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안녕 못해 (I'm Not Okay)

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YOU BREATHE.

You ache.

You live.

You die inside, sometimes. These little deaths. It’s how you know you're still living. That hurt, that damnable pain in your chest that never really goes away, is meant to burn to show you that you're human. After all, you have these little deaths because you live. You ache, but you’re able to breathe. And if you can breathe, then you can take another step. You can push yourself up and you can take another step.

His psychiatrist had told him that during one of their sessions.

He'd laughed.

He hadn't laughed with him. Instead, he asked him why he found that funny.

“Why was that funny, Chanyeol?” he had asked again.

He’d shaken his head. “You wouldn't understand.”

“Try me.”

“I breathe because I have to. It’s an involuntary action. I ache because it’s all I have. I live because I don't know how to do anything but. And the deaths aren't little. They’re big. They’re bigger than you could ever know. I take steps because if I don't, the bigger deaths will catch up to me, and I can't have that.”

“Why is that?” he’d asked.

Chanyeol had learned early on that therapy was like having a small child because it was always why, why, why.

He didn't remember what he’d told him.

His therapist just nodded and then offered him a prescription for Zoloft.

He declined graciously.

That was… what. Two years ago now? Maybe even three. He’d gone back a few more times after that because it seemed like the right thing to do, but he wasn't much for talking to people he didn't know. Especially about himself. No, Chanyeol hadn't liked that at all. He thought he could push through it, but in the end, it was a waste of his time, especially when his attention was needed elsewhere. There were more important things that needed to be done.

So, no. He hadn't gone back.

He regretted it sometimes. Especially now.

He stared through the rain at the windshield wipers moving back and forth. He was early, but then he didn't have anywhere else to be.

He glanced down at his phone, telling himself not to look at it again, but he couldn't help it. The screen was bright in the dark as he pulled up the message for the hundredth time in the last three days. The last text was from him and it said Okay and the one before that was Would nine work? On Friday? The hotel? And the one before was him saying I’d like that in response to I want to see you. It had come out of nowhere, startling him when he’d received it, like I want to see you hadn't been something he’d typed over and over again the past couple of years, deleting it before he could do something foolish like actually send it.

But that was Kyungsoo for you. He always liked to do the unexpected. Like saying I want to see you.

Or I can’t do this anymore.

That one had hurt. Another big death on top of all the big deaths that had come before.

Maybe he should leave.

Just go home.

If he left now, he could make it home in time to be settled in his chair by the time the ten o’clock news came on.

Maybe they'd say something about him since the anniversary was coming up.

He didn't hold out much hope.

He sighed.

Looked at his phone again.

I want to see you.

He was about to start press the ignition button of his car. Instead, he opened the door into the rain.

It was cold. He could see his breath.

He took the umbrella and opened it through the partially ajar car door before he stepped out of his car. He felt some droplets on his ear and reached up to brush them away. He rolled his shoulders, trying to will away the stiffness. He tightened the scarf around his neck and closed the door behind him. The lights blinked as he pressed the button on the fob, and he turned back toward the hotel.

He stood there, just for a little while.

When was the last time he’d been here? It’d been… before. A weekend away. A staycation Kyungsoo always called it, that cute little smile on his face where his mouth forms a heart shape. This is our staycation. Just a couple of days, you and me. Clothing optional. Does that sound okay?

And yeah, that’d been okay. That’d always been okay by Chanyeol.

Not tonight, though.

They should have picked somewhere else to go tonight.

Unless that’d been the whole point.

He looked down at his hand, at the ring on his finger.

He’d forgotten he had it on, as he sometimes did. He could go days without even being aware of it, only to have it catch his eye and bring everything around him to a halt. It was scuffed and scratched, worn with time. The gold band was thin, but the carved out sound wave pattern still there. He knew what it said. He tried to forget it sometimes. Just to see if he could do it. And there were days he had. He didn't know if today could be one of those days.

He should've taken it off. He didn't want Kyungsoo to see it. It wouldn't do. There’d be… questions that he was not ready to answer.

He propped the umbrella under his arm, ducking when it hit the top of his head. He reached over to take the ring off. Of course it was stuck. His fingers were a little thicker than they’d been twenty-odd years ago when it’d been slid on in a ceremony in a backyard in the spring of 1997. The cherry blossoms had been blooming along the Tidal Basin, the sun had been shining, and everything felt right. There had been a smile on both their faces, and it’d been right. It’d been beautiful. And he had been so handsome in his tuxedo—

No. No. No. No.

Not him. Nothing about him. Not now. Not tonight.

He ground his teeth together and grunted as he pulled on the ring. For a moment, he thought it wouldn't budge, and he'd either have to wear gloves for the rest of the night or he'd just need to go home. Yes. Yes, that sounded best. He could just go home and the ring would stay on and—

It slid over his knuckle, rubbing the skin a little raw. His elbow bumped the car and his arm went numb. He hissed out a low breath, the umbrella canting to the left, his shoulder getting wet from the rain.

It'd been raining for a week now. The weather reports said there was no end in sight.

He slid the ring into his coat pocket, buttoning it up to keep it safe and sound. When he got home later, he could put it back on again. No one would be the wiser, and Kyungsoo—

Chanyeol shook his head. Best not to think about it, Kyungsoo always had a way of figuring those things out.

He walked toward the brightly lit hotel, it was ten stories high. He probably should've just taken the Metro in, but the thought of being surrounded by people on a train hadn't appealed to him. Besides, the trains were always late. At least now he could be the first one here and allow himself to get used to being back in this place.

They’d held the reception here after that spring day in 1997. It’d been nice. Everyone had been happy. There’d been music and dancing, food and booze. Speeches had been given, and tears had been shed courtesy of Junmyeon and Baekhyun, with Jongdae who calmed them down then looked sheepishly at Chanyeol and Kyungsoo. And hadn't everyone talked about how handsome he'd been? They had. Oh, Chanyeol, you’re handsome, and Kyungsoo, you aren't so bad, but would you look at him. He's dashing.

His steps faltered.

His knees felt weak.

He told himself it was because he was fifty-four now. Knees were one of the first things to go.

He felt like a liar.

I could turn around, he told himself. I really could.

The automatic doors slid open. A burst of manufactured air rolled over him. It was warm. There were still Christmas decorations in the lobby, though the holidays were two weeks past. He’d turned his phone off during those days. It was easier than hearing the incessant beeping of messages received that he would ignore.

This was it, wasn't it? His last chance to turn around. Kyungsoo would understand.

Sure, he was curious about why Kyungsoo wanted to see him. And yes, Chanyeol wanted to see him almost more than he wanted anything else, but with Kyungsoo came things he hadn't wanted to think about. The words he’d said. The things he’d done. The accusations he’d made.

He’d never felt more ashamed of anything in his life, even while it was happening. But that hadn’t been enough to stop him, had it? Because Kyungsoo was there and it was so easy to lash out at him, to make him take everything he hadn’t been able to give to anyone else. Kyungsoo had been the only one who’d understood and Chanyeol had laid into him with all of his might.

So, no, part of him didn’t want to see Kyungsoo. Part of him was embarrassed at the way he’d acted that, even now, it caused the breath to hitch in his chest. He’d been scared, sure, and it hadn’t been getting any better, but Kyungsoo had too. And it wasn’t fair of him to take it out on Kyungsoo. An apology had burned like bile in the back of his throat, and he’d swallowed it back down.

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The devastated look on Kyungsoo’s face had shown him that.

Yes. He could leave.

But the why of it wouldn’t let him.

Chanyeol had always been a curious sort. As a kid, he’d gotten into everything, wanting to know as much as he could. It’d followed him all his life, and even after it’d all gone to shit, that need still burned through him. If anything, it got worse, because if there was one thing Chanyeol hated, it was the unknown. It was the mystery. It was the infuriating secrets that might never be whispered in his ear to give him the relief he wanted to be able to sleep the whole night through again without needing to pop an Ambien. And those Ambien nights were the worst, because he’d wake up the next day, buried deep in a fog that wouldn’t lift until late afternoon, and by then, he wouldn’t be quite sure how he’d gotten through the day.

Sometimes he thought about staying lost in that fog.

But those thoughts were far and few between. They only came on the bad days.

He’d been standing in front of the automatic doors for a good three minutes. The two women at the front desk were staring at him strangely.

Great. Just how he wanted this evening to start.

He forced a smile on his face, the one that usually charmed everyone who could see it, where almost all his teeth were showing.

They smiled back at him.

I could leave, he thought again.

Instead, he went inside.

Holiday music played on the speakers overhead. He shook his umbrella out in the vestibule, scuffing his feet along the mat on the floor. A second set of automatic doors opened, and the music became louder, a string rendition of “What Child is This?” and oh, the fucking irony. How it almost choked him.

His smile widened, brittle though it was.

“Welcome to Hotel Madison,” one of the ladies behind the front desk said, her voice bright and cheerful. Her makeup was perfectly applied, her hair tied back into a perfect bun. She had wide, innocent eyes and the perfect customer service smile. A consummate professional. “Did you have a reservation to stay with us?” She looked down to see that he wasn’t carrying any luggage. “Or are you dining with us this evening?”

He said, “Dining,” but it came out rough and low, like he hadn’t spoken in a while. And that caused him to pause because when had he spoken to an actual person last? He worked from home, and everything was done via e-mail, so it wasn’t as if he had coworkers. He hadn’t picked up the phone when friends had called, so eventually they just stopped calling. Family? Not hardly. His brother was in Seoul, and they hadn’t spoken in… Jesus. He couldn’t even remember how long.

He thought back, a little panicky, through Thursday (no) and Wednesday (no) and Tuesday (no) and Monday—yes. There it was. Monday. His weekly phone call to—Christ, that couldn’t be healthy because when had he spoken to someone before that? Groceries were self-checkout these days, limiting any interaction. He got coffee, but they knew him so well by now, he didn’t even have to say anything before they’d have his order up. He’d smile at the kids behind the counter and tip them nicely, but it could all be done without saying a damn thing. So, Monday had been the last time he’d actually spoken with another human being. And then the Monday before that. And possibly the Monday before that. Like clockwork. Every Monday at three, his call was expected. And unless there was an emergency, every Monday at three, his call was answered.

He’d texted with Kyungsoo a few days ago, but other than that….

No wonder it sounded like he was choking on his words.

The women stared at him expectantly.

He smiled again. He wondered if he looked manic.

“Dining,” he said again, forcing the words to be louder. “Meeting a… friend. At the bar.”

The woman, her name tag reads Irene says, “Of course. Please let us know if we can do anything to make your time at Hotel Madison a five-star experience.”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

So he didn’t say anything at all.

He stood there, dripping on expensive imported tile as if he was unsure of what he should do next.

Irene started to look concerned.

Time to move on.

The lobby was bright and festive, garlands hung along the walls, a large, stone fireplace roaring and inviting. “What Child is This?” gave way to Dean Martin, and he thought maybe he could breathe clearly again. A Christmas tree blinked in the corner. A wreath of pine and ribbons and holly hung over the entrance of the restaurant. He tried to think if they’d ever been here during the holidays before, sure there must have been sometime they’d gone on one of their staycations, just for a couple of days, just you and me, Yeol doesn’t that sound nice? But he didn’t think they’d had. It’d been harder to get away during the holidays. They’d both had obligations that couldn’t be ignored. Not like when they were younger. Maybe it hadn’t always been easy, but they’d managed.

Hadn’t they?

There was a hostess at the entrance, a pretty young thing who probably hadn’t even known life outside her parents’ house yet. Maybe he’d be graduating this year. Looking forward to college next year. George Washington University? Somewhere on the other side of the country so he could stretch his wings, Dad, I know GWU is a good school, but so is UCLA, and you know I’ve always wanted to go to California. You know this, Daddy.

Yeah. It seemed like that’s how she was. This little hostess.

“Hi,” she said. “Welcome to Ubi Sunt. Table for one?”

“No,” he said, trying not to stumble over his words. He never used to be like this. “There’s a reservation. I… I’m a little early. I’d like to sit at the bar.”

“Name for the reservation?” she asked, blonde curls around her face. Chanyeol glances at her name tag, Wendy.

“Um. Kyungsoo? It’s… Park Kyungsoo.”

She frowned as she looked down at the tablet in front of her, tracing her finger across the screen. “Park…,” she said “Park.”

Maybe it wasn’t there.

Maybe there wasn’t a reservation.

Maybe he wasn’t coming at all.

Or maybe, a little voice whispered in the back of the mind, that’s not the right name.

“Park,” she said again.

“Yeah.”

“Hmm. Oh! Here it is. My apologies. I must have skipped right over it.” She looked up at him and smiled. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “It’s been one of those nights, you know?”

His heart pounded furiously in his chest. “I know.”

“Are you sure you want to sit at the bar? I can get your table if you want. We’re not too busy tonight, so there’d be no wait.”

That… didn’t sound like what he wanted. Tables were intimate, especially the ones they’d had here in the past, where they’d be tucked off in a corner, out of sight from everyone. It had been exciting, doing something they shouldn’t, holding hands underneath the table, Kyungsoo’s thumb rubbing over the jittery pulse in Chanyeol’s wrist, the tablecloth hiding them so they wouldn’t be caught. Especially at the beginning, because in those days, they were just two men, out on the town for a night, isn’t that right, Yeol? Kyungsoo would always have a devilish smirk on his face -- one side of his plump lips curling up and looking very tempting -- as he said that, the nickname rolling off his tongue like it was a sinful thing. And yeah, Chanyeol would say, that’s right, but his would come out like a croak, his throat dry, his skin hot.

“Sir?”

He coughed. Shook his head. Said, “No. The bar is fine for now. Thank you.” The bar wasn’t as private as a table. You couldn’t hide your hands. The bartender was always moving back and forth. You weren’t ever really alone.

Wasn’t that right, Yeolie?

“Right this way.”

As if he didn’t know the way to the bar.

He let her lead the way. It was easier.

There were others at the bar, a couple at the end leaning close and whispering to each other, martini glasses set in front of them and forgotten. The man brushed a lock of hair out of the woman’s face and she kept whispering, as if used to the action by now.

There were two others, a man staring up at the silent TV near the edge of the bar, watching highlights from a basketball game.

A woman sat near him, speaking quietly into a cell phone, fingers drumming on the surface of the bar.

The restaurant itself was half-full, the waiters and waitresses moving quickly and quietly among the tables. Conversation spilled through the room, a low, even hum like electricity crawling through the walls. It was usually always so crowded. He thought most everyone was probably still at home, wrapped up tightly in the post holiday blues.

Wendy pulled out a stool for him at the bar and offered to take his jacket and umbrella. “I’ll keep them in the coat closet near the front,” she said. “That way, you won’t have to worry about them during your dinner. And no one gets in the closet without a key, so.” She smiled up at him again.

He couldn’t help but agree.

“Wait, Wendy” he said as she started walking away. “Just… I’ve got something. In the pocket. Can you…?”

She handed him the coat, the scarf still in her hands, glancing back toward the hostess stand. He winced as he dug through the pocket until he found what he was looking for. He closed his fingers around the ring, hiding it in his fist. He handed the coat back. She took it and whirled away, smelling of lilacs.

He looked down at the ring. The low lights caught the metal, causing it to gleam dully. He could see the outline of where the sound wave was carved.

He closed his fist again.

The ring was cold in his hand.

He breathed.

He breathed.

He—

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.

Chanyeol flinched slightly, looking up at the toothy smile, then away, then back again. He tried smiling and tried not moving, but he needed to put the ring in his pocket.

The bartender reached over to put a napkin in front of him.

Chanyeol slipped the ring in his pocket. His elbow bumped his smartphone on the bar top. Ever clumsy. The bartender saved it before it fell, setting it farther away from the edge, long, thin fingers trailing.

He pulled his hands from his pocket. “Thanks,” he said.

“It’s what I’m here for,” the bartender said with a wink, and maybe Chanyeol flushed a little at that, because the bartender was handsome. He had beautifully tanned skin. He wore black slacks and a white button-up shirt opened at the throat. His smooth chest partly visible. His teeth were white and even, his eyes beautiful, framed by long, dark lashes.

He was probably also half Chanyeol’s age.

Not that Chanyeol was thinking like that. Bartenders flirted with everyone. He might not have even been flirting, Chanyeol wasn’t recently practiced in such a thing so he couldn’t be sure how it was done now. He didn’t think he really wanted to know. But even Chanyeol could understand beauty when it was right in front of him, and this man could have anyone he wanted, man or woman. He probably got the most tips out of anyone else that worked here too, if the way his arms strained against his dress shirt gave any indication.

And here was Chanyeol. In his nicest pair of dress slacks that he still owned and maybe had forgotten to iron. A blue V-neck sweater over a white dress shirt. A tie that he wished he’d thought twice about. They didn’t fit like they used to, the clothes looser on him. He was sure his thinning hair was a fright from the short walk in the wind and rain, and fought the urge to reach up and brush it down.

The bartender looked like a model.

Chanyeol looked like he was in his mid fifties.

Which, to be fair, he was. He’d just… well. He’d just never thought about it much before. He hadn’t had time. Maybe he shouldn’t have come early.

Maybe he shouldn’t have come at all.

“What brings you out on this nasty night?” the bartender asked, leaning forward and spreading his hands out on the bar top like he had all the time in the world.

“Um,” Chanyeol said, clearing his throat, trying to remember what it meant to be a human being. “I’ll have a bourbon. On the rocks.”

The bartender had little crinkles next to his eyes when he smiled. Chanyeol noticed those almost right away.

“A bourbon, on the rocks,” the bartender said. “That I can do. I’m Jongin, by the way. In case you need anything.”

“Oh,” Chanyeol said, fumbling just a little. “Just the bourbon. For now. I’m… Chanyeol.”

“Chanyeol,” Jongin said. And then, for reasons Chanyeol didn’t understand, he reached out his hand.

He stared at it for the briefest of moments before realizing what Jongin was doing. He reached up and took Jongin’s hand. He shook it up and down once, twice, three times, his grip firm and warm before he pulled his hand away.

“Chanyeol,” Jongin said again. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

All the tips, Chanyeol thought. He probably gets all the tips. And then some.

Chanyeol just nodded.

“Bourbon on the rocks, coming up.” Jongin said before he moved slightly down the bar. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

“Oh?” Chanyeol asked. “I’m sorry. The question?”

Jongin flashed a smile over his shoulder before pulling a glass off the stack in front of him. “What brings you out on a night like this? Seems to me it’d be better to be safe at home.”

“Oh. Yes. Um. I’m just… meeting. Someone. I’m meeting someone here. We used—we used to come here a lot.”

“Did you?” Jongin asked, picking up the bottle of bourbon. “Funny. I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

“Years ago.” Chanyeol said, looking down at his hands. He thought to check his phone to see if there were any messages, but it was a habit he’d gotten out of a long time ago. Now, messages would pile up for weeks before he’d remember. People knew to call if it was urgent. Sometimes, he’d forget to answer the phone then too. Besides, the only one who’d message him tonight was Kyungsoo and it was a quarter till. “You probably were… too young. To work here then.”

Jongin turned back around, setting the bourbon on the napkin. He bit his bottom lip, eyes watching Chanyeol. “Too young? Why thank you, Chanyeol. That is very kind of you to say.”

He hadn’t meant it like that. So he said, “Sure,” because he couldn’t think of anything else. He picked up the bourbon and took a sip. It burned, but damn did it burn so good. He hadn’t allowed himself to indulge in a long time. Not since—it was just safer that way. Those months that had followed hadn’t been kind, and he knew just how terrible hangovers could be.

He was older now too. His stomach couldn’t handle that anymore. Gone also were the abs. Where once he’d have been able to bounce back the very next day, ready to go again, now it would probably take the remainder of the weekend to recover.

Besides. He had to drive tonight. Maybe that’s why he’d decided against the Metro, though he couldn’t be sure of the clear thought process in that. Subconsciously, he must have known he’d need to drive home and couldn’t let things go too far. The more he drank, the looser his lips became. He didn’t—he couldn’t run the risk of saying something he’d regret later. Because he’d already had a lifetime of regrets.

Jongin, though. He didn’t look like he had many regrets. The veins on his muscular forearms were pronounced where his shirtsleeves had been rolled up. His fingernails looked perfectly manicured, not bitten to the quick like Kyungsoo’s usually were, a habit that no one, not even Chanyeol, had been able to break.

Not that they needed to be compared. That’s not what Chanyeol was doing. Or, rather, that wasn’t what he was starting to do. This man—this boy—seemed nice and sweet and he brought him alcohol as it was his job, but that was all it was.

“Must be a good friend,” Jongin said.

“What?” Chanyeol asked, taking another sip.

Jongin blinked, eyes looking a bit droopy, slow and sure. “Your friend,” he repeated. “Must be a good friend if you’ll come out in this weather.”

“I suppose,” Chanyeol said. “He’s… Kyungsoo.” Because that made sense in Chanyeol’s head. In Chanyeol’s head, the word Kyungsoo meant many, many things: good and kind and sweet and loud deep laughter and heart shaped smiles and honey like voice and handsome and hurt and pain and that ever-present bittersweet ache that was supposed to show Chanyeol that he was still alive.

“Kyungsoo,” Jongin said, and for some reason, Chanyeol didn’t like the sound it made coming from him. It felt wrong somehow. He shook it off. He was being ridiculous.

Chayeol took another sip. The burn wasn’t as sharp now. He wished it was.

“Do you want to open a tab?” Jongin asked.

“Oh,” Chanyeol said, fumbling a little as he put the glass down on the tabletop. He started to reach for his wallet. “I’m sorry. Here I am prattling on, and—”

He stopped when he felt a hand on top of his own. He looked up. Those little crinkles in the corners of Jongin’s eyes were back. “Don’t worry about it. I wasn’t trying to—”

“No, no,” Chanyeol said hastily. “I should have—”

The hand on top of his squeezed.

Chanyeol sighed.

It pulled away.

“I’ll just open a tab,” Jongin decided for him. “Just remind me if you and Kyungsoo decide to get dinner. I can either close it out or just add it to your final bill.”

“That’s… that’s fine.” Chanyeol sat upright again. His tie was too tight. He really shouldn’t have worn it.

Jongin grinned and opened his mouth to say what, he didn’t know, but was interrupted when the man watching the silent television signaled for him, raising his empty beer bottle.

“I’m being summoned,” Jongin said, winking again at him. “Destiny awaits no man.”

Chanyeol didn’t believe in destiny. He thought such things were only in fairy tales, but he didn’t think now was the right time to say so. He just nodded, and Jongin’s fingers brushed Chanyeol’s glass of bourbon, which was wet with condensation. Little droplets of water were left atop the bar, catching the lights above, the flickering TV.

He was sad.

He knew this.

He knew this more than anything else.

He was sad, and he didn’t know how not to be.

It was all he’d known for years now.

There had been the Zoloft, or at least the offer of it. He hadn’t wanted it, hadn’t even given any real thought to taking it. He didn’t like feeling muddled. Besides, he’d told himself, he needed his mind clear as possible in case of any developments, especially given how he’d spent the third year. It just wouldn’t do for him to be a zombie of sorts and to have the phone ring and have the voice on the other end saying, Chanyeol, we have news. We have news and I am about to tell you everything you wanted to know.

For the longest time, he hated the way a ringing phone had sounded. Ever since March 22, 2012, any time a phone rang, his heart would beat out of his chest, and he’d be sure, he’d be so goddamn sure that this was it. This was the one phone call he both hoped for and dreaded all at the same time. He would put the phone to his ear, and the voice on the other end would say, Chanyeol, Chanyeol, Chanyeol, we finally have an answer. We finally know what happened. Here. Let me tell you. Let me tell you everything.

But that was never it. There were never any answers. Only questions. And any time his phone rang, anytime he put the phone to his ear and said, hello, hello, hello, he would have to push down on the rage that rose through him, that strange fury at whoever was on the other end of the call was not finally giving him what he wanted.

The first year had been the hardest.

Or maybe it was the second year.

The third hadn’t been too bad because he’d been drunk most of it, and numb. The less said about it, the better.

The fourth year had been bad because he’d been so goddamn tired, having to smile at people, having to pretend that he was getting better when he absolutely wasn’t. Kyungsoo had seen that. And it’d become too much.

And this last year, the sixth, had been quiet. So very, very quiet. No wonder he was having trouble speaking.

Here he was now, approaching the seventh year, the sixth anniversary.

Dean Martin had fallen away a long time ago.

It was Vince Guaraldi now. Smooth, smooth Christmas jazz.

He breathed.

He ached.

He lived.

He died a little too, sometimes. These little deaths. He couldn’t stop them, no matter how hard he tried. Maybe he’d turn on the TV and see a man with black hair and dark eyes, and his heart would suddenly be in his throat, his hands gripping the armrests of his recliner, fingers digging in.

Or maybe he’d be online, scrolling through celebrity divorces and a bombing in a faraway country that killed seventy-six people—twelve of them children—and how scientists had discovered seven new types of spiders, when he’d see an Amber Alert, or a photo of a smiling man, standing in a garden, a bottle of beer in his hand, the picture oddly cropped as there would be a hand on his shoulder, but the rest of whoever it was cut out, and there would be a headline in bolded font that said REWARD NOW OFFERED FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO—

That would be as far as he’d get before he’d be dry-heaving.

So yes. Chanyeol was sad.

He knew this.

He also knew he should be attempting to do something about it.

He didn’t know what.

There’s always Zoloft, he thought as he took another drink of the bourbon.

