lilt of Jinyoung’s words, the way little secret whispers out from those lips, he can’t help but be mesmerized, can’t tear his gaze away from him.

Suzy makes a noise that’s somewhere between a choke and a laugh, and when Jaebum snaps back to see if she’s bought it, she seems to find it a bit awkward. He isn’t sure if that’s a victory or not. “I understand,” she says, raising her eyebrows.

“I was waiting for you, hyung,” Jinyoung continues, shifting his bag and extending a hand. “I brought something for Yugyeomie, and I was going to offer you a ride.”

Jaebum brightens at this, reaching out and lacing their fingers together immediately. Jinyoung stumbles a little as Jaebum tugs him close clumsily, and Jaebum knows it’s all a little too eager, but he’s never felt more excited to get out of a conversation.

“I have to get home,” Jaebum agrees, bowing his head apologetically at Suzy. “But maybe another time. And we’ll see you tomorrow night, at least.”

“Of course,” she says, but they’re already on their way, Jaebum barely holding himself back from swinging their arms together as he sets a grueling pace towards the nearest parking structure.

“My car is actually in the E Lot,” Jinyoung murmurs aside to him, shoulders bumping.

Jaebum veers them off to the right with an awkward huff and a smile. Once they’ve rounded the economics building, Jaebum glances behind them, and satisfied with no Suzy in view, lets Jinyoung’s hand go. They relax into an easier stroll.

“God,” he breathes out, “thank you so much. It was going to be one of those reconnection coffees, and I couldn’t think of an excuse.”

Jinyoung glances at him with wrinkled brows. “Don’t you always have a responsibility to be home in time for Yugyeom?”

Jaebum rolls his shoulders in hopes of easing some of the tension accumulated in his neck. “I don’t always get out of the paper at the same time every night,” he says. “So I text my mom on my way home, and she’s pretty flexible about it. I guess I could have lied; I just couldn’t think of anything except how much I didn’t want to talk.”

Jinyoung is frowning, even as he leads them into the lot where his car is parked. He unlocks his car with a beep, and then he’s still frowning as Jaebum slides into the passenger seat.

“Thank you for the ride,” Jaebum says, eying him nervously. “Is something bothering you?”

Jinyoung starts the engine but doesn’t pull out of the space, hands on the wheel as he chews his lip for a moment. “I guess,” he starts, and then sighs, turning to look at him more seriously, letting his hands knit anxiously in his lap.

“I know it’s not my place, at all. But I’m kind of confused how you wouldn’t think of Yugyeom immediately, when you were talking to his mother?”

Jaebum’s jaw nearly unhinges in alarm, as he realizes the misunderstanding. “No,” he says. “No, no, Suzy is not Yugyeom’s mother. She — we were friends before he was born. And then after, I relied on her a lot and we got um, closer.”

Jaebum wants to disappear into the well-kept interior of Jinyoung’s car, wants to sink into the floor mats and never be seen again. But instead, he has to explain. Jinyoung has to find out — just how big of a failure he really is.

“Yugyeom’s mother,” he starts, and he can’t help how his voice wavers, no matter how low and steady he tries to make it. “She didn’t make it through delivery.”

Now it’s Jinyoung’s turn to gape, and all the color rushes out of his cheeks as his eyes glimmer in regret. “I’m sorry,” he says instantly. “I’m so, so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you tell me — I had no right to know,” he’s stammering.

Jaebum swallows a lump in his throat but nods, thankful for the apology even as he can’t really blame him. “It’s fine,” he says. “It’s natural to be curious about it, it’s okay. I know I said – I know I was really harsh about asking personal questions early on, but I guess we’re kind of past that now.”

And that feels strange to say, Jaebum realizes, as true as it may be. He isn’t used to admitting he’s past anything in relationships, not for a long time. Even in his friendships, Jaebum often imagines his boundaries staying exactly the same with all of them.

A beat passes as Jinyoung seems to collect himself again, and then still chewing on his lip, finally pulls out of the lot. He drives them in silence the rest of the way, the radio humming a pop station on low. Jaebum isn’t certain if he’s allowed to turn it up or not, so he leaves it, fingers stuffed under his thighs to keep from fidgeting.

He doesn't regret telling Jinyoung — but he also doesn’t mind the abrupt drop in topic.

“I really do have a gift for Yugyeom,” says Jinyoung as they pull up beside his apartment building, and Jaebum is immediately curious.

“I’ll just leave it with you,” Jinyoung says, but he gets out of the car and Jaebum follows him around to the trunk. Jaebum watches as he fishes out a small gift bag.

“I thought it was just nice timing. My parents were getting rid of a bunch of movies, especially stuff from when some of my cousins and nephew were younger – and I think our copy of it doesn’t have as many scratches,” says Jinyoung, watching as Jaebum pulls out a DVD that matches the one Yugyeom has to ask for help with every time.

“I’m sure you know,” Jinyoung continues, “but there’s about a million sequels and we had a few of those too, so….”

Jaebum fingers through the other cases in the bag with a small smile, amused at how quietly Jinyoung tells him this; Jaebum can tell he’s trying to be as casual as possible in an effort to make it not seem like charity, or showing off. And Jaebum feels a deep wave of gratitude sweep over him. Maybe he won’t need to be handled so carefully, so thoughtfully like this in the future. But in the meantime, it does feel pretty nice.

“Thank you,” Jaebum says, swinging the little bag down so he can look Jinyoung in the eyes again.

Jinyoung nods, looking pleased. “I have to get going,” he says, shutting the back of his car.

Something flashes hot in Jaebum’s mind then, and he purses his lips, hestitating. “I actually – I was wondering something,” he mumbles, stepping up onto the curb and moving slowly. “I saw you talking to someone earlier, on campus. And I realized, I had never asked – I never even bothered to check if you were single.”

Jinyoung slowly tilts his head in question, and where Jaebum might have expected a shy flush, he finds Jinyoung looking… amused? His eyes sparkle under the yellow of the streetlight, and then disappear into a deeply whiskered smile. Christ, that’s cute.

“You think I would have agreed to pretend to be your boyfriend, if I had a real one?” Jinyoung wonders.

“I don’t know,” Jaebum says dumbly. And it’s strange, he can’t quite decipher why he asked now. Just that he really, really wanted to know in that moment.

“No,” says Jinyoung, “I don’t have anyone.”

Jaebum stares down at him, scuffing his foot against the pavement, and he can feel his own heart pounding in his ears, blood churning through his veins. His trembling fingers tingle and tighten on the gift bag so it crumples — but he can’t figure out why. Why did he want to know, and why does this answer make him feel this way?

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Jinyoung finally says, “text me about the gala.”

And then Jaebum is left staring silently after his tail lights, as they blur out into the night.

Later that night, after Jaebum’s kissed Yugyeom goodnight, he lays on his couch and thinks idly about how Jinyoung had said it.

I don’t have anyone. Objectively, Jaebum knew this was just in response to his question about a partner. But thinking about Jinyoung at school, it did seem like he was fairly… solitary. And given his flexibility toward Jaebum’s schedule, maybe it was possible. Maybe Jinyoung didn’t have many friends.

It’s a strange concept – Jaebum would have guessed before he must have been quite popular, as it fit with all his other ideas about Jinyoung.

But the only friend he’s reasonably certain about is Jackson. Maybe Mark, although all he’d said was he knew Jinyoung, and what did that mean, exactly? He said he’d hung out within Jinyoung’s inner circle, but that still left Jaebum wondering. Did they still hang out? Why did he seem so much more shocked by Jinyoung’s agreement than Jackson?

Jaebum glances at his phone then, wondering briefly if he should try calling Mark and just asking directly.

But ultimately, it’s none of his business. These questions about Jinyoung will melt away after tomorrow night anyway, and they’ll finally go their separate ways.

Jaebum sits and snatches up his phone anyway, hastily flicking through his contacts before listening to a ring.

“Jaebum hyung,” Jackson says as he picks up. “It’s later than I expected, but here you are!”

“Jackson,” says Jaebum slowly, “have you been… on a date with Jinyoung?”

There’s a pause, and then Jackson sniffs out something close to a chuckle. “I think you’re asking me what to wear to the gala,” he says. “But you’re doing it kind of weird, man.”

“Well what is he used to?” Jaebum asks. “Is he going to show up in a tux or something?”

Jackson is slow to respond again. “He’ll dress for whatever you tell him the dress code is,” he says. “Just like you.”

Jaebum bites his lip, unsettled by how quiet Jackson’s being. “Am I not supposed to know?” He asks. “Why are you being weird about this — did you guys date or what?”

“Jinyoung doesn’t really date anybody,” Jackson says with a loud sigh. “It’s like Mark was saying, for real. We were both surprised, because it’s… not like him. And we both have experience finding that out.

“Yes, we’ve flirted a lot — there was a while where I thought I was head over heels maybe. Just for a little bit. But later, when I got to know Mark, same story.”

“You were head over heels for Mark?” Jaebum asks, confused.

“No!” Jackson sputters. “He had been into Jinyoung too.”

Jaebum frowns around his sparse living room, wriggling into another uncomfortable position on the couch as he ponders it. “I don’t get what you’re saying,” he says.

“Jinyoung doesn’t hang out with a lot of people, and even when people pursue him, it still doesn’t seem to go anywhere.” Jackson says. “It’s not like he’s purposely cold. He just happens to turn down a lot of attention.”

“Is this why Mark was on board with teasing me about finding Jinyoung attractive?” Jaebum asks, after mulling it over. “But freaked out about us pretending to date?”

“He thought you were in the same boat as us,” Jackson confirms, laughing a little sadistically. “Can’t blame him for being jealous when he learned otherwise.”

“Jealous of what?” Jaebum snaps. “It’s all fake.”

Jackson doesn’t respond, but Jaebum hears another drawn out sigh.

“I mean, at least you guys are actually friends with him,” Jaebum continues, mouth tasting strangely sour. “I don’t know why you’d be jealous of us putting on some stupid act—!”

“Hey hyung,” Jackson cuts in, phone making a clatter as he seems to shift abruptly. “Wear a nice tie. Push your hair back. Bring some business cards. And for fuck’s sake, please don’t talk to him like that.”

 

//




Chapter Text

Daylight hasn’t quite broken through Jaebum’s curtains yet, but the cool glow along their edges tells Jaebum morning is on its way. He wishes he didn’t wake up so early so often, but sometimes it feels like his body itself is anxious, like it knows he would rather be up than taking his time to rest.

That’s when his door creaks, and Jaebum shifts his head in the pillow just slightly, to peer around the corner of his comforter to where Yugyeom’s little head appears.

“Appa,” he whispers, fingers curling into the fabric.

“Im Yugyeom,” Jaebum murmurs, sleep still heavy in his throat. There’s just a hint of playful scolding, since Jaebum tries to make sure Yugyeom can sleep all night in his own bed. But he still gives in, sometimes.

“Can Im Yugyeomie~ fit in Appa’s bed too?” Yugyeom whines a bit. “Please?”

Jaebum stretches out like a starfish, covering as much of his mattress as possible. “If you can find room,” he says, and Yugyeom scampers up under the edge of the duvet, familiar with this game.

Jaebum swishes his legs and arms back and forth, covering different corners and chasing after Yugyeom’s small form. “No,” he teases, “I need that bit, too. Appa is big.”

Yugyeom giggles softly, scuttling drowsily under the blanket even though he’s still at least half asleep, and will knock out as soon as Jaebum lets him settle.

But Jaebum likes stealing a few of these moments, loves finding Yugyeom’s face in the soft, blue light of twilight, trying to squish into his side under the blanket. Jaebum loves finding Yugyeom’s face, loves looking into his bright eyes and finding the trust and joy there. No one else on the planet has ever looked at him this way.

Finally, Jaebum scoots to one side, and Yugyeom curls neatly beside him, a hand on his chest and face practically tucked into an armpit. “Isn’t it stinky there?” Jaebum asks, even though he knows Yugyeom doesn’t care.

“You aren’t stinky,” Yugyeom mumbles into his ribs. “Cause I like you.” This is always his answer, and Jaebum tries to coax it out of him as often as he can, knowing his son might not always be so easily sweet in the future. But he’ll appreciate it as long as possible — wonders if he can make it last forever.

“Just like Halmeoni’s kimchi?” Jaebum asks him.

“Jush-li-mmalmi’s-mimffi.” Yugyeom is already slipping away, lips caught in Jaebum’s shirt.

Jaebum lets his head fall back into his pillow, glancing aside at the window again. The light filtering through and burning around the curtain edges is warmer now, and he knows morning is that much closer. But he’ll stay in a little longer, he thinks, tilting back to watch Yugyeom’s fingers rise and fall on his chest with each breath.

 

//

 

The time to get ready for the anniversary gala arrives much too soon that evening. His mother comes by promptly, ready to pick up Yugyeom and his overnight backpack. She smiles down at Jaebum coyly as he kneels to tie the toggles on Yugyeom’s parka, like she wants to tease him but is just barely holding back.

“Be good,” Jaebum instructs Yugyeom, cupping his cheeks.

Yugyeom nods, patting his bent knee. “You too,” he says seriously.

Jaebum’s mother laughs, eyes sparkling behind her glasses as he gets to his feet again.

“Have fun,” she says.

“It’s really just a networking thing,” Jaebum assures her.

“Do you have a date?” She asks, taking Yugyeom’s hand.

Jaebum rolls Yugyeom’s beanie down over his head, making sure his ears are tucked in. “Yes,” he admits weakly. Kind of, his guilty conscience adds.

“So,” she says, swinging Yugyeom’s arm as they shuffle out the door. “It might be pretty fun, after all.”

“Love you,” Jaebum grits out, waving with a clenched smile. Her laughter rings out down the hallway after them.

Embarrassed, he shuts the door after them and hits his head softly against it, trying to talk himself out of feeling nervous.

But finally, he can’t delay any longer, and he does as Jackson had instructed; styling his hair back and starting to hunt through his closet for his crispest dress shirts. It only takes another glance at his two bland ties to leave him frowning. He doesn’t want to feel too stuffy or out of character, especially if he meets any potential job contacts. And who knows, being beside Jinyoung might make him look worse in comparison.

Instead, he picks a shirt with a banded collar, and buttons it all the way up. BamBam had once said it looked chic. Even if that had been sarcastic, Jaebum feels more comfortable in it, and he knows that will help his confidence most of all. He slips into a blazer before he can second-guess the choices, leaving range of his closet to put his dress shoes on by the door without any doubts. His heart sets off into a staccato rhythm when he hears a knock.

Fuck, Jinyoung is too punctual.

Jaebum answers the door with his shoes undone, and gestures him inside blindly, sitting back down on the cubby bench to finish tying his laces.

“Sorry,” he murmurs. “One minute. I’m almost ready.”

But he’s surprised then, to find Jinyoung’s face at his level in the next moment. He’s crouched there in front of Jaebum, and he tugs at the one crooked bow already completed.

“Can I help?” He asks. “It’s cleaner if you tie it differently. More horizontal.”

“Sure,” says Jaebum quietly, and he sits back a bit to let Jinyoung bend closer. And the suddenly very vivid image before him is of Jinyoung on his knees, pouted lips slightly ajar in concentration.

Jaebum struggles with the sudden urge to let his knees fall apart, body going stiff with a wave of prickling hot, self-conscious confusion. If Jinyoung just leaned closer — if Jinyoung just opened that mouth of his a little more.

“Ah,” Jaebum clears his throat loudly, keeping his eyes stubbornly on his shoes as Jinyoung rocks back on his heels and springs up again.

His laces look neater, certainly, but Jaebum would be the first to admit he had no idea there was another method, and even now couldn’t replicate it. But apparently, this is better. And he supposes he should at least trust Jinyoung when it comes to formalwear.

Jaebum looks up then, realizing Jinyoung towers over him now, dressed sharply in all black under his winter coat; crisp black jacket, shirt and silky tie. He’s paired them with black denim pants, but they’re coated, so there’s a sheen to them like leather. Each crease is highlighted, emphasizing the lean volume of his thighs. Jaebum gives up hope on not staring. They’re all simple pieces, but they fit Jinyoung so well, so cleanly, it’s striking.

Jaebum almost considers the outfit too casual — but he’d also considered many of Jinyoung’s daily clothes too formal. And, standing up to look him in the eye, it just doesn’t matter. He sells it. This Jinyoung is confident again, beaming, hair swept half up and eyes glittering with just a little smudging and a little mischief. Like he has a secret.

Something else glints, catching Jaebum’s eye, and he drops his gaze instinctively. It’s Jinyoung’s silvery wristwatch, but before he can fixate on how expensive it probably is, he realizes Jinyoung’s hands are reaching toward him — right for his belt.

Jaebum’s brain seems to stutter, shudder, thoughts going absolutely static and splintered. In fact, his shirt wasn’t tucked away completely, but he can’t quite comprehend that yet. He watches, mouth gaping open and shut, as Jinyoung’s long fingers tug his waistband out, so they can tuck the offensive corner farther in.

There’s this moment in time, just a split second, where Jinyoung is effectively peeking into his pants. And then in the next, two fingers pressing over the low plane of Jaebum’s stomach. It’s through the starched cotton of his shirt, but he feels it acutely. The heat of each fingertip, the soft scratch of the back of his fingernails, rolling the fabric down over his abdomen.

If the shirt wasn’t there, Jinyoung would be raking through the sparse, coarse hairs of Jaebum’s happy trail, and if the pants weren’t there — Jaebum’s mind seizes, can’t compute it. It all happens in a few seconds, but Jaebum is already replaying it in his head.

“We should get going,” Jinyoung is saying. “Jackson said parking was kind of a mess.”

Jaebum uh-huhs, but takes another moment of floundering silently, before he can gather his wits enough to stuff himself into a coat and lock up behind them.

 

//

 

The gala is at a hotel downtown, and since Jaebum insists he won’t let Jinyoung pay for valet, it takes a few laps and they walk a few chilly blocks to get inside the venue.

The fresh air helps him calm down, at least, since he’s still in numb disbelief that this is it – this is probably the last night he’ll spend brushing shoulders with Jinyoung. Maybe that’s for the best, he considers. Jinyoung looks so good, he has second thoughts about even inviting him. Is their pairing unrealistic, like BamBam had teased?

But at least Jinyoung seems committed to the image – he slips his hand into Jaebum’s as they enter the hall, and stays close by his side even if they can’t stay connected the whole time. He keeps a slightly more polite distance when Jaebum starts to talk with potential employers, photojournalists, some music magazines.

Just his presence there is comforting, a warm sort of buzz behind Jaebum’s ear. It helps take his focus off from the greater room around them, so Jaebum isn’t distracted from his conversations by the mere possibility of awkward run-ins.

He knows Jinyoung might find it dull, and after an hour he finds himself checking on him more regularly, smoothing his fingers down the back of his suit jacket in hopes of offering some flimsy comfort. He’s noticed Jinyoung has started trying to track down snacks in earnest.

“Oh,” Jinyoung murmurs sadly, as another proffered tray of tuna appetizers passes by them too quickly.

Jaebum tucks away the latest business card he’s collected into a pocket, watching as Jinyoung’s soft features rise and fall.

“We could head into the dining room, maybe?” Jaebum asks him, staying a step aside to watch Jinyoung’s body language as he perks up immediately. It’s a little spin, eyebrows raised, and Jaebum suddenly wants to hunt down a hundred little ahi bites for him.

“It’s still a little early,” Jaebum adds, “but some stuff might already be on the tables.”

“I don’t want to take you away from networking until you’re ready,” Jinyoung says, hands slipping into his pockets and half turning away, and his voice is sing-songy like he’s almost whining. “It seems like it’s going well. I just wish they’d give me a chance to grab a bite. Do you think they were instructed to walk at this ridiculous speed?”

Jaebum can’t help his eyes then, roving hot and appreciative over Jinyoung’s thighs, where his hands in the coated denim tug the fabric taut around the swell of his ass. He thinks about grabbing a bite before he can stop it, and then he has to force himself to look away with a hum. A tray with mixed fruit is within reach, and he barely has the presence of mind to snatch a cup before it’s gone.

“It’s not the fish, but...” Jaebum says, hovering closer to Jinyoung’s side, who seems to sense his body heat. Jinyoung turns without looking, and doesn’t back off as their arms brush against each other warmly. Jaebum extends the little cup between them, expecting Jinyoung to take a piece for himself.

“Oh, mango,” Jinyoung sighs, and then he opens his mouth up, pressing it in toward Jaebum’s fingers.

And Jaebum feels like he’s fallen under a spell, can’t control his own limbs as he plucks out a chunk of mango for him, and then slides it into the plush ring of Jinyoung’s waiting, pouting mouth. And it’s a little juvenile, and definitely a little obscene at the same time, the slick fruit sliding out of his grip as Jinyoung sort of slurps it gently up, the wet inside of his lips suctioning closed before Jaebum can fully retreat.

Now there’s a light sheen of saliva and syrup on Jaebum’s fingertips, and before he can freak out about it, he scoops out a halved strawberry and shoves it into his own mouth. And he tries, defiantly, to think of anything other than how he’d basically licked Jinyoung’s spit off his hand, at a formal event.

Jinyoung is peering overtly into the cup again, and Jaebum is flustered, mind scuttering back and forth over whether or not feeding him another bite will look natural. But this time, Jinyoung reaches in with his long fingers and picks out a blueberry for himself.

“Ugh, gross,” a voice declares, and Jaebum startles, nearly spilling the fruit salad. It’s BamBam at his elbow, in an impeccably embroidered smoking jacket that Jaebum is sure must be vintage or something.

Jinyoung takes the cup away, looking deeply concerned about their only appetizer’s stability.

“Hi Bam,” Jaebum says, crossing his arms. “Nice way to greet your hyung.”

“Did Jackson tell you to wear a tie, or not?” BamBam demands.

“The invitation didn’t say–,” Jaebum starts, and then stops himself. This line of reasoning won’t work on BamBam. “You’ve approved of this shirt in the past,” he says instead.

The fruit cup has disappeared when Jaebum glances aside at Jinyoung again, and it must have been bussed away just a second ago. He’s licking his lips clean, and Jaebum tries not to watch too closely.

“You look naked,” BamBam is saying.

“I think hyung looks really nice,” Jinyoung says. “Since the shirt has this graphic edging and this sort of collar, you don’t need a tie.” He runs a finger down his chest, following the stripe, and Jaebum lets his arms fall apart awkwardly. Jinyoung scoops one of Jaebum’s hands back into his with a smile, as if he’s pleased to collect it once again.

“Have you talked to anybody from Paradise yet?” BamBam asks coolly, but Jaebum can see his eyes following their interlaced hands with amusement.

“The underground label?” Jaebum wonders. “What are they doing here?”

“They also have a really influential blog,” BamBam says, rolling his eyes. “Come on, you and Youngjae cream over it all the time. So they’re press, too. We sent out a few more aspirational invitations than usual, to places that might be interested in Daily talent.”

Jaebum glances sort of nervously at Jinyoung here, although he’s not sure why, as he definitely has nothing to do with him creaming over anything. But he also hasn’t talked to him much about music; outside of knowing Jaebum sings sometimes, Jinyoung has no idea Jaebum’s ever thought about it in a serious manner.

“I didn’t know they focused on it that much,” Jaebum admits. “I thought it was just sort of a passion project thing.”

“Well,” BamBam gestures wildly across the room, where Jackson’s speaking to some vaguely familiar faces. “You happen to be kinda passionate about the same stuff, hyung.”

Jaebum’s stomach twists then, and the room seems even bigger than it really is. Jackson and the Paradise editors look a million miles away, hazy like some sort of desert mirage. Things had been going well so far, but he’s felt admittedly lukewarm about most of the contacts he’s made. But that’s all he had expected.

There’s a part of him that feels like he isn’t allowed to try for opportunities that excite him like this. Paradise, in theory, could be the perfect fit for him. But that would also make their rejection the worst – an absolute invalidation of everything Jaebum is interested in.

The idea of working somewhere innovative, the idea of working with people he really admires, and the distant, shimmering idea of being signed to a label, in any manifestation, is terrifying. Reaching out for it seems foolish, and he certainly doesn’t deserve it. Jaebum’s already fucked up enough in life, who knows how this could go wrong.

But Jinyoung’s gripped his elbow now, and they’re moving across the hall. Jaebum glances back in a panic at BamBam, who simply raises his eyebrows and his glass.

“Jackson hyung,” Jinyoung calls out, and they slip into the group smoothly as Jinyoung releases Jaebum’s arm to curl in close to Jackson’s elbow instead.

Jaebum chokes out a greeting, bowing shortly.

“Oh, this is Im Jaebum, our Entertainment editor!” Jackson perks up, after eying Jinyoung’s hand on his arm. “If you do ever peek through the Daily, you would actually read his stuff.”

“Hey,” says one of the editors, adjusting a baseball cap. Neither of them are dressed very formally, the man in a cap and the woman wearing a pair of scuffed boots with her dress — Jaebum envies them more already. “I have actually read some of your shit paper. Just because you sports guys never read your own publication, doesn’t mean everybody’s illiterate.”

Jackson cackles, and Jaebum bites back a laugh too, fingers twitching in nervous excitement. Suddenly he feels Jinyoung’s knuckles brushing against the back of his hand, and he glances down to see Jinyoung pointedly putting his hand in his own pocket. Jaebum raises his eyebrows but imitates him as he thinks he’s been instructed, and he does feel immediately surer of himself.

“It’s a little broad though, man,” the first writer is continuing. “I know you can’t cover everything yourself, you gotta have a team — but wow, that Baby Ratface review in the last issue, that was kinda garbage.”

Jaebum lets himself laugh now, ducking his head a bit bashfully but nodding in agreement nonetheless. “Honestly, I tried my hardest to talk my writer out of covering that show. I heard Ratface is always a shithead to the management at Skyway, so I wasn’t really looking to give him more buzz.”

“Ah, Skyway!!” Jackson yelps, like he’s just remembered. “You guys, Jaebum also does music — he composes and writes lyrics, and he sings like an actual angel.”

Jaebum’s jaw clicks a bit as he didn’t intend to bring up his personal hobby so soon, or so exuberantly, but he nods anyway. Jinyoung tenses up in his peripheral, squeezing Jackson’s bicep tightly.

“Hyung, where did you get the champagne?” He murmurs suddenly, tugging Jackson’s arm.

“By the cheese station,” Jackson says, waving Jinyoung off as he’s gone into full hype mode. “You guys should check out his Soundcloud; pull it up, pull it up — it’s Defsoul —!”

“Show me,” Jinyoung tugs him backward again. “Show me the champagne, I didn’t see any cheese.”

Jackson turns to look at him in surprise and a bit of offense then, but he’s soon blinking between Jinyoung’s insistent glare and Jaebum’s narrowed eyes. He shifts into a softer expression. “Ah,” he says, “Come on, Jinyoung-ah, let’s get you something nice and dry.”

He nods politely to the editors and Jaebum and ducks away with Jinyoung in tow. Jaebum’s lungs feel like they’ve been untied, and he lets out a long breath of relief. At least now he can present himself on his own terms.

“Sorry,” Jaebum says, eying the editor’s flicked out smartphone. “You don’t have to pull that up, he always gets too amped about it. But I’m really interested in your guys’ site.”

“Seriously,” says the editor. “We’ll check you out. We don’t do a lot of internship stuff, or even freelance, if that’s what you really want. But musically? If you’re doing your own thing, that’s always something we look for. Maybe even an audition, if your stuff sounds good?”

Jaebum’s breath leaves him momentarily, and he can only keep nodding, gone numb and dumb with shock.

“No promises,” says the other editor, laughing softly at his expression.

But just as soon as the idea’s planted, it grows sour. Long, strange hours spent recording. The prospect of interviews and tours and too many followers on Instagram. Being a musician is a lot more than just going to work and coming home to your family. It’s a lifestyle, even if you don’t make it big.

And Jaebum isn’t certain how he and Yugyeom would fit into that world. Even just considering the risk factor. If he was serious about interning, or finding a job in the future, Yugyeom had to come first. He wasn’t certain Paradise could offer that.

“I would love for you to take a listen,” says Jaebum slowly, honestly. “And let me know what you think. But I don’t know if I have what it takes for auditions yet.”

The Paradise writers glance at each other warily, but it’s with genuine smiles, real business cards, and fist bumps that they see him off a minute later. So Jaebum hopes he didn’t whiff it too hard.

 

//

 

The crowd has started to thin out a bit, and Jaebum figures it must be time to head into the dining room. He wanders in and finds a complicated seating chart by the door, and he’s only gazed at it dizzily for a few moments before he hears Jackson bellowing his name.

Jaebum finds himself split between embarrassed and grateful again as he shuffles through the web of tables to find his assigned seat, besides Jinyoung, across from Jackson. He scans around the table to find Kihyun, Kihyun’s boyfriend, and Suzy.

The empty seat between his ex and his fake date seems to cackle up at him, but he scoots it out loudly and tries to shuffle back in as quickly and as unaffected as possible.

Jinyoung’s hand slides in over the slope of his thigh, and Jaebum’s breath catches for a moment before he reminds himself. Jinyoung is not just pawing at him because he wants to.

Jaebum hesitates for a second, before reaching out and wrapping his arm around the back of Jinyoung’s chair. It seems like an acceptable motion, and Jinyoung scoots his chair subtly closer to fit more comfortably within his reach.

Kihyun slurps at his mixed drink loudly, and Jaebum blinks around the table to find everyone watching them quietly.

“Nice to see you again, Jaebum,” says Kihyun’s boyfriend, Wonho. He’s on the football team and rarely has overlapping free time to be seen with the editor around campus, but he’s always had kind, soft eyes for Kihyun and they’ve been together a long time.

“How have you been?” Jaebum asks with a flick of his head.

“He had an amazing season,” Jackson blurts out. “He’s being scouted.”

Kihyun and Jinyoung both eye Jackson scoldingly, Jinyoung flicking his napkin at him for interrupting.

Wonho just laughs and claps at the sports editor’s enthusiasm, nodding along bashfully. “And pretty well besides that,” he says. “How about you? We haven’t been introduced to your date yet. Jackson was keeping him to himself.”

Jaebum raises his eyebrows at Jackson, but the other man’s smirk doesn’t waver.

“Uh,” Jaebum clears his throat. “This is my boyfriend, Park Jinyoung.” He turns to him then, seeking out his wide, bright eyes. It feels comfortable to slip into the gaze, familiar and encouraging.

“He’s also in film, and literature,” he says, and lets his hand slip down the back of the chair to rest gently against Jinyoung’s shoulder. He watches as the other man’s spine stretches out slightly, chest rising, his body reacting to the warm touch.

“He’s been in both departments as long as I have, but we only recently got to know each other,” Jaebum continues, and this part’s easy, since it’s all true. and then he lets his fingers slip under Jinyoung’s collar, finding the hot skin at the nape of his neck and curling around it. “And I guess we just sort of clicked.”

Jinyoung fidgets slightly under his touch, panting out a little laugh with a switch of his hips in his chair. Jaebum feels the hand on his thigh dig in a little deeper, with nails. Jaebum tilts his head curiously, lifting an eyebrow as his thumb swirls into the hair at his neck. Jinyoung flushes and tries to hold back a smile.

“He’s sensitive there,” Jackson says — and the moment shatters, Jaebum remembering where they are.

Wonho laughs, covering his face, as Kihyun clucks disapprovingly. “Of course Jackson would know where other people’s boyfriends are ticklish,” he hums.

Jackson laughs at this, and so does Jinyoung, but Jaebum isn’t sure how to react even as his stomach feels on fire. So he just smiles and drags his hand away, toys with his silverware instead. A peek to his left finds Suzy sipping her wine slowly, gaze dragging slowly over them in curiosity.

“You’ve gotten less jealous,” she says quietly to him, as Jackson and Wonho have dissolved into laughter over something else in the other corner. “That’s good. You’ve matured a lot, oppa.”

Jaebum can’t help the slight frown, but he tries to stay nonchalant with a shrug, glancing back towards Jinyoung. He’s covering a laugh with his hand as usual, as Jackson launches into his extra unflattering imitation of Kihyun during production.

“I trust Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum offers, softly. It seems like the type of thing he’d like to say, about somebody. Someday. “That’s all.”

“You didn’t trust me?” She asks, and it’s barely a whisper.

Jaebum stubbornly fixes his eyes on his plate then, throat prickling with something like indignation. He did trust her back then. That was why it hurt so much when she left on such short notice. That was why it hurt when she didn’t respect him enough to break things off honestly, cleanly. That was why it hurt when he found out she’d moved on through a couple photo on Instagram.

“Of course I did,” he offers her when he can, low but not quiet enough for it to go unnoticed.

Jinyoung turns to them, cautiously scanning their expressions. His mouth looks tense then, like he’s trying to keep from pursing it but can’t quite fix it into a smile. Jaebum offers him a crooked grin, the one he’s grown used to Jinyoung responding to, and he starts to lean back towards him.

“It’s our turn to go through the buffet line,” Jinyoung says crisply, hand slipping off of Jaebum’s knee as he gets up. Jackson has already scurried off in excitement. Jaebum gathers both their plates and follows stubbornly close to Jinyoung, noting the way his eyes have glazed over a bit.

Jinyoung doesn’t even perk up when Jaebum points out the tiered display of all the appetizers they’d missed. But he does makes sure to pluck out several ahi bites for both their plates, albeit rather reluctantly.

Once everyone at the table is eating, the conversation flows more cohesively as a group, and Jinyoung remains smiling and polite. Jaebum supposes he doesn’t owe any more of a performance than that, but he can’t help feeling like he’s snubbed him somehow. Like Jinyoung’s eyes had caught him and Suzy at an offensive moment. His knee feels bare, rejected now.

Regardless, there’s no way to discuss it at the moment. He’s not even sure if they need to. Dinner’s winding down and he’ll be out of Jinyoung’s perfectly styled hair in no time.

“Ah! While I’ve got you in front of me,” Kihyun suddenly startles, pointing a slightly woozy finger at Jaebum. It’s a bit of a tradition for him to get trashed at all the Daily events. Although a trashed Kihyun is still probably the most responsible person on staff. “You didn’t reply to the group chat — you never reply to the group chat, you monster — but are you RSVPing yes or no for the winter retreat?”

Jaebum blinks in surprise, gaping across the table as if he’s been falsely accused. “The group chat?” He mumbles. “I’m in a group chat?”

“Oh my god,” Kihyun moans. “You aren’t in the group chat. I’m the monster?”

“Jaebum hyung is in the group chat,” Jackson insists. “Remember he once replied ‘absolutely not,’ when we were begging him to perform for our Valentine’s party.”

“Well,” Jaebum sighs, “I’m sorry, but I doubt I’ll be able to make it anyway, Kihyun.”

“Oh,” whines Suzy, “but it’s at a ski resort, Jaebum oppa! Kihyun was telling us all about it earlier. You could bring Jinyoung-ssi along. It’d be so much fun.”

Jaebum glances aside at Jinyoung, shaking his head with an apologetic shrug. As if he could afford to take Jinyoung to a ski resort. Even with whatever group deal the paper has managed to scrounge up, it’s probably way out of his budget even for one. And again, he has to remind himself Jinyoung hasn't agreed to more than tonight.

“Sorry,” Jaebum repeats.

“Jaebum never comes to my winter retreats,” Kihyun clucks sadly. Wonho pats him softly in consolation.

And it’s true. Jaebum never joins them, even when it’s not particularly pricey. They’re just too long — a weekend might seem reasonable but Jaebum stresses out too much about what his father would say. His mother loves having Yugyeom over for little slumber parties, but a whole weekend wouldn’t look good. It’d look like he didn’t have time for his own child.

Jaebum has come to terms with it, but it’s hard for others to understand.

Dinner past, the group starts to disperse — Wonho and a floppy Kihyun first, Jackson next. Jaebum helps with Jinyoung’s chair, takes him by the elbow, and they head out of the dining room together. Jaebum thinks about asking about his dinner mood, but Jinyoung seems lighter as soon as they get away from the group.

The music in the main hall has turned up, the lights low and shifting with a disco ball, and the lingering crowds have started dancing.

Jinyoung pulls back from his grip then, gazing at him with the same sparkling, mischievous eyes he’d seen earlier in the night. “Do you dance, Jaebummie hyung?” He asks, lowly.

Jaebum’s lips curl just slightly, eyes dripping down Jinyoung’s form instead of answering. “Do you?” He asks.

Jinyoung turns away, peeking coyly over a shoulder as he offers only the tiniest shimmy of his hips, and Jaebum can’t help but reach out for his waist, doesn’t overthink it as he slides right up behind him.

“Jaebum oppa,” says Suzy’s voice beside him, and there’s a hand firmly clutching at his arm, tugging him back from the dancefloor's edge.

Jaebum practically stumbles back in alarm, and he sees Jinyoung turning with surprise, and that same, hollow glassiness flickering over his eyes.

“Can we please talk alone, for a minute?” Suzy asks. “I’ve been trying to find you all week and — I know it’s not the best time, but just a few minutes. Please.”

Jaebum looks between her and Jinyoung, unsure how he can politely dismiss her when she seems to be outright pleading. Jinyoung is the one who nods demurely, who squeezes Jaebum’s fingers and then slips away. It takes only a second to lose him in the crowd, Jaebum left blinking after him in a daze. He can’t exactly blame him for bowing out. This feels inevitable.

Suzy’s tugging him by the arm again, and Jaebum grits his teeth but lets her lead him to a quiet corner, a hallway off to the side, where only a few partiers are waiting by bathrooms or taking phone calls. It feels wrong to be alone with her, so Jaebum is grateful for the handful of witnesses.

“I’m really glad that you’re... finally getting back out there,” Suzy says, and she’s rambling a little faster than usual, color in her cheeks. Jaebum reluctantly recognizes it as how she gets after a couple drinks. “Seeing you laughing with people, it brings back so many good memories.”

Jaebum nods, knowing she means well and letting it all float past for once. He rolls his neck to loosen it with a sigh.

“I know you don’t like leaving Yugyeom for too long,” she continues. “So even a night out — this would have been pretty rare back then.”

It’s still rare now, Jaebum thinks to himself, still so rare he had to beg for a boyfriend to look normal. But a lot of good that did — he got cornered anyhow.

“I’ve thought a lot,” Suzy says, wringing her hands in and out of her skirt. “While I was abroad, I had a lot of time to think, about us, and what happened, and how we treated each other. And I think I might owe you an apology.”

She looks up at him then, chin trembling. Jaebum’s breath catches as he recognizes the regret there. The sincerity.

“I’m sorry for not telling you I was planning on leaving,” she says. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t supportive about keeping Yugyeom.”

Jaebum’s throat feels blocked for a moment, like his actual beating heart is wedged there. He nods, slowly, shakily.

“It’s not that I thought you couldn’t do it,” Suzy insists. “I was just, really scared. I didn’t know what I’d gotten into. Even falling in love with you, I still wasn’t ready for all the rest. To really be with you, and raise a baby.”

Jaebum’s head is reeling. This is helpful, this is honest — is this closure? He wonders. But he still isn’t sure what she wants from this exchange. She’s gone quiet now, blinking rapidly.

“I should apologize too,” he manages after a trembling breath. “I’m sorry for making assumptions about you being a part of our lives in too big of a role… for making you feel like you’d been trapped in some way. You didn’t have any responsibility towards him, or towards us.”

Suzy wipes away a tear, sniffling soft and nodding.

“I’ve thought so much, about what we could have been?” She finally rattles on, and he can’t tell if she’s about to smile or sob. “While I was away, I wondered: if you had things more together when I came back… would I go back to you? Could we start again, now that you and Yugyeom were more settled?”

Jaebum’s heart thunders in his chest, and his tongue feels too thick for his mouth, unsure of how to respond to this. Is she still considering it now? Is this what he had wanted all along? Or had that yearning finally faded?

He’d felt so strange, right after she left. He still wonders: what are you supposed to do with all that leftover information, after a breakup?

He knows she leaves her socks on when she sleeps. Knows how she likes to be kissed on the neck. Knows how to flick his tongue just right, how to let it flutter just so. He knows how she tastes, and not just when she’s coming, but also when she’s yawning, when she’s a little tipsy on wine and ready for bed. But because she left, all of that went void.

Maybe some of it gets swept away, if you’re lucky, by other thoughts about other people, or just over time. But sometimes, there are facts that linger especially long, some ideas still press uncomfortably tight in your chest as you lay alone at night.

Suzy had been on his mind this way, for a long time. But somewhere along the way, it seems like he must have let go after all. Because just thinking about them together now settles uneasily with him. It doesn’t fit, like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Jaebum lets himself sigh, the frustration billowing out of him like steam, and then he fumbles in his jacket for a handkerchief. He offers it so she can dab at her running eye makeup, and she smiles back, eyes soft behind the sticky mascara.

“And you are, more together now,” Suzy’s started talking again, having taken some deep breaths. “But you’re also, with someone else, and I think that’s — I think that’s really great. He certainly seems, good-looking and fun, and everything you probably need right now.”

Jaebum’s smile twitches, feeling vaguely guilty. Should he be more honest with her? Now that he feels like they’re working through their baggage. Doesn’t he owe it to her?

“But I’m also,” she says breathily, hand coming up to clutch at his sleeve again. “A little nervous to admit,” she stammers. “I still keep thinking. I can’t stop thinking about it. About you. So I wanted to tell you, when you’re through having fun with Jinyoung-ssi, and Yugyeom still needs a mother: I’ll be here for you.”

Jaebum blinks. He glances around the hallway in confusion, wondering if someone lingering around might be able to explain this to him. Or if Jackson is hiding with a camera, and BamBam will jump out and explain it’s all actually some kind of contemporary, performance art exhibit. But none of those things happen — because it’s real. She’s serious, and this is his actual, completely unbelievable joke of a life.

He clears his throat then, and he feels his spine going stiff. He lets the indignation gnaw at his bones for another moment, trying to parse why he’s irritated and how exactly to communicate it.

“Yugyeom doesn’t need anything,” he says, eventually. “Don’t worry about that. I’ve been enough for Yugyeom this long, and I will continue to be enough for Yugyeom. I appreciate your concern, I guess. But you’ve honestly got the wrong idea.”

She nods, slowly letting his jacket go. “I can wait,” she says.

Jaebum doesn’t want to hear it, doesn’t even want to look at her, is almost infuriated by how well their conversation had gone up to this point. “I’m not asking you to,” he says. “I don’t want that from you. I’m happy, and I want you to be happy — on your own path.”

Suzy doesn’t respond to this, crossing her arms and nodding. Jaebum hopes it means she will move on, but he can’t even decipher how things have turned upside down like this. Jaebum had expected an awkward conversation, but not an apology. And he definitely hadn’t expected this desperate vow.

“I really have to go,” Jaebum grits out, and then he shoulders past her and back into the main hall, eyes scanning furiously for his fake date.

The thing is, Jaebum a few years ago might have dreamed of this moment. Back then, he was still torn apart, uselessly angry and drowning in pages and pages of his own sad lyrics.

But even then, Jaebum still had some pride. And after being shoved aside, he believed he and Yugyeom would be alright, together. Anybody who believed otherwise didn’t deserve to be a part of their life. He wouldn’t be with someone out of pity, out of loneliness. He was only interested in people who supported them wholly, as they were.

And — where was he?

Jaebum spots a tall head above the crowd, stepping out through a set of balcony doors he hadn’t noticed before. Maybe Jinyoung went out for some air, he wonders, and heads in the same direction. A surprised, delighted gasp in a familiar tone has him nearly skidding to a stop, as he abruptly realizes the tall man he’s followed has the same lanky form as the one he’d seen talking to Jinyoung on campus before.

And he’s talking to Jinyoung again.

Jaebum doesn’t second-guess his urge to eavesdrop this time, hanging back behind the heavy, ornamental drapes that are tied back by the doorway, peering around them to get a glimpse. He knows it’s none of his business. But he still has questions about Jinyoung’s social life, is still curious about who he considers a friend.

“Oh hyung, it’s good to see you!” Jinyoung is smiling.

“Jinyoung-ah, what are you doing here?” The tall man sputters, voice deep, contrasting with his lanky form. “I didn’t know you had any contact with the Daily.”

“I’m someone’s date,” Jinyoung giggles then, covering his mouth. “Can’t you tell? Don’t I look like arm candy, hyung?”

Jaebum watches the other man gape still, and he looks even more confused, adjusting his tie as his round eyes take in more of Jinyoung. Jaebum gulps, suddenly parched, mouth sour.

“Jinyoung-ah,” the man rumbles. “You always look good.”

Jaebum straightens up then, suddenly annoyed at himself for waiting and eavesdropping. He doesn’t need to see this, it’s not anything new. It’s like Jackson had told him; Jinyoung gets a lot of attention. He should head out there and get him back on his own arm. But... Jinyoung is beaming.

“Are you here with the snowboarding magazine , Chanyeol hyung?” Jinyoung asks. “Or is it — don’t tell me, their trip is going to be at one of your family’s places?”

“Both, of course,” says Chanyeol, smiling broader still. “Where else would it be! Jooheon has been nearly stalking me for an internship at the magazine, but it was Kihyun who worked out the trip. We’ll get plenty of adspace and a write-up, even.”

“How groundbreaking for you,” Jinyoung jokes, and it sets Jaebum’s teeth on edge. He really shouldn’t listen to this — so Jinyoung isn’t impressed with their dinky campus paper’s influence, whatever. Admittedly, Jaebum never had been either, but here? As a guest at the Daily’s event, he’s going to joke about that?

It’s the kind of thing he knows he and Jackson say without blinking — but overheard between his date and some snooty ski resort chaebol? It gets him heated.

“Who are you here with?” Chanyeol asks, after a pause. Jinyoung had been looking out at the busy night street. Chanyeol was only looking at Jinyoung.

“My friend—,” and Jinyoung hesitates here, audibly. “Im Jaebum,” Jinyoung says, as he leans over the balcony railing. “He’s the Entertainment editor.”

“Your friend?” Chanyeol echoes. “You said date, earlier.”

Jinyoung sniffs out a quieter chuckle. “It’s um,” he says, voice going softer still. “I’m actually… pretending to be his boyfriend.”

Chanyeol’s laugh is loud and shocked, hands clapping like he’s watching a variety show or something comical. And Jaebum can’t blame him. It is pretty ludicrous. Once he’s calmed down, he seems to do another double-take, as if he thought Jinyoung had been joking.

“Jinyoung-ah, really?” Chanyeol says. “Your parents would lose their minds.”

“Stop,” Jinyoung says, turning back to him. “They don’t care about who I date.”

“That’s what they say. But you care. And they care about you,” says Chanyeol. “Maybe they pretend not to care just in the hopes of you bringing home somebody. Then they’ll put the heat on.”

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Jinyoung murmurs, and then downs the rest of his champagne.

Chanyeol looks regretful then, shuffling closer beside him. “I’m sorry, you know I overthink stuff like this,” he says. “My parents aren’t nearly as cool as yours, you know. They’re already asking about grandbaby heirs and all that. When will you bring a nice girl home, and all that.”

Jaebum doesn’t miss the pointed pronoun, the emphasis on biological babies. He watches Jinyoung nod, looking sympathetic.

“I don’t... I don’t want you to get hurt.” Chanyeol continues. “You’ve always been really optimistic about big love, so you don’t usually play around with people. So I’m — it’s just kind of strange.”

“I’m still optimistic,” Jinyoung says, stubbornly. “Nothing’s changed about how I feel.”

Chanyeol frowns down at him then, and even Jaebum struggles to decipher this answer. Neither of them seem satisfied by it. “You’re still naive,” Chanyeol tells him, looking away.

Jaebum chooses then to sweep out from around the curtains, jaw locked tight as he joins them on the balcony.

“Hey,” he says gruffly. “We can head out whenever.”

“Jaebum hyung,” Jinyoung seems pleased to see him. “I was just talking about you. This is Park Chanyeol, he’s an old family friend.”

Jaebum blinks up at the other man, whose smile is wide and friendly.

“We used to take baths together,” Chanyeol blurts out, and then covers his mouth, and Jaebum tilts his head with a frown.

“Oh my god,” Jinyoung laughs, smacking him in the arm lightly. “What kind of a comment is that?”

“I just meant in an innocent, we were babies way! Like, we’ve known each other a long time,” Chanyeol insists, at least looking embarrassed as he laughs and waves his hands hastily. “His family does air conditioning, and we do winter resorts! So... we’re basically related.”

Jaebum nods slowly, not quite following.

“You know — cold,” Chanyeol winces. Jinyoung laughs the loudest Jaebum’s heard yet. God, this is weird.

“Chanyeol’s family owns Snowscapes,” Jinyoung says cheerfully. “We could probably get an amazing discount if you change your mind about that ski trip.”

“Cool,” Jaebum snips, impatient. He’s glad neither of them laugh. “Are you ready to go?”

Jinyoung looks at him warily then, gaze lingering around his stiff jaw. Jaebum feels uncomfortable, laid bare as always by Jinyoung’s deep, inquisitive eyes. “Sure,” he says, as Jaebum roughly takes his hand.

“Send my love to your parents,” Jinyoung says to Chanyeol, and he offers them two short bows.

“I’ll see you lovebirds at the retreat,” Chanyeol booms after them, and Jinyoung eyes Jaebum cautiously before merely humming over his shoulder. Jaebum yanks him along, cheeks burning as he thinks how foolish it is to keep this charade going for someone who knows the truth.

Jaebum tries to wrest his hand away from Jinyoung’s as they skirt along the edges of the ballroom toward the exit, but Jinyoung holds on tight and stares up at him with disbelieving, wrinkled brows.

“What is going on?” Jinyoung sputters, once Jaebum finally rips away and leaves him behind a few steps. “Are you upset about something?”

Jaebum hears him stop following, and he turns sulkily, waiting for Jinyoung to approach him again.

“I’m just ready to leave,” Jaebum says, glancing around and hoping they aren’t about to make a scene. But his nerves are on fire and he sort of wants to make a scene, because he really can’t believe Jinyoung snuck off with some other guy, to flirt and make fun of the paper.

“Jackson was mentioning an after party at Skyway,” Jinyoung says, quietly. “Did you maybe want to make an appearance? We never got that dance.”

“I don’t want to keep you,” Jaebum nearly spits the words out, and Jinyoung flinches. “You looked like you were happy to finally get away.”

Jinyoung’s eyebrows drop low then, face contorting into an actual frown. He’d been careful up until that point, Jaebum could tell, just confused and questioning. But now that he’s sure Jaebum’s angry with him, he’s angry too.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Jinyoung asks. “You were pretty well preoccupied, and I didn’t even know where you two went. I thought you might have dropped me to scoot out of here with Suzy, so excuse me for stepping outside for a drink with my friend!”

“You have an awful lot of friends,” Jaebum snarls, and he doesn’t know why he brings it up. It’s absolutely none of his business, but his mind is red-hot with anger that hasn’t gone anywhere, hasn’t accomplished anything, and he wants to take it out on someone. “Jackson told me, you know. You led him on, and Mark, too.”

Jinyoung’s face is contorted in disgust, and he opens his mouth and then snaps it shut, huffing angrily like a wild animal.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Jinyoung says, curling and uncurling his fingers like he wants to swipe Jaebum’s face off.

“What else could it be?” Jaebum says. “You like to toy with people. Is that why you agreed to this? Am I just the first person to know you’re pretending?”

“I care about them, I just didn’t want to be with them — I thought it wouldn’t be fair!” Jinyoung’s face is red, teeth showing. “Not when I thought I liked somebody else!”

And the answer hits Jaebum like a slap in the face, almost as if Jinyoung really had reached out and caught him with his hands. Liked somebody else.

Jaebum’s mind flickers to Chanyeol immediately. Jinyoung has probably liked him since the bathtub times, but of course Chanyeol’s parents don’t sound open to the idea of him bringing a boy home. So Jinyoung doesn’t want to settle for Jackson or Mark, not when he’s been into this guy his whole life. It’s almost charming.

Jaebum looks away with a matching huff, feeling the anger draining away and the embarrassment rushing in just as hotly. Why does he keep expecting Jinyoung to match up to his worst expectations? What’s wrong with him?

“I’m sorry,” Jaebum grits out, and it’s really hard to look at him. “I didn’t know, I thought I knew.”

“Even so,” Jinyoung says, and now his hands are in two tight fists by his sides, “can you just not accuse me of everything? If you don’t know what the situation is, maybe you can ask about it, or maybe it’s none of your business. But do you really think I’m so hateful, no matter what?”

“Mark made it seem like he was hurt — Jackson said they were both jealous. Of us, even.” Jaebum murmurs, and he gestures between them sloppily. “I… I didn’t mean it. I thought it was bigger than it was, and I wanted to make you mad. I’m sorry.”

He huffs shortly again, embarrassed of himself. “I’m really sorry,” he repeats.

Jinyoung lets out a long breath, and his fingers are shaky as he unfurls them. “I don’t know what else I could have done, with them,” he says, quietly. “Just because they have feelings, and they’re jealous; you think they’re entitled to me?”

“No,” Jaebum says, frown settling in as he realizes how it sounded. “I absolutely don’t think that way.”

And then it’s like a speck in his eye – like a gnat buzzing in his peripheral vision. But it’s worse: it’s Suzy, threading through the crowd toward them, with concern etched into her face.

“Fuck,” Jaebum breathes, looking away.

“What?” Jinyoung asks, and he sounds dull, tired now. Jaebum feels wholly responsible for the shift in his voice, the drop in his energy in comparison to how sweetly he’d shone with Chanyeol outside.

“Suzy is heading over here,” Jaebum mumbles, “and I am sick of talking with her. She got on my case about Yugyeom again and — anyway, I think she’s spotted us fighting.”

Only a tense second passes between them, and then: “So kiss me,” says Jinyoung.

Jaebum is almost certain he had imagined it. But when he looks back into Jinyoung’s eyes, they’re trembling and defiant. And he’s taken a step closer.

“I said kiss me,” says Jinyoung. “Sweep in all fucking manly and kiss me quiet; she won’t interrupt us.”

And this is easily the stupidest thing Jaebum’s ever heard. But he also hears the urgent click of Suzy’s heels across the floor, and Jinyoung is using both delicate, deliberate hands to grasp onto his jacket lapels.

So Jaebum reaches out and yanks him in by that sensitive nape of his neck, glares right into his angry eyes and stubborn pout, and slams their lips together.

And, alright: it’s better than he’d imagined. And of course he’d fantasized about it, even as recently as tonight, when he’d sucked the mango out of his fingers. He’d thought about how soft Jinyoung’s mouth would feel under his, all pillowed and perky on the outside, and wet — fuck — he bet it was so wet and warm inside.

But it’s just fake, they’re just playing pretend still, so maybe he shouldn’t think about tasting him. Maybe he should just focus on keeping their eyes and lips closed, even if they’re moving, even if Jinyoung is drawing back and pressing back in again at another angle.

Jinyoung’s mouth, frowning still, folds all of its fat embrace around Jaebum’s stubbornly chaste pecks, melting into him easy and eager. Jaebum can’t help the near hiccup of excited breath he takes, using a fraction of a moment to breathe before Jinyoung follows his mouth again.

Honestly, the gala seems to vanish around them. The milling, myriad steps and excited voices, even the dull blare of pop music, it all hushes out like they’re in the most predictable film of all time. But the kiss is hot and warm and grounding, and Jaebum only wants to dive deeper into it.

And then like he’d begged for mango earlier, Jinyoung’s lips pry open against his in silent request, waiting and willing and wet. His arm has snaked up to sling around Jaebum’s shoulder, his bodyline draped all down his own, belt buckle digging into his abdomen as he’s on tiptoe, and Jaebum can only kiss back.

So he does, slipping his tongue in gently, and hesitantly touching it to Jinyoung’s. It’s soft, curling to meet his attention, and Jinyoung makes a needy little noise.

Jaebum doesn’t know why he feels nervous — it’s not his first kiss, and it’s fake, after all. It’s just like pantomime, a performance for Suzy’s sake.

But his stomach flips, heart hammering away in his chest as he wraps tighter around him, one hand in his hair and one low on the sway of his back. Jinyoung nestles snug into him, suckling his tongue in between those lips like he’s hungry. And Jinyoung tastes like champagne, of course, like glitter, like gold if you could taste it.

Quickly, they’ve turned feverish. It’s suddenly too hot, too close, too much for the moment. Jaebum tries to turn them blindly to the exit again, toward the promise of fresh air. But Jinyoung feels good, really good, fitted up against him like this, and he savors it for another moment, another set of wet noises, more of the slick sensation.

Jaebum finally tugs Jinyoung’s hands away from him, parting their bodies carefully, trying to ignore the softest whine it elicits from Jinyoung as their lips pull apart with a smack. Jinyoung’s round nose still brushing his own, hot breath huffing between them, they stare at each other for a moment.

“Ah,” Jaebum clears his throat, mind reeling. “You really are a good actor.”


//

Chapter Text

Jinyoung wilts, and the lingering spark in his eyes fades quickly as he pulls away from Jaebum. “Wow,” he murmurs sarcastically, although his voice trembles. “Aren’t you romantic.”

“I mean,” says Jaebum, but he isn’t sure what he means, why he wants to correct himself. “It’s just, surprising, I guess? For this. For us.”

Jinyoung rolls his wet lips together, eyes downcast. “We were about to leave,” he says quietly.

So Jaebum takes Jinyoung firmly by the hand and leads him out, through the coat check and into the fresh air once and for all.

Stumbling out into the night is like a slap to the face. The open, empty space of the hotel steps and the familiar winding buzz of downtown traffic as they head out on the sidewalk suddenly feels a little too real. A little too harsh.

Jaebum lets Jinyoung’s hand drop, breath rushing into his lungs with a gasp, like he’s been underwater this whole time. Their synchronized steps back to Jinyoung’s parked car feel heavy, trudging.

“Hey,” says Jaebum, as Jinyoung moves to unlock it.

Jinyoung pauses and turns on the sidewalk. It’s turned bitterly cold now, the winter sky miserably bleak and starless, and he’s curling in on himself slightly, hands pulled up into his coat sleeves. He looks smaller, vulnerable.

“About before,” Jaebum says, and he reaches out to touch Jinyoung’s arm. Jinyoung’s breath shudders out of him as he makes contact, but he doesn’t move away.

“Can we get inside?” Jinyoung mumbles. It’s starting to snow, a few flakes lazily drifting between them. Jinyoung’s cheeks are pink with cold.

Jaebum steps closer instead, drawn into the warmth of his body, even as they’re both trembling slightly. “I still feel really bad,” Jaebum says, “you’ve been helping me out and I was — just really irritated.”

Jinyoung’s eyes shift, first trying to read into Jaebum’s own, and then flitting up in surprise and wonder. He stares up at the sky, breath suddenly ragged.

It’s the first snow of the season, Jaebum distantly recognizes, but he doesn’t look up at it. He can’t tear his eyes away from the way Jinyoung has exposed the chisel of his jaw, the creamy column of his neck. He watches the light snowflakes catch silently in his long eyelashes, shimmering gold under the yellow cast of the streetlights.

“We should really get inside the car,” Jinyoung says, slowly looking at him again, but then his gaze seems to get caught as well, on Jaebum’s lips.

Jaebum steps closer again, and Jinyoung totters a bit before finding he’s been backed up against the car door. “Your lips are so red,” he breathlessly laughs.

Jaebum blinks slowly, stepping closer still, as he chases after Jinyoung’s body heat. “You should see yours,” says Jaebum lowly.

They’ve swollen dark and plump, and Jaebum wonders if they’ve bruised.  And Jaebum has another lingering question, a pressing thought in his mind: did Jinyoung like it? Would he let him do it again?

Had Jinyoung enjoyed the kiss, or was he regretting it now? Maybe it was a combination of the two, like Jaebum. Still dizzily high on the sensation of it, distractingly aroused, hungry to take more of that feeling for himself. But also, confused. Had it been necessary, to ham it up like that? He hadn’t even checked to see if Suzy had noticed.

And anyway, it was supposed to be a fake kiss. So why had Jinyoung’s mouth blossomed open like that? Why had his little moan sounded so convincing, and why did Jaebum want to squeeze it out of him again? Especially when Jaebum had just discovered Jinyoung was into some other guy.

What the fuck, Jaebum thinks to himself, turning and stepping away before he makes a mistake.

The move strips him of all of Jinyoung’s warmth, and the frigid night air burns into his lungs with each breath. Even if Jinyoung had enjoyed it, it was just for the agreement. He’d played his part and this was the end. He’d probably imagined it was Chanyeol the whole time. None of this is Jaebum’s business, anyway.

Once they settle inside, Jinyoung’s face is unreadable. It’s still cold in here, as he turns the engine on, but soon the vents are blasting hot air and Jaebum’s seat pleasantly warms up.

Jinyoung takes his time still, chewing at his pursed lips and looking deep in thought.

“Why were you so upset?” He asks, finally. He keeps his eyes stubbornly on the wheel.

Jaebum turns to face him, hands nervously scraping down his legs. How can he explain? What even happens in his brain, when all his patience shuts down and he shifts into this bitter, reactive overdrive?

“When I saw you talking with Chanyeol-ssi,” Jaebum says. “I was already annoyed with Suzy, and then there you were, having so much fun with well, somebody else. And it was just… frustrating.”

Jinyoung nods slowly, pouting still. “So you were… sort of jealous?” He wonders.

Jaebum tries not to, but he sputters a bit anyway. “I don’t know, I just — when I’m trying to seem like I have everything together, it sucks to feel sort of, second-choice to someone else.”

Jinyoung glances at him with still furrowed brows. But he pulls away from the curb a moment later, moving on and starting the drive back to Jaebum’s apartment.

“When you said, Suzy got on your case about Yugyeom again,” Jinyoung asks, carefully. “What did you mean? Is she worried you don’t spend enough time with him?”

Jaebum rolls his lips together, unsure about sharing this, and unsure about what terms they’ll leave on tonight.

“No,” he says. “It’s sort of the opposite. She thinks I’m too clingy. Like I try too hard to be both parents.”

Jinyoung crumples his face up in a frown instead of responding, and he lets Jaebum inhale and continue.

“She has this idea — a lot of people do, and it’s irritating because they mean well, I guess. They think they’re doing you a favor, pointing out how Yugyeom needs a mom.” Jaebum says.

Jinyoung still doesn’t say anything, but he looks curious, a concerned wrinkle cut deep in his forehead.

“And he just — he doesn’t.” Jaebum rattles on. “It would be nice if he had more than just my mom as a figure, sure. And scheduling things might be easier if I had a partner, sure.”

“But he doesn’t need any random woman to stand next to us all the time,” he grits out. “And I think that’s what she means. She literally can’t imagine anything beyond a stick figure drawing idea of a family.” He breathes out sharply, all at once. “We’re doing fine.”

Jinyoung stays quiet for a moment longer, face serious as he lets Jaebum struggle with it himself.

“You two are more than fine,” he says, finally. “Yugyeom is really bright, and happy, and proud to be yours.”

Jaebum’s body shivers with the compliment, and he shifts in his seat as it washes over him. It’s an unfamiliar sensation, and not wholly comfortable.

It’s nearing twelve when Jinyoung pulls into a spot outside his place. Are they still on their fake date? Jaebum distantly wonders. If this were a real date, they’d still be on it until they said goodnight. Maybe even kissed goodnight.

If this were a real date, maybe he’d even mention that Yugyeom was at his mother’s. That his apartment was quiet, child-free for the night, and he could make them a cup of coffee. Maybe he’d try to feel the way Jinyoung had felt pressed all along him again, but horizontal.

“Do you turn into a pumpkin at midnight?” Jaebum asks instead, tapping the digital clock on Jinyoung’s dashboard display. God, he thinks miserably. What a stupid joke.

Jinyoung turns to look at him with raised eyebrows. “W-what?” He stammers.

“Like um,” Jaebum says, “Cinderella.”

“She didn’t turn into a pumpkin,” Jinyoung mutters.

“The carriage did,” Jaebum says. “And anyway, I’d be Cinderella, wouldn’t I?”

“So you’re, calling me a carriage?” Jinyoung says, blankly.

“It’s just – funny timing,” Jaebum presses, “for our arrangement to end.”

Jinyoung squints at him almost suspiciously, still not playing along. Jaebum isn’t sure why it makes him so nervous. It’s not like he’s propositioning him. Yet, anyways.

“Do you want to come up for some coffee?” Jaebum blurts out. "Or ramyeon?"

A beat passes. Jinyoung squints at him still.

“I wouldn’t want to wake up Yugyeom,” he says, slowly.

“He’s staying with my parents,” Jaebum says. “My mom loves having him over for sleepovers, I just try not to lean on them for it too much.”

Jinyoung looks thoughtful then, lips pursing in thought. Jaebum licks his own instinctively.

“Is that why you’ve never gone on any of the paper’s winter retreats?” Jinyoung asks, staying put.

And Jaebum blinks himself out of his fantastic stupor, head tilting in question. “What?” He asks.

“You don’t want to leave Yugyeom for more than a night,” Jinyoung says. “That’s why you don’t go on any weekend retreats. Because you don’t want your parents to feel too burdened?”

“Oh,” says Jaebum. He hadn’t expected Jinyoung to unravel his thought process so easily. But there it is, laid bare and spoken plain. “Yeah, yes. I already rely on them too much. My mom watches Yugyeom almost every weekday sometimes. So special trips and stuff are sort of out of the question.”

“Daycare can get really expensive,” Jinyoung sighs, leaning back in the driver’s seat.

Jaebum is momentarily taken aback, as he’s not certain how the conversation shifted like this. It also feels strange to hear Jinyoung talk about something like daycare, let alone in the context of being unaffordable.

“My sister actually owns a few daycare centers,” Jinyoung continues, glancing at him briefly. “A small chain. I know there’s a location close to here, Peachtree Grove. They have a really great preschool program.”

Oh. Jaebum was familiar. They often walked past it on their way for groceries. But he’d taken one look at the types of cars in the parking lot, and never looked at it again. “I’ve heard of it,” Jaebum says, quietly.

“They have sliding scale payment options,” Jinyoung says, biting anxiously around a fingernail. Jaebum hasn’t noticed any nervous habits before, rarely can see the gears turning so opaquely in his head, as he picks his sentences carefully. He must be trying really hard to be inoffensive. “And since it’s – since she’s family, I know we could work something out for you guys.”

There it is. Special treatment. Charity. Jaebum had tried to steel himself for it, breathing in deep and slow, but it still feels sort of demeaning. He’s reminded of Jinyoung promising Chanyeol would get them a discount for the ski trip, and his brain starts to spin out slowly. Gold memberships. Promotional items. Rich people getting gift bags for attending expensive events. Everything must have been so easy for Jinyoung.

“It wouldn’t have to be every day,” Jinyoung continues, “but it could give your mom a break a couple times a week? And Yugyeom would probably love the classes. He’d definitely thrive with more socialization, he’s so friendly already. They even do music, and science, not just letters and colors or whatever.”

“Thanks,” Jaebum says gruffly. “But we’re good.” And the lump in his throat is sore. He wishes it didn’t feel so bad, to be seen as needing something like this. But he has to draw the line somewhere, with Jinyoung’s kindness. Doesn't he?

The clock on the dashboard flicks to 12:01. This is as good a time as any.

“I’ll see you around,” Jaebum says, and he’s glad it won’t be for a while. Maybe next term, it’ll be easy to stay polite. He’ll pass him in the hallways without a tight jaw.

It was nice, Jaebum decides, to have gotten to know Jinyoung. He’s a good person, after all. And it had been fun, while it lasted, to collaborate on their project, and even this stupid date.

But they weren’t meant to go further than this. He’s glad Jinyoung didn’t come upstairs. It would have gotten messier, closer — if it had been anything like that kiss. This way, everything can go back to normal.

“Goodnight,” he says, and he lets his hand sweep across Jinyoung’s knee, clutching it for just a moment.

Jinyoung’s eyes waver, and he looks regretful for bringing up the daycare. But as always, he respects Jaebum setting the boundaries. And when he lifts his warm gaze again, he’s smiling small.

“I’ll see you around,” he echoes.

 

//

 

A week later, Jaebum is woken by an urgent phone call.

“Sweetheart,” Jaebum’s mother is breathless, something he isn’t used to hearing. The fact that she’s called at 2:40 in the morning is even more unusual, and Jaebum’s stomach plummets in concern.

“What’s up,” Jaebum murmurs, sitting up straight in bed and rubbing a hand over his eyes, phone fumbling against his ear. “What’s going on?”

“It’s your father,” she says, voice wavering slightly. “I took him to the hospital, I’m at — we’re at the hospital.”

“Why? What happened?” Jaebum asks, swiftly turning and kicking his feet over edge of his mattress. She’s not speaking in a linear way, so he knows she must be disoriented.

“It’s his heart,” she says. “Something is blocked? They did some tests, they haven't  let me see him for a while, Jaebum-ah. I think they’re going to take him into surgery soon.”

Jaebum fumbles in the dark for jeans, socks, throws a hoodie over his sleep shirt. “I’m on my way, Eomma, it’s okay. Let me grab Yugyeom and come down.”

“Oh!” She warbles a bit now. “No, sweetheart, I just wanted to let you know. Don’t — it’s fine! Let Gyeommie sleep, don’t wake him up and drag him over here.”

“Just wanted to  let me know?” Jaebum sputters. “Eomma, I’m not letting you sit there alone while Abeoji — I’m still his son — somebody has to be there with you.”

“It might not be that serious,” she murmurs, but Jaebum knows she’s trying to put on a front, trying to stay positive. Even if it’s just a heart attack — Christ, is that really the most optimistic outlook?

“I’m coming down,” he says. “I’ll see if someone can come watch Yugyeom.”

“Okay,” his mother sighs, and Jaebum’s heart twists as he thinks about how important Yugyeom is to her, for her to prioritize him at this moment.

“But if nobody’s able,” Jaebum warns, “I’ll bring him anyway. He’ll sleep there, once he knocks out.”

Jaebum’s mother is quiet but hums eventually.

“Love you,” says Jaebum, and she whispers it back.

Everything is a blur after that, Jaebum frantically texting Jackson while he washes his face and gets ready to leave.

But Jackson, though still up late, replies shortly that he’s in Hong Kong visiting family for the weekend. Jaebum’s stomach twists, and he leans warily over the sink for a moment, seasick with sudden anxiety.

Okay, how about BamBam? He calls this time, but BamBam doesn’t answer the next three calls, so Jaebum moves down his Recents list, frowning all the way. The holidays are close, as finals have wound down, so pickings are slim. He remembers Youngjae mentioning Mokpo, Mark’s on his way to the States.

Then, one more name down — but he couldn’t. They haven’t spoken since the night of the gala; it’s been over a week now. And they’re not close enough for a favor like this, at an hour like this.

But Jinyoung was good with Yugyeom.

And would a text hurt?

Jaebum taps out a sloppy one, setting his phone beside him on the cubby bench and tying his shoes to try and feel productive.

He’s just started on his second sneaker when it buzzes with a reply. Jaebum sucks in a breath, rather loudly, catching his finger in a lace loop. But he manages to get the message open and breathes shakily, thankfully out again as it’s positive.

He calls, staring stiffly at his feet.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung’s voice says on pickup, and Jaebum can hear shuffling over the connection, as if he’s moving things around in a hurry.

“I’m really sorry I’m bothering you,” Jaebum says. “Literally everyone else, everyone’s busy and everyone’s gone and I don’t really know, my mom doesn’t want me to even wake Yugyeom up, so I could, maybe I should still, but she’s really stressed as it is and…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jinyoung blurts out, and Jaebum hears the cheerful honk of his car unlocking, and his heart does a little flip at it.

“I’m heading over right now, okay?” Says Jinyoung.

“Okay,” says Jaebum, still numb and disbelieving.

Then there’s just silence — and there’s nothing Jaebum can do but wait. And while a part of him knows it’ll be just like this when he finds his mom at the hospital, he thinks being closer will still feel like he’s at least doing something. He’d at least be able to comfort her.

As it is, he stares at moonbeams stretching across the entry and down hallway. He stares at his small apartment in the dark, feeling powerless, and prays for his father.

Jinyoung eventually knocks, with what’s probably record timing, but Jaebum feels like he’s shaking himself out of hardened concrete to try and stand and let him in. Then there’s just a quick run down of basic info, a spare key, and they’re peeking through Yugyeom’s doorway to ensure that the toddler is still sleeping soundly.

And he is — he’s diagonal in his bed, a single leg poking stubbornly over the duvet and lips pursed in a sleepy, almost drunken smirk.

“He’ll probably just be a little confused,” Jaebum whispers, as they walk back to the door. “But you can call me if it helps, FaceTime, whatever. And if you want to know where anything is—!”

“I can text,” Jinyoung says, pressing a hand to Jaebum’s arm and opening the door for him. “You need to go. Everything will be okay.”

Jaebum blinks at him in stunned silence, thinking about the statement. Jinyoung doesn’t know that, nobody can. But in the moment, it’s what he needs to hear, and then he’s nodding silently, rushing out the door in the next.

 

//

 

Hospitals are not on Jaebum’s list of favorite places.

He brings Yugyeom in for the bare minimum of checkups, immunizations, vaccinations, whatever. He knows it’s important for a growing child to get looked over by a medical professional. But Jaebum still hates the whole environment.

At least in the Pediatrics ward, they try to hide death from you. There’s a giant tree in the play area, there are colorful posters everywhere, and nurses laugh and smile and wear cartoony scrubs.

In the rest of hospitals, the beige of humanity’s dreary life cycle runs unchecked. Everybody’s just barely hanging on, in some barely padded chair, waiting to be told what part of them is broken, or what person they’ve lost.

He tries not to think of it, now, holding his mother’s hand as they wait in a hallway that looks exactly the same as the one he’d waited in almost 4 years ago. But that’s the thing about hospitals. They all look and feel the same, and so he always feels the same, too.

It’s impossible not to remember — that mixture of strange joy and terrified wonder, as Yugyeom had been handed to him. While all around him, there was anger, and mourning, and such sharp, sudden loss. He honestly hadn’t expected his son to make him smile, through his tears.

But this time, there’d be no baby to distract him, if there was a goodbye. No silver lining of new life, if his father slipped away before he and his mother had a chance to even speak to him one more time.

So all he can do is hold his mother’s hand, and hope he doesn’t think about it too much.

Hours pass, and the shadows on the drab walls and floors shift, until the sun has risen. Then it’s casting sudden, sparkling beams across the linoleum. Jaebum is abruptly distracted from the shimmer by the squeak of a shoe, the firm clearing of a throat.

“Oh,” Jaebum’s mother gasps up from where she’d dozed off on his shoulder, suddenly alert and on edge once again. They scramble to their feet. “Doctor Yoo!”

“We have news,” Doctor Yoo says, bowing and nodding at Jaebum and his mother. Jaebum shakes his hand, even though he knows it will give away his clamminess.

“It’s good news, I promise,” says the doctor, squeezing Jaebum’s hand firmly. He’s wearing a smile, though it’s tight, and he shifts his attention back to Jaebum’s mother.

“Your husband only had partial blockage in one of his coronary arteries, due to some plaque buildup. We’ve performed an angioplasty and have inserted a stent to help keep the blood flowing. He’s stable now, waking up. We’ll have to keep him here a little longer, though.”

“Of course,” Jaebum’s mother breathes, grasping Jaebum’s hand tightly to her. “But he’ll be okay?”

“His chart is looking good. I don’t anticipate any major complications,” Doctor Yoo confirms, and then pauses.

“When your heart gets older,” he says, and he glances at Jaebum meaningfully, as if to impart some wisdom. “It gets easier for it to harden up like this. But we’ll get him on some medication and he should be back to his peppy self after a nice break.”

Jaebum’s mom sniffs, and he wraps an arm around her firmly. Peppy is not a word Jaebum would use to describe his father, but he’s glad the doctor is optimistic enough to sound so lighthearted.

“You guys can go in and see him,” the doctor gestures. “But just for a short while. Today he’s going to need to focus on rest and recovery. Nurse Kang will take you on back.”

 

//

 

Jaebum lets his mother go in first, after kissing and wiping her teary cheeks and telling her to smile for his father.

He lingers outside for a while, alternating between deeply nervous and then ashamed for feeling nervous. Greeting his own father shouldn’t be such an intimidating prospect, but they hadn’t parted on good terms when they’d last spoken, and he has no idea what kind of mindset he’ll be in.

His mother beckons him in after a short moment, though, and he takes a deep breath and slips inside.

Jaebum’s father looks pale, but he seems alert, and even a little fond as his mother scoops up his hand again.

“How are you feeling?” Jaebum asks.

“Better,” says his father, and then his eyes soften with a sigh.

“It’s good to see you,” he says to Jaebum, and Jaebum’s throat constricts.

Gasping out a greeting, he tries to be delicate around the tubes and wires and his mother’s form, and dips in to embrace him tightly. He can’t believe he had been nervous about this.

Jaebum’s father chuckles hoarsely in his ear, but the patting he feels at his shoulder feels reassuringly firm. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since he’s hugged his dad.

“I was worried,” his father says as they part, and Jaebum and his mother exchange bewildered glances.

“Isn’t that my line??” His mother sputters, but laughs.

His father grins and nods along, but his eyes sharpen quickly again.

“When you last visited,” he says to Jaebum. “I called you irresponsible. And selfish. Am I missing anything else?”

Jaebum swallows heavy, shaking his head. “I think you said dickhead,” he offers, quietly. His mother smacks his wrist softly.

But Jaebum’s father sighs, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable, running a hand through his thinning hair.

“I shouldn’t talk to you like that,” he says, and the surprise of it nearly knocks Jaebum off his feet.

“What?” Jaebum murmurs, glancing between him and his mother to find her equally taken aback.

“I didn’t even say goodbye to you,” says his father. “What kind of father would I have been, if that was how I’d left us?”

Jaebum’s jaw locks tight as he tries not to cry, and his mother’s hand finds his and crumples it into her own shaking grip. Here is the man he’d grown up admiring — taking responsibility for something that was both of their faults.

“It’s okay,” Jaebum grits out. “I understand you’ve been disappointed in how things have turned out for me.”

“It’s not okay,” His father snaps. “It’s not. Before you were just my child, and I thought I should be tough to teach you a lesson. But now you’re a man, and a father, and Gyeommie needs you to be strong, and to do what’s right. So I shouldn’t… constantly make you feel like you’re not capable.”

Jaebum doesn’t know how to respond. His father had never acknowledged the shift in his responsibility, had never seemed to appreciate what he had managed to accomplish so far. This wasn’t all of that, but it was certainly something.

“I’m learning,” says his father. “And I want you to learn from us, too. Don’t be like that with him.”

Jaebum lets out a shaky breath. It’s as close to an apology as they’ll get for now, and it sets Jaebum’s world atilt. “I won’t,” he whispers. “I promise.”

“Where is our Gyeommie?” His mother asks.

“My... friend came over to watch him,” Jaebum says, and then he tests out a grin. “Since you decided to make a ruckus at such an early hour.”

His mother glances up at this joke, lips pursed. But Jaebum’s father chuckles, hoarse and sleepy still. It feels strange to look at his smile and have it feel so unfamiliar, Jaebum realizes, and he hopes Yugyeom never feels this feeling.

“I’m glad you have people you can rely on,” his father says. “Besides just your mother and me. With time, you’ll have to trust others more and more.”

Jaebum nods, although it hadn’t felt that agreeable at 2:30, when he had been thumbing frantically through his contacts and cursing.

“Yugyeom will probably be excited he gets to spend the day with a friend,” his mother says. “He always gets along with everybody.”

Jaebum’s reminded then, of Peachtree Grove, and of how Jinyoung insisted it’d be great for socialization. About sliding scales, and music lessons. It doesn’t sound so bad now, as he considers his father’s words about trusting others.

His phone buzzes in his pocket and he glances at it, finding a text from Jinyoung. Earlier, Jaebum had informed him of which hospital they were checked into, and now he’s asking for a room number.

Jaebum wrinkles his brow, and then nods hastily at his parents. “That’s Yugyeom now,” he says, and steps outside to call.

“Is everything okay?” He asks, before Jinyoung even greets him.

“Of course,” says Jinyoung, and he hears Yugyeom yodeling along with a familiar musical in the background. Jaebum’s breath stutters, chest warm as he’s reassured his son is really fine, probably having the time of his life.

“But shouldn’t I be the one asking that?” Jinyoung wonders.

“Ah,” says Jaebum, “my dad’s okay. His artery had um, partial blockage? But he’s stable and talking already.”

Jinyoung breathes out in sympathetic relief, and it reminds Jaebum to breathe as well. They’re both quiet for a moment then, Jaebum focusing on the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. Even the beige hallway feels brighter.

“What room number are you guys in?” Jinyoung asks, gently. “If you think your dad is feeling up to a visit with Yugyeomie, I mean.”

“He asked about him right away,” Jaebum admits. “707. But if you can’t make it here in twenty or so, he can just wait a little longer. He needs to rest.”

“I’m actually parking now,” Jinyoung chirps.

Jaebum blinks, stunned by the admission. “What?” He murmurs, whirling around in the hallway as if he’ll catch sight of him already.

“We’ll see you soon,” says Jinyoung, and then Jaebum is left staring at his dimming phone in surprise.

Jaebum peeks back into the room for a moment, finds his parents holding hands in silence and gazing at one another. He smiles slow and small, still touched and surprised sometimes by how tenderly they treat each other. As frustrated by the traditional image of a family as he can get, he can’t deny the concept of a partnership like this is beautiful.

“Would you feel up to seeing Yugyeom?” He asks.

Both his parents light up at the question, and nod immediately. “Of course,” says his father.

“He’ll be here in a minute,” Jaebum assures them, and then ducks back out to tuck his phone away and hover around nervously. He hadn’t expected Jinyoung to offer to bring Yugyeom, but it saves him the few extra trips on the bus that he had expected to commit to later in the day.

There’s a squeak of a loafer on the linoleum then, and Jaebum almost dismisses it as Doctor Yoo. But then he hears a familiar little giggle, and he glances up to spot Jinyoung and Yugyeom stepping out of the elevator.

Daylight brought with it a surge in activity, and there are many more nurses and patients milling around the hospital. But he still spots them right away.

He notices Jinyoung is wearing a surprisingly ratty-looking pullover that he hadn’t noticed when he saw him earlier, and of course, a stupid tasseled pair of loafers. It’s strange how endearing they seem at the moment. Jinyoung had probably rolled out of bed and into that old sweatshirt, just to make it over in time. Jaebum tries his hardest to hold back a smile.

“Hi,” calls Jinyoung, letting Yugyeom’s hand go as they draw in close, redistributing the bags he’s carrying.

“Appa!” Yugyeom shouts, arms up for a lift. Jaebum picks him up and can’t help but chuckle as he realizes his son looks much more coordinated than usual.

“Is Harabeoji okay now?” Yugyeom asks. “Jinyoungie-hyung said he was feeling sick.”

“The doctor helped a lot, but I bet seeing you will make him feel even better. Especially looking so handsome,” he says to Yugyeom, tugging at the roll of his turtleneck, under a denim shirt. Jaebum turns to raise his eyebrows at Jinyoung. “Someone’s been introducing you to layering, huh.”

Jinyoung looks a bit sheepish, but shrugs pluckily as he settles some bags down on one of the hall benches. “I brought some breakfast for you guys,” he says, unpacking containers. “Porridge for you and your mother since you two have been here all night, and an omelette roll for Yugyeomie.”

