Doyoung has been incredibly bitter lately, even by his usual standards.
The reason is this: Taeyong broke up with him, in the stupidest and most cliché way possible. Taeyong broke his heart, and couldn't even spare the effort to do it with a bit of originality. The whole situation left Doyoung feeling like the lead actress in every terrible k-drama he's ever seen. He remembers standing there with Taeyong in the frigid late November night, the last of the autumn leaves falling around them as Taeyong said "I don't think we can do this anymore", and thinking, this can't be real. He looked blankly at Taeyong, wind stinging his nose and cheeks red, and could almost hear a dramatic ballad in the background.
Taeyong kissed him goodbye under the final remnants of a waning moon, and the utter banality of it cheapened the moment until Doyoung couldn't find much about it to romanticise and wallow in, save for the fact that he couldn't romanticise and wallow in it, and that was too meta to be satisfying.
He played a mournful piano score in his head, stepped on a few particularly crunchy leaves, and then returned to the dorm.
A week later, Doyoung gets sick.
It starts with a lethargy that sinks all the way into his muscles, and he drag each sloppy execution of the still-unfamiliar Limitless choreography through an invisible pool of deep and heavy water. It continues with a hoarseness that makes his three actual lines burn on their way out of his throat, slowly deepening the lines on his vocal coach's forehead. It progresses into a malaise and irritation that puts him at odds with a small minority of his bandmates, and a large majority of everything they say or do. It begins to reach its peak with chills and dizziness that make it hard to keep steady in any position, and a growing sense of awareness that it won't be long until he can't at all. It finally comes together after the completion of the millionth repetition of the dance.
Doyoung has always thought the fluorescent lights on the ceiling of their dance studio were a little too harsh, but tolerated them because they came along with a mercifully blank wall instead of the garish blue-and-white clouds that have made seemingly endless reappearances in SM dance practice videos from Lucifer to MAMA. But he isn't as forgiving when he's suddenly looking up at them from the floor, wincing away from the way they split his head open, messily sprawled on the hardwood.
He hears his name in a swarm of overlapping Doyoung! Doyoungs, and then there are hands on him, and he hates it. He trembles and shivers, makes a prolonged noise when an attempt to move him exacerbates the aching in his head, tries to get them to understand that he needs them to stop being so close, so loud, so invasive, so much.
They don't get it, but that ceases to matter, because everything starts to fade out. Doyoung distinctly remembers thinking why does another thing in my life have to suck, and then he's gone.
In an extremely anticlimactic turn of events, Doyoung is sent home from the hospital within a few hours. Along with him, a doctor sends a diagnosis of a bad combination of exhaustion and a seasonal illness, a bottle of pill and instructions to hydrate and rest. Johnny refers to this as the "well, no shit" package, and Doyoung is inclined to agree. But Doyoung is also inclined to let Johnny carry-drag his limp and painful body to bed and then pass out on it before he can even crawl under the sheets, so that's what he does.
Doyoung didn't want to admit it, because he likes holding grudges and hates being wrong, but a substantial portion of the situation was undeniably his fault.
He'd seen it coming for a while, noticed the signs of the gradual change. It had taken him a while to get it, with the way he was determined not to understand what it might mean, but refusing to know didn't keep it from happening.
It was hard to miss the way Taeyong's fingers went from easily lacing between Doyoung's to digging into his own palm when things between them got tense, the crescent marks of his nails standing out on the soft skin of his hand for a while afterwards. It was difficult not to notice the fact that his bottom lip spent more time caught between his own teeth than Doyoung's, bitten harshly or chewed nervously instead of being gently grazed and then sucked red and swollen. It was challenging to overlook the way his eyes steadily grew darker, his brow furrowed further, his teeth grit harder, when faced with the exact same array of Doyoung's more particular habits.
But Doyoung really tried to, until finally, he couldn't.
He had wanted to believe they could continue indefinitely, clashing and challenging and conflicting, because they always made up in the end. He had wanted to think that smoothing over the sharp words with softer ones, offsetting the fighting with fucking, was the practical equivalent of a reset button on the compounding dissonance in their relationship. It was easier, really, to think all of these things, because that didn't require addressing anything deeper than whatever their most recent fight was about.
And Doyoung got what he wanted, for a while.
Until he was wrong, and then all he got was a broken heart and a lesson he didn't want to learn.
