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White Noise

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The first word that comes to mind is, without a doubt, sketchy.

There are neon lights everywhere, but not all of them are functioning. Some have gone out and haven’t yet been replaced. A black light lamp illuminates the bar, where four barkeepers tend the bunch of people, mostly male, that sit on tall velvet-cushioned stalls.

No one will explain why they won’t ask you for identifications at the door. No one will tell you why the EXIT sign is crooked.
Across the bar, several scaffolds connected to a main stage are surrounded by handfuls of armchairs and coffee tables. There’s no dancefloor. At the back, black curtains tinted by red lights hide a set of glass doors that only come to sight when they get crossed by pairs, who are quick to disappear behind them.

It’s early, so the place is mostly empty. There are more workers there than there are customers, and when he checks the time, the metal of his watch heavy on his wrist, Sehun assumes it’ll probably be a while until anything worthwhile starts taking place. So he sits in one of the armchairs –the one that seems the least damaged, probably due to not having the best view of the closest stage– and calls one of the waitresses over, a girl with a kind smile and a gracious walk, draped in black and silver, that towers over him in vertiginous heels.

Sehun’s fingers grip the stem of a martini glass shortly after, olive spinning in the bottom as he moves the glass around. The pleasant herbal aroma of the vermouth dances right under his nose, and at the first sip, his eyes close. He’s had a long day. Truthfully, he only wants to relax tonight, and the place is quiet, soft music pouring from the speakers. The click-clack of the waitresses’ heels and the click-clack of the glasses at the bar feel like white noise and Sehun thinks that, under different circumstances, maybe he would have fallen asleep.

His thoughts get interrupted by light chatter at his back, not for being particularly loud or particularly interesting (really, it’s nothing but small talk), but because it’s quiet and this sound is new in this environment, and Sehun can’t help but glance back.

What he sees is nothing out of the ordinary; just a group of three boys that come inside, greeting the bartenders and waiters by their names as if they were used to seeing them all the time. More workers, probably –what’s their role exactly, Sehun can’t know. All he knows is one of them, though objectively attractive, seems dull; and when the waitress cracks a joke the other two laugh at, the boy manages a smile, but the gesture doesn’t reach his eyes.

 

It’s easy enough to let loose. It’s easy enough to sit back, with a cocktail in his hand and his eyes roaming around the room, watching the dancers but not really looking. His spot isn’t as bad as he had originally thought –it spares him from most of the attention, though a piece of clothing or two have landed on his lap already.

He tips well, because he can afford it. He tips even the ones that aren’t of his liking; the ones that are too boring and the ones that are too vulgar; the ones that fix their attention too much on him and the ones that don’t even look at him at all. He tips them because, after all, that’s their job, and whether he is enjoying it or not, nobody asked him to sit there and watch.

He’s only mildly surprised when two of the guys he saw at the entrance come on stage. They are both tall and slim, skin taut over lean muscle, yet they seem to be yin and yang: one of them, light complexion, light hair, moves sharp and powerful. The other, smooth as a summer breeze, has dark hair and dark eyes, and his skin is the golden brown of honey in the sunlight. It doesn’t take Sehun any time to connect this guy to the one he saw earlier, albeit they don’t really seem like the same person at all. The guy he saw earlier had sad eyes and his figure hidden under a worn-out hoodie, and he was reluctant to making eye contact for more than five seconds at a time. This guy, however, has the looks of a model and the soul of a fiery star, burning from within. He acts like the stage is his, and Sehun has no doubt that he’s right. To him, at least; he hasn’t been able to take his eyes off him.

And it surprises him, because when he saw him back there, he didn’t give it a second thought. And it’s not about his body, Sehun thinks, and it’s not about his face. It’s not even about the way his hands go up to brush locks of hair away from it, skin glistening with sweat. It’s more about his confidence; about the way his eyes fix on the public, drinking up their stares. It’s about how it seems like he probably knows he has some sort of flaw (although none of them are discernable, at least to Sehun’s eyes), but he also knows his fortes outnumber them by much. He knows he’s going to reel them in, whether they want it or not. He knows he’s untouchable.

Sehun almost forgets there’s another dancer on the main stage, so when he looks up at the screen behind it, he’s briefly confused to read two names dancing across it. He doesn’t know which belongs to whom.

He tips, of course, even more so than before. When he’s sliding the bills, folded neatly, into the waistband of the dancer’s boxers, his fingertips graze his skin ever so slightly, and he’s warm and slick with sweat. His eyes are deep and intense and seem to find Sehun’s easily, his quickened breath hovering above him, yet not close enough. It lasts for half a second, maybe less even; but it leaves Sehun breathless and wanting, throat dry, skin burning where it touched him, and eyes blurry with desire. They follow him as he rounds the room, and even as focused as he is, he can tell he is not the only one the dancer has this effect on. He can’t blame them.

Sehun can’t help but wonder, if vaguely, how long he must have been doing this to get so good at it.

The voice from the speakers, an invisible host, pronounces their names again over the music. The other dancer, the one Sehun’s eyes neglected, waves, flirty, at the sound of his own name. Lay, apparently. And finally, Sehun’s favorite does the same. His name, now clear with the way he nods his head at it, rolls off Sehun’s tongue in a whisper.

He makes sure to remember it, although he doesn’t think he could possibly forget it.

 

It was a matter of luck, or maybe destiny, the first time Sehun landed in Galactik Strip Club; or so would he think if he believed in such a thing. Then again, Sehun doesn’t believe in much: only in the power of money and his competitors’ desire to watch him fall, and in the extents of his own willpower. It had only been, however, a matter of convenience. He had taken a new route home and come across this place, going in without much thought. He wanted a drink, really; he wanted to unwind and find something to distract him from the paperwork and the business plans, from the meetings, from being politically correct. He wanted, just for a little while, to have no worries.

The second time, nevertheless, is completely purposeful, though he wouldn’t admit it even to himself. He’d convince himself that he was just stressed, that he needed a diversion. He’d say there were just too many frequent customers at his usual bar, that the bartenders knew him enough to ask questions but not well enough to not be a burden. He’d say he needed something new.

And, in a way, he wouldn’t be lying. Technically. Because although it’s true that he needs something new, he knows damn well that his craving can’t be satisfied with a whisky on the rocks and a few songs he doesn’t know the lyrics to. What he wants, specifically, dances around in skimpy clothing Sehun hasn’t ever until now found attractive, and this time around he thinks he maybe glances at him from time to time, too.

The experience is just as intoxicating as it was the first time around, if not more, now that Sehun knows his name. It’s well known that you should not give a name to something you aren’t allowed to even want. The name itself is short, and it sounds nice in the host’s voice; but it would sound nicer in Sehun’s lips.

He almost doesn’t enjoy the show as much, as impatient as he is for it to finish. Almost. He tips him a handful of crumpled bills that he hopes will stand for a promise of a sort. And after he’s disappeared behind the curtain, Sehun doesn’t waste his time before standing up and getting in motion.

He doesn’t know how this works. He’s never done it, and he’d be lying if he said it doesn’t send a rush of shame down his spine. It’s somewhat unethical, he figures, and probably unscrupulous of him to do. At this point, however, he can’t bring himself to care enough to stop.

