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Helplessly Hoping

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Part I: The Road Less Pondered

It’s just past four in the afternoon.

The sunlight streaming in through the windows on the fifth floor is almost blinding. It’s right at that intensity before it sinks below the horizon line and behind the city skyline. The fifth floor is a quiet hum of activity, telephones ringing and copy machines whirring. A general feeling of anticipation hovers just on the edges of the room, the office waiting for the clock on the wall to tick another sixty minutes to freedom.

In one of the aisles, down a few rows and past the spill in the carpet from when one of the interns dropped a coffee order last fall, Chanyeol sits hunched over his desk. The words on the computer monitor before him have begun to swim, the itch at his back of his eyes growing with every hour. The chances that he’s read the same sentences about five times in the last few minutes are extremely high.

That’s mostly what happens often these days at work. Chanyeol will submit a proposal to his superior about a new article they could run and instead gets stuck editing the ‘new’ recipes and articles from the writing team. They’re all essentially the same, and Chanyeol is getting a bit fed up with reading about the newest diet fads that will just be replaced in a week.

It all comes down to one thing: bull shit.

Sitting back at his desk, Chanyeol lets out a low soft groan. Jostling his glasses up his nose, he presses his fingers gently against his closed eyes, relishing in the soft burn that alleviates quickly. It’s been a long day, mostly taking up the slack from the staff who don’t know how to edit the last minute articles their writers throw at them with frazzled looks and even more frazzled hair. It’s good that Chanyeol is there, to pick up the slack and take on a bit of extra work. As one of the older members on the editing team, he’s an asset to the magazine. There are days he can’t help but feel a little bitter though, knowing by now he should have been promoted to a senior editor or at least gotten more of a raise than his holiday bonus.

Letting out a sigh, Chanyeol lets his hands drop to his lap, looking back at his screen and the half edited article that has more red annotations than white space. It’s just another article about the risks of soy products to health but it’s rife with errors and Chanyeol’s been through about four of these articles already. As much as he’d like to think that sending back this piece to the writer will mean a better written piece next time, he knows it won’t.

Write, correct, edit, submit. That's the general cycle that doesn’t really change up outside of whatever topics are trending on twitter or facebook or whatever new media platform is taking over this month.

It doesn’t help that it’s four in the afternoon on a Wednesday, the middle of the week and their busiest day before they submit finished work on Thursday afternoons. That, coupled with the last seven article topics Chanyeol submitted about the science of foods being rejected again and he’s ready to just leave early.

He’s about to let out another sigh, get up and possibly grab another cup of coffee, when a piece of paper bounces off the side of his head.

“You have no right be sighing like your life is ending,” says a voice from the desk beside his. Over the stacks of paper and used coffee cups, Chanyeol looks at his coworker. Jongdae is focused intently on his computer screen, fingers tapping away vigorously. The only indication that he’s spoken is the soft curl at the corner of his lips.

“How do you know it’s not?” Chanyeol asks him, leaning back in his chair to rock gently, frowning at the next paragraph of the article he’s working on.

Once again we looking at the health issues related to a soy based diet. In a study where scientists studied the effects of oy products on goat’s milk production-

Chanyeol sighs, highlighting the entire paragraph with a grimace. Where the hell were they even picking up these new writers?

“Because if it was, you wouldn’t be here,” Jongdae retorts, leaning into his keyboard. Chanyeol glances over at him, watching the familiar scene as his fingers fly over the keys before he jabs the ‘enter’ key and sits back with a satisfied smile. Another article pulled straight out of his ass. Chanyeol would be critical if Jongdae wasn’t one of the best writers they have, able to pull out last minute near perfect articles at the last possible second. Jongdae turns to him with a smirk. “You’d be out making the most of the last few days of your life, preserving your name to go down in history as a do-gooder and life-changer.” He rocks a bit in his chair. “As it is, you’re just sighing at your computer like it just broke up with you.”

“Funny,” Chanyeol tells him with a wan smile. “Finally finish that article? I’m sure your keyboard could do with a bit less abuse. Keep it up and you’re going to have to change the annual number of keyboards you go through from four to five.”

“I could have a reputation for worse,” Jongdae muses with a smile, tapping gently at his keyboard. “At least I don’t throw my computer when it freezes on me.”

“I still say Junmyeon should have fired Hyunjoong back when he plagiarized and refused to fess up until Heechul hauled him out for it,” Chanyeol says.

That had happened a year ago, and still there are posters around the floor that Heechul had plastered around with propaganda against the former writer. It serves as a history lesson to all the new writers, especially when they encounter Heechul and get the story straight from him. It’s one of the reasons Chanyeol feels a bit guilty about wanting something more from his job, knowing the people he works with are decent. He likes them all, most of them his friends, like Jongdae beside him.

“There are a lot of things Junmyeon should do that he doesn’t do,” Jongdae muses, picking up one of his many coffee cups. He pouts when he finds it empty. “Like give me a raise and go out to dinner with his secretary.”

“As if Juhyun would say yes,” Chanyeol laughs, catching himself last minute to keep his voice down. Junmyeon’s desk is not that far from theirs, located a few rows back by the far wall. Usually Junmyeon keeps the door to his office open and often comes and chats with him and Jongdae when he has breaks. “Better to just stick with the raises and training the interns to write better articles.”

“Hey, consider it lucky you’re not the one dragging up research for those,” Jongdae scolds, throwing another crumpled up post it at him. It lands in Chanyeol’s lap before tumbling to the ground. “Do you know how hard it is writing about how great yogurt is? Seven times?”

“Yogurt is great,” Chanyeol tells him, glancing over at him. “Why don’t we trade jobs sometime, so the guy who actually cooks writes the articles and you can chew through all the punctuation errors.”

Jongdae just laughs, his voice louder than it should be as he tosses another crumpled post-it onto Chanyeol’s desk and spins in his chair slightly. The thing is, Chanyeol could easily do Jongdae’s job and probably enjoy it a bit more, but unlike Jongdae, Chanyeol’s degree is in the wrong field. His minor and experience on the school newspaper at his university got him the job, but to jump higher on the pay scale, Chanyeol’s only got a heavy background in the sciences and editing.

It’s why no matter how many times Junmyeon tries to file his name for promotion (or at least tells Chanyeol he does), the higher ups say no again and again. They may also just want to keep Chanyeol where he is. Seeing as he’s currently the best on the staff, right along with Heechul and Boa who basically run the whole team, he wouldn’t be surprised.

They also don’t want to have to pay him on the same scale as the chief editors. Which means Chanyeol comes to work every weekday, sits and edits until his back aches and his eyes itch, and goes home with everyone else in the same ebb and flow.

Three years ago, it was a great life, a great job where he had enough time after work to volunteer, see his friends after work, and go out hiking or traveling on the weekends. Now, Chanyeol’s itching to do more than just edit articles all day that teach people how to properly braise meat.

It’s almost four thirty when Junmyeon makes an appearance at their desks, hair pushed up from running his hands through it. “Meeting on the sixth floor,” he says, flashing a strained smile that means he’s stressed.

“Are you kidding?” Jongdae asks with a protesting note to his voice as he leans around Chanyeol to frown at their superior. “It’s four thirty! They couldn’t wait until tomorrow morning?”

“Apparently not,” Junmyeon says, smiling wider. It looks a lot more like he’s baring his teeth at them than smiling, and Chanyeol knows not to argue. “I hope you didn’t have plans right after work.”

“Did you?” Chanyeol asks, catching the tick at Junmyeon’s mouth as he makes to walk away.

“Work comes before play,” Junmyeon says with a too wide smile that hides his eyes before he’s off, walking down the aisles towards the elevator.

“I swear, we need to set him up,” Jongdae sighs, pushing back from his desk. “Maybe I can set both of you up, so you actually do something aside from work and solve world hunger.”

“I consider what I do outside of this place important life work,” Chanyeol tells him, pushing back from his desk. Neither of them shut down their computers, instead leaving them running. They’ll have follow-ups after whatever the meeting is about. They always do.

It means they’ll all be at work longer, past the usual closing time. Usually Chanyeol wouldn’t mind, but tonight he’d hoped to stop by the library to pick up his volunteer form for the weekend food drive and sign up for the learning outreach program. It’s not much, but it helps those that participate and Chanyeol always comes away feeling warmer.

The meeting means he won’t be able to swing by before the library closes though. Another weekend where he’s without plans to look forward to during the week.

“Keep up the wounded puppy look and maybe they’ll let you go home early,” Jongdae mutters to him as Andy rambles on at them about next week’s goals. They’re covering a new topic apparently, shooting for a different audience. Chanyeol lets himself get hopeful for a few seconds that it’ll be about food science before it’s revealed they’re getting a promo from an equipment brand and will be running a huge piece of ‘using the right cooking tools’.

“I think I could faint right now on you and they wouldn’t let me leave,” Chanyeol mutters back, leaning over so Jongdae can hear him. Over the table, Junmyeon flashes them a pointed look and Chanyeol sits back with a sheepish smile.

Their deadline for this week has been pushed forward, meaning all articles must be edited and submitted by tomorrow noon rather than closing at five. After his newest writing team flurries by him in varying states of panic, Chanyeol finally packs up around six.

“Stop smiling,” Jongdae tells him reproachfully as Chanyeol finally shuts down his computer. “You’re gloating right now and it makes you look even uglier.”

“Don’t stay too late,” Chanyeol tells him, tossing all the crumped up post-its from the day back at Jongdae with a smile.

It’s dark when Chanyeol leaves the office, the rush hour crowds diminished so that the subway ride home is much quieter. There’s space to stand and Chanyeol even manages to grab a seat after a few stops. He gives it up when an older woman hobbles onto the train, flashing her a bright smile as he gives her his seat.

The smile from her aged face and the brighter glint in her eyes leaves a soft hum in his chest, settling as he leans back against the subway doors. There aren’t many people who give up their seats these days, instead keeping their heads bowed and ignoring those who need it in selfishness. For Chanyeol, it’s not even out of courtesy; it’s who he is.

With everything else going on the world, the news stories getting too depressing with the tragedies that spread across the globe, every little bit counts.

It has him digging into his pockets as he leaves the small grocery mart on the walk home from the station. The woman ringing the donations bell to fight children’s hunger smiles at him, thanking him as he walks by with his reusable grocery bags. Chanyeol has enough money to get by himself, enough to spare and share to those who don’t have as much as he does.

It’s not much, but at least giving little bits at a time like this, volunteering some time to read at the library to kids who can’t and handing out bowls of food during the weekends, does something.

The apartment Chanyeol lives in is pleasant, not too big but not small enough he feels caged. It’s comfortable, living within his means and it’s home. Smiling, he drops his keys on the sideboard and shrugs off his coat, the lingering chill from outside and the lingering tendrils of winter left at the door.

Tomorrow, maybe he can call in to the library during lunch and see if they have anything he could swing by and do for a while. A free weekend could mean that he can finally take a trip to visit Yura, or call up Kibum and see how he’s been.

Today has been long though, the longest day of the week, and Chanyeol lets out a sigh from the weary itch behind his eyes as he settles on just taking the night off. Stereo playing some of the new music that Jongdae had dumped onto his phone earlier (a French rapper this time), Chanyeol finds his mind wandering as he prepares dinner.

By the time Chanyeol settles in to read and calm down, the upbeat sounds of the French rapper playing along his mind easily, he’s got more ideas for articles they could feature in the magazine next month. He’ll run them by Junmyeon tomorrow after they turn in their deadlines at noon, and hope that maybe this week at least one of them will get selected.

It’s been a while since Chanyeol did something because he loved it rather than because it was what he was supposed to do. Not that he’s complaining, of course, but a little change never hurt anyone.

*

Usually by five o’clock, rush hits the subways and roads in full force. Those who can manage to eek out before the biggest traffic are lucky to slip away. For everyone else, it’s a daily ritual of spatial compromise, wedging silently and uncomfortably between too many bodies in too little space.

Letting out a groan, Chanyeol sits back at his desk. They’ve been running later and later each day this week, the new bout of interns Hyesung had pulled in for the new hiring season dragging on hour efficiency. It feels early to be testing so many new writers and editors, most of them aren’t even out of school yet. It’s pushing on five thirty and Chanyeol just wants to get home, away from the survey sheets of the latest kid he’d been supervising.

The desk beside his is empty, Jongdae having run before Junmyeon could come find him and give him more work. Chanyeol wishes he’d been that lucky, instead too nice to say no when Junmyeon had looked pleading and asked for some help with this weeks reports.

It means that rather than grabbing the earlier side of rush hour, Chanyeol is going to be walking right into the thick of it. There’s little hope of his trip home taking under an hour now, and the prospect of another dinner of delivery pizza doesn’t sound as tempting as it might to his college interns.

The spring sunlight is still lingering when Chanyeol leaves the office to join the flocks of people flooding to the subways. Suits and ties and pencil skirts all moving amid the sidewalks in coats that are a tad too warm for April. It’s almost suffocating once down on the subway platform, the many bodies all warming the space, sticking sweat to the backs of necks and catching on shirt collars.

It’s three trains before Chanyeol is finally able to squeeze his way onto one of them, pushing through as others pack in around him, sardines in a subway tin can. It’s almost six and Chanyeol flicks through his phone, checking over the news updates he’s missed the last few days with the rushed deadlines. There is at least another fifty minutes of subway stops and slow traveling behind delayed cars before Chanyeol will get to his stop.

It’s been a long time since Chanyeol, usually clumsy, learned how to balance perfectly on the subways. It leaves him hands-free, able to tug his collar loose on the heated car that rises the temperature enough to fog the windows slightly. The numbing white noise of the subway, the soft conversations and the doors opening and closing as the tides of people flow in and out are blocked out, headlines scrolling past his eyes instead.

Another rise in housing prices forcing those lower on the income scale out; buildings abandoned and left empty as banks reclaim them.

Breaking research on the latest causes of cancer that will, inevitably, be disproved by this time next year.

Another terrorist attack on another country and more innocent unnecessarily killed.

News that tugs at his heart strings until they’re numb. It makes Chanyeol sigh, pocketing his phone and straightening. There are other things to worry about, to help, and to do for the world than simply report it ad nauseam. It’s to the point that Chanyeol almost wants to abandon the news, most of it biased and reported incorrectly or masking the truth.

It makes people numb to the actual severity of the issues, how bad they are, and how they can help. Numb to the violence and the need, bringing down the question of ‘how can I help?’ to ‘there’s too much to help so why bother?’

Letting out a sigh, Chanyeol turns to glance over at the door, the display of stops remaining before he can go home, and jerks. The man beside him is leaning so close he’s almost on him, arms folded over his chest and chin tucked down. He looks about one second from losing his balance and crashing into Chanyeol’s side. The train turns and Chanyeol barely has a moment to react before exactly that happens, the man suddenly falling, slamming into him. It’s only from Chanyeol reaching up quickly to grab onto one of the handles for balance they don’t crash to the ground and cause a scene.

It hurts, the sudden sharp dig of the man’s shoulder into Chanyeol’s side, stabbing as his weight collapses into him. Chanyeol lets out a muffled grunt of pain, irritation spiking through him as his mind scoffs careless, watching as the man’s eyes suddenly fly wide. He must have been sleeping, not even watching what was going on, waiting for others to watch out for him as he dozed away.

“Watch it,” Chanyeol grunts, a bit coarser than he might usually, trying to push the other man off as his legs strain. It’s an awkward angle, too many people around them and if he moves just a bit more, he’ll be knocking into the woman on his other side. “Subways aren’t the place to be sleeping, you know.”

As if burned, the other man is scrambling to pull away, straightening and shaking his head slightly. “I’m sorry,” he says, turning to Chanyeol but he doesn’t look at him. “I wasn’t sleeping I was just- I’m sorry it won’t happen again.”

“Alright,” Chanyeol says, straightening himself. Making to turn away and back to looking for his stop, he lingers, eyes sticking as the other man hunches slightly.

Twenty more minutes.

Glancing back down at his side, Chanyeol can see the other man with his arms crossed over his chest again, eyes unfocused as he almost hugs himself. Shrugging, Chanyeol turns away, looking back out the window as the above ground scenery of the outer city flash by.

In the window, Chanyeol can also see the reflection of the inside of the car, the people behind him, his own form staring back at him, long gray coat hanging from his tall shoulders. He can see the woman beside him looking intently down at her phone, her long hair flowing prettily. The man beside him rocks gently, his eyes fluttering as his arms wind tight around his chest, the cream colored sweater almost looking too big on him.

The city scape vanishes as the train travels underground once more, the black of the tunnel flashing the interior scene vividly. Chanyeol hadn’t realized he’s been staring until he watches the man suddenly sway again, this time to the other side and towards a woman absorbed in her phone. Reaching out instinctively, Chanyeol grabs him before he falls, irritation spiking as the man jerks to attention, eyes flying wide once more and startling under his touch.

The woman turns as if affronted. Chanyeol pulls the man back, away from collapsing with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry,” is whispered in a rush from the drowsy man, and Chanyeol can feel him curl away under his hand. “I’m so sorry.”

“The subway is for everyone, not just you” Chanyeol tells him, smiling despite the frown he feels lingering at the back of his tongue. Looking down at the man he looks young, almost as young as the new interns they had today. Maybe a year or two older, but the sleep circles under his eyes look so much like ‘sleep deprived student’ Chanyeol almost wants to scoff.

“I know,” the man says, and tugs away, slipping away from Chanyeol’s hand on his shoulder. Reaching up, he winds his hand into one of the handles, blinking hard a few times before he turns back to Chanyeol. His head remains lowered, eyes somewhere around Chanyeol’s coat pocket. “I’m sorry. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to bother you.” His eyes flicker up for just a brief moment before they fall again. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Chanyeol tells him, unsure if he’s annoyed at how the other man is missing the point or if the lack of eye contact is getting to him. “I’m not, but I could have been.”

“I’m sorry,” the man says again. When he looks up this time, his eyes linger for just a moment, their dark brown taking Chanyeol back a bit at what he sees in them this time.

It’s only a brief glimpse before they’re gone, but it was long enough for Chanyeol to see them, to recognize that look. It’s the same look he sees on the kids who look barely old enough to be out of school showing up at the shelter asking for food with downcast eyes. It’s the same look as the parents dropping off their kids for library hour in second hand clothing and hands worn from overwork.

Gone is the irritation as Chanyeol stares for longer than he should, watching the man beside him as something twists in his gut. Judgment flashes through his mind painfully, reminding him of what he’s just done.

He doesn’t know this man, doesn’t know why he’s almost falling asleep on the five o’clock rush. The twist goes deeper as he looks at their reflection in the window. The other man keeps blinking, scrunching his eyes and opening them, as if trying to force them to stay open, grip almost white on the handle above him.

Simple acts of kindness can make a difference, winds through his mind. Just a kind smile can change someone’s day.

Chanyeol is watching for it when the next fall happens, this time into him again. He smiles when he catches him, prepared for it and the wide flying eyes, the sudden flash of panic on a tired face and the apology that follows it.

“I’m sorry, I’m really so sorry, I don’t mean to keep-“

“It’s okay,” Chanyeol tells him, and smiles. It’s an easy smile, not the kind he’d give to Yura when teasing her or to Jongdae when he knows he’s pissed at a new deadline. It’s the kind of smile Chanyeol uses on the kids in the library who come in for reading hour and look too scared to touch the books on the shelves. He can hear the soft intake of breath from the man. When he pulls away, it’s faster, the look in his eyes wary.

“It’s not,” the man says, turning away and staring resolutely out the window. “It’s like you said, the subway is for everyone, not just me. I can’t be compromising other people’s safety by nodding off. It’s not safe.” He ends with a bite to his words, a snap that has Chanyeol’s smile faltering.

Taking in a deep breath, Chanyeol lets out a soft hum before shifting so he’s standing, arm just brushing the man’s side. Simple acts of kindness. “Still,” he says, glancing down. “You must be pretty tired to be falling asleep here.” He glances around when the man looks up at him, startled. “I mean, it’s definitely not the most comfortable place to sleep. Especially standing up. Last I knew only horses could sleep standing, and you don’t look very equine.”

When he turns back to the man, Chanyeol doesn’t find relief. He finds confusion and a flash of resignation. Chanyeol almost wonders if he has said the wrong thing before the man turns and he’s looking back out of the window into the blackness of the subway. “Yeah,” the man says, just barely audible before he pulls his bottom lip between his teeth and bites gently.

“Must have been a pretty long day,” Chanyeol continues in the same light tone. “I don’t think I’ve even fallen asleep on a train like that.” A swift glance. “Unless I’m sitting down. Then all bets are off.” He smiles, giving the other man permission to do so as well.

There is no smile, but some of the trepidation has faded. It’s safe to keep talking, keeping him lucid. The oppressive heat of the subway car is easy to get drowsy in. Hopefully getting off into the cool air of the platform will help.

“I guess,” the man replies, giving a small shrug of his shoulders.

“You’ll get home soon,” Chanyeol tells him, leaning just enough to bump their shoulders. “Then you can throw your feet up and relax. I’ll bet your couch is a lot more comfortable than this subway.” A swift glance and Chanyeol smiles wider. “For one, less people to fall on when you do nod off.”

“I really didn’t mean to fall on you,” the man says, his tone guarded.

“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal,” Chanyeol says, shrugging a bit as the man’s eyes stay on him for a bit longer. “No harm done, really. We’re all in one piece and the train is still running. There are worse things in life.”

Somehow, rather than brightening at this, the man’s expression darkens, face drawing tight as he swallows. He turns away, and that twist in Chanyeol’s gut tightens as he says in a low voice, “yeah, there are.”

It drops a silence that feels loud in the white noise of the subway carriage, slipping along Chanyeol’s skin as he looks down at the man’s tightened face. Turning away, he finds himself staring anyway at his reflection in the window.

He’s just about a head shorter than Chanyeol, with broad shoulders and lightly tanned skin that travels against the cream of his roughly knit sweater. His eyes are brown, and his soft slightly too long black hair falls over them, shielding his face and showing only his full lip. He’s handsome, in the kind of way Chanyeol probably would have noticed earlier if he hadn’t been distracted by being collapsed on.

A moment later, the man is jerking, taking in a sharp breath as he apparently reels himself in from dozing off, shaking his head slightly, eyes pinched shut.

“Where are you heading?” Chanyeol asks, tone casual as he looks back down at him.

I seems to catch the other man off guard, startling before he’s leaning away slightly. “Not that far,” he almost mumbles. “Just up to the Highland Circle or so.”

Chanyeol laughs and the man stares more. “I am as well,” Chanyeol tells him to clarify. “Where do you live up there?” he continues, happy to find a point of conversation. It’s cautious, but somehow pleasant, and the man hasn’t ignored him or discouraged him from talking yet. “I’m just past the main park. It’s a stunning area and really such a nice place to settle in.” He sighs, smiling a bit. “Still in the city but not in the thick of it, just enough that there is some peace and quiet at night.”

A soft almost forlorn smile passes over the man’s features. “It sounds nice,” he says, and his voice is also softer. “A nice place to live, I mean.” He doesn’t answer when Chanyeol looks at him inquisitively. Instead, he turns away for a moment, his free hand plucking at the hem of his sweater. “I’m just heading there for-“ he clears his throat, a dry rasp to it. “- for work.”

“You take the night shift?” Chanyeol asks, a little taken aback. If anything, the man beside him looks like he should be going straight to bed, not for a work shift. “Are you at one of the restaurants up there?” he asks when the man simply nods. “Which one? I’ve been to almost all of them. I’ve probably seen you waiting tables on some nights. Are you at Atlantica or maybe Primos?” The man doesn’t look at him. “Kaeppys?”

“Just one of the smaller places,” answers the man, shying away. Avoiding the topic; avoiding Chanyeol. His eyes flutter again and he leans back before his grip tightens on the handle and he pulls himself back up. He flashes a sudden smile that looks brilliant and forced. “You’re lucky to be up there though. It’s such a nice neighborhood. Safe and clean and quiet.”

Drop it, says his tone and Chanyeol nods, shifting his weight. “It is,” Chanyeol says. “It’s a bit far from work, but you can’t have everything in life.” It’s out of his mouth before he can catch it, and he almost feels bad for it. If what he’s said has offended the other man though, he makes no show of it. A blank slate and a blank smile.

The conversation falls into silence, and Chanyeol keeps flickering back to glancing at him, the man’s face turned away, head bent slightly.

Ten minutes left.

It isn’t until the doors open that Chanyeol nudges his companion, motioning for the doors and flashing him a smile. His smile falters as he watches the man falter, staggering a little amid the small crowd exiting the train and onto the platform. “You alright?” Chanyeol asks, hanging back even if he knows he’s being intrusive.

The man can probably take care of himself.

All the same, Chanyeol can’t get rid of that soft twist in his chest as the man shakes his head, black hair soft as it falls and backs away. The cooler air of the platform doesn’t seem to help him recover himself. Chanyeol lingers, watching from the corner of his eye as he takes the same stairs as Chanyeol out of the station.

“I’m fine,” flies out of the man’s mouth before Chanyeol can ask when he stumbles, barely catching himself on the stair railing. He lets out a shaking breath, hoisting himself up from the steps. When he looks up, he’s smiling.

Chanyeol knows that smile. He remembers it from when he would wear it after months of heartbreak that didn’t seem to get better. He remembers seeing it on Minseok’s face after the accident in senior year after he was told his athletic career was over.

It’s a smile that tries to say ‘I’m okay’ when really nothing could be farther from the truth.

It takes much longer than it should before they’re on the street, Chanyeol hanging back and walking with the other man as they climb the stairs, chattering about anything that comes to mind. If he’s bothering his companion, he doesn’t know as only tightly pressed lips answer him. The last sunlight is just barely resting on the rooftops when the cool spring air hits them, buffeting Chanyeol’s hair with a soft wind.

“Thank you,” is all the other man says as he looks up at Chanyeol. It’s spoken like a dismissal, but lacking the finality. “I didn’t mean to take up your time.”

“I don’t mind,” Chanyeol tells him with a shrug, falling into step with him easily. “I don’t have many days where I can talk to someone on the way home. Aside from myself that is, but people don’t tend to respond well to people who talk to themselves.”

“Because they look crazy,” the other man says. It looks like he startles even himself with his words, and he looks at Chanyeol like he expects him to be angry.

Instead, Chanyeol smiles wider than before. “Exactly,” he says. “I should be thanking you. I get less stares when I have someone to talk to instead of people wondering who Chanyeol is.” At the blank look on the other man’s face, Chanyeol explains, “I’m Chanyeol, in case you were wondering.”

“Ah,” the other man says, and nods once. He doesn’t tell Chanyeol his own name though, just keeps walking, a few of his steps faltering every now and then. “Chanyeol,” he mutters after a moment, as if testing the name on the air.

“Yeah,” Chanyeol answers. “So if you see me after today, you can use that and I’ll look for you.” He breathes in deep, the cleaner air out here away from the exhaust downtown filling his lungs. “It’s much more effective than ‘hey’ and ‘you’ and ‘yo man’, which I keep trying to tell my friends to stop using but just can’t seem to get through to them.”

Somehow, that startles a laugh out of his companion, enough so that it shocks both of them. This time, the smile that Chanyeol catches a glimpse of isn’t forced, and Chanyeol likes it much more, some of that tension twisting in him easing, if only just a little.

Making people smile is one of his favorite things to do. Chanyeol wonders how many more smiles he can coax out before he and his new… friend? part ways.

“You sound like you need new friends, if yours right now can’t even remember your name,” his companion says, and his smile fades.

“Got any suggestions?” Chanyeol asks, and steps a bit closer. “I’m in the market.”

“You can’t buy friends,” the other man says. His expression begins to close off. “They’re not like other people.”

Something about the way he says that has Chanyeol’s smile slipping, falling from his lips just as that twist in his chest is back full force. “If you have to buy them, then they’re not your friend,” he says, perhaps a bit too firmly. “Money can’t replace love or caring about someone.”

“But it’s necessary to take care of them sometimes,” retorts so fast Chanyeol almost doesn’t catch it in time. Right after the words leave the other man’s mouth though, his steps falter and he drops his gaze. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Chanyeol says, and tries not to let the bite in those words dig too deep. He knows they probably aren’t meant for him. “You’re right.” Those brown eyes flicker back up to his. They look tired again, guarded where they had softened before. “I promise, you don’t have to buy my friendship.”

Perhaps it’s too fast, too soon, but at least the offer is out there. Chanyeol watches as the man stops, pausing and staring at him. The wariness on his face flickers between confusion and distrust. “You just met me.”

“I met my best friend in a bathroom,” Chanyeol tells him, grinning again. “Unlikely places and circumstances make the greatest friendships in my experience.”

“Those friendships where they can’t remember your name,” is said with a small curl to the lips. It’s almost a smile, and then he’s shaking himself, as if jostling from a memory, and his face falls into closure as he turns serious. Squinting up the high street, he lets out a soft sigh. “I’m going to be late. I’m sorry, I can’t keep talking. I shouldn’t even- thank you for your help earlier, but I can’t-“ he falters, like he’s unused to such casual conversation.

“Are you sure work is the best idea?” Chanyeol asks, partially out of teasing and mostly out of memory of watching him almost fall asleep standing earlier. Even now, his steps are unsure, staggering every now and then. Restaurant work isn’t easy, and Chanyeol can’t imagine being this tired will bode well. “Maybe just take the night off, stop falling on people, and call in. Take a breather and maybe tell me your name so we’re even.”

For a moment, Chanyeol thinks he’ll say yes, steps stopping as he turns to look at Chanyeol fully. That moment ends quickly when instead of answering, his eyes suddenly haze, fluttering and he falls.

It’s not slow motion. It’s worse, because Chanyeol isn’t sure if he’ll catch him when he almost drops to the ground like a stone. This time, Chanyeol knows his legs gave out on him, his body just shutting down. Even as Chanyeol catches him, the sudden shortened puffs of breath aren’t a good sign. It has Chanyeol’s own heart racing, shock mingling with that tight twist of concern in his chest.

“Shit!” escapes Chanyeol’s mouth before anything else, trying to hold up the other man before he cracks his head against the pavement. “Okay, seriously, I don’t think you should go to work. I’m entirely convinced it’s a bad idea. Maybe, a hospital, or-“

“No!” is half shouted. Those brown eyes fly so wide Chanyeol’s words stopper, the grip on his arms suddenly like a vice, digging through to clench so tight it almost hurts. “No,” repeats just a bit softer, breaths shaking and weak. “No hospitals. I’m not sick. I’m not sick I don’t- I’m just tired. A little tired. I’ll be fine, just-“ Chanyeol watches, wanting to keep a hold on the other man as he staggers back to his feet, clearly unstable. “I just need to get to work. Get to work and it’ll be fine. I’ll be fine, I am fine. I’m- no hospital, really.”

“You just collapsed,” Chanyeol points out, keeping his voice calm despite his racing pulse. He’s never seen anything like that in his life. “At least sit down for a little bit. And I’ll need to know your name in case you go on me again and I have to ask you for it to make sure you don’t have amnesia.”

It gets another laugh, even if Chanyeol doesn’t feel like laughing at all right now. He’s never found anything less amusing in his life than a man collapsing by simply walking down the street because he’s so tired. Yet he’s smiling, almost as if it is funny, like Chanyeol has made a joke.

“Jongin,” he answers finally, and he lets out a sigh. His eyes close, and he sways for a moment before steadying, face creasing in concentration. When he opens his eyes, they’re determined. “My name is Jongin.”

“Nice to meet you, Jongin,” Chanyeol tells him, softer than he might have if their circumstances for introduction were less startling. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital? Or at least-“

“I’m fine, really,” Jongin says, shaking his head and starting off down the street again. He wobbles once, and Chanyeol almost reaches out again only to flinch back as Jongin jerks away. “I said I’m alright. I’m a grown man who can get to work and take care of himself. It’s just-“ his voice wavers, faltering as his steps slow “-a little tied-“ his eyes close and flash open again “-I’m late.”

“Why not just call in and tell them you need the night off?” Chanyeol suggests, stepping up but keeping some distance. “It’s not even six thirty and-“

“Then I’m already late,” Jongin cuts him off, voice sharp. “I should be there already.” Before Chanyeol can even answer him he’s sagging, looking deflated as he turns to him and his head hangs slightly. “I'm sorry, you didn’t know. I just-“

“You can use my phone if you don’t have one,” Chanyeol offers, pulling the device from his pocket and offering it up. “You can call your boss and let them know you need the night off. Or a friend. Or I can call you a doctor and-“

“No!” Jongin says, voice harsh, and his eyes flash from the muted haze that keeps overtaking them. He sways again and Chanyeol just wants to see him sitting down, hates almost waiting for him to topple over. If he tries to make Jongin sit though, he’s sure he’ll jerk away and collapse. “No doctors. I can’t see a doctor, I can’t waste money on one and there’s nothing wrong with me!”

“Jongin,” Chanyeol tries to begin, watching as Jongin’s breathing begins to hasten, his shoulders shaking and his steps folding in on each other. “Jongin, you need to sit down.”

“I’m fine,” Jongin insists but his voice fades off at the end. He lets out a loud breath before straightening and turning to Chanyeol. “I’m sorry,” he says, voice even though Chanyeol watches as his pupils dilate dramatically. “You- I’m fine. I’m just tired. I’m not sick, and I appreciate your concern-“ his voice wavers on the word “-but I’m alright. I don’t want your help.”

That’s it.

That’s the dismissal, the sign that Jongin doesn’t want anything more to do with Chanyeol. Yet there’s something else, in the waver just at the edge of his voice that Chanyeol can’t walk away from.

Chanyeol doesn’t do much, only some volunteering during the week and a few extra coins in the donation jars, but this is different. This is a man who needs help, about to collapse from how Chanyeol can see the tremors beginning to travel over his body. It scares Chanyeol just as much as it twists in him wanting to do something.

Standing by and doing nothing has never been Chanyeol’s forte.

“Okay,” he says though, stepping back and holding up both hands in surrender. Jongin’s eyes remain on him, watching carefully. “Okay, no doctor calls,” Chanyeol tells him and doesn’t smile, meeting his look head on, trying to gauge for a response, and hoping to coax him down. “No calling into work.”

The look on Jongin’s face remains, as does he, standing straight and shivering slightly in the chilly spring air before he lets out a soft breath. “I don’t know the number anyway,” he says. Chanyeol blinks, and Jongin offers him a hint of a smile, almost an apology. “For the job.” Turning, he doesn’t finish, just walks back up the street as Chanyeol follows.

They’re about two blocks from Chanyeol’s apartment, the nice flat on the upper floor that Chanyeol knows will be warm and inviting and comfortable. He has no idea what Jongin will be going home to at the end of his shift. The flash of Jongin not making it home, collapsing on the way back from work sometime around midnight briefly flickers across Chanyeol’s mind and he grimaces. No one deserves that, no one-

“Maybe if you tell me the name,” he begins, looking over at Jongin as he steps up to his side, matching pace. “I can look them up and call them and you- Jongin!”

This time, it is like slow motion. Chanyeol figures it’s because he’s already watched it once, the sudden drop as Jongin’s head falls back, his knees buckling as his whole figure slumps, plummeting to the ground without warning. This time, Chanyeol only half catches him, grimacing as Jongin hits the ground with a dull thud, head lolling back and eyes closed.

There’s no response from him this time, and Chanyeol is left holding onto Jongin’s arm and holding up his dead weight. He’s not only collapsed, he’s completely passed out, unconscious.

“Oh my God,” tumbles from Chanyeol, his heart spiking to pound. Pushing down a rise of panic, he carefully lowers Jongin to the ground, making sure to keep him from hitting his head against the pavement. Jongin is limp. They’re off the road, on the sidewalk, which is thankful, and there’s no one around, which is less helpful.

Pulling out his phone from his pocket, Chanyeol tries to check for what he thinks are the important life signs (breathing, pulse, body heat) as he dials the emergency hotline. Conscious, Chanyeol might respect Jongin’s wishes not to call the hospital. But Jongin isn’t conscious; he’s out cold and Chanyeol’s not about to forgo calling the hospital because of a few protests.

This is more serious than not wanting to go to the doctor because of being tight on cash.

The operator on the other line picks up as Chanyeol presses his fingers to Jongin’s wrist, trying to find a pulse and shivering at how thin it is. “911. Please state your emergency.”

“Hello, I have a man who has just collapsed and is unconscious,” Chanyeol says, unable to keep the shake from his voice. The flutter of Jongin’s pulse against his fingers is reassuring, but it’s still faint, and the thinness of his wrist has Chanyeol swallowing down a tightening throat.

“Can you tell me your name please?”

“My name is Chanyeol Park,” he says, looking down at Jongin and feelings his stomach turn. Jongin’s skin looks pale, even more so now. “The man I’m with is named Jongin. I don’t know his last name.”

“Can you please tell me where you are?”

“I’m in Highland Circle,” Chanyeol says, fingers rushing under Jongin’s nose. Breathing, though it’s a little shallow from the rise and fall of his chest. Damn. “About ten minutes North of the subway station on Downbard street.”

“Okay, Chanyeol,” the woman says, her voice calm and soothing over the line. “We’re going to-“ On the ground, Jongin lets out a soft moan, shifting under Chanyeol as his eyes flutter open. “- send over a unit to help-“

“No!” bursts from Jongin’s mouth. He suddenly surges up, eyes frantic and he snatches the phone from Chanyeol’s stunned hands. “No, no don’t!” he babbles, suddenly faltering and nearly collapsing back onto the ground as he scrambles to keep the phone at his ear. “I’m- who is this? Is this the hospital?”

“Jongin, you need-!“ Chanyeol tries to reach for Jongin, but the other man jerks away from him, curling into himself and around the phone.

“I don’t need an ambulance,” Jongin is saying rapidly. His voice is raspy, rough and shaking, too weak to be taken serious. “No, I’m sorry, I just met him and I had a fainting spell. I’m not sick and I have no allergies or- No, I’m fine, they happen sometimes. It’s nothing serious.” His eyes close as he lets out a shaking exhale, sagging a bit. “I’m sorry, you don’t need to send anyone over, I’m fine.”

“Jongin-“ Chanyeol wants to protest, to take the phone and say no, please come, but Jongin shoots him a glare as he pulls away from him. It’s weak, his eyes dulled.

“Yes, my name is Jongin Kim. I live on Thayne street on Baker Hill.” Jongin is speaking into the phone, eyes closed and controlling his breathing. His skin is pale, looking thin as paper as he concentrates on the call. “My last doctor’s visit was back in August and I’m currently late for an evening shift at my job. I apologize for the false alarm. Please cancel the emergency unit. Thank you.”

Chanyeol stares as Jongin lets the phone drop from his ear, letting out a long shaking sigh as his eyes close. “I’m fine,” he says, though whether to Chanyeol or himself is unclear. “I’m fine, I’m-“

“You just collapsed,” Chanyeol tells him softly, nerves still buzzing with adrenalin and concern. Jongin’s hand is shaking when he hands Chanyeol back his phone. The rest of him is also shaking when he tries to push himself up, faltering and waving off Chanyeol’s hands when he moves to help. “Last I heard, passing out on the street isn’t really called ‘fine’ by most people. You shouldn’t get up, just stay down. In case you collapse again and-”

“I’m not most people,” Jongin tells him, and glances up with a soft weak smile as he stands. It’s obviously meant to calm down or amuse, but Chanyeol has a hard time smiling. “You’re right though,” he says, and sighs, stepping to lean back against the side of the nearest building. Closing his eyes, Jongin lets his head lean back against the brick. “I think- I’m just going to rest for a moment.” The shivering has spread to his whole body, his arms coming to wrap around him, holding himself. “Until my head clears. The restaurant can wait a few a bit before I go in. They…” He trails off in a soft exhale.

Standing against the side of the building, back against the brick and his head tilted back, Jongin looks just like any other common passersby Chanyeol might see. He could be on the ground, crumpled from collapsing and Chanyeol knows that almost everyone who walks by would do nothing.

As Jongin slips, slumping a bit against the wall, Chanyeol steps closer, fitting beside him and catching him as he slides down. The soft little sigh ends in a whimper as Jongin’s brow furrows, trying to pull away. “How long?” he asks, watching as Jongin struggles to open his eyes, trying to pull away.

“Stop,” Jongin says instead, the word slow on his tongue. “You don’t have to stay. I can take care of it, of myself, of everything. I’m just tired, not enough rest last night and- and the double shift and I just- I’ll only be a moment. Go home.”

“I don’t mind,” Chanyeol tells him, smiling this time. Soft and hoping it doesn’t break, that it’s reassuring. Simple acts of kindness. The reality is Jongin may not want Chanyeol’s help, or his kindness, but he probably needs it.

And if not him, then who?

“I need to go to work,” mumbles as Jongin slumps further, his eyes closing again. “I have… tonight… already late.”

“A few more minutes won’t hurt then, right?” Chanyeol asks, reaching over and patting one of Jongin’s hands a few times. It’s cold, small under his own and that twist in his chest digs deeper.

It’s barely been an hour, but somehow Chanyeol cares enough that he can’t just leave him. If he doesn’t care, Chanyeol doesn’t know who will.

The nearest shelter is miles away, downtown where most of the homeless are. The nearest food kitchen is about an hour away, and Jongin doesn’t look in any shape to travel. The weather is too cold to leave him outside for too long, and compared to most of the people Chanyeol passes on the streets, Jongin is hardly threatening. The friends of friends Chanyeol lets crash on his couch are more strangers than Jongin is at this point.

Wetting his lips, Chanyeol lets his hand squeeze around Jongin’s gently. “You with me?” Jongin makes a soft hum, stirring and trying to pull away before he slips further down the wall. Snaking an arm around his waist, Chanyeol keeps him up, almost tucked against his side.

The little body warmth that comes off of him is worrying, the shivers that are taking over his body more so. “Fine,” Jongin murmurs, his voice almost too soft to hear. “Just rest. For a few.” He breathes in deep, shivers, and his eyes flutter, catching on Chanyeol briefly. “No doctors.”

It surprises a little laugh out of Chanyeol. “I promise, no doctors.” Even if you need one, Chanyeol’s mind supplies. Of course, he doesn’t really know, but looking closer, at the pale complexion, the dark circles and prominent bone structure that stands out, Jongin isn’t just exhausted. He’s also far too thin, almost weak and clearly needs more than a good rest to get back on his feet.

The least Chanyeol can guarantee him a safe warm place to rest.

The thought that had begun to tug the longer Chanyeol stood with Jongin is strong now, the idea that while Chanyeol can’t bring Jongin to one of the shelters downtown, he can be a shelter. His apartment is nearby, clean and safe and he highly doubts Jongin would try to kill him in his sleep. He doesn’t know Jongin all that well, but hopefully Jongin will understand that Chanyeol couldn’t just leave him in the streets

Small acts of kindness, he reminds himself. There are much worse things he could be doing right now, and every bit counts.

“Can you stand?” Chanyeol asks, squeezing Jongin’s hand again. He gets a soft murmur in reply, no words, just a soft loll of Jongin’s head onto his shoulder and his eyes fluttering. “Or walk, I guess. Both are a bit necessary.” Both of these things appear to be too much, as Jongin stumbles and Chanyeol only just keeps them both upright when he tries to walk, clutching Jongin to his side.

The twist and dig in Chanyeol’s chest goes deeper, to the point that it’s beyond the ache of seeing unadopted puppies. It’s more than the burn at the back of his eyes from seeing those that live at the shelters downtown when Chanyeol maneuvers Jongin into his arms, hoisting him like a child. Jongin isn’t a small person, almost as tall as Chanyeol, yet Chanyeol knows Jongdae weighs more than the man in his arms.

All that he gets is a soft murmur from Jongin as he fits him against him, tucked up as if carrying an oversized babe in his arms. A soft breeze and his shivers increase, worsening as he curls closer, almost tucking himself to Chanyeol’s chest.

Arms almost numb with carrying the other man to his apartment, Chanyeol lets out a sigh of relief in the elevator, setting Jongin down enough to shake feeling back into his arms. Those dark eyes flutter open in confusion. “Where-?”

“I figured I couldn’t leave you to fall asleep on the street,” Chanyeol tells him, keeping an arm around Jongin in case he falls again. “You never know the kind of stuff that’s been on them. You might pick up a disease, and then you’d really have to go to the doctor.”

The soft sound Jongin makes could be a laugh, his eyes fluttering again before he manages to try to stand on his own. “I’m not sick,” he says, and his voice cracks. “Doctors are for when you’re sick. I have other things I should use my money on, things that are far more important to me. I’m not sick, I’m not-”

“Just tired,” Chanyeol supplies and Jongin nods.

“I’m gonna be late,” Jongin mutters when the elevator door opens and he ends up leaning on Chanyeol heavily as they step out. “I’m- I can’t be late again. Yoona is gonna be so annoyed.”

“Well, you can explain to her when you get in later what happened,” Chanyeol explains, pausing as Jongin stops in the hall, frowning at his surroundings. “I don’t think she’d like you dropping a tray on a customer. The customer might also be a bit peeved, too. You can stay with me for a bit, it’s fine, say you had another job to take care of, an unexpected requirement.” Yourself, he adds in his head.

“No,” Jongin says, and his frown turns confused. Shaking his head he steps back, his eyes flitting to Chanyeol and suddenly widening. “No, not- not again. I can’t.”

“Just a couple of hours won’t hurt,” Chanyeol tries to sooth as Jongin’s expression begins to crumble, falling away into a torrent of emotions. “Then you can go to work. Or home. Just-“

“I don’t want your money,” Jongin says, and his voice suddenly cracks, his eyes wide and almost pleading as he turns to Chanyeol. He’s shaking worse than ever as his hands come up to hold on and then he flinches, as if burned. “I just- please.”

“I’m not giving you money,” Chanyeol tells him bewildered, reaching out as Jongin tries to step away and sways dangerously. He looks almost drunk, eyes slightly misted, though Chanyeol can’t remember the last time he saw someone look so desperate when drunk. “I’m just letting you lie down at my place for a little bit, okay?”

Jongin is shaking his head, swaying back and forth as he tries to step away. As he pitches to the side, his legs giving out once more, Chanyeol catches him. He’s trembling, curling into himself as he lets out a soft whimper that ends in a murmur a moment later. It takes a bit of maneuvering, as Jongin seems to slip in and out of full awareness, before Chanyeol gets them into his apartment.

It takes surprisingly little effort to get Jongin to topple into his bed, curling into himself on the covers and shivering still, letting out soft little murmurs. Though putting him in Chanyeol’s bed might not have been the idea choice, it had been the easiest. With luck he’ll be up in a few hours. Then perhaps Chanyeol can go with him to his job and explain what happened.

For now though, Chanyeol does his best not to disturb him as he pulls off his shoes (nearly falling apart) and pulls the comforter at the end of his bed over him. It takes a few moments before the shivering abates and Jongin’s eyelids flutter before they open.

