Pairing: Jongin/Junmyeon (with side Xiuhan and Chanbaek)
Genre: romance, drama, smut, catboy!au, bookshop!au
Length: Chapter 3: Ghosts, ~3.1k words
Summary: Bookstore owner Junmyeon hires catboy!Jongin as a live-in shop assistant. Junmyeon's wary of intimacy but Jongin is determined to get past his defenses.
"It was never the right time or it was always the right time, depending on how you looked at it."
- from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The only sounds in the room were of noodles being slurped quietly. The two men sat directly facing one another, knees painfully close under the hopelessly tiny dining table. There was the occasional muted splash as strands of noodles inevitably escaped the steel grip of their chopsticks and hit the surface of last night's leftover chicken broth. Conversation was sparse as Junmyeon determinedly avoided eye contact and tried to finish his breakfast as quickly as he could. Jongin had considered bringing up the encounter of the previous night but he'd taken one look at Junmyeon's hunched shoulders and strained features and decided to give him more time.
A tiny little part of Jongin regretted pushing the deeply cautious Junmyeon further than he'd been ready for, but at the same time, Jongin wasn't a creature who had much time for regret. It wasn't in his nature. Jongin most certainly did not regret kissing and touching Junmyeon - he just had to work on convincing the older man to let go of his reservations. Picking up some kimchi with a deft, scissoring motion of his chopsticks, Jongin quietly watched as Junmyeon swallowed his ramyun with eyes downcast. It was the quietest meal they'd ever shared. He should leave well alone and he usually did, but right from the start, Junmyeon had sparked different and more intense reactions in him than anyone else ever had.
"I'm sorry. About last night, I'm sorry, Junmyeon, if I upset you."
There was a loud, wet splash as Junmyeon lost his concentration and the noodles he'd just picked up with his chopsticks slipped back into the still steaming broth.
"You didn't upset me. I just ... don't want to get involved with anyone right now, and you being my employee ... It's just not a good idea, Jongin. I ... ah ... need to take care of some urgent invoices so I'll get a move on first." Junmyeon abruptly stood up and before Jongin had a chance to react, he'd left the kitchen.
Whoever cooked the meal didn't do the dishes - that was an unspoken house rule they'd always adhered to. Jongin had slept badly so he'd gotten up extra early to cook breakfast. When Junmyeon had emerged at 8.15am, with mauve-tinged shadows under his eyes, Jongin had quietly asked him to sit and have some noodles. There had been reluctance and a touch of awkwardness in Junmyeon's assent; and for a moment, he'd looked like he was going to bolt. But in the end, Junmyeon had thanked Jongin and sat down - too polite to say no, Jongin suspected.
The fact that Junmyeon had left so suddenly was something he'd never done in the two weeks since Jongin had moved in. Another thing he'd never done was to leave without doing the dishes when it was his turn to do them. And yet the black ceramic bowl sat, solitary, across the table. Junmyeon had been so unsettled he'd not only left his food unfinished, he'd forgotten to bring his bowl to the sink. Sighing, Jongin dragged his hand over his face and experienced an unfamiliar emotion that felt a lot like regret.
Junmyeon had holed himself up in his office right after his post-breakfast shower - making himself scarce before Jongin could start on his daily vacuuming session. Ten minutes after busying himself with invoices that were anything but urgent, he suddenly remembered the windows and doors he usually opened first thing in the morning. He'd been so distracted he'd forgotten them completely. Pushing the door open a crack, he peeked out just in time to see Jongin turn the corner - the loud whining of the vacuum dispersing the silence in the store. The windows and doors were wide open. Naturally. He should have known Jongin would take care of it. And Junmyeon sighed as the light and air streamed into the store ... and into the dusty corners of his heart. The rays from the faceted glass opening overhead illuminated the shot silver highlights in Jongin's wavy hair and bathed his skin in warm golden tones. Junmyeon's eyes drank in Jongin's beauty thirstily and he wandered how much longer he could withstand the pressure of not giving in.
There was usually a lull in the store traffic during the one-hour window before lunch and that was when Xiumin always took his lunch break. Junmyeon usually ate somewhere in between his employees' lunch breaks. Jongin took his after the lunch hour rush at his own insistence. He didn't like standing in queues and eating in crowded lunch bars so he didn't mind eating a late midday meal. When he'd first made the request, Jongin had explained that his metabolism worked slower than human metabolism anyway and hunger was rarely a problem for him so Junmyeon had nodded and said it was fine with him.
There were only about four to five customers in the aisles right now - nothing that Jongin couldn't handle on his own. So Junmyeon let himself into his small office and shut the door. He was determined to put up a physical barrier between Jongin and himself because every time his eyes had made contact with his that morning, his mind had had been scorched with intimate images from last night and his skin had tingled at the memory of Jongin's hot skin pressing down on his. Junmyeon needed to not look at Jongin for a while but he was still powerless to stop the deluge of remembered sensations. He couldn't forget how velvety smooth Jongin's delicate ears had felt beneath his fingertips and the way he'd moaned unreservedly when Junmyeon had stroked them. Jongin's ears. Putting on his black-rimmed glasses, Junmyeon accessed the browser on his laptop and after a moment's hesitation, keyed in the words: 'human cat ears' and clicked on the first link when the search results appeared on the screen.
