pg; 3,306 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 | part six; a confession | part seven; a quarrel | part eight; a break up | part nine; a falling | part ten; a support
His second attempt at love happens far more quietly than the first.
Perhaps he's not as young as he used to be, or perhaps just a little more restrained. Either way, his dates with one of Chance's friends – a Korean-American named Hyunjoon who prefers to be called by his English name, Andy – are comfortable and mostly uneventful. The only obstacle thrown in their path had been Chance, who hadn't known that Donghae was gay and so was shocked when he realised that Andy and Donghae's outings were not purely platonic, but he quickly came round to the idea and accepted it.
"I can't imagine how you could have been my friend for five years and not realise immediately that Donghae is gay," Andy says.
"You're the only gay friend I have," Chance retorts, "and it's not like I go around assuming that everyone is gay…"
"No, but you go around assuming that everyone is straight."
"Is it my fault that straight people are the majority?" Chance demands.
Donghae would step in to defuse the situation, but he soon understands that Chance and Andy enjoy their sparring and never mean anything serious by it. He hadn't expected to find someone to date regularly so soon after the final break-up with Hyukjae, but Andy had propositioned him two weeks after they met and pointed out that they were undeniably attracted to each other. "Why don't we just try it out?" he'd suggested. "We don't have to be exclusive or anything, just have fun together."
And they'd had so much fun hanging out together that somehow, by January of the new year, they had come to the unspoken agreement that they were exclusively seeing each other. Andy is a self-professed 'one hundred percent bottom; you couldn't make me top if you put a gun to my head', but for all that, he's not as flamboyant or unorthodox as Zhou Mi's friends. He's more metrosexual than most straight men, of course; he spends hours surfing fashion blogs and online shops, does freelance fashion writing for a few magazine titles, and isn't too keen on any activity that exposes him too much to the sun. But he's also funny, sporting, and not in the least worried by Donghae's busy schedules – "it just means that you're good at your job" – nor of the many good-looking men whom Donghae is friends with – "they're actually mostly straight, right? Except for one of your members – that Chinese guy – I can smell his gay from a hundred miles away."
"You don't think Ryeowook is gay?" Donghae asks out of curiosity, because of all of them, Ryeowook is the one who gets the most fan letters asking if he bats for the male population.
"No-o-o," Andy says, considering. "He looks like he might be, but I don't really think he is…it's always these gentle effeminate ones that turn out to be straightest."
"You're right," Donghae laughs.
"Your other member, though," Andy says, "the one called Eunhyuk. He's hot. I bet he's popular with both the girls and guys."
"You're right," Donghae says again, but without the laughter this time.
"I think you should be pretty popular too," Andy teases.
"I don't know. I haven't been dating long enough to find out."
"Let's hope you don't have to," Andy says, grinning.
Jungsu is the only one he tells, partly out of a sense of responsibility to the group and partly because he wants someone unrelated to the situation to know. He keeps it short, a little apprehensive of Jungsu's reaction considering how much trouble he and Hyukjae had gotten into with Jungsu and the managers when they'd first come out, but Jungsu is pleased. "As long as you're happy, it's fine," he says.
"Oh, yeah?" Donghae says, wondering when that had become the line to take.
"It's true," Jungsu says. "Do you think I'm a monster or something? I want both you and Hyukjae to get over the mess and be happy again, and anyway I know this Andy."
"Hey, don't underestimate my media contacts. He's a fashion writer for Nylon and Esquire, of course I've met him before. He's funny."
"I really like him," Donghae says.
"That's good," says Jungsu. "And – I guess I should tell you in advance – you SJ-M people are making a comeback, with two new additions."
"What? Without Hankyung hyung?"
"Yeah, without him. He's doing pretty well over in China anyway," Jungsu says soberly. "Sometimes I wonder why I'm slaving like this when Hankyung's earning so much money in China even though he quit the group."
Donghae shrugs. "We're Koreans, so we have to stay here."
"Yeah, that's the sucky truth. Anyway, as I was saying – you guys are going to be making a comeback – I guess the managers will call a meeting within the next couple of days to tell you more about it. But I thought I should pre-empt you first. Eunhyukkie and Sungminnie are going to be joining you guys now."
