Actions

Work Header

All That Glitters

Chapter Text

 

The old mansion sat at the top of the hill overlooking the vast moorlands around it, grand and imposing, the sole sovereign of that scenery since times long forgotten. It stood empty for quite some time, its winding hallways bereft of traffic, the long staircase quiet of any creaks, the rooms naked of any furniture, their only inhabitants the spiders that sought out those dark corners to build their webs, and the silence.

Outside, the flowers had wilted in the gardens and the vines had climbed up the walls, covered the windows, tightened around the statues like ropes. The wide main door hung open on its hinges like a feeble mouth begging to be fed one last time, eager to bite down on anything that dares cross its threshold, hungry and desperate. The windows, ever-watchful eyes, kept their morose gaze over the endless expanse of land, bearing witness to the rain and the snow and the sunshine and the moonlight and the fog, the fog that rolled in every night and made the building look as if it could float above the mists, dreamlike - impossible to enter, impossible to escape.

Desolation, isolation.

Endless possibility. 

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Changkyun looked over at the passersby with boredom in his eyes; there wasn’t much to do in that part of town, where only the poor resided. No, if he wanted action, he would only find it in the nicer, richer part of the city, where he could actually make some profit. Where he was, in a neighborhood where one would be lucky to find two coppers to knock together, all he would be doing was wasting his time. Slim pickings.

Besides, it didn’t feel right to steal from those who had nothing. No, much better to take from those who had too much and rubbed it in their faces all the time, with their fancy restaurants and clothes and frivolous nights at the opera.

Things were getting harder these days - more patrols on the streets as crime became more widespread, a direct consequence of the rise of poverty. Too many people had too little, and the few who had too much weren’t keen on sharing. Charity was a lovely concept, one the rich and powerful and righteous loved to sing and preach about during Sunday mass, one which was forgotten as soon as they found themselves bereft of someone to impress with their good deeds.

If he was being completely honest, though, Changkyun, too, would not want to share his wealth, were he in that position.

Alas, he was not - so he would continue to take their wealth from them without their consent.

For that, he would need to find somebody to take it from first. And that’s what he was doing. Or, well, that and waiting for Jooheon to come back from wherever he was. Something about a job.

Changkyun chose that place to loiter about for a reason - it was just outside the grocery and there was a reasonable amount of people there at that hour, most of them servants that worked for the richer folk. And they liked to talk. A lot.

So Changkyun stood there, waiting for his friend, listening. Any information could be useful, any news of people going out of town on a business trip or a family planning an outing, anything that indicated an empty house suitable for his purposes. It had to be houses at that moment - pickpocketing would not be that advantageous to him until a new season of plays began at the theater in a few weeks. The main markets were too heavily patrolled those days, so finding a place with a good crowd where he was less likely to be caught was that much harder.

He heard nothing very relevant at first. News of the relatives of Ms. McSomething coming to town, how the Head Cook of Mr. Whomstever had acquired a brand new sorbetiére. Changkyun wished he had relatives to visit him, wished he had the coin to spend on something as unnecessary as a sorbetiére, but that was not the case. Useless. All useless.

Changkyun was starting to lose hope, starting to consider trying again some other time despite how pressed they were for money, until he picked up on a conversation that had his entire being zeroing in.

“—just come back from a world tour!”

‘World tour’ was not something Changkyun heard every day - whomever just returned from a world tour had to be swimming in money. A celebrity? He angled his head at the two young women who were talking, turning his ear towards them to hear better - it was a little hard with how his heartbeat had spiked, but he was trying his best to ignore the pounding in his eardrums.

“Rubbish,” the second woman said with a scoff, her disdain obvious, “are you trying to tell me that this séance nonsense gets you a world tour?”

Séance? Now Changkyun was most definitely intrigued.

“I have seen it!” the first woman replied, hitting her friend’s arm lightly with the back of her fingers. “It’s real. When they arrived a few weeks ago, they gathered all of us servants and the medium did a reading on us, and everything he said was right!”

“That’s not possible,” the second woman said, still sounding unconvinced. They began moving from where they had stopped to take a look at a fruit stall, so Changkyun discreetly followed behind them at a safe distance. “It’s all a hoax, I’m telling you.”

“It’s true, it’s all true! He spoke with the voice of our first maid's late mother!” the first woman keep on insisting. “You should come over to the soirée tomorrow night and see.”

Changkyun had to bite down a grin. A soirée wasn’t an empty house, it was the absolute opposite of it, but it was still an opportunity and a very good one.

“As if I would go all the way up to that big scary house in the middle of nowhere to see some phony talk to ghosts.”

“He’s not a phony!”

The conversation quickly devolved into bickering and Changkyun decided he’d heard enough. A party the next night, at a house in the middle of nowhere. He could take that information and make it work, somehow - Jooheon probably knew more, being the outgoing, friendly person he was. 

He stopped following the two women, luckily before anyone thought he had ill intentions towards them, and returned to where he’d been posted before, by the grocer, so Jooheon could easily spot him once he was back. On his way there he picked up on a second, less interesting conversation regarding one upper-middle-class family going away to the shore on vacation - if the secluded house didn’t pan out, at least he had a backup plan.

He had a good feeling, though - a very good feeling. He didn’t need a backup plan, that ‘soirée’ would be it. It was rare for him to feel like that, so certain about something of which he couldn’t possibly know the outcome, but he knew in his gut, in his heart, in his very soul that ‘the scary house in the middle of nowhere’ was where he was supposed to go. He’d learned long ago not to ignore a hunch so strong as that one, and that was a hunch if he ever had any.

Luck seemed to be on his side, for when he arrived back at his previous spot, Jooheon was already there, looking around in search of him. Changkyun jogged the last few steps towards him, Jooheon breaking into a wide dimpled smile once he saw him approach.

“Kyun! Guess what!” Jooheon said, meeting Changkyun halfway. Changkyun’s eyes fell on the bag of candied popcorn in Jooheon’s hands, and he gave him a look that said ‘we should be saving money and you’re wasting it on sweets’ , which Jooheon vehemently ignored. “I got the job! I start tomorrow.”

“That’s great news!” Changkyun replied, deciding to forego the nagging about spending money on trifles - for the moment. “What is the job?”

“It’s nothing much, just cleaning up some cages at the circus that just got into town,” Jooheon said, becoming bashful at the humbleness of his new work, but Changkyun didn’t comment on it. “It won’t make us rich, but it’s steady pay.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, and we do our share of begging,” Changkyun replied, and together they began walking down the street. “I have a question.”

“What is it?” 

Changkyun didn’t waste time preambling. “Have you heard anything about a medium?”

Jooheon gave him a cautious sideways look. “We are not going to see a medium.”

Changkyun huffed and rolled his eyes. Why would he ever want to see a medium for? “That’s not why I’m asking.”

“It better not be, ‘cause you’ll be going all on your own if you are,” Jooheon said, pointing his index finger at Changkyun in warning.

Changkyun only gave him an unimpressed look. Neither of them had any reason to go see a medium - all the dead people they could try to communicate with were not exactly people they ever wanted to speak to again. Or, well, maybe Jooheon’s grandmother, but she would be the only one. Nothing was left unsaid, though, no business was left unfinished, so Jooheon was just being daft.

Regardless, Changkyun was pressed for answers just as much as they were pressed for money, lest they ended up living on the streets by the end of the week, so he brushed over Jooheon’s concerns and continued on with his prodding. “I’m assuming that means you’ve heard something.”

Jooheon inhaled sharply, nostrils expanding. He looked as if he was having a heated internal debate, so Changkyun had the courtesy of allowing him a moment to finish butting heads with himself.

“Yes,” Jooheon finally said, not looking at all happy about it, “I might know a thing or two.”

“Tell me.”

“You’ll have to be more specific, though,” Jooheon said as they turned a corner. He shoved a handful of candied popcorn into his mouth, so when he next spoke his voice was muffled and there were bits of popcorn flying everywhere. “Lots of mediums around.”

Changkyun was aware - spiritualism was, for some ungodly reason, all the rage these past few years. “I’m assuming not many of them have been on a world tour.”

Jooheon stopped walking abruptly and whirled around to face Changkyun, who, caught unawares, all but crashed onto him. Jooheon didn’t even flinch. “Of all the mediums around, you have to ask about the scariest one, don’t you?”

“Scariest? Why?” Changkyun questioned, this time genuinely baffled. Mediums weren’t scary - charlatans, all of them, from what Changkyun could tell. No such things as ghosts.

“It’s not that much about the medium - the whole situation is spooky,” Jooheon explained with a grimace. “Take whatever I tell you with a grain of salt, it’s all hearsay. What I’ve heard is that there was a fire about a year ago at that neighborhood by the river, you know, with the nice houses? Killed a whole family and only one of them survived.”

Changkyun groaned, annoyed. “What does that have to do with—”

“I’m getting there!” Jooheon snapped. “The survivor was this guy, Guhn, and after that he took off, left town, nobody knows where he went. This party you mentioned, it’s this Mr. Guhn’s return party.”

Interesting, if not too helpful yet. “Is that so?”

“Weird, right?” Jooheon’s voice dropped to a more secretive one and they continued walking. “I don’t know if any of it is true, but I keep hearing about how he befriended this other man who can really speak to the dead and they made a fortune doing séances and private readings.” Finally, the part Changkyun wanted to hear about. “They bought that old mansion in the moor, renovated it and everything.”

Alright, the moor. Changkyun knew the place Jooheon spoke of, although he’d never been there in person. He heard the stories though, of how lovely it was, how grand it was, how magnificent and fit for nobility; he’d also heard it was haunted, cursed, miserable, terrifying.

He wasn’t concerned about the mansion itself, however - the moor was much more dangerous, with its nightly mists that rolled in thick and blinding, making it all too easy for accidents to happen. He would have to go early in the evening, just as the sun set, if he didn’t want to get caught in it.

He would also have to borrow a horse from Mr. Brian, but he was sure he could convince him to lend him one of his animals - he would settle for the slowest, oldest one, even. He wasn’t worried.

For the moment, though, Changkyun’s mind got stuck in another point of Jooheon’s tale. “When you say ‘befriended’, do you mean as in, they are friends, or are they… ‘friends’?”

Jooheon snorted at the question, his dimples making an appearance alongside his amusement. “I have no idea, but people talk, as they always do.” Jooheon said, and after thinking for a second, added, “Must be a very special friendship to go as far as doing a world tour together, though.”

That was absolutely right - two men, unmarried, traveling the world together and settling down on a grand old mansion all by themselves. A very special friendship indeed.

Lucky them, Changkyun thought to himself. Being rich and powerful would certainly help to keep such a scandalous lifestyle from outsiders’ eyes, having sturdy stone walls and stacks of money to hide behind. Changkyun didn’t have the same perks, nothing to shield him from being jailed for gross indecency were he ever caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Even Changkyun’s friendship with Jooheon had been scrutinized in the past, especially by their landlady, but nothing had come from it nor would it ever - no proof, no crime. There would be no proof, because Jooheon was his friend and nothing more.

It felt like too much of a hassle to hide such affairs, however - Changkyun didn’t like hassles. Best to remain single. He wasn’t one for fleeting encounters and a romantic liaison would not exactly help him put food on the table.

Changkyun could be ambitious, but he had priorities.

“What else do you know about them?” Changkyun asked. “About this Mr. Guhn and his medium friend.”

“Not that much,” Jooheon responded with a shrug. “All rumors, probably all rubbish.”

“Like what?”

“They say the medium is a witch or something,” Jooheon said and shuddered. “People say there is no way he can be so accurate with his readings and not have made a deal with the devil.”

“Yes, that does sound like rubbish,” Changkyun said with a scoff. “He’s probably just very observant. And his ‘talks to the dead’ are likely a bunch of preconceived messages of ‘be happy’ and ‘I forgive you’ and ‘remember to be virtuous’ or whatever it is people who want to talk to their dead relatives wish to hear.”

“I don’t know,” Jooheon said, scratching under his jaw nervously with the hand that wasn’t busy holding his paper bag of popcorn, “he might be the real deal, he might not, but I don’t want to find out either way. If he’s a witch he could put a curse on us.”

“There’s no such thing as curses, Jooheon. Or witches, for that matter.”

“I would rather not test that theory.”

“You have nothing to worry about, I’ll go there on my own.”

Jooheon almost tripped over his own feet when spun around to look at Changkyun, again stopping abruptly and causing Changkyun to crash into him. “What!?”

“What?” Changkyun echoed. “It’s just a house.”

“A house with ghosts in it!”

“Ghosts aren’t real,” Changkyun groaned the words, getting tired of the discussion already. “We have bills to pay and debts to settle, you might have a job now but we both know cleaning lion shit at the circus won’t pay much. We’re out of options.”

“You could get a job too!” Jooheon argued. “You’re smarter than anyone I know, you could work at, I don’t know, an office or something.”

Changkyun snorted. “No respectable office would ever hire me.”

“Work on that attitude and they might.”

“Funny, you should get a job as a comedian.”

“Changkyun— I mean it, don’t go there,” Jooheon pleaded, using his best kicked puppy expression. “I have a weird feeling about it, you’ll get yourself in trouble.”

“It’ll be fine,” Changkyun promised him, giving him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I’ll just go over to the mansion, get an idea of the layout, see if it’s doable, if there’s a way inside. If I find that it’s too dangerous, I’ll call it off.”

Jooheon made a whining sound and threw his head back, obviously wanting to argue but knowing it would be for naught. He had his target set and, when that happened, Jooheon already knew nothing could change his mind.

He hadn’t gotten into any trouble so far; this time would be no different.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

As much as Kihyun loved the ocean, the open water, the sight of the rapidly approaching docks eased the weight on his heart, which he’d been carrying with him throughout all those months he had to spend away. Necessity had forced him to sail to distant shores, but he was back.

He was back.

He hoped he wouldn’t have to set sail without his two loves anymore - it had been his first voyage on his own, without them there to support him, and while he certainly was forced to learn some new tricks which added to his skills, it had been absolute hell. Alas, Hoseok couldn’t sail anymore, and they couldn’t leave him alone for so long; Kihyun had always been the best at running the ship and the one responsible for their business dealings, so it was logic that dictated who should be the one to go and who should be the one to stay behind to care for Hoseok.

They had never spent so much time apart, though. Logic had never prepared Kihyun for how difficult it would be, for the nights spent with his eyes wide open staring at foreign ceilings, praying and hoping his loves were safe and well, stressing over the possibility that they were not; he could not do anything. He’d left to provide for them a certain stability, which was, at its core, another way of protecting them and ensuring their well-being, but he wasn’t there. He wasn’t with them.

The three of them had sailed the world together, had made a name for themselves transporting goods from one side of the ocean to the other, but they had always done it as a team - being on his own didn’t feel right. He hoped the products he brought back this time would be enough to keep them afloat, that they could use the profit from selling them to change their situation, to move away somewhere Hoseok could recover and rest.

Kihyun vowed, just as the ship docked, that he would never set sail on his own again - it would be with his loves, or not at all.

He shouted the orders to his crew - set down the gangplank, start unloading the crates, take everything to the warehouse - and once they began moving to do as they were told, Kihyun took a second to breathe, standing in the middle of the deck with his head tipped up, facing the cloudy sky. The fall air stung his lungs, but it was a welcome sensation, soothing; the same air Hoseok and Hyunwoo were breathing.

He was home. 

Kihyun shook himself, forced his mind to focus on the tasks at hand. He had much to do still, had to overlook the entire operation, from the ship to the warehouse, before he could fully relax at the thought of being home. He moved to the railings, set on watching over the unloading process, make sure nobody dropped anything - if they broke the bottles of spirits Kihyun would have their livers for dinner.

As he looked down at the docks from the main deck, Kihyun’s already high spirits were lifted even further when he spotted a familiar set of wide shoulders. He wasn’t expecting him to be there, was already planning on sending a message for him to come over to help him with all the crates and his own luggage, so this was— it was the best surprise, truly.

“Hyunwoo!”

Hyunwoo looked up immediately upon hearing Kihyun call his name, his own expression shifting into a wide smile, one of those that had his cheeks lifting so high his eyes all but closed. Happy as he was, though, Kihyun didn’t forget himself or where they were, how many people were around them, so he leaned forward to shout, “Come up here, I need your help with something!”

He didn’t have to repeat himself; Hyunwoo came rushing across the boardwalk and up the gangway to get on the ship. Kihyun met him at the top of the plank, but held back from touching him - he’d been away for months, he could contain himself for two more minutes. With a motion of his head, he indicated the way towards the quarterdeck, prompting Hyunwoo to follow him up to the captain’s quarters. A few men of his crew gave them suspicious looks, some that had been with them for longer stopped to greet Hyunwoo, but none of them said anything. They likely would, but only between them and when Kihyun wasn’t within earshot.

Kihyun felt giddy, his entire body buzzing; it was almost like they were teenagers again, sneaking around to steal a kiss or ten away from prying eyes.

Now they were fully grown adults, sneaking around to steal a kiss or ten away from prying eyes.

Kihyun opened the door to his cabin and ushered Hyunwoo inside with a wave of his hand. He’d barely closed the door behind them both, latching it to avoid interruptions, and already there was a pair of strong arms wrapped around him, a warm breath on the side of his neck. Kihyun leaned into him, back pressed to Hyunwoo’s wide chest and closed his eyes, allowing himself to enjoy the moment.

“Welcome home,” Hyunwoo murmured in his ear and it was good he was holding him up already, otherwise Kihyun would have melted and fallen to a heap on the floor.

“Thanks, dearest,” Kihyun said, tilting his head back and a bit sideways so Hyunwoo could reach his lips to kiss him. “I didn’t know you were working at the docks.”

“Surprise,” Hyunwoo joked, boyish face taken over by a smile.

Kihyun laughed and turned around in Hyunwoo’s embrace so he could lace his arms around his neck, pull him into himself in a tight hug. “I’ve missed you so much,” he breathed the words, hands coming up to hold Hyunwoo’s face still so he could kiss him all over - his cheeks, his nose, his chin, his eyes, his lips, “every second I was away was torture.”

“I’ve missed you too,” Hyunwoo said, and in a very Hyunwoo manner all but picked Kihyun up off the ground, the action making Kihyun giggle uncontrollably - he was so happy he would not have been able to contain himself even if he’d tried. “So did Hoseok, he talks about you all the time.”

Kihyun’s giddiness slowly leaked out of him at the mention of Hoseok, the smile falling off his face as he asked in a softer tone, “How is he?”

Hyunwoo didn’t answer right away. He fixed his grip on Kihyun so he wouldn’t fall and carried him to the bed at the far side of the cabin, where he sat down still with Kihyun in his arms; it was the type of thing Hyunwoo did that always made Kihyun feel both like a small child and like nothing could touch him, like Hyunwoo was a fortress that could defend him from anything.

Hyunwoo couldn’t defend him from the most important thing, though.

“Some days are better than others,” Hyunwoo finally responded, Kihyun held tight in his arms. They could tease him for being the shortest of the three of them all they wanted, at the end of the day he still got to be held like that and it made it all worth it. “He’s been mostly doing alright these past few days, but—” Hyunwoo interrupted himself, a deep hitch between his brows. Kihyun began stroking his hair to try to soothe him.

“But what?”

“I’m always afraid of going home,” Hyunwoo revealed in a whisper.

The dread those words caused him left Kihyun frozen for a moment, his heart tight in his chest, a lump trapped in his throat making it harder for him to breathe. Hyunwoo noticed, of course, and kissed Kihyun’s forehead tenderly to try and comfort him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “you just arrived and I’m already—”

“Don’t,” Kihyun said with a shake of his head and tried to smile, frail as it probably looked. “It’s alright. I— I have to get used to this again, might as well prepare me now before I see him.” He tried to swallow that lemon-sized lump in his throat, but found that he couldn’t. “I don’t want to upset him by getting upset myself.”

“You’ll be fine. Both of you will,” Hyunwoo promised, his large hand cradling Kihyun’s jaw, thumb stroking his cheek. “He doesn’t look much different from how he looked when you left. A little thinner, perhaps, but I think I’ve done a good job keeping him well fed.”

“I’m sure you did,” Kihyun said and turned his head minutely to press a kiss to Hyunwoo’s palm. “The only thing that kept me sane was knowing you were here taking care of him. Knowing that you had each other.”

“Can’t say the same about you, on the other side of the ocean all on your own,” Hyunwoo’s voice tone was playful, but Kihyun knew it was a front to conceal how worried he’d truly been in his absence.

“I’m here now,” Kihyun replied, shifting on Hyunwoo’s lap so he could go from sitting sideways across his thighs to straddling them. Hyunwoo laced one arm around his lower back, to both avoid Kihyun slipping and falling and to hold him closer, upper bodies fully pressed against one another. He’d missed this, he’d missed this so very much— “I’m not going anywhere without the both of you again.”

“Good, because I’m not letting you leave,” Hyunwoo said, conviction in his words, and squeezed Kihyun tight against himself, almost to the point of discomfort. “Can we stay like this for a while?”

“We have over a hundred crates to unload and take to the warehouse,” Kihyun responded. “That and the crew will get very suspicious if we take too long in here.”

“Five minutes?” Hyunwoo pleaded, loosening his hold on him to pull back a little, just so he could give Kihyun the puppy eyes.

Kihyun scoffed, pretending that look on Hyunwoo’s face didn’t have any effect on him. “Like I don’t know you will try to trick me into staying here longer than five minutes.”

“Please, Ki?” Hyunwoo continued with his begging, his voice taking on a cooing quality that only came out when he was trying to act cute. “You’ve been gone so long, I missed you so much.”

Kihyun huffed and gave Hyunwoo an unimpressed look. Hyunwoo’s pleas aside, Kihyun already knew he would give in, but he still enjoyed making Hyunwoo work for it. “We’ll have all the time in the world when we get home.”

“But that will take hours.”

“I’m sure you can wait until then. You’re a patient man.”

Hyunwoo clicked his tongue to express his annoyance. “I most definitely am not.”

Kihyun laughed, deciding it was enough for the time being, and said, “Alright. Two minutes.”

Hyunwoo beamed at him and in a swift motion rolled them around so that he was lying on top of Kihyun on the bed. Kihyun giggled with the unexpected change in position, the giddiness making a return.

“I’ll take it.”

Kihyun was plenty aware that they would take a lot more than two minutes, but he decided he didn’t care - he’d just returned from a long journey, he deserved to indulge himself a little.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Changkyun could see the mansion even from a distance, all the way up at the top of the hill with its darker than black outline against the cloudy night sky and the occasional light from one window or another. The ideal would have been to visit the place later, when the chances of every person in the mansion being asleep were higher, but Changkyun was aware that the moor was dangerous to travel in the middle of the night when the fog came down.

He made sure to tie his horse to a shrub at the bottom of a small hill, the angle just right so that the animal would not be visible from the mansion, before he continued on his way up the path; good thing he wore his comfortable boots that day - as in, the only pair of shoes he owned.

By the time he reached the mansion proper, Changkyun was huffing and puffing and questioning why he was there in the first place; surely there were easier places to rob, places closer to home that didn’t require hiking up a hill. He had to take a second to recover, lest that excursion ended with him coughing out his lungs, before he straightened himself up and looked upon the mansion before him.

It was an intimidating structure with its high, narrow windows and pointed towers, the smooth grey stones that formed its sturdy walls, the sheer magnitude of it giving Changkyun a foreboding feeling that settled in the pit of his stomach, a sensation of underlying dread which had been conjured without reason. It must look very different in the light of day, he thought - hoped - because if not, why would anyone wish to live in a place as unsettling as this?

And he hadn’t even approached the mansion from its front, but rather from the side to avoid attracting even more attention; he didn’t want to imagine how much more frightening it would be to be faced with the grandeur of the main steps, the wide double doors, the eye-like windows. 

Alas, standing there debating the fundamental reasons that made a place unwelcoming would not get him any closer to his goal of figuring out how to trespass into such a magnificent structure. He stealthily made his way closer to the building, pressing his body against the wall once he was near enough to avoid catching anyone’s eye through the window. It was dark inside whatever room he was standing outside of, no light from any direction to give him away, so he scurried swiftly from his current hiding place to the next available stretch of wall. So many windows - why were there so many windows?

Sneaking around the mansion was a much longer, more nerve-racking affair than Changkyun had predicted, but, finally, he rounded the corner to the very back of the mansion. He could tell there was a garden there, could somewhat see the tall hedge gateway and the white stone path that lead into it, but it was far too dark to be able to see anything beyond that. The windows were wider there, and after being good for so long and playing it safe, he decided he wanted to peek inside.

He listened closely for a while, for footsteps or shuffling or any indication there was anyone around, before he poked his head in front of the window. He couldn’t see very much inside, not even after he cupped his hands around his eyes for that added help to his vision - he assumed that was a music room or a drawing room. He could see the vague outline of what looked like a grand piano on one side of the room, a light-colored sofa nearby, glass cabinets lining one of the walls and a low table. Those were the pieces of furniture close enough to the window that he could still make out, but beyond that, it was all pitch black.

It didn’t do his curiosity any favors, but there was nothing he could do about it. He moved on.

Changkyun was about halfway to the other side of the mansion when a light came on, illuminating the floor right in front of him and causing him to nearly jump out of his skin. He pressed himself back against the wall, one hand covering his mouth and nose to muffle the sound of his breathing. Immediately he winced and stepped away from the wall again, his back stinging in a number of different places - there was a sort of metal grid that ran from the ground to the very top of the building, vines and flowers twisting and snaking their way through the openings. Looking over to his side, he found that it wasn’t a window but a set of glass doors next to this grid, and on the other side of the doors, there was another decorative grid with vines and flowers. That was probably the main doorway to the gardens. 

He caught movement from the corner of his eyes and pressed himself against the vines once more, this time bracing himself for the discomfort that came with it. There was the outline of a person on the strip of light from the window; in fact, he could hear two muffled male voices and laughter floating down to where he was. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he could hear the nuances of their timbres fairly well, enough to know when which of them was speaking.

He watched the shadow move around, the silhouette coming and going from that strip of light as if the owner of that shape was very busy. After what felt like an eternity - not more than two minutes, but when you’re in the middle of nowhere trying to remain unseen by the dwellers of a spooky mansion, time moves differently - the shadow stopped in front of the window. Changkyun held his breath, pressed himself further back into the vines, ignoring how the thorns from the flowers were digging into his skin through his clothes.

There was a metallic sound from above and a squeak, like a hinge turning, and suddenly the voices were clearer, louder; whoever it was had opened the window. Changkyun bit his lips, pressed even closer to the wall.

His caution to not be caught, however, was the very reason why, when he pressed harder against the grid, one of the flower stems broke, the sound slicing through the still air of the night.

“I told you, it’s going to be—” 

He heard the voice float down from above, heard its owner interrupt himself.

“What is it?” came the second voice after a brief stretch of silence, which Changkyun concluded to belong to someone standing further away from the window.

“I thought I heard something outside.”

Changkyun’s heart all but stopped and he closed his eyes tight, prayed to whatever god was paying attention to the likes of him that whoever it was didn’t go outside, didn’t look down, didn’t send someone to check the grounds. Did they have guard dogs? If they did, he hoped they didn’t send the dogs.

“Do your ghosts not know all? Can’t you see in your mind’s eye who or what was responsible for it?” the second voice asked in a teasing tone, earning an amused huff from the man who was at the window.

“Of course I can.”

Changkyun barely held in a whimper. Don’t look down, he prayed inside his head, don’t look down. No such things as ghosts, but he assumed the medium - who was obviously the one at the window - had functional eyesight.

“What is the issue then?”

“None at all,” the medium said, his tone haughty. “I think it’s time for me to retire for the evening, it’s late and tomorrow will be a busy day.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me what the source of the noise was?”

There was a pause, a pause during which Changkyun was certain he would have a heart attack.

“It was just a mouse on the hedge.”

Changkyun immediately relaxed. Yes. Just a mouse. He was just a mouse and nothing more.

And that was obviously a terrible medium.

“I’ll have the servants set the traps in the morning,” the second voice said.

“A fine idea,” said the medium. “You should leave this window open, it gets so stuffy in here.”

“Indeed.”

The conversation moved away from the window and, eventually, died down. Changkyun took a few deep breaths to calm himself before he stepped forward, into the light that now fell on the floor uninterrupted, and looked up. The ornamental grids passed right by the large windows where the man had been standing, and he could see that it was unlatched, cracked just a little in a way that would be easy to push it the rest of the way open.

Changkyun had found his way in.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Hyunwoo led the way up the stairs to their top floor apartment, Kihyun following him quietly. He could almost feel the nervous energy radiating from him, could almost smell his anxiety - Hyunwoo understood. He, too, felt nervous any time he came home, always uncertain of what he would find within the walls of their dwelling.

They reached their door soon - perhaps too soon, the time it took them to go from the bottom of the winding staircase not enough for them to fully prepare, but, then again, Hyunwoo figured there was not enough time in the world to prepare them for this. Whatever they found inside, they would just have to cope. He placed Kihyun’s baggage trunk - the heaviest one, as he insisted on carrying it for him - on the ground so he could search for his keys in the front pocket of his trousers. Kihyun stopped right behind him, and he felt the feathery weight of his hand resting on his back, between his shoulders. It eased his anxiety some, since whatever happened, Kihyun was home now. He wouldn’t be alone.

Hyunwoo held his breath as he pulled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door, Kihyun’s fingers twitching with anticipation on his back. The door opened with a loud creak, the old hinges moaning in that forlorn way that always had goosebumps of dread running up and down Hyunwoo’s body. He looked over his shoulder to Kihyun, finding a pinched expression on his face, complexion pale.

“Do you want me to go in first?” he offered, and Kihyun, after a second’s hesitation, accepted the offer with a quick nod.

Hyunwoo heaved the trunk from the floor again just to place it inside the apartment, by the entrance, and made way for Kihyun to get in so he could shut the door behind them; Kihyun entered with a reservation that would be more fit for a stranger and not someone who had lived there for years.

Kihyun left his suitcase, which he insisted on carrying himself, alongside the trunk, exhaling heavily while he straightened himself. Hyunwoo took one of his hands and pressed a kiss to his forehead, trying somehow to ease his nerves. Hyunwoo had to deal with that fear every day, but Kihyun wasn’t used to it, not anymore.

Not that there was a way to fully get used to such a thing.

After exchanging one more look with Kihyun, Hyunwoo finally gathered his nerve and let go of his hand to venture further inside the apartment, crossing the short hallway to the bedroom. He was spared of the torture of getting to the other side, however short a walk it was, by the voice that sounded from behind the closed door.

“Hyunwoo? Is that you?”

The tension bled out of him and he smiled, hearing Kihyun’s hurried footsteps behind him just as he pushed the door open.

Hoseok was reclined on his pillows, an open book over his lap, and his smile as bright and welcoming as it always had been - some days, like that one, it was easy to forget Hoseok was ill.

“It is me, and I’m not alone,” Hyunwoo said, entering the room so the doorway wasn’t obstructed by his wide frame and Hoseok could see who was standing behind him.

The way Hoseok’s entire being lit up was the type of thing that made everything, all their efforts, all their hard work, worth it.

“Kihyun!”

Kihyun rushed to Hoseok’s side so swiftly he was a blur when he ran past Hyunwoo, who stood by the door and watched as his two loves reunited, Kihyun embracing Hoseok without reservations, peppering his face with kisses. Hoseok laughed, loud and joyful, as he let himself be held by Kihyun.

“God, I’ve missed you,” Kihyun said, holding Hoseok against himself, fingers tangled in his dark hair.

“I’ve missed you too, Ki,” Hoseok responded, chin resting on Kihyun’s shoulder. He opened his eyes to meet Hyunwoo’s and added, “We both did.”

Kihyun parted from Hoseok to look back at Hyunwoo too, his eyes shiny with tears but his smile loving and warm. Hyunwoo could burst with happiness.

“Come on, sit with me,” Hoseok said, scooting over closer to the wall to make room for Kihyun and Hyunwoo on the bed next to him. Kihyun laughed but happily obliged after kicking off his boots, climbing on the bed and cuddling up to Hoseok’s side. Hyunwoo took a second longer to do the same, wanting to fully commit that sight of his loves happy and smiling to his memory before he joined them; there was barely any space for him, the bed too narrow, but they shifted around until they were all comfortable, the actions practiced and mastered by the three of them long ago.

Who would have thought, back when they were only boys huddling together on a single bed in the orphanage to keep the cold at bay, that they would end up still having to huddle up on a bed that was far too small for the three of them, in a cheap old apartment they could barely afford.

Some things truly don’t change.

“How were your travels?” Hoseok was asking Kihyun, half-laying on top of him much like Kihyun was half-laying on top of Hyunwoo. “Did you have fun?”

“It’s impossible to have fun without my two favorite people by my side,” Kihyun responded, nuzzling the side of Hoseok’s head affectionately. “But it was a very good trip. I’ve made some good deals and I’ve brought so many goods to sell - it will certainly improve our situation. And,” Kihyun’s voice turned mischievous, “I have brought many gifts for you.”

Hoseok’s eyes lit up. “Gifts? What gifts?”

“A lot of sweets, for one,” Kihyun said, laughter in his voice. Hyunwoo had missed his voice, always so melodic. “But I’ve brought other things, both for you and Hyunwoo.”

Hyunwoo’s mind wandered as he listened to them talk, memories of their humble beginnings surfacing in his thoughts. Kihyun had always been the most refined of the three of them, having had a significant amount of education before the passing of his parents and his arrival at the orphanage, at the early age of ten. He was the one who had taught both Hoseok and Hyunwoo himself to read and write, in fact. Kihyun, the intellectual, the one who had the most business sense, who handled their finances, their legal problems, the one who figured everything out, who always had a plan.

Where Kihyun was their head, Hyunwoo was their body - he was the muscle, the protector, the one who took care of Kihyun and Hoseok, both younger than himself, defended them from the other kids and, at times, the adults that treated them unfairly. It was to Hyunwoo they turned to when they were scared or lost, when they were faced with the hard decisions, the one they trusted to lead them. Hyunwoo hoped he had the clarity to never lead them astray.

And Hoseok— Hoseok was their heart. Hoseok, with his charming, friendly personality, with his empathy and warmth, he was the one who gave them strength when things were hard, the one who offered them comfort and encouragement. He had been very tiny as a child, a scrawny little thing, but he had grown to be strong, as strong as Hyunwoo - until the illness came, that is.

How cruel it was, that such an awful thing would happen to Hoseok, who was the best person they had ever known. The best person they would ever know. The best of them, and everyone else.

“But how have you been, bunny?” Kihyun’s voice brought Hyunwoo back to the moment, and he hoped his loves hadn’t noticed his distraction. “You’ve lost so much weight, has Hyunwoo not been giving you enough food?”

The playful question was accompanied by a sideways glance from Kihyun, who was pursing his lips to contain a smile. Hoseok giggled and shook his head.

“He’s been giving me plenty of food. More than I actually need, I think,” he responded. “It’s being stuck in this bed what is truly bad for me.”

“Oh, bunny,” Kihyun sighed the words, kissed Hoseok’s once chubby cheek, “I can only imagine how dull it must be to stay in bed all day every day, but the weather is far too cold right now for you to go outside.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Hoseok said, lips jutting out in a pout, “I didn’t mean to complain, I know you both are only doing what you must for my sake.”

“Things will get better soon, I promise,” Kihyun said and took one of Hoseok’s hands in his, brought it up to his lips to press a kiss to his palm. “I have enough product to sell to maybe get us a house in the countryside, as we talked about.”

“That would be lovely,” Hoseok said, resting his head on Kihyun’s shoulder again. “A change of scenery.”

“A much-needed one,” Hyunwoo agreed.

“Besides, I’m back,” Kihyun added, cheerful in a way Hyunwoo could tell was no fabrication. “I’m sure I can find ways to keep you entertained, as we both know how terrible Hyunwoo is at telling jokes.”

That had Hoseok laughing loud and Hyunwoo pinching Kihyun’s cheek in retaliation.

“My jokes aren’t that bad.”

“They aren’t that good either, love.”

Hoseok’s laughter doubled in intensity at that exchange, which had both Kihyun and Hyunwoo laughing along in no time. Their moment of fun was quickly cut short, however, when Hoseok’s laughter turned into a fit of coughing. Kihyun and Hyunwoo held their breaths for a moment, Kihyun moving to rub soothing circles on Hoseok’s back when he doubled forward with the sheer force of the coughs.

Hoseok was quick to use the handkerchief he kept in his pocket to cover his mouth, hide the blood that certainly was staining the yellowed fabric from Kihyun - knowing Hoseok, Hyunwoo knew he wouldn’t want Kihyun to see it moments after arriving home from a long journey.

“I’m sorry,” Hoseok said, voice hoarse, when the coughs subsided, “I forgot myself for a moment, I’m alright.”

“Of course you’re alright,” Kihyun agreed, scratching Hoseok’s nape gently with his nails. “Do you want some tea? To soothe your throat?”

“I’ll make it,” Hyunwoo offered, already disentangling himself from Kihyun so he could get up.

“Are you sure?” Kihyun asked, although he made no move to leave Hoseok’s side.

“Yes, you’re tired from your journey and haven’t seen Hoseok in a while,” Hyunwoo told him with a smile. “Rest and catch up, I’ll handle supper and prepare some tea for us.”

“Very well,” Kihyun agreed after a moment, “but only for today.”

“As if anyone can stop you when you decide to do something,” Hyunwoo teased and watched fondly the way Kihyun’s grin turned bashful, the way Hoseok looked up at him with nothing but love in his eyes.

That— that was all that mattered. His loves both safe, happy, by his side. He would go to the ends of the earth to make sure to keep it that way. For as long as he could.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Jooheon was just about to go to bed when Changkyun came barreling through the front door of their little apartment, looking— looking the complete opposite way Jooheon had been hoping he would look. Since that morning, Jooheon had been quietly praying for Changkyun to find nothing at the old mansion in the moor, hoping it would be an impenetrable fortress, whatever it took for Changkyun to give up that stupid, stupid idea.

He didn’t look dejected, though - he looked excited.

Jooheon made a pitiful noise and grimaced. “No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Changkyun replied, laughter in his voice. He went as far as to approach Jooheon, grab his head with both hands and pull him down to give him a noisy, obnoxious kiss on the cheek that had Jooheon spluttering and trying to break free. “I have a way inside the mansion and from what I could tell there aren’t many servants, it’s doable! I just have to wait for everyone to be distracted at the party.”

“This is the dumbest thing you’ve ever decided to do, Kyun,” Jooheon said, wanting to sound reproachful but only managing to sound— well, whiny.

“You’ll take those words back when I come home tomorrow night with a small fortune,” Changkyun said and moved away after giving Jooheon a condescending pat on the head.

“What about the medium?”

Changkyun was in the middle of shrugging off his coat and didn’t look back at him as he spoke. “Hm? What about him?”

Jooheon had to stare at Changkyun for a few seconds, just to make sure he was being serious. “Uh… He’s a medium. If he’s the real deal he will definitely catch you.”

“I doubt it,” Changkyun said as he tossed his coat over the back of a chair, leaving his old tattered flat cap on top of it. “He didn’t sound that good.”

Jooheon felt his insides turn to ice, eyes going wide. “You talked to him!?”

Changkyun snorted and shook his head. “No, I just heard his voice.” His face shifted into a thoughtful one. “He has a pretty voice. He sounds young, too, around our age.”

Jooheon gaped at Changkyun. What did the medium’s voice being ‘pretty’ and ‘young’ have to do with anything? “So you just heard his voice and that was enough to know he’s a hoax?”

“Yes? I mean, not exactly,” Changkyun replied, his hair sticking out in odd ways after being trapped inside his cap for so long. “He just said some things and based on those things I don’t think he’s a very good medium.”

“You are impossible,” Jooheon declared, throwing his hands up in the air and moving the two steps it took to cross their living room into their cramped bedroom. “You’re going inside a haunted mansion, for God’s sake! If you get a ghost stuck to you on your way out, don’t come crying to me.”

“Yeah, well,” Changkyun said with a shrug, a shit-eating grin on his lips, “I’d rather be haunted by a ghost than have to clean elephant poop.”

Jooheon’s only response to that was to throw a pillow at Changkyun’s face.

 

Chapter Text

 

Despite the fact that he’d had to wake up at the crack of dawn, Jooheon’s first day of work with the circus was going well. He’d been shown around by one of the senior employees, had met the animals he would tend to - in fact, he’d gotten along exceptionally well with Barya, the elephant - and had been introduced to most of his new colleagues. Everyone was very friendly, very welcoming; people had always made it sound like the people who work at circuses were rude and strange, which had made him apprehensive about taking the job, but, so far, everyone Jooheon had met had been nothing but courteous towards him.

Nobody tried to lick his face, like his landlady had warned him about.

What did she know? She never worked at a circus. Certainly never made friends with an elephant. Jooheon had. He was friends with the elephant.

Changkyun would be so jealous when he told him.

He’d just finished feeding Barya her breakfast and cleaning her pen, and was making his way to where the lion and the tiger were kept, to feed them their breakfast and clean their cages. After that, he would have to take care of the three monkeys, which was the part Jooheon was the least excited about. Those monkeys were mean. Jooheon had decided to take his time with the lion and the tiger - scary as they were, they didn’t throw things at him. Very disgusting things. As in, poop.

Although, if he finished everything fast, he might have a little time to spare after lunch to watch some of the performers’ rehearsal at the main tent.

Such important decisions he would have to make - to avoid the unpleasantness of dealing with the monkeys for as long as he could, or to get it done as soon as possible for it to be over faster.

These were the thoughts swirling in his head as he crossed the path towards the very back of the circus grounds, where the lion and tiger were. There were much fewer people there, especially at that hour, the workers focusing their efforts at the main pathway where most of the booths and carnival games would be set up.

The relative isolation of the place was the reason why, when walking past a large wooden shed, one that the senior staff had told him contained mostly hay and spare tools, he heard the sounds coming from within very clearly.

He stopped in his tracks and turned towards the shed, listening to the noises. He couldn’t quite pinpoint them, couldn’t tell what they were from the distance he was standing. He debated continuing on his way and ignoring the sounds completely, but the inquisitive part of him was itching to go see what it was.

He looked towards the shed, then ahead at the path that led to the animals. He was being paid to clean cages and help with tending to the animals, not to snoop around.

Besides, as his grandmother used to say, curiosity killed the cat.

...but satisfaction brought it back. That last part, his grandmother often chose to omit - and that was likely the main reason it was the part he often latched onto.

Satisfaction brought it back.

Cursing himself in his mind for being so predictable, Jooheon snuck his way over to the shed. The sounds became clearer, louder, although still muffled as if whoever was making them was trying to be secretive about it - which, of course, only made Jooheon that much more curious.

The closer he got, the more obvious it became what those noises were - the sounds of skin hitting skin, throaty grunts, stifled moans. Jooheon felt his face heat up, considered running away, yet that curiosity only grew stronger and more urgent.

He should leave. He should turn back and walk away and pretend none of it had ever happened, give whoever was inside that shed some privacy to finish their, uh, ‘business’.

And while all those very nice, proper thoughts crossed his mind, his feet were still taking him forward, closer to the shed, as if he was in a trance. His body moved beyond his control, no matter how his brain was shouting at him to get out of there, to go back to work and stop creeping around.

He found himself right next to the shed and thought to himself that, if he was already there, might as well take a quick peep. It was harmless, right? It’s not like he would go around gossiping about it.

Pressing his face to the old grey wood of the shed so he could line his eye with the space between one board and the next, Jooheon had to blink a few times to adjust to the lack of light inside. Once his vision adapted, the first thing he could discern was a square haystack, upon which someone was, uhm— bent over.

Jooheon’s face might as well be on fire, so hot it was.

It was, to his surprise, a man - as if fornicating in a public space was not scandalous enough - and he had one hand over his mouth to muffle any sounds, his eyes closed. He looked— he looked like he was enjoying himself, Jooheon could tell at least that much. He couldn’t see well, only from the man’s upper torso and up, so whoever was behind him, making him gasp and moan into his hand, his entire body moving vigorously forward and back over that haystack with their thrusts - which couldn’t be comfortable, something the man didn’t seem to care about much - remained a mystery.

Not that Jooheon wanted to find out who the second person was. Not at that point. It was enough that he saw one of them, could recognize his face if they walked into each other and he didn’t think he would be able to conceal his discomfort if - when? - he did. He hoped that man wasn’t an employee there. The chances were slim, but he could hope.

Jooheon’s feet were rooted to the ground, and he was barely blinking as he watched the man’s face, the shifts in his expression. It wasn’t the act he was witnessing what was keeping him there, he found, but those very expressions. They would haunt them later that night, when he closed his eyes to sleep.

He was so mesmerized that he didn’t realize right away that the man had opened his eyes, the slightest bit, and was staring right at him. He only noticed when the man removed his hand from his mouth and— smiled at him.

That instantly brought Jooheon back to the ground, and he did what anyone with sense would have done in his place.

He bolted.

He ran all the way back to the front of the grounds, the complete opposite way he should be going, faster than he’d ever run before. His heart was pounding, not from the physical exertion but the adrenaline, the shock, the fear of the retribution that certainly would come once that man and his partner left that shed and came to find him. Would they beat him up? Threaten him into silence? Kill him?

No. No, that would be silly, of course they wouldn’t kill him—

Or would they?

Jooheon was shaking as he leaned against a support beam to recover from his shock, just by the main tent. He was not a prude - far from it - but being faced with such a display was not something that happened every day. It had to be a curse, how those things kept happening to him - first Changkyun and his stupid idea of robbing a haunted mansion, monkeys throwing feces at him, and now witnessing that explicit scene of debauchery on his very first day at that job and, worse, being caught.

It was a curse. It had to be a curse, how else to explain that chain of events? He wouldn’t be surprised if the ground opened up beneath his feet and swallowed him whole, with how his luck had been.

He would apologize. Yes, apologize for intruding, make it clear that he had no intention of reporting them and that—

“Did you enjoy the show?”

Jooheon yelped and jumped away from the voice that just whispered in his ear, eyes wide with fright and cheeks rosy with shame. There he was, the man he had just seen with his face pressed against the haystacks, standing before him looking like he was proud of being caught red-handed. Or, well, red-faced. Red-assed? His cheek had a few scratches from where it was pressed to the hay, so red-faced.

Jooheon spluttered, feeling much like an overheated tea kettle. “I— I didn’t— I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

The man chuckled. “Sure you don’t.” He stepped closer, looking like the cat who’d gotten the cream. Jooheon couldn’t help but think that he’d certainly gotten a different kind of cream just now - good thing he was too mortified to laugh at his own thoughts. “My name is Minhyuk, I’m the fortune teller here.”

Oh. So he was sort of his co-worker. Which meant Jooheon would have to be around him and see him every day. Great.

And— a fortune teller? Oh no. No, no, no, he would not start a problem with a goddamn fortune teller.

Be polite. Be nice.

“I’m— I’m Jooheon,” he somehow managed to say.

Minhyuk’s grin widened, a true Cheshire grin if Jooheon ever saw one. “Very nice to meet you, Jooheon.” He came even closer. Jooheon stepped back, which for some reason seemed to delight Minhyuk. “You’re cute. If you ever want to—”

“No! No, thank you!”

Minhyuk stared at him, amusement dripping off of him. “If you ever want to have your fortune told,” he said very slowly, only for Jooheon’s wish to disappear from the planet completely to increase tenfold, “I’ll give you a reading for free.”

“A-ah. Alright.”

Minhyuk stared at Jooheon for a long moment, eyes wandering over him from head to toe, in a manner that was almost— appreciative. Jooheon wasn’t sure if he should feel flattered or concerned. Maybe a little bit of both?

After what felt like centuries, Minhyuk said in the bluntest way possible, “And if you ever want to bend me over the haystacks, you can do that too.”

Jooheon made an inhuman noise through his nose - much like an overheated tea kettle - and power-walked away, Minhyuk’s laughter the background noise to his shameful departure.

If the ground opened up beneath his feet and swallowed him whole, not only would he not be surprised, he would also be very thankful.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Kihyun wished he could enjoy some peace and quiet after returning from his months-long journey, but he had illegal goods that needed to be sold, buyers that had to be contacted, numbers to crunch and inventory to do. There was truly no rest for the wicked, especially when the wicked in question were in a hurry.

Hyunwoo had taken it upon himself to buy them breakfast, had gone out early to avoid being stuck in line at the baker, so Kihyun was left to prepare for the long day ahead on his own. Hoseok was still in bed, although he’d been awake for as long as Kihyun had been - telling him to go back to sleep had been useless. Like talking to a boulder.

He was in their living room, reading over the ledger that contained all the names of their clients, marking which ones they should prioritize - as in, the ones more likely to spend a lot of money on contraband, mostly business owners who bought large quantities of product to resell. It was hard to focus; he was tired, not completely recovered from his trip, and already cracking under the pressure of seeing Hoseok again, how his condition had worsened significantly since he left. Hyunwoo had made it sound like Hoseok was doing better than he actually was - he said he looked almost the same, but he didn’t. He didn’t.

It was like Hoseok had— shrunk. Hoseok had been huge once, a giant mass of muscle, arms like logs, and now… He’d lost so much weight. There were still vestiges of muscle here and there, but it was like his body had deflated like a balloon. His cheeks, too, once chubby, were now gaunt and flaccid, the circles under his eyes deep and dark. It was like— like Hoseok was sinking into himself.

It could be worse, of course. All things considered, for the amount of time Hoseok had been sick, he was doing well; he wasn’t looking entirely cadaveric just yet, and that was something Kihyun didn’t take for granted. Hyunwoo had done a great job caring for him, and Hoseok himself was behaving well, trying to get better.

And he would get better. Whatever it took, whatever the cost, Kihyun would find a way.

The sound of shuffling footsteps forced Kihyun off his (failed) attempt at focusing on the names written on the ledger and he raised his head to find Hoseok entering the living room, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He smiled, getting up from the chair he’d been sitting on to welcome him.

“What are you doing up?” Kihyun asked, extending his hands in an invitation for Hoseok to come closer. “It’s so early, you should stay in bed and try to sleep some more.”

“I’m not sleepy,” Hoseok replied, taking Kihyun’s hands and immediately lacing their fingers together. “I’m tired of lying down, besides. I have to walk around for a little or I’ll go insane.”

“And we don’t want that,” Kihyun quipped. “Are you very hungry? I can try to make you something with what we have in the icebox.”

“No, I’m alright, Ki,” Hoseok replied, nudging Kihyun’s cheek with the tip of his nose, “I can wait for Woo.” He looked down at the desk, at the mess of papers and the open ledger. “Do you want help?”

“No, I can handle it,” Kihyun said, getting a sour look from Hoseok.

“I’m well enough to read over some papers, you know?”

“I know you are,” Kihyun said, rolling his eyes. He didn’t want to argue that with Hoseok, especially because he wasn’t rejecting his help because of his health, but rather because of the fact that Hoseok wasn’t as— neat with that sort of thing as Kihyun was. “I just have a system going to keep everything organized.”

“Right,” Hoseok said, sounding unconvinced. “Is there anything you do need help with? Anything at all? I can put all the documents in alphabetical order.”

“My, you’re really bored, aren’t you?” Kihyun said, chuckling. “There’s really nothing for you to do right now, but I’ll think of something for next time. I’m sure the ledger will have to be updated soon, so that’s something you can look forward to.”

Hoseok sighed, not happy but resigned to that solution. “Fine. Can I go with you and Woo to the warehouse, then?”

“In this weather? Absolutely not.”

“Ki, please, just for a little while?” Hoseok’s whiny tone paired with those puppy eyes almost broke Kihyun’s resolve - but only almost.

“Don’t waste your breath, dearest, you’re not coming,” Kihyun insisted, turning towards the table to gather up the documents and start putting them away. It was more of a way to keep his hands busy, to have something else to focus on other than Hoseok’s pleading eyes, otherwise he would crack. “It’s too cold out, it’ll be bad for you.”

“I’m supposed to get lots of fresh air!”

“And you will, once the weather is warmer,” Kihyun replied, firm, hoping that would be the end of it.

Hoseok was relentless, though. “But I feel fine!”

“You say that now, but you’ll be outside for five minutes and change your mind,” Kihyun stated, dropping everything he was doing again so he could lace both arms around Hoseok’s waist. Hoseok exhaled, frustrated, but allowed Kihyun to pull him close. “We’ll be back before you know it.”

“You only say that because you don’t have to be cooped up in here on your own all day every day,” Hoseok grumbled under his breath. “Time moves slower.”

“I’m sorry, you’re right,” Kihyun said, bringing one hand up to pat Hoseok’s cheek gently. “It’ll be better soon. Once the money starts coming in, either I or Hyunwoo will be able to stay home with you, so you won’t be alone anymore.”

“It’s not just that, I feel— useless,” Hoseok revealed, and the pain in his eyes was such that Kihyun could have cried. “I sit here all day while you two have to work non-stop to provide for us and take care of me. The guilt is killing me faster than the consumption ever could.”

“Don’t say that,” Kihyun said, a little too harshly - he couldn’t help it, though, not when Hoseok spoke like that. Like— like he was giving up. “You’re not useless and you have nothing to feel guilty for. You didn’t ask to be sick.” He gathered Hoseok in his arms like a child, hugging him as tight as he dared. He felt so small in his arms, the difference in bulk compared with how it used to be before Hoseok got sick making Kihyun’s heart ache. “We love you so much, bunny. Nothing we do for you is a burden, because you are not a burden, not by a mile. I know things are difficult right now, and yes, Hyunwoo and I are working hard to make sure you can recover as comfortably as possible, but this is temporary. Everything is temporary.” Kihyun kissed Hoseok’s forehead, stroked his hair. “Once you get better you can go to work all on your own while Hyunwoo and I stay home doing nothing, how’s that?”

That, at least, made Hoseok laugh. “Sounds like a deal.” He hooked his chin over Kihyun’s shoulder, leaning more into him. “I miss going out with you two. I miss our ship. I miss sailing. I miss the ocean.”

“I know you do, love.”

“I want to be buried at sea,” Hoseok suddenly said, the words chilling Kihyun’s very soul. “When I die, I want to be buried at sea. I don’t want a grave.”

Kihyun swallowed down the lump in his throat, blinked back the tears that had gathered in his eyes in an instant. “That won’t happen for a while still.”

“It doesn’t matter. Whenever it happens, be it tomorrow or in fifty years— that’s what I want.”

Kihyun tried to will his heartbeat to slow down again from where it had spiked at the topic; he was working himself up without need, it was just a conversation, it wasn’t a farewell. Just Hoseok telling him of his wish. That’s it.

It felt so hard to breathe.

“Alright,” he agreed, the only thing he could do, and turned his head so he could press a long kiss to the base of Hoseok’s neck.

Hoseok tightened his arms around Kihyun. “I’m sorry for bringing it up so suddenly, I know it’s not the greatest thing to hear right now. I just— I want to make it easier for you and Woo, when the time comes.”

Kihyun couldn’t speak, his throat too tight with the urge to cry to allow him to talk, so he just nodded to acknowledge Hoseok’s words and held him tighter, hiding his face in the crook of his neck so Hoseok wouldn’t witness his distress. Hoseok didn’t need that, not on top of everything else, and Kihyun understood where he was coming from - Hyunwoo and Kihyun would be the ones to deal with the aftermath of his passing. The ones who would have to handle funeral arrangements, make decisions regarding cemetery plots and gravestones and epitaphs; Hoseok was, truly, trying to help them by saying what he wanted for himself, taking that responsibility of deciding off of their shoulders.

It did make it easier, no matter how painful the mere thought of it was.

They held each other in silence for a long time, time enough for Kihyun to get a grip on himself not to alarm either Hoseok or Hyunwoo - the latter who was probably on his way home already. He should finish getting ready to leave, relocate his thoughts back to business instead of his premature grief.

“I love you, bunny,” Kihyun murmured next to Hoseok’s ear before he pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth and pulled away, somehow finding it in himself to smile. “When the weather isn’t so cold we can go take a walk on the docks, maybe even take the ship out to sea for a while.”

“I would like that,” Hoseok agreed with a smile of his own; Kihyun couldn’t help but notice his eyes were a little misty with unspilled tears, too. 

“For the time being, is there anything you’d like me to get for you? A new book, maybe a jigsaw puzzle?”

“Either sounds good,” Hoseok said, stepping away, out of Kihyun’s embrace. “A puzzle seems more entertaining, though. I’ve been reading books nonstop, I could use something different.”

“I’ll get you one of those with a thousand pieces, then,” Kihyun promised, just as the front door creaked open and Hyunwoo came in, carrying a large paper bag in his arms. There was a strange, almost haunted look on his face, but it was gone as if never there the moment Hyunwoo’s eyes locked with his, being exchanged for a warm smile, the one that made his eyes crinkle.

“The line at the baker was no joke,” was the first thing that came out of Hyunwoo’s mouth.

“I was about to call the police, you were gone so long,” Kihyun quipped, watching as Hyunwoo dropped the bag atop their table.

“And I was about to start drawing some missing person flyers,” Hoseok joined in, and Kihyun felt his heart tighten again. He should be happy - Hoseok was doing well that morning, was strong enough to walk around and play, but after their conversation the only thing in Kihyun’s mind was that those sorts of moments could end any day. That their time was short and the clock kept ticking.

