[Fic] More Than This - 5/15
Author: Coley Merrin
Pairings: Zhou Mi/Kyuhyun, Tablo/Eunhyuk
Other: Zhou Mi/other, Kyuhyun/other, Eunhyuk/Sooyoung, various
Genre: AU, crime, romance
Warnings: violence, death (not of main characters)
Summary: Zhou Mi’s focus is Heartstrings, a dating company where love is more than just a guarantee - it's in Zhou Mi’s blood. A matchmaking gift he’s used with gladness, until a series of murders has it shaping his nightmares.
Eunhyuk, his business partner, can’t let go of his tumultuous past. But finding a man he’s been looking for over half his life has repercussions not only for him, but for Zhou Mi and their future.
Chapter One * Chapter Two * Chapter Three * Chapter Four * Chapter Five * Chapter Six
“Yes, for Zhou Mi?” Zhou Mi said to the host, and Kyuhyun stood loose beside him. It was a little classier restaurant than he was used to eating in, but he’d been there once before at Ryeowook’s invitation. Their reservation confirmed, Zhou Mi motioned Kyuhyun ahead of him as they were led to their table. The hand that met his lower back had his pulse leaping, though he knew Zhou Mi meant nothing by it. He did that sometimes, the casual touching, to both him and Eunhyuk. Kyuhyun knew others who did that, too, and had learned to not think much of it.
“It’s nice,” Zhou Mi said, looking around. The walls were light, with the decor dark and contrasting. Lighting was good, without being garish. And those were things even he could tell. Menus were nice, glasses clean. As expected from a place where Ryeowook worked, was all he could say. And he was glad Zhou Mi seemed to approve so far.
“If it’s okay, we can both get an appetizer, entree, and dessert. And then split? I want to try as many things as I can.”
With a nod, Kyuhyun agreed. “That’s fine.”
It was hardly an unfamiliar prospect. Meals were shared all the time, so even in a fancier place he was used to forking up part of his food to a friend. It was hard to keep his eyes down, when Zhou Mi seemed to be devouring the menu. Almost literally, since he was gnawing on his own lip and considering the selections. It was a nice mouth, what could he say. Since he assumed Zhou Mi was using this as purely a scouting mission, and that Kyuhyun wasn’t paying, Kyuhyun put his own menu aside.
“Go ahead and get whatever it is you want to try. There’s nothing on there I think I won’t like.”
“Oh, really?” Zhou Mi asked, eyes lighting. “Thank you! Oh no, twice as many choices!”
But Kyuhyun sipped his water as Zhou Mi laughed in obvious delight at the prospect, no matter what complaints he threw out.
Their waiter came, taking the order and leaving them on their own.
“This definitely beats whatever I get to eat after work most days,” Zhou Mi said.
“When you stay late, do you eat in the office, or…?”
Zhou Mi considered him with some amount of suspicion. “I think I heard Eunhyuk ask me that once. But no. Usually when I stay late, I snack on whatever is leftover around me. Sometimes I raid Eunhyuk’s desk.”
“Well, I guess I know not to leave food in my desk. It might not be safe.”
“I would never. Okay, almost never. Anyway. Enough about that. I’d ask you about who you’ve dated, and what you like to do on dates, but that might sound too much like work. And we still need to match you!” Zhou Mi’s head shook side to side as though he couldn’t believe it. And it wasn’t as though Kyuhyun was really chomping at the bit to start, but clearly Zhou Mi hadn’t forgotten. But before he could figure out a way to lessen Zhou Mi’s feelings of guilt, the appetizers arrived, along with the bottle of wine Zhou Mi had ordered for the meal.
One hot and one cold appetizer, a salad, and some kind of dumplings. Zhou Mi split them equally between the two plates, before handing one to Kyuhyun. It looked way too good to resist.
“Ah, to a good meal,” Zhou Mi said, smiling. “So, what else can we talk about. Where you went to school? Your family?”
“Um.” It wasn’t meant to be a stall tactic, just that he had food in his mouth. And no crafty way to talk around it, even with a covering hand. But Zhou Mi clearly didn’t believe in awkward silences or waiting for someone to swallow, because he charged right on.
“My rundown! I moved here when I was six. With my family, obviously. But I was a bundle of different to everyone else Too tall, too foreign, too skinny. I learned Korean out of self defense, and got through those first years pretending I couldn’t hear, or I just went home in tears. My mom was sympathetic, but not as much my dad.”
“Kids can be needlessly cruel,” Kyuhyun said, twinging a little bit for each little tease he might have made himself as a kid.
“I made it, anyway. And made friends. Though I was always still too tall and foreign and skinny, but at least there was someone there to back me up,” Zhou Mi said, laughing at himself a little as he poked at the salad. “Actually, that was how Eunhyuk and I got close. He was defending me to a bunch of…unenlightened…children. But we were in the same grade, went to the same schools. I got my business degree, and so did he. Seemed natural to go into business together.”
“He always says you’re the expert,” Kyuhyun said, referring to Eunhyuk. “I know the site says your family were matchmakers, too. I’d wondered, because I don’t think they teach matchmaking in business school.”
“Oh, how could they! So many things to learn about people. There would be more years than a doctor. How to match your friends. How to match people you don’t like. The dark side of matchmaking.”
“Trying not to neglect yourself while matching others?”
Zhou Mi blinked at him. “That, too. Though I think Eunhyuk might be poisoning you.”
