Title: Beneath the Trees
Word Count: 9.8k
Summary: Yixing moves to a cabin in the woods, but there's something strange about the house next door. Could it be haunted - or worse?
Notes: My entry for justgetlayd!
"You can't move to the middle of nowhere!" Tao whines loudly. He pouts at Yixing, arms crossed over his chest. "No one will come visit you out there!"
"It's not the middle of nowhere," Yixing says, pushing a serving of soup across the table as a peace offering. He blows carefully on his own bowl. "It's like thirteen miles away. And you'll come visit me for the food, if nothing else. I'm pretty sure your apartment doesn't even have an oven."
"It does!" Tao says, slurping and glaring at Yixing over the bowl. The tilt of his chin is imperious, even with a drop of soup hanging off the tip of his lip. "I store off-season knits in it."
"So you'll starve to death, but at least you'll be well dressed for your funeral."
Tao nods and drinks from the edge of his bowl. Yixing is fairly concerned that Tao will go hungry when he can't eat all his meals at Yixing's apartment anymore. The only time he'd seen Tao using a stove, he'd been heating up eyeliner for a smoother, more intense application. Living too far away to be subjected to Tao's daily make-up tips is just one of the many benefits of moving outside of town. Still, Tao is a good neighbor, and a good friend. Yixing doesn't want his move to be the cause of Tao's starvation. He's mulling over buying him a microwave before he goes. And a big box of breakfast burritos.
"Don't go," Tao says, clinking his spoon against the bottom of his bowl, "What are you going to do if there are bears? Or other hairy creatures? You're no mountain man!"
"Tao, I'm not trying to be Grizzly Adams. Living outside of town is going to be good for my song-writing."
Tao purses his lips at him, a look of disapproval on his face. "Ok, let's be real here, you're not Bon Iver; you make music for preschoolers. Your songs are about teaching kids to wash their hands and put away their toys. You don't have to hole up in the woods to make your next album."
It's a bit late for Tao to be trying to convince him not to move, since Yixing canceled the lease on his apartment the moment he got the keys for the cabin and he already has a moving company scheduled to pick up his stuff in a few days. Tao reaches across the table, resting his hand on Yixing's forearm and squeezing lightly.
"Is this about the bad review?" he asks carefully. Yixing can read the concern written on his face. Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, he turns away, but Tao continues on, "It was one bad review, from a no-name critic probably having a bad day."
"He said I was one-fourth of The Wiggles with one-eighth of the talent!" Yixing exclaims, face heating up. He knows he's taking the criticism too hard, but he can't help himself. People like Yixing; he's nice. No one had ever said something so mean about him before.
"You're one hundred times better than The Wiggles! Have you even seen them? A bunch of ugos. You, on the other hand, are adorable. All the bi-curious single dads go nuts over you."
Yixing smiles tightly at Tao, trying to remember that Tao's heart is in the right place, even if his attempts at encouragement are somewhat misguided. It's true that one awful review left Yixing questioning his life and career choices, but he's not sure this is such a bad thing. He can acknowledge that he has room for improvement and maybe this is the shot in the arm he needs to grow as an artist.
And he's looking forward to the move. Ever since the review came out, he hasn't been able to write any new music. A change in scenery sounds like just the thing to get him back on track. Plus out in the woods, there will be no one around to complain when he plays the piano for seven hours straight or when he wakes up at two in the morning and has to start plucking out a tune on his guitar.
Yixing puts his hand on top of Tao's, squeezing back. Living across the hall from Tao has been fun and he's going to miss him, but Yixing needs to take care of his career first. And if that means moving to a cabin in the woods to concentrate on his music, then that's what he's going to do.
"Hurry up and finish eating, Tao. We've got packing to do."
The moving van is a sign of bad news, Jongdae is sure of it. He tries to ignore it, putting an effort into focusing on the novel he's supposed to be writing, but he can't help himself. The lure of something new is too distracting and he's always had a cat-like sense of curiosity. He likes to know what's going on, where it's happening and most importantly, how it will affect him. From the window behind his desk, he keeps an eye on the movers shuffling about. Aside from the normal boxes and furnishings, they also lug a disassembled piano and at least three guitars into the house. A cup of coffee goes cold on Jongdae's desk as he continues to watch the activity out the window.
The little cabin next door has been empty the whole time Jongdae has lived here and he likes it that way. He needs seclusion to concentrate on his writing. Another person living in close proximity feels like his home planet being taken over by aliens. Jongdae is the defenseless citizens of Earth and the new neighbor is a Martian with a ray-gun. There's no way this is going to end well.
Jongdae opens up the instant messenger on his laptop. If there is anyone who will understand his dilemma, it's his friend, Baekhyun. Right now, he needs the kind of comfort that only a best friend can provide.
JongstinTimberdae: Baekhyun, someone is moving in next to me! :'(
Okay, maybe Baekhyun isn't the most tenderhearted, but he's all Jongdae has.
JongstinTimberdae: You know I can't concentrate on my work when there are people around :(
Byuncé: You say this like you ever actually do any work. Last I checked, you spend all day trolling in the comments sections of popular websites and watching dance tutorials on YouTube. Do you realize you have a deadline coming up?
JongstinTimberdae: Don't go all professional mode on me. I need my friend, not my editor!
Byuncé: It's my unfortunate lot in life to be both.
Byuncé: You should go and say hi to the new neighbor. Bring a bottle of wine, everyone likes free booze. You're turning into a weird, Grey Gardens type shut-in.
Byuncé: You've already got the house for it!
Sure, Jongdae has neglected some repairs on his home over the years, but this house is his fortress of solitude, his secluded refuge from the rest of the world. The fact that the old girl could use a few coats of paint and some sprucing up is beside the point, it's a low blow for Baekhyun to insult her.
JongstinTimberdae: Don't be a douche. :P
Byuncé: Hey Jongdae, The Blair Witch called, she wants her abandoned shack back.
JongstinTimberdae: Hey Baekhyun, 1999 called, they want their dated references back.
