pg-13; 9686 words; multi-chapter
there was a lifetime in each other, if they chose to see it.
part zero; a moment | part one; a past | part two; a denial
And then, as the story usually goes, Hyukjae finds someone else to love.
When Donghae first hears about it from Sungmin, he can pretty much edit and mix background music into it, the melancholic kind of soundtrack ballads that have put South Korea on the music map. Sarangingayo kude nahwa gatdamyon shijahkingayo, the hero loses the beloved heroine once more to the gallant third party, everybody cries, rain falls, Hyukjae's going out with some girl called Miyoung whom Donghae can't even remember meeting.
"You have met her before," Sungmin insists as they sit together in the MBC dressing room, eating fried chicken for lunch. "Remember Sooyoungie's birthday party? We met Miyoung-sshi there."
Donghae doesn't remember. There had been lots of girls at that birthday party, and when there are lots of girls, they tend to mesh into each other.
"But," he says, and he feels Sungmin staring at him wondering why he isn't more enthusiastic about this. "But the managers won't let Hyukjae date."
"They're okay with it," Sungmin says. "Or rather they're not okay with it, exactly, but Hyukjae told them about it this morning and they said that it was risky, but it was okay as long as he isn't found out doing it. If he goes out with her he has to disguise himself, like Heechullie hyung does."
Donghae stares at his half-eaten chicken wing, skin hanging off white meat. He drops it into the grease-filled box. "But Hyukjae doesn't even like disguises."
"He's in love!" Sungmin says. "He likes everything!"
"You can't be in love in just two months."
"Oh, you." Sungmin makes a move to slap his head, catches sight of his oily fingers and thinks better of it. "Stop being such a wet blanket. What's wrong with you? Don't let Hyukjae see you like that."
When they return to the dorm that night, they bump into Hyukjae and Jungsu on their way out to KTR. Hyukjae rushes over and throws his arms around Donghae's neck, his beanie scratching Donghae's cheek, his backpack dangling off one arm and bumping against Donghae's back. "Sungminnie hyung told me he told you! Donghae-yah, I'm sorry I didn't tell you first, but you were out so early this morning, you know, and it wasn't something I could tell you over the phone! You're not mad, right?" He withdraws and scrutinizes Donghae's face, leaning abnormally close. He smells of deodorant and mint. "You're not allowed to be mad. I'm so happy, Donghae! You have to be happy for me too."
"I would be mad if you suddenly grabbed me like that," Jungsu remarks from the doorway. "Come on, Hyukjae, we're going to be late."
Donghae puts his hands on Hyukjae's hips, so loosely that he has to curl his fingers into the material of Hyukjae's shirt to keep them hanging on. "Congratulations," he says.
Hyukjae flashes him a quick relieved smile before struggling into his shoes and hurrying out after Jungsu. He slams the door shut on a whirl of March wind that sends loose papers gliding across the apartment and Donghae thinks, this is when they start playing the really sad violin music.
He hears a lot about Miyoung over the next week or so. He still can't remember meeting her at Sooyoung's birthday party and he only knows how she looks like based on a picture in Hyukjae's handphone, a girl with boyishly short hair and red-framed spectacles and a dimple in her cheek, but he knows bits and pieces of trivia about her now. That she loves football and is a born and bred Red Devil like Hyukjae, that she's the captain of her school's female football team, that she can speak Mandarin and cook Chinese cuisine because her mother is half-Chinese. She likes eggs sunny side up, she thinks having Hyukjae in disguise whenever they go out is funny, she's good at algebra and trigonometry and she really, really likes science. She's planning on studying biotechnology in university, and she hopes one day to work in a lab and carry out her own experiments. Jungsu says she's great, Kyuhyun approves of her because Hyukjae declares that she's good at computer games, and even Kibum, who self-professes to have a 'high standard' for girls, thinks she sounds pretty cool.
Hyukjae sings love songs in the toilet every morning until Youngwoon yells at him to shut up.
"It's crazy," he confides in Sungmin and Donghae as they're travelling in the van from meeting room to recording studio. "When I'm with her, I feel like…like I light up, or something. Is that sappy or what? But you know, I've written some rap lyrics thinking of her."
"You are so lovesick," Sungmin declares, and Donghae would like to say something too, but his voice sticks in his throat.
"I'm going for a movie with her tonight after KTR," Hyukjae says. "She says that it's more fun watching a late night movie than during the day."
"Ooh, don't do naughty things in the theatre," Sungmin winks. "But if you do, remember to be quiet about it. It's rude to disturb other viewers. And try not to leave behind too much of a mess."
Hyukjae blushes up to his ears. "Hyung, you think of such sick things! Why can't you be like Donghae? He never teases me."
"Donghae is too nice to you. I have to be extra mean to make up for him."
"Donghae-yah," Hyukjae says, reaching over to poke Donghae's arm. "Get a girlfriend soon, so that we can double date. We'll leave Sungmin hyung out of it because he doesn't deserve to have fun with us."
Donghae looks at Hyukjae and can't bring himself to dampen his mood. He nods, and Sungmin starts complaining about why he should be left out of the fun, it's not fair, you tease me too when there's a girl I like, and Hyukjae's arguing back that he never teases about dirty things and Sungmin says yeah right you're dirtier than me you're dirtier than anyone else in this whole wide world and you're so dirty that even the best antibacterial detergent won't make you clean, and then Donghae tunes out of the conversation.
That spring, all anyone sees when they look at Hyukjae is gums and teeth and crinkled eyes and Donghae throws himself into work, dances past all decent hours every night, allows himself to exhaust his body to such an extent that he's too physically tired to think much. If he stops thinking about it, he'll stop feeling it. If he stops feeling it, it'll stop existing. He has to stop thinking, he tells himself. He has to stop feeling.
Miyoung visits their dorm one day under heavy secrecy. Hyukjae's tired of disguises and sneaking around after dark and they aren't serious enough in their relationship yet for him to visit her home, so Jungsu takes pity on him and convinces everyone else (because Jungsu has very polished persuasive skills) that it's a necessity for Miyoung to visit their dorm. It is possible, he says, using the art of concealment that they've perfected over two years of being Korean idols and come on, let's not let down our very own Hyukjae, our very best Hyukkie, our jewel and dancing machine and part-time dorm cleaner and okay hyung, we're persuaded, shut up already.