“No. Nothing I haven’t seen with my own eyes. You have to expect that people would be worried about you.”
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. Eunhyuk has years of experience, and you still seem to be able to weigh every bit of food that goes into my office when he’s gone. But I shouldn’t be teasing you about it. I should be telling you thank you, for caring.”
Kyuhyun shrugged. “I can’t get paid by a boss who’s too unconscious to write the check.” And Zhou Mi didn’t seem like he was buying it. So he figured he ought to pick up the slack. “So yeah. I was born and raised here. Went to school. I have a sister."
"Oh, is she single?"
“Married,” Kyuhyun laughed, seeing the speculation. “You’re too late for her. She's a few years older than me. And I have a nephew."
"Still a baby then,” Zhou Mi said, nodding. “Babies are so cute. I love being around them. Sometimes. Though I'd probably do better raising a dog."
"Haha, yeah. I don't babysit very often. Her choice, not mine. I think she thinks I'll forget he exists because of the computer. Ah, I have a picture. Did I just become— Anyway, yes. Here he is.”
“Oh,” Zhou Mi exclaimed, taking the phone and looking at the pudgy baby clearly cooing at the screen. Even by Kyuhyun’s standards, the kid was both good-looking and cute. And he didn’t exactly sit around contemplating babies all day. But Zhou Mi seemed ready to coo himself. “So adorable. Does he look more like your sister?”
“He certainly behaves like her. But yeah, I guess. I see her in him.”
“You should bring him into the office. You’ve never seen a grown man lose composure so quickly as Eunhyuk with a baby.”
“I’ll remember that.”
It was comfortable. Zhou Mi was engaging, personable. Positive, even as he spoke of a childhood that had to have been difficult. All of that adding up to the man across from him who smiled and tilted his wine glass, and went a little starry eyed as their entrees were served. It was pretty easy to see why Eunhyuk would’ve been inspired to defend him, and protect him even still. For all the competence, there was still something there that begged to be protected. Even if it wasn’t something that Kyuhyun couldn’t define. But he was equally certain, that if called upon, Zhou Mi would be the most ferocious in someone’s defense. It was interesting. And it was safe to say that he didn’t know anyone else quite like Zhou Mi.
He watched Zhou Mi take the first bite of his entree, lips closing around the fork, and eyes closing to savor the flavors the food presented. He took his own bite, eyes still on Zhou Mi. And Zhou Mi blinked a few times, when he realized Kyuhyun was staring.
“I think I just fell in love,” Zhou Mi said, holding his fork aloft.
And Kyuhyun laughed toward his plate.
When the desserts were brought, Kyuhyun asked the waiter to be sure Ryeowook was actually there that night, and if they could speak to him after. Zhou Mi and his interest in meeting the man undoubtedly behind some of the food they’d been stuffing themselves with clearly held appeal. And the waiter gave them the go-ahead, that he’d have Ryeowook come out to meet them after they’d settled their bill.
“Did you—“ Kyuhyun asked, as Zhou Mi took the receipt.
“No, no. I’ll take care of this,” Zhou Mi said. “Just consider it a business dinner. Thank you, though.”
And at least his conscience was assuaged. The waiter took them to a side room, and told them that Ryeowook would be out in a moment. It was definitely not often that he saw Ryeowook in his uniform, all white and buttoned up, so he grinned as Ryeowook’s head popped out, looking for Kyuhyun and then rushing up to them.
“Ah, you came again! You’ve never brought a boyfriend here before,” Ryeowook said, beaming between them.
The urge to step on Ryeowook’s foot was overcome only slightly by his sense of place and decorum.
“Ryeowook, this is my boss,” and the word half trembled, with a hiss of air following it, just in case Ryeowook hadn’t gotten the clue. “Zhou Mi. He really liked the little cakes you made, so we were here checking out the restaurant’s food.”
It was a good thing Ryeowook had a way about him, mouth rounding as Kyuhyun talked. And Zhou Mi looked far too amused. Kyuhyun could’ve sworn he moved closer, just to see if he could further ruffle Kyuhyun’s feathers.
“It’s wonderful to meet you,” Zhou Mi said, and offered to take one of Ryeowook’s hands. “Were you in charge of the kitchen tonight?”
“Just sous chef right now,” Ryeowook said. “But depending on what your ordered, I might have cooked your food.”
Zhou Mi took another step forward, clasping Ryeowook’s hand then with both of his. And Kyuhyun wasn’t really sure what to do, seeing Ryeowook staring up at this relative stranger, to him at least. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to save his friend, or stop his boss from… He wasn’t even sure yet.
“Are you single?” Zhou Mi asked, voice fervent.
Ryeowook’s lips trembled, glancing over at Kyuhyun’s little noise to see if there was help or an answer forthcoming. He honestly wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Roll around on the floor in laughter, or drag Zhou Mi away.
“I don’t really have a lot of time to date,” Ryeowook explained, with heroic composure.
“But you’re adorable, and you have clear skill with food. If everyone knew both of those things, you’d have people after you all the time.”
Kyuhyun half expected hearts and flowers to start floating off of Zhou Mi’s shoulders.
“But if you do find yourself with time free…” Zhou Mi paused, and for a moment, a very real moment that he saw Ryeowook half believing too, he thought Zhou Mi was going to go from introduction to asking out in less than five minutes. “Call me, and I can help you find the person of your dreams. We run a dating site, you knew that right?”
Relief followed the swamping embarrassment, and Kyuhyun intervened. “Now that the commercial is over. Zhou Mi, you had questions?”
