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[24]

 

It’s Friday at the Nine & Dine.

“What do you mean, you’re an alien?” Felix gasps, and several customers watch on, amused and intrigued.

“I mean, I’m not from the planet Earth,” Hyunjin reads, monotone, from the script taped onto his arm. “End scene— end scene.”

Felix shoots him a thumbs-up. “Woojin, slate!”

Woojin, one of their regulars, slaps his face, and Felix dissolves into a fit of laughter. The diners, understanding that the show is over (at least for the time being, since Friday is always a three-hour circus) return back to their food.

Hyunjin peels the piece of paper off his arm. “Who wrote this? Why is it so bad?”

“You gotta take what you can get,” Felix says mournfully. “Wish me luck, the audition is tomorrow. I better make it in.”

Chan pokes his head out of the kitchen. “You will. Get back to work now.”

Felix pouts, but does as told, heading into the back room.

Hyunjin adjusts his sweater and grabs a plate of appetizers, going around asking if people would like to try it, which most do. He likes working at the Nine and Dine, would probably do it even if he weren’t paid, much because of the good atmosphere— the general crowd is made up of polite regulars who don't harass the waiters. 

“Would you like to try one of these?” Hyunjin asks, coming over to Woojin’s booth. “I think it’s some breaded cheese thing.”

Woojin is eating soup and scribbling on sheet music, penciled ledger lines covered in breadcrumbs, quarter note stems sticking up all over the place. Hyunjin does not understand musicians.

“You do a real good job of selling this,” Woojin says, amused. “But sure, I’ll take one.”

He does as said, and gives an approving nod. “Mm. Nice. One of Chan’s new experiments?”

“Minho’s, actually, and he managed to not set the kitchen on fire while making it.”

“Impressive.”

“That’s what I said, too. But that aside, you gonna play the piano for us tonight?”

Woojin grins, rakish. “Yeah, I just finished up a new composition, I’ll play after I eat.”

Ten minutes later, Woojin does as said and walks over to the piano, a baby grand in the corner of the room, which had sat as decoration until Woojin came along. Hyunjin hums appreciatively as Woojin plays, a mix of instrumental covers of today’s top hits and classical music that sound familiar but Hyunjin doesn’t know the name of. The mood in the Nine & Dine brightens with the melodic sound.

Outside, the sky steadily darkens; it’s a cloudy January night, icy rain spattering against the window panes, and Hyunjin takes orders and delivers food until it’s closing time. When nine o’clock comes, Felix turns the Open sign on the door around, and they lock up the restaurant.

Hyunjin is wiping down one of the countertops when there’s a crash from the back of the room, and Felix yells, “Shit, it’s out!”

(Felix’s dramatics do not apply only to his acting.)

Minho emerges from the bathroom, plunger in hand. “What’s out?” he asks. “Are you okay?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Felix reassures him, even though his eyes are huge. “But Minho, today’s the 16th— Kim Seungmin’s new album was released three hours ago —”

Fuck.

Hyunjin’s hand shakes, and lemon cleaner spills off of the table. Felix and Minho are both too preoccupied to notice; they hassle Chan out of the back room and plug in the (ancient, dysfunctional) aux cord, and Seungmin’s new title track drifts out of the speakers.

“Damn, that piano backing,” Felix sighs.

Yes, the intro is objectively good, but Hyunjin needs to get out of here, right now. But he just makes himself continue wiping down the counter, eyes fixed firmly on the granite tabletop, trying not to let any of the lyrics register in his brain.

“This might be his new favorite song of mine,” Minho says, starstruck. “Apparently he wrote all the lyrics of the album himself this time.”

“Yeah, he’s so talented,” Felix agrees. “I… can’t relate.”

Hyunjin is now wiping the tabletop for the third time in a row.

“Hey, you guys gonna help me clean, or what?” Hyunjin asks, voice twice as sharp as usual. Minho and Felix look surprised, but mutter apologies, and stop talking.

Hyunjin rakes his hands down his face, uncaring for the fact they’re covered in foam and dust, and sighs in relief when Seungmin’s song ends and the playlist shuffles to something else, a bubble-gum pop song with no meaningful connotations. Nine & Dine is supposed to be his safe place, the one island of the week where he’s guaranteed not to drown, but…

He guesses there are always exceptions.

 

[23]

 

Hwang Hyunjin has a routine.

He works a nine-to-five job in an office building downtown, which he takes an hour commute there and back every Monday to Friday. He’s paid off all of his student loans, his career is stable, and he’ll probably get promoted soon. He doesn’t hate his job. He doesn’t love it either, but that isn’t something he expects out of life.

He goes to the club every other Friday night. He likes it, he supposes. The loud music, how he can roll his hips to the beat and get lost in the throng of the crowd, how the world goes fuzzy and blurry from the weight of alcohol. He used to take a girl home for the night, but stopped after one girl was too sober, too perceptive, too kind.

Today, he breaks routine, sitting on a bowl-shaped stool at a new bar downtown, too tired to dance. Somehow, he and the bartender strike up conversation.

“Hwang Hyunjin, you say,” the bartender drawls. “Nice name.”

“Thanks, my mother gave it to me,” he says back. The bartender barks out a laugh, harsh, yet genuine. “What’s yours?”

“Park Jinyoung.”

“Like the CEO?”

“Not like the CEO,” Jinyoung says, grabbing a bottle off the shelf. “That Park Jinyoung’s got money, and would probably be drinking instead of pouring on a Friday night.”

“Touche,” Hyunjin allows.

Jinyoung is pretty, a feral sort of pretty that Hyunjin should be wary of, had there not been two glasses of blue and purple-somethings coursing through his veins.

(Jinyoung had called Hyunjin an ass when Hyunjin had said, surprise me, and Hyunjin supposes he sort of is. But Jinyoung’s chance creations had done their job.)

“Why are you talking to me?” Hyunjin thinks, then realizes he’s asked aloud.

“Because I’m bored, and you’re interesting,” Jinyoung says plainly. Then, as an aside to another customer, “Yeah, I’m cutting you off for the night, and I’d also suggest you buy a better fake ID, that one sucks.” Back to Hyunjin: “So tell me about yourself.”

Hyunjin shrugs. “I’ve got no story.”

“It’s always the people who say that about themselves that tend to be the most interesting,” Jinyoung says. “But let me guess. Hmm… are you a model, Hwang Hyunjin? You’re certainly good-looking enough to be one.”

“Far from it. I’m a financial analyst. This is the one day I cut loose.”

“I see. Do you have a girlfriend, a wife— or should I say, a significant other?”

“No.” Hyunjin doesn’t have an anything, except for maybe too much time. His home, a modest-sized thing in the suburbs, is empty. “What about you?”

Jinyoung hums. “I have a Jaebum,” he says. Hyunjin chooses not to ask. “Let me ask you this, Hyunjin— are you happy?”

It’s a strange conversation to be having, perhaps one that went too deep too fast, but bars are an ideal scenario for that kind of thing, alcohol-eroded brain-to-mouth filters combined with the comfort of knowing that these strangers will vanish from existence after the night. But Jinyoung has touched a nerve, and Hyunjin knows that after he has finished this drink, he will go home.

“Probably not,” Hyunjin says truthfully, after a while. “I— sometimes I am.”

Jinyoung nods, and then someone circles in from the back. “Alright, Jinyoungie, stop flirting with the customer,” the other man says. And then, at the expression on Hyunjin’s face— “Oh, you were terrorizing this one.”

“He wasn’t doing anything to me,” Hyunjin protests, although he feels like he’s naked, like his entire psyche has been laid out on a table for surgery.

The man raises an eyebrow. Hyunjin supposes he’s too drunk to lie.

“Sorry, Jaebum,” Jinyoung sing-songs. “Thanks for talking to me, Hyunjin.”

That night, he goes home, and can’t sleep. He hates Jinyoung, hates how easy he’d looked with Jaebum’s arm slung across his shoulder, and yet admires him fiercely; he thinks about how Jinyoung could probably kiss someone with his full weight in it, how Jinyoung was probably walking the road he wanted in life.

Hyunjin makes two changes to his routine, after that.

The first is that he gets a part-time job at the Nine & Dine.

“Look at his arms,” one of the interviewers says, perched on a chair. “That’s good customer service.”

The other sighs. When Hyunjin had walked in, he’d thought that the other had a long-suffering expression permanently etched into the back of his face, and now he’s starting to understand why. “Minho—”

“I’m just talking about how many trays he could carry at one time, Chan,” Minho says sweetly.

Chan ignores him, addressing Hyunjin. “Mr. Hwang, I’ll tell you plainly that your resume is impressive, you don’t seem to have any sort of criminal past, and so I don’t see the point of extending this interview further,” he says. “You want the job?”

“Yes.”That easy?

“Then come in next Friday at six,” Chan says. “We’ll have Felix show you the ropes, and we can discuss your pay then, too.”

Hyunjin used to come to the Nine & Dine a lot in high school— (aimlessly, he’d returned back to his hometown after college.) If Hyunjin were to be real, he would admit that much of the time, he feels stuck, but as long as he’s stuck in this limbo, he might as well make it as best he can.

He likes the Nine & Dine. He loves Felix, the other waiter, an aspiring actor with a sun-bright smile who uses this job as an opportunity to practice his lines; he adores Chan, the head chef and owner, who actually completely deserves the #1 Dad mug Felix had gag-gifted him on his birthday; he admires Minho, who has some personal demons but fights them daily with a pretty laugh and an arsenal of sass; and later, Hyunjin is starstruck by Woojin, the musically-inclined regular who always comes in on odd days of the week and blesses the restaurant with his musical inclinations.

The other thing is that Hyunjin sells his house.

“You sold your house ,” his mom says, disbelieving, when he tells this to her later; Hyunjin winces and holds the phone away from his ear. “Hyunjin, you majored in finance, so I don’t think I have to tell you the consequence of that decision—”

“I know, Mom,” he says quietly. “But the house was— too big for one person.”

Silence.

“Oh, Jinnie,” his mom says, all the reproach gone out of her voice. “You know—”

“—Mom, please, let’s not do this—”

“Your dad and I know plenty of nice girls we could set you up with—” there it is “—and I’m sure you’re aware of all those new-fangled dating sites your generation has?”

“I do know.” Really, he does. “I’m not interested in any of that, though, I have enough.” Besides, Hyunjin knows the world doesn’t approve of the sort of person he falls for. Not even his parents know; two decades in and he’s still afraid to tell them.

“By the way, has the check I sent you and Dad arrived yet?” Hyunjin says, conspicuously averting the subject.

“Yes, it has. Thank you so much.” His mom pauses. “And you know that we love you, right? Moving back in is always an option. Kami misses you.”

Hyunjin fights back tears. “I’m fine. I know what I’m doing.”

“Okay. I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy. And I love you. Goodbye.”

“Bye, Jinnie. Stay safe.” And the line clicks shut.

Hyunjin shakes his head, pocketing his phone. His boxes are all packed up all in his car, the mover looking at him impatiently. Sometimes, he really questions if he’s delusional, but then reminds himself that (as several online forums have told him) plenty of people feel stagnant. His situation is maybe unique in the fact that he’s so young and has already had all of the adventure scared out of him, but he’s got his reasons, too.

The guy he finds for a roommate is named Changbin, and two weeks ago, they have coffee in a hole-in-the-wall plaza. Hyunjin gets his black, Changbin with double the extra creamer.

“I was a finance major,” Hyunjin says. “So I can handle my part of the budget, and yours, if you want it. And I’m okay at cooking and cleaning and stuff.”

Changbin’s mouth quirks up, amused. “I’m not doubting you as a roommate. I wanted to meet up with you to know what you’re like as a person.”

Hyunjin shrugs, takes a sip of his coffee. “Well, now you know I like my coffee black.”

“Fair enough, this isn’t an interview,” Changbin allows. “Well, I guess I’ll learn soon, right?”

“Oh, wait,” Hyunjin says, remembering. “There is something. I have a— very loud alarm. Are you going to mind that?”

Changbin snorts. “My sleep schedule is irregular. I think we’ll be just fine.”

Hyunjin has very good luck with Changbin as a roommate. Their dynamic is a naturally good one, and they fall out of awkwardness soon. Their separate beds become an interchangeable thing, and Hyunjin’s brain-to-mouth filter, usually working overtime, becomes less of a necessity. Changbin is funny, and brutally honest, and also knows how to get his way.

Changbin works as a tattoo artist, and also as a part-time writer— the stuff Changbin writes is dark and existential, a direct contrast to his sometimes highly—cute, that’s the only word for it— personality. And he wasn’t lying about his sleep schedule. He seems to be awake and asleep whenever, as compared to Hyunjin’s rigid nine-to-five job and “WAKE UP, HWANG HYUNJIN” seven o’clock alarm, and sometimes Hyunjin wonders why he can’t be more like Changbin.