It was five till.

There were no messages.

Jongin was laughing at something the young couple at the end were telling him, the man’s hands waving animatedly, like he was a few martinis in. The woman—his wife? girlfriend?—watched him fondly, rolling her eyes as if the man was full of shit. He probably was. Most men were.

He’d told this to his once.

He’d rolled her eyes at him. “I’m pretty sure I know that,” he’d said, scrunching his nose at him. He liked to tease him sometimes. “You don’t have to tell me that.”

Oh, but he did.

Jongin glanced back over his shoulder and smiled at Chanyeol. He smiled that wicked smile and winked at him again, and Chanyeol thought he’d probably need to leave a big tip. Jongin certainly seemed to be working for it.

Or maybe he has a daddy kink, Chanyeol thought, surprising even himself. Maybe he thinks that I could be his daddy.

He snorted, rolling his eyes at his own ridiculousness. Daddy kink. God. If only his younger self could hear him now. Here he was, receding hair, his clothes hanging off his thin frame while he still managed to have a bit of a paunch. The bags under his eyes had become less pronounced (thanks, Ambien!), but he knew he still looked slightly hollow, like his insides had been scooped out and misplaced. There was something inside him, even after all that he’d been through, but it was a meager thing.

It was nine.

Kyungsoo wasn’t here.

Which… wasn’t surprising. He was habitually late. It was one of those things, one of those funny little quirks that came with Kyungsoo, like biting his fingernails or squinting when he forgets to wear his glasses or biting his lower lip. He couldn’t exactly say why he did it, just that he always did. He was perplexing, aggravating, and oh so wonderful.

That hurt too.

So he was late. Again.

Chanyeol wasn’t worried.

He checked his phone.

It said the same thing:

 

From: Kyungsoo
I want to see you

 

Me
I’d like that too

 

From: Kyungsoo
Would nine work? On Friday? The hotel?

 

Me
Okay

The good thing about text messages is that he could type in a word like “Ok” and that’s all Kyungsoo would see.

What Kyungsoo wouldn’t see was Chanyeol’s hand had been shaking, how he had been breathing shallowly, reading over the words again and again and again, trying to parse out their hidden meaning. (Nine? What’s so special about nine? Do I have plans on Friday? Of course I don’t. I never have plans. The hotel? It’s just a staycation, after all. That’s it. That’s all it is. Right? Right? Right?) That one word, those two letters, Ok, wouldn’t show how Chanyeol had closed his eyes and leaned his forehead down onto the kitchen counter where he’d been waiting for his Lean Cuisine to finish nuking in the microwave (apple cranberry chicken—it’d tasted like shit), phone clutched in his hand, knowing he’d have one chance, one chance to get this right, to try and salvage something out of everything he’d become.

He’d been tall and proud.

And then a storm had come through.

He had swayed with it, but he’d still stood.

A tornado touched down.

Oh, the destruction that had followed.

He’d been nothing but rubble, dust and stone.

It wasn’t—

“All right?”

He jerked back a little, hands clammy, phone clattering onto the bar top.

Jongin was back, looking a little concerned.

Get yourself together, Chanyeol scolded himself. Get yourself together, dammit.

He tried for a smile, but he thought maybe it died before it could grow. So he said, “Fine, fine. I’m fine. Just… thinking. About things.”

It was awkward. This was awkward. He’d made it awkward.

Jongin arched an eyebrow at him, something Chanyeol had never been able to do. He remembered him laughing at Chanyeol every time he’d tried, his fingers trailing along his face. He’d never been able to do it. Not really. Anytime he’d tried, he just looked surprised. Or constipated, he’d said.

How he loved him.

“Fine,” Chanyeol said again, not sure who he was trying to convince.

“Okay,” Jongin said easily. He leaned forward, elbows on the bar, eyes sparkling. Vince Guaraldi had turned into Judy Garland now, singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Chanyeol had always thought it was the saddest song. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure,” Chanyeol said, not sounding very sure. He took another drink of his bourbon, a little shocked when he got nothing but ice.

“Another?” Jongin asked, sounding amused.

And he hesitated then. He’d driven for this very reason. It wasn’t like he’d been an alcoholic, no matter what other people had thought. He hadn’t gotten drunk almost nightly for that third year because he was addicted to the taste or even liked the feeling it gave him. Quite the opposite in fact. He liked the feelings it didn’t give him. He was numb, and he could sleep, and yeah, maybe the next day he’d feel like shit, but then it’d be five o’clock somewhere, and he’d start all over again.

That had been the beginning of the end.

He would be so disappointed when he found out.

When he came back.

But what was another drink? Kyungsoo wasn’t here yet, and he could nurse the next one, maybe have it through dinner. Two wouldn’t be so bad. He wasn’t even feeling it yet. Not that he wanted to be feeling it, but the food here was usually heavy, and it’d soak up the alcohol. He’d be fine to drive.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, okay. Another.”

Jongin took the glass from his hands, and he must have been really working for that tip because there was some unnecessary finger contact, wasn’t there? Enough to make Chanyeol’s ears feel warm. It was… uncomfortable. Nice, but uncomfortable. Sure, he was a pretty young thing, and maybe he did have a kink for men in their fifties who looked like they’d just come from teaching an Introduction to Economics course at the local community college, but hey, Chanyeol wasn’t one to judge. Nothing would come of it, but maybe Chanyeol would leave him a twenty for his troubles. Jongin would probably blow it later on coke while at some club where the laser lights flashed and the bass pounded through the walls, a shirtless twink rubbing up against him, sucking his jaw, leaving bruises on his pretty tan skin that he would need to cover up for his next shift at the bar.

Jesus.

It was now six minutes after nine, and Chanyeol picked up the phone again, sliding his finger across the screen, unlocking it. It was still on the message from before—Ok Ok Ok Ok—and he didn’t do himself any favors by scrolling up to the previous messages. The message before I want to see you was from six weeks previous, and it had been from Kyungsoo to him. Like it always was. Chanyeol never texted first. He never called. He’d lost that right. It’d been his fault.

The previous message from Kyungsoo said:

Detective Kang called. Said you missed a Monday check-in. She tried to call you, but your phone is off.
Nothing new. Just thought you wanted to know.

He hadn’t responded.

“Here you go,” Jongin said, putting down a new napkin, like the one before it had become so completely soiled that the mere thought of placing the fresh drink upon it hurt Jongin’s sweet bartender heart.

“Thank you.” Chanyeol said, setting his phone down (eight minutes after nine), and wrapping a hand around the glass. He didn’t lift it.

“No Kyungsoo?”Jongin asked, as if he couldn’t tell from the fact that Chanyeol was still alone.

“No Kyungsoo,” Chanyeol affirmed.

Jongin looked as if he were waiting for more.

“He’s—uh. He’s late. Always. It’s one of his things.”

“And let me guess,” Jongin said, that funny little smirk back on his face. “You’re the one that’s always a little early.”

Yeah, that was pretty spot-on. Chanyeol wondered how Jongin knew that (aside from the fact that he was obviously here early). Maybe it was the sweater. Or the tie. Or maybe Jongin was one of those bartenders like they showed on TV or in movies where they seemed almost clairvoyant and had hearts of gold and wiped down the bar top with a white rag while spouting little pearls of wisdom.

But it was true, though. Chanyeol was always early. That was his thing, and it had always exasperated him about Kyungsoo that he couldn’t be on time for anything. They’d fought about it before, little back and forths that hadn’t amounted to anything. Neither of them changed, but it wasn’t something that needed to be changed. It was just one of those things.

Like at the wedding. Everything had felt so goddamned surreal, and Kyungsoo was running a little late as always, and Chanyeol had been annoyed because of it.

“You know he’s going to get upset with us,” he’d said, trying to keep his voice even.

“I can’t find my socks,” Kyungsoo had said, but he’d sounded so damn happy. “Where the fuck did I put the socks, Yeol?”

“Okay, so he’ll be upset with you for making him wait,” Chanyeol had amended. “I’ll be just fine.”

They’d found the socks. Eventually.

He had been upset, but only a little bit. And then he’d smiled, and nothing else had mattered.

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said to Jongin. “I’m always the one that’s early.”

He shifted on the stool and felt the ring in his pocket press against his thigh.

“So how’s that work?” Jongin asked. “If he’s late, and you’re early.”

Chanyeol shrugged, clearing his throat. “It just… did. I guess.”

Jongin leaned forward a little bit farther. He brought up two fingers, beckoning Chanyeol a little closer. Chanyeol wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to. He did it anyway.

“See those two down at the end of the bar?” Jongin whispered in a low voice as Bing Crosby dreamed of a white Christmas somewhere overhead.

Chanyeol glanced down. The young couple. The man and woman. He looked back at Jongin and nodded.

“They’re married,” Jongin whispered. “But not to each other.”

Chanyeol’s eyes widened. He didn’t care exactly, or at least he told himself he didn’t, but it was still slightly scandalous, wasn’t it? “How do you know that?”

Jongin had a strange glint in his eyes. “He brings his wife here. One of those rich bastards. DC money, you know? He’s a broker or a lawyer or a senator. It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I see here. What happens. What people try to get away with. I’m waiting for the day the wife comes in. That happens sometimes, you know. They’ll be here, sitting in a dark corner, whispering to each other with these little hearts in their eyes and the wife comes in, guns blazing. There’s shouting, and things are thrown, the wife is crying, the man is trying to calm her down, and the other, the side piece, is sitting there like she’s unsure if she should get up and leave, or if she shouldn’t move and draw attention to herself.” Jongin snorted and shook his head. “It’ll happen. One of these days.”

“But until then, you don’t judge?” Chanyeol asked, sitting back.

“Oh bullshit. I judge the hell out of them,” Jongin said. “But I keep that to myself. I am a master of discretion, after all.” Jongin said proudly, like its a feat or something.

“Except you just told me.”

“Well, yes,” Jongin admitted, eyes crinkling. “But you seem like you can be discreet yourself.”

Yeah.

Fifteen minutes after nine. Maybe he should text. Or call him. Kyungsoo was fine, Chanyeol knew, he was just fine, but it probably wouldn’t hurt just to text him.

He took a sip of his bourbon instead.

“I suppose,” Chanyeol said. “I thought they looked like they were in love.”

Jongin shrugged. “Maybe he has a big heart. Room for more than one person.”

Well, Chanyeol knew all about that, didn’t he?

“I like you,” Jongin blurted out.

Chanyol blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I like you,” Jongin repeated. “You’re a nice guy.”

“You don’t even know me.” It wasn’t harsh, but it was the truth.

“I get this… sense, about people. I can read them.”

“Because you’re a clairvoyant bartender?” Chanyeol asked without meaning to, fingers sliding along the condensation on the glass.

Jongin squinted at him. “Because I’m a what?”

“Never mind. It’s just—nothing.”

“My Nana could do the same thing.”

“Who?”

Jongin smiled. “My grandmother. She could read people. Could always tell what they were about by only the shortest of meetings.”

“Oh.”

“Mom couldn’t do it. Must have skipped over her.”

“That’s… that’s great.”

“So it’s how I know you’re a nice guy. It’s why I like you.”

Only two people had liked Chanyeol so quickly. One was only God knew where, and the other was now eighteen minutes late. He should probably text him. Maybe one of the Metro lines was down. Or running behind schedule. The trains were never on time. Everyone knew that.

“Thanks,” Chanyeol said. “I’m not the—thanks.”

Eartha Kitt purred about her Santa baby.

Jongin laughted. “You’re something else, Chanyeol. You should—”

“Chanyeol?”

And Chanyeol closed his eyes at the sound of the voice behind him.

He gripped the bar.

He took in a breath and let it out slow.

It’d been—Jesus, how long now? Last summer, right? At the dinner at the end of the charity benefit where Chanyeol and Kyungsoo had pretended like everything was reasonably okay (Okay), where they’d spoken to other people who said they’d gone through the same thing, they’d cried on their shoulders, and Kyungsoo had hugged them close and tight, Chanyeol standing a little farther back, trying not to make things more awkward than they already were. Kyungsoo had looked back at him, jerking his head toward a man who looked like he was on the verge of breaking down, a photo of an older woman in his hands. Chanyeol had taken a step forward, and suddenly it was like a dam burst, and the man with the photo had started crying, saying, this is my sister, this is my sister and she—and she—it’s been two years, oh God, two years and I didn’t even have a chance to, but then Chanyeol hugged him, he had hugged this man, and there had been more tears, but not from Chanyeol. No, he didn’t cry about these things anymore.

That had been the last night he’d seen Kyungsoo until now. Sure, they’d texted or they’d talked on the phone, but it’d always been brief. It wasn’t like it was after March 2012, when there had been police and press and flyers and walking in a line with a hundred other people through the sparse woods at the park, shouting SEHUN! SEHUN! SEHUN!

And it certainly wasn’t like before, with their staycations, when they’d find time to leave their lives behind just for a few days, where there wouldn’t be phone calls or meetings with editors or anything that could distract them. It was dangerous, sure, and maybe it made them a little complacent, but they had this. It was theirs.

Before last summer, it’d been stilted and awkward, both of them trying not to press against old wounds. Chanyeol tried not to think back to the boozy third year, when it was beginning to end. The words that were said. The accusations made, hurled like grenades, not caring where they landed or who would be caught in the blast. Things that could never be taken back, no matter how much Chanyeol had wanted to. He’d lashed out because he hadn’t known what else to do. The boozy third year came to an end and started the year of the false smiles that were so brittle, the smallest of things could crack them right down the middle. Kyungsoo had seen through all of it.

And now, here he was, standing behind Chanyeol, and all he needed to do was turn around and see him. That’s all he needed to do.

Jongin was still there, looking back and forth between them, brow slightly furrowed as if his powers as a clairvoyant bartender were consuming him, telling him all the secrets of the men before him.

Chanyeol forced a smile on his face, pushing everything else aside. It wasn’t as fragile as it used to be. It felt foreign, sure, but it came easier than it had in a long time. Then he swiveled on the stool to look at—

And there he was. Park Kyungsoo in the flesh.

He looked… good. He looked really good, better than Chanyeol, that was for sure, but that’d always been the case. He was small - that if Chanyeol stood in front of him he'd fit right in within his arms - and solid. His short black hair stuck up every which way as if he’d been running his fingers through it nervously as he’d sat on the train. He was still in their house, so it’d be a good long trip to the hotel to get himself all worked up like he usually did.

He was wearing a scarf around his neck, a dreadfully bright green thing that looked like it was new. His lips look so plump and red in contrast with the color of his scarf. His coat was a little wet, and maybe his hair was too, but it wasn’t too bad. He probably hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella, and it looked as if the rain had lessened. He wore a black sweater and jeans. A pair of beat-up Chucks, the same ones he’d had for years, purple with blue shoelaces.

It clashed horribly.

He looked wonderful.

“Hi,”Chanyeol said. “Hi. Hello.” He started to rise from the stool, thought better of it, and sat back down.

“Hi, Yeollie,” Kyungsoo said, glancing over Chanyeol’s shoulder at Jongin. A strange look crossed over his face, but it was gone before Chanyeol could make heads or tails of it. “Hey. You—you are….”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said, not sure what he was agreeing to but suddenly not able to find a reason to care. “Yeah, I guess.” Kyungsoo looked tired. He had bags under his eyes, and he was biting his plump bottom lip in that way he did when he was unsure of what to do in the very next second. Chanyeol changed his mind and stood up again. Maybe they could shake hands? That’d be good, right? They could shake hands, a firm grip, a tight grip, and it’d say everything that he couldn’t.

So he raised his hand out as he stood, and Kyungsoo had looked at it, then back at him, then back at his hand. He frowned, shaking his head. Then he batted Chanyeol’s hand aside and stepped in close, closer than he’d been since Chanyeol had screamed at him that he didn’t fucking care about Sehun the way Chanyeol did, that he didn’t give two fucking shits about him, otherwise he’d be doing everything he could to bring him back. They’d been right up in each other’s faces then, eyes blazing, teeth bared and gnashing. The rage Chanyeol had felt then had been unlike anything he’d ever experienced before, and it had consumed him, and there Kyungsoo had been, the only other person who could possibly understand what he was going through, and Chanyeol was so angry with him.

But here he was now, stepping in close, close, close, and it was tentative at first, their knees knocking together, Kyungsoo's nose bumping to his chest. Their height difference was noticeable, Kyungsoo looked up at him, so their gazes met and crashed and skittered away, but then Kyungsoo’s arms were around him, his small hands clinging to Chanyeol's clothes like a lifeline, and Chanyeol froze. For a moment, or two or three, he just froze, unsure of what was happening, unsure of what he should do. He hadn’t been… touched, like this since—a long time. That was it.

He’d forgotten what a hug felt like.

It was a funny thing, right?

To forget that.

He breathed.

He ached.

He lived.

And this hug felt like death, another little death, only this time, the death was a good thing. It was a good death, and yes, everything still hurt and he could barely breathe, but he died a little death just the same.

He hugged Kyungsoo back. He ducked his head, put his arms around Kyungsoo's narrow shoulders, cheeks brushing together accidentally, causing him to stiffen momentarily before he leaned into it.

How strange that he’d forgotten what it felt like. To be held like this.

It was short, because he didn’t know if he could stand for it not to be.

He pulled away first.

Kyungsoo let him go and took a step back, rubbing the back of his neck, like he was embarrassed. “Hey,” he said again. “It’s nice—” He shook his head.

“Hi,” Chanyeol said. “It is nice.”

Kyungsoo looked back up at him, then over his shoulder again. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” he said, sounding a little amused.

Chanyeol was confused. “Interrupt? It wasn’t—” He glanced back and saw Jongin still standing there, strong arms crossed over a strong chest, looking slightly annoyed and was he pouting? “You didn’t,” he finished, turning back toward Kyungsoo. “I was early. I was just having… a drink.”

Kyungsoo’s eyes narrowed a little at that. “A drink?”

“First one I’ve had in over a year,” Chanyeol hurriedly said. “It’s not… anything. I promise.”

Kyungsoo watched him for a moment before nodding slowly. “Okay. If you… okay. Do you want to sit here or…?”

“We could get a table,” Chanyeol said. “Just—a table would be fine. You know?”

“Yeah, Yeolie. I know. I just wasn’t sure if you wanted to stay at the bar or not.”

He used his nickname to Chanyeol. Like it was nothing. Like they were both twenty somethings again, chips on their shoulders, not giving two shits about most anything if it didn’t directly affect them.

“No,” Chanyeol said quickly. “It’s not—we can sit wherever you want. I’m just here for you.” He winced at how that came out. It wasn’t quite what he’d meant to say, but he couldn’t take it back now.

“For me, huh?” Kyungsoo said, never one to let anything go. “How about that.” He wasn’t smiling, but Chanyeol could hear it in his voice. He felt a little better because of it.

“Just let me—” He turned back toward the bar, reaching for his phone. Jongin smiled at him. Chanyeol gave a weak one in response. He picked up the phone. “I guess we’re getting a table,” he said to Jongin, unsure of why he sounded vaguely apologetic.

“Sure,” Jongin said easily. “You want to tab out now, or do you think you’ll be staying after dinner?” And it was—well, weird, the inflections he put on certain words, like he was trying to say something without actually saying it.

“I don’t—probably now? It’s just, I drove, and I probably shouldn’t—”

Jongin was already nodding and moving toward the register. He glanced over his shoulder to see the same hostess, Wendy he remembers, from before taking Kyungsoo’s jacket and terrible scarf, giving the same promises she’d given Chanyeol earlier, telling him that she’d be right back with some menus and then she’d seat them.

He turned back toward the bar. Jongin and a receipt were in front of him. “Oh,” said. “Thank you. Thanks—I—” He reached for his wallet, grimacing slightly as his finger bent at an odd angle before it closed on the wallet. He pulled it out, flipping it open, grabbing the first card he saw. He set it on top of the receipt without looking at the charge. Jongin grinned at him, snapping them both up and turning back toward the register.

Kyungsoo was still behind him, the hostess gone. He was running a hand through his hair, messing it up even further. He looked ridiculous, hair stuck up all over, his purple Chucks with the blue laces. Chanyeol thought it was one of the nicest sights he’d ever seen. Kyungsoo looked—he was younger just by a month than Chanyeol but he still looked like how he did back when they were in their 20's. Like he never aged a day. It had always been that way.

“Sign this copy for me,” Jongin said, and Chanyeol turned back around, a pen being placed in his hand. He looked up at Jongin, then back down. He signed his name, a messy scrawl that probably wasn’t intelligible to anyone. There was a line for a tip. He put down twenty before setting the pen back down.

“Thank you,” he said seriously. “Thank you for—” he didn’t know how to finish that.

“Of course,” Jongin said, smiling beautifully, his eyes crinkling cutely. “It’s what I’m here for. Here’s your copy. Make sure you don’t throw it away before taking a look at it.”

That—he didn’t know what that meant. Why would it be any different? It wasn’t as if—he picked it up. It crumpled a little in his hand. He opened his mouth, but then from behind him, the Wendy said, “If you’re ready, you can follow me.”

Chanyeol picked up his phone and his bourbon, the receipt getting a little wet in the process, before nodding at Jongin and turning back around.

Kyungsoo was smirking now, his thick plump lips curling up at the corner that said he knew something Chanyeol didn’t. Chanyeol used to both love and loathe that look all at the same time, because it usually meant he’d missed something important, something obvious.

“What?” he asked, trying not to scowl.

Kyungsoo shook his head. “Oh, Yeolie. Never change.”

Chanyeol didn’t know what to do with that, so he nodded at Wendy. She smiled at them, ponytail bouncing as she began to lead them through the restaurant. Kyungsoo walked behind her and Chanyeol behind him, and he tried not to think of all the staycations they’d had here when they’d done just this, Kyungsoo wearing his silly shoes and Chanyeol following him like he was on a leash. It was hard, though. Sure, the restaurant had changed a few times over the years and it certainly didn’t look like it had when they’d first started coming here, but the basics of it were the same. The bar, the tables, the people already seated, murmuring to each other, forks and knives scraping against plates. To the right, a harried woman wiped the mouth of a cranky toddler. To the left, a man was laughing a little too loudly, his face flushed. Chanyeol knew that look well. Been there before, my friend, he thought.

The table Wendy stopped at wasn’t one of the secluded ones toward the back. They could have asked for it if they wanted to, but he was unsure of what this was, unsure why Kyungsoo had said I want to see you. Those back tables were for staycations and whispered conversations, hands held under tables as if they were really fooling anyone, the remains of an appetizer or their dinner out before them. They took their time at those tables, never in a rush, knowing the night stretched out before them, and the day after that. It was theirs and theirs alone, and maybe he’d call. Maybe Sehun would call, and he’d always answer, no matter what, but it would be short. Always it would be short.

Because he knew.

He knew what they were doing.

Wendy waited until they sat down before she handed Kyungsoo his menu first, much to Chanyeol's amusement.

(“They always give it to me first,” he’d said once. “I know they’re supposed to give it to women first, but why me? Why can’t they ever give it to you?”

“My shoulders are broader than yours,” he’d teased, and how they’d laughed at that.)

Kyungsoo saw him smile and rolled his eyes, muttering something under his breath that Chanyeol couldn’t quite make out but could take a good guess at.

The hostess, of course, knew nothing of this. “Your server tonight will be Joy,” she announced as if it were the most important thing in the world. “She is going to take such good care of you. And let us know if you need anything.”

Then came the smile, the bob of the ponytail as she whirled around and headed back toward the front.

“Some things never change,” Kyungsoo muttered.

“We’re older now,” Chanyeol said, trying for levity but not sure how successful he was.

“Really,” Kyungsoo said dryly. “You don’t say. I couldn’t tell by the crow’s feet I see in the mirror every morning.”

What he wanted to say to that was you look better than you ever have, but what he actually said was “Yeah. I think the same thing.”

“Did you do what your boy at the bar asked you to?” Kyungsoo teasingly asked, lips quirking as he looked over the menu. “Seemed important.”

Chanyeol flushed at that. “He’s not my boy—what the hell, Soo. He didn’t ask me to do anything.”

“Maybe you should check out that receipt.”

Chanyeol was confused, because here they were, finally, and they were talking, actually holding a conversation, and they were talking about the bartender of all things. “I don’t—” He frowned, brows furrowing and looked down at the bourbon. The receipt was wrapped around it, sticking to the sides. He carefully peeled it off, and there it was, written in jagged, clipped letters.

GIVE ME A CALL IF YOU WANT

Jongin xx

A phone number was underneath and a scribble of a cute bear beside it.

“What the fuck,” Chanyeol said faintly.

Kyungsoo snorted in that way he did when he found something really funny but was trying not to laugh. He cleared his throat, shook his head. Snorted again. And then he giggled, just a little, breath huffing out his nose in a staccato beat.

“He was hitting on me,” Chanyeol whisper yelled at Kyungsoo, as if Kyungsoo didn’t get it.

“You clearly made an impression, Yeolie,” Kyungsoo said. “He’s probably looking for a glucose guardian, and you fit that bill to a—”

"Wait what— What even is a glucose guardian?" Chanyeol asked incredulous.

"Oh," Kyungsoo said blinking innocently, "haven't heard of that term? I heard that's what they call them these days. Sugar daddies. You know." He said like it's public knowledge and only Chanyeol doesn't know about it.

“What the hell,” Chanyeol hissed, dropping the receipt as if it had scalded him. “That’s not even— What— I— Why would he even do that?” Chanyeol stuttered out.

