feathers and wax; (and a fuckton of hope and ambition) after
Kyuhyun manages to get through his savings in two months, surviving on convenience store-bought meals and tap water. There aren't many places hiring a law student with almost no time on his or her hands, with no real skills to speak of, so Kyuhyun's forced to swallow his pride and opens his mouth.
"You're a keeper," the man smirks, and slips a hundred thousand won note into his pocket. Kyuhyun wipes his mouth and stands.
"Thanks," he mutters. "Next week?"
"Same time, same place," the man says, and dusts off his shirt and pants before leaving the alleyway. "See you then, gorgeous."
Kyuhyun stays in the alleyway, rubbing at his mouth, feeling it grow hot and burn until he spits to the side. The taste lingers, clinging to his tongue and the roof of his mouth
He's tired, he's so fucking tired, arms still hurting from carrying stacks of books all day and eyes bleary from no sleep the previous night. But he can still feel the meagre notes in his wallet crinkle, the two ten thousand won notes rubbing against each other, lonely, and he grits his teeth. He doesn't have anyone booked tonight, at least.
The restaurants aren't hiring, nor is the bookstore, but he expected that, and pushes through the door of the cafe, lights dim, though it still isn't quite closing time.
"Excuse me, but aren't you still open?"
The man wiping the table looks up and Kyuhyun blinks. He was somehow expecting someone older, not someone Kyuhyun's age, give or take a year or two.
"My name is Cho Kyuhyun. Are you hiring?"
The man straightens and looks Kyuhyun up and down, and Kyuhyun shifts uncomfortably, not used to be looked at. He makes to break his gaze, look around the cafe in feigned interest, but the man stares straight through him, eyes serious, before,
"Do you need money?"
Kyuhyun wants to snort. "Well, I don't want to work for free, if that's what you mean."
The man moves, like he wants to smile, before he leans against the table, daring a quick look around the cafe before he speaks.
"We're not hiring here. But I-- I'm hiring."
Kyuhyun sucks in some air. He needs the money, he tells himself.
"For a personal job."
College won't pay itself, he thinks. He's already got three clients but they're irregular. They pay well, but they're not steady, and he needs more money, now. He can't just wait.
"When. How much would you pay me?"
"Twice minimum wage. Tonight. And whenever else I need you," the man says, and Kyuhyun breathes. It's enough for now.
"As long as you're flexible. I have classes and other jobs."
The man nods. "That's fine."
Kyuhyun frowns. It almost seems too easy.
"Am I waiting for you to finish your shift?"
"It'll be an hour."
An hour is a long time, but--
"Will you pay me for that hour?"
Kyuhyun breathes, smiles briefly. An hour to prepare himself. An hour to leave if he wants to -- there's nothing tying him back, yet.
"I'll wait outside, then."
Time passes by slowly when you don't want it to, Kyuhyun thinks, pulling his cap down over his eyes and closing them briefly. Maybe he can sleep, he's so fucking tired, but when he tries, shifting in the chair, he can't. Even though weariness is dripping from him, and his eyes feel weighed down, each blink a blissful moment of darkness, he can't seem to sleep.
He can't sleep, not when he knows that he's probably going to get fucked in the most brutal, loveless way.
He takes out Hyukjae's lighter, heavy and silver, remembers Hyukjae teaching him how to flip the cover in a really cool way, he had emphasised, and remembers playing with it during the exact moment of the crash. Kyuhyun flicks his wrist and closes the lighter, then turns it on its head in a quick motion, flinging it open and lighting it again.
God, Kyuhyun misses him.
He repeats it again and again, the silver glinting in the light and the flame flickering in and out of existence, hypnotising, as Kyuhyun remembers Hyukjae's grin. His stupid smile, overly eager hugs and just him.
But then the man from earlier opens the door, breaking the spell, and his eyes flicker to the silver. Kyuhyun buries the lighter in his pocket, trying to bury memories.
"We going?" he asks, and the man nods.
"Left. Can you keep up?"