Byuncé: If you've got time to sass-off at me, you've got time to work. Submit your chapters soon or I'm going to come out there and rip out your damn wi-fi.
Baekhyun logs off the instant messenger and Jongdae closes his laptop with a sigh. Despite Baekhyun's threats against his internet connection, all hopes of getting any work done today are completely tossed out the window. How can he be expected to write when his sanctuary has been violated? Jongdae only ever manages to get anything done because living in the middle of nowhere means it is too boring to do anything but write. Surrounded by trees, trees and more trees, there is nothing to sway his attention.
Except the one time Jongdae thought he saw Sasquatch.
To date, Sasquatch From Space is his worst selling novel and a testament to the fact that once something distracts him, it becomes like an obsession for him. An itch that he has to scratch. The last thing he needs is some new neighbor coming over all the time, trying to be his super-best-friend and taking time away from his work. Jongdae sighs again, settling down in a chair by the front door and mentally rehearsing a speech to give to the new neighbor about how much he needs his solitude to work and how he can't afford to get side-tracked by offers of friendship.
However, the neighbor never comes over. Jongdae spends hours, waiting ready by the door and trying to peek out a nearby window, but he never actually sees the resident, only the uniformed movers struggling with boxes and stupid boring trees blowing in the wind. Not that Jongdae is curious or anything, he just wants to learn what the enemy looks like so he can be prepared.
Tao insists on coming to help Yixing settle in, though Yixing is not sure how helpful it is to have his closet color-organized or his shoes arranged from "hideous" to "not so hideous". Sometimes it's hard to remember that under the snobby sixteen year old girl, Tao is a full-fledged man and moreover, an accomplished martial artist. Tao eyes Yixing's clothing distastefully, holding up a worn t-shirt between his thumb and forefinger.
"I was going to organize by designer, but when all of your shirts were either Fruit of the Loom or Hanes, I just gave up. By the way, they make other necklines, besides plunging."
Yixing snatches his shirt from Tao's hands and stuffs it into a drawer. V-necks are comfortable! Leaving Tao to the closet, Yixing heads into the living room. He sits down at his piano, running his fingers over the keys, testing to make sure they made the move unharmed. He plays a few lines of a Beethoven piano concerto, his fingers moving on their own with practiced ease. The piano seems fine, but his inspiration is nonexistent. Melodies used to play automatically in Yixing's head and he could always start writing some silly song about rolling in the grass or putting the cap back on the toothpaste, but all he can hear now is the rumbling growl of Tao's stomach two rooms away. The bad review weighs heavily in his mind, a phantom in his thoughts. He sighs, getting up from the piano bench and going into the kitchen area. Maybe he can't make any new songs, but he can at least make lunch.
Yixing prepares a simple meal of hot sandwiches and a salad, but Tao eats like a starving man. He polishes off three sandwiches before Yixing even finishes one.
"I have to eat all that I can while you're still providing for me!" he says, spraying crumbs out of his mouth. Yixing makes a mental note to pack up some of the leftovers for Tao to take home with him. That box of breakfast burritos isn't going to last forever. Food demolished, Yixing starts hooking up his land-line phone. Tao was horrified to find out Yixing's house is in a cellular dead zone, but Yixing is not that bothered. It means more time to focus on his music. While Yixing tests for dial-tone, Tao peers out the kitchen window, staring into the woods. Curious as to what has caught Tao's attention, Yixing drops the phone back into the cradle and goes to join him. Maybe there really are bears out there?
"Did you see that weird old house?" Tao says, pointing through the trees, "It looks haunted."
"What house?" Yixing asks, shoving Tao aside to take his place. Squinting through the window, he can barely make out a ramshackle old house, perched on a slight hill a short distance away, so aged it almost blends into the shadows surrounding it. Trees grow thick, covering most of the house's weathered sides, but Yixing can still make out the basic shape, a squat two story with a pitched roof. What few windows the house has are dark and dusty, the lower ones shaded further by a raised porch that covers two sides of the house and looks ready to fall off at any minute. Not known for his observational skills, Yixing is hardly surprised he hasn't noticed the house before, but it's the kind of thing that now that he's seen it, he can't unsee it. The house's windows stare at him, like black, cavernous eyes from under their shadowy awning.
"Tao, that's not a haunted house, I think it's abandoned. It looks like no one has set foot there in years."
"I know a haunted house when I see one!" Tao argues, pushing Yixing and taking his spot back, "That house has a bad aura, I can definitely sense an angry presence coming from within."
Yixing is skeptical of Tao's ability to see ghosts; his friend thinks everything is haunted. He thinks his phone is possessed by evil spirits if he misspells too many words in a text. Still, there is something undeniably creepy about the house hidden in the woods, a looming presence in the corners of his mind. Yixing shivers, trying to dislodge the image from his brain and sets about organizing his kitchen.
Together, the duo manages to get most of Yixing's few belongings unpacked and situated before Tao decides to head home. For the first time ever, Tao refuses an offer for dinner. He says he needs the sunlight to navigate through the unfamiliar roads, but Yixing thinks his decision to go home early might have something to do with not wanting to be anywhere near the neglected house next door after dark.
"I'm telling you, there's something weird about that place," Tao says on the way out to his car, "I don't think you're safe here. You should get a dog or something."
Yixing smiles gently at Tao. He knows Tao means well, but Yixing is a full-grown adult, and older than Tao to boot. He's perfectly capable of living on his own.
"What's a dog going to do, bark at the ghosts? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
"Animals can totally sense spirits!" Tao exclaims, sliding into the driver's seat, "You'll at least have a warning. Just tell me you'll think about it."
"Ok, I'll think about it," Yixing agrees, shutting Tao's car door shut and waving at him as he pulls out of the driveway and down the old, dirt road.
But he doesn't actually get the chance to think about it. Tao shows up the next morning with a large, fussy-looking, gray cat, along with a basket and a half empty bag of cat food.
