They say love is like a seed; you plant it in your heart and you nurture it, you look after it, you take care of it until it grows. It needs time, sometimes a lot, but with patience and work it grows stronger every day. You water and feed it and, little by little, you feel it getting bigger and bigger in your chest. It can be overwhelming, can even wither and die if it’s not taken care of properly. It may hurt sometimes, but love is always worth the pain in the end, and it blooms into a beautiful thing.
This, this is different. It’s like a weed has put down roots inside of him, and he can feel them searching, looking for purchase. He can feel it desperately trying to grow, expand, make its way out into the surface. It’s not being nurtured nor looked after, it’s not wanted; it’s hungry and demanding and Hongbin can feel it trying to take hold inside him, to feed from him. He can feel it grow and curl around his heart like a vine, can feel its hold tightening around it and trying to choke the life out of him, even though he knows that’s not what this, what his love, is doing.
He’s not surprised the first time it happens. It hurts and he’s been fighting it—the itch on the back of his throat, the feeling of having to cough—, which only makes it worse, but he still ends up locking himself in a restaurant bathroom and forcing a tiny purple petal out of his throat. That makes it real, he supposes. He was almost certain that that was what the pain in his chest meant, that he shouldn’t try to resist it, that it would only make it stronger. But still, he had hoped. The hope is gone now and he feels empty, a kind of calm resignation coming over him in waves. He sits on the bathroom floor, stares at the petal floating in the toilet. It looks harmless, a wrinkled tiny thing. It looks like it’s taunting him. There isn’t any blood on the petal, not yet; he knows that comes after. Right now it’s not that bad, and he’s fine. He has to be. Hongbin flushes the toilet twice before washing his hands and joining his friends again.
Hakyeon looks at him, concern clear in his eyes. He must look shaken, he hasn’t managed to calm down fully, and when he sits down next to Wonsik and he asks him discreetly if he’s feeling well, if he wants to go back home, Hongbin wants to scream. He shakes his head instead. He’s fine.
After that he feels better. The feeling is still there, the pressure in his chest a constant reminder, but it doesn’t hurt as much. For a few precious days, he can almost pretend that it was only a dream, his imagination playing a cruel trick on him. Then he’s at the library one day when the itch gets so intense that he has to leave his things behind on the table and run to the bathroom.
He’s dry heaving for what feels like forever before three purple petals fall into his hands, droplets of blood adorning them. He can’t breathe properly, can’t think. There’s a buzzing in his ears and a heavy feeling in his head, and his heart is beating so fast, too fast. His legs give in and he kneels on the floor, tries to get himself together.
He knows how this will go, has known enough about it even before getting sick—it starts with a petal, then a few, then blood; more petals, maybe a whole flower, and then you choke on a beautiful unrequited love. He wonders if it can happen suddenly, if it can be quick. Wonders if he will make a beautiful corpse one day, soon, his mouth filled with flowers. Or you can find help, a little voice whispers in his head. It sounds a lot like Hakyeon. He knows what the only option besides letting himself die is, he has made his research and has been trying to decide what to do. Logically he doesn’t want to die, but forgetting—the feeling, the love, will stop, but it will also feel like losing a part of himself. The last thing you’re supposed to do when you get sick is to search for it on the internet, but of course he has, and he has read plenty of blogs of people who have gone through the surgery and regretted it, afterwards, and Hongbin tells himself that he’s just thinking things through before deciding where to go from here.
Hakyeon cries when he finds out, and it would have broken Hongbin’s heart in half if it wasn’t already broken.
The whole process has become somewhat manageable over time; lock self in bathroom, clean up blood, make sure there aren’t any drops left anywhere or an errant petal, wash hands, wash face, get out of the bathroom. He’s been doing it for weeks now, detaches himself from the situation every time it happens and goes through the motions clinically. But then Taekwoon and Jaehwan are away for the holidays and Hakyeon, who doesn’t like to be alone, decides to crash with Wonsik and Hongbin. Wonsik is out, thankfully, buying drinks, when Hongbin laughs too loud at something Hakyeon says and blood and petals start coming out of his mouth.