Jongwoon grumbles about having to vacuum the big bedroom and pick up the pieces of four boys' lives lying strewn on all available surfaces, but they're all kind of excited at the thought of sneaking a girl up into the dorm. Donghae's still thinking of plausible excuses that will get him inconspicuously out of the whole thing when Jungsu reports that Miyoung's in the lift lobby and one of the managers looks out of the window at the ever-present group of fans below, remarks that they better all get out of this alive and unsuspected or it will be his neck on the chopping block, and that's not a place he's ever had any desire for his neck to be.
Okay, hyung, we'll take good care of your neck.
Everyone crowds around to meet her when she arrives, slipping off her shoes in the entryway as Hyukjae holds her elbow and re-introduces her to them, this is our leader Teukie hyung, this is Donghee hyung, this is our magnae Kyuhyunnie, don't ever eat anything he cooks, and this is Donghae, he's a big baby so you don't have to call him oppa.
"He's just bitter that my friends think you're wonderful," Miyoung says, smiling at Donghae. She looks a little like a boy, but her hand is small and smooth in his, her nails painted green, and Donghae finds himself wondering if Hyukjae ever compares Miyoung's hand to his, callused fingers inky from drawing out various choreographies on recycled foolscap paper.
"You have to warn me of all his bad habits," Miyoung says to him when they're settled in the living room, television tuned in to M-net, Sungmin cutting fruits in the kitchen for all of them. Hyukjae's bad habits. He has lots of them. He kicks when he sleeps, he steals the blanket, he grinds his teeth occasionally. He forgets to cap the shower bottle after he's done. He doesn't like anyone touching his food. He doesn't know how to fold clothes according to creases. He shies away from confrontations. He charges his laptop and then forgets all about it and leaves it charging for two days in a row.
But telling Miyoung all this will mean that somehow they're banded against Hyukjae, the girlfriend and the best friend against the boyfriend, and there's no reason why he should want to be banded with Miyoung against Hyukjae when he doesn't even remember the first time they met. He smiles politely, looks away pointedly from Miyoung and Hyukjae's expectant expressions. There's a little flat silence.
"He's really picky with his food, isn't he?" Miyoung tries again. "Whenever we go out to eat, he insists on separating his vegetables from the meat. I don't get that at all."
"I like categorising things," Hyukjae says.
"Mm," Donghae makes the sound reluctantly at the back of his throat. "Yeah. Hyukjae's a picky eater."
"Isn't he?" Miyoung says, laughing. "Sometimes I really want to be like, dude you're a guy, you're not supposed to be so picky with your food!"
"It's so unfair," Hyukjae says. "Just because I'm a guy, I'm not allowed to be picky?"
"Yes," Miyoung says. "Just because I'm a girl, I can't be a professional football player. It's the same thing."
"You have no sense of proportion," Hyukjae says, sounding aghast. "Don't you think comparing picky eating to women's rights is over the top? Donghae?"
A few more seconds of flat silence.
"He's usually more talkative," Jungsu says apologetically to Miyoung. "Not that his silence isn't a pleasant change. But I agree with you, for one. It's a shame you can't be a professional footballer. You would be fantastic on my sports channel."
"A supporter!" says Miyoung.
"A flirt," Hyukjae corrects. "Teukie hyung, this is my girlfriend. Remember your boundaries."
"He's being perfectly respectful," Miyoung says.
"Isn't it tiring having such an over-protective boyfriend?" Jungsu says sympathetically.
They're still at it when the M-net School of Rock comes on and everyone perks up at the screen because SJ-T are the guests. Donghae leans against the couch near Hyukjae's legs and stares at the wall. He isn't consciously aware of thinking, but he remembers something about late nights and life bars depleting and the world seeming to narrow down to two boys. One more round, Lee Donghae, I'll beat you in one more round; one more round, Lee Hyukjae, I'll demolish you again in one more round.
"So, Hyukjae-sshi, you and Donghae were set to be a same sex couple when Super Junior debuted. Donghae isn't in SJ-T, how do you feel about that?"
Donghae comes back to the present to see Hyukjae smiling awkwardly on TV. Somewhere to his left Jongwoon and Shindong are cracking up.
"First of all," says TV Hyukjae earnestly, "Donghae and I don't see each other as friends. We're just colleagues."
Donghae tries not to wince, because everyone else in the room is finding it hilarious.
"You're going to make Donghae hyung cry," Kyuhyun says.
"You make it sound so awful," Miyoung says, slapping her hand lightly on Hyukjae's thigh.
"It's true enough," Hyukjae says almost defensively. "We're just colleagues! We wouldn't be living together if we weren't in Super Junior. For that matter, we probably wouldn't even meet up."
Donghae covers his mouth with his hand. "We were friends before we became Super Junior," he reminds Hyukjae, because it really shouldn't be that easy to dismiss four years of running down the sides of football fields and walking from the bus stop to Hyukjae's home together in the dead silent of a residential neighbourhood night. He still remembers the number of street lights from the main road to the side road where Hyukjae's home is; eight of them, the last one adjacent to a road sign, sometimes flickering, throwing weird on-off shadows on Hyukjae's crinkly smiling face.
"But all our meetings were for practice," Hyukjae in the now argues. "We always just met at the SM building."
"Stop it!" Miyoung protests. "You're hurting Donghae oppa's feelings."
That may be true, but Donghae wishes she would shut up. She knows nothing about his and Hyukjae's relationship. It's between him and Hyukjae alone, and random girls should keep themselves and their green fingernails out of it.
"I hate it, that's all," Hyukjae says. "When they try and make it seem like Donghae and I are some sort of romantic couple."
"We know that's not true," Miyoung says comfortingly, doing a playful eye roll at Donghae as though she expects him to eye roll back. "So you shouldn't get worked up over it."
