It turns out the army is less concerned with brotherly attachments than a group of naive boys would have thought. Hoya feels lucky, though, even when everyone keeps calling him Howon, because at least he ended up in a unit with Woohyun. At least he isn’t stranded, like Sunggyu and Myungsoo, who end up alone in separate camps.
Things change. The world changes. They change.
There are only half-hearted attempts at comeback promotions when they leave the service 18 months later; Woollim has three other male units now. Three other groups whose members aren’t 30.
It isn’t really a surprise to anyone when Hoya sheepishly approaches the group with a manager and two producers in tow to announce solo promotions. Sunggyu and Woohyun are working on names for their duo ballad act, and Sungjong has been doing really well on the variety circuit. It was inevitable, but he still feels strange the day he moves out of the dorm.
It isn’t loneliness.
It’s more specific than that.
He feels like an adult, like a real person with his very own apartment. He marvels that he finally gets that, even if it took him being close to 32. But there’s a feeling, like an itch. And no, it isn’t loneliness. Not exactly.
He starts to measure time in eras and haircuts, remembers doing this before enlistment, remembers doing it as part of a unit, and there’s sadness if not regret.
This is where he’s supposed to be. Everyone is doing well. There’s no point dwelling.
He wins his first solo music show award on the third single. He dates for the first time in a decade. He buys a dog. He promotes an awkward R&B number that doesn’t go over as well in Japan, but that’s ok, the remix is better. The ballad follow-up sells half a million copies in two months.
And Jaeyong is nice. And the dog is nice. And the success is nice.
There’s a moment where he realizes he has to really think about the last time he saw Dongwoo. He’s 36 and feeling the quiet sting of age, even as he finds himself lauded again and again for his staying power and relevance. It’s unexpected, the mousey girl with her uneven braids and hushed question.
“And what about Dongwoo-ssi?”
And yes, Hoya really has to think. Marvels that it’s been 14 months and some change, remembers seeing the other briefly in the hallway at corporate. He’d been busy, though, had been focused on his schedule, and Dongwoo had been on his way to teach the choreography for a new song to some faceless, nameless project group that Hoya hadn’t had the time to get to know.
“He’s doing really well. We see each other all the time.”
It doesn’t feel like a lie so much as a curse or a spell, like the words have power and it’s inevitable they’ll pull him under. Warp his soul.
The thoughts come slowly.
The apartment feels empty. The relationship feels stale. His dog is too happy and really, who is that happy.
He breaks up with Jaeyong the night after his sixth dream.
He goes back to Busan to sleep on his cousin’s couch and “spend time” with his family after the eleventh.
Things start to feel wrong.
And he wonders that it’s taken him this long to figure out that something was missing.
He finds Dongwoo alone in a practice room after the thirty-fifth dream. It could have been the hundredth; he’d stopped counting months earlier.
Hoya feels incredibly young, standing in the doorway, watching the other man dance. There’s a sense of awe that he knows has always come from watching Dongwoo dance.
It takes less than a minute for Dongwoo to see him, to meet his gaze and smile.
And suddenly, Hoya feels incredibly old.
Because he needs more time, he needs to go back, he needs to be 19 or 20 or 25 or anything but 37. He needs…
Mostly, they’re quiet. The night stretches into morning, and Hoya finds nothing much has changed. They still fit together, flow together like two branches of a river that finally join and you can’t quite tell what water came from what side.
They sit with their backs against the mirror, side-by-side. Their conversation ebbs and rises, loud with laughter then soft with emotion then silent with contemplation, but it feels right. It feels natural.
Hoya knows he needs to go home when he finds himself idly projecting jealousy at the floor as Dongwoo smiles down, aims the full force of his beam at the scuffed wooden boards.
But he stays, let’s the delirium of sleep deprivation take him. He’s hungry and people keep knocking on the practice room door, but he doesn’t want to leave.
He’s worried if he leaves he doesn’t know how long it will be before he sees Dongwoo again.
Because apparently life happens and time happens and god, isn’t that worst. He feels sick when he imagines waking up at 47 to find himself married with a kid and no idea where Dongwoo is. How Dongwoo is. Who Dongwoo is.
The thirty-sixth dream is exactly like the first thirty-five.
He’s 27; it’s the evening before enlistment. The members are all in bed except for Hoya and Dongwoo, though only Sungyeol has managed to fall asleep. There’s palpable anticipation and anxiety in the air as they sit beside one another in the living room. They’d stayed up drinking and watching each other lose their hair to the gentle, patient hands of the coordis who’d come to help them prepare.
Dongwoo can’t stop touching his head.
It isn’t the first time he’s had his head shaved, so Hoya can’t figure out why he won’t leave it alone. After a while, he’s suddenly struck with the impulse to do it himself, to reach out from where he’s sitting on the other end of the couch and touch Dongwoo’s head.
Because clearly there’s something really fucking special about it.
The sudden realization that in less than 13… no, 12… hours, he won’t be able to touch Dongwoo’s head, even if he wants to, hits him with the full force of a hurricane. It wracks his body, leaves him short of breath, and suddenly he doesn’t just want to touch Dongwoo’s head, he wants to touch all of him, hollow him out and crawl inside.
Hoya imagines his face must reflect every thought, because Dongwoo is suddenly giving him a nervous smile after at least an hour of silence.
They don’t talk. Even when Dongwoo’s smile drops in recognition, there aren’t words.
And it’s too fast and too blurred and Hoya can’t remember the details, can’t make sense of the way Dongwoo’s skin feels. This is the part where he wakes up.
Only this time, the thirty-sixth time, he wakes up with his head against Dongwoo’s shoulder, and even now, his brain can’t quite process the warmth and texture and there’s an oddly shaped scar there from where a dancer had tripped and cut him with her heel. Hoya wonders what it would feel like under his tongue.
It isn’t necessarily sexual. It isn’t necessarily anything.
It’s just the way time has worn through him, made him acutely aware of everything he never fought for.
Dongwoo runs a hand through too-long black hair before pushing the heel of his palm against his eyes to rub the sleep out, and it’s all Hoya can do not to climb on top of him right there, touch every part, find out what time has done to him. Find out if he’s the same and all the ways he has to be different.
He settles for linking their fingers, startling Dongwoo who’d thought the other was still asleep, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t pull back; he just squeezes Hoya’s hand a little and meets his gaze with a sleepy smile.
Time can go to hell, really.
Because in that moment, Hoya is 25 and 6 and 19 and 37 and old, infinitely old. He is every version of himself, and they are all wrapped up in Dongwoo and in Dongwoo’s smile and in the bones of his knuckles and the wrinkles around his eyes.
And however much time he has left, Hoya knows he isn’t going to let go again.