pg-13; 7678 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 | part three; a growing up | part four; a togetherness | part five; a separation
It is, really, quite quite miserable living in Beijing.
It might actually be fun if they were there on a holiday. He and Ryeowook could make trips to the Great Wall, visit the Forbidden City, roam the busy shopping streets of Wangfujing. Their dorm is near the Wangfujing area; it would be easy as anything to have late night McDonald's while watching the hectic life of Beijing stream by.
But, of course, they are not in Beijing on a holiday, and their managers are only too willing to demonstrate just how much work they have to do to make up for the company spending thousands of dollars to keep them there.
We aren't here on a holiday, their manager Junghoon says whenever Siwon proposes some sightseeing trip to gives some meaning to their stint in China. We're here to work, and anyway if you step out of the dorm, you'll be followed on the streets by all the fans and the police will order us to get the situation under control.
Ryeowook gets upset at first – they're in Beijing! The city that gave Peking Duck to the world! The city where the Communist Army once marched triumphantly through Tiananmen Square, where the thousand-year imperial rule was overthrown and revolutionaries fought on the streets! He wants to see the much lauded Bird's Nest Stadium and Water Cube all set for the Summer Olympics. He wants to see the traditional hutong.He wants to buy Olympic mascot plushies and fridge magnets of the Great Wall, and he wants to go to the food markets to see all the weird snacks that China's infamous for having. He even wants to try glazed scorpions.
But eventually he, like everyone else, understands that stuffed pandas and fridge magnets will be bought by the managers if so desired and weird snacks are absolutely out of the question in case of stomach aches. Beijing becomes a city to be seen from the shaded car windows; smog-filled, heavily congested, cars weaving dangerously in and out of lanes, futuristic skyscrapers mixed with old worn-out buildings, and since they have no opportunity to discover anything special about Beijing first-hand, it fades into just another smoggy crowded city in their collective consciousness.
Living in Beijing is really not that much different from living in a prison, Donghae surmises, and before a week passes he has lapsed into a depression so thick and heavy that it takes an exhausting lot of effort to smile for the cameras.
"I'm so tired of living here," he complains on the phone to Hyukjae during the hastily snatched minutes when the both of them have spare time between or during work schedules. "Nobody understands what I say, and I don't understand what they say, and the TV channels are all in Chinese – it's so difficult even finding Korean food – it's hateful."
"It'll get better," says Hyukjae comfortingly, and behind his voice Donghae can hear the hubbub of a variety show crew getting the set ready for recording. He misses Korea so much that it aches.
"Tell me what you're up to," he says, and relaxes for the next ten minutes as Hyukjae rambles on about Sukira, the new sub-unit Happy, and all sorts of variety shows that he's appearing on with Jungsu because, apparently, SM has decided that the two of them are to be the new faces of variety. "Lee Soo Man says I have a good comedic face," he reports.
"Do you?" Donghae is dubious. Hyukjae, with his beautiful skin and shiny eyes and perfectly pert nose, has a face good for comedy? Donghae would be the first to admit that he's about as biased as an observer can get, but even so, he sees nothing in Hyukjae's face to laugh at.
"He calls my face funnily ugly," says Hyukjae. "I guess that's good – to be funnily ugly? I don't know, but everyone thinks my face is funny now and they've been teasing me nonstop about being ugly."
"You're not ugly," Donghae says with some indignation.
"It's okay," says Hyukjae. "If it means me getting on more variety shows, I don't mind being ugly – like Shindong hyung doesn't mind being fat."
"You're not ugly!" Donghae says again, and starts crying because he's tired and depressed and lonely and miles away from protecting Hyukjae when people make mean comments about the way he looks.
"Hey, are you, like, crying?" Hyukjae says, sounding alarmed, but before Donghae is able to pour out any further grievances, the director is calling for Hyukjae and he has to hang up.
When Donghae leaves the bedroom where he carries out all his phone calls to Korea, everyone notices his red eyes but Ryeowook is the only one who offers him tissue. They're all keeping up an act of being happy in Beijing, Donghae thinks, and they avoid any acknowledgement of cracks in the surface because that's the only way they can present a united front of happiness to the ever-present and hungry media.
How stupid we all are, he realises in an illuminating flash of self-criticism, but the Mandarin teacher arrives in ten minutes for their daily Chinese lessons and so he has to file his depression away to learn stock phrases in accented tones.
Zhou Mi is gay. He tells them so during the second week. He is, in fact, dating a fashion show producer, has been dating him for over a year, and is the most emotionally stable person that Donghae has ever seen, despite his occasional flightiness and tendency to over-exaggerate his reactions to just about everything.
