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When Taeyong said he wanted to get his ears pierced, Taeil envisioned them walking into a Claire’s. Bright, colorful, child-friendly. Or maybe an off-brand jewelry store in a mall. Sanitary, professional, clean.

He doesn’t expect to be brought to one of the city’s dingiest alleys, swept through mazes of dirt and rubbish. Taeil questions the sanitation levels of the tattoo parlor–tattoo parlor–Taeyong insists is the best in town, because just off the grim on the walls alone, Taeil isn’t willing to sit down, much less have an open wound in this germ-infested alley.

“Stop looking so scared.” Taeyong nudges him in the ribs, “It’s a lot safer at a tattoo shop than at Claire’s, you know? They use needles here.”

Taeil feels his lunch creep up the back of his throat, “Needles?”

“It doesn’t hurt, Moon.” Taeyong pulls on the ring on the shell of his ear, “I had this done a couple of months ago and it’s already healed.”

“Yeah,” Taeil says, without much commitment.

He hasn’t thought much of getting his own ears pierced, but Taeyong seems to like it and he doesn’t think much of that either. He’s known Taeyong since freshman year, there really isn’t anything Taeyong could do now at this stage of their friendship that would make Taeil stutter.

Plus, there disappointingly aren’t any good movies playing anymore. He’d been trying to get Taeyong to watch that new Lion King movie with him for ages, but the younger boy seemed to avoid the question at every chance possibly. Taeil wonders if it’s time for him to get a new friend to accompany him to the movies instead, because it appears that Taeyong’s been taken especially busy lately.

Without the movies, watching Taeyong get a couple more piercings is the next best Sunday afternoon activity for him, really.

Taeyong stops in his tracks and Taeil nearly bumps face first into his shoulder, too preoccupied with trying not to step in any murky puddles.

He looks up.

“Here.”

Inked.

It’s a neon light sign over the entrance, the red striking against its full-black exterior. The door looks rickety, but cleaner than anything in the alley and for that, Taeil feels his nerves alleviate. Slightly.

“Have you been here before?”

Taeyong pushes turns the knob and pushes the door open, “No.”

“How’d you know to come here?” Taeil drops his voice to a whisper, despite the appearance of an empty shop.

Taeyong pulls his phone out, “Someone recommended it to me.”

Taeil blinks, “Who?”

“Someone I met,” Taeyong shrugs. He inches away when Taeil peers over his shoulder to peek at his messages, “Nosey.”

Taeil sniffs, turning away to study the framed art on the walls. They’re all in black-and-white, tattoo designs he assumes. A few of them are large and intricately designed, others are of a cuter style–almost cartoon-y and simple in a way that makes Taeil think he can draw them too.

He follows them further into the store, which is far cleaner than the streets outside, thankfully. The floors are tiled white and the walls are painted black, giving off a very classic, old-school quality to the place. Without thinking, he follows the line of framed drawings, inspecting them closely.

Some of them are bears, the others are rabbits and Taeil wonders distantly if he’ll ever get a tattoo like this. Where would he put it? What would happen if he regretted the design he chose? Aren’t laser removal therapies really expensive these days?

“Can I help you?”

Taeil turns, like he’s been caught sneaking around, doing something unspeakable. He opens his mouth to explain his presence, but the words catch in his throat.

The boy is tall. Taller than Taeil, maybe even a whole head taller. His hair is black, but it seems even darker than that against the white lights, and Taeil can’t speak. The boy watches him, the deep brown of his eyes almost a painful scrutiny that Taeil wants to wither under.

“Hello?”

Taeil watches the boy’s lips. Plush and pink and soft–not that he would know if they were soft. They simply look soft, and Taeil–Taeil really can’t think right now. The boy has a marker behind his ear too, and his arms are folded across his chest. They’re tanned and muscled and oh my god.

Taeil tries his very best not to look at them because holy crap.

“Hi,” comes Taeyong’s voice, sounding much like a saving angel right now.

Taeil exhales sharply when the boy turns away, attention to Taeyong now. “Can I help you?” He asks again, “Or do you have an appointment with us today?”

“I do,” Taeyong says, flicking away on his phone.

In that silence, the boy glances at Taeil again, and it would’ve seemed condescending if the boy didn’t have the warmest eyes and the height of a–of a runway model. Taeil fidgets at the notion of how he’s only looking down at Taeil purely because he’s so tall.

“Here,” Taeyong says, flipping his phone around to reveal an Instagram DM. Taeil squints at the username, @dduings and so does the boy. Taeyong fidgets, “I’m here for a consultation.”

The boy looks at him, “A consultation?”

Taeil hasn’t ever heard of needing a consultation over an ear piercing.

“Yes.” Taeyong’s ears burn the brightest red, “I have a few piercings I wanted to get today and he said–he’d help me out with that.”

The boy takes a quick look at Taeil again, as if trying to fish for answers. He turns back to Taeyong, and then the Instagram exchange. It’s a long moment later that comprehension dawns on his face, “Oh. It’s–right.” He clears his throat, handing Taeyong’s phone back to him, “You’re–right, you’re Doyoung’s noon appointment.”

