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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.

*

Chapter Text

Part II: As The Fog Lifts

The world feels numb. It's quieter, subdued, the issues that used to nag and dig into the mind quieter and just less important now. Waking up with his alarm isn't a hassle, the shower taking too long to get hot doesn't matter, the soft rain falling outside isn't an inconvenience. Nothing that used to be a problem is a problem.

Everything has dulled to a faint static as Chanyeol's mind instead roars in numbness at the surge of information. There just is more, so much more to everything than he'd seen before. The customers in the cafe that complain about the weather, the newspapers that talk about stock markets and the latest celebrity scandals, they're all nothing. The same things that might have his heart leaping in his chest, a familiar favorite tune on the radio or catching sight of a cat on a windowsill, are nothing but a small flicker.

It's hard to feel anything when Chanyeol is so busy trying to sort out what he's feeling.

It leaves him tired. Since Friday evening when he'd watched Jongin walk from his apartment, lips bruised and a face-shaped wet stain in the front of his shirt, Chanyeol has felt too much to feel anything at all. It's too quiet, and he doesn't know how to step forward or do anything. Truthfully, he knows that he shouldn't do anything, that doing something would not actually be good.

It's not his turn. It's not his position to do something, to make a move, to walk back into Jongin's life. As much as he doesn't want to be taken out of his world, he knows it's not up to him.

If Jongin is okay with him being in his life, if he's okay with Chanyeol in his world, then he'll be the one to say it. Chanyeol can't make that decision for him. He can't make Jongin accept him and let him in. Jongin has to do that, and Chanyeol isn't sure he even knows what to do if Jongin does that.

It's hard to wrap his head around the idea that Jongin had thought that Chanyeol just wanted to be around him for sex. It's hard to ever imagine that someone would use another person like that, especially someone in such a hard place as Jongin, to just use them and throw money at desperate shaking hands. Moreover, Chanyeol struggles with thinking of how bad things must have been for Jongin before they’d met, but slowly, all of the pieces do being to fit together.

Jongin shies away from touch, skirts away from stares and treats everyone with caution, reading between lines and hesitant. He's almost afraid, like he's waiting for someone to just use him and leave him dry, protecting himself by never getting too close. It makes Chanyeol sick when he thinks of what he must have experienced to be that scared of other people, of trusting anyone.

Does time heal those wounds or are they too deep for someone to ever really heal?

It's hard to think through, the muddle in his mind blocking out anything else as Chanyeol blunders through the weekend. Showing up earlier than even Minseok at his cafe the next day, he'd only garnered curious looks at his abnormal silence. Fake cheerful smiles were easy to put on, a happy exterior as Chanyeol covered for Minseok tried to interview people for a new barista position. It was taking some of the stress off, using Chanyeol as a cover for the cafe. It's not hard work, and the current intern, Sooyoung, is as sweet as she is playful.

If there was anything significant from their conversation that morning though, Chanyeol doesn't remember it. Everything feels put on mute, silenced to a dull murmur of the real world as his mind spins things over and over.

In one aspect, Chanyeol realizes that Jongin knows now. Jongin knows how Chanyeol feels to some extent. There was no point in the whole mess where Chanyeol had denied what he felt, and Jongin implied he knew.

It's out, and Chanyeol can't bring himself to deny it.

Jongin knows, and Chanyeol can't hide from it.

He has feelings for him, feelings that are stronger than a simple attraction. It feels almost reversed, whereas before, romance and feelings developed after an initial physical attraction, now it feels like Chanyeol is pulled for other things than Jongin's physical appearance.

It's more than that, and perhaps that's what makes it scarier for him.

It's twisting tighter and tighter into his head, where right now he doesn't want to touch Jongin, especially not after what he's just learned. If anything, he's afraid to approach him, to be near him, to have Jongin touch him like he had pushed to do the other night.

Chanyeol doesn't want that, and he's not sure he can see Jongin right now with those images and the visceral feelings still subdued but waiting to flare to life.

It's a processing period, where Chanyeol pulls back into the numbed whiteness of sorting through what happened, what he feels, what this means, and figures things out. It's a period where he doesn't push for Jongin, doesn't ask for him, and can't.

It lingers, pulsing with a soft stream of thoughts that Chanyeol sorts through as he goes about tasks, agreeing to help Minseok on Sunday as well, and then again after work on Monday. The office is loud and busy on Monday, and Chanyeol barely pays full attention to the weekly meeting before returning to his desk. The update of the week from Jongdae falls on half listening ears, and he tries to come up with a suitable story of Minseok's cafe to fend off Jongdae's curious pestering and Junmyeon's polite inquiries. As much as he appreciates his friends' interest in his world, this is something he can't talk about.

There aren't words even he has himself to explain what's going on, even if he wishes he had them. Then maybe it would make more sense to him.

By Monday night, when Chanyeol stays later to help clean up after the interviews are over and Minseok emerges from the back, some things are a bit clearer, but not many.

"Any luck?" Chanyeol asks, casting a hopeful smile at Minseok's tired expression.

"Maybe," Minseok says, letting out a sigh as he runs his fingers through his short hair. "How has it been out here?"

"Quiet," Chanyeol tells him, looking around the cafe and the few customers still around. Sooyoung had gone just a little earlier after checking in with Minseok. "Not too many people come in at nine thirty on a Monday."

Minseok offers him a smile, stepping behind the counter and pulling an apron around his waist. "I'm glad you were here though," he says, casting a glance to Chanyeol. "Remind me to try to woo you out of magazine editing to work for me."

"You probably can't afford me," Chanyeol teases, and Minseok laughs, his eyes bright. "Plus, you'd get sick of me after a while."

"I couldn't get sick of you," Minseok says, and punches him gently in the arm, an old familiar gesture. He's been doing it since they met, Minseok grinning with gums showing and lightly bumping his fist to Chanyeol's bicep playfully. "You're too much fun."

"I suppose," Chanyeol says, the words listless.

"Everything alright with you?" Minseok asks casually. There is a hint to his voice though, and the catch of his eyes when he looks at Chanyeol that says he's noticed. There aren't many who can tell when something is on his mind, but Minseok is one of the few exceptions.

"Yeah," Chanyeol says slowly. Letting out a soft sigh, he leans against the counter and just lets himself be still for the first time all day. There are many things that aren't 'alright' with Chanyeol, but overall he's 'alright'. He's healthy, has a good place to live, friends that care about him, a family that loves him, a job that supports him, and has never had a dark past to look back on. Chanyeol has never really suffered, not like he's seen others do, at least not this close.

He's never really been exposed to it, and now that he's seen more of a window into it, he doesn't know quite what to do with it. Jongin isn't made by his past, and he isn't his past, but it is a part of him that Chanyeol knows about now, and cannot and will not forget about him.

"Are you sure?" Minseok asks, almost pushing as he keeps his eyes on Chanyeol. "You know," Minseok continues, stepping back from the counter to lean his hip against it instead, facing Chanyeol. "If you need anything, I'm here. To listen or help with whatever."

It makes Chanyeol smile, even as a part of him wants to cry. It's irrational, but also perfectly logical. This is the sort of thing that is right, that is okay, where friends offer to support and help each other for nothing, but just because they care.

Chanyeol knows Minseok is a little worried about him, but he doesn't feel bad about it. It's kind of nice to know that at least someone worries about him, because it means they care. To have that worry seen as something else, where even the caring behind it can't be recognized under too much fear of getting too close, that just hurts.

It's so much unspoken pain and Chanyeol can't imagine what Jongin's world has been like.

That's the real thing. Chanyeol can't imagine Jongin's world. Even being exposed to it, Chanyeol still can't fully grasp what it is, what it's like, or how he can live in it. It's beyond his comprehension and he feels unsettled and strange and too raw and open now he's seen what it really is.

Reality is almost too much even if Chanyeol thought he was already living in the real world. The truth isn't kind, it seems.

But to Minseok, he doesn't say this. Instead, he smiles, pushing down the crack of emotions that begins to bleed into his chest. "I know," he says, and smiles around the sadness.

Minseok lets out a sigh before he walks to stand beside Chanyeol. He's one of the few that actually watches, observes rather than interact and usually reads people. He's always been able to read Chanyeol, and as much as Chanyeol can sometimes be offset by it, Minseok never pushes. It's more comforting, knowing in a way that Minseok is a constant, always there to offer support and who is always grateful with a smile when Chanyeol steps up when he needs him to. It's healthy, and Chanyeol is always thankful for their friendship.

Looking at his world, Chanyeol is thankful for all his friendships.

"If you feel like telling me what it is that's actually on your mind, I'm always here, you know," Minseok tells him, looking up at him with a sort of soft wisdom he's always held.

"Thanks," Chanyeol tells him, and that's all that needs to be said.

"In the mean time," Minseok says with a sigh, pushing himself from the counter. "Get out of here. It's late and I don't have the same energy kids like you have."

"Of course," Chanyeol teases, taking up the running joke. Baekhyun had started it, calling both Minseok and Junmyeon 'old men' back when Minseok had talked about how he missed having the 'sleep of the dead' Baekhyun and Han could still pull off. "Wouldn't want to keep you past your bedtime."

Minseok laughs, waving him off as Chanyeol steps from behind the counter. It's not large, but the warmth from Minseok's words stays with him, settling amid the worry and confusion and conflicted feelings that swim through him. The soft ebb and flow between his thoughts begins to settle, and Chanyeol imagines that nothing will stop this from being hard right now.

Nothing will make what happened in Jongin's past, and now in their past, better. It won't go away, and Chanyeol can't be happy with wanting it to not exist. That's not going to change anything, and he doesn't wish it never happened. It's better that he knows, that he understands this part of Jongin that isn't wonderful.

The world isn't kind, but Chanyeol figures then it's all the more reason to think of the good things and do good things. It's not his feelings that are the most important, he can live with being upset.

It's just a matter of waiting to see if Jongin will trust him to not make this the end of whatever it is they have. A friendship, a companionship, or just a tentative amicability that might grow into something.

What's important is that no one pushes, and Chanyeol is alright with waiting, keeping this quiet, not talking about it if it's not ready, if he's not ready, and waiting for Jongin when he's ready.

All things take time, growing up, healing, recovering, and acceptance. Amid the bustle of an intense time schedule and the fast pace of the world around them, Chanyeol realizes that he has just as much time as he did standing out on the mountain with Junmyeon, when time seemed to stand still out under the stars. He just has to remember that and be there when time needs him to be.

*

It's a week of silence. A week of muddled thoughts and stifled emotions as they calm down from the torrent that wouldn't settle. It's a bit like acclimation, where Chanyeol lets himself get used to the reality and the truth and the new levels of the world he'd not been aware of. It has him looking at people differently, looking at himself differently.

It's the first weekend in a while where Chanyeol stops by the library and watches the children around him for reading hour. It's when he looks, really looks at the parents. He talks to them for the first time, a few single mothers and a few fathers who look too tired to be there but who are there anyway. He watches as older siblings pick up younger brothers and sisters, and wonders where their parents are. Chanyeol finds himself less doing, and more watching.

The world is different when he just sits and looks at everything, taking in the whole picture rather than what he just encounters while doing things. It's quieter, but the sounds that filter in to him are clearer and stay with him. It's not as pretty, but it's also not as harsh. Overwhelming at first, Chanyeol doesn't quite know what to do when he first comes home and can't believe how tired he is just from spending time at the library to volunteer for a few hours.

It's exhausting though, and it's only when he admits that to himself that he understands. Reality is exhausting, and while he's just experienced it for the first time, the people he saw today feel it constantly. This isn't just their occasional world, this is their world.

Yet they smile, laugh, and Chanyeol realizes what strength really is. The feeling of being weak, small and insignificant in the world around him couples with how he's still a part of it. It makes it easier to breathe, to think over his own feelings, thoughts, and what is happening in his life.

When his phone buzzes close to nine at night on a balmy evening mid week, Chanyeol doesn't hesitate when he recognizes the number. "Are you sure?" Jongin asks him on the phone, his voice hesitant and quiet through the short conversation.

"Of course," Chanyeol says, surprised at how calm he feels. He's missed Jongin, despite the rush of sensations in his chest at hearing the other man's voice. Chanyeol has missed Jongin, and Sehun. Both of them.

The cafe near Chanyeol's work is just as he remembered it that first day when Chanyeol had met Sehun. It feels so long ago, even if it's only been a little over two months, that he watched Sehun skitter into the shop holding his Pororo book and hiding behind his father's legs.

Jongin looks less confident today as he walks into the cafe, alone, and pauses just inside the door when he sees Chanyeol. It takes a moment before his face tries to relax, like he's not sure if this is allowed, before he takes a seat opposite Chanyeol. They don't touch, hands on the table top and sitting opposite each other, Chanyeol holding an iced coffee and Jongin's fingers tugging at each other.

"I don't think I can return to the tupperware," Jongin says in a rush of breath, startling Chanyeol.

Eyes wide in surprise, Chanyeol asks, "why?"

"Sehun," Jongin says, and then clears his throat, a soft pink cresting over his cheeks. "He, um, he expanded his garden."

It takes a moment before the meaning of this sinks in, and then Chanyeol is laughing, unable to stop as he sits back and just laughs and laughs. It's too loud, shaking through the little cafe as Jongin watches him with wide eyes, but Chanyeol doesn't stop.

It helps, and he realizes he needed this.

Finally, when it's calmed down, Chanyeol shakes his head, still smiling as he looks at Jongin and feels balanced. Jongin looks slightly less apprehensive now, relaxed and the nervous line of his shoulders dissipating somewhat. "I'm pretty sure that's a better use for them than what I had for them," Chanyeol says, smiling happily. "Besides, it works perfectly for my gift for him." Jongin's lips press together. "You saw it didn't you? The garden set?" Jongin's fingers twist on the table. "I had it set out on the table the last time you were over."

"I remember," Jongin says, voice quieter. "I wasn't sure-"

"I'm glad that hopefully he'll still be interested in it," Chanyeol continues, keeping his voice warm as his beating heart. "I bet those vegetables were happy to be transplanted into something better than just pudding cups after all. Sehun's becoming a real gardener."

"I'm not sure what he's becoming," Jongin says, and there is a soft hint of a smile on his face now. "He fixed the stove the other day before I could tell him not to touch it. Scared me to death." He sighs, relaxing more into his chair. "I swear, he speaks to technology in ways no one else can."

"Well, they do say children understand languages and learn them faster than adults," Chanyeol says, leaning back and slipping into the comfortable space between himself and Jongin. "Perhaps Sehun is just pushing that to include machines as well as human tongues."

"That sounds a bit extreme," Jongin murmurs, glancing up at him.

"For Sehun? I thought nothing was too extreme for Sehun."

"Scary stories," Jongin replies, and startles a laugh from Chanyeol. "But I understand that. Neither of us do well with scary stories."

"Not even around a campfire?"

"Not even with all the lights on," Jongin says, and Chanyeol laughs.

This is fine, and despite the days of churning thoughts, Chanyeol doesn't find that things are that different. Not much. Jongin is still the same person, with the same son and the same full mouth and too thin shirts from being worn so many times. He still has the same dark brown eyes and the same fingers that tug on each other nervously and the same soft deep voice that got itself stuck in Chanyeol's head months ago.

"I'll remember that then," Chanyeol says, and grins as Jongin looks slightly surprised. "I was thinking of taking him out camping or something this fall. I hoped you might get a weekend off, or a Saturday night, perhaps, and we could all go."

"Is that-"

"I have a mountain a friend and I go up. He and I just went out the other weekend and it's stunning," Chanyeol continues. "I have most of the gear, and I thought Sehun might enjoy it. I thought you might too, both of you could do with some fresh air that's not just from the park."

"But-"

"You don't have to though, it was just a thought," Chanyeol finishes as Jongin's face remains in half open shock.

"You want to take us camping?" Jongin finally asks, and his voice sounds guarded again.

"Like I said, you don't have to," Chanyeol reminds, fingers wrapping once more around the coffee. It's not the same, but it's still okay. If anything, it just means he notices more about Jongin. Perhaps he's already noticed these things about him, the worn skin of his fingers and the way he bites at his lip sometimes, but it's the first time he's really looking at him. The soft warm flutter in his chest isn't unknown or unfamiliar, but Chanyeol doesn't push it down this time.

It just exists.

"Are you sure?" Jongin asks. The tone in his voice suggests he's not just asking about the camping offer, but something more, about everything. About their friendship, about Jongin in Chanyeol's life, about them and if Chanyeol is still there. If Jongin is going to stay or run.

"Would I offer if I wasn't?" Chanyeol says, and breathes out when Jongin's expression flickers.

"No, I mean-"

"I know what you meant," Chanyeol says softly, and lowers his eyes to the table, to Jongin's fingers as they twist nervously.

He doesn't want me to go flashes through his mind. Whether it's true or not, Chanyeol doesn't want to linger on. It's better not to, not when he can still feel his feelings still fluxing so high.

"Then why?"

"Why do I want to go camping with you?" Chanyeol teases, looking up at Jongin. He's greeted with a soft frown that almost pouts at him. It makes him smile though, softer and less casual, but just as much for himself as Jongin. "I'm your friend," Chanyeol says, and doesn't let himself shy away from the word. This time, Jongin doesn't negate it, and it helps. "Friends don't leave each other because of silly misunderstandings."

"I wouldn't really call it a misunderstanding," Jongin murmurs, his eyes falling to the table.

"I wouldn't call it something more severe than that," Chanyeol points out. "It- well, I don't see it as a reason to stop being friends. I like spending time with you and, I hope, you like spending time with me. What happened, it's in the past, and that's where it will stay."

"And you," Jongin presses, pausing to swallow as his eyes flicker up to Chanyeol's. They stay, fixed and flickering between Chanyeol's. "You're doing this for me."

There. The question Chanyeol knew would be coming, at some point, where someone asks him about his feelings. It had been an accident the other day, but this isn't an accident. "I like spending time with you," Chanyeol says, still not sure if he can admit it. It feels imposing, like pushing his feelings on Jongin. "And I like you," he continues as his heart flutters slightly. "And I like spending time with Sehun, and I like Sehun," he continues, and grins as Jongin almost startles at him. "But my feelings for you aren't the reason I'm still here, they're just a part of how I feel overall."

"But they are a part of it," Jongin confirms.

"They are," Chanyeol admits. "But they're not what's going to determine whether I'm here or not, or whether I think of you as a friend or not. You're my friend regardless, and how I feel about you doesn't obligate you to do anything for me. It doesn't mean you ever have to feel like you need to repay me for something, or that you have to act a certain way around me."

"Except I can't apologize," Jongin reminds, almost like he's teasing but it feels more like testing the waters. Just to make sure.

"Unless you break my toilet," Chanyeol confirms, and finally Jongin lets out a soft laugh, relaxing in his chair. "Then you definitely have to apologize, and then I might make you help me install a new one, but that's all dependent on how bad the damages are."

"And if Sehun breaks your toilet?"

"He just has to apologize," Chanyeol says, and Jongin laughs again, his face lighting up. He still has dark circles under his eyes, but he looks better than the last time Chanyeol saw him, without tears down his face and looking hollow. "If I ever see him again."

That seems to catch Jongin off guard, and he frowns, looking confused as he watches Chanyeol. "What are you talking about?"

"It's up to you," Chanyeol tells him, and Jongin's expression turns thoughtful. "I like spending time with you and Sehun both, and whatever I do is because I want to, because I care, not because I feel like I want something from you or because I pity you." Jongin's mouth tightens at "pity" but he looks thoughtful. "So, it's up to you."

"If we're friends or not?" Chanyeol hums to confirm and Jongin tugs his hands into his lap, eyes fixed on Chanyeol as he bites at his lip. "Well," he says finally, as Chanyeol keeps the beating of his heart at bay. "I suppose you need at least one friend who will remember your name, Chanyeol."

It's simple, so simple, but it has a wide grin spreading over Chanyeol's face none the less, and he almost reaches across the table. Staying in his chair and watching Jongin, it spreads warmth though, happiness at staying and keeping this alive simmering through him gently. "I do."

"I still think you need better friends," Jongin says, and in his eyes lingers a subtle light that spreads through Chanyeol like the glow of the sun.

"That's what I have you for," Chanyeol tells him. This time, Jongin smiles for real, and it's all that matters.

*

"What's got you all zen?"

It's not exactly what Chanyeol thought he'd hear in the morning, and especially not from Jongdae. Usually, the one making comments like that would be Han, or Baekhyun after a particularly long diatribe over the world issues that Chanyeol isn't paying attention to. Jongdae is typically the one to make the quips after things are said and done, his snappish comebacks startling laughter or, in Han's case, a few slaps for besting him as 'Troll King'.

Also, Jongdae usually needs at least three more cups of coffee in the morning before he can make statements like that in the office.

"What?" Chanyeol blinks, looking across the desk divide at his friend.

"Seriously, this is the fourth day in a row you've come to work and looked like you finally achieved some sort of weird enlightenment, what's up?" Jongdae is hunched over his keyboard, squinting at him behind a new pair of glasses, and he’s cradling a coffee like his beloved child. He certainly doesn't look awake enough to be making profound writing achievements, but apparently he is awake enough to make observations about Chanyeol out loud.

"I'm not zen."

"Then what's up?" Jongdae asks, and takes a slow calculated sip of coffee. His eyes narrow further. "Did you get laid?"

Chanyeol, while not the one drinking coffee, manages to choke on something anyway, and sputters into coughing, cheeks flaring as Jongdae's eyebrows rise high on his forehead. "No," he says swiftly, and the excitement he'd seen begin to build flattens in Jongdae's composure. "No, I didn't- I'm not even seeing anyone."

"Are you sure?" Jongdae asks. "I still haven't heard you say yes to spending time with me on weekends. Not since over a month ago."

"I've been busy," Chanyeol hedges.

"Doing what? Or doing who? Whom?" Jongdae scrunches up at his nose. "I hate mornings."

"Jongdae, stop trying to use me to procrastinate," Chanyeol tells him, reaching over and pushing lightly at Jongdae's shoulder. His friend whines softly at him as he spins his office chair back to his keyboard. "I promise, as interesting as you may find me, researching and writing about me won't get you a paycheck."

"I could write a book," Jongdae says. "Make a killing."

"The only way it would sell is if it had my face on the cover," Chanyeol teases.

"With a lot of photoshop," Jongdae adds, and laughs, dodging as Chanyeol throws his post-its minis at him. He's laughing himself though, the comment rolling down his skin like nothing, and he doesn't mind. It's nice to have people at work who want him to be there, that care about him. It's not like Chanyeol couldn't tell, even if his own mind is other places these days, how he's more aware somehow.

It's a bit odd because as soon as he stepped back and started watching, it felt like he was more involved, more in tune with everything else. He began to notice the different days that Juhyun arrives late to work and the new manicures she gets. She prefers simple designs. He's also noticed just how much she and Junmyeon do actually talk. It's a little different from the prospective matchmaking he and Jongdae used to tease about, because now it's easier to see them as people. It's easier to see how Juhyun is fond of Junmyeon, but how she doesn't act interested, if anything just amused by him.

The two of them are funny though, sharing the same slightly obscure sense of humor.

It makes Chanyeol smile.

He's begun to notice that Jongdae looks longer at the screen of his phone where Sunyoung's picture is still his background. The look in Jongdae's face is more and more serious, less excited and more settled. It also looks more nervous, like he's trying to decide on something and can't figure out what it is.

Other times, if Chanyeol saw stuff like this, he'd step in, try to figure out what was going on and what he could do to help. Now, there's none of the urgency, the need to fix it and help and find out what might be wrong. There isn't the drive to make things better, he just is happy to sit and watch other people, to give them space.

A large part of it he accredits is because of Jongin, because he can't hold the reigns or control things with him. Pushing had taught him his lesson, that trying to help incessantly without understanding the full situation has consequences. It leaves Chanyeol more thoughtful about what he does now and how he does it.

It makes him think before he speaks, weighing his words and his actions before he does anything. It's not about him all the time, and he doesn't have to fix everything, just be there to help if he's needed.

"Seriously, what happened?" Jongdae asks an hour later. Editing has become easier, faster and less hassle. The summer intern he's been working with has become so much better. Today would actually be a good day to ask Hoseok if he wanted to get lunch together rather than just drop off the edits to his articles. The undergraduate student has looked so eager to do his best, always listening to Chanyeol's corrections and tips, and he probably deserves a bit of recognition at least.

"What?"

"You're just," Jongdae makes a strange sort of wiggling hand motion. "That." Chanyeol arches one eyebrow at him. "Different."

"I'm not," Chanyeol says, trying to push Jongdae off the topic as he sits back. "I'm just-"

"Not the same," Juhyun answers for him over his shoulder and has Chanyeol swiveling in his chair. "And don't look at me like that, I have eyes, Mr. Park."

The smile on Juhyun's face is pretty, her eyes dancing as she looks down at Chanyeol and cradles a stack of paperwork against her chest. She's wearing her hair down today, brushing past her shoulders and she fixes him with a pointed look, as if challenging him to argue with her.

"I'm still me," Chanyeol defends, sitting back in his chair. "No idea what you're on about."

"Lunch," Juhyun says, and brushes her long hair over her shoulder. "Jongdae and I haven't seen you at the cafe or a few weeks now."

"Because I pack my lunch," Chanyeol says. "It's healthier."

"Live a little?" Juhyun suggests, glancing back towards Junmyeon's office. "Plus, we miss you. Jongdae won't stop talking about how sad he is about how he only gets to pester you about office stuff at the desk."

"I do not-"

"And maybe if you come, then I can get Junmyeon to not work through his lunch hour again," Juhyun finishes, talking over Jongdae.

Grimacing, Chanyeol glances back towards the office. "Again?"

"I'm convinced he's going for a new record," Juhyun sighs. "Two weeks straight this time." Chanyeol winces, and his mind flickers for a moment to wondering if Jongin ever takes lunch breaks. If there's time. Chanyeol hopes he's eating. Maybe if there's time, he can meet Jongin for a lunch one of these days.

"See, this is what we're talking about," Jongdae interrupts his thoughts.

"What?'

"The sudden lapses into silence," Juhyun explains.

"And the weird contemplative adult faces," Jongdae adds. "We need to talk to you about them."

"Because Jongdae is afraid he's not doing his proper job as future brother in law," Juhyun teases and Jongdae makes a soft squawking whine from beside Chanyeol.

"I'm an awesome almost brother in law."

"I was going to ask my intern to lunch today," Chanyeol explains quickly.

"Invite him," Juhyun says brightly. "You have Hoseok, right? He's a good kid, and funny. It'll be nice to have him join us, especially since he usually is stuck with the other interns who look hesitant to laugh at his jokes."

Despite the warmth in Juhyun's voice, Hoseok looks positively terrified to be sitting down at lunch at the local cafe with them. It's a bit unfair, Chanyeol supposes, that he's almost using his intern as a way to avoid getting hammered for details by Juhyun and Jongdae about his personal life, but there could be worse situations. For example, Hoseok could be Heechul's intern, and have been 'required' to have lunch with his 'mentor' every day for the last few months, which usually entails making lunch for Heechul as well.

Hoseok looks around with nervous smiles though, greeting Juhyun and Jongdae with hand shakes and smiles before he fumbles a hand shake and an almost bow when Junmyeon arrives. "I don't think we've met before," Junmyeon says, looking confused.

"This is Chanyeol's intern," Juhyun explains quickly, motioning to the two of them. "We thought we might invite him to lunch with us today, rather than have him cooped up with the other student interns."

"I didn't realize I'd be having lunch with one of the supervisors of the department," Hoseok says, looking a bit overwhelmed and excited as he shifts into his chair, timidly unpacking his lunch. "If I'd know, I might not have said yes when Chanyeol asked."

"Oh?" Junmyeon raises an eyebrow.

"Not because I don't like you, or anything, but I just-" Hoseok looks apologetic and teasing at the same time. It has Chanyeol biting down a laugh, recognizing the look from the many times he'd talked to Hoseok about his articles. "It's just usually I didn't think I'd see you unless I was in trouble." He laughs, glancing sideways at Chanyeol. "Am I in trouble?"

"Yes," Chanyeol tells him flatly, and stifles a laugh as Hoseok's face drops to look positively horrified.

"Chanyeol, be nice to the poor kid," Juhyun chides as Jongdae snorts laughter into his purchased burger from the cafe menu. "We don't need one of our most promising interns keeling over from trauma. It makes us look bad in front of the other departments."

"Am I really-" Hoseok's face is doing something that, Chanyeol realizes belatedly, his probably does too when he's unsure and skeptical but also tremendously excited.

"No, you're not in trouble," Chanyeol tells him, and Hoseok lets out a loud exhale as he sags into his chair. "I'm just teasing you."

"Funny, boss," Hoseok laughs, perking right back up.

"It's so strange to hear anyone call you boss," Jongdae comments. "Is that why you've been acting so weird?"

"Weird?" Hoseok parrots, leaning into the conversation eagerly.

"I'm not weird," Chanyeol defends, giving Jongdae a pointed look.

"No, if Chanyeol were letting that get to his head, he'd be acting more imperious," Juhyun says, tapping Jongdae's wrist with her salad fork. "This is something else. Chanyeol, dear," she leans forward and places a soft pretty hand over his own. "Are you sure you're not seeing anyone and just not telling us?"

"Whaaat?" Hoseok turns big eyes on Chanyeol.

"No," Chanyeol deflects, opening up his tupperware of left overs. "I told you already, I'm not-"

"But then why are you acting so differently?" Jongdae presses.

"He's acting differently?" Junmyeon asks, eyes wide as he looks up from his spaghetti. "You're acting differently?"

"Apparently," Chanyeol sighs, sitting back into his chair. "Though really, I don't know how differently, because in my opinion, Jongdae has shown the most obvious character shift so far."

"I'm dating someone," Jongdae defends. "It's called being in love, Chanyeol." He narrows his eyes.

"I'm not-" He kind of is. His lunch sticks in his throat as his chest gives a soft lurch. "How have I been acting differently?"

"Zen," Jongdae says.

"Quiet," Juhyun answers.

"You think a lot more," Hoseok says and then looks guilty when Chanyeol turns to him, wide eyed. "I'm just saying," he mumbles. "You used to talk a lot more and explain things three times."

"Maybe I'm just actually becoming an adult," Chanyeol proposes. His attention wanders, looking over the food at the table. Of all of the arrays of food, his eyes catch on Hoseok's, who looks like he's eating the dregs of a low budget and food he could grab last minute from a kitchen. In other words, a struggling student's diet.

"Chanyeol, we all know adults don't really exist. We're all just children trying to pretend we're not children anymore," Jongdae scoffs into his burger.

"I'm an adult," Junmyeon says tartly over the table and Juhyun delicately eats a bite of salad.

"You're the exception," Jongdae says, and reaches out to gently grasp Junmyeon's hand in compassion. "Chanyeol isn't though. He's not old enough yet."

"I'm twenty seven," Chanyeol reminds.

"Exactly," Jongdae chirps. "So, what's her name?"

"There isn't-" Chanyeol's stomach turns over and he puts down his fork to level a look at Jongdae.

"We're just curious," Juhyun says, dabbing at her mouth carefully. "I mean, we're your friends, and we feel concerned when you don't talk to us and let us know what's going on with you. Maybe we can help."

"This is helping?"

"I'm just his intern," Hoseok says quietly, and shrinks back into his chair, taking a bite of his apple. Hoseok's lunch looks so strange on the table, a jar of peanut butter and an apple and string cheese between the cafe selections and Chanyeol's packed lunch. It makes Chanyeol's chest tighten as he thinks of Jongin's lunches, wondering if his are the same, if he eats lunch.

"See?" Jongdae says, turning to look at Juhyun. "There it is!"

"What?" Junmyeon asks, finally paying attention again.

"That look he keeps getting," Jongdae says, pointing at Chanyeol's face.

"Jongdae," Chanyeol says, slowly and pointedly over the table. "I'm beginning to get concerned about how much you apparently pay attention to me. Are you sure there isn't something you need to tell me?"

Sputtering, Jongdae sits back with a huff. "I'm dating Sunyoung," he says defiantly. "You've seen her."

"Not in person," Chanyeol points out.

"Only because you won't come out and meet her when she's around!" Jongdae protests. "Which is weird. Remember when you told me I had to vet all my dates with you just to make sure I wasn't dating the kind of women Baekhyun-"

"Lunch is almost over," Chanyeol interrupts him, swallowing and looking down at his plate. That was a long time ago, and it wasn't serious. It sends a sick twist in his chest as he remembers what he had thought, even months ago, about the 'kinds of people' Baekhyun dated. It wasn't his business, and he doesn't like to think about how easily he could have heard about Jongin from a stranger and have thought the same rude things.

What makes him clench his jaw in silence is how he knows if he tried to actually talk to anyone about what's going on, they'd think far worse of Jongin. It's wrong, and they don't know him, not like Chanyeol knows him. But judgement is something that always exists, in how people think about others and without really having reason for it.

That's why Chanyeol doesn't want to tell his friends about Jongin. He doesn't want to watch them judge him without actually knowing what's happening, without knowing him or understanding anything about him. Even if it's not directed at him personally, Chanyeol doesn't want to see more people hurting Jongin or treating Jongin the way Chanyeol knows he's been treated.

So, maybe, he is protecting him.

"Chanyeol," pulls him from his thoughts as a light touch has him turning on the way out of the cafe. Juhyun smiles at him, almost in apology as she looks up at him. "Why don't we all go to Minseok's after work tonight? It's been a while since we all went after work, and I bet if you go, Junmyeon will too."

Taking in a deep breath and catching the faint look of concern on her face, he smiles and rests his hand over her's against his arm. "Alright," he agrees. "And, though I know it wasn't intentional, I think we did traumatize my intern."

"I think he had fun," Juhhyun says, her eyes brightening.

Before Chanyeol can settle back into his work that afternoon, he gets a new email from Hoseok.

Can I have lunch with you guys again tomorrow? You're fun :)

Chanyeol almost sighs, but ends up smiling and typing back an affirmative reply before letting work sweep him away and pull his mind from thoughts of judgement.

"Hey," has him looking up around closing, and Jongdae smiles faintly at him. "Minseok's?"

"Are you going to pester me about being zen?" Chanyeol asks, one brow raised as he begins to pack up.

"Maybe," Jongdae shrugs. "I'm just wondering about you. I mean, you're never this quiet." He waits as Chanyeol shakes his head at him in disbelief, gathering up his things. "Does Baekhyun know?"

"No," Chanyeol says, and grins as he pulls Jongdae into a head lock. It's not office protocol, but Chanyeol almost doesn't care, grinning as Jongdae yelps. "He doesn't, because there's nothing to know."

By the time they get to Minseok's, Jongdae still hasn't given up, resorting to trying to catch Chanyeol off guard as he asks random 'prompting' questions, trying to surprise information out of him. "Is this the new friend you had a few weeks ago?"

"Just order coffee," Chanyeol sighs, pushing Jongdae towards the bar.

"But really, is it him?"

"Jongdae-"

"What's up?" Minseok asks, stepping up to the bar with a polite confused frown.

"Chanyeol won't tell me what's got him all-" Jongdae repeats the hand gesture from earlier. Minseok simply raises one eyebrow at him and Jongdae sighs. "He's so distracted and quiet, it's like he's entered a zen world or something."

"And this is a bad thing?" Minseok asks, his eyes flickering to Chanyeol. He smiles softly, reassuring. "It's Chanyeol's business if he has something or someone that he doesn't want to tell you about, Jongdae."

"Why? I keep great secrets," Jongdae pouts. Turning to Chanyeol, he narrows his eyes. "So who is the girl?"

"There is no girl," Chanyeol answers resolutely, eyes on the cafe menu even if he's already memorized it. The soft twist in his chest winds tighter.

"Then, who is the boy?" Jongdae fires back with and it has Chanyeol's throat drying, his chest seizing as he keeps his eyes trained on cafe macchiatto.

"Go away," Chanyeol tells him lightly, trying to brush him off as Jongdae steps closer, as if to prod the information out of him.

"He probably just doesn't trust you," Minseok tells Jongdae simply. "Go rescue Juhyun. Han just got here." Immediately, Jongdae is turning away and a moment later, Chanyeol pushes down a grateful smile as Jongdae's yelp of "Han!" rings through the cafe.

"Thank you," Chanyeol tells Minseok sincerely, looking at him over the bar.

"He's not alone, you know," Minseok says.

"Not you too." Chanyeol swallows down a dry throat. It's too personal, too close, not his world to tell and he doesn't want to risk judgement before it's due.

"I'm allowed to be curious," Minseok tells him. "I'd expect you to pester me if I acted like you have been."

"And how is that?"

"Preoccupied," Minseok tells him, a faint smile on his lips. "Like you can't get something, or someone, out of your head. It's no wonder Jongdae picked up on it, considering he's doing almost the exact same thing all the time. Of course he'd pick up on it easily." It makes him nervous, wondering if Jongdae will lay off or keep this up, digging at him to try to know until Chanyeol cracks. Part of him wants to share Jongin, to admit that he's found someone that makes his heart beat too loud, but overall he wants to protect him, to keep Jongin out of prying eyes that don't understand.

"What about you?"

"I trust you," Minseok tells him. It's reassuring, and Chanyeol lets out a slow breath he didn't realize he'd been holding as he relaxes. "I trust you to know what you're doing and be wise about it." Minseok smiles and casually drums his fingers against the counter. "You're old enough to make your own decisions, and I've always thought you were one of the smarter ones."

"Thank you," Chanyeol tells him sincerely.

"If you really want to thank me, you'll go and pry Jongdae off of the chair he's trying to steal from Han," Minseok says, his mouth quirking. Looking across the cafe, he lets out a tired sigh, shaking his head. "Those two," he says, almost under his breath as Chanyeol follows his gaze to where Han and Jongdae are bickering over the chair next to Juhyun as she laughs.

"They'll never learn," Chanyeol sighs, pushing himself from the counter.

"I wish they would." Minseok sighs, and Chanyeol pauses for only a moment, his eyes on the flicker in Minseok's expression, before the turns to go and steal the chair from his two friends and end the argument.

The nice thing is that Han's arrival has distracted Jongdae from pestering Chanyeol, and it leaves him to his thoughts. However, rather than dwell further on the man that seems to endlessly wander in and out of his mind, Chanyeol sits back and simply stays with his friends, letting himself be with them. It earns him a smile from Juhyun, and a grin from Junmyeon as the lights on the wall cast a warm glow over them all.

It's warm, like the summer evening outside, and Chanyeol finds himself happy to be here.

*

It's not entirely surprising to Chanyeol when Hoseok ends up becoming a semi-permanent fixture at their lunch table. A few of the other interns begin to drift into their vision, though Junmyeon's and Jongdae's keep a wide berth from them.

"They know I can smell their fear," Jongdae answers idly as Chanyeol looks at him curiously. "They know better than to approach during feeding time."

"Because?"

"They may become the prey," Jongdae answers brightly before licking the foil of his yogurt snack happily. "Simple."

It's a nice addition though, and Hoseok ends up being enough of a distraction that Chanyeol doesn't feel examined during lunch. It's returning back to his old routine, where he catches up with Junmyeon and learns that he's finally seeing someone again, a new girl living in the southern area of the city. She sounds nice from what Junmyeon says and he sounds happy, enough that he grabs Jongdae's attention and they end up showing each other photos of their girlfriends on their phones.

"It's not a competition," Juhyun reminds them with a laugh as Jongdae begins rattling off the many talents Sunyoung possesses.

"I never said it was!" Jongdae protests as Chanyeol laughs and Hoseok watches with wide curious eyes.

It's nice to be back in the routine, and it has him pushing the folder of potential new employers in his email to the back of his mind. It's foolish to think of leaving the crew and his friends at Everyday Cuisine when he has such a place here. Even if the article spreads and suggestions he keeps making are rejected, at least he has a job, makes enough money to support himself and sometimes even treat Hoseok to real lunch that isn't just 'doritos and cola'.

"That's not lunch," Chanyeol had told him the first time he'd seen Hoseok sit down to lunch with it.

"Sure it is!" Hoseok had laughed, though it had sounded nervous.

It had taken both his and Junmyeon's combined efforts as his 'bosses' reminding that he worked at a food magazine and therefore should at least try. Chanyeol had stepped back though when he'd seen the sort of nervous desperation in Hoseok's eyes, knowing that to 'try' might mean more than he was able to afford. Peeks of reality sneaking in where Chanyeol hadn't initially noticed. The others don't see it, Junmyeon rattling on about the latest healthy diets and exercise programs as Jongdae pokes fun at them. Juhyun laughs and keeps to her strict food plan that Chanyeol knows would be impossible on a limited income and food budget.

Chanyeol notices though, the way Hoseok looks at the purchased lunch for him of fresh foods like they're too much, like he's not sure if he should eat a little and then take the rest home. It's not quite like Jongin, but it reminds him of him, and Chanyeol just hopes that Jongin is eating.

Lunch times like this are for eating, to get energy to get through the rest of the day, and Chanyeol finds himself wondering more and more as the days go on if Jongin even takes a break mid day. He gets his chance to ask when Jongin calls him early one morning on the commute to work and asks if he's busy.

It's convenient, Chanyeol carrying his old computer from his grandfather with him to work that day. Despite the multiple efforts from Han and Chanyeol's faith in it, the machine had finally passed on. It had been days since it would start up, and Chanyeol had finally admitted defeat on it and resigned to turn it in for a new one.

It lands him in the city that afternoon, and he waves off Jongin's claim of possible inconvenience saying he's already downtown for the evening.

"Am I keeping you?" Jongin asks, as he catches up to Chanyeol when they meet at the outskirts of one of the local park sections. The park here is smaller, not like the one closer to where Chanyeol lives or the one in the center of the city, but here is still pleasant, a small green and a nice walking path.

"Please, keep me," Chanyeol says, smiling and feeling a soft rush of warmth at the slightly taken aback look on Jongin's face. He doesn't take back what he said though. It doesn't seem fair, to himself or to Jongin to lie about himself. "I haven't seen you in a while, so I'm glad to meet up."

"I've been busy," Jongin says, and smiles faintly. He still looks tired, and he's wearing clothing clearly set aside for work. His hair is combed back, parted and kept from his face in simple styling that makes him look handsome, baring his face rather than hiding it behind the fall of soft locks.

"Job?" Chanyeol asks, hopeful.

The soft hum in return has Chanyeol smiling in excitement, grinning at Jongin. "It's nothing much," Jongin tells him. "Just a different position at the other place. They ended up having someone suddenly quit on them so they asked if I still needed work."

"That's great," Chanyeol exclaims happily, and reaches up to clasp Jongin on the shoulder. For a moment, he wonders if it's too much, too close, before he just lets it rest. Jongin doesn't push him off or pull away, and instead a soft smile plays about his lips, like he's also happy. "I'm happy to hear that. After not hearing from you-"

"I promised, didn't I?" Jongin reminds, and though his voice, the words surprise a small brush of satisfaction into Chanyeol's chest.

"You did," Chanyeol hums, and lets his hand drop, brushing on the way down against Jongin's back. He's still too thin, but his skin doesn't look as sallow or sunken around his too prominent bones. "I just wasn't sure you'd keep that promise."

"I have to set a good example for Sehun, don't I?" Jongin says, and there is a soft tease in his voice. "Never make a promise that you might break."

"Promises are forever," Chanyeol answers and smiles when Jongin's mouth twitches into a soft grin. "How is he?"

"Wishing for autumn," Jongin sighs. "He's not the only one." Looking up over the park, squinting in the sunlight, Jongin lets out a soft sigh. "He's missed you, over the last few weeks." There's a soft quiver in his voice, and when he glances at Chanyeol, something about his words suggest he's not only talking about Sehun.

It sends a soft flutter back into Chanyeol's chest even if he knows it shouldn't be there. This thing, what he feels for Jongin, is his. It's not about them, and Jongin has more than he can handle with Sehun and all of his many jobs than to think of Chanyeol on top of it.

But he does whispers a tiny part of him as he watches Jongin's hair stir in the light summer breeze.