“Yeolie,” Kyungsoo said, finally looking up. “If I have to explain it to you, then I must have been doing it wrong all these years.”

There it was. The first reference to them. Chanyeol swallowed thickly, trying not to make it more than it actually was. Kyungsoo had just thrown it out there, an off-handed thing, but it was there. An oblique allusion to a shared history that neither one of them could ignore. But Kyungsoo hadn’t obviously meant anything by it other than what it was, so Chanyeol tried to let it go as quickly as possible.

“I’m not going to—” He started and took a fortifying breath. Then tried again, “It wasn’t anything. I don’t want to call him.”

Kyungsoo flipped to the next page, cool as ever. It was maddening. “And why is that?”

“Why? He looks like he’s in college.” Chanyeol answered, incredulous.

“Well, you know what they say about the stamina of college boys.”

“Jesus. I don’t care about the stamina of college boys.”

“They sure seem to care about you. He’s probably one of those guys who likes asserting their masculinity in public but when you get them in the bedroom, their face is in the pillow, ass in the air, and they’re just begging to be fucked. I wonder how fresh the swordfish is.”

Chanyeol almost slapped the menu right out of Kyungsoo’s hands. “You can’t just—”

“Hi!” a woman said, appearing beside the table like it was the greatest joy of her life. “My name is Joy, and I’ll be your server tonight. How are we, gentlemen?” Another bubbly college student, bright and peppy. She was tall and curvy, her skin pale and lovely. Her hair was tied back, a loose strand curling near her ear.

“Oh, we’re fine, dear,” Kyungsoo said, affecting a casual air. He squinted up at her. “Just catching Chanyeol here up on the birds and the bees.”

She didn’t know what to make of that, but she powered through it. “That’s great. Have you either of you been here before?”

“Many times,” Kyungsoo assured her. “I’d like a glass of your white wine, if you please.”

She nodded and looked at Chanyeol. “And for you, sir?”

“I have a drink.”

“Great!” she said again, clapping her hands together. “I’ll be back with the wine momentarily. If there is anything you need, again, my name is Joy.” She smiled at the both of them before turning away and disappearing just as quickly as she’d come.

“I’ll probably get the swordfish,” Kyungsoo announced, closing the menu. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had—”

“I’m not calling him.” Chanyeol declared with finality.

“I didn’t ask if you were.” Kyungsoo looked up from where he was fiddling with the table napkin.

“I know, just—I’m not. I don’t want… that. I don’t like that.”

Kyungsoo arched an eyebrow at him, because of course he could also do something that Chanyeol couldn’t. “You seem to be putting up an awfully big fight about it.”

Chayeol scowled at him. “I am not.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Kyungsoo went back to the menu, even though he’d said he’d wanted the swordfish. It was awkward, the silence that came between them, awkward in a way it had never been when they’d come here before. It felt wrong, somehow, because this was supposed to be their place, their staycation, and they had laughed here, hadn’t they? They’d laughed here in the corner, sitting far too close to each other, never really talking about anything serious. There had always been a heat to their words, but it’d been a lazy thing, both of them knowing they could drag it out all night if they wanted to. Even after all these years, it was still there. Maybe it didn’t burn as bright as it had when they were younger, when everything was bold and exciting and new, but it’d given way to something more, something familiar and beloved.

When was the last time they’d been here? It’d been… before. Before March of 2012. Chanyeol thought back as he picked up the menu, not really reading the words, the bourbon twisting sourly in his stomach. He wished he’d eaten something earlier, but he’d been too nervous, unsure of what Kyungsoo had meant by I want to see you.

So it’d been before. Chanyeol turned away from the wine list to the appetizers and decided it would have been October. October 2011. Right? Hadn’t that been right? He thought it was. There’d been Halloween decorations up, and Chanyeol had just finished editing a rather long and arduous history textbook for a mid level course, something that had taken a month longer than he’d expected it to. The deadline had been extended a couple of times, and finally, he’d sat down for what felt like a week straight, working until he was done. That had been the first week in October.

Sehun had hugged him tightly never letting go for a long time, telling him he was proud of him.

He’d texted Kyungsoo to let him know.

Staycation? Kyungsoo had texted back. You deserve it. And I’ve missed you.

Yeah. He had too. He’d been so busy that he hadn’t had time for anything else.

Yes please, he’d written back.

Good, came the reply.

It'd taken a couple of weeks of planning, but they’d gotten away Friday and Saturday and Sunday, and it was exactly what he’d needed. His bones were weary, and he’d been almost too tired for anything, but then Kyungsoo had put his hand on Chanyeol’s thigh under the table and squeezed, leaning over to whisper such filthy things in his ear, things he wanted to do to Chanyeol, that he had wanted Chanyeol to do to him. Maybe the fire hadn’t burned as brightly between them like it had when they were younger, but he had preferred it this way over anything else. This had been what he’d wanted. This Kyungsoo, the one with lines around his eyes and mouth, a hint of gray in his hair and in the stubble on his face when he didn’t shave for a day or three.

When they’d left that Sunday morning, Chanyeol had felt better than he’d had for a long time.

And then the holidays came, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and there just hadn’t been time to get away, not with all the familial obligations. And that had been okay too, because they’d still all been together, like they wanted to be.

And then came March 22, 2012. It’d been a Thursday.

It’d been a Thursday, and his phone had rung at three thirty-seven in the afternoon, and he’d—

Chanyeol's hands tightened on the menu.

No. Not now. He couldn’t do that now. Not when—

“Find something you wanted?” Kyungsoo asked.

He looked up, sure his face was a little pale, covering up by coughing into his hand. “I don’t know,” he said, sounding a little creaky. “Probably just get the same as usual.”

“The cod.”

He nodded. “I like it, providing they haven’t changed the recipe since—”

And there it was. The second reference. Granted, Kyungsoo had started it even before they’d gotten here by suggesting this place to begin with, but still. It was out there, and Chanyeol didn’t know how to take it back. He wasn’t sure he wanted to take it back. Wasn’t it easier to just acknowledge it? They had come here before. They had come here for years. For their little staycations. He didn’t think Kyungsoo was being cruel; no, he was sure the man across from him didn’t have a mean bone in his entire body. That could have changed. People changed over time. What’s to say Kyungsoo hadn’t?

But Chanyeol didn’t think that was it. Kyungsoo wouldn’t do that to him, no matter what had happened between them.

“It’s been a while,” Kyungsoo said lightly, and he almost sagged in relief. “They might have changed it, and you know how picky you are when it comes to cod.”

So they weren’t going to ignore it. They were going to acknowledge it. Maybe they were even going to revel in it.

Chanyeol gave thought to standing up and leaving. Of not looking back. Of taking the coward’s way out and going home, locking the door behind him before he crawled up the stairs in an apartment he’d lived in alone for almost two years, haunted by the things he couldn’t undo, the people he couldn’t forget.

But he didn’t. Instead, he said, “I am not that picky.”

“Please,” Kyungsoo said with a haughty sniff. “You’re a snob, and you know it. Don’t you remember that seafood place we went to? I thought the owner was going to club you over the head.”

“Seafood place,” he said derisively. “It was a shack.”

“Still, the cod.”

“It smelled off.”

“It smelled fine.”

“You just couldn’t smell it like I could.”

“Oh that’s right,” Kyungsoo said, lowering the menu like he was laying down his shield. “I’d forgotten. You’re the connoisseur of seafoods.”

“And what happened when I told you the same thing about your shrimp?”

“I ate it anyway.”

“And?”

“Spent the rest of the night on the toilet,” Kyungsoo admitted. “Wasn’t sure which end was worse off.”

“He wasn’t wearing a hairnet.”

“I think that was probably the least of our problems if I’m being honest. Ah, well. Some good came of it. I lost five pounds and the taste for shrimp.”

It wasn’t until Chanyeol opened his mouth to say, you didn’t need to lose five pounds, you weigh perfectly just fine, that it hit him then just how dangerous that was. How dangerous all of this was starting to be. They were reminiscing. They’d been in each other’s company for five, six, seven minutes, and they were already reminiscing. He was chilled at the thought. His skin felt too tight, like it was stretched to the point where it’d tear at any given moment. He didn’t expect this, how easy it would be to fall back into old habits, this bantering back and forth like the past six years hadn’t happened, like everything was fine and they were just on a staycation.

He hadn’t expected this.

He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed this.

He hadn’t understood how much this terrified him.

That he’d screw everything up more than he already had.

So, yes. This was dangerous.

And he was wary now. His therapist, the few times he’d gone to see him (“You can call me Minseok,” he’d said the first time they’d met. “Just Minseok, and I’m here for you, Chanyeol, okay? This is a big step and I am here for you.”) had told him that he wasn’t a person anymore, that he’d pulled away from living, hiding behind an impenetrable armor meant more to shield him from the world than to protect him. “You’re a knight,” he said, a rueful grin on his face. “But a lonely one.”

He’d scoffed at him, sure. Because therapy was for nutjobs, right? Crazy people. People who were losing their minds. Chanyeol had never been saner, and that was his biggest problem. He could see things with such startling clarity that it hurt. He wasn’t asleep. He’d never been more awake. And if he needed to shield himself, well. No one could blame him, could they? Anyone in his position would have done the same.

It was fine.

Minseok's office had called three times after he skipped that last appointment.

Left three voice mails.

He’d deleted them all without listening to them.

He was fine.

Except now his armor was in danger of cracking, like it was an old, rusted thing that had stood strong all these past years but was finally starting to break.

All because of cod and shrimp and a seafood shack with too much memories associated with the godforsaken place than Chanyeol would've liked.

His fingers tightened on the menu.

He looked down, forcing himself to focus on the words.

He heard Kyungsoo sigh, but didn’t do anything to acknowledge it.

He was lucky, then, because Joy came back, a glass of wine carried artfully in her hand. She set it down next to Kyungsoo, then stood beside the table, arms behind her like she was at parade rest. “Gentlemen,” she said, as if this was the happiest she’d ever been. Chanyeol never understood how they could pretend to be so joyful all the time. He thought he’d go mad within a week. “Have we had a chance to look through the menu? Our special tonight is a grilled halibut with peach and pepper salsa. It’s a flaky white meat with a firm texture, and the sweet and spicy salsa pairs perfectly with the smoky flavor of the grill.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Kyungsoo said. “But I think I’ll go with the swordfish steak if it’s fresh.”

“Of course,” she said with a nod. “All our fish is same day.”

“Good. Please go easy on the lemon if you could. And I will have the potatoes and the vegetables.”

She smiled, taking Kyungsoo’s proffered menu before looking at Chanyeol.

“The same,” he said because he couldn’t order the cod now. It’d be too much.

Her smile never faltered.

He could feel Kyungsoo’s eyes on him.

He handed her the menu.

She said, “I’ll put the orders in. Please let me know if there is anything else you need,” and then she was gone.

“The same,” Kyungsoo said finally.

Chanyeol shrugged, fingering the receipt with the phone number written on it. “Felt like trying something different.”

Kyungsoo snorted. “Sure. You could call him.”

Chanyeol's neck felt a little stiff. “No.” he said with finality.

“No?”

“You know I don’t do stuff like that.”

Kyungsoo looked a little sad when he said, “I know.”

Silence again, after that. Chanyeol didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t as if he had nothing to say. It was that he had too much. All these words about breathing and aching and living and the little deaths. He had so many things to say, but he couldn’t find a way to say them. It was dangerous, like the reminiscing, and he didn’t want to scare Kyungsoo away, not while they were face to face for the first time in a long time.

Kyungsoo beat him to it. “How’s work going?”

He could do that. Small talk was safe. “It’s good. I’m. Um. I’m working on a new project now. It’s updating a previous edition. Nothing too complicated.”

Kyungsoo’s smile was warm. “That’s good, Yeol. That’s real good. I’m happy to hear it.”

Chanyeol reminded himself he was human, and humans were supposed to ask questions too. “And you?” he asked, strangely proud of himself. “How is everything going? With the store.”

Kyungsoo laughed, low and quiet. "Good," he said. "It's good. My little-used bookstore somehow manages to thrive. If you could believe that."

"It"s the hipsters," Chanyeol jokingly replied. "It's retro. They need a place to convene and argue whether Holden Caulfield was deep or just a spoiled brat.”

“They do seem to enjoy the irony.”

“Yeah,” he said, sipping again on his bourbon. It tasted a little watered down now, but he supposed that was okay. He wasn’t buzzed, but he did feel a bit looser. He’d take it easy. Take it slow. “That’s good, though. I mean, about the store.”

“Yeah,” Kyungsoo said, sitting up a little in his seat. He put his hands on the tabletop, thick fingers stretching along the cloth. The candle in the middle of the table flickered, casting shadows along his skin. “It’s okay. I was worried for a little while. You remember Mrs. Kim?”

Chanyeol frowned, the name familiar, but he couldn’t quite place her.

“She owned that little record store across from me.”

“Oh! Right. Yeah, her. How is she?”

“Her store went out of business,” Kyungsoo said. “And, you know. It worried me. Because she’d been around forever. And if she couldn’t make it work, then what chance did I have?”

Chanyeol wasn’t sure if he should be shocked or dismayed or whatever emotion was probably expected of him. He went with a little bit of everything. “That’s terrible.”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t she… wasn’t that the store that had all the cats and puppies?”

Kyungsoo chuckled. “Yeah, her store cats and corgis.”

“Like, thirty of them.”

“It wasn’t that many.”

“It was more than five. Which is too many pets.”

“It was her thing.”

“Probably why she went out of business.”

“Yeolie,” Kyungsoo admonished lightly even though he was still smiling.

“I’m just saying. A lot of people are allergic to furs. You’re cutting out potential consumers. It always smelled like a pet store in there.”

“So what you’re saying is that I’ve survived because I don’t have furries in the store.”

Chanyeol shrugged. “Nah. You would have survived even if you did. You’re just… different.”

Kyungsoo watched him.

Chanyeol tried not to squirm.

Kyungsoo had been a lawyer, working long hours for very little reward. He’d dreamed of doing public defense work, but his parents had said there wasn’t money in it, and no son of theirs would be a public defender. “You’d be defending criminals,” Kyungsoo had said, doing a poor imitation of his father just under a year after he and Chanyeol had met. “Do you understand that, Kyungsoo? Rapists and murderers. Of children. Do you think you could sleep every night knowing you represented the scum of the earth? Do you think you can live with that in your conscience?”

His parents had always been strict and uptight. They were also footing the bill for Kyungsoo's college education. Those things combined led Kyungsoo's career path so that he could work at his father’s firm as a personal injury attorney, representing those people in minor fender benders who showed up in court with a neck collar on, shouting for anyone to hear that their neck was hurt, and it was permanent, and they needed compensation.

He’d hated it.

For such a long time, he’d hated it.

One day, he’d had enough.

He couldn’t do it anymore.

It wasn’t something he wanted.

His father had been pissed.

But he’d died a year later leaving all their money and properties to his mother and none on his name, so in the end it hadn’t mattered.

By then, Kyungsoo had opened his bookstore using almost everything he had in his savings. His parents had never once stepped inside it.

Kyungsoo hadn’t minded. Sure, it’d hurt at first, but he was happier. Sehun and Chanyeol had seen it right away, had seen the weight lifted off his shoulders. He’d added the little café three years after opening, nothing major, just coffee and pastries served on mismatched dishes, but it was something of his. Something his parents hadn’t had a hand in. In the end, that was enough for Kyungsoo.

“Different,” Kyungsoo said, taking a long, slow sip of wine. Chanyeol didn’t watch as his throat bobbed, no matter how much he wanted to. That too was dangerous. “Thank you.”

Chanyeol shifted in his seat. “For?”

Kyungsoo shrugged, watching him over the wineglass. “Being here.”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said, popping his neck. “Yeah, sure.”

“I planted,” Kyungsoo said.

Conversational whiplash. “What?”

“The bulbs. In the flowerbeds. I planted them. Had to get some help. I thought the guy at the nursery wanted to punch me in the face with all the questions I asked.”

Chanyeol… didn’t know what to do with that. So, he said, “You planted? You remembered when?”

Kyungsoo set down his glass, leaning forward and folding his hands on the table in front of him. “I remembered,” he said. “The bulbs go in the ground in the fall before it freezes in the winter.”

“Right,” Chanyeol said, nodding almost manically. “That’s right. Yeah, you gotta get them in there before—”

“I did.”

“Good.”

“Lilacs. Lilies. Some catmint, though I don’t know how that’ll turn out.”

He ignored the part about the lilies. He didn’t want to think about lilies. “They’re almost like little hedges. You have to shear them back after the blossoms fade.”

“I think that’s what the nursery guy said. Maybe. He also was probably trying to convince me to not try and plant as many things as I had in the cart.”

That didn’t make sense. Kyungsoo hated gardening. Sure, he wouldn’t complain, but he’d frown at the dirt on his hands, and chances were he’d pull up flowers just as much as weeds, but it was never really about the act of gardening itself. It was something Sehun and Chanyeol had loved, and Kyungsoo wanted to be with them, so he did it too. “I can handle this,” he’d said, ignoring the way they’d snickered at him as he pulled on white gloves with tiny little roses stitched into them. “Just you watch me, I’ll handle this yet.”

Chanyeol said, “That sounds nice. It’ll be pretty in the spring.”

“Yeah,” Kyungsoo said, watching him with an unreadable expression. “I’m sure it’ll be on the front of Better Homes & Gardens.”

“Don’t get your hopes up. They’re picky.”

“Those bitches.” he said with a complete straight face.

That shocked a laugh out of Chanyeol. Kyungsoo was good at that.

Kyungsoo cleared his throat. “So, I wanted to—”

Joy appeared at their table side, causing Chanyeol to flinch slightly. “How are we doing?” she asked. “Does anyone need their drink refreshed?”

Kyungsoo smiled tightly at her. “I think we’re okay.”

“Good,” she said. “Dinner will be ready shortly.” And then she was gone again.

“She doesn't have to be that peppy, you know?” Kyungsoo muttered.

“They all are,” Chanyeol said.

“Wasn’t always like that, Yeolie.”

“Kids these days.” And then, before he could stop himself, “Remember that one waiter we had here?” He should have kept his mouth shut. That one was on him.

Kyungsoo stared at him blankly for a moment. Then Chanyeol could see the moment the memory hit. It started with his lips, quirking just a little, his ever expressive eyes widening just a bit. There was a flash of teeth, the smallest of chuckles. “That’s right. That guy. Oh, what was his name? Wasn’t it something just ridiculous? Like… Isshing? or—or—”

“Yixing,” Chanyeol supplied, because in for a penny, in for a pound.

“Yixing,” Kyungsoo said, his eyes turning to crescents from smiling so hard. “That’s right. God, what a complicated name. He was so cute but looked like he was stoned. The entire time.”

“And then you kept calling him Icing.”

Kyungsoo giggled, putting a hand over his mouth that hindered Chanyeol's view of his mouth forming a heart shape. “He didn't even noticed it. Remember when I finally asked to speak to the manager?”

“You told him that Icing wasn’t providing you with the level of service you expected here.”

“And the guy had no idea what I was talking about. Meanwhile, Isshing—”

“Yixing.” Chanyeol corrected automatically.

“Whatever. Meanwhile, Terrible Name With Cute Dimples stood there, looking so confused and out of it. I thought he was going to fall asleep right on the spot.”

“Nah,” Chanyeol said. “He was probably just tired or something.”

Kyungsoo rolled his eyes. “That’s not what you said then.”

“You were staring at him like you couldn't believe his existence.”

“He was so cute when he looked so confused,” Kyungsoo said, waving Chanyeol off with a little flourish of his hand, wrist slightly limp. “I had to poke his dimples to see if he was real or if he was going to respond.”

Chanyeol chuckled, “Of course, you did Soo.”

Kyungsoo’s face softened, and before he even spoke, Chanyeol knew what his next words were going to be. He knew that look, the one that was almost pitying, but not quite. He’d seen it many times before. It was sweet, and kind, and Chanyeol hated it.

“How have you been?” Kyungsoo asked. “Really, Yeol. How have you really been?”

He hated it, because there were only two people in this world, two people out of everyone in the entire world that could see right through his bullshit. Two people who could cut him to the quick, two people who wouldn’t let him get away with anything.

One was gone.

The other was sitting across from him.

“Me?” he said, trying to keep his emotions under control. “I’m good. Good. Um, you already know work is going well. I started going to the gym. Working out. It’s—it’s something I do. At night. Sometimes on the weekends. I figured since I’m not getting any younger, I need to make sure the heart keeps on ticking. Maybe even get my washboard abs back.” he smiled, showing almost all of his teeth for effect, trying to keep the damn from breaking.

Kyungsoo frowned at him. “Is there something wrong with—”

“No!” he said quickly. “No, no. I’m fine. I had a checkup a few months ago and my blood pressure is fine. I promise everything is fine. I'm as healthy as I could be. I even ran! On a treadmill!”

“Really.” Kyungsoo sounded dubious.

“I did,” Chanyeol insisted, almost whining. “I can get up to three miles now.”

“You’re too skinny.”

“You're just thick. In all the right places.”

“I’ve always been like that since I was a kid. You haven’t been. You were always a big guy. That was your thing.”

“Well, I used to have all my hair, too, but you can see how well that’s going.”

“You look nice," he said while his eyes assesed what he can see of Chanyeol sitting across from him on the table. "And your hair looks fine, Yeol." Kyungsoo added.

He snorted. “Thanks.”

“I mean it. I’m—I’m happy. That you’re okay.”

Chanyeol didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to go there right now. Maybe ever. It wasn’t healthy, sure, to ignore it for as long as he could. But to acknowledge it made it real, and this was already the realest conversation he’d had in years. He was doing okay so far, but he didn’t want to push it.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” he said rather stiffly.

“You know I do, anyway. I always do.”

God, how he ached. How he wanted to flip the table, grab Kyungsoo by the shoulders and shake him, tear into him and say, Really? You really worry about me? Where have you been, then? Why haven’t you called me even though you knew I wouldn’t have picked up? Why haven’t you sent me a text message I could ignore? Why are we here? Why did I agree to this? Why aren’t you hurting as much as I am? Why didn’t you care as much as I did?

It was that last one made him the most bitter.

It’d been the one that he’d spat at Kyungsoo on that last dark day.

He’d been breathing heavily, unsure exactly of what he’d just said, but hearing his words echo around the room. He’d watched as they’d struck Kyungsoo like a physical blow, his eyes widening, his breath hitching in his chest. And he couldn’t take them back, no matter how much he’d wanted to. He’d said what he’d been thinking, unfiltered and harsh, because even if he hadn’t believed it, he’d thought it, and wasn’t that close enough? Wasn’t that just enough to fucking crack Kyungsoo right down the middle? He'd just wanted Kyungsoo to feel the damn pain and ache, like how he felt. In all the years that Chanyeol had known Do Kyungsoo, from that awkward first meeting in an apartment hallway to the day they’d been admonished by Sehun for being late to the wedding, to March 22, 2012, to that moment, that moment when he’d screamed at Kyungsoo, “Why don’t you care as much as I do?”

About him.

It hadn’t been said, but it might as well have.

Why don’t you care as much about him as I do?

That’d been it.

There’d been no coming back after that.

Everything that had been held together by tenuous hope and duct tape since that phone call on that March afternoon had fallen apart around them, leaving nothing but rubble at their feet, and that had been Chanyeol’s fault. Chanyeol had been to blame for that.

He’d known it even then.

He knew it even now.

Joy appeared at their table, two large plates in her hands. She set Kyungsoo's down before him first and then moved to the other side of the table. “Here we are,” she said. “Those look delicious. You know, I had this very same thing just the other week, and you guys are in for a treat. The plates might be a little warm, so please be careful. Is there anything else I can get for you at the moment?”

Chanyeol thought, A do-over.

Kyungsoo said, “No, this all looks fine. Just fine.”

“Wonderful!” she beamed. “I’ll leave you to it.”

She turned around and left.

The swordfish steak didn’t smell off. The broccoli looked a surreal green. The red potatoes were drizzled with oil. Chanyeol sipped his bourbon.

Kyungsoo opened his cloth napkin, spreading it down on his lap. He’d eat the potatoes first, Chanyeol knew. Then he’d pick at the broccoli for a bit before he’d move on to the swordfish. It was how these things went.

He watched as Kyungsoo speared the broccoli first, bringing it toward his mouth.

“How’s Kris?” Chanyeol casually asked.

Kyungsoo stopped, the broccoli in front of his face. His fingers tightened on the fork. He set it back down on the plate and took another sip of his wine. Chanyeol could see the skin under his left eye twitching.

“Why?” he asked as he set down the wineglass and looked directly at his eyes.

“Why what?” Chanyeol broke the contact.

“Why do you ask?” he said with feigned calm.

Chanyeol spread his own napkin on his lap. He wasn’t very hungry. Everything was fresh, but he couldn’t have wanted it any less than he did right at that moment. But he had bourbon in his stomach, and he needed something on top of it. He picked up his fork and just held it next to the plate. “Just a question,” he said with a shrug.

Kyungsoo narrowed his eyes and parroted him. “Just a question.”

“You asked about my job. I asked about yours. You told me about the garden. I wanted to know more about what else was going on with you. Just a question.”

“It wasn’t like that.” Kyungsoo said, voice tight.

“Like what?” Chanyeol asked, not sure if he wanted to play this game.

“Like—like it was anything.”

