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A Song of Birth (A Song of Newer Things)

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PARK CHANYEOL - PYROMANCER - PRACTICAL EXAM (LEVEL 6) - FAILED

Chanyeol stares at his exam report with a tight throat, eyes prickling with exhaustion and emotion. Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Failed.

“You understand the grounds on which we failed you, Mr. Park?” the head examiner says, mouth set and eyes regretful. They hadn’t wanted to. They never do.

Chanyeol nods. He knows, even without looking at the rest of the paper. He knew the moment it happened.

The pyromancy practicals are notoriously hard, and level 6 is the third-highest difficulty. He’d been woken up thirteen hours ago in the temporary dorms (used only during testing season), hauled into the exam room at 4 in the morning, and set to work immediately. Pyromancy practical exams have to test for endurance, power, and control, all in simulated emergency conditions at this level. Reflecting what he might have to do as the primary pyro in his district, which is what he was trying to get licensed for. For twelve hours, cut into four-hour shifts, he’d been run through rituals, casting types, barrier setting and releasing, target practice, reaction tests, precision tests. They needed to know he could do what he had to do under pressure, with too little sleep, with too little time to think, over an entire day. That’s what level 6 pyromancers do.

Chanyeol should have been able to do it. He’s been training for these exams for months, all day every day. He knows all the rituals, he knows all the theory, he knows what to do and when and he knows how to do it. His power is good—probably already at level 7, but he didn’t want to get cocky. His endurance is usually good too. He’s usually good.

But today. Today was not good. Chanyeol had been running himself ragged for months. Too long. Too hard. He’d pulled three all-nighters during his written exams and still hadn’t made up the lost sleep. He wasn’t all there. He was shaky, already, going into the exam; exhausted and frayed and threadbare. He’d practically fallen apart by the eleventh hour.

They’d failed him on the grounds of “insufficiency.” That’s what they call it. Insufficient control. Insufficient ability to keep himself together. Near the end of the test, his control had slipped. He hadn’t been able to snuff out a fire, and it had grown way past regulation minimum. It was an automatic fail. “Insufficiency,” they called it, but they really meant, “We think you might be emotionally unstable.” And Chanyeol couldn’t even dispute it.

“Mr. Park,” the examiner says again, and Chanyeol jerks back to awareness. He’s not sure if he’s passing out where he stands, or just slowly collapsing into a catatonic state of depression. The examiner looks apologetic. “Chanyeol. We can’t pass you, because your failure to extinguish the flames, and your inadequate grasp of control, would put the people you are expected to protect at risk.”

Chanyeol nods numbly, can’t even find his voice to reply. He spent the entire previous summer on the west coast helping a wildfire team control outbreaks, but that doesn’t matter here, now. He would not be capable now.

“Therefore, we cannot issue your license. Your next opportunity to retake this exam will be next year at the same time.”

Again, Chanyeol nods. He knows the exam schedule.

“As you know, you cannot practice pyromancy without a license, including in internships. Due to your insufficiency assessment, your interim practicing license has also been revoked for at least six months, to be recovered depending on your assessment at that time.” The examiner looks up, gives him a small, sympathetic smile. “We are requesting that you do not return to classes for at least four months, in order to focus on...recovery.”

Chanyeol swallows hard. By failing so spectacularly today, he has not only lost his chances of becoming a licensed primary pyro for the next year, but he has lost himself the permission to practice his trade at all. That means he can’t get a job in the field. He can’t practice on his own time. He can’t do anything. Because he’s considered a threat. Dangerous to the people around him, in the midst of his instability.

He sees the proof of this in the small burn on his Suppression and Extinguishment professor’s arm; a lasting sign of his failure. “Chanyeol,” she says, fingers curled over the edge of the examiners’ table. “If you think therapy or counselling would be beneficial to you, we have a list of resources for you to use.”

“Thanks,” he rasps, but doesn’t ask for them. He has four months to think about it, after all.

Four months of nothing.

He walks out without waiting to be formally dismissed.

*****

Post-failure depression hits Chanyeol hard.

It’s one thing to have completely fucked up the one thing he’s been working towards for twenty years in the space of twelve hours. And really, that’s shitty enough. That’s...really, really shitty. He doesn’t even like to think about the fact that he ruined his own life.

It’s another thing, though, to have absolutely nothing now. No job. No school. His friends are busy. His family lives several hours away. His girlfriend broke up with him before he threw himself into his training with an unhealthy amount of fervour. (He doesn’t blame her. Things hadn’t been working out for a while already before he decided to skip two levels and attempt to go for his level 6 license instead of 4, like he’d originally planned.)

So now, at 28, Chanyeol finds that he has absolutely nothing, except for a little white house in the suburbs of a small town, and a dumb as nails dog that slobbers on his jeans.

He allows himself to flounder and fall apart for seven days. Or, well, that he succumbs is probably more accurate. He stays in bed until twelve, and then he moves to the couch and lies there instead. He subsists on boxed macaroni and cheese and instant ramen alone. He ignores texts and lets the shower beat down on his face so that if he cries, not even he’ll be able to tell. But he doesn’t think he does. He doesn’t even feel sad. He just feels...empty. And numb. And there’s a dull, aching pain in his chest and stomach and behind his eyes that he just ignores, and sometimes thinks that he deserves.

It’s not like this was anyone’s fault but his own.

On the eighth day, though, he drags himself out of bed and into his car, because he has no food left that can be made in the microwave in less than five minutes. And when he gets there, he realizes he only has a five dollar bill in his wallet. And when he gets out his credit card, he realizes he has almost no money in the bank, either.

For the past seven years, he’s been living off of grants and scholarships and summer internships. He hasn’t needed a steady job. He certainly hasn’t been thinking about budgeting for the past six months.

He needs a job, but the only experience he has is in pyromancy-centered careers. Which means he’ll have to get something mundane, something that’ll probably pay minimum wage. Which isn’t a huge deal—he has no debt, his house is paid off (a gift from the last primary pyro in this district, who died a few years ago and left the job open for him), he doesn’t really have that many expenses. He just needs to be able to feed himself, really, and pay his utilities and phone bills. Maybe start saving up a little, in case something happens.

He gets a job at the print shop the next day. It doubles as an ice cream parlour in the spring and summer. He doesn’t really get it, but all he has to do is show up two or three times a week, scoop ice cream and count out nickels and make sure no one steals anything, so he doesn’t really care. His only coworker is an eighty-year-old man that gives Chanyeol free ice cream at the end of the day and sometimes leaves him alone in the front for hours on end. He’s fine with that, too.

Getting the job almost makes him more depressed. It doesn’t take up enough of his time that it distracts him from anything. And it makes him feel even more like a loser—28 years old, working a job usually given to high schoolers. But it gets him out of the house. It reminds him that he has to be a person.

“Being a person is hard, Lancelot,” he groans to his dog, sprawled out on the floor in his living room. The rug smells like mothballs and old people. The primary pyro before him had been a ninety-year-old lady, level 7. Her ridiculous amount of power had done nothing to dampen her love for floral prints and lacy curtains and needlepoint, and he hasn’t really bothered to redecorate in the two years he’s lived there.

Lancelot looks up from where he’s chewing lazily on the hem of Chanyeol’s sweater, blinks at him, then goes back to working a huge hole into the material.

Chanyeol doesn’t bother trying to stop him. “I’m always tired, and I feel like crap, and I don’t want to get up. Ever. Can I just lie here till I die?”

Lancelot picks up his head again and looks at him balefully. Chanyeol hates when he does that. It makes him feel guilty, no matter what he did or said.

Chanyeol sighs. “At least they didn’t take you away,” he says, and pats Lancelot’s enormous black head. “Now if only I could train you to go out and fetch things so that I would never have to go outside.”

At the word outside—one of the only words he consistently understands, bless his heart—Lancelot bounds to his feet and lets his tongue loll out of his mouth as he pants excitedly, ears standing straight up.

“Noooo, Lancelot, don’t make me get up. You don’t have to pee. I just let you out to pee an hour ago,” Chanyeol groans.

Lancelot lunges towards the door, apparently assuming Chanyeol is telling him that he’ll get up immediately.

“Whyyyyyyy,” Chanyeol moans, but at Lancelot’s insistent barking, he hauls himself to his feet and shuffles towards the back door, which leads into his fenced-in backyard. “Here you go,” he sighs, and pushes it open for Lancelot to explode through.

Usually, at that point, Chanyeol would just close the door again and go back to the living room floor until Lancelot decides he wants to come back inside. But today, the beam of sunlight that slants in through the open door makes him pause. It warms his face and his bare feet, and reminds him that it’s not the whole world that’s cold and dead and miserable—it’s just him.

A warm breeze sneaks in—warm for early March, at least—and Chanyeol inhales deeply. There’s still a little snow on the ground in places, brown and soggy, but it’s melting quickly in this sun, and the smell of fresh, damp spring is clinging to the air. The sky is vast and blue above him, and the world is big and full of life.

And then Chanyeol’s stomach growls plaintively, and he sighs and trudges back inside to try to throw together a lunch that consists of something other than carbs and fake cheese.

*****

It’s cold and rainy for the next week. Chanyeol stays inside and watches Netflix and tries to learn how to cook and pets Lancelot when he begs for attention, and works for a total of fifteen hours. He sleeps a lot. It takes a lot of energy to hate himself with the kind of constancy Chanyeol is currently attempting.

Finally, though, in the third week of Chanyeol’s enforced recovery period from hell, the sun comes out again. Chanyeol is unspeakably grateful, mostly because Lancelot has been tracking mud inside for days and he doesn’t have the energy to keep mopping.

At two o’clock, he lets Lancelot out and finds himself enjoying the warmth of the sun on his cheeks and nose. So he gives in, and drags a chair from the kitchen out onto the small square of concrete tiles just outside the back door, and sits down for a while. Just sits there, ignoring his chilly toes and fingers, and breathes in the clean air, the smell of spring rain and wet soil. Lancelot does laps around his yard, peeing on things ritualistically.

Chanyeol hasn’t spent much time outside in the two years he’s lived in this house. He’s barely even looked at the backyard at all, apart from to make sure it didn’t contain anything that Lancelot would stupidly swallow and choke on, or something like that. Now, today, he looks at it with something between boredom and judgement. It’s mostly mud and some patches of dead grass and weeds, with a few holes scattered throughout, courtesy of Lancelot. And along all four sides, including the side of his house, there are what probably used to be flowerbeds, but are now just lengths of soil overgrown with thick weeds, choking out all signs of other life, tangled and knotted and ugly. It is, quite frankly, really depressing to look at.

And to make him look even worse, of course, the backyard next to his is gorgeous. Chanyeol can see it over the fence to his right, sprawling and lush and thriving already in March’s cruel and unpredictable weather. The flowers are blooming, everything is green and practically bursting with life, and Chanyeol hates it.

He shouldn’t. He is fully aware that a hedgewitch lives there. A cute one, with round eyes and freckles. It’s obvious, by the fact that he has a living garden, in March. Obvious that he’s a hedgewitch, that is, not that he’s cute. The fact that he’s cute is made obvious by the fact that Chanyeol has eyes, and those eyes have seen his neighbour once or twice, just in passing.

Anyway, Chanyeol knows, obviously, that he can’t compete with that. So he shouldn’t feel offended and angry at his beautiful, well-manicured gardens, but he does anyway.

After all, if there’s one thing that says you have your life together, it’s a meticulous garden. And Chanyeol obviously does not have his life together. At all.

So he starts tearing the weeds up. It’s dumb, because he knows nothing about gardens and there are like a million weeds and the dirt is cold and kind of soggy and it’s not like clearing out the weeds will make it look much better than it does currently. But he just kind of gets it in his head, that this will be the thing that makes him feel better. That weeding his goddamn gardens will save him from literally wasting away in his little, quiet house.

Except that after an hour of pulling up like a hundred dead plants, he’s only cleared a couple square feet of soil, and his fingers are sore and cold and coated in mud, and he realizes that he actually hates gardening. But now the whole thing looks even worse, and he feels even more stupid for even starting (and failing, again, he’s gotten very good at failing recently), and he sits back, sweating and angry and pathetic, and sets them on fire.

It’s a calculated move, in the first place. He was a forest ranger—he knows that the occasional burning of overgrowth can make way for newer, fresher life. He figures he’ll just burn out all the weeds, and maybe something a little less unsightly will grow in their place when the weather warms up.

As it turns out, though, two weeks of depression and self-pity have done nothing to improve Chanyeol’s control since his practical exam. The fire starts out small and contained, a dark flame that’s resistant against moisture. But he’s tired, and a little pissed, and in no state to be messing around with fire, especially considering the fact that he got his license revoked very recently. The fire grows, and Chanyeol panics and tries to snuff it out with a wave of his hands.

The fire responds by blooming across the length of his garden on that side of his yard, blazing up and down the stretch of soil. “Shit!”

Standard procedure in a situation like this (Code B4, uncontrolled summoned fire, Black) would be to pause, take a centering breath, assess the situation, and then sweep from the outside in to shrink the fire before putting it out entirely. But right now, Chanyeol is not thinking about standard procedure. He’s thinking that he’s an idiot, and he has to put this out before something happens and the pyro council is informed that he’s been using his ability without a license, and he’s sporadically trying to put out sections at full power, and he’s panicking and letting things get out of hand, and—

There’s water flying in his face, soaking his entire body. And then the jet turns to the fire at his feet, strong and relentless, effectively extinguishing the flames in less than fifteen seconds. Chanyeol gapes and lifts his gaze.

The cute hedgewitch is standing on the other side of his fence, hose nozzle in hand, eyebrows raised.

Chanyeol stares, dripping in the mud, and then pouts as everything kind of registers belatedly. He, a nearly-level-6 pyromancer, just got rescued from a relatively small fire by his tiny hedgewitch neighbour, because he was trying to...weed his garden. Oh, the irony. “Thanks,” he sighs.

“I wasn’t saving you,” says his neighbour. “I was saving the rosebushes. And my fence, but mostly the rosebushes.”

Chanyeol blinks at him. He probably looks even dumber than he feels, in his wet clothes in the middle of March. “There’s rosebushes here?”

His neighbour’s eyebrows dance a little, so that now only one is raised. They’re impressive eyebrows. “Yeah? That whole fence is covered in climbing ivy and roses. Really nice ones. Haven’t you lived here for a while?”

“Yeah…” Chanyeol says, hunching his shoulders. He really wants to go inside now, and change into dry clothes, and sulk for a couple hours. Or days.

The hedgewitch snorts. “I’m Kyungsoo,” he says, leaning his crossed arms on the top of the fence. It’s around five feet tall, and it looks like Kyungsoo is straining to reach over it, his elbows up by his chin.

“Chanyeol,” Chanyeol replies glumly.

“I know,” Kyungsoo says.

“Oh.” Chanyeol clears his throat, scratches his wet throat.

“What were you trying to do there, Chanyeol?” Kyungsoo asks, smiling a little now, like he’s amused.

“Clear out the weeds?” Chanyeol says, like it’s a question. He doesn’t know why he feels so nervous, talking to Kyungsoo. Maybe it’s because he has just managed to give literally the most embarrassing possible first impression, and Kyungsoo is as intimidating as he is cute.

“And everything else?” Kyungsoo asks.

Chanyeol looks out over his gardens, now with a big, singed patch in the middle of one side. “I thought it was all weeds,” he admits.

Kyungsoo laughs, surprising him. He has a low voice, for someone so small, and when he smiles his lips and cheeks get all round. “No, not quite,” he says.

Chanyeol sighs and shrugs listlessly. It’s hard to even muster the energy to have a crush on Kyungsoo. He mostly just feels dumb and embarrassed, with an undercurrent of vague attraction. But even that is overlaid with more embarrassment. He really looks like an idiot right now.

“Soooo,” Kyungsoo says, tipping his head to the side, still smiling. “Do you want me to help, maybe?”

Chanyeol gapes, caught by surprise. “What?”

“With the weeds,” Kyungsoo says, gesturing. “You know, so you don’t destroy the rest of the gardens. They’re nice gardens. Or they were, you know, when they were being taken care of.”

Chanyeol stares at him. “You want to help? With my gardens?”

Kyungsoo’s shoulders twitch up a little; he’d probably be shrugging, if his shoulders weren’t already practically touching his ears. “Sure.”

Chanyeol stares a little more. In the two years that he’s lived in this house, he has not once spoken to his neighbour. He has barely even seen his neighbour, and when he has, despite thinking he’s cute (because he is), Chanyeol has basically just pegged him as totally unapproachable. Hedgewitches tend to be solitary people, by nature. Or at least that’s the stereotype. They work alone, they keep to themselves, they prefer their plants to people. Chanyeol had just assumed that was true.

But now here’s Kyungsoo, offering to fix up his garden for him.

“Don’t you have, like...your own gardens to tend?” Chanyeol asks, glancing over the fence at them.

Kyungsoo does a micro-shrug again. His eyes are sparkling a little, and Chanyeol is trying to pretend he’s not laughing at Chanyeol on the inside. “Nah, they’re doing fine on their own. Yours, on the other hand, need...a little TLC, if you know what I mean.”

Chanyeol snorts. “Um, yeah. I guess they do.”

“So do you want me to help?” Kyungsoo asks, eyebrows lifting. “No charge. You’d be pretty dumb to pass up a chance to get some gardening tips from a hedgewitch.”

Chanyeol sighs gustily. “Are you sure you want to do this? Like, really sure?”

“Trust me, fixing up your gardens would be a gift to me,” Kyungsoo says, smiling again.

Chanyeol has to chuckle at that. “Well, then… I guess I can’t deny you that small pleasure.”

Kyungsoo smiles wider. “Great. I’ll be right over; you might want to get changed.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol says. “Right.”

He realizes, suddenly, that he’s still sopping wet, and absolutely freezing in the less-than-balmy spring air. Turning on his heel, he jogs back to his house, ducking his head embarrassedly.

Well. As far as first meetings go, Chanyeol’s had better.

Five minutes later, Chanyeol’s changed into a dry pair of jeans and a fairly clean sweater, and he’s in the middle of hastily towelling his hair when there’s a knock at the door. He stumbles down the stairs to yank it open, and then slams it closed again when Lancelot lunges towards it. “Um,” he hears Kyungsoo say from the other side.

“Sorry,” Chanyeol says sheepishly, cracking it back open. “My dumb dog was going to try to maul you. With kisses. Dog kisses. He’s dumb.”