"I miss him too," Chanyeol says, and when Jongin looks at him, he knows he hears the full meaning in the words. I miss you.

It's selfish to miss Jongin when he sees him as often as he does, but even then it's been weeks since he properly spent time with Jongin, not since before he went hiking with Junmyeon. Not since the 'incident' in his apartment when everything had come falling into the open and it felt like they were stepping forward and starting over at the same time.

It's not the same, but it's not completely different, and Chanyeol's still getting used to it. The reality remains though that he misses spending time with Jongin, with Sehun, with both of them.

There isn't really a part of this where Chanyeol can fit easily into their world like he might fit in with Jongdae or hang out with Jinri. There isn't the regularity with Jongin like there is with his other friends. But somehow it makes the time with Jongin and Sehun more precious, more valuable. While it's possible to go up for an entire weekend with Junmyeon hiking, just grabbing an hour with Jongin, like now, isn't easy.

That doesn't mean that Chanyeol doesn't enjoy the time he gets, but he sometimes wonders about Jongin.

But then, if Jongin didn't want to spend time with him, Chanyeol is pretty sure Jongin wouldn't contact him.

But he does, repeats that voice in his mind and Chanyeol can't help but let his eyes linger on the man walking beside him.

"I was wondering," Jongin asks, breaking the silence that's drawn between them. "Since it's been a while, and I- I thought you might like to come by for dinner."

Eyes widening as he stops walking, Chanyeol takes Jongin's hand without hesitation, frowning. "Jongin, if this is-"

"This isn't about paying back," Jongin says quickly. "Well, it is, but-" Jongin closes his eyes and lets out a long breath. "Sehun would like it if you dropped by."

I would like it.

"You don't have to-"

"Then it makes it easier," Jongin continues, his words rushing as he looks steadily into Chanyeol's eyes, holding on. "Then I can give you back the tupperware and finally be the one making dinner in my own home when you're there."

"You don't-"

"I want to," Jongin says, cutting Chanyeol's words off before they can finish and he smiles. It's not the guarded smile, or the forced smile, but rather a kind of smile that looks timid, but no less real. "It's all I can do right now." The breath that Jongin takes in has him closing his eyes, and Chanyeol watches with warring sentiments as he feels Jongin gently squeeze around his hand. "It's not- I don't want to give you the wrong idea," Jongin finishes, hand still firm in Chanyeol's

"Which is?"

"It's only dinner," Jongin tells him. The way he says it gives Chanyeol the impression that he's telling both of them, reminding himself as well as telling Chanyeol, that he's building himself up. Stronger.

"Fine," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles as Jongin relaxes, a real smile finally blossoming on his face. "But I get to have you over for dinner next time."

What this is, what this means, or what it could mean is all gray area, undefined but somehow, the feeling in Chanyeol's chest and the hold of Jongin's hand around his tells him this isn't like before. This isn't the tentative tendrils of a hesitant friendship with confused messages. It's not much more than that, but it might be.

It has Chanyeol smiling enough that he can't stop, the grin wide on his face to match Jongin's as he gives his hand a final squeeze. It leaves his hand tingling when he lets go, traveling up his arm and into his chest.

"Okay," Jongin agrees, the old hesitancy and refusal still lingering, but not brought up.

"Then I can give Sehun his garden kit properly," Chanyeol says and Jongin's eyes widen before he laughs.

"You don't really have to give him stuff like that," Jongin tells him.

"I want to," Chanyeol presses.

"You make me look bad," Jongin almost pouts at him, and Chanyeol doesn't bite down a laugh this time.

"Jongin, I don't think anyone could make you look bad in Sehun's eyes," he says, and Jongin's eyes catch a flicker of pleased hope. "No one could love you more than Sehun does."

"You'll still make me look bad," Jongin pushes, his brown eyes sparkling in the evening sun.

"I could never make you look bad," Chanyeol says. "I'm just trying to win over your son." Jongin's cheeks round up as his grin widens, his teeth flashing in a grin. "I have to keep up the illusion that I'm an angel somehow. I kind of liked that."

"I think he knows better now," Jongin teases.

"Why's that?"

"He's met you," Jongin says matter of factly and then laughs, loud and genuine as Chanyeol lets out a dismayed sound and turns to him with a dramatized look of hurt. It doesn't last though, a smile breaking out over his face at the sound of Jongin's laughter, at the way his whole face lights up, and the way that warm glow in his chest just seems to get bigger with every pulse of his heart.

*

There is something to be said about siblings.

For some people, like Junmyeon, they keep a cordial relationship with their older or younger siblings. Junmyeon and his brother get along, but Chanyeol doesn't hear Junmyeon talk about him with the same sort of closeness or fondness that he hears Jongdae talk about Jongdeok. He doesn't hear Baekhyun talk about Baekbeom like he sees Minseok share fond stories of his sister. For his whole life, Chanyeol has known he's been lucky with his older sister.

Since he was a boy, Yura has been his loving older sister. They did so much together, she looking out for him and he helping her as he got older. Despite the few years between them, and a years of childhood arguments and fights, they've always been close. It used to be Yura that Chanyeol would go to when things got hard or scary. And it used to be Chanyeol that Yura would call up when she needed help. For years, Chanyeol made sure he met every boy Yura dated and made sure to give them 'the talk'.

In university, Yura would often times find a way with Chanyeol and his busy student schedule to see him at least once a month. Weekly dinners were normal. They always got along, and spending time with Yura was something Chanyeol always looked forward to. She was his confidant, his stable rock, his role model, and his open ear when he was struggling and he did all he could to be the same for her.

Then, about four years ago, Yura met Jongdeok, and things began to change.

It's been four years since Chanyeol snooped on Yura's phone and asked Jongdeok out for lunch for 'the brother talk'. It's been four years since he stopped just hanging out with Yura and it became him backing off to let her have time with her boyfriend.

It's been four years, and the weekly dinners together have dissipated. Chanyeol moved to the big city, and Yura took a position in a larger town an hour away where she and Jongdeok live together. Now, it's less of Yura and Chanyeol seeing each other for fun and instead them reconnecting on the phone or when they both go to see the family together.

And Chanyeol doesn't realize how much he misses his sister until nights like this, when he finally has caught her when she's in the city for dinner.

It's just like old times, and Chanyeol had made sure to reserve a table for them at one of the downtown restaurants he remembers Yura liking. If anything, Yura looks even better than usual, her hair cropped short now and a big smile on her face as she immediately pulls him into a hug.

It's like stepping back into comfort, even if Yura's laugh vibrates against his shoulder when she almost has to stand on her tip toes to get her arms around him.

"I still can't believe you grew into such a giant," Yura is laughing as she takes her seat. "Remember when I used to carry you around in the laundry basket?"

"How could I forget?" Chanyeol laughs, stepping back to get a look at his sister. "Too bad I can't fit anymore."

"I bet if we took a few things off you could make it," Yura teases and laughs when Chanyeol frowns pointedly at her. She looks stunning, dressed simply in a sundress and with a large floppy straw hat on to protect her from the summer sun.

Over appetizers, she tells Chanyeol all about the new things she's been doing, about the business she's opened up a branch of in the city, the apartments she's been looking at, and the summer trip she and Jongdae made the other weekend. "I'm still sorry I didn't get to see you while you were home," Yura says, and sighs, picking apart a piece of bread from the appetizer basket. "I never get to see you."

"You're seeing me right now," Chanyeol reminds her.

"Only because I had to hunt you down," Yura sighs, and then laughs as Chanyeol scrunches up his nose at her. "This is why I'll always call you a kid."

"Why?"

"Because you act like one!" Yura laughs, and laughs more as Chanyeol flinches when she flicks a piece of bread crust at him. "Still, I'm sorry I haven't seen you in so long."

"You've been busy," Chanyeol says, watching as his sister sighs and softens across the table from him. "You have your own life and you can't keep running around after me all the time. You have to accept that I'm all grown up now and now just your baby brother."

"You'll always be my baby brother," Yura tells him fondly. "Too scared to give out valentines in class you made yourself because you think you forgot someone."

"I never forgot anyone."

"Which is what makes you so special," Yura says.

"That's it?"

"Pretty much," Yura answers and laughs at the look she gets. "How is work? Has mom pestered you about asking for a promotion yet?"

"Every time I call," Chanyeol sighs. "I guess it's the same as when she asks if you're engaged yet." Yura picks up another piece of bread, a soft smile on her face as she carefully tears off a piece. "How is that going?"

"Talking to mother?" Yura asks, looking up. "The usual. She cares a lot and I'm already thirty I should be married by now." She laughs, sitting back in her chair. "At least, according to her."

"You've been busy," Chanyeol says, not sure if he's telling Yura or reminding himself, if he's even talking to Yura. He's twenty seven and has nothing in his future aside from himself and... something better. It's all gray space and he's still trying to figure out the shapes. "The world we live isn't the same as what she grew up in."

"She just cares a lot," Yura says, and smiles reassuringly. "Both she and dad care so much about us, they just want what's best for us."

"Don't all parents?" Chanyeol poses, his mind flashing to Jongin trying to get a pouting Sehun to eat his broccoli.

"They mean well," Yura sighs. She opens her mouth, about to say something else, when the food arrives.

At first, they get too wrapped up in eating, and Chanyeol finds himself once more distracted by running thoughts of his own life. Parents who mean well, when he truly tries to put it in perspective, end up clashing in his head. It's hard to imagine his own parents like he sees Jongin, trying his hardest to make sure Sehun is healthy and has his needs met. The same scoldings he got as a child from his parents are different to watch when Jongin delivers them to Sehun.

Perhaps it's different because the situations are so different, because Jongin isn't Chanyeol's parents, because how they parent is different, but Chanyeol finds himself running up against walls.

It's hard to see Jongin ever pestering Sehun to find a wife and settle down at a proper job that earns substantial money. It's hard to imagine Sehun feeling like he can't talk to his father about what's happening in his life, like he won't be accepted, like it isn't okay. It's hard to ever see Jongin pressuring Sehun to be something other than what he wants to become.

What does Chanyeol really want?

"How have you been?" Yura asks, cutting through his thoughts.

"Busy," Chanyeol answers automatically. It's true, he has been busy. Extremely busy, on top of work and his friends and the minimal community work he still does sometimes and spending time with Jongin, Chanyeol hardly has much free time. Whatever free time he ends up having, he makes. Like tonight.

"Obviously," Yura laughs. "Considering it took forever to nail down time for this dinner."

"You'd have seen me if you were home the other weekend," Chanyeol teases. "But you were off with Jongdeok having fun."

"I was," Yura says, her fork twining slowly into her pasta vongole. "He proposed."

"What was it you two were-" Chanyeol stops, his eyes widening as he realizes what Yura's just said. "What?"

"Jongdeok," Yura says, and sits up properly. She's smiling, but there's something unsure about it, wavering at the edges of her eyes and lips. "He proposed to me."

"When?" Chanyeol can feel his heart, shaking in his chest in excitement, surprise, and slight concern. Somehow, despite the news, Yura doesn't look as happy as Chanyeol thought she would. "Have you told mom?"

"She doesn't know," Yura says, her voice slightly softer. She takes in a deep breath. "He asked me that weekend, actually. The weekend we were away and you went home." Chanyeol can't tell what's going on, the smile on his sister's face anything but the happy smile he'd expected. She almost looks scared, upset.

"Yura?" That was weeks ago that Chanyeol went home to see his parents.

"I-" Yura lets out a long breath, her eyes closing. "I didn't answer him yet."

The air halts around them, and the candle on the table catches in Yura's eyes, making them shine. "What?"

"Jongdeok," Yura says, and finally looks up to meet Chanyeol's eyes. It's like she's waiting for the outcry, the disappointment, the reaction. Chanyeol feels numb. "I didn't answer him yet."

It doesn't make sense. Chanyeol has spent the last four years watching Yura and Jongdeok together. It's such a familiar thing that he doesn't even think of them separately much, at least not on Jongdeok's part. It's Yura and Jongdeok, the other man already immediately assumed to be a future part of the family. Even Jongdae is already ready to move in and team up.

But as Yura sits across the table from him, Chanyeol knows that's not what's important. What's important is his sister, who looks small and expectant and unsure sitting across from him with her hands tucked into her lap, watching him with flickering eyes.

"Well," Chanyeol says, putting down his fork and sitting back. "I'll have to tell Jongdae to stop trying to schedule us in for matching tuxes." It was a poor attempt to be funny, but at least Yura seems to relax slightly.

"I didn't say no," Yura admits.

"But you didn't say yes," Chanyeol finishes for her, watching his sister, trying to read her, to find out what's really wrong. She shakes her head. "Why?"

Taking in a deep breath, Yura holds it before she shakes her head, as if getting herself in order. "I just- froze, I guess." She breathes out. "I guess it's just become such a big thing that I didn't know what to do when it actually happened. I wasn't shocked and happy when he asked, and it was beautiful. He was so sweet and thoughtful and it surprised me but I didn't-" she lets out a loud sigh, eyes pressing shut. "I just felt scared, like I didn't know if it was real and if it was the right decision."

Looking across the table at his sister, Chanyeol suddenly feels like he's looking into a mirror. The anxiety, the nerves, and the self doubt that's written all over his sister's pretty face are like his own conflicting feelings the last few months. Yura and Jongdeok have been dating for years, already live together and act like they're married. They're just one legal contract away from being that married couple that everyone wishes to be.

It's almost reaffirming, to see even his perfect darling sister, who Chanyeol has always tried to live up to and felt he'd fallen short, to have a moment just like himself. "Do you love him?" he asks.

"What?" Yura asks, and sniffs slightly as she looks up at him. Her eyes are slightly red and her nose has begun to pink.

"Do you love Jongdeok?" Chanyeol asks simply.

"Of course," Yura says in a rush. "That hasn't changed, but it's just- this whole big thing about waiting and waiting and waiting for him to propose had me wondering again and again when it would happen, and what would happen after that, and I just- I couldn't say it." She grimaces and looks down at her plate. "I couldn't say yes."

"Is that it?" Chanyeol asks, and finds himself laughing. Yura's head jerks up to look at him, eyes wide. "If that's all that's keeping you from saying yes, then don't scare me like that."

"Hey," Yura frowns, huffing at him a bit. "This is-"

"Forget about mom," Chanyeol says, and reaches across the table for his sister's hands. She hesitates, but reaches out to him a moment later and he smiles at her, trying to put all the reassurance and confidence he feels in Yura into his voice. "Forget about what people keep telling you to do and what you're 'supposed' to feel when someone proposes to you. No one can really tell you what to feel, and if you want to be scared, then be scared." Yura swallows, sniffing at him again. "Just do what you feel is right."

"I don't know though," Yura says, voice quiet. "What if I say yes and it's the wrong decision?"

"Yura," Chanyeol calls to his sister. "If you don't say yes, will you regret it?"

Yura is silent, just watching him with her lips pressed tight. She's always been the strong one, protecting Chanyeol from things and being the buffer between him and his parents and their overzealous enthusiasm for him. Every now and then, Chanyeol has to remind himself she can get scared too and he can help take care of her for once.

Just like he used to when he'd scare off her old boyfriends and come back telling her they weren't worthy of her.

Jongdeok never left, and Chanyeol knows how he looks at her. It's like how Jongin looks at Sehun. Chanyeol knows how Yura looks at Jongdeok too, like he's her happily ever after, her other half and the beginning and ending of her smile.

"I have an idea," Chanyeol says, and sits back, digging into his pocket as Yura's eyes widen. Her eyebrows rise high when he smiles and pulls out a coin. "Heads is yes, you say yes to Jongdeok, and tails is no, and that's that."

"You can't be serious," Yura scoffs, looking slightly insulted. "Chanyeol, this isn't just a flip a coin decision."

"Trust me," he says, even as his heart beats faster in his chest. "Ready?"

"Chanyeol-!"

Tossing the coin in the air, Chanyeol catches it, and flips it to land flat on the back of his hand. Holding it out to Yura, he smiles and takes away one hand, revealing the coin face. "Tails," he says, and listens to the sharp intake of breath.

"Chanyeol, you can't just decide by a coin toss if-"

"Is it wrong?" Chanyeol asks, and watches his sister closely.

"Of course it's wrong!" Yura says, huffing as she grabs the coin from him. "If I flip it again, I'll get heads and-"

"Did you want heads?" Chanyeol asks.

"I-" Yura's voice falters, and for a moment she just stills, frozen in time as she looks at Chanyeol across the table. Then, as if she's been flipped herself, she shifts, the color returning to her face and the light back into her eyes as a smile begins to spread over her face. "Thank you," she says, and finally she looks like Chanyeol had thought she would.

This is the Yura he'd thought he would see when he found out Jongdeok proposed to her. This is the bright and glowing and happy to burst sister that he pictured in his head, her smile so big it threatens the limits of her face, her eyes so full of joy it flows out into the world around her.

"See?" Chanyeol says, and can't help the smug smile on his face. "So," he prompts, watching as Yura laughs at him happily. "When are you going to tell him?"

"After I get home," Yura says.

"Are you sure you want to wait that long?" Chanyeol asks, picking up his fork again to go back to dinner. "I mean, the poor guy has waited for this long for an answer from you."

"He made me wait years before he asked me," Yura laughs. It's free, light and happy and empty of the nervous flutter it had earlier. His sister is back. "He can wait until I get home. I have to have dinner with my amazing brother, just like I promised." She sits up, returning to her meal with a new light to her that seems to build from the inside out. "Thank you," she says again, and Chanyeol simply smiles at her.

"I'm your brother, that's what I'm here for," Chanyeol tells her.

"And I'm lucky to have you," she says, and bumps his foot under the table. "Now it's just you that's left."

The energy behind Chanyeol's smile falters, flickering away and it almost falls. He catches it, holding it tight in place as Yura turns back to her meal, oblivious.

As happy as Chanyeol is for his sister, he isn't who she is. Chanyeol doesn't have a girlfriend from the last few years, or one that he wants in the next few years, to propose to. There is none of the goal and type A characteristics that his sister shows. As much as they've both been called similar, determined, hard working, and outgoing, Chanyeol wonders about his job, his future, and where he will be in five years.

Yura isn't that person, and though she's faltered just now, that's not her norm.

In five years, Chanyeol may still be single. In five years, Chanyeol may still be spending as much time as he can with Jongin, watching him for smiles he can coax out of him, watching Sehun grow up and learn new things, and feeling his world grow bigger than he can understand. In five years... he will never be Yura.

It scares him, probably more than Yura was ever scared of being asked to spend the rest of her life with Jongdeok. Yura could answer yes or no and both answers are fine, where as Chanyeol knows so little about his own future and still doesn't know which side of the coin he doesn't want.

Yura, deep down, knew she didn't want to say no. Chanyeol, in all of him, still doesn't even know the questions to ask the coin.

It's too much for tonight though, and Chanyeol pushes it down, as deep down as it can go, and pushes his smile bigger on his face, letting the happiness for his sister wash over him for now. It's easiest to be happy for other people and help them, and Chanyeol silences himself in the sound of his sister's joy.

*

Somehow, despite the apartment having probably the worst air circulation Chanyeol has ever seen in structural design, when he walks into the unit, it's not that bad. The air is still heavy and the hair at the nape of his neck is wet with perspiration, but it's not the same muggy heat that it had been the last time he'd been here. It's a weekend, which Chanyeol had initially thought would mean Jongin might have plans, or that he himself might have plans. He may have, if Baekhyun had anything to say about it, except, at least in Chanyeol's mind, Jongin got to him first.

First come, first serve.

"You made it," Jongin says, a smile that is less hesitant every time Chanyeol sees him on his face. "Sehun was beginning to worry."

"You take forever!" Sehun half yells as he comes bounding down the hall in surprisingly quiet leaps. "Did you get lost?"

"No, I just had to make sure I looked nice when I saw you," Chanyeol tells Sehun and earns a bright giggle. "Do I pass?"

"I don't know," Sehun says, and looks up at his father. "Daddy?"

"He passes," Jongin says, smiling down at Sehun with a brief glance at Chanyeol.

Sighing loudly in exasperation, Sehun rolls his eyes and trundles back into the apartment. "You can't say that, you didn't even look at him. You have to look at people, Daddy."

"I did look," Jongin says, and shares an amused smile with Chanyeol as they walk together. "Besides, since when did we have a dress code?"

"Sehun told me I had to look nice," Chanyeol reminds, and gets an almost conspiratory grin from Sehun when the boy flops onto the living room floor. "Sehun, why do I have to look nice?"

"Because," Sehun says, and then rolls onto his tummy, bursting with laughter.

Letting out a quiet sigh, Jongin looks up at Chanyeol. "If you're uncomfortable-"

"I'm fine," Chanyeol reassures him, smiling and feeling it spread through him. Jongin looks relaxed, at home and content, like he doesn't feel on edge here. It's like he's taken away layers, defenses and walls built up around himself before he walks into the world. It's nice to see them coming down, Jongin slowly unfolding with him, showing himself and letting Chanyeol in.

A soft flutter that Chanyeol has begun to just expect shifts in his chest, catching his breath.

"I'm still wrapping up dinner," Jongin says.

"About that," Chanyeol begins. He falters at the pointed look Jongin gives him, so familiar to the stern look he gives Sehun when he's pulling 'father rank'. "Jongin-"

"I'm making dinner, and that's final," Jongin tells him.

"He spent so long trying to figure out what to make, Chanyeol, you can't say no," Sehun says, rolled onto his back, his hair fanning about his head like a black silken halo. "If you tell him it's bad he'll cry and then I'll hate you forever."

"Why would I ever tell Jongin his cooking is bad?" Chanyeol asks, astounded.

"Because you never stay for dinner!" Sehun clammers, slapping his tummy. "You always disappear, like how Daddy does at night."

"Like-" Chanyeol's blood goes cold, and when he turns to Jongin, fearing the worst, he's met with a definite flush to his cheeks.

"Three of my jobs are at night," Jongin explains quickly. "It's not- not that."

"Three?" Chanyeol repeats, eyes widening in shock.

Giving an almost jerking nod, Jongin takes in a deep breath. "The other three are during the day," he says, and then closes his mouth, bottom lip pulling between his teeth, waiting.

Six. Six jobs.

It's so many, and a lot of running around. Chanyeol has heard of people pulling three in extremes but six? It makes him feel uneasy. "Oh," he says though, trying to not put too much pressure or weight on it. Just from how Jongin is watching him, it's obvious that Jongin hasn't had a good response from talking about this. It's strange, intense, and almost absurd. Having six jobs makes Jongin look unstable from the outside, like he can't just hold onto one properly.

It's probably the farthest from the truth, just another judgment Chanyeol is loathe to make.

No expectations.

"I got tonight off though," Jongin continues, and the tension is gone, the only trace of it in his red bitten lip. "Actually all Saturday nights are off for the rest of the- until something happens." He smiles, and turns when Sehun pushes himself up, easily catching his son when Sehun jumps up and into his arms.

Arms around his father's neck, Sehun is nothing but a beaming smile. "We get to have real weekends!" he crows.

It's been going on for a long time then, Jongin working the nights after Sehun has gone to bed.

No wonder he's exhausted all the time.

"Actual weekends," Jongin confirms with a laugh, and it's still in his eyes when he looks back to Chanyeol. "For the most part."

"Good," Chanyeol says, trying to find a way to speak without knowing what to say. "Real weekends are the best. Is this your first one this year?"

"The first ever!" Sehun says, and slips to the floor when Jongin makes to put him down. Jongin flashes Chanyeol a smile before stepping to the kitchen. It pulls at Chanyeol to go follow him, to ask to help, to stay close, to do something. Instead, he turns and lets him be, bending down to talk with Sehun and smiling at the huge grin on the boy's face. "And you're here. So it's like a super celebration. We should do something special."

"Like what?" Chanyeol asks, walking with Sehun to the couch. There is a deck of cards on the table, a game of hearts laid out in mid play.

"We-" Sehun trails off, looking around before he hops onto the couch to join Chanyeol. "Well, we could listen to the radio, or play cards, or we could play chess."

"Are you sure you don’t want to play something that all three of us can play?"

"But in chess one person can always watch," Sehun says before sliding off the couch. The box he tugs out from one of the bookshelf is dusty and beat up, and when he opens it to reveal an old chess set and fold out board, it looks well used. "And daddy is cooking so we can play right now!"

"I’m not sure if you’ll find much difference since the last game we played. I haven’t had anyone else to play with, and I maybe forgot some things," Chanyeol admits, slipping down to the floor by the couch as Sehun kneels on the other side of the table. Glancing over at the kitchen, Chanyeol catches sight of Jongin watching them as he cooks, a delighted and fond smile on his face. It's beautiful.

"That's okay," Sehun says, already setting up the board. "I’ll remind you. I'm getting better at it, and one day, I'll be able to beat Daddy when we play and then I'll be the one who can make all the rules."

"I thought you were already king," Chanyeol teases, smiling as he helps Sehun set up the pieces.

"I am, but I still have to follow the rules," Sehun explains, wiggling a bit. If Sehun is anything, it's motion. He never sits still, and Chanyeol chuckles softly as he ponders if the only time Sehun is motionless is when he's sleeping.

It wouldn't surprise him if he wasn't.

"What kind of rules would you make?" Chanyeol asks.

Humming, Sehun juts out his lower lip as he thinks, tilting his whole head to the side. "No one has to go to work at night," Sehun says. "And the scary ladies can't come here anymore."

Frowning, Chanyeol watches as Sehun makes the first move. "Scary ladies."

"Just some of the neighbors," Jongin brushes off, walking up to them and sitting down on the couch beside Chanyeol.

Looking up and affronted, Sehun frowns at his father. "But Daddy, they-"

"Won't come here again, I already talked to them," Jongin says, his voice stern but calm.

Sehun doesn't look convinced though, huffing a bit as he settles back to sit on his feet. "It's your turn," he tells Chanyeol.

"Can I help with anything?" Chanyeol asks, looking to Jongin after he moves, letting Sehun play.

"No," Jongin tells him, but there is a slight quirk to his mouth. The warmth in his eyes is almost addicting, and it's hard to look away from. "I hope you don't mind lasagna."

"I love lasagna," Chanyeol says with a large smile.

The game of chess is interrupted half way through Sehun's winning streak and decimation of Chanyeol's pawns when Jongin calls them for dinner. Dragged to the bathroom, Sehun continues to just talk, like he had done through most of the chess game, and it has Chanyeol biting down a laugh. Sehun teaches Chanyeol everything, from how to play chess, what moves are good or bad, to how to wash his hands properly.

"I didn't know I was doing it wrong," Chanyeol says, holding down a laugh.

"That's why it's such a good thing I'm here now," Sehun says, marching into the main room again. "Now you know though so you don't ever have to do it wrong ever again!"

It's a simple dinner, just a lasagna with homemade garlic bread and a salad but still, Chanyeol sits down with the gratitude of a feast. Beside him, Sehun lets out a whoop of delight. "No broccoli!" Sehun cheers and it has Chanyeol bursting into laughter.

"I'm saving the broccoli for tomorrow's breakfast," Jongin says, and lets out his own laugh as Sehun pulls a disgusted face.

"That's not funny, Daddy," Sehun tells him, heaving a huge sigh at his father.

"I never said I was kidding," Jongin tells him, raising his eyebrows in mocking shock. The smell from the lasagna when he places it on a hot pad on the table is wonderful, and Chanyeol finds himself impressed at the spread. It's not a simple dish to just throw together. Jongin had to have been in the kitchen for a while today.

"Blegh," Sehun says, pulling another face. He stops when Jongin quietly reminds, "manners," and sits up straight in his chair.

"Thank you for the food," Chanyeol says sincerely, and the pleased look he gets from Jongin makes him smile.

"Don't say that until you try it," Jongin tells him.

"But don't tell him it's bad," Sehun adds quickly, holding his fork with determination. "No one gets their feelings hurt in our house."

The food is, in fact, delicious, and Chanyeol wastes no time in telling Jongin so. It's worth it for the pleased and proud smile on Jongin's face. The food is wonderful and it's nice to just be at the table with Jongin and Sehun. Mostly, it's Sehun talking to Jongin or Chanyeol as he pushes cucumbers around his plate to avoid eating them and avoids the pointed looks from his father. There are a lot of things Sehun has to talk about. School is going to start in a few weeks, and he'll be starting second grade, learning new things and already excited to meet his teacher and see if his friends are in his class.

What few friends he has though, considering there are only a few names he lists, and he doesn't elaborate on them.

"But I'm most excited because we get to start to really read," Sehun is saying. "Last year they kept us reading all these baby books and it was so boring but maybe in the first week they'll see how I can read and I can take third grade."

"Sehun, you don't have to go straight into third grade," Jongin says kindly, looking up from his plate as Sehun takes a big gulp of milk from his pink sparkly cup. "No one is rushing you."

"But what if second grade is boring?" Sehun sighs loudly, slumping in his chair. "I don't want to spend the whole year bored, Daddy."

"What about your friends?" Chanyeol asks.

"They'll be fine without me," Sehun brushes off easily. "They never wanted to come over to play anyway. I’ll meet new friends, better friends, friends who won’t care that they can’t come over and watch TV because we don’t have one. TV is stupid anyway, and none of them could play chess or read books without pictures in them." He spears a cucumber with his fork, scowling at it. “Pictures in your head are better anyway, even if they made fun of me.”

The words put a saddened look on Jongin's face, even as Sehun appears completely unfazed by it. "You didn't tell me that," he says, putting down his fork slowly.

"It's okay," Sehun says and looks up to smile at his father. "I don't really care. None of them could play chess or anything, so we didn't do much anyway." Still, the dimmer shade to Jongin remains until the subject changes as the food is slowly finished. It's a little strange how quickly time flows, the few hours that Chanyeol has spent already vanishing into nothing.

"Don't worry about it," Jongin catches Chanyeol before he can try to help clean up. He smiles, and even if he looks less exhausted, even if he's not working tonight, it's clearly been a long day, a long week, month, year, life, and he has tired settled into the corners of his lips and the shadows under his eyes. "I'll take care of it later."

"Are you sure?"

"I asked you over for dinner," Jongin reminds him, pushing Chanyeol out of the kitchen and back towards the living room. "I didn't ask you over to do my dishes."

"I love doing dishes," Chanyeol argues, even as he lets Jongin shove him to the living area. "They're my favorite thing. Didn't I tell you that? It'll be fun for me. I can wash and you can finish my game of chess with Sehun."

"You can lose all by yourself," Jongin laughs, not giving in as he pushes Chanyeol back to where Sehun is waiting expectantly at the game. "You'll get no help from me. You have to beat Sehun all by yourself. House rules."

"See?" Sehun says, perking up. "I told you I didn't make the rules."

"One day, Sehun, you can make all the rules you want in your own house," Jongin says, settling back on the couch to just watch the game. "Then whenever I visit you, I'll have to obey all of them."

"First rule is no scary ladies," Sehun says, and takes Chanyeol's rook with a triumphant hiss.

"Alright," Jongin says. When Chanyeol looks back at him, the lines of his face are less smiling and heavier. He wants to ask, but isn't sure if it's okay. Perhaps when the game is over.

It's twilight when the game ends, Sehun winning with at least half his pieces and Chanyeol running around the board to escape him with only his king. It had Sehun in stitches with laughter as every time Sehun put Chanyeol in check, he'd make a little distressed sound in a high voice that would send him into giggles again. Apparently, the way to Sehun's heart is through silly voices. About half way through the second half of the game, Jongin had wandered back to the kitchen, returning as Chanyeol's last knight was taken to sit back onto the couch and watch Chanyeol's demise.

"You tried," is all he says when Chanyeol gets put in check by three different pieces.

"I did," Chanyeol sighs, sitting back in defeat as Sehun grins in victory.

"Again!" Sehun cheers, all bright enthusiasm and excitement.

"I don't think there's time for another game," Jongin says, watching Sehun collapse into a pout.

"But I want to spend time with Chanyeol," Sehun says, his lower lip jutting out in a definite display of misery. "I haven't seen him in ages-"

"Sehun-"

"-and you got to see him last week but I never get to see him and I missed him," Sehun finishes in a rush, his voice wavering slightly. "Why does he have to go?"

"Sehun-" Jongin looks tired, so tired.

"Why can't he just stay here tonight and we'll play chess and then we can all have a sleepover," Sehun interrupts and then gasps loudly, perking up and turning to Chanyeol with wide excited eyes. "We should have a sleepover!"

It's been many, many years since Chanyeol had what he might refer to as a sleepover. Sleepovers stopped when it became about dating. Just sleeping at another person's house for the sake of sleeping there to spend time together...

Sounds nice, actually.

"Sehun-" Jongin's voice is tight.

"Why not?" Sehun asks, looking pleadingly at his father. "I never get to have sleepovers because you're always out working and the other parents don't like it because there’s no adults at night but Chanyeol is an adult and you're going to be here tonight so it's extra safe and it would be so much fun! Daddy, please?"

The line of Jongin's jaw is tight, and Chanyeol watches as emotions begin to fight just under the surface. "Sehun," he says quickly. "I don't really think having a sleepover is the best idea. I have my own house to go back to and-"

"But it would be so much fun," Sehun insists, his eyes big and shining. "We could stay up late and tell stories and all play cards and listen to the radio and then tomorrow morning we can have pancakes for breakfast with strawberry sauce."

"I just came over for dinner-"

"But then you can stay and wear pajamas and we can have a pillow fight!" Sehun bounces on his knees before turning pleading eyes on Chanyeol, giving soft little huffs of desperation. "I've never ever had a pillow fight in my whole life, Chanyeol."

"No pillow fights," Jongin says sharply. When Chanyeol looks at him, he looks worn, and arguing with Sehun, who apparently has his heart set on a sleepover with Chanyeol, isn't helping. "None."

"What about scary stories?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin jerks his head to look at him, eyes wide with shock. "Ah, I forgot, you hate scary stories." Jongin's cheeks turn pink.

"Because they're so scary!" Sehun yelps, and rolls over to flop onto the floor. "They're no fun and they make it so hard to sleep because you have to check everywhere for monsters! Why don't we tell fun stories? Or read out loud? We read out loud before, and Chanyeol, you're so good at it. You do all the voices and make funny faces, it's so much fun."

"Are you sure there isn't someone else you'd rather have a sleepover with?" Chanyeol asks, and watches Jongin as much as he watches Sehun. It might make it easier, to just stay a while, perhaps until Sehun has to actually go to bed and then just help tuck him in. Fighting like this, when Sehun is so revved up, is just pushing things a little.

There is also that part of Chanyeol, the selfish part, that wants to stay, to spend more time with Jongin and Sehun. It's so nice to be with them, laughing and playing and watching them smile.

It's not for him though, he just has to remember that. He's never the number one priority, and he probably never will be.

"Nope," Sehun says, nodding severely. "Just you. I wanna have a cool sleepover with you because you're cool."

"I am?"

"You got the Sehun seal of approval," Jongin chuckles softly, and Chanyeol inhales sharply at the feel of his hand resting on his shoulder. "Not many people get that."

"I'm super picky," Sehun confirms with a significant nod.

Glancing back at Jongin, half confused and half hopeful, Chanyeol watches as Jongin mouths the word 'broccoli' and, rather than feeling a nervous roll in his stomach, he fights down a laugh.

"So it's okay?" Sehun chirps, perking up and looking between his father and Chanyeol.

"I don't have anything for a sleepover," Chanyeol reminds, even if he wants to ignore that. "No toothbrush or pajamas or-"

"You can borrow Daddy's pajamas," Sehun says quickly. "And we have an extra toothbrush just in case. So you're okay. You don't have to worry. It’ll be great!"

"But-"

"Chanyeol might not want to sleepover with us, Sehun" Jongin says, and his hand squeezes gently over Chanyeol's shoulder.

"Is that true?" Sehun asks and Chanyeol opens his mouth for the words to answer. They don't come. "Chanyeol?"

"It's up to your dad," Chanyeol finally blurts out, and realizes a moment too late that this isn't supporting or helping Jongin. The problem is... he does want to stay. It's not right, he knows that, and it's not appropriate per se, and he's certainly imposing, but at the same time...

"Fine," Jongin says, and it surprises Chanyeol enough to turn to him. The hand is still on his shoulder and Jongin doesn't look upset, just tired, like he doesn't want to argue anymore. When he catches Chanyeol's shocked look, he throws him a look that almost says you asked for it.

It sends his heart to skip about in his chest even as Sehun lets out a delighted yelp and immediately gets up to get all the games they can play together for the night.

As Sehun runs off to get something from the bedroom, Chanyeol turns to push onto the couch with Jongin. "I don't have to stay," he says, watching Jongin's face carefully. "I'll stay to get him tucked in and then-"

"It's okay," Jongin says, and the smile he offers is a little weak, fragile and hesitant. "Then we'll really be even." At Chanyeol's confused look, he pokes him gently in the arm. "The first time we met I had a sort of sleepover at your house."

Chanyeol frowns. "You were unconscious," he points out. "That's hardly-"

"You don't have to stay," Jongin says, interrupting him even as he watches him with those warm dark eyes. "It's getting late anyway so-"

"But we were going to have a sleepover," Sehun's voice chimes in, the boy stepping into the living room with a crestfallen look. "I thought-" his lower lip begins to shake.

Taking in a filling breath, Chanyeol smiles at him. "We are having a sleepover." Even if Chanyeol can tell himself he imagines it, he thinks he hears Jongin let out a sigh of relief beside him. It's followed almost immediately by Sehun's excited talk of what games to play, what things to do, and the sound of the radio being turned on to the local classical station.

By the third game of cards, Jongin isn't the only one looking tired, and Chanyeol himself can't hold back a yawn or two. Outside is dark, the sounds of the city fading as Sehun blinks sluggishly at his hand of cards. "Alright," Jongin says. "That's enough fun for tonight, boys." He catches Chanyeol's eye when he stands, and shares a small smile. "Sehun, pajama time."

"And then stories!" Sehun cheers, jumping up to run ahead to the bedroom. The spare pair of pajamas Jongin hands Chanyeol are worn, but soft. "They're probably too short in the arms and legs," Jongin says. "Especially for you."

"They'll be fine," Chanyeol says. "Are you sure you-"

"It's your choice," Jongin says, running a hand absently through his hair, ruffling it up. "Are you sure you are okay with sleeping on a couch and not a bed? I know your bed is more comfortable than both, so..."

"What are the odds Sehun is going to cry if I leave?" Chanyeol asks, grabbing a blanket from one of the set up lawn chairs.

"Oh, absolute," Jongin says. "Water works, sniffling, the whole thing." He lets out a soft laugh. "I told you he missed you. You're his new favorite person."

"Pretty sure you're always going to be his favorite," Chanyeol says, smiling as Jongin shakes out a blanket and arranges it on the couch. It might be a little too short for him, but Chanyeol has slept on worse. He could easily sleep on the floor, truthfully.

"You're rising pretty high in the ranks, though," Jongin says. "He loves having you here, and I don't really-"

"What are you doing?" interrupts them, whatever Jongin had been about to say dying in his throat as he stills. Turning, Sehun is watching them in shock, one hand clutching a huge book and the other holding a pink teddy.

"Getting ready for bed?" Chanyeol tries, watching as Sehun frowns at the couch.

"It's bedtime, Sehun," Jongin says, straightening and holding another blanket as he looks at his son with tired circles under his eyes. "We all need to go to sleep. We can't play all night."

"I know," Sehun says, and almost gives his father an exasperated look. "But I mean, why are you making the couch all weird? It's a sleepover. You can't make Chanyeol sleep on the couch. Our butts go there."

Realization sinks heavy into Chanyeol's chest, his heart beating faster under the pressure as he looks to Jongin and sees the same understanding flicker over his face. "You were perfectly happy to take a nap there earlier," Jongin reminds his son. "Our butts also go on the bed but you never mind sleeping on it."

"It's fine, Sehun," Chanyeol says, smiling in reassurance as he crouches down to Sehun's level. "I'll be okay on the couch. And we're still having our sleepover."

"But I wanted to sleepover and sleep with you!" Sehun protests, voice rising loudly and Jongin's eyes close. He looks exhausted, taking in a deep breath as Sehun begins to hiccup breaths. "It's not a sleepover if you're out here and I don't wanna be that far away and you have to sleep in the big bed with me and Daddy won't mind he never cares anyway even if I kick him on accident, and he likes you anyway! This isn't fair! I thought-"

As Sehun protests, his voice rises in pitch, wavering as tears begin to gather in the corners of his eyes while he looks between his father and Chanyeol. Slowly, he gets himself worked up, short stuttering breaths as he clutches his teddy to his chest and looks miserably at Chanyeol. At a loss, Chanyeol looks up, trying to figure out where to go from here. Staring down at him, Jongin's face is sporting a slight blush but he smiles weakly and looks slightly apologetic. "Sehun, Chanyeol doesn't need to sleep with us. He's a big guy who needs his space."

"Then you can move over!" Sehun throws back at his dad, dropping his book and his bear and grabbing Chanyeol's hands in his own, yanking on them. "Our bed isn't tiny and he's not huge; you're just being mean! Daddy, you're so insensitive!"

"Where did you even learn that word?" Chanyeol asks, looking at Sehun in slight awe.

"I listen to the radio, okay!?" Sehun's voice is wavering and there are angry tears in his eyes now. "I wanna have a sleepover and you two are ruining it for me!"

This isn't just a sleepover with Sehun. This is a lot more than just dinner with Jongin and a visit. This is more than just sleeping on Jongin's couch to appease Sehun and maybe spend a bit more time with Jongin. This is personal space, with the possibility of putting himself into the same space that Jongin lives in, sleeps in. This is sharing a bed as well as a friendship, or this gray space that isn't quite that, but it's new territory of pressed into a bed together. Jongin would be so close, finally spending the full night at home for the first time in what is probably months, and-

This is a sleepover with Sehun, not Jongin.

There is a big difference between the two, and the issue is that it somehow just became both. It’s already pushing things probably to be staying over. While Sehun may not see an issue with it, Jongin is Sehun’s father and Chanyeol is…

Chanyeol is…

Jongin's cheeks are still dusted faintly pink as he looks at Sehun with his lips pressed together like he's stuck on what to say. "Sehun, I'm not sure-" Chanyeol begins.

"It's stupid! Our bed is fine, and you'll be comfortable. I sleep there all the time," Sehun tugs on Chanyeol's hands, letting out soft little fitful whimpers. "I never get to have sleepovers except with Uncle Xing Zhang and you're the first person I really, really, really-"

"Okay," Jongin startles them both with. His eyes are closed, composure held.

It has the shuddering flutter in Chanyeol's chest stilling, shivering slightly. "Daddy?" Sehun prompts, little voice hopeful.

"If it's okay with -"

"Please, please please, please, please, please, Please!" Sehun explodes at his father, bouncing on his toes.

"Alright," Jongin repeats, and looks up at Chanyeol in a mix of apology, defeat, and something too faint to catch. Immediately, Sehun lets out a whoop of victory, yanking Chanyeol to the bathroom as he crows in delight. "But brush your teeth properly!" he calls after his son as Chanyeol is tugged away from the living room. Chanyeol catches one last glimpse of Jongin, a tired amused smile on his lips as his eyes linger before Sehun is whining at him to hurry up and shoving him into the bathroom.

"You can change now," Sehun tells him, hopping onto the stool in front of the sink and snatching his toothbrush. "We have to clean our teeth or they'll fall out and corn will grow instead," Sehun says, grabbing the toothpaste, standing on his tip toes to reach the sink.

"Really?" Chanyeol asks, pulling his shirt over his head to change. He watches as Sehun carefully squeezes a small pea dollop of toothpaste onto his toothbrush. "Where did you hear that?"

"From Puppy," Sehun says, sticking his toothbrush into his mouth.

"Puppy?"

"He works with Daddy at one of his jobs," Sehun explains, brushing his teeth vigorously. "Sometimes he comes over and visits Uncle Xing Zhang when I'm there and they do music stuff together. He tells me lots of stuff."

"Like what?" Chanyeol asks, pulling Jongin's shirt over his head. The material is thin, pleasant against his skin in the summer weather, and soft. It smells like him too, which has Chanyeol closing his eyes for a moment when he realizes it. Don't be selfish his mind whispers even as he realizes this is absolutely a self indulgent evening.