"I mean," Hyukjae says, "it's okay if the fans like it, but a few nights ago my dad called to ask if there was anything in the rumours that Donghae and I are dating. He actually believed them! He was almost about to disown me."
Miyoung draws her arm over his shoulders and hugs him to her. "He doesn't believe them anymore, so don't worry about it! Nobody really thinks you're gay, oppa."
Donghae bends over until he's flat on the floor, face buried in his arms. He want to fall through cement and concrete until he's gone. Hyukjae pokes him in the side with his foot, says "What's up with you?" and he sounds concerned, but Donghae doesn't care. Everyone laughs at him but Hyukjae's foot remains pressured into his side. He knows it's Hyukjae's way of showing that he's worried. At any other time he would lift himself up, curl around that foot like a kitten, close his eyes and pretend to purr as Shindong takes a picture for posterity. While they all laugh, as they always do, because laughing keeps emotions at bay.
But today he rubs his eyes on his sleeve, tries to pretend to everyone and to himself that he's only tearing up because he's tired. It's possible. He has cried from over-exhaustion before. The great sum of tears isn't always caused by sadness, after all.
He wakes up to a double dip in his pillow, warm calves snuggled against his pyjama legs. He recognises the morning breath.
His eyes are half-open when he says, "Get off me, Hyukjae."
"Mmm," Hyukjae says, nuzzling his nose happily into Donghae's neck. The tip of his nose is cold and Donghae thinks of not pushing him away. Thinks of putting his arms around Hyukjae and running his finger over the curve of Hyukjae's shoulder bone and fisting the material of his Superman T-shirt and then his back is against the wall and Hyukjae is blinking in sleepy bewilderment at him.
Donghae curls his hands into the creases in the blanket. "Miyoung-sshi wouldn't like it."
Hyukjae looks at him as if he's mad. "Why would she care?"
"Because," Donghae begins, and stops, because there's really no reason why Miyoung would care.
Hyukjae waits a few moments, but when Donghae can't decide the follow-up to his 'because' he says, "You don't like her, right? You were acting so weird when she came over…she was pretty upset thinking that she'd done something to make you mad at her."
"But I'm not mad at her."
"I thought you would like her," says Hyukjae sadly. "You two have so much in common."
"She's your girlfriend. Why should you care whether I like her or not?"
Hyukjae bites his lip and Donghae pushes himself up, wraps the blanket around his waist. He has a feeling that he's hurting Hyukjae in some vague way and he doesn't like the thought of that. He wishes he could stop. He wants to say something nice about Miyoung, like she paints her nails prettily and her dimples are cute and she seems like a really nice person and all the other good things that you say about good people, but when he starts he sounds fake and it doesn't make Hyukjae look any happier.
"She likes football. That's good. I like people who like football. They're, you know, they're cool. Especially if they're girls, like Miyoung-sshi."
"You wanted me to like her!"
Hyukjae sits up too, and they stare at each other across crumpled bedsheets. "Why are you being like this?"
"This," Hyukjae says, tapping his fingers inarticulately on the bed. "It's not…like how you would be."
"You can't expect me to be her best friend just because she's your girlfriend," Donghae says. "Things don't happen like that."
Hyukjae looks away from him to Sungmin's bed, piled over with clothes and books for guitar learners. They haven't been awkward for a long time; they've forgotten how to deal with it. When was the last time? Donghae thinks he remembers clothes on the floor, the window sill, Hyukjae red and thin in his overcoat. He remembers wanting to reach out. He remembers wanting to forget this feeling.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"No," says Hyukjae, getting off the bed. "Don't be. It's not your fault."
"She's great," Donghae says, pushing the words out, syllable by syllable. "She really is."
"I know," Hyukjae says. He turns the doorknob and walks out.
Donghae smiles the next time he sees Miyoung pretending to be one of their stylist noonas backstage, smiles so hard that Heechul notices. Heechul can generally be relied upon to notice, quite accurately, things that people don't want him to, and so when he pulls Donghae into his room later that day and tells him that he knows, it doesn't occur to Donghae to deny it.
"God, how long has this been going on, a year? Two years?" Heechul puts a finger on his bottom lip. "I should have noticed it earlier."
"You weren't supposed to, hyung. Nobody is supposed to know."
"Hyukjae doesn't, of course."
"Especially not Hyukjae," Donghae says, though frequently in his dreams Hyukjae does know and no matter how hard he tries, he can never get used to the look of revulsion on Hyukjae's face when he finds out. He looks at Heechul and wants, suddenly and intensely, for Heechul to tell him to go for it, forsake conventions and push for what he wants in the way Heechul himself has done a dozen times before. If anyone would support him, Heechul would; Heechul the infamous idol who says and does against the expected, the boy who looks like a girl, the one employee who refuses to be thumbed down by the SM management. Heechul who doesn't care about God or the Ten Commandments or the rules written by powerful senior pastors.
If there could be one person behind him for this, he thinks, just one person, it wouldn't feel so bad.
But Heechul only nods. "You're right. It would be a disaster if Hyukjae ever found out."
Stay away from me, Hyukjae in the dream says. Don't come near me again.
"I don't understand it, hyung."
"Why I have to feel this way about him." Donghae rubs his eyes so hard that his vision whitens when he takes his hands away. "If I could understand it, then maybe I could stop it. I could do something about it. But I can't, and I can't do anything about it, and I've tried. Hyung, you have no idea how hard I've tried."
You're a guy, Hyukjae says. We're both guys.
Can a guy not love another guy? Donghae asks. Or does he become dirty from it?
"There are times when I've thought that maybe…" he pauses for a moment, because this is so stupid, saying it out is so stupid, thinking it is so stupid, "maybe he could like me a bit, but ultimately I know I'm just imagining things. Hyukjae isn't like that. He has never thought of being like that. If he ever finds out how I feel about him he'll never want to be near me again and I don't know – I can't even imagine how I'll bear it if that happens."
"So I'll get over it. I'll find a girl, I'll like her the way Hyukjae likes Miyoung-sshi. The way he thinks she's perfect."
"The way he sings stupid love songs in the toilet," Heechul says, but Donghae doesn't smile.
