Title: The Painter Of Bones
Summary: He’s used to working with old, dying or dead people. Most certainly not someone as young and fragile, alive, or beautiful as Byun Baekhyun.
November 27th, Tuesday.
Fire burns dilapidated cottage to the ground.
No casualties reported, cause unknown.
He hears doorbells ringing distantly as he rounds corners and crosses streets - sounds of people taking shelter in shops and restaurants, and he sighs as he hears the thunder rumbling in the distance, the flash of lightning overhead illuminating the dark alley. It’s barely even a minute past six thirty in the evening but the streetlamps are on, flickering hazily in their even intervals but the rain’s so heavy he can’t keep his eyes open and he’s squinting uncomfortably but he’s lived in this town his entire life and he knows his way back even in the dark.
Soon he’s rounding the last corner and the familiar black door is in sight, brass lion head and number 9 dripping with water, glinting whenever the sky flashes. The window’s closed, thankfully, and he spots his housemate’s shadow moving around behind the curtains.
“Miserable weather,” He greets as he ducks into the doorway, kicking off his shoes. Kris throws a towel at him, steaming hot cup of tea in hand, and he sheds his coat and jacket and hangs them gingerly on the rack to dry, scrunching his face at the puddle of water that pools underneath.
“Dry yourself first,” The taller man glares at Chanyeol from the table, setting down a teapot and another cup and saucer. “No need to make me miserable as well by ruining my new Persian carpet.”
“From one of your many rich lady patrons I suppose?” Chanyeol shakes his head, sneezing as a frosty current sneaks its way in through the shut door and settles around his bare feet.
“I prefer to refer to them as my Byzantine goddesses,” He smirks as he drops another two sugar cubes into his own cup of tea, sinking down comfortably into one of their oakwood chairs.
“Anyway the police called. They’ve got one waiting for you in the morgue,” Kris slides the newspaper across the table. It’s folded, and Chanyeol’s eyes are drawn to a rectangular chunk of text that has been circled brightly in one of the red markers Kris was always leaving around. “Unidentified body they found by the river. The detective said they’d send someone to pick you up in an hour or two.”
“Oh, and your shipment of paint came in today. I left it in your room.” Chanyeol nods quietly as he finishes the remainder of his tea, Kris stretching out languidly on the table, blonde hair a mess.
“Wash it, won’t you?” Kris waves his cup lazily, index finger hooked through the handle. The younger of the two gives him a dirty look but does it anyway, drying his hands on the towel slung around his neck as he climbs up the stairs to the second floor.
Chanyeol’s room and study was pretty much entirely monochrome, with the exception of the golden trimmings and the numerous paint stains on the floor. The parcel’s sitting on his bed, still sealed.
Chanyeol grabs a knife from his desk, its handle made of ivory, carved intricately into the form of a phoenix, its talons gripping a shimmering pearl embedded into the bone. He slips the blade under the seal and with a quick, precise slide (practiced ease) he slices through the thick board, sheathing his favourite knife and putting it away safely before tearing off the remainder of the box’s packaging, smiling as he sorts out the colours. His hand curls around the familiar silver tube with a white band, fingers running fondly over the embossed letters.
A rich, heavy, granular pigment - a colour he reserved purely, solely for the painting of flesh.
He is a painter - portraitist, to be exact. They call him the Painter of Bones, a Grim Reaper of sorts, but Chanyeol knows it’s all just a very unfortunate misunderstanding. His first five clients had all been old, aged noblemen, friends of his Master’s, and he had sat with them as favours after his teacher had passed away. All five of them were frail and sickly and had passed away one after another in the months that followed the completion of their portraits. Somehow or rather the newspaper had gotten hold of the fact that he had been in close contact with each of them in their last years and had sensationalized the links he had with them, dubbing him the gaudiest name he had ever heard of: ‘the Painter of Bones’, and really, Chanyeol thinks its rather insulting of them to call the dignified elderly he had painted ‘bones’. They were some of the nicest people he had ever met.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, he agrees sourly, adjusting his hat as he steps into the hallway of the hospital, nose scrunching up as he’s greeted by the sterile smell of clinical alcohol. It’s already past visiting hours and the hallways are empty, his footsteps echoing loudly as he walks with quick strides down the corridor and the stairs, suitcase full of paints and brushes in hand.