Nobody is really surprised except Siwon, who spends the next three days looking askance at Zhou Mi. "It's wrong, isn't it?" he confides in Donghae one night as they're travelling back to the dorm from a performance. They're alone in the car, and the driver is a Chinese man who doesn't understand anything but the most rudimentary Korean. No other situation would prompt this disloyalty from Siwon.
"What is?" Donghae asks.
"This, um, homosexuality," says Siwon uncomfortably. "I mean I don't think he's a bad person or anything, but being gay – isn't it a sin?"
"What makes you think it's a sin?"
"Well, because – you know, God made man to be with woman, and reproduction is a natural way of life, so two men together just seems like…it's going against what God meant for us."
Donghae scowls down at his lap. "But if you truly love another guy – and it's not as though you didn't try to love a girl instead, but you just can't help it – if you really, really love him and he really, really loves you back – isn't that natural too? How can that be a sin? Anyway, Zhou Mi isn't a Christian so I doubt he cares about whether he's sinning or not."
"I believe that God can cure it," Siwon says confidently. "Do you think I should ask Zhou Mi to come to church with us when we're back home in Korea? I'm sure Pastor will be able to talk to him."
"Stop trying to convert everyone!" Donghae says, and his voice sounds so much like it's on the verge of tears that Siwon forgets momentarily about Zhou Mi's sins in favour of scrabbling around for tissue paper.
"But it does say in the Bible that it's wrong, you know," he says when it seems that Donghae's sufficiently composed again. "We shouldn't let the American media influence us otherwise."
"Just keep quiet, will you?" Donghae says irritably. "I'm tired."
Siwon does keep quiet, as requested, but as they get closer to Zhou Mi, they find out that it's impossible to think stern thoughts about him. He's totally unlike anyone they've ever known in Korea before. They know a fair number of metrosexuals in the entertainment industry and men carrying pocket mirrors around is practically common; even Siwon keeps a cosmetics bag in his backpack wherever he goes. But they would be hard-pressed to name any actual homosexuals whom they know personally; Donghae could probably count on one hand the number of gays he knows in Korea, and out of that number, probably on one finger the number of openly gay men whom he has actually spoken to (and then told to avoid, as though homosexuality was contagious).
In Beijing, though, they're introduced almost intimately to the "gay way of life", as Zhou Mi puts it, partly through their inability to avoid it by going out and partly through Zhou Mi's near-daily procession of flamboyantly, confidently gay best friends who drop by the apartment with kind gifts of food and souvenirs that they've been wanting to get but can't. The only reason why Beijing gains a sort of personality is because Li Tong, Zhou Mi's absolute best friend since kindergarten, buys them all sorts of Beijing localities, including glazed scorpions and Olympic mascots for Ryeowook. He even buys a little Manchurian headdress that everyone spends an hour having fun with.
"We can't let you do this," Siwon protests when Li Tong drops by yet again with a box of the most delicious steamed buns they've ever tasted. "You're buying us so many things and we aren't giving you anything back."
"You haven't seen anything," says Li Tong. "If you guys could actually get out of this prison you have going on here, I'd bring you to the best restaurant in town and order so much food you'd be comatose on the dinner table."
"You can't do that," Siwon protests again after Zhou Mi has translated the gist of Li Tong's speech, but Zhou Mi just throws an arm around Siwon's shoulder and squeezes it affectionately.
"Tongtong's just being friendly," he says. "You're on our turf, after all. And anyway he thinks you guys are hot."
Donghae thinks of his years of fear, of Hyukjae's reticence and repression, of their struggles and fights, and almost feels resentful at this – joy, for lack of a better word; Zhou Mi and his friends' sense of ease and absolute confidence in their sexuality. They've never been afraid, he thinks, they must always have been accepted by Chinese society in order to be this way. They strut around in their high heeled shoes and capes and flared pants, and they carry outrageously designed handbags and wear more fashionable shirts than Super Junior wears on stage, and nobody gives them weird looks or hurls insults at them or tells them to go to church because they'll rot in hell if they don't change.
"Oh, don't give me that," Zhou Mi says when Donghae ventures, timidly, to broach the topic with him. "I used to be bullied in school, you know. Tongtong, too. He used to get it the worst cause of his, you know, those gestures he makes and the feminine way he talks. Plus he had this huge crush on a popular football player in high school, and that guy didn't really like that. They played a lot of pranks on him."
"You?" Donghae says, blinking. "Bullied?"
"Yeah," says Zhou Mi matter-of-factly. "I got ostracised. Tong once had his pants pulled down by some dudes in front of everyone. Even now, lots of straight guys avoid us when we meet them at parties or whatever. They seem to think that we're going to get them drunk, then bend them over the table and rape them."
