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Coming Home

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It could be worse.

That's what Jongin tells himself as he takes in the house in front of him. He double checks the address because past the outskirts of the city sometimes the navigation gets things wrong, but not this time. He's in the right place.

It's been a mild winter this year and all the snow in the city had melted a few weeks back. But the elevation's a bit higher here and there's still patches of white on the ground. Somehow it makes the home look more desolate, the hardened snow speckled with dirt evidence of how long the home's been without a caretaker.

But now Jongin is here. He's still wrapping his head around how he got here though. His recollection of the past few weeks is already spotty, mostly because a lot of it was filled with humiliation that he wants to bury as fast as possible.

Is there anyone, really, who wants to remember being dumped on Valentine's Day?

Jongin probably should've seen it coming, but he's always been good at burying his head in the sand and convincing himself that things aren't as bad as they seem. So he had shown up at his girlfriend's place with a bouquet and chocolates and left ten minutes later empty-handed and single.

Then, as if the universe wanted him to entertain it personally, his dad tells him that his grandmother is giving him a house in the countryside for him to raise a family. His gratitude was letting them know that there wasn't going to be a family anytime in the near future. His grandmother was disappointed to hear about his break up, but the deed was already in his name.

The final nail in the coffin was when the apartment above his tiny officetel had their laundry machine overflow and when maintenance came by to fix it discovered a massive mold problem which rendered both floors unlivable.

Jongin took it as a sign. Instead of going back to his parent's place, something he couldn't bring himself to consider after living alone for so long, he decided to move into the house his grandmother gave him. His work he could do anywhere and the idea of a physical change of scenery seemed like it would do him good. The city had never really given him anything good anyway, just years of throwing away money and relationships.

So after packing up all his things and talking big in front of his parents and older brother, Jongin is here.

Wondering if he made a huge mistake.

Is he the presumptuous one for assuming that if he's being handed down a house, it would be a nice one? It would be fine if it looks old, that would hardly be surprising, but the structure in front of Jongin looks barely livable.

Parts of the front porch are missing, the wood having rotted through. The door shakes when the slightest breeze passes by and the shingles on the roof look like they're five seconds from sliding off.

Jongin looks around and squints down the long road he'd driven up. He can see a couple of other homes just like this one if he stares hard enough, but they're probably abandoned too. There's a small town if he drives fifteen minutes west, but he's sure he's the only person around for a good while.

He takes a look at the time. The moving company should be here in an hour or so with his modest amount of things. Jongin takes a deep breath and walks up to his new home.

+

When Jongin goes to bed that night, he repeats to himself that it could be worse. He lists out the good things: the heat works, the hot water works, and...the house is standing. That's about as far as he really gets.

There's electricity too, but the light bulbs are so old most of them blew out when Jongin tested them earlier. Only the lights in the kitchen and bathroom work, at least for now. Out here, there's no light pollution and once the sun goes down it's absolutely pitch black. Jongin feels like the entire house lights up just from the screen of his phone.

His brother, Jongdae, calls just as he's about to turn in. It's a video call and Jongdae is understandably confused when Jongin picks up and looks ghostly.

"Did you get stuck in a ditch?" Jongdae says from his apartment where all the lights in all the rooms work. Unfair.

"No, I made it. The bedroom lights don't work. I have to go into town tomorrow."

"How was the first day? Sorry I couldn't come help, but the little one's still running a low fever." Jongdae is the blueprint Jongin was supposed to follow. He married his university sweetheart three years ago and they now have a two year old daughter. Jongin would start wars for his niece and it only hits him now that being all the way out here means he won't be able to see her as often. That's probably the worst thing so far and it makes something twist in Jongin's chest, but he doesn't want to make Jongdae deal with that right now.

"Don't worry, the moving company handled everything. Did you take Chaerin to the doctor?"

Jongdae shakes his head. "It's not high enough to be worried. If it doesn't break in the next day or two, we might. But other than the fever, she doesn't seem to be uncomfortable."

"You have to take care of my niece, hyung."

"I know," Jongdae says, laughing. "We told her you moved into a new place and she's excited to come visit once she's better."

Jongin groans and rubs his face. "You'll have to wait longer than that. The lights not working is the least of my problems. Half the porch has rotted away and there's stuff peeling from some of the walls. There's no way this place is safe for a child."

Jongdae frowns. "If it's that bad, you shouldn't be there. Come stay with us for a while."

"No, it's not," Jongin says and sighs. "It's not that bad. It's livable, but just no one's taken care of it for a long time." At least Jongin thinks that's all it is. On his long list of to dos is to get an inspector out here to make sure there's not a bunch of lead in the walls or something. "Why did grandma even have this place? Why didn't she give it to you?"

"I don't know why you and not me but didn't dad tell you?" Jongdae says. "It was her house. The one grandpa built for her."

That changes a lot. Their grandfather on their dad's side passed away last year and their grandma hasn't really been the same since. They had already been living in the city with their parents for a while, since living out into the countryside was getting too dangerous. It takes too long for ambulances to make it out here and once their grandfather's health started getting worse it was too much to have their grandmother be his sole caretaker.

Jongin knew it had been hard for them to leave the countryside and their home of over fifty years. But he didn't think the home his grandpa had literally built for his grandma would look like this now, but there's a lot that years of neglect and natural forces can do to break a place down. He understands better too why his grandmother had been so saddened by the news of his breakup. This home is something precious to her and she wants Jongin to be able to have that.

"I can't really see you, but I can see you enough. What are you looking so pensive for?" Jongdae says.

Jongin bites his lip. "Hyung. I think I have to fix this house."

Jongdae smiles and Jongin can tell if they were in person, he would reach over to mess up Jongin's hair as if he were still a child. "Well, all I know is grandma did this for a reason. So if you feel that strongly, then I guess you do."

One of Jongin's problems is his inclination toward romantic notions of what could be. It's what gets him into trouble a lot with his relationships when he falls head over heels while for the other person it was just a few dates and nothing serious. When his grandmother speaks about Jongin raising a family, it's what he desperately wants too. He's happy being an uncle to Chaerin, but there's always a part of him that watches his brother with his family with a trace of envy.

He knows that's the other reason why he came out here. He's convinced himself that a complete change of scenery is just what he needs to meet someone new, though that was before he realized just how far out in the countryside this place was. Would there even be anyone his age?

After they hang up, Jongin thinks it's going to take a long time for him to fall asleep. It's a new place out in the middle of nowhere and everything is pitch black. It's creepy, to be honest, and the stillness makes his thoughts so, so loud.

But surprisingly, it's also calming. Yes, the house is a mess, but there isn't an upstairs neighbor to worry about, no rent due, no couple fighting next door where he could hear every word because the walls are so thin. Jongin realizes he hasn't actually been able to just stew in his own thoughts in a long time.

He still doesn't know what to do about the house, but he falls asleep a little more convinced that this wasn't a terrible decision after all.

+

It's just under a half hour to the nearest city, which is just fine. Jongin's commute on the metro from his studio to work was longer, hours and hours wasted jammed into a tin box every morning and night.

It's not Seoul, by any means, but there's plenty of people and activity. Not everything revolves around Seoul, he reminds himself. There's many people who have never even been and they all do fine. There's all the same coffee chains and a handful of independent cafes and teahouses. A single department store is the largest building in the city, but Jongin is quick to learn that most residents and visitors prefer the open market instead.

Jongin, despite living alone for over five years now, still isn't very good at it. He walks through the stalls and peeks at all the things for sale that he doesn't even know about, or knows but doesn't know what to do with. Sometimes he gets it in his head that this weekend will definitely be the one where he cooks something moderately difficult or take on some DIY project, but he never does. He always ends up ordering delivery and watches whatever variety show is airing.

It's harder to do that out here when the house he's living in is two steps from being a hazard. Since he moved in a couple weeks ago, he's fixed up a few things like change out the broken light bulbs and deep clean the floors. But the inspector who came last week had given him a long list of everything else that was wrong and most of it read like absolute gibberish to him. But before he'd left, he gave Jongin a name and number, a family friend he'd said who was a contractor that worked on a few home renovations. Going through him would be cheaper since it would be a referral.

Jongin reached out a couple days ago and the guy, Chanyeol was his name, would be stopping by this afternoon to take a look at the place. So he's in town now to get all his shopping for the week out of the way and to stop at the bank, unclear if he might have to put down a deposit if he decides to move forward with the work. If he doesn't need the money, then worst case he just won't have to withdraw cash for a while.

It's early afternoon when Jongin returns to the house. He's picked up some pork and vegetables this week, figuring since he has all this outdoor space he can finally barbecue things properly without worrying about smoke and grease clinging to everything he owns. Some of the vegetables he got he's thinking about calling his mom and asking for a step by step of how she makes the kimchi he likes. He knows if he asked she would make enough to fill five giant containers for him, but he wants to learn how to do it himself. He should be able to do it himself. He can't move out here and keep being stagnant.

He's just finished putting everything away when he hears footsteps on the gravel outside, then a knock on the door. The guy is a few minutes early, but that's better than being late, Jongin supposes. He goes to answer the door, but his words get caught in his throat.

Chanyeol does not look at all how Jongin expected. The person Jongin had in mind was someone older like the men he sees working construction, but Chanyeol looks his age. He's also tall, taller than Jongin who already beats most people he meets in that department.

"Hi." Chanyeol waves, seemingly unbothered by Jongin's silence. He looks like someone Jongin might see on the streets of Seoul, dressed in a oversized black t-shirt and fitted jeans. His sneakers look nice and his hair is pushed back by a snapback. "Are you Jongin? Am I at the right place? I'm Chanyeol."

"Right, I — come in." Jongin steps aside, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sorry, I was expecting someone, um."

"As old as your dad?" Chanyeol says, smiling. His smile is broad and makes the corners of his eyes wrinkle. "Yeah, I get that sometimes when people don't give a heads up. But don't worry, I'm not an amateur or anything."

"Oh, that wasn't what I meant," Jongin says, eyes growing wide at the possibility that he might have insulted this person. "I was just surprised."

Chanyeol laughs and pats Jongin's arm as if they're already friends instead of two people who just met literally a minute ago. "You're fine," he says, clasping his hands together. "I have the list of things this place needs from the inspection, but why don't you give me a tour?"

"Sure," Jongin says and turns to head deeper into the house.

They go through every room and Jongin points out the things which blatantly need fixing or updating while Chanyeol keeps track of the things the bones of the house needs. They end up out front on the porch, staring into the end that's collapsed where the wood had rotted through.

Chanyeol stares at the hole quietly then at the rest of the house. Jongin squints from the sun in his eyes as he peers at him.

"It's a lot, right?" Jongin says. Anyone would hear the things this place needs and know it.

Chanyeol nods and places his hands on his hips. "Yeah, it would definitely be one of my bigger projects. It'll probably take the whole summer."

Jongin tugs his mouth to the side. He doesn't have that much savings set aside. Maybe he could ask how much the truly critical things cost.

Chanyeol took out his phone and started punching in numbers. "I have three friends who work with me, so we might save a little bit of time, but a lot of the work can only be done by one or two people at a time," he says, completely unaware of Jongin blanching at the news that he'll have to pay for four contractors instead of one. Chanyeol holds out his phone for Jongin to look at. "It's just a rough estimate, but this is probably how much it's going to be."

Jongin stares at the number and his brows draw together in confusion. He scratches his forehead, glancing at Chanyeol, then back down. "Is this missing a zero?" Or two, he thinks.

"Hm?" Chanyeol steps closer to look at it instead of just taking it back. "No, it's right."

"But you just said it's going to take all summer."

"Yeah."

"And that's all you want?" Jongin shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but at the same time, he's been through the phase where he undervalued himself and knows how much people's time and labor should really be worth.

Chanyeol laughs, a deep chuckle that rumbles. "Yeah, just this."

"That's not what professionals charge."

Chanyeol tucks his phone away. "I know, my team's rate is usually more than double, but this was a referral from a family friend and also I knew your grandparents."

"What? How?"

"Mine lived a little ways in that direction," Chanyeol says, pointing behind him. "There's no young people out here, and by young I mean under 50, so I used to make the rounds and take care of any physical work the older folks couldn't do. I remember your grandparents. How are they doing? Your grandmother always made the best rice cake."

Jongin's grandma does make the best rice cake and now that Chanyeol's mentioned it, it makes him want some desperately. "My grandma's good," he says, looking away briefly. "My grandpa passed away last year. They moved out a few years ago so that my parents could take care of them, actually."

"Shit — I mean, I'm sorry. That's hard. Were you really close?"

Jongin shrugs, but says, "Yeah, I suppose it's why I really want to fix up this place. My grandpa built it for them."

"Oh, wow. In that case, let me knock a bit more off that quote."

"What? No!" Jongin's ears grow warm when Chanyeol looks at him in mild amusement. "I just — you're already charging me way below your normal rate. You don't have to do more. I feel bad enough."

Chanyeol smiles and crosses his arms, making the fabric of his shirt stretch taut over his biceps. Jongin stares off behind Chanyeol somewhere. "You're definitely related to your grandparents," he says and claps his hands, rubbing them together. "Okay, so do we have a verbal agreement?"

Jongin thinks about it for a moment and can't come up with a reason why not. "Yeah, I guess so. Yes."

"Great!" Chanyeol holds his hand out. "I'm looking forward to working together."

Jongin slips his hand into Chanyeol's, who shakes it firmly. "Yeah," he says softly. "Same here."