There’s a well-worn trail between Doyoung’s bed, the bathroom, a few areas of floor and the sofa, invisibly mapped out by his slippered feet over the past two days of his mandatory bed rest. It curves and loops in the pattern of an aimless migration, a manifestation of the restlessness that overlaps with his general listlessness and leaves him feeling like every one of those destinations is the same.
He’s memorised every detail of his room, from the biggest to the smallest: the weird scratch next to the doorframe, the one slat on the blinds that always stays wedged between the others at an odd angle, the brightly coloured rocks lining the large bowl of the goldfish Sicheng had insisted on bringing home last week. (“I was thinking of getting a bird instead,” Sicheng had said, and Doyoung thanked the lord for small miracles.)
Doyoung is alone here for hours while the others all go to practice for NCT 127's impending comeback, continue on with their lives without him, and after a while, he goes a little crazy.
He doesn’t want to watch TV, not in particular, but he doesn’t want to toss his disjointed thoughts through the fog hanging heavy in his skull and so he drowns them out with static and voices. He doesn’t want to deal with the conspicuous space carved out in the shape of a year with Taeyong, or the trail of memories and thoughts that still leads to it. Like this, he doesn’t have much else to do.
So he turns the screen on, and tries to turn his mind off.
It all blends together after a while: Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a flawless goal with a multi-million dollar smile, Joy convincingly going through the motions of a perfect romance with a BTOB member whose name escapes him, countless interchangeable k-dramas that he can’t tell if he’s seen before. In the end, all the flashing lights and manufactured excitement don't do anything but trigger the return of the splitting headache that never seems to leave him alone for long.
Doyoung decides he’s too tired to take his medicine, wishes Taeyong was here to scold him for that decision, and drifts back to his bedroom again.
But these days, things are never discussed. And that, in and of itself, is never discussed either.
What's been happening is Taeyong has been keeping his distance, and Doyoung hasn't been questioning it. Taeyong has been creating a rift, its dimensions deliberately chosen, the size of the space between them just enough to remain mostly out of touch without being out of reach. To provide an optimal level of emotional detachment without provoking feelings of abandonment and unwantedness. This was almost certainly determined by complicated mental calculus involving everything Taeyong has ever learnt about Doyoung's complex web of emotions and opinions, and the additional layer of complexity provided by this situation.
Doyoung can practically see the eggshells beneath Taeyong's feet when they interact, and he's sure Taeyong can see the crumbling ground under his — since then, neither of them has been on entirely steady footing.
Doyoung doesn't question Yuta much anymore — judges, perhaps, not questions — but there is something that doesn't entirely add up when Yuta barges into their bedroom at eleven o'clock at night, then marches to Doyoung's bedside and tries to hand him the bottle of pills and a mug of tea before Doyoung can squirm into an upright position to keep from being scalded.
"Don't try to tell me you made me that," Doyoung says, when he's finally propped up against his pillows and holding the mug without any third-degree burns.
"I wasn't going to," says Yuta. "Why would I? It's you." And then, before Doyoung can retort, "You already know who made it."
Doyoung does, and takes a sip of the tea to avoid having to confirm it. He drinks the rest slowly, swallows two of the pills, and then notices Yuta scrutinising him. He frowns. "What?"
"You look like shit," says Yuta.
"And you look like an asshole."
"Do you want to get choked to death with a thermometer?" Yuta asks.
Doyoung doesn't know if that's possible, and doesn't want to find out. "Go away."
Yuta shrugs, plucks the bottle and empty mug out of Doyoung's hands, and actually fucks off for once in his life. The door opens again just as Doyoung is falling back asleep, and then something cold and wet drops onto his face. He yelps, then hears Yuta cackle. A moment later the thing is lifted, folded, and laid across his forehead. It feels nice, and saps some of the burning heat, but Doyoung growls anyway.
"You are seriously an asshole."
"I did something nice," Yuta says airily, as if that negates everything else, and then retreats to his own side of the room.
The trail has become further worn down. By the end of the third day Doyoung is left home alone, its pattern becomes impossibly convoluted and begins to show signs of delirium. After that, it does a final return loop to Doyoung's bed and stays there.
Doyoung doesn't know what to do with his phone, because everything has become insufferably boring, and as everything makes less and less sense, it gets harder and harder not to type out the messages his mind keeps composing even as he reminds it why he can't send them anymore.
It's starting not to care, and Doyoung is slowly losing control of it, which worries him.