Heechul reaches out to hold Donghae's hand. He won't say go ahead and follow your feelings, because both of them know that in this society they're living in, in this industry they've chosen to work in, desires like that have to be suppressed. There isn't an alternative to consider.
So Donghae doesn't say it, Hyukjae doesn't find out, and they're at the beach together, warm sand beneath their legs, Hyukjae perving at the girls in bikini, turning round to smile at Donghae, sun in his eyes, squint. The dream is clear and vivid, distinct lines, and Donghae wonders if this could be enough.
"Hyung, why do I have to like him so much?"
"I don't know," Heechul says. "But one day you'll get over it. Donghae-yah. You won't like him forever."
"I won't like him forever," Donghae repeats. At that moment, he wants so badly to believe it that he almost does. Almost, but not really, because he knows a lie when he sees one, especially when he's the one telling it. When had it become so easy to lie, so hard to believe? He wants, he thinks, he still wants to be with Hyukjae. Sitting together by the beach isn't enough. He still wants. After all those objections, all the avoidance, all the effort to pull himself out of it, he still wants. It's so hard to dull a want like this.
In early April, Jungsu falls in love for the third time in two years and cancels his movie outing with Youngwoon in favour of attending some high school gathering of his girlfriend's. Youngwoon brings back five bottles of Hite beer to drink the hours away and Donghae keeps him company because nobody else is at home.
"Tell you something," Youngwoon says, uncapping his third bottle, "the worst thing that can happen to you when you're single is your best friend getting into a relationship. Sounds terrible but you know, it's true. I bet you know it. Barely seen Hyukkie around since he got together with Miyoungie."
Donghae nurses his apple juice. "I guess."
Youngwoon burps. "Not that I don't want to get into a relationship myself. Damn Jungsu and all his girls. Donno where he gets them from, that bastard. Say, think having three kids would be enough? Two girls, one boy."
"Haven't thought that far ahead actually, hyung."
"Yeah, right." Youngwoon laughs at him. "All your talk about wanting kids, I bet you've named them already. But you'd be a great dad. Unlike me. Or Jungsu. He'd nag them to death. Poor kids." He moons over his bottle for a moment. "Where's Hyukjae this evening, anyway?"
"Out with Miyoung-sshi. I didn't bother asking where."
"You know, Hae," Youngwoon says, "you ain't as subtle as you think you are. Anyone can sniff your jealousy of Miyoungie from ten miles away."
Donghae stiffens and Youngwoon laughs at him, knocks his bottle against Donghae's mug. That's what happens when your best friend gets hooked up and leaves you out in the cold with beer and no movie, dude. Feels worse when you're older. Ah well. Here, pass me another bottle of beer, runnin' low here. Stop looking like misery. No point dwelling on it, yeah? Cheers, you little sad-faced idiot.
Siwon is the only one who likes coffee in the morning; everyone else likes brown rice tea. Ryeowook makes the tea for whoever's in the house; he has tried on numerous occasions to teach Kyuhyun the mechanics of making tea, that the white mug with vertical red stripes belongs to Teukie hyung and the strangely shaped blue cup is Donghee hyung's and the slightly chipped brown mug is whoever's, but Kyuhyun is disinterested and deliberately slow and Ryeowook figured a while ago that it's easier to just make the tea on his own.
Donghae wakes up to the sound of metal spoons hitting the bottom of mugs and Siwon laughing in the kitchen with Ryeowook. They sound happy and Donghae turns over in bed, rubs his cheek against the pillow and tries to block out the ringing of the house phone; it's a mortal crime for people to be calling so early in the morning. Someone picks up the phone and he's about to go back to sleep, he's so drowsy from last night's meeting that had dragged on from seven in the evening to way past midnight, and then Ryeowook's shouting something in the living room and Siwon breaks a cup and he's not going back to sleep anymore.
Sungmin slams the bedroom door open, runs to the closet to grab the first thing that comes to hand. "Teukie hyung, Hyukjae, Kyuhyunnie and Donghee got into an accident," he says, words so fast and slurred that Donghae can barely understand him. "They're all in hospital now and the paramedics told Seunghwan hyung that Kyuhyunnie is so bad he might not survive. He…god, Donghae, get out of bed. We're out of here in five minutes."
They're out of the dorm in three, Sungmin tying his shoelaces in the elevator, Donghae with his shirt on backwards. Nobody notices. They make it to the hospital, the smell of covered up sickness and the lingering of paused lives, and Donghae thinks there should be something for them to do, at least; something for them to see; but there's nothing and they're stuck in the waiting area outside the operating theatre while they wait for their manager, Seunghwan, to show up with news.
It's Shindong whom they're taken to see first in a double bed ward. He's sitting up in bed with bandages on his arms and he says it's okay, he's alright, just minor injuries, the wrapping looks scarier than it really is, but Ryeowook and Siwon tear up at the sight of him.
"We didn't even know what happened," Shindong says. "One minute we were on the road and the next minute we went crashing over. Hyukkie's not too badly off, but he found Kyuhyunnie lying on the side of the road and he said he thinks Kyuhyun might…might…"
The word dies on his tongue and he looks at all of them; he doesn't know how to say it.
"Stop looking like that," Heechul says sharply. "Kyuhyun isn't dead yet, and isn't likely to be, so stop behaving as though he is."
"If anything happens to him," Sungmin says, so white that even his lips are ashen, "how can we go on?"
Hyukjae is wheeled in by a nurse before anyone else answers. He barely replies when they talk to him and he doesn't respond at all when they touch, so finally the nurse says, two visitors in this room, two only, and no protests please.
Donghae holds Hyukjae's hand so they won't make him leave. Sungmin's talking to Shindong, a low murmur, not really distinct, and Donghae sits on the hospital bed beside Hyukjae, leans his head against Hyukjae's shoulder and breathes in the warmth of his neck.
"Donghae-yah," Hyukjae says, so soft that neither Sungmin nor Shindong hears.