+

It's almost a month later when work on the house finally starts. Materials have to be ordered and Chanyeol has another job he's just wrapping up. In that time, Jongin manages. The house is rundown from a bit of neglect, but there's no mold or anything harmful. He's turned the living room into a makeshift studio, not wanting to touch the bedrooms since he'll just have to clear them out again when work starts.

It's not the most glamorous setup. He has a single bed in the corner and a simple white desk by the windows as his workspace. He brings out a little folding table for meals, using his bed as a couch and his laptop as a TV.

To be honest, it's bleak to look at. It's much worse than his studio in the city was where he at least had a futon and an actual TV and a little dining table for two. To make up for it, he spends the time procrastinating on his work by perusing furniture sites and browses design blogs, planning out what he actually wants for when the house gets redone.

There's also all the space outside. It's easy to forget about because he's not used to it, but he lets himself daydream about having a backyard and maybe even a little garden. He had a small succulent in his last apartment, a gift from his friend Kyungsoo, which was supposed to be easy to care for but Jongin somehow messed it up. But now he reads all these beginner guides to gardening and realizes how much he doesn't know and it gives him hope that the next time he tries out this green thumb he'll be a lot more successful.

His friends visit him a week before all the renovation starts. He's known them since college, a period where he started out painfully shy and insecure and, because of them, graduated still shy but much more confident in himself.

Sehun is the only one his age while Kyungsoo and Baekhyun are a couple years older. He met Sehun on his first day at university, the both of them ending up in the same astronomy course. He knew it was the easiest way to make friends, but it'd still been hard for him to speak up. But the thing he learned quickly was Sehun had no issues with the same. At the end of the first lecture, Sehun suddenly made a comment about how this was going to be an easy class and it took a second for Jongin to realize Sehun was speaking to him.

By the end of the next lecture, Sehun asked if he wanted to grab lunch together and by the next week, it became a regular thing. Sehun was also the one who one day showed up with Baekhyun and Kyungsoo in tow, zero explanation, and Jongin had to find out from Kyungsoo that Sehun had stumbled upon them outside the sociology building when Baekhyun somehow changed his entire phone to display Chinese and was agonizing loudly about it and Sehun had taken the phone without a word and fixed it.

That was how Jongin found out Sehun knew Chinese, but it was never brought up again. Over the years there have been lots of moments like that where Sehun just does something without warning and reveals something about himself as if it's nothing. It's just who Sehun is and Jongin is grateful for it. He doesn't know how his time at university would have gone otherwise. Probably a lot more lonely.

"This place looks awful," is what Sehun says instead of hello.

"Thanks for saying that about the house my deceased grandpa built for my grandma," Jongin says and Sehun presses his lips together with a shrug. But it's not like Sehun is wrong, he just says the things everyone else is thinking but hesitate to say.

Baekhyun and Kyungsoo are more polite in their greeting. Jongin hasn't seen them for a couple months now with everything going on, the longest they've gone in a while, and he appreciates it when Baekhyun yells his name enthusiastically and pulls him into a hug. Kyungsoo is still Kyungsoo though, more subdued, and gives a warm smile and wave.

Jongin realizes there's nowhere for half of them to sit, but Sehun waves them off and plops down on the floor. Kyungsoo takes the desk chair while Baekhyun sits on his bed with him.

"This is definitely different from your old place," Kyungsoo says, peering around. "Lots of character."

Jongin sighs. "You can agree with Sehun and say it looks like a dump right now."

"It's not a dump. You said you're fixing it up anyway."

Jongin nods. "Yeah, they start next week. It's going to take the whole summer."

"What? So we can't visit again until after?" Baekhyun says. "What about all the summer barbecue parties?"

"Hyung," Sehun says, now lying down on the floor. "The backyard isn't getting renovated."

"You can still come over," Jongin says. "It'll just be a mess."

"Good, there's so much food I want Kyungsoo to make."

"I'm going to feed everyone except for you," Kyungsoo says.

They're all still waiting for Kyungsoo to follow through on his threats to Baekhyun.

"What's there to do around here?" Sehun says. "I barely saw anyone around and they were all old."

"There's nothing, really," Jongin says, scratching the back of his head. "It's a thirty minute drive into the main city. There's a department store. That's about it."

"Dude, you're never going to settle down at this rate."

Jongin frowns, but Sehun doesn't see it. Baekhyun and Kyungsoo do, though, and Baekhyun rubs Jongin's back.

"It's not like you're locked up in this house," Baekhyun says. "You'll meet people when you go out."

Sehun lifts his head. "He doesn't go out though."

Kyungsoo says Sehun's name quietly, but firmly, and Sehun mutters an apology.

"If it happens, it happens," Jongin says, shrugging like it doesn't matter to him. "The more I force it, the less likely it'll happen, right? I'm still getting over getting dumped on Valentine's day anyway."

"Seriously, that was a dick move," Baekhyun says, and Jongin can see him get incensed for real. "What kind of coldhearted person do you have to be to do that? I swear if I run into her."

Jongin smiles a little and tips over to tuck his head against Baekhyun's shoulder. "Thanks, hyung. But I'm okay. I was in denial about it so it was half my fault."

"It's better this way," Baekhyun says, squeezing Jongin's shoulders. "We can go out together again. Be each other's wingmen."

"He just said he's not going to force it anymore," Kyungsoo says.

"Okay, well I still want to force it, so you three are going to help me together. A whole wing squad."

"It's so unsurprising why you're still single," Sehun says.

"We all are, smartass."

Sehun closes his eyes and pretends he doesn't hear Baekhyun.

They chat a little longer before Baekhyun's stomach starts growling. Even though there's not as many delivery options out here, there's still a handful of solid options and they order a bunch of Chinese food. When it comes, their only option is to use the floor and it looks like way too much food, but between the four of them they can pack away a lot, especially Sehun and Baekhyun.

They realize there's no alcohol in the house since Jongin isn't a big drinker, so Sehun and Kyungsoo drive to the single convenience store in town and pick up enough beer and soju to last Jongin the entire season.

It's the best night Jongin's had in a long time. When Baekhyun and Sehun get drunk, they get loud and the best thing about being out here is that even their chaotic yelling isn't enough to disturb anyone. There's no neighbors banging on the walls for them to keep it down so Jongin laughs with them and thinks, all things considered, this is the happiest he's been all year.

+

A week later, Jongin wakes up to clear skies and a cool breeze, the sun a warm balm when he walks outside. He doesn't want to go as far as assuming the good weather is like a sign that everything's going to go well, but it's a nice thought.

Chanyeol shows up in the late afternoon and there's three others with him. They're all shorter than Jongin, which makes it a little comical seeing how much Chanyeol towers over them.

Jongin meets them — Junmyeon, Minseok, and Yixing — and finds that they're all fairly quiet, but easygoing. They're also all older than Chanyeol, but clearly prefer to leave all the talking to him.

They go over the plan they've drawn up with Jongin, a schedule of what they'll be working on and when. It's been divided up so that there'll be at least one room available for Jongin to sleep in which he appreciates.

Jongin brings up that he's been thinking about adding a deck to the back of the house to take advantage of all the open space, unsure if a last minute change is too disruptive, but Chanyeol's eyes light up in excitement and he immediately starts sketching out some options.

It's Jongin who has to bring up the additional cost, but Chanyeol waves him off and says he'll just add however much the additional lumber comes out to be.

"Did someone tell you I don't have money or something?" Jongin says, feeling deeply uncomfortable for accepting all this work for dirt cheap. "I understand the referral thing, but it's getting a little too much."

Chanyeol flushes slightly, most noticeable in the tips of his ears growing red. "Sorry. I'll quote the deck at our full rate, how's that?"

Jongin thinks that's more than fair.

They start that day on the front porch, which is in the worst state of disrepair. Jongin watches them tear out all the old wood, which doesn't take very long at all, before he feels like he's just in the way and disappears inside the house to do his own work.

Jongin graduated with a degree in economics and had been lucky enough to land a job right out of school at a midsize company. Unfortunately the entire job made him miserable. He realized quickly that everything he learned at school meant almost nothing in the real world where the only things that mattered were what connections a person had and, if you had none, then how many people you were willing to suck up to.

Jongin's job had been an analyst, but he spent most of his days caught up in office politics instead, watching middle aged men get into petty arguments over absolutely nothing. He funneled his annoyance over it all into writing short stories, a long-time hobby, publishing under a pseudonym online and getting a surprising amount of readers until someone had reached out to him to ask if he wanted to do it professionally.

His parents were convinced it was a scam, but his grandparents were the ones who told him it couldn't hurt to talk. In the end, it wasn't a scam at all and Jongin was finally able to quit his awful desk job a couple years ago to write full-time.

Most days he still pinches himself to check that it's real, but there are also times when he almost regrets turning what he loves into his living. Those moments are short-lived though when he reminds himself of where he could be instead, miserable behind a desk, being yelled at for not typing up a report that he didn't even know he needed to do.

There's still downsides to what he does now: the deadlines with money at stake, the fact that his work gets scrutinized by multiple people before it's allowed to be seen by the public. But that's all easily offset by the response he gets from readers who tell him how much they relate to his characters, how they use his writing as an escape.

His work is still published under a pseudonym and he doesn't have plans to ever change it. The anonymity afforded to him is the biggest reason why he's able to do this. As much as his editor and publisher push him to reveal himself so he can go on book tours or interviews, the idea of inviting people into his personal space like that is terrifying. He's completely fine with the public never knowing who the author Kim Kai really is.

Jongin slouches in his chair and stares at the ceiling, spinning aimlessly. Through the open windows he can hear the sounds of Chanyeol and his team work on the porch, saws occasionally whirring to life followed by the hammering of nails into wood. It's not that distracting. Jongin has done plenty of writing in coffee shops with the espresso machine grinding away in the background every few minutes.

Plus, he's been having trouble writing since he moved in. At first he chalked it up to the stress of moving and not knowing what to do about this place, but since he literally has someone here starting to fix up the house that can't be his excuse anymore. He suspects it has something to do with being here in general. He never wrote in his old studio, finding the space too cramped, how his living room, bedroom, and kitchen are practically all one space.

Now Jongin has forced himself into the same setup. It's not meant to be like this though. One of the plans for the smallest bedroom is to turn it into a home office. It's the one room he actually knows what to do with and has picked out the perfect desk already. He told Chanyeol he would like it completed first, but it's still going to be a few weeks before it's done. The floors have to be redone and new windows installed. The peeling wallpaper needs to be removed and the room repainted.

Until then, Jongin is stuck out here in the living room with a single mattress unmade behind him trying to churn out words and it's like pulling teeth. A terrible situation to be in considering he owes a draft to his editor in a couple weeks.

The advance he received for his next compilation of short stories is the highest yet and if he doesn't deliver then he won't even be able to afford the dirt cheap rate Chanyeol is going to charge him.

He just doesn't know what to write about. His first two releases were inspired by his experiences in the army, then university, and finally the corporate office. Readers found the stories relatable and gave him the gift of organic popularity by recommending his book through word of mouth. But now, what is there to write about? What's going to be relatable about living in the countryside with nothing to do? The most exciting part of his day is going to the supermarket and deciding if he'll splurge on a nice cut of beef or not.

His failed relationship is a big one he could write about, but it's also the exact thing he's avoiding. It still brings up too much shame when he thinks about it and he can't bear the thought of exposing that to the world, even if no one will know who he is. His friends and family will know and that's enough of a deterrent.

Once the sun starts to go down, Chanyeol raps on the window and startles Jongin out of his thoughts, a little embarrassing considering he isn't even being productive. The page on his laptop is very much blank. Jongin heads out, but stops abruptly at the threshold of the front door when he sees that the porch is completely gone. He has to step down quite a bit into the exposed dirt.

"I can promise it's not staying this way," Chanyeol says, an easy smile stretched across his face. He's been nothing but easygoing since they met. "Anyway, we're taking off for the day, but just want to make sure we're on the same page about the schedule. We'll be here weekdays from ten to five. If something comes up, just let us know."

Jongin nods and makes a quiet noise when he remembers. "The deposit," he says, taking out his phone. "What's the account I should send it to?"

"I'll send it over when I get home," Chanyeol says, nodding for Jongin to put his phone away. "You signed the contract and well, I know where you live. I'm not too worried."

"Is this how you do business out here? You're too trustworthy."

Chanyeol laughs and takes his cap off, putting it back on backwards. He suddenly looks a lot younger. "Maybe, but it's always worked out. So — see you tomorrow?"

Jongin nods and stands there as Chanyeol gets into his truck, waving awkwardly when they drive off. He doesn't know why he does it, it's not like they actually know each other that well. Chanyeol is someone Jongin has hired to do a job, they're not friends.

Maybe it's just the isolation out here getting to him. It was lonely in Seoul too, but at least there were the sounds of other people around, some of whom were lonely with him.

Jongin heads back inside and sits down in front of a blank document for another hour before giving up. He goes into the kitchen and stares blankly into the fridge before taking out ingredients to make fried rice. Something simple because simple is about all he's capable of.

Jongin's mother makes a video call when he's just sat down at his desk and he props his phone up against a stack of books to talk and eat at the same time.

She asks about the renovations and how he is. He knows she's still unsure about him living out here at a time when most people are migrating toward the cities where all the jobs are. Work location obviously isn't something that matters, so it's Jongin purposely and physically distancing himself that worries her.