Yet Jongin hasn't stopped it.

He asked, whispers and Chanyeol pushes it down deep.

"About stars and stuff," Sehun explains. "He was the one that told me all about Beethoven and Mozart and explained about classical music. He also knows a lot about animals. Like, all the animals."

"What job does he work with your dad?" Chanyeol asks, curious. He knows Jongin has a lot of jobs, just not what they are.

"He works at a food place," Sehun answers around his toothbrush. "Like for lunch and stuff? They make really good sandwiches." Spitting into the sink, Sehun rummages in a box stacked in the cramped space by the sink. Holding up a toothbrush wrapped in plastic, Sehun grins at Chanyeol, a few mostly used up tubes of toothpaste in his other hand. "Which one do you want? Peppermint, blegh, or Super Power Berry Blue?"

Chanyeol does his very best not to laugh as he accepts the toothbrush and unwraps it. "Which one is the best?" he asks, looking very seriously down at the little boy.

"Super power!" Sehun crows before giving it happily to Chanyeol. "It tastes like space."

"Awesome," Chanyeol says, squirting a bit of the radioactive looking blue toothpaste onto the toothbrush. It has silver sparkles in it. "I love space taste."

Sehun giggles, leaning forward and spitting into the sink again. "You're so weird," he says, grinning happily up at Chanyeol with toothpaste foam all over his mouth.

"I know," Chanyeol says, winking down at the kid before he sticks the toothbrush into his mouth. It's fun, in an almost sweet and silly way, to be doing this. If someone had asked him a year ago if he would have a sleepover with a six year old, he'd have laughed at them. Now, he can't actually think of what he'd rather be doing on a Saturday night.

This is right where he wants to be.

The lights in the apartment are all turned out by the time Chanyeol finally manages to get Sehun to stop showing him the artwork he put up to cover up exposed pipes in the front hall as Jongin washes up. They end up walking to the bedroom with Sehun upside down in Chanyeol's arms, hair standing on end and giggling wildly as Chanyeol hobbles them forward as per giggled instructions. The bedroom is bathed in warm yellow light from one of the lamps and Jongin is yawning as he turns to them. Already in a soft gray sleep shirt and pajama pants, Jongin flashes them both a tired smile. It melts seamlessly into a laugh as Chanyeol tosses Sehun onto the bed with a shrieking laugh and Sehun flops about, laughing and rolling about to look up at them.

"Sleep over!" Sehun chirps happily, before crawling swiftly up the bed to burrow into the blankets, still giggling.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Jongin asks quietly, looking up at him with a final flicker of hesitancy. He has a small bit of toothpaste lingering at the corner of his mouth that begs to be wiped away with the pad of Chanyeol’s thumb. The ends of his hair around his face are slightly damp, shining clean from washing up. He looks so real, so raw and close standing there and watching him in worn and faded pajamas and bare feet.

"It's fine," Chanyeol says, smiling and pushing his nerves to the side. This is impromptu, but Jongin is just as much the same Jongin that Chanyeol saw when he arrived for dinner. Nothing has changed, he's just staying longer. He's here as Sehun's sleepover guest, as a friend of the family, a friend even if what he feels for Jongin has careened beyond that. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't. I'd be on the couch, or headed home, or-"

"You guys sure do talk a lot," Sehun says, head poking out of his burrito of blankets and hair standing up everywhere as he looks between Jongin and Chanyeol. "I thought it was bedtime. Why are you guys still talking when you should be getting into bed?"

"You," Jongin says, with a final look at Chanyeol before he's diving to the bed, wrapping around Sehun and wrestling with him to loud laughter. "Are one to talk. You could talk the ears off a statue!"

"Escaaaape!" Sehun giggles, flailing as his father captures him and flips him in the bed. "Chanyeol! Save me! Assist!"

"I don't know," Chanyeol says, even as he steps forward to the bed. "I don't know if I can do much. Your Dad looks really scary."

"No!" Sehun yelps in laughter, reaching for Chanyeol and dragging him down to the bed with a few hard tugs. "He's just bigger than me! You're bigger than him. You could totally pick him up."

"You want me to pick up your Dad?" Chanyeol laughs, maneuvering to not squash them on the bed and looking up only when he feels Jongin still against him. When Chanyeol looks at him, meeting his wide eyed gaze, he realizes what he's just said. It only manages to invigorate that flutter in his chest to press higher and more insistent.

This is about Sehun, not Jongin.

It's both.

"No," Sehun laughs, pushing his dad off and sitting up. "He really likes hugging though, even if he says he doesn't. So you could do that. He really, really likes to cuddle."

Sputtering, Jongin's face flares with color and Chanyeol bites his lips to keep down his laughter.

Sehun sniffs. "It's really weird. Sometimes, he rolls on top of me!" He coughs. "It's like he wants to crush me in his sleep."

"No, I just want to be closer to you," Jongin says, tugging Sehun to lie with him bed, shaking his previous expression away as it replaces with a smile. "That's why I always cuddle with you."

"You're really mushy," Sehun tells him, sticking out his tongue at Jongin. Jongin scrunches up his nose and pokes out his tongue in return, getting a loud giggle from Sehun.

"I'm king," Jongin says, trailing off into a yawn as Sehun props up and looks at him.

"No," Sehun says, poking him in the chest. "I'm the king. And the king says it's time for bed."

"I thought you were all about staying up all night," Chanyeol reminds, watching as Sehun pops up and rolls to the end of the bed, grabbing his book and pink teddy. "Did you change your mind?"

"Yep!" Sehun says. He pushes his book onto one of the crates near the dresser carefully before he shuffles over and tugs on the light cord. "I decided we should sleep now so we can wake up tomorrow and have more fun!"

"You're sure?" Jongin asks, rolling over to look at Sehun.

"It's a sleepover," Sehun says, and hugs his teddy close to himself. "You're supposed to sleep, right?"

The smile the spreads over Jongin's face is soft, sweet and loving as he reaches out and gently ruffles his hair. "Right."

"Lights?"

"Lights!" Jongin repeats, and the next moment the room is cast into darkness. The bed dips as the sheets rustle, and Chanyeol can make out through the dim light filtering in from the blocked up windows the shape of Sehun clambering onto the bed beside him. On his other side, Jongin lets out a tired sigh and settles down, barely touching Chanyeol as he lays between them.

"We can't stay up all night," Sehun whispers, leaning in to Chanyeol as he keeps his voice down.

"Why not?" Chanyeol asks in a whisper. He may not sleep for a while, may try to slip away even if the thought of just lying down and drifting off nestled between the two of them is tempting.

"Daddy is really tired," Sehun answers, his breath hot against Chanyeol's ear. "He worked extra this week and he really needs to sleep. So we have to make sure he sleeps, okay?"

"Okay," Chanyeol says, his heart hurting even as he tries to keep his voice lighter. "Good night, Sehun."

"You're on the wrong place," Sehun says, louder this time.

"I am?" Chanyeol asks, trying to see better in the dark as Sehun pulls away to jostle about in the bed.

"No, not you, Daddy," Sehun huffs, and Chanyeol holds back a grunt as Sehun suddenly pushes at him, shoving him back into Jongin. Jongin lets out a dissatisfied groan and Chanyeol bites down the urge to catch Sehun and just hold him still. "You can't sleep there, Daddy, you always sleep next to me."

"Sehun," Jongin's voice sounds heavy with exhaustion. "It's fine."

"But it's the rule," Sehun complains, and Chanyeol can feel Jongin sitting up beside him, brushing against his side and letting out a loud sigh.

"No more rules, Sehun," Jongin says a bit louder, voice stern. "It's time for bed."

“But you have to switch with Chanyeol!” Sehun half whines, sitting up to look up at his father. “Otherwise it’s weird!”

“Sehun,” Jongin warns, leaning over a bit over Chanyeol towards his son.

“It’s fine,” Chanyeol interrupts, reaching up to both of them. Sehun goes down easily, trapped under Chanyeol’s arm to flop to the bed with a loud ‘oof’. Jongin lets out a soft sound, and it creeps under Chanyeol’s skin as his hand comes to rest against his chest, fingers just brushing against Jongin’s thigh. It’s warm. Swallowing down the flutter that rises from his chest into his throat, Chanyeol turns to Sehun, feeling Jongin settle down beside him. “Why don’t you switch with me? Then he doesn’t have to move?”

"But all the monsters are on that side, and I always keep a look out on this edge to make double sure we’re safe," Sehun whispers back, little fingers curling into Chanyeol's shirt. "That's why Daddy always sleeps on that side. To protect me from them on the other side of the bed."

"So why does he have to switch with me?" Chanyeol asks as his heart aches for the man beside him, who does so much just for the sake of his son. "Doesn't that mean I'm closer to the monsters?"

"Sehun, it's time to go to sleep," Jongin murmurs beside him and Chanyeol's throat tightens.

"Yeah, but now you can protect Daddy from the monsters," Sehun says in a loud whisper.

"Sehun," Jongin repeats firmly.

"He needs someone to protect him too, sometimes," Sehun finishes in a hasty whisper before he flops down into bed.

It's hard to see Sehun in the dark of the room, but he can feel his hands release from the front of his shirt, hear his soft breathing next to him in the bed. Beside him, he can feel Jongin, warm and solid under his arm, and in his chest he can feel the steady beating rhythm of his heart, too fast and too hard as his skin feels live with attentiveness. Even if he'd been yawning earlier, he feels wide awake now, leaning in and whispering to Sehun, "okay," as his heart drums in his ears. He needs someone to protect him too. "I'll protect him. I promise."

"A promise is forever," Sehun whispers, his voice impossibly soft as those words carve into his bones.

"I know," Chanyeol assures him, and confirms for himself. This is where he wants to be, here, now, and however long he can be, however he can be. That's what he's wanted to do since Jongin woke up and stood crying before him, opening up this world, and Chanyeol knew there was no going back.

Whether it's from monsters or the anonymous judgement of strangers, Chanyeol wants to protect Jongin from it.

Carefully, so as not to disturb Sehun too much as the boy settles down finally, Chanyeol shifts, turning to Jongin in the bed. For a moment, Jongin doesn't move, still with slowed breathing beside him and Chanyeol is almost loathe to move him. Every beat of his heart feels too big in his chest, the pull at him to move closer, to this man who cares so fiercely for his son, who works so hard. Moving his hand, shaking Jongin gently, Chanyeol swallows down the feeling of Jongin under his touch.

Still thin, there's at least more than there was the last time Chanyeol was this close. At least he appears to be eating more now, a full serving to match Chanyeol and Sehun at dinner tonight, and he looks stronger, more color to his cheeks. He breathes in sharply as Chanyeol's hand shifts to his waist, turning under his touch.

Pushing up, Chanyeol shifts to lean over him, swallowing down when Jongin stills under him and lets out a soft gasp. "What?" he whispers, voice low and guarded.

"We have to change spots," Chanyeol whispers to him, and slips his hand to the other side of Jongin's waist. Pulling slightly, Chanyeol tugs to show what he means rather than explain, fingers pressing into warm skin where Jongin's shirt has ridden up.

"Why?" Jongin shifts anyway, pushing up and into Chanyeol's space to move, letting out a soft grunt. It almost makes Chanyeol laugh, how Jongin went from sleepy and guarded one moment to compliant and petulant the next, pliant under his guiding touch.

"Because I said so," Chanyeol teases, keeping his voice quiet as he slips to the edge of the bed, settling down as Jongin shifts into the space he's just left. "And Sehun wanted it."

"You're like a puppy around him," Jongin quietly laughs, turning to him with sleep heavy in his voice. His hand nudges against Chanyeol's hip and has the pound, pound, pound of his heart loud in his ears. "Sehun gets upset and you want to fix it, to help." He lets out another soft laugh, ending in a sigh. "Thank you."

"For what?" Chanyeol hums, shifting slightly closer. To hear over the soft filtering sounds from the street and the world outside.

"Staying," Jongin murmurs in a slow sigh.

"I think Sehun would have started sobbing if I didn't," Chanyeol replies in a low whispering laugh. It startles short when he feels Jongin's hand move, and then slip into his own.

"You didn't have to stay," Jongin says, and it sounds deeper. There is more there, and Chanyeol doesn't push it down this time when the swell in his chest threatens to spill over. It's worse, but Chanyeol can't keep ignoring this, what he's feeling, what it means, what this means.

"I stayed because I wanted to," Chanyeol tells him. "I made a promise, too."

"You keep making promises," Jongin whispers, his fingers resting gently around Chanyeol's hand. It feels so secure there, natural and soft and right. "You have to be careful."

"I'm not going to break any of them," Chanyeol says, and carefully squeezes around Jongin's hand, a reminder. "Like right now. I'm protecting you from the monsters."

Jongin's soft laugh fans against his cheeks, brushing against his mouth and Chanyeol smiles, watching as the shadow of his form settles close. "My hero," he whispers into a sigh. It fades into silence, the last word weighing heavily as Chanyeol listens, waiting for the next soft whisper of words to hold onto.

The soft breathing of Jongin beside him begins to even out, slow and as his hand relaxes, Chanyeol realizes he's fallen asleep. On the other side of the bed, Chanyeol can hear the soft breaths of Sehun, can just make out the shape of him curled up against Jongin's side.

This is what is important.

It's been months, years actually, that Chanyeol has been asking himself over and over what's important. It's easy to find the answers in the headlines, in the news and in the greater picture of the world. That's what he'd always walked towards, worked for, thought he was supposed to do to actually understand what he was meant to do. Volunteering and helping in the community and reading to kids in the library and donating and wanting to write series in a magazine about what is really in food that everyone eats and never finding the answer.

It's here.

It's not Jongin, and it's not Sehun, and it's not entirely both of them, but it is here. This, finding meaning by being with people, being something for them, with them, is what is important. With the soft hum of the fan in the window trying to stir the air and the gentle sigh that Jongin lets out as he shifts, leaning into him as he sleeps, this is what is important in Chanyeol's life.

This is what matters to him, being here, and not letting go.

It's not about wanting this, and it's not about being here because it's what he should do, but it feels like things are fitting into place. There isn't a part of him that wonders if this is wrong, if this isn't his place, but instead it's like it settles, the thorn of uncertainty has been plucked out and he can heal.

There is only the soft fluttering beats of his heart, insistent and certain in his chest when Jongin shifts closer in his sleep. There is only a dull warm hum that spreads through him, weighing gently on him to drift slowly into the night as the quiet touch of hands ghost over his side, as the subtle scent of toothpaste and warm smiles settles against him. A faint smile spreads from him and down, pressing his face into the warmth that sighs and settles, holding onto him and keeping him.

I promise, flutters gently at the back of his mind as Chanyeol slips to sleep and contentment.

*

It's a different kind of warmth than the summer heat that lays against Chanyeol's side as he slowly wakes. It's more solid, more comforting and defined, soft gentle glides of air against the skin of his neck and the weight against his arm. The subtle scent of laundry, clean soaps and a familiar smell that is smiles and soft touches and deep warm browns pulls at Chanyeol, filling him in. Comfortable and warm, it's almost too pleasant to wake up from, nicer to just stay in this space, this perfection, wrapping his arms around the soft warm body beside him and-

Cracking open his eyes as his mind slowly churns through to waking, Chanyeol looks down into his arms and is met with a mess of black hair nestled into him with an arm draped heavily around his waist. The edge of the bed is right beside him, blankets pushed down to his waist as Jongin is curled up right against him, soft sleeping breaths fanning against his collarbones and sending little tingles of sensation over Chanyeol's skin. At some point in the night, he must have rolled over and into Chanyeol. It almost makes Chanyeol laugh, thinking back to how Sehun had called him a 'cuddler' the night before.

Apparently, he wasn't kidding. Indeed, Jongin is all curled up, tucked into him and sleeping so softly that it feels like a crime to disturb him.

It's not the first time Chanyeol has seen him when he's asleep, but it is the first time he's seen him look so relaxed. Curled up and tucked in his arms, Jongin looks so calm, all of the lines in his face, the weight that seems to constantly press down on his shoulders, is gone, lifted. It makes him look so much younger, probably years younger, and he looks, for lack of a better word, beautiful.

The way his messy hair falls about his face, his eyelashes lie dark against his cheeks, finally holding a little color in them, and his lips part, full with soft breathing, has Chanyeol captivated. It sounds sappy in his own head, but lying here in the dim light of morning, Chanyeol knows he's never woken up to anything more wonderful in his life.

It feels too strong to think about, but a part of Chanyeol, the part that speaks in reminding whispers and soft encouragement, knows what the feeling is that's flowing through him. It's not scary, like it had been so many times before, and Chanyeol doesn't think about pushing it down this time. It won't do it any good, as it's impossible to pretend it's not there.

Affection is too weak of a word for it, and he doesn't want to push what he is fairly sure this is just yet, content for now to just lie in this moment. He just wants to be there, do what he can for Jongin, and support him. It's all he can do.

It's moments like this though, caught in between the rush and the intensity of everything else, that Chanyeol finds himself wishing it were simpler, that there wouldn't be so much space between them. If it were simple, if Chanyeol could just push aside the worry, the concern, and if it were only this moment, Chanyeol wouldn't be worried about Jongin waking up. It if were simple, Chanyeol would wake him up, carefully brushing his hair from his face and tracing the lines of his face, mapping out the slope of his neck and the curve of his shoulders. This would be the quiet waking touches as Chanyeol walked his hands down Jongin's side, sliding closer to whisper words of rising against Jongin's forehead, watching the flutter of his eyes as he laced their fingers together.

If it were simple, Chanyeol could watch as Jongin slowly blinked open his eyes, warm with sleep, and he could smile, could lean in and press that same smile to Jongin's parted lips to give it to him.

It wouldn't be the first, but this is different. When Jongin kissed him a few weeks ago, it hadn't been real. It had been desperate, upset, frantically searching for a way out amid confusion. This time, while Chanyeol might have thought a few times of it, it's more about just wanting to be closer, to kiss him because...

The rolling flutter of emotions in his chest rises, catching at his breath and stealing it away as Chanyeol looks down and feels deep in over his head and yet wanting to go deeper.

This is where he wants to be.

A soft rustle from the other side of the bed pulls Chanyeol from his thoughts, looking up to see Sehun slowly pushing himself up. Rubbing at his eyes, Sehun squints around the room, hair sticking up stubbornly at the back of his head, before he turns and looks over at Chanyeol. For a moment, Chanyeol feels like he's been caught, but then Sehun looks down at Jongin, curled up in Chanyeol's arms, and Sehun smiles. "Is he still sleeping?" Sehun whispers as quietly as Chanyeol has ever heard. He nods, rather than speak, feeling Jongin's fingers gently clench in his shirt by his waist.

"Don't wake him up," Sehun whispers pointedly, giving Chanyeol a very serious look. "He never sleeps like this."

As Sehun slips over the bed, carefully and practically silent, Chanyeol thinks, not for the first time, that Sehun is the most exemplary six year old he's ever known. Or heard about for that matter.

Okay he mouths back and Sehun flashes him a thumbs up, carefully and quietly shifting to leave the bed. "Where are you going?" Chanyeol asks, shifting as Sehun moves and immediately freezing as Jongin stirs in his arms. Biting his lip, he glances down to see Jongin pull closer, letting out a soft sigh.

Sehun is giving him an almost exasperated look when Chanyeol looks back at him. "I have to pee," Sehun whispers emphatically with a few very exaggerated hand gestures to his lower half.

Okay Chanyeol mouths and nods as Sehun tip toes off to the bathroom. Settling back down, he chances a glance back at Jongin, catching a small frown at the corner of his mouth he itches to smooth away. Careful not to wake him, Chanyeol lets Jongin shift, pushing himself into all the empty spaces Chanyeol has left. Biting down a smile, Chanyeol just accommodates, letting Jongin curl up into his chest, fitting his head just under Chanyeol's chin with a soft snuffling sound.

He's cute, in a stronger sort of subtle way where it is all the more endearing. It tempts to just hold him like this, never let go and keep him content and resting and safe. It would be simple, like this, for Chanyeol to just never let him go, smoothing away the lines of worry and stress and age before his time as Chanyeol kept his promise to protect him.

I promise.

For a moment, Chanyeol lets his eyes close and just lies in this, taking away the covered up windows, the peeling wallpaper and the room, the apartment, and everything else. For a moment, it's simple, just him and Jongin and Sehun, together. It's just morning, waking up on a Sunday to the soft sleep of Jongin, warm as Chanyeol absently lets his hand drift up and down his side. It's just simple, where Sehun doesn't have to ask him to sleep over because he's there already, where the pipes don't leak and the radiator isn't broken and the floors don't creak. It's simple, a different morning when Chanyeol can press a kiss to the top of Jongin's head and not worry about it, where Jongin isn't afraid to smile and Sehun doesn't worry about his dad not sleeping.

Opening his eyes, the room and it's faded light from windows covered in cardboard boxes greets him, the loud hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen and the ceiling that shows water damage above has the brief lightness in his chest twist into a sharp ache that doesn't stop. It presses hard, and Chanyeol doesn't think before pulling Jongin closer, holding him and just wanting that world.

The world where they all have a happy ending.

A soft sound has Chanyeol stilling, pulling back slowly and looking down as Jongin's eyes blink blearily up at him in hazed confusion.

"Good morning," he says gently, smiling as Jongin blinks and looks at him with gradually returning focus.

"Morning," Jongin says, voice garbled with sleep as he smiles, eyes closing and letting out a small sigh, as he settles back. If he finds it at all strange to be in Chanyeol's arms, he-

Jongin stiffens, breath pausing before he's pushing up, the sleep quickly fading from his face as he looks around the room, Chanyeol's arms falling from around him. "Where is Sehun?" he asks, and Chanyeol blinks.

"I had him for breakfast," Chanyeol says, faking serious. Jongin blinks, face still caught between worry and waking before he bursts out laughing, voice low and gorgeous. The tension is gone, Jongin practically collapsing back onto the bed and Chanyeol can't help but smile as he rolls out of his arms, mirth on his face amid the fading sleep.

"How did you sleep?" Chanyeol asks, moving back as Jongin pushes himself up, running a hand over his face, still chuckling slightly.

"Well," Jongin says, hands dropping to his lap as he looks at Chanyeol. He bites his lips, eyes flickering over Chanyeol as his face creases. He doesn't focus and Chanyeol feels his heart shiver. "I slept really well." He lets out a small breath of a laugh. "I haven't slept that well in ages."

"I should clearly just sleep over more then," Chanyeol jokes, reaching over and resting his hand gently on Jongin's thigh. It's supposed to be a friendly gesture, reassuring to tell Jongin he's here, he always will be but as Jongin's eyes slide to meet his, it feels like it's more than that. The look in Jongin's eyes isn't telling him to leave, to stop, or that this is okay for now. It's almost like...

"Oh!" comes the sudden cry from the doorway. Both of them barely have a second to turn before Sehun is launching onto the bed, landing on top of Chanyeol with a loud yelp and getting a grunt from him. "You weren't supposed to wake him up!" he scolds, sitting on Chanyeol's chest and poking him in the face with a scowl.

Laughing, Jongin grabs Sehun off of Chanyeol, wrapping him in his arms as he rolls them into the bed. "He didn't wake me up, Sehunnie," he says, wrestling with the boy as Chanyeol watches them fondly. "I woke up all by myself."

"But you were so tired!" Sehun protests, laughing as he fights to free himself from his father. "Besides, you two looked so nice together! You looked so happy, Daddy."

Stilling, Jongin stares at his son, his grip going lax as Sehun pulls himself free to pounce on him. Jongin lets out a grunt, before he seems to shake himself of the brief stupor and looks at Chanyeol, the question in his eyes making Chanyeol ache.

"That's because your Dad and I are so close," Chanyeol tells Sehun, speaking through the knot in his throat as everything he'd been feeling this morning rises inside him. "And he didn't have to fight the monsters last night."

"Chanyeol needs to stay over more," Sehun declares, looking down at his father imperiously. "So he can protect you from the monsters like you protect me from them."

Jongin's eyes are wide and the smile on his face teasing as he looks back at Chanyeol, "Is that what you were doing all night?" he asks, voice almost playful.

"I scared them all away," Chanyeol says and Sehun giggles. Jongin's eyes speak his laughter for him and Chanyeol thinks that this is the first real full unguarded smile he's ever seen Jongin give him.

And Chanyeol loves it.

*

The sun is shining high and hot in the sky, but it does nothing to dampen the twin smiles the women opposite him are wearing. Despite the distant location, the small bistro that Baekhyun works at is bustling with activity on the Sunday afternoon. Almost every seat is taken, the tables filled, and the deck completely booked with patrons sitting under full white umbrellas, shading them from the harsh summer sun. Yet even in the shade, the light catches against the stone that rests in gold on the fourth finger of Yura's left hand. It's not hidden, and Chanyeol keeps smiling as Yura laughs, shifting her hand to catch the sun so the diamond flares in brilliant light, showing it off.

The smile on her face is just as bright, if not more brilliant, that the diamond on her finger.

"My poor girl," Chanyeol's mother is saying, reaching over to hold onto Yura's other hand as her smile threatens to take over her face. "You waited so long."

"I think it was the waiting that made it worth it," Yura laughs, and Chanyeol bites down his own comment, hiding it behind his water glass as he takes a drink. "But now the wait is over."

"My little girl," their mother sighs, looking at Yura in her sun dress and pinned back short hair. "All grown up and getting married. I could cry."

"You are crying," Chanyeol reminds her, and his mother laughs, sniffing as she turns to him and waves him off. It gets Yura laughing again as their mother wipes at her face with a happy sigh. "It's okay mom, we all knew you'd cry."

"I still can't believe you told your brother before you told me," their mother says. "I thought I'd be the first to know."

"You know how close we are," Yura says, her eyes flickering to Chanyeol. It had been after saying farewell over a plate of second pancakes to Jongin and Sehun that he'd come home to a message on his answering machine. It had been a day that had started in one world and tossed into the next as Yura picked up and told him 'I said yes' in a rush of breath before he could say hello. Yura's eyes are dancing, full of happiness and love as she looks at him now from across the table. "And besides, I promised both of you that you'd be the first to know."

"Your poor father," their mother sighs and then laughs, Chanyeol and Yura joining her. "Oh but this is so wonderful. I'm so happy for you, so happy that you can finally do this. You're getting married, Yura."

"I know, mother," Yura laughs, and Chanyeol watches her, his wonderful sister. Yura sits so pretty in the Sunday sunshine, her hair pulled back from her face and the fine sun dress fitting her perfectly, the ring on her finger worth...

A part of Chanyeol wants to know, to ask all the questions people usually ask each other when they get engaged. How did he ask? When is the wedding? How many people do you want? Did you cry? Let's see the ring, let's see the rock, let's...

Yura is set on a spring wedding, something she and Jongdeok both agree on without question. A spring wedding to show the beginning of life and the start of their marriage together, of living to a happily ever after as the flowers bloom and everything is young and green. There will be flowers, hundreds of flowers, music, food, guests, cake, wedding gowns and champagne and everything that dreams are made of.

It's going to be perfect, outdoors and stunning in the spring sunshine, Yura already laughing as their mother talks of white bone china and a registry. It's all things that Chanyeol feels a little odd to be listening to, not because he doesn't care, but because it all feels so...

"-and you'll have to book a venue soon, Yura, those don't just stay open forever. The sooner the better," his mother is saying, carefully stirring cream into her coffee.

Excessive.

The whole point of a wedding, for Chanyeol being excited and happy for his sister, is to celebrate two people being in love. It's not about the perfect china that was set up at the event, and it's not about what shows good taste, but about the people who are promising to stay with each other until they die.

A promise is forever.

While it had seemed like Yura was right there with him, the other day last weekend when she'd looked on the verge of tears trying to understand what her heart wanted, today it feels like she's lost it again. It's the same sort of lost feeling Chanyeol has grown used to with his family, where it's more about everything rather than the specific details. The engagement, Jongdeok and Yura finally getting married, the promotion, if Chanyeol gets something better despite the semantics behind what that involves, the title, the name, the event, the label rather than what the ingredients are.

"Chanyeol."

Jerking from his thoughts, Chanyeol shakes his head, looking at Yura's expectant face as his mother frowns at him slightly. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Food," Yura says, and her eyes dance in amusement. It's then Chanyeol notices Baekhyun standing beside his sister, holding a pad of notepaper and giving him a very poorly hidden inquisitive look. He looks like he's done one of his turnarounds, where the styling from clubbing last night ended up recycling today covered up by a waiter's uniform, Victoria's concealer, and Han's hair cement.

"Right," Chanyeol says, doing his best to ignore Baekhyun's slowly increasing look of teasing inquiry that is swiftly morphing to look ridiculous. With the best of luck, his family won't notice. They'd only heard stories of Baekhyun, and it's enough that his mother somehow was convinced he was some sort of vagrant despite Chanyeol insisting he wasn't. "Do you know what you want?"

"We've already ordered," his mother answers, and laughs a bit at Chanyeol's sheepish grin. "Goodness, I think your brother is more shocked at the news of your engagement than I am. I've never seen him so quiet."

"What can I say, there are just too many good options on the menu and I couldn't decide," Chanyeol tries to laugh off and ignore Baekhyun while looking at the menu. Whatever it is he ends up ordering passes vaguely from him, his mind lingering more on the prices on the menu than what the food is.

"Do you cater?" has Chanyeol looking up in mild shock to see his mother catching Baekhyun by his apron.

"You know, I'll ask," Baekhyun says, flashing her a brilliant grin. "As far as I know we don't, but who knows, I'm sure for such a lovely group we could manage something."

Chanyeol internally grimaces as Baekhyun turns smiling eyes on him before positively flittering away as his mother sighs. "What a nice young man," she says, and Chanyeol pushes down the urge to snort. "Honestly, I can't believe some people's attitudes at work these days. Is it so hard to be polite and genuine like him?"

The taste at the back of his throat is bitter, and Chanyeol takes a sip of water to wash it down. "Everyone works though, and it doesn't make them more or less than others for whatever they're doing."

"But it's not like they couldn't try a little harder sometimes," his mother says, pulling her napkin into her lap.

"How do you know if they're trying or not?" Chanyeol asks, feeling annoyance flare in his chest. Guilt follows a moment later, and he sits back at the shocked look on his mother's face.

"Well, how they behave for one," his mother retorts, Yura watching with her face falling slightly. "You watch people around here and you can see from how they act if they're working hard or not. And having a good work attitude makes for easier work." She picks up her water glass and frowns at Chanyeol, imperious.

Ignorant.

"Hard work is hard work though. Having a good attitude doesn’t make it less work," Chanyeol tries, knowing even as the gnawing of anger in his chest builds that this isn't the conversation for now.

"And he's working hard," his mother retorts, nodding her head back at where Baekhyun disappeared to. "If more people worked like you did, or like Yura or-"

"Mom," Yura begins, her voice gentle and coaxing as she lays a hand over their mother's wrist. "Mom, you-"

"Not everyone has the kinds of jobs we have," Chanyeol retorts, not being able to hold back. "They can't just-" He cuts himself off, closing his eyes and breathing in, trying to calm down. The apartment with water stains on the ceiling, six jobs and a window fan that is half broken in an apartment with whistling leaking pipes and cardboard covering the windows burns in Chanyeol's mind and heart. It's not like that, and it's not fair. "Never mind." When he opens his eyes, his mother looks shocked, Yura slightly concerned.

"I think," his mother says after a long pause, her voice calm and definite. "This is overexposure." At the confused look from both of her children, she sighs and reaches out for Chanyeol's hand atop the table. "You've been working too hard, trying to get the magazine to work and you expose yourself to all of that hardship in the volunteer activities."

"Expose?" It's hot enough to have Chanyeol's shirt sticking to his back, but he feels suddenly cold.

"All of those people who are struggling, and while I know it means something to you, that you do good things, it can wear on you," his mother says. She's worried, trying to be caring, but it still has Chanyeol feeling numb with displeasure. "Being around that much pain and suffering can't be good for you, Chanyeol. You need to take care of yourself, too."

"I do take care of myself," Chanyeol tells her, a bit stiffly. "And those people, they need-"

"But it's not your job to take care of them," his mother says.

"Chanyeol," Yura says, and even if Chanyeol wants to pull his hand from his mother right now, he doesn't. The twisting in his chest is hard to breathe around, to try to fight through, to accept that someone he loves, someone so important to him, can't even understand.

This is what Chanyeol wants to protect Jongin from, to keep Sehun safe from. People who don't see them as people, who can't understand that what they live with isn't something to shun and ignore and move away from, that they need help just as much as any other person.

But now is not the time to talk about it with his mother, and it's not the time to fight about what he does and what other people turn a blind eye to.

"Chanyeol," Yura repeats, and smiles at him imploringly, her eyes softer and almost apologetic as she reaches for his hand. "I wanted to ask you something."

There's no point in talking about it, in trying to defend his choices. Not now. "Go ahead," Chanyeol says, reaching out and taking his sister's hand. Today is for Yura, not for Chanyeol, and it's easier to focus on her than to dwell on the ways he still can't express himself.

"I wanted to know if you would help me," Yura says, and between them their mother lets out a soft gasp. "With the wedding and everything. Usually I would ask a bridesmaid, but I know that Jongdeok is asking Jongdae to be one of his men of honor and I'd like you to help out with things." It's hard to feel excited when it clashes with the rancid taste of disappointment and frustration from moments before. Yet, as Yura laughs, Chanyeol tries. "Plus, I trust your judgement and taste more than I trust Sandara."

"So I'm your man of honor?" Chanyeol teases, slipping easily into the role he's played so long with his sister.

Laughing as the atmosphere lightens, Yura's eyes dance. "Something like that. Except I don't really think you'd look great in a dress."

"I could try," Chanyeol teases.

"Just as long as your date matches," Yura replies, and the sudden swoop in Chanyeol's stomach is unexpected. The unbidden image of Jongin in a tux, his hair styled back and standing tall, handsome and smiling hits into him hard and Chanyeol chokes on his own laughter.

"I just hope you can find a nice girl to bring with you before the wedding," their mother says, and the image sinks, falling as Chanyeol empties. Across from him, Yura's smile has flickered, almost like she's not sure to speak up or not.

Or a nice man, pushes feverishly against the back of his throat, but as Chanyeol turns to look at his mother, the hope in her eyes has his lips pressed close.

"I'm sure Chanyeol will bring someone wonderful," Yura cuts in as Chanyeol sits back, Baekhyun stepping up with the food and separating the conversation. "Besides," she says quickly. "It's just one day, and one date, and as long as I get married to Jongdeok, that's really all that matters." She sighs, smiling down at her plate of food with the soft beautiful and pure happiness Chanyeol recognizes. "That's all I want."

"And we'll give you the wedding fit for it," their mother says, her voice flooded with affection.

It's love, another kind of love, and one that may not understand everything, but it's still love that Chanyeol watches between his family. He reminds himself of it as his mother turns to Baekhyun and asks about catering, and he reminds himself of it as Yura looks up at him over the table and winks.

It's love, but it's not unconditional, and there are so many requirements for it to exist and to be okay. It's tiring, and Chanyeol sometimes wonders why he tries when it might just be easier to do what his family wants.

But sitting here, in the beautiful Sunday sunlight with the people who love him and he calls family, it's not the same comfort and feeling of belonging and wanting that Chanyeol understood just the day before. This is his family, and they love him, but what they want isn't what he wants. He doesn't want the extravagance, the extras and the talk of gossip and fawning over the things rather than the people and what's important. Seeing it all now, it's a bit ridiculous, excessive, knowing that the ring on his sister's finger could easily make it possible for Jongin to take one less job and not pay the consequences.

While Chanyeol loves his family, his sister and is happy for her and everything that has gone well and good in her world, this isn't where he wants to be ultimately.

This happy ending that is spinning itself into formation before him isn't the happy ending he wants.

Perhaps it's time to finally admit that. Just not today.

*

From: Baekhyun - Does Jongdae know you guys are finally going to be brothers yet?

The message arrives when Chanyeol is just finally saying goodbye to his sister and his mother. Do you want to tell him or should we wait until his actual brother tells him?

From: Baekhyun - I’m happy for you. And Yura. And Jongdae. All of you. Congratulations on your now enormous family.

The smile that crawls across Chanyeol’s face isn’t whole, but it does ease some of the previous irritation he’d felt earlier. They’re still his family, and nothing could ever be the same as family.

Thank you.

Not everyone understands, even he didn’t understand always, and there’s no reason to get angry or annoyed at someone for not knowing what they don’t know. And as much as Chanyeol looks at the course of today and feels it’s overdone, extravagant and excessive, it’s also about his family, and he wouldn’t trade his family for anything.

It’s a kind of love that’s hard to imagine his life without, and when he gets the emoticon message back from Baekhyun in the shape of a heart, he keeps smiling.

*

It used to be that Friday nights were the premier nights. Fridays are the beginning of the weekend, the onset of plans when the next morning isn't occupied by work or school. Friday nights were sleepovers, going out for movies, staying up late and no homework. Friday nights were play time, with breakfast leisurely the next day and a chance to unwind. As time went by and school wasn't just school, but part time jobs and extra activities, sports games and contests, Friday night began to morph into other days.

Summer jobs made other days 'Friday' rather than actually Friday. Weekends changed up, split up, and disappeared.

Two years out of university, Chanyeol got his Friday back properly and Friday was always where it should be; right before Saturday. Sometimes, he wasn't where he should be, out with Baekhyun or Minseok or trying to meet over candlelight and feel something more than hesitancy. Friday became less of the day to play and more just the day that was sought after, the last day of the work week.

Work where the day seems to drag, fluxing between deadlines and articles and projects that lose their meaning when they're just made to take up space, following fashions and fads. It just became time that had to be filled up with something, but the enthusiasm, the excitement of Friday night, was gone.

Tonight is probably the first week where Chanyeol has been excited for a Friday night.

"Date?" Jongdae asks, with an imploring look over the desk divide.

"Just meeting up with a friend," Chanyeol brushes off as he packs up quickly. The smile on his face is unrestricted as he skips out of work at the time he usually saw Jongdae scurry out of the office to avoid rush. All his stuff is wrapped up for the weekend, the last minute emails sent off and an extra encouraging email to Hoseok wishing him good luck on his interview that weekend, and Chanyeol is excited.

They'd agreed, before Chanyeol had even gone over to Jongin's for dinner, that this wouldn't be just a one time thing. At first, it had tugged at the back of his mind that Jongin would say no, step back and tell Chanyeol he couldn't do it. He'd been pleasantly surprised when Jongin had agreed when he'd suggested dinner at his place next, getting affirmation from Sehun when he'd offered a movie night. Chanyeol had laughed without thinking when Sehun asked him if he had a theater in his house, Jongin looking almost embarrassed and quiet.

It's not for the whole evening, and Chanyeol isn't about to delude himself into thinking that Jongin might go a step further and stay. Jongin has to work later this evening, already telling Chanyeol on the phone earlier that week when Chanyeol had called, letting him know they can't stay late. Chanyeol pushes it down though, the worry he has at the sheer number of jobs Jongin seems to be holding down just to get by, and the way he refuses to rest.

That's not the focus tonight. Tonight is about movies and pizza and a night off, where Chanyeol can finally give Sehun the gardening set and hope that this isn't the last time Jongin and Sehun visit him.

Chanyeol has barely finished settling back in, feeling oddly nervous, like he had the last time Jongin had come over, when there's a soft knock on the door. Opening the door, Jongin and Sehun are standing in the hall outside Chanyeol's apartment. While Jongin is wearing a shy sort of smile, Sehun has his jaw hanging open as he stares up at Chanyeol.

"You live in a mansion he says, voice thick with awe.

"I what?" Chanyeol asks, thrown as Sehun gasps and looks around before gesturing at Chanyeol's home.

"It's huge," he says. "The whole everything is so big and clean and you even have an elevator."

It leaves Chanyeol fumbling before he realizes that to Sehun, this is luxury. Of course it's luxury. "Well, are you just going to stand there or are you going to come inside?"

"Is it okay?" Sehun asks, peeking into the apartment with big eyes.

"Your dad's been here before," Chanyeol says, watching as Sehun tip toes into the unit with Jongin following him, keeping quiet with small glances up. "It's about time you came to visit me. Come on, I'll give you a tour."

"A tour?" Sehun asks, making sure to take off his shoes, excitement beginning to shine on his face.

"Yeah," Chanyeol tells him, and grins at Sehun's yelp of delight as he hoists him into his arms. Looking back to Jongin, he pauses. "You can just rest in the living room if you want or-"

"And miss the tour?" Jongin asks, and some of the hesitancy fades from his expression. "You're not trying to leave me out, are you?"

"No! Daddy has to come along!" Sehun demands, reaching out for his father with one arm curled securely around Chanyeol's neck. "We have to stick together! Or we'll get lost!"

Biting down a laugh, Chanyeol smiles, stepping into the apartment with his guests. When he'd first procured this apartment, he knew it was nice. He can afford it, the spare bedroom converted to a small home office that he rarely uses, and most of the unit seeming enough. It's not a mansion, like Sehun had called it, but as Chanyeol walks from room to room with Sehun in his arms, he quickly feels like royalty.

"You have everything," Sehun keeps saying, eyes wide as he looks around. Of course, Chanyeol plays it up a bit, elaborating on the rooms and giving them more extravagant names than they are, but somehow playing it up makes it more comfortable. Sehun ends up laughing, Jongin relaxing and laughing as well as they start to play. Sehun positively shrieks, wiggling to get down when Chanyeol opens the balcony off of his kitchen. "You're like a princess!" Sehun declares, on his tippy toes and looking out over the park view outside of Chanyeol's apartment.

"A prince," Chanyeol corrects. "Plus, whoever my prince is will have to climb up the fire escape to come get me. My hair isn't long enough." Sehun's laughter gets almost carried away as it echoes over the area, loud and happy and wonderful. "I'm not much in the business for being rescued though. I like to think of myself as the hero prince anyway."

"You're too silly to be a prince," Sehun laughs, scampering back into the kitchen and gasping when he sees the oven. "You have a whole big oven!."

"Tell you what," Chanyeol tells him, watching as Sehun's eyes go big at practically everything. "Why don't you go into the great hall and look on the table near the television. There's something for you."

As Sehun's eyes widen even bigger, his loud gasp disappearing as he runs from the kitchen, Chanyeol hears Jongin give a soft sound. "You didn't have to get him something, really." Turning to him, Chanyeol feels a delayed sense of shock as he takes in Jongin holding up a few containers of his tupperware to him. Laughing, Chanyeol takes them, leaning against the counter as Jongin smiles at him carefully.

"I already had it," Chanyeol says, just as the yell of "a garden set!" shrieks from the living room. "I hope you don't mind that I ordered pizza for tonight. I figured a night in for movies should be a real treat, but I can make something else if that works better."

"One night of pizza won't hurt him," Jongin says, looking around the kitchen. "You better be careful or Sehun will try to move into that spare room you have."

"I wouldn't mind," Chanyeol says. It's not intentional and he doesn't realize he's admitted it until he's said it, but he doesn't want to take it back. The slightly shocked look on Jongin's face doesn't make him want to take it back either. "He and you are both welcome any time."

"You're too nice," Jongin tells him.

"I'm just nice enough," Chanyeol corrects him. "How are things with work?" Jongin's expression falters. "I know you've been working more," he tells him, looking at the darker circles under Jongin's eyes and the way he doesn't quite stand up straight. "I can tell."

Rather than arguing with him, Jongin lets out a soft sigh, leaning back against the counter as well, arm brushing against Chanyeol's. "It's nothing," Jongin says. "Just a heavier week than usual. They had some people drop shifts and I'm always happy to take on more hours."

"What about Sehun?"

Opening duller eyes, Jongin swallows as he looks at the ground and into his own thoughts. "He's asleep usually."

"And you're not," Chanyeol concludes, trying not to frown at how Jongin is working through the night and clearly not sleeping. It's only a matter of time if he keeps it up like this before he might collapse again.