“Sorry,” comes in a soft whisper, Jongin’s black hair falling into his face as it twists in emotion. “’m okay, just a little-“

“Yeah,” Chanyeol says, smiling and patting him a few times on the head. “You’re okay, just tired.” When Jongin closes his eyes, they stay closed. After checking to make sure he’s just sleeping, sound and finally still, Chanyeol leaves a glass of water beside the bed and ends up on his couch, reading as he waits for a delivery pizza.

Jongin is still asleep at seven when the delivery guy drops off the two pizzas (Chanyeol figured Jongin would be hungry when he woke up). He’s still asleep when Chanyeol checks on him, a curled up ball under the comforter on the bed. By eight, the leftover pizza is put away and Chanyeol is back reading on the couch, figuring he’ll check on Jongin in about a few hours.

In two hours or so.

In an hour.

In…

*

It’s been a long time since Chanyeol dozed off on the couch. Not since he’d been sharing an apartment with Minseok when he was just out of college. There were days, like this one, where he’d startle off the couch and tumble to the floor, usually with a textbook thumping painfully on him.

This time, when a loud yell startles Chanyeol from the depths of sleep, he falls off the couch and slams into his coffee table. “Ow,” whines from the back of his throat as pain pulses in his forehead and shoulder. The warm fog of sleep has him disoriented, blinking to try to see and wincing at the slight discomfort in his eyes. He’d fallen asleep with his contacts in and for a moment can’t remember why.

It comes crawling back when he hears a sudden shout from his room, followed by a series of loud thumps and his memory calls up images of earlier that day. A brief glance at the clock on the wall tells Chanyeol it’s around eleven-thirty, meaning Jongin has been asleep for almost four hours. Pushing up from the floor and wincing as his head throbs, Chanyeol makes his way to his room quickly, the sounds of clear distress getting louder.

The light is on in the room, the lamp on Chanyeol’s bedside table lit and pushed a bit to the side. Jongin is half out of the bed, tangled in the comforter with his hair sticking up in every direction and his face is white. As soon as Chanyeol steps into the room, he’s staring at him with wide eyes, panic on his face and breaths too fast.

“Hey,” Chanyeol says, thrown off by how distraught the other man looks. “You’re up,” he tries. It falls flat as Jongin doesn’t appear comforted in the slightest.

“Where am I?” he asks, his voice rough and shaking. His shoulders are shaking too, and he lurches away when Chanyeol steps towards him. “Where am I? Who are you? What happened?” He struggles, his frantic movements just tangling him further in the comforter. “Where is Sehun? What happened to him?”

“Sehun?” Chanyeol frowns, taking a tentative step towards Jongin. “Who is Sehun? Jongin, calm down. You’re-“

Don't-!” shouts as Jongin jerks away. It startles Chanyeol, watching as Jongin finally flings himself from the bed. He doesn’t look rested, he looks stricken, terrified. “Where is he? Where is Sehun?” he demands. “Where am I? Who-“ The words suddenly choke, Jongin faltering back as recognition flickers in his eyes. “This is your house,” he half whispers, voice suddenly tight.

“Yes,” Chanyeol says, confused and worried at Jongin’s behavior. This… isn’t what he’d expected. “This is my place. I brought you back here earlier tonight. Do you remember?”

“You…” Jongin trails off, staring at Chanyeol, his eyes sweeping up and down for a moment before they extend and move over the room. “This- I’m in your room.”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol says, trying to smile and finding it difficult. “I figured it was more comfortable than the couch.” Jongin, if anything, looks even sicker, his face fading from white to ashen as his arms curl around his middle. “I didn’t know where else to take you,” he explains, Jongin’s hollow eyes snapping to him. “You didn’t seem too keen on being taken to the hospital, even after you collapsed and-“

“What?” Jongin interrupts him, his face darkening. “I collapsed?” His breathing speeds up as his eyes shine slightly. “What- Shit, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Chanyeol hastens to say. “You gave me something to do this evening,” he tries to joke but Jongin just looks more upset.

“How long have I been here?” he says, and turns around, looking around the room. Spotting his shoes, he drops and grabs them, hands shaking. “I can’t- I’m late. I can’t stay and I- I’m sorry, I’ll- no charge. I have to go, I’m- I have to go.”

Standing up quickly, Jongin barely makes it one step before he’s suddenly veering, balance failing as he pitches towards the wall. “Whoa!” Chanyeol catches him quickly, pulling Jongin back upright and to him. Instead of steadying though, Jongin immediately tries to fling himself away, mouth opening in a loud cry.

“Don’t!” This close, Chanyeol can see the look of desperation in his eyes, fear shining in them. “Please, I’m so sorry, and I don’t know what I promised but I can’t- I can’t stay, I have to go!”

“Calm down,” Chanyeol tries, his own panic rising as he watches Jongin. “Jongin, just-“ Trying to keep Jongin from thrashing, his body already shaking, Chanyeol is pretty sure if he lets go, Jongin will collapse. “You’re okay.”

“No!” Jongin suddenly shouts, wrenching from Chanyeol’s stabilizing grip with enough force that he slams into the wall. He lets out a horrible yelp, face twisting in pain before he’s curling into himself, sinking down to the carpet. “I’m not- I’m so sorry, please let me go.” His voice is choked, and Chanyeol watches in horror as tears begin to spill down his pale face. “Please, please just let me go. I can’t do what you want me to do and I’m sorry, but I need to- I have- Sehun, I have to get Sehun, I can’t lose him. I can’t- Please”

“Okay,” Chanyeol rushes to say, trying to keep as gentle as he can, bending close to Jongin. He winces when Jongin curls even closer to himself, flinching away from him. It’s like watching a wounded animal, fearful of everything as a potential attacker. Chanyeol has never hurt anything in his life, and feels sick as he realizes Jongin is afraid of him. “Okay, you can go. I didn’t- here.” He steps back, giving the other man some space. “I don’t think the trains are running anymore, but I can get you a cab and-“

Suddenly, Jongin’s head is snapping up, his wet eyes shining with hardness. “What time is it?” he says, voice ragged as he looks up at Chanyeol.

“Almost midnight,” Chanyeol tells him, glancing to the clock on the far bedside table. The next second, Jongin is surging to his feet, stumbling as his balance still doesn’t hold him. Barely catching himself with a hand to the wall, he lets out a shallow tight exhale, hand pushing into his hair. It shakes, the bones standing out under the skin.

Chanyeol feels sick, unbelievably sick watching him. Feeling helpless isn’t something Chanyeol is very accustomed to, and he realizes now how much he hates it.

“Oh my God,” Jongin is whispering under his breath, looking around before he’s fumbling, stumbling to get out of the bedroom. “Shit, I can’t- my shift. I can’t believe I missed another.” His hand falls down to cover his eyes, and Chanyeol watches as new tears spill down his already wet face. He takes in a wet shuddering breath, before going still. His hand drops to show hardened and lifeless features, the panic and fear and all emotion vacant. “You don’t have to get me a cab, I can't pay you back. I don’t- I don’t have anything to give you, I’m sorry if I gave you the impression that-”

“Why would you pay me back?” Reeling from the dead and wavering tone that tumbles out of Jongin, it takes Chanyeol a moment before he can catch up. There has to be something he can do, this feeling of helplessness digging into him uncomfortably. “Jongin, look, why don’t you just use my phone to call into your work,” he suggests, taking a small step towards Jongin’s rigid form. “I’m sure they’re listed. If you really need, you can crash here before the trains in the morning.”

“That’s not a luxury I have,” Jongin says, fast and some of the rigidity breaks with his voice. It begins to shake, along with his body and lower lip, his eyes turning wet again as he looks at Chanyeol. “I don’t have the luxury of a nine to five job, of sleeping because I’m tired. I have other things to do, places to be, concerns to deal with.”

The words smack into Chanyeol, bullets of reality and how he really doesn’t know this man. He’s taken someone he doesn’t know, pulled them into his world trying to help, and the shock of being in over his head, thrown into a life he doesn’t understand, is overwhelming. It leaves him speechless as he stares, watching Jongin and feeling a burning ache of pity and shock rising in him as Jongin slumps, cracking as his face twists and he looks away. He keeps hiding, new tears spilling down his face, and they won’t stop no matter how many times he wipes them away.

When he speaks again, it’s garbled, words amid the stick of tears and choked emotion, “I’m sorry. I can’t stay, I have to go, I can’t-“ Jongin breaks off with a shudder, shaking himself and looking up at Chanyeol. There isn’t apology in his eyes, only pleading. “I have to go home, I have to get to Sehun.”

“Who is Sehun?” Chanyeol tries to ask calmly, pushing down the ache that spreads in his chest. Right now, Jongin seems to only be able to focus on this one person.

Instead of answering immediately, Jongin’s breaths stutter, faltering for a moment to silence before his eyes drop and close, pressing tight. His face calms slightly, stilling and he takes in a breath, shoulders shuddering. Jongin is almost as tall as Chanyeol, yet now he looks so small, ready to fall through the cracks of the world he’s shying away from.

When his eyes open, they’re heavy with emotion, so honest and raw. Jongin wets his lips, looking at Chanyeol as he says in a soft voice that is loud in the quiet of the room, “Sehun is my son.”

If there was anything Chanyeol might have been expecting to hear Jongin say, that isn’t it. The words crash into the space between them, and Chanyeol’s ears are ringing. Jongin, who looks barely old enough to be out of college, has a son. A child.

“Your…” Chanyeol begins, voice soft with shock as he stares at the man before him. The man before him who looks so drawn, worn and who he’d watch collapse only hours ago from exhaustion. This man who has a son, responsibility from just that one thing that Chanyeol hasn’t even begun to consider yet in his own life.

A life with a stable job and a nice house and food for his stomach that he knows Jongin probably doesn’t have.

Jongin is moving, stepping away from him, pulling back quickly and hastily shoving his feet into his grubby worn sneakers. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stay and talk, I have to-“ Stumbling again, he catches himself on the wall, fumbling to hurry from Chanyeol and the weighted silence. “I have to find my son, I can’t leave him. I can’t.”

Jongin has a son. Jongin, out past midnight and looking still on the verge of collapse, face white with stress and strain, has a child depending on him.

“Where is he?” Chanyeol asks, following Jongin quickly, guiding him out of the room. He doesn’t touch him, knowing better now. Jongin jerks to look at him, as if afraid Chanyeol is going to start yelling at him. “Is he home?” Chanyeol asks, keeping his voice as calm as he can. Jongin swallows, eyes wide as he falters before he shakes his head. “Can you call him? Where is he?” Jongin’s mouth presses in a thin line, staring at Chanyeol like he can’t believe he’s there. “You can use my phone, I promise I don’t mind even if it’s long distance.”

This is bigger than Chanyeol just helping a man he met on the train offering a place to crash and a cab to his job. This is a child, a child, and a father shaking on the verge of collapse. Chanyeol’s head is spinning when Jongin looks lost for words, just staring at Chanyeol in disbelief.

Shoving down the tight war of emotions in his own chest, Chanyeol leads the way to his kitchen, brushing his fingers to Jongin’s sweater sleeve for him to follow. Jongin only hesitates a moment before taking the phone from Chanyeol’s outstretched hand, falling to it in haste, hands shaking as he dials a number. Chanyeol has to leave the kitchen, watching Jongin clutching the phone to his ear with shaking breaths and an ashen face making him unsettled.

There’s almost nothing he can do aside from the call. It’s an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that Chanyeol has never had. In the volunteer work, he realizes there’s a barrier, a soft veil of optimism where the people he helps smile at him and he feels good for being there.

This doesn’t feel good. This feels sick with anxiety, fear and bewilderment and Chanyeol is in over his head. This isn’t volunteering to read for kids who struggling, this is raw reality.

From the living area, Chanyeol can just see Jongin, watch him suddenly jerk to attention as someone apparently picks up. Jongin’s voice is so tight as he asks someone named Yixing if Sehun is still there. It shakes a moment later before Jongin is babbling apologies and thanks, sagging against the counter and Chanyeol turns away as he watches tears flow freely from Jongin’s eyes. This isn’t a happy scene, and he feels like he’s invading, unwelcome.

It’s when his voice changes that Chanyeol looks back over, the sudden smile on Jongin’s face making his breath catch. Jongin is speaking softly, his eyes bright as he cradles the phone to his ear. He laughs, smiling as he wipes at his face, shivering slightly. The name “Sehun” laughs at one point before Jongin’s hand is over his eyes, mouth in a trembling smile as he barely holds himself together.

It’s a scene that burns into Chanyeol’s mind, catching his breath and he doesn’t realize he’s staring until Jongin’s hand falls from his eyes and he lowers the phone. In that moment, Chanyeol knows without question that he doesn’t care about anything as much as Jongin cares about Sehun.

Swallowing down a tight throat, Chanyeol looks away. Somehow, the thought makes him both impossibly sad and incredibly touched. It also makes him feel small (which isn’t something he’s used to feeling) and like he knows far less than he ever thought he did.

The silence that had spread as Chanyeol lingered between wanting to help and not knowing how to approach Jongin is broken as Jongin’s voice carries to him again. This time, Jongin looks tired, defeated as he speaks in a timid voice, words indecipherable. Wincing, he keeps cutting off, words broken as he curls further into himself. The words ‘I’m sorry’ form again and again on his lips and as his voice shifts in a moment, Chanyeol realizes he’s talking to his job.

Then his eyes close, head bowing and his free arm winds around his torso, hugging tight. Letting out a loud sniff that shakes his frame, Jongin shakes his head and lowers the phone. He stares at it for a long time, eyes filled and dripping before he turns slowly and places it gently back on the cradle.

Chanyeol has seen people get fired before, at his old part time jobs and at the magazine. It’s hard not to know what it looks like after seeing it a few times, and a large part of him wants to grab the phone and demand it be different, that they understand. But this isn’t his world and it isn’t his place. Caught in this outside-inside space, he has no idea what to do.

When Chanyeol walks into the kitchen after a long silence, Jongin jerks as if he’s forgotten he’s there. “Let me buy you a cab. It’s the least I can do,” Chanyeol tries, smiling as best he can as he looks at Jongin.

It has the opposite effect of helping, as instead Jongin breaks, not even pulling away before his expression crumbles and he’s crying, furious tears and looking at Chanyeol helplessly. It’s like he’s shocked himself, hiccupping sobs as he looks taken aback, confused and lost, torn between stepping back and running.

“You don’t understand,” Jongin manages out between sobs. Chanyeol feels frozen, sure if he reaches out to try to comfort him, Jongin will run, but standing here watching him break down is almost worse. Jongin is shaking with sobbing breaths, trying to breathe in as he cries, trembling and shaking his head. “I can’t- I can’t pay you for it. I don’t have anything to give you, or to help anyone, or ask for anything, and I don’t even- I can’t- I’m sorry and-”

“I don’t want you to,” Chanyeol tries to speak over his babble, rushing to get the words out as Jongin talks in circles. The shivering is getting worse, and he wonders if Jongin will just shake apart. “I’m not offering with the expectation that you will pay me back for it, I’m giving it to you.”

“Nothing comes for free,” Jongin says quickly, head shaking back and forth and back and forth with eyes wide. Taking in a sharp breath, he stills, face drawn suddenly to resolution. “Not even kindness.”

That has Chanyeol faltering, his barely controlled quiet snapping as he stares at Jongin, a man refusing to see kindness when it’s given to him. Refusing to accept what Chanyeol is saying as true. It puts a bite in Chanyeol’s next words and he can’t even feel bad for the way it makes Jongin’s breathing falter.

“I don’t know what kind of kindness you’ve ever had shown you, but I’m not asking for anything for this. Just, please, let me help you?” Letting out a sigh, Chanyeol steps back. It’s too close, too raw, too intense and his head is spinning. Heart aching and head spinning and he has no idea what to really do, unable to think. Looking up, he tries again, aiming for a smile. “Just get home and find Sehun.” Jongin’s eyes flicker. “There’s some extra pizza I ordered earlier today, why don’t you take it with you? You look like you haven’t eaten in a while.”

“I’m fine,” Jongin says, suddenly stiff and pulling closer into himself. Defensive.

The image of a wounded animal is so strong Chanyeol almost wants to laugh despite how it would make him sick with himself.

“You’re standing in my kitchen crying and I had to carry you here a few hours ago because you collapsed on the street,” Chanyeol points out, speaking in a firmer voice. It’s for himself, to try to keep himself grounded and he can’t help but see how Jongin looks at him, like the tone is registering as a command. “I wouldn’t call that fine. I would call that anything but fine.” Jongin is finally watching him, some of the tears drying on his red splotchy face. “It’s okay to ask for help.”

That somehow snaps him out of his reverie, stiffening and pulling back, curling away from Chanyeol. Like he’s been brought back to himself. “I don’t need help, I just need to get home.” He fumbles to get out of the kitchen, hands shaking and legs shaking and breaths quivering on the inhale. “My son needs me.”

“He probably also needs a dad who doesn’t collapse on strangers on the subway,” Chanyeol says, following him. Jongin immediately stiffens, turning to him sharply and Chanyeol steps back, the look in his eyes hard, unforgiving. Chanyeol doesn’t know, and he regrets it as soon as he realizes what he’s said. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t understand,” Jongin tells him, voice thin and strained, shaking as his form remains rigid.

He’s right. Chanyeol doesn’t understand. He’s not Jongin and he doesn’t know what he’s going through. All the same, he can’t just drop this and let it go. “You’re right,” Chanyeol admits, and Jongin’s eyes soften. He wants to help, watching all of this, being shoved into it, he can’t not want to help. To do something other than just watch and do nothing; Chanyeol isn’t that person. “When was the last time you ate?” he asks, and Jongin frowns with a guarded look, eyes flickering to the pizza box on the counter.

It doesn’t take much for Chanyeol’s mind to just say ‘screw it’ and grab the wrapped pizza slices, tucking them into the delivery bag that had come with them. He doesn't hesitate before grabbing a few bananas and apples lying on the counter and tossing them into the bag as well, holding it up for Jongin.

Jongin’s jaw clenches tight, and his eyes flash, clearly ready to refuse. Chanyeol beats him to it. “I don't care if you say no, you can throw this out if you want to, but I’m not taking it back. I’ll just throw it out anyway, I don’t have any more room for leftovers. So consider this your repayment, like you’re doing me a favor.”

Jongin stares at the bag, a frown on his features as if unsure of himself and Chanyeol both. “Why are you doing this?” he finally asks, looking up at Chanyeol. The look in his eyes is pleading, as if he truly cannot understand why Chanyeol is being kind to him.

“Doing what?” Chanyeol asks, raising one eyebrow as he shifts his grip on the bag. “Giving you my pizza leftovers? I don’t want them.” He smiles at the end. Permission, it’s permission let someone help him. Chanyeol can’t just shove the bag into Jongin’s arms, he knows that much, but he can at least try to let him accept it.

The most Chanyeol can do, he realizes as Jongin’s eyes flicker to the bag, lingering, and then back up, is try. It hits him then how many people have never tried, and how many Jongin has met where he can’t even understand why Chanyeol is trying.

“No, I mean,” Jongin breaks off with a sudden shuddering inhale, features furrowing as he looks at Chanyeol. “Why are you helping me? You don’t even know me.”

“Sure I do,” Chanyeol tells him, perhaps a bit brighter in his tone than the moment calls for. It helps though, keeping his smile present, keeping his mind from going to all the places it could, wondering what Jongin has been through and seen. “I met you on the train today. You’re name is Jongin, you have a son named Sehun, and you like to wear knit sweaters. I don’t like to see my friends upset and crying, and I don’t see anything wrong with helping them if I can.”

“We’re not friends,” Jongin says swiftly, but doesn’t look away or move. Just watching Chanyeol, he looks like he’s waiting for something, for Chanyeol to prove him wrong.

“Why not?” Chanyeol asks, standing a bit straighter. He lowers the bag of pizza and leftovers slightly, smile still in place even as his heart aches. It’s not like he’s asking to be Jongin’s best friend, but he’s not there to hurt him. Chanyeol wants to be many things for many people in his life, but first and foremost, he wants to be a friend, not a foe. “I hear I’m a pretty good guy to be friends with. Funny, honest, talented, and I give great hugs.”

“Chanyeol-“ Jongin’s blotchy cheeks go slightly red, and he frowns, as if the jokes are too much. They probably are, but the name from Jongin’s mouth spurns a sudden warmth of hope through Chanyeol as Jongin bites his lip, suddenly silencing himself.

“I’m glad you remembered my name,” Chanyeol tells him honestly, voice softer. The ache is less, though the pain and slightly sick overwhelming feeling is still there. It’s more than he really feels he can understand or process. “Just don’t forget it, okay? I have enough friends saying ‘hey you’ when they see me,” Chanyeol tells him, keeping his voice light and casual. This isn’t about how Chanyeol feels bowled over by stepping into Jongin’s life without realizing what he was getting into. This is bigger than that. Chanyeol smiles wider, holding up the bag again. “Take the food, say hi to your son, and get some rest. Hopefully the next time I see you, you won’t be falling into my arms on a subway. Not that I’m complaining, but people might stare.”

Jongin keeps staring at him, and his lower lip trembles from where it’s held firmly between his teeth. It looks as if he’s on the verge of crying again, as if he too is overwhelmed and has no idea how to respond to the situation. “I’m-“ he gasps out in a wavering breath, body tense with emotion.

“Just say thank you,” Chanyeol tells him before he can say anything, stepping forward and knocking his hand against Jongin’s. Jongin doesn’t pull away this time, only trembles a little, dropping his head to look down at their hands, at the bag of food he’s scared to take. Chanyeol swallows down a tight throat. “I don't like when people apologize to me, it makes me feel like I scare them.”

It takes a long pause, Chanyeol just waiting, listening to the soft sniffs Jongin makes before Jongin’s hand moves, hesitant at first and pulling back. Then his fingers twitch as Chanyeol just stays, patient even as his nerves gnaw at him, and Jongin’s fingers brush his, carefully taking the bag. He doesn’t look up, head still hung low, but he does, finally, take the bag.

When Chanyeol steps back a bit, releasing the food and finally seeing Jongin accept just a little from him, he almost wants to cry himself. He wants so badly to pull the small looking man in front of him into his arms and just hold, telling him it’ll be okay. If he does though, he’s almost certain Jongin won’t be able to handle it.

“Thanks,” Chanyeol says instead, and Jongin lets out a hoarse cough that is a mix between a laugh and a dry sob. Jongin simply nods, keeping his head down. There is more resistance when Chanyeol pushes a few bills into his hands for a cab, Jongin sputtering with red blotching his face and rimming his eyes. Chanyeol just ignores it, knowing he can’t just watch Jongin leave thinking he’ll collapse on the way home.

Truthfully, Chanyeol would offer to drive him home if he thought Jongin would agree to it.

“Say hi to your son for me,” Chanyeol tells Jongin when he opens his mouth to protest again. The words stop in Jongin’s throat, stuttering to silence as he stares. There are words there, but they never reach the open air. “And I hope I see you again, Jongin.”

Jongin walks out of Chanyeol’s apartment at ten past midnight, shaking and with his face still raw from tears, red and still too pale. Soft words of thanks mutter tumbling from Jongin as he keeps glancing back, and then he’s gone. It leaves the apartment too quiet, too big and too still, the sudden events that threw Chanyeol so violently from just the last half hour or so leaving him shaking.

It’s hard to think that just that morning, Chanyeol had woken up to his alarm clock, gone to work, and thought the worst thing that could happen to him was another last minute deadline. It’s hard to think of how his biggest concern was not being able to volunteer because Yura had called and wanted to treat him to lunch. It feels like his world has just become so much smaller, thrown from the space where it was quiet and rose colored into sharp color, painfully blinding.

It’s then that Chanyeol realizes he’s shaking, hands and breathing and before he realizes it, he’s crying. It’s not for himself, but this isn’t the first time Chanyeol has cried for someone he barely knows. Chanyeol cries at sad movies, at music he finds too beautiful, to happy endings and to tragedies across the world. This is different though, and Chanyeol feels almost guilty for crying when he knows he has no reason to.

Jongin’s face flashes vividly before his eyes, the pain and desperation and fear so sharp. Someone so far from hope, so distrusting of kindness and so hurt, it makes it hard for Chanyeol to breathe. That feeling of hopelessness that he felt he knows is minute compared to what Jongin has probably felt.

Jongin, a young man who just lost his job from passing out due to exhaustion. Jongin, a man younger than Chanyeol, who has a son to take care of, depending on him. Something about the way he acted, his mannerisms and behavior, the degree of panic on his face tells Chanyeol there isn’t someone else in his life. It’s hard to take in, and Chanyeol is still shaken when he looks over the apartment, seemingly untouched, and wondering if he’ll ever see Jongin again.

If he’ll ever know if he got home again and could smile at Sehun like he had while on the phone, or if he’ll just become another tragic story that is pushed to the back of the newspaper.

*

The cursor on the screen continues to blink on the white editing page. It’s been doing that for the past twenty minutes and Chanyeol still can’t seem to concentrate on the article he’s supposed to be editing before lunch. This time, it’s on ‘one bowl meals’ discussing the new trends in cooking where all cooking prep is reduced to a one bowl method rather than using multiple.

Of course, all the recipes that are in the next edition’s magazine are featuring the appliances that are being sponsored, so it’s less ‘one bowl’ recipes and instead more ‘use a food processor, like this one, or don’t try’. To Chanyeol it feels less like actually making cooking easier and healthier for people and instead is about consumerism, but it’s not his place to argue.

He’s just an editor, who can’t really protest the articles he edits aside from make sure they’re grammatically and mechanically correct and actually make sense. Usually this isn’t a huge problem, and Chanyeol can bypass his personal lack of investment in promoting the next models of overpriced food processors. Today though, his head feels stick in mire, thoughts rolling back and forth enough that editing one paragraph takes ten minutes longer than usual.

It has Chanyeol frowning more than anything, and he can feel a soft agitation under his skin that calls him away, thoughts jumbled. It’s been this way for the last few days as well, and while he’d been able to wave off accidentally pouring milk in his scrambled eggs instead of into his coffee, he needs his brain on Monday mornings.

It’s not the article, it’s thinking about who might read the article that nags at Chanyeol. This is a magazine designed to help people with their food needs and instead it’s only giving recipes to people who already have abundance.

For people who don’t have it, most of these recipes and articles are useless. It’s not for people who work more than one job and who need a one bowl recipe that is actually for one bowl, not a high tech kitchen gadget.

People who have children at home that are dependent on them for food can’t read this magazine issue and find use for it. They’re too busy trying to work to even sleep, let alone think of extra ways to make the most of their fruit juicer for 699.99. People who collapse on others unintentionally because they can barely stand from fatigue aren’t helped by this kind of crap articles.

People…

The cursor on the screen blinks steadily, waiting for Chanyeol to highlight for editing or move on. It stares at Chanyeol with patience as he sighs and sits back in his chair, mind back on last Friday night and the man who had fallen into him and, apparently, his head. It’s not that Chanyeol feels imposed on, but he can’t get Jongin out off of his mind. It’s not a slap in the face, but like when he was given glasses for the first time.

For years, he’d looked out the trees outside and thought that’s how trees looked. Now, Jongin has put his glasses on for the first time and he can see what the branches and twigs and leaves look like. Everything has changed, and Chanyeol can’t get the vision of reality off his mind.

It’s not Chanyeol’s business, but he wonders if Jongin got home all right, or if he even used the money to get a cab or figured out another way home. Baker Hill is a far distance from Highland Circle and Chanyeol finds himself chewing his lip again at the idea of Jongin walking home so late for so long. It feels too irresponsible though, and from how Jongin seemed so frantic to care about his son, he doubts he’d truly put his life in jeopardy when he has a child to take care of.

Ironically, Chanyeol finds himself most caught up in wishing he’d given Jongin anything except pizza, which is perhaps the least healthy dinner for someone needing nutrition and substance. He could have sent him home with soup, or perhaps some of the homemade chicken broth he keeps stock of in the freezer. That would have been much better than pizza. Pretty much anything he had in his fridge would have been better than pizza.

A child and a young man need real food, not pizza and some fruit.

Letting out another sigh, Chanyeol presses his fingertips to his closed eyes, knocking his glasses askew on his nose. It’s half way through the morning and his usual productivity rate is terribly low. Ten articles to edit for the day and he’s barely made it through two.

“I promise, no matter how many times you sigh at that article, it won’t edit itself,” muses over the desk divide. “Trust me, I’ve tried that same tactic with writing articles and they don’t have any sympathy.”

"And here I was thinking I'd be able to earn it's sympathy," Chanyeol sighs, glancing over at Jongdae as his friend slips back into his chair. Another fresh cup of office brewed coffee is in his hands, sipped carefully, making the caffeine intake already three cups before noon. "You're going to destroy your GI."

"Nah," Jongdae grins over his steaming coffee. "I make sure my tummy is well cared for." Chanyeol's smile slips, the images of too thin wrists and the feel of skin and bones in his arms too strong as he watches Jongdae. "What's up with this article? Usually you're finished with your quota by lunch and telling me about new vegan recipes you've adapted. Or was this weekend a cooking failure again?"

Shaking his head and smiling a bit, Chanyeol sits up properly in his chair. "No new vegan recipes this time," he says and Jongdae pauses, one eyebrow arched. "I had other stuff going on this weekend. I'm just-"

"Distracted," Jongdae concludes for him. Flashing him a weak smile, Chanyeol laughs as Jongdae squints and puts his coffee down. "I got my own coffee, you can get yours just fine to put some clarity into that big brain of yours."

Perhaps a coffee would do Chanyeol good, even if he mostly prefers to drink tea for health and balance. On a Monday morning like this though when he can't get through a simple article edit, it's probably time to amp up the caffeine.

How many mornings has Jongin been sleep deprived though, after working a late night shift to wake up and take care of his son? Does he drink coffee to get through it? Can he even afford it? Chanyeol chews his lip as he waits as the instant one-cup filter machine automatically makes his coffee into the reusable mug Chanyeol keeps at the office. He'd been given it by Minseok when the cafe had opened.

A gift of friendship.

It had been a few years back, when Minseok switched over from his initial dreams as an athletics director and instead showed up in their first shared apartment enrolled in barista school. Chanyeol had supported him then, helped out with food and rent and done what he could for his friend as he struggled between physical therapy and classes. It had been worth it to see Minseok smiling at him with his certification, and then later opening up his first little coffee shop.

Friends are there for each other, to help when you don’t even ask for it. There to listen and understand and never ask you to be something you’re not and accept you even in the worst of times. That’s what this mug represents to Chanyeol in many ways, old and used and worn as it is.

A symbol of friendship.

Walking back to his cubicle, Chanyeol sips his coffee and thinks about all the people in this office. Most of them are his friends, Junmyeon and Jongdae pretty high on that list. Jongdae got him the position here with a few good words when they were just really getting to know each other. The others are his friends as well, a small sort of family among the cubicles and coffee machines and fluorescent lights.

Sighing as he slips back into his chair, Chanyeol wonders about the job itself though. The cursor on his computer screen is still winking at him over and over again, for an article he doesn’t care about in a company that rejects every proposal he submits. Taking a long sip of coffee, Chanyeol stares at his computer a little longer, then closes the article and opens up his web browser.

“Giving up?” Jongdae asks a few minutes later as Chanyeol peruses through sites unrelated to editing the article he’s on. “I didn’t realize the article was that bad.”

“Taking a break,” Chanyeol tells him. His coffee is halfway gone and his head is buzzing with ideas, finally awake. They’re not at all related to food processors helping to make a dish one bowl but instead about food science, recipes and plans and management, the chemistry of food and financial budgeting, magazines that care. His head is buzzing with how he can help.

Friends, friends of friends, people he’s never met, people who could be friends. How can he help people who need a friend but don’t know how to ask for one.

”Why are you helping me? You don’t even know me.”

“I don’t have to know you to care,” Chanyeol mutters under his breath, opening up another tab about relief efforts for low income households.

“You know, talking to yourself is pretty disconcerting,” Jongdae says, leaning into his cubicle space. “Some people say it’s the first sign of insanity.”

“Well, then you and Baekhyun should have been committed years ago,” Chanyeol tells him, a small smile tugging at his lips as he scans over the non-profits details on the page.

“Yeah, I know,” Jongdae almost laughs. “But you might want to switch windows on your computer before Junmyeon does rounds.”

Somehow having lost track of time in his pouring over the websites, Chanyeol notices it’s almost lunch. There are still eight articles he has to finish before the end of the day. Finally, his head is clear and he can focus, it’s just on the wrong thing for his paycheck.

“Want to grab lunch together today?” Jongdae asks, leaning into the cubicle further and dropping a few creamer packets by Chanyeol’s empty coffee mug. “My treat.” At Chanyeol’s raised look, he smiles wide enough that the curled edges of his lips vanish. “You look like you had a rough thought intense weekend, Ghandi.”

“You should invite Junmyeon, too,” Chanyeol reminds, glancing behind them to their superior’s office. “He could always use someone to treat him to lunch.”

“That ruins my plan for him to treat his secretary to lunch though,” Jongdae reminds him, throwing him a pointed look.

Letting out a chuckle, Chanyeol sits back in his chair, pulling up the article again. “Why don’t you worry more about your own matchmaking than someone else’s, yeah?” he reminds. It pulls a somewhat sour pout over his friend’s face. “How did it go on Friday?”

“Maybe I like to try to set up other people, like Junmyeon, to live vicariously through their successful dating lives,” Jongdae tells him, taking his glasses off to rub at his eyes.

“Of course,” Chanyeol says, looking over his friend. Jongdae looks a bit tired, possibly hungover slightly still from a night out drinking on Saturday that he still hasn’t recovered from. “Tell you what, you get my lunch, and I’ll buy you a drink after work?”

Slowly, a smile rather than a smirk pulls over Jongdae’s face. “You know, sometimes I’m glad I’m friends with you, Park.”

“Sometimes?”

“Most of the time.” Jongdae is smiling fully now, glasses on his face once more. “When you’re not trying to steal my coffee or telling me how shitty my diet is.”

“It is shitty,” Chanyeol reminds him, thinking of pizza left overs and knit sweaters and too thin wrists and wondering why.

“I’ll take care of my crappy diet, you take care of saving the whales,” Jongdae tells him. “Finish that article and we’ll go grab some grub. I promise I won’t make you eat fried oreos this time.”

“I’m holding you to that,” Chanyeol says seriously, ignoring Jongdae’s loud laugh as he turns back to the article. It’s not as rife with mistakes as he usually sees, but this time, rather than just correct sentence structuring and format, Chanyeol breathes in, and makes a few different notes.

They’re suggestions, information, hints at better cooking. He can’t force a change, but if he doesn’t try, he never knows if he’ll make a difference.

Maybe someone can read this article and it’ll do more for them than to just rely on a food processor and a well paying job to afford it. Maybe he can clear his head from a shaking voice that says quietly ”my son” that Chanyeol can’t forget.

*

"Please?"

Letting out a long sigh, Chanyeol stops at the red light, head tilting back as he looks up at the party cloudy evening sky and silently asks 'why'.

"Don't give me that long suffering sigh, you owe me," Baekhyun is muttering over the cell phone pressed to Chanyeol's ear.

"I highly doubt that," Chanyeol sighs, looking around the street at the people passing. It's pretty nice out this evening and Chanyeol would rather be outside than stuck in his car to pick up his friend. "I'm pretty sure you're the one who usually owes me, except I forgive all your debts rather than lord them over your head."

"Which makes me the smarter friend," Baekhyun chirps over the line. "But keep in mind that I was the one that stopped that biker from using Jongdae as a toothpick last weekend."

"So, technically, he owes you a favor, not me," Chanyeol discerns, easing onto the gas as the light turns green. There is an area ahead near a small square for municipal parking. "And I'm already doing you a favor by picking you up."

"And I promised to take you out to dinner this week in thanks," Baekhyun reminds him with a short huff on his end. "For your never ending generosity that seems to extend to everyone except me."

"I have been generous with you," Chanyeol reminds him, tone coming out perhaps a bit more clipped as he pulls into an open parking space. "Don't be greedy," he says pointedly. Turning off his car and stepping out into the late afternoon sunlight, Chanyeol takes in a calming breath.

"Yeah, okay, okay," Baekhyun is meandering on the other end. "And you are a champ for picking me up tonight. I didn't know that the buses were off today for strike and-"

Chanyeol listens to his friend continue to ramble, mouth free to run now that his shift is over as Chanyeol just lets his words wash over him. Some of the tension eases off of him, knowing Baekhyun isn't pushing things where Jongdae might. Years ago, he had. When they'd been finishing college, he and Baekhyun had roomed together and seen fit to figure out how well they worked as roommates in an apartment and not just a dorm.

Not all things ended up as perfect as they had thought they would, and Chanyeol knows Baekhyun doesn't talk to him like he once did. He also knows he doesn't talk to Baekhyun like he once did.

"So, should I be looking for you car or-" Baekhyun is saying as Chanyeol walks along the sidewalk to the small bistro his friend works at.

"I'm walking," Chanyeol tells him, smiling at the imagined look on Baekhyun's face.

"Chanyeol," Baekhyun says, tone patronizing. "The whole point of you picking me up to take me home was because I live across the freeway. You can't walk there and-"

"I'm parked just at Shin's square, Baekhyun, calm down," Chanyeol says with a light laugh. There aren't many trees planted nearby but it's enough to shelter from some of the late sunlight. "Don't jump to conclusions. I've been cooped up in the office all day, I wanted to get some fresh air."

"You and Junmyeon are so strange. Wanting fresh air and wildlife and nature."

"We're healthy, rounded, people," Chanyeol corrects. "You should try it sometime. Then maybe you'd meet someone else aside from your customers."

"They have interesting stories I've never heard before, where as you and Junmyeon keep telling the same stories. I'm sorry to break it to you, but they're not funny the second time, no matter how many times Jongdae laughs at them." Chanyeol bites his lip at the half-insult, listening to Baekhyun's teasing tone instead. "I promise, he's laughing at you, not the jokes."

"Jongdae loves me," Chanyeol tells him, glancing at a local market and noticing some of the bars on the windows and faded signs. "More than you, at least."

"Jongdae only likes you because you feed him."

"Speaking of feeding," Chanyeol says, eyes lingering on the market. "I'm taking you up on your I.O.U. and you're getting me dinner tonight."

"Rude," Baekhyun huffs. "What about my plans for tonight?"

"What plans?"

"Well, I might have had some!"

"So, I was thinking we could-" Chanyeol is about to list the ideas he's had for the last few nights of different new restaurants he wants to try when his thoughts stop. Right down the sidewalk, just ahead of him, is a familiar looking figure, shoulders hunched and black hair hanging into his face. The sight alone is enough to have Chanyeol's breath faltering and heart jumping to his throat.

It can't be.

"Chanyeol?"

"Hold on," Chanyeol says, lowering his phone as the other man nears him. Hands shoved into his pockets and head lowered, it might not be Jongin but- "Jongin?"

Amazingly, the man pauses, almost jumping as his head jerks up and his brown eyes widen in surprise. It is Jongin and Chanyeol has a smile breaking out over his face before he realizes it as Jongin's eyes widen further, lips parting in surprise. "Chanyeol?"

"I'll call you back," Chanyeol says without a second though into his cellphone, cutting off before Baekhyun can squawk at him from the other end. "What are you doing here?" Chanyeol asks instead, looking over Jongin. It's almost like seeing a ghost, but rather than it being eerie, Chanyeol feels excited, happy. From the last time he'd seen Jongin, he looks better now, some more color to his face and less... skeletal.

"Walking," Jongin tells him, tone guarded again but he doesn't move. Instead, his eyes linger as if he's not sure this is real, wary but not pushing away. "Why are you here?"

"Picking up a friend," Chanyeol says, smile still wide. "I was just in the area and-" Jongin's hair is still too long, just falling into his eyes and he's wearing a different sweater. It's green and seems to be just as worn, but no less cared for. He thought he'd never see him again, and seeing him now, Chanyeol just feels warm. "How are you?"

Some flicker of light reaches into Jongin's eyes, and he shifts, relaxing a bit. "Not bad," he answers. It's not a great answer, but Chanyeol has seen worse. At least Jongin isn't telling him he's fine when he's clearly not. "Thank you," Jongin continues, voice weighing as he speaks. "For the other- for helping me. I'm- it was very kind of you."

"I'm just glad to see you," Chanyeol says, honestly. "Is your boy okay?"

"Sehun?" Jongin appears almost startled that Chanyeol remembers, and a hint of a smile passes over his face. "Yeah," he says, and then the smile remains, tugging at his lips. "Yeah, he's okay. He loved the pizza, actually. Usually, I don't let him have pizza, so he was over the moon about it. I swear, if I had let him, he might have licked the container clean."

The image has both a laugh startling from Chanyeol at the same time it hurts, aches deep in his chest. "I'm glad he could enjoy it," he tells Jongin honestly. "You look a bit better." Jongin's eyes flicker. "Less like you're going to collapse on me from exhaustion. Not that I wouldn't be there to catch you again, but it just- I'd like the next time you fall into my arms to not be due to severe fatigue."

A soft smile tugs at Jongin's mouth again, his expression flickering before it freezes and he stills. "I'm still so sorry about that."

"No," Chanyeol tells him, though keeping his voice kind. "No apologizing. I'm just glad you're alright and walking and not falling on people. I'm glad to see you."

"Why?"

"I-" Chanyeol pauses, looking at the man before him, the sudden guarded look and the flicker in his face. "I like to see my friends doing okay." There is no correction that Chanyeol isn't his friend, and instead Jongin just lets out a soft breath, like he'd been holding it in. "Are you heading to work? Another late shift?"

"Home," Jongin answers, and the smile is back. "Just finished up a shift. I should actually get going, I don't want to be late."

"To getting home?"

"I have to get back before the next one starts," Jongin says, stepping away as his face darkens a bit, a frown replacing the smile. "I want to get home before-"

"Next one?" Chanyeol says before he can stop himself. Jongin stills. "How many jobs are you working?"

"Enough," Jongin says. Turning to Chanyeol, he is smiling now. But it's horrible, it's broken and fixed and placed like a mask over his face, the kind of smile saying 'stop asking'. He still looks tired, still looks too thin, and Chanyeol doesn't need Jongin to tell him to know that he's working more than he should, than anyone should. "I just need to get home."

"To see Sehun, right," Chanyeol says, smiling as gently as he can and trying not to reach out. Jongin looks like a simple touch might bruise his thin skin.

It looks hard for Jongin to swallow as he meets Chanyeol's eyes and says with a thick voice, "I don't like leaving him. Not for long." Not ever, is loudest when Jongin keeps the words behind his closed lips.

"I can't imagine any parent that likes to be away from a child that needs them," Chanyeol says. He's speaking quietly, feeling as if even a loud noise might hurt the man before him. "It must be hard."

Chanyeol can't imagine what it's like, but that makes it all the more real.

"I just want to keep him safe," Jongin answers, looking away as his voice loses some of the tension. He glances down the street and squints in the evening sun. "There aren't a lot of people in his life to do that. I just want to do everything I can for him. Is that wrong?"

"No," Chanyeol says. Watching the man before him, he feels so small, so young and disconnected from a world he never knew but somehow has stepped into. There isn't an exit door, and Chanyeol doesn't want to step back out. "It's not wrong at all. I wish every parent cared as much as you do."

Jongin swallows, his eyes flickering and his hesitation to answer is evident. He looks torn, like he wants to continue speaking but also wants to leave, turn away and run before Chanyeol can press too close. It's like he's waiting for Chanyeol to try to hurt him. “I try. I worry about him, but every parent does for their child." Letting out a soft breath, he shakes his head, voice shuddering. "I was scared to death when I woke up at your place and he wasn’t with me.”

“I bet he was glad when you got home though,” Chanyeol says, tone soft.

When he looks up, Jongin's plasticine smile is gone, and the genuine flicker of a real smile is back. It looks so much nicer on him even if it's so frail. "He was." Clearing his throat, Jongin steps back. "Which is why I want to get back."

"You know the buses aren't running today," Chanyeol reminds, reaching out unintentionally as Jongin steps away.

"Which is why I'm not on one already," Jongin says, looking a little surprised. "The subway is just down a few blocks. It's more expensive than the bus and takes longer but," he shrugs and his hands worm into his worn jean pockets. "It's a way home."

Catching a dry laugh, Chanyeol shakes his head at the confused look Jongin throws him. "I didn't know there was a subway around this area," he explains, mind flickering to Baekhyun and his 'help me Oh Chanyeol Kenobi, you're my own hope' text from this afternoon. "No pizza for dinner tonight?"

A soft smile twitches at Jongin's mouth. "You learn a lot when you don't have a lot of options," he says, and though there is bitterness in the reality, there is none in his voice. Instead he almost sounds... proud. "And no, pizza is a luxury. One that Sehun was all too excited for." His eyes soften again. "Thank you, again." Then he turns, and Chanyeol can't find the words fast enough before he's walking away, no goodbye but with a lighter feel in the air.

A part of Chanyeol wants to turn, to pat himself on the back and say if it's meant to be, he'll see Jongin again, and go pick up Baekhyun. The other part of him wants to reach out once more, to just try and see if he'll ever know what Jongin actually looks like when he smiles. That other part of him doesn't want to rely on fate, but instead create his own world.

It's that part of him that answers and says Baekhyun can wait a few more minutes before Chanyeol casually tells him he's an idiot. It's that part of him that has him stepping after Jongin and pausing only in surprise when Jongin steps into the slightly run down market Chanyeol had passed earlier.

Inside, it's not as disheveled as the exterior, though it certainly is run down and needs a bit more love than the supermarkets where Chanyeol goes outside of town. The shelves need dusting, the floor could use a good wash, and he doubts he'd find anything 'organic' here, but the prices are right. Well, low, which, he recognizes for Jongin, is probably ideal.

Chanyeol finds Jongin in the grains, picking out a bulk bag of rice and a few spices. "What are you-?"

"I needed to grab a few things," Chanyeol says, holding up the grocery list he'd been making earlier that morning. It had been shoved into his pocket before he'd left work, but now is as good as ever to grab a few basics he'd been running low on. "And I wanted to ask you to dinner."

Jongin's form goes rigid, and his eyes harden as he looks at Chanyeol, almost hostile. "What?"

"I just-" Chanyeol falters, not expecting the sudden change in the other man. "I thought one night perhaps when you're on the way home or between shifts we could get dinner and actually get to know each other. As friends do."

"Friends," Jongin repeats the word slowly, as if unfamiliar with it. He looks hesitant, like he really doesn't trust Chanyeol and is waiting for a catch.

"Or it could be take out, or something, I just-"

Jongin's eyes narrow. "I don't need you buying me food," he says curtly, picking up his rice and supplies and walking from Chanyeol through the store.