A man in a suit watches him from a corner, a glass of red wine in his hand and his dark hair slicked back, contrasting against his fair complexion. He sits in a velvet armchair the color of the contents of his glass, an arm propped on the armrest; the other, tilting his glass slightly sideways. He looks distinguished, like the men Sehun receives in his office every day. And that, in a place like this, can only mean one thing.

“Are you the manager?” asks Sehun calmly, with the tone he reserves for particularly difficult clients; one that says I know what I’m doing, what I want, and how to get it, and you better collaborate. It’s a tone that guarantees he won’t get toyed with.

The man casts him the hint of a smile. “Kim Joonmyeon,” he replies, without moving one millimeter from his position; “at your service.”

Sehun doesn’t trust him. He looks like a businessman, and he knows those all too well. There’s not one day he doesn’t see one in the mirror. “I’m looking for one of your… employees. His name is Kai?” His voice doesn’t quiver –it’s trained to stay stable under all circumstances.

“Ah,” grins the man –Joonmyeon. “My star.” He snaps his fingers, his eyes never leaving Sehun’s. It makes him uncomfortable, even if he’d never let it show. Sehun knows –he can tell– that something about him is off. One of the waitresses (the one that had brought Sehun his first martini in here, he notices) joins them. “Yooah, sweetheart, could you please bring our dear Kai to accompany us?”

The girl leaves with a nod and a “Yes, sir”, disappearing as quickly as she arrived. And in the time it takes her to get the dancer, Joonmyeon doesn’t say a word: an awkward silence Sehun has no interest in breaking; he isn’t interested in anything this man has to say.

The boy comes back without the waitress, in simple clothes and with a backpack hanging lopsided from his shoulder. His intentions are clear, though if Joonmyeon notices, his façade doesn’t sell him.

“You have an admirer, my dear,” he says, his tone soft and mellow. Sehun hates him instantly.

The dancer –probably used to his manners– seems all but intimidated. “My shift just ended,” he informs just as calmly. His voice is deep yet strangely melodic. It simultaneously matches his looks perfectly and not at all. Barefaced, purplish shadows darken his eyes.

A tiny wrinkle forms right in between the manager’s eyebrows, so small Sehun wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been expecting it. “This job doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock and pick up the next morning, Kai. You know this well.”

A rictus flashes across his face briefly, and after one blink, it’s gone. “Yes, sir,” he murmurs, and he glances at Sehun for half a second. “Follow me,” he instructs before starting towards the dark curtains, and before following him Sehun sees, out of the corner of his eye, a smirking Joonmyeon whose eyes stay stuck to his back.

 

“I’m not at my best, currently, as you can see. I was about to leave. Almost at the door, actually.”

Kai tosses his backpack on the floor, in the corner furthest from them of the small room. It lands right against the mirror that covers the whole wall, making the small space seem twice as big. The king size bed stands in the center of the room, its jet black duvet covers draping around it down to the floor. The dancer stands next to it, looking way more comfortable than Sehun feels.

“I don’t mind,” he lets out. He seems unable to use his businessman tone, and he figures it’s probably because he doesn’t really think of this as a business.

The boy raises his eyebrow, skeptical, but he doesn’t contradict him. “So what do you want?” he asks, but his voice is tinted by boredom and a distinctive lack of interest.

Sehun stays on his spot. “I want your number,” he admits, making sure to sound confident and hoping it won’t be mistaken for pedantry.

At this, the expression on the dancer’s face goes from skeptical to uncredulous, and Sehun thinks he can even see a bit of displeasure. “Excuse me?” he snaps back. “I don’t know who you think you are, but this is not Grindr. I’m not here to get a date.” His tone isn’t rude, exactly; but it leaves no space for retorts. “You don’t pay, you don’t get the service.”

“I never said I wasn’t going to,” clarifies Sehun, deadpan. Of course, he isn’t surprised to get this reaction; but he had made his decision as soon as he saw the manager. “You don’t get to keep one hundred percent of everything you make here, am I right?” When the boy doesn’t reply, he takes it as a concession. “So that’s what I’m offering you. Extraofficiality, if you will.”
Kai seems to ponder. He doesn’t want to trust him, and Sehun’s can’t blame him. But the offer is too good to decline, and of course, that’s what the young CEO was counting on.

Finally, he finds a loophole. “He already saw us going in here. You can’t just walk out without paying.”

“I will, of course,” Sehun agrees. “You’ll get your percentage of that, too.”

The boy’s eyes narrow; two thin crescent moons that stare him down. “Then what do you earn from it?”

The business grins. “Paying double isn’t a problem for me. You’ve seen how much I’ve tipped you. What I earn is the satisfaction of knowing he,” Sehun delivers, his head tilting in the general direction the main area of the club should be, “doesn’t get any of it for once.”

It’s a few moments before Kai moves at all. His eyes don’t leave Sehun’s, as if trying to discern his intentions. In the end, he seems to deem him honest –either that, or the idea of going behind his boss gives him the same thrill it does for Sehun.
He takes a step towards Sehun, grabbing his arm easily and cuffing his sleeve up to his elbow; then he goes back to his bag and rummages through it. When he comes back, there’s the cap of a Sharpie trapped between a row of perfect teeth, and Sehun watches him scribble eleven digits right below the crease of his elbow. While Sehun isn’t happy about how long it’s going to take him to wash it away, he appreciates the fact that the ink won’t ruin the white broadcloth of his shirt.

“Text me in twenty minutes,” says the dancer, quickly capping the marker and tossing it back into his backpack. “I’ll give you the address. And wait a bit before going out –I have a reputation to keep up.”

That’s it. In one swift motion, he picks his bag back up and goes out the door, and Sehun watches him walk away in a different route than they’d taken to go in.

He glances back at his forearm, where the ink blinks at him dark and accusing.

 

It takes Sehun longer to find the apartment than it had taken him to checkout. The neighborhood is far from what Sehun is used to. The paint peels off the walls and more lights are out than on. There are alleys he’s only seen in movies and deemed exaggerated. A lone dog digs up in a collapsed trashcan.

He finds the building after a while, but only because of the figure that awaits him at the door. He can’t see his face; it’s hidden by the hood of his sweatshirt and the shadow it casts. He recognizes, however, the logo on the front of the hoodie and the frayed state of the end of the sleeves.

His car doesn’t match the landscape, and he knows it’s not the safest environment. But, at this point, he doesn’t have an option. He leaves the coat in the passenger seat and keeps his sleeves cuffed just below his elbows. Although he runs his fingers through his hair in an attempt to make it a little bit more unkempt, he doesn’t match the landscape, either.

They meet at the door, and in the poor lighting, it’s only the bow of his lips and the rigor of his shoulders that gives the dancer’s identity away.

He guides him in silence through stairs with walls as shelled as the building’s façade, stains that either won’t come out or no one has attempted, and burnt out lightbulbs that nobody seems interested in replacing. Of course, there’s no elevator. His hands stay hidden in the pocket of his hoodie, and his face, ducked downwards.

After what Sehun counted to be four floors, Kai stops at a door with a C drawn in marker in the middle at eye level. His hand emerges from his pocket with a small key in his fist, and when he opens the door, he goes in hastily, gesturing at Sehun to do the same.

The place is just barely big enough for one. Bed, fridge and a small couch coexist in one room, with the only exception of a tiny bathroom Sehun sees through the door ajar. There’s no table. On one of the walls, a few shelves hold a small collection of books in piles that threaten to collapse. In the far corner, on the bed, there are no sheets, a discolored blanket spills onto the floor, and the pillowcase is just a shirt turned inside out.