It’s been a while since he’s been to the morgue and as the strong, pungent smell of formaldehyde attacks his nose, he remembers vividly the first time his old Master had brought him here, back when he was still a young, naïve, teenage apprentice to “observe, with your own eyes, the miraculous inner structures of the human body!” and even more distinctly, the countless numbers of times he would clamber for a bin to throw up in or run desperately out the door, gagging, and he feels some pity in his heart for the guard he sees cowering in a corner near the heavy, metal door.
Must be new, Chanyeol thinks as he saunters in, and he sighs as he sets up his easel, unpacking aluminium tubes if paint and wooden palettes on a spare table, staring blankly out the large window, watching as the lightning tore rifts in the endless dark fabric of the sky.
“You can leave if you’re scared, you know.” He says as he takes off his hat and coat, leaving them on a chair near the table before folding neatly, a piece of white cloth to use as a makeshift mask to help dull the sensory overload on his nose.
“I-i-i-i h-have orders t-to s-s-stay, s-sir.” The guard stutters from his corner.
“Grab a chair or something.” Chanyeol shrugs, nudging one of the spare stools with his foot, turning to face the body that the mortician had already prepared for him on the cold, steel table. She’s covered up to her neck, and she’s rather young, with long, straight hair.
The guard’s still eyeing the body on the table warily, petrified in his seat, face a ghostly white. He jumps when Chanyeol drops his brush on the floor.
“She’s dead, you know.” He deadpans, sighing pointedly. “She won’t move. Or eat your brains out or something.”
He stands up to pick up his brush right when a particularly bright bolt of lightning shoots across the sky behind him, illuminating his figure from the back, casting a long, dark shadow across the floor, and the guard jumps and screams, running away when the following rumble of thunder resounds in the air.
It’s then that Chanyeol realizes, as he straightens with his brush held tightly in his hand, that the guard wasn’t scared of the woman lying still on the table at all.
He’s afraid of him.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Madam.” Chanyeol whispers to the unmoving form on the table. Sighing as the wind howled on outside, tree branches tapping incessantly against the glass of the windows, Chanyeol slumps onto his stool, continuing from where he left off before, overhead lights flickering every once in a while.
It was going to be a long, long night.
He trips on the hem of his pajama pants midway through a yawn and stumbles down the remaining steps, cursing out loud as his elbow collides with the wall, wondering, for the four hundred and sixty ninth time exactly how in the world Kris had managed to convince him to take the rooms on the second floor.
Chanyeol barely manages to drag himself to the kitchen, eyes half closed, stubbing his toe on the corner of one of their cabinets. He hops on one foot with a blueberry muffin stuffed in his mouth, crashing into a chair before resting his forehead on the cool surface of the table, groaning loudly. Kris is already up, and he’s adjusting the height of his easel, one of his gigantic canvases resting against the wall of the living room. Chanyeol peels his forehead from the tabletop and sits a little straighter, observing his friend as he worked.
“You’re taller than me, and you look like a Chinese fire breathing dragon with diabolical, demonic eyes.” He takes a bite out of his muffin and chews angrily, glaring accusingly at Kris. “But nobody’s scared of you. Why?”
“I don’t spend nights alone in the morgue?” Kris shrugs and starts to slather white paint onto the canvas, hand moving in quick efficient strokes as he spread the paint out into a thin, even layer with one of his large, sable brushes. “And I only paint rich, beautiful women. All of whom happen to be very much alive.”
“And I socialize, Chanyeol, I go to parties and dances where I sip free wine, eat free food and pretend to be interested.”
When he’s done priming Kris takes off his apron and washes his brush in turpentine, the familiar fumes wafting through the house. Chanyeol lets out a sigh and lets his forehead gravitate downwards to the table again, closing his eyes as he turns to rest his cheek on the wood.
“Looks like someone has a stalker!” Kris is laughing at him, flipping excitedly through the pages as Chanyeol scowls at him. Page after page full of newspaper cut outs on Chanyeol fill the first half of the book, the second half consisting of articles regarding fires and arsons, pasted in chronological order. The edges of the book are rather peculiar, its corners trimmed in a jagged and uneven way.
“Wow this person really likes you,” Kris blinks at him, turning the book around so Chanyeol can see. “This really is every single article on you.”
Chanyeol ignores him and reaches out to shut the book quickly with his hand once Kris reaches the arson articles, tucking it under his arm and standing to leave.
“Well good morning to you too, Lord Grumpy.”
8th December, Saturday.
Abandoned warehouse burns to the ground.
No casualties reported. Cause unknown.
