My lovely November. Have you seen my heart, somewhere in your castle of yellow leaves?
– A Waltz for Zizi
"Why did you come back to Paris?" Wonshik asks Hongbin.
He lays on his bed, sleep elusive as ever and watches his brother sketch as he lays on his own bed. Hongbin's bed is the one by the window and the golden light makes the tips of his hair look golden as opposed to brown. His skin glows, though Wonshik thinks it is the sweetness of a deep love that causes it and not sunlight.
It's a small room but it won't be for long. Wonshik has saved nearly enough from his earnings to buy a small apartment in a slightly better neighborhood. He watches as Hongbin sighs in response to his question and wonders if he will need to move to a bigger place when he is inevitably left alone.
"Tell me about Taekwoon, I barely know anything about him" Wonshik says and Hongbin launches into an animated description of him, Amboise and all the people he met there.
He wonders what kind of man his brother fell in love with, after knowing him only for a few days. He wonders if it is fate for them to have met in such a serendipitous way. He wonders if Jaehwan makes a habit of sneaking away pretty boys to far away places.
"It's a shame you couldn't come with us," Hongbin says wistfully. "It would have been a lovely vacation."
"There is never any rest for the wicked" Wonshik replies without looking. His gaze has been fixed out of the window and on the horizon where the sun set an hour ago and the orange sky gave way to blue. The clouds are shaped like pink cotton candy and Wonshik thinks if he reaches out to it, it might melt from the warmth of his touch.
"The café was quite busy today. Looks like it's picking up business. I'll come in tomorrow to help out" Hongbin promises. He feels guilty when he realises his brother has been managing so much work on his own and resolves to do better.
Wonshik waves him off. He has new staff who are quite capable of handling their duties. Besides, he knows Hongbin's heart lies in his art and not washing the dishes or manning the cash register. Besides, the café is just downstairs and if Wonshik really needs Hongbin’s help, he will call for him. He expresses the same and Hongbin makes him promise it.
He closes his eyes as Hongbin's phone chimes and his face lights up at a text from his boyfriend. Wonshik has an early morning and would like to give Hongbin some semblance of privacy.
His own phone is devoid of any messages and he finds that he quite misses Jaehwan, even if his flirtations might mean nothing in the end. Wonshik is now out of sight and out of mind for Jaehwan. He shouldn't raise his hopes. His brother has a once in a lifetime fairytale romance and such fortune isn't meted out so easily.
Jaehwan thinks he is lucky enough to catch his breath after endless days of stress. His family is a mess after his eldest brother elopes with the love of his life - a woman his mother disapproves of - and in a fit of rage, his father strikes him out of his will and exiles him from his family.
Secretly, Jaehwan envies his brother for finding an escape route. His parents will never forgive him and never see him or talk to him again. Jaehwan can't think of a greater freedom to aspire to.
"Now you listen to me Lee Jaehwan" his maternal aunt says, wagging a knitting needle wrapped in wool at him. His aunt is the eldest among four sisters and comes down from Sicily to meet his mother and console her after the terrible affair.
"Don't you dare follow in your brother's example. When the time comes, settle down with a good girl of your parent's choosing. None of this elopement nonsense. You'll quite break your mother's heart."
His aunt's tone quivers with rage towards the end and his mother grows hysterical and so Jaehwan doesn't have a choice but to agree and softly reassure his mother that he would never do such a thing. His aunt moves on to lecture her own teenage daughter and he takes the chance to get a glass of water to drink.
His heart has already betrayed his family's aspirations. Even if he has no expectations of Wonshik returning his affection. When was the last time they talked? Has Wonshik forgotten him? Does he think Jaehwan forgot him?
"The only thing worse than Taekwoon liking red wine would be him suddenly declaring he is in love with fruit wines. God forbid such a travesty but my brother has the poorest taste" Jaehwan grouses.
The sun has set over the valley and Hakyeon is napping on Sanghyuk's shoulder and Jaehwan can listen to Wonshik laugh on the other end of the phone. The world is perfect in this moment and Jaehwan lets the warmth besiege his heart.
