pg; 5,010 words; multi-chapter
there was a lifetime in each other, if they chose to see it.
note: please, please ignore or forgive any military inaccuracies!
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 | part eleven; a loyalty | part twelve; an understanding
It takes six months of naval life before Donghae decides that, no matter what happens in his very uncertain future, he will not make a career out of the navy.
It isn't that it's particularly harsh or difficult. It's actually pretty fun at first, learning how a ship works and how to be a part of an entirely different team. He learns to answer to "seaman Lee Donghae" and to address his officers as "sir". He learns how to cover for his buddies, what "all for one" means, how to make his bed spick and span for inspection, how to shine his boots and iron his uniform, how to navigate, stand watch at all hours of the night, and understand any amount of navy jargon. He has spent so much of his life being used to discipline and physical fitness that not even morning drills bother him the way they do some of his mates; and years of being a Korean idol has trained him to survive very well on little sleep and short showers. His charm and large watery eyes mean that everyone in his unit eventually starts looking out for him the same way his managers and seniors have done for most of his life, and his easy-going ways and people skills acquired from being a showbiz veteran mean pretty much everyone is willing to be friendly.
But despite all that, boredom and homesickness begin to set in, and though he tries to control it by telling himself that he has to take navy life as it comes and serve his country cheerfully, it's way more difficult than he could have imagined. After ten or more years of constantly being on the go, always having several new projects on the horizon, travelling to countries beyond most ordinary Koreans' knowledge of geography, being the adored darling of thousands of fans, setting up his own businesses and mixing with some of the most interesting, talented and artistically stimulating people in the country, naval life with all its restrictions and mundane tasks falls flat for him after the initial novelty wears off. He's bored – bored out of his mind – getting increasingly bored every day; his buddies are nice, but most of them have barely started work yet, and he can't quite participate in their idealistic talk about what careers they're going to pursue when they leave the army. He can't participate in their ceaseless talk of girls, either; he simply can't feign interest in which girl is hot and which girl he wants to sleep with, though his squad attributes his lack of interest to desensitisation ("after all," they surmise, "who's gonna bother with ordinary girls after probably fucking half of SNSD?").
He does joke around with them about random silly things and shares openly about his family and the Suju members, and occasionally he has serious, heart-to-talk talks with his buddies about hopes and dreams and romance, but at night loneliness comes and stares him so hard in the face that he's frightened. To be sure, he receives plenty of letters and phone texts – his mum and Donghwa keep in contact with him often, and he calls them regularly after-hours when he's not too tired – Jungsu never forgets to call on the weekends to keep him updated on the group's progress, the Super Junior Kakaotalk group chat is active, and Heechul sends him any amount of amusing texts. But Hyukjae feels a million miles away roughing it out with the marine corps, and while they manage to squeeze in calls every other week, the physical separation makes him feel like he's on the verge of going crazy.
"I just want to see you again," he confesses when they finally manage to coordinate a phone call after two weeks of not talking, and the minutes fly by so quickly that he's left hobbling up a mountain of unsaid words with no time to say them. "I miss your stupid face so much. If I could see you again, maybe it'll be easier to stand all this."
"Just think of this as practice," Hyukjae says.
"For when we get old and move away and not see each other for years except at occasional Suju reunions…"
"Why are you being mean?" Donghae demands, feeling the familiar sensation of tears creeping up his throat. "Here I am telling you my true feelings, and there you are still making fun of me!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Hyukjae says contritely. "You know, I don't look all that great right now. I have no hair. I have eye bags. I've even got some pimples around my jaw, how terrible is that? It's not such a bad thing that you can't see me; you'll start doubting why you ever wanted to sleep with me and then you'll get depressed. Trust me."
That makes him laugh instead of cry. It comforts him to know that Hyukjae's doing well in the marines and keeping so busy that he has no time for homesickness (Hyukjae has always had an independent streak, anyway; something as paltry as homesickness isn't going to drag him down). But just before they end the call, Hyukjae says, "I miss you too, I even dream about you at night, to be honest, though I can't remember any of them", and while he wouldn't entirely put it past Hyukjae to make that up just to let Donghae feel wanted, it makes him want to hang on to the phone, to that thin thread connecting him to Hyukjae's voice, and never let go.
It doesn't help that nobody on the ship knows Hyukjae personally (though they are well acquainted with him as IU's photo-scandal ex-boyfriend, anchovy, and variety show personality in that order), so he can't talk about him the way he wants to.