"I can take more work during the day soon," Jongin tries to explain. "Once Sehun goes back to school next week, I'll be working while he's at school and-"

"Is there any way to-"

"I'm looking," Jongin cuts him off, wetting his chapped lips. They're always flaking and cracked, from when Chanyeol had met him to when he'd felt them press against his own. "It's not- it's hard to find something that will work."

"Because of Sehun?" Chanyeol asks, frowning.

For a long time, Jongin just looks at him, his dark eyes blurred with words he doesn't seem to know how to say. It's hard to know what to say exactly to help when he's not sure what a solution might be to a problem he's not explained. There's still so much about Jongin he doesn't know, even if Jongin is slowly opening up to him. It's like Jongin is still scared to ask, to reach out to him, even if he'll curl closer and Chanyeol knows what his smile does to his heart.

Both of them jump when the doorbell rings, and Sehun comes scampering into the kitchen, a new unwrapped tiny trowel in his hand and excitement on his face. "Pizza?"

"Pizza!" Chanyeol answers, and with a final glance at Jongin, lets it drop. It's something he can bring up later, hopefully, after he races Sehun to the door amid laughter. Unlike other kids, Sehun doesn't look annoyed that Chanyeol doesn't have a large collection of new animated Disney movies, or the latest releases. Instead, Sehun gasps and sits in conflict over what movie to watch of the classics Chanyeol had gathered over the years.

"This is amazing," Sehun says, sitting up in his chair at Chanyeol's dining table, all his pepperoni's picked off his pizza. "Chanyeol, you live in a really nice place. I really like it here."

"Good," Chanyeol tells him, smiling even as he catches Jongin's eyes flicker. "My house is your house."

"Are you saying that in a real way or in the kind of way where you're saying things you don't mean but it's a special way of saying things?" Sehun asks, squinting at him.

"You mean," Chanyeol clears his throat, squinting back at Sehun. "Am I being serious?" Catching Jongin watching him out of the corner of his eye, Chanyeol smiles. "Of course I'm being serious. I'm always serious."

"No, you're not, you’re always silly," Sehun tells him immediately and then giggles, biting his lip. "But then Daddy or I can come visit whenever?"

"Absolutely," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles at Sehun, keeping himself from looking at Jongin's face. "In fact, if you want, you can leave the gardening kit here and keep it on the balcony. Then you don't have to worry about taking it home and it'll always be here waiting for you when you visit."

"Really?" Sehun gasps, and this time when Chanyeol does look at Jongin, he's watching Sehun with a sort of sad happiness.

"Of course," Chanyeol says, and laughs as Sehun begins to just stream thank you's over and over with an enormous smile. "Maybe you can come by and visit with your dad on the weekends."

"Especially because I'll be starting school soon so I can't come over during the week," Sehun agrees. "And it'll be fun to come see you. Even if it's kind of strange being around rich people."

"Rich?" Chanyeol jerks at the work, almost choking on his pizza.

"Sehun," Jongin says, voice slightly reprimanding as he looks at his son. "You shouldn't-"

"Daddy, you should marry Chanyeol," Sehun says. Chanyeol's heart slams into his throat, his own cough startled to a halt. Beside him, Jongin's eyes are wide, staring at his son as his face swiftly reddens.

"What?"

Chanyeol isn't sure if he asked or Jongin asked, his whole head filled with numb buzzing.

"Then we could live here and we wouldn't have to travel to see Chanyeol and it's so nice here," Sehun says, smiling widely at his father. "It's perfect!"

Clearing his throat, trying to shake off the shock at the sudden statements from Sehun, Chanyeol sits back. Despite the air conditioning in his apartment, he feels hot, skin sensitive under his clothing and he almost doesn't want to look at Jongin. "I see," Chanyeol says, trying to play it off as a joke. It's not real. "So you just want your dad to marry me so you can live here, huh? That's mean," Chanyeol tries to tease, to smile around the insistent pounding of his heart, to ignore the look Jongin is giving him. It's not real.

"But then we don't have to travel to see each other," Sehun says, poking at his picked off pepperonis as he looks up at Chanyeol. "And we can watch fun movies any time we want."

"Sehun," Jongin's voice catches, strained and stringent. "You can't say things like that."

"But it would be easy," Sehun says. "Isn't it easy to marry Chanyeol? Then you don't have to work all night and do what Mr. Han asks when he puts notes on the door. Chanyeol doesn't have any notes on his door!"

"Sehun-"

"That's why you want your dad to marry me?" Chanyeol has to joke it off, to try to pull away, to stop. Sehun probably doesn't understand. "That doesn't seem very fair. You can’t just tell people to get married, it doesn’t work like that. It's like the only things you like about me are the things I have."

"But-" Suddenly Sehun's eyes go wide, and he drops his pizza slice with a look of horror on his face. "No!" he says loudly, and puffs up. "I want you to marry Daddy because I like you and think you're really nice and you listen to me and Daddy and play games with us and don't get angry and Daddy is always happy when he's with you and that's what's really important because I just want us to be happy." He takes in a huge breath, shaking with his wide eyes fixed on Chanyeol. "Isn't that what matters?"

Throat tight and heart beating too loud, too fast as he stares at the young boy in front of him and can't label what it is that's filling into every inch of him, Chanyeol fights to swallow. "Yes," he says, voice quiet and holding back from shaking. "I guess that is what's important."

I just want us to be happy.

"Plus, then we could have a sleepover tonight instead of having to go home later," Sehun adds and casts a sheepish look at his father. Swallowing down the feeling in his throat, Chanyeol turns to look at Jongin.

Jongin is looking at his son with a flush to his cheeks, a frown on his lips, and the sort of tension around his mouth that suggests he's not sure how to fully talk to his son. Chanyeol has only seen it a few times, in the moments when Sehun acknowledges how they live, the aspects that he knows Jongin is trying to make better, to find ways around staring reality in the face. He knows how much Jongin hates knowing how much Sehun knows. Seeing it now pushes something hard against all the things Chanyeol has been pushing down, forcing to be silent and suppressing.

"Sehun," Jongin says, and the edge of his voice is less scolding as it is tired, holding back what he wants to say.

I just want us to be happy. A child who cares as much for his father as his father cares about him.

"I'm just saying," Sehun puts, slumping into his chair and poking at his pizza. Poking out his lower lip, Sehun frowns and huffs at his plate, the epitome of frustrated with an adult. "I don't get why you can't just be happy and Chanyeol makes you happy." Sehun huffs again and then adds quietly under his breath, "dummy."

"Sehun," Chanyeol says this time, watching as Jongin stills. Jongin stays quiet, staring at his son with his jaw taut and silent. He doesn't deny it, whispers loudly in the center of Chanyeol's self, and it rushes even as he tries to slow down. Not now. Not yet. "You can't call your daddy a dummy," he says instead, reaching out with his foot to tap against Sehun's.

"But he's-"

"We're only nice to each other in my house," Chanyeol tells him. "Nice and silly and no one gets hurt," he adds. "And no name calling." Sehun looks up at him, still pouting but looking less dismayed in general at the consequences of being precocious. "You're not the king in my house."

"Who is?" Sehun asks, and looks thoroughly offended.

"Me," Chanyeol says. "It's like your dad said," he continues, glancing to Jongin and finding Jongin staring at him, eyes dark and too deep to linger in without drowning. Swallowing, he turns back to Sehun and stops himself, pulls back. "You can't make the rules until you get your own house and then we have to listen to all your rules."

"All of them?" Sehun asks, and looks a bit less put out.

"Yep," Chanyeol says. "But my number one rule is no name calling. Right after the rule that says take your shoes off when you come inside." At the small return of a smile from Sehun, Chanyeol grins at him, tapping against his tiny feet with his socked toes and getting a few taps back. "Besides, you don't really want me to marry your dad."

"Yes, I do," Sehun defends, brought back to defiance.

"Don't I get a say in this?" Jongin asks, finally joining into the conversation. His voice is like water on a burn as Chanyeol breathes out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. "Or are you just going to decide everything for me from now on, Sehun?"

"You won't listen to me even if I try to tell you," Sehun sighs loudly at his father as he throws him a look. "You never go to bed on time when I tell you to, or let us each chocolate for breakfast."

"That's because if you eat chocolate for breakfast, all your teeth will fall out," Jongin says, and when Sehun scrunches up his nose, Jongin snaps his teeth at him, eyebrows raised pointedly. "No more chomp chomp."

Letting out a heavy sigh, Sehun nods and sits back up. "Because I'm not a shark," he says conclusively.

"Exactly," Jongin says quietly, and watches as Sehun grabs his glass of milk. He's still not back to himself, the flush lingering on his cheeks and the unsure and guarded look still in his eyes, but it's less prominent. 


Daddy is always happy when he's with you.

Whether it's true or not, Chanyeol doesn't know. To dwell on it is more than he can afford, pushing getting places that's bad for everyone, but still, the words remain in his mind as he watches Jongin while he cleans up after the pizza. While before, Jongin had looked uncomfortable in his apartment, now he looks less intimidated, sitting beside Sehun as they pick out a movie and he slowly relaxes into himself. The smiles on his face grows more and more sure as Chanyeol watches, and he doesn't pull away from Chanyeol when they all settle on the couch.

"You have such a big couch," Sehun whispers in awe before climbing onto it with Chanyeol's nod of permission. He lets out a big sigh of contentment before splaying over it, spreading out with arms and legs as long as they can go and giving a little giggle of excitement. "It's like a big bed!" Sehun proclaims, rolling onto his back with a huge smile.

Sehun ends up sprawled on the couch, his head in Jongin's lap as his father slowly combs his fingers through his hair. The movie they'd chosen, The Swiss Family Robinson, has Sehun riveted, eyes on the screen of Chanyeol's television. Settling in beside Jongin, Chanyeol breathes out as he doesn't pull away, just glances at him with a faint smile before settling back onto the couch.

"I've never actually seen this," Jongin tells Chanyeol as the opening credits begin, showing the storm of the ship and the movie titles.

"It's a classic," Chanyeol tells him, smiling faintly as he watches some of the tension slowly ebb away from Jongin. "Everyone should see it at least once in their life."

"Should I be thanking you for making sure I do?" Jongin asks him, a small tug to the corner of his lips as he glances to Chanyeol.

"Only if you feel like it," Chanyeol tells him. It's hard to watch the movie with Jongin right there, beside him and when he'd rather just- "I won't mind."

There are tired lines on Jongin's face, dark shadows under his eyes even if he has more color to his skin, and there's a very pale flush to his cheeks. Even looking tired, he's still hard to look away from, and Chanyeol swallows down the urge to reach out and wrap his arm around Jongin's shoulders and pull him closer.

"Shh!" Sehun whispers, rolling over to look up at Chanyeol and his father. "You can't talk during a movie or you miss it!"

"Sorry," Chanyeol says, making sure to look sufficiently guilty as Sehun rolls back over towards the movie. Jongin's silent laugh shakes beside him, creasing his eyes up in amusement as he looks down at his son and smooths a hand through his hair.

"We'll be quiet," Jongin whispers.

It's nice, listening to Sehun's quiet little reactions to the movie as it goes on, the sounds of the film slowly filling the room. It's easy to settle into this, to relax like this after a long day, a long week, and just sit quietly for the evening with the soft sounds of Sehun and a film playing on the screen. Despite knowing they're watching a movie, Chanyeol finds his attention wandering. There's only enough time for a movie with them, and soon after Jongin will have to leave, taking Sehun home to put to bed before his night shift. From the way that Jongin had spoken earlier, it makes Chanyeol worry that even this is pushing it, taking out of time Jongin might use better.

He's happy, tugs at his mind and he closes his eyes for a moment. Still, there's the lingering warning in his mind that whatever time he does have with Jongin is taking away from time Jongin might use better for himself, for Sehun. It might be better if rather than with him, Jongin was-

A soft brush against his shoulder has Chanyeol startling slightly, turning to his side. Beside him, eyes already closed, Jongin softly lilts closer, nodding before trying to shift, only to sag back. Breath catching in his chest, Chanyeol watches as Jongin fights sleep and is clearly losing, leaning against Chanyeol. Carefully, cautiously, he shifts, watching as Jongin lets out a soft murmur, and pulls his arm up. As if a half meant to fit perfectly, Jongin slides easily into his side, head dropping to his shoulder and breathing slowed as Chanyeol's arm curls around his shoulders.

Looking down at him, Chanyeol wonders if he can hear the beating of his heart. It's loud in Chanyeol's own head, and it feels like it's filling up the room, loud enough to drown out the movie that's barely truly begun. A soft sound has Chanyeol stiffening, looking down and seeing Sehun's eyes looking up at him from Jongin's lap, taking in both Chanyeol and his sleeping father.

"I told you," Sehun whispers, a tiny smirk on his face. "He sleeps better when you're around." Then he grins, so wide and big as he squeezes his eyes shut, showing Chanyeol happiness. "Don't wake him up, okay?" Sehun asks as the movie continues to play, forgotten. "He's working extra hard these days and he needs to sleep."

"Okay," Chanyeol whispers back as quietly as he can, watching as his breath gently moves Jongin's hair.

"Chanyeol," Sehun adds, his face turning sincere as he looks up at him, eyes lingering on his father. "I'm sorry about my dad."

"Why are you apologizing?"

"Because he's so scared," Sehun whispers. "But it's okay." He smiles, and reaches up to tug on Chanyeol's fingers that are wrapped around Jongin's shoulder, holding him carefully close. "Maybe next time we can sleep over?"

"Next time," Chanyeol whispers with his heart beating hard in his throat. "I promise."

"Okay," Sehun says, smile bleeding into his eyes before he adds with the same depth to his voice as his father, "thank you."

Would it be too much to ask for this to stay? To want for more nights like this? It feels so selfish to want this, to want to keep Jongin and Sehun here, to know they might be his welcome home on a Friday night after work, or to know that Jongin won't be going back to an apartment with cardboard on the windows and a late night shift and a list of jobs.

Would it be too much to hope that this could work? It doesn't feel like pushing, not when Jongin blinks open his eyes half way through the movie to look up at him, offer a small smile, and then return to sleep, never pulling away. It doesn't feel like Chanyeol asking too much, but instead like he's trusted, slowly being incorporated. No longer is it the push and pull, trying to push open the doors and see how much he can see from the cracks Jongin lets him see.

Instead it's like a slow welcoming hug, getting closer and closer as Jongin sleeps against his side in soft breaths and warm fingers resting against his thigh. It feels like a gentle touch with Sehun's fingers wrapped around his thumb, his eyes on the movie as he slowly fades, and it feels more than just a casual night with friends.

Friday night isn't a night out, facing for excitement and bursting through after a long week. Friday night is like a warm welcome back and the teasing taste of what Chanyeol can feel beating gentle in his chest in flutters of happiness. It's the warm soft sleepy smiles, the tiny sighs, and the slow gravel of Jongin's voice when the movie ends and Chanyeol wakes him with a hand gently brushing his hair from his face.

It's the 'thank you's that sound like more than just gratitude, like they're more words than exist, and that settle into him and glow long after the door is closed and the apartment has fallen silent.

Though even the silence is full, and the smile on Chanyeol's face doesn't fade, his skin still warm from Jongin's presence and the prospect of hope.

*

"You're getting dinner with me tonight," is the first thing Jongdae says to Chanyeol when he gets into the office on Monday morning.

"I am?" Chanyeol asks, raising his eyebrows at his friend as he drops his workbag onto his desk. "Are you sure? I thought I was-"

"No, we're getting dinner," Jongdae tells him and sits down into his chair with a grumpy grunt and yelps a second later when it earns him a slosh of coffee into his lap.

"Alright," Chanyeol says, watching Jongdae as he sets up his desk. At his own desk, Jongdae is frowning, his hair less perfect than his usual styles mess and his large older glasses on his face as he pulls out his notebook full of pink post-its and stickers. "It's not like I was doing anything tonight."

"Were you?" Jongdae asks, casting him a look that is slightly apologetic but trying hard to hide it.

"No," Chanyeol says, taking a bit of pity. "Is something up?"

"Can’t I just want to hang out with my future brother in law?" Jongdae asks, sitting back into his chair and letting a half smirk drag over his face. "You can't avoid me forever, we're almost family now."

"Almost," Chanyeol teases and laughs as Jongdae gives a little protesting whine of a yelp at him. "Do you want me to talk to Baekhyun and -"

"No." The haste in which Jongdae says the word has Chanyeol raising his eyebrows at him, pausing as he unpacks. Jongdae sits back, coughing slightly. "Just us. Is it so bad to spend time with me one on one?" He grins in a winning manner. "I've missed hanging out with you."

"Dinner for two then," Chanyeol says, smiling at him with a bit more softness in it. It's not often that he sees Jongdae with that edge to him. It's only happened a few times in the span that Chanyeol has known him, once when he broke up with Liyin and a few days in some other circumstances related to his family. Jongdae isn't really the type to show when he's down or upset. Perhaps that's why Chanyeol ends up dragging him to lunch and buying him something that afternoon, sitting with Hoseok and Juhyun and Junmyeon and some of the other interns and listening to him talk about the latest fashion with new completely flourless baked goods.

It had seemed to cheer up Jongdae some, but he's less of the same joking loud laughing presence than he usually is, letting others talk and just listening.

"Hoseok reminds me of you," Jongdae tells Chanyeol as they pack up for the day, a little after the usual closing time.

"Me?" Chanyeol asks.

"Except like, a weirder you," Jongdae says. "Less overbearing and more coordinated with his limbs."

"Thank you for that splendid blow to my self esteem," Chanyeol says dryly, all the same smiling at Jongdae as they walk to the elevators. "He's a good kid."

"He calls himself a ‘happy virus’ too," Jongdae reminds, and Chanyeol pauses at that, feeling slightly quieted as Jongdae presses the down button. "I remember when you used to do that."

"I figured people could figure it out on their own from now on," Chanyeol says, watching as Jongdae's eyes go distant. Back then, when Chanyeol had been a lot more like his intern, he'd been a bit more excitable about life. That was when he'd just started at the company, when he was just getting to know Jongdae, and he just wanted a job where he could work. Work was work no matter what you did and Chanyeol was just happy for work, the chance to do something.

That was when Jongdae was still dating Liyin and before Minseok's rehab finished up. There's a lot that has changed in the last few years, and suddenly Chanyeol recognizes the faint smile that's not truly a smile on Jongdae's face.

Waiting until they're out of the building, instead asking Jongdae about his family and Jongdeok, Chanyeol waits to really bring anything up. "So what did you want to see me for dinner for?"

Jongdae looks up at him, squinting in the late afternoon sun. "You're going to be my new brother, I want to hang out with you. Isn't that what friends turned brothers do?"

"I'm not sure, I've never been a friend turned brother before," Chanyeol teases him and Jongdae gives him the sort of look Chanyeol is positive Sehun might aspire to one day. It's the kind of look that says 'I'm so done with you even my done can't deal with showing itself'. "Are you sure it's not just because you've realized how great I am?"

"I've been trying to spend time with you for the last few months," Jongdae points out.

"You've been trying to get me to meet your girlfriend for the last few months," Chanyeol corrects and watches as Jongdae's expression falters and then closes off.

"Yeah, well, now I just want to hang out with you," Jongdae sniffs, switching his glasses off for a pair of aviators. "Deal with it, brother in law."

Chanyeol doesn't bring up how Jongdae hasn't once brought up Sunyoung all day, how he noticed that her picture is still on his phone but he doesn't spend time looking at it anymore, only glanced at it at work and looked briefly subdued. There's no point in bringing it up, not until Jongdae wants to talk about it. Jongdae has never been the type to talk about things unless they're on his terms, his time, and he's ready to get them out in the open, otherwise winding and twisting around topics until they're lost amid the scramble.

It's not until they've managed to find a table at a local pub style restaurant and Jongdae has ordered them both beers 'just because' that Jongdae lets out a long breath and Chanyeol knows what's coming. "Sunyoung and I broke up," Jongdae says, speaking to the napkin under his beer with a small scowl.

"You and the tennis woman?" Chanyeol clarifies, trying to maintain a posture of ease. The thing with Jongdae is that he commits to people. Just like he's done with Chanyeol, pressing on family and supports his brother in everything he's doing, Jongdae is about the people in his life. As much as Chanyeol may not miss the constant updates about Sunyoung, it's part of who Jongdae is, being happy and celebrating the people around him.

"Yeah," Jongdae says, voice quiet before he seems to shake himself. "Summer love, right?" He smiles, and it looks faded and weak at the corners of his usual happy mouth. "Never lasts."

"I'm sorry," Chanyeol says, and means it.

"Why? You weren't the one that broke up with me," Jongdae says, and though he smiles the sharpness in his voice doesn't go unnoticed. Every time, somehow, Jongdae ends up being the one to get dumped. Despite how hard Jongdae wants to make things work, will hold on and hold up more than his half of a relationship, Chanyeol has watched other people walk away and leave him holding nothing. It's a bit unfair.

"No, but I can still try to console you," Chanyeol tells him, and Jongdae laughs, sitting up a bit straighter in his chair.

"It's kind of pathetic, you know?" Jongdae says, leaning over the table top. "How we keep doing this?"

"Sitting at tables?" Chanyeol asks.

"Striking out," Jongdae corrects and clicks his tongue. "It's you and me, you know? We're the last ones left that are still looking for people and haven't settled down." Chanyeol's heart flips in his chest uncomfortably. "We've got to stick together, you know?"

"Since when?" Chanyeol asks, trying to push down the feeling that begins to crawl up into his chest and twist there unpleasantly.

"Since before you started making new friends and running off and I met-" Jongdae cuts himself off, shaking his head and sitting back as their waitress delivers their food. "Anyway, who says we have to find someone right away? The whole dating thing is so blown out of proportion."

"Is it," Chanyeol says, watching as Jongdae sticks a french fry into his mouth with purpose.

"We keep running around trying to find people to date and go on all these excursion and there's so much pressure to just find someone and settle down and it's just-" he sighs before taking a long sip of his beer. "What I'm saying is, now it's just us, you and me, future brother."

Swallowing down the unease at Jongdae's words, his spiraling into plans and conclusions because of a short painful heartbreak, Chanyeol raises an eyebrow. "What about Baekhyun?"

"Baekhyun?" Jongdae says, frowning. "What about him?"

"Isn't he part of our singles posse?" Chanyeol prompts. This will mean being thrown back into clubbing, into going out to 'meet people' as a support, knowing he's too soft to say no because he knows Jongdae won't go alone.

"Isn't he dating, like, five people constantly?" Jongdae asks, and Chanyeol chokes at the absurd number. Despite his antics, Baekhyun has never been known to date more than one person at once. Except one small miscommunication in university that Chanyeol never lets him live down, he's been good about that. "Or no people," Jongdae continues, sighing and dropping the fry he'd just picked up. "I can never keep track with him anymore."

"I stopped trying," Chanyeol admits and Jongdae makes a soft hum across the table. Honestly, it would probably be better for both of them if Jongdae and Baekhyun just went out on this endeavor together. Baekhyun would be able to talk things up, bring people around and socialize while Jongdae would keep him grounded. They'd work well together.

"So, I haven't seen you in way too long," Jongdae is saying, smiling over his dinner plate at Chanyeol.

"You just saw me at work all day," Chanyeol points out. If Jongdae and Baekhyun go out and play date roulette then Chanyeol doesn't have to admit that he has no interest in dating anyone at all and trying to meet new people.

"But that's different," Jongdae says. "Work is like quiet organized cordial behavior. Plus, you went hiking with Junmyeon the other weekend and you haven't hung out with me in months."

"You've been busy," Chanyeol reminds before wincing, watching as Jongdae's own expression falters. "But I might be free on Saturday," he adds, and gets a beaming smile in return.

The truth is, Chanyeol doesn't want to get wrapped up in the new games that Jongdae wants to play, meeting people and trying to find connection. It's not like Chanyeol can say he is dating anyone, that he's anything but single, but he's not available. At least not by his standards.

"We need a guys weekend," Jongdae says with a happier smile than he's worn all day. "Just us, gotta get this whole brothers thing down, you know?"

By his standards, Chanyeol's head is too full of thoughts of Jongin and the excited chatter of Sehun to let anyone else in. There's not another person he can come across who can make him look at the world the way he looks at it when he's with Jongin, the way he listens and understands and is careful like he is with Sehun.

It would be unfair.

"You're on," Chanyeol says though, smiling as he raises his glass to Jongdae. It would be unfair to another person, but Jongdae is coming to him for help, and Chanyeol knows that he can't really say no. It's not entirely about him, and he can keep details silent and out of the spotlight while being there for Jongdae and supporting him.

The truth is that Chanyeol just wants to be there for people, to help them and see them happy, better, full in the people they want to be. It's easier to take care of them than look at the confusing mix of things he wants and is slowly putting together. At least for now, he'll stay quiet.

*

Things begin to change. Slowly, with the progression that it's not easy to see them changing, but Chanyeol notices it. Beside him at the desk, Jongdae stops checking his phone all the time, instead talking with Juhyun and Minah when they walk by doing coffee rounds, calling his interns up for assignments. The office gets busier, the magazine running the usual schedule of new issues and articles and orders from people higher up filtering down. Junmyeon's desk in his room begins to fill with photographs, pictures of himself and a woman Chanyeol hasn't met before but who smiles prettily standing with Junmyeon doing various things.

It makes Chanyeol smile, looking around at the people around him and feeling like he's watching their lives slowly unfold, their stories weave themselves together. Watching Hoseok as his articles improve, sending Chanyeol not only emails about new and interesting food information he's managed to dig up, but random videos he's found on the internet he thought were funny. It's watching his own work pick up, move faster, his old routine that he'd begun to get stuck in, dragging, shifting back into the swing of productivity.

"You're not even trying," Jongdae had laughed at him before the weekend, his eyes on Chanyeol as he searched on his work computer through the local classifieds to print out. "I hope those aren't for you," Jongdae added, eyes on Chanyeol's screen.

"A friend," Chanyeol had answered, and smiled before stepping from the desk to grab his papers from the copier.

Perhaps it's because he has something to look forward to, real plans and smiles and something solid that isn't people he'll meet and hope will change. That's still something he finds happiness in, swinging by the library and signing up for events and various programs at the community centers, but there's more now.

There's the familiar phone call he looks forward to every week, whether it's just a short hour of walking in the park or a couple hours stolen somewhere, it's all settling in slowly that it's real. This is a part of Chanyeol's life.

Jongin and Sehun are a part of his life now, and Chanyeol wants them to stay there, to keep them.

It's not just about protecting Jongin from his friends finding out and possibly making judgements, it's about wanting to keep Jongin and Sehun in his life and just waiting for the time to ask. It's watching as the time flows past him, marking it in the slowly dropping temperatures and shortening days in sunlight and the homework assignments Sehun brings home calling 'baby stuff'.

It's watching as Jongin smiles more around the tired lines of his face and doesn't pull away when Chanyeol reaches out for his hand, taking it instead. It's following the steps he takes slowly to do something and watch how it helps, realizing where he wants to be, and watching as the world moves around him and not feeling left behind.

It's more than just him, and while it used to be work would end with Chanyeol picking up extra things to do after he finished his usual materials, now he has other things to do.

Not for himself, but that's kind of what makes it fun.

"You're early," Jongin says, opening the door and wearing his apron.

"Not a lot of traffic," Chanyeol answers, stepping into the apartment and smelling onions and chicken. "Something smells good."

"Dinner," Jongin answers, walking into the apartment. "I didn't know if you were going to stay or-"

"I'm meeting a friend for a late dinner," Chanyeol tells him easily, watching as the line of worry fades from Jongin's face. Cutting corners, blinks through his mind and Chanyeol nearly sighs, wishing for a way to make it stop.

There is a way.

"Well," Jongin says, turning towards the kitchen. "If you change your mind, you're always welcome to eat with us."

"Daddy is making chicken noodle soup," Sehun says, bounding up to Chanyeol happily. Today, he's wearing a bright red snapback, a bit too big on his head as it hangs over his eyes and shades his big grin. "Do you notice anything different?"

"Hmm," Chanyeol says, ducking around Sehun in playful search. "Did you get a haircut?"

Giggling, Sehun answers him, "no," before standing up straighter.

"You got new socks," Chanyeol tries.

"Chanyeol!" Sehun half whines and half laughs, reaching up and grabbing his hand. "I got a new hat!"

"Oh!" Chanyeol plucks said hat off Sehun's head, earning a shriek. "Oh, there you are," he says and Sehun sticks out his tongue playfully. "And I can see you didn't get a haircut after all."

"Next bath time," Jongin says, walking back to them and brushing sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. "Yeah?"

"I like my hair long," Sehun pouts. "I don't want you to cut it again."

"Would you rather have uncle Taemin cut it?" Jongin suggest and Sehun scrunches up his whole face in distaste.

"He's not even a real adult, who would give him scissors?" Sehun half whispers before pulling a face.

"He is an adult," Jongin defends, but there is laughter in his eyes. Turning to Chanyeol, he explains, "my best friend from growing up. He sometimes-"

"Not anymore!" Sehun jumps in, physically jumping as well as he tries to get his snapback back from where Chanyeol has casually put it on top of his own head.

"-he used to look after Sehun on some weekends when I had to work," Jongin corrects himself before throwing Sehun a look. "Then Sehun called the police on him."

"He set toast on fire," Sehun says with a scandalized look at his father. "How is he supposed to take care of me if he can't even take care of a toaster? I was in danger."

"Of course you were," Jongin sighs, and Sehun lets out a shriek the next moment as Jongin lunges to grab him into his arms. "Anyway, Taemin is now terrified if Sehun stays with him Sehun will call the police again. But you won't, right?" Jongin adds to his son.

"No," Sehun sighs loudly, looking at his father before turning to Chanyeol. Without warning, he tries to lurch from Jongin's arms and to Chanyeol, reaching for his hat. Laughing, Chanyeol takes a wiggling Sehun from Jongin's arms and lets him finally reclaim his new accessory. "Because if I do the scary mean ladies will come back."

Chanyeol's laugh falters, fading a bit as he looks up at Jongin. This isn't the first time Sehun has mentioned these 'ladies' that he so dislikes, and Chanyeol still isn't sure what they're from or why Sehun doesn't like them. They seem to be the most important thing Sehun wants to avoid though, so Chanyeol assumes it's something unpleasant.

Jongin's expression gives him no answers, as instead of continuing the conversation, he smiles to Sehun, ignoring Chanyeol's look, and says, "why don't you show Chanyeol your set up?"

"Oh!" Sehun yelps, before twisting to be released. In the living room, which looks like a battlefield of blankets and cushions, Sehun pounces and picks his way through the mess to the couch, where he's set up a few crates and all of his stuffed animals. "What do you think?" he asks, looking exuberant with pride.

"I think it's impossible to get over to you," Chanyeol says, looking down at the network of objects carefully placed about on the floor.

"It's a jungle!" Sehun tells him. "Just like the Swiss family lived in, right? And those are all my traps for the tigers and elephants and stuff so they can't get to me."

"That's amazing, Sehun," Chanyeol tells him. "But how can I get over to you?"

"Hold on," Sehun says, and carefully slides off the couch. "I'll come and get you." Picking his way across the living room, Sehun finally grabs Chanyeol's hand and directs him across to the couch, explaining all his methods and traps and designs to keep out the 'bad guys' and 'tigers' that might attack him in his 'treehouse' on the couch. Listening obediently, Chanyeol nods along, gasping at all the right places and falling into the game.

It's something Sehun and Jongin do a lot. Most of the time it's Jongin who starts it, turning something that might usually be boring or unpleasant into a game and pulling Sehun into it with him, distracting him. Sehun does it as well, his own powers of imagination getting him into long winding stories that he'll tell Chanyeol when he visits, and clearly now he's latched onto The Swiss Family Robinson as his latest inspiration.

The living room is no longer just a room, but a jungle full of tigers, bears, sharks in the salt water pools, pirates, bandits, and snakes that can attack them and Sehun has devised an intricate defense system to keep them out. "If you need me to come save you," Sehun says, pushing two chop sticks into Chanyeol's hands pointedly. "Just hit your emergency sticks together and they'll send up a flare. Then I'll come and find you."

"Are you sure you'll be able to see me in the jungle?" Chanyeol asks as seriously as he can.

"Of course, I'll be in the lookout," Sehun tells him, and grins happily as he clambers on top of the crate closest to him. "You have to go find Daddy. He's down by the beach collecting food for us but it'll be dark soon so he needs to come back to safety."

"I'm on it," Chanyeol reassures him, and holds back his laughter as he carefully picks his way out of the 'jungle' and to the kitchen. "You're wanted back at the treehouse," Chanyeol tells Jongin, stepping up quietly beside him and watching as Jongin turns to him in fading surprise. "Orders of Sehun."

"I'm sure he can wait a bit for dinner," Jongin says, a smile still on his lips as he glances out to the living room. "He's been having so much fun since we came over, he keeps talking about it." The smile tugs at Chanyeol when it turns to him. "Thank you for that."

"It was really fun," Chanyeol admits. If he only watched half the movie, it doesn't matter. It was fun, and he means it when he says he'd want both Sehun and Jongin back again. "We should do it again. When you're free, or when you can make time."

Laughing, Jongin turns back to his cooking. It looks like it's enough to feed more than just one night, and Chanyeol watches as he cuts up the meal of random vegetables to drop into the pot of soup as rice cooks on the back burner. "I wish I could just make time," he says, eyes tired as he works. "That would make everything easier."

"No luck looking into something else?" Chanyeol poses the question lightly, but still Jongin turns to him with a heavy look.

"Chanyeol," he begins before halting, letting out a sigh. "It's not- I don't just have the-"

"I had some extra time today," Chanyeol cuts him off, before Jongin can get too wrapped up in what he 'can't' do. "I thought they might help." Digging into his work bag, Chanyeol pulls out the advertisements for jobs he'd been looking at. Most of them are local, and none of them will ever pay as well as Chanyeol's job, but it's something better than what Jongin is already doing hopefully. "It's not a lot, but I thought it might be worth a shot, rather than working six jobs and-" his throat tightens "-it might be easier on you." Jongin slowly, almost cautiously, accepts the papers as Chanyeol hands them to him, a furrow between his eyes. "And Sehun."

"Chanyeol," Jongin begins, his voice not the happy sound Chanyeol's quivering heart had hoped for. "Chanyeol these-" he sighs, flipping through the papers. "Thank you," he says, closing his eyes on the last page and looking up. He doesn't look relieved though, he just looks more tired, and the tug in Chanyeol's chest pulls harder.

"But?" Chanyeol prompts. He knows it's there, he just also knows Jongin won't say it unless he's given the small push to do so.

"You shouldn't do this," Jongin tells him, flipping through the pages again. "These- I can't-"

"Why not?" Chanyeol asks, feeling a bit disheartened. It's hard to really understand this sort of thing, when he's not sure why Jongin isn't looking for better work than what he has, or why Jongin keeps saying what he can't do rather than what he can. "Why can't you do this? I'm only trying to help."

"Stop," Jongin says, and though it's only one word, it hits with the force of many. Jongin closes his eyes, letting out a sigh as he puts the papers down on the table and glances into the living room, checking on Sehun. "It's not as simple as just finding a job that has better hours or pay," he begins, stepping closer and deeper into the kitchen.

"Then what is it?" Chanyeol asks, watching Jongin carefully. "There are jobs out there-"

"Almost all of those jobs will want more than just a high school diploma," Jongin tells him, eyes heavy.

"They don't have it listed as-" Chanyeol begins.

"But they will want it," Jongin answers firmly. "They won't want a single father asking for full time wages and benefits with a basic work visa. They want part time workers who they don't have to pay higher, give benefits, and can recycle when they're not useful anymore."

"Not all-" Chanyeol begins, feeling uneasy at the sure note in Jongin's voice. He's been there, whispers a sad voice in his mind. This has already been his world, is his world.

"They want someone who won’t be up for possible deportation, a foreign worker who isn't asking for the same wages," Jongin continues, and his voice hardens.

"But you're-"

"Korean," Jongin says, and there's no give in his voice. "I came here when I was fourteen to go to high school and never left. I've been living here on borrowed time and luck."

"Luck," Chanyeol repeats the word, feeling numb as he watches Jongin's expression pull back into itself.

"Yes," Jongin says. "I'm lucky to still be here. With Sehun." The note in his voice has Chanyeol quieting, just waiting for Jongin to talk to him. Let him come to you, whispers and Chanyeol swallows as Jongin leans back against the counter, eyes on his hands as they slowly twine together. "I met Sehun's mother when I was in my first year of university here," Jongin says.

It's not the story Chanyeol expects, but he isn't about to stop him. Carefully shifting so as to be closer to Jongin, Chanyeol keeps space between them, letting Jongin talk. This isn't the time for him to talk, but to listen.

"I suppose you could call it young love," Jongin says, and a mix of happiness, a warm fondness, and grief passes over his face quickly. "A lot of people did, at least." He swallows, fingers knitting together. "I didn't." The way he says it sounds deeper, closer to something more than Chanyeol could ever touch. "It wasn't really an accident, but it still shocked us both when she got pregnant." A soft smile before he looks up, meeting Chanyeol's eyes. "I was eighteen, then."

"That's-"

"Young, I know," Jongin says. "I didn't really care that I was young, or that we were young. It was our lives, we were going to go with it and have a family. I figured if I dropped out then, I could finish my degree later, after the baby was born and we would be okay. After things got better." His eyes drop back to his hands, and his voice tightens as he says, "that was the plan, at least."

"What happened to her?" Chanyeol asks. All Chanyeol ever knew was that Sehun's mother was dead, but nothing more. He hadn't realized this, that there was so much of Jongin that still looks... in love with her.

"Things got hard," Jongin says, taking in a deep breath. "My family wasn't really happy about my dropping out, especially when they found out why. They- well they didn't agree with my decisions. They made things harder, right up until Sehun was born." He lets out a laugh that sounds harsh, bitter as he grimaces. "Then they backed off, gave up on me I guess," he sighs, breathing in deeply. "It might have worked, and for a while, I thought it would. Two jobs wasn't so bad and she was happy. Sehun was healthy." He chuckles. "He was the cutest baby, so full of energy."

"Just like now," Chanyeol murmurs, watching as Jongin looks over at his son, jumping about the 'jungle' in the living room.

"Just like now," Jongin repeats, his voice distant and the lines about his face deep, etched with hours of ages of exhaustion and strife. "I wish she could see him."

"What was she like?" Chanyeol asks. A part of him doesn't want to know, to pretend she wasn't such a huge part of Jongin's heart, that she still might be, but at the same time, it feels cruel to her. At least her memory. A woman Chanyeol has never met, the mother of the boy who Chanyeol adores, who never lived to see him as he is now. That’s something Chanyeol has, and he wouldn’t without her.

A slow, warm and sweet smile spreads over Jongin's face. "She was beautiful," Jongin says softly. "In the way that caught you as soon as she walked into a room. It just poured from her, inside to out. And she didn't even realize how beautiful she was, didn’t even care, she just wanted to enjoy the world, make things work. She believed everything would work out. That even if we didn’t have enough to really get married back then, we would some day. She believed that’d we’d find our happy ending." Jongin pauses, breathing in again before he looks up at Chanyeol, some of the warmth still lighting his eyes. "You're a lot like her in that. Both of you don't seem to give up hope."

It's hard to know how to reply to that, so Chanyeol just stays silent, taking the compliment and letting Jongin continue. This isn't his story, and he would rather listen, to finally understand. "She had that hope the day it happened," Jongin says. "They had to do some tests, they did it for all of the people going into the job she had. Just a few things, blood work, heart checks." His eyes fall, fixing to gaze into nothing, darkening with the past. "She was allergic to one of the dyes they injected into her blood to check her heart."

Silence falls, Jongin's eyes clouded over as he stares into nothing. The smile and light gone from his eyes, his face fallen into age far beyond his time as Chanyeol watches him revisit the memories of years ago.

"I'm sorry," Chanyeol murmurs, not wanting to break the silence but not wanting it to linger too long.

"They had no idea," Jongin says, and clears his throat of the grating tightness left. "It was fast, and there wasn't anything they could do. Sehun was just about a year old." He breathes in deep. "And then it was just us." Jongin looks back towards the living room, to his son, and the light slowly fades back into his eyes, the smile once more dancing to his lips as he watches his son. "Just me and Sehun."

For a long moment, nothing but the sounds of the food simmering gently on the stove and Sehun playing in the living room are heard, silence falling between them. In Chanyeol's mind, he tries to imagine what it might have been like. Working, young, trying to keep a small family afloat and keep his head above water and suddenly getting a phone call like that.

Whatever Chanyeol can imagine will never be what Jongin went through, and Chanyeol swallows down the ache in his throat, in his chest, in his heart as he looks at Jongin.

"It wasn't bad at first," Jongin says, finally picking up as Chanyeol watches him. So much. "I thought it might work out, that I could keep my two jobs and take care of Sehun." He grimaces, turning away from watching Sehun play. He’s been through so much. "Then her family got involved, wanted to take Sehun, thinking he wasn't okay with me." He sniffs, frowning at his hands. "They never really liked me."

"Their loss," Chanyeol says.

"Those are the ladies Sehun keeps talking about," Jongin tells him, and the small moment Chanyeol had struck falls dead. "They came after us two years ago, right around when-" he closes his eyes, a full grimace on his face, twisting in pain. "When I was really struggling. Back when I-"

"You don't have to say it," Chanyeol reassures.

"I wasn't home," Jongin says, his voice tight and straining. "I was out, with a customer, and they came and found him alone. I-" his voice cracks. "I almost lost him." It's hard to watch, to see Jongin close his eyes, watch the beginnings of what Chanyeol knows is years of grief coming to the surface, struggling for release. "They wouldn’t give up, saying that I was hurting him and he wasn’t safe with me, and I just was trying to, to-"

"Make ends meet," Chanyeol answers for him, trying to understand and feeling like he's getting there, even if it's only a little.

"I can't lose him," Jongin whispers, whether to Chanyeol or himself, Chanyeol doesn't know or care. Jongin's eyes stay closed, his hands twisted together as they shake slightly, holding back. "If I could get a full time job, if they had- if they were hiring, but they never are, and if they found Sehun home alone before I could get there-"

"They'll take him from you," Chanyeol finishes for him, watching as Jongin takes in a sharp shuddering breath. It may be overstepping, breaking whatever fragile balance has settled between them, but Chanyeol ignores all of that as he steps forward and carefully wraps his arms around Jongin. Immediately, he hears Jongin gasp, loud and wet as he jerks away. A moment later though, as Chanyeol stays and just holds, arms wrapped gently and lightly around Jongin in case he wants to pull away, hands fist themselves into the front of his shirt. There is only a short pause, a shiver, and then Jongin is leaning into him and pressing his face into his shoulder. Closing his eyes, Chanyeol just breathes, arms around Jongin and feeling him shake in silent sobs as it all is relived.

Slowly, as he holds and just lets Jongin hold onto him, as Jongin lets himself be held, finally, Chanyeol counts back all of those years. Sehun is six, romping around in the living room, which means...

Jongin must be only about twenty five years old.

Twenty five years old and to already have seen so much, to have suffered through the things that Jongin has suffered through, seems enough to almost break him. It's impossible to imagine, and Chanyeol knows no matter how much he might try, he'll never understand. He'll never be able to comprehend what it was like for Jongin. There's more to the story, more to Jongin's life, but Chanyeol isn't going to ask. When the time comes, perhaps he'll know.

It doesn't feel like it's long enough before Jongin is pulling away, still shaking and sniffling softly, his eyes reddish and nose pink, hastily wiping his eyes. "I'm sorry," he says in a harsh half whisper, stepping back.

"Don't apologize," Chanyeol tells him firmly. "I asked."

"You didn't ask me to cry on your shirt," Jongin tells him pointedly, looking up with red rimmed eyes and a poor look of retribution. "I'm sorry, I always-"

"Stop apologizing," Chanyeol tells him firmly

"-I can't seem to be able to stop when it's you," Jongin continues, ignoring him. "And it's so- I'm, I'm just sorry, I didn't-"

"Jongin," Chanyeol tells him sharply, and Jongin's voice cuts out as he looks up at him. "Stop apologizing," he says firmly.

