Their breakup is—as all aspects of their relationship prior—Liyin pressing forward as Jongdae clambers for leverage. For reprieve.
Jongdae watches the steam condense on the edge of her coffee mug, part of their matching set, as she motions with her hands, explains.
She’s too—she’s too young, Jongdae. And she can’t do this anymore.
Jongdae nods, numb. He swallows back the urge to compel her to stay. To remind her that she made a promise, and they—they have a child, Liyin.
Because she has this caged look in her eyes sometimes. Something beautiful extinguished too soon. A butterfly pinned.
You don’t, she starts. Stops.
And Jongdae knows he probably doesn’t—hasn’t for a while.
I can’t, she tries. Trembles.
Liyin, he says. And she looks up. Meets his eyes for the first time since she asked him into the kitchen. It’s the last Friday of October. The tickets for tonight’s play are still in his briefcase, his tie is still on, and Liyin’s eyes are on his, as she tells him that she doesn’t want this—want him, want them—anymore.
And her eyes are sparkling, too shiny, too bright—alive for the first time in long, long time—and they don’t love each other anymore, not really, and Sehee, maybe Sehee—
I was washing the dishes, she continues. And I dropped one, and I just watched it crack, and this—this is my purpose. This is my life. What am I doing here, Jongdae. (Staying with me, staying married to me) Who am I here, Jongdae. (My wife, the mother of my child, who stays here with me) Why are we still, even though, we both know—I need a break, she whispers. I can’t breathe, she tells him. I can’t breathe with you anymore.
Liyin, he says, and her hand falls heavy on the table. Rattles her mug.
No, Jongdae, I—I need to be selfish. It’s not fair to us. To me. To You. To— to Sehee. And we both deserve. I—I need to leave.
She chokes there, and Jongdae feels a little piece of him—the little piece that still dreams of a happily ever after and with her, he’d married her—shatter. As he sees the cracks in her own facade. And he wants to sooth the pain away, reach forward to brush at the tears shining in her oversized eyes. But he’s not sure if he’s even allowed to touch her.
Are you gonna, he swallows thickly instead, are you gonna take—
She shakes her head, and there are tears clinging to her eyelashes. And Jongdae remembers their first date. The way the moonlight had kissed her face. The way those eyelashes had felt whispering against his cheekbones.
I didn’t just want to leave without a word, she says, red fingernails harsh and loud against the kitchen table. I thought you deserved to know that, and I thought we—what we were—deserved...
Is there, he chokes. Somebody—somebody else
She laughs. Hollow, bitter. It matches her eyes. It matches his insides.
Jongdae helps her pack her things. Cuts up their shared credit cards. Swallows thickly as she passes over her address book. And he leaves to give her privacy as she says goodbye to her daughter. Their daughter, waving short chubby fists as she babbles to her dolls. Dark eyes suddenly solemn when her mother leans forward to hug her too long, too tight, say she’s so proud of her little Sehee, her baby girl.
And Jongdae doesn’t tell her he loves her. Though the words are thick on his tongue. He doesn’t try to make her stay. Doesn’t comment on the mascara tears staining her face as a sob lodges it’s way deep down in his throat.
Jongdae doesn’t want to hurt her back. Or hurt her more.
But it hurts. It hurts. It hurts
And maybe they didn’t love each other anymore. Maybe it was for the best, maybe Liyin was the only one brave enough to give voice to the ugly incomplete thing they had become. But there’s still this aching, open wound. This love, this forever, gutted and bleeding at his feet as she waits for a cab on the stoop outside their building. Beautiful, no longer his.
And it’s not okay. It’s not. How can she think it’s okay? How can she expect them to be okay without her. But he can’t afford to dwell. Can’t.
The weekend passes in a blur of bitter, angry tears. Pain. Acute, ugly. When Sehee alarmed, tries to wipe at his face. Asks if he needs a hug. Asks when Mom is coming home.
He’s no good for Sehee. No good for anybody else. And Yixin intervenes. Sits beside him on his queen mattress and assures him that he’ll survive. He has to. He’ll be fine. And Sehee will be, too. She’s tough, resilient. He just has to keep trying. And Yixin, Yixin is taking a semester off. She can—she can help.
That first Monday without Liyin is the worst. Until that Tuesday. Then that Wednesday. And that Thursday. And by the time that first Friday has come and gone, Jongdae can hardly breathe. Wonders how he ever thought he’d be able to. Numb, drained, he goes through the motions. Until it stops hurting to breathe, stops hurting to be.
Yixin, Yixin helps. Yixin, hired in the past for in the in betweens. Date nights. Anniversaries. Occasions when Liyin would wear special lingerie, smile into Jongdae’s kisses, moan his name into his neck. Yixin is a rock in the aftermath. Calm, accommodating, her soft smile, soft touch, soft voice a soothing balm to the rawness, to the pain.
And time doesn’t heal. Not exactly. But it passes. The days blending into each other. And Jongdae does. Heal, too. Eventually.
Her name is Kyungsoon. His friend Lu Han introduces them during an office Christmas party, and Jongdae’s eyes linger on the peek of pale collarbone as she laughs, mouth moist, lips plump. And she’s small, quiet, but crude a times, biting. Jongdae loves the harshness of her humor, her beauty—the shocking wideness of her eyes, the plush promise of her lips, the black black of her eyes, her hair, her thick eyebrows.
And Jongdae almost, almost feels something. Almost allows himself.
Jongdae loves the softness of her skin, loves the taste of her laugh, loves the gentle brush of her moan against his lips. But when she’s naked in his bed, hair splaying across the robin’s egg sheets, urging him to just please. He fucking can’t.
Cock hard, but heart still broken or at least not quite right, he stumbles back, tugs on his clothes, asks her quietly to just leave. She nods slowly, gets dressed, but not before pressing a lingering kiss to the side of his mouth, whispering that she’s here if he, if he needs to talk.
Jongdae does talk. To Yixin. Stumbling towards her door, crying as she blinks in surprise at his misbuttoned shirt and unzipped fly. She’s cradling his child. Cradles him, too. In a show of tender boldness. Holds him as he sobs, holds him until he falls asleep in her arms.