His next big job comes in two weeks later, and as usual Kris is the one who answers the phone and notes down the particulars for him. Chanyeol somehow manages to find the estate without getting too lost, walking the entire way in his suit and shiny shoes, coat tails flapping around in the wind. The estate is a pretty far walk, a tad bit isolated, up on a hill just out on the edge of the town. It had gotten colder over the weeks, the chill turning into a frost, and Chanyeol shivers as he raises a gloved hand to ring the doorbell on one of the massive pillars holding up the gates. Through the iron grills he spots a faint path leading up to a large, white house, surrounded by meticulously pruned and shaped shrubs and bushes. There’s a small garden of withered flowers off to the side, and he thinks he can spot a couple of trees in the distance, branches bare in the cold of winter. The place is eerily familiar, and Chanyeol feels a chill run down his spine, but he shrugs it off, attributing it to the cold.
He rings the bell again after a couple of minutes, pacing back and forth in front of the gate to keep warm. Afraid he had made a mistake with the address, Chanyeol pulls the slip of paper out of his pocket reluctantly, eyes running over the words Kris had scribbled out in red ink. He mentally checks the street, and matches the number 6 on the plaque by the gate with the messily scrawled one on the paper, sighing as he raises his arm to push the bell once more.
A strong gust of wind hits him then and he pulls his scarf tightly around his neck, still clutching the piece of paper, afraid it would blow off with the wind. The uncharacteristically neat words on the flipside catches his eye and he squints at them through his messy bangs, and he wonders what his new patron is like, reading the name aloud, letting the syllables roll off his tongue.
Byun Baek Hyun.
It takes another ten minutes of restless pacing and impatient foot tapping before Chanyeol sees the housekeeper limping down the path towards him. He’s an old, grumpy man, back hunched into a curve, face set into a permanent scowl, and Chanyeol hardly has time to take off his hat to greet him properly before he finds himself stumbling through the gates. The housekeeper’s grip on his arm is surprisingly strong, short, thick fingers digging into his forearm as he’s yanked along, and it hurts but Chanyeol keeps quiet as he tries his best not to trip over stray rocks and pebbles, silently observing the grotesque carvings of gargoyles and hounds that framed the entrance to the building.
The interior of the house is large, and its owner certainly rich. Corinthian marble pillars lined the long hallway, its high ceiling decorated with shimmering crystal chandeliers. There are many doors – more than Chanyeol can count - and he thinks, rather amusedly, that he could probably fit fifty replicas of his room here and still have space to spare. The housekeeper finally comes to a stop in front of the only white door in the entire building, at the every end of the hall. He lets go of Chanyeol’s hand, and the painter shakes it nervously, trying to regain some feeling in his numb fingers.
He’s reaching out for the doorknob when the old man swats his hand away, motioning for Chanyeol to lift his arms, and he pats him down, hands checking pockets and sleeves. The housekeeper grunts when he finds Chanyeol’s impasto knife in his suitcase and he tucks it away into his own pocket, answering curtly when Chanyeol protests.
“You can’t bring this in.” The old man limps away and Chanyeol stares at his retreating figure, dumbfounded. “You’ll get it back later.”
Byun Baek Hyun isn’t what he expects at all. In fact he’s the complete opposite of the mental image he had formed while waiting outside the gates. He’s young. He’s young, he’s beautiful, and he’s very much alive.
Chanyeol’s feet have ceased functioning and he’s rooted to the spot, nearly dropping his suitcase as he gapes at the large, lavish room. The first thing that really hits him is the excessive amount of red – red all over, in varying shades. Heavy, dark crimson curtains cascade down in dramatic folds and hollows from the ceiling, golden tassels decorating the ends that sweep the floor. The upholstery of the furniture is entirely in a rich, vermillion velvet, and the wooden tables are stained an enchanting shade of burgundy. Even the large bed far off in the corner of the room is covered in maroon sheets, and he can make out some random patterns on the duvet. The stark white wallpaper and painted wooden floor contrast violently with the reds, and he finds that the tones glare so brilliantly and vividly it feels like his eyes are on fire.
Chanyeol has to squint and blink, squeezing his eyes shut when they start to sting. When he eases them open again they’re immediately drawn to the lone occupant of the room, presumably its owner, a young man who looks to be about the same age as himself, sitting quietly on the windowsill. The tall windows look out over the hills surrounding the estate, spotted randomly with barren trees, and Chanyeol observes the other as he hums quietly to himself, doodling random animal shapes in the spots of condensation that he blows onto the glass. The mysterious boy still hasn’t noticed his presence and Chanyeol’s about to open his mouth to speak, not wanting to be rude, when something tickles his nose and he sneezes loudly – the sound ricocheting of the blank walls, bouncing off in faint echoes.