Even without her bringing it up directly, Jongin finds a way to mention that if it doesn't work out, he can always go home. But he wants to at least try.

The phone gets passed to Jongin's grandmother. She's a petite old woman now, hair all white, but her eyes are still bright and alert when she talks to Jongin. A few weeks ago he gave her a little tour of the place, avoiding all the worst parts, and listened to stories of when she lived here with his grandfather. He had been hesitant to tell her that he was going to hire someone to fix it up, but she hadn't cared and told him the house was his now and should be a home he wanted.

He recalls Chanyeol's comment about knowing his grandparents and wondered if his grandmother would say the same.

"Do you remember when you lived here, a boy named Chanyeol who sometimes helped you with chores?"

Her face lights up almost immediately. "Yes, of course. Park Chanyeol, very gangly with big ears."

"He's the one who's fixing up the house."

"What a small world," she says. "Jongin-ah, you should make friends. He was a charming boy."

Jongin doesn't know how to explain to her that just because there happens to be a few degrees of separation, he and Chanyeol should be friends. But he smiles and nods anyway.

After they hang up, Jongin finishes dinner and then just sits there, at a loss for what to do now. He doesn't bother with any more writing. It would be a lie to think he could somehow produce something when he's been drawing a blank all day.

In the end, he takes a shower and washes up for bed early and absently watches some cooking variety show for a couple hours until it's an acceptable bedtime. He stares at the ceiling, decidedly not pondering over whether or not his life has already peaked, and falls asleep weighed down by uncertainty.

+

Over the next couple of weeks, Chanyeol and his crew get a lot done outside. They rebuild the porch and paint it a slate gray. They also fix some of the siding on the house and the handful of broken tiles on the roof. Jongin spends one evening standing outside for a solid ten minutes after they leave and for the first time feels like maybe he didn't make a terrible mistake. The house looks nice from the outside, helped mostly by the fact that it isn't noticeably breaking down.

The way Chanyeol's crew works is simple. They show up just before ten and Chanyeol goes over the work and divides up responsibilities. Around noon, they break for an hour and from his living room, Jongin watches them drag a portable stove from the truck for Chanyeol to use to make their lunch. It's always Chanyeol who cooks and the things he makes range from simple to moderately difficult. They eat huddled together, chatting and laughing, and it makes Jongin feel all the more lonely sitting by himself in front of a sad bowl of leftovers.

Before they get started on the inside of the house, Chanyeol goes over what they've already completed to get Jongin's sign-off. Jongin doesn't really have any feedback or complaints. The work is quality and what he wanted.

Jongin doesn't know why he says what he says next. "You can use the kitchen, if you want."

Chanyeol looks at Jongin oddly. "For what?"

"When you make lunch for them. I know you have that portable stove, but there's an entire kitchen that should probably be used more than I'm using it."

"Thanks," Chanyeol says, smiling. "That's really nice of you."

Jongin shrugs. "Think of it as extra payment since you won't take money."

Chanyeol laughs this time. "Seems like it's working out in my favor though."

Jongin doesn't really know what he means by that, but he doesn't want to fret over the possibilities. Maybe he'll reconsider what his grandmother said about making friends.

"So we'll work on the bedroom next week," Chanyeol says, dragging his arm over his forehead. The summer heat is just starting to roll in, though nothing like what it'll be at its peak in a few weeks. "That'll let you move out of the living room."

"I'll be a real adult then."

Chanyeol's hand is warm against the middle of Jongin's back and his smile gentle as if he knows Jongin's words aren't quite a joke. "We'll get you sorted out. Have a great weekend, Jongin."

After Chanyeol leaves, Jongin chalks it up to all the isolation as to why he wishes for the weight of Chanyeol's hand on him again.

+

It doesn't surprise Jongin that the draft he sends in to his editor is returned after only a couple days with a message that, to him, reads like doomsday. There's lots of disappointment, which is a sentiment Jongin really can't handle, and repeated mentions of how much this misses the mark compared to his past writing. He's given a month to deliver a new draft.

Jongin reads the email first thing in the morning because he thinks it's better to just rip off the bandage, but then spends the next two hours with his head buried in his arms as he wallows and pities himself.

That's how they find him when they break for lunch.

It's only been a few days since Chanyeol's team moved their work inside. The bedroom when Jongin looked at it last night has been stripped down to the studs and will look worse for a while before it starts looking better.

"Jongin? You okay?"

Jongin lifts his head and finds Junmyeon and Minseok peering at him with concern. He doesn't know how to answer them, so he just doesn't. "Sorry, do you need something from me?"

Junmyeon frowns, but Minseok puts on a kind smile and says, "Do you want to come eat with us?"

"I don't want to intrude," Jongin says, but Minseok is already taking Jongin by the arm and leading him away.

There's a small table Jongin set up just off the kitchen and it's fine for two people, but definitely not five. It's been pulled away from the wall so all four sides can be used. Various dishes and a few bowls of rice are precariously laid out and Minseok pushes Jongin down into one of the chairs.

The rest of them sit down and Chanyeol appears balancing a pot of soup that he carefully slots into the remaining empty spot in the center of the table. The spread of food is the first time Jongin's even seen a home-cooked meal in months and he presses his arm over his stomach in an attempt to mask the way it growls in hunger.

"Thanks for letting us use the kitchen," Chanyeol says, taking the last spot across from Jongin. "It makes things so much easier."

"And it gives us an excuse to request anything we want," Minseok says.

"This is incredible," Jongin says. "My mom doesn't even cook like this most days."

"Don't give Chanyeol a compliment like that, his ego is already big enough," Junmyeon says, earning a light shove from Chanyeol.

"Go ahead," Chanyeol says, gesturing for Jongin to eat.

Yixing, who Jongin's never heard speak, ladles some soup into a bowl for Jongin who accepts with a polite nod while Minseok breaks off a piece of the grilled fish for him. It's a bit strange being treated like he's at a relative's or a friend's house for dinner, as if he's the guest instead of the host.

"We've been curious why someone like you moved out here," Junmyeon says, a question Jongin had been expecting for a while. "You probably noticed most people out here aren't very youthful."

"I know," Jongin says, giving a little shrug. "This place was my grandmother's house. My grandpa built it for them actually after they got married. I don't know why, but she wanted to pass it down to me. I guess since my brother's already married with a kid and an apartment, I was the only choice."

"You're married too?" Minseok says and Jongin shakes his head quickly.

"Very much not," Jongin says, careful about what he says when they're all just acquaintances. "I think my grandma just got impatient and gave this house to me anyway. Or maybe thinks if the house comes first, everything else will follow."

"Well, good luck," Junmyeon says. "You'll need it."

"Hyung," Chanyeol says, frowning and Junmyeon stares at him.

"What? Out here, he will."

"Sorry about Junmyeon-hyung," Chanyeol says to Jongin. "He's a little too blunt sometimes."

Jongin shakes his head. "It's okay. I can't really afford to kid myself anymore anyway."

Minseok smiles reassuringly at him and tells him to try the side dishes, which they get from the auntie he lives next door to. The conversation pivots after that as Chanyeol talks about a new game he's started playing.

Jongin's not sure if it's just because of how long it's been since he's had a home-cooked meal, but the food is so good he has to stop himself from eating too fast. The discomfort he felt earlier slowly dissipates listening to them talk and joke around. It's clear they've all been friends for a long time, but they never discuss anything that might make Jongin feel like he's an outsider. He can't imagine ever doing anything like this in the city. The few times he needed to call someone to fix something in his studio, he never spoke to them other than to talk about whatever was broken.

Though it was like that too with them until Jongin volunteered his kitchen, inviting them into his home in a different way.

In truth, and as they finish eating, it becomes apparent to Jongin just how much he had been suffering from not having any social interaction. So even if having lunch with the people he hired to renovate the house is unorthodox, he figures if they're going to be around the whole summer there isn't any harm.

"I can do the dishes," Jongin says when they all get up, but Chanyeol intercepts him and takes the bowls in his hand and gives them to Yixing.

"You already contributed as owner of the kitchen," Chanyeol says, tilting his head. "They can deal with it."

"You're already fixing the house," Jongin says and Chanyeol laughs, turning him around and leading him away.

"You're paying us for that, remember?" Jongin expects Chanyeol to take his hands away, but he keeps them there and steers Jongin all the way down the hall to the bedroom they're working on. "We're almost done in here, just have to finish painting the walls."

Jongin's been peeking in here a few nights a week, but doesn't say that. He knows exactly what the room looks like, with the new wood flooring and the windows replaced. He asked for some built in shelving and is already thinking about what he wants to display.

That had still been in progress the last time he came in here, but now when they enter the room Jongin can see that it's all finished and the floors have been polished too. They're a dark cherry stain and the polish makes them shiny. It's an entirely different room to what was there before and Jongin gets the first inkling of excitement knowing he'll get to live in it.

"Is the silence good or bad?" Chanyeol says, coming around so he could see Jongin's face. He goes over to the closets along the adjacent wall. "I know you only asked for those shelves, but we had some leftover materials, so we put in some shelving in here too. Everyone loves closet organization, right?"

Jongin goes over and peeks inside. It's nothing groundbreaking. His studio in Seoul had closets like this too, bit the fact that Chanyeol thought to build something he didn't have to makes it different. "You didn't have to do this."

Chanyeol shrugs. "It didn't take long. This lady we worked with a few months ago had a huge walk-in closet we renovated for her, so it's nice to reuse some skills."

"This is all really great," Jongin says, walking over to the windows to see that the curtain rods they picked out had two bars. "Why are there two?"

"You can put up sheer and solid curtains separately," Chanyeol says. "It'll let the light in, but you'll still have some privacy. Not that there's anyone looking into your house out here, but it doesn't hurt."

It's the little touches Jongin didn't even ask for that he's happiest about. "Seriously, this is amazing. I didn't expect all this."

"It's nothing much," Chanyeol says, looking extremely happy at Jongin's feedback. "I'm glad you like it though. We just have to do some clean up and then you should be able to move your stuff in. I can help with that tomorrow."

"Huh? No, you don't have to do that," Jongin says, but Chanyeol ignores him and leads him into the second bedroom, already going down the list of the updates Jongin wants.

Jongin doesn't know anymore if he's dealing with a group of guys he hired to renovate this house or if they're all already closer to being casual friends. He's not sure if it even matters in a small town like this.

But over the next few weeks, they have lunch together more often until Jongin is joining them daily and he learns about them as people bit by bit. He finds out that Chanyeol and Junmyeon know each other from childhood since their parents are all friends, while Minseok they met when they enlisted for their mandatory stint in the army and Minseok was their drill sergeant. That shocks Jongin quite a bit, trying to picture this quiet guy who's smaller than him barking orders at someone like Chanyeol.

Finally, Chanyeol talks about how he met Yixing at university where Yixing was a foreign exchange student from China who came back after graduating even though he didn't have any plans for what he was going to do.

Jongin finally hears Yixing speak a couple weeks into their odd working relationship, but it's only a few words and he's quiet again for the rest of the time. But his voice is gentle and kind and he finds out from Chanyeol that Yixing is actually the one with an eye for design and suggests little things they can add to make the updates to the house even better.

When he thanks Yixing at lunch the next day, he's amused when Yixing's ears turn bright red.

Jongin doesn't even realize how much time passes, just that one day he looks up and sees that half the house is already finished. And seemingly with it, Jongin's inspiration for writing also gradually returns.

His style is different from before, less cynical and not as much commentary about the failings of society. Instead, he writes about meeting new people, about burgeoning friendships, about the wonder and admiration he has for people who allow themselves to be close to others in so little time. Jongin, even though he was quick to grow feelings in his past relationships, is not actually that kind of person, and he thinks maybe that was the problem. He might have fallen more for the idea of an idyllic life but never actually allowed anyone in. But that was when he thought his goal was to follow in the footsteps of his brother, to settle down and have a baby within a year.

Here, there's nothing he's working toward except to breathe new life into this house. Without the constant exposure to his family and to friends and strangers who all seem to be on a trajectory he could only look on with envy, he ends up not thinking about it at all. Instead he thinks about how to make this house his home. He thinks about how he begins to make requests to Chanyeol when there's something in particular he wants to eat. How he keeps asking for Junmyeon to bring his dog over when he finds out he has one. How he finds designs he likes online and sends them to Yixing who always gives considerate feedback. How the longer he watches Minseok with Chanyeol, the more he sees how much Chanyeol respects him.

Jongin himself still hasn't opened up much. He talks about his family and about his friends back in the city, but never anything directly about him.

If the others mind, they don't show it, and Chanyeol has a talent for being able to carry a conversation all on his own, even for four other people.

Chanyeol keeps showing Jongin progress in each room even though it's obvious Jongin has already seen it since he lives there. But it isn't like Jongin says anything about it either. He tells himself it's nice that Chanyeol is so excited and proud.

But at nights when the house is silent, devoid of Chanyeol's booming voice and Junmyeon's admonishments followed by Yixing and Minseok's laughter, Jongin thinks of other things. He thinks about the warmth of Chanyeol's hand whenever it presses against his back and how familiar it is to see Chanyeol in his kitchen. He thinks about how he looks forward to each morning when they all arrive, but perhaps to see one smile in particular.

In university, there was a senior in Jongin's class who seemed to be liked by everyone. He, too, had a nice smile and surprised Jongin by talking to him sometimes. Jongin was quiet then as he was now when first meeting people, but the occasional conversation became everyday until one evening at his senior's apartment the conversation gave way to something else entirely. As the night went on, instead of words, Jongin only knew the touch of his senior's broad hands and the dull burn of being opened up.