That’s what he’d told himself last summer when they’d been at that charity dinner, the benefit for the CUE Center for Missing Persons. Chanyeol had shown up in an ill-fitting tux, the coat a bit tight in the shoulder area and the pants ended just short of his ankles, but Kyungsoo had been there looking as dapper as ever, and they’d tried acting like everything was okay, but Kris had been there with Kyungsoo. Kris, he of the firm handshake, the broad shoulders, the wide smile and the tux that looked tailored specifically for him. His looked like he belonged in a runway or museum along with the sculptures like The David, Chanyeol had disliked him immediately.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kris had said in his deep ass voice, which by the way Kyungsoo had elbowed him, he should have known was the wrong thing to say.

“It’s not a loss,” Chanyeol had gritted out. “He just hasn’t been found.”

Later, after Chanyeol had spoken to the enraptured audience, telling them about Sehun, Sehun, Sehun, and after the man had shown him the picture of the older woman and had cried on his shoulder, Kyungsoo had gripped Chanyeol by the arm, dragging him to a quiet alcove, eyes bright, those plump lips pressed tightly.

“It’s not what you think,” he’d said. “It’s not.”

“I’m not thinking anything,” Chanyeol had replied, even though that certainly wasn’t the truth.

“He’s a friend. I didn’t want to come alone tonight, and he volunteered.”

“What a nice friend,” Chanyeol said. “How nice.”

“I didn’t even know if you were coming.”

And—yeah, okay, that’d been fair, because Chanyeol hadn’t responded to any one of Kyungsoo's twelve phone calls or sixty one text messages, but still. It wasn’t as if Chanyeol had brought a friend.

“I’m here,” Chayeol had said.

“Are you?” Kyungsoo had asked him. “Because I don’t think you’ve been here for a long time.”

He’d left shortly after, not looking to where Kyungsoo and Kris were standing side by side, talking with a group of people he hadn’t recognized.

There’d been hints, sometimes, from friends, the ones Chanyeol hadn’t quite managed to drive away yet with his bullshit, though that was coming soon. Hints as subtle as a bull in a China porcelain shop, things like oh, I just had lunch the other day with Kyungsoo and—with Kyungsoo and Kyungsoo seems to be happier lately, Chanyeol, maybe it’s okay for you to be too?

Chanyeol didn’t have many friends these days.

In all honesty, he really didn’t have any at all.

But that was okay. Mostly. He had other things to focus on. His job. His phone calls to Detective Kang on Mondays. Searching, though it was mostly done online and in message boards these days. After all, the trail was almost six years old now.

“It wasn’t like that,” Kyungsoo repeated. “I told you that.”

"Okay" was all Chanyeol said.

Kyungsoo picked up his fork, slid the broccoli off, and speared a potato. He put it into his mouth and chewed angrily. No one could chew food angrily like Kyungsoo.

Chanyeol waited because he knew Kyungsoo wasn’t finished.

And in fact, he swallowed and set the fork down again. “I didn’t want it to be anything.”

“Okay,” Chanyeol said. Then added, “Did he?”

Kyungsoo gaped at him.

Back the fuck off, Chanyeol thought, because they were so far beyond reminiscing now. Back off, back off, back off.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Kyungsoo said coolly, “but he did after I told him.”

“He seemed like a nice guy.” Chanyeol nonchalantly remarked.

The skin under Kyungsoo’s left eye twitched. “The nicest.”

“That’s good,” Chanyeol said, picking at the broccoli. It was so green, it looked fake. He didn’t know if he could stomach it.

“You aggravate me.” Kyungsoo let slip.

“I know.” He sighed.

“You don’t even know how much.” Kyungsoo almost looks like he's pouting.

“I have a good idea.” Chanyeol ran a hand through his hair.

Kyungsoo ate another potato, but he wasn’t chewing as violently as he had been before. There was still a little bit in his mouth when he said, “I didn’t want that from him. He was just a friend. I’m allowed to have friends. And even if I wanted more, I don’t know why it would be any concern of yours.”

Right. Because Chanyeol wasn’t anything to Kyungsoo.

He ate a piece of broccoli. He could almost taste the green. He chewed quickly and choked it down. For a moment, it stuck in his throat and he couldn’t breathe, but then it passed and everything was fine. Everything was just fine.

He put down his fork. His finger brushed against the receipt. Unbidden, he glanced at the bar to find Jongin laughing with the young couple again. Like he’d felt Chanyeol’s gaze, he turned and caught his eye. He winked before going back to the couple.

He almost said, Why are we here? Why did you want to see me?

Instead, he said, “I spoke with—”

“He kissed me once.”

Chanyeol thought the broccoli was stuck in his throat again.

Kyungsoo said, “And maybe I kissed him back, for just a little bit, but that was it. That was it, and I pushed him away and told him I wasn’t ready for anything like that and I didn’t know if I would be for a long time. He was a gentleman about it, said he understood, and I haven’t seen him in almost three months. I heard he’s dating a model named ZiTao or something. So. There’s that.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kyungsoo looked up at him sharply. “What for?”

Everything. “If you liked him.” He shrugged.

“I liked him,” Kyungsoo said, and before Chanyeol could do something with that, he added, “I liked him because he was my friend. He listened to me. He understood what I was going through.”

“Who?” Chanyeol asked quietly.

“His brother. Back in 1998. He’d been out with friends, said good night outside a bar, saying he was going to walk home. He never made it. They never found him. No leads, it was just as if he’d vanished without a trace. It’s been cold for a very long time.”

Chanyeol hadn’t known that. He didn’t know if it would have changed anything, but he hadn’t known that about Kris. Hadn’t known that at all.

“So yes, maybe even I wanted to like him,” Kyungsoo said, cutting a potato. “Maybe I thought I could, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. He kissed me, and I kissed him back, but that was it.”

“Okay,” Chanyeol said numbly.

“Okay,” Kyungsoo snapped. “That’s it? Just okay.”

“It’s—”

“How is everything?” Joy asked, and Chanyeol didn’t even flinch this time. “The swordfish?”

“It’s fine,” Kyungsoo said, voice cracking a bit. “Everything is wonderful.” His narrow shoulders tensed.

“Can I get you anything else?”

“I’ll have another glass of—”

“On it,” she said, not even letting him finish. She looked at Chanyeol. “And you, sir?”

He wanted to tell her to take his plate away, to just trash it all, but he shook his head.

She left.

“What about you?” Kyungsoo asked. “Are you—”

“No,” Chanyeol said. “No. You know me. I don’t… do well. Like that.”

Kyungsoo glanced down at the receipt pointedly.

“That’s not anything,” Chanyeol said, embarrassed. “He probably just had a daddy kink or something.”

Kyungsoo choked on a potato. Chanyeol felt oddly proud of himself.

Kyungsoo coughed, turning a little red.

Chanyeol waited.

“Jesus,” Kyungsoo gasped. “You can’t just say that.”

Chanyeol fought to keep the smile off his face. “Look at me. Look at him. He wanted to be my baby boy." Then added, "And you said it first, with your glucose guardian shit.”

“Oh my God,” Kyungsoo said faintly. “That’s amazing. You have to call him now. Just to see what would happen.”

“Please,” Chanyeol said. “He’d want to stay out late, dancing and drinking, and you know me.”

“Pajamas by six,” Kyungsoo said.

“Pajamas by six,” Chanyeol agreed. “Probably not very compatible.”

“He’s got a great ass though. Nice arms too.”

“He probably forgets leg day.”

Kyungsoo laughed, that oddly endearing low-pitched thing he did when he found something really funny, mouth forming a heart shape, eyes turning to crescents, cheeks scrunching cutely with his head thrown back. “Listen to you, talking gym talk.”

“It’s not like the porn.”

“No jocks in the locker room waiting for a four-way?”

“None at all. Lots of flab. And back hair.”

“Not on you.”

He patted his stomach. “Still got this.”

Kyungsoo smiled. “You gotta keep that. I always—I always liked your belly.”

Chanyeol remembers twenty something Kyungsoo straddling his thighs, looking flushed with marks all over his body, tracing Chanyeol's abs with his fingers, eyes glazed and leaning down to leave hickeys—

Chanyeol flushed, internally punching himself for that, looking down at the table, twisting the fork in his hand. “Thanks. I think.”

Joy dropped off the glass of wine at the table and left without speaking. She did smile at the both of them, but that was all.

The silence that came then wasn’t quite as awkward. It wasn’t—it wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t like it’d been before either. He was nervous still, his palms a little sweaty, but his heartbeat had slowed, and he wasn’t struggling with something, anything to say. He didn’t know where this was going, what they were doing, and that question was still stuck in his throat, but it wasn’t… bad.

It was kind of nice.

And then Chanyeol opened his mouth and ruined it. “I spoke to Detective Kang this week.”

A neutral “Did you?” was the only response he got.

“I, uh. I still call her. You know? Just on Mondays.”

“I know.”

“Okay. Good. I just… I wanted to point something out to her, just to see if they’d heard of it.”

“She told me.”

And that startled him. “She told you,” he repeated flatly.

Kyungsoo didn’t even look like he’d been caught doing something wrong. “She told me.” He ate another potato. They were almost gone. He’d go on to the broccoli next. But the steak had been there for so long, he might just move on to it before it was lukewarm. Nobody liked lukewarm swordfish steaks.

“When?” Chanyeol asked evenly.

“When I spoke to her on Tuesday.”

And now maybe he knew why they were here. “Before or after?”

Kyungsoo looked confused. “Before or after what?”

“Before or after you texted me. Before or after you said that you wanted to see me.”

Kyungsoo picked the napkin off his lap and daintily wiped his mouth. He set it back on the table and sighed. “Before.”

Chanyeol wanted to punch something very hard. “I see.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“Isn’t it? I call and tell her that a sex-trafficking ring had been broken wide open in Baltimore and maybe they should look into it, and now here we are. You couldn’t call me, so you called her to check in, to check up, and once you heard that I’d fucking called her, trying to get them to do their goddamn jobs, you decided that maybe you should get me out, maybe you should make sure I wasn’t drowning like—”

“Lower your voice,” Kyungsoo said calmly.

“I’m not—”

“Chanyeol. Please.”

And when had he ever been able to resist that? They’d found that out almost right away, that all Kyungsoo had to do was say please. That’s all he had to do, and Chanyeol was turned to putty, unable to do anything but what had been asked.

“I—” he choked out. “I didn’t mean—”

“I know,” Kyungsoo said. “And I can see where you’re coming from. How that would look. Chanyeol, do you trust me? Deep down. Do you really trust me?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation, because even after all that’d happened, even after all they’d been through, he trusted Kyungsoo with everything he had. The things he said in the past might have contradicted that, but this was his truth. It was one of the few he had left, and he hoarded it as if it were precious.

“Thank you,” Kyungsoo said. He closed his eyes briefly. “I was going to call you. Or text you. I told myself to call, but maybe I chickened out a little. But I didn’t know if you’d ignore it, so I called Detective Kang first, because she was the only one you talked to with any regularity. So I waited until Tuesday and called her. She told me you’d spoken the day before. She told me what you spoke about. She said she was checking into it. That every little bit helped. Then I texted you.”

Chanyeol believed him. Kyungsoo had never lied to him, not about the big things. And this was a big thing. “Why?”

“Why what?”

The words almost got stuck. “Why did you want to see me?”

“Because I miss you.”

And there it was. There it was. The four words that meant more than anything he’d heard in the last six years other than we’ll find him, I promise, and he didn’t even know if he deserved them. After everything he’d done, he didn’t think he could have them and all that they potentially implied. Sure, it might have been just as a friend misses another, or something so much more, but still. It was something. And those four words were out there, Kyungsoo just throwing out those words like it was nothing.

He didn’t deserve this.

He hadn’t earned it.

But he wanted it more than anything else in the world. So he said, “I miss you too.”

“Do you?” Kyungsoo asked.

“All the time.” he answered, voice shaky.

Now they were reveling in it, weren’t they?

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

Kyungsoo nodded. “Okay.”

He moved on to the broccoli.

Chabyeol tried the swordfish. He could barely choke it down.

He set down his fork.

“You need to eat more,” Kyungsoo said. “You’re wasting away.”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said. “I don’t think that’s a thing.”

Kyungsoo had a fragile smile on his face, like he was unsure if it was okay for it to be there. “Might be. I like the tie. Nice touch.”

“It’s—I don’t know why I wore it.”

“I taught you better than that,” Kyungsoo said. “You never need an excuse to dress up. I think you look very handsome.”

“It took me a long time to tie it.” Chanyeol admitted with reluctance.

Kyungsoo teasingly said, “Clumsy fingers.”

“I even stared at the mirror and everything.” he said shyly.

“How long?” Kyungsoo asked, amused.

Chanyeol sighed, pushing his fork around on his plate. “An hour.”

“An hour,” Kyungsoo said, snorting into his hand. “Chanyeol.” he said in mock disappointment, voice fond.

“Yeah, well you should have seen attempts one through sixteen. It looked like I was trying to hang myself.”

“An hour.” Kyungsoo repeated like he still couldn't believe it.

“Speaking of excuses to dress up. Nice shoes.”

“Yeolie, I’ll have you know these are limited-edition Converse,” Kyungsoo said with a scowl. “Do you know what that means?”

“Yeah, you and five thousand other people have the same shoes.”

“Out of seven billion people. That’s—that’s, okay, math is stupidly hard, but I’m pretty sure that’s a very small percentage of the population. Do you know what the chances of me running into another person with these exact shoes is?”

“There’s a reason for that.”

“Excuse you,” he said, affronted. “These are brilliant.”

“They looked like they were made by someone who’s colorblind.”

“No accounting for taste.”

“Not your taste, that’s for sure.”

“You can just shut up,” Kyungsoo said. “You philistine. Just because I wasn’t there to do your tie for you doesn’t mean you can take it out on my shoes.”

And that—that might have been too much. It wasn’t Kyungsoo’s fault. No. It would never be Kyungsoo’s fault. Chanyeol was just as much a participant as Kyungsoo had been. But the idea that Kyungsoo hadn’t been there, hadn’t tied his tie for him while he stole kisses on his lips, his cheeks, his forehead, his nose, his chin, his moles resulting in Kyungsoo tightening it on purpose to the point of choking him just to make him stop, was too much. The bowtie on the ill-fitted tux had been already pre-tied, hanging in the closet in a wrapped bag in the back. But this tie? This was the first tie he’d worn since… he couldn’t even remember when. Probably some meeting, like the group Kyungsoo had found, other people having been through the same thing. Chanyeol hadn’t wanted to go, but Kyungsoo said it’d be a good idea, and please, Chanyeol just do it for me. Please.

That had been in year two and the trail was so cold it might as well have been ice, no matter what they’d chosen to believe at the time. He hadn’t yet discovered the joys of waking up after spending four nights in a row chasing the bottom of a bottle. But oh, it would be coming, and there wasn’t really anything that could have stopped it.

But first, the group meetings, the people who showed up a little dead-eyed, a little frumpy, saying this is my wife or this is my son or it is my father, he isn’t sick, he really isn’t, he was just gone. The cookies had been stale, and the coffee might as well have been tar, and they talked about missing-white-woman syndrome, that extraordinarily odd little thing where people go missing every single day, but it’s the upper-class white girls or women that get all of the media coverage, their blonde hair and blue eyes selling much better than a Hispanic woman or an Asian kid or a black man. Men in general didn’t get much press. They were just gone. Probably running from their responsibilities. After all, it wasn’t like men could get taken, right? That just sounded implausible. That didn’t happen.

It was the pretty white women, always. They were the ones whose awkwardly shot cell phone videos of that slightly drunken day at the beach were shown on the news channels saying, “Look at this all-American girl, in the prime of her life, have you seen her? Sure, four women of color have gone missing while you’ve watched this, but look at this woman. She’s more important than all the others.”

Sehun was Asian and a guy.

He'd been on the news.

For a little while.

But his videos hadn’t been on TV, at least not on the national stage. Not even the one where he’s grinning at Chanyeol holding the camera, saying, “Is this really for me? Did you really do this for me?” while he’s unwrapping a present, the wrapper falling around him. He’d been in his pajamas still, half of his hair standing on ends in one side the other matted to his scalp, his eyes a little puffy with sleep, but he had looked handsome, and even the local news hadn’t played it, so he’d uploaded it to YouTube under the heading HAVE YOU SEEN HIM?

It’d gotten just over three hundred views. Chanyeol was convinced half of those came from himself.

Yes. That might have been the last time he wore a tie. Trying to go to that group. Hearing about missing-white-woman syndrome and knowing the missing other man in his life was Asian and two years gone, and wondering if anyone still gave a shit about him aside from Chanyeol himself and Kyungsoo. He’d eaten a cookie. He’d drank the coffee. He’d smiled when he was supposed to, answered a question when called upon.

But he’d never gone back.

Kyungsoo had.

That was the last time, right?

Yeah. Except for the bow tie.

The chair scraped along the floor as he stands up quickly. His mouth was salivating in that way it does before he’s about to be sick—and God, didn’t he remember that feeling from year three—because Kyungsoo hadn’t been there to tie his damn tie, why the hell had he even worn it to begin with?

“Chanyeol—”

“Just have to use the restroom.” He smiled weakly. “I’ll be right back.”

He felt Kyungsoo’s eyes on his back as he strode away. He didn’t look back.

The bathroom was empty and as lowly lit as the restaurant. The floor was tiled, the sinks clear glass bowls on concrete blocks. There were mints and complimentary mouthwash on a cart near the far wall, and if this was going to go like he thought it was, then he’d probably need them.

He was in one of the stalls, the door firmly latched behind him when his mouth felt flooded, and the toilet seat was up. He was on his knees and gagging, stomach twisting furiously, and yeah, this was what it’d been like for most of 2014, that acidic burn in his mouth, gut filled with booze, guilt just about crushing him. He’d vomit, and it’d come out in a brown mess, and he’d think to himself, Never again, never again, I’m not going to do this ever again, he would be so mad if he could see me, but then he’d finish, and the day would go on, and it would get harder and harder, and five o’clock would hit. Five o’clock would hit (when it became acceptable to drink, of course), and he’d want to be numb. He’d go on to the website that had been made for Sehun, a clumsy thing with only one page, saying that on March 22nd, 2012, Sehun had disappeared near the Foggy Bottom–GWU Metro stop, the only sign that he’d ever existed had been his backpack on the ground, wallet and cell phone still inside. God knows how long it’d been sitting there. Had it been from that morning? Or had it been from later in the day? He might not have known anything was wrong if that Good Samaritan hadn’t seen the backpack lying partially hidden in some small bushes next to the Whole Foods.

He’d been just a kid coming from George Washington University, backpack slung over his shoulder. He’d seen the purse and would tell Chanyeol later he thought it was weird that it was lying there like it was and hadn’t yet been taken by a homeless person. His name was Luhan “but everyone calls me Lu,” and he’d picked up the purse, looking around to see if anyone was coming for it.

Nothing.

He’d felt guilty about looking through it, remembering when he’d been little and had snuck some money from his mom’s purse. He’d been found out and had gotten into trouble for that, and it’d always stuck with him. That disappointed look on her face. So he’d felt wrong about it, but there was just something strange that this purse had been where it was.

He’d found the wallet. A few singles inside. A driver’s license. Credit cards. Receipts from a bubble tea shop. There was a bag of those Strepsils, leftover from a sore throat a couple of weeks before. Chapstick. Gum. A pen. Rubber bands. A smartphone that wasn’t password protected. He’d pulled up the last number dialed and had called it.

And at 3:37 on Thursday, March 22, 2016, Chanyeol's cell phone rang.

“Hey, what are you up to?” he’d said. “On your way home? I’ll see what I can scrounge up for dinner if you—”

“Uh, yeah,” a male voice had said, and Chanyeol was confused. He’d looked at his phone, and yeah, it’d said SEHUN was calling him, that SEHUN should be on the other end of the line. “Sorry. Is this—”

“This is Chanyeol. Who are you? Why do you have my—”

“Look, mister. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s like this, okay? I’m just walking to the stop, okay? And I see this purse, okay? It’s on the ground. And I’m thinking, wow, that’s not cool, because it looks expensive, okay? So I pick it up and there’s a wallet inside, and it’s weird, because it’s all still there? And there’s this cell phone, and now I’m calling you. You know? This is Sehun’s stuff. Nothing was stolen, okay? I didn’t take anything. I’m just trying to do the right thing here. I felt bad about going in the purse, okay? I’m not looking for any reward that—”

“You found it?” Chanyeol had said, already feeling that low twinge of dread at the base of his spine. “What do you mean you found it?”

“It’s like I said, okay? It was just on the ground. Near some bushes. Man, I don’t know. It just felt weird. Like, if someone stole it, then why didn’t they take the cards? You know? The phone too.”

And that had been the thing, right? The big thing. Because if someone had stolen the purse, if the motive had been robbery, then why hadn’t any of it been taken?

How had it gotten there?

There’d been a punched Metro card, timestamped for earlier that morning, so they knew he’d at least gotten off at the stop.

But from there?

Had he been just leaving the Metro or coming back?

No cameras had picked him up.

And no one, no one had remembered seeing anything. Not inside that Whole Foods. Or in the bubble tea shop where he’d stopped earlier according to the swipe of his debit card. Or on the train. Or anywhere.

And that’d been the thing too, right? How could these people, all of these people who had been around him during that Thursday not seen what had happened?

He’d been so angry at that. Later.

A thin string of bile was attached to his bottom lip as he dry-heaved into the fancy toilet, the tile cold underneath his hands. There was sweat on his forehead. His ears were ringing, and it was a lot. It was so much to take in, and he gagged again, but nothing came out. The string of bile broke and fell into the water. He spat once, twice, getting rid of the excess saliva. He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth, again and again and again, and until his vision cleared and his stomach settled.

The bathroom door opened and closed.

He didn’t move.

Someone moved to the urinal, humming under his breath.

He waited.

The man pissed for a minute or two, then washed his hands in the sink. He coughed and started humming again as he dried his hands.

The door opened, the sounds of the restaurant spilling through. Then the door closed.

Chanyeol let out a dry sob but didn’t let it go further.

He pushed himself up, leaning his head against the stall door, the metal cool against his heated skin.

Luhan had scrolled through the call list and had called the last number dialed. It’d been the night before, Wednesday, and he’d called him to say that he was going to be a little late getting in.

“Something to do with the tracks or something,” he’d muttered. “Station is full. We’re gonna be packed like sardines in here.”

“What?” he’d said, a little startled.

“Way farther down the line, you old worrywart,” he’d said with a laugh. “Making everything run slower. Just wanted to let you know because of how you get.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Uh-huh. Love you!” And he’d disconnected the call.

He'd been an hour late, but he’d gotten home.

That was the last phone call he’d made.

Chanyeol opened the stall door.

He stood in front of the sink, watching himself in the mirror.

He looked tired. He was pale. He looked… faded. Like he was the copy of a copy. All the pieces were there and they made a full picture, but it was blurred and somehow less.

He turned the faucet and splashed water on his face. He cupped his hands, letting them fill, then drinking from it, swishing the water around before spitting back in the sink, trying to get rid of that acidic taste.

It’d have to do.

He took the mouthwash, served in a little plastic cup. It burned a little as he swished it around. He spat it out and then crunched on a mint. It was better. He felt better.

He went back out.

Kyungsoo watched him as he approached, brow furrowed, a little frown on his face.

“All right?” he asked.

Chanyeol nodded, sitting back down in his seat. “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Your swordfish is getting cold.”

Chanyeol tried to smile. “Not too hungry.”

“You gotta eat something.”

“I do. I will. You don’t have to—”

“When was the last time you ate?”

That wasn’t— “I had my oatmeal this morning,” he said, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. “Even put some fruit on it. A little brown sugar.”

“And before that?”

“Why?” he asked.

Kyungsoo shrugged. His own steak hadn’t really been touched. Half the potatoes were gone. Some of the broccoli. “I just worry about you, Yeol.”

Chanyeol snorted. “Don’t.”

“Don’t?”

“You don’t have to.”

“That doesn’t mean I won’t. Someone has to. It might as well be me.”

“I’m fine,” Chanyeol said, as if he hadn’t just been on his knees, face in the toilet.

Kyungsoo sipped his wine. The candlelight flashed off the glass. “I’m not.”

Chanyeol didn’t know what to say to that. So he said, “Oh?”

“Yes,” Kyungsoo said. “Oh. Oh, Chanyeol.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kyungsoo laughed at that, his eyes were blank. It wasn’t the nicest of sounds. “For?”

“I don’t underst—”

“What are you sorry for? That I’m not okay? Or something else.”

He’d been gone for four minutes. Maybe five. He didn’t know what had happened. Things hadn’t been… comfortable, per se, but they’d been doing okay, hadn’t they? It’d been less stilted than he expected it to be. Granted, there were decades of history here between them, and he loved Kungsoo. God, he always had. Even after everything, he loved him. The same with Sehun. He was six years gone and no one knew where he was, but he loved him as much as he had the day he’d called to say he was going to be late because of the something to do with the tracks down the line.

And yeah, he was sorry. Jesus Christ, was he sorry. He’d fucked up so many times since that Thursday. He’d taken it out on Kyungsoo, even though he hadn’t deserved it. Then Kyungsoo had had to put up with his shit as he spiraled out of control. As he became obsessed. As he spent so much money trying to find him.