Hyunwoo glanced over at Kihyun but luckily didn’t make any comments on his melancholic appearance. For the moment. “Joke all you want, you’ll thank me for taking a little longer when you see what I have.” He dug around the paper bag for a couple of seconds, producing from there two relatively large pieces of gingerbread cake.

Hoseok beamed at him, already reaching out to receive one of the cakes. Hyunwoo laughed and gave it to him easily - it was the largest piece, Kihyun noted. Good, it’s what he would have done too. Hoseok, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice it, far too happy with the treat to care about the size.

“Go back to bed, Hoseokie, it’s too cold here,” Kihyun said, pulling Hoseok’s earlobe affectionately. “I’ll bring you some tea soon.”

Hoseok rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, cold is not good for me, blah blah blah.” Still, he pressed a kiss to the top of Kihyun’s head and another to Hyunwoo’s cheek before he obediently made his way back to their bedroom.

Only once he was gone did Hyunwoo lean closer to Kihyun to ask in a low voice, “What’s wrong?”

The lump in his throat made it hard to speak, but Kihyun somehow found it in himself to croak, “He wants to be buried at sea.”

Kihyun didn’t have to explain any further, Hyunwoo’s expression darkening almost immediately. He didn’t say anything in response beyond pulling Kihyun into a tight embrace, seeking to comfort and be comforted in tandem; Kihyun didn’t know how else could they carry on if not like that.

Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse for that morning, Hyunwoo whispered in his ear in a somber tone, “I ran into our landlord downstairs.”

Kihyun pulled back from the hug and stared at his face for a second before asking, “Why do you sound like that? Are we being thrown out?”

Hyunwoo shook his head. “No. Not yet.” He pressed his lips together, looked away at the floor. “He asked me about Hoseok, why he hasn’t seen him in a while.”

Kihyun could already feel the panic begin to stir again, just as soon as he had willed it to lessen. “What did you tell him?”

“I told him Hoseok had contracted chickenpox,” Hyunwoo said with a wry chuckle, his eyes shiny with tears. “That was months ago, a little after you left. He’s starting to get suspicious, chickenpox doesn’t take so long to fade.”

Kihyun closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, and then another. “Alright. We’ll add finding a new place to live to our list of priorities.”

“I’m sorry, Ki, I—”

“Don’t, you have to stop apologizing,” he said, smiling up at Hyunwoo, hoping he didn’t look as desolate as he felt. “You did the best you could, but we've always known our situation is— dicey.” He pressed a kiss to Hyunwoo’s lips and took the gingerbread cake he still had in his hand before sitting back down on his chair. “At least people still believe we are brothers, imagine the commotion if they find out we’re a bunch of sexually deviant, consumption-riddled degenerates.”

Hyunwoo snorted. “Right. Brothers.”

“Very close brothers,” Kihyun corrected him with a cheeky grin. More seriously, he added, “We’ll figure this out, as we always do.”

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Changkyun’s return to the mansion that evening was much easier than his initial visit, no doubt a consequence of his adventure the night before to get familiar with the layout of the land. He tied the horse he’d borrowed from Mr. Brian - again - on the same shrub behind a hill, and approached the mansion from the same side he had the previous night.

He still reached the top of the hill feeling like he was about to collapse, so while some things had become easier, others continued to be a hassle.

Going around the mansion was trickier this time around; the house wasn’t dark and still, but alive with activity, servants going back and forth, guests pacing the halls of the ground floor, lounging in the various rooms. Changkyun had to walk further away from the windows, rush from cover to cover to remain unseen.

It wasn’t much easier on the garden, at the back of the mansion - where it had been dark the night before, it was now illuminated by several lamps scattered around the landscape, making his mission that much harder. He could, if there was no other option, stride with confidence as if he was supposed to be there and pretend to be one of the servants, but he would only do that if extremely pressed; even the servants in this place wore fancy clothes, and Changkyun’s attire was clearly not of a similar caliber.

The strange part was, in a situation where everything could go wrong, where one poorly-timed movement could get him caught, his path to the metal grid he would climb was, improbably, completely clear of any people. Servants that turned away just as he was about to walk by a window, guests that were too preoccupied with something else to pay attention to their surroundings. It gave Changkyun a certain confidence, as if him being there was right, that it was all a sign that things would go his way and he would return home that night with a sizable loot to rub in Jooheon’s face for having doubted him.

Upon reaching his objective, Changkyun pulled the sleeves of his coat down to cover his hands, added protection against those damned thorns, and began his climb. He had been bracing for an uncomfortable few minutes, but he hadn’t been prepared for how uncomfortable - it was not just the thorns, but the insects, ants and spiders and beetles, as well as the vines themselves catching onto his clothes, scratching his skin. This entire operation better be worth it in the end, he thought, because so far it was proving to be a nuisance.

Relief surrounded him when, in a last effort, he pulled himself from the grid and into the window, unlatched and half-open exactly as it had been the night before, waiting for him. Again, he felt lucky - the ledge was wide enough to give him steady footing, and with only a slight nudge he pushed the window open the rest of the way and slithered his way inside.

The room was dark now, much like the rest of the rooms in the upper floors of the mansion, but Changkyun could see plenty with the light that came in from the gardens; it was a reading room, rows and rows of shelves stacked with books, sofas and lounging chaises here and there, an unlit fireplace at one corner. Cozy, were Changkyun the kind of person worthy of such a room; he would certainly love to have his own reading room, but what would someone like him do with a reading room? Set it on fire for warmth during winter, if anything.

Books for kindling. How fancy of him.

Biting his tongue not to laugh at the bitterness of his own thoughts, Changkyun made his way to the door - unlocked, to add to his certainty that this would all go according to plan - and from there, things became that much more dangerous.

He found himself in a wide corridor, a single door on each side; bedrooms, he presumed, considering the layout of the house, the apparent size of those rooms. Where was he more likely to find something valuable, be it jewelry or money, if not in the bedrooms?

His luck had apparently begun to run out, however - both doors were locked when he tried turning the handles, and trying to break into them would be far too noisy, attract too much attention. Cursing under his breath and giving the door on the left an angry little kick that was not nearly as hard as he wished it could be, he continued on until the end of the corridor, the landing of the main staircase opening before him. Sounds from downstairs floated up more clearly there, the conversations and clattering of cutlery, servants’ footsteps, laughter.

There were more rooms on the other side of the landing, more bedrooms, perhaps, or maybe a study - a study would be ideal for his purposes too, usually where safes and vaults were kept - and there was another set of stairs leading upwards, to the third floor. All he had to do was cross the landing, pass in front of the main staircase unseen, to continue his exploration. Easy. Piece of cake.

He lowered himself to a half-crouch to avoid being seen from the ground floor, and began making his way forward. He peeked over the balustrade in search of anyone who could spot him, but the foyer below was empty of any people, be it guests or servants. The party had started for a while, it seemed, for everyone was gathered in one of the rooms beyond instead of lingering at the entrance. Good, it lined up perfectly with Changkyun’s needs.

He carried on more confidently, crossed the wide stretch between one side of the landing to the other - or almost. He heard footsteps coming from the third floor, towards the stairs which he was standing right in front of, and panic took over his smug sense of confidence. He dove for the first door he saw, the one right by the stairs, but as the bedrooms had been, this door was locked as well.

The footsteps were closer now, and he could discern two female voices talking - servants, probably. Changkyun looked around in a frenzy, looking for something, anything he could hide behind, but there was nothing. There was no time to run back to the reading room or to try to find an open door, and he most definitely could not try to go upstairs towards the voices, so his only option was to go down to the ground floor; he really did not want to do it, hadn’t been even considering doing so as the second and third floors had been the only goals for him that evening, but it was either that or get caught sooner rather than later.

He made for the main stairs, keeping himself low as the footsteps upstairs came closer and closer. Descending the stairs felt like a bad idea, the archways on either side of the room aligning perfectly with the first-floor landing and allowing anyone looking that way to spot him. The only choice he had was to slip between the banisters of the balustrade, luckily wide enough for him to pass, and drop down to the ground floor between the side of the staircase and the wall.

Almost losing his balance when his feet hit the ground, Changkyun managed to keep himself upright by using his hands to steady himself, his palms surprisingly landing not on the wall but on a nondescript door hidden there. The footsteps kept coming down, the voices getting closer. He looked around again, trying to think against the drumming of fear in his ears, the shaking of his body, and decided that his only option was going through the secretive door he had just found.

He pressed his ear to it for a moment, only long enough to make sure there was no sound coming from there, nothing to indicate there were people within, and swiftly pushed it open and slipped inside, turning around to close and latch it to avoid being followed. His hands were shaking uncontrollably, his breathing shallow and erratic, his heart about to tear through his ribcage, but he willed himself to relax.

A little too soon, he found.

“Now you do not belong here.”

Changkyun all but froze, heart close to jumping up his throat and out of his mouth, when he heard the familiar voice behind him. He was afraid to turn around and face his discoverer, but also afraid to open the door and flee, risking detection by the many servants that were prowling the halls beyond.

Out of the frying pan and right into the flames; Changkyun decided that it was best to face the person more likely to have mercy on him if he pleaded for forgiveness, the one with actual power to choose not to punish him.

He forced himself to uncurl his fingers from the door handle and slowly, head low like a dog aware of its bad behavior and awaiting its sentence, he turned around to meet his captor face to face.

Changkyun found himself in the presence of a vision in a deep crimson velvet jacket and a black lace blindfold tied over his eyes. He was watching him, though - he could feel his gaze on him despite the obstacle of lace. Changkyun stared, unable to do anything but; from the pearl-white hair to his plump lips to the long legs crossed where he sat on a dark green armchair, hands resting idly over his knee.

This was the most beautiful, most mysterious person Changkyun had ever seen.

“You seem lost, little mouse.” He spoke again, and there was humor in his voice. Changkyun couldn’t tell if it was a good or bad sign. “Did you get turned around on your way to the riches hidden in this place?”

Changkyun opened his mouth, but no sound came from it. What could he say in response to that? ‘Yes, sure, you caught me, I was here to rob you’?

He should defend himself. Say he was a relative of one of the servants, perhaps, come to help with the party?

When he finally found his voice, however, what he said was, “Can you even see anything through that?”

The man chortled, a soft, airy sort of sound that felt unreal, before he stood up from his seat. “I can see perfectly well. I understand how it might be off-putting to you, though. My apologies.” He raised his hands and lifted the blindfold from his eyes, removed it from his head entirely.

Changkyun was expecting to be met with unusual eyes, eyes that spoke of wickedness and danger, but his were a lovely pair of relatively normal eyes, despite the strange color; the closest Changkyun could come to describing it was ‘hazel’. It was a dusty, muted color, but it wasn’t grey, it wasn’t green, and it wasn’t brown - it was something in between all three. Still, there was nothing in them that betrayed anything out of the ordinary about this man, and yet something about him had Changkyun feeling dizzy, hyperaware, chills running up and down his body, a sensation he would likely associate to seeing a ghost.

“A prop for the show,” the man explained, holding up the blindfold between his index and middle fingers. “It adds a certain mystique to my character, don’t you think?”

“You are the medium,” Changkyun concluded - as if that wasn’t already obvious.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” he said. “My name is Hyungwon and yes, I am ‘the medium’. And a fortune teller, some would say.”

“Are you the real deal?” Changkyun asked, maybe a little too defiant for someone who should be acting contrite. “Or are you just selling snake oil?”

Hyungwon cocked his head sideways, watching Changkyun with a faint smile on his lips. “Answering that question would make things very dull, little mouse.” Another step, a wider smile. “Or would you prefer I call you by name, Changkyun?”

Changkyun’s stomach dropped, much like his jaw did. “You— How do you know my name?”

Hyungwon was looking far too smug for his own good, and Changkyun hated that he couldn’t find it in himself to be miffed about it. “How, indeed. Maybe the spirits told me. Maybe I sold my ‘snake oil’ to someone who knows you and they told me. Maybe we’ve met before and you just don’t remember.”

“Which is it?”

“Which do you want it to be?”

Changkyun tried to step back, away from Hyungwon, but the heel of his boot knocked against the wood of the door behind him. Hyungwon noticed and huffed a laugh through his nose, something Changkyun chose to ignore; he was mortified enough.

“I think I would remember you, if we’ve met before,” Changkyun finally said, in the hopes of covering up his panic. 

“Then you can cross that option from the list of explanations,” Hyungwon responded smartly, coming to a stop in front of Changkyun, at a respectable distance but somehow still too close. “You have nothing to fear from me.” Hyungwon reached out a hand, palm up, prompting Changkyun to take it. “Permit me to read your fortune, as a demonstration of my good intentions.”

Changkyun hesitated, both from fear and from how overwhelming it was to face Hyungwon from so close - his eyes were bright and sharp and beautiful, his lips bitten red and inviting, his features unusual in a way that made him look like something otherworldly. He simply could not be real. His hair couldn’t be that color, nor could his eyes - he’d mentioned props for a show, and maybe that’s what it all was. Maybe Hyungwon was just a very good actor.

He certainly had Changkyun fooled so far.

Hyungwon was still waiting, watching him intently, and Changkyun, at last, decided to indulge him; he almost didn’t, too ashamed to touch Hyungwon’s pretty, well-manicured hand with his dirty paw, but— Hyungwon had offered. 

If he noticed the state of Changkyun’s nails or if he minded it at all, Hyungwon showed no indication. He took Changkyun’s hand gently, his touch feather-soft, and held it so his palm was facing upwards. He then brought his other hand up, over Changkyun’s, and ran his long, elegant fingers along the lines of his skin, prompting more chills, more shudders, more shivers, to run through Changkyun’s body. His touch, faint as it was, felt electric, charged, leaving a buzzing trail behind wherever it went, and it wasn’t at all an unpleasant sensation.

In fact, Changkyun found himself wanting more of it.

“I see a little mouse,” Hyungwon began relaying his fortune in a low, conspiratory voice that had Changkyun thrown off-guard entirely, “a little mouse who will leave this antechamber once all eyes are focused on me in a few minutes. He will go up the main staircase all the way to the third floor of this house, where he will find himself at the start of a long hallway.” Changkyun realized what Hyungwon was doing, his confusion growing that much stronger at each word that left his pretty lips. “He will cross this hallway to reach the door at the end of it.” Hyungwon moved his free hand to pluck something from the front pocket of his jacket, something he placed on Changkyun’s palm - a key. “Through it lies a study, and inside there is a desk just under the window. In the very top drawer, on the right side, he will find a wooden box - that is his prize, and he is free to take it and leave this place unhindered.”

Hyungwon left the key on Changkyun’s palm, coaxed him to close his hand around it with both his own. Warm hands, delicate hands. Changkyun looked up at him, a thousand questions in need of answers written on his face.

“Why?” he asked Hyungwon, his voice coming out much weaker than he’d expected. “Why are you helping me? You should be throwing me out.”

“Oh, should I?” Hyungwon said teasingly. “Forgive me the disappointment.”

“It’s not disappointing, it’s— unexpected,” Changkyun corrected him, careful, choosing his words. “I don’t understand why you would be willing to let me leave despite knowing I meant to steal from you.”

“So you admit you were here to steal.”

Changkyun, realizing his mistake, promptly clamped his mouth shut - not that it mattered anymore.

Hyungwon laughed, shoulders shaking with it. His laughter had Changkyun’s head feeling light. “It’s alright. I told you, you have nothing to fear from me.”

They stared at each other for a moment, a heartbeat too long, and Changkyun felt odd, as if they had exchanged a million words through their eyes alone, as if something had passed between them. And then Hyungwon stepped back, away from him, out of reach, his expression shifting back to the vague amusement Changkyun had seen when he first laid eyes on him.

Changkyun stood there, dazed into stillness from the entire exchange as the gears in his mind struggled to make sense of it all, feeling orphaned by his touch. He watched Hyungwon replace the blindfold over his eyes, fix his hair around it, and as he did, he came to a sudden realization.

“You knew I was here last night.”

Hyungwon looked over at him once more, the fact that Changkyun now couldn’t see his eyes unnerving him to the core. He didn’t need Hyungwon to confirm nor deny the statement, it was plain to see - it was just a mouse on the hedge.

Hyungwon did so anyway. “As much as I knew you’d be back.”

“Yet you left the window open on purpose so I could get in,” Changkyun continued, accusatory, even as the small voice in the back of his mind shouted at him to keep his mouth shut and leave, “and now you give me instructions instead of punishment. Why?”

“Answering that question would make things very dull,” Hyungwon repeated the line he’d used earlier, and Changkyun could see it was with the sole purpose of annoying him. It was working. “Let’s just say I’m in a generous mood.”

“Generous?”

“Yes. The real answer would take more time to explain than what I can currently spare, I’m afraid.”

“What do you gain from this?”

Hyungwon’s lips curled up in a mysterious smirk, one that Changkyun felt like a punch to the face. “That’s not the question you should be asking.”

There were three knocks on the door on the other side of the antechamber, next to where Hyungwon was standing. Changkyun nearly jumped out of his skin, but Hyungwon merely turned over towards the sound for a moment before his attention shifted to Changkyun again.

“Sadly, that’s my cue, and the end of our meeting,” Hyungwon said and moved towards the door, speaking over his shoulder at Changkyun. “Go on, now, find your prize and hurry home, little mouse. You don’t want to be in the moor when the mists roll in - that’s a sure way to get yourself killed.”

Before he left the room, though, his hand already on the door handle, Hyungwon turned to Changkyun one last time.

“Oh, and please leave the key under the blue vase that sits by the main doors on your way out. It wouldn’t do for me to be locked out of my own study.”

And with that, Hyungwon opened the door and left, and Changkyun found himself in the antechamber with only the pounding of his heart for company. He almost wanted to chase Hyungwon, ask him not to go; his presence made him nervous, but being without him somehow felt even worse. With him there at least Changkyun had someone to turn to, whether he understood Hyungwon’s motivations or not. Hyungwon seemed— friendly.

It could all be a trick, of course. For all he knew, Hyungwon could be trying to lead him right into a trap. There could be someone waiting in the study to arrest him, even.

But why go as far as to purposely leave the window open for him to enter, if he was planning to turn Changkyun in? He also could have screamed for help the moment he found him there, but he didn’t.

He heard the muffled sound of applause coming from the direction where Hyungwon had gone to, the faint murmur of the guests of that party, and Changkyun couldn’t contain his curiosity. The door behind him was locked, so certainly there was no danger of him being discovered while peeking through the other door, just to get a glimpse of what was happening outside. He wanted to know what Hyungwon could do, wanted to know just how good a medium he was - he had to admit, from their brief private encounter, he was impressed.

He snuck through the room, to the second door, and carefully turned the handle to make as little sound as possible. He pushed the door open just enough that he could press the side of his face to it and see outside with one eye. Almost immediately did he spot Hyungwon, a bland smile on his lips as he greeted the lords and ladies present; the next thing Changkyun noticed was the man standing next to Hyungwon, a tall, weasel-faced, sharp-dressed man with platinum blonde hair that brushed his shoulders and intense dark eyes. He was acceptably attractive with his modelesque proportions and facial structure, although Changkyun found Hyungwon’s beauty much more appealing - which was, in any case, irrelevant.

That must be Mr. Guhn. He looked much younger than Changkyun was expecting.

One standing next to the other, though, Changkyun could easily see why people spread rumors about them. They were a pair of handsome young men, and they looked— fitting together. Two powerful presences in one. And the way Guhn had his gloved hand on the middle of Hyungwon’s back—

Something akin to jealousy spiked in Changkyun’s chest. Guhn’s touch on Hyungwon had a possessive quality to it, something easy and familiar, and Changkyun had an issue with that; his fleeting encounter with Hyungwon should not have made him feel so strongly about it, yet he still was envious of Guhn, of how he could be near Hyungwon like that, touch him easily like that.

It was madness, it made absolutely no sense. Hyungwon was a stranger, no matter how handsome. To want to be near him, to want to touch him after an exchange that lasted less than five minutes was ridiculous.

He could still feel the phantom touch of Hyungwon’s fingertips on his palm, though. His scent, flowers and honey, was still lingering in the room. He couldn’t stop thinking about his lips or shuddering at the fresh memory of his eyes.

Maybe Jooheon had been right, maybe Hyungwon truly was a witch and he’d just put Changkyun under a spell. There was no logical explanation for that— need.

“Dim the lights!” came a voice from outside that snapped Changkyun from his reverie, a voice he belatedly recognized as Guhn’s - the same voice he heard the night before, while he stood under the window, the voice that came from deeper within the room. He didn’t like his voice, Changkyun decided - it was too loud, too on the high-pitched side; it was nothing like Hyungwon’s voice, more soothing, gentler in cadence, lower in timbre.

Again, Changkyun’s insides coiled and twisted at the sight of Guhn whispering something into Hyungwon’s ear, at the smile Hyungwon gave him in response before he moved towards the large, circular table in the center of the room. Guhn had the privilege of seeing that smile every day. Lucky bastard.

The room became darker, the lamps being dimmed one by one by the servants until the only source of light was the single candle sitting in the middle of the otherwise clear table. Hyungwon took a seat gracefully, his chosen chair one that fell right in Changkyun’s line of vision - if it was done on purpose, he didn’t know. He liked to think that it was, that Hyungwon knew he was watching. He probably did.

The guests all took their places around the table - Guhn sitting next to Hyungwon, Changkyun bitterly noted - and only once all of them were settled was that Hyungwon spoke.

“Please, place both hands on the table,” Hyungwon instructed, “and make sure your little finger is touching the next person’s. It’s important that you don’t move your hands during the session.”

All the guests did as Hyungwon instructed, the last of them to move an arrogant-looking man who suddenly said, “And what of the offerings? Any respectable medium puts out offerings to the dead, so they will be inclined to approach us.”

Changkyun wanted to slap that man over the head for implying Hyungwon was not respectable in his own home; being the real deal or not, that was just disrespectful and Hyungwon had, so far, been nothing but courteous. He reeled the sentiment in as best he could - that strange protectiveness was beginning to make him nervous.

Hyungwon didn’t seem fazed, however. “The dead are dead, sir. A soul has no need for flowers or sweets. Besides,” Changkyun saw the quirk of his lips even in the dim light before he said, “they are already here.”

A nervous hush fell over the room, the guests exchanging glances amongst each other; Changkyun himself felt a chill run down his spine at Hyungwon’s affirmation. Guhn, on the other hand, merely watched their reactions with the smuggest expression Changkyun had ever seen.

“I ask that you do not speak unless spoken to, to avoid needless chaos,” Hyungwon requested, and took a deep inhale of air, only speaking again once he’d exhaled. “We may begin.”

From the get-go, he could already perceive the difference of Hyungwon’s session when compared to other séances Changkyun had been witness to - there was no flare, no dramatics, no silly rhymes to invite the dead to speak, no prayers. It was too soon to tell if it would remain such, but, so far, Changkyun had to admit that there was a certain legitimacy to the way Hyungwon conducted his séance.

Nobody made a sound for a long time, and even Changkyun found himself holding his breath in anticipation. He thought nothing would happen, after all, but soon he realized that the temperature had dropped in the room, a considerable amount - Changkyun pressed his lips together in fear his breath would be visible and call unwanted attention.

Then he heard a faint knock, far on the wall behind Hyungwon - that was more in tune with normal séances. Disappointing, Changkyun thought. There was a second knock, much closer, followed by a third one. Changkyun was expecting the knocks to continue, but silence fell over the room again, stretching for an unnerving amount of time.

It was because of that silence that Changkyun could hear the very clear footsteps entering the room, approaching steadily. Thump. Thump. Thump.

How was he doing it? Was there a contraption of some kind hidden under the floor?

There was a loud creak on the floorboards, very close to the table, that had a few of the guests jumping on their seats with surprise. Changkyun himself flinched, but his eyes never left Hyungwon’s face - for that reason he saw the moment he twitched, his entire body moving with it, all in less than a second, fast and subtle.

When he spoke again, it was not Hyungwon’s voice Changkyun heard, but a young woman’s.

“Father, you were most rude. You should apologize,” Hyungwon - or the ghost? - said, his head turned to the man who had questioned him before.

The man’s eyes went wide. “Lena?”

“Of course it’s me, who else?”

“How is this possible!?” the man demanded, eyes moving from Hyungwon to Guhn in a mixture of anger and fear. “My daughter has been dead for almost a decade, how are you mimicking her voice?”

“Father, please,” Hyungwon continued to speak with the girl’s voice. “You are embarrassing yourself. And I!”

“How are you doing this!?”

“If you don’t wish to speak to me, I am going to leave and give someone else a chance!”

Changkyun didn’t notice his jaw had dropped. Not only was the voice steady and not at all similar to Hyungwon’s, but the intonations and sentiments behind it were entirely those of a headstrong young lady. Even the accent was different, the words enunciated very clearly in a way that betrayed something that was taught and practiced, like— like in boarding schools.

How, indeed, was he doing it? Ventriloquism, perhaps? There was someone hidden somewhere speaking for him? But no— No amount of practice could lead to Hyungwon’s lips moving in time with the voice, in an intelligent conversation that was taking place in real time. Could he just mimic voices incredibly well?

“If it is truly you,” the man said, still on the verge of lividity, “then tell me something only my Lena would know.”

“Oh, for—” the ghost sighed, obviously annoyed, “very well. When you sent me to boarding school, I spent the entire eve of my departure crying.”

“Any of our maids could tell me that,” the man said with a scoff.

“But they could not know what you said to me when you entered my room in the middle of the night, sick and tired of my whimpering,” the ghost continued; the man’s face went lax. “Should I repeat it in front of all these fine people?”

“Lena—”

“Stop your sniveling,” Hyungwon continued, and now he sounded like a young lady mimicking the voice of an older man, “or I’ll ship you off to school without a tongue, you stupid girl.”

The guests gasped and murmured amongst themselves, all of them staring at the man who was now truly shocked into silence.

Then Hyungwon laughed and it wasn’t at all the laughter Changkyun had heard earlier, when Hyungwon laughed during their conversation in the antechamber; it was a girl’s laughter, high pitched, almost a squeal. “Oh, father, your face! This is fun! How I wish mother was here to see it. Why didn’t you invite her? I know you two despise each other but an invitation to such a gathering is basic politeness and—”

Whatever else the ghost had to say was drowned out when the man, that by then was nearly foaming by the mouth with anger and shame, roared, “How dare you speak to your father like this!?”

The ghost giggled in response, Hyungwon’s head tossing back with the action as if thoroughly amused. “Raise your voice all you want - I’m already dead, it’s not like you can beat me bloody as you used to anymore.”

“Lena—!”

“I’m bored! Farewell, send my regards to mother,” the ghost declared, and as if a cord had been cut, Hyungwon sagged forward, head hanging over his chest.

Changkyun wasn’t sure how much more shocked he could become, and while he wasn’t keen on finding out he was too mesmerized by the performance to leave. He should. He was wasting precious time, but— 

Another knock sounded in the room beyond, closer to the window this time. The candle flickered, the flames expanding upwards in a most unnatural way, a serpentine ribbon of fire. Then came another knock, another creak on the floorboards. Changkyun’s hands were shaking, a sinking feeling of dread in his heart. Hyungwon’s head was still hanging forward, a puppet with no strings.

Another knock, louder, closer, followed by another and another, until the entire room was a cacophony of rappings that came from every direction, one over the other, deafening and terrifying. How was he doing it? How many people would be needed to replicate such a phenomenon?

A knock sounded right next to Changkyun’s head and he instinctively jumped back, away from it. He looked to the point of the wall where he’d heard the sound before he looked forward again.

Hyungwon’s head was raised once more, and Changkyun could feel his eyes on him even behind the lace. He felt it as if he’d been struck by lightning, felt that gaze all through his body.

Then the door slammed shut, seemingly on its own, and Changkyun took that as his cue to leave.

He scrambled to the other side of the room, unlocking the door with shaky hands and all but falling through it. There was nobody in sight, so Changkyun forced himself to remember Hyungwon’s instructions through his unfocused thoughts. Main staircase, third-floor.

How he managed to climb up the stairs was a mystery with his legs feeling like gelatin, but Changkyun ascended those steps as swiftly as his uncooperative body allowed; it certainly took longer to reach the third-floor landing in such a state than it would have were he feeling more like himself. Just as Hyungwon had told him, he found himself at the beginning of a long hallway. It was dark, none of the lamps lit along the walls, the only illumination that which leaked from the lower floors and only enough that Changkyun could walk without worrying about tripping over anything. It was eerie, the darkness making the space look narrower, and if Changkyun stared too long he could almost believe the walls were closing in.

Of all the rooms in the mansion, Hyungwon had to send him up to the spookiest place.

At least he was consistent.

Changkyun had to take a deep breath to gather his courage before he began crossing that corridor, the light that spilled from under the door on the other side his guide. Good thing Hyungwon had the courtesy of leaving that light on for him, he was not looking forward to stumbling about inside a medium’s study blindly - he was still reluctant to believe in ghosts and ghouls, but he didn’t want to break something. Who knows, Hyungwon’s ‘generosity’ might sour.

The key Hyungwon had given him was still secure in his hand, his fingers sore from how hard they were clamped around the metal ever since, and it was a relief to finally put that key to use - the door unlocked with ease, and Changkyun was sure to push it all the way open, to be certain there was no one hiding behind it.

He was, at first glance, alone.

Closing the door behind him not to attract any attention, Changkyun carefully began his exploration - he could spot the desk Hyungwon had described to him, under the window, immediately, but he was curious enough to take a small detour on his way there. Compared to the rest of the mansion, this was the place that felt the safest, somehow; it smelled like Hyungwon, sweet, like flowers and honey. The decoration, too, wasn’t as exuberant or ostentatious as it was everywhere else, the colors muted but warm - woody tones, mostly, although the small round table sitting at one side was covered by a deep purple cloth. Changkyun made a beeline to said table, the cards spread over it in a half circle catching his attention.

A tarot deck, he realized right away - the cards were in very good condition despite looking well-used, the material black with a white filigree pattern drawn on the back. They looked customized; a gift, perhaps?

Changkyun decided against turning the cards over, too afraid to disturb the scene and betray his snooping, but there was one card lying face up somewhere on the middle of the table, apart from the rest. It depicted a man with the head of a goat and the wings of a bat sitting on a throne, a man and a woman in chains before it; at the bottom, in neat cursive, were the words ‘The Devil’.

Changkyun wasn’t sure if he should roll his eyes at the cliche or if he should be concerned - Hyungwon certainly had planted that card there to unnerve him. Certainly.

He moved on, then, to the desk where Hyungwon had told him his ‘prize’ would be. There too, he paused to explore - with his eyes, only his eyes - the items on display. The first object he took notice of was the oval mirror on a tarnished golden frame, an unlit candle sitting right in front of it; next to it was a black, leather-bound journal of some sort that had Changkyun’s entire being itching to take a peek inside - could it be Hyungwon’s diary? Were all his secrets held within those pages?

There was also a small stack of books on the desk, and Changkyun was surprised to find that they weren’t about the occult or spiritualism at all - they were all poetry books. Changkyun smiled to himself, not realizing he was doing so; Hyungwon, a romantic medium. It was— endearing. He could almost picture it, Hyungwon sitting at his desk, reading poems and wistfully looking out the window - it faced the garden on the back of the mansion. Changkyun could see it well from up there, lamps lighting up the rows of bright green hedges and colorful flowers, the stone fountain decorating its very center, the old statues giving it all a picturesque feeling.

That image of Hyungwon in his mind was a lovely one, and he would, for certain, revisit it later.

Alas, he’d probably stalled long enough.

Top drawer on the right side. Changkyun reached for the small iron handle and pulled the drawer open - just as Hyungwon had said, he found a wooden box waiting for him inside. It was a little bigger than the width of his hand, made of simple, unpolished wood, no carvings or decorations. He took it from the drawer and placed it on the desk before he unlatched it, just in case there was something dangerous inside.

His jaw dropped the moment he opened it - there was a thick roll of banknotes inside, tied with a black satin ribbon in a neat bow. Changkyun didn’t even need to count it to know it was plenty to cover the price of their rent for the month and likely the next several. He could buy new clothes with that, for himself and Jooheon, a necessity now that the weather was becoming colder. New blankets, as their old ones had holes all over them. They could buy decent food. New shoes. He wouldn’t have to glare at Jooheon any time his friend bought himself a candied treat.

Changkyun had to laugh to himself, that outcome far too ludicrous for him to comprehend. Hyungwon had just given him money. A considerable amount of money, and in exchange for what? ‘Feeling generous’ wasn’t a good enough explanation, not by a mile. There had to be a catch, something he couldn’t see at the moment; would Hyungwon seek him out in a near future, cash in on his kindness by demanding Changkyun provide him with a service? Would he blackmail him? Or was it really just— charity?

The thought stung his pride. He didn’t need charity. He could have robbed that mansion all on his own without Hyungwon extending his - very soft, very pretty - hand to help him.

He would still take the money, though.

As he pulled the money from the box, he heard a metallic sound coming from within - a silver locket lay in the corner of the box, having gone unnoticed so far. It would fetch a considerably high price if he went to the right pawnbroker. Pocketing the money, Changkyun took the locket in his hands, taking note of the delicate, thin chain and the smooth surface of the pendant; there was no flare to it, nothing engraved. He used one of his nails to open it, expecting to see a portrait inside - hopefully of Hyungwon - but that, too, was empty. It was just a silver locket.

He wasn’t sure if Hyungwon had placed it there on purpose or if it was an accident, but he had told him that whatever was inside that box was his for the taking. He would take that locket with him.

Changkyun pushed the drawer closed, but left the now empty wooden box open on top of the desk - a direct message to Hyungwon that said ‘found it, thanks’. After that, Changkyun turned around and left the study, closing and locking the door behind him. He’d wasted more than enough time, and he had no idea how long Hyungwon’s séance would last; his departure was overdue.

He hurried down the corridor back to the main stairs, descended them carefully and as quiet as he could. The foyer was empty, no servants in sight, and he could hear muffled sounds coming from the direction where the séance had been taking place - an indication it was still happening. A part of him worried for Hyungwon, how exhausted he would be once it was over, but he shoved those thoughts back under the carpet of his mind and continued on to the main doors. There, he placed the key to Hyungwon’s study under the blue vase by the exit, sitting atop a side table, as Hyungwon had instructed.

He hesitated before he opened the door, looking back over his shoulder towards the room where Hyungwon was. Something was pulling him back, calling to his very soul like a siren - go back, it said. Don’t leave. He wanted to see Hyungwon, talk to him again, at least one last time before he left; the chance they would ever meet again was slim, but Changkyun wanted to find out more. He wanted to ask him questions, questions about his ghosts, about his reasons for helping him, about his appreciation for poetry. Such an intriguing character, Hyungwon was.

It felt wrong to leave without learning more.

It felt wrong to leave, period.

It was getting late. The mists would come down soon.

He left.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Jooheon had expected his new job to be hard, but as he began making his way out of the circus grounds that night, much later than his shift was supposed to end, with the muscles on his upper back sore and the palms of his hands burning, he had to double-back and slap his past-self in the face in thoughts.

Maybe Changkyun had been right. Maybe robbing the rich was a better way to make a living, because honest work was kicking his ass.

And the physical discomfort was nothing compared to Jooheon’s dread of running into Minhyuk again, the entire day spent looking around corners and hiding away behind tents and cages and vendor stalls. He had to continuously look over his shoulder all day to make sure Minhyuk wouldn’t spring up out of thin air to whisper in his ear and catch him by surprise.

Minhyuk was a menace. Little as he knew about Minhyuk, Jooheon could at least say that much.

Promiscuous and blatantly nonchalant behavior aside, Minhyuk was— there was something about him. It made Jooheon feel lost, as if Minhyuk was dancing circles around him, aware of something Jooheon was not privy to. It could be the fact that Minhyuk was a fortune teller and did, in fact, know things Jooheon didn’t, but it went beyond predictions for the future.

It was Minhyuk himself that was the source of that something, whatever it was.

Jooheon preferred not to find out what that ‘whatever’ was, so avoiding Minhyuk felt like the safest bet.

He was nearing the exit, his escape in sight, when he heard a familiar voice somewhere to his left. He froze, pondering for a few seconds whether to run or to give in to his curiosity again, and he decided that he wanted to do the latter - it didn’t sound like Minhyuk was doing anything scandalous this time around, which encouraged Jooheon to get past his reservations and take a peek.

He swerved from his path, rounded the corner around a small tent, and immediately spotted Minhyuk sitting under a tent of his own, a plaque with huge, ornamental letters that read ‘Fortune Teller’ on top of it. Strange, Jooheon thought, that Minhyuk was already operating his tent if the circus wasn’t even officially open.

He wasn’t wearing anything special, though, just his normal clothes instead of a costume - likely he was doing his ‘readings’ on the side, pocketing the money for himself without having to share with the owner of the circus. Smart move.

Jooheon could see a table in front of Minhyuk covered in a shiny, bright purple cloth, a crystal ball at the very center, and small lamps hanging on the wooden backdrop behind him like stars. There was a man sitting on the other side of the table, in front of Minhyuk, although Jooheon could only see his back from that angle.

Minhyuk’s voice was loud and it carried well, so despite Jooheon’s comfortable distance he could hear everything he said.

“I would advise against investing right now - the stars aren’t aligned right,” Minhyuk was telling the man. “If you can keep your business steady until the next lunar cycle, you will find that your investments will be much more profitable. I see the number— seven?” Minhyuk closed his eyes for a moment, expression tight as if concentrating. “Yes, seven. Watch for the number seven - it’s a lucky number for you.”

Jooheon had seen enough, he thought. He should leave.

And he was about to, when Minhyuk looked up from the man, who was now standing up to leave, and his eyes zeroed in on Jooheon.

Oh, crap.

“Jooheon!” Minhyuk exclaimed, waving a hand to him and completely ignoring his previous client as he put a handful of coins down on his table before vanishing from the tent. “Come here!”

Jooheon startled and looked around in a panic while he decided if he should run; he shouldn’t, though. Keeping on Minhyuk’s good side was probably the best idea, considering they would have to be around each other every day. Might as well be— civil.

He took a deep breath and walked over to Minhyuk, who was still sitting at his little round table, the coins having disappeared into his pockets. Now that he was closer, Jooheon could see the cards spread out over the cloth in a very specific pattern. Minhyuk followed his line of sight and grinned.

“Want me to read the cards for you?”

Jooheon jerked at the question and quickly shook his head. “N-no, thank you.”

“Are you sure? I did offer you a reading for free,” Minhyuk insisted, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his laced fingers, expression a mask of innocence. Jooheon knew better - after what he’d witnessed that morning, ‘innocent’ was the last thing on his mind when it came to Minhyuk. “It doesn’t have to be the cards, I can read your palm.”

Jooheon instinctively brought his right hand to his chest, defensive. Minhyuk delighted in that reaction, laughing out loud.

“None of that! I promise I won’t bite,” Minhyuk said and stretched both of his hands towards Jooheon. “Come on, let me!”

Jooheon still hesitated, but again, in the spirit of remaining on good terms with Minhyuk, he relented and sat down, spine straight as he perched at the edge of the stool. Minhyuk looked way too pleased.

“Your hand, please,” Minhyuk asked, theatrically polite, and Jooheon, despite his better judgment, placed his right hand, palm up, in Minhyuk’s grasp.

To Jooheon’s surprise, Minhyuk didn’t force him to keep his hand still, his grip careful, loose enough that he could easily snatch his hand back if he so wished. He was also expecting Minhyuk’s hands to be rough, but he found his touch soft, almost velvety smooth - he hated the fact that he didn’t dislike the sensation.

“Aw, you have such pretty hands,” Minhyuk cooed at him. Jooheon looked away, heat pooling in his cheeks; there was nothing pretty about his hands. They were rugged after an entire day of labor, his nails were dirty, his palms had reddened from pullings ropes. Minhyuk truly was full of rubbish. “Here, see this line? This is your Life Line, starts between your thumb and your index finger and goes all the way to the beginning of your wrist.” He explained, tracing the line in question with his fingertip.

“What does that mean?” Jooheon asked, more grumbling than speaking, still not completely on board.

Minhyuk seemed happy to be asked a question, though. “It means a lot! See how strong and defined it is? Means you’re very healthy, you don’t get sick easily.”

Alright, that was true. Jooheon couldn’t even remember the last time he’d been ill - it had been years. Changkyun tended to get sick much more easily, was susceptible to colds and fevers, and Jooheon hardly ever caught anything from him. Not that impressive so far, though.

“The lines over it, here and here,” Minhyuk continued, pointing at the points of his palm he was referring to, “see how they overlap the Life Line? These indicate big events in your life. Of course, they don’t tell me exactly what those events are, but— I think I might be able to guess.”

Jooheon didn’t like the devious look in Minhyuk’s eyes. Realization suddenly hit him that he’d made a terrible mistake by allowing Minhyuk to read his fortune, which was his fault for ignoring the most fundamental truth: Minhyuk was a menace.

“Let’s see,” Minhyuk began, eyes now focused on Jooheon’s face. “You lost your mother very young.” The first guess had been spot on. Jooheon shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Your father got drunk a lot. You were raised by an older woman— your grandmother?”

Jooheon swallowed the unease so he could confirm with a simple, “Yes.”

Minhyuk smiled to himself, pleased. “Knew it. You didn’t have much growing up, but your grandmother made sure you never had to want for anything. She raised you well.”

“She did.”

“Her passing was very hard on you,” Minhyuk carried on, and Jooheon was starting to get scared at his accuracy, “but you were not alone. You have a friend.”

“I do,” Jooheon confirmed without thinking.

“Close as brothers. You like to play it safe, though, and your friend is a risk-taker, so you’re constantly worrying.”

“How do you know all that?” Jooheon’s question just tumbled out of his mouth, the disbelief too grand for him to contain himself.

“I’m a fortune teller! It’s what I do,” Minhyuk said with a bright smile. “Now this one here, right above the Life Line, the one that goes across your palm? That’s your Head Line.” Minhyuk traced the line in question again, showing it to Jooheon. “You have some education - home-schooled?”

“Y-yeah.”

“By grandma. That’s right,” Minhyuk agreed with a self-satisfied nod. “You’re also very creative. Very artistic. I imagine working at a circus is interesting for you.” Minhyuk looked up at Jooheon, eyes sparkling. Jooheon’s mouth felt conspicuously dry. “You have a mind for the arts and poetry, but you don’t pursue it because you have more pressing matters to be concerned about, such as money. That’s a big concern for you.”

“It is.”

“Next we have your Heart Line. This one up here, at the top,” Minhyuk said, his fingertips on his skin making Jooheon shiver. “This is the most fun one to read! It’s your emotional self and your love life.”

“Uhm,” Jooheon stammered, “I don’t think—”

“You’re a bit of a scaredy-cat,” Minhyuk kept going, tapping a point of Jooheon’s palm, “right here. You’re not superstitious, per se, but you give a wide berth to anything that can remotely be bad. Bad luck, curses, ghosts, witches…” Minhyuk’s eyes flickered up to meet Jooheon, a smirk playing on his lips. “...fortune tellers.”

Jooheon gulped. “S-sorry.”

“Nonsense, Jooheonie,” Minhyuk said, his smirk widening into a full-on grin, “I told you, didn’t I? I won’t bite.” He leaned closer to add in a lower tone, “Not unless you want me to.”

Jooheon spluttered and tried pulling his hand away, but what he’d judged to be a loose grip before was, in fact, much firmer than he realized. Minhyuk held him in place.

“Shush, I’m just joking,” Minhyuk said, giggling, “don’t you want me to finish reading your fortune?”

“Not really!”

“Come on, you big baby,” Minhyuk said, tugging Jooheon’s hand forward. “Now where was I? Ah! Your love life!” Minhyuk held Jooheon’s hand with both his own now, ensuring that Jooheon couldn’t escape.

Jooheon again cursed himself in thoughts for not heeding his own advice. Why did he have to be friendly with everyone? He wouldn’t die if one person didn’t like him.

“You are a very sensitive person. You fall in love easily, but you’re also very guarded,” Minhyuk continued. Jooheon could only sit there, unsure of what to do to get out of that situation. “Not many relationships in your life, I see a great many friends but not many lovers. I see— oh. What’s this?”

Jooheon blinked, looking at his hand. Was it dirty? He would hide under his bed and never leave his house again if his hand was dirty while having his palm looked at so closely. He’d washed his hands! “What is it?”

“There’s something—” Minhyuk trailed off, leaning forward until his face was almost touching Jooheon’s palm.

“What?” Jooheon repeated his question and leaned in also, trying to see whatever it was Minhyuk was seeing.

“It’s there, I’m certain of it.”

“What is there?” Jooheon insisted and came even closer. “What do you see?”

In a quick motion Jooheon had not been prepared for in the slightest, Minhyuk raised his head, face mere inches from Jooheon, and whispered, “Me.”

Jooheon screeched and jumped back, almost falling off his stool in his haste. Minhyuk was smiling placidly up at him, as if he hadn’t just implied they would be a— thing. In the future. No, no, that was not— Did that just happen?

And did he— did he just try to kiss him? Or was he imagining things? What if someone saw them? They were in a public place!

Jooheon got up, legs shaking like leaves in a hurricane. “I’m— I’m going now, goodnight!”

“Goodnight, honey,” Minhyuk said sweetly, resting his chin on his hands again and batting his eyelashes at him. “Have sweet dreams tonight.”

Jooheon made a noise of distress in his throat and all but fled the grounds. He was right.

Minhyuk really was a menace.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Changkyun’s heart was still pounding by the time he arrived home, the sound of the door closing fueling his anxiety instead of easing his mind. The farther he got from the mansion the heavier his heart became, that voice in his head still screaming at him to go back. It would be impossible by then with the fog, blinding and disorienting, even if he was so inclined to trek all the way back to the moor.

He couldn’t stop thinking about Hyungwon, though.

“Kyun?” Jooheon’s voice came from the bedroom, and Changkyun followed the sound, finding Jooheon already bundled up and looking like he’d been sleeping previous to his arrival. “Thank God, I thought you were arrested or something.”

“You sure look like you were very worried,” Changkyun deadpanned, ridding himself of his cap and tossing it aside.

Jooheon disregarded the comment and sat up, eyes half-closed with remnants of sleep. “I had a rough day, ok?” He blinked and squinted up at Changkyun. “So? How was it?”

Changkyun decided to show him instead of telling him, taking the roll of banknotes from the pocket of his coat and tossing it at Jooheon. Jooheon spluttered with surprise but caught the money, his eyes now fully open.

“You— Kyun, this is—”

“A lot, right?” Changkyun finished his sentence with a grin, taking the locket from his pocket as well before he shrugged off his coat. “I told you it was a good idea.”

“How did you find this much money?”

Changkyun hesitated before answering, already knowing Jooheon would freak out. He felt like had to talk about it, though. “I didn’t find it , exactly. It was more like— given to me.”

Jooheon stared at him, and he could see the gears turning in his brain. Changkyun decided to elaborate before Jooheon scared himself by reaching a wrong conclusion.

“I met the medium,” Changkyun revealed, perhaps a little too abruptly because Jooheon almost fell off his bed upon hearing it.

“You what!?”

“He’s not scary like you thought he would be!” Changkyun quickly said, defending Hyungwon’s character without even realizing he was doing so. “He’s very polite. And witty, too. He’s like— something out of a storybook.”

Jooheon’s expression went from shock to confusion to realization. “Oh no. He put a spell on you. I told you to be careful!”

“He didn’t put a spell on me!” Changkyun said, adding after a pause, “At least I don’t think he did.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Jooheon whined, tossing the money back at Changkyun. He caught it with ease. “What does meeting the medium has to do with anything?”

“Hyungwon,” Changkyun said, suddenly - the first time he spoke the name out loud, and oh, how it rolled off his tongue. “His name is Hyungwon. The medium.”

Jooheon gave him a hard look, one that made Changkyun squirm. “That doesn’t answer the question.”

“He gave me the money.”

“He gave—” Jooheon started but interrupted himself, as if too overcome with concern and disbelief to string two thoughts together. “You have to give this money back.”

“Why?” Changkyun asked, pressing the roll of money and the locket against his own chest protectively. “It’s mine, Hyungwon said I could have it.”

“This will come back to bite you in the ass.”

“He said I could—”

“And you think it matters what he said!? ” Jooheon shouted, thoroughly interrupting him. “That amount of money and you truly believe you don’t owe him anything?”

“He said he was feeling generous and that I could take it.”

“No strings attached?” Jooheon scoffed, shaking his head and pointed at the money in his hands. “Those are strings, Pinocchio!”

Changkyun had to roll his eyes. Now Jooheon was just being ridiculous. “I’m not a puppet, Jooheon. He’s not manipulating me, if that’s what you think. He didn’t ask me for anything, we didn’t make any plans to meet, he doesn’t know where we live. I’ll probably never see him again.”

Just uttering those words made his heart tighten in his chest, no matter how true - he would likely never meet Hyungwon again.

“Seriously, Kyun, you should go back there and return the money,” Jooheon declared before he laid back down and turned around, back facing Changkyun. “Being indebted to our landlady is better than being indebted to a damn witch.”

“He’s not a witch.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well, neither do I,” Changkyun said with a sniff, plopping down on his own bed. “And I’ll use this money however I please, because it’s mine. He gave it to me.”

“Whatever you say, Kyun, just leave me out of it.”

“I will.”

“Good!”

“Great!”

Changkyun made a show of putting the money inside the drawer of his side table, slamming it shut so Jooheon could hear it clearly. Jooheon didn’t even stir, blankets pulled up over his head.

Changkyun, after sticking out his tongue at the lump on the neighboring bed, looked down at the locket still in his hand, the smooth silver and delicate chain. He could go to the pawnbroker in the morning, see how much it was worth - not a fortune, certainly, but quite a lot. Looking at it, though, he couldn’t help but remember Hyungwon, his eyes, his lips, the touch of his hands, the warm cadence of his voice.

He put the locket around his neck and decided it wasn’t going anywhere.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

The empty wooden box sitting atop his desk made Hyungwon smile - the little mouse found his prize after all.

A strange encounter, that was. He hadn’t expected it to be any other way, but he was also not expecting it to be so— so what? He didn’t even know how to express it. Changkyun’s presence had been like a breath of fresh air in that stifling mansion. The many questions he asked, the confidence he exuded, the bravery with which he’d spoken to him despite his fear of retribution, all of it painted a picture Hyungwon found enthralling.

He wished he hadn’t left.

It was good that he had, though; Hyungwon did not and would not fault anyone for wishing to be as far away from that place as possible.

He felt it when he noticed his presence the night before, knew there was something about Changkyun, something that called to him - a pull, there for whatever reason. Something in the back of his mind, hidden away and forgotten, but what? Hyungwon didn’t know; it was distressing not to know, but trying to understand it was only making his headache worse. Maybe he would figure it out, someday. 

He didn’t turn around when he heard footsteps approach, loud and sharp, footfalls harder than they had to be.

“Why did you do that?”

Hyungwon didn’t have to ask what was Guhn referring to. “His daughter wished to speak, so I let her.”

“You were only being petty and spiteful,” Guhn all but spat the words. “These are the people we should make friends with, not enemies of.”

“No need for the dramatics, dear,” Hyungwon said, dismissing Guhn’s concerns as one bats away a fly, before taking the empty box and replacing it inside the drawer. “I made him a believer. He will be back, as will all the others.”

“You were distracted tonight.” The accusations kept coming. Hyungwon sighed, tired, skull throbbing with a headache. “Our guests might not have noticed, but I did.”

Your guests. It was your idea to throw a party, as it was your idea I give them a little show,” Hyungwon replied, just as a second set of footsteps, lighter and more careful ones, entered the room. He looked up at the servant girl when she set down a full cup of spearmint tea on the desk, in the space previously occupied by the box. He smiled at her when their eyes met for a moment. “Thank you, Kyla. You can call it a night, I’m sure you and the others are tired.”

“Call it a night!?” Guhn questioned. “What of the cleaning?”

“They can do it in the morning,” Hyungwon finally turned around to face Guhn as he spoke. He was more than ready for this conversation to end, so he could be alone with his thoughts for a second. “Or do you have a reason to have the house spotless in the middle of the night, when we are all asleep and all the guests are gone? Who is it that you wish to impress? The ghosts?”

Guhn didn’t reply, at least not until the servant had left the room.

“You are avoiding the subject,” Guhn said, coming closer to Hyungwon. “What’s gotten into you tonight?”

“Nothing,” he lied through his teeth. “I simply abhor parties, as I’m sure you are aware since you were so keen on disregarding it entirely.”

Guhn scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Who’s being dramatic now?” He gave Hyungwon a hard look before pointing a finger at him. “You will not do it again. No matter how much your pride is needled and prodded, you will not lash out.”

“They were not paying customers, Charles,” Hyungwon said, addressing Guhn by his first name only to annoy him. It always worked like a charm. “They were here to gawk and to find fodder for their gossip circles. The least that ‘gentleman’ could have done after being so kindly invited to our home was to be respectful to those who own this house, so once he decided to forego his courtesy, I was in my right to forego mine.” He turned around again, pulling back the chair neatly tucked under his desk so he could sit down. “You are free to apologize to him on my behalf if it makes you feel better, but I tell you now that it won’t make a difference; as I said, I made him a believer. Nothing I did hurt your business dealings, so quit your fussing already.”

Guhn said nothing for a long time, during which Hyungwon quietly sipped his tea and tried to will his headache to subside. It was always like that after a session, but this entire night was proving to be a veritable trial - his brief encounter with Changkyun was the only highlight.

“Your performance tonight was subpar, at best,” Guhn said at last.

Hyungwon rolled his eyes. ‘Subpar’. Speaking with the voice of the dead was subpar. Very well.

“Again, as I said: they were not paying customers. They want the full array of special effects and ghostly rappings, they can pay the full price for it, otherwise this is what they will get - the bare minimum.”

“Rationalize it as you want, you will do better next time. It’s our reputation on the line.”

“Ah, yes,” Hyungwon said with a bitter chuckle, “‘our’ reputation. I’m quite sorry, darling, it slipped my mind completely.”

“Your glibness is unbecoming, but no matter,” Guhn said, and began walking out the study were his footsteps any indication. “Rein in your pride and your spite quickly; soon we’ll have a full schedule of sessions with ‘paying customers’ and I will not suffer your loose tongue again.”

“What will you do? Cut it off?” Hyungwon asked with a scoff. “By all means, go ahead. You stand to lose far more than I do.”

Guhn’s response was to slam the door shut on his way out, something that gave Hyungwon a wicked manner of satisfaction. He had to take pleasure in the small things if he wished to remain sane.

Outside the window, the mists had taken over, covering the world in thick fog, giving Hyungwon the impression he was sitting in a castle above clouds. If he closed his eyes and listened closely, sometimes he could hear the mist calling for him. It was hard to ignore that call.

Changkyun was out of the moor and back in the safety of his own home by then; good. He felt as if he was forgetting something about Changkyun, something important. Did he put everything he’d wished to give Changkyun in the box? The money had been there, and the silver locket for pawning as well, and— no, that was everything, he’d meant to add nothing else to Changkyun’s loot. So what then— 

Hyungwon looked away from the window, down at his desk, at his tea. Best to stop thinking about Changkyun, rid his mind of him, at least for the time being. If he could, that is - he didn’t think he would be very successful, but he would try.

They would meet again when the time was right, he knew.

 

Chapter Text

 

After a few weeks of his return, Kihyun was growing impatient. Money was slowly starting to trickle in, exponentially slower than he had predicted; many of his former buyers had moved on to other ‘importers’, and some had moved away to live in other places, forcing him to seek out new patrons.

And that is what led him to the old mansion on the moor.

If Kihyun thought standing outside that mansion was an uncomfortable experience, he was not prepared for how much worse it was to be inside of it. Or, rather, being inside and in the presence of the owner of that place.

Guhn was— a character, to say the least. He had received Kihyun with smiles and pleasantries, was perfectly polite, but there was something about him that unnerved Kihyun. Something about his eyes.

And also the fact he had spent more time looking over each single firearm Kihyun had brought along with him than all his other clients combined.

“What is the range of this one?” Guhn asked, rotating a pistol before his eyes.

“Judging from the length of the barrel, I would say it’s medium-range,” Kihyun replied. “If you want long-range, I suggest the rifle.”

“This is a beauty, though. Italian?” Guhn looked over at Kihyun after asking.

Kihyun smiled - out of politeness, of course; the last thing he felt like doing was smiling. “Correct. That is a Lamberti, a popular manufacturer in Italy.”

“Completely functional?”

Kihyun tried not to take it personally - the implication his product didn’t work still stung, though. He could be selling contraband, but he was selling quality contraband.

What a prick.

“Yes, it works perfectly,” he said, smile never faltering. For Hoseok , he told himself over and over again in his mind. For Hoseok .

Kihyun stood there, waiting for Guhn to finish inspecting the pistol. His eyes wandered around, taking in the décor of the room they were in. Kihyun wasn’t exactly a house plan connoisseur, but that room could be a parlor, of sorts - or, rather, it should be a parlor, because it was definitely not one. There weren’t armchairs and sofas, no coffee table in sight. Instead, there was a large, round table made of dark, sturdy wood right in the center of the room, over a dozen chairs around it. Behind the table was a fireplace, currently unlit, flowers and candelabra sitting on the mantle. The curtains were open, allowing sunlight to stream in, but they were of dark fabric, a deep burgundy a few shades darker than the wallpaper. It was a dark, stuffy room. It made Kihyun’s discomfort that much more pointed.