“Sorry about the bed,” the boy says when he sees Sehun’s eyes on it. He looks tired, and he sounds tired, too. “My sheets… they’re in the laundry.”

“It’s okay,” Sehun assures. “I don’t mind.” He means it. This place most definitely lacks the luxury the club has, but if Sehun had been looking for luxury he would have stayed home.

He takes a tentative step towards the dancer, but there isn’t much space to test. Another two and they’re face to face, and Sehun isn’t a saint, but without the boy’s initiative, he doesn’t think they would have gotten anything done. It’s only the grip of his fingers on the front of his shirt that has Sehun wrapping his arms around Kai’s waist. It’s only the nip of his teeth on Sehun’s bottom lip that has him pulling him closer. It’s only his fingers digging in the soft mane of Sehun’s raven hair, tugging at it eagerly, that has him thinking that possibly, maybe, he wants him too.

He only has to take two more steps to have the back of Jongin’s knees hit the edge of the mattress and make him topple over it, landing on top of him and propping himself on his elbows. He only has to tug at the boy’s hoodie once to have him pull it over his head, skin soft, warm and exposed underneath it. He only has to run his hands over it, slowly, to have him arching his back up into him.

A few of the buttons of his dress shirt plummet to the ground, and Sehun doesn’t think he’s going to miss them. Before he can realize, the rest of their clothes join the boy’s blanket on the floor, and a chain of tiny bruises blossom along the caramel expanse of Kai’s neck and down to his shoulder.

It’s easy for Sehun’s lips to find the dip right under his collarbones. It’s easy for Kai’s nails to imprint red crescent moons on Sehun’s back.

It’s easy as a whole, really, because, with Kai in his arms, Sehun manages to forget he’s still a businessman. With Kai in his arms, Sehun manages to forget this is yet another transaction.

The dancer has the kind of ease one only gets with practice. Sehun has the kind of confidence one only gets by faking it. Sehun isn’t a saint by any means, but he doesn’t recall ever being so engrossed in someone before. Most times before, he’s been driven by hormones and the heat of the moment, and giving is so hard; taking had always been easier. He hadn’t yet truly experienced the desire to watch someone unwind beneath him. He hadn’t ever wanted to break someone’s walls.
It’s a completely new experience to be so enthralled that he forgets this is about him, too. Even more so: that this is supposed to be more about him than it is about anyone else. But he’s too preoccupied with the mess of Kai’s hair and the bead of sweat on the back of his neck; too captivated by the abused state of his lips and the sheen of his tongue when it comes out to wet them, and the marks his teeth leave on Sehun’s shoulders, and the way his eyes roll back as he struggles to pronounce a name he doesn’t know. He hadn’t asked, and Sehun had forgotten to say. And he regrets it now, when he has to imagine how it would sound in his warm voice, forceful and raw.

He allows himself a couple of minutes to catch his breath, and the boy lets him. He doesn’t push him away or roll out from under him, although his eyes are fixated on the ceiling above them. The lightbulb is naked, too.

When he feels like he’ll be able to walk without his knees failing him, he gathers his clothes and puts them on hastily. He feels dirty, but he also perceives a rush of adrenaline he hopes he won’t get addicted to.

They don’t say much. The boy slips into a clean pair of boxers, this time a faded blue. Sehun brushes his own hair back with his fingers, leaves a wad of bills on the small side table that’s right next to the door and walks out. When he looks back, the door is already closed.

 

After the encounter, things go back to normal, more or less. Sehun goes back to his routine, crispy papers piling up on his pristinely white desk, black tie already loosened up, back aching and eyes dry. The silver pen is heavy on his hand. A rhythmic knock on the door.

“Come in,” instructs Sehun without looking up, as he signs yet another contract.

His secretary comes in the room and closes the door behind him –an unequivocal sign that something, without a doubt, went wrong.

“I think it’s safe to say we have a really big problem in our hands,” says the secretary, pulling the chair across from him and sitting down without asking for further instructions. Kyungsoo, Sehun’s secretary, happens to also be a close friend of his friend since high school, although his professionalism forbids him from interrupting him during work hours.
Sehun puts his pen down. “Shoot.”

“There’s a new agency opening up next month. Yes, I see your face, they shouldn’t be a problem, they’re so new, they aren’t at our level, but.”

“But?” prompts Sehun, tossing a pile of papers into a drawer.

Kyungsoo taps his fingertips on the laminate of the desk. “I’ve been doing some research, and turns out they have very good connections. It’s called KS Models and the owner is Byun Baekhyun, the son of the CEO of Nylon Korea, so you know damn well they’re gonna have very easy access.”

Sehun puts his pen down. This is a problem indeed. “What do we know of their style?”

“Not much yet,” Kyungsoo says, setting down a folder before him. “This is as much as I gathered. They keep everything hush, they want to go out with a bang or something. As far as I know, they have a couple of models already with a very wide aesthetic.” He opens the folder and starts laying pictures before Sehun in a row. At first glance, they do seem a little eclectic, but the longer Sehun looks at them, the more he can see the connection between them: clean lines that make them suitable for high fashion, but also a sense of normalcy that brings it down a notch and makes you think you might also see this on the street. Overall, they all seem like extremely good looking boys-and-girls-next-door.

“This is… very similar to what we look for.” Sehun can see why this sparked a sense of alarm on his secretary.
Ever since Sehun started running this company, his vision has been very clear: he doesn’t want anything that can seem unreal. He doesn’t want his models to be like untouchable gods –he doesn’t want his agency to be associated with a cluster of goals that are impossible to reach. What he wants to portray is the exact opposite: that beauty can be found in practically any context, without the limits of beauty canons and social acceptableness and an army of clones.

And all the people that currently lie on his desk look like people he wouldn’t doubt in recruiting.

“I know,” nods Kyungsoo. “I don’t think it’s intentional, but the standards are changing. The influences are coming from a wider spectrum and this is going to be a double issue for us: not only do they now have another option that can offer something very similar to what we’ve been offering, but we’re also going to be tugging on potential models somebody else will also want.”

Sehun allows himself to process this, to really break it down. And he comes to the conclusion that there isn’t much he can do, aside from, well, stepping up his game enough that they will no longer be considered competence.

Which, after all, is not very different than what he’s been doing so far, and what’s gotten him to where he is.

 

He had hoped it’d disappear, the same way he can buy a gallon of salted caramel ice cream when he gets the craving and have it on a Saturday night, with his feet on the coffee table and his dog next to him on the couch, and it’d all be gone like it’d never existed.

It is, however, not the case.

It had taken a total of three showers for the ink to completely disappear from his arm, and eight days after, every time he closes his eyes he can see it all again. He feels the ghosts of his fingertips, gliding down his back. He can feel it inside, crawling into his skin. It’s distracting, frustrating, and Sehun is afraid to admit that, at this rate, it’s not going away anytime soon.

He waits, still. He waits until he can’t handle it any longer; until he can’t find any more distractions or reasons to delay it. He waits until Kyungsoo sends him home early, prying a folder from his hands with gentle fingers and advising a bath and chamomile tea, and Sehun lies back in his bathtub, bubbles up to his chin, phone in his hand, and the thrill of a child at the chance of a surprise gift.