“I did!” And Zhou Mi’s face went to professional-smile mode, and less greasy suitor. “We have mixers, small get-togethers for clients sometimes. Does the restaurant do on-site catering, have event space?”
“Oh, we do,” Ryeowook said. “I’m on break, so I can show you right now, if that’s okay?”
And they started walking off arm in arm, with Ryeowook looking back over his shoulder and mouthing “he’s cute” at Kyuhyun.
Zhou Mi and Ryeowook…? He tried to picture it, managed, and then promptly pushed it aside. They’d never see each other, both working long hours, for one thing.
He couldn’t come up with another rational thing, but he knew it existed.
But he dutifully followed, listening to the chattering talk of food, and planning. Appetizers, drinks, or full meals. Zhou Mi inspected the room, checking out the tables and chairs, lighting. One side had windows that overlooked greenery, which Zhou Mi seemed to approve of.
“I think this space is definitely something I can see using for an intimate dinner party. A couple of clients and some guests for them to meet. The food is impeccable, so that’s not anything I have to worry about.”
“I’m glad Kyuhyun told you about us,” Ryeowook said, and he and Zhou Mi shook on it. “Unfortunately, I have to get back. Kyuhyun, I’ll call you later?”
It sounded almost like a threat. But Ryeowook left them to finish looking over the space.
“This place really is a gem,” Zhou Mi said, standing in almost the exact center of the room. One of the lights from overhead was shining right onto his hair giving a strange halo effect that had Kyuhyun coughing into his fist.
But with Zhou Mi satisfied, they made their way back toward the door. The host smiled at both of them, but caught Kyuhyun’s eye.
“You’re Ryeowook’s friend, right? I hope you enjoyed your meal here. Please come again soon.”
“Thank you,” Kyuhyun said, and followed Zhou Mi onto the street.
Zhou Mi dragged him to the side, eyes wide as they avoided running over a few pedestrians. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Kyuhyun asked, blinking at Zhou Mi.
“What he asked you. If you were Ryeowook’s friend. I think he has a thing for Ryeowook.”
“Or…they could be friends, too?” Kyuhyun ventured, wondering if they’d been listening to the same minute conversation.
“He would’t have said it that way if they were. I’m almost sure of it. I wonder if Ryeowook knows?”
Kyuhyun chuckled. “You know, you can take a night off. But I don’t get it. I wouldn’t have thought twice about that.”
“It was just a feeling,” Zhou Mi said, his shoulder jerking.
“Huh. Maybe I should mention him to Ryeowook.”
Zhou Mi’s lips tilted. “I suspect that’s what he was hoping for.”
“Hopefully they don’t have rules against dating someone who works there, too.”
“Love finds a way.”
And Kyuhyun almost, almost resisted the eye roll as they started to make walk together back the way they’d come. Zhou Mi patted his stomach and sighed thoughtfully.
“Any other friends with spectacular talents I need to know about?”
“I think he’s the only one that related. Definitely the most talented of my closest friends, me included.”
“Ah, don’t sell yourself short. You have a lot of talents. Eunhyuk and I see them every day,” Zhou Mi said, and the arm he tossed around Kyuhyun’s shoulder was affectionate, casual. And had his spine stiffening.
“What talents are those?“
“Putting up with us for one thing.”
Kyuhyun glanced at him. “I think you pay me for that.”
Zhou Mi laughed, half bumping into him as they reached the subway entrance. “I’ll let you go on your own from here. My clothes aren’t too wrinkled? No food on them?” Zhou Mi asked, twisting a little so Kyuhyun could see.
“No? You look fine.”
Satisfied, Zhou Mi checked he had his phone, and looked up with a smile. “Thanks. Hopefully Eunhyuk doesn’t have to take the afternoon off again to keep from hissing at me. Ah well. And thanks again for letting me know about this place and coming with me tonight. See you tomorrow!”
“Have a good night,” he said, and Zhou Mi set off to wherever he was going.
Of course, belatedly, Zhou Mi’s concern for his appearance, and he fact that Eunhyuk and Zhou Mi both had said Zhou Mi went out once a month to pick up a guy, sunk in. And he realized he hadn’t give due consideration to the outfit Zhou Mi had been wearing. Sure, he’d looked over the tight jeans, but objectively. Not in overt interest. But blind, hardly. Zhou Mi had a way of being that caught the eye, so when he thought about it, it didn’t really surprise him that Zhou Mi could pick someone out and take them home.
Hardly his business.
Kyuhyun’s only goal for the night had been to get fed, and then head home to relax. But Zhou Mi had better plans in mind. And it meant that only one of them was going to end the evening with a chance of getting laid.
Sneaky little thoughts had accosted Kyuhyun through the night, after he’d parted with Zhou Mi. What kind of guys Zhou Mi went for, for one thing. Kyuhyun assumed he went after any men a little less forcefully than he had with Ryeowook, which had made him laugh to remember. And Ryeowook calling him his boyfriend. That had his eyes squeezing closed in horror. Not from the thought, but the situation. Zhou Mi was Zhou Mi, and Kyuhyun wasn’t sure many people got lucky enough to have that comfortable of an evening dining alone with their boss. Their attractive, single boss who happened to be out doing who knew what.