He sends Mark a just checking in message which ends up five sentences too long, and spams Donghyuck with a series of memes that might not even be funny. When neither of them replies within three minutes, he checks NCT 127's group chat and has no idea what they're talking about. He feels painfully out of touch.
He shoves his phone under his pillow and falls asleep to the anxiety behind the constant repetition of the unsent hyung, i'm sorry, please talk to me, and falls even further away from them.
On the fourth day, their manager lets slip, “They've been hoping to start filming soon,” and Doyoung gets it.
There are nightmarish worlds in the recesses of Doyoung’s delirious mind, and they gradually surface and expand that night as Doyoung’s fever suddenly and unexpectedly worsens. He tosses and turns, his body trying to escape as he drifts in and out of them.
He dreams about a birdcage and a withering flower and a broken piano that can only play one note. He dreams of a paper with those three short lines burning, half the words replaced with another scrawled in familiar handwriting: bitter. He dreams of Sicheng's fish’s bowl smashed, the fish flopping on the floor gasping amidst spilled water and broken glass, as he runs down a long staircase that leaves him too far away to save it. He dreams of a calendar with fifty-two weeks’ worth of the same day, the flip pages tearing from it sheet by sheet until he realises the number isn’t going to change. He dreams of being alone, entirely alone, and knowing there is only one way he can be saved.
He wakes up in a blind panic, thrashing, gasping like the fish. When he emerges from it, no one is there.
“You’re okay. You’re okay,” Doyoung hears, in an echo of a familiar voice. Doyoung can’t think for himself yet, so he lets himself believe it.
"You're okay," it says again, from somewhere far in the past, pulling Doyoung up and out of the warped dimensions and constant dull ache, and then it fades away. Doyoung buries his face in his pillow, forces everything about Taeyong out of his head, and finally doesn't cry.
The water in the bathtub is cold. When Doyoung moves, the ripples slap against his legs like shifting sheets of ice. He remembers learning in school that there isn’t such a thing as cold, only the absence of heat, and fails to understand how everything around him can be so cold when it's constantly receiving the transfer of warmth from his burning skin. He thinks of the relative conductivity of various types of material, and drifts off to sleep with his knees drawn up just enough to keep his back from sliding down the wall and plunging his head underwater.
He wakes up to hands on his shoulders.
Doyoung doesn’t bother covering himself, because it would be pointless when Taeyong has seen every millimeter of his body a million times. He’s not showing anything Taeyong hasn’t already touched.
He expects Taeyong’s touch to make him feel better. After two weeks of distance it should feel like comfort, it should feel like medicine, it should feel like everything he needs, and it doesn’t. In a moment of sharp clarity, Doyoung realises it doesn’t feel the way it used to.
“You’re going to freeze to death,” Taeyong says, and reaches under his arms to help pull him up. Doyoung steadies himself on Taeyong’s shoulder, naked and dripping and unavoidably vulnerable, and Taeyong puts a hand on his back. “Let’s get you a towel,” he says softly.
Taeyong guides Doyoung to bed and lays him down, then sits on the edge of the bed. He runs his fingers over Doyoung’s wet hair, just a ghost of a touch, and asks, “Are you okay?”
Doyoung doesn't know. He has what he was waiting for. He has what he was holding out hope for, what he desperately thought might fix him, and it feels like nothing. But he looks at Taeyong’s smile for the first time in two weeks, and just like that, he knows Taeyong never needed to be his cure. He smiles back.
“Yeah. I am.”
For the next two nights, Yuta brings Doyoung tea. The night after that, he unceremoniously tosses the bottle of pills onto Doyoung's bed by itself. Doyoung considers asking about this change in routine, but then finds himself raising an eyebrow at Yuta's almost expectant face.
"Really? Nothing else?" Doyoung asks.
Yuta snorts. "What, do you want me to bring you flowers?"
"If you want to confess to me, then go ahead," Doyoung says, and scrunches up as Yuta very gently hits him with his own pillow. He flails, smacks it away, then hears a short cry of surprise. He looks up to find Taeyong holding a half-empty mug, tea splashed all over his front, the pillow on the floor beside him.
"I should've just let Yuta bring you this," Taeyong says, meeting Doyoung's eyes with an awkward smile. "Bad idea, I guess?"
"Good idea," Doyoung says. Taeyong holds out what's left of the tea to him, and Doyoung shakes his head. "Pour the rest on Yuta," he says, and feels a wonderful sense of disbelief when Taeyong laughs.