At first, the police had been hesitant. He was an adult, they said. Are you sure he wasn’t at a friend’s house? Yes, sir, I heard you when you said his backpack had been found on the ground, there’s no need to raise your voice at me, sir, but that could have been anything. He’s a guy in the United States who can legally go anywhere he wants to. Are you sure he didn’t just want to leave?

He’d called Kyungsoo after that, enraged.

Hospitals didn’t have him.

He wasn’t in jail.

It took two days before the police had opened a missing person’s case, though he’d found out later that in DC, police were supposed to file a report no matter what when called, one of the few places in the country that did so.

By then, they’d gotten the backpack back from Luhan.

He was a nice kid, but Chanyeol hadn’t had any qualms thinking that if Luhan had been the one to do this, if he’d hurt Sehun in any way, there wouldn’t be enough left of this boy to bury.

They’d interviewed him. Luhan told the police the same thing he’d said to Chanyeol. He’d been in class beforehand. He was heading to work. He’d found the backpack and that was that.

The police believed him. They didn’t even use words like person of interest about him.

Sex offenders in the immediate area were checked out.

Nothing. None of them.

They interviewed Chanyeol. And Kyungsoo. They understood why, that it was just protocol, but a great and terrible rage had filled Chanyeol when the detective had asked if he and Sehun had had any fights lately, if he had done drugs or was prone to leaving without telling anyone. They told them Sehun was gay. Did he have a boyfriend? You know, anyone he was seeing?

“No,” he’d said to those questions, all the while thinking, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.

In the end, it hadn’t mattered.

He was just gone.

And late at night, when sleep wouldn’t come, Chanyeol would stare at the ceiling and think about those two days it’d taken for the police to get their asses in gear. Two days it’d taken when even a layperson knew that the more time that passed, the less of a chance there would be to find them.

No witnesses.

No evidence.

Luhan's fingerprints were on his backpack. But then so were Chanyeol's and Kyungsoo's and Sehun's himself. No one else.

He was handsome, his features striking and just beautiful. And maybe that’s why they were able to get him on the news, because he’d find out later about the missing-white-woman syndrome.

“Chanyeol?” Kyungsoo pressed.

“I don’t know,” Chanyeol said finally. He didn’t look up at Kyungsoo. “I just don’t know.”

Kyungsoo sighed. “I know you don’t.”

“I am sorry, though.”

“I know that too.”

“Maybe I should—”

“I don’t think you should leave.”

Because of course Kyungsoo would know what he was thinking. “Why?”

“Because,” Kyungsoo said, “I haven’t gotten my fill of you.”

Fuck, that hurt. How long had it been since he’d heard those words? Before, to be sure. Maybe on one of their staycations when Chanyeol had been above him, both of them panting, skin slick with sweat, muscles quivering in that way that showed they weren’t as young as they used to be. He’d probably said it jokingly, a teasing little smile on his face, chest and stomach covered in their cum and maybe a bit of lube, legs still wrapped around Chanyeol’s waist.

And the first time, right? The first time he’d said that, Chanyeol remembered very well. It’d been in September of 1992, and they’d been together for three days straight, and Chanyeol was nervous that maybe he’d outstayed his welcome, that he was annoying Kyungsoo. And when he’d fumbled through that, when he’d said, hey, uh, if you want me to go, just tell me and I will, Kyungsoo had squinted up at him because he was blind without his glasses or contacts, Chanyeol got distracted by his lips because they looked so red and inviting he just dumbly stared at it before he was snapped out of it when Kyungsoo had said, “But I haven’t gotten my fill of you,” and Chanyeol had maybe fallen a little bit in love right then. They hadn’t kissed yet. Hell, they’d only known each other for a few days, but it hadn’t mattered, not in the long run. Because Kyungsoo hadn’t gotten his fill of Chanyeol yet, and it became this thing between them. This mantra, this secret little code, and even when Sehun had come crashing into their lives less than three years later, it still remained their thing. Like the staycations, it was there.

Here it was again, now. Like Kyungsoo saying please, Chanyeol was next to powerless to resist it. And maybe he hated Kyungsoo a little bit right then, because he knew. He knew what that did to Chanyeol, and it was unfair. Yes, everything Chanyeol had done to Kyungsoo in the last six years probably more than made up for it (or that’s what he thought; if he were being honest with himself, he would know that he had a long, long ways to go), but here they were, sitting across from each other like Kyungsoo hadn’t shown up on the arm of another man last summer, practically daring Chanyeol to say something about it.

Yeah, he deserved it. Sure.

But that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Goddammit,” he said hoarsely. “Goddammit.”

“Gentlemen,” Joy said, apparently unable to read a fucking room. If so, she would have seen Chanyeol’s posture screaming that right now probably wasn’t the best time. “How are we?”

“Fine,” Kyungsoo said, never taking his eyes off Chanyeol. “We’re fine.”

“Do we need to pack some of this up to go?” she asked.

“In my experience,” Kyungsoo said, “fish is never good reheated. No offense, please. Our eyes were apparently bigger than our stomachs.”

“It happens,” Joy said with a little laugh. “I don’t suppose I could interest you in any dessert?”

“No,” Kyungsoo said.

“Coffee?”

“No.”

“Would you like me to clear the plates?”

“That would be fine, thank you.”

And she did just that. She was about to leave when she frowned and looked down at Chanyeol. “Sir, I seemed to have grabbed a receipt. Was it something you needed?”

Sure enough, the receipt with Jongin's phone number was stuck partially to the underside of the plate. For a brief, vicious moment, Chanyeol thought about snagging it back, maybe even saving the number in his phone right in front of Kyungsoo. Hell, maybe he’d even use it. Maybe he’d fuck the kid who apparently had a fetish for sad middle-aged men with a paunch and sunken eyes. Or maybe Jongin had thought he was doing his good deed for the day, hitting on the sad old man, making him feel good about himself. The number was probably fake.

Even so.

Kyungsoo wouldn’t know that.

He touched the ring in his pocket instead, underneath the table, where no one could see.

“No,” he said. “I don’t need it.”

Her smile widened as if it was the greatest thing she’d ever heard. Then she left.

He didn’t look back up at Kyungsoo. The ring grounded him. God, Sehun had been smiling so wide that day, eyes curving into cute crescents just like Kyungsoo's do when he smiles or laughs so hard, he looked dapper with his tuxedo, and—

“This needs to stop,” Kyungsoo finally said.

Chanyeol thought about ignoring him.

Instead, he said, “What does?”

“This.” He sounded frustrated. “You. Existing like this. Like you have nothing else. Like everything was taken from you.”

It might as well have been, but Chanyeol didn’t say that aloud. He wasn’t cruel. At least not anymore. “I don’t know how else to be,” he said, admitting more than he wanted to. “This is all I’ve got right now. I’m sorry if that’s not enough for you.” Okay, yeah, maybe a little cruel.

“That’s not what I mean and you know it.”

“Do I?”

“ Chanyeol.”

“I wasn’t the one who texted you,” Kyungsoo said, wondering when he’d been backed into this corner. He felt his hackles rise, like he needed to lash out. Like he needed to scratch and bite and draw blood until Kyungsoo backed away. “I mean—I didn’t try and—”

“No,” Kyungsoo said. “You didn’t. That was me. And I meant it, buddy.”

I want to see you.

“Why?” Chanyeol asked. “Why do you even—”

“Why?” Kyungsoo asked, sounding incredulous. And here it was, the anger that he hadn’t ever wanted to see again. “You really have to ask me why?”

Which, okay. That probably hadn’t been the best question to ask. But while it hadn’t exactly been radio silence between them, it hadn’t been like this. Chanyeol's days goes like this: get up, eat breakfast, don’t drink, go online, check the website’s e-mail to see if any tips had come in, get to work, break for lunch even though he didn’t eat anything, check the e-mail again, go back to work, finish for the day, make dinner, check the e-mail for the last time, scour the Internet for anything remotely similar to Sehun's disappearance (and hadn’t that been a rabbit hole the first couple of years because just how many people disappeared without a trace every year? A staggering number as it had turned out, and only a small percentage of them were ever found), and then go to bed. The next day, it would start all over again. Mondays were the only days that were ever any different, because those were the days he’d call Detective Kang at three on the dot. She’d say, “Detective Kang,” and he’d say, “Hi, it’s Chanyeol,” and she’d say, “Hey, Chanyeol, how are you?” like they were just shooting the shit.

He would lie and say he was fine, thank you very much, and then he’d ask the question he dreaded more than anything in the world, not because of the question itself, but because of the answer.

“Any updates?” he’d say on Mondays at three.

This was his life.

So yes, he had to ask why. Why would Kyungsoo want to see him? Why would Kyungsoo want to have any part of his life the way it was now? Why would Kyungsoo even want to be in the same room as Chanyeol, especially given the things Chanyeol had said to him at the end of the fourth year, no longer soaked in alcohol but still unable to deal. Those words hurtled at him, each one landing like a bullet to the stomach, saying things like you don’t care as much about him as I do and if you did, you would be doing more and Why do you keep referring to him in the past tense? Why do you always do that? Do you want him to be dead? Is that what you want, you fucking asshole? Is that what this is? Do you want them to find his body just so you can fucking feel better about yourself? It’s like you don’t even care about him. Why aren’t you out there looking, Kyungsoo? Why aren’t you out there trying to find him like I am? Why don’t you love him like I do?

He’d never believed it. He never believed any of what he’d said.

But he’d said it just the same.

And the horror on Kyungsoo's face at those words was something Chanyeol would never forget as long as he lived. The anguish, like Chanyeol yad broken him, was enough that Chanyeol wanted to apologize right then and there and promise to never say anything like that again.

He hadn’t, though.

He’d been cornered then, too, by things like this isn’t healthy, Chanyeol. This isn’t what he would have wanted for you. You need help. You’re not drinking like you did, and that’s good, but Chanyeol, you need more than what I can offer. And I want that for you. I want that for you so bad. Please, Chanyeol. Please let me get some help for you.

It’d all fallen apart then.

And it was Chanyeol's fault. He knew that. He knew that better than anyone.

If their roles had been reversed, if it’d been Kyungsoo saying those terrible things, Chanyeol couldn’t be sure that he would ever want to see him again.

So, yes. He had to ask why. “After everything I’ve done,” he said. “After… just. After.”

“Jesus Christ,” Kyungsoo said, scrubbing his hand over his face. “Chanyeol, I can’t even—”

“Gentlemen,” Joy said, and Chanyeol felt like screaming. “I’ll take this whenever you’re ready. No rush.” She placed a black folder on the table.

Johnny Mathis sang that it was the most wonderful time of the year.

Kyungsoo said, “You can take it now,” with a strained smile on his face as he leaned forward, pulling his wallet out. Chanyeol didn’t even try and argue over the bill. Kyungsoo pulled a card out and shoved it at Joy.

“I’ll be right back with this, then,” she said before she swirled away.

“I need you to listen to me,” Kyungsoo said before Chanyeol could do anything. “Are you listening?”

“Yes,” Chanyeol said helplessly.

“This… this whole thing, everything, it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t Sehun's fault.”

No. No. “You don’t get it,” Chanyeol said, shaking his head. “You just don’t get it. I should have—”

“There was nothing you could have done,” Kyungsoo said fiercely. “Yeah, I wish you hadn’t said the shit you said, Yeol, and I wish I hadn’t come after you like I had, but I can’t blame you. Even if I thought I could for the longest time, I can’t blame you for that. He wouldn’t either. He wouldn’t want this for you. For either of us.”

“Don’t,” Chanyeol said, hands in fists on the tabletop. “Don’t do this. Not now. Not here.”

“When should I do it, then, Chanyeol?” Kyungsoo asked, eyes narrowing. “When would be the perfect time for you, because I am tired.” His voice cracked, and Chanyeol thought his heart was splitting right down the middle. He could never deal with it very well when Kyungsoo was upset, wanting to hunt down and destroy whatever had hurt him. It’d been worse when it’d been Chanyeol himself, and he was still filled with such self-loathing at what he’d done. The things he’d said. “I’m tired of—of this. Of all of this. You as you are. Me as I am. Existing separately like that’s the way things should be. It’s shit. It’s fucking shit and you know it. I don’t deserve this. And neither do you.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Chanyeol snapped at him, trying to keep himself under control. It’d been a long time since he’d felt anything other than a dull, bittersweet ache in the center of his chest, and he didn’t want any of it. “What exactly do you think I should do?”

“I want you to accept what happened,” Kyungsoo said. “I want you to open your eyes. Chanyeol. Chanyeol. He’s—he’s gone, okay? And he’s not—he’s not going to come back—”

Chanyeol slammed his hand on the table.

Kyungsoo flinched, eyes bright and wet.

Joy came back, opened her mouth, but Chanyeol glared at her. She looked at Kyungsoo, then back at Chanyeol, and set the black folder gently on the table, the credit card sticking out the top. She began to back away slowly.

Chanyeol didn’t want to be here anymore.

He wanted to go home.

He wanted to curl up in his bed, the blankets over his head.

More than anything, he wanted it to be March 21, 2012, and he wanted it to be on the phone with him, and before he’d hang up, he’d say, hey, Hunnie and maybe he’d grumble a little at being called that, but he’d say it anyway, and he’d say, I love you, Sehun, I love you, I love you, I love you, and he would probably laugh at him, calling him an old giant sap, and that he was being silly, but Chanyeol wouldn’t care. Goddammit, he wouldn’t care. That was what he wanted more than anything in the world. Just to have one more day. Just a little more time.

He stood quickly, knees knocking against the table.

“I have to go,” he said, voice flat.

“No,” Kyungsoo said making a move to stand up from his seat but he refrained. “Chanyeol, can you just sit down—”

People were staring at them now, even Jongin, who was probably regretting hitting on the crazy old guy right now, but Chanyeol couldn’t find the strength to care. His vision was tunneling, and he needed to get out of here, out of the low lights, the Christmas music singing out overhead, reminding him that he’d sat alone in the dark on the couch on Christmas Day, the TV on in the background, staring off into nothing for hours, his phone turned off. The day had passed by in a blur, and then Chanyeol had moved onto the next and the next and the next until Kyungsoo had said I want to see you.

He should have said no.

He let himself have one last look at Kyungsoo, I love you more than you could possibly know lodged in his throat, sticky and cloying and unable to get out. He almost tripped over the table leg, but ended up only stumbling on his long clumsy legs before catching himself. People were still staring. They probably thought he was drunk, and he didn’t care. He would never see them again. There were no more staycations after this. He’d never come back here.

He was moving before he even finished the thought.

The hostess, Wendy, God bless her young and precious heart, had his coat and scarf and umbrella waiting for him, as if she knew he needed to get out as quickly as possible. He gave her a strained smile as thanks as he clutched his coat against his chest, trying to get his key fob out, ignoring Kyungsoo saying his name somewhere behind him.

He was in the lobby, shoes squeaking against the floor. Irene looked at him and asked a question he didn’t quite get, so he just kept on without stopping. The doors slid opened, and cold air slammed into him even as he heard someone chasing after him.

He was in the rain and it was startling how cold it was against his skin. He was soaked as easy as one, two, three, his breath a cloud around his face as he exhaled sharply. He blinked away the water, trying to remember where the fuck he had parked, and he just wanted to go home to his shitty apartment that wasn’t a home, it wasn’t a home, it wasn’t—

“Chanyeol!”

He didn’t stop.

“Chanyeol, goddammit!”

There. There was his car. He was almost—

“Chanyeol! Chanyeol he was my fucking son too!”

And Park Chanyeol stopped.

Closed his eyes.

Took in a shaky breath.

He'd come in like a hurricane, hadn’t he? Chanyeol had met Kyungsoo in 1992, and God, they’d just loved each other more than life itself. Maybe Chanyeol had gotten there first, and quicker than anyone thought, but by the time their friends had given birth to the cutest little boy in the world the next year, Chanyeol and Kyungsoo had already been talking about moving in together. They’d been at the hospital when little Choi Sehun had come into the world, all wet and slimy, crying furiously. Minho and Luna had been exhausted, but proud. They were so goddamn proud, and when Minho had clasped him on the arm, asking if Chanyeol and Kyungsoo would be his godparents, Chanyeol had nodded, eyes wide, fingers trembling, Kyungsoo chuckling at his side, eyes a little wet.

“In case you can’t tell by the look on his face,” Kyungsoo had said fondly, sniffling “we’d love to.”

Yeah, they’d loved it. They’d loved it so much. Which is why, when Minho and Luna had died in a car accident (drunk driver ran a red light, didn’t get a scratch on him, and wasn’t that just the way things worked out?) they’d found out wills had been drafted, naming Chanyeol and Kyungsoo was who they wanted Sehun to go to should anything happen to them.

It was… dangerous. The AIDS crisis was still in the back of everyone’s mind, but then Luna’s mother had come forward, small but intimidating as any person Chanyeol had ever met and said that she couldn’t take care of Sehun, not like Chanyeol and Kyungsoo could. She was living off her pension and had diabetes. Minho's parents were dead. No one else was there to care of Sehun.

And maybe they’d hidden Kyungsoo for the longest time, not disclosing their relationship. Maybe Chanyeol was the only person listed as Sehun's parent, but that was okay. They’d come to that decision together, and when Sehun was two, he came home with them, to their little house that already had a room set aside just for him whenever he came to stay the night, all yellow and bright, with various toys strewn around and a bear almost as big as Kyungsoo at the corner.

He’d watched him that first night for hours as he slept, sure that if he looked away, Sehun would disappear as if he’d never been there at all.

The next year, he called him Daddy for the first time. He called Kyungsoo Papa.

They’d both cried.

He was the ring bearer at their wedding in the backyard, stomping his feet, glaring at the both of them for daring to be late, and don’t you see my shiny shoes, Daddy? Don’t you see how handsome I look, Papa?

Yeah. They’d seen. They’d seen all of it.

And he was seven when they’d sat him down and showed him pictures of where he'd come from, explaining that while he and Kyungsoo were his parents, he also had another set of parents who had loved him very, very much, and were with God now. He looked at the pictures with wide eyes, glancing through all of them, then back up at Chanyeol and Kyungsoo.

They’d waited.

Finally, he said, “Will I see them again?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” Chanyeol had said. “You’ll see them again.”

“And you still love me?”

“More than anything in the world,” Kyungsoo had said, taking his Sehun's face in his hands and booping their noses together. Chanyeol watched on with tears in his eyes.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

And he'd grown. Good God, how he had grown. He went from little boy to awkward, moody teen, to a goddamn handsome man, this tall and broad man who they loved and were terrified for in equal measure. He was fearless, sarcastic, and oh so funny, with this great, deep, booming laugh that sounded like he’d been drinking whiskey for years. He got everything he wanted from his fathers; all he had to do was look at them with his puppy eyes and cute little pout and Chanyeol and Kyungsoo were absolutely helpless.

When he was ten, a girl asked him why his parents were both men when. Who was his mother? Didn’t he know he needed one too? Chanyeol had been borderline furious, ready to go and berate some little girl he didn’t know, and Kyungsoo was already plotting how to get away with it, but Sehun had looked at both of them and laughed, saying he already handled it. “I told her that I was so lucky, God gave me two sets of parents. And then I told her to mind her own damn business.”

He was twelve when his grandmother passed. He’d cried, but he’d said, “I’m sad, but I’m happy too because I still have you. I didn’t know you could be sad happy.”

When he was thirteen, he sat them down and told them that he likes girls and boys. “Am I not normal” he’d asked, “because the other boys in my class talk about girls they like and I do feel attracted to girls, Daddy but I also like boys too, Papa.” And Chanyeol looked at Kyungsoo for help because he wasn't ready to talk about heteronormativity bullshit and the society with their constricting molds of what they expect people to fit in, the stereotyping and the stigma around a topic like this. But Kyungsoo took in his deer in the headlights expression and put his arms around Sehun's shoulder, pulled him in his embrace, kissed him on the head then said, "You're completely normal, Sehunie. Trust Papa. It's okay to like girls, it's okay to like boys and it's okay if you like them both. Its also okay of you don't like them at all. Always trust your heart for it will not lead you astray. It's a matter of your preference, your choice of what and who makes you happy, of what feels right for you. There's no guidelines for this. No one made a rule that you can only like one person. Your heart is too big for that. Just listen to what your heart tella you and do what feels right for you." Chanyeol looked at them both, stood up and left without a word because he didn't want them to see him bawl his eyes out.

And when he was sixteen, he said to Kyungsoo, “You should adopt me too, because I want it to be real for you like it is for me. Can we do that? It’s 2009. It’s time we get this going, Papa. Get our asses in gear.” There’d been tears for that too. But they’d done just as he’d asked.

He was seventeen when he became a Park, “like, for real, because now I’ve got you both.” And even though they’d had their funny little ceremony when he was still so new in their lives, and Kyungsoo had had his name legally changed a short time later, he’d insisted that they get married, “like, for real, this time” when it became legalized in the District of Columbia in March of 2010. So they had, riding the train down to get their marriage license, hands clasped, grinning at Sehun as he threw flower petals on the Metro, making sure everyone knew where they were going and what they were doing.

Sehun had cried that time when they kissed in their tuxes.

And then he graduated, and Chanyeol and Kyungsoo had been the loudest parents there, because goddammit, their boy was walking across that stage, and he was doing so with a 3.75 GPA, and a partial scholarship to George Washington University. Even though they told him he could go anywhere, that he could do anything he wanted to do, Sehun told them he wanted to stay right where he was. When they told Sehun they’d been saving a college fund for him ever since the first day he’d been theirs, so of course he could live on campus if he wanted to and get that full college experience. “Riiight,” he'd said. “And leave the two of you without me? No offense, but we both know you’d be lost without me. I think I’ll stick around for a little while to make sure you’ll be okay in the end.” then cheekily added, "And if you're planning on kicking me out, please do a better job next time." Then he winked at them and ran to his room.

And he'd kept that promise.

Until March 22, 2012, when his backpack was found and he was not.

Oh, the terror they’d both felt then, the unimaginable terror that consumed them both and shattered them into the tiniest of pieces. He remembered, vaguely, how anytime he’d been watching the news or looking online before and there being a story about a person disappearing or being murdered, and how he’d think to himself, almost absently, Thank God that’s not my son, and maybe he’d hug him a little tighter when he’d see Sehun next after that, not even realizing what he was doing. But nothing, nothing could compare to what it felt like to actually have it happen to them. They always thought that. Everyone did. Even if it was unconsciously, everyone thought it: At least it didn’t happen to me.

But then it did happen to them, it did happen to Chanyeol and Kyungsoo, and they’d understood then what it meant when people said, “You don’t know what it’s like until it happens to you.” Because they loved him, they loved him more than they loved their own selves, they were his parents, for fuck’s sake, and he was there until he wasn’t, and no one knew, none of their friends or people they considered their family, none of them knew because it hadn’t happened to them yet.

Oh sure, they tried, they hugged Chanyeol and Kyungsoo, they cried with them, they scoured the city with them, burying the streets with his picture, demanding of everyone that passed, “Have you seen this man? He’s missing, tell me, have you seen him?”

Everyone would take the flyers, the thousands and thousands of flyers that were printed, and they’d smile sympathetically and shake their heads, and Chanyeol knew what they were thinking, he fucking knew it.

At least it didn’t happen to me.

The police came for them when they finally got their asses in gear, the trail already days old. He was so angry about that, but in hindsight, he should have expected it. Sehun wasn’t dating anyone, his last lover having left for Seattle for school. The parting had been amicable (“He’s just a boy, Daddy,” Sehun had said, rolling his eyes. “I’m not sad because I have the rest of my life for boys and girls”), and he had an alibi, so he was cleared. After that, it left the parents, and it was fine, they had to rule everyone out so they could focus, but Chanyeol was so angry at their intrusiveness. “Have you ever hit your son?” they had asked him. “Have you ever put your hands on him?”

“No,” Chanyeol had said, eyes bulging from his head, convinced that this had to be a nightmare that he could not wake up from. That he was still in his bed, twisting and turning, the sheets tangled against his sweaty skin, and maybe, just maybe, he’d open his eyes, and there would be that moment, that breathtaking moment that is one of the greatest human experiences: waking from a nightmare and realizing it wasn’t real.

“Did he do drugs?” they asked him. “Sleep around? Have anyone over or stay out late?”

“No.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“The morning he disappeared.”

“How did he seem?”

“Good. He was good. He was….”

“It’s okay. Take your time, Mr. Park.”

“He was happy. He had a paper due that next Friday that he’d worked hard on. He said—he said it had kicked his ass and he was happy to finally be done with it. He said that. He said he was happy. He was taking the day off to just… be. He was going to get coffee and read in a park somewhere. He did that, sometimes. It was….”

“What was the last thing he said to you?”

And, oh, was that something he’d never forget. The phone call had come the night before, that he’d be late but he’d gotten home eventually and had finished that paper, and he’d come down the stairs, crowing loudly how good he was, stopping in front of Chanyeol and Kyungsoo, who were curled on the couch, Kyungsoo snuggled on Chanyeol's side arm and leg thrown over his body, watching a cooking show. He’d finished and it felt good. Then he’d lifted his bare foot and pushed it between them, wiggling his leg back and forth until they moved, something he’d done since he was little. They’d laughed as they always had and separated, and he’d sat down between them, feet in Kyungsoo’s lap, head on Chanyeol’s shoulder, and that was that.

“I’m going to take tomorrow off,” he’d said after a little while. He sounded soft and sleepy. “Only have one class. Nothing due. I think I earned it.”

“Yeah, sweetheart,” Chanyeol had said. “You’ve earned it.”

“Take a day,” Kyungsoo had agreed.