But he’d mostly put it out of his head by the time he made it to Heartstrings. Not wanting it to be like the month before where he’d been actively seeing Zhou Mi in flagrante delicto despite all mental arguments to the contrary. It was a nice goal, anyway. And he hadn’t colored up, much, when Zhou Mi had come back from lunch. Though all Zhou Mi had to say was how good the food had been and how exited he was to have another restaurant for them to use. Not a hint, from Zhou Mi or Eunhyuk. Something to be thankful for, he guessed.
“Delivery time!” Zhou Mi almost sang the next day, dancing out of his office when the knock sounded on the outer door. “For our favorite job in the whole world!”
Eunhyuk groaned to his left, while Kyuhyun got to his feet to see if Zhou Mi needed help. Which he did, and Kyuhyun took the box from Zhou Mi while he signed for the delivery.
Zhou Mi turned back, and put both hands on the box where it sat on the corner of Kyuhyun’s desk. Like he was gaining strength from what was inside of it, or like it was somehow alive.
“You know what’s in here?” he asked Kyuhyun.
“The advertisements and invitations we’re sending out?” Kyuhyun ventured. He’d been hearing about them for a week.
“And you know why it’s our favorite job to do?”
“Because the money spent on advertising means money coming back in?”
He got a very sage nod and an offer for a high five. And Zhou Mi glanced over at Eunhyuk with a smile.
“He’s going to become my favorite employee.”
“Hah,” Eunhyuk laughed. “He’s your only employee. And he won’t be so enthusiastic when he realizes what torture it is. You bought bandages for our paper cuts?”
“I’ll even kiss them,” Zhou Mi promised.
“He says that every time and never follows through,” Eunhyuk said, tsking. “I’ll get the folding table so we can make a dent in this before it mocks me.”
And Kyuhyun set to work opening the box, with the post cards, the letters, the special envelopes. Varying degrees of advertisement, meant for different customer bases. He’d been printing out special labels in preparation. And had kind of got it in his head that he’d be the one folding, labeling, sealing, and stamping. But the commotion said otherwise, as a folding table was being set up and both Eunhyuk and Zhou Mi were dragging their chairs to it. Apparently it was to be a community event.
“We should be listening to a song about making money while doing this,” Zhou Mi said, setting up his arsenal of envelope sealers.
“But reducing it to the money is so crass,” Eunhyuk joked. “It should be about making love.”
“Money. Love. Love money. Money for love. Money to bring love! Oh, hold that thought, email!” And Zhou Mi took two big strides to disappear into his office. And then a moment later, plaintively, “Typing is easier with a chair.”
He had to bite his lip not to laugh too loud, but Eunhyuk had no such compunction. But Zhou Mi came back eventually, sitting and they organized efforts into a bit of an assembly line, with folding and stuffing and sealing.
“So what are doing to amuse ourselves this time?” Eunhyuk asked. And then was content to tattle. “One time we tried watching TV shows, but Zhou Mi kept wanting to stare at the computer so we wasted a lot of time.”
“I wasn’t the only one,” Zhou Mi muttered. “But we did music, and that was fine.”
“You were the one muttering about love. Maybe we should tell Kyuhyun about the Boyfriend from Hell. That’ll really make this seem worthwhile.”
“A real person, or a story?” Kyuhyun asked.
“A real person, unfortunately,” Eunhyuk said.
But Zhou Mi stepped in. “My story, really. And he didn’t start off that way. He was a guy I’d been seeing. Actually…Right after we really got Heartstrings off the ground, so I was constantly worried and exhausted. He was patient for a while, then he just really wanted more of my time.”
“But that wasn’t the worst part! He’d come in here and rant at Zhou Mi, who looked like he was half dead already. And one time he said, and I quote because he said it right in front of me,” Hyukjae said, rolling his eyes at Zhou Mi, “‘You spend so much time making sure everyone else is happy, but you don’t even have time to give head.’”
Kyuhyun wasn’t sure how to respond at first. “What, did he expect you to open your mouth while working?”
Zhou Mi sneered, folding another letter. “I don’t think that kind of multitasking leads to good results.”
“Sounds like you were well rid of him.”
“The last one wasn’t much better,” Eunhyuk muttered.
And Zhou Mi’s laugh stuttered. “What, is this a walking tour of my relationships?”
“Do we have anything else to do but sit here and give ourselves paper cuts?”
“But we don’t want to bore Kyuhyun to tears. He might fall asleep on the letters.”
Between the bantering from Eunhyuk and Zhou Mi, and Zhou Mi’s seemingly interesting love life, it wasn’t like he was getting bored all that quickly. Maybe a little anger at someone for saying those things to Zhou Mi, but at least Zhou Mi hadn’t kept the fucker around.
“I’m not bored,” Kyuhyun told them, smiling innocently. Because there was apparently a story to be had there as well. And Zhou Mi told an interesting story, even if he did sigh before starting into it.
“I was pretty careful going into my next relationship, given how unenlightened the last one had been. Eunhyuk even liked him, which I thought was a step up in comparison. We dated, a little over a year and a half. Had lived together about four months, and he decided to enlist for his mandatory service. He didn’t really discuss it with me, but his explanation for why he was going rang true. He wanted to get it done so he could focus on his career after, and all that kind of stuff. I had all these tales to tell, like how we could keep in touch, and see each other every so often. That he could move back in after. And he always agreed. I secretly got my hair cut, in solidarity. Shortest my hair had been since I was born, I think.”
And Zhou Mi paused, fiddling with the edge of an envelope. “But it seemed he was growing out of me as much as he was getting rid of his hair. He told me there wasn’t any future for us after. That he wanted to “grow up” as he put it. Get married. Phase out of his experiment. Or, rather phase into an experiment. He just couldn’t face up to life, telling his parents he wasn’t getting married. So we broke up, oh.”