"How did you – what made you…"
"What's the point in fighting all of them?" Zhou Mi says. "Or even trying to change ourselves, when we know we can't? It's kind of funny, you know, Ping Ya once dated a girl for three years back in school before he finally figured out that he was gay because he wasn't sexually aroused by her at all. Poor girl – she tried really hard with him but in the end they gave up. So you know – since it's inevitable, why not just go with it? I feel like once you've accepted yourself, it's a lot easier for others to accept you – though, of course, that doesn't work all the time. It doesn't work with the straight guys, mostly." He laughs wryly. "Strange that we're falling for straight guys all the time, and they're the ones who hate us the most."
"I," Donghae pauses to collect his courage. It's still difficult to say, even in the most open environment that he has yet encountered. "I'm gay, too. A few of the members know it but the others – don't."
Zhou Mi just looks at him for a long moment. "You're lucky," he says. "You're the type that other guys go ape for."
Zhou Mi laughs and pats his shoulder. "You'll find that we gays tend to be attracted to 'straight' gays. Like you. Gays who are like straight guys. In fact, Ping Ya's really into you. He's been breaking his heart over the past week cause he thinks you're straight."
"No," says Donghae, with some alarm. "I mean, it's not that I don't like him, but I already have someone – I have…I…"
"Hey, it's okay," Zhou Mi says. "You don't have to be so serious about it."
"But your friend – I don't want him to be sad or anything."
"He'll be okay," Zhou Mi says. "I hope that someone you have – he's good to you?" He winks.
For a moment, Donghae's tempted to tell him who that 'someone' is, but then again Zhou Mi and Hyukjae are not close and it's not his call to expose Hyukjae's sexuality to other people without his consent. "Yes," he says. "He tries really hard to be as good as he can. The members, too. At least the ones whom we've told – Sungmin hyung, Kyuhyunnie, Shindong hyung – they've tried their best to be as accepting as they can."
"You're lucky," Zhou Mi says again, and smiles. "We both are."
Sometimes I think it's more like a disease, Donghae wants to say, but then he thinks of Hyukjae piggybacking the little boys they'd met during the Adonis Camp filming across the lawn, tackling them to the ground and laughing with them, and he can't find it in himself to regret falling in love with Hyukjae.
Hyukjae sounds euphoric the next time they manage to hook up the phone lines. He's having a lot of fun promoting in Super Junior Happy and appearing on variety shows, becoming an understudy of a hosting great like Kang Hodong and meeting all sorts of great and quirky media personalities. "It makes me almost want to be a comedian instead," he says. "They seem to have so much fun on TV, and everyone likes and respects them. What's even better, they don't have to worry so much about looking good or being young."
"I've seen a few of your Pajama Party performances," Donghae says. "You guys look like you're having fun."
"Those outfits are terrible, aren't they?" Hyukjae confides. "Those pajamas are horrible and god, I hate having my hair tied up like that. But it is kind of fun – we mess around a lot backstage. I think Teukie hyung is happy, too. He has a new girlfriend and so far it's working out. She's a HR consultant in some shipping company and I think she's the most adult one that Teukie hyung has dated."
"That's great," says Donghae, genuinely pleased.
"Speaking of girls, Jessica and Taeyeonnie and all, their group is doing well," Hyukjae goes on chattily. "I think they're going to be really big. They've already got a huge ahjusshi fanbase. Not that I blame them, the girls have become hot. Remember how Sooyoung used to trip over her own feet? She's become a real sex symbol now. Oh, and Kara is going to have two new members. We met them at KBS the other day. Goo Hara is really, really cute and sweet. Jongwoon hyung has her picture on his desk already, I think he's trying to figure out how he can ask her for a date but honestly, she's out of his range!"
"You seem to be hanging out a lot with the girls," Donghae remarks.
Hyukjae laughs. "How about you? Are you able to leave your dorm yet? Ten minutes, maybe, to go to a grocery store and get strawberry milk so you won't forget me?"
He's obviously in a playful mood, so Donghae makes their life in Beijing sound like a comic sketch; Ryeowook graduating from vegetables to meat in the kitchen, Kyuhyun dismaying everyone by smashing all their scores in Star Craft, Siwon pumping iron almost every other day. He doesn't mention that Henry spends most of his time being homesick and webcamming his school buddies in Canada, or that Hankyung is overworked, irritable and losing weight like it's going out of style, or that all of them are exhausted by the tight work schedule and sick of their narrow existence in Beijing.
"You guys are so lucky," says Hyukjae enviously. "I want to live overseas, too."
"We're just being used to tap into the Chinese market," Donghae says, a little grumpily, because Hyukjae doesn't understand anything.
"But you're getting popular there, aren't you?"
"Big deal. We aren't any more popular with the Chinese fans than you guys. They like SJ, not SJ-M. Anyway you're luckier, you're cavorting with all the hot girls and building up your career in Korea while we're stuck here trying to figure out what people are saying about us."