Luckily for him, he didn’t have to just stand there and smile for long.

“I will keep this one, then,” Guhn finally decided, leaving the pistol aside. Kihyun’s smile turned more genuine - that was a pricey weapon. “You mentioned a rifle?”

“Yes, right here,” Kihyun said and quickly dug around the trunk full of product he’d brought along, not taking long to find the rifle and offer it to Guhn.

“Oh, marvelous,” Guhn said, appreciative, “I was meaning to buy a new one of these, as shooting season is right around the corner.”

Kihyun opened his mouth to reply, to give his best sales pitch for the rifle - also a pricey weapon - when another man entered the room. Kihyun tried not to gape at the unusual color of his hair, since that would be impolite.

“Ah, Hyungwon,” Guhn said, looking up from the rifle to stare at the newcomer, “how good of you to finally join us.”

“Apologies, I had the worst headache,” Hyungwon said with the tiniest sigh and turned to Kihyun. “You must be Kihyun.”

Kihyun smiled at him, shook his hand when he approached. “Yes, I am.”

“I’m Hyungwon, although you probably guessed it already,” Hyungwon quipped, giving Guhn a sideways glance. “I see he is still gawking at the firearms.”

“I’m not ‘gawking’,” Guhn said, defensive.

Hyungwon pulled himself a chair and sat down, crossing his long legs casually. “I find firearms so crude. Poison seems such a classier, more refined way to kill.” Looking up to Kihyun and smiling, he asked, “Don’t you agree?”

Taken aback as he was by the topic, Kihyun still opened his mouth to reply. Again, he got lucky that Guhn intervened.

“Firearms are not ‘crude’. Manufacturing them is an art, wielding them is a skill.”

“And shooting them is noisy and obnoxious,” Hyungwon said. “Not poison. Poison is quiet. You never see it coming.”

“Oh, a firearm is quick enough that you wouldn’t see it coming either,” Guhn said and, to Kihyun's complete horror and confusion, pointed the rifle he was holding at Hyungwon and pulled the trigger. “Bang,” he said, in the place of the sound of an actual gunshot, as the rifle was - thank heavens - not loaded.

Hyungwon only rolled his eyes, disregarding Guhn’s actions entirely. Kihyun could only look from one to the other. Who the hell were those people?

And, more importantly, what the hell was wrong with them?

“I digress,” Hyungwon said, to Kihyun’s relief. The veiled murder topic was starting to get a little out of hand. “Firearms aside, I hear you have other products?”

“Yes!” Kihyun quickly replied, “I have fabrics, chocolate, tea and spices from Asia, spirits…”

“Mm, you had me at chocolate,” Hyungwon said with a happy sigh. “Although the teas piqued my interest as well.”

“You should look at the fabrics instead,” Guhn interjected. “Choose something for your new evening coat.”

Hyungwon’s sigh was much less happy this time around. “I don’t need a new evening coat.”

“Yes, you do,” Guhn insisted. “For opening night at the Opera in two weeks.”

“Ah, yes,” Hyungwon said airily. Kihyun decided to busy himself with pulling out the products from his trunk in order to avoid being dragged into whatever conversation was building. “You are correct, I do need a new evening coat, preferably one that says ‘I do not wish to be here, pray do not speak to me’.”

Guhn huffed. “Your recluse attitude stopped being cute ages ago.”

“Spoken exactly like someone who doesn’t suffer from chronic migraines,” Hyungwon answered. Kihyun continued to quietly place his products over the table, set on not taking sides in that discussion. “And these migraines are partially your fault, too. It’s like you want my head to explode with the strain of having to handle that much noise.”

“Oh, the drama, so much drama,” Guhn said in a mocking manner; Hyungwon didn’t reply to that, instead turning to Kihyun.

“Are those the teas?”

“Yes, here,” Kihyun promptly said, placing the many tins containing tea leaves before Hyungwon.

Hyungwon explored the many options of tea available, humming appreciatively from time to time. Guhn was still admiring the firearms - Kihyun decided not to think too hard about it. It was creepy enough as it was.

“You have a wonderful selection of white tea,” Hyungwon said after a couple of minutes. “Is this Pai Mu Tan?”

“It is, yes,” Kihyun replied. Good, he was going for the more expensive teas.

“Do you have that cherry blossom tea? The name escapes me right now.”

“Sencha Kyoto? Yes, I do have it.”

“Lovely,” Hyungwon chirped. “I would like to order the Pai Mu Tan, the Sencha and the Pearl Tea, then. A good amount, for the moment. Three flavors.” He blinked up at Kihyun, a small smile playing on his lips. “Everything is better in threes, don’t you think?”

Kihyun felt as if an ice cube had been dropped inside his stomach. It was a simple comment, and yet it felt— heavy. Hyungwon couldn’t know about his relationship with Hoseok and Hyunwoo, or could he? It felt like he was referring to it, though. Like he knew .

Kihyun swallowed his shock and forced himself to smile. “Yes, three is a very good number.”

“I figured you’d agree,” Hyungwon’s smile widened as he spoke. Kihyun’s heartbeat spiked. “Now, you’ve mentioned chocolate?”

The relief at the change of subject was difficult to conceal, but Kihyun was good at keeping his stronger emotions hidden - he had to thank Hoseok’s illness for that, as it had forced him to learn how to internalize his panic, his grief. Terrible as it was, it had , in a way, helped him become a better salesman. To project calm, to be able to smile under pressure.

At least something good had come from it. Silver linings. Or something.

“Once you’ve had enough of looking at food,” Guhn said after what felt like an eternity, his words directed at Hyungwon, who, so far, had been studying samples of chocolate, “look at the fabrics.”

“You are relentless,” Hyungwon groaned. “I have plenty of evening coats.”

“But you are getting a new one. It’s opening night, you should make a good impression.”

Hyungwon rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He turned to Kihyun. “Show me the darkest fabrics you have. If I must do it, then I would like the color to reflect my mood.”

“And the drama continues,” Guhn mocked again. “I will take the rifle.”

The rest of that meeting went as well as Kihyun could have hoped. Guhn and Hyungwon ordered, other than firearms and tea, several ounces of chocolate, various spices, and considerable lengths of fabrics - after much convincing on Guhn’s part, as Hyungwon was quite stubborn. It reminded Kihyun of Hyunwoo, somehow, always set on his ways no matter how much Kihyun and Hoseok tried to change his mind. He wondered if Hyungwon’s resolve would break under the pleading look of the right pair of eyes - it was usually what worked on Hyunwoo.

As Kihyun finished filling their order form, Guhn suddenly said, “Oh! We haven’t looked at the spirits!”

Hyungwon sighed. “You know I don’t drink spirits.”

“You only talk to them,” Guhn quipped. Hyungwon chuckled through his nose. Kihyun didn’t understand the joke.

Hyungwon seemed to notice such and said to Kihyun, “I am a spirit medium, you see.”

Kihyun blinked, unsure how to react to that information. “Oh.”

“In fact,” Hyungwon continued, “you have been nothing but courteous today, despite my and Mr. Guhn’s constant bickering. I am inclined to offer you a session for free.” His smile again had turned mysterious, eyes sparkling with something that scared Kihyun. “At any point in the future, of course, I don’t believe you have any reason for a séance right now.” In a somber tone, he added, “You will soon, though.”

Kihyun felt bile rising up to his throat, felt the blood curdle in his veins.

“Can you hold back from frightening our guests for once?” Guhn complained. “I suppose it’s best to end our meeting here, before Hyungwon decides to channel the dead for the sake of making a statement.”

“What statement would channeling the dead make?” Hyungwon said with a scoff and got up from his chair. “I will show Kihyun out, then. I would not dare part you from your new firearms so soon into your honeymoon.”

Kihyun barely registered anything they said, his ears ringing with the panic he was trying to suppress. Hyungwon knew. Kihyun had no idea how, but he knew . He had never been a believer in the paranormal, found the supernatural to be more of a fancy of imaginative minds than anything else, and yet— he couldn’t explain this. Hyungwon knowing.

He somehow kept his composure as he packed his items back inside the trunk, as he said his farewells to Guhn, as he walked out of the parlor after Hyungwon. If he were to break down, it would be only once he was far away from this place.

As was his luck, though, Hyungwon spoke again when they reached the foyer on their way to the main doors. “I noticed you sell hibiscus tea.”

Kihyun startled, having been too turned into his own mind to pay attention. He cleared his throat as subtly as possible and said, “Yes, I do.”

“Hm,” Hyungwon hummed. “I would advise keeping that tea for yourself. Or, rather, for your lover.”

Kihyun’s steps faltered and he stopped walking entirely, staring at Hyungwon as the blood drained from his face. “What— How do you know that?”

“I know a lot about many things, even when I don’t wish to. A curse, truly. It’s why I have these headaches, which I would gladly do without,” Hyungwon replied, stopping as well and turning back to face Kihyun before continuing in a lower voice. “Hibiscus tea has many medicinal properties. It will do your lover a lot of good, perhaps even give him more time - not much, I’m afraid, but some. Maybe enough.”

Kihyun swallowed hard and took a deep breath, willing himself to get a grip on his feelings, maintain a cool façade. “How much do you know?”

“I know all about it,” Hyungwon said, simple. “There is no need for concern, though - I have nothing to gain from sharing your secrets, especially when your secrets are mirror images to some of my own.”

“I— Thank you,” Kihyun said, uncertain. Hyungwon gave him a close-lipped smile.

He opened the door for Kihyun, bowed his head minutely in a farewell as Kihyun walked past him. “Be careful on your way home. We’ll meet again.”

Kihyun gave him a polite nod of his head and continued on to his carriage, walking as fast as courtesy allowed.

He had to get out of that place for his sanity’s sake. A madhouse, that’s what it was.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

During the first couple of weeks Jooheon worked at the circus, he’d learned two things: one, elephants poop a lot ; and two, Minhyuk really was a menace and should probably be stopped before he hurt himself and others.

Minhyuk wasn’t a violent person, and Jooheon’s fear that he would target him to pick on had proved unfounded; overall, Minhyuk was a very laid back man.

The problem was that ‘laid’ was the operative word.

Jooheon would be pressed to find someone in that circus Minhyuk hadn’t made a pass at, and running into those who had taken Minhyuk up on it wasn’t a rare occurrence. Minhyuk— he went around. Jooheon wouldn’t judge him for it - in fact, Jooheon had many friends who worked as— uhm, circulating harlots , and he’d never thought less of them for it. The issue with Minhyuk was his poor judgment and penchant for attention-seeking, which often landed him in some trouble or another.

A lot of people had a bone to pick with Minhyuk.

Jooheon stayed out of it as much as he could; he preferred to stick to the elephant pen, as he enjoyed the company of Barya more than he did his other co-workers, and that helped him not get involved in issues pertaining to Minhyuk or anyone else.

Beyond that, Minhyuk had been— nice. He’d been nice to him. He didn’t stalk Jooheon as he’d feared, didn’t make it his life’s mission to tease him. He greeted him whenever they passed each other, sometimes even offered to help him with whatever job he was doing around the circus grounds, even shared his food with him a couple of times. Minhyuk wasn’t a bad person, Jooheon came to realize - he just made a lot of bad choices.

And truth be told, he liked Minhyuk. Minhyuk was funny and friendly, two qualities Jooheon found particularly attractive when it came to people.

Not that he was attracted to Minhyuk. He wasn’t— it wasn’t like that. At all.

That day had been going well. Calm. Too calm, Jooheon thought; calm never lasted very long at the circus. There was always something going on, always one commotion or another - Minhyuk wasn’t the only one who got in trouble, after all. Jooheon was on his lunch break, chewing his sandwich suspiciously - as much as one can eat a sandwich suspiciously - as he looked around the grounds. There weren’t that many people around at the time, since most of the workers left the grounds entirely to go buy pre-made meals at the restaurant two streets down, so it was quiet and peaceful where he sat.

Too quiet and peaceful.

He’d eaten most of his sandwich when his suspicions proved right - there was a loud bang of something large hitting a wooden structure, a clatter of something falling, followed by what sounded like two people having an argument.

Jooheon sighed, internally cursing his helpful nature, and rushed over to where the noise was coming from, miraculously not choking as he finished chewing and swallowing his sandwich mid-run. Upon rounding a corner around a cluster of tents he was faced with the image of Minhyuk— getting punched in the face.

Jooheon felt panic build up inside him, felt the adrenaline rushing through his bloodstream; he wasn’t a violent person, on the contrary, he disliked violence with a passion, and his initial instinct told him to run away as far as he could go. The look on Minhyuk’s face stopped him - he looked terrified, and Jooheon could see a bit of blood running from his nose. He should run and leave Minhyuk to deal with his own bullshit. It wasn’t any of his business— 

Oh, who was he kidding?

“Hey!” he shouted, trying to sound tougher than he actually was - which was, not tough at all. He bruised like a peach. “Hey, cut it out!”

He hurried closer instead of away, thinking of nothing but his desire to defend Minhyuk, no consideration for what would happen to him if he did. And, yes, he regretted that choice fairly quickly.

It was only after he had put himself between the strange man and Minhyuk that Jooheon realized just how huge the guy was. He was built like a brick wall, over a head taller than himself. And he was angry. Very angry. 

Well. He couldn’t back down after going all the way there, could he? What of his reputation?

He hoped the guy didn’t look down to his legs, because they were shaking like gelatin. That would be very embarrassing.

“Buzz off,” the man said, pushing Jooheon aside with an ease that could be comical - Jooheon could only find it terrifying. “This doesn’t concern you!”

He staggered sideways, only keeping himself upright because Minhyuk held onto him, his arm hooking itself around his waist to keep him from toppling over.

“Don’t touch him!” Minhyuk was shouting at the guy, which was certainly an odd turn of events - Jooheon was the one supposed to defend him , not the other way around. “Your problem is with me, not him!”

Shameful.

The man grabbed Minhyuk by the collar and yanked him forward, Jooheon caught between them, feeling like he was stuck inside a tiny barrel that had been pushed down a steep hill. They were shouting at each other, Minhyuk’s bravado a force to behold despite his obvious disadvantage, but Jooheon couldn’t make out what they were saying - it was just noise. Just shouting.

Thinking of a way out was hard, but it wasn’t difficult to conclude that fighting him wouldn’t work - obviously Jooheon would be crushed in a matter of seconds and all that would be left behind would be a pile of steaming goo on the floor. No, if he wanted to help Minhyuk, then he would have to use his brain.

“Stop!” Jooheon shouted, grabbing Minhyuk by the arm and pulling him to stand behind himself, trying to remove the man’s hand from his collar at the same time. “Someone called the police, you two will get in trouble if you don’t cut it out right now!”

“Dammit,” the man growled, jerked forward as if he wanted to jump Minhyuk again; Jooheon’s bluff seemed to work, though, for he groaned instead and pointed a finger at Jooheon’s face. “Tell your buddy to stay the hell away from my wife!”

“I don’t even know who your wife is!” Minhyuk said from behind him, and the man turned to him with renewed fire in his eyes.

“The police are coming!” Jooheon repeated, louder and a little on the high-pitched side. “It’s not worth getting arrested over this!”

The man apparently agreed with that statement, because, after spitting on the ground at their feet - gross - he turned around and hurried away. Jooheon was shaking, still standing in front of Minhyuk, watching as the man made his exit, soon disappearing from view entirely.

It was a wonder Jooheon couldn’t hear his bones rattling with how hard he was trembling.

“I actually do know who his wife is,” Minhyuk suddenly said from behind him, hands latching onto the back of Jooheon’s shirt. “Great tits. Bit of a butterface, though.”

Jooheon closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm himself.

Maybe Minhyuk deserved to be punched in the face after all.

He turned around to look at Minhyuk and immediately hissed at the sight of the cut on his lower lip, open and bleeding, as well as the blood running out one of Minhyuk’s nostrils, the various scrapes on his cheek.

“What?” Minhyuk asked. “Something on my face?” He tried to smile, but the action caused him to pull his cut open even more and he grimaced instead. Jooheon sighed, already tired.

What a handful.

“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”

Jooheon took Minhyuk by the shoulder with one hand and began stirring him towards the back of the circus grounds, where Jooheon spent most of his time and, thus, was more familiar with. Minhyuk didn’t complain, simply let Jooheon guide him.

Of course, halfway there Minhyuk began leaning on Jooheon and justifying it by saying he’d been punched in the stomach too and walking was difficult. Jooheon had a sneaking suspicion that was a big fat lie, but since he couldn’t prove it, he just let Minhyuk do whatever he wanted. He figured it would be faster if he didn’t try to argue.

Minhyuk took advantage of that, because of course he did. He snuggled up against Jooheon’s side, wrapped his arms around him, laid his head on his shoulder. Jooheon pressed his lips together, trying to convince himself that it didn’t feel as comfy as it did.

Jooheon only stopped walking when he reached the tap he used to fill the buckets to clean the animal pens, pushing Minhyuk down to sit on a nearby crate while he filled a clean bucket with water. He could feel Minhyuk’s eyes on him while he busied himself with the bucket; he tried to ignore it the best way he could, but Minhyuk’s presence was strong, almost overpowering.

What Jooheon found odd, though, was that Minhyuk hadn’t said anything for a while - Minhyuk usually didn’t shut up for a second, so going for such a long stretch of time without speaking a word was something Jooheon found concerning. Minhyuk didn’t say a thing as he watched Jooheon fill that bucket, and he didn’t say a thing when Jooheon took a seat on a small wooden stool, nor when he plucked a handkerchief from his breast-pocket and dipped a corner in the water. He also didn’t say a thing when Jooheon began carefully cleaning the blood away from his face, first from the scrapes on his cheek, then the blood that ran out of his nostril - already mostly dry by then - and lastly, from the cut on his lip.

All the while, Minhyuk only stared at him. He didn’t flinch, didn’t make a fuss, didn’t whine about being in pain. It was very disconcerting.

So Jooheon decided to be the one to break the silence.

“Why do you do this?” he asked.

Minhyuk blinked, tilting his head slightly sideways. “Why do I do what?”

Jooheon’s cheeks heated up and he shrugged, keeping his head low as he rinsed the handkerchief in the bucket. “The sleeping around,” he finally muttered.

Minhyuk didn’t answer him for a few seconds, long enough that Jooheon thought he hadn’t heard him or that he wouldn’t reply. Maybe he had offended Minhyuk with his question. Should he apologize?

“I don’t know,” Minhyuk finally answered, easing Jooheon anxious mind. “Or, I do know, but it’s— embarrassing.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Jooheon said, quick, before Minhyuk felt pressured to speak of things he wasn’t comfortable talking about. “I only think you deserve better.”

“You— you do?” Minhyuk sounded entirely stunned.

“I mean… You should treat yourself better, you know?” Jooheon said, scratching the back of his neck, keeping his head low. He could feel Minhyuk staring at him. “Respect yourself. Find someone who will respect you, too.”

“Me?” Minhyuk echoed with a bitter chuckle. “I’m not cut out for it. I already have a bad reputation, I’m not a catch. Who would want me?”

Jooheon gave him a casual shrug, taking his time twisting the excess water from the handkerchief. “You’re not so bad.”

“You’re sweet,” Minhyuk said, voice warm. “You don’t have to try to cheer me up. I’m aware that I'm just a warm hole and I’m used to it. There’s no need for you to concern yourself with the likes of me.”

Jooheon at last decided to be brave and look up to meet Minhyuk’s eyes. He found sadness in them, and he found that they were— very pretty. He hadn’t noticed it before. A lovely shade of brown, like dark chocolate. “I think you’re too hard on yourself.” Jooheon declared as he brought up the handkerchief to wipe the new blood that had pooled in the cut on Minhyuk’s lip. “And I think you’re a lot more than just a— ‘warm hole’.”

Minhyuk allowed Jooheon the time to clean his wound, only speaking once he was done. “How come you’re not married yet? Caring, hardworking, handsome, I don’t understand how there isn’t a mile-long line of ladies after you.”

Jooheon felt himself blushing again and rolled his shoulders to dismiss Minhyuk’s question. And his compliments. “I don’t know.”

Minhyuk’s face suddenly lit up as if a thought had just occurred to him. “Oh my— don’t tell me. You prefer gentlemen?”

Jooheon spluttered, almost falling off his own stool, his face on fire with shame. Minhyuk was staring at him wide-eyed, a huge smile on his face.

“Do I have a chance? May I apply to be Mr. Honey?”

“Mr. Honey?” Jooheon echoed, his voice coming out high-pitched with shock.

“Yes! You’re my Joohoney,” Minhyuk singsonged the nickname, leaning closer to Jooheon. “My honey.”

“I— I’m— Can you not do this?”

“Why?”

“I’m not— not interested in you like that,” Jooheon declared firmly, and Minhyuk’s expression fell. He was staring at him as if Jooheon had just kicked a puppy - he almost took his words back.

“You’re not? But— why?”

Jooheon turned himself bodily towards the bucket of water instead. The bucket couldn’t give him the puppy eyes, so it was already preferable company. “I’m just not.”

There was no sound from Minhyuk for a few moments, until he asked abruptly, “You don’t think I’m pretty?”

Jooheon took a deep breath - where he’d been mortified, he was now getting frustrated. “It’s not that.”

“Do you think I’m disgusting, then? Diseased and all that?”

Minhyuk’s words caused Jooheon to whirl around to face him, expression a mask of bafflement. “What? No!”

“Then why?” Minhyuk demanded, eyes sparkling with something Jooheon couldn’t decipher. He didn’t want to.

He opened and closed his mouth several times, wanting to, but unable to come with a decent enough explanation. Why do you not think of someone as a romantic partner? Jooheon was not superficial, he needed— connection . He was a romantic. He wasn’t like Minhyuk, who took his pleasure from fleeting liaisons and one night stands, no - he wanted something meaningful. Besides, he barely knew Minhyuk and, while he did find him very handsome, going from there to wanting him as a partner was quite a stretch.

But he couldn’t say all that to Minhyuk, not without making a fool of himself or offending Minhyuk in some way.

“Look— You’re very upset right now,” Jooheon finally settled on saying. “Whatever reason you have to be— attracted to me, it’ll go away once you’ve cheered up. I’m being nice to you and that’s— that’s influencing your perception.”

Minhyuk scoffed. “You think this is the first time I’ve noticed you’re handsome?”

Jooheon looked down again, avoiding Minhyuk’s eyes. They were always so intense. “Looks aren’t everything.”

“But they open the door for affection,” he argued. “Attraction is the first step, or would you give a second glance to someone you don’t find physically appealing?”

Jooheon frowned at him. “That is a very shallow way of seeing the world.”

“The world is a shallow place.”

“I don’t believe that,” Jooheon rejected Minhyuk’s words, shaking his head.

Unlike what he was expecting, Minhyuk didn’t try to convince him of his point of view. Instead he smiled, a sad quirk of the corners of his mouth. Something about the way Minhyuk was looking at him made him feel strange, stomach turning into knots. 

“You’re too sweet, my honey,” Minhyuk said, his voice low compared to how high it usually was. “I hope you never let the world change you.”

Jooheon blushed and ducked his head, smiling awkwardly at the ground as if that would make him seem less flustered. “What are you even saying—”

“Jooheon,” Minhyuk called before Jooheon could finish his question, grabbing his hand before he could think to move away. “I— Thank you. For helping me. I know I’ve done nothing to deserve your kindness, but— it means so much to me. I couldn’t possibly explain how much.”

That outburst of sincerity only made Jooheon even more flustered, and his only response was stammering out, “It was nothing.”

“It was everything,” Minhyuk corrected him, holding his hand tight and staring at him with shiny eyes. “Nobody ever defended me like that before, and I’m— I don’t even know what to say, I’m repeating myself, but I’m just so thankful.”

Jooheon got more and more overwhelmed as Minhyuk spoke, and he pulled his hand back abruptly and got up from his stool. He’d had enough already - he helped Minhyuk, cleaned up his wounds, that was already a hundred steps further from the call of duty, as far as he was concerned.

“I— I just did what I thought was right, it’s fine,” Jooheon said.

“But—”

“Here,” Jooheon said, pushing the handkerchief into Minhyuk’s hands, “you can finish on your own I have to— I have to feed the monkeys now, excuse me.”

And like most interactions Jooheon had ever had with Minhyuk, that one, too, ended with him running away.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Opening night at the Opera, or, as Changkyun preferred to call it, easy pickings.

This was the type of happening he found profitable - the rich and powerful were too busy out-impressing each other to pay attention to the likes of him, which gave him the perfect opportunity to do away with their jewelry. He hadn’t been there even an hour and already his pockets were filled with valuables; rings, bracelets, brooches, coins. In fact, he could already call it a night if he so desired.

Ease and profit aside, though, Changkyun would give anything to be at the mansion again instead.

It had been a little over a month since the first (and last) time he saw Hyungwon, and he’d been plagued by memories of that encounter ever since. Asleep, awake, all he had to do was close his eyes to be reminded of those eyes, those lips, that voice. Sometimes he could even sniff his scent of flowers and honey in the air as if he’d just walked by. The locket was a constant companion, a heavy weight around his neck, ever present. He thought that fixation would fade with time, but every day he found it harder and harder to resist the urge to run all the way back to the moor just to get a glimpse of him.

Jooheon was already sick and tired of his endless sighing, more and more convinced Changkyun had been bewitched by Hyungwon - he was starting to consider that possibility, too.

It was thoroughly unlike him; he’d had a couple of relationships before, and both of them had been— lackluster, to say the least. The first, a woman, his very first brush with romantic affairs, and how he learned that he was not particularly interested in women. Then a few years later, a man whose name he could not even recall, an obvious statement to his inability to form a connection. He’d never been in love, never cared to be in love. He never even came close to feeling anything other than physical attraction towards someone, and yet there he was, going mad with longing for a man he met only once for five minutes.

It was like meeting Hyungwon had awakened something inside him. A hunger. A need of such proportions he could not find the proper words to describe its magnitude, as if there was a ravenous beast inside him that would only be satisfied by Hyungwon’s presence.

Changkyun looked around from where he stood, half-hiding in the shadows at the mouth of an alleyway. The opera would start soon, judging from the flurry of activity in front of the theater; everyone was rushing inside, a parade of expensive fashion and futility. Yet Changkyun continued to watch, hoping he would catch a glimpse of pearl-white hair in that crowd of overdressed snobs.

Like it or not, Hyungwon was an overdressed snob too.

His heart quickened in his chest when, for only a split second, he spotted a mop of moonlight-colored hair on the other side of the crowd. Changkyun held his breath, rushed from his hiding spot to try and see better, but no use - if Hyungwon was there, he’d gone inside already.

He would not be dissuaded, though. He returned to his spot and decided to wait for the performance to be over - if Hyungwon was in there, he would have to get out at some point. Changkyun didn’t have anywhere to be, no urgent business to see to, so he could loiter about for the next— however long an opera lasted. Three hours?

The amount of people outside thinned, bit by bit, until Changkyun was the only one left in front of the theater. If he listened intently enough he could hear the faint sounds of an orchestra far beyond, the performance officially started.

Whatever luck he thought he had, it had been gone for a while - only after a few minutes of standing there, twenty or so, a heavy downpour of rain began to fall, so thick it had Changkyun drenched in seconds. He cursed and went to seek shelter under the marquee, closing his coat around himself to keep warm. What a stupid idea that was - he should go home. He should go home and forget that entire plan.

The need to see Hyungwon again was stronger, though - he just had to see him, only for a second, only to validate his own strange experience at that mansion, something he still wasn’t sure had been a dream or not. His debate on whether or not to leave kept him there, huddled under the marquee, the clock ticking away. He had no idea how long he stood there, bouncing back and forth between going home and staying put, when he heard a noise coming from the alleyway next to the theater.

Changkyun startled, a quiet gasp leaving his lips - it sounded like a door slamming shut. He inched closer to the alley, heartbeat pounding on his eardrums, and peeked around the corner to see what had caused that noise. His heartbeat silenced immediately.

Again, like a vision, there was Hyungwon, just standing there as if come out of thin air. Changkyun took in the sight, from his all-black outfit to the unruly moon-kissed hair to his current stance - he had his head bowed, a hand over his forehead. Changkyun was instantly filled with concern, and without wasting another second he left his dry refuge under the marquee to brave the rain and walk over to Hyungwon.

If his footsteps gave him away or if Hyungwon sensed his presence, he would likely never know; all he knew was that, when he was a short distance away, Hyungwon turned his head minutely at him and smiled.

“Ah, if it isn’t my favorite mouse.”

Changkyun came to a stop next to Hyungwon, under the narrow awning above that side door - a sign next to it read in bold letters ‘STAFF ONLY’. Hyungwon was definitely not staff.

“Are you alright?” was the first thing Changkyun said.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Hyungwon replied, lowering the hand that had been on his forehead and stepping back so he was fully covered by the awning, protected from the rain. “A headache, nothing more.”

Changkyun hummed, wishing there was something else he could do or say, but it wasn’t like he could will away a headache with good intentions. He followed Hyungwon’s action and pressed himself to the wall to escape the rain, although it made no difference at that point - he was soaking wet.

“Aren’t you missing the performance?” he asked after a moment of silence.

“I’ve seen this particular opera before,” Hyungwon informed. “I’m sure they won’t make any changes to the script, so it’s alright if I miss some of it.”

Changkyun arched an eyebrow. “If you’ve seen it before, why are you here to see it again? Is it that good?”

Hyungwon chuckled at the question. “It’s a fine opera, certainly, but I’m only here because Guhn dragged me along.” The mention of Guhn had that strange jealousy rearing its ugly head in Changkyun’s insides. “I had no wish to be here. I dislike— loud. Operas are very loud. The performers’ voices sometimes reach a pitch so high it feels as if my head will split open, and that paired with the acoustics inside a theater make it very uncomfortable for me.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Changkyun replied. “I’ve never seen an opera.”

“Is that so?” Hyungwon asked, smiling down at him. “I will have to take you to one, someday. Of course, I’ll have to wear ear-mufflers, but the discomfort would be worth it.”

That made Changkyun laugh. “Like I would ever be allowed inside a theater.”

“You’d be allowed anywhere. You’d be with me.”

For some reason, the answer had Changkyun’s mouth feeling desert-dry. He could only stare up at Hyungwon, at that face that had been haunting his dreams. The implications of those words— he didn’t want to look at them too closely, didn’t want to build expectations. He lowered his eyes, deciding that it was safer to stare at the single pearl pin sitting in the middle of the black satin ascot around Hyungwon’s neck. Or maybe not - the pearl’s color was too close to the color of his hair, reminded him too much of how he wanted to run his fingers through it.

He looked down at the ground instead.

“I— I don’t think I’ve thanked you,” Changkyun muttered, “for helping me that night.”

“You are most welcome,” Hyungwon said. “I trust that amount of money was enough to settle all your debts?”

“I won’t even ask how you know I had debts,” Changkyun said, playful, “but yes, it was more than enough.”

“Good, I was worried it wouldn’t be.” 

Changkyun, distracted, flinched when Hyungwon reached up with one hand, pulled his collar slightly to the side to see the necklace he was wearing. Hyungwon smiled to himself just as he retracted his hand.

“You didn’t sell the locket.”

Changkyun touched the chain around his neck with his fingertips instinctively, ducking his head to hide the blush on his cheeks. “Y-yeah. It felt right to keep it as a memento.”

“I see,” Hyungwon said, accepting Changkyun’s words without questioning them. “If I’d known you wanted a memento, I would have chosen something a little less simple.” Changkyun risked a glance up, but Hyungwon wasn’t looking at him, rather at the pavement, watching the rain hit the stones. “This was the only piece of jewelry I could find that didn’t have any discernible features, to make it easier for you to sell it without raising suspicions regarding its origin.”

Changkyun gaped at him. “You— You thought that far? Why would you be so careful? I’m just a thief.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, little mouse,” Hyungwon said and looked over at him. Changkyun wanted to believe there was warmth in his expression, that it wasn’t just wishful thinking. “You’re more than just a thief.”

Changkyun rolled his shoulders, dismissing the compliment, and looked away; if he kept looking at Hyungwon his heart would give out. “I suppose you could have at least put a picture inside the locket, then.”

Hyungwon chuckled, a hand coming up to cover his mouth. Changkyun caught himself staring again. Moth to flame. “A picture? Of me? Why on earth would you want that?” He shook his head as if in disbelief. “I’m afraid I could not have done so either way, there is no picture of me to be had.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“No camera was ever able to photograph me,” Hyungwon replied, his answer making Changkyun that much more curious. “I assume it has to do with all the ghosts. I don’t know enough about photography to be sure, of course, all I know is that my face is always blurry in photographs.”

“That’s a shame,” Changkyun said, not thinking, “a face like yours should be immortalized.”

“Is that so?” Hyungwon asked, and just then Changkyun caught himself; too late now, the words had been spoken - and words can never be unspoken. “I’m flattered that you find my face worthy of such.”

“It’s not like you’ve never seen yourself in a mirror,” Changkyun replied, deciding to just embrace his statements instead of trying to retract them. “In fact, I remember a mirror sitting on your very desk. Surely you are aware of your looks.”

“There is a difference, my little mouse,” Hyungwon said, looking at Changkyun intently, “between my perception of my own self, and how others perceive me. I’m quite happy, in fact, to know that you don’t find me unattractive.”

Changkyun decided to file the fact that Hyungwon called him ‘ my little mouse’ away in his mind and react to it later - by squealing like a lunatic - in the privacy of his own home. “If I may be so bold, you are by far the most beautiful person I have ever seen.”

Hyungwon blinked, Changkyun’s words obviously taking him by surprise. He looked away, at the ground, a sheepish smile on his lips and a faint blush on his cheeks, and it was so satisfying to see him looking so bashful that Changkyun could weep. “I— Thank you, Changkyun.”

Hyungwon saying his name never failed to make Changkyun’s head spin. Ridiculous, he knew. Hyungwon was still a stranger; no matter how attractive, Changkyun had never felt so strongly about someone the way he did for Hyungwon, his entire being thrumming with the need to be around him, to speak to him, to touch him. It made no sense. Absolutely no sense.

“I’m certain this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this kind of compliment,” Changkyun said, trying to break the moment.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” Hyungwon easily confirmed, still sounding shy. “It is, however, the first time you’ve said it.”

Changkyun’s heart might as well have stopped; his brain certainly did. What were they even doing, flirting like teenagers in a dark alley in the rain, in public, where anybody could walk in on them, overhear their conversation and make wrong assumptions about their intentions, their - non-existent - relationship?

Madness. It was madness, all of it, complete lunacy.

He didn’t care.

“What is a mouse’s opinion to a cat,” Changkyun mused, fighting every fiber of his being that told him to look up at Hyungwon, resolutely keeping his gaze ahead, at the brick wall before him.

Hyungwon laughed. “Am I to be a cat now?”

“It seems fitting.”

“Indeed,” he agreed. “I have no reason to think little of you, though.”

Changkyun chuckled through his nose, unable to contain the comment, “What a very stupid cat you are, then, for you have no reason to think highly of me either.”

“Is it truly stupidity?” Hyungwon asked, turning his body towards Changkyun in a way that he was now leaning sideways against the wall. Changkyun could feel his eyes on him, his skin burning with it. “Were you to see yourself through my eyes, know what I know, you would feel differently.”

Changkyun clicked his tongue and crossed his arms to deflect the attention from how flustered he’d become under that gaze. “But I don’t see through your eyes or know what you know. Your argument is not the strongest.”

“You might as well get used to it,” Hyungwon said, arrogant. “That’s usually the only argument I have or need, and I predict you will be hearing it a lot in the future.”

“You and your predictions,” Changkyun murmured, more to himself than to Hyungwon.

“I like to think I’m doing quite well with my predictions,” he commented airily. “They have certainly benefited you so far, so I assume you don’t have any real issue with our unlikely friendship.”

Changkyun scoffed and looked up at Hyungwon again, mimicking his action of turning his body towards him, leaning sideways on the wall. “You call this a friendship?”

“What else can I call it?” Hyungwon asked. “We are friendly towards each other, are we not?”

“A ‘friendship’ feels like a rather understated way to explain what is happening,” Changkyun said, not blinking as he stared right into Hyungwon’s eyes, “and from that, I take it you knew we would meet again.”

“I did know,” Hyungwon confirmed with ease. “Not when, precisely, but I knew our paths would cross.”

“And your way of explaining all of this is by calling it an ‘unlikely friendship’?” Changkyun’s question came with a hint of a challenge.

Hyungwon rolled his shoulders, a gesture that was almost dismissive. “Not everything has a reason. Sometimes things just… are.”

“So you just accept them?”

“I’m sure you’d be one to try to swim against the current,” Hyungwon said, the corner of his lips twitching as if he was biting back a grin. “Me, I’m fine letting it guide me.”

It made sense, if Changkyun stopped to think about it, and perhaps in another world that would have been enough - it wasn’t. Nothing that was said could explain how Hyungwon knew his name or anything else. Being able to pick up on someone’s mood was one thing, another thing altogether was to be able to give accurate information about them; if Changkyun asked Hyungwon if he knew when his birthday was, he was certain Hyungwon would get it right. If he asked if he knew what he had for lunch three weeks ago, Hyungwon would likely get that right as well.

It defied comprehension. It defied any logical explanation, went beyond the abilities of any medium or psychic or fortune teller, whether Changkyun believed in those or not.

It bothered him.

“To accept things, I need to understand them first,” Changkyun declared.

He watched the tip of Hyungwon’s tongue darting out to wet his lips, eyes avoiding his when he spoke almost as if— as if he was suddenly feeling shy. “I’m afraid the only explanation I have is rather silly. It will sound cliché or like a romantic fancy of mine, but—” Hyungwon stopped, chuckled to himself, shook his head. “No, I won’t say it.”

“Please,” Changkyun said, barely holding back from reaching out and taking his hand, “say it. Whatever it is, I want to hear it.”

Hyungwon gave him a dubious side glance before his eyes flitted away again. His lips parted to speak but he hesitated, a quiet breath escaping them before the words followed, barely audible.

“It feels as if my heart recognizes yours.”

The breath was stolen from Changkyun’s very lungs, Hyungwon’s words resonating within him - he felt like that, too. Like there was a force, unseen but powerful, pushing him towards Hyungwon, telling him ‘ that’s where you belong’ .

No sense. Nothing made sense.

Changkyun wanted to lean in, invade Hyungwon’s personal space, but somehow managed to keep the urge contained - there was something about being there with Hyungwon, in that secluded alleyway in the low light, squeezed under a narrow awning in a downpour of rain, something that made him feel as if they were the only people in the world, surrounded by a bubble that kept them separate from reality.

He was starting to lose his grip on it, reality; staring at Hyungwon’s lips certainly didn’t help matters.

“What are you?” the words came out before he could filter them through common sense, the murmur hanging in the space between them during the seconds Hyungwon took to reply.

When he did, it was in a whisper just as his. “I’m the same as you.”

That made Changkyun laugh. “That makes no sense. You are so extraordinarily inhuman I could believe you a ghost yourself.”

“By all means, explain my solidity if I truly am a ghost,” Hyungwon said, extending his arm forward in an invitation for Changkyun to touch him. When he didn’t, Hyungwon reached out further to encourage him. “Go on.”

“We’ve touched before, if you’ve forgotten,” Changkyun reminded him with a dismissive huff, but still gave in and reached out to take Hyungwon’s hand, so pale in contrast with the black lace of his undershirt, peeking from under his coat sleeve. Solid, but also so soft, so warm, nothing like he expected a ghost to feel. And yet— “As you’ve said, not everything has an explanation. Sometimes things just are.”

“Very well put,” Hyungwon said, smiling, his eyes lingering on their joined hands. “I’m happy to know my words aren’t falling on uninterested ears.”

“You could be reading a grocery list out loud and I would be interested,” Changkyun revealed, and he felt like he should feel embarrassed about it, about his honesty, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be. Somehow, speaking to Hyungwon felt easy, as if he could tell him anything, reveal his deepest, darkest thoughts, and Hyungwon would understand. Would not judge him, would not think less of him.

“I certainly hope the content of my musings is more riveting than that of a grocery list, but I’m glad you feel that way,” Hyungwon replied with a chuckle.

Hyungwon raised his head, suddenly, eyes moving behind him, towards the door. Changkyun followed his line of sight.

“What is it?”

“The performance is nearing its end. The final aria has just begun,” Hyungwon declared and sighed; Changkyun could visibly see his dejection, the way his shoulders sagged, how his eyes became melancholic. “It never lasts, does it?” The sudden question had Changkyun staring up at Hyungwon at a loss, but Hyungwon wasn’t looking at him - talking to himself, it seemed. “These attempts to escape. We all have to go back to our cages eventually.”

“You feel trapped?” Changkyun asked, and he wouldn’t have been able to hide his surprise even if he tried. “ You ? You are rich, you have a mansion, servants, all the comfort you can need.”

Hyungwon chuckled, but it was a sad, desolate sound. “A gilded cage is still a cage.” It was a murmur so soft Changkyun almost didn’t hear it. Then Hyungwon straightened himself, pushed himself off the wall, looking like the unbothered prince he liked to present himself as to the outsider. Somehow, Changkyun could see right through the act now. “You should go, my little mouse. Dry yourself and change into warmer clothes, you’ll get sick if you don’t.”

“I’ll be fine,” Changkyun dismissed his concern, pushing himself off the wall as well.

“Oh? I feel like you want to get sick just so I have to come nurse you back to health,” Hyungwon joked, eyes sparkling with mischief, and Changkyun laughed despite himself.

“No offense, but you look like you’d make a terrible nurse.”

Hyungwon giggled at Changkyun’s jab. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough, since you insist on being stubborn.”

There was another stretch of silence after his words, the type of silence that hung heavy over them - both of them wishing to speak, but neither saying anything. He didn’t want to leave, didn’t want Hyungwon to leave, wanted to remain in that moment forever or just a little longer.

They were still holding hands. Changkyun didn’t want to let go.

“Will I see you again?” the question was asked in a desperate whisper Changkyun would later feel embarrassed about - it wouldn’t do to look so eager, so needy, but at the moment he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

“Yes.” Hyungwon’s immediate reply eased something in Changkyun’s heart. “You’ll see me much sooner than you think you will.” The hold Hyungwon had on his hand tightened, just enough that Changkyun was able to feel it. “I should go back. Maybe I’ll even make it in time to see Don Giovanni be dragged into hell, that’s the best part of this opera.”

“I’m afraid to ask what this opera is about,” Changkyun joked, and was glad that Hyungwon laughed.

“It’s about a sinful man who refuses to repent for his wrong-doings,” Hyungwon explained, his free hand moving to the handle of the door behind him. “Now go, before I grow more concerned about your health.”

“Fine, but only because you asked so nicely,” Changkyun said, stepping away, feeling Hyungwon’s touch slip away from his. He missed him already. “Goodnight, Hyungwon.”

“Goodnight, Changkyun,” Hyungwon murmured in return and smiled at him sweetly, just before he slid inside the door and disappeared into the theater.

Changkyun ran all the way back home feeling on top of the world.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

The heavy raindrops hitting the window were a welcome sound to Kihyun, a perfect excuse to tune out his thoughts. There was so much going on in his mind that it felt as if his head would burst with the pressure building rapidly inside his skull. Hoseok’s illness, the lack of money, the search for a new place to live somewhere they could afford without blowing right through their savings, Hyunwoo overworking himself with multiple odd jobs.

And now Hyungwon’s veiled predictions of doom, something that had been haunting the fringes of his mind since that day two weeks ago.

He was so tired . Tired of body, tired of mind, tired of heart. Coping with the constant fear, the constant urgency, was exhausting. Having to hide it from Hoseok, even more exhausting.

Hoseok felt guilty enough already, no matter that he had no need to feel guilty of anything; Kihyun would not add to that, not when Hoseok was the one having to face that darkness, the looming specter of death that stood by his bedside every day and night, watching, waiting, ever patient.

Kihyun closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, on the patter of rain on the glass. He couldn’t let himself break. Not yet, not when there were still so many battles to fight.

As if his distress had summoned him, Hoseok came padding from the bedroom, hair mussed on one side where it’d been pressed against the pillow. Kihyun smiled without noticing, endeared by the sight of him.

“What are you doing sitting there in the dark?” he asked, making his way towards the chaise Kihyun had been curled on.

Kihyun shifted on the chaise, opened his arms to invite Hoseok to join him under the blanket he had wrapped around his shoulders. Hoseok didn’t need any more incentive than that, happily shuffling over and plopping down in the space between Kihyun’s legs, back resting on his chest. Kihyun closed his arms around him, making sure the blanket was covering enough of his body before he pressed a kiss to the side of Hoseok’s head.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Kihyun said, hooking his chin over Hoseok’s shoulder. “I thought that, since I was awake anyway, might as well wait for Hyunwoo to come home.”

“I’ll wait with you,” Hoseok said firmly, like the decision had already been made and he’d just needed Kihyun to give him an opening to make the declaration.

“Good, I was starting to get lonely,” he said, tightening his hold on Hoseok. He tried not to focus on how skinny he was getting. “What did you do today?”

“Exciting things,” Hoseok deadpanned, making Kihyun chuckle and poke his tummy in retaliation. “Just the usual. I slept, read a book, worked on the puzzle you got for me—”

“You’re not even halfway done with that.”

“It has two thousand pieces ,” Hoseok squeaked.

“Should I get one with less pieces?”

“No! It’s a matter of honor now,” he said, sounding almost offended. Once he settled down from his small outburst, he added, “Please tell me something interesting.”

“Interesting? Very well,” Kihyun replied with a sigh, knowing exactly what he could tell Hoseok. He hadn’t mentioned it before, not even to Hyunwoo, mostly because he had still been reeling over the entire ordeal. “You know that old mansion in the moorland?” Hoseok nodded to confirm. “Two gentlemen moved in. I’ve met them a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh? How did that go?”

“It was—” Kihyun paused as he tried to think of a word that was close to describe his experience. “Bizarre,” he finally said. “They are… so strange. They bickered the entire time. I’m not sure they are fond of each other or if they are secretly plotting to murder one another.”

Hoseok let out an incredulous puff of laughter. “Why would you think that?”

“Other than the fact that one of them literally pointed a rifle at the other one,” Kihyun said, Hoseok looking over his shoulder at him in alarm, “ and pulled the trigger,” a smirk crossing his face when Hoseok’s jaw dropped, “just the way they speak to each other is odd. There is a familiarity, but there’s also tension. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Are they like us?” Hoseok asked. “Lovers?”

“I’m not sure if they’re lovers but, even if they are, they’re nothing like us,” Kihyun replied, pressing a loving kiss to Hoseok’s cheek. After a second, he said, “One of them is a medium.”

That piqued Hoseok’s interest. “Really?” he asked, wide-eyed.

“Really. He’s the one who told me hibiscus tea would be good for you.”

“He knows about me?”

Kihyun took a deep breath, mostly to will the dread he felt at the memory of Hyungwon’s predictions to subside. “He does. I have no idea how, but he knows.”

Hoseok frowned as he looked up at him, still and silent for a few moments. Then he shifted, turning his body around so he could face Kihyun, arms snaking around his middle. Kihyun allowed him the time to get comfortable, shifting a bit himself so they were half-laying on the chaise, Hoseok on top of Kihyun, low enough that his chest was resting across Kihyun’s belly.

“You’re worried about something,” Hoseok finally declared.

Kihyun smiled and shook his head, hating himself for lying to Hoseok - what could he say? That the medium had predicted his passing? Absolutely not. “It’s not worry. It was simply a very unnerving experience, one I don’t wish to go through again any time soon.”

“It must have been truly something,” Hoseok said, his hands rubbing up and down on Kihyun’s sides to soothe him. “You’re tense. You never get tense over these kinds of things, not like this. You don’t even believe in the supernatural.”

“It was very unnerving,” Kihyun reiterated, running his fingers through Hoseok’s fringe. He wasn’t about to spill all the beans about everything weighing down his heart; best to change the subject. “Your hair’s gotten so long.”

“I think it looks good,” Hoseok said, chin resting on Kihyun’s sternum. “It helps hide my ears, they look huge after all the weight I’ve lost.”

“Your ears are, and have always been, adorable,” Kihyun argued. “But yes, I think your hair looks good like this. It frames your face well, brings out your eyes.”

Hoseok huffed and grumbled something Kihyun couldn’t make out, not once he’d pressed his face to his chest. Kihyun laughed, watching as Hoseok inhaled deeply several times, likely to breathe in Kihyun’s scent; it was both endearing and heartbreaking how Hoseok missed contact like that, of being near him and Hyunwoo. He indulged him, letting Hoseok do as he pleased while Kihyun simply continued to run his fingers through his hair, scratch his scalp, massage the back of his neck.

Without warning, Hoseok shoved his hands under Kihyun’s shirt, causing him to hiss when his cold fingers touched his warm skin. Hoseok giggled at his reaction; Kihyun knocked him lightly on the forehead with his knuckles in retribution.

“At least warn me next time.”

“What’s the fun in that?” Hoseok said, still laughing, and pressed a kiss to Kihyun’s chest, just under his collarbone, the stretch of skin not covered by the loose shirt he was wearing. His laughter died down quickly, though, and in a gloomy tone he whispered, “I miss you.”

“I’m right here, bunny,” Kihyun replied, but Hoseok immediately shook his head.

“No, not like that,” he said. “I mean— I miss kissing you. I miss touching you, I miss being touched by you. You and Woo, I miss you so bad.”

“Hoseok—”

“I feel jealous sometimes,” he revealed, uncertain, as if speaking the words out loud shamed him, “seeing you and Hyunwoo kiss.” He sniffled, eyes filling up with tears; Kihyun’s heart broke. “I’m awful. I’m an awful person and an awful lover, I’m sorry, pretend I didn’t say anything.”

“No, none of that,” Kihyun said, holding him tight against his chest, pressing a long kiss to the top of his head. “It’s natural to feel like that, it doesn’t make you a bad person.”

“I’m sorry, Ki,” Hoseok said, voice frail around the edges, “you have so much to worry about already, I shouldn’t be putting this on you.”

“Hush now,” Kihyun said, pushing himself up to a sitting position so he could comfort Hoseok properly. He gathered him in his arms, hand cradling the back of his head, keeping it on his shoulder. “It’s been hard on all of us. If we couldn’t share the weight with each other, we’d all crack under the strain.”

What a hypocrite he was, Kihyun immediately thought - hiding his problems and concerns from Hoseok to then turn around and give him a speech about ‘sharing burdens’.

Hoseok needed to hear it, though. The less pain Hoseok had to endure, the better.

“You should send me away,” Hoseok said, pulling back from Kihyun’s embrace to stare at him in the eyes. “You should send me to a sanatorium, stop risking yourselves—”

“Stop,” Kihyun said firmly, shaking his head. “You’re not going anywhere. You go where we go, there is no other option.”

“Ki—”

Stop it ,” he ordered, cupping Hoseok’s face with both his hands. “We stick together, no matter what.” Kihyun paused to breathe, work himself down, before he continued with a little more composure. “People recover from consumption every day. You’ll recover too, neither Hyunwoo or I will stop until we find a way to heal you. You can’t give up now.”

“I’m not giving up,” Hoseok argued, but it was weak. “I know you two want to take care of me, but I’m trying to take care of you too. I’m contagious . You are both putting yourselves at risk, and what’s the point of me getting better if one of you gets sick in my stead!?”

“Sending you away is not the answer!” Kihyun snapped, working himself up all over again. For the second time, he took a deep breath to calm down. “I understand your concern, and I agree - Hyunwoo or I could get sick, maybe even both of us. There has to be a better way than shipping you off somewhere, though.”

Hoseok sighed, shoulders sagging as all the fight bled out of him. He wiped a stray tear with the back of his hand and, looking down at the ground, said, “I think… Maybe we should stop sharing the same bed.”

“But, bunny— you hate sleeping alone.”

“Better to sleep alone than be responsible for you and Woo getting infected. I don’t know how I’d live with myself.”

“It wouldn’t be your fault,” Kihyun said, taking Hoseok’s hands in his. “We know the risks.”

“It doesn’t matter if you know the risks or not, what matters is that they exist,” Hoseok said urgently, and squeezed Kihyun’s hands against his chest. “Please, Ki. It’s a small thing and it would ease my mind.”

Kihyun inhaled a long breath of air, exhaled slowly. “Alright,” he said at last, “when Hyunwoo comes home we can all talk about it, figure it out.”

“Thank you,” Hoseok whispered and pressed a kiss to the knuckles of one of Kihyun’s hands, “thank you, thank you.”

Kihyun forced himself to laugh, trying to lighten the mood. “You sound as if you dislike sleeping next to us.”

Hoseok laughed, the sound coming out wet, his eyes still glistening with tears, and he shook his head. “Never. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“I’m just teasing you, love,” Kihyun said, freeing his hands from Hoseok’s grip to wipe away the tears that managed to escape with his thumbs, gentle - only gentleness for Hoseok. “Deep breaths.”

Hoseok did as Kihyun suggested and inhaled deeply, for a long time, before he exhaled again. Kihyun smiled at him, encouraging, as he breathed in again, and once Hoseok had calmed down enough, Kihyun pulled him back into his arms, lowered himself back so he was reclining on the chaise, Hoseok snuggling up on top of him as they were before.

They were quiet then, the rain outside the only sounds in the room. Kihyun closed his eyes, willed himself to stop thinking, stop worrying for a second, and just enjoy the solid weight of Hoseok on top of him, the warmth of his body, the lavender scent of his hair, the rhythm of his breathing. Moments of silence like that always made it easier to pretend everything was alright. It was just him and Hoseok, snuggling on a chaise during a rainy night, waiting for Hyunwoo to come home from whatever job he had found to perform that evening.

They were close to dozing off, comfortable in each other’s arms, when the sound of the front door opening broke the quiet. Hoseok raised his head from Kihyun’s chest, while Kihyun simply turned towards the sound.

Hyunwoo was tiptoeing in, still unaware of their presence in the living room so dark it was, but once he turned around after locking the door and was faced with both Kihyun and Hoseok watching him, he— froze. Kihyun frowned, finding that reaction strange.

It was less than a second, something so small it could have gone by unnoticed, but Kihyun had always been observant and he knew his lovers well. Hyunwoo was hiding something.

Without wanting to alarm Hoseok, Kihyun simply said, “Welcome back, dearest.”

Hyunwoo had recovered from his brief surprise and stepped closer to where they were. “What are you two doing here? You should be in bed already.”

“We were waiting for you,” Hoseok explained, pushing himself up from the chaise to greet Hyunwoo with a hug.

Kihyun watched their embrace, how Hyunwoo closed his eyes and wrapped his arms tight around Hoseok, face half-burrowed on the crook of his neck. He wasn’t sure if he should smile or cry at the display, at how much love that single action exuded.

Kihyun sat up, but didn’t stand to greet Hyunwoo as Hoseok had done. Instead, he waited for his loves to part before he asked, “How was your night?”

Hyunwoo’s eyes flitted over him briefly, before he looked away again, avoiding direct contact. “It was alright. I’ve made good money.”

“That’s good to hear,” Kihyun replied, staring right at Hyunwoo. He still didn’t meet his gaze.

“Yeah,” Hyunwoo said, one arm still wrapped around Hoseok’s waist. “We can move out soon, I think. Someone told me of a place uptown. We can go take a look at it.”

“Mhm, we can get around to it in the next few days.”

“Can I come too?” Hoseok asked, looking from Hyunwoo to Kihyun expectantly. Kihyun smiled at him, and nodded.

“Yes, you can come.”

Hoseok beamed at him and rushed over to all but tackle Kihyun back down on the chaise. Kihyun allowed himself to laugh, to appreciate that moment of Hoseok being happy, all the while his attention was on Hyunwoo. He watched him walk over to their dining table and pull out a handful of crumpled banknotes from his coat pocket, a few stray coins clattering on the wooden surface.

Hoseok turned around to look at Hyunwoo too upon hearing the noise - judging from the quirk of one of his eyebrows, Hoseok noticed something odd too.

“That looks like a lot of money indeed,” Kihyun commented, knowing Hoseok wouldn’t. “What did you say you were doing tonight, again?”

Hyunwoo hesitated, eyes flickering between Kihyun and Hoseok. “Uh… Just helped carrying crates at the market.”

“Were the crates made of gold?” Hoseok asked, deadpan, and Kihyun would have laughed if he wasn’t so tense. “Carrying crates doesn’t usually pay that well.”

Hyunwoo shrugged, keeping his head - and gaze - low as he fidgeted where he stood. “I just got a lot of tips, is all.”

“People are being very generous these days,” Hoseok continued.

Hyunwoo shrugged again, dismissive, and began walking away towards their bathroom. Escaping. “Yeah, they are. I— I'll go take a bath before bed.”

Neither Kihyun or Hoseok stopped him, the door to the bathroom soon slamming shut behind Hyunwoo. Kihyun sighed, exhaustion catching up to him again after he’d done such a good job keeping it at bay for the last hour or so. Hoseok looked over at him, and he easily met his gaze.

“He’s hiding something, isn’t he?” Hoseok asked in a murmur, likely not to be heard by Hyunwoo in the bathroom.

“Yes, I believe he is,” Kihyun agreed. “Let’s not press him about it for now. Hyunwoo is terrible at keeping secrets, he’ll crack eventually.”

Hoseok frowned. “Aren’t you worried?”

“Very much so,” Kihyun replied, starting to rub soothing circles on Hoseok’s back, “but forcing a confession out of him won’t help. He’ll get defensive and we’ll get into a fight, and we don’t need that.”