“Not soon enough?” Eunhyuk offered.
“That’s about right. It’s been about two years, so I guess he’s getting out soon. But it’s definitely not one of those things for me where it’s healthy to leap right back in. Even if I knew why he’d done that, it’s still kind of difficult to wrap your head around being discarded like an old boot.”
“So now he doesn’t date, he just picks up guys one night a month.”
“Hey, I have needs.”
Eunhyuk sneered. “Too much information?”
“That’s not what you said after you took home that—“
“Okay!” Eunhyuk said. “I think Kyuhyun has heard enough old battle stories from both of us.”
“I imagine it makes you a more empathetic matchmaker, knowing how hard it can be out there,” Kyuhyun said. And it wasn’t exactly something he’d considered a lot, how Zhou Mi’s personal experiences would have colored his sense of duty to his clients. Maybe Eunhyuk despaired of Zhou Mi investing himself as much as he did, but he knew it wasn’t a bad thing that Zhou Mi cared. As long as he was able to, or had people willing to help him, take care of himself. And Zhou Mi’s mouth curved as he sealed an envelope.
“It definitely inspires me to never give up on doing my best. Because you never want someone else to go through what you have. And besides, I can’t see for myself like I do others.”
That seemed an odd choice of words to Kyuhyun. “See?”
“He needs to hire a matchmaker for himself, so he doesn’t make bad decisions,” Eunhyuk said, jumping in almost suspiciously quick.
“But who would do it as well as I do?”
Zhou Mi’s false pride had all of them snickering, even if there was some truth to it. Whatever talent Zhou Mi had, he imagined it would be difficult to turn it inward. Someone else might be able to see the intricacies better than someone could for themselves. So much tangled ego and self-deprecation and self-esteem both good and bad. Too easy to see what maybe they thought they wanted instead of what they needed.
“Let Eunhyuk pick your next one,” Kyuhyun said, watching Eunhyuk half choke on an inhale.
“Or the fancy updated matching program he keeps tinkering with?” Eunhyuk suggested.
Zhou Mi just rolled his eyes and kept folding.
Kyuhyun had escaped the project with a minimum of paper cuts. Three people minimized the workload by a lot, and Zhou Mi had done the honors of taking the mass of paper to the post office. Sanity break, or something. In all the talk of past relationships, Kyuhyun had almost forgotten one of the biggest current relationships. Eunhyuk, and his undisclosed connection to Tablo. Every so often he’d remember it, and kind of stare at Tablo as he walked past. Trying to divine some answer he didn’t know how to look for. So his boss had known Eunhyuk in his past, but it was Kyuhyun who knew Tablo better. The problem was, he didn’t know what kinds of demons were in Tablo’s past, or if Eunhyuk was part of a good or bad memory. All he could go off of was his understanding of Tablo, and assuming his reaction would be favorable. Eunhyuk was a nice guy, especially after he’d warmed to Kyuhyun. And Tablo was rational, and a decent human, too. He wasn’t really sure what Eunhyuk was waiting for.
Then again, who knew. He was just a bystander and it wasn’t really any of his business.
“I’m hungry, we should hang out,” he texted Ryeowook.
It was more than an hour later when Ryeowook texted him, probably on break after the dinner rush.
“Do you only think about me when you’re hungry? :(”
He chuckled, not an innocent sound, and texted back, “Yes.”
He waited a few minutes for what Ryeowook would reply to that. And Ryeowook didn’t disappoint, as his phone buzzed. Ryeowook had sent a picture, the restaurant’s pass decorated with dishes full of delectable food.
Ryeowook’s only message, “Eat this.”
The ultimate cruelty, he though as he flopped back in laughter. “Too cruel! Kim Ryeowook!”
He got back the only way he knew. “You know the guy who works at the front? My boss thinks he likes you.”
“We’ll talk later,” Ryeowook wrote back.
Kyuhyun smirked. Yes, they would.
He loved to be out at night, especially in the cool air. The warmth of his clothes around him, anticipating tea, and warm stores. Laughing with friends, and street food, and making little clouds with each breath. He could almost feel the tissues in his pocket, and wished he’d thought to bring his warmer belt to help his hands stay warm. His mother had always been surprised his hands had been warm, but he liked them to stay that way. It wasn’t cold yet, just cool in the summer. Blessed relief from the hot and humid, but it made him anticipate the winter.
The steps on the concrete were like feet over gravel, squelching, scraping. And he heard the half scream, and spun, just in time to see the woman fall. There was a figure in front of her, dark and shadowed, but the knife was there, and he locked on it. Clean, pristine, dangerous and menacing.
He’d seen that knife before. The bloody droplets and the begging child.
He heard one word, “Run!” and saw the girl, long hair swishing as she darted out of sight.
It all happened in the space of a held breath, to where his arm could not even raise to the scene in front.
He begged her to move, to fight, but she’d been dazed and unable to get momentum. And he didn’t get his eyes close quick enough as the knife sank in. The sound. The sound. And the second strike was worse, dragging a screech from her that was too little too late.
His shoulder hit the pavement and he screamed, feeling warm droplets being flung onto his face as he tried to do something. Anything. Get away. Get her away. It was coming for him next, he knew it, the feeling of a heavy foot hitting the ground beside him.