The painter tries not to blush in embarrassment when the other jumps up in shock, whipping his head around with wide, frightened eyes, pupils dilated, hands reaching instinctively for the thick cloth of the curtain to curl around his rather small frame. Chanyeol’s so busy bowing, hat clasped in hand, apologising profusely to the huddled figure that he doesn’t notice the way the curtain is quickly tossed aside when he speaks his own name, doesn’t notice the other taking quick steps towards him until he feels cold, soft, trembling fingers brushing lightly against his left cheek. He trails off, stuttering as he feels a peculiar tingle under his skin where the other’s fingers previously were, unaccustomed to that kind of touch, or any physical contact at all, and as he raises his own brown eyes to meet raven black ones, he finds the other staring back intensely with an expression he can only describe as absolute fascination.
“I-” The shorter one starts, withdrawing his hand and hiding it in his pocket, mellow voice breaking the still silence. “I-I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I’m sorry I’m late. I was stuck outside your gate,” Chanyeol apologises again as he snaps out of his reverie, remembering why he was even there in the first place. He takes a few steps backwards before moving towards a spot near the window where the sunlight fell through evenly, leaving his suitcase on the floor, pulling one of Baekhyun’s huge velvet chairs over and gesturing for him to sit. Baekhyun’s eyes are still fixed on him, watching Chanyeol’s every move as he pads quietly over to where the other is, bare feet moving across the pure white floor, and the painter can feel Baekhyun’s gaze lingering even as he unpacks his paints, placing his bottle of linseed oil next to his palettes.
Baekhyun waits patiently for him the entire time, sitting wordlessly on the chair, hands placed neatly on his lap, wiggling his toes. He’s done setting up his easel and canvas, falling into his usual routine easily, and it’s only when he’s about to twist open the cap of one of his tubes to start painting that he realises he’s forgotten one very, very important fact: Baekhyun’s not like one of the corpses that he’s become accustomed to.
“So,” He says, swallowing thickly as he grips his brush, knuckles white, feeling oddly nervous. “How would you like your portrait done?”
“I was hoping you could help me with that – I don’t know what I look like.” Baekhyun looks up at him sheepishly, twiddling his thumbs.
“Surely you’ve seen yourself in a mirror before?” Chanyeol asks in disbelief, eyebrows raised, frowning. “There’s one right there in your foyer.”
“Is there?” The shorter one cocks his head to the side, blinking. “I’ve only read about mirrors in books. I’ve never left this room before.”
He lets the topic drop, not wanting to ask too many questions or intrude, staring blankly at the canvas in front of him. Chanyeol’s still at a complete loss as to what to do, and he fiddles helplessly with his brush. He’s never had to interact with any of his previous subjects (with the exception of the five noblemen, who had given him clear and succinct directions), never had to learn about them and what their frown lines and wrinkles meant, or about the freckles sprinkled across their cheeks and the laugh lines etched into their skin. He’d painted them all on a superficial level, acting more like a documenter than a genuine portraitist, recording scars and scabs and lines objectively and without a proper comprehension of their relationship to the personalities and souls that inhabited their physical bodies.
Chanyeol tries his best to remain formal, proceeding as he would usually, though Baekhyun’s ceaseless staring distracts him greatly and he fumbles, hesitating. In the end he settles for painting Baekhyun purely based on his visual appearance, the same way he’s done so many times before, beginning to mix colours and fill spaces, but there’s a nagging feeling that he can’t ignore settling somewhere inside his chest, one that tells him it’s heartbreakingly wrong to give a living person the same treatment as a corpse.
When he gets home that night, after being shoo-ed away by Baekhyun’s house keeper, confiscated impasto knife in hand, he’s still in quite a dazed state, tripping on Kris’s expensive Persian carpet, almost landing face first on the ground, right at said man’s feet. Kris shoots him a weird look when Chanyeol brushes off his elbows and knees, and the younger of the two glares from the floor as the other saunters over to his precious carpet, patting down the flipped up corner tenderly and examining it, tracing the patterns with his fingers, brushing off whatever dust Chanyeol had gotten on it.
It’s Kris’s turn to cook this week and Chanyeol stares blankly into space as he waits, mulling over his encounter with Baekhyun earlier in the afternoon. He snaps out of it when Kris puts his plate down with a loud thunk.
“He touched me, Kris.” Chanyeol says seriously, hand hovering over his own cheek where Baekhyun’s fingers had grazed his skin. “He’s not afraid of me either.”