Hyukjae's quiet for a moment. "You aren't happy."
"Oh no, in fact, I am," says Donghae. "I have something better than hot girls, I've gotten to know a group of really great gay guys and they're all nice people. Good-looking. Smart. One of them even has a crush on me, and he's really cute, too. For the first time I've realised that it's possible to lead a happy life as a gay man."
"How did you get to know them?" Hyukjae asks, sounding suspicious. "Who is this guy who likes you?"
"I got to know them through a friend. You know, Hyukjae, maybe you should just stop trying so hard to seem like you care about girls. Life is a lot easier when you accept yourself."
"I'm not trying hard," says Hyukjae. "What did I say that even gave you that impression? I genuinely think that girls are cute and nice and I like going out with them. If you are happy with your gay friends, that's good too. I don't get why you're suddenly in this preachy mood about how to be happier with myself…you sound like some damn hippie."
"I'm not preaching! It's just that I've finally met people who've shown me that you can be gay and proud of it, and not have to hide and pretend to show interest in girls just so that society will accept you! You've never gotten out of this so-called shame, you're always deep in the middle of it thinking that you and I are doing something wrong and against God. You're exactly like Siwon."
"O-kay," says Hyukjae. "I don't think I have the time or energy to be sitting here listening to this. I'm not even sure how we got to this point. I thought we had it worked out already before you left Seoul, but someone's said something to you – or you've seen something, I don't know what. Go enjoy your time with your proud gay friends and have a date with that cute guy who's crushing on you, whatever. Call me again when you feel like it."
He hangs up before Donghae can say anything.
He's sorry, really sorry for being such an unreasonable grump and spoiling Hyukjae's happy mood, but all his calls over the next one week go unanswered. He even has Kyuhyun call in his place in case Hyukjae's deliberately ignoring calls from his number, but Kyuhyun doesn't get a response either.
Then they get busy with travelling to Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou for appearances at various festivals and TV shows, and everything gets pushed to the backburner as they pack, unpack, and repack. Donghae learns just how little one actually needs to have when travelling; a small toiletries bag, a few sets of clothes, a book so he doesn't get bored on the plane – he's still making his way through Hyukjae's beloved One Piece – and a notebook to jot down information about the hosts they have to work with, the names of producers and directors, special features about each city and important Chinese phrases to use when they have to show reactions.
He gets intimately familiar with the whole routine of travelling on a plane – find your seat, throw your bag overhead, shove any remaining possessions under the seat in front of you, buckle in and wait for take-off. He learns how to sleep on a plane; he never could before, needing a mattress of certain softness and a pillow of certain hardness in order to fall asleep, but learning to sleep on a plane becomes a necessity. It is, as Siwon says, the only time they have to actually rest and be themselves without worrying about cameras flashing at them.
On one of the plane rides, Hankyung manoeuvres everyone so that he and Donghae end up sitting together with Ryeowook stretched out, almost comatose, on the aisle seat. Donghae tucks himself in and waits for the inevitable "We have to talk", privately wondering if Hankyung had fed Ryeowook sleeping pills.
"We have to talk," Hankyung says when the plane starts taxiing.
"Is it going to be awkward?" Donghae asks, making his tone light. "If so, then maybe you should wait till we're landing, hyungie."
"I promise I will not scare you," Hankyung says, and Donghae has to smile at how Hankyung's Korean frequently sounds like it's directly translated from the Mandarin in his head. "I just wanted to ask, something has been troubling you recently?"
Donghae makes big eyes at him, and Hankyung says in an explanatory tone, "You seem unhappy. Not smiling on shows. Talking so little. So, I was wondering if there was something wrong and if we can fix it. You're not just home…home – ah, I forgot the word. You're not just missing home, right?"
He pats Donghae's knee in an attempt to show that he's truly sympathetic, and Donghae grabs hold of his hand like a child. "I'm sorry for worrying you, hyung."
"As long as I can help," Hankyung says magnanimously. He sounds halting in Korean, but Donghae has watched him enough over the past month that they've been in China to know that Hankyung is a completely different person when he's Hangeng – articulate, charming, the consummate entertainment professional. Hankyung has taken great pains to be a good leader to them in China despite his overwhelming burden of work and seeming exhaustion whenever they have some spare time. Donghae trusts him the way he trusts Jungsu and Heechul; implicitly and loyally.
"I am homesick," he says, "I miss Korean food."
"Maybe we can find some in Shanghai," says Hankyung. "I will ask my Shanghainese friends if they know of any Korean restaurants."
"It's not just that." Donghae hesitates. "I miss our members in Seoul. And Eunhyukkie – I had a fight with him."
"A fight with him?" Hankyung looks startled. "How did you – why are you fighting, you two? Even when you're in two different countries?"