Hoseok sighed, nodding slowly as he watched the closed bathroom door, as if he was trying to see through it. “You’re right.”

“Come on, bunny, let’s get you to bed,” Kihyun said and got up, offering a hand to help Hoseok do the same. “Since we’re no longer sharing a bed, I still need to figure out where Hyunwoo and I will sleep.”

Hoseok pouted but accepted the help, following Kihyun to their room. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Kihyun said with a smile, giving Hoseok’s hand a squeeze, “we might not sleep in the same bed anymore, but I still get to tuck you in.”

The smile Hoseok gave him was a tiny, frail thing, but it gave Kihyun hope that things would get better.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Hyungwon was right. Hyungwon was, somehow, always right, and while at any other time that would be a matter of fascination to Changkyun, at that particular moment he could only feel bitter about it.

Like Hyungwon had said, Changkyun did get sick.

Unlike he had said, he did not come to nurse him back to health. That liar.

As with any cold, it started with sneezing and coughing, the chills hitting him at the most random moments. He tried drinking a ridiculous amount of medicinal tea to thwart the symptoms, and thought he was doing a good job of it during the first two days.

On the third day, however, came the fever.

Changkyun had always been prone to fevers, but this particular one hit him like a kick to the head. He slipped in and out of consciousness; each time, he awoke feeling more uncomfortable, covered in cold sweat, his clothes always sticking to his body, his hair always sticking to his forehead, with barely any strength to keep his eyelids up. When he let the drowsiness take him, it was to dream of strange, disconnected things. Blurred colors melting into one another, ominous sounds buzzing in his ears, an ever-present feeling of urgency.

And when the dreams cleared, it was always to the sight of Hyungwon walking away into a sea of silver fog and disappearing. Changkyun always tried to chase him, calling out for him endlessly, but he could never reach him - he would just get lost inside the mist, unable to find his way to Hyungwon.

He thought he could hear Jooheon’s voice sometimes, although he could not make out what he was saying. He was probably worried, being the kind-hearted, loving person he was, but Changkyun knew he had to work and couldn’t stay there all day to care for him - his job at the circus, while not paying much, was very important to Jooheon and he didn’t want to lose it.

He let his fever take its course, no other option in sight. In the haze, he thought he felt a cool, gentle touch on his forehead, on his cheeks, holding his hand, fingers running through his hair. He thought he heard a voice, Hyungwon’s, speaking to him, saying soothing words to calm him. He might have been fed something too, something warm, something sweet and citric and herbal; he felt better after drinking that, whatever it had been, though. His dreams after that weren’t scary.

Hyungwon would still make his way into the mist, except when Changkyun called for him, he would stop and wait for him to catch up. He took his hand, smiled at him and, together, they walked into the fog and disappeared from sight.

The next time he opened his eyes his fever had finally dissipated, his head clear for the first time in what felt like weeks. Changkyun blinked, the light in the room faint - early morning or early evening? He wasn’t sure - and pushed himself up with a groan. There was a lingering pain in his head, a dull ache that was more annoying than painful, but otherwise, he felt fine.

Looking around the room, he found an empty chair by his bed, likely used by Jooheon when he was able to stay home and care for him. Jooheon’s bed on the other side of the room was neatly made, though - odd. Jooheon rarely made his bed.

Maybe he hadn’t been the one struck with a fever.

He had just tossed his blankets aside, meaning to get up and bathe - he desperately needed a bath - when the door of the room opened and through came Jooheon.

He sighed with relief when their eyes locked and said, “Thank God, you woke up.”

Changkyun arched an eyebrow at him. “Of course I woke up, it was just a fever. I’ve had those before.”

“I know, I wasn’t worried about the fever,” Jooheon said, expression turning fearful. “I was worried that medium had given you poison or something. And how the hell did he even know where we live?”

Changkyun’s brain halted at that. “Excuse me?”

“What?”

“You— Hyungwon was here?”

Jooheon frowned. “Uh… Yes? Didn’t you see him?”

Changkyun shook his head, jaw hanging open. “No, I was delirious with fever, I thought I imagined—”

“Oh, he was here, he was very much here,” Jooheon reiterated and shuddered. “He came to see you these past three nights.”

Things were making less and less sense. “Three nights? That’s how long it took for my fever to break?”

“You were really out cold, weren’t you?” Jooheon asked, looking at him with some concern. “Maybe the medium did give you something that messed with your head.”

“He didn’t,” Changkyun argued, although he was speaking mostly to himself, “he wouldn’t hurt me.”

“How do you know that?”

Changkyun didn’t know how to explain it any other way. “I just do.”

“You are going mad,” Jooheon said; it didn’t feel like an accusation, though, more like he had resigned himself to whatever was happening with Changkyun and was done fighting a losing battle. “The medium—”

“His name is Hyungwon.”

Hyungwon has put a spell on you, and you don’t even care!” Jooheon concluded his line of thought. “At least tell me you’ll be careful, that your wits didn’t drop off your head completely .”

“Jooheon… I’ll be ok. It’s a certainty I can’t hope to explain to you, I can’t make sense of it myself,” Changkyun said, getting up from his bed, stretching his legs for the first time in, according to Jooheon, three days, “all I know is that Hyungwon is not our enemy. I can trust him.” Changkyun stopped in front of the open window, looked outside at the hustle and bustle of the street below. “I’m more myself than I ever was when I’m with him.”

Jooheon stared at him for a moment, struck dumb, to then shake his head and leave the room again. “I’m not standing here listening to your crazy-talk, no sir!”

Changkyun laughed to himself - at least Jooheon’s incredulousness was amusing.

Outside, the light was slowly beginning to fade - which meant it was early evening. He wouldn’t have the time to ride all the way to the moor before the mists rolled in that night.

In the morning, then. He would go in the morning. He had to thank Hyungwon for keeping his word and nursing him back to health, after all. No other ulterior motives behind it. Just being polite.

Maybe he’d believe that eventually if he repeated it to himself enough. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Minhyuk was acting strange.

Of course, Minhyuk acting strange wasn’t out of the norm because Minhyuk was a strange person on a daily basis, but it was a different kind of strange. Or— actually, the more Jooheon thought about it, the more he came to the conclusion Minhyuk had been avoiding him.

He didn’t understand why; after the day Minhyuk got into that fight, Jooheon felt as if he should be the one to avoid Minhyuk and not the other way around. In the rare occurrence he bumped into Minhyuk, Minhyuk acted… jumpy. Like an easily frightened animal, his behavior very similar to Jooheon’s own when they first met.

It didn’t make any sense, though - why would their roles have changed so drastically because of what happened? Jooheon didn’t think he said anything weird or offensive to Minhyuk. That is, other than rejecting his advances, but it wasn’t the first time he did so. He’d rejected Minhyuk plenty of times before and Minhyuk had always treated him the same.

And if Jooheon was being completely honest with himself, he sort of missed having Minhyuk around. He had gotten used to his bright, shiny personality and easy smiles, and suddenly those were gone and Jooheon had no idea why. It left a void in his routine: clean Barya’s pen, clean the lion’s pen, dodge the poop the monkeys tried to throw at him, spend some time with Minhyuk. Without Minhyuk, there was nobody to cheer him up after being viciously bullied by those mean monkeys.

So Jooheon did what any common-sense-possessing person would do: since Minhyuk wouldn’t go to him, he went to Minhyuk himself. Not because he needed to see him, no, none of that, just to… check up on him. Make sure he was doing alright.

He found him at his Fortune Teller stall, doing a reading for a young lady, accompanied by another woman who was likely her chaperone maid. Jooheon approached quietly but didn’t get too close in order not to disturb Minhyuk’s business - only close enough to listen.

“Your love life’s been busy,” Minhyuk was saying; from the looks of it, he’d chosen the tarot cards this time, all spread out neatly on the shiny purple cloth of his table, set in a specific pattern. Jooheon had no idea what any of it meant. “This here,” he tapped a card Jooheon couldn’t see with his fingertip, “means there are obstacles in the way, but the obstacles won’t mean a thing if you stay true to the person you love.”

That was sweet, Jooheon thought. Minhyuk could be sweet when he wanted to be.

“It’s a very strong bond you have with this person,” Minhyuk continued. “You’ve been through a lot together. I see here a lot of people would stay in the way of this union,” he tapped another card, “you’ll have to be very careful not to let others destroy this romance.”

Jooheon listened on, the topic moving on to Minhyuk’s more general predictions - lucky numbers, lucky stones, lucky day of the week.

The reading ended soon after that, and Jooheon watched the young lady stand from her chair, her maid helping her up, and with their arms interlocked they left the grounds together. Just then Jooheon approached Minhyuk, who, again, was startled to see him.

“H-honey! Hi!” he exclaimed, eyes slightly wide, slightly wild. “I— uh, how can I help you?”

What a weirdo.

Jooheon shrugged as he came to a stop next to Minhyuk’s stall, eyes hovering over the cards on the table, the colorful images in them. “I was just around.”

“Oh,” Minhyuk said. “Alright.”

Jooheon licked his lips, gone dry since he’d started talking to Minhyuk; he wanted to come up with something to say, but his mind was drawing a blank. It took him several seconds before he finally settled on a topic, one that had been banging on the walls of his mind for a while now.

It was as good a time as any.

“Can I ask you something?”

Minhyuk frowned, suspicious, but said, “Sure.”

“How— how did you know all that?” Jooheon asked, hoping he didn’t sound as stupid as he felt. “About that lady’s future?”

Minhyuk looked up at him for a moment, eyes narrowed in thought, before he broke into a bright smile and motioned to the empty chair across the table. “Bring that chair over here and I’ll tell you.”

Jooheon had a thought that maybe, just maybe, he shouldn’t willingly be sitting next to Minhyuk for what was building up to be a private conversation - meaning, Minhyuk would likely lean in against him and all that. Physical contact with Minhyuk usually led to some uncomfortable moments.

He was beginning to suspect he was just that dumb, though, because he went and got the chair, placed it next to Minhyuk and sat down. Like an idiot.

There was just something about Minhyuk. Something that, for some ungodly reason, inspired a smidge of trust - enough that Jooheon was willing to put himself through the stiff, awkward conversations that seemed to be a theme between them, because he thought Minhyuk couldn’t be so bad.

He was just lonely. Jooheon didn’t want him to be lonely.

Minhyuk was grinning, all sunshine, when Jooheon settled down next to him. “Alright, you have to promise you won’t tell anyone.”

“I promise,” Jooheon said, pitching his voice low to showcase how willing he was to keep a secret.

“You want to know how I know things, I’ll tell you,” Minhyuk said conspiratorially, leaning in to whisper in Jooheon’s ear. “The secret is… It’s all bullshit.”

Jooheon blinked and turned to stare at Minhyuk. He was so underwhelmed he didn’t even mind the fact their faces were just inches from each other. “All bullshit?”

“Yes!” Minhyuk confirmed with more cheer than he should. “You see, I’m just really good at reading people.”

Jooheon stared at Minhyuk suspiciously, inching back, away from him as he spoke. “How so?”

“To explain that, I have to take you back to the time I worked as a telegram boy.”

Jooheon’s mind felt as if it was being stretched out and then smushed back together, as if it were clay a small child was playing with. “You— worked as a telegram boy.”

“I did!”

Jooheon was well aware of what telegram boys did - and telegrams weren’t all they delivered. It wasn’t that big of a surprise, considering what he knew of Minhyuk and how much he enjoyed, uh— caving to the temptations of the flesh , as his grandmother would say. Jooheon shifted in his chair, uncomfortable, a strange stinging sensation in his heart.

“Alright,” Jooheon said slowly, “you worked as a telegram boy. What of it?”

Minhyuk opened his mouth to speak but clamped it shut almost right away, so hard Jooheon could actually hear the sound of his jaw snapping. There was a strange look in his eyes, in the way his face was set, almost as if— as if he was worried about something.

“Before anything, please don’t judge me for it,” Minhyuk said, and it took Jooheon by surprise - since when did Minhyuk care what he thought? “It was a different time and the money was good.”

“Uh— okay. Not judging,” Jooheon said, and he meant it. He had absolutely no reason to judge Minhyuk - first, they were hardly even friends, so Jooheon shouldn’t— wouldn’t be concerned about his choices. Second, it’s not like he didn’t already know Minhyuk was promiscuous; doing it for money was at least practical. And third— why would he care? He didn’t. He didn’t care. Who cared? Not him, not Jooheon, no sir.

“Okay. Alright,” Minhyuk said, nodding rapidly and taking a deep breath. Jooheon tried not to wonder too much about why he was acting so strange that day. “Alright, so… I worked as a telegram boy, right?” Jooheon nodded to show Minhyuk he was following. “I had a lot of clients. More than I could count. Don’t judge me.”

“I’m still not judging you.”

“Just checking,” he said and cleared his throat. “Having that many clients, all of them so very different, with different backgrounds and personalities and— everything, I learned how to read them. The ones who were lonely, the ones who were cheating on their wives, the ones who were absolute asswipes, the ones who were caring, the violent ones.”

Jooheon’s heart dropped. “Violent ones?”

“We’re not going there,” Minhyuk said abruptly, cutting him off. Jooheon was fine with it - he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “What I’m saying is, people have certain tells. They each behave differently, and the people who have similar characteristics create a pattern that I can discern. Does that make sense?”

“Somewhat, yes.”

“Good, so, take that lady that was here just now,” Minhyuk continued, “the first thing I noticed was that she was wearing a ring on her right hand - she’s engaged. The second thing I noticed was her chaperone maid, the way they looked at each other, the way they sat too close - they’re having an affair.”

Jooheon’s face must have looked very funny, because his surprise made Minhyuk giggle. “They are? I didn’t notice!”

“Because you were looking but not seeing,” Minhyuk said wisely. “They’re completely in love with each other.”

Jooheon sighed, looking over at the gates far ahead. Jooheon was nothing if not a hopeless romantic - he believed in true love, for one. Changkyun always made fun of him for it, but even Changkyun was changing his tune after he’d met that medium of his. True love always found a way.

Changkyun could suck it - Jooheon could finally make fun of him for a change.

“That’s really sweet,” he finally declared, unsure what else to say.

“Not as sweet as my honey,” Minhyuk said in a cutesy voice and pinched his cheek.

Jooheon batted his away, leaned as far away from Minhyuk as possible without falling from his chair. “Stop that!” His demand was met with giggles from Minhyuk. He decided to turn the subject back around. “Is that how you knew all those things about me? When you read my hand?”

“Yes!” Minhyuk chirped. “That and some basic knowledge of palmistry.”

“How did you know I was raised by my grandmother?”

“That one was very easy,” Minhyuk said with a cheeky smile. “The way you carry yourself and your manners are very antiquated. Not that that’s a bad thing,” he was quick to add, “but it’s telling.”

Jooheon stared at Minhyuk for a while before asking, “And how did you know my father drank a lot?”

“The way you react when you see older men drinking,” Minhyuk replied. “You flinch and look for the nearest escape route.”

“And how did you know about Changkyun? Or how I didn’t have many relationships?”

“I asked around,” Minhyuk said with a dismissive shrug. “After our first— meeting , I was curious about you, and since you’re friends with everyone I set out to do a little investigating.”

“That I was home-schooled?”

“Lucky guess.”

“That I worry about money?”

“Educated guess.”

“Is everything really just you bullshitting your way through it?”

“Yep!” 

Jooheon pouted, not realizing he was doing so. “Oh.”

Minhyuk scooted his chair closer to him, placed a hand on his shoulder. Jooheon tensed, but didn’t try to move away. “What’s wrong, honey? You look sad, was it something I said?”

“No, just—” he trailed off and huffed like a pouty child. “I really thought you were a real psychic.”

“But honey… You’re scared of real psychics,” Minhyuk reminded him, his tone gentle. 

“I know,” Jooheon agreed as Minhyuk began rubbing his back. He tried not to think about the reasons why Minhyuk was being so nice to him - it made him feel strange. “It’s still very impressive,” he said, risking a glance up at Minhyuk, “what you do.”

Minhyuk’s cheeks became rosy and he smiled sheepishly at him. “I— Thank you, Jooheon.”

Jooheon looked away, down at his feet. He was used to keeping his guard up around Minhyuk, never knowing when he would need to defend himself, but— he’d been sitting there next to Minhyuk for a while and he hadn’t done anything to make Jooheon feel like he needed to run. On the contrary, it felt— nice .

That was probably a dangerous thing. To think being around Minhyuk felt nice .

It did, though. It really did.

Minhyuk smelled pleasant, he also noticed. Like tangerines.

...And now he wanted to eat tangerines.

Jooheon cleared his throat and got up, albeit reluctantly. “I should— should get back to work.”

“Right,” Minhyuk stammered, blinking rapidly as if he’d just woken up from a nap. “Right, work. Yes. I— uhm, thanks for stopping by to talk to me.”

Jooheon frowned, confused with how formal and awkward Minhyuk was sounding all of a sudden, but decided not to comment on it. “Yeah, it was… Fun.”

“Mhm,” Minhyuk hummed, nodding and giving him a close-lipped smile.

Jooheon nodded back, and that too was awkward. Why, why was it awkward? It’s not like they did or said anything strange. Jooheon shook himself and diligently put the chair he’d been sitting on back where he’d found it, on the other side of the table, trying to avoid making eye contact with Minhyuk.

“Uhm… Good luck with your next customers,” Jooheon said. Awkward. So very awkward.

“Y-yeah, good luck with— the monkeys.”

Jooheon laughed, a puff of air more than anything. “I’ll need that.”

He looked up for just a second and found that Minhyuk was staring at him with a strange look in his eyes. Had he said something wrong or—

No. He didn’t care. He was leaving. Yes.

Saying nothing else, Jooheon turned around and rushed away, ignoring the butterflies in his stomach.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Changkyun arrived at the mansion early, the sun not yet high in the sky. The moor was quiet in the morning, the vast expanse of green hills beautiful under the sunlight - his first time there during daytime. He was about to see Hyungwon himself under the sun for the first time, too; a confirmation he wasn’t a specter of the night, a vampire or a ghoul, or even a lovely trickster spirit winding him up for a bit of fun.

Like his previous visits, he tied his horse to the shrub, climbed the hill to the mansion from the rear, arrived at the top with a painful stitch in his side. A problem he hadn’t considered, however, was that he would have to find a different entrance - what were the odds of that same window in the reading room being open? Close to zero.

He rounded the mansion carefully, keeping himself low to avoid stepping in front of the windows, watching closely for any opportunity to get inside. He could simply knock on the door, though. He wasn’t there with ill intentions, he was just there to see Hyungwon and thank him for his kindness. A social call, nothing more.

It felt like that would be a huge mistake, however.

Before he even rounded the corner to reach the back of the mansion, Changkyun heard the muffled voice of a man coming from just a few feet ahead. It wasn’t Hyungwon’s, but it was a voice he remembered well - Guhn’s. And he didn’t sound happy.

Changkyun inched closer to where the sound was coming from, stopping next to a closed window covered by a deep burgundy set of curtains that made it impossible for him to see inside.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice!?” Guhn was shouting. “You’ve been late, you’ve been sneaking around, your performance the past three nights was shameful , what the hell do you think you’re doing!?”

Changkyun felt his insides turn to ice, blood freezing in his veins. Three nights? As in, the three nights Changkyun was delirious with fever?

“What choice do I have, other than ‘sneak around’? I can’t go anywhere without you breathing down my neck,” Hyungwon’s voice replied.

“And where do you need to be that is so important that you jeopardize the very thing that permits you to live this lavish lifestyle!?” Guhn demanded.

He heard Hyungwon sigh, the sound very clear, indicating he was somewhere close to the window. “Can you lower your voice? I have a—”

“I don’t give a damn!” Guhn’s voice got even louder; Changkyun could imagine his reddened, livid face, down to the spit flying around as he spoke. He wished he was in there to put himself between him and Hyungwon, defend him somehow. “Stop skirting around the subject and answer the question!”

“I will not answer anything!” Hyungwon exclaimed, and that was the highest Changkyun had ever heard him - he didn’t match Guhn’s volume, but the intensity was very similar. “Despite what you seem to believe, you do not own me or my time. I showed up to all the sessions you scheduled - all without my knowledge, because I am apparently not required to know when or where I will be needed so I can be prepared - and I performed the best way I could despite being exhausted, I’ve done my part!”

“Oh please, do not come to me with your unfounded complaints again, I told you specifically to be ready every night this week, that we had a full schedule of séances to attend.”

Hyungwon scoffed. “I am allowed to have a life outside of this dreadful place.”

“Are you truly?” Guhn’s volume finally dropped, his tone taking a derisive quality. “We have a deal, one you seem to be forgetting.”

“Trust me, I never forget about it,” Hyungwon’s voice was hard, his words clipped, as if he was barely containing his emotions. “You won’t let me.”

“That’s right, because you work for me .”

“I don’t work for you, Charles, I work with you. It’s a partnership, not slavery,” Hyungwon spat. Changkyun didn’t know Guhn’s first name was Charles. At least he’d learned something new.

“Keep running your smart mouth and I’ll show you the partnership.” The threat in Guhn’s words was very clear, and Changkyun began to steam from where he’d been frozen so far, anger building in his gut. “You need to be put back in your place.”

“And what place is that? Your shelf, alongside your shiny hunting trophies? I do not belong to you.”

“You better change your tune fast, or I will—”

“What? What will you do?” Hyungwon’s voice was louder now. “Complain? It’s all you can do, you’re as good as a yapping lapdog.”

Changkyun wished he had the leisure to fully appreciate Hyungwon’s witty remarks, but alas; there was the sound of heavy footsteps, followed by that of a chair being dragged a short distance across the floor. Changkyun leaned in closer to the window, trying to hear more - the voice that was speaking, Guhn’s, was low and threatening, but he couldn’t make out what he was saying. His heart was pounding, his concern for Hyungwon making it hard to breathe. He wanted to jump in, defend him, but something in his mind told him not to - Hyungwon wouldn’t want that, it would make things harder for him later and Changkyun didn’t want to be the reason for Hyungwon to have to go through more situations like that one, with Guhn yelling at him so viciously.

He heard Hyungwon’s voice reply something to Guhn, something he could also not make out, and after that, he only heard footsteps walking away. Changkyun held his breath, trying to listen for anything else - he heard Hyungwon’s voice again, calmer this time, speaking to someone. A woman, from the pitch of the answering voice, and then— silence.

Changkyun leaned closer to the window, ear-first, trying to pick on any sound, anything to indicate if Hyungwon was alright.

The sudden creak of the window being opened startled him, but almost immediately he relaxed when Hyungwon’s voice said, “I know you’re lurking out there, little mouse, might as well come in.”

Changkyun smiled to himself and gladly stepped in front of the window from where he’d been hiding, finding Hyungwon standing there, holding the window open for him and smiling softly. He wasn’t dressed up in his fancy clothes that morning, but rather wearing a simple pair of dark grey trousers and a loose white shirt - yet, he still looked as dazzling as ever, his presence as princely as it always had been.

“I still don’t understand how you are able to know when I’m around,” Changkyun said as he hopped over the ledge and entered the room - the same in which he had seen Hyungwon perform the séance the night of the party, he belatedly realized.

“I told you, didn’t I?” Hyungwon asked, closing the window once Changkyun was inside. “My heart recognizes yours. It has a way of telling me that you’re near.”

“And that doesn’t truly explain anything, does it?” Changkyun shot back, watching Hyungwon turn to face him. He looked— tired. Pale, puffy-eyed, hair falling lifelessly around his face. “Are you alright?” Changkyun asked, wanting to reach out, touch him - he refrained. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but—”

Hyungwon chuckled. “I’m alright. Not the first argument I’ve had with Guhn, certainly not the last.”

Changkyun frowned; the content of the argument felt more pressing than that. “You sounded unhappy.” Hyungwon gave him a shrug in response, and seeing he wouldn’t elaborate, Changkyun pressed on, “If you’re unhappy with him, why don't you leave?”

“There’s a contract involved, legalities, severance terms and whatnot. I won’t bore you with the details,” Hyungwon said with a dismissive gesture of his hand. “Besides, as Milton said in his Paradise Lost, ‘better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven’.”

Changkyun chuckled. “That’s an interesting quote. I like it.”

Hyungwon gave him a close-lipped smile and brought a hand up, touching Changkyun’s forehead with the back of his fingers. “No more fever, I see.”

Hyungwon was obviously trying to change the subject, so Changkyun decided to give him that respite. He would try to get more information out of him at a later time, when Hyungwon wasn’t looking so— frail.

“I had a good nurse,” he replied, a cheeky grin on his face as he looked up at Hyungwon. Hyungwon giggled, his fingers going from his forehead to his cheek in such a way that it felt more like he was looking for an excuse to keep touching him than measuring his temperature. It made Changkyun’s heartbeat quicken.

“It appears so,” he said.

“I— came to thank you, in fact,” Changkyun said at last, timid and quiet, “for caring for me.”

Hyungwon ducked his head, smiled at the ground. “I told you I would.”

As his hand fell away from his face, Changkyun noticed a darker patch of skin on his wrist, just above the bone - a bruise, small, the size of a thumb. Hyungwon seemed to realize it and quickly pulled his sleeve down to cover it.

“Hyungwon—” Changkyun began to ask, but Hyungwon interrupted him before he could finish.

“Come, let’s go upstairs where’s less likely that you’ll be found out,” he said, placing his hand on his back to guide him out of the room.

Changkyun didn’t protest, simply allowed Hyungwon to lead him forward. He still wanted to ask. Had it been Guhn who was responsible for that bruise? It couldn’t have been done in the argument he’d just heard, a bruise wouldn’t bloom so quickly. Was that something that happened often, was it an accident? He wanted to know.

He didn’t think Hyungwon would tell him, though.

Hyungwon took him up the main stairs all the way to his study on the third floor, the place he had sent Changkyun to the last time he was there. Looking around, Changkyun decided that, indeed, the place looked much different in the light of day; less oppressive, somehow. Lighter. Not cozy, he wouldn’t go that far, but it didn’t seem as unbearable to live there, not as it had seemed during his first visit. He made sure to keep close to Hyungwon, in case he had to duck behind him to hide, but there was nobody anywhere - no servants, no Guhn.

“You don’t have servants?” he felt the need to ask.

“We do,” Hyungwon replied. “At this hour we only have the kitchen staff working. The people who clean and tend to the grounds start their day a little later in the morning.”

“Oh,” Changkyun breathed. So Hyungwon was rich enough that he had different servants for different tasks.

That wasn’t overwhelming at all.

They reached Hyungwon’s study in a short time, and Hyungwon ushered him inside with a gesture of his hand before he closed the door behind them. The study, like the rest of the house, looked very different by day, the curtains open to let the sunshine in. It was still a warm, welcoming place, somewhere Changkyun thought he could spend a lot of time in, lounging about and reading. What a thing to imagine: him, lounging and reading without a care in the world. He could have laughed at that mental image if he weren’t a little bitter about it.

Set on changing the direction of his thoughts, Changkyun wandered to the round table where he’d found the tarot cards during his last visit, the same deep purple cloth over it. The deck of cards was stacked neatly this time, instead of spread out as it had been. It didn’t feel like over a month had passed, the memory still vivid in his mind.

Changkyun looked over at Hyungwon, who had moved to stand next to him, his eyes watching him with a curiosity that felt almost scientific. The little mouse prowling freely in the cat’s den, how fascinating would his exploration be.

“When I was here the night of the party,” he began without preamble, “there was a single card sitting face up on the table. The Devil.”

Hyungwon caught on quickly to where Changkyun was going with it and chuckled. “You want to know if that was an attempt at spooking you?”

“Was it?”

“It was not,” Hyungwon said, reaching out to take the deck in his hands, “it was nothing planned on my part. I was reading the cards for myself before the party, in fact, and I left everything as it was when I went downstairs.”

“I see,” Changkyun muttered. “Is The Devil an ill omen?”

“It depends on the context,” Hyungwon replied just as he placed the cards on Changkyun’s hands. “Shuffle.”

Changkyun blinked, looking down at the deck in his hands. “Uh… Why?”

“Humor me,” Hyungwon said with a mysterious little grin. “I want to see what the cards have to say.”

“About what?” Changkyun asked, trying to sound inconvenienced while already doing as Hyungwon had requested and shuffling the deck, careful not to end up ruining the cards.

“About you, of course,” he said, laughter in his voice. “Focus on something that has been on your mind. A problem you wish to solve, or something that has been keeping you up at night. Whatever that has been weighing on your heart lately.”

Changkyun gave Hyungwon a sideways look, but, again, did as he was told and focused on the one thing that had been on his mind, on his heart, lately - Hyungwon himself. Certainly he knew that’s where Changkyun’s thoughts would take him. He had to know.

He knew everything, after all.

After a few seconds, he asked, “How long do I have to shuffle these for?”

“For as long as you think you should.”

“Vague,” Changkyun deadpanned. “Let’s say I’m done, what now?”

“Here,” Hyungwon reached out a hand to receive the deck back, which Changkyun placed carefully atop his palm. He watched as Hyungwon spread them over the table in a neat arch, face down, similar to the way they had been placed when Changkyun was there last. “Now pick a card. Let your intuition choose for you.”

Changkyun looked up at Hyungwon suspiciously. “My intuition?”

“Yes,” Hyungwon confirmed. “Trust me, your intuition is stronger than you believe it to be.” Upon seeing the dubious look on Changkyun’s face, he added, “You might be a skeptic now, but— you won’t be for long.”

Changkyun sighed heavily. “Sometimes I get the feeling you enjoy talking in riddles and half-statements just to confuse me.”

“See? Your intuition is very strong.”

Changkyun couldn’t help but snort at the joke. “Very funny.”

“You laughed,” Hyungwon pointed it out before gesturing towards the cards. “Go on, pick one.”

Changkyun took a deep breath, only to illustrate how burdensome it was to be humoring Hyungwon’s strange tarot curiosity, before he turned to the cards once more. He looked at them over and over again, sometimes reaching out for one but quickly pulling his hand back. Hyungwon laughed the third time it happened and Changkyun turned to him with a big pout.

“What if I choose wrong?”

“There is no wrong choice.”

“What if it’s bad?”

“I’ll protect you.”

Changkyun made a brief whining sound before he turned to the cards again. He took a deep breath, and quickly pulled one of the cards from the spread. He yelped and almost dropped it when he turned it around to see which one it was.

The Devil.

Changkyun turned to Hyungwon wide-eyed, only to find him staring at him with a knowing expression on his face. He blinked once, twice, and asked, “Is this bad?”

“It depends on what you were thinking about,” Hyungwon said, plucking the card from Changkyun’s hand and placing it face-up back on the table. “If I’m right, though, and I usually am, no, it’s not bad.”

“What does it mean?” Changkyun asked, inching closer to Hyungwon subconsciously for safety.

If Hyungwon noticed, he didn’t react to the proximity. “It means you might be feeling trapped in something. Or addicted to it, perhaps.” Hyungwon said, a pensive thought on his face. “It could also mean physical attraction, desire. Unhealthy attachments.”

Changkyun swallowed, looking down at the card on the table again. “It sounds about right.” After thinking for a second, he added, “Although the ‘unhealthy’ part might be up for debate.”

Hyungwon laughed and shook his head, not in disagreement, but with fondness. “Pick another card.”

“One’s not enough?” 

“Let’s go for three,” Hyungwon said, and upon seeing the look of bewilderment in Changkyun’s face, he explained, “I’m very curious.”

“I can tell,” Changkyun muttered under his breath and, as Hyungwon requested, chose another card. It was easier this time around, now that he was sure the cards wouldn’t bite him - only a few seconds of hovering his hand over the cards before he picked one.

The Ace of Cups.

“Oh,” Hyungwon breathed out, and Changkyun was confused to see that his cheeks had pinkened once he looked up at him to ask what was wrong.

“What?”

Hyungwon shook his head, raised a hand to cover his mouth when a small burst of giggles escaped his lips. “It’s— nothing, it’s nothing.”

“Come on, tell me,” Changkyun insisted, tugging on his sleeve a couple of times. “It’s my card, I want to know what it means.”

Hyungwon looked down at him from the corners of his eyes, a timid smile still playing on his lips, but before he could even finish opening his mouth to speak there was a set of knocks on the door. Changkyun jumped, but Hyungwon placed a soothing hand on his shoulder to ease him.

“Come in.”

Changkyun gave Hyungwon a startled look - what if it was Guhn? - but Hyungwon merely smiled at whoever it was that pushed the door open. To Changkyun’s surprise, it was a girl, a servant, and she looked just as surprised to see him there as he did.

“Changkyun, this is Kyla,” Hyungwon introduced, “Kyla, this is Changkyun. He is a secret you’ll have to keep.”

Kyla blinked up at Hyungwon and nodded in acknowledgment to his instruction, glancing over at Changkyun briefly and bowing her head in a way of greeting, before she entered the room and made her way to the desk by the window. There, she left a cup of fragrant tea, and quickly exited the room again, closing the door behind her.

“She’s shy,” Hyungwon stated once Kyla had left, and moved to his desk to take a sip of the tea. “She won’t breathe a word about you to Guhn, so you have no reason to worry.”

“Is it really alright that she saw me?” Changkyun asked, looking from Hyungwon to the door and back again to Hyungwon.

“I wouldn’t willingly put you in a risky situation,” Hyungwon replied, simple, as he lowered the teacup back to its saucer. “Last card.”

Changkyun narrowed his eyes at Hyungwon. “You didn’t explain what the second one meant yet.”

“Oh, is that so?” Hyungwon asked blandly. “Pick the third card anyways.”

“Why won’t you tell me? It’s my card,” Changkyun grumbled under his breath before he picked his third card as Hyungwon wanted.

Death.

Changkyun yelped a second time and jumped back, dropping the card on the table as if it had burned him. Hyungwon came over to see what the commotion was about, picking up the card from the table and setting it neatly next to the two previous ones.

He smiled at Changkyun, extended a hand to invite him to come closer to the table again. Changkyun hesitantly took his hand, let Hyungwon guide him.

“It’s a scary-looking card, isn’t it,” he said gently. Every time he used that tone Changkyun felt as if his heart was a bird, flapping its wings. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to die, though.”

Changkyun stared at the card suspiciously, the skeletal rider upon its steed drawn in white against the black backdrop. “It doesn’t?”

“No. It means— change. The end of something, but also a new beginning,” Hyungwon explained. “It could mean loss, depending on the context.”

In the context he’d chosen the cards, Changkyun truly hoped it didn’t mean ‘loss’. He didn’t want to lose Hyungwon. He held his hand tighter and decided to backtrack. “Will you tell me what the second card means now?”

Hyungwon looked down at their joined hands, his expression serene, relaxed. It eased Changkyun’s mind to see that look on his face. “I think you know what it means already.”

Changkyun’s eyes went from Hyungwon’s face to their hands, Hyungwon’s pale against his own; his heart was burning in his chest with longing, with hope. Hyungwon was right - he did know what the card meant, even if it felt too surreal for him to believe it was correct.

With his free hand, Hyungwon tapped each card with the tip of his index finger, in the order Changkyun had chosen them. “Past, present, future.”

“Oh? I thought all of them were future predictions.”

Hyungwon shook his head. “No. I can do a reading for you if you want to know more about your future, though.”

“I’m not sure that would be wise.”

Hyungwon laughed at that and nodded to assent to the statement. “Very well, as you wish.” He let go of Changkyun’s hand then, walked back over to his desk and sat down, almost immediately taking a sip of his tea.

He sure seemed to like his tea.

Changkyun wandered over, trying to look as unassuming as possible, while craning his neck to try to see the contents of that teacup. It was a faint shade of purple.

Hyungwon, of course, noticed. Because of course . “It’s lavender tea, if you were wondering.” He placed the cup back down on the saucer. “It helps with my headaches.”

“You have a headache?” Changkyun asked, worry leaking into his voice.

“One thing about me you can be sure of,” Hyungwon said, looking over his shoulder at Changkyun with a mirthless smile on his face, “I always have a headache.”

“Are you sick?” Changkyun’s question came out before he could stop himself.

“No, I’m not sick,” Hyungwon replied, luckily not sounding at all offended. “I do, however, have a head full of ghosts.” He turned forward again, looked out the window. “I can close the door to keep them out, but they’re always pounding, pounding and pounding on it to be let back in.”

Changkyun still was reluctant to believe in ghosts, needed more proof that Hyungwon could really commune with the dead, but if it was true— what a tiring existence that must be. His heart ached for Hyungwon, wishing he could somehow ease the burden from him.

He couldn’t, though.

“I’m sorry,” was all Changkyun could think of to say.

Hyungwon shot him a brief smile before turning to the window again. “It’s alright. It’s just one of my many quirks, I suppose.” He pointed blindly at a glass cabinet next to Changkyun. “Those little containers? All different herbs and medicine for my headaches.”

Changkyun turned to the cabinet and let out a soft gasp at the vast amount of bottles and vials and tin boxes stored in that cabinet, all three shelves of it filled with them. “Do they work?”

“It depends on the day,” Hyungwon said. “There are days when I have to stay inside a dark room in complete silence for hours until I can function. Other days, like today, just tea is enough. Lavender or spearmint. On most days, though, I pair the tea with one of the herbs in that cabinet.”

Changkyun stepped back, away from the cabinet, suddenly feeling inconvenient when all Hyungwon had been was kind to him. Disrupting him like that, when he was in pain— it felt wrong.

“If you want me to leave and let you rest, I—”

“I don’t want you to leave,” Hyungwon said, his voice soft but firm, no doubt in his tone. “I like having you here.”

Truth be told, Changkyun didn’t want to leave either - he’d barely just arrived, he wanted to spend more time with Hyungwon, so hearing that Hyungwon wanted the same eased the strain on his conscience.

“Alright,” Changkyun said quietly, not wanting to be too loud in order not to make Hyungwon’s headache worse, “I suppose I can stay a little longer.”

Hyungwon chuckled at his answer, the sound sweeter than windchimes; it loosened up all the knots in Changkyun’s heart. He watched Hyungwon sip his tea, quietly taking in his side profile, his delicate nose, his small ear, the color of his hair. That day it wasn’t looking fluffy and wavy as usual; it was straighter, looser, messier, like he hadn’t bothered to comb it at all after waking up.

“Go on,” Hyungwon suddenly said, voice light and humorous, startling Changkyun, “ask me the question. I can tell you want to.”

Changkyun hesitated, worried it would cause offense, but since Hyungwon had offered—

“Your hair,” he at last spoke, “is it real?”

Hyungwon laughed. “As real as I am.”

Changkyun huffed through his nose. “I am still undecided about how real you are. In fact, I’m starting to believe you are made of wishes and moonlight.” Those words were met with an unimpressed sideways look from Hyungwon, although Changkyun could tell he was biting back a smile. He digressed. “That is a very unusual color, though.”

Hyungwon nodded briefly, agreeing with that statement. “Mhm, it is. Some say that it turned white from fright after I’ve seen my first ghost.”

“Is that true?”

“Not in the slightest,” Hyungwon said, pausing to take a sip of his tea. “It adds to the mystery, however, so I make no effort to confirm or deny the rumors.”

Changkyun hummed, staring at the back of Hyungwon’s head. “How do I know it isn’t a very realistic wig?”

Hyungwon glanced at him over his shoulder and smiled before turning ahead again. “If you wanted to touch it, all you had to do was ask.”

Changkyun’s brain came to a sudden halt. “Pardon?”

“Come on. You have my permission,” Hyungwon insisted. “Just please bear in mind I have a headache, no yanking.”

“I wouldn’t yank it even if you didn’t have a headache,” Changkyun replied. “What kind of brute do you take me for?”

“Just making sure.”

Changkyun huffed at that, but said nothing else; he merely walked over to Hyungwon, the two steps that kept them apart, to stop right behind his chair. He hesitated for a moment, bringing his hand up but not finding it in himself to touch it. Hyungwon just waited, silently allowing Changkyun to take his time. He didn’t look tense, didn’t look like he had any reservations regarding Changkyun touching his hair, and that was what finally got him to make a move and run his fingers carefully through it. 

The first realization Changkyun came to was that, indeed, Hyungwon’s hair was not fake; his scalp was warm against his skin, the pale strands soft between his fingers. A wig could not feel like that, no matter the quality.

The second thing he noticed was that Hyungwon was very receptive to his touch, his head tipping back to welcome his hand, quietly requesting for him not to stop. Emboldened by this, Changkyun brought his other hand up and began to run his fingers through his hair with more confidence, with both hands. From his hairline all the way to his nape, across the sides by his temples, only enough pressure on his fingertips to massage and not cause him pain, nails scratching softly on occasion.

Hyungwon relaxed on his chair, leaned back towards Changkyun, his head tipped further back. He had his eyes closed, a faint smile on his face - Changkyun noticed a small mole on his bottom lip for the first time as he watched his peaceful expression, so close to him as he was, bathed by the stream of sunlight from the window. He was so beautiful, and Changkyun was so, so weak.

“How is the headache?” he asked quietly after a couple of minutes.

The corners of Hyungwon’s mouth quirked up. “What headache?”

Changkyun chortled, but never stopped his caresses on Hyungwon’s hair. “Liar.”

Hyungwon’s smile grew into a relaxed grin. “You know,” he sighed the words, “I don’t usually like it when people touch my hair. Or, rather, when people touch me in general. This, however… It feels nice.” His grin widened. “Were I a real cat, I would be purring.”

Changkyun would be lying if the words didn’t make the butterflies in his stomach flap their wings wildly.

“What a terrible cat you would be,” Changkyun teased, “first you permit the mouse to enter your home uninvited, then you freely give the mouse your possessions, and now you purr for him.”

“Yes, awful, a shame to all cats,” Hyungwon agreed with a grave tone, playful, opening his eyes to meet Changkyun’s above him. “Or maybe I’m a very patient cat,” he said, voice taking on a lower quality, almost a whisper, while bringing his hands up to Changkyun’s wrists, running them up along his arms, as far as he could reach, “and I’m just biding my time until the mouse is comfortable, so that when I sink my claws in he will have no chance of escaping.”

Changkyun felt the hunger coil in his gut, the need to have Hyungwon overpowering, primal, terrifying. “It will be a happy death.”

“Silly little mouse,” Hyungwon murmured, eyes locked with Changkyun’s as if transfixed.

They were quiet for a moment, lost in each other; Changkyun was idly scratching Hyungwon’s nape, while Hyungwon had his hands resting on Changkyun’s forearms, thumbs drawing lazy circles over his clothes. It felt peaceful. Easy. It felt right.

He could kiss him. He could kiss Hyungwon. All he had to do was lean down, press their lips together.

Maybe he should.

“Have you ever craved something,” Hyungwon suddenly spoke, voice low as if afraid he would break the peace of that moment, “craved something so bad without noticing or knowing what it was, only to realize it when you’ve finally found it?”

Changkyun licked his lips, gone dry with want, and whispered in reply, “Once or twice.”

Hyungwon giggled, smile bright like the afternoon sun shining outside. Changkyun only had to lean down. Hyungwon would taste of lavender tea. He wanted to taste. Taste him.

He let his hands fall from where they have been idling on his hair, down the sides of Hyungwon’s long, pale neck, and further down still over his shoulders, his collarbones. The fabric of his shirt was light, thin; he could feel the warmth of his skin under his palms even with that layer of cloth in the way, much like Hyungwon certainly could feel his touch. Hyungwon’s hands were still placed atop his arms, but he could feel how he was gripping him the slightest bit tighter, anticipating something.

He risked leaning closer, just enough that Hyungwon would be able to notice, to see if he would try to put distance between them; he didn’t. He kept still, looking up at Changkyun over him. They were so close now, close enough Changkyun could feel the tides of Hyungwon’s breath hitting his skin.

One kiss. One brief kiss, it was all he wanted, just one—

The sudden sound of footsteps coming up the stairs startled both of them, Changkyun jumping back, away from Hyungwon, while Hyungwon himself quickly got up from his chair and hurried around it.

“Behind the door,” Hyungwon whispered to him as he moved towards said door; he didn’t have to tell Changkyun twice.

Fast as lightning, Changkyun pressed himself against the wall next to the door, trying to make himself as small as possible, but Hyungwoon shook his head. Changkyun gave him a puzzled look, the footsteps coming closer fast. Hyungwon took his hand and pulled him forward, away from the wall, and whispered next to his ear, “He’ll be able to see you through the seam between the door and the wall, so stay here.” He finished by pushing Changkyun’s shoulder gently to turn him sideways, so Changkyun’s back would be turned to the entrance.

And Hyungwon himself opened the door, before Guhn even had the chance to knock.

“What is it now?” Hyungwon asked immediately, opening the door until it had hit Changkyun’s back. Changkyun noticed Hyungwon had leaned against it, completely blocking Guhn’s view of anything that could be behind that door. “Is there something else you need to yell at me about?”

Guhn’s reply came in a baffled tone, like he, too, wasn’t expecting Hyungwon to open that door so fast. “Why must every conversation be a battlefield with you?”

“Because you’re always the one to throw the first punch, so call it a preemptive defense on my part,” Hyungwon answered. Changkyun held his breath in order not to make any noise.

“Oh, for—” Guhn said; Changkyun could almost hear his eyes rolling. “Do you sit up here all day like a princess in her mighty tower, just coming up with new ways to rile me up?”

“If I’m the princess, I guess that makes you the fire-breathing dragon that guards the tower,” Hyungwon answered back, deadpan; Changkyun had to bite his lips not to burst into a fit of laughter, something Hyungwon noticed right away. He brought his hand up to cover Changkyun’s mouth, muffle any sounds, and leaned a little heavier against the door. “Now what do you want?”

Guhn exhaled a sharp puff of air. “I’ve come all the way here to apologize for my harsh words, but I see you are more interested in keeping things hostile between us.”

“Harsh words?” Hyungwon echoed with a scoff. “That’s a mild way to put it.”

“Hyungwon—”

Changkyun glared at the wall ahead of him; he didn’t like the way Guhn spoke Hyungwon’s name, the way it rolled off his tongue. Where he wanted to laugh seconds ago, now all he wanted to do was growl like a territorial dog. He brought his own hands up, both of them, to hold the hand Hyungwon still had over his mouth - he just wanted to hold onto him, a feeble attempt of keeping Hyungwon’s focus on him. Hyungwon’s fingers twitched with surprise, but he didn’t try to dissuade Changkyun from the action, allowing him to hold his hand there.

Hyungwon was quick to interrupt Guhn. “You came to apologize, so go on, apologize.”

Guhn clicked his tongue, clearly annoyed. “I won’t if you don’t plan on accepting my apology.”

Changkyun turned his head slightly, just to be able to see Hyungwon’s face. He had an eyebrow raised, his expression one of quiet disdain. “That’s not how apologies work, which leads me to believe you’re not actually sorry.”

The breath Guhn drew in was audible, enough that Changkyun could count the seconds of his inhale. He could imagine he was asking the heavens for patience - he would too, in his place; Hyungwon certainly knew how to be difficult when he wanted to be. Changkyun stored the information away in his mind, for future reference.

“Very well,” Guhn finally said. “Will you join me for lunch in the gardens today? I’ve asked the cook to make your favorite foods.”

“Goodness, be still my heart, my favorite foods!” Hyungwon exclaimed, mocking, before his tone dropped once more. “All you are doing is making me more suspicious of your intentions. Will the food be poisoned? Have you finally come to your senses and realized that poison is a much more effective weapon than a pistol?”

The turn the conversation took alarmed Changkyun, his eyes widening in terror. Hyungwon, again, sensing his concern, began stroking his cheek with his thumb, soothing him the best way he could without revealing his presence. Changkyun allowed himself to lean into the touch, one of his hands moving up to Hyungwon’s wrist, fingers just barely sliding under his sleeve.

To add to Changkyun’s chagrin, he saw Guhn’s gloved hand reaching out to grip Hyungwon’s jaw, a gesture that he could only interpret as ‘possessive’. “What would I gain from killing my pretty dawn star?”

Hyungwon jerked his head away from the touch, and Guhn, luckily, retreated his hand. “You would gain nothing and lose everything.”

Changkyun was breathing harder, he realized, and forced himself to calm down again before Guhn heard him. Hyungwon was still stroking his cheek with his thumb; he tried focusing on that sensation instead.

“Yes, yes,” Guhn said, clearing his throat before proceeding. “Now, about lunch—”

“I will accept your invitation for lunch today,” Hyungwon quickly interrupted, and Changkyun couldn’t help but glare at him. He accepted the invitation? He shouldn’t— “But.”

Hyungwon’s addendum gave Changkyun a little hope, something that could not be said about Guhn.

“What?” he asked, obviously bothered already even if he hadn’t heard Hyungwon’s terms yet.

“I will not attend the luncheon you mentioned last night, the one at the Commodore’s residence,” Hyungwon declared, firm and factual.

“What!?” Guhn exclaimed, perplexed. “You have to go, all the important people in the city will be there!”

“All the more reason for me not to go,” Hyungwon said as if it was obvious. “You wouldn’t want me to— what was it that you said last time? Oh, ‘wag my tongue like an uncivilized mutt’, especially not to someone important.”

Changkyun bit back a smile. Maybe he didn’t have to worry so much about Hyungwon - he seemed to have everything under control.

There was a long pause, during which Changkyun assumed Guhn was glaring at Hyungwon, before he spoke again. “We’ll talk about this during lunch.”

“Superb,” Hyungwon replied blandly. “Anything else?”

“Not for the moment.”

Hyungwon, at last, removed his hand from Changkyun’s mouth, his stance changing to suggest he was about to close the door. “Very well, I’ll see you at lunch.”

Changkyun decided he had enough of playing nice and pushed the door closed with his back, right on Guhn’s face. Hyungwon jumped slightly back, surprised, before breaking into a smile at Changkyun’s petty act of rebellion.

They stayed quiet as they heard Guhn walk away, his footsteps always too heavy, too obvious, and once he had properly left, Changkyun arched an eyebrow at Hyungwon.

“Pretty dawn star? Lunch in the gardens?”

Hyungwon chuckled through his nose. “Jealous?”

Changkyun grimaced and looked away, rolling his shoulders dismissively the best way he could while still leaning on the door. “Just wondering about the nature of your relationship with Guhn.”

“Ah yes, the big question,” Hyungwon said, teasing. “We are business partners. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“And you two never—?”

“Oh, god no,” Hyungwon immediately said, shaking his head as if wanting to emphasize it. “I know what people whisper about us, about Guhn and I, and I will tell you this now so there is no more doubt in your mind: none of it is true.”

“And what is the truth?” Changkyun asked, glancing up at Hyungwon from under his lashes. “What are you to him? What is he to you?”

“As I said,” Hyungwon began, taking a step closer to Changkyun; that position was too similar to the one they found themselves in during their first meeting, when Hyungwon gave him directions to that very study, “we are business partners. I use my talents to make money, he invests the money, the money multiplies.”

“If that is so, why did he call you his ‘pretty dawn star’?”

Hyungwon brought a hand up to Changkyun’s neck only so he could run his fingertips over the silver chain of the locket around it; unlike the night in the alleyway, Changkyun didn’t flinch. “The thing about Charles,” he said after a moment gathering his thoughts, “is that, because we have a business contract, he believes that it gives him the right to own me. The nicknames aren’t about any fondness or romantic interest. He’s simply patronizing me.”

Changkyun wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than Guhn being attracted to Hyungwon - his blood was boiling all the same. “And what about this lunch?”

“His way of trying to keep me in line,” Hyungwon explained. Changkyun could feel the soft, feather-like touch of his fingers brush his collarbone; he shivered, breath catching in his lungs. “He thinks I will be more amenable to his wishes and behave if I’m in a good mood, and he does this especially after we have arguments such as the one you witnessed earlier. My favorite food, expensive gifts, compliments, whatever it takes for him to get back in my good graces.”

“Does it work?”

One corner of Hyungwon’s mouth quirked up into a smirk. “How can he get back in my good graces if he was never there to begin with?”

Changkyun allowed himself to smile a bit, one of his own hands coming up to rest atop Hyungwon’s, hold it over his chest. “If you dislike him so much, why do you remain here?”

“It’s not all bad, this life,” Hyungwon replied, his voice taking that lower, secretive, almost seductive tone. “It brought you to me.”

Changkyun looked down, away from Hyungwon’s eyes; it suddenly felt like too much. What was he doing? Sneaking around with someone like Hyungwon, someone who had everything, trading tender words despite not having any sort of tangible relationship. He was always so careful, always kept himself grounded and made safe choices regarding his feelings, and now— he didn’t even know what ‘safe’ was anymore. Was Hyungwon safe or was he just the shiny lure being dangled before him, waiting for him to bite to hook him in and reel him out?

It was too much. And yet—

The mere thought of putting distance between himself and Hyungwon gave him such a feeling of dread his immediate response was to shy away from it. Whatever strange connection he felt to Hyungwon, severing it felt like a mistake. He’d spent an entire month away from him after only one meeting, one meeting that could have lasted no more than five minutes, and every single day during that month he felt like he couldn’t breathe, like there was something heavy pushing down on his chest. It wasn’t natural, there was absolutely nothing natural about that entire situation, but fighting it was simply not an option.

He was attached to Hyungwon before he even met him. It was something he was slowly starting to realize - the day he’d heard of the party at the mansion, something had tugged on his heartstrings and whispered to him ‘ this is it, what you’ve been waiting for your whole life ’. At the time, he believed it to be about money, all the riches he would find, what a great opportunity it was, but in hindsight… It was Hyungwon. What he’d been looking for all along.

Hyungwon did mention Changkyun’s skepticism had its days numbered; he was inclined to believe that.

“When you say things like that,” Changkyun finally said, still unable to bring himself to meet Hyungwon’s eyes, “it makes it hard for me to believe you haven’t bewitched me somehow.”

Jooheon was probably right, there was something supernatural at play there, he just didn’t know what it was. Not yet, anyway.

Hyungwon’s reaction to that was to huff a short laugh through his nose, a little hitch forming between his brows. “Is that what you think this is?”

“I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what this is, I haven’t got a clue.”

“So your explanation is that I put a spell on you?” Hyungwon summed up. “I am a medium, not a witch.”

Changkyun felt his cheeks heat up with shame, kicked himself in his thoughts for voicing that theory, one he’d always found silly himself.

“It’s not— it’s not my explanation,” Changkyun said, defensive. “Jooheon is the one who put it in my head.”

“Ah, your rabbit-hearted friend,” Hyungwon said, “he’s quite afraid of me. I suppose this explains why.”

Changkyun swallowed, regret swirling around his heart, clogging his throat. He shouldn’t have said anything, shouldn’t have opened his mouth; he felt like he’d done something wrong. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I wasn’t offended,” Hyungwon replied; he did pull his hand back from Changkyun’s grasp, though. Changkyun felt that loss of physical contact all through his body. “I understand your reasons for considering such a thing as an explanation for this— attachment . I also understand your reasons to be suspicious of it. And of me.”

Changkyun blinked and immediately shook his head to denounce that affirmation. “I’m not suspicious of you.”

Hyungwon gave him an incredulous look and began stepping away. “You just accused me of bewitching you—”

 “I’m sorry!” Changkyun exclaimed, grabbing onto Hyungwon’s arm to keep him from leaving his side. “I didn’t mean it like that, I— I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Hyungwon looked down at Changkyun’s hand on his arm for a few seconds, before nodding slowly to acknowledge his words. “I know. It’s alright.”

“Hyungwon—”

“You should probably leave now,” Hyungwon suddenly said, raising his head to meet Changkyun’s eyes again, “I’ll escort you out, make sure Guhn doesn’t see you.”

“I don’t want to leave,” Changkyun said firmly. “Not like this.”

Hyungwon stared at him for a moment and sighed, shaking his head to himself as if in disbelief. “All of these voices in my head and yours are by far the most confusing.”

“I don’t want to leave knowing you are upset because of me,” Changkyun explained softly, his hand traveling down the length of Hyungwon’s forearm until he could take his hand again. “I spoke without thinking, I didn’t mean to sound as if I was suspicious of you or your intentions, I— I’m just trying to make sense of these feelings.”

Hyungwon’s hand was lax in his grasp, allowing him to keep a hold on it but making no effort to hold Changkyun’s hand in return; it was making Changkyun more anxious.

“The way you spoke,” Hyungwon began, voice only slightly louder than a whisper, “it made it sound as if you believe you are the only one feeling like this.” Changkyun’s heart dropped upon hearing those words, the truth in them. “Or that I’m the one to blame.”

“That’s not—”

“I can’t control this any better than you can.”

“Hyungwon,” Changkyun called his name gently, giving his hand a tug to get his attention, “I’m sorry.”

Hyungwon inhaled long and slow through his nose, eyes falling to Changkyun’s hand on his and murmured, “Unhealthy attachments indeed.”

Changkyun saw in that a chance to lighten the mood, and repeated the line he’d used earlier. “The ‘unhealthy’ part might be up for debate.”

Seeing Hyungwon smile was all Changkyun needed to know they would be alright after that heavy exchange. To feel Hyungwon finally hold his hand back just sealed that certainty.

“I accept your apology,” Hyungwon said after a moment, meeting his gaze again, “but you truly should be on your way, before Guhn comes back.”

“Always sending me away,” Changkyun said with an affected sigh, “it’s ‘go home, little mouse’ this, ‘you should leave’ that.”