"What have fruit wines done to you for you to dislike them so vehemently?" Wonshik asks on the other end. Jaehwan can hear him brew coffee from the telltale sounds of the espresso machine.
"It's a matter of principle" Jaehwan insists. Wonshik hums in response and Jaehwan frowns at his lack of indignance on his behalf.
"I wish you were here with us. You would have loved it here" Jaehwan confesses.
"Hongbin said the same last we talked. I was almost envious that I wasn't there" Wonshik replies. It's Jaehwan's turn to hum as words fail him. He wants to tell Wonshik that he wants him here for himself but chickens at the last minute. Perhaps he should have called him after he's had more liquid courage in his body.
"It's a shame that his vacation has to end. I don't think Hongbin wants to come back home" Wonshik jokes.
"He's truly, madly, deeply in love. It's one for the romance novels" Jaehwan says proudly.
"I did ask him if he wanted to stay there longer but he said he felt homesick" Wonshik said with regret ringing his voice.
"I'm sure he'll be welcomed back any time. Hakyeon and Taekwoon both have gotten so close to him in such a short period of time" Jaehwan says proudly.
He doesn't do this often, asking pretty boys to run away with him. It was a spontaneous offer meant for Wonshik but it was probably fate that Hongbin came in his stead. Fate that Taekwoon and Hongbin were supposed to meet like this and for Jaehwan to play his part in uniting them.
"I'm happy that he is happy" Wonshik says as he tinkers with vessels in his kitchen. Jaehwan thinks of his broad frame and the coffee coloured apron he loves to wear and the smell of scrambled eggs that he always orders and is struck by longing. Perhaps he should steal away on the train to Paris and refuse to go to Milan.
"It truly is a shame" Jaehwan says.
It is growing cold. Winter is putting footsteps in the meadow.
- Roman Payne
"Do you think it will snow in Paris this winter?"
The text comes accompanied with a picture of Jaehwan in the sunlit neighborhood. It almost makes Wonshik think it is an old picture from earlier in the summer.
It's been a month since Hongbin came back to Paris and their conversation resumes slowly. Jaehwan tells him about his brother's elopement and his father's anger and the sudden onslaught of responsibilities that has befallen him. Wonshik replies that he understands but he doesn't, not really. He doesn't remember his parents and doesn't think they would be as strict as Jaehwan's sound.
"I doubt it. Paris never has snowfall beyond a light dust on the sidewalk even in the coldest winters" Wonshik replies as he keeps an eye on the sauce Chiwoong is cooking.
His newest recruit has the potential to be a chef someday and has an intuitive understanding of flavours and spices but also has the bad luck of burning his food because he never pays attention.
"It never snows in Milan" Jaehwan writes back. " Snow is a rare miracle. And with the high temperatures this year, I doubt it will snow this winter as well."
"I didn't know you liked snow this much" Wonshik says, mildly surprised. Jaehwan is a warm summer sun personified and he vaguely recalls Jaehwan saying his favourite season is spring. Yet the childish petulance in the reply makes Wonshik question his memory.
"I didn't as much when I was growing up but I went to Lucerne for the winter when I was nineteen. It was my first proper winter and it was beautiful."
"Is there a country in Europe that you haven't travelled to?" Wonshik asks jokingly. Jaehwan is the most extensively travelled person he has met. Wonshik never truly understood wanderlust till he met Jaehwan.
"Malta is the only one left. I was thinking of travelling there in spring next year. But as it stands, I doubt I will be going anywhere for a while" Jaehwan replies.
"Maybe spending some time with your family for a while is not such a bad thing. Your parents clearly feel better with you there" Wonshik says.
"Frankly, it's a nightmare here. It was bearable when my brother was around but now I can't wait to get away" Jaehwan tells him. He adds angry emojis for effect and Wonshik finds it cute.
"I might go away to Berlin for a while to inspect my father's factories there. I think I might be there for Christmas."
"Will you be in Paris anytime soon?" Wonshik types and deletes. Why would Jaehwan be in Paris? What reason does he have to travel here? He sends a polite "oh?" in response and Jaehwan texts him about the things he plans to do in Berlin on Christmas and about the winter markets he hopes to catch the tail end of.
