[Fic] For Always - 1/24
Author: Coley Merrin
Pairings: Zhou Mi/Kyuhyun and Siwon/Hankyung (with Henry/Donghae)
Genre: AU. Drama/Romance/Angst/Fluff/The kitchen sink
Summary: The bookstore called "Soulmate" has been the most important thing in Kyuhyun's life. With it, he has built a fortress of brick and page around himself, one that can only be brought down from the inside -- both with love and with danger.
Hankyung has built a life of meaning, but finds no substance in it and lives in dreams. Dreams that, when they materialize, make him question his ability to reach and hold on when he wants nothing less.
Chapter One ** Chapter Two **
Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
There had always been two things in Kyuhyun’s life. Books, and the store. There were pictures of him as a young child, a toddler really, the corner of some well-loved book dangling from his mouth. If he were buried by all the books he had read or touched, they would surely squash him flat.
And the store… Of course it was a bookstore. It was neither flashy, nor sleek or large. The bells on the door rang more like chimes, tiny little peals that called a welcome rather than screaming of it. It smelled of books, though, and that was the important thing. In the morning it might smell of coffee a bit more, or whatever Ryeowook was baking at the moment, but it always smelled of books. Once, it had been his mother in the kitchen, smiling a hello as she walked out to help a customer, always forgetting to remove her flour-speckled apron.
He became a man at the ripe age of twelve. Because his father had gone, and he was left, and was all that his mother had.
His mother was no longer in the kitchen, because she had fallen in love. She was in Bimini, or the Bahamas, or some other place. She had given him the store before she went. Keep it, or sell it, she said.
He kept it. The books and the store, and they were his constants.
The store’s name was “Soulmate.” If the mind were a lock, and the book a key, sometimes they fit together. But no matter how many books you read, you were always searching for one more, one greater. The true fit. The store had also been named for what his parents had found together and somehow lost. It was not something he was looking for.
Sometimes, though, you look without knowing. And it finds you.
The letters were beginning to be a thorn in his side, at least if anyone asked about them. At first, they were amusing to be sure. Very polite, almost to the point of being stilted. May I, and Could I, and Please all over the paper. He didn’t know if that was because the sender was actually that polite, or, since the letters came from Beijing, whether the writer’s knowledge of Korean was simply of the ultra polite variety. Two months and four letters later, they had taken on a distinctly pleading tone. Almost wheedling. But, how could someone wheedle when there was no reason on earth that he needed, much less wanted, to have someone poking about his collection of Chinese books?
The last letter had come not from Beijing, but from Seoul. He almost didn’t notice, as he skimmed the “If you do this you would be doing me a great service, as…” blah blah blah portion of the letter. It was only when he dropped it on the stack of the other letters that he saw the origin. It made him shrug.
It wasn’t as though he hadn’t responded… He had. To the second letter. He had thought the curt “No.” with his signature would have been clue enough. But apparently not.
The letters had found a home next to lines on the wall with various names on them… How tall would the stack get before the persistent fool gave up? His line was about six inches above the lowest one, Hankyung’s, with Henry’s and Ryeowook’s lines in the middle. He didn’t really think he would get six more inches worth of letters, but was almost daring the sender to try. There were trees dying in some forest for these sheets of paper, and all for the want to get paws on a bunch of old books. A few rare ones, but mostly not. He honestly didn’t care how the man had found out he owned them. He just had no reason to give in.
He had to admit that it made getting the mail every day a more adventurous experience.
He was in the shelves one day, the little push cart he used for shelving bumping companionably against his hip, when he heard the bells jingle. Henry’s welcoming greeting was spot on and he smiled. His part-time college helper was prompt and friendly, if a little bit shy and unsure at times. Having another person allowed him time to be back here… with the books.
The door opened again, another greeting. And then someone… Asked for him at the counter by name? He pondered that a moment and laughed to himself. He certainly didn’t owe anyone money… A delivery then, probably.
“Kyuhyun, there’s someone here to see you,” Henry whispered furtively.