"It's my fault. I said some really mean things to him, and so he hung up on me. He hasn't picked up my calls since then so I haven't had the chance to apologise."
"Well," Hankyung says thoughtfully, "I'll call Heechul, see if he can get Eunhyukkie on the phone with you."
"You don't have to do that," Donghae says, and he means it; he doesn't entirely want Heechul to know what he and Hyukjae are in a quarrel because he doesn't put it past Heechul to barge into Hyukjae's room and demand that he kiss and make up before it escalates any further.
Hankyung looks at him appraisingly. "We'll see," he says, and Donghae spends the next couple of days in petrified horror that Hyukjae will call to yell at him for being dumb enough to let their quarrel filter through to Heechul.
But then the days pass, and he's too busy, really, to worry about things like that. Life is speeding by at a hundred kilometres an hour, Ryeowook says. He's not sure if he's still twenty-two years old or if he has unwittingly turned twenty-three already. They're in Shanghai one moment, in Nanjing the next. Chinese words and phrases fly through Donghae's head at night, persecutes his dreams in a weird mangled tangle with Korean. He dreams of being stuck in a Korean restaurant, unable to place his order because the menu is in indecipherable Chinese. He dreams of climbing the Great Wall and falling down into his bedroom at Mokpo. He dreams of streetlights, one two three, up to eight. Hyukjae splashing through puddles. Writing Chinese characters on Hyukjae's skin. Kissing his neck.
He wakes up in the middle of the night with his hand already in his pants, jerking himself to the image of Hyukjae's face and the feeling of contentment and fulfilment that he has come to associate with him. The only problem is, when he's sated, he remembers that they're having a quarrel and Hyukjae isn't talking to him and then he has trouble falling back asleep.
It goes on and on. And then it's June, and they finally go back to Seoul.
Hyukjae later says that they'd been too noisy. Donghae supposes it is true. He and Kyuhyun and Ryeowook had slammed their way into the dorm at eight in the morning screaming about being home, and Jungsu had come rushing out under the belief that fans had broken into the dorm.
He'd expected that Hyukjae would react coldly to him, perhaps recoil from his hug, but Hyukjae had thrown his arms around him and hugged him exuberantly and Donghae thought that this is it, this is home. It's as easy as that.
"I thought you'd be mad at me," he said.
"I am, but not right now," Hyukjae said, and dragged him to the bedroom.
Donghae, his legs now cuddled up under Hyukjae's dark grey comforter, takes stock of Hyukjae's bedroom and all the familiar things with hungry eyes; the well-organised dresser, the monkey with an oversized head, the collection of One Piece manga arranged neatly according to volume number on the bookshelf. Last year, when the group had been drawing lots to see who'd have to share with who and who would get the much coveted single bedrooms, he and Hyukjae had agreed beforehand that they would not live in the same dorm together.
"It's just out of respect to the other members," Hyukjae had said. "It would really suck having to live with a couple."
So Donghae had stayed out of the 11th floor drawing lots process. Hyukjae had drawn the lot for the single bedroom, the first real piece of luck that he'd ever demonstrated in his life, and promptly moved to decorate it up in the way he liked it. It's Donghae's favourite place in Seoul, not only because it gives them some proper privacy for once, but because it screams Hyukjae everywhere he looks.
Hyukjae comes back into the room from the toilet, face washed and teeth brushed. His face looks thinner than Donghae remembers; Hyukjae has always been skinny with most of the fat going into his cheeks, but he seems to have lost a fair bit of weight off his face. Donghae suddenly has a presentiment that Hyukjae's face is going to change drastically in the next year or so, that the silly, dorky-looking boy with the huge toothy smile he grew up with is going to transform into a man that can take breaths away. The thought of it somehow makes him faintly sad.
"Come here," he says, holding out his arms.
"Guess we're not wasting any time," Hyukjae says with a knowing grin, and locks the door.
They're quiet – very quiet, considering that it's their first time in two months. Hyukjae feels exactly the same as he remembers, his hips jutting out under Donghae's palm, his stomach flat and taut. He sighs and tilts his head back in exactly the same way when Donghae lifts his thighs and slides into him, gives the exact same moan and half-smile when Donghae starts moving in him.
"I've missed you," says Hyukjae.
"I've missed you too," says Donghae, and reaches up to intertwine his fingers through Hyukjae's as they make love. They come quicker than Donghae would've liked, senses heightened by their urgency and yearning, but when he lies with his face against Hyukjae's chest afterwards, tracing patterns on his skin, Donghae is aware of a certain sadness pervading their lovemaking, something dark within Hyukjae that he can't make out.
"Have you forgiven me yet?" he asks.
"I think so," Hyukjae says. "Though there was a time when I really wanted to punch your lights out. You were so weird on that phone call you know, giving me that lecture out of nowhere."