Wonshik looks over and sees Woosung plating the salmon and pouring the sauce over. It isn't burnt and Wonshik considers this progress and pats Chiwoong on the back. His crew moves on to tackling the slowly increasing lunch rush and Wonshik takes leave from his conversation to focus on his work.
He idly wonders if he should wish for snow in the winter and use that as an excuse to ask Jaehwan to come visit him.
December is halfway through when Taekwoon pays Hongbin a surprise visit.
Wonshik and Hongbin take the evening off from work and attend a friend’s birthday. Drunk and out of their mind, they casually stroll down the streets to their apartment. The night is young but the cold makes their noses turn pink and makes them pull their coats close together. Wonshik regrets not bringing a scarf along and stops when they find a rather tall lanky man in a large overcoat that almost comes up to his knees.
“Taekwoon?” Hongbin calls out, uncertain at first. The silhouette is familiar but it could just be the alcohol talking. The man turns and smiles and Hongbin practically skips onto the porch to hug him. That is definitely the alcohol, Wonshik thinks. Hongbin is rarely that forward. Then again, Hongbin is a changed man.
“Surprise” Taekwoon says and his soft voice takes Wonshik by surprise. He stands transfixed, as surprised as his brother is.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to Paris?” Hongbin asks, hitting Taekwoon on the shoulder. Taekwoon puts his hand around and whispers something into Hongbin’s ears, making him smile.
Wonshik bows his head and walks around to the staircase that leads up to the apartment. He doesn’t want to interrupt the lovebirds. There will be plenty of time for introductions later
Once back in their shared bedroom, Wonshik pulls his phone out to text Jaehwan. “Did you know that Taekwoon was planning on visiting Hongbin?”
“He was thinking of visiting him for Christmas” Jaehwan replies.
“He’s here today. Hongbin and I were out to meet a friend and when we came back, Taekwoon was waiting for him at the café” Wonshik tells him.
“That’s so romantic. I didn’t think Taekwoon would actually pull it off. He’s more on the shy side.”
“Something we have in common then.”
“Are you telling me that the cheerful café owner that greets every customer who walks in is a facade?!?!?!”
Wonshik rolls his eyes at the excessive exclamations and sarcasm. He throws his coat into the closet and jumps unceremoniously onto his bed.
"I wish I was in Paris too" Jaehwan types. "Berlin is beautiful but it would be better with you here."
"What's stopping you from running away?" Wonshik asks.
"I truly would have if my elder brother hadn't beat me to it" Jaehwan types.
"Seems like the season for everyone to go on grand adventures for love" Wonshik says out loud to himself.
He briefly entertains the thought of running away with Jaehwan. Maybe he can escape to the countryside too, driving to scenic places with wind and stray petals in his hair. A warm summer sun shining down on them instead of this cold winter breeze. Together and not miles apart.
"I wish you were here" Wonshik types and deletes.
I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently?
- Lewis Carroll
"You've been distracted as of late" Taekwoon comments. Wonshik sighs because he considers lying but fails to find a good enough explanation. Of all the things he has learnt about Taekwoon in the past few days, the most important is that he isn't talkative. But he is quite sharp and observant and doesn't miss anything.
"It's just been a long day" he says as he wipes the floors. It's past eight and he's closing the café early since there are no customers. Taekwoon is taking Hongbin out for a fancy dinner and Wonshik doesn't fancy spending the night alone at the café. Hence Taekwoon is here, sitting by the counter and waiting for his brother while talking to him.
"I understand" Taekwoon says sympathetically. He sips on the coffee Wonshik prepares for him and takes in the café. Wonshik knows it isn't his first visit but this is the first time he is in his café without being distracted by his brother. His gaze narrows on the bookshelf against one of the walls, by the grand piano and Wonshik almost laughs. Jaehwan and Hongbin always called him a bookworm and he sees it firsthand now.