“That’s…interesting,” Kris deadpans as he slides into his seat. “Eat your food, I actually spent time making that.”
“There’s been a lot of fires recently,” The elder reaches over and grabs a flyer, handing it to Chanyeol. “So they’ve sent out notices to everyone telling us to be wary of fire hazards. I found this under the door when I got back.”
Chanyeol reads over the list of potentially dangerous items that’s printed on the flyer and laughs, chucking it aside when he’s done.
“Oil based materials like pigments and paint, alcohol including household materials like thinner and turpentine, and assorted oils and extracts like Linseed.”
“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” Kris chuckles and pays no mind to the warning, chewing his food.
Chanyeol thinks, that maybe, he should be a little more careful.
14th December, Wednesday.
Vacant shop destroyed in fire.
No casualties reported, cause unknown.
It takes him a little over a week to finish the first painting, sitting in companionable silence with Baekhyun by the window for a few hours every afternoon, leaving when the sun sets. Baekhyun’s dressed exactly the same way each time he visits, in a plain white collared shirt with long sleeves and black pants, and despite the constant staring habit Chanyeol finds him to be quite a pleasant subject.
He’s never had to scrutinize the face of a living person as much as he’s had to look at Baekhyun all week. Chanyeol thinks that he could probably draw him out in detail without even looking at him anymore, pale skin, big ears and small smile seared so clearly into his mind – even little things like the tiny mole at the right hand corner of Baekhyun’s mouth, or the exact angle of his nose, and the quirk of his pinkish lips. But Chanyeol’s only seen a few of his expressions, and he finds himself addicted to observing the way the flesh of his face moves and changes, stretched over bone, watching how the raising of a brow changes his entire countenance, the way Baekhyun’s eyes light up when he smiles, the way his eyes droop when he dozes off, and as Chanyeol progresses with the painting he finds that the harder he looks, the more he realises he doesn’t know Baekhyun’s face at all.
He’s dissatisfied and frustrated with himself but Baekhyun takes it all easily, telling him to let go of this one and to start again on another, that he’s got all the time in the world, and that he can wait.
“I spent twenty years not knowing what I look like. I think I can wait a little more.”
Sometimes Chanyeol notices the way Baekhyun has to struggle so hard to stay in his seat, looking like he really wants to get up, so much so that his fingers are pressed tensely into the velvet cushion. He shrugs it off at first, thinking that he’s imagined it all, but today, in particular, Baekhyun’s so stiff that his eyebrows are furrowed, and Chanyeol puts down his brush carefully, breaking the silence to ask Baekhyun if he’s alright.
“Oh, no I’m fine thank you I’m alright it’s just – I, ” Chanyeol just stares at him as he crosses the space between them and places his hands over his ears, tracing over the curves and hollows. “Your ears look really nice and big and I’ve only ever seen drawings of ears in books and felt my own and I was just wondering what yours would…feel…like.”
Chanyeol blinks at him, letting the words sink in, as he feels his ears tingle and warm up, and Baekhyun gasps and quickly recoils his hands, backing away.
“Oh no, oh dear I shouldn’t have done that! I’m sorry!” Baekhyun’s panicking, afraid that he had made Chanyeol angry. He’s never been allowed to touch anyone else before, barred from all contact with others, but Chanyeol’s ears just looked so…fascinating and he couldn’t resist. Baekhyun’s about to run to his curtains to hide in fear when he feels a warm hand catching his wrist, stopping him in his tracks.
“Oh. They’re not the same,” Baekhyun gasps, genuinely surprised as he feels his own ears, comparing them with how Chanyeol’s had felt. If Chanyeol had any doubts about whether Baekhyun had lied about never seeing or touching others before, the way he’s examining his ear so meticulously quickly convinces him otherwise. He stops Baekhyun only when he’s about to try to stick a finger in his ear, having tried comparing their ear sizes by making Chanyeol sit down on the floor as Baekhyun tried to press his ear directly to the other’s.
He’s quickly distracted by Chanyeol’s hands though, settling down next to Chanyeol, holding on to his wrist as he presses their palms together and marvels at how his own hand is dwarfed by Chanyeol’s much larger ones.
“Does everyone have hands as big as yours?” Baekhyun asks him innocently as he fiddles with Chanyeol’s fingers, comparing them to his own one by one – thumb, index, middle, ring and pinky. Baekhyun’s fingers are delicate and soft and perfect compared to his own slightly worn, calloused ones, and he tries as best he can to keep a stoic and calm expression because someone is holding his hands, and it's a foreign and unfamiliar feeling that leaves him quite lost.