With a roll of his eyes, Hyungwon laughed and said, “Very well, permit me to invite you over, for a change.” Changkyun arched an eyebrow at him, quizzical, and Hyungwon dutifully elaborated, “The day after tomorrow, Guhn will be out attending that luncheon at the Commodore’s residence. The one you already know I won’t be present for.”

Realization dawned on Changkyun, and it probably showed on his face from the way Hyungwon smiled at him.

“Come over around midmorning,” Hyungwon said, concluding his invitation, “you’ll enter this place through the front door.”

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Before they even entered the residence, Kihyun already knew it was far too expensive for them to afford - not for very long, anyway. It was uptown, for starters, in a lower-to-middle-class neighborhood, already a screaming contrast to where they were living, at the very fringes of the city. Of course, it would be an improvement for Hoseok, if not all of them, to live where the air was cleaner, where there were fewer buildings making everything stuffy and dark, but this place—

They just couldn’t afford it.

Kihyun looked over at Hyunwoo, giving him his best ‘we need to talk’ face when their eyes met. Hyunwoo ducked his head and said nothing. Hoseok, too interested in the change of scenery, didn’t notice the exchange.

It was a small, three-story building; they would be looking at the topmost apartment that day, since a higher floor was their ideal - the higher the building, the more air circulation, the fewer people around.

Thank heavens Kihyun convinced Hoseok and Hyunwoo to at least dress a little fancier than their usual worn-out clothes. If they were looking at a middle-class residence, they needed to at least look middle-class. Although… Hoseok had lost so much weight that most of the clothes he was wearing were Kihyun’s. It shouldn’t break his heart so thoroughly as it did, to see his lover wearing his clothes, but the healthy Hoseok would have never , not in a million years, managed to fit into Kihyun’s coats and shirts and trousers. And now… now he did.

They followed the landlord inside the building and up the winding stairs to the third floor, listening to the stout, chubby man describe the better qualities of the apartment. Good lighting, lots of windows, very open, two bedrooms, it already came with an icebox and a copper bathtub, and on and on and on.

Truthfully, Kihyun was tempted. That place was, indeed, the ideal for them. The neighborhood was quiet, the people there unassuming and private, and Hoseok would be able to recover much better there. The problem was, their meager savings would run out very fast if they closed the deal. They’d be able to stay a few months, maybe four or five, and if they wished to carry on living there they would have to have a steady income by then - something Kihyun already knew they wouldn’t have.

Kihyun had a goal in mind, and that goal involved purchasing a property they couldn’t be kicked out of. It would be theirs . No monthly fees to worry about, no landlords breathing down their necks, looking for any excuses to either raise the price of the rent or toss them out into the street.

If they closed the deal on that apartment, Kihyun’s master plan would be out the window.

The temptation grew stronger once they were inside the apartment proper, when Kihyun could see how truly lovely everything was. He could envision the three of them living there, even, lounging about in front of the large windows of the living room, laughing, comfortable in each other’s arms. There was more space for Hoseok to walk around, get a little more exercise, and the air didn’t smell like garbage like it did in their current apartment.

And it had two bedrooms. That was definitely an upgrade, one that Hoseok would be happy about.

But still—

“Hyunwoo,” Kihyun called a few moments after the landlord excused himself, saying they could have a moment to discuss their thoughts about the place privately, “may we have a word?”

Hyunwoo gave him a look, somewhere between guilty and huffy, before he glanced over at Hoseok as if saying ‘he’s standing right there’. Kihyun rolled his eyes and turned to Hoseok.

“Bunny, I need to talk to Woo for a moment,” he announced. “Stay put, it’ll just take a minute.”

Hoseok looked over his shoulder at him and rolled his eyes, but agreed with a nod before he turned towards the window again, where he’d been watching the movement on the streets below. Kihyun grinned smugly at Hyunwoo and with a motion of his head indicating the bedroom at the end of the hall, he made his way over trusting Hyunwoo would follow. He did.

Once they were inside the empty bedroom, the door shut behind them, Kihyun immediately began speaking in hisses. “We can’t afford this place, what were you thinking?”

“Yes, we can!” Hyunwoo responded, in the same low voice. “We have more than enough money saved up to be able to—”

“Living here will kill all our savings, Woo,” Kihyun cut him off. “Sure, we’ll be fine for a few months, but think of the amount of money we’d have to spend - it’s not just the price of rent, it’s gas, it’s water, it’s taxes, it’s food . It’s Hoseok’s medicine, clothes, basic supplies. We can’t afford this, not unless one of us gets a long-term job that pays relatively well.”

“Doesn’t Hoseok deserve this kind of comfort?” Hyunwoo questioned, stepping closer to Kihyun so their whispered argument didn’t have to become any louder. “We don’t know how much time he has left, if he can spend his last months living in a decent apartment, isn’t that good enough?”

The question pierced Kihyun right through his heart. “You— you’re giving up on him?”

“No! Never!” Hyunwoo was quick to deny. “I’m just being realistic! He’s running out of time and we’re not anywhere closer to curing him, we need to be prepared for the worst.”

Kihyun opened his mouth to protest but no sound came out. He shook his head and inhaled shakily, a hand coming up to cover his mouth, eyes filling up with tears. He was beginning to crack, and the cracks grew wider each time he heard things he was not prepared to hear, suckerpunches in the form of words. Hyunwoo was at his side in a second, gathering him in his arms like a child, and Kihyun leaned into him, allowed him to hold him for a moment. He just needed a moment to be weak, just a single moment, before he had to pretend to be strong again.

“I’ll never give up on him,” Hyunwoo whispered into Kihyun’s hair, lips pressed to the top of his head. “I’ll fight for him for as long as I possibly can, as hard as my body is able and even harder still, but we have to face reality, Ki. Living in denial and hope won’t do us or him any good.”

“It feels as if the more I try to keep him close, the further away he gets from me,” Kihyun admitted, face hidden against Hyunwoo’s broad chest. “Like I’m trying to hold onto sand.”

“I know,” Hyunwoo said. “I know. That’s why I think we should move here.”

That sobered up Kihyun very fast and he promptly shook his head. “No.”

“Ki, listen—”

“I said no ,” he repeated, firm, and pulled away from Hyunwoo’s embrace. “I understand your reasons for wanting this for Hoseok,” he began, controlling his voice to keep it low and steady, “but you have to remember that, no matter how long he has, you and I will continue on. Spending everything we have in this place— what will happen to us? Where will you and I go, if he happens to pass?”

Hyunwoo cursed under his breath, ran a shaky hand through his hair. “I hadn’t thought about it.”

“It’s alright,” Kihyun said after taking another deep breath. He was cracking, but he couldn’t fall apart yet - it felt as if he was the only sane one of the three of them, with Hoseok wanting to be sent away and Hyunwoo making plans to give Hoseok a comfortable passing. Kihyun was the only one with the mindset of the three of them staying together no matter what, so he would be the one to take the reins of that entire situation. Their situation. “We’ll find someplace else, Woo, somewhere cheaper, just until we can afford our own place. That was the plan, right?”

Hyunwoo swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down with the action. “Yeah. That was the plan.”

“You’re afraid,” Kihyun concluded, bringing his hands up to cup Hyunwoo’s face lovingly. “I’m afraid too, and I understand what you tried to do. Of course we’ll put Hoseok and his comfort first, but we can’t forget ourselves. If we can’t save him— we’ll have to carry on, and I know, I know this is not something you want to think about, but it’s the truth.”

Then a thought hit Kihyun, one he hadn’t considered before, and he dropped his hands from Hyunwoo’s face, stepped back.

“Unless— unless you don’t expect to be with me if Hoseok is not here.”

Hyunwoo stared at him in complete shock, and that should have been the first clue Kihyun had gotten everything wrong, but in his mind it all made perfect sense - Hyunwoo keeping secrets, sneaking around, leaving Kihyun out of important things such as their efforts to make money, to keep money—

“No! Kihyun, no, that couldn’t be more wrong,” Hyunwoo said, grabbing Kihyun’s hands, pulling him closer.

“Are you going to leave me when is just the two of us? Is Hoseok the thread that ties us together?” Kihyun asked, still sifting through his chaotic thoughts. “Have you found someone else? Someone with more means, someone—”

“No!” Hyunwoo was quick to interrupt him. “No, you and Hoseok are everything to me, I would never betray you - either of you - like this.”

Kihyun pressed his lips together tight, tried to will his cracks to stop spreading, the fissures in his heart to stop growing. Not yet, it wasn’t time to fall apart yet.

“Blessed be our lifetime together for allowing me to recognize when you lie,” Kihyun said, sounding more level than he felt. “I believe you.”

Hyunwoo breathed out, relieved, and pressed a long kiss to Kihyun’s lips - one he reciprocated. Once they parted, Hyunwoo whispered to him, “I’m sorry for giving you reason to doubt my love for you. I’ll do better.”

Kihyun huffed and smiled, shaking his head lightly. “You don’t have to do better. I would appreciate it, however, if you were a little more forthcoming with your thoughts, your reasoning, so I don’t have to reach these sorts of conclusions anymore.”

 Hyunwoo’s answer was a nod of his head and kiss to Kihyun’s forehead. It felt like enough. For the time being. “We won’t move here, then.”

“We’ll find a place for us,” Kihyun said, taking Hyunwoo by the hand and starting to move backwards to the door. “For now, Hoseok is probably wondering why we’re taking so long.”

“He might think we’re…” Hyunwoo began and trailed off, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively to Kihyun. Silly as it was, it did make him laugh.

“You look innocent but your mind is completely rotten,” Kihyun said as he opened the door and guided Hyunwoo out the room. “Behave, we are not at home and we’re supposed to be brothers.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Hyunwoo replied, and only to provoke Kihyun by contradicting himself, he gave his ass a squeeze as he walked by, taking the lead to get to Hoseok. Kihyun’s only reaction to that was to squeak and jump where he stood with the unexpected display of affection.

Once he finally reached the two, Kihyun was still smiling and Hoseok was still at the window, although he was quite focused on something outside.

“Ki, come see this,” Hoseok called after glancing over his shoulder and meeting Kihyun’s eyes. Kihyun obliged, coming to stand next to Hoseok by the window. “There, on the street beyond this one.”

Hoseok pointed towards the aforementioned street, and Kihyun had to all but press his face to the glass to be able to see what Hoseok was trying to show him, the angle too narrow for a clear view. Still, the sight was quite obvious.

It was a parade, colorful and loud, reds and golds coloring the grey streets.

“The circus will have its opening performance this weekend,” Hyunwoo said in a way of explaining what they were seeing, since it was too far away for them to know. “It seems they are advertising.”

“Can we go?” Hoseok asked, childlike wonder in his eyes, and Kihyun smiled to himself.

“The circus, bunny? I didn’t know you were interested in it.”

“I’m interested in anything that gives me plausible reason to leave the house,” Hoseok explained. “I’d like to go, very much so.”

Kihyun exchanged a glance with Hyunwoo, an entire conversation contained in only two seconds. “I suppose it’s fair, since we won’t be moving to this apartment.”

“We won’t?” Hoseok asked and frowned, looking from Kihyun to Hyunwoo. “You two seemed to have liked it.”

“It’s a little too expensive,” Hyunwoo was the one the reply.

“We’ll find a place better suited for us,” Kihyun said. “And yes, we can go to the circus.”

Hoseok beamed at Kihyun. “Yes! But—” he paused and made a pout, “can I wear my own clothes to the circus? Yours are a bit tight around the arms.”

Kihyun snorted and nodded to agree. “Yes, bunny, you can wear your own clothes.”

“Thank goodness,” Hoseok said, sighing with relief. “And while you two were having your secret discussion, I was thinking.”

Hyunwoo hummed, eyes lingering on the circus parade beyond. “Thinking of what?”

“We still have the ship,” Hoseok said. “If all else fails, we could live there.”

Kihyun blinked and turned to Hyunwoo, both of them considering Hoseok’s words. Kihyun chuckled to himself. “You know what,” he said, “you are right. We do have the ship. But do you know something else?”

“I think you gave our Ki an idea,” Hyunwoo murmured to Hoseok, who grinned at him in response.

“There are places along the river we could rent,” Kihyun said. “Small apartments, single rooms, surely we can find something there.”

Hoseok closed his eyes and sighed. “I’d love to be near the water again.”

“It’s settled, then,” Kihyun declared. “We’ll look for a place by the river, and if all else fails, our ship will be our home.”

“I’ll look around, see if I find anything interesting,” Hyunwoo said, and when Kihyun met his eyes, the feeling that passed between them eased his suspicions - whatever Hyunwoo was hiding from them had nothing to do with how Hyunwoo felt for him and Hoseok. Of that, at least, he was absolutely certain.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

The day was winding down, sky tinted orange, and Minhyuk decided to call it; it had been a slow day, not many customers around, and he was bored enough to forego any possible income that could arise later on. That and he was also— distracted.

If there was one thing Minhyuk was used to, was getting what he wanted. Sure, he had been rejected before - several times, in fact - but being said ‘no’ wasn’t something he was usually concerned about. He always had a backup plan; if one thing didn’t go as he wanted it to go, he could rely on the second option. No harm, no foul. Rejection didn’t bother him.

And then he met Jooheon.

Truth be told, when he first met Jooheon, he didn’t think much of him - he was cute, yes, and his reactions were amusing, but it didn’t go beyond that. Minhyuk had enough experience in that game to know when to pursue someone and when not to waste his time, and Jooheon fell on the latter category; he was not interested, and Minhyuk had a myriad of other options that were ready and eager to accept his advances.

Still, he was a friendly person. He liked socializing, he liked being on good terms with people, and Jooheon was sweet and fun to be around - when he wasn’t hiding or running away from him as if Minhyuk had the Plague, that is. So he did what he always did; he was nice to Jooheon, offered to help him whenever he could since he was his senior colleague at the circus, talked to him whenever they ran into each other. Jooheon was obviously reluctant to interact with him, but he was never rude - if Minhyuk talked to him, he talked to him back instead of trying to make up excuses to avoid him.

His grandma sure raised him well, Minhyuk would give him that.

Everything was fine the way it was. He had a cordial relationship with Jooheon, they were friendly work colleagues, and it was fine . Minhyuk would be glad if they continued being just that, didn’t require anything more, and then— then Jooheon had to go and play Knight In Shining Armor.

Minhyuk was anything but a damsel in distress, he didn’t need help from anyone and didn’t want help from anyone. He knew how to take care of himself, and sure, yes, he was sort of, maybe, perhaps, taking a beating that day, but he could have gotten out of that situation all by himself. Jooheon didn’t have to swoop in and come to his rescue.

But… he did.

He did.

He did and it threw Minhyuk off completely. It had changed everything, like the flash of light that heralds the clap of a thunderstrike. He simply couldn’t wrap his head around it - why, why would anyone in their right mind get involved in a situation like that? Especially someone like Jooheon, a pacifist and a scaredy-cat? That level of kindness… Minhyuk had seen it, but never experienced it. It was never directed at him, mostly because people who knew him knew he deserved every bit of trouble coming his way, and Minhyuk— most everyone knew him.

That made Jooheon the exception. Sure, Minhyuk knew that every rule had at least one exception, he’d just never encountered a living, breathing example of that.

It felt like something had broken inside of him, but not— not in a bad way. Like a dam breaking sort of way. It had broken like— like an army that breaks into the enemy’s fortress. Something that had been pushing and pushing against his walls, and his walls had finally given in to the strain and… snapped.

The dent it left behind looked like Jooheon’s dimple.

It was infuriating how he just couldn’t stop thinking about Jooheon, bordering the point of obsession. Worse, it wasn’t thinking about Jooheon the way he would usually think about his conquests, it wasn’t sexual, he wasn’t spending his every waking moment fantasizing about all the ways he would love to take Jooheon apart - or be taken apart by him, he wasn’t picky - it was— random. Random thoughts, at random times, regarding random things that always led down right back to Jooheon.

It’s not like he was doing it on purpose either - Jooheon had a way of popping into his head uninvited, no matter how Minhyuk tried to keep himself busy and focused on other things. Even chasing tail didn’t help anymore; it had lost the luster completely, after his last few encounters proved to be unfulfilling in an existential level.

Jooheon was to blame. Jooheon and his unnecessary act of heroism. And then kindness, because he’d taken care of his wounds after, as if saving him hadn’t been enough.

Nobody asked Jooheon to be a fairytale prince.

It was vexing. Minhyuk was vexed.

It would pass, though. Minhyuk had been thrown off his axis, but he would bounce back soon. It had been just a few days after all, certainly that— whatever it was would go away after a little while longer. He didn’t even have to see Jooheon every day, he could easily avoid him if he wanted to - they worked in completely different areas of the circus, didn’t need to constantly run into each other. Yes, all he had to do was put some distance between them, get his thoughts back in the proper order, and go back to being the person he was before, the person who just didn’t care.

He just had to avoid Jooheon for a while. Easy peasy. 

He also had to convince himself that he only kept Jooheon’s handkerchief in his breast pocket at all times because it was practical. That he never used it so it wouldn’t get dirty was simply him being finicky, and staring longingly at it was— it never happened. Nobody could prove it.

Minhyuk finished putting away all his props - the crystal ball, the tarot cards, the little notepad he kept under the desk to consult whenever he ran out of lines to recite to his customers. Despite having loose morals and a glaring lack of ethics, Minhyuk was very fond of his little Fortune Teller stall; while his life was a constant whirlwind of events and people and problems, that stall was the stillness he could always count on. It was— safe. A space for something he knew how to do, something he thought he was good at.

Lying.

Once everything was properly stored away, locked in the heavy wooden chest he kept behind the curtain at the back of his stall for safety, Minhyuk collected his coat, his hat, and started making his way towards the exit. It was a straight line from there, he could, in fact, see the cheap iron gates that lined the property just ahead, but upon hearing the sounds of music coming from the main tent, Minhyuk decided to swerve that way instead; the circus performers were rehearsing, judging from the nature of the noise, preparing for the fast-approaching opening night. He always liked to watch them practice - in fact, Minhyuk once wanted to become a performer himself, but he never quite found a talent worthy to be showcased in the ring. He could practice something, but— eh. Who has the energy for that, really?

Immediately upon entering the main tent, Minhyuk regretted his decision. Jooheon was there, leaning on the side of the stands, watching the rehearsal. Minhyuk could only see his back, the overlarge coat covering his shape thoroughly, but Jooheon had become such an object of fascination to him he could recognize him by just looking at the hair strands peeking from under his newspaper boy cap, spilling over the back of his coat’s collar.

He should turn around and leave. He’d seen the rehearsal many times before, he could miss this one.

Before he knew it, though, he was already standing next to Jooheon, hands shoved in the pockets of his trousers, shoulders drawn in defensively. Jooheon flinched when he noticed his presence, so focused on the rehearsal as he was, but he quickly relaxed again and turned his attention to the ring. It made him happy that Jooheon wasn’t afraid of him anymore.

Minhyuk tried not looking at Jooheon. He really tried. The acrobats were going over their number right in front of him, and that’s where he tried to keep his gaze on, but after only a couple of minutes, he found himself staring at Jooheon instead. Jooheon was— he was the most lovable, lovely thing Minhyuk had ever laid his eyes on. The look in his eyes, that sparkle of fascination with which he was watching the tricks the acrobats were doing in the ring, his dimpled smile, how genuine his every reaction was.

Jooheon exuded something which was not usually attractive to Minhyuk - adorableness, naiveté, a certain innocence. Jooheon wasn’t innocent, of course, nobody could remain innocent for long in that day and age, but… the illusion of it was there. Something that made it feel like Jooheon was on a higher plane than Minhyuk. The high-hanging apple, red and shiny and so very tempting, too far up the tree for him to reach. Too good for him.

Made him want to take a bite out of him even more. How juicy, how sweet would he taste on his tongue— 

Minhyuk forced himself to tear his eyes away from Jooheon, kept them locked ahead at the ring, once he realized the turn his thoughts were taking. He took a deep breath, let the acrid smell of sawdust fill his nose along with, hopefully, a healthy whiff of self-control. Jooheon wasn’t interested. He wasn’t interested, and Minhyuk didn’t chase after uninterested partners. Having those thoughts would lead to nothing but frustration and Minhyuk knew better than to let himself go down that road.

And then he was staring at Jooheon again, taking in the way his dark brown eyes reflected the lamps hanging inside the tent, little constellations in his gaze; how his lips, heart-shaped and rosy, were stretched into a sunny smile, bright and sincere; the dimples in his chubby cheeks begging to be poked, the rise of his cheekbones begging to be kissed.

Minhyuk looked down instead, at the ground, at his feet, much safer a scenery than Jooheon’s adorable face. Except not really, because once he looked down, his gaze went directly to Jooheon's hand, just sitting there against his body. Minhyuk had the strange urge to reach out and hold it. He wondered how it would feel to thread their fingers together, if Jooheon’s hands would be cold - Minhyuk would gladly warm them up if they were, hold them between both of his own, against his chest, and kiss his fingertips, and— 

Realization hit him like a mean kick to the groin.

Oh no.

Oh no, no, no—

“How’s your lip?”

Minhyuk jumped at the question, whipping his head up again to find Jooheon staring at him strangely, confusion in his pretty eyes.

“It’s— It’s fine, it’s healing fast!” Minhyuk replied, loud, too loud in his panic. Jooheon flinched, even more taken aback.

“Uhm… okay,” Jooheon mumbled and shifted slightly away from Minhyuk, pressed himself closer to the stands.

Awesome, now Jooheon thought Minhyuk was going mad.

Minhyuk turned himself entirely towards the ring ahead, his body stiff as a board, the beating of his heart so strong it was rattling him from head to toe. It felt as if he was standing at the edge of a precipice, just one step away from personal calamity and there was a hard, unforgiving wind blowing at his back, inching him forward beyond his control. He couldn’t stop it, how can someone stop the wind from blowing? He was going to be pushed off the cliff and he would fall

For the first time, Minhyuk was the one who ran away from Jooheon, zipping out of there faster than one could say “tactical retreat”.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

It was much easier to reach the mansion through the main path, the rise less steep than the hill Changkyun usually climbed, and, as he’d always thought, arriving at the mansion through the main path and seeing the looming building before him was incredibly intimidating. Changkyun felt out of place there, tiny and insignificant, like the structure itself was mocking him.

He ignored that sensation, though - he had better things to think about, such as the image that greeted him as he approached the entrance.

Hyungwon opened the wide double doors before Changkyun even finished climbing the stone steps, a bright smile on his face and eyes sparkling under the morning sun. His breath caught in his throat, his heart skipped a beat, he felt that strange sensation of cold in the pit of his stomach - of all the times he’d seen Hyungwon, that was the moment he would always go back to when he thought of him: Hyungwon smiling at him, welcoming and warm, his hair moving with the soft breeze.

There was something about Hyungwon’s demeanor that was different from what he’d been used to - he seemed almost happy, relaxed and comfortable unlike Changkyun had ever seen him before.

He was breathtaking.

Again, he wasn’t dressed up in his fancy clothes, opting for another loose white shirt and simple trousers - the difference from the last time he’d been there was that the shirt was tucked in and he could catch a glimpse of a white lace undershirt peeking out from his sleeves and the open collar, covering his neck. Hyungwon seemed to have a thing with lace - it was the third time he saw him wearing lace items. It suited him.

“Good morning,” Hyungwon greeted him once Changkyun finally reached the landing, that warm smile still on his lips. “You really came.”

Changkyun arched a confused brow at the comment. “You invited me.”

Hyungwon shrugged, averting his eyes to the scenery behind Changkyun. He almost looked embarrassed - but only almost. “An invitation is not a decree, you were free to decline.” His voice sounded as soft as his hair looked that morning. “Besides… I wasn’t sure where we stood after the way we parted last time.”

Changkyun ducked his head, the tips of his ears feeling conspicuously warm. Yes, he didn’t forget, couldn’t forget the tense conversation they had shortly before he left, how Changkyun’s careless words had wounded Hyungwon - not his intention, but the consequence nonetheless. That Hyungwon invited him back at all was a surprise, and Changkyun wasn’t about to let a chance of truly making amends with Hyungwon slip through his fingers.

Changkyun put his hands in his pockets, unsure what to do with them; he tried to dress up a little that day, tried not to look as much like a street rat as he usually did. His best shirt, his best trousers, the new coat and the pair of boots he’d recently bought using some of the money Hyungwon himself had provided the night they met. For once he wanted to make a positive impression, look more like a guest than the intruder he’d been so far. He hoped it worked.

“For as long as you want me around, I’ll always accept your invitation,” Changkyun said, simple, honest, and Hyungwon smiled at him, a shy little thing that sent Changkyun’s heart spinning.

“That’s— that’s good to hear,” he said, then cleared his throat, motioning awkwardly for Changkyun to enter the mansion - he’d never seen Hyungwon looking so unsure, that mask of confidence, of arrogance, nowhere to be found. It was adorable. “Well then, come in.”

Changkyun did so gladly, stepping through the door while looking around with unconcealed curiosity. Coming in from the front door felt much different than sneaking in through the windows, that was certain - the foyer was wide, grand, the ceiling arching up above them making it seem much higher than it was, making Changkyun feel small. The main stairs of the mansion stood ahead, wide, dark wood polished to a shine, and those, too, made him feel small.

He heard Hyungwon close the door behind him and then his footsteps approaching, coming to a stop by his side. “So?” Hyungwon asked. “What do you think?”

“I think it suits you, living in a place like this,” Changkyun replied, still looking around in a daze.

“Is that a good thing?”

“Yes,” he said, no hesitation, “it’s— regal.”

Hyungwon let out a short chuckle of surprise. “Implying I’m regal?”

“You are,” Changkyun, again, replied with no hesitation. “If you told me you were secretly royalty, I would believe you.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m no royal,” Hyungwon said, amused. “Do you want a tour?”

“That sounds great,” Changkyun said, tearing his eyes away from the structure of the mansion so he could look at Hyungwon instead. “It’ll be good to know the best spots to break in from, for the next time I come to steal from you.”

Hyungwon laughed and shook his head fondly, indicating with his head for Changkyun to follow him. Changkyun did, following just one step after him wanting to keep as close as possible.

Changkyun learned many new things during that house tour. The first one was, that place was much bigger than he’d first realized. Whenever he thought ‘this is probably the last room on the ground floor’, Hyungwon opened another door to reveal yet another room. There was a room for everything - in fact, so far, Hyungwon had taken him to three different libraries. Three . There was the room Hyungwon called the ‘séance room’, the one Changkyun was already acquainted with, but there were other similar rooms around as well, elegant sitting rooms to entertain guests that had more couches and armchairs and lacked any round tables. There was the den, a room that smelled strongly of cigars that Hyungwon didn’t enter, lingering in the doorway as Changkyun took a look around.

“I detest the smell,” Hyungwon explained, “it makes my headaches worse. It’s also where Guhn receives his illustrious friends, so I prefer to stay away.”

He didn’t need to explain further than that.

There was the music room, the one Changkyun had tried spying on during his first visit to the mansion, with its grand piano and soft pastel colors; there, he learned Hyungwon couldn’t play any musical instruments, and while he tried to learn to sing, he never quite mastered it. The dining room was grand, fitting for the building, with a high ceiling and a chandelier Changkyun could swear was made of crystals - he was too shy to ask and Hyungwon didn’t offer the reply. Hyungwon even took Changkyun to the servants’ quarters - or better, the servants’ wing, since a whole side of the mansion was meant for the servants alone. He introduced Changkyun to the ladies who worked in the kitchen, three of them he hadn’t met and Kyla, the one he’d encountered in Hyungwon’s study. That wing was closed off, separate from the rest of the mansion; there were, in fact, only two doors that gave access to that side, one that led from the dining room to the kitchens, and one closer to the entrance, by the main stairs.

None of it made the servants’ wing any less opulent, though.

There was a small inner courtyard between the main area and the servants’ wing, just an open, square area with a round pond in the middle. There were no fish in it, only a quantity of aquatic flowers floating on the surface. Changkyun quite liked that place. Hyungwon, noticing his admiration, pointed up to a window on the second floor, sheer white curtains floating in the breeze.

“That’s my room,” Hyungwon said. “It’s good to know you’ll at least like the view from there.”

Changkyun blushed and didn’t make any comments. 

From there, Hyungwon took him back through the dining room and into a partially hidden door that led to the rotunda - Changkyun had no idea that place even had a rotunda, but alas, there it was. They climbed up the spiral stairs to the second floor; they could have continued up to the third floor, but Hyungwon stopped there, the landing a small room with three open archways leading to different areas. There was another parlor on one side, like a lounging area, with a comfortable-looking couch and an even more comfortable-looking recliner by the tall windows. The second arch led to the landing of the main stairs, and Changkyun realized that he could have hidden there instead of fleeing to the ground floor during his attempt to rob the place. He didn’t know it was there then, but now he knew - not that he would have made anything different. If he had, he wouldn’t have met Hyungwon.

The second floor consisted basically of bedrooms. When asked how many there were, Hyungwon said he’d never counted, but that he guessed there were about eight or ten bedrooms - not counting the ones in the servants’ wing. And Changkyun’s guess that the two doors in the corridor outside the reading room, from where he entered the place the first time, were bedrooms proved correct - he was wrong, however, in thinking there was anything valuable in them. The bedrooms there were guest rooms and contained only basic furniture and linens.

“We keep most of the guest bedrooms locked,” Hyungwon informed. “They’re only used when Guhn has his friends staying over, and that’s very rare.”

“What about your friends?” Changkyun asked.

Hyungwon’s answer was just to laugh. Changkyun didn’t know what was so funny.

Hyungwon pointed to the door by the stairs that led to the third floor and said, “That’s Guhn’s office. He locks it when he’s not in there, the same way I lock my office when I’m not there.”

“Why?”

“Let’s just say we don’t trust each other.” Hyungwon’s simple reply was close to what Changkyun was expecting. “We do the same with our respective bedrooms. I keep the keys to my own room and study with me at all times, in fact.”

“Except when you let random thieves borrow them,” Changkyun corrected him in a teasing tone, which prompted a giggle from Hyungwon.

“Not ‘random’,” Hyungwon murmured, and continued on with the tour, leading Changkyun back towards the rotunda. In his normal volume, he said, “Guhn’s bedroom is the main suite, it’s located on the other side of the landing. It overlooks the front of the mansion.”

“But we’re not going there,” Changkyun concluded.

Hyungwon shook his head, thus confirming the guess. “No reason to go there. I would advise you to stay away, in fact, lest you end up triggering some trap or another. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

That was such a ridiculous idea that Changkyun simply had to laugh. Hyungwon shot him a sideways glance and smiled, not for sharing Changkyun’s amusement, but for finding it endearing; or, at least, that’s what Changkyun assumed it was.

“My room is right through here,” Hyungwon informed as they crossed the rotunda to the last archway, which opened into a long corridor lined with windows on one side, a single door on the other. Hyungwon pulled a bundle of keys from the back pocket of his trousers, easily finding the correct one for the door and unlocking it. He pushed it open and gestured for Changkyun to enter first.

Changkyun hesitated, suddenly feeling self-conscious - he was about to enter Hyungwon’s bedroom . His study was one thing, but his bedroom— his bedroom was the most private area of that mansion, and there he was, letting Changkyun enter without a second thought.

Taking a subtle breath to get a grip on himself, Changkyun mumbled an ‘excuse me’ and shyly made his way inside, taking everything in with curious eyes. The smell hit him first, flowers and honey, and promptly he felt himself relax - Hyungwon’s gentle scent had that effect on him.

The decor there was very minimalistic, all whites and dark browns, elegant but cozy. The furniture was sparse, a couple of dressers on one side, a large armoire at the back, a vanity sitting diagonally on a far corner. His attention was immediately drawn to Hyungwon’s bed - it was wide, with four tall wooden posts, and a canopy made of sheer fabric so delicate it gave the impression it would dissolve in Changkyun’s fingers were he to touch it. The number of pillows there almost made him laugh, not for finding it comical, but because the image of Hyungwon sleeping surrounded by all those pillows made him feel fuzzy on the inside. The pillowcases, the duvet, the sheets, all of it was pristine white, spotless. 

“I’m not very good with interior design, I’m afraid,” Hyungwon said, standing at the door, looking around his own room. “It’s quite plain.”

“Not at all,” Changkyun said. “It’s very comfortable here. It feels welcoming.”

“Because you are welcome,” Hyungwon pointed out, finally stepping inside and moving to the door at the far end of the room. “There’s a bathroom through here, and through the bathroom, there’s a second, smaller bedroom.”

“Oh?” Changkyun asked, curious. “You have two bedrooms?”

Hyungwon chuckled as he pushed open the bathroom door. Changkyun could see a spacious porcelain bathtub the moment he did. “Technically, yes. I don’t use the second one, though. Not yet anyway.” He crossed the bathroom - which was also quite large - and unlocked the second door. “The only access to this room is through mine.”

“What’s the use of it?” Changkyun asked, following Hyungwon and stopping next to him to peek into the dark room. The curtains there were closed, so the only light was that which leaked in from the other room.

“I believe this was supposed to be a maiden’s room, once. The main room for a young lady, this one for her company maid.”

“Makes sense.”

“Mhm,” Hyungwon hummed, and turned to Changkyun with a soft smile on his lips. “If you ever need a place to hide, I guess this place is well suited.”

Changkyun snorted at that. “Thank you, your concern for my well-being is touching.”

“I do what I can,” Hyungwon said airily, and made his way back to his room proper. Changkyun followed. “There are still a couple of rooms upstairs you haven’t seen yet.”

“Other than your study?”

“Yes. There’s a storage room next to it, we keep some interesting things there.”

Changkyun was about to ask what those things were, when something caught Changkyun’s eye. Sitting atop one of the dressers, there was a small display of jewelry - a few necklaces, some rings. Changkyun approached to inspect them - they all had large ornaments on them, decorated with intricate patterns created from something that looked like very fine strings.

“What are these?” he asked, looking at an oval pendant, the delicate strings drawing a tree with swirly leaves. He heard Hyungwon’s footsteps approaching until he was standing next to him.

“Oh, you found my collection,” Hyungwon commented, and something in his tone made Changkyun raise his head to look at him. “These are all mourning jewelry.”

Changkyun blinked. “You mean—” He looked at the items again, realization slowly sinking in, and then looked up at Hyungwon again. “Are these made with dead people’s hair?”

Hyungwon was obviously trying not to laugh. “Not all of them,” he said, “that one is carved in bone.”

Changkyun looked over at the piece Hyungwon mentioned and, indeed, there was a cameo pendant with a smooth black backdrop and a scorpion ornament in the middle, sculpted from a white material he’d previously thought to be seashell or ivory. It was a lovely piece, certainly, but—

Bone. Human bone.

Changkyun’s jaw dropped. “Why— isn’t this a little morbid?”

“Perhaps,” Hyungwon granted. “I do speak to the dead, though. And none of these are of people I don’t know, I am acquainted with them all.”

Changkyun frowned, looking over at the jewelry with more care now. There were many pieces of jewelry containing hair of the same color - dark brown, almost black. A family? Hyungwon’s? He wasn’t sure if he should ask, wasn’t sure if he even wanted to know. He could spot other hues, though - lighter brown, copper, blonde, a few gray ones. 

“Is it that strange to you?” Hyungwon asked after Changkyun went too long without speaking.

“It is a little shocking,” he admitted. “The more I think about it though, the more I understand. I can see why someone would want to keep a piece of a loved one around, to remind them they were there once.”

Hyungwon smiled at him and nodded. “You are right. In fact, I hear some make this type of jewelry not to mourn the dead, but to show affection for living loved ones. Lovers, most of the time.”

Changkyun met Hyungwon’s eyes and quickly looked away. He was tempted to ask for a lock of his hair to put inside the empty locket hanging from his neck - that would be too weird though, weirder than Hyungwon collecting dead people memorabilia.

“I understand how that could be— uh, romantic,” Changkyun stammered out.

“Oh, speaking of jewelry and mementos,” Hyungwon said, moving to the nightstand by his bed. Changkyun quietly followed. “I think you’ll find these amusing.”

“Please tell me you don’t collect fingernails or eyeballs or other strange things like that,” Changkyun said jokingly, and Hyungwon laughed.

“I don’t, don’t worry,” he replied while rummaging through a drawer.

Changkyun looked around as he waited, his eyes falling on Hyungwon’s bed again. He reached out, brushed his fingers over the canopy and found that it was as soft as it looked, even if not as frail. He touched the duvet as well, wondered how it would feel to lie on it - preferably with Hyungwon. A wicked part of him wanted to pull Hyungwon up only to push him down on that bed, climb over him and kiss him all over, leave bite marks behind every expanse of skin to lay claim to him, mark Hyungwon as his own, so everyone knew not to cross into his territory. He wanted it so bad his pulse spiked, a wave of heat rushing through his body. 

He turned his gaze away and forced himself to think about puppies instead, before Hyungwon’s strange telepathy warned him of his inappropriate thoughts.

“Ah, here,” Hyungwon declared, straightening himself before he passed what he’d been looking for to Changkyun.

Two photographs. The first was of a group of people around a table, something Changkyun recognized as a séance. The figure at the head of the table, however, had their face blurred - it almost looked as if someone had smudged it, dragged a thumb over it.

“That’s me,” Hyungwon said and pointed at the figure. “Remember how I mentioned I can’t be photographed?”

Changkyun chuckled, looking closer at the picture. “This is— I don’t even know. I’m not sure if I find it impressive or ridiculous.”

“A little bit of both, I would say.”

Changkyun moved the first picture away, held it with his other hand, so he could look at the second picture. That one was only of Hyungwon; he was sitting on a wide chair with a tall back, legs crossed daintily, arms placed over the armrests, elegant hands hanging idly. His face, again, was blurred - it looked as if was turning to smoke.

“Such a waste,” Changkyun muttered. 

“At least my body looks alright in it,” Hyungwon quipped, and Changkyun nodded to agree before he returned the photographs to him.

“If only I could draw or paint,” Changkyun lamented with a sigh.

Hyungwon shot him a smile before he moved to put the pictures back in their rightful place. “If you really want it, I suppose I can commission an artist to paint me.”

“Tempting.”

As he waited for Hyungwon to finish storing away the pictures, Changkyun noticed something that changed his mood in a heartbeat - another bruise, small, this time located on Hyungwon’s nape, just under his hairline. Changkyun hadn’t noticed so far because the high lace collar of his undershirt covered it, but with his head down it was clear as day. A bruise in a place like that doesn’t just happen. He could write off the bruise he’d seen on Hyungwon’s wrist as an accident, if he somehow turned around too fast and bumped his wrist on a piece of furniture, but on the back of his neck— it couldn’t be an accident.

The shape of the bruise, the position, the angle… It looked like somebody had grabbed him by the back of the neck. Changkyun wanted to ask, as much as he’d wanted to ask about the bruise on his wrist, but Hyungwon wouldn’t tell him. Hyungwon could be very forthcoming whenever Changkyun asked him questions, but questions of that nature… Hyungwon wouldn’t answer. He simply knew he wouldn’t.

Changkyun inched forward, wanting to take a closer look at that bruise, at the same time Hyungwon turned around again and moved with the intention to walk to the door; he stopped short when he almost bumped into Changkyun who had been standing there, right behind him. Changkyun saw him swallow, saw the way his gaze flickered from his eyes to his lips and then to the floor, how his movements became awkward when he stepped around him. It dawned on him that Hyungwon hadn’t touched him a single time since his arrival. Didn’t hold his hand, didn’t stay close enough for them to accidentally brush against each other, stepped away anytime Changkyun got too close.

His heart felt tight at the discovery. Had he hurt Hyungwon that much the last time he was there, enough that he wouldn’t even touch him anymore? Or was it something else? He forced himself to forget about the bruise for a moment to address that issue first, one that had more chances of being put to rest than any inquiries regarding any possible abuse Hyungwon might be suffering.

“Hyungwon,” Changkyun called before Hyungwon could leave the bedroom. Hyungwon stopped and turned around, giving him a questioning look. “Are you sure you’re not mad at me still?”

Hyungwon frowned and shook his head. “No, I’m not. If I were mad, I wouldn’t have invited you over, would I?”

“But something changed,” Changkyun pointed out and advanced towards Hyungwon at a normal pace. As he suspected, Hyungwon took a step back when he got too close. Changkyun lifted an eyebrow at him as if saying ‘ see?’ .

Hyungwon sighed, thinking for a moment before speaking. “You were overwhelmed. I’m giving you space.”

“I didn’t ask for space.”

Hyungwon shrugged, both shoulders rising and falling in a quick motion. “I’m giving it to you anyway.”

“What if I don’t want it?” Changkyun asked, defiant, and took another step forward.

Hyungwon stepped back again. “We should probably head downstairs, I asked the ladies at the kitchen to prepare us something to eat.”

 “You’re avoiding the subject,” Changkyun pointed out as he followed Hyungwon out of the bedroom. “You’re still hurt, aren’t you?”

Hyungwon let out a heavy sigh as he closed and locked the door behind them. “I am not. I am, however, trying to behave like a rational person for a change, instead of letting my desires get the better of me. I’m not sure why it bothers you so - I thought you’d be glad of it.”

“Why on earth would I be glad?” Changkyun asked, baffled to the core. “I might have spoken without thinking the last time, but I don’t remember saying, or even implying, that what is happening is a bad thing.”

Hyungwon turned around to face him, expression pinched, before he huffed a breath of air that sounded tired and began making his way back towards the rotunda. Changkyun easily fell into step with him. “When I think I’m starting to understand you—”

“What is there to understand?” Changkyun said. “I am a very straight-forward person.”

Hyungwon chuckled through his nose. “Keep telling yourself that.”

“You talk as if you’re not just as confusing yourself.”

“I’m not confusing, I’m mysterious .”

“Same thing.”

“Fine,” Hyungwon declared when they were halfway down the iron stairs in the rotunda. He whirled around to face Changkyun, looking up at him from the lower step he was standing on. “What do you want?”

Changkyun blinked with surprise at the sudden question. “Excuse me?”

“What do you want?” Hyungwon repeated. “Do you want me to keep my distance? Do you want me to come closer? Do you want me to keep my words in check or do you want me to keep waxing poetic about this strange connection we have? Do you even want me to acknowledge it at all, or would you rather I pretend it’s not happening?” Hyungwon barely stopped to breathe as all the questions left his mouth, eyes watching Changkyun intensely. “As I’ve said last time, you’re not the only one dealing with this. I’m overwhelmed and confused too, I have no idea what to do with this— this— whatever this is.”

Changkyun wasn’t expecting Hyungwon to react like that, to become so emotional, but he also found that he was happy about it. Happy to know what was on Hyungwon’s mind. Happy to know he wasn’t alone. “And here I thought you had the answers for everything.”

Hyungwon scoffed. “Ask me about the afterlife and I’ll write you a book; I am not as well-versed on matters of the heart.”

“Well, neither am I.”

Hyungwon opened his mouth to speak but seemed to change his mind, shaking his head instead and continuing to descend the stairs. Changkyun followed right behind him. “I’m done talking about this.”

“Hyungwon,” Changkyun called once they reached the landing, rushing forward so he could hold Hyungwon by the hand, “what I want is for you to stop holding back. I’m open to finding out where this bond between us will lead, all I need is to know you want the same.”

Hyungwon looked at Changkyun, then down at their hands. “I already know where it will lead.”

“Then why are you fighting it?”

Hyungwon bit his lower lip, an action that didn’t have any right to be as attractive as it was, but alas. “I’m not— I’m not fighting it.” He raised his eyes to meet Changkyun’s again. “It’s very distressing, you know? I usually know everything, but this… This is different. I don’t understand it, I can’t explain it, it feels like I suddenly went blind when I could see for miles before.” He paused to breathe, and Changkyun could tell he was having a hard time sifting through his thoughts to make something coherent out of them. “I thought this would be just a fancy at first, I even predicted I would be seeing more of you in the future, but I never expected— this .”

“What did you expect?”

“I have no idea,” Hyungwon answered with a wry smile. “I only know what I didn’t expect, and I didn’t expect it to hurt like it does.”

Changkyun breathed out slowly through his mouth, his grip on Hyungwon’s hand becoming tighter. It was like Hyungwon was telling Changkyun about his own feelings, saying out loud what was in Changkyun’s heart and mind. He didn’t understand it either, and it hurt him too, those feelings. No, not the feelings - the being away. The constant longing, the emptiness, how missing Hyungwon had somehow become the norm.

It did hurt.

Having Hyungwon so close and feeling like they were miles apart, however, hurt even more.

“You probably know this, since you seem to know everything there is to know about me,” Changkyun began, carefully choosing his words, “but I don’t— I don’t do feelings. I find them bothersome, it’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of things when I have more pressing matters to be concerned about, so… I have no idea what I’m doing. All I know is how terrible it feels to be away from you, which I’m beginning to suspect is the case for you as well.”

Hyungwon replied with a nod of his head, confirming Changkyun’s guess.

“I don’t think I can go back to how it was before, not now that I’ve met you,” he continued, inching towards his conclusion. “I’ll always know you’re out there and I’ll always feel this urge to go to you, I’ll never know peace again.” From the way Hyungwon’s expression shifted, how the muscles around his jaw became tight, how his eyes narrowed, Changkyun could tell he felt the same. “I see what you’re trying to do - you’re afraid I have a certain opinion of you and you’re trying to put distance between us for my sake.”

“You see,” Hyungwon murmured before Changkyun could truly finish his line of thought, that same tense expression on his face, “everyone has ‘a certain opinion of me’. It’s never a good one.”

“Then everyone is an idiot.”

That made Hyungwon smile; it was a soft, sad little thing, but it was satisfying to see nonetheless. “I’m— I’m afraid you see me just as everyone else does. The freak who talks to ghosts, a novelty, someone to be feared and avoided.”

Oh. That explained why it hurt him so much to think Changkyun suspected him of putting a spell on him, of being responsible for their misfortune. It only made him regret his thoughtless words even more.

“That’s all I am to them. To everyone.”

“Not to me,” Changkyun quickly said, looking into Hyungwon’s eyes so there would be not a shadow of a doubt that he was speaking the truth. “I hardly ever think about— ghosts when I’m with you. I think about how kind you are, how intelligent, of your sharp tongue and quick wit. Even how much of an arrogant prick you are sometimes is a matter of fascination to me.”

Hyungwon snorted at the sudden jab, a laugh bursting through his lips. “My, how highly you think of me.”

“What I’m trying to say is,” Changkyun said, a little louder, “I don’t give a damn about your ghosts, if they’re real or not, and I don’t think you’re some wicked fiend out to get me. I’m not afraid of you, on the contrary - I trust you. The more time I spend with you, the more you feel like— like safety.”

Hyungwon eyes widened just a bit, lips parting in quiet surprise, the laughter gone from his features. Changkyun had to make an effort not to stare, that expression plucking at his heartstrings like a talented musician would play a harp.

“I was confused at first, didn’t know what to think about you and all of this, and still don’t truly know. I don’t know what is happening any more than you do,” he finally concluded, “but I want to find out.”

Hyungwon took a deep breath, nodding slowly as he did. Changkyun could actually see the gears turning in his mind, processing everything he’d told him, until he finally seemed to reach a conclusion.

“I want you to find out as well.”

“Stop running from me then,” Changkyun said, close to whining. To make his point, he shifted his grip on Hyungwon’s hand so he could thread their fingers together. “Let me get close to you. Let me get to know you.”

“It’s hard to argue when you say it like that,” Hyungwon said, a bashful smile on his lips. He shook his head, chasing the remnants of their brief argument away before he spoke again, sounding a little more like himself, confident and posh. “If you want to get to know me, we can do it over tea.”

“I already know one thing: you sure love tea,” Changkyun joked, walking out of the rotunda with Hyungwon, their hands still joined. He was still reeling, but it was surprisingly easy to get back to their usual interactions and familiarity even after the tension.

“It’s not just tea,” Hyungwon responded. “I’m very fond of food too.”

“Noted.”

Changkyun expected Hyungwon to lead them back to the dining room or to one of the many parlors, but Hyungwon walked him all the way through the mansion, to the very back and out the wide glass doors that led out to the gardens. Changkyun smiled without noticing, held Hyungwon’s hand that bit tighter.

He hadn’t forgotten the bruise, was still seething with curiosity, but that warmth in his chest was leaving him overwhelmed. It wasn’t the time for that discussion, especially not after their previous conversation, so as per usual, he tried to deflect his emotions with humor.

“This is starting to feel like a date.”

Hyungwon gave him a cheeky grin in response as he guided him down the stone steps and into the garden, up the little path of white cobblestones. “It wasn’t my original plan, but… It’s not not a date.”

“O-oh,” Changkyun stuttered. Hyungwon laughed.

There was already a table set for them there, small, round, and white, two matching chairs waiting for them. On the table, there were three tower-like displays of various different foods - cakes, biscuits, macaroons, sandwiches, scones, things Changkyun didn’t even know the name of. His jaw dropped with surprise, because not even for a second he thought Hyungwon would go this far; he’d expected tea, not— not legitimate towers of pastries. Expensive pastries.

Hyungwon seemed to notice his surprise and said, “I saw how you were a little upset knowing I’d have lunch with Guhn in the gardens the other day. This isn’t lunch, but— it’s food. In the gardens.”

Changkyun let out a puff of incredulous laughter. “You are maddening.”

“Get used to it, I plan on spoiling you rotten,” Hyungwon chirped as if that didn’t completely melt Changkyun’s insides down to a puddle of goo.

They had just sat down when a couple of servants brought a tray with fresh tea and placed the set neatly in front of them - the teapot, the cups, the pitcher with milk, the dainty bowl of sugar cubes. Changkyun had tea before, sure, but never one so— thorough. Hyungwon thanked the servants, all bright smiles, and once they were gone, poured the tea for Changkyun himself. He had no idea what it was - all he knew was that it smelled delicious, flowery and fresh, and that its color was somewhere between rosy and golden, not quite orange but not quite pink. It was a very pretty shade.

“What is it?” he asked, unable to contain his curiosity - and also because it was good to be aware of what he was about to put in his mouth.

“Wild rosebud tea,” Hyungwon informed as he poured some tea for himself. “It’ll go well with the sweets.”

“I didn’t even know you could make tea out of rosebuds,” Changkyun admitted.

“If it’s a plant, you can make tea from it,” Hyungwon said, simple. “Trust me, I did my share of experimenting.”

Changkyun arched an eyebrow. “You did?”

“Oh, yes,” he said with a chuckle, taking a macaroon from the display and offering it to Changkyun. He quietly accepted it - he’d heard of macaroons, but they were… very expensive. His tongue might turn to gold once he ate it. “I tried making tea of every edible plant you can think of. Most of them turned out disgusting.” Hyungwon made a face as if just the memory of the taste of his tea toils made his stomach churn. “Artichoke tea was particularly revolting.”

Changkyun burst into laughter, literally cackling with it. Hyungwon laughed along, eyes sparkling, his entire face lit up with mirth. Changkyun had never seen anything so lovely.

Once their laughter died down, Changkyun said, “You know… I think this is the first time I’m seeing you - the real you.”

Hyungwon blinked, tilting his head to the side in a silent question. “The real me?”

“Yes. I feel like you wear this mask of confidence most of the time, perhaps to protect yourself, to make yourself seem like an untouchable being and avoid getting hurt, and today— you’re not wearing that mask.”

Hyungwon looked down at his tea, worrying his lower lip between his teeth as he considered the words. “You said you wanted to get to know me, but— you already do.”

“Or maybe you’re more transparent than you think you are,” Changkyun said back.

Hyungwon gave him an unconvinced look. “No, I’m really not. You just have this bizarre way of reading me as if I were a picture book.”

“The pictures are very pretty, it’s a nice incentive.”

“You are an idiot,” Hyungwon stated, deadpan, before motioning with his hand. “Go on, try the macaroon.”

Changkyun narrowed his eyes suspiciously, first at Hyungwon and then at the macaroon in his hand; it was a muted shade of yellow. He took a deep breath, not sure what to expect as that was likely the most expensive thing he’d ever ingested, but he boldly went ahead and gave it a bite.

Oh. Oh .

“Oh my god,” Changkyun said around his mouthful of macaroon, making Hyungwon laugh. “This is so good.”

“I thought you’d like it. Eat as much as you want, there’s plenty more where this came from,” Hyungwon said, taking a sip of his tea. “I’d advise you to leave some room to try the other foods in there, though.”

“Oh, trust me, there’s room for everything.”

Again, Hyungwon laughed; it was close to becoming Changkyun’s favorite sound, only losing to the sound of Hyungwon’s voice when he used that soothing, gentle tone that never failed to make him feel light in the head.

After that, they just— talked. About anything and everything and nothing.

Hyungwon told Changkyun about all the places he visited during his world tour, and Changkyun told Hyungwon about some memorable heists he’d pulled off in the past. He learned Hyungwon couldn’t eat spicy food, much like himself, and he found that they had a very similar sense of humor. He was delighted to hear of all the ways Hyungwon tried to make Guhn’s life miserable whenever he made him upset, be it with putting laxatives in his bottles of brandy or setting spiders loose inside his closet. Changkyun told him about his friendship with Jooheon, and mentioned he was working at the circus.

“The circus?” Hyungwon said. “Guhn is making me attend this circus’s opening night this weekend. What a coincidence.”

“You will be there?” Changkyun asked, eyes lighting up. In his mind he was already envisioning a sappy circus date, with him walking around with Hyungwon playing games at the carnival, winning silly prizes for him and laughing. Ugh, he already hated the softy he was becoming. Not enough to stop, though. He tried to ignore the fact that Guhn would be there to ruin everything, for the moment. “I— I would love to see you there, if that’s something you want.”

 Hyungwon smiled down at the ground, cheeks tinted pink. Changkyun was already plenty aware he was done for, but that— that really drove the point home. He was epically done for. Done for in mythical proportions.

“Yes,” Hyungwon said. “I’ll see you there.”

 

Chapter Text

 

While Minhyuk enjoyed making money, he didn’t enjoy wearing his costume. He was fine with the headpiece, felt that the red satin headscarf complimented his features, and he was also fine with lining his eyes with kohl - it made him feel mysterious and attractive, and that was always a plus. The rest of the outfit, though, felt a little too over the top even for his standards.

And the sequins that lined the collar of his shirt itched something awful.

He’d been working ever since they opened the grounds at sunset, and that had been a good three hours prior, so Minhyuk decided to take a break; the opening performance of the circus would begin within the hour, so it was as good a time as any.

The place was packed, though; he had a very long night ahead of him, thus he would make the best he could out of his break. Eat something at one of the kiosks, maybe find somewhere relatively quiet to take a nap. Or watch the performance he’d only seen the rehearsals for - seeing the full spectacle would certainly be worth it, as it always was.

Of course, as if some punishment had been rained down upon him at the mere thought of enjoying his recess, Minhyuk spotted Jooheon coming over just as he was locking the chest that contained all his props. Maybe if he didn’t make eye contact, Jooheon would just walk by and not stop to greet him. Maybe he’d get lucky that night and wouldn’t need to embarrass himself in front of Jooheon, something that had been happening all too much - Minhyuk had never been the epitome of grace, but he’d never been that clumsy before. Tripping on his own feet, dropping whatever he was carrying, stumbling, bumping into things. 

Was it too much to ask for one night of peace? One night where he could keep his dignity intact, just one night without any—

“Minhyuk, hi,” Jooheon said, stopping at his stall on his way to the main tent. Minhyuk startled but, thankfully, didn’t drop anything. This time.

“Hi!” he chirped in response, managing to smile somehow. Looking up to meet Jooheon’s eyes, however, he noticed he wasn’t alone; next to him, was a shorter man with messy black hair and a coat that looked a little too big for him. He was distracted, peering around at the crowd as if searching for someone.

Jooheon noticed Minhyuk looking at his friend and scrambled to make the introductions, “A-ah, Minhyuk, this is Changkyun.”

At the mention of his name, Changkyun turned to them again and awkwardly stretched out a hand to shake Minhyuk’s. Minhyuk humored him and shook his hand. “Ah, hello. It’s nice to finally meet you, Jooheon talks about you a lot.”

Minhyuk didn’t fail to notice how Jooheon elbowed his friend in the ribs.

“He does, huh?” Minhyuk asked, teasing, glancing over at Jooheon; his cheeks were rosy. “He talks about you a lot as well.”

“Whatever he told you is probably true,” Changkyun quipped, which made Minhyuk laugh. He liked Jooheon’s friend already. Soon enough he was looking around again, searching for… whatever it was he’d been searching for. “Say, have you seen a tall young man with pearl-white hair around?”

Oh. So that’s what— who he was seeking so avidly. “I’m afraid not.”

Jooheon groaned and rolled his eyes. “Can you stop thinking about your medium for two seconds?”

That caught Minhyuk’s curiosity right away. “Medium?”

“He has a name,” Changkyun said, his tone betraying a feeling of repetition as if he’d told Jooheon that same thing countless times before and was now just reciting a well-worn line. “And he said he would be here.”

“I hope he’s not here,” Jooheon said, making a face. “He creeps the living soul out of me.”

“I’ll protect you, my honey,” Minhyuk said, batting his eyelashes at Jooheon. He was expecting him to tell him off like usual, but Jooheon just blushed and ducked his head. Minhyuk decided to breeze past it - if he addressed that reaction, he was fairly sure he would throw up with the way his stomach was churning with nerves. “So, a medium, huh? Have a bit of a mash on him, Changkyun?”