To : Kai
Are you free tonight?

If Sehun was expecting a quick reply, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t double check, because he’s not that lame, but his phone doesn’t chime until, long minutes later, the pale lavender foam has started to dissipate.

From: Kai
Later. Why? Wanna meet up?

Sehun takes his time to respond as well, although his behavior isn’t justified –he knows well that the guy was probably at work, given the time, and he owes him nothing anyway. Yet he steps out of the tub leisurely, draping himself in a warm bathrobe and picking up his empty glass with the remnants of Chardonnay. And even though by the time he gets back to his phone it’s barely been a total of three minutes, the small victory is still his to claim.

To: Kai
Can you come over?

This time, the reply is instantaneous. Sehun types a quick answer before making his way to his bedroom, bare feet quickly coming one after the other, silent on the dark carpet, no sound echoing in the entire house.

He keeps himself from walking up and down the hall. Instead, he sits on the couch, agitated. The white leather sticks to his skin where it touches him, and his foot taps on the wooden floor involuntarily. Vivi judges him from his position on the floor.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Sehun scowls to the small poodle. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

Vivi doesn’t acknowledge his remark, right or wrong, but the ring on the door does startle the both of them, even though Sehun was expecting it.

From outside, Kai cocks a brow at him through the glass of the front door, deep blue hood pulled over his head and hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans, although upon a first inspection, they shouldn’t have fit. The material clings to slim thighs, and Sehun does his best to not stare while the boy steps into his home.

“Nice place,” he says, but his voice doesn’t hold admiration. He isn’t surprised, naturally.

“Thanks,” replies Sehun out of politeness. He’s still unsure of the way he should talk to him; how formal is too formal, and how casual is too casual. He assumes he should speak in a way that makes them both feel comfortable, but whereas Kai doesn’t seem to care, Sehun isn’t exactly comfortable with the situation altogether. Most of all, he’s uncomfortable with the idea that he might not want to let go, at least for now, and he doesn’t know what that says of him as a man, or as a person. As a professional, even.

He still doesn’t know how he should go about it. He can convince another CEO that his interests are theirs, too, quicker than Kyungsoo can bring them coffee, but he’s never been able to get comfortable with people as quickly as most people his age do. He also had never paid for sex before Kai, let alone multiple times, and he’s painfully aware that he isn’t visiting him to play videogames until five a.m., like Kyungsoo would. The situation is strange as a whole, and when stripped off his business suit, Sehun is clumsy, inelegant. Distinguished, of course; but nonetheless meager in most social situations.

So he clears his throat. “Would you like something to drink?” he offers. He feels inadequate, in his designer dark wash jeans next to Kai’s well-worn ones, out of place in his own home.

“I wouldn’t mind,” he hears Jongin reply, hood falling off and uncovering chocolate hair, but he’s already turning his back towards the kitchen. When he returns, the boy is crouching next to the couch, where Vivi lies on his back, with Kai’s hand running through his fur.

“He never does that,” Sehun lets out, surprised, a bottle in his right hand, two glasses in the left. And when Kai looks up at him, eyes big with a curiosity Sehun hasn’t witnessed before, peeking from under his fringe, he clarifies: “He never likes anyone. He’s known Kyungsoo for years and he still won’t let him touch him. My secretary,” he adds, just in case. Not that it matters. Not that Kai cares, anyway.

He pets the poodle one more time before getting up. “I have three dogs,” he says, glancing back at him. “Back in my parents’ place. Maybe that’s why.”

This is the first fact about himself Kai has let out in Sehun’s presence, and he stores it as such. He has dogs. He also has parents. Alright.

He takes the glasses from him, and Sehun pours the beverage on both of them. He almost went for champagne, but he figured that was maybe too celebratory. They had nothing to celebrate. This was still business, not a birthday party.
Sehun sees, but doesn’t watch, Kai as he sips from the glass, weighing it in his hand. He clacks his tongue once.

“Cabernet?” he asks.

Sehun nods. “Sauvignon. Australian.”

“Ah,” says the boy. He takes another sip. His sweatshirt covers his neck partially, although it doesn’t cover all of the marks there. They match the wine, in a way.

He sits on the couch, and Vivi scoots closer to him. A tinge of jealousy creeps up the back of his mind. Vivi doesn’t ever favor anyone but him.

“You worked today?” he asks, however. It’s not just the marks on his skin, but also the tired hunch of his shoulders and the shadows under his eyes. It’s the way that, every time he blinks, his eyes stay closed for a millisecond too long. He nods. Sehun hadn’t expected any different. “I’m sorry,” he says then. “You should have told me you were tired.”

He shrugs, finishing what’s left of his drink. “It’s okay,” he says, and Sehun understands he really can’t say any different. “Come, sit,” he continues, and if it hadn’t somewhat taken him aback, Sehun would have probably laughed at this stranger inviting him to take a seat on his own couch. But he is somewhat taken aback, and so he sits, Vivi’s paws tapping on the wooden floor mutely as he leaves the room, like he, too, noticed the change in the atmosphere.

Sehun’s glass is pried off his fingers and left somewhere on the coffee table, and on his lap there’s the weight of a boy about whom he only knows a name that might not even be his real one, and that he has dogs, and a killer stare that reduces Sehun to shards. He can, in fact, feel a sequence of thoughts slip out from his grasp at the same rate he can feel Kai’s fingers tapping on his ribs, humming to a sequence he can’t pick up. Because in all the places Sehun had taken control last time, he realizes it had been the other way around all along. And that’s distressing, in a sense. Sehun doesn’t know how not to be in control.

But he isn’t, and he thinks that only adds to the rush. And now it’s evident, with the steady grip of his hands in Sehun’s hair, still damp near the roots. It’s evident in the shift of his hips, gloriously precise and infuriatingly slow. He tastes of mint and cedar and the sheer bitterness of infatuation, of something he has but can’t keep, and so, for now, he holds him closer.

 

He isn’t as quick to leave as Sehun had been, but that’s only because he couldn’t if he tried. He’s drained from energy (although Sehun knows that’s not purely his fault), and his movements are slow and lacking of their usual grace.

Sehun, unsure, gestures towards the guest room. He doesn’t know whether that would be considered rude, but he also doesn’t think Kai would want to share a bed to sleep, and in any case, he doesn’t know where each room is, so it doesn’t really matter. “Would you like to…” he starts, but the boy cuts him, shaking his head once he manages to pull on his T-shirt. Sehun doesn’t show any disappointment. It was just practical, that’s all.

He accepts a ride home, because his apartment is further away than the club is, and he doesn’t think he can walk the whole way. Sehun slips the bills into his pocket, and in the car, he stays silent, looking out the window and dozing off, jumping awake whenever the car stops at a red light. It’s dark, and his silhouette stands out stark against the nightlights of Seoul.

Sehun doesn’t have to wake him up when they arrive. He yawns, mouth forming a perfect ‘o’, and seeing him like this it’s hard to still consider him a business. His sleeves are too long and cover the top of his hands, and when he sees Sehun looking, he pulls them down further. His eyelashes brush the top of his cheekbones every time he blinks.

“We’re here,” announces Sehun, pointless.

Kai nods. “I just want you to know,” he says, his voice raspy as he unbuckles his seatbelt; “that I don’t usually get on my clients’ cars, or go to their places. We don’t know who you are. It’s not safe. I shouldn’t even have done it this time.”