Kyungsoo blinks at him, and then smiles. He looks...really cute when he smiles. Chanyeol really wishes he could have looked less like a loser during their first introductions. “More of a cat person, but I can handle dogs.”

“Yeah, um, he’s not actually, like, aggressive or anything. He just gets super excited when I open the door.” Chanyeol turns slightly, keeping the door mostly closed still. “Down, Lancelot.”

Pushing the door open on his own, Kyungsoo snorts. “Lancelot?” he asks.

“Yeah?” Chanyeol frowns. “What?”

“Nothing. Just. That’s his name?”

“What’s wrong with it?” Chanyeol asks, brows furrowing. “Lancelot was a fucking badass.”

Kyungsoo cocks an eyebrow as he steps inside, and then suddenly his face slackens with surprise and vague horror. “Shit. Did you name him?”

“Yes,” Chanyeol says, resisting the urge to pout and cross his arms like a child. He’s considering telling Kyungsoo he doesn’t need help after all, no matter how cute he is.

“Shit, sorry. I’m so sorry. I thought— Listen, I thought he was a familiar. Which already come named, you know? Witch familiars come with names, so I thought Lancelot was the name he came up with.”

Chanyeol blinks. “You thought he named himself?

Kyungsoo shrugs. “Yeah? All the familiars I know did. Mine did.”

Chanyeol opens and closes his mouth a couple times. For all the Able people he knows, he’s never actually spent time with a witch of any sort, not at any length. He doesn’t know all that much about their branch of ability. Or the...weird quirks that apparently come with it. “Lancelot’s not a familiar,” he says eventually. “He’s a hellhound.”

Kyungsoo jerks back from where Lancelot is currently putting his enormous black paws all over him, panting heavily against his clothes. “A what?

“A...hellhound,” Chanyeol says. “Most pyros get one when they pass their level 3 test. They’re like, companions. But mine’s just dumb.” He frowns. “Down, Lancelot.”

Kyungsoo stares at his dog. He’s huge, some kind of overgrown Shepherd with shaggy black fur and paws the size of softballs, and he’s drooling everywhere. “What does he do?”

“Oh, he, um. He kind of...bursts into flame, you know, on cue. I’d demonstrate, but we’re inside, and also...I’m not allowed.” Because he got his license revoked, he should say, but doesn’t.

“Oh. Alright, then. Hellhound, got it. Don’t let him set you on fire.” Kyungsoo nods.

Chanyeol eyes the bucket hanging from Kyungsoo’s hand warily, overflowing with dirty tools, but pauses to first say, “So what’s your familiar’s name, then?”

Kyungsoo visibly hesitates. “Oh, uh. All hedgewitch familiars have naturalistic names. You know, like flowers or plants or whatever.”

“So what’s yours’?” Chanyeol presses.

Kyungsoo fidgets. “It’s, um. Fruit Basket.”

Chanyeol can’t say anything for a second. “Fruit Basket?

Kyungsoo scowls. “I didn’t come up with it, alright? She just showed up at my house, already with that name.”

Slowly, Chanyeol begins to grin. “Fruit Basket.”

“I guess she thought it was creative or something, I don’t know,” Kyungsoo says snippily.

“And you thought Lancelot was a weird name,” Chanyeol says, biting the inside of his cheek. “Fruit Basket.

“It’s a good name,” Kyungsoo says, and turns sharply towards the back door. “So are we going to weed some gardens or not?”

Chanyeol grins at the back of his head. “Yeah,” he says, feeling lighter and brighter than he has in weeks. Maybe months. “Let’s go weed some gardens.”

*****

The thing is, Chanyeol realizes as he gets down on his knees next to Kyungsoo, hands now stuffed into a pair of heavy gardening gloves, he doesn’t want Kyungsoo to just...magically fix his garden. He wants Kyungsoo’s help—needs it, really, or else those gardens won’t be getting fixed ever—but he doesn’t want Kyungsoo to just whip it into shape with his mysterious abilities. That would change nothing. Chanyeol still wouldn’t feel like he has his life together. He’d still feel like a loser. And he won’t have done anything but sit back and watch, probably.

So, like a stubborn six-year-old just learning how to tie his own shoelaces, he says, “I just want you to help. Okay? I can do it myself, but I just want you to...help. A little.”

Kyungsoo gives him a dry, unimpressed look. “You can do it yourself, huh?”

Chanyeol blushes. “I mean, I can do it with my hands. I want to bring this garden back to life with my own two hands. With your help. But I want these gardens to be...mine. Even if they’re just empty dirt plots.”

Kyungsoo looks at him long and hard. Then he says, “Okay. I see what you mean. But they won’t be empty; there’s still some perennials buried deep, deep inside there, waiting to be tamed.”

“I don’t know what that means, but it sounds like a good thing,” Chanyeol says.

Kyungsoo snorts. “Perennials are flowers that die and then grow back again next year. Annuals are flowers that you plant once, bloom once, and then are done for. Some of these—” He waves his hand over the garden, “—are the remains of old annuals. Some are perennials, and will bloom again when it warms up. Like the roses.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol says.

He looks dumb again.

“Anyway,” Kyungsoo says, moving on smoothly, “I can accept you wanting to preserve your integrity by tending your own damn gardens. I’m a hedgewitch, after all; I understand garden possessiveness.”

Chanyeol snorts a little.

But.” He gestures vaguely with one of his tools. “I hope you know that if you don’t let me mess around with your gardens at all, in terms of my ability, it’s not gonna look like mine. And that’s not a bad thing. But I’m just warning you. Don’t expect it to look anything like my garden. It’s about three months too early for anyone’s gardens to look like mine.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol says, although he’d guessed that. Everything is too...grey, compared to Kyungsoo’s garden. Like it’s not quite natural. Which it isn’t, really.

“So, let’s get to work,” Kyungsoo says. “Before you pull anything up, ask me if it’s a weed and/or irreparably dead, or if it stays. Here’s your trowel.”

He hands Chanyeol a tiny shovel, and then picks up his own. And then they start weeding.

*****

Gardening, it turns out, is the kind of job that Chanyeol still hates, even when he’s doing it alongside a cute and surprisingly not-unfriendly neighbour. It’s cold outside, and the dirt is even colder. Chanyeol’s fingers get stiff and sore, and he never knows for sure if he’s doing anything right, and progress is mind-numbingly slow. And there’s just so many weeds.

“So what we’re really doing is clearing space for the existing flowers that you want to keep,” Kyungsoo says, stabbing at the hard dirt with a little hooked hoe, which he calls a weeder. “Plants need space to grow. They need sun and nutrients, and they’re not going to get that if there are weeds and old dead plants choking them out. Weeds are basically like colonizing Europeans. They say they just want a bit of your abundant space, and then suddenly they’re kicking out everyone they don’t like and giving everyone STDs and smallpox and cutting down the rainforests.”

Chanyeol snorts. Kyungsoo’s not a huge talker—he doesn’t really seem to do much idle chitchatting, only really says something when he feels the need to explain what he’s doing—but he has a quick, dry wit. Chanyeol likes it.

“So yeah, that’s what we’re doing now. Giving the plants we like some room to breathe, setting them up with some nice living space. And then, after that, you have to divide up any of your perennials that have gotten too big while you’ve been letting them do whatever, and then prune and trim, and put down mulch, and then replant.”

Chanyeol gapes. “We’re doing all of that today?

Kyungsoo actually laughs, sitting back on his heels and wiping at his forehead with the back of one filthy glove. It leaves a brown streak across his skin. “Oh, god, no. That’ll take a lot longer than one afternoon.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol says. He almost asks Will you be coming back, then? but he’s already embarrassed himself more than enough for one day, and isn’t really desperate to do it again.

So he stays quiet and helps Kyungsoo weed.

It’s gruelling work, absolute murder on Chanyeol’s back, but after a while he kind of...falls into a trance, in a weird way. The first hour is spent biting back groans and asking questions that make him look like an idiot and hating his life, but after that he just...does it. His mind wanders, but never enough that he has time to think about how miserable and disappointing his life is. He has to stay focused enough to make sure he’s not pulling out good plants, but not so focused that it’s mentally draining in any way. He just stabs and levers and yanks, and watches Kyungsoo to make sure he’s doing it right, and slowly, slooooowly watches his gardens open up.

And then, around 7:00, he realizes they’ve been working for hours, and he’s starving and aching all over, and he has offered Kyungsoo literally nothing in thanks.

“So, um,” he says, loudly enough that Kyungsoo has to hear him across the yard, working on another section of the garden.

Kyungsoo keeps working with single-minded purpose.

“Um,” Chanyeol repeats, a little louder. “It’s getting kind of late… Do you want to come in for dinner or something, maybe?”

Kyungsoo finally lifts his head, but doesn’t turn to face him as he says, “Sure, I could eat.”

Chanyeol smiles to himself a little, only because Kyungsoo can’t see him. He has a little game, still. Kind of. Maybe.

They head in a couple minutes later, and Chanyeol throws together a simple pasta while Kyungsoo rips up lettuce for salad. It’s silent for the majority of the time it takes for the water to boil, but around the time that Chanyeol is trying to remember how to measure out the right amount of pasta, Kyungsoo says, “So why the sudden interest in landscaping?”

“What?” Chanyeol says, nearly dropping the box of linguine in surprise. He’d been trying to think of something not-embarrassing to say for five minutes—he hadn’t expected Kyungsoo to speak first.

Kyungsoo gestures towards the back door vaguely, grimacing a little as Lancelot drools on his leg. “It’s just that, you know, I haven’t really seen any signs of life from this house in months. And now you’re out and about in the yard.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol fidgets. “Yeah, I was...focusing on school.” Too much, he can admit now that it’s over. He’d lost ten pounds this semester.

“And you’re not now?” Kyungsoo asks.

“Pyro exams are at the end of February,” Chanyeol tells him, dumping pasta into the pot haphazardly. He can deal with leftovers. “Semester’s over.”

“So you graduated?” Kyungsoo asks. “Also, how old are you? I graduated like four years ago.”

“Twenty-eight,” Chanyeol mutters, embarrassment mounting. So much for avoiding that. “I was going for my level 6 license.”

Kyungsoo makes a quiet, possibly-impressed sound. “Damn. No wonder you’re so old.”

Chanyeol chokes. “I’m not old!”

He looks up, and sees Kyungsoo smirking at him. Oh.

“So why aren’t you working?” Kyungsoo asks a few minutes later, when Chanyeol is pouring cream into a pan for the sauce. “I don’t really know what pryos do, but with a level 6 license I can’t imagine it’d be that hard to find a job.”

Chanyeol shuffles his feet, face red, gut twisting. “I failed,” he forces himself to say. No point in lying. “Lost my interim license till I can be reevaluated.”

Kyungsoo whistles lowly. “Ouch.”

Chanyeol swallows with difficulty past the lump in his throat and shrugs. “Yeah,” he croaks.

They finish making supper in silence. Chanyeol’s not really hungry anymore, anyway.

When they’re sitting down at his table, with food on their plates, though, Kyungsoo speaks up again. “You know,” he says, twirling pasta around his fork. “The cool thing about plants is that they can get through four and five months of freezing weather, and still come back in the spring and bloom again.”

Chanyeol stares at him, confused.

Kyungsoo shrugs, not even looking at him. “I just think it’s pretty amazing. They go through, you know, the absolute worst conditions, and basically die, and then after all that they’re able to bounce back like none of that even happened.” He glances up, blinks once. “Must feel pretty hopeless in the winter, though.”

There’s a heavy beat of silence, and then Chanyeol turns back to his meal with a frown. He has the feeling Kyungsoo’s not just talking about plants anymore.

*****

By the time the sun starts setting and it gets literally too cold to work outside anymore (fuck March, seriously), they’ve managed to clear out about half of the gardens. All those hours of hard, physical labour, and only half of the gardens have been weeded. They don’t even look nice. They’re straight-up ugly. They’re just patches of dirt with some scraggly, grey-brown plants poking out of them. It looks ridiculous.

Kyungsoo stands up, crosses his arms, and smiles as he nods in satisfaction. “Good work today, Park,” he says.

Chanyeol has no idea how he knows his last name. “Uh. Thanks?”

“This should only take one more day to finish up. The weeding, I mean. If we work hard at it.”

Chanyeol swallows thickly. “We?”

Kyungsoo glances at him, eyebrows raised. “You think I’d let you go at it alone? You’d destroy it. I can’t let a homicide happen this close to my house. It’d be bad for the neighbourhood reputation. I could be considered an accessory to the crime, probably.”

Chanyeol doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

“Of course I’m going to help you,” Kyungsoo scoffs, like it’s obvious. “Idiot.”

“O-oh,” Chanyeol stutters. “Okay. Tomorrow?”

Kyungsoo shrugs, stretching his arms up over his head. He’s wearing a thick, heavy jacket (green—Chanyeol thinks hedgewitches are contractually obligated to wear green at all times, like leprechauns), but when he stretches like that, the hem rides up to show a flash of his stomach, paler in complexion than his face. Not that Chanyeol’s looking. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll swing by when I have time.”

“Okay,” Chanyeol says again. And then, awkwardly, avoiding eye contact, “Thanks.”

Kyungsoo makes a soft, snorting sound. “Yeah. You’re welcome.” He scuffs his shoes against the hard-packed ground. “See you around, Chanyeol.”

“Bye,” Chanyeol fumbles to say, and then watches in silence as Kyungsoo lets himself out through the front gate.

Kyungsoo doesn’t show up the next day. Chanyeol would know, because he’s home all day, lying on his couch, staring up at the ceiling. It’s a Thursday—Kyungsoo’s probably working. Chanyeol could go do some weeding on his own, but he’s scared of messing everything up, like Kyungsoo said. So he stays inside. And waits. But he never comes.

On Friday, Chanyeol works, from noon to six—two hours later than when Kyungsoo showed up the last time. When he gets home, he spends his entire evening staring at the door, and staring through his upstairs bathroom window at Kyungsoo’s house, wondering if he’s even there, or if he forgot about his promise, or if he was joking, or whatever.

There are lights on in his house in the late evening, but no knock on Chanyeol’s door. He tries not to jump to conclusions (he could be home and busy), but accidentally jumps to six.

On Saturday, Chanyeol works again, eight to three. He spends the rest of the day waiting. And worrying. What if Kyungsoo came while he was gone and had given up? What if he thinks Chanyeol’s ignoring him? Should he leave a note on the door? Would that be too needy? Would it be weird or helpful?

Chanyeol’s so torn up about it that he doesn’t get off the couch for the rest of the day. Eventually, he does nothing.

On Sunday, he spends the first half of the day doing the same thing. It’s a gorgeous day out, warm and sunny and inviting, but Chanyeol barely even notices. He makes ramen for lunch, and worries that he’ll fall back into the deep dark pit of post-failure depression. He’d just been starting to claw his way out of it.

And then, as he’s trying to take an extremely unneeded nap on the couch, Lancelot suddenly goes fucking nuts. He actually goes legitimately berserk. He’s not really a lowkey, predictable dog in the first place, but he doesn’t usually do this—barking like mad, scrabbling at the walls, knocking over furniture. Chanyeol nearly has a heart attack.

He gets up, heart pounding, and sees a cat in his kitchen, sitting on the windowsill.

“Goddammit, Lancelot!” Chanyeol snaps. “It’s a fucking cat! You see cats every day, probably!”

The cat—a somewhat chubby brown tabby that looks vaguely familiar to Chanyeol, somehow—gazes at him boredly, and then hops down from the counter and walks towards him. Lancelot yelps and scrambles from the room.

“Who are you?” Chanyeol asks, frowning. “I don’t know you. Go away, cat. How did you even get in here?”

“Mrrrow,” says the cat, and stops at his feet to lick its paw.

“Yeah, sure, okay. If you’re just here to terrorize my dog, scram,” Chanyeol tells it.

The cat stops licking itself to stare at him, like he’s an idiot.

“What? Go away, you creepy burglar cat,” Chanyeol says, fidgeting under its gaze.

The cat tips up its chin, and Chanyeol sees a little piece of paper tucked into its collar.

Chanyeol feels like he’s in a sort of daze as he crouches down to pull the paper free, like he’s suddenly ascended to an alternate universe where secret messages are delivered via carrier cat. Or something. He unrolls the tiny scroll and reads it with bated breath.

Stop moping and just send me your fucking phone number if you’re so desperate to ask me to come over again.

Chanyeol gapes. “What the— Fruit Basket?

The cat chirrups and lies down to take a nap.

“Oh my god,” Chanyeol says. “He sent me a message via cat.”

He receives no response, so he turns the paper over and writes You could have just sent me your number instead of this hurtful note. And then he cross that out, throws the paper away entirely, and writes his cell number and a :[ face on a fresh piece of paper to roll up and tuck back into Fruit Basket’s collar.

“Now...take this back,” he says.

Fruit Basket stares up at him with bored, unimpressed eyes.

“What? Is there a magic word? Go, cat. Go back to your master. Owner. Witch friend. Go.

Fruit Basket blinks once, and then waits just long enough before leaving to make Chanyeol feel like it wasn’t his order that made him leave, but the cat’s own boredom with being in his presence. Fucking cat.

Ten minutes later, his phone lights up.

Unknown number: Fruit Basket says to tell your dog to fuck off, please and thanks.

Chanyeol laughs. And then feels offended. And confused. Lancelot has the right to bark at random cats who break in through the window, he types back. Then, Also, does your cat actually talk or are you fucking with me?

It takes a few long, excruciating minutes to get a response.

Kyungsoo: She’s not a cat, she’s a familiar.

That’s not an answer, but Chanyeol feels too embarrassed to ask again. I wasn’t moping, he types instead.

The reply is faster this time.

Kyungsoo: Fruit Basket says you were.

Fruit Basket lies, Chanyeol responds furiously, cheeks warm.

Kyungsoo: While that may be true, you did give me your number, so…

Chanyeol swears under his breath and decides to change the subject. So are you coming over, or…?

Kyungsoo: It’s my day off.
Kyungsoo: Give me one good reason to come weed your garden on my day off.

Chanyeol chews on his lip. Is he saying he doesn’t want to come? Or is he just teasing? Chanyeol’s always had a hard time telling if people are teasing him.

With hesitant fingers, he types out, I’ll order pizza…?

It takes less than a minute for Kyungsoo to respond.

Kyungsoo: Sold. I’ll come around in an hour or so.

Chanyeol doesn’t know why he feels so happy about that.