Taekwoon takes care not to dirty the wet floor and he tiptoes to the bookshelf. He peruses through the collection, mostly French bestsellers and pulls out a book. It's a coffee table book of famous lyrics from romance songs that Inseob, one his closest friends, added to the collection. It's one of the popular ones among the customers who come to his café to read. Wonshik has never paid attention to books but wonders if he should start with this.
Taekwoon stops at a page and reads it out loud. “ Quand on n’a que l’amour pour tracer un chemin et forcer le destin a chaque carrefour.”
"When we have only love to show the way" Wonshik translates, "and change the course of fate at every crossroad."
"It's a mad business, to be in love with someone" Taekwoon says gently. "There's hardly any recourse to sensibility after."
"Is all romantic love that passionate?" Wonshik wonders idly.
"Sometimes love is a roaring fire of passion. Sometimes it is a slowly burning ember, sustaining through a long night together" Taekwoon says. He moves to the piano and presses a few keys. The instrument has slowly gone out of tune and Wonshik feels conscious about the weary state.
"Hongbin told me you liked to play" Taekwoon tells him as he plays a few chords. Wonshik knows the tune as the beginning of a piece that the neighborhood music shop would teach some of the beginner students. He doesn’t know the composer or the fancy names of the chords, just the combinations from playing by ear.
"I used to. I haven't in a long time" Wonshik admits. It's been years and he doubts he will remember anything.
"Jaehwan loved to play too. When he was over at the family house in Amboise, we could hardly tear him away from the grand piano" Taekwoon recalls with a smile. "Did he ever play for you here?"
"Unfortunately no" Wonshik says regretfully. It's one of those things he didn't suspect about Jaehwan, but once learnt fits perfectly into the puzzle that is the man he likes.
"You might be lucky. He would never have stopped if you had let him play" Taekwoon scoffs. Wonshik laughs and Taekwoon admires how his eyes twinkle. Hongbin is the prettiest man he has ever known but his brother is no less handsome.
“Well, I don’t know when Jaehwan will be in Paris next so maybe I am safe for the foreseeable future” Wonshik says. There is a tinge of regret there and it is enough for Taekwoon to pick it up and frown.
“Well, if I know Jaehwan, he would give anything to give everything up and be here in Paris. Surely, you know how he feels?” Taekwoon asks delicately.
“I do…” Wonshik trails off.
“But you worry about the distance between the two of you” Taekwoon says wisely. It’s a common concern of the people who love Jaehwan. He’s never in one place for too long and the worry of being out of sight and out of mind is only natural in people like Wonshik, who tend to choose a place and settle down and look for stability.
“What’s stopping you from visiting him if you miss him so much?” Taekwoon asks. It’s a simple question and a direct mirror of the one Wonshik has asked Jaehwan in their last conversation.
Wonshik has no answer. He’s scared. What if Jaehwan simply said he missed him for the sake of saying it? What if Wonshik isn't on the same page as Jaehwan? The intensity of his own feelings scares him and he doesn’t know how to phrase this convincingly to the man who travelled miles to see the man he loves.
The truth is, Wonshik is a coward who has never liked someone the way he likes Jaehwan or loved so devotedly.
The two are interrupted by Hongbin coming downstairs. "I'm not too late am I? We won't miss the reservation?" Hongbin asks worriedly.
He's dressed in his best light blue shirt and pants that Wonshik lent him and his hair is styled to keep the messy curls in place. Taekwoon's eyes light up at the sight of his boyfriend and Wonshik believes he would react the same if Hongbin had dressed in rags. He feels happy and envious simultaneously.
"You look lovely and don't worry we won't" Taekwoon assures him.
"I'll be late," Hongbin tells Wonshik.
"You have the keys. I won't wait up for you" Wonshik says as he waves the two lovebirds out of his café.
"Think about what I said" Taekwoon says to Wonshik as they leave. He puts his hand on Hongbin's back and gently guides him through the crowd. Wonshik watches the two till they disappear from his line of sight and goes back to cleaning.
Taekwoon has left the book on the grand piano and Wonshik picks it up, reading the page bookmarked as he does.