Changbin is so comfortable in his own skin. He’s single, but Hyunjin knows that he’s willing to date anyone, gender be damned, and willing to date multiple people at the same time.

“How does that work?” Hyunjin asks, aware that maybe his question is phrased judgmentally, but knowing that Changbin will understand it’s out of genuine curiosity.

Changbin shrugs, a small smile on his mouth. “Like any romantic relationship does.”

---

So yeah.

Hyunjin is okay. 

 

[24]

 

Hyunjin is stupid.

He gets into his car and tells himself not to take out his phone, but does it anyway. He’s got plenty of data— he never uses his phone except to listen to music and to occasionally tell people they’ve got the wrong number.

Seungmin’s new album came out three hours ago, Felix’s voice echoes in his head.

Curiosity kills the cat.

His fingers tremble as he searches up Kim Seungmin. There’s a bunch of news articles centered on his new album, along with theories about what the music video could be about. Hyunjin taps on the most recent release, Close Your Eyes, and can’t even get past the first few notes before he shuts off his phone and throws it onto the seat across.

“Seven years,” he laughs to himself. “Seven years, and he still fucks you up.”

The interior of the car is stifling. He gets out into the rain with someone else’s soup stain on his pants and his white button-down shirt wrinkled and dampening by the second. And then, like he isn’t twenty-four years old, like he isn’t someone who on the outside looks like he’s got his life completely together, he runs. He sprints along the sidewalk until his lungs burn and he’s out of breath, and then he circles back to the parking lot, finally ready to go home.

 

[16]

 

If asked, Hyunjin can say he went to the same high school as Kim Seungmin.

---

“I hate Kim Seungmin,” Mino says, slamming his lunch tray down on the table. “He fucked the bell curve up for the rest of us. Again.”

Hyunjin takes a bite of his sandwich. “Tragic.”

Hyunjin does not like Kim Mino, who is loud and obnoxious and makes racist jokes that would probably make Mother Teresa herself lose faith in humanity. But he sits at Mino’s table because, well— that’s where all of them sit. Hyunjin, Hyunjin’s friends.

“I know,” Mino continues, decimating a mouthful of noodles. “I hate people like that.”

To be honest, Hyunjin hates people like that, too. But, because he’s curious, and also because he dislikes Kim Mino, Hyunjin asks Seungmin to be his partner for the next project in history class.

(Looking back, sheer pettiness won him the realest friend of his life.)

Seungmin looks over his shoulder before responding, like Hyunjin might be asking someone else. “Sure, okay.”

And it’s a weird partnership. Hyunjin regrets it a little bit in the moment after he asks. High school social circles aren’t as distinct as movies make them out to be, but Hyunjin and Seungmin talking is still weird. Case in point:

Hwang Hyunjin is a varsity basketball player, generally well-liked by everyone, because it’s so easy to like him. He’s polite, kind, handsome, the whole deal. “If boyfriend material was a real mineral, and you carved a human out of it, you’d basically get Hyunjin,” Aecha, his friend, once observed.

Aecha is funny and pretty and everyone thinks she and Hyunjin are together. They are not. Hyunjin just doesn’t like her like that.

And then there’s Kim Seungmin.

There’s not too much information on him, actually. He probably studies his ass off out of school, but if he does, it doesn’t show. He wears a pair of cheap headphones during lectures, which the teacher doesn’t call him out on because his grades are that good, and he’s usually scribbling in a beat-up spiral notebook at lunch. When people bother to take a look at him, they call him stuck-up.

Behind his back, of course.

“Alright, so we’re supposed to write a two-page essay on an aspect of World War II,” Hyunjin says, to his face. “Any particular thing you want to do it on?”

Seungmin shrugs, slides his notes over. “Take your pick.”

Hyunjin gapes. Seungmin’s notes— they’re amazing. They’re not pretty, per se, he doesn’t switch up his highlighter colors and there’s no cursive, but his handwriting is neat and everything is sectioned off with neat titles and bullet points.

“Dude,” Hyunjin says, “this is like, better than the actual textbook.”

Seungmin looks down. “Thanks. I… have too much free time on my hands.”

“You could sell these,” Hyunjin says, grinning. He knows this one guy who sells his notes, but Seungmin would put the kid out of business. But Seungmin’s mouth doesn’t curve up, and Hyunjin is thrown off. “I mean, hypothetically.”

“Thanks for the flattery, but I’m good,” Seungmin says, curt.

Later, Hyunjin will figure out that Seungmin thinks that Hyunjin just partnered up with him just so Seungmin could do all the work, but for now all Hyunjin can do is feel unsure. He’s usually better with people.

“So… are you free this afternoon?” Hyunjin asks. “We could work on it in the library.”

“I’m free,” Seungmin says. “Are you free?”

Of course Hyunjin’s free, he’s the one who asked, but then he he realizes that he actually has lacrosse practice this afternoon. He also understands, though, that Seungmin will dislike him forever if he tells him so.

“I’m… free.”

“Okay,” Seungmin says. “Let’s meet up in the library, then.”

Meeting up in the library doesn’t work. The librarian that’s working today wants absolute silence, but, since Hyunjin and Seungmin are working together, they can’t really make that happen. Half an hour later, they get kicked out, and Hyunjin finds himself staring at the outside of the library door hoping that it might somehow tell him how to stave off the awkwardness. Seungmin is silent.

“You got a Plan B?” Hyunjin asks, finally. “And— sorry about that.”

“No, don’t apologize, you’re fine,” Seungmin says. “It’s not your fault, does she expect us to communicate in sign language?”

Hyunjin is surprised by this, and laughs. “Or morse code.”

“No, morse code is too loud,” Seungmin says decisively, and Hyunjin laughs harder. “She requires zero decibels. Even our breathing would be too loud.”

“Dude,” Hyunjin says. “You’re really funny.”

“Um.” Hyunjin wonders if he said the wrong thing, as Seungmin looks down at his shoes, flustered. “Thanks? Anyway, I know a good place we could work. The owners are nice.”

So they take their history project to the place Seungmin said, a restaurant called the Nine & Dine (the current owner is not Chan, it’s someone else.) Seungmin hadn’t been lying when he said that the owners were nice, or maybe it’s just because Seungmin is comfortable around them. There’s a difference when Seungmin is comfortable, when he’s smiling and not looking like he’s made of ice.

“You’re pretty good at history,” Seungmin notes, halfway through. They’d mostly been working in silence, like that experience at the library had rubbed off them.

Hyunjin grins, wry. “Yeah, I guess I am, but I’m really bad at taking the tests,” he says. “Like, I know the information, but as soon as I see the scantron— blank.”

“That’s like me with math. Except I’m just a fuck-up with math in general.”

“Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact you always listen to music,” Hyunjin says. It just slips out, and Seungmin colors.

It might be a little weird, that Hyunjin noticed. (But…  maybe Hyunjin always noticed Kim Seungmin. He will never admit this to himself, though.)

“Yeah, I know,” Seungmin says. “I get really nervous at school, sometimes. Music is what helps.”

“You do?”

“Yes. Now drop it, please. How far on the paper are we on?”

“Pretty far,” Hyunjin says, and wonders where his usual charisma has gone. Seungmin is no longer smiling. “We’ve got a few paragraphs left.”

“I hate Times New Roman. It’s so small. Glad we’re almost done.”

“We should hang out after this, though,” Hyunjin blurts out. “Like, after the paper. If you want.”

Seungmin raises an eyebrow. “...What?”

What? Hyunjin could ask himself the same thing.

Hyunjin hasn’t said something that so blatantly screams let’s be friends since he was six and made friends in just that fashion, but it’s like… it’s like Seungmin speaks a different language than he does.

Like he’s immune to all of the things that make Hwang Hyunjin the school’s resident golden boy.

Sometimes, Hyunjin wishes he’d never tried so hard. But it’s only hindsight that’s 20/20, and Hyunjin currently just wants to befriend this guy. It’s like a challenge, as if Seungmin were a level on a video game that’s both frustrating and intriguing.

“We should hang out,” Hyunjin fumbles. “After school, or something. You’re pretty cool.”

It’s finally this that makes Seungmin’s mouth quirk up in a smile. “I’ll take you up on that offer,” he says. “You’re pretty cool, too. I haven’t had to do so little work in ages.”

---

They do, surprisingly, become friends.

Unlike most people, Seungmin doesn’t orbit around Hyunjin— no, he’s a star, to Hyunjin’s sun, and at times, he and Hyunjin will intersect, in quiet ways. They don’t sit together at lunch, they don’t really talk in class, but somehow, Seungmin becomes someone that Hyunjin genuinely likes a lot.

Hyunjin slowly learns that Seungmin doesn’t care for anything except for sincerity, is a master with words when he wants to be but is so unassuming that people don’t know that, and that also he’s very, sincerely kind.

Which Hyunjin voices, one time. “You’re really nice, you know that?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Seungmin says flatly. “I want the world to burn.”

“You say that, but I’ve got it all figured out,” Hyunjin says, leaning back with a smirk, and Seungmin rolls his eyes and tells Hyunjin he’s delusional.

But Seungmin is nice. He sends Hyunjin pdfs of his history notes, and Hyunjin’s test scores go up by five or six percent; he hands Hyunjin his granola bars when Hyunjin complains about how the band teacher made him skip lunch again, and just. Yeah.

It’s subtle, but it’s quite obviously there.

“Lacrosse season is starting,” Hyunjin says to Seungmin. “Do you watch the games, or no?”

“Not really,” Seungmin says. “It’s just— sweaty. And crowded. And gross. And the food is overpriced.”

“Just bring food from home,” Hyunjin says. “Well, if you can, come, alright?”

“I’ll think about it,” Seungmin says, face distant.

And Seungmin is an enigma is because he seems like he’s completely immune to high school politics. Seungmin isn’t popular, but he doesn’t try to get close to Hyunjin; most of the time, it’s Hyunjin who has to be the one to say hi, Seungmin, in order for Seungmin to look at him.

Hyunjin, for a long time, does not know about how Seungmin’s palms sweat when he is in public, or how his stomach will tie itself in knots if he doesn’t have his headphones plugged in. He doesn’t know, for an even longer time, that Seungmin is afraid of holding on too tight to people for fear of when they eventually leave, especially to someone like Hyunjin.

But—

“You came!” Hyunjin says delightedly, when he catches Seungmin after he walks off the field.

Seungmin faces him, a small smile on his lips. “I did. Nice job, you guys are really good.”

“Did you see that one shot I made,” Hyunjin says, not expecting Seungmin to know what he’s talking about, but Seungmin nods, and it makes something in Hyunjin’s chest expand. “Team’s heading over to Mirror to celebrate, everyone’s gonna be there. But I’m assuming…”

“I don’t wanna come with? Yeah, you’re right,” Seungmin says, and a flash of sadness passes through his face. “I’m probably going to head home for the night.”

“Oh. You got a ride, right?”

“No, I came here with absolutely no way to get back,” Seungmin deadpans. “Nah, I live really close. You know the first cul-de-sac you see, a block away from here?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah. My parents really, really wanted me to go to this school.”

“No, I mean— you’re within walking distance from me.”

“Really?”

“I’m not kidding. You’re legitimately like, six blocks off, I’ve probably trick-or-treated at your house on Halloween when I was a kid.” Hyunjin laughs, delighted. “I should visit you sometime.”

Seungmin doesn’t say anything for a second. Then, “Sure.”

“This is so cool, I thought I don’t live close to anyone I know.”

“Yo, Hyunjin, you gonna get your ass over here or what?” One of his teammates calls, and Hyunjin whips around. He shoots an apologetic smile at Seungmin, who’s already zipping up his coat and heading out the door, and then Hyunjin jogs over to the team.

It’s nice, of course, at the restaurant, everyone congratulating them and the coach buying them pizza. But the conversation is shallow, and Hyunjin kind of wishes Seungmin were here to make dry commentary when someone says something particularly stupid, but then he shakes that thought off because what the hell and doubles the wattage of his smile for the rest of the night.

---

Despite what he said, Hyunjin doesn’t really take up his offer of going over to Seungmin’s house until the day they lose the basketball conference.

He rings the doorbell, and wonders why he’s here.

“Hello?” Seungmin asks, opening the door. “Oh— Hyunjin?”

Seungmin isn’t wearing his school uniform, and his hair is unkempt. It makes him look cute, if Hyunjin were the sort of person to think that kind of thing. (Hyunjin isn’t gay, after all.)

“Hi,” Hyunjin says. “Mind if I stay here for awhile? I’ll just… do homework, or whatever.”

“Yeah, sure,” Seungmin says slowly. “I’m not doing anything right now, as you can see.”

“Who’s there?” a female voice calls, who Hyunjin presumes is Seungmin’s mom. “Seungmin, you didn’t tell me you had a friend over!”