Donghae withdraws a little, but Hyukjae doesn't appear to notice. "She can't come to the hospital in case the fans see her…so can you give her a call…tell her that I'm okay and I'll call her as soon as I can?"
"Okay," says Donghae. He lifts his head from Hyukjae's shoulder and sits apart, studying the nondescript cream walls, the grey tabletop at the foot of the hospital bed. "Are you really okay, Hyuk?"
"My waist was hurting," Hyukjae says, still quietly. "When Donghee hyung and I got out of the van…my waist was hurting so much, I thought I might not be able to dance again."
"I don't know why, but I was thinking of you." His voice is so low that Donghae has to move closer again, put his ear almost to Hyukjae's mouth. "Throughout, from the moment it happened to when the ambulances came and we were all taken here, I was thinking of you. Isn't that weird?"
"What about me?"
"Just…everything." Hyukjae makes a vague gesture. "How we used to rinse our hair under the tap and how my noona yelled at us from downstairs and how we used to dance together on Saturday nights and…just…everything. How it would be like not to see you again. It's like I wasn't even really trying. When I got to Kyuhyunnie he was saying, this is it hyung I'm seeing everything, this is what happens before you die. I was like him. My mind was off thinking that stuff all on its own."
He slips his hand into Donghae's and the both of them stare at their interlinked fingers. Donghae's too afraid to speak. He can feel Hyukjae looking at him, but he doesn't dare to turn back, to look into Hyukjae's eyes in case his face gives away something.
"I guess that means we're really good friends, huh?" Hyukjae says.
Donghae has to swallow hard before he can reply. "Of course, you ass. In fact, you might even, even…" be in love with me, he means to say, jokingly, but he can't say it, he's afraid his voice might waver. So he says instead, "You might even think of me as your best friend instead of Junsu."
Hyukjae smiles, but the smile vanishes almost before it takes shape on his face. There's so little to smile about now, when Kyuhyun's life is slipping away from him somewhere in the hospital and Jungsu's part glass. He closes his eyes and leans back against the pillow; he looks old and sad and drained and Donghae holds on until Hyukjae's family comes.
The day that Shindong and Hyukjae are discharged from the hospital, Hyukjae follows Donghae and Siwon to a prayer night at their church. They move from praise to worship and the crescendo of music gets louder, the notes get higher, they're singing about redemption and the cross and Donghae opens his eyes in the middle of a prayer to see Hyukjae sitting down in his seat, hands over his face. Hyukjae – or, for that matter, people in general – being moved to tears in church isn't out of the common, but something in the way Hyukjae's crying, tears leaking out through the spaces between his fingers, shoulders hunched, makes Donghae catch his breath, look away guiltily like it's something he wasn't meant to have seen.
Hyukjae cries all the way till the end of the worship session and Donghae wants to ask why, but it isn't polite to hold a whispered conversation while the pastor is talking. So he leaves it until they're standing outside the sanctuary, talking to church members who're all happy and thankful to see Hyukjae back in one piece "Praise God, we prayed for you the whole of last week!" and it's only in one rare undisturbed moment that Donghae is able to sidle close and say, "Why were you crying during worship?"
But before Hyukjae can reply, they're interrupted by yet another thankful church-goer who'd prayed the entire week for Hyukjae and so he doesn't get his answer.
A long time ago, in what seems like a distant blurry landscape, Hyukjae would have laughed and flung playful comments back at Jongwoon and Youngwoon's teasing while watching their Tuesday night horror movie, but the landscape now is grey and grainy and vacant and Hyukjae doesn't say anything.
Hasn't, in fact, said much since the accident, not even when they received news that Kyuhyun had pulled through his operation and was on recovery mode. Sungmin says that Donghae is imagining things since nobody seems to be feeling any change except him, but it's there and it's obvious and they're all making themselves blind by refusing to see it. So he says, and Sungmin just frowns at him and says stop being paranoid, don't make the situation any harder for him and Donghee than it already is.
But there comes a time when the sheer force of reality lifts the blindness and everyone sees Hyukjae spacing out at the living room window for minutes at a time, leaving Sungmin to laugh at their favourite romantic comedy by himself; Hyukjae stirring his late morning tea so absently that it turns cold in his cup; reading manga alone in the big bedroom when he has any sort of an hour to spare; existing so half-heartedly and blearily that nobody dares to climb into bed with him anymore because Hyukjae just turns over on his side and lies there, limp and unresponsive, until they go away.
Sungmin finally concedes, very reluctantly, that there might be something amiss when Hyukjae cancels a date with Miyoung one night for apparently no better reason than going over to Heechul and Kibum's dorm to, according to Hankyung's report over the phone, read One Piece manga while Kibum smashes virtual things beside him in the World of Warcraft.
"He hasn't said much since he came," Hankyung says, keeping his voice low like a conspiratorial spy. "Maybe he just really wants to finish this volume?"
"Maybe," Sungmin says. "One Piece is a very absorbing manga."
"Hyukjae has finished every volume he currently has," Donghae objects when Sungmin hangs up.
"Let's not blow this up," Sungmin says. "Maybe he just didn't feel like meeting her tonight. People get tired of each other, you know, when they see each other day in and day out. It happens."
Donghae forebears to mention that it has been over two weeks since Hyukjae last saw Miyoung, and avoiding your girlfriend is not exactly a normative attitude of a guy who was recently in an overturned van.
Hyukjae starts going to the other dorm whenever he has off time ("time enough to have finished re-reading every volume of manga he owns by now," Donghae says when Hankyung reports that Hyukjae's still reading manga while Kibum continues smashing virtual things) and Ryeowook comments one day that the dorm seems quieter lately, like nobody's really alive.
"Yah, it's because that dude's over at my place all the time now," Heechul says, starting the fruit juice blender in the kitchen.
"Hyukjae hyung?" Ryeowook says.
"Him," Heechul shouts over the whirring of the blender. "He's always sitting in my living room reading his everlasting manga."
"Are we too noisy for him?" Jongwoon wonders.
"I can't even begin to point out how ironic that sentence is," Heechul says.
"He hasn't been acting normally since he got back from the hospital," Ryeowook says doubtfully.