Jongin still isn't sure what to call what he had with that senior, if it was anything like the other relationships he's had. He knows that over the years he's attempted to see other guys that way, but aside from acknowledging someone's looks he never wanted more.

But now, he considers maybe he's found someone else.

+

Jongin's friends show up unannounced on the weekend. Chanyeol isn't supposed to be there, but he wanted to take measurements for the deck and buy lumber this weekend and Yixing is there to check on the paint job in the second bedroom and to go over deck designs. Jongin mentally adds the hours to what he'll owe them.

Jongin is working at the dining table when he hears their car pull up and then their distinct voices. Kyungsoo is the only one who mentions that Jongin seems to have company already, but Baekhyun knocks on the door and demands he open up.

"Are they friends?" Yixing says, and Jongin doesn't blame him for being confused.

"Unfortunately," Jongin says, getting up to answer the door.

"Are you replacing us?" Baekhyun says first thing instead of a hello. Kyungsoo gives an apologetic shrug from the back, but Jongin waves them in.

"Yes," Jongin says and gestures to Yixing who gives a polite nod. Baekhyun is strangely silent. "This is Yixing. He's making my house into something livable."

Sehun walks around and nods approvingly. "Okay Yixing, you can stay."

"Thank you?" Yixing says, both confused and amused, looking at Jongin with a small smile.

"What are you all doing here? You didn't even call. What if I wasn't even here?"

"Why wouldn't you be here?" says Baekhyun, but his eyes keep drifting to Yixing. "Where else could you possibly be? It's not like there's anything to do out here."

The back door opens and Chanyeol's voice filters through. "Okay, I think I have everything, did you review the designs with — oh, hello."

"Uh, hello," Sehun says and gives Jongin an emphatic look.

Jongin inexplicably feels weirder about introducing Chanyeol than Yixing. "This is Chanyeol. He's the one who runs the team doing the renovation." He looks at Chanyeol. "These are my friends from the city."

A look of understanding falls over Chanyeol's face. He smiles and tucks the pen in his hand behind his ear. "Nice to meet everyone. We're on our way out."

"Jongin decided on a design," Yixing says.

"Great," Chanyeol says, then grins at Jongin. "I'm excited to get started next week."

Jongin nods, feeling awkward talking to Chanyeol in front of an audience.

"Okay, we'll get out of your hair then," Chanyeol says, his hand brushing Jongin's arm as he slips by.

Yixing says goodbye quietly and follows Chanyeol. Baekhyun takes a step forward at the same time Sehun turns to look at something, causing Baekhyun to collide with his shoulder. With the height difference between them, Baekhyun gets the short stick and loses his balance, but before he trips and falls, Yixing reaches out and catches him, steadying Baekhyun with an arm around his waist.

"Careful," Yixing says, brushing his hands over Baekhyun's arms when he steadies himself. "I apologize, I didn't catch your name."

"Uh, Baekhyun."

Yixing smiles and touches Baekhyun's shoulder. "It was nice to meet you, Baekhyun."

They watch Chanyeol and Yixing leave and Chanyeol turns to give a little wave before hopping down the steps of the porch. It's silent except for the sounds of the doors opening and closing on Chanyeol's truck.

"Wait!" Baekhyun bursts out the door, yelling some more. Through the screen door, they watch Baekhyun hit the back of Chanyeol's truck just as it starts to roll forward, making it jerk to a stop again. Baekhyun goes over to the passenger side and says something. A moment later, they can see him hand his phone over.

"This is incredible," Sehun says, laughing. "Is he getting that guy's number?"

There isn't any other explanation. Baekhyun takes his phone back and says something else with a small laugh, then finally steps away and allows Chanyeol and Yixing to drive off.

Baekhyun has a big grin on his face when he practically skips back into the house. "I'm moving in with you."

"What?" Jongin says, unable to tell if Baekhyun is serious or not.

"I can't seduce a guy while living over an hour away, so I'm moving in."

"Baekhyun," Kyungsoo says, his voice full of warning. He looks too serious though and it just makes Jongin more confused.

"Am I missing something?" says Jongin.

Baekhyun sighs and goes to collapse onto the couch. Jongin just had it delivered a few days ago. Now all he needs is a TV and a nice coffee table to go with it. "I lost my job last week," says Baekhyun, leaning his head back and staring up at the ceiling. "I don't want to crawl back to my parents, so I was wondering if I could crash with you for a bit before I figure out what I want to do. Nice couch by the way. And living room. They really fixed it up, it was a dump the first time we came."

"Hyung," Jongin says, going over to join Baekhyun on the couch. "I'm sorry, that sucks."

Baekhyun shrugs. "I didn't like that place anyway. You know how much my boss hated me. I just wish I could've quit instead of get fired."

"Well, of course you can stay. As long as you need."

"Don't give him that," Sehun says and Jongin shoots him a frown.

"What?" Sehun rolls his eyes. "I'm not being mean, I just don't want hyung to get complacent. You're too soft."

"Sehun's right," Baekhyun says, curling into Jongin and hugging him. He's always been tactile and physical affection comforts him the most. Jongin doesn't mind. "Let me wallow for a couple weeks, but I'll get out of your hair as soon as I can."

Jongin nods, but he'll still let Baekhyun stay as long as he needs. Both Baekhyun and Kyungsoo have done a lot for him and Sehun over the years just being good hyungs. It's not often Jongin can return the favor. "Did you really get Yixing's number?"

Baekhyun perks up immediately and grins up at Jongin. "After that damsel in distress save? Of course I did. I can't believe you didn't tell us that the dudes you hired were hot."

Jongin doesn't know how to say that he started considering one of them that way only recently.

"I'm more shocked he gave his number to hyung," Sehun says. "Maybe it's fake."

"It's not," Baekhyun says, sticking his tongue out. "He texted himself with my phone to get my number too. He's so cute. I can't wait to bang him."

"You can't do that in my house," Jongin says, making a face.

Baekhyun waves him off. "I'm sure I can find a love hotel somewhere around here."

"Can we stop talking about this now?" Kyungsoo says, looking around. "This barely looks like the same place we saw last time. I'm kind of jealous of how nice it is."

"Yeah, it's not too bad," Jongin says, scratching behind his ear. "There's just the kitchen left and I asked if they could build a deck too. It'd be nice to have a place to barbecue outside that isn't just me squatting over a grill."

"At this rate, you're going to have all of us want to move in," Kyungsoo says, making Jongin smile. It's a nice compliment considering Kyungsoo very much likes living on his own.

Jongin gives them a mini tour of the bedrooms, maybe a little too enthusiastic when he talks about how great the built-ins are. But his room looks beyond nice. Minseok has a surprisingly good eye for interior design as well and helped him pick out some decor to really make the place look homely. It's better than any apartment he's ever seen in Seoul, that's for sure.

The second bedroom is more generic, but still nice. Jongin looks at Baekhyun and says, "You can stay here."

"Great, I'll go grab my bags!"

Jongin watches Baekhyun dart off and stares at the other two. "He brought his stuff? What if I said no?"

Sehun rolls his eyes. "Right, there was definitely a possibility of you saying no. You're not a complete softie at all."

"You're a softie too," Kyungsoo says, ruffling Sehun's hair gently. It's comedic how fast Sehun's expression changes and he leans into Kyungsoo's touch.

The summer sun is still lingering when both Sehun and Baekhyun complain about when dinner is. Lately, Jongin has been eating leftovers from that day's lunch since Chanyeol always makes so much, but the leftovers are just for one.

"Let's get chicken and beer," Sehun says, looking up a place to order from on his phone already.

Baekhyun sprawls over Sehun's back. "Yeah, let's celebrate me no longer being at that shithole of a company!"

Even though Jongin has a proper dining area now, they still sit on the couch and on the floor when the food gets there. It takes a couple of rounds, but soon Baekhyun is ranting about his old boss and incompetent coworkers while the rest of them goad him on. It's a lot different than the energy of Chanyeol's crew where the loudest they ever get is when Chanyeol and Junmyeon disagree over some innocuous subject like whether kimchi or soybean stew is better or green tea versus cake batter ice cream.

There's a lull after Baekhyun finally tires himself out and flops onto his back on the couch. Jongin pets his hair absently. Baekhyun is good at hiding when things bother him, but not that good.

"What about you, any major updates?" Kyungsoo says, nudging Jongin's leg with his foot.

"No, what updates would I have?" Jongin says, waving his hand around. "Nothing happens out here."

"Yeah, right," Sehun says, narrowing his eyes at Jongin. "I saw you with big tall biceps earlier."

"What?" Jongin says, scrunching his nose. "Are you describing Chanyeol?"

"Well, I definitely don't mean the guy Baekhyun caught in his trap."

"So hot," Baekhyun says, clutching his hands to his chest.

"What about him?" Jongin says.

"Come on," Sehun says, gesturing at Jongin. "The touching? I mean, I don't blame you. It's not like dudes like him are easy to find."

Jongin told his friends about the senior from college after they all graduated. He didn't mean to, but it slipped out on a night similar to this one when he, a lightweight already, had one too many drinks. He had known deep down that they wouldn't think differently of him but he was someone who naturally kept things close to his heart. And it's a mix of the beer and that these are his friends and because there's no one else to talk to or anything to even distract him that he confesses easily again.

"It's new," Jongin says, messing with the tab on his can. "I haven't done anything. I think it's just familiarity and because I don't see anyone else out here."

"Hey, don't do that," Kyungsoo says, but his words are offered gently. "Feelings are feelings. And Sehun's right, guys that look like him are rare. Is he a decent person?"

Jongin nods. "He's more than decent, I think. He cooks lunch for everyone."

"He cooks?" Sehun says, mouth hanging open slightly. "I can't believe you haven't pulled a Baekhyun yet and just offered yourself."

"He works for me, technically."

"This isn't an office. You're not his boss. How much longer do they even need to finish this place?"

Jongin shrugs. "Through summer."

"Summer's ending in a few weeks," Kyungsoo says.

"He probably doesn't even swing that way."

"He absolutely swings that way," Sehun says, staring at Jongin as if he's grown another head. "Are you telling me you haven't noticed how he looks at you?"

Jongin hasn't. He hasn't given himself a reason to believe Chanyeol ever would, so he hasn't even entertained the possibility.

"Okay, well, he looks at you like he either wants to cuddle the shit out of you or fuck your brains out. He did both in the two minutes I saw you two occupying the same space. I can't believe you haven't noticed."

"Even if you're right—"

"I am," Sehun says emphatically.

"—Even if. I can't."

Sehun shoots him a look with his brows scrunched together in disapproval. "Can't what? You just said there's nothing to do out here."

"I'm not fixing up this house my grandma gave me just to have flings."

"Those two things have nothing to do with each other."

"I'm looking for a relationship, I have been, you know this."

Baekhyun sits up and leans most of his weight against Jongin. "Is it that important to you?"

"Do you think I'm being ridiculous?"

Baekhyun shakes his head and takes Jongin's face in his hands, squishing his cheeks together not unlike the way his aunts do around the holidays. "No, but maybe you shouldn't immediately ignore nice, tall, hot boys when they show interest. You never know what could happen."

"You've been trying to do the relationship thing," Sehun says, as always ready to be the blunt one. "They all sucked and you were miserable for months after each time. So what if you stop looking for one for a while? Have a fucking fling! Get dicked!"

Kyungsoo sighs and Sehun crosses his arms.

"I'm right."

Kyungsoo doesn't dispute him. "It wouldn't hurt to try something different."

It gets a little overwhelming for Jongin to think about so he mutters a vague, "Okay, fine," just to get them to drop the issue. Baekhyun hooks his arm around Jongin's, easily sensing his tension.

"Back to me," Baekhyun says, and Jongin knows it's for his sake. "Tell me about Yixing."

Jongin takes the lifeline. He knows his friends mean well, that they care and worry about him, but it's something he needs to think about more on his own.

So for now, Sehun passes them another round of beer and Jongin gives Baekhyun pointers about how to win Yixing over in as little time as possible.

+

It's startling how different it is just having one more person with him. For a couple mornings, Jongin forgets and experiences a moment of terror when he hears noises coming from other parts of the house. He thinks someone broke in or it's a ghost before remembering that Baekhyun is there now.

After that, Baekhyun's presence becomes a good thing, the kind of ambient background noise that helps Jongin concentrate more. At least until Baekhyun gets bored of entertaining himself and goes from background noise to abrasive noise when he pesters Jongin to do something with him.

It's somewhat of a reprieve when Monday rolls around again and Baekhyun's attention is focused solely on Yixing. Jongin isn't worried about whether Baekhyun's interest is reciprocated when he sees the way Yixing laughs at everything Baekhyun says.

Minseok and Junmyeon catch him when they take a small break and tell him they've never seen Yixing so animated.

Lunch is an even cosier affair with Baekhyun joining them, but they all manage to fit, no thanks to Baekhyun practically trying to sit in Yixing lap.

"Holy shit, this is really good," Baekhyun says after taking his first bite of Chanyeol's cooking. Chanyeol's ears turn pink, but it's easy to see he likes the compliment. "And you're single?"

Jongin knows what Baekhyun is doing and he appreciates it, but it also stresses him out.

"Uh, yeah," Chanyeol says, glancing at Jongin for a moment and it's hard for Jongin not to take that as some signal. "I mean, I'm not that good."