Jongin sniffs, but he doesn't look away from Chanyeol. "Or what?" he asks, voice thicker even as he keeps his gaze steady.

"Or I'll kiss you," Chanyeol says, barely even thinking about it but the moment the words leave him, he's pleased with them. The stunned look on Jongin's face is certainly worth it. "Stop apologizing to me, you have no reason to ever apologize to me for anything. So the next time you do, I'll kiss you."

"That's-" Jongin presses his lips together, standing in his kitchen and just staring at Chanyeol like he's not sure how to respond to him.

"Look at it this way," Chanyeol continues, stepping back and leaning against the counter, looking away as his heart begins to pump at a faster pace. "The next time you apologize to me, I'll just consider that you're asking me to kiss you."

"But what if I wasn't," Jongin says, voice still thick but it holds none of the same heart aching sadness.

"Then you'll never forget it," Chanyeol says simply, and even if his heart flutters in hope that Jongin will just apologize, that he'll pull him in, that's not why he's doing this. Jongin has been through proverbial Hell, had greater loss than anyone Chanyeol knows, and he shouldn't be apologizing to anyone. For anything. "I promise I won't."

He still hasn't said it, but it's almost better that way, the small reality that exists between them in the gray space that isn't quite yet ready to be defined, just waiting. It's better this way, where Jongin can let go in the rare moments when he lets Chanyeol hold him, crying and shedding some of the layers of his stress. Though he looks no less tired or thin standing before Chanyeol, there are small signs, the way he stands just a little taller, the way his eyes seem just a little bit brighter, that make Chanyeol think it helps.

"Okay," Jongin says, and smiles at him to show that they're okay. This is okay. "Are you sure you don't want to stay for dinner?"

"If I don't see my friend, he's going to send out a search party fairly soon," Chanyeol tries to laugh off. It might surprise him that Baekhyun hasn't been texting him telling him to hurry up, that he's hungry, but Baekhyun is working and therefore can't use his phone. It's better that way, meaning Baekhyun can't do something stupid, like drop the device into a customer's soup.

One time was more than enough.

"Another time then," Jongin tells him. "Perhaps when the living room is less of a-"

"Is supper done?" Sehun asks, coming skidding into the kitchen between them. "You should come and see. I have a new trap set up!"

Jongin has to work tonight, after dinner and Sehun is in bed, heading out to one of his night jobs to pay the bills to keep them afloat. Chanyeol watches the tired lines in his face as they all sit in the living room in Sehun's fortress that he's made on the couch, playing with him as he spins an elaborate tale of survival on this deserted island. Chanyeol finally leaves when Jongin pushes him off of the couch, laughing as Sehun yells that Chanyeol is going to get eaten and wheezing soundlessly as Chanyeol dramatizes his own imagined death.

"Chanyeol, tigers don't bark," Sehun criticizes as Jongin struggles for breath beside his son, still laughing.

"The tigers here do," Chanyeol tells him, pushing himself up from the floor. "You have some strange tigers here, Sehun. You have to watch out." He smiles, ruffling Sehun's hair when the boy leaps off the couch to hug him goodbye.

Jongin is still flushed with laughing as he sees Chanyeol to the door. "Thank you," he says, smiling as Chanyeol steps out of the apartment.

"Am I going to find out what these lists are next time I visit?" Chanyeol asks, nodding to the new paper tacked to Jongin's door.

"Next time," Jongin tells him, and his smile looks tired, but it's still a smile. Still in place, and still for him. "How else would I get you to come back?"

"Just ask," Chanyeol tells him, honestly. "And I'll be here whenever you need me." Jongin's eyes flicker, filling slowly. "For anything." It would be so easy to reach out, to pull Jongin close into one more hug, hold him close and hold him safe.

"Thank you," Jongin says, voice quiet, but sincere.

The jobs didn't work, and Chanyeol isn't sure what else to do aside from just be there. Maybe, right now, that's all he needs to be though.

"You're late," Baekhyun says when Chanyeol picks him up from his job, smiling at the bag of food Baekhyun props on his lap.

"I'm on time, you're being particular," Chanyeol says, smiling none the less as he pulls out into traffic.

"And you're smiling like you just got laid," Baekhyun says, propping his feet up on the dashboard.

"Feet down," Chanyeol scolds and Baekhyun gives a half apologetic grin as he takes his feet from the car. "And don't be crude."

"What else am I supposed to be then?" Baekhyun asks, feigning distress. "But I'm glad," he adds. "For whoever it is that made you smile like this." Chanyeol glances over at him, watching his face as they sit at a red light and feeling a bit curious at the way he looks almost contemplative. "I hope they deserve you."

They do, Chanyeol thinks, keeping his mouth shut as they pull through the light and smiling as Baekhyun breaks the silence a moment later with singing one of the pop hits from back in university.

*

It was only a matter of time before this happened. Standing in the darkened room with music loud and too many people, Chanyeol keeps the smile on his face as he looks around. It's been about a week since Jongdae had pulled him out for dinner, and Chanyeol had known it wouldn't be long before their whole group of friends was dragged out.

It's not entirely how he'd envisioned it happening, with Hoseok joking that they should all go out after work so he could see if they were as different outside of work as Juhyun claimed. That's how it all spun together though, Jongdae jumping on the idea, and no one had the heart to tell him Thursdays weren't a good night to go out on principal. It had been intended to be a company group, with just the interns Hoseok was more than excited to drag along to watch them suffer embarrassment, but it had ended up becoming a bit more.

"Come on," Baekhyun is laughing, pressing a bottle of beer harder against Chanyeol's face as he continues to laugh. "Everyone else is having a second, thir- I don't know Han has had like nine beers, so I guess we'll have to count with deca somethings for him, the asshole."

"Baekhyun," Chanyeol says, trying to take the bottle of beer Baekhyun is trying to meld onto his face. "How many drinks have you had?"

"More than you," Baekhyun slurs. "Which is unacceptable."

"You're drunk," Chanyeol informs.

"Obviously," Baekhyun snorts and then grins. "That’s the point. Come on, even your intern child is more giggles than you are."

Indeed, Hoseok when he's drunk apparently tends to just be... a more emphasized version of Hoseok when he's sober. Chanyeol isn't really sure if he should mention this, or if he should follow Jongdae's earlier advice as a good 'mentor' and document everything with his phone camera to send Hoseok tomorrow morning. While Chanyeol knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of that, it's still tremendously tempting.

"Yeah, but I'm driving home," Chanyeol reminds Baekhyun. "And judging by how many drinks Han keeps giving Jongdae, I'll be driving him home too."

"You're such a good almost not actual brother," Baekhyun hums, leaning back against the bar and smiling out over their group of people. As much as Chanyeol doesn't like having bottles of beer pressed into his face, he's glad Baekhyun is here. Initially, Jongdae had looked unwilling when Juhyun had invited him, but in the end, it was Baekhyun who got Jongdae to stop moping into his second glass of beer. It was Baekhyun that had dragged him out to laugh and talk to people, and it was Baekhyun that had shoved a giggling Juhyun down to sit and 'supervise' Jongdae while he 'socialized'.

"Thank you, Baekhyun," Chanyeol tells his long time friend, watching as Baekhyun grins out over the bar. "That means so much to me."

"You're so welcome," Baekhyun informs him, and pats him firmly on the thigh, resting his hand there and rubbing slightly. Once, Chanyeol might have thought too much about it, wondered about it, fought with himself for thinking about it.

It's been a long time since he just stopped thinking of touches like this as something else. It's been a long time since he was too at war with himself to just be at peace with the rest of the world as it passed with him. In some ways, he has Baekhyun to thank for that.

In other ways, he doesn't, considering it was because of Baekhyun that his parents are probably less inclined to the idea of Chanyeol marrying a man instead of a woman.

"How many is that?" Jongdae asks, walking up with a few unsteady steps as he frowns at Chanyeol's... two beers. "You're double fisting? On a Thursday?"

"Living the Wild life," Baekhyun says emphatically. "Get with it, Jongdae, you're behind the games."

"I'm acting as Baekhyun's human cup holder," Chanyeol says, holding up the fresh beer Baekhyun had literally shoved on him earlier. "This is my second."

"He's such a good cup holder," Baekhyun says, patting Chanyeol's thigh affectionately as he reaches out, pulling Jongdae under his arm. "Everyone needs a Chanyeol in their life for their cup needs."

It feels a little strange to think that just a year ago, he'd probably be the one right along with Baekhyun in terms of drinks (or double, possibly triple, considering Baekhyun's inability to hold his alcohol under pain of death). Somehow, despite Baekhyun calling him out on it, he doesn't really mind it. While once the pressure to drink along with everyone else just to be doing the same things, it's almost gone now, and Chanyeol finds that just as with other things, he's happier to just watch.

Also watching as Jongdae sighs, leaning immediately into Baekhyun's arms and resting his head on his shoulder, tells Chanyeol that he needs to be sober and sentient for when he has to take people home. Baekhyun may not be able to see it, but Chanyeol can see the vague way that Jongdae's expression doesn't hold back all of his lingering sadness.

"I don't get why you get to have a Chanyeol and I don't," Jongdae is grumbling under his breath. "S'not fair."

"You get him as a brother soon enough, I'm just trying to get my fill before you steal him away to go bro bond or sing guitar songs together," Baekhyun says, and when Jongdae whines softly, Baekhyun kisses him firmly on the side of the face. He grins, delighted with himself, when Jongdae sputters and pushes back, face red and grimacing.

"You're gross," Jongdae protests, and in trying to walk away from Baekhyun, ends up sitting on his lap instead as he stumbles. "Awful."

"You're welcome," Baekhyun chirps happily, resting his chin on Jongdae's shoulder. "I just don't want you to feel left out. You know, unloved and all that stuff, because you're not." Jongdae, who has just pulled out his phone and is frowning at the familiar picture on the lock screen, turns sharply at Baekhyun's words. Chanyeol wants to sigh, to pull Jongdae off of Baekhyun and just stop him from going down that road. To his credit, Baekhyun looks suitable ashamed of himself and grins apologetically. "I love you?" he prompts and gets Jongdae's hand over his face, pushing him off.

"I'm going to go see Han," Jongdae grumbles. "See if your roommate is nicer to me."

"I'm amazing to you," Baekhyun calls after Jongdae. "I treat you so well, Jongdae, no one can treat you better than me, baby." Jongdae flips him off. At the look one of the other men at the bar gives him, Baekhyun grins and sways slightly, saying a vague, "hiya," before he turns back to Chanyeol. "Drink that, or my job isn't even remotely successful."

"Your job?"

"Happy person maker," Baekhyun says resolutely, squeezing Chanyeol's thigh in emphasis.

"You should retire," Junmyeon says, slipping up to Chanyeol's other side and plucking the extra beer from Chanyeol's grateful hands. "You're losing your touch."

"Look, just because you made yourself happy without me doesn't mean I'm not still great at my job," Baekhyun defends, scowling at Junmyeon.

"Make yourself happy first," Junmyeon suggests, and winks up at Chanyeol as he settles beside him. "Then go and make other people happy. That's my advice."

"Fine," Baekhyun says, standing up straighter. "I will." Looking out over the bar, he squints into their group, all clustered at one of the standing tables and chattering. Han and Jongdae are arguing over something again, Juhyun laughing at them both as Jinri teasingly goads them on. Watching Baekhyun walk over to their group, Chanyeol lets out a sigh he'd been holding for longer than he realizes, the warmth of Baekhyun's hand fading from his thigh.

"Aren't you going to join them?" Junmyeon asks, taking a sip of the beer Baekhyun had given Chanyeol.

"I think it's safer to watch from here," Chanyeol chuckles. "Baekhyun's been goading Jongdae all night. It's only a matter of time before he gets hit. Or Jongdae starts crying."

"Han won't let that happen," Junmyeon says, though he doesn't sound entirely confident in himself. "There's too much happening tonight for Jongdae to really be pushed that far."

"I wouldn't put it past him though," Chanyeol sighs, watching as Jongdae turns from Han to talk with Juhyun, his phone in his hand once more. "You know how he can get."

"Have more confidence in him," Junmyeon assures. "He's been growing up too, just like you."

"Me?" Chanyeol blinks, finally looking away from his friends to look at Junmyeon.

"I suppose Juhyun would be proud of me," Junmyeon says, glancing at Chanyeol with a small smile playing about his mouth. "Saying I've finally noticed something that isn't two feet from my face." Chanyeol blinks, not sure what Junmyeon means, or what he's saying. "You've changed."

"Have I?" Chanyeol tries to brush it off, to not think about how true it is. But it is; he's not the same man he was back in spring. It's a little strange to think of how much he's changed in such a short time, though he can't take all the credit.

It's because of Jongin.

"You've- I don't want to say grown up, because you've always been grown up, in your own way," Junmyeon hums in contemplation.

"Does this mean I get to join the ranks of you and Minseok?" Chanyeol asks, not feeling the edge that he had a few months ago to deny it. It feels safer, and he knows he doesn't have to say anything he doesn't want to. It's okay to say no.

Laughing, Junmyeon shakes his head. "It'll be a while before you're old men like us."

"You're still not even thirty," Chanyeol reminds.

"Blame Baekhyun," Junmyeon says. "He says he keeps us young, but we all know the truth."

"He keeps you on your toes, that's for sure," Chanyeol chuckles, looking back over at the table of friends. His smile falters as he watches Juhyun laugh, tucking her hair behind her ear prettily as she talks with Baekhyun and Jongdae watches, his phone held limp in his hands.

"If there's any changes," Junmyeon says, pulling Chanyeol's attention back to him. "Let me know, okay?"

"Changes?" Chanyeol frowns, not sure what Junmyeon is talking about.

"In your world," Junmyeon elaborates, taking another long sip. "I know I'm your supervisor, but I'm still your friend. And I'd like to think that will come first if things happen." At Chanyeol's frown of confusion, he adds, "I know it must be frustrating to keep getting those proposals rejected. I know I get annoyed when they come back, knowing that they're decent and should be approved, so I can't imagine it's any easier for you."

"Oh," Chanyeol says, realizing what Junmyeon is saying, what he might be hinting at. "I know I should have stopped a while ago, but-"

"Why give up?" Junmyeon asks, a laugh in his voice. "It's not that the proposals aren't good and that they're not important, it's just maybe they're going to the wrong place." Chanyeol looks up, frowning at what he thinks Junmyeon is implying. "Whatever you choose to do, I just wanted to make sure you know you can tell me."

Breathing in and feeling it settle in his chest, calming and full, Chanyeol smiles at his friend. "Thank you," he says, sincerely. "For understanding."

"I know I don't always understand much, like Hoseok's obsession with emoticons for his emails," Junmyeon says, sighing as he looks back at the group. "But I like to think I at least try."

Junmyeon stays with Chanyeol, chatting and catching up with him, telling him about the girl he's seeing and making Chanyeol smile with his stories. It's nice to talk with him, separate from the usual yell and bustle of the group, all trying to race drinks and keep the energy just on the edge of tipping over. It feels more settled, balanced, and it's Junmyeon calling it out, naming it, that has Chanyeol less wary of it. It's okay to be here and not there, and even if he knows Junmyeon is keeping him company, he appreciates it.

A part of him couldn't go and just forget in the group anymore, his mind too aware of himself, his actions and distracted, flickering back to Jongin. Absently, Chanyeol wonders if Jongin has ever had alcohol, at least like this. Probably not, and as Chanyeol watches a flushed and giggling Juhyun let herself fall into Baekhyun's side as Jongdae's face falls, he doesn't think Jongin is really missing out.

He doesn't miss waking up to texts and pictures of the night before with a burn in his stomach and a pounding in his head, dragging to work to feel half awake all day. He doesn't miss being Jongdae, walking over to him and handing him his phone, and telling him, "I can't be trusted right now" before he turns and makes a beeline to Han and Jinri.

There still isn't a clear path of where Chanyeol is going to go from here. In one year, Chanyeol has no more idea of where he will be than he did a few months ago. There's no concept of if he'll still be at Everyday Cuisine or somewhere else, if he'll still have the same apartment, or if he'll have someone beside him at Yura and Jongdeok's wedding. All he knows is that he doesn't have the same sense of urgency that he did before, the rushing to find the answer, the solution to not knowing.

For the first time, Chanyeol can sit and just watch his friends and not feel like he has to do something, to make it better, to make himself better, to fix the problems. He knows Jongdae will come and find him at the end of the night, ask for his phone back and whisper a soft complaint before saying "thank you" when he finds his background changed from Sunyoung's picture.

For the first time, Chanyeol doesn't feel unbalanced, just grounded. Perhaps that's what Junmyeon had meant, and when he realizes it, Chanyeol doesn't find himself shying away from it, just happy.

It's not perfect, still so many questions unanswered, but it is okay. It's okay.

*

It's just after lunch when Chanyeol's phone starts to ring. Lunch had been an interesting affair, mostly consisting of Juhyun and Hoseok playing 'keep away' with Jongdae's phone as he grumbled at them over the 'healthy salad' that Chanyeol had bought for him. Jongdae had turned up at work hungover, red eyed, and had dropped a muffin on Chanyeol's desk with a weak smile.

"For last night," he'd said, referring to how Chanyeol had physically carried him into his apartment after the bar as Jongdae rambled into his neck about how he didn't need anyone else in his life. "Thanks."

Of course, it was only after Chanyeol had eaten the muffin Jongdae had realized he'd forgotten both his lunch and his wallet on the way out that morning.

"You don't even need a girlfriend," Jimin, Jongdae's intern, had teased his mentor as they sat down for lunch after hearing the story. "You can just date Chanyeol."

"I'm going to be his brother," Chanyeol says easily as Jongdae gets a sort of hungover look of delayed disapproval on his face. It's understandable when Jimin cowers moments later under Jongdae's stare, considering that Chanyeol has seen even Jongdeok cower under that look. "He has to find another nice boyfriend."

"Not my type," Jongdae had grumbled into his salad. "And no, Chanyeol is not your type either and he won't buy you food," he'd added when Jimin had opened his mouth hopefully.

Chanyeol is still chuckling at a joke that Jimin, who seems to be the only other intern that isn't completely intimidated by Jongdae, was telling earlier when he digs his phone out of his pocket. The day is going well, and Junmyeon flashes him a quick smile as he leaves first, dragging Jongdae away before he can pester.

Smiling as he sees Jongin's number, Chanyeol answers. The weekend is still free, and he'd hoped to see Jongin and Sehun, even if it's just for a little while.

"I wondered if I'd be hearing from you," Chanyeol says, smiling into the receiver. "I-"

"Chanyeol!" Jongin's voice is frantic, high and tight and Chanyeol's smile immediately falls, steps faltering. "Chanyeol, I can't find Sehun."

"You-" It's cold, suddenly everything is cold and there isn't enough air. "What?"

"I just got back from my morning shift and he's not here, he's not home." Jongin speaks in a rush of words, tightly strung together in panic. "Chanyeol, I don't know where he would be. The keys aren't here but- he knows not to leave and-"

"Shouldn't he be in school?"

"They had early release," Jongin says, and Chanyeol shakes his head as Juhyun pauses, looking back at him with her eyes turning worried. "We talked about it before I dropped him off this morning. He was supposed to come right home, and I took off work to make sure- Chanyeol he's not here, I don't know where he is, he's-"

"Maybe he's late," Chanyeol suggests, trying to calm the racing pounding of his own heart.

"He was supposed to be home an hour ago," Jongin says, and his voice cracks. "I've- Chanyeol, we have routines for this, he never leaves home without someone with him. Yixing was supposed to walk him home today but what if something happened? Why would he leave?"

"Would he do that?" Chanyeol asks, not sure who Yixing is and that certainly doesn't help the increasing beats of his heart. Shaking his head at Juhyun when she steps closer, turning away and walking back into the cafe. "Jongin-"

"I called him already and he said he dropped Sehun off outside the apartment." Over the phone, Chanyeol can hear Jongin's breathing start to get faster, his voice shaking and it makes Chanyeol's decision for him when he hears a muffled whimper. "He's out right now with a client downtown and can't- I don't know what happened, he knows not to leave home."

"Where are you?" Chanyeol asks, turning and walking back towards the office, stepping past Juhyun and ignoring her questioning look. "Are you home?"

"Yes," Jongin says. "I didn't want to leave in case he came back, but-"

"Stay there," Chanyeol says, stepping into the elevator as it arrives and motioning for Juhyung to follow. "It's going to be okay."

"What if something happened to him?" Jongin asks, and Chanyeol can hear the tears in his voice, panic and desperation building. It's going to be okay, I promise. "I can't do this alone."

"I'm leaving work right now," Chanyeol says, and there is no gasp of shock, no stammer of refusal from Jongin's end of the phone, just the cut off of breath. "Jongin?"

"Chanyeol-"

"We can look for him together," Chanyeol tells him. "We'll find him. I promise."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," whispers brokenly over the line and Chanyeol clenches his jaw to keep from letting his emotions surge through him.

"I never break a promise," Chanyeol says, wishing he were there now, wishing he could get there faster. "I'll be there soon."

"Okay," Jongin says, and his voice trembles. "I'm so sorry, I just didn't know-"

"That's one kiss," Chanyeol says, and steps from the elevator when it arrives on the floor, ignoring the gasp from the phone and the startled look on Jongdae's face when he walks into their cubicle.

"Chanyeol-!"

"I'll be there soon," Chanyeol repeats, quickly grabbing his work bag to pack up. "Call me if anything happens, okay?"

"Okay," shudders back, followed by a soft, "thank you," before Chanyeol hangs up with purpose.

"I have to leave," Chanyeol tells Jongdae's befuddled look.

"You don't say?" Jongdae says, watching as Chanyeol hastily packs his work materials. "Everything okay?"

"Family emergency," Chanyeol says, not even bothering to answer Jongdae's startled look. "Tell Junmyeon for me? And keep an eye on Hoseok. He can take my desk for the day if he needs to."

"Alright," Jongdae says, nodding and looking more alert than he has all day. "I hope things work out," he adds and Chanyeol pauses, looking back at him and the worry, concern, and reassurance in Jongdae's eyes. "Good luck."

"Thanks," Chanyeol says, offering a weak smile as he slings his bag over his shoulder.

"Call me if you need anything," Jongdae calls as Chanyeol strides away, walking from the office with his heart racing and his blood pumping cold. "Seriously! Anything! I got you, bro!"

The rush to Jongin's apartment is a blur, cars and sounds and Chanyeol's heart beating too frantic in his chest to breathe steady. Images he never wants flash through his head, of Sehun lost, Sehun hurt, Sehun upset, crying, calling for help, stranded and unable to get home. Images of Jongin alone, of Sehun found by the wrong people, of him being taken away. It doesn't make sense for Sehun to not be home, to not have done what he knows is the rules of the house. Sehun may be a child but he's not stupid, far from it, and while Sehun may complain about rules just like any other child, or adult really, Sehun knows why they're important.

The last thing Sehun would want is to risk being separated from Jongin, so the fact that he's missing is all the more worrisome. From Jongin's reaction when he called, this is not something that happens. Ever.

It makes Chanyeol more scared than he's ever felt in his entire life, his heart pounding and body moving almost automatically, following through the steps to get to Jongin as soon as possible. To fix this, to help, to find Sehun.

The sounds of him knocking on the door have barely resonated in the grimy hallway of Jongin's apartment complex, a new list of things tacked to the door, when there is a loud thump from the other side and it's opening wide. Jongin stands there, face pale as death and eyes wide with fear.

"It's okay," Chanyeol says, trying to put comfort around the lie. It's not okay, but they'll make it okay. "It's okay, we'll find him."

Somehow, as if a switch has been tripped inside, like just hearing another person speak, has Jongin wavering, and the next moment the tears Chanyeol knows he's been trying to hold back spill down his face. "What if-" he begins but Chanyeol stops him, reaching out and grabbing his hand firmly, pulling him into the apartment quickly.

"We'll find him," Chanyeol says, turning Jongin to him once the door is closed and they're safe. Jongin is taking fast frantic gasps, looking up at Chanyeol. "We're going to find him, okay?" Eyes shining as he looks up at him, Jongin just nods. Swallowing a second later, Jongin sets his jaw, taking in a shivering breath before he clears his throat.

"Okay," he says, and nods once.

It takes about seven minutes, Jongin working with him quickly with his face dead set, explaining all the areas locally where Sehun might be. They work out a time schedule, Jongin drawing a hasty map of Baker Hill that he gives to Chanyeol with hands that shake.

"Should we call the police?" Chanyeol asks, and the look on Jongin's face is nothing but a shade from broken.

"I can't call them," Jongin says, shaking his head as his voice wavers. "I can't-"

"Jongin," Chanyeol tries, feeling heavy as his breath sticks in his throat.

"If I call them, they'll call child services, and they'll take Sehun away," Jongin lets out in a rush, his eyes wide. He's shaking, his hands, his voice, his whole body shivering as his eyes shine. "They'll- they'll finally have enough to say it's unsafe for him to be living with me, and they'll take him." He shakes his head fervently when Chanyeol opens his mouth. "I can't lose him, I can't."

This could be serious, and Chanyeol doesn't know what has caused Sehun to go missing, but a part of him knows it might be safer to call the police. At the same time, he knows doing so would break Jongin. It's giving up, giving Sehun up, and Chanyeol can't make him do it.

And there's nothing he can say to make that reality fade.

"I'll meet you back here in thirty minutes," he says instead, and before Jongin can protest, Chanyeol pulls him in for a swift strong hug, feeling him shake with a gasp. Heart pounding, Chanyeol pulls away to leave first, map clutched in his hand.

Somehow, while Chanyeol had first been a bit intimidated by Baker Hill, the occupants and people around here less friendly than the people up in Highland Circle and North of the city, that nervousness is gone. Running between shops, talking to people behind counters and some of the vendors on the street, showing pictures of Sehun he's had on his phone, the wariness is gone. Despite how they may glower, they're helpful, almost all of them recognizing Sehun as 'Kim's boy', but offering no insight as to where he might be.

Returning to the front of Jongin's building, breathless and with his shirt sticking to his skin, Chanyeol finds Jongin already there, looking around nervously and alone. "Nothing?" he asks, voice tight.

"We'll keep looking," Chanyeol tells him, gripping his hand briefly and squeezing, trying to put hope, some of his own confidence in that they'll find Sehun through the gesture. The vague squeeze back has him smiling, the words it's okay flooding him as he looks at Jongin before turning and running back into the streets. It's almost three o'clock now, meaning Sehun has been missing for three hours.

A lot can happen in three hours.

Chanyeol's heart pounds heavier and harder in his chest, barely even offering formalities as he talks to people, meeting familiar names. Mr. Kim, Mr. Choi, Mrs. Meng and Mrs. Lee all finally matching names to faces. It feels like he's wrapping in circles, the same street shop names, the same faces and no Sehun, only the pounding of his heart matching the pounding of his feet on the tarmac as he begins to run.

It's hard to keep up the hope when he keeps looking and Sehun is no where, when checking in with Jongin again has him with a sense of urgency. If they can't find him. . .

"Sehun?" says a young woman, stepping into Chanyeol's conversation with some of the old men outside the grocery market he'd gone to with Sehun. The old men had taken a long time to recall up Sehun, looking up from their game of chess to frown at him.

"Yes," Chanyeol says, feeling both relief and shock rush through him. It turns over his stomach hard enough to make him sick. "Do you know him? He's-"

"Jongin's boy, right?" the woman asks. "I saw Yixing bring him by earlier today and drop him off. What's wrong?"

"We can't find him," Chanyeol says, trying to keep his panic contained, from crawling out of his throat. They'll find him, they'll find him, they-

"He's missing?" the woman asks, and rather than look shocked, she looks confused. "But I just saw him."

"You did?" Chanyeol nearly falls over his own words.

"Yeah," the woman says, before some of the urgency, the worry that Chanyeol feels overrun with, flashes over her face. "I- Jongin is usually working all the time so I thought he'd asked-"

"Where is he?" Chanyeol demands, his voice rough as the woman falters, looking at him in answer to his fears.

"Follow me," is all she says, turning swiftly and grabbing his hand, pulling him along behind her. The sun doesn't reach down the alley she pulls him down, just across the street from the market. For once, Chanyeol can't even speak, any words he might have, asking who this woman is, how she knows Sehun and Jongin, anything all stopped in his chest as he just moves. "How do you know Jongin and Sehun?" the woman asks, glancing back at him.

"I'm a friend," Chanyeol says numbly, barely taking in the back wash of the walls and the trash littered on the ground. Why would Sehun be back here? "I've known him since this spring. Jongin asked me to help."

"Are you the guy that showed Sehun The Swiss Family Robinson?"

Chanyeol almost falters, staring at the woman as she looks at him expectantly. "Yes."

Suddenly, she smiles. "He wouldn't stop talking about how he was going to make a tree house of his own in the park for over an hour, you know that?" she says, and Chanyeol's breath halts in surprise. "If he falls out of a tree next week, it's totally your fault."

"I just want to find him first," Chanyeol says, trying not to let the mixed thought settle too deeply into his mind.

"I wish I'd known, I would have-" she stops herself, shaking her head. "He's with Mr. Han."

"Who?" Chanyeol asks, frowning in confusion as she tugs him along still.

"Jongin's landlord," the woman answers.

It's not often that Chanyeol gets angry. He can usually count the number of times he's been angry in his life on one hand and even then still have a few fingers. While saying I never get angry is always a fool's statement, Chanyeol knows he doesn't like being angry. It's an awful feeling.

Right now though, it's anger that surges through him, burning hot through the numb cold that had been building like ice the longer and longer they looked for Sehun.

"What?"

The woman must notice, and when she turns to him, he can tell she's angry as well, her own face dark. "I thought because he was Jongin's landlord and Jongin might be working, he'd been asked to watch Sehun." She gives a short sort of angry sigh. "I should have known better."

They turn a corner, Chanyeol feeling heat surge as his temper grows with every pound of his heart. The woman with him doesn't even knock as she practically slams her way through a door, startling a man and-

"Sehun," Chanyeol says in a rush, watching as the boy turns to him with wide shocked eyes and dropping the box in his hands.

"Chanyeol?" Sehun asks, sounding a mix of surprised and confused. "What are you doing with Seulgi?"

"Sehun, sweetie," the woman, Seulgi, says, smiling kindly down at Sehun as she walks into the room. The man in the room, who Chanyeol assumes is Mr. Han, stands up, a frown on his face. "I need you to go back with Chanyeol."

"What's going on?" Sehun asks, looking up at her in confusion before he looks over at Chanyeol. As soon as their eyes meet, Sehun inhales sharply. "Is Daddy okay? Is he hurt?"

"He's fine," Chanyeol says, reaching out for Sehun, watching Mr. Han out of the corner of his eye. "He's just worried. We've been looking for you."

"You have?"

"Sehun, go with Chanyeol and go see your dad, okay?" Seulgi says, her eyes now on Mr. Han. The frown on her face is not something Chanyeol wishes to ever have directed at him. Right now, he'd rather stay, ask what the Hell this man was doing with Jongin's son, but it's not what's the most important thing, and Seulgi seems far more intent on having a 'talk' with Mr. Han. "I have to talk to Mr. Han about something."

"But-"

"Go," Seulgi says, looking down at Sehun with a sharp look.

Sehun doesn't say another word, instead scrambling up and over to Chanyeol, looking up at him in worry as Chanyeol hurries them out of the room. Sehun stays silent as Chanyeol picks him up as soon as they're outside, heart hammering in his chest as anger, fear, and relief flood through him, Sehun safe in his arms. A loud sniff from beside his ear has him looking over, catching Sehun with tears rolling silently down his face and his lower lip trembling fiercely.

"What's wrong?" he asks, stopping at watching as Sehun tries to wipe at his eyes, giving little hiccups of breath as he holds onto Chanyeol. "Sehun?"

"Did I do something wrong?" Sehun asks him, his voice wavering as he cries, looking at Chanyeol in worry. "Is Daddy mad at me? Am I in trouble? I only was listening to what Mr. Han said and-"

"Oh Sehun," Chanyeol says, and his voice cracks as he wraps Sehun close, hugging him tight and closing his eyes. Sehun cries, clutching at him as he shakes and whimpers. "You didn't do anything wrong, we were just really scared."

"You were?" Sehun asks, his voice quiet and timid. "But-"

"We didn't know where you were, and we couldn't find you," Chanyeol explains, rubbing small circles on Sehun's back as he walks along the alley, careful and fast as he can. He has Sehun, they found him. Sehun is safe.

For how long? whispers at the back of his mind, and Chanyeol pushes it down, focusing on the here, the now, on Sehun holding onto him and sniffling slightly.

"But Mr. Han said he talked to my dad," Sehun says, his voice quiet and confused. "He said that my daddy couldn't come home until late, that-" he sniffs loudly "-that I shouldn't stay at home alone and that it wasn't safe." Sehun gives another big sniff before finally sitting up a bit, wiping at his face. "Chanyeol."

"Yes?"

"Is Mr. Han in trouble?"

"With me?" Chanyeol asks him, and Sehun licks his lips before biting the bottom and tugging it between his teeth. "Absolutely. With your dad?"

"Daddy?"

"Definitely," Chanyeol tells him and Sehun gives a small hiccup of a giggle. "I'm glad Seulgi found me, we were so worried."

"Were you really looking for me?" Sehun asks, still looking confused. "But I thought-"

"Mr. Han didn't tell you the truth," Chanyeol says, and feels the anger that had abated in his chest flare again as he steps back into the main street, back into the sunlight. "You're not in trouble, Sehun, he is."

"Are you going to call the police?" Sehun asks, his eyes wide as he looks at Chanyeol.

"Maybe," Chanyeol says. He wants to. He wants to do something, to drop Sehun with Jongin and go straight back to Mr. Han and find out exactly what he was doing and make sure it never happens again. He wants-

"Is Daddy okay?"

The concern on Sehun's face has the fire faltering, Chanyeol's anger fading slightly as he looks the boy in his arms. Sehun is safe, he's not hurt, and that's really all that matters. "Yes," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles as best he can. "He's okay, he’s just worried about you."

It's not far from the grocery market to Jongin's apartment, and Chanyeol catches sight of Jongin waiting outside, looking anxious as he looks around, clearly searching for a sign of Chanyeol. He turns, head whipping to the side when Chanyeol calls his name and watches as Jongin's steps falter, recognition and relief crashing into him. "Go get him," Chanyeol tells Sehun, putting him down and smiling as he watches Sehun sprint to his father with a loud yell and leap into Jongin's arms.

Jongin has his face buried into Sehun's neck, just holding his son as close to him as he can when Chanyeol walks up to them. Chanyeol knows he's trying not to cry, hiding himself and can hear him murmuring into Sehun. "You're here, you're okay, you're safe, you're here," repeats until Chanyeol feels like his heart is breaking through his chest.

"It's okay, Daddy," Sehun is saying, patting Jongin on the head gently as he holds onto his father. "I'm okay, I'm sorry."

"He was with Mr. Han," Chanyeol says, watching as Jongin pulls away, face dry, but the emotion and very clear fear still in his eyes. "I ran into a woman named Seulgi who had seen him. She's still with Han."

Jongin looks at him, breathless and his eyes flashing through thoughts and emotions as Sehun turns to look at him. "What were you doing with Mr. Han?" Jongin asks, turning back to Sehun. "I thought we talked about you staying at home with Yixing after he picked you up?"

"Mr. Han said he'd watch me so Yixing could go get work done," Sehun tells his father, his voice tiny as he looks at Jongin apologetically. "He said it wasn't a problem and we could play chess and that you could talk to him later about it."

Stiffening, Chanyeol tries to keep from curling his hands into fists, swallowing down the fresh surge of anger. Face darkening, Jongin frowns, turning to look at the pawn shop beside them, the first floor of the building he and Sehun live in. "But-" Something dark passes over it before he closes his eyes, shaking his head and letting out a sigh. "It's okay," he says.

Chanyeol wants to yell 'no it isn't,' but knows now is not the time. This isn't his battle, even if his nerves are still shivering and he can still feel his heart pounding faster in his chest.

"But-"

"You're safe now," Jongin says, cutting off his son, and pulls him closer to press a soft kiss to Sehun's hair. "That's all that matters." There is more, so much more, that Jongin wants to say. It’s flickering in his eyes when he opens them again, glancing at Chanyeol. They stay silent, Jongin with his mouth pressed closed as he carries Sehun into the apartment building, up to their flat, and Sehun for once is completely quiet, his head resting on Jongin's shoulder.

The apartment looks untouched, not as clean as Chanyeol has seen it before, but thankfully Jongin doesn't apologize for it this time. Instead, he turns to Chanyeol as soon as Sehun is inside and has Chanyeol faltering as he takes his hand.

"Thank you," Jongin says, voice tight once more as Chanyeol watches his walls crack, the mask of stability that he'd worn with Sehun beginning to crumble.

"Daddy?"

"You," Jongin says, taking a huge breath and Chanyeol watches in numbly as the mask slams back down, covering the raw fear and emotion. He turns from him, looking back at Sehun and putting his hands on his hips. Chanyeol can imagine the look on his face, watching the line of his shoulders and rather than laugh, it just finally seems to pull the release on his own anxiety. "Where is your backpack?"

"I left it at home today, remember?" Sehun says, looking up at his father. "We only had art and reading and math, so I didn't need to bring it and Uncle Xing Zhang took me to lunch when he picked me up."

"You're right, I forgot," Jongin sighs, acting like he's fine, like it hadn't been hours ago that he'd been scared half to death.

It's still there though, it's not gone and Jongin isn't over it yet.

"Do you have to work again today, Daddy?" Sehun asks, looking up at his father as they walk into the apartment. "I know usually you do."

"I called the Center and told them I couldn't come in today," Jongin tells Sehun, bustling him into the apartment. Chanyeol steps to follow them before a knock sounds on the door behind him. "They told me to say hi to you."

"Hi Center!" Sehun yells as Chanyeol turns to open the door carefully.

"I swear, I'm not the cops," says a familiar voice and Chanyeol lets out a breath as he sees Seulgi, the woman from before, standing in the hall with a sheepish smile. "Hi."

"Thank you," Chanyeol says, opening the door fully. "For earlier."

"I should have stopped them when I saw them earlier," Seulgi says, her face still holding lines of anger and frustration. "I talked to Mr. Han. Well," she pauses, letting out a huff. "Talked is a bit of an understatement."

"Discussed?"

"Threatened," Seulgi says. "’Verbally intimidated to not pull that sort of shit again’ I think might be more fitting for what happened."

Somehow, it makes Chanyeol feel a bit better, that even if he wasn't the one telling someone off for the panic that Jongin (and himself) just went through, at least someone did. It takes a second before he realizes that he's calmer, reassured to know that Jongin isn't alone. He's heard of other people in Jongin's life before, mostly through Sehun talking about 'Uncle Xing Zhang' and 'Uncle Taemin' but this is the first time he's actually seen someone else there for him.

"Do you want to come in?" Chanyeol asks, stepping aside. "I'm sure Jongin would want to see you."

"I'm surprised he's home," Seulgi sighs. Catching Chanyeol's look, she offers a small smile. "Surprised, and relieved. I feel like he's never home these days."

Chanyeol isn't really sure how to answer that. It’s hard to determine if it means Jongin is making time to spend with him, or if he's becoming one of the burdens Jongin shoulders in his daily life. Seulgi doesn't seem to need him to answer, stepping past him into the apartment and calling for Jongin. In the living room, Chanyeol can hear Jongin's surprised greeting and Sehun's excited yell of 'Auntie!' as he pulls the door closed.

Sehun is safe. Sehun is home, alive and unharmed. What stays with Chanyeol though is that this could happen again, that it's not unlikely that Sehun probably comes home alone more often than not, that not only is Jongin juggling his schedules, but his friends are too.

This could happen again, whispers at the back of his mind, and it makes it hard to walk into the living room again.

He's scared, he realizes, not for himself, but for Sehun. It’s a greater fear for Jongin if he loses Sehun. If something were to happen.

"Hey," pulls him from his thoughts, startling the slowly downward wind as he stands just inside the door. Jongin almost looks timid, stepping in the hall as the sounds of Seulgi and Sehun chattering together drifts through the air. It's like being thrown back in time, back to when Jongin stood in Chanyeol's living room with tears pouring down his face, afraid to even look up at him. The want to reach out and hold him, to smooth away that apprehension is stronger now, and he watches Jongin swallow as he steps closer.

"It's okay," Chanyeol says, the words thick on his tongue. "He's safe."

A short stuttering breath is all the warning Chanyeol has before the mask begins to shatter. Jongin has said it before, how somehow it's different with Chanyeol, how he can't keep it together around him, but this is the first time Chanyeol has really seen it. It's the first time he watches as Jongin's walls come crashing down, the feigned composure replaced by the overwhelming fear, insecurity, worry, and relief that all seem to flood through him, pouring out of him as he chokes back the sounds of sobs that wet down his face. It's like watching the pieces of his own heart crack, splinter as they fight to hold together, to keep up for the man before him.

When Chanyeol reaches for him, Jongin doesn't even resist, instead catching into Chanyeol's arms and slipping into him, pressing his face into Chanyeol's shoulder with his hands coming up to hold on tight around his shoulders. Cradling broken sobs, Chanyeol holds them both together, eyes closed and breathing in, letting Jongin cry for both of them in fear, in torment, and in relief.

"I'm sorry," Jongin says, and Chanyeol just closes his eyes tighter, breathing him in, breathing in after the storm. "I'm sorry for calling you at work when you were busy, but-"

"I'm glad you called me," Chanyeol tells him, tightening his arms around Jongin, wishing that his arms could protect him from everything in the world. Jongin's hands clench, fingers twisting the fabric of Chanyeol's shirt. "I told you that you could call me for anything, right?" Jongin lets out a shuddering wet breath. "At least this way, I can stop worrying that I won't hear from you if something is wrong. And I was right, wasn't I?" Pulling back, Jongin looks up at him with red rimmed eyes and a confused tilt to his lips. "We found him, just like I promised."

The laugh that breaks from Jongin's throat is struggling to be happy, but finally some of the pain, the fear that clung to him, fades away as he calms down. "You found him," Jongin half whispers, sniffing softly. "His guardian angel."

"I told you he was right about me," Chanyeol teases gently. Jongin laughs, short and halting mixed with the remnant of sobs and he doesn't resist as Chanyeol pulls him back. Even as his heart aches, eyes closing as he just lets Jongin rest against him, taking gasps of calming breaths, Chanyeol can't help but feel a sort of happiness.

It wasn't how Chanyeol could have envisioned it, but Jongin had called him, him, when he needed help. A month ago, that never would have happened, and something in that makes Chanyeol smile.

"It's going to be okay," Chanyeol murmurs to the man in his arms, running a hand soothingly up and down Jongin's back to calm him. "Things are going to be okay."

"You know," Jongin says thickly, his breaths finally returning to normal even as his hands still hold on. "I'm beginning to believe you when you say that."

"That's because I'm right," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles as best he can when Jongin pulls away this time. Jongin lets out a soft sort of hiccuping laugh as Chanyeol reaches up to brush the wet tracks of tears from his face, wiping away the pain and the sadness from Jongin's tired face. "You should learn to trust me by now."

"I do trust you," Jongin says, and stills, eyes slowly rising to meet Chanyeol's. There is no hesitancy in them, no lie, no wavering conflict. "I trust you."

"Good," Chanyeol says, and smiles, even as his chest fills too thick, threatening to spill. He smiles even as his fingers linger wet from Jongin's tears and his hands still shake from the fear of losing Sehun that is still carved into him. He smiles as the sounds of Sehun and Seulgi laughing drift over to them from the living room because Jongin is here. There isn't the worry this time, where Chanyeol's thoughts linger that Jongin doesn't want him here, that he's making it worse. "It's about time."

There may have been times before this, where Chanyeol didn't even realize it himself how uncertain things were, how he didn't know if Jongin would push him away or let him stay. All the times when it wasn't clear to him if his presence was good or was making things harder for Jongin, another worry on his mind and another stress line in his skin. Now, as Chanyeol looks at Jongin's face, listening to him taking soft recovering breaths as the panic of an hour ago fades into a memory, he realizes that this will not change.