Kyungsoo was already at the bookstore and Chanyeol in his office by the time he’d rolled out of bed. He’d heard Sehun clanking around the kitchen, and then he’d come in, see him sleep rumpled, rubbing his eyes and yawning, saying “Good morning, Daddy,” and he’d said, “Morning, sweetheart,” and he'd had taken Chanyeol's coffee mug and refilled it for him. Chanyeol had thanked him distractedly, never taking his eyes from the laptop.

A little while later, he’d popped his head back in, dressed, hair artfully arranged with his backpack slung over one shoulder saying, “I’m off! I’ll be back later. I’ve got my phone if you need me, okay?”

And every day for the last six years, Chanyeol regretted what he’d said next. If he’d known what was to come, if he’d known and there’d been no way to stop it, he’d have gotten up from behind his desk and gone to him. He’d have hugged him tightly, whispering in his ear that he had made him the happiest he’d ever been, that he’d been scared when he’d come to live with them because he’d been so tiny, but that he’d made Chanyeol a better man, that for the rest of his life, he would always think of himself as a father because Sehun gave that to him. He’d have said that he loved him more than anything in the world.

Instead, he had barely looked up and said, “Have a good day. I’ll see you later.”

Have a good day.

I’ll see you later.

He had smiled at Chanyeol.

Then he was gone.

Have a good day.

I’ll see you later.

“That was the last thing he said to me,” Chanyeol had told the police. “And that was the last thing I said to him.”

The detective had smiled sympathetically at him.

And then asked if Sehun had ever run off before. Maybe he’d gotten himself into something he couldn’t get out of. “Does he have a dealer friend?” the detective had asked.

Chanyeol had been barely able to stop himself from reaching across the desk and grabbing the detective by the back of his neck and slamming his face against the table. “Would you be asking me these same questions if he was white?” he’d spat.

“Of course, sir,” the detective had said, sounding coolly amused. “Of course we would.”

He hadn’t believed that in the slightest.

He should have taken that as a sign. He and Kyungsoo would learn very quickly that many people were, at best, indifferent to a missing person who wasn't white. The worst of them were dismissive. They were on the news in DC and in Virginia and Maryland, but it faded. Within a week. They watched in horror as he went from the second or third story to not even being mentioned at all. They’d been outraged, as had Sehun’s friends, and GWU had held a vigil for him, a candlelight vigil, and later, much, much later, Chanyeol would find the photos from that night of him standing on the stage with his arm around Kyungsoo's shoulders. Kyungsoo, whose face was pressed against Chanyeol’s neck while Chanyeol himself spoke to the large crowd that had stood before him.

And when night came, when they would both be wide-awake and staring at the ceiling, unable to even contemplate sleep even though they were both so, so tired, he would think to himself, You keep going, sweetheart. Wherever you are, you keep going, because your papa and I are coming for you. I will not stop. I will never stop.

One thing that they don’t tell you is that fires can’t burn bright forever.

So even though he wanted to keep on going, and even though he did as best he could, Chanyeol’s fire faded eventually, and somewhere in the booze-soaked third year, he realized he’d spent the last two days in his office working and not out combing the streets or organizing another search party or scouring the Internet message boards or calling the police, demanding they do more than they’d done.

It’d hit him very hard.

He hadn’t remembered much about the week that followed, too drunk to function.

And there were others, weren’t there? So many others like him and Kyungsoo, parents, children, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, so many goddamn people who had someone they loved that one day just disappeared. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo were shocked by just how many people there were like them, how many people who understood their frantic words, their dead eyes, the way their hands shook. Mothers whose daughters had gone to work and had never come home. Sisters whose brothers had gone hiking and had never been seen again.

They never gave up, they said.

And the fire would always burn.

But it wouldn’t burn as bright has it once had.

And that’s when Chanyeol first felt it.

He breathed.

He ached.

He lived.

And then there were the deaths. Those daily little deaths where it felt like pieces of himself were just sloughing off as the weeks went by, as it got further and further away from March 22, 2012, and then it was March 22, 2013, and there was a renewed interest, and then it died until March 22, 2014, and it got to the point where he lived for the anniversary, because people would care again, people would take a brief moment to give two shits about his missing little boy who, when he turned seven, had decided that he would like to grow up to work with chimpanzees, because he wanted to marry Jane Goodall and they would live in the forest with the chimps and the apes and the monkeys, and they would be happy.

Each of those memories was a death. A tiny, little death.

Then it came to the point where he said the things he couldn’t take back, accusing Kyungsoo of things that weren’t true at all, and he had said the words, wanting to cut and slice and hurt the man standing before him, even if he hadn’t meant any of it.

“I think,” Kyungsoo had gasped, face wet, breath hitching in his chest, “that you need to go. Please.”

And so he’d gone. Because he’d never been able to resist when Kyungsoo said please.

He’d found a shitty apartment, and he’d moved out, and it’d been fine, or so he’d told himself. It was fine because it gave him more time to do what he needed to bring Sehun home, to find him and make everything okay again. Once he did that, he’d told himself, then he could move back home and he and Kyungsoo and Sehun would be a family again, and maybe one day they’d look back on this and find the strength to laugh about it, laugh at how scared they’d been, about how they’d almost given up hope.

He’d known that all it took was him not giving up hope.

That’s all that it would take.

Because the moment he did, the moment he stopped believing in him, that was the moment he was gone for good and there’d be no one else fighting for him.

So yeah, he’d left when Kyungsoo asked him to.

He lived in a shitty apartment.

He called Detective Kang every Monday.

And some days, when he was feeling his lowest, when he thought maybe the fire was about to go out, he’d get on the train with a single lily in his hand and he’d get off at the Foggy Bottom–GWU Metro stop, climbing those stairs until he was out on the sidewalk. He’d see that Whole Foods, and there’d be those little bushes right near them, and he’d put the lily on the ground right where Luhan had found his backpack. People would stare at him curiously, watching him kneeling with his head bowed, but he’d ignore them. He’d ignore them and he’d think I am breathing, I am aching, I am living, and even though I die these little deaths, you are my son and I will never stop.

The fire would burn a little brighter then.

That was the life of Park Chanyeol.

That was how he breathed.

That was how he ached.

That was how he lived.

That was how he died these little deaths.

When he opened his eyes again, his husband was standing in front of him in the rain outside of the hotel where they’d have their staycations, their little getaways that Sehun would tease them for, saying he didn’t want to know what they got up to in the hotel room, that he’d just eaten, Daddy and Papa, that was gross do you want me to projectile vomit, did they want to scar him for life?

His husband. Kyungsoo. One of his two great loves.

Who had just yelled that Sehun had been his son too.

Because he had been.

That might have been Chanyeol's biggest mistake out of all of this. That he’d driven away the one person who understood exactly what he was going through, the one person who knew how much it hurt to see his picture. The one person who knew just how devastating having an active imagination could be, able to think of any one of a hundred different scenarios, of the worst possible things that could have been done to their son. That he was trapped in a dark room somewhere, held by a monster, and that he would scream for them—

Chanyeol had been so focused on Sehun and his own pain that he’d barely thought of Kyungsoo at all. Oh sure, he’d known Kyungsoo was at his side, and he’d held him when Kyungsoo had cried, but it’d almost been a cursory thing, something that he was required to do. It was terrible. Chanyeol was terrible.

Kyungsoo had stuck it out much longer than he should have. He’d put up with Chanyeol's shit, had rubbed his back as Chanyeol had vomited alcohol, had stood by Chanyeol's side as he’d pleaded for someone to just fucking help Sehun come home. He’d done all of that.

And Chanyeol had repaid him by telling him he hadn’t loved Sehun as much as him.

I want to see you.

Chanyeol wanted to see him too.

More than anything.

He didn’t deserve it.

He didn’t deserve any of it.

And yet here they were.

Standing in the cold, in the rain, on a late winter’s evening, face to face after not having seen each other in almost eight months.

This was what his life had become.

“He was my son too,” Kyungsoo growled at him now, as if trying to convince them both that it was true.

“I—”

“No, you listen to me, Yeol. You listen to me right now.”

Chanyeol closed his mouth.

Water trailed down Kyungsoo's face. His skin was pale. His breaths came out in quick little puffs, swirling up around his head.

Chanyeol had missed him.

He’d missed him so very much.

So he listened.

“He was taken,” Kyungsoo said angrily. “From both of us. I know he was your son, and I know that you were close, but you forget that he was mine too. He came to you when he scraped his knee, but I was the one who bandaged him up. You’d do the voices when you read him a story, but I would be the one to tuck him in. I was there for the parent-teacher conferences, the time he decided to try cigarettes and threw up all over the carpet, when he told us he’d had sex for the first time and you had to stop me from going to that little fucking asshole’s house and ripping his goddamn dick off. I was there when he took his first step. When he rode his bike without training wheels. When he broke his arm. When he lost his first tooth and then a second one the very next day. When he came to us and told us that he loved us for accepting him for who he was. When he laughed. When he cried. When he was here and when he wasn’t, I was there, Chanyeol. I was right there with you and you're not the only one missing our son, because there isn’t a day that goes by that I wouldn’t give anything for him. Anything.”

Maybe it was just the rain, but it looked like Kyungsoo was crying a little. Chanyeol was surprised to find that after everything, his heart could break just a little bit further. It did, and the pain was bright and glassy, and he took in this great, gasping breath. It felt like the first one in forever, like he just breached the surface after being underwater so long that he thought his lungs would burst.

His shoulders shook.

He bowed his head.

Kyungsoo was breathing just as heavily, still standing right in front of Chanyeol. They weren’t touching, but it was a near thing, their hands almost brushing together. Chanyeol didn’t say anything, not because he couldn’t think of a single word, but because he was full of too many of them. He wanted to give Kyungsoo all the words he needed to hear, and he couldn’t decide which one to say first, which one was more important. And maybe he still hated Kyungsoo, just a little, for saying that he wasn’t coming back, because that was the worst thought he’d ever had, the absolute worst. That was the thought that came to him when he was at his lowest, when he was by himself in his shitty apartment, alone with nothing and no one else to distract him. That was the nightmare he didn’t know if he could wake up from. He’d been told once, by a man whose son had been missing for near two decades, that he just about didn’t care anymore, because the not knowing was the worst. “Just give me my son’s body,” he’d said. “Give me my son’s body so I can bury it and make this end. I don’t care if it’s the whole thing or just a hip bone or a skull, just give me something so I can finally say he’s not missing anymore. I’d rather him be dead and back home than not know at all.”

Chanyeol nderstood that. He did. He really did. And maybe once or twice, when he thought the same thing that was making him hate Kyungsoo right now, he understood that. Because the not knowing was the worst thing of all.

When you didn’t know, you were stuck in this limbo.

You didn’t know who to focus your anger on.

Your confusion.

Your fear.

Your anguish.

So it went wherever it could, that focus.

And sometimes, it went toward the wrong person.

Kyungsoo was there. When Chanyeol had met him for the first time, he’d thought, Hi, hello, who are you and why can’t I wait to find out?

Kyungsoo, who now sagged forward, his forehead against Chanyeol's shoulder, their arms at their sides. They were existing in the same space again for the first time in so long, but that didn’t matter, because it was familiar, and it was home, and it was everything Chanyeol had missed since those toxic words had spilled from his mouth.

He couldn’t pick which words to say, because this seemed like one of the most important moments of his life.

It was Kyungsoo who spoke first. Of course it was. That was always the way of things.

But the words were muffled into Chanyeol’s shoulder.

“What?” Chanyeol asked, wincing at how hoarse he sounded.

“Give me your keys.”

“Why?”

“Chanyeol.”

Chanyeol did. Their fingers brushed together. It was only a moment, but it felt like hours.

Kyungsoo took a step back. His eyes were red, water on his lashes in little beads. He looked down at the fob in his hand, then back up at Chanyeol. Back to the fob. He pressed the button, and the car beeped somewhere off to their left, the taillights flashing briefly.

“Let’s go.”

Chanyeol didn’t know what was happening. “Kyungsoo, you don’t—”

But Kyungsoo was already walking away.

Chanyeol could do nothing but follow.

He didn’t argue when Kyungsoo got into the driver’s seat. He went to the opposite side and slid in, pulling the door shut behind him.

The only sound was the rain on the roof.

He held his wet coat and scarf in his lap. The umbrella went by his feet.

Kyungsoo pulled off his own scarf, which he must have gotten back from the little hostess, tossing it in the backseat. He slid the seat forward, just a little. Fixed the rearview mirror. Gripped the steering wheel and breathed through his nose. Then he reached down, pushed the button, and started the car.

The screen lit up in front of them, the lights from the dash bright.

Chanyeol looked away.

He leaned his head back against the seat, staring out the window.

He felt heavy, waterlogged and tired.

The heater came on.

The car began to move.

It wasn’t old. In fact, it was one of the first major things they’d done… after. It’d been at the beginning of year four and he hadn’t had a drink in three months, and there was this lull, this period between this new beginning and the inevitable end, where they’d almost been—well, not happy, and maybe not even content, but something more than what they’d been before. There had maybe been a little smile every now and then, and they’d even made love one morning when the sun was streaming in through the window just above their bed making everything look dreamy, the sunlight painting Kyungsoo's torso making it look more pale and glowing as he rode Chanyeol slow and sure, like they had all day doing just that, Chanyeol holding on to his waist, his thighs, anywhere he can reach, holding himself back to make it last, make it last longer he wants it to never end, only their little pants and grunts can be heard in the room.

He couldn’t remember how it’d come up, but one day, a Saturday, they’d been at home, and then they’d been on their way to a dealership, trading in something old for something new. He’d haggled on the price, and Kyungsoo had rolled his eyes, but it’d been something, and it felt like a little celebration, and even though he’d felt slightly guilty at the thought, there it was. He’d been through some shit and come out on the other side. He hadn’t woken up needing to count down the hours to when it would be considered socially acceptable for him to have a drink.

It was the eye of the storm, though they hadn’t recognized it then.

Chanyeol had almost ruined it when they’d been driving back home, the smell of new leather around them. He’d said, “He’ll like this when he gets back.”

The silence that came then had threatened to suffocate them both.

Then Kyungsoo had taken his hand and said, “Yeah. He will. We’ll have to go on a road trip.”

Neither of them had said anything when Kyungsoo had sniffed and wiped his eyes.

Chanyeol didn’t ask where they were going now. He thought Kyungsoo would drive him back to his shitty apartment and then make his own way home, back to their house, their house where they’d spent the happiest days of their lives. Except it really wasn’t their house, was it? Sure, their names were still on the mortgage, and yeah, they hadn’t exactly talked about divorce, (“I think we just need some space,” Kyungsoo had said tightly on that horrible day. “I think we just need some space from each other to decide what we want.”)

(And then, later, “Chanyeol, this is Kris. He’s… a friend.”)

Chanyeol would go back to his (their) house, and they’d continue this strange, sad existence where they were both circling the same sun but stuck in orbits that rarely lined up with each other, making do with fleeting passes in the darkest parts of the night.

He’d said it for the first time in September 1992, that he hadn’t yet gotten his fill of Chanyeol. It’d been three days, three days they’d spent together. Chanyeol had been twenty-eight, Kyungsoo a month younger, and they’d been introduced at a dinner at a friend’s apartment over a weekend. They’d both arrived at the same time, which just happened to be fashionably late, and they’d bumped into each other as they walked out of the elevator. Kyungsoo had blinked up at him, blushed and adjusted his glasses, and Chanyeol had been charmed out of his mind. It’d been awkward until they realized they were heading for the same apartment, and it’d gotten even more awkward as they stood, wondering which one of them should knock. And somehow, they’d reached up for the door at the same time, their hands brushing together. They’d both been a little startled, chuckling and looking away.

Chanyeol had thought, Hi, hello, who are you and why can’t I wait to find out? while finally stuttering out his name. And this man, this enchanting man in front of him had mumbled, “Hi, Chanyeol. I’m Kyungsoo. Do Kyungsoo. Uhm. It’s very nice to meet you."

Their hosts must have heard them outside the door, because it opened in front of them, Luna looking back and forth between them before smiling widely and hollering over her shoulder, “Minho! Looks like they did all the work for us!”

Three days later they were still together.

On that Monday before they both returned to work after the holiday, they’d left Kyungsoo's apartment for the first time since they’d gotten there the Friday after the dinner. The world looked a little different, the colors a little brighter. They’d found a fruit stand and had bought green apples, the crunchy tang that much sweeter. The sun was bright, the air warm, and everything felt new in a way it hadn’t before.

Chanyeol was unsure of what was going to happen next, if this was just a onetime (three-day) thing, and when they’d walked back to Kyungsoo's apartment, he’d fumbled through some excuse about leaving if Kyungsoo had wanted him to. They’d hadn’t kissed yet, they’d slept in the same bed, faces near each other, but that was it. Kyungsoo squinted up at him, because he was blind without his glasses or contacts, Chanyeol got distracted by his lips because they looked so red and inviting he just dumbly stared at it before he was snapped out of it when Kyungsoo had said, “But I haven’t gotten my fill of you,” and Chanyeol thought his heart might just burst.

Their first kiss had been the following weekend. They’d been out for a drink, sitting in a dark little corner where no one could see them, and Kyungsoo had been laughing at something Chanyeol had said. He’d thrown his head back, baring his neck, eyes forming crescents, cheeks scrunched and his mouth forming a heart shape and he’d just laughed. Chanyeol's mouth had gone dry, and even before he could think about it, he leaned forward just as Kyungsoo had looked at him again. Their lips had brushed together, and they breathed and breathed, and it was a tremulous thing, the barest hint, a question posed where the answer wasn’t known. But then Kyungsoo had smiled, and Chanyeol felt it more than saw it, and even though it was probably dangerous for them to do this in public, they weren’t even thinking about that. Not then. Kyungsoo kissed him sweetly, and Chanyeol had thought, Here. This. This is what I want. This is all that I want.

It wasn’t, though. He hadn’t known there was something more that he could have.

But he found that out later, a phone call from Luna's mother waking them in the middle of the night, a teary voice saying, “Oh God, oh my God, they’re gone, they're both gone, but he is still here. God saw fit to keep him safe, and they’re gone, but he’s not.”

And he wasn’t. At least not then. It’d take almost two more decades for that to happen.

Eventually, Chanyeol felt the car come to a stop. It idled for a moment before it shut off.

He sat up.

He was about to thank Kyungsoo for driving him back to his apartment, about to say Kyungsoo could take the car and he would just come by and get it later when he saw where they were.

Home.

At their home.

It wasn’t the little house they first brought him home to, that one with the room with yellows and various toys and the big bear. No, they’d sold that house in 2002 and had moved to this house one, wanting to give Sehun a bigger yard, a better school district. They could afford it. The bookstore was doing well, and they were smart with their money, having saved every cent they could. They even had a college fund set aside for Sehun with a nice chunk of change in it. The first day they’d seen the house, the realtor droning on and on about how much curb appeal it had, and would you just look at that front porch, Sehun had tugged on his parents’ hands, making them lean down. He’d look up at them with those wide eyes of his and he said, “I really like this place because it has lilies. Can you buy this house, please?”

Sure enough, there had been the lilies around the side of the house.

They’d made an offer three days later.

And here they had stayed until Sehun went missing.

Then it had just been the two of them.

Until Chanyeol said the things he’d only thought in the blackest part of his heart.

He wanted to ask why they were here. Why Kyungsoo had brought him here.

A little voice in the back of his head asked, Did Kris ever come here? Is this where he kissed Kyungsoo?

Instead, he said the most asinine thing he could think of. “The lawn looks good.”

Kyungsoo snorted. “Get out of the car, Yeol.”

Chanyeol did.

As he shut the door, he almost took off running. It was a close thing. He almost ran down the short driveway to disappear into the rainy night. It’d be easier, he knew. It’d be easier than coming back ho—here.

He didn’t, though.

Still. It was close.

He held his coat against his chest, the rain cold against his hair and ears and cheeks. Kyungsoo was already around the car and walking up the stone path toward the front door. It was too early for any lilies, and Chanyeol was grateful for that. He wasn’t sure he could have handled seeing them right at that moment.

Kyungsoo was up the stairs to the porch and almost to the front door before he must have realized he wasn’t being followed. He looked back over his shoulder. Chanyeol hadn’t moved from where he stood next to the car.

“Come here,” Kyungsoo said. “Come on.”

His feet wouldn’t move.

“Chanyeol. Please.”

That got him moving.

It always did.

His steps were stiff, his knees barely bending, and he probably looked a little awkward and more than a little ridiculous. But he was moving, and that had to count for something.

He stopped at the bottom of the porch, Kyungsoo facing him at the top. There were only four steps that separated them, but it almost felt like it was too much. Like if he took these last steps, there’d be no going back. He didn’t even know what Kyungsoo wanted. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he just felt sorry for Chanyeol. Maybe he had boxed up some of Chanyeol's books that he’d left. Maybe he wanted to sit Chanyeol down at the table in the dining room, that mahogany beast they’d found at a specialty shop in Chinatown, and he’d say, “I wanted to see you because I’ve met with an attorney to figure out how to best divide up the assets. I wanted to see you because I think it’s time we end this, Chanyeol, so we can both finally move on. I want a divorce.”

That scared Chanyeol, almost as much as anything else ever had.

He deserved it. He wouldn’t blame Kyungsoo for that.

People could survive for only so long in stasis.

Eventually, something had to give.

So, no. He didn’t want to go up those last few steps.

Because if that’s why he was here, if that’s what Kyungsoo wanted, he’d have no choice but to give it to him, and then it would all be over. He’d be left with nothing.

He expected for Kyungsoo to say please again.

He’d do anything for Kyungsoo when he said that.

Even agreeing to end everything.

But Kyungsoo didn’t do that.

He came down one step, then another, then another until he was standing just above Chanyeol. They watched each other for a moment, eyes searching, Chanyeol unsure of what he was looking for. But then Kyungsoo reached down and took Chanyeol’s hand in his, fingers intertwining. Chanyeol gripped him tightly, and Kyungsoo tugged him along, making Chanyeol follow him up the stairs.

Chanyeol did.

The wood creaked under their feet.

The rain pitter-pattered along the overhang above.

They were at the door, and Kyungsoo didn’t let go, even as he fumbled for the keys. Chanyeol tried to pull away, but Kyungsoo wouldn’t let him.

He took a step out of the way when Kyungsoo pushed the screen door open and watched as he slid the key into the lock. It clicked, and for the first time in a very long time, Chanyeol watched as the door opened to the home that he’d built with his family, only to watch it crumble down around him.

He was overwhelmed.

He was consumed.

He breathed.

He ached.

He lived.

And God, the little death that followed when the door opened was extraordinary. It felt like he was being twisted inside out, like he was being torn apart and it was too fucking much, he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t fucking—

Kyungsoo pulled him across the threshold.

And yes, he breathed.

It smelled exactly the same, like wood and furniture polish. Like those little cartridges that plugged into the sockets that promised to make a room smell like Hawaii or fresh linens or a forest caught in the throes of autumn.

He was having trouble catching his breath.

Kyungsoo closed the door behind them, still not letting go.

There was a light in the kitchen, and Chanyeol could see the outline of the table in the dining room. He didn’t want to go in there. He didn’t want to see the papers he would have to sign. He was not above begging and pleading.

But Kyungsoo didn’t lead him there.

No, he pulled Chanyeol toward the stairs, and up they went, the steps creaking under each step, the one near the middle squeaking obnoxiously as it always had.

And here. Oh, here was their story, set along the stairway on the wall for anyone to see. The framed photographs that were their lives together, showing that this had once been a family home, with a history that went back decades.

Here they were, Chanyeol and Kyungsoo and Minho and Luna, and she’d been so pregnant then, looking like she was ready to pop at that very moment. She’d been smiling, radiantly so, but she looked tired, like she was done with everyone and everything. Funnily enough, she’d given birth twenty-three hours later to a little boy with a full head of inky black hair.

Here they were, at a party somewhere, Kyungsoo sitting on Chanyeol’s lap, both of them smiling, smiling, smiling. Baekhyun at the background, grinning at the both of them while he had Jongdae in a choke hold and Junmyeon trying to separate them.

Here they were. Kyungsoo squeezed between Baekhyun and Jongdae while they were serenading him at a karaoke room, Kyungsoo looking grumpy and pushing them away but there's a little quirk of his lips, tell that he secretly likes what they're doing.

Here they were. Junmyeon and Chanyeol stood in the middle of the living room, boxes scattered all over the place in various state of unpack and the both of them looking a little lost at what to do.

Here they were, at a picnic in the park, Sehun atop Chanyeol’s shoulders, hands in his hair.

Here they were, Sehun asleep on Kyungsoo's chest, face painted like a wolf from his birthday party, eyes closed, a little thin line of drool wetting Kyungsoo’s shirt as he slept, tired out from his very special day.

Here they were, the three of them, his diploma in his hands, eyes crinkled and a wide smile on his face, Chanyeol and Kyungsoo on either side of him, both of them in ties, their eyes red, their own faces a little puffy.

And here he was, here he always was, he was six and four and twelve and fifteen and eight and seventeen, and he was a baby and a toddler, a little boy and a preteen, and then a teenager until he was a handsome young man.

Here he was.

The last picture taken of him.