Who’s Doyoung?

Taeil balks when Taeyong’s cheek flush pink.

“Yes,” Taeyong answers robotically. He fumbles to tuck his phone away, “Is he here?”

“Yeah,” the boys nods. He gestures vaguely to the seats lined up across the main counter, “He’s just in the back, uh–I’ll go get him.” He looks at Taeil again, “Please–make yourselves comfortable.”

When he disappears through the black curtains, Taeil lets out a short burst of laughter, mostly his own nervousness. Taeyong scurries to take a seat and he follows, whispering not-all-that softly, “What was all that about?”

Taeyong glares at him, “What?”

“The blushing and the stammering.” Taeil narrows his eyes, “Do you like that guy or something?”

“Him?” Taeyong frowns, “No, I–I don’t like anyone, Taeil.”

“He’s pretty good-looking,” Taeil says. He thinks of the pair of eyes that seem ingrained in the back of his mind, “And he’s tall too.”

“I just said I don’t like anyone, what are you talking about?” Taeyong mutters, turning away from Taeil. His ears are still brighter than distress flare, but Taeil doesn’t push any harder.

For no reason, his heart thuds heavily in his chest.

“Taeyong?”

Instantaneously, Taeyong bolts to his feet. Taeil nearly falls off his seat from the sheer speed of it. He opens his mouth to comment on it, but Taeyong’s already walking away, hand outstretched to meet Doyoung’s. Taeil watches the interaction like a fish out of water, never having seen Taeyong move in such a trance-like state.

“Thanks for coming,” Doyoung says, smiling warmly. Even from a distance, Taeil can tell just how charming it is and he almost feels sorry when all Taeyong does is nod jerkily, words lost on him. “My station’s set-up in the back, if that’s okay?”

Again, Taeyong nods mutely. He follows Doyoung past the black curtains without sparing Taeil another glance and again, Taeil finds himself alone.

What just happened?

Resigning to the fact that he won’t be getting any answers soon, Taeil brings himself to stand again, refocusing his attention on the framed pieces of art. He’s had about five quiet minutes to himself before he’s jumping out of skin again, surprised at the intrusion of another soul behind him,

“Sorry–”

Taeil spins, catching himself before he loses his footing.

It’s the boy from before. He lifts his hands up now, palms forward. He watches Taeil warily, “Sorry, I really don’t mean to keep scaring you or anything.” He licks his lips, “I just wanted to ask if you needed any help?”

“Oh.” Taeil clears his throat, forces it to work, “No, thank you.”

The boy raises a brow, hands lowering, “You’re not here to get anything done?”

“No.” Taeil struggles to use any other word that doesn’t consist of just a single syllable, “I just–tagged along with Taeyong–I mean, my friend–to watch him get his ears pierced.”

The boy looks at the closed curtains.

“Not anymore,” Taeil rushes to say. And he wishes he didn’t because it sounds so much like he’s trying not to freak out–he really is trying his best, but this boy doesn’t need to know that. “I mean, I don’t have to go in there.”

“I wouldn’t think you’d want to.”

Taeil doesn’t ask what that’s supposed to mean.

“I’m Youngho, by the way,” he says, smiling again. And it’s fascinating, almost, how he can look so intimating without the curve of his lips. With it, Taeil thinks he’d never place this boy in a tattoo parlor (oh, sterotypes).

“Taeil,” he nods.

Youngho’s eyes search his face, and Taeil knows off a hunch that he’s staring at Taeil’s ears. In that moment, he feels oddly conscious of them, wishing to bring his hands up and hide them away.

“If you’re ever considering getting any piercings done,” Youngho hums, “I think you’d really good with them.” He brings finger up to press on his bottom lip, “Not that you need them, of course.”

Taeil’s throat closes up. He touches his ear absentmindedly.

Youngho tilts his head, “Did you want to?”

No. Taeil parts his lips to say just that, “Yes.”

“You have?” Youngho’s eyes light up, “Just on the lobes?”

Taeil blanks, “The what?”

“Just on the,” Youngho’s reaches for his ear–that very same hand that’d been on Youngho’s lips earlier–and he stops, glancing at Taeil, “May I?”

May I? Taeil shrieks internally, May I!

He nods, not trusting himself to maintain a decent level of appropriateness.

“Here,” Youngho mumurs. His fingers are cool against the lobe of Taeil’s ear, “Were you thinking of having them pierced here?”

I wasn’t thinking of having anything pierced anywhere. Taeil nods, “Yeah.”

Youngho’s thumb caresses Taeil’s ear once more before letting his hand drop to his side, “I could mark it for you? If you wanted to see how it might look like?”

Taeil, in all of his life, has never felt so dense.

“Mark,” Youngho repeats, reading the confusion on Taeil’s face. He plucks the marker free from behind his ear, “Like with ink? We usually do it before piercings, but I could mark it for you–just to give you a sense of how it’d look like.”

Oh, no, that’s okay. I’m fine, thank you. Taeil blinks, “Okay.”