Changkyun snorted. “That’s one way to put it.”

Minhyuk arched an eyebrow and grinned at him. “Didn’t even try to deny it, how very brave of you.”

“Not really,” Changkyun said, glancing at Minhyuk with a smug smile on his lips before he looked away at the passersby again. “Jooheon already mentioned to me that you’re like us. No point denying it if we’re all in the same boat.”

Minhyuk turned to Jooheon then, finding that his ears had gone red too, to match his cheeks. “Is that so?” Jooheon was avoiding his gaze with such intent that it was almost funny; also refreshing, considering Minhyuk had been doing his share of Avoid-Looking-At-Jooheon lately. “Well, I haven’t seen anyone with pearl-white hair, not anyone young, anyway,” Minhyuk reiterated as he turned back to Changkyun. “I can keep an eye out if you want.”

“That’s alright,” Changkyun said, again tearing his eyes away from the crowd to look at Minhyuk. “He’s here somewhere. I can feel it.”

Jooheon’s face twisted into an almost disgusted expression. Or maybe ‘horrified’ was a closer description. “You can feel it?”

“I can,” Changkyun confirmed. “He’ll be here any moment now.”

“Maybe I should make myself scarce while I still have the chance then, I’m not eager to see him again.”

“How can you feel it?” Minhyuk had to ask. “Are you a medium too?”

Changkyun cackled at that, for some reason. “Me? A medium? Not a chance, I’m not even sure I believe in the supernatural.” Changkyun looked around again, craning his neck and getting on his tiptoes, trying to see further into the crowd. “No, no, he’s the one who talks to ghosts and sees the future. I can only tell he’s around.”

“But how can you tell?”

“It feels like—” Changkyun started, face scrunching up as if in deep thought as he considered the best way to explain. “Do you know how sometimes you can just tell it’s going to rain? The day might be sunny, but you just know the weather is about to change.”

“Yes, I’ve felt something similar before,” Minhyuk admitted after a moment of trying to remember. “The air shifts, it seems.”

“Yes! It’s something like that, though that feels like an understatement; I don’t know how else to explain it, though.”

“Can we get going?” Jooheon asked, a breath away from downright whining. “I don’t want to see him.”

“I was about to head inside to watch the performance,” Minhyuk said. He could be Jooheon’s Knight-In-Ridiculous-Costume for a change, even if it meant just accompanying him somewhere else to avoid meeting someone he didn’t like. “I can keep you company while Changkyun looks for his medium.”

Jooheon turned to stare at him, surprised but wary. Minhyuk deserved that distrust, in retrospect; he shouldn’t have teased Jooheon so much, shouldn’t have made so many passes at him, or joked in the crude manner he had. He regretted it now, when he only wished to have Jooheon close to him, not for any ulterior motive other than enjoying his presence.

Served him right that Jooheon didn’t trust him.

Jooheon fidgeted where he stood, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, his gaze bouncing everywhere except to Minhyuk’s general direction. Minhyuk just waited, at a loss of what else he could do or say. Changkyun glanced at them, from Jooheon to Minhyuk and back to Jooheon, a little hitch between his brows as he clearly noticed something was going on between them - he didn’t make any comments on it, though, bless his heart.

Maybe he should say something akin to ‘nevermind, see you later’ and leave, but that would be rude. He didn’t want to be rude to Jooheon, no matter how every single cell in his body was shouting at him to go, get far away from Jooheon as possible before he did or said something stupid again. Alas, he didn’t go anywhere - he stood there, like an idiot, waiting for Jooheon to make up his mind and give him an answer. Rejecting it would be easy, he had a plausible excuse in Changkyun, could just say ‘I shouldn’t leave my friend alone’, but Jooheon— didn’t.

Maybe they were both idiots, Minhyuk was slowly concluding; two idiots, perfect for each other.

He forced himself to look away from Jooheon the moment the thought crossed his mind.

As fate would have it, Jooheon didn’t have the time to finish formulating a reply. Minhyuk noticed Changkyun perking up from the corner of his sight, entire face lifting with obvious excitement, spine becoming straighter; it was a minute change, barely noticeable, but hardly anything ever escaped Minhyuk’s practiced eyes.

He turned towards the direction Changkyun had been staring at just as a pair of tall, handsome young men approached. The tallest— or, slightly taller one had a weasel-like face and platinum blonde hair, long down to his shoulders, smoothed back and kept away from his face in a half-ponytail. He carried himself in a rather regal manner, nose held up high and a little smirk on his lips. The second one, the one Minhyuk instantly knew to be the one Changkyun had been looking for, the medium, had, as stated earlier, pearly-white hair, wavy and fluffy-looking, and his facial features were striking in an unusual way - large eyes, round nose, full lips. He could tell why Changkyun seemed so enamored with him, at least appearance-wise.

Both were dressed in semi-casual outfits, though it obviously tipped more towards the ‘casual’ than otherwise - why would people like them, filthy rich, the elite, the crème de la crème of society, bother wearing their nicer clothes to a circus, entertainment more fit to the gentry, the peasants, the lower class? - but even so, they stuck out like a pair of sore thumbs in the crowd. They wouldn’t be able to fit in even if they tried, which they obviously didn’t.

Minhyuk had them both all figured out.

They were coming over but not looking at them. Oh, no. Weasel-Face had his eyes on the sign hanging atop Minhyuk’s stall, the one that said ‘FORTUNE TELLER’. Supposed-Medium, on the other hand, was walking one step behind Weasel-Face, stealing subtle little glances at Changkyun and fighting back a smile.

It was sort of cute, Minhyuk could admit to that - what a very strange couple they made. He had to wonder at the sort of circumstance that would allow those two to meet, because they obviously didn’t run in the same circles. He figured he could just ask Changkyun - he would probably give out the information without much fuss, judging from the way he looked at Supposed-Medium. Minhyuk had seen that look many times, and often it came accompanied by loose tongues eager to speak at length about the objects of their affections.

Or, if Changkyun proved a tougher nut to crack than it first met the eye, he could ask Jooheon about it; Jooheon was loyal to a fault, but he cracked quite easily under pressure. From the way Jooheon acted around Minhyuk, so cagey and suspicious, getting him to talk would be very simple.

He heard Jooheon whine and noticed he’d shifted a bit where he stood to hide behind Changkyun. “Wha— Why are they coming this way?”

Minhyuk saw that as a chance to protect Jooheon and also moved from where he was standing, his best salesman-smile on his face as he put himself in front of his table and, by proxy, Jooheon.

“Good evening,” Weasel-Face greeted, a self-satisfied smile on his face. He looked at Minhyuk up and down, not even trying to be discreet about it. “You are the Fortune Teller, I take it?”

“Yes, that’s me,” Minhyuk replied, still wearing his polite smile. “I’m afraid my stall is closed at the moment, if you were hoping for a reading.”

“Oh, no, no,” Weasel-Face replied with a chuckle. Minhyuk didn’t know what was so funny. “I have a Fortune Teller of my own.”

He then gestured to Supposed-Medium behind him, who was clearly not paying attention to that conversation - he was much more interested in making eyes at Changkyun from Weasel-Face’s back.

“Ah, I see,” Minhyuk replied, used to dealing with such situations enough that his expression didn’t change even a little despite how much he wanted to bristle. “It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow psychic.”

“Indeed. But pardon my manners, I didn’t introduce myself,” Weasel-Face said, “I am Mr. Guhn. This here is Hyungwon.”

Supposed-Medium, who had now been properly introduced as Hyungwon, heard his name being mentioned and for the first time looked at Minhyuk, also up and down as if making an entire opinion of him through that first glance alone. Minhyuk decided right then and there he didn’t like either of those two.

“I am Minhyuk,” he introduced himself too, for the sake of being polite, “it’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Guhn.”

“Likewise,” Guhn - who was supposed to be named Weasel-Face because it suited him that much better - chirped, his grin widening in such a way that Minhyuk became worried. That was probably the exact same thing Little Red Riding Hood saw just before the Big Bad Wolf chomped her down. “As I was walking over, I had the most delightful idea.”

Hyungwon glared at the back of Guhn’s head when those words came out of his mouth. Changkyun, meanwhile, had quietly made his way around them and was now standing next to Hyungwon, close enough to reach him but still far away enough that it wouldn’t look suspicious. When Hyungwon glared at Guhn, Changkyun looked up at him with some concern. Changkyun seemed to know a lot about their dynamics - it didn’t do anything to quell Minhyuk’s curiosity.

“You shouldn’t spring your delightful ideas onto people you’ve just met,” Hyungwon said, and Minhyuk caught a slight hint of disdain in his tone.

“But if not now, when?” Guhn retorted before he turned to Minhyuk again. “I think my idea could be fun. A game.”

“A game?” Minhyuk echoed, an eyebrow raised. He was liking this conversation less and less.

“Yes!” Guhn confirmed, barely containing his glee. Hyungwon shifted closer to Changkyun, the movement so subtle Minhyuk almost missed it. “A friendly competition between two psychics.”

At the word ‘competition’, Hyungwon looked at Minhyuk up and down again, the quality of his gaze more analytical this time, as if he was measuring Minhyuk, sizing him up to decide if he was a worthy adversary. Minhyuk liked him even less.

“You shouldn’t set our new friend up for failure like this,” Hyungwon said once he was done with his analysis. Minhyuk was unable to keep from bristling this time around.

“Oh, come on , would it kill you not to be such a bore for once?” Guhn griped at Hyungwon, who merely rolled his eyes. Changkyun had moved closer to him as well, tugging at Hyungwon’s coat sleeve with one hand as if trying to communicate something to him. Minhyuk didn’t even try to guess what it could be. “It’s just a bit of fun. What do you say?” Guhn asked Minhyuk, and something in his face said ‘you better accept this, or else’.

Guhn wasn’t in a position to punish Minhyuk for rejecting his offer, couldn’t really do anything against him, but Minhyuk’s pride was on the line - Jooheon was right behind him, and he would not have his honor dragged through the dirt in front of Jooheon. Sure, Jooheon already knew Minhyuk wasn’t a real psychic, but he had a reputation to uphold.

And those two had pissed him off as well, so—

“I think a game would be fun,” Minhyuk declared, and his smile probably had a manic quality to it but he was way past the point of caring. He felt Jooheon pulling on the back of his clothes frantically, trying to get his attention, but Minhyuk ignored it. He wasn’t backing down on that. Turning to face Hyungwon, he said, “I’m quite confident in my abilities, but I understand if you don’t feel up to putting yours to the test.”

 Changkyun sighed and looked over at Minhyuk as if saying ‘what have you done, you fool’. Jooheon made a strangled noise behind him. Guhn was resembling a child on Christmas morning.

Hyungwon stared at Minhyuk for a long moment, the line of his lips tense, before he smiled smugly at him. “I appreciate your concern regarding my comfort in showcasing my skills. I was merely hoping to spare you from it.” It was very hard for Minhyuk to keep smiling. “As you insist on accepting this— game, I suppose I have no choice but to take you up on it.”

“Don’t worry,” Minhyuk said, deciding to keep himself on his high horse for as long as he possibly could, “I’ll go easy on you.”

Hyungwon’s eyes sparkled in a way that was unnerving, and in a clear, matter-of-fact tone, he said, “I won’t.”

Minhyuk heard Jooheon whimper behind him in fear, saw the way Changkyun looked up at Hyungwon with a fond but exasperated look on his face, caught Guhn chuckling to himself from the corner of his eyes. It sure felt as if he’d just made a big mistake by accepting that challenge.

“Marvelous!” Guhn exclaimed. “We shall meet you after the performance is done, I believe there is not enough time to do it right now before it starts.”

“Wonderful, it’s settled,” Minhyuk agreed.

“We’ll see you later, then,” Guhn said and then turned to Hyungwon; Changkyun moved away from him just in time. “Come, Hyungwon, we should find our seats.”

“You go right ahead, I’d like to speak with Minhyuk here some more,” Hyungwon said, which was very obviously an excuse.

Guhn rolled his eyes but agreed. “Very well, don’t take too long.”

“Yes, yes, I’m aware you would wilt without my refreshing presence to water you,” Hyungwon deadpanned. A pity Minhyuk had already decided to dislike him, he appeared to be a funny guy.

Guhn ignored the quip and, after tipping his head at Minhyuk in a simple farewell, he walked right past them towards the main tent beyond. He completely ignored Jooheon and Changkyun’s presence, acted as if they weren’t there at all. What an ass.

The moment Guhn was out of sight, Changkyun huffed and said to Hyungwon, “You are terrible.”

Minhyuk expected Hyungwon to defend himself, or at least be annoyed at the jab, but he giggled as if Changkyun had given him a compliment. Odd.

“My pride was on the line, what did you expect me to do?” Hyungwon asked Changkyun.

“Take the high road, perhaps.”

“The high road is boring.”

“Whatever you say,” Changkyun concluded with a sigh. In a lower voice, he asked, “How is your headache?”

“It’s not too bad today, I’m alright,” Hyungwon replied. “I feel like that might change soon, though.”

Minhyuk had a thought that it was better not to listen in on their private conversation, but even as he tried to tune it out he kept on listening in. Who knows, it might give him an edge during the ‘competition’ later.

“Minhyuk,” Jooheon called his name in an urgent whisper, and only that worked to get him to stop eavesdropping.

“Yes, my honey?” Minhyuk asked once he turned around to face Jooheon, finding an expression of pure horror on his face. “What’s wrong?”

“What have you done?” Jooheon asked, glancing over Minhyuk’s shoulder at Hyungwon before looking at him again. “He talks to ghosts, Minhyuk. Ghosts .”

“No such things as ghosts, honey,” Minhyuk said, hoping he sounded reassuring enough to ease Jooheon’s mind. “It’s going to be fine.”

“He’s not normal,” Jooheon’s whisper became even lower. “Be careful, I mean it.”

“Aw, my honey, are you worried about me?” Minhyuk asked, almost melting at the mere thought of Jooheon wanting to look out for him. Could it be? Jooheon considering Minhyuk at least a friend? He would be happy with just that, he didn’t ask for much.

“I—” Jooheon started but stopped talking immediately, his eyes widening at something behind Minhyuk.

Hyungwon had moved and stopped right next to Minhyuk, Changkyun close by as if he were Hyungwon’s shadow. Minhyuk immediately put his guard up again from where he’d been relaxed while talking to Jooheon.

“I should get going before Guhn decides to come to find me,” Hyungwon said, that forced politeness heavy in his voice. “If there is no chance later, let me tell you now - it’s nothing personal. I hope you have no hard feelings after our ‘game’.”

Minhyuk had to will himself not to scoff. “Certainly. I can say the same to you.”

The corners of Hyungwon’s lips twitched as if he wanted to laugh. Minhyuk wanted to slap him. “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”

“Can you please play nice?” Changkyun asked. He had a hand on Hyungwon’s back, Minhyuk noticed - why couldn’t those two spend five seconds without touching each other? Disgusting. “Just because you know you’re going to win does not mean you should be an ass about it.”

Again, instead of getting mad as any normal person would, Hyungwon laughed at Changkyun’s dig. Minhyuk was growing more and more confused about the sort of relationship those two had. 

But, more importantly, he was very offended at how confident both of them were that Minhyuk was going to lose.

“I’m standing right here,” Minhyuk reminded them, “and I have just as much of a chance of winning as he does.”

Changkyun grimaced as if saying ‘you really don’t’ and Hyungwon chortled. Jooheon was conspicuously quiet next to him, and Minhyuk wasn’t sure he wanted to know if he agreed - he probably did. That was the worse thing: Jooheon not having any faith in him.

“I’ll see you later,” Hyungwon said, referring to all of them but looking at Changkyun, specifically.

“Alright,” Changkyun replied. The way those two looked at each other made Minhyuk want to vomit; he really hoped he didn’t look at Jooheon like that, if he did, he would personally take on the task of punching himself in the face.

Hyungwon turned around to leave but stopped after taking only one step, his eyes falling on Jooheon who was still trying to hide behind Minhyuk. Hyungwon blinked at him and smiled calmly. Jooheon tensed up behind him.

And then Hyungwon leaned closer to Jooheon, in a way that was uncomfortably too close and whispered, “Boo.”

Jooheon made a noise of distress and jumped back, hiding behind Minhyuk like a frightened child. Hyungwon walked away still laughing at his own ‘joke’.

Minhyuk sighed and turned around to lace one arm around Jooheon’s shoulders protectively. He was shaking like a leaf. “There, there, he’s gone.”

“You really don’t have to be afraid of him, Jooheon,” Changkyun said, although he sounded vaguely apologetic. “Hyungwon is a really good person once you get to know him.”

“No offense, but he sounded like an arrogant twat to me,” Minhyuk declared. Changkyun cackled again; anytime he did so, Minhyuk couldn’t help but think he sounded like an old witch.

“That’s because he is an arrogant twat, but trust me, there’s a lot more to him than that. He’s kind, generous, caring. The ‘arrogant twat’ is just the external layer. He wears it like an armor.”

Minhyuk scoffed. “An armor against what? He sounds as if he has the whole world on his palm.”

“If you think like that, then that only means he’s doing it right,” Changkyun said, cheeky, and motioned for them to get going. “Come on, we don’t want to be late.”

They began walking together towards the main tent, and Minhyuk took the opportunity to whisper in Jooheon’s ear, “What the hell does he see in him? It’s so weird.”

“I have no idea, but I’m happy you also think this is weird,” Jooheon said, still looking pouty but not as scared. “And Minhyuk?”

“Yes, my honey?”

“You really shouldn’t have accepted that game.”

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Luck seemed to be on their side, for a change. Earlier that same day, they had finally found a small apartment by the river to rent, a tiny one-bedroom that sat atop a general store; the owner of the store would be their landlady, a kind, chubby-faced old woman who was more than happy to allow three grown men to occupy her tiny apartment, something that many property owners would be hesitant to do. It was just big enough for them, and they didn’t need much - they were used to having little, so space wouldn’t be hard to manage. Only the bare essentials - kitchen and bathroom supplies, a proper bed for Hoseok, and enough space on the floor for Kihyun and Hyunwoo to put down some blankets to sleep on. The rest, they could figure out as they went.

Hoseok, also, had been doing as well as he could be the past few days, his coughing fits few and far between, and no sudden fevers. The night sweats were still, unfortunately, a thing they had to deal with, and his weight dropped some more, but, other than that, Hoseok was showcasing more energy than he had in a long time.

Kihyun blamed it on his excitement about being out of the apartment for a change. Hoseok wanted to do something else other than lying around in bed all day so bad that he was willing himself to be well for the sole purpose of attending the circus that evening. That probably meant his health would take a plunge after the night was over, so Kihyun knew he would have to steel himself for the trials that were to come.

For the time being, though, he tried to relax and enjoy his time out with both his loves. They hadn’t gone on a date in— he didn’t even remember how long. The last time had been before Hoseok became ill, and that was a couple of years back. It felt like ages ago, centuries; so much had happened since. It felt unreal to be there, playing games at a carnival, both Hyunwoo and Hoseok by his side, laughing and having fun, seemingly without a care in the world.

It was hard, though, to get out of his head and forget he could lose one of the loves of his life any day, without a warning. Hoseok could be doing fine that day, but the next— there was no way of knowing. His illness had its ups and downs, got better and worse for no apparent reason, and with the weather getting colder and his weight dropping so fast—

No, he would not think about it. Not that night. That night was about them having fun together, not— not thinking about ‘what ifs’. Kihyun had to enjoy the present for a change, instead of concerning himself over the future.

They had arrived early at the circus, far earlier than the scheduled time for the main event, so they could enjoy themselves at the carnival for a while. It was easy to forget about their situation when he was focused on one of the many games, all three of them getting competitive and far too into the challenges, but during the moments where they were walking from one stall to the next, Kihyun’s mind always circled back to that one thought.

This might be the last time .

Hyunwoo, he noticed, also got quiet during those little in-betweens. Kihyun assumed it was for the very same reasons as he did, but he didn’t ask. Wouldn’t ask. It didn’t matter, in the end - it was what it was.

Hoseok, on the other hand, was just glad to be out and about. If he noticed any of the small drops in Kihyun and Hyunwoo’s moods, he said nothing, didn’t address it, didn’t acknowledge it. Maybe he just wanted to feel normal for a change and pretend he hadn’t contracted a potentially fatal disease, pretend he was only on a normal date with his two socially-unacceptable significant others, and that his only concern was not accidentally kissing either of them - which was very easy, Kihyun bitterly thought, since they hadn’t kissed Hoseok on the lips for long enough that they were used to not doing it.

And there he was again, thinking about what he shouldn’t be thinking.

“I think the main performance is about to start,” Hyunwoo said, pointing over at the main tent of the circus, the eye-catching red and white stripes making it rather discernible even with all the commotion around. The crowd making their way inside the tent was enough confirmation of Hyunwoo’s words.

“We should get going or there won’t be any seats left for us,” Kihyun agreed, urging his lovers forward with impatient gestures of his hands.

Hoseok promptly hooked his free arm around Hyunwoo’s, his other one busy holding a stuffed teddy bear Hyunwoo had won for him in one of the game kiosks. They’d won a number of prizes since their arrival, and that bear was the only thing Hoseok chose to keep - the rest they gave away to children who would certainly have more fun with the toys than they would. 

They huddled together as they made their way through the crowd, Kihyun and Hoseok hanging on each of Hyunwoo’s arms so they wouldn’t get separated, and it was a relief when the crowd dispersed once they were inside the tent proper. The strong scent of sawdust hit Kihyun a bit too suddenly and he coughed, his throat itching with it, which earned a concerned look from Hyunwoo; he dismissed with a smile and a shake of his head. It wasn’t that sort of cough.

Not yet, anyway.

Don’t think about it , he told himself as they weaved their way through the masses, Hyunwoo looking around for empty seats for them from his advantage point - being the tallest of the three of them, tasks like that usually fell on his shoulders. They made their way up the stands, deciding to take a seat on the very back row, when, halfway there, Kihyun looked around and spotted the back of a rather familiar pearly-white head.

His footsteps faltered, his stomach twisted into knots; he was not expecting to see Hyungwon at a circus, of all places, his presence more fit to a fancy restaurant or the grand theater. His first encounter with him was still fresh in his memory - there hadn’t been a day he didn’t think of what he’d said about Hoseok’s limited time, the prediction still haunting his every waking moment.

The tip about the hibiscus tea, however, had been a good one.

Hyunwoo, noticing Kihyun had stopped walking, turned around to face him with a frown. “Something wrong, Ki?”

Hoseok had also stopped and was looking at him in a mix of curiosity and concern, so Kihyun was quick to force a smile and say, “No, nothing’s wrong. I just see one of our patrons, I should greet him.”

“Oh, alright,” Hoseok said, looking around casually as if wanting to guess who it was but trying not to be obvious about it, “we’ll save you a seat.”

“Don’t take too long, the show’s about to start,” Hyunwoo advised and, giving Kihyun’s hand an affectionate squeeze, let him go to continue climbing their way to the grandstand with Hoseok.

“It’ll only take a minute,” Kihyun said before he made his way back down, all the way to the ringside where the richer folk would be sitting. The best seats, the best view, of course Hyungwon and Mr. Guhn would be there.

 Kihyun reached them just as they were about to enter the gate that separated the ringside from the rest of the stands, and Hyungwon, likely sensing his approach, raised his head to meet his gaze.

His lips quirked up in a polite smile. “Ah, Kihyun, it’s good to see you again.”

“Likewise,” Kihyun said, bowing his head minutely, once for Hyungwon and once for Mr. Guhn once he turned around upon noticing his presence. “Mr. Guhn, hello.”

“If it isn’t Mr. Yoo,” Guhn greeted with a wolfish smile. “I’ve been meaning to send you a message, the items you’ve sold us are all of incredible quality. We look forward to doing business with you again, sometime soon.”

The businessman in Kihyun perked up at that. “Of course, you have but to call for me.”

“We absolutely will. Hyungwon is running out of his precious tea,” Guhn teased. Hyungwon sighed but didn’t try to argue the point. “It is very good to see you again.”

“You as well,” Kihyun said, then turned to Hyungwon. “I was hoping to have a word with you, if it’s not much trouble?”

“Absolutely,” Hyungwon replied, before saying to Guhn, “I’ll be right over.”

Guhn gave Hyungwon a dubious glance but, after nodding at Kihyun in a silent farewell, continued on his way into the closed-off ringside to find his seat. Hyungwon waited for him to leave before he focused his attention on Kihyun.

“How can I help you?”

“I simply wished to thank you,” Kihyun said, deciding to go right to the point; the show was about to start, he didn’t have time to trade pleasantries or make small talk. “Your advice about the hibiscus tea was very helpful.”

“It was no trouble,” Hyungwon said, his smile turning more genuine. Kihyun thought he had a pretty smile when he wasn’t forcing it. “Have you come here tonight with your—”

“Brothers,” Kihyun finished the sentence for him, and they traded a secret knowing smile.

“Yes, your ‘brothers’.”

“I have, they are— right there,” Kihyun said once he spotted them and motioned towards the grandstand, where Hyunwoo and Hoseok had already taken their seats. “One with the blue scarf and the other one in the grey coat.”

“Mhm, I see them,” Hyungwon confirmed. “You’re doing a good job - I can barely tell they’re sick.”

Kihyun frowned. “Only Hoseok is sick.”

Hyungwon arched his eyebrow, smile gone from his features. “Are you sure?”

It felt as if the ground had opened under his feet and he was falling into a pit of darkness. Kihyun swallowed, blinked away the shock, and said, “Y-yes, I’m sure.”

Hyungwon watched him for a moment, eyes slightly-narrowed as if deep in thought. “One of them is keeping a secret.”

Kihyun was beginning to regret coming to speak to Hyungwon - those types of sudden, earth-shaking predictions were far too overwhelming and he wasn’t in a position to properly process them, not when he was in public, when both his loves could see him.

“Yes,” he finally confirmed. “Do you know what it is?”

“I do,” Hyungwon replied with ease, “but you shouldn’t be asking ‘what’. You should be asking ‘why’.”

Kihyun inhaled a shaky breath. “Is Hyunwoo— is he sick too?”

“Would you believe me if I said he is?”

Kihyun scowled at the ground and, after a couple of seconds considering it, he shook his head. “No. No, I wouldn’t. He hasn’t shown any symptoms, he’s been completely fine. We would have noticed.” He raised his eyes to meet Hyungwon’s again before he continued. “And the last time we met, you said the tea was only for Hoseok.”

“He’s the one who needed it the most,” Hyungwon replied, tilting his head sideways as he watched Kihyun intently. It made him very nervous, that gaze. “He still is. It doesn’t, however, mean that your other ‘brother’ is well.”

Kihyun shook his head, denying it. “No, that’s— he’s not sick.”

He heard Hyungwon sigh, just as the lights dimmed inside the tent. They both looked up at the same time, only to confirm their suspicions - the show was about to begin.

“Our time has run out, it seems,” Hyungwon declared, locking his gaze with Kihyun’s once more, “not that I think I would have been able to convince you even if we had hours to spare. When you are ready to hear what I have to say, don’t hesitate to contact me. I might just be able to help.” Hyungwon then nodded at Kihyun as a goodbye, much like Guhn had done earlier, and began making his way towards his own seat. “Do enjoy the show. I hear they have a lion.”

Kihyun stood there for a few seconds longer, watching as Hyungwon walked further and further away, before he finally snapped out of it and hurried up the stands to join his loves.

Hyunwoo wasn’t sick. He absolutely wasn’t, he was as strong as he’d always been, he wasn’t losing weight, didn’t have any fevers, no night sweats, no coughing. He’d been stressed, sure, and that was affecting him as much as it affected Kihyun, they were both exhausted, but to go from there to him being sick—

No. Absolutely not, he wasn’t sick. Hyungwon was wrong. Hyunwoo was not sick.

He finally reached the last row of seats and plopped down on the space next to Hoseok, his heart hammering so hard inside his chest Kihyun could hear it pounding on his eardrums even above the cacophony around them, the people cheering and screaming, the ringmaster giving his opening speech down in the center of the ring, the sounds from the carnival outside, music, children. His heart was louder than all of it and it only served to make him more nervous.

“Ki?” Hoseok called, placing a hand on his knee. “Are you alright? Did something happen?”

Kihyun jolted at the touch and jerkily shook his head, managing a brittle smile that was not at all convincing. “N-no, nothing happened. I’m fine.”

“Ki…” Hoseok breathed out his nickname, frustration lacing his tone. “You’re shaking.”

“It’s— the person I was greeting, it was the medium I mentioned to you once,” he said. Hoseok’s expression shifted to one of realization. “Speaking to him is very upsetting.”

“Did he say something bad?”

Kihyun shook his head, keeping his gaze ahead at the ring. He didn’t want to look at Hoseok - he would break if he did. “No, no. He just makes me nervous.”

“Why don’t you sit between me and Hyunwoo?” Hoseok suggested. “Might help you feel better. Safer.”

Kihyun sighed and nodded, heart tight with adoration and grief, and they both exchanged seats in a rather efficient way. Hyunwoo, who had been paying attention to the ring, looked up at the both of them with confusion, but didn’t ask anything; it probably meant Kihyun had somehow managed to keep his expression neutral.

Once settled in his new seat, Kihyun took a deep, long breath, ignoring how the scent of sawdust made his nose itch, and huddled closer to Hyunwoo, Hoseok snuggling up to him in turn, in such a way that it seemed as if they were only trying to fight off the night chill if anyone was to look their way. Kihyun could still see Hyungwon all the way down in the ringside, pale hair visible even in the dim light.

He was lying. There was nothing wrong with Hyunwoo.

Kihyun told himself that a hundred times before he could finally pay attention to the performance before him without wanting to scream.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

A world of color and sound and movement before him, but Changkyun couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the figure sitting all the way across the ring - much like Hyungwon himself couldn’t look away from Changkyun, both of them lacking any interest in the performance and more focused on stealing glances and making faces at each other. It was so very stupid. He felt so very stupid, yet he couldn’t bring himself to stop.

Jooheon had already given up trying to get him to pay attention to what was happening in the ring - although he did force himself to focus when Jooheon’s elephant ‘friend’ was brought on, knowing it meant a lot to him, but he went right back to looking at Hyungwon once Barya, The Elephant was done with her number.

Minhyuk, on the other hand, was still scowling and looking like a condensed storm cloud ready to start shooting out lightning. Changkyun couldn’t blame him - he was aware that Hyungwon could be difficult, but he also knew that it would all be downhill from there. He already knew Hyungwon would not forego his holier-than-thou attitude, and from the little he’d seen from Minhyuk, he would also not back down in his attempts at defending his ego.

Hyungwon was going to win that ‘friendly competition’, no doubt in his mind. Hyungwon would win, Minhyuk would lose, they would trade all sorts of jabs during the game, and both of them would likely be steaming from their ears with rage by the end of the night.

It would be glorious.

Entertaining as that would be, though, Changkyun would still rather live out his carnival date fantasy; he wanted to go play games with Hyungwon and win silly prizes for him, wanted to walk around holding his hand, share cotton-candy and complain about how sticky their fingers got. He wanted to just spend time with Hyungwon, be around him, have fun and laugh with him, without having to worry about being found out or stressing about all the unexplainable weirdness that surrounded their every interaction.

Guhn was there, though. Ruining everything.

Everything would be so much better, easier, if he was out of the picture.

Maybe he should do what he did best and— simply steal Hyungwon away. Sneak into the mansion one night, take Hyungwon, and run as far and as fast as he could. Hyungwon was skinny, looked light enough that Changkyun could carry him on his back like a potato sack, so Hyungwon agreeing to it was not exactly a requirement.

Changkyun caught himself before that line of thought began looking too appealing. What was he even doing, planning to kidnap someone—

The scarier part was that, for a second, he truly considered doing just that. That he was willing to cross every line for something he never spared a second thought until only over a month before. He was losing it. His thoughts, his urges, that constant craving in the back of his mind— he was starting to be scared of himself. Of that part of him he never knew existed.

He had to wonder if Hyungwon felt like that, too. Hyungwon always seemed to be so sure of himself, so in control - it felt strange to think of him going through what Changkyun himself was experiencing, the long nights awake staring at the ceiling going through their every interaction in his mind, imagining silly little scenarios, planning and lamenting an entire future that would never be. What a frightful thought it was, to think he could be falling deeper and deeper, while Hyungwon’s feelings for him were not as strong.

No use thinking about that; if he wanted to know, he was certain he could ask Hyungwon directly and receive a straightforward answer.

Changkyun was so turned inwards to his musings that he only realized the performance was over when Jooheon nudged him, the thunderous sounds of applause finally breaking through his perception and thoroughly snapping him out of that mad reverie. He clapped along with the rest of the crowd despite having no idea what he was clapping for, his eyes focusing on Hyungwon in less than a second. Hyungwon, too, was taking part in the ovation and looking as lost as Changkyun. They both grinned at each other when their eyes met.

“I guess I should head back to my stall,” he heard Minhyuk say from the other side of Jooheon. “I have a competition to win.”

Changkyun perked up at the reminder. “Yes, let’s go! Should we bet on it?”

Jooheon looked at him as he’d just said the stupidest thing ever. “No, we should not bet on it.”

“Come on , it’ll be fun!”

“Absolutely not,” Jooheon insisted, the three of them making their way out from the side of the stands, where they’d been watching the performance from - they were there for free, and seats were for paying customers, so they had to watch the performance standing up. Changkyun didn’t mind.

“Please, don’t bet on it,” Minhyuk asked, whiny. “I already know neither of you would bet on me, at least let me keep a smidge of my dignity.”

“I’m really sorry to say,” Changkyun told Minhyuk, placing a hand on his shoulder, “but there is no way you’re going to win. Hyungwon is— he’s that good at what he does.”

Minhyuk swallowed hard, throat moving up and down. He was nervous, Changkyun could tell, but still trying to save face. “I’m quite good at what I do, too. Maybe just as good as he is.”

“He’s scary , Minhyuk,” Jooheon said this time. “I’ll be rooting for you but I still think you should call this whole thing off.”

“Well, I’m not scared of him,” Minhyuk declared proudly. “I’ll prove his ‘psychic’ abilities are as much bullshit as mine are.”

Changkyun couldn’t hold in a snort. “Good luck with that, I’m a skeptic and even I can’t explain the things he does.”

“I’m still convinced he’s a witch,” Jooheon said.

“Stop trying to scare me!” Minhyuk snapped just as they reached his stall. “Witches aren’t real and I’ve never met a single self-proclaimed ‘psychic’ who was the real deal. Whatever he can do, I’m absolutely certain I can do too.”

Changkyun managed to bite back his laughter this time, deciding Minhyuk had heard enough of how impossible to win against Hyungwon it would be; insisting on it would be overkill.

Minhyuk then turned around to look directly at Changkyun. “You seem to know him well. What should I know about him before starting the game?”

Changkyun arched an eyebrow. “You— want me to help you cheat?”

“Yes! If I’m in such a disadvantage you can’t stop talking about it, then it’s fair that I get an edge.”

“I could tell you his entire life story and you’d still not be able to win,” Changkyun said, honest. “Besides, I’m not sure what I could say that would give you an edge.”

“I don’t know, does he have a weakness? Is he particularly sensitive to a certain topic? Anything at all?”

Changkyun narrowed his eyes at Minhyuk, moved slightly back, away from him. “You want me to reveal my future lover’s secrets to you?”

“Oh, so you’re not lovers yet?” Minhyuk said and grinned. “That’s a start. I can work with that.”

Changkyun clamped his mouth shut, kicking himself in thoughts for a moment before he spoke again. “Don’t use this against him. I understand wanting to cheat, but this— I won’t let you use this as a wildcard to win a stupid game.”

Minhyuk huffed, clearly debating whether or not to insist on it for a few seconds, before saying, “If it’s just a stupid game, then help me win.”

“No,” Changkyun said, crossing his arms defensively. “No offense, you seem like a great guy, but my loyalty lies with Hyungwon. Even if that wasn’t the case, nothing I can tell you would help you win.”

Minhyuk made a strange noise in the back of his throat, a mix of frustration and anger, and hissed out the word “ Fine .”

Jooheon, who had been watching their discussion in silence, only sighed and shook his head. Changkyun could imagine what was going on in his mind. Probably something akin to ‘please, call this game off and let’s go home, away from the scary medium’. He wouldn’t go home, though, even if he could simply walk away - Jooheon was far too loyal, and Minhyuk was, from what Changkyun gathered from all the times Jooheon mentioned him, someone he considered a friend. Jooheon would stick to Minhyuk’s side through that entire competition, no matter how scared and uncomfortable he became.

Before either of them had a chance to add anything else to their argument, Changkyun caught the two familiar figures approaching and casually moved out of the way; the less he caught Guhn’s attention, the better.

For the time being, that is.

He caught Hyungwon’s eyes while he made his way to stand next to Jooheon, just behind Minhyuk, and gave him a sly wink. Hyungwon’s lips twitched with a clear urge to smile.

“Ah, good, you’re already here,” Guhn said, a gleeful little grin on his face. Changkyun wanted to punch it off of him.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Minhyuk replied, tone betraying nothing of the frustration he displayed just ten seconds prior. “We can begin,” he said and turned to Hyungwon, “unless you changed your mind.”

“On the contrary, I’m quite eager to get this over with,” Hyungwon said, not even pretending to be interested. Changkyun sighed; maybe it wouldn’t be as fun as he’d predicted, maybe that entire thing would take a turn for the worse and end in a veritable bloodbath.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that - Hyungwon could win a psychic competition easily, but he would definitely lose in a physical fight. Maybe Changkyun would have to jump in to defend him, even. He was fine with it, he could be scrappy if needed. 

“Take a seat,” Minhyuk motioned to the chair opposite to his own, across the table, and Hyungwon gracefully sat down, crossing his long legs in that natural, nonchalant way he did.

Changkyun had chosen his position well - being behind Minhyuk and a little more to the right put Hyungwon in his direct line of sight, but didn’t put Changkyun himself in Guhn’s line of sight, meaning he could stare at Hyungwon as much as he wanted to without too high a risk of being caught. He would much rather be standing next to him, of course, to give him moral support - not because he needed it to win the competition, but because he figured Hyungwon would get annoyed very fast. He hoped it wouldn’t make his headache worse.

“Alright, what did you have in mind for this ‘game’?” Hyungwon asked Guhn, impatient.

“I thought we could start with a simple guessing challenge, as a warm-up,” Guhn said.

“I have some cards for that,” Minhyuk announced, moving towards his trunk to retrieve said cards.

Hyungwon raised an eyebrow. “Very well. The fact that you have all the details of the cards memorized and are able to tell which is which could be counted as cheating, but I will overlook it.”

Changkyun saw how Minhyuk’s movements stuttered for a moment - caught in the act.

“It’s the only deck of cards we have available at the moment,” Minhyuk said haughtily in return, as he took said deck from his trunk. “Shall I shuffle them?”

“Go ahead,” Hyungwon agreed.

Minhyuk took his seat across from Hyungwon, the worn deck of cards in his hands and a determined expression on his face. They stared at each other for a moment, a silent challenge, before Minhyuk began shuffling the cards deftly, easily, his eyes not once moving away from Hyungwon’s face. Hyungwon, on the other hand, just looked— bored.

Changkyun sighed and shook his head, the movement catching Hyungwon’s attention. He took the chance to mouth at him the words ‘play nice’, to which Hyungwon replied with a roll of his eyes and a single, barely noticeable nod.

“Five cards each?” Minhyuk asked.

“Sounds good,” Hyungwon replied, still sounding bored as Minhyuk distributed the cards, face down, and left the rest of the deck next to him on the table. “Now what? I guess your cards, you guess mine?”

“Let’s make it a little more interesting than that,” Guhn said, looking from Minhyuk to Hyungwon with that annoying smile on his face. “Each of you has five cards. Without looking, put them in a row in front of you. One will have to guess the exact order of all five of the other’s cards.”

Changkyun looked down at the cards on the table, haphazardly thrown around by Minhyuk during his shuffling. Their backs were fully red, no decorations, but he could tell that they weren’t all the same just from the marks of use - a scratch here, a tear there. He could see how Hyungwon was right in his affirmation that Minhyuk had all those little details memorized; no card was the same as the other. Minhyuk might as well have done this on purpose.

On second thought, he definitely did it on purpose.

“It’s not really ‘guessing’ if he already knows everything, but alright. It changes nothing,” Hyungwon said, daintily moving his cards to sit in a neat line in front of him with only the tip of his index finger. “You can go first.”

Minhyuk, who was also done rearranging his own cards on the table, shifted in his chair and took a deep breath. “From which side should I start?”

“Left to right,” Guhn supplied in Hyungwon’s stead.

“My left, I’m assuming,” Minhyuk said to confirm. Guhn agreed with a nod. “Alright.”

Minhyuk took another deep breath and rolled his shoulders, looking at the cards in front of Hyungwon.

“From left to right, the cards are—” Minhyuk began, pausing for a moment before slowly reciting, “Queen of Clubs, Two of Hearts, Two of— Clubs,” he stammered, unsure, “Queen of Hearts, and… Six of Diamonds.”

Hyungwon didn’t say anything - he simply turned over each card in the order Minhyuk had named them and, sure enough, he’d been right in all of his guesses. Minhyuk’s shoulders slumped in relief.

“Your turn,” Minhyuk told Hyungwon.

Hyungwon blinked at him, unimpressed, and confidently recited, “From left to right: Jack of Clubs, King of Clubs, Five of Diamonds, Jack of Hearts, Five of Hearts.”

Minhyuk didn’t react right away, clearly taken aback by how fast Hyungwon had guessed and, like Hyungwon had done, he turned over each card in the order Hyungwon had named them. All correct.

Jooheon made a soft, barely audible whimpering sound next to him, while Changkyun gave Hyungwon a discreet thumbs-up; he wasn’t sure he saw it, but he still wanted to show his support somehow. Minhyuk, on the other hand, had gone very quiet, very still.

He was obviously not expecting Hyungwon to do so well right from the start.

Guhn clapped for them, smiling as if he was being faced with the entertainment of the century. “A great start! Let’s try something else. Shuffle the cards again.”

Minhyuk diligently did so once Hyungwon gathered his own cards and handed them over. “How are we supposed to do this now?”

“You can take turns guessing,” Guhn said. “Place the stack of cards face down, then take turns guessing the card sitting at the very top.”

Hyungwon rolled his eyes. “ This is your delightful idea? Guessing cards?”

“This is the warm-up, dear, pay attention.”

“How long do you want us to warm-up for? We already proved we can guess the cards, why don’t you—”

“Hyungwon,” Guhn said, his voice firm, and placed a hand on Hyungwon’s shoulder, his white glove a screaming contrast against the dark fabric of Hyungwon’s coat. “Play the game.”

Hyungwon went very still for a moment, his face tense, and Changkyun wanted nothing more than to push Guhn away, force him to stop touching Hyungwon, but he’d retracted his hand before Changkyun could act on it. Hyungwon swallowed and fidgeted in his seat, glancing over at Changkyun briefly before he focused on the cards in front of him again.

Changkyun hadn’t forgotten the bruises. The short exchange he just witnessed only served to make him more and more sure Guhn was the one responsible for them.

“Fine,” Hyungwon said, clipped, “I’ll start.” He reached out briskly and slid the topmost card out of the stack. “Three of Diamonds.”

He turned it around and, sure enough, Three of Diamonds.

Minhyuk, the line of his shoulders tense, did the same next, pulling out the topmost card from the stack. In a less confident tone than Hyungwon’s, he said, “Four of Clubs.”

He turned the card around. Correct.

It went on like that for a good while. Eight of Clubs, Five of Hearts, Two of Diamonds, Five of Clubs. Once Minhyuk guessed King of Diamonds correctly, Hyungwon turned to Guhn again.

“Is this enough for a warm-up or should we keep going until we all fall asleep out of boredom?”

“My, are you in a mood tonight,” Guhn said, and Changkyun could hear the condescending undertones in his voice. “Very well, we can move on to the main event.”

“And what would that be?” Minhyuk asked.

“Gather all the cards again, divide them equally amongst yourselves,” Guhn instructed, again sounding like he was having the time of his life. “This will be a much more interesting game.”

“Do explain,” Hyungwon requested, not a hint of interest to be found in him.

“You are both psychics, meaning you can probably see a lot about each other,” Guhn said. “This game consists of one guessing things about the other. Each time one of you gets a fact right, the other needs to drop one of his cards. The first who runs out of cards loses.”

Changkyun felt himself tense up, meeting Hyungwon’s gaze to exchange with him a concerned look. He’d said too much to Minhyuk earlier, and now the things he let slip would come back to bite him (and Hyungwon) in the ass. If only Guhn wasn’t there—

“It sounds like fun,” Minhyuk said as he finished distributing the cards, and Changkyun noticed how confident he sounded. Jooheon mentioned to him once that Minhyuk was good at reading people - he was about to find out just how good. “We can name any facts about each other?”

“Yes, anything,” Guhn confirmed.

“Lovely. Would you like to start?” Minhyuk asked Hyungwon.

Hyungwon fixed his posture in his seat, spine becoming straighter. “Alright,” he said, watching Minhyuk intensely for a couple of seconds. “You truly believe you have a chance of winning this game.”

Changkyun had to bite back a smile - of course Hyungwon would open with something to poke at Minhyuk’s pride. Minhyuk dropped one of his cards easily; if that was a normal deck of playing cards, that meant each of them would have twenty-six cards in their possession. Minhyuk now had twenty-five.

“My turn!” Minhyuk chirped, leaning slightly forward, closer to Hyungwon. “You never had to struggle for money your entire life.”

Hyungwon easily dropped a card, unbothered. “The same cannot be said about you.”

Minhyuk dropped another card. “You think you’re better than me.”

Hyungwon laughed through his nose and dropped another one of his cards. “You’re a very good liar.”

“So are you,” Minhyuk threw back right away as he dropped another of his cards. Hyungwon dropped a card.

Changkyun was getting more and more into it, that game certainly a lot more riveting than the previous one. And, Changkyun also noticed, they were beginning to attract a small crowd of curious onlookers. He blamed it on Hyungwon’s unusual hair, far too bright for the nighttime - it was like a beacon. Minhyuk’s clothes didn’t help either; that they were sitting under a giant, bright sign that announced fortune-telling was the last nail in the coffin.

“You might be a Fortune Teller, but you don’t believe in the supernatural,” Hyungwon continued on, and Minhyuk hesitantly dropped another card.

Changkyun grimaced - a declaration like that would certainly hurt Minhyuk’s reputation, if the people around decided to spread the word. It was bad for business.

“You suffer a lot with headaches,” Minhyuk affirmed and Changkyun had to close his eyes and take a deep breath - that one was his fault, from when he asked Hyungwon about his headaches earlier. He would apologize later.

Hyungwon dropped a card. “That healing cut on your lip was given to you by the angry husband of a woman you had sex with.”

Changkyun’s jaw dropped at the same time Jooheon spluttered next to him - if he didn’t know Hyungwon was always right, Jooheon’s reaction alone would have confirmed that allegation. Guhn, too, seemed quite amused by that from the loud bark of laughter he let out.

Changkyun decided not to think about how Hyungwon saying the word ‘sex’ so casually made him feel.

Minhyuk’s ears were red with shame when he dropped a card. Changkyun held his breath; Minhyuk was getting more and more angry, and that didn’t bode well for Hyungwon.

“You deeply dislike Mr. Guhn.”

Hyungwon laughed at Minhyuk’s affirmation and dropped not one, but two cards. Guhn’s nostrils flared as he glared at Hyungwon, but Hyungwon either didn’t or pretended not to notice. “I’ll drop an extra card for the half-statement. Thank you for sugarcoating it.” He cleared his throat to recover from his laughter and said, “There’s someone here you want to impress.”

Minhyuk dropped a card. “There’s someone here you have already impressed.”

Hyungwon’s lips quirked up in a secret smile and he dropped another card after exchanging a quick glance with Changkyun. That meant Hyungwon now had eighteen cards and Minhyuk, twenty.

“You have a reputation for being promiscuous,” Hyungwon said.

Minhyuk’s card count dropped to nineteen. “You’d rather be anywhere than here.”

Hyungwon had to think about that one for a moment before he dropped a card, although he still didn’t look sure about it. “You enjoy being the center of attention.”

Minhyuk dropped a card. “You had an unhappy childhood.”

“Wrong,” Hyungwon declared and smiled blandly at Minhyuk. “I suppose that means you’re the one who has to drop a card.”

Minhyuk huffed through his nose, frustrated, but dropped another card. That brought the score back to an even seventeen to seventeen.

You had an unhappy childhood,” Hyungwon used Minhyuk’s own guess against him. One less card for Minhyuk.

Minhyuk stared at Hyungwon for a long moment. Changkyun wasn’t sure if he was trying to think up something to say, if he was intimidated for making the first mistake of the entire game, or if he was simply trying to unnerve Hyungwon. If his intention was the latter, he completely failed.

“You use your looks to your advantage.”

Hyungwon dropped a card. “You hate cucumbers so much only the smell is enough to make you sick.”

Minhyuk gasped before he dropped another card. “How did you know that?”

Hyungwon blinked and looked at Minhyuk for a long moment before saying, as if it were obvious, “I’m a psychic. Isn’t that what this game is all about?”

“But— that was so specific,” Minhyuk grumbled as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“I can get more specific, if you want,” Hyungwon declared with unconcealed pride. “Your turn.”

Minhyuk took a deep breath. “You’re hiding something.”

Hyungwon arched an eyebrow but did drop a card. “I’ll give up more cards if you can guess what it is and who I’m hiding it from.”

Changkyun’s eyes widened and he shook his head frantically, trying to catch Hyungwon’s attention, but Hyungwon vehemently ignored him. Minhyuk was about to reveal their secret, Guhn would find out and he would make it so they couldn’t see each other anymore, he would lock Hyungwon up in that dreadful mansion and—

“You are hiding… something you’re ashamed of, from Mr. Guhn.”

Hyungwon sighed. “Wrong. You don’t have to drop any cards this time, I admit it wasn’t a proper question.”

Changkyun exhaled the breath he’d been holding, relieved that Minhyuk didn’t mention him or their secret relationship. Not yet, anyway.

He believed he would have been able to answer those two questions correctly, though - Hyungwon was hiding bruises from Changkyun. Not for shame, but for a wish not to worry him. Maybe he should play this game against Hyungwon some time.

“You have a scar on your scalp you are very self-conscious about,” Hyungwon declared. Minhyuk flinched in his seat; his hand was shaking when he gave up another one of his cards.

“You asked around about me before the game started,” Minhyuk accused.

“Wrong,” Hyungwon immediately replied. Minhyuk dropped another card. “You got that scar during your time working as a telegram boy, around four years ago.”

One more card of Minhyuk’s gone. He only had twelve left now; Hyungwon, fifteen.

“You don’t like me,” Minhyuk tried, but his voice was lacking the previous confidence.

“I am indifferent towards you. You do amuse me, though,” Hyungwon said, and motioned for Minhyuk to drop another card. He did so. “Your mother was a ‘fallen woman’. You never knew who your father was.”

Minhyuk dropped one more card.

“Those were two facts, Minhyuk,” Hyungwon ‘gently’ reminded him.

Minhyuk groaned with frustration and gave up another card. Only nine more. “You have somehow cheated in this game.”

“I haven’t,” Hyungwon replied. Eight cards left for Minhyuk. “You wanted to be a performer in this circus, but you’re too lazy to put in the work.”

Minhyuk dropped another card. Seven more to go. The crowd around them had doubled in number. 

And Minhyuk was growing desperate.

“You can’t actually talk to ghosts.”

“Wrong,” came Hyungwon’s quick reply. Six. “Your mother was the one who taught you all you know about chiromancy.”

Five cards.

Minhyuk took a long time to speak, but when he did, his voice was clear and firm, confident, unwavering.

“You’re in love.”

Hyungwon all but froze for a moment, the declaration obviously unexpected. He glanced up briefly at Changkyun and then down at his lap, for the first time in that entire night showing a dent in his armor. Guhn had frowned at Minhyuk’s accusation and was now glaring at Hyungwon, silently demanding an explanation.

Changkyun wanted to strangle Minhyuk.

“Didn’t you mean you are in love?” Hyungwon recovered from the blow by landing one just as strong against Minhyuk. Changkyun noticed how Jooheon shifted next to him. 

Minhyuk jerkily shook his head. “I’m not. That’s wrong.”

“It’s not and you know it.”

“It’s wrong,” the cadence of Minhyuk’s voice dropped, like an animal who feels threatened and wants to seem more dangerous than he actually is. “Drop a card.”

“I’ll drop a card when you get something right or when I get something wrong,” Hyungwon tossed back. Changkyun noticed how he was talking Minhyuk in circles, distracting him from the fact that he hadn’t dropped a card at the accusation of being in love and neither had he told Minhyuk to drop one for stating something wrong.

He hadn’t confirmed or denied. Changkyun wanted to tear his hair out in frustration - was Hyungwon in love? And if he was, was it with him? It had to be, certainly— unless there was someone else?

No. No, there wasn’t, Hyungwon wouldn’t—

“But you did get something wrong, so drop the card already,” Minhyuk insisted.

“I’m not wrong.”

“Drop. A. Card.”

“No.”

Minhyuk scoffed and shook his head. “What are you? How do you know so much?” He leaned forward, elbows on the table and said in a contemptuous tone, “Here’s a statement for you: you’re not human.”

Changkyun closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. The one thing that would actually upset Hyungwon and Minhyuk had gone and done it. Worse, accusing him of such in public, in front of an entire crowd, entirely on display; Hyungwon hated it the most, Changkyun knew, to be under that form of scrutiny, to be seen as an abnormality.

He hated it the most, because it’s what hurt him the most.

Hyungwon laughed out loud at that, the sound of it forced, bitter. “I’m not human? That’s your explanation for losing this game?” Hyungwon shook his head and got up from his seat. “Just because you’re terrible at this doesn’t mean I’m not just as human as you are. Want me to drop a card, fine.” He tossed all the fifteen cards he still had in his possession on the table before Minhyuk. “Take all of them. I’ll give you a pity win.” The venom in Hyungwon’s words was so heavy even Changkyun was taken aback. “I’m done with this stupid game, excuse me.”

Without saying another word more, Hyungwon walked away, the crowd of people parting like the Red Sea to allow him passage. Guhn, livid, faced splotched red, angrily shouted Hyungwon’s name and hurried after him without saying anything to Minhyuk, the onlookers whispering amongst themselves as they dispersed now that the show was over.

Meanwhile, Minhyuk was still sitting on his chair, staring at the messy pile of cards and gripping the edge of the table so hard Changkyun could see the white bone of his knuckles through the stretch of his skin. He was shaking, from either anger or humiliation or both, his breathing heavy and audible even from where Changkyun stood.

Changkyun was in a daze; it all happened so fast.

Changkyun glanced over at Jooheon, struck dumb next to him like a mirror image of himself, staring at the back of Minhyuk’s head. He looked from Jooheon to Minhyuk to the direction where Hyungwon had stormed off to; he wanted to follow him, but leaving Minhyuk alone felt wrong.

“You’ll stay with him?” he asked Jooheon.

Jooheon jolted as if waking from a dream and nodded. “Y-yeah, I’ll— I’ll stay.”

“I’ll be right back,” Changkyun declared and rushed after Hyungwon and Guhn, weaving through the people as fast as he could to catch up to them.

He spotted them far ahead, Hyungwon having walked too fast in that short span of time, covered too much ground, Guhn on his heels only because he hadn’t wasted any time going after him. Changkyun gave chase, decided to get between them in case Guhn decided to shout at Hyungwon again - he didn’t care to make himself known, not anymore, didn’t care to have Guhn acknowledge his existence. Let him know. Defending Hyungwon felt more important than keeping their strange relationship a secret, and after what just happened it was imperative for him to— be there . Someone like Guhn would not simply accept what happened, the way Hyungwon lost his composure in front of a crowd, the way he’d forfeit the game Guhn was responsible for over a petty comment regarding his nature.

No. He wouldn’t accept it - Guhn would retaliate.

Changkyun picked up his pace once the crowd became more scarce, his eyes locked on the two shadows ahead, barely blinking. His stomach dropped as he saw the faraway silhouette of Guhn grab Hyungwon by the arm and pull him towards the back of a few stalls, away from the main path and into the darkness, and he quickly followed, slipping between two kiosks to reach that back area. It was dark there, too dark for him to see clearly so far ahead, but he could spot the two shapes beyond and he broke into a run.

The narrow space made it difficult, the little distance between the backs of the kiosks and the tall brick wall that lined that side of the grounds not allowing for much movement, the overgrowth and the weeds catching at his feet, slowing him down. He still tried, ran as fast as he could. They were too far, though.

When he was barely halfway there, still too far to do anything, too far to defend Hyungwon, he saw very clearly, thanks to the light that filtered through the spaces between the kiosks, the moment Guhn raised a hand and slapped Hyungwon across the face. He nearly tripped over his own feet such was his shock to witness that scene, scorching wrath surging within him, but he somehow kept running, coming closer and closer.

He saw Guhn shout something at Hyungwon, invading his personal space in the most disrespectful way to scream right at his face, heard his voice echo above even the sounds of the carnival beyond, before he stomped his way back to the main path, leaving Hyungwon behind; he didn’t notice Changkyun was there, showed no sign that he’d seen him at all. If he noticed, he didn’t care.