Jongdae almost falls in love with her that night. As her hair tickles against his side and her breath whispers over his chest.
Again, on his daughter’s first Christmas without her. When he watches Yixin's face in the soft glow of Christmas lights, sees the wind-flushed cheek she brushes against his daughter’s face.
And once more, on his daughter’s fourth birthday. She bakes a cake. Calls her a gift from above. Look at her the way a mother would. Jongdae cries.
And the closest, distressingly, to the point of wanting to kiss her, marry her—replace her—the closest comes two weeks later, over the kitchen island, her eyes on his, lips pursed and plump and pink, as she talks about their best options, rifling through brochures as his daughter sleeps on Yixin’s bed in the other room. Jongdae feels warm, feels a part of something. And he’s almost, almost there, as her fingers brush against his, as her hair catches the glimmer of the sun’s fading light.
Over and over and over, Jongdae almost, but fights it.
There are sun decals on the window and rainbow arches along the stairwell. Colorcoded classrooms. A ballet room. A gymnasium. Blocks, dolls, benches with penguins and lions and lambs.
Sehee falls in love with the rainbow fish in the lobby. Coos at them. And Yixin, hand in his, falls in love, too, makes small appreciative noises as she peeks into the Montesorri room. Glances briefly over the books in their library.
And Joonmyun’s borrowed indoor shoes squeak against the wooden floors as he follows the principal into her office. Makes an offer.
There’s a parent interview. (Jongdae wears a tie, tells the truth, says he just wants the best for his child). A financial inquiry. A demo play with Sehee and other potential students. An immunization test. And then a two week wait as they shuffle classes, talk with the teachers, find the best fit.
And then Yixin is fussing over Sehee’s first day outfit. Packing and repacking her backpack (“I don’t think she’ll need a pencil case, honestly. She’s four, Yixin”). Yixin pauses to tug Sehee in her lap, run a comb through her hair as she thinks out loud. Nimble fingers braiding and unbraiding.
Jongdae almost falls in love with her again. Wills it away as Yixin sticks the comb between her teeth, sighs.
There’s a letter in his daughter’s bag when he opens it that first night. Printed in bright, bold font. Comic Sans, cornflower blue. Along with a picture of a man. Washed out, dark dark hair, dark dark eyes, pink lips pulled into a wide, straight smile.
Jongdae crinkles his nose as he skims it quickly, leans over to wipe at Sehee’s rice-covered cheeks.
Yixin’s voice is low, and she’s seated on his kitchen counter, bare thighs a pale contrast against the granite that Liyin had picked out.
(Jongdae almost falls in love with her again. But mostly out of habit as she overrounds her syllables, purses her lips, wrinkles her nose, too)
Mr. Kim, but please call him Joonmyun. (Hyung, Jongdae’s mind provides unnecessarily, remembering his age). And he's so excited to start this new school year with all their children, really looking forward to meeting them one-on-one, working out what's best for each child. Please please feel free to contact him with any concerns you might have.
Jongdae lowers the heat, covers the pan, turns to regard her as she continues to leaf through the collection of letters home.
And there’s a calendar for upcoming class events, birthdays, field trips, festivals, and the snack and lunch menu items. Mention of a tentative parent-teacher potluck with all the other 4 year classes. A list of suggested school supplies: wet tissues (the kids can get kinda messy, tend to get milk and jam and rice all over their faces), an extra toothbrush, a change of clothes in case of accidents, lotion, bandaids, extra hair ties. And a sign-up sheet for parent volunteers for their upcoming field trip to the aquarium (it’s a little early, a good 7 weeks away, Joonmyun knows, but it’s something to think about. And the kids always appreciate meeting parents).
Yixin looks up pointedly at that, raises one perfectly manicured brow as she shifts. The fabric of her cutoff denim shorts squeaks against the counter. Jongdae’s eyes drop there for an instant. Look back up to her face. He hesitates, swallows, motions with a certain awkward flourish. He leans back against the counter, weighs his words. “Are you—I mean do you want to—I think Sehee already considers you if that’s what you…”
Yixin laughs, shakes her head. Her hair falls in her eyes, and she’s beautiful. “Sehee has a mother, and I’m not…” Yixin shakes her head harder, as if to clear her thoughts, then tilts her head down, speaking more to her kneecaps than Jongdae. “I meant for you, Jongdae. It’ll be, you know, a good first to share with her. You won’t really have that opportunity a lot.”
“I’d have to ask for time off work,” he tells her. “Call in sick. Use vacation days.” He has 3 weeks. Had started with vague plans to go to Hawaii with his family, play with Sehee in the water, make love to Liyin on pristine hotel sheets. But now, now he hoards his vacation days. Holds off on commitments for the sake of keeping that dead fantasy alive.
And Yixin hangs the calendar on their refrigerator with a low hum of acknowledgment.
It becomes a weekly ritual of sorts.
Sometimes Joonmyun scribbles memos. Little moments noted in his neat, perfect Hangul.
The second week, Yixin reads about how Joonmyun is really impressed with Sehee’s table manners. (He’s lying, Jongdae cuts in. She’s still can’t hold her baby chopsticks properly. She likes to gesture and talk while she eats). How Sehee’s shy still, but he’s confident she’ll adjust well.
The third, about how she’s talking more. Expanding her friend group. Talking with other children. But how she gravitates to one boy in particular, Tao. They stack blocks together, coown a bingsu restaurant, sometimes play house with another girl, a tiny Jungah, as their daughter.
The fourth, Joonmyun talks about how loudly she sings during Circle Time, how enthusiastically she dances. How she's got fire in her veins, and it’s beautiful and perfect.
The fifth, he talks about Baekhyun’s birthday party. How Sehee made a point of telling him that she’d helped pick out his toy car. How she’d known that he would like the one with flames the best.
And the sixth, for Parent’s Day, there’s a note—written in Sehee’s clumsy loopy scrawl, guided by Joonmyun’s own hand, no doubt—thanking her parents for loving her. Two, actually. Two picture frames, too. Yixin stops. Looks up.
Jongdae pauses from where he’s sauteing chicken.