Jaebum gapes, sputtering in surprise. “Breakfast?” He repeats. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Jinyoung shrugs, stacking utensils with their respective dishes. “Yugyeom was hungry,” he says. “So I was going to buy something anyway.”

Jaebum glances between them, still stunned. “I had – we have some eggs at home,” he says. “You could have just made him one.”

Jinyoung looks a little embarrassed now, shrinking back. “I really can’t cook,” he admits, peeling the lid off the smallest container.

Jaebum laughs outright at the admission – doesn’t know why he finds it so funny, although the lack of sleep probably helps. “Is frying an egg even really considered cooking?” He wonders.

Jinyoung blinks dully at him, shyness having evaporated to leave only a playful glare. “ Thank you, Jinyoung-ah, for not burning down my apartment while you babysat on such short notice.” He narrates primly, slicing the rolled egg into bite-size pieces.

Jaebum goes bashful then, grinning even as his face feels warm from the scolding. “Thank you,” he says, even though he can’t quite eke out a Jinyoung-ah.

“For watching Yugyeom. And for bringing us breakfast,” he adds, and Jinyoung passes him a slice for Yugyeom.

“You’re welcome,” Jinyoung says, smiling prettily again.

Jaebum feeds it to Yugyeom, who hastily calls out fhmank you, a bite too late.

“I can go wait in the lobby,” Jinyoung says. “Or you can call me if you want a ride later.”

Jaebum stares blankly at him, overwhelmed again by his easy kindness. And it feels too sweet, too simple.

Yugyeom, still in his arms, makes grabby hands for another piece of omelette. Jinyoung steps close and feeds it directly to him with a whiskered grin, once Yugyeom whines Please.

And Jaebum’s world seems to turn completely upside down as he watches, and realizes this is an inversion of how he’d felt at the gala, Jinyoung’s lips sliding off his fingers. This is the other side of his white hot attraction to this man — he doesn’t just attract, doesn’t just dazzle with his looks and his lips. He also gives, and cares, and it’s entirely too much for Jaebum to process, heart suddenly pounding.

He thinks abruptly of how Doctor Yoo had warned him: “ When your heart gets older , it gets easier to harden up.” And maybe he was being strictly literal, but the imagery holds true. Even after just a few years on his own, Jaebum’s already petrified of love. Because it’s not just about his attraction to others, it’s about how they shape and impact his whole family. And that’s much scarier.

But right now, Jaebum can’t help it. He’s weak. He can’t help but think of them together, like this, for real. Pressed close together in a hospital hallway, smiling at Yugyeom as he munches his breakfast happily. They feel real.

And it is real, Jaebum marvels. Maybe it’s not Jinyoung as his real boyfriend, but he did all of this without a deal, without a grade, without any pressure from his friends. He did it for Jaebum and Yugyeom, as they were.

Yugyeom tilts his head upside down and sticks out his tongue to ask for another piece, and Jinyoung chuckles, patting his head lightly. “Sit up straight, baby,” he says. “Only little boys get omelette, not little monkeys.”

And, wow, hearing Jinyoung say baby sends a little shiver down Jaebum’s spine, but he laughs along as the actual baby in his arms twists upright with a giggle.

The door behind them squeaks open suddenly, and Jaebum’s mother steps out with a bright smile. “I thought I heard our Gyeommie’s laugh,” she says.

Jinyoung goes stiff, eyes wide, shrinking back to set the dish down as Jaebum turns and helps Yugyeom into her arms.

“Halm’ie,” says Yugyeom cheerfully. “I’m here to make Harabeoji feel better.”

“Well!” She laughs. “I think that’s a pretty good plan.” She squeezes him tight for a moment, before peering around Jaebum curiously.

“This is my friend from school,” Jaebum says, “Park Jinyoung.”

Jinyoung bows a full 90 degrees, looking younger and more unsure than Jaebum’s ever seen him. “It’s nice to meet you,” he says. “I was just on my way out. There’s some breakfast here for you though, if you’ve gotten hungry.”

Jaebum’s mother eyes the takeout boxes in surprise, and then glances up at Jaebum with comically raised eyebrows, as if she’s the very parody of impressed.

“There is absolutely no reason to look like at me like this,” Jaebum says warningly, pushing her back toward the ward gently. “I’ll be back in to keep visiting in a moment, Eomma.”

She laughs softly, patting Yugyeom’s back as she gives Jinyoung a short nod, and then leaves them blessedly alone.

“I don’t know what face was for,” Jaebum lies, turning back. “But you don’t need to leave, unless you’re busy or something.”

“No,” says Jinyoung, firmly, and he steps farther away. “It really wouldn’t be my place. But seriously, give me a call when you need a ride back.”

“Your place?” Jaebum repeats. “You’re my friend, not my chauffeur.”

And they both look a bit stunned by the admission, another inversion of their last interaction. Jaebum had basically insinuated he was nothing but his ride then. Jinyoung’s hands nervously curl up before he shoves them stubbornly into his pockets and frowns at the floor between them. “I’m your friend,” he murmurs. “Who can help you out by giving you another ride.”

Jaebum seeks his eyes out, ducking his head a bit to catch the gleam there, tracing the way they flicker to meet his so hesitantly. And there’s nothing but naked sincerity there. No hint of ulterior motive, no pity. Just warmth, and depth, and Jaebum almost feels guilty.

He thinks about the daycare suggestion again, thinks about discounts and generosity, and what difference does it all make? This is what’s real, this is the truth. Jinyoung just wants to help, because he’s his friend.

“Okay,” says Jaebum. “I’ll call you.”

Then he gets to watch Jinyoung’s teeth scrape across his bottom lip, gets to see that pretty flush in his cheeks, in his ears. It’s a treat to see him bashful like this, to see him just starting to shine with a smile.

“Don’t go too far,” Jaebum adds, before he can help it.

But it has a good effect, as Jinyoung’s beaming when he turns to leave. “I won’t,” he promises.

 

//

 

When he calls Jinyoung a while later, he isn’t entirely certain any of this has happened. He’d gotten just an hour of restless sleep before his mother’s call had woken him up, and he must be running on fumes now. Yugyeom, in contrast, is bouncing around and darting between his legs like a puppy as they make their way down to the parking garage.

The cool, dark lot reminds him of how tired he really is. Maybe he’d hallucinated Jinyoung entirely. But after Jaebum sends his mother off with a kiss, Jinyoung’s car pulls up beside them and Yugyeom gets safely strapped into his car seat, and he figures there’s a good chance it was all real. He tries valiantly not to doze off on the drive home, keeping his nails dug into the holes in his jeans.

Jaebum barely notices anything in the blur after that — eventually he finds himself flopped on his own couch in the warmth of his own apartment. He finally dozes off to the sound of Yugyeom cheerfully describing to Jinyoung every detail of his favorite book on sloths, and he thinks he must finally be experiencing a little luck.

When Jaebum wakes up again, the apartment has gone wholly silent. Disoriented, he sits up abruptly, running a hand through his hair as he glances around the empty living room.

First, he taps out a text to let his mom know he can regroup at home or the hospital with her whenever she’s ready. Hopefully, she’s been resting too. Then he glances around again, puzzled by how quiet it is.

He shuffles down the hallway to Yugyeom’s room, blinking blearily. Inside, he finds Yugyeom laid out on his bed, napping. And crumpled beside his bed, half leaned against it with the same sloth book pillowing his face, is Jinyoung, also asleep.

Jaebum tries not to laugh, crouching close to wake him up. But he takes his time, letting his eyes linger down his form. He looks good here, the neck of his faded sweatshirt well-worn and stretched out to reveal his collarbone, long fingers relaxed under the book, one leg tucked under himself and the other laid out long and lean. His lips have a natural curl to their corners, he realizes, so even when he’s not smiling it looks like he might.

He looks good here, Jaebum thinks. In his home.

Finally, he lets himself interrupt, nudging Jinyoung’s shoulder softly.

Like Jaebum had startled earlier, Jinyoung’s eyes snap open in bewildered surprise. He obviously hadn’t expected to fall asleep.

“Oh,” he murmurs, and his smoky voice is thick with sleep still. “Wow, I’m sorry, I dimmed the light for Yugyeom and had no idea I was even tired.”

Jaebum helps him to his feet by his elbow, and they quietly step out of Yugyeom’s room. Jinyoung drifts toward the front door slowly, yawning. Jaebum trails after and watches him wake up.

“Thank you,” Jaebum says, as Jinyoung slips back into his loafers. “For everything. I’m really sorry to have taken up so much of your time.”

Jinyoung turns back to him then, hand frozen on the doorknob. “It’s fine,” he says. “I have time.”

Jaebum nods, stepping closer still.

Jinyoung watches him, and then lets his hand slip off the knob completely, lips parting as Jaebum draws nearer. Jinyoung tries to step back but is pressed into the door, and it’s as warm and intense as it had been when Jaebum crowded into him after the gala.

They keep glancing between each other’s mouths and eyes, trying to read one another. Jaebum frowns in determination as Jinyoung lifts his chin just slightly.

And Jaebum isn’t sure if this is a good idea — he’s barely acknowledged Jinyoung as friend. And to try and taste him again, to dive back into their sticky sweet embrace from before, is probably pretty foolish. They’re probably both still delirious with exhaustion, probably both will regret it. But he’s already leaning his arm on the door, caging Jinyoung in.

And Jinyoung is pressing his palm to Jaebum’s chest as he leans in, and he doesn’t push him away. He scrapes the fabric up with his nails, clutching it tight, eyelids fluttering. Maybe this will have a happier ending than their gala date.

But instead, there’s a sharp, sudden knock on the door.

Jinyoung audibly gasps, sliding out from under Jaebum’s form and skittering away from the doorway. Jaebum glares at the blank wood for a moment in slow frustration, and then clears his throat and whips it open.

“Oppa!” Suzy is waving cheerfully. BamBam is slouched beside her, tapping something frantically into his phone. But as he looks up, his jaw drops at the sight of a ruffled Jinyoung in Jaebum’s apartment.

“Oh my god,” he laughs. “Are we interrupting something?”

 

//

Chapter Text

“Where have you been?” Jaebum demands of BamBam, stepping aside with a glare.

They enter after some hesitation, Suzy glancing at Jinyoung conspicuously now, eyes scraping over his wrinkled sweatshirt and jeans.

“What do you mean?” BamBam asks, settling in the middle of the sofa like he owns the place. “I’ve been in town all weekend.”

“I called you four times last night,” Jaebum says. “You didn’t even text me back.”

BamBam looks at his phone, in his hand. As he slowly swipes thru his call logs, Suzy delicately settles next to him on the couch. She’s still watching Jinyoung.

“I was just about to head out,” Jinyoung mumbles, looking skittish, eyes wide like a deer.

Jaebum racks his brain for a regular boyfriend reason to beg him not to leave.

“Hyungie,” says a small voice, and Yugyeom is shuffling down the hallway, the answer to his prayers.

Jinyoung turns, and his face softens, all the tightness melting away as he kneels and reaches out for Yugyeom. He toddles into his arms and leans drowsily between his knees.

“Hyungie said... I could have choco milk if I nap,” Yugyeom blurts out, and Jinyoung flushes a little, glancing guiltily up at Jaebum.

But Jaebum is too pleased to worry about an afternoon of sugar-high Yugyeom, and he nods along eagerly, almost maniacally.

“You’re right, I promised,” Jinyoung says with a sigh, picking Yugyeom up and toting him into the kitchen.

Jaebum flounders for a minute, glancing between his unexpected guests and the swinging kitchen door. Finally he settles in the armchair, facing them expectantly.

“Weird,” BamBam is saying, “I have the missed calls but I must have slept through them all. Kinda late — was everything okay?”

Jaebum hesitates. He doesn’t want to make it seem like Jinyoung wasn’t his first choice, in front of Suzy.

“My dad’s in the hospital,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if Jinyoung could take Yugyeom, so I was trying to find backup.”

They both gasp, and Suzy puts a hand to her mouth. BamBam looks like he’s processing the statement a beat longer, starting to understand why Jinyoung had been here.

“Is everything okay?” Suzy asks.

“He’s still resting up,” Jaebum says. “It was a small heart attack, but they're being pretty optimistic about it all.”

“God,” says BamBam, sitting up straighter. “I’m really sorry. I should’ve tried harder to talk noona out of dragging me over here.”

Suzy slaps him playfully, and Jaebum hazards a glance at his own phone. He’d had eyes for his mother’s contact only, for the past 24 hours. Sure enough, there are at least a dozen texts he’s ignored, mostly from BamBam in the last hour or so, trying valiantly to warn him of their impending visit:

12:45pm

at paper offices with suzy noona workin on redesign and fyi... she won’t stop talking about u n jinyoung

can’t believe u pulled that off

12:58pm

Tho

she thinks u guys broke up lol

you had a big argument at gala??

12:59pm

i didn’t see that but Jackson said he saw u two eating each other’s faces off so

who knows huhhh lmao

1:06pm

shit she wants to surprise u at home?

to talk ski trip

u home bro??

1:09pm

she was my ride so uh i’m comin too

hope u got pants on I guess

Jaebum looks up at BamBam witheringly. He supposes they’re even now: both trying to reach the other and failing — albeit with slightly different levels of consequence.

“Thanks,” Jaebum says dryly.

BamBam grins sheepishly, tucking his phone away.

“I’m so sorry about your dad,” says Suzy. “I really wouldn’t have intruded if I knew you were going through family stuff.”

Jinyoung and Yugyeom join them in the living room now, Jinyoung trailing behind the toddler and eying his wobbling drink carton carefully.

“It’s fine,” says Jaebum, letting himself watch them both, and smiling as Yugyeom clambers up onto the couch to sit closely with BamBam. Apparently he's still the favorite, even with Jinyoung in the mix.

Jinyoung hesitates then, as Yugyeom doesn’t leave quite enough space for another seat on the couch beside them. In a moment, Jaebum reads his expression and reaches out, grabbing his wrist and tugging him toward the chair. Jinyoung looks down at him, and then his eyebrows flounder for a second as Jaebum pats his knee invitingly.

He takes one more wary glance at BamBam and Suzy’s expressions, and then perches carefully on Jaebum’s leg.

Jaebum tries not to overthink it. It’s the right thing to do, to continue the act around Suzy, at least since they’re able to. Maybe he should apologize to Jinyoung later for taking advantage without any warning, especially after he’d already helped him so much today.

But hopefully this will speed along whatever Suzy and BamBam have come for, and everyone can leave in peace together.

And if he doesn't mind the way Jinyoung leans into him, if he relishes in the sudden remarkable heat between their bodies, maybe that couldn't hurt either.

“Well,” says Suzy, and she seems unable to focus, glancing between Yugyeom on the couch and Jinyoung on Jaebum’s lap. “We just wanted to stop by and see if there’s any possible way we could convince you to come on the winter retreat.”

“It’s going to be dope,” insists BamBam. “Kihyun always plans extra games and cooks and stuff, and o f course we know how to drink…”

Yugyeom slurps loudly on his chocolate milk then, and BamBam laughs, pointing at him as if he’s helped his case.

Suzy blinks across the couch, surprised for a moment, and then gives a genuine chuckle and brightens into a smile. “Yugyeom is a main reason we came by, actually,” she says. “We know you probably worry about finding someone to watch him for a few days, so we thought — what if we take care of that for you?”

Jaebum tenses, and he feels Jinyoung shift on his thigh, glancing down at him in concern as he’s felt him tighten where they’re pressed together. He doesn’t want to burden more people, least of all friends who wanted to go on the trip themselves.

“Not us, specifically,” says BamBam quickly, and then ruffles Yugyeom’s hair and beams down at him. “As much as I like hanging out with this little dude. We’ve both reserved rooms already.”

“But we talked to Youngjae,” BamBam continues, “and he said he’s not going because he has kids who come over for piano lessons on Saturdays.”

“So he said he could watch him! He lives with his brother and sister-in-law,” says Suzy. “Who are very responsible, and would entertain Yugyeom during the piano lessons, but that’s just a few hours anyway.”

“And you’ve met them,” BamBam adds, wrapping his arm around Yugyeom.

Jaebum feels queasy, not sure about any of this. “Youngjae’s never watched Yugyeom before,” he says, even though this morning he was more than willing to give him a call. “I don’t know that he even likes kids.”

“Duh, he has Coco,” says BamBam. “That spoiled little dog? He’s basically a mommy.”

“A dog is not a child,” Jaebum says.

“I like puppy-dogs,” says Yugyeom loudly. “Can I see??”

BamBam gets his phone back out, quickly flicking through social media apps to find a photo. He grins triumphantly up at Jaebum as Yugyeom coos at the screen.

“Is it your dog?” Yugyeom asks. “Does he like getting pets?”

“She’s Coco,” says BamBam. “She likes being pet, gently, and she lives with Youngjae hyung. Do you remember him?”

Yugyeom nods, but he’s scrolling through the rest of BamBam’s Instagram feed now, small face frowning in concentration.

“You like our Youngjae hyung, right?” BamBam asks. “Would you like to spend the night at Youngjae hyung’s house, and play with Coco?”

“He — his mouth laughs loud,” says Yugyeom, distracted.

“You’re right,” BamBam says, squishing Yugyeom’s head into his chest and snickering.

Suzy is watching in a daze, chin perched in her hands with a dreamy smile.

“Yugyeom-ah,” she says cheerfully. “You’ve gotten so big, and so smart now. Do you even remember your Suzy noona?”

Jaebum feels Jinyoung looking down at him, and Jaebum manages to tear his eyes away from his son to glance up. Meeting Jinyoung’s warm, wide eyes is a small comfort, even though he seems slightly concerned with Jaebum’s reaction.

Jaebum turns back but lets himself squeeze Jinyoung's hip, trying to silently communicate that he’s okay. This sort of interaction is inevitable – with anyone, let alone someone who’d helped him with Yugyeom in the past. To try and steer them apart would be even stranger, sort of like he’d attempted with bringing Jinyoung to his apartment for the first time.

Yugyeom is smiling in some confusion at Suzy, then shakes his head firmly, hair flopping about.

“Suzy knew you before you could talk,” Jaebum supplies. “She's changed your diaper.”

Yugyeom looks embarrassed and shy then, and he sinks deeper back into the couch cushions and behind BamBam’s elbow with a little frown and a reluctant wave.

Suzy giggles airily, and she seems pleased enough with the interaction to sit back more comfortably. “Well anyway,” she says. “If you think Youngjae would be a good fit, we just think it would be so fun to get you up there. Everybody on the staff would be really excited, I know it. Kihyun doesn’t like to push anybody, and that’s fine — but I’m a pusher.”

Jinyoung shifts with half of a bitter laugh at that, and Jaebum looks up at him in surprise, a twist of delight bubbling up in his chest. Jinyoung’s character still surprises him.

Jinyoung looks mildly embarrassed to have let it out, but he composes himself rather quickly. “I told Jaebum hyung he should definitely go,” he manages to salvage the moment. “My friend… works there,” he adds carefully. “So I was saying, at the gala, he could get us an upgrade or something.”

And it’s interesting, Jaebum thinks, that Jinyoung doesn’t blurt out that Chanyeol basically owns Snowscapes. The others are probably thinking an upgrade would be a nice bathtub in the room, or a bottle of champagne or something. But Chanyeol would probably shut the whole place down for Jinyoung, if he asked.

Suzy’s squinting between the two of them again, and Jaebum feels his grip unconsciously tighten around the curve of Jinyoung’s hip. Jinyoung slips closer to him naturally, knees pressing between Jaebum’s own and an arm looping around his neck. Jaebum hopes it looks convincing — it certainly feels good.

“I’m still just not sure,” Jaebum clears his throat, turning back to the couch. “I appreciate the effort, getting Youngjae to volunteer and everything. And I know it’s not for a little longer. But I can’t say yes until I know my dad is doing better again. It wouldn’t be right.”

Everyone seems at least placated with his promise to consider it, and he’s soon managed to herd them all toward the door.

Jinyoung crouches to say goodbye to Yugyeom personally, and Suzy sweeps in close to Jaebum’s elbow, stealing a more private moment. BamBam watches from the doorway, eyebrows raised.

“Is everything okay with you two?” Suzy is whispering. “I saw you guys arguing at the gala – I told BamBam, I wasn’t sure what was going on.”

Jaebum manages a tight grin, although he wants to roll his eyes. “We’re fine,” he assures her.

“We went home, and made up,” says Jinyoung, appearing behind his shoulder. His voice is smoky, eyes steely. “It’s sweet of you to ask,” he continues, fingers curling around Jaebum’s bicep. “But don’t worry, Jaebum hyung always knows how to take care of me.”

Jaebum clamps his lips together tight, trying not to smile. It’s a little over the top, to be certain. It’s a step closer to lewd, and Jaebum’s reminded of how he’d thought saying he was his little secret had felt sexy. This is bolder — Jinyoung is a breath away from blurting out Jaebum took him home and bent him over, from implying he’d fucked him silly.

Suzy’s face looks frozen, smile visibly straining. “Awesome,” she mumbles, the implication clearly received. She waves at them once more and then links elbows with BamBam and whisks them away.

Jinyoung unwraps himself from Jaebum then, looking him up and down as he backs out of the apartment. Jaebum half expects some kind of shy apology for overdoing it – but Jinyoung doesn’t look like he’s sorry.

“Text me about the trip,” he says instead. “I can let Chanyeol know, even if you don’t want to take me. But don’t let her bully you into going, if you really don’t want to.”

“Okay,” says Jaebum, breath hitching in surprise. A part of him wants to say more , but Jinyoung has already murmured his goodbye and left.

Jaebum watches him all the way down the hallway.

 

//

 

Jaebum’s father is discharged the next day, and spends a little longer on bedrest at home. They quickly see his health stabilizing along with a lift in his mood. He’ll likely remain on medication for the rest of his life, but this sounds glaringly optimistic to Jaebum, as they’ve already experienced the bitter alternative.

His mother takes cheerfully to the task of working lower cholesterol food into their diet, framing it as a new culinary adventure. Jaebum’s father teases her and pretends to be reluctant about it, but Jaebum can see that spark of warmth between them still, can see he’s grateful for the way she’s adapting.

Jaebum considers, watching Yugyeom deep in conversation with his Moomin plush over imaginary tea, if it's time they try a little adaptation too.

“Eomma,” Jaebum says, and his mother pauses in pouring his father a cup of actual tea.

“I’ve been looking into getting Yugyeom into daycare,” he says. “Peachtree Grove, it’s really close to us.”

His father raises his eyebrows, and then his parents glance at each other hesitantly.

“Jaebum-ah,” his mother sighs. “You know there’s no rush. If that will be too expensive, don’t spread your stipend too thin.”

“My friend, the one you met, Jinyoung — his sister um, owns that place.” Jaebum says, trying to brush past this information lightly. “And I emailed them recently to get a better idea about their sliding scale options and it seems reasonable. Yugyeom has an interview next week.”

Jaebum’s mother bubbles up into a smile and claps excitedly. “That’s wonderful!” She exclaims. “Our Gyeommie can make some new friends.”

Jaebum is a little surprised she’s so excited; but he supposes as much as she enjoys spending time with Yugyeom, she’d rather be his Halmeoni, not his nanny.

Jaebum leaves out that he had tried very purposely to not inform Jinyoung, and hadn’t even mentioned him in the emails. He’s slightly nervous about telling Jinyoung at all, if he’s honest.

But: “You should thank him,” his father says.

Jaebum blinks in surprise, clearing his throat. “Ah,” he says hastily, “it’s not through his connection or anything, he just mentioned they had flexible fees and recommended their program.”

Jaebum’s father looks equally surprised. “That’s not worth your gratitude? For him to even mention it to you — that’s kind.”

Jaebum tilts his head. He’d thought he needed to assure him he hadn't been grovelling. But getting a reminder from his father to be kind and gracious — that’s new.

“Of course,” he says quickly, embarrassed. “You’re right.”

“You thanked him for the breakfast, right?” His mother asks. “The porridge was so comforting, and I probably wouldn’t have thought to eat otherwise.”

“I did,” says Jaebum. And he had, at the time. But he supposes it wouldn’t hurt to repeat, and maybe he has a growing list of thanks for Jinyoung.

The thought stays with him all day, until he finally calls, once Yugyeom’s been put to bed.

“Jaebum hyung,” Jinyoung answers, slightly out of breath.

“Is now a bad time?” Jaebum wonders.

“I just got back from a run,” says Jinyoung. “What’s up?”

“Um,” says Jaebum, shaking his head as if it’ll clear his thoughts — he can think about Jinyoung in little running shorts later. “Couple things. My mom said thanks for the breakfast, again. And then, I've been thinking... I think we could work out going on that ski trip, if you were still um, willing. My dad’s been feeling a lot better.”

“That’s great,” says Jinyoung, and then sighs happily. “Ah, I was going to text you about it sometime this week. I heard you’d applied Yugyeom at Peachtree, so I thought maybe you were getting back into your usual rhythm.”

Jaebum pauses, glancing around his living room in confusion, as if his bookcase could have tattled on him. “You what?” He repeats. “Where did you hear that?”

“My sister, of course,” Jinyoung says, “she said you’d gotten in touch with her.”

“Oh,” says Jaebum, mind slowly spinning. “I really didn’t mean to contact her directly – I just used the contact form about admissions and, I honestly didn’t mention you at all.”

“No,” says Jinyoung, carefully. “No, I know you didn’t mean it like, as a special deal. I knew you’d – you were trying to avoid that. But she recognized your name and was excited to tell me about it.”

Jaebum is slow to respond again, his confusion building. “How does your sister know my name??” He asks.

“Ah,” says Jinyoung softly, and then lets out a very small chuckle. “It’s really stupid,” he says, and another beat passes, as Jaebum’s heart rate picks up.

“I’ll text you the link, I guess,” Jinyoung hums, and then insists: “It’s nothing serious.”

Jaebum pulls his phone away from his ear, frowning and glancing at their latest text thread as he waits for him to send something. Jaebum can’t even begin to imagine what he must mean.

“—it’s honestly not even read by that many people,” Jinyoung is saying, as Jaebum switches to speaker mode and watches the little typing dots cycle a few times in the message.

Then a link appears, and Jaebum taps it hesitantly. It looks like a celebrity gossip blog, and despite the assurance from Jinyoung that not many people read it, it seems well-populated, with plenty of tags and even advertisements in the sidebar.

“Uh,” says Jaebum out loud. “What am I looking at? Whose site is this?”

Jinyoung sighs heavily. “It’s a trashy gossip blog. So, people who are interested in like, idols and athletes and uh, public figures, follow it to look at kind of, news. And sometimes that includes questionably obtained photographs of me.”

A watermark on several of the photos reads ✧My Peach Breeze✧, as Jaebum finally gets deeper into the actual content. It’s dated the day after the gala, and there are photos of them outside the hotel.

Jaebum keeps scrolling, brow furrowed. “Isn’t this paparazzi stuff more of an idol thing?” He says. “Your parents just sell air conditioning.”

Jinyoung hums. “You’d be surprised. And air conditioning is why that fan photographer calls himself Peach Breeeze~,” he chuckles. “That’s almost cute, right?”

“It sounds like a fart,” Jaebum murmurs.

Jinyoung laughs, long and loud, and Jaebum scrolls on. They’re just from around the hotel entrance. He sees them entering arm in arm, and leaving less enthusiastically. Jaebum finally sees himself with Jinyoung.

They don’t look bad together, it just feels… strange. It’s deeply strange, like he’s looking at stills from a movie, or an alternate universe. Honestly, they look good beside one another — different, to be sure, but in flattering ways. Jaebum with his narrow eyes and sharper nose, Jinyoung’s features softer and rounded.

“This is… they’re… don’t you hate this?” Jaebum asks. His confusion is escalating into bewilderment. “Isn’t this like, sasaeng stuff?”

“It’s weird,” Jinyoung acknowledges. “But usually I try to just ignore it, since honestly, nobody has been too intrusive. I don’t get featured very often, since I don’t go to many events or clubs. Chanyeol hyung has like, twice as many fans. And do you know Kim Jisoo, from the journalism department? She has three fansites.”

There isn’t a lot of text, just a dry write-up about Park Air Heir Jinyoung spotted with mystery male, and a deep comments section. Jaebum swallows, heavily, and then ventures onward.

pepi-air/ Who is this guy he’s with?? T.T how does park jinyoung only know handsome men, but all around me are dogs

peachyeol69 / He’s ok but next to our Prince?? meh

beandra / tbh i’d let both of them dp my ears— “Don’t read the comments!” Jinyoung suddenly blurts out. “They can be dangerous.”

“I still don’t get it,” Jaebum mutters, closing the tab hastily and bringing his phone back to his ear. “Your sister monitors this stuff?”

“No,” says Jinyoung. “But my parents’ PR people do. Nothing too in depth, just kind of getting a feel for attitudes toward the family, giving advice. Anyway, eventually in the comments someone brought up a link to our film project — did you see Tomorrow, Today got featured on the school website, by the way?”

“What? Really?” Jaebum stammers. “No, I hadn’t seen that.” He’d noticed a spike in hits where they’d hosted the video, but he hadn’t looked into it.

“So anyway, they deduced it was one Im Jaebum, so my parents asked about you at our weekly family dinner, and my sisters have been hounding me ever since.” Jinyoung rattles off.

“Cute,” Jaebum says, before he can stop himself.

“That’s what they said about you, too,” Jinyoung purrs.

And Jaebum blushes, lips pursing playfully, throwing his head back against the couch cushions and revelling for a moment in how good it feels. God, it feels like he hasn’t flirted in decades, and his heart already speeds up for an instant as he tries to formulate a good response.

“I didn’t say anything about Yugyeom,” Jinyoung cuts into the moment, quietly. “The PR team didn’t mention it to my parents, and I wasn’t sure how you would feel if I tried to explain it to my family.”

And the butterflies in Jaebum’s stomach vanish, replaced by a familiar, cold weight. Shame. “Ah,” hums Jaebum. Of course, Jinyoung’s parents would probably balk at the idea of him gallivanting around town with a poor single dad.

“It’s not that they would be judgmental,” Jinyoung assures him, but it sounds hollow to Jaebum, something he’s heard before to no avail.

“I just didn’t want to misrepresent something that’s so personal,” Jinyoung says. “But obviously, when Sooyoung approached me about your enrollment, about whether or not this was the same Im Jaebum, I had to say something.”

“I understand,” Jaebum says, throat suddenly dry.

“She’s really excited to meet Yugyeom,” Jinyoung continues. “I told her all about how smart, and funny he is.”

“Listen,” says Jaebum suddenly, sitting up as his back seizes, stiff and anxious all over again. “I gotta get started on laundry. Do you want me to see if people are carpooling up to Snowscapes? Or I can chip in for your gas. Just let me know when you’d like to leave on Friday.”

“That’s fine,” says Jinyoung, after a long pause. “I know the drive.”

Of course he does, Jaebum thinks bitterly, as they say goodbye. It’s probably his second home.

 

//

 

“I’ve actually never been skiing,” Jinyoung clarifies on Friday, as they pull away from Jaebum’s apartment. “Or snowboarding, or whatever. I’ve visited a few resorts with my family, including Snowscapes. But I’ve never been on a real winter trip with friends.”

“Jinyoung-ah, the hermit,” Jackson says, in a cheerful chirp from the backseat.

Because of course, Jinyoung had agreed to give him a ride, too. And of course, Jackson’s plus one was Mark, who had coolly greeted Jaebum without looking up from his phone. So this trip was already off to a completely amazing start.

“I’m not a total hermit,” Jinyoung says. “I just don’t have… lots of friends.”

Mark does look up then, pointedly finding Jaebum’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. Jaebum turns to look out the passenger window instead.

“Why is that?” Jackson presses. “Do you think people feel too intimidated to approach you? Because you’re too handsome?”

And Jaebum turns back, wanting to see Jinyoung’s reaction. Jinyoung’s eyes wrinkle up with a warm, amused smile, and he laughs even as he changes lanes cautiously. “That’s probably it,” he says.

The thing is, Jackson flirting with Jinyoung doesn’t feel particularly threatening. Neither does Mark, simultaneously icy cold and smoldering with jealousy. And Jaebum understands, Jinyoung and Chanyeol have history. And okay, so he has some fans who want to feel his peach breeze.

But Christ, all together? In one timeline? Was Jaebum just some cameo in Jinyoung’s harem manga? It feels a little forced. But Jaebum’s life seems increasingly ludicrous, and this was still technically none of his business.

“So how much longer are you guys keeping this dating stuff up?” Mark asks, suddenly.

Jaebum rolls his eyes, slumping down in his seat with a slow sigh. “I don’t know,” he admits.

“You could stage a dramatic breakup on the slopes,” says Jackson. “Kick some snow up in his face and board all the way home.”

Jaebum isn’t sure which of them he’s talking to, but he decides to stay silent, eyes fixed on the passing scenery as it’s slowly transitioning from urban to rural.

“I mean, isn’t Suzy jealous enough?” Mark needles. “Bam was saying she looked pretty disappointed. You don’t have to twist the knife.”

“But this way I get to ski,” Jinyoung says with a whine, and Jaebum shifts his chin as subtly as he can, wanting to catch the playful curl of his lips.

Mark snorts, shifting audibly in the backseat. “Spoiled,” he teases, but it’s soft.

Jaebum’s lips twitch, caught somewhere between amusement and irritation. It’s just a weekend, he reminds himself. And Mark would’ve teased someone like BamBam in the same way — there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable. He can handle this.

“It’s going to be fun,” insists Jackson, and Jaebum takes some comfort in it.

He curls up to sleep eventually, hoping to catch up on a little rest. He’s less exhausted than he used to be, when Yugyeom was newborn and constantly in need of extra attention. But he still feels worn out, like there’s always an hour or two missing from his day.

Youngjae had already been texting him pictures of a smiley Yugyeom, so he’s feeling peaceful with his decision to trust him for the weekend. Phone clutched tight, Jaebum stuffs his hands between his knees and lets himself nod off, face tucked into his shoulder.

It’s afternoon already when he wakes up on arrival, the sun dipping behind the mountain and casting long shadows in the valley parking lot.

The resort's main lodge is impressive; towering with enormous wood beams and touches of river rock, gleaming with massive windows. The rest of the resort sprawls out beyond it, up and around the foot of the mountain. It feels like more of a picturesque village than a single hotel.

Jaebum feels a familiar sense of queasiness, as they unload their bags and make their way into the wide, warm lobby space. It has touches of what Jaebum assumes is traditional chalet influence, but the lines are all clean, updated. He feels like he doesn’t belong here, immediately. But he stuffs the sensation down, jaw tight as the group disperses.

There’s a sleek fireplace to one side, already crackling merrily. It's surrounded by some of their friends, who'd been waiting to greet the incoming staff. This includes Suzy and Kihyun, who hurry over with hugs and air kisses that smell like mulled cider.

At the center of the room, a stainless steel desk cuts through the warmer interior elements of the lobby. Behind the counter stands a shorter man with close-cropped hair and heavy, serious brows.

“Ah,” he says as they draw closer to checkin. “Park Jinyoung. Let me call Chanyeol.”

“That’s not necessary but thank you, Kyungsoo-ssi,” Jinyoung insists, waving a hand.

But the other man adjusts his cuffs and shakes his head, lifting the phone to his ear anyway. “Director’s very enthusiastic orders,” he explains, sympathetically.

Jinyoung’s polite smile fades a bit, as Kihyun and Suzy peer at him in surprise.

“Chanyeol… as in Park Chanyeol?” Suzy voices. “Your friend who works here, is the director? The heir to the ParkLux Leisure Group?”

Jinyoung smiles, shuffling closer to Jaebum and taking his hand. “He’s a childhood friend,” he says.

Jaebum glances down at their intertwining fingers, as he remembers that Chanyeol knows they aren’t together. He wonders, suddenly, what Jinyoung had told him about the trip. Wonders if he’s hoping to run into him or not.

Kyungsoo hangs up the phone after a hushed conversation and then brandishes a few room keys in a small envelope.

“Chanyeol apologizes that he’s unable to step out of a teleconference at the moment,” he says brusquely, “but your cabin is all set and we’ll bring a cart around for you and your luggage.” He promptly yanks out a parka from under the counter and starts to shimmy into it.

“We don’t need a cart,” Jinyoung laughs nervously, squeezing Jaebum’s hand as he scoots his roller luggage back and forth. “I’m sure we can make the trek upstairs.”

Kyungsoo stares at them for a moment, and then chuckles awkwardly. “It would actually be a trek,” he says. “You’re in one of our private SweetRetreats, up the mountain a bit. It’s an exclusive cabin experience, with uninterrupted views.”

He abruptly takes Jinyoung’s luggage handle from him and starts to guide them to a side door. Jackson is wheezing in laughter by the fireplace, and Kihyun waves teasingly after them. Jaebum and Jinyoung hurry to follow Kyungsoo, still confused.

“There must be a misunderstanding,” Jinyoung is saying, shaking his head and looking genuinely bewildered. “I only asked for a double queen, near the others in the Daily's  block.”

“I’m well aware,” says Kyungsoo, “But as you may have guessed: Chanyeol has upgraded your reservation.”

“We don’t need a whole cabin!” Jinyoung sputters, as Jaebum tosses his bag beside Jinyoung's, in the back of a sturdy little go-kart with a snow plow.

Kyungsoo has already settled in the driver’s seat and started the engine. He glares expectantly at the empty seats. “If you don’t mind,” he says dryly. “My head is cold.”

Jaebum swings into the back without question. Jinyoung hesitates another moment, looking back at the lodge as if considering making a complaint. Jaebum sighs, reaching out and tugging him in by the wrist. If Chanyeol wants to foot the bill for some luxury suite, he doesn’t see much point in fighting it.

Jinyoung crumples into the seat beside him, still frowning as Kyungsoo zips them up a winding back road.

“There’s firewood and some essentials already stocked,” says Kyungsoo. “Whenever you’d like to go up the slopes or join the others back at the main lodge, just call the front desk and we’ll send a cart out. Any time of day or night.”

Jaebum watches the lovely scenery unfold around them, the lodge growing smaller as they climb the incline, and then gazing up at massive, icy evergreens as they dart into the treeline. And everywhere: a lush, lovely blanket of snow that sparkles to life in the mottled sunlight.

If it weren’t obviously under the extended care of the resort staff, Jaebum would almost be nervous about the seeming seclusion of their cabin. But he was sure some of it was exaggerated, as they eventually pull up to a small, stupidly cute cottage.

He’s sure if he squints hard enough, he would spot another cabin retreat through the trees. Right? How private could private really be, on hotel property?

Kyungsoo unlocks a quaint red door, leading them inside and bustling about the small space. He stokes the fire, turns down the bed covers, and lights several candles in a kitchenette.

“There’s a jacuzzi tub in the bathroom,” he says coolly, glancing at Jaebum with low, suspicious eyebrows.

Jaebum shrugs, hoping he looks innocently impressed.

“Here’s your phone,” Kyungsoo continues, hurrying back around to a hutch by the door. “Again, whatever you need, just dial the front desk and we’ll assist you.”

Then his hand glides up to a mounted touchscreen. “You will be able to adjust your thermostat, the fireplace, and mood lighting,” he says, and the room dims, lights slanting into a ridiculous rose red hue. “Thanks to our state-of-the-art ambiance command center.”

Jaebum bites his lip, and he can’t bear to look at Jinyoung, as he already feels him trembling with barely suppressed laughter beside him.

“I hope you enjoy your stay,” Kyungsoo sighs, opening the door and fully rolling his eyes. “And don’t hesitate to forward all complaints to Chanyeol.”

They both nod in thanks, and as the door clicks shut, Jinyoung crumples wholly to the floor, bursting out into loud, signature peals of ha ha ha. It doesn’t sound fake anymore, Jaebum realizes, leaning weakly against the bed frame as he guffaws along with him.

“Ambiance command center,” Jinyoung wheezes into the hardwood.

“Are there at least other options?” Jaebum wonders, wandering over to the screen with a delirious smile. He shuffles through the menus until he finds the lighting controls and then they’re cackling even louder as he finds a setting that fades through the entire color spectrum.

Jaebum feels light, airy. The actual distance afforded by the cabin seems to have disconnected him from earth, seems to settle everything just out of his worrying mind’s reach. It’s silly, and it’s too much, and it’s all theirs.

“Wow, it really puts you in the mood,” Jinyoung says, clutching his ribs with a bit of a whimper as he manages to get to his feet again.

“The most romantic lighting of all,” Jaebum drones. “A middle school dance.”

Jinyoung sniffs out one more laugh, eyes sliding across the king bed guiltily. “I really did ask for two queens,” he says, easing down on the edge of the mattress, as Jaebum sets the lights back to something neutral.

“That wouldn’t have been very convenient,” Jaebum says, and crosses back. “If we were really here as a couple.”

He settles beside him, thighs touching. He glances over with a teasing smirk, but it melts away as he sees how flushed Jinyoung has become. His ears are nearly steaming red, hands wringing nervously in his lap.

“I don’t know,” Jaebum murmurs, wanting to push it. Just a little further. Because he likes seeing Jinyoung unravel, likes seeing him a little less graceful, a little undone. “Are you sure you didn’t do all this on purpose?” He asks. “To drag me all the way out here and ambiance me?”

But instead of fumbling further, instead of turning purple with embarrassment, Jinyoung looks up with a sharpness in his eyes, as he seems to immediately sniff out Jaebum’s teasing. He slowly unzips his parka then, one inch at a time. Beneath it he wears a stifling black turtleneck, but he dips his head back and slowly sprawls out seductively on the mattress as if he’s in some kind of negligee.

“Do you want to see my command center?” Jinyoung whispers.

And it’s so stupid, Jaebum nearly chokes on his own spit in his haste to laugh, and Jinyoung curls up, covering his face so he muffles his embarrassed giggles with the bedspread. Jaebum flops out beside him, shaking with laughter until they’ve both gone quiet and sighing.

It does sort of hit him then, as ludicrous as it is — as silly as the SweetRetreat may be, from top to bottom — it’s still one little cabin, all to themselves. With just one bed. And it’s not Jackson, Mark or even Chanyeol sharing it with Jinyoung this weekend. It's Jaebum. 

On top of that, they’re suddenly miles away from everyone else on the trip. So every abrupt knock, every distracting voice from before, simply can’t interrupt them again. So maybe, this trip might not be so bad.

Jaebum watches, chin propped up in his hand, as Jinyoung stretches out along the mattress again with a relaxed sigh. And even though he’s still partly tangled in his puffy coat, Jaebum's eyes can find the line of his body, can follow the shapely cut of his legs, the sway of his lower back.

A bit of his turtleneck hem has peeled up from the waistband of his jeans, exposing a strip of belly. Jaebum is suddenly sure the skin would feel warm, would feel soft, if he were to somehow slide his fingers along it.

Jaebum lets his gaze linger a little longer, and then he looks up, and finds Jinyoung’s waiting gaze. There’s a hungry-looking gleam there, a spark Jaebum remembers seeing when they’d kissed.

This might not be so bad, he thinks again. Or it might just be a disaster.

Chapter Text

Jaebum startles out of his trance, suddenly sitting up and digging his phone out of his jeans.

“Kihyun sent us a schedule on the way up,” he says, thumbing through his apps. “He’s a stickler about timing, so we should probably have it on both our phones. I’ll send it to you.”

Jinyoung lets out a pleasant hum beside him, shuffling around as he finds his own phone in his jacket.

“Huh,” says Jinyoung, after a moment of tapping. “I don’t have any reception in here but I can still put some stuff in the calendar.”

Jaebum frowns, glancing aside at Jinyoung’s phone and then verifying it on his own. Sure enough, while he’d noticed he had reception in the lobby when they had arrived, their SweetRetreat seems a little too private to get any signal.

He brushes the thought aside for now, pulling up Kihyun’s carefully formatted itinerary. “He has dinner and games planned in twenty minutes in their third floor common area,” he says, showing Jinyoung his screen.

Jinyoung nods, and makes a few notes. “What kind of games?” He asks. “Will we be playing spin the bottle or something?”

Jaebum snorts, rubbing the back of his neck as it prickles unexpectedly with heat. “I wouldn’t put it past Kihyun, to be honest,” he says. “Jackson has said he always runs everything like some kind of camp counselor.”

Jinyoung watches him with a gentle smile. “I’m really glad they helped you join them for once,” he says. “It’s good to get some bonding time.”

Jaebum swallows nervously, nodding as he hops up from the mattress. He isn’t sure it’s a good idea to think about bonding with Jinyoung. But he does feel grateful to his friends, and Jinyoung too.

“Thank you for coming,” he says, voice low and sincere. “I don’t think I would have agreed, having to worry about Suzy hanging around. You… relieve some of that pressure.”

Jinyoung sits up and tilts his head curiously, eyebrows wrinkling. “I don’t think it could have looked that bad, to be single?” He wonders.

Jaebum shrugs. “After a while,” he says, “maybe I wouldn’t feel self-conscious about it. But going on a trip? I’d probably have hooked up with her again, and made things worse.”

Jinyoung blanches, hands knitting over a knee as he looks vaguely queasy. “Is that something she wants?” He asks.

Jaebum shrugs, even as he remembers her promising to wait for him. “Maybe,” he says roughly. “And more than that – sometimes it’s just the atmosphere on a trip. You know how it is: when you hang out with people all weekend, and you drink, and there’s just something exciting about being somewhere different?”  

Jinyoung bites his lip, and Jaebum watches his teeth worrying into the red flesh, can see Jinyoung really is a bit embarrassed.

“I don’t know,” Jinyoung says. And Jaebum remembers again, too late, his admission that he doesn’t have many friends.

Jinyoung clears his throat and gets to his feet then, adjusting his parka. “I don’t know what that’s like,” he repeats, “but I’m looking forward to getting a taste of it now.”

Jaebum’s stomach does a backflip, and then he has to physically turn away. He busies himself with calling for a ride back down the mountain, so he doesn’t have to look at Jinyoung’s full lips, talking about getting a taste.

 

//

 

Kihyun feeds them well, a mixture of affordable items from the resort’s cafeteria as well as wholesale meat he’d brought up and grilled secretively in his bathroom, with the fan on. Wonho explains his main contribution was standing on a chair under the smoke detector and waving a towel about.

“And your influence is clear,” Kihyun says sassily. “No authorities were alerted, and everything remained edible.”

Their cozy crowd groans, shifting around the common area as they start to unwind.

“I have just a few game options for tonight,” continues Kihyun. “But we don’t have to try them all.”

BamBam groans out loud, unscrewing a bottle already. “Can we just do some drinking games, without all the kid stuff?”

“If you drink while you play,” says Minhyuk from beside him, popping open a can of beer, “every game becomes a drinking game.”

And that’s how their group ends up tipsily swerving through Telephone Pictionary, Spoons, and finally, flushed and lazily flopping about after expending entirely too much enthusiasm, Charades.

Jackson is up for Jaebum’s team, wriggling out something too complicated for them.

“Caterpillar?” Jinyoung calls out, and Jackson twists a bit and flaps his arms, nodding encouragingly.

“Butterfly!” Jaebum and Jinyoung both shout.

Jackson tilts his head expectantly, still nodding.

“Metamorphosis,” Jinyoung says. “Moth?”

“Monarch,” suggests BamBam.

Jackson just keeps flapping, and their team grows weary.

“It’s a butterfly,” Jaebum says, growing more and more impatient. “What else?”

The buzzer on Kihyun’s phone rings. Jackson wilts down to his knees, waving the little strip of paper he’d drawn in defeat.

“Papillon?” Kihyun reads off. “You guys, we cannot just throw French words into the hat! Do I really have to explain??”

“I thought someone would just act out the dog breed!” A copy editor on the other team whines. “I didn’t mean it that way!”

“That’s still a shitty word for Charades!” Minhyuk throws a pillow at her. “Write blowjob or something worth watching!”

“Okay,” says Kihyun, swaying slightly where he sits. “I deem this round... invalvid.”

“Invalid!” Suzy laughs loudly, slapping him on the shoulder. “Invalid, not invalvid!”

Kihyun nearly hisses, covering his face in embarrassment. “That’s s’what I said!” He yells. “It shouldn’t count! Jackson — do your turn again!”

“Do blowjob this time!” Minhyuk crows, and BamBam applauds loudly.

Jackson moans from where he’s curled up on a couch beside Mark, head laid weakly in his lap. “Why do I have to go again??” He complains. “Everyone’s already rejected me.”

Mark chuckles along with the rest of them, fingers ruffling through Jackson’s hair in consolation.

“I’ll go,” says Jinyoung, getting up off the floor, knees looking slightly wobbly. They’ve been drinking consistently, but neither of them have moved more than strictly necessary; Jaebum in an armchair and Jinyoung leaned against one of his legs. Jaebum isn’t sure how drunk either of them are, figures they’ll find out and have to deal with it late.

Now, Jinyoung is at the front of their little audience, unfurling a clue and frowning at it.

“Okay,” he murmurs, crumpling it into his pocket and spinning on a heel. He looks dizzy for a moment and several people in the room giggle.

He holds up two fingers.

“Two words,” calls BamBam, still looking bored.

A nod. Then Jinyoung’s circling his hand around his face, eyes wide, blinking and smiling blankly.

“Ah,” hums Jaebum. “Handsome.”

Jackson snickers, off to his side, but Jaebum ignores it, even as Jinyoung shakes his head and continues to frame his face.

“Pretty,” Jaebum guesses, as Jinyoung slaps his cheek slightly, and his whole face blossoms into a light flush. “Beautiful,” Jaebum adds.

“Jaebum, please!” Mark  blurts out, and Jaebum glances at him in alarm. “We get it,”  Mark wheezes between hoarse laughter, “you’re dating.” And Jackson is laughing so hard, slapping the couch cushions, he nearly topples onto the floor. Jaebum blinks away from them in confused irritation.

“Face!” BamBam shouts out, shaking his head at their commotion behind him.

Jinyoung claps and nods, gesturing onto the second word, but Jaebum’s mind disconnects from the game. Oh, face. Jaebum still thinks it was a fair line of guessing, but he can’t concentrate any longer, even as BamBam guesses ‘Face/Off’ correctly and Kihyun marks another point in their team’s favor.

Instead he’s focused on Jinyoung, who hurries back to where Jaebum sits, and fully clambers into his lap. His knees sink down on either side of Jaebum’s thighs, and Jaebum stares up, dumbly, as Jinyoung leans in and touches his face with a bright smile.

“You’re a really good actor,” Jinyoung says in his ear, and Jaebum can feel the soft curve of his pouty lips, the hot puff of his breath against his lobe.

Jaebum’s fingers dig into Jinyoung’s hips, forgetting for a moment they’re still in the midst of the Daily staff, still playing a game as the other team starts bellowing out their guesses. Jinyoung sinks down into his lap, and it’s different from when he’d perched innocently on his knee at his apartment. It’s wholly different this way, thighs open, the weight of his bottom fully pressing down against Jaebum’s center.

Jaebum nearly springs out of the chair, bucking awkwardly against Jinyoung for a half a moment — but he manages to stand and hastily helps Jinyoung out of their embrace.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” he murmurs. And he does, he’s only just now realized how badly. It also happens to be a good moment to try and rein in some self control, before he lets Jinyoung melt into him in front of every one of his coworkers. Standing, they sway toward one another slightly, until Jaebum tears away, steering himself stubbornly out to the hallway in search of a restroom.

Wandering past a few dozen matching doors, Jaebum wonders, abruptly, if he really is drunk.

It’s not unmanageable, and he doesn’t stumble, and here’s the men’s room. But this could be dangerous, he thinks to himself. With Jinyoung all wobbly and pink and completely willing to drape himself all over him — Jaebum’s not sure how to avoid making a big mistake.

After he washes his hands, Jaebum leans on the sink and looks himself over in the mirror. Would it be such a big mistake? He can’t help but wonder. He runs a damp hand through his hair, and while his eyes are a little drowsy, they have an alertness to them, and his cheeks are a little flushed, but not puffy. He doesn’t look like a mess, or even feel that intoxicated now that he’s gotten some space.

So, maybe he’s not that drunk. He’s not out of control; he’s just warm, excited. If they’d fooled around, he wouldn’t be able to blame it entirely on the alcohol. Some of it is still, simply, attraction. And if Jinyoung pressed himself like that into a fully sober Jaebum’s lap, he would probably feel a little dizzy regardless.

Jaebum shuffles back out into the hall to find Jinyoung waiting, leaning by the bathroom entrance.

“Hyung,” says Jinyoung, softly. His hand reaches out to gently grasp Jaebum’s sleeve, and it’s innocent for now, but it still sets his heart pounding.

“I’m sorry if I might have gone too far,” Jinyoung says, as he pulls him in, hesitantly. But Jaebum can’t help but step closer still, where their shoes nearly knock, bodies aligning as Jinyoung straightens up from where he’d been leaning.

“Did I make you uncomfortable?” Jinyoung asks, but Jaebum reaches out and tugs him forward by his waist, and Jinyoung’s breath stutters, as their knees bump and Jaebum doesn’t move back.

Jaebum feels drunk with desire again, wanting suddenly to take Jinyoung’s hand and guide it to his pants, ask if he thinks he’s uncomfortable. Wants to press their lips and hips and bodies together. Just wants.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he says, instead. He’s hyper-aware of the space left between their mouths now, how fractional it is, how easy it would be. He could just angle his chin slightly forward, catch those pillowy lips with his own, taste him here like he’d done at the gala. But he won’t taste like champagne this time. Now it’ll be cheap beer, and Jaebum knows better what to do with that.

“Nobody’s watching,” says Jinyoung quietly.

“It’s good practice,” Jaebum whispers, against his lips.

Then he really can’t help it, or maybe he isn’t the one who nudges them through the last millimeter, into each other. Either way, now they’re kissing, lips desperate and open, Jinyoung’s tongue already craning up to sweep behind Jaebum’s top teeth.

Jaebum considers, for a moment, this should be a surprise. The way Jinyoung angles his whole body up, and into Jaebum. The way his hands are scrambling up Jaebum’s shirt, wrapping around his neck, before he settles for cradling Jaebum’s face.

But Jaebum doesn’t have time to think — he’s too busy suckling on the fat of Jinyoung’s lower lip, distracted by the feel of Jinyoung’s hip in his hand, the pert slope of an ass cheek as he sinks lower still. And then he lets his fingers dig, lets them curl in under the curve of it, dragging into the crease he makes there, in the soft flesh where his thigh meets his bottom. He tugs there, gently.

Jinyoung lets out a little noise then, and his knee jerks, because Jaebum is subtly cleaving him open.

And that’s probably too far, Jaebum thinks, drawing back for a moment. Hazily, he watches a strand of saliva snap between them as he pulls away, and something in his gut twists as Jinyoung gasps a bit.

“You know, the person you’re trying to convince is like — back there, right?” Jackson says, and Jaebum looks up to find he and Mark have paused in passing, to gawk at them.

Mark is taking a long swig from his last can of beer, and he looks sour but doesn’t say anything. Jinyoung seems to be embarrassed for the first time, crowding himself closer to the wall and refusing to look at them.

Jaebum keeps his jaw set tight for both of them, not sure what sort of reaction his friends are looking for. “Thanks for the heads up,” he says tersely, wanting to put an end to this interaction.

“Talk to you later,” Jackson sing-songs and they’re left alone again. When Jaebum uncovers Jinyoung’s face again from beneath his fingers, it’s scarlet red.

Jaebum sighs, feeling responsible even though Jinyoung had matched his vigor, tongue for tongue. He brushes Jinyoung’s hands aside, holds them tight between them both for just a moment.

“Should we head back?” Jaebum asks, letting him go as Jinyoung hums, nodding.

But: there’s a clamor of girl’s voices then, and Suzy and some of the other editors are giggling as they set out farther up the hall. Jaebum catches Jinyoung’s suddenly alert eyes and tries to look apologetic. Jinyoung visibly brightens, though, guiding Jaebum’s hands back to his hips.

“Where were we?” He whispers, and Jaebum feels a bit guilty, hands suddenly feeling heavier than before.

Still, he bends his head, meeting Jinyoung’s lips again. And the breath he feels, scattered across his chin, is stuttered. Nervous, delicate. Jinyoung trembles under this kiss, and his long fingers, where they were confidently carding through Jaebum’s hair the first time, are soft against his shoulders now.

A part of Jaebum wonders about Jackson and Mark’s impact. But a bigger, more selfish part of him merely resents it. He wraps himself aggressively around Jinyoung now, hoping to drown out his sudden shyness with the same hot sensations from earlier.

He nearly crushes him to himself, turning them so he can pin his body against the wall. Jinyoung responds well, mouth moving more fluidly with Jaebum’s now, one of his hands dragging down from a shoulder to his ribs.

Jinyoung lets out another one of his noises, a breathy, broken little whine that seems to shoot straight down the center of Jaebum’s chest to his dick. And fuck, there are Jinyoung’s knees sliding apart to let him get closer.

Jaebum pulls back when the voices around them have faded out, breathing heavy. It’s taken every remaining fiber of self control not to grind Jinyoung into the tasteful wallpaper, not to hitch his legs up around himself.

“We should head back,” Jaebum says, but this time it’s not a question, and his voice is thick with unquestionable, obvious arousal.

Jinyoung nods, mouth puffy and slick. Jaebum struggles for a moment to yank his eyes away from it, and then he’s tugging him briskly along.

 

//

 

When Kyungsoo appears to whisk them away again, this time he wears a hat, a scarf, and a sleepy frown.

“You found a hat,” Jinyoung croaks out happily as he huddles beside Jaebum, and he questions his sobriety again. “Your head will be warm.”

“I’m so glad you noticed,” Kyungsoo says dryly, not even bothering to turn around when he replies.

The ride, at least, is reassuringly sobering. Cold night air whips them in the face as they climb away from the warm buzz of the resort. And as the headlights on the cart create a narrow tunnel of vision, Jaebum wonders again about their accessibility.

“Is this even walkable?” Jaebum calls out, over the buzz of the motor and the whistle of the wind. “Like, you called it a trek earlier, but is it feasible?”

“In the spring,” Kyungsoo shouts back. “I would recommend it. In the winter? The cart isn’t just an amenity.”

Jaebum nods, hand curling tighter around the inside of Jinyoung’s thigh. If anyone were to ask, he would say it’s to keep his hands warm. Even in winter gear, it’s hard to withstand the night air. But in truth, he finds his body comforting. Whatever they’re doing, as confusing and as cliche as it all may be, he can find something real in the way Jinyoung moves with him. It reminds him of the way he’d quietly supported him at the gala — but now it’s just gotten closer. Intimate.

It’s not long until they’re alone in the cabin again, the hum of the cart fading away, and the lights set low and inviting. The room has kept its temperature, deliciously warm, and Jinyoung peels off his jacket and boots, wriggling about by his side of the bed with his luggage.

“Is it okay if I shower first?” Jaebum asks, hoping there he’ll find some sense of his self control again, even if it means jerking off as quietly as he can.

Jinyoung nods blithely, already busy with some unpacking.

Jaebum leaves his coat on the kitchen island, peels off his sweater by the couch, and then toes off his socks by the bathroom door. He figures he’ll tidy before he goes to sleep, as he has his sights set on nothing but the hot spray of the shower.

And as the fog fills the room and he feels the sting of water drum rhythmically against his shoulders, he lets out a long breath. Maybe he doesn’t need to touch himself, maybe he just needs to reset his perspective. Two points dominate his thoughts.

Whatever this is, it’s temporary. Even the stuff in between the acting, when they had just laid beside each other on the bed and laughed, when they’d dominated interpreting each other's scribbles in Telephone Pictionary, while it’s all been mostly harmless — it’s just for this weekend. Jaebum figures they can extend that across the whole trip, regardless of whether or not they have an audience.

They’re both mature. Jinyoung is usually the picture of deliberate, thoughtful grace, to the point that it’s irritated Jaebum in the past. So there’s no way he’s going along with any of this without considering the consequences, right? There’s no way he’d be hurt, or insulted, if they happen to be very On for the trip, and then completely Off again afterward, right? He’s too responsible.

Jaebum gestures in invitation toward the steamy bathroom as he trudges out of it a moment later, and Jinyoung hurries in eagerly, with a toiletry bag and his pajamas.

Jaebum tucks away his underwear in the netting of his luggage and finds Jinyoung has gathered and tossed his forsaken clothes beside it. His stomach twists. He’d really intended to deal with those on his own, and maybe he should say as much. But worse than guilt, it conjures the image of Jinyoung being near his bag. This sends a shiver down Jaebum’s spine, as he considers what he’s packed.

He’d come prepared.

Becoming a dad as a teenager meant Jaebum would never underestimate the importance of contraception again. And even if he wasn’t always with women, he kept himself in the habit of practicing safe, comfortable sex. After all, who knew what could happen? If there was anything Jaebum had learned by now, it was that best laid plans often went awry.

Although he isn’t sure if there’s anything really awry with fucking Jinyoung.

Jaebum carefully unzips the front of his bag and pauses, glancing around the empty room, mildly embarrassed regardless of his inner pep talk. Still, he draws out a strip of condoms, a travel-sized bottle of lubricant, and dutifully transfers them to his end table. The drawer slips shut in reassuring silence. No squeaks, no slams. Just in case.

He changes into pajamas then, and flops on the bed in accomplished relief, tuning out to the white noise of Jinyoung’s shower for a moment.

Jinyoung is in the shower. Naked.

Well fuck, thinks Jaebum, sitting up straight again. This might be more serious than he’d expected.

He’d heard Jinyoung’s noises, had felt him press up against him when they’d kissed. But he still wasn’t entirely sure. Was Jinyoung really… available even, for sex?

This stupid cabin brought up a major question in the form of Jinyoung’s mysterious personal life. What was his relationship with Chanyeol? If Jinyoung really was in love with the resort heir, Jaebum might be complicating things – even if he considered it no strings attached. Didn't he have some kind of moral obligation to consider that?

Jaebum’s eyes slide to Jinyoung’s side of the bed. There’s a matching nightstand there, and Jinyoung has already set out some lip balm and his phone charger. So he looks settled.

Jaebum glances back at the bathroom again, and listens to the roar of the shower for another full minute, before practically leaping across the bed. Carefully, he eases the top drawer open as slowly as possible. Just because his own drawer hadn’t squeaked doesn’t mean this one won’t betray him.

There’s some teeth whitening strips, and Jaebum slowly runs his tongue across his own with an uninterested hum. Still, there’s more to find: Jinyoung’s handsome watch, another lip balm, and – the shower squeaks off. Jaebum yanks the drawer all the way open, irritated with himself for stalling as long as he has, and there it is: a similar length of condoms and a handful of lube packets.

Jaebum’s breath rushes out of him like he’s been punched in the gut, and he snaps the drawer shut again, nearly catching the tip of his fingers. He rolls back across the bed, hand grasping desperately for his own phone, and then he poses — one arm behind his head, staring at the screen as convincingly neutral as he can manage.

Jinyoung emerges a second later, hair damp and cheeks rosy, sighing in satisfaction. He wears an oversized hoodie that drapes low over his form, and slim sweats.

Jaebum watches helplessly, all but ignoring his phone in his hand.

Jinyoung settles himself on his side of the mattress, glancing at Jaebum’s phone. He smirks slightly.

“Looks interesting,” Jinyoung teases, and Jaebum sees his phone has gone back to sleep, screen completely blank.

Jaebum puts it aside, sitting up straighter again and dragging his hand through his hair.

“About earlier,” he starts, voice wavering. He’s not certain how to broach the subject. Neither of them seem tipsy enough to just latch onto one another like before, but it’s all he can think about.

“Jaebum hyung,” Jinyoung says quietly. “If you want to touch me, or kiss me, when no one’s watching, that’s okay.”

Jaebum turns in surprise, eyes incredulously tracing Jinyoung’s face and finding only his usual open, honest expression.

“You’re sure?” Jaebum says, almost suspicious. “I guess it would make us feel more real out there, right?”

Jinyoung’s lips quiver then, seemingly torn between a smile and a frown. “I guess it could. It’s very method. But, I mean it doesn’t have to have anything to do with pretending to date,” he says, clearly.

And Jaebum feels stripped, overexposed suddenly. Jinyoung is saying it’s okay for them to just fool around — but what about all of his other questions? Should he bring up Chanyeol?

“I don’t mind,” continues Jinyoung. “We’re both single and, I think — we both liked it a bit.”

Jaebum swallows, still in slight disbelief. But Jinyoung is laying back now, gazing up at him with nothing but a soft, sensual expression. It reminds Jaebum of when he’d playfully laid out earlier — but there’s no parka and no hint of humor.

So Jaebum rolls toward him, and takes a moment to just drink in the image up close, takes his time staring at the way his lips curl out from his chin at the perfect angle to be kissed. The perfect angle to drag a thumb across, to dip his fingers between, to sink into until he crosses over into another dimension; a world of nothing but wet, hot sensation.

“Hyung,” says Jinyoung, voice low. “Are you nervous—?”

But Jaebum kisses him instead of answering, pressing their mouths together until the words are forgotten, swallowed down deep. He lets himself cup Jinyoung’s face with one hand, and guides one of his arms around his neck with the other, shifting until they’re fully pressed against one another.

Jinyoung sighs underneath him, unfolding like a flower in bloom, and Jaebum suckles down his neck, inhaling deeply like he'll find a floral scent as well. Jinyoung drags his fingers through Jaebum’s hair, runs his nails over his shoulders, seems fixated on touching as much of him at once as he can.

Jaebum focuses on kissing him, on tasting his skin. On the way their mouths work together when he comes back up, the wet sound of their lips and the way it makes Jinyoung whine. It’s really something else.

There's really something cathartic about it, Jaebum discovers, finally mirroring Jinyoung’s movements and dragging his fingers up under Jinyoung's shirt, raking across the skin he finds. Their hips slide together, building a natural rhythm as they seek out each other’s hardness.

There's been a visceral tension between them, from the beginning — even though the tone has shifted — but tonight it breaks. For bliss.

Jaebum's mind is quieting down, thoughts and questions fading away into the background as he finds only narrow, intensely carnal focus. He wants to touch Jinyoung's body. It feels good, rocking into him like this, cocks sliding against each other, through thin cotton pants. But he wants to feel more of his skin, more of the heat that seems to flare up everywhere Jaebum touches, wants to feel it from the source.

So Jaebum snakes his hands down the back of Jinyoung's sweatpants. Jinyoung whimpers a bit at the touch, back stiffening as Jaebum cups each cheek. And the pressure of it rolls him deeper against Jaebum's cock, presses them tighter still, so that the friction intensifies. With each thrust, Jaebum feels a sharp snap of pleasure, through the dreamy haze of their rhythm.

Jaebum lets one of his hands dip into the crease at Jinyoung's thigh once again, like he had in the hallway, but now it's just soft, rolling flesh that he finds, without the fold of denim. And then he dips further still. He pries a cheek back, letting his middle finger nudge gently against his entrance, and then Jinyoung is mewling, shuddering against his mouth.

"Hyung," he murmurs, and his arm around Jaebum's neck tightens in anticipation.

"Do you want me to touch you?" Jaebum asks, drawing his hand back for a moment. "Can I touch you here?"

"Please," Jinyoung nearly hiccups.

Jaebum licks down over his fingertips, humming in satisfaction as he can see Jinyoung watching with trembling, glassy eyes. He slips back under Jinyoung’s waistband again, confidently hiking one of his knees up slightly.

"H-hyung," Jinyoung continues, as Jaebum rolls his fingertip gently against the bud of his opening.  And Jinyoung twists against him then, making a guttural noise that should be embarrassing. But here, now, Jaebum feels like he could growl back.

Jaebum wants to see him throw his head back, wants to stretch him open til he’s begging to be filled. He presses inward, just barely further.

"I just — no one's ever — I haven't actually...."

And shock crashes over Jaebum like a wave, every hair on his arm standing up, a shudder tracing down his spine and jolting his hips against Jinyoung's groin.

"What?" Jaebum murmurs, and he's already drawing both of his hands back, propping himself up on his elbows to look down at Jinyoung in dumbfounded surprise.

But Jinyoung is audibly whining in protest, grabbing at Jaebum's shirt and trying to get him to roll back into him, even locking a calf over his hip. "Please, hyung," he murmurs. "I didn’t tell you to stop."

Jaebum's mind is racing. Not only is he shocked at the implication – that Park Jinyoung is a virgin, in spite of his fan club, both literal and figurative — but also that Jinyoung would agree to this. That he would want Jaebum to feature so vividly in his own personal life. That he would entrust a first experience, to whatever degree, to someone like Jaebum.

"Haven't you..." Jaebum murmurs. "You haven't ever been with anyone?"

"I've fooled around," Jinyoung admits, almost petulant, his lips outrageously pouted. “I just haven't gotten very far. I wanted to be honest, I didn’t want to disappoint you," he stammers, and Jaebum's heart jolts in his chest. “I just don’t really know if I know what to do. If I’ll do anything wrong.”

This, this is even more surprising, that Jinyoung would expect his reaction to be anything but surprise. That Jaebum would somehow not find Jinyoung up to his standards? Maybe Jaebum has more raw experience, but he’s anything but a snob about it. A beat passes.

“Jinyoung-ah,” he finally says softly, almost teasingly, and the sounds roll off his tongue easily, slick and sweet like syrup. “You can't do anything wrong — if you’re really ready?” And he reaches over to his drawer with a small smile, wanting Jinyoung to see what he’d learned earlier. That they’ve both been thinking about it.

He pops the cap on the lube then, and Jinyoung’s inhale is sharp, but his eyes are gleaming, lips eagerly ajar as they both watch it drizzle out over thick fingers, a few long drops gliding down to his knuckles. Jinyoung nods, mesmerized.

Jaebum warms it up for a moment, watching his eyes still. “Tell me if it’s uncomfortable,” he rumbles, and then he lays beside Jinyoung again, facing him, and reaches back down his pants. “Or if you want to stop.”

He supposes he could try to make it more romantic, try to undress him and take him all the way. But Jaebum knows his place, and it’s just a little fun, for the weekend. So he's not going to push him. He makes sure his leg sits heavy, tight between Jinyoung’s knees, and kisses him slowly, surely once more.

“Ride my thigh,” he tells him, once he’s wrestled his tongue back into his own mouth. Jinyoung pants against him, tongue curling back shyly as he nods, eyes fluttering and half-open.

And then Jinyoung really does it, really grinds against him like it’s all he wants, like he’s been dreaming of humping a leg for ages now. And maybe he has, Jaebum thinks, though it probably wasn’t his. His body undulates against Jaebum, slow and deliberate like a wave and so, so hot.

Jaebum can feel his entire length, feels each twitch and the cut of his head, and his mouth waters. Jinyoung rocks against him intensely, deeply. Jaebum digs into his ass with one hand, helping him build up the friction and rhythm that he needs.

His other hand slides back down, this time thumbing gently over the small of his back, down along the valley of his crack. He finds his entrance again, and this time directly dips the pad of his finger in right away, forgoing any teasing. Then he's sinking the rest of the way in, up to his final knuckle.

And Jinyoung lets out a broken little moan, but he doesn’t resist, doesn’t buck his hips away. He keeps rutting into Jaebum’s thigh, hands tight at his waist and forehead beading with sweat.

Jaebum strokes his insides slowly, watching his expression in a daze. That first molten hot suction around him is always a little dizzying, a little intoxicating. The sudden realization of their literal connection, Jinyoung clenching hot and wet around his finger, has Jaebum starting to flick up like he’s beckoning, keeping his thumb pressed hard against his rim.

This gets Jinyoung whining again, a little cry with each pump and crook of Jaebum’s finger, eyes crossing and screwing up shut. Jaebum feels his fingernails digging into his waist, feels the strokes of his erection slipping out of rhythm along his thigh.

“Easy,” Jaebum whispers, guiding his pointer finger in next, pleased with the way the lubricant dribbles out over the back of his palm now. This means Jinyoung must be feeling fuller now, stretching to where he must feel knuckles on all sides, so each twist of Jaebum’s hand will make him see stars.

So Jaebum speeds up, suddenly hungry to hear the squelch of each thrust, to see the way Jinyoung scrabbles up a bit, burying his face in Jaebum’s shoulder and whimpering. He still humps into Jaebum’s thigh, but his hands are loose on Jaebum’s waist, like he can’t seem to articulate his fingers to grip correctly.

That’s a good sign, Jaebum thinks, stroking upward again to brush his prostate more directly, still spearing deep with each of his motions.

“H-hyung,” Jinyoung cries out, rocking his hips backward now, almost abandoning the rhythm he’s established against Jaebum’s leg. Instead, it’s the sensation of Jaebum inside him he feels most acutely, and Jaebum is pleased to see it, wants to see more.

If he’d thought it was sexy when Jinyoung had been angry before, when he’d been kissed before, when he’d flirted with him shamelessly – it’s nothing like this.

He hasn’t known unraveling, until he’s seen Jinyoung on the edge of coming. Jinyoung, so flushed he looks like he’s feverish. Jinyoung, spine arching backward and slim hips desperately flexing back to meet Jaebum’s fingers. Even partially clothed, sweatshirt rucked up high around his chest, pants slipping low on his hips to accommodate for Jaebum’s grip, Jinyoung looks decadently beautiful, wanton.

Jaebum uses his free hand to knead Jinyoung’s ass harder as well, moving his own body forward so that Jinyoung is pressed, suffocatingly, between Jaebum’s front and his fingers. And Jaebum fucks a third finger into him, smiling as he finds the stretch wet and smooth, his snug embrace hot and pulsing. Jaebum can feel Jinyoung’s heartbeat, pounding away through his very center. He drives his fingers in toward it, pinches upward like he’ll be able to take hold of Jinyoung’s very heart this way.

And he can’t of course, because it belongs to someone else, and it has for however long. But at the very least, he can wring this orgasm out of him, and he watches it start in Jinyoung’s face. Eyes tearing wide open first, blinking in awe and desperation at Jaebum. Then his jaw locks open, and his whole form stiffens, writhing within Jaebum’s grip as his hips stutter and freeze.  

Jaebum feels it all – the seizing of muscle around his fingers, the shudder and spurt of his cock where it’s pressed against his thigh, and Jinyoung’s hands slowly falling to the mattress.

“Everything okay?” Jaebum asks in a whisper, and Jinyoung is shivering slightly, but he nods. Dizzy and pink, hair a tangled mess, he blushes and smiles up at him like he’s about to float away. Jaebum rolls his shirt back down over his nipples, his belly, wonders if he should try to help him to change out of his pants before he passes out.

But then Jinyoung is sitting up, tugging them off himself, and Jaebum can’t help but stare. He has a pink cock, limp now but not small, and its swollen head is glistening still. He wonders what it tastes like.

He barely has a moment to thirst, to imagine, because then Jinyoung is crawling on his knees toward him. And those long, delicate fingers he’d stared at so often are tugging Jaebum’s drawstrings loose, peeling his pants down and circling confidently around his cock.

Jaebum’s still hard — almost painfully so, left swollen and heavy since they’d been rocking against each other earlier. But he hadn’t expected Jinyoung to handle it, thought he’d easily succumb to sleep after his peak.

But maybe Jinyoung does have a little more experience than he thinks, because he’s swallowing down Jaebum’s dick like it’s easy.

Jaebum’s head rolls back automatically, a guttural moan spilling out of his mouth before he can try to seem unaffected, before he can lock his jaw in place.

So Jinyoung hears him, and he’s watching expectantly from Jaebum’s lap once he gathers himself enough to glance down again.

And it’s simply a vision — Park Jinyoung, round nose and round eyes, innocently gazing up over the coarse tuft of his pubic hair. A hand gliding through his own spit on the shaft, another clutching at Jaebum’s balls. And his mouth, pink and swollen, drawing off slowly, so Jaebum can watch it crest over the tip. So he can watch him watching, as his pink tongue darts out to dip through the slit, precum dribbling out under its moist, thick pressure.

Jaebum bites off a curse, trying desperately to calm down. He’s never considered himself incredibly patient, and sexually, most of his experience has been frankly rushed. Straight to the point. He’s never worried about trying to last too long, let alone looking too good.

As Jinyoung bobs his head, keeping suction hot around his cock, his tongue tracing insistently along its underside, Jaebum isn’t sure how long he can last. And he’s a little embarrassed.

Jinyoung takes him deep, jaw slack. He guides Jaebum’s hand to his hair, and Jaebum nearly whimpers as he takes hold, thrusting gently.

The whole thing makes him suddenly nervous, staring into Jinyoung’s wide and considering eyes. How would he compare to whomever taught him this? While he had been confident getting Jinyoung off  — would he ever be interested in more, if he came too quickly now? What would Jinyoung think of him, as a man? It’s a little humiliating.

But it’s all irrelevant, after all, because Jinyoung feels like heaven, and Jaebum hasn’t been touched for ages. His cock twitches hard in Jinyoung’s mouth, through the churning roar of blood in his ears, through the heat of a red blush that prickles all over his face and neck.

So he’s all too easily hurtling over the edge. The tension twists low in his gut until he feels himself snap, feels the orgasm ripple through him like a rubber band. And he’s shouting, which is also embarrassing, as Jinyoung is calmly swallowing around him, savoring every last drop of his cum, with eyes wide open.

Jinyoung eagerly follows his cock until it slips out of his mouth with a jolt of Jaebum’s hips. Overstimulated, Jaebum untangles his fingers from his hair and reaches up to cover his face with his hands, letting out a long groan.

Jinyoung is wiping his mouth delicately, when Jaebum sits back up.  He stands up primly, taking a moment to reach for his pants from beside the bed, and Jaebum stares, unabashedly, at the lingering, glistening trails of lube running down the backs of his pink thighs. Jinyoung drops his sweats beside his luggage and then smiles over his shoulder, before stepping out to the bathroom.

Jaebum hears the sink running, and Jinyoung brushing his teeth, and he flops back in disbelief again.

How did they end up here? How did they cut to this scene, this moment, when Jaebum feels like just yesterday he’d been staring at Jinyoung’s expensive bag with a sneer? And hours ago, he’d been unsure if Jinyoung even wanted to kiss him. Now he was laying, wrecked, after Jinyoung had sucked the life out of him.

Jaebum ties his sweats tight, and gets under the covers slowly, but he’s still staring at the ceiling in a daze when the lights go off, and he feels Jinyoung settling beside him.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung says softly.

“Hmm?” Jaebum rumbles.

“Everything okay?” Asks Jinyoung, echoing his words from a moment ago.

Jaebum turns to look at him then, brows low and squinting to decipher his expression in the low light. He swallows heavily, not wanting to let his panic show.

“What about you?” He blurts out, anyway. “You’re the one who could be experiencing all of this with someone — anybody else. Someone you really want.”

Jinyoung looks bewildered, almost taken aback. His eyes slide back and forth, until he finally looks up again, and they’re shining now. “But I wanted you,” he whispers.

And Jaebum has to physically bite down on his own tongue then, breath ragged, because he wants to grit out that it can’t be honest. It must just be consolation, to make Jaebum feel better. Or maybe he really had been feeling drunk, and now he’s trying to justify it for both of them. Jaebum settles with himself that Jinyoung means it in a purely physical way; then he’s rolling away and forcing his eyes shut. He can’t think about this too much. It’s dangerous territory.

He thinks stubbornly of home, instead. If he thinks hard about Yugyeom, about his content napping face, he can almost hear his breathing, can almost relax. He evens out his own breaths to match his memory, and tries to get some sleep.

 

//

 

Jaebum hasn’t spent a whole night with someone for longer than it’s been since he last got off. There were parties aplenty in college, with back bedrooms and people’s cramped dorm bunks available for quick, fumbling trysts like the one last night. But even when he had a night free, he would always go home, and would rarely repeat it. And he definitely didn’t cuddle.

So it's bewildering when Jaebum wakes up with Jinyoung’s back pressed snugly to his front. In his sleep, he must have wrapped his arms around him, and now they’re spooned up tight, legs intertwined under the fluffy duvet.

Jinyoung’s chest moves in sync with Jaebum’s, their breathing aligned, and he’s so warm along Jaebum’s body it’s nearly uncomfortable, sweltering hot beneath the blanket.

Jaebum swallows down a groan as Jinyoung stretches with a yawn, and he’s suddenly acutely aware of each asscheek flexing on either side of his very interested cock.

“Shit,” he breathes out, against Jinyoung’s ear, and then he’s wriggling backward. His side of the bed is cold in comparison, and untangling his numb arm from beneath Jinyoung’s torso is a delicate process.

Jinyoung sits up slightly to him do it, and there’s a moment where Jaebum stares guiltily, silently at his tensed shoulders. He wonders if they’ll both just pretend to go back to sleep.

But Jinyoung rolls over then, stretching out like a cat, kicking off his covers and sprawling out on his belly. He looks up at Jaebum calmly, over the lean muscles of his extended arm, and Jaebum drinks in the sight of his whole form once again.

Jinyoung had never put pants on, and he lays flopped out now in just a sweatshirt, the hem barely covering most of his bottom. Jaebum tears his eyes away and blinks back to his face, a little puffy, soft and curious.

“Aren’t you cold?” Jaebum asks.

A beat passes, and then Jinyoung’s lips curl, almost imperceptibly. “I thought we were just getting warmed up,” he purrs.



//

Chapter Text

Jaebum stares. He can’t help it. He stares when Jinyoung eventually gets up, watching the curve of his bottom and the flex of his thighs, as the hem of his sweatshirt brushes there delicately. He stares as he hums along, comfortably, finding his clothes and flitting off to the bathroom.

Jaebum gets up and starts to get ready along with him in a daze, uncertain and unsettled. In some ways – he feels amazing. He can’t help thinking about how Jinyoung’s lips had looked, wrapped around him as he’d bucked and whined.

He can’t help noticing how relaxed and limber he feels now, like coming had actually released some of his pent up stress. And he can’t help but feel a little lingering press of pride, of being the first person to touch Jinyoung in this away, to see him come like that.

But he’s also suddenly shy now for some reason. They bump hands going through the door, and Jaebum stammers out a hasty apology. The ride back to the resort is quiet. Jinyoung is cramped up tightly beside him in the cart, but he isn’t leaning on him as easily as the night before.

It feels colder today, and not just between them. More snow was lightly falling this morning, and Jaebum had noticed staff clearing the edges of their driveway when they’d set off. Snow had accumulated high along the side of the cabin, some of it nearly reaching their windows overnight.

As they reach the base of the mountain and shuffle through the breakfast buffet with the others, Jaebum shifts back into staring. He follows Jinyoung from a few steps behind, and even though Jinyoung’s well bundled in winter wear, he still finds himself watching his body. But more curiously, he watches his face, suddenly desperately curious if he can read him.

He realizes now, quietly settling beside him as they dig in, that he’s never even considered why Jinyoung had agreed to help him.

Jinyoung had left that one night in his car, after Jaebum had first asked, and the mood had been stiff. Like Jaebum had said something distasteful. And in a way, maybe he had.

A big part of that was obviously the way Jaebum had defined their boundaries. He’d dragged his feet every step into this friendship, had shoved him away as much as he could. And Jinyoung had probably, naturally been reacting to that.

But the next time, when he’d asked, “Why me?” so softly, it had been such a surprise. He’d gone on to compliment Jaebum, like there was no need to accessorize his story with a fake boyfriend. Like he was impressive enough.

So the question persisted for Jaebum – why had Jinyoung been willing? Did Jinyoung really  like  something about him?