It was the sensation of the world shaking under him that woke him. Staring up at the ceiling, tangled in his sheets and sweating. The image of the woman lying there choked him, and he struggled up, racing for the bathroom.
He nearly didn’t make it to the toilet, flipping the light switch, and heaving and clutching the cold porcelain. Trying to breathe, eyes streaming. Waiting for the wave of nausea to pass, hoping a second wouldn’t come after, but it did, when his mind pulled up the same images. There was no one there to hear his whimpers, or bring him a cool cloth or water. For that, he had to stagger to the sink himself. Washing out his mouth, and washing his face, and staring at himself in the mirror. He looked pale, and ill, eyes watery and wild. He gargled with mouthwash again for good measure, going to the kitchen for a bit of tepid tea. It soothed him, and he wondered how he was going to manage to get back to sleep. He felt cold all over, and every time he close his eyes he saw the face of the woman again. And again.
He wanted to know why it was happening. Maybe he had seen too many horror movies, and they were catching up to him. He just didn’t know what other explanation there could be. He’d never been one to have dreams like that. Never. Not even as the most tiny, powerless child.
He felt as helpless as a child then. Because he didn’t know how to make the nightmares go away.
And there was no one to tell him it wasn’t real.
Her face was in the morning news. He let all his calls go to voicemail, locked in his office. And then he put on his bravest face, for his friend.
There were certain things around Heartstrings that Kyuhyun wasn’t privy to. Decisions, things that went on between Zhou Mi and Eunhyuk that weren’t part of Kyuhyun’s scope, and probably never would be. That was why it was a surprise, to him at least, as he made it off the bottom step of the office building where he worked with Tablo. He’d finished lunch, and was on his way to Heartstrings. Or so he thought. He got all the way to the outer door, the glass framing two men standing just behind it.
Recognition hit like a fist, having him grinning, then pausing. Zhou Mi’s hands were on Eunhyuk’s shoulders, and Eunhyuk was nodding. And then, they were embracing. And Zhou Mi pressed an obvious kiss to Eunhyuk’s cheek.
Kyuhyun didn’t have to be a genius to gather what he was witnessing. Zhou Mi giving Eunhyuk the last bolstering pep talk before Eunhyuk told Tablo who he really was. And that Eunhyuk was there as Kyuhyun was leaving made sense, keeping the possibility of witnesses to a minimum. As Zhou Mi and Eunhyuk broke apart, Kyuhyun reached for the door, and the three of them acknowledged each other. And when Eunhyuk took the door from him, intending to pass inside, Kyuhyun found his voice.
“Good luck,” he said. And Eunhyuk’s smile was small, but there.
He stood next to Zhou Mi, as the door swished closed. And inside, they could see Eunhyuk disappear out of sight.
“Are you staying here?“ Kyuhyun asked.
“No,” Zhou Mi said. “He wouldn’t want me to, for one thing. Performance anxiety. He didn’t really want me walking him over, but I thought it was best. Especially in case you came out. That way I could have someone to talk to without going crazy in my office just wondering how he was doing.”
“But you think he’ll do fine?”
“I do,” Zhou Mi said, and his face was very firm, very certain in profile. More tired around the eyes than Kyuhyun was used to seeing.
“I know it’s not really my place, but… He doesn’t seem like he’s just confessing to a friend.”
Zhou Mi didn’t seem angry that Kyuhyun was trying to puzzle it out. “Time will tell.”
“So do you kiss all your friends like that?” he asked, trying to move it away from his prying.
Zhou Mi laughed for real, nudging Kyuhyun in the door of the building Heartstrings was in.
“Now that’s a secret you have to find out!” Though as Zhou Mi pushed the up button for the elevator, he turned his head, eyes mischievous. “Eunhyuk will be out awhile. Why don’t we…”
Zhou Mi’s voice trailed away as the elevator doors opened, and Kyuhyun had to remind himself to follow, not sure what Zhou Mi was trying to say. What exactly “they” could do while Eunhyuk was away covered a whole lot of things.
“Why don’t we look at some guys for you,” Zhou Mi said finally, grinning as the elevator started moving. “It’ll keep us both busy.”
And keep Zhou Mi from worrying about Eunhyuk.
“Sure,” he agreed, not really seeing how he could refuse. If Zhou Mi wanted to take Kyuhyun away from what he was getting paid for, in order to get him dating, then that certainly was his choice. Even if he wasn’t sure what Zhou Mi would accomplish. Zhou Mi unlocked the office for both of them, and Kyuhyun dropped off his things at his desk, before following Zhou Mi into his office so they could talk.
“Oh, you know, I told Ryeowook about the guy working the front of the restaurant. Told him the guy asked about him, and why you thought he asked.”
Zhou Mi tossed aside his flimsy scarf that was purely for show in the early summer heat, almost jittering to sit at his desk. “Oh really? Did Ryeowook know about him already, or…?”
“No. He was actually surprised. I told him he should ask the guy out. Or give him food. Same thing. You might’ve made a love connection in passing.”
Zhou Mi actually clapped after pressing a few buttons on his computer. “Oh, that’s great. You’ll have to let me know how it goes? If he doesn’t object. I’m just…printing out the matches the site gives you for today. Hang on, I’ll go grab them.”
Kyuhyun blinked as Zhou Mi’s hips in his trim pants zipped by him. The thought was just as fleeting, wondering if Zhou Mi would find for him someone he might be half so attracted to.