There’s a moment of horrified silence and then Hakyeon starts moving, helps Hongbin up from where he is sitting on the floor and takes him towards the bathroom by the arm. Hakyeon doesn’t say a word, yet, walks back into the living room and cleans it up before coming back to the bathroom, a clean shirt in his hand. Hongbin goes through the motions, only notices the mess he’s covered in when he sees Hakyeon offering the shirt.
“Who is it?” Hakyeon asks, and the pain is almost tangible in his voice. “Who else knows?”
Hongbin doesn’t answer, finds comfort in the fact that Hakyeon has to ask. At least he’s doing something right. He throws the stained shirt in the trash, buries it there so it won’t be found. Hakyeon is almost vibrating next to him, the effort to give him time until he’s ready to talk more than evident in his stance.
“No one knows,” Hongbin declares, “I didn’t want anyone to find out.” His voice breaks then, because he didn’t want anyone to find out because he didn’t want to make them have to deal with this, didn’t want to be a burden to them, and it had to be Hakyeon. It could have been worse, it could have been Wonsik, but Hongbin knows that Hakyeon won’t be able to think about anything else now, that he will do anything in his hand to help, and he didn’t want him to go through this for him. Hakyeon gives him one of his hugs and doesn’t crush him like he usually does, as if he’s scared of hurting him if he squeezes too hard. Hongbin feels small and fragile in his arms, closes his eyes, and for the first time doesn’t find comfort in the gesture.
“I’m here,” Hakyeon whispers against his hair before letting go.
Hakyeon asks a lot of questions, and Hongbin wishes he could offer some comfort in the form of answers, but he doesn’t have enough. When they hear the door open, signalling Wonsik’s arrival, pretending that everything is fine is a little harder than usual.
That night Hakyeon sleeps in Hongbin’s room instead of the sofa, and when the door closes behind them he breaks into silent tears.
“Are you sure you don’t want anyone else to know? Not even Wonsik?” Hakyeon asks, taking a sip from his drink and eyeing him carefully. “He’s your best friend and your flatmate; he’s bound to find out eventually.”
And he’s right, Hongbin knows that, fears that, which is why he has to do this. “Or I could stay with you for a few days?” he asks, his back turned to Hakyeon as he makes some milk tea for himself. The coffee shop is empty, Hakyeon the only one sitting at the counter. He’s been nursing his coffee for way too long, and Hongbin knows that he’s only there to keep an eye on him. “Only until this passes,” he adds, because he’s trying to be positive for Hakyeon if not for himself.
“But you’ll have to let him know before you do,” Hakyeon answers after a while, and Hongbin idly wonders if he knows something after all.
That night Hongbin wakes up in his bed, a metallic taste in his mouth. There’s nothing there, not yet, but he can feel the itch starting to build up. When the coughs start and the retching comes he covers his mouth with his hand to stop the blood, but there’s only a drop of it in his palm when he looks. There’s a knock on his door and he quickly covers the flower petals on the bed, checks the time on his phone. It’s two in the morning. Wonsik must have been working, or maybe he’s having trouble sleeping again. Normally Hongbin would have known, maybe would have even pretended to have been lying awake in bed as well and made them something to drink. He opens the door, just a crack, and Wonsik looks at him, almost as if searching for something. There’s worry etched in his face, and he looks tired but alert.
“Are you alright? I thought I heard you cough.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I think I’m coming down with a cold, though,” he adds, and it feels strange, lying to Wonsik. Unnatural.
They stand there for a few seconds, neither of them knowing what to say. Wonsik looks uncomfortable and Hongbin feels guilty about it, about how much their relationship has changed recently, because it’s all his fault. He knows Wonsik is probably thinking about it, too, about how distant they’ve become. Hakyeon has been looking after Hongbin like a hawk for these past few weeks, and it has helped a bit; he doesn’t have to actively avoid Wonsik as much, for one.
“Do you want me to call Hakyeon?” Wonsik asks, finally breaking the silence. Hakyeon’s flat is on the other end of the corridor and it would only take Wonsik a few minutes to go there and wake him up, if he wasn’t currently sleeping on the sofa in their living room, and Hongbin doesn’t understand why that matters.
“I don’t know, I thought that would help,” it almost sounds like a question. “You don’t look that good.”