Jaebum’s phone buzzes, and he watches a short video message from Youngjae, shot the day before. It’s paired with an alarming Sorry, hyung! message.

“Oh Jesus,” Jaebum groans, tipping his head back. The entire table turns to look at him in surprise. “Youngjae has my baby eating off the ground,” he says, offering Jinyoung his screen.

Jinyoung takes his phone from him and tilts it toward the others at the table, so they can watch as well.

A short video plays, Youngjae’s cackle ringing out even as he weakly scolds Yugyeom, the camera shaking furiously with his giggles. Yugyeom is setting his plate down beside Coco’s food bowl, face serious, chicken nuggets sliding precariously toward one edge. He kneels down and woofs merrily, then takes a whole nugget in his mouth and chews, swaying on his hands.

In two seconds, Coco sniffs around his mouth, and then dives in toward his plate and slobbers up the rest of his chicken. Youngjae laughs even louder, and scolds even quieter, and Yugyeom spits out his mouthful to protest Coco stealing his food. The video ends with a swerve of the camera, Yugyeom’s whine squeaking into what sounds like the start of panicky tears.

“Oh no,” Jinyoung says softly. “I hope he has more nuggets.”

“Play it again,” BamBam says with a smile, tapping at the screen.

“When did Youngjae get another puppy?” Jackson teases.

Jaebum yanks his phone back after the encore viewing, scrolling through the still updating message thread to find another photo. Yugyeom sits in the park with a towering ice cream cone and a messy smile.

Don’t worry, Youngjae’s message assures him. I fixed the crying!

Jaebum lets out an amused sigh, smiling reluctantly, and decides one indulgent weekend with an honorary uncle probably won’t hurt, even if it’s not exactly nutritionally balanced. And if Youngjae learns something about how easy it is for a toddler to get a tummy-ache, or have trouble winding down after eating as much sugar as he is tall, then maybe it’ll be educational, too.

Jinyoung is pressing into his shoulder again then, peering up at his face. “Did he send something else?” He asks.

Jaebum blinks, clearing his thoughts, and shows him the photo of Yugyeom’s dessert. Jinyoung smiles down at the image, but then he absolutely beams back up at Jaebum.

“Your whole face just lit up,” he whispers, “you should have seen yourself. You’re so relieved to see him happy again, to see his smile.”

Jaebum takes his phone back, feeling his cheeks warm as he shyly turns away. He isn’t embarrassed to be soft for his son, but he does feel self-conscious about Jinyoung’s tone. He still isn’t quite certain what Jinyoung thinks of Yugyeom – not as a child, of his own merit. Jinyoung seems to be a natural with kids.

But as Jaebum’s son – as a part of the emotional baggage he inevitably shoulders wherever he goes? He’s not sure. Jaebum can try to let loose on a trip, can relax enough to fool around. But is that the only way Jinyoung would want Jaebum? On his own terms, in a luxury suite, without a trace of Jaebum’s actual life?

After all, Jinyoung had taken care not to tell his parents the entire truth. In their minds, he was just Jinyoung’s classmate; at most a friend, a casual escort for a party. They had no idea he was a single parent, no idea he’d enrolled his son at Peachtree Grove. But now, pretending to be together again, he wonders if Jinyoung feels he has to dial up his appreciation of Yugyeom.

Jaebum glances back at him now, and his eyes are still liquid, melting with admiration. Jaebum’s vaguely reminded of interrupting his parents in the hospital, and how their warm gazes intertwined. His heart twists. How could anybody fake that? But Jaebum remembers then, how Jinyoung had teasingly warned him, from the beginning.

I’m a very good actor. You have to promise—!

And as Jinyoung shifts into a breezy smile, patting his knee and turning back to BamBam and Jackson, Jaebum remembers his own response.

It won’t happen.

Jaebum looks back at his phone, brushing his thumb across the glass and finding Yugyeom on his lockscreen once more. He thinks about Jinyoung neglecting to tell his parents the truth.

It really can’t happen. Not for any of them.

Jinyoung still stays near, in spite of Jaebum putting out awkward vibes. He stays close, and when the group sets out after breakfast for the trails, Jaebum is surprised to feel the length of him against his back.

Jinyoung’s face presses into his shoulder, arms wrapping around his waist gently. Jaebum watches the slow spread of his long fingers, as they knit low on his abdomen. Jaebum feels almost like he’s watching someone else in the moment, as his own hand comes up to lay atop them, feels their breathing syncing up again like it had in bed.

And suddenly, their awkwardness seems to gust away in the winter breeze, like a passing puff of cloud.

The sun is bright now, rising high with the day, and their combined shadows stretch together across glittering, pristine blankets of snow. Jaebum indulges in the picture for a moment, lets them bump into each other as they lag behind the others, still connected.

Before they head into the rental hut for equipment and a safety lecture, Jaebum turns to Jinyoung slowly, unwrapping himself so they can hold hands properly.

“Are you nervous?” He asks, and he’s convinced himself it’s mostly about the skiing.

Jinyoung rolls his lips together, and Jaebum is struck, as always, by the sight. But this time, there’s a sensation to remember, a feeling that’s linked to a memory of their meaty embrace, not just a passing curiosity. And Jaebum bites his own lip in response, feeling his own mouth water as he remembers the image of Jinyoung’s lips sliding off his throbbing cock, the spit and the slide and the exhilarating pulse of relief as he’d swallowed around him.

Jinyoung nods, the movement small and almost apologetic. Jaebum feels a shiver trace down his spine, an echo of the nervous atmosphere from earlier.

“It’s turning out to be a good trip for firsts,” Jaebum says meaningfully. He squeezes his hand then, trying to console him, running his thumb over the back of Jinyoung’s knuckles.

Jinyoung tries to pull back shyly but Jaebum doesn’t let him, instead countering the movement with a strong tug. It sends Jinyoung tottering into his arms, their chests bumping and faces suddenly close.

But they’re both bursting into embarrassed laughter, Jinyoung shuffling back to hide his smile. Jaebum doesn’t bother to hide the goofy grin he knows is on his own face, teeth bare and cheeks sore with it.

But it feels good to relax around him again, they way they’d been when they first arrived and that light had painted their room in a rainbow. Maybe things after this trip won't be so strange at all. Jaebum just had to stop overthinking.

“Hey!” BamBam calls from the doorway, with sharp eyes. “Tomorrow, Today. We’re waiting on you two.”

Jaebum rubs his neck with an self-conscious chuckle, but he lets Jinyoung tug him by their hands and lead the way in. They settle on the farthest bench in the demo area, behind a curious, constantly peeking Mark and Jackson. It feels natural, and easy again, as Jinyoung crosses his legs toward him and keeps their shoulders pressed tight.

But: “Jinyoung-ah,” says a deep voice, and Park Chanyeol is settling on Jaebum’s other side, decked out in pristine, neatly fitting winter gear. “I popped out of the office for a bit, to see if I can give you some pointers.”

Jinyoung beams at him, reaching across Jaebum to squeeze his knee gratefully, and the staffer launches into the safety lecture.

Jaebum’s heart sinks, as he watches their gleeful expressions connecting, and he remembers it isn’t quite so easy.

 

//

 

Their smaller group agrees to go at Jinyoung’s learning speed, and start on the bunny slope. Mark and Jackson have snowboarded often, but they seem more interested in keeping an eye on the evolving dynamics.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Chanyeol is saying fondly, watching Jinyoung wobble and tremble, barely inching forward. “Do you need a little help?”

“I’m okay,” Jinyoung insists, and then glances back at Jaebum, where he’s loitering off to the side with Mark and Jackson, watching other people stumble and veer down the shallow beginner’s trail.

“Jaebummie—Jaebum hyung has done this before, right?” Jinyoung asks, and even his voice is faltering, along with his balance. “You could show me what to do.”

Jaebum raises his eyebrows, feeling a little pressured. It’s been a while since he’s tried to ski, or do any sport besides speed grocery shopping. And while he doesn’t look quite as alien as Jinyoung at the moment, he’s still incredibly rusty.

“I don’t know if that’s a great idea,” he croaks. “I haven’t done this in a while. And I mean, Chanyeol-ssi is like, the ski guy, right?”

Chanyeol laughs and nods, sweeping Jinyoung forward and partly down the hill with a single guiding hand from beside him. Jinyoung yelps, but it’s with exhilaration, and he glances back to beam at the rest of their group.

Jaebum’s jaw sets on edge, sour and regretful as he waves back, dumbly. He watches Chanyeol as he cheerfully adjusts Jinyoung’s hip to correct his posture.

Jinyoung doesn’t seem flustered by the touch, but his expression is equally bright, and now Jaebum sags moodily behind them like a shadow.

“Oh no,” hums Jackson. “Do you miss him already?”

Jaebum rolls his eyes, as he is actually trying to shuffle a little closer to Jinyoung, now. But it’s awkward with everyone on skis or boards. And Jinyoung’s still scooting down the hill slowly, Chanyeol laughing next to him. The gap lengthens.

“You guys seemed pretty close, this morning,” Mark says, tone greasy. “Actually, it feels like something might have happened.”

“Would you consider last night — quality bonding time?” Jackson says loudly, waggling his brows. Jaebum can’t quite place why he’s so irritated by it.

He sees Jinyoung glancing back in concern though, and Mark doesn’t even bother to hide a satisfied smirk.

The back of Jaebum’s neck itches, heat flaring up in his cheeks. The sun reflects off the white of snow everywhere, and suddenly everything seems to glare up at with Jaebum. He’s not usually particularly shy about his exploits, but last night felt private, just for them. He doesn’t want to share it, even for laughs. Even if it was casual — he feels selfish about it.

“How is that any of your business?” He asks, a bite in his tone.

“Would you agree that maybe, you two may have gotten a little closer,” Jackson chuckles, but keeps his voice lower. “A little cabin sounds pretty… intimate.”

“Jinyoung-ah,” Mark yells, in contrast. “Did you pack all the essentials?”

Jinyoung looks flushed, eyes fluttering between them and his skis nervously now, and Jaebum’s stomach lurches. How would they know about what happened — and is it just a lucky guess about Jinyoung bringing condoms?

“What...” Jaebum mutters, and he clamps a warning hand into Jackson’s shoulder. “What the fuck are you two getting at?”

Jackson looks startled and his face softens, like he hadn’t expected such an adverse reaction. The laughter drains from his face, and his teasing expression melts into one of concern.

“We’re just playing around,” he says, quietly.

But: “We had a little gentlemen’s agreement,” Mark continues, teeth shining too sharply. And it’s abrupt, how Jackson suddenly tries to yank away from Jaebum, trying to reach out and pinch Mark.

Because maybe Mark doesn’t read Jaebum quite as well, or just doesn’t care to. He doesn’t seem bothered by how he’s simmering already.

So Mark pushes on, as Jaebum keeps Jackson close. Yards away, Jinyoung is trying to wobble around to face them, although Jaebum isn’t certain how much he’s heard.

“Jackson and I were betting with Jinyoung: about how early in the trip you two might shack up,” Mark explains. “Jackson’s been gloating since we saw you two kissing in the hall, since his money was on the first night.”

Jackson blanches at this, and Jaebum can see the gears turning in his head, as he’s working out how offensive this sounds, as he realizes how quickly this could turn bad.

“It was – a joke,” Jackson says very crisply, reaching up to offset Jaebum’s arm, as he digs tighter still into his collar.

“We had no idea about the private cabin,” Mark babbles on, “That wasn’t really fair. I figured rooming next to rest of us might turn you off a little, at least at first. But I might have underestimated your… dry spell.” 

Several things happen too quickly, too intensely for Jaebum to process right away. Jinyoung cries out suddenly, and they all turn to catch sight of him sliding backwards, tumbling, and then sliding down the rest of the beginner’s slope on his bottom. Chanyeol yelps and zips cleanly after him, and Jaebum’s stomach feels like it’s turned over on itself completely.

Jackson shouts in pain then, crumpling forward. Jaebum slowly uncurls his seized, angry fingers out of his shoulder, caught in somewhat of a daze. Half of him is panicked: nervous and distracted by Jinyoung’s fall. But he knows Chanyeol is there to pick him up, and the other half of his mind is busy: his brain feels like it’s very nearly frothing over with rage.

Ears buzzing, he stumbles away from Mark and Jackson. “You bet money on us??” He murmurs. “About us fucking? Like we’re a couple of rats in an experiment?”

Jackson waves his hands like he’s trying to clear Jaebum’s vision — but it’s already gone red.

“No,” Jackson says. “We were just joking about it. This is all just silly stuff, because we think it’s kind of funny. Remember when you used to hate him?”

“It was only a couple of weeks ago,” Mark supplies.

“Mark is just teasing,” Jackson insists, but Mark is certainly not smiling. “No money has changed hands, there’s no money on anything.”

“We did tell him to be sure and bring along some condoms,” Mark says, pressing on, tone hard and frigid like ice again. “Since you don’t have the best track record with protection.”

“Mark—!” Jackson hisses, holding Jaebum’s arm firmly to his side.

“Well?” Mark asks. “Don’t leave us hanging. How was it, Jaebum?”

Jaebum stares, face stony.

And Jaebum wants to hit him. It makes his stomach roll to realize how quickly, how fiercely he wants to fight. He wants to knock all the perfect, pointed teeth out of his smile, wants to tear his name out of his mouth so he can never say it again. But it isn’t an appropriate response, not as someone’s father and not as someone’s friend.

Instead, he shoves away from Jackson’s grabbing hands and murmured comforts.

“You’re not very fucking funny,” Jaebum spits over his shoulder, cheeks burning as he shuffles along uncomfortably with his poles. Finally he gains enough momentum to move down the slope in the direction Jinyoung had slid.

If Mark is jealous, that’s his own personal problem. It has nothing to do with Jaebum or Jinyoung, and he knows it. That’s why he’s acting out. He’s the one without any hand to play, except bitterness.

But betting on them? Even without any real money, the joke pushes Jaebum’s buttons. If Jinyoung had packed those condoms, thinking he’d make this into some sort of a game — is Jaebum just a tasteless joke, in the scheme of things? He grits his teeth, feeling foolish as he totters his way down the rest of the slope.

And it does strike Jaebum as strange. It doesn’t suit Jinyoung’s character, to use what could be meaningful first experiences, for some weird power play. Then again — why was he experimenting with Jaebum like this at all? Jinyoung had said he wanted Jaebum, but maybe he’s just doing it for the story.

He finds them beyond the foot of the hill, Jinyoung on a bench as a kneeling Chanyeol adjusts his boots for him, their equipment cast aside. They both look up at him with stony, unreadable expressions, as he tries gracelessly to turn into an acceptable stop.

“Are you okay?” Jaebum asks, giving Jinyoung’s form a once-over for any obvious discomfort.

But Jinyoung looks alright, besides a glimmer in his eyes as he lifts his chin to meet his gaze. “I’m fine,” he says stiffly.

“No thanks to his so-called boyfriend,” Chanyeol sighs, standing up and staring down the length of his nose at him. But he hasn’t thrown a punch, so Jaebum takes it to confirm Jinyoung must not have been hurt.

Jaebum feels the back of his neck prickling with mixed frustration again, and shakes his head. “I wouldn’t have been any help,” he says, shifting his weight awkwardly on his skis. “I’m telling you, I’m not much more experienced than Jinyoung. I’d probably have dragged him down harder.”

Jinyoung looks unsure, but sighs and gets to his feet with a hand from Chanyeol.

“What did you say to Mark and Jackson?” He asks now, broaching the topic for them both. He looks mildly nervous.

“What did I say?” Jaebum repeats in surprise. “Not nearly enough. What about what they said? What about those bets, Jinyoung-ah?”

“I never made any bets,” Jinyoung says clearly, and Chanyeol steps closer behind his shoulder.

“Maybe not a real one,” Jaebum says, and he can feel the heat of his own blush, high on his cheekbones as he tries to hold back the flood of indignation. It rips through his chest like a rushing wave, sets his heart pounding. “But you packed the essentials, just like Mark told you to.”

Chanyeol frowns at Jinyoung then, not having caught any of the details when they’d first heard it farther up the hill. “What’s he talking about?” Chanyeol asks.

“Right?” Jaebum presses. “In your nightstand. Those were their idea?”

“No,” Jinyoung says, nostrils flaring. “It didn’t have anything to do with them.”

“Is anything you told me true?” Jaebum asks, frustrated. He feels stretched thin, tired of the teasing and the strange obstacles they keep finding between them. “Or is this all a big gag, for your friends?”

“I meant every word,” Jinyoung says. His voice wavers, eyes gleaming, and it almost feels real.

“Jinyoung is an honest person,” says Chanyeol, crossing in front of him. “Maybe too honest. And I don’t know much about being a fake boyfriend, but you seem kinda bad at it. Shouldn’t you have come to his side? Helped him out. Instead of fighting with your friends and then making your way down here just to accuse him of some bullshit?”

Jaebum glowers up at him, tossing his poles aside. “Thanks for the advice,” he says. “But it seems like you’ve got the boyfriend thing covered.”

“Stop it,” Jinyoung says, elbowing Chanyeol out of the way. “It’s not like that.”

Jaebum raises his eyebrows, surprised by his protest. Shouldn’t he be happy to hear it? The man he’s been chasing is right here, catering to his every whim, well within reach.

“Am I wrong?” Jaebum asks, incredulous. “Aren’t you enjoying this? Your whole fan following is here, thirsting after you. The man of your dreams is babying you. And meanwhile, I get to look like an asshole, just by existing.”

Jinyoung looks bewildered, but Chanyeol wraps an arm around him and physically turns them away.

“Come on,” Chanyeol says. “I’ll have somebody get the rental stuff later. This guy needs a timeout.”

“What do you mean?” Jinyoung asks over his shoulder, wriggling around even in Chanyeol’s grip, with an ashen face. “The man of my dreams?? You think I like—?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Jaebum gestures at them limply. “It’s why you’ve never dated, it’s why you wanted to come on this trip, and it’s why he’s spoiling you with that fancy cabin.”

“I’m just being a good host, to one of my best friends,” Chanyeol grits out. “And it’s only how he deserves to be treated. Come on, Jinyoung-ah.”

Chanyeol’s arm is stiffer now, and he manages to guide Jinyoung away. Jinyoung’s face is still disbelieving, confused, and Jaebum is left gaping after him. Aching and equally perplexed, Jaebum feels like nothing has been resolved. His heart throbs, unsure if he’s really been betrayed by his friends, or if he’s overreacted again.

Jaebum collapses onto the bench, defeated. He’s reminded again of fighting with Jinyoung at the gala. “Can you just not accuse me of everything?” He’d begged. “If you don’t know what the situation is, maybe you can ask about it, or maybe it’s none of your business.”

At least now, this was Jaebum’s business. If Jinyoung was making light of their relationship, it makes Jaebum feel like shit. He isn’t sure why – it isn’t a serious relationship, inherently. But the image it had all conjured: of Jinyoung, Mark and Jackson, laughing snidely. That hurt.

And Chanyeol, insisting the luxury cabin was simply how Jinyoung deserved to be treated. Jaebum could only hear the implication – that he couldn’t afford to treat him right.

There’s a soft swish, a skidding as someone snowboards to the base of the learner’s slope. Jackson settles beside him a moment later with a grim sigh.

“I don’t know exactly what happened up there,” Jackson says, after a few minutes of matching, stiff silence. Neither seem keen to fight, so he ventures onward.

“I owe you an apology. I’m sorry — and I swear when we had that conversation, it wasn’t mean-spirited at all,” Jackson says. “Not on my part, and certainly not on Jinyoung’s.”

Jaebum notes the omission of Mark from this clarification, and squints over at him in curiosity.

“That’s all I can really speak for,” Jackson says, nodding. “Mark is still going through it on his own. He honestly doesn’t think you deserve Jinyoung’s attention.”

“You said you two had flirted,” Jaebum says, “but neither of you ever dated him. Why is Mark so much more hung up on it?”

“He just needs a little more time,” Jackson says. “I don’t think he even really wants Jinyoung to himself. But you guys are sort of, specifically trying to flaunt yourselves as being together. So it rubs his face in it a little.”

Jaebum nods, slowly. A beat passes in relative peace, and he shifts more comfortably, grateful Jackson followed him after all.

“Jinyoung introduced us, you know,” says Jackson. “Me and Mark. Thought we would be good for each other.”

Jaebum purses his lips in thought, humming as he squints out across the slopes. They do get along awfully well.

“I wasn’t bothered,” Jackson says. “But Mark didn’t even realize it until a little later. It was about two hours after Jinyoung had left with an excuse, and I asked if I could kiss him.”

Jaebum turns to him in surprise. “Jinyoung tricked you guys into a blind date?” He wants to follow up with you tried to kiss him after knowing him for two hours? But it’s less important, and not that unbelievable for Jackson.

“It was cute,” Jackson sighs. “But I think Mark might still be kind of upset with Jinyoung, too. I think that’s part of why he’s especially raw about it all. He doesn’t mind being angry at you. But angry at Jinyoung? That’s really disappointing, for him.”

Jaebum raises his eyebrows, feeling skeptical. He’s seen Mark tease Jinyoung, but it was nothing compared to the way he’d needled at Jaebum today, smiling like a shark about to dismember its prey.

“He’s sensitive,” Jackson says. “You’ve seen the angry aspect of it. I’ve seen some of the others. Like when he’s completely, totally heartbroken.”

“So I’m guessing your date didn’t end so well?” Jaebum asks, after a tired, sympathetic sigh.

Jackson’s eyes slide to meet Jaebum’s, bright and sincere, glittering as he smiles sideways. “It’s a work in progress,” he says. “Like I said, I was up for it: Jinyoung had been pretty clear about where our boundaries ended by then, and who knows? Mark is fun, and gorgeous. I still think we deserve a shot.”

Jaebum is surprised again. Not by Jackson’s willingness; he was a natural flirt and had seen lots of people on and off over the years. But that he was still interested in Mark; even as it seemed clear to both of them that Mark was still sore after Jinyoung.

“I keep asking him out,” Jackson says. “But he only ever agrees to hang out – says he doesn’t know me well enough to date me. Which is fine. So I just keep inviting him to everything.”

“Like lunches,” Jaebum realizes. “That’s why you tried so hard to get him to sit with us.”

“Exactly,” says Jackson. “Sometimes, I’ll check mid-way through. Is this a date? in the middle of playing video games. Is this a date? at the basketball court. And he always rolls his eyes and says no — for now.”

“Was it a date,” Jaebum murmurs, narrowing his eyes, “when you went back to your room last night?”

Jackson punches him in the arm, hard. Jaebum blinks at him in startled surprise for a moment, almost offended.

“See?” Jackson roars. “Hyung, this a normal thing friends do: we make fun of each other for fucking people! And for not fucking people! And for everything.”

Jaebum rolls his eyes and deflates, but Jackson makes a fair point. “I know,” Jaebum says reluctantly. “But the betting thing… ah. It really made me fucking furious. I don’t know why.”

“I know why,” Jackson says, eyes wide with emphasis. “Because it combines some of your biggest pet peeves: people having too much money, and people looking down on you. And also, because Mark was going hard, trying to  make you furious.”

“I got upset at Jinyoung too,” Jaebum admits. “Even though he said he didn’t make any bets.”

“He begged us to stop even talking about it,” Jackson groans. “He doesn’t deserve any of this. And we were totally joking about the condoms just to embarrass him – I didn’t expect Mark to use it on you, too.”

Jaebum hesitates for a moment. “Jinyoung did bring some,” he says. “I found them, snooping in his drawer.”

Jackson boggles at him, his eyes gone wholly round now. “My little Park puppy?? Packing prophylactics?? What is his game plan?”

“I brought some too,” Jaebum admits with a shrug. He straightens up, but tries not to look too boastful.

Jackson puts a hand over his heart, shutting his eyes and nodding soulfully. “You two are so responsible.”

Jaebum shakes his head with a chuckle, and then startles slightly.

“So you’re really like, wooing Mark?” Jaebum asks. “That is so weird.”

“Hey man,” Jackson says, standing and helping him off the bench. “Not everybody’s relationship can start with a big, stupid lie. Some of us do it the old fashioned way.”

“We don’t have a relationship,” Jaebum says quickly, but it doesn’t sound convincing, even to himself. “Like that,” he adds feebly.

“Uh-huh,” says Jackson. “I’m sure you guys went back to your private cabin and did a puzzle.”

Jaebum tries not to choke on his own spit, nervous as they gather up their equipment. He feels like at any moment, Jackson will call him out on being awkward, on having fooled around. But their secret stays safe for now.

“You sure you want to head back out there?” Jackson asks. “You looked pretty terrible.”

Jaebum laughs out loud, and follows him along to the next lift anyway. He’s relieved to have at least salvaged one friendship, even if it’s a brutal one.

 

//

 

Jaebum isn’t sure if Kyungsoo makes him wait an extra long time for the cart on purpose or not, until he see his frowning face. Well, his further frowning face. Kyungsoo hasn’t been particularly gleeful about carting them around, but it’s usually done with begrudging efficiency.

Jaebum makes a request at the front desk, and then sits outside in his gear while the afternoon sun dips low along the mountain crest. The sky cycles from a hazy orange, to pink, to deep purple, before a blanket of clouds and Kyungsoo finally appear. He nods brusquely and hops in the cart.

Jaebum doesn’t imagine Chanyeol would have divulged much detail to the concierge, however close they may be. But it seems like he might know, and disapprove of something. Then Kyungsoo surprises him, glancing back and initiating conversation as he starts the engine.

“Chanyeol really cherishes him, you know,” Kyungsoo says, brow furrowed.

“Yeah,” Jaebum calls out, voice hoarse. “I can tell. And Jinyoung likes him back.”

Kyungsoo actually snorts out loud at this – glancing back briefly again, like he isn’t sure if he’s supposed to take it seriously or not. “Are you joking?” He asks.

Jaebum shakes his head, and then remembers Kyungsoo can’t see him. “No,” he says. “They like each other, right?”

“Chanyeol definitely used to,” Kyungsoo says. “They’ve been friends for so long – it was a little inevitable, especially when he was young, and still… figuring himself out. What he liked, all of that.”

Jaebum nods along, biting his lip.

“He told me he even confessed,” Kyungsoo continues, and looks back to catch Jaebum’s sharp eyes once more. “When he was twelve,” he says dryly, and turns back to the road. “Needless to say, that didn’t exactly work out. Jinyoung-ssi rejected him, but insisted they stay friends. And they did.”

Jaebum isn’t certain that’s all there is to it, but he tries to find some comfort in Kyungsoo’s even tone. If he knows Chanyeol’s feelings are platonic — well, what? It doesn’t matter if Jinyoung is the one in love, now.

Kyungsoo parks them as close to the cabin as he can, and then gets out to help shovel some of the walkway. It’s started snowing again, and the clouds seem to be churning in anger, wind whistling around them bitterly. The snow piled around the cabin has crept up again, and Jaebum looks forward to the cheerful fire inside.

“I know you think, this cabin was just meant to spoil Jinyoung-ssi,” Kyungsoo says, leaning against his shovel, as Jaebum reaches the door. “But have you thought about how that includes you? Chanyeol could have booked you separate. Could’ve stayed here himself. But he gave you to Jinyoung.”

“We’re pretending to date,” Jaebum says, tired of feeling embarrassed by it. “Chanyeol-ssi knows that. He had to book us together.”

Kyungsoo tilts his head, frowning still, but there’s a hint of amusement tugging at the corner of his lips now. “Okay,” he says with a sigh. “So you really are kind of a lost cause.”

He turns away, tossing the shovel into the back of the cart, and is gone before Jaebum manages to get inside.

It’s warm, just as he’d hoped. And just as he’d imagined, a roaring, crackling fire glows in one corner of the room. The lighting is dim, except for this and a lamp beside the couch, where Jinyoung is curled against the plush arm, reading.

Jaebum slips out of his coat and tries not to acknowledge how domestic this feels. How invitingly homey it is – to arrive a little late, a little uncomfortable, and be warmed by a fire and the soft image of Jinyoung’s relaxed, handsome features.

Jinyoung doesn’t greet him, though. And as Jaebum shuffles by the bed to get into sleep clothes, he watches the tension rise in his neck, recognizes the stilted way he jams a bookmark into whatever he’s reading and waits for Jaebum to say something.

Jaebum joins him on the couch, nudging the book gripped tight in his hands until it turns over. Recognizing the cover, he nods with a tight smile.

“This is a good one,” he whispers.

Jinyoung turns to frown at him, and the dramatically shifting firelight casts long, shifting shadows over his narrowed eyes and pouted lips. Jaebum doesn’t savor seeing him this upset — he knows he owes him yet another apology.

“I talked to Jackson,” Jaebum says, finally. “And he cleared things up. I’m sorry I was short with you. And I’m sorry I thought you’d been playing games somehow.”

“Jaebum hyung,” Jinyoung says, and he sounds exasperated. “You’re the one who started this entire thing — as a game. We’re here, playing your parts, by your rules, in your game.”

Jaebum wants to be cheeky, wants to point out Professor Hong had paired them initially, if he wanted to get technical about the start of things. Which makes him wonder then – if he’d been paired with someone else – would he have stumbled through all of this song and dance, all the way up here?

It just wasn’t possible, without Jinyoung. Without Jinyoung, he might have gotten a date for the gala, but it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. They wouldn’t have encouraged Yugyeom into daycare, wouldn’t have babysat for free on such short notice, wouldn’t have sat on his lap and told Suzy off, wouldn’t gotten him a free private cabin. And who could have told him he’d never been a failure? Who else would say he was handsome with his son, that they were more than fine as they were?

“Thank you,” Jaebum whispers, eyes dipping low. “I know. I really appreciate everything you’ve done.”

Jinyoung stays silent, but his face softens, rounding out again in the firelight.

“I’m sorry I keep dragging you through the dirt with me,” Jaebum says, remembering Mark’s warning words. “You don’t deserve it, and I’m sorry.”

Maybe he couldn’t spoil Jinyoung like Chanyeol, maybe he couldn’t be as easy and flirtatious as Jackson. But couldn’t he just treat Jinyoung with respect for once? Couldn’t he cherish whatever this was? Not with a clean slate, discounting what they’d been through. But with balanced, honest scales – where Jinyoung’s abundance of sweetness, generosity, and the taste of his lips outweighed every petty strike he’d held against him.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung whispers, book shoved aside as he leans toward Jaebum, wrapping his hands around his neck as he looks directly, desperately into his eyes.

“I just want you to see me,” Jinyoung says, and his voice tapers out in a whine. “I want you to see me, so bad. But I don’t know how to say everything I’m feeling, because I’m scared of what it means, and I’m scared of what you’d say.”

Jaebum stares into his eyes, at the stubborn emotion he sees there, at the fire reflected in their depths, and he swallows the sore lump in his throat. His brow creases with concern.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Jaebum admits, quiet and confused.

“I’m not looking at anyone, besides you,” Jinyoung says, voice thick with emotion. His lips are so close, and Jaebum doesn’t deserve them.

But Jinyoung crawls closer toward him still, and Jaebum settles back to let him clamber over his lap. He dips a hand into the sway of his lower back, where his shirt rides up, fingers finding the dimples at the base of his spine.

“So show me,” says Jaebum, despite all of his lingering questions, “show me what you want to say.”

Jinyoung dips his head to touch their lips together, and Jaebum angles up to meet the kiss. Their mouths smear against each other, messy and urgent, loudly smacking, out of rhythm with the firewood as it pops in the fire.

There’s a sudden buzzing sound, and the lamp and the ambient lighting shuts off.

But Jaebum doesn’t even notice. His world is spinning, tilting, and he’s tipped them off the sofa now. He’s pressing Jinyoung’s back into the fur rug as he devours him, and everything is bright, vivid and fervid by the fire.


Chapter Text

Jaebum doesn’t ask questions, because it doesn’t matter. If Jinyoung wants to kiss him, Jaebum wants to be kissed. And if Jinyoung wants to fold around him, slow and warm and deep like last night, Jaebum wants to thrust into him. This physicality, their only connection, is all he can understand at the moment. All he wants.

Jaebum takes hold of a leg, under the knee, trying to hitch it up to his shoulder. He wants Jinyoung to feel him low. To feel the press of his cock where he wants it, as he hardens.

But Jinyoung yelps abruptly, and Jaebum sits up in alarm, worried he’s hurt him somehow.

“Everything okay?” Jaebum wonders, hands running down the sides of his body in careful question.

“It’s just a little bruise,” Jinyoung says, but he’s too breathless already, and the pain must still be sharp.

Jaebum takes a steadying breath himself, getting up on his knees and tugging delicately at the fabric of Jinyoung’s pants. Jinyoung inhales slowly, rolling to one side and letting Jaebum search across the slope of his hip.

Jaebum runs his fingertips lightly across the skin, and up here by the bone, it’s creamy, soft and even. But then, it blotches into an angry red, a purpling smudge. It’s on the very outer edge of his hip, just before it smooths back out into the soft round of his bottom. The firelight shutters dramatically across the mark, and Jaebum looks back up at Jinyoung, who's peering uncertainly down the line of his shoulder, the taper of his waist.

“I’m sorry,” Jaebum says, hand splayed under the bruise. “I shouldn’t have just left you with Chanyeol, but I honestly think I’d have made this worse. Seriously, I fell down about fifty times today.”

Jinyoung stares back at him, chest trembling with a self-conscious breath, and shrugs. It’s meant to be nonchalant, but Jaebum can see the inelegant jerk in his shoulders. He’s embarrassed of being looked at like this — he must feel vulnerable here, laid out for Jaebum.

“I would’ve—,” Jinyoung whispers. “I just kept thinking, since I got back. Over and over: I would’ve rather fallen down that hill with you. Like you said would happen.”

Jaebum is looking at the bruise again, but he thinks of his own insistence, that he would have brought Jinyoung down harder. It lines up in his mind — perfectly parallel with Mark’s hinting someone would think he’s dragging Jinyoung through the dirt. And here, Jinyoung saying it’s what he would want. Does he feel that way otherwise? Back in the real world? Or is it just temporary, part and parcel with the adventure of something new?

Now he drags his gaze back up along the twist of his body, and nods slowly. He yanks his pants and underwear the rest of the way off, casting them aside, and bends to carefully brush his lips along his waist.

Jinyoung shivers beneath him, and Jaebum exhales against his skin as he dips lower, enjoying the musk reflected back at him. Jinyoung smells faintly like soap, as he’d likely showered before changing into sweats, but he’s been sitting bundled and cozy on the sofa for a while. So now his skin tastes warm, a little salty, as Jaebum lets his tongue glide across it.

Jinyoung gasps so quietly, Jaebum barely hears it, eyes fluttering shut as he savors the taste of his thigh. He bites into him lightly, tracing with just the tip of his tongue as he skirts around the mark.

Jinyoung is gnawing on his own lip in anticipation when Jaebum looks up at him a moment later, as he finally flattens his tongue out and sweeps it across the breadth of the bruise.

Jinyoung nearly hiccups into a short sob, turning away. Jaebum quickly switches to pressing soft kisses around the perimeter instead, lips silently plucking over to his bottom.

Then Jaebum gently guides him onto his stomach, snatching a pillow from the sofa and tucking it under him. He watches Jinyoung anchor his shaking fingers into the fur rug, white tufts poking through clenched knuckles. He’s nervous.

But Jaebum shifts his sharp focus now, to Jinyoung’s raised ass and the way his flesh trembles and prickles into goosebumps under his lips. Jaebum kisses and suckles his way over one pert, tensed cheek, and then thumbs them apart so he can sink his nose and mouth into his center.

It’s been awhile since Jaebum tried this, the first and last time having been hasty and drunk. Still, he’s confident this is what he wants to try, how he wants make Jinyoung feel a little better. He wants him to feel a little wet, a little full, and begging. Needing. Wanting more. He lathes his tongue flat across the opening, eliciting a low, broken whine that makes him smile.

He gives it another flick, and then another, until the tickling sensation makes Jinyoung’s hips wriggle and shift.

Jaebum’s reminded of how sensitive he is, how easily he’d flustered when Jaebum had just touched his neck at the gala. So he leans farther forward, stretching his arm up along Jinyoung’s spine, and tickles his hand along his nape at the same time.

“Ahhnh—,” Jinyoung manages only a shadow of a noise. Jaebum continues licking, airy and light, even as his grip on an asscheek is firm. His blunt nails dig crescents into the soft skin.

Jaebum shifts forward deeper then, once he’s built up enough spit to where he knows it’ll be slick, wet and easy. He spears his tongue in then, curls it in just past the rim until he hears Jinyoung cry out.

It’s a unique feeling, Jaebum imagines, nothing you can recreate on your own. And Jaebum wants him to remember it this way — Jaebum’s own tongue, inside him, irreplaceable in his memory at least.

Jinyoung shudders with another thrust of his tongue, and Jaebum feels it, feels every quake of his thighs and squeeze of his muscle around him. And then Jaebum suckles at the rim, twisting and curling his tongue still, like he’s trying to extract his very essence.

Jinyoung is begging now, knees scrambling in the fur as if he’s trying to get away from the pleasure. It’s too intense for him, too abruptly blissful all at once.

So Jaebum grips tight at the back of his neck, and shifts his other hand to yank back on his pelvis. They collide; Jaebum bumping his nose back into him, crushing his face in deep and licking like he’s starved. Jinyoung whimpers into the rug, mouth muffled.

Jaebum releases his neck so he can tug his cheeks farther apart with both hands, so he can slide an index finger in past his tongue.

And it’s here Jinyoung starts to thrash, back arching and hand slapping against the floor, as Jaebum crooks a knuckle neatly to brush against his prostate.

They’re inching closer to a crescendo then, and he knows it will take only a little more pressure, with Jinyoung wriggling and whining like this beneath him. Jaebum suckles hard and sloppy along his rim, finger dragging in and out, flicking forcefully against his edges, and Jinyoung comes.

It’s reminiscent of the first time, but at once a few shades different. Jinyoung seizes up like he’s in shock, his whole body going taut as his spine bows back and he rolls over with it. Face flushing, he’s sweaty, the neck of his turtleneck bitten damp between his teeth, pearly come stringing out between his belly and the rug.

Jaebum rolls him on his back, delirious with the image, obsessed with his fucked out expression. He dips down to lick the stripes of semen off of his belly, tongue scraping over the stretch of dark, coarse hair that trails there. His palm snakes up from a hip to hitch his shirt farther up, to find a stubbornly hard nipple and roll his thumb against it until Jinyoung manages another creaky, desperate cry.

Jinyoung seems spent, but the rosy peaks at his chest arouse more curiosity in Jaebum. He’s rolling the shirt up with both hands now, shoving more of the neck into Jinyoung’s mouth. A gag.

As he dips to mouth at Jinyoung’s nipples, he feels hungry, predatory. He knows it’s too much, as Jinyoung cries out into his collar. But he wants to push him a bit. Jaebum feels this push, in his shoulders, Jinyoung’s fingernails scraping to find purchase there.

Jinyoung writhes and arches under his ministrations, Jaebum suckling at him hard and inelegant. He’s forceful where he’d been gentle before, gnawing now when before he’d tried only for the taste of his skin.

Jinyoung is scrambling beneath him, fingers threading into his hair now and tugging, begging.

Jaebum dips a hand to cradle Jinyoung’s spent cock, pressing its sticky length against himself. The warmth of it alone is overstimulating, and Jinyoung nearly screams now, yanking him back by his hair. He’s sucking in a huge breath as Jaebum finally lets up, settling back on his heels.

“Are you going to fuck me or not?” Jinyoung gasps.

Jaebum stares, stunned for a moment, and then he’s grinning sideways; collapsing along his body, burrowing his face in Jinyoung’s sweaty collarbone and laughing softly.

Even this seems like it’s overwhelming and ticklish for Jinyoung, who gasps again and tilts his pink face away. Jaebum thinks he should have gone easier on him, kept it clean and simple.

“We shouldn’t rush anything,” Jaebum tells him, leaning up on an elbow. “I know you want to try things, but there’s a lot we can do besides that —  we have plenty of time.”

He doesn’t define it, doesn’t want Jinyoung to feel like he’s stressing about the weekend ending soon. But he isn’t opposed to fooling around more than this, however unlikely that may be.

Jinyoung is concentrating on pacing his breathing, Jaebum can tell by the way he’s gone slightly cross-eyed as he stares down the length of their bodies and purses his lips on each deliberate exhale.

“Plenty of time?” Jinyoung repeats, shaky, and his round eyes look up with the question.

Jaebum feels his gut twist, not wanting to be called out on what he means. So he rolls away and sits up, helping Jinyoung wobble to his feet beside him once he’s found his own balance.

“I could use a shower anyway,” Jaebum says. “Or maybe we could try out that jacuzzi tub?”

Jinyoung nods, and Jaebum can’t press down the pride he feels in seeing how much of a mess he’s become. He’s shivering, disheveled, tugging down his stretched out turtleneck over his bottom.

Jaebum glances around the cabin, suddenly realizing it’s dark, not dim. By the fireplace, the light of the flames had been glaring. But now, its flickering light casts shifting, towering shadows throughout the space, and Jaebum feels abruptly uneasy.

“Did we…” Jaebum remembers Jinyoung reading, and tries the lamp beside the sofa. Two clicks, either way. “Did we lose power?”

Nothing happens, and Jinyoung’s fingers wring at the hem of his sweater.

“Everywhere?” He wonders, and then, pantless, scurries to the lighting panel by the entryway. There’s a hitch to his breath as he taps at it fruitlessly, and then his round eyes shift nervously to Jaebum again. “Nothing,” he confirms, and sure enough, the screen looks completely blank.

Jaebum rubs the back of his head, suddenly agitated. They’re at a world-class resort, surely stuff like this doesn’t happen?

Jinyoung steps, hesitantly, towards the door. He lets out an anxious hum.

“What?” Jaebum asks, crossing to join him.

“The floor feels,” and Jinyoung traces a long toe across the threshold. “A little chilly here.”

Jaebum glances back towards one of the more visible air vents. They couldn’t have lost heat, in this weather?

Jaebum opens the door. He’s met with what he can only understand to be a wall of snow. Icy air drifts some flakes off the top, into their little cabin, and a bare-bottomed Jinyoung yelps, slamming the door shut once more.

Jaebum stares at it, dumbfounded. He thinks of the long, winding road up the mountain, and Kyungsoo assuring him it’s not accessible by foot in the winter. They’re really stuck here.

“We shouldn’t let out the rest of the warmth,” Jinyoung says, a panicked whine to his voice that’s probably brought on by the whip of cold air Jaebum had let gust inside.

“Should we call the front desk?” Jaebum mutters. “I bet they can shovel us out and relocate us to the main building? Or it might just be the fuse box or something.” He’s rattling it all off, partly to share with Jinyoung, and partly to reassure himself. He needs to get home — he doesn’t want to think about Yugyeom’s reaction to him being late. Doesn’t want to think about how hard it already was going to be, spending longer apart than usual.

Jinyoung retreats back toward the fire, slipping his pants on again and running a hand through his hair. He paces back and forth in the warm corner, looking more and more candidly anxious.

Jaebum lifts the provided phone’s sleek handset. There’s no dial tone, and he swallows dryly as he lets it slip back into its cradle. And of course, they never have cell reception here. He turns back to Jinyoung’s worried expression, and merely shakes his head.

“Okay,” breathes Jinyoung, stretching out his fingers and glancing nervously at the fireplace. “We still have a fire going,” he notes. “And there’s firewood in here, that can last us a while, right?”

Jaebum glances at the shelving beside the fireplace and nods, before moving on to inspect the kitchen area. The fridge has gone quiet and dark, but he tries the stove and finds it’s gas-powered, still flicking on and off.

“They’ve stocked some ramyeon and stuff. The fridge is out, but the kimchi and eggs in there should be fine for a little bit,” he reports. “So we won’t starve.” He sets about lighting the candles littered around the counters, which he’d dismissed before as being senselessly fluffy decor. He supposes he should be a little more grateful for the ambiance, now.

Jinyoung nods continually, but his hands are still visibly nervous, rubbing against his sweatpants and wringing together and apart. “Okay,” he repeats. “And everybody knows we’re here,” he says. “I’m sure Snowscapes has visibility of their grid somewhere, someone will know there’s an outage. And if not, someone will ask about us, tomorrow. We’re supposed to check out then anyway, so they’ll come dig us out eventually — if only to bill us.”

“I thought your Chanyeol-ssi was picking up the tab?” Jaebum cracks a smile.

Jinyoung’s eyes slide back to him, brows crinkling. “Mine?” He echoes.

Jaebum maintains their eye contact, still a pinch unsure about where they’d left their last conversation. Jinyoung had said, I’m not looking at anyone, besides you. But Jaebum still didn’t understand his relationship with Park Chanyeol.

Maybe Jinyoung thought his crush was a lost cause, with Chanyeol’s parents being so conservative, and both of them showing up on gossip blogs. Jaebum offered a helpful release to his builtup frustrations. Or maybe the crush had entirely been a mistaken assumption on Jaebum’s part — something becoming rather repetitive between them.

“Jaebum hyung,” Jinyoung sighs, sagging into the couch and peering over the back of it at him. There’s a hint of exasperation there, something Jaebum isn’t used to finding in his voice.

“There’s nothing between me and Chanyeol hyung,” he says. “Not in that way. You’re the only person who seems to think there could be.”

Jaebum bristles at this, pushing away from the counter with one of the candles in hand, heading for the bathroom. “I’m going to see if there’s still some hot water,” he says. “You can join me, if you want. Though I’m guessing the jets won’t work without power.”

Jinyoung frowns and doesn’t reply, and doesn’t follow him right away.

 

//

 

But sure enough, by the time Jaebum is shutting off the taps, the tub is steaming and inviting, and there’s a soft slap of bare feet behind him.

Jaebum turns with a grin, but it falters, as he finds his breath stalling for a moment. It’s not that he hasn’t already seen most of Jinyoung already, in bits and pieces, under a sweater or two.

But naked, draped only in a blue slice of moonlight from the window, and softened by the warm, wavering candle on the tub’s edge, he paints quite an image. His shoulders taper out to a narrow waist, and his thighs are strong, thick enough to be appetizing but not too feminine, not too soft. He’s lean everywhere, the muscle defined — an arresting study in proportion, with shadows of thick, dark hair at his inner corners.

And it’s not that Jinyoung doesn’t seem a little nervous — he drags a hand coyly behind him on the marble of the sink countertop, keeps his eyes just out of reach. But he seems expectant. Ripe, like winter citrus hanging heavy on the branch. So ready to be plucked, it sings to you with an intoxicating aroma. So plump with sweetness, when you dig your nails into the skin, the juice dribbles over the backs of your palms. Jaebum remembers the way the lubricant had leaked out of him, and licks his lips.

Jinyoung draws close, reaching for the hem of Jaebum’s sweatshirt, and Jaebum helps shrug it over the back of his head. Jinyoung's fingers whisper down his abdomen, then leaves his fingers at his waistband for a moment longer, before he kneels to tug his pants down and off.

Jaebum’s cock sways, heavy before his lips once more, and Jinyoung stares so intently his eyes glaze over.

Jaebum is surprised as always, by Jinyoung's blatant desire. Not that it isn’t sexy, not that he isn’t willing. But to feel so wanted, so openly affecting of Jinyoung, makes him feel alive. Nervous. There’s validation here, as unlikely as it might have seemed a few weeks before.

Still, Jaebum wants them to take it slow, and he helps Jinyoung up and into the water with him.

It’s nice like this, and although earlier he’d imagined frothing bubbles and some sort of raucous foreplay in here, the stillness of the bath and the darkness leaves them vulnerable and quiet instead.

Jaebum watches the way the slightly sparkling water reflects on his skin. He looks mystical, mysterious. He realizes, beyond Jinyoung wanting him on a physical level, and challenging him academically, he still doesn’t know that much about him. Still hasn’t bothered to find out.

“What do you want to do?” Jaebum asks, suddenly. He runs a hand through his wet hair, wrings a little water out. The sound of it trickling is loud, in the absence of conversation.

Jinyoung looks confused, apparently caught off guard by such a personal, but non-sexual question. “Now?” He asks.

“I mean,” Jaebum clears his throat, feeling a bit awkward. Is it too late, to get to know Park Jinyoung? After he’s already eaten him out? “With your life. You talked about not being sure if you wanted to go into business, like your parents. So have you decided, not to take over Park Air? Or are you still considering it?”

Jinyoung tilts his head, looking pleasantly surprised. His smile shifts into a more thoughtful expression. “It isn’t very interesting to me,” he admits. “Not the business aspect, as much as the whole concept. Air conditioning is good, and helpful. But I’d rather be in the business of people, not appliances.”

Jaebum nods, thinking it sounds fair. He supposes Jinyoung wouldn’t be directly selling any cooling systems. But if the core of a career is dissatisfying, there’s no level at which it will fulfill you.

“Peachtree Grove is more along the lines of what I’m interested in,” Jinyoung continues. “I’ve helped my sister a lot, on and off as she’s expanded it. I really like the idea of something more directly rooted in a community.”

Jaebum isn’t completely surprised by this — having seen Jinyoung with Yugyeom, he knows he has a natural knack for dealing with children. And again, while he’d be unlikely to start at entry level, crawling around with some toddlers, that enthusiasm could drive a business.

Jaebum blinks, a sudden thought occurring to him. “Oh,” he says. “I just realized, that’s why your fan photographer calls himself Peach Breeze,  right? It’s your family’s businesses, put together.”

Jinyoung snorts, but he manages to cut it short, clapping an embarrassed hand over his mouth and shaking his head. His shoulders shake with barely restrained laughter.

“No?” Jaebum wonders, confused.

“No,” Jinyoung echoes, hand falling away to reveal his smile, eyes glittering. “Peach is about my ass.”

Jaebum sputters for a moment, and then they’re both laughing, and he sends a splash over at him in frustration.

“That’s so stupid,” Jaebum crows. “I can’t believe you have the stupidest, fartiest watermark on the internet.”

Jinyoung waves for him to stop, laughing too hard, gone totally silent. “I know,” he says, once he’s finally managed to find his voice. “I know, I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”

“So, something like the daycare,” Jaebum says, once they’ve settled. “Will your parents be okay with that?”

Jinyoung shrugs, sighing. “I don’t know,” he says, sincerely. “I just know I hated watching them coming home from work, so late, only to keep working. I know it was to make our lives comfortable, and I’m grateful for it. But I don’t want it. Even if it means I just wash dishes for my sister’s daycare.”

Jaebum tilts his head, trying to imagine Jinyoung scrubbing a dish. He wonders if he even knows how.

“Whatever it is,” Jinyoung murmurs, “I just want to have a life beyond it. I want to have time to write, when I come home. And have dinner with my family, more than once a week.”

Jaebum’s ears perk up, and he raises his eyebrows. “Write what?” He asks. “More short film ideas?”

“Anything,” blurts out Jinyoung. “Everything? Movies. Stories. Even some poems, but they’re probably garbage.”

Jaebum’s heart hammers in his chest. He knows this drive — he has it too, constantly scribbling something down. Creating. He and Jinyoung, as always, are moving in mirrored ways. How did it take so long for them to come together like this?

“You can do it,” Jaebum says, softly. “You can do anything.”

A beat passes between them, the air suddenly quiet and thick.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung whispers, eyes roving over the breadth of Jaebum’s shoulders.

“That night after the gala, when you invited me up for coffee… or ramyeon, did you mean that?” He asks.

Jaebum hesitates. He could play dumb, make it literally about a midnight snack. He is a big fan. Or he could try being a little more straightforward, for once.

“You mean, as a come-on?” Jaebum clarifies.

Jinyoung nods, tucking some of his hair behind an ear. It’s pink.

Jaebum sighs, crooked grin slipping out before he can help it. It feels silly to confess now, after Jinyoung himself had basically begged for it on the floor. But if he really needs to know, Jaebum will tell him the truth.

“Yeah,” he shrugs, but he’s still a little embarrassed. “I mean, it’s okay to admit it, right? What we’re doing now, we both know.”

Jinyoung bites his lip, looking away. “You’d have fucked me, back then?” He wonders.

Jaebum blanches. He still isn’t sure about that — maybe he’d have chickened out before they got there. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“It certainly crossed my mind,” Jaebum admits. “But I also didn’t know, at that time, how inexperienced you were. If you’d told me, I probably wouldn’t have offered.”

Jinyoung nods, slowly, and presses his lips together, hiding a small smile. His cheeks are pink too, now.

“Was I your first kiss too?” Jaebum jokes, and he gently pushes another swell of water toward Jinyoung’s side of the tub.

Jinyoung watches it in amusement, letting it slap around his shoulders, and then looking up to frown cutely at Jaebum.

“No,” he says with a chuckle. “No, I never said that. I told you I’ve fooled around, before.”

“I guess that fits,” Jaebum murmurs. “Your mouth—,” And he falters here, realizing how excruciatingly tender he wants to be, how deep into detail he nearly lets himself slip. Instead, the words melt away, like soap bubbles in bathwater, and Jinyoung’s sparkling, upturned eyes catch his through the steam. He’s smirking.

“You have good experience,” Jaebum offers.

“I was only with one other person, on and off for a little while. But we never got serious,” Jinyoung says. “I trusted him a lot, but I wasn’t ready to go any further, back then.”

Jaebum doesn’t find it quite as distasteful as he expected, to hear Jinyoung talk about another man. But it seems clean, at least. Nothing lingering.

“Things ended with him?” Jaebum wonders. “Why didn’t it get serious?”

“It was Jackson,” Jinyoung mumbles, and then he barks out an embarrassed laugh and sinks deeper into the water, so that it covers up his pink shoulders and starts to rise up over his chin. He covers his mouth with both hands.

Jaebum boggles at him, unsure if he’s heard right, and everything he’d considered about Jinyoung — shy, stiff, and so far removed from his own circle — seems to evaporate. Jinyoung had been that close to Jackson? Had been intimate with him?

“He,” and Jaebum stammers to a stop just as soon as he starts talking. It takes another moment for his brain to seemingly reboot. “He always said you’d only flirted.”

Jinyoung giggles, sinking a little lower still, before he sits up straighter again, flicking his damp hair back with a sigh. “That was a big part of it,” he says. “I trusted Jackson, because he flirted with everybody. And since he was so much more experienced, I was sure he would know what he was doing.”

Jaebum’s ears are buzzing faintly, face flushed from the steam and the story and his own dizzying ignorance. He and Jackson had talked about Jinyoung today, and he’d made no mention of it.

But Jaebum supposes it’s better to hear from Jinyoung instead, so that he actually understands what’s going on, can’t jump to conclusions — about how Jinyoung had sucked Jackson’s dick first. That doesn’t matter. Right?

“I was feeling very self-conscious,” Jinyoung admits, fingers fiddling with a molded plastic neck-rest along the edge of the tub. Jaebum watches his nail picking at the corner, over and over. He really must be nervous. “I was suddenly finally in college, but I’d never dated anyone, and all of a sudden that started to feel like a burden. For a long time, all I wanted was to fall in love,” and his voice falters.

“But by the time I was through my first midterm, I just wanted to have lived already,” he says. “I thought, this was probably going to be my last few years of real freedom.”

Jaebum’s heart twists a bit at this, but he understands the sentiment. Jaebum understands the way responsibility can feel like a burden. As much as he’s deeply grateful, as much as he loves his son, it’s hard for him to relax. He doesn’t feel completely overwhelmed all of the time — but he doesn’t know the last time he felt really free.

“Jackson is so bright,” Jinyoung says, “and it was fun, and exciting for a while. But really, I don’t think either of us wanted something casual. So I knew I shouldn’t lead him on.”

Jaebum tilts his head, waiting for him to continue.

“And then, I met you,” Jinyoung says, eyes wavering as he follows the image of the candle’s flame, reflected and dispersed across the movement of the water.

Jaebum frowns. “At that sophomore mixer?” He asks.

“Did you know: I was so nervous,” Jinyoung says. And Jaebum feels his jaw go completely slack.

“I’d seen you before,” Jinyoung admits, hand waving through the water, fixated by the motion of it. “In my classes and around campus. You’d just seemed sort of distantly handsome, at first. But then, when you talked about what you were interested in, I felt so small, and stupid. I felt like I forgot every word I’d ever learned, that night.”

Jaebum feels the frown settling deep into his forehead now, and suddenly he’s ashamed, thinking of how he’d remembered Jinyoung’s behavior. He thought he’d been stiff and quiet because he was naturally a snob — was all of that wrong?

“You seemed so sharp,” Jinyoung says, voice barely there, sheer and smoky. “Like you didn’t have time to entertain other people’s ideas, like you had everything figured out.”

Jaebum feels queasy.

“N-no,” he stammers. “I didn’t — I don’t at all.”

Jinyoung finally meets his eyes, hand dropping slowly under the water again. “I know,” he says, quietly. “It wasn’t my best impression, that night. I asked Jackson about it once, later. And he looked really nervous, like he was scared of hurting my feelings. He assured me you hadn’t said anything about me, so — I knew it must’ve been pretty bad. I knew you must have said something.”

Jaebum feels like shit, and his heartbeat is pounding away in his ears. He’d been callous, and had misunderstood. He’d mistaken Jinyoung’s nervousness for conceit.

“I didn’t know,” Jaebum mumbles.

“I didn’t want to press,” Jinyoung says. “So I never asked Jackson to introduce us again, or — when he invited Mark to eat with you guys, I didn’t want to tag along.”

Jaebum wants to gather him up in his arms. Wants to grovel for forgiveness. “I didn’t understand you then,” Jaebum admits. “I figured you were stuck up or something. And never approaching me, it seemed like you didn’t want to know me.”

Jinyoung smiles small, a little sad. “I meant what I said, when I told your friends what I thought of you. You turn everything upside down, still.”

Jaebum can’t help but smile bashfully then, ducking his head away with the memory. “And I’m handsome, huh,” he rumbles.

He hears the water splashing slightly, feels it lapping against his chest. Then he finds Jinyoung as he clambers into his space, hooking an elbow around his neck and legs astride his lap. The lift in the water makes him light, and they rock gently against each other. Jaebum feels himself stir.

“Very handsome,” Jinyoung purrs. He’s leaning in, eyelids fluttering, but Jaebum swallows nervously. He feels suddenly unsure, vaguely guilty.

“What happened with you and Jackson?” He asks, settling his hands firmly at Jinyoung’s waist, wrists locked in an effort to keep their distance.

Jinyoung blinks down at him in alarm, flabbergasted by the timing of the question. He looks around the room, as if he’s missed a point in their conversation. “I told you,” he says.

Jaebum nods then, still feeling fragmented, unsettled. Jackson had wanted something too serious. Then Jinyoung met Jaebum and?

Jinyoung looks conflicted, like he’s split between saying something further and trying to kiss him again, but then he slips out of Jaebum’s lap instead.

He carefully wobbles out of the tub, bundling into one of the fluffy towels. His actions look hasty, agitated. Jaebum can’t tell if it’s from annoyance or the cold. “You are something else,” Jinyoung says under his breath, and heads out of the bathroom altogether.

Jaebum isn’t sure if he should feel offended, but he’s still distracted, feeling like a mess of mismatched puzzle pieces. He follows him out a moment later, drying off and letting the tub drain, thoughts working overtime.

He’s still nodding slowly, wondering, as he dresses, puts another few logs on the fire, and joins Jinyoung on the couch. It’s gotten chillier in here already, without the constant hum of heated air. But it’s warm in this corner, and he presses their legs together, enjoying the coziness of the scene before he manages to say what he’s wondering.

“Should I feel... bad?” Jaebum finally asks. “You know, Jackson hasn’t exactly won over Mark, yet, and I don’t know. Do you think he still wonders about you two?”

“No,” Jinyoung says, frankly, arms crossing. “In fact, he teases me fairly often, about how much I like you.”

Jaebum nods before he can help it, before he’s completely finished hearing it, and well before he’s processed it. Then it slams into him, like the cement of a sidewalk, as if he’s tripped off the roof of a six-story building.

“You —  like me?” Jaebum repeats, the words alone feeling strange in his mouth. It feels like they’re constructed from a different alphabet, a completely foreign language.

“I stopped fooling around with Jackson, after we met,” Jinyoung says firmly, shifting in his seat. “I didn’t think it would be fair, to get closer to him, when I liked someone else.”

And the puzzle pieces slowly fit together, because this time, the words sound familiar. He’s thought about this before — but he didn’t have all the right notes yet.

“I thought you were talking about Chanyeol,” Jaebum says. “That night, at the gala.”

“I’ve come to understand that,” Jinyoung says.

Jaebum pauses, tilts his head over at him, to read his face. But he doesn’t look mocking, or derisive — not really. A little tired, if anything. Damp hair starting to slip from where he’d pushed it back earlier. And bright, burning eyes, only for Jaebum.

A long beat passes between them in silence.

“You didn’t know,” Jaebum says. “You didn’t know about Yugyeom, yet. And you didn’t know I don’t have a resort to inherit. And you didn’t know how I would jump to a bunch of shitty conclusions about you.”

Jinyoung nods, eyes shifting away for a moment, gazing into the fire as he considers it. “You’ve been a little rude to me, at times,” he agrees, and then sucks in a slow, quiet breath. “And Yugyeom was a big surprise.”

A log in the fireplace pops, particularly loud, and Jaebum startles, but Jinyoung doesn’t flinch. He turns back to Jaebum, eyes clear.

“But I know what I want,” he says.

Jaebum wonders again about hidden cameras. About BamBam pulling tricks, and his life seeming like some sort of hackneyed, weekday soap opera.

He feels ill-equipped to have this conversation. Overwhelmed. And nearly drunk with guilt.

“I can’t,” Jaebum stammers, and he sees Jinyoung’s chest seize, hears the heightening in his breath. There it is. Disappointment.

“I can’t be in a relationship right now,” Jaebum pushes onward, even as the words sound hollow. It all sounds especially cheap, a flimsy excuse offered up on this plush velveteen sofa, in front of a roaring fire, with this beautiful man who’s so willing and lovely. But it’s the truth.

Jinyoung’s chin droops, and his lower lip trembles open a bit, before he snaps it shut, into a grimace. Another moment of silence, this time heavier, drags out between them. He gets to his feet, heaving a frustrated sigh.

“Everyone already thinks we are in one,” Jinyoung grinds out, and his words are coarse but his voice is liquid, thick with emotion. He paces away from the couch, planting his hands on his hips with another sharp breath, as if he’s fighting to contain himself. “That was the whole point, of this trip.”

Jaebum shakes his head, and feels dizzy. He shakes his head again, stubbornly, and then it feels like he can feel his pulse pounding behind his eyelids, the pressure of embarrassment so intense he wants to pop like a balloon.

“I can’t give that to you,” he says. He wanted to spoil Jinyoung — thought he was on the right track earlier in the evening. Even with the tub, broken jets aside. But this? Jaebum promised himself. It can’t happen.

“I don’t have enough,” he says, broken, and he can’t look at Jinyoung as he says it, so he stares at the stupid, rumpled fur throw on the ground, and focuses on that instead. “I don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough money. And I don’t have enough love,” he croaks out. “I have a son, and every ounce of who I am, every drop of blood in my heart is set aside for him.”

“That’s not,” Jinyoung gasps, and it sounds painful, wet, like he’s saying it through stubborn tears. But Jaebum refuses to look at him, stays stubbornly staring at the rug instead. His vision feels heavy, dark around the edges as he tries desperately not to blink.

“You know that’s not true,” Jinyoung says behind him, shakily. “You have to know, the love you have for Yugyeom, it makes you more capable of love. That’s what families do. Love multiplies, it doesn’t subtract. I’m not even asking you —!” His voice gives way.

Jaebum finally stands up and turns back to him. But he can only shake his head, feeling rotten, and utterly inadequate.

Jinyoung’s face crumples, finally, and he rubs at his nose with a sleeve, turning away. He hesitates for a moment, stubbornly still in the middle of the cabin, and then swiftly rushes to the bathroom. Jaebum watches his shoulders shake silently, all the way.

Jaebum sees him as he is then, for the first time, even as he’s hidden from view. He’s never understood Jinyoung, not completely. He’s seemed like a novelty, all along. Bright, inexperienced, forgiving. But Jaebum can see it now, can understand: he’s naive. Tender.

Jaebum had thought of him as ripe fruit before — calling temptingly from the vine. But he would bruise too easily, is still too delicate. And he simply isn’t his to pick.

“I’m sorry,” Jaebum whispers, to an empty couch. The wind howls from outside, winter still whipping miserably around them. Jaebum shivers, suddenly homesick.


//


Chapter Text

Jaebum isn’t sure what to do. He drops back onto the couch and rests his head in his hands for a long stretch of time. He isn’t sure how long passes, ears buzzing, but then he suddenly turns restless. Frustrated. He gets to his feet and paces back and forth, by the frigid front door.

It’s undoubtedly poor timing. To be stuck in a small space with Jinyoung, right after rejecting him.

Jaebum hadn’t meant for things to get this far. He’d known it was a mistake to let Jinyoung grow so attached to him, to let him blur the lines on what was make-believe. But he’d been selfish, of course, eager for release of his own.

His stomach is in knots, but it lets out a long, loud grumble nonetheless. They hadn’t had dinner. That could be helpful — something to do with his useless, nervous hands. And maybe he’d be able to entice Jinyoung out of the bathroom.

He doesn’t know what he’ll say, if he can even manage it. But he wants to say something, to fix things. He has to. They’ve got to strike another tentative truce, at least. Even if it’s just for another night.

Jaebum goes about setting some water to boil and chopping and frying some of the provided kimchi.

Everything feels heavy — and the encroaching cold of the cabin doesn’t help. The sizzle of the cabbage wilting farther down in the oil feels obtrusive, offensively loud after the quiet intensity of their conversation.

No voices were raised, no names were called. Jinyoung had done nothing to insult Jaebum, and he hopes he hadn’t said anything offensive either. But Jaebum can’t help characterizing it as a fight.

It wasn’t entirely as if they had opposing positions. Jaebum couldn’t tell Jinyoung he had no right to like him, couldn’t dictate his feelings as much as he struggled to understand them. But the problem with liking someone lays in expectation.

Jaebum had expected too much from people before, and he knew how crushing disappointment could be. How long it took, sometimes, to find a way back up on your feet. Jaebum didn’t want to hurt Jinyoung — so he simply had to bring things to an end as cleanly and as politely as possible.

Jaebum eyes the boiling water, and carefully slips one, two packs of the noodles in. He scrapes some fried kimchi onto a plate, then goes about watching the ramyeon and stirring it. He notices, suddenly, how his hand trembles. How his chest aches. How the savory, salty smell of the heavily seasoned broth and the fried kimchi do nothing to lift his mood as they usually do.

Jaebum sets out some utensils at the kitchenette’s bar, with the kimchi, and then turns the soup down to keep it warm.

He turns to face the bathroom now. Its silent, shut door suddenly seems fifty feet tall. Chest still set aflutter, stomach twisted, he sets out toward it.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum murmurs, and he doesn’t bother to knock, or wait to be let in. He angles it open to peer into the small space.

Jinyoung is sitting on the closed toilet, knees drawn up to his chest and a towel wrapped around him. The space feels miserably cold, cut off from the heat of the fireplace in the main room, its tile floor downright icy.

Jaebum opens the door the rest of the way and tilts his head to gaze gently at him. Jinyoung doesn’t look like he’s been sobbing himself hoarse, but he’s pale and still, fingers white-knuckled around the towel as he looks up at Jaebum without greeting him.

“I made some dinner,” Jaebum says, and leans in the doorway instead of rushing to him. He shoves his nervous hands into his pockets, hoping Jinyoung can’t discern how seasick with guilt he feels.

“Come on out and have some ramyeon,” Jaebum says. “You’ve got to eat something, if only to keep warm.”

Jinyoung looks grim, lips stretched straight and tight, eyes stubbornly following the lines of grout in the floor. Jaebum waits.

“I wasn’t asking to be in a relationship with you,” Jinyoung says, suddenly.

Jaebum is startled — he hadn’t expected Jinyoung to bring it up right away, had thought they’d ignore it at first, for civility’s sake. Thought maybe in the dark of the night, laying side-by-side, they may say something dry and well-rehearsed, so they could get to sleep.

But this feels fresh. Still raw like a wound in the palm of your hand, where it stings regardless of whether it’s relaxed or coiled tight. Jaebum sees Jinyoung’s knuckles flexing, and he lets out a stiff, shaky breath.

But I know what I want, he’d said. Jaebum remembers it clearly. Jinyoung wants him. Jaebum can’t forget it, no matter how embarrassed he might be after the fact.

“Okay,” concedes Jaebum. “Maybe I jumped to conclusions. But,” and he wavers, glancing back through the doorway to the kitchen, watching the steam rise from the pot on the stove. “I wanted to be honest with you, in return. After you were so honest with me. So for now, let’s not overcook the noodles, and get you warmed up again.”

He glances back at Jinyoung, biting his lip and hoping this sounds agreeable enough.

Jinyoung has lifted his gaze to meet his, and is staring up at him uneasily. His eyes look red-rimmed, but he’s by no means wrecked. Jaebum hasn’t broken him yet.

“Come on,” Jaebum breathes out, pushing off the doorframe and shuffling back to the kitchen, neck stiff with discomfort.

Jinyoung does follow, after wiping his cheeks, and Jaebum settles the pot between them on a towel, and then they’re slowly slurping in unison. It’s not exactly companionable silence, but Jaebum is still glad to see Jinyoung’s pale fingers grasping his chopsticks well, turning pink at the tips. He takes good mouthfuls, appetite quickly piqued.

Jaebum can’t help trying to watch him, trying to make sure he gets enough, a full portion. He wonders how to pedal back from the conversation they’ve had. How can he mend a fissure, where there’d never been much of a foundation? Beyond holding hands for pretend, and spit-slick lips for real.

“I’m serious,” Jinyoung is suddenly saying, and his voice sounds heavy, almost hoarse with emotion. “I didn’t intend to ask you out, or put any pressure on you that way.”

Jaebum tries not to sigh too loudly, sitting up straighter as he feels another wave of discomfort crash over his body. The physicality of what’s happened between them is startlingly tangible, the sudden distance very real.

“I just was — I was tired of hearing about Chanyeol, or Mark or Jackson, when that’s just not how I feel. I don’t want to be mischaracterized,” Jinyoung says, and the wrinkle between his brows looks carved in, deep and troubled.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum sighs, putting his spoon down, a few drops of oily broth scattering across the marble with the movement. He busies his hand by chasing them down with the corner of his napkin, smudging them away before they get sticky.

“I know what it’s like, to have an expectation of someone,” he says, frowning at the countertop. “Maybe you didn’t think we’d, go home together.  But when you look forward to something too much, it’s…” and he trails off now, feeling guilty for sounding like he’s scolding him. He wants to say it’s burdensome, but that’s absolutely not fair.

He just wishes he could impart some of his own experience here, wishes he could make Jinyoung understand how it looks from his perspective. How it doesn't make sense, to Jaebum. Jaebum is someone who ruins things — not someone to be admired.

“When I was with Suzy,” Jaebum attempts, and he peeks up at Jinyoung to see if he’s listening. Jinyoung isn’t looking at him either, but his face has softened, eyebrows straightening out again.

“I didn’t look after her well,” Jaebum says. “Or maybe I did the bare minimum. But whatever it was, wasn’t good enough for her. And I thought she’d be around forever. So we both expected more from each other, without communicating it — and then we both ended up hurt.”

“Was she really?” Jinyoung asks. “Mark had mentioned, she was dating some guy in Europe right afterward.”

Jaebum tries not to look completely sour, as he’s reminded again of Mark talking to Jinyoung about himself. It’s not untrue, anyhow, but Suzy had glossed past that.

“She told me at the gala,” Jaebum murmurs. “She said she hadn’t stopped thinking about me, in the end. Said she was waiting for me after all.”

And Jaebum makes the mistake of glancing up, then. And he catches the way Jinyoung’s mouth sneers a bit as he tilts his head up, sees the deep disappointment etch back into his expression. He lets out a low sigh, eyes glinting like steel as he turns away.  “Is that so,” Jinyoung says, too cool.

Jaebum realizes it’s probably the last thing he’d want to hear, realizes how inappropriate it was to share it – despite his good intentions. “I only meant it to mean, that’s why I have to be honest and firm,” Jaebum sputters. “She’d hidden her hurt from me, and it was worse in the long run. I had no way knowing, or fixing or anything.”

Jinyoung doesn’t respond, and Jaebum lets out another shaky breath, barreling on.

“We’re on completely different paths, Jinyoung-ah,” he says, recalling their conversation in class. Jinyoung had drawn out those two roads — similar, but separate. “You have the whole world available to you right now; maybe you go wash dishes for your sister, maybe you take over your parent’s empire and kick back in well-earned luxury, or maybe you end up somewhere in between.”

“But you’ve got choices,” Jaebum continues. “Maybe they’re frightening and you’re overwhelmed right now, but you’ve got a veritable fucking buffet in front of you. And I’m sorry if I led you on, roping you into this stupid, short-sighted charade, and then, all the – personal stuff, I know I should have been firmer about it. But I’ve been — under a lot of stress. I have needs, and I’m a flawed person, so I thought it made sense. But it was sloppy and insensitive, and I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you.”

A beat passes. Jinyoung is quiet still, but he’s turned back to him, eyes wavering as they meet his, breath picking up. “I was sloppy?” He asks, voice small.

Jaebum’s eyes blow out wide, and he raises a hand to frantically wave as he shakes his head. “That’s not what I meant—,” he nearly topples the stool over backwards in his haste to get to his feet.

But Jinyoung looks cooler, less affected now. He’s linking his fingers together over a crossed knee, eyes shifting away with a mischievous glint.

Jaebum sucks in a breath through his teeth, split between differing tugs of frustration. But still, a slice of respect shines through, as he’s glad to see Jinyoung is at least fighting back. He’s unafraid to share some discomfort. He still has some of his pride.

Jaebum shakes his head and turns away, moving to start on the dishes. But he finds Jinyoung at his side a moment later, angling into the sink with the pot.

“You don’t have to help,” Jaebum says.

“You cooked already,” says Jinyoung, skeptical.

Stiffly, Jaebum pries the pot out of Jinyoung’s still frigid fingers. “Your hands are practically frozen,” Jaebum says. “You should stay over by the fire.”

“I’m okay,” Jinyoung argues, trying to elbow into his space again. Jaebum feels like he’s going crazy, Jinyoung’s soft scent suddenly overwhelming, every brush of his shoulder suddenly magnified tenfold.

He’d been aware of Jinyoung before, especially once they’d kissed, once their hands had been on each other’s bodies, their tastes in each other’s mouths. But the knowledge that Jinyoung has feelings for Jaebum, that he’d admired him, why does that magnify this sensation? Jinyoung’s very image feels loud to him now. His hair gently falling over his forehead is suddenly glaring in his peripheral vision.

“Seriously,” Jaebum says. “Go warm up.”

Jinyoung finally gives in, and Jaebum surreptitiously watches as he hurries across the room, wrapping his arms around himself and ducking down by the fireplace.

 

//

 

Things are still awkward after that, but thankfully silent. Talking things through, over and over, can’t solve everything immediately. Jaebum tries to read by the firelight for a while, but the shadows shifting across his page make it difficult to focus.

Jinyoung has stayed curled up on the floor in front of the couch, quiet and thoughtful, wriggling his toes as they warm up.

Exhausted, Jaebum discards the book after struggling to reread the same few paragraphs a hundred times. He’s too distracted. The dim lighting, the sound of the wintry storm outside, and Jinyoung’s unhappy presence are too much to ignore.

“Should we move the bed over here?” Jaebum asks, and Jinyoung looks startled.

“You won’t mind sharing?” Jinyoung asks. “I thought I could take the sofa.”

“I don’t know if it would be warm enough over there, alone,” Jaebum admits, glancing over to the alcove where the bed is positioned. “If the fire goes out while we’re asleep, you wouldn’t stay warm over here, either.”

Jinyoung eyes the logs nervously, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth as he considers it.

“I’m not upset with you,” Jaebum offers.

Jinyoung frowns into the fireplace, lips going thin as they press together. Still, he nods along.

Jaebum scoots the couch out of the way easily, pivoting it to meet the outer wall. The windowsill over here feels especially frigid, the glass radiating a halo of cold air despite its insulation. He can’t imagine what it’s like outside.

The bed gives him more trouble, and Jinyoung gets up to help him push. The screech of the heavy wooden frame against the floor is jarring, but Jaebum figures Snowscapes would forgive them a scratch, in lieu of a lawsuit over frostbite.

Jaebum does his best to build up the fire for the remainder of the night, but he’s nervous about using too much firewood. He’s still positive they’ll be contacted soon, but the threat of the cold lingers in the back of his mind. He sets about blowing out stray candles as Jinyoung takes a turn washing up.

Then they’re clambering under the covers again, too close even with the comfort of a wide, luxurious mattress.

Jinyoung twists and turns, tangling in the sheets as he shivers still, despite the fire being so close.

Jaebum can’t help it as he feels equally uncomfortable, his side of the bed angled farther from the fireplace. Finally, jaw trembling, he reaches his fingers out and entangles them in Jinyoung’s sweatshirt, tugging him closer.

“We’ll be warmer if we’re close to each other,” he mumbles, trying not to wince as he yanks Jinyoung’s elbow into his ribcage.

But then their legs intertwine, and Jinyoung’s panicked inhales and exhales finally feel close, warm against Jaebum’s neck.

“I’m sorry,” Jinyoung says abruptly, mumbling it into his collarbone. “I’m sorry for making this so strange.”

Jaebum shakily breathes out, suddenly angry with himself. If it had been anyone else, wouldn’t they have accepted Jinyoung’s confession? Or explained themselves delicately, so things could be civil still?

“It’s not strange,” Jaebum grits out. But it is. Jinyoung’s lips are searing hot against his neck, but Jaebum collects him closer, crowds him in with a strong arm around his back. Jinyoung whimpers slightly, collapsing further into their bubble of warmth. 

Time passes slowly this way, both hyper-aware of each other’s breaths, twitches in their fingers and legs, chests rising and falling in sync.

“We can still be friends,” Jaebum says, insistent. He isn’t sure if it’s said so forcefully for Jinyoung or himself. It feels unwise to let himself think more in depth about Jinyoung’s body, so he tries to talk over it. “It’s just — safer without any of the other stuff.”

“Safer?” Jinyoung repeats, and then chortles slightly, drawing back to cover his mouth. “Is your dick so dangerous?”

“You know what I mean,” Jaebum growls. It should be fine. Jinyoung and Jackson had bounced back from wherever their relationship had wandered — and they were fine now, ostensibly. If Jaebum and Jinyoung both just exercised a little self-control, there was no reason to feel uncomfortable, or guilty.

Jinyoung tries to tug back again now, but Jaebum doesn’t want to let him go. If only for the warmth, as he’s finally feeling whole and satisfied all down his front. He keeps him tight to his chest.

Jinyoung settles for bracing his hands against him, peering up with concerned eyes.

“I still want to be a part of your life,” Jinyoung admits, breath barely above a whisper. “I don’t need anything from you, in return. I’m okay with just being a friend to you, still. It’s more than I had before. In school and out of it — especially if you ever need help with Yugyeom, again.”

Jaebum inhales deep, then exhales shakily, unsure how to respond to this. It’s sweet; there’s no other way to interpret it. And Jaebum can’t help but find unexpected relief there, can’t help being grateful to keep another resource in his back pocket. But he’s still on edge, uncertain how wise it is to keep Jinyoung too close. But he does it anyway even now, running his hand into the back of Jinyoung’s hair, anchoring him by his nape.

“I could always use a backup babysitter,” Jaebum says gently. “Even though I think I owe you for more than enough with Peachtree, already.”

Jinyoung smiles small, but his eyes flutter away nervously still.

“Yugyeom’s birthday,” Jaebum adds, and then hesitates. Maybe this is a step too far. “His birthday is coming up, soon. If you want to come by for that? Jackson will be invited, and BamBam too.”

Jinyoung looks back up at him, brighter then. And nods, quickly. Genuinely excited. Jaebum lets himself smile. It’ll be harmless, he reassures himself. It’s a good chance to start over. As friends. It’s time to relearn each other, from the beginning.

Inspired, he fishes out his phone from under his pillow, browsing through his apps. “I downloaded that new film, One and Only You, for the drive,” he says quietly. “Did you want to watch, maybe?”

And he extends the phone out in his reach, careful to lift it against a knee so they both can see the screen. Jinyoung hums then, wrapping an arm instinctively around his waist.

Jaebum breathes in sharp and quick, unsure about the jolt in his gut, the heat in his hip where Jinyoung’s wrist brushes against a bit of exposed skin. But he presses on, tightening his grip on both Jinyoung and his phone as he raises it, and they stare at the film quietly as it unfurls.

It’s strange, he realizes, as this was the movie advertised in his section of the paper that day he’d told Jackson and BamBam they were partners. This was the promo with the boy with the windswept hair, who Jaebum had ignorantly linked with Jinyoung’s distant gracefulness. Jaebum had never imagined he’d actually end up watching this with him, tucked under an elbow. And he realizes, absently, the actor isn’t nearly as emotive as Jinyoung, isn’t nearly as strikingly convincing.

An hour passes, both of their breath slowing down with the plot of the movie. Jaebum’s eyelids are growing heavy and he guesses from Jinyoung’s stillness that they’re both ready to drop off to sleep, if he hasn’t already.

He lifts his phone carefully, trying not to disturb Jinyoung as he taps out of the program with one hand.

But his fingers slip, case too smooth, and he drops it. It smacks Jinyoung directly in the nose, and Jaebum gasps. Then he’s mumbling apologies and laughing awkwardly as he tosses the phone aside to cradle Jinyoung’s face.

And suddenly, his thumb feels wet, and he’s gazing down at Jinyoung’s face with trembling lips, eyes slanted desperately away from him, and tears silently rolling down his cheeks. The tracks glimmer with the shifting gold of firelight; they cut an abrupt, miserable path in the darkness.

The film hadn’t been overly dramatic — not particularly moving even when it had touched on the sentimental. Jaebum knows he isn’t crying about that.

He lets go of Jinyoung’s face, breathing out a tired sigh as a wave of guilt washes over him again. Jinyoung tries to wriggle away from him, tries to turn around in the tight pocket of the bedsheets. Jaebum doesn’t let him get far, knowing this warmth is all that will keep them safe tonight. He keeps one arm tucked warm around Jinyoung’s shoulders, reaching down with another to tug his hips back.

Jaebum holds his back to him, feeling it shake with another quiet sob but stubbornly spooning around it anyway. He buries his face into the crook of Jinyoung’s neck. He nuzzles in close to Jinyoung’s face, nose brushing against his earlobe, tickling in the soft fuzz of his sideburns.

“Please don’t,” Jaebum says softly. “Please don’t cry.”

“I’m not,” Jinyoung lies. And it’s so childish, Jaebum can’t help but smile sadly, squeezing him tight.

The moment drags out for what feels like ages, Jinyoung’s reluctance slowly melting away again, softening in his embrace. And then tentatively, Jaebum feels his hand settle atop his own, low on Jinyoung’s stomach.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung whispers.

Jaebum shifts his face back a bit from his, peering at the back of a red ear expectantly.

“Can we pretend?” Jinyoung asks.