They’re made of popsicle sticks, felt, and there are twin pictures of Sehee. Her black hair gathered in a tight, high ponytail, her cheeks scrunched, her eyes wrinkled, her smile wide.
“Do you want me to—Liyin?”
Jongdae shakes his head, and Yixin nods minutely.
"No, I just—there's this part, right? Where we can write back. Can I just see it?"
Yixin passes over Sehee’s notebook, and Jongdae scribbles about wanting to talk to him soon.
Jongdae keeps the popsicle picture frame on his desk at work. Kakaos Joonmyun—Kakao ID Joonmyun Teacher, Kakao display picture a lopsided circle with two bulging eyes Jongdae assumes is a child’s portrait—about coming during lunch.
“Kim Jongdae, Sehee’s dad,” Jongdae says unnecessarily, momentarily dazzled, and Joonmyun grins—crinkles his eyes with it—as he motions for Jongdae to follow him inside.
It’s lunch time for his class, too. And a smile tugs at the corner of Jongdae’s lips as he watches his daughter chatter happily, motion with her Hello Kitty chopsticks as she eats. She still hasn’t noticed him, and Jongdae pauses to watch her. The Sehee that he doesn’t know. Joonmyun makes a small noise, touches his forearm, as he observes that she’s really a great kid.
(Jongdae knows that Joonmyun says that to every parent probably. Has to. But it provides an almost comfort)
And it’s not just Joonmyun. Jongdae knew logically that it couldn’t conceivably have been just him. There are 9 other children in Sehee’s class. But it dampens the fantasy a little, he realizes. The fantasy of Joonmyun Teacher, surrounded by a hoard of young children, maybe with a guitar, a book on his lap.
But it’s not just Joonmyun. There are two other teachers. Women. Dressed in loose cotton. One a blue dress, with short sleeves, floor length. Hair dyed cherry black hair. Hyoyeon. The other, dress green, hemmed mid calf. Black hair pixie cut. Sunny.
They acknowledge him with a subtle bob. And Sehee—seated next to Sunny, prodding at her kimchi—notices him, then. She tenses, drops her chopsticks, eyes skittering from teacher to father.
Sunny reaches out to touch her, and Sehee seems to melt into the touch. Relaxing fully when Jongdae waves. Sunny loops an arm around Sehee’s waist, coaxes her into eating again.
“So why did you...?" Joonmyun starts delicately, and Jongdae sighs, turns to look at him.
“You, for Parent’s Day, I don’t know if it was to pretend that she has—We don’t need two things. It’s just—if she’s not—”
“I’ve been—ah—meaning to ask you about that,” Joonmyun says. “We—we have files, you know. And I know that you’re...divorced, but here I’ll—”
Joonmyun leads him to a wall. There’s purple yarn taped to the wall, family portraits hung with lady bug clothespins.
“She drew…” Joonmyun taps his finger against her picture, and Jongdae blinks. There are two stick figures, holding hands, a tinier one in between. “I asked her which one was her dad,” Joonmyun points to the one on the left, two dots for eyes, a crooked smile, black hair, “But I asked which was her mom, and she said me.” Joonmyun’s fingernail taps against the figure on the right. Three strands of hair, eyes bigger, a lumpy circle of a smile.
“But not—not Yixin?”
Joonmyun blinks. “There’s no Yixin in the file. Is Yixin your….?”
“No, she’s...she's my—person."
There’s the briefest flash of judgement in his eyes. And Jongdae thinks not for the first time that maybe he should, should with Yixin just for the sake of gutting that pity, smothering that judgement. Because Jongdae doesn’t want that. Because Jongdae, Sehee deserve better. Something ugly churns in his gut, and Jongdae squares his shoulders, swallows back the mixture of self-loathing, insecurity, pain—phantom pain—that that look always seems to inspire.
"She didn’t draw Yixin?" he repeats.
Joonmyun shakes his head minutely.
Jongdae feels almost stupid for insisting, for explaining, but Joonmyun doesn’t seem to understand the gravity. “Yixin—Yixin is the closest thing she has to a mother right now. She loves her. Better—better than other mothers, I’m sure. Stronger. And just because, we—doesn’t mean—we do more than fine for ourselves. And just because—it doesn't mean she lacks love. Doesn’t mean she's missing out.”
Joonmyun’s mouth falls open and then shut. His lips are very pink, Jongdae notes dimly. Wet from the way he licks them nervously. And Joonmyun is flustered, apologetic, momentarily dumbfounded.
“I don’t—Mr. Kim, I’m not. We just asked them to draw their parents. Somebody that loves them very much because we’re trying to be sensitive to—nontraditional families.”
What do you know about nontraditonal families?, Jongdae almost snaps. What the fuck do you know about “sensitivity”?
But he sighs heavily instead. Holds his hand up. Joonmyun straightens. “And she didn’t think, didn’t think Yixin was her mother? That Yixin loves her very much?”
“I don't—she mentions a Xing Xing sometimes. Calls her her angel.” It fits, Jongdae decides. It fits. It fits. “And maybe—maybe that’s—but no she didn't she draw Yixin. Didn’t think to draw a mother. She, she drew you and me...and it’s not unheard of. Kids thinking I’m a parent. Mixing up their genders. But it’s a little...I’m not her father. Or your….person.”
“Is it...concerning?” Joonmyun clenches his fists, shoves them into his slacks. “Should I…?” Jongdae trails off, rounds his shoulders.
Joonmyun shakes his head, purses his lips. “She’s happy. She’s well-adjusted. And she’s taken quite well to both our assistant teachers. She’s a good kid, honestly. She’s just a little shy. A little...needy. And she—”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jongdae sees one of the teachers—Sunny—motion for Joonmyun. Joonmyun acknowledges her with a bob. “I’m sorry I offended you,” Joonmyun says, reaching out to touch his forearm once more, emphasize his point. “And I’ll—I’ll be sure not to include two things from now on. Your family is just as...valid. Your daughter is—I know she’s loved. I know she’s in good hands.”
Jongdae nods slowly. Smiles tightly.
“You should—volunteer—for the aquarium. It’s—the kids really like it. We don’t really get a lot of dads, and I think Sehee would really appreciate it. She talks about you a lot. Draws you a lot.”