“N-No, they don’t. Usually it’s proportionate to a person’s height. When you’re taller your hands tend to be bigger, or longer.” He tries not to stutter as Baekhyun threads his fingers with his, giving his palm an experimental squeeze before letting go. Baekhyun’s trying to compare the lines on their palms now, making remarks about how the lines on his own hands are shorter, and how Chanyeol’s are longer when he stops mid sentence, frowning and squinting.
“Ah. It’s just a minor burn scar,” Chanyeol tries to explain as Baekhyun lets his fingers linger over the mark, feeling the texture of the skin.
“How did you get it?”
“I touched something that was really hot.”
“Does it hurt?” Baekhyun looks worried, perhaps even concerned, and Chanyeol labels and locks away the image in his mind, adding it to his imaginary collection of Baekhyun’s expressions.
“No it doesn’t. Not any more.”
“That’s good then! Pain is bad,” Baekhyun grins at him and Chanyeol smiles warmly at the other’s seemingly childish simplicity, his first real smile in a long, long while.
There’s a ghost by the window.
A pale, ghastly white figure in a thin white shirt, not much taller than the size of a youth, face smeared with blood, features obscured, crimson staining his clothes in drips and splotches. There’s blood on his hands, and he tries to reach out beyond the window, smudging the red substance on the glass.
In his dream he’s floating, far away in the distance above hills and trees but he can see clearly, so, so clearly that it scares the wits out of him. The ghost’s crying now, hands clawing uselessly on the glass, and he’s screaming loudly, desperately, slumping against the stained glass hopelessly, chest heaving as he sobs.
The summer breeze is welcoming on his skin and as he slowly floats away the boy looks at him with piercing eyes, eyes that are darker than black, pleading, begging.
Let me out. Let me out. Let me out. Let me out. Let me out.
He tries to move closer but he’s swept away by the wind, pushed so violently away as the breeze caresses the wild grass in a familiar field and he struggles, trying to throw his body in the direction of the sobbing ghost.
As he pulls against the invisible restraints he spots a soft, amber glow to the left and it grows larger and larger, engulfing everything in its path and he’s trying to shout, trying to warn the ghost in the window – there’s a fire, he wants to say, but his throat is closed up and the wind lets go of him and he freefalls endlessly to the ground, shouting:
It’s been a while since he’s dreamt of him.
Dreamt about the lonely boy in the window.
His clothes and hair are still wet from when Kris had dumped a bucket of water on him earlier, grumbling about how it’s inhumane to scream so loudly at three in the morning. Chanyeol sighs as he looks around the room he’s in. The walls are bare, paint peeling in scraps, chips of it scattered across the floor. Gaping holes sit where glass windows used to be, and he leans back against the wall as a rat scampers across the floor, squeaking. He can see the moon through the hole, its eerie light glowing bright in the sky. There’s a box of matches and a bottle of linseed oil sitting by his feet, and he picks up the box, taking out a match, striking it, watching as the wood burned, blowing the flame out when it reaches his fingers. He takes another one out before closing the box again, lighting it with practiced ease. He has twenty four matchsticks.
Two hours have passed since then.
He paces back and forth, dried paint sticking to his feet as he holds his head in his hands, trying to rid himself of the memories of the dream that's been haunting him. It's a recurring nightmare and it comes to him again and again always playing out in the exact same way, always ending with him waking up screaming in bed, pale and frightened and sweaty. Sometimes it comes in consecutive nights, in spans of weeks, and on those days he nearly goes mad, refusing to sleep, working himself to exhaustion, afraid of the ghost in the window. Sometimes it leaves him alone for months, and he manages to convince himself that his nightmare has ended, that the ghost has left him alone, until he wakes up again, crying, burying his face into his pillow.
It’s been five years.
He picks up the bottle of Linseed oil when he crosses the room again, unscrewing the cap, letting the smell waft around the room. He remembers, back when he was still an apprentice, when he had discovered the rags they had used to clean the spilled oil spontaneously igniting while they were left to dry outside in the garden. Remembers the immense sense of calm he had felt as he watched the flames flicker, remembers the tiny embers glowing in the ashes.
Carefully, he drips the oil on the broken table in the corner, leaving a thin but solid trail as he moves. He doesn’t need much for the house to burn – the remnants of oil in the paint covering the wooden surfaces takes care of the rest of the work. When the bottle is empty he moves carefully to the doorway, storing it in his pocket before sliding the matchbox out, holding on to the last matchstick carefully. He checks if he’s gotten any oil on his hands or his clothes and shoes before he lights the match, dropping it quickly at the end of the trail, backing out of the doorway as he watches the room catch fire, observing silently as the tongues of flames danced around, climbing the walls, basking in the amber glow.