He paused in the shadow of the stack, as the stranger stepped forward, clearly not a delivery man with the sport jacket casually over a printed shirt and a thick coat over his arm. A hand extended toward him.
“My name is Zhou Mi. I’ve been writing hoping to see your books?” A startlingly wide smile spread across the man’s face.
Kyuhyun stared. He couldn’t say he hadn’t dared him…
And so, instead of weekly letters, he now had daily visits. It was not an upgrade he had been seeking.
“Do I win the bet by default since he won’t be sending any more letters?” Hankyung asked on the fifth day, having missed that day’s visit by an untimely hour. He complained bitterly about that fact, since he apparently had nothing better to do. “The letters are closest to my line.”
It had been Ryeowook who barged ahead telling Hankyung of the Letter Guy suddenly appearing in person. And stealing the secrecy of the event from Kyuhyun entirely. There were no secrets when there were only three of them working in the shop. And getting to tell Kyuhyun’s best friend from high school his super annoying secret was the relish of all the gossip in the last year combined.
“I thought Kyuhyun had scared him away for sure. He looked so fierce,” Ryeowook mused.
Kyuhyun grimaced. “You would have too. I shook his hand automatically… He goggled at me. And I say that, in such that I have never, ever seen anyone goggle before in my life. He asked me twice, are you sure you are Cho Kyuhyun? Are you sure? Of course I’m not sure. I’m secretly the terror that flaps in the night and call myself Engelbert Humperdink. Then he asked if I had reconsidered letting him see the books, gave me his card and left.”
Hankyung had laughed, because that was what friends did when letter stalking became in-person stalking.
Of course, he had been apologized to the next day for the disbelief of his identity. Apparently Letter Guy had thought he was a stodgy old collector. Emphasis on stodgy and old, though it hadn’t been put that way by the other man. (More like… “I didn’t… know that you were, erm… young.” Which ended up being the same thing.) So he had been given that rather stuttery and toe-stubbing apology. Kyuhyun, taking pity, hadn’t just sent him out the door that day, he had even opened the door for him.
It was infuriating because he should have been mad… Could the police even be called in a situation like this? But the man was so affable about it. He took Kyuhyun’s no’s and goodbye’s with grace.
And so Kyuhyun rolled his eyes at Hankyung, and his question about the bet. Five cups of tea was a small price to pay for losing to Hankyung for his well placed line.
“Who knows?” he replied, waving at the stack of letters. “Maybe he’ll get tired and go back to China, and keep on writing. We’ll be like pen pals, except for the part where I don’t write back.”
“Have you taken a picture? What does he looks like?”
“Does it matter?” Kyuhyun scowled. “I wouldn’t bother taking a picture of someone I’m not planning on seeing again.”
He hoped, at least.
“Says the man who takes pictures of customers if they say okay and stand still long enough. It’s not like you haven’t noticed when he’s been circling you for all this time. Fine. Don’t tell me.”
“He’s tall,” Ryeowook chipped in. “Taller than you, Hankyung. He has kind eyes.”
“And his chin wants to give us all cupcakes,” Kyuhyun muttered. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I feel sorry for him… Do you really think he came all this way just to see the books?”
“I forgot to ask,” Kyuhyun said.
Hankyung turned his cup. “Have you considered…”
“Just letting him?” Kyuhyun asked. He could see where that was going. “Not really. There’s nothing in it for me, is there? The books are fine as they are, and I’m certainly not the only one who owns copies of them.”
The books themselves were beautiful, a beautiful collection, a lifetime’s worth. But not his lifetime -- his father’s. They were one of the other things he had been left with. A beautiful collection of old Chinese books. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know why someone would want to spend time with them. The letters had certainly tried to press the button of guilt of hiding such a precious array away from professionals and researchers alike. But they were his, and under his control, and that control was really all he really all he had some days. His father had loved those books, had left to find more, and Kyuhyun would have traded every one of them for another month, another year of his life before it had broken, before he had had to try to fix it. Before his mother looked at him with shadowed, fearful eyes, checking locks on closed doors, and starting at loud voices. He had the locks, and wanted nothing else.