“I’ll—okay. I just—Is she done? I want to say goodbye.”
Sehee's initial approach is shy. Slow drags of her feet until she changes her mind midway and runs over to see him off. Wraps her short arms tight around his neck and buries her face into his neck. Speaks against his shirt as she tells him over and over again how much she loves school and how much she loves him and did he see her turtle she colored it all by herself and she can even write her name Daddy did he see where she wrote her name.
That night, Jongdae goes to Daiso, asks Sehee to help him pick out his presents. Jongdae buys chocolate, cookies, tissue paper, rifles through the thank you card section until he finds two adequate ones. He sits beside his daughter on the kitchen table, asks her to “sign” one as he works on his own.
He calls in late for Parent’s Day. Stops at McDonalds. Lets her eat a parfait for breakfast, smiles and hums as she prattles about her favorite colors, what blocks she’s going to play with at school.
Jongdae hand delivers with Sehee in tow. Smiles awkwardly at the other mothers lingering near the door. Shifts uneasily at their raised eyebrows. We don’t get a lot of dads.
He feels inadequate, out-of-place, empty-handed, as he scans over other displays. Bigger flowers, homemade cakes, coffee. Sehee squeezes her tissue paper carnation tighter, holding it steady, and Jongdae shuffles, pulls the strap of his gift bag higher as he waits.
But Joonmyun smiles at him just the same. And Jongdae kisses Sehee’s cheek before leaving.
Jongdae decides, as he waits at a traffic light, taps his fingers in a restless tattoo to the rhythm of some lovelorn ballad on the radio.
And he fills out the parent volunteer form that night. Folds it into neat fourths for Sehee’s bag. Sends her off with a warm smile, a whispered promise against her temple.
Over the weekend, he sits Sehee on his lap, clicks through page after page of google images. On sharks, manta rays, jellyfish, manatees, sea horses. He watches Finding Nemo. Downloads English-language documentaries about the deep sea, the Great Barrier Reef, whale songs. Takes her to the library to sift through glossy National Geographic magazines.
(It’s going to be 3 hours at the most, but Sehee oohs at every picture, gasps at every clip he finds. Then insists on drawing her very own ocean for him, grips her crayon extra tight in her small fist, sticks her tongue out in concentration)
He lingers with the other children, introduces himself as Sehee’s dad, smiles at the way they blink up at him. Seem to straddle the line between wary fascination and outright fear. He’s a dad—looks, talks, probably smells like one, too—but he’s not their own.
Jongdae crouches down nonetheless, eye-level, to greet them. Laughs at awkward, mumbled “good mornings,” clumsy, jerky bows.
Joonmyun grins, calls him over to introduce him—the two other moms—properly. They are young, pretty housewives that greet him with soft voices, shy bows.
The children have snack—animal crackers and milk—and Joonmyun hands him a painfully neon yellow tshirt with the school’s name printed in big, thick black letters. Beneath that a less thick, smaller “Parent Volunteer.”There’s a neon orange vest. To wear over it. For easy spotting. It washes him out. And Minseok’s, Jungah’s moms also complain. Grimace when they note that Joonmyun somehow still manages to look handsome. It’s really not fair.
They board the bus after Joonmyun explains their safety rules. A modified buddy system that pairs every adult with at the most 2 kids, pairs every adult with their own buddy. Sunny with Hyoyeon, Jungah’s mom with Minseok’s, Jongdae with Joonmyun. They’re given a map, split into shuttles.
It’s not much of a vacation day, but Jongdae enjoys it.
The trip consists mostly of holding hands with his assigned toddlers. Bumping elbows with other students from other schools. Playing overexcited about fish, sharks, eels. At one point, holding out his arms, wiggling them to imitate a jellyfish, get a couple of laughs. Holding a weepy Chanyeol who really wants to see the sharks, but they’re so close and they’re so big and they eat people and he doesn’t want to be eaten.
Jongdae’s legs, arms, head ache by the end of it, but Jongdae loves holding his daughter’s hand, chatting with the other parents over lunch at the park by the school—the one with the blue swings—cringing at the screamlaughs as the kids urge him to push them harder on the swings, make them go higher.
Jongdae loves being tugged into a haphazard group picture. Sehee climbing into his arms, Chanyeol tugging at his belt loops, Joonmyun draping his arm over Jongdae’s shoulder. The weight of it is warm and reassuring, makes Jongdae feel small and protected for a brief instant before Chanyeol elbows Jongdae dangerously close to the crotch in his shift to pose. Arm cocked at severe 90 degrees in a showy peace sign.
Jongdae loves, treasures the memories created as he tucks Sehee into bed that night. Turns his phone over before he’ll regret one nonproductive day.
(There's a quarterly report due in three days, but Sehee had laughed so loud as she'd pressed her nose against the glass to talk to the manatees)
Joonmyun attaches the picture to his weekly letter home. And Yixin complains in something akin to jealousy, kicks her bare foot against his thigh when he dismisses her with a wave of his hand. He falls back on the counter, almost upturns his spaghetti, with an unceremonious squawk.
From her perch on the kitchen table, with her fist tight around a crayon, Sehee laughs. Proclaims how much fun she had.
“Didn’t even tell me,” Yixin grumbles. She kicks him even harder, digs the heel of her foot into his thigh. And Jongdae screams out a whined “Why.”
Jongdae spends his second vacation day, three weeks later. At a children’s art museum.
Other parent volunteers consist of Baehyun’s, Chanyeol’s mom. And the children are divided once more—Sehee, Tao, this time. Jongdae once more paired with Joonmyun.
Joonmyun wears a fanny pack. Still somehow manages to be attractive in a decidedly domestic kind of way, as he offers wet napkins, wipes at noses, points out all the shapes, colors.
Jongdae, at his side, Sehee’s and Tao’s hands warm in his own, pontificates loudly on the color scheme, the way the style seems almost derivative of Jackson Pollock’s. Because Joonmyun looks like the type to know and appreciate that sort of thing. Looks like he understands boring, refined things.
It’s nice to look at, Joonmyun acknowledges, with a smile, nodding towards the painting with his chin. But I don’t really—it’s for kids, you know.