"I called you to apologise! You didn't pick up. You didn't even pick up Kyuhyunnie's call when he called you in my place."
"Yes," Hyukjae admits. "I wasn't ready to accept your apology cause I was so angry, and I thought that we would just get into another fight if we talked – cause I was so angry, you know! By the time I got over it, we were both too busy and I figured we could wait until you got back. Face to face is always the best, isn't it?"
"Or face to chest," Donghae laughs, tweaking Hyukjae's nipple, and Hyukjae pulls at his hair in retaliation. When they settle down again, Donghae kisses a strip from his shoulder to his jaw. "I'm sorry. I was in a bad mood that day. I shouldn't have said those things to you. You try so hard for our relationship – that means everything to me. Even if you find Goo Hara hot."
"She is," says Hyukjae defensively. "But she's far less of a threat than that dude who has a crush on you. Does he, really?"
"I guess he does," says Donghae. "But I don't know for sure, because I never bothered to ask him."
Hyukjae is quiet for a moment, pulling at his lip indecisively. "Hankyung hyung called me, you know," he says. "He told me to work it out with you. It's not fair when our relationship problems touch the other members – whatever happens between us must never cause any trouble for our dynamic."
"And then – I just want us to be happy, too," Hyukjae continues. "I don't want us to regret – or spend our time fighting because we can't agree on how we want to live our life together. I know that you've had a lot of different experiences in Beijing and there's stuff I do that you don't like, but as long as we still want to be together, and we still love each other – we can work at having a future, can't we? Is that too much? Do you think we can do it?"
"At this moment, with you naked next to me and your penis in my hand, you know that anything's possible to me," Donghae points out.
Hyukjae laughs, and laughs, and Donghae wants to kiss him forever.
"You do have a funny face," he says.
"Stop it," Hyukjae says, and kicks him under the covers. "Behave yourself on Sukira tonight and don't give Teukie hyung and me any heart attacks with your weird random comments."
Except that there is, in fact, something troubling Hyukjae – a 'something' far greater than his own insecurities and worries, greater than any third party threats or disapproval from Jungsu and Heechul. It wasn't apparent over the phone, but in person Donghae feels it as strongly as a blanket of smoke. He tries to ferret it out of him, but the short amount of time they spend in Seoul and the even shorter amount of time that they actually have to spare make it impossible to have any sort of heart to heart talk after that first morning. Hyukjae's filming some variety show when Donghae throws clothes into his suitcase again and boards a plane headed for Beijing, 956 kilometres away from Hyukjae and whatever it is hanging over him.
But Hyukjae's still laughing on variety shows and performing with a wide smile on his face, so Donghae takes his cue and becomes an apt student in the art of appearing professional in front of cameras. It's not too difficult, really. All it requires is having a fixed smile. Kyuhyun says that he has to massage his cheek muscles after every show because his face aches so much. Donghae says that he's considering putting ice on his.
China becomes a blur consisting of the insides of cars, vans, buses and planes; Chinese food becomes indistinguishable from one dish to the next; Chinese characters slowly begin to take shape. Ryeowook is particularly good at listening comprehension; Kyuhyun is good at remembering tones. Donghae doesn't remember anything much aside from his bao bei greeting that he sprinkles liberally on the fans because it makes them giggle. Siwon takes on a ridiculous on-screen character completely unlike his persona in Korea; Zhou Mi continues buying them all sorts of food and amusing them with stories of his friends' exploits; Henry starts talking more in hesitating Korean. Hyukjae giggles over the phone, talks cheerily about his doings, and Donghae decides that he'd been overly sensitive and paranoid. Nothing is wrong. They're fine. Aren't they?
They sneak out of the hotel one night in Guangzhou and follow Zhou Mi to the night market on Xihu Road. It's teeming with people and lights, cheap wares, big discounts, and Ryeowook immediately goes into a shopping frenzy. Donghae follows them for a while, but when they camp out at a shop selling imitations of fashionable clothes for over half an hour, he gets bored and leaves them to wander down the street on his own.
He's five minutes into his solo shopping expedition when he sees a vendor presiding over boxes of silver rings. He doesn't quite know why, but he walks straight in the direction of that vendor and spends the next fifteen minutes studying every ring displayed, the garishly decorated ones and the plain ones, the gothic ones and the romantic ones. It's silly, he tells himself, who buys rings for their lover in a Guangzhou street market? What would be more insincere? But then his eye catches onto a ring that he thinks Hyukjae will really like, a plain silver band designed with three ovals in the middle. He can see it on Hyukjae's finger. He plucks it out and asks the vendor for two.