Sehun understands. “But?” he pushes nonetheless.

“But nothing. You just seem like you try to act tough, but you aren’t a bad guy.” Sehun doesn’t know what to say. He nods. “Still shouldn’t have, though.” He shrugs again, as if saying ah, it’s already done, and opens the car door. He pulls the hood back over his head, tiny droplets progressively taking the fabric from ocean blue to night sky, and he waves once before walking quickly towards the building. He doesn’t turn back.

“Yeah,” says Sehun to his empty car, once his figure has disappeared from the rain. “Neither should I.”

 

Over time, Sehun has come to learn a few things.

The first of them is he was right: Kai is just a stage name. Sehun had asked out of curiosity, and the answer pleased him. He had only maybe expected one of Jongin’s cryptic answers, one of those that only consist of yes or no and a brand new topic. Instead, Jongin had given him room to ask, almost as if he preferred it, too. However, this had had its implications.

The second thing Sehun learned is that Jongin is, all in all, a great company. They don’t hang out much, given, and of course it’s never out of its original context. But they have both come to a silent agreement that they can make small stalk before and after, and that’s helped Sehun immensely in being more comfortable with their not-relationship, because although its nature hasn’t changed in the slightest, at least he is now fully aware that he is interacting with a human, something he’s not very used to as it is.

On the other hand, Sehun found out that Jongin is a dancer by night, but he works at a convenience store during the day, and that does a good job at explaining why Jongin is always tired. This, too, he learned by asking a casual question.

Sehun also learns that he is, in fact, capable of caring about people, even if he doesn’t know them that well. And this one was an accident.

It wasn’t much different than usual, really. Jongin left the club late and found Sehun’s messages, and after his reply, it didn’t take him long to get to the apartment. But Jongin was tired and quickly fell asleep, and though he is always tired, it had never been to the point of passing out in his presence.

So he sits up in the bed and looks around, though there isn’t much to see. The sheets are on the bed, baby blue contrasting against his golden skin, and the pillow remains on the floor, unused. The trip to the fridge is no more than three steps, and though he just wants water, he is stunned with the sight of mostly empty shelves that match the equally empty cabinets.
Taking a quick glance at Jongin and making a quick resolution, hoping nothing about this turns out to be a problem, he grabs the keys that hang next to the door and leaves Jongin snoring softly into his mattress.

It doesn’t take him longer than twenty minutes, but by the moment he opens the door, he’s greeted with the image of Jongin pacing up and down the tiny apartment, sweatpants pulled on hastily and hair still unkempt.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing!”

Sehun blinks; he’s not exactly surprised, as he thinks he should have expected this. He only hopes Jongin will come to terms in the end.

He holds up the bags in his hands. “Groceries. Your fridge is empty.”

In half a second, Sehun can see a dozen of emotions cross Jongin’s face. Confusion, understanding, disbelief; and then shame, embarrassment, anger, maybe a pinch of tenderness, but most of all, outrage. “You- you had no right!”

“Jongin, I just-”

“You had no right to go through my things, no right to-!”

Sehun puts down the bags and closes the space between them, hands around Jongin’s wrists at his sides. Gently, but firmly enough that he’s forced to listen. He speaks clearly, determined to get his point across. “I wasn’t trying to. Okay? You fell asleep and I was thirsty. That was all. No need to do all this.”

Jongin stays silent for a moment, a tiny wrinkle between his eyebrows. His bottom lip pushes out in somewhat of a pout, and it could be cute, if not because his eyes are filled with tears. His voice, however, is steady.

“I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not your charity work.” He shakes Sehun’s hands off, but that’s not as bad as the way Jongin looks at him. It shouldn’t hurt Sehun, because he can’t even say Jongin is his friend. It shouldn’t hurt Sehun, but it does.

“Of course you’re not,” he says to his back. Jongin is facing away, towards the small couch with the burnt orange blanket, away from him. “I didn’t want to upset you. I thought it would be helpful.”

Sehun goes around him, hesitates, but puts his arm on his shoulder. Jongin wipes angry tears away, as if that kept Sehun from seeing them.

“I know my life isn’t ideal, okay? Not all of us can be the headmaster of an empire.” He swallows thick. A teardrop clings to his eyelashes. Sehun would like to brush it away, but he figures it probably isn’t ideal. “But I don’t work two jobs so that you can come here and treat me like I’m some kid you foster. I’m not.”

“I’m sorry,” Sehun says quietly. Jongin can hear; they’re that close. “I didn’t want to upset you.”

Jongin goes to his bed, kicking the pillow aside. He sits on the edge, elbows resting on his knees, shoulders resigned. Sehun steps closer, and when Jongin doesn’t react, he takes it as a sign that he can sit, too, if he wants to.

“I don’t enjoy it, but that’s how it is, and I have to make it work. It’s my life, whether I like it or not.” Sehun nods, although he isn’t sure Jongin can see him. “I have to make it work.”

He dares putting an arm around his shoulder, and Jongin allows himself to rest on him for a moment. Not for long, because both of them have work in the morning. But for now, it is enough. It’s cold outside, and his coat is a little damp on his shoulders where the snowflakes melted, but Jongin rests his head on him anyway.

Sehun leaves the groceries on the counter and the money on the side table, and by the time he gets to his car, Jongin is already asleep once again.

 

The red soles of his shoes tap on the marble floor rhythmically as he steps through the building, reaching the studio on the second floor almost without noticing. This place is his home as much as his house is, and every path of it, every turn, is engraved in memory.

He opens the door silently, carefully, as not to disturb the people inside. Most of the room is an open space, with the exception of the dozens of lights, the cameras and according equipment, and the few pieces of furniture that make up today’s set. In the middle of it, one of the agency’s newest models goes through his first shoot since the signing of his contract, hair past his shoulders unkempt and bare torso, loose jeans hanging low from his hipbones. The company’s head photographer gives directions that get promptly followed. Sehun stays behind, close to the door, and Kyungsoo approaches him.

“He’s good,” he loud-whispers. “Has a special energy and knows what he’s doing.”

Sehun nods, his eyes fixed on the scene before him. He had sent Kyungsoo to monitor the shoot, but was too curious to not drop by. He shouldn’t have favorites, but he does; and he’s under the impression that Park Chanyeol might be one of his new front-runners.

An idea, however, has started to form in the back of his head. He hasn’t quite come to terms with it, or make it into something that would make sense in the real world. But it’s there.

Kyungsoo’s fingers snap millimeters away from Sehun’s nose.

“Are you listening to me? This is very entertaining, but we have other things to work on. We still have over ten applications to go through and we need to call Jongdae and ask him to bring us the new contracts, and- get back in here!”

Sehun quickly makes his way towards the photographer, unhappy to interrupt, but aware that this might be a step in the right direction.

“Minseok,” he calls, tapping on his shoulder. The guy calls the shoot to a halt and turns to Sehun. They don’t need any formalities, as they’ve also known each other for longer than Sehun has been in charge of the agency. “I’ll send you a few files later this week. Would you mind telling me what you think?”

Minseok knows better than to question, for he knows he won’t get any answer Sehun doesn’t want to give away. So he nods his head and mutters a low “Of course,” and Sehun claps his back and turns back towards the door, with Kyungsoo following his steps and the increasingly muted sound of the shutter.