Chanyeol isn't going to leave, not unless Jongin asks him to. There isn't a part of his world where Jongin doesn't exist, where Sehun can't fit and doesn't take up a corner of his heart. There isn't a future that Chanyeol can see where he isn't there, where he doesn't have Jongin written into his thoughts and dreams, where he isn't sure about wanting to be here, with them.

This is where he wants to be, where he needs to be, and that isn't going to change any time soon. It's not scary, or surprising, like Chanyeol has always imagined this intensity to feel like, but it's more like resurfacing after a long time underwater. It's taking a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding back, and the feeling in his chest isn't too big anymore.

It's just the right size, where Jongin and Sehun fit.

"Do you need to go back to work," Jongin asks, his voice catching as he sniffs slightly. "I know you left early and-"

"Work would almost be over by now anyway," Chanyeol tells him. "They don't need me, and I can spare an afternoon to make sure you and Sehun are okay."

"Good," Jongin says, the urgency gone from his eyes. His breathing doesn't shake as much, and when he closes his eyes and breathes out again, it's smooth. "That's good." The smile he gives Chanyeol is shaky still, but it isn't guarded. "Thank you," he says again. "I don't know- I'm glad you were here."

"I'll always be here," Chanyeol tells him, and Jongin doesn't pull away when he reaches for him. There isn't any resistance when he twines their fingers together, and Jongin only lets out a soft sigh as Chanyeol reaches up to brush away the last of his tears. "You just let me know, and I'll be here. For you, and for Sehun."

"Sehun's going to start calling you a hero again," Jongin chuckles, wet and cracked but it brightens his face.

"I never did get to hear him call me a hero," Chanyeol muses, resting his hand against Jongin's face, carefully running his thumb at the corner of his cheek, softening the sadness from him. "This will be a new thing for me. I kind of like it." Jongin's gentle laugh brushes against the inside of his arm and Chanyeol smiles as he leans in ever so slightly to his touch.

"I'll have to tell him to watch it around you," Jongin says with a quirk of his lips. "And I'll have to talk to Mr. Han," he adds, voice lowering.

"I'm pretty sure Seulgi already did that," Chanyeol says, holding back a frown.

"But it won't mean anything if I don't confront him," Jongin sighs, and reaches up to take Chanyeol's hand from his face, holding it tightly before dropping it. "Sehun is my son, and he's not going to only listen to Seulgi."

"We should have called the police," Chanyeol says, the lingering burn at the back of his throat rising again. "We-"

"No," Jongin says, shaking his head and stepping back. "We found him, and I'll talk to Mr. Han, and I'll- I'll figure out a way to make sure this never happens again. Sehun shouldn't be coming home after school like this anyway." He swallows, eyes closing for a moment. "I never wanted him to come home to an empty house."

A soft flicker alights in Chanyeol's chest, and the soft sigh from Jongin as he brushes his hair from his face makes it grow. "What if he doesn't have to?"

"I can't ask Seulgi and Yixing to-"

"What if he stays with me?" Chanyeol asks, and Jongin's words falter as his mouth opens in astonishment, eyes widening. "I mean it," Chanyeol says, the thought grown into his head to something he won't give up. "I can easily pick him up after work. I usually would leave work early anyway, I'm done before three, and then I can watch him before you get off work."

"But-"

"I wouldn’t offer if I didn't want to do this," Chanyeol reassures him. "And I bet Sehun would love it. Coming over a few hours every day to play works great. In the worst case scenario, I'll ask Junmyeon to take work home. He probably won't mind."

"I-" Jongin's voice falters, still looking too thrown, worn from the day's excitement and the exhausting torrent of emotions that he just let through. "I'll think about it."

Seulgi smiles as she passes Chanyeol on her way out, Jongin already back in the living room, his face dry from tears and smiling as Sehun calls for him. "Thank you," Chanyeol tells her, catching her wrist as she makes to leave.

"For what?" she asks, and then smiles almost teasingly. "You're not the only one who cares about them." The look she gives him almost suggests that she knows who he is. "But I'm glad you were here today, and I'm glad you caught me." Glancing back into the apartment, her smile widens. "I'm glad he has you."

"Sehun?"

"Both of them," Seulgi says, and winks. "I hope to see you again, Chanyeol."

It isn't until he's sitting down on the floor with Sehun in the living room that Chanyeol realizes he never told Seulgi his name. It makes his head spin, questions of how she knew spinning too fast for him to follow, wondering if it was Sehun who told her, or Jongin. Of course, he doesn't get to dwell on it for long before Sehun is jumping on him, tackling him to the floor in a loud excited yell.

"Can I really?" Sehun asks, breathless with a massive grin. "Can I really come over after school and see you?"

"Well, if your dad says it's okay," Chanyeol answers, eyes wide and laughing a bit in surprise at Sehun's enthusiasm. "I think it'd be fun."

"Daddy!" Sehun yells, rolling off of Chanyeol enough to just sit on him, facing his father. "Daddy, I have to go and stay with Chanyeol after school! I love spending time with Chanyeol and we can play games and practice chess and I can use my garden and please say yes, Daddy, please, please!" Jongin is fighting to keep a straight face, his eyes flickering to Chanyeol for a moment as Sehun almost writhes on Chanyeol's abdomen.

"Well..." Jongin begins.

"I already told you I'm happy to do it," Chanyeol reminds him. "All the more time I get to have with Sehun and keep him to myself." Sehun shrieks into laughter as Chanyeol sits up quickly and wrangles him into his arms, trapping him to his chest as the boy giggles loudly, his eyes still on his father.

"Daddy," Sehun almost whines and Jongin bites his lip, feigning disapproval. "Daddy, I have to go see Chanyeol after school or I'll die."

"You're not going to die, Sehun," Jongin says, bordering on exasperated but he smiles anyway, laughter seeping into his voice.

"Well, maybe not die but almost!" Sehun protests, clutching onto Chanyeol's hands around him. "Please? Please!"

The long sigh Jongin lets out seems to last forever, as he looks at Sehun and his eyes flicker up to Chanyeol's one last time, and for the first time, Chanyeol can see the hope in them. "Okay," Jongin says, and his eyes begin to dance as he smiles.

*

Initially, the prospect of leaving work after lunch had been more intimidating after Chanyeol said he could. It had seemed easy, when Sehun had been a room away and Jongin looking fragile and shaky in front of him. As the weekend rolled on though, and Chanyeol spent one day at the library and the other out with Han and Baekhyun, he'd realized how much this might be asking. While he knows it's possible, watching Boa take part time and stay part time in the office when she'd come back from her maternity leave last year, the prospect that the supervisors will be as understanding with Chanyeol might be less of a possibility.

"I don't see why not," Junmyeon says that morning when Chanyeol steps into his office. "You always submit your work before lunch anyway, and usually do catch up in the afternoons."

"I just know it's a special circumstance," Chanyeol says, trying to keep from pushing his hands into his pants pockets to wipe the sweat off. "Especially with us from the editing department."

"Well, the truth is I can't let you go earlier than three," Junmyeon explains, finally turning to him fully and dropping his notebook of the latest edition draft on the desk. "Mostly because that's when I'll need you to check in with the writers, like Hoseok and Seokjin to make sure they're on target."

"But after that?" Chanyeol swallows down his nervous excitement. He didn't want to come back with a negative reply to Jongin, but it feels almost like he's being handed a golden ticket with Junmyeon right now.

"You can head out," Junmyeon says, and smiles. "I could actually use you this way."

"Use me?"

"I'm taking one of your last submissions to the heads," Junmyeon explains, and Chanyeol feels a part of his heart lurch. "The last edition about children's cooking and opening up a kid's cooking section in Everyday Cuisine to appeal to a greater audience."

"Really?" Chanyeol asks, half in disbelief.

"I told you, I think your ideas are great, they just need a little push." Junmyeon smiles at him behind his square framed glasses. "And consider your two hours out early to be research time. Finding stuff to add to the proposal. I figure it'll be more productive than you throwing caramels at Jongdae or having Hoseok come and bother you for tips on writing and dating."

Laughing softly, Chanyeol shakes his head, the apprehension finally fading from his chest. "He doesn't come to ask me for advice with dating."

"Really?" Junmyeon says, sounding surprised. "Well, regardless, it'll be better use of his time to not come up and bother you during his afternoon intern hours." Junmyeon smiles, picking up the draft folder once more, signifying the end of the conversation. "And Chanyeol?" he adds as Chanyeol turns to leave. "Good luck," Junmyeon finishes with a smile.

"Thank you," Chanyeol says, as sincerely as he can, and smiling as it feels like things begin to lock into place.

*

The first day that Jongin and Chanyeol agree on for Chanyeol to watch Sehun is pouring rain. It has Chanyeol waiting under a huge umbrella in the chilly September rain for Sehun's bus to drop him off. He's been labeled, according to Jongin who called during his morning break to explain to Chanyeol the typical procedure. Sehun had been labeled with the correct bus to take with it pinned to his backpack to make sure he didn't forget and his teachers knew. He would arrive around the same time as Chanyeol would get home, hopping off the bus about three blocks from Chanyeol's apartment.

Despite how many times Chanyeol told Jongin it would be fine, Jongin kept repeating the instructions, his nervousness showing through.

"Jongin," Chanyeol had said when Jongin repeated the arrangements for pick up for the fourth time. "It's going to be fine. I'll see you at six."

When the bus comes, the headlights blazing through the downpour, Chanyeol smiles and waves, watching as it slowly comes to a halt and the doors open. Sehun is wearing a full yellow rain coat when he hops off the bus, his backpack tucked under the jacket to keep it dry.

"I made it!" Sehun cheerfully informs Chanyeol, grinning up at him as he steps under the umbrella and reaches for his hand.

"You did!" Chanyeol says, happily wrapping his hand around Sehun and pulling him away from the bus stop. "And in such terrible weather. You're very brave."

"I like coming up here," Sehun says, bouncing as they walk back to Chanyeol's apartment and hopping around larger puddles. "There aren't a lot of cars zooming around and I know your house won't leak." Chanyeol swallows, pushing down the ache that comment inspires. "Plus, the kids on that bus don't poke and ask too many questions! I didn't have to bite anyone today!"

"You bite people?" Chanyeol asks, a little surprised and holding back the reprimand that wants to jump from his throat.

"Only if they bite me first," Sehun explains, peering up from under his rain cap. "Or if they try to steal my backpack. But even then it's only in special times that I have to bite them. Daddy says you shouldn't bite anyone unless you really, really have to bite them."

"He's right," Chanyeol confirms, nodding his head and feeling both a mix of ease and also concern. It's strange how those two mix in his chest, battling each other. "You shouldn't bite anyone unless you absolutely have to."

"Absolutely!" Sehun repeats, and laughs, tugging on Chanyeol's hand as he jumps around puddles. "Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely!"

Sehun is still telling Chanyeol about the bus ride when they walk into the apartment building Chanyeol's unit is in, shaking out the umbrella and Sehun physically shaking himself off. "Where did you learn to shake like that?" Chanyeol asks, laughing as Sehun sprays him with a bit of water flung from his coat.

"The dogs at the park," Sehun declares happily, stomping his feet on the matt. "They're really good at getting water off, and it's easier than trying to take your coat off first and then shaking. No water down your shirt!"

"I guess you're right," Chanyeol smiles, tugging Sehun to the elevator.

"Of course I am!" Sehun chirps. "Because I'm Sehun!"

It's not the first time Chanyeol has looked after a kid, more than familiar with it after all his time at the library working with the children's program. Still, there are noticeable difference with Sehun when he stays that afternoon. Sehun talks, just as much as he usually does, but it's less questions and more stories. He takes his shoes off at the door, hangs up all his items, washes his hands immediately, and carefully places his homework on the dining room table. Sehun asks Chanyeol before he uses the bathroom, and waits for Chanyeol to sit down with him before he has a snack of veggies and cheese.

It takes Chanyeol to coax him around the house for him to fully settle in. Despite his talkative nature, Sehun is hesitant still in the house, masking it with an endless stream of conversation. Chanyeol catches him glancing again and again at Chanyeol's balcony, and finally reassures Sehun that he put the gardening kit in the spare room.

At first, Sehun is reluctant to spread newspaper all over the dining room table, but finally jumps up with a happy smile when Chanyeol pulls out a small bag of soil. With the rain lashing against the windows and the inside of the apartment warm against the early fall chill, Sehun and Chanyeol spend most of the afternoon planting small seedlings into the little pots from the kit.

It's pleasant, the soft chatter between them as Chanyeol carefully helps Sehun plant the little seeds for herbs and a few vegetables. It takes Sehun a little time before he consents to planting at all, worried that the plants are going to die with the swiftly approaching winter. Of course, this makes sense regarding where he's grown up and where he calls home, the apartment in Baker Hill anything but insulated.

"So," Sehun says, carefully patting down the soil on another little basil plant. "I can keep them here? And they'll be okay?"

"I promise, you can come and check on them every time you're here," Chanyeol tells him. "So every day after school, you have to check on them. I'll keep an eye on them on the weekends when you're not here."

"I hope I can be here on weekends," Sehun sighs, and his whole form sags a bit before he sits up straight, a faint flush on his cheeks. "Not because I'm using your for your house, like, no. But I like it here."

"Oh?" Chanyeol prompts, recalling the last time Sehun had been here and the subsequent conversation.

"I like spending time with you," Sehun chirps, smiling winningly. "It's fun, and I promise I won't get in the way and I'll help around the house. I'm really good at fixing things, just like Daddy."

"Can you help me fix dinner?" Chanyeol asks, and Sehun gives him a brilliant smile.

It ends up working out perfectly, where Chanyeol can watch Sehun, playing with him and making sure he does his homework, while at the same time do 'research' for his work. Junmyeon had suggested the kids section being hashed out, and Chanyeol almost laughs as Sehun scrambles up onto a stool beside him in the kitchen to help make dinner.

Food for family, healthy, fun, and kid approved.

Of course, there is the constant input from Sehun, who makes faces at some ingredients and smiles at others. It makes cooking a game, more fun than Chanyeol already considers it, somewhere along the line finding it just a monotonous process rather than an adventure with every meal.

"You know," Sehun says, as they wait for the chicken broccoli casserole to cook in the oven. "You're a better cook than Daddy is."

"Really?" Chanyeol asks, raising his eyebrows at Sehun across the table. They're setting each place. Of course, whether Jongin will actually stay for dinner or not is unclear, but it's getting close to pick up time, and Chanyeol can hope he might stay.

"Just don't tell him that," Sehun says, folding a napkin carefully. "But you definitely make better soup than he does."

"Maybe some time I can teach him how to make Chanyeol style soup," Chanyeol suggests, as the doorbell rings.

"Just don't let him know I said anything!" Sehun whispers loudly, scurrying into the living room.

"I promise!" Chanyeol yells with a laugh. He's still laughing when he answers the door to Jongin's waterlogged look of perplexity. "You look like you could use a towel."

"Or a hot bath," Jongin half laughs, stepping inside. He follows the exact same method as Sehun, removing his shoes, hanging up his things, and carefully stepping in the unit.

"You're welcome to-"

"Chanyeol," Jongin says, catching him by the wrist with a small smile. "I was joking."

"You're still welcome to my bathroom," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles at the soft flush he sees on Jongin's cheeks. Whether it's from his comment or the chill outside with the rain, he's not sure, but it still has his smile growing. "You're also welcome to stay for dinner," he adds, leading into the apartment. In the living room, he can see Sehun curled up on the couch with a book tucked in his lap.

"You already made dinner didn't you," Jongin says, and though the expression he throws to Chanyeol is tired, it's not rejecting.

"I can eat the same thing for the next four days, or you can eat dinner with me and Sehun, it's up to you," Chanyeol tells him. "Sehun is already staying because he helped me cook."

"He did?"

"I'm actually kind of sad you have to take him home, I liked having him around here," Chanyeol says, watching as Sehun listens into their conversation keenly from the other room. "I'm going to miss all the help he gave me this afternoon. Are you sure you can't just let me keep him?"

"You can keep me!" Sehun shouts from the other room before Jongin can fully open his mouth. "Just as long as you keep Daddy too!"

"Sehun, are you just going to decide everything for me?" Jongin asks, feigning disapproval as he looks in the living room at his son.

"Well, don't you want to stay with Chanyeol?" Sehun asks, slipping off the couch to patter over to them. "Plus, my seed babies are here, and it'll be easier to check on them and make sure they don't mutate or something."

"That was my first concern too," Chanyeol says very seriously as Sehun slips into his own designated chair at the table. "So, dinner for three?"

"Do I have a choice?" Jongin asks weakly, looking between his son and Chanyeol.

"But I helped make dinner!" Sehun protests. "I want to eat it!"

"I guess that answers my question," Jongin sighs, though he casts a small smile at Chanyeol before he walks to his son.

Listening to them talk in the living room, Sehun chattering about school and his new garden, Chanyeol smiles as he slips back into the kitchen. There's still a few things to prepare for dinner, and considering this is truly the first dinner he's cooked for Jongin and Sehun in his apartment, he'd like to at least do a proper job.

When there's about fifteen minutes left on the casserole in the oven, Chanyeol steps out into the quiet living room and pauses, kitchen towel suspended in his hands as he takes in the scene before him. Sehun is curled up on one end of the couch with a book in his lap, Jongin slumped beside him, clearly asleep. Catching sight of Chanyeol, Sehun carefully closes his book and slips from the couch, padding over to him.

"See?" Sehun says in a whisper when he reaches Chanyeol, pointing to his father. "He sleeps better when you're around."

"Are you sure he just doesn't like my couch?" Chanyeol asks in a hushed voice.

"Nah," Sehun says in a hushed giggle. "Definitely you. Though your couch is also awesome." Sehun sighs as he looks over at his father. "He really does like when you're here."

"In my own house?"

"No," Sehun says, and looks at him in abject exasperation. "I mean, with us. He likes you."

"Well," Chanyeol says, pushing down the immediate response that statement rises in his chest. "I like him too, and you."

"Yeah, but with me it’s not, like, in the way that you're gonna marry me," Sehun tells him, scrunching up his nose as he tries to explain. "That would be weird. But for Daddy..." Sehun trails off, and Chanyeol just breathes, watching him. "I just wish it could always be like this, like-" he takes in a huge breath "-Daddy wouldn't have to come and pick me up because he'd just be coming home. We'd already be home when he got here because-"

"Do you want this to be your home?" Chanyeol asks, and keeps his voice as even as he can. That world, the world where Sehun and Jongin are safe, under his roof, where it's a home. "You like this place that much-"

"No, I mean with you, silly!" Sehun almost yelps, but catches himself at the last moment. Biting his lip, he looks back at his father with minute conflict on his face, unable to decide how to explain. "I just want us to be a family. And so does Daddy."

The feeling of his heart is hard in his chest, stuck amid the emotions he can't let leak into his voice. Sehun is too young to truly understand, but a part of Chanyeol wonders if it could happen. If Jongin really...

"Well," Chanyeol says, reaching out and ruffling Sehun's hair. "We can't make any decisions about who lives where unless we eat dinner. No big decisions on empty tummies."

"But my Daddy-"

"My house, my rules," Chanyeol interrupts him, smiling around the reality. Jongin has gone without food and had to make big decisions, and Sehun knows. "Think he'll be grouchy if I wake him up?"

"No, he'll just want to apologize," Sehun sighs. "He owes you four kisses." Chanyeol actually drops his kitchen towel, staring at Sehun in shock as the boy grins widely up at him. "For saying 'sorry'. He keeps a tally on the top of the fridge that he thinks I can't see."

"And you can?"

"I got a stool; I'm not dumb," Sehun giggles. "But I'll wake him up because you're nervous."

"Okay," Chanyeol says, and realizes he is, indeed, thrown. As much as he'd begun to notice it, the way Jongin leans into his touches and lets him get closer, he'd hadn't actually thought that Jongin might...

That it wasn't primarily one sided.

The soft sounds of Sehun waking up Jongin drift in from the living room just as the timer for the casserole goes off. Busying himself in the kitchen, Chanyeol pushes all of his rapid shifting thoughts about what this is, what this could be, to the back of his mind. It's not the time to let them run rampant when Jongin sits at his side over dinner and the rain patters outside the windows.

It's not the time. Not yet.

*

If there is one thing Chanyeol has learned about Jongdae in the years he's known him, it's that he's not specifically good at being single right after a relationship. Of course, Chanyeol can't exactly say he's great after a break up, and the only person he can think of who is almost unaffected after a break up is Han. Considering usually Han is always the one leaving his relationships though, Chanyeol can't really say whether he'd do well after being left.

"I literally went out to dinner with you on Sunday," Chanyeol says, leaning back in his chair at work. It's almost lunch, and Jongdae is already antagonizing him to go out later.

"Yeah, but that's just one time I got to see you this week," Jongdae needles at him, pulling a pout that, admittedly, looks cute in his large square glasses.

"You can see me right now."

"You also keep leaving me earlier and earlier and that's definitely less Chanyeol time in my life than I had before." Jongdae's pout is growing now, as well as the soft whine in his voice. "I don't even have my usual quota anymore."

"Jongdae," Chanyeol says evenly, giving him a pointed look over their desks. "Stop talking about me like I'm a drug."

"But you are a drug."

"And you're acting like a child," Chanyeol tells him. Despite Jongdae's offended scoff and Chanyeol knowing he can't stay at work, that Sehun will be meeting him at the bus stop later, a part of him still gives in. That night is a short night, Jongin picking up Sehun earlier than usual and Chanyeol sighs at his empty apartment before picking up his phone.

Once, his apartment had been just the right size. Now it feels too quiet, too big and too much without Jongin and Sehun's voices filling it up.

"I knew you missed me too," is what Jongdae says gleefully as soon as he picks up.

The cafe is still just as stunning when Chanyeol walks in, the autumnal decorations bringing a soft warmth to it. The new artistic writing with fall leaves and artwork on the menus has Chanyeol smiling, impressed, as he orders from one of the girls behind the counter. 'Wendy' smiles at him and winks, stepping back to make a drink as Minseok walks out from the back.

"Finally," Minseok says, a pleased surprised smile spreading over his face. "I thought I'd never see you here again, that Han might have scared you off."

"Han?" Chanyeol asks, frowning in question as Minseok steps around the bar to him.

"He wanted to pick up some side work, and incidentally, learn about coffee, so he's here after work with me," Minseok tells him with a sort of tired smile. At Chanyeol's raised look, Minseok laughs and says, "save me?"

It's the kind of remark where Chanyeol can't really tell if Minseok is being serious or not, and doesn't really have a proper answer. He's spared answering though when Minseok asks him why he's here, and Jongdae finally arrives to answer the question.

"We're having brother bonding time," Jongdae states firmly.

"Brother bonding," Chanyeol repeats, gesturing between himself and Jongdae as Minseok stares at them. "To get to know each other, you know? Considering it's our families getting married and we don't know each other and we figured we'd try to make this less awkward."

"You're not funny," Jongdae tells him flatly as Minseok laughs and Wendy hides her own laugh behind one of the espresso machines.

"Minseok thinks I am," Chanyeol says with a pointed look.

"Chanyeol is funny," startles them, Jongdae turning like he's been stung as Han leans into the group. "You just have a terrible sense of humor and only like your own jokes."

Unlike most times, when Chanyeol sees him, Han isn't dressed in his formal and clean cut suit with his hair slicked back, looking the figure of polite manners and soft speaking. Now, Han is wearing one of the usual uniforms from Minseok's staff, black slacks and a white button down, his hair barely styled and he looks-

"You look like a high school student," Jongdae interrupts everyone's thought processes as he stares at Han. "What are you doing in an apron?"

"Do you like it?" Han asks, grinning cheekily at Jongdae.

"Why?"

"Because I value your opinion," Han says, with the half sincerity that makes Chanyeol have a hard time trusting him sometimes. "It's very important to me." He holds a hand carefully over his chest, right over his heart.

"Bull shit," Jongdae scoffs. "Seriously, why are you dressed like a Coffee Prince?"

"To serve you."

"Seriously," Minseok mutters, leaning into Chanyeol's side. "Save me."

"I don't think a straight jacket could restrain Han from doing what he wants," Chanyeol murmurs, watching as Han and Jongdae start in on their favorite activity together: arguing.

"You might be surprised," Minseok murmurs, rubbing at his lips as he watches the other two bicker. "So," he says, sighing and turning to Chanyeol. "Did you order? Or can I get you something?"

"Wendy is taking care of me," Chanyeol says with a smile at the barista who gives him a bright grin. "I'll just take a seat for a bit and wait for Jongdae to find his way over to me."

It ends up that all four of them, Han, Jongdae, Minseok, and Chanyeol end up at a table together. Minseok takes time away from the counter, leaving Wendy and the other barista to take care of the bar while he visits. "I haven't seen you in a while," is his explanation as he sits down with a smile.

"None of us have," Han adds, propping his feet up on the table in front of them and earning a glare from Minseok. "What have you been up to? Finally finding someone to live in that apartment with you?" Chanyeol's stomach turns gently, though nothing like it used to, and it's easy to laugh.

"If you're looking to move into that spare bedroom, the answer is still no," Chanyeol tells him, taking a sip of his autumn latte. It's warm, spiced with gentle warm hints of cinnamon and cardamon. "Compromise with Victoria to give you the bigger room."

Han grimaces, retracting his feet from the table when Minseok smacks his shins. "I'd like to keep my hands, thanks," Han grumbles, slumping down into the chair.

"Shouldn't you be training with Wendy and Yoongi at the bar?" Minseok asks Han, throwing him a pointed look.

"I'm taking a break," Han tells him. "You don't actually pay me," Han reminds and laughs as Minseok seems to sag at the truth.

"Why are you here then?" Jongdae asks.

"I wanted to learn how to make perfect coffee," Han says simply.

"For yourself?"

"For my lovers." Han grins.

Throwing him a slightly disgusted, and somewhat envious look, Jongdae turns from him and looks to Chanyeol. "Anyway-"

"Hey!"

"What I was going to say before is we need to make a schedule," Jongdae finishes, ignoring Han's protest at being exiled from Jongdae's attention.

"A schedule?" Chanyeol repeats, frowning as Jongdae grins at him.

"For what?"

"Well, just setting aside days of the week that we can go out," Jongdae explains.

"Go- what?" Chanyeol frowns at him, not following where Jongdae is going with this and feeling a small knot of unease forming in his gut.

"I mean," Jongdae sighs and looks down at his hands before breathing in, looking up with new shining determination on his face. "We should go out together?"

Staring at him in shock, Chanyeol takes a moment to make sure his jaw isn't hanging open, glancing briefly to Minseok and seeing a matching look of confused shock on his face. "Jongdae," he says slowly, taking in his future brother in law's eager expression. "I hate to break this to you, but-" he reaches out, patting Jongdae on the knee gently. "You're not my type."

"What?" Jongdae says, immediately frowning as Han positively bursts out laughing beside them. "Wha- No! Oh God, no!"

"No?"

"I meant we should double date!" Jongdae corrects, coloring spectacularly and shoving at Han when the other man tries to shake his shoulders, still laughing hideously. "No, seriously, you're going to be my brother."

"I know, that's why I was so shocked," Chanyeol says, as Han apparently tries to calm down and Minseok fights to hide a smile. "This is something new about you, Jongdae, I had never known before."

"You wish you were my type," Jongdae scoffs, and throws him a look.

"No, not really," Chanyeol says nonchalantly. "I don't mean to destroy your ego, but you're definitely not my type."

"So you'll do it?" Jongdae asks, and some of the light in back in his eyes. The knot that had begun in Chanyeol's gut grows, and he knows this won't be easy to back out of. It's not that Chanyeol is bad at saying no to people, but it's more that he's bad at saying no to people he cares about. The issue is that usually pertains to a large number of people, and his family, or soon to be family, are very hard for him to refuse.

"Do what?" Chanyeol hedges, wrapping his hands tighter around his coffee cup, letting the warmth seep comfortingly into his palms.

"Double dates," Jongdae says happily. Beside him, Han is looking far less happy with the topic and Minseok is frowning.

"Jongdae," Minseok begins, and puts a hand on Han's knee to stop him from interrupting. "I'm not so sure this is a good idea."

"Why?" Jongdae asks, sitting back. "We both need to get dates for the wedding next spring, and it would be fun. Plus, we're the last bachelors, so we might as well stick together."

"And what am I?" Han scoffs, poking Jongdae in the shoulder. "Dried meat?"

"Yes," Jongdae tells him flatly.

"That's cold," Han says, wincing and once more placing his hand gingerly over his heart. "I'm hurt, Jongdae. So hurt. Stabbed right in the heart."

"Okay," Jongdae says, completely ignoring Han's antics and grinning when Han frowns at him in frustration. It's welcome though, the constant distraction from Han letting Chanyeol try to think of something, a way at how he can say 'no' without explaining why.

It's been months now, and Chanyeol doesn't want to go on dates. He doesn't want to go out with Jongdae and meet people to date, to spend evenings with someone when he already has a person he wants to spend time with.

Whether or not Jongin wants to be what Chanyeol imagines and wonders about isn't important, it's that Chanyeol knows going out and meeting other people isn't fair. It's not fair to himself, to the other person, and it's not fair to Jongin.

A part of him wishes Jongdae would just give this up, like he had pestering Chanyeol for information on his ‘new friend’, but he knows Jongdae probably won’t. Jongdae is lonely, his brother moved out officially and with no girlfriend. . .

"-and get a cat and then stop badgering other people to go and set you up on dates," Han is saying, plucking at Jongdae's shirt sleeve. "Then you can snuggle with Mrs. Tabatha Twitchet on date night and show everyone pictures of a cute cat instead of some random girl on your phone all the time. I guarantee you, most people are more interested in kitties than they are-"

"I am not going to get a cat in substitute for a real live person!" Jongdae protests loudly, finally letting Han get to him. "I'm not that pathetic."

"Almost," Han teases.

"I hope you die alone," Jongdae grumbles and snaps with a loud annoyed yelp when Han tries to lean over him again. "I will pour water on you."

"I've tried that, it does nothing," Minseok sighs, looking between Han and Jongdae, his eyes lingering on Chanyeol. "Why not ask Baekhyun to go out with you on double dates instead?" Minseok proposes.

"But Chanyeol-"

"Is busy," Minseok interrupts before Chanyeol can answer for himself. It has him staring, mouth half open as Minseok flashes him a quick look before turning back to a shocked Jongdae. "He's already said no before and his schedule is different than yours. Have you thought about what he might want to do on dates rather than what your ideas are?"

"What are you-?" Jongdae looks confused, slightly hurt as he glances at Chanyeol. Then, like something has finally clicked in his head, his eyes widen and he lets out a soft sound. "But I thought-"

"Don't think," Minseok tells him firmly.

"Bad things happen when you do," Han adds unhelpfully and Minseok hisses sharply and smacks him on the leg. Hard.

It's not common that this topic comes up. While Chanyeol's friends are all relatively open about themselves, it's not a topic that Chanyeol often jumps on. While Baekhyun may talk about the dates he's had, the women he meets in clubs and the few men he ends up home with, and while Han generally has a policy of ‘everything okie dokie’, Chanyeol doesn't like to broadcast it about himself. The only people who really know were those that knew him in university, like Minseok, Junmyeon and Baekhyun.

Jongdae hasn't known him as long, and hadn't been around when it was something he struggle with. Jongdae hasn't really been prone to that subject of his life, and Chanyeol has a hard time bringing it up.

Just like with his parents.

Maybe it's because family means more, and Jongdae has somehow always been more in the family category with how Jongdeok has been with Yura for as long as Chanyeol has known Jongdae.

"We-" Jongdae falters. "This was a bad idea," he finishes finally, and looks nothing but apologetic towards Chanyeol.

"Yeah," Chanyeol says honestly. "But you were so excited about it-"

"You could have told me to stop," Jongdae says, looking apologetic and worried now.

"Jongdae," Minseok says with a soft laugh. "Let's face it, there aren't many who can get you to stop when you get invested in something. You're too stubborn."

"I find it an admirable quality in you," Han comments and grins when Jongdae sighs loudly at him. "I'm being entirely honest with you."

"Sure," Jongdae scoffs at him.

"I'll go double dating with you," Han suggests with a glance in Chanyeol's direction. "What other couple were you thinking of asking to go with us?"

"I-" Jongdae gapes at Han's grinning face, cheeks slightly flushed and Minseok snorts softly into laughter beside Chanyeol. "That's not funny." Han continues to grin. "Asshole."

"You need another coffee," Minseok suggests, tapping Chanyeol's wrist with a pointed look at his empty mug.

"I shouldn't have more caffeine," Chanyeol says, but still stands up. "What else would you recommend?" he continues, stepping away from Jongdae as he and Han argue over if Jongdae should ask Baekhyun to double date with him.

"Something mild then," Minseok says, and slips behind the counter, nodding to Wendy as she steps aside for him. "I'm sorry about-" he nods over to Jongdae with a sympathetic look.

"He's just-" Chanyeol begins, trying to find the best words.

"Thick," Minseok finishes for him. "Stubborn and thick headed." He lets out a long sigh. "Sometimes I wonder if working so close with Junmyeon is healthy for his already stubborn attitude. The two of them are as stubborn as they come."

"I know someone worse," Chanyeol chuckles, mind immediately flashing to Jongin's resistant looks and stubbornness, his lower lip pushed out. It eases the knot in his belly, letting some of the tension release from before. Perhaps Jongdae will let up on him now, back off from the whole thing and let him alone.

"I can't imagine," Minseok sighs, and steps back to sift through the tins of tea he has. "Someone worse than Jongdae? They must be a bear to deal with."

"He's not," Chanyeol says, and shocks himself with how the words just simply leave him. It's not guarded, and Chanyeol finds himself stilling as he realizes how calm he is, how he doesn't feel fiercely protective and worried. He just feels balanced. It's okay. "He's wonderful, actually."

A part of him knows this might be too soon, that he shouldn't talk about Jongin, but another part, the part that settles just behind his heart, whispers calmly it's time and breathes out with him.

"He is?" Minseok asks, and his voice is quiet, tentative.

Breathing in deep as he turns to Minseok, Chanyeol finds himself smiling slowly. It's not a big smile, not like the one Yura had when she told him she was dating Jongdeok, but it is a smile that stretches through all of him. "Yeah," Chanyeol says. Some of that nervousness, the suspense just before the drop is there as he looks at Minseok.

If there were anyone he could tell, it would be Minseok. All secrets are safe with him, and he doesn't judge, just holding people's information quietly until they're comfortable with seeing it in the open.

Minseok had been the one Chanyeol had told about his problems in university, and it feels no different now.

Minseok is watching him, patient and silent, waiting.

"I've found someone," Chanyeol says, and Minseok's eyes widen minutely.

"Oh?" Minseok says, cocking his head to the side in inquisitive shock but none of the loud blatant response Chanyeol fears from the others. "You have?"

"Yeah," Chanyeol says, and rather than a drop, it's like being swept out to sea. The soft rush away as his breath supports him when it releases and he's not hiding from the waves any longer. "It's not serious, but-"

"But you like him enough to definitely not want to go on double dates with Jongdae," Minseok finishes, easier and simpler than Chanyeol could manage.

It has him laughing slightly, feeling calmer now that it's out, that he doesn't have to explain it. It's just enough, and even if it's only Minseok, it takes some of the weight off. "It's probably not fair to the other person I'm trying to date if I'm already-"

"In love," Minseok finishes, and smiles when he catches the look on his face. "You always were terrible at hiding how you feel when you're being honest."

"I'm-"

Chanyeol hasn't called it that, and inside screams too soon even if the words feel right against his ears.

"I can't say I'm not surprised," Minseok says, sighing and fixing a cup of tea for Chanyeol. Glancing over where Han and Jongdae are talking quietly now, Jongdae seeming to have calmed down and Han with a perpetual soft smile, Minseok's own smile softens. "Because you kept this one very quiet."

"Not everyone is Jongdae," Chanyeol says, accepting the tea thankfully.

"No," Minseok says, and glances to him with a crook to his smile. "Thank goodness."

"I heard that," Jongdae snaps, twisting around in his chair to frown at the two of them. Rejoining the group, Chanyeol knows Minseok won't say anything, and it's more comfortable. The knot that had started in his gut is gone, and some of the tension he hadn't been aware he'd been let wind over his shoulders and down his back loosens with every laugh from Han, every smile from Minseok, and every chuckle from Jongdae.

They don't ask, and Chanyeol doesn't need to tell them, but there is some security now he hadn't had before that at some point, he can.

*

There is something about the fall weather that always ends up in rainstorms. It's not the same as the spring showers or some of the thunderstorms that roll over them in summer. These are the remnants of the hurricanes that blast from the south, lasting for days of rain that lashes against the streets, the buildings, with wind shaking the windows and whipping under umbrellas. These are the storms that have power outages flickering over parts of the city, and have flood warnings flashing on the notification bar of Chanyeol's phone when he's halfway through work.

It's nothing to really worry about. Long ago Chanyeol learned that water couldn't hurt him, whether from rain or falling into rivers as a kid. It could be scary, but overall storms don't frighten him much, not like others he knows. There are other things to be afraid of, and a thunderstorm isn't going to keep him from going about his day.

It is a good day anyway.

After work, it's only a fifteen minute drive from Everyday Cuisine through the Downtown area and then another few to get parking before he can spend an evening with Jongin and Sehun. About a week ago, Jongin's schedule had shifted and he'd been able to take Thursday's off earlier. It makes Thursday all the more of a good day. It's a soft ending to the last half of the week, and where he can stay a bit later at work to help out Hoseok and Jongdae on last minute work. It’s a nice welcome after a long week to see Jongin, when he'll have him, and Sehun.

It's been a while, but Chanyeol doesn't miss the nights of going out, of having no plans. This is a much better schedule, where he smiles at the idea of leaving work rather than staying late as the office empties. Now, he's almost running out the door, heart pounding for faster, faster, faster! as he goes.

Tonight, they were going to try to go to the park for a picnic dinner. Looking at the rain lashing against the windows and the dark skies, Chanyeol figures he'll pick up dinner instead, maybe coaxing Sehun to help him cook again. While Jongin's kitchen is only large enough for one person really, somehow it's more fun to get them all crammed in and laughing.

"I swear, I don't know how you and Hoseok do it," Jongdae lets out in a sigh as he returns from getting his second cup of coffee that afternoon. He's been more subdued lately, ever since the evening at Minseok's cafe. It's almost like he's not sure what to ask Chanyeol about now, but is trying still to shove into all the spaces he's not sure if he should be or not.

"Do what?"

"Get so happy when it looks like that outside," Jongdae sighs, looking out at the rain whipping against the windows of the floor. "I am not looking forward to going home in that."

"Well, you could have to walk home in it," Chanyeol prompts, sitting back. He's mostly done with his work for the day, just puttering around in his emails and sending Heechul whatever articles about cats that come up on his feed. "Consider that."

"I take the train," Jongdae almost pouts. "That's pretty much walking home."

"Except not," Chanyeol points out. "Besides, the earth needs it. What would this place be like without rain?"

"Not wet," Jongdae says flatly.

"It could rain on the weekend," Chanyeol points out and Jongdae almost rolls his eyes at him. "Speaking of which, did you finally end up with plans?"

"Are you offering?" Jongdae prompts, almost looking hopeful before he gives a small shake of the head. "I'm doing stuff with Junmyeon. His girlfriend ended up asking a friend of hers to come along." He gives a hesitant smile. "We're going apple picking."

"How adorable," Chanyeol drawls, grinning as Jongdae lets out a long sigh. "What? I thought you wanted this whole double date thing with people?"

"I do," Jongdae protests, and frowns as he stares listlessly at Chanyeol's computer screen. "I do." Shaking himself, he turns and glances back out the windows. "I'll just hope we don't have a repeat of this on Saturday."

"I'll be crossing my fingers for you," Chanyeol says, holding up both hands with crossed fingers and grinning at Jongdae.

"Thank you," Jongdae says, almost as if he isn't sure if Chanyeol is being a dick or not. It probably comes from spending more time with Han.

"What else are future brother in laws for?" Chanyeol almost laughs and finally gets a smile from Jongdae.

The weather doesn't let up, rain pouring down as thunder rolls ominously over head. Still, Chanyeol doesn't find his mood to be dampened, laughing as he checks on Hoseok before leaving to find his intern trying to give 'motivational coaching' to his desk partner to little avail. It's one of the few days Chanyeol had driven to work, braving the morning traffic knowing his evening plans and the weather forecast.

Even then, the short walk from the company to his parked car ends up with him half drenched, ducking into his car to see a missed call flashing on his phone. It's from Jongin. Pressing the call button, he gets no answer, the phone ringing out over and over until it goes dead. Frowning, Chanyeol tries again.

By the third time, he sighs before just hanging up. He'll ask Jongin when he sees him in a little bit.

Baker Hill looks half gutted with the rain, the usual street vendors missing and anyone walking around outside hidden under umbrellas. Chanyeol ducks under his own, winding quickly to Jongin's apartment under the rain and feeling rain water sling against his pants. They stick to his legs as he hikes up to Jongin's apartment, half soaked and ducking in the darkened hallway. It's darker than usual, the hall lights in the building off. In the dim light, Chanyeol can just make out another list of things tacked to Jongin's door, half of them crossed off.

The door to Jongin's apartment opens after a few bangs inside and voices to reveal the flushed and flustered face of Jongin. "Oh no," Jongin says, looking dismayed almost immediately.

"Oh no?" Chanyeol repeats, some of the excitement in his chest fading quickly.

"I'm sorry," Jongin says, and Chanyeol's smile falters at the word. Another kiss his thoughts jump at him, but he pushes them down, focusing on Jongin. "I tried to call you, but our power went out and the phone is dead, but-"

"Is everything okay?"

"I-" Jongin lets out a sigh, and Chanyeol can hear Sehun shouting something from the bedroom. "I have to cancel tonight." The apartment is dark, none of the lights on save for a flashing light in the bedroom, probably from Sehun holding a torchlight. "We don't have power, the whole building is out, and-" He sighs, stepping back and running a hand through his hair. "I'm not really in the best shape to have company over." When he looks up, he flashes Chanyeol an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry."

"That's two times, Daddy!" Sehun yells, poking his head out from the bedroom and waving his torchlight, streaking the wall with light. He's wearing his rain coat, the hat snug under his chin. He's soaked. "Two times, two kisses!"

"Sehun," Jongin starts, turning to his son with a disapproving look on his face. "That's not-"

"He's right," Chanyeol says, pushing down the nervous burn in his chest. "That's two kisses. No apologies."

"Not you too," Jongin says, sighing and slumping. "Can I just get a rain check on today? Literally?"

"You're already canceling on me for dinner-" Chanyeol begins as Sehun leans out of the bedroom and his torchlight illuminates the ceiling. Glancing up, Chanyeol can see multiple water lines streaking over the plaster, watching the water that's running down the walls from the ceiling. "Oh."

"Yeah," Jongin says, and winces. He lets out another sigh and shakes his damp hair back from his face.

"Can I help?" Chanyeol asks, frowning as he looks at the state of the apartment. He wants to step inside, to check out what's going on and maybe see what he can do.

Jongin laughs, though the humor is lost in it. "Unless you know how to repair a roof and have an extra window, then probably not."

"You-" Chanyeol's eyes widen, staring at Jongin's resigned expression.

"I'm dealing with it," Jongin says, shaking his head and stepping back. "It's just-"

"Are you safe in here?"

"I can take care of it," Jongin says, but he looks away after only a moment, the confidence leaking from him. "I just can't be good company tonight."

"I don't really care about whether you're good company or not if your house is leaking," Chanyeol tells him, and makes the decision for both of them by stepping into the apartment.

"Shoes on," Jongin says, and Chanyeol raises his eyebrows. Jongin swallows and winces, not meeting Chanyeol's eyes. "I'm not sure if I got all the broken glass in the living room. I don't want you getting hurt."