"Hyukkie is fine," Sungmin insists, reverting to his blind side. "People take time to get over things. Things like a near-death experience. We're not doing him any good wandering around suspecting that he's about to jump off the building or something just because he's not laughing as much as before."
Donghae doesn't want to listen anymore. He walks out of the dorm. The days are getting hotter now; sunshine beats directly onto the top of his head as he walks the meters between his dorm and Heechul's, thinks of Hyukjae blond and silly a year ago laughing with his hand covering his exposed gums. Something constricts in his heart, but he doesn't know what, it makes his heart feel sort of stifled and sad, and he still doesn't know when he finds himself in the other dorm with nobody in sight but Kibum reading alone in the sitting room.
"If you're here for Hyukjae hyung," Kibum says, barely lifting his eyes from the pages, "he's sleeping in my room."
"Yeah. Guess he doesn't have anything else better to do than appropriate my bed like he doesn't have one of his own."
Donghae slides open the door of Kibum's bedroom and peers inside. The curtains are drawn and the room is greenish glowy, dim, unmoving. Middle of the night quiet in the middle of the day. Hyukjae's a shapeless lump under the blanket. Donghae eases himself in, clicks the door shut behind him and lifts the edge of the blanket, rolling in and fitting himself around Hyukjae. This is what they used to do, lie beside each other in dim rooms sometimes sleeping, like Hyukjae is now, other times awake and thinking formless thoughts, like Donghae is now. He doesn't allow himself to remember that he'd once kicked Hyukjae out of his bed because of Miyoung. He doesn't want to remember that there is such a thing as a Miyoung.
He thinks, instead, that maybe time might have slowed down, that in this still room even the grand mechanical ticking of time might have miscalculated a hundred seconds for one minute and a hundred minutes for one hour just so that Donghae can lie beside Hyukjae and wish themselves back to a time when there hadn't been girls with short hair and overturned vans and unnatural silences and all the things that make life perplexing.
"Hyukjae?" Donghae murmurs when Hyukjae's eyelids open a sliver.
Hyukjae relaxes beside him and Donghae lets out a sigh that he hadn't known he had been holding in. He wraps a loose arm around Hyukjae's waist and Hyukjae doesn't pull away; pushes in, in fact, to lean his cheek against Donghae's shoulder.
"I wish we could stay like this forever," Donghae says unthinkingly, and then immediately contemplates biting his tongue out.
Hyukjae draws back to look at him. His eyes are shadowed in the dimness and Donghae barely dares to look into them. There's a long pregnant silence, and Donghae thinks maybe he should get out of bed and leave, maybe he should make it into a joke, say something anything, hey I would stay like this but your feet stink, you know, and it would be so gross; yes, something like that; and then Hyukjae says, "Forever, without getting up to eat or drink or go to the toilet?"
Donghae breathes in deep to slow his heartbeat. "I suppose we would have to go to the toilet. It would be a mess if we didn't. But only for that."
"We would die here," Hyukjae says, a hint of laughter.
"We would have slept ourselves to death."
"Kibummie would never forgive us for choosing his bed to die in."
Donghae can feel the weight of Hyukjae's breath on his face. They're still touching, but barely. Lightly. There, but not really. "It would be great, though, wouldn't it? Not dying in Kibummie's bed, I mean. But dying like this."
Hyukjae pulls his hand up to pillow his cheek. "Yes."
He's so close, the word falls onto Donghae's lips. If he moves an inch, they will be mouth on mouth. Hyukjae isn't moving that inch, but he isn't moving away either. Donghae closes his eyes, forces his mind to think rationally, but logic is lost somewhere in the back of his brain and he can't call it out. He wants. He wants so badly, he struggles not to move because he's half-hard already and he hates how his body reacts to intimacy with Hyukjae, he hates how he has to grip the bedsheet and force his limbs into immobility. He hates, above all, how terrified he is.
"Kiss me," Hyukjae says, his voice unnaturally low.
Donghae's eyes fly open, expecting almost to see some bright lights in the room, maybe, a camera and a boom microphone and a PD directing things and possibly even a few fans recording them with their handphones, but there's nobody except Hyukjae, and Hyukjae's eyes are wide open.
"Kiss me," Hyukjae repeats.
They're breathing, short and quick, almost like gasps. Donghae thinks his heart might burst out of his body altogether. What's in a kiss, lip on lip, kisses don't mean anything, a kiss is still a kiss, he doesn't know what's happening, he might be about to kiss the best friend whom he's loved for years and wants with a want so yearning and desperate that it sometimes feels like it eats him up from inside. He moves his head forward a fraction of an inch, but abruptly Hyukjae pushes himself up, swings his legs over the side of the bed and sits there, arms tense, shoulders shaking.
Donghae presses his forehead into the pillow.
"I'm sorry," Hyukjae says.
He doesn't realise he's reaching out until his hand bumps Hyukjae's back. "No, Hyukjae…"
Hyukjae jerks away. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry."
He's out of the room in seconds, and Donghae falls back boneless onto the bed, lies still staring at the ceiling until his eyes are smarting and his vision is blurring and he thinks maybe he's drowning but he can't seem to find the strength to push up and break through the surface.
They don't talk about it, ever. Because that's what people are supposed to do after they've come an inch away from crossing a dozen forbidden lines. They sweep it under the carpet, they push it to the back of the freezer, they put a padlock on it, and maybe a couple of extra chains for good measure. Just in case.
Donghae realises that he forgot to install the chains when he's sitting in the back of a dingy little pub in some obscure neighbourhood and there's a mug of amber-coloured liquid before him with Heechul saying, "In case you're wondering, this is positively the last beer you're having."
"You know hyung," Donghae says, flailing around to hug Heechul and succeeding in smacking his cheek instead, "beer's actually really nice."
"Yeah," Heechul says gloomily. "I feel like I just corrupted my own kid."
"What, corrupting my own kid?"
"That he asked me to kiss him. He asked me to kiss him. Isn't that funny?" Donghae giggles into his beer, gets bubbles all over his mouth that explode in tiny bursts.
Heechul blinks at him. "Repeat that."