Donghae tries very hard to conceal his panic. "What for?"
"I guess the management thinks they can bring in more fans to support SJ-M since Hankyung is gone," Jungsu says, and looks closely at Donghae's face. "I know you two haven't been talking that much lately, but you don't have to worry about causing any trouble. Eunhyukkie isn't going to expect you to be his best friend again."
"What makes you say that? We're still good friends."
Jungsu sighs, settles back on his bed as though he's anticipating a long talk. "You've been avoiding him."
Donghae bites his lip before he can deny it.
"You don't have to tell me you haven't, because it's so obvious. You two used to be together all the time, and now I can't even remember the last time I saw you talking to each other. I just want you to know that if this isn't easy for you, it isn't easy for Hyukjae, too. He still feels guilty. And – Donghae, I know that he hasn't said much to you about this but – he's still getting a lot of pressure from his family. He's the only son, you know, and so…he isn't exactly going through the best time in his life right now."
"I don't have anything to do with how unhappy he is," Donghae says, a little more harshly than he'd intended. "If he still feels guilty, there isn't anything I can do about that. I already told him that it was his own business."
"No, but you know Hyukjae," says Jungsu. "He thinks and thinks about stuff until even little problems become big. Anyway, just remember that he's still your friend, okay? Don't give up on a friendship like this because the love didn't work out."
"We're still members," says Donghae. "I still trust him. We aren't enemies."
"No," says Jungsu, but doesn't say anymore. They leave it at that.
He's definitely nervous the first time SJ-M meets to rehearse their new song, but he soon finds out that there's no cause for worry. Despite Jungsu's dire warnings (at least, to his mind, they're dire), Hyukjae doesn't seem much different from what he usually is. He's still laughing and joking with everyone, playing pranks on Zhou Mi with Kyuhyun, rapping his Chinese lyrics hour in and hour out until they can't take it anymore and yell at him to give it a rest for at least ten minutes. Donghae decides that Jungsu was mistaken. Regardless of whatever unhappiness or guilt that Hyukjae might have felt, he's clearly over it now, and Donghae is relieved because he really just wants to put everything in the past and not think about it anymore.
The company informs him that the talks have gone through and he and Siwon will be cast in a Taiwanese drama called 'Skip Beat' with Ivy Chen. It'll be around the same time as the 'Perfection' promos, says Junghoon, so the other members will take care of all the promos and variety appearances. You two can just focus on the drama filming. It'll be a great opportunity for you to reach out to a bigger Taiwanese audience.
"Lucky things," says Ryeowook when they're told. "I can never hope to land a role in a Taiwanese drama. Why are you guys always where the big money is? Especially Siwonnie hyung, he doesn't need the extra income."
"I can give it to you," Siwon says, startled, and doesn't understand why everyone laughs at him.
During one of their dance rehearsals, Andy calls. It's not like him to call when he knows Donghae's working, so Donghae defies the 'no phone calls' rule during rehearsals and picks it up. Within ten seconds he forgets entirely about the rehearsal. Andy's younger brother has gotten into a serious car accident on a highway back in California – late night driving, someone had fallen asleep at the wheel – and is now in hospital, nursing five broken ribs, an amputated leg, a huge concussion, and a possibility of dying at any minute. "I have to fly back to be with my mum," Andy says, his voice garbled with sobs. "She can't be alone, and if…if Gareth dies, I'll kill myself if I'm not with him. I've booked my flight, I'm going off at 1am later."
"I'll drive you to the airport," Donghae says immediately.
"It's okay," Andy says. "You're busy with your comeback."
"You're more important. I'll come pick you up at ten, okay?"
"Don't come out of your way for me. I mean it. I just called to let you know so it's not like I'll just disappear without a word. I can easily get Chance or someone else to drive me to the airport. Or what the hell, get a cab."
"Don't be silly, I'm not coming out of my way for you. We're exclusive, remember? I'm not letting you go away for weeks without seeing you off."