"What are you talking about? These are the best ribs I've had in ages. Don't you think they're amazing, Jongin?"

Jongin tenses, but finds his voice and says, "They're really good, hyung."

Now Chanyeol's neck is getting a little flush too. "Thanks."

Jongin has sort of been avoiding Chanyeol all morning. Even though Sehun said all that stuff about how Chanyeol looks at him, Jongin's not sure he's ready to see it yet. Or to confront the possibility that Sehun was mistaken and he's gotten his hopes up for no reason. But forced into the same space like this, Jongin doesn't have a choice and he thinks maybe Sehun was actually onto something.

By the end of the meal, Baekhyun has already somehow reached the point where he's gotten Yixing to allow Baekhyun to feed him. Jongin might not be very close to Yixing, but he knows being fed is not something Yixing would usually do and the surreptitious glances from the others confirm it.

Yixing doesn't seem to notice and lets Baekhyun do what he wants. Baekhyun half-jokingly told them he wanted to get Yixing naked in seven days or less, but Jongin thinks it's going to happen much sooner than that.

He's a little envious.

The new counters Jongin ordered for the kitchen are delayed in shipping, so Chanyeol's team gets to work on the deck early.

"It's good I bought the materials this weekend," Chanyeol says, setting up a power saw in the backyard.

The afternoon sun bears down on them and reflects off the thin sheen of sweat on Chanyeol's warm, golden skin. Jongin stays out of the way in the shadow of the door and watches as Chanyeol rolls up the sleeves of his t-shirt.

The thing is, Chanyeol wears his shirts very oversized. The sleeves are sometimes so big they hit his elbows. Yes, Jongin figured in the back of his head that Chanyeol was probably very fit from all the physical labor he does, but seeing the direct evidence of it is a completely different experience.

Chanyeol measures the first piece of lumber and makes some marks before placing it under the blade. It whirrs to life and Jongin keeps his eyes trained on Chanyeol's arms and his hands, how sure and steady they are when they bring the saw down to make a clean cut. But mostly the way Chanyeol's bicep flexes with each movement.

"Like what you see?"

Jongin jerks out of his stupor and recoils from Baekhyun who popped over his shoulder without warning. "I wasn't," he says, but doesn't finish because it's obvious he was looking.

"I don't blame you," Baekhyun says, waiting for when Chanyeol steps away from the saw briefly to whistle at him.

Chanyeol's head pops up to look at them and he blushes a little when Baekhyun makes some other suggestive noises, but then his gaze catches Jongin's, lingering.

Later, Jongin thinks this moment is the turning point.

Jongin breaks first and heads back inside. There's work he should be doing. Baekhyun stays and Jongin can hear him call out Yixing's name.

Jongin sent his editor a working draft last week and got back a mountain of positive feedback, which had been a relief. He was worried the new style and voice wouldn't be what they wanted. It's not enough stories yet to compile an anthology and Jongin had worried he was losing steam again, but he sits down in front of his computer now and begins typing, unsure of what exactly he wants to say, but the words come easily and he writes a story of a boy who has been told to carry a bag of rocks with him, never questioning why, only assuming he needs to because he sees others doing the same. And he grows more and more tired, until one day he gives in and sets the bag down, his exhaustion outweighing the fear of the unknown, and discovers that nothing happens at all. Nothing except for, of course, the overwhelming lightness he feels and the discovery of all the things he is capable of now — how he can sprint through a field of wildflowers and jump as high as the clouds.

It is late in the afternoon when he comes to a stopping point and he stretches his arms overhead to get rid of the stiffness of sitting for so long.

Someone clears their throat behind him and Jongin turns around to see Chanyeol standing a bit aways. "Sorry," says Chanyeol. "Am I interrupting?"

Jongin stands and shakes his head. "You're fine. I just finished."

"We're heading out for the day," Chanyeol says, shoving his hands into his pockets. His sleeves are still rolled up and Jongin cannot lie to himself about how much he wants to touch just to feel how Chanyeol's muscles would feel under his palm. "Some of the kitchen stuff should be here tomorrow, so Minseok-hyung and Yixing-hyung will get started on that."

"Okay. Sounds great."

Chanyeol nods and smiles and points toward the door. "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow."

After Chanyeol leaves, Baekhyun enters and plops down on the couch eating some yogurt. "Could cut that tension with a knife. Whew."

"Hyung."

"Just describing what I'm seeing," Baekhyun says, putting his hands up.

Jongin takes a seat next to him and flops over Baekhyun's lap. Right away, Baekhyun's hand sinks into his hair. "I know what you all said, but I don't think I can do it."

"Do what?"

"Have a fling. It isn't me. It feels weird."

"That's okay. You don't have to."

"But I still like him." Jongin says it before he can overthink it or talk himself out of it.

"Then do whatever feels right to you."

Jongin turns onto his back and stares up at the ceiling. Baekhyun slips his hand into Jongin's and hums absently, weaving in and out of melodies Jongin recognizes but also some he makes up on the spot. It's Baekhyun's way of being silent without actually being silent.

He doesn't know if he's brave enough yet to do as Baekhyun says, but at least he's said it outloud. Maybe that's the hardest part and everything else will follow in due time.

+

Something definitely changes after that day. At first Jongin doesn't really notice, but soon he realizes that Chanyeol is speaking to him more and when they talk, Chanyeol will find openings to touch Jongin's back and arm, fleeting touches, but more of them all the same.

He makes a comment about Yixing and Baekhyun and focuses heavily on the way Jongin responds.

"I've never seen Yixing open up to anyone like that," Chanyeol says a couple days later, rinsing out some vegetables while Jongin lingers nearby.

"Baekhyun-hyung is one of a kind," Jongin says.

"Yeah, I sensed that when he confronted Yixing two minutes after meeting him to get his number," Chanyeol says with a laugh. "That's definitely confidence I can't imagine having."

The conversation lulls for a moment. It's not the easy silence Jongin's come to know from the past few weeks. There's something Chanyeol clearly wants to say and his hesitation worries Jongin.

"I'll get out of your w—"

"Are you seeing someone?"

Jongin is so caught off-guard that he physically takes a step back. Something flickers across Chanyeol's face and it takes Jongin too long to figure out that it's regret.

"Sorry, I shouldn't pry," Chanyeol says, rinsing the same bed of lettuce leaves for the fifth time.

"It's fine," Jongin says, rubbing the back of his neck. It's warm under his palm and so are his ears. "I don't say much about myself, so I'm not surprised you have all these questions."

"Okay, but you really don't have to answer. Tell me to fuck off if I'm being too nosey."

But Jongin shakes his head and says, telling himself what does he have to lose, "I'm not seeing anyone."

Chanyeol sets the lettuce leaves aside and dries his hands off. "Good to know," he says, and nothing more.

Jongin expects more of a reaction and has to force himself to relax instead of the preemptively defensive body language he's put on instead. Does Chanyeol really not want to know more? Or he's going to wait until later to pester Jongin with questions?

Jongin almost confesses everything just because Chanyeol's response is so underwhelming, but he makes himself accept that this is just where the conversation ends.

But later when Jongin helps bring some side dishes to the table, Chanyeol says nonchalantly, almost too casually, "I'm not seeing anyone either."

The dishes nearly fumble out of Jongin's hands. All he can say is, "Okay," before darting away as fast as possible. He feels like an idiot and wants to go back and salvage the conversation, but everyone else streams into the house at that moment and Jongin's chance is lost.

+

At the end of the week, a car pulls in behind Chanyeol's truck and Yixing gets out of it. Jongin finds out that Baekhyun is going over to Yixing's place tonight and is actually somewhat shocked it really did take the whole week.

"Well, no reasonable person is going to bang for the first time on a weekday," Baekhyun says, but Jongin doesn't even know what that means.

The two of them are so distracted with each other that Chanyeol gives in after lunch and tells Yixing he can take off early since his mind is elsewhere. They're back on schedule with the house more or less, so one person taking one afternoon off isn't a big deal.

Yixing looks a little bashful, but Baekhyun lets out a whoop of glee when Yixing tells him and immediately shows up with an overnight bag.

"You kids have fun," Minseok calls from the kitchen where he's installing the new cupboard doors. They look much nicer now, resembling something from this decade instead of the 70s. Jongin has a soft spot for retro, but perhaps not when it's too authentic.

"Is Yixing going to be okay?" Jongin says to the remaining three once Yixing and Baekhyun leave.

"I think the question is if Baekhyun will be okay," Minseok says with a pointed look, but Jongin doesn't understand.

"Why are you worried about him?"

"Because you should never underestimate the quiet ones," says Junmyeon. "The few times Yixing has gone home with someone whenever we go out, we always somehow end up hearing from the, well, very satisfied users."

Jongin wants to cover his ears from knowing more. It's not even about Yixing, he just doesn't want to imagine Baekhyun like that at all.

The rest of the afternoon is uneventful and soon Jongin is sitting alone in his house again, but now with the absence of Baekhyun walking around and running his mouth on basically anything and everything, Jongin can't help but be lonely.

It's starting to get late and Jongin's washing the few dishes he used during dinner when someone knocks on the door suddenly. There's no one Jongin is expecting, not all the way out here, and for a moment Jongin wonders if he's about to let in a serial killer, but behind the door is Chanyeol.

Chanyeol looks almost surprised that Jongin answered, but there's nowhere else for Jongin to be these days.

"Hyung," Jongin says, "What are you doing here?"

"I, uh." Chanyeol rubs his palms over his thighs. "I guess I can't really say I was just passing by."

"Is something the matter?" Jongin steps aside. "Come in."

Chanyeol's nervous energy makes Jongin anxious too. "I didn't interrupt anything, did I?"

Jongin shakes his head. "Just finished eating. Do you want something to drink?"

"Beer?" Chanyeol says at the same time Jongin offers water. "I mean, or water is fine."

Jongin smiles a little. "I can grab the beer," he says and waves toward the couch. "Sit. You're making me nervous acting like this is the first time you've been inside this house."

Luckily Jongin restocked a couple days ago and takes two bottles from the fridge, popping the caps before he heads back. Chanyeol looks marginally less relaxed, but offers a smile when Jongin sits and hands him his drink.

"What's going on?" says Jongin. "Everything seemed fine a few hours ago. Don't tell me Baekhyun got himself into trouble."

"No, no, nothing like that." Chanyeol takes a long sip. Jongin doesn't like bright, fluorescent lighting, the harsh glare making his eyes hurt, so all the rooms have dimmable lamps. But that means it's easy for Jongin to watch the shadow of Chanyeol's adam's apple bob as he swallows. He's caught staring as Chanyeol lowers the bottle slowly, but doesn't look away. "I guess I should just say it. I mean, I came back here because it was bothering me too much to let it go."

The cryptic tone doesn't do much to calm Jongin's nerves, but he waits patiently anyway even though his heart is suddenly doing double time.

Chanyeol runs his hand through his hair. "Our conversation the other day. Am I an idiot for reading into it?"

Jongin knows exactly which conversation Chanyeol is talking about. He's quiet for a little too long because Chanyeol starts to look like he regrets asking. "No," he rushes to say, then covers his mouth briefly at how aggressive that came out. "Sorry. No. You're not an idiot."

Surprisingly, it's like a weight lifted from Jongin's shoulders. He had been worrying about it so much, especially since his chat with Baekhyun, but Chanyeol reaching out first takes off a lot of the pressure.

Chanyeol looks as relieved if not more. He's much more like his usual self, sitting up a little taller and smiling big. Jongin feels the familiar rush of infatuation. "Wow. Okay."

Jongin smiles back, but doesn't know what he's supposed to do now. Is this all Chanyeol really came here to do? He wants Chanyeol to stay, but doesn't know what that would entail.

Chanyeol sets his beer on the floor. Jongin hasn't even taken a sip of his and clutches it tighter in his lap when Chanyeol leans in and carefully brings his hands up to Jongin's face. "Is this okay?" he says, not touching yet, but so close that Jongin's skin tickles.

Jongin's heart is about to beat out of his chest, but he nods. The initial touch makes Jongin jerk, just out of surprise since Chanyeol's hands are cold from the beer bottle. He says so quietly, not wanting Chanyeol to get the wrong idea and smiles when Chanyeol takes his hands back to blow into them and rub them together. The effort helps, but Jongin doesn't have long to linger on how warm they are.

The kiss Chanyeol gives him is gentle and careful, just a simple press of their lips together before he pulls back, gaze sweeping across Jongin's face to gauge his reaction. Jongin licks his lips on instinct and stares at Chanyeol's mouth, hoping it's signal enough and leans forward a little when Chanyeol kisses him again.

This time, there's no hesitation. Chanyeol's hands tilt Jongin's head just so and it makes the kiss ten times better. Chanyeol's lips are somehow the softest Jongin's ever felt and they fit against his so well too. Yet Chanyeol leads easily and Jongin is embarrassed at the whimper that catches in his throat when Chanyeol shifts closer and moves his hands, sliding one to cradle the back of Jongin's neck while the other drops down to hold Jongin's waist.

Jongin can't remember the last time he's been kissed like this. He doesn't remember if he's ever been kissed like this, like he's made of spun sugar, but also like the other person is starving for him. The infatuation bubbling in him earlier turns into something thicker, a simmering of pure want that only grows when Chanyeol's tongue slips into his mouth and his hand tightens on Jongin's waist.