"I'm not buying you food," Chanyeol tries, though Jongin is still walking away, shoulders stiff. Letting out a sigh, Chanyeol runs a hand through his hair and wanders over to the produce. There's a relatively nice selection, and most of it looks fresh and-

"It's not 'organic'," Jongin almost startles Chanyeol as he grabs a few potatoes and carrots, arms laden with groceries. "Specifically speaking. It's just locally grown from some of the farms. Their overstock, so most of it hasn't been treated and isn't wrapped in plastics and shit like all the all the FDA approved produce."

"Oh," Chanyeol says, slightly shocked as Jongin throws him a mixed look before walking off. "Thank you."

So, Jongin eats well and pays attention to the food he eats. It has Chanyeol's feet moving before he thinks, grabbing a few vegetables and some fresh strawberries before he's following Jongin. He bites his tongue though, stepping back and giving him space as he looks over the jelly teas near the register before Jongin nears again.

"I'm sorry," Chanyeol tells him. Jongin pauses, hesitant to proceed.

"Why?"

"I was just trying to help," Chanyeol admits, not sure how to help someone when they can't see it as help, only a reminder. Chanyeol is used to people coming for help that he can give within a setting, an organization, where he knows what to do. With Jongin, he doesn't know what to do, and Jongin looks too afraid to ask for anything. "I didn't mean to-"

"I'm not a damn charity project," Jongin tells him, though his voice sounds tired. He steps forward and begins unloading his basket of food for the cashier that watches them curiously. "I'm not- I'm just trying to make ends meet and so far I've been able to."

"Okay," Chanyeol tells him slowly. "But what if," he starts, placing some of his vegetables next to Jongin as he steps around him in line. The amount of food Jongin has doesn't look like enough for two people, and Chanyeol knows it. He works with food. "We combine orders today. Makes it easier, right."

"No," Jongin says, looking uneasy. "It doesn't."

"Sure, it does," Chanyeol say. "I'll get a few groceries for you today, and then next time we bump into each other, you can get coffee and -"

"I don't drink coffee."

"Tea then," Chanyeol offers, and smiles. "You're right, though. Helping you with a few carrots is a lot easier than donating to-"

"I'm not a pity pot to throw your money at," Jongin snaps. "I'm not a community service project and-"

"I never said you were," Chanyeol tells him evenly, calmly as the other man gets pink in his cheeks. "But I'd rather help you with groceries knowing it'll make sure that the next time I see you you're standing and that hopefully your son is smiling when you see him. If I can do that, even if it's just once, that's not charity to me. That's helping a friend in need."

"You-" Jongin's cheeks are pink, but his eyes are swimming, flickering with more words than he says and finally, he lets out a sigh.

"You can always make me dinner next time we meet or something," Chanyeol tries to tease gently. "I'd be excited to see what kind of dinner you make with -" he gestures to some of the items Jongin has in his pile "-vanilla pudding cups."

Eyes closed as he swallows and breathes in deep, Jongin leans against the register before letting out his breath in a slow sigh. "Those are for Sehun," he tells Chanyeol, voice soft. "He- pudding is his favorite dessert. He always asks for it. I couldn't get any for his birthday last month so I'm making it up to him tonight." Brown eyes opening, he looks up at Chanyeol and the harshness in them has softened. "It's why I wanted to get home earlier. I might not really think pudding is that great for him, but as long as it puts a smile on his face and he's healthy, that's what matters to me. A treat never hurts once in a while."

"Well, then I'm really glad I caught you," Chanyeol tells him, feeling warmed and a little winded from the softly uttered explanation. "Tell him Happy late Birthday from me. And-" he plunks the box of strawberries he'd grabbed earlier into Jongin's pile, "give him those from me. As a treat."

It earns him a soft chuckle and Jongin shakes his head at him. "You don't give up, do you?"

"Sometimes there are things worth fighting for," Chanyeol says with a shrug and a smile.

It causes something to pass over Jongin's face, a flicker of some sort, but then it's gone, and he smiles ever so faintly. "Yeah," he says, and his voice sounds gentler. "There are."

"Like Sehun," Chanyeol says, reaching out and just barely brushing his knuckles against Jongin's arm. Just a light reassuring touch, to remind that he's not there to make Jongin feel inadequate or bad, but to help. Both times now Chanyeol has seen Jongin, he looks like he needs help or support or something. Maybe it is fate, but Chanyeol can't help but want to do something.

The smile on Jongin's face flickers and then widens as he lets out a soft little laugh. "Like Sehun," he agrees, and when he looks up, his eyes are alive, some of the hollow faded. "You know, he didn't believe me when I first explained to him what happened that- the first time. He was so surprised." Jongin bites his lip and looks down at the groceries. "Then he kept asking about you, wondering what you looked like and what happened and all sorts of things. I think he's kind of enamored of you."

"I'm not going to lie, that's flattering," Chanyeol says when Jongin glances up at him, almost as if waiting for Chanyeol to rebuff him. He can feel his heart swelling, happy and knows his smile is too wide. "I don't know of any kids that interested in me."

"He even asked me if you were an angel or something," Jongin says and laughs and then hiccups it back, looking almost embarrassed. Chanyeol stares, shocked, and his own laugh is caught, numb at the idea of a child thinking of him like that. Jongin quickly looks away, clearing his throat as he looks at the box of strawberries left to be rung up. "Sometimes, I wonder if there are angels,” Jongin's voice is quiet, and Chanyeol almost doesn’t hear it.

“There are good people in the world,” Chanyeol tells him, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“Well,” Jongin says with another laugh that sounds hollow. “So far, I've only met one.” His eyes linger and something pulls in Chanyeol's chest. He doesn't want to let his hand drop, but he does anyway, stepping back and frowning at the small twist in his chest.

"Like I said, I don't like seeing a friend-"

"But I'm not one of your friends," Jongin interrupts him, frowning still. "So why are you doing all of this really?"

"Because I don't like seeing anyone suffer if I know I can help or do something," Chanyeol say, taken aback at the sudden outburst from Jongin.

"I'm-"

"And I don't like hearing about kids that may not know when their dad is going to come home because he collapsed on the way," Chanyeol finishes and Jongin's mouth snaps shut. The ache is back but Chanyeol smiles through it, smiles at Jongin, who looks so in need of a smile.

“How do you know I'm not just lying to you?” Jongin asks suddenly, stepping close as Chanyeol pulls out his wallet. His eyes are hard, boring into Chanyeol. “How do you know that I'm telling the truth even? I could be playing you, using your blind naive kindness.”

Chanyeol looks at him, takes in the too thin, too tired, and too frail man before him. “Your eyes, for one,” he says simply. “I can see it there. You're not lying to me. Plus, why shouldn't I trust you?” He pauses, looking at Jongin and biting his lip. “Do you trust me?”

Jongin looks taken aback, shock on his face as he inhales sharply. “I-“ he stops and his eyes flicker. “I don’t know, but maybe a little.” Chanyeol feels warm, standing at a cash register and watching as items are placed into plastic bags. “And I can't explain why.”

The smile that spreads over Chanyeol's face is too wide, and it's not entirely happy, but it is definite. “Maybe your son is right,” Chanyeol says, throat tight. He tries to laugh it off, make it lighter and easier, to push away some of the tension and the weight that seems to settle over him. “Maybe I am an angel.”

A soft tug at the corner of Jongin's mouth is almost like a smile before he sighs, pulling out his wallet as well. “You're not,” he says and Chanyeol's laughter stutters in his chest. His smile falters as Jongin looks away and his mouth drops from a smile, instead pressing into a line. He looks so tired still. Jongin swallows before looking back at him, dead in the face. “I don't believe in angels.”

“I'm not an angel,” Chanyeol admits. “But I am a person,” he continues. Jongin finally keeps his gaze steady as he looks at Chanyeol. “And I have compassion and a heart. I trust you not to be lying to me, can you trust me in return?”

“I shouldn't,” Jongin says. His lips are still chapped, dry and cracking.

"But," Chanyeol prompts, wanting to grin and step closer, sling an arm over his shoulders and tug him in like he might with Jongdae. Instead, he pushes his hands into his pockets to keep them to himself.

Rather than answering, Jongin purses his lips and opens his wallet, rifling through the worn beaten leather for something. Upon finding it, a small square of paper, he steps closer to Chanyeol, holding the paper between them. It's a photograph. A young boy looks up at the camera with a huge smile and eyes creased so they're almost invisible, his jet black hair sticking up in the back as he stands in a too big tee-shirt that reaches his little knees. His arms are held up, and even in the picture Chanyeol can feel the happiness, the love and the joy of this little boy.

Glancing to the side, he can see it reflected in Jongin's face, in how his eyes have changed, soft, warm, and bright, a smile on his face that Chanyeol would never expect to see. He looks whole, warm and bright as he smiles at the picture of his son.

"Sehun?" Chanyeol asks, looking back down at the picture of the little boy.

"Last year," Jongin says. His eyes crinkle up just like Sehun's when he smiles. "Right after Christmas. He was so excited to get that shirt he wouldn't take it off for a week. Now it's almost too small on him; he grows like a weed."

"He looks so happy,” Chanyeol comments, smiling because he can’t help it. It’s obvious how much Jongin cares, not only from how Jongin talks about him, but how he looks now, just with a picture of his son. The kind of parenting where Jongin is doing everything for his child, and trying his best to give Sehun what he needs. “You look so happy.” The comment has Jongin turning to him sharply, surprise written on his face. “He’s lucky to have you as a father.”

Faltering a bit, Jongin swallows before tucking the photograph back into his wallet. “I just wanted to prove it,” he says, voice heavy.

“Prove what?” Chanyeol asks, stepping closer and handing his debit card to the cashier before Jongin can finish pulling out a few bills. He smiles when Jongin frowns at him, mouth open in protest. “Sehun?”

“That I wasn’t lying,” Jongin mumbles, watching as the cashier takes Chanyeol’s card. There are so many mixed emotions in his eyes, his face knit with hesitancy like he can’t be sure who to trust; himself or Chanyeol. He wets his chapped lips with a pink tongue. “Just in case you didn’t believe me about Sehun.”

Shock pooling in his chest, Chanyeol turns to Jongin fully, taking in the slightly stunned look on the other man’s face. “Why wouldn’t I believe you?” he asks. If it had been someone else, perhaps someone pestering him for money, maybe Chanyeol would have thought twice before acting as he as. Jongin hasn’t done that though, and Chanyeol watches as Jongin looks genuinely stunned at the tone of Chanyeol’s voice.

“Because-” Jongin’s voice wavers. “I just- you’re being so generous and I didn’t want you to-”

“Think you were lying to me just to get some pudding mix?” Chanyeol finishes, and Jongin’s pallid cheeks turn a soft pink. “Why would you lie to me?”

“That’s why I showed you the picture,” Jongin says, voice soft and breathless. “And-”

“Do you want a receipt?” the cashier asks, interrupting them with her loud voice, holding out Chanyeol’s card to him. Startled, Chanyeol takes it before grabbing the grocery bags and smiling at her.

“Yes,” Chanyeol tells her, and pushes a bag of groceries into Jongin’s limp hands. “Sorry, thank you.”

“Of course,” she says, and a smile twitches at the corner of her mouth. “And Jongin,” she adds, jerking the other man’s attention to her. “I put in a packet of gummies. For Sehun. Say hello to him for me?”

“You know those are bad for his teeth,” Jongin says, though he smiles at the cashier, slipping into a softer version of his previous self. “And you-”

“Sugar free,” the cashier says and winks. “I never forget. Consider this thanks for taking the night shift last week and covering for me.”

“I-”

“Thank you,” Chanyeol tells the cashier as Jongin falters into silence. He smiles at the cashier in thanks, earning a soft almost conspiratory smile from her as well as the woman hands Jongin the last bag of food.

“Of course,” the cashier says, and winks at Chanyeol as he puts his card back into his wallet. “I’m glad to see you making another friend.”

“He’s not-”

“I’m sure Sehun would love to meet him, too,” the cashier continues, and she smiles as Jongin’s mouth snaps shut and his eyes widen. “Don’t let him ration out those gummies this time. They’re meant as a treat from me, remember?”

Jongin still looks slightly thrown when he and Chanyeol step back into the sunlight, though he frowns when Chanyeol hands him the last bag of groceries. “I can’t take these.”

“Sure you can,” Chanyeol says with a smile he won’t give up. Though he doesn’t know why, Jongin has a hard time accepting kindness from others. He’s more guarded with Chanyeol, but even if he thought Jongin had been lying to him about Sehun, the photograph and certainly the cashier prove his intuition was correct. As if Jongin’s behavior hadn’t tipped him off. “And you will.”

“Why?” Jongin asks, and frowns again. He squints, almost like he can’t quite see Chanyeol, like he still doesn’t trust him. No, not trust, like he doesn’t believe this is real. He doesn’t trust anything. It hurts as much as the revelation brings relief.

“Because I want to know Sehun gets dinner tonight,” Chanyeol tells him, smiling and leaving no room for question. “If he grows like a weed, I want him to keep on growing with good food in his belly.” Jongin stares at him like he doesn’t know what to do. “And some pudding.”

A laugh startles out of Jongin and begins to shift, morphing almost into a sob before he catches it and stops. It ends in a hiccup as Jongin lowers his head and looks at the bags of groceries in his hands. “He’ll be really excited about the strawberries,” Jongin say so quietly but Chanyeol hears it.

“I’m glad,” Chanyeol tells him. “Now get home so you can spend time with him. I won’t keep you any longer.”

This time when Jongin says ‘thank you’ it’s without tears in his eyes and desperation and fear clouding his face. There is still confusion and hesitancy there, but also a flicker of a smile that leaves Chanyeol feeling warmer as he turns back down the street and pulls out his phone.

“Please tell me you didn’t just get arrested and now I’m your phone call to come and pay bail,” Baekhyun grumbles when he answers the phone.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Chanyeol says, his grin still wide on his face as he walks down the sidewalk. “I just ran into a friend.”

“Someone more important than me?” Baekhyun sounds sarcastically aghast.

“Yes,” Chanyeol tells him, and almost laughs. He feels lighter and heavier at the same time, the image of Sehun from the crumpled photograph wafting in his mind’s eye as he approaches the bistro. “Amazingly, Baekhyun, there are people in my life more important than you are.”

“Impossible,” Baekhyun says, though he thankfully doesn’t sound sincere. “You could never replace me.”

“No, probably not,” Chanyeol admits, and lets a laugh seep into his voice. “No one is quite as loud as you are.”

“Exactly,” Baekhyun says, sounding pleased over the line as Chanyeol turns down the main street and the restaurant looms in sight. “Like I said, no replacing me. You’re stuck with me forever as a friend.”

“I’ve always loved you as a friend, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol tells him, smiling even as the weight in his chest gets heavier.

“I didn’t mean for this to get sentimental, Park, don’t go sappy on me,” Baekhyun says through the phone. “So, what did you want for dinner?”

“Picked some stuff up,” Chanyeol answers.

“Because you ran into this other cooler better friend of yours?”

“Something like that,” Chanyeol says, and soft hesitant smiles and deep brown eyes anchor in his head.

*

It’s a bit warm for spring, but the weather is welcome as the shops all begin to open their doors to the warmer weather and the longer evenings. All along the little side street down the quieter districts of the old city, little shops, restaurants, cafes, and boutiques keep their lights lit, spilling out onto the sidewalks welcomingly.

It makes for a pleasant walk as Chanyeol strides up and down in front of some shops with his phone pressed to his ear, half listening to the rambling on the other end. It’s been a few weeks since he talked with them, far longer than usual. Lately, his mind has been preoccupied though, plans busied by men collapsing on him and the new interns accidentally breaking the printers this week.

“Chanyeol?”

“Hm?” Chanyeol answers, pausing as he walks and tuning back into his sister’s voice.

“Are you listening?”

“Of course I am, I always listen to you, Yura,” Chanyeol answers easily, tucking his free hand into his pocket.

“Are you sure?”

“You were just talking about mother asking when Jongdeok is going to propose to you,” Chanyeol guesses. He only feels partially guilty about not listening really. It’s been a long day and he’s been wondering if he’d hear anything from a certain someone. It’s been two times now that he’s run into Jongin. This wouldn’t mean anything really, except Chanyeol keeps getting the feeling that he’ll run into him again, as if it really is fate.

“Lucky guess,” Yura sighs, though she doesn’t sound angry. “You know mom asks me that pretty much any time I visit home.”

“Well, has he?” Chanyeol asks.

“You’d know if you had been listening,” Yura scolds him before laughing. Chanyeol pouts at her despite being on the phone, leaning against a street lamp as he listens to his sister laugh at him. “Got you.”

“Okay, so I got a bit distracted,” Chanyeol admits. “Has he asked yet?”

Still laughing, Yura tells him, “no,” before Chanyeol can begin to fire questions at her, just to tease like old times. “Like I keep telling mom and dad, and now you, he’ll ask when he’s ready. We’re fine just as we are, and even if you and mom keep saying we’re a match made to settle down-”

“Because you are,” Chanyeol tells his sister. “It was obvious as soon as you brought him home, Yura.”

“-But!” Yura continues, voice a bit louder and Chanyeol hears voices in the background. Probably his mother. “We’re just doing this at our own pace. Plenty of couples wait longer than two years before getting engaged. I’m not sure we’re ready.”

“Are you ready?”

“Well,” Yura trails off and Chanyeol grins, knowing how Yura is probably blushing. “Anyway, I promise when he does ask me, you’ll be the second to know.”

“Why second?”

“Because I have to tell mom first, obviously,” Yura laughs at him.

“She’s right there isn’t she,” Chanyeol says, leaning back and looking up at the lamp above him. He can imagine it easily, his mother standing so close to Yura, not quite listening in, but almost. She’d be commenting, talking about how Jongdeok and Yura should stop hesitating and just get married, that Jongdeok is an idiot for waiting this long in the first place. She’d be standing still in her apron from washing up dishes, hair falling from her bun, muttering about how both her children are too good of a catch and others are fool for not seeing them and snatching them away. Chanyeol’s smile falters.

“And she says hi,” Yura replies, amusement on her voice. “She also wants to know when you’re coming home.” Chanyeol closes his eyes and keeps his mouth closed, fingers tightening around his phone. “I also would love to know, it’s been forever since I saw you.”

Across the street is a small cafe, the door wide open and the windows along the front looking into a pretty and modern interior. It’s handsome and welcoming, a few people sitting at the tables with their drinks and the owner and main barista chatting with a man in a suit by the front counter. Chanyeol swallows as he looks back at his friends, wishing he didn’t have to answer his sister.

“Chanyeol?”

“I’m really busy right now,” Chanyeol answers finally, stepping away from the lamp post. “You know it’s not easy to get time off these days and work has been picking up now that we’re moving into summer. Plus, Minseok just got a new batch of trainees and may need my help. I know you guys might miss me and want me to come home but it’s not my world anymore. I have my own world that I have to take care of here.”

“Chanyeol, your family is part of your world too,” Yura answers him, though her tone is patient, calm. He misses his family, that much is very true, but his place isn’t with them. They’re far from the city and away from his job, his friends, the world that he’s built, his new home for himself.

“I know that,” Chanyeol says. “But a family also understands each other.”

The sigh over the phone is long. Chanyeol can picture Yura, her lips pressed together with a small frown, finger pressing to one side of her nose as she tries to think of how best to phrase her next words. There is a small burgeon of longing in his chest, wanting to see her, his mother and father and everyone again all together, but he pushes it down. He’s making his life here. He left home with the intention to and he’s not going to back down, not after coming so far and doing so much.

“We do understand,” Yura says finally after the pause. Scuffing his shoes against the sidewalk, Chanyeol presses his lips together, recalling images of the concerned turn of his mother’s lips and the solemn nods of his father’s head. “Or at least we do our best. We’re family, and we miss having you with us, as a family. We, mom, dad, and I, just want what’s best for you.”

“This is what’s best for me,” Chanyeol tells his sister, a note of finality in his voice. He’d spent years living with family, trying to figure out his life and what he wanted, and decided years ago that he needed to do it on his own. Figuring out his life and what he wants is his job, his responsibility, and his stomach twists when he remembers he still isn’t sure. “You had your period of exploration and growth before you settled down. I need my own. I’m not you, Yura.”

“No kidding,” Yura says and it draws a smile from Chanyeol. She lets out a soft sigh and Chanyeol knows the heavy topic is over. Heavy conversations never last between him and his sister, neither of them wanting to linger. “Alright. Look, I didn't call to argue with you. I called because I miss you and wanted to talk. It’s been too long since we’ve had one of those touching heart to hearts.”

“Sappy sibling time,” Chanyeol says, adding a playful tone that earns a snort through the phone from his sister. “Is this the part where you tell me about Jongdeok and how he’s still not mastered ironing yet or is this the part where I ask if mom has chosen a wedding venue already?”

Laughter erupts from the phone as Yura breaks down, her voice light and brilliant. “Okay, okay. I’ll let you get back to your important life in the big city,” Yura says. “Just… think about it, okay? Mom is still around if you want to talk to her.”

“I’m good,” Chanyeol says, not at all having the energy to have a long discussion of his future and his life and his priorities at the moment. “I’m actually with a few friends at the moment.”

“Shame on me for encroaching on your fabulous social life. I didn’t realize I was imposing on you so devastatingly,” Yura says, mockingly appalled with herself. “Go, shoo, play with your friends.”

“We’re adults,” Chanyeol reminds her.

“You’re all still younger than me,” Yura laughs. “I will refer to your adult social life as ‘Chanyeol’s friend play time’ until I’m sixty.”

“I love you,” Chanyeol tells her, smiling and genuinely cheered up from their earlier, heavier conversation.

“Love you, too,” Yura says before the line cuts, ending the call. Chanyeol closes his eyes, taking a deep breath of crisp spring air, cleaner as the trees begin to flower and grow once again. Stepping back into the cafe across the street, he smiles at the barista behind the counter before taking a seat near the far wall in one of the large squashy chairs.

“You were out there for a while,” Minseok comments, stepping away from the bar with a soft smile on his face. “All the ice in your drink has probably reduced that to water with a splash of coffee rather than a proper drink. Need a refill?”

With a heavy sigh, Chanyeol stirs the remainders of his once iced coffee he’d ordered when he’d first showed up at the cafe. “Honestly, it’s not the greatest of my concerns,” he tells his long time friend as Minseok leans his hip against the chair opposite Chanyeol. “I’ll live,” he adds, offering Minseok a smile.

“Everything okay?” Minseok asks. Carefully, casually, he crosses his arms over his chest, face impassive but Chanyeol can’t help but let out a soft laugh. He’s known Minseok too long to not notice when his friend is checking up on him. “At home? I figured if something was going on here, you’d have told me before your parents got to you.” A teasing smile tugs at his lips as his eyes dance.

If Chanyeol were to confide in anyone, it would be Minseok. He knows Minseok will listen to him without judgement and in confidence with just about any subject. For this though, Chanyeol just lets out a loud sigh, easing back into the soft chair and grinning at his friend. “Yeah, everything’s fine,” Chanyeol tells Minseok. “Just-” the door to the cafe opens again, and a few young adults walk in, glancing around curiously “-the usual.” Minseok’s eyes flicker. “Family checking in on me, mom eavesdropping to show she loves me while Yura tells me she misses me. The usual stuff where I’m my family’s favorite member.”

“So exactly like the last six years,” Minseok observes and the laugh Chanyeol lets out is more strained than usual.

“Pretty much,” he says. The new customers are wandering towards the bar, eyes on the cafe menu and the other man, his suit jacket finally off, wanders over to where Chanyeol is sitting. “Except Yura’s not dating that horrible soccer player anymore.”

“Hey,” says the other man, draping his jacket over the chair opposite Chanyeol and squinting at him. Minseok laughs softly as he steps back, letting their mutual friend slip into the conversation. “Don’t be bashing on soccer players now.” Han sags down into the chair, one hand raising to shove his perfectly styled hair about his head, messing up the meticulous styling it had been in all day for his work. ‘Setting it free’ he’d called it the first time Chanyeol had witnessed him turning his head into an birds nest. “Just because Yura dated one asshole who played soccer doesn’t make all soccer players bad.”

“Yes, Han, I know,” Chanyeol says, watching as Han rakes his fingers through hair spray stiffened hair until it stands up haphazardly. He smiles at his friend as Minseok slips away to greet his new customers with a handsome smile.

“So,” Han says, finally dropping his hand and apparently satisfied now his hair is no longer plastered to his scalp. “What’s up? You look less lifeless than my regulars.” Chanyeol winces slightly as Han barrels on. “Which is saying something, considering most of them are actually dead.”

“Can you please not compare me to a corpse?” Chanyeol requests, feeling a bit uneasy as Han’s work is brought into conversation again despite the rule.

Back when Han had managed to procure his job, Minseok had insisted that Han, under no circumstances, was allowed to talk about his job unless specifically asked about it. Of course, in the last three years since Han got the job, the other man has almost entirely ignored this rules.

“Well,” Han says, leveling Chanyeol with a thoughtful look. “If I just say ‘wow, you look dead’ then I’m being far too cliche, aren’t I?”

“No, then you’re being normal,” Chanyeol sighs, feeling a small spark of relief as the door opens again and familiar faces walk in. “Is that so hard?”

“Terribly,” Han tells him, and smiles in a way that could make paint peel off walls.

“How are things in the business of the dead anyway?” Chanyeol asks, knowing the topic won’t be dropped. It had shocked him and the others when Han had gone from his promising work in undergrad in the sciences into the profession of ‘mortician’. None of them could figure out how the slightly eccentric and somewhat socially awkward man could make a career out of assisting people dealing with loss, but somehow he’s managed to surprise them all with being one of the most successful in their small knit group.

“Oh, quite exciting actually,” Han begins, sitting up with eyes dancing in interest. Chanyeol smiles weakly, wondering what kind of horror story he’s about to be met with. “I had about five in this week. One was an awful tragedy-” Han waves a hand as if to emphasize misfortune “-young, smart, handsome, loved by everyone, probably kissed babies or something, anyway, died in a drunk driving accident coming back from a frat party. College kids, you know?” Chanyeol grimaces, unable to smile at the contrasting but no less upsetting images Han conjures up. “But anyway, this other guy-”

“Please tell me we’re not discussing dead people,” Baekhyun rescues Chanyeol with, stepping up to them and dragging a chair loudly over the floor. It earns him a squint from Han and Chanyeol catches Minseok frowning in disapproval over at his counter, but it stops the conversation about Han’s running roster of dead citizens at least.

“Fine,” Han says, shifting his chair over as Jongdae and Victoria pulling two other chairs. They’re much quieter about it that Baekhyun, and Baekhyun smiles at them before pointedly kicking his feet up and placing them in Chanyeol’s lap, all the while grinning at Han. “We’re not discussing dead people.”

“Is he tormenting you?” Baekhyun asks, turning to Chanyeol and gesturing to Han. It makes Chanyeol smile, feeling somewhat energized despite the invasive weight of Baekhyun’s feet on him. “Because we have a spray bottle.”

That startles a laugh from Chanyeol enough to turn to Baekhyun rather than simply try to fade out of the conversation. “You do?”

“Well, no,” Baekhyun admits. Out of the corner of his eye, Chanyeol watches Han relax a bit, his eyes fixed on Baekhyun even as Jongdae begins to poke at his mussed up hair. “But Vic does, in her bag.” Han stiffens and Jongdae gets a coy grin on his face.

Victoria, attention called to her, simply smiles and shrugs, tugging her bag into her lap. “When I was apartment hunting, I figured between a cat and Han, Han didn’t need a litter box and pays the rent. It was a close call though.”

“The only draw back is that Han doesn’t pur,” Jongdae adds helpfully and peers over at Han who looks relatively attacked in his lumpy chair.

“My spirit animal would totally be a dog, how many times do I have to tell you?” Han says, looking between his two roommates and Jongdae.

Jongdae, when Han looks at him, makes a vague hissing sound as Han’s shoulders hunch up and Victoria lets out a poorly concealed laugh.

“Sure,” Chanyeol joins in the teasing, nudging Han’s foot with his own as Han’s attention turns to him. “One of those big impressive dogs that rescues people or something, right?” Han gives him a simpering smile and taps back with his foot a little to hard.

“Look on the bright side,” Jongdae says, wiggling himself onto the arm of Han’s chair. “At least he’s housetrained.”

“Which is more than I can say of you,” Han says, looking up at Jongdae. With a sideways grin, he slaps Jongdae perhaps a bit too hard and earns a soft yelp from the other man as Jongdae nearly topples off the chair.

“Down, kitty,” Victoria chides gently, waving a threatening finger at her roommate as Baekhyun laughs beside her, his feet digging into Chanyeol’s lap. Han, rather than backing down, hisses at Victoria and shoves Jongdae off the arm of his chair.

Rather than look affronted though, Jongdae stands, laughing, and asks for drink orders. He pulls Han to his feet a moment later telling him he needs someone to help him and winks when Baekhyun scrambles into the vacated soft chair, quickly answering a call with a triumphant grin. It has Chanyeol smiling, watching as his friends unwind and joke, reminding him of the world he has here, where he’s happy and his friends tease but with no bad intentions. They’re all happy, just like he wants to be. Just like he is.

It’s been a number of years, but Chanyeol has managed to keep his group of friends through many transitions and adjustments. Fights were resolved, difficulties were overcome, and Chanyeol thinks of all the ways they’ve grown since the first of his friends began to graduate and leave the tight knit circle at university. Of course, some of them have drifted a bit far, like Kibum all the way out in New York, but everyone else Chanyeol tries to keep in touch with.

“Have you talked to Jinri lately?” Chanyeol asks, turning to Victoria as the other woman crosses his mind. It’s been a few months since he last saw Jinri, the younger girl a close friend of his back in undergrad and he doesn’t like to be out of touch for this long.

Looking back from where her attention had lingered on the bar, Victoria raises an eyebrow at him. “She should be here pretty soon, I told her we were all probably going to swing by. What’s up?” Tilting her head at him, Victoria fiddles with her phone in her lap, fingers dancing over the screen.

“I haven’t seen her in a while and she hadn’t been answering when I called,” Chanyeol explains, offering a soft smile as his eyes fall to Victoria’s phone.

“Oh! My bad, I was supposed to let you know she lost her phone.” The smile Victoria flashes him has a tinge of apologetic guilt on it and Chanyeol smiles a bit wider, trying to wave it off.

“Oh,” Chanyeol says, and laughs a bit. Mistakes happen, and it certainly puts his heart at ease knowing Jinri isn’t avoiding him. It’s a small part of him that had suspected that, but still a part of him that lingered when Chanyeol thought of her.

“Who lost their phone?” Minseok asks, walking with Jongdae and Han to deliver the drinks as Baekhyun finishes his phone call.

“You remember Jinri, right?” Victoria answers Minseok’s curious look.

“How can anyone not remember, Jinri?” Han scoffs, handing Victoria a steaming mug with a bit of a stupid grin on his face.

“Down, kitty,” Jongdae chastises him gently, flicking him in the side of the head as he passes Baekhyun an iced tea.

“You’re not my roommate, you can’t share these jokes,” Han almost pouts as Jongdae slips onto the arm of Baekhyun’s claimed chair with a pleased smirk.

“I am your roommate and I give him full permission,” Baekhyun announces, looking up at Han over his drink as Chanyeol bites down a laugh. Sitting up a bit, he places a hand over Jongdae’s thigh and nods almost regally to him. “Carry on, Jongdae. It’s funny because he doesn’t know how to react when you do it.”

“I know where you sleep” Han grumbles as Chanyeol and Victoria laugh, Minseok sharing an amused smile with them all as he places a plate of sweet cakes on the small table among them.

“No shit, it’s right next to your room. I know where you masturbate.” The look on Baekhyun’s face is entirely unabashed even as Victoria winces and Minseok clicks his tongue.

“Why do I come back at the worst times?” Minseok mumbles before wandering back to the counter and returning to work.

"You have impeccable timing," Chanyeol tells him, catching his attention as Minseok leaves their small group. It earns him a small smile as the conversation dissolves into Chanyeol's friends talking over each other, teasing, bickering, and playing as he laughs and watches them.

A large part of him can't do anything but smile, chiming in here and there with comments or jokes as they play, so familiar with them but he's more content to just watch tonight. It's been a long day, and he's still a bit winded from the conversation earlier.

It brings a lot back into mind for him, the sentiments that his family expresses regarding him and his life; his choices. What he wants and what he looks for are all still swimming in a pool of indecision and he's still not sure what he wants to do aside from something good in the world. He's always wanted a family, like Yura will have with Jongdeok, but he's just not sure how he wants it or what form it will take. It’s a lot of big decisions he’s not sure he’s ready to make, only knowing that he’s not Yura with her plans and eased progression.

It makes him quiet, his thoughts still too loud over the din of the group for him to voice much of himself as he usually might. It's best to just laugh, smile and watch everyone else at times like these and hope no one notices.

Chanyeol's not an idiot, and the whole family knew as soon as Yura had showed up with Jongdeok what direction they were headed. It's highly likely that by the end of next year, they'll be married and Chanyeol will the center of everyone’s questions.

”When will you find a nice girl and settle down, Chanyeol?”

"Hey," startles Chanyeol from his thoughts as Jongdae sneaks up from behind him, slipping onto the arm of Chanyeol's chair and leaning into his space. He'd retreated from the roommate squabble of sound between Han, Baekhyun, and Victoria a few minutes ago, and smiles at them as they continue to go at it before he looks down to Chanyeol. “So, how weird is it that we’re going to be brothers soon?”

“Not so weird considering your brother hasn’t proposed yet," Chanyeol says, smiling up at his friend. It's something he hasn't wanted to put too much thought into yet, that his close friend will soon legally be his brother. It's a little too surreal.

“Yeah, but like, think about it,” Jongdae says, arms crossing over his chest as he lets out a sigh, leaning back against the chair. “The possibility is so high that we’ll be brothers. Coworkers and friends that then become brothers.” Chanyeol's hands splay over his thighs, pressing down on them as he swallows.

“It’s like a dumb movie where bros become real bros," Baekhyun calls, tilting back his chair onto it's back legs and sending Han almost toppling to the floor. Grinning, he teeters dangerously as he looks at Jongdae and Chanyeol across from him. “Can you two fist bump? I just need it to make my evening better.”

It earns him a soft laugh that sounds entirely condescending from Jongdae. “No, don’t have such high demands of us. We’re tired people after working a long hard day.”

“Wouldn’t that be weird though?” Baekhyun goes on, finally dropping his chair to all four legs as he leans forward. Chanyeol presses his lips together, watching as the conversation veers back to this topic even if he'd rather just not think about it. It's inevitable though, all of them too close to keep away from stuff like this when it's so important and imminent. Baekhyun wets his lips, eyes flickering between Jongdae and Chanyeol. “Like, you two go to work, see each other, go home, hang out together, go to holiday dinners and bam, suddenly closer than ever before. It’s like you can never get away now. You’re lives will be forever bound together.”

“Baekhyun, my brother is marrying his sister, stop talking like I’m marrying Chanyeol,” Jongdae retorts dryly, picking up a napkin and balling it up just to throw at Baekhyun's face.

“I’m just saying,” Baekhyun says, dodging easily and grinning when the napkin hits Han instead.

"Please don’t, next time," Jongdae says, offering a small apologetic smile to Han's accusatory look. “But really, it’s kind of wild, right? Us as family.”

“Well, it could be worse," Chanyeol finally chimes in, unsticking his tongue from the roof of his mouth. He looks around the group, at the face turned to him and smiles as wide as he can. “We could actually be getting married like Baekhyun is suggesting”

“Chanyeol," Jongdae says, swiveling to look down at him with a resigned sort of look. "You’re great, but I’m not marrying you.”

“You’re too tall for him, he could never live with it silently," Han quips and grins at Jongdae. It earns him a balled up napkin to the face.

“Height has nothing to do with it,” Jongdae replies easily before Chanyeol can. He settles back as Victoria calls out Han on his comment and the two get into an argument over height biases. “I guess that means we’re next right?" Jongdae says quieter, a soft frown line between his brows as he stares at his hands in his lap. "You and me the last in our families who have to get hitched. Find a girl and settle down and stuff? It’s kind of scary. I feels like we just finished school and I still can't cook."

"That's because you actually still can't cook," Chanyeol reminds him and Jongdae's flashes him a sheepish smile. “But I know what you mean.”

“Have you thought about it, though?” Jongdae asks after a pause, pulling Chanyeol's thoughts back to where they've begun to wander.

Swallowing down as he looks at his friends talking without really seeing them, Chanyeol clarifies, “marriage?"

“Finding a girl? Jongdae you have to be more specific," Baekhyun half reprimands, obnoxiously tuning back into their conversation despite how it doesn't involve him. The joking helps though. It's not unpleasant it's just hard to answer sometimes. Like when his mother had been breathing down Yura's neck not even an hour ago for information on him.

“Baekhyun, I’m not talking to you," Jongdae retorts.

“Rude,” Baekhyun scoffs, grabbing a cookie and shoving the whole thing into his mouth.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” Chanyeol admits slowly, sinking back into his chair and answering Jongdae. It's something Chanyeol thinks about more than he'd like to admit. Even to himself. Settling down or not was never the issue, it was with whom he’d spend the rest of his life with that he got stuck on time and time again.

“I mean, I have too but it just… it feels so much closer now. It’s real now." Jongdae sighs, glancing up as Minseok rejoins their group, his customers settled. "We can’t let our siblings show us up, right?”

“Why not?” Baekhyun incessantly forces himself back into the conversation, only sitting back as Minseok steps up to his chair with a warning look in his eyes.

“No one can show Chanyeol up anyway, he’d have to look down on them regardless of any outcome,” Minseok says, looking over at Jongdae and Chanyeol with a soft warm smile on his face. It's comforting, in the kind of way that gets Chanyeol opening up to him where he'd usually keep himself locked up. Fortunately, Minseok's eyes shift to Jongdae. “Jongdae, you have plenty of time before you have to think about trying to settle your small ass down with someone who would have you.”

“Anyone would be lucky to have me,” Jongdae says, and grins with an air of self assurance he's always been able to pull off shamelessly.

It ends up just as it always does, with the group laughing at him and someone, Han this time, getting up to pull him into a headlock as Victoria laughs and swats at them both, her long hair swinging about her shoulders.

“Did I arrive just in time for the brutality?” says a laughing voice, as another familiar face walks up. Jinri's eyes dance in warmth as they land on Chanyeol. “Hey you,” she says with a bright smile just for him.

Not hesitating for a second, Chanyeol stands to pull her into a hug. It's been ages since he's seen her, but she's always been a sight for sore eyes and a burdened mind. At the moment, Chanyeol has both of those and whispers back a soft "hey yourself," as Jinri's arms tighten around him, hugging back just as tight.

“Only Chanyeol gets hugs?” comes Jongdae's almost pouting voice. “That’s not fair at all. I love hugs just as much as he does.”

“No, I just like him best so he always gets the first one,” Jinri tells him, laughing as she and Chanyeol pull apart. He doesn't mind letting her go for a while, Han and Jongdae immediately drawing her into conversation about a drink. He can catch up later once they've calmed down and she's shot them both down. Again.

It pulls a chuckle from him.

“I swear, they’re wasting their time,” Baekhyun says as Chanyeol takes his chair again. “And air for that matter. She’s way out of their league.”

“Of course she is,” Chanyeol agrees and shares a soft familiar smile with Baekhyun. "But you’ve got to give them points for at least aiming high.”

“Just means they have longer to fall," Baekhyun points out, reaching for another cookie. “Do you think Han will come crawling back like he did last time or just return brimming with more vigor?”

“I’m more worried about Jongdae,” Chanyeol admits, watching as Victoria walks up to the trio at the counter and rescues Minseok from them. Jongdae has a hand on Han's arm, half shoving and half holding him at bay as he gets animated on a topic. “Remember when he and Liyin ended?”

“I try not to remember that too vividly,” Baekhyun muses softly around his bites of cookie. “I lost two boxes of tissues to that break up and a box of ice cream I will never get back.”

Letting out a laugh that he didn't expect, Chanyeol turns from the scene at the cafe bar to look at his long time friend. “You’re a real pal, Baekhyun,” he reminds the man he once thought of as his best friend.

“I try my best to be there when my friends need me,” Baekhyun says, grinning widely so his eyes dance.

“Speaking of which, I have a favor.” Chanyeol smiles as Baekhyun groans and slouches down a bit in his chair, fixing him with a look.

“I’m not breaking anyone out of prison. Don’t even waste your breath.”

“Damn,” Chanyeol teases, feigning disappointment and Baekhyun rolls his eyes before grinning. “Nah, I was hoping to get Junmyeon out hiking in a few weekends. He could use the break and thought you might be…?”

“I- ah.” Baekhyun almost looks sheepish as he sits back up in his chair. "I'm gonna be pretty busy the next few weekends, actually.” He lets out a soft sort of laugh, running his palms up and down his thighs, something he only does when he's slightly nervous. “You know how it is.”

“Family, or... “ Chanyeol raises his eyebrows in question.

“Are you kidding?" Baekhyun laughs, relaxing just enough to ease some of Chanyeol's worry as he shakes his head. "Nah, they don’t want to see me until I do something other than host tables for a living. No, this-” Tongue poking out to wet his lips, Baekhyun flashes him a grin that means only one thing. “I met someone.”

“Oh?” Chanyeol prompts lightly, pushing down his internal groan. If it were Jongdae, Minseok, Kibum, or literally anyone else, Chanyeol might feel happy for them, excited even. But it isn't, it's-

“Yeah, she’s nice this time. I promise.” Baekhyun grins in the same what that he's been grinning at Chanyeol since university and Chanyeol knows what it means better than anything.

“You met her at a club, didn’t you," Chanyeol calls him out, eyeing his friend and the telltale look of poorly acted indignation that plays on Baekhyun's face.

“Since when has Baekhyun met a girl that wasn’t in a club?" Victoria asks, returning to her seat with a fresh ice tea and a long look at her roommate.

“To my credit it wasn’t in a club, it was out back of one,” Baekhyun retorts almost haughtily.

“Promising,” Victoria says dryly. “It sounds like you two are just made for each other.”

It's not that Chanyeol thinks there's something wrong with meeting people in clubs, he just knows the girls and guys Baekhyun meets in clubs and none of them are what Chanyeol would say really were invested in dating. Somehow though, every time Baekhyun ends up wrapped up with another one, he gets it into his head that they will be, and Chanyeol has watched the show and dance too many times to try to stop it. It never ends well when he does.

“You try finding anyone outside in the real world," Baekhyun says, turning to Victoria with eyes narrowed. "Oh right, you can’t, because they’re all taken or don’t exist."

“That was rude,” Chanyeol says, frowning at Baekhyun even as Victoria looks completely unaffected by the comment.

“She started it."

“It’s okay, Chanyeol, I’m perfectly capable of recognizing pouting tantrums when I see them. Plus, I have no issues finding people to date in the real world, unlike Baekhyun," Victoria informs, dropping the news with finesse Chanyeol envies as Baekhyun beings to pout. Victoria grins as she takes a sip of her iced tea in Baekhyun's direction. "Baekhyun just likes to block that information from his mind because he feels intimidated by me."

“Anyway, so I’m kind of out for playing with Junmyeon, sorry,” Baekhyun barrels on, pointedly ignoring Victoria's smirk. “I’ve got to figure out if this girl is the one.” Victoria tries to hide a scoff into her drink unsuccessfully. “You never know, what if she is?" Baekhyun defends, turning back to Victoria. "What if she’s the one I’ve been waiting for and our eyes will meet over a plate of cheesy fries and I’ll just know she’s my ‘it’ girl.”

“Or you’ll get robbed again,” Han chimes in, not even bothering to try the armrest of the chair as he sits on Baekhyun instead, earning a wheeze.

“One time, and I never hear the end of it,” he grumbles as Han lets out a loud unattractive laugh.

Chanyeol remembers that time, back when he and Baekhyun had still been roommates. It hadn't been a good night to begin with and it definitely didn't end on a good note either. That was one of the last times Chanyeol had gone out clubbing with Baekhyun before swearing it off for a while. A while had ended up being far longer than he thought it would, and it's been years since Chanyeol went out for stuff like that.

It's been years since he had anything remotely like the hookups Baekhyun gets involved in and has stopped telling him about. It's been years since Chanyeol had stopped that and booked his weekends for other things, trying to get away from family visits and ended up taking on more and more volunteer work. That's what had really started it, and Chanyeol doesn't regret it at all.

It just all ended up pushing him into a different world, where the people he meets on the weekends aren't the people he wants to date and go dancing with but people he wants to get to know, to help, to be something in their lives. The interest and intent is different and it makes it a lot harder for Chanyeol to explain away why he's not with anyone when his parents ask again.

Mind flashing back to Jongdae and his conversation with Yura earlier, Chanyeol swallows down a bubble of anxiety that always seems to want to reach up his throat as he thinks about it again.

It's like Jongdae had said; they're next.

It's a lot of pressure that Chanyeol already knows about, thinks about, and has always been aware of. Just with everything else in his world that he's still trying to figure out as he stretches in what feels like a limbo of satisfaction without actually feeling fulfilled, it becomes more hollow than anticipatory.

It all boils down to Chanyeol still not knowing what he wants, and scared to choose when the answer he settles down with may be wrong.

*

By the end of the week, nothing has changed much. Standing on the train into the city with his note pad and scribbling down the last minute things he needs from the store, Chanyeol pushes down the extemporaneous thoughts that keep jumping into his head.

Since the phone call last week, his family hasn't tried to push back into his world, Yura and his mother taking a step back. A part of Chanyeol wonders if this is because Yura is still the focus of attention, waiting for something to shift in her relationship with Jongdeok, or if they've realized to stop asking Chanyeol when he'll find someone and settle down.

"You're next", the subtext of every email and conversation he has with his parents these days, sending a lump into Chanyeol's throat as he tries to write back amicably.

Just like he has for a long time, Chanyeol tunes it out, instead writing down his weekly list of groceries as the train trundles along the tracks into the city. Outside the windows, the bright late afternoon sun warms the city and spiders over the buildings, catching Chanyeol's attention a few times just to look out at the sky scrapers and horizon.

It's a bit late to go out for groceries, but Chanyeol's run out of most of his essentials, and after getting back from work today and changing into more casual and comfortable clothes, he'd hopped on the train rather than drive. It's too nice of a day to drive and getting out after a long day at a desk is better for him. Being out in the world is better overall than sitting at the wheel of a car just for convenience.

Finally finishing up his list, Chanyeol pockets it, figuring he'll add stuff as it comes to mind, and looks around the train. They're at one of the intercity stops, close to where Baekhyun works, and Chanyeol watches absently as the doors open and people stream into the carriage. As the train doors close, Chanyeol finds himself blinking in slight surprise before he smiles, stepping carefully from his place on the train towards a familiar figure.