Eunhyuk used the stairs as a crutch, giving him time for last minute thoughts and pep-talks. He appreciated Zhou Mi walking with him, but even with Zhou Mi walking silently he hadn’t been able to force his brain to consider what he would say, or how he would react. Half the reason he was glad Zhou Mi had gotten him there was that he had one less thing to worry about - like turning around and not following through. Actually being in the building, every footfall taking him to Tablo’s floor, was motivation in itself.
He waited at the reception desk to be waved back.
We used to know each other.
The woman smiled, nodded and began to lead him.
I dreamed for years that I would find you, and you would come to be my big brother.
The further he walked, the more it felt like he had a lump in his throat that wouldn’t dissolve. Like he couldn’t swallow, or was on the way to not being able to breathe.
There is this place in me that is so hungry to be around you.
When Tablo looked up to see him, his expression turned to one more of welcome than of concentration, and Eunhyuk’s mouth went dry. He’d seen that expression a dozen times or more in the past months. Compared to the child who would smile and let Eunhyuk sit beside him. Tablo was more serious than he had been. Both of them older. And Eunhyuk, who had always looked forward to growing up, finding himself, taking charge, felt like his control was stripped. Helpless, but not hopeless. Heart going a hundred miles and hour, and sweat cooling on his palms.
“Take a seat,” Tablo said, gesturing. “How are you today?”
“Good,” he said. “You?”
“Glad for a break. We just organized a worker shift this morning, so I have it out of my hands now, and so does Kyuhyun. He’ll be a lot less stressed for you now.”
Of course the conversation went back to Kyuhyun. Their one person, one topic, in common. And he was there to let Tablo know that wasn’t the case. That there was more.
“Anything I can do for you today?” Tablo asked.
Moment of truth.
“This probably isn’t the best time,” he started out, and cursed himself. He didn’t want to start out with an apology. “I wanted to show you something.”
It was the polaroid. A little bent, a little worn. The only evidence from his childhood that he had of Tablo’s - Daniel’s - existence. That the boy in his memory hadn’t just been made up, to help him through hard times.
Tablo frowned as he was handed the picture, seeing the people in it, the building behind them. There was confusion and recognition both on his face, but his tone bordered on accusatory.
“Where did you get this? I’m in this picture. What do you want?”
“One of the only pictures the orphanage took,” Eunhyuk said, and at the word “orphanage” Tablo flinched. “I’m in that picture, too.”
“You?” Tablo shook his head. “I don’t remember any Lee Eunhyuk.”
“Not Eunhyuk. Hyukjae. Lee Hyukjae.”
Tablo’s brows went up, even as he stared back at the picture. Finding Eunhyuk in there wasn’t hard, since he had all but merged with Tablo’s side. Hyukjae and Daniel, inseparable.
Or at least, inseparable for two weeks. And after, only in his dreams.
Tablo held up the picture, looking between it and Hyukjae’s face.
“I remember Hyukjae, very well. My memory for faces apparently hasn’t been that great. You look like him. I don’t understand. Why are you called Eunhyuk?”
“Do you still have the card I gave you, the free trial card for Heartstrings?”
Tablo thought for a moment before yanking out his top side desk drawer. He emerged with the card triumphantly.
“It’s on the back.”
“‘Lee Hyukjae,’” Tablo read. “But why—“
“Eunhyuk was a nickname from school on. It has just kind of stuck. My legal name was on all of our paperwork.”
“So did you give me this card to see if I’d make the connection? I never would have. I never even thought. Why didn’t you say something before now?”
“I don’t know. I know I should have. At first I just wanted to make sure it was you, and then I didn’t know how to say it. Trying to not still feel six, I guess.”
Tablo’s face was strange, and Eunhyuk couldn’t blame him. A person from his past that he sort of knew, revealing their identity without warning. He hated that it had to be that way, but at least there wasn’t anger. Tablo believed him. That he could tell, but whether that knowledge was wanted, he didn’t know. Tablo flipped the picture over several times, as though the blank back would give him more answers. Or to buy him time to figure out what to say. Eunhyuk would’ve helped, but he’d have been babbling, and not helping at all.
“You didn’t have to hire someone just to— Just to meet with me.”
A desperate laugh escaped him. “I’ve already had this conversation with Zhou Mi. We needed someone, and your firm was the best fit. It worked out better than I could have hoped. Well. I guess I thought I’d have more reasons to be in contact, but having Kyuhyun meant I had to make them up myself.”
“I never thought I’d see you again,” Tablo said. You. “They wouldn’t let me ask how you were. Actually, they punished me if I tried.”
“It was like that for me, too. I guess I can ask for real, now. How you’ve been. My dad told me that someone came for you at the orphanage after he picked me up.”
The openness in Tablo’s face shuttered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your dad lied to you. No one ever came.”
The police had found him the second time he’d tried to run away. He realized he had no idea where to go, alone. Months away from being seven. With only the change he’d secreted off of his father’s bedside table.
There had been no spanking, but a story. A story of a boy named Daniel whose family had come for him just hours after Hyukjae had been taken. Daniel wasn’t there. Daniel was happy. Daniel was being a good boy, and wanted Hyukjae to calm down and stay safe with his own family.
Hyukjae had no reason to not believe it. It was his father, looking into his eyes. And he’d wished on stars and birthday candles instead. Daniel was out there. Maybe they’d find each other. Maybe even to play.
“I tried to run away to find you,” Eunhyuk said, his whole being raw. “Twice.”