“I didn’t know, he showed up on his own,” Seungmin mumbles, but Hyunjin is already being herded into the house and offered food. Hyunjin accepts the food even though he has no idea what it is. There is no other option; Seungmin’s mom is tiny, but Hyunjin is afraid.

“Sorry, my mom is— persuasive,” Seungmin says. “Anyway, what brings you here?”

Hyunjin takes a bite of food and swallows, wincing. It’s dry and the texture is strange. “We just lost conference.”

“Oh,” Seungmin says, quiet. “Are you… okay? Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m okay. At least, I will be,” Hyunjin mumbles, drawing his knees up to his chest. “It’s just, coach expected us to make it past regionals this year. And… I think. It’s my fault. I played really poorly.”

“Tell me you don’t really think that.”

Hyunjin glares at him. “What do you mean?”

“It can’t be just your fault,” Seungmin says reasonably. “It’s a team sport, right?”

On a logical level, he knows that, but it’s just, he’s sad. And he feels like he failed them. “Well, they shouldn’t have had to pick up on my slack.”

“You don’t slack, Hwang Hyunjin, even on your off-days.” Seungmin awkwardly pats his back, and Hyunjin, in a distant corner of his mind, realizes that this is the first time Seungmin has voluntarily touched him. “I’m sorry you guys lost.”

“I’m sorry, too.” Hyunjin hangs his head. “Can we talk about something else now?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Hyunjin asks what Seungmin had been doing before Hyunjin came, and Seungmin tells him, homework and listening to Day6. Hyunjin has vaguely heard of Day6, but never listened to their music, and Seungmin immediately makes him listen to Dance Dance and Congratulations.

“You’re an addict,” Hyunjin teases, without malice.

“Yes, absolutely,” Seungmin says. “I love Day6. Their music is amazing. I aspire to sing like that.”

“You sing?”

“Not that well,” Seungmin says evasively. “Anyway…”

“No, no, I want to hear you sing.”

“Maybe later?” Seungmin laughs, and Hyunjin can tell that Seungmin is legitimately uncomfortable about the subject, so he drops it. “Anyway, do you want me to finish your food? You seem to be in pain.”

“Oh my god, yes, please,” Hyunjin groans. “What even is this?”

“It’s like some kind of dried fruit thing,” Seungmin says, and picks it up. “I don’t know what it is, either. My mom’s kind of a health nut.”

“I’m supposed to be on a diet, too,” Hyunjin says. “I have to drink, like, these really gross instant smoothie packs, you know, where you shake powder into water and it tastes like kale and hell, and also these muscle bars.”

“Muscle bars.”

“Self-explanatory. They give you extra muscle.”

“I see,” Seungmin says, even though he looks more amused than anything. “Do they actually work? I don’t think that sounds legitimate.”

Hyunjin rolls up his sleeves. “There we go. Proof.”

“Oh my god,” Seungmin mutters, and turns away. “I can’t believe you just did that to me.”

Hyunjin rolls his sleeves down again, because his sweater is thick and he thinks the fabric might be cutting off arm circulation. Seungmin is quiet for the next half hour, fixated on his math homework, but it isn’t an uncomfortable sort of silence. It makes Hyunjin feel serene.

Also, he really wants to hear Seungmin sing, now.

Hyunjin’s phone beeps, and he opens it; it’s his mom telling him to go back. “I have to get my ass home,” Hyunjin says, shutting down his phone and standing up. “Thanks for letting me stay here.”

“No problem, my mom’s probably crying with joy at the physical proof that I have a friend,” Seungmin says. “... Do you feel better now?”

“Huh?” Hyunjin asks, then realizes that yes, he’s supposed to be sad because they lost. Disappointment floods him again at the reminder, but not as strongly. “Yeah. Maybe it was the dried fruit. It’s like medicine.”

Seungmin laughs. “See you at school tomorrow, Hyunjin.”

Hyunjin heads home, mood buoyed up. He still thinks he should’ve played better, but now he’s making plans to practice harder, and strategizing for the next season. He’s still got two years left of high school, after all. This is his first year on Varsity.

It’s as he’s going home that he realizes that he went to Seungmin’s house, not anyone else’s. Like for some reason, he knows that Seungmin could make him feel better, even if Seungmin isn’t as explicitly nice to him as some other people are. It’s the realness, Hyunjin figures. When he’s with Seungmin, Hyunjin is grounded.

 

[25]

 

In hindsight, Hyunjin should have seen the warning signs.

Felix flaps his arm. “This is totally from the Nine & Dine!”

“It could literally be any generic noodle brand, what are you talking about, Felix—”

“Hyunjin, put down the towel and come back me up,” Felix says. “This is very important. Apocalypse important. Life and death matter.”

Hyunjin puts down his towel, amused, and goes over to where Felix and Minho are crowded around Felix’s phone, gesturing animatedly at the screen. He wonders if they’re wondering about the color of a dress, or something. Probably. Felix and Minho’s arguments are never real arguments, just disagreements that are more amusing than anything else.

“Hyunjin,” Minho says, and shoves the phone in his face. “This doesn’t have to be from the Nine & Dine, am I right?”

Hyunjin looks. It’s a very, very zoomed in picture of a bowl of noodles, and in order to actually see it, Hyunjin has to zoom out a little bit. “It… looks like something from the Nine & Dine,” he says slowly, and Felix cheers. “You know, it just has that vibe.”

“What vibe?” Minho asks, hysterical. “Where’s Chan, I’m being ganged up on—”

“You know, the vibe that it’s very narrowly escaped being burned to a crisp by your manhandling,” Hyunjin says, and ducks before Minho can slap a mop against his face.

“I still don’t think it’s from the Nine & Dine,” Minho says stubbornly. “Why would our noodles be on his Instagram?”

“He’s on hiatus. He could be here.”

“What are you guys even talking about?” Hyunjin asks.

“Nothing, nothing,” Felix says, and Hyunjin goes back to mopping the floor.

---

And then, there’s that thing with Jisung.

Rewind.

“I hate Mondays,” Jisung declares, sitting down on the bench across from Hyunjin. “Like, cubicle life sucks every day no matter what, but Mondays make it extra suck.”

“You’re in a good mood,” Hyunjin notes, and takes a bite of his sandwich.

“Don’t give me your sarcasm right now, I’m angry. The vending machine is holding my chips hostage. I spent one dollar and twenty five cents for nothing, that could’ve gone to my cat when I die—”

“Jisung, you don’t have a cat—”

“That is absolutely not the point here—”

Hyunjin gives Jisung his packet of chips in compensation and listens to Jisung rant about the incompetence of his team members, partially because he’s a good friend, partially because Jisung’s rants always seem like they’re borrowed from some late-night comedy show draft and are quality entertainment. 

“And Taehwi’s refusing to change the font of the presentation from Comic Sans,” Jisung continues. “And I can’t say anything, because he’ll fire me, but how are we supposed to successfully pitch the idea when it’s in fucking Comic Sans? I hate this job.”

“I’m so sorry,” Hyunjin says. “Maybe you can change it last-minute and pretend that there was a slideshow malfunction?”

“Nope. The universe is conspiring against me. What is Taehwi, twelve? Who decided to give a twelve-year-old a higher salary than me?”

Jisung is in the accounting branch of the firm, unlike Hyunjin, who looks at charts and graphs on a screen all day. The reason they’re friends is because Jisung knows Changbin, his roommate— Jisung is lowkey in love with Changbin, but Hyunjin isn’t going to tell Changbin that, he needs someone to eat lunch with.  

Hyunjin is okay with his current position in life, but Jisung hates it, strains against the rules of the office like they’re invisible chains. Hyunjin kind of envies that, Jisung’s fire, the fact life hasn’t been able to extinguish his hopes and ideals yet— he’s fairly certain that several years from now, he’ll see Jisung’s face on the cover of a magazine, on a segment of Channel 9.

“On a brighter note, there’s a new guy who just moved to our apartment,” Jisung says. “Sorry about that whole depressing spiel.”

“You’re fine, you’re fine,” Hyunjin answers genuinely, because again, Jisung delivers his anger in such a fashion that Hyunjin is more amused than anything. “Tell me about this new tenant. Are you invited to their housewarming party or anything?”

“Not enough room for a party, the rooms are super small,” Jisung says. “I might bring him cheesecake, though.”

“Good idea. Cheesecake are a pretty surefire way to make a new friend.”

“See? You get my logic. But,” and here, Jisung leans forward conspiratorially, “I’m pretty sure they might be a serial killer on the run or something. Or like, a government agent.”

“Really,” Hyunjin says, thoroughly amused.

Yes, really. Hear me out here. The person like, basically hasn’t left their apartment, and then when I ran into them in the lobby, they were wearing sunglasses, and a face mask, and this giant plaid bucket hat that was basically fashion contraband—”

“What’s wrong with bucket hats?” Hyunjin asks, eyes glinting.

“Nothing, of course,” Jisung says quickly. “It was just that particular bucket hat. But I’m saying, it’s March. The sky’s more depressing than my Monday mood. What’s there to have such a getup for?”

“Maybe they just don’t like to show their face,” Hyunjin says. “Maybe they’re sun-sensitive.”

“You’re so logical, Hyunjin,” Jisung says. “But say I’m right. Should I bring them tiny cheesecake anyway?”

“I think you should bring them tiny cheesecake. Everybody deserves cheesecake.”

Jisung comes to the office the next day with the information that his next-door neighbor is named KS, wore a face mask throughout their entire interaction, loved Jisung’s strawberry cheesecake, and is pretty cool despite the fact he is probably a serial killer or something.

---

So yeah, Hyunjin only blames himself for not putting the puzzle pieces together.

“Appetizer for Table Number twenty-nine is ready,” Minho yells out.

Hyunjin is the one to get it, walking over to the back where Table Number twenty-nine is located, balancing the soup on the tray alongside twenty-five’s main dish.

The guy at table twenty-nine is facing the wall. There’s a beanie pulled low over his head, and he’s wearing sunglasses. No matter, because Hyunjin recognizes him anyway, and the soup wobbles and tips before Hyunjin manages to catch it.

Seungmin?

The noise catches Seungmin’s attention, and he looks at Hyunjin for the first time. Seungmin’s eyes are hidden behind the dark panes of his sunglasses, but Hyunjin isn’t wearing anything over his face, and he can see the recognition in the slight o that Seungmin’s mouth makes, in the way that Seungmin looks at him for much longer and harder than anyone usually looks at him as a waiter.

“Do you want—” Hyunjin stammers.

Seven years.

“Hyunjin?” Seungmin’s voice is soft.

He takes off his sunglasses; now Hyunjin can see his eyes. Hyunjin has always liked Seungmin’s eyes, how sincere his gaze is. Seven years hasn’t changed that.

Hyunjin’s frozen. “Do you want a different waiter?”

And Seungmin’s mouth flattens into a frown. “No,” he snaps, harsh. “I’m a normal paying customer. Treat me the way you’d treat anyone else.”

So Hyunjin sets the appetizer down, and runs through what would you like to order and would you like anything else to drink and just call if you need anything, taking notes on his little memo pad, and Hyunjin wonders if Seungmin is hurt, with how brutally literal Hyunjin took his words. But Hyunjin is a coward. He is just playing his role.

When Hyunjin comes back to set his main dish down, Seungmin speaks again.

“So you still live here,” he says.

“I do,” Hyunjin says. He’s responding? Okay. Okay, he’s responding. The words that come out of his mouth are scarily normal, too. “I take a bus downtown to work, but yeah, I work here part-time.”

“You like it?”

“It’s nice. My coworkers here are… very interesting.”

“I don’t really have place I live,” Seungmin says. “But I’ve missed here. I’m glad I’m back, even though I have to wear a hat all the time.”

“The hat is okay.”

“It’s not. I look like a douchebag.”

And Hyunjin laughs, because Seungmin is still so funny.

“Are you surprised that I’m here?” Seungmin asks, once Hyunjin’s managed to school his face back into its default stoic expression.

“Yes.”

“And can we talk after your shift?”

“My shift is really long,” Hyunjin says, which isn’t even a lie. There’s still an hour until nine, and then clean-up duty; Seungmin will be waiting long into the night. Two hours, at least. He isn’t worth taking up that much of Seungmin’s time.

“That’s alright,” Seungmin says. “I’ll wait, I like this place.”

“... If you’re sure.”

“We don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to,” Seungmin says, and Hyunjin wonders why after all this time, even after what Hyunjin did, Seungmin is so goddamn kind. “But you were my best friend. We should catch up.”

So Hyunjin leaves Seungmin’s table and goes around taking everybody else’s orders. Felix asks who Hyunjin was talking to, as Felix is usually the one who makes small talk with the customers (sometimes, he’ll do it for so long that Chan has to berate him to shut up and let the customer eat). Hyunjin tells him, no one in particular. Seungmin has reason for all the disguises, after all.