I can keep up with money, Kyuhyun thinks, and stands.
"You need a drink of water first?" the man asks, opening the door to his apartment, and Kyuhyun stares.
The apartment is minimal, only bare necessities on display -- a dish next to the door for coins and keys, a fridge in the kitchen with one of those free magnetic calendars stuck to it, and a large window that lets the streetlight in. There's a coffee table and sofa in cleared space that Kyuhyun assumes in the living room, along with some stained sheets under a large easel. But it's completely empty otherwise, no prints on the walls, no television, no books or CDs on display, and Kyuhyun just assumes the man's just moved in.
At least it's comfortable, Kyuhyun thinks, in comparison to an alleyway in the dead of the night.
"Do you need me to shower?"
"No." The man moves in the dark, familiarity in his footsteps, and walks towards an open doorway. Kyuhyun frowns -- something seems off. "Why would I? Over by the easel please. I'll be there after I change."
He disappears, rustling noises in the empty apartment in his absence, and Kyuhyun swallows and moves, sitting down on the sofa. This is further than he's gone, and it's uncomfortable at best. But it's for the money, Kyuhyun thinks, and breathes, holding onto the hem of his shirt.
"Why didn't you turn on the light?"
Kyuhyun jerks, and he frowns when the man appears, dressed in tattered, stained clothes.
"Do we have to?"
He doesn't want to have to look at a stranger during sex, doesn't want to see himself, shameless.
"I can't draw in the dark, you know."
Kyuhyun blinks, before swallowing slowly.
The man pauses, and Kyuhyun can feel the heat in his cheeks rise. Assumptions.
"You never asked me what I was hiring you to do. You're modelling for me. I'm a painter." He pauses again, and Kyuhyun looks away. "What if I had wanted to sleep with you?"
The man turns on the light and Kyuhyun takes his hands away from his shirt, anger stirring in him. He can hear the judgement in the man's voice. How could he have guessed that this man wanted to draw him, draw his shitty posture and sweat soaked clothes, his blemished skin and messed up hair.
"I'm shameless, and I need the money. I would have," Kyuhyun says, narrowing his eyes. The danger's passed now -- he doesn't need to be fucking polite.
"Have you? Before? Men?"
Images rise in his mind's eye, and Kyuhyun swallows against the bile rising.
"None of your business."
The man's silent as he moves towards his easel, looking over at Kyuhyun seated on the couch, anger radiating off him in waves.
“Stand up. Your feet don’t matter much, i just need your face right now. Look at me like you’re giving me something.”
The man's voice changes, a bit more clinical, and the tension drains out of Kyuhyun. He bites his lip. This is different. It would've been easier, otherwise, maybe, if the man had just fucked him. Then he wouldn't need to try.
“Or getting something. Feel ashamed and desperate.”
“What are you--”
The man pauses and Kyuhyun keeps his gaze on the ground, twisting his shirt between his hands. “If I was a client about to pay for the dubious pleasure of fucking you, how would you look at me?"
Kyuhyun looks up and can see his, his clients in him, can see their sure grins and overconfident hands pushing him down, forcing him onto their cocks. He can feel their hands clawing at his head, their self satisfied smiles as they stand and leave him, a few pathetic notes littering his body and his pride - what pride? Did he even have any in the first place?
“So you have done that before.”
“Fuck you," Kyuhyun spits out, and he doesn't know if ever hated someone more than he hates this man in this single moment.
“I like to know where my goods have been, thanks," he says coolly, staring straight through him. "Now stand still, and don’t talk.”
He talks a bit in the silence, introducing himself as Zhou Mi as he positions Kyuhyun, hands gentle, saying he's a painter. It's a stark contrast to what he said before, eyes cold and mean even as his hands leave heat pockets on Kyuhyun's skin, burrowing under his clothes.
"So it's a hobby?"
"It's a life," Zhou Mi says, charcoal staining his fingers, and smiles briefly.