 

The sunrise catches them off guard. The Saturday night slipped from between their fingers, and the first sunrays seep through the discolored curtains staining the apartment a pale apricot.

Jongin pulls the covers over his body, wrinkled sheets pooling around his waist and reaching just above his navel. He rolls onto his side, knees bending ever so slightly, his hand going to rest beneath the pillow. Sehun watches him, his own legs folded before him across the bed, going above Jongin’s without really touching them. His back rests flat against the wall, and the cold from the outside world reaches him through the window glass. His hair sticks to it where it touches it, condensation forming from the collision between the weather and their warmth.

He’s fond of him. He still can’t say they’re friends; not when every time they meet there’s heat and the rush of skin against skin, not when there’s always the unspoken contract Sehun does his best to ignore. But he’s watched Jongin sleep and play with his dog and rub his eyes as he makes his way to the bathroom, fatigued, and these images have started to replace the ones of Kai in his zone, of Kai on the stage, of Kai altogether. He’s starting to ask questions he shouldn’t ask. Even more so, he’s starting to want to ask questions he can’t allow himself to fathom.

“Can I take a picture?” he asks then, although he shouldn’t even ask that, either.

Jongin’s eyes fall open just a little, and Sehun feels them roam around his face. “Why?” he retorts softly, voice still a little raw, still a little breathy.

“You look pretty,” answers Sehun. He doesn’t think of it much, for if he did, he wouldn’t say it. But it’s true. The bottom of his lip is a little swollen, a little bruised, and his hair sticks in odd directions where Sehun’s fingers latched onto it. But the sunlight steals reddish undertones from his locks and the shadows play on his body, skin smooth and unblemished except for one or two scars from puberty, except for where Sehun’s teeth left plum sickles, previous marks almost completely vanished.

He shrugs, the tiniest shift of his shoulder, and Sehun’s arm reaches for his phone, forgotten in the back pocket of his jeans half hidden under the bed. He manages to snap a sequence of Jongin with his closed eyes, Jongin looking up at him, Jongin stretching his arms over his head. Dust particles dance above him, and although he’s sure the camera can’t catch that, he’s convinced he’s never seen anything more heart-wrenching.

When he puts it down, Jongin lets out a yawn, and Sehun wishes he had gotten that on camera, as well.

He shifts again, lying onto his back, his hands tugging at the blanket. “What if…” he starts; “What if you stayed this time?”

He doesn’t look at him at first, but at last, their eyes cross paths. Jongin tries to look bold, nonchalant, but Sehun has learned to read him enough that he can see the dash of vulnerability he refuses to let show.

“It’s not much,” he says in a hush, his eyes darting somewhere around him, and Sehun knows exactly what he means. “But-”

“It’s okay,” cuts him Sehun. “I don’t mind. I will. If you want me to.”

Jongin doesn’t answer, but the fact that he asked says enough.

The Sunday morning catches them curled up with blankets up to their chins; the sunlight steals reddish undertones from his locks and the shadows play on his body, and his cheek rests against Sehun chests and he doesn’t know where they stand. It doesn’t change anything, and Sehun has no reason to wish it did.

His fingertips knead Jongin’s scalp and his free hand rubs circles on his shoulder, his pale skin contrasting against Jongin’s golden one. His breathing is regular, but he isn’t asleep yet.

“I’ve never been… held,” he confesses after a bit, after a while of Sehun’s caresses. “Not like this.”

His fingers halt for a moment, but quickly resume. “Never?” he asks. “You’ve never been… with someone?”

“Not like this,” he repeats.

Sehun doesn’t know why this has been brought up. Jongin doesn’t usually tell him much, and never things this personal. He figures it’s the mix between the fatigue and the comfort. He’s split about it; on one end, he has been wanting to know more about him for weeks. On the other, it isn’t a guarantee of anything.

“Never had a boyfriend? Or girlfriend?” He has to add the last part, and this is but a reminder of how little he actually knows about him.

Jongin bites his lip for a split second. “There was a guy,” he says, but his tone is dismissing. “We kissed a lot, but it didn’t feel like love.”

Sehun remains silent. To this, he can relate.

“How old are you?” he asks at last.

There’s a pause. Sehun waits, but the silence holds something Jongin doesn’t know that Sehun would want to hear.

“Eighteen,” he answers finally. A strange sort of shiver runs down his back at the realization. He should have asked earlier, but it’s too late for that.

“You aren’t even the legal age to-”

“I know,” interrupts him Jongin. “I know. I’m sorry.” His eyes are open now, but they don’t look at him. They stare out the window through the gap between the curtains, and even further away. “I’m turning nineteen in a month and a half.”

Sehun’s fingers sink into his hair deeper.

“What about school?” he asks after a bit, after he’s left Jongin come to terms with the idea of sharing something more.

The boy, at this, doesn’t flinch. “I did online schooling and finished early. I’m saving up for college…”

Jongin works two jobs, one of them for the minimum wage; the other compromises his values daily. Jongin has two sisters and three dogs and a huge sense of responsibility, and does what he has to do to survive. Jongin is young and was forced to grow up too soon, and he falls asleep in Sehun’s arms with the sunlight stealing reddish undertones from his locks in between Sehun’s fingers, and the shadows play on his skin, and Sehun holds him in place tightly. It’s a Sunday morning and Sehun gives Jongin something he’s never had, something he never knew he wanted to give himself. It’s a Sunday morning and they have today free, and Sehun cares more than he deems acceptable.

 

He wakes up to an empty bed and the sound of the water running, and in the time it takes him to gather his will and stretch himself awake, Jongin is walking out of the small bathroom with a towel around his waist and hair sticking drenched to his forehead, a second, smaller towel in his right hand.

“You didn’t wake me up,” complains Sehun, picking his clothes from the floor and putting them on sluggish, sleepy.

“I tried,” smiles Jongin, arm reaching up to rub his hair dry, and the sight is somewhat breathtaking. Sehun doesn’t think he’s ever seen him smile genuinely, nothing other than smirks and sly grins. And though this isn’t the widest beam, it’s a beginning; it’s something, and it’s his. “You sleep like the dead.”

Sehun watches Jongin get dressed while he buttons up his own shirt, and while he waits, he blurts out: “You’re free today, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” replies Jongin, head reappearing from inside his shirt. It’s plain and off-white, and it fits him nicely.

“Let’s go grab breakfast.”

Jongin’s eyes fly to the small alarm clock that rests on the top shelf above the couch. “It’s one-twenty p.m.,” he says, as if that changed anything.

“Okay, then,” insists Sehun; “let’s go grab lunch. Brunch, if you will.”

“Brunch,” snorts Jongin. “Such a rich kid thing. Here in the suburbs we have last night’s leftovers for late breakfast.” Sehun still waits. “Alright, yeah, let’s go eat,” he finally agrees. He’s mildly surprised he didn’t have to urge him more.

They’re ready to leave within seconds, but when Sehun goes to the side table as he’s by now used to, Jongin’s fingers wrap around his wrist.

“Don’t,” he says, his tone calm yet pointed. “Not this time.”

Sehun looks at him; he’s only a little bit taller than Jongin, and their eyes are at the same level. “You need it,” he alleges, and he watches a grimace flicker across Jongin’s face.