... Cat's ears are able to hear high pitched noises of almost 60kHz which is 1.4 octaves higher than human ears can process. The sensitive hearing of a cat can pick up on a wide variety of sounds within a twenty feet radius such as the beating of a heart, whispering, small objects hitting the ground ... Cats generally dislike it when humans touch their highly sensitized ears uninvited as this is a privilege usually only reserved for a chosen mate - who may be cat or human …
Chosen mate? Sensitive hearing? Shakily, Junmyeon's fingers released the mouse. What had it meant that Jongin had let him touch his ears last night? And he could hear his heartbeat? How many times had his pulse raced when Jongin was nearby? And last night when he'd jerked off, had he heard him? He cursed himself for being all kinds of stupid. For fourteen days, he'd only allowed himself to search for random bits of information about cats - working on some senseless logic that the less he knew about Jongin, the less fixated he'd be about the cat. It hadn't worked though, because Junmyeon had still been and still was hyper-aware of Jongin.
Junmyeon's heartbeat was pounding in his ears, and his cheeks and ears felt hot and flushed when he thought about all the times he'd touched himself in the past two weeks - his body bowing often to the constant strain of living and working in such close proximity with Jongin. And there were all the times his heartbeat had quickened when Jongin was close. He should have been dying of mortification. But when he thought of how Jongin had allowed him, even encouraged him to touch his ears, it was not embarrassment that gripped Junmyeon's body, but arousal and perhaps a sense of possessiveness. Instead of feeling outraged that Jongin might have heard some of his most private moments, Junmyeon found himself helplessly turned on. What was wrong with him?
The words kept echoing in his mind as he took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Had Jongin chosen him? And if he had, what did that mean for them? What did it mean to be a chosen mate? Junmyeon was desperate to find out but some stubborn part of him refused to resort to the Internet as a source. He would ask Jongin himself when he was ready. In the meantime he would have to be more careful around Jongin - about what noises he made in his vicinity. Or maybe he wouldn't be more careful and just carry on as he had for the past two weeks. He had no idea what to do, to be perfectly honest. And why wasn't he more upset about the idea of Jongin choosing him as a mate? Waves and waves of questions kept battering the shores of his mind when really, all he wanted to do was sleep. He'd barely had any rest last night and in the end he just pushed his laptop to the side, folded his arms, rested his forehead against them and took refuge in sleep ...
Junmyeon eventually woke up almost two hours later, with shoulders and neck that felt stiff and achey. As he opened his eyes blearily, he noticed the clear plastic takeaway container beside his laptop and a bottle of mineral water. It was his favorite roast turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich from CloDeli, which was close to ten minutes' walk away. Seeing the yellow post-it stuck to the side of the container, Junmyeon plucked it off and read the words handwritten in tall, elegant script: You seemed so tired so I didn't wake you for lunch. Hope you'll eat the sandwich. We'll take care of things in the store. Just rest. Jongin.
Uncapping the water bottle, Junmyeon took a swig of water, and as he opened the container and reached for the sandwich, a few more bricks came loose in the formidable wall he'd built around his anything but fossilized heart. As he chewed slowly on the sandwich and the flavors ignited his taste buds, the same words kept impinging on his thoughts:
Junmyeon finally appeared in the store at around 3pm, looking pale and slightly disheveled. His dark hair fell untidily across his forehead and there were slight knuckle-shaped indentations in his left cheek. Jongin's chest felt a little heavy as he noticed the fatigue in the other man's eyes. Junmyeon gave them both a sheepish hello before relieving Xiumin at the cash register and everyone carried on as if it was perfectly normal for their hardworking, committed boss to be taking a two-hour long midday nap on a workday. About half an hour later, a consignment of new books arrived and Junmyeon sent Jongin and Xiumin into the stock room to unpack the boxes - reassuring them firmly that he would be able to manage on his own in the store.
"You've been here since the beginning right?" Jongin asked in as casual a way as he could manage.
"Pretty much. Why?"
"Has Junmyeon ever ... well, dated anyone?" Jongin slit through the silvery duct tape with a stark black box cutter.
"Not that I've seen; why are you curious about this?" Xiumin gave Jongin an openly assessing look.
"I'm just curious." He tried to sound offhand although he didn't even know why he bothered. If he'd discovered one thing about Xiumin after one fortnight of working with him, it was that the other man was extremely perceptive. Astute. So a flimsy excuse like the one Jongin had just given would not fool him for even half a second.
"Seriously, Jongin? I know you can do better than that. You're obviously into him. So why don't you just come clean? If I think you're genuinely into Junmyeon and not just messing with him, I'll tell you what I know. Why do you want to know if he's seeing anyone?"