It was his nineteenth birthday, sixteen days before he disappeared. It was a Saturday. He'd gone out with friends the night before and was going to go out with friends that night as well, but he said that the day was for his Daddy and his Papa. So they’d woken him up at the asscrack of dawn, banging pots and pans as they climbed the stairs, bellowing out happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy biiiirrrrthday, dear Huuuuunieeeeeee, their voices blending well, knowing full well Sehun was slightly hungover. He groaned and put his pillow over his face, yelling at them you are both terrible and I hate you so much, but laughing while he said it.

Chanyeol and Kyungsoo finished big just inside his doorway, smashing the pots and pans together, making as much noise as possible. He sat up then, glaring while hugging the pillow against his chest, his thick eyebrows furrowing, his hair sleep tussled and his eyes bloodshot, but he was their baby, and now he was nineteen years old.

I can’t believe you two, he said with a scowl. It’s not even daylight out. You both suck.

Chanyeol snorted. We both do. Your father is pretty good at—

Park Chanyeol, Kyungsoo said If you finish that sentence, you’ll won’t get to have that ever again.

Chanyeol grinned.

I think I threw up a little in my mouth, he muttered, lying back down on his bed, pulling the comforter over his face. Old people should not be having sex.

Old, Kyungsoo said, sounding sufficiently outraged. Who are you calling old? He narrowed his eyes for effect.

The two of you. He said with mirth in his eyes.

Funny, Chanyeol said. Especially since this is from a boy who is one year away from not being a teenager anymore. Then come the wrinkles.

Excuse you, he said, throwing the comforter off. My genes are amazing. Don’t be jealous.

Did you hear that, dear, Kyungsoo said with an exaggerated sniff. His genes are amazing.

Whatever shall we do? Chanyeol asked.

You could get out of my room and let me sleep, he said, squinting at the both of them.

Does that sound like something we should do? Kyungsoo asked Chanyeol.

Nah, Chanyeol said easily, grinning. That doesn’t sound like something we should do at all. In fact, you should get your butt out of bed, because we’ve got some plans for you.

Plans? What plans? he asked them suspiciously.

Great plans, Kyungsoo said. Probably involving greasy bacon and runny eggs, the yolk going just everywhere—

Ugh, he groaned. Kill me now. I’m never drinking again.

Probably a good idea, Chanyeol said. Especially since you’re underage.

I’m safe. I always am.

We know.

You can trust me. I would never do anything stupid.

We know that too. Doesn’t mean it’s legal.

Fine, he muttered. Take your parental guilt trips and get out of my room. I need to take a shower. My mouth tastes like ass.

Funny, your father says the same thing after he—

Park Chanyeol!

Jesus. Both of you! Out! Get out of my room!

And that was the beginning of their day.

They’d had breakfast and then taken him shopping and spent far too much money on whatever he wanted. A phone. A new backpack. Shoes. Clothes. It'd been just the three of them, two dads and their son, and as they were walking together, Sehun between the two of them, his arms through theirs, he told them that he felt like a princess, and that today had been a very good day.

When he grabbed Kyungsoo and squished him in the middle with Chanyeol at the other side, he wrapped his arms around them, and said, I love you guys.

And if he decided he didn’t want to go out that night again, no one said a thing. Instead, he decided to put his new clothes away and put on sweats, and they were in the kitchen, eating pizza. He was sitting on the counter, his bare feet dangling toward the floor. He had a mischievous grin on his face as he told Kyungsoo that he was a grown adult now, and that if he wanted to stay at someone's house overnight, he would, and that was when Chanyeol had taken the picture. That last picture. Of him looking soft and safe and happy, wearing a sweatshirt that said Pour Some Sugar On Me, his feet swaying and his toes wriggling, his hair looking soft and in disarray, and alive and alive and alive, and that was what Chanyeol remembered. That was what he remembered from that day, that he had been alive and whole and theirs, he was theirs, and when he lowered the camera after taking the photo, he had to swallow past the strange lump in his throat.

Dad? he asked, a concerned look on his face.

He nodded, unable to speak and unsure as to why.

Kyungsoo smiled softly at him. Your father is just being dramatic.

He hopped off the counter and walked toward him, and Chanyeol looked away, trying to find some way to wipe his eyes without him seeing, but then Sehun stood above him, and he had no choice. He scrubbed his hand over his face and coughed, trying to cover it up as best he could. But these were the two people who knew him best, these were the two people who loved him the most.

These were the two people he’d never fool.

Dad, he said, leaning forward. Chanyeol closed his eyes as Sehun hugged him, patting his head. Don’t cry. It’s all right. Everything is all right. I’m not going anywhere, okay?

And oh, the lie that had been.

That was the last photo on the wall. Not of him sitting on the counter that Chanyeol had taken where he’d looked all soft and safe. No. This photo was the one that Kyungsoo had taken of the two of them when Sehun had hugged him, hand on Chanyeol's head.

That was the last known photo of him, hanging on their wall.

Sixteen days later, it was March 22, 2012.

Six years later, it was what they had left.

That moment.

And then they were past it, at the top of the stairs, and Kyungsoo pulled him down the hall. There was the bathroom on the right, a guest room on the left, then his bathroom and his bedroom, the doors closed, and Chanyeol thought, No, please no, don’t make me go in there, please don’t make me go in there right now. Because when he’d left, it’d still been a shrine, however unhealthy that’d been. They’d kept the room the same as the day Sehun left it, ready and waiting for the day he finally came home. Every year, they’d bought Christmas presents and birthday presents, stacking them against the far wall. There would be such a party when he came back, they’d whispered to each other in the middle of the night when neither of them could sleep. There would be such a party, with a cake and balloons and his uncles Jongdae, Baekhyun and Junmyeon holding a banner that said WELCOME HOME and WE MISSED YOU and YOU’RE SAFE YOU’RE SAFE YOU’RE SAFE. Sehun would smile and laugh, they’d whispered, and he would clap his hands and do that funny little dance he did when he got really excited, like his whole body was the happiest it’d ever been.

Then they’d go through years of gifts, telling the stories of each and at the end, when the party was winding down, everything getting quieter, hazier, they would be on the couch, friends milling around the periphery. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo would be watching Sehun as he approached, and he would be filled with so much life that it would take their breaths away. He’d put his foot between them and wiggle it back and forth just like he always had, and they would make room just for him, because he was the only one who could get between them like this, the only one they would make room for.

And then he’d sit between them, and he’d lay his head on his Dad's chest, and he’d be clutching his Papa’s hand, and he’d yawn, jaw cracking. Then he’d say, “Thank you for everything, guys. I love you.”

That’s what they’d whispered to each other in their bed late at night, their son’s bedroom down the hall, slowly being filled with all the gifts for all the celebrations he had missed.

So, no. He couldn’t go in there. Not now.

Especially considering the little hall closet he had back in his shitty apartment, filled with all the presents he’d bought for Sehun since Kyungsoo kicked him out.

He just couldn’t do it right now.

He wasn’t even sure why he was here.

But Kyungsoo didn’t open his door.

In fact, he passed it right on by with only the slightest of hesitations.

Chanyeol didn’t think he’d ever felt so relieved about anything in his life.

I’m sorry, Sehunie, he thought to himself. I’m just not ready.

Instead, Kyungsoo led them to his (their) bedroom.

He flipped the switch on the wall, and the light from the ceiling fan above came on, that damn ceiling fan that’d given them so much trouble when they’d installed it on their own. The wiring hadn’t been right, and they’d gotten a little snappy with each other, but they’d figured it out in the end, Sehun sitting on their bed, reading off the instructions, giggling at the plaster stuck in their hair, the dust on their faces.

Kyungsoo pulled Chanyeol into the room, closing the door behind them. There was no one in the house, so Chanyeol didn’t know what Kyungsoo was hoping to keep out, but he didn’t ask. He allowed Kyungsoo to lead him over to the bed. The comforter was different, black instead of sky blue, and there were new lamps on both nightstands, but other than that, everything looked to be the same. Chanyeol had left most everything for Kyungsoo when he’d moved out. He’d been unwilling to leave Kyungsoo wanting for something that he could just as easily buy secondhand and cheap. His bed in the apartment was a futon, his dresser worn and chipped. It was a half life, he knew, but he’d rather have Kyungsoo keep all their possessions than take away from him.

He remembered the look on Kyungsoo’s face that day when he’d said that. He’d been standing by the door, suitcases packed, struggling to keep himself in check. Kyungsoo had been breathing heavily, eyes watery, and then Chanyeol had opened his mouth and he thought Kyungsoo would crack right down the middle. He’d fled rather quickly after that. He felt like he’d been running for a very long time.

They stood near the bed, side by side, hands clasped, both of them still wet despite the heater in the car. Chanyeol had so many things to say (why and how and what do you want from me and I love you, I miss you, I need you, please don’t let me go), but he said none of them, his equilibrium still off, grappling with the fight-or-flight urge heavy in his chest.

Kyungsoo (wonderful Kyungsoo, sweet Kyungsoo, beautiful Kyungsoo) said, “I’m going to go get us some towels. I want you to stay right here.”

Chanyeol nodded dumbly, trying not to flinch when Kyungsoo pulled his hand away. He clenched his jaw to keep from saying something stupid like, “Can I please go with you?” He gripped one of the bedposts so that he couldn’t head for the door, down the stairs, and out of the house back into the rain. He had a thought (when was the last time you drove around DC, just looking for Sehun? He could be out there right now and you’re not doing anything about it, my God, what kind of a father are you?) but he pushed it away. That was the guilt talking, he knew. Minseok had told him during one of their very first meetings that guilt had a voice, and it would speak louder than all his other thoughts. It was okay, he’d said, to listen to it sometimes, but he could not let himself be swallowed by it because he might not ever come back.

Kyungsoo backed away from Chanyeol slowly, never taking his eyes off him, as if he thought the moment he looked away, Chanyeol would disappear as if he’d never been here at all. He stumbled a little when he reached the bathroom door, and he had to look away, fumbling with the light switch. He was out of sight for only a few moments.

Chanyeol looked away, toward the bed.

The lamps were lit.

Chanyeol had always slept on the left side of the bed, Kyungsoo on the right. They had never even really discussed it back when they’d first started. That first night they’d met, that was just how they’d been, curled up in Kyungsoo's apartment, the mattress lumpy, the thumpthumpthump of music from a neighbor’s apartment through the thin walls. Chanyeol had been on the left, Kyungsoo on the right, and it’d been weird just how weird it wasn’t. They hadn’t kissed, though Chanyeol had been thinking about it for the last hour. They’d just taken off their pants, leaving on their shirts and underwear, and they’d lain on the bed, facing each other, knees drawn up and bumping as they asked all the important questions they could think of (What’s your favorite color? What kind of music do you listen to? and Do you believe in aliens? And in the morning, will you make breakfast with me? I’m warning you right now, I like to sing whenever I cook. You have to sing with me while we make waffles). They’d fallen asleep that way. The next night, it was the same thing. And the night after that.

And every single night they spent together, it was Chanyeol on the left, Kyungsoo on the right.

Sometimes, Sehun had been in the middle.

He had nightmares.

Or he was sad.

Or he just didn’t want to be alone.

The door would creak open at one in the morning and he’d whisper, “Daddy? Papa? Can I stay here with you? I think there’s a gremlin under my bed.”

Chanyeol would groan, and Kyungsoo would mutter that Chanyeol should have never let him watch those movies, but they’d always make room because there’d always been room for him. There’d always been—

“Chanyeol?”

He looked up from the bed. Kyungsoo was standing a little bit away, looking unsure and his contacts traded in for his glasses. He held a couple of towels in his hands. He’d taken off his coat and scarf, and he looked drier than Chanyeol felt.

“Hi,” Chanyeol croaked out, unsure if Kyungsoo had asked him a question that he’d missed.

Kyungsoo furrowed his brows. “You’re shivering.”

And oh, he hadn’t even realized that, but yes, yes he was. In fact, he was shaking, and he realized just how cold he really was, how heavy his wet clothes felt on his shoulders and back and thighs. His socks were wet, something he’d always hated almost more than anything else, and he couldn’t stop his teeth from starting to chatter. He thought maybe he would shake apart right here, right in the middle of the room he’d shared with the love of his life, just down the hall from the other love of his life. He’d break down into tiny little shards right in front of Kyungsoo, and there’d be nothing left of Park Chanyeol but bits and pieces and the knowledge that he’d let down the two people who mattered the most to him.

“Cold,” he managed to say. “I’m cold.”

“You idiot,” Kyungsoo said. “You stupid, silly oaf.” He rushed forward, dropping the towels on the bed next to Chanyeol. “Arms up.”

Chanyeol didn’t understand.

“Arms up.”

Chanyeol lifted his arms above his head.

For a moment, he stood there, looking ridiculous, a middle-aged man with a slight gut, arms raised while he dripped on the floor. But then Kyungsoo’s hands were on him, pulling the sweater up and over his head. He grimaced when the wet fabric rubbed against his face, too surprised to do anything more than grunt a little in outrage. He was blinded for the briefest of moments before the sweater was up and over his head. He lowered his arms just a little when Kyungsoo couldn’t reach to pull it off the rest of the way, even when he stood on the tips of his toes. The sweater came off completely, and Kyungsoo dropped it to the carpet.

“You’re going to catch a cold,” Kyungsoo scolded as he began to fuss with Chanyeol's tie. “You know how you get when you’re sick.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chanyeol mumbled.

“Bullshit. I’ve never met a whinier human being than you when you’re sick. It’s like you’re a child. A giant clingy child.”

Chanyeol didn’t know what to say to that. Because they were so far past reminiscing, weren’t they? They had been reveling in it all night long, the memories of their shared life together. Chanyeol didn’t know why he’d tried to fight it in the first place. It’d been inevitable, really. He could see that now. So he said, “I spent a lot of time on that tie, you know.”

Kyungsoo rolled his eyes, the backs of his fingers brushing along Chanyeol’s chin. His plump lips pressed together tightly, that thing he did when he was really concentrating on something. “It’s not a noose, Chanyeol. I don’t know why you have to—aha! Got it.” And he had; the knot was coming loose. He pulled the ends back out of the loops, and Chanyeol remembered how he’d felt, standing in front of the mirror for that hour, practicing what he was going to say to Kyungsoo when he saw him, that everything was fine, that he was fine, that he was okay, thanks for asking, Kyungsoo, how are you? There were things he absolutely forbid himself to say, those things said between longtime lovers, the feeling of familiarity that came with decades of knowing and loving someone. Sure, Chanyeol had told himself, Kyungsoo texted I want to see you, but that could mean any number of things.

It’d taken two weeks from the day they met before they’d undressed each other with purpose, the tiny bedroom heated, their skin already slick with sweat. There had been fingers on skin, and tongues trailing along chests, cocks gripped in one hand as Chanyeol slowly jacked them both off, Kyungsoo’s head tossed back as he said, “Yes, please, Chanyeol, right there, please, just right there—” Later, cum drying on Chanyeol’s chest, Kyungsoo had climbed on top of him and rode him right into the fucking mattress, calling his name, hips rolling under Chanyeol's bruising grip. Chanyeol had whited out at the sheer force of his second orgasm, another little death that pulled a rough shout from his throat.

It’d taken him a few minutes to come back into himself, but he had, Kyungsoo stretched out beside him, a grin on his face like he’d known what he’d just done to Chanyeol. They’d both been a mess, tacky with cum and lube, the used condom still on Chanyeol’s dick, but they’d looked at each other, smiling, smiling, smiling until they were laughing and kissing, and anyone who has ever laughed and kissed would know how impossible it was, how wonderful it felt. Chanyeol had never laughed and kissed at the same time before, lips scraping together, huffing out sharp breaths, chuckling into someone else’s mouth. He’d never felt so alive, his body so electric.

It wasn’t the same now.

Kyungsoo wasn’t undressing him to fuck him.

It wasn’t passion or urgency.

But there were still the little pinpricks of light when he felt Kyungsoo's fingers against his skin. There was still the buzzing in his brain as Kyungsoo unbuttoned his dress shirt, one right after the other. It was surreal, this feeling, having Kyungsoo so close after so long. If he wanted to, he could pretend that this was any one of a thousand normal nights they’d had in their life together, Kyungsoo fussing over him and Chanyeol begrudgingly allowing it with minimal amount of pouting and grumbling even though they both knew he not-so-secretly loved it.

But that wouldn’t be right, would it?

Because they didn’t have normal nights. Not anymore.

They hadn’t in a long time.

Kyungsoo slid the dress shirt off Chanyeol's shoulders.

He had an undershirt on, still partially tucked into his dress pants. He looked down between the two of them, his forehead brushing against Kyungsoo’s wet hair. The undershirt was wet, sticking against the gentle slope of his stomach. He’d always been a bigger guy, thick with muscle. He’d been hard and soft in all the right places, Kyungsoo had said that first night, and many nights after.

Now, though, his chest was sunken, his arms thin and a little flabby. It wasn’t as bad as it’d been six months ago. He was in better shape now, those nights spent at the gym instead of sleeping starting to pay off. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, so his body had other ideas on how it would react to sudden exercise after it’d been flooded for years with stress and rage. The morning after he’d gone the first time, he thought he was going to die. Everything had hurt, and he’d given a lot of thought to never going back, but then he couldn’t sleep that next night and found himself in the gym again, grunting as he lifted weights, pushing through the incredible burn as he jogged on the treadmill.

So he wasn’t at his worst, but he still wasn’t where he’d been before. He didn’t know if he’d ever be, and he was embarrassed at the sight of himself. There’d been no one else since he’d left this house. He’d hadn’t even thought about it. The last person who’d seen him in any stage of undress had been his doctor, who’d told him to get his ass to the gym if he didn’t want to have a heart attack in the next five years. He hadn’t told Kyungsoo that, not wanting to worry him, but maybe thinking too that Kyungsoo wouldn’t worry because he didn’t care. He had Kris, after all. Kris who would never let himself—

Kyungsoo's hands were on his belt buckle.

“Whoa,” Chanyeol said quickly. “It’s not—”

“I’ve seen it all before,” Kyungsoo said, dry as dust.

And—okay. Yeah. That was true. But Chanyeol was uncomfortable, unsure of what was happening. He’d never been shy, for fuck’s sake, and maybe all Kyungsoo was aiming for was a pity fuck, a once-more-for-old-time’s-sake sort of thing. Maybe they’d collapse in on each other like a dying star and the bed would shake and they’d whisper encouragement in each other’s ears, breath hot and panting, and then tomorrow there would be no waffles while they danced around in their underwear, with Chanyeol singing at the top of his lungs to overpower Kyungsoo's singing and later his wheezes and laughter, like they were young men again. Because Chanyeol knew better than anyone else that you could never go back to the way things once were. All of that was dead and gone, and he could never get that back.

“Fine,” Kyungsoo said, taking a step back. “Just… get out of those clothes. You’ll catch your death in them. I have some sweats you can borrow. I’ll toss everything in the dryer.”

He waited until Chanyeol nodded slowly before he turned toward the walk-in closet. Chanyeol watched him walk away, suddenly sure he’d messed something up somewhere. His hands were on his belt and he pulled at it until it cleared the loops. He dropped it on the floor. He played with the hem of his shirt for a moment before gritting his teeth and pulling it up and over his head. He was exposed, more so than he’d been in a long time, and his nipples were hard little pebbles on his chest, gooseflesh prickling along his arms and shoulders.

He picked up the towel off the bed and rubbed it over his hair, and tried not to whimper at that familiar smell of detergent and fabric softener that Kyungsoo always used. He’d never been allowed to touch the laundry, not after he’d accidentally ruined a white shirt of Sehun’s (“Dad, why would you even throw in a white shirt and red socks together?”) (“Honestly, Chanyeol, did you even think of the outcome when you just threw it in there with your socks?”). They’d teased him a lot about it, and he’d taken it all in stride, but knowing they’d come to him when something needed to be fixed or hung, as the last time Kyungsoo had used a hammer, they’d ended up in the ER for four hours while waiting for a broken thumb to be set, Sehun trying to muffle his continuous laugh while his Papa sat grumpily next to him, Kyungsoo's hand wrapped in a hand towel filled with melting ice. They’d been a team. The three of them.

He left the towel resting on his shoulders as he flushed slightly, hands going to the front of his dress pants. He heard Kyungsoo moving in the closet, and he didn’t dare look up, not knowing if Kyungsoo too was getting undressed. It was intimate, almost unbearably so, and he didn’t know how to deal with it after having let it slip through his fingers with words he hadn’t meant, a culmination of all the fury and the horror he’d felt since he received a phone call on an unusually warm spring afternoon in March.

He pushed down his pants, bending over to push them past his hips and thighs. His boxers were wet and clung to his groin, but he ignored them for now, stepping out of the pants, almost falling over onto the bed as he tried to maintain his balance. He got them off and left them in the growing pile on the floor.

He was almost bare.

His skin itched, and he swallowed thickly.

He glanced up at the closet door. There was a mirror hanging on the inside of it, and he could see Kyungsoo's reflection inside the closet, and he wasn’t moving. He was standing at one of the sets of drawers, and his eyes were closed, his breaths looking as if they were slow and deliberate. Like he was trying to get himself back under control, like he was—

Chanyeol looked away.

He wrapped the towel around his waist.

He slid his underwear down from underneath it.

Left them on top of the pile.

And that was it.

He had nothing left to give.

This was everything he had.

But before he could dwell on that, Kyungsoo was back in the room, fully clothed, arms full. He stopped for a moment, staring at Chanyeol, who tried his very best not to squirm. Something passed over Kyungsoo’s face, something Chanyeol couldn’t quite figure out. And that somehow made it worse, because hadn’t there been a time when Chanyeol had known everything about Kyungsoo? Hadn’t he been able to read him like a book? Yeah, there had been. He’d known what Kyungsoo was thinking even before Kyungoo thought it himself. It was just one of those things.

Here they were, though. Not quite strangers, but not what they’d once been.

“Better?” Kyungsoo asked.

Chanyeol nodded.

“I have….” He shook his head. “I was going to say that I didn’t know if I had anything that would fit you, but—you’ve lost some weight.”

Chanyeol wanted to hide. “It’s just—I guess.” He shrugged awkwardly, face hot. “Maybe a little bit.”

Kyungsoo snorted but didn’t say anything. He walked next to Chanyeol and set down a pair of sweats on the bed next to the second towel. His shoulder brushed Chanyeol's, and Chanyeol took a step back, coughing into his hand, looking anywhere but at Kyungsoo.

“I’ll be in the bathroom,” Kyungsoo said evenly. “Getting changed. These are—just, put these on, okay?”

Chanyeol nodded, words stuck on the tip of his tongue.

Kyungsoo smiled tightly before he headed toward the bathroom, toeing off those ridiculous shoes and kicking them toward the closet. He closed the door behind him but didn’t lock it.

Chanyeol didn’t know why that calmed him as much as it did. It was such a little thing.

He dropped the towel and pulled on the sweats. Kyungsoo was right; these wouldn’t have fit him a decade ago, or even three years ago. The sweatshirt was a little tight in his shoulders and a little short on his wrists, but it still hung over his frame loosely. The same with the sweatpants. They were warm and soft, and Chanyeol was tired. He supposed he’d be staying here, which—well. He’d make it work. Somehow. He’d get the guest room and Kyungsoo would stay here, and maybe he wouldn’t spend the night staring at the ceiling, his brain working hard, pointing out every little thing he could have done differently, lost in one of the many fantasies he had of how life could have been different.

(He’d be a college graduate now, working with this charity or that charity like he’d planned, saving the earth or the whales or the children, any number of things that caught his eye. Chances were, he’d have gone out into the big, wide world on his own, but he’d stay close, and they’d have dinner once, twice, no, three times a week, and it’d be good, because he’d be making a difference. He would be changing things for the better, and the world would be a wonderful place because he was in it.

And maybe on one of these visits, he’d be acting a little strange, nervously wringing his hands together and licking his lips every now and then, that nervous tick of his. Chanyeol and Kyungsoo would patiently wait. He’d sit across from them, maybe blushing a little. He’d tell them that he’d met someone, and that she was interesting, and so goddamn aggravating, but that he’d been seeing her for a few months, and Dad, get that look off your face, I was going to tell you when I was sure, okay?

And apparently he was sure now, because he was in his residency at MedStar, and that didn’t give them a lot of time to see each other, but Dad, Papa, she is so pretty and she makes me laugh, and she pisses me off all at the same time, and I really, really like her, so could you please just be happy for me?

Of course they could. Of course they would.

They’d meet her, and she’d be anxious, shaking their hands while Kyungsoo squinted at her, saying how lovely it was to meet the woman Sehun wouldn't stop gushing about. And Sehun would face palm and mumble Please Dad, if you ever loved me you wouldn't let Papa embarass me like this.

It would go better after that.

Maybe they’d break up at some point, and he’d stay at their house in his old room for a week, and they’d make him waffles in the morning while dancing around the kitchen and singing loudly every morning. He’d cry a little, sniffling against his Papa's shoulder while his Daddy wraps them both in a fuzzy blanket like a buritto and cuddle them.

Or maybe they wouldn’t break up at all.

Maybe they’d stay together, and one day, they’d come over to the house, and he’d be beaming. He’d ask if they could tell anything different about him, and Kyungsoo would ask if he got a haircut, much to his dismay, and then Chanyeol would start screeching, grabbing his hand, the silver band around his finger glittering in the light overhead.

They’d let him live and be happy, of course. Leave the safe haven of their house and let him have a life of his own. Start his own family and experience the joy of being married and eventually, having kids to care for.

Those were the dreams he had, late at night.)