And they eat turkey sandwiches on the benches outside the school afterwards. Take another group picture.
Jongdae splays himself across the grass, stares up at the sky. Sehee rests her head on the crook between shoulder and neck, fingers in the air, tracing mindless patterns between the clouds.
He uses his third one a class field trip the zoo.
It’s hot, miserable. The air stifling, humid. Dampening the children’s hair, their spirits, too. As they tug at their sweat-slick shirts, flushed faces pouting, sneakered feet scuffling listlessly along the sand.
But the adults try to make a point of amping up the experience. Pointing out all the animals. Letting the children take pictures with the monkeys, the giraffes. Buying water bottles with animal stickers on the front.
Jongdae tugs Sehee’s visor up, waves a paper fan in her face, as she screams about the crocodiles. Glances sidelong at Joonmyun who is crouching down, dabbing at Jungah’s cheeks.
And Joonmyun, even with his black hair slicked back with sweat—Jongdae notes absently, angrily, jealously—is still handsome. Flushed cheeks scrunched up into a wide grin as he smooths back Jungah’s damp bangs.
They eat lunch at school this time. The air conditioner blasting on high as they scoop food into their mouths.
Jongdae spends every other lunch break at his daughter’s school. Bends awkward in too-small children-sized chairs, homemade sandwich on his lap, casting the occasional forlorn glance at his child’s banchan.
He learns more about her in these moments, he realizes.
Sehee enjoys his company but trembles when confronted with change, when not aware of her father’s presence or allowed to introduce him on her own terms. Retreats into herself when Jongdae initiates contact. Reminds people that he’s her father.
She likes organizing other student’s indoor shoes. Laughs the loudest when she’s embarrassed. Runs so fast she trips over herself sometimes. Moves, speaks awkward, stilted sometimes in front of her friends. But almost sheds that childhood shyness when she dances, sings.
And Sehee is petulant, shy, wary of new people, new situations. But she curls easily into Joonmyun’s arms, smiles toothy and wide as Joonmyun murmurs back, thumbs at her cheek. Jongdae’s chest aches.
And Sehee, Jongdae learns, loves the color purple, the number 4, giraffes.
He leans over to watch, legs knocking against the too short desk, as he sits next to his daughter, kitty corner from Joonmyun as the teacher sketches one for her. Ugly, scrawling, comforting in a way. A marked contrast to his neat, perfect Hangul. His straight, white teeth. His pressed, cleaned clothes. His giraffe a lumpy, clumsy scribble of an animal that Sehee marvels over, nonetheless.
Joonmyun reminds him about the upcoming Summer Festival as Sehee scoops more rice into her mouth. Joonmyun would really appreciate his help. It’s in three weeks.
Jongdae calls in his fourth sick day. Idles at home until 3PM. He asks Yixin to pick Sehee, take her to the park, let her get a fruit parfait, so he can help Joonmyun prepare for the Summer Festival.
He can hear the smile in Yixin’s voice over the phone as she agrees.
Joonmyun is asking for help making the signs, building the booths. Asks Jongdae to bring an old shirt, old sweats he doesn’t mind getting paint on.
Joonmyun’s smile is special. Just for Jongdae. Jongdae almost imagines. Flattered, dazzled, as he takes in the image of him in something more casual. Looser, softer fabrics, relaxed, shoulders peeking out of his oversized shirt when he shifts to greet him.
There are newpapers laid out. Paint. Pencils. Panels. White cardboard.
“You’re the only one again,” Joonmyun laughs. It’s sad, strained at the very least. Morphs into a sheepish smile when Jongdae just grins in response. “Thank you.”
“Let’s—let’s just get straight to work.”
Joonmyun traces the letters in pencil, falls beside him, thigh to thigh, hand brushing against Jongdae’s clothed knee as he shows him his sketches.
Jongdae watches his fingers, skims his eyes up Joonmyun’s arms, over his chest, across his chin, up to his mouth. His lips rounding as he explains. And oh, Jongdae realizes. Oh.
Joonmyun is slight, thin, small, but handsome. In that frustratingly objective kind of way. All wide eyes, sharp cheekbones, easy smiles, and oh. It's something something Jongdae hasn’t felt for a long time. A sort of uneasy churning deep in his gut, a slow-burning heat, a certain tightness to his skin. And it makes sense for Joonmyun to be wanted, needed, loved, Jongdae thinks. But he doesn’t, isn’t—
“Sehee will like the face painting,” Joonmyun says, reaching over Jongdae for the paint, smacking his thigh, compelling him to respond when Jongdae just blinks at him.
“Yeah. It’ll be nice to meet the other parents, too. Other families.”
“Will you bring Yixin?”
Jongdae nods. “She’s jealous, actually. Of how much time I spend here. Wishes she could come more, too. She wants to know who’s stealing her favorite people away. ”
Joonmyun regards him for a beat. “Your person.”
“Yes. My person. Do you have a person? Will you bring her to the festival?”
Joonmyun shakes his head resolutely, drops his gaze.
“No girlfriend?” Jongdae teases, and Joonmyun wrinkles his nose. “Jungah’s already proposed. I wouldn’t want to break her heart.”
“But don’t you want to get married, have your own children?”
“Get divorced. Become miserable, more like.”
Jongdae tenses. Joonmyun curses softly, stiffens, turns to grab at Jongdae’s arm.
“Sorry, that’s—I didn’t—”
“It’s fine. I just. I had to move on, you know. She didn’t—we didn’t—and sometimes it hurts really bad, but I still want.”
“I’m not good—with women,” Joonmyun says simply.
Jongdae nods. And that’s the end of that conversation. Thankfully.
Jongdae paints. Joonmyun draws. In relative silence.
“I’m thinking also Saturday,” Joonmyun offers over his shoulder. Jongdae nods.
“I feel like I’m becoming the parent volunteer MVP,” he jokes.
Joonmyun taps the top of his indoor slipper against Jongdae’s at that. “You’re appreciated,” he insists.
Jongdae makes a noncommittal sound as he falls to his knees, paintbrush between his teeth.
“Really. I appreciate your company. Your help.”
Jongdae blushes, doesn’t leave until 8PM.
