It was the night before the wedding and, as Baekhyun tended to do, he leant in the doorway while the women in his life took over his mum’s lounge room—Soohyun with her eyes flicking to her twin boys, playing with his old train set, making sure they weren’t hatching plots for world domination, Gahyun reading on her tablet with her legs hanging over the leg of the couch, Jihyun flicking channels on the TV so fast it made Baekhyun’s head spin.
When his temple began to throb he did something about it, grabbing the remote out of her hand and switching off the damn TV.
Jihyun’s “Hey!” got everyone’s attention.
Good. He had something to say.
They wouldn’t like it. In fact they might all turn on him. But he couldn’t not say it. He’d not said quite enough things the past few days, and it was eating him from the inside out.
“I have a confession.” With that four sets of sharp feminine Byun eyes swung his way.
Soohyun spoke first and, grinning, said, “Do tell, oh brother of mine.”
“It’s about Haerim.”
“I knew it!” Jihyun said, her squeal near breaking the sound barrier.
Gahyun, meanwhile, gave him a small smile, a tilt of her head, encouraging him to go on.
“Haerim and I were never actually dating.” No, not exactly, true. And this was a time for truth. The idea of anything else, made him feel more exhausted than a man with his youth, stamina and ripping good health had a right to feel. “Not in the way we made you believe we were.”
“I don’t understand,” his mother said as she came to sit on the arm of the chair nearest to him, her forehead creased with concern, her heart in her eyes.
The threat of emotion swarmed over him, but rather than pressing it back, pretending it didn’t exist, he merely held it at bay, letting it lift and subside like a lunar tide.
“I found her online with the express purpose of taking her to Jinsu and Minseok’s wedding as my date, merely to keep you lot from finding one for me.”
Silence stretched to the outer reaches of the big room, broken only by the click and whir of the old wooden train set, whose batteries were winding down.
“I don’t understand,” his mother repeated.
“It was fake,” Jihyun said, as if trying to make sense of it herself. “The relationship. The affection. The attraction. All of it.”
Not all of it, no. but he knew them well enough to know any flicker of hope would be fanned into a flame. So he chose his words carefully.
“We made a deal that was mutually beneficial for the both of us.”
“Good God, you paid her?” Jihyun asked, incredulous.
“Don’t say it like that,” he bit out, turning on Jihyun so fiercely she faltered. He reined himself in a notch. “Don’t even think it. The details of our agreement are none of anybody’s business but our own. But, since we involved you in the ruse, it’s fair that you know the only reason she went along with it as long as she did was because she had this crazy compulsion that I needed her help.”
“If anyone needs help it’s you, brother.” That was Gahyun.
Baekhyun puffed a laugh from his nose, grateful she was in the room. Grateful they all were, to tell the truth, and that he could finally say what he had to say. And by the way they were listening they would know he meant it.
“I wasn’t thinking anything bad about her, “Jihyun said, drawing his eye. “I’ve met her, remember? She’s way too cool for you. But I am flabbergasted that my darling, dashing big brother actually thinks any woman would need an inducement to be with him.”
God, was that a tear? He couldn’t take tears.
“Jihyun, you’ve missed the point. I went miles out of my bloody way to find a woman to not be with me.”
That met with silence.
“I don’t want marriage. I don’t want a partner.” His hand was running up the back of his hair before he could stop himself. “I want to date who I want and when I want; without you all—or anyone, in fact —expecting it might one day lead to me settling down. It’s just never going to happen.”
“Why?” his mother asked, rising now to take his hand, to look into his eyes. “The truth. All of it.”
Soohyun had one of her boys, was hugging him tight, as if telling herself her own son would never feel that way. Jihyun watched, tears at the corners of her eyes. Gahyun breathed evenly, smiled softly and simply waited, as if she’d been waiting for the truth—all of it—all her life.
“I was there,” Baekhyun said. “After Dad died. Missing him, mourning him. I still think about him every day.” He fisted a hand in the front of his sweater. “But I don’t ever want to feel that much need and hurt and empathy and rage and love and fear again.”
Gahyun slid gracefully to her feet and came over and gave him a hug. Then punched him hard enough on the arm to hurt. “We know. We watched in dazed amazement how our little big brother handled himself. You were the glue and we may have overused you. For that I apologise. Profusely.”
She looked to the others, who all nodded with her.
“But, for the record, while you’re stuck with us—interfering, emotional and fabulous as we are—finding that one person out there in the big wide world who you choose to be with…well, that’s something else entirely. Love is scary and magical and bittersweet and special and hard and wonderful and the best thing that can ever happen to you in life. You should never let fear deny you of it.”
He looked around at his sisters—all strong women. All nodding. All of whom had come out the other side, able to throw their hearts into the ring. All hopeful he might still.
And even when he ought to have been setting up a whiteboard, with graphs and charts and a loud hailer to explain how and why it was different for him…all he could think of was Haerim.
Haerim, whom he’d chosen to be in his life, even if only for a finite time. Haerim, who pushed him and challenged him and laughed with him, made room for him. Haerim, who made him feel light and funny and free. Haerim who made him feel