(Sometimes, there were the nightmares, where he was begging for Chanyeol to come get him, that he just wanted to come home, and why wouldn’t Chanyeol help him? Those were the ones that ripped his heart still beating from his chest.)

The bathroom door opened.

Chanyeol looked up.

Kyungsoo had changed into his sweats. He carried his clothes in his arms. He hesitated when he saw Chanyeol sitting on the bed, his face stuttering with something awful for just a second, but he just shook his head. He dropped his own clothes into the hamper next to the bathroom and looked back at Chanyeol.

Chanyeol felt out of place. “I’ll go to the guest room,” he said, picking at his sweats. “Or I can just wait until the clothes are dry and then I’ll go back to the apartment.”

“Is that what you want?”

No. It wasn’t. But Chanyeol didn’t know exactly what he wanted. So he shrugged and looked away.

Kyungsoo sighed. “You’re not driving home tonight, Yeol. Not in this weather, and especially not since you look like you’re ready to collapse. Honestly. You never could take very good care of yourself.”

“That’s what I had you for,” Chanyeol mumbled before he could stop himself.

“What?” Kyungsoo asked sharply.

Chayeol winced and shook his head. “Nothing. I’ll just… the spare room. Sheets on the bed?”

There was no answer.

Chanyeol looked up.

Kyungsoo’s hands were in fists at his sides, his jaw tense, brow furrowed.

Chanyeol stood quickly, realizing he was still sitting on Kyungsoo's (their) bed. He bent down, scooping up his wet clothes, taking a step away from the bed. “I know where the dryer’s at,” he said hastily. “I can do it. You should just—you can go to bed. I’ll—tomorrow, I’ll go back to the apartment tomorrow. Okay? I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“Stop,” Kyungsoo snapped, and Chanyeol froze in the middle of the room. Kyungsoo rubbed his hands over his face. “Just—stop. You can’t—Fuck. You’re not—” He let out a huff of air, sounding aggravated. Then, “Give me the clothes. I told you I would handle it.”

He knew that look. That look meant that Kyungsoo wasn’t taking any of Chanyeol's shit right at that moment, and that whatever he’d said needed to be done would be done. He didn’t even stop Kyungsoo when he stepped forward and grabbed the wet clothes out of Chanyeol's hands, tie trailing down, looking defiant, like he expected Chanyeol to say something.

He was heading toward the door, and Chanyeol was unsure whether or not he should follow, when his mouth opened all on its own and said, “Wait.”

Kyungsoo stopped in the doorway, glancing back over his shoulder and frowning, eyebrows doing that thing that meant you have three seconds, Park Chanyeol.

“My wallet. It’s in the pocket. Could you…?”

Kyungsoo nodded and turned back toward him, shuffling the clothes in his arms until he could reach the pants. He started digging through the pockets and it was then Chanyeol remembered the one thing he should not have forgotten. That even though this night had been an onslaught against the shredded remains of his heart, twisting through him with a dizzying sense of vertigo, he should have remembered.

He knew the moment Kyungsoo found it in the front pocket.

His brow furrowed even further for a moment, then his eyebrows jumped in confusion. Then there was surprise and understanding followed by something fierce, something that almost looked as if it burned like fire.

He pulled Chanyeol's wedding ring from the pocket.

The clothes dropped to the floor.

Chanyeol closed his eyes, not wanting to see the anger on his face, the rage that Chanyeol would still keep such a thing close to him. Yeah, he’d seen Kyungsoo's bare finger when he’d arrived tonight and had compartmentalized that away for later when he could break something. He’d still been wearing it last summer, and even though he’d been at the benefit with Kris, Chanyeol had thought savagely, yes, you’re here with him, but he’s still married to me. He’s still wearing the ring I gave him.

Kyungsoo brought it up to his face to see the carved out sound wave pattern.

We love you, Chanyeol.

(Chanyeol was in his studio come office when Sehun walked through the door. He was two, almost three, and chubby and the most beautiful thing in the world. "Daddy!" Sehun cried then stopped in his tracks, looking at the mic Chanyeol was holding then to the various instruments and equipments behind Chanyeol. "Woah... What is that, Daddy?" He looked equal parts amazed and curious, walking closer to where Chanyeol stood.

He then saw Kyungsoo leaning against the doorway, looking adorable in his baby blue shirt and sweat pants with specks of flour on his hair and a bit on his cheeks and nose.

Chanyeol cleared his throat and said, "This is called a microphone, Sehunie, it records sounds, like for example Papa would sing using this and then this device would pick up on it and... You know what? Come here, let me show you how it works." And Sehun had squealed happily and clapped his hands. Chanyeol chanced a glance at Kyungsoo and saw him looking at them fondly.

Chanyeol was sitting in front of the computer with Sehun on his lap and Kyungsoo behind them, gripping the back of his chair. Chanyeol made sure everything was set then said, "Now try to say something on the microphone, Sehunie. I'll press record and then we'll play it back for you to hear," he then pressed record.

"I love you Daddy, Papa!" Then Sehun turned to him with a bright smile, "Now play it back, Daddy!" Chanyeol then felt Kyungsoo tug at his ear and he immediately dragged the mouse and clicked playback hearing the words loud and clear on his speakers, the monitor showing the sound wave patterns. And then he thought of an idea.

He adjusted Sehun on his lap so he's sitting on just one leg then he dragged Kyungsoo by the hand and made him sit on the other, with Kyungsoo resisting for a bit before settling, Sehun giggling and holding on to Kyungsoo's hand. It was a bit heavy. Okay a lot heavy. But he endured.

Then, "Okay, I want you both to say you love me then it's me and Sehun's turn to say we love you, Soo."

Kyungsoo winked at Sehun and their son giggled, for some strange reason Chanyeol didn't know.

"Okay."

"You both ready?"

"Yes, Daddy!"

Then, "You loooove me!" Kyungsoo and Sehun both giggled after. Chanyeol should've known better.

Chanyeol sighed, kissed Sehun's cheek then pinched Kyungsoo's tummy. "Do it again. Properly this time please."

And they'd complied. After Chanyeol recorded it (both the "We love you Chanyeol!" by Kyungsoo and Sehun and the "We love you Kyungsoo!" by Chanyeol and Sehun) he'd saved it and made a copy on his flashdrive. The next day he drove to a jewelry store to get a set of gold bands and asked for an extra service. He'd left the rings and the flash drive and came back for it the next day. The rings were Chanyeol's and Kyungsoo's, but it was also Sehun's, and it belonged to all of them, and it was carved into the rings and worn against their skin day after day after day.)

“Why do you have this?” Kyungsoo sked him quietly.

Chanyeol didn’t answer.

“Chanyeol.”

He closed his eyes. “I just—I wanted. I—” He felt helpless. “I wear it. Okay? I wear it because it’s the only thing I have left, and you don’t have to wear yours ever again and that’s okay too. But please don’t take this away from me. Please let me have this. Please. I promise you won’t have to see it, but please give it back to me. It’s mine, and it’s all I have, and I just—I want it. Please. I want it, I want it, I need it. Okay, I need it. I—”

Lips pressed against his own, pushing them back against his teeth. He was shaking, and his face was wet, and everything hurt, but he was being kissed, kissed, kissed. It wasn’t romantic, and it wasn’t sweet, but it felt like breathing, like he ached. Like he was living and dying a thousand little deaths, and he gasped against Kyungsoo's mouth, trying to pull away and take even more all at the same time.

They stood there, lips together, Kyungsoo’s hand wrapped around his neck, holding Chanyeol against him, grounding him, anchoring him back down even though he felt like he still might blow away into nothing.

He was being kissed, but he was also still trying to speak, wanting to beg Kyungsoo not to take this last little thing he had left, and Kyungsoo was shushing him, telling him to settle, to calm, Yeol, you need to breathe, just breathe, though his words were a bit hazy. And Chanyeol did, after a time, breath hitching in his chest, feeling raw and hollow, like everything inside had been scraped out and laid bare.

It went on like that. For a time.

Kyungsoo kissed him and kissed him and kissed him, and one of them was crying or both of them were crying, but it didn’t really matter. He was standing in this house, wearing these clothes, and he was clutching at Kyungsoo, not daring to let him go in case he left and never came back. If this was going to be it, if this was good-bye, then he wanted to take what he could.

Things were starting to become clear again, and he heard Kyungsoo murmuring near his ear, saying, “You sap, you old sap, you stupid, stupid giant, why are you like this? Why did we let it get this far? You stupid oaf. I am so angry with you. I love you so much.”

Chanyeol tightened his grip as Kyungsoo pulled back a little. He looked at him and he could still see the man he’d been all those years ago, standing in front of an apartment door, both of them fumbling awkwardly, both of them thinking that the other was different, they were different, and something was happening here. Kyungsoo's eyes were wide and wet, and his bottom lip was trembling like he was holding on as best he could, like he was being brave.

“You’re so stupid!” Kyungsoo cried at him. “How could you be so stupid? You have this. You kept this. I thought you—I thought you didn’t want—” He growled angrily, shaking his head. He jerked one of his arms out of Chanyeol's hands, and no, no, no, please, don’t do this, please don’t—

But he wasn’t stepping back. He wasn’t trying to get away from Chanyeol. He reached up and pulled a chain out from under the sweatshirt, the metal thin and silver.

At the end of it was the matching gold ring.

Chanyeol knew what the carved out pattern says.

He’d been so tickled at the sight of them when he’d seen the rings for the first time. He had laughed, head rocking back, clapping his hands in front of him. “And it’s secret!” he’d squealed. “It’s on the inside and it’s secret!” And then they’d asked if he would be doing the honor of being the most important part of the wedding by wearing the most dapper suit ever made for a little boy and be the one to deliver the rings to them. And the look on his face when they asked him, the look of joy had been a moment so heartbreakingly sweet that when he’d burst into happy tears a moment later, they were shocked into inaction, just sitting there, watching their son sob about how he couldn’t wait to be a ring bearer, that he was so excited.

And when they’d been standing in front of their friends in the backyard, he’d been a little shy, standing on top of their feet, pulling on his Daddy’s pant leg while he was reciting his vows, asking him if they were almost done because he was hungry, standing on his Papa’s shoes, asking him why he was crying, was he all right? And when they’d brought out those rings from their son's coat pocket, he’d shrieked in delight, screaming at everyone that there was a secret on the rings that no one but them would ever know about.

Then they’d kissed.

He’d demanded kisses too.

They gave him all the kisses, of course.

How could they not?

“You left,” Kyungsoo said. “You left me.”

“You told me to,” Chanyeol said hoarsely. “You told me I had to go.”

“I was angry.”

“I know.”

“You said horrible things, Yeol. You said terrible things to me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please, can I have it back? Please don’t take it from me. Please, Soo. Please, can I have it back? Oh, please, oh, please.”

Kyungsoo looked away, making a wounded noise deep in his throat, like he was trying to swallow down a sob. He shook his head, but he didn’t move away, and so Chanyeol tried not to take that too badly. His eyes kept going to the ring on the chain and he wanted to touch it, to make sure it was real and that he wasn’t dreaming. Because he didn’t think he could stand it if he was here this moment, and the next he’d open his eyes in the shitty apartment on the fucking futon that hurt his back, the walls bare, the hall closet filled with gifts he bought for his son who had been taken against his will by someone almost six years before.

And then Kyungsoo's hand was in his and the ring was too, and Chanyeol sucked in a deep breath, trying to clear his mind, trying to hold on desperately to the last little pieces of himself. He clutched the ring, and they stood together, chests bumping, cheeks scraping.

But then Chanyeol took a step back. Kyungsoo didn’t stop him, only watched him as he slid the ring back right where it’d belonged, right where it’d been since the day they’d been married the first time. He felt slightly better, a little more himself, more than he had since he’d taken it off outside the hotel. He wiped his face, tears still on his cheeks, and he didn’t trust himself to speak, knowing his voice would crack more than it already had.

“Why,” Kyungsoo asked him. “Why, Yeol?”

He shook his head, not yet composed.

“Please?” Kyungsoo asked, and goddamn him.

“Why what?”

“Why do you still have that?”

And Kyungsoo had called him stupid. “I told you. It’s the only thing I have left of both of you. You can’t take that away from me. I won’t let you.”

Kyungsoo watched him for a moment. Then, “I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do that to you, Yeolie.”

“Okay.”

“Chanyeol?”

He was exhausted. “Yeah.”

“Can you stay with me? Here?”

Chanyeol didn’t dare ask if he meant now or forever, already nodding even before Kyungsoo finished his question. “Yes. Anything. Yes.”

His face was sore, his eyes felt like they had sand in them. And he was rooted where he stood as Kyungsoo moved toward the bed, stepping around him. He pulled back the comforter, bumping into Chanyeol, who took a step back.

Kyungsoo climbed into the bed on the right side, and Chanyeol knew what his next step was, knew what was to be expected of him, but he couldn’t make himself move. He couldn’t find the strength to take those last little steps.

He watched as Kyungsoo sniffled, pulling the comforter up to his chest, leaning back against the pillow, ring resting on his chest. A long few seconds ticked by before he looked up at Chanyeol and asked, “Are you coming to bed?”

Please don’t let this be a dream, he thought.

He walked around the bed to his side.

He pulled back the comforter.

He got in.

He breathed.

He lived.

He ached.

He died a little death as he sank into the mattress, because it was so good, it felt so good and he never wanted to move again. He hoped Kyungsoo wouldn’t make him. Granted, nothing had been resolved and everything was still up in the air, but he hoped Kyungsoo would just let him stay here, in their bed, so he could sleep and pretend, at least for a little while, that everything was okay.

He turned on his side facing Kyungsoo.

Kyungsoo did the same.

They were twentysomethings again, in their shirts and underwear, asking about aliens and colors and favorite music while eating waffles.

They were thirtysomething again, in sleep pants and tank tops, and he was there too, and he was reading them a story out of one of his books, about a happy penguin named Mr. Pingu.

They were fortysomething again, in shorts and shirts, and he was between them, wiping his eyes, telling them he didn’t know why he was so upset about what that stupid girl had said about him, they weren’t even friends.

They were older men now, Chanyeol reaching out and holding Kyungsoo's secret ring so that it scraped against Chanyeol's own. They didn’t speak for the longest time, and Chanyeol thought maybe it was his turn to talk first. That he should be the one to say what needed to be said. He was scared. He thought maybe it was the scariest thing he’d ever done. But Kyungsoo had still worn his ring, so Chanyeol thought he could be brave too.

He said, “I feel guilty. Every time I smile. Not that I do it that much anymore. But I do. Feel guilty.”

Kyungsoo narrowed his eyes a little. “Why?”

“Because,” Chanyeol said, voice breaking. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Because, I think… it’s… A couple of months ago, I got an e-mail. It was from—you know what? I don’t even remember who it was from. It—that doesn’t matter. I was reading it, and there was something stupid in it, and I laughed. I laughed, and after, I thought it might have been the worst thing I’d ever done. That I was just spitting on him and his memory. Because I was laughing.” He took a deep breath and let it out slow. Kyungsoo's hand covered his that held the rings, holding it tightly. “He was gone, and here I was, sitting in front of a computer, laughing at an e-mail I’d gotten. Like it was nothing. Like he was nothing.”

“That’s not—”

“Just—let me. Let me finish, okay?”

Kyungsoo nodded, blinking rapidly. He sniffled again.

“Every time I smile, every time I laugh, I think I’m doing something wrong. Because I didn’t—I have a son. I have a son and I lost him and I don’t know where he went. I don’t know what happened to him. I am a parent, and I lost my child, and who am I to smile? Who am I to laugh? I failed him, Soo. I failed him, and I sometimes, I can’t even breathe at the thought of it.”

“You didn’t,” Kyungsoo said roughly, voice thick with tears. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t—”

“He's gone,” he croaked out. “Kyungsoo, our only son is gone. I can’t—I’m not—where did he go? Why did he leave? Why did he have to—” He was gasping now, losing the thread he was desperately trying to follow, and Kyungsoo was squeezing his hand tightly, so much so that he thought his fingers might break. But Kyungsoo's ring was digging into his palm, and it hurt, but it was a good hurt, and he was here. He was really, really here. Like, for real, and Sehun was laughing in his head, he was laughing, because this is for real, Dad. Papa. This is for real.

He cried then.

He was a sap.

This much was known.

But since March 22, 2012, the day Park Sehun vanished, his father, Park Chanyeol, had cried exactly twice.

The first time he’d cried had been two weeks after he’d disappeared, the days before a storm of police, frantic searches, interviews, and sleepless nights. It was two o’clock in the morning, and he found himself in the laundry room, thinking that he might as well get something done before the sun came up and he could head out again. Kyungsoo was sleeping upstairs, having taken an Ambien.

He was standing in front of the washer and dryer, sorting the pile of clothes in front of him. His hands were shaking. He was exhausted, but every time he closed his eyes, he saw his face, and he just couldn’t. He knew Kyungsoo was worried about him, knew that it wouldn’t be long before he intervened, but for now, he was drugged and asleep in their bed, and Chanyeol was downstairs, unaware of what was about to hit.

He lifted a pair of jeans up from the pile of clothes and just… stopped.

Because they weren’t his jeans, no. They weren’t Kyungsoo's.

He tried to breathe.

He found that he couldn’t.

He tried to set them down.

To turn around and leave.

To forget that he’d ever seen them.

But he couldn’t move.

And it was so stupid, that it would come to this. That he’d been so stoic to the police and to the news media, Kyungsoo tucked at his side, crying into his shoulder. Yeah, there’d been that clip that had been played over and over online where his voice broke when he’d said, “If you have him, please. Please. I beg of you. Please let him come home. Please let our s-s-son come home.” He’d almost made it through, but then he’d gotten stuck on that word—son—and it was shown again and again and again. How sad, everyone said. That’s just so sad. At least it didn’t happen to me.

Kyungsoo had cried. Kyungsoo had cried almost every day.

Chanyeol had not.

Until these jeans. These stupid jeans that he always gave Sehun shit for, because he’d been there when he’d gotten them. He’d bought them for him, and he’d said, “Dad, how do I look?” when he’d come out of the dressing room. And he had frowned and said, “Those don’t leave much to the imagination, do they?” He had glared at him and said that he wasn’t going to wear no goddamn baggy jeans, no sir, and that he liked the way it hugged the curve of his ass.

“Sure, sweetheart,” he’d said. “And I bet your milkshake would bring all the boys and the girls to your yard.”

He’d grinned at him, so much like Kyungsoo that Chanyeol would have argued to anyone that he was theirs, theirs, theirs.

They’d been expensive. He’d almost choked when the girl behind the counter had read the total, and Sehun had turned his puppy eyes and pout toward his father, and he’d said, “Dad. Listen. I’m about to graduate high school. I’m going to college. I’ve never gotten high. I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve earned this.”

“Yes,” he’d said dryly. “Because going to college and not doing drugs or murdering someone justifies two-hundred-dollar jeans.”

“Glad we agree. Dad, she needs your credit card. Don’t be rude.”

So of course he did.

It was for Sehun, after all.

Eleven months later he was gone.

And two weeks after that, he was holding the damn jeans in the middle of the laundry room in the middle of the night, and right before the dam burst, right before he struggled to breathe as he made the most broken of noises, he had the time to think, oh sweetheart, where are you?

And then he broke down.

Kyungsoo found him the next morning, sleeping fitfully, face still wet, lying on the laundry room floor, clutching a pair of jeans in his hands.

The second time had been the day he’d said those terrible things to Kyungsoo, shredding what they had left into the tiniest of pieces. He didn’t like to think about that day.

And here, now, he cried. For the third time since he’d received a phone call from a kid named Luhan at 3:37 on a spring afternoon in March of 2012, Chanyeol cried.

But this was different than it’d been before.

He’d been alone then.

Now?

Now he broke in the arms of his husband who he hadn’t seen in almost eight months before this late night. His husband, who Chanyeol had been convinced would have him served with divorce paperwork any day now. His husband, who Chanyeol had missed almost as much as he’d missed their son. There had been nights when, instead of thinking, What is Sehun doing right now? he’d thought instead, What is Kyungsoo doing right now? He’d imagined him sitting in front of the TV, legs tucked under him like he did when he wasn’t planning on moving for a while. Or he imagined him in the bookstore, smiling at his customers, glancing every now and then at the poster in the front window that asked HAVE YOU SEEN HIM? with a photo of a handsome smiling young man.

This was different.

This was different because his face was pressed against a familiar chest, and he was breaking apart, shattering like the thinnest glass, but there were arms wrapped tightly around him, and there was a voice in his ear, and for the longest time, he couldn’t make out what it was saying over the sounds of his sobs, but eventually he heard. Eventually, he heard his husband.

Kyungsoo said, “Chanyeol. Baby. Oh, Yeolie. Yeol. Chanyeol. Shh. It’s okay. It’s okay. Shh shh shh. Baby, I need you to listen to me. Babe, can you do that? Chanyeol. Shh. Listen to me. He loves you. Wherever he is, he loves you. And I promise you, we won’t stop until we find—until we find something. Maybe it’ll be good. Maybe it won’t. But you have to know he loves you. He doesn’t blame you. You did not fail him. I didn’t fail him. We made mistakes, love. We made mistakes because we’re human, but Sehun…oh, Chanyeol. Sehun was the best thing we’ve ever done, and if the time we had is all we’ll get, if those nineteen years were it, then we made them the best years we could. We loved him. With everything we had. We still do. We always will. And he knew that then. And he knows it now. Just like he knew that all he had to do was turn those eyes on us and he’d get whatever he wanted. He was ours, Chanyeol. He is ours. I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I’m sorry for saying he was gone. I—I want to believe. I want to believe that one day, he’ll walk in that door and say he was sorry. He was sorry, but that he’d just gotten a little lost, but now he was home, now he was home and he w-wasn’t g-g-going to l-l-leave us again—”

Chanyeol kissed Kyungsoo, again and again, both of them choking on their tears.

They breathed.

They ached.

They lived.

And there were these little deaths, okay? These little deaths that ripped through them, tearing open festering and rotten wounds, exposing them open to the air around them. They bled as they held on to each other, bled profusely, waiting for the storm to pass.

It took its time.

But eventually, like all things, it did.

The kisses were softer, less frantic.

The tears lessened.

They hurt, a raw, sensitive electric shock that felt like exposed nerves.

And maybe it would never go away. Maybe there would always be this hole inside of them. The not knowing. The mystery. The secret.

But.

They lay side by side, hands clasped between the two of them, neither wanting to let the other go.

Kyungsoo said, “Do you know why? Why I wanted to see you?”

Chanyeol thought he did. But he asked, “Why?”

Kyungsoo kissed the back of Chanyeol’s hand. “Because I love you. Because I miss you. Because I lost him, and I don’t want to lose you too.”

Chanyeol swallowed thickly, the words stuck in his throat again. This time, though, he forced them out. “Everything I said. Everything I did. That day. When I left. I—”

“It’s okay. Chanyeol, it’s—”

He shook his head furiously. “No. It’s not. It was never okay. No one deserves to hear something like that. Especially you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay? I never meant it. I never meant any of it.”

Kyungsoo smiled that funny little smile, though it was brittle. “I know.”

And Kyungsoo believed him. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay. Um. I love you too, Soo.”

“You better.”

Their eyes were starting to droop.

Then, “Hey, Kyungsoo?”

“Yeah?”

“Why’d you keep it like that?”

“Keep what?”

“The ring. Why’d you wear it around your neck?”

Kyungsoo opened his eyes again. “Because it hurt to see it sometimes. On my finger. To remember… you know. But I also knew that one day, we’d find our way again. I put it on the chain and wore it around my neck. I could always feel it against my chest. Even when I’d forget about it, somehow I always felt it.”

“Oh. I took my ring off for the first time earlier tonight.”

“Not once when you were gone?”

“Not once.”

“Can you…?”

“Can I what?”

“Can you put mine on me again?”

“You want that?”

“Yes. Almost more than anything.”

Almost. Because they both knew what they did want more than anything.

But this was a start.

And so Chanyeol opened his hand where Kyungsoo’s ring sat. The chain had dented his skin with a strange little pattern. He fumbled with it until he slid the ring off the chain. And in the dark, he slid the ring back on his husband’s finger where it belonged.

Something settled in his heart.

“You need to go back to speak to someone,” Kyungsoo said quietly. “I don’t care if it’s a therapist or a group or what. You can go alone. Or I can go with you. But you have to, Chanyeol. You have to. You need help. You can’t go on like this. You can’t. It’s killing you. And I need you to be strong. For me. But mostly for him. Both of us have to be. Because if he's still out there, he’s going to need us to be the best that we can be. It’s the only way. Can you do that? Can you do that for me? For him? I can’t lose you too. I can’t. I just can’t. I haven’t gotten my fill of you yet."

 

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said. “Yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I promise. I swear. I’ll do that. Anything you want. Can I come home now? Please? Soo? Can I please come home now?”

A single tear leaked out from Kyungsoo's right eye. It trailed over the bridge of his nose before it fell onto the pillow. “I’d like that that very much.”

Chanyeol kissed him again, slow and sweet.

They were almost asleep when Kyungsoo spoke again. “Hey.”

“Hi.”

“We should make waffles. In the morning. I think I’d like that.”

Then he was gone, eyes fluttering shut.

And before Chanyeol followed him, before he allowed himself to believe for the first time in a very long time that things might just be okay, he whispered three words.

Three words meant for the man sleeping beside him.

Three words meant for a boy named Sehun, out there somewhere in the world.

He was asleep a moment later.