"It's ... a bit more complicated than just saying I'm into him. I want him to trust me. And I'd like to take him out for dinner some time. Take him to watch a movie. I don't know, the usual dating cliches I guess? But I'd also like to take him to a flea market to browse at secondhand book stalls. And just curl up on a sofa together and read our own books - like doing our own thing but together. Does that make sense? Just dumb, cheesy stuff I've never wanted to do with anyone else quite as much."
"Ahhh ..." Xiumin nodded and then was maddeningly silent for half a minute.
"Are you going to tell me what you know?"
"Junmyeon is not the sort who shares secrets with people - and I'm not the sort who spills other people's secrets. But, I've been watching the two of you. I mean you're both so fascinatingly obvious I can't help but watch. Anyway, I can see you're honestly into the guy. And he's definitely into you. I've known Junmyeon for three years and I've never seen him as aware of anyone as he is of you. He's cut himself off from relationships for too long - for as long as I've known him, to be honest. And I think ... maybe it's time he stopped doing that. I actually think you're good for him."
"Do you know why he won't let people get close to him?"
"Well there was one time we were both tired and fed up because all the pretentious assholes in town decided they wanted to buy a book from this store and make life hell for us. So after the shit day we had, we both needed a drink or three and the bar around the corner, Finnegan's, was the easiest to get to. That night, I found out Junmyeon wasn't much of a drinker and I also found out that when he's drunk, he starts talking about his ex."
"What did he say?"
"I can't tell you Junmyeon's secrets. They're his secrets and they're for him to share. If you get him drunk enough though, he'll probably talk about his ex." Xiumin gave him a purposeful look.
"I couldn't. That's ... just too cold-blooded for me. I couldn't." Jongin shook his head firmly as he took books out from the box - carefully aligning the spines and stacking them neatly on the trolley. When his eyes met Xiumin's, Jongin wasn't sure but he thought he saw a certain measure of respect in them that hadn't been there before. It was as if he'd just been set a test and he'd managed to pass with a more than decent grade.
"Well, if you're not going to get him wasted, then maybe you should just ask him about his ex one of these days. Who knows? He just might tell you."
"Yeah, maybe." Jongin gave a weak smile and continued filling up the trolley.
"I'll see you guys tomorrow!" Xiumin called over his shoulder as he left the shop, the glass door swinging shut behind him. Jongin double locked the door and turned the sign so it said CLOSED.
"I'm going to get some groceries. We're running out." Junmyeon announced simply to no one in particular. To Jongin's surprise, things had returned almost halfway back to normal by closing time at the store. Junmyeon was still a long way from being as comfortable with Jongin as he'd been before they'd kissed, but at least he wasn't avoiding him anymore.
"I'll go with you. I need to pick up a few things too."
"Um ..." Junmyeon looked unsure and Jongin hastily ushered him out the back door before he had a chance to protest.
He was browsing in the breakfast cereal section when it happened - when Junmyeon came face to face with a ghost from his past.
"We're out of Special K. Can you get that? I'll go grab some toothpaste, we're almost out of that too." It was a loud, baritone voice which sounded oddly familiar to Junmyeon, but he ignored it and continued scanning the shelves for Honey Bunches of Oats.
"Do you want some muesli too?" A lively, masculine voice asked and Junmyeon froze right after he'd removed the cereal box from the shelf. This voice was more than familiar and Junmyeon's stomach roiled as he attempted to turn and leave the aisle undetected.
"Junmyeon, do you want low fat high calcium? Or full cream?" Jongin suddenly appeared beside him with two cartons of milk held up before him. And that was when Jongin finally registered Junmyeon's rapid pulse and the tension around his eyes.
"Kim Junmyeon?" Junmyeon closed his eyes in anguish as he heard his name being called out by the man he used to live with. His entire being filled with dread as he pivoted slowly to face the other man.
"Baekhyun, hi." He managed to say in a more or less steady voice.
"It's been a long time." Baekhyun's face hadn't changed much in the three years since things had fallen apart between them. He still had the same handsome features, although his jawline had grown a little less pointed and more masculine. His almond shaped eyes still emanated the kind of subdued energy that he'd always associated with Baekhyun.
"Yeah, I guess it has." Junmyeon nodded, his expression serious and not exactly friendly.
"You remember Chanyeol?" Baekhyun indicated the tall, good looking man with the baritone voice. Unlike Baekhyun, the energy Chanyeol radiated was boundless and everything about him seemed active and noisy. Indeed, Chanyeol was the polar opposite of everything that Junmyeon was, Junmyeon thought, as he nodded at the other man in recognition. They exchanged awkward smiles and hellos and Junmyeon prayed for someone to save him from this hellish encounter with his former lover and the man he'd left him for.
"I'm Jongin," Junmyeon heard the deep voice at the same time he felt a strong arm settle around his shoulders. And suddenly his unexpected meeting with unwanted spectres from his old life didn't seem quite so awful after all …