"Here, you're a cat owner now," Tao says, shoving the cat into Yixing's arms, "Her name is Sassy, my aunt says she's very in-tune with the otherworldly. She'll be able to keep an eye on things around here."
Yixing stares at Tao. "Ok, I take back what I said before. This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. How is a cat going to protect me? I don't think ghosts are afraid of hairballs!"
Tao glares at him, "Hmph. Well, see if I ever try to do you a favor again."
Struggling to keep a hold on the angry cat in his arms, Yixing really, really hopes that Tao never tries to do him another favor.
Jongdae swears he's not stalking his neighbor. Stalking implies unwanted attention, and if the new neighbor next door refuses to acknowledge his existence, then Jongdae's attention can't be unwanted. Two days after the new guy moved in, he still hadn't come over to introduce himself and Jongdae was dying of curiosity. At that point, he'd had no choice but to dust off his Sasquatch-watching binoculars and start spying out the window. The fact-finding mission yielded him a limited but compelling knowledge of the neighbor.
Jongdae can barely make out the name Yixing Zhang painted on the side of the mailbox in sunny yellow letters. He has a big, fluffy cat that spends the afternoon basking in patches of sunlight. He likes to wear loose tank tops and tight jeans. And Yixing Zhang is cute. Really cute. Possibly the cutest guy Jongdae has ever seen. He's an adult man with dimples, for crying out loud. Who does he think he is, Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Jongdae presses his binoculars against his eyes, watching through the window behind his desk as Yixing arranges potted flowers on the side of his house.
JongstinTimberdae: How can such a beautiful man have such horrible manners? Why won't he come over and introduce himself?
Byuncé: Oh god, are you still spying on that guy? Just go and say hi, he's probably too scared to approach your hillbilly murder shack.
JongstinTimberdae: Your face is a hillbilly murder shack! I shouldn't have to go over there, I'm busy!
Byuncé: If you're so busy, then why are you writing me so many messages? Get back to work! You don't want to make me angry, Jongdae.
Baekhyun's ominious threat would normally worry Jongdae (the last time he'd pissed of Baekhyun, he'd woken up with no eyebrows - the Whoopi Goldberg look was not flattering on him) but this time he's not concerned. He'd already finished the rewrites Baekhyun had requested earlier this afternoon, typing diligently on his laptop to the tune of the handsome neighbor playing the guitar out in his garden. Jongdae had meant to get up and close his window, try to preserve his cloistered writing sanctuary as best he could, but ideas were flowing from his fingers while he listened to the neighbor's familiar folk tunes and pop ballads and he couldn't pull himself away from the keyboard. Something in the tone of the neighbor's voice or the mellow sounds of his guitar was soothing, helping to keep him focused. He was surprised at how easily the words came to him; he'd written more than enough to satisfy his editor's demands, but he's waiting on emailing the newest offerings to Baekhyun. He likes to see Baekhyun sweating it out.
It's a shame Yixing doesn't have the personality to match his angelic face, because Jongdae quite liked listening to him play while working. If they were friends, he could hear his music more often. Unfortunately, self-centered, rude Yixing Zhang will just have to sit alone in his stupid house, with his stupid guitars, petting his stupid cat that doesn't even look that soft. If he wants to snub his one and only neighbor, then it's his loss, because Jongdae would have been an excellent neighbor. He is polite and responsible and he wrote a novel about an alien Sasquatch who may or may not live in the woods surrounding his house (the results of his study were inconclusive). Jongdae is awesome. He just feels bad for Yixing, never getting to know how amazing he is.
Despite his hopes, the change in scenery does not immediately inspire Yixing's creativity. Almost a week into his move, he can pick up his guitar and play any number of songs he knows, but the idea of coming up with one of his own again is daunting. It's irrational, he knows. A reviewer is not going to pop up at his front door and shout to the world about his inadequacies the moment he tries to write a new song, but he's just not ready yet. When the timing is right, he'll go back to making music. Until then, he'll just have to keep coming up with activities to stay busy.
Already having played an exhausting amount of guitar, tried his hand at gardening, brushed Sassy's fur until it shone and cooked enough food for at least five people (a habit he'd grown accustomed to living across the hall from Tao), Yixing is running out of things to do. The same woods that he'd thought would be relaxing and stimulating for his music are actually just a little boring. More often than not, he finds himself contemplating the house next door, wondering if it is really haunted, like Tao fears. He's never believed in ghosts, but there's an eerie feeling he gets when he sees the old house, the uncomfortable sensation of being watched, like eyes on the back of his neck.
Averting his eyes away from the weathered wood-siding and overgrown yard next door, Yixing shifts his attention to the road. The woods lining the street are sparse but pretty. Nice enough scenery for a run, he decides, changing into a pair of comfortable shorts and running shoes. He forgoes a shirt. What's the point of living in the middle of nowhere if he can't avoid nipple chafing by running shirtless?
Yixing starts down the road at a jog, watching the antics of an active squirrel, running from branch to branch aimlessly and admiring a small grouping of pale blue flowers. This is definitely one advantage to living out of town, abundant nature and clean, earthy-scented air. Yixing begins picking up speed when he feels his legs warming up. He could get used to this, the sun shining on his bare skin and the calm feeling in his body as his muscles get pushed to their limit. Before too long, he's covered in sweat and feeling better than he has in days.
He turns back, taking an easier pace on the return trip, naturally slowing as he gets closer to home. Almost back at his house, he stops on the road to catch his breath. Sweat drips down his face and he can't wait to take a shower. His eyes impulsively roam towards the cabin next door, an eyesore that he can't avoid. Hunched over and resting his hands on his knees, he squints into the shadows. Yixing thinks he might have spent too much time around Tao, because for a moment, he swears he sees a face in the window, white and frightened and staring right at him, before it disappears a second later. He must be imagining things, because people don't just disappear like that.
But ghosts do.
Ignoring his protesting muscles and all sense of reason, Yixing runs home at full speed.