Jaebum’s breath stutters, world shifting as Jinyoung slowly rolls back over to face him, eyes round and gleaming, shimmering still.

“Could you pretend, for me this time?” He asks.

Jaebum swallows heavily, and it’s painful around the lump of regret, lodged deep in his throat.

“Just for one night,” Jinyoung says.

Jaebum’s heart aches, and his jaw clicks defensively, as he snaps his mouth shut and blinks rapidly. “You know I can’t—,” he says, but it’s weak, and the words die quickly.

Jinyoung presses the softest kiss to his jaw, fluttering along the skin there. He lets his hand trace down the side of his face, curling down his collar and then over the slope of his breast. Then  Jinyoung curls into his side, arm wrapping around his ribcage like he belongs there, and even though his breath is still uneven, his eyes flutter shut peacefully.

Jaebum realizes, he’s not being asked to do anything inappropriate. He’s just being asked to treat Jinyoung comfortably.

Gently, he reaches up to cradle the back of Jinyoung’s head, pressing his face deeper into his shoulder. He kisses the top of his scalp, breathing in the soft scent that’s become so familiar, so appetizing.

Jinyoung stirs beside him with a soft sound of happiness, and Jaebum feels them both relax. It reminds him, suddenly, of waking up early in his apartment to curl up with Yugyeom. It feels like family, like home.

The thought sends a shiver through him, racing down his spine as his skin bursts into goosebumps. That’s a silly idea — maybe even dangerous. But the thought persists, and he falls asleep with his mind still racing, hand trembling at the back of Jinyoung’s neck.

 

//

 

In the morning, a barrage of sharp knocking wakes him.

Jaebum sits up, suddenly nervous and alert, and tries to gently disentangle himself from Jinyoung’s curled fingers, his warm limbs, the drape of his embrace. But the door opens before he manages it.

“Jinyoungie-ah,” Chanyeol is rushing into the cabin then, snow caked on his boots and pants. Kyungsoo slips in behind him, along with another staffer, both carrying shovels.

“Oh,” Chanyeol stumbles over to Jinyoung’s side of the bed, eying the rumpled bedsheets distastefully. “You moved the bed, that’s a good idea.”

Jinyoung is barely stirring against Jaebum, fingers dragging slow and sleepy in the fabric of his sweatshirt.

Jaebum shakes him gently, watching as he rolls over and squints up slowly at a beaming Chanyeol.

Jaebum dredges himself out of the sheets, grumpy to be accosted so early but still grudgingly grateful to the staff for digging them out.

“You let the fire go out,” Chanyeol says, shooting a dark glance between Jaebum and the smoldering ashes.

“You let the power go out,” Jaebum sputters, gesturing over to where the other staffer is inspecting the blank ambiance command center.

Kyungsoo snorts, but Chanyeol looks displeased, clapping Jinyoung’s shoulder more forcefully.

“Jinyoung-ah,” he says cheerfully. “We’ve come to get you out of here. Let’s get your stuff together.”

Jaebum watches, stomach sinking as he realizes, this is the last time he’ll see Jinyoung like this. Rubbing drowsily at his eyes, sweatshirt slipping off a shoulder, lips swollen, in his bed.

Jaebum lets out a tired sigh and turns away, busying himself with packing up.

 

//

 

Later that morning, Chanyeol takes him aside when they’re about to leave. He leaves Jinyoung busy at the front desk, checking out and murmuring with Mark and Jackson.

“I just want to say,” Chanyeol rumbles, face pinched and voice low. “I hope you understand how amazing Jinyoung is, as a person. And I hope you don’t take that for granted.”

Jaebum shifts where he stands, feeling uncomfortable. He’s guessing Chanyeol may have misinterpreted their situation. “I don’t—,” Jaebum starts, but Chanyeol raises a hand to interrupt him.

“I know I’m not the most intimidating person,” Chanyeol says, eyes round. “But if you hurt Jinyoung, I will become intimidating. Or I can hire somebody who really is.”

Jaebum scoffs, airy and disbelieving. He’s never been threatened before, least of all by a gangly hotelier. “Yah,” he says. “Let me finish. I don’t take Jinyoung for granted, but I think you’re jumping to conclusions. I’m not with him — nothing’s happened. He confessed to me, but I told him I can’t accept his feelings.”

Chanyeol blinks blankly for a moment, and then twists his face into a befuddled frown. “What?” He wonders. “You rejected Jinyoung?”

Jaebum shifts again, stretching his neck out where it aches, glancing over where Jinyoung, Jackson and Mark are still conversely quietly. This is slightly more embarrassing than he would have anticipated, not that he could have ever given it prior thought. “It’s just — not a good time for me, to see anybody,” he says.

“It has nothing to do with him,” Jaebum continues, squinting away from Jinyoung’s figure, “I know he’s uh, amazing.”

“He is,” Chanyeol agrees, nodding and still looking blown away.

“I can’t be with anybody right now,” Jaebum adds, feeling like he has to convince Chanyeol of something. “No matter how amazing, or smart, or funny, or beautiful—,” and god, that’s embarrassing. Jaebum rubs at his face, suddenly too hot and too cold all at once.

Chanyeol is gazing across at Jinyoung once he turns back, a small smile on his lips. “Poor guy,” he says. “First time he confesses, and it doesn’t work out. I guess that’s a valuable lesson.”

Jaebum moves to turn away, thinking their discussion is done, but Chanyeol crosses his arms and turns back to him, nodding firmly.

“Thanks,” he says, surprisingly. “Jinyoung needs to grow up, sometime. He’s too naive. Thinks anything is possible — true love, being in the movies, analyzing literature — all that bullshit.”

It’s Jaebum’s turn to gape in surprise now, shocked at how candidly Chanyeol is throwing out what Jinyoung’s spoken about so deeply.

“He’s a really good student,” Jaebum says, slowly. “I think he’ll go far, wherever he’s headed.”

Chanyeol outright laughs, but he does cover his mouth, when the others glance over at them. Still amused, Chanyeol’s large, smiling eyes peer over his hand at Jaebum for another moment, before peeling it back.

“Um,” says Chanyeol. “Sorry, I don’t know how much acting in some school plays will really matter, in the long run. He’s going to take over Park Air, it’s what his parents want.”

Jaebum frowns at how nonchalant he continues to be, how he twists perspective on whatever Jaebum says. He’s really discounting Jinyoung. “He’s — he’s really creative,” Jaebum insists, unsure why he feels driven to convince him otherwise. “And I don’t know if he’d be satisfied with settling for Park Air. Do you know he’s a great writer? He developed and pushed the whole concept for our short film project. I was really impressed.”

Chanyeol raises an eyebrow. “That little movie you guys made? I thought he was just the talent.”

“No,” says Jaebum, and he feels an echo of guilt, a pang under his ribcage, as he remembers thinking the same way. “Of course he’s a good actor too, but — he’s more than that, he’s really thoughtful.”

Chanyeol’s smile has faded, and he stares down at Jaebum with a serious, calculating expression. “Listen,” he says, voice set low and rumbling once again. “I meant it.”

Jaebum almost startles at the snap in tone, stepping back as he takes in his intimidating posture. “Meant what?” He asks, irritated.

“I said, if you hurt Jinyoung, I’ll become very intimidating,” says Chanyeol, crossing his arms. “And it sounds like you really do know him, after all. Which means you really can hurt him.”

Jaebum blanches. Was this conversation a trick? Did Park Chanyeol bait him into defending Jinyoung?

“If you were just some pretty boy Jinyoung wanted to hook up with,” Chanyeol continues, “this conversation would have ended already. But he’s confided in you. And you understand him, you seem to believe in him. That’s going to cause trouble.”

Jaebum locks his jaw, shoves his hands into his pockets and tries to keep his temper under control. There’s nothing to fight over. He’s handled the situation with Jinyoung as simply and honestly as he could. Chanyeol can’t fault him for having gotten to know Jinyoung.

“So, maybe you’re being honest,” says Chanyeol. “And you really can’t return his feelings. That’s fine. Let’s keep it clean. He doesn’t need to be tugged along after you like a toy, hoping for you to change your mind.”

“I’m not tugging him along,” Jaebum grits out.

“So keep it clean, ” Chanyeol repeats. “Don’t contact him any longer.”

Jaebum blanches, ears buzzing as he considers the words. Cut off contact with Jinyoung? But they’d spoken about remaining friends. He’d assured Jinyoung he could see Yugyeom, still. 

“I can’t do that,” says Jaebum.

Chanyeol glares at him.

“If you care about him,” Jaebum continues. “If you care about him enough to threaten me like this, then you’d know that would hurt him even more. He’d hate that. Jinyoung made sure to keep all of you around,” he says, gesturing towards Jackson and Mark, and back to Chanyeol. “Even after he rejected you.”

Chanyeol’s ears go pink, and he straightens up, arms falling weakly at his sides. A beat passes.

“Actually,” Chanyeol says, and gazes across at Jinyoung again, fondly. “It was because I begged him to stay in my life,” he says. “I know you probably heard that story from Kyungsoo, and that’s because I had to protect my pride a little, when I told him.”

Jaebum’s ears are humming again, blood thrumming in his veins.

“I assure you,” Chanyeol continues. “That’s probably why Mark and Jackson are still around. They were too weak to let him go, and sure, maybe they don’t think they have a chance anymore. But they still want to be near him. Just like he’ll want to be near you . And you’ve probably, definitely, already broken his heart.”

“So please,” says Chanyeol. “Don’t hurt my friend anymore.” He points a finger gun at Jaebum, frowning exaggeratedly.

“Are you threatening to shoot me?” Jaebum sputters, pointing back at the finger aimed his way.

Chanyeol toddles back, looking insulted and shocked. “No!” He exclaims. “It’s just for emphasis! Like bang bang, take this part seriously.”

“Bang bang means a gun,” Jaebum says, practically choking back laughter. “Like you’re threatening to hire a gangster, to take me out.” He demonstrates the kickback of his own pistol. Chanyeol ducks out of the imaginary trajectory, looking horrified.

“I don’t know any gangsters!!” Chanyeol says, slapping him on the shoulder. “I work in hospitality, I’m not a loan shark or something.”

“You just said, you’d hire someone intimidating,” Jaebum says.

“I’m trying to seem serious!” Chanyeol whines. “I don’t know how I’d do it—!”

“How you’d have me killed,” Jaebum cuts in, deadpan.

“I would not,” Chanyeol starts, and then glances behind him nervously.

At a distance, Kyungsoo is watching them, and he looks thoroughly unimpressed. Chanyeol tilts his head at him, imploringly.

Kyungsoo slowly, deliberately raises his own finger gun, eyes dead and heavy. Jaebum glances, nervously, back and forth between his finger and his eyes. He remains still. And then, his finger jerks. And Jaebum can’t help but flinch.

“There,” says Chanyeol, crisply. “Don’t fuck things up.”  With this, he claps Jaebum on the shoulder again, and strides away confidently.

Jaebum sags, feeling just as low and unworthy as he had when he’d first arrived. It’s with heavy feet and a heavier heart that he trudges back over to Jinyoung’s side, waiting expectantly with Jackson and Mark.

Jaebum doesn’t feel up to even attempting to deal with Mark — trying to reach out through whatever’s happened between them on this trip. So he stays silent, and he’s grateful as Mark follows suit.

The ride home is agonizing, bleak. Jackson and Jinyoung make some conversation, but everyone seems prickly and left on edge. All Jaebum can think about, the whole ride home, is seeing his son again.

He shouldn’t have bothered with this trip, shouldn’t have pushed his luck with the whole fake relationship. He should have left it at one fake date. He’d gotten greedy, and Jinyoung had gotten hurt because of it.

Chanyeol was probably right, he shouldn’t continue to speak with him.  But Jinyoung had asked. Had said he still just wanted to be in his life, as a friend. And Jaebum couldn’t deny him.

When Jaebum finally arrives at home, when he’s said his last stiff, quiet goodbyes, his apartment feels empty, dizzyingly quiet.

While it’s stifling, to be alone so suddenly, he collapses into his couch with a grateful groan. Soon, things will steady out on their same, peaceful course.

When Yugyeom is finally dropped off, a sleepy-looking Youngjae bows too excitedly, waving sloppy as he nearly bolts back down the hall.  Jaebum crushes Yugyeom to himself with a laugh, slipping onto his bottom, right in the middle of their entryway as the door creaks shut. Still bundled in his thick jacket, Yugyeom giggles and wriggles loudly, nylon rustling as he struggles to find his father’s face.

Then he’s peppering it with loud, little kisses, and Jaebum’s heart soars.

“Appa,” Yugyeom says softly, squeezing his cheeks too hard, with little, stubborn fingers. “I missed you, so so much.”

“I missed you,” Jaebum laughs, and then hiccups, unsure when it became so hard to speak, and breathe, a wedge left in his throat. “I m-missed you so, so… so very much, too.”

Yugyeom kisses him a few more times, then giggles into his neck as Jaebum flops out backward on the floor, completely pliant.

Yugyeom squishes his face back and forth with his hands, laughing at the ugly expressions he contorts, and then draws back after a moment of this. “Appa,” he says in surprise, looking at his palms. “Why is your face wet?”

And Jaebum huffs out an embarrassed laugh, rubbing the back of his knuckles into an eyelid, flustered and overwhelmed.

“I was lonely,” he admits, ignoring the hitch in the syllables, the way his voice trembles. He can be honest with his son, at least. “Appa gets kind of lonely, without you.”

Yugyeom leans over him again, hugging his head tight, smothering it into his belly. “Now I’m here,” he says simply.

And Jaebum sucks in a deep breath, chuckling as he’s released once more. Now I’m here, he repeats to himself, thankful.



Chapter Text

“Appa?” Yugyeom wonders, swinging his foot even as Jaebum attempts to tie his shoe. Jaebum wrestles the leg into submission, finally.

“Keep still,” Jaebum laughs, patting his heel.

“When is that Jinyoungie hyungie coming back?” Yugyeom asks.

Jaebum swallows, letting the foot fall out of his lap once he’s tied the bow, blinking up at him in surprise. “You remember — you know that hyung's name?” He asks.

“Of course,” Yugyeom says, proudly. “He comes over lots and brings me good food. He’s better at reading than Youngjae hyung. He has a car. And he let me watch girl group dances on his phone.”

“Hey,” Jaebum says, softly chiding. “Shouldn’t you copy boy groups?”

“No,” Yugyeom pronounces. “Hyungie said girl dances are cuter, and I'm really cute.”

Jaebum can't help but laugh, immediately feeling a little old-fashioned, embarrassed. “That’s true,” he concedes. “Only, I’m not sure when you’ll see him again. Jinyoung was helping me with something for school when he was visiting so much. That’s over now," and he hopes Yugyeom doesn’t notice anything strange in his tone or his eyes.

“We can invite him,” Yugyeom says. “To bring halal bowls.”

“Yah,” Jaebum says, wagging the other foot as he goes about tying another shoe. “You can’t invite hyungs to bring you food. That’s not polite.”

“Even if I ask nice?” Yugyeom wonders.

Jaebum hums, considering. “Your birthday is coming up, soon. Maybe that hyung will be able to come to your party.”

Yugyeom nearly hiccups in excitement, clapping. “When I’m four!” He yells.

“That’s right,” Jaebum smiles. “You’re getting so big. Are you excited about going to daycare?”

“Halm’ie said first I have to be really good, in the inner-view,” Yugyeom points out, and suddenly looks very serious.

“No problem,” says Jaebum. “You’re my favorite kid, so I bet they’ll be really impressed.”

Yugyeom sighs, patting Jaebum on his chest almost consolingly. “Appa, you don’t know lots of kids.”

“You would still be my favorite,” Jaebum assures him, kissing him on the nose. He draws back to find Yugyeom has slipped into a thoughtful frown, probably unsure what to expect.

“It’s okay,” Jaebum says, running his hands up and down his arms. “It’s just a visit with one of the teachers. So you don’t have to feel nervous. They'll probably ask you about things you like, and what you want to learn.”

It’s partly for Jaebum’s own sake, this positivity. He’s not too worried about Yugyeom speaking well, once he gets going, or following instructions. But he especially doesn’t want to put too much pressure on him. He doesn’t want Yugyeom to feel the burden Jaebum often had in school: as if he fell out of step anywhere along the line, everything would be lost. He wants Yugyeom to feel free, to feel curious, to be excited about possibilities instead of turning things down out of fear.

The walk to Peachtree Grove is short, but Jaebum can’t help feeling restless about the time, and they get there ten minutes early.

The receptionist is very accommodating, probably used to frantic parents arriving a little too soon. The facility is orchard themed, with large, semi-dimensional tree shapes lining the halls. Classroom numbers are hung from branches like fruit, as crawling vines and supergraphic sunbeams follow them along walls and floors.

She leads them to a small waiting area just across from the huge, frosted windows of the director’s office. There are several seats and a small magazine stand filled with various children’s books. The idle thrum of waiting for an appointment is still nerve-racking, even in such a charming environment.

Jaebum goes through his phone for a bit, trying to take his mind off the immediate stress. When he glances over again, he’s surprised to find Yugyeom looking through a book.

Not that Yugyeom doesn’t like looking at books — but he rarely does it so studiously, so prim and posture perfect. Little ankles crossed, Yugyeom sits up straight and balances a dinosaur boardbook neatly against his knees. He drags a finger slowly from one googly-eyed specimen to the next, lips moving slowly as if he’s really reading.

Jaebum smirks, glancing back at his phone. He taps idly through his usual internet haunts; Instagram, SoundCloud comments, etc. Then he hesitates. He isn’t sure where the impulse comes from, but he can’t help thinking about Jinyoung in this place.

So then he’s flicking back through his history for a moment, and he finds that gossip blog again. He hesitates for another moment, staring at the URL in the list as he talks himself into it. It’s just curiosity, he decides. Can’t hurt.

Faced again with the post of their gala date, Jaebum’s gut twists. They did look good together, there was no harm in admitting it. Idly, he scrolls through it again until he finds the list of related tags.

Park Jinyoung, underlined and highlighted in pink. He licks his lips.

Jaebum isn’t sure why he’s so curious. It’s been only about a week since their trip, since Jinyoung had bared his heart so suddenly. But he already wondered, as their last term was starting soon, what classes would he be in? Would he see him around campus? Would he be in someone’s senior project  — Jaebum pauses, and scolds himself. What would Jinyoung’s project be about? He clicks on the tag.

There’s an entry from just a day ago. Jaebum sucks in a breath, glancing aside to check on Yugyeom once more.

He’s still frowning in concentration at a page of dinosaurs, probably deeply concerned there may be a question regarding them in the interview.

Jaebum looks back at his phone. Jinyoung had apparently spent a day out with Chanyeol, just yesterday. Jaebum shifts in his seat, trying to quell a sense of uneasiness. Who cares? They went to the zoo, of all places, and were seen alternating bites of a churro. There’s a looped gif, of Chanyeol’s thumb gently wiping some cinnamon sugar from Jinyoung’s heavy bottom lip.

Jinyoung pulls away, laughing, and it doesn’t look romantic. Or, much more romantic than Jinyoung with any of his other boyfriends, Jaebum thinks sourly, shoving the phone away. What a stupid thing to watch, what a stupid page to visit, and what a strange, overwhelming emotion to experience. He literally has no right — none at all. It’s none of his business and especially not now, after Chanyeol has warned him and Jinyoung has maintained his distance.

Jaebum needs to just give Jinyoung some time, and space, to get over him. That’ll be easy.

“Im Jaebum-ssi?” Says a voice from the office door, and Jaebum looks up to find a face that is strangely familiar. This must be Sooyoung, Jinyoung’s sister.

Jaebum perks up and then pats Yugyeom hurriedly on his back as he gets to his feet. Yugyeom sways a bit with the nervous force of it, and Jaebum internally screams at himself for being so heavy-handed in his haste.

“Ah, yes,” Jaebum says nervously, glancing between Yugyeom and the woman, trying simultaneously to smile and nod as he instructs his son to put the book back. He turns as Yugyeom toddles over to the bookcase, and then he bows, reaching out to shake Sooyoung’s hand. “Thank you for inviting us.”

“Of course,” says Sooyoung, smiling widely. Her eyes soften easily, whiskering around the edges. They’re more angled than Jinyoung’s, but still undeniably related, naturally cute. Jaebum swallows heavily. He’d hoped to get away from the thought of their link for a moment, at least. But Sooyoung’s resemblance won’t make it easy.

“I’m Ms. Sooyoung,” she’s crouching to greet Yugyeom, now, and Jaebum is transported in his memory again, to the panic he’d felt as he’d seen Jinyoung discovering Yugyeom for the first time.

“What’s your name?” She asks.

“Hello,” squeaks Yugyeom, even as he reaches out to grab Jaebum’s pant leg in a bit of dazzled nervousness. “My name is Im Yugyeom,” he manages to continue. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“It’s so nice to meet you, too!” She says gently, and after a soft pat of his cheek, she stands again to direct them into her office. “Please come inside, and we can get to know each other. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Yugyeom nods, warming up already, although his cheeks are still unexpectedly pink. Jaebum hasn’t seen him this immediately soft on someone since he’d met BamBam. He has a good feeling about this positivity.

Her office is bright and airy, more like an extension of the other parts of the facility’s playable environment than a corporate space. She has a desk in one corner, but she leads them to kneel at a low table with some familiar toys and a folder.

“So,” she says, settling and looking through her papers. “I understand you two live very close.”

“Yes,” Yugyeom agrees, knitting his small fingers together on the table, looking like he’s about to ask for a raise. Jaebum settles back a bit and smiles, amused by him taking the lead already. “Me and Appa live by the cherry trees.”

“Ohh,” Sooyoung makes a small note, and her eyes flicker aside to sparkle at Jaebum in amusement. “That is really close. You must have a very pretty view, when they bloom.”

“No,” says Yugyeom blithely, “our windows only look at other windows. But I have a big boy bed, and we have a coffee table, th-that pulls up and you put things inside it.”

Sooyoung nods along with him brightly, and Yugyeom peers around the edge of her folder.

“Are you going to write it?” He asks. “I have lots of books, and my hyungie gave me my dinosaur movie on a nicer disc, so it doesn’t jump and shake, and there are three sequels.” He holds his fingers up proudly.

“Yah,” says Jaebum, rubbing his back. “Slow down. Ms. Sooyoung doesn’t need to hear a list of all of the things you own.” And he certainly doesn’t want to seem like they’re trying to brag about knowing Jinyoung. Although he isn’t sure she’d even understand this anecdote as being about her brother.

Sooyoung doesn’t seem bothered anyhow, writing something down with a flourish and winking at Yugyeom. He relaxes easily under Jaebum’s hand, and Sooyoung moves on with the rest of the interview.

It seems to be going well. Jaebum answers some initial administrative questions and asks a few of his own, while Yugyeom quizzes well from some flash cards about shapes and nature and numbers. The time passes easily, Sooyoung leading them through more of a natural conversation than a strict interview.

After about a half hour, Jaebum is certain he’ll be treating Yugyeom to some ice cream after this successful endeavor. Or maybe a churro. Churros sound good.

There’s a knock on the door as Sooyoung is putting away their file, and they’re all getting to their feet.

“Come in~,” she calls out, eyes glittering as she peers around Jaebum and Yugyeom.

“Noona, your secretary told me I needed to head right inside,” Jinyoung’s smoky voice rings out, a little apologetic, before Jaebum can fully put it together to his face.

But then, there he is, lips falling apart, hair swept half up, in a well fitted coat. Yugyeom ohhh s, toddling over to embrace him by a leg.

“O-oh!” Jinyoung sputters, glancing wildly, pink-faced, between Jaebum, Sooyoung and down at Yugyeom and back. Finally, he seems to crumble under Yugyeom’s tight grip, and kneels down to hug him properly.

“Yugyeomie,” he says quietly, hand gently curling down the back of Yugyeom’s fluffy mop of hair. “It’s so nice to see you.”

Jaebum notices this very specific language, the wording that subtly nudges at Jaebum that Jinyoung isn’t particularly pleased to see Jaebum so soon.

“So this,” Sooyoung hums, “isn’t something I do for all of our applicants. But I had already agreed to take Jinyoung out for some lunch and I thought, since you two are so friendly, wouldn’t it be fun to invite you along, too?”

The very idea slaps Jaebum in the face, and he even steps back a bit in shock, mouth moving silently. Nope. This is a bad situation. This was not giving Jinyoung space, at all.

“Noona,” Jinyoung says tersely, “they’re probably very busy.”

He must not have told Sooyoung what happened between then, must have kept everything to himself. Now she was just being friendly — or was it teasing? Jinyoung is glaring up at her over the top of Yugyeom’s head in a very brotherly manner, and Sooyoung laughs outright.

“We aren’t doing anything else!” Yugyeom shouts, pulling away from Jinyoung, obviously excited about the treat of going out for a lunch.

Jinyoung glances over at Jaebum then, face softening, but still stiff, unsure.

Jaebum gestures at him meekly. “We wouldn’t want to intrude,” Jaebum murmurs. “I’m sure you were looking forward to spending some time together, with your sister.”

“Oh, I see Jinyoung every other day,” Sooyoung says dismissively, “you’ve just got to join us. It’ll be my treat.”

Jinyoung sighs, pulling away to look at Yugyeom directly. “Are you hungry?” He asks. “Have you eaten yet? Do you want to come with me and my noona for something delicious?”

Yugyeom, finally realizing it’s remarkable to have discovered a Jinyoung here, glances back and forth between the siblings in surprise. “Ms. Sooyoung… is your noona?” He mumbles.

“Yes!” Sooyoung declares. “Jinyoung-ah is my little baby brother. Do you like jjampong? I know just the place, it’s very close and absolutely the best.”

Jinyoung’s eyes glint, and he defensively draws himself up, neck looking stiff. But he takes Yugyeom’s hand, swinging it lightly in his grip. “They make delicious jjajangmyeon too,” he says, looking down at him with a smile. “If you don’t like seafood.”

“Or we could go for barbecue,” Sooyoung hums, busying herself with putting on a jacket excitedly. “If you want meat.”

“Anything is totally fine,” Jaebum interrupts, voice stern and dry. “Yugyeom isn’t picky at all, and neither am I. And again, we really don’t want to bother you.”

He tries to say this part as directly as he can to Jinyoung, but his eyes are darting away from his, always out of reach as they head out of the room together.

“Of course not,” says Sooyoung. She stays beside him instead, smiling mischievously as they tag along behind Jinyoung and Yugyeom.

“Jinyoung said you like to sing, too,” Sooyoung mentions, as they make their way outside. The air is crisp, spring still achingly out of reach.

Jaebum shoves his hands in his pockets and tries to keep his expression neutral, his gaze on the back of Yugyeom’s toddling head. He doesn’t watch Jinyoung’s careful grip of his small hand, doesn’t admire the subtle herringbone of his coat, doesn’t take notice of their strides matching perfectly in rhythm.

Why has this become so hard? He wonders. Ever since Jinyoung admitted to liking him, his presence seems so blatant, so distracting. Or was it — before then?

“You like to sing?” Sooyoung tries to ask him, again, and Jaebum sucks in a breath of embarrassment, having nearly forgotten their entire conversation.

“Yes — although I don’t manage much of it anymore,” Jaebum admits. “I used to do some lounge performance stuff earlier on in college, before I took on more responsibility at the Daily.”

“Do you miss that?” Sooyoung asks.

Jaebum swallows, eyes stubbornly counting Yugyeom’s steps. “Sometimes,” he admits. “And I wish there was a better way to incorporate something like that into a regular schedule. But I don’t think it’s really going to be possible, once I get a good job.”

He leaves most of it unsaid — to afford raising Yugyeom, he might even have to get two good jobs. It just doesn’t leave much room, much time for those sort of creative hobbies. He’d known one day, he probably would stop tinkering with composition and recording. But it still startles him, especially now, how soon it might happen after graduation.

All too quickly, they’re settling into a lush, private alcove at an upscale Chinese Korean restaurant that Jaebum has purposely never ventured into. Even in their neighborhood, there are distinctly more expensive pockets. And while he appreciates the atmosphere, especially for going on walks, he knows what he can’t afford.

Meanwhile, Yugyeom is gazing around at the detailed decor in bright-eyed awe. He can still appreciate the beauty in fancy places, without feeling it tarnished by bitterness. Jaebum wonders how long it will last.

Jaebum tries to keep his eyes on his son, on the menus placed before them. Decidedly, not on Jinyoung, cheeks still flushed from the outside chill, long fingers trembling as he eases out of his coat and hurries to serve some of the quickly offered tea for everyone.

Jaebum can see a hint of blue in his fingernails, and he thinks of their ramyeon in the cabin, of the frigid way Jinyoung had insisted he wasn’t asking for a relationship. Here, watching Jinyoung duck down to slide Yugyeom’s teacup in front of him, demonstrating how to blow across its surface delicately, Jaebum struggles to remember why he’d felt so bad about the idea anyway.

The waiter comes and goes after taking their order, Sooyoung offering more than Jaebum is certain is feasible for lunch. They sit in silence for a moment, Yugyeom doodling away at a provided coloring page.

“My husband owns several restaurants,” Sooyoung says, quietly. She takes a long sip of her tea, as Jaebum glances up at her curiously.

“Not this one,” she says, with a cute, curled smirk. “This one is owned by a family — and they’re simply wonderful. There’s no way he could ever capture this kind of cuisine, this kind of chemistry, just with good cooks.”

Jaebum nods, absently. He supposes there’s certainly a charm to a family restaurant, something that feels more authentic, warmer than what even more skilled chefs can offer. The idea is sort of distant though, the concept of investment foreign.

“I kept telling Jinyoung,” she says, with a sigh. “He should try to preserve that kind of magic for our parents’ company.”

“Sooyoung noona,” Jinyoung says, lowly. “Jaebum-ssi isn’t interested in this.”

Jaebum’s chest aches, and he tries to keep his breathing even — Jinyoung isn’t even calling him hyung, isn’t even acting as if they’re close at all.

“Show him a picture of Jungkook or something,” Jinyoung offers, gesturing at Sooyoung’s phone. “He’s Yugyeom’s age.”

“I wasn’t saying it to entertain,” Sooyoung ruffles up a bit, glancing apologetically at Jaebum. “I just wanted to underline, how much you’ve got going on and everything.”

“He isn’t interested,” Jinyoung reiterates, lips pouted. The in me goes unspoken, but Jaebum hears it, shifting in his seat uncomfortably.

Sooyoung looks entirely flummoxed, taken aback. Clearly she had no idea what she was getting into, hadn’t expected this bad of a reaction. Jaebum remembers Jinyoung mentioning his sisters teasing him about their gala date, so he’s sure this was another lighthearted attempt at the same. A gentle poke, not a prod. Nothing malicious. But Jinyoung is injured, and his raw reaction gives it away.

Sooyoung glances back at Jaebum hesitantly, and he tries to offer her a small, polite smile. In consolation, in comfort? He’s not sure. But he feels badly for bringing someone else into this mess, even if it’s just for an afternoon.

“You see: Jinyoung is stubborn,” Sooyoung continues, softly. Jinyoung outright glares at her now, clearly upset. But Sooyoung ignores it, for the moment. “I remember trying to convince him,” she says. “Even while he was still in high school, and I was headed for university. But he knew he didn’t want to do it, even then. Said he wanted to do something with people, children — Peachtree only exists because it was something Jinyoung had dreamed of, and passed it along to me.”

Jaebum turns it over in his mind, as a waiter appears and starts to lay out their dishes. Jinyoung had passed off working with his sister, describing himself in a menial role no less, as a sort of last resort. He made it sound like a fallback where he’d end up, if he could muster up interest in absolutely nothing else.

But the story Sooyoung tells, places it at the very heart of the matter.

Jaebum finally finds Jinyoung’s eyes with his own, and he wishes for the first time that Yugyeom weren’t sat between them. He wishes he could reach across lightly, and squeeze his knee. Wishes he could convey how he feels without seeming too sappy, without playing into Sooyoung’s original intention of teasing their relationship this way.

“It’s a great idea,” he says instead, patting Yugyeom’s back. “It seems like it’s really been flourishing.” And he hopes the forceful nod he punctuates it with can say something, can mean anything to Jinyoung.

Jinyoung’s knuckles look tensed, fingers clutched around a pair of chopsticks as his eyes flicker distrustfully between them. “Sure,” he manages.

Jaebum wishes he’d let him back in — Jinyoung’s gaze looks glassy and dark, familiar but distant, and Jaebum misses the warm depths he’d dipped into so easily before.

Yugyeom slurps loudly at his soup.

“Yah!” Jaebum blurts out, tension snapping as he turns to find the noise. “Whose turn is it to eat first?”

Yugyeom nibbles nervously around his spoon and hesitates for a moment. Then he’s meekly pointing across at Sooyoung — who’s frozen, mouth curled around a long twist of noodles already.

“Ah,” Jaebum hums, embarrassed, and then bows his head in apology to both Sooyoung and his son. “I hadn’t realized, I’m sorry.”

He hadn’t been paying attention to anything else. He’d stumbled into the darkness in Jinyoung’s eyes and had become hopelessly entangled there. How could he ease the pain he’d created, how could he give him the space he deserved? When Jinyoung’s eyes alone were enough to suction him in — slick and glossy, like his lips along his fingertips at the gala.

Jaebum has to startle himself out of his thoughts now, left blinking at his jjampong with a shuddering sigh. What a mess.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Sooyoung moves on, now that they’ve all started eating. “I heard you spent another day with our Chanyeol.”

And Jinyoung’s actions slow, chopsticks gliding around his bowl in an endless spiral, eyes fixed on the motion. “We went to the zoo,” he says, warily. And then he seems to hesitate before he clarifies: “For laughs.”

Jaebum feels the hairs on his arm stand on end, spine aching to be stretched out as he shifts in his seat again. Yugyeom even glances at him curiously, eyes peering around a pork bun that’s nearly the size of his face.

“You heard from Eomma?” Jinyoung wonders.

“Peach Breeze posted about it,” Sooyoung chuckles. “They made sparkly gifs of him wiping churro off your lip, you know.” A beat, and then Sooyoung tilts her head to find Jaebum’s reaction.

Jaebum valiantly tries not to give her one, having shoved a heap of squid into his mouth. But he knows his brows are low, knows his cheeks are warm. Still, he glares into his bowl instead, hoping beyond reason that it’ll somehow be ascribed to focusing on his meal.

Is it worse to react so poorly now, or is it worse to know he’d sought this out himself? He’d snooped and looked at Jinyoung’s tag, specifically nosy about his personal life.

“You know I try not to look at that stuff,” Jinyoung is saying, and Jaebum still isn’t looking at him.

“I know,” Sooyoung agrees, laugh ringing out. “But Eomma told me about it afterward too, and you know what she said?”

Jinyoung is frowning as Jaebum looks up, curious now.

“She said — you smelled like him when you came home,” Sooyoung is warbling, covering her mouth with a napkin as her laughter descends into a cough.

“What kind of ridiculous—!” Jinyoung exclaims, tossing his napkin down in annoyance. “Noona, you are doing too much,” he says warningly.

Yugyeom perks up at this commotion, suddenly tugging at Jinyoung’s elbow, fingers digging into the cuff of his sleeve. Jinyoung blinks in surprise, glancing down at him, looking embarrassed.

Jaebum takes a long sip of water, hiding the flush in his cheeks as he watches them over the rim of the glass.

“Can I smell??” Yugyeom asks, inexplicably.

Jinyoung breaks into a grin then, letting out a confused laugh as the toddler gets on his tiptoes, shoes squeaking on the booth pleather, to reach his collar. Then he buries his nose into his neck, and Jinyoung giggles, guffaws, and physically seems to try and fold away from the sensation.

“His neck is ticklish,” Jaebum says quietly, tugging Yugyeom back once he’s clearly gotten a good whiff. “Don’t irritate your hyung.”

Yugyeom has come away from Jinyoung with a puzzled expression. “You smell like jjampong,” he says, frowning.

Jinyoung laughs louder, wrapping an arm around Yugyeom’s back as he continues to lean against his shoulder. Jaebum yanks his own hand back, prickly and alarmed by how close they’d come to touching. Which is completely ridiculous, he admits to himself. But he has no idea what their boundaries are now, and he decides it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Sooyoung is looking at him curiously again, so Jaebum tries to focus back on his bowl. But it’s only a spoonful or two before his soup has vanished, and then he has nowhere to hide.

“Oh,” Sooyoung hums, smiling eyes wavering between them. “Jaebum-ssi eats well.”

Jinyoung chokes on a sip of his broth, and Yugyeom, settled down but still curled close to his side, pats him in concern. Jinyoung’s face is flushed deep red, and first Jaebum doesn’t understand, doesn’t catch it.

But then Jinyoung’s tongue darts out, nervously licking at the corner of his lip to catch a droplet. And Jaebum remembers.

He ate well, alright. He’d eaten Jinyoung out, until he was scrambling, thrashing across that fur rug, choking around the fold of his turtleneck to muffle his cries.

“Are you going to fuck me or not?” Jaebum remembers him asking, abruptly, and as their eyes meet now, electricity nearly crackles between them — as if Jinyoung is thinking of the exact same moment. Jinyoung’s eyes burn into Jaebum’s, and they swallow in sync, short of breath.

“And Yugyeomie too,” Sooyoung is saying, reaching across Jaebum to squeeze Yugyeom’s wrist. His smaller portion has been inhaled.

Jaebum turns away from Jinyoung, embarrassed by the perverted path his mind had wandered down. This was hardly an appropriate place for recalling such a memory. And besides, he probably needs to start strictly practicing — how can he think purer, friendlier thoughts about Jinyoung?

Somehow, they manage to stumble through the tail end of lunch, and then they wind up loitering as a group out on the sidewalk, halfway back toward Peachtree Grove. Jaebum isn’t sure when would be a polite time to bid them goodbye, feeling too awkward to just split off and end up crossing the street.

“Anyway, I’m very excited for Yugyeom to join us next week,” Sooyoung is saying, smiling down at him.

Yugyeom grins back up at her, but he’s clutching shyly at Jaebum’s pant leg again, as if he can’t quite handle the weight of her smile. This is cute, Jaebum thinks. It’ll be good for him to admire a teacher so much — maybe it will result in extra good behavior in his classes.

“Do you usually tell them they’ve been accepted, right away?” Jinyoung murmurs, with a strange pout. “Don’t you have to clear it with all the paperwork?”

Sooyoung straightens, looking mildly annoyed. “There’s no reason to dance around it with our neighbors,” she says. “And our friends.”

The word falls flat between them. Jinyoung blinks down at the concrete dully, as Jaebum sucks in a long, tired breath and stretches out a tense spine.

“We should head home,” he finally says, resigned to this afternoon having turned stale. “Thank you so much for the lunch, and for — everything.” He says this last word at Jinyoung, but he’s already turned to look the opposite way, neck twisted. Jaebum’s eyes trail down the sinewy ridge from his pink ear to where it disappears into his collar, and he remembers how it tastes. Warm, a little salty with sweat. Sweet.

Yugyeom tugs at his hand, and they’re about to give a final bow, but Jinyoung swings aside and turns completely.

“Eomma,” Jinyoung is murmuring, voice thin and nervous. “Is that you, Eomma?” He calls out, then.

And Jaebum sees now: a woman and a child, scurrying from the direction of the daycare. Her eyes look familiar, as she draws near. His stomach plummets — his feet suddenly feel heavy, numb, cold all at once. Is this… it can’t be — Jinyoung’s mother?

“Oh, Sooyoung-ah,” she’s panting slightly, hair in a sleek, short haircut that bounces back into place even after it’s been swept up in the wind. “We just barely caught up to you — he’s been whining all day.”

The little boy beside her wriggles out of her grip, and bursts forward to hug Sooyoung’s waist. Then, he peers around at Yugyeom curiously, eyes peeping bright over the pleats of her long skirt.

“Ah,” Sooyoung chuckles. “This is my son, Jungkook,” she says, running a hand through a tousled bowlcut that looks similar to Yugyeom’s. “He’s my little bunny.”

Yugyeom looks across at him appraisingly, and then squints up at Jaebum, hand clutching tighter. Jaebum clears his throat, and tugs Yugyeom forward one wobbly step. “Hello Jungkook,” says Jaebum. “This is Yugyeom, he’s almost four. He can speak, most of the time.”

But Yugyeom seems finally struck beyond words, staying silent but offering a very modest nod, eyes roving all over Jungkook’s fair face. They both seem wary of each other, but interested.

Jungkook doesn’t emerge from his mother’s skirt, wrapping the folds of it around his shoulders instead, as if it affords him an extra layer of protection. Sooyoung laughs softly, playing with his hair still, and sharing a smile with Jaebum that feels comfortable, sympathetic.

It’s strange how quickly it does make Jaebum feel at ease. She has a child, the same age. She knows how difficult it can be, and not just from a friendly outside perspective, even professional or academic. He finds it very comforting, if only as another resource.

“You didn’t stage an applicant interview at a restaurant, did you?” Mrs. Park suddenly says, to Sooyoung. Jaebum lets his eyes slide slowly, awkwardly across to meet her gaze, as she’s glancing around the group.

“And someone else’s restaurant,” she chides, crossing her arms. It’s not harsh, certainly not a serious critique. But it is weighted by experience. A handbag that even Jaebum can recognize hangs at her elbow, pristine. The symbol of her financial status.

He bites a lip, suddenly feeling a little scrubby. He’d felt alright earlier, when they’d left the apartment. He had made sure to iron a shirt, tucking it into his best fitting jeans, with nice brown boots. But in front of this woman, he feels sloppy — why hadn’t he worn slacks? Even the round-framed glasses he’d slipped on feel cheap, like she can tell they aren’t prescription and would judge him for it.

But in spite of his own feelings, her eyes don’t look unkind. Just curious.

“It was separate from business,” Sooyoung assures her. “Eomma, this is Im Jaebum — you know, from Jinyoung’s short film project.”

Jaebum bows promptly, heart hammering away in his chest like a machine gun. He isn’t sure why this feels just as important as their interview. It bears no special importance, he promises himself. Yugyeom glances between them as Jaebum straightens up, and then bows deeply as well, following his lead. And he nearly loses his balance, trying to dip too low, expect for Jaebum’s white-knuckled grip on his hand.

“Ohh,” hums Mrs. Park, eyes unabashedly scanning them up and down, twice as critical as before. “The gala date,” she murmurs.

Jaebum flushes, and he can’t help a guilty glance at Jinyoung here, who is trying once again to stay focused on the sidewalk. His mother jostles him with a grin, however, and Jaebum’s stomach does a backflip.

“He looks much more handsome than in those photos,” she says. “I bet that creepy photographer was jealous and posted his worst shots on purpose.”

Jinyoung’s ears go red, and his lashes flutter slightly before he finally can raise them — heavy, drooping, to look guiltily across at Jaebum. A flood of sympathetic energy washes over Jaebum in the moment, the apology felt loud and clear. Jinyoung hadn’t planned for any of this.

Jaebum gives him a small, sideways smile, and is content to see the flush creep back into his cheeks, even as he blinks away too quickly. He understands.

“I think it’s too generous, to assume he noticed me at all,” Jaebum says, tilting his grin to shoot it at Mrs. Park. “He obviously only has eyes for Jinyoung.”

He regrets it as soon as he says it — it’s too cheesy for his style, and he certainly wasn’t out to try and impress anyone beyond Yugyeom’s potential. But Sooyoung crows appreciatively, chuckling as she glances between her mother and brother.

Mrs. Park looks reasonably pleased as well, raising her eyebrows slowly at Jinyoung, and then at Sooyoung, and then — down at Yugyeom.

“How can he only... has eyes for Jinyoungie hyungie?” Yugyeom is wondering, leaning so he can swing out a bit, as he holds tight to Jaebum’s wrist. He pivots slowly on a foot, humming in thought. “My eyes work for the tv, and animals, and people, and Appa too.”

“It’s an expression,” Jinyoung says, gently. “People say it to tease someone, for liking somebody too much.”

Jaebum can’t help but look up at him now, to catch the blush in his rounded cheeks, gone soft as he looks down at Yugyeom. Had Jinyoung possibly felt that way, about Jaebum? Was there a time, when he’d only had eyes for him?

Jaebum forces himself to look back at Yugyeom now, to check for his reaction. Yugyeom is frowning, obviously not quite picking up on the nuance of what liking someone even entails. “What happens to your other eyes,” he whispers to himself, too quiet for the others to discern.

Jaebum bursts into a smile as he gazes down at him, pleased with the imaginative leap in reasoning anyhow. He wants to tuck it away, wants to keep it for himself. He swings his arm wider. Yugyeom wobbles for a moment and then grins, planting his feet and pulling against him happily.

“Is this your little brother?” Mrs. Park asks, suddenly, and Jaebum’s vision goes temporarily blurry around the edges. This is common from strangers, well-intentioned people who want to compliment Yugyeom’s behavior, or his long eyelashes, or whatever they can’t help blurting out. What a handsome little brother you have, they say. Your parents must be proud.

It’s reasonable, Jaebum has to remind himself, because he is young, so it looks like the right relationship. But still, it’s typically none of their business, and his reaction — a tense jaw, spine stiffening upright — is automatic.

Before he can count himself down to a polite response, Jinyoung speaks up.

“This is Jaebum’s son,” Jinyoung says, eyes clear, smiling at Yugyeom. “Im Yugyeom.”

Mrs. Park blinks once, twice, before her smile straightens out, looking back and forth and back again between Jinyoung and Jaebum.

Jaebum feels like he’s had the wind knocked out of him — like someone’s knocked him square in the diaphragm and he just can’t expand his lungs. He hadn’t expected this, after Jinyoung had admitted he wasn’t sure how to explain it to his parents. Maybe it hadn’t been stigma. Maybe he’d been waiting for an appropriate moment.

Everything goes static, Yugyeom even stopping in his swaying. Instead, he twirls around on a toe, to smile up charmingly at Jinyoung’s mother. She nods awkwardly back, cracking into what looks like a small, sincere smile.

“Yugyeom will be joining us at Peachtree, soon,” Sooyoung expands on it, and Mrs. Park is silently nodding along.

She doesn’t look angry — just surprised, and now, as she turns finally back to Jinyoung, maybe a little bit overwhelmed.

Jaebum watches her eyes wrinkle, narrowing in concern as they light on Jinyoung’s face. Jaebum wouldn’t criticize Jinyoung for looking too tenderly at his son, wouldn’t hold it against anyone. It’s not out of place, as a friend and a babysitter.

But perhaps, to his own mother, it looks a shade suspicious.

Because then, she’s grasping his arm tightly and immediately bowing, crisply trilling goodbyes.

“We really should get going,” she says quickly, yanking not-so-subtly at Jinyoung’s wrist. “I only needed to drop off Jungkook and pick up Jinyoung-ah, anyway. We have a prior appointment.”

Jinyoung looks surprised, embarrassed, and glances with wide eyes between Sooyoung and Jaebum. He clearly hadn’t been aware of such an appointment.

Jaebum doesn’t want to pry about it, and he doesn’t want an apology. He’d known from the beginning this would be a boundary in their relationship, that this harsh reveal would be inevitable. Granted, he hadn’t expected Jinyoung’s parents pulling them apart to be quite so literal.

“We’ll see you around,” Jaebum offers, noncommittally.

Jinyoung's face fractures slightly, and Jaebum is reminded of the palette of expressions he’d drawn from in the cabin — not heartbroken, not angry, but frustrated. Always wavering, trapped behind whatever careful etiquette he’d been trained in. Whatever gorgeous, restrained behavior he’d known all his life. Truly useless and unemployable here, as they all take too many turns bowing sloppily, almost a parody of politeness.

Mrs. Park and Jinyoung are already starting back towards the daycare, Sooyoung and Jungkook trailing after them. Jaebum steps off the curb to head home. But Yugyeom rips away from him suddenly, and Jaebum panics, always on high alert when they cross a street.

Yugyeom is safely back on the sidewalk in a flash, however. He’s darting down to tug at Jinyoung’s herringbone coat. “Jinyoungie hyungie,” he calls quietly, smiling. The hurried goodbye hadn’t felt strange to him. He was still cheerful, satisfied with his free lunch and probably pleased at having made new friends.

“Are you coming to my birthday party?” Yugyeom asks. And then he turns slightly so Jungkook, ahead of them, will certainly hear him: “I’m going to be four years old.”

Jinyoung’s face brightens, bending to pinch a slightly bloated cheek. Yugyeom squints and swats lightly at him, but he’s pink and gone slightly shy on release.

“Of course I am,” Jinyoung says, even as his mother shoots a wary expression at him. “I promise I’ll be there,” he adds, and that does it. Yugyeom beams merrily, waving goodbye, before he scurries back to Jaebum’s side, taking his hand securely again.

Jaebum nods down at him, pleased. A beat passes, and then he chances a peek back, eyes falling once more on Jinyoung.

His mother is striding quickly away, Sooyoung and Jungkook in tow, but Jinyoung is hesitating. Lingering on the sidewalk, still. A breeze ruffles through his hair, slow and romantic, and Jaebum watches his eyes soften.

And that’s entirely too much, Jaebum decides, entirely unfair to Jinyoung’s feelings. He can’t give him this moment, as much as Jaebum appreciates it for himself. As beautiful as his eyes become when they go all molten and glimmering like that, as much as he appreciates him playing along with Yugyeom until the very end.

Jaebum leads his son back home, emotions drawn all apart, split between his feelings.

 

//

Chapter Text

Jinyoung calls him the next day. Jaebum’s at school, and he veers aside in the hallway outside of class, staring at his vibrating phone in disbelief, heart suddenly a jackhammer in his chest.

He’d wondered if Jinyoung would fade away, would be too embarrassed to talk to him.

But now, it’s Jaebum who hides himself in a corner, blushing and fumbling with his phone in the middle of campus.

“Im Jaebum,” a gruff voice calls out.

Jaebum turns to find an older teacher from the Literature department, Professor Lee.

“Oh, Professor Lee,” Jaebum dips in greeting, declining the call and tucking his phone away.

“I wanted to tell you, I really enjoyed your short film,” the graying man says.

“Oh,” Jaebum brightens, bowing his head slightly in gratitude. “ Tomorrow Today? Thank you. I didn’t know you followed any of the film department’s selections.”

“I liked the concept,” Lee continues. “The imagery was nice, and the theme: a classic coming of age. A good exploration of youth’s first, tottering steps into manhood. Although I think I would’ve preferred a female costar, instead of that actor.”

Jaebum blinks at him in confusion, tilting his head. “Pardon me?” He asks.

“Park Jinyoung, isn’t it?” The professor ponders. “I never cared much for his papers.”

Jaebum boggles at him, taken aback. “But sir,” he sputters. “Jinyoung had the highest grades behind me in both of your core courses.”

“And he probably had to put in twice the effort,” Professor Lee admits with a loud sniff, “he submitted every extra credit piece, and spent hours in my office trying to integrate more of my feedback. Academically, quite committed. But he’s too gentle with his conclusions, too wishy-washy. No ballsy conviction.”

Jaebum’s ears are left ringing, his brows settled low as he tries to process this revelation. He’d thought everything had come easily for Jinyoung.

And while he’d certainly seen professors praise Jinyoung, he realizes it was foolish to assume he’d coasted by on the same charms in every class. Jaebum certainly grappled with different classes uniquely, as the chemistry between teacher and student could greatly vary.

“I think he’s very open-minded,” Jaebum says, carefully, and the phone in his back pocket feels suddenly heavy, guilty. “Maybe less pointed, but he’s always seemed grounded in good analysis.”

Professor Lee looks bothered with the idea, frowningly waving his words out of the air as if they have a foul odor. “He should have stuck with just his major,” he says, “his acting seems perfectly serviceable. But I really think you could have explored a more raw sort of tension, if that role was a woman, instead.”

It’s Jaebum’s turn to frown now, crossing his arms and looking around the hallway impatiently. “It was a partnered project, sir,” he says tersely. “Jinyoung and I ideated the entire thing together, from beginning to end. So any compliments you have for the story should be shared with him equally — and because of its personal message it made sense for us to co-star.”

And as for tension, Jaebum thinks sourly, the professor would have no way of knowing — he’d never seen the way Jinyoung could whisper, could writhe, could kiss. That part of their story was left untold, the film too short and shallow to explore the explosive points where their paths had accidentally intersected.

But what exactly did his pompous, sniffling literature professor, who lived alone, and exclusively covered work by men in his curriculum, even know about women, anyway? It left Jaebum’s mouth sour.

“I really have to get going,” Jaebum says, sloppily nodding his goodbye. “Have a pleasant afternoon.”

Even these formalities feel false to him. What leaves him even more frustrated is that a few months ago, Jaebum would have probably been pleased to hear Jinyoung had struggled under Professor Lee. Might have taken it as validation of his own.

His own regrets aside, he still can’t fathom why anyone should be so keen to push Jinyoung out of the picture. It’s literal today, with Professor Lee wishing he hadn’t been a part of the project. But it also reminds him of Suzy’s old-fashioned perspective — where Jinyoung was only suitable as some kind of play thing , not a parent figure.

For whatever reason, people around Jaebum were convinced he needed a woman somewhere. As if a real person could be so easily selected and placed, like a prop. As if Jaebum could just flip a switch, and erase a part of his identity at will.

Bitter, Jaebum collapses onto the bench at his bus stop, squinting down the road for a moment before flicking his phone back out.

There’s a missed call, and from a few minutes later, several text messages.

Jinyoung 2:08pm

I’m sorry about that lunch. I know it must have been uncomfortable for you.

My sister was trying to tease me, not you.

I hope you don’t hold it against her

Jaebum lets out a sharp sigh, frustrated by Jinyoung’s sheen of civility. He’d already deciphered Sooyoung’s shenanigans, and he knew it wasn’t Jinyoung’s fault.

Jinyoung 2:10pm

When is Yugyeom’s birthday party? i’d still like to attend

And again, Jaebum teeters on the edge of exasperation. As if he’d redact Yugyeom’s own invitation, over one awkward lunch. They’d really found themselves in uncharted territory, now.

Jaebum 2:26pm

this Saturday, any time after 3

and it’s fine, Yugyeom did so well in the interview i couldn’t think about anything else

It’s not entirely a lie. Yugyeom’s easy admittance into Peachtree lifted quite a burden from Jaebum’s shoulders. The rest of the day was outshone by the highlight.

But he had thought about Jinyoung — about his confession, and about how he’d tasted on his tongue.

And even when he and Yugyeom were safely, comfortably at home again, he’d thought of Jinyoung. Following so reluctantly after his mother and sister, bright eyes beaming longingly over his shoulder.

A beat passes without Jinyoung’s reply, and Jaebum checks the street again for the familiar groan of his bus. It’s quiet, still.

His phone buzzes.

Jinyoung 2:28pm

Is there a dress code?

Jaebum barks out a laugh at this, rubbing a hand across his face.

Jaebum 2:28pm

no!

he’s four years old and it’s at my apartment

it’s not another gala

Jinyoung 2:29pm

Jungkookie’s 3rd birthday had a black and white theme

People do themes.

it’s not unheard of

Jaebum 2:30pm

the theme is a birthday

His cheeks burn suddenly as he realizes this could be an insinuation about Jinyoung’s ‘birthday suit.’

Jaebum 2:30pm

just wear clothes

The bus is screeching to a stop in front of him then, and he hops on board, shouldering his way towards a spot in the back.

He hasn’t paid this much attention to his phone in a while. Maybe not since he was looking forward to updates on Yugyeom, from Youngjae.

Jinyoung 2:34pm

Any old thing?

Jaebum frowns down at the message, unsure where this is headed.

Jaebum 2:35pm

within reason..?

The bus sways as it takes a wide corner, but Jaebum’s eyes stay glued to his screen, even as his shoulders bump back against the window. He grips his backpack tight in his lap, waiting.

Jinyoung 2:37pm

[Image attached]

At first Jaebum doesn’t quite understand. Jinyoung isn’t in anything remarkable, just a simple sweater. But he’s wearing a headband. Cat ears. And he has his thumb brushing coyly against the fat of his lower lip, like he’s actively trying to draw attention to his mouth. His eyes are sparkling, and there’s just a hint of a smile. Almost like he’s… teasing Jaebum?

Jaebum shifts in the thin plastic of his seat, adjusting his backpack so it doesn’t press into his lap too directly.

Jaebum doesn’t have a fetish — but it’s sexy. What’s more naturally suited for Jinyoung’s slinky, playful energy than kitten ears? Jaebum desperately tries not to spiral into the question of what other costumes Jinyoung has lying around.

He glances around the bus in embarrassment then, wondering if anyone noticed him gaping at the image on his phone.

But the other passengers seem similarly engrossed with their own devices. So Jaebum turns back to his conversation once more, watching Jinyoung’s typing notification appear and disappear.

Distantly, he realizes he should comfort Jinyoung somehow. He owes him a response that makes it clear this is fine, and he hasn’t misinterpreted the photo.

There’s no way Jinyoung is flirting. He just happened to have those laying around, and thought it would be funny. Funny Jinyoung just happens to look... like sexy Jinyoung.

Jaebum 2:41pm

Yugyeom is allergic to cats

There’s another pause, and then Jaebum’s bus has arrived at his stop, and he hurries down the block to his apartment.

Jinyoung 2:48pm

[Video attached]

Jaebum nearly stumbles at the gate, pressing through after a moment of full blown alarm. He lets it download as he heads up his stairwell, lets his thumb hover over the play button for just a  second.

Instead, he tucks his phone away, so he can unlock his door, kick off his shoes, and change into loose shorts. Collapsing onto his couch, he thinks he should be prepared. He should be comfortable, and seated, if that kitten shot was any kind of warning.

He plays the video. It’s only a few seconds, Jinyoung having discarded the ears and simply modeling, smiling awkwardly with his lips shut.

Then he lets himself grin, baring his teeth stiffly, and several pieces of candy-coated gum clatter out of his mouth. He pantomimes shock, covering his mouth. The video cuts out as he clearly bursts into an embarrassed shriek of laughter.

Jaebum stares at the last frame, frozen on Jinyoung’s cheerfully wrinkled eyes, and then rolls over to scream into a throw pillow. He’s laughing, loud and stupid, replaying the ridiculous clip two more times until his lungs are wheezing.

God, it’s so endearing, and so dumb. Jaebum has made bad dad jokes before, but the secondhand humiliation of this wrecks him. He can’t believe he’d been turned on by the sexy cat ear photo just minutes before. Is this really from the same person?

Slowly, he collects himself again, nuzzling into the corner of his pillow as he taps out a response.

Jaebum 3:02pm

wow

waited til I got home from bus to watch

what a good decision.

3:03pm

wasn’t this about what you were going to wear?

i dunno what your poor dental hygiene and even worse sense of humor have to do with dress code

whatever you wear around the house is probably nicer than what i’ll be in

He’s not sure what he’s doing, or where this is going. But friends text all the time. It doesn’t have to be… flirting.

He rolls onto his side as he waits for a reply, hugging the pillow to his chest and wriggling his socked feet.

Jinyoung 3:12pm

I don’t know if house clothes would be appropriate

[Image attached]

And Jaebum’s breath stutters, because the angle on this photo is different. It’s taken from higher up, and Jinyoung is draped across a couch. He has his legs up over the back of it, one arm pillowing his head. Lips agape, he looks startling innocent, as if he has no idea that his shorts are miniscule. No idea that his thighs are creamy, dusted with hair, lean lines of definition on display.

But Jaebum is pretty certain he knows.

Nervous, Jaebum starts to format a reply, and then hastily, sloppily backspaces. What is appropriate here? What had they agreed to? Maybe Jinyoung’s just joking around with him again. The last image had been so ugly, so silly, and now he’s spreading out like some kind of amateur lingerie model. What reaction does he want?

Jaebum 3:14pm

it’s been pretty warm lately

Observational. Innocent. But it’s not all he wants to say.

those shorts look nice

what brand?

Then he waits, stomach knotting in anticipation. Not even sure if Jinyoung will pick up the connotation — he wants to see more. Maybe he’ll just tell him, blithely, about the shorts.

He waits.

Jinyoung 3:21pm

I can’t remember.

Jaebum’s stomach flutters, caught somewhere between anxious and disappointed.

Jinyoung 3:22pm

Why don’t you check the tag?

[Image attached]

The angle has changed again. Jaebum nearly chokes, startling upward.

Jinyoung took this photo so it looks back over his shoulder. He’s on his belly. There’s just a corner of his smiling lips left in the frame, catlike and coy as ever. His back dips, and then his hips — his hips are angled dramatically in the air, so the perfect curvature of his bottom is on prominent display. He’s hiked his shorts up, decidedly higher than before, though they’re short to begin with. They disappear between his cheeks. So there’s skin. Ass, out. Up. All for Jaebum.

And just as quickly as Jaebum had sat up, he collapses backward again with a groan. Admittedly, this is exactly what he’d hoped for. But he hadn’t really expected it; how could he? Jinyoung alternated so easily between prim, proper sentences and then these increasingly intimate photos. Who knew what he was thinking?

But then, Jinyoung had to know what he was doing. There isn’t, as Jaebum zooms and explores the image, even a tag for him to read. Just Jinyoung’s body — vivid.

So it shouldn’t be such a big deal, he decides, hand trailing down his stomach and settling snug over his cock. It’s already stirred in his shorts, heavy and swelling in anticipation.

He doesn’t have to pick up Yugyeom today until 4, so he has time, and that sends another shiver down his spine.

Finally, he lifts his hips a bit, dipping his hand more intentionally into the waistband of his shorts. He nudges until they slide down to the tops of his thighs, and he wraps his fingers around his shaft, tugging it out into the air.

He hisses, eyes fixed on the curves, the dips, the form on his screen. He remembers Jinyoung pressing it back against him in bed, remembers sliding his fingers between those cheeks. He spits into his palm, tightens his grip.

Pumping steadily now, he remembers the noises Jinyoung had made. His fingers glide against himself, fingertips twisting just the way he likes, rhythm building.

He thinks of Jinyoung, legs spread across the fur, overstimulated and strung out: are you going to fuck me or not?

Jaebum groans out loud again, the flick of his wrist picking up speed, skin slapping.

And okay, he didn’t regret not doing so. More sex wouldn’t have fixed anything, wouldn’t have left them feeling any better now.

But god, he really could have plowed Jinyoung into the floor of that fucking cabin.

Jinyoung would have let him — would have wrapped his legs around his waist, would have buried his face in his neck and bitten down. And Jinyoung would probably have wanted it that way, on his back, so he could stare into Jaebum’s eyes. Jaebum drags a thumb over the head of his cock now, humming as a drop of precum sluices down over his knuckles.

Or would Jinyoung have wanted to take it on his knees? Bent over, crying, hands on the headboard as it slammed into the wall, frame scuffing along the floor like when they’d moved it. Reaching back to spread himself open, farther still to dig nails into Jaebum’s thigh, to keep him pressed close, to ask for it harder.

And when the power was out, they could have stayed sweaty under the blankets. One leg hitched up as Jaebum drove up into him from beside him, hands gripped over his heart, damp skin glowing in the firelight as it flickered.

It’s this position Jaebum replays on a loop in his mind as he stiffens, fucking desperately into his fist. As if it could ever come close to the white hot suction of Jinyoung’s insides.

And then he thinks about whispering into his red ear. Thinks of Jinyoung gasping out another confession — a broken, trembling declaration that he perversely imagines echoing back.

It’s this thought, this sensation, as he frowns down at Jinyoung’s risqué photograph, that finally pushes him over the edge. He shuts his eyes.

Then he’s tumbling, freefalling through the darkness behind his eyelids, guts suddenly untwisted, semen sputtering through his fingers as he comes. Bliss engulfs him for just a moment, the crest of pleasure short and bittersweet.

Gasping, he blinks up at his ceiling, head having thrown back with the sensation. Empty nervousness creeps back into his gut again. In a daze, he squints back down at his phone.

Jinyoung hasn’t followed up with another message. Jaebum scrolls back and forth through the conversation, deliberating.

Jaebum 3:49pm

thanks

see you saturday

And it gnaws at him later, the guilt creeping in slowly but surely. As he washes up, changes and goes to pick up Yugyeom. Trudging down the sidewalk.

Thanks?! Why had he said that? He may as well have sent him a photo of the jizz in his hand.

But it fit with the conceit of their shorts discussion. And he did feel grateful that Jinyoung had even bothered to contact him at all. That he hadn’t sunk away into the depths of his hurt feelings.

He wasn’t sure why he felt so conflicted about it, after all. Jinyoung knew he wasn’t looking for a relationship, but still offered up his picture without much hesitation. He couldn’t still be expecting anything Jaebum couldn’t… deliver.

Jaebum wanted to tell him it was inappropriate for their relationship. Wanted to say, don’t take selfies like that anymore. But he wouldn’t mean it.

 

//

 

Sooyoung is pleased to see him when he picks up Yugyeom. Jungkook, predictably, is by his side. The two have become nearly inseparable at Peachtree already, as every teacher seems to mention.

Jaebum is grateful for Yugyeom finding a new friend his own age, even if it’s a little strange. He’d never expected getting to know Jinyoung could also mean new friends for Yugyeom.

Jaebum thinks it’d be polite to invite them to the party, so he mentions it once he’s finished signing Yugyeom out.

Sooyoung hums, pouting down at Jungkook. He’s slipped back behind her legs again now that Jaebum’s taken over holding Yugyeom’s hand.

“I wish we could,” she says, sincerely. “But we’re spending the weekend with my husband’s parents, out of town. Next birthday, for sure.”

Jaebum nods. “Of course,” he says, brightly, “I’m sorry it was such short notice.”

Sooyoung waves an elegant hand, looking thoughtful for a moment. Just as Jaebum turns to leave, she gasps and tugs at his sleeve.

Jaebum startles, and turns back in curious surprise.

“Does Yugyeom… like going to the zoo?” Sooyoung wonders, glancing between Jungkook and Yugyeom.

Jaebum peers down at his son, who’s already bouncing in anticipation.

“Yes!” Yugyeom blurts out.

Jaebum grins sheepishly, patting his head. “Sure,” he says.

”We have annual passes,” Sooyoung explains. “So we get a pair of guest tickets too. Maybe we can go next week? That could be fun — Jungkook loves the tigers.”

Jungkook lets out a tiny roar.

Yugyeom looks unbelievably excited, and Jaebum can’t turn it down. “That would be fun,” he says. “I don’t have class after 2 on Thursdays.”

“Sounds good!” Sooyoung says, clapping her hands in finality. “I’ll text you closer about details.”

Jaebum waves and nods a short goodbye, and manages to get Yugyeom walking instead of hopping again.

This would be good, he thinks. It might be a little awkward, spending time with Sooyoung. But maybe he can clear up any lingering nosiness she has about his relationship with Jinyoung, and set things straight. It might be easier for her to understand his perspective. 

Jaebum thinks he’s finally becoming a little more optimistic, after all.

 

//

 

Yugyeom’s birthday arrives swiftly. Jaebum always has trouble sleeping the night before. But then he dips off, for just a moment, just unconscious enough for his alarm to inspire a touch of madness.

But it has to be early.

He always visits early in the morning.

Seulgi had been full of surprises. She’d had this energy — mysterious, powerful. Jaebum had been drawn in like she was a magnet, like colliding with her had been inevitable. They were both popular, well-admired.

But as he’d gotten to know her, he found she was more than mysterious. She was so soft, so warm. Endlessly sweet and understanding, funny and easy to talk to. Jaebum had never thought about long term relationships before Seulgi. He’d thought liking someone forever was just too unlikely.

Yet he hadn’t grown tired of her, even when they were silly and sought to annoy each other. Even when they fought and sparked like flint against each other.

They were happy. He’d been lucky enough to feel a little patch of genuine happiness, very early in life. 

And then, four years ago on this day, it had come to an end.

Seulgi’s family wanted nothing to do with him. Yugyeom’s mere existence was too painful for them to come to terms with — so they ignored it.

He couldn’t force them to meet a grandson they’d never asked for, couldn’t argue with them over something as sensitive as losing their daughter.

For Jaebum, Yugyeom had been a silver lining amidst the rain clouds. A reason to carry on. For the Kangs, Yugyeom was a storm they’d never expected, and would never move past.

Numb, frozen with rage, they’d never invited him to the funeral, to any memorial. Jaebum’s mother had begged on his behalf for information on where they’d housed her remains. It came with the stipulation that he avoid all contact with her family.

So Jaebum visits early, every year. As soon as the funeral home opens, he slips inside, Yugyeom and flowers in tow.

Yugyeom has stayed asleep the past few years, just a bundle the first, so he doesn’t expect him to be aware of much. He hopes he’ll be able to explain it as tactfully as possible. Hopes he can keep his voice steady as he says it. Hopes Yugyeom doesn’t grow up to resent his own birthday.

Yugyeom settles on the bench where Jaebum’s deposited him, in the middle of a long hallway, in the columbarium. Around them are dozens of niches for urns, some jammed with flowers, cards, and stuffed animals.

He finds the correct one, pressing his palm to the glass. Yugyeom blinks sleepily when he glances back at him.

Jaebum sighs, kneeling down, shoulders shaking slightly as he knows his son is watching, wondering. He presses his forehead to the floor, says a silent prayer, and slowly eases back up.

He takes a moment.

He can picture her, very clearly still. The brightness in her eyes. The soft curve of them in a smile. Jaebum had learned: maybe liking someone forever really was possible. But it didn’t always mean growing old together.

“You probably don’t remember coming here last year,” Jaebum says to Yugyeom after a moment, turning to offer a weak smile. “You slept through most of it.”

Yugyeom is slowly swinging his legs, a little wrinkle between his eyebrows.

“Do you remember what I’ve told you about your eomma?” Jaebum asks.

Yugyeom looks more alert now, sitting up straight and tucking his hands under his legs.

“My… eomma?” He says, in a very small voice. It echoes against all the marble in the floor, down the long, repetitive hallways. “My eomma died, when I was a baby.”

Jaebum nods, smiling and gesturing toward himself with a hand, invitingly. “This is where we come to remember her,” he says. “This cubby is for your eomma’s memory, for her family to leave her gifts and tell her their thoughts.”

Yugyeom frowns at the wall, and Jaebum watches his eyes scan down the seemingly endless grid of niches, some with urns and some still unoccupied. He looks deep in thought, and Jaebum wonders how much he can really absorb of the idea that each spot represents a person.

Yugyeom turns back to him after a moment. “How do I do it?” He asks, pushing to his feet and tottering over, looking nervous, a bit pigeon-toed. “I want to say something to Eomma.”

“It’s the same as saying something to anybody else: start with hello. How would you greet Halmeoni?” Jaebum prompts.

Yugyeom bows, trembling and wide-eyed. Jaebum nods encouragingly and takes his hand, drawing him a little closer.

“You don’t have to say it out loud,” Jaebum says. “But you can say anything you want to Eomma. She’ll hear it. She would have really loved listening to you.”

Yugyeom stares at the niche besides Jaebum’s hand in silence, eyes wavering.

Jaebum watches his soft reflection in the glass. Young. Vulnerable. Strange and out of place in a funeral home. But a part of life’s cycle, regardless. And a part of a family, whether it was all here or not.

They don’t stay long. Jaebum is always on edge, unsure how much time they really have. The silence weighs heavy on them both. And as important it is for Yugyeom to remember his mother, he doesn’t want visiting her to feel like a burden.

Yugyeom’s hand tight in his, they stride back down the winding halls, toward the exit.

But they’ve stayed just a minute too long.

Seulgi’s mother appears in the doorway, and stops abruptly there. Her arms sag with flowers, bouquets and bags of other offerings.

Jaebum pauses for just a second, but then he tugs Yugyeom obstinately past her, prepared to shoulder past her if he has to.

But she grits out an bitter sigh, and slides past them sideways. They don’t touch.

A flower slips out of one of the many bunches, slapping against the tile of the entryway. She’s still walking onward, ignoring it, but Yugyeom wrests his hand out of Jaebum’s grip in an instant.

A scolding evaporates in Jaebum’s throat before he can push it out. Yugyeom has already collected the daisy, has chased after her with a quiet Ahjumma.

And that hurts, the image. The words. She’s just a stranger to him, after all.

Mrs. Kang stares down at Yugyeom, face twisted tight with conflicting emotions.

But: “Thank you,” she whispers, crouching slightly. And reaches out clumsily through her many packages, hand shaking to accept it.

Yugyeom smiles up at her, entirely unsuspecting. Mrs. Kang straightens back up, glancing warily between him and Jaebum.

“Hurry up, Yugyeom-ah,” Jaebum calls, heart pounding in his ears. He tries to be loud, distinct, so that Seulgi’s mother can hear his name — can confirm who he is, and place this sweet, real face to an otherwise distant memory of some Hangul.

He watches her expression, but she twists away before he can catch any real tremble of her features. She scurries back down the same hallways they’d walked, heels loud against the marble.  

Yugyeom takes Jaebum’s hand again and keeps his smile on. It’s fine for him not to know, for now. One day he’ll be curious, about more of his life. Jaebum hopes things will have softened by then.

 

//

 

Yugyeom’s party is held the following day. His mother comes by in the morning and helps him bake and decorate, and the apartment is already loud with their laughter before any guests appear.

They move some furniture around, stowing some of his bookshelves and toys in Jaebum’s bedroom temporarily. Slowly, it seems like there might be enough room for guests.

Jaebum’s mother is typically quite gentle, cautious with him around this time of year. But she seems in a more playful mood lately, more direct about her thoughts and feelings since his father’s health issues. And it means she teases him a little more now.

“You know, I could still introduce you to some of my friend’s daughters,” his mother hums, eyeing him sideways.

Jaebum is stabbing candles into the top of the cake, counting to four loudly in his head with each placement.

“No thank you,” he says, crisply.

“Do you remember Ahn Hyejin?” she continues. “You were crazy about her in kindergarten.”

“Eomma,” Jaebum chides.

“Or maybe somebody’s son?” His mother goes on, stirring the lemonade with force, so that the spoon clangs the glass of the pitcher raucously. “Little Park Jimin, I heard he’s gotten very cute.”

“Eomma!” Jaebum growls, whipping a dish towel toward her section of the countertop. “I don’t want that. You know I don’t want to be set up.”

“Is there,” and his mother won’t meet his eyes, lips pursed and eyebrows raised. Acting like she knows the answer already. “Something you do want? Or someone, already?”

Jaebum feels his pulse fluttering, fingertips set atingle, and he feels shameful, stupid. Because of course, a face comes to mind; a name, a delicate touch of long, graceful fingers and a voice like smoke.

“It doesn’t matter,” Jaebum says, and he keeps wiping at the same chip on the counter stubbornly, even though he knows it’s not a stain. “It doesn’t matter who, or how. I can’t be with anybody right now. I’ve got Yugyeom, and that’s enough.”

His mother looks shocked, for a moment, and then deeply, genuinely troubled.

“Says who?” She asks. “I know it’s not as traditional, to meet someone when you already have a child. But you aren’t ineligible, Jaebum-ah.”

Jaebum shrugs, not wanting to pursue this line of conversation too deeply.

“You work very hard,” she continues. “And you have a lot of love to give. You can see it, can’t you? In Gyeommie.”

And Jaebum’s ears feel hot, and he’s almost dizzy, seasick with how familiar this sounds. Love multiplies, he remembers Jinyoung insisting.

“Isn’t that... a little naive?” Jaebum murmurs. “People want everything to be new.”

“You’re not used,” his mother scolds him. “And your relationship with a person, that’s what counts. Isn’t that going to be new?”

Jaebum considers it, but he must not look very well convinced.

“Jaebum-ah,” his mother says, crowding in close to him. “Life has already been very cruel to you. You’re allowed, you know, to be more gentle with yourself.”

Jaebum’s lip trembles a bit, shocked by how deeply he feels this concession. Shyly, he bundles his mother up in a hug, momentarily surprised by how small she feels. He’s been taller than her for a long time, but every hug feels just as wholly comforting as when she was the one who could wrap arms around him.

He bends down to kiss her on the chin, the spot he used to have to crane on tiptoe to reach. And he feels better.

 

//

 

Jackson and Youngjae are the first to arrive. Jaebum barely reaches the door after the first knock before they let themselves in.

Jackson is carrying drinks, snacks, and several gifts. Youngjae blows a little paper horn triumphantly, so it curls out to slap Jaebum’s face. Jaebum spanks him as he passes, pretending to be irritated.

“Happy birthday, little guy!” Jackson is crowing at Yugyeom, and then Jaebum is surprised to find Mark, lingering in the doorway.

“Hi,” he says quietly. He holds a case of beer and a basketball with a bow on it.

“Hey,” Jaebum mumbles, unsure for a moment. But he waves him in anyway, shutting the door behind him as questions buzz around his head.

Jaebum shows them to the table they’ve set up for food and gifts, and then they settle throughout the living room.

Jackson bounces Yugyeom on his knee, and Yugyeom looks a little embarrassed, but giggles and grips onto his pants leg after a moment of hesitation.

Youngjae watches from beside him, already digging into the selection of snacks.

“It’s Yugyeomie’s birthday,” Jackson sings out, “And he’s gotten re~ally handsome. I have to give him kisses!”

Yugyeom screeches in protest, nearly rolling himself forward to try and get off his lap, but Jackson cackles and tightens his arms around him in a smothering, ticklish hug.

He presses three loud, puckering kisses to his cheeks, while Yugyeom giggles and wriggles but doesn’t complain.

“Hyung,” says Youngjae, mouth full of chips. “I don’t think he likes it very much.”

“It’s only one for each year,” Jackson says. “Just one more kiss for Im Yugyeom, four years old!”

Yugyeom yells out again, little hands attempting to press Jackson’s face away, contorting it into a comical version of itself. But despite the squish of his cheeks up into his eyes, Jackson still plants one more weak smooch on Yugyeom’s forehead.

Gasping, Yugyeom finally is allowed to slide off his lap, and he collapses into a tired, tittering pile on the carpet.

“I think he likes it,” Jackson says, narrowing his eyes at Youngjae. “And you like it too.”

“What?” Youngjae manages, and then Jackson is launching toward his cheek, lips puckered. “Hyung!” He exclaims loudly, and Yugyeom sits back up to watch, giggling at their weak wrestling match. “It’s not my birthday!”

“Mmmm,” Jackson rumbles. “Jagiya, you taste like potato chip.”

Youngjae screams out a laugh, swatting him with his sweater sleeve.

Mark glances across at Jaebum then. Neither of them have sat down yet. Mark fishes out two beers from the case he brought, and offers one to Jaebum limply.

“Can we talk?” He asks, looking tired. “Alone for just a minute?”

And honestly, Jaebum’s sort of nervous. The last time he’d spoken with Mark, he’d made a joke that cut too low. He’d turned Yugyeom into a punchline. And while Jaebum figured it was done without much forethought, it wasn’t something he could tolerate.

If Mark was offering anything other than a clear understanding of this, and an apology, Jaebum would send him home. Simple.

Jaebum takes a deep breath, but nods, gesturing down the hallway. He pops the can as he walks, and takes a long swig. He directs them into Yugyeom’s room, since his is awkwardly stuffed with furniture for the moment.

Mark settles down on Yugyeom’s playmat, looking surprisingly comfortable, tracing his fingers along one of the printed railroad tracks as he seems to gather his thoughts.

Jaebum settles across from him on the rug, and while it should feel strange, silly, it feels equalizing. Like they both might benefit from revisiting some preschool concepts.

“I’m sorry for how I treated you, and what I said,” Mark says, finally. “I was trying to make Jinyoung uncomfortable because I know he’s sensitive about being inexperienced. But on top of that, I knew you’d probably be hurt in the process.”

He stares down at the mat, picking into the short pile with a fingernail, now. “So I just went for it. The condom stuff was a cheap shot, and I really regret it now.”

Jaebum nods, but doesn’t reply for the moment, chewing at his lip.

“Sometimes, when I’m hurt, I just feel kinda trapped. Caged, I guess,” Mark admits. “I get prickly and mad. And I just want the other person to feel the same way. I have trouble coming back down from that.”

Jaebum blinks, surprised by how familiar it sounds. He struggles when it comes to his emotions as well, knows the same physical feel of frustration. Heat at his neck; tension down his spine.

“I get that,” Jaebum says. “I really do. The… prickling stuff and everything. It’s hard to keep your cool?”

Mark nods, watching him carefully.

Jaebum frowns for a moment then, fiddling with one of Yugyeom’s blocks. “I just hope you know,” he says, “I didn’t do anything to flaunt it, on purpose, in front of you. I didn’t realize you’d felt that way about him until Jackson explained it. And even then, he seemed to downplay it a lot.”

Mark nods, expression softer than at the start. “Jackson is better at adapting,” he says. “He’s better at just giving affection to people, without looking for something in return. I’m — not there yet.”

Jaebum considers this for a moment. It reminds him of Jinyoung, in a way. Saying he knew what he wanted, but insisting he wasn’t asking to be in a relationship. Still asking so candidly to be a part of his life, still willing to dote on Yugyeom. Jackson and Jinyoung are a different type of person to them. Maybe a little bit alien.

“Jinyoung apologized to me,” Mark continues. “For the date setup. He said Jackson had to explain I was still upset. He said — his sister played a similar trick on him recently, and it made him so angry. He hadn’t realized, it could feel so bad. So he had no idea I was still upset.”

Jaebum nods along slowly, not surprised. Jinyoung had never made it sound like he knew Mark had been pining after him.

“It’s not that I really expected him to get with me,” Mark rattles on. “It’s just the whole sequence of how everything went down. It felt really unfair! I mean, I meet a nice guy, get closer to him, try to flirt a little bit. Then out of nowhere — he’s shoving me off on his obnoxious friend. And then we both have to watch as he flounces around, playing pretend with a guy that has actually said he hated him.” Mark’s mouth twists here, brow heavy as if he’s remembering all over again why he was upset.

Jaebum is feeling tense again, and he clears his throat, straightening up a bit. He hopes this isn’t too poignant of a memory, hopes backtracking through this isn’t going to end up being counter-productive.

“I mean: do you remember that?” Mark asks, eyes flashing. “Do you remember calling him a dick? Jackson told me you were so annoyed when you first got paired up.”

Jaebum sighs, rubbing a hand over his face as he turns away. “I didn’t know him,” he says. “At the most I didn’t like the idea of him. Maybe I exaggerated that and I shouldn’t have, but I — it wasn’t like I antagonized him. We just didn’t know each other.”

A beat passes, and Mark doesn’t object.

“Why did you reject him?” Mark asks, quietly. “You two seemed pretty happy when you were pretending.”

Jaebum inhales, shakily. His breath is heavy, and he feels it wavering within himself.

“I can’t date Park Jinyoung,” Jaebum nearly laughs, turning back to look Mark in the eye. “I don’t have what it takes to treat him right. And the way you reacted, at first: it’s all true. People will think I’m in it for money or something, to help pay for Yugyeom. Jinyoung will look like a fool — and that’s if his parents don’t disown him.”

Mark doesn’t glare, his features soft and slack. He leans back with a hum. “Is that all?” He asks.

Jaebum heats up, frustration already scrabbling at his insides. He digs his nails into his knee, clearing his throat again. “What do you mean, is that all?” He asks.

“I mean: you didn’t say you don’t like Jinyoung,” Mark points out, and there’s even a tug at the corner of his lips. “I mean you didn’t say: you aren’t attracted to him, or you aren’t compatible, none of that stuff.”