He can't talk about Hyukjae's hair that's soft and floppy even after the numerous root-destroying bleaches, about the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, how he freaks out at the sight of the tiniest pimple on his face, or the way his lips look when he stirs into wakefulness. Nor about his rich sense of humour or how everyone automatically turns to him when he enters a room, or even about how he indulges Donghae's whims and tantrums and understands his innermost feelings without needing to be told. And though everyone shares freely about their love lives and shows pictures of their girlfriends, Donghae can't talk about the many years he'd been with Hyukjae or about any of the guys he'd been with after that – he knows instinctively that one doesn't quite share about one's leanings to homosexuality in an army environment. His buddies excuse his apparent lack of a love life by assuming that he'd been too afraid of discovery to have any real sort of relationship, but it just makes him lonelier than ever inside, as though he's been dumped back in the time when he'd been too terrified to tell anyone about his sexuality.
At night his squad frequently lands on the topic of homosexuality while they're sitting on their bunks polishing their boots, and he listens as they make fun of it ("Did you know that all the gays are put into a separate unit of their own" "Duh, I wouldn't go for field training with any of them, imagine waking up in the morning to find one of them trying to put their dick into you" "Soohyun-ah, you wouldn't mind that huh, since you like jerking off in the toilet so much anyway" "Fuck you!" "They should give them skirts and put them with the women corps" "Yeah, those women are all butches anyway, so they can fall in love with each other"). He wonders if Hyukjae, pushed to the limit in continuous training exercises, has to listen to such talk as well.
"I want to leave the army forever so I won't have to listen to nonsense about gays anymore," he say to Hyukjae the next time they call. "I feel like I'll get beaten up if anyone here finds out about me."
"It's not so bad for me," Hyukjae says. "The guys make a lot of jokes, but they're more interested in talking about girls, and that whole mess with Jieun means nobody suspects a thing about me. That shows that blessings can come out of the worst situations."
"It makes me feel like I want to burst," says Donghae.
"No," says Hyukjae with some alarm in his voice. "Don't say a word. Don't let them even think you're…just don't, it's too risky, and you might be transferred out of your unit too. Just endure it for half a year more and it'll all end. Let it be!"
Donghae sighs. There are precisely two minutes left on his allotted time for phone calls, and once again there just isn't enough time for everything that he needs to say. This is one thing that idol life had not taught him; how to compress his words into small spaces. But really, he thinks wryly, I can't talk properly under pressure in the first place, much less summarise what I have to say. "I miss you. Stay safe."
"Don't worry about me," Hyukjae says lightly. "I'm like a cat – nine lives, and they're a long way from running out."
"Yeah, treasure them well," Donghae says. "Or I'll personally come and maim you even after you're dead."
"You'll be too chicken," Hyukjae jeers, then, with an abrupt change of tone, "Everyone here keeps asking me for SNSD's phone numbers."
Donghae bursts out into huge, genuine gasps of laughter. "Give 'em Jessica's."
There's a short pause, and then they're both rocking with laughter because really, Jessica, it'll take her approximately five seconds to scare all their army mates out of their senses if they actually place unidentified calls on her phone, and approximately another ten seconds to chop body parts off Hyukjae for giving out her number to idiotic marines.
And the thought of her furious face alone is hilarious. Of course it is.
A couple of months later, his unit holds a party on a Saturday night to "relax and unwind". There are sundry complaints about it not being a "real" party since there aren't any girls present, but everyone shuts up once the drinks are brought in. Donghae's squad mates reveal themselves to know an extraordinarily large number of drinking games. Donghae has never been very good at games like that (Amber from f(x) once dubbed him the "forfeit king"), so before even half the night is over his head is flying off to hazy wondrous places.
"Do you know," he tells one of his squad mates while waving a beer can around, "you hash a bery flat butt. Like Hyukjae."
"I lub you," he says to his petty officer. "You gosh small eyes. Like Hyukjae."
"I want to go to Hawaii," he says to his closest buddy, Joongwon. "Hyukjae surfs. You know. Like the waves. Boom boom. Wheeeeee!"
And then he passes out on top of his seaman, who is, for some unexplained reason, making out with the chair.
"God, you were smashed last night," says Joongwon, tossing him a small metallic object the next morning. It hits his cheek. Donghae opens his other eye cautiously and moves his head a fraction to realise that it's his handphone.
"It was vibrating nonstop," Joongwon says in explanation.
Donghae moves his hand feebly along the mattress to feel for his handphone.
"Last night was crazy, I tell you," Joongwon chats on, pulling on a T-shirt over his head. "Soohyun fell into the swimming pool and we had to jump in to get him out…Woojin kept making out with that chair, it was damn gross, I don't think anyone will want to sit on it ever again…Jihoon kept talking about how much he wanted to fuck his girlfriend…hey, you kept talking about your friend too, it was so weird, you really miss him huh?"