Sehee is asleep in her bed. Tucked in. When Jongdae gets home. Yixin greets him with a tired smile, ruffles his hair with a patronizing chuckle.
Joonmyun brings donuts. He’s wearing shorts this time. A washed out concert T.
“Less time today,” Joonmyun promises. Tossing a canned coffee in his direction. Turning. “I started without you.”
“You have—” Jongdae points to Joonmyun’s pants. There are streaks of green near his ass. Joonmyun twists his body to look.
“Occupational hazard,” Joonmyun laughs, wiping at the paint with a fond smile. “Thank you for looking out.”
“I’m your MVP,” he reminds him.
“I should repay you,” Joonmyun says. “Take you out to dinner sometime.”
Jongdae's heart stops, stutters in his chest for just a second before starting up again.
“It’s fine. I like being involved. Like helping you, too.”
They work once more.
And it’s an hour in, as Jongdae’s rolling up his sleeves, getting ready to fall to his knees, paint the facepaint sign, that Joonmyun stops him with a playful shove. And Joonmyun’s hand wraps just briefly around his wrist, and Jongdae can’t. Jongdae doesn’t. Moves to pull away. Joonmyun laughs, tightens his fingers, reaches out with his free hand to smear paint on his chin. Jongdae stumbles after him as Joonmyun races away. Jongdae tugs on his bare ankle, Joonmyun kicking, screaming, flailing bodily and knocking over bottles of paint. Rolling across crinkling newspapers.
Jongdae straddles his waist, breathing hard, holding a bottle of purple in his hand. Joonmyun squirms underneath him. Joonmyun gets an arm around his waist, pulls him forward so their chests knock together. Jongdae’s breath leaves his lungs in an oof.
“Don’t,” Joonmyun says. Voice stern, but mouth stretched in a wide smile. Jongdae shivers suddenly. Yeah, he thinks, then. Yeah there’s something definitely desirable.
Joonmyun blinks up at him. Eyes fluttering to halfmast, hand reaching out. And oh. He smooths wet, tacky fingers over Jongdae's cheekbone.
Jongdae panics. Sits up. Thighs bracketing Joonmyun’s sides.
“But I’m not—Men, I don’t—”
Joonmyun’s smile falters. Becomes ugly, almost. Hollow. Jongdae recalls stepping on Christmas lights as a child, shattered bulbs, darkness, coldness where warmth, light once was.
And it’s sad, even though Joonmyun’s lips are still stretched wide. “Okay,” he says. Sitting up, too. Jongdae falls back.
The air is thick with Joonmyun’s broken smile.
“Okay,” he says, softly. “I didn’t mean to—I’m sorry if I—”
Jongdae’s head jerks with a nod.
“Thank you for—”
Jongdae rises stiffly. Clothes still sticky with paint. Chest tight with something.
Stops coming to lunch, too.
Sits Sehee on his lap, presses kisses to her warm forehead when she asks him why Daddy and Joonmyun appa aren’t friends anymore.
At their weekly Sunday dinner, Yixin tenses, hesitates, drums her fingers against the countertop, opens and closes her mouth several times like when she wants to speak but is scared of the consequences.
Until Jongdae sighs heavily. Turns to regard her with a guarded eyes, pursed lips.
"Just say it," he groans in Mandarin.
Yixin blinks in surprise.
“He’s written about it, you know. In his memos. To you at first, but then to me. He apologized to me because I’m your person. And he crossed a line, or tried to.” Jongdae drops his gaze. Feels her imploring eyes. “But he—ah—wants to be your friend still. Is sorry if he gave you the wrong impression. Says you’re his MVP. And he wants you to come to festival, too. At least reap what you’ve sown. Get to experience what your hard work contributed towards. For Sehee’s sake. For your own, too. And he invited me, too.”
Jongdae looks up at her from beneath his eyelashes.
“You have 6 days to decide, but I really think…”
Yixin tips her head back as she trails off. Baring the lean expanse of her neck, her collarbone, rolling her shoulders easily. She leans forward again, chin catching at her sternum as she smiles up at him. Warm, dimpled, beautiful. Persuasive.
“Okay,” he says. Turning back to his food. He’ll think. He’ll deliberate. He’ll decide.
But it’s Sehee eyes, ultimately. The way they sparkle at mention of it that decide for him. And Jongdae is still not right inside. Feels strange. Confused. Conflicted. But he stops at the grocery store after work. Buys flour, milk, butter, eggs, frosting. A cake mix just to be safe.
Yixin helps him bake the cake. Reads off the instructions, supervises him carefully, intervenes to right the oven temperature, butter the pan.
Sehee wants to help, too. Gets flour on her cheeks, shirt, hair as she sits on their counter, claps her hands excitedly, mixes. Tastes the batter just to be sure it’s okay.
It’s pretty pathetic as far as apology pastries are concerned, Jongdae thinks. But Yixin reassures him it’s more than adequate. And Sehee is very proud of it, too. Helps him frost it, pouts until she’s allowed to lick the spoon.
Saturday, Yixin wears a blue summer dress. Lets her hair down. Applies lipstick, eyeliner, mascara. Looks almost disconcertingly, distressingly beautiful. She inspires an almost phantom pang of desire. Falling to her knees to braid his daughter’s hair. Their dresses match. Their smiles do, too. And Jongdae’s chest swells with pride as he guides them into his car.
Yixin elbows Jongdae, and Jongdae reaches out to pull her closer. “This is my Yixin,” he says.
And Yixin laughs. “It’s so nice to meet you,” she smiles. Joonmyun nods, reaches out to pinch a suddenly shy Sehee’s cheek.
“LIkewise. You’re one of the first families. But come see the fruit of your labor.” Joonmyun moves her arm in a wide sweep.
“I only painted two signs,” Jongdae protests. “That’s hardly—”
“More than any of the other parents. My MVP.” His tone is light—falsely so—and there’s an edge, a something he can’t quite place.
Jongdae’s skin feels extra warm. His chest constricted.
“Let’s, dad!” Sehee interrupt, and Jongdae laughs as she tugs insistently on his arm.