Jaebum’s face flushes, and then pales, confronted with the bare truth of it. And he’s right — Jaebum hadn’t spoken in those terms. For a very specific reason.

Did he like Jinyoung?

Fuck, so much.

“It’s not—!” Jaebum starts, but his throat is constricting. He rubs at his face in aggravation.

Mark squints at him, and Jaebum wonders why he’d ever thought Mark was so different. They’re more similar after all. Mark experiences the same physical, pulsing build of emotion, in a rumbling way, like they’re both wound too tight.

And yes, that means they conflict with each other, means they’ll lash out sometimes. But it seems to be rooted in the same place: a good heart, spread a little too thin by circumstance.

So Mark sees him now, even as he buries his reaction away, swallowing down the discomfort. Anyone else could miss it. But Mark smiles, gently. Acknowledging.

“We aren’t living in a vacuum,” Jaebum says. “A relationship doesn’t just happen for two people.”

“Okay,” Mark says, shrugging his shoulders. “That’s considerate. But you’re no stranger to disapproving parents. You don’t think you two could handle it? Being on your own? If that’s really what would happen.”

Jaebum lets himself think about it. He takes a long breath. It’s just for the conversation — just for a moment. Thinks about waking up everyday to Jinyoung’s soft breath in sync with his own, face slack against his chest. Thinks about Jinyoung picking Yugyeom up from daycare, about going on a camping trip together. And it’s all soft pastels and glowing sunset palettes and watching Yugyeom grow, with someone finally by Jaebum’s side.

“I don’t want Jinyoung to go through a fraction of what I had to go through, with my dad,” Jaebum says, stubbornly. The bitter taste of his own experience slices through the images cleanly. “It’s not fair.”

“You’re protecting him, again,” Mark says, pushing. “But if he was willing to go for it? If he thought you were worth it?”

“I’m not,” Jaebum grumbles.

“I’m not disagreeing with that—!” Mark huffs out something close to a laugh, throwing his hands up. But he does look sympathetic, tired of the provocation.

A beat passes.

If nothing else really mattered. If it was just concerning Jaebum and Jinyoung, and it was all about love. If he could cut through everything else, straight to that.

He would want it. He’d want to feel that way, to experience all of it, day after day. And maybe he already did want that. Maybe when he’d picked out his shirt for that first night out to the gala, he’d wanted it to be real.

Maybe even before that, when Jinyoung had rescued him from that awkward conversation with Suzy, driving him home and giving Yugyeom gifts. And then, at the hospital, taking care of them both. He’d certainly been nosy enough about Jinyoung’s feelings for other people. He’d certainly felt enough attraction, ready and willing to devour him as soon as he’d been given the chance.

Fuck, did he want it.

“I guess,” he says, voice thin and weak. It wobbles as he say it, breath stretching out into a sigh. Exhaustion washes over him, creeping into his fingertips like cold in winter. Upset, he looks away for a moment.

Mark is nodding when he turns back, satisfied. “I thought so,” he says. “Does admitting it, make you feel a little better?”

No, Jaebum thinks, bitterly. And another moment passes as the words fall flat, the air silent and stiff between them.

“I appreciate the apology,” Jaebum says instead, raising his beer to bump it against Mark’s. “Come on out and enjoy yourself.”

He leaves Mark in Yugyeom’s room then, shooting a weak thumbs up and a smile at Jackson, who’s hovering in the hallway.

Jackson looks hesitant still, but brushes past him with a grateful nod and a clap to his back.

 

//

 

Jinyoung appears shortly after 4 — Jaebum hears Jackson loudly greeting him at the door. Jaebum tries to keep busy in the kitchen a little longer, cowardly. His mother watches him bunching and tightly reclipping every single snack bag with a sideways, suspicious gaze.

Jaebum finally faces the inevitable, meekly carrying out a bowl of pretzels in his hand like a shield. Jinyoung is placing a box at the corner of the folding table, with Yugyeom’s other gifts. It’s obviously been hand-wrapped. Jaebum is surprised — and amused — by the effort, setting his bowl down and grinning across at the lumpy wrinkles in the paper.

Jinyoung looks a little more carefully put together, in crisp, light wash jeans that hug his thighs and a fuzzy pink sweater. He holds another package still, and turns slowly, eyes trailing up Jaebum’s body to meet his gaze. They’re both drinking each other in, Jaebum realizes, a little embarrassed. It makes him feel especially young, fumbling around each other like this.

“No short shorts?” Jaebum blurts out, apparently completely incapable of producing a normal greeting. Is he a total fucking creep? Now is not the time to bring that picture up.

Jinyoung’s lips part in surprise, and then he laughs awkwardly, stilted and soft, behind a hand. “They’re in the wash,” he says, quietly.

“Mine too,” Jaebum can’t stop himself, and then has to literally look away to let out a long, sharp sigh of humiliation.

Jinyoung gapes across at him, genuinely shocked. He glances around them as if worried about someone overhearing, but the others are being too loud, laughter shrouding them even a few paces away.

Jinyoung clears his throat, giving a short chuckle as he shifts his weight. When Jaebum looks up again he finds his cheeks matching the color of his sweater. At least he’s embarrassed too, Jaebum thinks, perversely. At least they’re uncomfortable, together. That’s sweet, right?

“Was that… a bad idea?” Jinyoung whispers, fingers twisting in the cord of his bag.

Jaebum meets his eyes again, shaking his head. “It was nice to talk to you,” he says, sincere. “Really.”

And that doesn’t address everything, but it seems to placate Jinyoung, who lets his lips slide into a plucky little smile.

Suddenly, he’s stepping forward, and Jaebum’s breath stops for a moment. Jinyoung reaches out, gently nudging at the hair that curls down around the back of Jaebum’s ear. He hasn’t had a haircut in a while, he realizes. Jaebum just hasn’t been thinking about it, hasn’t been paying attention to anything besides Yugyeom and school and trying not to break anymore hearts.

“Your hair,” Jinyoung says, grin peeking through. “It’s getting kind of long.”

Jinyoung’s fingertips feel like they’re electric, buzzing against Jaebum’s skin. He stutters out a breath, head jerking backward in surprise.

Jinyoung seems to wake from a spell, yanking his hand away and looking immediately regretful. Jaebum’s stomach churns in guilt. He doesn’t want Jinyoung to feel like he can’t even touch him. He just hadn’t expected it.

Jaebum starts to open his mouth to say so, but the kitchen door cuts him off with a whine, and his mother joins them with a coy smile.

“Mrs. Im,” Jinyoung hastily puts his smile back on, and bows low in greeting. “It’s nice to see you.”

Jaebum’s mother nods back at him warmly, still glancing between the two of them with the same sideways grin. “It's Park Jinyoung, isn't it?” She greets him. “Thank you for coming to see our Gyeommie.”

“I hope Mr. Im has been feeling better?” Jinyoung asks.

“He has!” Jaebum’s mother says, squeezing Jaebum’s elbow. “He’s taking things a day at a time, and we’re very grateful. He should be joining us a little later today, actually.”

Jaebum and Jinyoung both glance at her in surprise, and Jaebum’s heart twists slightly at the news. His father would always send Yugyeom a gift along with his mother, or they would take him out separately. But it would be a first, for him to join them in his apartment.

“I brought some other gifts,” Jinyoung presents the bag to her with another small bow, “to celebrate with your family.”

Jaebum’s mother slides a corner of a box out, the top vacuum-sealed and clear to reveal its red contents: finely marbled beef. There are some fresh fruits in the bag as well, and Jaebum feels a wave of familiar shyness start to trace its way down his spine. They don’t need this.

But his mother is smiling again, thanking Jinyoung sincerely. “How lovely,” she says graciously, “thank you! I’ll be sure and set out some of the fruit right away.”

Jaebum feels embarrassed by his defensiveness, quietly put into a more polite place by his mother. He gestures awkwardly toward the living room, and they both watch Jinyoung head over to greet the birthday boy.

Yugyeom seems like a little king holding court, his favorites of Jaebum’s friends all gazing adoringly at him as he shifts in his seat to look up at Jinyoung.

Jinyoung manages to eke out a Happy birth—! before Yugyeom tackles him around the waist in a tight hug.

His mother turns to him, pointedly raising her eyebrows like she had at the hospital. Jaebum lets out a tired sigh as she twirls back into the kitchen.

“Jinyoungie hyungie! Sit with me,” Yugyeom declares, and then he’s physically pressing Jackson towards an armrest. “Please make room for hyungie,” he says, quite seriously.

Jackson makes an offended face, but scoots over as instructed. “I’m a hyung too,” he mumbles out a meek protest. “I’m a hyung to that hyung.”

Jinyoung sits beside him with a smug sparkle in his eye, and Yugyeom resettles himself happily between him and BamBam, a hand on each of their knees.

BamBam points out the gesture to the group with a shocked expression. “Yah, Jaebum hyung,” he chortles. “What are you teaching your son?”

“Yugyeom likes pretty boys,” Youngjae confirms, as Jaebum settles on the floor beside him with a handful of pretzels. “Mark will be his next favorite.”

“Do you like video games?” Mark coos up at Yugyeom.

And Jaebum sputters a laugh around his pretzel, because it really does look like Yugyeom is taking him into consideration. He seems to glance comparatively down at Jackson, who immediately pelts Mark with a cushion.

“You don’t even know him!” Jackson whines, leaning around Jinyoung. “Jackson hyung has taken you to the doctor! And a soccer match!”

“Shouldn’t we play a game, or something?” Jinyoung suggests, slinging an arm around Yugyeom. “Instead of arguing like this?”

“This hyung is new, too,” Jackson presses, pointing a finger at Jinyoung and twisting it into his hip until he’s laughing breathily, wriggling away from the ticklish sensation. “You’ve barely known him a month or two.”

“Hyungie has a car,” Yugyeom says, waving away Jackson’s hands protectively. “And he comes over lots.”

Jackson and BamBam both crow in excitement at this proclamation, swatting each other across the length of the sofa. Youngjae lets out a long, suspicious ooh, elbowing Jaebum’s side immediately. Jaebum shakes his head at him, rolling his eyes, as his mother brings out a plate of fruit.

Youngjae grabs for an orange excitedly, making short work of the peel. Jaebum accepts an offered wedge.

Youngjae hums beside him, considering. “You two aren’t still fake dating, are you?” He mumbles quietly, between bites. “You’re just, regular friending?”

Jaebum glances over at his mother in a panic, nervous about her overhearing and misunderstanding. Or, more accurately: understanding perfectly. But she’s recruited Jinyoung and Mark in helping tape up a donkey poster farther away, and Yugyeom bounces around them in anticipation.

Jackson and BamBam remain on the couch, neither bothering to hide their eavesdropping. BamBam even leans forward.

“Yeah,” says Jaebum. “It’s not a big deal. It was just for a few events.”

“That’s good,” Youngjae says. “You shouldn’t fake anything. It’s better to be simple about feelings.”

Jaebum grimaces at the cheesiness of this, groaning and shoving him slightly. Jackson laughs out loud.

It feels good, Jaebum thinks, to be surrounded by the few friends he’s been blessed with. Their group feels comfortable, easy to fit into, like an extended part of his little family.

He’d been nervous about his father joining them. In the past, he’d felt ashamed, that a few friends were all he had to show for his life. But in this moment, he feels genuine pride.

This is a good group. And they’ll be around, when he needs them. That’s something he’d like his father to see — that he’s built something for himself and Yugyeom, even if it’s small.

As if on queue, there's a knock at the door.

Jaebum gets to his feet, eager to face his father and give him a warm welcome.

He swings open the door, a soft smile curling his lips. It droops.

“Jaebum oppa!”

His father hasn’t arrived. But Suzy has.

 

//

 

Chapter Text

“Suzy,” Jaebum sputters.

“Hello~!” She sing-songs, rattling a gift bag in front of his face. Jaebum flinches. “I couldn’t miss out on Yugyeomie’s birthday, since I’m back in town.”

Jaebum opens his mouth, and then shuts it with a sigh, letting her brush past.

“You were here for the first one,” he admits, quietly, and she smiles back over her shoulder at him.

“That’s right,” she agrees, and then she’s flouncing across to greet his mother, loudly. Jaebum trails behind her, shooting accusatory glares at his guests in the living room.

But all of them seem genuinely bewildered, sitting up straighter and casting puzzled frowns at one another. So maybe none of them are to blame.

Mark looks frozen, paper donkey tail in hand and a blank face, as he watches Suzy engulf Jaebum’s mother in a hug.

And Jinyoung, slightly behind him, looks lost. He glances down at Yugyeom, and then up at Jaebum, and back again.

“Yugyeomie!” Suzy is greeting him now, hands on her knees as she bends meet his gaze. “Happy birthday to you! Your noona is so proud to see how big you’ve gotten.”

Yugyeom smiles a little shyly, wiggling his hips as she pinches a cheek.

Jinyoung is staring, eyes drilling into the side of Jaebum’s face, and he can guess what he’s wondering. If Suzy is here, do they have to pretend? Even though Jaebum’s parents will be around?

Jaebum avoids the thought for a moment, watching as Suzy doles out a nicely wrapped box to Yugyeom and two bottles of wine out of the bag to his mother.

She folds it crisply then, glancing between Mark and Jinyoung with a smile.

Jinyoung nods nervously at her, but Mark simply floats away instead, fetching another beer for himself before heading back toward Jackson.

Jaebum watches Suzy and Jinyoung uncomfortably start to converse, and decides he probably owes it to Jinyoung to assist.

Jinyoung is leaning warily away from Suzy as he approaches, perched lightly against the snacks table. Jaebum sweeps in to stand beside him, carefully keeping an inch or so of friendly distance.

“It’s really nice to see Yugyeom’s made so many new friends,” Suzy says to Jaebum. “I was just telling Jinyoung about his 100 day celebration, when it was just us, and a bottle of wine.”

“Jackson came by too,” Jaebum says, peeking aside at Jinyoung, whose eyes are on the floor.

He just nods, lips tucked into an awkward smile.

Jaebum glances back up at Suzy, eyes narrowing. “Which one of my friends invited you?” He asks. “I genuinely thought you’d be too busy, you know.”

And he was trying to keep his distance. Suzy’s insistence on waiting for him made him uncomfortable, like he owed her a debt that he simply couldn’t repay.

Of course, he was supposed to be keeping his distance from Jinyoung as well, and here he is, warm body buzzing next to his, a blur of pink beside him. Jaebum sets his hand on the table behind him, to lean more comfortably back. It curls him closer over Jinyoung, and he can hear his breath catch, can see the way his chest expands with the deep inhale.

Fuck, he’s cute.

Jaebum is probably a monster to admit it, but a twisted part of him enjoys knowing Jinyoung has feelings for him. Enjoys watching him curl up and fidget, blush and gasp. 

“—doesn’t take much detective work to figure out a kid’s birthday party is on the closest weekend,” Suzy is saying, when he blinks back at her. “And I know you never have it on the day of, so I thought Saturday would be a safe bet. But I also called your parents.”

“My parents?” Jaebum stutters. He looks around in bewilderment, feeling a little betrayed. His mother is starting Pin the Tail On the Donkey with the others now. Yugyeom cheers happily, as BamBam spins a blindfolded Youngjae rather violently.

“Of course,” Suzy purrs. “I still keep in contact with them.”

Jaebum can feel Jinyoung tensing beside him. If they were dating, how would he feel in this moment? Suzy was obviously bragging about staying close with his family, while Jinyoung barely knows them. It was the truth regardless, but it's a little passive aggressively laid out.

Jaebum’s hand hovers now, wondering if he should try wrapping it around Jinyoung, unsure if that would comfort or confuse him.

“You can’t just throw away that kind of relationship,” Suzy says, and Jaebum shifts his jaw. “I know we’re not dating, but your parents still think of me as a daughter.”

Jaebum wraps his arm around Jinyoung’s side then, digging into his ribcage, into the soft fuzz of his sweater, and hauling him close.

Jinyoung’s breath stutters, but he remains pliant, a hand reaching across his waist so he can interlace their fingers at his hip. Closer now, Jaebum inspects his softly blushing face, hoping he won’t find too much hurt hidden there.

Jinyoung just looks pensive, like he’s trying to process everything very slowly.

“Thanks for coming,” Jaebum says to Suzy, politely. “I’m sure they especially appreciate seeing you, and Jackson. Since you two have known Yugyeom for so long.”

He doesn't mention himself, because he hadn’t invited her for a reason. He didn’t want to. And he wants her to notice his repeatedly adding Jackson to the same tier. Of course, he’s just a friend — he hopes she will take the hint.

There’s a loud knock then, and Suzy waves to his mother suddenly. “I’ll get it!” She sings out, and flutters to the door.

Jaebum turns back to Jinyoung, to make an annoyed face, but Jinyoung is getting up and peeling away from his grip gently, eyes on the ground again.

“I’m sorry,” Jaebum starts to apologize, voice low and soft. But Jinyoung shakes his head, waves his hand.

“You don’t need to apologize all the time,” Jinyoung says. “I know you appreciate a buffer.”

“I meant about how she was acting,” Jaebum says, stepping nearer still, shoulder bumping into his again as he strokes comfortingly down his side to his waist. “Towards you. Even as my friend, I don’t want her to belittle you.”

Jinyoung’s face is close, so Jaebum can see each minute movement, can track the way his lips wobble.

“Please don’t worry about it,” he says. He collects Jaebum’s hand in his again, and takes it off of his body, stepping back. “But we should be more careful,” he says.

“What do you mean?” Jaebum asks, but he thinks he knows the answer.

“I know I’m partly to blame,” Jinyoung says. “For those text messages. I was pushing our boundaries, and I probably went too far. But especially when you talk to me like this — it gets my hopes up.”

Jaebum feels a strange flutter in his chest, like his heart is doing a little backflip. And as Jinyoung’s eyes finally meet his, he feels like it might burst. He wants to reassure him it’s all friendly, that he would be respectful of these boundaries. But after his mother’s soft words, and Mark’s blunt reveal of his feelings, there’s a part of him that wants Jinyoung to expect something.

A heavy hand claps down on his shoulder though, and then he’s being spun around to face his father.

“Son,” he says crisply. “Come and greet me.”

“Ah,” Jaebum rumbles, embarrassed that he’d ignored the door for so long, that he’d been swept away in the mess of his feelings. He hugs his father tight, and draws back sheepishly.

“Do you want something to drink?” Jaebum offers, and gestures toward the kitchen.

“Introduce me to your friends,” his father says, but he’s smiling. “You don’t know how to welcome someone?”

Jaebum laughs, frazzled. He turns to find Jinyoung stepped back several feet. “This is Park Jinyoung, my classmate. He watched Yugyeom for me, when you were in the hospital.”

“Park Jinyoung,” his father repeats, humming as Jinyoung is bowing in greeting. “I’ve been wanting to thank you. My wife says you bought her breakfast, too. She honestly hasn’t stopped talking about it, ever since.”

“It was nothing,” Jinyoung insists, face pink as he straightens up and Jaebum’s father shakes his hand firmly. “Such a small thing in that circumstance, I’m just glad everyone is doing well.”

“I know it’s small,” Jaebum’s father barks, and Jaebum and Jinyoung glance at each other warily.

“I’ve bought her breakfast, lunch, and dinner for decades now.” He continues, a tiny smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. “But I’ve never heard her brag about it like this.”

Jaebum lets out a slightly annoyed breath, through his teeth. So he was teasing.

Jinyoung laughs behind a hand, but his eyes look round, trembling still.

Jaebum escorts his father over to where the others have paused their game, making more introductions.

Yugyeom suddenly comes racing down the hallway, little feet thundering as he nearly careens into his grandfather. “Harabeoji,” he’s breathless, waving around his Moomin plush. “This is Moo-moo, like I was telling you about last time. Come look at my room, I have to show you, you can see my fort!”

“Maybe Harabeoji would like to relax and chat a bit,” Jaebum suggests, “before going off to the fort.”

“No way,” his father waves a hand, voice gone soft. “I’ve been waiting to see it, all this time.”

“Appa, you can show people your room, too,” Yugyeom says to Jaebum, stubbornly, as if he’s jealous. He tugs his chuckling grandfather down the hallway.

Jaebum turns, about to make a probably inappropriate joke to Jinyoung. He’s glad he catches himself though, as he finds Suzy at his elbow now instead, offering him another can of beer. He takes it with a stiff thanks and takes a long gulp instead. He needs to learn to watch his mouth.

 

//

 

Presents are next on the agenda. Jaebum’s are never outrageous, but he knows what Yugyeom likes and tries to accommodate his interests with playful surprises. This year it’s a little magnetic train set that he can tug along or pop apart, and a set of various dinosaur figures.

Everyone else’s gifts have sweet, warm touches, and Jaebum is proud he can tell they all have personal relationships with Yugyeom, whatever they may be.

Then comes time to unwrap Jinyoung’s gift, and Jaebum’s jaw comes nearly unhinged. It’s an iPad. It’s in a child-friendly case, with a hearty rubber frame and a carrying handle, and Jinyoung merrily shows Yugyeom he can access his own Kids profile on Netflix.

Jaebum gapes across the living room at him, even as the rest of the guests seem to accept it without so much as a blink, moving on smoothly to Jaebum’s parents’ gifts.

But through the raucous excitement of those (including dance lessons, which Yugyeom had been requesting ever since he could speak), Jaebum feels self-conscious, prickly. The tablet, gently discarded in favor of an oversized giraffe plush from Jaebum’s father, seems to glare across at him from the sofa.

He bites into his lip, struggling to parse his immediate reaction against a more logical, gracious assessment. Is it fair to feel weird about it?

After a break for the cake and more grazing, Jaebum corners Jinyoung in the hallway, gazing up at a wall of photographs.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum says, softly as he can manage.

Jinyoung twirls to face him, eyes bright. “Is this you in high school?” He asks, pointing up at a photo of him, Seulgi, Suzy and Jackson. Sure enough, they’re all young in the photo, maybe their second or third year. He doesn’t look at it often. He’s hidden it amongst a lot of other group shots, primarily of people who’ve worked at the Daily. On second thought, that’s probably why Jinyoung was looking through them, since he could spot other familiar faces.

“Yep,” Jaebum says, lips popping slightly.

Jinyoung doesn’t ask about Seulgi, though Jaebum can trace the way his eyes linger on Yugyeom across the room for a beat, and then back at the image. But he doesn’t trample into the topic, and Jaebum is grateful for the space he leaves.

“Listen,” Jaebum sighs. “About your gift… I don’t know if that’s a great idea.”

“There are a lot of educational apps,” Jinyoung says brightly. “Jungkook uses one with a little talking dumpling who teaches him Chinese. And I made sure the app is set up for Kids Only. But I can email you the login, and you can add a profile, too.”

“I don’t know,” Jaebum breathes out, struggling to see it from Jinyoung’s perspective. Trying not to think of it as more than a couple hundred bucks. It makes him sweat.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum nearly whines, trying to explain it to him. “I don’t even have an iPad.”

“Well, when’s your birthday?” Jinyoung asks, eyes sparkling with mischief.

“I don’t want — I don’t want Yugyeom to take it for granted,” Jaebum says, carefully. “And he could break it.”

“He seems to take care of his things,” Jinyoung says. “You’ve already raised him to be pretty thoughtful.”

“I don’t want him growing up, having everything,” Jaebum presses, and he can read Jinyoung’s body language getting slightly defensive, leaning farther into the wall, away from Jaebum.

“I just don’t want him growing up…” and Jaebum wants to say: spoiled.

“To be like me,” Jinyoung supplies, instead. And Jaebum wonders now, breath caught. The glint in his eyes: is it a sparkle of teasing or the sharpness of steel?

“You aren’t spoiled,” Jaebum says, exasperated. He runs a hand through his hair, already regretting bringing it up.

“I can take the tablet back,” says Jinyoung. “If it bothers you so much.”

Jaebum tilts his head, feeling awkward about the offer. Is that what he wanted? He was just trying to express his discomfort. But it does sound like a demand, in retrospect.

“But then you’d have to accept Yugyeom’s full tuition to Peachtree instead,” Jinyoung says, boldly. He suddenly presses past him over to the cubby bench by the doorway, and settles atop it stiffly. “With VIP perks,” he adds, crossing a leg and looking away.

Jaebum opens his mouth to protest, then shuts it. “Those are the only options?” Jaebum asks, a wry grin seeping into his expression.

Jinyoung shrugs, looking a little pouty. “I come from a family of aggressive negotiators,” he says.

Jaebum scoffs, but he’s laughing, because it’s such a strange thing to argue about, such a strange thing to have to explain to someone you think a gift is too much. And then to have them threaten to triple it.

And the temperature between them… what is it? Is this flirting again?

“Look, it’s not just about what Yugyeom would like,” Jinyoung says, softly. “I would give him loads more toys, if that was the case. But what does Yugyeom mean to me? That’s what a gift is about. This one… I kept thinking about how much I liked watching him smile and sing along with that shitty dinosaur movie, two and a half times.”

Jaebum ducks his head, face flushing a bit as he thinks about that day he’d had to rush to the hospital — a bewildered Yugyeom waking up to Jinyoung and the two of them slowly becoming acquainted. What could have been an exhausting, hectic time for Yugyeom had turned into a bit of a treat. Jaebum only wishes he could have seen some of their time together, somehow.

“I want him to experience that joy whenever he wants it,” Jinyoung concludes. “And this is a lot easier than making you take a hundred DVDs.”

Jaebum sighs, feeling his resolve soften, crumble.

“You can come by any time you like, you know,” Jaebum says, crossing over after a moment’s consideration. “If you like watching him watch dinosaur movies so much.”

He settles beside him on the bench. It’s a tight fit, not really meant for more than one adult. But Jinyoung’s shoulder slips forward easily, letting Jaebum’s broader form curl around his.

Jinyoung turns back toward him, pouty-lipped and coy. “I don’t know, if that’s a good idea,” Jinyoung admits. “Aren’t you, trying to give me space?”

Jaebum sighs again, leaning closer, ducking his head as he considers it. This places his face very close to Jinyoung’s. He can smell his cologne — and the hair on his arms stands at attention.

“I’m sorry to have given you that impression,” Jaebum says. “I don’t mind being close. But, you should remember: the last two people to get really close to me... couldn’t stay.”

Jinyoung raises his eyebrows at him, clearly caught between their lighter tone and the brutal reality.

“I’m not exaggerating,” Jaebum murmurs, feeling drunk on his scent. Intoxicated. “It’s true.”

“Sounds risky,” Jinyoung whispers, and Jaebum watches his chin lift ever so slightly.

Jaebum stares at his lips.

“Appa,” Yugyeom runs right into Jaebum’s knees then, and he wobbles a bit in place. Jinyoung laughs, short and surprised.

“Yah, Yugyeomie,” Jaebum groans playfully, “please warn me before slamming into me, next time.”

“Okay,” says Yugyeom happily, as Jaebum hitches him up into his lap. They stay close to Jinyoung, both of them.

“I brought you a cookie,” Yugyeom says. “Open up.”

And then he’s jamming two thirds of a huge chocolate chip cookie between Jaebum’s teeth. Jaebum whimpers a bit, wincing as the texture of the cookie scrapes along the roof of his mouth. But miraculously it fits.

“Thankfhoo,” Jaebum says, words a garble.

“Hyungie, too,” Yugyeom directs, and Jinyoung leans in a bit, lips parted. Jaebum struggles not to laugh and spit out his own mouthful, chewing still.

The rest of the pastry gets crammed into Jinyoung’s awaiting mouth. Part of it disintegrates at the corner of his lips, sending some crumbs flying and others dotting his jawline like stubble.

Jaebum finally swallows, glad to be able to outright chuckle at the sight. He’s never seen Jinyoung look quite so willingly goofy.

“Yugyeomie,” Jaebum says with a smile. “Look at how handsome Jinyoung looks with a cookie mustache.”

Yugyeom giggles, but with wiggling fingers, he helps Jinyoung brush some of the crumbs off.

Jaebum grins, sideways, as Jinyoung finally licks his lips clean. “Back to just pretty,” he teases.

Jinyoung reaches out and covers Jaebum’s mouth with a hand, rolling his eyes. “Don’t,” he chides.

Jaebum doesn’t know what comes over him. But he’s in such a good mood, giddy with his son and a mouthful of sugar. So he kisses his palm then, chapped lips brushing achingly gentle into the center of Jinyoung’s hand. It’s clammy there, Jinyoung’s nerves showing.

Jinyoung pulls his hand back as if he’s been burnt, eyes wide and wobbling in disbelief.  Jaebum watches him with a soft, calculating expression and Jinyoung can only stare back, obviously confused.

Jaebum understands — he’s been a mess of mixed signals today.

But abruptly, he realizes he’s happiest like this: arms full with Yugyeom, Jinyoung close by. He hasn’t felt this way since the hospital, and he realizes exactly how slow, how oblivious he’s been to it when it had all been so clear so early.

He thinks back now, when he’d marveled at Jinyoung’s efficiency as a fake boyfriend around campus. Has Jinyoung really always been within reach?

Has Jinyoung always fit him this well?

The loud snap of a shutter suddenly startles all three of them. Jinyoung screeches, scrambling away with his head down, trying to muffle his honk of laughter with an elbow.

Jaebum looks up to find BamBam peeking around the corner with a grin, holding a camera. Jaebum sighs, shifting Yugyeom and posing for another few shots. It’s better not to give him the embarrassed reaction he’s looking for. 

Finally, he sets Yugyeom down and nudges past BamBam to rejoin the rest of the party.

“You make a beautiful family,” BamBam whispers, teasingly, as he passes.

Jaebum ignores it. Jinyoung seems to have hidden away in the bathroom for now, and Jaebum hopes he isn’t too embarrassed.

If they maintain this slow simmer, he isn’t sure what might happen. But if this is how their relationship is evolving, Jaebum can’t say he doesn’t look forward to finding out.

 

//

 

The party drags on. Jaebum isn’t anti-social, but he cherishes his downtime. When you’re a guest, it’s easy to slip out of a party early with a polite goodbye. But when you host, you have to make nice until the very end.

Besides that, he’s certain Yugyeom will get grumpy and crash soon, especially after all the sugar and excitement. What he doesn’t expect is any of the other guests acting up.

Jaebum’s parents have been a godsend, making sure Yugyeom is entertained and interacting with him at every possible moment. It could be easy for him to feel out of place, or get bored by so many adult guests. But he never gets a chance to feel ignored, not when there are grandparents to dote on his every whim.

At the moment, Jaebum’s father is doing some impressive voice acting — he’s impersonating a train, a train conductor, and various passengers. He follows Yugyeom on an imaginary route around the living room, down the hall, and through the assigned ‘wilderness’ of his bedroom, which includes a harrowing pass through a jungle of all his stuffed animals.

Jaebum and his guests offer passing cargo and comments as they make another lap around the living room before heading back down the hall. Jaebum watches the little wooden caboose wobble around the corner, and even though he’s exhausted, he feels a little energized by the positivity.

He thinks he might treat himself to a little soju.

He strolls toward the kitchen with single-minded purpose, fingers flexing as he thinks about the cold green glass of the bottles in his fridge. Yeah, that sounds good.

As he nears the doorway, he hears a surprising mix of laughter. It’s Youngjae, loud as always, but it’s paired with Suzy’s softer, indulgent giggle.

Jaebum leans by the door for a moment, lips curling as he wonders if Youngjae will finally get a sliver of recognition from someone he obviously admires.

Jackson had told him before: Youngjae had even followed Suzy on Instagram, and commented fairly often. But she’s never made it mutual.

So Jaebum delays a little longer, hoping to catch some of the surely awkward conversation.

“It’s nice of you to drop by,” Youngjae is saying. “Getting to see Yugyeom grow up is special.”

“It’s all I want,” Suzy says, and Jaebum almost believes her, but there’s a long pause and then Youngjae laughs a little.

“Seems like there’s more to it?” He says, and his voice lurches, a little nervous-sounding.

“I’m just trying to be patient with him,” Suzy is sighing then, and Jaebum can’t stop himself from rolling his eyes.

“With Jaebum hyung?” Youngjae’s voice asks. “You might be waiting a while.”

“You don’t think it’ll last with that Park Jinyoung, do you?” She counters then, voice light. “He’s cute, and he’s got money and all. But Jaebum oppa’s not serious about him, right? You can tell noona what you really think.”

“Hm?” Youngjae says, and Jaebum’s stomach twists into a knot of dread already. He can picture Youngjae’s blank face. Tender. Innocent. Completely unaware of any consequences to his best intentions. “Oh, they’re just friends, noona.”

“They broke up?” Suzy is hissing, and Jaebum can hear the shock in her voice. And it’s too late to stop this, it’s impossible to twist the truth back over on itself again, the lie having already snapped. But maybe if he can do some damage control….

“Well I don’t know all the details,” Youngjae explains, as Jaebum shoulders through the door. “But they weren’t really dating, I guess they just went to those events together.”

“Choi Youngjae!” Jaebum growls.

“You said he was your boyfriend,” Suzy says, blinking rapidly at Jaebum, grip visibly tightening on her glass of wine. “You — you told me that it was still new, but you were dating. In front of everyone.”

Jaebum’s stomach feels like it’s lead, like it’s about to plummet out of his body.

“Jaebum was embarrassed,” Youngjae blurts out, too honest. Way, way too honest. “He wanted you to think he had it all together, so he said Jinyoung was his boyfriend.”

Suzy turns and faces Jaebum fully now, disbelieving. The whole scene feels surreal — like a nightmare. Caught in a lie, his own kitchen seems to transform into some kind of art horror film, Suzy’s bewildered face burning bright red as the color seeps out of everything else.

And through it all, Jaebum’s heart, hammering away in his throat, wants to know where Jinyoung is. Where is Jinyoung? Will he still speak to him after this? Suzy wouldn’t be mad at him, would she?

“It — look: it started that way,” Jaebum says, putting a hand up in warning. Suzy snaps, letting out a short shriek.

It’s all too fast, and yet too slow. Jaebum feels detached from it, like he’s watching a movie. He stumbles after Suzy when she pushes past him, skirt billowing around her long legs as she stamps out to the living room.

Jinyoung is smiling, glowing really. He’s perched happily between BamBam and Jackson, peering down at Yugyeom’s baby album. Jaebum’s mother is perched on the arm of the couch, pointing out some of her favorite pictures. It’s a pleasant little vignette. He could never anticipate what’s about to happen.

Suzy tries to douse Jinyoung with her glass of red wine, straight to his face.

Jaebum’s quick, but not quick enough, limbs gone numb with rage as he realizes what’s happening. He manages to snatch her wrist out of the air before the whole cup spills, manages to yank her body back. “Suzy, don’t!” He bites out, mortified.

Jaebum’s mother gasps, snatching the photobook up and scurrying backward. Jackson scrambles after her, helping her out of the way. He’s murmuring soft platitudes, but his eyes are wide with shock and confusion.

Mark has popped up suddenly, cutting in front of Jinyoung. “What’re you doing?” He demands of Suzy.

“This boy has been pretending to date Jaebum,” she hisses. “Were you all in on it, too? And for what? To make me look like a fool??”

“Nobody thinks that,” Jaebum grits out, and then she promptly tosses the rest of her wine into his face. Jaebum nods emptily, still trying to tug her back toward the kitchen. He can deal with being the focus of her anger, no problem. But Jinyoung didn’t deserve it.

“Yah, noona!” Youngjae cries out, distressed by how this has so quickly unfurled. “I told you that to make you feel better. Jaebum hyung did this for you, after all.”

BamBam has rushed off to the kitchen, and re-emerges with a dish towel. He goes about dabbing up the wine from Jinyoung’s clothes and where it’s spattered into Jaebum’s couch, shooting disapproving eyes at all of them but avoiding the conversation.

“No one was trying to make you look bad,” Jackson says firmly to Suzy, holding Jaebum's mother close to his side. “But Jaebum is not wit h you, and I think you need to take a moment and just calm down. This isn’t your place.”

Jaebum feels frozen, fingers dug into Suzy’s arm and seasick with humiliation. Fuck, he’s really made a mess of things.

All he can see is Jinyoung, wiping his face slowly, long white fingers looking graceful as ever, as they flick the wine away. It still stains his face, but he drags himself up with a stiff, composed expression.

“I’m sorry,” he says to Suzy. “It’s just like Youngjae said: Jaebum wanted to make you jealous. Wanted you back. He’s been waiting for you after all, just like you’ve been waiting for him.”

And Jaebum’s throat feels completely sealed over. Gaping, all he can manage are slow, dry blinks as everyone turns to look at him. He drops Suzy’s arm, pulling away from her. That’s not it.

That’s not it.

“I’m sorry for having caused a scene,” Jinyoung bows shortly, abruptly at his mother. She shakes her head slowly, reluctant to accept such a needless apology. Jaebum can’t manage to speak.

Suzy glowers, and Jinyoung gives her one last, withering nod before rushing away. No one tries to stop him. Mark follows along like an icy breeze, patting Jackson on the shoulder as he leaves.

Yugyeom and his father come chugging into the living room, then. They’re both smiling, blissfully unaware and tugging along his train by its rope. They must not have heard anything, thankfully.

“Destination: Halmeoniii~!” Jaebum’s father booms.

Jaebum’s mother turns to greet them, shooting Jaebum one very pointed, wild-eyed glance. As if to warn him to fix things quickly.

But Jinyoung is gone already, and Jaebum hears the front door shut, overwhelmed. It feels like he’s stuck. Like an enormous wave has swept over him, too strong and overwhelming, saltwater burning in his lungs. And then slipping, rushing away from him all at once, as his feet stay stuck in wet sand.

And out with the tide, Jinyoung has slipped out of his apartment, and maybe his life. How could there be anything left to fix?

“Im Jaebum,” Suzy is saying, eyes blazing. “We need to talk.”

 

//

 

Jaebum is seething. But he isn’t sure how to communicate this to Suzy, without being terrifying. And now, tucked away in his breakfast nook, Jaebum feels a little claustrophobic, like his feelings don’t have enough room.

“What you did was really inappropriate,” he manages to say, tersely. “If you’re upset with anyone, it should only be me. This wasn’t Jinyoung’s doing.”

Suzy is quiet now, having crumpled into tears the instant they’d stepped into the solace of the kitchen. Another glass of wine, some wet wipes for Jaebum, and they’ve finally gotten to a stage where they can both find words again.

“None of it was real?” She wonders, not quite connecting with what he’s saying. She’s tracing the grain in the wood of the kitchen table with a fingernail, looking queasy.

“At first,” he says, slowly. “I didn’t even have anybody in mind. My friends had just suggested I bring a hot date to the gala.”

And unbidden, Jaebum thinks of Jinyoung in those leathery jeans. He had certainly delivered on that.

“Then it just sort of spiraled out from there,” Jaebum sighs. “I said too much to you, we built up a whole story. Jinyoung just kept playing along.”

Suzy slowly aerates the wine in her second glass, as Jaebum thinks more about spiraling. About how badly wine stains. About how he’s managed to break Jinyoung’s heart two times.  Jaebum thinks distractedly, miserably, that he should offer to pay for drycleaning that soft pink sweater.

“Honestly,” he grinds out. “I didn’t know you would be back in town permanently? I didn’t even know if we were on speaking terms. So I thought it’d be a one-time thing, and we’d all gloss over it easily.”

“What about that kiss at the gala?” Suzy wonders. “And in the hall at Snowscapes?  And the way you two acted around each other today? It looked — you’ve always looked pretty realistic.”

Jaebum considers it, thinking about his previous lines. Jinyoung is a really good actor, he could try. But that wouldn’t be honest. And it’d leave some room for hope.

“It was realistic,” Jaebum says, instead. “We got closer. Jinyoung is a really good person, and I… like him a lot.”

Suzy looks frustrated. “But oppa, didn’t you start this for me? Why didn’t you say anything, when I confessed to you? You couldn’t have already been so close, and I gave you such an opening?”

Jaebum inhales slowly, exhaling slower. “We weren’t that close yet,” he admits. “But this is my point, Suzy-yah. It really wasn’t about you. Maybe I was nervous, about seeing you again, which led me to make some dishonest decisions. And I’m sorry for lying.”

A beat passes, Suzy’s hand slipping down the stem of her goblet, flattening against the table. Jaebum doesn’t want to meet her eyes.

“But it’s never been about you,” Jaebum says. “Not really. I pretended to be with Jinyoung, for me. And then,” and he tries to keep his voice steady. “I caught feelings, despite my best efforts.”

Suzy’s grimace is heavier now, staring at her wine even as Jaebum tries to catch her gaze again. Stubborn, she looks away.

“Then why did Youngjae say you weren’t together?” She asks, gesturing limply at the window. “Another lie?”

“No,” Jaebum says quickly. “I told Jinyoung I’m not ready for a relationship.”

She turns back to him, frowning outright. “But all of us thought you were in one,” she snaps. “You wanted to look like you are.”

“Right,” says Jaebum, weakly. “It’s complicated? I’m… scared. I don’t think I have what he — what someone like him — wants.”

“What the hell do you want?” Suzy wonders. “Is it that complicated, or are you just...?”

“A fuckup?” Jaebum offers.

Suzy frowns at him a moment more, and then downs the rest of her wine. “Oppa,” she sighs heavily. “You know that isn’t true.”

Jaebum hums, atonal, and he feels worn out, exhausted. Bleary. He’s grateful for his parents being here tonight, keeping so much of Yugyeom’s attention. So he won’t see him faltering like this.

“When I talked to you at the gala,” Suzy continues, quieter now. “I said I’d thought about coming back to you, if you had it more… together.”

Jaebum nods, feeling hollow. He expects a redaction now; maybe even a scolding. Even after she’d promised to wait, even if he didn’t want to be with her.

“But that was just something I said, to make myself sound a little less desperate,” she says, lip trembling. “I know I made it seem like I know what I’m doing, on my own — and yes, things are going well! But Jaebum, I’m really not that much further ahead of you. I’m scared of my future, too.”

She looks down at her hands, turning them around to stare at her palms. They both follow the lines there, a little deeper set than they used to be.

“And honestly, Jaebum oppa,” she says, softly. “I would have wanted you back no matter what. Because you are a good man, and a wonderful father, and all along, I just wanted to see you again. I’ve just been selfish.”

Jaebum’s head feels like it’ll explode now, the pressure drilling through his skull so sharply.

“I hear what you’re saying,” she says. “About being afraid. But I don’t know what you think Jinyoung-ssi would want, any different than anyone else.”

Jaebum cracks his neck, thinking uncomfortably about Jinyoung’s mother’s handbag, about Sooyoung’s husband’s investments, about family businesses and luxury cars.

But: “Park Jinyoung… wants to be loved,” Suzy says. “Just like you. Just like me. That’s all.”

 

//

 

And now it’s gone all strange. Jaebum texts Jinyoung fervently with an apology that night, the next day, and the day after that. He calls him before his first class of the week, and then before meeting up for lunch with his friends on campus again.

But just like that, Jinyoung’s iced over. There are no responses, no messages.

Jaebum knows he shouldn’t expect an easy, warm reception. But after all they’d been through up to that point, he’d been optimistic. After all Jinyoung had put up with, he’d felt hopeful. But he supposes everyone has their breaking point.

Settling across from Jackson’s knowing, disappointed expression doesn’t make him feel any better.

“Hyung,” Youngjae whispers mournfully, switching benches to sit beside him at the table. “Hyung, I’m so sorry.”

Jaebum hadn’t spoken to him since the party, either. He finds it hard to lay too much blame there — it was Jaebum’s own lie, after all — but he’s still frustrated by the thought of it.

“It’s okay, Youngjae,” he murmurs, rubbing his brow.

“To a memorable birthday,” Jackson hums, rattling his blender bottle in a faux toast. Mark snorts out loud, beside him.

“Thanks for having us anyway, hyung,” BamBam says, wiggling his brows. “It really was mostly a good time.”

“Yugyeom had no idea about what went down,” Jackson adds. “Which is most important.”

Mark eyes him skeptically for this thought, but shrugs his shoulders. “That is good,” he concedes. “But have you talked to Jinyoung at all?”

“I keep trying,” Jaebum says tiredly, popping open his lunch container. “But he’s not responding to anything.”

Everyone nods slowly at each other. It’s understandable.  

“I figured you’d tried, at least,” Mark says. “But he doesn’t want to talk to me about it, either.”

“He just needs a little more time,” Jackson assures them after a moment of tension. “He’s been really forgiving of Jaebum hyung all along.”

“But how much forgiveness is he capable of?” BamBam wonders. “Won’t he run out, eventually?”

Mark hums in agreement. “It was really embarrassing,” he says.

Jaebum stays quiet for a moment, thinking it over. He shuffles through his mixed rice, thinking of how much grace he’s seen from Jinyoung already.

“I don’t need anymore forgiveness,” Jaebum says, stiffly. “If he can’t speak to me again, that’s fine. He’s right to feel that way.”

Jackson clicks his tongue in disappointment, shaking his head already.

Even Youngjae looks put off. “Hyung,” he says. “You can’t think that way.”

“It’s true,” Jaebum insists. “I asked for too much from him already. I don’t need to be forgiven. But I do need for him to listen to me, one more time. Because I need him to know: I didn’t do it for Suzy. I don’t want to get back together with her.”

Jackson sets his protein shake down, exchanging suspicious glances with Mark.

Youngjae shifts next to Jaebum, swiveling around on the bench and grasping at his arm. “I thought that’s why all of this started?” He asks.

“That’s what you told him,” Jaebum says, trying not to let it sound too bitter. “But it’s not how I feel. Not anymore, at least.”

A beat passes, and he flings his spoon down in frustration. “Jinyoung told Suzy I was still waiting for her; so that’s what he thinks,” he says. “He thinks that’s still what I want.”

“What do you want?” BamBam murmurs. “No offense hyung, but it hasn’t exactly been super clear.”

“Because I didn’t know,” Jaebum says. “I didn’t know for a while, and then I tried to push it off. But now I know, and I just have to tell him.”

They don’t ask him again. But they all watch, silent as they wait for him to continue. What does he want?

“I want Jinyoung,” he admits.



//

Chapter Text

“I want Jinyoung,” Jaebum admits.

BamBam screeches, wiping away a faux tear. “This feels like, we’ve all been wandering around in the wilderness, starving for years,” he pretends to sob. “And finally, we’re going to be fed.”

“Years??” Jackson crows. “You didn’t know about them until last term. I’ve known Jaebum since before we were at the Daily, and had to see the whole thing unfold over actual, literal years now.”

“But I thought they barely knew each other,” Youngjae wonders.

“They met sophomore year, at a barbecue mixer,” Jackson says. “Jinyoung never asked me about him, because he thought it’d be too pushy, but he was interested. They had every single thing in common, and this guy,” he points at Jaebum, “ignored it. It’s been ages!”

Jaebum waves him off. “I thought he acted… cold, that night.”

Jackson blinks across at him, unimpressed.

“He said he was actually, um,” Jaebum fumbles with his spoon for a moment. “Nervous.”

“Oh Jesus, gross,” Mark grumbles, but then he’s smiling and shaking his head at Jackson.

BamBam suddenly gasps. “Did you see, he bought Yugyeomie a tablet?”

“That was really adorable,” Youngjae acknowledges, and Jaebum shoots him an accusatory glare. He isn’t allowed to tease them. Youngjae crumples guiltily.

“You guys,” BamBam whines. “You know what this means? Jaebum hyung landed himself a sugar daddy… without even trying.”

Mark throws his head back and cackles.

“Oh my god,” Jackson says, quietly. “He’s right. Who would have ever thought...?”

“Stop,” Jaebum snaps, hot around his collar. “He’s not my sugar—!” He cuts himself off to rub his face in irritation. “In case you’ve already forgotten, I haven’t landed him at all. I doubt he’ll be buying anything for us, ever again.”

Mark hums, toothy grin mellowing out in consideration. The table is silent for a moment, seemingly thoughtful.

“Technically,” says Mark, slowly. “He’s been buying nice stuff for Yugyeom.”

BamBam slaps the table, as Jaebum groans and hides his face in Youngjae’s shoulder.

“A four year old has a sugar daddy, and I don’t,” BamBam pouts. “My life is a mess.”

The others snicker along, but Jaebum feels nauseous, nervous. They seem to be glossing over what happened rather quickly, but he’s certain it won’t be quite as easy for Jinyoung.

It’s all become so frustrating, suddenly at the forefront of his usual anxieties. So many of their memories were pleasant, and his mental image of Jinyoung used to wear glimmering eyes and a coy little smile. Now, he can only picture him stone faced, rushing out of the apartment with wine stained fingertips.

Honestly, Jaebum would have probably reread their flirty texts for weeks, given the opportunity. But now he feels awkward about the message thread, terrified of looking at that image and feeling like a predator. Like he’d taken advantage of someone vulnerable. And that might not have been the case, not really. It had been Jinyoung’s own prerogative.

But if that was a fraction of how Jinyoung felt, Jaebum could sense the weight of it, digging into his back with the rest of his burdens. 

The others are packing up and heading off, one by one, to their next schedules. Jaebum hangs back, eying Jackson meaningfully, until it’s just the two of them.

Jackson smiles at him gently, putting his chin in his hand. “They seem like they aren’t taking it seriously,” he acknowledges. “But they’re just trying to stay bright. You don’t need another voice telling you you did something wrong: isn’t yours loud enough?”

Jaebum sighs, burying his face in his hands. He stares out at Jackson through his fingers, feeling sorely embarrassed.

“Everytime I go to text him,” Jaebum murmurs. “I keep scrolling up. I keep seeing what our conversation looked like, just a few days ago. And it’s crazy, how quickly that can just... shut off.”

Jackson hums, slouching further down. “He’s a good texter,” he says playfully, a little daydreamy.

Jaebum almost snaps at him in annoyance. But despite all the drama, he can’t help still being curious about their past.

“Good at push and pull,” Jaebum agrees, eyes narrow as he tries to read Jackson’s expression.

Jackson cracks a filthy grin. “I had a whole album of his... push and pull,” he confesses.

Jaebum reaches across the table in an instant, and Jackson just barely escapes a slap to his neck.

“I don’t—!” Jackson puts his hands up in defense. “I don’t have it anymore. I deleted it a while ago. And they weren’t that dirty, anyway.”

They eye each other suspiciously. “Probably,” Jackson says, tilting his head. “Probably whatever you’ve gotten, is much better. And I’d be able to reassure you... if I knew what you had.”

Jaebum hisses in irritation, shaking his head. “I am not showing you,” he says.

Jackson throws his arms up in a melodramatic sigh, before slouching over again. “Well, then who can say,” he drawls.

A beat passes, and Jaebum does feel encouraged, brightened. Jackson is right; there’s something to a friendly ribbing that reels him back into normalcy, even if it’s only temporary.

But inevitably, the knot in his stomach returns, and he feels seasick with dread again.

“What should I do?” Jaebum finally asks, feeling naked. “He won’t even talk to me, and I’m dying to apologize.”

Jackson sighs, looking at him with real pity draped across his expression. It feels particularly striking, in Jaebum’s mind, as Jackson rarely looks down on his friends. Rarely seems disappointed, even when offering critique.

But this face only reveals Jackson’s profound sadness, how sincerely bad he feels. And Jaebum takes that to mean he can’t imagine a way out. Can’t string together his usual reassurances. 

“Jaebum hyung,” he says quietly. “I know you’re good at apologizing. When you’re wrong, you’re quick to see it, and you follow through with actually owning up to it. It’s something I really admire about you, as a friend. As a man. You’re not too puffed up with a fake idea of pride.”

Jaebum fidgets in his seat, nervous to hear what comes next. Waiting for the inevitable ‘but.’

“But,” says Jackson, and he nearly winces here. “I don’t know if it’s enough to fix this. I know it’s the right thing to do, and I know you’re willing to do it. But an apology doesn’t fix a broken heart.”

Jaebum doesn’t ask what does — because he should know by now. He’s been through enough of his own. It’s time.

He can chase Jinyoung down every day, and apologize over and over. But nothing but time that will tell if Jinyoung can forgive him. If he can trust him again. If he’s willing to open his heart one more time.

“But we’ll start there anyway,” Jackson says, determinedly. “Do you remember him saying: he usually eats lunch over by the library?”

 

//

 

Jaebum hasn’t really run in a while. He toddles around after Yugyeom, or power walks through crowds on campus.

But if he can catch Jinyoung during his break, maybe he can steal a moment to mend things. So he’s tearing toward the library, backpack slapping against a shoulder, breathless as he racks his brain for the right words.

The building comes into view and Jaebum slows down, jogging around the perimeter as he scans through students dotting various benches. None of them are the right height, none of them are the right build, none of them are Jinyoung. He rounds one, then two sides of the massive building.

And then Jaebum nearly trips over a bench as he spots him, because he can tell it’s Jinyoung from yards away. The silhouette of his ears alone are enough to confirm it, even as he’s facing away.

But he’s not by himself.

He’s hunched over, looking a little smaller than usual, as a slender, taller man lounges beside him. His arm skirts around Jinyoung’s form. Jaebum’s heart hammers angrily away as he draws nearer and sees the man’s hand is laid flat on the bench, very close to Jinyoung’s bottom. It’s not Chanyeol. So who is it? Adrenaline still pumping, he tries to breathe slowly, tries to bring his heart rate down.

There’s a wry, loud laugh then, and Jaebum glances up to realize there’s a young woman with them as well. Petite, smartly dressed, she paces back and forth in front of them, shaking her head.

“And he didn’t come after you?” She asks, incredulous.

Jaebum slows down a bit, circling around from the side. He’s wary about where this conversation is headed.

“It was his son’s birthday party, Jisoo hyung,” Jinyoung says dryly, and he rolls his shoulders with a heavy sigh. “He’s not going to abandon it just because I was upset.”

Jaebum and Jisoo both make a face at the use of hyung, and he remembers Mark mentioning Jisoo as somebody in Jinyoung’s social circle. Now that he thinks of it, he remembers Jinyoung mentioning her fansites. They must really be close, if this is how they talk to each other.

“But that girl,” Jisoo crosses her arms, mulling it over. “She threw a tantrum, and she got to stay?”

“I don’t know what happened after that,” Jinyoung says, and he sounds tired. Wilted. “I haven’t talked to anyone about it.”

“He didn’t say anything to her, though?” The other man asks. “When she was tossing the wine?”

“He stopped her,” Jinyoung says. “Then assured her that nobody thought she was a fool. And that was when she nailed him too.”

Jisoo snorts, flicking her hair over a shoulder. “Oh, people think she’s a fool,” she says.

Jinyoung lets out a soft sniff of a laugh, and Jaebum draws closer, heart twisting in his chest.

“I just feel so stupid,” Jinyoung admits. “It felt like one big practical joke, and all this time I’d been thinking it was on Suzy. Only everybody else knew it was on me.”

“You’re not a prank,” Jisoo says. “And you’re not stupid. You liked a guy, and the guy turned out to be bad news. Not to mention his... ghoul of a girlfriend.”

“She had a right to be mad,” Jinyoung says. “She was lied to.”

Jisoo wrinkles her nose into a deepset frown, shaking her head. “I don’t think so,” she blusters.

“You really don’t you think you’d be mad, if your ex pretended to be dating somebody?” Their other friend asks.

“I’d be mad at the appropriate person, Wonpil oppa,” Jisoo says, stiffly. “That cowardly son of a—!”

“Excuse me,” says Jaebum, and they all turn to look at him in surprise. Interrupting later definitely won’t get better, he figures.

Wonpil waves a finger at him, and then nearly tumbles in his haste to get off the bench. Before Jaebum can blink, Wonpil has grabbed him by the collar, and yanks him around to face Jinyoung. “This is the guy?” He exclaims.

Jaebum doesn't like his incredulous tone. Doesn’t he look like he could break Jinyoung’s heart?

“Wonpil,” Jinyoung says, but it’s said without much urgency, “don’t hurt him.”

Jaebum doesn’t struggle with Wonpil’s grip, but he keeps his chin high, and his eyes on Jinyoung. Jinyoung carefully packs away the wrapping from his lunch, getting to his feet and neatly disposing of it.

“I just want to talk,” Jaebum insists, feeling like he’s in some gangster film as he tugs against Wonpil’s clutch on his shirt. Should he put his hands up, too? “I need to speak to you, Jinyoung-ah. But you haven’t been answering my calls.”

Wonpil is slim, and Jaebum doesn’t think he’d offer much resistance if he did try to push him away. But Jaebum decides it’s better he doesn’t, as long as he has Jinyoung’s attention.

Unfortunately, Jinyoung barely looks at him. “It’s fine,” he says, swinging his satchel over his head as he gets to his feet. “You don’t have to apologize. You got what you wanted in the end.”

“No,” says Jaebum, and he abruptly drops to his knees, going heavy in Wonpil’s grasp. Startled, his fingers slip away, and he backs up, eyes wobbling in shock.

“This isn’t what I wanted,” Jaebum insists.

Maybe groveling is a bit much, Jaebum recognizes. But maybe, it would help Jinyoung understand he’s taking this seriously. That he takes Jinyoung seriously.

And it does get his attention, finally. But the way he stares down at him with utterly mournful eyes feels even worse than when he’d ignored him prior.

“Look,” Jinyoung says, and then he’s backing up, tearing his gaze away. “Please don’t do this. It doesn’t matter now.”

“It matters,” Jaebum says, and puts his hands on the knees, bowing his head. “Please believe it matters. Because you matter to me. I’m sorry, Jinyoung-ah. I should never have let this happen.”

But when he looks back up, Jinyoung is already rushing away, head hung low. Jaebum opens his mouth to call out to him, but his voice dies in his throat with a depressing little whine. He tries to choke back a lump of disappointment.

Wonpil sighs down at him, dark eyes glimmering. “I’ve got to hand it to you,” he says slowly.

“I’ve never seen him like this,” he pronounces, one hand up, with an awkward little smile, and Jaebum’s stomach twists. That doesn’t seem like much of an honor.

Then Wonpil is shrugging his wiry shoulders and following after Jinyoung.

Jaebum lets out a loud breath, and his head hangs in defeat for a moment.

When he looks up again, Jisoo has turned to face him, arms crossed as she stares down at him. “What are we going to do about all this?” She asks him, a finger resting thoughtfully on her face.

Maybe he can get a message to Jinyoung, through a friend? Since he won’t listen directly to him. Pleading his case might be worth a shot.

Jaebum runs his hands up and down his thighs, feeling his confidence waver under Jisoo’s steely gaze. “I want him to know, I didn’t expect him to get hurt,” he says. “And I did make Suzy leave.” Eventually, he corrects himself. She wouldn’t calm down until he’d spoken with her and then it took some help from his mother to get her to go.

“She threw that wine at me too, you know,” he adds, but it’s a weak sentiment.

Sure enough, Jisoo rolls her eyes. “Big deal,” she says. “It’s not the same. Jinyoung was humiliated! He looks like he’s trying to break up someone else’s family.”

“He’s not,” Jaebum says, vehemently. “And no one there thought that—!”

“Maybe not,” Jisoo hums, “but what would his parents think? They’re pretty conservative.”

Jaebum goes stiff. What if Jinyoung had told his mother? Nevermind Jaebum not being rich enough. Now that Jinyoung had been hurt, it would be over with his family, well before it had even begun.

Startled, he wonders if Sooyoung would even kick Yugyeom out of Peachtree over something like this. It doesn’t seem like her personality — she’s only been sweet and understanding. But Jinyoung was her baby brother.

“I don’t want to lose Jinyoung,” Jaebum says. “I want to make it up to him, somehow. I’ll do what it takes, to make things right.”

“What it takes,” Jisoo hums to herself, pacing back and forth, deep in contemplation.

Jaebum shifts uncomfortably, starting to regret leaving himself on his knees in front of her.

“Oh! Here’s a good start,” she says lightly, and digs into her backpack to retrieve a container.

It’s impressive how quick she is, without any hesitation. A quick peel of the lid and a wave of some chopsticks, and it sends Jaebum scrambling to his feet, nearly somersaulting over himself to get out of the way. A serving of kimchi slops loudly against the concrete where he’d just been kneeling.

Jaebum dusts off his knees as he straightens up, watching the vibrant red seep into the walkway. Dazed, he thinks to himself it would’ve made for an interesting, sticky bus ride home.

“Ah, I didn’t have enough for a good kimchi slap,” she says, chuckling sadly. “But a picture of you wearing it like a little hat could have really cheered him up!”

Jaebum huffs, exasperated. This wasn’t going to help him at all. “Hey,” he says. “Isn’t this too much? You don’t even know me.”

Jisoo raises her eyebrows, looking equally taken aback. “Too much?” She laughs out loud. “Is there such a thing? This is Park Jinyoung we’re talking about.”

Jaebum’s jaw clicks in annoyance. Kimchi to the face wouldn’t balance things out any more than an apology. He needs to make his feelings clear.

“Alright,” she concedes, stowing her leftovers with another chuckle. “You don’t have to humiliate yourself; I don’t think it’s what Jinyoung would want, anyway. But you know what I think would have helped?”

It’s awfully funny timing: waiting until after she tried pouring kimchi over his head to tell him he doesn’t have to humiliate himself. But Jaebum holds his tongue, even as the indignation curls up his spine.

“I think he would have appreciated it, if you’d followed after him,” she says. “The first time, and now.”

He gazes off in the direction Jinyoung had headed, lungs feeling tight as he nods weakly. He knows it would have been earnest — romantic, at least. But he’s scared to smother Jinyoung too quickly, either. And there’s a possibility he’s angry at him, so shouldn’t he give him more breathing room, so he can cool off?

He turns to say as much to Jisoo, but she’s already disappeared. Her kimchi lays sadly still, limp on the ground, and Jaebum faintly wonders if it would have been a good gesture after all.

Jinyoung’s friends are sort of peculiar, Jaebum decides. He wishes he’d gotten a chance to know them, though. He hadn’t been open enough, hadn’t even started meeting people close to him. He and Jinyoung’s relationship would stay frozen in this strange stasis in time, caught between fake-it-til-you-make-it and friends-with-benefits.

Still, he’s grateful for the advice, although he may have missed the mark this time.

It’s the uncertainty of their situation that Jaebum hates the most, so every hint from his friends ignites another sliver of hope. If he knew Jinyoung hated him, maybe he could move on in peace, understanding the break was what Jinyoung really wanted. Or if he knew Jinyoung needed comfort, he could shower him in affection and reassurances.

Instead, Jaebum doesn’t know how to approach him. His apologies sound tired, even to him. But he doesn’t know where else to start.

 

//

 

It takes some extra nagging after Jackson to get a hint about Jinyoung’s schedule. He TAs in a lecture that lets out just a hallway over from Jaebum’s last literature class the next day. So Jaebum waits across the hallway, staring at the woodgrain of the door with sweat in his palms and a sore throat.

Finally, the mottled light of the inset window shifts, and freshman students come pouring out. Jaebum waits.

It’s only a little longer then, until the room seems to empty out, and an older professor is cheerfully holding the door open for Jinyoung.

Eyes bright, he bids her a good afternoon, gripping tight to his stuffed satchel with one hand and a stack of papers in the other. The professor heads one way, and Jinyoung turns to go the opposite.

But then he locks eyes with Jaebum, and his gaze darkens.

“Jinyoung-ah,” he calls out. “Park Jinyoung!”

Jinyoung looks startled, cheeks flushed as he glances up and down the hallway as if seeking refuge. But none of their friends are about, and there’s nowhere to really hide.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum repeats, crossing over to him, voice low and hoarse. It feels like he’s swallowed gravel. It would feel about as painful, he thinks, as he watches Jinyoung stubbornly hurrying away from him again.

Jaebum gives chase.

They’re well-matched physically, so unless Jinyoung wants to break into a full speed run, he’s not going to slip away. Finally, he comes to a stop as they burst outside, but he doesn’t turn around.

Stubbornly, he stares up at the sky and lets out a loud, short sigh. “What do you want?” He asks, and Jaebum is glad to hear it. “I already know you’re sorry.”

“I need to tell you the truth,” says Jaebum, and his voice cracks. Jinyoung tries to walk away again, but Jaebum grasps him by the back of his shirt, tugging him back towards him.

Frustrated, Jaebum stares at the back of his head, following the neat edge of his hairline down his neck, to where the creamy slope of his shoulder disappears into his collar. He doesn’t let go. He remembers laying this way in bed, how his own face fits so neatly there. Jinyoung’s back didn’t look quite so intimidating, that way.

“Please don’t make this difficult,” Jinyoung says, and it’s quiet, cast downward.

Jaebum sighs, fingers tightening in the crease of his shirt. “Please just, listen to me,” he begs. “You don’t have to turn around, or face me, or say anything back. But I just want you to know. I need you to know.”

Jinyoung’s head turns very slightly, and the lobes of his ears are a familiar pink. Jaebum watches the corner of his cheek come into view, and his eyelashes are still low, refusing to look at him. Jaebum doesn’t let go. 

“I didn’t do it for Suzy,” Jaebum says. “And I know that sounds stupid, since we did everything in front of her.”

He pauses, stepping nearer now, tilting his head around to the side in hopes of catching Jinyoung’s eye. But Jinyoung breathes out sharply, and turns his head the other way.

Still, he doesn’t step away, so Jaebum leans closer still, until he can catch just the faintest whiff of Jinyoung’s fresh cologne. He inhales, slow and deep, hoping to savor it while he still can. In case this is his last chance. 

“But it wasn’t for her benefit,” Jaebum says. “It was to make me feel better, about myself. And it did, even though I didn’t deserve it. No one made me feel — no one makes me feel, the way you do.”

Jinyoung’s back shifts then, breath hitching again, and he tries to wriggle a shoulder forward and get his shirt out of Jaebum’s grip. 

He doesn’t let go.

Instead, Jaebum steps into his last bit of space, and hooks his chin over his shoulder. He wraps both his arms around his waist, and waits to see if Jinyoung will break away. But he doesn’t step forward, he just breathes heavy, each exhale a shudder. 

“Suzy is from my past,” Jaebum continues, breath reflecting hot off of Jinyoung’s neck. “And that’s where my feelings for her will stay. But I have to respect my past, moving forward. Or I won’t learn how to care for someone, the right way. And I want to make sure I get things right. This time. If you’d let me.”

He pauses, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” he admits. “But I want you there.”

Jinyoung trembles in his arms, and Jaebum wants to press his face closer, into his neck. He wants to press his cheek to his own, to look into his eyes. But he can’t, if Jinyoung doesn’t want anything to do with him. He wouldn’t want to leave him with such an ugly memory.

Jinyoung inhales deeper now, and while the sound of his breath still wavers, it’s steadier, stronger. Jinyoung draws himself up to his full height, and then forcefully lowers Jaebum’s arms from around him.

Jaebum tries one last time to find his eyes, trying to step around his side. But Jinyoung presses him away still, one arm elbowing him firmly back.

“Please,” says Jaebum, voice breaking. He knows if he can just look into his eyes, Jinyoung will understand him. Will see his sincerity reflected there.

Maybe Jinyoung knows it too — and that’s part of why he’s so firm about avoiding his gaze.

Jinyoung shakes his head, shakes him off, and strides away from him. Jaebum lets him go.

He reels back, looking up to the sky in some hope of finding some oxygen. But every breath is shallow and painful, a splinter of what feels like steel wedged into his throat. The campus suddenly seems angrily pale, sunlight searing into his vision until he has no choice but to turn and flop against the side of the Humanities building. Eyes screwed shut, he presses his face into the cold concrete of the wall and breathes. 

Jinyoung knows. The truth, and how he feels. But he’s left anyway, unfolding from Jaebum’s embrace and fleeing like his touch had insulted him. There was nothing left to pursue, no reason to follow if Jaebum really respected his choices.

Jaebum pounds a fist into the wall, but it’s weak, slumping in surrender, and the rough finish barely scrapes against his skin. He doesn’t know how to give up on this. Doesn’t want to.

But Jaebum is back in his natural state, it seems. Alone, overwhelmed, nearly swallowed whole by the world around him. Before, he thinks bitterly, at least he hadn’t fantasized about something as silly as falling in love again. Before, he had been careful not to dream of the extraordinary. But now, he dreams about Jinyoung every night, about extraordinary things like love and trust and comfort.

Things are back to normal, finally. Only now, normal feels miserable.

 

//

 

Jaebum typically dedicates any afternoons off to homework, household chores or errands. Now that Yugyeom’s going to Peachtree regularly, the extra time helps him get more done during the week than he used to.

Dishes used to pile up until the weekend, and essays and studying bleeding into all-nighters too often. He was shy about asking too much of his mother, so he’d kept Yugyeom beside him as much as possible. It’s different now, easier to be efficient.

But today, he’s feeling lazy. Lonely. So he picks up Yugyeom early, and coaxes him into a cuddle on the couch. Yugyeom is content to sit with him, but he’s more excited to have Jaebum pick out a new movie for them to watch on his tablet.

Jaebum watches his little fingers fumble across categories, tongue between his teeth, and he can’t help but be reminded of Jinyoung’s generosity. This was expensive in Jaebum’s world, but the recommendation of Peachtree had been even more valuable. He’d been good to them both, Jaebum thinks sadly.

“This one is about these little yellow guys,” Yugyeom is saying. “I don’t know why they don’t have noses. Do you want to watch this one, Appa?”

Jaebum hums into his hair noncommittally. “Sure,” he says, squeezing him tighter. “Whatever Yugyeomie wants to watch.”

“And, and this one is about cats,” Yugyeom scrolls onward. “You like cats, but kitty cats make me sneeze.”

“I do like cats,” Jaebum says, shutting his eyes at the inevitable mental image of Jinyoung wearing those ears. He won’t look at that photo, he promises himself. Not for another… couple of hours, at least.

“And this one’s about a snowman,” says Yugyeom. “Appa likes the snow.”

“Put on the little yellow guys,” Jaebum whispers, now physically cringing at the memory of their disastrous stay at Snowscapes.

“Okay,” says Yugyeom pluckily, and Jaebum opens an eye to watch him unfold the back of the tablet case into an easel configuration. He leans it on Jaebum’s legs and then promptly cuddles back into his chest, his whole fluffy head blocking Jaebum’s view.

Jaebum smiles anyway, shutting both eyes again and wishing he could shut his mind off.

He’d thought this would help — and it does, a bit. The warmth of his son against his own heart, the lightly fruity smell of his shampoo. But there’s so much to remind him of Jinyoung. He hadn’t realized how many bits of him had been interwoven in their lives. This breakup is going to be a rough one, he thinks resignedly. He should stock up on some ice cream.

Jaebum opens his eyes again, fishing his phone out of his pocket for just a moment. Just to check and see if he’d missed anything.

There’s one new text message. Probably Jackson, he thinks vaguely. Or maybe BamBam, wanting to plan for the special festival issue that’s coming up.

It’s from Jinyoung.

Jaebum tenses, surprise shooting down his spine as he wriggles himself up so he can read it more comfortably. Yugyeom whines a bit, but adjusts, flopping another direction in his lap.

Jinyoung 3:16pm

Did you see this?

[Link attached: paradi.se/news/2018/03/13/auditions]

And Jaebum almost doesn’t want to click it. Doesn’t want whatever it is to distract from the moment, from the earth-shattering realization that Jinyoung is still willing to talk to him.

His breath stutters, and he has to put his phone down for a moment, fingers trembling and face flushing as he tries to process it. It doesn’t even matter what it is. The fact that Jinyoung had contacted him, had opened their conversation full of unanswered apologies, and started something new? That alone is enough to shake him.

Jaebum takes a few meditative breaths, pats Yugyeom’s head gently for good luck, and then opens the link.

It’s a post from Paradise, the music blog and independent label he and Youngjae often raved about. Jaebum hadn’t been paying much attention to his usual online feeds, focusing instead, in a bleary, choiceless sort of way, on school and work and Yugyeom.

But apparently, Jinyoung had remembered him talking to the editors at the gala.

The post announces they’re holding a few sessions of open auditions. The record label wasn’t known for doing things like this, often scouting people down individually after local performances.

And admittedly, Jaebum still feels a lingering tug of disappointment, since they hadn’t contacted him after Jackson had boldly shared his Soundcloud with them. But he supposes that was partly his fault as well, for not following up on the contact. If he auditions now, it might still be helpful to mention they’d spoken at the party.

Again, Jaebum wonders about Yugyeom. About supporting a family on something as fluid and volatile as music. Was this even a responsible idea?

Jinyoung 3:21pm

You have to go

They said they won’t do it again for a long time

Jaebum isn’t certain how accurate that is — a label still relies on contracting talent, in the end. But, fuck it. It’s worth a shot, right?

He frowns down at his screen then, unsure how to respond.

Jaebum 3:22pm

thanks

i hadn’t been keeping up with their posts

lately

i guess i could put something together

There’s a longer pause, and Jaebum hopes his ‘lately’ message didn’t come off too sulky. He’s just being honest.

Jinyoung 3:29pm

Will you sing Holic?

That was my favorite

Jaebum remembers now, heart twisting, how Jinyoung had mentioned watching him perform at Skyway. How he’d seen him wearing eyeliner, and asked him about his eye moles.

“I’d wondered if maybe you drew them on,” he’d said. “I thought you did it to make yourself look more dramatic.”

Jaebum is again struck by the strange and marvelous idea of Jinyoung liking him. How could someone so fussy and cleancut be drawn to someone he’d thought was dramatic and what else had he said? Distantly handsome? He supposes they must have both grappled with their first impressions and expectations of one another, and how they differed in real life.

While his own revelations about Jinyoung had mostly been pleasant surprises, Jaebum wonders if he must have gotten less and less attractive as Jinyoung got to know him.

Jaebum hums down at the message — Holic was a song about wanting someone, maybe against your best interests, maybe a little too desperately, candidly. Jaebum licks his lips. Was this some sort of message?

And more importantly, why was Jinyoung suddenly reaching out? Had Jaebum’s miserably clingy confession made an impact? Was this a breakthrough? He should really buy some ice cream.

Jaebum 3:36pm

can i call you?

He starts to sit up, intending to step aside so as not to disturb Yugyeom. But Jinyoung’s response is almost immediate.

Jinyoung 3:36pm

No

Jaebum frowns, scoffing slightly. Jinyoung had messaged him , first. What was going on?

Jinyoung 3:37pm

I’d prefer to keep this…..

textual for now

3:38pm

Civil

Jaebum’s breath puffs out sharply, and he hadn’t realized he’d started holding it as he’d waited for more of an explanation. He tilts his head back for a moment, still in disbelief over this turn of events.

His phone hums again.

Jinyoung 3:40pm

I just saw the blog post about auditions and since they’re coming up so soon

I couldn’t imagine not telling you about it..

that’s all

Jaebum’s heart aches, and he nods at his phone for a moment, slowly, begrudgingly. Jinyoung is still amazing. Still out of his league. Still so tender-hearted that he’d really feel bad, about not contacting the asshole who’d taken his heart for granted.

Jaebum 3:42pm

thank you

He means it. He’s grateful, even for this tiny sliver of optimism. He’ll take civility, even if that’s all Jinyoung will give him. He remembers how Chanyeol admitted he’d begged to stay in Jinyoung’s life. That sounds about right, now.

Jaebum wants to say one more thing. And he types it out, but he hesitates before sending it:

when you talk to me like this, it gets my hopes up

But he falters, not sure if turning Jinyoung’s words around on him is fair. Not sure if it’d be received well or if it would walk them back another hundred steps.

His phone buzzes before he decides, and it’s from an entirely different message thread.

Sooyoung 3:49pm

hi Jaebum-ssi! just checking we’re still on for the zoo tomorrow at 3 with Yugyeom! ᵔᴥᵔ

Jungkookie takes the zoo very seriously so he’s already prepared

[Image attached]

She’s sent him a photo of Jungkook wearing a deeply determined expression, as he’s loading about a dozen granola bars into a small backpack. He’s completely decked out in tiger pajamas, with matching plush ears.

Jaebum blinks at them in surprise, suddenly struck by the familiar form. And suddenly it makes sense, in a less exciting way, why Jinyoung had a pair of those laying around.

Jaebum 3:51pm

yep! Yugyeom’s excited too

we can meet you guys there

The zoo is pretty far from his neighborhood. But if he leaves his last class a little early, and makes sure everything is packed tonight, he should be able to swing by Peachtree for Yugyeom, and get on the right combination of trains in time.

He doesn’t want to burden Sooyoung with asking for a ride, when she’s already being beyond generous. She doesn’t hold hours at their same branch everyday, so he can’t be certain they’ll be in the same area.

Sooyoung 3:52pm

sounds good. see you soon!

“Appaaa,” Yugyeom whines then, and stretches backward to try and look at his screen. “What are you doing? You’re missing a lot.”

Jaebum chuckles, tapping the photo of Jungkook open again and angling the screen so Yugyeom can see his friend. “I’m telling Ms. Sooyoung we’re looking forward to the zoo,” he says. “Look at the picture she sent me.”

“That’s Kookie! There’s so, so many granolas in there,” Yugyeom says, eyes wide. “Is he going to give them to all the animals?”

Jaebum laughs. “Maybe he’ll share some with us,” he suggests.

“Kookie is nice,” Yugyeom says, thoughtful now. “He always shares his banana milk with me at snacks time.”

Jaebum pinches his cheek softly, grinning widely. “Isn’t it fun, making friends?” He asks.

“It’s fun to watch mooovies too,” Yugyeom whines, and he waves the tablet pointedly closer to Jaebum’s face, pushing his phone away.

“Alright, alright,” Jaebum says, smiling. “I’ll watch your shouty banana people.”

Yugyeom settles into his embrace again, and this time Jaebum makes sure to position the screen so he can watch along with him.

He’d never sent that last text to Jinyoung, but it’s probably for the best.

 

//

 

The winding bus and subway rides to the zoo aren’t that bad. Yugyeom behaves well, and keeps quiet with a coloring book. Jaebum doesn’t even remember he was worried about Sooyoung’s reaction to his issues with Jinyoung, until just as they’re clambering off at the stop by the entrance.

Fuck, Jaebum thinks. He really hopes Jinyoung hadn’t mentioned anything between last night and today. He’d prefer Sooyoung still think of him as a decent human being, at least for this playdate.

It’s a little crowded for a weekday, so scanning the crowds loitering by the front gate for Sooyoung and Jungkook proves to be difficult at first.

But then Yugyeom is squealing and waving his arm, and he tugs Jaebum directly through a middle school tour group to where he’s spotted Jungkook.

Jaebum is already nervously apologizing to everyone he’s shouldered past when he sees him. Which feels appropriate.

Sooyoung is nowhere to be found. Jinyoung holds tightly onto his nephew’s hand instead, and they both wave a bit shyly, wearing matching tiger ears.

Jaebum lets Yugyeom go to hug Jungkook and excitedly poke at each other’s faces, and his breath bursts out of him in surprise.

“Jinyoung-ah,” he says, ruffling his own hair nervously. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“My Eomma got sick,” Jungkook announces to them both. “She said her tummy hurts.”

Jaebum catches the slightest tug of a sneer at Jinyoung’s lips, and he abruptly recognizes this must have been another sly arrangement by Sooyoung. Jaebum shrugs small at him, and he hopes it signals his own innocence. He can’t hide his guilty flush of excitement, though.

Yugyeom seems a little concerned by the news of a sick Sooyoung, but he smiles and hugs Jinyoung’s legs. “Are you excited about the zoo, hyungie?” He asks.

Jinyoung bursts into a bright smile, nodding his head even as his fingers fuss anxiously at the pocket on his coat. It’s that nicely-fitted herringbone one he’d worn to lunch, Jaebum recognizes, the last time they’d been set up. It all sends a wave of sympathy crashing over Jaebum again, and he looks away in embarrassment. Sooyoung just won’t let her brother move on.

“Let’s get going,” says Jinyoung brightly, and Jungkook takes Yugyeom’s hand and calmly leads them all toward the gate, like a well-experienced tour guide.

“Jungkook always has to see the tigers first,” Jinyoung says as he hands over everyone’s passes. Yugyeom nods solemnly as he fumbles through a turnstile, as if he’s learning some secret zoo ritual.

Jaebum trails slightly behind them all, grabbing a map and watching the way his son seems to gaze so brightly at Jungkook. He’s almost literally looking up at him, except Yugyeom is a little taller.

Everything has been worth it, Jaebum thinks. All the discomfort, all the miscommunications. Jinyoung brought to Yugyeom a very precious gift, better than daycare or an iPad or breakfast. He introduced him to his best friend.

Jaebum sneaks a peek at him now. Jinyoung has a hand on each of the kids’ heads as they weave through some more indecisive crowds to get on the right trail, bottom lip bit harshly between his teeth in concentration.

They soon come across the viewing area for tigers, a sprawling environment shown partially behind glass, partially open to the air. Jungkook hurries to a corner, shielding his hands up against the glare of the windowpane as he scans for a glimpse of his favorites. Yugyeom posts up beside him, and then they’re both humming in awe as an enormous, elegant tiger pads by, as if to greet them.

It's good timing, Jaebum thinks. They won’t get as lucky at every exhibit, since not all of the animals may even be on display, let alone active.

“I wish I could have a tiger,” Jungkook says, eyes glued to the animal’s every move. “People have cats, so I should get a tiger.”

Jaebum chuckles and cracks his neck at the thought.  “I don’t think a tiger would want to be owned,” he says. “Even a lot of cats don’t like it.”

Jinyoung hums in agreement. “And just think of all the hair it’d shed,” he says. “Big orange puffs. Sooyoung noona would never be done vacuuming.”

Jaebum eyes the plush ears on his head, and can’t resist reaching out to drag his fingers just once across a corner of one. “It is awfully soft, though,” he says, slyly.

Jinyoung stares at him in surprise for a moment, and then turns away, face pink.

“I could never come to your house,” Yugyeom suddenly blurts out to Jungkook, face grim with realization. “Kitty cats give me sneezes.”

Jungkook seems to still be seriously considering his pet tiger for another moment, but Yugyeom’s point seems to get through to him. He nods reluctantly, and then takes Yugyeom’s hand again. “Okay,” he says. “I won’t get a tiger. What animal do you wanna see?”

Jinyoung sneaks another glance at Jaebum then, as Yugyeom tugs them cheerfully across the way to look at the bear habitats.

Jaebum is already looking back at him as they follow along, and he thinks they both must be wondering if things could ever be as simple for them. If Jinyoung could really just turn down his parents’ company, if Jaebum could really just audition for a record label. If they could just take a cue from the kids and say  “okay,” compromise,  and hold hands through it all.

Jinyoung looks away just as quickly, pressing closer to Jungkook and Yugyeom as they continue past several species.

They cross over to the pandas next, and they’re watching the little red ones tumble and frolic when Jaebum sees Jinyoung openly stare at a passing child with a towering spiral of cotton candy. The spark in his wide eyes is warm, simply joyful just at the sight of a pretty treat, and the soft pastel of it reminds Jaebum of the sweater that had been ruined.

Jaebum excuses himself shortly, and scurries around the corner to order up two servings. One for the boys to share, and one just for Jinyoung.

When he returns and hands it to him with a small, sideways grin, he sees those ears light up again. Hot pink, red. Flustered.

Jinyoung holds the cone carefully, softly gazing into the swirls of spun sugar like it’s a beautiful bouquet. “What’s this for?” He asks Jaebum.

“I don’t think I can afford to replace that fuzzy thing you wore to Yugyeom’s party,” Jaebum says. “But maybe you can weave a new one out of this,” he jokes, tugging at a corner so a tuft breaks off.