"He asked me to kiss him," Donghae repeats obediently.
"Well," Heechul says blankly. "Shit."
"Like, all these years I've been thinking, you know, what would it be like to kiss him? Thinking how stupid it was to even think about that! Thinking that it would totally freak him out! And then he just looks at me and says, kiss me! Like it's nothing! Like you can just do that! Like he really wants me to!"
"Goddamn it, Donghae, just goddamn tell me what happened without the commentary."
"Except that I didn't," Donghae says solemnly.
Heechul sags against the seat. "Okay, at least you had the sense not to."
"But I would have," Donghae announces, "if he hadn't walked away."
"Amendments," Heechul says. "At least he had the sense to."
"Isn't it funny?" Donghae starts giggling again. "The more I think about it, the funnier it is. He asked me to kiss him. We almost did. And then now we're not talking about it, like it didn't happen, but it did and I'm so tired of pretending, hyung, isn't it funny?"
"Not really," says Heechul, but Donghae laughs anyway, laughs until his forehead smacks the tabletop.
"I was thinking of giving you a pep talk about how there are lots of girls out there who would be willing to go out with you in a minute," Heechul says, "but you probably won't remember a thing of what I say tomorrow morning and so it'll just be a waste of time. Finish that beer quickly, we're going home."
"Beer," Donghae says, looking sideways at his mug. For a moment it doesn't seem like he recognises what he's drinking; he wraps his fingers around the thick glass handle, stares, and then his face suddenly crumples, dramatically and childishly. "I drank beer."
"I promised Hyukjae I'd never drink beer! I'd never get drunk, we'd never drink…oh god, hyung, I broke my promise to Hyukjae, I drank beer."
Heechul sighs and pulls the mug away, getting out of his seat and dragging Donghae along with him. Donghae can walk, but he's crying so hard that it's hard keeping his steps straight. "I drank, hyung."
"It's not a monumental sin, you know."
"But I broke our pact."
Heechul pushes Donghae headfirst into a cab, hopes devoutly that the managers are out tonight playing nursemaid to some of the other members. Maybe, if they're lucky, he'll get Donghae into bed before anyone realises that Donghae's drunk. Heechul sometimes finds Jungsu's righteous anger boring, even if he might balk at it a little. Just a little. Donghae falls into the dorm right at Hyukjae's feet.
"What?" Hyukjae looks from Donghae on the floor to Heechul biting his lip at the doorway. "What's wrong with him?"
"He had a little too much to drink," Heechul says, trying to sound less guilty.
"I promised I wouldn't, Hyuk," Donghae muffles, burying his head in Hyukjae's ankles. "I'm sorry, I promised I wouldn't."
Hyukjae bends over to pull him up. Donghae cries into Hyukjae's shoulder. He's not sure what he's crying about anymore. It feels like he has broken more things than boyish pacts.
"Hyukjae," Heechul says as Hyukjae's turning away, Donghae a heap in his arms.
"Don't play with him."
Hyukjae opens his mouth, but he doesn't say anything. He looks at Heechul once, a look that shames Heechul to the base of his soul, and then walks slowly into the dorm, step after step, pulling Donghae with him.
Miyoung calls him one night, crying so hard over the phone that Donghae can't make out a single word through her sobs. She might be saying something about Hyukjae (no, she definitely is, there's no other reason why she would call) and she might be blaming him for something, but he's not sure, he can't make it out. What? She's saying, is it true?
She tries to breathe. He can hear the check in her sobs. "Has he fallen for someone else?"
"Please…" she's back to incoherency and Donghae wishes he could hang up.
"Miyoung-sshi, I don't understand you at all."
"Please," she says again, "please, oppa. Tell me."
"He says he might have and I…" she's crying crying she says Hyukjae is in love with someone else, she wants to know if it's true, she wants him back if it isn't, and he knows it's horrible awful mean vicious to hang up on her when she's done nothing wrong, but he puts down the phone anyway. Shivers against the wall. Wonders if this is how it feels to be standing right in the middle of a joy so terrible that it feels more like pungent, thickened fear.
They're at an amusement park with Junsu and Sungmin, and Junsu has just dropped his wallet sometime during the second roller coaster ride. Sungmin's the only one who has any idea of what to do (Hyukjae just freaks out and Donghae thinks they should ask the ride operators to close down the ride while they hunt for the wallet; it has to be somewhere, he argues) and so Junsu follows Sungmin to the park office to make a report.
Donghae says they should go for ice cream while they wait. It's heartless, to be sure, having ice cream while your good friend stresses out about losing his entire week's allowance, but it's a hot day and he doesn't particularly want to sit around looking doleful. Hyukjae agrees that they should have ice cream, because he doesn't have much of a heart either.
They find an ice cream cart manned by a teenaged girl who looks really bored. Maybe she's doing this to get extra money for make-up or for that hairstyling job she's always wanted but never managed to afford. Hyukjae says, with a giggle, that all girls look like they have the same hairstyles, whether it's permed or dyed or, you know, whatever other styles that they do in a salon. Donghae refrains from saying that Hyukjae's hairstyle looks bad on him; it's obvious he had it cut at a really cheap salon. The type that costs 6000 won and doesn't even bother washing your hair.
Hyukjae's ice cream melts all over his fingers, because it's Hyukjae and if anyone's ice cream is going to melt all over their fingers, it would be Hyukjae's ice cream. He wants to buy another, but Donghae says no no, don't waste money, just share mine. His ice cream suddenly becomes bigger and they're sharing it between them, digging ice and cream and all the other ice-creamy ingredients into little plastic spoons and laughing as they keep scooping and scooping from this ice cream that never gets any smaller.
Donghae says, I'm so happy, and Hyukjae says, I think this is what God meant life to be. Ice cream, and you, and…stuff.
When he opens his eyes, they're sitting in the back of the company van and Hyukjae is looking at him. Trees are flashing by, buildings and people, and all Donghae sees is Hyukjae. He inches forward and Hyukjae doesn't pull away and then they're kissing, mouths closed, gentle, not entirely everything that Donghae ever imagined a kiss should be but something sweet and loving and heady. Something that doesn't taste like cardboard. Something romantic and sad and quintessentially Hyukjae.