*****

A few hours into their second day of weeding, even Kyungsoo seems to be sick to death of it. He’s pretty quiet about it, but every time Chanyeol looks at him, Kyungsoo’s scowling at the ground below him, and as they approach the ends of the side they’re working on, Chanyeol can hear him quietly repeating, “Go, go, go, go,” to himself as he rips weeds out of the earth.

“Goddamn fucking yarrow,” he hears Kyungsoo growling, shoving his trowel under a clump of dull, feathery leaves. “Bane of my existence, I swear to god. Plant it one time and suddenly it’s taking over the whole fucking garden. Flower my ass. This is a goddamn weed. This is a curse.

Chanyeol bites his lip and says nothing, scared Kyungsoo will stop if he realizes Chanyeol is listening.

Near the end of their work day, as they approach the very ends of the gardens on either side of Chanyeol’s yard, he gets more vocal about his motivating, cleaving the earth with his weeder in time with his louder, rhythmic chant of, “GO, GO, GO,” face set and dead serious. Chanyeol laughs, and goes. He’s probably even more eager to be done than Kyungsoo, because he’s never done this before, and his hands and back are killing him.

The last five minutes of work are done to the tune of Kyungsoo yelling wordlessly, like a desperate soldier on a rampage, hacking and stabbing and clearing his path with somewhat unnerving intensity.

At the end, he stands up with his fists in the air, surveying his work with solemn pride. “It is finished.”

Chanyeol snorts, sliding his hands out of his gloves and wiping his sore hands on his filthy jeans. “Gardens: conquered.”

“Well,” Kyungsoo says, finally lowering his hands. “Not quite. These gardens still need a bit of work. If you can believe it.” He gestures to the ravaged, half-bare plots with a dry smile.

Chanyeol can’t help but groan. “Why are plants so much work?”

“You’re the one who decided he wanted to spontaneously give his yard a makeover,” Kyungsoo points out, amused. “And the one who told me not to use my ability.”

Chanyeol scowls in response. “Isn’t flora supposed to survive in like...the wild? Why is it so high-maintenance? We’ve spoiled them.”

Kyungsoo laughs, taking off his own gloves and twisting to crack his back. “I’m not gonna get into the history of floriculture just now. But you do know that gardening is something most people do for fun, right? You’re not being forced?”

Chanyeol blinks. “Yeah, I— I know.”

“Then why are you doing it?” Kyungsoo asks, cocking his hip, expectant. Like he thinks he knows Chanyeol’s answer.

But not even Chanyeol knows the answer. “I… I don’t know. I have nothing better to do right now. I guess, you know, why not fix up my backyard?”

Kyungsoo lifts his eyebrows a little, like he’s surprised and maybe impressed. Then he says, “It feels good to see things flourish under your hands.”

Chanyeol shrugs, a little morose. The only thing he ever does is burn stuff. Destroy stuff.

“Sometimes, though,” Kyungsoo says, “things have to get worse before they get better. And sometimes you have to work your ass off to get there.”

Chanyeol stares at him. The look Kyungsoo is giving him seems a little intense for gardening talk, and suddenly he feels lost.

And then Kyungsoo says, “Anyway, where’s that pizza I was promised for all my hard work?” and the tension breaks. Chanyeol laughs and goes inside to find the number to order it, and Kyungsoo yells his topping preferences from the yard, and fifteen minutes later they’re eating in Chanyeol’s kitchen, the windows open and a gorgeous breeze blowing through. Sometimes they’re quiet, and sometimes they chat—Kyungsoo still isn’t talkative, but when he does say something, it’s always interesting or witty, and Chanyeol finds himself genuinely trying to make him talk. He wants to hear anything Kyungsoo has to say.

“So, um,” he says carefully, chewing on his slice of pizza. “What do hedgewitches…do, exactly?”

Kyungsoo snorts into his can of root beer. “You seriously don’t know?”

“You don’t know what pyros do!” Chanyeol shoots back immediately, face warming. “You said it yourself.”

“Our town has like, two pyros, max,” Kyungsoo says, smirking. “It’s literally full of hedgewitches. It’s like the hedgewitch capital, I swear to god.”

Chanyeol huffs and crosses his arms childishly. “I’ve only lived here two years.”

Only two years,” Kyungsoo says, chuckling.

“And I was in school! Pyromancer school! I wasn’t going around meeting my neighbours, obviously. My best friends are a mage and an Unable,” Chanyeol says with a scowl.

“Do those still exist?” Kyungsoo says, eyes exaggeratedly wide. “I was starting to think they’d gone extinct in this town.”

“You do know that Able people are a minority, right?” Chanyeol says, snickering. “And he’s from the next town over, actually. He’s the mage’s boyfriend. And the mage went to uni with me, he was studying elementals.”

“Ahhh. That explains it.” Kyungsoo grins wryly. “No room for anyone but goddamn hedgewitches in this town. It’s because the soil is so good. Very spiritually charged.” He wiggles his fingers.

“So what do you all do?” Chanyeol asks again. “Is your ability really that diverse, that you can all have witchy jobs even if there are so many of you in one place?”

Kyungsoo laughs, shakes his head. “No, absolutely not. You’ve probably met a lot more of us than you think. You do know I run a bookstore, right?”

Chanyeol opens his mouth, and then closes it. “Um. No. I did not know that.”

Kyungsoo tuts and shakes his head. “Like you said, we can’t all have witchy jobs. Me and a friend run a store together, and we sell some tinctures and herb blends and teas in the front as well. He specializes in sleep and natural solutions for physical illness or discomfort. I specialize in mental discomfort. We make an okay living.”

“Oh boy, solutions for mental discomfort, sign me the fuck up for that,” Chanyeol says, grinning too wide for it to possibly look genuine.

Kyungsoo gives him a steady look and doesn’t smile back. “Chanyeol, not everything can be magically cured by a Mind Ease tea.”

Chanyeol pouts. “Damn.”

“To answer your question, hedgewitches don’t generally fix things,” Kyungsoo says. “They soothe things. They dull things. They don’t usually take care of the underlying problems. They’ll clear up a rash, but they won’t stop you from being allergic to whatever gave it to you. They’ll help you come down from a hysterical panic attack, but they won’t be able to reverse whatever caused it.” He folds his hands on top of the table. “And they do it all naturally, so suck on that, pharmaceutics.”

Chanyeol chuckles, still a little uneasy. “Is that what you’re doing here?” he asks. “Soothing me?”

Kyungsoo snorts. “No. I’m soothing your disaster of a backyard.” He pauses, then adds, “If that manages to soothe you, then that’s an added bonus.”

That makes Chanyeol feel kind of warm, in a mostly good way, so instead of responding and inevitably ruining it, he shuts up and leans back in his chair and smiles.

Kyungsoo smiles back, without the usual sarcastic bite, and that makes him feel even warmer. Chanyeol thinks he’d like to make Kyungsoo smile at him like that again. A lot.

Yeah, that’d be pretty nice.

*****

Shockingly, Chanyeol...actually does get the chance to take a stab at that. Kyungsoo goes home shortly after they finish their pizza the day they finish weeding, but a couple days later he’s back, unannounced. And with him comes a massive bag of grass seed in a basket, which he calls a “welcoming gift,” even though Chanyeol’s been living there for two years.

He basically invites himself into Chanyeol’s house, tells him all the reasons why sowing grass seed in spring is totally un-ideal, and then proceeds to help him do it anyway, over the space of three days. They rake up patches of weeds and dead grass (and it all looks dead to Chanyeol, but Kyungsoo seems to instinctively know which bits are unsalvageable), and loosen the soil in places where there’s just dirt instead of grass, and then they sow the seed, and press it into the ground with their bare feet, and then put down fertilizer and water it. They talk on and off the whole time, and sometimes, Chanyeol makes Kyungsoo laugh.

It’s enough to get him through the rest of the week, easily.

The week after that, Kyungsoo invites himself over again and they finish up with the gardens. Chanyeol prunes and trims some of the bushes and shrubs, following Kyungsoo’s instructions to the letter, and lets Kyungsoo handle the dividing up of some of the larger clumps of plants, because he’d probably kill them if he tried (but he does watch and try to learn).

Kyungsoo dutifully takes on the job the pruning of the rosebushes on his own, declaring that he doesn’t trust Chanyeol after That Fire Fiasco. Chanyeol doesn’t argue, because the roses have wicked thorns on them.

After that, it’s mulching, and then finally, it’s time to replant. The weather is getting steadily warmer—it’s late March now, and the worst of the last dregs of winter have given up their hold—and apparently that means it’s planting season. Chanyeol wouldn’t know, because Kyungsoo’s garden has been growing for months, but Kyungsoo’s word is law.

And today, Kyungsoo is standing in Chanyeol’s front hall, holding an enormous box overflowing with cheap plastic pots with plants sticking out of them, saying, “And now, my friend, the fun begins.”

“You mean we weren’t having fun before?” Chanyeol asks dryly, just to see Kyungsoo grin. “Also, did you even knock? I was just coming down to get a juice box and then you’re in my house.”

“If you don’t want me walking into your house, you shouldn’t leave the door unlocked,” Kyungsoo says, unperturbed.

“My dog’s supposed to attack intruders,” Chanyeol mutters, crossing his arms. Lancelot rolls onto his stomach on the couch, where he’s not supposed to be in the first place.

“I’m not an intruder,” Kyungsoo says, hefting the box in his arms. “I’m a fucking plant fairy, here to bestow you with gifts.”

Chanyeol snorts, ducking his head to hide his helpless smile. That seems to happen a lot when Kyungsoo is involved.

Somehow, in the past few weeks, they’ve gone from literally having never spoken to each other to…friends. Somewhere, in between Chanyeol making bad gardening puns, and Kyungsoo throwing dirt down Chanyeol’s shirt, and both of them bemoaning their fates as slaves to the cruel earth, they kind of...found a rhythm. Kyungsoo is genuinely the best part of Chanyeol’s weeks, and that has to mean they’re friends, doesn’t it?

Even if Kyungsoo is just here to save a suffering garden. That’s alright. Chanyeol will take whatever he can get.

“Okay, so, I got you like a million plants for your gardens,” Kyungsoo says, adjusting his grip on the box again. “These are all perennials, which I lovingly abducted from my own gardens for you—you’re welcome. I’ve got lavender. I’ve got daisies. I’ve got forget-me-nots. I’ve got irises. Snapdragons. Zinnias. Geraniums. I’ve got flowers growing out of my ears. Not literally. Although I’ve seen it happen.”

Chanyeol gapes, overwhelmed. “I...do not know what most of those are.”

“Well, in a month or two, they’ll bloom and you will,” Kyungsoo says, grinning. “Now let’s get planting.”

Chanyeol ends up googling each type of flower on his phone from his yard, refusing to let Kyungsoo plant them before he does. He wants to know what they look like, so that he can decide where they’d look best. That’s his gardens they’re landscaping. He doesn’t care if they look like shit.

In fact, he kind of wants them to look like shit, because the more bad decisions he makes, the more infuriated Kyungsoo gets, and it’s cute as hell. But Chanyeol doesn’t say that out loud.

“Just don’t touch my beautiful roses,” Kyungsoo says, scowling and protecting them with his body. He’s like six inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than Chanyeol, but he looks intimidating nonetheless.

“Those are my roses,” Chanyeol says challengingly.

“I saved them from certain death, they’re at least a little bit mine,” Kyungsoo insists.

“They’re on my property,” Chanyeol says, and drops his gloves. “I’ll fight you for them.”

Kyungsoo bares his teeth, and then he laughs and picks up a bunch of peonies to transplant.

Chanyeol’s heart flutters a little, and he quickly swallows down the feeling to avoid further embarrassment.

*****

A month after Chanyeol fails his practicals, his best friends visit him.

It’s not that he blames them for not coming earlier. He really doesn’t. They live almost an hour away, and they have their own lives, their own studies and jobs, their own worries. Chanyeol is a grown-ass man, he can’t expect everyone he knows to come running when he’s having a bit of a hard time. They fulfilled their duties as his friends when he’d first failed the exam—they’d texted him their condolences, made vague promises of taking him out for drinks, and told him he’d definitely get it next time. He doesn’t hold anything against them.

He still wishes they’d come earlier.

Regardless, when they do come, right at the beginning of April, on a rainy Sunday, Chanyeol is happy. Things have gotten...better, definitely, since Kyungsoo started giving him a reason to go outside and accomplish something. But being alone is still dangerous.

“Oh my god, Park,” Baekhyun says as he walks through his door, wrinkling his nose. “This place is a disaster.”

Chanyeol cringes, hunching his shoulders. “Is it really that bad?”

Jongdae follows Baekhyun in, shaking rain from his hair. “Do you actually have to ask?”

Chanyeol shrugs and looks around. Okay, maybe it’s...worse than he’d been trying to convince himself for the past month. His recycling bin is overflowing, there are dirty dishes stacked on almost all of his counter space, there’s a spill in the corner of the kitchen he’s just been stepping over for a week. Lancelot tore up an entire newspaper and it’s still scattered across the couch and rug. At the back of his mind, he’s known that he really has to clean up for a long time. But whenever he’s home, alone with his dog, he just...can’t seem to work up the motivation.

He’s getting the distinct feeling that he’s much more adept at pretending he’s getting better, when there are other people (Kyungsoo) around, than he is at actually getting better.

“Well,” Jongdae says, shrugging out of his coat, “it’s a good thing no one else has been in here, then, to witness this.”

Chanyeol’s stomach drops a little, and then even more so when Baekhyun laughs and says, “Oh, god, can you imagine? You should be relieved.”

They don’t mean anything by it. Last Chanyeol talked to them, he had kind of exaggerated his loneliness so that they’d feel sorry for him and make the drive out, instead of him having to go to them. He hadn’t thought of...this.

“It’s not that bad,” he mutters, scraping a hand through his hair. It’s a little matted at the back—he hasn’t showered in a couple days.

“It’s pretty bad,” Baekhyun says brightly, grinning. “You really know how to make a guy think you’re pitiful.”

Chanyeol swallows thickly and shuffles towards his couch to brush the paper scraps onto the floor, and then lies down on it. Suddenly he’s not so happy to have his friends over after all.

“Ohhhh, don’t make that face, Park,” Baekhyun says, throwing his wet jacket on top of him. Chanyeol swallows down his instinctive, violent reaction, and instead curls further into himself. “Seriously, come on. We’re not actually here to antagonize you about your life choices.”

“Yeah, that’s just our secondary task,” Jongdae says, and Chanyeol can hear his obnoxious grin.

“I hate both of you,” Chanyeol mopes, and he’s only kind of joking.

“Even though we brought you the good alcohol to drown out your depressing thoughts?” Baekhyun asks, swinging a plastic bag in his hand above him. “The best way to feel better is to first feel so bad there’s nowhere to go but up.”

Chanyeol’s lips twitch. “You’re so cheap that you couldn’t even bring me out for drinks?”

“Better to get drunk in your own house,” Jongdae says, sitting on top of Chanyeol’s legs. “Besides, we’re saving up for a wedding.”

And that’s news to Chanyeol, so he sits up hastily, and grins at them, and laughs at Jongdae’s embarrassing proposal story, and promptly accepts his offered role as groomsman, and maybe cries a little but pretends he isn’t. They crack open a couple beers, and no one actually gets drunk, because it’s early afternoon and they all grew out of that several years ago, and two of them have actual jobs to go to tomorrow morning. They talk about a few wedding ideas, and about old professors, and about Jongdae’s cranky owl that hates Chanyeol, and things like that. Things other than Chanyeol’s dismal failure of a life.

Regardless, when they leave at 5:00, that’s what Chanyeol’s thinking about. Because even when it’s not the focus of attention, it’s what everyone’s skirting around, intentionally avoiding. And it’s what they’re contrasting, with stories about their own lives. Chanyeol doesn’t blame them.

He blames himself.

“Fuck,” he mutters, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes so hard he sees stars. “Fuck my life.”

He’s alone, surrounded by the evidence of his own crumbling life, in a house that’s practically falling apart due to his inability to fucking pull himself together, and he’s completely pathetic. God, he’s a mess. It’s not even like he just hasn’t had time. He’s had too much time. Because he failed.

He nearly has a heart attack when someone knocks on his door, and Lancelot starts barking madly.

“Shut up you fucking dumb dog,” Chanyeol mutters, dragging himself up and yanking the door open.

Kyungsoo stares back at him, bright-eyed and looking vaguely amused as always. “Hello, Caveman,” he says. “I saw you had company today.”

And Chanyeol...really does not want to talk to him. He just...he really can’t do this right now. “Yeah,” he says shortly, and doesn’t hold the door open for Kyungsoo like he usually would.

Kyungsoo blinks. “Um. Do you have time right now? I brought you some seeds.” He holds up a few paper packets.

Chanyeol shrugs stiffly. Of course he has time. Kyungsoo has never even bothered asking before. “Thanks,” he says, and holds out his hands for them.

Kyungsoo doesn’t hand them over. “I’ll help you plant them,” he says carefully. Like he’s concerned. Like he thinks he shouldn’t leave Chanyeol alone, or maybe that he shouldn’t be alone with Chanyeol.

“Forget it,” Chanyeol says gruffly, throat thick, hand dropping, ready to let the door swing closed in Kyungsoo’s face.

“What?” Kyungsoo frowns. “Hey, is everything okay?”

And Chanyeol really, really does not want to talk about this with Kyungsoo. His neighbour must already be painfully aware of how unstable Chanyeol is. He’s not eager to embarrass himself more than he already has. You’re being an asshole, he tells himself harshly, at the same time as his brain screams, He’s pitying you. “Let’s just go plant them,” he says, swallowing thickly. Then, remembering what Baekhyun said about his house (and ignoring that Kyungsoo’s already seen it a dozen times), he says, “Meet me around back, I’ll be out in a second.”

Kyungsoo frowns, but takes a step back and nods. Chanyeol closes the door on him.

He meets Kyungsoo in his backyard a minute later, after pulling on his usual ugly sweater and his mud-caked sneakers. He still feels unbalanced and sick with misery, and Kyungsoo still looks uncertain and troubled, but Chanyeol tries to ignore it all. “Alright, so, what do we have today?” he asks.

Kyungsoo continues to stare at him, like he wants to pry, but he just says, “Annuals. Begonias and marigolds and poppies and...stuff.”

“Okay,” Chanyeol says. “Let’s get started.”

They don’t really talk much at first, apart from Kyungsoo explaining how deep to dig the holes for each new seed, and how much to water them, and how to care for them after germination. Chanyeol doesn’t say anything to make him laugh. Kyungsoo doesn’t ask anything more personal than where he wants each new flower to go.