There was a wide smile greeting him at the coffee bar on the eighth appearance of his annoying visitor. He ignored it, blithely, nodding. He would never have admitted that this song and dance amused him.
“I heard you had two volumes of the set of nature poetry. Did you ever think of getting the first volume?” Letter Guy asked, elbows halfway toward Kyuhyun’s side of the counter.
“You don’t find rare first editions laying around in the gutter,” Kyuhyun muttered, removing empty tea cups. He couldn’t exactly ignore him… The guy might not have a chance, but still he had to admire perseverance when it also now came with him leaving the store with a sack of books the last several times he had entered. Customers were welcome. Even pesky ones.
A quick, long-fingered hand checked the counter for spills, and placed a small box on it. Kyuhyun noticed but did not comment or ask. Questions inevitably led to answers, and engaging conversation with would-be stalkers was not high on his priority list. He had considered that the man might be a thief or working with one. Casing the place, as it were. The books were not completely valueless, after all. But imagining that this man could be a thief, the same person who sent him a rather wide eyed look before standing and leaving, was not fathomable.
He should have set the box aside. He really should have. Put it in a safe place to return it when the man inevitably showed back up. But it was stubborn curiosity that had him opening the lid. If there had been an “open me” sign on it, it could not have been clearer. He nearly choked on his laughter when his brain told him that what was in the box couldn’t possibly be what he thought it might be. But it was. Nestled inside, wrapped in archival protecting paper, was the first volume, first edition of his set. Was he being bribed? He dared not even touch the cover as he considered, the empty space on the shelf taunting him in his memory. As bribes went… it was a good one.
On the ninth visit, Kyuhyun put the box on the counter for Letter Guy to take, with a bit of regret in his heart.
“You left something,” Kyuhyun told him, drawing his fingertips back from the heavy cardboard.
“I didn’t,” was the surprised reply.
He frowned. “Then what is this?”
“A book.” It was said without guile, though his face spoke volumes of what it was and what it could be, in the tightening of the skin over his cheekbones and the subtle sharpening of his eyes.
Kyuhyun’s eyebrow rose. A trade? He asked silently.
The man pushed the box another inch into Kyuhyun’s waiting hands and smiled.
That was the day Zhou Mi made it into the back room.
They faced off like grandmothers haggling in the market.
“A week,” Kyuhyun offered.
Zhou Mi looked horrified. “I’ve been waiting more than a week here, and longer including the time I spent sending you letters. I want unlimited access.”
“Your collection will be complete for an unlimited amount of time, so why shouldn’t I have the same?”
That affability was slowly being replaced by a core of iron. His mouth was set in a firm line, and the exaggerated tilt of his head made him appear as though he was looking down at Kyuhyun from some great height. He was not intimidated in the least.
“Having you skulking around for an indefinite period of time is not worth the price of the book to me,” he said firmly. “I run a business. I don’t have time to play museum curator for you.”
“Did you read my letters? In addition to the part where I’m a professor of Chinese literature, I also have a degree that includes museum preservation. I know what I’m doing. And if you were going to buy the book, why haven’t you already?”
Point, Zhou Mi. Not seeking out the book was one thing. Have it tossed under his nose was another thing entirely. Unlimited access did not mean forever… And there was a certain sincerity, a kind of tragic amount of wide-eyed belief that Kyuhyun could or would give in.
“You would stay no longer than you needed to?”
“Not without reason,” Zhou Mi assured him. A smile tugged at his lips, as though he could taste victory. If Kyuhyun said “No” now, how much would that anticipation fall? Would he leave for good? Even he hadn’t hardened to that point. Somehow he had a feeling if he said no, he would not see the back of this person leaving for good for much longer than he wanted. That was the barbed threat wrapped in bright, shiny clouds. Though Zhou Mi would probably call it a promise.
“You aren’t allowed to remove books from this room without my express permission.”
“Agreed,” Zhou Mi said instantly.
“I don’t want you out bothering my customers, either. And, if I need this space for unpacking shipments or anything else, you leave. The business comes first.”