When he draws away, Hyukjae pulls him back and kisses him again. This time it's addicting. This time he feels the push of Hyukjae's tongue on his. This time it feels so right, so logical, that it would make sense if they just stayed like this, kissing like this, forever.
And maybe they don't stay like this forever. Maybe they stop when they reach their destination. Maybe nobody sees, because the driver and the manager are talking together in the front seat and he and Hyukjae are partially concealed by the headrests of the seats in front.
But even if there had been a crowd of people in the van, Donghae thinks, maybe he would still have kissed Hyukjae anyway, all the way past the flashing trees and buildings and people who don't matter one iota when Hyukjae's mouth is on his.
He's not very clear yet about what happened in the van, but he's left with impressions that he replays in the back of his mind for the remainder of the day and long into the night. Lips softer than he'd ever imagined, fast beating pulses, sweaty hands, cold fingers. The tiniest hint of a smile, curving up on the left side of the mouth, stretching the chin.
Maybe Hyukjae might have said his name during the breather at the end of the third kiss. Donghae can't really remember. Little details here and there are becoming vague; others remain vividly clear. The feel of Hyukjae's thumb running over the back of his hand, the heat of Hyukjae's mouth, the taste of him, sweet and salty and minty, Fisherman's Friend. It makes Donghae want to smile.
Hyukjae's sitting in the living room at four thirty in the morning of the next day, the first person awake, wrapped in a jacket with the hoodie pulled low over his eyes. The drizzle outside makes everything sound forlorn. Donghae thinks of dancing in the rain.
He bends over behind Hyukjae, hugs him around his neck. Hyukjae tilts his head back. The living room lamp throws light onto his mouth and Donghae touches it lightly with his finger, traces the shape, watches Hyukjae's lips quiver.
"I want to go out onto the rooftop," he says.
"It's raining," Hyukjae says.
"It's just a drizzle."
It's chilly and windy when they step out, but it's okay. Hyukjae's hand is warm. Donghae looks ahead to the cluttered mess of rooftops, grey and bleak and dirty, mist-frosted in the drizzle, and it's possible that he's never seen anything more beautiful than this greyed out landscape.
"I'm not with Miyoung anymore," Hyukjae says. Half his voice is lost in the wind.
"I know. She…called me."
Hyukjae blinks at him. "When?"
"I don't know. The night you broke up with her, I guess. She was crying. She said you were in love with someone else."
"You thought it might be you."
Hyukjae looks down at their linked hands. "I thought it wouldn't be…fair…to her. When I was feeling so confused about what I wanted. She cried…I cried…but I couldn't…I didn't want to do things behind her back. She's so good…she doesn't deserve it."
"I still don't really understand…when? I mean, you and me? About me?" Donghae looks at him. "Was it when you started acting weird?"
"I just thought…" Hyukjae pauses, opens his palm to watch rain flicker onto his hand. "I just kept thinking, why were you the one I thought about when I was so sure that that was it for me. I kept thinking that it had to mean something. And then there were times when you would just look at me…and I thought…maybe this thing was happening to you too."
Donghae swallows. He's still not sure if he's frighteningly happy or frighteningly scared, but he wants to grab onto the ankles of this moment and chain himself to it so that he never has to let it go. "I've felt this way about you since…I don't even remember when I started. I was always so frightened of you finding out. I thought you wouldn't want to be near me ever again if you knew how I felt…and when you got together with Miyoung, it was…it was so painful, Hyukjae. I didn't know how to deal with it."
Hyukjae stares at the rooftops, at the sky, and then suddenly he's pulling Donghae close and their noses are bumping and they can't feel each other's hearts through the thickness of their jackets but somehow they're kissing, rough and sloppy and the complete antithesis of all their previous kisses, nothing soft or romantic or fairytale-like, just lips and teeth and tongue and Hyukjae's breath on his face when they pull apart.
Hyukjae's tears are cold on Donghae's cheeks. "I don't understand what's happening."
Donghae's not sure if he has caught his breath yet. He thinks maybe he'll remain breathless for the rest of his life, always on the verge of breathing but somehow never catching up. "What's happening to you has been happening to me for years."
"I'm not gay," Hyukjae says.
"I want…" Donghae squeezes his eyes close, opens them again to look at the drizzle in the wind. The harshness of the bleak, unforgiving rooftops streaked with dirt. "I want to forget that there's such a word."
"But it exists, and if we do this, people are going to label us with it. They aren't going to forget it just because we want them to."
"I don't want to care about people."
"But we have to. We live with them."
"I don't want to care about them, I only want to care about you. For now. Even if it's just for this one hour. I've been thinking about them for too long, I just want to think about you now."
"You're not gay. We're not gay."
"Then what are we?" Hyukjae looks back at him. He's still crying, his breaths are coming out forced and ragged, and the tears on his face are mingled with the drizzling wind. "What is this, Donghae?"
We can only keep this going if we don't look at what we know, Hyukjae says. If we keep running blind.
I don't want to run blind, Donghae says. They're running in a mist so thick that all they see are unidentifiable circles of light glowing from an immeasurable distance. They don't know where they're going, but somehow they can't stop. They keep running forwards, or maybe backwards, or maybe sideways, in this visible blankness. In a frightening way, it feels like they're already blind. Donghae wants to be able to see.
But we can't afford to look at what we're running towards.
I want to see you.
Hyukjae stretches out his hand and maybe their bodies are colliding even though they're still running half a metre apart. Maybe there's space between them but they're compressing it.
So maybe, Hyukjae says, all we'll see is each other.
That's all I want to see, Donghae intends to say, but before the words are fully formed in his throat he's rudely awoken by Shindong jumping on top of him. The echoes of his dream fall away. He has the left over residue of feeling that it had been something important, something soul-defining or life-altering or significant like that, but he really can't remember what it is. All he remembers is that somewhere along the way, he'd been running blind with eyes wide open.
previous: part one; a past | next: part three; a growing up