Hyunjin’s speech is coming out so normal. Everything has changed, and yet, it’s all calm on the surface. Hyunjin debates not meeting Seungmin outside in two hours, and just moving to Belgium. But in the end, Hyunjin decides to stop running. There is nowhere left to run. There isn’t even reason to run.

And Seungmin does wait for him.

When Hyunjin walks out of the Nine & Dine into the parking lot, Seungmin is sitting on the curbing, staring up at the sky, hands braced against the cold concrete. He’s probably freezing. Hyunjin flashes back to that time back in high school, when it’d been raining, and Hyunjin had offered Seungmin his coat.

Stupid. Don’t think about those things. Clearly he’s moved on, why are you still stuck like this?

“Hey,” Hyunjin says, to let Seungmin know he’s here. “Sorry if I smell like synthetic fruit cleaners.”

“It’s fine,” Seungmin says. Hyunjin sits down two feet away from him, clenching his teeth when his legs make contact with the ground. “How’ve you been, Hwang Hyunjin?”

“I’ve been okay.” It’s not a lie. “What about you?”

“What, you don’t follow my Instagram like nine hundred thousand other people do?” Seungmin asks, and then his mouth twists down. “Sorry, that was a bad joke to make.”

“You’re fine. My coworker follows your Instagram, Felix, he’s really cool, I think he’d asphyxiate if he knew you were here.” Hyunjin smiles. Suddenly, he remembers the Instagram noodle debate. So it was Kim Seungmin, and Felix was right. “I think he said something about you being on hiatus right now.”

“You…” Seungmin says, and then shakes his head. Hyunjin wonders what Seungmin was going to say. You look so different. You look exactly the same . “Yes, I am. Well, sort of I’m going to be back here for two to three months.”

“I see.”

“But for my manager, that’s code for if you don’t get at least seven songs for your upcoming summer release written during this time the label will drop your ungrateful ass.” Seungmin shakes his head. “Whatever. I have my reasons.”

“Right, you just got off your worldwide tour.” Even Hyunjin knows that, he’d checked the news one morning, and there it was. “How was Europe?”

“Europe was great, I should’ve stayed there longer. I don’t get why everyone skips over Europe. The pastries are like edible Day6 songs.” Hyunjin snorts. Same old Seungmin. Except— not really, right? “But yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Hyunjin’s kind of impressed by the fact he’s managed to not combust for so long. The whole thing feels like a dream, and Hyunjin’s sure he’ll have a delayed extreme reaction later, probably during the night, right when he’s about to fall asleep. Like, Kim Seungmin? Fairly-known idol? Talking to Hyunjin, social nobody, in the parking lot? When they have such a history?

But at the same time, Hyunjin has always been most comfortable around Seungmin. Weird how that hasn’t changed, even with the strangest of circumstances.

“I just moved into my new apartment,” Seungmin says. “You could help me unpack tomorrow? I’d really like that.”

Hyunjin swallows. “Are you sure?”

Seungmin’s eyes are sad. “Yes, I’m sure.”

---

Hyunjin has free time. Tomorrow is a Saturday, and he goes at three in the afternoon.

He did freak out last night. Quietly, so he wouldn’t wake Changbin up, who was actually sleeping at a normal time.

Hyunjin has processed and accepted this new information, he thinks.

He walks into the door, and the weight of all the words they aren’t saying come crashing down on him. Hyunjin wonders where this is going. If Seungmin really still remembers Hyunjin as his best friend, and not the whole mess that came afterwards.

“Hyunjin,” Seungmin says. Too late to back out now. “You came. You want water?”

Hyunjin nods, and Seungmin hands him a mug. “This is the one thing I’ve got out of my boxes so far. Along with my notebooks.”

“So you’ve just been eating out so far?”

“Don’t judge me, isn’t that business for you?” Seungmin says. Hyunjin smiles, slight. “I don’t really know where to start with all this. Especially since I know I’ll end up packing them up again later, anyway.”

They’re surrounded by cardboard boxes, some opened, others still taped tightly shut. It’s relatively not that much stuff, especially for a two-to-three month stay but Hyunjin can see why Seungmin would call it intimidating; he’s not even the one moving in, and he doesn’t feel like taking any of it out.

Now Hyunjin understands why he’s managed to talk to Seungmin for as long as he has:

Because Seungmin is so ephemeral. Three months later, and Seungmin will go back to being one of the nation’s sweethearts, untouchable up on the stage. Hyunjin is just a fever dream, a memory from the past. They never have to talk about it. Hyunjin can play whatever role Seungmin wants him to play.

He’s pretty good at acting; that’s why Felix chooses him as the prop, rather than Minho. (Although… Minho’s not that stiff of acting competition.)

Besides, he’s obviously not still into you, if that’s what you’re afraid of, a voice says, in the back of his mind. Are you such a narcissist, that it would be one of your reasons for avoiding him further, you fucking coward?

“Anyway,” Seungmin says, and Hyunjin breaks from his self-loathing. “Let me just find the box with scissors so I can get all of this duct tape off. Sorry for being a crap host.”

“You’re good, you’re good,” Hyunjin says. “So… what’s the game plan here?”

“Um— I’ve got an inflatable mattress in this one, I think,” Seungmin says, picking up a box with the top neatly labeled bed . “I should probably get it out.”

“Where’ve you been sleeping?” Hyunjin asks, astounded.

“On the floor.” Hyunjin glares at him, breaking out his dusty mom-instincts from their place in his mental basement. “Hey, I’ve slept on worse.”

Hyunjin ignores this and starts opening a box, trying to rip off the duct tape by hand until he gives up and asks for scissors. There’s a small shelf in it that Hyunjin gets to work assembling, refusing to be defeated by something as simple as IKEA instructions, as he’s already been given the middle finger by tape.

“Why is this lamp so ugly?” Seungmin asks, probably not to Hyunjin, but to himself, or the universe. “Why do I appreciate it so much?”

And Hyunjin, like an idiot, says, “Seungmin, I’m sorry.”

It’s said in the context of accidentally jamming in the wrong screw, but he realizes that his statement is very ambiguous and also that every possible meaning to it is correct. Hyunjin is sorry.

“Don’t be sorry,” Seungmin says. “IKEA instructions are dumb, anyway.”

Hyunjin closes his hand tight around another screw enough that it’ll probably leave an indent in his skin. He knows Seungmin will never make Hyunjin talk if he doesn’t want to, because Seungmin is like that, but at the same time the avoidance is suffocating. Hyunjin’s lungs are constricted with a pile-up of unsaid words.

“I just…” Hyunjin says. “I’m sorry for what I did back in high school.”

He doesn’t say what. He might cry if he says what. He didn’t even mean to bring it up at all; it spills out of him like water leaking out of a punctured barrel.

“That was my fault, too,” Seungmin says, even though that’s a complete lie. “I shouldn’t have imposed on you. That was selfish of me.”

“That wasn’t selfish of you at all!” Hyunjin says, voice cracking. God, he’s such a mess. “That was just— why are you being so nice to me, now? And pretending that nothing happened? Why?”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Seungmin says, firm. “Listen… I want to talk to you again because I want to try and be friends with you again, alright? You were always who I felt safest around. And besides, it was so long ago.”

Hyunjin swallows. You don’t know me anymore, he should say. And what if he hurts Seungmin again?

“Alright.”

 

[16]

 

After the lost conference episode, Hyunjin goes over to Seungmin’s a lot.

It’s gotten to the point that apparently Seungmin’s mom is buying larger packs of snack chips from the store. Hyunjin wouldn’t call him and Seungmin best friends, exactly, because it’s not like their social circles intersect, and they don’t talk much at school, but it’s not like Hyunjin thinks to label their relationship, either.

(Maybe he should’ve. Maybe some things could have been avoided.)

But for now, Hyunjin declares, “I’m screwed,” and thumps his head against the back of Seungmin’s couch, hard enough that the couch squeaks and his brain rattles.

“I think you just broke some screws,” Seungmin answers, unsympathetic.

“Sorry to your couch. But anyway, I just realized that our volunteer hours are due soon, and I still need a couple more,” Hyunjin groans. “I got kicked out of the daycare I was volunteering at two weeks ago.”

Seungmin coughs. “And how’d you do that?”

“One of the other counselors was yelling at this kid and I yelled back at the counselor and it turns out it was was actually the manager,” Hyunjin answers.

Seungmin’s eyes widen. “That is… not a fun plot twist.”

“Right? But still. Volunteer hours, I need ideas. What are you doing for those?”

Seungmin is silent for a moment, before he says hesitantly, “You know that nearby community center? Like five miles away from the school?”

Hyunjin thinks, then remembers; it might be on the opposite plaza of where he was volunteering, actually. “Sort of? It sounds very familiar.”

“Yeah. That’s where I volunteer.”

“Okay, nice. So what do you do?”

Seungmin bites his lips, ducks his head, takes an excruciatingly long time to answer. “Um, apparently music helps with Alzheimer’s… so… I sing. Yeah. And it’s not just old stuff either— did you know a bunch of them like Taylor Swift?”

Hyunjin leans forward, own plight forgotten in light of this new information. “You sing for them.”  

“Oh no, we’re not—”

“Come on —”

“Just—” Seungmin shakes his head. “Please.”

Hyunjin wants to push it further but doesn’t, because at this point he knows that never gets good results. “Alright. Tell me about the senior center, then.”

Seungmin visibly relaxes, and Hyunjin knows he made the good decision.

“Okay. So— I think they’ve got spots open, they always love people helping out at the luncheons and stuff? Anyway, it’s pretty nice there. A lot of them are really funny, you have no idea. Funnier than you.”

“I’m offended.”

“And they’re like— they take Bridge and Pinochle and oh , Mahjong, really seriously,” he continues, gathering steam, and Hyunjin laughs. “Dude, they play for money. I watched a Mahjong tournament, and it was really intense— I still have no idea how Mahjong works, by the way, there’s too many tiles and it confuses me— but yeah. I just supply the background music, and they play cards, and it’s fun.”

“That sounds great,” Hyunjin says. “Also, Mahjong is really complicated, it’s not just you. I have no idea how to play it either. My cousin tried to teach it to me once and nearly flipped the table in my face in frustration.”

“I think that’s more your cousin’s problem than yours.”

“Maybe I’m just dumb.”

“Hmm… I doubt it,” Seungmin says. He’s rarely ever explicitly nice, and the comment makes Hyunjin feel warm. “But anyway, if you volunteered there, they’d love you. You’re handsome. And squishy—”

“What—”

“The prime material of our generation,” Seungmin continues, grand. “Meanwhile, they only like me for my voice and my left cheek. Not the right one. Just the left one. They always go for the left one.”

Hyunjin, snickering at this, reaches over and gives Seungmin’s left cheek a pinch, just to feel the hype for himself, then removes his hand. Seungmin’s face is smooth, warm to the touch. The pinch explains the faint redness that tints his left cheek, but Hyunjin misses how the right one pinks, too.

---

The first time Hyunjin actually hears Seungmin sing, he nearly has an aneurysm.

It’s at the senior center. Hyunjin is grateful for Seungmin’s advice— he’s on track to get a sufficient amount of volunteer hours now. His days haven’t intersected with Seungmin’s yet, but when it finally does, Hyunjin is blown away.

For someone’s one-hundredth birthday, the center holds a huge luncheon, and Hyunjin is one of the caterers. He actually really likes this. (Seungmin is right. They play a lot of card games.) The seniors are forty percent wise, forty percent funny, and twenty percent annoyed at the following generations and the center’s cheap coffee pot. Interacting with them is an experience.

“Would you like coffee?” Hyunjin asks politely.

“Decaf, please,” the old man answers, then notices his spirit shirt. “Oh, you go to JYP High? My granddaughter goes there too. Do you know a Moon Aecha?”

Moon Aecha!

“Yes, we’re friends actually,” Hyunjin says, and the man beams, mouth disappearing into a face full of wrinkles.

They’re out of decaf coffee, so Hyunjin goes to get the ground beans and try to get the pot to work, confused by the sheer amount of buttons and nearly getting burned when hot water gushes out of nowhere. It’s halfway done when Seungmin walks into the room, guitar in hand, and Hyunjin nearly drops the pot.

No,” Seungmin mouths, and Hyunjin mouths back, “Yes.”

The room applauds, noticing Seungmin’s presence, and Hyunjin forgets all about the coffee as Seungmin runs them through decade-ago songs, country, and (true to his persona) some of Day6’s more mellow tunes.

His voice is like buttercream, like falling rain, natural and gorgeous, and Hyunjin thinks, if he had a voice like that, he wouldn’t ever stop singing.

Okay. Rephrase. He’d sing as much as possible. He doesn’t know why Seungmin wants to hide it, why he’s so reluctant for Hyunjin to hear.