Jooonmyun, Yixin stay behind. Linger. And there’s an odd almost-posturing, and Jongdae watches Joonmyun watch her. Watches them move in and out of each other’s space Yixin, at one, point, leans forward to speak to him, head tilted down as she does, fingers light at his forearm. Something strange twists low in his gut.
But Jongdae doesn’t dwell. Instead allows himself to be dragged from booth to booth by a prattling, giggling Sehee. She gets a butterfly on her cheek. Puts way too many gummy bears on her ice cream sundae. Peels off her dress, tugs restlessly at the thick straps of her neon pink one piece as they wait in line for the water slides. Joonmyun greets the other parents with deep bows, a wide smile.
Joonmyun’s smile at the end, two hours later— as they're saying their goodbyes—is warm, genuine, too. But there’s something secret in it, and Jongdae feels like he’s off kilter, like he’s clambering for a flicker of understanding, like like like it was with Liyin. Stumbling two steps behind. He hates it. He glances quickly to his far left, where Yixin is towel-drying Sehee’s hair.
“Jongdae,” Joonmyun says. His voice is velvet soft, comforting, and maybe almost fond. Jongdae tries not to feel or think too much of it. “I want to thank you for all your help over the past couple of months. Let me take you out to dinner.”
Joonmyun blinks, nods, smile widening. But there’s a subtle shift in it. More politician than preschool teacher, and Jongdae finds himself swallowing slowly as he nods in acquiescence. “It’s fine, I’m just returning the favor,” Joonmyun says. “Trying to celebrate my MVP.”
“Okay, then I’ll—”
“It’s a date.”
Jongdae sputters in acknowledgement.
(Jongdae almost almost almost falls in love with her, he thinks. For the very last time. Has the choice.)
As if sensing it, she tilts her head up, noses at his chin. Jongdae can feel the tension of an almost hang heavy in the air as she presses her dimple briefly—distressingly—to his throat, then shoves at his chest suddenly with a trilling “Go get him, tiger.”
Jongdae stumbles back, laughs in turn.
And it’s not—he could just be saying that. It could be an expression. It doesn't. He doesn't have to mean that he’s—interested.
(Jongdae—Jongdae is still wrestling with it, honestly. With being, admitting to being interested)
Jongdae is trying to convince himself that it’s not a date date, but Joonmyun is looking so soft and beautiful in the candlelight. Leaning forward to touch his hand. Asking his interests outside of work, his child. Insisting on paying. Walking him home. Lingering there, outside his door with this something in his eyes.
“Is this...?” Jongdae asks, meeting his eyes in the eery overcast of the streetlight, fingers shoved in his pockets, scratching against velveteen fabric as he fights the urge to trace Joonmyun’s smile, memorize the contours of his face. Appropriate? Allowed?
“No, it’s probably not,” Joonmyun says.
Jongdae is not supposed to buy him gifts. Not supposed to inquire about his personal life beyond passing curiosity. Probably not supposed to—want. But Jongdae, Jongdae has trouble following the rules when Joonmyun looks at him. Smiles at him. Touches him. Tries to kiss him. Like maybe, he also—
Jongdae leans forward, hesitates. “It’s just,” he starts. “I just—”
“Returning the favor?” Joonmyun supplies softly. His voice is breathy, eyes heavy-lidded as he regards him. Joonmyun presses closer, smiles against the corner of his mouth. It’s—he’s—even prettier up close.
“In case you were…” Joonmyun clarifies, pauses, skims along his chin as his fingers smooth up Jongdae’s waist, “this is a date, and yes I do want you—”
“Joonmyun, I’m not—I haven’t.”
“Have you ever kissed a man?” Joonmyun asks, and Jongdae shakes his head, exhales loudly.
“I’ll teach you,” he smiles
And then his mouth is against his.
His lips are very very soft and warm. And they move slowly against his. Coaxing his open. Their tongues curl together, as Jongdae cradles his face, hums into his open mouth.
Jongdae’s back connects against the wall of his building. He’s stunned by his own soft moan. Slanting his mouth open to deepen the kiss. Joonmyun breathes his name. Jongdae feels like he’s gonna suffocate.
“I—” Jongdae says, pulling away, leaning his nose against Joonmyun’s chin, as the other—not quite content to stop touching him—runs his hands up and down Jongdae’s sides, whispers kisses along his eyebrows, forehead. “Yixin has Sehee. But they’re both—if you—we’ll have to—”
“Is that what you want?”
Jongdae, slightly dazed as he takes in Joonmyun’s dark eyes, slick lips, nods slowly.
Jongdae sends a text on the cab ride to Joonmyun’s house. Squirms nervously, laughs too loudly, as Joonmyun threads his fingers through his. Squeezes his hand as he pecks lightly, teasingly at Jongdae’s trembling jawline.
“I’ve never—I don’t know how to,” Jongdae reminds him as they stumble into Joonmyun’s apartment.
“I’ll teach you.”
And he proceeds to kiss him breathless, needy, lips, tongue, fingers bolder now that they’re inside. He shifts to bite at Jongdae’s neck as he tugs fabric, urges Jongdae to shed his clothes, too, so Joonmyun can see, touch, lick more. Jongdae arches into his urgent kisses, insistent caresses.
Fingers skimming over his nipples, across his navel. And Jongdae gasps, bucks up towards the featherlight brush of fingers against his cock.
“Teach me,” Jongdae moans as Joonmyun presses the heel of his palm against Joonmyun’s erection.
But teaching, teaching seems to consist of Jongdae’s hands in Joonmyun’s hair and Joonmyun, on his knees, his lips around Jongdae’s cock, Jongdae’s entire body trembling as he fights to urge to come on the spot.
Joonmyun slurps as he bobs, smirks as he descends, and Jongdae—Jongdae wants to learn. Wants more fuck please.
Joonmyun pulls back, drags his lips—slick and supple and skilled—across the head of Jongdae’s flushed, trembling cock, humming, groaning.
Joonmyun drags him to his bed, Jongdae disconcerted, stumbling over furniture, moaning as he falls back on the mattress. Jongdae returns, presses his forearm across Jongdae’s hips to hold him down as he mouths teasingly at him once more.