Andy laughs a little through his sobs. "God, how do you even – how is it possible that you've already made me feel even a little bit better? You're the best."
"I'll be there at ten," Donghae says.
When he hangs up the phone, he turns around to see six pairs of eyes staring at him.
"Is everything okay?" Siwon asks.
"No, um," Donghae hesitates. "My, uh, friend, he has an emergency, I have to send him to the airport tonight."
"We can stop now," says Hyukjae.
"No, it's okay," says Donghae. "He needs time to pack, anyway."
Everyone's still looking at him, and while he wants to act dumb and ask, "What?", he knows what they're waiting for. And while he hasn't ever expected to tell Hyukjae like this – he thought someone, perhaps Jungsu, would eventually tell Hyukjae, and they would just go straight into accepting it as an established fact without Donghae needing to tell him specifically about his relationship with Andy – he knows that there's no point trying to drag it out now. He had clearly not been talking to a normal friend on the phone.
He takes a deep breath. "Actually, that friend on the phone – his name is Andy, and I'm…he's my boyfriend. I've been seeing him since October."
There's a short expectant silence, as though everyone's waiting to take their cue from Hyukjae. Donghae wonders for a moment; why are they waiting as though they're afraid of hurting Hyukjae? What has happened? – but in the next minute Hyukjae smiles and says, "Hey, that's great, I hope you'll be happy together", and everyone adds in their well wishes to the chorus.
"Are you sure you don't want us to stop?" Zhou Mi asks. "We don't have to do this today, you know. There's still a couple days more till the MV filming. If it's a big emergency, you should be with him."
"I guess you're right," Donghae says.
"It's okay," Hyukjae says. "We'll all take an evening off, then."
He leaves first, because everyone's urging him to go. They're sitting on the floor, stretching their legs and backs when he reaches the door and turns to say goodbye, but nobody's looking at him. Ryeowook and Henry are on their handphones. Zhou Mi is still practising his hand movements. And Kyuhyun – Kyuhyun has his arm around Hyukjae's neck, squeezing his shoulder, nodding as Hyukjae says something into his ear. It looks so intimate that for a moment, Donghae feels as though someone has just punched him in the stomach, leaving him breathless.
"Drive safely," Siwon says, breaking into his thoughts. "We'll see you later, yeah?"
"Yeah," Donghae says, and leaves without looking back.
Andy kisses him quickly that night in the male toilet before he has to go in for departure screening. "I'll call you when I'm there," he says, stepping back when someone walks in.
"Yeah," says Donghae. "Let me know how your brother is doing, okay?"
He'd helped Andy pack his suitcase earlier; Andy would've just thrown everything in, unfolded and disorganised, if it had been up to him, but Donghae had arranged it neatly for him while Andy called back to the States and tried to get updates of his brother (no change, still comatose, still in danger). It had felt strange packing a suitcase – he couldn't figure out why until he remembered that whenever he left for Taiwan or China or wherever else, Hyukjae and then Jungsu had usually packed his suitcase for him. One thing about being by Hyukjae's side – he'd never had to lift a finger to do anything.
Andy mistakes Donghae's solemnness for worry. "Hey, don't look so down," he says. "Gareth is a tough guy. He plays on the college football team. He'll pull through."
"I'll like to meet him some day," Donghae says.
"You will," says Andy. "You'll like him. He's a great guy, when he isn't being an idiot."
Then he stops talking because it's evident that he's going to start crying again, and Donghae puts his arm around him. "Have a safe flight home."
"Donghae," Andy says, low, "I really, really like you. Thank you for being with me today."
Donghae tightens his fingers on Andy's arm. He doesn't want Andy to go away, not just yet, when they're still discovering each other and falling into their own rhythm together. Who knows what might happen if they're apart for a month or so? No, he thinks. That's not important. What's important now is that he goes back to America to be with his family.
"I really, really like you too," he says.
He wants to kiss Andy goodbye, but that's impossible in the airport. Instead, he waits and waves until Andy disappears behind the wall. He has never really been to the airport to say goodbye to someone before – the fans and the media are sure to turn up if they know that he's going to be at the airport, and it's too exhausting to deal with all the furore for the sake of a simple goodbye. This is what it feels to be normal, he thinks. It's not too bad.