Ten minutes pass, then twenty. Chanyeol starts to forget about his shitty day, his stress and the tension in his shoulders bleeding into the cold ground as he digs it up with his trowel. He taps seeds into holes and pats dirt over them, and he starts to breathe easier. The knot in his gut unwinds, and the throbbing in his temples fades. His chest still aches, but Chanyeol’s starting to realize that’s basically a chronic affliction at this point.

And then suddenly, quietly, Kyungsoo says, “This won’t last forever, you know that, right?”

Chanyeol’s head jerks up, and the knot re-tightens. “What?”

“You, being in this situation,” Kyungsoo clarifies. His voice is so fucking gentle, and it kills Chanyeol. God, he’s pathetic.

Chanyeol shrugs, and doesn’t look at him.

“It’s not like you’ve lost your license forever,” Kyungsoo continues, and Chanyeol wishes so bad that he’d just stop. “Just until your reevaluation.”

Chanyeol sighs harshly, raking his hand through his hair, probably getting dirt everywhere. “That’s still five months away,” he says bitterly. “I’ll never last until then.”

“Just consider it a long summer break,” Kyungsoo says, like it’s so simple.

“It’s not that easy,” Chanyeol mutters, stabbing at the earth viciously. “It’s not just that I’m not doing anything, which, honestly, for me, is hard enough. It’s that I feel like shit. I feel like a fucking waste of space.”

Oops. He hadn’t...meant to say that. Not to anyone, but especially not to Kyungsoo.

Kyungsoo doesn’t sound overly uncomfortable, though, when he replies, and Chanyeol doesn’t look up at him. “Your worth isn’t dictated by an examination board’s opinion on your ability, Chanyeol,” he says. Steady as always. “Like, you’re more than just your ability. Which, by the way, is incredible. You’re the youngest pyromancer of your level in like fifty years.”

Chanyeol scowls, head down, paper seed packet crinkling in his grip. “Pyro in training.”

“You scored 100s on all your written exams. That is not easy,” Kyungsoo says.

Finally, Chanyeol looks up at him, frowning. Kyungsoo is standing down the row, staring at him, gaze steady. “How the hell did you know that?”

Immediately, Kyungsoo’s cheeks and ears are pink, rosy underneath his freckles, and if Chanyeol wasn’t drowning in agonizing humiliation and misery, he’d think it’s adorable. “Oh, uh, the hedgewitch society monthly meetup is actually just a huge gossip-fest. Most of them are middle-aged ladies that work from home, you know. They like to talk.”

Chanyeol just shakes his head. “Regardless. I failed the test. I failed. On the grounds of insufficiency.” The word is bitter on his tongue.

“I don’t know what that means, but no matter what, that doesn’t negate your ability. You have to understand that.” Kyungsoo’s eyes are wide, insistent.

Chanyeol shrugs. “I’ll believe you when I stop feeling like I’m on the precipice of a breakdown literally always.”

Kyungsoo’s gaze softens, but remains even, unrelenting. He shakes off his gloves. “Regrowth takes time,” he says, flicking a budding leaf on a shrub. “Wildfires turn entire forests into a wasteland, and they suffer from it, but eventually they grow back even more beautifully.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol blinks at him. “I know. I worked as a wildfire ranger last summer.”

Kyungsoo grins, just a little, satisfied. “I rest my case.”

Chanyeol stares, and then sighs. Why does Kyungsoo have to talk almost entirely in plant-related metaphors? “I just wish they hadn’t taken away my license,” he mutters, sullen.

“You don’t have to like it, but at least take advantage of it,” Kyungsoo says, frowning slightly as he cocks his hip. “I know you can’t practice pyromancy or whatever, but at least spend this time doing things you like.”

Chanyeol frowns back. “That’s what I’m trying to do,” he says, gesturing at him vaguely with his trowel.

Kyungsoo’s eyebrows go up immediately, surprised, and it takes him a beat too long to say, “Presumptuous, Park Chanyeol.”

“Wait, what?” Chanyeol says, immediately feeling very lost.

“What?” Kyungsoo blinks. “Oh. You’re talking about the garden.” He laughs, ducking his head, like he’s embarrassed. Kyungsoo. Embarrassed. Chanyeol’s only known him for a couple weeks, but he’d never expected this. “I thought you were propositioning me just now,” he admits.

Chanyeol gapes, cheeks flooding with warmth. “No,” he says, probably too emphatically. Oh, god. And Kyungsoo looks embarrassed. Chanyeol is literally choking on humiliation. “But thanks for turning me down for something I wasn’t even offering,” he croaks.

Kyungsoo laughs again, louder this time. He doesn’t respond, just turns to snap a twig off the shrub beside him, and then chuckles a little more. Like the idea of Chanyeol propositioning him is just endlessly funny.

Chanyeol wilts with shame. But it’s not a mean laugh. He clings to that, at the very least. He’s not being made fun of (probably). At least that.

They go back to their gardening, quiet and maybe contemplative, until Kyungsoo speaks up again. “Hey, Yeol,” he calls, soft and familiar.

Chanyeol looks up, feeling warm despite himself. “Hm?”

“Look,” Kyungsoo says from where he’s crouching at the corner of his lot.

Sighing, Chanyeol pushes himself to his feet and walks over. “What is it?”

Kyungsoo turns to smile up at him, so sunny and happy that Chanyeol can’t stay upset, not in the face of such open joy. “Look here,” he says, and touches his fingers to a tiny plant below him.

There are small, violet flowers blooming there, delicate and beautiful and alive, right there in Chanyeol’s dead, struggling garden. His throat closes up immediately.

“Crocuses,” Kyungsoo says, turning his smile back to the flowers. “Often the first flowers to bloom after winter. Gorgeous, aren’t they?”

Chanyeol just swallows and nods, trembling a little as he crouches beside him. Kyungsoo shifts over, and Chanyeol reaches out to touch their soft, velvety petals.

“Feels a lot like hope, right?” Kyungsoo says, so quietly Chanyeol almost misses it. “Like things will get better, eventually.”

Chanyeol doesn’t say anything—can’t—but for the first time in a month, the ache in his chest goes away, just for a second.

He thinks about Kyungsoo’s words, and the way he smiled at Chanyeol, for a long time.

*****

Chanyeol’s rosebush blooms for the first time in mid-April.

He feels like that’s too early for roses. A few other plants have sprung flowers in the weeks since the crocuses started blooming—round, multicolored tulips and vibrant yellow daffodils and heads of purple hyacinths—but somehow, he doesn’t think roses are supposed to start yet. Those don’t strike him as spring flowers.

Kyungsoo probably has something to do with it, and that’s who Chanyeol is thinking about as he touches a finger to the scarlet petals of the fullest blossom and then pinches it off of the bush, six inches down its stem. He holds it to his nose, inhales the sickly-sweet scent, and smiles.

Kyungsoo’s been stopping by less frequently, now that the brunt of planting is done. He still comes by at least once a week, though, to check on the gardens, to remind Chanyeol how to care for more finicky plants, and to chat for a while. He insists on helping Chanyeol weed here and there, and fertilize his yard, and set up a sprinkler during a dry spell.

He comes by more than he has to, and Chanyeol knows it’s for the garden, but it makes him happy anyway. Unreasonably happy.

That’s the only reason he can think of for why he takes the rose inside, carefully snips off all of its thorns, and then walks it over to his neighbour’s house on a Saturday morning.

It’s when he gets there that he realizes this is super weird, and leaving it on his doorstep would be even weirder.

The door opens before he even has time to even really think about turning around and going home. “Hello,” Kyungsoo says, smiling.

Chanyeol starts sweating. “Um. Hi.”

“Fruit Basket told me you were coming,” Kyungsoo says, even though Chanyeol hadn’t asked.

“I hate that cat,” Chanyeol says, with feeling.

Kyungsoo smiles wider. “What’s up?”

It takes Chanyeol a moment to rein in his embarrassed scowl. “Fruit Basket didn’t tell you that?”

“No, she likes to keep me in suspense sometimes,” Kyungsoo says, and grins. “So?”

Chanyeol shuffles his feet. “Nothing,” he mutters, staring at the edge of the doorway. He lifts his hand with a jerk. “I brought you this.”

Kyungsoo stares. Blinks. “You brought me...a flower?”

Chanyeol forgets about reining in the scowl. He lets it out full force. “Actually, I changed my mind. It’s my flower now. I was going to bring it to you, because you’ve waxed poetic about my rosebushes for the past month and a half, but you no longer deserve it, bye.”

Kyungsoo laughs, flings his hand out. “Wait, no! I want it. Give it to me.”

“No,” Chanyeol says, holding it to his chest, clenched hard in his fist. “You don’t get flowers.”

“What did I do?” Kyungsoo laughs. “I was just surprised. Please give me the flower?”

His voice is too soft, too sweet to refuse. Haltingly, Chanyeol holds it out. The smile Kyungsoo gives him as he plucks it from his fingers makes his stomach flip.

“Hmm,” Kyungsoo says, smelling it with closed eyes. “No card.”

“What?” Chanyeol says.

“You know, when you give people flowers, there should be a card. I like you. Do you like me? Yes/No.” He opens his eyes, smirks.

Chanyeol chokes. “Give that back!” he says, reaching out, hoping his face isn’t as red as it feels.

Kyungsoo laughs, backing away one step. “No! It’s mine now, card or no card.” He tucks it behind his ear, eyes bright, and Chanyeol ignores the way it brings out the rosy hue in his cheeks, the pink in his lips.

Chanyeol crosses his arms, swallowing his embarrassment. “Okay, well, you’re welcome,” he says peevishly. “Goodbye.”

“Stay,” Kyungsoo says, lips curling up. “You’re already here. Come in for tea.”

Chanyeol makes a face, because if he doesn’t he thinks his blush will be even more obvious than it already must be. “I don’t like you anymore, and I don’t like tea.”

“This is hedgewitch tea,” Kyungsoo says.

“So it’s good?” Chanyeol asks doubtfully.

“No,” Kyungsoo says. “But you should drink it anyway.”

Somehow, he ends up in Kyungsoo’s kitchen. He’s never been in his neighbour’s house before, despite all the times Kyungsoo’s been in his. It’s small, cozy, and warm. There are flowerpots hanging from the ceiling, and herbs growing on all the windowsills, and a candle burning on the table that makes the whole place smell like something herbal and a little spicy. The furniture is all in shades of brown or green if it isn’t made of wood, and there are fat pillows and soft throw blankets everywhere. Chanyeol wants to crawl into his living room and never leave.

Instead, he follows Kyungsoo to his table and sits down, eventually accepting a mug of brownish tea. It’s disgusting—woody and bitter—but it warms his stomach, and makes him feel relaxed and soft all over.

They chat for a while, first about the garden (always first about the garden) and then about other things, anything. The people Chanyeol meets at his job, the last hedgewitch society meeting, Kyungsoo’s bookstore. Chanyeol’s never been there, but he feels like he has, because Kyungsoo talks about it a lot. The two stories, the leaky roof, the creaky stairs, the fireplace and the overstuffed chairs and the kitchenette with hot water for the tea they sell. He talks about Jongin a lot, too, the hedgewitch friend he runs the store with. Whenever Kyungsoo talks about him, he gets this warm, fond look. Chanyeol tries not to feel jealous.

Chanyeol’s just telling Kyungsoo about his new coworker—the owner’s eighteen-year-old granddaughter, back from university for the summer—when he feels a sudden, startling pricking sensation on his calf. “Ouch!” he yelps, jerking away. A brown tabby stares up at him moodily. “Goddammit, Fruit Basket!”

Kyungsoo blinks in surprise, leaning forward to look over the edge of the table. The rose behind his ear bobs dangerously, but stays put. “Fruit Basket?”

“Go scratch someone else, you mangy cat,” Chanyeol says, frowning.

“Oh.” Kyungsoo blinks again, and his ears turn a little red. “She’s not scratching you. She’s, um. Clawing you. Lovingly.”

Why,” Chanyeol says, pulling his legs away as Fruit Basket tries to reach for him again.

“I’m, uh.” Kyungsoo clears his throat. “I’m not sure.”

Chanyeol makes a face at the cat, who then jumps up to land gracefully in his lap and curls up to nap. “What the?”

Kyungsoo ducks his head, shrugs, and quickly moves on to a new topic of conversation even though Chanyeol hadn’t finished his story.

Fruit Basket doesn’t move for half an hour, until Chanyeol stands up to go home. “So...bye,” he says, scratching his neck as the cat glares up at him.

“Bye,” Kyungsoo says, standing to clear their empty cups away.

“Thanks for the tea,” Chanyeol says, shuffling his feet.

“You’re welcome; it’s very expensive.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol smiles wryly. “It was gross.”

“I know.” Kyungsoo grins. “Bye, Chanyeol.”

Chanyeol nods and waves, and then walks out of the kitchen, and doesn’t tell Kyungsoo that he still has that rose behind his ear.

He should have thought to snap a picture.

*****

By late April, there’s...not really much left to do in Chanyeol’s gardens. He keeps them up too well—he checks on them every day and that means barely anything has happened since the last time he checked on them—which means every time Kyungsoo comes over, there’s barely anything for him to do. Chanyeol is too good of a gardener, which is something he never thought he’d say about himself.

And the gardens are starting to look nice, really, they are. It’s still early in the season, so not that many flowers are blooming yet, but green is starting to creep into the dull, lifeless leaves, spreading across the lawn like a fine, verdant mist, and it makes Chanyeol feel warm and light and alive inside. He loves looking out his back window and seeing his yard slowly come to life after years of neglect and a long, harsh winter. It makes him feel like he can breathe again.

Chanyeol loves the gardens. In the beginning, when he’d first started comparing his yard to his neighbour’s and decided to do something about it, he hadn’t expected to like gardening. He’d just thought of it as a necessary evil to achieve the illusion of having your life together, something like that. But he does. He likes seeing something new spring from his fingertips. Not something destructive. Not something harsh. Something tender and fragile and alive. Something good.

He loves the gardens. But without the gardens needing constant work just to look halfway decent, he finds there’s no reason for Kyungsoo to keep coming around. And Chanyeol does not like that.

So he says he wants a vegetable garden.

Okay, he has a few other reasons for wanting a vegetable garden. Really, he does! The flower gardens are nice and all, but they’re not productive. The flowers grow, and look pretty and smell nice, and then they just die. His tulips are already wilting and shedding their petals. With a vegetable garden, he’ll be able to eat the things he grows. And that’s pretty fucking cool. Also, he still has all this yard space, and he never does anything with it. It’s not like he actually spends time in his yard, apart from to garden. The only one who uses it right now is Lancelot, who has done very little to deserve that privilege. Also, vegetables are expensive and Chanyeol is trying to eat more like a normal person. Also Kyungsoo keeps telling him the soil in their area is so great and stuff.

He tells Kyungsoo all this and more when he finally lures Kyungsoo into his house on a Friday evening. And, truthfully, the main reason why he actually put all that effort into getting Kyungsoo into his house is because he finally cleaned his living room and kitchen and like, did his dishes and vacuumed the rug. He wants Kyungsoo to see that. But he doesn’t want Kyungsoo to know that that’s why he dragged him into his house.

So he brings up the vegetable garden.

For his part, Kyungsoo looks mildly surprised, and then determined. It’s too late, and too chilly out, to get started right away, but they get out a big sheet of blank paper, and sketch out Chanyeol’s property, and start planning exactly what it’s going to look like. Kyungsoo uses a lot of words Chanyeol doesn’t understand, like raised beds and pH levels and double digging, but most of the time he knows, vaguely, what’s going on, and he tries to keep up. Kyungsoo is arguably more excited about the vegetable garden than Chanyeol is.

He’s back on Saturday, at 8 in the morning, dragging wooden goddamn planks. And a saw. As if Chanyeol can be trusted with a saw. Especially at 8 in the morning.

He works at 10, so they only have a couple hours to saw the planks into the correct sizes and nail them together into long rectangles, and then set them up in Chanyeol’s yard side-by-side, marking out three rows. At the end, Kyungsoo looks at them and nods, satisfied. Chanyeol does the same, even though he doesn’t really know what’s going on.

On Sunday afternoon, Kyungsoo shows up right after Chanyeol’s shift, despite Chanyeol not having told him when he’d be done work, this time bringing bins of compost over on a wagon. Together, they fill up the wooden enclosures, one by one, breaking up the compost with rakes and smoothing it out carefully. Chanyeol waters it all, and then they both go inside and Chanyeol cooks them dinner before Kyungsoo goes home.

On Monday morning, Chanyeol wakes up to the sound of birds singing outside his window, and he smiles, and realizes he feels the happiest he’s felt in months.

It’s a weekday, so Kyungsoo is working, obviously. So instead of just sitting around and waiting for him to be done, Chanyeol goes out.

“Wow,” he says, stepping out of his car and onto the sidewalk of his small town. “So this is what leaving the house is like.”

It’s a joke, obviously, because he works on a semi-regular basis and also sometimes has to go and get groceries and stuff like that, but it earns him a concerned look from a passerby nonetheless. Chanyeol grins and stretches his arms over his head, feeling the sun on his face and the brisk morning breeze in his hair, and then looks for the nearest store that might sell vegetable seeds.

He finds them next to the vegan smoothies place, in a quaint little shop named Nuts and Bolts, which also sells some tools and duct tape and those kinds of things. It’s a cute place, cluttered but smelling of pine and warm soil, and the middle-aged lady at the counter is super patient and helpful, and she has a headband in her hair that Chanyeol thinks might be made out of real flowers.

“Not a hedgewitch?” the lady asks, smiling indulgently as she helps him pick out packets of corn and tomatoes and zucchini and carrots.

Chanyeol laughs, shaking his head. “No. Pyromancer,” he says.

“Oh,” she says, and her eyes widen. “The pyromancer?”

“Um?” Chanyeol shuffles his feet. “Maybe?”

“The new primary?” she presses.

Chanyeol hangs his head. “Not yet,” he says. “Still in training.”

The lady waves her hand dismissively. “Never mind that. You’re Kyungsoo’s pyro, aren’t you.”

Immediately, Chanyeol blushes. He wouldn’t put it like that. “O-oh. He’s just my neighbour.”

The lady clicks her tongue, shakes her head. “Just,” she mutters. “Mhmm.”

Chanyeol doesn’t know what the say to that. “You, um. You know him?”

“Of course I do, hedgewitches make it their business to know all the other hedgewitches in the area,” the lady says, like that should be obvious to Chanyeol. “I think what’s more telling is that I know about you.”