Jongdae does not mean to spy on his half-naked neighbor. It is pure coincidence that the moment he walks past the window to get a snack, Mr. Perfect is posing shirtless in the street, long arms and lean chest glowing in the early evening sunlight. Jongdae has been trying to keep things relatively PG-13, but Yixing's glistening, sweaty torso is definitely giving him some R-rated thoughts. Yixing's body is as gorgeous as his face, flat and smooth with just a hint of strong muscles under unearthly pale skin. It's impossible not to stare. Making eye contact is probably a mistake, though.
Jongdae falls flat on his ass, hoping in vain that he imagined the look of horror on Yixing's face. Being caught indulging in voyeurism is not the first impression he wanted to make on the cute neighbor guy. There's a chance he couldn't see inside, Jongdae's house is dark and he almost never turns on the lights, due to faulty 1950's wiring and the very real possibility of being electrocuted, or worse, blowing out the power and losing his wi-fi connection.
Jongdae crawls across the floor army-style, keeping low and out of sight of the window, in case Yixing is still out there. Reaching his desk, he gropes across the surface until his hand finds his laptop, pulling it down onto the floor next to him.
Byuncé: This better not be like the "emergency" last month, when you needed me to deliver you McDonald's...
JongstinTimberdae: Double cheeseburgers help me write!
JongstinTimberdae: And this is much more urgent.
JongstinTimberdae: The neighbor caught me ogling his shirtless body and now I'm stuck on the floor of the living room in case he's still outside.
Byuncé: Wait, seriously?
Byuncé: OMG, you idiot. You wouldn't be hiding in your own house if you had just listened to me and gone over to say hi to him in the first place. Or if you had been working, like you're supposed to be. I still haven't heard anything about your rewrites, Jongdae.
JongstinTimberdae: Who cares about work? A cute guy thinks I'm a pervert!
Byuncé: Excuse me, did you just say "who cares about work" to the guy who wasted WEEKS of his life turning your incoherent ramblings about Sasquatch into a cohesive story?
Byuncé: And do you know the thanks I got for all my efforts? NONE!
Byuncé: After that steaming pile of crap flopped, I was the laughing stock at the office!
Byuncé: They changed the nameplate on my office door to Byunbelievable!
Byuncé: Someone thought it would be funny to tape the word Sasquatch to a gorilla costume and leave it behind my desk, I still don't know what to do with that thing!
Byuncé: And you dare to say "who cares about work" to me? Oh Jongdae Kim, you ungrateful bastard, you've gone too far this time. I'll show you who cares about work!!
Baekhyun logs off the instant messenger before Jongdae can come up with a reply. Jongdae can practically hear the diabolical wheels turning in Baekhyun's twisted little mind, but there are more pressing things to worry about than his friend's revenge plot. What did he mean calling Sasquatch From Space a steaming pile of crap? Perhaps the novel isn't a best-seller, but it ranks very popular among Sasquatch hunters! It's a niche audience, but hardly a total flop.
Without Baekhyun to advise him, Jongdae finds himself at a loss. He settles more comfortably on the floor. A quick Google search for "what to do when caught peeping" proves unhelpful. The information he finds is more for bush-creeping deviants and not accidental peepers like himself. In the end, he decides an open, honest apology is the best solution. Jongdae didn't do anything illegal, but he and Yixing are neighbors (even if their only meeting was between eyes as Jongdae drooled over Yixing's body) and he doesn't want things to be weird between them. He finds a place online that overnight ships muffin baskets and selects a big one, along with a nice note to apologize, and arranges for it to be delivered to Yixing the next day.
Feeling better, Jongdae clicks over to YouTube to browse through more dance tutorials and videos of cats getting baths. At least until his apology is delivered, it might be best for him to stay out of sight, just in case.
Yixing tries to put the disappearing face out of his mind. Ghosts don't exist. The face in the window must have been a figment of his imagination, the byproduct of being alone too much. With just himself and Sassy, the house is too quiet. He's used to Tao dropping by his apartment whenever he's hungry or the old lady down the hall coming over for tea and to tell him stories about her grandchildren. Even his college roommate was usually over at least once a week to watch movies and hang out. The solitude is a difficult adjustment.
Looking for some form of distraction, he putters around the house. On the floor near the bookcase, a box of books waits to be unpacked. It looks as good a diversion as any, so Yixing settles down to begin sorting them. Halfway through the box, he finds a campy paperback he never finished, an old shopping list still marking the page he left-off on. Rather than shelving the remaining books, Yixing ends up lying on the couch until late in the night, three pillows stuffed under his back as he finishes off the last pages of the book. This is a decision he comes to regret, as the descriptions of the Sasquatch lair from the book sound suspiciously like the woods surrounding his house. Yixing glances around the living room, eying the shadows in the corners of the room. The house is definitely too dark. He gets up from the couch, turning on all the lights in the room and feeling more afraid than he'd like to admit. Every creak of the floors, every low howl of the wind makes him nervous. Yixing has never thought of himself as a coward, but he's never lived in such an isolated place before. And he's never considered the prospect of an angry, intergalactic Sasquatch lurking in the darkness, either.
Even the silence is nerve-wracking. Though he tells himself not to, he keeps picturing the face vanishing in the window, it's wide frightened eyes, and the terrible sensation he has of always being watched. A chill runs down his spine. Yixing starts a desperate search for Sassy. She's just a cat and he knows she can't offer any real form of protection, but he doesn't want to be alone. When he can't find her under the couch or in her basket, he tries calling for her out the open window. She still doesn't respond. Finally, Yixing grabs the bag of cat food out of the cupboard, shaking it so the food inside rattles noisily.
Sassy pokes her head out from the bathroom door. Yixing smiles, relieved, and pours her a fresh bowl. He'll never tell Tao, but it's a bit less spooky having her here with him. Sassy comes out from the bathroom and perches on the edge of the piano, giving him a meaningful stare.