Zhou Mi asks him what he'd bought when he re-joins the rest, but he says he didn't get anything. It doesn't seem right to tell anyone about the rings when Hyukjae hasn't seen them yet. He studies the rings when they get back to the hotel, turning them over and over in his palm under the yellow light of the bathroom as Kyuhyun snores outside, watching them gleam and shine with so much promise. They're not quite Tiffany's, but they make his heart feel like bursting out of his chest.
In the dry heat of an early July morning, Jungsu calls to tell Donghae that Hyukjae has been to the clinic to see a doctor, nothing serious, just a little under the weather. "He doesn't like excessive heat, you know," he says, "and it's been over 33 degrees here."
"I'm fine," says Hyukjae when Donghae calls him in a mild panic. "God, what dire news did Teukie hyung bring you? The doctor says I'm fine, just under the weather cause it's been so hot and there's been so much work. SM says that they're starting preparations for our third album. Can you imagine, we'll finally be promoting as SJ again?"
"It's the best thing ever but you have to take care of yourself!"
"I am," says Hyukjae. "I'm working on it."
In mid-July Hankyung falls ill with flu and liberally passes it on to Donghae and Kyuhyun, who proceed to spend one week of summer sneezing and coughing. They go back to Seoul for a short break convinced that they're going to die on the plane, and the first thing Donghae does upon arriving at the dorm is to collapse on Hyukjae's bed and ask for an ice pack.
"Does this mean I have to nurse you tonight?" Hyukjae asks with mock dismay.
He has dark circles under his eyes and his cheeks have thinned even more than the last time Donghae saw him, but Donghae's too drowsy and sick to investigate too thoroughly into why Hyukjae is beginning to resemble a war refugee. "Haven't you been eating properly?" is all he manages before falling into a feverish sleep that has Hyukjae up at four in the morning rubbing an ice pack over his forehead and neck and forcing water down his throat.
"I feel like shit," Donghae moans between hacking coughs.
"Be patient, the fever will break soon," Hyukjae says.
"It won't, I'm going to die."
"Then at least die quietly," Hyukjae scolds, but he lets Donghae nest on his lap because Donghae says that the pillow is hurting his neck.
Donghae wakes up sometime past noon, fever down to a paltry 37.3 degrees, and staggers out of the room to find the dorm spectacularly empty. There's a note on the table in Hyukjae's handwriting, saying Rice and soup in the refrigerator. Thank Ryeowook. I woke him up at nine to cook for you. so he warms up the soup and sits at the table to sip it down, now and then sending Hyukjae texts bitching about how bad he feels.
Hyukjae rushes back at two to find Donghae stretched out on the couch, idly watching a rerun of Jewel in the Palace. "Are you kidding me," says Hyukjae. "I drove like a maniac to get back from the studio and you're lying here watching Jewel in the Palace?"
"I'm still sick," Donghae protests, and just at that point, as though to prove his sincerity, a deep cough throws itself out of his throat and almost blows Hyukjae away.
They retreat to Hyukjae's bedroom when Sungmin and Ryeowook return to the dorm, arguing good-humouredly about the ending of Coffee Prince. Donghae's throat still tickles, so Hyukjae refuses to do anything physical with him apart from opening his laptop and playing some fighting game with Donghae hanging over his shoulder criticising his fighting skills. Outside, the wind moans against the windows.
"I like afternoons like these," Donghae says.
"Mmm," Hyukjae replies, intent on his game.
Donghae gets off the bed and rummages through his unpacked suitcase, successfully luring Hyukjae's attention away from his laptop when he triumphantly produces the two rings from a side pocket.
"I knew I put them away somewhere safe," Donghae beams as he goes back to the bed. "I got them at a market in China – everyone was stuck in a boring clothes shop so I snuck away to buy these."
He passes one to Hyukjae, who looks down at it as though he doesn't know what to do with it.
"They're for you and me, see," Donghae says, trying to make him see the significance of the ring. "I know they're not much, and they weren't very expensive anyway, but they're to signify that we'll work towards a future together. And that I love you. And I really don't care about the guy who has a crush on me, cause I've got you, and I don't care that you aren't a flamboyant gay who dares to flaunt himself to the world. Even though we've spent all this time apart, when I come home and see you again - it just feels right to me, and that has to mean a lot, right? I love you for all your repressions and insecurities and because somehow through all that you make me feel secure, and you're always the first to forgive, and – I want to spend my life with you."
Hyukjae sits up straight and looks awkwardly solemn. "Ah – do I have to say something, too?"
"Of course!" Donghae says indignantly. "This isn't a one-way thing!"
"Well." Hyukjae studies the ring, then looks back up at Donghae. "Thank you for buying these. They're very nice."
"Is that all?!"
"No, I, uh," Hyukjae flails around for a moment. "I guess I love you too, and, uh, let's have a home together, some day. With lots of space and light and plants and manga."