Chanyeol coughs. “Yeah, haha. Kyungsoo says I’ve...come up, at the hedgewitch meetings or whatever.”

“He has, has he?” the lady says, and smiles, and then continues to pick out seeds for Chanyeol’s vegetable garden. When he finally manages to pay for them all, he’s fairly certain she gives him a substantial discount, but she doesn’t say anything about it, so neither does he. All she does is smile at him, and pat his hand, and say, “He’s probably getting hungry, right around this time.”

Chanyeol blinks, totally lost. “Huh?”

“Kyungsoo,” the lady says. He hadn’t even caught her name, and she’s giving him discounts, and insider info now if her tone is anything to go by. “It’s right around break time, don’t you think?”

Chanyeol gulps. “Is that so?”

She smiles at him. “Juniper Books. On Hawthorn Street.”

Chanyeol ducks his head, embarrassed, and throws a quick thank you over his shoulder as he makes his escape.

He means to just walk straight back to his car and drive home, and spend the rest of his day googling vegetable gardening, because according to Kyungsoo it’s much more complex than just throwing the seeds in the ground and hoping for the best. But instead, he finds himself wandering into a coffee shop on Hawthorn, Cattail Café, and buying two coffees and two lemon poppyseed muffins from a grumpy-looking barista with what looks like moss growing in his hair. He’s still wondering what the hell he’s doing when he walks through the door marked Juniper Books, outlined in ivy.

A bell tinkles gently as he walks in, and a young man looks up from the counter just inside the door. He is not Kyungsoo. He looks like he just woke up from a nap. “Um. Hello.”

Chanyeol blinks at him. “Uh...hi.”

“Welcome to Juniper Books,” the man says. “Have you ever been here before?”

Chanyeol feels like a complete idiot, with a bag of seeds hanging from one arm, a bag of muffins squished between the other arm and his chest, and a coffee in either hand. “No,” he says.

“Oh, then I’ll give you the grand tour,” the man says. “Thanks for stopping by. Is there anything in particular you were looking for?”

Chanyeol opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He’s almost convinced he went to the wrong place, but no, it’s exactly how Kyungsoo described it. There’s the stairway, straight ahead, and the fireplace, through a doorway, currently empty but still bracketed by two huge armchairs, one occupied by a little girl. And there’s the kitchenette, next to a huge display of assorted herbs and tea blends. And there’s that potted tree in the corner that Kyungsoo sometimes talks about because it sheds leaves all over the floor.

“I’ll just show you everything,” the man says, smiling winningly.

“O-okay,” Chanyeol says, because for some reason he’s incapable of just saying I’m looking for the owner.

Thankfully, blessedly, someone comes down the stairs before he’s forced to walk around the whole store without dropping something. “Jongin!” calls a familiar voice, and Chanyeol is both relieved and terrified at the same time. “Have you seen that copy of Madam Esther’s Green Grimoire we set aside for Mrs. Ha?”

“No!” the man yells back, and Chanyeol realizes, oh. This is the owner. The other owner.

And then Kyungsoo descends the last of the stairs, and spots him standing awkwardly in the entryway. “Chanyeol?”

“Huh?” Jongin says.

“Uh,” Chanyeol says. “Hi.”

Kyungsoo blinks at him. “What are you doing here?”

Colour rises to Chanyeol’s cheeks, despite very firm instructions from him for that not to happen. “I, um. I was in town and thought I’d drop by.” He gestures carefully with one of his cups and regrets everything. “I brought you coffee.”

Oh,” Jongin says, and that’s it.

Kyungsoo looks too surprised for words for a couple seconds, and then he says, “Fruit Basket didn’t warn me you were coming. Or that you were...here.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol isn’t sure why that’s relevant. “Does she come to work with you?”

“Of course she does,” Kyungsoo says, like he should know that.

“Oh,” Chanyeol says again.

“No one ever brings me coffee,” Jongin says, sounding pouty.

“Sehun brings you a bagel literally every single day,” Kyungsoo says, and finally seems to snap out of his daze. He reaches out, relieves Chanyeol of one of his coffees. “Thank you.”

“I brought you a muffin, too,” Chanyeol says, because he might as well. “Lemon poppyseed. Because it’s break time.”

A slow smile spreads across Kyungsoo’s face. “I’m starving,” he admits.

Chanyeol begins to smile, too, even though he still kind of wants to turn around and go home and bury himself under his blankets for a while. “Here,” he says, and hands it over. He lets Jongin have the second one.

He tells himself firmly that it’s not because he wants Jongin’s approval, because that wouldn’t make sense. Jongin’s not Kyungsoo’s dad, and Chanyeol isn’t...he’s not courting Kyungsoo, or anything. He just brought him coffee.

“So what are you doing around here?” Kyungsoo asks a minute later, leaning against the counter, sipping from his cup. He hums appreciatively; Chanyeol knows how he takes his coffee (no cream, three sugars).

“Oh, I was shopping,” Chanyeol says, and lifts his other bag a little. He tries to ignore Jongin puttering around the lower level of the store, obviously eavesdropping. “For my vegetable garden.”

“Seeds?” Kyungsoo says, eyebrows lifting. “Oh.”

“What?” Chanyeol hunches his shoulders, nervous that he did something wrong. Already.

“Nothing. Just. I was going to bring you seeds,” Kyungsoo says, and a wrinkle forms between his brows. Chanyeol has the insane urge to rub it away. With his lips.

“Oh.” Chanyeol fiddles with his bag and frowns. “Sorry?”

Kyungsoo laughs softly. “No, no, it’s fine. Obviously. It’s your garden. I just hope you bought them from somewhere good. Bad quality seeds produce bad quality plants.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol says again. “I got them from Nuts and Bolts.

“Oh, good!” Kyungsoo says immediately. “You can trust Olive. She’s a very honest person.”

“Yeah?” Chanyeol smiles. “She says you talk about me.”

What?” Kyungsoo says, as Jongin snorts loudly in the background.

Chanyeol laughs. She hadn’t actually—although she might have implied it—but even if he’s lying, it’s worth the look on Kyungsoo’s face. “She also told me where your store is.”

Kyungsoo’s face is endearingly pink as he says, “Why were you talking about me?”

“I’d like to ask you the same question,” Chanyeol says, and tries to bite back his laughter as Kyungsoo’s blush deepens and he mutters about goddamn hedgewitch gossip mills.

Only slightly unwilling, Chanyeol puts the poor man out of his misery and says, “So are you going to help me plant all these, or what?”

“Hm? Oh, of course,” Kyungsoo says, taking a messy bite of his muffin, crumbs spilling onto the counter. He picks each one up with a fingertip. “If I let you do it alone, you’d destroy all my hard work.”

Chanyeol scoffs, far from offended but not quite ready to admit it. “I’m not that hopeless with plants.”

Kyungsoo grins. “You are,” he says. “But you’re getting better.”

It’s barely anything, but it makes Chanyeol feel all warm.

He leaves twenty minutes later, after Kyungsoo’s finished his coffee and helped an elderly couple pick out a soothing tincture for their mutual joint pain, and Chanyeol’s actually gotten a quick tour of the store. Jongin watches from a distance and smiles at them while Chanyeol fumbles through his goodbyes and his awkward, “See you for supper?”, which is only made worth it by Kyungsoo’s grin and easy nod.

“Okay, so,” Chanyeol says, backing towards the door. “Bye.”

Kyungsoo’s nose wrinkles a little when he smiles. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Chanyeol repeats, probably for the fifth time. He can’t seem to stop.

“Thanks for the coffee, Yeol,” Kyungsoo says.

Chanyeol loves it when he calls him that. “You’re welcome.”

He bumps into the door and stumbles, and Kyungsoo laughs. That’s the last thing Chanyeol sees before the door opens behind him and he all put spills into the street.

It’s a good last thing to see, even if he can hear Jongin laughing from inside.

*****

As it turns out, Chanyeol is really glad Kyungsoo still cares about the state of Chanyeol’s gardens, because he would have truly destroyed all of Kyungsoo’s hard work without him. Or he would have without doing some serious research first.

Thankfully, though, Kyungsoo cares a lot about Chanyeol’s gardens, bless his little hedgewitch heart, and he tells Chanyeol very readily which of his vegetable seeds can be planted this early in the season, and which ones won’t germinate in such cool weather, and which ones he has to plant ahead of time as seedlings to give them a little headstart. He knows how deep and how far apart to plant them without consulting the packaging, and he knows which ones to plant where to best utilize their limited space, and which ones to keep an eye on because if they don’t come up he’ll have to resow.

Chanyeol basically just follows him around and nods furiously and makes notes on his phone, and helps make the furrows and the stakes to label each section. He does insist on lovingly patting down the dirt over every single seed, though, mentally willing each one to grow big and strong and healthy. He wonders if this is what parenthood is like. (But only briefly, and with a healthy amount of embarrassment.)

It takes two evenings to finish it all, even with how small Chanyeol’s vegetable garden is, and at the end of the second day, all that’s left to do is for Chanyeol to water the whole thing. He does so carefully, gently, scared of disturbing the seeds, tipping his big green watering can (a loan from Kyungsoo) over the soil with the kind of tenderness one would expect from someone handling a newborn baby.

From the tiny concrete patio, Kyungsoo watches silently, scratching Lancelot’s shaggy head and sipping from a mug of tea. Chanyeol actually almost forgets he’s there, too busy with his seeds and enjoying the colours splashed across the sky by the setting sun, until he speaks, voice soft and warm. “You look good.”

Chanyeol’s head jerks up, and water splashes out of his can. “Huh?”

Kyungsoo smiles, his cheeks rosy under his freckles, maybe from sun, maybe from the lighting. “You’ve been looking better, these days.”

Chanyeol fidgets, feeling all of fifteen years old again. “Is that a compliment or a back-handed insult?”

Kyungsoo laughs. “No offense, but you looked pretty bad for a while there. Like a strong wind could knock you over, and you’d let it. But you’re looking better now.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol scratches the back of his head, embarrassed, but he says, “I feel better,” because it’s the truth.

“I’m glad,” Kyungsoo says, and it sounds like that’s the truth, too.

And that kind of just reminds Chanyeol what Baekhyun said about him looking pitiful, which is humiliating at the best of times. “At some point there’s nowhere to go but up,” he mumbles, staring at his feet.

Kyungsoo’s chuckle is soft, kind. “You know,” he says, “in order to grow, a seed has to be buried in dirt and struggle through weeks of darkness to reach the sun.”

Chanyeol blinks, frowns. “What?”

Kyungsoo’s idea of a helpful response is to shrug and smile and sip from his cup.

Chanyeol thinks about it. Tiny seed. Dirt, darkness, difficulty. And then the sun. And then growth. And then life.

For the first time, he thinks he understands.

“I’m only doing better because you’re around so much,” he says, a little sullen. Kyungsoo makes him pull his life together. Kyungsoo helps him with the only thing that gives his life purpose. He honestly doesn’t know where he’d be without him.

Kyungsoo smiles again, more broadly. “When a plant isn’t getting enough light, it literally starts growing in the direction of the sun. It does what it needs to do, grows towards the things that bring it light, even when it’s hard and seems hopeless.”

And that one really throws Chanyeol for a loop, so he just nods, slowly, and turns back to his garden.

He thinks about it for a long time, even after Kyungsoo has said goodbye and gone home. He thinks about it as he takes a shower, and slips into bed, his window cracked open to let in a crisp breeze. He thinks about as he drifts off to sleep, caught up in memories of Kyungsoo’s smiling face highlighted by the setting sun.

Is Kyungsoo saying that he’s Chanyeol’s sun? Because if so, he’s right, but Chanyeol doesn’t want him to know that.

*****

In mid-May, after a terrifying hole-digging incident that Chanyeol only just manages to stop before it turns disastrous, he puts up a series of Level 4 Blue Flame wards around each of his gardens to keep Lancelot out. He does it slowly, carefully, laying down sparkling blue lines along the edge of plot, making sure they’re animal-specific so that they won’t burn him when he’s trying to weed and water.

He only realizes he’s doing something strictly illegal when Kyungsoo, bringing out two glasses of ice water, says, “Oh, did you get your license back?”

Chanyeol looks up at him, surprised, and then is forced to say, “Uh...no.”

“Oh.” Kyungsoo frowns. “I thought you weren’t allowed to practice at all without a license.”

“I’m...not,” Chanyeol admits. “But, I mean, that’s mostly just a precautionary measure. Because, at the time, my control was shit and they couldn’t trust me not to accidentally kill someone.”

Kyungsoo stares at him, gaze steady. “They can trust you now?”

Chanyeol thinks about that, flexing his fingers, thinking about the feeling of the wards flowing from his fingertips, easily, obediently. Never once flaring up, or sparking. Just settling into the earth, like the fire coursing through Chanyeol’s veins is a docile and well-trained pet, rather than the monster he saw at the exam. Ready and willing to do his bidding without a fight. Like it’s always been, with Chanyeol, up until the past year.

I can trust me,” he says honestly. “And that means anyone can.”

The smile that lights up Kyungsoo’s face is achingly soft. “Finish up,” he says, nodding towards Chanyeol’s half-finished wardwork. “Then we’re going out to celebrate.”

They end up at that coffee shop down the street from Kyungsoo’s bookstore, Cattail Café. The one with the mossy-haired barista. He’s there again today, and Kyungsoo smiles at him and greets him with the easy familiarity of close friends. “Hi, Sehun,” he says. “Make me something.”

“Okay,” Sehun says, not smiling back but looking slightly less grumpy. He turns around and starts working the machines.

Chanyeol shuffles up beside Kyungsoo and cocks one eyebrow. “I’m guessing you know him?”

Kyungsoo laughs. “Yeah. Jongin’s friend.”

Best friend,” Sehun corrects without turning around.

“He owns this café,” Kyungsoo says. “With a friend. She does the baking, he does the coffee.”

Chanyeol nods slowly, and then, because he can’t resist, he whispers, “Is that moss in his hair?”

Kyungsoo laughs again, warm and full and unspeakably pleasant to listen to. “Yes it is.”

“...Okay,” Chanyeol says.

“Swampwitch,” Kyungsoo says, and Chanyeol doesn’t have to look at him to know he’s smirking. “There used to be a lot of wetlands in the area. Not so much anymore, but the swampwitches haven’t all left yet. They’re the clingy type.”

“No we’re not,” Sehun says, pouting as he turns around. “Here, I made you this.”

Kyungsoo takes the cup with a grin. “Thanks, Senshine.”

Something suspiciously like jealousy flares in Chanyeol’s stomach at the fond nickname. Which is ridiculous. Because Chanyeol is a twenty-eight-year-old man. He doesn’t get jealous of everyone his crush smiles at. Really.

Thankfully, once they both have their coffees and matching raspberry danishes and they’ve sat down in the corner of the café, Kyungsoo’s attention is wholly back on Chanyeol. (Still not jealous.) He sips from his cup, hums contentedly, and smiles at Chanyeol across the table. “So?”

Chanyeol blinks and stares back at him. “What?”

Kyungsoo laughs. “I don’t know. I haven’t been on a coffee date with anyone other than Jongin in like four years.”

Chanyeol feels himself blush hotly at the word date, even though he knows Kyungsoo doesn’t mean it that way. What was he just telling himself about being twenty-eight?

God, he’s a mess.

“Is this the part where we tell each other what we like to do in our spare time?” Chanyeol manages to say, only a little bit too loudly. He worked long and hard on his volume control as a young adult. Kyungsoo is ruining that, just like he routinely ruins Chanyeol’s higher brain functioning.

Kyungsoo’s little grin makes it worth it. “Yeah, I totally don’t know that about you yet.”

Answers questions with biting sarcasm,” Chanyeol mimes writing out. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Ha ha,” Kyungsoo says wryly. “Seriously, though, you already know what I like doing.”

That’s true. Kyungsoo’s not super chatty, but he’s told Chanyeol about some books he’s been reading, and a few adventures in the kitchen, and there’s been a throwaway comment or two about bowling. As much as Kyungsoo gives off unapproachable and reticent vibes, Chanyeol has never felt like he doesn’t know anything about him.

“But now that I think about it,” Kyungsoo continues, “what do you do in your spare time?”

Chanyeol opens his mouth, and then closes it. The answer to that is...nothing, to be honest. He’s been in school for almost his entire life, striving for near-impossible goals, and that’s been especially true in recent years. He’s never allowed his focus to stray too far from his studies. And since his failed exam, he’s been kind of just...lazing. If he’s not out in the garden or working, he’s usually just lying around. He hasn’t been able to work up the motivation to do anything that isn’t plant-related in months. “Um…”

“Seriously,” Kyungsoo says. “What do you do when I’m not there?”

Chanyeol blinks slowly, and then says, “Wait for you to come back?”

Kyungsoo stares at him, and then snorts. “Oh my god, Yeol, we have got to get you some hobbies.”

Chanyeol grins, holds out his palms beseechingly. “Maybe you should just leave less!”

“I do not think that’s the problem,” Kyungsoo says, and it looks like he’s hiding his smile in his mug.

Chanyeol laughs. “Maybe I’ll just start showing up at your store more often to bother you.”

“Don’t say that like you’re threatening me, because that is not the way to do it,” Kyungsoo says, rolling his eyes.

Chanyeol opens his mouth to say What?, because, uh, what?, but before he can, another voice says, “Yeah, hi Jongin, help me, they’re being embarrassing in my café.”

Kyungsoo turns sharply, glaring at Sehun behind the counter and throwing a balled-up napkin at him. It falls tragically short, and Sehun shoots him the first smile Chanyeol’s ever seen from him. “Sorry,” Kyungsoo says, turning back to face Chanyeol again. “I’ll beat him up later.”

“Hey!” Sehun yelps, and Kyungsoo grins.

“Um,” Chanyeol says, because he’s feeling kind of lost.

“So, about those hobbies,” Kyungsoo continues, like nothing happened. “Have you ever had hobbies?”

Chanyeol shrugs, picking at the crumbs collecting on his saucer. “Not really? I mean, I went through like a thousand phases as a kid, but nothing ever really stuck except...pyromancy.”

“That is sad as hell, Chanyeol,” Kyungsoo tells him.

Chanyeol gives a soft, self-deprecating laugh. “I am aware.” Then, in an effort to redeem himself at least somewhat, “I played the guitar in high school?”

Kyungsoo’s eyes light up. “Yes. Good. Do you still have one?”

“Er…” Chanyeol scratches his neck self-consciously. “Yes?”