"Your food is over here," Yixing tells her, pointing at the little bowl on the kitchen floor. He wonders when he became one of those people that talk out loud to their cat. Probably around the time he added Bigfoot onto his list of things that make him break out in a cold sweat. At the rate he's going, this is going to end up a very long list. Sassy continues to stare, letting out a little meow and tilting her head at him. When he doesn't react, she walks across the piano, clanking the keys as she goes. Not for the first time, Yixing gets the feeling that she's trying to communicate with him. Maybe Tao's aunt was right, maybe Sassy does have some sort of otherworldly powers.
"What do you want, girl? Do you want to hear a song?" Yixing asks, sitting down on the bench and settling his fingers against the keys. Playing the piano is not the worst way of distracting himself from his wild imagination. His hands will be occupied and his thoughts busy. It's certainly a better idea than reading the scary book had been.
Yixing launches into a solo version of Liszt's Totentanz. If he's going to play the piano, he might as well match the mood properly. The piano expresses his unease, his fingers stomping across the keys hard and loud. Right now, the only good part about living alone in the woods is that he can play music late at night without disturbing anyone.
Jongdae wakes up to the crashing, thunderous sounds of a piano, cold and stiff on the floor of his living room. Half a roast beef sandwich rolls down his shirt and onto the floor, the remains of a snack he had sneaked out of the refrigerator as the evening wore on. Sometime after abandoning YouTube to leave smart-ass comments to questions on Yahoo! Answers, Jongdae had fallen asleep on the floor in front of his laptop. The screen still glows in front of him, the clock in the corner displaying the time as well-after midnight. Cranky from sleeping on the floor, he feels anger growing hotly in his belly. Jongdae is a patron of the arts (he and his mother have a standing date to the opera whenever it is in town) and Yixing is as talented with the piano as he is with the guitar, but it is just too damn late to be playing the piano this loudly.
He gets up and slams the window closed, but the sound still travels inside. What was his house made of, paper bags and glue? The sound of the piano is even more irritating coming in muffled through the walls. Enough is enough. Jongdae stuffs his feet into a pair of novelty slippers Baekhyun had given him for his birthday last year and heads out the door, intent on giving Yixing Zhang a piece of his mind. And to think, just a few hours ago Jongdae ordered this jerk a basket of apology muffins! Jongdae swings his arm in front of him, slashing through the air. Apology revoked!
In moments, Jongdae has made his way through the woods and to the front of Yixing's house. He pounds on the door furiously, fighting to be heard against the raucous piano music, which continues uninterrupted. The song reaches a softer passage and Jongdae takes the opportunity to knock again, even harder, feeling his resentment increasing. Yixing acts like he's the king of the neighborhood, strutting around shirtless, not bothering to introduce himself, playing music whenever he wants. Doesn't he know that he has neighbors?! Being cute does not excuse rude behavior!
Just as Jongdae is about to knock for a third time, the piano music stops and he hears footsteps coming towards the door. Lowering his hand, he catches sight of his reflection in the window. Suddenly, the reality of his situation hits him.
Just a few hours ago, Jongdae had been caught staring in open-mouthed delight at Yixing's bare chest. Now he's showing up at his front door in the middle of the night? This... is not going to look good. Not to mention Jongdae slept on his living room floor, his hair is standing on end, there's a wet stain from his roast beef sandwich on his shirt, he's wearing a pair of fluffy monster fur slippers and his super cute neighbor is about to open the door and meet Jongdae for the very first time.
As an educated and reasonable man, Jongdae sees no other logical choice: he dives into the bushes and hides.
Yixing cracks open the front door, confused and more than a little frightened to find no one standing there. He pokes his head outside, certain that he had heard a banging on the door. The knocking had been loud and insistent and he's sure he didn't imagine it. Someone, or something, had been at his front door. His arms prickle with goosebumps as wild thoughts run rampant through his mind. Would Bigfoot take the time to pound on the door before storming in? Can ghosts even knock? How likely was it that Sasquatch had died and become a very angry ghost? He shuts the door quickly, locking the handle and the deadbolt as his imagination gets the best of him.
Yixing scoops up Sassy from between his feet and holds her at arm's length in front of him, brandishing her like a furry, four-legged weapon as he makes his way into the bedroom with quick, careful steps. If the cat has any latent supernatural powers, now is the time for them to awaken. The bed looks like a safe haven. He leaps into the nest of pillows and blankets, tucking Sassy against his chest and pulling the covers up over them both. After a moment of deliberation, contemplating the childishness of the act versus the sheer comfort, he tugs the blankets all the way over his head. Better safe than sorry.
Every sound he can hear is amplified, his heart beats wildly in his chest. What was he thinking, moving out in the middle of nowhere? Tao was right, he's no mountain man; he can't even grow a beard! Twigs snap along the side of the house and Yixing's ears prickle as he listens intently. Not even daring to breathe, he holds perfectly still. He wonders what the protocol is for calling the police when you suspect a yeti is lurking outside your home.
Yixing hears no more sounds, but is terrified to leave the bed. He closes his eyes and tries to relax, Sassy pressed warm and safe to his body. It is a very, very long night. The sleep Yixing manages is fitful, fraught with dreams of monsters hidden outside the door and peeking in his windows. He awakens still exhausted but unable to force himself to nap any longer.
In the harsh light of morning, Yixing feels enormously silly. Ghosts knocking on the door? Sasquatch sneaking through the bushes? He's a grown man, not a child with an uncontrollable imagination. The sounds could easily have been the wind, or teenagers playing a dumb prank. He's far too old to get so scared over nothing. Yixing laughs at himself. There's absolutely nothing out in the woods, watching him.
Abandoning the bed, Yixing takes a hot shower, letting the water soothe some of his frazzled nerves. By the time he's done, he feels normal again, the night spent white-knuckled clutching his blankets almost a distant memory, like something that happened to someone else. Yixing stuffs the Sasquatch book onto the back of the bookshelf. Out of sight, out of mind. He catches sight of another book by the same author (something about school boys and wolves) and pushes it to the back of the shelf, too. The last thing he needs is another forest-based fear. He's just starting to make a cup of tea when there is a knocking on the door again. He startles, spilling tea across the counter. For a moment, he thinks about not answering the door, hiding in the bedroom with the blankets over his head, but he's a man, goddammit! He can answer his own door! At least during the afternoon...