Smiling as he carefully maneuvers to stand beside the other man, Chanyeol glances down at him. It's not that hard to pick Jongin out from the other occupants of the train, his black hair still too long as it falls into his face and his head bowed slightly to avoid eye contact from the other passengers. He's wearing another sweater today, this one a light blue with a few holes around the collar and it looks just as worn as all the others Chanyeol has seen him in. Carefully, Chanyeol leans just a bit until their shoulders brush, watching Jongin and ready to reach out and catch him if he startles enough to fall.

Immediately, as soon as their shoulders brush, Jongin is startling, jumping as he jerks to look at Chanyeol with those same wide brown eyes and his lips parted, hair flying. The soft gasp he lets out has Chanyeol biting down a laugh at the shocked look on Jongin's face right before it relaxes and he lets out a sigh.

"You scared me," Jongin tells him as he relaxes to stand beside Chanyeol and looks up at him.

"Really?" Chanyeol teases, leaning down a bit into Jongin's space. "I mean, you were the one that fell into me." The look on Jongin's face is enough to have Chanyeol laughing and shaking his head. "I'm kidding, it was me this time." Jongin throws him a dark but still slightly amused look, nudging Chanyeol none too gently in the shoulder. Chanyeol can feel the sharp bone of his shoulder as it knocks into his own and swallows down his frown. "What brings you out here? I'm not complaining, I just am happily surprised to see you today. I thought it would be at least another week before I managed to catch you by chance."

"Surprise," Jongin says, glancing up at him with a hint of a smile. "I'm- I'm glad I ran into you actually."

"I'm glad it's mutual," Chanyeol says, smiling and watching as Jongin's lips twitch with a hint of a smile.

"I wanted to thank you again," Jongin continues. "For the groceries the other day. I- I know I was initially grateful and-"

"Don't worry about it," Chanyeol waves it off, wanting to reach an arm around Jongin's shoulders. He doesn't though, all too aware of how every other time he's reached for Jongin, the other man shies away from him. Chanyeol learned a lot time ago that not everyone is comfortable with touch and physical reassurance, and has learned to keep his hands to himself even if he yearns not to. "Like I said, I was happy to help. Just consider it me buying you dinner. One day you can repay the favor and, I don't know, make me pudding cuisine so I can understand."

A light pink flushes over Jongin's cheeks at that, and Chanyeol feels it warm him gently, watching as Jongin meets his eyes rather than looking away. "Well," he says, then takes in a long slightly shuddering breath, "for now, all I can do is say thank you."

"I'll be happy with that," Chanyeol tells him. "How did Sehun enjoy his special treat?"

Almost immediately, Jongin brightens, his smile widening and his eyes warming with a new light. "He loved it," he says, a full smile spreading over his face. "I swear, I never thought someone could love pudding cups as much as he does, but he was so excited when he saw them. He's been rationing them, saving them and trying to draw out their worth. Those cups are almost sparkling clean when he's done with them." Jongin chuckles softly to himself. "When he finished his first cup, he just lay on the floor and told me he was basking in the glory of pudding cups."

Laughing a bit too loudly for the train, Chanyeol bites his lip to quiet. “Well, good, I’m glad.”

“We froze the strawberries,” Jongin tells him, not breaking eye contact. “I just-” he presses his lips together. “I thought you should know, just to make sure that it’s not just-”

“I trust you to use whatever I might give you well,” Chanyeol cuts him off, nudging shoulders again and relaxing slightly when Jongin seems to loosen up. “Just like I trusted you to be telling the truth about Sehun. And about your job.”

“It’s not safe to just blindly trust people like that, you know,” Jongin murmurs, looking down at his hands. Looking down at them, Chanyeol can see they’re rough, calloused and worked hard, a few cuts up and down the skin but clean.

“Are you telling me not to trust you?” Chanyeol asks quietly. When Jongin simply looks up at him, Chanyeol understands the real reason from the guarded harder look in his eyes. “Or that people you thought you could trust proved you wrong?”

Jongin swallows, his throat working as he looks away, out the subway car window. “The world is full of people who would lie to you,” he says. “They’re not-”

“Me,” Chanyeol says easily, cutting into Jongin’s words and smiling as best he can. “Or you,” he adds, nodding to Jongin. “Or Sehun.”

Eyes flickering, Jongin looks back to him and lets out a soft breath. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Because-” Jongin takes in a long shuddering breath. “I just am. I’m sorry for making you feel like you need to reassure me. I’m fine.”

“Okay,” Chanyeol tells him, rather than try to shut down the apologies. Judging from the look on Jongin’s face, he wouldn’t respond well to a denial of the apology. “How many pudding cups are left?”

“Three,” Jongin answers, looking back out of the window before he lets out a soft laugh. “He keeps saving the used cups. Telling me he’s learning how to save and preserve the world.” The smile on his face is fond, warm and loving. “He even planted a special garden in a few of them.”

“He did?”

“Calls them his kids.” Jongin’s eyes crease up as he talks, rambles on about his son. He looks alive, full and real when he talks about Sehun, like nothing else in the world matters to him or makes him happier. “We have a tomato, an apple, and a green pepper kid right now, though he really wants to learn how to grow peaches.”

“Those might require something a bit larger than just a pudding cup,” Chanyeol comments as Jongin pauses.

“That’s what I told him,” Jongin says, and the full smile on his face is beautiful. “He told me he’d wait as long as it takes for us to use up all the mayonnaise so he can use the jar.” Chanyeol laughs, chuckling and keeping his voice down at the image and imagining little hands and a bright smile. “It’s his lesson in patience.”

“You’re teaching him well,” Chanyeol tells him.

“I hope so,” Jongin sighs. “I just want him to grow up well. To be happy. It’s why-” Jongin pauses and swallows, mouth closing.

The soft sounds of the train filter in around them as the train stops a few more times. Chanyeol alternates between looking at the number of stops and Jongin, letting the other man just stand in his thoughts for a moment, hesitant to disturb him.

“I thought your home was the other way,” Jongin finally says, startling Chanyeol out of his thoughts as he counts train stops.

“It is, I’m getting groceries.” Jongin nods slowly. “What about you? Going to work or-?”

“Leaving, actually,” Jongin says, and his voice catches. “I had to leave the- uh- establishment I was at when we first met. It just wasn’t working out. With my schedule and wi- with Sehun. So, I’m at a new place.” The smile he tries is weak and shakes, and it pulls out the tired lines in his face. “I’m headed home for the night.”

“Anything fun planned?” Chanyeol asks, both happy and feeling a tug in his chest.

“Just a night in,” Jongin says. “I’ve been a bit busy lately. I might usually try to take an extra shift but I haven’t been home a lot lately. Not as much as I should be.” His lips are still chapped but he looks a little less worn. Though, Chanyeol realizes, it may just be that he’s growing familiar with how Jongin looks. The people around them don’t have the same slightly sunken dull look to their skin, clothing seeming to hang rather that fit properly. Chanyeol nearly reaches out, brushing Jongin’s hair from his eyes, wondering if it’s as soft as it looks or if it, too, is suffering from Jongin pushing himself to his limit.

“Just as long as you don’t collapse on anyone else,” Chanyeol says, trying to joke a little. “I might get jealous.”

Jongin’s lips press, his expression faltering from the previous nonchalance. “I didn’t mean to collapse on you,” he says, sounding tired. “I’m still sorry. I still feel so badly about that.” He winces. “And I still need to repay you for dinner the other night.“ His face takes on a slightly pained look, fading thinner as fatigue settles over it.

“Don’t,” Chanyeol tells him, cutting him off quickly as Jongin spins himself down, slowly moving back from Chanyeol, his face falling from the previous ease and smiles he had first greeted with. “You don't have to pay me back for those things. Like I said, you can just treat me to dinner some time. Maybe then I can see Sehun’s garden and he can see what he thinks angels look like.”

Jongin’s eyes widen before he lets out a laugh, too loud and too big for the train and Chanyeol’s breath catches as he quickly tries to contain his own laugh, the mirth still lingering in his eyes. For that split moment, as Jongin had been surprised into humor, he changed. He looked truly happy.

Happiness is a very good look on him.

“He still calls you that, you know,” Jongin says, eyes still alight with amusement as he tries to bite down the laugh that still seems to want to escape from him.

“Good,” Chanyeol says, grinning and feeling warmer, brighter as he stands with Jongin on the train. “I like the idea of being someone’s angel.”

“Well, it is better than being known as the Pudding Cups man,” Jongin says and Chanyeol is the one who laughs this time, Jongin’s eyes crinkling in amusement as he watches Chanyeol try to quiet himself. “Though maybe that nickname suits you better.”

“Just Chanyeol is fine,” Chanyeol says, smiling widely. “I like my name.”

“I remember,” Jongin says, smile remaining. He looks so nice smiling, eyes lit up and Chanyeol realizes he’s staring, quickly dropping his eyes as his smile widens. “I’m pretty sure that was one of the first things you told me.”

“I knew I liked you,” Chanyeol says, feeling warmer as Jongin looks at him. “One of my few friends who remembers my name and uses it.”

“You still need new friends,” Jongin reminds him, chuckling lightly. Chanyeol wants to hear him laugh more, watch the ease that it brings to him soften him, make him look more alive. It brings life back into him that seems to drift away all other times.

“Then I’m really happy I met you.”

Jongin’s smile falters, eyes widening again as he looks up at Chanyeol’s wide welcoming smile. “I haven’t really done anything.”

“Do you need to do anything to be a friend?” Chanyeol asks him, raising his eyebrows as well. “Because if that’s how you feel, then I have to tell you the same thing. You need new friends.”

“It’s not that it’s-” Jongin stops again and sighs. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For,” when Jongin looks at him again, he’s less guarded. The walls in his eyes and around him are lowered ever so slightly. He looks more tired, more worn, almost a wraith of a person, but also warmer, kinder, gentle. It’s just the crack of an opened door, but Chanyeol feels like he’s holding something precious in this moment, where Jongin shows him just a little of himself. “For being there.”

“That’s what friends and family are there for, to be there for us when we’re going through a rough time,” Chanyeol says and notices Jongin’s eyes flicker, that door closing slightly. “At least they should be.”

“They aren’t always though,” Jongin murmurs, eyes dropping.

“Where are they?” Chanyeol asks, earning Jongin’s gaze flickering back to him.

“My friends?”

“Your family.”

“Sehun is my family,” Jongin says and the note in his voice is final, the topic over. The door closes. Jongin doesn’t look at him, his eyes going out of focus as all traces of a smile leave his face. “It’s better this way,” he says before his lips press closed. They’re still chapped, dry despite the warmer weather.

Chanyeol swallows down a dry throat. He doesn’t talk to his family all that much either, but he still sees them regularly.

Jongin looks too young, probably younger than Chanyeol despite the lines around his eyes. He figures those are more from exhaustion than anything. He looks too young to be with not family and a child, holding the weight of the world on himself. It doesn’t feel right, and once more that feeling of being plunged into a world he doesn’t understand cascades over Chanyeol.

I’m not a charity project.

Jongin is a human, with just as much worth as anyone else, and with the same needs as anyone else, struggling to meet them under much different circumstances. It’s not selfish for Chanyeol to have what he does, but an itch in his gut crawls anyway at what he knows he has, and what Jongin clearly doesn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Chanyeol says before he can stop himself.

“For what?” Jongin’s tone is tired, a little clipped.

“I didn’t know,” Chanyeol says.

“Then why are you apologizing?”

“For everything else,” Chanyeol tells him. When Jongin looks up at him, he looks confused, almost distrustful and wary of what Chanyeol is really saying. I’m sorry for what’s happened to you. “And I’m glad you have a night to spend with Sehun.”

The look fades slightly as Jongin watches Chanyeol. “So is he,” Jongin answers, his fingers reaching to tug the cuffs of his sweater over his fingers. A smile dances on his lips. “So am I.”

There are only four more stops until Chanyeol gets off at his grocery stop and grabs the food that will easily feed him for a week. He knows without even opening his mouth Jongin would flat out refuse anything if he even tried to help. It wouldn’t be healthy either, he realizes, to keep just giving Jongin things. For either of them.

“He sounds wonderful,” Chanyeol says, gazing out of the subway windows as they emerge from another tunnel, the sky a vibrant pink. “Sehun,” he clarifies before glancing down at Jongin.

When he looks at Jongin, the other has his lip between his teeth, biting as he looks thoughtful, looking at Chanyeol as if sizing him up and it makes him feel nervous as well as slightly giddy. He opens his mouth to ask ‘what’ when Jongin says “would you like to meet him?” and Chanyeol’s words die on his tongue.

It takes Chanyeol a moment before he realizes what Jongin is asking. “Meet your son? Sehun?”

“You don’t have to,” Jongin says, backpedaling quickly. He’s shaking his head as Chanyeol turns to him, a rush of excitement flowing through him. “I was just thinking, but you don’t have to at all. You’re probably busy.“

“I’d love to,” Chanyeol says, cutting off Jongin and smiling brightly. Jongin’s eyes widen, in surprise and what Chanyeol thinks is something like hope. It makes him feel light, like there’s too little air in his lungs. He smiles, brightly. “It’s not everyday I get the chance to meet someone who thinks I’m an angel.”

Jongin’s eyes widen for a second before he lets out a laugh, a sudden surprised but genuine laugh and Chanyeol feels too light. “He’ll be so disappointed,” Jongin says, lips drawing up in a smile and Chanyeol scrunches up his nose, slapping him lightly on the arm playfully. Jongin doesn’t flinch away, instead just scrunching up his nose as well. It’s cute and the door opens again, just showing a bit more of Jongin and Chanyeol’s chest feels too big. “Kidding,” Jongin says, chuckling lightly as he doesn’t flinch away, just stays.

“I’d love to meet your son, Jongin,” Chanyeol says, watching the other man and smiling, unable to stop himself. “I’d be honored to.”

“Just remember that only he thinks he’s a prince,” Jongin says. “And I don’t want him getting a big head about it if other people give into him. He can be very persuasive.”

“Charming?” Chanyeol prompts.

“He knows he’s cute,” Jongin says, and his mouth twists with a smile. “Uses it mercilessly on the old lady landlord. Poor woman.” Jongin’s smile widens as Chanyeol laughs, and his eyes brighten, making him look real and whole. It’s wonderful to see him smile like this.

“I look forward to it then,” Chanyeol says, laughter still in his voice. “And I’ll do my best not to be taken under by his cute.”

“It’s a losing battle,” Jongin sighs. “Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Chanyeol says, clearing his voice to add sincerity to it. The light in Jongin’s eyes is still there, showing through the fatigue. It’s wonderful. “Tell you what,” he continues, digging in his pocket for his note pad and scribbling his number on it quickly. “Why don’t you just give me a call when it works for you. I think your schedule’s a lot more chaotic than mine is, so you let me know what times work for you.”

With slightly hesitant fingers, Jongin accepts the paper with Chanyeol’s phone number on it. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol says with a smile. “Why not make it a two for one? Since you owe me dinner, why not have dinner together and I can meet Sehun?”

“Dinner?” Jongin repeats, looking a bit flabbergasted as he looks down at the phone number.

“Why not?” Chanyeol tells him. “Then you don’t owe me anything and can stop apologizing to me whenever you see me.” Jongin’s brows are furrowed slightly when he looks up at him. “And don’t hesitate about calling me. I’d be happy to hear from you. Either for emergencies or just because you’re bored.”

“I don’t really-”

“I’ll wait to hear from you?” Chanyeol asks. “Dinner or no dinner, I-”

“No,” Jongin cuts him off, taking in a deep breath and closing his fingers over the paper. “You’re right, I owe you dinner. It’s only- only fair.” He swallows and the smile he gives Chanyeol is faulty at first before it strengthens and becomes more sure, secure. “I’ll call you.”

“I look forward to it,” Chanyeol says, letting out an inaudible sigh of relief. It had been a leap, but Jongin isn’t pushing him away. It makes him happy, feeling optimistic and light even as his mind spins around the man before him. The train intercom sounds and Chanyeol steps back. “This is my stop.”

Jongin simply nods to him, the paper still clutched in his hand.

“I’ll wait for you to call,” Chanyeol tells him, stepping towards the door as the train slows to a stop.

“I’ll let you know,” Jongin says, voice fading in the shuffle of people. “I promise.” He holds up a hand as his eyes stay bright and Chanyeol’s too light as the doors open. He waves, smile still on his face, brightening it from the exhaustion and fatigue.

Chanyeol doesn’t stop smiling for a long time. He doesn’t try to stop himself either. In his mind, there’s no reason he should.

*

It’s a few weeks later, when Chanyeol’s initiate anticipation every time his phone rang has dwindled down into a dull curiosity, that his phone goes off during a meeting with Junmyeon.

“Chanyeol,” Junmyeon sighs, dropping his folder of papers into his lap. “I thought-”

“I’m sorry!” Chanyeol scrambles, fumbling to turn off his phone. “I must have forgotten to turn it to silent after my alarms this morning and -” Glancing down at the number on the screen, Chanyeol sees the unfamiliar digits and immediately cancels the call, silencing the phone and turning guiltily back to his superior.

The look on Junmyeon’s face is tired, drawn out from dealing with some of the new more enthusiastic interns at the company. Chanyeol’s been hard pressed not to swat at a few of the ones working with him with his weekly print outs. “Was that anyone important?” Junmyeon asks finally, leaning against his desk heavily.

“Unknown number,” Chanyeol tells him with a guilty smile. Then his mind clicks, and he stills, almost missing the next long rambling list of instructions that comes out of Junmyeon’s mouth as he realizes.

On his break after the meeting, Chanyeol waves off Jongdae and Juhyun to excuse himself to the bathroom.

The unknown number is from the city area and Chanyeol folds his arms over his chest as he waits for the ringing to pick up on the other end. It could be a telemarketer or it could be -

Heart jumping in his chest, Chanyeol freezes when the phone picks up and a man’s voice answers, “hello?”

“Jongin?” Chanyeol asks immediately, the name bursting from him.

“Chanyeol?” Jongin sounds almost relieved, voice rising a bit in pitch and Chanyeol lets out a relieved laugh.

“I’d almost given up hope!” Chanyeol says, laughing in relief as that warm excitement fills him up. The same anxious excitement he’d felt every time his phone rang for the first week is back, and he can’t stop smiling.

“I promised I’d call,” Jongin reminds, and sounds relieved himself. “Anyway, I’m sorry, I thought I had the wrong number when I tried to call earlier and-”

“No, no, this is me,” Chanyeol reassures. “I just had a meeting. I’m at work. Are you at work? Or on break?”

“I’m-” Jongin’s voice falters. “Anyway, I finally have a night free. Do you still want to- um.”

“Meet Sehun? See you? Catch you in my arms again? Have dinner?” Chanyeol proposes rapidly, letting his excitement take control for a moment before he can rein it in. “Yes, I want to.”

“Okay,” Jongin says, his voice coming across a bit shaky on the line. “I have Thursday free this week. Does that work for you?”

“Of course,” Chanyeol says, smiling into the receiver. Turning to the mirrors in the bathroom, his smile is so big, it’s the kind of smile Minseok would tell him in university would scare off innocents. It’s the kind of smile he hasn’t worn in years, where he just couldn’t hold it in, the smile spreading through him in a warm glow of excited energy.

It’s still there when he gets back from the ‘bathroom’ and slips into his desk chair to Jongdae’s curious and suspicious look.

“What happened to you?”

“What?” Chanyeol asks, looking over at his friend and still smiling.

“Did you just have the shit of your lifetime or something?” Jongdae asks, already wincing as if trying to prepare himself for the answer.

“Funny,” Chanyeol says, and pulls open his desk drawer to flick a few caramels at his friend. “I’m just having a good day is all.”

“Oh yeah?” Jongdae asks. A moment later, a small knowing smile spreads over his face and he leans over the desk. “What’s her name?”

Startled, Chanyeol turns to him with a jerk. “What?”

“Come on,” Jongdae goads, eyes glinting. “What’s her name?”

“I-” Chanyeol flicks another caramel at Jongdae when he realizes what he’s on about. “There is no girl.”

“Aw, come on, don’t be like that,” Jongdae almost whines, keeping his voice down. The last time he’d whined too loudly at Chanyeol, Junmyeon had scolded him for ten minutes because of noise management on the floor. “We’re supposed to be brothers soon. Doesn’t that mean we share stuff like this? I’ll tell you about mine.”

“About-” Chanyeol double takes, looking away from his computer where he’d been setting up to ignore Jongdae for the rest of the day. “What?”

Beside him, still stretched over their desks, Jongdae is grinning in the curled up cheshire grin that spells trouble or unwanted information. “Her name is Sunyoung. I met her two weeks ago.”

“Congratulations,” Chanyeol says, keeping his voice flat as he throws another caramel candy at Jongdae’s grinning face. “You’ve accomplished the impossible, future brother of mine. Amazing.”

“Want to meet her?” Jongdae asks, completely undeterred. It’s not like Jongdae is going to give up, if he’s being this persistent, and Chanyeol finally pushes down his own want to keep his excitement to himself to turn to his friend. Surprisingly, Jongdae actually looks sincere, excited this time and almost nervous, relaxing only when he has Chanyeol’s attention on him. “I was going to meet her for dinner on Thursday.”

“I-” Chanyeol swallows, and flashes an actual apologetic smile at his friend. “I have plans, I’m sorry.”

Immediately, Jongdae narrows his eyes. “So you do have a date,” he accuses, and manages to look frustrated as he pops a caramel chew into his mouth. “Liar.”

“I don’t have a date,” Chanyeol tells him. “I’m just meeting up with another friend.” At Jongdae’s inquisitive look, he adds, “you don’t know this friend.”

Jongdae feigns disappointment, practically wiggling back into his seat. “I know all of your friends,” Jongdae protests, fingers curling around his pen before he seems to realize he’s whining and sitting up swiftly, straightening his posture. “Is it Minseok?”

“You don’t know this friend,” Chanyeol repeats, laughing lightly. Thursday is two days away. He smiles.

Jongdae sighs as if the world is bearing down upon him, slumping back into his chair limply as Chanyeol bites down his laughter. “The one time you shut up,” he grumbles, eyes to the ceiling as if it will offer him answers.

“I learned my lesson,” Chanyeol tells him, flicking a final paperclip over to Jongdae’s desk. “Never tell you secrets. All you do is spill them.”

“Secrets are more fun when you tell them,” Jongdae says, raising his eyebrows at Chanyeol.

“I think the whole point of a secret is to not tell it,” Chanyeol muses, eyes squinting as he dons a contemplative expression.

“You don’t look thoughtful,” Jongdae informs him. “You just look half blind.”

“That’s what I was going for,” Chanyeol says easily, flashing Jongdae a peace sign and a grin as he turns back to his work.

In all honestly, Chanyeol finds himself more excited about meeting Jongin and Sehun than he might about a date of any kind. It’s more meaningful somehow, even if he’s just as nervous as he might be to meet someone he might theoretically marry. It feels a bit strange that he’d rather meet with Jongin that go out, but at the same time, a part of him wonders if this is him finally figuring out his priorities.

Spending time with the people who mean something to him rather than the people he should be spending time with because it’s what’s right and really, it all comes down to what feels right for Chanyeol.

This, this feels right.

*

Highland Circle is nothing at all like Baker Hill. Baker Hill is one of the oldest districts in the city, situated right next to the Industrial parks and the largest business warehouses for trade that the city was initially built on. The buildings there are just outside of the caliber of the downtown districts but with none of the stability. Most of the time, they’re loud, stacked on top of each other, and end up being less expensive purely just because they’re less desirable. There aren’t a lot of attractions in the area aside from housing that was previously for factory workers, and the actual work in the factories and warehouses. It’s a rough district, and most people wouldn’t look to it with a bright sense of ‘home’.

When first moving to the city, Chanyeol had almost rented in Baker Hill, and one trip into the area had him turning around. The most that he’d done there was purchase his first mattress for his bed from one of the warehouses, but other than that, he spends little time there.

It’s about fifteen minutes from the downtown districts of commerce, entertainment, life and business of the center of the city by subway and about an hour on one of the outer lines from Highland Circle.

Highland Circle is quiet, neatly constructed apartments that offer space and security, with locks on doors that don’t break and landlords that maintain the buildings well. They’re nice housing, and Chanyeol knows he’s lucky to have his place up in the area with full access to a dog park and community athletics center.

It’s more expensive, but he can afford it. Chanyeol can afford the luxury of a coffee drink after work as he waits for a ‘friend or two’ on Thursday evening at six just outside one of the local second hand bookshops. There is a nervous twisting in his stomach as he sits by the window waiting, still in his work slacks and a light button down under a sweater. He looks dressed for work, as he should for the job he has, and he looks like he belongs in the smart little coffee shop.

Before him on the table are a coffee, a tea, and a small box of apple juice with a bendy straw.

Over the last few days, Chanyeol has been wondering if he’ll really see Jongin, if something will happen to prevent it, and what Sehun might actually be like. It’s a huge step, something Chanyeol is still surprised about considering how close to the chest Jongin plays things. Of all the things Jongin might want to keep and protect from a stranger, his son would probably be one of those things.

But then, Chanyeol knew about Sehun almost immediately after meeting Jongin. Chanyeol asks about Sehun, has given food to Jongin for Sehun, and maybe Jongin still believes he has to prove Sehun is real.

Jongin still somehow doesn’t trust Chanyeol to believe in him.

It won’t get out of Chanyeol’s head, Jongin and Sehun and everything about them spinning up into Chanyeol’s head enough that he finds himself spacing out thinking about them at random hours. Even Jongdae has become almost insistent in figuring it out, trying to surprise him into admitting who his ‘girlfriend’ is.

It would be easier to just say he had one, to get Jongdae to leave him alone about it.

To get everyone to leave him alone about it.

The door to the second hand bookshop next door opens and out walks a man and a little boy, catching Chanyeol’s attention. Today, Jongin is wearing the same sweater he’d been wearing when Chanyeol first met him, smiling with a brightness that rivals the sun as he looks down at the little boy holding onto his hand. The little boy, who barely comes up to Jongin’s waist, has his hand clutched around Jongin’s and is saying something, looking up with too long hair to match his father’s and a huge smile on his face. He’s holding a book to his chest with his other arm, and jumps every few steps, making Jongin laugh.

Chanyeol can’t hear it, but it makes him smile, watching as Jongin walks to the coffee shop.

That nervous twisting rises into his chest as Chanyeol watches Jongin kneel down in front of his son just outside the door, telling him something as the boy nods. As the door opens and Jongin’s hand once more closes around his son’s, the little boy turns, his eyes squinted as he looks through the window and doesn’t move. Jongin pauses, saying something so his son looks up before giving a nervous nod and following his father into the small coffee shop.

Unsure as to whether he should stand up, wave, smile, or just wait, Chanyeol is half way out of his chair when Jongin spots him. A nervous almost apologetic smile spreads over his face and Chanyeol waves a bit before looking down at the boy clutching to his dad’s hand and looking at Chanyeol with wide eyes. Chanyeol smiles and waves to him and almost immediately the boy shuffles to hide behind Jongin’s legs, peering out from behind them, still clutching his book.

Hold on, Jongin mouths over the cafe, looking a little harried.

It’s fine, Chanyeol mouths back, wanting to tell him much more. It’s okay, he doesn’t have to meet Sehun is scared or nervous or if this is a bad time. It feels so close, almost invasive, like he’s imposing on Jongin even though Jongin offered. His mind is still spinning when Jongin begins to walk over, his son a few steps behind and looking up at Chanyeol almost apprehensively through his long black bangs.

“Hey,” Jongin says, offering a nervous smile. “I’m sorry-”

“No apologies,” Chanyeol cuts him off. Jongin presses his lips together, clearly slightly put off by the remark and almost wincing. Chanyeol smiles, stepping back a bit to give the father and son some room. “I’m not complaining, and you don’t need to apologize for anything.”

Jongin is frowning at the small table Chanyeol procured, at the drinks and small muffin that Chanyeol purchased. “What happened to me taking care of dinner?”

“I figured tonight wasn’t great for it, considering that you said this would be better, and I got thirst and took the liberty of taking care of things. I hope tea is alright, since I know coffee isn’t your thing,” Chanyeol answers, his eyes wandering back to the little boy who keeps staring up at him. “It’s good to see you,” he says honestly, returning his eyes to Jongin and catching the softer look on his face before it fades. “But we’re being rude,” he adds, looking down at the boy who keeps trying to hide behind Jongin’s legs. “We have a special guest.”

“That’s true,” Jongin says, and looks down to his son who looks up at him with big wide eyes. “Hey,” he says and stoops down to pick up his son, scooping him into his arms when little thin arms reach up for him. Jongin looks so natural, holding his son on his hip as the youngster wraps his arms around his father’s neck and curls against his chest.

As Chanyeol watches, the boy curls closer, almost pressing his mouth into Jongin’s ear as he whispers loudly to his father, his eyes fixed on Chanyeol. “Daddy,” he says, eyes wide and almost curious as they watch. “Who is he?”

Chanyeol tries to keep himself still, to keep his words to himself, to let Jongin do this on his terms.

Jongin's smile is the warmest, the sweetest and the most sincere Chanyeol has ever seen it and his heart squeezes as Jongin reaches up to brush the hair out of his song’s face. “This,” Jongin says before glancing up at Chanyeol, that same warmth still in his smile. “Is Chanyeol. The nice guy I told you about.” He laughs and the sound is rich, sincere. “You called him an angel.”

The little boy looks up at Chanyeol, face scrunching up in obvious contemplation. “Really?” he says, looking far less convinced of his original title for Chanyeol.

“Yep.” The laughter in Jongin's voice brings him to life, makes him vibrant. “That's him.”

The little boy leans into Jongin, his eyes still on Chanyeol as he watches him, holding up a hand to cover his mouth as he says, none too quietly, “He looks too weird to be an angel” and Chanyeol does his best not to laugh.

Jongin does laugh though, smile spreading over his face as he hoists his son a bit higher on his hip, earning a smile from the boy. “I sometimes think he might be one anyway though,” Jongin says quietly into his son's ear and Chanyeol almost misses it in the sounds of the small coffee shop. Almost, but he doesn't and Jongin's eyes widen when he catches Chanyeol’s, realizing Chanyeol heard him, a light pink spreading over his cheeks.

Pushing down the soft warm twist in his chest, Chanyeol instead bends down a bit, looking at Jongin’s son who watches him carefully. With a playful smile, Chanyeol scrunches up his face a little. “I'd be a really bad angel,” he says, lowering his voice a little.. The boy presses his lips in a line, trying to hide his amused smile. “It's a secret,” he says, leaning in a little more, “but I'm reeeeeally clumsy. They kicked me out of angel school because I kept falling down.”

The little boy laughs, choking down his giggles as he nestles to Jongin's chest and Jongin bites his lip to keep from laughing himself, his eyes shining and gorgeous.

“I'm Chanyeol,” Chanyeol says, holding up a hand. “What's your name?”

Jongin's son is just as initially quiet and hesitant as his father, leaning his head against Jongin's shoulder and looking at Chanyeol with timid eyes. “I'm Sehun,” he says, little fingers curling into Jongin's shirt. “I'm six years old. I love chocolate and daddy talks about you a lot. Do you like Pororo?”

Jongin's eyes widen, biting his lip swiftly as Chanyeol glances up at him in shock, a rush going through his chest at Sehun's words before he looks back to the little boy. “I love Pororo,” he says, smiling and shaking off the light heat in his stomach. “It's my favorite. I used to watch all the time before I got too old.”

“You’re never too old for, Pororo,” Sehun tells him, and wiggles in his father’s arms to pull out his book again, holding it up for Chanyeol to see. “See? It’s okay, we can read it together.”

“Are you sure it’s okay?” Chanyeol asks, watching as Sehun wiggles from Jongin’s arms until he’s let down. “I mean, won’t I get in trouble?”

“With who?” Sehun asks, scrambling into one of the seats at the table Chanyeol had been sitting at and plopping the book down. It’s second hand, worn around the pages and edges but Sehun looks so excited about it, sitting up on his knees, nervousness forgotten as he looks up at Chanyeol. “There are no Pororo police! I promise. Is that apple juice?”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol says, biting down laughter as Sehun begins to ask about the other drinks and food on the table. Looking over at Jongin, Chanyeol’s breath catches at the pure look of adoration on his face as he watches his son. It’s like he’s a different person, the smile on his face warm and absolutely beautiful. “I got it for you?”

“You did?” Sehun almost yells before immediately hunkering down and looking up at his dad. “I’m sorry.”

“Inside voices,” Jongin says, a note of firmness in his voice. “You know the rules.”

“Can I still read with Chanyeol?” Sehun asks, sounding reprimanded as his lips pout slightly.

“Only if he wants to,” Jongin says, looking to Chanyeol with that almost apologetic look on his face. “You don’t have to,” he says, sounding hesitant.


“But I love Pororo,” Chanyeol says, taking the seat beside Sehun and smiling. “And if Sehun says the Pororo police won’t come and get me-”

“There are no Pororo police,” Sehun repeats, bouncing a bit in his chair. “You’re safe Chanyeol. It’s okay, I promise.”

“You really like making promises, huh,” Chanyeol says, feeling some of his anxiety melt away as Jongin sits finally and relaxes a little.

“When they’re real promises, of course!” Sehun says. “Plus, I keep all my promises. Never, ever break a promise. That’s rule number one.”

“Says who?” Chanyeol asks, pushing the apple juice box closer to Sehun.

“My dad,” Sehun says, eyeing the juice box warily. “And he knows everything.”

“He does?” Chanyeol asks, glancing up at Jongin whose cheeks flush slightly as their eyes meet. Between them, Sehun is excitedly opening his Pororo book.

“Everything,” Jongin says, though his mouth twitches in a teasing smile. “Right, Sehun?”

“Right!” Sehun chirps, before turning to his father. “Can I have the apple juice?”

“I don’t know, can you?”

Screwing up his face, Sehun puffs up his cheeks and blows his hair out of his face. “Yes, I can. May I have the apple juice, daddy?”

With a quick glance to Chanyeol, who nods, Jongin smiles and nods once to his son, mouth twitching into a full smile as Sehun lets out a soft “yesssss!” and grabs the juice excitedly. Poking the straw between his lips, Sehun smiles and his happiness is brilliant, all vanishing eyes and little teeth and obvious joy as he looks at Chanyeol.

“Good?” Chanyeol asks him.

“Great!” Sehun says, and his bangs fall back into his face, a small cowlick sticking up at the back of his head. “Thank you!”

“You’re very welcome, Sehun,” Chanyeol tells him and feels the nervous twisting in his chest dissolve into the feeling of his chest just being too big for him. Sehun is in a too big shirt, his shoes too old, but he’s the happiest kid Chanyeol has ever met, and looking up at Jongin’s expression as he watches his son, he understands.

It makes his heart ache, though whether with happiness or something else, Chanyeol isn’t sure.

*

When Chanyeol was a young boy, he had a pet ferret. He'd had other pets as well, but it wasn't long before his family figured out that the reason Chanyeol was always sneezing and congested wasn't because of a weakness to colds, but allergies. They'd eliminated dogs, cats, and rabbits before trying to appease their son's love for taking care of animals by letting him adopt his next pet: a ferret.

It had been an obscure pet at best, but Koi Koi made little seven year old Chanyeol extremely happy and didn't appear to aggravate his allergies. With all his other pets, Chanyeol had stood tearfully as his beloved dogs, cats, and bunnies were taken by other people to good homes. It was a goodbye, but not forever, knowing that somewhere his fluffy friends were happy and in homes with children who could snuggle them properly.

With Koi Koi, Chanyeol learned responsibility, going as far as to build her a small little house, forbidden from letting her into his bed, getting and making her ferret treats, and taking her for walks. Koi Koi was Chanyeol's princess for years, the Queen of the small ferret club he joined in middle school.

Then, when Chanyeol turned fourteen, Koi Koi stopped eating the strawberries Chanyeol gave her, and she slept all the time, became to weak to run around on her leash. Before the end of term that school year, one morning Chanyeol woke up to give Koi Koi breakfast and Koi Koi didn't wake up. She never woke up.

Chanyeol, until that time, didn't understand what loss meant. It wasn't like his friends flushing dead fish down toilets and it wasn't giving away Kakashi and Dobby to his neighbors, it as losing someone important. It hurt, enough that Chanyeol kept crying and didn't know how to stop even when he wasn't sure why he was still sad. It was a small hole in his chest that wouldn't get filled no matter how many pieces of cake he ate or how many pokemon he captured on his gameboy.

Koi Koi was gone, only living on in his memories, and Chanyeol learned what it was for something important to him to die. At first, he didn't really understand, but slowly he learned that as he grew older, he needed to let go of things and move on to the things that were still there.

Koi Koi was gone, but Yura was still there, and Kibum was just down the street to play. His parents and grandparents were still there, his friends and his teachers and his rilakkuma bears to watch over him at night and keep away the monsters.

It hadn't been easy though, and Chanyeol learned early that he didn't do well with letting go of things, that it always hurt. Yura said it was because he loved things too much, too intensely to really let them go when he made them a part of himself. His mother told him the world needed more boys like him, who loved with all their hearts and wanted the world to be a better place for everyone. The world needed more people to be that loving and caring and generous with themselves, to be the lovers, not the fighters.

It had helped, cleared away some of Chanyeol's tears for years until his heart grew too big for his chest again and he gave it away. Again and again he kept losing things, people, pets, objects, and stood at his grandmother's funeral in silence with a face that wouldn't stay dry. "It'll be okay," people he barely knew told him and his family and Chanyeol just nodded and thought about everything he still had instead of everything he lost.

He smiled, even if his face was too wet and itched with salty tears. He smiled and thought about everything that was good from the people, things, and places he lost. They made him smile, even if they hurt, he didn't want to let them go. Letting them go would be like forgetting them, and Chanyeol never wanted to forget them, so he smiled and told himself when he got home that he'd keep them alive in himself so they could all be happy.

When Chanyeol graduated from university, his grandfather had purchased him a laptop as a graduation gift. It had been the last year that Chanyeol had with him before he passed away, and Chanyeol had taken it to travel with him the summer before he started working full time. He'd used it to call his grandfather over a video call and tell him about the world he was seeing so his grandfather could see it with him, even from the confines of a nursing home bed.

Two years ago, the computer had nearly been lost to him in a fire caused by one of Baekhyun's attempts to use the microwave for s'mores. Chanyeol has been trying to keep it going as best as he can since then, but sometimes has to remind himself not everything lasts.

"Everything has a life span," Han says, sighing as he accepts Chanyeol's laptop carefully when he hands it over. "Even computers. They die just like plants and cows and people. And stars."

"Thanks," Chanyeol says with a sigh, sinking down onto the couch. It's a Saturday, and he'd woken up this morning to check his email to find his computer wouldn't start up. After multiple attempts to revive it, he'd finally managed to get it to register one action: a blue screen. "I feel so much better knowing that you can allude that humans are the same as stars."

"We're basically made of star dust, honestly," Han continues, walking with Chanyeol's computer to the living room coffee table and setting it down. "I mean, technically everything on Earth is all made from star dust. It's all just the remaining chemicals and minerals and periodical elements that all came into existence billions of years ago when the first stars formed." Han shrugs at Chanyeol, like this was general knowledge, before walking to his room to get his own computer gear.

"Isn't he just wonderful in the morning?" Victoria sighs, dropping into the open armchair beside Chanyeol, a large mug of coffee cradled in her hands. "My only mercy is that Baekhyun never gets up before ten in the morning, and then he still takes two hours to reach full functioning."

"Keeps you healthy?" Chanyeol asks, smiling at her.

"Sane," Victoria corrects, taking a sip of her coffee. "The word you're looking for is sane."

"Really, it's kind of cool," Han says, striding back into the room carrying his laptop and a few cables and other various computer stuff. "I mean, think about it, we're all made of space stuff."

"Riveting," Victoria says dryly over her coffee.

"I think it's pretty amazing," Han says, shrugging as he begins to plug in his many devices and powers up his computer. "I mean, is it any wonder we're all fascinated by the stars?"

"Please, go on," Victoria hums, curling up in her chair and closing her eyes.

Opening up Chanyeol's computer, Han looks up, his eyes bright and gleaming as the little pony tail holding his bangs off his face wobbles. "We're all looking into our history, our origin, and we're looking home when we look up at the sky at night!"

"So we're all aliens?" Chanyeol asks, not really sure why they're talking about stars when he just wants his computer rescued.

Frowning, Han deflates, flopping back to the coffee table to sit cross legged in front of the computers. "You don't get it," he states rather than opens for discussion. "Everyone I know has such a small mind to the greater wonders of the universe."

"The only alien we know is the one we live with," garbles a familiar voice from behind Chanyeol. "He's trying to fix your computer," Baekhyun says with a lethargic hand gesture at Han before he collapses himself onto the couch beside Chanyeol. "Hannie, phone home," he warbles.

"And you call me the alien," Han grunts under his breath.

"I'm just teasing, I love you," Baekhyun mumbles even as a wide grin spreads over his face. "Every weird centimeter of you."

"Compliment not accepted," Han says, shuffling himself closer to the computers and quickly tacking away on the computer keys. "So, what's the deal, Chanyeol? Why are you working with a model that's seven years old when I know you could afford a new one?"

"Why get rid of something if it works?" Chanyeol answers, shrugging. Watching Han, he doesn't really want to admit to holding such sentimental value in the computer.

"Yeah, I can agree with that, but Chanyeol," Han turns the computer around, "this definitely doesn't work." The computer screen is bright blue, with a few flickers every now and then. Chanyeol swallows, biting down the soft flutter of remorse. "Why not just let it go rather than come to me to raise it from the crypt?"

"That computer and I have been through a lot," Chanyeol tells him, hoping not to get into details. However, Han immediately looks up at him, his eyes bright and focused as he studies him with almost unnecessary detail. Then he's shuffling up, pushing to his socked feet and standing.

"Want some coffee?" Han asks, looking at Chanyeol.

"Yes, please," Baekhyun half whines.

"Get it yourself, I was talking to our guest." Han sticks his tongue out when Baekhyun makes a rude hand gesture in his general direction. "Coffee?" he asks Chanyeol again, a slight jerk of the head to the kitchen.

Years ago, when Chanyeol had become close with Minseok and been introduced to Han, Han was awful at making coffee. It as only after years of being around Minseok and his aspirations to open a coffee shop after his sports injury that he make something worth drinking. He stands in his bright red pajama shorts and a white teeshirt sipping a cup of freshly made coffee, watching Chanyeol keenly.

"What's up?" he asks, keeping his voice down. "And don't lie to me. I spend too much time around Minseok to be fooled about when people are hiding things from me. And I'm not afraid to hit you if you don't tell me. What is it? Did you forget to back up your porn collection or something?"

Choking into his coffee, Chanyeol sputters, coughing as Han watches him completely unfazed by his own blatancy. "No," Chanyeol says, shaking his head and putting down the coffee before he almost chokes again. "I- it was a gift." Han nod slowly. "From my grandfather. He gave it to me when I graduated and before he passed away." Han's eyes soften a little. "He left me other stuff but-"

"-but this feels like you're keeping a part of him alive," Han finishes for him, and smiles gently over the rim of his coffee cup. "I get it."

"I also am not sure I backed it up last week," Chanyeol tells him, trying to lighten the topic.

"I'm sure I can figure out a way to rescue this from it's last shaking legs," Han says, clapping Chanyeol on the shoulder. "Though really, it's amazing that it's lasted this long. Usually computers give out after about four years. Yours still kicking it this long is pretty impressive."

"I wasn't aware computers have life spans," Chanyeol hums.

"Everything has a life span," Han sighs, leaning against the kitchen counter. "You, me, this planet, your computer, and our entire galaxy. It's just how you look at the time, and how you let yourself think about it. Sometimes the time for that life span comes early, and some times it goes a bit too long."

"Is this what you tell your customers?" Chanyeol asks, taking another sip of his coffee.

The light chuckle from Han is enough to have him smile just a little. "Nah, I'm much more gentle and less worldly when I talk to them. Usually their loss is something more drastic than a computer, the whole a lot bigger." Chanyeol hums, leaning against the counter as well. "Makes it really hard to forget everything has an expiration date."

"It doesn't bother you?" Chanyeol asks, never having really asked Han in all these years. Usually, talking about his job just gets him trying to gross people out about all the stuff he does. Redressing people after they've been carved up for organ transplant donations is usually his favorite topic and usually clears out a room in under ten minutes. But Han's been doing this for years, and doesn't seem to want to change careers despite how gruesome some aspects are for it.

"Not really," Han says, taking another sip of coffee. "I mean, it's a good job, I meet a lot of people, hear a lot of stories, and get to do all the science stuff I loved back in university. Except now I'm not just stuck in labs and text books, but figuring out how to make it easier for people to say goodbye."

Staring down at the cup of coffee in his hands, Chanyeol wonders what that's like, to do something meaningful every day. Of course, people pay Han to do what he does, spending thousands of dollars for him to make their dead friends and family passable for burial, but Chanyeol's pretty sure it's not always about the money. If it were all about the money, Han would have done only commissions and wouldn't do most of the forensics he does.

"Of course, I didn't really know how to explain that when I got into the job," Han says, shrugging and putting down his coffee. "Then I just thought it was really ballsy to be around dead people all day and not freak out about one of them possibly rising and trying to eat my brains."

"How many times has that happened?" Chanyeol asks, watching as Han's mouth spreads in a horrible grin.

"Never, at least while I'm on duty," he admits. "Though I can say nothing for the guys that work the overnight shift at the morgue. They keep pretty closed mouthed though."

"Thank you for the nightmares," Chanyeol teases, clapping Han on the shoulder.

"It's what I'm here for," Han grins. "That and computer support."

"I still don't get why you don't just open up a computer business with all the freelance you do," Victoria comments as Han waltzes back into the living room with Chanyeol in tow. "I mean, you love it, so why hang out with the dead and crying people all the time?"

"Maybe I like crying people," Han says, plopping down in front of his computer set up again. "You know, maybe they make me feel at home and I know in the computer world I'd just get angry people. I dunno about you, but I'll take crying people over angry people any day."

"What do your freelance customers rank under?" Victoria asks, mouth quirked in a smile.

"Both, usually," Han explains, leaning over Chanyeol's computer and beginning to fiddle with it. "Like Chanyeol here. Crying and nice and needing computer help."

"I'm not crying," Chanyeol points out.

"Yet," Han says, glancing up. "Do you need me to hold your hand while I work on this? For reassurance?"

"Would you?" Chanyeol asks, half serious and adopting a dopey countenance.

"Sure," Han says, shrugging and stretching out an open hand to Chanyeol.

"He charges extra for that, though," Baekhyun says, walking back into the living room, carrying a coffee and slapping Han's hand vigorously. "Han's a real con man."

"Grief counselor in disguise," Victoria says as she stands. "Excuse me while I shower like a normal civilized human."

"You know, I think it's a lot of wasted potential," Baekhyun says, curling up in Victoria's vacated chair.

"What is?" Han asks, his eyes on the computer and tongue sticking out in concentration.

"Your hair," Baekhyun drawls and earns a loud snort from his roommate. "No, I'm serious, Han could go place."