The sound Tablo made was one of understanding. “Then he probably told you that to keep you safe. I’m glad for that.”
“But he never told me, even later when I asked.”
“He probably didn’t think you should be bothering with a kid who didn’t have a family or a future.”
Eunhyuk’s eyes narrowed. “But that wasn’t true. You had a family once. And you made a future.”
The smile returned, touching Tablo’s face and softening it. “Yeah. And look at you. All grown up and matchmaking.”
They both laughed. The first shared, knowing, laugh they’d had in twenty years. And when he met Tablo’s eyes, he finally understood what Zhou Mi meant by that strange tingle. That knowing. The most traumatic events from his past, bending to meet the outlay of his future. Squashing together like layers of sediment one over the other, mixing and blending, but still staying distinct. Tablo was finally seeing him as a man, the product of the child he’d protected and helped. To see each other both as men.
“Now I understand the vibes I was getting from you,” Tablo said, nodding. “For a while I thought you were trying hit on me. Or try and sell me something, one.”
“I think I’d have had to tell you who I was to get there,” Eunhyuk said,. But his heart had not come down from where it had lodged, the searing embarrassment. He had never overtly attempted to flirt. There had been too much fear and hope mixed up in him, where what attraction he had could not overtake it. “But there are a lot of things that haven’t changed since then. All the times I wanted to tell you, and then not wanting to leave.”
The want to be close, the want to know more.
“We have a lot to catch up on.”
“Middle of the work day isn’t the best time,” Eunhyuk conceded. But he stood. And his lower back tightened as Tablo stood as well.
“We’ll have to meet up soon,” Tablo said. “Hyukjae. I never thought… It won’t take as long to see each other again.”
“Definitely not.” But his second word was said nearer to Tablo’s shoulder, as both of them leaned for a hug at the same time. “I would’ve given anything for this twenty years ago.”
There were several seconds of silence as Tablo squeezed him tighter. “Me too.”
Zhou Mi was an enthusiastic matchmaker. Hands on, involved. He listened to Kyuhyun’s concerns, and wasn’t matching totally on attraction. Though the few guys Zhou Mi had pitched had been a range of acceptable to good looking.
“Especially if you haven’t been dating in a while, the first few dates are almost trials,” Zhou Mi had said. “To remember what it was you were looking for.”
And that was the truth. Zhou Mi had been a bit like a father sending his son off with his bike and training wheels. But he’d let Kyuhyun more or less guide them. Zhou Mi gave his opinions, gave Kyuhyun the information. But he didn’t hold Kyuhyun’s hand as Kyuhyun messaged one of the guys on the site not long after Eunhyuk came back beaming. By the next morning, they’d set up a time to meet over drinks that weekend.
“Is it usually that quick?” Kyuhyun asked.
“No,” Zhou Mi said. “Usually it’s more involved. But that’s why people pay more for me to match them. I can point them in a direction without them having to wade through the site themselves. But he must have liked something about your profile, too. You picked a good picture.”
Kyuhyun grinned a bit. It was a decent picture. One of him on vacation, smiling with the sky behind him. It was him, no false pretenses. The man was almost five years older than him, which Kyuhyun had no objection to in theory. For some reason Zhou Mi sending him out the door after work with eagerness to hear all about it, haunted him as he walked into the restaurant he was meeting his date.
And it was nice. If uninspired. The man was tall, good looking. He had a nice mouth, good career, accepting family.
And Kyuhyun had to back away from joking too much, when his humor seemed to fly over the man’s head. It had him sobering slightly, and the fun of it sank.
Staid. Maybe that was the word. And he wasn’t sure why.
“I had a really good time, and you’re good looking,” the man told him. “But I’m looking for someone older, someone who’s more established. I really wish you luck. Thanks for messaging me.”
There wasn’t much to do, besides wish the guy good luck also. There was logic saying not to take it personal, and the other part of him saying yeah of course he took it personal. Almost like the guy had accepted Kyuhyun’s offer just as a reason to get out during the weekend, but as Kyuhyun got quieter, realized there wasn’t anything there. Better to end it than for Kyuhyun to be tempted to start being obnoxious just to pick up the mood. No need for a second date, that was for certain.
And that was what Zhou Mi heard, too, that Monday after.
“Well, he was upfront at least. No sense of humor is the kiss of death,” Zhou Mi mused. “I’m going to flag his file, send out a nice server notice about keeping his profile updated with the most current information. If he had on his file what he told you, you could’ve avoided that date altogether.”
“It wasn’t bad,” Kyuhyun said, trying not to sound like he was overly complaining. It really hadn’t been that bad.
“But it wasn’t good. And more importantly, it wasn’t great,” Zhou Mi said. “I’m going to let this swim in my head for a little while, and we’ll meet soon to see about looking again. Hopefully a little more successfully. You’re a good catch. Just have to find the guy who’s supposed to do the catching.”
Zhou Mi squinted at the wall, pausing mid thought. “Or who you’ll catch? This is sounding more and more wrong.”
Kyuhyun laughed, interrupted by a choke. “I’m guessing that’s not your usual pep talk. Don’t worry, I understand. Thanks. It was a good first shot.”
At least Zhou Mi knew it was appreciated. And if the next date went better, that was all Kyuhyun could hope for. Though maybe not all, he thought, as he closed the door to Zhou Mi’s office behind him. Catching one last glimpse of Zhou Mi in profile, head bent down as though he were almost painfully tired. He wanted to know what was wrong, and didn’t have a way to ask.