The boy, however, shakes his head. “It’s not… like that. Clients don’t stay over…”

He averts Sehun’s eyes, and he watches Jongin fidget with the bottom of his sleeves. He looks eighteen, and maybe Sehun would have noticed before if he had tried to figure it out. But he didn’t, and it’s too late now.

He steps back, hand going back into his pocket. There’s a sense of relief in him, knowing that there’s something between them (as fragile as it might be); but the practical side of him can’t shake off a bit of regret. Jongin does need the money.

He pulls on his sweatshirt and then a winter coat. It’s black and puffy and it makes him look like a burnt marshmallow, and the tips of his fingers go barely past the ends of the sleeves. It’s late November and the first snow has already fallen, early in the city, and it’s tempting to stay in the apartment for the day. But the perspective of taking Jongin out is stronger, and they can always come back in the afternoon.

“I want fried chicken,” he says as they go down the last set of stairs. These words seem to fuel something in Jongin once pronounced, because he points each one of them with one more step down. His feet reach the floor at the same time in a leap, and Sehun can’t help but smile, because right now he looks even younger than eighteen.

“Okay,” agrees Sehun. He watches Jongin gift him with a smile, his face half-hidden within his scarf, and the fluorescent lights blink maddeningly overhead. It’s a full one, it’s there, and it’s his.

“He doesn’t care,” explains Jongin simply around a mouthful of chicken. His fingertips are covered in hot sauce, and he leans into his plate almost absentmindedly. “As long as I make money for him, he couldn’t care less about my age.”

Sehun leans back. He’s already finished eating, and a glass of soda rests half-full on the table. “How does he avoid the police getting involved and such?” Jongin stares at him, blank, as if he was either really dense or really stupid. “Money. Okay. I get it.”

Jongin sits up, wiping his hands mostly clean on a napkin, and takes a sip out of Sehun’s drink -he finished his own halfway through his plate. Sehun orders him a second.

“You didn’t have to,” he says, pouting just a little. He wipes the corner of his hands with a brand new napkin.

Sehun doesn’t answer. He didn’t have to, but he could and he wanted to, so he did. “Who’s the youngest in there, then?” he continues to ask.

The younger seems to scan his memory for a second. “I think Yooah is the youngest right now. She’s seventeen.” Sehun’s eyebrows rise. “But she’s just a waiter. I think I started the youngest out of the dancers we have now…”

He nibbles on a leg for a moment, eyes lost somewhere between the salt shaker and Sehun’s neatly folded napkin. “How old?” dares Sehun to ask after a few heartbeats.

Jongin’s voice is quiet. “I had just turned sixteen.”

“Jesus fuck.” Sehun takes a sip, and then another. The bubbles fizz on his tongue and burn down his throat. The waiter leaves a third glass between them, and Jongin thanks her with a nod. “Your parents…?”

“They don’t know,” answers Jongin quickly, mouth full. He swallows, and then continues: “I got a scholarship here in Seoul and moved to a dorm at first, but it only made up for high school. I had to find something else if I wanted to go to college.”

“And you do,” says Sehun, even though it’s obvious and unnecessary.

Jongin nods. “Vet school, I think.” The corner of Sehun’s mouth goes up in a grin. Of course. “My parents’ couldn’t pay for it and I wasn’t making enough at the convenience store.”

Well, thinks Sehun. Alright.

“Do you…?” He doesn’t know how to word this. He doesn’t want to sound insensitive, but he needs to know. “Do you enjoy it?”

Jongin pushes his plate aside, apparently content with his meal. When he looks up at him, Sehun thinks he sees a hint of mischievousness flash across his face, but it’s gone as soon as it arrived. “The stage can be fun. Sometimes.” He fidgets with a clean napkin, folding it to one and other side time and time again. “Everything else is…” He grimaces. “This job doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock and pick up the next morning.” These words take Sehun back, and unknowingly, his fists clench under the table.

The waiter comes over and cleans up, and Sehun pays for the meal before Jongin gets to reach into his back pocket. He tries to protest, but Sehun shuts him with a glance, and Jongin’s bottom lip gets caught between a row of perfect teeth. However, he still sets a paper boat down on the table and a few crumpled bills in it before sliding his arms inside his coat.

The evening catches them off guard. The Sunday afternoon slipped from between their fingers, and the last sunrays seep between their eyelashes and have them squinting at each other. Jongin’s hands are hidden in his jacket, and when he laughs, his eyes gleam in coffee notes and Sehun’s own hands sink into his pockets deeper.

The city is unusually calm, unlike Sehun’s mind. Jongin is a study of color resting against a blank canvas, and his warmth reaches him through the multiple layers of clothing. Sehun has never wanted anything more, and the realization hits him uncomfortably; he still doesn’t know where they stand.

It’s between light chat and the essence of a craving that Sehun interrupts the middle of his sentence, if unwillingly, if mutely. It’s only the intensity of his stare and the tangibility of his intentions that make Jongin stop in his tracks, a smile frozen on his face.

“Is anything…?” he starts, but Sehun shakes his head.

“Don’t move,” he indicates quietly. Yet he waits, as to give Jongin room to step away, if he wants to. He doesn’t.

Sehun leans closer, barely anyone passing by and the world still aside from them. And when they meet, Jongin’s skin is cold from the weather and the tip of his nose bumps with his, and Jongin doesn’t know how to do this tenderly, but neither does Sehun. They’ll learn, he hopes. He hopes they’ll have time.

The evening catches them off guard, and the cars passing behind them are nothing but a distant buzz. The sun hides behind the Seoul skyline and conceals them in the landscape, two figures who can’t bring themselves to say goodbye just yet.

 

Sehun taps his fingers on his desk as he waits for the files to fully upload. He types a quick body and adds no title; Minseok will be expecting it. After he clicks ‘send’, his eyes stay fixed to the screen, even when he drifts away from it on the wheels of his chair, even when it spins slightly to the left. He knows he should be going through profiles and portfolios, but he can’t bring himself to it. His mind is elsewhere, and he doesn’t think he’ll be able to function properly until he makes sure things are going his way.

He hasn’t even made it through the first folder when he’s interrupted with a knock on his door. “Come in,” he says, and the part of him that’s adhered to his routine half expects the dark mop of hair that Kyungsoo sports to go through the opening; but he’s surprised with the fawn locks of Minseok walking into his office. “Hey, man,” he greets.

The photographer takes his seat in front of him, puts down a stack of papers with images he recognizes, and leans into him across the desk.

“Who is he, where did you get him from, and why hasn’t he applied officially yet.”

Sehun displays a cryptic grin as his only answer. “He has a job. I’m not sure he’s interested in modeling.”

“He could be on every single magazine cover in a three months period.” Minseok spreads the pages before him, though it’s not at all necessary –Sehun knows the pictures by memory. “Look how good these are and –no offense, but the pictures you take are mediocre at best.”

“Hey!”

“I’m just saying the truth! But look,” he says, picking one of them and shoving it towards Sehun. Jongin’s eyes are closed; it’s his favorite, too. “Look how well he photographs still. Imagine him in my studio. Imagine the magic we could make.”

Sehun picks up the page. The picture isn’t that bad on his behalf, but he admits that’s not the reason of its splendor. “I know.”

“He has a job, alright, whatever,” insists Minseok. His tone is serious; severe, even. “But if you don’t get him to sign a contract with us, you might be letting go our best one yet.”