Jinyoung follows it eagerly with his eyes and chin and then draws back, sheepish, as he realizes the larger portion is still his. But Jaebum’s gaze drops to Jinyoung’s lips, softly parted and pouting open, pinker still as his tongue darts out to wet them.

“Just kidding,” Jaebum murmurs, pressing the bite into his own mouth as he stares at Jinyoung’s. “Bad joke. I’m a dad, so.”

Jinyoung looks back up at him gently, and their eyes meet just as the sugar melts across Jaebum’s tongue. Light, airy, sweet. It tastes like young love, even if Jaebum thought it’d been too late for him. Tastes like hope, even if he’d been certain there wasn’t any left.

“Okay,” says Jinyoung, and takes his hand. “Let’s go to the aviary next.”

And for the moment, it’s just that simple.



//

Chapter Text

The rest of their day goes smoothly. Or as smoothly as it can go, for two people who were pretending to date but actually liked one another, and are now trying to patch things up after some unintentional complications, while in company of two hyperactive four-year-olds.

Jaebum is sure they’ll need to discuss what their next steps are, and what they are, once they find some time alone.

But in the meantime, it’s a little exhilarating to just wander around with his hand in Jinyoung’s, so shamelessly. So simply.

Yugyeom and Jungkook are rocketing about, running on after-dinner fumes as the afternoon unravels into evening. With the sun setting, Jaebum expects the light at the horizon to be pink and low. But as they’re shuffling out of the petting zoo paddock, he notices thick, dark clouds have gathered instead, and most of the natural light seems to have been extinguished.

An eerie quiet settles across the twinkling zoo, and he can hear Jinyoung hum nervously, herding the boys between them.

“Was it supposed to rain?” Jaebum wonders. Even the crowd has thinned out dramatically, other visitors apparently keen to get home.

“It just said: partly cloudy,” Jinyoung says, as Yugyeom tugs them all toward the reptile house. An ominous rumble in the distance tells Jaebum it’s more than just cloud cover, but hopefully it’ll just be a drizzle and they can wait it out with some lizards.

The reptile house features a covered hallway, wrapping around dozens of windowed environments for creepy crawlies. The boys linger at each one, murmuring excitedly, as Jaebum and Jinyoung read out interesting facts or point out camouflaged critters.

As they pass an open archway, there’s a brilliant flash of lightning. Rain is suddenly falling in sheets outside, and Jaebum gapes at it in surprise.

“Maybe it’ll be a quick one,” Jinyoung says, pointedly glancing at the boys.

Jaebum understands his expression — neither of the kids are dressed for rain. Jaebum isn’t either, come to think of it; and while Jinyoung had the forethought to wear a coat, it doesn’t look particularly weatherproof.

His wavering eyes must give him away, because Jinyoung laughs and nods, popping his collar up with a wry grin. “I’m not supposed to get this too wet,” he confirms. “But I have a really good drycleaner, he’ll be able to salvage something of it.”

“Appa!” Yugyeom is calling, and he and Jungkook have wandered the length of this hall already, eagerly beckoning from around another corner.

“They’re gonna feed the iguana some bugs,” Jungkook calls, cheerfully.

Jaebum glances back out at the thunderstorm once more, before following Jinyoung and catching up. They still have a little more left to see, and maybe it’ll clear up by then.

Only it doesn’t.

The rain is falling heavier, louder, pounding against the walls of the reptile house as the wind’s picked it up sideways by the time they’ve finished.

Their little group peers around the side of a doorway at the scene. Staring out at the empty, dark expanse of the stormy zoo before them, it feels sort of like they’re the last people on earth. Jaebum knows it’s not realistic, and some other visitors must be lollygagging in the shops by the exit, or in some of the restaurants.

But it does feel barren, and hopeless for the moment, as Yugyeom starts to whine about the thunder, and Jungkook yawns beside him. It won’t be long until they’re both tantruming, if they get too uncomfortable.

“Maybe we should just head home,” Jinyoung says, nodding toward the exit. It’s not extremely far, but Jaebum thinks about the little shelter by their bus stop, and how the schedules will likely be behind. At least the subways are underground, but seats are always wet and passengers crankier than usual when it’s raining.

Jinyoung peers up at him, and seems to read the reluctance in his expression. There’s a squeeze at his elbow and he glances down to find Jinyoung holding it, reassuringly.

“We’ll give you a ride,” Jinyoung says.

“No,” Jaebum says. “It’s fine. We’re probably way out of your way.”

Jinyoung tilts his head, looking thoughtful. “You’re far,” he agrees. “But how about you just come to my place? And then you can dry off and figure things out from there, once it settles down.”

Jaebum hesitates, heart suddenly backflipping at the words just come to my place. “But won’t your parents…” he mumbles, unprepared.

“I live alone,” says Jinyoung, and then he’s slipping out of his jacket for some reason.

“Oh,” says Jaebum, watching with a small frown.

“Kookie,” Jinyoung is saying, draping his jacket over his nephew’s head. “Share this with Yugyeomie. We’re going to play a game.”

“What kind of game?” Jungkook wonders, fumbling the other half of the open coat over Yugyeom. They hold it on over their heads, confused but curious.

“It’s a game where we all walk very quickly back to the car,” Jinyoung says. “And whoever stays the driest, wins.”

“This doesn’t seem very fair,” Jaebum murmurs, plucking at his t-shirt playfully, and Jinyoung shoots him an eyeroll.

There’s another flash of lightning then and a crack of thunder follows it a beat later, and Yugyeom shrieks slightly, huddling closer to Jungkook under the coat.

“Alright,” Jaebum shifts his tone, placing a warm hand at his son’s back. “We’ll be out of this soon — just focus on walking as fast as Jungkook.”

“I can walk faster than him,” Yugyeom insists, his nerves melting quickly at the suggestion of a competition.

“We’ll see about that,” Jaebum says, crisply. “You’ve got to keep that jacket on, to stay dry, so you both have to hurry.”

“I’m gonna win,” Jungkook assures them.

“I am!” Yugyeom says, determined once more.

“Then let’s find out!” Jinyoung calls, and presses them forward.

Then they’re all scuffling toward the exit, feet splashing through puddles, blustery winds pushing against them. The drops picked up in the wind sting as they whip at Jaebum’s cheeks and arms, and he’s grateful for Jinyoung’s jacket providing more shelter for the boys.

Jaebum tries to keep his vision focused on both of them, keeping them upright and moving steadily from behind, as Jinyoung seems to guide from ahead, one hand still clutching Jungkook.

And even as an exit bids them goodbye and he allows himself a small sigh of relief, they still have to trek through the massive parking lot to Jinyoung’s car. The wet smell of asphalt drifts up dizzingly, and Jaebum daydreams about heated seats and eventually taking off his wet socks.

The cheerful beeps as Jinyoung unlocks the car have never sounded so comforting, and Jaebum’s jaw pops in surprise as he opens a back door to find two carseats.

He raises his eyebrows at Jinyoung, who’s strapping a relatively dry Jungkook in on the opposite side. “Sooyoung insisted,” he says, looking embarrassed. “She said I wasn’t allowed to leave without the two of you.”

Grateful and a little bit gleeful, Jaebum cups Yugyeom’s cheek as he clicks him in, and then hurries around to his own seat. The upholstery squelches with the weight of his wet denim, and he glances embarrassedly at Jinyoung in apology.

But Jinyoung slops into the driver’s seat just as wet, button-down entirely sheer and sticking to his chest obscenely. Jaebum shivers at the sight, and Jinyoung gives him an innocent, sympathetic smile.

“You can take a hot shower at my apartment,” he says, as they pull away from the zoo. “And get something to change into while we dry your clothes.”

Jaebum nods, hesitation evaporating, and then pries his guilty eyes away from the dark imprint of Jinyoung’s nipples through his shirt. Now is not the time to think about nipples. It’s still a family-friendly trip, after all.

“You lost your ears,” Jaebum notes, after a moment. “In the rain.”

Jinyoung ruffles a hand around on his wet head for a moment, lips pouting. “Oh,” he whines. “Jungkook loved matching with those. But it’s okay. I have other costumes.” He sends Jaebum a wink then, and Jaebum is left staring at the side of his face, unsure if it was innocent or not.

Not the time, Jaebum reminds himself.

 

//

 

Jinyoung lives in a beautiful apartment complex. It doesn’t surprise Jaebum, except that it’s not his family’s mansion. Or maybe a fantasy castle. But this makes sense, with what Jaebum’s imagined about him.

Tracking rain into the elevator from the parking garage makes Jaebum feel a little self-conscious. But Jinyoung doesn’t seem shy about shaking out some of the water in his own hair, as the elevator shudders and they zoom upward.

Jaebum abruptly finds the elevator is glass, as they emerge from underground and the twinkling lights of the cityscape spread out behind them.

“My housekeeper isn’t coming until Monday,” Jinyoung admits to him, sheepishly.

Yugyeom gazes down at the city as they leave it behind, hands pressed against the glass with the same kind of awe he’d shown for all the exotic animals at the zoo. Views like these are just as mystifying for him.

Jaebum shakes his head, pressing the back of a palm to his damp brow. “It’s fine,” he insists.

Of course he doesn’t expect how fine it really is — it’s a gorgeous suite, sparsely decorated with an open concept. Where Jaebum’s home has photographs hung on every wall, and hardly any natural light, Jinyoung’s devotes a full half to floor-to-ceiling windows. More sweeping, stunning city views greet them as they shuffle inside, the door singing as it automatically locks behind them.

It’s modern, but not overwhelmingly so. Everything has clean lines, but there are pops of unexpectedly comforting texture, like an oversized cable knit throw Jungkook quickly commandeers on the sectional.

Still, things are left out of place, items cluttering the kitchen area and textbooks left in piles by the coffee table. Jaebum smiles to himself. He’d imagined Jinyoung as rather neat and organized, since at school he always looked so well-prepared.

But to be so obviously lost without his weekly housekeeper, that’s something Jaebum wouldn’t been able to anticipate. It tugs at his heart strangely, where before he’d have labeled him spoiled. Instead, it’s a little bit charming, and the thought makes Jaebum sort of nervous. He can’t be getting too comfortable, too fast.

Yugyeom has stuck himself to another window, murmuring his wonder into the glass.

“Don’t leave a bunch of smudges,” Jaebum instructs him, squatting beside him and trying to gingerly wipe off what his fingers have already left.

“Ah,” Jinyoung hums, stepping beside them. “It’s totally fine. It’s fun to see all the little cars and tiny people, right Yugyeom?”

Yugyeom hums sleepily in agreement, nose now fully squashed against the window.

Jaebum looks up at him with a teasing, crooked smile. “We never worked on our project here, hmm?”

Jinyoung flushes, swatting his shoulder lightly. “Yah,” he grouches. “You were the one with the crazy schedule. And I hardly ever have anyone over. Kookie’s the only one who’s ever… stayed the night,” he blurts out. He doesn’t seem certain why he’s said it.

Jaebum nods slowly, running a hand through his wet hair. Jinyoung watches, eyes glazing over for a moment, and then he gulps, startling back a step.

“Oh,” he breathes. “Let me get you a towel, I’m sorry. I meant to grab us towels.”

Jaebum watches him scurry away, and his cheeks heat up as he realizes Jinyoung had been checking him out. He’d watched him push back his hair with dreamy eyes, and then caught himself. Jaebum bites his lip, feeling a little silly, a little exhilarated. This could be fun.

When he turns back to Yugyeom, he’s nearly swaying where he stands, so Jaebum leads him over to the couch to place him next to an already softly snoring Jungkook. Yugyeom whines a bit as he goes, always a little cranky until he’s off his feet.

Jaebum stretches the blanket over them both, smiling indulgently. Yugyeom’s features go slack once he’s curled up on his side, little fingers slowly unfurling.

Jaebum thinks again how grateful he is for Jinyoung’s quick thinking with his jacket. The boys’ shoes and pants got a little wet with the run, but they stayed bundled long enough to make it to the car safe and dry.

The door buzzes, and Jaebum glances back at it in surprise. It’s probably Sooyoung come to pick up Jungkook, he thinks. Maybe they can tease her about faking sick. Or thank her ? he thinks with a small cringe.

Jinyoung rushes back out, frazzled, and tosses him a fluffy towel in passing. Jaebum drapes it gratefully over his wet hair as he straightens up and meekly shuffles toward the foyer to greet Sooyoung.

Jinyoung peeks at his intercom before opening the door. But apparently it’s not his sister. “Seokjin hyung,” he says, bowing hastily and inviting in a tall visitor.

Jaebum slows his hair ruffling, swiping the towel down around his neck and gripping it tightly as he sizes up the man at the door. He’s about the same height as Jaebum, and just as broad, with handsome, soft features. Jaebum tries to stop himself from feeling on edge — but it’s almost become a bad habit now, meeting so many men in Jinyoung’s life.

“Evening Jinyoung-ah,” Seokjin is saying, lips curling into a sly, silly smile as his dark eyes flicker between Jaebum and Jinyoung. “Did we all have a good time?”

“Is she actually sick?” Jinyoung tramples over the question. “Tell me the truth, or I’ll never help you with her gifts again.”

“Shouldn’t you be making an introduction?” Seokjin says instead of answering, gesturing at Jaebum. He’s clearly trying to keep his smile in check.  

Jaebum bites his lip, looking just as expectant as Jinyoung glances back at him guiltily.

“This is Im Jaebum, of course,” Jinyoung says. “He’s Yugyeom’s father. I know you already heard this from Sooyoung. Jaebum, this is Kim Seokjin, my brother-in-law.”

“Im Jaebum-of-course,” Seokjin repeats crisply, grinning as he reaches out to shake Jaebum’s hand. “It’s nice to meet finally meet you.”

Jaebum shakes it a bit warily, barely beginning to piece things together. “Oh,” he hums. “You’re Sooyoung’s husband?”

“And our Jungkookie’s appa,” Seokjin says, peeking around them into the living room. “Is he totally conked out?”

“I’m waiting,” Jinyoung says, shouldering in front of him. “Is Sooyoung sick?”

Seokjin easily pushes him aside with a snicker, brushing past to find the boys asleep on the couch. He kneels down to snap a photo quickly. “Ahhh,” he coos, voice softer as he tucks his phone away again. “They’ve worked hard today, haven’t they?”

“You don’t even know her shoe size,” Jinyoung whispers, kicking him lightly. Seokjin wobbles precariously on one foot for a moment, and then pops up again, smug.

“Jinyoung-ah, I’ve lived with her quite a while now,” he says. “Don’t you think I’ve graduated to a good husband? I’m not the same bumbling idiot fiancé who needed your advice. I’ll figure things out on my own.”

“So, you don’t know it,” Jinyoung repeats smugly.

“I can find out,” Seokjin says, and then sticks his tongue out at him.

Jaebum watches the scene in dumbfounded surprise. Isn’t this his brother-in-law? And a hyung? Jaebum supposes Jinyoung is used to his older friends going easy on him. Typically, he’d ascribe that to attraction, like with Mark and Chanyeol. But this relationship has a pointedly different tone and texture, like a real brother, and Jaebum’s surprised by how far Jinyoung’s bratty charm extends.

Seokjin turns back to Jaebum with a cheesy smile. “My sweet Sooyoung,” he whispers, “her stomach was really upsetting her.” He pats his own belly for emphasis.

Jaebum nods slowly, ruffling the towel back through his hair. “I hope she feels better soon,” he offers.

“You’re dead to me,” Jinyoung says icily at Seokjin’s elbow. Seokjin raises his eyebrows and lets out a fake laugh.

“Let’s not disturb these... sleeping angels, with too much chit chat,” he says, delicately peeling back the throw to collect Jungkook. The little boy snuggles blearily into his neck as he’s picked up, fitting neatly into his father’s arms.

Jinyoung steps back, eyes narrow and shaking his head still.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” Seokjin says to Jaebum as he heads out. “Sooyoung has been really excited about this date.”

Jinyoung looks like his ears are about to let off steam, but Seokjin just laughs as he’s chased into the foyer again. Jungkook barely stirs at his shoulder.

“Playdate!” Seokjin yelps, as Jinyoung swats his back repeatedly. “Playdate, playdate! Sooyoung is really excited about Yugyeom and Jungkook being good friends. That’s all.”

Jaebum nods, feet still stuck the floor in awkward silence, and he stays there, numbly rubbing at his wet hair until Jinyoung has seen Seokjin out.

He slumps back against the door as it beeps shut once more, and gives a tired sigh.

Jaebum feels guilty suddenly. Jinyoung hadn't volunteered to spend his time with them, and he keeps forgetting it.  He seemed considerably upset at Seokjin, and Sooyoung by extension. But Jaebum can’t place if he’s really upset about seeing Jaebum, or just the teasing setup. Still, maybe loitering too long in his private space isn’t a great idea.

Jaebum rolls his lips together, feeling strange. “I don’t want to intrude,” he offers. “I know you didn’t expect visitors and I’ve mostly dried up. I can grab Yugyeom and get out of your hair.”

Jinyoung looks embarrassed, pushing off and shaking his head. “No,” he says. “It’s really not a problem — I promised you could shower up and change, come on.”

Jaebum follows him down the hall now, watching how the backs of his earlobes still burn pink. Maybe he doesn’t mind their company after all, Jaebum thinks.

Jinyoung shows him into the bathroom, with a walk-in shower with the largest showerhead Jaebum’s ever seen, and a foreign, sleek interface that lights up as he swipes a finger across it. “It’s um, digital,” Jinyoung says. “So just... select which temperature you’d like, and hit power.”

Jaebum stares at the appliance in a nearly numb state of surprise. No wonder Jinyoung had been so blasé about giving a four year old a tablet. “Does your toilet have a touchscreen, too?” Jaebum wonders, whirling around in the space to investigate.

“Stop,” Jinyoung chides, but he’s smiling when Jaebum turns back to him, and then they’re staring at each other, both damp, a little worn out. But Jaebum feels energized, happy to be on better terms already.

He takes a step closer, eyes dropping now to Jinyoung’s lips.

“You can go ahead and shower first,” Jinyoung murmurs, and Jaebum stays fixated on the plump curl of his lips around each word.

“It’s your house,” Jaebum says slowly. “You should take it.”

A beat passes, and then Jinyoung’s shaking his head meekly and shuffling backward. “I really don’t mind waiting,” he says. Jaebum can tell he’s chilled through still, the blue of his veins stark against his skin.

Jaebum steps closer, and the air thickens between them. They haven’t been alone for a while, Jaebum realizes. Not since they’d curled toward each other at the party. And with Yugyeom peacefully bundled up on the couch, there’s no concern about interruptions.

“Or,” Jaebum says lowly, curling over him now, caging him in with an arm propped against the doorframe. “We could share.” And then Jaebum’s leaning further forward, and the door clicks softly shut as Jinyoung’s back runs into it.

Jinyoung stares at him, eyes glittering as he tracks every minute movement of Jaebum’s eyes, the rise and fall of his chest. He doesn’t look skittish, nervous as Jaebum expected. Instead, he seems calculating, like he’s weighing the options in his head.

Curious, he tilts his head in question. “Wouldn’t this… be a little inappropriate for friends?” He asks.

And Jaebum’s heart is racing, hammering away in his chest, and he feels intoxicated just being so close to Jinyoung again. He hadn’t thought he’d get another chance at this, hadn’t thought he’d be anywhere near him after chickening out so hard, so sincerely.

But after talking to his mother, Mark and Jackson, and even after that painful conversation with Suzy, Jaebum feels freshly awake. Like he’d been laying still for too long, listless and defeated. And now he’s hungry, pacing back and forth for any opportunity to make Jinyoung his.

Jinyoung looks good, hair slightly damp like this, bangs curling unguided at his temples. Jaebum wonders if he’d taste the same as he had before, if he’d make the same noises under his tongue.

“Just show me how to use it,” Jaebum says teasingly, voice low and heavy, fingers tugging at Jinyoung’s sleeve. “Your hyung doesn’t know how to use such a  fancy shower.”

“It’s… very intuitive,” Jinyoung mumbles weakly, but he lets Jaebum lead him back toward the shower stall. Jinyoung peeks over his shoulder at the door for a moment, and then stands still.

Jaebum, still tugging him forward, blinks in surprise at the sudden resistance. But then Jinyoung has flitted back to the door, and before Jaebum can call to him, he hears it.

It’s just the softest click, as Jinyoung delicately presses the lock into the handle. He looks back over his shoulder then, eyes dark and gorgeous and just a little bit guilty.

Jaebum holds out his hand. Jinyoung turns around against the door, each movement slow and twice as heavy, like he’s trying to buy time for Jaebum to change his mind.

“I’ll get the wrong idea,” Jinyoung warns him quietly, stepping forward.

“What’s wrong about it?” Jaebum murmurs, hands on his body then, face ducking to meet his.

And Jinyoung’s chin tilts up, wanting, willing, but Jaebum doesn’t kiss him yet. First he just drags his mouth and nose alongside Jinyoung’s own, content to feel close to him again.

He slips two hands up under Jinyoung’s damp shirt, fingers skirting up his ribcage, where his shoulders flare out from his waist.

Jinyoung shudders under his touch, but his hands stay still at his sides. Jaebum nudges his arms up as he finally peels his shirt off for him, over his head. And Jinyoung retreats a bit, body trembling, and Jaebum wonders if it’s the cold, still wet from rain, or the intensity of  his own stare.

Because he’s drinking him in now, eyelids heavy as he inhales deeply at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, dragging his fingertips across skin.

Jinyoung still seems reluctant to touch him, to reciprocate. Jaebum draws back now, finding his eyes.

“Is this okay?” He asks. “Can I touch you?”

Jinyoung’s eyes waver. “I want something more than this,” he admits. “Than just being touched, whenever you feel like it. I know I said I didn’t mind, but that was before — before I was honest with you.”

Jaebum steps back, nodding slowly, feeling scolded. A shiver runs down his own spine and Jinyoung notices, scooting around him to tap the shower to a temperature behind them. The shower chimes as he turns it on, and then he steps back out, starting to slip out of his pants.

“I know,” Jaebum says, tugging the heavy denim off his own legs clumsily. “I’ve been selfish about it before, and that’s not fair to you. But I want to make it up to you.” He flings his shirt away from him now, flapping uselessly about for a moment as one sleeve sticks to his forearm. When he looks back up, flushed, Jinyoung is trying not to laugh at him, lips curled inside his smile.

Jaebum scoffs, but he can feel his neck burning in embarrassment and he gestures to the pile of clothes impatiently. “I can put my clothes back on,” he says, “if you really want to take turns.”

Jinyoung rolls his eyes, shaking his head as he beckons him over.

“I just want to know what’s really happening,” Jinyoung says, as Jaebum draws nearer. “What kind of game we’re playing, now.”

The steam from the running shower is helping them warm up, but Jaebum feels another ripple of cold rush over him. He shuffles closer to Jinyoung, capturing him by his elbows and tugging him into him until their chests bump and their knees nearly knock.

Jinyoung nearly gasps, as Jaebum embraces him. And Jaebum realizes, their chemistry is acutely different, now that they’re both being honest.

Before, when they’d agreed to fool around apart from their acting, Jinyoung had been nothing but eager. He’d been insistent at times, going down on him without question and guiding Jaebum’s hand into his hair. Even demanding to know if Jaebum would fuck him or not.

And sure, he’d admitted quietly that he was inexperienced, but he’d still locked his calf around Jaebum’s thigh and told him not to stop.

But now, teetering on the edge of a real shift, in their real relationship, Jinyoung has softened. He questions himself. And that’s just further proof to Jaebum that his feelings are sincere, that there’s something of substance being built between them.

Because apparently Jinyoung had liked Jaebum, maybe even wanted to fuck him. So it had made sense to play along with the dating, and get what he could out of their arrangement. But now, Jaebum can tell he feels self-conscious about his own role in it all. There was nothing to be ashamed of, Jaebum thinks, and he wants to make sure Jinyoung knows it. But he can tell Jinyoung had felt foolish, and that must have hurt him more than a simple rejection.

Jaebum cradles the back of his head, pressing him tighter into their hug. Then he kisses him lightly, just a breath beneath the back of a red ear.

“It’s not a game for me,” Jaebum whispers. “I want you, beside me.”

“Together?” Jinyoung wonders, and Jaebum finally feels his hands slide up and around his waist.

Then Jaebum’s kissing down from behind his ear, following the wrap of the tendon straining in his neck. He nuzzles down into the dip of his clavicle, humming soft and sweet at the scent he finds there.

“If that’s something you want,” Jaebum says, looking up to catch his eyes. “If you’ve really thought about… how hard it could be. With me. And with Yugyeom.”

Jinyoung’s breath catches as their eyes connect, searching through Jaebum’s own.

“There’s nothing hard about,” he says, breathless. “Caring for you both—,” and Jaebum cuts him off, open mouth slotting over his.

It’s the most romantic thing Jaebum thinks he’s ever heard, it’s almost embarrassing. Face flushed, Jaebum messily kisses the rest of his sweet words out of him, suckling at the curve of his upper lip as it smiles.

Jaebum crushes him closer, hands reaching down and grabbing onto his asscheeks, fingers digging into the soft cotton of his briefs, kneading as he pulls his hips forward.

“You gonna keep these on?” Jaebum murmurs, lips smacking loudly as he pulls back from Jinyoung’s own. “While we shower?”

And then he’s grinning, feeling suddenly mischievous, and he backs Jinyoung up, closer to the shower.

Jinyoung glances behind him as they shuffle steadily closer to the spray and he tries to wriggle away, laughing.

“We’re wasting water,” Jaebum laughs, “get in there.”

Jinyoung can’t push back, not with the slide of their bare feet against damp tile floors. They stumble into the wide shower stall still in their underwear, and the hot water falls over both of them, soft and steady. It feels like rain, but not the angry downpour from this afternoon. A fantasy of rain, like you'd daydream about from behind a sleepy summer window.

Jaebum kisses into his mouth like he’s starved, and maybe he has been. Not just of Jinyoung, since the party. It’s been too long since he let just himself feel good, and let go of the guilt about it.

While he’d hooked up with people — he’d done it sort of blindly. He’d numbed himself to anything deeper, which is why it was easy to touch Jinyoung and not think their connection was real. Because for a long time, he never allowed it to be.

But now, laughing, kissing, panting into each other’s personal space, it feels like this is where they’re supposed to be.

Jaebum crowds Jinyoung against a glass divider, and the squeak of his skin nudging against the surface cuts sharply through their moans and heavy breathing.

Jaebum wants to hear it again, so he hitches one of Jinyoung’s knees over his hip and his skin squeals against the glass again. Jinyoung cries out with it.

Jaebum isn’t certain if it’s from pain, or the pulsing hot friction where their cocks meet in wet cotton. But he keeps driving up against him, and the wet glass squeaks, squeaks, squeaks.

Jinyoung’s hips roll with his, water pooling between them and overflowing, curling down the length of Jinyoung’s thigh to the back of Jaebum’s legs.

Jaebum ruts into him, and Jinyoung lets out a broken moan.

“Ba -aby,” he murmurs, and Jaebum’s eyes nearly pop out of his skull, blinking at him in surprise.

“Be a good boy,” Jinyoung whines, “help me out of these already,” and he snaps at the waistband of his briefs.

Jaebum shifts to let him back onto his feet, and Jinyoung presses his thick, swollen lips to his ear. “Wanna feel you,” Jinyoung whispers.

It invigorates Jaebum, and he suddenly has to press him back into the glass and kiss down his neck, into the valley between his pecs and downward, downward. His hand trails behind his lips, nails grazing over collarbones, over the crest of a nipple, and down the lean lines of his abdomen.

Jaebum’s kneeling then, face rubbing wet against the trail of hair Jinyoung has low on his tummy, dark and thick. Then he lets his mouth drag open, across the ridge of elastic, down over the wet bulge in Jinyoung’s briefs, so he can suck in a mouthful.

Jinyoung cries out, scrabbling to find his footing. He digs his fingers into Jaebum’s hair and pulls him away. “Please,” he begs, face flushing pink.

Jaebum withdraws for a moment, and then dips in again, to mouth teasingly along his length as it grows harder in his briefs still. It’s not until it’s straining, until Jaebum can feel it throbbing where it’s about to pop out from the thin, baby blue fabric, that he draws back again.

Then he finally peels the briefs down and off Jinyoung’s shaking legs, tossing them aside so his erection can spring free, pink and swollen against his belly. Jaebum gazes up in amusement at Jinyoung, who’s back to writhing and whining under his ministrations, where a moment ago he’d called him baby and good boy, like he was he one in charge.

But maybe Jinyoung is, Jaebum thinks, as his lips curl around his cock, suckling messily at the head. Because here Jaebum is, on his knees, ready to drink down his pleasure.

Being with Jinyoung is exhilarating, Jaebum thinks, like a rollercoaster in its highs and lows, in his push and pull. He goes absolutely soft sometimes, and then turns sharp, and teasing. Jaebum decides he likes him either way — from the gentle fingers carding through Jaebum’s hair as he bobs his head, to the thrust of Jinyoung’s hips, stuffing his mouth further down his pretty cock.

Jaebum nearly gags, but he takes it confidently, hands digging into Jinyoung’s legs to keep his rhythm even. He buries his face between his thighs, nose delving into the mess of dark hair there, inhaling the deep, natural musk. He hums around his length, swallowing as Jinyoung twitches, slurping off again to take him in one hand and stroke him quickly, tightly, as he tongues into his slit.

And Jinyoung’s moaning, writhing in his grasp again, desperate for release already, teetering on edge. “Hyung,” he mewls, as Jaebum relaxes his jaw and goes down deep once more.

Then it’s just a few more moments, Jinyoung’s vocabulary reducing from dirty talk to broken syllables, breathless moans and squeals. Then Jaebum can feel his balls tighten in his grip, can feel Jinyoung’s fingernails in his scalp, and suddenly his dick is stiff, spurting as he swallows around it. The hot, thick sensation subsides after another few beats, and Jaebum gently slides off his spent cock, wiping his mouth with the back of a wet hand.

Jinyoung’s helping him to his feet then, dragging a thumb across his lips and watching him with soft, naked eyes. “Hyung,” he says again, quieter still, and kisses him achingly deep.

Jaebum’s mouth moves with his own, and it’s not as messy as it was before, some of their frantic energy sated. But then he feels Jinyoung’s hands slip under his own boxer briefs and cup his ass, kneading softly, and Jaebum huffs in amusement against his nose.

“I’m okay,” Jaebum assures him, drawing back a bit. “We have plenty of time, remember?”

But he lets Jinyoung tugs his underwear off so they can properly bathe. And it feels strange, but marvelous, to be scrubbed and rinsed so familiarly. It feels like Jinyoung’s truly welcoming him into his life.

After they finish up, Jinyoung offers him another towel, and a toothbrush.

“You can stay tonight,” Jinyoung says, quietly. “If you’d like to.”

Jaebum nods, feeling grateful. And a little bit eager, to get a glimpse of what the rest of their life would be like. For example : it’s downright picturesque, as they wrap up in matching towels and brush their teeth, side by side, at the same sink.

A beat passes. Jinyoung spits and rinses, before he catches Jaebum watching him closely, brush moving slow.

“What?” He asks, starting on a skincare regimen.

Jaebum spits and rinses, popping the toothbrush in a cup beside Jinyoung’s. And even that feels a little exhilarating. Still, he moves past it, trying to keep his cool.

“Your toothpaste,” Jaebum says after a pause, eying the tube where it’s been discarded on the countertop. “You’ve been mutilating it.”

Jinyoung eyes him strangely, daubing over his face with a cotton pad. “What’s wrong with my toothpaste?” He asks.

“If you roll it from the bottom,” Jaebum says. “It helps get everything out. If you just squeeze it anywhere in the middle, you end up wasting a lot.”

Jinyoung lets him finish, then turns back to his routine, moisturizing while rolling of his eyes. “Okay,” he giggles.

“It’s crazy to do it like this,” Jaebum sputters, waving the dimpled tube at him.

“It’s crazy you think this is something worth bringing up,” Jinyoung says, eyebrows high. “On the first night you’re a guest in my home.”

“Ah,” Jaebum scoffs, a little embarrassed, and he tosses the tube back across the counter and nudges his shoulder. “It’s just… you can save some money on toothpaste.”

“I’m stimulating the economy,” Jinyoung counters, and after a beat, they’re both bursting into embarrassed laughter.

Jinyoung leads him to his bedroom then, and Jaebum holds his tongue as Jinyoung discards his wet towel in a corner by his closet. Jaebum pointedly folds his into a half-empty hamper, boggling at an array of socks littering the floor around it.

Jinyoung watches him with an exasperated glare. “You’re doing it again,” he finally says, head popping out of a t-shirt.

Jaebum scrambles into a borrowed pair of sweats and shrugs exaggeratedly. “I’m not doing anything!” Jaebum says. “I’m just putting my used things into a hamper…”

And Jinyoung flinches a bit, rubbing behind an ear as it flushes. Jaebum wishes he could reel back in the tone he’d used, hadn’t expected it to sound so harsh.

“I guess you think I’m pretty gross,” Jinyoung says, bending to collect the socks from around the hamper and dumping them in with a prickly expression. “I didn’t expect someone to visit — and I’ve only ever had housekeepers assuring me everything’s okay, going wherever. So I guess I don’t know a lot about keeping up with chores, or whatever.”

“I’m sorry I’m not exactly... wifey material,” Jinyoung mumbles, turning away from him. “I haven’t been waiting for this forever, like Suzy. You took me by surprise, too.”

Jaebum gulps, feeling petty. In the scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter. And it isn’t like they’re living together, yet. What Jinyoung does in his own space is his own business. A couple dirty socks on the floor aren’t exactly hurting anybody.

It’s just strange, to so suddenly be given access to his private life. Every little detail feels magnified, because of their feelings for each other. And suddenly, it’s like Jaebum’s trying to sabotage his own relationship before it even starts, over some stupid housekeeping.

“Come here,” Jaebum says, sweeping in to embrace him, and even as Jinyoung pouts away from his kisses, he goes slack in his arms after enough of them.

“I didn’t mean to sound so rude,” Jaebum says. “I just, think it’s sort of funny. I had this image of you in my head, from when were in school. Of you being all fussy and neat. So getting to see this side of you is surprising. But,” and he punctuates this pause with another fluttering kiss to his cheek. “It’s honestly sort of cute.”

Jinyoung is still obviously trying to pout, but his cheeks are pink, lashes low, so he seems to appreciate the compliment after all.

“I don’t need someone to do that, anyway. Housekeeper, or wifey,” Jaebum says, laughing. “I’ve been doing the cleaning for long enough, that’s covered. You bring… other things to the table.”

“Like what?” Jinyoung murmurs, twisting in his embrace to look up at him expectantly. 

“Like, you wear cat ears, make me go to auditions, and call me good boy,” Jaebum murmurs, and then lets his hand slip down to take a big pinch of his ass. “And then, there’s this…”

Finally, Jinyoung wriggles away, and Jaebum watches as he turns down the enormous bed. It’s not a bad asset to bring to the relationship, either.

“Do you want to get Yugyeom, too?” Jinyoung asks.

Jaebum hesitates for a moment, but then nods in agreement. It’d be better to have him wake up with them, so he’s not as disoriented and lonely in the morning. And there’s certainly room.

It’s getting late now, and Yugyeom murmurs a bit in his sleep as Jaebum moves him delicately from the couch to the bed, undressing him so he’ll be more comfortable. Jinyoung shuts off the lights after they’ve settled in, and climbs in on the other side.

Again, Jaebum is struck by how alarmingly domestic this feels. It’s almost like a grown-up version of playing house , he thinks — which is strange, since it follows so hot on the heels of playing boyfriends. And somehow it became real.

Well, sort of, Jaebum corrects himself. He and Jinyoung haven’t quite labeled what’s going on now. But if he’s letting them sleepover, like a little family, it can’t be too far off, right? He feels Jinyoung curl into his side, now. And the picture feels complete.

“Do you remember when you said,” Jinyoung murmurs into his skin, quietly. “Back at the cabin, and earlier tonight. That we have plenty of time?”

Jaebum hums, slow and unsure.

“I know things might be difficult,” Jinyoung says. “Maybe at the beginning, or maybe longer. And I don’t know what my parents will think, honestly. But if we remember we have time, I think it’ll make things feel easier.”

Jaebum shifts slightly under the sheets, glancing at Yugyeom’s slack face in the moonlight, buried in the pillow on his other side. He’s terrified of how stressful this could make things, but he hopes they can keep it open and simple for now. No more faking. They could take all the time in the world, if they kept it real.

“My mother didn’t talk to me about it,” Jinyoung says. “After she met you that day. I know she’d heard Sooyoung teasing me about you before, but I don’t know if she thinks anything is actually going on. If something makes her uncomfortable, she knows how to avoid it.”

“You don’t have to lay it all out there,” Jaebum says. “If we’re taking it slow, don’t worry about it. We can just be dating, if you want. See where it goes, and then if we get serious, you can tell her that much.”

“But if we’re just dating,” Jinyoung hums, fingers reaching across to skirt up Jaebum’s abdomen in the dark. The dimness of the room heightens Jaebum’s senses, and the tracing tickle of his fingertips at his hip bones makes him pant in surprise.

“Would it be exclusive?” Jinyoung asks, candidly. “I don’t want to worry about… other guys and girls.”

Jaebum chuckles a bit, but when he meets Jinyoung’s eyes, glistening in the dark, he’s not joking around. “I’m not—,” Jaebum starts, and then clears his throat. “I’m not as popular as you. Suzy was my last relationship, and that was years ago.”

“But Jackson had said,” Jinyoung murmurs, fingertips still lightly hot against his skin. “You’ve slept around a little. Not relationships. But party hookups, stuff like that.”

Jaebum gulps. It’s not untrue, but he’s surprised again that Jinyoung had known about it, and still pursued him. Maybe it’s part of why he’d been so willing to let their relationship get physical. Had he thought it was the only way to get close to Jaebum? He hadn’t been wrong, Jaebum supposes.

“People want you,” Jinyoung says gently. “Maybe not the same people as want me. But plenty of people.”

“So you’d prefer,” Jaebum starts slowly, piecing it together. “If it was a little more official than dating.”

Jinyoung tenses beside him, drawing back a little. “I’m not,” he stammers. “I’m not demanding anything, you know? I just, want you to know what I’m thinking.”

“You’re thinking… you’d like to be my boyfriend?” Jaebum hums, lips splitting apart with a smug grin.

Jinyoung looks back at him, part of his smile buried softly in the skin of Jaebum’s shoulder. To feel the curve of it, against his own body, sends a shiver through Jaebum and his own grin melts into a matching, soft smile.

He twists over then, to capture Jinyoung’s face in his hand, and tilt his chin up. Then he kisses him delicately, sweetly. “I’d like that too,” Jaebum whispers.

They quiet down after that, Jinyoung draping over half of him and their breathing slowly evening out. The still darkness of the night feels comforting here, like a blanket cast over them all in bed. It feels protective, like they can be themselves, and explore their new dynamic without the pressures awaiting them outside.

After a while, Jinyoung suddenly perks up. “Did you used to have your lip pierced?” He whispers.

Jaebum flushes, lids blinking blearily as he tries to focus on the sudden question. “Can you still feel that?” He wonders, swiping his tongue behind his bottom lip, wondering if Jinyoung had caught something in a kiss. “It was ages ago, high school. It’s definitely closed up now.”

“I saw it in the picture,” Jinyoung says. “In your hallway.”

“Oh,” murmurs Jaebum, remembering the photo. “Why do you ask? Did you... like that?”

Jinyoung’s quiet for a moment, and Jaebum again marvels at how someone like Jinyoung would find him attractive. Jinyoung, who doesn’t even have his ears pierced, asking about his old lip piercing, breathy and bothered.

“Yes,” Jinyoung whispers.

Jaebum sniffs out a quiet laugh, cheeks still hot as he’s undeniably flattered by it. It feels so good to be wanted, to have things about himself be so openly appreciated.

“I’ll think about it,” he says to Jinyoung, without waiting for him to ask. He feels Jinyoung smile into his shoulder again as he settles back down, and his heart flutters along with it.

“As long as you promise,” Jaebum adds, suddenly. “Promise you’ll show me some more of your… other costumes.”

And he feels Jinyoung laughing silently beside him, ducking his head with the movement.

“We have plenty of time,” Jinyoung assures him.

 

//



Chapter Text

Sunlight fades into Jinyoung’s room like a soft melody. Jaebum’s awake early, and maybe it’s some sort of parenting instinct that kicks in, from watching your child sleep in an unfamiliar place.

But he’s up before the sun rises and lays very still, watching how the first rays of morning are gently diffused by the drapes.

Yugyeom had clambered over him in the middle of the night, and Jaebum barely remembers grunting and shifting with the little jabs to his abdomen. But now he lays crammed between him and Jinyoung, one tiny foot jabbing stiffly forward into the other’s shoulder blades.

Jaebum has considered moving him, but Jinyoung’s breath is deep and steady, so maybe it’s not uncomfortable.

Anyway, this is sort of cute; Jaebum’s on his side, curled around Yugyeom, who’s kicking the littlest spoon, Jinyoung. Almost like a nice little platter of croissants.

Croissants sound good, Jaebum thinks, stomach rumbling. He wonders if Jinyoung has classes today. Maybe they could get breakfast — or maybe Jaebum should make breakfast? He could dart down to a bakery, at least. It might be a nice way to show his gratitude for Jinyoung’s hospitality. And, other great features.

So Jaebum tries to very carefully roll away from Yugyeom, intending to surprise everybody.

Yugyeom lets out a shrill noise of complaint however, planting another foot into Jinyoung’s back and twisting backward toward Jaebum’s shrinking form. He’s now fully horizontal between them, and cracks open an eye to frown up at him.

“Five more minutes,” Yugyeom demands, voice croaking slightly.

“You can keep cuddling with Jinyoungie,” Jaebum says, “let appa go make some breakfast.”

Yugyeom glances distrustfully at Jinyoung, who’s barely stirred, even as he’s kicked.

“Why is hyungie in bed with us?” Yugyeom asks.

Jaebum blinks rapidly, sitting up a bit, suddenly feeling wide awake. “Yugyeom,” he murmurs, blood rushing away from his face. “We’re guests in his home. Jinyoung only has the one bed, and he’s kind enough to share it.”

“He takes up lots of room,” Yugyeom says.

“It’s his room,” Jaebum points out, in a daze. He hadn’t expected this from Yugyeom, not after how clingy he’d been.

He supposes it might be different now. Yugyeom is starting to realize he might have to share Jaebum, in some capacity. Jaebum knows a more in-depth conversation about him dating is in their future. For now, he’d figured Yugyeom would be satisfied with their semblance of friendship. But maybe his son is a little more territorial than he’d thought.

“But there’s still room for Im Yugyeomie?” Yugyeom asks.

Jaebum’s heart stutters with the thought, connecting with the memory of every morning he’s played this game with him. He lets out a breath and reaches out to ruffle Yugyeom’s hair comfortingly. “Of course,” he says, choking between a laugh and a sigh. “It’s a big bed.”

They both sneak a peek at Jinyoung then, Yugyeom sitting up and draping himself over his shoulder to inspect his face. Jaebum tugs him back lightly by his undershirt, heart hammering away at the image.

Jinyoung rolls over, murmuring. But then his lips fall apart, still and silent as he relaxes again.

Yugyeom glances back at Jaebum, eyelashes fluttering slightly. “Five more minutes?” He whispers.

And Jaebum can’t resist it, biting his lip to keep from smiling too wide. So he scoops in beside Yugyeom once again, as the little boy burrows into Jinyoung’s arm and squeezes his eyes shut.

Tentatively, Jaebum lays his arm across them both, fingertips falling lightly along the angle of Jinyoung’s hipbone. Yugyeom doesn’t seem to mind being caught in between, and they slip into a peaceful lull a little longer.

Jaebum’s dozing when he feels Jinyoung’s hand slowly cover his own, his slender fingers tracing up between his own. Jinyoung’s nails graze up over his knuckles as he lets out something like a whimper.

“Mmh,” Jinyoung starts to say, and Jaebum’s eyes stutter open. Yugyeom is blinking up at Jinyoung’s shoulder with a sleepy yawn.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung hums quietly, stretching his neck and canting his hips up as he stirs into consciousness, voice just a whisper. “I dreamed about tasting your—,”

“Say good morning, Yugyeom!!” Jaebum yelps, desperate for an interruption as he yanks his hand out of Jinyoung’s warm, kneading grip.

“Good morning, hyungie,” Yugyeom says, sitting up straighter, so he can look down into Jinyoung’s suddenly wide-eyed, ashen expression. “Are you hungry?”

Jinyoung looks terrified, fumbling as he turns to lean on an elbow and tries to conjure up a cheerful smile. “Oh,” he breathes out. “Yugyeom, you’re over here now.”

“Yes,” says Jaebum, teeth grit together in a matching, forced smile.

“I was just dreaming,” Jinyoung says, eyes darting between them. “I was just dreaming about... breakfast.”

Yugyeom buys it, humming appreciatively as he stretches his legs out in front of himself. “Omelette~,” he mumbles, daydreamy.

“I could try to make us something,” Jaebum says. “Do you have any eggs?”

Jinyoung makes another startled face, sitting up in bed fully now, his hair tufting up off the back of his head, facial hair grown in around his lips like a shadow. “Erm,” he says, looking embarrassed. “Probably not.”

Jaebum chuckles quietly at this, remembering his candid admission about not cooking. He’d bought Yugyeom breakfast before, so Jaebum’s not surprised he isn’t exactly stocked up.

“Well,” says Jaebum, getting up and shuffling toward the door, “let’s see what you do have? And start from there. Unless — you don’t have a morning class, right?”

Jinyoung shakes his head, smoothing out the cover of his bed once Yugyeom’s rolled off the edge after Jaebum. “I was supposed to have office hours around eleven,” he says, “but I’ll cancel.”

He looks a little unsure as he tucks some edges of the bed sloppily away. It abruptly occurs to Jaebum, he might being doing it to appease him.

Flustered suddenly, Jaebum continues out back to the kitchen. Yugyeom’s pattering feet follow, and then Jaebum finds himself staring at Jinyoung’s fridge door, face hot.

“Appa,” Yugyeom says, tugging at a leg of his sweatpants. “Don’t you wanna open it?”

Jaebum clears his throat and nods, humming cheerfully, but he still takes another moment. Jinyoung is… really cute. Trying to tidy up around Jaebum, when it’s so obvious he doesn’t have the faintest idea of how. Fuck.

“Appa,” Yugyeom pats his knee.

“Okay,” says Jaebum, “just getting ready. You never know you’ll find in somebody else’s fridge. Here we go.”

He swings the door open. And of course it’s not gross; Jinyoung does have a housekeeper so he assumes they regularly clean older stuff out.

But it’s nearly bare. Jaebum is almost impressed by the space. There’s a takeout container of… rice, Jaebum finds, and it’s not smelling bad but there’s hardly enough for one of them. A package of pickled yellow radish. And a few cans of beer.

Jaebum shuts the door with a sigh.

“Well,” he says crisply.

“No eggs,” Yugyeom mumbles, looking disappointed. “No omelette?”

“No eggs means no omelette,” Jaebum echoes in confirmation.

Jinyoung emerges again, glasses shoved onto his face, hair somewhat tamed, and running an electric shaver across his chin. He smiles sheepishly. “It’s not much, right?” He says.

“Do you have some ramyeon or instant rice?” Jaebum wonders, opening some cabinets.

“I usually order in,” Jinyoung says. “Or go to the convenience store.”

Jaebum clears his throat and nods, looking down at Yugyeom with a smile. “Do you want to come with appa to the store or stay with our Jinyoungie?”

In his peripheral he sees Jinyoung fumble a bit with his shaver. He peeks up to find him holding a hand to a nick in his cheek, flushed from head to toe, eyes glittering.

Our Jinyoungie, Jaebum lets himself repeat in his head, and grins crooked at him.

It’s strange, how quickly he’s tuned into Jinyoung’s energy, and maybe part of it is being in his space. He can feel the nervous electricity thrumming, humming between them; he wants to run his fingers into his hair and yank his head back, wants to mouth down over his neck and feel his pulse where it pounds there.

But he doesn’t have to do any of that, can sense it across the kitchen already. Can tell that with a flash of his teeth he’s sent something tickling up the back of Jinyoung’s spine, has fanned a flame already flickering bright.

“I want to watch hyungie’s TV,” Yugyeom announces, wandering to the living area.

Jinyoung laughs, breaking the current of tension, tossing his shaver aside and trailing cheerfully after him to show him the remote.

Jaebum finds his jeans in the bathroom still, and tugs his wallet out. He intends to just pop in and out to the store shortly. But as he’s about to slip into his shoes by the doorway, a familiar chime tells him it’s being unlocked.

And then Jinyoung’s family files inside.

Jaebum feels his jaw go completely slack, blood draining from his face as everything seems to shift into slow motion.

Here’s Seokjin and Sooyoung, Jungkook perched on her hip. They’re followed by a woman he doesn’t recognize, holding hands with Jinyoung’s mother. And all at once he feels their eyes roving over his figure in surprise, caught in Jinyoung’s sweats, in Jinyoung’s apartment, looking guilty and caught off guard.

“Uh,” he sputters out. “Good morning.”

Seokjin has started laughing and clapping already, although Sooyoung’s gentle hand at his elbow seems to quiet him slightly.

Jinyoung’s mother chooses to ignore him completely, slipping out of her shoes and brushing past all of them. She still looks refined with bare feet, in a tasteful shift dress and a bag on her arm as always.  “Jinyoung-ah!” She bellows, in search of her son.

The others scramble to take their shoes off after her, as Jaebum stays in one spot, struck with horror. Does this look as bad as he imagines?

Sooyoung sets Jungkook down and gingerly smiles across at Jaebum. “Did you and Yugyeom… stay the night?” She wonders.

Jaebum nods, numbly. He and Jungkook both seem to snap to attention at the mention of Yugyeom’s name, and they head further inside to look for him, Sooyoung trailing behind them.

“I’m supposed to see you all tonight for dinner, anyhow,” Jinyoung is saying, still settled closely with Yugyeom on his couch. He wears a sulky pout, brows low, looking entirely inconvenienced.

“We decided to do brunch instead,” says what Jaebum assumes is Jinyoung’s other older sister. “It’s in the group chat.”

“When?” Jinyoung snaps.

“Last night,” Sooyoung sing-songs, casting a long glance askew at Jaebum.

“And when I clearly didn’t respond,” Jinyoung continues, ruffled, “you decided... to just show up?”

“Family doesn’t require an invitation,” his other sister scolds him.

Jaebum stares blankly at the scene before him, brain still not fully processing it. He glances at the kitchen, wondering if he should be doing something.

“Does anyone want some tea?” He croaks, eying an electric kettle.

“I only have instant coffee,” Jinyoung admits, with a sigh.

Jaebum tries not to flinch in disgust. “Would anyone like some instant coffee—?” He amends, gesturing toward the kettle.

“Absolutely not,” says Jinyoung’s mother. “Let’s just go to brunch.”

“I’m Boyoung,” the other woman says, suddenly, reaching out to shake Jaebum’s hand. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Jinyoung’s oldest sister.”

Jaebum takes the offered hand and winces immediately at how strong her grip is. He smiles faintly as he bows and shakes it.

“Sooyoung is the nice one,” she supplies, face cheerful but voice like steel. “And I know for a fact: Jinyoung doesn’t own more than two mugs.”

“And they’re probably both dirty, in the dishwasher,” Sooyoung says with a nod.

“Which he doesn’t know how to operate,” Seokjin concludes.

Jaebum clears his throat and nods. “Alright,” he says, backing away from them. “Well, we should be heading out anyhow.” Maybe it’s better to disengage, give them space.

“Yugyeomie, come on,” he calls out, taking another step backward. “Let’s get you back into your clothes. Jinyoung-ah has plans with his family.”

“Are you getting something yummy?” Yugyeom asks Jinyoung, but he hops off the couch and hurries to Jaebum’s side. He hides behind a leg and waves brightly at Jungkook, taken aback by so many new faces in the room.

“Yugyeomie,” Sooyoung beams down at him. “Wouldn’t you like to come with us?”

“No,” Jaebum breaks into a sweat. “No, we can’t intrude on your family time like this. We’ve already imposed too much on Jinyoung.”

“Get dressed,” Jinyoung’s mother says, glancing back and forth at all three of them. “Everyone’s coming.”

Jaebum startles at her tone, gulping down his discomfort as he realizes they’re not being given a choice.

“Come on, Yugyeomie,” he says stiffly, and they head back to Jinyoung’s bedroom.

A few minutes later, Jinyoung whirls in after them, slamming the door shut behind him and sagging against it. Jaebum looks up from cuffing Yugyeom’s pants, eying his sulky form hesitantly. Yugyeom hops up a moment later, ready to go. Jaebum starts on reassembling his own outfit.

“You drink instant coffee?” Jaebum moans, wriggling into his jeans. They’ve mostly dried out, miraculously, even though they’d both been irresponsible last night, any thoughts of using the dryer abandoned once they’d ended up in the shower together.

“You drink mochas,” Jinyoung cuts back, letting Yugyeom out as he’s excited to reunite with Jungkook. Jinyoung shuts the door after him and presses his face against it. “You drink mochas, and strawberry milk, don’t pretend you’re some barista snob.” He whines.

“Hey,” says Jaebum with a soft laugh, crossing over to him and wrapping his arms around his waist. “You should get dressed.”

Jinyoung twists in his arms, turning to gaze up at him with glassy eyes. “I’m sorry,” he mewls. “I didn’t know they were coming, I swear.”

Jaebum lets out a soft breath against his lips, nodding. “I know,” he says. “You weren’t on your phone at all, and you were dead asleep this morning, I know.”

“I can still get you out of it,” Jinyoung insists. “We can tell them you have to cover something for the paper, or have a test or something. They won’t be upset… for very long.”

Jaebum shakes his head, nose brushing against Jinyoung’s rounded one. He breathes in and out, slowly. He thinks about the way the wine had ran down Jinyoung’s cheeks at Yugyeom’s party, about how he’d tumbled down the bunny slope; and even before that, when he’d come to his apartment whenever he’d asked, even though Jaebum still treated him so hatefully.

“I’ll be okay,” Jaebum says finally, voice thick. “I want to. I want to do this for you. You’ve been in a lot of uncomfortable situations for me, already. And I should meet your family, anyhow.”

Jinyoung reaches up to cradle his face in his hands, humming softly. “I don’t even know what they’ll be like,” he admits, sounding slightly panicked, like when they’d lost power at Snowscapes. Jaebum wonders if Jinyoung can feel his pulse, fluttering like mad in his neck. “I’ve never introduced them to anyone before,” Jinyoung says.

Jaebum nods, slowly. “Okay,” he says. “So let’s just get you dressed and — and we’ll take it slow.”

There’s a bang on the door behind them and Jinyoung startles, pitching forward into his arms with an embarrassing honk of alarm.

“We’re waiting,” says Boyoung’s sharp voice, thinly muffled.

Jaebum shoves Jinyoung off toward his closet, following anxiously in an effort to get as far away from the door as possible.

“We’ll take it slow,” Jaebum says, nervously. “Once we’ve gotten there. But right now we should probably hurry.”

 

//

 

“So tell me the truth,” Jinyoung’s mother demands, and the cheerful, bright atmosphere of the restaurant evaporates around them. There may as well be a single light bulb creakily swinging above them in a dark room, and Jaebum awaits his interrogation with some hardboiled detective.

“What’s actually going on, here?” She asks. “You’re not just classmates. And this trip to the zoo, it wasn’t just a playdate.”

Jaebum looks to his left, at Jinyoung, and even after their conversation the night before, he doesn’t know what to expect.

“He’s my boyfriend,” says Jinyoung, crisply. And his voice doesn’t tremble.

Jaebum’s heart lurches, and he can’t help but smile a bit. He wonders if he’ll ever get used to hearing it. He’s dating Park Jinyoung. For real.

Boyoung coughs into her cocktail, making wide eyes at Sooyoung on her other side. Jinyoung’s mother shifts in her seat uncomfortably, and then takes a long swig of her own drink.

“Where is Yugyeom’s mother?” Jinyoung’s mother asks after a moment, setting down her glass with a sobering clank.

Jaebum’s face goes aflame, vision blurring at the edges as he stares down at his placemat in shock. He hadn’t expected her to to cut to the chase like this, thought it would be awkward but less personal.

Jinyoung’s breath beside him has hitched, stuttered, and he feels his fingers gingerly wrapping around his kneecap, dragging up his thigh and back down again in some attempt at comfort.

“Eomma,” Jinyoung says, stiffly. “This isn’t exactly a brunch question. You couldn’t ask him about his degree, or hobbies or something?”

“We already know he’s in the same program as you,” his mother says. “He’s dating my son now, but he has a child of his own. So that’s what I have questions about.”

When Jaebum’s eyes waver up again, Jinyoung’s mother looks calm and expectant. Boyoung, beside her, looks mildly embarrassed. Luckily, Sooyoung and Seokjin are noticeably louder on the other half of the table, keeping Yugyeom and Jungkook entertained with a set of jungle toys.

“You don’t have to—,” Jinyoung whispers, but Jaebum squeezes into Jinyoung’s hand at his knee, digs tight into the skin of his knuckles in hopes of drawing out some strength from it.

“Seulgi passed away when Yugyeom was born,” Jaebum says, quiet but firm. “We were sweethearts in high school and her family was very upset by it all, so they’ve refused to meet Yugyeom. It’s just been the two of us, for a very long time.”

Jaebum hears Jinyoung’s breath hiccup again, feels both of his hands come together on his leg, and he knows it’s a bit of a shock for him too. He’d probably guessed from Yugyeom’s party that Seulgi’s family wasn’t involved. But to lay it all out, out loud, makes it sound pretty bleak.

“My parents weren’t supportive either at first,” Jaebum continues, as Jinyoung’s mother glances down at her drink, looking thoughtful. He wonders if it surprises her, or if she’s already read all of this in some PR person’s research. Maybe this is meant to humiliate him — but he won’t be ashamed of it. It’s just his real story.

“My father wanted to cut me off entirely. But my mother has always helped us out, more and more where she could. They’ve always been close with Yugyeom, separate from their feelings toward me. And we’ve all been on better terms, lately.”

Jinyoung’s mother glances down the table toward the kids, and Jaebum tenses up.

“He seems very well-adjusted,” she says, finally. “Sooyoung has mentioned he’s bright, and one of Jungkook’s favorite companions already.”

Jaebum lets out a shaky breath, nodding brightly.

“But you must know,” she continues, picking up her glass again and rolling the stem between her fingers slowly. “Jinyoung certainly isn’t ready to have a child.”

“Eomma!” Boyoung nearly hiccups in surprise, and even her stern expression has lifted, eyebrows gone wary.

“We haven’t—,” Jaebum chokes a bit on his own spit, turning and trying to catch Jinyoung’s eyes.  “We haven’t really talked about this, yet.”

Jinyoung’s fingers are nearly cutting off circulation below his knee, dug in so tight. But his lashes flutter atop his cheeks as he keeps his gaze downward.

“You haven’t talked about his role in your child’s life, but you’re boyfriends?” Jinyoung’s mother says, voice frigid and sharp. “How does that make sense to you?”

“We’re taking things slow,” Jinyoung says, quietly, as if he’s addressing his placemat. “We aren’t going to carve everything into stone the first week.”

“This is your first week?” His mother repeats. “He and his child have practically moved in, and it’s only been a week?”

Jaebum doesn’t dare to correct her, to let her know they’d barely come to terms with starting a real relationship the night before. But moved in? This is exactly the attitude he’d been concerned about, watching her designer handbag swing back and forth on the sidewalk after Yugyeom’s interview. They think he’s some kind of gold-digger.

“They only stayed the night since it was storming,” Jinyoung says, finally lifting his chin, to look her in the eyes. “And Jaebum’s never asked me for anything.”

Which isn’t exactly true — he’d asked for him to play his boyfriend. And now he’d asked him to be a part of his life. Jaebum gazes at the soft slope of his nose, at the way his lips press into themselves anxiously. Jaebum wishes he’d just look at him, wishes he’d see how grateful he is to be with him.

But Jinyoung’s mother seems to understand his point, and she relaxes a bit as Jaebum turns back to her. Or at least shifts her laser vision aside for the moment. She swigs down more of her mimosa and then lets out a sigh. A waiter immediately swoops by to refill it, and they all watch as the champagne fizzes up over an edge. Jinyoung’s mother dabs at it gently with just the corner of her napkin.

“Jinyoung is my youngest,” she says, grimly. “And all children are precious, of course. But my youngest, and my only son?”

“Eomma,” Jinyoung complains.

“Does Im Jaebum have anything to do with your reluctance to work for the company?” Boyoung suddenly asks, cutting across their conversation to zero in on Jinyoung.

“Noona!” Jinyoung hisses, and Jaebum peeks over at him, catching red cheeks and glassy eyes. He looks frustrated, but also like he’d been waiting for this. Jaebum swallows heavy around the weight in his throat, and watches as Jinyoung withdraws his hands from his leg, watches him curl into himself.

“Of course not,” Jinyoung says to his sister, bristling. “We’ve had this conversation dozens of times — and half of those, at least, before I even met Jaebum hyung.”

“You wouldn’t have to start at the bottom,” Boyoung assures him. “I’d take you right under my wing, and we’d work with Appa directly. It’s a lot of fun, once you get used to it.”

Jinyoung lets out a sharp puff of air, and Jaebum watches his fingers in his own lap, scuttling to knot nervously into his napkin. He twists and tears at it, silent and head sullenly crooked down. He doesn’t want to get used to it, Jaebum knows.

While Sooyoung had been focused on meddling with Jinyoung’s love life, this sister seems to be intent on ironing out his career.

“Appa isn’t even a tough boss,” Boyoung continues, blithely. Jaebum looks up at her, almost impressed by her insistence. They really must have this conversation regularly, if she’s so unaffected by Jinyoung’s reaction.  

“It’s only scarier when Eomma comes in,” Boyoung says. “For the board meetings.”

“It is not,” says Jinyoung’s mother, voice terrifyingly even. “I just keep the board meetings efficient, and running smoothly. Jimin once told me she even thinks they’re fun.”

“To suck up to you,” Boyoung says, icily. “That was the year she asked for her two vacation weeks off in a row.”

Jinyoung’s mother takes a pause, and Jaebum watches her watching Jinyoung. Her eyes are more compassionate than Boyoung’s, obviously not immune to her son’s discomfort. Sighing, she sweeps a side of her sleek bob behind an ear.

“Nearly your whole family is there,” she says to Jinyoung, more gently. “Your cousins ask after you all the time.”

“Did you even know Jaehyung is getting married?” Boyoung blurts out.

“I received an invitation,” Jinyoung says, tossing his mangled napkin on the table with a huff. “I don’t have to go to work with Jae to hear about his personal life.”

“You’re lucky you only get it from him,” a deep voice suddenly says, sympathetically. “I’ve had to hear your aunt bitch and moan about the wedding details for months.”

Jinyoung looks up with bright eyes, and Jaebum shifts in his seat nervously to see who’s joined them. It’s an older man, towering over Jinyoung with intimidatingly thick eyebrows and prominent cheekbones. He pats Jinyoung’s shoulder, face deadpan but eyes smiling.

“Appa,” Jinyoung warbles, and then he’s scrambling to his feet to wrap his arms around his father warmly.

“You’re still bullying him, Boyoung,” Jinyoung’s father says, patting his back and chuckling slightly.

Boyoung fakes an upset face, shaking her head. “It’s Eomma, as well!” She objects. “Don’t ruin our fun in front of the boyfriend.”

And then Jinyoung’s father is looking at him, and Jaebum tries not to tremble, tries not to choke on his own saliva. He’s suddenly acutely aware of how many earrings he’s wearing, of the slouched fit of his jeans. He scrambles to his feet and bows shortly, reaching out a hand to shake.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Jaebum murmurs. “I’m Im Jaebum.”

Jinyoung’s father shakes it loosely, smiling comfortably, and glances back and forth as Jinyoung tugs away from him.

“What’s the matter?” He crows at Jinyoung’s mother. “You look like you’re sucking on a lemon, but you’ve already told me you thought he was so handsome.”

Jinyoung’s mother looks annoyed but waves him off. “Come sit down and have a drink,” she says. “There’s still someone else you haven’t met.”

Jinyoung looks more at ease as they settle back down with his father at the head of the table. His father reaches out to gently tug on his earlobe, smiling comfortingly. So this is who had really indulged him, Jaebum thinks.

He’d found Jinyoung’s family considerably tougher on Jinyoung than he’d imagined, especially when he’d thought about it before getting to know him. He’d always thought: Jinyoung was just a spoiled rich boy, probably treated like some little prince. And while Jaebum can tell he’d gotten a lot of love, it wasn’t without criticism, without some push and pull.

“Jungkookie,” calls Jinyoung’s mother. “Come greet your harabeoji, and bring your friend down here.”

Jinyoung’s father brightens as they approach. He pinches Jungkook’s nose after he’s let him out of a bear hug, and then casts appraising eyes on Yugyeom. “Is this your friend, from Peachtree?” He wonders.

“Yes,” answers Jungkook, happily. He swings Yugyeom’s hand in his, tugging him forward. Yugyeom blinks up with his charming eyes, and offers a little wobbly bow.

“Hello, I’m Im Yugyeom,” he says. “I’m four years old.”

Jaebum’s heart twists, glancing instinctively at Jinyoung’s father’s face. But he doesn’t seem to connect the dots, waving and nodding his head politely.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he says, and then turns to Jungkook. “I hope you ordered a really yummy breakfast. Your harabeoji doesn’t usually get out of the office during the week—,” and he shoots teasingly wide eyes at his wife, “—so I’m very excited about getting some pancakes.”

“I ordered the kind that have cookies in it!” Jungkook declares, pointing down the length of the table. “They come with ice cream!”

“Ohhh,” Jinyoung’s father groans, eyes fluttering shut at the thought. “I don’t know if I can handle that much sugar. But kids your age need it.”

“Yeobo!” chides Jinyoung’s mother. “No, they do not. This is just a Sometimes treat.”

Jinyoung’s father winks at Jungkook and Yugyeom, and sends them back down to their seats.

Jinyoung’s mother shakes her head at him, and Boyoung looks on expectantly, sipping loud at her cocktail.

“I really shouldn’t be out of the office,” he continues, looking back at Jinyoung. “My boss has me working on quarterly reports, after all this time.”

“I have you check in on them,” Jinyoung’s mother says. There’s a snap in her tone, but it’s teasing.

“Appa!” Boyoung says, looking ready to burst. “Don’t you have any questions? Jinyoung’s dating a single father.”

Jinyoung’s father frowns for a moment, glancing around at everyone’s stiff expressions.

“Shouldn’t we be grateful, he’s brought anyone home at all?” He finally asks his wife. “He never did before, and you used to badger his sisters for clues relentlessly. You even asked his doctor if everything was… healthy down there.” And she whips him with a napkin, turning pink at the inappropriate revelation.

Jinyoung hides behind a hand, laughing awkwardly and looking equally flushed. Jaebum gazes across at him, trying to hold back a smile. He’s glad to see him looking a little more comfortable. Maybe this family just needs to be all together, to be on equal footing. Their chemistry seems more balanced, this way. A lot of teasing, but more fairly distributed.

Jinyoung’s father clears his throat then, turning back to level a firm glare at Jaebum. “Well,” he says, gruffly. “You are single, right?”

Jaebum’s smile slips and falls, and then he’s nodding his head emphatically. “Yes,” he stammers. “Well — apart from, being with Jinyoung. I’m with Jinyoung.” He winces internally at his jumble of words, and clears his throat.

“What’s the issue?” Jinyoung’s father asks his mother, looking confused.

“What if he’s using Jinyoung,” Boyoung suggests, pointing an accusative croissant at Jaebum. “What if he’s just in it for his money?” Jinyoung’s mother swats her with the napkin this time, as Jaebum’s stomach plummets. There it is. Boyoung’s true intentions in goading her father into comment. Always back to the business.

Jinyoung’s father blinks across at Jaebum blankly for a moment, and then shrugs. “I’d say,” he hums. “That it sounds like kind of a hassle. And you know, it’ll run out eventually, if he doesn’t take up at Park Air.”

Jaebum clears his throat, glancing awkwardly at Jinyoung, whose face has drawn tighter, laughter chased away.

“Jinyoung will do a great job, wherever he ends up,” Jaebum offers, just as he’d said to Chanyeol, and his professor. “And Yugyeom and I aren’t looking for… a sponsor. I want to be with Jinyoung, I really like being with Jinyoung. But we aren’t in any hurry to merge assets or anything.”

“Yeobo,” Jinyoung’s father chuckles drily, taking his wife’s hand. “See? They’re not merging.”

“They all were sharing a bed this morning,” Jinyoung’s mother says, eyes darting between them, obviously baiting his anger.

Jinyoung’s father visibly pauses, blinking slow and dramatic before turning back to Jaebum and Jinyoung. He doesn’t ask a question, but he stares, waiting for an answer.

“Appa,” Jinyoung says, more firmly. “We took Jungkook and Yugyeom to the zoo yesterday, and we got caught in the downpour. I didn’t want them to have to ride the buses all soaked and cramped, so I let them stay over.”

Jinyoung’s father sighs, spreading a napkin out over his lap as a waiter starts to drop food off at the table. “Well it sounds sort of reasonable,” he sing-songs at his wife.

As he turns to put an order in, Jaebum peeks at Jinyoung again. He’s more relaxed, but today is taking its toll on him. On both of them.

“You’ve always said you wanted the company to stay in the family,” Boyoung brings up, a moment later. She glances back and forth between her parents. “Both of you,” she says. “Don’t you think it’s kind of disrespectful, that he doesn’t want to make it a reality? And he parades around his... questionable choices, like this?”

“Can we talk about this another time?” Jinyoung suggests, and his voice is shallow, breath held high in the back of his throat. He’s furious. Jaebum stares at him again, praying for eye contact, wanting so badly to make him feel better.

But Jinyoung keeps glancing between his parents, and they both look melancholy. Jaebum’s meal remains untouched, whole on the plate as if cutting into it would disrupt or disrespect the conversation.

“Boyoung,” says Jinyoung’s father, stroking his chin. “You studied business for us. You’re very good at what you do. Why would we need another family member in your position? It’s almost insulting — Jinyoung studies literature, of all things — you’re more than enough.”

Jinyoung’s mother softens her expression at her husband now. She watches with a gentle smile as he reaches across her to tap Boyoung’s elbow.

“Quit trying to squash down his feelings,” he says to her. “I know it’s your dream, and maybe it’s been ours in the past. But it’s not his.”

The reprimand could have felt sharp, but Jinyoung’s father isn’t hostile at all. Boyoung looks embarrassed, but grateful for the encouragement. Her eyes match her smile to him, angled and whiskered like Sooyoung’s, for the first time since Jaebum’s met her.

A beat passes, and Jaebum reaches tentatively for a sip of his mocha.

“And the rest?” Jinyoung’s mother asks.

Jinyoung’s father glances back at them, now, finger tapping at his jaw in thought. Jaebum’s hand peels away from his glass, trying to sit up straighter.

Jinyoung’s hand comes back to settle back over Jaebum’s knee, as his father sighs loudly.

“I don’t want to sound harsh,” he says, turning back to his wife. “But the truth is, this just might not last.”

Jaebum’s breath wavers, suddenly bewildered when a moment ago he’d felt comfortable.

“You never know,” Jinyoung’s father continues, gesturing at them both. “You might just go home, and have a think, and realize: this is too scary.”

Jaebum stares through him, brow furrowed but keeping silent. It isn’t entirely unfair or untrue — he is a bit fearful.

“You like each other, and that’s great,” he continues, hands clasping in front of himself. “But the real world makes it hard for that to be enough.”

Jaebum licks his teeth, beneath tightly pursed lips, and he has to look away to keep a polite expression. He’s a grown man, who’s lived on his own for years now. He knows exactly what the real world is like. But he supposes, he isn’t familiar with what Jinyoung’s real world involves — meddling, overbearing siblings and a fortune his parents seem hellbent on keeping in the family. And that could definitely get in the way.

Defiant, Jaebum lets his hand paw up Jinyoung’s arm, tries to catch his eye. But Jinyoung stays focused on his meal instead, lashes low again.

Their end of the table eats in a stiff shroud of silence now, conversation chased away by their differences. Yugyeom and Jungkook’s giggling about with Seokjin offers up a gentle soundtrack, beyond the uncomfortable clatter of their silverware.

“What about Jae’s wedding?” Sooyoung finally interjects a while later, leaning towards them with a soft expression. “Are you bringing Jaebum as your date, Jinyoung-ah? We have practically three floors of hotel rooms blocked out for family, you know.”

Jaebum shifts uncomfortably in his seat, wondering if planning to attend an event after this stifling experience is moving a little too quickly. But he raises his eyebrows indulgently at Jinyoung when he finally glances over at him, to be clear he’s open to it.

“It’ll depend…” Jinyoung murmurs, glancing between Jaebum and his parents.

“Oh!” Sooyoung bursts. “On finding a babysitter, right? Since it’s adults-only. I have quite a few contacts, obviously. But let me know what you’re thinking, Jaebum-ah, maybe Kookie could stay with Gyeomie?”

“Ah,” Jaebum mumbles, and it reminds him, he’ll have to talk this all through with his own parents. “I usually ask my mother to watch him, but I’d have to see if she would be comfortable doubling up like that.”

Jinyoung hums, a teasing glint in his eyes. “Youngjae wouldn’t be available again?” He asks him, quietly.

“He’d have a heart attack if there were two of Yugyeom,” Jaebum whispers back with a smile, remembering how the younger man had nearly run away as soon as he’d seen Yugyeom place one foot into Jaebum’s doorway.

Jinyoung smiles back at him, finally, and for a moment the mood is brighter.

 

//

 

But the morning whittles on, and by the end of their frigid brunch, Jaebum is eager to get home. He makes sure he and Yugyeom thank Jinyoung’s parents profusely. Jaebum even politely bids a good day to Boyoung, who looks like she might burst into cartoonishly evil laughter. But after a sharp elbow from Jinyoung, even she offers a short bow.

Seokjin is the only one whose smile feels genuine, slapping Jaebum enthusiastically on his shoulder as he and Sooyoung linger a little longer by the cafe door.

“Honestly,” he says. “No offense. But I’m so excited their mother is looking at anyone else, even if it’s just temporary. Marrying Sooyoung and trying to impress her was the scariest time in my entire life.”

“Seokjin,” Sooyoung says, crossing her arms in disapproval.

“Not that it wasn’t worth it!” Seokjin gushes, wrapping an arm around her and shaking her slightly. “I would’ve done anything, to be with you. I just — I did everything.”

“My parents don’t expect a bunch of craziness,” Sooyoung insists, putting a comforting hand at Jaebum’s elbow. “And they understand everyone’s situations are different. It’s certainly not the same as me and Seokjin’s courtship.”

“I was with her for four years. Then I took the whole family for a week of vacation to Fiji,” Seokjin says. “And on the last day, her mother said to me, cold as ice: I suppose you think Sooyoung might be interested in you now.”

“That was our engagement party,” Sooyoung says, with a hum. “She acted until our reception as if she didn’t know we were together. She just likes to give people a hard time.”

Jaebum feels dizzy, overwhelmed by the thought of trying to impress a wealthy family who make it a hobby to be unimpressed. And then there’s the feverish, cold sweat that breaks out over his forehead, at their immediate leap to the subject of marriage.

Jinyoung watches him with wide, concerned eyes but doesn’t say anything. He looks miserably embarrassed, and upset at how quickly their relationship has been put on display and under review.

Jaebum can’t blame him — none of this was put into motion by Jinyoung’s own machinations, and he’s sure they’d have both been content to keep things quiet on a larger scale for a while.

As it stands, circumstances have been taken out of their hands.

 

//

 

Jinyoung drops them off after a quiet ride back. His shoulders are curled in, teeth sunk into his lower lip as he stares at his steering wheel, as Jaebum unbuckles his seat belt. His posture spells out defeat, and he seems scared of asking Jaebum how he feels.

Jinyoung’s father’s words echo back between them. You might go home and have a think.  This is that moment.

Thinking has never felt dangerous to Jaebum, but it has led him to some unreasonable conclusions. So maybe he ought to take it seriously — to see the threat of over thinking.

“I’ll call you,” Jaebum promises him, wrapping his palm around the back of Jinyoung’s neck. He watches as he unfolds slightly, can see how his fingers fidget at his lap even though he nods.

The weight of the image bears down on Jaebum for the rest of the day, even until he tucks Yugyeom into bed.

He’d thought things would be easier, once he just sorted through his feelings and focused on what he wants. But Jaebum’s always known, maybe more than anyone, that what you want doesn’t always come so easy.

He shuts the door to his bedroom and sags against it. He thinks of how Jinyoung had curled up, wilted, had tried to avoid his eyes where he’d never been shy of looking for him before.

Heartsick, Jaebum fetches a notebook and pen from beside his keyboard setup and lays down on his floor. It’s full of old song lyrics, and parts of beginnings. Mostly unfinished thoughts, abandoned and unexplored because of his busy schedule.

He finds a few old lines, about eye contact, and he hums happily. Jinyoung’s eyes have always been so expressive. He remembers how intense and molten they get, dark and chocolatey when he’s aroused, warm and wide when he’s trying to be  comforting. And then with a glint, they can harden like steel, and suddenly he’s telling Suzy that Jaebum took care of him.

Jaebum groans, pen moving fluidly as their many stresses replay in his mind. He thinks maybe there’s a song here, after all. If only Jinyoung would keep his eyes on him, and forget about everything else. Then maybe they’d have a shot.

It’s late when he’s finishing up the lyrics, and he knows exactly what samples he wants to use, exactly how to tap the melody out. He doesn’t want to interrupt this flow, his songwriting having been stagnant too long. And especially with an audition coming up, he feels invigorated to show something new.

But he hasn’t called Jinyoung yet. And part of why he even has an audition coming up, is thanks to him.

Jaebum hums the hook to himself, bringing up their message thread.

Jaebum 3:02am

you up?

He waits, flopping across the bed.

Jinyoung 3:04am

Why are you ??

Jaebum 3:05am

writing. you?

you doing okay?

A beat passes, and Jaebum rolls onto his back, biting his lip and staring at the ceiling. Is this over before it’s even properly started? Had Jinyoung’s parents objected further, after they’d parted ways? Had they threatened Jinyoung?

Or was Jinyoung doubting this, himself? Had he buckled when his father mentioned his money running out, realizing he couldn’t live without that beautiful suite and his beautiful car and three floors of rooms in a beautiful hotel?

Jaebum has too many questions, and he knows they’ll rot away at him if he doesn’t try to find the answers. Jaebum’s phone buzzes on his chest.

Jinyoung 3:09am

I’ve been waiting for someone’s call

And Jaebum’s breath rushes out of him, and he fumbles with his phone for a moment, tapping anxiously at Jinyoung’s contact. After another second of hesitation, he tries a video call.

“Oh hyung,” Jinyoung’s sleepy face greets him. “What a surprise.”

“Sorry to make you wait,” Jaebum stammers. “I put Yugyeom down and then I had some inspiration for a song, and writing always makes me… it takes me out of time, you know?”

Jinyoung hums, and he offers a smile with soft, crescent eyes, and Jaebum knows he understands.

“Can I hear it?” Jinyoung asks, and Jaebum watches him sit up straighter against his cushions. “Did you finish it?”

Jaebum realizes his own reflection looks like a sad lump, in the corner of the screen, flattened out on his back and staring up. So he shuffles upward too, glancing over at his desk as he considers it. “I haven’t recorded anything yet,” he says. “I thought about—,” and he stops himself, a little embarrassed.

Jinyoung cocks his head, but he doesn’t press Jaebum.

“I thought about you,” Jaebum admits. “So I took a break before I started recording. But I can sing you some of what I’ve got worked out.”

Jinyoung’s eyes glitter eagerly, even through the dim lighting and the screen, as Jaebum crosses back over to his keyboard and notepad.

“You have to sing the part that made you think of me,” Jinyoung murmurs, lips curling coyly.

But it’d be the whole song, Jaebum thinks and lets out a dopey chuckle. He flicks through his pages for a moment, trying to decide on which segment.

“If I put you down here,” Jaebum wonders, leaning his phone against his computer screen. “Can you see me?” And he’s frowning as he releases it, hoping it doesn’t teeter over. Then he tries to smile, wide and friendly, but the angle’s pretty bad up close, and Jinyoung’s covering his mouth and laughing quietly.

Jaebum stretches his neck out as he leans back, and gazes down at the keys, plunking out just a few chords to introduce it. “You look at me now…” he starts, slowing it down a little bit. He taps out the next set of chords. “Oh, our eyes are locked. Until you get familiar, until you can only see me, don’t turn your eyes away, lock eyes with me.”

He hesitates then, for a beat longer than he’s supposed to. “No matter what anyone says,” he sings quieter, feeling suddenly shy. “They can’t keep us apart.”

He hums out a little more of the melody, a little faster, and then he goes quiet. Nervous, he peeks back up at his phone. He doesn’t usually share his music with somebody right away — he tinkers with tracks for a few days usually, before he asks anybody for feedback.

But he’s not really looking for feedback, anyway. He’d wanted to indulge Jinyoung, wanted to confirm his link to the song. He scoops his phone up again.

Jinyoung looks captivated on screen, lips parted as he smiles very gently. “I love your voice,” he admits, and then he looks a bit guilty, a little embarrassed, drawing his knees up to his chest.

Jaebum wishes he could be there beside him, wishes he could tug his knees apart and dip between them, wrap him up in his grateful embrace. He’d been worried for nothing, he realizes. If a short call can soothe his nerves this much, it’s real. They’re going to try this.

“I’m sorry my family was so much,” Jinyoung says with a groan, after they gaze at each other silently for a bit. “I expected them to be firm, but I thought I’d get most of the pressure later, and you wouldn’t have to be a witness for... all of that.”

“Your dad seems nice,” Jaebum offers, with a laugh. He settles back along his bed again, leaning on an elbow. “I didn’t expect him to be the friendlier one. Although I still don’t feel like I know what he’s thinking? I thought he was mostly okay with us, but by the end it sounded like he hopes it doesn’t get very far.”

“I don’t know either,” Jinyoung admits. “He loves me very much, I know they both do. So they want what’s best for me — we just disagree on what it might be.”

“He seemed open about you not working for the business,” Jaebum says. “Right?”

“He’s more open to that,” Jinyoung says slowly. “More than my mother. But I think secretly, he hopes I fail in other pursuits too. He’s always very sweet to me. But underneath that, he’s still kind of a believer in tough love.”

Jaebum smiles slowly, thinking it’s strange. His own father blustered like a storm, fought with him, kicked him out. But deep down, he was tender and willing to reconcile. Jinyoung’s father offers him plenty of freedom, but he secretly roots against him in some ways. He’s not sure which seems more difficult.

“Your mother…” Jaebum murmurs. “She doesn’t like me.”

Jinyoung raises his eyebrows and hums, and Jaebum nearly laughs at how he doesn’t rush to assure him otherwise.