Hyunjin sticks out the rest of the luncheon before he finally gets to talk to Seungmin,  who, when Hyunjin finds him, is standing outside in the parking lot looking at the sky.

“Seungmin.”

Seungmin turns. “It wasn’t too bad, was it?” he asks, uncertain.

“I thought— when you said you didn’t want to sing—” Hyunjin shakes his head. “I knew you were underselling yourself. I didn’t know exactly how much you were goddamn underselling yourself—”

Seungmin’s cheeks steadily color as Hyunjin continues to compliment him, before he hides his face in his jacket entirely. “ Stop .”

Hyunjin isn’t stopping. He’s on a roll, and he just remembered something. “There’s a schoolwide variety show before in a month! You should do that.”

“I know it’s a thing,” Seungmin says, “and I’m not.”

“Why the hell not—”

“There’s a reason why you haven’t heard me sing until now,” Seungmin says, uncovering his face. “My brain— it just doesn’t let me do it for other people, alright? Unless I’m comfortable. And high school is not exactly a place that’s comfortable.”

“You sang for the seniors,” Hyunjin points out.

“It’s different… I can leave here anytime I want, and if they make fun of me, they’ll do it later, while they’re playing Bingo or whatever, instead of next to me in the halls.” Seungmin shakes his head. “You don’t get it, Hyunjin. Everybody loves you just for being you.”

Hyunjin has an odd feeling that whatever he responds to that, it’ll make him sound like an asshole, no matter what. “I’ll do it with you,” he says instead.

Seungmin, who’d been walking backward, stops. “You what?”

---

It takes a week to convince him, but Seungmin finally says yes.

---

Hyunjin plays the piano— not a lot, but a little bit— and the two of them buy sheet music for Shawn Mendes’s Stitches and head over to Hyunjin’s house to practice, as it’s Hyunjin who’s got the piano at his house.

And god, Seungmin can sing. Unfortunately, Hyunjin cannot, however, as effusively compliment his own piano skills.

“Fuck!—” Hyunjin curses, when his fingers slip again as they’re practicing. “I’m sorry, this is like, the fiftieth time—”

“It isn’t,” Seungmin says, reassuring, although he’s been singing it perfectly every time and it’s always Hyunjin who messes up. “You’re doing fine.”

“You should just use the karaoke accompaniment.” Seungmin’s voice would probably sound better with the proper instrumental, anyway, then just Hyunjin’s mediocre backing. Hyunjin regrets suggesting that they be in the same act.

But Seungmin shakes his head vehemently. “No.”

And Hyunjin doesn’t understand why Seungmin would be nervous at all, especially when he’s so cool and collected as they’re practicing, patiently letting Hyunjin try out new fingerings mid-song and telling them that they’re getting better.

But he’ll understand, later.

The day of the variety show, Seungmin’s face is white and his hands are shaking and his speech stutters when he tries to talk.

“I can’t do this,” he says. Five minutes until their act.

“Yes, you can,” Hyunjin says firmly. Seungmin’s breath still comes out short. “Hey, the crowd doesn’t matter, alright? Screw the crowd. Listen to me. Screw the crowd.”

Seungmin’s head dips, a miniscule nod. “But—”

“It’s just like you singing with me in my living room while my mom asks you if you want some fruit for the thirtieth time,” Hyunjin says, and Seungmin laughs despite himself. “If you mess up, I’ll mess up with you, alright? I’ll play, like, a peach third. But you won’t. I will be here with my shitty piano backing and you are going to be amazing.”

“Picardy third.”

Whatever, you music nerd.” Seungmin is smiling now, weak but real, and Hyunjin is glad.

He takes Seungmin’s hand and gives it a tight squeeze, and Seungmin shuts his eyes, probably trying to assuage whatever doubts are plaguing him. Hyunjin isn’t nervous, but suddenly, his chest feels weird. Something not to do with any of this.

They get up there and Seungmin transforms under the spotlight.

Hyunjin messes up a chord but nobody in the audience notices, too transfixed by Seungmin’s voice. The next day, people Seungmin has never spoken to will stop him and say, I didn’t know you could sing like that . There’s no nervosa. Just a pure sound, like this is where Seungmin belongs. Because he does belong here, under the spotlight. And a few years later, the whole world will know that.

When the last note fades out, the crowd erupts with cheers.

“Oh my god,” Seungmin whispers, as the two of them are backstage again. “We did that? I did that? I did okay?”

His face is disbelieving.

“You did amazing ,” Hyunjin laughs. “You were fucking amazing.”

“So were you, then.”

“No, no, shut up, I’m replaceable—”

“I think you need to give yourself more credit,” Seungmin says. “Since you’re always telling me too. I wouldn’t be up there if you weren’t too.”

“Will you do this again?” Hyunjin asks. “Like… perform? Even if I’m not there?”

Seungmin smiles, a real one. “Maybe I will. It’d be better if you were, though.”

It’s sophomore year, and later, Hyunjin supposes he could tell people that he was the one who got Kim Seungmin to stand on an actual stage for the first time.

But that would just be desecration of a memory, the two of them up there, Seungmin enveloped in blinding stage lights while Hyunjin squints into the crowd and fumbles his octaves, and later, Hyunjin will only feel guilty that Seungmin trusted him so much, and he just had to go and ruin it.

 

[25]

 

After Hyunjin helps unpack, he doesn’t see Seungmin until next Friday.

Seungmin is seated in the way-back booth again, face completely covered, and Hyunjin wonders if he should say hi or not before his body moves of its own will and heads over. Bridges can be burnt, but they can also be rebuilt, and who is Hyunjin to disobey the laws of the universe?

“Can I take your order?” Hyunjin asks politely.

“Hyunjin!” Seungmin says, pulling down his mask. “Uh… just water for now. I’m going to be loitering for a bit, is that okay?”

“This establishment has a policy of letting people get away with things as long as they’re not disruptive, I think you’ll be good,” Hyunjin says. He doesn’t add, especially since you’re, you know, you . He has a feeling that Seungmin doesn’t like special treatment due to his status.

“This is the first time I’ve been in a public space all week,” Seungmin says, sighing. “I’m hoping to stay as long as possible. This booth is nice, it’s practically invisible.”

“You haven’t been out all week?” Hyunjin asks, amazed. Shit, fame is terrible.

“I have to stay holed up in the apartment. If anyone knows my location, I’m royally screwed. I go out at night sometimes, but by the end of the hiatus, I’ll definitely be Vitamin-D deprived.”

“I have a sun lamp, I could give that to you.”

“Thanks for the offer.” And then he smiles. Seungmin’s always had a bright smile, like the sun. He could probably supply his own Vitamin-D, if science just worked out with metaphors.

“I’m going to go get your water, now, alright?” Hyunjin asks. “Oh, and by the way, it’s good you came on a Friday. You’ll be in for a show.”

Seungmin raises his eyebrows, intrigued, and Hyunjin goes to the back room to fill up a water glass, smiling a little to himself. He’s certain Seungmin will love Woojin, and is equally as certain that Seungmin will love Felix’s over-the-top acting, too.

Felix. Even if it’s the right thing to do, Hyunjin can’t help but feel a little like a traitor for not alerting Felix to Seungmin’s presence. The kid idolizes him.

“We’re doing improv tonight,” Felix says, completely unaware Seungmin is in the makeshift crowd. “Remember, the rule is to never say no, okay?”

Hyunjin gives a thumbs-up. “Alright, got it. Just let me go deliver this water and we’re a-go.”

He gives Seungmin his water and says, “Wait and see.”

Seungmin puts his mask up and leans out of the booth, intrigued. Two minutes later, Felix strides out from the kitchen in Chan’s shrimp on the barbie mate apron and yells, “Waiter Hyunjin, one of our customers here has ordered a moon sundae— could you go get one for me, please?”

Hyunjin can see Seungmin smiling, even behind the ski mask. “I think we’re out of moons,” Hyunjin replies, walking over to Felix with his head bowed in mock apology. “Would they take an asteroid in compensation?”

Felix rubs his forehead, sighing. “How many times do I have to tell you that it’s not like Mars and Venus, you can’t just substitute an actual celestial body with a glorified rock.”

Chan pops his head out of the back door, wearing Felix’s waiter badge, and shouts, “Garnish it with stardust, and it’ll look the exact same!”

“What do you have against asteroids?” Hyunjin asks, sounding completely offended.

The next ten minutes is spent with Minho actually taking orders, Felix pretending to send Hyunjin to a space Walmart to buy more moons, and Hyunjin grumbling about cheap quality and overpriced craters. It’s not their best skit, but it gets laughs, and the diners are entertained. It ends with Hyunjin finally acquiring a moon that’s up to Felix’s standards, and then they take a bow.

After that, Woojin walks over to the piano.

Hyunjin doesn’t talk to Seungmin again, because he’s a waiter and he doesn’t want anyone to get suspicious (Seungmin looks plenty suspicious on his own, anyway, face covered up like he’s planning to rob the place), but Woojin plays a Day6 song, and Hyunjin knows that Seungmin probably loves that. He wants to check with Seungmin himself, but forces himself to stay away from Table 29 for the rest of the night.

However, Seungmin is waiting for Hyunjin outside in the parking lot again long after the place has closed up, sitting on the curb like last time. He’s discarded the mask, and his body is a sillouhette in the night.

“You guys are a whole act,” Seungmin says, even before he looks at Hyunjin. “No wonder you have so much business.”

Hyunjin grins, pleased. “Friday’s our busiest day,” he says. “A lot of people come for Felix.”

“Felix was…?”

“The actor,” Hyunjin replies. “He’s working here while trying to make it in the industry. He adores you, by the way. Made us all listen to Close Your Eyes when it first came out.”

A thin smile ghosts over Seungmin’s mouth. “Ah…” he says. “Do you trust him? Would he tell people that I was here?”

Hyunjin understands what Seungmin is asking immediately, and he carefully considers his response. Because Felix is loud and energetic, but he can definitely keep his mouth shut when necessary, and knows when to be serious. (Especially when it comes to Minho, who Felix has known for years.) Hyunjin thinks that Felix wouldn’t tell anyone that Seungmin is here, if he knew.

“I trust everyone I work with,” Hyunjin says. “I don’t… I don’t need this job. The reason I work here is because of them.” He bites his lips, hopes Seungmin can’t see the words yes, I’m very lonely, don’t judge me hidden inside his mouth.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Seungmin says vaguely. “Also… who was the pianist?”

“His name’s Woojin. I knew you’d like him. Talented, isn’t he?”

Seungmin hugs his knees up to his chest. “So talented. I’d love for him to be the piano track in one of my songs.” Hyunjin understands that at this point, Seungmin is only talking to himself. “It’s funny… I went all around the world for my tour, and yet, I might only find what I’m looking for here.”

---

“Oh my god,” Felix says, and drops his mop.

---

Rewind to an hour prior:

“Would you guys mind having me help clean up?” Seungmin asks Hyunjin. It’s another week later. Seungmin is cautious about when he comes to the Nine & Dine— not that Hyunjin keeps particular track— actually, that’s a lie, of course Hyunjin does.

(“It’s the only time I see the light of day,” Seungmin grumbles, setting down his water glass. “Can you blame me?”

“Of course not,” Hyunjin says, and Seungmin looks away.)

“What do you mean?” Hyunjin asks now.

“Like… I’m probably not as good. As you guys, at cleaning. But after you guys close, can I help clean up… the restaurant, or whatever? Yeah.”

Hyunjin stares in amazement. “For free?” And then, “are you sure?”

Seungmin’s mouth quirks up. “Yeah. I wanna meet your crew— especially Felix. If you don’t mind, of course.”

“I don’t.”

“And of course, if you guys give my location away, I guess I could just move again,” Seungmin sighs. “So many cardboard boxes, but I’ve had to do worse.”

Hyunjin’s imagined being famous a couple of times, especially after Seungmin became an idol, and it makes him think about side effects. How he’d never get any privacy, how he’d have to give up sleep, how the world would be watching his every move. And then he’s glad he’s just Hwang Hyunjin, a nobody in a small town who occasionally drinks by himself on Saturday nights, watching some dumb drama with more holes in its plot than in Changbin’s edgy ripped jeans.

“Felix won’t tell,” Hyunjin says. “And neither would Minho or Chan.”

Hopefully.

But Hyunjin is interested to see how this will go. Felix seems to sense his excitement, and looks at him curiously for it, but Hyunjin gives nothing else away.

Before they close up shop, Hyunjin says to Chan, “There’s this guy that wants to help us clean up.” Chan raises an eyebrow. “He says he’ll do it for free.”

“That sounds… really suspicious,” Chan says. “You friends with a murderer?”

“I don’t care if he’s a murderer,” Felix chimes in, “can we put him on floor duty? I hate floor duty. Like, why do people drop so many things?”

“He’s not a murderer,” Hyunjin says, then calls out, “Seungmin, you’re good!”