 

Jongin’s hands wrap around a cherry mug, steam condensing on the tip of his nose. He blows on it gently, drawing a teardrop on the foam at the top of his beverage. He doesn’t like coffee, he says; so Sehun offered him hot chocolate, and added a handful of marshmallows for good measure.

His bare toes toy with the fur of the rug, and Vivi sleeps soundly at his side. He looks cozy and comfortable, and Sehun can’t help but notice that he looks like he belongs. The fairy lights echo in his eyes, and the blanket around his shoulders keeps him warm. Sehun would like to wrap his arms around him, but he doesn’t know where they stand.

“You know,” speaks up Jongin, interrupting Sehun’s train of thoughts; “right?” Sehun blinks. “You know that I can’t be… exclusive?”

He’s warm and unsure, and Sehun still wants to wrap his arms around him.

“Yeah,” he says instead. “Your job. I know.”

Jongin nods before taking a sip, unhurriedly licking away at the sugar fluff that clings to the top of his lip. Sehun sips from his own drink, and the espresso leaves a bitter trail on his palate. He wishes he had made himself hot chocolate, too.

“You know,” he drops anyway, once their mugs are half empty and no longer make their fingertips tingle; “I showed your pictures to my head photographer…”

“No one was supposed to see those,” says Jongin, but he doesn’t seem extremely upset.

“Nobody else did,” clarifies Sehun, his voice sincere. “He’s a professional. He says… he says he could make you be on every magazine cover within three months…”

Jongin’s teeth nip at the edge of his mug, thoughtful. “That seems like a lot,” he replies finally, though it doesn’t suppose an answer of any sort.

“If you want to move on…”

Sehun doesn’t need to finish his sentence. Jongin knows exactly what he means.

He ponders, fingernails scraping at a crack on the handle of the mug Sehun hadn’t before noticed. Sehun is well aware that the both of them know all the implications to the offer. He’s handing him not only the freedom to live, but also to feel, to let emotions bloom, and the demise of all the excuses that keep them apart, if he wants to. He’s offering him more than a job –he’s offering a new beginning.

“You don’t need to answer now,” adds Sehun. “Just promise you’ll think about it…”

Jongin doesn’t speak until he sets his mug aside, only the remnants of marshmallow clinging to the sides. “Okay,” is all he says.

It’s not exactly a promise, not really. But it’s something, it’s there, and it’s his.

 

Jongin steps into Unik Model Management for the first time right behind Sehun, although he’s quick to hold onto his elbow and having him walk next to him. It’s still early and most employees haven’t yet arrived, but Minseok and Jongdae are both waiting for him at the lounge room, each with a Unik mug of coffee in hand, both half down.

Minseok almost spills what’s left of his when he gets up, as excited as he is. He bows, but the enthusiasm makes it come off as half-assed.

“I’m glad to meet you,” he blurts out; “and I’m glad he could convince you to come. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.” He offers them a gummy smile and Jongin gives back his own, head hanging sheepish and teeth on full display, and Jongdae casts Sehun a glance he pointedly ignores.

“I was told about his exceptional looks,” says the lawyer, setting his cup down on the side table; “but I wasn’t expecting that smile. I might have to add a few more years to your contract,” he teases with a playful grin. He doesn’t look like a lawyer, but others have made the mistake to not take him seriously in the past, and it wasn’t gentle on them. “And my number,” he asks in a mumble that makes Jongin’s ears turn red.

“Jongdae,” scolds Sehun. He isn’t his boss, not quite; but under his roof, he makes the law. And he has decided on a new decree: no flirting with Jongin on any of his coworker’s behalf. Or anyone, really, if he has a say.

The lawyer dismisses it with a laugh. “Joking, joking,” he says, although the devilish gleam of his eyes says otherwise.
Minseok claps his hands. “Okay, let’s start right away, shall we?”

 

“That was amazing.”

The chatter of the bunch is audible throughout the hallways, cheerful as they are. Jongdae didn’t need to stay –he had nothing to do with the shoot whatsoever, but many have also tried to dissuade Jongdae from what he wants to do, and none have yet succeeded–, but he did either way, and so the four of them stride down the building and into Sehun’s office, taking seat in the set of low couches on the far corner from his desk. Jongin’s hands are firmly set between his knees, palms against one another, shoulders hunched and eyes curious.

“Where did you get him from?” insists Minseok, but Sehun senses Jongin tense up next to him, and with a grimace, he avoids the answer. “And are there any more like him?”

“Not like him,” says Sehun before he can stop himself. From across the coffee table, Jongdae gives a Cheshire smirk, all teeth and mischief. “But…”

When he looks at Jongin, the boy is already staring up at him. “Yixing,” he says, but when he realizes the name doesn’t spark a thing in Sehun, he clarifies: “Lay.”

Sehun gives a nod, understanding washing over him. He hadn’t thought of that. “Maybe,” he says then.

“That would be gold.” Minseok is already starting to get jittery again. Good models give him a high Sehun can’t quite understand. “If he’s anything like him, we got ourselves two winners.”

Jongdae clears his throat. “I understand you’re underage?” he reminds. Sehun himself had already forgotten. “In that case, we’re going to need your parent’s permission. It’s just this form they need to sign –we can mail it to them, and they can mail it back. Do you think that’s something we can get?”

Jongin nibbles at the end of his sleeve. He has these little habits Sehun has been catching up on, and they don’t startle him anymore. On the contrary, he finds them rather endearing.

“I think so, yeah,” he conveys with a nod.

There isn’t much less to say. Jongin can’t sign anything without his parents’ permission, but other than that, the deal is sealed. Sehun watches the lawyer explain the details of the contract to Minseok’s new favorite, and Sehun can’t help a jolt of pride running through him.

Jongin glances back at him from time to time, equal parts amused and awestruck, like he can’t believe it himself.
Jongin is a study of color standing against a blank canvas, and Sehun can’t believe he’s going to be painted like he deserves.

 

Christmas is approaching and the first snow has already fallen, early in the city, and the snowflakes catch on the folds of Jongin’s clothing nonstop. Some melt onto him, some stay intact, and Jongin catches them in his hands to watch them die afterwards. His palms are covered in melted raindrops and his fringe is unkempt, and Sehun runs his fingers through it tenderly. He’s gotten better at it, and so has Jongin.

It’s a Friday evening and until he took care of it, Jongin’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Its chimes were nothing but a distant buzz, the angry cry of someone who lost something he never should have had, something he would never get back.

It’s a Friday evening and Jongin is free, and Kai is dead except for the times Jongin wants to bring him back in private. It’s a Friday evening and their laughter echoes in a city that awakens, feelings that bloom, the demise of all the excuses that keep them apart, if they want to. And they do.

Jongin gifts him with a smile Sehun can’t get enough of, and his arms wrap around him, as of to keep him warm. It’s cold outside and Jongin’s hands are hidden in his jacket, and his eyes gleam in coffee notes, and Sehun has never wanted anything more.

He can’t say he knows where they stand. He figures he’ll know, with time. He hopes they’ll have time. But Jongin looks up at him and his eyes gleam in coffee notes, and the tip of his nose is cold and it bumps with his own, and when they break apart, Sehun doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything more heart-wrenching.

It’s a beginning, it’s something; it’s there, and it’s theirs.