It's tiring and kind of boring, looking at that one patch of wall, Zhou Mi's shadow moving minutely as he sketches Kyuhyun, looking up at regular intervals. More than once their gazes lock, but Zhou Mi's face doesn't change at all, and Kyuhyun feels more inanimate than ever, more object than human as he stands there. It's as bad as -- maybe even worse than -- being a whore.
There isn't even a clock to watch, and Kyuhyun has to shift to make sure he hasn't turned to stone, flexing his fingers and wiggling his toes.
Zhou Mi's voice is beautiful. Kyuhyun can feel the weight of Zhou Mi's gaze on him, heavy and hot on his skin, and he has to close his eyes for a few brief moments.
"Excuse me, can I use the bathroom?
(They say hatred is another form of passion.)
The bathroom mirrors the rest of the apartment in terms of decorations -- only a single white towel on the rack and a lonely toothbrush sitting in a cup. There are a few beauty products -- face wash, cologne, cream -- on the counter but the whole room just seems bland and detached. Like there isn't really someone living here.
Kyuhyun jerks off hard and fast, faces blurring in his mind. He remembers Hyukjae's gummy grin, but feels sick as he clenches his fist tighter and lets out a breathless moan. Before he registers it, he can hear Zhou Mi's voice in his mind, the low timbre and can see Zhou Mi's eyes, dark and serious.
He comes with a soft groan, knuckles bruising on the edge of the sink.
He closes his eyes and sinks to the floor, pants tangled around his ankles. When did he get so shameless?
Kyuhyun emerges from the bathroom, and he's sure it's showing on him, what he just did. But Zhou Mi's engrossed in his sketch, his fingers running across the canvas, his world contained in that single sketch.
Kyuhyun hesitates before he wipes his hands on his pants, clearing his throat.
"Should I get back to posing?"
Zhou Mi looks up and takes in the sight of Kyuhyun, eyes flickering from head to toe before he takes a look at his watch.
"It's late," he says, and Kyuhyun relaxes, a bit. "I didn't realise how late it was -- I get wrapped up when I sketch."
Kyuhyun can see that, Zhou Mi's fingers almost black with charcoal, fingers still skimming the picture, eyes lost and far away. Kyuhyun wishes he could feel passion like that, just be immersed in the simple action of drawing -- of doing anything, actually.
But he did feel that, once upon a time. With Hyukjae and Sungmin and Donghae. With music and singing.
"Can I have a look?"
The sketch looks like him superficially -- it has the shape of his jaw, his nose, his eyes, his imperfect skin -- but he doesn't recognise himself. He doesn't recognise the look in his eyes or the determined set of his jaw, and he places a finger against his eye.
"Is that what I really look like?"
"You don't recognise yourself?"
Zhou Mi sounds surprised, a bit taken back, and Kyuhyun clenches his jaw.
"Not that look." It could look desperate; it could look miserable. "Not that face."
"Not happy?" Zhou Mi steps closer, and Kyuhyun wants to step away, wants to rub his hands all over the canvas and erase his face.
"Does it matter if I am?"
"Not really. I need a model for a painting I'm doing."
Kyuhyun doesn't know whether it's a relief or not that Zhou Mi sounds so clinical and detached, like he really doesn't care about Kyuhyun at all.
“This isn’t the final piece?”
“Of course not. It’s just practice. A workout.”
“So you’ll need me again?”
Kyuhyun grins -- it's the best news he's heard all day.
Zhou Mi feeds him right after, heating up some leftovers and dry rice, though he says he won't be paying for that extra time, and Kyuhyun shrugs. Food is food.
After some idle chit chat, Zhou Mi tells him a bit about himself -- how he always knew he wanted to be an artist, how he started chasing after the impossible, how he dropped out of art school. How, now, he works at the cafe to get by and wastes his days doing nothing. Kyuhyun remembers something vague Sungmin had said once about an art student at his school, the prodigy who gave up, and Kyuhyun wonders if that kid and Zhou Mi are connected in any way. He shrugs -- probably not, it's a big city.