He breaks into a huge toothy smile, and Donghae can't help but smile back. "Some day," he agrees, and reaches out to slip the ring onto Hyukjae's finger. Hyukjae does the same for him with as much solemnity as a wedding ritual, and they lie against each other for several minutes, holding their hands up and watching the afternoon light catching onto the silver rings.
"Hyukjae and Donghae," says Hyukjae, rolling out the names like sweets on his tongue.
"Don't they sound grand?" Donghae says. He promptly sneezes and Hyukjae jams a tissue paper up his nose.
"You know that we can't wear them all the time though, don't you? The fans and media would go ballistic asking us about them."
"I'll put it in my wallet," says Donghae. "That way it'll always be with me."
Hyukjae grins, and considers for a while. "I'll put it in my wallet too, then."
"That's settled," Donghae says. "Now you can kiss me." He purses his lips teasingly and grins as Hyukjae explains how it would be a very bad idea to kiss Donghae's germ-infested mouth right now, despite the sentimentality of the occasion and how yes, he really, really does like the rings. He grins because he knows now what it's like to live without Hyukjae, and he really wants that house with the space and light and plants and manga, and Hyukjae lying beside him in the morning with his ring brushing against his skin.
The year's almost over, and their preparations for the third album are mid-way done. They're all insanely psyched to be performing together on the same stage again, even though Kibum told them quietly a month ago that he wasn't going to be with them for the time being.
"I just want to discover what else is out there for me," he said, "and I'm afraid that being drawn back into singing and dancing is going to get me stuck as an idol all over again."
Kibum has never liked being an idol, never been a very successful nor passionate singer or dancer, so they let him go. Youngwoon says that this might be the beginning of the group falling apart, but he says it when he's drunk and disillusioned from his latest failed relationship, so nobody takes him seriously. Why should the group fall apart just yet? They're launching their third album, their choreographer is a famous guy from the United States, the song Sorry Sorry is going to take over the world. 2009 is going to be their most successful year yet.
"I can feel it all coming together," Sungmin says as one night after practice as he, Donghae and Hyukjae lean over their steaming galbitang as they had all those years ago when DBSK just debuted and they felt lost and worried about their futures. What a long way they've come since then, Donghae thinks, looking at Sungmin's smiling M-shaped mouth and Hyukjae's cheeks, still pink from the December wind.
"What is?" Hyukjae asks, scooping rice into his mouth. His ring gleams under the fluorescent light and Donghae can't seem to take his eyes off it.
"All the work we've done in the past year – Donghae in SJ-M and us in SJ-H. All those shows. We're going to be bigger and better than we've ever been before."
"I hope so." Hyukjae sighs. "It's been tough, these past three years."
Sungmin looks at Hyukjae with an odd look that Donghae can't quite figure out. It's a look of worry, apprehension – a bit of foreboding, maybe? But the moment passes and they're laughing together, recalling those desperate days when they were trainees and staying up till midnight to practise their dance, using up all their coins to get energy drinks out of the vending machines.
"Nobody will ever believe how unglamorous we were back then!" says Hyukjae.
"Or how desperate," says Sungmin. "Everyone thinks we became idols just like that. They'll never really understand how hard it was."
They finish their supper and leave the restaurant, standing by the sidewalk in the sleep-deadened city. Sungmin blows out steam through his mouth, tucking his hands into his pockets to ward off the cold, and Hyukjae stands gazing down the street. It's mostly dark save for a few late-night shops, and behind them the restaurant has turned off half its lights to show that it's closing. Little has changed, after all, if you stand there and look down the street like this. Donghae looks at Hyukjae, all sort of puffy in his bomber jacket and beanie, and remembers wanting to kiss him all those years ago.
"You know what?" he says with a sudden smile, and Hyukjae looks at him inquiringly. "This time, I will."
He puts his hands on Hyukjae's cheeks and kisses him, full and deep, in view of the street, before Hyukjae can react. The wind tingles his face, but Hyukjae's mouth is warm, inviting, the way Hyukjae has been ever since Donghae first met him at fifteen and thought that he was the greatest boy in the world.
"What was that for?" Hyukjae asks when Donghae pulls away.
"Just settling old scores. You've been driving me nuts since that night."
"There's something here that I don't get," Hyukjae complains.
"You guys are crazy," says Sungmin, and links arms with Hyukjae. "Let's go home."
It's end 2008, and they walk around the bend in the road together.
oh dear, how long has it been? :( i'm sorry for this chapter being shorter than the others despite the long, long wait.
also, just to get some ideas flowing here - what else would you guys like to see this fic explore? i have the broad story in my head but i would like to know what other situations / developments you would like to see in this fic since it is, you know, basically a love story to eunhae.
previous: part four; a togetherness | next: part six; a confession