"Mmmm," Donghae says, partly because he really has no clue what Joongwon is talking about, and partly because he has just unlocked his handphone screen to discover that he received 14 missed calls and 253 Kakaotalk messages in the last three hours. His eyes blur over as he jabs at the screen (apparently too much alcohol in his system impairs his hand and eye coordination), so he blinks hard while waiting for his Kakaotalk to load.
The messages are mostly concentrated in the Super Junior chat, but Jungsu, Hyukjae's dad, and Siwon have all messaged him separately. He chooses the one with the least messages. It's Siwon's window.
Hyukjae got involved in a training exercise accident yesterday. Not too sure about the details. Let you know again.
Called but can't get through. Just got updated. His squad was carrying out some sea exercise when a huge wave came and swept them all out to the sea. They've found him. Not sure what his condition is like.
Jungsu hyung called. Says Hyuk's family is on their way to him. He doesn't seem to be too seriously hurt.
Jungsu and Hyukjae's dad's messages pretty much say the same things, except his dad adds that Hyukjae's company had been conducting an amphibious assault exercise when they'd been swept overboard by sudden huge waves into the frigid February sea. You don't have to be worried yet, he said in his last message, we've gotten word that Hyukjae was closer to the shore so he should be okay. We'll keep you updated. In the meantime, try not to worry too much until we know more.
The day passes by in a complete blur. Donghae has no grip on the hours at all; no remembrance of what he says to anyone nor what anyone says to him. His whole world is narrowed down to his phone; feverishly checking it every other minute for messages, calling number after number for updates (even Hyukjae's number, even though he knows it's of no use), staring at it, hating it when the screen remains blank and no notification light blinks. At times he has to struggle to breathe; other times he has to struggle to walk. Fear holds his throat in a vice-like grip; pours weakness into his knees and elbows; replaces his appetite with a cold gnawing in his stomach. The only time he has ever felt such fear before was when he received word that his dad was dying. It's a fear that's impossible to reason away or try to keep under control.
Everyone is kind to him when they hear the news of the accident, but he barely notices the sympathetic looks or the hands stretched out to help. The only thing that matters is that Hyukjae is in danger, possibly dead or dying or injured beyond repair, and while he'd been thrown into the numbingly cold sea Donghae had been passed out in a drunken stupor, blissfully oblivious. He's not sure what exactly he should have been doing but at the very least he should have been awake; he should have felt an echo of Hyukjae's fear and danger, should have kept vigil – the strange, illogical guilt of it makes him sick up the bread that Joongwon had insisted he eat in case he faint from lack of food. And as his stomach heaves and his throat retches and his eyes sting with tears, the reality comes home to him that there might, in fact, be a future without Hyukjae in it; where they'll be so far apart that they'll only find out second-hand what happens to each other.
No, he thinks, no…but he knows now that fairytales happen very rarely, and more often than not the older people get, the further they draw away from each other.
Sora calls him sometime after 5pm to tell him that Hyukjae is basically in one piece. "He's had a medical checkup; no big issues, he managed to reach the shore quicker than most of the others. But he's in a fever now because the water was too cold, and they're keeping him under observation – but he should be okay. He's luckier than many of the others. A few of them are still missing…probably washed away by the current."
Donghae has to swallow hard before he can speak. "If…if he's awake, can you please help me tell him that…that…I'm thinking of him. I don't think I can come out to see him, but…I'll be thinking of him."
"I will," says Sora understandingly. "Thank you for your concern, Donghae-yah. I'll get him to call you as soon as he's well enough."
"Yes," says Donghae.
It's a huge burden off his mind, but for some reason he can't sleep that night. He tosses and turns until the bunk creaks; stares at the ceiling until he commits the pattern of all the crisscrossing lines and tiny holes to memory. Hyukjae will be okay, thank God, but he won't be there to hold his hand through his recovery. And while he knows that it's because they're in the army, and this situation is only temporary (if it had been normal life, he would have gone so, so, so fast to Hyukjae's side, nothing would have stopped him), it seems to him that this is only the beginning of a separation. That the days will come when they'll spend months apart with verbal promises to meet up that never come to pass because of busy lives, when he'll learn second-hand from others that Hyukjae has (maybe) gotten a child, bought a house overseas, won a new endorsement contract; when he'll get so used to not having Hyukjae around that he will no longer be an essential part of his life. When he'll look back one day and say, well, I once had a very good friend whom I loved more than anyone else – I wonder what he's up to now – I wonder what might have been, if we had stayed together?