“I expect you to play it every single day for the next week,” Kyungsoo tells him.

“But I haven’t played in like eight years!” Chanyeol protests, flushing.

“No one’s going to be listening!” Kyungsoo tells him. “Promise me. Every day.”

For some reason, Chanyeol does.

That night, after lingering at the café past closing time and saying a few reluctant goodbyes, Chanyeol really does dig out his old guitar from the depths of his cluttered “storage” room. He tunes it painstakingly, gives the strings an uncertain strum, and then plays the song he performed for his Grade 12 final exam, before his focus turned away from anything but his ability. He still knows the chords off by heart, ten years later, although he’s forgotten most of the words. He hums instead, makes it all the way through the first verse and the chorus without messing up. He grins, and plays it again.

He checks his phone before turning in for the night, and finds a text waiting for him.

Kyungsoo: I couldn’t hear you (I promise), but Fruit Basket did, and she says you’re not terrible. I’m inclined to believe her.

Chanyeol goes to bed with pink cheeks and a smile.

*****

The second time Baekhyun and Jongdae manage to swing by for a visit, they’re heading into the end of May, and Chanyeol’s flower gardens are starting to bloom in earnest. He doesn’t even think about the other changes that have been happening in his life until his friends walk in and whistle in unison.

“Damn, Park!” Baekhyun says, looking around. “You’ve really cleaned up your act!”

Chanyeol blinks at him, and then glances around his house. He hadn’t even made an effort to clean up for them. But the floors are generally clean, the dishes have been done, he’s wearing clean clothes, and the amount of garbage scattered around his kitchen and living room is, admittedly, minimal. He’s capable of admitting that it’s a huge step up from what it’d been like the last time his friends came by.

“Look at our Chanyeol, becoming a real boy again,” Jongdae says, grinning.

“I hate both of you,” Chanyeol says, fondly.

“We know,” Baekhyun says. “That’s why we brought board games.”

He holds up an ancient Trouble box and a Settlers of Catan set that is literally falling apart. Chanyeol smiles broadly. “I suppose you can stay, then.”

“If you made us leave after driving an hour here to see you, Chanyeol, I would kill you,” Jongdae tells him, dead serious.

“Don’t threaten me, Dae, I’ve only just recovered to the point of some semblance of mental stability,” Chanyeol says, taking the Trouble box from Baekhyun and carrying it to his table, and then dipping into his fridge for refreshments.

His friends pull out a chair each on either side of the table. “Speaking of sanity, how are you handling your exile?” Jongdae asks.

“Not too long till you can start taking classes again, right?” Baekhyun adds.

Chanyeol hums, putting down a couple beers and soda cans on the table and fetching a glass of water for himself, because Kyungsoo keeps comparing him to a plant that cannot live off carbonated drinks alone. “‘Bout a month and a half,” he says, nodding.

“Over halfway through,” Baekhyun says, smiling. “Haven’t had a breakdown yet?”

“Oh, no, there was a breakdown,” Chanyeol says, keeping his voice light. He knows Baekhyun and Jongdae are offering him a chance, intentionally, to talk about it if he wants to. But he also knows they’re giving him the option of shrugging it off, if he doesn’t. “I just had it in private. Very discreet. Lancelot has been sworn to secrecy.”

His friends give him twin pitying looks, which Chanyeol hates, so he quickly starts setting up the game instead. “Alright, let’s go, I get to be yellow, the best colour.”

Baekhyun sighs, patting his shoulder. “Happy to have you back on track, Yeol.”

Chanyeol punches him gently. “Yeah, yeah. Pick your colours.”

They start playing, and it’s so easy to fall back into their usual banter, their usual bad jokes and raucous laughter. They argue loudly about who allegedly cheated, and whether or not Baekhyun and Jongdae are showing favoritism and ganging up on Chanyeol (they’re not; they are arguably more ruthless with each other than with Chanyeol). Chanyeol realizes, after an hour or two of this, that he’d missed this. He’d faked a good mood well enough last time they’d been over, had even almost managed to convince himself, but now that it’s real and genuine warmth and affection are welling up in his chest, he’s realizing what he’d been missing for the past two and a half months.

So he throws himself into each new altercation with gusto, and grins unrestrainedly, and clings to that gentle ache under his ribs that feels something like healing.

He gets so caught up in their games and their stupid, familiar conversation that he doesn’t even think about who might be knocking on his door until he opens it and sees Kyungsoo standing on the stoop. “Oh,” he says dumbly. “Hi.”

Kyungsoo smiles, a little shy. “Hi. Fruit Basket didn’t warn me that you had guests.”

He glances over Chanyeol’s shoulder, and Chanyeol can feel Jongdae and Baekhyun’s gazes on them. “Does your cat literally watch me every second of every day?” he asks, blushing for no good reason.

“Only when she’s home,” Kyungsoo says, and smiles a little more boldly.

It doesn’t help Chanyeol’s stupid blush. “That’s so reassuring,” he manages to say.

“Chanyeol!” Baekhyun calls from behind him. “Introduce us to your friend.”

Chanyeol rolls his eyes in automatic reaction and gestures behind him. “Kyungsoo, my friends, Baekhyun and Jongdae. Guys, Kyungsoo, my neighbour.”

“Ooooo, neighbour,” Baekhyun says, because he’s obnoxious as hell. Chanyeol hears him make his way across the room to him, and allows himself to be elbowed aside so Baekhyun can stick out a hand to shake. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he says, and Chanyeol knows without looking at him that he’s wiggling eyebrows. As it is, Chanyeol is more interested in looking at Kyungsoo to gauge his reaction.

Kyungsoo laughs, shifting the canvas bag he’s holding in one hand to the other in order to shake Baekhyun’s hand. “Likewise. So are you the mage or the boyfriend?”

Baekhyun gasps audibly. “Jongdae! Chanyeol has talked about us.”

“Oh, god,” Chanyeol mutters.

Jongdae joins them a second later, bumping Baekhyun aside to shake Kyungsoo’s hand as well. “He’s the boyfriend,” he says, smiling much less lasciviously. “Fiancé, now.”

“Congratulations,” Kyungsoo says easily. He shoots a small grin at Chanyeol, who goes warm. “You’re the mage, then?”

“That’s me.” Jongdae grins. “And you are…?”

“Kyungsoo,” he says, dead serious.

Jongdae laughs. “I meant if you have an ability.”

Kyungsoo’s answering smile is a little teasing. “I know. Hedgewitch.” Then, “Chanyeol doesn’t talk about me?

Chanyeol panics a little as both of his friends turns to look at him, eyebrows raised. Oh, god. “Not fair,” he splutters, “you talk to me way more than these morons. I’ve had more opportunities.”

“I thought they were your best friends,” Kyungsoo says, eyebrows dancing.

“You’re telling me,” Chanyeol says, and yelps when Baekhyun punches him.

Kyungsoo laughs. “Anyway. I was just here to bring you some gardenia bulbs.” He holds out the bag in his hands.

“Oh!” Chanyeol reaches for it, peers inside. “Thank you.”

“I was buying some for myself, so I figured I’d get you a couple. They’re gorgeous in full bloom,” Kyungsoo says, smiling. “I’ll help you plant them soon?”

“Yeah, thanks,” Chanyeol says, fully aware of his friends’ eyes on him and trying to ignore them. “That’d be great.”

Kyungsoo smiles a little wider. “Alright. I’ll see you, then?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Chanyeol sees. “These losers will be gone by evening.”

“I’ll be back later, then,” Kyungsoo confirms. “But I can’t do supper today.”

“Alright,” Chanyeol says, and feels his ears go hot when he hears Baekhyun whisper, “Today?

“Okay,” Kyungsoo says, smiling. “Still on for bowling tomorrow?”

Shit. He was hoping Baekhyun and Jongdae would not hear about that. “Oh, yeah, of course,” he says, biting his tongue.

“Good. Jongin invited himself and Sehun, but I politely declined.” Kyungsoo’s grin is stupidly cute.

With no offense whatsoever to Kyungsoo, Chanyeol absolutely wishes he’d just leave at this point. His friends are going to give him such hell. “Isn’t that supposed to work the other way around?” he asks, swallowing thickly.

Kyungsoo smiles broadly, like he made a joke and he’s excited that Chanyeol got it. God, Chanyeol likes him so much. “Not when you’ve known each other for fourteen years. Anyway, I’ll leave you guys to your fun.”

“Alright.” Chanyeol doesn’t feel as relieved as he’d hoped—the damage has been done. He should have rushed Kyungsoo out sooner. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Kyungsoo says, nodding to Baekhyun and Jongdae as well.

Chanyeol is perhaps a little too hasty to close the door behind him.

“Oh my god,” Baekhyun says, too loudly. “Park Chanyeol, I approve.”

“Shut the hell up,” Chanyeol hisses, looking out his peephole to make sure Kyungsoo is really walking away. Thankfully, he’s already halfway down Chanyeol’s driveway.

“I cannot believe you never told us about him,” Jongdae says, shaking his head and grinning. “How long have you been seeing each other?”

“We’re not,” Chanyeol says, face hot. “Oh my god, he’s just my neighbour. My very nice hedgewitch neighbour, who is helping me revive my garden.”

“Park, I really hope that’s a euphemism,” Baekhyun says gravely.

Chanyeol would laugh, but he’s absolutely not in a laughing mood. “He’s just nice,” he insists. “Sometimes he buys me plants.”

“He brought you flowers,” Jongdae says.

“They’re seeds,” Chanyeol says, setting his jaw. “Stop turning this into something it’s not.”

“You’re going bowling,” Baekhyun says. “He comes over for dinner. Regularly.

“Not that regularly.” Chanyeol crosses his arms. “It’s not like that. I’m single, he’s single, we’re single together.”

“So he’s single,” Jongdae chimes.

Stop,” Chanyeol complains. “You guys are like a bunch of gossipping teenagers. We’re almost thirty for god’s sake.”

Jongdae snorts. “Chanyeol, please. Growing up is for boring people.”

“Stop talking to me,” Chanyeol tells them. “Forever.”

Now who’s immature,” Baekhyun chirps, looking incandescently happy.

Chanyeol groans, long and loud, and retreats to the kitchen table in hopes of returning to their game.

It doesn’t happen for a long time. In the end, he has to bribe them with information about his neighbour, which, honestly, has the opposite of the desired effect.

At least he knows his friends approve of his taste in men.

*****

After the Meet the Friends Fiasco, Chanyeol seriously worries about the fate of their bowling...outing. He doesn’t know how Kyungsoo felt about it—he didn’t say much when he came over to plant the gardenia bulbs and left early, and Chanyeol hadn’t wanted to bring it up—but either way, Chanyeol feels like he’s awkward enough about it for both of them. So he’s pretty scared that bowling is going to be a total flop, and Kyungsoo will never want to hang out with him outside of his garden again.

It was Chanyeol’s idea to go bowling in the first place. He’d brought it up nervously, uncertainly, because he doesn’t know if their friendship extends that far. They’ve spent a lot of time together one-on-one, but only really in the context of bringing Chanyeol’s garden back to life, in a sort of mentor-mentee relationship. Plus that one coffee date. Er...not date. Chanyeol has to keep reminding himself not to use that word.

Chanyeol has only just started acting like a person again, and he’s far from having his life together. He has no business thinking about date-like things. Especially concerning Kyungsoo.

In any case, he’d brought up bowling tentatively, because he hadn’t wanted to be presumptuous or embarrass himself, but Kyungsoo had been more than willing to indulge him, eager even. Chanyeol was just glad he wasn’t wrong about Kyungsoo loving bowling somehow.

He meets Kyungsoo at the only bowling alley in town at 6:00, right after Kyungsoo’s done work. His neighbour is already there when he arrives, chatting with the girl behind the counter like they’re good friends, and he smiles at Chanyeol broadly when their eyes meet across the room. It makes Chanyeol feel all warm inside, and his anxieties about things being awkward fade away. This was a good idea.

“So, Yeol,” Kyungsoo says, standing close beside him as Chanyeol pays for the game and the shoe rental. “When’s the last time you went bowling?”

Chanyeol freezes up, 60% because he can feel the warmth of Kyungsoo’s shoulder through his sweater sleeve, and 40% because he realizes it’s been years. Years since he last went bowling. “Uh, maybe...my high school graduation?”

Kyungsoo splutters and laughs. “Seriously? How long ago was that, like eight years?”

“Eleven,” Chanyeol says meekly.

Kyungsoo laughs again, louder, nose crinkling, and leans against Chanyeol briefly—long enough that it was intentional, though, and that makes Chanyeol’s stomach flip. “Oh, god. Were you any good back then?”

“Not particularly,” Chanyeol says, ducking his head.

Kyungsoo grins up at him, eyes bright, and Chanyeol goes dizzy with how bad he wants to kiss him in that moment. But then Kyungsoo steps back and away, still smiling, and says, “I am looking forward to this more than you can imagine.”

Chanyeol swallows thickly. “Oh boy.”

“I’m going to crush you,” Kyungsoo says happily. And then he reaches out, tugs on the brim of Chanyeol’s cap, and turns to find himself a bowling ball.

Chanyeol finds himself gaping after Kyungsoo for a second too long. Kyungsoo has never struck him as a tactile person by any means, usually maintaining a certain amount of distance between them, keeping his hands to himself. But today, he’s been crossing that barrier like it’s nothing, throwing out casual touches left and right.

Clearly, they had moved up a friendship level without Chanyeol noticing. Maybe that’s how things work when you reach your upper twenties. Going out bowling one time bumps you up to Casual Touching closeness. Chanyeol’s never been good at gauging things like this.

He’s in the middle of a slight internal crisis concerning the fact that he doesn’t know if Kyungsoo’s in his mid-twenties or upper, when Kyungsoo himself walks over and bumps him gently with his hip. “You gonna choose a ball or what?” he says, eyebrows lifting. “I already put your name into the machine.”

“O-oh, yeah, right,” Chanyeol says, and picks the first bowling ball he sees—a hot pink monstrosity that is a good two pounds heavier than he should have chosen.

He follows Kyungsoo to their lane, and quickly discovers that Kyungsoo’s idea of putting their names into the machine is inputting Luke Skywalker and Yoda. “Which one am I?” Chanyeol asks, frowning.

“You’re Yoda, I’m Luke,” Kyungsoo says.

“Oh. But I’m taller? And also shouldn’t I be considered the padawan here?”

“No, no, you’re Yoda for the ears,” Kyungsoo says, gesturing towards his face vaguely.

Chanyeol claps his hands over his ears self-consciously, even though he literally has not cared about how his ears stick out since middle school. “Can I be Han Solo instead?”

“Why would you be Han Solo?”

“Because I’m rakishly handsome?” Chanyeol offers.

Kyungsoo hums thoughtfully, like he’s considering the validity of that claim. Then he says, “Okay,” and moves to change it on the scoreboard. While he’s there, he moves to his own name, erases it, and puts in LEIA.

“Why are you Leia?” Chanyeol asks, and is very proud of how his voice doesn’t crack, because that is a thing he stopped doing when he was twenty. As it is, he’s pretty busy pretending not to blush.

“Because she’s badass and amazing,” Kyungsoo says, without a trace of sarcasm. “Just like me.”

Chanyeol snorts, and Kyungsoo shoots him a grin, and then they start bowling.

Chanyeol is really, very bad at first. He gets three gutter balls in a row, and then only manages to knock down two pins on his first attempt that makes it to the end of the lane. Kyungsoo gets two spares and a strike in the first ten minutes of the game. However, he does show Chanyeol, numerous times, how to properly throw a ball, getting up close and personal to demonstrate, so that’s nice. Even if he’s just trying to save Chanyeol from his doomed fate.

“You’re just letting it flop out of your hand,” Kyungsoo says, laughing, handing a ball back to him from the chute. “And you’re throwing it so weakly, it’s pitiful. It won’t go straight if it has no momentum.”

“Never been about that straight life,” Chanyeol mutters, and Kyungsoo must hear him, because he cracks up. Chanyeol’s face flames, and he quickly says, “I’m really going to do it this time! Watch me!”

“Alright,” Kyungsoo says, grinning, moving off to the side a little to critique his form.

“Watch this mad throw,” Chanyeol says, taking a step back and straightening his shoulders. Then he takes a deep breath, swings his hand back, and promptly realizes Kyungsoo handed him his ball, which has a significantly smaller thumb hole. He’s already in the middle of his downswing, though, so he just follows through, releases, and—

The ball gets caught, just briefly, on the knuckle of his thumb, and by the time it's pulled loose by the force of his throw, it’s too late. The ball goes sailing through the air crookedly, over their gutter and the bumpers of the lane next to them, being used by a family of six. His ball then bounces with a clatter down their lane, ricocheting wildly off the bumpers before going over the end in a shower of pins.

He bowls his first strike. In the wrong lane.

Kyungsoo absolutely loses it. As Chanyeol stares in stunned horror at what he’s done, Kyungsoo just bursts into laughter, literally crying with it, stumbling over to clutch at Chanyeol’s arm like he’s begging Chanyeol to save him. He laughs and laughs and laughs, and Chanyeol stutters out an apology to the mother in the next lane, and then Kyungsoo laughs some more, burying his face in Chanyeol’s sleeve. If Chanyeol wasn’t dying of embarrassment, he has no doubt he’d be dying from how cute Kyungsoo looks right now, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes on Chanyeol’s sweater.

“Oh my god,” Kyungsoo wheezes, as Chanyeol drags him gently to the seat next to the scoreboard machine. “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I have brought shame to my ancestors,” Chanyeol says gravely, finally letting his lips twitch up as the humour of the situation catches up with him. “Do you think this is grounds for getting kicked out of the game?”

Kyungsoo’s chuckles refuse to die away, bubbling out of his throat as he says, “No, never. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bowl with anyone else from now on. You’re it for me.”

Chanyeol’s stomach squirms with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. “I’m putting myself in timeout for a while, though.”

Kyungsoo giggles and wipes his eyes again. “Okay, that’s fair. Go get us slushies or something? They serve good fries here.”

Chanyeol nods and slips away, patting his hot cheeks and trying desperately to recover his pride.

At least it made Kyungsoo laugh.