Seungmin gives a thumbs up and comes over to the back room, peeling off his face mask as he walks. His gaze is shy, and he stares down at the ground. And this is when Felix drops his mop.

It’s comical, almost, Felix’s surprise.

“I’m just going to… speak with Hyunjin for a second here,” Felix says, then drags Hyunjin out of the restaurant, onto the sidewalk. Hyunjin follows obligingly; Felix’s grip is strong.

“Are you telling me that’s Seungmin as in Kim Seungmin?” Felix hisses. “Have they finally succeeded in cloning humans? Is that a really lifelike robot?”

“No, it’s Kim Seungmin,” Hyunjin says, and Felix gapes.

“I can’t believe I suggested I put Kim Seungmin on floor duty—” Felix shakes his head. “No, that’s not the main point. What’s he doing here? Oh my god, those were Nine & Dine noodles on his Instagram account. What’s happening? Oh, this is totally a dream, isn’t it. You’re going to turn into a tree any second now.”

“Felix. Felix. Calm down.” Felix, surprisingly, actually shuts his mouth, and Hyunjin prays that Minho is handling this situation a little better, i.e. having an internal aneurysm rather than an external one. “He’s here on hiatus, that’s what’s happening. This is his hometown. And you can’t tell anyone he’s here.”

“I promise,” Felix says, and mimes zipping his lips. “But how do you know him?”

Hyunjin stays silent. “I used to be friends with him back in high school. Don’t ask any further.”

He doesn’t know what he’d say as an answer. He doesn’t know if Felix would ever look at him the same way again.

“Fine, I won’t.” Felix crosses his arms. “But honestly, I can’t believe you have all this backstory , it’s like I don’t know even know you—”

Hyunjin ignores the dramatics. “You ready to head back in?”

Felix pauses, and seems to vibrate in place for a bit, out of either nervosa or excitement, before saying, “I think. How do I act?”

“Just be you,” Hyunjin says. This, at least, is something he can give a concrete answer to. “If he wanted special treatment, he wouldn’t have offered to help us clean up.”

The two of them head back inside, and Chan, seemingly relatively unaffected by the whole thing, is telling Seungmin about the types of cleaners and discussing whether Seungmin wants to come again.

Seungmin grabs a sponge, beams at Felix. “Hi. You’re… Felix, right?”

Hyunjin can practically see the nerves disconnecting in Felix’s brain— he knows? My name? “Yeah. And um, you’re Seungmin. Sorry. Obviously.”

“I really liked your skit from last week.”

Felix sends Hyunjin a betrayed look. “You saw that?” he asks. “Oh my god, were you the guy dressed like a burglar that Hyunjin was talking to—”

“And nursed a water for an hour like this was some sort of bar,” Hyunjin continues, glad to see Felix loosening up. “Yeah, that was Seungmin, alright.”

“You put one of those shows on every Friday?” Seungmin asks.

“Yeah, if possible,” Felix says, stammering a little, but recovering. “We alternate between scripted and improv every week. That last one was improv. Hyunjin’s naturally really good at acting, better than say, Minho.”

Minho, from where he’s been mute the whole time, says, “ Hey —”

Hyunjin takes a mop and starts wiping down the floors, deciding he’ll take floor duty for the night, as his tribute for catching Felix by surprise. The whole thing goes better than he expected— Seungmin’s cleaning technique is more inexperienced than the four of them, but he learns fast, and Felix wipes off the starstruckness pretty fast, and talks like he normally would, funny and loud.

A little part of Hyunjin’s heart aches, at this.

He guesses that Seungmin’s really lonely, too, in a different way than Hyunjin is; it’s the lonely people, he supposes, that come to the Nine & Dine. Hyunjin resolves to visit Seungmin at his apartment more, if Seungmin wants that.

Now he understands why Seungmin had seemed so eager to talk to Hyunjin, even after everything happened between them, why he’d offer to clean up a restaurant for no pay. Because he just wants someone to see him as him, rather than as an idol. And when Hyunjin looks at Seungmin, he doesn’t see an idol. Fame is part of Seungmin, the way his eyes are, or his lips, but it’s not something Hyunjin registers.

He isn’t quite sure how he looks at Seungmin, but he at least knows it isn’t that.

---

So.

“We should watch a movie,” Hyunjin says.

“What movie?”

Hyunjin shrugs. “The last one Changbin watched was the third reboot of Poltergeist .”

Seungmin grins. “Let’s watch that one, then.”

Hyunjin makes his good on his internal promise to visit Seungmin, stopping by his apartment for an hour after work, and a little more on weekends. Seungmin asks if Hyunjin minds; no. His one fear is that Seungmin might get sick of him, but Seungmin seems to like his presence. It’s like high school, all over again.

Except hopefully not.

It’s a little awkward, because Seungmin (KS, Hyunjin is so dumb) lives on the same floor as Jisung, and Jisung saw him going into Seungmin’s room, and well—

“Jisung, I’m not sleeping with your serial killer tenant,” Hyunjin says, when he sees Jisung the next day at work.

Jisung raises an eyebrow. “I… didn’t think you were…?”

“Oh. Well, nevermind, then.”

That aside, Hyunjin learns Seungmin’s routine:

He wakes up early in the mornings, gets ready, cooks breakfast (Seungmin is a morning person, Hyunjin is not), free-writes for an hour, and then runs on the treadmill that he somehow managed to fit in his apartment. He goes through his emails and paperwork at around ten, maybe posts something on his social media, and then eats lunch.

The afternoon is for music. “It’s not a hiatus in my manager’s eyes,” Seungmin explains, again and again. Seungmin attempts to come up with lyrics that don’t make him want to vomit, writes snippets of melodies, discards said melodies, discards said lyrics, talks to his arrangers, and tries not to throw his entire desk at the wall.

(Fortunately, the desk is still intact. Hyunjin doesn’t want to get frustrated by another IKEA guide.)

So Seungmin’s days sound like they’re perfectly structured, except inside the cracks are hours of boredom where Seungmin will get stuck inside his mind; there are a variety of pills in his bedside cabinet, which Hyunjin has not yet asked about; there are angry marks across the cover of Seungmin’s notebook, like he’d tried to dig his pen through his pages more than once.

“I’m crazy, aren’t I?” Seungmin asks, with a self-deprecating laugh, on Wednesday.

Wednesday was not a good day for him.

“I don’t think you’re crazy. Don’t say shit like that about yourself.’

“I wish I was in an idol group, instead of a solo act,” Seungmin mumbles to himself. “Then at least I could share the crazy with someone.”

But today, Seungmin is in a serene mood, making witty commentary as he watches Poltergeist to stave off the fear.

“Okay, that took a dark turn,” Seungmin says, as the tree turns demonic and attempts to consume one of the children. “How are we supposed to save the environment when this is the sort of message people are getting?”

Hyunjin has his eyes covered. “I hate trees.”

“My point exactly.”

Who came up with this —”

“Hey, hey,” Seungmin says, laughing, because he’s the sort of person to laugh at other people’s trivial misfortunes, and unpeels Hyunjin’s hands from his face. “You’re okay. It’s all special effects.”

And then Hyunjin realizes something, when he opens his eyes.

They’re watching the movie with half the lights on, so Seungmin’s face is dimmed, but his hands are warm, and his mouth is curved in a slight smile, and his eyes are as big and genuine as always and Hyunjin is falling again—

No, has fallen again.  

Back in high school, Hyunjin was always too afraid to walk toward the edge of the cliff, afraid of what he’d find down below. But seven years is a long time, and now, he understands that there are things worse than tipping off the edge of a precipice, such as not admitting that he’s standing on a cliff on the first place, such as not admitting that he wants so badly to come down. But this is still terrifying.

Poltergeist? Ha. That’s got nothing on this.

 

[16]

 

In the summer before junior year, Seungmin tells Hyunjin he’s gay.

Hyunjin himself is not gay. Hyunjin himself is completely, utterly, one-hundred percent straight, but he’s not going to be the homophobic asshole that asks Seungmin, you don’t have a crush on me, do you? Besides, that’s just narcissistic.

But this is how it goes down:

The two of them are standing outside of an ice cream parlor. Seungmin is holding a small cup with a soupy lump of vanilla, while Hyunjin nurses a chocolate cone that has already covered his hands in trickles of melted ice cream. And they’re talking about girls.

It’s not a subject that usually comes up, but today is an exception— Hyunjin needs to discuss this with someone.

“Apparently, Aecha likes me,” Hyunjin pleads. “And she has since last year.”

“Wow,” Seungmin says, and his voice comes out unnatural, way colder than it usually does, like the ice cream he’s got in his hands. “That’s a long time to be oblivious.”

“It’s not a joke,” Hyunjin says, hurt and annoyed, and Seungmin bites his mouth, staring down at his shoes. “She’s my friend. I don’t want to lose that.”

“You don’t have feelings for her back?”

Hyunjin shakes his head. “She’s great… but…”

He doesn’t know how to say she’s just a friend without sounding like a dick. But Hyunjin has never dated anyone, has never even really liked anyone. He’s not sure what a crush is— is it admiration? What’s this about butterflies? And everyone likes Aecha, so why doesn’t he?

“Then just tell her,” Seungmin suggests. “Don’t drag it out.”

“Fine, I will.” That’s what he was thinking— he’ll tell her tonight. “You ever have this kind of problem?”

Seungmin snorts. “Yes, because the female population is so interested in me.” He cuts off another chunk of ice cream and spoons it into his mouth. “Nah. It’s not an issue I have… being a loser has its perks.”

“You’re not a loser,” Hyunjin says, surprised at this level of self-deprecation. “I think plenty of girls would like you.”

Hyunjin isn’t even saying that to be nice— Seungmin can sing (Hyunjin would fall for his voice alone, if he were a girl, which he isn’t, obviously), he’s legitimately kind, he’s smart, and he’s got a sense of humor all on top of that. At this point, Hyunjin understands that Seungmin’s got a tendency to severely underestimate himself, and Hyunjin, being the good friend he is, will try to curb that as much as possible.

“Easy for you to say…” Seungmin murmurs. “You don’t even want to hang out with me in school…”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“No, I—”

“Anyway, the whole girl thing is kind of pointless anyway,” Seungmin says, with a small, humorless laugh, “as I don’t like girls.”

It takes a good moment for Hyunjin to wrap his mind around that, and when it does, his brain malfunctions, a car crash of thoughts piling up one on top of each other.

It’s just— wow, okay. Hyunjin doesn’t know anyone who’s gay. That’s a concept he knows from books and TV shows, but everyone he hangs out with in real life… except now Seungmin…

Seungmin doesn’t remove his gaze, and Hyunjin understands that he’s not going to get out of answering.

“Okay,” Hyunjin says, and hopes that this is the right answer. “Okay.”

“Does that make you uncomfortable?” Seungmin questions.

“No, of course not, you’re the same person you always were to me,” Hyunjin says hastily— finally, something that he can give a definite answer to. “Any guy you like, then?”

Seungmin’s mouth quirks up. “Uh, yeah, I’ve got no chance here, everyone and their mom and their pet chinchilla twice removed is straight.”

He doesn’t answer the question, but Hyunjin doesn’t notice. “How’d you... realize it?”

Seungmin shrugs, and Hyunjin knows he might be going about this all wrong, but in his defense, he doesn’t know. Anything.

“Day6,” Seungmin answers.

Hyunjin can’t help the laugh that slips out of his mouth.

“Dowoon, if you want an exact answer.”

And then the conversation swerves to something dumb, something safe, about how they chose literally the most boring ice cream flavors in the entire store, but Seungmin claims that he’ll stick to vanilla, as it’s not exactly clear what kind of things they put in an ice cream called, Wow (It Cold It Fresh It Fine). Hyunjin points out that it’s ice cream, what could go wrong, but then Seungmin reminds him about that time Hyunjin ate pistachio ice cream and nearly vomited, and Hyunjin says, touche.

And maybe Hyunjin is homophobic or something, because he can’t stop thinking about it, while they’re talking. That Seungmin’s gay. Hyunjin likes to think himself pretty open-minded, but it’s just— he can’t even explain it to himself, but the thought keeps whirring through his mind, like some sort of demented, homosexual washing machine.

He never tells Aecha, by the way.

He sits in front of his phone with their messages opened up, and he can’t make himself do it, say, I don’t like you like that. He doesn’t know it, but finally, she has to hear it through one of Hyunjin’s friends, and she’ll spend a week letting herself be heartbroken before getting over him and coming back the next year with a bright smile on her face. Which, sure, works out in the short term…

But it doesn’t teach Hyunjin the consequences of avoidance.

---

Really, the ensuing train wreck is all Hyunjin’s fault. He’ll look back at all the things he did back in junior year and wonder what the hell he was thinking. Maybe he wasn’t thinking at all.