"I go skiing for a week once a year, that's enough for me," Han grumbles.

"See? Wasted potential," Baekhyun says, looking over at Chanyeol.

"And what about you?" Chanyeol asks, taking the bait.

"I'm still working on my master plan," Baekhyun says, grinning as he shimmies further into the chair. "I'm thinking diplomacy. Maybe even presidential candidacy."

Chanyeol's snort of laughter is drowned out as Han positively explodes with loud half yelling laughter, completely distracted from his computer repair work to laugh directly at Baekhyun. "Bull shit!"

"No, seriously," Baekhyun says, grinning at both Han and Chanyeol. "I have your votes, right?"

"Maybe when the sun explodes," Han scoffs, still laughing as he turns back to his computer fixing.

"It'll happen," Baekhyun says, taking a big gulp of coffee. "And I'll win. Chanyeol will be my campaign manager, so I can't lose."

"You mean Vice Presidential candidate," Chanyeol corrects and Han snorts into laughter again as Baekhyun raises his coffee mug in cheers.

"We'll be unstoppable," Baekhyun says loudly before finally bursting into laughter once more.

It's another two hours and a basket of ordered chicken wings before Han finally sits back with a loud sigh and a smile. "You owe me," he says, looking up at Chanyeol with slightly reddened eyes.

"I know," Chanyeol tells him honestly, carefully accepting his computer back from his friend. "Thank you."

Han smiles, grabbing one of the last pieces of chicken and saluting him with it before tearing into it with his teeth. For all of his strange antics, he's actually always been there, as a friend and someone to help. For years, even in university when Chanyeol first met him, Han has been looking for things to do that are more than for just him. Of course, he's been a bit obtuse about it since he introduced himself as 'future biochemist Han' to Chanyeol over drinks with Minseok, but he's always tried for more than just the bare minimum.

Han has always known what he wanted to do and how he wanted to go about his life; had that clarity somewhere in him even if he wasn't sure what it was for. He's had that meaning.

It pulls at Chanyeol as he travels home, thinking over the conversation he'd had with Han over and over. Thinking of the people in his life and himself in general.

Han has meaning in his work, focusing on helping people even in his free time with his hobbies and what he's good at and loves to do.

Sighing and tipping his head against the cool glass of the subway windows, Chanyeol wonders what it is in his life that brings meaning.

His family? The charity and volunteer work he does? The work at the magazine where he keeps getting blocked from writing the articles that he wants to? That will matter?

Is it the people in his life? His friends? Co-workers?

Or is it watching a young boy's delighted smile as he does the voices of different Pororo characters on a Thursday afternoon?

The cool glass of the window against his forehead has Chanyeol exhaling in a long sigh, breath fogging the glass as he tries to think through the rushing in his ears and the soft sounds of the subway.

*

It comes as a surprise when a little over a week after Chanyeol had officially met Sehun for the first time, he gets a timid phone call near the end of work from Jongin. Hanging up the phone, Chanyeol doesn't realize he's smiling until Jongdae calls him out on it with an accusatory squint.

"Seriously," Jongdae says, slouching back in his chair and swiveling in it. "What's her name?"

"It's not a girl," Chanyeol says, blowing off his friend as he returns to an article on the intricacies of frying food.

"Oh?" If anything, Jongdae sounds more interested and Chanyeol internally groans, wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut. "What's his name."

"Peter Pan," Chanyeol says, grabbing a name out of his head and smiling a bit at the loud scoff from his friend.

"You're no fun," Jongdae grumbles, grabbing one of his many half filled coffee cups and crouching over his keyboard.

"Of course not," Chanyeol says, smiling at the thought of a Saturday morning filled with Sehun's laughter and Jongin's warm brown eyes. "No fun at all."

It's not too hot when Chanyeol walks out of the subway station towards one of the city parks. It's one of the larger parks, closer to the downtown area, clean and well maintained for the city, for everyone. Chanyeol, despite having been here for a number of years, still hasn't spent a lot of time here, usually at the parks up in the northern districts closer to home and the quieter manicured gardens. It's still relatively deserted when Chanyeol enters the main gates, the earlier hours probably scaring off most of those who would visit the park. Of course, not much of the city is up and out before nine in the morning on a Saturday.

A loud shout has Chanyeol turning as he looked around for a familiar pair, and he barely catches sigh of Sehun before the kid is skidding to a stop in front of him. He wobbles, letting out a little yelp, before tumbling into the grass at Chanyeol's feet and promptly rolling around, giggling loudly.

"Well, good morning to you too, Sehun!" Chanyeol calls, stepping back as Sehun practically bounces back to his feet.

"Chanyeol!" Sehun yells, arms stretched up over his head. He has grass bits stuck in his fluffy black hair and his cowlick sticks up proudly at the back of his head. "It's Saturday!"

"Yes, it is!" Chanyeol agrees, holding back a laugh as Sehun begins to hop around him, clearly jubilant.

"I. Love. Saturday!" Sehun finally finishes, grinning widely up at Chanyeol. "Hi."

"Hi," Chanyeol finally laughs, not sure if he should scoop up Sehun or just let him be, in case he starts jumping again.

"You're really tall," Sehun declares, tilting his head to the side. Blowing his hair out of his face, Sehun reaches up a hand to Chanyeol. It's so tiny in Chanyeol's hand when he takes it, Sehun's whole hand curled around just two of Chanyeol's fingers firmly as he tugs Chanyeol forward. Looking up to where Sehun is walking, Chanyeol catches sight of Jongin's smiling face as he stands under one of the trees near the park pond before Sehun starts speaking again. "How did you get so tall?"

"Milk," Chanyeol tells Sehun, looking down at the young boy. Sehun's face is all wide eyes and eager attentiveness. Jongin was right; he's adorable. "I drank a lot of milk when I was young."

"So," Sehun says, skipping a bit and tugging on Chanyeol's hand for him to hurry. "If I drink a lot of milk, will I grow as tall as you?" Looking up again, Jongin is almost laughing, his eyes dancing as he watches his son and Chanyeol. The light morning breeze ruffles his hair a little and his eyes crease up as he smiles, just like Sehun's do. Sehun only lets go when he's managed to tug Chanyeol to stand beside Jongin, and then only releases him after a few firm tugs, clearly telling him to sit down.

Following the cue, Chanyeol quickly sits onto the cool grass, feeling himself smiling already as Jongin sinks down next to him with a soft sight. "Maybe," Chanyeol says, scrunching up his nose at Sehun. "Though I don't know. Who knows, maybe you'll just turn into a cow."

The soft chuckle from Jongin beside him has Chanyeol feeling warm, a pleasant ripple stretching down to his toes even in the light breeze.

Sehun scrunches up his nose in mimicry, looking at Chanyeol and if Chanyeol had ever thought children couldn’t judge, he amends his statement with the look Sehun gives him right now. “Kids can’t grow up to be cows. Only calves can grow up to be cows. Or Bulls. I’m going to grow up to be a man, like my dad.” Sehun grins, stepping forward to loop his arms around Jongin's neck and lean in for a loose hug. “Except taller.”

“Are you calling me short?” Jongin asks, leaning away for his son until the both topple to the grass, Sehun letting out a little squeal as Jongin pokes him in the side.

“No,” Sehun says, letting out a little laugh. “I’m just saying I’ll be taller than you one day. You just wait, I’ll get so tall.” He looks over at Chanyeol. “Maybe even taller than Chanyeol.”

“No one is taller than me,” Chanyeol teases. He watches as Jongin rests a hand against Sehun's back, Sehun slumped to splay over Jongin's chest.

“Yes, they are,” Sehun says, giving Chanyeol another one of this pointed looks. “Don't try to be smart with me. I’m six now. I’m not a dumb kid.”

“Sehun is our family genius,” Jongin says, looking up at Chanyeol. His smile is so real, so unguarded, and he looks perfectly relaxed, the sun filtering through the leaves above them to light up his face in flashes of sunshine. Chanyeol can hardly relate this image to the one just a few months ago when Jongin had tears streaked down his face.

“I’m gonna graduate when I’m twelve,” Sehun tells Chanyeol, sitting up with determination and rolling off of his father.

“Really?” Chanyeol says, brows raised as Jongin props himself up on his elbows.

“Yep,” Sehun says, nodding purposefully. “I’m going to be a progidy.”

“A prodigy,” Jongin corrects him easily, reaching up and smoothing down the hair sticking up at the back of his head.

“That’s what I said,” Sehun says, tongue poking out as he leans away from Jongin's hand. “A progidy.”

Chanyeol bites his lip to hold down the laugh as Jongin’s smile widens. His eyes flicker to meet Chanyeol’s, warm and bright. A soft warm pleasant curl begins to grow in Chanyeol's chest, spreading down into his stomach. It's so nice, being out here on a Saturday morning just to relax and have fun, without the rushed schedule of an event or a schedule or a program.

"Well, you have to finish all your summer reading before you can graduate when you're twelve," Jongin says, giving his son a pointed look.

"I know," Sehun sighs, flopping back to the grass and beginning to tug at the green blades. “Can you believe my dad? He gave me summer reading.”

“You asked me for summer reading, remember?” Jongin reminds, a laugh to his voice as he reaches to try to smooth down Sehun’s hair again. “I very clearly remember-“

“Yeah, but you didn’t have to actually give me reading!” Sehun protests, scrunching his nose up at Jongin. “Or math. Plus, I don’t want to read all those kid magazines.”

“They’re important,” Jongin says with an air of light sternness. “We agreed you have to wait until you’re nine before you can read James Joyce.”

Sehun sighs, trying to pout but it quickly falls, a large smile spreading over his face as he looks at his father, a mirroring smile on Jongin’s face.

“James Joyce needs time to understand,” Chanyeol agrees, and gets a small almost hidden smile from Jongin, his brown eyes warm. “You should listen to your dad, I think he means business.”

“Dad always means business,” Sehun says and buries his hands into the grass beside his knees. “He says business is his middle name but I know it’s not. He just says that to sound cool.”

“I am cool,” Jongin says and Sehun bursts into a flurry of giggles that Jongin playfully scowls at. The image of the two of them has Chanyeol biting down a broad grin, a rising feeling filling his chest, too big and too bright and inexplicable.

A part of Chanyeol wonders if this is what they do every Saturday. A quieter, more fearful part of him wonders how often they can spend time together like this, with all of Jongin's work schedules and commuting.

"Hey," Jongin says, frowning and pulling Chanyeol's attention. He snaps his fingers once at Sehun and gives him a stern look. "What did that grass do to you?"

Looking sheepish, Sehun carefully puts down the small hand full of grass he'd just pulled up and pats it back into the ground. "Nothing," he answers in a small voice, a faint pout to his lips. "I'm sorry, grass."

"Thank you," Jongin says, sitting up fully and smiling as he reaches forward and smooths down Sehun's hair again. "We've been trying to be nice to the planet," Jongin explains, turning to Chanyeol as Sehun continues to pat the grass back to the ground. "We only have one planet, and we have to keep it clean and safe for everyone."

"Our children's, children's children's children's children," Sehun enforces, nodding with every word before he finally finishes and flashes a huge grin. "I started a garden for them!"

"I heard!" Chanyeol says, smiling as Sehun beams. "What did you plant?"

"Everything!" Sehun declares, throwing his arms wide and beaming. "That way, we can grow our own food and save the planet and make our own food."

"You're only planting vegetables and fruits?" Chanyeol asks.

"Well," Sehun says, flopping down beside Jongin. "We can't eat flowers, and I'll never grow up to be a cow so I'll never be able to eat flowers."

"Do you want to grow flowers?" Jongin asks, gathering Sehun into his arms and pulling him into his lap.

"Maybe," Sehun says, settling into his father's chest and picking at the hem of his slightly too large shirt. Jongin's smile fades a little as he looks down at Sehun. It flickers, Chanyeol wanting to say something but not knowing what. "But!" Sehun says, sitting up and turning to look up at Jongin. "I also want to grow tomatoes and peppers and everything else I already am growing!" He smiles, wiggling to stand up. "I'll grow flowers next summer, and they'll be the prettiest flowers in the world."

"Do you promise?" Chanyeol asks, smiling even if a small part of him aches faintly.

"No," Sehun says, and then grins. "But only because I'm not sure yet. I'll try my best though, and then show you, and you can tell me if they're perfect or not."

"Alright," Chanyeol agrees, laughing a little as Sehun gives a little whoop and dances on the spot. "I promise."

As Sehun skips off to go play in the wading area of the park's pond, Jongin sits up beside Chanyeol, letting out a soft sigh. "Are you sure you want to promise to still be around in a year? A year is a long time."

"I don't see myself going anywhere anytime soon," Chanyeol says, looking over at Jongin. The sun sends fragments of gold and brown through his black hair when it catches, the wind ruffling it. It looks so soft, just barely brushing the still too sharp lines of his face, features too thin even under the warm sunlight. "Besides, if it's to see Sehun's garden come to life, I wouldn't miss it."

Letting out a soft chuckle, Jongin shakes his head and finally looks at him. "Alright," he says, as if Chanyeol has just passed some sort of test with his answer. "He likes you," he adds, the light amusement and affection prominent in his voice.

“Really?” Chanyeol asks, the bright feeling that Sehun greeted him with, radiating from his little form, still lingering. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who could out talk me before.”

“He doesn’t usually talk to other people like this, only when it’s just the two of us or people he’s grown up with,” Jongin says, looking out to the pond where Sehun has barely gotten his toes into the water. Sehun stands there, little fists clutched in his shorts. He's balled them up to keep them from getting wet, staring down at the water as it laps at his feet. On the grass, his shoes are sitting left perfectly together with his socks bunched up inside, carefully waiting for him. It's such an innocent image, telling nothing of the world Sehun lives in, of the world Jongin lives in. “He keeps to himself when he doesn’t know someone and is a lot more shy. Sometimes you can’t get a word out of him.”

"Just like his dad," Chanyeol comments as Jongin's expression falters slightly in shock. He's reminded vividly of how wary and hesitant Jongin had been when they'd first met, his words seeming caged even as he spoke them, fearful to even leave his mouth.

"Actually, he usually takes a lot more after his mother," Jongin says, shaking himself slightly as he turns back to look at Sehun. He smiles, soft and sweet as he looks at Sehun as he begins to shuffle into the water, a wide grin on his face. "I swear, I see her in him more and more every day. He doesn't look a lot like me, far more like she did." It sounds almost like he's fading, mind elsewhere even as he sits solid next to Chanyeol on the warming grass. Jongin's eyes soften as Sehun kicks a spray of water and shrieks in delight. "She would have been happy, seeing how he's grown up."

It feels too close to ask, to pry for details, even if Chanyeol is curious and Jongin brought the topic up. Still, Chanyeol isn't sure if it's alright to ask any of the questions he's been wanting to know about Jongin that just grow in number every time he meets the other man. It's different, wanting to know so much about someone like this. With a slow breath, Chanyeol clears his throat, watching Jongin's softened form beside him and wets his lips. "What happened to her?" he asks. The question has tugged at him since he'd realized Jongin was raising Sehun alone back when he'd first had Jongin at his apartment. Jongin turns to him, his eyes clearing as if returning from another world, another time. "Is she still around?"

The wind rustles over the green around them, bringing with it the soft distant sounds of the traffic on the roads surrounding the park. It buffets Jongin's hair and rustles in the leaves overhead as Jongin looks at Chanyeol for a long while, watching him but his eyes not quite focused. "She passed away," Jongin answers finally, his voice faded. It sends a soft ache that builds faster than Chanyeol was prepared for in his chest. Jongin closes his eyes for a moment before he meets Chanyeol's gaze again. "When Sehun was about a year old, there was... an accident."

As Jongin swallows, Chanyeol pauses to try to process the information. It feels too raw, an open wound of information he hadn't fully been prepared to hear. He'd had his suspicions, since Jongin was clearly alone and had no one else helping him with Sehun, but still, he hadn't been expecting that. "So," Chanyeol says, his fingers brushing through the grass beside him. Sehun is six. Meaning - "It's been five years?"

The sigh that Jongin lets out sounds like he's been holding it for longer than five years, and the lines around his face look deeper than five years. In that brief moment, he looks more tired than he had when Chanyeol carried him to his apartment. "Just about," he says, voice soft before a phantom smile plays at his lips. "Since then, Sehun and I have just been the men of the house."

"And your family?"

Jongin's expression falters, darkens for a brief moment before it shift impassively, almost blank, closing up and shutting down. "They're not really around."

Chanyeol wets his lips, feeling too close but not close enough. It's so strange having Jongin talk like this, opening up when he still seems so guarded all the time, the only moments he's bright and those walls fade when Sehun is the subject. "Are they...?" Chanyeol beings, feeling a lump lodge in his throat.

"No," Jongin says swiftly, sucking in a breath. "They're- Well, they're back in South Korea, actually. Most of them at least." Turning to Chanyeol and seeing the look of latent shock and confusion on his face, Jongin offers a weak smile. "I moved here when I was in High School. I haven't gone back since, really."

"And," Chanyeol hesitates, but nothing about Jongin is telling him no so he plunges on before he can lose his momentum. "You don't miss them?"

"I-" Jongin pauses, his voice catching. Swallowing, he lowers his head, his gaze on his hands in his lap before he finally looks up again, looks out to Sehun, the young boy splashing about carefully in the wading water. "Going back home isn't really a great option for me." A soft flicker of a smile that looks more sad than happy passes over his face before he catches himself, and the smile fixes, the door to his world gently clicking shut. "It's better this way," his says, tone finite and certain before his lips press closed. They’re still chapped, slightly cracked and dry. Glancing down, Chanyeol can see his hands, twisted in the sleeves of his shirt too heavy for this warm weather, are rough and worn, no better than the last time he'd seen them.

Five years. Five years taking care of a son on his own with no support, mother gone and his a family halfway around the world.

Suddenly, the warm weather feels too cold and the full feeling in Chanyeol's chest turns heavy, pulling at him as he looks at the man beside him. "I'm sorry," he says before he can stop himself.

As if startled from a trance, Jongin turns to him, looking confused and surprised. “Why?” He doesn’t sound sad or remorseful. Instead, he just looks confused. “There’s no reason or you to apologize.”

“It’s an expression of sympathy,” Chanyeol says, the sentiment very strong at the moment as he looks at the man before him. He can’t imagine having a child, let alone raising one alone at a young age. If it were him in the same position, Chanyeol doesn't think he could do it. “People usually say is when they want to offer their condolences. About your wife.”

"She-" Jongin looks a bit surprised, blinking at Chanyeol before looking out over the park. "We weren't married, but-" he lets out a small laugh that sounds more like a cough. "She died five years ago, no amount of sympathy or remembering her in any form will change that." There is no bite to his words, just cold unemotional fact, though his expression softens when he looks at Chanyeol again. "But thank you anyway."

“For offering sympathy?”

“For not forcing it on me,” Jongin replies and smiles in a way that doesn't look forced or too brilliant or like the way he smiles at Sehun. The smile is more hesitant, quiet and gentle, much like Jongin himself, and Chanyeol feels some of the weight lift as he looks at Jongin beside him.

It's that smile that lingers, stays with Chanyeol for the rest of the day, long after he's said goodbye to both Jongin and Sehun, promising Sehun that he'd see them again when the boy asked. Sehun indeed seems to like him, trying to use Chanyeol's arm as a swing once before Jongin caught him and scolded both Sehun and Chanyeol. He'd looked guilty almost immediately after, and Chanyeol had cut off his apology before it could leave his mouth, earning a soft squeeze from Sehun's hand as it wrapped around his fingers tightly.

Next time feels more real when Chanyeol promises, and next time feels more vibrant and exciting when Chanyeol thinks about it over the rest of the weekend. It becomes a mantra in his head, spinning in between the other thoughts as the image of Jongin's soft simple smile and Sehun's laughter echoes behind his other thoughts.

It takes him a few days before he realizes he's smiling more, and it's the first time in a long time he doesn't stop himself or hold back. It spreads through him until all of him is as warm as the summer sun that hangs in the sky every day.

*

This week is another 'intense' week at the magazine when Chanyeol sits at his desk plowing through another set of articles to edit and trying to scrape together a few ideas to help his intern work on. They've been working fairly well together, the kid excited and eager to write and do whatever he can to prove himself worthy of writing about the nutritional benefits of ginger and ginseng. It's looking to be a much better article than his last catastrophe about nightshades that was, in all honesty, the worst article Chanyeol has ever read.

Even Junmyeon sent it back and ended up giving Jongdae the topic to write as a pinch effort, sending the writer into another coffee binge.

This week is looking much better though, and Chanyeol smiles without thinking as his phone goes off beside him.

It's kind of like his own personal secret, a small pocket of his world no one else knows about, where Jongin exists with Sehun's smiles and laughter. Chanyeol isn't really sure why he feels so protective of them, not telling his friends about Jongin, but a part of it is less because he feels strange about Jongin and more that he doesn't want people to pry. Seeing how Jongin looks at others, even if he's slowly relaxing around Chanyeol, makes Chanyeol feel oddly protective of him. While Jongin may talk to Chanyeol, give him half smiles and slowly be opening up to him with every little thing he tells Chanyeol about himself, he still shies away from touch, his eyes wary and guarded around others.

It's Chanyeol's small burgeoning friendship with him being so fragile that makes him want to keep it safe and protected from his friends. As much as he loves his friends, he doubts that running into someone like Baekhyun, who makes a point of touching everyone, would go over well. His friends are also notoriously nosey.

Like Jongdae, who keeps trying to trick Chanyeol into accidentally spilling who it is he keeps hanging out with instead of his ‘real’ friends.

Like now.

"Is that him?" Jongdae asks, as if now trained to the sound of Chanyeol's phone vibrating as he swivels around in his chair. He's taken to wearing his glasses again, the large frames almost too big for his face. It's another of his phases, just like he'd gone through a very serious 'bowtie' faze a year ago that Junmyeon delightedly supported. The glasses are inspired by Sunyoung, who, Chanyeol has heard, Jongdae is still seeing.

"Aren't you supposed to be working on that anthropology of Sichuan cuisine article?" Chanyeol asks, pulling his phone out of reach before glancing at the number. The small feeling of excitement fades slightly as he reads "Noizemaker" on the call screen instead of Jongin's familiar number.

"Yes, but is that him?" Jongdae asks, pointedly ignoring his computer. "You should introduce him to the rest of us, you know? It's rude to deprive us of your company all the time."

"Why bother? You see him all the time anyway," Chanyeol says, answering the call and bringing his phone to his ear. He smiles brightly at the shocked look on Jongdae's face as he says, "hi Baekhyun."

"You're dating Baekhyun?" Jongdae wheezes.

"Sup, loud mouth," Baekhyun smacks over the line, clearly answering the call while eating. "How's work?"

Shaking his head and grimacing at Jongdae to tell him 'no, absolutely not' to the preposterous accusation, Chanyeol leans back in his chair. "Not bad. About to go on lunch actually. You couldn't wait ten minutes?"

"I work lunch, Chanyeol, you know I can't call you when I'm working. Even my many talents have limits," Baekhyun sighs, almost exasperatedly and Chanyeol smiles. "Anyway, what are you doing this weekend? More specifically tonight, because it's a Friday and I haven't seen you the last few Fridays."

"You've been busy," Chanyeol reminds him, thinking back to the multiple texts he'd gotten from Baekhyun over the last few weeks when he'd asked to hang out. Every one of them was slight apologetic and mostly along the lines of 'I’m romancing~'.

"And now I'm not busy and I think we should hang out, make an event of it, you know?" Baekhyun almost sounds eager, bright and positive, reminiscent of how he used to years ago. "Is Jongdae there?"

"Listening in, actually," Chanyeol says, glancing at Jongdae who keeps frowning at him from across their desk connector. "Why?"

"Movies night. Men's movies night. Hard core action and glory and buttered popcorn," Baekhyun says. "You in? Ask 'dae if he's in too because if you say no I need a back-up plan."

"Do you want to come to the movies with Baekhyun and me?" Chanyeol asks, tilting his head to Jongdae. "He's crying, says he misses you but didn't know how to approach you first, so I'm his middle man."

"You're an asshole," Baekhyun tells him blithely on the phone as Jongdae's eyes widen. Then Jongdae is laughing, too loud for the floor and probably going to get a scolding from Junmyeon as Baekhyun continues, "but also a pal. I'll see you tonight?"

"We'll come pick you up after work," Chanyeol says, smiling as he ends the call with Baekhyun.

"So it's just us three?" Jongdae asks, voice still light from laughing. Chanyeol hums and Jongdae almost relaxes, letting out a sigh as he turns back to his computer. "Good, I just didn't know if he'd invited his roommates too or something." At Chanyeol's raised look, he gives him a withering stare. "What? You know what Baekhyun's like."

Still smiling to himself as he turns back to his article, Chanyeol lets out a slow sigh and figures that yes, he does know what Baekhyun's like.

*

It ends up that it is just Baekhyun, still reeking slightly of kitchen and food as he pulls open the passenger door to Chanyeol's car and demands Jongdae move.

"I'm his future brother, I get priority," Jongdae defends, shoving Baekhyun out of the car as Baekhyun attempts to sit on him. "Sit in the back with the other kids your age."

"You can't keep using that brother thing forever," Baekhyun warns, finally flinging himself into the back seat of Chanyeol's car. "Plus, I've known Chanyeol longer.”

"And Jongdae doesn't put his bare feet on the dash board," Chanyeol reminds, turning back out into traffic. "Did you bring us dinner?"

"You're lucky I'm so generous," Baekhyun says, plopping a large paper bag that smells of fresh burgers and fries into his lap and cradling it. "You two would starve without me."

"What would we do without you, Baek?" Chanyeol asks, smiling as he drives and tunes out the back and forth between Jongdae and Baekhyun. It would be easier to just have the radio on, the music drowning out the teasing remarks between the two, but Chanyeol has missed this. It's been a while since he really saw Baekhyun, and it still feels like slipping back into an old sweater whenever they get together. It's nice to have them all hanging out again, Jongdae a seamless addition to their circle of friends even if he'd only joined a few years ago.

They end up eating outside the theater while waiting for their movie, Chanyeol maintaining his car rules of 'no food in the car'. As Baekhyun flat out refused to ever use a full towel over his lap to make sure he doesn't make a mess, they end up eating the food he'd brought from his job on the picnic tables by the theater entrance. It's warm out, the summer evening pleasant as they catch up.

"So," Jongdae begins, tapping a finger on the edge of Baekhyun's hamburger wrapper. "What happened with the girl?"

"What girl?" Baekhyun asks, licking mustard off his fingers. "There's a girl? I didn't know anything about a girl."

"The one you were dating," Jongdae clarifies as Chanyeol hides a smile at Baekhyun's antics. "You know, the one you met outside the back of a club."

"Oh," Baekhyun says. "You mean the woman I was casually seeing." He sucks contemplatively at his thumb. "Didn't work out."

"No chemistry?" Chanyeol asks, looking sideways at Baekhyun beside him.

"She moved to Brazil," Baekhyun says, and his lips twitch in a grin. "Terribly sad, you know. It was working out so well and then she tells me that, tragically, she has to move to Rio to become a yoga instructor."

"A yoga instructor," Jongdae repeats.

"A relief effort," Baekhyun says. "Saving the world through breathing exercises and flexibility." He sighs, stretching his arms over his head as he looks between his friends. "I'm clearly heartbroken, but I had to let her go to follow her dream. You know?"

"You're a hero," Jongdae drawls, carefully crumpling up his burger wrapper. "Anyway, I'd offer to help you look for a new date and play wingman, but I'm taken."

"With your tennis instructor girlfriend, we know," Baekhyun almost grumbles, though Chanyeol catches a soft glint of relief in his eye. "How is she doing? Has she served you any balls yet?"

"Funny," Jongdae says dryly before sitting up a bit straighter and smiling. "She's actually really nice, though. She works with a lot of summer camps right now, helping kids learn to play and just got asked to be the team coach for one of the local high schools this year. I hope she says yes because she's really good." He smiles, poking at his french fries as Baekhyun relaxes on the bench. "She's been trying to teach me a bit but says I have two left feet."

"You do have two left feet," Baekhyun agrees, adopting a comforting tone as he reaches across the table and ruffles Jongdae's hair. "It's okay, with your duck lips, it all works out. What else does your chick do aside from save children and whack balls around all day?"

As Jongdae begins to ramble on and on about all the amazing hobbies Sunyoung, his now termed 'girlfriend', does, Chanyeol listens idly and asks a few questions of his own. As it is, he's mostly content to just sit and listen to Baekhyun and Jongdae talk, the two of them half bantering even as Baekhyun's smile spreads slowly as Jongdae talks.

It makes Chanyeol almost miss his own hobbies, still wanting to get out and hike with Junmyeon soon one of these days and remembering he's still promised Han to go to a game or two this summer. For now, it's pleasant just to sit and spend time with his friends, watching as Baekhyun begins to wheedle Jongdae to buy him popcorn for the movie and tease him.

"What about you?" Jongdae asks him suddenly, and Chanyeol blinks, pulled from his thoughts.

"What?"

"What is it that you and your new friend keep doing all the time?" Jongdae asks, and now earns Baekhyun's attention.

"I-" Chanyeol falters, trying to think quickly how to answer. He hasn't seen Jongin all that often, and even then they don't 'do' things specifically. It's more like sitting or meeting up and Chanyeol hardly imagines that watching Sehun throw stale crackers at ducks is a specific hobby of Jongin's. Though maybe it is. "I haven't really seen him that much."

"Who is this?" Baekhyun asks, eyebrows raised in intrigue. "Does Chanyeol have a secret person?"

"Just a friend," Chanyeol says, trying to quiet the topic even as his mind begins to spin back towards Jongin.

"Who he doesn't talk about," Jongdae elaborates. "Rude."

Before Chanyeol can defend himself, Baekhyun's voice answers for him. "We're allowed to have other friends besides you, Jongdae. Not all of us talk about our new 'people' until the listener's ears bleed from hearing the word 'tennis' and 'amazing' over and over again. My advice? Think up some new adjectives and buy me sour worms for the movie and maybe I'll forgive you for your abuse."

"Abuse," Jongdae repeats flatly as Chanyeol watches Baekhyun in mild shock.

"No one likes to hear someone talk so much about balls," Baekhyun says idly. "So, sour worms or a slushie, your choice, boyfriend."

"I'd go with the sour worms," Chanyeol advises, nodding to Jongdae. "You can't be sure if he'll accidentally spill the slushie on you during the movie if he gets excited."

Successfully distracted, Jongdae lets the topic go, instead satisfied to haggle over movie snacks. Relaxing as they wait for the movie to start, Chanyeol finds his mind wandering in between quips and jokes, wondering if Jongin would do this, what hobbies Jongin might have.

It's not been that long, but Chanyeol realizes he's never asked Jongin what kind of things he likes to do, the things that make him happy. It's hard to imagine that he has a lot of time for stuff like hobbies with all his jobs and with Sehun, but still, Chanyeol wonders what kinds of things he enjoys doing.

It isn't until they're seated in the dark of the movie theater watching the lights dim as the movie starts he wonders if this is the kind of thing Jongin would do. It doesn't seem like it though, and he can't imagine Jongin to be the type to sit in the dark of a movie theater. It might be nice though, to perhaps find out what kind of movie he does like, whether it's romantic comedy or action, like the movie they're watching tonight.

"You okay?" nudges Chanyeol from his thoughts as the credits being to show on the screen. Glancing beside him, he catches Baekhyun's sidelong look and curious eyes shining in the dark.

"Just fine," Chanyeol tells him, an honest smile on his face. "Thanks," he adds, for more things than just the check in.

Jongin is his secret, the part of his life he's not ready to share with anyone yet. He's not even sure he even has the ability to share something he barely knows he has or not, Jongin still just barely in his world.

"Anytime," Baekhyun says, and gives him a warm smile as he reaches over and gently bumps his fist against Chanyeol's hand. When he winks teasingly, Chanyeol relaxes tension he didn't know he was holding and curls his hand into a fist, bumping back quietly in the darkness.

*

The cafe is almost completely deserted. It's a stunning establishment, the tall glass windows that fold together to open up the cafe to the street outside, welcoming to the warmer weather and passers by. Of course, it probably is murder on the electricity bill for the lost air conditioning, but it's makes the small cafe look welcoming and pleasing to those wandering in the sunlight. The cafe itself is spotless, warm browns and creams covering the walls with slate gray fixtures spread around, small splashes of color in the mounted vases on the wall filled with flowers.

It's tastefully done, clean and modern with an edge of home in the wrought iron fixtures and the plush chair cushions, the original photographs and artwork that are displayed along the walls. At the bar, Minseok is talking to his newest employee, a young woman this time, teaching her carefully how to prepare the various drinks on his menu. The bar that surrounds the counter is littered with trinkets, gifts from patrons and the hand written menus hanging from the walls behind the counters and coffee machines in pleasant curling letters.

The air, still holding the crisp reminder of morning, is heavy with the scent of coffee and the green of the trees lining the street outside.

Across the table from Chanyeol, Jinri is sitting back, dropping her fork to her small plate with a contented sigh. "This," she says, carefully wiping her mouth with her napkin, "wasn't necessary. You didn't have to bribe me to come out here and play with you today."

"Consider it an apology breakfast," Chanyeol tells her, smiling over his morning latte, the milk sweet with cinnamon. "For not seeing you in so long."

"For that, you don't need to buy me breakfast," Jinri laughs, her voice pretty as it floats through the cafe. "You just need to hold still long enough for me to land a few punches." She smiles, her eyes dancing as Chanyeol winces, exaggerating a pained look as he clutches a hand over his chest.

"Resorting to physical abuse? My poor heart," Chanyeol gasps at her, and Jinri scoffs, raising her water to her lips. "Besides, is it so bad to want to treat you to breakfast?"

"No," Jinri says. "Though you have to be careful, or I'll start thinking you're trying to copy Junmyeon and want to whisk me off my feet."

Chuckling and putting down his silverware, Chanyeol fixes Jinri with an amused smile. "Jinri, I know better than to try." Jinri laughs, one eyebrow arching. "Besides, you know you're practically my little sister."

"Did I just get sibling-zoned?" Jinri laughs, her long hair brushing over her shoulders. Grinning, Chanyeol sits back in his chair, watching his long time friend. "I don't know if I should be amused or offended."

"Amused," Chanyeol tells her. "It's an honor to be related to me. Anyone would be lucky to be my family. Look at Jongdae, who's already planning our family weekends and he's not even the one marrying my sister."

Jinri's eyes dance. "So it's official?" she asks, voice curious.

Sighing, Chanyeol looks down to his plate. "Not yet," he admits. thinking back to the last time he'd talked to Yura. So far as he knows, Jongdeok still has yet to pop the question, and his sister is acting oddly hesitant to talk about it. It makes Chanyeol wonder if something is happening, but pushing Yura about it doesn't appeal to him, especially when he doesn't want to upset her. If he knows anything about his family, his mother is already pushing enough for the whole family and Yura doesn't need it from him as well.

"I don't know who will be more disappointed if he doesn't end up asking then," Jinri sighs. "Yura or Jongdae."

"You mean my mother or Jongdae," Chanyeol corrects before he can think better of it, and swallows at the look of latent surprise that spreads over Jinri's face. "Kidding," he adds, flashing her a smile to push away from the topic. "Anyway, is this enough? Do you forgive me for forgetting about you?"

"You know you didn't have to treat me to breakfast to apologize," Jinri reminds, standing with Chanyeol to leave. "And no, you're not really paying. I just let you think you were because I knew you'd argue with me before we ate, and arguing is terrible for digestion."

"Which one of us works at a food magazine, again?" Chanyeol asks, giving her a pointed look as he pushes away her wallet. It's been their plan for the last week. It's been weeks since he really hung out with Jinri, not like they used to, back when he'd first gotten to know her while she and Junmyeon were still dating. They'd become friends after, and Chanyeol still thinks of her as something of his little sister from how she'd finally smiled again with him when things ended with Junmyeon.

It's been their long standing tradition to go yard sailing once a month, just to look around and play, goofing off and joking on a random Saturday. It's been a few months since they managed to go, and Chanyeol has missed her.

"That doesn't mean I want to argue over who has to pay during my breakfast," Jinri points out, trying to nudge Chanyeol out of the way as they approach the counter, smiling at Minseok as he steps up to the register. "Minseok, please don't let him pay for both of us, and tell him he's being ridiculous."

"You're being ridiculous," Minseok immediately tells Chanyeol. "You know better than to argue with Jinri."

"It was supposed to be my treat," Chanyeol tells him with a small frown. "She's ruining my treat."

"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself," Jinri says, handing over her card to Minseok. "You can buy me lunch, how about that?"

"You heard the lady," MInseok says, smiling as he runs the card through. "Besides, I think lunch is more intimidating than breakfast, truthfully. I’ve seen how much Jinri can eat."

"Yes, but-" Chanyeol sighs, handing Minseok his card to cover his own bill. He frowns, feeling his phone vibrate in his pocket and digging it out, half ready to cancel the call before he catches sight of the number and stills. The number flashing on the screen is Jongin's, the digits long ago burned into Chanyeol's mind, and a soft lurch in his stomach has him stepping back.

"Chanyeol?" Jinri asks him, her eyes darkening in concern as Chanyeol almost listlessly takes his card back from a curious looking Minseok.

"Yeah, um," Chanyeol says, stepping back and feeling that soft lurch tighten. "Hold on a second?"

It's just beginning to warm up when Chanyeol steps outside of the cafe, answering the call and wondering what Jongin is calling him for. "Jongin?" he answers, bringing the phone to his ear.

"Hi, Chanyeol." It's not Jongin on the phone but Sehun, his voice a little distorted through the phone but entirely recognizable. Instantly, that feeling in his stomach morphs into something stronger and he stills.

"Sehun?" Chanyeol asks, trying to keep any worry out of his voice. It could be nothing, but then why would Sehun be calling him? Jongin only has his number, and Chanyeol can't imagine Sehun calling him for any reason, unless... "What's up? I didn't know I'd hear from you today."

"Not a whole lot," Sehun says, sounding calm and not at all upset, which is marginally reassuring. The weight in his stomach still doesn't abate though, and Chanyeol resists the urge to start pacing. "I think my tooth is loose," Sehun continues, "I can wiggle it with my tongue and it keeps moving around in my mouth."

As casual as Sehun sounds, it's still Sehun calling him, which doesn't help to calm the tightening in his stomach as Chanyeol tries to focus. "Really?" Chanyeol says, trying to keep his voice bright even as he checks where his car is parked a few blocks away. "That's so cool!"

"Yeah, I can play with it with my tongue and it’s kind of weird but kind of cool at the same time."

"I don't get loose teeth anymore," Chanyeol tells him. He almost startles out of his skin when he feels a light tap to his shoulder, turning sharply to the concerned face of Jinri. Quickly, silently, he shakes his head at her. "They all fell out."

"But you still have teeth," Sehun remarks, as if making sure that Chanyeol hasn't been lying to him and has premature dentures.

"Yeah, they all grew back," Chanyeol explains, smiling as best he can at Jinri's increasingly confused expression. "But they only grow back once."

"So," Sehun draws out the vowel. "After this one falls out, another one will grow instead?"

"Yep!" Chanyeol replies, his voice light and energetic, contrasting the curl of anxiety in his chest. Where is Jongin? "But only once. So you have to be careful. No jumping off of cars or eating doors.”

“I thought so,” Sehun says, as if Chanyeol’s elaboration isn’t strange. Though Sehun makes similar elaborations, so really it’s like speaking his language. “I didn’t think I was like a shark who have like, I dunno, ten bajillion teeth or something. Anyway,” he coughs, “can you come over?”

"Over?" Chanyeol repeats, and an icy slick slides down his throat. "You want me to come to your house?" he clarifies. It's been a few months since Chanyeol met Jongin, and he's never been to Jongin's home. He gets the impression Jongin doesn't want him to visit, keeping his home outside of their small relationship, where Chanyeol has yet to have permission to open that door to his life.

"Yeah." This time, there is a note of hesitancy in Sehun's voice, like he's not sure if what he's doing is actually okay. It makes the weight in Chanyeol's stomach intensify, crawling up into his chest to gnaw at him. "I need some help with something."

"What about your dad?" Chanyeol swallows down the crawl as it hikes up into his throat. Beside him, Jinri steps back, her eyes wary but respectful.

"Well, dad is kind of sick," Sehun reveals, and a bit of the anxiety in Chanyeol's chest abates. At least Sehun isn't alone. He lets out a low sigh of relief.

"He's sick?"

"Yeah, he has been for a few days, but today he didn't get up for work." Chanyeol's chest tightens again in worry as Sehun continues on the phone. "And I wanted to make him some tea and soup or something to help, but I'm not allowed to use the kitchen stove without an adult and uncle Xing Zhang doesn't answer his phone on Saturdays and Uncle Taemin is never awake this early and-"

"Okay," Chanyeol says, the rising worry in his chest deciding for him as he cuts off Sehun. "Of course I'll come over. Do you need me to bring anything?"

"Well," Sehun says, and the hesitancy is back, curling the worry tighter in Chanyeol's chest. "I don't really know what's wrong, but I think we're out of the red syrup we usually have for coughs and he's been coughing all night."

"All night?" Chanyeol frowns. Turning to Jinri, he quickly mouths 'I'm sorry' to her. She immediately shakes her head, waving a hand to him and mouthing back 'no, it's fine,' as Sehun lets out a loud sigh that crackles over the phone.

"Well, he got home late last night, but he slept on the couch. I think he was trying to keep me from getting sick and waking me up, but-"

"That's okay, Sehun," Chanyeol says, quickly fishing his car keys from his pocket and flashing a grateful apologetic smile to Jinri. "Why don't you just tell me where you are, and I'll come over as soon as I can with some cough syrup and then we can make your dad some tea so he feels better? Sound like a plan?"

"Are you sure?" Sehun asks, and the note of concern in his voice is heavier now, unveiled. It sends a stab of worry straight through Chanyeol.

"Absolutely," Chanyeol tells him firmly. Trying to put a smile into his voice that he can't feel, his throat is too tight and anxiety crawls up through him. "I'll see you soon, okay? You just hang tight."

"Thanks, Chanyeol," Sehun says. His soft little voice sounds so relieved Chanyeol finds himself almost biting back the sting in his eyes he knows means tears.

"I'm sorry," Chanyeol says, ending the call after Sehun finishes telling him Jongin's address and turning to Jinri. "I have to-"

"Yard sailing can wait another weekend," Jinri cuts him off, a wide smile on her face as she looks at him. "Plans change, and it's fine. Maybe I'll call up Junmyeon to drag him out with me, bring back old memories." Catching his breath, Chanyeol closes his eyes and wills the fear that grips into his chest to abate as Jinri steps forward and reaches up, tugging him into a tight hug. "Good luck," she says.

"Thank you," Chanyeol tells her, before turning and running to his car, his heart in his throat.

*

Baker Hill is nothing like Highland Circle. The buildings are all stacked on top of each other, the windows all have bars fixed on them and the streets are narrow and with cracked sidewalks. Up along the sides of the buildings are lit signs, displaying advertisements for establishments. Bars, pawn shops, stores, trade in centers, small shady mini cafes, and everything else that could squeeze into the small spaces between buildings is hiked up to glow when darkness falls. It sends a chill down Chanyeol's back as he hurries between the stalls of street venders all placed up and down the sidewalk, calling for his attention.

Car parked a few blocks over in a public lot that may or may not charge him a small fortune later, Chanyeol is puffing for air, having jogged the way here, his phone clutched in his hand with the GPS open. A part of him is tempted to call Sehun, just to make sure of the address, but he knows that won't help things. If anything, it might wake up Jongin.

In the forty minutes since Sehun called him to ask to come over, Chanyeol hasn't had a phone call from Jongin. Hopefully this means he's still asleep and not that Sehun isn't telling his dad Chanyeol is paying a surprise health visit.

With a paper bag full of cough syrups, throat lozenges, and a few bottles of tylenol, zinc, and decongestants, Chanyeol finally sees the building Sehun told him he lives in. It's not as tall as the others around, wedged in between two larger structures and looking worn down and ragged. All along the street, wires crawl up the sides of the buildings, strung across the street like webs. This building has a pawn shop on the first floor, the windows dirty and a small door to the side that leads into what are clearly the apartments above.

Swallowing down the slightly sick feeling in his throat at how dilapidated the building looks, half ready to fall apart, Chanyeol slips to the side door and checks the names listed. In the slots for the fourth floor, in apartment 4C, the name 'Kim J.' is scribbled in a shaking hand. The stairs creak as Chanyeol climbs them, the shouts and noise from the street hardly diminishing as he makes his way up to the fourth floor in dim light and stale air.

4C is located near the end of the hall, one of the corner units and there's a paper tacked to the door with a list of various ‘to do’s. The nameplate reads the same as the downstairs: 'Kim J.'

Taking a deep breath, Chanyeol raises his hand and knocks gently, hoping not to be too loud but loud enough for it to be heard. Even on the fourth floor on the side Chanyeol knows doesn't face the street, it's loud, the sound of cars passing and people talking in the street echoing down the hall. He almost jumps when the door in front of him opens, and quickly looks down.

Looking up at him, squished in the space between the wall and the door, Sehun looks up at him with a finger pressed firmly to his lips. Giving Chanyeol a very firm "shh," Sehun opens the door for Chanyeol to walk inside. The twisting in Chanyeol's stomach is worse, almost painful as a stitch intensifies in his side. He's still slightly out of breath from jogging, but it feels like his air is being stolen as he takes in the front hall of the apartment and tries to hold back from choking out a dry sob.

The inside of the apartment looks like the outside of the building, old and vaguely falling apart, the paint peeling from the walls where fading wallpaper doesn't cover, its edges curling. There are patches of the ceiling that are open, the pipes exposed and Chanyeol can see the towels neatly wrapped around them to keep them from dripping on the worn wooden floor.

Tearing his eyes from the state of the walls and the hall, Chanyeol looks down at Sehun and smiles. It shakes but as the boy looks up at him, Chanyeol fixes it in place. This is Sehun's home and Chanyeol can't look down on it or act like it's bad. It's personal, and Chanyeol knows that even if the sudden shock of seeing what Jongin lives in is overwhelming him, he can’t show that.

Chanyeol imaged a lot, but not this. It makes it hard to breathe without shaking.

"Is he still sleeping?" Chanyeol asks, keeping his voice to a whisper as he crouches down to Sehun's level. Carefully, he takes off his shoes, placing them neatly by the front door beside Jongin's shoes and Sehun's little sneakers.

"On the couch, so we have to be extra quiet," Sehun says, looking up at Chanyeol with a sudden wide smile. "Thanks for coming over. You got here so fast."

"Of course I did," Chanyeol says, smiling at Sehun's grin as he ruffles his hair, getting a soft giggle. "You can always call me if you need something, Sehun," he says, sincerely, his chest aching as he looks at the young boy before him and just wishes he could do more. "I'm so glad you called me."