Hyungwon, however, did notice Changkyun’s approach and quickly ducked his head and looked away when he finally reached him, panting from exertion and rage.

“Are you alright?” Changkyun immediately asked, trying to coax Hyungwon to look at him. “Hyungwon—”

“I’m fine,” Hyungwon said; he sounded so small.

“Look at me, let me see,” he insisted and, after a moment’s hesitation, Hyungwon finally relented and turned his face towards Changkyun.

“There’s nothing to see,” Hyungwon said, covering his own cheek with one hand protectively after just a second; Changkyun didn’t have time to assess the damage. “Just a slap, nothing to concern yourself over.”

“Of course I’m concerned,” Changkyun said, patience beginning to run thin. “Do you think I haven’t noticed the bruises?”

Hyungwon flinched and ducked his head again. “I was hoping you didn’t.”

“Well, I did.”

“He’s never hit me before,” Hyungwon said. Changkyun opened his mouth to argue, but Hyungwon spoke first. “I mean it. He grabbed me a couple of times, but— this is the first time he’s actually struck me.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Changkyun declared, meaning it to his core, but Hyungwon placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him when he made to go after Guhn.

“Don’t, it’s not worth it.”

“Not worth it? Look what he does to you, look at how he treats you!” Changkyun was raising his voice, too incensed to care about his volume. “He just hit you! Who knows what he’s capable of doing next, he can’t just get away with this!”

“You worry too much,” Hyungwon said, smiling down at him in that soft, tender way he did. “This won’t even bruise.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’ll bruise, what matters is that he hit you!” Changkyun argued, his anger almost out of place when Hyungwon himself was acting so subdued. “Hyungwon—”

“It’s alright. I’m alright,” Hyungwon interrupted him, lowering his hand again. Even with the low light, Changkyun could still see Hyungwon’s cheek had reddened where he’d been struck.

Changkyun was unable to hold back from reaching up and covering his cheek with his own hand, careful not to hurt him. He felt Hyungwon’s breath against his wrist, felt the moment it hitched when he touched him; it was always strange for him to touch Hyungwon, always the mixed feeling that he shouldn’t be doing that, shouldn’t put his hands on someone so lovely, as if he would stain him just by being too close, while at the same time feeling as if he’d never done something more right in his life, as if touching Hyungwon was what he was born to do. That Hyungwon always allowed that proximity at all was already enough to have Changkyun’s head spinning, but for Hyungwon not to recoil from his touch entirely— it was heaven.

“Is it hurting?” Changkyun asked, attempting to control himself to keep his voice low. He could only imagine how much stronger Hyungwon’s headache had gotten since they first met earlier that evening, after a very loud circus performance, followed by a stressful competition with Minhyuk, and now being slapped. He didn’t need Changkyun to add to it.

“It’s stinging a bit,” Hyungwon admitted. “I suppose I was lucky he was wearing one of his softer gloves tonight.”

“Please, don’t joke about this,” Changkyun requested.

“I’m fine,” Hyungwon insisted, his smile widening a bit. “I may not be physically strong, but I’m also not made of glass.”

“I know you’re not.”

Hyungwon leaned his head against the hand Changkyun still had on his cheek, his eyes large and liquid reflecting the few lights that filtered through the gaps between the stalls. He wasn’t crying, but he looked like he was barely hanging by a thread. Changkyun’s heart ached for him.

“I’m sorry,” Changkyun blurted out. Hyungwon frowned, confused.

“For what?”

“I feel like I’ve failed you tonight. First with Minhyuk and that dumb game, and now this—”

“There was nothing you could do,” Hyungwon said, gentle, so gentle, “not about the game and not about Guhn.”

“Hyungwon— what Minhyuk said, is it true?” Changkyun asked suddenly; the question had been on the tip of his tongue since Minhyuk brought it up, and he couldn’t contain himself anymore. “Are you in love?”

Hyungwon didn’t seem surprised at the question, just like he didn’t seem surprised at hardly anything. Still, there was a shift in his demeanor, expression softening into something that looked vulnerable; it was refreshing to see something like that in Hyungwon’s otherworldly face, always wearing that impenetrable mask of confidence. Changkyun had seen it before, of course, but it never failed to throw him off guard, remind him that Hyungwon wasn’t that unreachable prince he seemed to be, but— human. A person.

He’d been seeing it more and more lately. It made him happy, proud to be the one Hyungwon trusted enough to be vulnerable with.

“Don’t you know the answer to that already?” Hyungwon asked back, eyes bright, sparkling, more stars in them than in the night sky above their heads.

“I need to hear you say it, otherwise I will never believe it to be true.”

“And if I lie?” Hyungwon proposed it as a challenge, but Changkyun dismissed it immediately with a shake of his head.

“You won’t lie.”

“You are very certain of it.”

“Am I wrong?”

Hyungwon didn’t reply right away, instead bringing his hand up again to cover Changkyun’s, which was still resting on his cheek. Changkyun held his breath, watching as if transfixed the way Hyungwon turned his head, only the bare minimum, to press his lips to Changkyun’s palm. His legs felt like they were made of pudding, about to collapse at any second, but, somehow, he kept himself standing. 

“It’s true,” Hyungwon murmured, although he might as well have shouted with how the words were ringing in Changkyun’s ears. “I am in love. I am in love with you to the point of pain, irrevocably sick with it.”

Changkyun was not sure if he wanted to laugh or to cry, if he should pull Hyungwon closer or push him away - what future was there for them, two men of such different societies? Hyungwon deserved better than a thieving rat such as himself, he deserved only the finer things in life, to be surrounded by silks and velvets and jewels, and not— not the nothing Changkyun could offer him.

And yet, he wanted it. Changkyun wanted it more than he’d ever wanted anything before, he wanted Hyungwon with the sort of reckless abandon he had only ever heard of in stories. It was a want of the soul, absolute madness, lacking sense, lacking logic, but he needed it, needed to have Hyungwon and to belong to him explicitly, without room for any doubt - if Hyungwon told him to bark, he would, if he told him to jump, he would, if he told him to live or die or kill, he would.

It was so potent a sentiment it frightened him if he tried to inspect it too closely.

“Are you going to say you love me back,” Hyungwon asked, his voice frail around the edges despite his attempt at smiling, “or will I return home tonight with a sore cheek and a broken heart?”

Changkyun chuckled, baffled with the possibility of Hyungwon ever thinking like that. “Of course I love you. I think I’ve loved you even before we met.” He never thought it would be so easy to confess his feelings so directly, but once he started speaking, the words just poured out of him. “You say you are sick with it - so am I.” He wrapped his free arm around Hyungwon’s narrow waist to pull him close, the fabric of his coat soft under his fingertips, his scent of flowers and honey making him dizzy. Hyungwon went easy into his embrace, eyes wide as he looked down at Changkyun - so lovely. “I have nothing to offer you but this, all I have is my heart and it’s yours to do with as you will.”

“It’s not just your heart I want,” Hyungwon replied, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Changkyun’s. He held his breath, for a moment believing Hyungwon would kiss him - soon. Soon.

“You want my body?” he asked, he offered. “My mind? My soul? It’s yours. All that I am is yours.”

“And if I break you?”

“Then I’ll be broken.”

Hyungwon giggled, that airy giggle of his, and Changkyun could not hold himself back any longer, that wonderful feeling of redamancy bubbling out of him. The hand that was still resting on Hyungwon’s cheek slid to the back of his neck to pull him closer, to keep him still, and finally he did what he’d done in countless daydreams before and kissed him.

The moment their lips touched there was a zap , as if they had been charged with electrical energy and that energy had been released through that brief touch, and they parted, startled, staring at each other in a similar state of bemusement. Changkyun’s ears were ringing, the pounding of his heart quaking his entire body, and it felt as if something had popped like a balloon in his chest and spread warmth all over.

Hyungwon’s lips parted to allow a soft exhale passage, his eyes wide with wonder and shock as if he’d just came upon a sudden realization, as if he’d learned all the secrets of the universe.

Considering how their universe was entirely contained in the spaces between them, Changkyun was inclined to agree that it was the case.

A small laugh bubbled out of Hyungwon, a single note that heaved his chest and caused the corners of his mouth to quirk up, his not-quite-hazel eyes glimmering as a single tear escaped them. Changkyun felt alarmed for a moment, wanted to ask him what was wrong, but he didn’t have enough time to do so when Hyungwon cupped his face gently with both hands and surged forward to kiss him again.

There was no burst of energy this time.

No. This time he could properly appreciate how plush and soft Hyungwon’s lips were, how warm, how perfectly they fit with his. He only contained himself for a moment, only a second, before that hunger in him took over and what began as a chaste press of lips turned more passionate, more desperate, Changkyun latching onto Hyungwon as if he would drop dead if there was any distance left between them.

He might as well have been drowning all his life and kissing Hyungwon was the lungful of air that heralded salvation; it felt as if everything just clicked together - that strange connection they shared, all the longing, all the unexplained feelings, all of it culminated into that single action. He didn’t believe in soulmates or fate, but what else could it be? What else could explain it? He couldn’t think of anything else that could be the reason for it, no matter how even the theory of soulmates felt understated when compared to the strength of that bond.

Although, as Hyungwon had once put it, some things just are.

Maybe he should stop trying to find a logical answer for it - it was a waste of precious time when he could be enjoying kissing Hyungwon instead.

Hyungwon was so receptive of his touches, followed his lead so easily, that it made it hard to believe how assertive and stubborn he was at any other time. He earnestly matched Changkyun’s pace and intensity, his hands falling from his face to grasp at his shoulders, at the thick fabric of his coat, and Changkyun delighted at the content sighs and little noises that escaped Hyungwon’s lips any time they parted to catch their breaths.

The next time they parted, Changkyun trailed kisses to Hyungwon’s cheek, where he’d been struck minutes before, eliciting a breathless chuckle from him. His head felt so light Changkyun was certain he would fly up into the night sky like a steam balloon were Hyungwon not holding him.

“Don’t go back to the mansion,” Changkyun pleaded in an urgent whisper, pressing more kisses to Hyungwon’s cheek. “Stay with me, come home with me—”

“I can’t,” Hyungwon replied, resting his head on Changkyun’s shoulder. “There’s too much at stake.”

“We can deal with it,” Changkyun insisted, “whatever it is we can figure it out, as long as you leave that place, leave Guhn—”

“I can’t, Changkyun,” Hyungwon repeated, snaking his arms around him in a tight embrace. Changkyun held him back just as tight. “There’s nothing I can do right now, the consequences aren’t worth it when I can manage it.”

“But—”

“We can work with what we have,” Hyungwon interrupted him gently, pulling away from him just enough that they could face each other. “I don’t want you to get involved in my dealings with Guhn, I know how to handle him, so—”

“Hyungwon, he hit you ,” Changkyun felt the need to remind him. He took his face in his hands lovingly, kissed him once, twice, three times. “I can’t let you go back to that place with him.”

“I’ll handle it,” Hyungwon repeated and smiled down at him, an obvious attempt at reassuring him. “He won’t strike me again, I swear it.”

“How can you know that?”

“Talking to ghosts is not the only trick I have up my sleeve.”

“I’m afraid to ask what you mean by that,” Changkyun admitted with a sigh, making Hyungwon laugh fondly.

“Don’t ask, then.”

Changkyun groaned, frustrated. “You’re the reason I’ll have gray hairs before I’m thirty.”

Hyungwon giggled again and Changkyun shut him up the only way he knew how - by kissing him once more. Hyungwon gave in easily, and how wonderful would it be if they could stay there, hidden in that narrow, secluded space, just holding each other.

Reality called, unfortunately.

“I have to go,” Hyungwon said against his lips, between one kiss and the next. Changkyun shook his head, trapped Hyungwon’s bottom lip with his teeth, licked into his mouth to demand more as if those actions were enough to stop the world from turning to give them more time together. Hyungwon broke away again, his lips red and swollen, his pupils blown wide with want. “I have to go,” he repeated, “but come to the mansion tomorrow morning.”

“Yes,” Changkyun agreed, not a second’s hesitation.

“I’ll tell the servants to open the side door for you,” Hyungwon instructed, kissing him one more time, on the corner of his mouth, before he stepped back and fixed his clothes. Changkyun didn’t bother doing the same. “Wait for me in the kitchen.”

“I will,” Changkyun promised and lunged forward to press one last kiss to Hyungwon’s lips, just long enough that the sensation lingered when they parted. “Be careful.”

“Hurry home, little mouse,” Hyungwon told him, a playful side grin on his face as he walked backwards, away from him, “you’ll catch your death in this weather.”

“You’re a medium,” Changkyun responded, cheeky, watching him go, “even if I catch my death, you’ll hear from me plenty.”

Hyungwon’s laughter was crystal clear even as he disappeared into the shadows. 

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Minhyuk stared at the pile of cards on the table before him with blurry eyes. Tears of pure rage were threatening to fall but he willed himself not to let them. His breathing was erratic and shallow, he was shaking all over, barely containing himself from flipping that table and breaking everything in sight.

Who gave Hyungwon the right to use his every weakness against him? Who gave him the right to dig around for Minhyuk’s darkest memories, and worse, how did he find out about all of it? His mother, his scar, his—

“Minhyuk?” he heard Jooheon’s voice behind him; it did nothing to soothe him, on the contrary, it only made him more nervous. “Are you— are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he gritted out in response.

“You don’t look fine, you—”

He felt Jooheon place a hand on his shoulder and instinctively jumped up from his seat and away from Jooheon, thoroughly avoiding his touch. Jooheon jerked back, eyes wide with shock and, to Minhyuk’s regret, hurt.

“I’m fine, Jooheon,” Minhyuk repeated, trying to keep his voice steady, keep it from shaking.

“Why are you so angry?” Jooheon asked carefully, as if afraid Minhyuk would snap at him.

“Why— Why do you think!?” Minhyuk snapped just as Jooheon feared. “He— he humiliated me! He called me a liar, he made everyone question my ability of fortune-telling, he disclosed things about me that I never shared with anyone, he— he—”

“Minhyuk, it’s alright,” Jooheon said, “it’ll be fine, it—”

“It’s not going to be fine!” Minhyuk cried. Jooheon didn’t get it. He just couldn’t get it, he wasn’t the one who had his secrets paraded before an entire crowd of people, his every shame brought to light. “He— How did he know all of that, Jooheon?”

Jooheon gave him a helpless shrug. “I— I don’t know, he’s— I told you he was scary, Minhyuk! I tried to tell you!”

“And what, it’s my fault for not listening!?”

“N-no, that’s not what I meant,” Jooheon was quick to say. Minhyuk didn’t mean to lash out, never once wished to take out his anger on Jooheon, but his wrath was bursting out of him like a volcano spouting lava - the volcano can’t control the fall of its lava, can’t keep the space around it from being covered in poisonous ash.

“How could he know,” Minhyuk muttered to himself, pulling off the red headscarf from his head so he could run a shaky hand through his hair. “How did he know all that, where could he have found that information—”

“I— I don’t know,” Jooheon replied, probably thinking Minhyuk had been talking to him and not at him. “I think he’s a witch. I’m almost sure he is a witch.”

“He can’t be normal, there’s something— There has to be something,” Minhyuk continued with his feverish rambling. “He has a secret, there is a logical explanation for all of this and I’m going to find out what it is and knock him down from his pedestal.”

Jooheon shook his head at that, rejecting the very concept. “What? No, no, no, please don’t make him angry, who knows what else he can do if—”

“He’s not scary! I’m not scared of him!” Minhyuk insisted fervently. “He’s a liar and I’m going to show everyone there’s nothing amazing about him, he’s just as much a fraud as I am.”

“Even if he’s a fraud, he has money, Minhyuk!” Jooheon said, more confident now. “He has connections, he can— he could hurt you.”

Minhyuk’s every movement halted at the raw concern in Jooheon’s voice, how his expression had softened, how—

No. No, no, no, he wasn’t going down that road.

“He won’t have anything once I expose him for what he is,” Minhyuk said.

Jooheon watched him for a long time, lips pressed into a thin line. Minhyuk didn’t like that expression on his face, didn’t like that he was the one responsible for it. If only he could make it so Jooheon was always smiling, always happy, never worried, or scared, or sad. If only he could—

“Minhyuk,” Jooheon called his name softly, carefully, “are you reacting like this because— because of what he said last? About you being in love?”

That was the last question he wanted to hear coming from Jooheon. He panicked, and the panic mingled with all the anger that was already there, all the frustration, and it burst out of Minhyuk in the form of a loud, ugly, derisive laugh.

“No, definitely not,” he said, shaking his head to emphasize how much that was not a problem. “I’m not in love, he got that one wrong.”

“He seemed very certain that—”

“Well, he was wrong,” Minhyuk cut him off, sharp as a dagger. “I’m not in love ,” he said the word coated with the most disgust he could muster. “I don’t— I don’t do love, there is no way he could be more wrong.”

Jooheon lowered his eyes to the ground, fidgeting where he stood, wringing the hem of his coat nervously in his hands. “Okay. Sorry for asking.”

If regrets could kill, Minhyuk would already be at the Gates.

“I’ll prove he’s a fraud,” Minhyuk repeated, to take the attention away from the previous topic more than anything. “You’ll see, my honey. I’ll show everyone he’s nothing but a very good liar.”

Jooheon nodded, his movements clipped. “As you say. I— I should go find Changkyun and head home.”

He held his breath, regret doubling in strength and size and weight, crushing his heart. He didn’t mean to give Jooheon the impression he wanted him to leave; Minhyuk wanted to ask him to stay, ask him not to go. Ask him to never go.

He didn’t.

“Take care, Minhyuk,” Jooheon said and, without waiting for a reply, turned on his heels and left towards the same direction Changkyun had run off to.

Minhyuk stood there, alone, stewing in his own rage and guilt - and it was all Hyungwon’s fault.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Kihyun was ready to call it a night, far too tense and concerned to allow himself to enjoy their outing, but Hoseok was having fun and didn’t look like he wanted to go home just yet. Hyunwoo seemed to be neutral about it, so Kihyun chose not to be the one to put a damper on things - he felt like he said ‘no’ too much already, and Hoseok was overdue for some indulgence.

Since Hoseok was doing fine that evening, the symptoms of his illness kept at bay by sheer willpower, Kihyun turned his focus to Hyunwoo instead.

From the moment Hyungwon had ‘implied’ Hyunwoo was sick, Kihyun had been keeping a close eye on him - so far, nearly two hours later, he was yet to witness anything that betrayed Hyunwoo was anything less than perfectly healthy. Sure, he had deep dark circles under his eyes and was clearly fatigued, but that could be explained by the long nights and hard work he’d been doing the last few weeks. Kihyun himself was exhausted, and that didn’t mean he was sick - meticulous and careful as he was, Kihyun would have noticed if he was showing symptoms of consumption. He wasn’t. He was merely tired from working too much.

Just like Hyunwoo, who was not sick.

And who could fault them for being tired? They hardly ever stopped working. Kihyun was always running up and down throughout the city, visiting clients, closing deals, managing their personnel, doing inventory, keeping up with the books, and, when he wasn’t focused on their business, he was tending to Hoseok - it wasn’t work, he would never qualify anything he did for Hoseok as work , but it took a lot out of him both emotionally and mentally. And Hyunwoo was no different, working several odd jobs during the day and deep into the night, assisting Kihyun with their products at the warehouse, seeing to their ship’s upkeep, bribing people to keep their mouths shut about their contraband, doing deliveries. They were both running on fumes, going on very little sleep and too much stress.

It used to be easier - before Hoseok fell ill, they shared those responsibilities between the three of them. An operation of the magnitude they were running, it took a lot more work than just bringing over some smuggled products and selling them. No, it was much deeper than that, more intricate, because if they weren’t careful enough, they could all be arrested. The stakes were too high, and while Kihyun would gladly give up that line of work and seek something more— legal , it was the best way to make money.

Of course, they hemorrhaged money constantly, be it with their personal bills, medicine for Hoseok, paying their staff, all the bribing, all the cuts for partners that sold their product in their stores. Money came easy, but it went easy too - very little of what they made found its way to their savings. Worrying about their funds was yet another thing that made Kihyun and Hyunwoo weary, added to their fatigue.

At least they could cross out a new place to live off their list of concerns - it had been pressing on Kihyun, the urgency to find someplace safer. Their old landlord was known for evicting tenants for much less, so if he had found that Hoseok had a contagious, potentially deadly illness, he would have thrown them out with nothing but the clothes on their backs and set fire to the rest of their belongings.

Yes, Kihyun hadn’t forgotten that Hyunwoo was keeping something from them, but it wasn’t— it was not tuberculosis. It had something to do with all the extra money he was bringing home, and being sick didn’t make money magically appear in one’s pockets. No, whatever it was Hyunwoo was hiding, it was something he was doing and not something he had .

But what was it? Hyungwon said he knew what it was, but he also said Kihyun should wonder at the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’. Whatever that meant. Trusting Hyungwon felt like the wrong move but, then again, he knew about Hoseok’s illness, had given him a good tip regarding the hibiscus tea - Hoseok had been much less prone to fevers and coughing fits since Kihyun started giving him that tea, and he would be forever grateful to Hyungwon for that. He was wrong, though, about Hyunwoo being ill.

And what the hell did ‘I might just be able to help’ even mean? Was Hyungwon keeping a miraculous cure for consumption hidden away at that creepy old mansion of his? It sounded like bullshit if Kihyun had ever heard any.

It didn’t matter, though. Hyunwoo wasn’t sick, he’d thanked Hyungwon for the advice about the tea, and that was that. No point in dwelling on it.

And yet he couldn’t stop.

Watching Hyunwoo waiting in line to buy himself a caramel apple, Kihyun couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. His tan skin hadn’t paled a single shade, his face was as round and boyish as it always had been, his body just as sturdy. There was nothing about him physically to indicate he was anything other than healthy.

He wasn’t sick. Hyunwoo was not sick.

Hoseok must have caught Kihyun staring, for he nudged his shoulder gently and asked, “You want an apple too?”

Kihyun blinked a couple of times as he forcefully removed himself from his very intense line of thought and smiled up at Hoseok. “No, I was just distracted.”

“With what?” he asked. “How good Hyunwoo looks in that coat?”

Kihyun couldn’t help a giggle. “He does look very good in that coat, but no, it’s not that.”

“Well, it should be, if there’s anything you should be distracted with it’s how handsome our ‘brother’ is,” Hoseok said, cheeky. Kihyun rolled his eyes, barely containing a smile. 

“Yes, we’re very lucky to have such an attractive ‘brother’.”

Hoseok licked his lips, eyes darting out gingerly, before he asked in a lower voice, “Have you and Woo— you know? Since you came back?”

Kihyun noticed the rise of Hoseok’s cheekbones had gone rosy. He gave him a knowing side smile and a fond look. “No, we haven’t.”

“It’s alright if you have,” Hoseok was quick to say. “I— I know I mentioned being jealous that you two can do that kind of stuff, but—”

“Bunny, I mean it. We haven’t,” Kihyun insisted gently. “Neither of us is in the proper headspace for it, and we don’t really have much time or energy to indulge in such things.” Saying it out loud, he realized for the first time how physically distant they had all become - another unfortunate consequence of their situation. “We do kiss and cuddle, but it didn’t go beyond that just yet.”

“Oh,” Hoseok exhaled. “I was hoping— well, what I meant with this is that I don’t want you two to hold back from being affectionate with each other because of me. I do get envious sometimes, but I don’t want to be the reason you two don’t— do stuff.”

“You spend far too much time on your own thinking about sex, dear, I should get you a more difficult puzzle game,” Kihyun joked, and that at least worked to make Hoseok smile. “You don’t have to worry about Hyunwoo and me.”

Hoseok chewed on his bottom lip, his hands shoved in the pockets of his coat and his eyes down to the ground. “I just— I noticed you two have been tense lately. Distant. Not with me, but with each other, and I— I’m worried. Have you two been fighting?”

Kihyun sighed, tired, and hooked one arm around Hoseok’s - the only gesture of affection he could perform in public that wouldn’t draw too much attention. “No, we haven’t been fighting.”

“It’s the secret he’s been keeping, then.”

Kihyun could not reply to that with words, so he merely nodded to confirm Hoseok’s suspicions. He heard Hoseok take a deep breath next to him.

“Do you think he’s cheating?”

“No,” Kihyun immediately replied, honest. “I confronted him already about it being something like that, and I know he was telling the truth. There’s nobody else, he didn’t betray us.”

“If it’s not that, then what is it?” Hoseok asked, more to himself than Kihyun. “What could be so bad that he feels the need to keep it from us? I don’t understand.”

“Have you noticed anything odd?” Kihyun inquired, looking up to meet Hoseok’s eyes. “Or maybe something he said that felt out of place?”

Hoseok shook his head. “No. He acts the same way he always did around me. Although—” Hoseok paused, a hitch appearing between his brows. “I think he hurt himself somewhere.”

Kihyun arched an eyebrow, his curiosity picked. “Why so?”

“A couple of nights ago when he came home,” Hoseok began, pitching his voice lower to keep their conversation private, “you were already sleeping, but I couldn’t fall asleep, so I was awake when he arrived. He came over to give me a hug and when he did, he— he winced and hissed as if he was in pain, and then put a hand on his shoulder.”

“He did?”

“Yes. I asked what was wrong and he said he pulled a muscle carrying something heavy, but— he was definitely lying,” Hoseok concluded his tale with a forlorn little sigh. “I didn’t think it was odd at first. I figured he was just trying not to worry me, but the more I think about it, the stranger it seems.”

“It does sound strange,” Kihyun agreed.

“I worry he might be doing something dangerous.”

Kihyun gave a Hoseok a soothing pat on the shoulder with his free hand. “I was hoping he would come clean on his own and tell us, but— I think I’ll have to do a little digging.”

“I’ll help.”

“No, you won’t,” Kihyun said, stern. “You need all your energy to get better, let me worry about everything else.”

Hoseok groaned, frustrated. “I’m tired of you and Woo keeping everything from me, I’m sick but I’m not a child. I can handle it, Ki.”

“I know you can,” Kihyun said, and he meant it, “but if I can spare you from needless pain, I will.”

“I don’t want to be spared, I want to be part of us again,” Hoseok told him, his expression turning sad. Kihyun wished they weren’t in public so he could hold him. “You two keep me out of everything, I might as well not even be here.”

“Don’t say that,” Kihyun pleaded. “Everything we do is for you, every decision we make is for you. We’re doing all we possibly can to keep you here, so please, never talk as if we don’t care about you.”

Hoseok pressed his lips together and averted his eyes again. “I’m sorry, that’s— that’s not what I meant. I know you care about me - I’m just tired of feeling like you two are my parents and not my lov— brothers .”

Kihyun laughed through his nose at Hoseok’s little slip. “I understand where you’re coming from with that, but what would you do were our positions reversed? If I was the one who was sick, would you tell me things that could make me upset? Or would you endeavor to make sure I was as calm and unconcerned as possible so I could recover comfortably?”

Hoseok opened his mouth to answer but clamped it shut just as fast, a pout appearing on his lips. “The latter.”

“Mhm, thought so,” Kihyun said. “We mean well, bunny. We’re trying our best, and sometimes we make decisions thinking of what’s better for your health, even if those decisions might make you sad.”

“I know. It’s just hard sometimes.”

“I know. It’s hard for us too,” Kihyun said, holding Hoseok’s hand only for long enough to give it a reassuring squeeze. “I won’t promise to tell you of every little thing, but I will tell anything important regarding Hyunwoo and his secret. Is that enough?”

Hoseok gave him a brief shrug in response. “I guess.”

“You can keep an eye out for anything strange,” Kihyun offered. “You know both me and Hyunwoo like the back of your hand, you’ll be able to tell if something is amiss with him.”

“Fine, I can be your extra pair of eyes,” Hoseok said with a resigned exhale. “But if I ever get better, you owe me.”

When you get better,” Kihyun corrected him, “you can ask the world from me and I’ll gladly give it to you.”

“I already have the world,” Hoseok threw back, along with a fond look and the softest smile gracing his lips.

Kihyun smiled at the ground, cheeks hot and heart pounding, no matter how cheesy Hoseok’s line had been. If Hoseok could still have Kihyun blushing and grinning like a fool with something like that, there was no doubt that their relationship was as sound as ever.

Hyunwoo returned at that exact moment, carrying one caramel apple on each hand and looking from Hoseok to Kihyun with a curious look in his eyes. “What did I miss?”

“Hoseok was asking if you and I have been intimate lately,” Kihyun responded without preamble or shame, to which Hoseok spluttered and gave him a light slap on the arm.

“Ki, not so loud!”

“It wasn’t loud!”

Hyunwoo barked a laugh at their squabble. “Sorry to disappoint, Seok, but we haven’t.”

“Told you,” Kihyun said, watching as Hyunwoo gave the first bite on one of the caramel apples before handing it to Hoseok - Hoseok hated giving the first bite on a regular apple, an apple covered in caramelized sugar was even worse. Hoseok happily accepted the treat after chirping out a ‘thank you’ to Hyunwoo.

“We could change that,” Hyunwoo said, casual, as they began making their way down the path through the crowd. Kihyun rolled his eyes.

“Both of you need better hobbies.”

“You should change that,” Hoseok agreed, and Kihyun didn’t know if they were joking anymore. “I can’t take part in it but I can watch.”

“You should most definitely watch,” Hyunwoo said.

Kihyun closed his eyes for a long moment, praying to God for patience. “We’re in public —”

“Come on, Ki,” Hyunwoo said, hooking his arm around Kihyun’s free one. “You can’t deny that the idea has some appeal.”

“I never said it didn’t,” Kihyun responded. He noticed the look Hyunwoo and Hoseok exchanged over his head; better to change the topic. “So, what should we do next?”

“We should head home,” Hyunwoo immediately said.

“Yes, home,” Hoseok agreed just as fast.

Kihyun sighed. “You two are impossible.”

“If you don’t want to—”

“I didn’t say that.”

Hyunwoo hummed victoriously around his mouthful of caramel apple, much like Hoseok did. Kihyun glanced up at Hyunwoo, again looking for any signs of illness. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing, he looked— he looked fine.

Hyungwon was wrong. He could have been right about Hoseok, but he was wrong about Hyunwoo.

He shook his head, breathed in deep and slow, as discreetly as he possibly could not to alarm either of his loves. It would not do to keep stressing about Hyungwon’s - very wrong - prediction. Hyunwoo wasn’t sick and that was that.

As they walked, all of them falling silent for a moment, Kihyun noticed Hyunwoo’s eyes on him and looked up to stare at him quizzically. “What?”

“You have something on your mind,” Hyunwoo declared. Not a question, but an affirmation.

“Yes, and what else is new?” Kihyun joked, bitter. 

Hyunwoo stared at him for a moment, a pensive frown on his face, before he stopped walking, which prompted Kihyun and Hoseok to do the same. Then Hyunwoo let go of Kihyun and handed him his apple. “Hold this for a second?”

Kihyun took the apple easily and, without explaining or saying anything else, Hyunwoo walked away from them towards one of the kiosks, the crowd quickly covering him from view. Kihyun looked up at Hoseok, finding the exact same confusion in his face. Kihyun sighed but made no comments, simply taking a bite out of Hyunwoo’s apple while taking care not to get any of the caramel - he hated the texture and how it stuck to his teeth. He liked the fruit just fine, though.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to stand there waiting for long; Hyunwoo soon came back, a little smile playing on his lips and a hand behind his back, hiding something. Once he was properly by their side again, he promptly revealed what it was: a single red rose.

He held the rose out for Kihyun who, again, felt his cheeks warming up and his heart doing somersaults in his chest. Hyunwoo helpfully took his apple back so that Kihyun’s hand was free to accept the flower.

“I know it’s not an easy feat to accomplish but, just for tonight, I want you to not worry about anything,” Hyunwoo said; the warmth in Kihyun’s face spread out to the rest of his body. “Let us take care of you for a change.”

Kihyun exhaled a shaky breath as he looked at the rose in his hand in a daze, feeling how Hoseok’s hold on his arm tightened just the slightest, how Hyunwoo had placed a hand on his back. He wasn’t expecting such a tender, romantic gesture from Hyunwoo - those were usually reserved for Hoseok lately. It was something Kihyun was so accustomed to, that he often forgot how much he enjoyed having the attention, being pampered by his lovers. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d received flowers from either of them.

And, he had to admit, he had been spreading himself too thin, was wound up too tight. He should probably say no, remind them that they had a lot to do the next day, with moving apartments and the mess that came with it, but— 

One night of no worries, letting Hyunwoo and Hoseok take the reins— it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Finally, he nodded to agree and smiled up at Hyunwoo, holding the rose against his chest as something precious. “Alright.”

Hyunwoo beamed at him and, after exchanging another conspiratory look with Hoseok, began guiding them towards the exit.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

“He hit him, Jooheon!” Changkyun exclaimed for the millionth time as they made their way home. “He hit him, can you believe that!?”

Jooheon wanted to say that, yes, he did believe it, because Hyungwon had behaved in a rather infuriating manner the entire night and even he himself wanted to smack him - but he said nothing. That would be a very dumb way to die, since Changkyun would probably strangle him for it.

Sure, violence was never the answer and Jooheon was the last person to defend anybody for hitting someone else, but— he felt very protective of Minhyuk. He never thought he would see Minhyuk so upset, so angry. Jooheon didn’t understand, not completely, the reasons for how strongly Minhyuk had reacted to the things Hyungwon had said. He could get behind the part that harmed his business, the part where Hyungwon mentioned Minhyuk was a skeptic despite posing as a psychic, but the rest— it didn’t change anything. At least, not for Jooheon. He didn’t think any less of Minhyuk for it.

He wished Minhyuk felt comfortable to rely on him. Jooheon was slowly beginning to realize that maybe, just maybe, he could be developing stronger feelings towards Minhyuk. He wouldn’t call them romantic, it wasn’t that - not yet, at any rate - but he cared about him. Considered him a dear person. A friend.

Minhyuk, while constantly teasing him and calling him ‘my honey’, was obviously not there yet. Before that night, he thought Minhyuk saw him as a friend too, but after all that happened, all that was said and done, he was fairly certain it wasn’t the case.

Minhyuk— he didn’t want Jooheon around.

It served him right, he thought. Maybe he’d been too uptight for Minhyuk’s tastes, offended him in his attempts at giving him advice, inserted himself in matters that he shouldn’t have meddled with. Minhyuk didn’t need him.

That thought hurt, for some reason.

“Jooheon?” Changkyun’s voice snapped him from his thoughts. “Are you listening to me?”

“You’re going on about how Guhn hit Hyungwon, yes, I’m listening,” he replied without much inflection and Changkyun frowned.

“Alright, what’s wrong?”

Jooheon shrugged, kicking at a loose pebble on the ground. “Nothing’s wrong.”

“You’re upset, something’s obviously wrong.”

Jooheon inhaled deeply through his nose and said, “I think Minhyuk hates me.”

Changkyun arched an eyebrow at him. “Uh… he really doesn’t.”

“How do you know that? You just met him tonight.”

“And just that was enough for me to know he doesn’t hate you,” Changkyun declared. “The way he looks at you is telling of how fond he is of you.”

Jooheon huffed a bitter laugh through his nose. “He’s really not.”

“Hyungwon said he’s in love,” Changkyun said casually; Jooheon held his breath, “I’d bet everything I own on the fact that the person he’s in love with is you.”

“He’s not in love,” Jooheon replied. Minhyuk had told him himself - he didn’t ‘do’ love. And if he was in love, it would probably be with someone who wasn’t a total stick in the mud like Jooheon was.

That thought hurt, too.

“If Hyungwon said he’s in love, then he’s in love,” Changkyun affirmed.

“Hyungwon was wrong.”

“Hyungwon is never wrong,” he insisted. “I’ve heard enough of his predictions to know, so trust me: he’s never wrong.”

“There’s a first time for everything, and he’s wrong about this,” Jooheon said, firm. “Minhyuk might not downright hate me, but he doesn’t like me either.”

“He calls you his honey,” Changkyun pointed out. “And I saw how he kept putting himself between you and Hyungwon to defend you, why would he do that if he didn’t like you?”

“He was just being nice,” Jooheon said.

Changkyun watched him quietly for a moment, eyes narrowed as if trying to read Jooheon’s mind. “Jooheon.”

“Yes?”

“You like Minhyuk, don’t you?”

Jooheon felt as if he just dunked his face in a bucket of hot coals. “N-no, I don’t.”

“Then why does it bother you so much if he doesn’t like you? I know you’re a people pleaser, but you were never the type to be so broken up about one person not liking you.”

Jooheon pressed his lips together tight and didn’t answer. He could lie and say it didn’t bother him at all, but it was already established that it did bother him - he didn’t want to start a cycle of self-contradiction. He also didn’t want to think too hard about all the reasons why it bothered him so much. He was just very fond of Minhyuk, for some ungodly reason. He liked his company, enjoyed being in his presence, and he liked seeing him smile.

Changkyun just hadn’t seen the way Minhyuk treated him after the ‘game’. He didn’t see how Minhyuk avoided Jooheon’s touch, how harsh his words— his eyes were. He knew that Minhyuk was upset and that often people lash out when they’re angry, but… it hurt. It hurt a lot.

It didn’t matter if Jooheon liked Minhyuk or not, and it didn’t matter what the nature of that sentiment was - what mattered was that Minhyuk clearly preferred it if Jooheon kept his distance.

So that’s what he would do.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

The tension inside the small carriage could be cut with a knife. Guhn was resolutely staring out through the small window, but Hyungwon’s eyes were trained on him, his stare steady and intense, burning with quiet fury, resentment.

It had been like that over the better part of their journey back to the moor, Hyungwon sitting very still and staring, barely blinking. It was making Guhn very uncomfortable, very unnerved, unsettled, and Hyungwon thought it was good.

Good, but not enough.

The mist outside was already thick enough that their coachman had to conduct the horses slowly up the path to the mansion, something the man was already accustomed to doing. It meant they would have to stay inside that cramped space together for longer than necessary, however. Hyungwon wouldn’t have that.

Guhn shifted in his seat across from Hyungwon, huffing an annoyed breath of air before he turned to him. “Can you stop with your glaring already? You are acting like a child.”

Hyungwon didn’t reply. Just stared.

Guhn swallowed, throat bobbing up and down, and he straightened his posture, trying to make himself larger, more imposing, more intimidating. “What do you want me to say? That I’m sorry? I’m not. You embarrassed me tonight by behaving like a spoiled brat, I was in my right to discipline you.”

Again, no reply.

“Stop it,” Guhn ordered him. “I am not afraid of you, you can’t do anything—”

Hyungwon had enough and knocked twice on the ceiling of the carriage with his knuckles, indicating to the coachman to stop. Guhn sputtered, taken aback when Hyungwon opened the door of the carriage and hopped off before they had even stopped moving completely.

“Are you mad? You’ll get lost in the mist, you idiot!” Guhn exclaimed. “Get back inside, right now!”

The coachman was staring at him with a look of concern, his expression mirroring Guhn’s words, but Hyungwon ignored them both.

He turned, fog swirling around his legs with the air shift his cape caused, and stared at Guhn inside the carriage. He was quiet for a moment, only a couple of seconds. Whatever Guhn saw in Hyungwon’s face, it made him jerk back in fear, complexion becoming pale. He was getting scared now. Good.

Good.

“Raise a hand to me again,” Hyungwon finally said, low, slow, extremely clear, “and you will no longer have a hand to raise.”

And with that, he turned around and walked away, off the path and into the mists, rapidly being swallowed by the fog until he was no longer visible.

The door of the carriage slammed shut behind him with a mysterious gust of wind.

 

Chapter Text

 

Kihyun woke up that morning to the sound of soft clattering coming from the kitchen, something so unusual his eyes snapped open to assess the situation. It was extremely rare for him not to be the first one to wake up, even on a Sunday like that - Hoseok always slept late if left to his own devices, and Hyunwoo tended to get up around midmorning, as he worked nights. Waking up to noises from the kitchen was definitely strange for Kihyun.

He groggily sat up on the recliner he’d been sleeping on ever since Hoseok requested them to stop sharing a bed, wincing at the hint of a headache just above his eyes, and looked around the living room. Immediately he noticed the mess of blankets on the floor, the empty bottle of wine, the items of clothing thrown around.

As he recalled the events of the previous night, Hoseok came from the kitchen, wearing loose cotton pants and a shirt so oversized Kihyun immediately knew it to be one of Hyunwoo’s. Hoseok broke into a sunny smile once their eyes met.

“Ki, you’re awake!”

“That’s up for debate,” Kihyun grumbled, voice rough with sleep. “Why are you up so early?”

“It’s not that early,” Hoseok informed him. “It’s a little past nine.”

Kihyun blinked, processing, before he jolted in his seat. “Wh-why didn’t you wake me up!?”

“Because we tired you out last night and you needed to rest,” Hoseok said, cheeky. “Besides, it’s Sunday. It’s alright if you sleep in.”

“But—” Kihyun trailed off, too sleepy to think of a plausible argument. He shivered when a cold breeze hit him and wrapped himself in a blanket - he was so out of it he hadn’t realized he wasn’t wearing any clothes. The day had started well. “Where’s Woo?”

“He went to take some of our stuff to the new apartment,” Hoseok said. “He just left, it’s been no longer than fifteen minutes.”

“That idiot, he was supposed to wait for me,” Kihyun whined, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“He wanted to get started and didn’t want to wake you. You were sleeping so soundly,” Hoseok said and opened his mouth to keep talking, but the sound of a kettle whistling from the kitchen interrupted him. “Ah, I’ll be right back.”

He hurried back into the kitchen and Kihyun let himself flop back down on the chaise, face burrowed into a throw pillow and blanket pulled up over his head. He hated to have his meticulous schedule thrown into chaos, but he had to admit he was feeling— great. He felt relaxed like he hadn’t felt in ages, his body sore in a way that felt pleasant, skin still tingling with memories of his lovers’ touches. He smiled to himself and sighed, content, before he stretched his arms over his head. He could laze around for a few minutes longer, at least for one day.

It wasn’t long until he heard Hoseok’s footsteps coming from the kitchen, felt the recliner dip when he sat down next to him. After a moment, he tugged the blanket down gently until he uncovered Kihyun’s face, and Kihyun blinked up at him, getting used to the light again, and smiled when he saw he was holding a cup of tea out for him.

He pushed himself up once more and gladly accepted the tea. “Thank you, bunny.”

“You’re welcome,” Hoseok chirped, then leaned forward to press a kiss to the top of Kihyun’s head. “Good morning.”

Kihyun’s smile became a bright grin at the loving treatment. “Good morning.” He turned his face to plant a kiss on the rise of Hoseok’s cheekbone. “How are you feeling?”

“I honestly feel better than I have in a long time,” Hoseok admitted, bending down to pick up his own mug, which he left on the floor so he could pull down Kihyun’s blanket a minute before. “At least emotionally.”

Kihyun laughed through his nose and agreed with a motion of his head as he blew his tea to cool it down some before he took a sip. “I get what you mean.” Then, giving Hoseok a knowing look, he said, “You didn’t just watch.”

Hoseok stuck out his tongue at him like the big brat he was. “Of course I didn’t, it’s not like I could keep my hands to myself.”

Kihyun shook his head fondly and giggled, scooting closer to Hoseok to press a kiss to his shoulder. “I’m glad you didn’t.”

“Me too,” Hoseok confessed in a whisper, resting his head atop Kihyun’s.

They stayed like that for a while, snuggled up against each other and absently sipping on their tea, just basking in the moment. He wished Hyunwoo was there too to share the quiet bliss they were experiencing, but he figured they would have another chance later once they were properly settled in their new apartment.

It was easy to forget what those little moments of intimacy felt like, the simplicity of being together, exchanging tender touches and quiet words. It had been their normal, once, to have moments like those - moments where they felt like the lovers they were, and not— brothers. They had grown so distant that sometimes it was easy to believe that the lie they created to protect themselves was the truth. Kihyun didn’t want to forget that feeling, not again.

With Hoseok abstaining from physical displays of affection due to the fear of spreading his illness, Hyunwoo acting skittish and secretive, and Kihyun being constantly stressed, they desperately needed reminders such as that, that the spark was still there. To remember that he was wanted, and to remind Hyunwoo and Hoseok that he wanted them, too.

“I love you,” Kihyun whispered against Hoseok’s neck, the sensitive skin coming alive with goosebumps under his lips.

“I love you too,” Hoseok said back, his free hand finding Kihyun’s to thread their fingers together.

Kihyun smiled against his skin and gave him a kiss just under the ear before he pulled slightly away. “I should really get up now, before I’m tempted to stay here all day.”

“I’d be tempted to stay here all day with you,” Hoseok agreed, and in one motion tossed back the remnants of his tea. Kihyun chuckled at the display. “Want to take a bath?”

“Mhm,” Kihyun hummed to confirm as he finished his own tea - in a much more refined manner -, asking once he was done, “will you join me?”

“Absolutely,” Hoseok agreed and, after kissing Kihyun on the cheek one more time, he got up. “I’ll just wash these and be right over.”

Hoseok took both mugs and shuffled back to the kitchen, and Kihyun decided to get up before he gave up on his plan of taking a bath and went back to sleep - sluggish as he felt, he would likely sleep the day away, and that wouldn’t do. Blanket wrapped around his shoulders so he could maintain a smidge of decency, Kihyun begrudgingly rose from the recliner and began making his way to the bathroom - that is, until the third step, when the finicky neat freak in him decided it had had enough of the mess they’d left on the living room floor.

Kihyun huffed and shook his head judgmentally, bending down to pick up their discarded clothes from the floor. Sure, they had been preoccupied the night before, but what kind of animals were they that they couldn’t contain their urges for two seconds to fold their clothes? They were meant to be civilized people, it was the 19th century, not the Stone Age.

He hung a shirt over his arm - it looked like his own, something that made him judge his last-night-self that much harder - and then a pair of pants - Hoseok’s - and another shirt - also Hoseok’s. When he picked up Hyunwoo’s sturdy grey coat, Kihyun paused, seeing the sleeves turned inside out; it was unacceptable, he had to fix that or it would bother him for the rest of the day. He fixed his grip on the clothes hanging from his arm so they wouldn’t slip and fall back to the ground, wrapped the blanket around himself as to not be standing in the middle of the living room buck naked folding clothes - oh, the irony - and impatiently began pulling the sleeves of the coat back out, the way they were supposed to be.

Once he was done, he let out a happy, satisfied sigh, and started patting the pockets in search of anything Hyunwoo had most definitely left behind - pennies, empty candy wrappers, sometimes the candy without any wrappers which would then melt and be impossible to remove later, keys—

Kihyun noticed one of the pockets bulging and hummed, praising himself in his thoughts for knowing his two boyfriends so well, before he shoved his hand inside that pocket without ceremony. He pulled out an old, yellowed handkerchief, and it was with a lot of effort that he didn’t scream and throw it across the room.

There was blood in that handkerchief.

Kihyun tried to focus through his panic, tried to get past his initial assumptions; there were plenty of good reasons why Hyunwoo would have a bloody handkerchief in his pocket. It could belong to Hoseok, for one, which was the most plausible explanation since Hoseok could have asked Hyunwoo to hold on to it for him the night before - did Hoseok’s coat have pockets? Maybe it didn’t and that’s why he asked Hyunwoo to carry it. Yes. Perfectly reasonable.

It could not even be that sort of blood at all. Maybe Hyunwoo cut himself somewhere, perhaps during his work at the docks or the market, and just— forgot that he put the handkerchief in his pocket. He could have had a nosebleed, or maybe helped someone else who had a nosebleed.

Plenty of perfectly good explanations.

If he asked Hoseok, he would probably tell him ‘yes, that’s mine’, so all he had to do was call Hoseok and ask if—

He heard Hoseok cough in the kitchen. Not one of his coughing fits, there was no wheezing or gasping for air, just a simple cough that lasted only a couple of seconds, but that was enough of a reminder. If Hoseok wasn’t the owner of that handkerchief, then Kihyun would rather not worry him; Hoseok would immediately assume the worst, would start to beat himself up, blame himself for something that wasn’t even confirmed yet.

No. Kihyun couldn’t tell him. Not until he had more proof.

He schooled his expression into one of neutrality, willed his thunderous heartbeat to slow. Just another thing he would have to swallow down, another dose of poison. He would rather let it kill him slowly than to cause unnecessary pain to either of his loves. That burden was only his to carry.

Breathing in deep and slow to calm himself, Kihyun pushed the handkerchief back into the coat’s pocket, set on pretending he hadn’t seen it - it was the best course of action for now. He had to proceed carefully, had to make sure Hoseok was spared for as long as possible. Confronting Hyunwoo was out of the question - Hyunwoo would put his defenses up and not offer any answers, and they could never hide when they were fighting from Hoseok. No, if he wanted to find out what was happening, Kihyun would have to catch Hyunwoo red-handed, leave him no room to sidestep and run.

He needed a plan.

For the moment, though, he continued to collect the clothes from the floor as calmly as he could, until Hoseok reappeared in the living room. Hoseok laughed at the sight.

“You could have left those for later.”

Kihyun didn’t stop picking up the clothes - the longer he avoided direct eye contact with Hoseok, the better. It gave him more time to get himself under control. “We already left it for ‘later’ last night, how drunk did you two get me that I didn’t say anything?”

“Oh, you weren’t drunk at all and you said plenty,” Hoseok replied. “We just did a great job distracting you, that’s all.”

Kihyun sighed and straightened himself up once he collected the last item of clothing, giving Hoseok an unimpressed sideways glance. “Next time, I’ll make both of you fold and put away all our clothes before you even think about ‘distracting’ me.”

“I’m alright with that,” Hoseok said, making his way to the bathroom as Kihyun moved to put their clothes inside one of the luggage trunks - they had packed almost everything already, so putting the clothes in a drawer would be counter-productive. “We all know tidiness is your biggest turn on.”

Kihyun decided to ignore the comment. “Just start filling up the tub, will you?”

“Yes, my love,” Hoseok singsonged from the bathroom.

Kihyun took another moment to gather himself, push down the part of him that was on the edge of a meltdown, and only when he felt he was in control of his emotions did he join Hoseok for their bath.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Changkyun arrived at the mansion around midmorning. He could have arrived earlier - wanted to have arrived earlier - but Mr. Brian decided that it was the perfect day to give him the third degree about why he was asking to borrow his horses so much. Changkyun had to sit there and try to lie his way out of it, and whenever he wasn’t coming up with good excuses he had to listen to Mr. Brian go on and on and on about the misadventures he’d been through in his youth and whoever knows how many ‘when-I-was-your-ages’.

He survived, somehow. And it didn’t matter anymore - he was finally there.

As Hyungwon had instructed, Changkyun went around the mansion to the servants’ wing, where the side door was located and, after debating for a moment if he should knock or just show himself in, he pushed it open and peeked inside. It opened into a short hallway, empty at the moment, so Changkyun quietly entered and crept towards the kitchen - the grand tour Hyungwon had given him during his last visit to the mansion sure came in handy.

The kitchen door was not closed all the way, and from the slight opening, he could see that the ladies there were busy with their respective tasks, talking amongst each other and laughing, not realizing Changkyun was there.

Probably a good time to announce himself.

He knocked on the door with his knuckles and cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”

The woman closest to the door looked up at him, one he remembered Hyungwon introducing him to - the head cook, Mrs. Kim. She smiled when their eyes met and motioned him inside with a hand, not dropping what she was doing to greet him.

“There you are, we were told you were coming,” she said as Changkyun sheepishly entered the kitchen. “You can take a seat over there, master Hyungwon should be here shortly.”

Changkyun made his way to the seat indicated to him, across the table from where the ladies were working, and sat down in the most unobtrusive way possible. He looked around curiously, trying to be subtle; they seemed to be preparing— snacks. Finger sandwiches, cakes, biscuits. At least, that’s what Mrs. Kim and her first kitchen maid were doing. He spotted the scullery maid setting aside assorted items of cutlery and plates, while the second kitchen maid - Kyla, the one he was already used to seeing around - was cutting what looked to be fruits. Changkyun couldn’t see very well from where he was sitting. Could be vegetables.

Changkyun had been to the kitchens before, yes, but when he was there last they weren’t working at their full speed - perhaps because Guhn hadn’t been home and, thus, the amount of labor was reduced. He had to admit, he was impressed by their efficiency. They seemed to have an entire system in place, going about their tasks with a precision that betrayed their practice.

Mrs. Kim noticed Changkyun’s attention and laughed. “My, young man, are you out of your element.”

Changkyun had the decency to blush. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”

“That’s quite alright,” she said. “It’s very refreshing, in fact. We don’t get many visitors in the kitchens.”

“Oh? Not even the other servants?”

“Not a one,” she replied. She finished cutting another batch of cake and began stacking it neatly on a plate. “Master Hyungwon is the only one who comes here to see us. Says he gets lonely.”

Changkyun wasn’t sure if he found the information sad or adorable. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yes, well, I’m quite sure he only does so to steal some snacks between meals, but he’s kind enough to lie to us,” she said, and there was a fondness in her voice. “Mr. Guhn never set foot in the kitchens, though. He might as well not even know what the servants’ wing looks like.”

“So there is no chance he’ll accidentally find me here?” Changkyun felt like he should ask.

The question had all four women laughing.

“Mr. Guhn would burst into flame if he ever came here,” said the first kitchen maid. Changkyun had to grind his memory to remember her name - Sally? Amy?

“Not even Mr. Guhn’s valet comes here,” Kyla informed. “If he wants anything, he either asks from the door or he sends one of the footmen over in his stead.”

“So Hyungwon coming here is strange?”

“It’s unusual,” Mrs. Kim replied. “Then again, our young master is quite the unusual person himself.”

He couldn’t argue with that. “I take it you like Hyungwon better than Guhn.”

A wave of enthusiastic words of confirmation hit him as a reply.

“We luckily don’t have to deal with Mr. Guhn much,” Sally-or-Amy said. “We rarely ever see him. Kyla ends up running into him more often since she personally delivers master Hyungwon’s tea.”

“Is that strange too?”

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Kim replied. “It’s one of the few specifications he gave us - he asks that we prepare and take the tea to him ourselves, no middlemen involved. Says he’s afraid of tampering.”

Changkyun frowned. “Tampering?”

Mrs. Kim gave him a shrug. “He’s quite paranoid.”

Changkyun thought back on how Hyungwon said he carried the keys to his bedroom and study with him everywhere, so that Guhn didn’t have access to his personal spaces - the fear of his tea being tampered with, however, painted a much different picture than Hyungwon simply wishing for privacy. The only conclusion Changkyun could possibly reach was that Hyungwon worried Guhn might poison him, somehow.

“But he trusts you,” Changkyun declared, to which Mrs. Kim smiled in response.

“He does. He handpicked us to work here, in fact.”

“Is he a good employer?”

“He’s very generous,” Kyla said. “Very kind, too. He treats us all very well.”

Changkyun couldn’t help a satisfied smile at the information - he heard someone say, once, that if one wants to know the character of a person, they should look at how they treat their servants.

“What about Guhn?” he asked. “Is he a good employer?”

“He’s very rude,” the scullery maid said. “The housemaids complain he’s been inappropriate with them.”

“Inappropriate how?”

“He made— indecent advances,” she supplied, shy, and went right back to her task.

“He tends to shout a lot, as well,” Sally-or-Amy said. “We can hear him yelling all the way from here sometimes. To master Hyungwon, mostly.”

Changkyun scowled at the top of the table. “Yes, I’ve witnessed such a thing before.”

“Makes his headaches that much worse,” Kyla added with a sigh.

Changkyun knew he would sound far too nosy if he asked, but he had to know. “What does he usually shout at Hyungwon about?”

“Money, their business, master Hyungwon’s behavior, terms of their contract,” Kyla listed. “I am of the opinion that he simply enjoys shouting.”

Changkyun couldn’t keep from laughing at that. After he recovered, he asked in a serious tone, “I— this might sound strange, or too forward, but— do you know if Guhn has ever hurt Hyungwon?”

Kyla, again, was the one to reply. “He grabs his arms often, be it to shake him or to drag him along to wherever he wishes to go. I haven’t seen anything past that.”

That added up to what Hyungwon had told him the previous night, of how Guhn had grabbed him a few times, but hadn’t, so far, downright struck him. Though he didn’t think Hyungwon was lying about it, it was very good to have confirmation.

“Master Hyungwon is quite weak physically,” Mrs. Kim said with a wistful sigh. “Not much he can do to defend himself. Mr. Guhn practices boxing, you see. He’s in very good shape.”

Changkyun pursed his lips. He was liking that information less and less. “Did anything like that happen last night?”

“They arrived home after we had already retired for the night, so we didn’t see anything,” said Sally-or-Amy. “One of the housemaids mentioned they didn’t arrive together, though.”

“They didn’t?” Changkyun asked. “I’m positive Hyungwon left with Guhn.”

“If they did, they split up somewhere along the way,” Mrs. Kim said.

Changkyun debated for a second whether or not to mention anything, not sure if his well-meaning intentions wouldn’t end up doing more harm than good, but he figured it would be safer to have someone else aware of what was going on, someone who could be around Hyungwon when Changkyun himself couldn’t. That was the reasoning that tipped the scales of his decision.

“Guhn hit him last night.”

All four women halted everything they were doing, the first time they’d stopped performing their tasks since he’d arrived, and turned around to stare at him wide-eyed.

So they didn’t know. Just as he thought.