He leaves only when he has to, when his eyes start to water and sting.
It’s still dark out, and he shivers when a cold breeze hits him, wishing he had his coat and scarf. He can’t go back yet, having left his keys in his coat pocket, and he doesn’t want to risk Kris exploding at him for waking him up twice in one night. Chanyeol settles for walking listlessly along the streets, tossing the empty bottle and matchbox into one of the bins he passes as he turns a corner near the bakery, rubbing his hands together to keep them warm.
Chanyeol lets his feet lead him, barely paying attention to where he’s going, and soon he finds himself on the outskirts of the town, at the edge of a field. He can spot Baekhyun’s white house off into the distance, on its small hill, its stark colour standing out in the darkness.
He lies down on the cool grass, closing his eyes, waiting for the sun to rise.
18th December, Tuesday
Abandoned cottage destroyed by fire.
No casualties reported, cause unknown.
He ends up late being late for his appointment with Baekhyun in the afternoon, Kris having gotten revenge on him by purposely letting him oversleep. By the time he’s down the stairs, crashing his elbow into the wall as usual, struggling to get his belt on, Kris is already in the middle of pasting gold leaf onto his canvas, his lady patron jumping up in shock when Chanyeol comes crashing through the living room. He bites out a few swear words at Kris before he’s out the door, the other merely smirking at him in response.
When he gets to Baekhyun’s gate he spends another twenty minutes impatiently pushing on the door bell, waiting for the housekeeper to let him in, and when he finally steps into Baekhyun’s room, a quick glance at the clock on the wall tells him that he’s a total of two hours and fifteen minutes late.
“I’m really sorry I’m late.” Chanyeol bows immediately, hat in hand, looking at the floor. “I have no excuses.”
He doesn’t get a reply though, and when he looks up he finds Baekhyun at the other end of the room, sitting by the windowsill, with a book in his lap.
“Baekhyun?” He calls out softly as he walks over to where the other is curled up comfortably in his chair.
“Huh?” The smaller one sits up and looks around, puzzled, before he spots Chanyeol walking towards him. “Oh! Hello, Chanyeol.”
“I’m really sorry I’m late,” Chanyeol repeats his earlier apology, bowing once more.
“You look awful today are you alright?” Baekhyun blinks at him, and Chanyeol gives himself a once over, registering the many wrinkles and creases on his shirt and pants, remembering that he hadn’t bothered to comb his hair (which the wind had tousled into an even messier state), realizing that he probably has ghastly dark rings under his eyes. It was no wonder the housekeeper had glared at him so disapprovingly when he had showed up.
“I just had a really rough night.” He smiles sheepishly at Baekhyun, trying to comb through his hair with his fingers, patting down the tufts he could feel sticking up.
“What were you reading?” He asks, taking a step closer to Baekhyun so he can peek over the other’s shoulder.
“A book on Botany,” Baekhyun flips the book around and hands it to Chanyeol. “Here, have a look.”
The book is open to a page with detailed diagrams and annotations filling the spaces. The edges of the pages are jagged and torn, as if on purpose, but he quells his curiosity and admires the high quality workmanship of the print maker who had done the illustrations instead.
“Lilies?” he asks, the bold print of the chapter’s header catching his eye.
“The Lily of the Valley is my birth flower.” Baekhyun grins brightly at him, reaching over to flip a couple of pages, pointing out a particular flower. “But I like the red and orange ones best. They’re called Tiger Lilies.”
“What month were you born in, Chanyeol?”
“Chrysanthemums, then.” Baekhyun flips to another chapter and points out a section to him. Chanyeol nods as the shorter one throws in some brief anecdotes.
“Is it alright if I read while you paint?”
Baekhyun asks, pausing, waiting for Chanyeol’s response before he makes his way across the room to pick out another book from the tall shelves that lined one side of the room.
Chanyeol watches him from behind his easel, noticing the way Baekhyun avoids walking too close to the door, steering clear of it, choosing instead to weave in between the narrow spaces formed by his tables and chairs, almost as if he’s afraid of it. He doesn’t question it though, like he hadn’t for all of Baekhyun’s other quirks, silently unpacking his brushes, trying his best to focus in his groggy and disheveled state. After all, his role as a portraitist was to reveal and reaffirm, not to judge.