The first thing:

It’s September and the two of them are walking home from school; they’d stayed back because their school had a fundraiser, and the two of them had to help out. It was okay, though, because they got the leftover snacks.

“You’re just staying over at mine tonight?” Seungmin questions.

Hyunjin yawns. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asks. Hyunjin has never done that before, and so impromptu. But Seungmin shakes his head. “I won’t impose, don’t worry. I’ll just sleep on the floor in jeans or something.”

Seungmin raises his eyebrow. “Right, because my mom is just going to let you sleep on the floor in jeans.”

“Would you?”

“Your posture’s already so bad that it’s not like it’d hurt your back more,” Seungmin says, and Hyunjin cuffs him on the shoulder. And then, quieter, “but yeah, I won’t, either. I can’t do anything about the jeans situation, but you could take my bed.”

“And then you would sleep on the floor in jeans?”

“No, I’d sleep on the floor in pajamas,” Seungmin retorts, and Hyunjin levels him with a deadpan glare. “Idiot, I’ve slept on the couch, I’ll be just fine.”

“Or we could just share your bed.”

And that’s the start of the entire trainwreck.

It’s an acceptable suggestion, technically, since they’re pretty close and Hyunjin has seen Seungmin’s bed before— it’s large enough to fit two people. But— Hyunjin will think back on it, and know that’s not the logic he was using.

No, Hyunjin was trying to make Seungmin’s face go red. He’ll feel like a complete asshole months later, but it’s better to be an asshole than the other, more honest option, and so that’s what he sticks with. Seungmin’s face does go red, by the way, but he says yes, because Seungmin has never been one to back down.

“I suck at sleeping, just a warning,” Seungmin says, and Hyunjin shrugs.

The whole thing itself is extremely innocent, what with both of them fully clothed (Seungmin had refused to wear pajamas, in the end, so both of them are wearing jeans to sleep), and Hyunjin likes the warmth, the steady ba-dum of Seungmin’s heart (if a little elevated than normal), and falls asleep before he can dream of consequences.

---

And then there’s the jacket instance.

It’s Seungmin’s birthday, and Hyunjin has gotten him a notebook with staff lines on one side and normal lines on the other, since Seungmin has recently gotten into composing. On the inside cover, Hyunjin’s scrawled a couple of lines from Day6’s Better Better along with a Happy Birthday ~ Hyunjin .

They go to Nine & Dine to celebrate, and the owners like Seungmin enough that they bake him a cake.

“We don’t bake,” the waiter apologizes. “So it doesn’t look very professional.”

Which is true. It’s a small cake, maybe six inches in diameter, the frosting uneven along the edges and the chocolate crumbs showing through. Seungmin’s mom had gotten a much more professional-looking one from the grocery store, but it’s very clear from Seungmin’s bright eyes that he does not give a shit about the aesthetics, thanking them so profusely that Hyunjin is amused.

“It was weird seeing you be so polite,” Hyunjin says, when they leave, “since I know you’re literally a demon.”

“You’re the demon, bullying me on my birthday,” Seungmin retorts, but it’s through chattering teeth.

The weather is weird today— it’d been pretty warm in the afternoon, enough that Hyunjin had gone biking home in short sleeves, but as soon as the night hit, it’d dropped maybe twenty or thirty degrees. Seungmin is shivering in just his plaid flannel.

“Your insults are significantly less threatening when you look like you’re about to freeze,” Hyunjin says, and impulsively strips off his jacket. “Here, put this on, your mom will kill me if you turn into a popsicle.”

Seungmin takes the jacket like it’ll explode in his face. “... What about you?”

“I’m fine,” Hyunjin says, and it’s true— he’s wearing his track sweater underneath. “It’s your birthday, just accept it as like, another present.”

“Okay…” Seungmin says, and warily slips it on. “Thank you…”

It’s a bunch of little things— this, the bed-sharing, and all the little quips and touches in between (“I love your voice, I’d date you for just your voice”) — which could be passed off as normal, platonic, if Hyunjin didn’t know, deep down, that it isn’t . That some sadistic part of him is playing with fire because… because what?

Because he knows Seungmin is gay, and he can do it just for fun?

No, but Hyunjin isn’t that mean.

Maybe it’s because the fire is bright, and warm, and maybe Hyunjin is a little bit too fascinated to not touch it; maybe it’s because Hyunjin is young, and doesn’t know the reality of getting burned just yet. Or because maybe he is falling in love, and doesn’t know how else to show it; maybe he is falling in love, but can’t admit it. Not to anyone, not even to himself.

---

The whole thing implodes in his face right before the start of 2018.

The two of them are in Hyunjin’s house— it’s thirty minutes to midnight, and their parents, already having bridged two milleniums, are too tired to deal with this kind of excitement.

Hyunjin was invited to a party, but he’d rather start 2018 like this. He feels safest with Seungmin, they’re best friends— Seungmin had referred to them as best friends precisely once, and Hyunjin had felt so warm that he thought maybe there was a furnace inside of him.

Anyway.

“Ten minutes,” Hyunjin says. “And then everything resets.”

Seungmin laughs. “What are you talking about? You’re such a romantic.”

“And you’re a cynic,” Hyunjin says, even though that’s a lie. Seungmin is a dreamer, but Hyunjin will never call him out on it, as he doesn’t want Seungmin to try and hide himself around Hyunjin, too. “You don’t like the concept of a blank slate?”

Seungmin tucks his knees up to his chest. “What are you talking about?”

Hyunjin dramatically pans his hand out. “Every mistake, every wrong word… it’ll be erased. You’ll get a fresh start.”

It sounds stupid when he says it aloud, but Seungmin pauses, seems to really think about it. “Do you really mean that?”

Hyunjin shrugs. “Yeah.”

“Then can I tell you something?”

“Of course.” Seungmin doesn’t need to wait till New Year’s to tell him, Hyunjin thinks, naively. Seungmin can tell him anything, whenever. But it’s a comfortable moment, the sky outside dark, the slight whir of the heater from the back.

Seungmin takes a deep breath. “... Hyunjin, I like you.”

The world stops.

It stops and tilts over and crashes onto its axis and Hyunjin thinks he can hear his heart pulsing irregular in his chest. Seungmin’s eyes are huge, wide, scared. Hyunjin has always liked Seungmin’s eyes.

In a different universe, Hyunjin would’ve kissed him that midnight.

But this is not that universe, and in this one Hyunjin regrets every careless word he has ever said. Because he cannot like Seungmin. Sure, Seungmin is gay, and Hyunjin does not care, but Hyunjin isn’t gay. And Seungmin might’ve been the one who just destroyed their friendship, but it was Hyunjin that built it with holes in its foundation and skewed beams to hold it up.

Hyunjin can’t stand it, knowing it was his fault.

“I’m sorry,” Hyunjin says, and it’s like it isn’t even his voice speaking.

“It’s okay.” If Seungmin is sad, he doesn’t show it. “It’s almost 2018, I can get over it next year.”

Hyunjin stays silent.

“We’re still friends, right?” Seungmin asks, but now, his voice edges on anxious. “You’ll still be friends with me?”

“I…”

Right now, all he wants is Seungmin to be far, far away. Hyunjin doesn’t know how he can ever look at him again.

“... I don’t know.”

Seungmin’s eyes widen, huge. “I’ll get over it, I promise. Please.”

“I don’t know,” Hyunjin snaps, and moves away.

Seungmin looks like he wants to argue it further, but he snaps his mouth shut, donning a mask colder than Hyunjin has ever seen, even before they were friends. He has to stay overnight, because it’s twelve o’clock in winter, and he says a stilted goodbye in the morning before leaving.

Hyunjin does not see him the rest of winter break.  

 

[17]

 

Hyunjin was right. Everything resets at midnight.

He is best friends with Kim Seungmin for nine months in 2017. In 2018, there is talk, (only sometimes, because it’s not as interesting of gossip as some other things) about how Hyunjin completely dropped him, because Hyunjin literally does not speak to him ever again.

The thing is—

“Maybe I like you too,” Hyunjin whispers, in the dead of the night, two weeks later.

He passes it off as a dream the next morning because it is not something he can stand to think about in broad daylight.

But after those first few days of desperately needing space, it stops being about space and becomes about being too afraid to reach out, to acknowledge his mistakes. And Seungmin has never been one to lose his dignity, never one to show desperado, and as Seungmin coolly finishes his junior year of high school with a stoic expression, Hyunjin convinces himself that Seungmin doesn’t even care at all, never cared.

Besides, he’s heard talk that Seungmin’s been performing a lot at cafes, at shows, at non-alcoholic bars, and Hyunjin can pretend that what he did is a good thing.

But karma is a bitch.

For the rest of the year, Hyunjin can’t get Seungmin off his mind. His chest feels too full and too empty all at once; he sees Seungmin in the halls and thinks about holding his hand, walks by his locker and thinks about pressing him up against the cool metal rectangle and kissing him. He dreams at night of too much skin and scrubs at himself in the shower later, like he can get the memories off if he just presses hard enough.

It doesn’t hurt as much as Hyunjin thinks it would, at least, after he gets used to it. He is seventeen, and he’s running alongside a path toward college and career. The heartache is only a bitter supplement at the side.

 

[18]

 

But yeah. One moment, Seungmin is a constant presence by his side. The next, it’s like he’s never been there at all.

 

[19]

 

The crush finally fades August after junior year. Hyunjin comes out of it with his hands burned and his chest empty.

It’s not a good experience, and he doesn’t think he’ll do it ever again; but next time he falls is in the second year of college.

“Can I sit here?” someone asks. Hyunjin looks at his left, and there’s this boy next to him, defined cheekbones and a shy smile bracketed with braces.

“Of course. Sorry,” Hyunjin says; he’d had his bag in the seat, and moves it.

“I transferred here from another place,” the boy says, sliding in. “Do you know what the professor’s like?”

“He’s… okay,” Hyunjin ventures. Then, just because he wants to keep the conversation going, “Be careful if you fall asleep, though. He’ll throw rubber ducks at you.”

The boy’s eyes widen. “Seriously?”

“I’m not kidding. He’s got, like, this whole set of them, and they have names— there’s one with these plastic sunglasses, and this other one with a mustache and a hat—” the boy laughs, and it’s a pretty sound “— and his aim is very good. So don’t be obvious if you decide to take a nap.”

“I’ll definitely keep that in mind. I’m Yang Jeongin, by the way. Sometimes people call me I.N.”

Hyunjin resolves that he is never going to call Jeongin I.N. “I’m Hwang Hyunjin. People just call me Hyunjin.”

They sit side-by-side throughout the semester. Between lessons, Hyunjin tells Jeongin about the dog his parents got him a year before he went to college, and how his roommate seems to permanently be supplied with a magical stack of instant noodles; in return, Jeongin tells Hyunjin about the three marigolds back home he’s got named Boo, Seok, and Soon, and how he wishes he had a magical noodle roommate, since his own is a complete and utter weirdo with a ridiculously large potato collection.

Jeongin is a fairly normal student, a healthy mixture of procrastination and effort. Unfortunately, he gets hit in the face by Sunny the rubber duck, which Hyunjin laughs mercilessly at him for.

Jeongin crosses his arms. “I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

“Well, clearly,” Hyunjin cackles. “Dude, you were so obvious, you were sleeping with your laptop closed.”

“I’m clearly not making good life decisions here, so stop rubbing it in,” Jeongin whines.

Hyunjin’s a good student, and he’s a good friend, and maybe his subconscious already knows of his crush, so he lends Jeongin his notes before midterms. Hyunjin still takes his notes Seungmin’s style— he feels a small pang in his chest when he thinks about Seungmin, not because he still has feelings, but because of the way he handled that whole situation— a haphazard mix of Cornell and bullet-point.

They study together in a little coffee shop a few blocks down from the lecture building.

“Throw my coffee in my face if I fall asleep on the textbook,” Jeongin says.

“Jeongin, you know you could like, ingest the caffeine, instead.”

“Hyunjin, you don’t understand, I’ve built up a tolerance!” Jeongin says, hysterical. “It’s like drugs!”

Hyunjin barks out a laugh. Jeongin’s way of speaking is— Hyunjin doesn’t know how else to describe it— cute. He’s not innocent or anything, but Jeongin tends to look at the positive, and it’s reflected in his speech. So something like that coming out of Jeongin’s mouth is amusing in its rarity.

“I can’t handle coffee,” Hyunjin says, holding a cup of tea. At Jeongin’s surprised look, he adds, “Yeah, I’m not really a uni student.”

“How do you survive, then?”

“I don’t.” Jeongin shoots him a deadpan look. “Fine, afternoon classes.”

Five hours later, it’s three AM. The coffee shop is relatively empty (it’s not as good as the other one a few blocks away), and the text is swimming in front of Hyunjin’s eyes. His internal filters have disintegrated down to nothing, and when he looks up at Jeongin, instead of the normal braces and cheekbones, he sees dark hair falling in front of wide eyes and a soft mouth and all Hyunjin can think is, oh, dear god, I’m fucked, again.