Kyuhyun kept an eye out for any balking at his terms, saw none, only earnest agreement.
“That’s fine. I’m not here to interrupt you.”
“I hope you mean that,” Kyuhyun said. But the interruption would be there whether he intended it or not. “Should we sign a contract?”
“My word is good. Is yours?”
He straightened at that.
“Let’s shake on it,” Zhou Mi suggested, “and I’ll give you the papers on the book.”
Kyuhyun regretted doing that immediately as his hand was gripped solidly and pumped up and down as if they were making steam instead of a contract.
He pulled his tingling and abused hand away.
Hankyung had been the only other person he had allowed in the closet where the books were stored, a place he could easily control light and temperature and moisture. It had been set up that way even before the books had become his. But he had added a lock. Letting someone else in, someone he didn’t know, felt like letting a stranger into the room of a child.
But there was a certain sort of reverence in Zhou Mi’s face that calmed him.
“It’s about 20 years worth of adding a book here or there,” Kyuhyun said, feeling he had to be the one to speak first. “None of them are particularly fragile, so with clean hands, you’ll be fine. The worktable is the best space for you.”
“Can you read them?” Zhou Mi asked him.
He rolled his eyes at Zhou Mi. “No, I just like looking at the pictures.”
Zhou Mi laughed, tactfully not commenting on the fact that it was clearly not Kyuhyun who had been adding books for those 20 years.
“But no, I can’t read them. I never learned. The catalogue says what they are about, and that’s as much as I know.”
Zhou Mi trailed his fingers along the edge of the shelf.
“You’ve kept them well.”
“No… Some people don’t. Some people can’t or don’t know how… I’ve seen books more precious than these eaten by mildew, warped and faded… It makes you want to cry for what’s been lost.”
“Do you worship books then?”
“No… But I want to do my best to make sure they’re remembered,” Zhou Mi said earnestly.
“People don’t care about books like these.”
“Clearly some of us do.”
Zhou Mi smiled at him as though they shared some great similarity, and he backed quickly away from that imagined edge. That connection was one he had thought he shared with his father, when he would sit in the corner of this room and watch the careful dusting, listening to why the dust could hurt the books… It was just dust, surely? They had just been books. He guarded them, but did not become them.
“The catalogue is kept here if you need it. Though I’m here if you do have questions… I’ll keep the key back here in the desk so you can get in without having to ask me for it each time. Keep that knowledge to yourself.”
“I will. Thank you.”
Kyuhyun turned away without a word, and left him to it. He felt Zhou Mi’s eyes follow him until he emerged into the store. His counter. His book stacks. His tables and chairs. The broad windows that let in the dim winter light. He could hear Henry shelving in Fiction, heard water running in the kitchen. Everything was the same, and yet not. The back room was out of sight, but far from out of mind. Hands that were not his were pulling his father’s books from the shelves. He stared at the stack of letters and sighed, shaking his head.
On the plaque inside the bookstore’s door, one he had never been able to remove, was a saying.
“Welcome to Soulmate.
Books pass through hands,
Words through hearts,
But in meeting there is magic.”
It spoke of books, not people. He found he had little faith in either.
Beginning Note: Siwon is all impressed I kept him out of an entire chapter. Ultimately, this story is Zhou Mi’s fault. I was perfectly happy off in Mr. Sparkly Pants land, and writing SiHan. Then Zhou Mi sat himself in my lap and shouted “Love me!” Well hello there, sunshine. And then I wrote some more SiHan. And a small KyuMi. And some more SiHan, and was determined that KyuMi was going to get their OWN story. Someday.
But Zhou Mi was perturbed I’d written him out of my historical, and Siwon doubly so. (See if I do that again. This fic will be the death of me.)
So I did learn a very valuable lesson: Never turn your back on a Siwon-weak Hankyung muse or Kyuhyun in any way, shape, or form. You end up with stories like these. <3 to KyuMi and SiHan.
...And why yes, that is a reference to my childhood cartoon watching in there, why do you ask? >.>