Sehun positively beams up at him, his eyes creased up into little smiles of their own, before he turns, pointing down the hall. "Daddy's asleep in the living room, so we have to be really quiet when we go to the kitchen."

"Okay," Chanyeol tells him seriously, and takes Sehun's offered hand to guide him through the apartment. They pass what appears to be the bathroom and a storage closet on the right, the main door ahead of them half opened to a dark room, before Sehun tugs him through a door on the left. It places them in the main room of the apartment, as far as Chanyeol can estimate. On the left is a kitchen area, sparse but clean, looking used well past its years and in desperate need of an upgrade. On the right with all the lights off is an open room that Chanyeol assumes is the living room. There's a few second-hand lawn chairs propped up with blankets draped warmly over them, a large table that looks heavily salvaged, and a beaten couch.

On the couch, curled up under a few blankets, is the lumpy form of Jongin, his back to the room. He looks small, curled up and tucked into himself. It sends a deep, intense ache into Chanyeol's chest and he quickly bites down the sting in his eyes as he notices the glasses of water on a small table by the couch, a plate of toast half eaten and forgotten beside them.

"How long has he been sleeping?" Chanyeol asks when Sehun tugs him into the kitchen. Sehun keeps glancing into the living room towards Jongin, looking anxious about him waking up and pattering around on his tippy toes, silent as a mouse.

"Since breakfast," Sehun answers, whispering a little loudly as he looks up at Chanyeol. "He called into his job and said he couldn't come in this morning but he hasn't moved all day. I don't know what kind of bug he has, but he looks gross. You can go see for yourself if you want, just don't wake him up."

"I promise I'll be quiet," Chanyeol says, offering Sehun a reassuring smile. "Before I do, can you do me a favor?" Sehun nods enthusiastically, his eyes shining in eagerness. Digging into his pocket, Chanyeol pulls out his notebook and a pen, handing them to Sehun. "Can you write down a list of the food you want? I know your dad is sleeping, but I bet we could fix lunch for him before he wakes up. What do you think we should make?"

"Soup!" Sehun whispers excitedly, bouncing a bit on his toes as he grips the paper and pen with a huge grin. "Okay! You go see if he's okay!"

The initial shock of the apartment slightly numbed, Chanyeol takes a deep breath and walks into the living room, careful to keep quiet. Despite the floors being worn and old, they're clean, almost impeccably so. The couch is certainly salvaged but has been patched up, and the lawn chairs are almost cozy with their blankets and a few pillows once Chanyeol gets over the fact that they are, in fact, lawn chairs. There's a small one, presumably for Sehun, sitting just to the side of a bookshelf that's packed with worn books that look suited for children.

On the couch, Jongin is curled up, a few blankets wrapped around him as he sleeps. His black hair sticks up, slightly matted but poking out like a tuft of fur from his cocoon of blankets. Even in the summer heat, he's wrapped up like it's the middle of winter, a slight shiver in his shoulders every few moments. It makes him look frail, the faint light streaming in from the large windows on the far wall emphasizing the grey pallor of his skin and the sunken dark circles under his eyes. He looks like he hasn't slept in weeks, and his nose, mostly tucked into blankets, is pink, as are his cheeks.

Carefully, so as not to wake him, Chanyeol crouches down to check his forehead. It's hot, his skin clammy with a clear fever, and he gives a slight shiver at the touch. A soft sound, almost like a whimper, curls up from his throat and Chanyeol bites his lip to keep the wash of pity at bay. Withdrawing his hand, Chanyeol gently reaches to tug the blankets up closer around Jongin's shoulders, tucking him in before he quietly unpacks the bag of medicines he'd brought, laying them out beside the glasses of water on the small table.

Vaguely, Chanyeol knows it's too much, the swarm of feelings in his chest all battling for attention as he looks down at Jongin's curled up form. It digs so deeply, this visual of Jongin, the reality of Jongin, and Chanyeol knows he wasn't ready for it. Chanyeol could have known Jongin for another year and he probably wouldn't be ready for this, the bars on the windows and the echoes of trucks and yelling that filter in through the walls. Nothing would have prepared him for looking down at this man, a man he calls a friend and wants to know, and seeing his world in the raw. The stained walls, the beaten furniture, the plastic stuffed into cracks in the windows, it’s all more than he would be ready to see.

It's too close, and Chanyeol knows if Jongin had a choice, Chanyeol wouldn't be here, possibly ever. Despite that, he's glad, even if he's overwhelmed and wants to cry for the man curled up with a fever on the couch in front of him. He's glad to be a part of Jongin's world and to know, to really see him and hope that he can understand. The door into Jongin's world has literally just been pried open and Chanyeol wasn't ready for what's inside, but that doesn't mean he wants to leave. His heart, still beating fast from running earlier, beats hard inside his chest, throat thick as he looks down at the way Jongin's eyelashes rest against his flushed with fever cheeks.

Sehun has his tongue stuck out in clear concentration when Chanyeol tip toes back to the kitchen, hunched over the note pad and gripping the pen with obvious intent. On the paper is scribbled in big childish letters 'Chickin, Carots, Onions, Rise, Chocolat, Apples, Te' and Sehun looks up almost nervously before he smiles. "Okay?"

"Why don't you go and get your shoes on and I'll write a note for your dad so he knows where we are?" Chanyeol suggests quietly, smiling down at Sehun. Sehun nods excitedly before scampering away, hopping almost silently through the small apartment to the door at the end of the hall and disappearing inside what Chanyeol assumes is a bedroom. There's only one door, which has his stomach churning before he pushes it deep down.

They leave a note on the table beside the couch, waiting for Jongin when he wakes up. Sehun insists they use his favorite cup, a pink sparkly cup with starfish painted on it, to make sure the note doesn't blow away from a window breeze. Keeping a firm grip on Sehun's hand, Chanyeol makes sure Sehun has a key and they lock the apartment before he lets the boy tug him out of the building. According to Sehun, there is a grocery market a few blocks over that is 'okay.' Sehun apparently knows this because he talks to the old men who play chess outside it every Sunday and the grannies who work in the bakery always give him free cookies when he goes with Jongin.

"It's a huge place!" Sehun says, and hops a bit as they step onto the street. Though as they walk, he sticks close to Chanyeol, keeping his voice down and eyes watchful, ducking closer as they pass by some establishments, especially the bars and some of the pawn shops. It makes Chanyeol nervous, seeing him so quiet and timid, almost defensive, like Jongin is around others, as if where he lives is threatening.

Chanyeol isn't stupid, he knows what this area of the city is like. It's not quite the 'slums' but it's close to it, the living conditions none too great, and after seeing Jongin's home, he can't help but worry about Jongin and Sehun both. He's still shaken, his breaths still stuttering a bit as he lets the area sink in and he catches sight of some of the windows and the hard looks of the people around them.

Almost as soon as they get into the grocery store though, Sehun is jumping from Chanyeol's side and grabbing for one of the grocery carts. "Chanyeol!" he exclaims, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet as they walk through the doors to the market.

"Sehun!" Chanyeol answers, smiling down at the brilliantly excited look on Sehun's face.

"Can you cook?" Sehun asks, and holds onto the metal side of the grocery cart, walking alongside Chanyeol easily. "I mean, enough to help me make soup? I don't actually know how to make soup, but I really think it would be good for daddy because he’s sick. And I like soup, even if it's hot out."

"What would you like to eat for dinner then?" Chanyeol asks, watching as Sehun begins to look around at the various produce. The market isn't that large, nothing like the huge shopping centers in other parts of the city, and it certainly looks like the prices are more affordable. The produce doesn't look perfect, but it looks fine and healthy.

"Pudding!" Sehun says, and grins up at Chanyeol as if expecting him to either laugh or roll his eyes. Chanyeol ends up laughing and Sehun's grin widens so all of his little teeth show.

"I don't think we can have pudding for dinner, Sehun," Chanyeol tells him, reaching out and grabbing a bag of onions for the cart. There are a few basic soup recipes he knows, but some that are staples for sick days. Jongin might not be happy finding out Chanyeol is buying him groceries again, but Chanyeol isn't about to let Jongin protest, not when he's clearly so sick. Not when he sees everything for the first time. Not now that he knows. "What about spaghetti?"

"Oh," Sehun says softly, his eyes widening. "Can you make it with the canned sauce? Or do you want to get the jars? We should just get the sweet one, because the spicy one isn’t as good and it makes my mouth hot."

"I make my own sauce," Chanyeol says calmly and Sehun gapes at him. "Tell you what, I'll teach you. You can be my kitchen helper and help me get food today so we can cook together." Sehun puffs up his chest and nods excitedly, chattering as Chanyeol walks with him around the produce section and picks up ingredients.

It isn't until Chanyeol is grabbing for a fresh bunch of bananas that he notices it. Sehun is frowning at him, having taken up residence sitting in the cart like captain at the front of his ship. Barely a moment has gone by before Sehun is ducking down, glancing warily at Chanyeol, and taking the bananas out of the cart, swapping them for a smaller bunch.

Pausing, Chanyeol looks at the young boy who looks startled that Chanyeol noticed him. "What are you doing?"

"The bananas you got were seven cents more," Sehun says, pointing at the bunch Chanyeol had picked up. "These are better."

A small piece of Chanyeol's heart breaks as he looks at the boy standing almost defiantly in the cart. "Sehun," he begins, taking in a deep breath. "It's okay to get the other bananas." It shouldn't be like this, where a six year old is bargain hunting for food to eat and comparing prices. That's the kind of things adults do, and the fact that Sehun is meticulous about seven cents is...

Chanyeol feels sick and slightly weak, watching as Sehun begins to rattle off the other things he swapped out because Chanyeol picked the 'wrong one'. "I liked the tomatoes I picked," Chanyeol says, reaching for the bunch of organic tomatoes he'd placed in the cart earlier.

"But daddy always buys these," Sehun says, holding up a different bunch that's cheaper and unpackaged.

Sighing, Chanyeol smiles as best he can around the cracks in his chest and lets Sehun choose the items he wants. Which Sehun does, over and over and over, arguing with Chanyeol on almost everything before Chanyeol plucks him from the cart and lets him choose a few things on his own. It's as amazing as it is heartbreaking, watching as Sehun compares produce with meticulous detail over price, quality, and looking at the price according to volume over individual price. He’s better than many adults Chanyeol as seen shop conservatively.

But Sehun is six, and he's already exhibiting tactics that most adults don't understand when it comes to buying economically. It hurts, even as Sehun is clearly proud and excited as he displays his talent at finding cheap and viable options for foods.

They end up getting enough ingredients to make the soup, at least a breakfast or two, and a spaghetti dinner before Chanyeol looks up in the meat produce section to realize Sehun is missing. Panic flooding him, Chanyeol turns around, ice in his veins, before he notices Sehun hiding just at the corner of the cart and a newly arrived package of cookies resting atop the box of spaghetti. Sehun, the image of innocence, is looking anywhere but towards the cookies.

"Sehun," Chanyeol calls, placing a package of ground beef into the cart beside the cookies. Sehun looks up at him, his eyes wide and shining in feigned innocence. "Do we need to get milk?" Chanyeol asks him, and Sehun looks delighted as he nods, clearly thinking he's gotten away with his sneaky cookies.

It's when they're by the milk that Sehun barely argues over what they get, his attention instead drawn to another cooler. For a moment, Chanyeol doesn't realize why until he sees the stacks of pudding cups on the shelves. Without hesitating, Chanyeol pulls open the door of the cooler and grabs two boxes of the pudding, one vanilla and one chocolate. Smiling, he places both in the cart before looking over at Sehun, whose eyes are huge and his mouth hanging open.

"For being such a big help," Chanyeol tells him, warm with affection as Sehun looks up at him in astonishment.

"But-"

"It'll be fun," Chanyeol tells him. "A special treat after all our hard work today. We'll eat one each after spaghetti tonight."

With a pleased smile that positively beams, Sehun looks fit to burst as he looks down at the pudding cups. Then he gasps, hops up and snatches the package of cookies, and makes to run back into the aisles before Chanyeol catches him. "Keep them," he says to Sehun's surprised guilty eyes.

"But-!"

"We'll get them for your dad," Chanyeol says, smiling at Sehun's shock as he places the package of cookies back into the cart.

"But," Sehun continues. "Daddy doesn't even like cookies." Chanyeol raises his eyebrows, looking down at Sehun in surprise. "He doesn't buy them and we only have them on holidays. Otherwise they're banned."

Burying the growing ache, Chanyeol lets out a soft laugh, reaching down and plucking Sehun from the ground and into his arms. "I think he likes cookies, Sehun," Chanyeol says, settling the boy on his hip as he wheels the cart towards the registers.

"Really?" Sehun asks, his arms looping around Chanyeol's neck to hold on.

"Everyone likes cookies," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles at Sehun, earning a bright grin in return.

The apartment is still quiet when they get back, Sehun holding onto Chanyeol's hand even as they walk back into the unit, keeping quiet. Jongin has barely moved on the couch and while Chanyeol carefully unpacks the groceries and sets them on the counter for cooking, he watches as Sehun creeps up to check on his father. Carefully wedging himself onto the couch, Sehun curls up near Jongin, petting his head and checking him over.

It's so sweet, the care and concern Sehun has for his father, quiet and gentle as he makes sure Jongin is alright before he patters back to Chanyeol in the kitchen. "Can I help?" he asks immediately in a loud whisper.

They make the soup first, Sehun carefully adding water to a large pot as Chanyeol cuts up vegetables and handles the raw chicken. Sehun keeps smiling, excitedly asking questions about what Chanyeol is doing. They're both wearing aprons, a small child sized one for Sehun that is bright pink with a picture of Ariel from 'The Little Mermaid' on it and a white slightly stained one for Chanyeol, clearly Jongin's.

Sehun tells him in loud whispers all about his first year of school, what he learned, his friends, his teacher, about their neighbors, the things he reads in his books, and the plots of about seven pororo shows he has on tape. He's so excited, talking back and forth with Chanyeol and it makes Chanyeol smile. Sehun is a bright boy, not just in his energy, but he’s smart, too. He's already reading at a level much higher than his age and clearly does math in his head with ease.

With the soup done, Chanyeol gives them a break, sitting Sehun down at the table with a glass of milk and a few slices of apple to rest.

"Do you want to see my radio?" Sehun asks, sitting up on his knees on the chair, excitement in his voice.

"You have a radio?" Chanyeol asks, sitting down beside him with his own glass of milk. Jongin is still asleep on the couch and hopefully will stay sleeping until the soup is done. While Chanyeol knows medicine can help, the best cure for sickness is rest, and if he knows Jongin, he needs rest more than anything.

"Yep!" Sehun chirps, hunkering down a moment later with a quick glance towards Jongin's still form on the couch. "I fixed it all by myself," Sehun finishes in a half whisper. "It took me a while, but it finally works!"

"You fixed it?" Chanyeol repeats, dull shock spreading through him. Sehun is six.

"It wouldn't work," Sehun says, poking an apple slice into his mouth. "I found it on the street on trash day with daddy and he let me take it home and told me I could keep it if I fixed it."

"What was wrong?" Chanyeol asks, mind wandering to faulty batteries and trying to envision Sehun repairing the complicated wiring in the mechanism of a radio.

"Someone," Sehun says, scrunching up his nose before he takes a big gulp of milk. "I don't know, probably the first person who owned it, I think they had a candle on top of it, because the inside was all covered with wax that dripped through the speaker opening. So I cleaned it out and fixed the wires in the back and plugged it in and it works just fine!" Sehun grins, wide and proud at Chanyeol's shocked expression.

"You did all of that?" Chanyeol asks, flabbergasted. He hadn't expected anything quite like Sehun's answer, but, truthfully, he's begun to think that he has to stop expecting anything from Jongin and Sehun and just live with being shocked by them perpetually. Whether the shock is good or bad will just depend, but he decides no more expecting of either of them.

"Yep!" Sehun says, biting into another apple slice happily. "Daddy told me I had to do it on my own, so I did. Now it works and we finally have a radio to listen to music with."

"What kind of music do you listen to?"

"I think my favorite is Mozart, but I also like when they do kids classical hour and teach us about all the classical composers," Sehun says, and Chanyeol starts quietly laughing. "What? Do you not like Mozart?"

"No, it's just-" Chanyeol tries to breathe, tries to figure out how to fully respond to a child who is brimming with such vastly unexpected responses. Sehun, who insists on pink things and fixes radios and loves pudding and Mozart and sticks his tongue out at dark green vegetables. "You're really amazing, Sehun."

A beaming smile spreads over Sehun's face and he perks up in his chair. "I know," he says, and looks positively delighted.

After washing up, Sehun curls up beside Jongin on the couch to read one of his books as Chanyeol goes about cleaning up the kitchen. Truthfully, the kitchen is quite clean and organized, something which Chanyeol is finding holds true of all of the apartment. The equipment may be old, but everything is kept in good condition, the burners of the stove spotless and the faulty drawer in the fridge carefully mended with plastic cement and tape. Chanyeol almost feels afraid to touch too many things, worried he might mess up the mindful care that each item has seen under Jongin's hands. Watching Sehun through the day, the boy demonstrates the same carefulness and mindfulness, washing his cup and plate after finishing his milk.

It's about an hour after he's put the soup on, as Chanyeol is cutting up a few vegetables to add to it that he hears a sound from the living room. It's just around noon, and the heat from the day is spilling into the apartment, making his shirt stick to his back and finding almost no relief from the rickety oscilating fan in the living room that Sehun had clicked on. Putting down his knife, Chanyeol turns to look into the living room, watching as Sehun shifts off the couch as Jongin moves, pushing himself up with a soft groan before he lets out a horrible sounding cough.

"What time is it?" he croaks, his voice ragged and scratchy, hair sticking up on one side of his head. Even from the kitchen, Chanyeol can hear him. It's only a few steps from the kitchen into the living room anyway. He looks exhausted still, squinting and blinking rapidly. "Why-" he stills, looking up and frowning. "Sehun?"

"Hi, daddy," Sehun says, smiling and reaching up to pet Jongin's head, smoothing down his hair like Jongin does to him so often. "Are you feeling better?"

Jongin lets out a soft stuffy sigh and blinks up at his son. "Yes, thank you. What's-"

"Chanyeol is here," Sehun says, still patting Jongin's hair gently even as Jongin stiffens and Chanyeol feels a nervous jump in his chest. "I asked him to come over because I'm not allowed to use the stove alone and I wanted to make you tea. We went to the store and got things and now he's making soup for us for lunch because you’re sick."

Slowly, Jongin softens, reaching up himself and smoothing a hand over Sehun's hair, giving his son a tired smile. "Thank you," he says. "You did the right thing." Sehun visibly relaxes and smiles, leaning forward and giving his father a hug.

With Sehun's arms still around his neck, Jongin scoops his son into his arms and stands up, wobbling slightly, and turns to the kitchen. As his eyes meet Chanyeol's, that nervous jump quickens and he nods timidly towards Jongin, waving a little bit. Jongin coughs again, the sound racking through him even as he tries to smile to Chanyeol, shuffling towards the kitchen wearily. He's still in what looks like his clothing from the day before, shirt rumpled and one sock on, but he doesn't frown at Chanyeol like he's unwelcome.

"Chanyeol is really good at making soup," Sehun says, leaning away from Jongin and looking over at Chanyeol from his father’s arms. "And he even got us pudding! He also brought you medicine, daddy, so you feel better."

"That's very nice of him," Jongin says, smiling at Sehun, putting his son down when Sehun wiggles a bit. Standing up, voice clogged and face still slightly flushed from fever, Jongin looks at Chanyeol and says clearly, "thank you."

There’s a lot not being said, in the flickers in Jongin's tired eyes, in the tightness of his voice and the way he appears to be holding himself back. This isn't how Jongin wants Chanyeol to see him, to see his home, to be here in his life, but he's not pushing him out. The door has already been opened and it's not going to close. "You're welcome," Chanyeol tells him sincerely, smiling with hoping Jongin understands that he doesn't care if this is Jongin's home, if this is what his life is, Chanyeol isn't going to think of him differently.

He'll think more carefully, maybe, but Jongin is nothing less in his mind. If anything, he's more.

It's like water, the fluid way that Jongin and Sehun move around each other, chatting and checking in. Jongin is hesitant around Chanyeol, as if he's a sudden unexpected rock in their river of routine. At first, he almost bristles when Chanyeol steps in, getting down bowls for the soup and helping, but he stops, eyes wide and slightly wary as Sehun continues to talk about Beethoven and his symphonies.

The soup is better than Chanyeol had thought it might be, and he sits with Jongin and Sehun as they eat together, Sehun smiling in delight as Jongin sips the tea he picked out. He'd asked Chanyeol specially if they could get it, carefully sounding out the description on the back for how it helped colds. Jongin carefully swallows down a few pills, sniffing a bit and his voice still heavy and raw sounding.

"Daddy!" Sehun chirps, half way through his soup. "Can I show Chanyeol the radio?"

Jongin lets out a scratching laugh, quickly fading into a cough that he covers with a napkin before looking back at Sehun with a tired smile. “Yes, you can show Chanyeol the radio. You were the one who fixed it, so it’s technically yours.”

“But it’s also part of the house,” Sehun says, looking over the table at Chanyeol, as if trying to tell him something. “So it’s ours. It’s ‘the radio’, not ‘Sehun’s radio.’ Duh.”

“My apologies,” Jongin says softly, though he's smiling, looking a bit more alive. “I didn’t realize we had specific names for things.”

“Honestly,” Sehun says with an exaggerated sigh as he scoops up another spoonful of soup. “I have to do everything sometimes.”

“The real man of the house,” Chanyeol says, glancing at Jongin and catching his gaze. It startles him a little, to have Jongin watching him, before he remembers he's not here on Jongin's invitation, but Sehun's.

“No,” Sehun says and the firmness in his voice is a little surprising. “Daddy is the man of the house. I’m just the one who takes care of things when he’s not here.”

"So that's why you called me," Chanyeol replies, voice teasing even as realization dawns over him. It seems like so much responsibility on such a little boy, and yet Sehun doesn't carry it as a burden. If anything, he looks proud of his position in the house. “So what does that make you then? If you’re not man of the house?” he asks Sehun, offering a playful smile.

“Second Lieutenant,” Sehun answers with a proud jab of his thumb to his chest, grinning delightedly. “You can be my soldier.”

“Why can’t I be a General?” Chanyeol asks, his eyes flickering to Jongin as he sniffs loudly. “I think I’m a bit more important than a regular soldier.”

“You have to work to rise in rank,” Sehun says with a pointed look. “So far, you’re just an entry level footman.”

“Is that so?” Chanyeol smiles as Sehun spouts information he’d never expect a child his age to be aware of.

“Yep,” Sehun says, holding his spoon tightly in his hand. “Maybe you can become a General later.”

“And here I was thinking helping make lunch and supper would help me rise in position." He sighs, noticing Jongin's confused frown directed at him across the table. "Do I have to win in battle?”

“No,” Sehun says, glancing over at Jongin. “Just beat me or daddy in Chess.” Chanyeol’s eyebrows raise. “But he’s the best, so you’ll never be the man of the house like him.”

Jongin’s mouth is turned up in a smile, hidden from Sehun as he scoops up another spoonful of soup. Chanyeol watches him as Sehun pushes himself out of his chair to get more milk. Jongin looks a bit more relaxed, less jumpy though his face is still tired, wan from sickness and where the skin isn't pale, it's tinged with red from a lingering fever.

Jongin startles, nearly jumping out of his chair when Chanyeol reaches over the table impulsively and presses the back of his hand to Jongin's forehead. Eyes wide in shock, Jongin draws in a sharp breath before he realizes what Chanyeol is doing. The skin of his forehead isn't nearly as hot as it had been a few hours prior, and Chanyeol gently presses his lips together at the warmth, his eyes meeting Jongin's over the table.

He looks almost nervous, like he wants to say something and call Chanyeol out for coming over like he had, or explain away the apartment, or, bitterly, apologize for it. Chanyeol swallows, watching the flickers in Jongin's eyes and feeling the warmth from his skin crawl up his arm from his fingers in a soft tingle.
At least the fever has dropped, and after lingering a moment too long, Chanyeol let's his hand fall, half formed questions sticking his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Trying to breathe through the returned weight to his chest, Chanyeol drops his eyes to his nearly empty bowl.

Finally, one of the questions pries itself away from the roof of his mouth and he wets his lips before asking, “you play Chess?”

Looking up, Jongin is still watching him, the confusion on his face fading a bit before he lets out a mix between a laugh and a cough. “Don’t sound so surprised,” Jongin says, sitting back. Placing his spoon into his empty bowl, Jongin sighs and runs his fingers through his hair, pushing it off his face where Chanyeol had just touched. "Sehun, please finish your soup. And put the pudding cup back, we save those for special dessert treats, remember?"

“See? I told you he doesn't like fun foods,” Sehun tells Chanyeol as he hastily tucks the pudding back into the fridge before returning to his place.

"Well, then those cookies will just be for you then," Chanyeol says easily and earns Jongin's head snapping towards him with wide eyes.

"Cookies?" Jongin asks in a startled croak. "You got him cookies?"

"It's just a treat. The package is resealable and you can freeze them so they won't spoil," Chanyeol says, trying to sooth the shocked expression on Jongin's face.

"And we never have cookies!" Sehun says, finally eating his last spoonful of soup before cowering at Jongin’s sharp look. "It was Chanyeol's idea."

For a long moment, Jongin stares at Chanyeol, the mixed look in his eyes swimming with things Chanyeol doesn't understand but wants to. Every time he sees Jongin, every time he's let more into his life, the more he wants to know, and the more Chanyeol likes Jongin. Taking in a long breath, Jongin lets out a shaking sigh and turns to Sehun. "Aright," he says, voice scratching a little as Sehun immediately whoops in delight. "But only for super special occasions."

"Thank you!" Sehun crows, hopping off his chair to scurry his dishes to the sink.

Catching Jongin's eyes, Chanyeol sees the smile in them, directed towards his son before it shifts and fixes on him. "I don't usually get him treats like cookies," Jongin admits, his voice low and hoarse, but gentler, less guarded.

"I figured you could both use a treat every now and then," Chanyeol says, and reaches out carefully across the table to gently brush his fingers against Jongin's. They twitch, pulling away for a moment before they still and Jongin doesn't move, just lets Chanyeol try to reassure him, to tell him he's there. "You know, I did give you my phone number so you could call me," he reminds and Jongin's eyes flicker up to his. "For anything."

Jongin's throat works as he swallows, and Chanyeol almost thinks he'll say something before he turns away and falls into a violent fit of coughing.

It takes a fair bit of arguing between Chanyeol and Sehun to get Jongin into bed after that, the other man refusing to sleep in his bed with pointed frowns at Sehun. Sehun wins though, finally telling Jongin he can't show Chanyeol his radio if Jongin is trying to sleep on the couch. It will be too loud.

The bedroom is dark, darker than all the other rooms. At first, Chanyeol doesn't understand why but when the light clicks on, the realization settles in a sickening roll in his gut. The windows are not only barred, but are covered in cardboard, fixed over the glass to keep out the light Chanyeol is sure pollutes the room at night from the street and shop signs. The only opening is where a small window fan spins, circulating the stuffy air of the room gently. Pushed against the far wall is a large bed, the mattress and box spring propped up off the floor on piles of what looks like books. The bed itself is made, a small cluster of stuffed animals on one side and spotless on the other. Other than the bed, there is only a small beat up dresser and a few crates positioned as tables with lamps on them to illuminate the room.

Chanyeol swallows as he stands in the doorway, holding the blankets Jongin had been curled up under on the couch, and looks at the bed Jongin and his son share. The bedroom is cramped at best, and Chanyeol knows the stale air in here can’t be the best for Jongin’s cold. It's so little, and Chanyeol closes his eyes and reminds himself not to expect anything but just accept, to keep letting Jongin and Sehun surprise him. Jongin lets out a soft cough as he sits himself on his side of the bed, laughing weakly as Sehun pounces on him to push him to lie down.

"Alright, alright," Jongin says, catching his son and rolling them both onto the bed to Sehun's sudden giggles. "I promise to rest only if you promise to be good with Chanyeol."

"Chanyeol already thinks I'm amazing," Sehun proudly informs his father, shuffling to sit up and look straight at Chanyeol.

"He does?" Jongin asks, propping up to look at Chanyeol. "What did I tell you about letting him have power over you?"

Shrugging, Chanyeol smiles and walks over to the bed, placing the blankets by Jongin's legs. "What can I say, I was powerless to him in the end. Just like you."

"Daddy, I like Chanyeol, can we have him come over all the time?" Sehun sighs, flopping back into the bed and looking up at his father.

"Chanyeol can't come over all the time, Sehun," Jongin says, his voice sounding more tired as he looks down at Sehun. It's scratchy and he starts coughing again, leaning away to cough into his sleeve.

"Why not?" Sehun asks, rolling away and off the bed to look up at his father.

With a swift almost pleading glance at Chanyeol, Jongin looks at Sehun heavily.

"Because I have to do other things," Chanyeol answers before Jongin has to. "I have other people I need to make soup for," he says, smiling as Sehun looks up at him with a pout. "But I promise, if you call me, I'll always be happy to come over and see you and your dad."

"You should come over all the time," Sehun sighs, blowing his bangs up off of his face. "I like having you around, and Daddy does too even if he's being shy and doesn’t talk about it a lot."

"Sehun," Jongin says sharply, his voice catching and he stutters into coughing a moment later, his cheeks blossoming pink.

"Sehun, why don't you go get your dad a glass of water?" Chanyeol suggests, resting a hand on Sehun's shoulder to guide him from the room as Jongin's coughs intensify. It takes a long while before Jongin's coughing abates, the rattling hacking still sounding bad, like whatever virus he's picked up is settling into his chest. "Jongin."

"You didn't have to come over today," Jongin says, his voice rough and his eyes closed. "I know Sehun called you but-" he coughs dryly, shoulders shaking with the force of it. "Really, you went through all this trouble and-"

"Because I wanted to," Chanyeol says succinctly, and Jongin sighs, his eyes still closed as he sags on the bed, his head falling into his hands. "Jongin, I was the one that said I would come over when Sehun called."

"Why?" is so soft Chanyeol almost doesn't hear it, muffled into Jongin's hands.

"It's hard to resist Sehun when he's telling me about his loose tooth," Chanyeol jokes, and earns a startled laugh from Jongin that dissolves into a cough. A flicker of movement catches Chanyeol's attention as Sehun slinks back into the room, holding his pink cup with the starfish and with his eyes wide. He mouths 'radio' and nods towards the living room exaggeratedly before handing Chanyeol the cup and giving him a double thumbs up before slipping away.

"I can't believe he's already losing teeth," Jongin sighs, his voice thicker. "He's growing up so fast, and I want to capture every moment of it, but I just-" His voice catches, followed by a few thick rough coughs before Jongin lets out a long shaking sigh, shoulders slumping as he curls into himself.

"You're doing your best," Chanyeol tells him, cradling the cup of water in one hand and reaching with the other hesitantly. Jongin flinches, jumping as Chanyeol tentatively rests a hand against it, just a simple touch, trying to give some sort of support. This time, similar to the table, Jongin doesn't pull away. "And what you are doing is more parenting than I’ve seen a lot of parents, who are in a much different position than you, are capable of.” Jongin stays silent, slightly stiff under Chanyeol’s touch even as he keeps his hand against his back. He swallows. “There's nothing more that anyone can ask you to do that what're you're already working so hard to do. You're giving him a home, a world where he feels loved and he can learn and be who he wants to be. I don't think even I knew the difference between Mozart and Beethoven when I was his age, and he's-" Jongin lets out a soft shaking breath, and Chanyeol watches as his shoulders shiver, quaking under his touch. "You have a right to be proud of such a wonderful son."

"I don't understand," Jongin says, his voice raw and shaking. Chanyeol knows the sound, he's heard it before from Jongin, the thickness of his voice and the shaking. Carefully, slowly, he begins to rub small circles over Jongin's back, not quite sure if he should pull away, but not wanting to. Jongin needs someone, just as much as Sehun clearly needs him, and maybe, Chanyeol could at least be someone for him right now. He wants to be there, if Jongin will let him.

"What? How Sehun is so amazing?" Chanyeol asks, smiling at the sick man beside him who shivers under his touch. “I can think of many other ways aside from those I just said.”

"No," Jongin says thickly. "You. I don't understand why you're here. This is- you’re not supposed to be here, and you shouldn’t be, but you are and you’re not leaving and I don’t understand why." Slowly, carefully, he raises his head, keeping his face lowered as his hands wipe at his cheeks, coming away wet. Chanyeol swallows down a throat too thick to speak as he continues rubbing small circles over Jongin's back, waiting for him to calm down from crying.

"It's like I said earlier. Because I want to be," Chanyeol tells him, when Jongin finally sits up enough that he raises his face. Chanyeol keeps his hand resting against Jongin's back, secure and determined. "I like spending time with Sehun. I like spending time with you, no matter what the cost." Jongin blinks at him with eyes rimmed in red and a nose stuffy and rosy as his still slightly fever flushed cheeks. It would only take reaching out to pull Jongin into his arms, to hug him and perhaps protect him just like how Chanyeol keeps him protected and quiet from his friends, safe and away from harm and prying eyes.

It would too much though, and even as Chanyeol's fingers itch to wrap Jongin close, instead they only reach up to brush his hair from his face.

Jongin watches him, his dark eyes flickering between too many emotions Chanyeol doesn't understand and doesn't want to pry at. "That's two sets of groceries now," Jongin grates out, voice even more ragged. “Two sets of groceries, food, child care, and-”

"I'm sure you'll figure out something to pay me back with. You’re creative, just like Sehun, and I trust you to work something out," Chanyeol says absently, and he shakes his head when Jongin’s eyes widen and his mouth opens in protest.

“I don’t-!”

Arguing with Jongin, especially now when he's sick, will do nothing. Instead, Chanyeol just settles to let his hand rest on Jongin's shoulder, silencing him and smiling a bit stronger when Jongin doesn't move away. His eyes flicker for a moment before he, ever so slightly, moves into the touch. "For now, just worry about getting better, you can’t do much for anyone if you’re sick.” Jongin lets out a soft cough at that, his eyes fixed on Chanyeol, flickering between wary and dark. It catches at his breath. “Worry about repaying the favors another day when you're not struggling to breathe through your nose and talk without coughing. But for today, rest, and I'll come get you when dinner is done."

"Dinner?" Jongin parrots, frowning at Chanyeol suddenly and shifting, Chanyeol's hand slipping from him to flop to the bed.

Keeping his smile on his face, Chanyeol pushes the glass of water into Jongin's hands. "Didn't Sehun and I tell you?" he asks to Jongin's vaguely disapproving frown. "We're making spaghetti. Well, I’m making spaghetti, but I promised him he could help."

"Don't you have something better to do today?" Jongin asks, and it comes out almost like a bite. Under the words though, there's anxiety, lingering in the trembling of Jongin's hands around Sehun's cup and the way his knees press together.

"Nope," Chanyeol tells him, and takes back the cup from Jongin's hands. "I'm right where I want to be today. I wouldn’t change a thing." He lets his hand slip to wrap around Jongin’s, giving a gentle squeeze.

Jongin lets out a raw sounding dry laugh, shaking his head before sniffing loudly, still stuffed up. “You really see me when I’m at my worst. I definitely didn’t make a good first impression, and I haven’t really convinced you I’m any better than...” as he trails off, his eyes dim and lose focus, staring into his own world as they fade.

“No,” Chanyeol says, and waits as Jongin slowly turns to him. “I see you just when I need to, and if this is your worst then I don’t know if I can handle you at your best. I’ll be too blown away.”

Jongin lets out a scratchy startled laugh that fades into a cough before he smiles, sniffing once more and not pulling away when Chanyeol reaches out to gently squeeze his hand.

It takes a while before Jongin finally agrees to settle down and sleep again, but finally he relents and Chanyeol helps him tuck in, brushing his hair from his face as he slips almost immediately to sleep. As Chanyeol turns the light off as he leaves the room, he lingers, eyes on Jongin's sleeping form. His breathing is still clogged, brows furrowed gently with his chin tucked to his chest, but there is a bit more color in his skin now than when Chanyeol had first arrived, and his fever has definitely left him. The worst is over, and Chanyeol steps from the room with a soft smile, feeling lighter, easier, and like he's grown another beating heart to flutter in his chest.

The rest of the afternoon is spent doing dishes and preparing the pasta sauce as Sehun plays classical music on his radio and shows Chanyeol his 'World Garden', little sprouted plants poking up from the soil in carefully arranged plastic pudding cups. When Jongin finally emerges again from the bedroom hours later, he looks better, though he still coughs, and Chanyeol smiles as that warm new flutter springs to life in his chest as Jongin’s eyes flicker to him.

*

The door has one of the classic dried flower bouquets that hangs on it every summer. Barely finished knocking on it, Chanyeol can hear voices inside, familiar and excited, before it opens to the beaming smile of his mother.

"Chanyeol!" she exclaims, her arms rising up for an immediate hug. She smells like cooking, the warm aroma of spices and meat clinging to her clothing as Chanyeol leans down to wrap his arms around her. "We were wondering when you'd get here, your father and I were just getting worried you might miss dinner!"

"Miss dinner?" Chanyeol chuckles, leaning back and keeping the smile on his face. "Miss out on your cooking? I wouldn't dream of it."

Laughing, his mother keeps a firm hold on his hand as she pulls him into the house and the familiar hallway Chanyeol grew up in. It had been one final phone call that did it, his mother calling him after he'd just gotten home from seeing Jongin and Sehun at the park again for a 'picnic', and Chanyeol had missed her. It's somehow in the small moments when Chanyeol is with Jongin that he remembers how lucky he is to have a family, one that loves him and talks to him, wants him to be happy, and he'd made plans to come home that weekend. It's a balmy evening, and the air conditioning in the house is a welcome respite from the hot weather outside and Chanyeol's long drive out from the city.

"You must be tired," his mother is saying, brushing his hair from his face and frowning up at him as her thumbs try to smooth the tired lines from work today out of his face. "Honestly, we love to see you, especially after so long, but you didn't really have to drive out straight after work after a long week. We'll always be here, whether it's Friday night or Saturday morning."

"But then I'd miss your wonderful cooking," Chanyeol teases, and his mother scoffs, her cheeks pinking as she flashes him a pleased smile. "I couldn't miss one of your great home dinners, especially after you went through all the trouble."

Chanyeol's told his family they have him for the weekend. Just him. Of course, this weekend is the one weekend that Yura and Jongdeok have chosen to go camping up in the mountains and won't be around. While this means that it gives Chanyeol a bit more time to see his parents and catch up with them, it also means-

"So," his mother says, once Chanyeol has put his things in his room and joined her in the kitchen. "It's just you for the weekend? No travel companion to grace our humble home with?"

It means Chanyeol gets the full attention of his parents, and while he loves them, sometimes it can be a bit much.

"Just me," Chanyeol says, smiling at her to keep from sounding defensive. It's been years since he brought someone home with him. He learned the lesson a long time ago about what it meant when he did.

"I just thought with you being so busy lately, perhaps it was because of someone and not just work." His mother raises her eyebrows at him over the kitchen stove, asking without words.

"Just me," Chanyeol repeats, the smile beginning to ache a bit.

"You know you're always welcome to bring your friends home with you," his mother continues, and pushes a glass of water towards Chanyeol. "Girls, or boys," she adds the last almost as an afterthought, and a part of Chanyeol's stomach turns. "If you're too busy to see us, I'd just hoped it was because you were having fun, that's all, Chanyeol."

"I am having fun," Chanyeol says, taking the water and hoping the whole weekend won't be like this. Taking a long drink of water, Chanyeol's mind flashes to something else, anything else to talk about. "I've been getting into a few new projects and activities."

"With Jongdae? Yura tells me you two have been spending more time together." His mother smiles at him as she takes dinner off the stove. "It's so nice that you two get along so well. It'll be so nice when everything is all figured out, and I always love it when families all get along together. It's rare, you know, that the in-laws in families are friendly with each other. Apparently, here they still have this big stigma about in-laws fighting but I honestly have to say the Kim's are lovely people. Jongdae seems a lot like his brother. You two are so lucky to get along so well and be so close, he seems like such a nice young man whenever I’ve seen him at future family get togethers. Though your father tells me I have to stop calling them that." She laughs, her eyes dancing in mirth.

Chanyeol laughs too, letting out a quiet breath to be off the topic of himself for the moment. Of course his mother wants to talk about this, and Chanyeol finds he doesn't mind talking about this if it means not talking about why Chanyeol hasn't brought a date home to introduce to his parents. In years. "He's a bit different, but still a good person."

Over the heat of the kitchen, Chanyeol's mother beams before launching into everything she's learned about the 'Kim boys' from their mother. Apparently, she and Mrs. Kim have begun having lunches on some weekends, and Chanyeol props himself against the counter, helping out a bit with preparation for dinner as his mother floods him with information.

It's nice to be with her again, and Chanyeol smiles at the warm hug his father gives him when he gets home. It's still a little strange to have to bend down to hug him, considering after his final growth spurt, Chanyeol had gone to university quite quickly without much time to acclimate to looking down to see his father. "You got taller," his father jokes, and reaches up to ruffle his hair. "And your hair's getting longer."

"I'm growing it out," Chanyeol says in mock seriousness. "I figured I'd match Yura for the wedding."

"It might be longer than her’s at the rate they're going," his father laughs, and Chanyeol smiles.

It's nice to be back, and as he sits at the table with his mother and father, Chanyeol realizes he missed being home. As much as he loves the city, there is something about being home, back where he grew up and with his parents who, for all their questions, love him. They accept him for what he is, even if not all of him makes sense to them.

It's hard to imagine not having this, not having something like this to fall back on. To Chanyeol, his family is a soft place to fall, to bounce back on when he really needs it, like a safety net. He knows he could call home when he really needed something, and his parents would be there to love and support him. They may not agree on everything, but they're there for him.

But not having this, not having the family to come home to for a home cooked meal on the weekends, that's Jongin's life. Ever since finding that out, Chanyeol hasn't been able to quite shake it. He's spent years keeping a distance from his family, dinner tables like this one where his family presses him for information about his life until he feels like he's run out of answers. But they're there, and he's found the last few weeks to be full of him reflecting on what it would be like if that were gone.

If his family was not only on the other side of the world, but if he didn't talk to them, if they didn't try to talk to him. Chanyeol may sometimes find the weekly calls from his mother to check up on him annoying at worst, to not have them at all makes him feel raw and weak. It's hard to think of a family that he hasn't talked to in years, who doesn't know what he's doing, who doesn't want to know what he's doing or how he is.

It makes him want to be there more than ever for Jongin, seeing how alone he truly is. It's only been a few weeks since Chanyeol saw Jongin's apartment for the first time, but in that time when he has see Jongin and Sehun, he doesn't get the sense that Jongin is bursting with a social schedule of many people he can look to for help. It makes his throat stick as he sits here at dinner, locked into answering questions about his world but knowing that he's lucky to have this.

It feels a little odd, but it sets a strange burning ache in his chest, in his heart, when he thinks of losing this, of losing his family.

"So, how are things with work?" his mother asks, diverting his attention from explaining about how Baekhyun and he are never going to be roommates. "I know you're still at that food magazine and all. Did they finally approve your article section on food science?"

Letting out a sigh, Chanyeol pushes around some of the food on his plate. "Not yet," he admits. "I'm still trying to get my superior-"

"Junmyeon, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, he's still, well, he keeps telling me he shows the material to the heads of the departments and they have yet to give it the OK." Chanyeol swallows down his own disappointment about it. Getting the article run would mean a lot more work for him, not only editing but also writing his own pieces and organizing the section himself, but it would be fun. It would also mean doing something, teaching people about the food they're eating and sharing information that means something beyond just the latest dieting craze.

"It's so unfair that they keep neglecting to use you at that place," his mother sighs, sitting back in her chair and fixing him with a mixed sympathetic look. "I mean, who else do they have coming up with all these great useful ideas? And they hired you for your background in the sciences anyway."

"They hired because of the editing-"

"And you've been doing that for ages!" his mother continues, cutting him off. "They're completely ignoring your talents and it's really such a shame. They should be letting you run the editing division or direct some of your own articles, it's foolish of them not to let you do more."

"They have a magazine that works for them and their readers," Chanyeol defends, feeling a bit talked over as his mother sighs. She has the tendency to get a bit exaggerated when it comes to her children, worried when they're not doing as well as she thinks they should be. She does it out of love, but... "I'm not the only employee at the company."

"But you’re one of the best they have there," his mother insists.

"Have they given you the editing promotion yet?" his father asks, diverting the topic.

"Not yet," Chanyeol admits, and sits back as his stomach twists again. It's not his failure, but somehow it still feels like he's letting his parents down when he doesn't answer with good news about his life. He has a great life, a great job and a comfortable apartment and good friends and does what he can in volunteer to help people but-

"That's ridiculous, you've been there three years, they should have given you the promotion by now." His mother huffs before setting down her fork and knife.

It still feels like he's not enough.

"Hopefully before the end of the year," his father says, and offers a smile to both his son and his flustered wife. "What else have you been doing, Chanyeol? Made any new friends lately or just been spending time with Jongdae?" He smiles.

"Both," Chanyeol says, a small relief when his mother resumes eating. "I've been spending a bit more time with Minseok and Baekhyun actually."

"I heard from Jongdae you've been spending a lot time with a new friend," his mother says, and the glint in her eyes tells Chanyeol she's not going to let this topic drop. Her tone also gives it away, light with the guise of being subtle.

"Did Yura tell you that?" Chanyeol asks, smiling and tasting it bitter in his mouth.

"She may have mentioned it," his mother says in mock innocence, taking a delicate sip of water. "Anyway, that's why I was surprised when you came alone this weekend, I had thought we might meet her, or him, I suppose."

"And scare them off?" Chanyeol jokes, though his stomach twists enough that his appetite fades. Talking about this, going into this topic always puts him off food for a while. "Hardly. I have to get any new friends to like me enough before I bring anyone to meet you guys."

"What are you talking about, you know that if they meet us they'll just be convinced you're a catch," his father teases, and at least his smile is warm and less prying. It's not over though, and Chanyeol holds back a sigh as his mother fixes him with a determined look.

"The way Yura had phrased it sounded like you'd found more than just a friend," his mother presses. "When are we going to meet her?"

"It's not like that," Chanyeol says, pushing down the winding feeling in his chest, right under his ribs. He's nervous, which always happens when he talks to his parents about this, knowing that he's giving them the answers they don't want to hear. "I don't have any woman in mind like that." Or man, his mind adds and that winding sensation twists tighter.