“Great!” Youngho starts to head for one of the bulky leather chairs further into the store, and Taeil goes without question. Even if he did have a question, he’s sure it wouldn’t make it past his lips, “Please, take a seat.”

Taeil takes it without falling too unceremoniously, in spite his wobbly legs. Youngho sits on a smaller roller chair, moving a couple of trays and carts out of the way to get himself close to the seat. Taeil grips the armrest, feeling his heartbeat start to pick up.

“Nervous?” Youngho asks. He sits with his hands on his lap, looking at Taeil with genuine concern. Taeil nods, despite the sentient half of himself telling him to shake his head. Youngho smiles, that same warm smile from earlier, “A lot of customers feel that way. The lead up to the piercing seems to feel a lot scarier than the actual piercing itself.”

Taeil doesn’t mention the nausea.

“I promise this part won’t hurt,” Youngho tells him. He doesn’t move, and it’s not until too long later that Taeil realizes he’s waiting for Taeil to give him consent. With difficulty, Taeil nods, and only then does Youngho near. He uncaps the marker and clicks the cap on the back, “You don’t have to get it done, even if you like it.”

No needles. Taeil exhales at that.

And he wishes he didn’t because exhaling meant an inhale should come next–how breathing works, yes–and he can’t possible breathe when Youngho’s this close. His face is barely an inch from Taeil’s, fingers brushing the side of Taeil’s cheek as he dots Taeil’s right ear first.

From a distance of almost nothing, Youngho’s lips look even softer than before. The curve of his nose, the dip of his Cupid’s bow. And his arms–steady, so very, very steady–and there’s a hint of cologne that Taeil catches when Youngho raises his arm close to his chest and by gods, it smells delectable.

When he pulls back to take a look at the placement, Taeil sneaks the deepest breath he’s ever taken in his life.

Youngho rolls himself to Taeil’s left, repeating the action again. Taeil holds his breath this time, and the burn on his lungs hurt a little less.

“There.” Youngho pushes himself an arm’s length away, giving Taeil’s ears another check. He reaches for a handheld mirror and hands it to Taeil. Their fingers brush and Taeil has to catch himself lest he lets the mirror hit the ground. Youngho grins, “What do you think?”

Taeil studies them in the mirror; two dots of indelible ink on his ears, perfectly parallel to the other. He hasn’t ever thought of getting them pierced, no, but this–maybe it could look alright on him.

“You don’t have to get them done today,” Youngho tells him, senses his hesitation. Taeil looks away from the mirror to Youngho instead, and he nods, “If you ever change your mind, you could come back here and I’ll get it done for you.”

Taeil echoes, “Here?”

Youngho caps the marker, tilts his head in question.

“Oh, no, I mean–” Taeil presses the mirror to his chest, feels his heart slamming against it there, “I just didn’t think a tattoo parlor did piercings.”

“We specialize in both,” Youngho reassures. He spins the marker on his fingers, “And I’d like to think my hands are steadier than some middle-aged lady at Claire’s.”

Taeil feels his ears burn as bright as Taeyong’s does. In an attempt to rid any odd thoughts on anyone’s hands, Taeil clears this throat to ask, “So–you do tattoos too?”

“I don’t,” Youngho says. He smooths his hands out along his thighs and Taeil resists the urge to run out of the store. Are jeans always meant to be that tight or is Youngho just especially thi–

“I just help Doyoung out with piercings from time to time.”

Taeil’s lips form a small o.

“Do I look like a tattoo artist?”

Taeil wets his lips, nervous at Youngho’s eager gaze, “Not really, now that I think about.”

Youngho’s brows shoot up in surprise, “Really? Why not?”

“You don’t have any tattoos yourself.”

The smirk that curls on Youngho’s lips has Taeil gripping the handheld mirror for dear life. He stands, showing off his flawlessly long legs, “I do have a few.” Taeil doesn’t catch his jaw before it drops to the ground, “But you’ll have to know me a little better before I show you just where they are.”

Oh my god.

Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god.

“And if you’re ever interested,” Youngho pulls a thin, leather card case from his backpocket, brandishing a name card.

It’s of a sturdy piece of paper, color a dark navy blue with gold letterings. Taeil scans it quickly, SEO Youngho. Part-time body piercing artist. Graphic designer. followed by a string of numbers at the bottom.

“Call me,” Youngho grins, then shrugs, “New piercings or old tattoos, I’d be glad to help you out however I can.”

Taeil nods, prays it doesn’t look overly enthusiastic.

“I’ll get you some water,” Youngho says, starting to walk away. He comments, “Your friend’s having one hell of a consultation in there, hey.”

Taeil can’t find it in himself to laugh, too busy trying to get his heart to stop jumping around. He screws his eyes shut, clutching the name card tightly in his hand and sinking further into the leather seat. His skin is on fire and his everything feels like it’s on an axis.

For once, he’s thankful there aren’t any good movies in the theatres.

And maybe the next time where there are, he’ll be going with someone that isn’t Taeyong.