And that’s an understatement judging by how Hongbin is feeling at the moment, but he lets it slide, glad that it doesn’t seem to look as bad. He’ll take his victories wherever he can find them.
“Actually,” Hongbin starts, and he has to stop and fight the sudden urge to cough. He can feel a petal stuck on the back of his throat, and his words come out raspy, almost a croak, “I wanted to talk to you about Hakyeon. I’m going to stay with him for a few days.”
He wasn’t going to say more but now he can’t, feels his throat closing up.
“Oh,” is the only thing that comes out of Wonsik’s mouth when he opens it, and he seems confused, maybe. He closes it again, looks at his feet, shifts in place. Hongbin can tell there’s something else he wants to say, can tell he’s trying to find the right words, and he gives him time. When he finally speaks again, his voice is so quiet that Hongbin can hardly hear him. “Have I done something wrong?”
Wonsik sounds unsure, apologetic, and Hongbin feels like a monster. Not you, he thinks, but he will not say a word about it, about what he’s done, not to Wonsik. He made this happen, he ruined their friendship, and he will carry that guilt with him.
“Of course not, there’s nothing you could—” He doesn’t get to finish his sentence before a violent cough interrupts him and a handful of petals fly out of his mouth and onto the floor. He sees the horror slowly dawning in Wonsik’s face, as he realises what he has just seen. “Shit, sorry,” he says almost as a reflex, and that breaks the spell that Wonsik seems to be under.
He hovers, and it’s making it worse. The next cough is so violent that Hongbin doubles over from the pain, and Wonsik grabs him by the elbows. A forlorn petal falls on Wonsik’s arm, and he stares, looks at it like people look at a building on fire. His concern and his attempts at making Hongbin feel better, his hand on his back, almost make Hongbin tear up, and he has to go back into his room and sit down on his bed, Wonsik following his every step. His vision blurs and he has to lower his head and put it between his legs just so he can breathe properly and not pass out, and Wonsik gently rubs his back until it passes.
“I’m fine, really,” Hongbin lies. “See? There’s not even blood anymore.”
“Is that… good?” Wonsik asks, uncertain. Hongbin doesn’t know, but he shrugs and hopes he leaves it at that. “Is this why you’ve been spending so much time with Hakyeon lately, why you’re going to stay with him?”
Hongbin nods. “Yes, it’s… helping. I’ll get better soon, don’t worry.”
He’s getting lightheaded, and he misses the emotion in Wonsik’s voice when he grabs one of his hands between his and squeezes it briefly, “I’m glad.”
Hakyeon takes him to the hospital the next day, sits next to him while he waits for the results.
The x-rays look… bad. It’s a small twisty thing sitting there between his lungs, its roots stretching and reaching out towards his lungs. They’re long and thin and they cling to him like tentacles to the side of a ship’s hull. It wants to live, and that little thing will win the battle in the end, if he lets it.
The doctor tells him it’s aconite, and Hongbin blurts out “Isn’t that poisonous?” as if it’s not already killing him by growing out of his lungs.
“Self-grown are different,” she explains, and Hongbin finds that term oddly amusing. “Some are, but you would have noticed by now,” and by that she means You would have died by now, Hongbin can tell, “most aren’t, because they need us to grow.” She smiles at him reassuringly, and there’s a sadness there, a deep understanding, a shared emotion. “I know it’s scary, but it will pass. We’ve come a long way since we first started operating and it’s safe now. The roots are deep and they have settled, that’s why you don’t bleed anymore, but we can still take them out. I’ve gone through the procedure myself before, and I can assure you there’s nothing to worry about.”
“It will pass, and I will forget,” Hongbin mumbles, and the doctor nods.
The surgery won’t be easy, though, because Hongbin has waited too long and he’s not in the best of conditions, already gets easily fatigued just by walking. It has been scheduled for two days from now, as per his doctor’s recommendation, and he will check himself in the hospital the next morning.
“Why so soon if it’s not that bad?” Hongbin asks, and his doctor only smiles. The sooner the better, he supposes.