Grabbing a spatula off the counter for protection, Yixing slides the locks and cracks the door open a few inches. There's a delivery person outside, holding a large package and smiling at him. Yixing sighs in relief, dropping the spatula and signing for the package. He thanks the delivery man and closes the door behind him, setting the box on floor and cutting open the packaging with a pair of scissors. Inside the box is a huge selection of muffins. Yixing stares at the baked goods with wide eyes, puzzled. He doesn't remember ordering enough muffins to feed an army. There's a note at the bottom of the box.
"I'm an absolute beast for watching you. My humblest apologies, but eat up, you'll need the energy to run!" the note reads. Yixing drops it on the ground. What the hell does that mean? He's being watched by a beast that wants to fatten him up and chase him? Having all his worst fears confirmed, Yixing grabs the phone to call Tao. He may be a snob and a brat, but Tao is a true friend who provides help when needed and without question. And Yixing needs help in a big way, specifically the kind of help that involves using years of martial arts training to subdue a large, possibly enraged, Sasquatch whose territory Yixing may or may not be living in now.
Jongdae rubs antibiotic ointment into a series of scratches on his arm, hissing at the sting. Last night's foray into Yixing's landscaping had been rough on his body, as well as his favorite slippers. The damned things had torn on a thorny branch as Jongdae had made his escape into the night. He realizes how creepy it sounds, crouching in his neighbor's bushes for almost an hour in the middle of the night, but Jongdae thinks of himself as a victim of circumstances. He certainly hadn't enjoyed hiding under Yixing's window.
Nothing seems to be going his way lately. Baekhyun has been MIA since yesterday's fight. Despite their bickering, Baekhyun is Jongdae's best friend and they talk online every day. It's not normal to go a day without hearing from him. Along with emailing the promised rewrites to his editor, Jongdae also sends several apologies through instant message, but receives no response. He'd hoped to cool Baekhyun's anger, or at least offset it somewhat, but the lack of reaction is not a good sign.
Resigning himself to the full brunt of Baekhyun's revenge, Jongdae swings his living room window open widely, hoping his neighbor might be playing music again. When he's not tired, Yixing's music is nice. Comforting. He wonders if Yixing got his apology gift yet and if maybe he was going to come over today to finally introduce himself. Jongdae hopes he comes before Baekhyun manages to shave his eyebrows again. Or his head. Oh god. The Whoopi Goldberg look was bad enough, what's he going to do if he has to rock a full-on Patrick Stewart?
Jongdae loads up his internet browser. He hopes starting some heated arguments with strangers online will distract him from his doomed fate.
Yixing has a massive pot of spaghetti carbonara sitting ready on the stove when Tao arrives. Food is the best way to say thank you to Tao for coming out to his house to check for signs of a Sasquatch. Truthfully, his friend had seemed almost unnaturally excited at the idea of using wushu to beat up a supernatural creature and Yixing probably didn't need to bribe him, but it never hurts to be extra nice. Tao shows up dressed in all black and looks far more intimidating than should be possible for someone with almost three inches of eyeliner.
"I don't even want to know where you got the bulletproof vest," Yixing says as Tao scrutinizes the front door and the bushes around the house. Sassy winds her way between his feet, pawing at bits of plants. The shrubbery near the door is flattened in some areas, branches snapped and leaves laying on the ground.
"The military look is hot right now! And if you keep questioning my fashion choices, you can find your own damn Bigfoot. Did you see this?"
He bends down to pull something out from the edge of a bush, grasping a clump of fluffy fur in his fingers, much too long and brightly colored to belong to Sassy. Or any natural animal that Yixing can think of. From the trampled plants, there are clear footprints leading away from the house. Yixing and Tao follow the footprints with their eyes. They trail directly towards the creepy house next door.
Tao's eyes widen almost comically as he rounds on Yixing, "I told you there was something wrong with that house! I told you from the moment you moved in!"
Yixing is about to point out that technically, Tao said the house was haunted and not the hideout of a blood-thirsty, ape-like creature, but from the corner of his eye, he detects movement in the distance. For a moment of complete mind-numbing terror, Yixing thinks Sasquatch is about to burst out of house next door and charge at them, but he manages to compose himself when he sees that the movement is just Sassy walking along the abandoned house's rickety porch railing, tail swishing high in the air like a beacon.
"Sassy, get back here!" Yixing hisses, "Tao, do you think you can-"
The words die off in his throat as they watch Sassy spring from the porch railing, onto the open window's ledge and then disappear into the house. Time stands still as Yixing stares open-mouthed at the empty space where his cat used to be. He braces himself, expecting to become overrun with terror, but all he feels is a slow resolve filling in his veins. Sassy leaping into the Sasquatch lair is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Yixing is sick and tired of being scared. Scared of a creepy old house, scared of Bigfoot, even scared of trying to compose a song, it seems like he's nothing but scared anymore! Yixing moved out into the woods to conquer his fears and damn it, he is going to conquer his fears. He marches up to the house next door, Tao following only steps behind, and stands below the window Sassy had gone through.
"Tao," he whispers seriously, eyeballing the height of the wall and the width of the window ledge, "Boost me into the window."
Determination burns in Yixing's gut. These woods will not defeat him; his worries will not hold him back. Yixing is stubborn to a fault and he can do anything he sets his mind to. A Sasquatch thinks he can scare Yixing out of his own house? Bring it on, bitch.
He interrupts Tao's protests with a harsh whisper, "No! Sasquatch or not, I'm getting my damn cat back. Boost me into that window!"
Tao looks doubtful as he makes a basket from his hands, but Yixing is steadfast. Gripping the edge of the window, Yixing steps unsteadily into Tao's hands and pulls himself up. He's just managed to precariously balance the top half of his body on the window ledge when Tao gives a mighty bellow.