He returns five minutes later with a large basket of fries and two blue slushies, and Kyungsoo breaks out into a huge grin when he spots him, but thankfully doesn’t start laughing again. They eat in between bowls, finish their game, and then start another. This one goes slightly better—Chanyeol doesn’t accidentally throw his ball into any lanes but his own, and he even gets a few spares. Kyungsoo still crushes him, as promised, but Chanyeol doesn’t embarrass himself too hopelessly. And it’s...fun. They talk and laugh as they bowl, they clap for each other regardless of how many pins they knock down, and Kyungsoo shyly demonstrates how easy it is to moonwalk in bowling shoes. Also, Kyungsoo spills blue slushie all over his shirt, which Chanyeol bizarrely finds endlessly endearing.

He genuinely has a good time, all humiliation aside.

They wrap up at 8:00, hands and shoulders sore, both smiling. Since Kyungsoo came from work, they drive home separately, and then meet up again at Chanyeol’s house so Chanyeol can show him the corn he found sprouting in the morning. Kyungsoo smiles at them, and then at Chanyeol, and then at Lancelot, who jumps on him and slobbers on his clothes. They sit in the backyard and chat for a while longer, and eventually Chanyeol finds himself cajoled into fetching his guitar and playing for Kyungsoo a little, who insists that he’s playing “for the plants” because they “like music.” He’s still not very good, but he’s been practicing diligently, and his muscle memory is slowly returning.

It feels good to play again.

It feels better to have Kyungsoo smile at him, sitting a couple feet away in the grass.

“It’s a nice night,” Kyungsoo sighs, leaning back on his hands and tipping his face up towards the sky.

Chanyeol hums in agreement, his eyes stuck on his neighbour’s face, the line of his throat. It’s chilly, but not cold, the breeze slipping under his sweater and playing at the ends of his hair. The grass is soft and cool to the touch against his bare feet, the sky is darkening to a cobalt blue above them, and the scent of his gardens and Kyungsoo’s beside it hangs in the air, cloying and sweet.

Kyungsoo lifts one foot and nudges Chanyeol’s knee with his toe. “I’m cold. Go get me a sweater.”

“You’re already wearing a sweater,” Chanyeol says, smiling.

Kyungsoo snorts softly. “I need another, larger sweater. I’m sensitive to the cold.”

“Your house is right there,” Chanyeol reminds him, nodding towards the fence that separates their properties.

Kyungsoo frowns, threading his fingers through the grass under his hand. “You trying to get rid of me, Park?”

“Never,” Chanyeol says, a little too honestly. “But it is getting late. Don’t you work in the morning?”

“Ugh.” Kyungsoo pulls away his hands, flops onto his back on the lawn. “Just go get me a sweater.”

Chuckling quietly, Chanyeol clambers to his feet and does as he’s asked, bringing an old uni sweater out to where Kyungsoo hasn’t moved in his absence. Kyungsoo smiles at him brightly from the grass, and Chanyeol tries not to think about it too hard, handing him the bundle of soft, worn fabric before sitting down a respectable distance away and staring up at the sky as he pulls it on. When Chanyeol looks at him again, he’s smoothing down the front of the sweater carefully, and his hair is sticking up wildly. Cute, Chanyeol thinks, and only just stops himself before saying it out loud.

Kyungsoo sighs and pulls the long sleeves of the sweater over his hands. “Jongin’s going to be very eager to hear about tonight at work tomorrow.”

“Yeah?” Chanyeol drums his fingers on his leg and remembers that Jongin had wanted to come, originally. “Is he a good bowler?”

Kyungsoo brows draw together briefly, and then he smiles, but it’s a little tight at the edges. “He’s...yeah, he’s not bad.”

“Not like me,” Chanyeol says, grinning ruefully.

“I don’t usually have to hold his hand through the whole game, no,” Kyungsoo concedes.

Chanyeol winces. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that never has to happen again.”

There’s a quiet pause, and then Kyungsoo says, softly, “Okay.”

Chanyeol looks over at him, and finds Kyungsoo already staring back. His eyes are wide in the twilight, his hair falling messily over his forehead, his cheeks a little flushed and his lips parted and soft. Chanyeol wants to bundle him up in his arms and kiss him breathless.

But he absolutely, obviously cannot do that, so he stretches his arms over his head and says, “I should...seriously go to bed,” even though it’s not even 10 yet. “I’m like, really tired.”

Kyungsoo blinks, and then starts to get to his feet. “Guess I should go, then?”

“Unless you want me to pass out on you,” Chanyeol says. He’s not even close to falling asleep on the spot, but he thinks it might be safer to send Kyungsoo home before he reaches that point. He can’t trust himself when he’s actually that tired.

Kyungsoo shoots him a small smile. “Alright. Thanks for...tonight. It was really nice. I had a good time.”

Chanyeol grins, standing up beside him. “Yeah, it was fun.”

A moment of silence hangs between them, heavy and expectant. Chanyeol isn’t sure who’s supposed to be filling it.

Kyungsoo clears his throat. “Alright, well. Goodnight, then.”

“Yeah, goodnight.” Chanyeol pretends to be engrossed in brushing bits of grass off the seat of his pants.

Kyungsoo stares at him another moment, then nods and turns to head for the gate next to Chanyeol’s house.

“Sleep well!” Chanyeol calls after him, hoping to quell the affection that’s bubbling up in his chest. “Have a nice day at work tomorrow!”

Kyungsoo reaches the gate and turns back to him, smiling through the darkening night. “Thanks, Chanyeol.”

Chanyeol grins, waves, and waits for him to disappear to the other side of the fence. Then he drops back to the grass and sprawls out on his back, closing his eyes, breathing in the crisp spring night air.

He inhales deeply, holds it, and the lets it out slowly. He hears Kyungsoo’s front door open and close, and he thinks about their evening together. The way Kyungsoo looked, crying with laughter at Chanyeol’s bowling blunder. The way he tugged on Chanyeol’s sleeve and flicked his hat and leaned against his arm. The way he smiled at him.

Something warm and nervous and excited blossoms in Chanyeol’s stomach, and he grins up at the sky, now speckled with stars as the sun’s light fades. Sighing, he sits up, looks around at his yard. He admires the clusters of flowers unfurling on his lilac bush, the smaller heads of purple hyacinths, the gorgeous pink azalea blossoms in the corner of his lot. His garden is finally starting to thrive, and it makes Chanyeol feel so proud, so hopeful. He likes that his garden has been recovering alongside him, from a dark and depressing winter he hadn’t even noticed he’d descended into. He likes that it’s blooming in tandem with his own life.

He thinks his garden is beautiful, and maybe his life could be, too.

*****

It’s the first day of June—the first day of Chanyeol’s last month of exile—when it happens.

It’s a beautiful day out, sunny and warm and blue-skied. Chanyeol’s been busier than usual at work, scooping out ice cream after ice cream for kids on their way home from school, and it’s later than usual by the time he’s finally allowed to go home. The sun is setting, the air is cooling, and Chanyeol’s shoulders are loose and relaxed as he drives home, still smelling of sugar and chocolate syrup. He parks out front, stretches out his arms, inhales deeply.

And then he smells the smoke.

In his line of work, Chanyeol knows smoke when he smells it. There is practically smoke running through his veins, smoke seeping out of his pores. Chanyeol knows fire.

He smells it first, and then sees it. Curling out from behind his house. And there he hears it. The roar and crackle of flames. And somehow, he knows what’s happened.

His mind goes blank as he runs full-tilt through the gate to his backyard. Fear and horror clutch at his chest, squeezing his lungs, and he stops dead when he sees the scene laid out before him.

There’s a cat on his fence—Fruit Basket—and Lancelot is going berserk, flinging himself at her, barking clamorously. But the wards around his gardens are keeping him from getting through—they’re throwing up blue fire, making Lancelot jerk away, forcing him back.

But Lancelot’s a hellhound—something Chanyeol often forgets, because his dog shifts so infrequently. He doesn’t burn—he bursts into flames. Red flames. Angry flames. His eyes go red, and fire spews from his mouth, licks off his back. Lancelot lunges at the fence again, and he makes it halfway across the garden before the wards scare him back.

His hellfire flares, licks at the peonies under him, and catches.

“Lancelot, no!” Chanyeol hears himself yell, panic curling around his throat. There’s fire everywhere, spreading around his yard, eating up his gardens with ruthless hunger. Leaves are crackling, crumbling, flowers are shrivelling in tongues of flame. Smoke is pouring into the air, and Chanyeol feels like it’s filling his lungs, choking him. “You fucking dumb dog, stop.

Lancelot glances back at him, his fire-red eyes unseeing, and then turns to chase Fruit Basket down the length of the fence, setting off ward after ward as he goes.

Lancelot!” Chanyeol bellows, running after him. Panicked, desperate, he tries to put out the fires with sweeps of his hands as he goes, but they’re too big, they’re spreading too fast, and he can’t concentrate. The flames pop, fade slightly, and then roar back at full force. Consuming everything he’s spent the last three months creating. “Lancelot! Fucking stop, you’re killing them, you’re destroying it, you’re—” He reaches his dog, yanks him back by the collar even though his hellfire licks up his arms. Chanyeol controls fire—he’s not immune to it. It burns instantly, blistering his skin, but Chanyeol holds on. “God fucking dammit, Lancelot!”

His dog yelps as he’s jerked back, and his eyes flicker back to brown.

Later, Chanyeol will feel bad about how harshly he pulls Lancelot away from the fence, how brutally he throws his dog down to the grass. But right now, Chanyeol isn’t thinking. Chanyeol is livid, and even more than that, he’s terrified.

“Oh, god,” he says, voice cracking as he turns. His entire yard seems to be ablaze, and the fires are spreading, building, eating away at everything. “Oh god, oh god.” He flings out his hands, grabbing, pulling, but he’s panicking, he can’t do it. “Please, please, please,” he begs, wiping soot and tears from his face. The pain in his arms is sinking deeper into his skin, into his bones, and his whole body is shaking. “God, fucking please,” he says, louder, but his head is scrambled and overwhelmed, and all he can see is fire and destruction and smoke, and he’s so scared, and so desperate, and—

Something hits him in the side of the head, hard enough to make him take a step back, startled.

“You were a goddamn wildfire ranger, Chanyeol!” Kyungsoo yells at him from the other side of his fence. “Calm the fuck down and fix it!

Chanyeol stops, takes a deep breath. The fire rages around him, and if Chanyeol tries, he can forget where he is. He can pretend it’s a forest that means nothing more to him than the next patch of greenery. He can pretend that this is his job, rather than his livelihood. Either way, the fires must be put out.

He opens his eyes, and starts extinguishing.

It still takes a good fifteen minutes to methodically kill all the flames. It’s hellfire; it clings to life, it destroys to its last breath. But Chanyeol is stronger than it is. He knows this, deep down. Hellfire is a Level 3 issue—at this size, Level 4. Chanyeol is a Level 6 pyromancer. He knows he is, failure or not.

He puts out the fire, until all that’s left is smoldering ashes. Chanyeol looks around at what used to be his beautiful, flourishing garden, shudders, and collapses.

“Oh my god, Yeol, it’s okay, are you okay? Shit, you’ve got burns.” Chanyeol has no idea when Kyungsoo made it into his yard, whether he came through the gate or just jumped the fence, but suddenly he’s at Chanyeol’s side, touching his arms tentatively. “Yeol? Come on, talk to me.”

Chanyeol shakes his head, coughs, and hears it turn into a sob. God. “They’re gone,” he rasps through his smoke-raw throat.

“What?” Kyungsoo says, tipping Chanyeol’s face up to look at him, eyes wide and worried. His brows draw together, and Chanyeol knows his face is streaked with soot and tears.

He pulls his head out of Kyungsoo’s hands, looks away. Looks at his ruined gardens. “They’re all gone,” he says, and he feels like his chest is rending open. Some of it’s the smoke—he knows he inhaled a lot of it—but most of it is the grief. The loss. His gardens are gone.

“Oh, Chanyeol,” Kyungsoo says, and he seems to understand. “Chanyeol, no, it’s okay. It’s okay, I can fix it, I can fix this—”

No.” The word rips from Chanyeol’s chest. He looks up, eyes blazing. “Kyungsoo, no. This isn’t something you can fix, okay? You can’t fix this.” He feels fresh, hot tears spill over his cheeks, and it’s embarrassing, but he doesn’t care. “They’re gone. Even if you bring the garden back to life, those will be different flowers. These were things I made, Kyungsoo. These were things I brought to life and nurtured. They were good things.” His voice cracks on the last word. “And now they’re gone. They’re just ashes, thanks to me.”

Kyungsoo stares at him, mouth open. “Yeol, just let me—”

“Please,” Chanyeol croaks, and he’s so angry. He’s angry at himself, mostly, but he’s angry at Kyungsoo, too, and the whole world. Why did this have to happen to him? “Just please— go away. There’s nothing you can do here. It’s gone— That’s it. I tried, and I failed. It’s not the first time.”

“Chanyeol, this isn’t—”

“Stop trying to fix this!” Chanyeol bursts out. His hands clench into fists against his pitiful, still-sprouting grass. “Just go home, Kyungsoo. You came for the flowers, and now the flowers are gone, so go back to your beautiful house and your beautiful life and leave me alone, alright? I don’t need you anymore, obviously.”

Kyungsoo opens his mouth again, and then his face clouds over and he snaps it shut, clenches his jaw. “Well, fine,” he says, and his voice is hard. “Nice to know I just wasted three months of my life.”

His words are harsh, angry, but they just make Chanyeol sad. He turns away, hides his dirty, tear-streaked face in his shoulder. Three months of work. His hard work, and Kyungsoo’s. Lost. Just a pile of smoking ash.

“Fuck this,” Kyungsoo mutters, and gets to his feet. “Get those arms looked at,” he snaps, and then he’s gone, the front gate swinging shut behind him.

Chanyeol barely even feels his burns. Silence falls over his yard in Kyungsoo’s absence, and Chanyeol breathes in one shuddering breath, two. He lies down, back against the cool ground, and tries to breathe through a sob and aching lungs. Around him, the remains of his gardens smoke, and above him, dark clouds gather. Chanyeol sees nothing. He closes his eyes, swallows down his grief. This was his fault. He illegally put up those wards. He put all his hopes and dreams into those goddamn gardens. He thought he was getting his life together.

He was wrong, and now he’s paying the price.

He doesn’t know how long he stays there, breathing in smoke-tinged air, breathing in the proof of his failure. It reminds him of his practical exam. Achingly so. This isn’t the first time he’s been thwarted by fire. Some pyromancer he is.

Eventually, though, it starts to rain, fat drops hitting his cheeks and dampening his clothes. Still, he doesn’t move, not until it really starts pouring, soaking through the charred plant matter and whisking away the last of the smoke. Chanyeol listens to the steady drumming of it, feels it against his body, imagines it as a funeral march. A dismal, weeping song.

And then Lancelot runs to his side, licks at his face and hands and whimpers until Chanyeol shakes him off and stands, his legs unsteady. “Sorry, Lancelot,” he mutters, eyes stinging, heart aching. “I’m sorry, boy. This wasn’t your fault. It was mine.”

Lancelot whines at him, lunges towards the door, waits for Chanyeol to follow him inside. He does, eventually, turning his back on the wreckage and heading into his house. He sheds his clothes, shuffles to his bathroom, spreads a healing balm over the blistered skin of his forearms and wraps them in gauze. He’s dealt with burns before, plenty of times. They’re nothing compared to the pain of losing the only thing that’s kept him going these past three months.

In the end, he slips into bed without showering, still smelling of smoke and ashes. He thinks that’s only fair; that he should have to face the evidence of his failure.

It takes him a long time to fall asleep.

*****

He wakes up the next morning to sunlight streaming in through his window, and birds singing merrily. Chanyeol groans, miserable, and drags himself out of bed. He thinks it must be late in the morning—it’s Saturday, he should be working, but he figures he can call in sick this once.

He makes it downstairs, to the kitchen, and manages to keep his head down and his eyes averted every time he passes the window. He makes himself a meal—if a granola bar crumbled into yogurt can be considered a meal—and eats it with his back to the rear of his house. He texts his boss, checks on his burns. They’re healing alright; the balm he uses is a hedgewitch concoction, specially made for pyros and burn victims. It’s expensive, but Kyungsoo got it for him for cheap. Just out of the blue once, no explanation.

Chanyeol doubts he’ll be getting anymore spontaneous gifts from him in the future.

Behind him, Lancelot barks loudly.

“Shut up,” Chanyeol mutters, curling his fingers around his glass of water.

Lancelot ignores him, and barks again, and again. He jumps at Chanyeol’s back, whines, and barks insistently.

What?” Chanyeol snaps, and turns around.

He doesn’t mean to look out the window—had been planning on avoiding it for the foreseeable future, had even considered buying new blinds—but a flash of colour catches his eye. He stands up, looks outside.

The ashes of the night before are gone. In their place, a thriving garden is bursting out of the soil, thick with green foliage, heavy with blooms of every shape and size and colour. It’s absolutely gorgeous, untamed but incredible, spilling over the edges of the flower beds and onto thick, lush grass.

Chanyeol is furious.

“That son of a bitch,” he mutters, and moves to his front door with purpose, vision clouded with anger. He yanks on his shoes, ignores that he’s still in his pajamas, and storms outside. It’s another beautiful day, but Chanyeol doesn’t feel it. He walks straight to Kyungsoo’s house and pounds his fist on the door.

He waits, but no one answers. “Kyungsoo!” he yells, knocking again. “Goddammit, Soo, I know you’re in there.”

The house is silent, and in a fit of impatience, Chanyeol tries the doorknob. It turns easily, so he pushes it open, steps inside. “Kyungsoo!”

The house is exactly like he remembers. He’s only been inside the one time, but nothing has changed. The hanging plants everywhere, the pots of herbs, the wooden furniture and throw pillows. And on the table, a single red flower in a vase that nudges at Chanyeol’s memory.

Chanyeol ignores it, strides towards the stairs at the back. “Kyungsoo!” he shouts.

Finally, his neighbour appears, shuffling into view at the top of the stairs. He squints, rubs his eyes tiredly, and frowns. “What the hell are you doing in my house?”

“I told you not to mess with my fucking garden,” Chanyeol snaps. “I told you I didn’t want you to.”

Kyungsoo frowns more deeply, eyebrows drawing together in confusion and anger. “I didn’t.”

Chanyeol scoffs, and it’s an ugly sound. “You did. Because it sure as hell isn’t natural for my garden to recover from a fire and then some in less than 12 hours.”

Kyungsoo’s arms fold across his chest, and he rolls his eyes. “Chanyeol, trust me, I wouldn’t regrow your fucking garden for you, even if you asked, right after you yelled at me to fuck out of your life now that I wasn’t useful to you anymore.”