He's sure that things between him and Hyukjae will definitely go beyond avoidance to actual awkwardness now, given his impromptu revelation of Andy's existence, but again, he's mistaken. When he attempts to apologise to Hyukjae the next morning for surprising him with the news, Hyukjae waves it off. "It's great that you've found someone," he says. "What does he work as?"
"He's a freelance fashion writer."
"Maybe he can give me some tips," Hyukjae says, laughing.
"Why do you need fashion tips?"
"Because the antis are saying that my last pair of pants look like their grandmothers'. Bah! I thought they looked so cool too. Can't please everyone, no matter how hard I try, so I've given up. But maybe your Andy can at least advise me on what kind of pants to wear."
"You can meet him when he's back from America," Donghae says.
"I can't English," Hyukjae says jokingly.
"He speaks Korean. How do you think I communicate with him otherwise?"
"I don't know," says Hyukjae. "Your English has always been better than mine. But sure, we can meet. Whenever he's back."
Rehearsal starts then, so that's all that they say about it. And when Hyukjae doesn't bring it up again, Donghae doesn't either. He doesn't feel the need to talk about Andy – how strange, when he was with Hyukjae, he'd always wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Now, he's content to let the topic of Andy remain in the background. What does it matter whether he talks about it or not?
The MV filming passes by in a long day and night of hard work, and then they begin packing for their 'long stay' in Taiwan. They're scheduled to be on several variety shows – here, Sungmin expresses doubt almost daily about his Mandarin skills ("I'm going to be mute on every show that we're on, people are going to notice me even less than they usually do"), and Donghae feels a little sad that he won't be able to be with the members. He and Siwon will be shipped off for the drama filming for most of the time, and it means that henceforth whenever the members reminisce about their Taiwan days, neither he nor Siwon will be able to relate because they'll have an entirely different set of memories.
Half an hour before they board for Taiwan, Hyukjae comes to sit beside him. Donghae blinks in surprise; Hyukjae hasn't been near him since they last had their private talk about Andy, preferring to stay with Ryeowook and Kyuhyun. But before he can move instinctively away to give Hyukjae more space, Hyukjae has settled in comfortably, arm brushing against Donghae's. And it still feels natural, somehow. It still feels good to have Hyukjae beside him, secure and comforting.
"We'll be staying together in the same dorm," Hyukjae says. "Even if you're out for filming all day, you'll still get to see us when you come back. We'll have fun together over there."
Donghae looks at him, again in surprise; had he been that easy to see through? Hyukjae meets his eyes and grins at him. "Why are you surprised that I know? Lee Donghae, I've known you since you were fifteen. I know whether you're happy or not just by hearing your voice."
"That's true," Donghae acknowledges.
"You'll do great in the drama," Hyukjae says. "Can't really imagine you as a bad guy but – I guess you can do it, if you want to."
"Is this supposed to be encouraging?"
"You'll have lots of eyeliner to help. I've seen the promo pics."
Donghae laughs before he can stop himself.
Hyukjae regards him for a moment. "We're still friends, right?" he asks a little wistfully.
"Yes," says Donghae, and he means it this time, because really, no matter what happens or who else comes into his life, nobody makes him feel happy and comforted in just a couple of words the way Hyukjae does. Nobody else shares so much history with him, understands him as well. And, he guesses, Jungsu had gotten it right this time; it would be a pity to give up on such a friendship because the love didn't work out. "We are."
"Prove it by sitting with me on the plane," Hyukjae dares.
"Sure," says Donghae. "Have I called your bluff?"
Hyukjae smiles, shakes his head.
They mean to spend the two plus hours to Taiwan talking because nine months of near-silence means that there's a lot of catching up to do, but they manage to keep up the whispering for all of fifteen minutes before Hyukjae's head begins to nod. Donghae laughs at him, tells him to go to sleep instead. They can talk later.
He wakes up two hours later with his head on Hyukjae's shoulder.
previous: part nine (ii); a falling | next: part ten (ii); a support