Yixing barely has time to make out the form of what appears to be a dark, hairy beast a few feet away in the woods before Tao pitches him forward, abandoning Yixing to chase down the Sasquatch. Yixing scrambles for purchase, but finds nothing and ends up toppling head-first into the house next door.
Jongdae has been hoping his neighbor would eventually drop in on him. He just didn't expect it to happen so literally. Crouched under the window to collect the cat that had jumped inside, Jongdae breaks Yixing's fall as he tumbles through behind his cat. They hit the ground together, the cat scurrying away. Up close, Yixing's eyes are dark brown and beautiful. It feels like a scene in a movie, the two of them staring into each-others eyes as time stands still. Right up until Yixing starts punching him furiously and screaming.
"Ahhhh! Tao! There's two of them! There's another one inside!!" he yells, landing a fist onto Jongdae's jaw. Jongdae tries to bring his hands up to shield his face.
"Please stop hitting me!" Jongdae squeals, trying to dislodge Yixing from on top of him, "I'll never watch you through the window again!"
He braces for another blow, peeking through his fingers to find Yixing frozen in place, fist raised in the air.
"Hey! You're not a Sasquatch!" Yixing says, looking down on him, a cute expression of bewilderment on his face. Jongdae looks up at Yixing questioningly. He has been mistaken for many things in his life: a Harry Potter cosplayer, a pervert, but never Sasquatch. He's not sure what to say and Yixing just keeps staring at him. Finally, Jongdae decides to go ahead and take Baekhyun's advice.
"Hi, I'm Jongdae," he says, sticking out his hand at an awkward angle from underneath Yixing, "Your neighbor, not a Sasquatch."
The tips of Yixing's ears go bright red, but he manages to catch Jongdae's hand in his own and shake it carefully, "Hi Jongdae, it's nice to meet you, I'm Yixing. Um, there's an explanation for this, but my friend Tao is possibly fighting a Bigfoot outside your window. Can we check on him first?"
He rolls off Jongdae, picking himself up off the floor and holding out a hand to pull Jongdae up. Jongdae gets unsteadily to his feet and leans out the window Yixing had come in through, looking for his friend. What he sees is two grown men rolling on the ground, fighting like children, covered in dirt and bits of leaves. The taller one, he doesn't recognize, but the other is smaller, wearing half a gorilla costume (the other half lying on the ground by his feet) and very familiar looking.
"Baekhyun?!" Jongdae says, shocked to see his editor.
"Tao?!" Yixing says, coming up next to Jongdae in the window. The scuffle on the ground escalates into hair-pulling and scratching. Jongdae sighs.
"We better go and separate those idiots."
Yixing nods at him and follows as Jongdae leads the way out of the house and to the scene below the window. Jongdae is just in time to grab Baekhyun's wrist before he rubs a handful of dirt into Tao's face.
"Come on, get up!" Jongdae orders, pulling Baekhyun off Yixing's friend. Yixing comes around and helps Tao up from the ground. He tries to launch himself at Baekhyun again, but Yixing holds him back.
"Ok, whoa, what's going on out here?" Jongdae says, looking between Baekhyun's dirty knees and Tao's wild hair.
"This idiot attacked me!" Baekhyun yells. He points an accusing finger at Tao, looking murderous.
"That moron was dressed in a costume and running around in the woods! Of course he got attacked!" Tao counters, glaring at Baekhyun.
"You don't understand, this was part of a revenge scenario!"
Jongdae's mouth falls open and he bursts into the argument. "This was your revenge plan? Dressing up in a gorilla costume and hanging out outside my window?"
Baekhyun makes an angry noise, struggling in Jongdae's arms. "It was supposed to look like Bigfoot! And yes! I was going to scare you, like in your stupid Sasquatch book, but then this big oaf jumped me out of nowhere! What kind of jerk punches someone in the mouth?!"
He clutches at his jaw, pouting and covering a painful-looking red welt with his hand.
"Winners," Tao says smugly, popping his knuckles.
"Winner? Please, I wiped the floor with you!" Baekhyun argues, breaking out of Jongdae's hold and pushing a finger into Tao's chest. The two of them begin squabbling about their brawl. The way they describe it, Tao and Baekhyun had an epic battle in the forest, like something out of a wire-fu movie, with slow motion jump kicks into the air and endless flipping and spinning. From what Jongdae had seen, the two of them had fallen on the ground and slapped at each-others hands like little girls.
Jongdae tunes them out, well-used to Baekhyun's behavior.
Yixing turns towards Jongdae, coming out of a daze, "Wait a minute, you're Jongdae Kim? The author of Sasquatch From Space?"
Jongdae puffs with pride, "Oh, you've heard of me?"
Yixing smacks him on the arm angrily, "You jerk! That book scared the crap out of me! There was this knocking on my door in the middle of the night-"
Jongdae feels a deep flush creeping up his neck and across his face. He hopes Yixing can't see it as he continues on with his rant, "And then I got this weird note in a box of muffins-"
Jongdae beams at him, "Oh good, you got my apology!"
"Yeah, for yesterday. Uh, when I was looking out the window, checking out your..." Jongdae motions vaguely at Yixing's chest, too embarrassed to even look at it again.
Yixing laughs at him, cheek dimpling and mouth falling open, "You were the disappearing face in the window? I thought it might have been a ghost! I feel so dumb. And so relieved."
Jongdae smiles back at him, hesitant. Relieved is good, right? Better than totally creeped out.
"You know," Yixing says, "If you wanted to see me shirtless so badly, you could just come running with me? It turns out I get a little scared in the woods by myself and it'd be nice to have a cute guy around for company. And you never know when another of your friends will be lurking around in a costume..."
Did Yixing just call him cute? Jongdae wonders if it's possible for his face to get any redder. He's extremely flattered and would jump at the chance to do almost anything with Yixing, but he can feel multiple bruises forming on his torso and face. He rubs at a particularly painful spot on his ribs.
"Maybe later," he says regretfully, "After the beating you gave me, I don't think I'll be up for any physical activity for awhile."