“He did what?” Mrs. Kim demanded.

“He hit Hyungwon,” Changkyun repeated. “Slapped him right across the face, I saw it happen.”

“I’m spitting in Mr. Guhn’s food today, none of you can stop me,” declared Sally-or-Amy.

“None of us will try,” the scullery maid guaranteed.

“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Kim muttered nervously to herself, smoothing her apron with her hands and looking around as if at a loss. “He didn’t mention anything to us. Not that I believe he would have, why would he discuss such matters with us servants, but— Oh, dear.”

“He’s in a very good mood today, though,” Kyla added, uncertain. “If he’s been hit, he’s not upset about it.”

“What of Guhn? Did he seem odd to you?” Changkyun asked.

“I’ve only seen him for a moment,” Kyla answered. “He was very withdrawn. That in itself is strange, he is usually very loud and assertive.”

“Did you mean ‘obnoxious’?” Sally-or-Amy said snidely. He liked her - he really had to learn her name.

“Now, girls, we shouldn’t be speaking of our masters in such a way,” Mrs. Kim reprimanded them, to which they muttered not-so-sincere apologies before going back to work. Turning to Changkyun, she said, “We don’t make a habit of speaking of our masters’ private affairs, so everything you heard must remain here in the kitchens. If any of this reaches the housemaids, the entire city will be talking about it in a matter of minutes. They sure know how to wag their tongues.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t say a word,” Changkyun promised earnestly. “I would never do anything that could harm Hyungwon in any way, and that includes his reputation.”

“Very good,” Mrs. Kim said, nodding to herself as she returned to her task of plating the cakes. “Master Hyungwon mentioned you are trustworthy, that is the only reason why we felt comfortable saying so much.”

Changkyun perked up in his seat. “He talked about me?”

“Oh, certainly,” she said with laughter in her voice. “He’s very fond of you.”

There was no helping the smile that spread over his lips.

From then on, the conversation veered into less upsetting topics; Changkyun indulged in his curiosity and asked many questions about the ladies’ duties at the mansion, how daily life was, how much food they had to make every day. Changkyun had been expecting some of it, but was still shocked to hear some of the replies - the amount of food, for instance. Four meals a day for Hyungwon and Guhn, plus four entirely different sets of meals for the over twenty servants. Over twenty servants .

Changkyun had to ask himself if Hyungwon ever had to lift a finger to do anything with that many people catering to his every need. Must be nice , Changkyun thought. Not having to pick up after himself, or worry about what or when to eat, not having to clean or do laundry or get up at all - he had but to ring a bell and someone would be there to see to his wishes.

It wasn’t the first time Changkyun wondered at how lovely it would be to have such a lifestyle - fantasizing about a better life was something he did since he was very young, something he and Jooheon often talked about, joking about all the useless things they would get their servants to do for them. Jooheon was always fixated on the image of someone feeding him grapes.

He’d stolen from places such as that mansion before, from people who were even wealthier than Hyungwon, but it was the first time Changkyun was faced with the possibility of actually partaking in that lifestyle instead of looking at it from the sidelines, as a spectator.

It felt rather overwhelming.

Hyungwon wasn’t a means to an end, of course - Changkyun was entirely convinced he would still feel the same way about him even if Hyungwon was a penniless street rat such as himself. It was, however, a very nice benefit that came with being with Hyungwon. He felt terrible thinking like that, but the truth was still the truth, no matter how much he tried to sugarcoat it.

Hyungwon loved him. Hyungwon was filthy rich. Both of those things were facts.

Changkyun loved Hyungwon. Changkyun was dirt poor. Those were also facts.

Did it make him such a terrible person for wishing for a better life, for hoping it would be delivered to him by the hands of his lover? He didn’t think so. His feelings for Hyungwon were as genuine as they come, but Changkyun was a pragmatic man. He would never ask Hyungwon for anything, would never presume to consider himself deserving of his wealth, but if Hyungwon were to offer—

What kind of idiot would he be to deny it?

That was the topic his thoughts were swirling around when Hyungwon finally made his appearance, entering the kitchen with no ceremony like he owned it - which he did, in retrospect. Changkyun’s face lit up at the sight of him and, after a quick once over, he found that Hyungwon looked alright - no immediate signs of distress or any new bruises he could spot at first glance. As Kyla stated, he appeared to be in a good mood. 

“Good morning,” he said to the ladies, all smiles, receiving enthusiastic good morning wishes from them. His smile widened when he met Changkyun’s eyes. “I’m sorry for making you wait so long.”

“It’s no trouble, I was here trying to win over your staff,” Changkyun quipped. The ladies giggled.

Hyungwon rolled his eyes, smile still in place as he moved around the kitchen with the sure movements of one who was used to doing so, collecting items from each of the women. “I should have known you’d try to charm my servants. It’s good, though,” he shot Changkyun a sideways glance before adding, “they will be seeing a lot of you in the near future.”

If that wasn’t enough for Changkyun to feel giddy, Mrs. Kim went ahead and added, “Goodness, let me know which foods he likes and I’ll prepare them next time.”

“I’ll give you a detailed list later on,” Hyungwon promised; Changkyun could tell he was serious. Turning to him, Hyungwon said, “Let’s go?”

Changkyun nodded in response and hopped off his chair so he could follow Hyungwon, who was taking the last item from Sally-or-Amy - a very large, very obvious picnic basket. How did he miss that?

“Thank you, ladies,” he chirped. “I won’t be coming back for lunch today.”

“Very well, dear, do enjoy yourselves,” Mrs. Kim said to both Hyungwon and Changkyun, and, after giving her a noisy kiss on the cheek, Hyungwon made his way out of the kitchen. Changkyun only had time to thank and say farewell to the women before he hurried after him.

Hyungwon led him through the door that opened to the same short hallway Changkyun crossed upon his arrival, extending his hand to him the moment the kitchen door closed behind them. Changkyun gladly held his hand and, just before they opened the side door that let outside, Changkyun stopped Hyungwon by tugging on his hand, only so he could surge up to press a quick kiss to his lips.

“Hi,” Changkyun said once they parted, grinning smugly at Hyungwon who was obviously flustered at the sudden action.

Trying to hold back a smile, Hyungwon murmured a bashful ‘hi’ in return, and just like that, they were off. Changkyun was expecting Hyungwon to take him to the gardens again, but instead of going around the mansion to the gardens, Hyungwon led him straight ahead, away from the mansion and into the moor, towards the line of trees in the distance.

“Where are we going?” Changkyun asked.

“Somewhere nice,” Hyungwon replied.

Changkyun huffed and rolled his eyes. Of course Hyungwon wouldn’t give him a plain answer. “Where is this ‘somewhere nice’?”

“Not far.”

“Not what I asked.”

“Stop trying to ruin the surprise,” Hyungwon chided, laughter in his voice.

“Is it some old graveyard or anything morbid like that? Because I will have to prepare myself mentally.”

Hyungwon gave him an unimpressed look from the corners of his eyes. “No, it’s not a graveyard. There is, in fact, a small cemetery on the property, but that’s somewhere north from here. We’re headed west.”

“I feel like I should be surprised there is a cemetery on your property, but at this point, I’m learning to expect anything.”

“That’s the spirit,” Hyungwon said, chipper, and after that they fell into a comfortable silence, walking across the moor and its lavender shrubs, the clusters of bright wildflowers, hands joined and fingers entwined.

It felt so— idyllic. Such a screaming contrast to the note they parted on the night before, with Changkyun concerned about Hyungwon’s well-being, Hyungwon still upset over being struck, the emotional revelation of their feelings towards each other. Hyungwon looked, for all intents and purposes, perfectly fine; his good mood itself was strange, considering what happened.

Changkyun filed all those questions for later, for when they reached wherever it was Hyungwon was leading him to, when they were properly settled down and could talk about it calmly. For the moment, he just enjoyed the company, the nice weather, being able to hold Hyungwon’s hand openly, the little tidbits of banter they exchanged from time to time. He never thought it would be so easy - get to know Hyungwon, confess his feelings, have those feelings returned.

Too easy.

Good things didn’t simply drop from the sky, at least not in his experience. He couldn’t help the thought that things would turn sour, likely sooner than later.

It took less than ten minutes for them to reach the tree line, and Hyungwon led him down an overgrown path with the ease of someone who’d done that before. It wasn’t an obvious path, clearly not utilized much, so Changkyun assumed it was one of Hyungwon’s many little secrets.

“Let me guess,” he said. “You come here when you need to escape.”

Hyungwon raised an eyebrow at him, a pleased smile on his lips. “Am I that obvious?”

“In certain aspects, yes,” Changkyun said, then motioned towards the basket Hyungwon was carrying. “Here, let me hold it for the rest of the way.”

Hyungwon gladly handed over the basket. “Thank you.”

“I must admit, I didn’t take you for the picnic type,” he said, fixing his grip on the basket once he took it from Hyungwon - that thing was heavier than it looked.

“I’m usually not. Having a picnic by myself would be quite sad,” Hyungwon replied. “I wanted us to do something nice today, though.”

“Aw, my poor lonely kitten,” Changkyun cooed and brought Hyungwon’s hand up to his lips to press a kiss to his knuckles. Hyungwon laughed and pushed him lightly in retaliation. “I put myself at your disposal - whenever you want to have a picnic, I’m your man.”

Hyungwon laughed through his nose, amused. “The reason is irrelevant - you’re simply mine. For everything and anything.”

Changkyun smiled up at him. “I am.”

The rest of their walk was short, the path clear enough that they were able to reach their destination in only a few minutes. Changkyun immediately understood why Hyungwon enjoyed going there so much.

There was a stream there, not too wide, the waters running lazily along, and only a couple of feet away from the stream sat an old, dilapidated gazebo. There were some holes on the roof, likely from taking too much punishment from the elements, but the lack of debris on the hexagonal floor below indicated someone had cleaned it up - Hyungwon? He couldn’t say he believed it. Hyungwon didn’t look like the type to clean old gazebos in the middle of the woods; he probably had one of his twenty-plus servants perform that task for him.

Upon climbing the steps to the gazebo, Changkyun noticed the stone bench at the far back, facing the stream, the dried up vines climbing up the posts. He wondered what that place looked like when it was brand new, no holes in the roof, bright flowers on the posts, the iron panels and rails without any signs of rust or corrosion.

There was still beauty there - beauty in decay, beauty in the passage of time. That was more in tune with what Changkyun learned to associate to Hyungwon; he wouldn’t trade the dried up vines for fresh flowers even if someone paid him to.

He dropped the basket on the bench and Hyungwon almost immediately had it open, revealing the veritable feast held within. Roast beef sandwiches, cream puffs, doughnuts with cheese, gingerbread cake, fruit turnovers, cheesecakes. He could spot a container with assorted sliced fruits - strawberries, bananas, apples, pears. There were little glass bottles lined up on one side, but Changkyun couldn’t tell what they held.

While Changkyun explored the many options of food, Hyungwon had taken upon himself to place the square tablecloth - made of red and white checkered fabric, because of course - on the ground. Changkyun shook his head and huffed a little laugh; that entire situation felt unreal, somehow.

Hyungwon heard his laughter and turned around to face him. “What? Not to your liking?”

“On the contrary,” Changkyun replied and diligently took the basket from the bench to place it atop the cloth on the ground. “This feels too good to be true.”

“Well, it’s true. I’m not sure what to tell you,” Hyungwon said with a little shrug.

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” he said, taking Hyungwon’s hand to pull him closer. “I’m just happy.”

That certainly worked to have Hyungwon smiling again. “I’m happy too.”

As he pulled Hyungwon to him, Changkyun took notice for the first time that he was wearing one of the items he’d seen in his mourning jewelry collection a few days ago - the scorpion cameo pendant. It was secured close to his neck by a black satin ribbon, atop the high collar of his lace undershirt. Changkyun arched an eyebrow at him.

“You’re wearing the human bone necklace.”

Hyungwon blinked and looked down to his pendant - not that he could see it from that angle. “Yes. Does it bother you?”

“No, it’s—” Changkyun started but didn’t know how to finish, opening and closing his mouth a few times like a fish out of water. He finally settled on saying, “Surprising.”

“I was reminded recently of how fond I am of this piece,” Hyungwon said, touching the pendant with his fingertips. Changkyun wasn’t sure how he felt about the sight of Hyungwon touching the bones of some long-deceased person so callously, with his bare hands.

“I thought your collection was for decoration purposes. To be on display,” Changkyun admitted.

“It is,” Hyungwon easily agreed. “It doesn’t mean I can’t wear them. They’re all perfectly functional jewelry.” One corner of his lips twitched then, quirking up into a wicked little smirk. “You can borrow them if you wish.”

Changkyun jolted and shook his head. “Uh, thank you, but— no, thank you.”

Hyungwon laughed. “You are adorable.”

“Shut up,” Changkyun whined and sat down on one corner of the cloth, pulling Hyungwon along with him with the sole purpose of taking his attention away from how flustered the comment made him. “Why this piece, though?”

Hyungwon hummed, pondering over the answer for a moment before he said, “Let me put it this way: if you gathered all of my wealth and all of my possessions, it would not come close to the sentimental value this pendant holds for me.”

Now that caught Changkyun’s interest. “May I ask why?”

Hyungwon gave him a soft, tight-lipped smile as he reached into the basket to rummage through its contents. “You may. I won’t answer, though.”

“Why not?” Changkyun insisted, voice just the slightest bit whiny.

“I’ll tell you someday, when the time is right,” Hyungwon said and pulled one of the bottles from the basket, handing it to Changkyun. “Here, I think this one is wine. All for you.”

Changkyun clucked his tongue, annoyed, but did accept the wine. “Trying to distract me with alcohol will get you nowhere.”

“I’m not trying to distract you,” Hyungwon said, laughing. “I already said I’ll tell you about the pendant someday.”

“Fine,” Changkyun said as he opened the bottle. Instead of taking a sip, he first offered it to Hyungwon. “Want some?”

“No, thank you. I don’t drink alcohol,” Hyungwon said, the words coming out easily as it was something he probably had to say a lot.

“You don’t?”

“No. It makes my headaches worse and I detest being inebriated. Makes it harder to keep the ghosts away.”

“Oh,” Changkyun said smartly. “More alcohol for me, then.”

Hyungwon chuckled and shook his head, reaching into the basket to pull out an empty glass for him. “Here, enjoy.”

“I could drink it straight from the bottle, you know,” Changkyun said and then sighed in that affected way that made it seem like Hyungwon was making his life very difficult before he accepted the glass and poured some wine into it. “I suppose I can pretend to be fancy for you.”

Hyungwon huffed, taking another bottle and another glass from the basket, these for himself. “You should get used to it.”

The words were spoken in such an ominous way Changkyun almost choked on his wine - properly poured into the glass, held with his pinky sticking out. “Pardon?”

“Nothing,” Hyungwon chirped, daintily leaving his beverage and still empty cup aside and reaching into the basket to start taking out the various containers of food and place them neatly on the cloth.

Changkyun sighed and put down his glass, before he ended up spilling wine all over himself. “You are so very full of secrets today.”

“You have already kissed me, there’s only so much I can do now to keep you interested,” Hyungwon said, and Changkyun almost replied with how that was nonsense, meaning to be as earnest as possible about it, but before he could say anything he caught sight of the amused smile on Hyungwon’s face.

He was teasing him. Of course he was.

“You’ll be the death of me.”

“Possibly,” Hyungwon said, his smile widening. “A little death never killed anybody, though.”

 “You— Did you just—” Changkyun spluttered and Hyungwon laughed at his reaction. Wicked little thing he was. “Hyungwon!”

Hyungwon was still laughing, so Changkyun did the only thing that he knew could shut him up and pulled him unceremoniously into a kiss. Hyungwon went easily, as he always did, and before long they had moved away from the cloth and were sitting directly on the floor, Changkyun with his back resting against the stone bench and Hyungwon cozily nestled between his legs, leaning against him just the slightest bit sideways so they could continue to— well. Kiss.

Kissing Hyungwon was quite addictive, Changkyun had learned.

“Your lips taste like wine,” Hyungwon murmured against his lips between one kiss and the next. “I hate it.”

“You hate it but you keep kissing me,” Changkyun pointed out, and Hyungwon smiled into their next kiss.

“Because I love you more than I hate wine.”

The noise Changkyun made was so strange and so high pitched he would likely not be able to replicate it if he tried for a thousand years. Hyungwon only laughed at him. “If you keep saying that out of the blue I’ll have a heart attack.”

Hyungwon pinched Changkyun’s cheek and pulled it slightly, before saying in a whiny tone, “You have to say it back, you little mongrel.”

“Oh, I went from a mouse to a mongrel? I’m truly moving up in life,” Changkyun quipped and, after kissing Hyungwon one more time, just a peck, said, “I love you too.”

Hyungwon beamed at him, his face lighting up with joy, and Changkyun couldn’t help but kiss him all over, whatever stretch of skin he could reach. He spent a little more time kissing his cheek, the one that Guhn had struck the night before - it was still smooth and unmarred as it always had been, no contusions or bumps to indicate he was ever hit at all.

Changkyun stroked Hyungwon’s cheek with his thumb, softly, gently, and Hyungwon smiled at him. “I told you it wouldn’t bruise.”

He huffed, not finding the topic cute or funny at all, and asked, “Did he hit you again?”

Hyungwon shook his head. “No. And he won’t strike me anymore.”

“How do you know?” Changkyun pressed.

“I made it clear to him there will be consequences if he does,” he replied simply, and didn’t offer any other explanation beyond that. Changkyun wanted to ask - Hyungwon wouldn’t answer, though. Not in the secretive mood he was that day.

“Did he yell at you, then?”

“He tried,” Hyungwon admitted, just as he shifted in Changkyun’s arms so he could recline against him, back to his chest. Changkyun allowed him to do so, adjusting his hold on him so they were both comfortable. “I didn’t let him, though. I have you to thank for that.”

Changkyun frowned. “Thank me?”

“Mhm,” Hyungwon hummed in response. “For reminding me I’m not helpless.”

Hyungwon saying so aloud made Changkyun think that, indeed, something about Hyungwon had shifted. He was more confident, in a way - not the usual arrogant sort of confidence he usually displayed, but something more genuine. As if he knew something that everyone else didn’t, sure of every single step he took for knowing exactly where it would land. Whatever part Changkyun had played in that change, he was happy to see Hyungwon stand up for himself.

“I’m not sure how I achieved such a feat, but you’re welcome, I suppose,” Changkyun replied. “I was worried. He seemed very angry the last time I saw him, I was certain he would continue to punish you.”

“As I said, he tried,” Hyungwon reiterated, head now tipped back to rest on Changkyun’s shoulder.

“He wasn’t the only one angry after all that happened last night,” Changkyun said, nosing at the side of Hyungwon’s neck, just above the line of his collar. He smelled more of flowers than honey that day, he vaguely noted - still sweet, though. “Minhyuk was livid.”

Hyungwon barked a loud laugh, delighted. “Oh, I know he was.”

“From what Jooheon told me, Minhyuk is set on proving you’re a fraud.”

“I know that too,” Hyungwon said. “It’ll be very amusing. His tenacity is almost as impressive as his promiscuity.”

It was Changkyun’s turn to laugh out loud. “You are terrible.” Hyungwon grinned up at him, smug as if he’d just gotten a compliment. Changkyun shook his head, infinitely fond, and said, “Your clever tongue will get you in trouble someday.”

“It won’t,” Hyungwon replied, sure as always.

A good segue for a topic Changkyun always wanted to know more about.

“How do you do it?” Changkyun asked. “See the future, I mean.”

Hyungwon hummed contemplatively, stirring in Changkyun’s arms the slightest bit as he pondered over the answer. “To answer that, I have to explain time,” Hyungwon said after a few moments. “Time is— it’s not linear. Time is a multitude of layers, as is reality. Layer, upon layer, upon layer. Past, present, future, it all folds together. Our perception of it is limited, much like seeing a piece of art from very up close - you only see a portion of it, unless you step back to take in the entire work.”

Changkyun took a moment to process that information, turn it around in his head, make sense of it; Hyungwon allowed him the time to do so, patiently waiting for him to speak again. “Does that mean you can see the entire work? All the layers?”

“Not quite,” he replied. Changkyun took to playing with the hem of Hyungwon’s lace undershirt, the portion of it that peeked out from under his sleeve. It was black, that day - Hyungwon looked very good in black lace. “On my own, my perception of time is the same as everyone else’s. The spirits, however, exist in a different plane of reality and thus, can see more than we can.”

“So the spirits are the ones who can see the future?” Changkyun asked.

“In a way. It’s an exchange of favors - as they can use my mouth to speak, so can I use their eyes to see.”

“What is it like?”

Hyungwon licked his lips, watched Changkyun play with his undershirt sleeve for a few seconds, before softly whispering, “Frightening.”

Changkyun’s immediate reaction was to wrap his arms around Hyungwon, a flimsy way of defending him - how could he externally protect him from that which reigned inside his head? “And here I thought you weren’t afraid of anything.”

“If you think I’m afraid of ghosts, that is not the case,” Hyungwon said, nose brushing the side of his neck. “What frightens me is— the loss of control.” That revelation was so eerie, so ominous, Changkyun’s blood might as well have been icy water in his veins. “My fear is that, someday, they will fully take over and I will no longer have any control over myself. I will no longer be me.”

“Why do you continue to let them in, then?” Changkyun asked. “Why don’t you stop?”

“Everything in life is temporary,” Hyungwon replied; that answer did nothing to soothe Changkyun’s concerns.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” he began, but paused to press a kiss to Changkyun’s cheek before continuing, “that you can stop worrying.”

Changkyun inhaled through his nose long and deep, staring down at Hyungwon with the most unamused expression he could muster. “How can you ask me not to worry after telling me you’re scared of losing yourself?”

“Because I’ve seen the future and it’s glorious,” Hyungwon said, grinning up at him; Changkyun wanted to pick him up and drop him in the stream.

“You are infuriating.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Changkyun had to take another deep breath to reel in his annoyance and digressed. “By that, I take all your mediunic powers are real.”

“Of course they are. Was that not clear by now?”

“I’m a skeptic, remember?” Changkyun said. “I’m almost tempted to demand you do that strange voice change act I saw you do the night we first met. The only thing that stops me is knowing you don’t enjoy doing it.”

“Oh, you would definitely not want to see that,” Hyungwon said, laughing, “it’s terrible. I don’t want to scare you away just yet.”

“I’ve seen it before, though. It’s not that scary.”

“You’ve seen me do it with a blindfold,” Hyungwon corrected him. “The blindfold is not merely meant for aesthetics, it’s also to keep the more unpleasant aspect of my little parlor trick hidden.”

“What, your eyes?”

“Yes. They roll all the way back and all you can see are the whites. It’s— not very attractive.”

Changkyun gave Hyungwon an unconvinced look before pressing his lips to his temple, a tender gesture despite still feeling like tossing Hyungwon into the stream. The water was probably very cold; maybe it would work to put some sense inside his head. “You would have to try incredibly hard for me not to find you attractive.”

“You only say that because you haven’t seen it,” Hyungwon replied matter-of-factly. “It would have you running for the hills.”

“Have some faith in me, love,” Changkyun said, tone bordering on teasing.

“I don’t need faith,” Hyungwon murmured, eyes glimmering, and surged up to kiss Changkyun sweetly; it was a brief meeting of their lips, a couple of seconds at most, but more than enough to have Changkyun’s head spinning. Once they parted, Hyungwon watched him for a moment, pensive, and said, “I won’t do the phantom voice trick, but… there might be something else I can do.”

Changkyun’s eyebrows shot up with interest. “What is it?”

Hyungwon looked around for a moment, towards the stream, before carefully freeing himself from Changkyun’s hold. Changkyun begrudgingly let him go and watched with curiosity as Hyungwon walked off the gazebo and closer to the stream, looking for something on the ground for a while before bending down to pick it up. Then he returned and plopped down on the ground next to Changkyun once again, which was when he found out what Hyungwon had been searching for - a small rock with ragged edges.

“What—”

“You’ll see,” Hyungwon interrupted him before he could finish the question, and using one of the sharpest sides of the rock, he scratched two words into the concrete floor of the gazebo - ‘yes’ and ‘no’, the words about a palm’s width away from each other.

That task done, Hyungwon flung the rock away without a care over the rail, next taking Changkyun’s half-full glass of wine from where he’d left it next to the picnic basket and— tossing its contents out the same direction he’d thrown the rock.

Changkyun gasped indignantly. “That was mine! At least use your own glass, yours is empty!”

“Yours was closer,” Hyungwon replied, obviously not caring at all about Changkyun’s outrage.

“Suit yourself, it’s your expensive wine you just threw out,” he mumbled, as if that would make Hyungwon feel guilty.

It didn’t. “Yes, and I have several more bottles of wine at the cellar back at the mansion.”

“You have a cellar!?”

Hyungwon looked over his shoulder at Changkyun with a little hitch between his brows. “Didn’t I mention it?” Then he shrugged, dismissing the topic, and went back to whatever he was doing, placing the now empty glass on the floor between the two words, upside down. “There, this will do.”

Hyungwon scooted on the floor, turned towards Changkyun, and motioned him to do the same so they could sit facing one another. Changkyun arched a quizzical brow at him, not entirely sure where he was going with all of that, but did as he wished.

Once they were settled, Hyungwon rested his forearms on his thighs, hands turned palm up to invite Changkyun to take them. He did. “I trust you’ve heard of ouija boards.”

“I have, actually,” he replied. “I heard they’re a great way to summon demons and evil spirits.”

“No such thing as evil spirits,” Hyungwon said. “Spirits are simply souls of people, and no person is entirely evil. There might be ill-intentioned spirits, yes, but not downright evil.”

“Alright, that makes me feel a little better,” Changkyun admitted. “What about demons?”

Hyungwon gave him a mysterious look paired with a secretive little smile and didn’t answer the question. Because of course he didn’t. “I will channel one of the ghosts. Feel free to ask questions when they arrive, but make sure they can be answered with a simple yes or no.”

“Can you choose the spirit to channel?” Changkyun asked, and indicated Hyungwon’s pendant with his head - he wasn’t letting that topic go so easily. He would bring it up at any opportunity he had. “Can you channel the owner of those bones?”

Hyungwon let go of one of Changkyun’s hands to, again, touch the pendant with his fingertips, a fond little gesture that had Changkyun feeling that old sting of jealousy. With a barely contained smile, Hyungwon said, “Even if I could, she’s not available.”

‘She’, huh? ‘She’ better be his sister or something.

And why was he getting jealous of a dead person!?

“How is she not available? Are ghosts very busy in the afterlife?” Changkyun asked, his bitterness clear in his tone, and Hyungwon laughed at him.

“So full of questions today.”

“And you’re so empty of answers today.”

“Just because I’m not giving you answers today, it doesn’t mean I never will,” he pointed out and took Changkyun’s hand again. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know and beyond when the right time comes, exactly like I said I would. Now, do you want to do this or not?”

Changkyun glared at the cameo for a second longer, something that seemed to amuse Hyungwon greatly for some god-forsaken reason, before he finally said, “Yes, I want to do this.”

Hyungwon stared at him, as if searching for any sign Changkyun wasn’t sure, before he closed his eyes and took a deep breath to focus. Changkyun fidgeted where he sat, chewing on his tongue. He should let it go. Hyungwon was going to tell him eventually. He knew he would, he could feel it as a certainty scratching at the back of his mind. He didn’t have to be so concerned about it.

Yes. He should let it go.

“...When will the right time come?”

Hyungwon sighed and opened one eye to glare at him. “It’ll come when it comes, can I focus now, please?”

Changkyun pouted. “Fine.”

Hyungwon closed his eyes again. The seconds ticked by slowly, quietly, until Hyungwon spoke again.

“Stop staring at my necklace.”

“I’m not staring at your necklace,” Changkyun lied and rolled his eyes up, set on watching the sky through one of the holes on the roof instead. “I like my locket better anyway.”

He heard Hyungwon giggle and then there was quiet again. For several seconds, nothing happened; Changkyun was considering calling it off, tell Hyungwon he changed his mind, that they should go back to kissing instead. Kissing was good. They both enjoyed it. It felt like a much more productive way to spend their time than sitting there, cross-legged and holding hands, channeling ghosts that didn’t seem too inclined to give them attention.

Then the very air around them changed, became heavier, stifling. The hairs on the back of Changkyun’s neck stood on end, his heartbeat quickened. It reminded him of how he felt the night he met Hyungwon, as he was watching him perform his séance. He held Hyungwon’s hands tighter.

Hyungwon opened his eyes again - they looked normal, irises still there, not-quite-hazel as always - and glanced at the glass on the ground. Changkyun followed his gaze, unsure of what to do.

“Is there anyone here who wishes to speak?” Hyungwon asked the air around them.

Changkyun held his breath, watching the glass with rapt attention. It was so cold, why was it so cold?

A second went by, then another, and another. The glass didn’t move.

Changkyun slowly relaxed again and turned to Hyungwon. “Uh, maybe we should—”

“Shush, give it a moment,” Hyungwon said, still watching the glass.

“Maybe if you ask again—?”

“They heard me the first time.”

Changkyun huffed. “I’m cold.”

Hyungwon shot him a sideways look and a mischievous little smirk. “I’ll warm you up later.”

Changkyun nudged Hyungwon’s leg with his knee in retribution. “Shut up.”

“You tell me to shut up too much,” Hyungwon commented and sighed.

“Maybe because you talk too much.”

“What ever happened to ‘you could recite a grocery list and I would be interested’?” Hyungwon said wistfully. “Are the glory days of our relationship truly over this fast?”

“I just mean that—”

He was interrupted by a loud scraping sound and jumped, immediately looking over at the glass on the floor.

It was now sitting atop the word ‘yes’.

He looked up at Hyungwon, wide-eyed, jaw hanging open. “You— how? I’m holding both your hands!”

Hyungwon gave him a smug smile. “I told you to give it a second. You can ask your questions now.”

“It moved!” Changkyun insisted, as if that wasn’t obvious already. “The glass moved!”

“Yes, as it’s supposed to happen. Are you going to ask a question?”

“Uh— I—” he stammered. “What can I ask?”

“Anything,” Hyungwon replied with a little shrug. “Want me to start?”

“Please.”

Hyungwon agreed with a nod and laced their fingers together, a gesture meant to soothe him, before he asked out loud, “Are you willing to answer our questions?”

They didn’t have to wait long this time, the glass shifting over the word ‘yes’ briefly before stopping.

Changkyun jolted again, not expecting it to happen so fast. Hyungwon shot him a smile and asked, “Can Changkyun ask you anything he wants?” The glass shifted over the word ‘yes’ again. “Will you answer truthfully?”

‘Yes’.

Hyungwon motioned with his head at the glass, prompting Changkyun to ask something. “Go on. It’s perfectly safe.”

Changkyun took a deep breath. “Okay… Uhm—” He thought for a second. “Are you a demon?”

Hyungwon gave him an odd look just as the glass moved quickly from ‘yes’ to ‘no’.

“Are demons real?”

‘Yes’.

“So very curious about demons all of a sudden,” Hyungwon commented.

“I wouldn’t be if you had answered my question earlier,” Changkyun threw back and stuck out his tongue at him, the picture of maturity. Hyungwon laughed. “Is there an afterlife?”

‘Yes’.

“Is there a Hell?”

‘Yes’.

Changkyun’s eyes went wide and he turned to Hyungwon again. “Well. That got scary very fast.”

“Hell can have many definitions,” he said, gentle. “Not all of them are equal to fire and brimstone.”

“But they aren’t nice either, it’s called ‘hell’ for a reason.”

Hyungwon brought one of Changkyun’s hands up to his lips, pressed a kiss to its back. “Hell is not so bad with the right company.”

Changkyun huffed. “Stop trying to woo me while we’re talking to a ghost.”

Hyungwon giggled and agreed with a nod of his head. “Alright, forgive me. Please, continue.”

Changkyun gave Hyungwon one last look of warning before he focused on the glass again. “Can you see the future?”

‘Yes’.

“Will Hyungwon ever tell me his secrets?” he asked, to which Hyungwon let out a tired sigh.

The glass took a little longer to move this time, but yet again the answer was ‘yes’.

“Should I be worried?”

Unlike he was expecting, Hyungwon himself took the glass and placed it over the word ‘no’, holding it there with the tips of his index and middle fingers. When Changkyun raised his head to meet his eyes, he found that Hyungwon was already staring at him, intense and pleading.

“I told you I would never willingly put you in a risky situation,” he said; the sadness behind his voice made Changkyun’s insides twist with guilt. “Please, trust me.”

“I trust you, I just— I hate being in the dark,” Changkyun murmured, looking away when holding Hyungwon’s gaze proved too difficult.

“I know it sounds like an excuse, but I have my reasons for not being forthcoming with you right now,” Hyungwon said. “The things I have to tell you— you won’t believe them. Not yet.”

“I believe your ghosts, I believe you can see the future,” Changkyun listed, “what else do I have to believe in?”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point then?”

“It’s— Hold on,” Hyungwon said and removed his fingers from the glass, before saying. “We thank you for answering our questions, you are free to leave.”

The glass trembled for a moment and went still. Immediately Changkyun felt the air lift, felt less constricted, his breathing easier. He was still cold, though - he wanted to climb on Hyungwon’s lap, stay there for only a minute.

“There is so much more in the universe,” Hyungwon said quietly, “than ghosts and premonitions.”

“And how will I learn about all these things if you don’t tell me about them?”

“I will ,” Hyungwon said, on the edge of begging. “I’m just asking you to be patient.”

“All I want is to get to know you, but more and more I get the impression you don’t want me to.”

“I do, and you will,” Hyungwon urgently said, “but Kyun—”

“Kyun?” Changkyun interrupted, the nickname throwing him off for a second. “Are you trying to win this argument by being cute?”

Hyungwon rolled his eyes and let go of his hands, making to get up from the floor. “Forget I said anything.”

“No, no, wait,” Changkyun said, finally giving in to the urge to invade Hyungwon’s personal space by climbing on his lap - not to fight off the cold as he’d originally planned, but to keep him there. Hyungwon didn’t try to fight it, easily accepting Changkyun’s proximity. “I’m sorry. I do trust you.”

“It’s alright if you don’t,” Hyungwon said, not meeting his eyes even when Changkyun cupped his face and tried to coax him into doing so. “I am aware that I don’t inspire trust. I know too much and have too many secrets.”

“Look at me. Come on, baby, look at me,” Changkyun said sweetly, and that at least got Hyungwon looking at him again if it was to give him a puzzled look.

“‘Baby’?”

He ignored the question. “We can’t keep having the same argument over and over,” he said, serious as serious could be. “I trust you and I mean it. You say you’ll tell me everything, I believe you. This is— it’s all new to me, I’m only trying to figure out where I fit.”

“You see, baby,” Hyungwon said, throwing the nickname right back at him, “this is exactly why I’m trying to keep the life-changing revelations to a minimum and administering them to you in small doses.”

Changkyun clamped his mouth shut. He just won the argument for Hyungwon, against his own self.

Brilliant.

“Are we on the same page now?” Hyungwon asked. “Baby?”

Changkyun could only sigh. “I can’t tell if you’re making fun of me or if you actually liked being called that.”

“A little bit of both.”

“You little devil,” Changkyun said, half-hearted, only for the sake of saving face, and pressed a quick kiss to the corner of Hyungwon’s mouth.

“Mhm, you have no idea,” Hyungwon said and smiled up at him, arms around him tight. “Can we enjoy our picnic now or is there something else bothering you, baby?”

“Stop it,” Changkyun said, pouting. “I have about a thousand things I want to ask, but— they can wait.”

“Good, we’ve wasted too much time arguing already,” he said, nuzzling his nose lovingly. “All I wanted to do was spend the day with you, just us two, not— us, a ghost, and our insecurities.”

“We can do that now,” Changkyun said and kissed him one, two, three times - and a fourth time, just because. “One question, though.”

“Yes?”

“Is it safe to drink from that glass now or will I accidentally ingest a ghost?”

Hyungwon’s only reply was laughter.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

Minhyuk spent the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon running up and down making inquiries about Hyungwon - he even forgot to have lunch, which was something as rare for Minhyuk as seeing a rainbow during a sunny day. All of that effort proved to be a waste of time; nobody knew anything, nobody had even heard of him.

When Minhyuk referred to him as ‘the white-haired medium’, he’d gotten a few vague words of recognition, mostly he-said-she-said, but still nothing that could point him in the right direction. Everything he heard were mentions of how genuine all his séances were, how his predictions were scarily never wrong, some ladies swooning over how intriguing a character he was, how very handsome and elegant.

Minhyuk felt like vomiting anytime the latter happened.

And, of course, there were those who’d witnessed his shame the previous night and laughed in his face, saying he was just jealous of Hyungwon’s abilities, angry because Hyungwon was a better fortune teller than he was. Those people were definitely wrong - Minhyuk wasn’t jealous, he simply knew Hyungwon was a fraud and was trying to enlighten the people because he was such a good person.

He was doing a public service, it wasn’t personal . Of course not.

After that incredibly frustrating day, Minhyuk came full circle to the first person he considered interviewing but the one he was dreading talking to the most: Jooheon.

If there was anyone who could tell him something useful about Hyungwon, anything at all, it would be Jooheon - his best friend and roommate was Hyungwon’s lover, it couldn’t get any better than that. Of course, talking to Jooheon after the way they parted the previous night would be— awkward. Minhyuk felt like he’d made a terrible mistake, even though he wasn’t quite sure what it was that he did. Besides being incredibly rude and mean to Jooheon for no reason, that is; other than that, he had no idea what he did wrong.

He hurried through the circus grounds, weaving his way through the staff and kiosks that had already begun to set up for the evening. It was Sunday, meaning Jooheon left a little earlier than on weekdays and Minhyuk was running late after his failed attempt at gathering information. Jooheon might have left already, for all he knew.

For the first time that day, he got lucky - he spotted Jooheon at one of the already open food kiosks, buying himself something to eat, presumably, for dinner. Minhyuk made a beeline towards him, reaching him just as he was receiving his food after paying the vendor.

The dimpled smile Jooheon had on while speaking to the vendor dropped instantly from his face once he turned around and saw Minhyuk. Minhyuk would be lying if he said that didn’t hurt a little bit. Or a lot. A lot worked, too.

Minhyuk didn’t let himself be discouraged and smiled brightly at him. “Honey! Hi!”

“Hi,” Jooheon replied, cagey and suspicious, the paper bag containing his food held against his chest as if he was defending it. Or as if it was defending him, but Minhyuk wasn’t sure how a bag of fried fish would be able to defend anyone.

“Uh… so…” Minhyuk started, forgetting what he was doing there for a second. “Are you going home?”

Jooheon narrowed his eyes at Minhyuk. “Yes. Why?”

“Nothing!” Minhyuk said, perhaps a little too loudly. “I just— I was hoping I could talk to you for a moment.”

“About what?” he asked, and before Minhyuk had even finished opening his mouth to reply, Jooheon added, “If it’s about Hyungwon again, I would rather not.”

Minhyuk groaned and followed Jooheon when he began walking away - Minhyuk wasn’t sure if he started walking to get away from him or if it was because they were in the way of people who wanted to buy food at that kiosk. Either way, Minhyuk was not about to let Jooheon leave so easily.

“Please, it’s just a couple of questions,” he pleaded, walking rapidly in order to keep up with Jooheon. “Pretty please, honey?”

Jooheon huffed. “You have to stop calling me that.”

“Why? You’re my honey.”

“I am not .”

“Yes, you are,” Minhyuk said firmly. Before Jooheon could argue again, he said, “Now tell me all you know about Hyungwon, please.”

“I don’t want to,” Jooheon replied, sounding like a particularly whiny toddler. “It feels as if talking about him brings bad luck, I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

“He’s harmless, honey,” Minhyuk said. “And if he shows up, I’ll protect you.”

Jooheon snorted at that, for some reason. “Right. I don’t even know anything, you’re wasting your time asking me about him.”

“I’m sure you know something,” he said, conviction clear in his voice. Minhyuk was reaching a level of desperation in which anything would be helpful - even something as simple as learning Hyungwon’s favorite color would be useful. At this point, a bread crumb was a feast for him. “Did Changkyun ever mention anything about him?”

“Changkyun won’t shut up about him,” Jooheon said, clearly bitter about it. “‘Hyungwon is so pretty’ this, ‘Hyungwon is so smart’ that, it’s constant.”

Minhyuk sighed. That was not what he was after. “Anything less about his qualities and more about him? Something he’s done, maybe something he said?”

Jooheon slowed down his pace, something for which Minhyuk was quite grateful, and a hitch appeared between his brows as he tried to think of something to say. “He knew where we lived without either of us telling him.”

Minhyuk arched an eyebrow, not very impressed. “That’s easy to find out, though. He would just need to talk to the right people.”

“But how would he have done it so fast?”

“He probably has about a hundred people working for him, honey. He could have sent someone else to do it in his stead.”

Jooheon pouted at him. Minhyuk felt a strange need to kiss that pout away, but he very quickly and very sternly told his mind to knock it off. “I know he does, but this was different. He just showed up at our doorstep when Changkyun was sick, and he knew Changkyun was sick. I was the only one who knew, how did he know Changkyun was sick!? I definitely didn’t tell him.”

“Maybe he had a hunch or—”

“No one who has a ‘hunch’ shows up unannounced somewhere they’ve never been to before in the middle of the night, bringing their witch-made remedies for fever with them.”

“Witches aren’t real, my honey,” Minhyuk gently told him. “Although— you do have a point.”

“He’s put a spell on Changkyun, I just know it,” Jooheon said, and he really meant it. “Changkyun’s obsessed with him.”

“Isn’t Hyungwon just as obsessed with Changkyun, though?” Minhyuk offered, as Jooheon didn’t seem to have considered that yet. “The way they look at each other is quite similar. I think they’re just in love.”

“No,” Jooheon said, shaking his head to emphasize the word. “They might be in love, but it goes deeper than that. It’s— I don’t even know how to describe it. Changkyun has changed since they met, he used to be the most down to earth, rational person I knew, and now—” Jooheon interrupted himself to exhale slowly. “I’m telling you, something is off about the whole thing.”

Minhyuk frowned at the ground, going over Jooheon’s account of Changkyun’s relationship with Hyungwon in his mind. Love was a solid explanation for it - love made people go insane, which was one of the many reasons why Minhyuk avoided it like the plague. Maybe Jooheon had never been in love before and didn’t know how it could skew your perception of the world.

Minhyuk knew - he had an ugly scar on his head as a reminder.

That Changkyun and Hyungwon were obsessed with each other was not something uncommon enough that Minhyuk would jump to the conclusion something supernatural was happening; it was fairly common behavior for lovers who have just started their affair to have their entire lives revolve around one another. Given time, Changkyun and Hyungwon would come down from their seventh heaven and start acting like normal people once again.

Although… Minhyuk had felt it the night before, and while he struggled with the mere idea of it, there was a small voice in the back of his mind that told him there was something strange about Hyungwon. 

All the years of experience Minhyuk had reading people, and nothing was ever quite as frustrating as trying to read Hyungwon. All he got from him was surface stuff and, if he tried to read him more closely, it felt as if his brain was filled with fog. His thoughts just went blank, he became tongue-tied, nervous. He’d accused Hyungwon of not being human out of spite, something he would admit easily to be a petty way of hurting him, but— maybe it wasn’t exactly a lie. 

Hyungwon had dropped fifteen cards at once, after all.

“So you think he’s a witch?” Minhyuk finally asked.

“I don’t think it matters what I think, I’m probably wrong,” Jooheon said. He took out a piece of fried fish from the bag in his hand and shoved it unceremoniously in his mouth, as if he didn’t want to wait another second to eat. Maybe Jooheon was the type of person who ate his stress away. Once he’d chewed and swallowed, he said, “All I know is what I see, and what I see is weird.”

“I don’t think it would be much of a scandal if people learned he dabbles in dark magic,” Minhyuk said with a defeated sigh to punctuate his words. “They’d probably find him that more intriguing. I’ll have to keep investigating.”

“You should let it go, Minhyuk,” Jooheon said. “Not only because of the consequences, but because— it’s simply not worth it.”

“I think it’s worth it,” Minhyuk argued. “Seeing the look on his face when I drag his name through the dirt and ruin his credit as a medium will be very rewarding.”

Jooheon simply sighed at that, clearly admitting defeat. “Alright, if you say so.”

They reached the exit and Jooheon stopped walking by the gates. Minhyuk stopped as well, trying to come up with ways to spend a little more time with him - he was ecstatic that Jooheon had spoken to him about Hyungwon despite what happened the previous night at all. He was certain he would brush him off and tell him to go away, but he didn’t.

It made Minhyuk happy. Very happy.

“Want me to walk you home?” he offered. “The streets are awfully dangerous these days.”

Jooheon chuckled and shook his head. “No, that’s alright.”

“Are you sure?” Minhyuk asked, perhaps a little too eager.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Don’t you have to set up your stall?”

“I will, there’s more than enough time,” Minhyuk said and made a dismissing gesture with his hand to articulate just how not urgent setting up his stall was.

Not that he was looking forward to it after what happened last night, but alas - he still had to make money.

“Won’t you stay for the performance?” Minhyuk asked, hopeful.

Jooheon shook his head. “No, I’ve seen the rehearsal enough times to know the whole thing by heart. I’d rather go home and rest.”

“Oh, alright,” he replied. He looked around, hands shoved in the pockets of his trousers, going over several topics he could bring up to keep Jooheon around for a few minutes more. For some reason, he settled on saying, “The season here will be over in a few weeks.”

“Yeah,” Jooheon said, looking back at the main tent. “I didn’t think I would say this, but I’ll miss working here.”

“You’re not sticking around? Touring with the circus is quite fun,” Minhyuk said. “New places, new people.”

“No, I’m fine here,” Jooheon said in response. Minhyuk felt his spirits deflate some. “I always knew this job would be temporary.” Jooheon turned to him, then. “You’re going away with the circus?”

“That’s the plan,” Minhyuk replied with a shrug and a tight smile. He wanted to add something akin to ‘plans can change’ but he decided not to - he didn’t want to send the wrong message or make Jooheon uncomfortable.

“Mhm, I figured,” Jooheon said. It sounded clipped, as if he had more to say but had chosen not to. Minhyuk hoped he’d said what he wanted. “Well, I might as well get going.”

“Alright, uh— have a good night, my honey,” Minhyuk said sweetly. Jooheon looked away from him.

“Yeah, you too. Good luck with the— your stall.”

“Thank you, I think I’ll need it,” Minhyuk said, his voice taking on a forlorn cadence.

“You’ll be fine,” Jooheon said, and smiled softly, dimples barely showing but there nonetheless. “Bye, Minhyuk.”

“Bye, honey,” Minhyuk replied quietly, and with a last close-lipped smile Jooheon turned around and walked away, leaving Minhyuk behind with that tight cluster of thoughts rolling around in his mind - the mystery that was Hyungwon, his own reluctance to do his job that evening, and the very conflicting emotions he felt towards Jooheon.

 

◦ ◦ ◦

 

“And this is the last one,” Hyunwoo announced, leaving the last box with their belongings on the floor of the new apartment.

Kihyun raised his head from his task of clearing up some space in the living room so they could at least move around; there were boxes, bags, trunks, random piles of clothes scattered about, the floor barely visible.

Hyunwoo looked exhausted, as he should be - they had been running up and down all day, trying to move into the new place as fast as possible, and now, a little after midnight, it seemed they were finally done.

“Come sit down,” Kihyun said, moving towards the recliner to remove the boxes that were there and allow Hyunwoo a place to rest. Hyunwoo didn’t need to be told twice.

He plopped down on the chaise with a grunt and a loud sigh of relief; Kihyun could only imagine how tired he was, being the one who made the most trips back and forth between the old apartment and the new, the one who carried the most weight.

“Want some water?” Kihyun offered after placing the box he’d moved from the recliner on the floor.

“Do we have anything stronger?” Hyunwoo asked with a tired grin, and Kihyun huffed a laugh through his nose.

“I think I saw some beer, I’ll check.”

Kihyun deftly maneuvered his way across the room, through the obstacles they created for themselves, towards the kitchen to find something for Hyunwoo to drink. It wouldn’t be cold, though - they hadn’t had the time to set up their icebox yet.

The kitchen was, at least, less messy than the rest of the apartment, likely because they didn’t own that many kitchen utensils and there were relatively fewer boxes to take up space. Although, sure, the bedroom was somewhat tidy too since they tasked Hoseok with making the bedroom habitable during the day, while Kihyun and Hyunwoo went back and forth to their old place to move their belongings - an obvious excuse so Hoseok wouldn’t have to be out in the cold for long but, luckily, Hoseok was in a good enough mood that day to not argue that request.

As he searched the contents of the boxes sitting on the table, Kihyun’s mind brought him back around to the ominous words Hyungwon relayed to him the night before. Being busy all day served as a distraction, but now that there was nothing to keep his focus, there seemed to be nothing else in his thoughts other than that feeling of imminent calamity.

Hyunwoo was definitely hiding something, that was a confirmed fact. Going over the clues he’d gathered so far, it didn’t seem like that secret was related to an affair, much like Hyunwoo had told him - one thing he could cross off the list of possibilities. Hoseok mentioned Hyunwoo could have been injured somewhere, and Kihyun had found the bloody handkerchief in his pocket that morning. Those could be one and the same - Hyunwoo hurt his shoulder somewhere, maybe scrapped it while working at the docks or the market, and used the handkerchief to clean up the blood from that wound. It made sense.

He tried to think back to the night before, when he’d been with Hyunwoo very up close and very personal. Was there something different about his body? It’d been far too dark to see properly, but he couldn’t recall spotting any cuts or scrapes. He thought he’d seen a couple of bruises, but those could have easily been a trick of the light.

One thing he did notice, mostly because he could tell just through touching Hyunwoo, was that he had, in fact, lost some weight. Again, there were plenty of explanations for that - he was working too hard, stressing too much, not eating enough. It didn’t have to mean he was sick. It could be something else. It had to be something else.

Kihyun found a small cluster of beer bottles inside one of the boxes, patting his past-self on the back for the preemptive thought of putting a bottle opener inside the same box. There were other containers there, mostly of spices; it gave him a pang of nostalgia for the days when he had time to actually cook for them. He missed cooking. Maybe once things settled a bit he could cook them a big, fancy dinner - just because they were constantly stressed and miserable didn’t mean they couldn’t take some time to have a romantic banquet.

Once they gathered enough money to move somewhere outside of the city and afford a decent treatment for Hoseok’s illness, and after he found out what was going on with Hyunwoo, then he would cook them a veritable feast. A long term plan, but it was good to have a goal.

Bottle properly opened, he returned to the living room while still debating how to go about figuring out Hyunwoo’s secret. He could ask. Asking him had a very small chance of being useful, but it was more honest than poking around and playing detective behind his back, and honesty is always the best option.

However— that would only serve to make Hyunwoo aware of his attempts at figuring out what he was hiding. Hyunwoo was, for the most part, a very straightforward, truthful person, but when he wanted to keep a secret, especially when that secret could hurt someone he cared about, he might as well be a rock. It was what made Hyunwoo so trustworthy, one of the many reasons why Kihyun loved him, even if at that moment it was driving Kihyun mad.

The only option was to fight fire with fire and hope they didn’t burn down to ash.

He reached Hyunwoo after wading through the sea of boxes on their floor and smiled once their eyes met, hoping his expression didn’t betray where his thoughts had been just seconds before.

“Here you go,” Kihyun said as he handed the bottle to Hyunwoo, who accepted it with one of his bright boyish grins.

“Thank you, love,” he said before taking a few hearty gulps of beer. He smacked his lips once he was done, in that way that always reminded Kihyun of a grandpa and never failed to make him laugh.

“We have a couple more of those in the kitchen,” Kihyun said, raising a hand to stroke Hyunwoo’s hair lovingly.

“Just this one is fine for now,” he replied, then laced an arm around Kihyun’s waist to pull him closer so he could lean his head on his sternum. “Is Hoseok asleep?”

Kihyun smiled down at the top of Hyunwoo’s hair, now running both his hands through it, massaging his scalp with his fingertips to try and help him relax after that terribly long day. “He is. He was out almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.”

Hyunwoo hummed and wrapped both arms around Kihyun, face hidden against his torso. “Good. I wish we’ve had more leisure to move, doing so in a single day can’t have been good for his health.”

“Hoseok is fine, dearest,” Kihyun said, bending down to plant a kiss to the top of his head. “I’m more concerned about you right now.”

“Me? I’m fine,” Hyunwoo said as if it were obvious - which it wasn’t - and looked up at Kihyun. “I’ll be brand new after a good night’s sleep.”

“Are you sure?” Kihyun asked back, challenging, as he cradled Hyunwoo’s cheeks in his hands. “You’ve been working way too hard.”

“You have nothing to worry about,” he promised, turning his head to place a kiss to Kihyun’s wrist, just above his pulse point. 

“You’re exhausted, Woo. You’re going to collapse if you keep up like this.”

“I know my limits.”

“You truly don’t,” Kihyun threw back right away. “You bend yourself backwards for me and Hoseok, you have to let us take care of you sometimes.”

Hyunwoo closed his eyes and returned to his previous position, forehead resting against Kihyun’s chest, face hidden against his torso. “I love you so much. You and Hoseok are my world.”

“We love you too, dearest,” Kihyun said, arms wrapped around Hyunwoo’s neck. “That’s exactly why we want you to rest a little. Our finances won’t fall apart if you take one day for yourself.”

“And what am I supposed to do at home all day?” he asked, voice taking a teasing tone. “The same we did last night?”

“If Hoseok is up for it, sure,” Kihyun replied, laughing. “I was thinking of something closer to ‘spend the entire day asleep’.”

Hyunwoo rolled his eyes as leaned back again to look up at him. “I’m not going to spend the entire day asleep, we have too much to do, Ki.”

“Fine, then spend half the day asleep and during the other half you can— I don’t know, do the books,” Kihyun suggested. “You’re good at math and I would love some assistance with that part.”

“Hoseok doesn’t help you?”

Kihyun inhaled slowly, gathering his thoughts before replying. “Hoseok is— not very organized.”

Hyunwoo snorted. “He’s more organized than I am.”

“Not with math. Or documents in general.”

“Fair enough,” Hyunwoo granted. “I’m still not sure this is a good idea.”

“At least think about it,” Kihyun said, moving his hands to Hyunwoo’s shoulders, massaging the muscles there carefully. Hoseok mentioned Hyunwoo’s shoulder might be injured, maybe he could find out like that. “Mayhap we can all take the day off, take the ship out to sea for a few hours.”

Hyunwoo hummed, considering the idea. “That sounds nice.” He sighed, then, and took another sip of beer. Kihyun continued massaging his shoulders, putting a little more pressure when Hyunwoo didn’t show any signs of pain. “Hoseok would be happy.”

“This isn’t about Hoseok, this is about you,” Kihyun gently said. “Hoseok is sick, yes, I understand putting all your efforts into making him happy, but you can’t forget yourself. You’re going to burn out like this.”

“I know that,” Hyunwoo said, shifting in his seat. Was he in pain or just uncomfortable with the conversation? Kihyun couldn’t tell. “All I want is to give you two a better life, not only because Hoseok is sick.”

“A better life includes you being around more. We hardly ever see you.”

“You see me every day.”

“Yes, for five minutes at a time before you run off again!” Kihyun snapped, then took a deep breath to calm himself. “Look, I know you’re free to choose how much you work, I have no control over you in the end, but we’re worried. If you don’t rest for yourself, then do it for Hoseok. And for me.”

Hyunwoo was quiet for a moment, likely rolling over Kihyun’s plea in his head. Kihyun waited, ever-patient, and continued to massage his shoulders, the muscles there tense. Hyunwoo still didn’t react to the touches; perhaps his injury wasn’t in his muscles, but in his joints. If he moved the massage closer to where his shoulder met his arm—

Before he could, Hyunwoo said, “Alright, I’ll think about it.”

Kihyun gave him a pleased smile. “Thank you. I feel much better knowing you’ll at least consider it.”

Hyunwoo grunted something Kihyun couldn’t understand and finished off his beer in a single gulp, giving Kihyun no chance to continue his exploration before he got up from the chaise.

“I think I’ll take a bath now,” he declared.

Kihyun saw an opportunity there. “Want some company?”

“No, it’s alright, I’ll be quick,” Hyunwoo replied. Maybe a little too fast.

“Are you sure? I can wash your hair, give you a massage, perhaps even—”

“It’s alright, Ki,” he repeated. “I’ll take only a few minutes, I just want to get to bed and sleep.”

Kihyun stammered and nodded stiffly to agree. “A-alright. I’ll make our bed, then.”

“Thank you, dear,” Hyunwoo said just before pressing a long kiss to Kihyun’s forehead. He exhaled slowly and whispered against his skin, “I love you so much.”

Kihyun closed his eyes, a smile creeping onto his face despite his concerns. “I love you too.”

“I’ll be right back,” Hyunwoo said and, kissing Kihyun on the corner of the mouth one last time, he walked away towards the bathroom, the sound of the door shutting reaching Kihyun’s ears after only a couple of seconds.

Kihyun took a long, deep breath, a mixture of emotions warring in his heart. Looking around at the living room, he couldn’t help but feel like he was looking at his own future - boxes of their memories and belongings stacked around haphazardly, everything in disarray, the room quiet and dark, and him standing there. Alone.