Chanyeol opens his mouth, and then closes it. “You— What?”

“That was really dickish of you, by the way,” Kyungsoo tells him. “Leading me on for months so I’d help you with your fucking plants.”

What?

“And you—” Kyungsoo stops suddenly, and sways. He blinks heavily, and Chanyeol stares at him, instantly worried. “You—” he says again, and then he wavers dangerously, like he’s about to tip down the stairs.

So quickly he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, Chanyeol bounds up the stairs, catches him around the waist before he can pitch forwards. Kyungsoo’s hands clutch the front of his shirt, and he blinks dazedly. “Oh, god,” he mumbles. “That was weird.”

“Are you okay?” Chanyeol asks, breathless.

Kyungsoo frowns, nose wrinkling. “Yeah, just— Guh. It feels like I just did a fuckton of growing. Like, in my sleep, or—” He stops, and immediately pales.

“What?” Chanyeol shakes him a little, heart hammering against his chest. “Soo? Do you need to lie down?”

Slowly, Kyungsoo shakes his head. He lets go of Chanyeol’s shirt, takes an unsteady step back. Chanyeol’s hands fall back to his sides. “No. No, I just— I’m sorry.” Kyungsoo swallows visibly. “I think I did regrow your garden.”

Chanyeol frowns, remembering why he’s here. “You think?

Kyungsoo’s cheeks are pink. “I— This doesn’t usually...happen,” he admits, ducking his head. “Me, growing things in my sleep.”

“You unconsciously revived my garden?” Chanyeol asks dubiously.

Kyungsoo just shrugs. “Yeah, I think so. It...It happens occasionally, you know, when I get emotional. My control slips, especially when I’m asleep.” He fidgets, picking at the hem of his loose sleep shirt. “I do things without meaning to.”

Chanyeol snorts a little meanly. “When my control slips, I destroy things.”

Kyungsoo looks at him, chewing on his lower lip. “Me too, usually. But my ability feeds off my feelings. Not the conscious ones. The...deeper ones. They reflect how I feel about something or...someone.”

Chanyeol blinks at him. “What?”

Somewhere in the house, a clock strikes the hour. Kyungsoo shrugs stiffly. “I fell asleep feeling upset, and my ability acted up according to my feelings.”

“Your feelings...about me?” Chanyeol asks, chest tightening.

Kyungsoo shrugs again, doesn’t look at him.

“You magically regrew my garden...because you felt sorry for me?” Chanyeol asks.

There’s a loud, harsh bark of sound, and it takes Chanyeol a second to realize it came from Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo, who looks up to glare, and punches him. Hard. “Because I like you, asshole. Or at least I did.

Chanyeol is stunned, stumbling back again, nearly falling down the stairs himself. “You like me?” he says, the words awkward and confused even in his mouth.

“Obviously!” Kyungsoo rolls his eyes, throws his hands in the air. “I like gardening, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend all my free time growing someone else’s garden.”

Chanyeol blinks at him, and his heart slams against his ribs. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh.” Kyungsoo’s laugh is short, rough. “My familiar is obsessed with you. That’s not normal.”

Chanyeol doesn’t know what to do. Or say. Or even think. Kyungsoo likes him. Like, really likes him?

And then something registers in Chanyeol’s stunned, spinning mind. “Oh. You kept my rose.”

In an instant, Kyungsoo goes red. “Shit.”

Something soft and warm spreads in Chanyeol’s chest, and he starts to grin. “You kept my rose alive this whole time. The rose I gave you.”

Kyungsoo’s scowl is a fearsome thing to behold. “It was cute, okay? And they’re nice roses. Stop making fun of me.”

“I’m not.” Chanyeol smiles, and catches Kyungsoo’s hand when he tries to punch him again. “Kyungsoo, I’m not. I—” He swallows hard, tightens his grip around Kyungsoo’s wrist. “I’m sorry for yelling at you yesterday. I was upset, but you didn’t do anything wrong. I’m sorry.”

Kyungsoo frowns. “Whatever.”

Chanyeol forces himself to take a deep breath. His lungs are still aching from last night, but now, when his chest constricts, it’s in a good way. Kyungsoo likes him. Kyungsoo kept his rose. “I...need to go do something.”

Kyungsoo’s eyebrows draw together, and he tugs his wrist free of Chanyeol’s grip. “Okay?”

“Okay.” Chanyeol takes another deep breath, and looks Kyungsoo in the face. He feels kind of the way he did when he first spotted his neighbour, back when he first moved in. Shy, nervous, a little giddy. Only more intense, now, because he knows Kyungsoo. Knows what he’s like. Knows what kinds of things make him laugh, knows how he likes his coffee, knows how his eyes light up when he’s excited about something. Chanyeol twitches forward against his will, his body straining against the invisible bonds of propriety and self-control, and then he smiles and sways back. “See you,” he whispers, and turns to run down Kyungsoo’s stairs.

“What the hell?” Kyungsoo says behind him, too quietly to be a real question.

Chanyeol grins, and casts one last lingering glance at the rose on the table. His heart flutters, and his stomach turns.

He goes home.

*****

The thick, lush greenery tumbling out of Chanyeol’s flower beds are, on some level, still the gardens he and Kyungsoo once grew together. It’s the same plants, the same flowers—just bigger, fuller, better. It’s not his garden, but it’s made of the same essence. It’s not his, but it’s still beautiful.

Chanyeol lifts the scissors he brought out from his kitchen and cuts a dozen roses from his new, abundant bushes. Their blooms are full and velvety soft, blood red and thick with heady aroma. Chanyeol ignores the way their thorns prick his hands, and turns to the rest of the gardens.

He figures it’d be foolish of him to stop at roses, so he keeps going. He picks long stalks of pale lavender gladiolus, their blossoms climbing up each stem in clusters. Adds delicate stems of white lily of the valley, each tiny flower hanging like a perfect fairy cup. Picks out full, perfect clusters of blue hydrangeas, each petal edged with purple. Chanyeol’s no florist, but he knows beauty when he sees it.

In the end, he pieces a bouquet together carefully, one flower at a time, until it’s practically bursting from his fist. Then he brings it inside and wraps the stems first in tape, and then in a length of ribbon he pulls from his storage room.

With the bouquet resting carefully on his table, Chanyeol finds a square of card stock and a ballpoint pen.

Dear Kyungsoo, he writes, smiling helplessly. I like you. Do you like me? Yes / No. -Chanyeol

He pushes the card into the flowers, so that the corner sticks out from between the blooms, and then walks it over to Kyungsoo’s house and leaves it on the front door. He grins all the way back home.

*****

He only has to wait half an hour before someone’s pounding on his door. “Park Chanyeol, you goddamn moron, get out here!”

Chanyeol has to bite hard on his lip to keep himself from giggling like a schoolboy as he makes his way to the front of his house and pulls open his door. Kyungsoo is standing on his stoop, looking absolutely enraged, face pink, flowers in one fist. “Hi,” Chanyeol says, feigning innocence, leaning against the doorframe. “What’s up?”

“You shut up,” Kyungsoo says, and then lunges at him.

For a second, Chanyeol is sure he’s about to be pummeled into the floor, and he thinks for a moment that he must have gravely misinterpreted some pretty important signs. But then—then, they’re kissing. Kyungsoo’s got his arms looped around Chanyeol’s neck, his bouquet brushing against Chanyeol’s back, and Chanyeol finds his hands settling on Kyungsoo’s hips, and their lips are pressing together, warm and firm. Chanyeol laughs, because he can’t help himself, and because there’s something bright and joyful expanding in his chest, and Kyungsoo responds by kissing him harder, pulling Chanyeol down so he doesn’t have to strain upwards, practically crushing their mouths together. Chanyeol thinks maybe he is being attacked, after all.

And then the kiss gentles, and Chanyeol really feels the warmth and humid softness of Kyungsoo’s mouth against his own, and he sighs and falls into it. One of his hands travels up from Kyungsoo’s waist to curl around his jaw, and Kyungsoo makes a low sound and presses in harder again, lifting up on his toes, dragging Chanyeol down with his arms around his neck. Chanyeol groans, shuffles a step back and coaxes Kyungsoo into following him, and then reaches out blindly and shoves the door closed.

The sound of it slamming shut seems to startle Kyungsoo, and he pulls away with a jerk. Chanyeol accidentally makes a sad, pitiful sound at the loss of contact.

Kyungsoo blinks at him, like he’s dazed and can’t remember why he’s here, and then he lifts the flowers in his hand and says, very seriously, “This is adorable and I hate it.”

Chanyeol grins. “Don’t even talk about adorable, okay, you regrew my garden with your love.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Kyungsoo tells him, and then drops the flowers on the floor, holds onto Chanyeol’s chin with the same hand, and kisses him again.

Chanyeol has thought about kissing Kyungsoo, quite frankly, an embarrassing number of times in the past few months. At first, it was just kind of an automatic reaction to seeing his neighbour—Kyungsoo is really fucking cute, and his mouth always looks so soft and devastatingly kissable. It later became a much more emotional thing, as Chanyeol’s crush grew and he started wanting to kiss Kyungsoo because he liked him. Like, an absurd amount.

At this point, Chanyeol can admit that his kissing fantasies were sorely under-imaginative.

Kyungsoo kisses with his whole body, like he’s starving for it. He presses up against the front of Chanyeol’s body and leaves absolutely no room for anything except enthusiastic reciprocation, which Chanyeol eagerly supplies. He sucks at Chanyeol’s mouth, nips sharply at the corner of his lip, runs the palm of his hand over Chanyeol’s shoulder and down his chest to settle against his side, stroking at the fabric of his shirt with his thumb. He kisses Chanyeol like he’s been thinking about how he wants to do it for weeks.

Chanyeol makes a soft, embarrassing sound, and does the same. Kisses Kyungsoo the way he’s been imagining it in his head (only better, a thousand times better, because real life, although much more flawed, is always better than fantasy). He sucks on Kyungsoo’s full lower lip, and threads his fingers through his hair, rubs his thumb over his freckled cheek, curls his hand in the back of his shirt. His knees are shaky, and he thinks they should probably sit down before he crumples and takes Kyungsoo down with him, but he doesn’t want to stop to remember where his couch is.

In the end, it’s Kyungsoo who finally pulls away, now grinning and raking his fingers gently through Chanyeol’s hair, pushing it away from his forehead. “Alright, I’m convinced,” he says.

“Huh?” Chanyeol says, feeling warm and fuzzy and admittedly kind of out of it by this point, his eyes stuck on Kyungsoo’s red, shiny lips.

As if to torture him, Kyungsoo’s tongue slides out and over his lower lip, slowly, tauntingly. “That you weren’t leading me on,” he says, voice low. “For the past three months.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol says dumbly. “No. No, I was not. Intentionally.”

“I figured,” Kyungsoo says. “If you were, I would have destroyed you.”

Chanyeol just nods, blinking at him and trying to stay on track.

Kyungsoo smiles. “I have the feeling there have been some misunderstandings between us.”

“Yes,” Chanyeol says, struggling to keep up. “That is very possible, due to the fact that I am very dumb.”

Kyungsoo laughs, and it makes Chanyeol want to kiss him again, so he does, because he can. Kyungsoo hums, presses their mouths together indulgently, and then draws away again. “Maybe let’s just forget about them, like real grownups,” he suggests, smiling. “Also, can I give you a hickey?”

“What?” Chanyeol says, lost again.

“I feel like I missed out on an important part of my youth by never giving anyone a hickey,” Kyungsoo tells him. “It’s never too late to rectify that kind of problem.”

Chanyeol blinks at him, and then says, “Sure.”

Kyungsoo grins, leans up on his toes to press another firm kiss to his mouth, and then trails lighter, closed-mouth kisses down his jaw and then his throat. Chanyeol shivers and holds still, squeezing his eyes shut, and laughs helplessly when he feels a sharp, sucking sting in the soft skin just above his collarbone. Kyungsoo pulls away, and his smile is smug and satisfied.

“Was it everything you ever dreamed of?” Chanyeol asks, pressing one finger to the tender spot. It won’t be big, or dark. But it still makes him feel very, very warm.

Kyungsoo hums, cocks his head to the side. “I dunno. I was hoping you’d melt into a puddle of desire or something like that.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Chanyeol tells him. “You can try again later, when we’re in a more convenient place for melting.”

Kyungsoo laughs, nose crinkling, eyes curving up. “Alright. I’ll hold you to that.”

They make it to the couch a minute later, with Chanyeol wedged in the corner and Kyungsoo tucked up against his side, feet pulled up onto the cushions. They watch Saturday morning kids shows, and sometimes make out a little. At one point, Kyungsoo dips his tongue into Chanyeol’s mouth, holds onto the front of his shirt and licks delicately behind his teeth, and that does nearly make Chanyeol melt into a puddle of desire. He’s glad they’re sitting at that point. Kyungsoo looks even more smug.

“Hey,” Chanyeol says, rubbing the pad of his thumb along the strip of skin peeking out under the hem of Kyungsoo’s shirt. “What were you angrily yelling at me about Fruit Basket earlier today?”

“Huh?” Kyungsoo says, sounding sleepy. He has his head pillowed against Chanyeol’s shoulder, and doesn’t seem eager to move.

“You said something about your familiar being obsessed with me,” Chanyeol says.

Oh.” Kyungsoo’s head twitches, like he’s considering moving away, but can’t actually bring himself to. “Actually, that’s very embarrassing, so let’s forget about it as promised.”

“No, no, now I’m curious,” Chanyeol says, chuckling. “Please?”

Kyungsoo sighs, stretching out one bare foot to prod at Lancelot’s head on the floor. “It’s just— Ugh. Familiars reflect the witch, is all. I keep forgetting you don’t know that, and that your dog isn’t one. I had to keep reminding myself, because things got pretty confusing pretty fast.”

“What do you mean, they reflect the witch?” Chanyeol presses.

“You know, they— Witches and their familiars are intimately connected. Thought-sharing, and emotion-sharing. So like, if my familiar hates you, you can assume that I hate you too, even if I don’t show it. They have their own personalities—they’re independent beings—but there’s definitely a certain degree of...similarity.” Kyungsoo cringes noticeably.

“So…” Chanyeol tries to piece this new information together. “Fruit Basket...likes me?”

“Fruit Basket is obsessed with you,” Kyungsoo groans, like it pains him. “Oh my god, she’s obsessed. Sometimes she stays home from work so that she can watch you. It’s literally so creepy. And she’s my familiar, which means I’m creepy.

Chanyeol blinks, and then grins. He presses his fingers into Kyungsoo’s hip. “That’s cute as hell.”

“No it’s not! She’s uncontrollable! She’s in love with you.” And then Kyungsoo’s mouth clicks shut, and he groans and tries to bury his face behind Chanyeol’s shoulder.

Chanyeol feels his face heat up at the implication, but takes pity on Kyungsoo, who’s obviously really embarrassed about saying that out loud. “She’s just a cat, Soo. Cats do what they want. I’m not offended.”

Kyungsoo groans again, but when he speaks, muffled into his sweater, it’s to say, “Let’s just say I was very flattered when Lancelot got all up in my face with the giant dog kisses the first time we met.”

Oh.” Chanyeol laughs. “No, he’s like that with everyone. And I am not quite that forward.”

“Neither am I, and yet Fruit Basket sat in your lap,” Kyungsoo tells him.

Chanyeol frowns, and then remembers. “Oh. At your house. You did seem very weird about that.”

“I was so glad you were oblivious about familiars,” Kyungsoo admits. “That was literally an unwilling declaration of...interest. Like, serious interest. I wanted to die.”

Chanyeol grins. “You can climb in my lap now, if you’re jealous,” he says.

Kyungsoo hits him. Gently. And then he finally lifts his head and looks at Chanyeol steadily. “Okay, since we’re talking about embarrassing stuff already, was the bowling a date?”

Chanyeol turns and gapes at him. “What? No!”

Kyungsoo sighs and slumps back against the couch. “Honestly, at this point, I’m glad. Because I thought it went pretty well, but there was a very distinct lack of kissing at the end, and also a lack of requests for a repeat. Which made it a very bad first date.”

“Oh, god,” Chanyeol says, going red. “Did I ask you on a date without knowing it?”

Kyungsoo grins at him softly. “I think you did.”

Shit,” Chanyeol says, with feeling. “I am so sorry.”

“It was a good date,” Kyungsoo says. “I had a lot of fun. Until the end, when you sent me home early and never spoke of it again.”

“I am literally so sorry,” Chanyeol tells him. “I’ll take you on another date soon. And I will be fully aware of it.”

Kyungsoo laughs, shaking his head. “I mean, I probably shouldn’t have assumed. I think I was just hearing what I wanted to hear. I was mad you didn’t kiss me though.”

“I wanted to,” Chanyeol admits, because he might as well. Kyungsoo was honest about his familiar—Chanyeol can be honest about this. “I wanted to kiss you.”

Kyungsoo’s responding smile is bright and gorgeous. “Hell yeah you did.”

Chanyeol doesn’t know who leans in first; only that they meet in the middle, and that Kyungsoo’s lips are soft and warm and smiling against his own.

It’s only a good half hour later that Kyungsoo sighs and pushes his head into the crook of Chanyeol’s neck and says, “Are you okay about your garden, Yeol? I know it meant a lot to you.”

Chanyeol stops and thinks about that. Yesterday, when he’d first seen the fire, and later, after he’d just put it out, he really wasn’t. He wasn’t okay. He was devastated, and filled with grief, and angry at himself. But right now, all he feels is a low, dull ache, a passing feeling of disappointment. “Yeah,” he says softly. “I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” Kyungsoo presses, brows drawn together in concern.

“The garden was important,” Chanyeol confesses—Kyungsoo, a hedgewitch, is the last person that would laugh about something like that. “It...it was important to me. It helped me a lot. But it’s like—” He sighs, runs his fingers through his hair. “It’s like, plants can go into shock when they’re transplanted, right? They think something traumatic has happened to them, and they react badly. But if you give them a little time, and a little love and care, they come back from that. And they remember how to grow. And how to live.”

He looks at Kyungsoo, who stares back at him, eyes wide and solemn. He takes Chanyeol’s larger hands in his, and looks him straight in the face. “Chanyeol,” he says gravely. “I have never been more attracted to you in my life.”

Chanyeol’s face breaks out in a grin. “I know you love your plant metaphors,” he says, squeezing Kyungsoo’s hands in response.

Kyungsoo laughs, pulls him in, and kisses him.

*****

Chanyeol’s gardens continue to flourish, even in the winter.

*********