It gets harder to keep kissing when Jongin's still holding onto that damn beer. He has to force them apart and bites his lip at the pure rush he sees on Chanyeol's face and knowing he did that. He sets the bottle on the floor too and the moment he lets go Chanyeol is on him, easing him to lie back on the couch.

"I've been wanting to kiss you for so long," Chanyeol says, propping one of Jongin's legs over his lap as he leans over and fits into the vee of Jongin's legs as he brings their mouths together again.

It's so easy to kiss Chanyeol. And so good.

It's been months now since Jongin was dumped and honestly the tail end of that relationship barely included any intimacy, physical or otherwise. Jongin is touch-starved, but does his best to hold back a little, not wanting to risk coming off desperate. He doesn't know what he does that tips it off, but Chanyeol pulls back after a bit and gives Jongin a questioning look.

"Is this okay? Did I push too far?"

"Huh?"

"You got tense suddenly," Chanyeol says, squeezing Jongin's waist.

Jongin shakes his head. "I'm fine. I like it. It's just been a while."

Chanyeol stares at Jongin for a moment, then smiles and says, "All right." He presses his mouth to Jongin's again and this time Jongin tries to relax and not think so much. Chanyeol braces his arms on either side of Jongin's head and Jongin sinks into the kisses, basking in the heat of each one.

When they finally part, Jongin's lips are tingling and a little swollen and he knows if he was able to look, he'd see how red they are. It's too dim to see Chanyeol's, but Jongin imagines he would resemble the same and that sends a thrill through him.

Chanyeol's fingers slip into Jongin's hair and plays with it absently. "Can I take care of you?"

"What does that mean?"

Chanyeol shrugs a little. "Anything you want. You tell me."

Jongin's attention strays to how turned on he is, already half hard, and he looks to the side when Chanyeol shifts his weight and his bicep flexes right next to Jongin's face. He's always been the kind of person who becomes more sexually attracted to someone the better he knows them. The one time he tried to go clubbing with friends and have a one night stand failed miserably. But Chanyeol is very much not a stranger and Jongin has, for better or worse, been thinking about the possibility of something sparking between them for a while. Now that it's happened, the closeness of Chanyeol makes him want so much more.

"We should go to my room," Jongin says softly.

"I'm very in support of that." Chanyeol grins and kisses Jongin one more time before easing off. He stands up and takes Jongin's hands to pull him to his feet too. "We didn't even drink the beer. I'll pay you back."

Jongin shakes his head and leads Chanyeol down the hall. "This already makes up for it."

Once they step over the threshold into Jongin's bedroom, Chanyeol wraps Jongin in a back hug and kisses his cheek. It makes Jongin's stomach swoop harder than anything else that's happened so far tonight.

"Let me see you," Chanyeol says, turning Jongin around. He dips his hands under Jongin's t-shirt and pushes it up until Jongin lifts his arms for him to take it off completely.

Jongin's not self-conscious about how he looks, but it's always a little nerve-wracking to be bare in front of someone for the first time. But Chanyeol's gaze softens as he runs his large hands up and down Jongin's torso. Chanyeol tugs off his own shirt, leaving his hair sticking up in multiple directions. It makes him look a lot younger suddenly and Jongin finds it endearing, at least until his gaze drops.

Chanyeol is, expectedly, in very good shape. But Jongin is still shocked to see how well built he is. He has a distinct six-pack and his shoulders are broad while his waist is almost as thin as Jongin's. Jongin can't help but press one hand to Chanyeol's pectoral, pleasantly surprised at how it's both firm and yielding under his palm.

"Approve?" Chanyeol says, amused.

Jongin smiles and grows a little more confident, lifting his other hand to settle on Chanyeol's bicep. He could easily spend the whole night just touching Chanyeol like this. But he's also happy to take more.

The shorts Chanyeol is wearing is a thinner cotton material since the summer weather is so heavy and humid. But it means it doesn't do a lot to hide Chanyeol's arousal and Jongin's anticipation spikes seeing the physical evidence that he's turning Chanyeol on. He doesn't rush, but still makes quick work of unzipping Chanyeol's shorts before tugging his own off and leaving them both in their underwear.

"You look absolutely gorgeous," Chanyeol says and Jongin can feel his ears heat up. He ducks his head, but Chanyeol tips his chin up and pulls him in for a kiss.

The skin on skin makes everything better still. Jongin loops his arms around Chanyeol's waist and eagerly kisses back, parting his lips to let their tongues brush together. It's Chanyeol who slowly guides them to the bed and they stop kissing only long enough for Jongin to lie down and for Chanyeol to climb over him.

"I'm a little rusty," Jongin says, fingers running along Chanyeol's abdomen. "Just warning you."

"Nothing to warn for," Chanyeol says, pushing Jongin's hair out of his eyes. "Just tell me if you want to stop."

That's the last thing Jongin wants, but his chest fills with something light and warm knowing Chanyeol is going to take care of him no matter what they do. "Thanks, but just giving you context. I haven't slept with a guy since university."

"Was he good? How high is the bar I have to beat?" Chanyeol says, which is not what Jongin expects. He laughs without meaning to, but Chanyeol smiles and slides his hands down Jongin's sides to his waist. "I'll send out a survey afterwards. User satisfaction is very important to me."

Jongin laughs more and it's a new feeling, joking like this right as they're about to be intimate. It calms him, too amused to be worried, and he lifts his hips easily when Chanyeol strips him of his underwear.

Chanyeol leaves kisses across Jongin's stomach, which tickles and Jongin puts his hand over Chanyeol's mouth to stop him. Jongin sits up and reaches for Chanyeol's underwear too, making that disappear in seconds.

The warm glow of the lighting makes Chanyeol's skin shine. The few nerves Jongin had earlier have all disappeared. Even when Chanyeol blatantly stares at him, gaze dropping lower and lower, Jongin is pleasantly comfortable and likes basking in the attention. He takes the chance to study Chanyeol too, how sharp the change is from his broad shoulders down to his tapered waist.

Chanyeol's cock is on the impressive side, Jongin can acknowledge. It bobs in the air, curving up slightly and the tip is already slightly damp. It's a bit too dark to see his balls, but Jongin can just barely make out their outline, how heavy they sit, and he slides one hand up Chanyeol's thigh to the juncture of his hip, hit with the urge to touch.

"Will you fuck me?" Jongin says.

"Shit, warn a guy before you say something like that," Chanyeol says. "Do you have stuff I can use?"

Jongin nods and scoots over to dig in his nightstand for lube and condoms. He likes that Chanyeol doesn't question if he's sure it's what he wants. He wouldn't have asked otherwise. Even though he's only had one other experience, he knows this is what he likes. He wants to be taken care of, to feel the weight of someone else over him. He knows Chanyeol will be good.

Chanyeol leaves those things aside for now and grabs Jongin's wrist, guiding him to lie down again. "Anything you don't like?"

Jongin thinks a little. "Feet stuff?"

Chanyeol laughs and brings Jongin's legs over his hips. "How do you feel about being eaten out?"

Jongin's gone down on his ex-girlfriends plenty of times, but that wasn't one of the things he got to experience in university. He isn't opposed to it, but doesn't want to try anything new tonight. "Maybe next time."

Chanyeol nods and kisses Jongin gently. "I like the sound of that. Next time." He sits up again and takes the lube, squeezing some onto his fingers. He smears it around for a few seconds, then his hand disappears between Jongin's legs.

The first touch is odd, but only because it's someone else touching Jongin there. He's not that shy about using his fingers on himself from time to time. Chanyeol is careful and gentle, easing two fingers inside slowly. They're longer and thicker than Jongin's own and provide a nice stretch. Jongin inhales slowly and opens up his hips more, legs spread wide on either side of Chanyeol.

"Fuck, look at you," Chanyeol says, as if in awe. He looks at Jongin like he is. "This is you being rusty? Seems more like riding a bike."

"Stop," Jongin says, laughing a little. He can't deny how eager he is though and he sucks in his lower lip when Chanyeol starts fucking him, the anticipation of having the real thing inside him getting harder and harder to ignore.

It's only a little while before Chanyeol takes his fingers out and returns with three. He's generous with the lube and the slide is easy. There's no discomfort, just more pressure and fullness, and Jongin can't help but take his cock, stroking himself lazily.

"Tempted to just get you off like this," Chanyeol says, but Jongin shakes his head.

"No, I want you to fuck me."

Chanyeol leans forward and braces his other hand over Jongin's shoulder, bringing his mouth to Jongin's in a slow, filthy kiss. He sucks hard on Jongin's bottom lip when he pulls back and his gaze is heavy, but sharp, like the only thing he sees is Jongin.

Jongin doesn't know if anyone's ever looked at him like this, with such open desire. It's an incredible rush.

Chanyeol doesn't waste more time and preps himself. He grabs Jongin's waist and tugs him closer so Jongin's hips rest completely in his lap, tucking a pillow under Jongin's waist. Jongin feels his cock line up, rubbing over his hole a few times, and he wishes he could see it.

But even if he could, it's impossible to look away from Chanyeol's gaze. Chanyeol's expression is all seriousness when he presses in. Jongin's mouth parts, but no sound comes out. The stretch is right on the cusp of uncomfortable, but when Chanyeol finally comes to a stop, all Jongin feels is this relief, this break of tension at knowing this fullness again.

"Beautiful," Chanyeol says, staying still for now. "Took that so well."

Jongin flushes, but he finds he really likes how Chanyeol speaks to him. He can't help but clench around Chanyeol and is impatient for him to move. Chanyeol grabs his waist as if he knows and gives one slow, long thrust that makes Jongin groan and he slaps his hand over his mouth at how loud he is.

Chanyeol grins and does it again, gradually settling into an easy rhythm. As much as Jongin tries to fight it, these small whines and whimpers still tumble from his lips. It's been so long since he's been fucked and he tries to remember if it was like this when he was younger, dating and experimenting with his senior. When they slept together it wasn't bad, but it was always fast, the two of them eager to chase their release.

But this is nothing like that. Chanyeol doesn't even look like he's trying, as if he could fuck Jongin like this for hours, nice and lazy until the sun rises. The thought of it makes something hot zip down his spine and his cock jerks, precome leaking down the shaft.

"What did you just think about?" Chanyeol says, sinking all the way in and making Jongin groan. "Or I'm not doing enough if you're still able to think."

That might be true, but words are a little difficult, Jongin discovers. "Keep going," is all he can manage and Chanyeol gives a little smirk before grabbing Jongin's hands and leaning all the way over, pressing them to the bed.

The change in angle takes Jongin by surprise and he curses when Chanyeol fucks him hard and deep. The tip of his cock hits just right and Jongin knows then that he's been ruined for anyone else.

"Is it good?" Chanyeol says, even though Jongin knows he knows the answer. He knows how good he is, how good he's making it for Jongin. Chanyeol presses his forehead to Jongin's, eyes bright and mischievous even as Jongin feels like he's falling apart.

Jongin's orgasm builds slowly, almost frustratingly so. Chanyeol still hasn't let go of his hands so he can't touch himself and he knows he could come with just a couple strokes if Chanyeol would just let him. But instead, Chanyeol slows down just when Jongin is getting close, the worst thing he can do, and Jongin's desperation is not hidden at all when he all but begs. "No, no, no, please I'm going to come."

There's a sheen of sweat covering Chanyeol and he pushes his hair back, kissing the corner of Jongin's mouth. "I'll make you come, don't worry." But he sits up and pulls out, squeezing Jongin's hip. "Roll over."

Jongin follows obediently, just wanting Chanyeol inside him again. As he settles on his stomach, Chanyeol shoves his t-shirt under Jongin's hips.

"Probably don't want to come on your sheets," Chanyeol says, bracing himself over Jongin. He enters Jongin again, sinking in easily and Jongin presses his face into the bed, feeling like Chanyeol's able to reach even deeper in this position.

Chanyeol takes Jongin's hands again, but holds them this time, linking their fingers together. He rests some of his weight on Jongin's back, but his legs bracket Jongin's, keeping them pressed together. Jongin's overwhelmed before Chanyeol even moves, being surrounded and smothered like this fogging up his brain. The first few thrusts have him whimpering and squeezing Chanyeol's hands. Chanyeol doesn't pound into him, keeps the same steady pace he's used this whole time, and with Jongin's cock rubbing against the soft jersey of Chanyeol's shirt his orgasm sneaks up on him fast.

"Come on," Chanyeol says, his voice low and gentle in Jongin's ear. His lips graze Jongin's cheek. "Jongin. Darling."

Jongin releases a small, dry sob and squeezes his eyes shut when he finally tips over the edge. He comes hard enough that he gets light-headed and doesn't realize he's holding his breath until Chanyeol tells him calmly to breathe. He takes a gulp of air and trembles through the rest of his orgasm. But Chanyeol doesn't stop fucking him, keeps going somehow like a machine, and Jongin is sensitive but it still feels so good.

"Hyung," Jongin forces out, but Chanyeol is unrelenting.

"Not done with you yet," Chanyeol says, but he sounds like he's barely holding on.

A minute later, the constant pressure on Jongin's prostate pushes him into another orgasm, this one deeper and more satisfying and Jongin groans loudly as it works through him.

"Fuck, there you go," Chanyeol says, breathing hard. "That's it, darling."

After that, they come in waves like a dam's been broken and Jongin doesn't know what to do except squeeze Chanyeol's hands and moan through them. His entire body feels like one exposed wire and it's a relief when Chanyeol finally groans and loses his rhythm, finally fucks Jongin hard and fast until he buries himself deep and stays there, tense against Jongin's body as he comes.