“Well,” Jinyoung shrugs. “She’s not very open-minded, but at least she’s readable. And I’m pretty sure you being so candid about your life won some points with her. Sooyoung texted me saying later on she’d mentioned it was awfully tragic. So it’s stuck with her.”

“Pity points,” Jaebum says, unsure if that’s a positive.

“Human points,” Jinyoung corrects. “My mother values family above everything. So to hear Yugyeom had been… sort of rejected? I think it had a big impact on her.”

Jaebum hums, running a hand through his hair. Jaebum watches Jinyoung track the motion closely. He seems to especially like that movement, Jaebum notes. “Seulgi’s parents will come around someday,” he says, quiet and stubborn, maybe just for himself.  

A beat passes, and Jaebum watches Jinyoung touching his face, looking lost in his thoughts.

“Did you love her??” Jinyoung suddenly asks, breathy and a bit nervous, like he’d had trouble gathering up the courage. “Yugyeom’s mother.”

And Jaebum remembers, he’d mentioned Seulgi to his mother, after he’d barely divulged anything to him directly. Jinyoung must have tiptoed around it in his head for some time, unsure how Jaebum would react.

Jaebum stares at him in surprise for a moment, eyes glassy and blank as he tries not to look too affected. But it’s Jinyoung, and he doesn’t need to waste his time hiding, so he lets his face soften, lids fluttering low as he thinks about it.

“I just, I don’t know if I’ve ever been in love,” Jinyoung continues, and maybe he’s being too honest. But Jaebum appreciates honesty. “And I just wonder... how anyone knows, for sure?”

Jaebum sighs, rubbing his eyes. Seulgi had been so attractive to him, and constantly supportive. When he’d thought, before Yugyeom’s birth, that they would settle down for him: Jaebum really wanted to try it. He really thought he could. He was willing to do anything — like Seokjin had said he'd felt about Sooyoung.

“I think I did,” says Jaebum. “If anybody that young can really be in love, or know what it is to love.”

Jinyoung’s breath hitches, Jaebum can hear it even over the phone, even as he watches Jinyoung move a bit back from the screen and curl his fingers anxiously into the neck of his sweatshirt.

“Do you… know what it is now?” Jinyoung asks him, voice barely there, like the whisper of a ghost.

Jaebum swallows heavily, but he’s nodding before he can stop himself, before he can slow them down.

But it doesn’t feel too fast, doesn’t feel like pressure — because Jinyoung smiles at him, and that’s all he can see.

“So, when's that wedding?” Jaebum asks.



//

Chapter Text

“Hyung, it feels—!”

Jinyoung is writhing on screen, hand jammed down his little sleep shorts. The flushed tip of his cock peeks out of the waistband, jerking with each stroke and dribbling into the trail of hair along his stomach.

Jaebum appreciates the angle, how he can see so much of Jinyoung’s body, all the way up to his swollen nipples. He’d played with them earlier, at Jaebum’s direction.

Now Jaebum’s telling him, softly, what he’d like to do with him.

“Do you wanna ride me?” Jaebum asks, and he strokes up his dick, and down, slow and hard. He points his phone, shakily, at just this sight. Throbbing, glistening with a fistful of lube. “Do you want to climb up in this lap and bounce? I wanna see your thighs spread open over me. Wanna watch you take over.”

“Ah,” Jinyoung gasps, and Jaebum can see his thumb drag through the precum pooling at his head, can see him parting his slit and rolling it shut again. “Would you — let me, hyung?” He asks. “Would you let me take control like that? You want me on top?”

And then his other hand drags up some of the moisture from around his cock and disappears behind him. He’s leaning forward, on his knees, voice breaking. His phone’s frame trembles a bit, as his bed shifts with the movement.

“Turn over,” Jaebum growls. “Let me see you stretch yourself.”

There’s a timid knock at Jaebum’s bedroom door and he abruptly yanks his covers back over his cock, choking in disappointment. “I—,” he gasps out to the screen, where Jinyoung’s confused face peers around his ass. A pair of pretty panties (! , supplies Jaebum’s frantic brain ) are straining around his balls. Jaebum fumbles to screenshot it, even as he mumbles an apology. “Yugyeom’s up,” he says, and then promptly locks his phone, pitching headfirst out of his bed.

He drags his sticky hands across the corner of something — anything — in his laundry basket.

Then he slips up a little as he’s scrambling around for his sweats and underwear, left bundled on the floor. He wriggles into them nervously as he clears his throat, trying to find an unaffected voice again.

“One second, Gyeomie,” he calls out, foot stuck in the elastic of his pants. It takes another moment of huffing and puffing, tucking his throbbing head stiffly into his waistband and covering it with his oversized t-shirt, and then he’s unlocking his door.

“Who’s there~,” he sing-songs softly, poking his head halfway into the hall. Every extra second of time he can buy, for his dick to settle down, is worth it.

“It’s me, duh!” Yugyeom whines, hand slapping at the door. “I can’t sleep.”

“Hi, Me-Duh,” Jaebum snickers, slipping out of his room. He crouches down to look Yugyeom in the eye. “I’m appa.”

Yugyeom whines again, clearly too cranky to appreciate such a sloppily-crafted dad joke. “Appa,” he says. “Can’t I sleep with you? My room’s too dark.”

“Yugyeom-ah,” Jaebum says, nudging his sweaty bangs out of his face. “We’ve talked about this before. You have to be able to sleep all night in your room, like a big boy.”

“Is... that why your door’s locked?” Yugyeom murmurs.

“No,” says Jaebum, feeling guilty. He doesn’t want Yugyeom to think he’s unwelcome. “I was working on a song,” he says. “It helps to keep my room quiet.”

It’s not entirely a lie — he had been composing earlier, before Jinyoung had videocalled him and things had gotten out of hand. Or, hands-on, maybe.

“And I thought you’d already fallen asleep,” Jaebum adds, taking him by his hand and leading him back to his own room. “We said goodnight hours ago.”

Yugyeom whines a bit, flinging his body weight about so he teeters off of Jaebum’s arm. Jaebum doesn't respond to it, not wanting to let him think playtime is a possibility at this time of night.

“Let’s try turning on your new night-light,” Jaebum suggests. “From your halmeoni.”

Jaebum flicks on the little sleepy-faced moon figure on his nightstand, waiting patiently for Yugyeom to lie down again.

“What if I never go to sleep??” Yugyeom asks, flopping back into his bed with a dramatic little sigh.

Jaebum tries not to wince too visibly. He knows it’s an exaggeration, but even Yugyeom potentially sleeping less makes him nervous. Yugyeom’s downtime is some of Jaebum’s most precious personal time.

And that had been true even before he and Jinyoung were dating. Now, his need for that me- time has multiplied — and he’s starting to feel more anxious about finding us- time. They’re still in a honeymoon stage after a couple of weeks, and every glance feels loaded, every touch sending off sparks. Jaebum’s eager for them to set fire.

But now’s not the time.

“Can I hear the song?” Yugyeom whispers after a bit, as Jaebum rubs his palm in slow, comforting circles along his back. He already sounds more relaxed, melting like butter into his mattress.

Jaebum smiles, humming out a few bars of the melody at a lower, softer tone. It seems to suffice as a lullaby, as Yugyeom’s smile curls up into his cheek, his breath steadily evening out.

Jaebum watches him after he cycles through it a few times, smoothing out his tousled tufts of hair and wondering what sort of innocent dream he slips into.

It’s been a while since Jaebum’s sleep has gone peacefully un-interrupted, let alone embellished with the adventurous details Yugyeom so proudly recounts over breakfast sometimes. But maybe part of it has been Jaebum’s own attitude — too long embarrassed by his own circumstances to even entertain more fantastic possibilities in his sleep.

Jinyoung embodies much of his fantasizing now, and Jaebum knows he has to be careful not to put him too high atop a pedestal of unrealistic expectations. But the way Jinyoung smiles at him, the brightness in his eyes and the hang of his captivated, pouted lips after his every move, it makes Jaebum feel a bit like dream material himself. And maybe that’s more accurate — he’d appeared in Jinyoung’s imagination long before he’d been aware, and now they’ve come to life together, fantasy springing into fulfillment.

It feels better to Jaebum than a dream, now that they’re rooted in reality. But he’s a little nervous if the novelty will last for Jinyoung.

Jaebum slips back into his bed a while later, no longer pulsing with arousal as he calls Jinyoung’s number. Instead he’s turned sleepy, a little soft, pouting into the camera as he waits to see his face again.

Jinyoung answers and he’s looking similarly mellowed out now, in a plush sweatshirt. His face looks dewy, moisturized and ready for bed.

“Sorry about that,” Jaebum says, clearing his throat. “Yugyeomie was having trouble sleeping.”

“He didn’t hear anything, right?” Jinyoung wonders. “You didn’t seem too loud.”

Jaebum shakes his head, staring into his phone with a dazed expression. “I’m sorry it’s hard to... carve some time out,” he says.

Jinyoung clucks sympathetically, but shakes his head, burrowing back into several pillows. “You don’t have to apologize,” he says. “Does Yugyeom… has he asked about anything yet? Are you going to tell him I’m your special friend?”

“I’ve been thinking about how,” Jaebum says, twisting his lips. “Last week, when we picked him up together, after class, I thought about bringing it up? But I’m not sure how much detail he needs. Special sounds kinda silly, but I’m afraid of giving him a word like boyfriend and him adopting it for Jungkook, or something.”

Jinyoung pauses, eyes narrowing fractionally. “What’s wrong with that?” He asks, but his tone is teasing. “Don’t tell me you’re squeamish about both of them being boys.”

Jaebum scoffs, rolling his eyes and fidgeting. “It’s not that Jungkook’s a boy—!” He insists. “But they’re… Jinyoung, they’re just babies. They don’t need stuff romanticized.”

Jinyoung giggles, rolling onto his side so that half of his face sinks into the pillow. Jaebum’s heart skips a beat.

“I know. I’m sorry,” Jinyoung murmurs. “But it is cute.”

Jaebum watches his cheek squish against the pillow, pink lips shoved askew.

“You’re cute,” he says, accusative. He nearly regrets it the next second, embarrassment creeping up his sides like tickling fingers.

But he doesn’t need to pretend, he reminds himself, watching as Jinyoung’s smile spreads wide, and he lifts his head to show it to him. Jaebum’s certainly allowed to call his boyfriend cute.

He’s struck by a sudden reminder, and he clears his throat, blinking rapidly. “Jinyoung-ah,” he stammers. “Were you wearing… panties, earlier?”

Jinyoung’s smile turns into a sly smirk, and Jaebum feels his breath punched out of him, sharply.

“You’ll have to wait,” Jinyoung murmurs. “Until we have a little more time.”

Jaebum’s heart feels like it’s humming pleasantly in his chest. Jinyoung’s tone is always flickering easily between the different facets of his personality, like a gem catching light in different temperatures. Jaebum scrambles to keep up, but it leaves him breathless and eager.

“We’ll have time,” Jaebum says. “I can make time.”

“I want you,” Jinyoung admits, voice quiet, quivering. Jaebum can tell from the shift in his shoulders that his body stretches out behind him. That his hips rock a bit, into his mattress.

Jaebum remembers rocking into him, thinks of how their hip bones knocked into each each other, how his cock’s length felt along his own.

“You can have me,” Jaebum assures him.

“Sweet dreams,” murmurs Jinyoung, and a warmth washes over Jaebum as he bids him goodnight in return, and they hang up.

He can’t remember if in his other relationships he’d been wished good night so consistently, can’t remember a time someone texted him cheerfully every morning, like Jinyoung does. 

And sure, the video chats are pretty thrilling. Jaebum expects the rest of their sexual exploration to be similarly electric.

But what keeps him up, a little longer every night, is the goofy smile he’s left with when they say good morning and goodnight. The feeling of being taken care of, looked after. Some might find it smothering — but Jaebum would gladly drown in it.

 

//

 

That weekend, they head out to the resort where the wedding will be held early. Jinyoung wants to check into their room and get ready for the ceremony on-location, so they don’t have to worry about parking and timing.

“And hyung,” Jinyoung teases him on the drive over, “don’t you want to take advantage of room service for as long as we have it?”

Jaebum isn’t completely certain if he believes it’s all innocent, but he plays along. They drop off Yugyeom and Jungkook with his parents, hoping to skim by without much questioning from Jaebum’s mother.

He’d mentioned their new relationship to her on the phone a few days before, but he’d tried to stress how new and delicate it was.

“I’d just appreciate… discretion,” he’d begged.

“You mean with your father?” She’d asked. “I don’t think he’s going to have a problem with it.”

“No, Eomma,” Jaebum had said, wincing at his phone. “I mean with Jinyoung. If you could... treat him lightly. His family is already giving us kind of a hard time, so I’d appreciate it if you guys could be like, a little more easy-going about getting to know him.”

He’d had to sit through a half an hour of her pressing him for details about Jinyoung’s family then, angrily bubbling over about them not giving her son a fair chance. But Jaebum didn’t feel bothered. He’d felt grateful for it. Supported.

Today, she welcomes the kids in with a warm smile and directs them to treats set out in the living room. Then she turns bright, twinkling eyes on Jinyoung.

“Thank you again, for watching them tonight,” Jinyoung says crisply, bowing in greeting. “I hope Jungkook doesn’t add too much trouble.”

“I’m very happy to help,” Jaebum’s mother says with a grin, waving off his concern. She gazes across at them another moment longer.

“You know,” she says to Jinyoung, wagging a playful finger. “I’d wondered about you.”

Jinyoung purses his lips, and then wriggles his shoulders slightly. “Was I a little too obvious?” He jokes.

Jaebum’s mother laughs, even as Jaebum looks between them in surprise. Had she known Jinyoung was interested, from so early on?

“No, no,” she reassures Jinyoung. “But Jaebum is very careful with who he trusts. So seeing you so comfortable around Yugyeom felt like a good sign you two had gotten pretty close.”

Jaebum nods slowly in acknowledgement. It’s a fair point. Maybe Jinyoung getting close to his heart hadn’t been on Jaebum’s radar — but letting him get close to Yugyeom was just as tellingly vulnerable.

“I’ve been warned,” Jaebum’s mother continues, giving her son a sideways, playful glare. “That I should treat you gently.”

And Jinyoung glances at Jaebum in question now, eyes softening, gone tender. Jaebum lets a corner of his lips slip up, fitting his hand into the small of his back.

“But I’d like to say the same to you,” Jaebum’s mother says. “Be gentle with my son. He has a good heart, and a lot of love to give.”

Jinyoung swallows audibly, nodding small and shaky before bowing and thanking her again. “I know,” he says softly, words stumbling slightly. “I want to be good to him, too.”

The words linger with Jaebum as they head out to the wedding.

 

//

 

It’s a longer drive, but they make good time. Jaebum plays the demo mix he’d put together as a leave-behind for his audition the previous weekend. It had gone smoothly, even though it’d felt a little short.

Jaebum is hesitant to admit he barely remembers most of it, the adrenaline from performing and hastily answering questions having left his mind in a total blur.

But Jinyoung seems optimistic once he’s heard his tracks, holding his hand as they wait for the last one to fade out, in the parking lot.

“You’re so talented,” he breathes out, shutting his engine off completely. “It’s sort of… scary, isn’t it?”

Jaebum startles at this, turning to look at him as if in betrayal. “Yah,” he chides. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be anxious here. What are you frightened for?”

Jinyoung laughs, tugging his hand away to hide his embarrassed expression. “I’m sorry!” He exclaims. “I don’t mean for you to be actually worried. It’s just a lot to think about… what happens, if you get signed and blow up?” Jinyoung wonders. “It’ll be a lot for Yugyeom. And you might end up with more fansites than me.”

Of course, Jaebum has had similar concerns about this path. It’s a little reassuring that Jinyoung has the same questions, and is willing to think it through with him. But also makes his fear seem more real. “I’m not gonna be some kind of idol,” Jaebum grumbles.

Jinyoung hums, eyes flickering down his form appreciatively. “I’d take your photograph.”

Jaebum lets a loud laugh punch out of him, left a little speechless at the scenario it creates. That could be fun to explore.

“Let’s get checked in,” Jinyoung pronounces, eyes still smiling even as he lets go of Jaebum’s hand.

 

//

 

At the front desk, Jinyoung maintains a cool, breezy façade as he inquires about their assigned room. But Jaebum can sense he’s digging for something very specific.

“Just curious,” Jinyoung is saying to the clerk, leaning across her desk and speaking softly. “But would you happen to know who are in the rooms on either side of us? I know that whole floor is secured for my family — but I’m wondering who specifically I can pop in on, next door.”

The attendant flutters under his attention, and she discretely informs him they’re flanked by his sisters. Jinyoung shoots a calculating expression at Jaebum, but Jaebum still isn’t quite caught up to the point of the conversation.

“That ought to be be alright,” Jinyoung says, more to himself. He thanks the clerk, scooping up their keycards, and Jaebum follows him blankly toward the elevators.

“I just wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be… disturbing my parents,” Jinyoung says, as the doors close on just the two of them. He leans in a bit closer, chest pressing deliberately into Jaebum’s arm. “Or worse, my grandparents,” Jinyoung adds, with raised eyebrows.

The elevator dings, and they shuffle out onto their assigned floor, Jinyoung leading the way.

“Although,” he continues, unlocking their suite. “Their hearing is pretty much shot now, anyway. So it could’ve been fine.”

Jaebum follows him in, barely wheeling their luggage to one side before Jinyoung slams him back against the door as it shuts.

Oh. So maybe this is why he wanted to check in early. Jaebum’s starting to piece it together.

Jinyoung’s mouth presses eagerly into his own, and his hands curl around the back of his neck, gripping fiercely. Jaebum can tell he’s on tiptoe, not to reach his lips, but to take control.

Jinyoung’s lips move slow and insistent, plush as they tug Jaebum’s apart. And then Jaebum can only focus on the wet, indescribable softness of Jinyoung’s tongue, flirting and skirting along the inside of his lips, skimming the roof of his mouth.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung says, drawing back to angle his lidded, sparkling eyes up at him. He looks drowsy, needy, burning with desire already.

“Is this why you wanted to get here early — why you were worried about who was next to us?” Jaebum murmurs, hands settling at Jinyoung’s waist.

“I made us some time,” Jinyoung whispers, and then he drags his hands down Jaebum’s front, yanking his belt open and unbuttoning his jeans, before he heads straight to the bed.

Jaebum follows in a daze, discarding his pants as he thinks he’s just been silently commanded.

Jinyoung turns away, stepping nimbly out of his slacks, and then scuttling up across the mattress. He watches silently, as Jaebum puts a hesitant knee down, prowling slowly after him. And Jinyoung doesn’t look nervous, or caged in. He looks excited — eyes gleaming in eager anticipation. Jaebum feels the same excitement, heat coursing low in his gut as he realizes what’s happening.

Jinyoung often reminds him of water — clear, flowing water that can refresh or overwhelm, deluge or nourish. He clings to Jaebum like rainwater, pliant around everything he does, until he wants to push him. And then he can be a wave, knocking the breath out of Jaebum’s lungs and his legs out from under him. 

And sometimes he feels like a whirlpool, desperate and needy and dragging Jaebum under. But Jaebum somehow finds himself alive on the other side, not drowned but cleansed. Jaebum is ready to dive in, now.

“Is this what you want?” Jaebum asks him once he’s gotten close, hooking fingers into his waistband and peeling back his underwear. His flushed, pretty cock appears, not hard yet, and Jaebum palms it gently as he sweeps back up to kiss Jinyoung’s neck.

“It’s what I’ve wanted,” Jinyoung murmurs, “for so, so long.”

“You’ve just wanted me for a good fuck,” Jaebum says, laughing lightly into his collarbone. “All this time?”

Something slows him down, as he detangles Jinyoung’s briefs from around his ankles, tossing them aside. It’s something in Jinyoung’s expression, as Jaebum slips comfortably between his knees and looks him in the eye.

“No,” Jinyoung says softly, and for a moment Jaebum isn’t sure if he’s been a bit insensitive. But Jinyoung still smiles. “It’s all of this,” he says. “Being with you. When we first started faking, I had to promise to myself I wouldn’t get carried away. I guess I made you promise, too.”

Jaebum’s chest tightens with the memory. “You have to promise—!” Jinyoung had said.

And it’d seemed so obvious. And so stupid. Jaebum wouldn’t fall in love. Jaebum hadn’t thought he could feel anything at all for Jinyoung. 

“I thought,” Jinyoung hums. “I would take what I could get. And y ou know how, when you daydream... it just sort of plays out, without any context? You just imagine it happening. You cut right to the feeling of it all.”

Jaebum watches Jinyoung work through his thoughts, as he runs a hand down his side, fingers sinking and skimming along his ribcage in gentle, rhythmic encouragement.

“I was so used to daydreaming. I thought pretending would be like that. Like we could bypass all the hard stuff, and it’d feel like I was with you,” Jinyoung admits. “And it would feel good enough. Like we could skip to the scene of waking up together, without the part where I had to admit I liked you, out loud.”

Jaebum nods, ears ringing. He’d thought something similar, at least about fooling around with him. Thought they could manage it without the mess of emotion.

“But then I realized, I want it all. I want all of those moments,” Jinyoung stammers. “Even the difficult ones. I want all of the feelings with you, from beginning... to whatever end.” 

Jaebum’s heart shudders.

“And I wanted you, all of you. I wanted the insightful writer from the paper, the stern senior in my class. I wanted the stressed-out single dad. I wanted the confident guy in the lounge, singing about sex with this... honey voice and these crazy, intimidating eyes.” He runs a thumb across Jaebum’s brow now.

Then Jinyoung hesitates, and then lets out a soft, stilted laugh. His cheeks are pink with embarrassment. “I felt bad when I left your apartment,” he says. “The day of Yugyeom’s party. But more than what happened, I was humiliated by myself. How I’d just slipped back into the same desperate habit I’d already been in. Too eager to skip ahead, without being honest. The photos, the gift — even after you’d rejected me.”

“So I think it’s good,” he murmurs. “I think it’s good we waited a little while, maybe. Because: I want to feel wanted, too.”

Jaebum swallows, heavy, breath exploding out of him. “Jinyoung-ah,” he says, and it drags a bit. Heavy with guilt.

“Do you want me?” Jinyoung asks him, fingers clutching suddenly tighter at Jaebum’s shoulders. “Is this what you want?”

And Jaebum, who Jinyoung had just praised as a writer, who’d filled notebooks with love songs, finds himself speechless.

“Jinyoung,” he says, because he knows how to say it. “Jinyoung,” because it’s all he can manage for the moment, overwhelmed. And then he kisses into his mouth, and whispers it between his teeth. “Jinyoung, I want you,” he says. “I want you… more.”

“Baby,” Jinyoung sighs, arching up into his touch. And the word is soft, almost formless, in Jinyoung’s full voice. It seeps from his pouted lips like a sigh, curling around them like a cloud.

It lets Jaebum melt into it, lets their relationship be whatever they need it to be. Because where Jaebum might need a little softness, Jinyoung wants someone to push him to his limits and watch him come undone.

For once, Jaebum feels his mind go exquisitely quiet, and he loops Jinyoung’s arms around his shoulders. “Want you,” he repeats.

Jinyoung’s breath quickens, as Jaebum wraps an arm around his back, tugging him into his lap and parting his knees around his waist.

“How have you been imagining this?” Jaebum asks, voice wavering as Jinyoung grinds deliberately down into him. The weight of his hardening cock drags against the front of Jaebum’s shirt, and his waist winds in a slow circle, smudging himself into Jaebum’s groin.

“I just want you inside me,” Jinyoung whispers, bucking slightly, and Jaebum nearly growls.

Then he’s slamming him back into the bed, the full weight of him spreading Jinyoung apart, instinct driving him into his body, hips thrusting already. Jinyoung responds in kind, heels hooking over Jaebum’s hipbones, matching his motions and mewling in pleasure at the pressure it creates.

And that’s all it is for the moment, just a slow and steady grind, the intention not quite worked out.

It’s not until they’ve both tumbled each other completely out of their clothes, sweat starting to get sticky at the small of Jaebum’s back, that he shifts their position.

He pulls off him for a moment, stepping aside to grab lube and condoms from his bag. Jinyoung moans in protest over being left alone, but Jaebum is back beside him in a heartbeat. “So impatient,” Jaebum chides.

But he curls down Jinyoung’s torso now, hands cupping his bottom as he drops his mouth over his cock. Jinyoung’s moans aren’t complaints after that.

Jaebum sucks at him gently, almost teasing, lapping on and off the tip as he kneads his asscheeks in circular motions.

Jinyoung writhes under the attention, knees bowing wide apart, and he makes a pretty, messy sight like this. The length of his legs are pale, the hair thinned away before it gathers thick and dark in the cleft of his thighs.

Jaebum slurps off of his stiff, flushed length now, and luxuriates a little in the view. He rubs his face along the soft skin of Jinyoung’s thighs, smearing his mouth all the way from a kneecap to where his balls nestle against the duvet. And Jinyoung’s sigh smears with it, low and drawn out, almost lazy with pleasure, pitching up at the end as he twitches in delight.

Jaebum repeats the motion on the opposite side, before nuzzling his way gently down Jinyoung’s taint, breath huffing hot against the hole he finds.  

And it’s not entirely unexplored, Jaebum already left familiar with the musky taste of Jinyoung from their ski trip. He’s already acquainted with which way to curl his tongue, to elicit a shudder, to make Jinyoung twitch.

What he’s not used to is Jinyoung putting his hands behind his knees and holding himself open. He’s gotten bolder now, eyes gleaming as he watches, body flexing where he’d just been pliant before.

Jaebum lets his tongue flutter against him until it’s slick, until his nose and chin can slip and slide, until Jinyoung’s gasping and almost ripping his ears off with fumbling fingers.

And Jinyoung’s wet from spit, but Jaebum coats his fingers generously with lubricant next, hoping he can make this first time extra comfortable. He’d like it to be memorable, but for the right reasons.

Jinyoung’s still unabashedly eager, and he rocks against Jaebum’s fingers like he’s already trying to get off, like he’s impatient with Jaebum’s slow and easy stretch. But Jaebum takes his time, even as Jinyoung mewls and begs, panting and pumping his hips up off the bed like a man possessed.

It’s not until Jaebum’s slipping three thick fingers out of him, until he’s watching Jinyoung’s hole throb, pink and dripping in anticipation, that he thinks it’s time.

Still, Jaebum slides into him slowly, taking his time to savor every shift in Jinyoung’s expression. Watching the way his chest heaves with suddenly ragged breaths. The teeth scraping into his lip. All the beautiful fragments of a first time — pressure and pleasure fully realized.

“Hyunghh,” he groans, and Jaebum responds with a long stroke, all the way out, followed by a sharp thrust in.

It nearly knocks the wind out of them both, Jinyoung’s lewd purring suddenly silenced, left gasping mutely. Jaebum is balls-deep now, buried all the way in, and the heat of Jinyoung’s tight embrace feels almost unbearable, overwhelming.

Jaebum scrambles against him, rolling him farther back, so that his ankles knock against Jaebum’s neck. The angle of it all shifts, and Jaebum nearly sings as he sinks in just a little further, a little deeper, a little warmer. Jinyoung feels molten — nearly too hot.

Jinyoung actually cries out with it, a sort of a sob, and he clutches at Jaebum’s thighs to slow him down, to let himself adjust. Body cranked back, he whimpers.

“Fuck,” Jaebum swears, the soft intensity of it overwhelming.

“You feel so good,” Jinyoung whines.

Jaebum takes this as permission to move again, and he eases back. The slip of himself through Jinyoung’s body leaves him delirious  — a liquid glide that seems unreal. Jaebum feels close to his edge already, and he has to take another moment just to focus on his breathing. Inhaling, as Jinyoung tentatively flexes around him, exhaling, as Jinyoung tries lifting his own hips to meet Jaebum’s.

And Christ, that’s too much. Jaebum’s grip on Jinyoung’s bottom slips, and he has to slam his hand down to the mattress to keep him up, huffing with the effort. “Fuck,” he repeats. He thrusts once, twice, smooth but sloppy as his knees slip against the mattress.

“Jaebummie,” Jinyoung whispers, straining as he grinds himself up along Jaebum’s cock. “Baby,” he purrs. “Please, more.”

Jaebum nods, hissing, but he manages to find his rhythm and his restraint, to pump gently into him again. The pace is grueling, Jinyoung gasping sharply as he nudges farther, harder each time.

“Please,” Jinyoung begs. 

Jaebum kisses him, to buy some time for himself.  It’s been a while, Jaebum thinks, since he let himself go. Even since he’d last fumbled, drunkenly into someone at a party. He’s almost embarrassed, but it’s not like Jinyoung has anything to compare him to.

But he’s asking — begging. For more.  Even his kiss is desperate, suckling Jaebum's lower lip into his mouth with loud, wet noises and gnawing down into it with a hum.

So Jaebum tugs himself upright and away again, biting down on his swollen lip as he draws back, and then slams into Jinyoung. He sets a brutal rhythm, hammering into him, hip bones bruising where they meet. Jinyoung can’t seem to speak. He’s just hiccuping out half of a breath at a time, nails dug into the bedspread beneath them.

The headboard shifts with their thrusts, and it bangs out a feverish staccato against the wall. Jaebum fucks into him mercilessly, chasing the blissful ring of pressure as Jinyoung contracts around him.

Jinyoung looks like he’s in pain, eyes screwed shut and jaw on edge, but he moans out loud like he’s being filmed. Like he’s never felt so good. And he pumps his hips up as best he can at this angle, curled back over on himself like a ragdoll.

Jaebum thrusts, watching Jinyoung’s expression for shifts and chasing after his most embarrassing expressions. When Jaebum lets one leg drop and slams Jinyoung’s other knee farther into his own chest, he’s rewarded with Jinyoung’s jaw hanging slack, tongue lazily tracing his upper lip as if he’s trying to literally savor the moment.

“Is it good?” Jaebum asks, grunting with effort.

“Fu —ck,” Jinyoung replies, shifting slightly to the side.

Jaebum takes that as a yes, and snaps his hips up so the head of his dick will drag more deliberately against his insides. He shudders with the thrum of flesh around him, and Jinyoung wails out loud.

“There—!” Jinyoung croaks out.

Jaebum slams back into him the same way again, and again, and Jinyoung screams. Jaebum’s condom-clad head catches sloppily against Jinyoung’s rim then, squelching out accidentally on too strong a thrust back.

Jinyoung reaches out blindly, body twisting in dissatisfaction as his ass clenches around nothing.

Hastily, Jaebum rolls him all the way over and spanks an asscheek. “Hips up,” he instructs, and Jinyoung obeys. If they’re going to set this pace, at this depth, it’ll be easier to take him from behind.

Jinyoung leans onto his elbows and presents himself, ass up obediently. It takes Jaebum another blink for the image to register fully, and then he spanks down hard on the same spot. It’s already pink and now it’s searing white, before settling into a deeper red.

“Baby,” Jinyoung whines over a sheet-creased shoulder. “Please put it back in.”

Jaebum slams back into him, grip bruisingly tight at his waist, nails scraping at the skin there. More lubricant spills down the back of Jinyoung’s thighs, and Jaebum smiles down at it as he pounds forward again.

The tempo is stupid now, a little too slick and the mattress squealing in protest. But Jinyoung’s whining in pleasure again, so that’s all that matters. And it feels like he’s blending them with each stroke now, like the heat of his cock melts further into Jinyoung’s being and they’re become something else. Something liquid, something bodiless. Like they’re pigments being mixed on a palette, spiralling into one another until the red and the white cease to exist on their own, and it’s just pink left behind. Decadent, glossy pink.

Jaebum gasps now, white flashing behind his lids as his balls tighten, and he senses himself teetering closer toward the edge of oblivion.

“Please,” Jinyoung is suddenly mumbling through his moans, and then his head is dropping into the bedspread, shoulders crushing forward with the weight of their insistent rocking.

He sends a hand back, and Jaebum watches those elegant fingers of his tugging a pastel cheek aside, and Jaebum’s rhythm falters for a moment.

“Please,” Jinyoung repeats, the thick pink of his lips just a blur against the white of the sheets. “Will you finish on me, hyung?”

And Jaebum nearly comes in that instant, throbbing as his fingers curl around his base to slow it, breath stuttering in surprise at the sudden request.

Jaebum almost whines out a question, drawing back a bit but hesitating still. And he throbs.

“I want to feel you,” Jinyoung says. “Wanna feel your cum on me. Bet it’s hot.”

And yeah, Jaebum thinks deliriously, that’d be perfect. Paint him white, where his pink bottom already blossoms red. Picture perfect.

So as he slips back inside of Jinyoung, he keeps a grip on himself, and then thrusts forward again.

It’s not long now, one hand still dug into Jinyoung’s waist so he can slide in and out of him exactly at the bruising pace he’s looking for. He pounds into Jinyoung’s wet embrace until he can see his thighs visibly trembling, knees slipping. He tightens around Jaebum even as he seems to struggle to keep his hips raised, one hand clenched under his head and another now frantically tugging at himself.

Jinyoung reaches his peak without any words formed. He’s just gasping and wobbling, chewing into the pillowcase, and Jaebum barely notices the drip of pearly cum as it falls to the sheets beneath them.

But he does notice Jinyoung’s ass as it slams back into him suddenly out of rhythm, the extra squeeze around the head of Jaebum’s cock on one of his strokes. And Jaebum realizes he’s nearly there as well.

And it’s so easy, slipping out of Jinyoung, tossing the rubber aside, and furiously pumping himself into oblivion. He’s been nearly there for so long, the fluid sensation of euphoria beckoning from just around a corner. And now, he feels it cresting — hot, pulsing relief that dribbles out over Jinyoung’s bottom. It spurts up all the way to the dimples in his back, and drags, sticky and obscene, down over Jinyoung’s already wet, swollen rim.

It’s an image Jaebum won’t soon forget.

Jinyoung sinks into the mattress, totally limp and exhausted. Jaebum drags trembling, awestruck fingers down the shape of his back, the curve of his waist. He’s still surprised, that Jinyoung wanted this with him. And he takes a little longer than he usually might, massaging into the overworked muscles in his back and murmuring praise into the flushed curl of an ear.

It’s afternoon, but they’ve left all the shades shut. Jinyoung’s spent form is illuminated by a dramatic swath of warm, bright light as it slips between the window frame and the edge of the curtains. It’s a white-hot stripe that cuts across flushed, sweaty skin, and it makes him looks especially naked. Especially vulnerable.

Jaebum steps away reluctantly, for a moment, to clean up.  He returns from the bathroom swiftly, to sweep a damp washcloth along the curve of Jinyoung’s bottom, dipping gently into the valley of his thighs. Time to clean up this abstract masterpiece they’ve made. 

Jinyoung lets out a sharp breath, and then he’s murmuring a soft sound of discomfort into a pillow. It’s the first sign he’s still alive.

“You might be… a little uncomfortable during the ceremony,” Jaebum says, a little bashful, glancing at the alarm clock on their nightstand.

Jinyoung lets out a small groan, rolling onto his back and then kneading his fingers into his hip. “Is it disrespectful?” He wonders, dramatically. “To show up to your cousin’s wedding, with a sore ass?”

Jaebum bursts into startled laughter. Jinyoung’s bright spots of dry humor leave him breathless, delighted. “It’s in the spirit of things,” he offers, settling down on an elbow beside him. “It’s the celebration of a union, after all.”

Jinyoung’s laugh rings out along with his, loud and stuttering, and Jaebum can’t help but realize it’s become one of his favorite sounds.

 

//

 

They’re almost late, but it’s because Jinyoung wants to loll about a little longer in bed, body curling around Jaebum’s, and not letting him up.

Finally, he agrees to a quick shower, and Jaebum manages to guide them through it with minimal distraction from Jinyoung’s playful fingers.

Jinyoung had said before he would just lend Jaebum one of his older suits. Jaebum had been obviously dubious about the fit, but Jinyoung had insisted it would be easy to get it tailored, and he’d cover the cost.

But Jinyoung’s trusted tailor had blinked at him in surprise when they’d visited, and explained it would save them time and money if they just fitted him for a new one. Jaebum’s eyes had blown wide, stomach plummeting at the thought of the cost.

But: “Oh,” Jinyoung had said dully, and Jaebum was certain this must have been his least convincing performance ever. “Then I suppose we’ll just have to get him a new one.”

And Jaebum had felt uncomfortable at first — but then he’d thought about how Jinyoung’s parents were technically footing the bill. He’d remembered how Jinyoung’s father had icily dismissed them as something that wouldn’t last, and had teased them about running out of money. So maybe he should take advantage of their investment, while he could.

Jaebum still feels a little uncomfortable in it now, but only emotionally, because he’d been opportunistic. Otherwise, it fits him like a dream. Jinyoung runs appreciative fingers across his chest, sliding along the silky trim of his lapels, down to the button at his waist. He looks at him hungrily, like Jaebum’s an especially appetizing dessert.

“You know, BamBam said…” Jaebum starts, and then cuts himself off with a sharp, embarrassed laugh.

Jinyoung raises his eyebrows, tugging him forward by his button. “What?” He asks liltingly, as their hips bump.

“He called you my sugar daddy,” Jaebum admits, drawing back to laugh.

Jinyoung giggles along with him, clasping a hand over his mouth to hide an ugly guffaw. Jaebum swats it away to find his whole smiling face, to drink in the sight of his whiskered eyes and his blushing cheeks. “But you’re the one with a kid,” he whispers, and Jaebum devours the words off his lips, kissing him out into the hallway now. They’re really going to be late soon.

“I guess I don’t mind that,” Jinyoung says as they part, door singing shut behind them. “If it means I get to show you off, like this.”

Jaebum grins across at him, eyes on his swollen lips. “You can do whatever you want with me,” he says, voice dipping low. Jinyoung reaches out to drag a hand down his chest again.

Another door jingles as it locks, and someone clears their throat awkwardly.

They glance next door and it’s Boyoung, descending into a coughing fit and looking wan, faintly traumatized.

“Oh,” Jinyoung says, pluckily. “Noona, you can come on down with us.”

Boyoung stays stiff as they approach her, and then she shoos them back with her purse, keeping her distance with a little frown. “Fine!” She says. “We can walk together. But please don’t speak for a bit. I’ve heard enough from you two, for a lifetime.”

Jaebum flushes, but Jinyoung just looks smug, collecting his hand in his own and strolling comfortably along. And while he’d thought Jinyoung had been joking about him showing him off, a moment ago, now Jaebum isn’t so sure. Tonight, maybe he is a bit of a trophy.

If he can symbolize any of Jinyoung’s independence, if he can help Jinyoung pry himself out of his parent’s little gilded cage, Jaebum is ready and willing. Jinyoung had supported him all throughout that awkward gala and more, without any complaint. So now maybe it’s time, for Jaebum to play his part.

 

//



Chapter Text

Jaebum had worried he’d feel embarrassed tonight, would be found lacking somehow. But Jinyoung is glowing, and he keeps sneaking little proud peeks at him.

Jinyoung maintains this smug, graceful aura even as Jaebum notices him taking shorter strides. And when Jinyoung settles into their seats for the ceremony, it’s with a tiny wince.

Jaebum kneads at his lower back when they shuffle from the garden to the patio for cocktail hour afterwards. He fetches them some drinks from a passing tray and turns back in time to catch Jinyoung shifting his weight from leg to leg.

“You doing okay?” Jaebum murmurs into his ear.

Jinyoung hums and leans into his touch, elbows up on a high table, hips jutting back. “I’m good,” he says, voice low.

Jaebum hopes he doesn’t look too obvious, hands tracing up and down his sides in some attempt at comfort. But he doesn’t think most people would guess there’s anything guilty about it. 

“We can leave a little early,” Jaebum suggests, and maybe it’s not purely selfless. A little less interaction with rich guests sounds good to him. “I can give you a massage.”

Jinyoung’s eyes narrow at him, smirking slightly. “What kind of massage?” He purrs.

Jaebum startles a bit, blinking at him in surprise. “Are you… aren’t you tired??”

“I didn’t expect it to be quite as full-body,” Jinyoung admits, quietly. “I mean — I knew my ass would be sore. But I’ve got pretty good thighs, you know.”

Jaebum nearly chokes as he tries to sip at his cocktail. “You do,” he stammers.

“But the way you had them cranked up to my neck,” Jinyoung continues as he straightens up. “That was... a lot.”

Jaebum’s embarrassed, glancing around bashfully. “Keep it down,” he says.

“You’re shy, suddenly?” Jinyoung asks, at full volume. “You don’t want people knowing how good you fucked me?”

Jaebum flounders for an answer, but a shrill voice cuts through the tension in the next moment.

“Jinyoung,” his mother calls out, and he and Jaebum snap to attention.

Jaebum’s stomach plummets. Oh, Jesus, he thinks frantically. He really hopes they weren’t overheard. Not being accepted by family is a burden he can bear, but he might be on track for an assassination.

But: “Come and take some photos with Jae,” Jinyoung’s mother says blithely, beckoning.

Jinyoung slips his hand into Jaebum’s and lifts it slowly. “With my date?” He asks.

Jinyoung’s mother purses her lips tightly, and visibly hesitates.

“Otherwise, I’m not interested,” Jinyoung says crisply, covering Jaebum’s hand with both of his on the tabletop.

“Jinyoung-ah,” his mother says, icily. “This event isn’t about you.”

Jinyoung bristles at the implication, and stands up a bit straighter. Jaebum keeps an arm neatly around his waist, jaw set on edge. He has no right to interrupt, least of all beg to be in a family photograph. But how long will they skirt around it? Will Jinyoung just no longer be invited to things?

“Then I certainly won’t be missed in the photograph,” Jinyoung says quietly.

His mother’s face sags now, looking tired. “Your own dear mother is requesting you,” she says. “Why don’t you just come over for a minute, and make me smile?”

“Eomma,” Jinyoung says, almost chiding. “Anyone else would be allowed to bring their date.”

Jinyoung’s mother is silent a while longer, and then finally offers a reluctant nod. “Fine,” she says. “Jae isn't one of my favorite nephews, anyhow. His photos aren’t that important.”

Jinyoung squeezes Jaebum’s hand triumphantly, even as he blinks in some offense, and they follow her back out toward the garden.

The crowd of family that’s gathered for photos across the stairs is large, and hums with activity. Few seem to even take note of them, although Jinyoung’s father does look thoughtful as they slide in beside Sooyoung and Seokjin.

Still, the groom notices after a few shots, and his lips curl into a slow smirk. “Oh my god,” he titters, “Jinyoung-ah brought a boyyyfriend.”

“Jaehyung,” his new wife scolds him, tugging at an elbow. “Don’t tease him.”

“Who’s teasing?” Jaehyung turns back to smile into the camera beside her, squeezing her waist. “I’m just glad he didn’t end up with Wonpil!”

And Jaebum is surprised he hasn’t noticed before, one of the groomsmen is Jinyoung’s friend from school. He slides suspicious, intense eyes across at Jaebum now, and Jaebum flushes a bit. The last time Wonpil had seen him, he’d been on his knees, begging for Jinyoung’s forgiveness.

But he breaks the heavy stare to give them a little sideways smile and a thumbs up, before promptly turning forward again. He must trust Jinyoung’s judgment.  

Jaebum lets Jinyoung proudly guide his hands to his hips for the photo, back fitting neatly to Jaebum’s chest. Jaebum hopes his smile looks natural, wary about spoiling someone’s most precious memories, even if Mrs. Park didn’t seemed to care.

Still, he can’t hold back the joy, the thrill of standing beside him like this. He’d felt this pride even before they were together, Jinyoung appearing like a vision for the gala. Like maybe Jinyoung was something too good for Jaebum.

And maybe he is, Jaebum thinks — endlessly forgiving, even when he’s playful and petty the next moment. So good. Too good. But maybe love isn’t about deserving. Maybe it’s not something earned.

The thought runs a shiver down his spine, and he tightens his grip at Jinyoung’s waist, face pressing in close beside his.

 

//

 

Dinner passes without much comment, thankfully. They share a table with both parents and siblings, but it stays terse and civil.

It’s as positive as Jaebum figures it will get for now. And especially after Boyoung had overheard them earlier, Jaebum wondered if she would rip into them about it. But she stays primly quiet, perhaps more concerned with propriety than Jaebum had anticipated.

Maybe more unfortunate for Boyoung, Jinyoung’s creeping hands make Jaebum think it won’t be any quieter later.

It stays peaceful, even as various guests are toasting and cheering. And later, as the lighting scheme shifts to introduce the DJ and encourage dancing, most of Jinyoung’s family flutters away to mingle with preferred company.

They’re soon left on their own, Jinyoung’s eyes glittering at him over their lingering plates of wedding cake.

Jaebum thinks, faintly, how much he’d like to just take off — he could just bolt into the crisp seaside air, away from the resort, until he can breathe easy. There’s a strange, stifling sense of anticipation here, even though Jinyoung has said nothing to set any high expectations.

So instead of running away, he tugs them over to the bar, for a cocktail. And for the moment, it’s enough to satisfy the itch in his spine.

Still, there are annoyances to surmount. Like Park Chanyeol, who sashays over to them now in a blue tuxedo that shimmers brilliantly under the ballroom lights. He sweeps up beside them and presses a polite kiss to Jinyoung’s cheek.

Jinyoung greets him cordially, but he covers his smile with a hand and looks a bit bashful.

Chanyeol looks expensive, Jaebum thinks bitterly, and then scolds himself for the sour taste. He and Chanyeol have no beef — he’d never really been a rival for Jinyoung after all, and in retrospect, Jaebum can’t help but admire his protective nature.

“So, what’s up?” Chanyeol asks Jinyoung, smiling slowly. “You haven’t kept me updated.”

Jaebum finds himself standing up a little taller, spine stiff as he shuffles closer to Jinyoung. He can’t stop his hand from possessively curling around his waist, under his suit jacket so he can find the flare of his hip bone.

Jaebum catches Chanyeol’s eyes blinking there and back up. Yep, Jaebum thinks, immaturely.

“You’ve brought a guest,” Chanyeol murmurs, looking Jaebum up and down.

“You’ve met Jaebum,” Jinyoung says. “I brought him because he’s my boyfriend. That’s usually who people bring, for wedding dates.”

Chanyeol strokes his chin for a moment, thoughtful. “So is this payback?” He wonders. “You’re parading him around, to freak out your parents? And it’s in return for pretending at that party, and at  Snowscapes?”

“No,” says Jinyoung, with a roll of his eyes. “He’s here because he’s really my boyfriend. We’ve been together for a few weeks.”

Chanyeol hums, but his smile hasn’t slipped. His face stays stiffly cheerful, eyes round and innocent as they shift to Jaebum again.

“Do you remember our conversation?” He asks. “And my stipulations?”

Jaebum nods slowly. Annoyed, his fingers dig deeper in Jinyoung’s hip, into his pocket, jostling him tight into his own side.

“Stipulations?” Jinyoung repeats, glancing between them suspiciously. “Is this what you two talked about when we checked out that day?”

“Yeah,” Jaebum says, jaw clicking. “Chanyeol-ssi said if I hurt you, he’d have that angry little concierge kill me.”

“I never said that!” Chanyeol cries out, hand going to his chest like he’s been wounded.

Jinyoung glances back at Jaebum, eyes questioning.

“Okay,” Jaebum says. “He used sign language.”

“Since when…” Jinyoung murmurs, arms crossing as he leans away. “Do either of you know sign language?”

A beat passes. An embarrassed Chanyeol finally makes a little finger gun and fires it weakly at Jinyoung.

“Ohh,” Jinyoung crows. “So you’re... five.”

“I wanted him to take me seriously,” Chanyeol whines and shrugs.

“So this is what you went with??” Jinyoung asks, pointing his own finger at him as his eyes crinkle with barely contained laughter.

“I took him seriously,” Jaebum says. “Or at least… I took Kyungsoo-ssi seriously.”

Chanyeol sobers a bit, gazing down into his glass contemplatively. “I meant it,” he says. “You know Jinyoung’s never brought anybody else around. This is a big deal.”

Jaebum nods, tugging Jinyoung closer again. “So I’ve been reminded,” he says. “His family is taking turns poking and prodding me about it.”

“I always thought they’d be tough on a boyfriend,” Chanyeol says. “His mom still scares me, and I’ve known her nearly my whole life.”

“Sooyoung is sort of the only one who likes him,” Jinyoung notes, finger tapping on Jaebum’s chest as he curls further into his embrace. “But he hasn’t run away, yet.”

Jaebum smiles down at him, both arms wrapping around his waist now. This feels good. Payback, like Chanyeol had hinted, but for how upset he’d felt over them at the gala. When Jaebum had tasted jealousy, without yet understanding it.

It’s been quite a journey, he thinks. From one ballroom to another, and now this relationship feels right. They stare at each other warmly in silence now, Jinyoung’s eyes gleaming up at his.

“Fake it til you make it, huh?” Chanyeol teases them.

Jinyoung clucks in disapproval and swats out at him, but Chanyeol chuckles and dodges it easily.

The music on the dance floor has picked up, and they watch in companionable silence as the crowd starts to fill out, churning with excitement. There must be over two hundred people here, Jaebum marvels. He isn’t sure he even knows this many people.

“May I at least have him for one dance?” Chanyeol asks, setting his drink beside Jaebum’s.

Jaebum raises his eyebrows at the suggestion, glancing at Jinyoung curiously. “I think that’s up to him,” he murmurs. 

“Of course it is,” Jinyoung says crisply, and then he’s fluttering away, hand in hand with Chanyeol.

And Jaebum nods emphatically, trying to keep his jaw relaxed, left alone for the moment.

The song is upbeat, not too heavy, as they slink onto the dance floor. Jaebum watches as they turn into one another, bopping along with matching smiles.

But then the DJ fades the track out, and there’s a rumble of bass, and it melts into a slower, synthesized groove. Chanyeol is suddenly looping arms around Jinyoung’s shoulders.

Jaebum tries to blink away the sharp prickle of irritation, tries to focus on just Jinyoung, rather than the shrinking distance between their bodies.

Jinyoung, Jaebum finally gets to see, is a very relaxed dancer. He’s not the most technically advanced, neither precise nor particularly fluid, but his hips rock to the rhythm and his arms cut graceful, frankly pretty shapes around him.

Jaebum’s jealous, watching Chanyeol shimmy along with him. It’s not even sexy, almost clumsy, knees nearly knocking.

But Jaebum doesn’t need to feel particularly possessive of Jinyoung’s knees. They’d been in his grip a few hours ago, after all. He’d felt the soft skin behind them, thumbs pressed into the flesh of the joint as he’d bent them back, driving forward.

That’s better than this, he assures himself.

But Jinyoung’s smiling too, laughing as Chanyeol releases him, peeling his jacket apart as if he’s stripping.

Well — Jaebum doesn’t need to watch, anyway. Pointedly, he looks away, and he immediately finds Wonpil’s laughing face a few tables away, Jisoo smirking beside him. She waves cheerfully.

Jaebum huffs and turns away, this time choosing to very specifically gaze into his cocktail, watching the bubble of seltzer fade away.

This song is awfully long, he considers, squinting up a beat or two later to find Chanyeol playfully bopping around as Jinyoung collapses into laughter. And well, they’re hardly even dancing anymore, so that’s an improvement.

Jaebum turns away again, fishing his phone out of his pocket to check if his mother’s tried to contact him.

But his inbox is quiet, and Jaebum fidgets back and forth between screens, restless and looking for a distraction.

Suddenly, there’s a notification from Instagram. PrdsRecords has posted. Jaebum raises his eyebrows, tapping it as his stomach flips.

He’d turned on notifications, after Jinyoung had been the one to let him know about the auditions.  And after he’d left them with his demo, Jaebum has been obsessively checking his email and all of their social accounts for any news of signing talent. They’ve all been pretty quiet, until now.

The app loads, and there’s a video teaser. Jaebum watches it loop three times, just a few short seconds showing clips from three different auditions. The artists seem confident, cool, different — and none of them are Jaebum.

Of course they’re not. Nobody had contacted him.

Ears ringing, Jaebum feels like he’s suddenly disconnected from his physical location. He can’t hear the tinny sound from his phone’s speakers over the boom of cheerful pop from the DJ, but nothing is really registering anyhow.

Had he really thought he’d make it? When had he become so arrogant? There was a lot of untapped talent out there, and just because Jaebum had been feeling more confident — bolstered by Jinyoung’s easy support and a sudden spurt of creative inspiration — that didn’t guarantee anything.

Jaebum shifts abruptly, locking his phone and jamming it into his jacket pocket again. He’s irritated at himself for feeling so disappointed.

This is fine. He’ll get a job, something more stable, something close to home. It’s better for Yugyeom anyway.

He’s in a stunning, expensive suit, he thinks, eyes tracking across the elegant crowd. So why does he still feel out of place? Why does he imagine they can see through his disguise? Like someone might accidentally hand a tray off to him for bussing the tables. Like everybody can tell this is a guy who flunked an audition.

The track changes again. It’s something silky now, R&B. He looks up to see Jinyoung smiling up at something Chanyeol is murmuring close to his ear, arms wrapped loosely around one another. Jaebum’s gut churns.

It’s been several songs, he justifies, striding over with a heavy brow.

He taps Chanyeol’s shoulder harshly, and they step apart with matching, peaceful smiles.

“You took too long,” moans Chanyeol. “Jinyoung must have stepped on my feet forty times. I thought we agreed to one song.”

Jaebum blinks in blank surprise for a moment, looking between them awkwardly. “I didn’t want to butt in,” he murmurs.

Chanyeol waves the words away. “I’ve danced with this dweeb at enough weddings,” he says. “I should really make myself look more available.” He spins and  gestures wide open arms at the rest of the dance floor. No one seems to take note. He slips away into the crowd.

Jinyoung smiles and creeps nearer to Jaebum then, fingers slipping into his front pocket to tug him in close. The rest of the dancefloor seems to dim, disappearing in his vision.

Jaebum feels the knot in his stomach unravel slightly, body relaxing as they bump into each other gently. Jinyoung curls a hand around the back of his neck, stretches up to press a delicate kiss to his jawline.

Then Jaebum’s anxiety doesn’t flutter away entirely, but he feels melty, eyelids drooping as he gazes down the slope of Jinyoung’s neck, where some delicate, lacy bruising peeks out from his collar.

Jaebum presses his lips over it, and Jinyoung’s breath hisses out sharply, folding further into his embrace. They sway slowly together, barely dancing.

“Hyung,” he whispers. “You weren’t jealous, were you?”

Jaebum nuzzles deeper still, instead of answering. His top lip scrapes over the edge of Jinyoung’s collar, teeth grazing the hickey gently. Jinyoung shivers in his embrace.

“You’re more than enough, hyung. You filled me up so good,” Jinyoung says, right into his ear. The plush curve of his mouth skims over Jaebum’s lobe, teeth gently clicking against some of his piercings.

Jaebum sighs in agreement, hands low on Jinyoung’s hips, moving them in time with his. They really had fit well, he thinks, and he can’t wait for that feeling again. The press of him from all sides, the heady abandonment of any other thoughts.

That’s what he needs, he thinks, fingers digging into Jinyoung’s sides. To stop thinking — about money, about Paradise, about all the stupid petty jealousy he’d put himself through without knowing the simple truth of Jinyoung’s crush — just for a moment.

Jinyoung’s body is a welcome distraction now. This rush of desire is an immediate shot of comfort, like the hot buzz of liquor.

Soothed, Jaebum lets their bodies roll with the rhythm of the song, humming soft and low into Jinyoung’s neck.

“Jinyoung-ah,” a stern voice cuts between them again, and Jaebum nearly chokes on his suddenly jackhammering heart, high in his throat again. Jinyoung reels a step away from his embrace and manages to summon up a charming, innocent smile to shoot at his father.

They shuffle off to the side of the dancefloor with him, Jaebum biting his lip to keep quiet.

“Appa,” Jinyoung chirps. “Are you having fun?”

“I suppose it’s been bearable,” his father says dryly, with a shrug. “Your aunt will stop talking about the planning, at least.”

“It turned out very nice,” Jinyoung offers.

“Jinyoung,” his father sighs. “Boyoung and I would like to talk to you, one more time.”

“Appa,” Jinyoung sighs, hands curling anxiously. “Can we please have one night — just one moment — where we don’t need to discuss the business?”

“Jinyoung-ah,” Boyoung appears at their father’s elbow, concern etched sharp in her rounded features. “You know exactly why we want to discuss it now.”

Jinyoung glances uneasily at Jaebum, and it sets him on edge. Is it because of him? Is he really such a repulsive prospect for their family business, Jaebum wonders, shifting uncomfortably.

“You know,” Jinyoung’s father says, considerably gentler. “We can’t control what you do. I know that now, more than ever. And we don’t want to do that, anyway.”

Jinyoung murmurs his agreement, but he looks suspicious still.

“We just want what’s best for you,” his father continues. “And even if that means you’re not a part of Park Air, and you don’t inherit in the way we intended you to, you’ll always be my son. And we’ll always be here for you.”

“But we need to talk,” Boyoung says. “We just want you to be sure about everything.”

Jinyoung looks contemplative, but he takes his father’s hand and squeezes it. “I’ll be back soon,” he says to Jaebum, who watches them wander down a hallway with a queasy stomach.

It’s not that Jaebum thinks it’s his fault. Jinyoung’s conflict with his family over his future has been brewing long before he was in the picture, and seeing the way it dominated family gatherings like their uncomfortable brunch made it clear it was deep-seated.

But he still feels a faint sense of guilt, especially under the eyes of Jinyoung’s parents, or Boyoung, who seem perfectly pleased to hold him accountable.

And besides Jinyoung’s family, Jaebum feels a sense of guilt towards Jinyoung as well. Becoming involved with each other at this time means Jinyoung would be going from leaning on family to leaning on Jaebum. Maybe not as a primary breadwinner, or a major decision maker, but certainly for support and companionship. And that’s sort of a frightening prospect.

Even if Jinyoung heads out truly on his own, Jaebum is scared of letting him down. If their relationship were to dissolve tomorrow, and Jinyoung was left in the dregs of his downgraded lifestyle, how could he not blame Jaebum? For tugging him out, too quickly?

It’s too soon to think about endings like that, Jaebum thinks to himself. And he can’t deny the opposing urge, deep in his gut, to tug Jinyoung even closer still. To envelop him in his own life, move him into his own apartment, to take care of him.

But isn’t that too soon? How would Yugyeom take it, for someone to suddenly become so central? Jaebum stows the thought away hastily. It’s too soon and probably too intense for Jinyoung, as well.

The rest of this ought to come slowly, naturally. Even if the start of their relationship hadn’t obeyed a typical timeline.

The music in the room shifts again, and Jaebum watches as Jaehyung himself jams out with Wonpil and some of his other groomsmen, serenading something sweet over by the head table.

Jaebum can’t help but admire the image, can’t help the bittersweet pinch in his chest. He can’t give anybody this experience — the expensive wedding, the sparkling diamond. But the sentiment still resonates with him. The desire to link someone’s hand with yours, forever.

It’s not as simple as that, Jaebum knows, and life will slip people out of your grasp if you think to hold on too tight. But of course there’s something handsome, something respectable about living a life by someone’s side.

Maybe he won’t be singing the songs he’d written for Jinyoung in a label’s studio any time soon. But if he still gets to sing them to Jinyoung, he can try to stay grateful. And maybe that could be enough for them.

 

//

 

Jinyoung takes a while, and Jaebum lights up when he finally seems him slip back inside.

“What’s up?” Jaebum greets him eagerly, lacing their fingers together. “Your sister always looks really serious.”

They stroll out to a segment of balcony, seeking out some more privacy. Jinyoung leans back against the stone balustrade, looking inviting.

“Just more of the usual,” he says, but he seems lighter than he had earlier, grin stretched wide and pearly.

Jaebum reaches out carefully and softly traces a fingertip over the wrinkles around Jinyoung’s eyes. “Your whiskers,” he whispers. “I like them.”

“Of course,” Jinyoung says slyly. “You like kittens.”

Jaebum flushes a bit, thinking of Jinyoung’s assurance he owned other costumes. “I like all kinds of things,” he says smoothly. “Don’t pigeonhole me.”

“Oh,” Jinyoung hums. “Just no pigeonholing, then.”

“Though… doesn’t that also sound like a fetish?” Jaebum asks, grin slipping sideways.

Jinyoung makes a falsely innocent face then, pretending to be appalled. “Im Jaebum-ssi,” he chides. “Not everything has to be about sex.”

Jaebum nods along with him, pressing closer so that he can cage his form against the balcony railing. “It’s just so easy,” he mumbles, leaning in. “To think about it, with you.”

Jinyoung hums in consideration, fingers slipping under Jaebum’s tie and tugging him forward even more. “I understand,” he says. “I keep thinking about it, too.”

“And you look so good,” Jaebum whispers appreciatively. “You know, you were always so pretty. It used to make me mad.”

Jinyoung looks surprised, both hands toying and twisting with Jaebum’s necktie now. It pulls tighter at Jaebum’s throat, and he feels a tickle of excitement trace down his spine.

“Mad?” Jinyoung asks, looping the sleek fabric around his long fingers. “Why would you be mad? I thought you barely noticed me.”

“I noticed, ” Jaebum assures him, nose bumping into his with another tug. He nuzzles forward into his cheek, savoring the shared puffs of hot breath against his lips. “And I thought you were too good for me. That kind of thing always got to me.”

“Well,” Jinyoung hums, voice dropped low. “Was I good, in the end?”

“Too good,” Jaebum rumbles, and captures his lips for a moment, pillowing them side to side for a moment as his breath quickens. “Just like I thought.”

“But you have plenty of time,” Jinyoung whispers, thick lips grazing across Jaebum’s. “To find out if I can be bad, too.”

Jaebum kisses him again, and Jinyoung tightens the tie a little more. Jaebum holds his breath, and when Jinyoung’s tongue slips warm along his upper lip, they pull apart with a smack and he’s left gasping for air.

Jinyoung’s hands abandon his tie then, wrapping around the back of his head to kiss him more deeply, nails grazing over his nape and the start of his scalp.

Jaebum relaxes into it, fingers dipping to pluck open Jinyoung’s jacket, to caress down his ribcage until he’s shivering.  

Jinyoung swipes his tongue up along the roof of his mouth, and Jaebum chases after it with his own, into the wet of Jinyoung’s mouth with a hum.

There’s a sudden snap of a camera shutter. Jaebum hasn’t been paying attention. It’s a wedding after all, so he’s vaguely aware of roving photographers capturing candid moments.

But this feels a little strange, embarrassing at least, and he and Jinyoung both stiffen and separate. They both scan across the balcony, and they spot a camera lens peering around the open doorway.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung murmurs softly, and then there are another rapid series of clicks as he squints back at Jaebum for a moment.

“Excuse me,” he calls out suddenly, toward the doors.

The hand holding the camera yanks backwards, but as it dips away Jaebum’s eye catches a little pink shimmer of a charm. Jaebum feels the gears in his mind start to grind slowly, grasping at just a shadow of a memory.

“Hey!” Jinyoung calls, wriggling away from him and bustling around the corner. He yanks back a young, startled man by his shirt collar.

Jaebum stares at the charm again now that he can see it in focus. A peach. Jaebum remembers it now — the watermark of Jinyoung’s fansite .

“Peach... Breeze?” Jaebum murmurs, stepping forward with a frown.

“How did you get in here?” Jinyoung snaps. “You’re crossing a line, sneaking in to take pictures of my family at a private gathering.”

“W-wait,” the photographer stammers, and Jaebum thinks he looks very young suddenly.

“I didn’t try to sneak in here,” he insists. “I—your cousin Jae hired m-my friend Seungmin, to take photographs. And I help him take B-roll or video at a lot of events, I swear. Just ask him! I’m on the website and everything!”

“Convenient,” Jinyoung says, but he releases his grip on his collar and steps back, eyes searching his figure suspiciously.

“You still can’t follow guests around this closely,” Jaebum says, moving up to put his shoulder between them. “You know we thought we were alone. Now delete those photos.”

The photographer fidgets, hands cradling his camera close to him protectively, as his eyes dart between them.

“Do I have to?” He whispers.

“What kind of question—?” Jinyoung growls from behind Jaebum, chest suddenly bumping into his arm with a sudden flare of irritation.

Jaebum keeps his elbow up, caging Jinyoung back. He’s right to be upset, but Jaebum is certain they’ll never attend another family wedding again if they start a fistfight on this balcony.

Anyway, the slender photographer looks dizzy, eyes shimmering and flitting around, intimidated and maybe a little regretful of his words already.

“Okay,” Jaebum rumbles. He steps forward again, trying to keep a tight smile on his face. “What’s your name, kid?”

The photographer glances back at Jinyoung, lip trembling slightly. He seems to crumple a bit. “Hyunjin,” he mumbles.

“Hyunjin,” Jaebum repeats, nodding, and stepping forward slowly. “I figure you must know — by now — I’m not like any of Jinyoung’s other friends. Right?”

The photographer still has trouble meeting his eyes, clearly confused. “What do you mean?” He asks. “Because you’re his boyfriend?”

“No,” says Jaebum lowly, taking another step. “Because I don’t stand to inherit some company. I don’t have a reputation to ruin. I wouldn’t end up in the news like they would. I can do whatever I want to you, and I will. If you get too close to Jinyoung, or anyone else I love, I’ll come after you.”

He’s close to the boy now, peering down into his face even as he tries desperately to look away.

“I’m not a creep,” says Hyunjin, shakily.

Jaebum frowns, unsure of how to respond. “I didn’t say that,” he says, after a moment. “But it is creepy to take a photo of us like this, of a private moment, and post it everywhere.”

Hyunjin’s eyes are on Jinyoung again, face flushed and pouting. “I wasn’t going to post it,” he says, quiet but urgent.

“Keeping that moment for yourself isn’t any better,” Jaebum says. “It wasn’t meant for anyone but us.”

Hyunjin looks queasy, shifting under the weight of his shame. “I didn’t — I didn’t think about it differently from the other photos I usually take of Park Jinyoung-ssi. I swear I didn’t realize I was… intruding.”

He pauses, taking an audible gulp as he runs a hand back through his hair. “I just — I see him, and I take a photo. That’s it. Like breathing. No thinking.”

“Then delete it,” Jaebum says, keeping his shoulder angled between them. “No thinking,” he repeats.

Hyunjin stares down at his camera sullenly, and then gives a reluctant nod. He flicks it back on and angles the preview screen toward them so they can see the page of thumbnails, and he deletes all of the balcony shots.

The rest of the photos look relatively harmless, featuring other guests, food, and details.

Hyunjin lets his camera hang limply after he’s shown them the entirety of the memory, and he peeks up at Jinyoung with soft, wavering eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking. It’s hard to turn that part of me off.”

Jinyoung looks uncomfortable as Jaebum turns back at him now. It seems like his anger has dissipated but he’s still unsure of how to respond. He tugs at his shirt collar nervously, and nods.

“Well,” he says stiffly. “You’ll probably have to turn it off more permanently from now on. I’m not inheriting at Park Air, so my shots aren’t going to get you the same attention.”

Hyunjin and Jaebum are both startled — Jaebum at how candid he’s being, so certain. Jaebum wasn’t even sure he’d made up his mind entirely.

And to blurt this out, to someone he barely knows? Although in some ways, Hyunjin has been a presence in Jinyoung’s public life a lot longer than Jaebum has, and knows the impact of this more intimately.

“Oh,” says the photographer. “Well… maybe they won’t get featured on the more popular blogs. But you know, your biggest fans will probably be pleased to hear it.”

Jinyoung frowns in response, tilting his head. “I’m not really worth the attention without the company,” he says. “That was the whole point of following me, wasn’t it? For the... heir fantasy?”

Hyunjin looks embarrassed still, offering a half of a nod. “Maybe at first,” he says. “Sure. But we want you to be happy. If... if that means anything, coming from me.”

Jinyoung looks taken aback, but he bows his head shortly. “Thank you,” he says. “It means a lot, right now.”

Jaebum is surprised by how neatly he reacts, bordering on warmth when a moment ago he was ready to fight this boy for spying on them.

But Jinyoung isn’t all rose petals after all. “Something that would make me even happier,” he continues, stiffening slightly. “Would be if you promised me you’d stop taking photos of me, entirely.”

Hyunjin’s lower lip trembles a bit, and he shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Has it been so bad?” He asks, quietly. “Was I really awful?”

And even Jaebum deflates a bit at these words, shaking his head along with Jinyoung.

“It’s been fine,” Jinyoung admits. “But it’d be better for you. And I’m trying to change my life, after all.”

Hyunjin’s sharp eyes dart over at Jaebum for a moment, fiddling with the strap on his camera.

“You’re running away with him?” He asks.

Jaebum sputters out a quiet laugh, raising his eyebrows at Jinyoung in amusement, but Jinyoung’s smile is more reserved.

“Not away,” Jinyoung says. “But I’ll be working with children soon, and Jaebum has a son I don’t want you to photograph. Just going into the next chapter of my life. And I’d like it to stay private.”

Hyunjin nods, biting down on his lip.

“You don’t have to promise me anything,” Jinyoung says, after a moment of tense silence. Both Jaebum and Hyunjin’s heads snap in surprise.

“It’s enough for me to know you know how I feel,” he continues. “And I’m sure you can imagine, there are other possible consequences if you continue. But I think — you can figure out what’s best.”

Hyunjin lets out a breath, shoulders sagging, and bows shortly, hastily. “I should get back,” he says. “To my real job.”

They nod and watch him rush off. And it’s strange, leaving it all up to someone’s decency like this. But Jaebum knows Jinyoung had thought the best of him, as well. And it had paid off in the long run. M aybe the benefit of the doubt can be the support a person needs, to make a better decision.

They linger on the balcony a little longer. Jaebum watches as Jinyoung’s confident façade twists and turns into a more vulnerable, curious expression, eyes softening.

Jinyoung stares at Jaebum silently, complexion shifting pale as his fingers twist with a cuff link on his opposite wrist.

“What’s wrong?” Jaebum asks, reaching out to nudge him back into his side.

Jinyoung’s eyes search his face, like he’s waiting for Jaebum to say something else. “Nothing’s wrong,” he says, after a beat.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d noticed—,” he starts, and then stops himself, face coloring prettily, pink dusting high along his cheekbones. “Nevermind,” he says gently, and squeezes Jaebum’s arm.

“Didn’t you want to dance?” Jaebum asks, taking his hand and looping it through his elbow. He leads them back into the shimmering spectrum of lights in the ballroom.

“I’d like to,” Jinyoung says. “But first, I need a drink. Or two.”

“A stiff one,” Jaebum agrees.

 

//

 

They spend too long by the bar, both indulging each other in extra shots. Jaebum can’t help but relish this as a rare, child-free evening. And while he might feel uncomfortable indulging in too much of Jinyoung’s wealthy family perks, he’s perfectly at ease with an open bar.

Jaebum slides his glass away from himself with a sigh, the cup slipping and twirling in a puddle of condensation. His stool is loud as he scoots it back, and he lets out a low, slow breath. They should take it easy. It’s a wedding, not a nightclub.

But Jinyoung’s already a little tipsy now, cheeks flushed as he pours himself off his own stool and nuzzles into Jaebum’s side, arms wrapping around him.

“Didn’t you want to dance?” Jinyoung echoes his earlier thoughts, lips stained with wine.

Jaebum bites his lip as Jinyoung pushes closer still, spinning Jaebum’s seat til he can settle neatly between his open thighs. Jaebum grunts at the closeness, their shared body heat seeping easily through their slacks, their systems already flushed and flickering with alcohol.

“If that’s what you want,” Jaebum agrees, and he slides forward to get to his feet, and Jinyoung doesn’t step back. He stays where he is, as Jaebum’s whole body drags down against his own.

And Jaebum feels it in his cock already, the sheen of his dress pants whispering as they slip against Jinyoung’s, soft bulges nudging ever so slightly.

“Easy,” Jaebum whispers, guiding Jinyoung back a step.

Jinyoung acquiesces, turning aside and heading for the dancefloor. The lights have gone low, the music softer but still pulsing, and it’s clear most of the older guests have cleared out and it’s primarily Jae’s friends still keeping the party going.

Jaebum follows Jinyoung as he leads them a winding path across the floor, until they find a corner that isn’t too crowded or brightly lit.

And then Jinyoung’s fingers slip off of his wrist and he twirls away, starting to sway, finding the rhythm on his own.

Jaebum watches, shoulders rocking to the beat as he waits for an advance or an opening, and it doesn’t take long.

Jinyoung backs into him now, hips gently rocking side to side. Jaebum watches, entranced by the rhythm, by the way Jinyoung’s slacks shift and bunch up around his thighs.

He’d watched this body move, so far away from him in the beginning, and he’d wanted it even then. Before he’d known, how precious the person actually could be. The sight is intoxicating now, overwhelming his senses as they bump into one another.

He can’t help himself, hand reaching out to curl around Jinyoung’s hip once more, sliding down over the top of his thigh where it flexes. His other arm wraps around his front, palm flattening firm against his belly, tugging him closer still.

And then Jinyoung is dancing against him, bottom brushing against the front of his pants, each swivel of his pelvis sending a shiver through Jaebum. They’re not quite grinding: they manage to keep it tasteful for the moment. But it’s warm and intimate.

Jinyoung winds an arm up and back, cradling Jaebum’s head. He twists his neck back to look into his eyes, and Jaebum’s heart nearly skips a beat.

It feels cheesy, cartoonish, like the Instagram filter where it goes all hazy and sparkly around someone’s face. But Jaebum is absolutely smitten by the look he finds there, Jinyoung’s lids low and lips parted.

Moved, Jaebum dips in close to nudge their lips together.

And maybe this is when it becomes a hair inappropriate. Jinyoung melts backs against him, mouth open to the kiss, fingers threading into his hair. There’s no space left between them, only the press of body on body, the crease of clothing, the hot insistent build of friction.

And Jinyoung’s hips — they’re closer now, too close, grinding out tiny circles into Jaebum’s groin. His ass isn’t huge, isn’t disproportionately remarkable. But Jinyoung knows how to use it — knows how to dress it and flex it and photograph it and rub it into his cock until he’s begging.

Jaebum thinks he’s seeing stars now, eyes shut to the rest of the world around them as Jinyoung works his soul out through his mouth. It’s a sweet, wine-stained kiss, saliva snapping between them as Jinyoung’s fingers knot into the back of his hair — too long, still. And his hips: falling, rising. Dragging his crack up and over the swell of Jaebum’s pants.

It’s almost too slow, but that’s just the torture of it talking, the hot press of an asscheek on either side of Jaebum’s hardening dick, softly nudging him this way and that. In fact, it’s right on rhythm, and Jaebum curses quietly as Jinyoung pulls back for just a moment to breathe.

“I can’t,” Jaebum whispers, but they’re rocking together still. Jinyoung’s other hand reaches back to press into Jaebum’s hip, to drive them deeper together. “I don’t think this will be very family friendly in a moment,” Jaebum says, voice hoarse.

“A stiff one?” Jinyoung whispers over his shoulder, and then they both chuckle, a refreshing slice of reality through the hot haze of arousal.

Jinyoung actually takes him by his tie, now. And Jaebum’s grateful for the shifting lights on the dancefloor, for the distraction from him resituating himself in his trousers and Jinyoung literally leading him away as if on a leash. But Jaebum barely has the time to be embarrassed, to worry about prying eyes.

Because then they’re in the blinding lights of a bathroom, Jinyoung pressing him into a stall and slamming him down on the shut seat. The door latches loudly as Jinyoung settles onto his lap, an arm around his neck, and then they’re kissing again, grinding again.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung says, quietly. “You feel so good, hyung.”

“Easy,” Jaebum chokes out, as Jinyoung straddles his thigh, hands clutching tight to his jacket.

“You know,” Jinyoung is gasping, nose brushing against his cheek between quiet giggles. “I almost packed my ears. Maybe I should have.”

Jaebum’s face flares up in heat beneath the innocent nudge, and then he’s blinking rapidly, hands settling at Jinyoung’s hips as he tries to hold him still. “What,” Jaebum stammers. “What do you mean? Your cat ears?”

Jinyoung hums agreeably as he pulls back, a cheeky grin dug into the pout of his lower lip as he looks down at where their hips meet. “Yeah,” he says with a soft exhale.

“Oh,” Jaebum fumbles with him for a moment, hands pressing down on his asscheeks, making him rock more insistently against him. “So you... like kittens, too?” He asks.

Jinyoung chuckles, waist winding as he drags himself up and down Jaebum’s tense thigh, slacks shifting and bunching with the friction. “Well,” he murmurs. “I sent you that picture, didn’t I?”

“I wasn’t sure,” Jaebum says. “If maybe it was totally innocent? And I was just a pervert.”

“Just testing the waters,” Jinyoung pants out, grinding down a little harder.

“Wonder what you’d look like with a collar,” Jaebum says after a moment, one hand trailing up to where Jinyoung’s starched white shirt stands in stark contrast to the flushed skin of his neck. Jaebum lets his fingers wrap around his throat carefully, thumb tracing over the jut of his Adam’s apple.

“That’s a little less easy to explain,” Jinyoung says, humming still. Jaebum feels the vibration in his thumb. “If one of the kids were to find it. But I’d like to see it, too.”

“Just..” and Jaebum shifts Jinyoung’s position slightly so he can angle his leg up slightly. Jinyoung’s form slides farther forward with gravity and he yelps slightly as they press chest to chest. “Say it’s for Halloween,” Jaebum says, grinding up to meet his thrusts more evenly.

“Settled,” Jinyoung says, impatient. “Just touch me now, please.”

And Jaebum lets the hand he had around his throat stroke down, scrabbling hastily along Jinyoung’s chest and belly until he palms at the bulge in Jinyoung’s pants. He cups him firmly, and watches in surprise as Jinyoung rocks away from the touch, moan breaking in half.

“No,” Jinyoung pants out, “I’ll come too fast. Touch my ass.” Fingers trembling, he guides Jaebum’s hand around under his jacket, pressing intentionally at his waistband where it tugs away from the small of his back. It’s damp with sweat here, from their earlier dancing and now their furious grind, and Jinyoung’s shirt sticks to his skin a bit as Jaebum yanks it untucked.

Jinyoung unbuttons his slacks around front to help Jaebum fit his hand down the back. Then they’re both letting out a little groan of relief as Jaebum’s thick fingers trace down around the curve of Jinyoung’s ass, dipping toward the crack.

Jaebum doesn’t notice the bare expanse of Jinyoung’s asscheek as being unusual until he gets to the delicate lace he finds in the center. He’d given no thought about how there’s no thick elastic band of briefs, no jock straps, until here.

And then he’s jolting Jinyoung farther upright in his lap, peeling the fly of his trousers apart as his other hand grabs onto the waistband and tugs a corner of his panties out for them both to see. A soft peach color. Soft swirls of floral lace in the front and tied up with a bit of criss-crossing ribbon in the back. And all of Jinyoung’s hot, throbbing erection, struggling to stay restrained.

Jaebum lets out a low, shaky moan, pressing Jinyoung closer to him as his hand dips back down around his back. Then he’s kissing him frantically, lips sliding wet and hungry together as his middle finger dips down under the line of the thong, finding Jinyoung’s asshole still swollen and pulsing hot from earlier.

Jinyoung whines into his mouth, lifting up so Jaebum can slip his finger inside, two knuckles deep. Jaebum’s a little nervous about how sensitive he must still be, but then he’s bouncing against it, movements small and infuriatingly slow but steady, determined.

The kiss grows sloppier, Jinyoung suckling at Jaebum’s Cupid’s bow, Jaebum’s teeth scraping slightly over his chin. They’re both growing impatient, crowded in the tiny stall and entirely too hot and overly dressed.

“Jinyoungie,” Jaebum grunts, “I wanted to see you — I want to see you in these. I want to see all of you.”

Jinyoung moves back to try and tug his pants down further but Jaebum clucks scoldingly against his mouth, shaking his head. “Let’s go back,” he whispers, pulling his hands out of Jinyoung’s slacks and cradling his face instead. “Let’s just go back to the room.”

“Are you gonna fuck me again, hyung?” Jinyoung mumbles hazily, words familiar as Jaebum’s carefully tipping him off his lap and getting them both to their feet. Jinyoung’s movements are shaky, a little sloppy, and Jaebum waves his hands away to zip him back up, tuck him back in, and get them both straightened out together.

“If that’s what you want,” Jaebum says again, into his neck for one more gentle nuzzle. “If that would feel good. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Jinyoung nods, trembling under his touch still as Jaebum unlatches the stall.

It’s a whirlwind back to the room, then. Jaebum had done his best to make them presentable, and at least no one blinks an eye. Not in a hotel, when many guests are here for the same reason. Still, the lights are harsh in the hallways and the elevator, and Jinyoung fidgets against him restlessly until their door is slamming shut behind them.

“Do you think you can stay quiet?” Jaebum rumbles, pressing him back toward the bed, steps wobbling as Jinyoung’s tugging at his belt already.

“Why?” Jinyoung wonders.

“Your sisters, next door—!” Jaebum whispers, as some of the buttons on Jinyoung’s shirt go flying in his haste to slip it off his shoulders.

“They’ve both had a very easy life,” Jinyoung assures him. “They can ask for some fucking earplugs at the front desk and get over it, for one day.”

Jaebum’s laughing into their kiss, captivated as always by Jinyoung’s easy conversation. But then he leans him back as his face grows darker, serious.

“I want to taste you first,” Jaebum says, now. “Just one bite.”

And then he’s tipping Jinyoung back into the bed, mouth working down his chest.

Jinyoung’s body unravels, exposed across the bedspread as Jaebum tugs his pants off. Then Jaebum drinks in the sight of him: broad shoulders and lean muscle tapering into this low waistband, red cock still straining through the peach fabric. It’s a vivid image, of lace and sweaty skin, the dark shadows of Jinyoung’s pubic hair, and a twitching, swollen head poked up under the elastic.

Jaebum doesn’t hold back, settling his mouth over the shaft without peeling back the panties, suckling hard at his pretty package as Jinyoung writhes underneath him. Sideways, he slides his mouth up and down, wetting the fabric with his spit until the drag is easier.

Jinyoung whimpers, restless beneath him at the prickling of the floral stitching, impatient to be naked. “Baby,” he says, “baby, take them off.”

Jaebum ignores his plea, but he does sink his lips down over the flushed tip of Jinyoung’s cock, drawing slowly on and off with his lips apart so his spit dribbles out thick and steady, panties soaking. And then he closes his lips around the head, sucking hard while his tongue flicks swiftly across the slit.

Jinyoung cries out at the sensation, neck straining to stare down in wonder. He digs his nails into Jaebum’s scalp, tugging desperately to lift him off.

Jaebum relents then, mouthing more gently back down the front of his underwear. He nuzzles along the outline of Jinyoung’s length until he can stretch his jaw around the sway of his balls, and he sucks at them lazily while Jinyoung scuttles under the dizzying stimulation.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung pants, “please, take them off.”

But Jaebum nuzzles further still, fingers pressing gently behind Jinyoung’s knees until he’s rolling them up toward his chest again. Jinyoung lets out a creaky groan, these muscles still sore from their first round, and Jaebum moves nimbly, more carefully.

He drags the point of his tongue down along Jinyoung’s taint now, flattening once he finds his asshole through the thin fabric. He can feel his pulse thrumming here, the heat of anticipation curling through them both as he shifts softly against him. He laps gingerly here for a while, Jinyoung shifting and sighing as his fingers scramble in the sheets like he’s plucking his way through a complex melody on piano.