He tells himself not to be morbid. South Korea isn't such a big country. Super Junior will last for a long time yet. It's more likely that he and Hyukjae will stay in Seoul forever, eventually move out to different apartments within the same area, visit each other every other week, have beers with the other members on public holidays, attempt to go jogging together on Saturday mornings, watch each other grow pot-bellied and bald.
But he knows now that fairytales happen only rarely.
The thoughts circle like vultures in his mind until he finally falls asleep from sheer mental exhaustion.
It's two days before Hyukjae struggles out of his fever and is lucid enough to ask if someone would kindly give him a mobile phone so he can give irrefutable proof to various concerned parties that he's indeed alive and kicking. "And while I know that's a disappointment to some people," he coughs on the phone to Donghae, "you aren't getting rid of me that easily. Don't think I don't know that you've been calling dibs on my One Piece collection. Sorry to inform you that it's still mine."
Donghae opens his mouth to snark back, but something in his throat catches and he ends up crying instead, great big sobs that cause him to gulp and sniff and heave in the most undignified manner. He feels kind of silly; if anyone should be crying, it should be Hyukjae, after all he was the one who got thrown into freezing water, but he can't stop the tears, and Hyukjae waits patiently on the line until his sobs quiet down.
"You never change," Hyukjae says, a note of affection in his voice when he can make himself heard again. "Even when we're fifty, you're going to cry like that over the phone."
"Don't make fun of me," Donghae says. "I was so scared."
"You have to stop getting into all these accidents!"
"I didn't really want that wave to come, you know."
"I'm sorry," says Hyukjae. "But these things – you can't predict them, can you? You can't wake up one morning and think, 'oh, I'm not going to drown today.' And some of them have - drowned, you know. And what's worse, they can't even find their bodies…just lost out at sea. One of my buddies…he lost a few fingers to frostbite. Another one is in an induced coma. I guess what I'm saying is that it could have been so much worse for me, Hae…I am just so goddamned lucky. And because of that, I just want to…take life as it comes. Be grateful for what I have. I can't think all these morbid thoughts. I won't."
Donghae is silent, trying to form the appropriate cheery response that he knows Hyukjae wants to hear, but all he can think is you can say all that because it's your life, but I'm the one who's sitting here worrying my head off. Your safety means so much to me. I will think all these morbid thoughts, I can't help it.
As though reading his mind, Hyukjae says, "But I do know that you've been worried. That's why I called you first…because nobody else will worry about me the way you will. Not even my family. And that does mean a lot to me, you know. So, I've decided on something."
"What?" Donghae asks, glad to finally find a word to contribute to the mostly one-sided conversation.
"I might go for a long trip after we get out of the army…see the world a bit. Get to know random people. Climb a mountain. Sleep under the stars. Hop onto the first train that comes along. Write a poem. But I promise I'll write you every single day so you'll know that I'm safe. And if anything happens to me, if I'm still able to write or call, you'll be the first to know."
Tears spring into Donghae's eyes again, but this time he holds them back. This isn't the right time for tears. This is the time to pour a little light and love into Hyukjae's life, a little gratitude for always understanding, a little happiness as a small repayment for all the multitudes of joy that Hyukjae has given him. So he smiles instead, so wide that he thinks his face might crack into two. "Okay," he says. "I'll keep track, so you better keep that promise. Remember, you volunteered to make it. I didn't force you to!"
"Yeah, yeah," says Hyukjae. "I know what an obsessive stalker you can be."
"Every breath you take," Donghae quotes, feeling smart.
They hang onto the line until Hyukjae has to go for his check-up.
Donghae goes back to Mokpo for a week's break after he gets discharged from the navy. His old family home was sold after his mum and brother moved to Seoul to manage Grill5 and be closer to him, but his relatives are still there; his dad's elder brother who'd given him his name ("because there is nothing in the world as beautiful as the ocean"), his aging aunts on his mum's side, still brisk and cheerful and trotting up mountains in their spare time, his great-uncle who'd spent most of his life out at sea and had skin leathery and wrinkled from the sea salts. He doesn't bother to move around too much, content to spend his entire week in his relatives' care, sitting out on their balconies in the evenings watching the sun rippling oranges and reds into the sea. And although he has lived in Seoul ever since he was a little kid and considers himself a city person through and through, something within him is soothed whenever he comes back to this quiet town. It's a feeling of homecoming.
"I'd like to retire here when I'm sixty," he says to his great-uncle.
His great-uncle laughs. "You'll find it kind of boring after a while, I reckon. We have lots of married couples coming here from the cities, saying they want to settle down in peace and quiet. They all leave after a few months. Can't live without their hundreds of cafes and theatres and shops."