"Shit," Chanyeol says, nuzzling Jongin's cheek and neck. "Mm, come here."

Chanyeol rolls them onto their sides, his cock still inside Jongin but growing soft. He tucks one arm under Jongin's head and slips the other around Jongin's chest. He rocks his hips lazily, at this point not enough to do anything, and plays with Jongin's nipples, circling and tugging on them gently. It keeps Jongin floating, sends these warm aftershocks through him, and after a few moments something deep in Jongin's chest caves in and he's shocked when tears well up and he wipes at his face hastily.

"Sorry, I don't know why I'm — why this is happening —"

Chanyeol hushes him and wraps his arms around Jongin tightly. "Don't apologize. I got you."

It's the exact comfort Jongin needs. He sniffles and holds onto Chanyeol's arm, letting all his thoughts go. It's just him and the solid warmth of Chanyeol enveloping him.

After a few minutes, Chanyeol kisses the back of Jongin's neck. "Should probably wash up," he says, but doesn't move so neither does Jongin. It takes a couple more tries and Jongin only goes because he doesn't want to be anywhere but right next to Chanyeol.

In the bathroom, there's barely room for both of them, but they figure it out, sitting on two tiny stools like surly uncles at a sauna. Chanyeol gently scrubs and washes Jongin's back, then washes his hair, spending five minutes massaging Jongin's scalp. Jongin leans back into him, still craving that closeness, too wrapped up in it to think about what it means. Chanyeol hugs him from behind and nudges Jongin's jaw with his nose until Jongin turns his head for a kiss. One kiss turns into another and another until the angle gets too uncomfortable for Jongin to ignore.

Chanyeol dries them off and they slip back into bed, under the covers this time, completely naked. Jongin automatically reaches out for Chanyeol to kiss him again, wondering if it's the months of not being intimate with anyone that's making him so desperate. If Chanyeol minds, he doesn't show it, pulling Jongin in close as if it's nothing as their mouths meet over and over again.

It shocks Jongin when he feels himself getting turned on when the first round wiped him out so much. It's impossible to hide it from Chanyeol who raises an eyebrow in amusement and chuckles when Jongin turns his face into the pillow.

In the few seconds Jongin isn't looking, Chanyeol moves and ducks under the covers completely. Jongin starts to object, but Chanyeol is already a lump at the foot of the bed and there's a wet heat engulfing Jongin's cock.

Chanyeol doesn't tease and takes Jongin in deep. There's something about not being able to see what Chanyeol's doing that turns Jongin on even more. He clutches at the sheets and moans as Chanyeol sucks him off, clearly with the intent to make him come as fast as possible. It doesn't take much longer at all and soon Jongin is choking out a warning, but Chanyeol just doubles down and Jongin lets out a weak whine when he orgasms. He doesn't even know if he even has any come left for Chanyeol to swallow.

Chanyeol stays under, kissing and giving Jongin's cock these kitten licks until Jongin grabs him through the blanket to make him stop. His hair is a mess when he finally surfaces and braces himself over Jongin, but it's his mouth, red and shiny and a little swollen, that Jongin can't stop staring at.

Jongin's attention shifts only when Chanyeol straddles him and starts rocking his hips, grinding his cock against Jongin's stomach. The sight steals Jongin's breath because Chanyeol isn't holding back, rutting against Jongin with desperation, unashamed of it, and it makes Jongin feel wanted and desired like nothing else. There's no mistaking he's the sole reason that's getting Chanyeol off.

Chanyeol breathes heavily when he comes, shooting onto Jongin's stomach. Jongin rubs Chanyeol's thighs before taking Chanyeol's cock with one hand, stroking tight and slow to draw out his orgasm as much as possible, wanting Chanyeol to feel as good as he made it for Jongin.

"Fuck," Chanyeol says, sitting back on Jongin's thighs as he pushes his hair out of his face. "Ugh, I'm sweaty again." Jongin laughs, pulling a grin from Chanyeol as he leans over with his long arms to grab some tissues to clean off Jongin's stomach. He collapses next to Jongin and runs his hand through Jongin's hair that's still damp. "That was the best sex I've ever had, hands down."

Jongin blushes, but can't help but let the comment feed his ego. But he doesn't know what this all means for them, if there is a them since their talk earlier barely covered anything.

As if sensing Jongin's concerns, Chanyeol cups Jongin's face and strokes his thumb over the rise of Jongin's cheekbone. "Let's talk tomorrow, okay? About what you want, what I want. But tonight was amazing. You're amazing."

Jongin smiles shyly and nods. He flips over to face away and scoots back until he feels Chanyeol press up against him. It's so calming to have Chanyeol curled around him like this and he's grateful Chanyeol doesn't mind the closeness.

Before Jongin falls asleep, he feels a kiss against the top of his head and his chest blooms with the hope that something good just might become his.

+

The next day, Jongin wakes first. The weight of Chanyeol's arm is still around his waist and he feels nothing but content. When Chanyeol stirs half an hour later, Jongin rolls over to face him and decides Chanyeol looks even better in the natural morning light.

Chanyeol greets him with a groggy good morning and a simple kiss, as if they've woken up together just like this a hundred times before, and they lie there until both their stomachs growl and Chanyeol asks what Jongin wants for breakfast.

It's so domestic watching Chanyeol in the kitchen, just the two of them in the whole house, and Jongin wonders if it's okay to let his mind wander, to allow himself to picture this as a more permanent possibility. He doesn't know if he's making the same mistake he's always made, jumping ahead with his head in the clouds while everyone still has their feet firmly on the ground.

Despite Chanyeol saying last night that they'll talk, he doesn't bring anything up all morning. Instead, they discuss how much different the house looks now and what Jongin wants to do with all the space outside. It's been unspoken, but Jongin assumes Chanyeol is staying the whole weekend and that gives them plenty of time.

But Chanyeol had said tomorrow and it's tomorrow.

"You look stressed," Chanyeol says after they wash the dishes.

Jongin sucks his lower lip between his teeth. "When are we going to talk?"

Chanyeol smiles and dries his hands. "Now," he says, easily slipping his arms around Jongin's waist. They stand there in the middle of the kitchen as if they're about to slow dance and Jongin tells himself to knock it off. "Wanted to give you a bit of time to think first."

"About what?"

Chanyeol shrugs. "How you felt about last night. How you feel about me. What you want out of this. Things like that."

"I liked last night. A lot. And you."

"With or without the 'a lot'?" When Jongin rolls his eyes, Chanyeol doubles down. "It matters!"

"With," Jongin mumbles, pretending to punch Chanyeol's shoulder.

"A lot enough to date me?"

"Casual or serious?"

Chanyeol tilts his head and Jongin can't tell what he's thinking. "Serious," he says after a while, taking Jongin's hands. "I've liked you for a while."

Jongin releases the breath he didn't realize he was holding. "I fall for people really easily. It scares the people I date really easily or they're guilted into staying. Just be honest with me if that happens with you."

Chanyeol frowns. "All right," he says, bringing Jongin's hands up to loop behind his neck. "But in exchange every day that the opposite happens, where I end up liking you more I'm going to tell you that too."

"You don't have to do that."

"I want to. I already like you so much more today."

Jongin wants to say Chanyeol barely knows him, but that's not entirely true. They've been around each other for over two months now and they've been speaking to each other like friends for at least half of that. "Idiot," he says with no bite behind it.

Chanyeol pecks Jongin on the mouth. "Call me whatever you want, my statement stands."

Jongin can't fight a smile and looks away. Chanyeol takes the opportunity to hug him tighter. "Guess I'm dating an idiot."

Chanyeol laughs and lifts Jongin and spins him around.

There's a small part of Jongin that still has doubts, wondering if it's supposed to be this easy. But last night had been easy and this morning had been easy and just now — at no point was there any sign Chanyeol didn't mean what he said or did. It just feels a little too good to be true, but Chanyeol brings his hands up to cradle Jongin's face, smiling like Jongin's all he can see, and Jongin starts to believe it's just good enough.

+

Baekhyun comes back Monday morning with Yixing. He has a clear limp as he walks into the house and Jongin bursts out laughing even as Baekhyun glares at him.

"Respect your elders please!"

Jongin doesn't even try to stop. Minseok looks over from the kitchen while Chanyeol and Junmyeon peer through the sliding door. Yixing strolls through a few seconds later carrying Baekhyun's bag and hugs Baekhyun briefly with his free arm, dropping a kiss on his head.

"See you at lunch," Yixing says and heads out back.

"They said you were the one who'd be in danger but wow," Jongin says, still snickering. Baekhyun eases onto the couch gingerly. "I can't believe you really got your back blown out."

"It was so worth it though," Baekhyun says, sighing dreamily. "I'm going back this weekend. Every weekend. Until my body just breaks down from getting dicked so good."

Jongin makes a face and he catches Minseok's eye over the kitchen counter who's also wrinkling his nose.

"How was your weekend?" Baekhyun says. "Did you miss me?"

Jongin wants to tell Baekhyun his news, but wants to wait until tonight when the others are gone. "It was fine. And no."

"I'm hurt."

Jongin snorts. "You clearly didn't miss me."

"Can't argue there."

"So are you and Yixing-hyung…?"

Baekhyun glances over at him and is unusually quiet and serious. "We didn't talk about it. I want to."

"I think you should talk to him. I think he'd say yes."

Baekhyun lies down with a groan and uses Jongin's lap as a pillow. "That'd be nice. Yeah. Maybe I will."

Jongin looks up and watches through the window as Chanyeol works under the mid-morning sun with his sleeves rolled up — because of the heat and because he knows Jongin will see him. As if he has a sixth sense, Chanyeol raises his head and makes eye contact immediately. They share a smile and Chanyeol checks no one's looking before blowing a kiss.

Jongin's still getting used to it, all the things that happened over the weekend. This time just a few days ago he was still single and unsure of what direction he wanted to head in and now he's giving Baekhyun advice since the tables have turned. Chanyeol has kept his word, telling Jongin how much he likes him, even this morning when he arrived with Junmyeon and Minseok, finding a moment to say it to Jongin unnoticed. Jongin already knows that he's well on his way to falling for Chanyeol and tells himself that's okay, that this isn't going to be like his failed relationships because Chanyeol already treats him so differently.

It's just hard to shake off a fear like that.

When the crew leaves for the day, Jongin feels bad about not giving Chanyeol any extra attention, but Chanyeol doesn't seem to mind. Baekhyun, on the other hand, has no shame about pasting himself all over Yixing. Jongin half expects him to jump back in the car with him, but Baekhyun diligently stays behind, but does close the door with a big pout.

Jongin feels like that too, but doesn't show it.

Baekhyun shuffles over to the couch and collapses onto his front. He looks pitiful.

"Hyung, is it that bad? You've only known the guy for a couple weeks."

"Do you think I'm stupid?"

"I didn't say that at all," Jongin says, crouching on the floor. He rests his arms on the couch above Baekhyun's head. "It would make me a hypocrite if I judged you."

"What does that mean?"

Jongin bites his lip. "Chanyeol-hyung was here this weekend. We, um, slept together. And decided to date."

"What?" Baekhyun sits up, eyes wide as Jongin's ever seen them. "You what!"

Jongin frowns. "You think I made a mistake."

"No! Don't — now you're putting words in my mouth." Baekhyun grabs Jongin's shoulders. "Holy shit, tell me everything."

So Jongin does, sort of. He leaves out the sordid details about all the sex they had the last few days, especially after their talk Saturday morning, but tells Baekhyun about how things had been building up for a few weeks and how Chanyeol approached him first. "I told him if he gets tired of me, to just tell me instead of lead me on."

"Stop thinking of yourself like that," Baekhyun says, crossing his arms and looking seriously pissed for a moment. He pulls Jongin up onto the couch. "He likes you enough to confess first. He came all the way here just to do that. That boy is head over heels. We told you."

Jongin hugs his knees to his chest. "I know," he says, dragging a hand through his hair. "I'm trying."

"You had a couple of bad relationships. A lot of people do. It doesn't mean anything. It definitely doesn't mean that you should just expect every person you date to act the same way." Baekhyun's shoulders fall lax and he slips his arm behind Jongin's back. "I'm happy for you though. You deserve someone who looks at you like you hung the moon."

Jongin's first instinct is to deny that and play down Baekhyun's comment, but he doesn't want Baekhyun to get upset again and he really does want to make an effort. He knows a lot of it is just because of how much this past weekend changed his view of Chanyeol, which had already been high, even better. He, too, likes Chanyeol more each day.

"I really like him, hyung," Jongin says, leaning against Baekhyun and being the one asking for comfort this time. Baekhyun rubs Jongin's arm.

"Good. If he ever tries anything with you, tell me and we'll beat him up."

Jongin laughs a little. "Are you going to tell Yixing-hyung how much you like him?"

"Guess I can't lecture you and not take my own advice." Baekhyun sighs. "I just thought he was hot. I didn't expect the rest of him."

"He's a good guy. A lot quieter than you though."

"Tell me about it. He never got annoyed no matter how much I talked. I actually shut up for once because he just let me keep going until I got annoyed at myself."

"Wow, can you record that next time?"

"Brat." Baekhyun messes up Jongin's hair and gets up. "Let's get chicken for dinner and break out the drinks. We have to celebrate how we both bagged two hot dudes."