For now, he wants to pretend that he doesn’t feel bad about his decision, so he texts Wonsik and Sanghyuk and tells them that they’re having dinner together at Hakyeon’s today, stops by his flat before heading there and prepares a small bag to take with him the next day, leaves it in his closet. It takes them forever to decide on what to order, and Hongbin is tired and sweaty and they’re not even halfway through the movie that Sanghyuk has picked out for them when he starts to nod off. Wonsik nudges him discreetly when he starts falling asleep, lets him rest his head on his shoulder. He pushes his fringe aside, looks away when he catches Hakyeon looking at them.
“How long?” Hakyeon asks when they’re alone. He’s sitting next to Hongbin’s bed, Hongbin staring at the wall. He’s been wearing oxygen for almost half an hour now, and he’s not too happy about it.
“Three months,” ten days, five hours, Hongbin thinks but doesn’t say.
“And the feelings?”
“I… don’t know. A long time ago, probably. I thought they would go away with time,” Hongbin almost laughs, but he can’t. He’s sniffling, his eyes reddening. “I thought it was a crush and that it would fade, but then it didn’t.”
“And here you are.”
“And here I am.” There’s a tone of finality in his voice then and he crumbles, let’s go of whatever it is that was holding him together for good, whatever has been holding him together since all this began, and starts sobbing uncontrollably. “I’m scared, Hakyeon. I’ve loved him for so long that I don’t know who I’ll be without that, if I will recognise myself then. I’m not sure I’ll even know how to be myself without that part of me.”
He loses his words then, and Hakyeon can only offer his hand and stand next to him, listening to his senseless babbling until he exhausts himself and falls asleep. He hates this, hates seeing Hongbin falling apart like this, hates not being able to do anything about it. He’s so angry and frustrated that he’s having a hard time standing still, and when Hongbin’s death grip loosens and Hakyeon retrieves his hand he stands up and starts going through the stuff in Hongbin’s bag, taking it out, unfolding and refolding it, putting it inside again. He notices that Hongbin has forgotten to bring his phone charger and grabs his own phone from the table next to the bed, takes this opportunity as an excuse to go outside and clear his head for a bit. He’ll go back to their building, pick it up, and hopefully the urge to tell someone will have faded by the time he gets back.
When Hongbin wakes up he’s alone in the hospital room. The blinds aren’t completely closed; he can see through the windows that it’s already dark outside, and he reaches for his phone to check the time. He doesn’t get that far, almost drops it on the floor when he sees the first notification on the screen.
Hakyeon: I told Wonsik
And there’s nothing else, no explanation, no follow-up.
Hongbin: you what???
Hongbin: where are you
Hongbin: hakyeon pick up your phone
Hongbin: PICK UP
Hongbin is still shaking his phone in hopes that Hakyeon will either pick up or call him or read his messages when he hears a commotion outside, hushed but urgent tones calling for someone. His door opens then, suddenly, and Wonsik is there, running towards him. His face is red, his cheeks streaked with tears. He’s making that face he makes when he can’t stop crying, and Hongbin almost wants to laugh.
He practically launches himself against Hongbin’s bed, lands dangerously close to the edge, and Hongbin reflexively reaches out with one of his arms, circles his waist to keep him in place. Wonsik is cradling one of his hands against his chest, as if holding something precious, and he keeps shifting his gaze from Hongbin’s face to his hand. When he opens it carefully and shows him what’s inside, Hongbin can’t help but laugh once, awkwardly. Three purple petals lie there, harmless, tiny wrinkled things.
“It’s fine,” Wonsik says, and he’s still crying and making that awful face, “you’re going to be fine.”
There’s a tiny drop of blood on the corner of his mouth and Hongbin brushes it off with his thumb.
The aconite in Hongbin’s chest takes a few days to withdraw completely. It doesn’t hurt anymore, its roots beginning to gently letting go since the moment Hongbin saw those petals in Wonsik’s palm, and now that it’s not trying to hurt him anymore, not holding on for its life, it only takes a few coughs to get it out. It’s a pretty little thing, and they plant it in a flowerpot with Wonsik’s much smaller one nestled between its higher roots, leave it on the windowsill in their kitchen.
The flowerpot mysteriously and accidentally falls to its death on the street the first time Hakyeon visits after that, and he swears that if he ever finds another one of his friends coughing bits of one of those things again he’s going to scream.