Sehun is confined to the bedroom, where the cardboard on the windows had kept them from shattering inwards when the wind rattled them too hard. However, the same isn't said for the living room, which has a large broken window near the couch that's clearly still being patched up. There is a camping lamp on the coffee table, making it easier to see, but overall the room looks a wreck. Bowls from the kitchen line the hall and all the rooms for the leaks dripping from the ceiling.

"How long will this take?" Chanyeol asks, frowning as he looks at all the chaos from the storm that has somehow made its way inside.

"A few hours," Jongin says, his hand in his hair, keeping it back from his face. "Maybe more? It's hard to say without the power being back on. But I'd rather it be off than screw up the whole building if the basement floods."

"If the-"

"That happens sometimes," Jongin says with a wan smile. "I can handle it." He drops his hand, stepping back to look at the window, half covered and still letting rain in. "I just need to call work tonight and-"

Chanyeol doesn't let him finish, just pushes his phone into Jongin's hands. "Call," he says, and reaches with his other hand to gently cup around the back of his neck, holding him reassuringly. The ends of Jongin's hair are still wet from the rain water, but he gives Chanyeol a small smile none the less. "I'll go check on Sehun."

Sehun is crouched near the far wall of the bedroom, his torchlight flashing all over the walls when Chanyeol walks in. He flinches when another boom of thunder shakes through the building and squeezes his eyes shut, nose scrunched up.

"Don't like thunder?" Chanyeol asks, walking over to crouch down beside him, folding into himself.

Sehun's lower lip juts out as he pokes at his knees. "I don't really like it when the sky people get angry and have fights," Sehun says in a small voice. Glancing up at Chanyeol, he lets out a big sigh. "I know it's just clouds, but Daddy and I always play when there are storms." He flinches as another crash of thunder flashes through the room. He sniffs. "Now we can't play because the storm broke the house."

"What kind of games do you play?" Chanyeol asks, watching the outline of Sehun as he listens to Jongin talk quietly from the other room. This doesn't seem like any place to spend the night, let alone stay. Broken windows and glass, leaks from the ceiling, the sounds of the storm so close, it's almost as bad as being outside.

"Well," Sehun says, pointing the torchlight to the bed. "We'd always make a big fort on the bed with blankets and pillows and stuff and crawl under it and play that the big sky people were having a war and tell the stories of it. And every time there was thunder-" a sudden crash outside has both Sehun and Chanyeol jumping, and Sehun hiccups a small giggle "- it was because someone fired their cloud canon." Sehun bites his lip. "Or we'd play that they were two people lost in the clouds, and they'd fire big bangs to find each other."

"Then when the storm was over?" Chanyeol asks, leaning a little closer. If Sehun and Jongin stay here, they're probably not going to be able to get dinner, and getting food would be even more of a nightmare.

"It meant they'd found each other again," Sehun says, the smile evident in his soft voice. He sniffs a moment later. "But the bed is wet tonight because the ceiling keeps dripping on it, so we can't really make a fort on it."

"Does you have to be here to make a fort on the bed?" Chanyeol asks. It's not a great solution, as the problems of the apartment will still be here if Jongin and Sehun leave, but staying here overnight sounds like a nightmare. Chanyeol has space, and would never mind having them over.

Sehun turns to him sharply. "No?" he says, and then his eyes light up. "I can do it anywhere. I used to try to play at school, but the teacher didn't like it when I'd climb under the desk and sent me to Mrs. Cho."

"Mrs. who?"

"The guidance lady," Sehun says, and waves his torchlight about a bit. "But it doesn't matter. As long as-" they both jump as another crash of thunder sounds over head "- as long as you have your imagination, you can play anywhere."

"Could you play at my house?" Chanyeol asks, and watches as Sehun's eyes shine even as he bites his lip.

"I could," Sehun begins before his eyes stray towards the door to the bedroom. "But-"

"I'll go ask," Chanyeol says, and ruffles Sehun's hair before pulling back with a serious look. "Are you going to be okay here while I talk to your dad?"

Sehun smiles up at him. "I'll be okay. I'm not allowed in the living room right now anyway because there might be sharp things to step on. So you be careful too."

"I will be," Chanyeol says, with a firm nod, pushing himself up.

"And Chanyeol," Sehun says, making him pause. "I'm glad you got less nervous." Sehun grins widely and flashes him a thumbs up.

"I took the night off," Jongin sighs, handing Chanyeol's phone back to him.

"Excellent," Chanyeol says, smiling. "Now go pack an overnight bag."

Jongin frowns immediately at him. "What?"

"You and Sehun are coming over with me for the night," Chanyeol says, sounding more confident than he feels, his heart shivering as he realizes how much he's asking. Jongin's frown increases in the dim lightly.

"Chanyeol, I can't just leave," Jongin says. "Look at this place, it's-"

"Not a place to sleep," Chanyeol finishes. "Not for you or for Sehun. Look," he sighs, and steps back, holding Jongin's gaze as best he can. "I know it feels like running from the problems, but it's dark, and trying to find broken glass and fix leaks in the dark isn't doing yourself a favor. You can come back and deal with the damages when the storm is over and call the manager about the leaks." Jongin's expression falters, and he lets out a sigh.

"I can't just-"

"What are you going to do about dinner?" Chanyeol asks quietly and Jongin closes his eyes, a furrow appearing between his brows. Stepping forward, Jongin doesn't move away, nor does he flinch when Chanyeol carefully rests his hands against Jongin's arms, just holding him. He feels him jump and shudder at the sudden crash of thunder that sounds from outside through the broken window.

"I don't know," Jongin finally says. "I'm still trying to figure out how to get that window covered."

"If I help you get it covered, will you and Sehun come stay with me?" Chanyeol asks softly, and with eyes still closed, Jongin gives the smallest of nods.

It's past seven by the time Chanyeol finally gets them all back to Highland Circle and into his apartment. There are a few trees down, some blown over by the wind, and the rain is still coming down strong, but Sehun is probably the brightest thing as he runs into the apartment building with a loud excited yell. It had taken about an hour to get the broken window covered enough that Jongin would leave it. Sehun had ended up packing his own bag, and after a brief moment of argument, Jongin had left his apartment and followed Chanyeol.

Finally stepping under the lights of Chanyeol's warm and lit apartment, he looks exhausted, skin pale and dark circles under his eyes. All of them are half drenched, still not dry even after the car ride back with the heater blasting, and immediately Sehun is sent off for a warm bath.

"You can take one after," Chanyeol suggests, shaking out their drenched clothing and pulling out a drying rack.

"I may," Jongin says, voice quiet. Despite being in the warm apartment, Jongin looks uncomfortable.

"I know you're worried about your apartment and-"

"It's not that," Jongin says, shaking his head. "Thank you," he adds. "For letting us stay. I keep forgetting that I can say yes to you."

"I'll keep reminding you then," Chanyeol says, a smile spreading over his lips as he watches Jongin finally look at him with a hint of a smile. "I'm not asking you to stay over because I expect something."

"Are you sure?" The way Jongin says it is almost teasing, but there's a note behind it that Chanyeol knows is still his uncertainty, his distrust in kindness.

"Well," Chanyeol says, finally stepping back and sighing. "Actually, I was hoping to build a giant fort on the bed and tell stories about the sky people fighting and finding each other," he says, giving Jongin a played up guilty look as Jongin lets out a surprised laugh. "That's the real reason I wanted you to come over, I felt so left out."

"You should have just been honest to start with," Jongin says, his mouth twitching teasingly.

"I'll remember that for the next time your house decides to break down," Chanyeol says, and Jongin, surprisingly, laughs.

"I shouldn't have left," Jongin sighs.

"Yes, you should have," Chanyeol corrects him.

"But the-"

"You can get to it later," Chanyeol tells him. "We'll take care of it this weekend."

"We?" Jongin repeats, blinking at him.

"Yes," Chanyeol says. He hadn't even realized he'd said 'we' but he doesn't take it back. It hadn't crossed his mind that he wouldn't help Jongin. "We. I'll come over this weekend and we can fix up the apartment."

"You don't have to."

"But I want to," Chanyeol tells him, and smiles as he reaches to take one of Jongin's hands and squeezes gently. "You should be here tonight, with Sehun." With me. He swallows down the words, knowing it's not the priority. He doesn't have Jongin, he may never have Jongin, who cares more about his son than anything in the world and still looks in love when he takes about the mother of his child. Chanyeol may never have that happy ending with Jongin, even if he wants it.

It's not the priority, and it may never be, which is why he's okay with what he has for now. It's better to be happy with what he has that what he doesn't.

"You don't understand," Jongin says, his eyes flickering between Chanyeol's.

"What don't I understand?" Chanyeol asks. "I thought I got a pretty good sense of why you shouldn't stay in that apartment. It wasn't safe." Jongin's lips press together at his words and Chanyeol stops himself, letting out a small breath to calm down. "You can talk to your landlord, maybe get him to help with some of the repairs."

"I can't," Jongin says, and his eyes lower to rest somewhere around Chanyeol's collarbones.

"Sure you can," Chanyeol says. That's what landlords do. They help maintain the buildings, take care of damages, they-

"Do you know those lists of paper stuck to my door?" Jongin asks, catching Chanyeol off guard.

Blinking and taking a moment to think back, Chanyeol nods. "What about them?"

"They're all jobs for me," Jongin says, and still doesn't meet Chanyeol's gaze. "I worked out a deal with the landlord when I rented the unit."

Chanyeol's shirt is still damp, sticking to him and cool against his skin. It's nothing compared to the chill that runs under his veins as he looks at Jongin. "What kind of deal?"

Wetting his lips and taking in a soft breath, Jongin's hand twitches in Chanyeol's hold, but doesn't pull away. "He'd take off a bit off of my rent and overlook how I had Sehun with me, living in a single unit with a family. In return," Jongin glances up to finally meet Chanyeol's eyes. "I cover half the maintenance of the building."

The air in the apartment had been warm and welcoming when Chanyeol had walked in before, and yet now it feels cold, empty and pitiless. "So that list is half of the maintenance from the building."

"All of the maintenance," Jongin says, and steps back, hand slipping away as he puts distance between them. "He raised the rent, and I took on the rest of the work to keep our home."

"But-"

"What else would we do?" Jongin asks him, looking up sharply. "I don't exactly have time to run around for apartments and I didn't want to uproot Sehun, not after-" his voice catches. "It's not easy to find rent that low. Where else would we go?"

Here, jumps to the tip of Chanyeol's tongue, but he holds it back. He didn't know Jongin when this happened, has no idea how long this has been going on, and can't just decide his life for him. Today was an extreme case, but overall, it's Jongin's life. Chanyeol is only here because Jongin lets him.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that when Chanyeol wishes that if something went wrong, Jongin wouldn't slip away from him faster than he could hold on.

"Well," Chanyeol says quietly, just watching Jongin as he runs his hand through his damp hair once more, looking even more tired and put upon. "That explains why you're so good at keeping that apartment functional. I never knew you were so good with your hands."

Jongin lets out a soft sort of laugh, letting his head drop for a moment. "It's not always a lot of work, not usually, but it adds up after a while. And after a storm like this-"

"And if you talk to your landlord about this?" Chanyeol proposes, trying to give hope to this situation.

"You've met Mr. Han," Jongin says, his voice sounding tired now as well. "You know what he's like."

Remembering the last time he'd met Mr. Han, bursting into that room with Seulgi and seeing the shocked look on Sehun's face and the angered look on the other man, Chanyeol swallows down his anxiety. "I have," he admits. "You can take a night off," he tries gently, watching as more worries pile onto Jongin's shoulders.

"The longer I'm away the worse it will be," Jongin sighs.

"But you can't do anything tonight," Chanyeol reminds him, and smiles even with the half frown Jongin gives him. "Seriously, going back tonight won't be smart, and worrying about it will do what?" Jongin doesn't say anything, just keeps looking at him like he wants to argue, but never opens his mouth. Finally he lets out a sigh, and his shoulders droop in fatigue. "What's the worst that could happen?"

Letting out a hoarse laugh, Jongin looks back up at him. "I get another unexpected visit from child services and they see the unit," he says. It's only one sentence, but it rips through the air of the apartment. The smile on Jongin's face is cruel, bitterness lingering in his eyes. "You try to tell me that apartment looks child safe and secure right now."

"They wouldn't-"

"They would," Jongin says darkly. "The last time I fell through on my agreement with Mr. Han, he called them, and I almost lost Sehun. They already have enough pressure from Sehun's grandparents to take him away from me."

"His grandparents?" Chanyeol repeats, frowning. "I thought your parents-"

"Not mine," Jongin says and his eyes flicker, flashing towards the bathroom where Sehun is still in the tub. "Her's." He sighs. "It's a long story."

"We have all night," Chanyeol says, and smiles even if he doesn't feel happy at all. "Or at least until ten. I want to make sure we all get some sleep before the morning."

Jongin shakes his head with a whisper of a chuckle. "I usually start work at ten."

"Well, not tonight," Chanyeol tells him, and holds Jongin's gaze.

Jongin doesn't bring up more on the matter, shuffling back behind his walls as the bathroom door opens and Sehun bounds out wrapped up in one of Chanyeol's large towels. Sehun scrambles into his pajamas as Jongin takes a turn in the bathroom and Chanyeol changes out of his work clothes. Sehun is yawning, big yawns with his hands rubbing at his eyes as he does his best to help Chanyeol in the kitchen with a quick dinner, his usual stories quieter as he pads around the apartment.

"Chanyeol?" Sehun asks, looking up as he grabs the silverware to set the table.

"A few more minutes," Chanyeol says over the stovetop, the stir fry almost done. "Then we can eat as soon as your dad gets out of the bath."

"Okay, but where are Daddy and I are going to sleep tonight?" Sehun asks, and Chanyeol pauses. "Usually we sleep in the big bed together, so I was wondering where we're all gonna sleep."

"Well," Chanyeol says, turning to him. "I can set up a bed in the living room. I have some sleeping bags and the couch is pretty comfortable to sleep on." Sehun bites his lip, frowning slightly. "Unless you had another idea."

"Well," Sehun says, swaying a bit as he walks around Chanyeol towards the table. "I was thinking that since last time we had a sleep over, we all got to sleep in the big bed, then-"

"Sehun, we're not all sleeping in Chanyeol's bed," Jongin says, stepping into the kitchen. He has a towel draped around his shoulders, his hair damp and looking fresher, but no less tired. He glances up at Chanyeol. "We don't need to do that."

"But what about the storm?" Sehun asks, tugging on his father's shirt, a small pout on his face. "What if I get scared? What if you get scared?"

"Then we'll compromise," Chanyeol finishes. "But right now, we have to eat. Way more important than arguing about beds."

In the quiet of dinner, Chanyeol watches as the two guests in his house both flinch slightly. Every time lightning flashes through the windows, Jongin will give a small flinch, masking it quickly as he continues to eat only to tense when thunder rolls through the walls. With every boom of thunder, no matter how loud or soft, Sehun jumps, looks up, and then hunkers into his chair for a moment before going back to his food.

It's been years since Chanyeol had been startled by thunder, watched as his friends in school were afraid of the storms. In University, Baekhyun had been the one to crazily drag him out into one of the storms, laughing and yelling as half the campus united in throwing themselves down one of the campus hills in a man-made mud slide. After University, it had been Han and Jongdae and Junmyeon all together one day that had ended up going out hiking in the storm, Jongdae laughing with every crash of thunder and Junmyeon smiling in the rain.

It's been so long Chanyeol had almost forgotten that people still get scared of these storms, each roll of thunder jumping the heart and every flash of lightning sending the nerves buzzing in alarm.

It's right when they're cleaning up, Jongin hiding a yawn behind his hand, when Sehun finally sits back in his chair and jumps when another crack of thunder rings through the room. Looking immediately to his father, Sehun says, "do I really have to sleep in the living room?"

"I'll be there too," Jongin promises, reaching out with a soft smile and brushing Sehun's hair from his face. "You'll be safe."

"But what if you get scared?" Sehun asks, watching his father as Jongin brings his dishes to the kitchen with Chanyeol.

"I don't get scared," Jongin tells his son, a brightness in his voice that has Chanyeol's attention lingering on him.

"But then what if Chanyeol gets scared?" Sehun persists, scooting out of his chair to hover by the fridge. "Then what?"

"I don't get scared either," Chanyeol says, taking the dishes from Jongin and giving him a pointed look. "And you're not doing those. You've had a long day."

"So have you," Jongin counteracts, giving him his own look, but it's too tired to stay strong for long. He doesn't resist when Chanyeol nudges him gently by the hip, pushing him from the kitchen.

"But what if?" Sehun presses. "You can come spend the night with me and Daddy if you get scared, okay?"

"Sehun, I'm sure Chanyeol doesn't-"

"That's very kind of you, Sehun," Chanyeol says, and wraps an arm around Jongin's waist. He can hear the exhaustion, the slowly slipping patience in Jongin's tone, and can see it in the droop of his shoulders. It's been a long day for all of them, and Chanyeol doesn't want it to end in an argument. "But I have an idea."

"You do?"

"Have you ever been in a tent?" Chanyeol asks him, smiling as big as he can as Jongin's head whips to him, eyes suddenly wide. Before both of them, Sehun lets out a huge gasp, his tired eyes suddenly shining and wide awake.

Of course, once they set up the small camping tent in the living room, furniture pushed aside to make room and Sehun has climbed in, the boy is so tuckered out he falls asleep almost immediately. With Jongin tucking him in, running fingers soothingly through Sehun's hair and murmuring stories of storm people as Sehun's eyelids flutter closed, Chanyeol busies himself with cleaning up the kitchen.

In the quiet of the kitchen, water running over his hands as he cleans up, Chanyeol is able to clear his mind back to the talk earlier. It doesn't seem fair, any of it. Though, Chanyeol realizes as he washes the pans and pots from dinner, nothing about Jongin's or Sehun's lives seem fair. They're good people, hard working, kind, and honest people, who have had horrible things happen to them. Especially Jongin.

To have Sehun taken away, for someone to come and not see Jongin as the hard working and devoted father that he is has something terrible twist in Chanyeol's gut, flaring high and he frowns, trying to keep it calm. It's not his place to get angry, but still the thought of it has him flaring.

A soft sound has him looking up from the sink, turning to the entrance to see Jongin leaning against the doorway. "Thank you," Jongin says, his voice quiet as he offers a small smile.

"I couldn't walk out of that apartment and leave you behind," Chanyeol says, turning to look into the sink, at the water swirling down the drain. "I couldn't."

"Why?"

"Because I care too much about you," Chanyeol says, turning back to Jongin as he says it. To see the look on his face. To see Jongin. To stop hiding. Jongin is watching him, staring back into his eyes as if he's not sure if he should believe him or not. "I care too much about you, both you and Sehun, to just leave you like that."

"But-"

"That's not going to stop being true, Jongin," Chanyeol tells him, pulling back from the sink and grabbing a towel. "If I see that you need something, or that there's any way I can help, I'm going to do what I can for you. That's what I do."

"Because I'm your friend." Jongin is providing answers, he's trying to understand, to test to see if this is real. Chanyeol can see it in his eyes, the flicker in them of wanting to hope, to believe, but being afraid to.

"You know it's more than that," Chanyeol says, and it comes out quiet. He can feel the shiver of his heart in his chest as he looks at Jongin, still tired and soft from the bath earlier. He can feel the writhe in his gut and the tremor in his hands and the shudder in his breathing as he looks at Jongin and feels so much for him.

Jongin just stares at him, lips pressed together and silent, his eyes flickering as he watches Chanyeol take one, and then another step closer, and doesn't pull away.

"I do," Jongin admits quietly. The sigh he lets out brushes against Chanyeol's neck as he lets Chanyeol pull him into a soft hug. It's been so long, but Chanyeol still waits, half expecting him to flinch or stiffen or curl away from him. It's a relief, even if a small one, when Jongin just leans into him, letting himself go just a little and lean on Chanyeol. Accepting him.

It's not a confirmation, or a return, but it's enough for now. Chanyeol isn't the number one important thing in Jongin's life, but he's okay with that. "I also hope you know what even if you were just my friend, I would still care," Chanyeol says quietly, feeling Jongin tentative hug back, hands warm against his back. "It doesn't matter how much I do, or what you ask from me, there isn't anything I expect from you in return. That's just how it works." Jongin fits so well in his arms, and Chanyeol can feel his heart beat in his chest, wondering if Jongin can feel it too.

"You're really hard to get rid of," Jongin says, though the joke is tight, like Jongin is still trying to run.

"Are you trying to get rid of me?" Chanyeol asks him honestly.

The warm hands on Chanyeol's back shift, gripping at his shirt and holding him closer. "No," Jongin answers him, voice even softer. "That scares me."

"Why?" Chanyeol asks, tightening his arms around Jongin slightly. "Is it because you really did want to have a sleepover?" Jongin lets out a soft laugh, relaxing further into him. "We can still let Sehun know we can all share the big bed. Or I can come and sleep in the tent with you two."

"Chanyeol-"

"I've not been in that tent for a while though, and I feel like it'll be too small for all three of us," Chanyeol continues, feeling Jongin chuckle and pull away from him. Even without Jongin pressed against him, he still feels warm, wrapped up as Jongin looks up at him with a faint smile on his lips. "And I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to."

"You're unreal," Jongin tells him.

"Last I checked, I was pretty real," Chanyeol tells him, and earns another small smile from him. It's hard, at times like this, to not just lean in, close the distance, and feel that smile against his own lips. It's hard because a part of Chanyeol isn't sure if Jongin would push away, the part that knows Jongin keeps track of how many kisses he owes him, and how Jongin relaxes and can sleep when Chanyeol is near.

"No, I mean-" Jongin lets out a sigh, and closes his eyes. "It's hard to believe you." He quiets, and Chanyeol lets him, waiting for him to talk. "There's not a lot of people like you." It's tempting to say something, but Chanyeol holds back, just watching, letting Jongin put together what he wants to say, waiting. "I'm so used to having to pick up the pieces or do things on my own, it's hard to think about trusting someone else."

"But you do?" Chanyeol asks carefully.

"I don't know why," Jongin says slowly, and his brow furrows. "But you feel safe." A soft warm curl spreads through Chanyeol, starting in his chest and flowing out, gentle and making him smile quietly. "That's hard to understand," Jongin admits. "Or to accept. I haven't had a lot of people that have felt safe."

"Not even your friends?"

"Well, you heard how safe Sehun feels around Taemin," Jongin tries to joke.

"Sehun isn't you," Chanyeol reminds.

"But he feels safe with you too," Jongin says, and takes in a shuddering breath, eyes still closed. "He trusts you, and he likes you a lot. He always wants to come over and spend time with you and has so much fun with you. It's like when he's with you, there's none of the worry, and he just feels happy. None of the bad things exist anymore."

Somehow, as Jongin begins to ramble, Chanyeol wonders if Jongin is talking about Sehun, or himself, or both. As Jongin's hands tighten in his shirt, tugging slightly, he feels it's both, and Jongin is just struggling to admit to himself any of this.

"It's like, with you, yes or no doesn't mean another lost job, or less time or more time and he can just forget and be happy. The world isn't against-" Jongin breaks off, and takes in another short breath, and presses his lips closed. Shifting carefully, Chanyeol pulls his arms from Jongin and instead slips their hands together.

When he pulls gently, Jongin doesn't resist, instead nodding slightly when Chanyeol nods towards the tent, where Sehun is sleeping, and lets himself be pulled into Chanyeol's bedroom. "We can go to the spare room if-"

"This is fine," Jongin says quickly, shaking his head. He doesn't let go of Chanyeol's hand. Glancing around, a phantom smile passes over his lips. "It's been so long since I was really in here."

"You saw it on the house tour I gave when you and Sehun first came over," Chanyeol reminds him.

"Yeah, but then it was called 'the master chamber' and it wasn't the same," Jongin reminds, brightening slightly.

"Well, I hope that no time is ever the same as the first time you were here," Chanyeol admits honestly. "I hope you never have another time like that. Ever."

Jongin's face slowly darkens, not in doubt or anger or sadness, but in memory. Some of the lines that grace his face, showing how much he's been through, what he's seen, are cast into sharp relief in the soft light of the room. "I never wanted anything like that to happen," Jongin admits quietly. "If I could change it-" He pauses, and Chanyeol watches from where he's sat just on the edge of the bed as Jongin walks closer and sits down beside him. "I don't regret it."

"Nothing?" Chanyeol asks.

"I wish it were different," Jongin says, eyes on his hands as they twist in his lap. "That Sehun could have had a mother, that Sehun lived differently, in a home that was whole, that we had a real family that wasn’t broken and separated, where I didn't have to worry constantly about him, about if he's okay or not, of if he'd be taken away every day that something goes wrong."

"You won't lose him," Chanyeol says, reaching over and laying a hand over Jongin's, holding them carefully. "If anything happens, if someone comes after you, there are people who can stand up for you."

Jongin laughs bitterly, looking up at him finally. "You don't understand."

"Then help me," Chanyeol asks. It hurts, aching to watch Jongin hold all of this inside himself without letting anyone take some of the load off his shoulders for him. To support him when he's stumbling under the weight of his world.

For a long moment, Jongin looks at Chanyeol, his eyes flickering and Chanyeol wonders if he's going to shut down, close him out and that will be it. Then Jongin takes a long, deep breath, eyes closing as he turns. Eyes opening, he looks down to his hands, and begins to speak in a soft smooth voice, telling Chanyeol, letting him in.

It's like listening to a story, but rather than a story, it's a life time. His thumb gently pressing and rubbing a pattern over the back of Chanyeol's hand, Jongin tells Chanyeol about how he moved from Korea, about how his family had pushed for it to get him to a better school and a better chance at university. Jongin tells Chanyeol about how he found a school, found a girl he fell in love with, and how happy he had once been, how he knew what hope felt like. He talks about how scared he was when he found out he was going to be a father, but how happy he was.

That happiness that still is so alive in him when he looks at Sehun, when he talks about Sehun, is what has kept him together.

It kept him together when Sehun's mother died and Jongin, already struggling with the weight of two jobs, was left alone in a world that already had begun to turn cruel. It kept him together, giving him strength to fight back when the grandparents had first started to come after him.

"They hate me," Jongin says, mouth curling into a bitter smile. "They always did. They said she could have found someone so much better. That I was the reason she died. That Sehun-" his voice catches. "That it was hurting Sehun to be with me, that-" he breaks off, eyes closing as he struggles to keep composure, lip bitten as he begins to silently cry.

"They still won't give him up," Jongin continues after a long pause.

"But neither will you," Chanyeol reminds, squeezing around Jongin's hand, shifting to wrap his arm around Jongin's shoulders when Jongin shifts. Jongin stays like that, letting Chanyeol pull him closer to lean against him, as he continues talking. It's listening to it all get pulled out of him, like poison from an old and covered wound, and Chanyeol listens in silence as Jongin explains how many times he's been gone after.

About how many times he'd been pulled out of jobs to go to court, to face legal charges of child neglect and abuse from a family that hates him for something he isn't responsible for. About how tired Jongin always is, how many times he's hit rock bottom and how hard it is every time to dig himself back to the surface. About how desperation feels, doing anything and everything to stay afloat, including selling himself to those who wanted him and hating himself for it. He's shivering when he explains the terror of coming back from a customer and finding Sehun gone, a legal notice on his door, and almost losing Sehun for good.

"If I lose him," Jongin begins, and stops, shivering slightly and he doesn't resist when Chanyeol pulls him closer, pressing his face into Chanyeol's shoulder. It takes a while for him to calm down, slowly relaxing as Chanyeol rubs small soothing circles on his back and holds him.

There's so much, a history laden with strife that is almost too much, impossible to image that Jongin has been through so much in such a short time.

The story doesn't elaborate, Jongin instead explaining about work, the exhaustion, finding a home, how it's hard enough to keep his schedule and work straight. How when Mr. Han had raised the rent, there wasn't the energy to fight with him about the maintenance issues and Jongin had just agreed. Anything to get by, to keep them alive, to keep Sehun safe and healthy.

"What they always say," Jongin says quietly, voice tired and soft as he leans mostly into Chanyeol. "About how once you have a child, your whole world changes. How your priorities change and nothing else is as important as they are, including yourself, it's true."

"Jongin," Chanyeol tells him quietly, and gets a soft hum from the man in his arms. "Anyone could look at you and understand that nothing in the world matters to you as much as Sehun does." Jongin shifts, turning to look up at him. It's almost like he's guilty, expression apologetic but not at the same time, and Chanyeol can't help but smile. "I've known that since you woke up in my apartment. I was pretty sure you could have lost a leg and I still couldn't have taken you to the hospital if it meant being away from him."

"I-" Jongin begins and then stops, lips pressed together and almost pouting as Chanyeol chuckles slightly, reaching up and brushing his hair from his eyes. "I have to put him first," Jongin tells him, quietly but definitely.

"I know," Chanyeol says, still smiling as Jongin watches him, tired eyes flickering between his own. "I've always known that. No one can ever expect anything else for you, no matter who they are."

"Not even you," Jongin phrases it like a question, but it's actually a statement, the edge in his gaze waiting for Chanyeol to push.

"Especially not me," Chanyeol says firmly, and smiles as Jongin's eyes widen. "That's why I've been trying to win over Sehun, of course," he teases, and Jongin doesn't laugh. "Kidding," Chanyeol admits. "I'm happy just like this."

"Are you?" Jongin asks him. He looks exhausted, and it would be so much easier to just tell him to put it aside, to worry about it another time, to just rest for now after such a long talk. It won't stop though, and Chanyeol knows by now that even if Jongin doesn't voice his worries, they're very real as they eat away at him.

"No," Chanyeol admits. "I would be happier if you didn't have to deal with all of this." Jongin looks taken aback. "I would be happier if you had a home that you didn't have to worry about losing, if your family supported you instead of harassing you, and if you would let me help you sometimes without thinking I'm looking for something else from you." Jongin's jaw tightens as he swallows. "I'm not," Chanyeol tells him firmly. "So stop thinking I am. Whatever you're comfortable with, I'm okay with. This isn't about me."

"It is," Jongin says, and pulls away when Chanyeol stiffens in surprise. Sighing, Jongin leans away, pushing his hands through his hair as he curls into himself, Chanyeol's arm falling from his back to rest by his waist. "It is about you because-" Jongin takes in and lets out a deep breath. "Because I don't feel as scared when you're here. I'm not as worried about Sehun if he's with you, I'm not scared of coming home, I'm not afraid of saying 'yes' or 'no' and I-"

"Jongin," Chanyeol says softly, staring at him as Jongin rambles, voice wavering as he continues on and on, each word another firm pulse of Chanyeol's heart. It makes him feel too big, too sensitive as Jongin slips his hands to cover his face.

"I don't want things to be different, to have changed the past, I just want Sehun to have a better life, to be safe," Jongin continues, voice tight. "I wouldn't be where I am now, I wouldn't have Sehun if things were different, I wouldn't have had as much go wrong, but then I wouldn't have met you and-" Jongin shivers, and takes in a shuddering breath that ripples through Chanyeol. "You make me happy," Jongin says so quietly it's almost fearful, but Jongin looks almost relieved after, dropping his hands from his face. He looks drained, completely exhausted, but not unhappy as he turns to Chanyeol and offers a weak smile. "That scares me the most."

"It does?" Chanyeol asks, almost afraid to push, to understand why when his heart feels too big, too close to the edge of 'what if?' and 'what is'.

"Pretty much everything that makes me happy ends up being the things that I lose," Jongin admits, voice even softer. He closes his eyes when Chanyeol reaches for him, wrapping him closer and letting out a soft sigh as he leans into Chanyeol's arms, burying his face into the crook of Chanyeol's neck.

"I'm not going anywhere," Chanyeol tells him firmly, mouth pressed into Jongin's hair as he holds him close. There is no resistance from Jongin when he pulls him back, letting Jongin rest against him to lie together on the bed, Chanyeol just holding him. It's quiet like this, quiet but fine, as there are no words Chanyeol could say that would change things or make it better.

It's too early to say what he feels, what he's sure of with Jongin nestled against him, face still damp from tears earlier and arms wrapped tentative around his waist. It's too early and too much for Chanyeol to say anything more, to pull Jongin down into his own emotions when Jongin has just taken such a huge step towards him.

It is a huge step, not just having Jongin this close, but knowing how Jongin feels. It brings Sehun's words brighter, where Sehun explained in his own ways how Jongin was happy with him, how Chanyeol wasn't the only one slowly falling deeper.

That's not the thing that Chanyeol wants to focus on, but it ends up milling around amid all his other thoughts, filtering through Jongin's flood of words earlier, sifting under his skin in the soft puffs of breath from Jongin. Months have gone by, memories of each day with Jongin between stretches of time that feels so much longer.

There isn't a world now that Chanyeol knows where Jongin isn't. Finding a place where he doesn't think of Jongin, the years before feel so far away, dull and listless compared to the last few months. They've been the hardest, dips and falls but it's like a lifetime away from where he was to where he lies down, Jongin's slower breathing ghosting against his neck.

Under it all, Chanyeol keeps circling back to the same ending, breathing in the smell of Jongin and adding another beat to his heart. "I don't want to lose you either," he murmurs, lips pressing into Jongin's hair as he tugs him gently closer.

Jongin doesn't answer, breathing already slowed into sleep that is so badly needed. It would be easy to say their talk earlier had worn him out, but Chanyeol knows better. Life, it's life, years or pressure, weight, and worries that exhaust him. Long nights that never end and take their toll. Sleepless nights and grueling days and the constant anxiety of it going wrong take their toll, lines in Jongin's face and the dead tired that always lingers in his eyes.

If there were anything Chanyeol could to do make it better, to find some solution, he would. If he did though, it wouldn't be fair either. It's not that simple, and Chanyeol knows even if he figured out how to fix one thing, it wouldn't make everything better. Yet while he's still trying to figure out what to do, the most he can do is what he's been trying to do, helping in small portions when he can. When Jongin lets him, leaning on him and letting some of the weight slip off of him so he can breathe.

This close, this wrapped up, it's hard to figure out where he stands with Jongin. If he's just a friend, someone who helps and visits, or if it's something more. With Jongin's arm draped around his waist and listening to him earlier, it feels like more, and it's so tempting to jump closer and hope.

Don't push, whispers up Chanyeol's arms though in the soft breaths Jongin puffs against the skin of his neck. Pushing gets no where, and Chanyeol knows by now that just letting this go it's own course, it's own speed, is better for all of them, especially Jongin.

Until tonight, Chanyeol hadn't quite realized how scared Jongin is, how much he worries constantly and is afraid of things going wrong. It's strange to think that Jongin is also afraid of him, not for hurting him, but for what he means to him.

It's not enough to feel warmed by it, hopeful, but instead Chanyeol has to remember what that means. Don't push means understanding that, that despite how Jongin admits, it scares him now. It's best to stay just as they are, letting things go at their own pace, even if Chanyeol could slip easily and hold him closer, press a soft kiss to Jongin's forehead and whisper against his skin everything that pulses with every beat of his heart.

Not yet curls through him as he carefully shifts Jongin onto the bed, trying not to wake him but make sure he sleeps. Everything feels heavy, Jongin's grip on him, his own limbs so ready to settle against Jongin once more, and his heart as it rests in his chest. The words Jongin had let go of earlier are still heavy in Chanyeol's mind and in the air, but Jongin looks lighter, their weight finally off his chest and out of his closely held silence.

It almost makes Chanyeol laugh as he tucks Jongin in, his mind flashing to so long ago when he did this for the first time without knowing anything. Looking at the man in his bed, it's hard to not want to keep him there, realizing he's afraid of losing him. While Jongin may be afraid of losing Chanyeol, it goes both ways, and Chanyeol fears for both Jongin and Sehun after hearing everything, fearing for the family he's come to think of as part of his own.

His world.

Not yet skitters almost cruelly into him, that constant reminder, and he sighs, carefully smoothing his fingers through Jongin's hair once more and resigned to leave him. But to stay with Jongin...

Under his touch, Jongin stirs slightly, eyes cracking open blearily as he blinks up at Chanyeol. "Go back to sleep," Chanyeol urges gently, sitting down carefully on the bed beside him. Jongin doesn't answer, just lets out a soft sound and nods, lilting back into sleep as he shifts, reaching up to hold at Chanyeol's wrist. Even as Chanyeol tries to pull away, to let him rest, Jongin doesn't let go, fingers tightening around him

"Don't leave," Jongin murmurs, voice low with sleep and Chanyeol stops. "Please," follows in a whisper.

Whether Jongin is aware or too far into sleep, Chanyeol battles before finally giving in. Maybe he's selfish, maybe he's over eager, maybe Jongin means it, his guard fallen in his exhaustion. Whatever the case, Chanyeol closes his eyes at how Jongin doesn't let go, curling closer to him as he slips under the covers, settling against him.

Some people define happiness as a thing, some as a place, some as a time. Some people define love as a feeling, an emotion, a state of mind or a metaphorical device. Lying with the soft lamp light and listening to the rain falling softly outside, the storm past, Chanyeol knows that love isn't a single term, happiness isn't specific. It can encompass many things, and he wouldn't be wrong to use it in multiple cases. But this, right now, is everything.

This is happiness, even if his heart aches and he can't tell if the pain is from worry or sorrow or bursting joy in his chest. This is love, even if he's scared and tentative and unsure. This is his world, and whether Jongin loves him too or not isn't what's important, it's the fact that he's here. Love isn't something Chanyeol needs to have returned for it to be real, and he can love Jongin without needing anything in return.

Chanyeol can love Jongin, can love Sehun, and it doesn't have to be more or less than that.

That's all he wants. It's all he needs.

Lulled by the soft sounds of Jongin beside him, the beating of his heart, and the sounds of rain outside, Chanyeol is just drifting off to sleep when a soft sound by the door has him shifting. Peeking into the room, Sehun is blinking sleepily as he holds onto his pink teddy in his too large pajamas. "Chanyeol?" Sehun calls in a soft tired voice.

"Hey," Chanyeol says quietly, sitting up a bit and careful not to wake Jongin as he gets a soft moan in return. "Couldn't sleep?"

Padding over to the bed in dragging steps, Sehun peeks up and lets a triumphant smile spread over his lips. "I knew he was with you," Sehun says, crawling onto the bed, his eyes on his father. Grinning wide up at Chanyeol, he flops down into bed. "I told you he sleeps best when he's with you. I told you he likes you."

"Well, let's not wake him up then," Chanyeol whispers, smiling at Sehun as Jongin lets out a soft sound, eyelids fluttering. "Get under the covers, yeah?"

"Sehun?" Jongin murmurs softly, shifting in bed.

"Goodnight, Daddy," Sehun whispers quietly, worming his way under the covers quickly as Jongin shifts and rolls over to his son. "Go back to sleep."

"Love you," Jongin says, warmth in his sleep laden voice as he settles back down again. Chanyeol smiles, blinking his own tired eyes as he turns off the light on the bedside lamp, watching as Sehun curls up in Jongin's arms. At first, they all lie still, Sehun's soft breathing slowing back to sleep as Chanyeol lies with his eyes on their silhouettes, the gentle patter of rain a soft soundtrack floating through the room.

"I told you," whispers Sehun, his voice muffled just as Chanyeol begins to drift back to sleep. Jongin hums in question. "They found each other."

It takes a moment, as Sehun settles down, slipping off to sleep, before Chanyeol realizes what he's talking about. The sky people, lost in the storm, struggling to find each other with each crash of thunder. It makes him want to laugh, and he smiles at the soft sounds of rain proving Sehun's happy ending. As he feels fingers brush against his own, folding their hands together as Jongin reaches for him, Chanyeol wonders if they can find theirs.

If Jongin's story from tonight does have a happy ending, and if Chanyeol is part of it. It might be too much to hope for, but if Jongin needs anything, it's hope.

In the meantime, Chanyeol will hope, for both of them, that their story could end as happily, finding happiness and love at the end of such a long and intense storm.

*

Monday arrives as one of the few mornings that Chanyeol actually brings coffee to the office with him. The weekend had been long and exhausting after the storm. Sehun had stayed with him on Friday and Saturday night while Chanyeol got a first hand taste at Jongin's real work schedule. The one night that Jongin had slept with them on Thursday felt insignificant compared to everything else, and Chanyeol almost feels sick for ever complaining about long work days before watching as Jongin is dragged back and forth between maintenance repairs, work shifts, and fixing up the apartment.

It had taken until Sunday afternoon before the unit had been habitable again, the windows fixed, leaks repaired and patched up. Sehun had pouted, obstinate about leaving Chanyeol's apartment and going home despite Jongin's exhaustion. "You don't want to leave either!" Sehun had finally thrown at his father before looking scandalized with himself and burst into tired tears.

It had been a rough few days, and Chanyeol isn't looking forward to the coming week of deadlines for the new project he's been doing with Junmyeon on the children's section to petition it's inclusion to the board.

"Coffee?" Jongdae asks, staring at Chanyeol as he sits down heavily. "Seriously?"

"It's not for you," Chanyeol tells him, powering up his computer. With luck, he'll have an email from Hoseok telling him that he finished all his assigned work over the weekend and Chanyeol won't have to come down on him again.

"No, I get that," Jongdae says, still looking surprised at the large cup of coffee on Chanyeol's desk. "I'm just surprised you brought one at all when I know-"

"What?" Chanyeol asks, looking over at him.

"You know what, I'm going to practice being silent," Jongdae says, snapping his mouth shut. "I apparently need to do more of that anyway," he adds, a note of grumpiness in his voice.

"Says who?" Chanyeol asks, raising one eyebrow as his email loads.

"No one," Jongdae sighs, shaking his head distractedly as he sets up his own workspace. "Just- people."

"The date didn't go well?" Chanyeol asks, reading between the lines.

Dropping his papers, Jongdae lets out an agitated sigh, flopping back into his desk chair and glaring at his computer. "I don't get it," Jongdae says gruffly, scowling. "I thought talking to people was a good thing, but apparently it's annoying and-"

"So not so good," Chanyeol surmises.

"I should just be single," Jongdae groans, taking off his glasses and running his hands down his face. "Like yo-" he chokes himself off, and looks apologetically over the desk divide. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Chanyeol asks, tight lipped and with his stomach clenching.

Eyes wide, and hands frozen on his face, Jongdae quickly mumbles, "nothing," before turning quickly to his computer and busying himself with work. "Enjoy your coffee. Let me know if you need another one, I'm bound to need seven."

"Your poor stomach," Chanyeol calls to him, though it's half hearted. He doesn't have the energy to banter with Jongdae about dates, about food and health. Not today.

"Chanyeol?" startles him as he's working through the second article from Hoseok (which looks like it was written drunk) and he turns to Juhyun's apologetic smile. "Junmyeon wants to see you," she says and steps back with a nod to Junmyeon's closed door.

"Am I in trouble?" Chanyeol asks, frowning as he stands.

"No," Juhyun sighs. "But I think he is."

Frowning, Chanyeol walks hastily to Junmyeon's office, knocking swiftly before Junmyeon calls for him to come in. "Close the door," Junmyeon tells him, giving him a half sincere smile that looks more like a wince. Alarm rising, Chanyeol closes the door behind him. Rarely does Junmyeon ever have his door closed.

"Am I being fired?" Chanyeol asks, confusion and apprehension rising. He does not need this today.

"What?" Junmyeon says, head snapping up and looking stunned. "Oh God, no." He sighs, reaching up to push his hair back and catching himself before he messes up the styling. "No, you're not getting fired. I might be, but that's my issue."

"What?" Chanyeol asks, breath caught as he stares at Junmyeon in shock. "You-"

"Not your problem," Junmyeon waves him off, giving him a weak smile.

"Hell, it is my problem," Chanyeol counters, annoyance flaring as he stares at his friend and superior. "If you get fired then I'm getting a new boss. I don't want a new boss, Junmyeon, and no one else is fit for this job more than you. Who do I talk to so you can stay? The whole floor-"

Junmyeon is laughing, and some of the tension slips a bit off of him. "It's fine," he says, waving off Chanyeol before he can protest. "Look, it's nothing I can't end up fixing. It's just a- they think I've been too lenient and aren't that happy."