Donghae considers for a moment, staring out into the horizon, wondering why the sky meets the sea, wondering if he can ever enter that space and feel the mist of the clouds on his fingers and the bobbing of the sea beneath his feet. "Nah," he says. "I've been in the spotlight. On big stages. On TV and radio. And I've been on the plane more times than even a mathematician can keep track of. I think I'll be truly content with peace and quiet, simply because I've already done so much."
His uncle gives him a curious look. "So, we'll see you back here when you're sixty then. You and your special one, huh?"
"I hope I'll have a special one by then," Donghae murmurs.
"Come on," teases his uncle, "handsome guy like you…"
He goes down to the beach on his last day, taking off his shoes and letting his toes sink into the sand. The sun beats hot and fierce on his back, the wind stirs his hair into a sort of macabre dance. Thinks of the last time he was here, chasing Hyukjae into the sea, laughing and getting water in his eyes. Was that really two years ago? Has time really passed that quickly? Then again, when he thinks back month by month over the last two years, it seems that so much has happened, after all; so many hours have passed him by. So much has changed.
"But I won't look back," he tells the wind. "Even though I don't know what future lies ahead now, where I'll go, or what I'll become – whether I'll still be Super Junior's Donghae, or just plain old Lee Donghae, I want to look ahead…I want to live…I want to make the most out of every day. And Hyukjae…"
Hyukjae had bought a plane ticket almost immediately after he arrived back in Seoul. There had been a couple of weeks of whirlwind reunion parties, dinners, outings, radio interviews; a few arguments with Kyuhyun over the division of space in their dorm (Kyuhyun had impudently appropriated half of Hyukjae's voluminous wardrobe space while he'd been gone – not that it really matters since Kyuhyun will be enlisting soon and Hyukjae can, technically, throw all the offending clothes out onto the corridor if he so wishes), several visits to Tous Les Jours, a weekend outing with his family. And before anyone could really grasp his presence he'd left again, this time with a backpack and a one-way plane ticket.
Donghae drove him to the airport. It was dark out, too early for the sensible sun. The radio played softly; Seoul lay in quiet darkness around them. It was the first time that they were alone since that night, long ago, by the Han River, and Donghae hadn't quite yet come to terms that Hyukjae was leaving again so fast when he'd only just gotten him back.
"You might have stayed for a month, at least," he said.
"I can't," Hyukjae said. "I have to leave as soon as possible. The longer I stay, the more I'll get stuck in everything…work, and the business, and family…and I won't be able to leave. I have to go now, while people are still used to the idea of me not being around. While I'm still used to the idea of me not being around."
"I'll never be used to the idea of you not being around," Donghae said.
Hyukjae glanced at him, warmth in his eyes. "You don't have to be," he said.
They arrived at the airport earlier than expected, so Donghae decided to park the car and walk Hyukjae to the departure gate instead of dropping him off. Hyukjae was quiet while he manoeuvred the car into the lot, but just as Donghae reached out to turn the engine off, he suddenly put a hand on the nape of his neck and leaned closer. "Donghae," he said, his words coming out in a rush, "I don't want you to think that I'm running away from anyone because I'm leaving so soon, or that I don't care about you. It's not that. I just feel that…for me, personally, the time is right. I don't know how long I'll be away, it could be two weeks or two months, or even two years…who knows? But I'll think of you as often as I can. And I'll write you every day. I said that, didn't I?"
"Yes," Donghae said, taking Hyukjae's hand from his neck and squeezing it tight. "You don't have to apologise. I want you to do exactly what you think is right for yourself."
Hyukjae smiled at him. "I don't want you to worry about me either."
"As if," Donghae scoffed.
"I think I remember someone saying that he expected a kiss when we got out of the army."
"Glad to see you're not entirely hard-hearted…" and he drew in a breath quickly because Hyukjae suddenly leaned in, looked briefly into his eyes for permission, and then pressed a light, light kiss on his lips – more friendly than romantic, more sweet than passionate. It wiped Donghae's head clean of any intruding thoughts. It made his knees weak. It made him, somehow, want to cry.
Hyukjae's mouth was trembling when he pulled away. "Don't walk me up," he said. "I don't want to wave goodbye to you."
That was over six weeks ago, and Donghae still remembers, clearly, the cut of Hyukjae's shirt, the colour, the design, the movement of his pants against his legs, the tint of his hair, the pale white of his neck as he walked away into the gloom of the car park. Remembers, still more clearly, the touch of his lips. The look in his eyes.
"And Hyukjae," Donghae says to the wind now. "Wherever he is, protect him. Watch over him. Bring him safely home to me."