Yixing shoots him a cheeky grin, completely unapologetic, "Then I guess to make amends, I'll have to come over and cook you something to eat. Like dinner, tomorrow?"
Jongdae almost chokes on his own spit. Is it possible that Yixing is flirting with him? In the hundreds of scenarios Jongdae imagined where he finally meets his neighbor, he never once thought that Yixing might be interested in him. Maybe Yixing hit him in the head so hard that he's delirious? This definitely feels like something he is dreaming. But no, Yixing is still looking at him, solid and very real, grinning charmingly as he waits for an answer.
"That sounds awesome." Jongdae smiles back. Jongdae can't believe he ever had any bad thoughts about his neighbor. The guy has offered to cook for him, owns at least one of Jongdae's books and has the most adorable smile he's ever seen. Yixing is clearly as sweet as sugar. Jongdae begins to rethink his opinions from when Yixing moved in. Maybe having a neighbor is not an invasion of his home planet, maybe it's like a new character in the story of his life. Like when Brock teams up with Ash.
Baekhyun says, "Ok, well if you two idiots are done making googly eyes at each other-"
Googly eyes? Jongdae is certainly not making googly eyes at Yixing. He's just taking the opportunity to glance at him appreciatively, now that he knows his gaze is not un-welcomed.
"-I think I'm going to head home. There's been enough stupidity for one night. I'm going to need a drink or three to forget about all this."
Tao steps away from Yixing, "Me too. Walk me to my car?"
Baekhyun looks at him approvingly, "Only if you'll tell me how you did your make-up like that. You've got some serious eyeliner game, bro."
Tao preens, "Gel liner is a girl's best friend. And your eyeliner is pretty fierce, too. How about we get those drinks together?"
Tao slings his arm across Baekhyun's shoulder, the two of them walking away, sharing make-up tips. Jongdae watches them go before shifting his eyes back to Yixing. His cat has found her way outside and is rubbing against Yixing's leg, purring. Yixing picks her up, throwing a smile Jongdae's way.
"Any chance you're hungry? There's a huge pot of pasta at my place..."
Jongdae grins at him. "Famished."
Jongdae sticks around Yixing's house for a few hours, eating and talking. There's a few awkward moments, but even still, the two are fast friends. Jongdae turns out to be very sweet, with a wicked sense of humor and an appreciation for all kinds of music. Yixing even plays some of his own songs on the guitar and Jongdae laughs at all the right parts. He's even cuter when he's grinning. Yixing thought the house next door was abandoned or haunted or even a Sasquatch lair, but he had never entertained the idea that it was inhabited by a living, breathing human being, let alone someone so good-looking. Even a large, purple bruise on the side of Jongdae's face doesn't disguise his chiseled cheekbones or his charming, upturned mouth corners.
When the evening wears down, Jongdae heads home, loaded down with muffins from the gift basket and promises that he'll come back tomorrow to hang out again. Yixing watches him go. Although they just met, he wishes they could spend a bit more time together. Jongdae is pleasant to be around. Yixing thinks he's going to like being neighbors with him.
After clearing the dishes and straightening up the living room, Yixing sits down at his piano. A little melody is forming together in his head, notes winding through his thoughts. He doesn't know what the song is about yet, but he has a start. Despite the strange circumstances that the idea finally came to him, given some time, Yixing thinks he might be able to develop the song into something really special.
He pictures Jongdae's sheepish face, his mischievous smile and the glint in his eyes when he's laughing, and puts his fingers against the keys.
The Very Scary House Next Door goes gold on the Children's Educational Music charts. His songs are meant to teach children, but Yixing thinks maybe this time he was the one to learn the lesson. Living out in the woods has taught him to overcome his fears, to trust his own abilities and that he can find inspiration in the places he least expects them, like the house next door that ended up being home to the weird, funny sci-fi writer who Yixing has been proud to call his boyfriend for the past five months.
Jongdae comes over to celebrate Yixing's accomplishment, a bottle of wine in one hand and his laptop tucked into the other. He pops the cork on the wine and pours them each a glass, clicking away at his laptop when he thinks Yixing is distracted. Yixing feels a kind of satisfaction he hasn't felt in a long time, a sense that everything is going right with his life. Jongdae still keeps the Sasquatch-watching binoculars on his desk, occasionally peeking into the trees for signs of movement, but Yixing is no longer a believer. He's already found what he was looking for in the woods.
"Get off your laptop, nerd!" Yixing teases, wrapping an arm around Jongdae's shoulder.
"In a moment. There's a discussion on this forum about the most attractive entertainer for children and there's still a couple idiots who don't think you're the hottest. I've got to defend my man!" Jongdae grins up at him, "Are you willing to pose shirtless? I think if they see you in your running outfit, we'll manage to convince them all."
He pokes Yixing in the side, causing Yixing to squirm away when he hits a ticklish spot.
"I don't care what a bunch of horny moms think, as long as you like me best, that's enough for me."
"You're such a sap," Jongdae says, kissing him on the cheek, "But seriously, shirtless pics?"
Jongdae looks at him with eyes filled with hope. Yixing smacks him on the arm, tugging him away from his laptop and down onto the couch. He waits for Jongdae to cuddle up under his arm before hitting play on some dumb sci-fi movie they were looking forward to mocking. Jongdae normally gets annoyed by the bad dialogue and ludicrous story-lines and Yixing often falls asleep before the end, but it's fun to watch together. Everything is more fun when they're together.
Their friends still laugh at how they met because Yixing was afraid of Sasquatch and Jongdae was a Peeping Tom, but Yixing doesn't think it matters. They're weird, their love story is strange and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Sasquatch turns away from Yixing's window with a happy sigh. He knew those two crazy kids would eventually work it out. He'd been rooting for them the whole time. He pets Sassy one last time, thanking her for her help in his plan and teleports back to his spaceship, ready to begin another adventure. There are more lonely people in the galaxy who just need a little push in the right direction and Sasquatch is nothing if not a romantic.
asleep & dreaming
- Beneath the Trees