"Then who have you been spending all your time with?" his mother insists, looking concerned. "Chanyeol-"

"Just a friend," Chanyeol tries to deter. "I'm just friends with them." Jongin and Sehun's faces and voices flicker into his mind, Sehun's sleepily asking his father as many questions as he can to keep from having to go to sleep as Jongin chuckles gently. Chanyeol swallows and looks back to his plate, hastily shoving another large bite of food into his mouth.

"Chanyeol," his mother sounds almost disappointed and the food turns to glue in his mouth. "You can't wait forever to find someone to settle down with, you know. It's not like girls are going to wait around forever for you to take interest in them outside of your work and your volunteering. They're going to move on and-"

"Mom," Chanyeol says to his plate, trying to swallow around the mass of stuck food in his mouth. He feels taut, not wanting to look up.

"I'm just saying, it's a bad idea to start a family too late," his mother sighs. "Your father and I want to be alive to see you with a family of your own, and when we can still be there to enjoy them." Chanyeol feels like he's wound too tightly, stomach clenching and rejecting any food he might try to swallow down. "We know you want a family, and girls like Yura aren't going to wait around forever for someone like you. Sooner or later, someone else is going to open their eyes and snatch them away."

Silence falls over the table, and Chanyeol stares at the scraps of food over the white of his plate and feels empty. This is the kind of thing he tries to avoid, staying away from home and his family to keep from talking about this. His parents know, have known since Chanyeol was a teenager, that he doesn't care what form love takes as long as it's love. While he knows they just want him to be happy, sometimes they still don't understand what that means to him and it feels like he's on a clock, where one moment of him talking about wanting a family turns into them checking up on him constantly.

The food is like a sticky globbed mass when Chanyeol tries to swallow it, lodging into his throat and he closes his eyes as he feels his father's hand rest against his own on top of the table. "We just worry you're spending too much time at work," he says, softer than his mother's tone had been. He pats the back of Chanyeol's hand a few times, and Chanyeol looks up to his apologetic smile and slightly subdued look from his mother. "You take after me with that, throwing yourself and work and that dedication isn’t a bad thing, but it's not healthy to be at work all the time and pushing yourself so hard. We just want you to also enjoy life."

"I'm not always at work," Chanyeol says, though his voice, usually loud, sounds small in the dining room. "I'm just there for the normal hours during the day. Just like everyone else."

Another silence falls on the table. Silence isn't common in the Park family, usually the whole table laughing or talking loudly, sometimes over each other. Back in university, both Minseok and Baekhyun had visited Chanyeol at home. Baekhyun's overall impression was that he must be related somehow because he felt like he was among his own people, and Minseok said he finally understood how Chanyeol became the person he is. It had made him laugh back then, but now it makes him shift uncomfortably in his chair, stiff and too aware of the silence and what it might mean.

Chanyeol spent years trying to make his family proud, happy for him, happy because of him, and still thinks sometimes he’s doing it wrong. They love him and want what's best for him, but wires cross and Chanyeol isn't always sure if when they say 'it's okay' they mean it or are consoling him. Most of the time, it feels the latter.

When his mother clears her throat, sitting up and looking bright, Chanyeol isn't sure whether to brace himself or relax. "How is that girl, Jinri, doing? I remember you talked a lot about her."

"Honey," Chanyeol's father says, giving his wife a sort of sympathetic exasperated look over the table as Chanyeol feels the coil in his abdomen wind even tighter, pushing his heavily sitting dinner into cement.

"She's fine," Chanyeol tells her, trying to smile and feeling too weak. "I'm pretty sure she and a friend of mine are seeing each other."

Truthfully, Chanyeol has no idea if that's true, considering how Han basically just is enthusiastic about anyone he finds interesting and Jinri humors most people, but it's better than telling his family he'll never date Jinri. They determined that a long time ago, when Jinri was still healing from a broken relationship and Chanyeol was trying to understand what he wanted in life.

The problem is Jinri healed, and Chanyeol still can't answer the question of what he wants in life without worrying it's wrong. Or worrying about answering at all.

"That's wonderful," Chanyeol's mother says, and the smile on her face is almost forced. It's a smile Chanyeol knows extremely well, mostly because he uses it himself when he wants to avoid talking about how he's feeling.

"I'm happy for her," Chanyeol says, sincerely.

"Well, she sounded like such a nice girl," his mother says, continuing as Chanyeol wishes Yura were here. If Yura were here, she'd be a sort of buffer and conversation wouldn't focus only on the aspect of how he might choose to be with someone who can't 'give them grandchildren.' His mother sighs, plucking at her napkin. "But, like I said, if you just sit by, nice girls like that won't be around forever."

It's a dead end, and Chanyeol presses his lips together to push down the feeling of being wound so tightly into himself he can't move. Pushing down and down and down until he can pull up one of those convincing happy smiles and ask his mother how her knitting group is going. He keeps smiling, pushing brightness into his eyes and voice as his mother chatters on, his father adding a few comments here and there, and the topic of Chanyeol still not dating or finding interest in looking for a future wife is left alone.

For now.

When his mother tells him they can go to the knitting group together tomorrow, Chanyeol just nods absently, laughing along with his family as they begin to call up memories of how Chanyeol used to knit when he was younger. His mind wavers instead to the small 'practical' skills he always had and how irrelevant they seem now.

Spending a childhood learning how to knit or shape clay is hardly as interesting as learning how to repair radios or play chess. So far, both Sehun and Jongin have beaten him at chess, Sehun positively jubilant and Jongin getting a bright pleased smile on his face he quickly tried to hide when he beat Chanyeol in less than ten moves.

"Check," echoes faintly in Chanyeol's mind as he thinks back to it, how Jongin had looked so pleased sprawled on the grassy green of the city park a few days ago. It had been later evening, after Chanyeol's work and before Sehun's bedtime and Jongin's night shift. Even now, Chanyeol still isn't sure how many jobs Jongin has, or when he sleeps or for how long. It leaves him feeling guilty when he spends time with Jongin, knowing he should be resting or taking care of Sehun, but at the same time every meeting feels too short, like he can't get enough time with Jongin.

While Jongin doesn't talk a lot, Chanyeol has become so used to him and hoping to see him on the weekends, it had felt strange not to hear from him about this weekend. Even though he had plans to see his parents, the lack of call or contact from Jongin makes him almost hyper aware of the other man, waiting for him to stumble back into his world.

No matter how much time Chanyeol spends with Jongin, he can't get him out of his head. There are always still more questions, more things to learn about him, more mysteries Chanyeol wants to discover, like what Jongin's favorite food is or why he refuses to wear his glasses when his eyesight is so poor. That had been an accidental discovery, when Chanyeol caught Jongin squinting at a local street map and Sehun had scolded his father about losing his glasses again.

Apparently, the only thing Jongin ever loses are his glasses.

It's also one of the things that gets him to blush when he’s called out on it. The soft pink on his cheeks makes him looks so young and endearing.

The thing is Chanyeol knows that realistically he's told his family that he wants a family just as much as they want him to be happy. Ever since he was young, he's wanted a family of his own, to have kids, and his parents know that. His parents have known that's a part of who he is and one of the few things he knows about himself. The problem is that as much as that's something Chanyeol wants, he also knows that he falls in love with anyone, regardless of whether they can have a family with him biologically or not. He knew that when he fell in love with Yura's best friend in middle school and later when he started developing feelings towards one of his friends in high school. He never told either of them, especially knowing if he told his friend, he might not get the reaction he hoped for.

That wasn't something that bothered his parents, but it bothered him for a while until Baekhyun finally told him in university to just not give a shit and like who he likes and stop worrying. It took two years before he stopped worrying, and by then he was in over his head.

Some of the same feeling is beginning to build now, where he thinks too often and too much and isn't sure where he stands. That same feeling of wanting to be around someone more than anyone else is back, where he thinks about Jongin so often, how when they'd last been together, Jongin sitting beside him as they watched Sehun mock conduct a Beethoven symphony playing on his radio, he'd just wanted to reach out to Jongin and touch him, give him a bit of support for the tired slope of his shoulders. Even just a brush of the fingers to let Jongin know he wasn't alone in the world with Sehun, that he could always ask if he needed anything.

It's that feeling of how being with Jongin isn't like spending time with Jongdae or Minseok or Baekhyun or Jinri. It's different, where Chanyeol doesn't want to keep them, to hold them and make them smile the same way that he wants that with Jongin. It's different, even thinking about it over and over as time passes and that vaguely familiar feeling presses into his chest over the wound tension from the conversation earlier in the evening. Giving it a name would make it real, but Chanyeol is beginning to realize that even a name doesn't matter, because it's there regardless.

Sitting at the table, on a weekend away from the city, his friends, job, and life, where he's with his family and disconnected from his world, Chanyeol is still thinking of Jongin. As his mother begins to discuss new crochet patterns she wishes she could possibly show him later on this weekend, Chanyeol can't get Jongin out of his head with his arms wrapped around a sleepy Sehun, cradled in his lap.

With Jongin, Chanyeol doesn't want to run away from hard conversations and shift onto nicer, easier, unimportant topics. He never wants to leave when time is up and he dreads the moments when he has to say goodbye because it means leaving when all he wants to do is stay.

This feeling, the one that is just getting stronger even if Chanyeol had ignored it without meaning to, means wondering when he'll see Jongin again and when he'll see Jongin smile. It means wondering when Jongin will smile for him, and only him, just from a look, or if that will ever happen at all. It means Chanyeol getting himself into something, has possibly already gotten himself into something, and he doesn't know how to get out of if he even wants to.

It might not make his family happy, and he doesn't know if it would make Jongin happy, or if Jongin even feels the same way he does. A part of Chanyeol wonders if he does, with the soft lingering looks and touches that stay when Chanyeol finds himself instigating them without realizing it. The thing that sticks in Chanyeol's chest is that Jongin has stopped pulling away. So perhaps Chanyeol is wrong and he does know that he wants this, the problem is that he does know and it has him feeling all the more shaky with nerves and a jumping heart when he sits at the table with his family.

All of his life, Chanyeol has felt like he and Yura were part of a standard, valued and wonderful and loved for who they are and what they are. Chanyeol loves his family, but sometimes wonders if a wrong decision, like now, could change all of that.

It scares him, enough to keep his mouth closed and simply smile when his mother brings dessert for him and not talk about how he will probably never bring home a girl like they'd like him to.

The tight coil presses against the growing weight in his chest when Chanyeol's mother puts down a warm lemon custard cup in front of him and the unbidden image of Sehun's wide shining eyes assaults him. "Thank you," he says instead, biting down the sudden sting in his eyes and the hardness in his throat.

"It's only dessert," his mother laughs at him, her eyes dancing, and Chanyeol realizes just how big his world has become.

*

It's hot. The back of Chanyeol's shirt sticks to his skin, slick with sweat from the hot sun overhead and he longs for the air conditioning of his apartment or the company building. Summer in full swing, they're at the highest and most intense temperatures, and Chanyeol pushes down the slightly nervous pulse through him as he tightens his grip on the bag in his hands.

That morning had been one of the typical farmers’ markets up in Highland Circle, where the local farms surrounding the city come together to show and sell their goods. That morning had been a rare day when the local farm, one of Chanyeol's favorites, had been selling fresh chicken and blueberries. It had been too tempting to resist, and after getting home, he'd been struck by an idea and called Jongin.

It's a bit too hot to go out and do much in terms of hiking in the mountains this weekend, and Junmyeon had brushed him off before he could ask that week. It leaves Chanyeol's weekend open wide and he wishes he was more surprised at how quickly he immediately thinks of Jongin.

It doesn't surprise him though, and he sighs through the heat of the sun beating down as he reminds himself what he'd gone through that morning. After getting back from visiting his family, with an awareness that he can't shake now, Chanyeol had remembered something very important. Regardless of how he feels, what he experiences and wants aren't what's important when it comes to his relationship, friendship with Jongin. Whatever it is that Chanyeol feels, whatever he's developing towards Jongin, isn't the priority. They come second when Chanyeol knows Jongin has enough to do with Sehun and his jobs to keep his head above water.

It's selfish, and Chanyeol had spent perhaps a bit too long accosting himself for getting carried away in his thoughts. That's what they should be, just thoughts, even if a part of Chanyeol wants to explore them.

It's enough just like this, where Jongin sounds almost happily surprised to hear Chanyeol calling him and tentatively invites him to come over for the afternoon. "Sehun wants to show you his garden anyway," Jongin had said to shouted confirmation from Sehun in the background.

Baker Hill is almost radiating heat, the buildings and tarmac beaten with the sun and waves of heat flicker in the air. It's still slightly crowded, and Chanyeol curls into himself slightly, making himself smaller to move among the other bodies and brings the package of homemade summer spiced chicken he'd cooked that morning into his arms. It's not much, but he knows if it were more, Jongin would definitely refuse it.

Considering Chanyeol is a guest, he figures it's only reasonable he bring something to Jongin's home. That aside, he doesn't want to come empty handed anyway when he knows the insane budgeting even Sehun does innately.

It can't be healthy, and Chanyeol can feel the warmth from the chicken seep into his skin through the bag as he turns down another street.

The apartment building is still just as decrepit as Chanyeol remembers, stepping inside to get away from the sight of it and towards a more pleasant welcome. The sight of Jongin's smile when he opens the door to Chanyeol has his heart skipping a beat before he pushes it down, smiling himself.

"You're earlier than I thought!" Jongin says, sounding happier than Chanyeol has ever heard him. His eyes falter as he glances at the bag in Chanyeol's arms, but they return when a loud yell sounds from inside the apartment.

"The trains were fast today," Chanyeol says, barely putting down the bag of chicken in time before Sehun is racing down the hall to leap into his waiting arms. "Careful!"

"Chanyeol!" Sehun is yelling, his eyes just as bright as Jongin's. "Chanyeol! I have baby flowers on my peppers!"

"You do?" Chanyeol asks, eyes widening in excitement.

"They're so big, you have to see them!"

"He's wanted to show you all morning," Jongin says, laughter in his voice as he leads the way into the house. Discretely picking up the bag of food, Chanyeol follows him with Sehun propped up on his hip and babbling in a rush about his World Garden. "It's his pride and joy at the moment."

The soft sounds of classical music drift through the clean little apartment, and the curtains on the larger windows are pulled back to let the sunshine in. It's hot, slightly stuffy and barely cooler than outside, and Chanyeol can see the sweat on the nape of Jongin's neck. Both Sehun and Jongin are wearing shorts and tee shirts that look older than Sehun, but both are smiling.

The living room is strewn with a few toys, the radio standing proudly on the table by the couch, and Sehun's garden directly in the streaming sunlight. Chanyeol manages to drop the bag of chicken off on top of the beaten and old microwave before being tugged towards the couch. Wiggling to be let down, Sehun drags Chanyeol over to the table immediately, getting him to crouch down to see his 'children.'

"They grew up so fast," Sehun says, looking at them with wonder shining in his eyes. "They grew up faster than I ever could!"

"Well, you're not a plant, Sehun," Chanyeol points out. "You have to grow like humans grow. Slow and steady."

"I want to be like a kitten," Sehun says, splaying a bit on the table and gazing at his garden. "They grow up to be almost full size in one year!"

"But then you couldn't fit in your tent," Jongin calls from the kitchen. Sehun puffs out his cheeks with a frown before rolling off the table.

"Never mind, I'm okay being small for a little while longer," he states and then turns to Chanyeol. "Do you want to see my tent? I don't think you can come inside, because you're too big, like daddy, but you can sit outside and I'll try to help you see what it looks like."

"You made a tent?" Chanyeol asks, getting up as Sehun leads him to the bedroom, glancing briefly to the kitchen where Jongin is busying himself.

"Well, you can't go camping in it yet, because if it rains, it's ruined, but yeah, it's great! And really cozy and I can read my books inside," Sehun explains, leading Chanyeol to the corner of the bedroom. Between two of the crates Jongin set up and using the bars on the window as an anchor, Sehun has made himself a sort of fort, blankets draped over the crates to make a small little space beneath. In that space, Sehun has piled blankets, a few pillows, and what appears to be his entire stuffed toy collection. "See?" Sehun says, flopping into the little space and grinning up at Chanyeol. "It's my tent!"

"It looks awesome," Chanyeol says, settling down to sit just outside the 'door'.

“I'm sorry you can't come inside," Sehun tells him, reaching out to pat sympathetically at Chanyeol's foot. "Maybe if you get a potion like the one Alice drinks when she goes to Wonderland, you can become small and fit inside here with me. But your clothes won’t fit so that's the only bad part. You can wear mine instead then, I think they'd work."

"Do you know where I can find a potion like that?" Chanyeol asks, biting down laughter as he listens to Sehun ramble on and notices the copy of Alice in Wonderland wedged between a few stuffed toys.

"No, but maybe we can ask the witch doctor down the street," Sehun says, and Chanyeol is shocked into laughter.

"We don't call him that," Jongin says, his voice reprimanding as he walks into the bedroom. "You know we don't call Mr. Kim that."

"Yeah, but Mr. Siwon down the street calls him that!" Sehun protests, pouting as he pulls one of his stuffed toys into his lap and begins bouncing it on his knees. "He always calls Mr. Kim that and then makes this weird wiggly sign with his hands before giving me free moon cakes for not telling anyone about-"

"But we don't call him a witch doctor," Jongin interrupts, squatting down. "It's not nice to call people names. Remember how you felt when the kids at school called you names?"

Sehun is frowning, his lower lip jutting out as he makes little soft breaths, his eyes shining slightly as he sits in his tent. Chanyeol almost wants to tell Jongin that it's okay, but the look on Jongin's face is set, teaching his son to be a better person than so many others out there. It's a little hard to think of, how many people have probably thrown insults at Jongin without a real reason to, and Chanyeol wonders how much it takes for Jongin not to stoop to that level.

With a sick twist, Chanyeol realizes he's not as good as Jongin is probably, remembering back to when they first met.

"I remember," Sehun mumbles to his toy, plucking the little soft bunny ears on the doll in his lap before he lets out a big sigh. Hugging the toy to his chest, he turns to Jongin and the pout is gone.

"How did it feel? I remember you told me," Jongin insists, not giving up quite yet.

"I felt sad," Sehun says, and Jongin smiles gently at him, reaching forward and ruffling his hair.

"So, how do you think Mr. Kim feels when you call him things like a ‘witch doctor’?"

"Sad," Sehun answers, and looks apologetically up at his father.

"Right," says Jongin. "Now, who's ready for lunch?" His eyes flicker to Chanyeol with an almost guilty note in them, the words I'm sorry already heavy in the soft browns.

"I already ate," Chanyeol tells him, taking the worry away before it can grow. "I had a large late breakfast this morning before coming over."

"You're welcome to some if you want," Jongin says, though he doesn't sound as confident as he leads the procession out of the bedroom. "I still owe you for-"

"Another time," Chanyeol cuts him off. "Like I said, you'll figure it out when you need to. I trust you." For a moment, Jongin looks like he wants to say something, his eyes flickering and lip bitten as he looks at Chanyeol. Then he turns, directing Sehun into a chair and going to get their food.

"What's for lunch?" Chanyeol asks Sehun, watching as the boy sits up eagerly and watches his father bring over the plates of food.

"Grilled cheeses!" Sehun says excitedly, sitting on his knees as Jongin places the food before him. "And Tomato soup with yucky green."

"Broccoli," Jongin corrects him easily, setting down his own plate. Their plates are identical, matching one half of a grilled cheese, a small cup of soup, and four pieces of broccoli. For Sehun, it's a perfect portion, but for Jongin...

Biting his tongue, Chanyeol sits and tears his eyes away from Jongin as he carefully picks up his grilled cheese half and takes a bite of the corner.

"I hate broccoli," Sehun grumbles to his plate. He glances quickly to his father and snatching the grilled cheese, taking a large bite out of it and humming happily. "But I love grilled cheese!"

"Remember, eat everything on that plate," Jongin says, sitting back and eating slower than Sehun as his son eagerly munches on his lunch. "Including the broccoli."

"But I hate it," Sehun says, mouth full of sandwich. He turns to Chanyeol. "Daddy never lets me have the fun lunches the other kids have." Across the table, Jongin's eyes dull slightly as he looks at his son. "He still makes good lunches, but it's not the fun food."

"That's because fun food isn't always good food," Chanyeol says, leaning over to Sehun as the boy takes another large bite. "Trust me, I spend all my time working for a company that writes about food. The stuff your friends eat? Those package lunches in the stores?" Sehun's eyes go wide as he nods vigorously. "They're all not good for you. If you eat those, you'll never grow up to be big and tall like me with strong healthy bones and a good heart."

Narrowing his eyes, Sehun takes a slow contemplative bite of his sandwich. "Are you sure?" he asks slowly, drawing out the vowels of every words. Beside them, Jongin is watching with an almost timid look on his face, as if he's not sure to jump in and take over as the parent or not, instead letting Chanyeol talk.

"Of course I'm sure," Chanyeol says. "And that broccoli? It's really good for you. All dark green vegetables are. They have a lot of vitamins and minerals that are important for your body to stay healthy and happy. Any of the vegetables that are light colored don't have those rich nutrients, so even if they don't taste like candy, to your body, they're exactly like the biggest treat."

"Are you some kind of scientist?" Sehun asks, a bit of sandwich rolling in his mouth as he chews with it open.

“Manners,” Jongin calls with a pointed look over the table, his eyes on his son. “Don’t speak with your mouth full.”

"I actually went to college to study science," Chanyeol tells Sehun, whose eyes go large. "I ended up learning a whole lot about what is in our food and even more with my job."

"Where do you work?" Jongin asks, sounding genuinely curious as he looks over the table at Chanyeol.

"Do you know the Everyday Cuisine magazine?" Chanyeol asks, not entirely aware he'd never told Jongin what he does before. Usually it's one of the first things that comes up in conversation. Then again, he and Jongin don't typically have the most normal conversations around the same topics he might discuss with other people he knows.

"I hate that magazine," Jongin says, and then pales as Sehun lets out a huge gasp. Thrown with the unexpected answer, Chanyeol surprises all of them and bursts into laughter.

"Daddy," Sehun accuses, flabbergasted at his father who is quickly coloring to the roots of his hair.

"I'm sorry," Jongin says, floundering as he pinks in embarrassment at his blatantly honest and abrupt answer. "I didn't-"

"No, I agree," Chanyeol laughs, unable to stop now he's started. "It's a really annoying and terrible magazine outside of the specific audience it has." He smiles as Sehun gapes at him and Jongin's eyes are wide, as if shocked he's not being accosted. "I've been trying to get them to run my columns for years but they just keep me as an editor."

"So you're a food science person but you work for a magazine?" Sehun clarifies. Jongin is still staring at him, like he wants to apologize but is hesitant to open his mouth again. Chanyeol finds he isn't upset, not at all, instead amused that Jongin and he both seem to find the magazine he works for to be, for a better word, useless bunk.

"Pretty much," Chanyeol says with a long sigh. "I keep asking to do a kid’s recipe column every week so it makes cooking fun and healthy. Then, maybe, other kids would know about how great broccoli is for you."

Sehun looks like he’s considering for a moment before he nods and goes back to eating. Smiling, Chanyeol turns to look at Jongin. Plate clear of food, almost spotless, Jongin is watching Sehun eat, a soft almost thoughtful smile on his face. It looks like his plate never had any food on it, even the cup of tomato soup almost spotless. It doesn’t seem like enough. The difference between a child's portion and an adult's portion for necessary food intake definitely isn't comparable and Chanyeol's stomach knots as he looks at the too thin size of Jongin.

It shows in all of him, his too thin arms, wrists, in the pale thin nature of his skin and how, even if he looks better than when Chanyeol met him months ago, he still could do with a good full meal. Many good full meals would do him well, though Chanyeol is pretty sure Jongin gets few of them. While Sehun has them, which Chanyeol can see, it's not without sacrifice. It's also not his place to speak up about it, even if it crawls at him to do so.

Years ago, when Chanyeol's mother had been away for a visit to his grandparents and had come back bedraggled and worn, she'd told him, "you can never take care of someone else if you don't take care of yourself." Back then, he had thought that was obvious. Now, the words burn at him to release, knowing that same care is not being executed when Jongin considers himself and Sehun.

Sehun comes first. Sehun always comes first in Jongin's world. Chanyeol doesn't need to be told to know that.

As Jongin gets up, his smile still soft as it lingers on Sehun, Chanyeol can't stop the small frown as he watches him take his place at the sink, washing up the dishes. Almost as soon as the water turns on, Sehun jerks up from his plate, a small frown on his little face with the last crumbs of lunch and all of his broccoli still on his plate.

“You should finish your lunch, Sehun,” Chanyeol says, tapping the plate even as his mind wanders to how Jongin remains silent beside them, the gentle clink of dishes in the sink.

Ignoring him, Sehun keeps his eyes trained on his father. "Daddy," he says, little voice sounding very stern in the small apartment.

"Yes, Sehun?" Jongin says, looking up from the dishes.

Sehun chews his lip, eyes flickering to his plate. "Do you want my broccoli?"

Chanyeol’s eyes widen as Jongin blinks, staring at his son for a moment before he smiles, a soft laugh ghosting from his mouth. "No, Sehun. You have to eat that." That uncomfortable feeling is back, turning in Chanyeol’s stomach as Jongin smiles at his son and reaches out, ruffling his hair. "Broccoli is good for you, just like Chanyeol said it was."

Sehun's nose wrinkles up. "But I had all of my breakfast and I just hate broccoli so much, and you should eat it too if you listened to Chanyeol."

"But I did eat my broccoli," Jongin points out, turning off the water and turning to face his son. He's frowning slightly, and in the lights of the kitchen Chanyeol can catch the new dark circles under his eyes.

"Yeah, but I'm telling you that you can eat mine too," Sehun insists, pushing the vegetables on his plate towards Jongin. "So then it can help your body with the minireals and nutreats that Chanyeol talked about."

Understanding dawns on Chanyeol with the light of a red warning sky. Sehun knows. Sehun understands and knows that Jongin isn't eating enough too, knows that Jongin is rationing food, and the fact that he's alluding to it in front of Chanyeol means this isn't a one time thing. The way Sehun's eyes flicker to Chanyeol, almost worried, confirm his suspicions.

"But then you won't get to eat them," Jongin says as he returns to the table, tapping the edge of Sehun's dish. He smiles, soft and almost sad as he looks down at Sehun. "They help you grow up big and tall." Reaching forward, he smooths back Sehun's hair, pushing down the pesky cowlick that sticks up in the back as he glances briefly to Chanyeol. "Big and tall and strong and handsome."

"Just like you?" Sehun asks, pushing his untouched vegetables around on his plate.

Jongin pauses, his smile faltering as he lets his hand drop to his side before his smile is back, bright and warm, directed at his son. “Yes,” he says even as Sehun’s eyes flicker. “Just like me. Except better.”

Chanyeol’s throat dries as he watches Jongin look at his son like he’s the most precious thing he knows. He thinks to how he hears about how parents talk about being willing to die for their children, that it is a feeling that no one understands until one has a child of their own, and he sees it, in Jongin’s eyes and the way he looks at his son.

The way that Sehun looks back at is his father is like Jongin is the most amazing thing in his life. It’s like he knows, he understands far more than Jongin says and yet still smiles at Jongin like he’s the sun. He is the brightest thing in the room as he says with a joking lilt to his voice, “because I’m Sehun?”

It's so simple, but it has a laugh, startled and genuine bursting from Jongin as he watches Sehun beam up at him. "Because you're Sehun," he agrees, and smiles fondly as Sehun picks up his fork and spears a piece of cooked broccoli. Sehun, with a reluctant look, shoves the piece of broccoli into his mouth and winces around it up at his father, earning another laugh. "Yum!"

Chewing with distaste, Sehun scrunches up his face and says, rather exaggeratedly, "blegch." He keeps half pouting as he chews until Jongin turns to the sink again, still laughing with that brightness clinging to him. With Jongin turned away, Sehun immediately turns to Chanyeol, his face falling from disgusts as he chews his broccoli. "Want some?" he offers, poking at the remaining broccoli pieces.

Shaking his head with a smile, Chanyeol says, "no, thanks," and bites down a smile when Sehun sighs dramatically. "I already ate all my broccoli this morning with breakfast."

Sighing again, Sehun puffs out his cheeks before slowly eating all of the broccoli pieces left on his plate. Letting out a loud victorious sort of cheer when he eats the last piece of broccoli, Sehun turns back to his father. "Daddy, can I have dessert?"

“It’s lunch time, not after supper. We only have special treats after supper,” Jongin says, picking up a dish towel and drying his hands, turning with a pointed look to his son.

“What about a snack? A special snack since Chanyeol visited us today,” Sehun suggests and grins, biting his lower lip and looking up with a slightly pleading look in his eyes.

“You’re still hungry?” Chanyeol asks, watching as Jongin takes Sehun’s plate and puts it in the sink. “Even after all that broccoli?”

“Pudding is better than broccoli,” Sehun says and looks at his dad expectantly. “We can all have some.” Letting out a quiet sigh, Jongin looks once more at his son before he turns and opens the fridge to a small whoop of delight from his Sehun. Sehun looks positively jubilant in his chair. “Pudding is always better than broccoli," he says resolutely as Jongin places a chocolate pudding cup in front of him before handing Chanyeol a vanilla one. For a moment, Chanyeol thinks he's going to put the rest away, before Jongin pauses with a glance to him and places another vanilla at his chair.

“But pudding doesn’t help you grow big and tall,” Jongin reminds as he hands out spoons for everyone and sits back down.

“But it’s awesome so, maybe, somehow, it does make you grow big and tall,” Sehun says. He carefully peels off the foil topper to his pudding cup, a second later scooping out a bite and humming in delight as soon as it's in his mouth. “Pudding is always awesome. It can make anything possible.”

“Anything?” Chanyeol asks him, taking a small bite of pudding himself, eyes flicking to Jongin as he carefully pulls the top off the small treat.

“Anything,” Sehun says with an assured nod. “It’s super food.” He sticks another spoonful of pudding in his mouth. “Even if Daddy always says that fruit and vegetables are superfood.”

“They are superfood though,” Chanyeol says, raising his eyebrows pointedly as Jongin glances at him from across the table. “It's like I said about broccoli being good for you, all those fruits and vegetables are what make you healthy and strong. I wouldn’t be as tall as I am without all the fruit and vegetables I ate when I was your age.”

“You ate all of them?” Sehun says, giving him a squinty skeptical look.

“Every single one,” Chanyeol says, grinning at the boy and Jongin laughs quietly, tucking it into his pudding cup. “That’s why I am tall and strong and can pick you up so easily.”

“Did they also make you silly?” Sehun asks, grinning playfully.

Chanyeol opens his mouth to say that no, he’s just silly anyway, but Jongin beats it to him, saying, “yes, that’s why he’s so strange,” before flashing a teasing smile across the table. Taken by surprise, Chanyeol nearly reaches out and shoves him, sitting close enough and the playful smile on Jongin’s face just asking for it Almost, just like he might if it were Jongdae, but it hardly seems acceptable in front of Sehun. Instead, he just frowns at Jongin pointedly and Sehun scowls at his father.

“Be nice to Chanyeol,” he demands, sticking out his tongue between his lips as he pouts at his father defiantly.

“I am nice to Chanyeol,” Jongin says, raising his eyebrows. Chanyeol bites down a laugh and his eyes flash to meet Jongin’s over the table. It's less guarded, less closed away and this time, Jongin is the one smiling at him first.

"You'll hurt Chanyeol's feelings," Sehun says, reaching up and putting a hand over Chanyeol's as he frowns pointedly at his father. "You just told me earlier not to call people names, like M. Kim. Plus, you always say lying is bad and you always tell me how Chanyeol is handsome."

Cheeks turning a splotchy red, Jongin looks properly accosted by his son and he sputters for a moment as Chanyeol bites down a laugh. Sehun has a point, and while Chanyeol could easily step in and calm the look in Sehun's accusatory stare saying Jongin is just teasing him, he finds he likes the blush on Jongin's cheeks more.

He blinks, and remembers this isn't the priority, and his grin dissipates slightly.

"I still think Chanyeol looks silly though," Sehun continues, going back to his pudding cup.

"Why am I so silly, Sehun?" Chanyeol asks, turning away from the rose decorating Jongin's cheeks and the soft sheen of sweat running down his throat.

Looking up at him and squinting as he studies him, Sehun tilts his head to the side, spoon stuck between his lips. "You have weird ears," he says finally and Jongin snorts from across the table.

"Sehun is right," Chanyeol says, looking at Jongin in his worn shirt and soft black hair. He's finally had it cut, both he and Sehun have, so it doesn't hang so low into their eyes and cling to their necks. "You really are mean."

"Of course, I'm horrible," Jongin says, smile genuinely playful as he looks at Chanyeol.

"He won't let me have cookies after nine," Sehun says, leaning up to whisper loudly into Chanyeol's ear. "He's so mean."

"Horrible," Chanyeol agrees, nodding avidly as Sehun sighs exasperatedly, looking at his father pointedly.

"See?" Sehun says, turning back to his father and gesturing at Chanyeol with his spoon. "Chanyeol thinks I should have cookies after nine too!"

"No cookies," Jongin says, giving Chanyeol a brief look. "For you or for Chanyeol."

"Awww," Chanyeol whines, leaning over and wrapping his arms around Sehun as they both pout at Jongin. "Please, Dad? It's just one cookie!"

Mouth twitching with a poorly repressed smile, Jongin crosses his arms over his chest, looking between his son and Chanyeol with an imposing look on his face. "Nope," he says finitely, shaking his head. "My word is law."

"You're not actually the king, though, you can't just decree things like that and call them law," Sehun scoffs, picking up his pudding cup and trying to lick the remainder pudding from the plastic.

"What about me then?" Chanyeol asks, looking down at Sehun's efforts to salvage the last of his pudding.

"Naw," Sehun says, looking up with pudding smeared around his little pink mouth. "You're just silly. You can't be a silly king."

"Who is king then?" Chanyeol prompts, even as he suspects he already knows the answer.

"Me!" Sehun chirps, grinning widely as he holds up both the pudding cup and his spoon triumphantly. "I'm the best King ever! King of the House!" He lets out a sort of warrior cry, swishing his spoon through the air before hitting it on the table. "Obey me, peasants!"

"Hey, be nice to the table," Jongin chides gently, placing down his own empty pudding cup as he pushes to his feet. "And I think it's time for the king's bath."

"Kings don't take baths!" Sehun refuses his father as Jongin walks to the kitchen to put the spoon in the sink. "Kings don't believe in baths! I make the law that says no baths ever! It's too hot and gross to take a bath anyway, I'm just going to get all hot and sticky like I did before the last time I had a bath. No baths ever again!"

"Not even when they have apple bubbles?" Jongin asks, placing his hands on his slim ships with a raised eyebrow.

Pressing his lips together tightly, Sehun falls quiet, his face scrunching up as he appears to be at war with himself. Chanyeol watches with suppressed laughter as Sehun flops onto the table with a loud sigh and then looks up at Chanyeol, a bit of pudding smeared on his cheek. "Apple is my favorite," he says, squinting his eyes. "The father peasant is being tricksy."

"I take all my baths with apple bubbles," Chanyeol tells him very seriously. "It's the most important part."

Appearing to deliberate for a moment, Sehun finally wiggles away from the table, squirming from his seat to the floor. "I have made an amendment!" he declares, feet spread a bit wider than necessary and hands on his hips. "Bath time is only okay if there are apple bubbles."

"Then I guess it's time for you to go get naked, little King," Jongin tells him with a pointed look. Perking up, Sehun places his fists on his hips, looking a foolish rendition of Peter Pan, before he lets out a shriek of a giggle and sprints down the hall to the bathroom.

Laughing low and sweet, Jongin looks after his son before letting out a soft small sigh and looking to Chanyeol. For one of the few times Chanyeol has seen it, the look in Jongin's eyes is relaxed, opened and calm, comfortable. It's beautiful, like Chanyeol can finally see the person past the shell and the walls that Jongin keeps up, and actually see him, all of him. It catches the breath in the back of Chanyeol's throat as Jongin says, "he really likes you," with a note of fondness in his voice.

"I really like him," Chanyeol admits honestly, sitting back and just taking in Jongin. From the bathroom down the hall, the sound of the bath water begins running, soft sounds of Sehun pattering around drifting to them. Here, Jongin almost beams, his eyes creased up into little smiles of their own as he steps to continue cleaning up the kitchen. "He's a good kid. You're doing an amazing job."

Pausing at the sink, Jongin turns off the water, resting his hands against the counter. "I'm trying," he says, and it harkens back to when Chanyeol had last talked to him about this, reassured him gently. Then, he'd wanted so badly to drag Jongin into his arms, and now finds himself standing and just stepping closer. Just like before, Jongin doesn't pull away, only stiffens slightly under Chanyeol's touch as he lays a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. Jongin lets out a long sigh, his eyes closing briefly as he lets his head hang, looking tired for once and just easing into the exhaustion that he's been hiding since he opened the door. When he speaks, it's like he's speaking to himself, almost forgetting Chanyeol is there at all. "I am trying so hard. I just want to give him what he needs, to make sure he safe and knows he’s loved and that he turns out okay. I wish I could give him more."

If there were words to say, Chanyeol doesn't entirely know what they are, just letting his hand slip to rub the same small circles along Jongin's back. Under the fabric of his shirt, he can almost feel the bones of his back, the small knobs of his spine and the protrusion of his shoulder blades, too thin, skin hanging off of bones. "I think," he say finally, voice soft and hesitant, heart jumping into his throat when Jongin looks at him. "That you're doing more for Sehun than many parents do for their ids. I've seen a lot of kids in my day, and none of them hold a candle to Sehun. He's smart, funny, polite, kind, and more aware of who he is than any other kid I've met. And from what I've seen and experienced, I don't know any fathers who can quite compete with you."

What kind of parenting Jongin had as a model, Chanyeol doesn't know. A part of him is sure he doesn't want to know, ever. Another part, the part that never is satisfied with learning about Jongin, wants to know. As Jongin's eyes flicker over him, a soft almost fragile curl up at the corner, Chanyeol feels a sort of gentle swoop in his stomach. Jongin says nothing, but carefully reaches up as Chanyeol's hand rises to his shoulder, and clasps his hand over Chanyeol's, just holding.

It's thanks, speaking with the touch all the words Jongin doesn't have, and it speaks louder than the words ever could. It sends a deep ache into Chanyeol's chest as he looks into the swimming eyes before him and feels lost in the emotion he can see there.

"Daddy!" sounds from the bathroom, shouting over the rush of water and shattering the brief moment of stillness between breaths. "Dad! Daddy!" Sehun pokes his head around the door to the living room, hair sticking up and with a towel wrapped around his body. "I can't find the cement putty and the sink is leaking again!"

The moment is gone in a rush of breath as Jongin gives a small laugh, stepping swiftly past Chanyeol and towards Sehun's small pout. Chanyeol almost reaches out, brushing his fingers to his arm or catching his hand and pulling him close but he stays still, just letting him go. Sehun comes first, Sehun always comes first, and Jongin has to take care of himself before anything can happen. "Did you move it?" Jongin asks, voice raised as he walks towards the bathroom.

Don't be selfish.

"No!" Sehun says as Jongin and he walk towards the bathroom and out of sight. "I just used it to fix the pipe leak the other day and put it right back where I found it. But it's not under the sink!" There is a loud splash of water. "Did you use it? You always misplace stuff when you're super tired. It's like watching a big hippo that's blind or something. Except you have more hair."

"Sehun, are you telling me I look like a hippo?" Jongin's teasing voice has Chanyeol smiling as his eye catches on the bag of chicken he'd brought earlier.

"No," Sehun's voice says as water splashes again. "I'm saying you're like a blind hippo. There's a huge difference."

It feels a bit invasive to be opening Jongin's fridge, and Chanyeol pushes down a wince when he sees how it's so sparse. Placing the chicken into the center rack, he figures that will be better. As he listens to the sounds of Jongin and Sehun in the bath, he writes a brief note from his notebook and leaves it with the chicken. Initially, he'd planned on sharing it with them, but after seeing lunch today, Chanyeol would rather leave it and just let them enjoy it. There's a tight twist to his stomach when he sees a Federal addressed envelope on the fridge and recognizes the familiar food stamps, the envelope labeled 'IN CASE OF EMERGENCY' in large bold pen.

Sitting at the table, Chanyeol frowns at his hands, trying to sort between the conflicting thoughts in his head. On one hand, he knows Jongin is rationing food, feeding himself less to ensure Sehun eats and is fed. In the worst case, which Chanyeol is sure Jongin has extended to, he's gone without eating at all to make sure Sehun eats. It's that aspect that has Chanyeol even more worried, his mind flashing back to when he'd met Jongin and the other man had literally fallen into his arms from fatigue and physical exhaustion. It's that reality that has him wanting to say something, to not take no for an answer and talk to Jongin.

On the other hand, he doesn't want to push Jongin. He gets the impression that too many people have pushed Jongin too many times, and that it hurts more than it helps, and he doesn't want to hurt Jongin. Instead the opposite is true, the want to protect Jongin, both Jongin and Sehun, has been growing intensely since his visit home with his family. It may not be an ending he can ever attain, but Chanyeol knows what Jongin is beginning to mean in his life, and while there may be nothing coming back for Chanyeol, he doesn't care.

Feeling for someone doesn't mean expecting feelings in return, and Chanyeol has had more than enough experience with that.

Jongin does a good job of hiding it for the most part, just how thinly he's spreading himself. The rare moments when he lets his guard down, like the moment just before in the kitchen, very rare and in between. It tells more about how rarely Jongin ever feels safe enough to let his guard down, how many times he's been taken advantage of, and had to build up those walls just to keep going. It makes Chanyeol wonder how many people he said no to before he accepted Chanyeol's offered hand of help.

A soft sound behind him has Chanyeol looking up, startled from his thoughts. Jongin gives him a small tired smile, water splashed up his front and his hair looking slightly damp. "Sorry," he says, the word rolling off his tongue automatically.

"No apologies necessary," Chanyeol says, smiling up at him and almost reaching up for his hand to hold reassuringly. "Bath time is serious business. I fully expect bath time to take precedence over my visiting. If you need to take your own bath, don't let me stand in the way. Perhaps I could even scrub your back."

"I can reach," Jongin says, stepping away from Chanyeol's hand and moving to the living room. Without being asked, Chanyeol follows. "I'll shower later, after you're gone. I wanted to get Sehun in the tub though, it's been too hot to forgo showers for too long these days."

"I'm pretty sure if it were up to Sehun, he would never bathe," Chanyeol comments, settling onto the couch beside Jongin. He tries to sit and give Jongin space, enough to spread out and just rest some. He looks so tired still, even as he laughs at Chanyeol's remark.

“I don't even want to think about all of the rules if Sehun actually was in charge,” Jongin says, dragging his hands over his face slowly. “We would all be expected to survive entirely on pudding and peaches and chocolate.”

“I’m sure he’d be pleased,” Chanyeol laughs.

“He’d have a mouth full of cavities,” Jongin says, shaking his head and sighing. “I don’t remember having as much of sweet tooth as him when I was that age.”

“Maybe you were just sweet instead,” Chanyeol says. He laughs again as Jongin reaches out sluggishly and hits him lightly, a smile still on his face. He doesn't pull away when Chanyeol catches his hand, holding onto it as it rests against his abdomen. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a six year old willingly eat all that healthy food though. I doubt even I’ve ever been as well behaved as Sehun is.”

“He’s showing off because you’re here,” Jongin says, eyes closing. He doesn't pull away when Chanyeol slowly begins to rub small circles over the back of his hand with his thumb, trying to smooth away some of the exhaustion. He lets out another sigh, shoulders relaxing as he opens his eyes and looks over at Chanyeol with a faint smile. “I told you, he likes you.”

“I like me too,” Chanyeol says, grinning as Jongin lets out a startled laugh. “I’m glad Sehun and I can agree on something. I knew we had a lot in common.”

Jongin laughs, a tired but good sound as he reaches over and pulls his hand free just to punch Chanyeol lightly in the thigh, not too hard but none too soft and Chanyeol laughs. It doesn't hurt, and he doesn't pull away when Chanyeol takes his hand again, holding on loosely. Jongin's hand feels so small in Chanyeol's, small, worn and almost fragile. “You never need anyone to compliment you. You do it all by yourself.”

“I’m convenient. You never have to worry about making me feel bad,” Chanyeol tells him and Jongin’s eyes open to meet his. The dark circles are prominent in the afternoon sun, the dimmer light from the living room casting them into shadow and Chanyeol’s eyes linger on the chapped skin of his lips before he wets his own.

“I’ll try to remember that,” Jongin says. He looks about five minutes from falling asleep, settled easily into the couch as his breathing slows.

“You have your own worries, taking care of Sehun, and yourself,” Chanyeol says. Meeting Jongin’s eyes, heavy with sleep, he knows he’s let his own concern slip too much into his voice from the flicker that greets him. “Which is also important.”

It's too much to let go, to ignore, and Chanyeol, even if he knows it may not be a good idea, isn't about to let this go. He cares too much.

For a brief moment, Jongin just stares at him, smile fading away as his expression closes down, before he sits up on the couch. It makes something heavy sink into Chanyeol's chest, the open comfortable feeling slipping away as Jongin’s mouth sets into a serious and firm line. “I know it is important.”

Jongin is spreading too thin, his body showing the signs of too many long times and too much work and not enough food and sleep. The last thing he should be doing is rationing his food like Chanyeol had watched him doing earlier, pushing his body to its limits again, pushing it to collapse again. “I know you’re taking care of Sehun, but you really need to take care of yourself as well.” When Chanyeol tries to squeeze gently around Jongin's hand, tell him he just cares and is worried, Jongin pulls away, tucking his hand into his lap and not looking at him. "The last thing you or Sehun needs is for you to push yourself so you're at your limits. Sehun doesn't need his father forgetting his own needs and collapsing-"

"You don't know what you're talking about," Jongin cuts him off, and still doesn't look at him. He stares ahead, eyes boring into the wall ahead of him between the two bookcases he'd salvaged and crammed with literary classics. "I am taking care of myself," he says, voice tight as he closes his eyes. He swallows, and his jaw tightens. “I have been taking care of him and myself for a while. I've been taking care of both of us for five years, in times worse than now. I know what I’m doing.”

“Really?” Chanyeol asks, raising his eyebrows and trying to keep his tone even. He doesn’t want to fight, he doesn’t want Jongin pulling away like this, but he can’t just sit and watch Jongin starve himself. He cares too much. “Because not eating or sleeping enough when you’re working as much as you are seems a lot like not taking care of yourself.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Jongin repeats, finally turning to him. His eyes bore into Chanyeol's, heavy and shining even as they burn with stubbornness. The walls that keep trying to close down are struggling though, and even then Chanyeol can see some of the pain that Jongin is trying to hide struggling to show itself.

“I’m not trying to attack you,” Chanyeol says, trying to keep his voice calm. Biting down the frustration as Jongin doesn't listen, he tries to quiet his own angst as he watches Jongin pushing down his pain rather than let Chanyeol help him. “I’m just concerned.”