“Ple~ase,” Jinyoung murmurs, hips lifting with his voice.

Jaebum lets a finger curl under the thong, prying it back, and then he presses his face in close, tongue really touching down along his rim. And the contact is electric, the soft sensation such a contrast from the numb rub of fabric, Jinyoung’s hips buck again as he yelps out loud.

“That nice?” Jaebum whispers against the damp skin, tongue wriggling into him once more.

Jinyoung gives a shrill whine now, high-pitched and needy. Jaebum curls another hand under the panties and nudges his middle finger in alongside his tongue, the molten heat sending a shiver down his own spine. Jaebum gasps, short and sharp against Jinyoung’s hole, and it elicits another keening wail.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung’s panting still, legs kicking out and knocking wide apart, hands stroking down his own hips. He even hooks his thumbs into his panties and wriggles, trying to escape their restrictive embrace.

Jaebum draws back then to watch him struggle, lets him tug them down over his thighs. Jinyoung’s breath gives out partway, looking wrecked already as he flops back, fingers still tangled in the lace.

“Alright,” Jaebum agrees, amused, slipping them out of his clutch and down the length of his legs. They’re damp still, a little stretched out. And now, Jinyoung’s completely bare, his chest still heaving with short breaths, eyes hot on Jaebum’s form.

“Let me,” Jinyoung’s whining again, and then he’s up on his knees, drawing Jaebum into another smoldering kiss. And it’s salty, wet with sweat and the musk of his own taste. But Jinyoung laps it off Jaebum’s lips like he’s thirsty for it, lets him spear his tongue into his mouth as he yanks Jaebum’s shirt off his broad shoulders.

And then Jinyoung’s turning them, twisting Jaebum onto his back and clambering up his legs, tugging his slacks and briefs away so he can palm his length. Then he’s straddling his lap and rocking into his groin again, ass moving like a velvet caress along Jaebum’s erection.

“Can I ride you?” Jinyoung asks, voice hoarse. “I want to see what it’s like.”

Jaebum shudders involuntarily, body already gone weak at the prospect. He manages a nod, chin digging low into his collarbones as he watches Jinyoung stroke himself against his cock.

“Lube,” Jaebum reminds him, throat feeling thick.

“I know,” Jinyoung mumbles, lips pouting. Jinyoung’s reaching across him to the end table, and Jaebum sits up to help him reach.

It’s similar to their position in the bathroom, and it’s intoxicating to be so close to Jinyoung while their bodies touch like this, jammed so tightly into one another’s space.

Jinyoung’s fingers fumble with the bottle now, cap clicking open and shut a few times until he’s able to spill it into his palm. Then he’s stroking his fingers into the puddle, breath fluttering nervously as his focus narrows to this messy task.

Jaebum kisses his eyelids then, overwhelmed suddenly by affection, by a twist of grateful sentiment. He wishes he could express his feeling more accurately. More genuinely. He cares for this person. So deeply, so curiously. He wants to follow his push, his pull, the intriguing sparkle of his personality wherever it will take them.

Jinyoung blinks at him in some surprise at the gentle gesture, and then lewdly maintains their eye contact as he reaches behind him and slides three fingers into himself.

They both groan with the effort, Jaebum’s breath punching out of him as Jinyoung’s head tips back and his lips part.

“God,” Jaebum whispers, mouth moving to his bared neck, “be careful.”

Jinyoung’s throat vibrates with a low hum, and then his hips lift up slightly, rocking back against his hand. “Hyung,” his voice exhales like it’s just a breath, airy and soft.

Jaebum’s lips pluck off of his Adam’s apple, peering up at his faded expression in question.

“Did you notice?” Jinyoung asks, lifting up and down more insistently, arm moving tensely as he stretches himself open.

“Notice what?” Jaebum asks, bucking ever so slightly against him.

Jinyoung nearly whimpers at the action, eyes screwing shut for a moment. “Earlier,” he gasps out after a beat. “When you were being tough for Hyunjin-ssi.”

Jaebum sniffs out a half of a laugh, but then he nearly chokes on it as Jinyoung’s sticky fingers wrap around his erection suddenly.

Jinyoung’s eyes are open again, and they both stare down at Jaebum’s cock, watching as he settles himself over it, breath slow and rhythmic in anticipation. Then he grips a firm hand at Jaebum’s shoulder and slams himself down.

Jaebum really chokes then, the sudden liquid hot sheath of Jinyoung’s body around him utterly astounding. And even as familiar as it is, only a few hours after their first coupling, it’s still brand new. The angle of it, the strain of Jinyoung’s thighs around his own, the way Jinyoung’s abdomen flexes with each movement.

“You said something,” Jinyoung says softly, and he lifts himself up every so slightly, the drag up off Jaebum’s dick paralyzingly slow. Then he slides down just as slow, fingernails digging into Jaebum’s neck to keep steady.

Jaebum groans, wanting so badly to buck up against him but he’s too tight, still. He’d just fucked him open, wet and wild only a few hours ago. But he needs too be cautious now, and he’s so inebriated on these sensations he can barely follow whatever Jinyoung’s talking about now.

“What did I say?” Jaebum presses, voice hoarse. “I don’t know, baby.”

Jinyoung moves himself up and down again, the glide a bit smoother now, but his insides are molten, rippling.

Jaebum’s breath stutters, heart skipping a beat as he realizes. This is too vivid, the heat too intense.

“Jinyoung,” Jaebum murmurs, just as Jinyoung says: “Hyung,” and the words melt together as Jinyoung gives a test bounces up against him, lube squelching out loud.

Jaebum’s groan is enormous, booming through the quiet hum of the room, and he latches his fingers hard into Jinyoung’s waist to steady him again.

“I’m not wearing a condom,” Jaebum gasps out, and Jinyoung’s eyes shake in surprise.

“You—,” and Jaebum can tell Jinyoung hadn’t expected him to say that, was ready to say something else already. “Oh,” Jinyoung murmurs.

“Doesn’t it feel good, though?” Jinyoung asks instead, hips moving again, and then he’s getting more confident in his movements, more comfortable with the bounce, back arching slightly as he rocks up and down.

It’s Jaebum’s turn to whimper now, and he can only hold onto Jinyoung’s waist, can only gaze up at him, eyes glazing over.

“Feels good,” Jaebum whispers in echo, breath slipping again as Jinyoung fucks himself harder, soft thighs slapping against Jaebum’s own. “But is this okay, with you?”

Jinyoung’s slamming back down again, teeth dug tight and insistent into the flesh of his lower lip. “Yes,” he whispers, “yes, baby. It’s so good. I’m clean, and you—!”

“Me too,” Jaebum breathes out.

“And you,” Jinyoung continues as his eyes slip shut, bouncing feverishly in his lap. “You don’t have to worry about any accidents,” his lips are curled, smiling.

Jaebum groans, half in laughter and half just fucking groaning, because Jinyoung’s ass is still slamming into him so hard and hot and tight. He’s taking him so well, one hand at his neck and the other touching himself, and it’s so hot, Jaebum can barely remember what they were talking about only an instant ago.

So Jaebum lets himself forget, lets his thoughts go quiet again as he starts to thrust up to meet Jinyoung’s movements. And he lets himself smile, lets his own eyes shut as Jinyoung cries out in response, body going a bit floppy with the force of it.

And they’re really slapping into each other now, Jaebum’s length dripping wet as it spears up into him, Jinyoung’s ass clenching tight, knees slipping in the sheets.

Jaebum flips them over then, suddenly impatient with the pace, frantic as it may be. He fucks down into Jinyoung instead, presses his back flat into the bed as Jinyoung groans out in relief. His knees flop apart, thighs already exhausted from his effort. Limply, he still raises his hips to meet Jaebum’s thrusts, and they move together in waves.

“Hyu-hyung,” Jinyoung says, voice very small as Jaebum plows into him.

Jaebum barely hums in response, moving his chin down so he can slide his lips sloppily across Jinyoung’s, more of a caress than a kiss.

“You said,” Jinyoung cries out. And Jaebum’s brain barely clicks back into place for their conversation. “You said, you—!”

And Jaebum slams his cock into him, lube spurting down their thighs from the cram of it, and Jinyoung squeals.

“What are you talking about?” Jaebum pants absently, thrusts quick and shallow again, feeling his release hurtling towards them now. Jinyoung’s ass is spasming around him already, and soon they’ll both be brainless, liquid as they unravel into one another.

The friction is exquisite here, at the end, Jinyoung’s ass squeezing every ounce of pleasure out of him. Jaebum pumps into the pulsing heat of it, excited to watch Jinyoung’s expression as he comes inside of him.

And then Jinyoung’s coming, scrambling up against the sheets with a sputter of surprise, voice breaking as he spills between them. And that’s enough, Jaebum can barely keep up his thunderous pace as he feels Jinyoung’s whole body contracting with the force of his orgasm.

Jaebum grips his thighs, grinds himself further forward, deeper between Jinyoung’s legs and lets go, face burying into his neck with a whimper at each spasm. A sigh, and another spurt of cum. A gasp, and another, and then he draws his hips back, and Jinyoung wails at the sensitive drag of his head against his insides, the mixed gush of fluids at once bizarre and arousing.

After some whispers of comfort, Jaebum slowly separates them, and flops beside Jinyoung in a matching, sticky daze.

Jinyoung curls toward him with a whimper, a sigh, fingers reaching out immediately to find Jaebum’s own. And then it feels strange, to hold hands while they’re both still so sensitive. But it’s reassuring, to feel Jinyoung’s pulse fluttering in his palm, matching Jaebum’s own frantic pace.

“What did I say?” Jaebum whispers after a few minutes, once his breath has steadied out enough for a whole sentence again.

“You said,” Jinyoung says in a slow murmur, eyes still shut as he takes another deep, trembling breath. “Anyone else I love.”

Jaebum frowns a bit, head still feeling foggy and not quite catching on. Pillow talk isn’t usually this puzzling, is it? “When I talked to Hyunjin? Yeah,” he says. “So he wouldn’t take pictures of Yugyeom, or my parents or whatever.”

Jinyoung’s eyes finally lock with his, clearer now, and tender.

“Hyung,” he whispers. “You feel that way about me?”

And then it clicks into place. He’d placed Jinyoung at the same level as his most precious family members. And he’d said it so easy. A word he didn’t throw around every day. A word he’d had trouble even admitting about the mother of his child.

Love. Was that what this was?

And it frightens Jaebum swiftly, breath seizing up at the thought. Because it’s almost too clear, and fully realized. Completely undeniable.  It’s not performative — dressed up for an ex-girlfriend or a short film. It’s just what they’ve become, by accident or design. It’s just how they are, now.

In love. With Park Jinyoung.



Chapter Text

“Hyung,” he whispers. “You feel that way about me?”

Jaebum stays silent, even as his mind races. Even as his heart seems to pick up speed after skipping several beats. He’s in love with Park Jinyoung, but what does that mean?

“Oh,” Jinyoung sniffs into his hand then, and Jaebum blinks in faint alarm at how easily he takes Jaebum’s silence. “This is kind of embarrassing,” he hums.

“Yah,” Jaebum scolds him, face flushing. “I know you haven’t been in a relationship before, but isn’t this supposed to be kind of a sensitive conversation?”

“I was just curious,” Jinyoung says, wriggling closer on the mattress, leg slinging over his waist possessively. “I wasn’t sure if you’d even noticed what you said. You don’t have to say anything you don’t mean.”

Jaebum hesitates again, unsure how to parse his thoughts. He’s definitely in love with him. Obviously in love with him. And maybe he’d even given the secret of it away, a little bit.

But if he spoke those words out loud, where would it take them? Would it pressure Jinyoung to say it back? Would that even be real, for Jinyoung?

Jinyoung, who had after all had giggled while accusing him of it, like he wasn’t impressed at all. Like he’d expected this confession all along. And maybe he had, since he was so used to collecting adoring fans, in real life and on the internet.

And sure, Jaebum is a different case, and Jinyoung likes him back. Sharing a hotel bed after his family’s event, covered in sweat and dripping with Jaebum’s cum, Jinyoung had certainly committed.

But wasn’t this going a little fast?

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Jaebum says, trying to sit up.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung says, softer now, and he presses back against Jaebum’s waist with his leg, keeping him in place. “Wait a moment. I’m not making fun of you.”

“Okay,” Jaebum manages to bite out.

And Jaebum understands why Jinyoung might want to hear it. Why he wants to feel it. He’s his first boyfriend, after all. It’s something he’d be looking for, be waiting on. And while they’re being intimate, it’s natural to feel a little needy.

Maybe it’s even magnified with the added pressure of the wedding, and Jinyoung’s judgmental family being around. He wants their relationship to be serious, to be worthy.

But Jaebum can’t say it right now, even if he was forcing himself. The lump in his throat feels too sharp, too great to speak around.

“Let me clean you up,” Jaebum whispers again, and his voice cracks even through these words. He brushes Jinyoung’s hair off his forehead, cups his face in his hand and offers him a crooked smile. It’s the best he can do.

Jinyoung lets him go, and then Jaebum cleans himself off in the bathroom. He blinks at his hapless expression in the mirror as he wrings out another washcloth to prepare for Jinyoung, and he’s reminded of how he felt when Yugyeom was born.

He’s terrified. But it’s such a big feeling of fear, so wholly overwhelming, that he can barely connect with the body he sees in the mirror. And so his hands stay steady, even as he comes back to bed and towels Jinyoung down very gently. His heart doesn’t race, his spine isn’t tense.

Jaebum feels like he’s been switched into autopilot, like his body has taken over out of some kind of survival instinct.

Jinyoung stays quiet beside him when he returns from discarding the wet towel and shutting the light off. He looks nervous and regretful for bringing it up.

Jaebum kisses his forehead firmly, scoops his body closer to his and nuzzles into his neck. He can’t give him an answer at this moment, as real as his feelings are. So he holds him close and hopes Jinyoung would be able to feel them in some other way. Just for now.

Their relationship is still in a delicate place — both in timing and in Jaebum’s own heart.

 

//

 

It’s early in the morning hours when Jaebum wakes again. The hotel room is still dark, except for the unnatural glow of an alarm clock.

Jaebum stares at it for a while, watching the numbers shift for ten minutes. He hears Jinyoung’s own breathing change, feels his body stirring beside him.

Jinyoung curls his knees up, shins nudging into his side as he squeezes around Jaebum’s arm. Bleary eyes blink up at him, and Jaebum can hear each miniscule flick, in the dead of the night.

Jaebum peers down at him, skin looking blue in this lighting.

“Are you thinking too much?” Jinyoung whispers, skirting around the specifics.

Jaebum bites his lip, turning back away. Maybe he is. A beat passes in silence, the slow hum of the air conditioning and their steady breath casting a comfortable blanket over both of them.

It feels safer now than it had with the fluorescent lights on. It feels like he might be able to explain.

“You know I can’t give you anything like this,” Jaebum says. “A big wedding. A block of hotel rooms.”

Jinyoung looks startled, eyes round as he seems to search Jaebum’s face for clarification. But Jaebum keeps his eyes on the ceiling, nervous to confront this reality again.

It’s one thing to date, he thinks, and another to commit. He doesn’t want Jinyoung taking this kind of comfort for granted, and expecting it will just happen. Especially now, when he has to refocus and find a job to settle down with. Especially now that his silly daydreams of recording music have gasped their last breath.

“I’m not looking for all this,” Jinyoung says softly. “Not now, and maybe not ever.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get anywhere close,” Jaebum admits.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung insists. “I’m not looking for anything close to it. I want to do things our own way.”

Jaebum finally turns back to him now, finding his dark eyes, round and gleaming with sincerity.

“I didn’t make the cut at Paradise,” Jaebum whispers.

And it feels as raw as he expected it to, as abrupt and sharp as yanking a bandage off a wound.

But Jinyoung merely blinks at him in surprise, shifting to prop up his head on an elbow. He doesn’t startle as deeply as Jaebum had imagined he would.

Instead, he peers into Jaebum’s face neutrally. “They called you?” He asks.

“No,” Jaebum lets out a bitter scoff. “They posted their picks to Instagram. A teaser video.”

“Hyung,” Jinyoung murmurs, fingers making gentle circles against his breastbone. “You have a great demo now, at least. You can send it to other labels.”

Jaebum sighs, begrudgingly acceptant. “I guess,” he says. “But I think I should focus more energy on real jobs in the meantime.”

“Real?” Jinyoung asks. “This wasn’t just a figment of your imagination.”

“But I’m a dad,” Jaebum says. “I can’t take care of Yugyeom with empty ambitions.”

“There’s nothing empty about your voice,” Jinyoung says. “Or your songwriting. And maybe Paradise just wasn’t the right fit.”

Jaebum nods slowly but he’s already been racking his brain for local places he should apply to, besides his major-related areas. It’s useless right now, but he can’t stop the way his mind rattles off in moments like this: the cafe Youngjae works at, Mark’s family restaurant, the convenience store by Peachtree.

Suddenly thinking of Peachtree Grove, he peeks at Jinyoung curiously. “What about you?” He asks. “Decided on anything for after school?”

Jinyoung rolls the fat of his lower lip between his teeth, and he seems concerned.

“I don’t want you to freak out,” he says.

“Freak out?” Jaebum repeats. “Why would I do that?”

“Because you seem nervous already,” Jinyoung says. “About what’s going to happen.”

And Jaebum feels naked, careful attitude peeled expertly back by Jinyoung’s sharp eyes. He’s right. Jaebum is already freaking out.

“It’s natural to be nervous,” Jaebum whispers.

“It is,” says Jinyoung. “But now that I’ve decided to sell my company shares, I won’t have as much to fall back on. I can’t help you two the way I could have, otherwise.”

Jaebum’s brain stutters, wheezes at the casually dropped information.

“You sold… what?” He asks.

“My shares,” Jinyoung says. “I’ve arranged to sell them to Boyoung. I had our family lawyer set the proposals up and he just informed her today. It’s what we spoke about with my father, earlier.”

Jaebum blanches. No wonder Boyoung was looking so serious earlier.

“Is that… it?” Jaebum asks. “You’re out of Park Air forever?”

“Soon. In a significant way,” Jinyoung says. “Of course I still have some accounts with my parents, but my father promised… or threatened? To close everything out as soon as possible, if it’s what I really want.”

Jaebum feels dizzy. Here they both are, diving headfirst into a sea of uncertainty. And sure, they’re together. But shouldn’t at least one of them have an idea of what to do?

“And I do want that,” Jinyoung is saying, eyes tracking Jaebum’s array of expressions. “I want to be on my own. For real.”

“Your apartment…” Jaebum murmurs, and Jinyoung nods solemnly, his hair shifting against Jaebum’s naked shoulder with the movement. Jaebum shivers.

“And probably my car,” Jinyoung acknowledges. “And a lot of things I’m used to.”

“Did you — have you spoken to Sooyoung?” Jaebum asks. “Is Peachtree still something you’re interested in?”

“I did,” Jinyoung says, softly. “And I’ll be starting there soon, though she wouldn’t let me just wash dishes. And she said I can stay with her and Seokjin & Jungkook for a little bit, until I get on my feet. I have a little of my own savings, of course—!”

“No,” says Jaebum, before he can stop himself, “don’t do that.”

Jinyoung doesn’t immediately respond, and when Jaebum glances down at him, he sees Jinyoung’s eyes sliding away, wary.

“You can stay with us,” Jaebum blurts out, voice low.

It’s Jinyoung who stays quiet now, like Jaebum had done earlier. Jaebum watches his fingers pluck repetitively at a loose thread in the duvet.

“I don’t know,” Jinyoung says, and his voice wobbles airily, breath fluttering in his chest. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, just yet.”

“You need a place to go,” Jaebum says. “I have one. It’s a good fit.”

Jinyoung bites his lip. “I have a place to go. And you haven’t talked to Yugyeom about us yet,” he says. “And even if you do, soon, I think the timing of it all would be too harsh. I don’t want to sweep into his life and shock him.”

“You’re really good with him,” Jaebum says, but he feels like he’s pushing too hard at something that won’t budge.

“We get along very well,” Jinyoung says, words careful. “But I want him to know the truth. And to be happy with it. Don’t you?”

And it’s not the first time Jaebum has considered this. But it still feels strangely vulnerable.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s…” And then he surprises himself. By saying what he’s thinking: “It’s a little scary.”

Jinyoung nods, and Jaebum feels the nudge of it against his own chest. Contrasted with the nervous beat of his own heart, it sets a stressful stage for thoughts of their future.

Jaebum knows it doesn’t all depend on Yugyeom’s reaction. But the importance of it hangs heavy over the golden, glistening highs of their honeymoon feelings.

Jaebum and Jinyoung will never be totally average.

But Jaebum can’t help but punch through to find some optimism — can’t help but hope whatever they are might be what he and his son need.

 

//

 

The next weekend, Jaebum is scrubbing stubbornly at his tub, the mix of natural powder cleanser and harsher foaming agents starting to make his head spin a bit.

But cleaning always grounds him: the obligatory, repetitive nature of it always offering a shred of comfort. It’s routine, it’s necessary, and it doesn’t require any of his overthinking. It features none of the grey, future abstracts he’s been trying to duck away from lately.

It’s just soap scum, a bristle brush, and the echo of his efforts against the tile.

There’s a slam of his front door then, and he hears his mother wrangling Yugyeom out of his shoes before pattering feet make their way down the hall.

“Appa!” Yugyeom is calling, and Jaebum pokes a head out of the bathroom.

“Don’t come too close,” he warns. “It’s chemical-y.”

Yugyeom’s face sobers, a good boy about his father’s warning of fumes. But he does draw nearer, on melodramatic tiptoes.

“Is it chore time?” He asks with a sigh. “Already?”

“We do chores nearly every day,” Jaebum laughs.

Yugyeom nods gravely, likely thinking about how one of his jobs is helping to carry trash out to the dumpster. It’s his least favorite task, sensitive about the smell.

“I already took out the garbage,” Jaebum says, and he enjoys the way Yugyeom’s face immediately snaps back into a sparkling smile again.

Jaebum hears the fridge shutting and then his mother appears to greet them again. She’s seemed to especially enjoy taking Yugyeom out on weekends, now that Peachtree covers most of Jaebum’s school days.

Jaebum’s grateful for the spike in her enthusiasm. Granted, she’d never acted as though watching Yugyeom was a burden before. But it’s easier now, more comfortable.

She smiles warmly at them, and Yugyeom squats outside the bathroom with his elbows on his knees, watching Jaebum carry on cleaning.

“How are things going?” She asks.

“School’s good,” Jaebum says. “Yugyeom’s doing well with his classes, too.”

“I’ve heard a lot about those,” his mother waves a hand, leaning in the doorway. “What I haven’t heard much about is you and Jinyoung.”

Jaebum pauses, glancing at his brush and fidgeting. They’d both been pretty busy this week. Jaebum didn’t want to create any gloomy distance after their big discussion of feelings and futures, but maybe he’d accidentally let it happen anyway.

It’s easy to throw yourself into schoolwork and let that be a good excuse. It seems they’ve both retreated a bit, but it’s not that bad.

“Fine,” he says, but it comes out stiff. He glances pointedly at Yugyeom now, not sure how in depth they should be, in front of him.

But Jaebum’s mother crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows. “Fine?” She asks. “How long have you two been together now? A month or so?”

Jaebum looks at Yugyeom again, and his mother seems to finally catch on.

“Oh! You haven’t—?” And then she hums for a moment, adjusting her glasses. “Gyeommie bear, will you go try on that pajama set I gave you last week? I don’t think your appa has seen it.”

Yugyeom looks confused, and Jaebum isn’t sure he’s followed the conversation up to that point. He likes just watching Jaebum clean sometimes, intrigued by the strange substances and goofy latex gloves. So he might not have heard a thing.

Yugyeom finally drags himself toward his bedroom after a nudge from his grandmother, and then Jaebum lets out a sigh and tips his head back against the wall.

“You haven’t told Gyeommie yet?” She asks.

“You’re not supposed to,” Jaebum says, sitting up again. “Not right away. Or I don’t know, everybody on the internet has all kinds of rules about stuff like this. And — and it’s hard because I feel like I’ve already pushed on a lot of things with Jinyoung, and I’ve gotten lucky, I guess, so far. But I don’t want to fuck things up.”

“Are you scared he might get nervous?” His mother asks.

“I know  he could,” he says suddenly. “I already — he’s leaving his apartment and stuff, because he doesn’t want his parents’ money. And I already was like, move in with us, like an idiot.”

Jaebum’s mother hisses at the awkward weight of it, nodding sympathetically. “That’s too much,” she agrees.

“It was way too much, way too soon. He talked me out of it, but I don’t know,” Jaebum says. “You know Yugyeom is just barely starting to form like, more real memories, and I only want Jinyoung to feel really positive.”

“But you’re also in an exciting part of your relationship,” his mother says. “You want to spend all your time with him, and you want to show Jinyoung you feel that way, too. It just doesn’t usually come with house keys and a kid.”

Jaebum’s heart clenches, and he stares down at his feet, curled anxiously against the linoleum floor.

“Yeah,” he whispers.

A beat passes, and he hears his mother shifting off the doorframe with a sigh.

“When did you say you loved each other?” Jaebum asks, abruptly, eyes sliding back to her. “You and appa.”

His mother hums, smiling suspiciously. “Pretty early,” she admits. “Maybe a few weeks. We’d known each other for a long time, though. And it’s different for everybody, right? I bet the internet says that, too.”

Jaebum nods, chewing at his lip. He knows it’s even different between individuals in a couple. The way Jinyoung had asked, so earnestly, and then so sweetly backpedaled away once he’d noticed Jaebum panicking, left a cloud over both of their feelings. Jaebum doesn’t want to push Jinyoung into saying it either, but he’s honestly just as curious.

“Rawrr!” Yugyeom’s voice calls out, and Jaebum looks up to see him in a little dinosaur hoodie, complete with a tail and soft felted ridges that trail down his back.

“Wow!” Jaebum says, and he’s relieved to feel his own smile again. “How did this lizard get in here?”

Yugyeom sighs and tugs back the hood. “I’m a raptor,” he says. “Not a lizard.”

“That’s much scarier,” Jaebum murmurs, clambering out of the tub to rinse it down.

“I’ll leave you two to the chores,” his mother says, patting Yugyeom on his head.

Jaebum runs the tap and nods, giving her a little wave.

“Don’t let that boy slip away,” she says. “Just because you’re scared. It’s hard to figure things out with another person, no matter what, but it’ll be worth it.”

Then she leaves them, and Yugyeom and Jaebum share puzzled glances, for different reasons.

“I didn’t slip ’way,” Yugyeom reassures him, suddenly latching onto his hip. “I’m not really a raptor, I’m still Yugyeom.”

Jaebum’s smile widens at the misunderstanding, running fingers through his fluffy, disheveled hair. “That’s good to know,” he says. “Thank you for being Yugyeom.”

 

//

 

The next time Jaebum sees Jinyoung is at Peachtree, late the next week. They’ve texted and called, and things seem mostly back to normal. Or at least less awkward. But they’ve still kept some distance, physically.

Jinyoung’s already in a uniform apron and is cheerfully sending babies home. Jaebum swings by after his last class to pick up Yugyeom, and freezes by the doorway.

It’s strange, watching Jinyoung from across the hall for a moment. He’d heard him talk about wanting to do this, had even seen him playing with his nephew and Yugyeom, of course.

But now, it’s startlingly different in real life. He looks so much softer from how Jaebum has seen him around school — in crisp, tucked-in oxford shirts, nicely fitted slacks, with a leather satchel and the latest phone.

He’s still wearing some shiny loafers, but he’s in a bright orange apron over a baby blue sweatshirt, comfy and casual. He pats each toddler gently on the back of the head as he leads them out with their respective parents. Uses his long fingers to sign them out of a ledger.

Instead of the glossy, cold figure Jaebum had seen around school, Jinyoung glows. Cheeks round and smile beaming, he looks handsome and dependable. Jaebum watches as many moms and dads alike seem to light up at his polite greeting, some glancing back to get a second peek at the new assistant.

Jaebum finally meanders up, dragging his feet playfully to prolong his good long look at Jinyoung in this format.

Jinyoung flusters a bit under his gaze, suddenly adjusting the strap of his apron. Jaebum nods politely to a few of the other employees milling about.

“Good evening, Mr. Im,” Jinyoung says softly. “Here to pick up Yugyeom?”

Jaebum can only nod, skin prickling at the way the words Mr. Im seem to drag between them, unexpectedly heavy. He tries not to choke on his spit as he follows Jinyoung into the 4 year olds classroom, mouth watering a bit as he watches the way the apron tugs with his steps, strap taut, digging into the skin at the back of his neck. Jaebum’s unintentionally, quite inappropriately, reminded of their discussion of a collar.

Jaebum wonders, distantly, if there are rules about employees keeping their distance from the parent clientele.

They come upon Yugyeom, Jungkook and a few girls drawing together at a low table.

“Hey kiddos,” Jinyoung greets them. “Yugyeomie’s appa is here to pick him up.”

Some of the kids greet him, Jungkook offering a toothy smile. Yugyeom glances up shyly, but he’s already pouting, asking for extra time.

“Five minutes,” Jaebum agrees. “Finish up your drawing and say goodnight to your friends.”

He glances sideways at Jinyoung, who’s fiddling with his apron again, looking a bit bashful.

“You look cute in orange,” Jaebum offers in a low voice, shoulder bumping into his.

Jinyoung laughs, and he covers it with a palm as he tries to maintain some composure. “Mr. Im,” he says, glancing around the playroom. “I need to maintain some level of professionalism. Please help me with that.”

Jaebum grins, but he nods along anyway. “I think cute can be professional,” he adds. “In a daycare, at least. It really leans into your role.”

“Hyung,” Jinyoung says, very quietly. But there’s a playful whine there.

“I thought Sooyoung wouldn’t let you start so low,” Jaebum switches the topic. “But here you are, doing checkouts?”

“I have an office,” Jinyoung says, and he visibly brightens at the thought. “I’ve taken over some more of the administrative stuff that Sooyoung noona doesn’t enjoy. But mostly I’ve been using it for homework, after hours. I still like to chase after the kids.”

Jaebum nods, and it’s true that Jinyoung leans into this role well, cuteness aside. He can be soft and playful, but firm when he needs to be. And imaginative, creative. A good actor, for playtime.

“Some of the parents think this is the worst part of our day,” Jinyoung says. “Because the kids are tired, and they can be crabby about having to go, even if they were crabbing about being left in the morning. But I like seeing them come back together — even when it’s a little dramatic.”

Jaebum stays quiet another moment, just watching Jinyoung’s expression, eyes dragging along the lean lines of his body. He rubs the back of his neck as he feels it heat up.

“When’s your shift over?” He asks.

Jinyoung’s eyes narrow even as his smile stays in place. He looks like a smug, mischievous cat.

“Usually sometime after eight,” he says, and he crosses his arms across his chest as it puffs up. “Why?”

“Do you want to pick up something for dessert with us,” Jaebum wonders. “And then we can put Yugyeom to bed?”

Jinyoung hums. “Chocolate ice cream?” He says, voice rolling smooth and deep over the letters.

“Bring the apron,” Jaebum says, hoarsely.

Jinyoung’s eyes glitter, and then he rolls them back with a laugh. “Hyung,” he gasps.

“Appa,” Yugyeom interrupts them, having said his goodbyes. He waves a paper at Jaebum’s knees now. “I’m ready. I finished my drawing.”

“Oh,” Jaebum hums, and he and Jinyoung both bend down to inspect it.  

It’s a very busy composition, with what looks like a forest, several attempts at a castle, a few central figures and many animals.

“Who’s this?” Jaebum wonders, tapping a figure with long legs and a crooked tiara.

“BamBam hyung,” Yugyeom says, and his fingers follow some cloudy swirls around the figure. “He’s the prince of this zoo, with a lot of animals, and money, and he floats.”

Jaebum blinks in surprise at the paper, and then back at his son. “A prince?” He asks. “You know BamBam isn’t a prince in real life, right?”

“Hyung doesn’t float too,” Yugyeom adds, as if Jaebum missed that point. “I made it up.”

Jinyoung nods. “It’s a very nice picture,” he says. “It’s fun to draw things from our imagination.”

Jaebum shoots him a narrow glance, wondering if he’d played a part in suggesting this fanciful portrait.

“I think hyung would be a nice prince,” Yugyeom says, seriously.

Jaebum chuckles as he rolls up the paper carefully. “It’s very nice,” he echoes Jinyoung. “And I’m sure he’d love to see it. Let’s stick it up at home and send him a picture.”

Yugyeom emphatically agrees, and they’re soon headed out.

Jaebum’s mind buzzes with thoughts of Jinyoung all the way until he greets them again in the evening.

As lovely as dessert is, paired with a cartoon on Netflix, it’s the quieter moments which follow that put butterflies in Jaebum’s stomach. Jinyoung wipes off Yugyeom’s sticky ice cream fingers like a pro. They tuck him in, read him a bedtime story, and then it goes quiet throughout the apartment.

They spend just a moment in the hallway once they’re certain Yugyeom’s asleep, eyes full of meaning. Jaebum fetches Jinyoung a spare toothbrush, and after a quick washing up, he finally locks them into his own bedroom, temporarily.

Jinyoung’s barely slipped out of his clothes before Jaebum tugs his uniform apron up over his head. It’s obviously much too short, barely cresting the tops of his thighs, and gloriously, shockingly open in the back. The sloppily tied sash around the small of his back hangs low, the loose bow curving around the swell of his ass.

And then it’s just a melodic murmur of ‘how can I help you, Mr. Im?’ that breaks Jaebum’s restraint, yanking Jinyoung back by the strap at his neck so he can kiss the words out of his mouth. So he can trace his mouth with his tongue, suckling hard at the coy curl of his top lip until he whines.

But it’s Jinyoung who slams Jaebum’s body back against his door with a firm hand at the slope of his stomach. He takes control, even as he’s slinking to his knees, nearly ripping the zipper of Jaebum’s jeans with laserlike focus.

Jaebum bites down on his own fist, back flat against his door, breathing heavy as the stifling heat of Jinyoung’s mouth envelops his cock.

Jinyoung’s hair is ruffled from Jaebum yanking the apron down over his head too hastily. His naked knees scrape against the rough, low pile of the carpet as he shuffles closer, wrapping his hands around the back of Jaebum’s knees to hold him in place.

But Jaebum doesn’t go easy on him, hips slapping into Jinyoung’s face as he chases after the sensation of hot, wet suction.

Jinyoung keeps up well, bobbing his head along his length with lips shining with spit. The immersive feeling is indescribable, but the image heightens it: Jinyoung’s plush pink mouth stretched and straining so wide around the girth of Jaebum’s cock, eyes glistening with effort.

One of Jinyoung’s hands digs tighter into the back of Jaebum’s thigh, keeping his twitching leg still, while the other moves to cradle and squeeze his balls. Jaebum groans at the pressure of it all, sac already tightening as he feels his arousal winding up, dizzy as he thrusts deeper into Jinyoung’s slack mouth.

Jinyoung gags slightly, but he keeps his head moving. His eyelids flutter shut, and he seems to double the intensity, the pace. Like all he wants to focus on is the feeling, the taste of Jaebum.

Jaebum feels possessed, hips bucking mindlessly. He tries not to whine too loudly.

“Mr. Im,” Jinyoung suddenly drawls, sliding off his shaft with a slick pop, saliva tracing down the gentle curve of his chin. He lets go and uses a long middle finger to swipe it off, and then sucks it gently between his lips.

Jaebum watches in barely contained frustration, and his hard cock bobs forward, budging gently against the back of Jinyoung’s hand. As if asking for his turn again.

Jinyoung’s smile goes wide as he slides his finger back out, his other hand slipping from Jaebum’s thigh to steadily grip the base of his dick.

“Would it be alright if I fingered you?” Jinyoung asks quietly, and then lathes his tongue slow and even, twirling around the tip of Jaebum’s cock. He doesn’t break eye contact.

Jaebum watches, hypnotized, as Jinyoung licks delicately into his slit. His breath hitches as precum beads onto the pink tip of Jinyoung’s  tongue, and he laps it up.

Jaebum breaks into an outright whimper as Jinyoung sinks his pout back down over the cut head of his cock, lips tight around him once more. And Jinyoung stays focused on the sensitive tip, tongue swirling aggressively, the slurping sound lewd and loud and addictive.

Then they both watch as Jinyoung’s hand disappears between Jaebum’s thighs, out of sight but certainly not out of mind.

Jinyoung’s eyes flicker back up to meet Jaebum’s gaze once more.

Jaebum nods his head, as he can’t find his voice, and definitely doesn’t trust its volume in his small apartment. He draws his fist away from his mouth, white from his teeth, and grasps firmly onto the doorknob for support.

Jinyoung’s gentle, of course. He starts by barely tracing around the rim of his asshole. And Jaebum is grateful for the long, elegant taper of his wet finger, as it very gently slips inside, easily up to one knuckle and twisting, undulating.

It’s such a strange combination of feelings, Jaebum thinks, as Jinyoung relaxes his jaw and takes his cock deep down his throat once more. The slide of his dick between those lips is smooth, like he’s sinking into heaven.

In contrast, the pressure of Jinyoung’s finger working its way inside of him is less immediately pleasant. But it makes his hips jerk, nonetheless, and it presses him deeper into Jinyoung’s awaiting mouth.

Jaebum feels Jinyoung’s nose puffing hot, stuttered breaths against his pubic hair, and he fixates on the feel of it. Between the push of his finger and the pull of his mouth. Just Jinyoung’s body, bumping there with his.

But then Jinyoung hums around him, the vibration hot and deep in his throat. And Jaebum groans, hand slipping off the doorknob and fumbling to dig his nails into Jinyoung’s scalp.

It’s intense, the sensation firm and vivid around his cock, soft tongue and wet throat clenching too tight and too ticklish.

Jaebum can feel his orgasm building, and then Jinyoung crooks his finger a bit. Like he’s beckoning, tugging Jaebum closer to him, and closer to the edge.

And Jaebum sees stars, eyes screwing shut as he shudders and bucks, fucking hard into Jinyoung’s mouth as he rides the cresting wave of his bliss.

Jinyoung keeps up the pressure, hooking his finger back in and out, and then nudging harder, with shorter strokes, right into that spot.

It’s too much, too pleasurable, and Jaebum’s coming so hard, dick twitching with the force of his orgasm. He’s whimpering, murmuring something mindless, rhythmic: yes / yes / fuck, and shit / so / good.

And Jinyoung is so good, of course — he swallows, gulps him down, eyes watering with effort and whimpering when finally Jaebum pulls out.

Jaebum wipes an arm across his damp forehead, huffing and puffing as he numbly wobbles to the floor. His back, damp with sweat now, drags down the length of his door.

Jinyoung’s taken his finger out, and then he’s already brandishing a wet wipe — from a pocket in his apron, of course — and Jaebum lets out all of his breath into a laugh.

“Oh my god,” he wheezes. “We really shouldn’t have done this to your uniform.”

Jinyoung smiles blithely, tossing his used tissue into a wastebasket across the room. “We have plenty,” he says. “I can leave this one here, if you’d like.” The stiff fabric shifts across the slopes of his lithe, sweaty body, a sharp study of contrast in color and texture.

Jaebum reaches out toward him, straining to grab at the strap around his neck. Jinyoung blinks at his outstretched palm and abruptly leans forward to settle his chin into it instead.

Jaebum blinks at his cute expression in surprise, and then gasps out another laugh, shifting his grip to squeeze Jinyoung’s cheeks together instead. He tugs him close, and their lips meet in a messy, giggling puppy kiss that Jaebum’s never thought would suit him. Not that he’d expected his future relationships to constantly simmer with sexual tension, or be too sporadic to settle into anything comfortable.

But this, feels right. Jinyoung still feels like home, especially in his own room, crawling between his thighs to flop happily together in a heap on his own floor.

Jaebum lets his hands curl around the back of the apron, cupping Jinyoung’s ass while he lets out a content noise.

“Did you like it?” Jinyoung asks, lips brushing against his neck. “Did you like me playing with you like that?”

Jaebum’s face feels like it’s aflame, and he’s suddenly restless with the strange, inescapable creep of embarrassment. In theory, he doesn’t have anything against bottoming. Not that all assplay has to lead to... all that.

“It was amazing,” he says, pushing himself to be honest out loud, before he chickens out mentally.

He really isn’t opposed to any of it — even switching completely. However he’s keenly aware of his own hesitation, which makes him feel even more self-conscious. He isn’t embarrassed of wanting to be with Jinyoung, in any way that would make him happy.

But he knows he has some deep-seated hangups about his own masculinity, and becoming a dad seems to have magnified them even more. Not just in the pervasive reinforcements of his stereotypical role — but also in the way he evaluates himself.

He’d never want Yugyeom to think his father wouldn’t approve of him loving someone a certain way, or loving anybody in particular. So he should be kinder to himself, as well. It still sets him on edge, for now.

“Have you done it, before?” Jinyoung asks. “To yourself, at least?”

Jaebum clears his throat again and nods. “Just um,” he says, thinking back on it. “Just a few times. To see what all the fuss was about.”

Jinyoung sniffs out a quiet laugh.

“But I think you had a better angle,” Jaebum says.

Jinyoung laughs outright at this, leaning back to take in his expression with sharp, calculating eyes. “Well,” he says, smugly. “Let me know if I can be of any further assistance, Mr. Im.”

Jaebum snickers along with him this time, and crushes Jinyoung’s head back to his own shoulder with a fond grin. He cards through his soft hair slowly, thoughts going cozy and quiet again.

“Should I tell Yugyeom you’re my boyfriend,” Jaebum murmurs, into Jinyoung’s scalp. “Or my special friend? Which would you prefer?”

Jinyoung shifts in his embrace. “Special friend sounds kind of like a predator,” he says, candid as ever.

Jaebum rubs at his neck in embarrassment, but nods along. “Okay,” he admits. “Maybe we should just keep it simple.”

“Simple is good,” Jinyoung says with a sigh.

And it’s overwhelming, how right and how good it feels as they go to bed together. Jaebum unlocks his door and feels a familiar sense of guilt wash over him, as he’s still struggling to keep Jinyoung at a careful distance.

But he’s still nervous — telling Yugyeom has an air of finality to it. Like pressing your hands into wet concrete together, or a tattoo of each other’s names. ‘ Jinyoung is my boyfriend,’ Jaebum imagines himself saying. And then he immediately pictures himself trying to explain ‘ Jinyoung decided we should break up,’ to a four year old.

But that’s not fair, he thinks to himself. That’s not fair to either of them, to let an imaginary ending stand in the way of their beginning.

So Jaebum pushes the thoughts from his mind again, and sinks into Jinyoung’s awaiting arms in his bed.

 

//

 

Jaebum is barely awake when he hears whispering, and the patter of bare feet. His spine tightens up as he springs up out of bed, and then he reels, dizzy for a moment.

Still, his paternal instincts propel him forward, immediately suspicious of quiet, rustling behavior.

He wanders out and into the kitchen, rubbing at still-bleary eyes.

There, in the dim morning light from their one window, he finds Jinyoung crouched. He’s holding a mixing bowl between his knees, as Yugyeom sternly, clumsily flaps a whisk around some multicolored batter.

There’s some sort of powdery mess nearly everywhere, and Jaebum finally spots an empty, upended box of pancake mix behind an array of mix-ins. Banana peels, food colorings, half a bag of chocolate chips, and a jar of peanut butter with a knife still stuck upright in it.

“What are you two… up to?” Jaebum asks, throat still feeling thick with sleep.

Jinyoung gasps, and Yugyeom whirls around, defensively spreading his arms wide in an attempt to hide the bowl of pancake batter from Jaebum’s sight.  

“Nothing,” Yugyeom says, face firm.

Jinyoung finishes whisking the mix as he stands and pivots slightly away, peeking back over his shoulder coyly. There’s a picturesque dusting of flour across his cheek. “We’re making breakfast,” he admits.

Yugyeom tsk s, turning to frown at Jinyoung, as if he’s disappointed he caved so quickly. As if he’s really hiding anything, with his slight form, in a kitchen covered in pancake mix.

“It was s’posed to be a surprise,” Yugyeom says, with a whine.

“It’s not finished,” Jinyoung says calmly, still whisking away from view. “He doesn’t know what it’ll turn into.”

Jaebum thinks: that’s true. He has no idea if they’ll really be pancakes in the end.

Yugyeom wrinkles his nose for a moment and then nods decisively. “You should leave,” he says to Jaebum, moving to shove against his knees.

Jaebum sputters in surprise, but he backs up toward the doorway obediently, glancing around conspicuously as he goes.

“Is it some sort of frittata?” He jokes.

The door nearly hits him on the way out, and then he wanders through his living room in a bit of a daze. He’s never had anyone surprise him with breakfast before, he considers.

Jaebum finds himself feeling a bit lost. He’s used to wrangling both sleepyheaded Jinyoung and Yugyeom for breakfast. He’s used to taking the initiative.

But things have started tipping out of his control again. And while it’s nothing like the confusion surrounding their fake relationship early on, there’s a familiar topsy-turviness to it all. Jaebum settles into his sofa as his stomach flips over on itself, cheeks warming up.

Jinyoung hasn’t lost his attention at all. The image of him still burns hot and bright behind Jaebum’s eyelids as he shuts them for a moment, thinking of stilted laughter and wrinkled eyes and wet lips. Maybe this won’t be such a disaster after all. Maybe he’ll never have to have the break-up conversation with Yugyeom.

A buzzing at his hip startles him out of his lovesick daydream. Jaebum’s almost embarrassed as he fumbles his phone out, although no one’s seen his expression.

It’s a number he doesn’t recognize, but something pinches in his neck and he taps to answer it anyhow.

“Hello?” He asks.

“Is this Im Jaebum?” A man asks.

“It is,” Jaebum confirms, wrinkling his brow. “What’s up?”

“This is Royal Dive — over at Paradise?” The man says, and it sounds like he’s smiling. “You auditioned for us a few weeks ago, and before that we talked at the Daily gala.”

Jaebum’s mouth flutters open and shut for a moment, before he squeaks out a noise. Clearing his throat, he tries again.

“Yeah,” he says, tongue feeling heavy in his mouth. Anxiety grips at his lungs, although he’s not sure what there is to be anxious about. It’s just the unknown, because why would they be calling him now? “Yeah, I remember. I uh—saw you guys announced who you were signing, already?”

Royal Dive chuckles now, and Jaebum shifts uncomfortably in his seat, snapping suddenly to sit up straighter. As if it might make his voice sound more professional.

“We did put out a talent teaser, yeah,” he says. “It’s exciting stuff, we’ve gotten a lot more funding recently. So we’re trying to really jump in and get a bunch of projects going. Lotta pots simmering on the stove, you know.”

Jaebum nods, teeth biting into his lip. They must just be getting around to courtesy calls to let people down. That’s nice, he thinks. This is nice. He shouldn’t hold a grudge, they’re good people.

“Anyway, one of our writers is moving to New York,” Royal Dive is saying, “to become some stuck-up urban DJ. And look, your stuff was really good. It’s a great tape, even without us.” He hums here, slowing down like he’s if trying to be more careful with his words.

“But we were kinda nervous. You made it really clear you're a dad first, and we knew you were nervous too, about trying to fit all that in together.”

Jaebum’s gut is going crazy now, and he’s pretty sure he’s broken out into a cold sweat across his forehead. Is this a rejection? Maybe some sort of referral, to a lower-pressure studio?

“But we know you know how to write. And that’s a lot more flexible,” the producer continues. “So we’re feeling pretty stoked, since we’ve got an opening… and you’ve got the goods. You know?”

Jaebum flounders for another moment. They want him to write. They want him for the blog.

“God,” he exhales, and then he hears the other man laugh, and Jaebum has to clear his throat and collect himself before he continues. “Sorry, yeah, yes. A writer — I definitely write, that’d be awesome. I’m sorry, I didn’t completely know what you were getting at, for a minute there.”

“Well,” Royal Dive says, “It’s open. I mean, we’d like you to write, for sure. As much time as you want to commit to that, now while youre in school and then full-time starting in summer. And then, if you’d like, it would also be awesome to work with you on some music. But there’s no pressure with any of that part. Which would be easier on you, and our investors for now.”

“Oh,” Jaebum says, heart absolutely soaring. “Oh that’s — yeah, sick.” He winces at himself slightly, but the other man is laughing again, so he breaks into a grin.

“Sick, yeah,” says Royal Dive. “We’ll email you over some paperwork, and we’ll hook up sometime this week to talk office hours and give you a tour, or whatever.”

Jaebum nods enthusiastically, face flushing. “Cool. Thanks,” he finally croaks out. “Thank you so much.”

They say their goodbyes and then his phone goes blank. He stares at it in his hand, silent and frozen for a long moment as he processes it. Is this really happening?

He’s got a job. He’s managed to land a good, familiar job — at an amazing place — and he even has an option to make more music.

A clank and Yugyeom’s muffled giggle from the kitchen reminds him of where he is. Of who he needs to tell.

“Jinyoung,” he rumbles, and then he pops up to his feet, rushing back into the kitchen. “Jinyoungie!” He calls out, as the door swings shut behind him.

Jinyoung barely has time to look up, and then Jaebum’s embracing him. Arms wrapping low around his waist, Jaebum beams into his face.

“Paradise called,” he says breathlessly. “They want me to write for their blog — and I can do music with them, too.”

“Oh! ” Jinyoung says, spatula wavering beside him in surprise. “Hyung, that’s great—!”

But he barely manages to squeak out this thought, before Jaebum dips in and kisses him. Gently, deeply, lips thirsty for the taste of him that’s become so comforting. He kisses him again because he’s proud, and then again, because he’s relieved, smiling against his mouth with a sigh.

As they part with a quiet smack, Jinyoung blinks at him in a daze, and then he’s pressing the spatula between them and pushing Jaebum back with it.

Jaebum glances down at it in confusion, wondering for a moment why Jinyoung looks so nervous, why he seems uncomfortable.

And then he realizes — Yugyeom is in the kitchen with them.

“AH,” Jaebum clears his throat, whirling around to spot Yugyeom standing on a bench in their breakfast nook, paper napkins clutched tightly in hand. He must have been setting the table.

“Yugyeom-ah,” Jaebum says, stepping hastily away from Jinyoung.

Yugyeom doesn’t respond, and he’s not frowning, but he stays still, simply looking at the two of them.

“Yugyeomie,” says Jinyoung quietly, as Jaebum attempts to wrestle the napkins out of the toddler’s grip.

Jaebum kneels down at the bench now, and looks up at his son, squeezing his knees with a hopeful smile.

Yugyeom doesn’t immediately ask a question, and Jaebum is wondering if maybe he ought to leave the whole thing alone for a little longer. After all, if Yugyeom isn’t bothered by their interaction, does he really need to explain?

But the toddler is chewing on his lip and glancing between them now, and Jaebum figures he just doesn't know what to ask.

“Jinyoung-ah is my boyfriend,” Jaebum says, keeping his voice steady and even as he decides to jump right in. “Do you know what that word means?”

Yugyeom tilts his head. “You kiss each other?” He asks, sounding unsure but not upset.

“Yes,” Jaebum says, relaxing a bit. “Sometimes. Do you know… how Jungkook’s parents are married?’

Yugyeom nods. “And Halm’ie and Harabeoji,” he says. “They kiss too.”

“Right,” Jaebum nods. “Married people kiss, and so do people who are dating. People who are dating call each other boyfriends, or boyfriend and girlfriend, or girlfriends, or sometimes just partners—,” he trails off. “Uh, lots of things, I guess.”

He really should have prepared better for this.

“Halm'ie and Harabeoji say kissing is how they show they love each other,” Yugyeom parrots, settling onto the bench with a heavy sigh, as if his questions about this new information are weighing him down.

Jaebum’s ears go hot, and he keeps his neck stiff, trying very pointedly not to glance backward at Jinyoung. “Yep,” he says softly. “Married people love each other. People who are dating care about each other a lot, too. But I'll always have enough love for you, too. Because I’m your appa, you’re the most important little person in my life.” He presses a soft, ticklish kiss to Yugyeom’s knee here, to punctuate the thought.

Yugyeom squirms away with a little giggle, and then peers up at Jinyoung again.

“And Jinyoung is still your hyungie,” Jaebum says, and lets himself turn back as well, nervous. “He still cares about you, too.”

Jinyoung looks remarkably at ease, leaning against the counter with warm eyes and a delicate smile.

Yugyeom squints across at him, almost suspicious. “Jungkookie has an appa, and an eomma,” he mumbles.

“You have an eomma too,” Jaebum says firmly. “We visited her memorial before your birthday, remember? She will always be your eomma. Jinyoungie is just: appa's new boyfriend.”

A beat passes, and Jaebum finds himself literally holding his breath.

Yugyeom nods, looking satisfied. “I made pancakes,” he declares, slapping a little hand down on the tabletop. This boyfriend case seems to have been settled, for now.

Jaebum’s breath escapes in a rush, feeling dizzy.

“Hey,” says Jinyoung, “I helped, too.” He brings over the plate he was preparing, bearing a tilting tower of lopsided, murky-colored pancakes. They’re riddled with various mix-ins and swirls, and while Jaebum’s sure they’ll taste alright, they look comically unappetizing.

“Are you sure these are pancakes?” Jaebum asks, scooting Yugyeom over and helping him into his booster seat. “I’ve seen quite a few, in my day. But these look a little different.”

“Because they are special!” Yugyeom says loudly, beaming. “Because we made them for you, they’ll taste better. Hyungie promised so.”

Jinyoung looks embarrassed as he slides the maple syrup across to Jaebum. “You know I don’t do a lot of cooking,” he says. “But I think that’s part of it.”

Jaebum’s face feels like it will split with his smile. And as Yugyeom shovels a forkful into his mouth for him, he thinks (aside from the scrape of prongs against his palate) it does taste pretty wonderful.

“Oh,” Jaebum murmurs through his chewing. “What is this secret ingredient?”

“It's love,” Yugyeom says, taking an enormous bite of his own. “Duh.”



Chapter Text

Jaebum agrees to start at Paradise in two weeks. In the meantime, it feels like his workload at school immediately picks up. Which shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s his last semester, and graduation dangles overhead like an unbelievable carnival prize.

The idea of being done with school — forever — sort of terrifies him, but a shift in pace where he can focus more fully on stabilizing Yugyeom’s schedule sounds pretty appealing. So that’s what he focuses on.

It’s still difficult to balance school, work, and Yugyeom with seeing Jinyoung. They’ve had a few study dates, and Yugyeom always cheerfully reports when he sees him at Peachtree.

Jaebum knows he’s being too careful, avoiding talk of the future with him even as the present days seem to be flying by.

Jaebum is let out of his last class for the day and finds himself taking longer than usual to walk toward the transit center. Feet dragging, he knows a part of him doesn’t want his school days to end too quickly.

“Jaebum oppa!” A voice calls out, and Jaebum shrinks in on himself slightly. The pace of heels across cobblestone is too familiar, and not in a particularly pleasant way. He turns to find Suzy rushing across the courtyard, waving and tugging a man along with her.

Maybe Jaebum should have tried harder to catch his bus.

Instead, he pastes his best effort at a half of a smile onto his face, and waits for them to catch up. They exchange cordial, short bows in greeting, and then a beat of awkward silence descends on all of them.

“Jaebum oppa,” Suzy finally says, a bit out of breath. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”

Jaebum simply nods. Life hasn’t exactly been quiet, he thinks, but it’s been infinitely more peaceful than it would have been if she was still chasing after him.

“This is Pierre,” she says, gesturing to the slender man who now looks slightly familiar.

Jaebum realizes, this is her boyfriend from when she’d gone abroad — the person he’d seen on her Instagram after she left without telling him. And more startling, Jaebum doesn’t feel any of the anger he’d inspired before.

Apparently, Suzy has been moving on neatly.

“Uh, bonjour,” Jaebum says.

Pierre looks reasonably awkward, seemingly aware of their past. But he murmurs a polite greeting.

“I wanted to give you an invitation,” Suzy says, with a wobbly smile. She hands him a pearlized envelope with his name scrawled elegantly across it.

Jaebum eyes it warily, flipping it over a few times in confusion.

“It’s for our engagement party,” Pierre politely supplies, and Jaebum nearly drops it, eyes blowing wide.

“Oh,” Jaebum says. “Wow. Engagement.” There’s a moment where Suzy and Pierre smile indulgently at one another, and then they glance expectantly back at Jaebum.

“Congratulations!” He manage to sputter, finally.

This must be the reaction they were looking for, as Suzy softens up and swings their linked hands with a little, lyrical laugh.

“I know it’s crazy timing,” she admits. “But he flew out shortly after you and I last talked, and... everything just felt so right.”

Jaebum just keeps smiling and nodding, feeling dazed. Jesus, this feels like he’s dodged a bullet. Everything felt so right? After what, a week?

“Anyway,” Suzy hums, “I hope things have been going well for you. Kihyun mentioned you got a writing spot at Paradise!”

“Yeah,” Jaebum says, tucking the invitation into his backpack and slinging it back over a shoulder. “It’s really nuts. I didn’t know that was going to work out, but I’m really grateful.”

“You deserve it,” Suzy says.

Jaebum isn’t sure if she expects any sort of update on he and Jinyoung’s relationship, or if it would even be polite. In some ways, Jaebum supposes he sort of owes it all to his discomfort with Suzy. If it weren’t for his efforts to avoid her, he’d never have given Jinyoung a chance to get so close.

“Things are good,” Jaebum sums up instead, and then motions in the direction of his bus stop. “Sorry to run out, but I’m just on my way to pick up Yugyeom.”

Pierre smiles and waves, looking relieved. But: “Would you…” Suzy starts, just as he steps away.

Jaebum pauses, glancing back at her with a raised brow.

“Would you tell Jinyoung-ssi I said hello?” She asks. “I still owe him an apology. If you’re able to attend the party, I hope you know he’s perfectly welcome. As your date.”

Her eyes shimmer a bit in the afternoon sun, looking perfectly sincere, and Jaebum feels his stomach twist. He nods small, incapable of adding anything further engaging. But he supposes this may be helpful as closure for Suzy. He’s not sure it’ll mean much to Jinyoung, but it can’t hurt to pass it on.

On the bus home, Jaebum thinks about how people move forward at different paces.

For a long time, Jaebum had been the one pining, wondering if there was any way to salvage what he and Suzy used to have. And as recently as the gala, she’d been insistent on waiting for him, or fulfilling some vacancy in Yugyeom’s life. But now, that enthusiasm has shifted towards a future with Pierre. And she’s diving headfirst into it.

It surprises Jaebum how easily people can attach and detach from each other’s futures.

And while he doesn’t envy Suzy’s intensity, per se, there’s something to be said about her apparent lack of second guessing.

Jaebum turns the envelope over and over again in wonder, the opal finish of the paper stock glimmering in the afternoon sun.

Jaebum doesn’t want to rush blindly into this big of a commitment any time soon. He doesn’t need this kind of declaration: pearled paper and careful calligraphy.

But he should tell Jinyoung something about his feelings. He does want it to feel real, to be openly committed.

 

//

 

Jaebum gets back to his apartment a little later than usual, but he still has time to tinker about with some homework before picking Yugyeom up.

He’s just started editing his final film project; it’s a lighthearted mockumentary pieced out of footage of stray cats found around his neighborhood.

Jaebum is honestly excited about the shift in tone from his usual, more serious content, and he’s already thinking about whipping up some original compositions for the soundtrack. He hadn’t expected to be this inspired, but something about the funny characters he’s been uncovering has led to really interesting musical cues.

He’s humming an idea as he unlocks his door. Farther down the hall on his floor, he hears a squeak of a shoe, and he glances up.

He doesn’t see anyone, but the air seems to shift slightly around the corner, toward the stairwell. Jaebum isn’t certain why it catches his attention. There’s a tone that resonates with him.

Ears buzzing, he lets himself into his apartment with a sigh. It’s not even finals season and he’s already on edge, easy to spook. Maybe since he’s so wrapped up in his project, he’s too tuned into his neighborhood environment.

He can’t wait to tell Jinyoung about Suzy and Pierre — he’s certain Jinyoung will scrunch his face up when he hears the name.

His phone buzzes as he’s booting up his editing software.

Jinyoung 10:43pm

Hyung you still haven’t told me about your final project?

You’ve read my script and everything

Jaebum smiles. It’s not the first time he’d thought of messaging Jinyoung and been beaten to the punch. Sometimes it feels a little telepathic. They have a good sense for each other’s thoughts.

This immediately distracts him from Suzy. It hadn’t been his intention to keep Jinyoung unaware of his project. They’d just both been busy.

But now that Jinyoung’s so curious, it might be fun to tease him a little.

Jaebum 10:44pm

it’s coming along

the new talent is a little fussy tho

gorgeous but kind of unpredictable

Jinyoung doesn’t reply right away and Jaebum wonders what sort of expression he’s wearing. Is he maybe, just a tiny bit… jealous?

Another moment passes without a reply, and Jaebum is already getting nervous. He doesn’t want to make Jinyoung suspicious, or feel badly. They’d both expressed regret once they’d agreed collaborating simply wouldn’t work this term.

Their schedules are too different, and if they want to get anything done and still see each other for… pleasure’s sake, it’s better to work independently. Jaebum should know better than to rub Jinyoung’s nose in it. So he shifts topics.

Jaebum 10:48pm

will you be free this weekend?

we can just work?

Jinyoung 10:49pm

I’d like that

And Jaebum’s concerns simmer away, satisfied with their attempt to carve out some time together. And hopefully, Jinyoung won’t hold the gorgeous joke against him, once he finds out Jaebum is talking about street cats.

Even though they’d both agreed moving in together would be too much, too soon, Jaebum still fantasizes about it. And even with a four year old kicking up his usual mess and noise, their apartment has started to feel a little big for just the two of them.

He looks forward to every moment he gets Jinyoung in the room with them. It feels balanced, like he’s just a little more properly equipped for whatever raising Yugyeom requires. Part of it’s as simple as having another set of hands to help out, another person he knows he can rely on. But his feelings run deeper than that, sweeter still. He hopes it’s mutual.

 

//

 

Thursday, Jaebum and Yugyeom take the elevator up, since they’re using a little wheeled grocery basket. Yugyeom is proud to be given charge of it, like he’s driving around a bag full of treasure rather than lettuce, eggs and rice.

He hangs onto the handle with both hands, as he and Jaebum watch the floor numbers change. There’s a scent in here, Jaebum realizes, that feels familiar.

He can’t place it, even as they step off at their floor and it punches him in the face once more on their way out.

It’s soft, not quite sweet, but more clean and crisp than a woman’s perfume.

For some reason it lingers in the back of his mind, until the next morning. He’s walking Yugyeom to Peachtree, the sky still hazy with dawn. He has an early morning class to get to, and Yugyeom is always barely awake for this stroll. Jaebum’s distracted as well, wondering about the strange aura he keeps encountering.

But they’re keeping a good pace, Yugyeom only sleepily tripping over the curb once. As Jaebum hums at him in warning and tugs him up carefully, he glances across the street.

Someone’s checking out in the convenience store, and Jaebum isn’t certain why they catch his eye. But the shell of their ears and the houndstooth of their jacket is intimately recognizable. And sure enough, a moment later Jinyoung steps out, coffee in hand.

They both pause, just blinking at each other for a moment, before Yugyeom waves and calls out. His voice is shrill, cutting through the quiet of the morning street.

But Jinyoung softens right into an easy smile and hurries across to walk with them the rest of the way.

“Morning,” he says, breath a bit short.

“Doing okay?” Jaebum asks. He remembers Jinyoung mentioning he had instant coffee at his place, but he doesn’t usually seem to need it to function. Not like some of their other classmates, constantly slurping at tumbler after tumbler throughout all their morning lectures.

Jaebum thinks again about how finals are approaching, and he supposes it makes sense Jinyoung might need an early morning boost. He’s working more than he’s ever had to before.

Jinyoung only hums a positive response, choosing to sip instead of speak, and the rest of their walk is quiet.

Jaebum worries about the tint of purple under his smiling eyes, and feels his heart twist as Jinyoung waves him away once they make it inside the daycare.

He can’t help but feel guilty. Can’t help but wonder if Jinyoung’s adjusting well to his new life of choice. The temporary high of freedom may seem novel at first. But the daily grind — waiting on money you’re making, and worrying if it’ll be enough, can be exhausting.

No one is more familiar with that exhaustion than Jaebum, and he just hopes Jinyoung doesn’t find it as entirely overwhelming as he had at times. He just hopes it’s all worth it.

 

//

 

The knock at Jaebum’s door Friday night doesn’t startle him. He’s been expecting Jinyoung, ever since he picked up Yugyeom and they settled into a quiet night at home.

Jinyoung had agreed to join him to study, after all, and Jaebum had been looking forward to it. He’s purposely wearing a clean hoodie, fresh out of the dryer even though it’s a little too warm. Jinyoung had once murmured that he loved how his fabric softener made his clothes smell.

So when he opens the door, Jinyoung doesn’t surprise him. But the empty measuring cup in his hand does.

Jaebum rubs the back of his neck, stepping back out of the doorway. “Hey,” he says, squinting at the cup. “Come on in. What’s up?”

But Jinyoung hesitates, leaning into the doorframe and touching his lip in an attempt to mask a smile.

Yugyeom toddles over from the living room, curious about the pause after Jaebum’s invitation.

“Hyungie,” he greets him, reaching up to pry the cup out of Jinyoung’s grasp. Jinyoung lets him take it, and they both watch as he inspects it curiously.

“I wanted to ask… if I could borrow a cup of sugar,” Jinyoung says, eyes bright.

Jaebum’s mind hums, but his body glances back toward his kitchen, totally confused.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to try and make some more pancakes?” Jaebum asks, reaching for the cup from Yugyeom. He still hasn’t quite processed what’s happening — why would Jinyoung really need a whole cup of sugar? And why would he come over all the way like this now, instead of just asking Sooyoung to pick some up? And what happened to their study date?

“Borrow means you bring the sugar back?” Yugyeom asks with a frown, and he nestles the cup out of Jaebum’s reach. “How do you get it back out of the pancakes?”

“One day,” Jinyoung says to him. “When I buy some more, I’d give you some of that sugar. Borrowing is something neighbors do.” He punctuates this with a meaningful raise of his eyebrows, but Jaebum and Yugyeom both remain very still and blank.

Jaebum tilts his head in an attempt to jog his thought process. Beside him, Yugyeom spots and promptly mimics his pose, head more extremely sideways.

Jinyoung still hasn’t stepped inside. He hovers, hesitant, in the hallway.

Jaebum steps toward him, eyes fluttering down suddenly. Jinyoung isn’t wearing his usual polished, squeaky loafers — he’s in a pair of duck-faced slippers.

And right across the hall, Jaebum spots a wide open door.

“You’re—!” Jaebum yelps.

Yugyeom, four years old, manages to string together a few more words: “Hyungie, are you our neighbor??” He asks, pointing across.

“I am,” Jinyoung says. “It was just such funny timing — I started looking for an apartment right away, because I didn’t want to burden Sooyoung for too long. I figured I could just check it out to get an idea of pricing, even if it took a while.”

Jaebum nods, dumbfounded as he stares at the warmly lit room across his hallway. Their hallway.

He wasn’t even sure who had lived there before. An older lady? That’s right, he thinks he remembers hearing she might have passed recently. But he rarely sees his immediate neighbors, rarely interacts with them. In a building as dense as this, it’s hard to keep up with who comes and goes.

“But this was open, and pretty affordable. So here I am,” Jinyoung says, voice full of air, a nervous sort of breathiness Jaebum isn’t used to hearing from him.

The light from Jinyoung’s doorway cuts a clear, warm path across the cheap carpeting. Jaebum thinks it’s brilliant, prettier than the pearly invitation he’d gotten from Suzy.

“Can I go see?” Yugyeom shouts, scurrying across eagerly.

“Sure,” says Jinyoung, stepping back toward his apartment. He looks at Jaebum for another moment, and then follows Yugyeom.  

To Jinyoung’s new apartment. Across from Jaebum’s.

Jaebum grabs his keys from their hook, locking up his own door just in case, and then drifts across in a daze.

He follows them inside, blinking rapidly as he takes in the small space.

Yugyeom’s bouncing around on a smaller sofa than the one they own. There are a few familiar pieces Jinyoung seems to have salvaged from his previous loft, but they’re mostly decorative accents.

There’s not even a TV, let alone the sleek flatscreen Yugyeom had once been so enamored with; and while Jinyoung’s unit has more windows than Jaebum’s, it’s nothing like the floor-to-ceiling panorama he had before. There does appear to be a tiny balcony, with just enough room to stand at the railing.

Several moving boxes linger in piles, and Jaebum wonders if he’d been rushing to get moved and set up this week. It must be part of why he’d looked so tired the morning they’d run into him at the convenience store. And why his cologne has been lingering so heavy in the hall and elevator.

Jinyoung had tumbled deeper into his life again, as easy and discrete as ever.

“Is this… okay?” Jinyoung asks, quietly. He’s leaning sheepishly against a wall, eyes tracking Jaebum as he takes it all in.

Jaebum feels dizzy, a little confused by the question, and even more confused by how timid Jinyoung seems. Had he really been worried Jaebum would disapprove?

“Why — why wouldn’t it be?” Jaebum murmurs, feeling himself start to grin. “This is amazing. You’ll be… right here.”

“Well, I know we both said, moving in would be a little crazy,” Jinyoung says. “But I didn’t want to go too far.”

And Jaebum’s smile slips, because he’s suddenly choked up. The memory blooms between them: standing in the hospital hallway, the first time he’d learned he could rely on Jinyoung.

“Don’t go too far,” he’d told him. And Jinyoung never had, all this time.

Jaebum reaches out to him now, too moved to speak. Jinyoung takes his hand, fitting neatly into his side with a smile that creases his eyes.

 

//

 

They find an afternoon where Jinyoung can slip out from Peachtree to meet up with Jaebum for lunch. It’s these little moments, tucked quietly into busy schedules, which set Jaebum’s mind the most at ease.

It’s reassuring, how they both make time for each other now. And maybe it’s not quite as spontaneous or romantic, to pencil something in carefully. But it makes Jaebum’s chest warm, makes him grip a little tighter at Jinyoung’s fingers.

The clouds are hanging low and ominous as they head out from the daycare center. It looks like a thunderstorm is rolling in. Jinyoung keeps glancing overhead, nervous as they scurry back towards their apartment complex.

“I want to introduce you,” Jaebum is saying, squinting against the wind as it brushes past them. “To my new talent. Since you seemed so curious about my next film.”

Jinyoung lets his eyes narrow, too honest to hide his suspicion. But Jaebum can tell he’s struggling against it, unwilling to believe he’d flaunt a partnership with some diva in Jinyoung’s face.

Jaebum grins at him now, and Jinyoung immediately susses out he’s clearly been teased. He plucks his hand out of Jaebum’s grasp, huffing and poking him lightly at his elbow.

“What is this about??” He asks, exasperated.

Jaebum bypasses their building, taking a few quick turns around the back, and then they’re navigating a maze of alleys. The daylight has gone dimmer now, the thick cloud cover getting darker still, and the backs of buildings crowd them closer together.

Jinyoung’s shoulder bumps cheerfully with his, even after yanking his hand away. Jaebum slows them down as they approach a familiar dumpster.

“Around here,” he says softly, and Jinyoung’s frowning at him like he’s lost his mind.

“I wanted chicken…” Jinyoung starts to complain. “And he takes me to a dumpster.”

A wind howls, whipping down the alley then, and it promptly starts to rain. Jinyoung makes a crabby noise, crowding close to Jaebum’s elbow.

“Ah,” Jaebum says, grinning at his pouty face for a moment and then glancing upward. “Not sure if they’ll come out in this.”

But he reaches into his jacket anyway, slipping out a can of tuna, and crouches down low. As soon as he pops the tab, several pairs of eyes peer out from behind the dumpster.

Jinyoung lets out a choked little sound of surprise.

The rain continues to drizzle down, but it’s light as Jaebum nudges the can forward, and tips some tuna out in front of himself.

Two cats slip out of hiding then, black and white, sniffling and scrabbling to get at the food. Jaebum steps back and beams at Jinyoung.

“Aren’t they pretty?” He asks. “This is just two of them — Kunta and Odd. There’s four in total that I’ve been working with.”

Jinyoung looks shocked, and fixes him with a little glare. “I was really annoyed!” He exclaims. “Why would you talk about an actor being pretty, I wondered. Even if it’s just for the sake of a project — or to annoy me. But this! Jaebum hyung, how are you using cats?”

“Well,” Jaebum hums. “It is pretty unpredictable, like I told you. But that’s part of the fun — I’ve been trying to put together a mockumentary. BamBam’s made some puppets and let me borrow his drone for some overhead, urban B-roll.”

“Puppets?” Jinyoung murmurs.

“For the interview segments with the main characters,” Jaebum says, gesturing to the alley cats, who continue to chomp down their meal. “Obviously.”

Jinyoung shakes his head, completely speechless for a moment. “This seems so different, hyung,” he says. “Tomorrow, Today was totally mellow. And you write sexy, bedroom music. But your final film project — it’s about cats?”

Jaebum laughs, ducking his head as he feels his cheeks flush. “I thought you wanted all of me,” he teases. “You know I like kitty cats; you’ve demonstrated as much.”

Jinyoung reaches across to shove at his shoulder, but he still looks disbelieving.

The cats finish off the tuna and then peer up at Jaebum expectantly, licking their lips and outright meowing for more.

“I see what you mean about fussy,” Jinyoung titters.

Jaebum coos apologetically at them as he picks up the empty tin and tosses it into the dumpster behind them.

“Sorry babies,” he says, “that’s all for now.”

The rain is shifting now, weighing down more than a mist, and the cats are quick to trail off and zoom away around a corner. Jaebum watches them with a content smile, even as Jinyoung hums sadly.

“It’s too bad they have to be out in this weather,” he says.

“They know this city better than we do,” Jaebum reassures him. “They know where to go that’s dry.”

There’s a tiny, quaking meow from beneath the dumpster then, and Jaebum drops to a crouch again, brow wrinkling in question.

It’s a kitten he hasn’t seen before, with warm, seal point coloring. Its eyes are enormous, round and blue. It crawls out nervously, and immediately seems upset by the steady beat of the rain around them. But it’s obviously desperate enough to beg, in hopes of more tuna.

Jaebum’s heart flutters as the kitten nuzzles against his palm. It meows plaintively, again.

“Oh no,” Jaebum murmurs, and then he scuttles about for a moment, back up and down the alley in search of some scrap cardboard. A bag. Anything.

But inexplicably, this alley looks relatively tidy. He can’t find anything to prop up for more shelter.

So he rushes back and simply holds his hand out over the little crying kitten.

“Hi gorgeous,” he says gently. “I’m really sorry, I don’t have anymore tuna.”

“Is this one a street cat too?” Jinyoung asks, voice shaky and close as he suddenly crouches beside them. “It looks like a nice breed.”

Jaebum shrugs, curling his hand around the kitten protectively. It mewls pitifully, rubbing against his palm. “No collar,” he says. “She might have snuck out of somewhere and gotten lost — poor baby.”

Jaebum curls a finger under the kitten’s chin, scratching gently until they can both hear a purr rattling through her little body.

Jinyoung lets out a strange noise then. Jaebum peeks aside at him and nearly does a double take. Jinyoung’s lip is trembling.

They’re both soaked at this point, rain rolling heavy down their shoulders. But it’s a summer storm, and the air is thick and warm, so isn’t from the chill. And when Jaebum finally catches Jinyoung’s eyes, they’re rimmed with red.

“Jinyoung-ah,” Jaebum whispers. “Are you okay? She’ll be alright.”

And it’s not that Jinyoung isn’t compassionate — but Jaebum’s mainly seen him be gentle with people, and he hasn’t mentioned any interest in pets. They had a good time at the zoo, but Jinyoung certainly hadn’t been cooing over everything. Jaebum wasn’t under the impression he had much of a soft spot for animals.

“It’s you,” Jinyoung says, with a loud sniff. “You should see your face, just looking at this cat.” He sounds almost annoyed.

Jaebum sputters out a surprised laugh, but he keeps petting the kitten, and he can’t deny the tug at his heartstrings.

“Hyung!” Jinyoung says with a whine. “I’m serious. Sometimes you used to seem too cool to care about anything at school — which could be sexy, I guess.”

Jaebum chuckles through his confusion, frowning down at the little wet kitten under his palm.

“But, getting to see when you do care? About Yugyeom, your music — a stupid little cat out in the street—!” Jinyoung’s breath shakes, and he looks distressed as Jaebum glances up in alarm.

“I don’t know what I’m trying to—,” Jinyoung stammers, lips trembling.

And Jaebum realizes, maybe before Jinyoung does, what he wants to say. What sudden, overwhelming emotion is rushing through him. And it punches Jaebum’s breath out of his chest, ribs aching as he reaches out to take his hand.  

But Jinyoung kisses him instead of saying anything yet, leaning heavy against him and nearly tipping them over, peppering soft kisses down from his lips to his jaw. His hands fist into Jaebum’s damp shirt, tugging him close as he tries to expel as much emotion through his action as he can.

And maybe he’s trying to tamp something down, maybe he’s trying to distract them both from the weight of his sentiment.

But: “Hyung, I love you,” says Jinyoung as he pulls back. The words seem to twist and tear out of him, bursting out despite his best efforts.

Jaebum wonders how long he’s been struggling to hold them back. Was he trying to respect Jaebum’s boundaries? Had Jaebum maybe scared him out of saying it, that night in the hotel?

“I want to spend my life with you,” Jinyoung says, firmly.

Jaebum has to take a moment.

First: to remember how to breathe. The rain beats down on them, but it’s the emotion of the moment that feels the most forceful. Like an ocean wave, Jinyoung’s feelings don’t just crash down around him, they tug at Jaebum. His words grasp and pull and dig Jaebum’s tired, tremulous heart out from its defenses, and he’s left dizzy and disbelieving.

Jaebum sways a bit. Secondly: he’d thought this lunch date would be lighthearted, dropping off some tuna for the cats and then grabbing some snacks at the convenience store.

Instead, Jinyoung is pouring his heart out in the rain, and Jaebum’s world tilts on its axis once again. Jaebum had been dying to know how Jinyoung felt — but for some reason he hadn’t thought Jinyoung would say it first.

And now: flustered, all of Jaebum’s words seem to be lost in his throat, mouth achingly dry even as he presses Jinyoung closer to himself.

He inhales deeply, and tries to ground himself in this moment. Jinyoung deserves a response.

“I want that too,” Jaebum finally murmurs, kissing him at his brow. “Thank you for telling me.” And he still can’t bring himself to say he loves him back just yet, can’t quite reciprocate even when Jinyoung’s laid out his naked, open heart.

But he hopes Jinyoung can understand, hopes his sharp eyes are working the same way they always have. He’s been good about understanding, about patience. About peering through the fog of Jaebum’s insecurities.

Jinyoung still smiles at Jaebum now, as he helps them both to their feet.

“I’m sorry,” Jinyoung says, and Jaebum watches, bewildered, as he dips back down to scoop the kitten up. Jinyoung tucks it into his button-down now, next to his heart. “I know you wanted us to avoid clichés.”

Jaebum cocks his head in curiosity, as Jinyoung moves in close again, and the cat starts to purr between them. Jaebum wraps his arms around them both.

“What do you mean?” Jaebum asks, starting to smile. The image of Jinyoung babying a little forlorn kitten sets his heart pounding. It’s almost painfully cute.

“This,” Jinyoung gestures. “The cat, in the alley, with the rain. Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”

Jaebum laughs out loud, and then sighs, blossoms of affection bursting deep in his chest. “Well,” he says, clearing his throat. “It’s a classic for a reason.”

He stares at Jinyoung for another beat, and then kisses him soundly again. The rain rolls warm over them, trailing down their cheeks like a caress. The cat meows in protest, not quite on board with filming a romance instead of a rescue.

“What are you going to do with her?” Jaebum asks.

“I have that little balcony,” Jinyoung says. “So I can put her out there whenever Yugyeom comes over. But I think I’d appreciate some company, in the meantime.”

Jaebum beams at the thought, cupping his hand around the kitten’s damp head. “But think of all the hair she’ll shed,” he jokes, recalling their zoo visit.

Jinyoung nuzzles his own face forward, eyes glimmering playfully, and Jaebum lets his fingers curl up to dance under his chin as well.

“I have barely anything to clean,” Jinyoung says. “I can afford the extra vacuuming time.”

“Let’s get you two dried off,” Jaebum suggests.

“Hyung,” Jinyoung mentions quietly, as they make their way back to their apartment complex. “Isn’t it nice to be going home together?”

 

//

 

Jaebum catches a cold the following weekend.

Jinyoung expresses some guilt for having dawdled too long in the rain, but Jaebum insists it’s not his fault.

Still, Jinyoung stays by his side, doting on him as often as he’s freed up. He even manages to keep Yugyeom on schedule, when Monday rolls around and Jaebum is still bedridden.

By Tuesday, Jaebum is up and about, since missing class is more difficult towards the end of a term. Jinyoung still totes Yugyeom to and from Peachtree, brings home soup from one of Seokjin’s restaurants, and forces Jaebum to take some decongestants.

After dinner, they’re both enjoying some tea as Yugyeom eagerly commandeers the kitchen table. Crayons and coloring books are spilled everywhere, and Jaebum rubs at his sinuses.

“Appa is making a movie about cats,” Yugyeom says, showing Jinyoung a rather freeform interpretation of a cat. “I’m getting good at drawing them.”

“Well, they certainly have ears,” Jinyoung says, eyes flickering between the scribbles and Jaebum’s sleepy expression.

Jaebum tries not to choke as he hides a snort in his mug, shaking his head in mock disapproval.

Yugyeom doesn’t seem to pick up on their lack of enthusiasm, doodling happily onward.

“Do you want to show your appa the drawing you worked on at daycare today?” Jinyoung asks after a moment, tugging something out his discarded satchel. “You’ve become quite a prolific artist.”

“Yes!” Yugyeom screeches, and he stands up on the bench for a better view as Jinyoung unfolds a large sheet of paper carefully.

Yugyeom’s drawing is busy, and full of people figures in his signature style: primarily large faces. Their satellite limbs look like almost an afterthought, although Jaebum remembers BamBam’s royal portrait featuring very intentional, long legs.

He doesn’t seem to be a subject in this piece, however, so Jaebum guesses they’re mostly commoners.

“The kids drew their families,” Jinyoung says.

“Here is appa,” Yugyeom explains, slapping a finger down on one figure. Jaebum is surprised to find he’s already recognized his own face. It’s easy to cartoon, with sharp scribbles for eyes.

“It really looks like you,” Jinyoung points out, delighted.

“It does,” says Yugyeom, proudly. “And this is me. The smaller face.”

Jaebum smiles, spinning the paper around for a better angle. There’s a lot to take in — several other figures, cats and some scratched out subjects, multicolor swirls in the corners and a cheerful looking sky.

“Who’s this?” Jaebum points to a face in the sun.

“Eomma,” Yugyeom says. “That’s my eomma.”

And the word is so cris