Jongdae’s fists his hands tighter. Pleads with his words, and Joonmyun relents, circles his tongue, gives, until Jongdae is tangled, desperate mess in Joonmyun’s cool white sheets.
Joonmyun is patient, but in a devastatingly tortuous way. Has the self control to drag it out even as Jongdae whimpers, begs for more.
His lips are sinfully soft and puffy around Jongdae’s cock, and his hand is skittering up Jongdae’s thighs. Higher, higher, until whoa.
Jongdae is mindless with pleasure, grinding back on the barest friction, the most teasing touches.
“Is this okay?” Joonmyun whispers, fingertips, tapping lightly over his entrance, catching on his rim.
Jongdae, neck limp, jaw slack, murmurs out a breathy, needy yes.
Joonmyun disengages from his cock with an obscene pop. There’s a shuffle for supplies. Joonmyun reaching over him into a bedside drawer. The crinkle of foil, the plastic pop of a bottle.
Joonmyun noses at his abs, breathes messy praises, voice damp, heated, skating along the hair at Jongdae's navel.
"So warm, so tight," he groans as he eases a finger inside.
It's embarrassing, in a way, Jongdae thinks, having to vocalize it. But he's grateful for it, too. The careful way that Joonmyun watches his expressions, eases into him finger by finger thrust by thrust. Intuiting the harders, the fasters but pausing to ask anyway just in case. “Does it feel good? Do you want to keep going?”
Jongdae nods limply, jerks at every careful, deliberate touch.
Joonmyun curls his fingers as he nips at Jongdae's hipbone, and Jongdae jolts off the bed.
Joonmyun brushes the spot again—Jongdae lets out a highpitched whimper—smirks.
"I want," Jongdae sputters out. “More.”
Joonmyun shifts to spread his fingers, presses down hard. Jongdae shudders, sobs.
Joonmyun groans, drags Jongdae’s thighs flush with his chest, cants them upward. Jongdae lets out a needy whine, clenches his eyes shut at such blatant exposure. And Joonmyun spares a lick. Forbidden, hot. And it has Jongdae’s head tipping back, mouth opening, body trembling as he moans.
“Next time,” Joonmyun promises, “Next time I’ll teach you that, too. Eat you out. Fuck you with my tongue. Teach you how to fuck me, too.”
“But now I—I’ll just use my cock.”
Joonmyun drops him back onto the mattress, Jongdae sits up to watch. Joonmyun slicks up his cock, eyes trained on Jongdae’s body. He braces one hand on Jongdae’s hip, guides himself inside with a breathless stuttering fuck forward.
And it isn’t quite teaching. Or Jongdae is too distracted, too overwhelmed to pay much attention to the lesson. As Joonmyun holds his thighs up, open, gripping hard as he rolls in smooth, skilled, sinful. Urging him to fuck back, move his hips to match every plunge.
Jongdae tries, moans, taps his thumb against Joonmyun’s bellybutton—an outie—to center himself through every intense, glorious rock forward. Jongdae moans, bucks, starts to fall apart. He watches the muscle dance beneath Joonmyun’s stomach, feels them with his fingers, as Joonmyun moans, fucks into him more fluidly.
Joonmyun’s head drops briefly, to watch himself disappear into Jongdae’s body, and it’s the hottest thing Jongdae’s ever experinced— filthy, rewarding—has him digging his nails into Joonmyun’s flushed sweaty skin with a desperate whine.
Joonmyun’s mouth is open, wet, saying the dirtiest, most embarrassing things. How good it feels. How tight. Warm. And fuck how hot Jongdae looks moaning his name like that, lifting his hips for more.
Joonmyun shifts his hips, lifts Jongdae’s legs higher, the back of Jongdae’s knees hooking into Joonmyun’s sweaty shoulder blades. And the angle has him seeing stars, fireworks, any number of natural disasters. Jongdae collapses back, clenching unintentionally around the thickness inside of him, and Joonmyun lets out this soft hiccupying moan.
Jongdae bares his neck, arches as Joonmyun thrusts forward even harder. Right, right. Hips flush, against Jongdae’s ass, snapping forward in exqusitely perfect rolls. He drives forward even harder, and Jongdae whimpers out for more.
And Joonmyun’s mouth is at his throat. Pressing his praises into Jongdae’s skin. Jongdae can feel the vibration, the shaky exhale of every breathy fuck, every broken moan.
Hypersensitive to it, inundated with sensation, pleasure, warmth, Jongdae whimpers his name, voice cracking as he manages a desperate please. And Joonmyun turns to nose at his jawline as he moans Jongdae’s name in turn. His movements become more fluid, quicker, cock dragging, pressing just exactly right.
“I’m close,” Joonmyun whispers. “Touch yourself, I’m close.”
Jongdae does. Grips himself, pitches as he digs his thumb into the slit of his cock, feels Joonmyun’s eyes on him as he continues to fuck into him, hears his words once more. Telling Jongdae that fuck he’s wanted him for so long, fuck he’s so beautiful, so gorgeous like this.
And Joonmyun’s gorgeously disheveled, sweaty, flushed, eyes crinkled, brow furrowed as he moans, pants. Jongdae meets his eyes, tangles his fingers in Joonmyun’s hair as he falls apart. Releases against his own stroking fingers, across his own trembling stomach.
Joonmyun’s following orgasm is full-bodied, a beautiful sort of spasm. He collapses onto him with a breathless laugh, reaches out to pet Jongdae’s sweaty bangs back.
“Whoa,” Jongdae breathes.
Joonmyun falls beside him, doesn’t give him a chance to think things through, to hesitate, regret, before wrapping one strong arm around his waist. He nuzzles into his neck. “I like to cuddle after sex,” he explains, fluttering kisses over Jongdae’s heaving throat. “And you were really good,” he hums. “A natural.”
Jongdae squirms, flushes. “I had a great teacher”
Joonmyun’s laugh is louder, as he tangles his leg between Jongdae’s. “Well, you’re a pleasure to have in class.”
Jongdae snorts, presses his smile into Joonmyun’s shoulder. Inquires in a shy murmur about future lessons. He feels safe. On stable ground. Not clambering. Not desperate. Not unsure. As Joonmyun laughs into his damp hair.