Kyuhyun ends up leaving his email, scribbling it down, choosing to leave out the fact he doesn't have a phone and refuses to get one.
Zhou Mi takes the paper anyway, and meet his eyes over the top of it.
"You're a student?"
Kyuhyun resists the urge to fidget. He knows he's behind, knows he should've graduated by now, that people he knew before the accident are already in big law firms, already successful and doing what they want.
"What's it to you?"
Kyuhyun resists the urge to roll his eyes. Everything is interesting to Zhou Mi.
"I'll come in tomorrow?"
Zhou Mi nods. "Whatever time suits you. I don't have work tomorrow."
"Alright." Kyuhyun grabs his coat. "I'll see you then."
Zhou Mi's fingers are gentle and warm on Kyuhyun, relaxing his fists, aligning his spine and slackening his jaw.
"If you stay like this, it'll hurt less," Zhou Mi murmurs, and Kyuhyun suppresses a shiver. It's been a while since he's been treated so gently and reverently. Like he isn't trash.
He goes to Zhou Mi's sessions right after he meets with clients sometimes, snagging a coffee on the way to rid his mouth of the sticky, thick sensation, the unpleasant taste.
Sometimes they'll meet in the afternoon, just as the sun starts shining through the large windows, blinding Kyuhyun but always casting Zhou Mi's face in shadow.
It's hard to decide whether this job he has with Zhou Mi is any better than his other job where both are about people using his body as they wish.
He talks to fill the silence, even when Zhou Mi sends him a glance to tell him to shut it and stop moving his jaw and mouth.
"It's too quiet otherwise." It reminds Kyuhyun of the devastating silence that had descended after the car had crashed. When everything was silent.
Fatally wounded. Comatose state. Dead on impact.
"Learn to live with it," Zhou Mi says as he puts his hand over Kyuhyun's mouth and levels a glare at him.
Kyuhyun swallows. That's what he's doing, isn't it?
Ten AM? the email from Zhou Mi reads, and Kyuhyun closes his eyes. He imagines a ticking clock, all the hours of a day compressed into two rotations. He wonders how much of his life he's wasted on sleep.
It's nine when he finishes closing up the library, and he walks out, trying to remember what time the next train comes before he pauses.
He closes his eyes, counts to three, and opens them. She's still there, leaning against one of the pillars near the entrance, a coat on, a cap pulled tight over her hair.
"Not tonight, Tiffany."
"I have a client for you," she says, and taps her index finger against her lips. "He's been asking about you. For you."
"Maybe you know him?" She shrugs -- she really couldn't care less. Kyuhyun doesn't like this.
"What does he look like?"
She shrugs again, takes her phone out and shows him. Kyuhyun's breath hitches. He recognises the dark eyes, the curve of that jaw, the grimace.
"You never say no," Tiffany says, putting her phone away. "Why not."
"Not tonight," Kyuhyun says, stilted, and Tiffany sighs.
"No penetration. You can keep your clothes on." She holds up three fingers and smiles. "You, him... and me."
Kyuhyun shifts, digs his hands into his pockets. He knows the going rate for threesomes.
"When is this?"
"Tonight," Tiffany says. "Get ready to use that pretty mouth of yours."
He showers in the motel's bathroom after, sitting on the bathtub's floor, drawing his knees up to his chest. Still now he can feel the burn of the man's hand on his stomach, right on his largest scar, Tiffany's pitying eyes right afterward.
"You can leave anytime you want," she had whispered. But Kyuhyun knew what that meant -- forfeiting pay.
It had not been fine.
The man had fallen asleep at three. Tiffany, four, curled up on the couch. Kyuhyun knew her story -- she lived with her aunt and uncle, always "slept over" at "friend's places" rather than catching a train home after a "late class." All their stories were same to one point. They all had desperation and secrecy as common denominators.
At five, Kyuhyun gives up on sleep, takes Tiffany's cap after a look at the drizzle outside and leaves a note.
took your hat. email about it all later. sorry.