He tries to read the titles on the spines while waiting. He’s a little too far to see them all but he can make out a few words here and there and they mostly seem to be books on general topics like animals and history. There are a couple of encyclopedias and atlases, the gold emboss on the black leather standing out even from afar, and in a corner of the shelf he recognizes a title that he’s read before as well: Frankenstein. He waits patiently, attempting to stifle his yawns as Baekhyun climbs up a step ladder cautiously, step by tentative step, until he can reach the book he wants in the seventh partition of the shelf. Chanyeol wonders if he should go over to help, thinking that perhaps Baekhyun is afraid of heights, but the other looks like he’s used to it, and so he remains in his seat, unmoving.
He starts painting immediately once Baekhyun’s settled back in his chair, quietly absorbed in his book. The edges of the pages are jagged and torn as well and they catch Chanyeol’s eye as Baekhyun flips them wordlessly.
Its already his forth canvas but he’s still not satisfied. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get the paint to recreate Baekhyun and his many quirks and expressions, Baekhyun and his chirpy laugh, Baekhyun and his quaint innocence.
Chanyeol puts the canvas aside, sighing as he packs up his things, moving quietly away from Baekhyun’s napping form. He’s almost out the door when the other wakes up and scrambles over to where he’s standing frozen with his hand on the knob. He looks down in confusion when Baekhyun tugs at his coat sleeve, pulling him away from the door before he speaks.
“I-Its Christmas next week,” He looks up at Chanyeol hopefully before diverting his gaze back to the floor. “If you’re not busy… w-would you like to come for dinner on Christmas Eve?”
“I understand if you can’t or you don’t want to but I’ve never had a friend before a-and I just thought it would be nice to celebrate…it…with…you.” He’s holding on to his arm tightly now, hand trembling, voice meek and small.
“Baekhyun?” Chanyeol pries his fingers from his wrist, holding them lightly between his own, smiling gently when Baekhyun stutters in surprise.
“I would love to.”
It’s his turn to cook this week. Kris is still working in the living room, adding highlights to the navy blue paint that makes up most of the long flowy dress his subject is wearing. He’s known Kris since they were both children – their teachers had been close friends, and he had met with Kris weekly whenever his teacher had brought him over to other’s home so he could see his work. Kris’s style of painting differed greatly from his own. The blond painter loved using obscene amounts of gold leaf, but he used it effectively, in his backgrounds, and in the imaginative patterns and swirls that tended to cover the entire surface of his huge canvases, while Chanyeol followed reality, followed only what his eyes could see. He has always liked Kris’s work, liked the way he uses his colours, and sometimes, Chanyeol thinks that he’d give anything to be able to see the world through the eyes of his friend.
He’s just about done with cooking dinner when Kris comes strolling into the kitchen, collapsing tiredly in one of their wooden chairs, rubbing his nose when he sneezes.
“Ugh. Damn turpentine.”
Chanyeol pats his back sympathetically, putting their food down on the table before sliding into the other seat.
“Rice? Again?” Kris groans, letting his forehead hit the tabletop lightly.
“Well my spaghetti tastes good.”
“You could have at least pretended to change it by switching the type of pasta.”
“I like my linguine.”
Kris scrunches his nose at him but tucks in any way, stealing as much meat off Chanyeol’s plate as he can get away with, sneakily dumping his broccoli in a pile when Chanyeol leaves the table to get them some water.
“So are you.”
Kris grunts in response, dumping the rest of his vegetables onto Chanyeol’s plate, nicking another piece of meat while Chanyeol just sighs and stuffs himself, trying to save whatever meat he has left from Kris by eating them up quickly.
“Remember that favour you owe me?” Chanyeol starts, and Kris raises a brow at him, still chewing. “I want to get flower seeds. As many as possible, and in different types.”
“The rarer the better. I can get the common ones from the florist down the street, so help me to look for the more uncommon types.”
“How much time do I have to get them?”
“I need them by Christmas Eve.”
“You actually have plans? With Baekhyun? That’s rare.” His eyebrows are raised again, and he nudges Chanyeol with his foot under the table. “First non-work appointment in three years!”
“Yeah, how about you?” Chanyeol rolls his eyes, kicking back.
“I have fifteen invitations.” Kris whips out an entire stack of invitation cards from his pocket, laying them out on the table. “Help me pick which party I should go to.”
He glances over the cards and picks out a white one with gold lettering. Kris flips the card and reads out the location and the name.
“I think I’d get bored though. Maybe I should just go to all of them. Hop around, make more rich friends.”
“Pay your share of the bills will you,”
“Huh.” The older one smirks.