“Be less concerned,” Jongin says and it stings. “I’m fine.”

“I watched you collapse,” Chanyeol reminds quietly, the memory still vivid but it hurts more to look back on, the image of Jongin crumpling, weak and too light and limp in his arms. “The human body has it’s limits, Jongin.”

“And I know mine!” Jongin’s voice rises, not too much but enough to have Chanyeol snapping his mouth closed. The flare in Jongin’s tone and the stern commanding look on his face speak more than Chanyeol’s words can reach. It's just a flare though, and a moment later Jongin deflates, eyes closing as he sags into himself, exhaustion once more taking over. “Just drop it. As much as you think you know what you're talking about, you really don't. So just stop.”

"I'm just worried about you," Chanyeol tells him quietly. It's been a very long time since Chanyeol has ever felt properly scolded, but he has that feeling right now. The almost parental tone that Jongin had used, the look in his eyes gets under his skin in a way he hadn't expected. Still, this is too important to give up on just for being scolded. “You’re not eating enough. Don’t try to lie to me, I watched you at lunch and I can see it.”

This time, when Jongin looks at him, there is no give. The walls are up, firmly in place, and there is no smile on Jongin's face, just the blankness of a closed door and finality. “We aren’t having this conversation, Chanyeol,” Jongin says, eyes hard and it’s the end.

There is a line, a line that Chanyeol feels like he’s just about to cross, pushing the boundaries with Jongin and every time they’re together Jongin gives a little bit. Right now it’s taut and fraying and if Chanyeol crosses it, it will break. He can’t take the risk. “Okay,” he relents, sitting back, defeated.

It's quiet for a while, the only sounds drifting from outside through the windows and Sehun in the bathroom singing to himself. Finally, Jongin relaxes slightly though the firmness on his position is still there when he looks at Chanyeol. “I know my limits,” Jongin reassures. “I won’t collapse on you again.”

"Or anyone," Chanyeol adds, and Jongin's eyes widen slightly. Chanyeol tries to smile, to lighten the situation. "I'll get jealous if I find out you've been finding other people to collapse on. I thought I was special."

"You are special," Jongin says, and though he hesitates, he reaches out to carefully pat Chanyeol on the knee. It makes Chanyeol calm even as he feels the soft expanding flutter in his chest start again. His hand doesn't pull away when Chanyeol reaches forward and takes it. It's progress, and Chanyeol pushes down his mind telling him it means something else than a slow building trust between them.

"Promise me one thing," Chanyeol says, knowing it might be going a little far, but not wanting to give up.

"Chanyeol-"

"I know you said you'd have me over for dinner to pay me back for the groceries, or anything else, but don't." Jongin's face falls, and Chanyeol feels his hand flexing on his knee, tightening his own grip around Jongin's hand to hold his attention and keep him from pulling away. "I don't want to see you rationing food on yourself just to feed me."

"Chanyeol." Jongin's tone wavers, and Chanyeol squeezes his hand again, not wanting him to back away, to run, but please stay. Please let Chanyeol stay. "I can't just take all of those things. I-" his voice cracks and the look in his eyes is tired, glistening with emotions unspoken. "I don't have anything else that I can-"

"Then I'm sure there's something else you can figure out that will work," Chanyeol presses, him, turning and shifting closer, wanting Jongin to understand. He smiles, running his thumb over the back of Jongin's hand and watching as Jongin's eyes lock with his and flicker, his breath stuttering. "You should know by now that I don't want money or food or things from you." Jongin swallows and gives a faint nod. "Just take your time, okay? In the meantime, I’ll be here."

"Okay," Jongin says, voice cracked, shaking and sound too dry and small. Faintly, as Sehun begins singing at the top of his lungs, he feels him squeeze gently back around Chanyeol's hand.

And maybe, Chanyeol thinks as he looks at the man before him and feels his heart pound and the stick of summer heat sink into his skin, things will be okay. They will be okay.

*

It's not until the first weekend in August that the heat finally begins to break. The humidity that had clung to July begins to fade and Junmyeon finally gets a free weekend from his schedule to go up into the mountains with Chanyeol for their annual hiking trip. They've been doing this for years now, since Chanyeol's first year at the company when Junmyeon was still on the writing teams and he and Chanyeol took the same commuter line into work together.

It's been a long standing tradition that they go up every summer into the mountains, hiking up to the peak to camp under the stars before hiking back down the next day. Usually, they try to get up in early summer, some time in June, but with the new spreads in the articles and the influx of interns, Junmyeon had been booked almost every weekend with plans as Chanyeol's events calendar began to spontaneously fill up.

Today, after driving up together in the early morning, Chanyeol is glad to be back out in the woods again. They'd parked Chanyeol's car at the base of the hiking trails to wait for them tomorrow, and have packed their standard gear in packs on their backs. Driving up was nice, Junmyeon usually able to make the atmosphere comfortable and keeping conversation going even if most of the jokes he tries to crack aren't as funny as he seems to think they are. It's always endearing though, and Chanyeol, even if he sometimes ducks from his watchful eye at work, loves his friendship with Junmyeon.

It’s simple, uncomplicated, and just easy between the two of them. Junmyeon doesn’t impose and often times is the one who looks after Chanyeol, which while it makes him sometimes worry about his friend, puts a part of him at ease.

The weather this weekend is ideal, the sun bright and warm through the trees but not blistering. It makes it easier on both them and their water supply. While the drive up had been comprised of Chanyeol catching up with Junmyeon's life, his friend talking much of the time as Chanyeol drove, now it's Chanyeol's turn. Walking up the mountain path is mostly in silence, but the breaks as they stop for water end in short questions as Junmyeon drops his pack from his back with a bright inquisitive look.

"I swear, either these trails are getting harder, or I'm getting older," Junmyeon sighs, pushing damp bangs off of his face as he looks up the trail ahead of them. "Has it always been this steep?"

"We haven't been here in a year, the rains last fall may have done something, but I doubt it," Chanyeol teases, smiling at Junmyeon as his friend looks at him and laughs. "I think you're just getting older."

"Nah, it just is my punishment for not going to the gym like I used to," Junmyeon sighs, taking a long drink from his canteen. "I've let myself go." Looking at Junmyeon's trim figure, Chanyeol hardly thinks he's 'let himself go', especially since Chanyeol cannot remember the last time he properly went to the gym. "Anyway, you were telling me about your sister earlier? Or was that Jongdae?"

"Probably Jongdae," Chanyeol sighs. Pressing a handkerchief to the back of his neck after soaking it in cool water, he lets the cold sensation calm down his heart and nerves. "He's the one that's the most excited about us being brothers."


"Or dreading it, and just pretending," Junmyeon says, and then laughs. Chanyeol ends up laughing as well, not quite sure if Junmyeon is joking or not, but considering that's how most of Junmyeon's jokes work, he'll wager his bets. "Either that or he's just sad he can't ask you to be his date for the wedding."

"I'd turn him down anyway," Chanyeol laughs.

"Not your type?" Junmyeon teases.

"Not particularly," Chanyeol grins. "I prefer the quieter cute ones. And you know Jongdae, I’m not exactly his type either."

"Of course, of course, sometimes I forget how picky you two are," Junmyeon says, nodding. He takes another long drink of water as Chanyeol watches him, comfortable to just sit and rest for a moment in silence.

“You’re one to talk,” Chanyeol points out, and the laugh that responds is accompanied by a short spay with the water bottle in Junmyeon’s hands. Junmyeon gives him a sort of patronizing squint before relaxing, letting silence fill between them.

The nice thing about Junmyeon is that Chanyeol never feels like he needs to fill the silences that fall between them, just content to let them hang for a moment. "What else have you been up to? I know I've been busy these last few weeks, but from what I gather, so have you."

A soft nudge settles into Chanyeol's chest as he looks at Junmyeon's curious look. "I'll tell you after the next ridge," he says, and Junmyeon grins.

"You could tell me on the way," he suggests.

"And be huffing and puffing the whole way? You're nuts."

The next ridge is open, sitting right on an outcrop in the side of the mountain. The trees are thin here, cleared away, and show the view out from the side of the mountain. Looking down, it’s a clear view of the mountain they've climbed thus far, showing the countryside sprawling out before them from the base out to the horizon. It's all lush green and wild forest spreading for miles and miles ahead of them, a few fields and a lake in the far distance, but overall untouched.

Breathing deeply, Chanyeol takes in the view and just lets it sink in, reveling in the amazing feeling of the world around him stretching out beneath him in as he looks out.

“So,” Junmyeon says, dropping his pack and settling down on a nearby rock. “How much have you missed this?”

“A lot,” Chanyeol admits, looking out as he stands at the edge of the ridge and looks over what feels like the world. It’s a view that not many people get, trapped up in their boxes of cubicles in the city, not driving out here and spending the time to take a small breath of the greater world. People like Baekhyun, who spend all weekend out drinking or partying or with friends.

People like Jongin, who don’t have time, working all weekend and taking care of Sehun in every spare moment. It’s such a beautiful thing to be out here, and Sehun, with all his World Garden and Jongin’s encouragement, would love it out here probably. The small tent-fort that Sehun had built in Jongin’s room is nothing but a phantom compared to the beauty of this view, and imagination of what it would be like out here.

It makes Chanyeol wonder if Jongin would like doing this, if he could, if he wasn’t working all the time. Coming out here with Sehun and spending a weekend up in the mountains, looking up at the stars at night and listening to the wind in the trees.

Would Jongin hike in silence, or would he whistle like Chanyeol’s grandfather used to when they would go out? Would Sehun want to run ahead and scramble over the trail to get ahead of them, bright smile on his face, or would he ride on Jongin’s shoulders up the mountain? Would he ride on Chanyeol’s shoulders, small hands wrapped around his thumbs as they walk over the path and learn the tree varieties?

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Junmyeon’s voice is soft beside him and Chanyeol only sighs, eyes out on the horizon and thoughts just as distant. “I somehow forget how beautiful it is every time I leave, but coming back I’m reminded just how wonderful it is out here. How much I love it out there, away from the city and in the fresh air.”

The air that’s so clean and full of natural smells unlike the city, which is nothing but pollution and sun against tarmac. The park, with all its trees, is the only respite, a mockery of this sanctuary out in the mountains.

“Sometimes, I wish we could just stay out here,” Chanyeol murmurs. Out here, there are no demanding jobs, no landlord who bangs on doors with maintenance requests from the neighbors, demanding rent. There are no neighbors who stare with beady eyes and darkened windows that Sehun hides from. There are no expectations of who Chanyeol wants to be with or doesn’t. It’s just quiet, and the world slowly moves from day to night under the sky. “That Monday would never come.”

Junmyeon lets out a soft sigh beside him, nodding with a warmth in his expression that almost adds to the scenery. In all of their friendship, Junmyeon has always been a stable friend, even when he and Jinri were on the rocks. He’s a listener, and a part of Chanyeol, the part that has been scared, tentative and protective, almost wants to open now and say something.

“But it always comes, anyway,” Junmyeon says, eyes out towards the horizon under his brimmed hiking hat. “Even if we want it to or not.”

If Chanyeol were going to tell anyone about what is going on, what has him busy most weekends and has his thoughts wrapped up, it might be Junmyeon. Perhaps, if Chanyeol explained, Junmyeon would understand, listen and Chanyeol wouldn’t feel like he’s hoarding Jongin, keeping that part of his life secret.

“You’re quiet today,” Junmyeon comments, turning back to him and away from the view.

It would be now, before they get to the top of the mountain and set up camp. This is the largest break during the hike, and now would be when Chanyeol could talk about what’s in his life.

“Just thoughtful,” Chanyeol answers, the burgeoning sensation in his chest slipping behind his heart, pushing gently. It’s not his secret, his world, to tell. “About things back home, and at the magazine.”

“I promise, I did turn in your proposals to Andy last week,” Junmyeon tells him, an almost sympathetic light to his gaze. “And even if they say no again, I think that looking into the gut microbiota is interesting, and that people would find it cool to read about.”

“Thanks,” Chanyeol tells him weakly, not really meaning to talk about that, but thankful none the same Junmyeon remembered. “I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, then.”

“For you, I hope they run the project,” Junmyeon says. “Then maybe all the yogurt articles we did back in the spring would have more relevance other than ‘slimming down for summer’ like the fads pushed for.”

It gets a laugh out of Chanyeol, and the sensation in his chest settles, a soft humming under his skin that doesn’t insist. It’s not time to tell, it’s not his world to tell, and Chanyeol still isn’t sure where he stands in Jongin’s world. As much as Chanyeol would love to get Jongin out here, hiking for a weekend, he still can’t tell how Jongin would react.

After he’d dropped off the chicken and visited last week, Jongin had called him, apologizing for his outburst as if afraid Chanyeol would lash back at him later. Despite reassurance it was fine, and Chanyeol had been the one out of turn, Jongin hadn’t listened, and had added thanks for the chicken.

”You didn’t have to bring me this, I really can’t keep accepting things like this from you.” Nothing Chanyeol says seems to get him to realize that there is nothing to payback. The thanks is enough, even if Jongin keeps ignoring that.

It sets him to feel a bit uneasy, wishing he knew how to talk to Jongin to get him to see he just wants to help, to be there and do something that would take away some of the burden. It makes Chanyeol wonder if he’s become a part of the burden, if his presence in Jongin’s life is making him ration, push himself, and put himself in danger.

If Chanyeol being part of Jongin’s life is taking away from his time with Sehun, and it makes it hard to tell himself to stay away when he doesn’t know if Jongin will get help otherwise.

“Shall we?” Junmyeon suggests after they finish up a snack, packed GORP and water and the breezes pick up.

Would it be too much to try to get a day trip out here. It would be wonderful, hiking up one of the nearby mountains for a day hike. The sunshine and fresh air and a few hours away from worry and stress, the city life just melting away. Or out to one of the local swimming areas, playing on the greens and splashing around in the water for a while, packing a lunch with a few fun snacks.

The issue is that all of these things require things. Shoes for hiking, suits for swimming, a cooler to pack food, and backpacks to carry supplies, and odds are Jongin doesn’t have those things.

With the sun shining down bring overhead and filtering through the trees, Chanyeol lets his mind wander into silence with the repetitive process of walking up the trail, his breathing loud in his ears. He smiles, feeling his body relax tension he didn’t realize he was holding, as Junmyeon begins to whistle up ahead of him, the sound echoing over the mountain and into Chanyeol’s memory.

 

*

The article section was rejected again.

Though the disappointment sunk deep into his chest at the news from a sympathetic looking Junmyeon, Chanyeol had done his best to pass it off with a smile. Even Jongdae had looked sympathetic this time as Chanyeol returned to his desk after getting the news. "What about a children's section?" he had suggested. "Or I could just take you out for drinks tonight. Isn't that what you do on Friday nights? Go out for drinks and make bad decisions?"

"You go ahead," Chanyeol had told him, trying to pass off a smile as he turned back to his work. There are still pages saved in his email with jobs he'd thought of looking into. Something that isn't just editing and writing about various uses of the latest food trend. Something that would actually do something more than this, where he'd come to the office every day excited to work and leave feeling like he'd done something worth his time.

"Chanyeol," Jongdae had said only his name before placing a freshly purchased coffee on his desk. It was originally for himself, Chanyeol knows that, but the gesture is touching. It's not the first time his ideas have been rejected, and it definitely won't be the last.

Just once, he'd like to have something where it's a success and his efforts don't fall on deaf ears at the magazine. For once, he'd like to do something that matters at his job rather than feel like he's just treading water for a paycheck.

Closing his eyes and taking a sip of the coffee, Chanyeol breathes deeply. He's lucky, really, having a job that's as stable as this, where he gets paid more than enough to live on and can afford the lifestyle he has. He's lucky. There are other people, with children the age of six and living without families and friends, who are not as lucky.

It's been a week since he's heard from Jongin, and Chanyeol tells himself not to call. Don't be selfish, he repeats to himself, knowing Jongin is probably busy.

The messages he leaves are more than he should leave anyway, and he doesn't want to impose on Jongin's time. He can't bring himself to leave him completely alone though. He cares.

Too much,, whispers that voice at the back of his mind as he opens up the latest article from the summer intern. Let him come to you.

In the back of his mind, Chanyeol allows himself a small moment of amusement has he realizes he's treating Jongin a bit like a cat on the streets. Approach slowly, and let them come to you. Just like the cats Chanyeol had grown up with, waiting with a hand outstretched, non threatening, for them to come and allow him to pet them. The nice thing is he won't get an allergic reaction from Jongin.

"Are you sure you don't want to come out for drinks?" Jongdae asks as they pack up at the end of the day. "I invited the others. We'll all be there. You can finally meet Sunyoung."

"I promised to help Minseok with his cafe tomorrow," Chanyeol explains. "Up and out the door early."

"Your misery," Jongdae sighs, before offering a smile and returning to his work. "Next time though?"

"I promise," Chanyeol reassures. So much time has been split between work and Jongin that he's forgotten his friends more and more these days. It's surprising that it's not Baekhyun 'blowing up his phone', considering the other man's lifestyle. But then, Baekhyun has perhaps learned better over the years.

Waving Jongdae off when he leaves, Chanyeol settles himself into the evening commute home during rush, leaving work late. It's sardines, crammed on the train and standing in the stifling heat of the platforms between trains. His collar sticks to his skin and even as he longs for the cool conditioned air of his apartment, he thinks of an old fan and the stuffy air of a fourth floor apartment. The buildings flash by, stop after stop, as Chanyeol's mind wanders.

It wouldn't be too much to get Jongin out. Maybe just catch him on a weekend he might be able to spare, or take Sehun out. He smiles, remembering the small gift he'd picked up the other day. The last time he'd seen them, it had been during a morning farmer's market and Sehun had positively fallen in love with a local flower vendor, swinging from Chanyeol's hand as Jongin helped out a local farmer. He hadn't said anything, but the ache that settles deeper into Chanyeol's chest watching Jongin scramble for a little extra money gets heavier and heavier. Chanyeol had surprised him that afternoon with freshly bought chicken skewers he'd snatched up from a vendor while Jongin was working and Chanyeol was wandering with Sehun.

"You earned it," Chanyeol had told his conflicted features as he held up the skewer. "And if you don't eat it, Sehun definitely will." The young boy, his cheeks slick with sauce from the chicken, had grinned up at his father.

The memory has Chanyeol smiling now, some of the discomfort from the subway heat fading as he remembers the small but appreciated bites Jongin took of his food. The poorly hidden glances at him that were almost desperate with thanks and confusion. His smile widens as he thinks of the small gardening set he'd picked up at the market later that day, Sehun in his mind and Jongin's apartment flickering before his eyes. It's small, but Chanyeol hopes that it won't be seen as too much, too invasive.

Sehun had looked so happy at the flowers, his eyes wide and little soft gasps emitting from his lips as he'd clutched onto Chanyeol's fingers.

When the doors open again, Chanyeol's eyes catch on the people filtering inside. A familiar face passes through the people and Chanyeol turns around, eyes wide and heart jumping as he spots Jongin trying to hide in plain sight among the other passengers. Head bowed and bangs cut too short now to hide his face, he still looks small. Carefully, Chanyeol maneuvers his way to Jongin's side, nudging him when Jongin doesn't notice him.

Jumping in surprise, Jongin looks up at him with those same brown shocked eyes, mouth open to apologize, before it thankfully stops in his throat. Then he smiles, hesitant even as he relaxes slightly. "I somehow always forget you take this line too," Jongin murmurs quietly, settling beside Chanyeol.

"I'm always surprised to see you on the train with me," Chanyeol tells him quietly. "It's a pleasant surprise though, one that I wouldn't trade in for really anything."

Jongin's eyes flicker, the brown in them deepening in ways Chanyeol doesn't know how to read. Yet.

"I'm not always on this train, so that's probably why you don't see me much," Jongin says, avoiding the topic of why.

"That's why it's always a nice surprise when I do see you," Chanyeol says. Jongin looks even more tired, the dark circles back under his skin, and the summer shirt he's wearing hangs off of him. His skin has little more color to it though, and the haircut he had a few weeks back is growing in nicely. He looks handsome, and Chanyeol almost sighs at the thought of how even now he looks so-

Selfish, his mind whispers to him. Don't impose on him.

"Where are you headed today?" Chanyeol asks him. "I thought you'd be heading home."

"Picking up a paycheck," Jongin says, and lets out a soft breath, almost like a sigh.

"I thought paychecks were good things."

"They are," Jongin says, and fixes a smile on his face.

"You don't seem very happy," Chanyeol remarks, pushing a little even as he knows Jongin might not give.

"Well, usually paychecks are better when they're not final," Jongin murmurs, softly as if he doesn't want Chanyeol to hear it.

A soft weight settles into Chanyeol's chest. Chanyeol knows that work isn't easy for Jongin to find, that he's been struggling since long before Chanyeol met him to find work and make ends meet. It's hard when he's trying to support Sehun and his work hours all seem to be split with establishments that will only hire part time. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Jongin says immediately, and reaches out to lightly clasp around Chanyeol's hand. "You weren’t the one that-" he bites his lip "- well, you shouldn't apologize. Not to me. I'm the one who keeps somehow always being indebted to you anyway."

"Stop calling it that," Chanyeol tells him, trying to be stern but not harsh. It comes out muted, unsure. "Besides, I don't want things from you, Jongin. I have enough money, I don’t need you to pay me back." He winces slightly; that didn't come out right. "What I meant was-"

"I will," Jongin interrupts him, voice slightly louder, cutting over his own. "I promised."

It's more than Chanyeol wants to think about, how stubborn Jongin is about this, about how he needs help but keeps refusing to ask for it. It's almost frustrating, how Chanyeol cares, wants to help, to be there for this man that seems stuck in his head and has been somehow digging a spot into Chanyeol's chest despite his hesitancy to acknowledge it, and yet he pushes him away. It's not unkind, and Jongin has opened up so much to him, his home, his family, and let Chanyeol in where he's pretty sure not many have been allowed.

Selfish,, his mind repeats to him loudly. It's better not to talk about the repayment thing, where Jongin is insistent on it. Chanyeol doesn't know how to just tell Jongin he wants him to be okay, to be happy, more than he wants Jongin to pay him back. He would rather just have Jongin, whole and happy and healthy, than anything Jongin could give him.

He swallows, the thick feeling in his throat making it difficult to think around the way Jongin is looking at him.

"Do you have anywhere to be after you pick up your paycheck?" Chanyeol asks instead. Changing the topic might help, and he thinks of the gardening kit. He thinks of the leftovers from dinner two days ago that are waiting for him.

"Just to the classifieds," Jongin says, and it takes a moment before Chanyeol realizes it's a joke. He laughs, keeping his voice down on the train, and Jongin's slight smile is reward enough even as it tastes bitter at the back of his tongue.

"I have something for you," Chanyeol says, and Jongin's expression falls. "For Sehun, actually," Chanyeol corrects himself. "I picked it up the other day and figured I'd drop by later this week to give it to him."

"Chanyeol, you didn't-"

"But it would be easier if you could just take it tonight," Chanyeol continues before Jongin can say no. "It's nothing big, just a little something I thought he'd like. If you have time tonight, I'd appreciate it, especially since I'm busy this weekend and can't come by myself." Jongin's eyes flicker, looking between his and he bites his lip. "Unless you'd rather I come by."

It feels like pushing it, it is pushing it, but a part of Chanyeol can't help but want to know. The part of him that feels too much, asking what if even if he knows better.

Jongin has enough to deal with without Chanyeol's looking at his feelings and the possibilities that may exist. There are enough, and he doesn't know, even if he wants to.

Too close.

"Okay," Jongin says, and Chanyeol takes a moment before he breathes out again, a large smile spreading on his face involuntarily. He doesn't say much else, just watches Chanyeol with an almost nervous smile on his face as Chanyeol tries to talk of other things. He tells Jongin about hiking with Junmyeon, noticing the way Jongin's face lights up a bit at the mention of hiking, the way he asks softly about the magazine and carefully brushes his fingers over the back of Chanyeol's hand in sympathy at the rejection of his proposal. Chanyeol watches as Jongin's eyes light up or his nose scrunches slightly, the way he doesn't look away from him when he talks and the way the makes his chest heavy and light simultaneously.

Jongin leaves him after they stop at Chanyeol's station, walking in the other direction with a promise to stop by after he gets his paycheck. It leaves Chanyeol slightly nervous to have Jongin coming to his apartment. With anxious hands, he cleans up his home, wondering how much time he has, and trying to keep his breathing even. It doesn't matter that he knows his apartment is far nicer than Jongin's and that he probably shouldn't worry. If anything, it makes him even more nervous.

It almost feels disrespectful to Jongin to have him see Chanyeol's apartment a mess when he has so little and keeps it so clean and makes the best with the little he has.

It may be too much, but Chanyeol pushes down his worries when he pulls out the leftovers and a few other things to send Jongin home with. It's all things he may not have time to eat, or that he just has lying around, and he'd rather see them put to good use by someone who needs them than watch them possibly spoil. Placing it on the table beside the small gardening kit for Sehun, Chanyeol barely has a moment to catch his breath before there is a soft knock on the door.

Nerves jumping like he's meeting a first date, Chanyeol pushes down the shake in his chest as he opens the door.

Jongin looks almost hesitant to walk in. "You've been here before, it's okay," Chanyeol tries to reassure him as Jongin cautiously steps inside.

"But I don't remember it much," Jongin admits, voice almost hushed. "And the last time..." Trailing off, his eyes flicker to Chanyeol. He swallows. "Last time was different."

"Well, I hope this time is better," Chanyeol tells him, pushing away from the subject. The last time... "Anyway, how did the pick up go? Did they realize they were stupid to say no and hire you back?" He walks to the kitchen, grabbing a glass of water for both himself and Jongin.

"No," Jongin says. When Chanyeol looks at him he's hovering just in the living area, eyes flickering over the furniture timidly, like he's afraid to touch anything. Hiis eyes flicker to the kitchen table, lingering on the bag of food and the small garden kit. He swallows heavily before his eyes shifting to Chanyeol and looking hesitant. "They offered me less hours though, but I can't afford to-"

"You'll find something," Chanyeol tells him, and nudges him gently with the glass of water. Jongin almost jumps before he carefully wraps his fingers around the glass, looking up at Chanyeol as if nervous. "Or," Chanyeol supplies, taking a sip of water to swallow down his nerves. He shouldn't be this nervous, he's not got any reason to be, yet his heart is pounding against his will. "You can always ask-"

"Chanyeol-" Jongin begins, voice tight.

"I'm just saying, you can always ask," Chanyeol says quickly. "And I trust you, with all your harping about paying me back, that you'll do it one day. If it really comes down to it." Jongin is looking at him like he can't figure out what to say, words caught in his throat and lips pressed tight as his eyes flicker. "I don't know how many jobs you're working, and you don't have to tell me-" he rushes when Jongin opens his mouth "-but I just want, or, well, I'm always here for you. If you need it." Jongin's jaw clenches, his breath slightly halting as his eyes flicker, shoulders stiff. It's not what Chanyeol wants, but he doesn't want to stop before he's said his piece. "Consider me a benefactor."

"I can't-" Jongin says, voice rough as he looks down at the glass held in his hands and breathes in deep, shaking slightly. "Chanyeol, you're not- I'm not-"

"I'm not asking you for money," Chanyeol tells him, wanting to reach out. As Jongin's shoulders shiver slightly, Chanyeol pushes down the warning and puts down his glass, reaching up and wrapping an arm around Jongin's shoulders. It gets a soft gasp from the other man, and Jongin stiffens before he seems to decide on something and relaxes into Chanyeol's arms. It's nervous, shaking just as Jongin is, but something winds warm and content into Chanyeol's chest.

"I don't have money," Jongin tells him. "I can't give you things, or money, and I don't have time to- all I have is myself."

Swallowing down the stick in his throat as he looks down at Jongin, the small frame and the lips that are being bitten red, Chanyeol tries to laugh as he says, "that's good enough for me. I’m happy with just you."

It's silent, Jongin's breaths ending after a short inhale, and Chanyeol's own heart muted in his ears as he realizes what he's said. As he waits for Jongin to turn to him with either a laugh or a frown or to pull away. Something. Instead, Jongin is still, the glass in his hands no longer shaking as he looks down at it, and Chanyeol feels something pass over him, setting his shoulders back and slipping over his face. Watching him with bated breath, Chanyeol opens his mouth to try to excuse himself as joking, when Jongin turns sharply and puts down his glass.

"I-" Chanyeol begins only to have the words die in his throat as Jongin turns to him. As many times as Jongin has looked at him before, none of them have been like this, with dark eyes and an expression that looks almost...

"Okay," Jongin says, voice lower and softer, almost beckoning as he steps into Chanyeol's space, and places a hand over his chest.

There isn't even time to breathe, gasp in shock as Jongin suddenly leans in, before Chanyeol can't move, the sudden press of Jongin against him silencing him completely. Words fall into nothing at the soft but pointed press of chapped plush lips against his, and the curl of fingers into his shirt, pulling him closer, has anything Chanyeol may have said forgotten. Until now, Chanyeol had never thought this far, let himself think about this, to even imagine what might happen if Jongin felt as he did, if he cared more, if he wanted him too. But as Jongin presses harder, kissing him and fitting himself closer to Chanyeol, Chanyeol's muddled mind figures he couldn't have imagined this.

Jongin, despite his hesitancy and stiffness, is so soft, almost careful as he presses closer, the slide of his mouth demanding as he kisses Chanyeol. His eyes are closed, so close that Chanyeol can see the way his eyelashes fan against cheeks brushed with pink, and he lets out a soft sound as his fingers wind tighter into Chanyeol's shirt.

When he pulls back, eyes opening and looking dark as his lips shine red, Chanyeol opens his mouth to say... something, and it catches into nothing, a soft murmur. "Jongin," is all that he manages, and then Jongin is kissing him again, leaning in when Chanyeol's hands rest against his sides, lost for where to go as his mind buzzes. It's so nice, the press of Jongin's lips against his as his other hand winds around his shoulders, burying into Chanyeol's hair as he pulls him closer.

It's hot, the winding coil up from his chest as his mind begins to spin back from the numb shock from the first kiss, buzzing louder and louder as Jongin kisses him again and again, faster and harder. Jongin kisses him like it's everything, hot and insistent and intense, more and more insistent as Chanyeol's breaths catch in his throat, Jongin holding onto him like he'll fall. It's nothing like any other time Chanyeol has been kissed, and he feels dizzy, confused, and-

Jongin lets out another soft sound, and Chanyeol almost trips as he presses harder, pushing back at him. "Jongin," he repeats, louder and gets a soft whimper in return as Jongin's breaths shake before he's kissing him again. It's frantic, like Jongin is afraid to go too slow, rushing and pushing against Chanyeol's hands as he tries to hold him, to-

Stop.

"Jongin," Chanyeol tries again, mind waking up as Jongin's hand is fisted too tight in his shirt, clutched and his breaths shudder between the press of lips. "Jongin-"

"Just let me," Jongin gasps at him, voice shaking in its low tones against his mouth as Jongin's eyes flicker to meet his. "Please."

In all the times Chanyeol has been kissed, he's never felt like this. It's hot, intense, and it feels wrong, like this isn't what should happen. This isn't soft kisses of sharing feelings, emotions, and a connection. This is pushing, frantic, desperate, and scared, too hot to cover up the shake of the hand curled in Chanyeol's shirt. "Jongin, wait-"

"I can't," Jongin shivers between breaths, and pushes closer, stumbling Chanyeol back. A sharp rush of worry crawls up Chanyeol's chest as he catches the flood of emotions in Jongin's eyes when he looks at him, and his own breath hitches just before Jongin pushes him down to fall back to his couch when he sees the shine in them. "I can't wait," Jongin gasps, and Chanyeol looks up at him in shock as he watches Jongin close his eyes and slip into Chanyeol's numbed lap, thighs spreading over him.

Chanyeol doesn't feel the heat of Jongin's touch, his mouth against him, or the fingers that slip to cradle his face as he kisses him again. He only sees the soft fall of water from Jongin's eyes the moment before he'd leaned in too close to see.

It's wrong. The shake in Jongin's touches, in his breathing as he kisses Chanyeol's mouth again and again, pressing closer. Chanyeol knows how he feels, how by all reason, he should want this, to be pushing back, pulling Jongin closer and drinking in the sounds that Jongin would make against his mouth. It's wrong though, because in his mind, this would be because he knew Jongin wanted it.

Despite how Jongin kisses him, mouth turning to slide along his jaw, his touches don't feel wanting. They feel desperate and scared and trained.

"Jongin, wait," Chanyeol says, louder, hands fitting at Jongin's waist and he gasps as Jongin's hips roll into his. It's burning hot, his breathing faster despite how Chanyeol knows it's wrong, his body responding for him. "Jongin-"

"I can't." It cracks, and Chanyeol's eyes widen as Jongin lets out a soft sound like a sob and his body shakes. "I don't- Please, just let me-"

"Jongin," Chanyeol repeats, trying to pull away even as Jongin rolls his hips again and sucks at the junction between his jaw and neck. Letting out a yelp, he pushes hard, trying to pull away from Jongin's insistent mouth and stop his hips. "Jongin! Stop!"

Instead of words, all he gets is the definite crack of a suppressed sob pressed into his neck. It's wrong, all of it wrong, and as Chanyeol tries to pull Jongin back, to look at him, Jongin only relents to lean in swiftly to kiss him. Hard.

It doesn't taste like happiness, lust, or desire. It tastes of salt, bitterness, and desperation. Rolling his hips again, Jongin lets out a shaking gasp as Chanyeol tightens his grip, trying to stop his movements. Closing his mouth, he hears Jongin make a frantic sort of whimper in the back of his throat, and then he starts shaking, his fingers trembling where they're threaded into his hair, and Chanyeol pushes down the sudden revulsion in his chest.

"Jongin," he says, and catches Jongin's mouth as the other man tries to kiss him again. "Stop."

"I can't do anything else," Jongin whispers, pulling away for just a moment. It breaks, the tension of worry and wrong that was winding too tight in Chanyeol's chest finally snapping as he feels Jongin's hands release and dive down, scrabbling for his belt. Lurching away as heat spikes through him, Chanyeol lets out a yell of shock, scrambling to grab Jongin's hands and stop.

"What are you doing?" he asks, voice ragged and breathless as he looks at Jongin's stricken face. "Jongin, what-"

"I can't," Jongin's head is hung, half hiding his face. His whole body is shivering, shaking in Chanyeol's lap as he begins to curl back into himself, hands limp in Chanyeol's grip. "I don't- I thought you wanted-"

Sick, violent sick crashes into Chanyeol as he realizes what might have caused this. "I never- Jongin why-" A soft suffocated sob breaks from the man in his lap and Chanyeol realizes with numbing cold what happened.

"I don't have anything else," Jongin is whispering, repeating almost frantically to himself as he shakes in Chanyeol's hold. A broken visage of the man Chanyeol had thought was holding together. "I can't- I don't have money and I don't- there isn't-"

This isn't the first time.

"You don't have to pay me with yourself for anything I do for you," Chanyeol says, astonished and feeling his own throat close around the words. This was never his intention with helping Jongin. He never wanted him to feel like he owed it to Chanyeol to pay him back. This isn't- "Jongin, I don't want you like this. I've never wanted you like this."

Jongin takes in a shivering breath, and then remains motionless, only a slight tremor going through him. "I thought-" he whispers and then looks up at Chanyeol, face stricken. "I'm so sorry, I didn't-"

"You've done this before." He doesn't ask, and the look on Jongin's face is enough to confirm his suspicions. It weighs heavier than anything Chanyeol could have expected. "My God, Jongin." When Jongin had kissed him, it hadn't been sloppy and hesitant. It had been in a manner than suggested he knew exactly what he was doing. Jongin has done this before, used himself to pay for things and it makes Chanyeol ill. It's wrong, it's so wrong and the look on Jongin's face doesn't deny his suspicions.

"I didn't have a choice," Jongin half whispers, and then his face crumbles, and he's nothing but shaking silent sobs. His hands pull from Chanyeol's stunned grip to cover himself as he sags and cries, shaking with water dripping to Chanyeol's lap. "I didn't- there wasn't anything else I could do. And I thought- You-" he's gulping for air in painful shaking gasps. "I'm so sorry, Chanyeol. I didn't know-"

"I never- that wasn't- I never even thought-!" The last thing Chanyeol can ever imagine is asking Jongin to ‘pay him back’ with his body. He barely even knows if Jongin would be interested in men, having known he had almost married Sehun's mother before she died. Even if he had known, nothing would have- "Jongin."

"I'm sorry," Jongin babbles, pushing himself off of Chanyeol's lap and stumbling to his feet. His face, when his hands drop from it, is blotchy with tears and his eyes are red and puffy. "I'm so sorry, I just, I didn't know, not the first time and-"

"First time?" Chanyeol's head is reeling, and with the broken look Jongin gives him as tears spill down his face, Chanyeol's stomach rolls in revulsion. "When we first met."

"I-" Jongin's voice hurts to listen to. Chanyeol would never ask anyone for something like that, and he can't believe anyone would ever believe that he... "It just-"

"It's- Jongin, please tell me you're not-" Chanyeol is going to throw up. He had promised himself he wouldn't expect anything, wouldn't judge, but this is almost too much. He hates his own body for having responded earlier, hates the world that has pushed Jongin into thinking this was something he could ever want.

"No," Jongin says, and gulps, shaking his head to hang, eyes on the floor. "Not- not for a while."

"Then why-"

"I didn't know what else to do," Jongin gasps. "When- the first time- I thought you were taking me to-"

"Have sex with me." The words are ash, worse than ash, vile and dead in his mouth. Chanyeol struggles to breathe as he watches Jongin nod and grimace. "I wasn't." This is worse than any reality Chanyeol ever thought he'd be in. "I never-"

"I didn't have anything else to give you, and I thought you were offering to pay me, and I-" Jongin is half whispering between shuddering breaths. "I didn't- and I thought- you just wouldn't-"

"Stop," Chanyeol says, though either to Jongin or answering him he's not sure. Kindness isn't given to be repaid. Kindness isn't something he shows to others so they have to give it back to him. Jongin looks up at him, face guilty, awaiting judgment. "Jongin, I never want you to- not unless you want- fuck." There is no easy answer or response to this, and Chanyeol doesn’t know what to say, truly speechless.

"I don't have anything else," cracks from Jongin, his voice shaking so violently Chanyeol has to close his eyes, just to keep himself together.

Nothing. This is nothing like what he was ready for. He thought- no, he imagined. There was nothing that could have prepared Chanyeol for this part of Jongin. It makes him angry, furious at everything, at people who had used Jongin in the past like this, that made him do this kind of thing, mad at Jongin for letting it happen, for thinking that he was like them.

"I don't-!"

"Then I don't want it!" Chanyeol snaps, standing and walking away, out of reach, of touch, to keep himself from doing anything. He wants to pull Jongin close, to hold him so no one else can touch him like he's been touched before, so no one can hurt him. He's afraid to touch him though, scared that Jongin will think it's something else, will think Chanyeol just wants to use him when... Eyes closed to keep down his own surge of emotions, Chanyeol runs his hands down his face, "I don't ever want anything you feel like you have to give me, Jongin," he says, voice tight as he struggles to keep his emotions out of it. "I don't want you. Not like this. I'll never want you like this. Not when you think you owe yourself to me. I'll never want you like that."

"I-" Jongin's breaths are fast, stuttering. "I thought you-"

"Whatever you thought was wrong," Chanyeol cuts him off, trying to keep his breathing even. If there was a way, he'd find whoever taught Jongin he needed to do this and rip them apart. It's awful, and he feels sick, so sick. "How many?" Jongin's miserable face swims into focus when Chanyeol looks up at him. "No," he stops himself. "I don't want to know." Jongin grimaces, and more tears fall. "When did you...?"

"When-" Jongin's voice shakes. "I couldn't make enough money, and Sehun, he needed-" Jongin grimaces again, and his hands rise to cover his face as he steps back. "I'm sorry," he gasps. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm-"

"Stop," Chanyeol can't breathe, too tight, wanting to cry himself and to do- he doesn't know what. "Jongin, stop-"

"I don't know how!" Jongin cries out, and stumbles back like he's hurt himself. It snaps something in Chanyeol, and he's moving before he can stop himself, arms wrapping around Jongin to keep him from collapsing. Jongin doesn't do anything but fall into him, collapsing into his arms as he begins to sob in earnest, face buried into Chanyeol's chest. He's too small, to broken as he rests in Chanyeol's arms, crying with soft sounds pressing into Chanyeol's chest, into his heart and making it ache. "I don't know how around you," he finishes in a whisper.

"What are you-?"

"I can't stop when it's you," Jongin is almost babbling, his hands clenched into the sides of Chanyeol's shirt, tears soaking through his shirt. "Something- with everyone else, around anyone else, I never cry. I haven't cried since she died, I stopped, and I never- but with you, I just- I can't stop crying and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I can't-"

"It's okay," Chanyeol tells him, and feels Jongin shake in his arms, quiet sobs racking through him as he cries harder. "I'm glad you can cry." He bites his lip, pushing down the shake in his own chest as he looks down at the man in his arms and feels nothing but sadness. "You don't have to hide from me."

"I can't," Jongin is whispering, and even if Chanyeol knows Jongin would hate to be seen like this, a part of him is reassured that he can see him. "I didn't- I'm so sorry, Chanyeol."

"Stop apologizing," Chanyeol tells him, sternly and softly. Pulling back, he pries Jongin away from him and holds him at arms length. He looks awful, face streaked with tears and nose and eyes puffy with red as he looks completely distraught. "Stop it."

"What else am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know," Chanyeol doesn't know the answers. He just knows if he hears Jongin apologizing to him one more time, something in him will break. "But stop apologizing to me. I don't want to hear it. You've never done anything bad to me, and everything I've done, I don't want anything for it. I don't want your money, or your stuff, and I never, ever want you to think I want you to- to have sex with me for it." Jongin's lip is shaking, and he's shivering, like he'll fall if Chanyeol lets go of him. "I never want that, ever, and if-" he swallows. "If we ever, if something ever happened between us, then it's only because you want to." Jongin is shaking, broken and barely the image of strength Chanyeol realizes he's begun to see him as. And, even shaking, Jongin still closes his eyes and finally nods. "Promise me?"

"What?"

"That you'll never do this again," Chanyeol tells him. "That you'll stop trying to repay me, thinking that you owe me." Jongin's eyes are closed and he's recoiling slightly, like he can't accept what Chanyeol is saying, offering him. "I don't care how many people have lied to you in the past and told you kindness isn't free, but it is with me. I'm not those people, and I don't- I don't want that from you. So promise me you'll never do it again." He takes a deep breath, pushing down the violent roll in his gut at the thought of Jongin fucking someone for money in desperation to support himself and Sehun. "Promise me you'll never let anyone touch you again unless you want them to."

He lets go, hands leaving Jongin, trying to show that he means it, and watches nervously as Jongin teeters. It takes a few long moments, seconds extending painfully as Chanyeol watches Jongin and tries to keep himself together, watching as Jongin takes gulps of air and still has tears rolling down his face. Finally, as Jongin stands in arms reach of Chanyeol, he swallows thickly and nods once. "I promise."

The breath that leaves Jongin sounds like he's been holding it for too long, for years, and he sags, almost like he's just let go of pain and weight from decades as he begins to cry again. It's not tears from now, but something that's been held in for years. It doesn't even take Chanyeol reaching out just to offer before Jongin is taking his hand and just holding onto it, standing and crying as he wipes at tears that won't stop coming.

As much as Chanyeol feels sick, unstable and unbalanced, unable to process what he now knows, he tries to push it down. It's not the time, and right now all he can do is just stand as Jongin grips at his wrist and sobs, standing unable to stop. Nothing about this is pretty, from the history to the reality to Jongin's splotchy face, but somehow, Chanyeol can't wish that he never knew.

It's awful, but it's important and Chanyeol is sure that almost no one knows. It's like he's broken through something Jongin can't even show others, or himself, hiding it amid apparent self disgust. If he was happy with it, he wouldn't have apologized for himself over and over.

I'm sorry for what I am, is what every apology holds, and Chanyeol hates them. There are no more touches, but Jongin finally seems to have run out of tears when he just stands, looking tired and worn out but silent.

"Don't apologize," Chanyeol cuts him off before he can even try. "I don't want to hear any more apologies from you unless you, I don't know, break my toilet or something."

The laugh that wracks from Jongin sounds terrible, but it's still a laugh. "You don't want to..." Jongin lets go of Chanyeol's wrist, and curls his arms around his slim form.

"What?"

"Never see me again."

It burns, cold and hot as it sinks into Chanyeol's chest. "Why wouldn't I want to see you again?" he asks, and Jongin almost looks ready to cry again. He doesn't though and instead just shakes his head, pushing his hair back and breathing heavily.

"I don't understand you," Jongin whispers, cupping his face in his hands.

"I'm an open book, just ask."

"No," Jongin says, and shakes his head, letting his hands fall with a shaking exhale. "It's just, I don't understand how you can be like this." Chanyeol can only watch him, unable to answer him either. "I don't understand why-" he coughs, clearing his throat and sniffing. "I don't understand why when I'm around you, I can't stop myself from crying."

"Please don’t say it’s because I’m ugly," Chanyeol says, and Jongin looks almost stricken.

"You're not," Jongin tells him curtly, and then looks ashamed.

"Don't apologize," Chanyeol tells him shortly. "And I don't know why, but," he tries to smile, feeling exhausted as he looks at Jongin's misery ridden face. "I'm glad you can cry. I don't think you've been able to for a long time."

"I haven't," Jongin admits in an almost whisper.

"Well, then I'm glad I get to see you cry," Chanyeol says.

Jongin doesn't smile, but he doesn't frown at him and he doesn't flinch away when Chanyeol looks at him. It's quiet, almost too heavy or fragile now, with Jongin’s doors open and raw between them. It's too much now, too intense and Jongin is waiting for the rejection Chanyeol refuses to show him. It's scary, knowing this much, seeing this side of Jongin that he can see Jongin hates about himself. Personally, Chanyeol isn't sure what to do, if he can wrap his head around the fact that Jongin has slept with other men to pay off debts, or that he's used his body like that. It doesn't sound like it was something he did except as a last resort, and it aches to think of how awful things had been for him to resort to such tactics.

"I'll bring over the flower kit next time," Chanyeol tells Jongin finally as Jongin makes to leave. He doesn't let Jongin argue as he pushes the bag of leftovers into his hands. "When I come by to pick up that tupperware."

Jongin's voice wavers as he tries to speak. He ends up leaving without a proper goodbye, but Chanyeol figures it's better that way.

This shouldn't be goodbye, because he doesn't want this to be the end. It won't be, and he won't let it fade into another bad memory for Jongin. He won't let it fade for himself, because this is important.

This means something, and for once Chanyeol knows what he wants to do.

*