Six AM sees him sitting on the grass by a pond, early morning dew and rain soaking him, his clothes cold and uncomfortable. He had loosened Tiffany's cap a bit, pulled it tight over his head, but his hair is still soaked. He falls asleep, dreams of pitying eyes, long fingers stained with different colours, and wide, gummy smiles.
Waking up disorientated isn't new, neither is waking up sore, feeling shitty -- feeling terrible. But he checks his watch and-- quarter past ten. That is new. That is late.
He knows vaguely where he is -- west side of the city, near the flea market, far from home. More importantly -- far from Zhou Mi's home.
Kyuhyun closes his eyes, presses finger tips to them, and envisions the city's network of public transport -- buses, trains, trams, subways. He checks he has his wallet, his keys. An hour, maybe.
All he wants to do is sleep and never wake up.
He gets to Zhou Mi's apartment, up all those flights of stairs, and has to take a moment to breathe. He doesn't know whether he wants to go in -- Zhou Mi would be angry, furious, maybe, Kyuhyun's already mad at himself. The door's unlocked.
The sparseness of the apartment always strikes Kyuhyun first -- how there isn't anything hanging on the walls, how there's barely any furniture, only the bare necessities, how the only corner of the apartment that looks lived in is where the easel's located.
"You need to change," is the first thing Zhou Mi says to him, and Kyuhyun barely suppresses the flinch. It's sharp and biting, and digs under his skin. He can hear the anger in it. Zhou Mi is apoplectic.
"I'm fine," Kyuhyun says, and can feel how heavy his shirt is, how much water's in it. Outside, the rain beats a steady rhythm.
"I don't care, my floors won't be fine. Get undressed -- I have clothing in my room."
Kyuhyun closes his eyes and focusses on the little slip of Zhou Mi's tongue, clothing instead of clothes. It reminds him that Zhou Mi is an artist, that he cares about nothing but art -- he doesn't give a fuck about Kyuhyun or his wellbeing. He doesn't care about, well, living if his apartment is anything to go by.
Zhou Mi doesn't care about Kyuhyun, doesn't know his backstory, probably wouldn't care even if he did know.
"I'll take off my socks," Kyuhyun says, instead, aware of no matter how soft he makes his voice, it still echoes in the empty apartment.
"You will not."
"Then let me change in the bathroom," Kyuhyun says, and resists the urge to trace his scars, feel their ugly bumps and ridges, how they'll never fully heal. Time doesn't heal all wounds.
They stand frozen, Kyuhyun clutching at the hem of his shirt, Zhou Mi glaring at him, before Zhou Mi turns on his heel and walks to his bedroom. He disappears into one of rooms, and Kyuhyun's flee instinct suddenly becomes vocal. He can still feel the rain pooling underfoot.
"You sleep with people who pay you, right?" Zhou Mi asks viciously when he returns and holds out some clothes. "They see you naked. They fuck you, Cho Kyuhyun. So I'm not really understanding this newfound modesty."
Kyuhyun can still feel the burn of the scars, remembers the first person he'd slept with after the accident, her revulsion as she traced those white bumps. Jongwoon's obsession with them.
"The curtains--" Kyuhyun says belatedly when he looks up, and Zhou Mi cuts him off.
"No one can see, the windows are all the way in the corner."
"Please," Kyuhyun says, and can hear the desperation in his own voice. Everyone who's seen them only looks at him in pity or revulsion now -- Zhou Mi's the only one who's looked at him objectively, like he isn't just a good fuck or something to be pitied. It's only in these sessions that Kyuhyun can let go, and forget, almost.
"I don't--" Kyuhyun continues, "not when they can see. Never all the way. Just with my mouth and hands and always with my shirt on."
"Strip, Kyuhyun," Zhou Mi says, and Kyuhyun flinches.
He opens his mouth, ready to fight it, but Zhou Mi's looking at him like he's nothing more than geometric shapes ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed on a blank page in some semblance of art, and it feels like giving loveless sex again.