Slowly, Chanyeol settles, beginning to connect things. "This is about the section we're working on."

"They're trashing it," Junmyeon says, giving him a wan smile. "Technically, that's what's got the fire under me, considering I didn't get full permission to run work on it anyway. They don't like how it's technically disobedience from 'trusted staff' and they're pulling it completely."

"I'm sorry," Chanyeol says. He hadn't fully realized what Junmyeon was doing when they started working on the children's section in the magazine. "I didn't-"

"Of course you didn't know," Junmyeon laughs. "You never would have agreed to do it if I'd told you everything."

"You still should have told me," Chanyeol tells him, frowning at his friend. "I'd rather have had you tell me about this than put your job on the line."

"I'll figure out my job and you worry about your own work," Junmyeon tells him with a lightness to his voice but a sharp stern flash in his eyes. It has Chanyeol clenching his teeth together, knowing better than to press him. They may be friends, but here, Junmyeon is still his boss, and doesn't hesitate to pull rank on him when it's necessary.

"So," Chanyeol says, swallowing down his earlier apprehension. "What now?" Junmyeon lets out a soft half hearted laugh. "Back to the same old grind?"

"You're back on the regular schedule," Junmyeon says, and smiles when Chanyeol presses his lips together. "At least in terms of material covered. I know you can get everything done earlier, so I'm keeping you on the same early release schedule." He gives a dry laugh. "The higher up's didn't have a problem with that at least, just the content. You'll be working with the interns and new writers more, if that's okay."

"I like them," Chanyeol admits, thinking of Hoseok and Jongdae's interns as they work in the lower floors of the writing team. "I don't mind doing that."

"You're good with them," Junmyeon tells him with a soft smile. "They all listen to you too. Which is more than I can say with Jongdae."

"Jongdae just doesn't know how to talk to them," Chanyeol says.

"You mean discipline," Junmyeon laughs, and laughs more at Chanyeol's expression of surprise. "They run him around all the time, haven't you noticed? It's why I switched Hoseok to you so early on. I knew Jongdae wouldn't be able to handle him. You can."

"I thought-"

"Just because Seokjin and Jimin listen to you and behave doesn't mean they do the same for Jongdae," Junmyeon says with a faint smile. "It's like watching another Heechul and Kyuhyun situation."

"Didn't-"

"Kyuhyun drive Heechul nuts?" Junmyeon finishes for him.

"Not exactly the words I would choose," Chanyeol admits. "But I suppose that works."

"Some people are good at being a mentor and helping people grow into themselves," Junmyeon tells him, leaning back in his chair. "Jongdae just doesn't have that innate ability." Chanyeol stills, watching Junmyeon as something stirs in his chest. "You do."

Shifting in his chair, Chanyeol lets that sink in for a moment and reflects briefly on how he and Hoseok have been working together over the last few months. "So," Chanyeol asks, wetting his lips. "Does this mean I'm getting Seokjin and Jimin as well?"

"Just Seokjin," Junmyeon says with a grin. "Jongdae can handle Jimin. Then I can sleep at night without worrying who I'll find having a nervous breakdown in my office."

"Deal," Chanyeol says, smiling and feeling less worried and almost reassured.

Stepping from Junmyeon's office, it settles back into him the loss of the article run, and he frowns, sitting back a this desk and looking at the article sections he'd been working on for the last few weeks. Jongdae looks over as Chanyeol erases them from his computer, letting out a sigh of futility.

"Everything okay?" Jongdae asks tentatively.

"That depends," Chanyeol says, staring at the 'trash' icon on his screen. "I'm taking Seokjin from you."

"You're what?" Jongdae asks, double taking and almost knocking over his own coffee.

"Junmyeon is putting me in charge of Hoseok and Seokjin both. Them and possibly Jinyoung and Chansik." Chanyeol runs his hand through his hair. A part of him is excited, taking on such a large group of writers and mentoring them, both Chansik and Jinyoung new transfers from a partner company. The other part of him...

"Thank god," Jongdae wheezes, and Chanyeol looks over only to burst out laughing as Jongdae sags into his desk, laying his cheek on his keyboard. Giving Chanyeol a weak smile, he lets out a soft whine. "I wasn't sure I could take another day of both of them."

"They're not that bad," Chanyeol laughs.

"You can say that," Jongdae gripes at him. "You’re not me. They actually listen to you."

"Yeah?"

"Jimin called you 'dad editor' the other day," Jongdae grumbles, sitting back up before glowering at the computer. "He called me mom, and I'm trying to bleach that memory from my mind."

"Mom?" Chanyeol asks, laughing.

"I don't want to know," Jongdae grumbles under his breath, shaking his head and looking pained. "I just don't ever want to know."

It's almost surreal to be in the elevator to the lower floors that afternoon, Hoseok's surprised but cheerful email reply to him earlier when he sent the news still floating in his head. Stepping onto the lower floor and the cubicle layout, Chanyeol can almost smell the stress of Monday morning in the thick aroma of coffee. Hoseok and the other group of new writers and interns are on the far wall, farthest from Kyuhyun's office and the copy machines.

"Are you really going to be taking care of all of us?" Hoseok asks, the first to stand up in his small pack of writers. Seokjin and Jimin are with him, and a few others on the team that look up at him.

"Apparently," Chanyeol says, looking around at the new writers and seeing both excitement and panic. "Should be interesting looking at all of your work and not just Hoseok's."

"Please be nice," Seokjin asks, and then laughs.

"I will if you submit quality work," Chanyeol tells him easily. "Otherwise, it goes right back to you and it's on your head." Seokjin's laughter stutters to a stop and he colors slightly. Chanyeol smiles, and feels a new confidence in his chest as he looks at all of the upturned faced.

It reminds him slightly of being back in university and tutoring in his junior and senior year, watching as his peers would listen and grow as he went over biology, chemistry, and corrected errors easily. "Work hard," Chanyeol tells then with a look before motioning to Hoseok to follow him. "You realize this means more work for you."

"No more crap articles and fun email trains," Hoseok teases, and then laughs at the look Chanyeol throws him. "Nah, I know. Plus, I think this will be more fun."

"Fun?"

"Well," Hoseok says, and clicks his tongue as he thinks for a moment. "I mean, I don't think this will be as frustrating."

"You were frustrated?"

"No," Hoseok says, shaking his head and letting out a laugh. "No, not me. You."

"Me," Chanyeol says flatly, though a part of him quirks. He wasn't aware Hoseok knew he was getting frustrated with work.

"Yeah," Hoseok says. "I mean, it's not hard to tell that you're getting tired of doing, well, what it was you were doing earlier. I think you'll have fun working with us. If anything it gets you moving around between floors rather than stuck upstairs."

"I didn't know you paid so much attention to me, Hoseok. It's kind of creepy," Chanyeol tells him, teasing slightly as Hoseok grins at him.

"I can't help it," Hoseok throws back, and then laughs awkwardly, shaking his head. "No, but-" he sighs. "It just seems like work bothers you a lot."

"It does," Chanyeol means for it to be a question, but it isn't. At Hoseok's inquiring look, Chanyeol sighs and lets a part of himself go. "I had an article section rejected again," he admits. "It's just a bit annoying when I could be doing a lot more at this company and they keep holding me back."

It isn't what he'd initially meant to say, but it is the truth. Somehow, despite how telling it is, revealing and almost not allowed, Hoseok just smiles at him, going as far as to lay a hand on his elbow in a comforting gesture. "Yeah," Hoseok says. "I can tell."

"So, now I get to watch over you kids," Chanyeol says, brushing off the odd feeling in his chest.

"Yeah, but do you really want to be taking care of us?" Hoseok asks.

"You're not all that bad," Chanyeol admits. "Well, maybe Hyeri-" he breaks off as Hoseok laughs, loud and unabashed. It has Chanyeol smiling.

"She's not so bad, just intimidating," Hoseok grins, glancing back at the group of writers, most of them his friends. "You have to get used to her."

"I'll just stick with you four," Chanyeol says, nodding to the small group that he's now in charge of.

"Is that really what you want to do?" Hoseok asks, and Chanyeol knows from his tone that he's not just talking about the immediate.

"No," Chanyeol admits, the initial restraint to admit it faded. It could be because he's not talking to someone closer, guilty about admitting change to Jongdae or Junmyeon upstairs, letting them down. Hoseok isn't that close, even if he has become something of a friend to Chanyeol. It's not the same, and it's oddly comforting. "I'd rather do something that actually meant more. Not just for me, but overall. I'm kind of tired of doing something that doesn't really help other people unless they can buy a ice cream attachment for their kitchen aid."

"Then do it," Hoseok says, rather than laugh or close him down or defend the magazine. He says it so casually that it's like it's the obvious answer.

It is the obvious answer. Chanyeol's just too stubborn and wrapped up to actually accept that. It has him staring a bit, looking at Hoseok's complete casual manner about it as he shrugs up at him. "I mean, isn't that the simple answer? If you want to do something else more, then do it."

"That's easier for you to say," Chanyeol tells him, hands slipping into his pockets.

"Not really," Hoseok says, letting out a short sigh. "I mean, Seokjin is here because he loves to cook and wanted to share that with people. Jimin is here because he loves weaving words and Hyeri is here because she loves research and food and is a closet anthropologist even if she never wants to talk about it."

"And you?" Chanyeol prompts.

"I'm here for the free coffee," Hoseok answers and laughs at himself before Chanyeol can. "It's doesn't make you bad for doing something you want to. Or doing something you don't want to. If you want to keep doing this just for the job, then do it. But wanting to do something you actually want to do doesn't make you an asshole." Hoseok frowns. "Unless you really want to rob banks or something. Then you're an asshole."

"There go my hopes and dreams," Chanyeol says and Hoseok laughs again, just as loud and getting Jimin's attention as the group looks over. "I'm serious," Chanyeol adds and Hosoek chokes.

"You scare me sometimes," Hoseok tells him, narrowing his eyes even as he grins. "In a good way."

"Yeah?"

"You have to be careful though, or soon all of them will start calling you 'dad'," Hoseok warns him. "Jimin alone is enough."

"You can all just call me 'sir' instead," Chanyeol suggests and Hoseok flinches and makes a completely disgusted sound.

"Ya, that's just-" Hoseok shakes his head, grimacing. "That's too far."

It still has Chanyeol smiling though, after leaving the group with his contact information and the standards he's already given Hoseok. It's a little interesting to watch how Hoseok interacts with the others, almost on the same level, teasing and playing around but still serious just under the surface.

It has Chanyeol thinking later, sitting at his desk and sifting through the sudden influx of emails from his new 'kids' (as Hoseok refers to them), checking over their material. It's a little different, hearing it from Hoseok. Whether it's uncomfortable or not, Chanyeol can't really label when he realizes that Hoseok is telling him to do what he himself might advise other people to do.

Being told to listen to his own advice is a little sobering, but it's also helpful. If Hoseok had approached Chanyeol with the same situation, he would have told Hoseok to do what he wants and is the most comfortable with.

Now, it's just Hoseok telling him to listen to himself, spitting the words back at him.

Honestly, it's pretty damn good advice.

It doesn't make Chanyeol a bad person for wanting to do something that's meaningful to him, whether that's writing children articles about food, or starting a reading program at the library for the children of foreign families. Just because he'd be leaving a job where he has friends and stability doesn't make him selfish or wrong, it just gives him the freedom over his own life.

Perhaps that's all Chanyeol needed to hear, his mood settling before lunch. It doesn't mean he has to decide immediately, still not sure exactly what he wants aside from hope for the people he cares about, and the seed planted that this isn't his endgame.

Chanyeol doesn't need the answers, but it's kind of nice to be moving towards them one step at a time. It has him smiling when he goes to lunch and realizes for the first time that the other interns aren't wary of Jongdae, they're trying to set him up with Juhyun.

"Why not me?" Chanyeol asks Hoseok after lunch.

"You've already got a boyfriend though, right?" Hoseok asks, and laughs at Chanyeol's shocked face. "I'm kidding," he laughs and then quails under Chanyeol's half faked glare.

It still leaves him buzzing though, wondering when he'd become obvious, or if he is at all. Wondering when he'll have the answers to give when someone asks him 'what do you want in your life?' and he can give them all, or when he can simply say, "nothing, I have it all."

*

It keeps getting later and later, and even if Chanyeol knows that technically he's still seeing Jongin almost every day of the week, it's more like brief glimpses of fatigue. Sehun is quieter that afternoon, holding Chanyeol's hand and wearing a new thick scarf that Chanyeol learns Jongin had made him a year ago.

"It was my Christmas present," Sehun says, petting the scarf with a sort of fond reverence. "I made him cookies and helped fix the oven."

Sehun looks more tired, and Chanyeol learns about how much he's doing in school. Sehun, because he 'wants to', has joined the gifted and talented programs. For third grade. "And your dad is okay with this?"

"Daddy hasn't been able to come into the teacher's meetings 'cos he's always working," Sehun explains, lower lip jutting out as he looks through the advanced reading material. "It's okay though, he read the form and signed that I can do the classes. It's more fun anyway."

Sehun's small garden has been moved inside, sitting just on the mat near the balcony door of the kitchen and Sehun spends at least an hour every day taking care of it. Today he'd ended up doing most of his homework in the kitchen, chatting with Chanyeol as he cooked a dinner to take over when Jongin gets home, making an extra batch of muffins. Of course, with the muffins Sehun helps, mixing in nuts and dried berries before they go in the oven.

It's past six when Chanyeol finally uses the spare key to let himself and Sehun into Jongin's apartment to find the lights still off. Lately, Jongin has been working later and later at his jobs, taking extra hours as Chanyeol looks after Sehun and doing what he can to be there through the night. Though Chanyeol understands why, knowing it's better if Jongin is there during the night for Sehun, he still finds himself sighing as he looks into the darkened apartment.

"It's okay," Sehun says, carrying the basket of muffins Chanyeol brought with him into the apartment, careful to take off his shoes. "He'll be home soon." It's easy to just make himself at home, sitting on one of the embellished lawn chairs with a book in the living room while Sehun reads on the couch, occasionally asking him what a word means. It's comfortable, and Chanyeol realizes that he's already used to this, made it his own routine.

When the door opens, echoing down the hall, both Sehun and Chanyeol get up, Sehun scampering to his dad as Chanyeol smiles and heads to the kitchen. He'd stuck the stuffed green peppers he'd made earlier in the oven to keep them warm and turns the temperature up, turning as he hears Jongin step into the apartment.

Just as he has every day this week, Jongin looks tired, worn and fraying at the edges as he lets Sehun tug him into the living room. Yet Jongin still is smiling, his eyes warm and soft as he listens to his son tell him about his day, about classes and school and his garden at Chanyeol's house. Sehun doesn't mention how it's almost seven and Jongin has been working later and later. Sehun only smiles up at his father in adoration and happiness to have him home.

"Sehun," Chanyeol calls, watching as Jongin sinks down into Chanyeol's vacated lawn chair. "Can you help me set the table?"

"Forks, knives and spoons?" Sehun asks, running to the kitchen to look up at him expectantly.

"Everything," Chanyeol tells him. "And remember, spoons on the-"

"Outside!" Sehun chirps happily, hurrying to the utensil drawer before he calls over to his father, "Chanyeol taught me the right way to set a table."

"Did he?" Jongin calls from the living room, still in his chair, eyes closed. Even from this distance, Chanyeol can see the dark circles under them, the fatigue.

"I told him he was wrong, but he showed me a cool video online all about the different kinds of napkins you can make and how to set a fancy table," Sehun explains, carefully laying out the table. "Did you know you can fold napkins into animals?"

"No."

"I have to learn," Sehun declares. "I'm gonna practice every day until I can make all of the cool napkin patterns. Then we'll all have swans to wipe our faces with."

"I look forward to this day," Jongin calls from the living room and Chanyeol bites down a laugh as he pulls their dinner from the oven.

"Well, it's not today," Chanyeol says, nodding to Sehun. "Wash up. Dinner's ready."

Sehun whoops in delight, running to the bathroom to wash his hands as Chanyeol sets down the hot pan. He almost startles as he feels a soft touch at his shoulder, Jongin stepping up beside him. "You didn't have to make dinner," Jongin tells him, looking down at the food with a mix between appreciation and guilt.

"Well, I did," Chanyeol tells him, leaning a bit into the hand still on his shoulder. "And you're going to eat it, provided you don't fall asleep in it first." Jongin lets out a soft laugh, finally looking up at him and meeting his eyes. "I love you, Jongin, but I'm not spoon feeding you."

It comes out so easily, naturally, that for a moment Chanyeol doesn't catch it. It isn't until Jongin's eyes have widened and he's been quiet that Chanyeol realizes what he's said.

"I can feed myself," Jongin finally says, and there isn't any question, any pushing away, the hand still resting on Chanyeol's shoulder. If anything, Jongin's pale cheeks are slightly pink, the corners of his mouth twitching up.

"Wash hands first," Chanyeol reminds, pulling down bowls to serve dinner.

"Yes, dear," Jongin says, tone teasing even as it sends a warm pleased curl into Chanyeol's stomach. Looking up, startled, Chanyeol catches the smile on Jongin's face, almost playful but it still tugs at him, filling him up and spreading warmth through him. It stays, simmering just under his skin as they sit down for dinner, conversation flowing around the table. Chanyeol keeps catching Sehun avoiding eating his pepper, and gently reminds him to finish it as they eat, smiling softly when Sehun begrudgingly eats it slowly, catching a soft approving grin from Jongin.

"He listens to you," Jongin says, coming up to help him do dishes when he's sent Sehun to go wash up for bedtime and stories.

"Hm?" Chanyeol asks, turning to him.

"You don't have to do dishes," Jongin sighs, stepping in and pulling Chanyeol's hands from the sink. "You made dinner. I'll take care of them."

"But it's my baking dish," Chanyeol points out and Jongin's cheeks pink again.

"Then I'll bring it over tomorrow when I pick up Sehun," Jongin counters, and then smiles, some of the tired slipping back over him when he'd held it at bay through dinner. "He listens to you now."

"Didn't he always?" Chanyeol laughs, leaning against the counter.

"It's different now," Jongin says, looking thoughtful as he leans beside Chanyeol, nudging against his side. "It's not like how he listens to Yixing or Seulgi, but more like-"

"Daddy?" Sehun calls, poking his head in from the hall. "Can Chanyeol read to me tonight?"

"I think you have to ask Chanyeol that," Jongin says, and the laugh in his voice hums against the warmth in Chanyeol's chest.

"Can you read to me tonight?" Sehun asks, looking slightly exasperated he has to ask twice.

"You're missing a word," Chanyeol tells him, feeling Jongin slip closer against his side, leaning on him.

"Please," Sehun adds, looking both annoyed and amused.

"Of course," Chanyeol tells him with a smile, watching as Sehun grins in delight. "Go pick out a book."

"See?" Jongin murmurs, voice laced with tired. "He listens to you." He doesn't even try to lean away when Chanyeol drapes an arm around him, letting himself settle against Chanyeol's side warmly, head resting against his shoulder.

"I feel like a parent," Chanyeol teases, expecting Jongin to laugh. Instead, Jongin lets out a soft hum, and it slowly settles in Chanyeol that Jongin is right, to some extent. While Sehun doesn't listen to him like he does his father, it's not the same as when Chanyeol first met Sehun. "Or old."

"Being a parent doesn't make you old," Jongin says, almost defensive.

"Sure it does," Chanyeol tells him and grins when Jongin slaps him lethargically on the stomach, laughing a moment later when Jongin grumbles at him. "I'm kidding."

"Jerk," Jongin mumbles, but doesn't pull away, instead slipping closer as Chanyeol's hand settles at his waist.

"I feel like I should tuck both of you in," Chanyeol teases, turning to speak into Jongin's hair.

"I thought I was old."

Laughing, Chanyeol pulls back, stepping so Jongin can shift to look up at him, and for a moment as Jongin faces him, leaning up slightly, Chanyeol's heart jumps. The look in his eyes, though tired, is almost...

"No," Chanyeol tells him, swallowing at the look Jongin gives him. It's warm, full and warm and open, adding to the smile on his lips and the curl in Chanyeol's stomach that grows and pulses gently. "You are exhausted though," he adds, wetting his lips. It's like Jongin is waiting.

Jongin sighs, eyes closing and it breaks slightly, some of the catch in Chanyeol's chest fading. "I'm fine," Jongin says, though the fatigue in his voice is incredibly unconvincing.

"Sure," Chanyeol says, and lets out a soft laugh as he reaches up to brush Jongin's hair from his face. Jongin leans into the touch, and it pushes against Chanyeol's breath. "You look completely worn out."

"I forgot what sleeping was like," Jongin tells him, voice softer as Chanyeol continues to absently run his fingers through his hair. Jongin keeps sighing, and it's almost like he's purring at the touch. "I forgot how nice it was."

"You should sleep tonight then," Chanyeol tells him. From the corner of his eye, he sees Sehun poke his head into the living room again and nods to him, earning a grin, a nod, and a last minute thumbs up before Sehun disappears again. "I'm already tucking Sehun in, it'll make my job easier if you let me do the same to you."

"I'm not a child," Jongin reminds him, and it almost sounds petulant before Jongin opens his eyes and fixes Chanyeol with a stare. The laugh never bubbles up Chanyeol's throat, as instead it catches in his throat, pulling his breath back at the intensity directed at him.

"I know," Chanyeol says, words feeling as weak as his knees under that stare. Not yet, pounds through his veins even as his eyes flicker to Jongin's mouth for just a moment. "You're an adult, who is refusing to go to bed because you're being stubborn."

"I'm not-"

"I'll carry you if I have to," Chanyeol tells him, and though it's a joke, there's a brief second where he thinks Jongin might actually say yes.

"Daddy!" yells from the bedroom, and the suspension drops. It breaks as Jongin turns from him and slips from his side, walking towards the bedroom.

Reaching forward, Chanyeol stops him with a hand around his wrist, earning a small frown. "You wash up," Chanyeol tells him softly, thumb caressing the inside of Jongin's wrist briefly. "I'll get him settled down until you can join us."

For a moment, Chanyeol thinks Jongin will argue, but then he sighs, nodding and smiles at him, wandering to the bathroom as Chanyeol heads to the bedroom. Sehun is already nestled into bed, looking eager with a large library book in his lap, his pink teddy tucked against his side. "You have to sit on this side," Sehun says, wiggling over a bit to make room for Chanyeol on the edge of the bed.

"Why?" Chanyeol asks, even as he takes a seat and opens up the book to the page Sehun has bookmarked.

"Daddy always sleeps on that side," Sehun explains, patting the other half of the bed. "To-"

"Keep away all the monsters, right," Chanyeol says, nodding as he remembers.

"Yeah," Sehun says, and wiggles down further into the bed, nestling against Chanyeol's side as he looks at the book with him. "Except when you're here."

"Then I keep them away," Chanyeol says.

"You keep both of us safe," Sehun says, and something about how he says it sends that warm flutter though Chanyeol once again. "Okay, you can start," Sehun continues, pointing to the passage in the book for Chanyeol to being with. Other nights, Chanyeol has done voices, livened up the text with sounds and effects that send Sehun into giggles. Tonight it's quieter, softer as he reads and watches as Sehun's eyes get heavy. When Jongin slips into the room, face fresh and just as tired in his pajamas, he gives Chanyeol a soft smile before slipping into bed beside his son and listening along.

They barely make it to the end of the chapter before Sehun is almost asleep, yawning as he lies nestled between the two of them. "Your turn," Chanyeol says, looking over at Jongin whose eyes are also drooping. "It's late."

"I'm fine," Jongin says, voice mumbled as he blinks up at Chanyeol before shaking himself slightly. "Not tired."

"Yes, you are," Sehun points out in a garble as he blinks up at his father sleepily. "Cos you keep working so late and won't let Chanyeol stay over."

"I can't stay over every night," Chanyeol says, smiling gently as he smooths back Sehun's hair gently.

"But you could if we all lived together," Sehun almost pouts, wiggling under the covers as he blinks up at Chanyeol with sleepy eyes. "Then you could just stay here."

"All in the same bed?" Chanyeol asks him, and catches Jongin staring at him.

"Then no one has to sleep and feel lonely," Sehun murmurs, before turning to look up at his father. "And we'd all be happy."

When Jongin looks at his son, it's sweet, his fingers reaching out when Chanyeol's fall away to brush Sehun's hair back from his face. "Maybe one day," he says, and thought it just soft reassurance, it catches Chanyeol off guard. Staring at Jongin, Chanyeol feels his heart begin to beat faster, that warmth flooding thicker through him as he watches a soft pink rise to Jongin's tired face.

Jongin doesn't look at him. He also doesn't take it back when Sehun slips off to sleep and he ignores Chanyeol's insistence than he go to bed. "I'll walk you out at least," Jongin says. "It's the least I can do."

"You'd be doing me a favor if you just went to bed," Chanyeol tells him, even as he lets Jongin follow him, carefully closing the door to his bedroom to keep it quiet while Sehun sleeps. "Then I wouldn't worry about you not going to bed after I leave."

"I will," Jongin tells him, a hint of amusement in his voice. As if to prove this to Chanyeol, he turns off the lights in the living room after Chanyeol has fetched his book and things. "I promise," Jongn adds, pushing Chanyeol into the hall again with a soft laugh.

"A promise is forever," Chanyeol reminds him, turning as he shifts to get his shoes on. It's late, past Sehun's bedtime and Jongin looks dead on his feet. "You're pushing."

"I've done worse," Jongin admits, arms crossed over his chest. He's back in sweaters again, the colder weather bringing them back over his shoulders, the sleeves dangling over his hands and brushing his fingers. They make him look smaller, almost delicate.

"I hope that's not supposed to reassure me," Chanyeol says, standing straight again now his shoes are on.

"I'll be okay," Jongin tells him, shaking his head slightly. "It's nothing I can't handle." At Chanyeol's lingering look, Jongin smiles faintly. "I promise."

"That's two promises in one night," Chanyeol says, reaching up to brush Jongin's bangs from his face. They keep falling into his eyes, his hair getting too long again. He pauses as Jongin's eyes flutter closed and lets his hand rest on Jongin's shoulder as he wets his lips. "Promise me you'll go to bed after I go?" Jongin looks up at him, almost exasperated. "If you don't, I'll just have to stay."

Jongin still doesn't bring up what he'd said earlier, correcting himself to say it wasn't true, to push that feeling of anticipation back down. For a moment, as Jongin looks at him and his eyes shift in soft browns and sleepy fog, Chanyeol almost thinks he'll ask him to stay. "I promise," he says softly.

"Good," Chanyeol says, and pulls away. It's not time, his too eager heart jumping too hopeful in his chest, pushing forward too fast at every step Jongin lets him take closer. Don't push hums through him, echoing as he looks at Jongin and his heart aches to stay. "I'll see you tomorrow, and I'll check with Sehun to make sure you slept."

"Or else what?" Jongin asks, mouth quirking.

"I'll make you sleep with me," Chanyeol says, and then bites his tongue. "Sleep over. Sleep-" he sighs, stopping himself before it sounds even worse, feeling his face heat even as Jongin laughs softly. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I know," Jongin chuckles, and even if he's tired, the lines in his face pronounced and his eyes accented with shadows, he still smiles and it's warm. The walls are gone, the doors faded when Chanyeol looks at him and doesn't meet resistance to see who Jongin is. "You too." Before Chanyeol can pull away, knowing that goodnight has to come and it keeps dancing away from them, Jongin is stepping closer and pulling Chanyeol into a hug.

It's happened before, when Jongin is the one pulling him in, but it's not often, and for a brief second Chanyeol freezes, feeling Jongin's arms wrap around him as he fits almost perfectly against him. It's never been this smooth before, not this purposeful and with Jongin this open and soft. It has Chanyeol's already excited heart pounding harder, leaving him breathless as he hugs back, folding around Jongin and feeling the soft sigh of ease ghost against his neck.

And it's not even a hug, a brief hold before goodbye. When Jongin shifts and Chanyeol turns to press his nose into Jongin's hair, it's too long to be just a hug, and Chanyeol waits for Jongin to pull away to let go. He doesn't.

"You know, I can't leave if you fall asleep on me like this," Chanyeol finally tells him. Even if he'd prefer to stay like this, breathing in Jongin and with the warmth of Jongin against him, Jongin needs to sleep. That's more important to Chanyeol. When Jongin pulls back finally, it's almost reluctant as he looks up to Chanyeol, his eyes heavy. "Even if you can rest easier if I'm here."

"Another night," Jongin tells him, and it jumps into Chanyeol's chest and burns too warm.

"Don't tease," Chanyeol tells him, trying to brush off the embers before the fire builds in his heart.

"I'm too tired to tease," Jongin tells him, and Chanyeol stares and feels too warm as Jongin's eyes flicker to his mouth for a moment. His eyes are dark, with tired and something more when they meet Chanyeol's again, catching his breath in the back of his throat. "Goodnight," Jongin tells him, the words wrapping into Chanyeol's ears and seeping through him.

"Goodnight," finally manages to unstick from Chanyeol's throat and he smiles, turning and leaving the apartment before he can delay any further. Heart beating too fast as he closes the door, Chanyeol doesn't linger, instead walking back out in the cool night air to calm the warmth that spiders under his skin. He focuses on the cold, keeping his legs moving to push down the urge to turn around and run back, to pull Jongin into his arms and kiss him, giving into what he'd thought he'd seen.

It's hard though, shaking his head clear even in the cool air, his heart still beating too fast in his chest even after he's back in his car and driving home. It's hard to push down and clear his head when Jongin has never looked at him like that before. Like he wanted him, and only didn't know how to ask.

Even as he finally pulls himself into bed, Chanyeol still doesn't know if he would have said yes tonight if Jongin had. It leaves him buzzing, too alive to sleep as he lies in the dark and rolls the words maybe one day and another night until they're a blur in the faint light and shadows spread over his ceiling.

*

The rain is pouring down outside in another storm when Chanyeol's doorbell rings. He's just put on water for tea and smiles as he walks down the hall to his door to let in his guest.

Yura is laughing, looking up as she shakes out a large floral patterned umbrella, a kerchief wrapped around her hair. "Can you believe this rain?" she asks, stepping into his apartment with a shake of her head. "I swear, it's coming down so hard outside I thought for a minute that it was hailing, the drops are so big."

"What else do you expect?" Chanyeol asks, laughing as he watches his sister wobble, taking her shoes off. "It is the season for storms like this."

"And every year, I'm never ready for it," Yura sighs, finally pulling her kerchief from her head and shaking her chair out from where it's been kept up. "You wouldn't happen to have something warm to drink?"

"Just put on water for tea," Chanyeol says, smile widening as Yura practically beams at him, her eyes dancing.

"My darling brother," she coos, reaching forward to gently cup his cheek. "So thoughtful."

"I only have black and green tea though," Chanyeol says.

"Hot chocolate?" Yura prompts and Chanyeol laughs, leading her into the apartment. For a long while, Yura just admires his place like she’s never been there before, musing over the decor and praising him for keeping it so clean and nice. "Whoever ends up with you is going to be so lucky," she teases, her eyes dancing again. "You're such a catch."

"I know," Chanyeol says and Yura laughs, accepting the cup of hot chocolate Chanyeol passes her as they settle on the couch.

As much as Chanyeol wants this to just be catch up time with his sister, she's not here without a reason. Even if it's months away, Yura and Jongdeok have already selected a date, a weekend that works for everyone in May for their wedding. Today is a siblings visit, but also the day that Yura has cut out of her schedule to go over their invitation list with Chanyeol. Who they should invite and who shouldn't come.

"So," Chanyeol asks, watching as Yura opens up the large book of people she's been gathering to write down. "Did you finally decide on what kind of wedding you wanted?"

"A nice one," Yura tells him, her mouth quirking. "Jongdeok and I didn't really want to go all out," she continues, leafing through the pages of notes she's made. Chanyeol can see both hers and Jongdeok's handwriting, and smiles, watching as their two scripts loop around each other. "I know mom wants to do a more traditional style, the big show and make it ‘a day to remember' but I figure, I'm getting married and I'll remember it no matter what."

"So you're not going to do the huge wedding?" Chanyeol asks, hands wrapping around his hot chocolate and letting the warmth seep into his hands.

"Nothing too big," Yura muses, turning another page. "I was thinking of about one hundred people."

"And you said not big," Chanyeol grumbles, and laughs as Yura huffs and shoves at him beside her. "Kidding."

"It's mostly Jongdeok's family, and then our friends and our family," Yura sighs, looking down the list as she finally turns to it. "Is it too many?"

"It's your wedding," Chanyeol reminds her. "You also have to factor in people's guests."

"I was," Yura says, her mouth quirking.

"So how many invitations are we sending?"

"Probably around seventy?" Yura muses, tucking her hair behind her ear. "I'm not sending you one because you already know."

"Rude."

Yura laughs as she shoves at him, giggling as they grapple playfully on the couch, Chanyeol finally giving up as Yura wraps her arms around his head and toppling them over. "I win," she says, sitting back up, her hair mussed but looking delighted.

It takes the majority of the afternoon between the two of them to narrow down all the invitations, cross checking who is where and addresses. Jongdeok had left sticky notes on most of the pages, explaining about his family. He's at a work conference this weekend, away and unable to really do much. Both Yura and Jongdeok have been working more than usual, trying to catch up as the finances of the wedding begin to add up and they begin to think about what to do.

In many ways, Chanyeol admires his sister and her fiance. They're splitting the wedding costs between them. There had been a huge argument between Yura and their mother when Yura insisted that she and Jongdeok decided to pay for the wedding together rather than putting the pressure on their family. Their mother hadn't been happy about it, at all, but Chanyeol suspects the main reason Yura is taking all of this on is to make sure it's her wedding, not their mother’s.

It had also helped that she'd gotten the support of their father first, explaining how she and Jongdeok were going about this to make sure that they wouldn't be stretched too much but could still have a nice wedding. It's a big step, pulling away from their family so much when their mother is so invested in her children.

It may not be the wedding their mother had dreamed for her daughter, but it will be what Yura wants and what makes her happiest. Chanyeol watches as she works, the responsibility weighing on her shoulders that she chose, and smiles, feeling warm and proud of her for doing this.

"Thank you," Yura says when they take a break after looking through all the names to invite. She's 'booked' him for the whole of Sunday, meaning Chanyeol had done all of his catch up work with Hoseok and his 'writing kids' the day before while Sehun came over for the afternoon to watch a history documentary he'd taken out of the library. Jongin has been working Saturday's again, his job schedule fluxing as he tries to juggle all his work.

"For?" Chanyeol prompts, looking up as he and Yura put together a snack. Yura had brought over apples, fresh from the farm just outside of the city, and is cutting them up as Chanyeol makes a pot of tea.

"Doing all of this," Yura explains, a soft smile on her face. "I know you don't have to, and it's a lot more work considering I'm not-" she pauses, and sighs.

"Asking mom to help?" Chanyeol prompts, catching the look on Yura's face.

"I love her," Yura sighs. "And I know she loves us both so much, but sometimes I feel like she forgets that she's not the one getting married."

"You are," Chanyeol reaffirms, and Yura nods. "She just wants you to be happy."

Yura laughs, looking up at him over the sliced apples. "I'm marrying the man I love," Yura says, her voice full of love. "How could I not be happy?"

Something about that sinks into Chanyeol's chest, and he finds his own smile less full as he looks at his sister. "I don't know," he says honestly, and pushes his smile brighter as Yura's eyes flicker, picking up on him. "I'd say it's pretty hard to beat that. Though I do think having the wedding you want is pretty important."

Yura blinks, laughing a bit as she looks down and continues cutting up the apples. "Then mom will have a whole new set of things to worry about," she says. "Like grandchildren, and finding you a wife," she teases. "She'll start trying to set you up on blind dates soon." Chanyeol lets out a soft groan, his chest filling with lead at the idea.

"I hope not," Chanyeol says, and it's hard to smile and tease back. "Maybe she'll just be too distracted sending you pictures of baby clothing to think about me."

"You know she just wants you to be happy," Yura reminds him gently.

"I am happy," Chanyeol tells her.

"But in the long term," Yura continues. "When you finally meet someone and settle down with a g-"

"I'm not going to find a nice girl and settle down." The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them, and he hears them ringing around the kitchen as Yura stares at him, her pretty eyes wide. That's the truth though, and Chanyeol is tired of hiding it from his family. Perhaps Hoseok is right, and Chanyeol needs to take his own advice and just be honest about what he wants.

If it were Hoseok, Chanyeol wouldn't have a problem telling him that he's not going to marry a woman or start a family like that. Yes, Chanyeol has wanted a family, wanted that reality for so long, but had never had a specific way of how it would play out.

It was just assumed, and perhaps it's time to set the record straight. If Chanyeol is going to be honest with himself, then he needs to be honest with those who care about him and he keeps closest to him too.

"I didn't-" Yura's voice is apologetic, and she puts down the knife as she looks at him. "Chanyeol-"

"I'm not ever going to find a wife and settle down with her," Chanyeol says, reminding both himself and his sister. It's not a bad thing, and it feels calmer to just say it. He's smiling before he realizes it. "That's just not what works for me. That's not what I want."

"But-" Yura beings and Chanyeol shakes his head, cutting her off.

"It's not objective," he says, feeling the parts of him that writhe against the confused apology on his sister's face calm as he finally admits to something he's held inside for years. "I know it's hard, because I never really made it clear to the family. So let me make it clear now." Yura swallows, and turns to him, listening. "I explained years ago that it didn't matter who it was, man or woman, that I fell in love with. How that doesn't determine what love means for me."

"I remember," Yura says gently, listening to him.

"But right now," Chanyeol's heart skips, and he takes a breath to calm down, to keep going. "I'm tired of the assumption that I'll just end up with a woman, that this was a phase."

"I never thought it was a phase," Yura says gently, and concern lines her face. "Chanyeol, I'm sorry that-"

"Let me finish," Chanyeol says. If he stops, he's worried he'll lose himself, nerves already twanging as he voices everything. "Please."

"Okay." Yura doesn't push, just stands back and watches him, waiting.

"I do want a family," Chanyeol pushes on, and drops his gaze to his hands. He can still feel Yura's eyes on him. "But if I want a family, it doesn't matter who I have it with, and I want it with-" he swallows down the stick in his throat. "I want to be with him."

Names are too close, when still Chanyeol has no idea where he and Jongin stand, or where they may end up. Whether they'll be the family he already feels like he has with them or just forever out of reach.

"I'm glad," startles Chanyeol to look up at his sister. Yura is smiling, the apology still on her face but she's still smiling, warm and welcoming.

"What?"

"I never was sure," Yura explains, and leans against the counter. "I kept thinking that you probably would end up with whoever it was you wanted to be with, but you never corrected mom, or me, or anyone. I'm glad you told me, and I'm glad. For you."

"Even if it means mom will just focus on you for grandchildren?" Chanyeol asks, still tremulous as he looks at his sister.

Yura laughs though. "We both know she'd focus on me most anyway," Yura reminds, her eyes warm and comforting. "This way she doesn't have to pretend not to choose favorites." Chanyeol scrunches up his nose at her, and Yura laughs again. Chanyeol doesn't resist when she steps forward and her arms rise in a hug. It's gentle, soft and sweet, leaning into her embrace and letting go of some of the constant apprehension.

"So," Yura says, stepping back with a bright teasing smile. "I should add two for your name under the wedding list?"

Chanyeol laughs, the sound pulling out and surprising even him as he looks at his sister and feels clearer, lighter. "Not quite yet."

"You haven't asked him yet?" Yura asks, and squints at him. "Or you haven't met him yet?"

"I'm-" Chanyeol pauses, swallowing as he tries to think how to phrase it. "I'm not sure if he'll be open to the idea."

"I see," Yura says, nodding slowly as she steps back from him, taking him in. "He doesn't like weddings."

Chanyeol is laughing before he realizes it, watching as Yura's smile widens, her eyes alive with her own laughter as she looks at him. It's warm, that sudden rush of comfort that only exists with family, that gentle acceptance where Chanyeol knows he's safe, he's supported, and Yura still loves him no matter what. "Not quite," Chanyeol says, breathing easier, as if releasing a coil around his lungs.

"Well, I hope he looks good in a tux," Yura says, letting out a heavy sigh. "We have a dress code, you know." Chanyeol smiles, even as his mind flashes to Jongin, out of his worn slacks and jeans and sweaters, instead a crisp black and white tux fit around him, hair pushed from his face. Even if the image is only in his mind, Chanyeol's breath still catches and he feels a soft flush of heat course through him.

"If he says yes," Chanyeol says softly. "I'll take care of it."

"Yes to going to the wedding or," Yura lets it hang, not asking or implying, but just waiting for Chanyeol.

"If he says yes," Chanyeol repeats, and leaves it at that. Moving too fast isn't what he wants, but Chanyeol does know he'll ask. He'll ask Jongin and wait for him, for as long as it takes for an answer, and Chanyeol can wait. Chanyeol will wait.

"Do you love him?" Yura asks later, as they're buried in pages of flower designs for wedding invitation cards and curled up on the couch. It has Chanyeol stilling, staring at the invitation before him without really seeing it. In his mind flickers Jongin's smile, the sound of his laugh, the warmth of his hand against Chanyeol's and the soft look in his eyes when he listens and looks at Chanyeol like it's all he sees. The feeling of how Jongin rests in his arms, the sound of his gentle breaths when he's tired or fading to sleep, and the way his hair falls into his face even after he pushes it back countless times.

Without trying to think of a way around it, to say and answer he thinks Yura might want to hear or what will make her happy, Chanyeol says what is real, what makes him happy even if it's still undecided where he will end up. "I do," he says, and it leaves him with a contented hum in his chest. "I really do."

"Chanyeol," Yura murmurs, her hand laying to rest over his knee as she leans into him. "I'm really happy for you." Glancing around the booklet of invitations, Chanyeol catches Yura's wonderful smile as she looks at him, and knows she's sincere. "I mean it."

"I know," Chanyeol says, because he does.

"I hope he realizes what a catch you are," Yura teases, and taps him on the knee. "Or I'll have to have a sister talk with him." Chanyeol burst out laughing, unable to stop himself as Yura scoffs and frowns at him, teasingly indignant. "I'm serious!"

"He's worth it," Chanyeol says, and the warmth in his chest gets thicker, heavier, more sure.

"And he loves you too?" Yura asks, her eyes fixing as she looks at him. There isn't an answer, and Chanyeol quiets, just staring at his sister and struggling how to answer when he's never asked, and when there's still so much that is unknown between him and Jongin. Questions and points that leave Chanyeol wondering, but never knowing what the look in Jongin's eyes might mean, or if Jongin himself knows or wants to run before he finds out, before Chanyeol gets too close.

Yura doesn't push though, instead letting out a soft hum as she watches him, her fingers tapping against his knee as a slow sweet smile spreads over her face. "I see," she says, a sort of teasing wisdom to her voice as she looks at her brother. "He will."

"You don't know that," Chanyeol tells her, even as his heart swells between beats.

"Sure I do," Yura says, warm and supportive and sincere. "You wouldn't tell me about this if there wasn't a chance."

They don't bring it up again, and Yura never asks for more, prying for a name or about the man her brother has admitted to being in love with. Instead, they just slip back and forth between bantering, debating over the hundreds of invitations to choose for Yura's wedding to show to Jongdeok later. All the while, as the rain patters down outside in a soothing pattern, Chanyeol breathes easier as Yura sits with him and smiles, loving and supportive even as she leans on him every now and then, exhausted from all the wedding details.

Even if Chanyeol is here now to support his sister in her own decisions and future, it feels like she's here giving him support this time, just being there and loving him no matter who he loves or what he chooses. As they thumb through designs, penmanship and decor, a soft whisper lingers in Chanyeol's mind from his sister's words.

They've always been close, but his sister's wisdom and advice sticks as Chanyeol realizes he knew before she said it. There is a chance, or Chanyeol wouldn't be here, now, sharing this with those he holds closest and most dear. There is hope, and it makes Chanyeol hold tighter, heart beating strong, to the will to keep it alive.

*