"À vaillant coeur rien d’impossible (For a valiant heart nothing is impossible.)”
Wonshik feels mildly insane as he steps off the train. Berlin is much colder than Paris and there are dark clouds overhead. This is a bad omen, Wonshik thinks. He's in Berlin and he has left Chiwoong in charge and Taekwoon and Hongbin are alone and he doesn't even know if Jaehwan is still in Berlin or has decided to go back to Milan or to Amboise for Christmas.
He holds onto his phone like it is his lifeline. The messages from Taekwoon carrying Jaehwan's current address are on it and he shows it to the taxi driver as he tries to explain where he wants to go in broken tourist-y German.
It's a short drive to the apartment complex and Wonshik gets out, feeling even more anxious than when he got on. Does his hair looks alright? Is this ensemble okay? Should he have spent more time putting something together instead of throwing on whatever was not in the laundry basket? Jaehwan likes to dress well and here Wonshik is, in his warmest pair of jeans and hoodie, looking like a frumpy college kid.
He is momentarily distracted by the snowfall that starts. It is late evening and the sun has set, colouring the sky dark indigo. It's a beautiful neighborhood Wonshik thinks as he find the building he is looking for. Hongbin texts him to ask if is in Berlin yet and if he has met Jaehwan and Wonshik replies in the negative. He's in the building and almost on the floor he needs to be on but his nerves are getting to him.
He decides to bite the bullet and call Jaehwan when he finally manages to find the apartment. In retrospect, he should probably have called much earlier to find out if Jaehwan is at home or not. But it looks like today isn't the day for wise decisions on his part.
"Wonshik? This is a surprise" Jaehwan says as soon as he picks up.
"Yeah" Wonshik lies. "It's Christmas Eve and I thought I should wish you in person."
"Bless your soul. I just had the longest and most terrible day and just listening to your voice has already made me feel loads better" Jaehwan tells him. "You won't believe what happened at the head office today!"
"Are you back home?" Wonshik asks as naturally as he can.
"Yeah, just came back a while ago. I was about to jump into the shower and then call you myself" Jaehwan replies happily.
"You don't think you could let me in before you go take your shower? It's really freezing in the hallway" Wonshik says. There is dead silence on the other end and rushed footsteps and the door in front of him opens to reveal Jaehwan, staring at him in pure disbelief.
"It really is you" Jaehwan says as he steps out into the hallway and hugs Wonshik.
"Surprise" Wonshik says, hugging Jaehwan back. All his previous worries melt away and he feels quite foolish for doubting his decision to visit.
"I don't even… How did… What made you think about coming here?" Jaehwan asks, pulling him inside.
The apartment is warm and Wonshik feels his body relax. The windows in the living room are large and have the view of the street next to the complex, decorated with red and green lights. The night has set in properly and the lights look prettier. The street is covered in the falling snow, adding an outline of white to the fixtures on the street.
"I just thought it would be nice to visit you so I took the train here" Wonshik confesses.
"I see" Jaehwan says, turning a pretty shade of light pink. His eyes wrinkle as he smiles and he looks lovelier than Wonshik remembers.
"Also, I really missed you" Wonshik says. He's travelled miles. What's a few steps more towards the person he has come to love?
"I missed you too" Jaehwan says, putting his hand on Wonshik's chest. He leans forward and places a chaste kiss on Wonshik's lips.
He pulls away but Wonshik chases his lips with a kiss of his own. Before too long, Jaehwan's hands are around Wonshik's waist and Wonshik's hands are in his hair and they are kissing deeply.
Jaehwan hoists him onto the back of the nearby couch and Wonshik wraps his legs around his and kisses him some more. This is a daydream Jaehwan never wants to wake from. Wonshik is real and warm and here and not far away from him.
"Merry Christmas" Wonshik adds when they pull away from each other and Jaehwan laughs. He lays his head on Wonshik's shoulder and sighs. Wonshik thinks he might burst from the intense rush of love and protective feelings.
He manages to pull Jaehwan into a close hug and wonders how he will ever manage to part from him ever again.
In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
- Albert Camus