So Kyuhyun reaches down, swallows dignity, swallows pride, swallows the bitter taste of something he never wants again, and unzips his jeans. He kicks them off, hears the thud they make when they meet Zhou Mi's floorboards, and drops his arms to his side.
"Your underwear," Zhou Mi says. "I have a spare pair."
Kyuhyun -- he can't. He closes his eyes, trying to compose himself.
"You win, okay?" he says, and he can feel his throat closing over, the memory of unpleasant tastes and sensations on the back of his tongue. He hasn't cried since he was eight and said goodbye to his mother for the first time, hasn't shed tears since that farewell, but he can feel the emotion building in his chest, this disgust and revulsion at himself. When did he stoop this low?
"I'm a whore," Kyuhyun continues. "I whore myself to people to make enough money to pay for college so I can do what I want with my life instead of counting someone's change behind the register at my father's store. I just thought this would be easier." Kyuhyun takes a deep breath, and he can feel Jongwoon's hand on him, his grin, his dark eyes. "This would be less degrading.
"Please don't make me do this," Kyuhyun says, and twists the fabric of his shirt between his hands. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing, but this was never part of the deal. I want this -- I need this just as much as you do. So let me change. We'll forget this ever happened."
Zhou Mi stays silent for a moment, and Kyuhyun can feel the weight of Zhou Mi's gaze, the heaviness as Zhou Mi looks him over, head to toe.
"I'm sorry," he says, and Kyuhyun can feel something stirring underneath the apology, something insincere. Zhou Mi doesn't regret it at all.
Kyuhyun grabs the clothes out of Zhou Mi hands and pushes past him to lock himself in the first room he gets to before sliding down to the floor and covering his face with his hands.
"I was going to kill myself, you know, might as well finish the job," Kyuhyun offers as Zhou Mi mixes some shades of brown.
"I had killed my three best friends and I was the one living? They all had huge dreams, and they all would've made it in some way or another."
Zhou Mi stays silent, continues painting.
It feels easier, talking through the hours. It feels better, to let it all out and have someone else know. To have someone know of Hyukjae and Sungmin and Donghae and how wonderful they were, how perfect they were. How they were the best friends Kyuhyun could've asked for.
"Sungmin had the brightest smile," Kyuhyun says, thinking about Sungmin's innocent, deceptive face that hid his personality all too well. "He couldn't ever stop smiling -- it was beautiful, you know, it's like he had all this joy in the world and he always wanted to share it, just like Donghae. He, he'd never stop laughing, and it was the prettiest sound ever. He'd laugh at everything, at all the jokes, at all the stupid jokes and it'd make everything seem prettier, you know? And Sungmin and Donghae together -- it was like they were made for each other, they were so perfect together, with the brightest smile and the prettiest laugh."
Kyuhyun's quiet when he thinks about Hyukjae, the boy who started it all.
"And Hyukjae. He couldn't stop dancing - that was his dream. And it's my fault it's over."
"My mother only found me thanks to the accident," Kyuhyun says dully, fingers absentmindedly tracing his scars. "It felt like karma -- it was my fault my best friends are dead, and it seemed only right I'd suffer too."
Zhou Mi's sketching still but he looks more careless, eyes focussed on Kyuhyun rather than his canvas.
"She told me my father died
"I hated my father because he never understood," he says, arms tired and heavy, but heart heaviest of all. Zhou Mi continues painting.
"Or maybe," Kyuhyun amends, "he understood too well. And he knew what would happen. But he passed before we spoke another word to each other. You know his last words to me were, 'You need to grow up'? And I said to him, 'Maybe you're just fucking jealous,' and then we never spoke again. I lost contact with him, and when my mother managed to contact me, he'd been dead three months. I never went to his funeral."
"Do you miss him?" Zhou Mi asks quietly, brush still moving, and Kyuhyun laughs bitterly.
"I don't even know that," he says. "I still don't know if I regret it."
HAPPY (BELATED) BIRTHDAY FLUTTERSHY ♥