"Does celebrating include calling Sehun to rub it in his face?"

"Now it does!" Baekhyun says, voice trailing off as he rounds the kitchen and opens the fridge, the sounds of glasses clinking together following.

The chicken place learned Jongin by name a while ago, not difficult in a smaller town like this. He puts in his usual order and gets what Baekhyun likes. Later, when they're stuffed full and on their second and third beers, they cackle with each other at the shock on Sehun's face until their sides ache.

+

It's an odd feeling when Chanyeol tells Jongin that his house is going to be finished in another day or two. Just like that, summer is almost over. He tries to remember what the place had looked like when he first moved in and is surprised when it's hard to picture. This house, patched up and given a new purpose, has been his normal for far longer than the rundown place he first walked into.

That was never his home. This is.

There's just the finishing touches on the deck outside that's left. Chanyeol makes Jongin promise not to go look until it's done.

"What free work are you trying to sneak by now?" Jongin says, giving him a sharp look.

"I'm not," Chanyeol says, pinning Jongin's arms down in a quick hug. He asked if he could tell the others after Jongin spilled the beans to Baekhyun and now he'll show his affection in the open sometimes. Not enough to bother Jongin, which might be on purpose. "You'll find out soon."

Jongin asks Baekhyun later if he knows anything and even though he has a terrible poker face, his ability to keep his mouth shut when it comes to secrets is impressive if annoying for Jongin. It's not like he can't just peek out the back and take a quick glance when Baekhyun's in the shower or sleeping, but Chanyeol's request is harmless and he doesn't want to ruin the surprise.

A couple days later, nothing seems different. The crew shows up in the morning like they usually do and they take a couple hours for Chanyeol to make lunch and for everyone to eat. Nothing is said about how the renovation is finishing up today or what might be going on in the backyard. Jongin watches everyone carefully to see who will slip up, but they all chat as if everything's business as usual.

In the afternoon, Baekhyun makes Jongin go out with him to run an errand. Jongin told Baekhyun he can use the car anytime, so it's obvious this is just an excuse to get him out of the house. It becomes especially apparent when Baekhyun directs him to the mall in the neighboring city and drags him from store to store, never answering Jongin just what he's looking for. They spend an hour there and Jongin's tempted to ask Baekhyun if they can just sit in a cafe however long they need just to escape having to listen to Baekhyun's flimsy excuses for why he needs a second opinion on air purifiers. Though Jongin is confused by how dedicated Baekhyun is to the bit when he actually buys one.

Finally after two hours, Baekhyun checks his phone and abruptly tells Jongin they can leave. Jongin rolls his eyes at how blatant the ruse is, but he keeps his mouth shut, happy to just be going home since the sun is already starting to go down and he's getting hungry.

The front of the house is unchanged when they pull up. Jongin didn't expect it to be different anyway. Baekhyun carries the air purifier he bought and leads the way inside.

The house is quiet even though Chanyeol's truck is still outside. Baekhyun heads right for the sliding door leading to the back which still has the curtains drawn. He clears his throat and knocks on it a couple times, then waits a few seconds before sliding the door open.

"Surprise!"

Jongin steps out and stares at the scene before him. There's more faces than he expects. Sehun and Kyungsoo are there, but he's most surprised to see his brother and his wife too.

"Hyung?"

Jongdae laughs, familiar but strange to hear in person again, and steps forward to hug him. "Welcome to your housewarming party. Mom and Dad had something else already for tonight, but they'll show up next week I think with grandma."

Jongin greets his sister-in-law, then says, "Wait, where's…?"

Jongdae nods behind Jongin where Chanyeol is lingering back, shooting Jongin a smile before all his attention returns to making faces at the baby he's holding. Jongin's niece lets out a sharp, happy squeal and grabs Chanyeol's nose.

"You've got some explaining to do," Jongdae says between them, but it's in jest. Jongin told him about the senior in university after it happened, but he's the only one in the family who knows.

Once the shock wears off, Jongin actually takes in the space they're in. The deck is technically what he asked for with a space for a table and there's already a grill placed off to the side. But there's a section that wasn't in the blueprint, a covered deck that was decorated with lights strung around the beams and over the slats of the roof. There's a swinging bench set up underneath, stacked with throw pillows, and looks comfortable enough that Jongin could probably fall asleep in it.

"You lied!" Jongin says, going over to smack Chanyeol on the arm. "You said you weren't doing any more free work!"

Chanyeol looks a mix of confused and chastised. "It's not — it's your housewarming gift."

"I just got you some candles though," Sehun says, helpful as ever. "Didn't build you a whole part of the house you weren't expecting. Seems different."

There's too many people for Jongin to say anything more about it. He just stares at Chanyeol who lifts Jongin's niece up to his face as some sort of defense mechanism.

Baekhyun clears his throat. "Okay, well, I guess the deck is impressive, but you know what else is impressive? Clean air. What's that, Baekhyun? You got me an air purifier? Wow, you're the best!"

Jongin can't pretend to be upset after that. Jongdae says presents can be opened later and that they should eat first. Chanyeol finally returns Jongin's niece to her mom so he and Kyungsoo can fire up the grill. Minseok and Yixing go to maneuver the small dining table outside while Jongdae sets up another folding table. Pressing the two together is just big enough to fit everyone.

Jongin gives everyone who hasn't seen already a tour of the house while the first whiffs of beef and pork over charcoal waft through the air.

"I'm tempted to kick you out of this place and pay grandma to say she actually meant to give it to me," Jongdae says.

"Over my dead body," Jongin says, taking a moment to steal his niece. He smiles and coos at her, melting at the sight of her giggling and falling against his chest. "I missed this bean."

"If you baby-proof this place, you are free to babysit whenever you want."

Jongin mentally notes to go out his weekend and buy all the supplies he needs.

They all head back outside once Jongin's done showing off all the shiny, new things, but Jongdae grabs Jongin's elbow to get him to stay behind. They sit down in the living room and Jongin holds his niece in his lap to avoid looking at his brother. He didn't think he'd have to have this talk tonight.

"I was kind of worried you know," Jongdae says, looking around the room. "When you accepted this place from grandma. Really worried after our chat the first night you moved in. But the house looks great." He nudged Jongin lightly. "You don't look too bad either. You've smiled a lot tonight."

Jongin shrugs. "It's the countryside. It relaxes you."

Jongdae sits back. "It's not just that though."

Jongin doesn't say anything. His niece looks up at him and waves her arms around.

"Hey." Jongdae nudges Jongin's arm lightly. "What's the story?"

Of course, Jongin's first instinct is to say there isn't one, but he knows Jongdae will see through that in a second. "It's just something new."

"Seems serious though."

Jongin shrugs. "I'm trying to not be like that anymore. You know how it always ends for me."

Jongdae raises an eyebrow. "I wasn't talking about you," he says, laughing a little when Jongin stares at him. "You heard what Sehun said. I don't know what happened this summer, but you have someone whose housewarming gift is literally part of the house."

The words sink in a little easier now that he isn't also processing the shock of a surprise. No matter how he looks at it, it's hard to disagree with what Jongdae and Sehun have said. He doesn't bother mentioning all the other parts of the house that he didn't ask for, but Chanyeol had built anyway. Built for him.

"He seems like a good guy," Jongdae says, making a face at his daughter when she babbles at him. "Oh, Chaerin thinks the same." He pinches her cheeks gently. "By the way, he's really good with kids. Like, extremely. You know Chaerin gets fussy easily with new people, but he had her giggling in seconds."

Jongin has been trying not to think about that image, but he recalls it immediately in startling detail. How comfortable and how natural Chanyeol looked holding his niece. How fond he was of her without any reason to be. He knows why Jongdae is bringing it up. It's no secret how badly Jongin wants a family of his own, but to imply Chanyeol would be a good match there seems too much too soon.

"Hyung, he and I — we just started dating. It's not, I can't think about that stuff."

"Hey, I know," Jongdae says softly, squeezing Jongin's knee. "I'm not trying to suggest anything. Just want you to know I support whatever you do."

The back door slides open and Sehun pokes his head inside. "Food's ready soon. Jongin, hurry up because your boy toy keeps looking over here all worried. Or he misses you." Sehun fakes a gag. "Either way."

"We shouldn't keep you away any longer then," Jongdae says, slapping Jongin's leg as he stands up. He doesn't bother to take his daughter from Jongin, knowing it would be a futile effort at this point.

The setup outside already looks so different. The two tables, despite being grossly mismatched, look like two peas in a pod now. They're decorated in a nice tablecloth and already half-filled with dishes. Chanyeol turns around when Jongin steps out and offers a warm smile. He looks happy to see Jongin even though it's barely been half an hour.

It's harder and harder for Jongin to convince himself anything about them is just two people taking things easy.

Sehun drags him over to the table and makes him sit down between him and Kyungsoo. Jongin feels lucky he isn't interrogated some more right there out in the open.

"Baekhyun-hyung, stop making googly eyes and get over here," Sehun says, not even looking up.

Jongin spots Baekhyun off to the side, leaning against the side of the house with Yixing right next to him. They're clearly off in their own world and Jongin wonders if Baekhyun's already had the talk with him. He didn't want to pry after their last conversation, which seems silly because Baekhyun would absolutely be nosey if it were the other way around.

Dinner is loud and chaotic, but a lot of fun. He likes that he's the common thread tying all these people together. Somewhere in between Baekhyun and Kyungsoo getting into another disagreement and Jongin's niece shoving both hands into the plate of japchae, Jongin — for the first time — experiences the deep, grounding feeling of home.

It's a bit overwhelming and Jongin sits there quietly to soak it all in while his friends and family chatter happily around him. Under the table, something nudges Jongin's foot and he glances across to see Chanyeol smiling at him. There's so much Jongin has to say, so much gratitude he has for Chanyeol who helped turn this house into a home, but it isn't the right time or place, and Jongin doesn't know what words would even come close to expressing how he feels.

It's late into the evening when they finally start to clean up. Jongin's friends take care of the dishes while Chanyeol's crew puts everything back. Jongin tells Jongdae he should stay overnight and drive back in the morning, rubbing his niece's back as she slumbers in Jongdae's arms. Jongdae agrees and they retire for the night and Jongin is happy that they're the first occupants of his guest bedroom.

Jongin doesn't have as much sympathy for his friends and tells them to go home. Mostly Sehun, since Kyungsoo wouldn't ever give him trouble. Baekhyun has his weekender bag again and looks ready to physically carry Yixing to his car so they can leave.

It's almost midnight when the house is finally quiet. Jongin goes out back again and stands in the middle of the deck, taking the first moment by himself to marvel at how this home is actually all his.

The sound of the door sliding open and closed is barely heard over the crickets chirping under the half moon. A pair of arms come around Jongin's waist and he smiles as he leans back against Chanyeol's chest.

"How does it feel to have everything finished?" Chanyeol says, his lips brushing Jongin's temple.

"Surreal," Jongin says, placing his arms over Chanyeol's. "Most of it because of you."

"I just did what you asked me to do."

Jongin rolls his eyes. "That's a lie and you know it," he says, pointing over to the swinging bench. "I didn't ask for that. Or all the extra stuff you built inside."

"It's really not that much," Chanyeol says, then takes Jongin's hand and leads him over to the covered section of the deck. He bends over next to one of the beams, searching for something and a couple seconds later the strings of fairy lights come to life. He grins. "This might be a little much though."

Jongin is speechless as Chanyeol puts some music on his phone and pulls him in for a slow dance. It's something out of the cliche dramas Sehun pretends like he doesn't watch, the kind of scene that Jongin turns his nose up at and complains about how unrealistic it is. But here he is, swaying under the moon as someone sings about the magic of new love in the background.

"You're not real," Jongin says, making Chanyeol laugh and lean his weight into Jongin briefly.

"I'm pretty sure I am?" Chanyeol says, slipping his arm around Jongin's waist to pull him in closer.

"Real people don't do this."

"Am I a figment of your imagination then?"

"It feels like it sometimes," Jongin says, resting his head on Chanyeol's shoulder.

"Well, I'm very real and I guess I'll just have to work on convincing you."

But Jongin already knows and day by day he tells himself that what he has with Chanyeol, no matter how new, is such a departure from the relationships he was in before. Relationships he entered because he bought into the pressure that his life needed to look a certain way to be fulfilling. He doesn't regret the past few years even with all the moments of deep frustration. The silver lining now is he's able to recognize how different and substantial his relationship with Chanyeol already is.

They settle into a comfortable silence, dancing slowly under a seemingly cliche canopy of the moon and stars. Jongin knows he will still have moments where things like this will seem too good to be true, where he will be hit by a wave of doubt and wonder if Chanyeol will end up like all the others.

As if hearing Jongin's thoughts, Chanyeol presses his lips to the rise of Jongin's cheek. "I think it's past midnight now," he says and Jongin smiles to himself, knowing what's coming. "Just wanted you to know that I like you even more than I did yesterday."

Jongin understands now that Chanyeol's words are simply a different way to say he's falling for Jongin, a way to assuage Jongin's worries by laying his feelings out first. But it just causes a cycle where Chanyeol's willingness to bare his thoughts only makes Jongin's own feelings run deeper. That's okay, though. It's so much less scary to go through this with the person he wants right by his side.

Every day, Jongin rids himself of a weight that only holds him back, of things that he's learned aren't important at all. Every day, he is lighter and happier, just waiting for the moment when he can jump high enough to touch the sky.