Hyunjin isn’t sure what he is— he likes both boys and girls, he thinks, and there might be a word for it but he’s too scared to look it up— and he’s pretty sure it isn’t wrong to be like that or anything, but it’s still unconventional, and combining this with Hyunjin’s already high level of stress is enough to make tears start streaming out of his eyes.

It’s silent crying, not the kind of wants for attention. Perhaps Hyunjin would’ve gotten away with it, but Jeongin looks up at the movement of Hyunjin wiping his eyes, and his expression promptly goes from one of boredom to horror.

At least Jeongin is not the sort of person to make fun of people when they cry. Hyunjin has some taste.

“Hyunjin? Are you okay? Wait, of course you’re not okay,” Jeongin frets. “What’s wrong?”

More tears leak out, like bad plumbing. Hyunjin is horrified. “Nothing.”

“We can take a break,” Jeongin pleads, “I’m sorry I made you study with me so long— you probably really need sleep—”

“No, it’s not that,” Hyunjin says, with a wet smile. And then, instead of saying something witty and reassuring like, you probably need sleep too, you fucking hypocrite , he blurts out, “It’s just, I think I like you?”

The words slip out, and Hyunjin wonders where his brain-to-mouth filter went. Then, the terror hits, and his stomach ties itself in knots as he waits for Jeongin’s reaction.

“Wait, really?” Jeongin says. He doesn’t seem disgusted, more— confused, than anything. “Like, that sort of like? Are you serious? Why?”

It’s such a strange reaction that Hyunjin laughs. “Because I just do?”

“But you’re so handsome, and charismatic—” now Jeongin seems to be the one in distress, gesturing confusedly. “Just, what?”

Hyunjin can already tell Jeongin doesn’t reciprocate, but honestly, it terms of turning someone down, this is not the worst possible thing that could happen.

“I’m sorry… ” Jeongin says finally, when he’s calmed down. “You deserve better.” Hyunjin doesn’t deserve better, and gives a small shake of his head. “No, you really do! I’m just me, and you’re so cool, and everything.”

“Thanks…?”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry, I suck at this,” Jeongin says. “Just— let’s stay friends, please? Because I really like talking to you.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Hyunjin says quickly. “Let’s stay friends.”

And they do.

It is sophomore year of college, and Hyunjin learns how to love someone without the expectation of being loved back.

Even though sometimes compliments will slip out that reveal feelings that aren’t quite platonic, even though sometimes Jeongin’s friendly touches cause him pain, even though Jeongin will tell him (rather nervously) that he has a girlfriend two months later, Hyunjin is fine. He really is— it hurts, but not unbearably so.

He gets over it.

When Jeongin graduates, he goes overseas for his job, and eventually, he and Hyunjin lose contact. But Jeongin is not a painful memory, and if he showed up in Hyunjin’s life again, Hyunjin would welcome Jeongin with open arms, and invite him for dinner at the Nine & Dine. He’s got a feeling Felix would like him especially.

 

[25]

 

Changbin finds out about Seungmin on accident, and like most things, Changbin is pretty chill about it. It must be all the writing Changbin does. Real life is weird, but probably not as weird as Changbin’s imagination.

So, Hyunjin brings Seungmin over.

“Can you help me with this short story?” Changbin asks, direct. “I’m writing about a producer, and I need to learn some musical jargon for this to work.”

Seungmin seems surprised, and it makes Hyunjin smile.

Because Changbin is familiar with Seungmin’s music, and had asked, when Seungmin walked in, what he was doing here, but otherwise seems completely unfazed by his fame, a far cry from what Seungmin usually experiences.

“Don’t talk about Picardy Thirds,” Seungmin says, looking at a draft. “That’s too pretentious. Also, they’re the dumbest concept ever invented.”

So sometimes Seungmin comes over to their apartment now, too, even though it’s still mostly Hyunjin making the trek over. Changbin and Seungmin develop an interesting dynamic— they’re friendly, but they’re not nice to each other the way Hyunjin and Seungmin are; instead, their joking banter is infused with blunted barbs. They do, however, team up to make fun of Hyunjin together for his inability to get up in the mornings.

“I like him,” Changbin says, after Seungmin leaves. And then, as an afterthought, “... And you do too. You spend a lot of time over in his apartment. Maybe I should file for another roommate.”

Hyunjin shoves him. “Screw you.” But— “Do I really, though?”

“Yeah,” Changbin says. His tone is weird, is he trying to imply something? “I mean, not… abnormally so. But I don’t know. You go regularly.”

“It’s not going to be regular really soon,” Hyunjin says. It’s been a month into Seungmin’s hiatus— he’ll be here two months more at the max. “This is just a press pause, for him.”

“And will you be okay when he presses play again?”

It’s a loaded question; Changbin is good with putting weight into words, he’s a writer, after all. “I’ll be fine,” Hyunjin says, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “But don’t file for a new roommate just yet.”

“I was kidding,” Changbin says flatly. “You’re irreplaceable. Much like Gyu.”

Gyu is Changbin’s stuffed Snorlax, and it’s like Changbin’s version of sleeping pills. Hyunjin worries his lip, too preoccupied to fire something back about how yeah, he is basically an oversized stuffed animal, or aw, Changbin does care. Because of… the other truth. Hyunjin is just Seungmin’s press pause. A deleted snapshot in a bigger movie.

Sometimes Hyunjin wonders if he is doing the wrong thing, torturing himself like this.

---

But he’s going to go over and torture himself anyway. Seungmin is an addiction, and Hyunjin is too weak to cut himself off.

Seungmin makes Hyunjin feel like he’s seventeen years old again, fast heartbeat and  swimming mind. They’ll be sitting side by side and Hyunjin will think about closing the two feet he keeps between them, will think about taking Seungmin’s hand and kissing him, will think about telling him he’s gorgeous with his mouth pressed to his skin until Seungmin can’t possibly do anything but believe it.

The feelings are a cross between pure and teenage. The only saving grace to this is that Hyunjin is mature enough now to regulate them into somewhat submission.

“What book is that?” Hyunjin asks, when he walks into the apartment and finds Seungmin reading, cheap light reflecting off his glasses.

Lights Off,” Seungmin says, flipping it over and showing Hyunjin the cover. “It’s by Seo Rena. Her writing is amazing, but she just wrote this and left the whole world hanging— I’ve been waiting for a sequel for ten years.”

“Damn, that sucks. Should I read it anyway?”

“Tell me about it. And yes, absolutely.”

Seungmin neatly tucks a bookmark between the pages and sets the book on the coffee table, and Hyunjin takes a seat next to him (two feet between them, always two feet). Seungmin is still wearing his glasses. It’s distracting.

“I have news,” Hyunjin says. Headlines: Kim Seungmin Looks Good In Spectacles!

Jesus Christ.

“Yeah?” Seungmin prompts.

“So Woojin, the piano player at Nine & Dine—” Seungmin’s eyes widen, starstruck, and Hyunjin wants to laugh. “— his birthday is coming up soon.”

“I like birthdays,” Seungmin says slowly, “birthdays are good.”

“Yes, they are. Which is why we’re going to have a small party after closing at the restaurant, and I wanted to know if you want to stay for that?”

(Seungmin’s been coming to help clean up almost every day whether he’s eaten at the Nine & Dine or not. He, Felix, and Minho are friends now; Felix has lost all of his initial awkwardness, and acts his usual cross between a bully and an angel, and Minho has started influencing Seungmin with his vodka uncle ways (“No, I’m not karaoking on the countertop,” Seungmin says. “Wait, is that I Smile? Give me the mic —”)

Chan offers to pay Seungmin just for putting up with them. Seungmin declines.)

“Who’s going to be there?” Seungmin asks now.

“Me, Felix, Minho, Chan,” Hyunjin says, reciting the regular staff, “Woojin, obviously. Maybe Changbin? He has a crush on Felix, by the way, it’s really funny.”

“Oh, okay, I know all of them. Then I’ll come. I’m serious about asking Woojin to be my piano backing, you know, although I’m prepared for him to turn me down.”

“That’s highly unlikely. Woojin’s played one of your songs on the piano before, actually.” That had been awkward for Hyunjin, who nearly dropped a plate. “You asking him would be, like, the best birthday present ever.”

“Shit, presents,” Seungmin says, completely missing the point of the sentence. “What stuff does he like?”

“He really likes music, just sing for him, and you’ll be more than fine,” Hyunjin says. “I’m serious. Like, Minho and I are combining our limited orchestral talents to play him Spiegel Im Spiegel . The guy loves that song.”

Minho played cello for his high school orchestra; he and Hyunjin have so far covered Pachelbel's Canon and Clair de Lune , recorded by Chan’s shaky phone and uploaded to Minho’s Youtube channel, which has a grand total of three subscribers.

“Wait, Spiegel Im Spiegel?” Seungmin asks, eyes wide. “The song every sad movie ever uses on their soundtrack?”

“I know! That was my reaction, too. But apparently, that’s his favorite piece of classical music.”

“Wow, he’s… strong. I listen to Spiegel Im Spiegel if I’m in the mood for tears, and classical music isn’t really my thing, anyway.”

“Right, because Day6 is your Mozart.”

“Shut the hell up,” Seungmin laughs, and smacks Hyunjin on the shoulder. The touch burns. “I like Debussy, though. The guy’s cool, in a really fucked-up way. I just… I like that music was always the most important thing, to him.”

“What do you mean by that?” Hyunjin asks, curious.

Seungmin shrugs, so nonchalant that Hyunjin knows he cares. “I get blinded by public opinion, sometimes,” he says. “I started off just because I love to sing and because I want to share my music, but now I have to contend with album sales and deadlines and what the fuck they’re saying about me on goddamn Twitter and so now I’m here on hiatus trying to remember why I’m even making music in the first place.”

Hyunjin doesn’t know what to say.

Seungmin looks like he regrets opening his mouth.

“... I’m sorry for dumping all that on you.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Hyunjin says, soft. I’m sorry I can’t understand.

There’s a pause, before Seungmin says, “I hated you for a long time, you know.” He looks away. “Because you just… left. Like, you were the realest thing and you gave that to me and then you took that away.”

Hyunjin swallows. “Then why’d you talk to me again?”

“Because I was willing to take anything you could give me,” Seungmin says. He’s still not looking at Hyunjin. “I don’t hate you anymore, of course. You’re my favorite person, after family. And… I’m okay. With the fact we’ll leave. I’m not as stupid as I was, I know nothing lasts forever now.”

There’s so much space between them. Hyunjin wishes there was nothing.

---

For Woojin’s birthday, Jisung makes a small cheesecake, even though he has no idea who Woojin is. It’s topped with strawberries and decorated with little chocolate bears and Hyunjin can’t stop looking at it.

“Oh my god,” Felix says, also entranced. “This is beautiful. This is art.”

“It belongs in a museum,” Minho says, fascinated. “This is better than Club Penguin.”

“Minho, step away from it,” Chan says, the only person in the room who’s immune to the beauty of the cake. “You might set it on fire just with your presence.”

(Changbin did come, by the way— he’s the one who got the cake from Jisung, setting aside his fear of embarrassing himself in front of Felix to celebrate Woojin.)

Since it’s still regular restaurant hours, there’s no obvious sign that it’s anyone’s birthday, save for a slightly deflated bear-shaped balloon ( Felix, don’t drink the helium! ) in one corner of the restaurant, until eight o’clock hits and Woojin walks in, where Felix immediately starts to sing a mosquito version of happy birthday. Minho accompanies him, straight faced, on the kazoo, while Chan rhythmically claps in the background.

… Hyunjin won’t admit it, but he really loves his coworkers.

---

After the restaurant closes and everyone has been ushered out, Felix turns the door sign and screams, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WOOJIN!

“Thank you,” Woojin says, amused. “Wow, I’ve never stayed after-hours before, I feel special.”

“Yeah, unfortunately, no witchcraft happens during this time, it’s just cleanup,” Chan says. “Which, we’re not going to make you do, don’t worry.”

“So I’m just supposed to stand here?” Woojin laughs. “Chan, I’m going to help.”

“Um,” Seungmin says, pulling off his sunglasses and face mask, and Woojin gapes. “Mr. Kim, if it’s possible, I’d like to talk to you outside?”

Woojin stands, frozen.

“He’ll do it,” Felix chirps to Seungmin, and then, in a stage-whisper to Woojin, adds, “Seungmin’s really not that scary; besides, he admires your piano playing a lot. Now go, I have floor duty and want to get it over with.”

Seungmin and Woojin leave, and the rest of them work more efficiently than normal— they have Changbin as an extra hand, who helps to stack chairs and tables. Woojin and Seungmin come in halfway through the process, and while Woojin has lost the starstruck look, Seungmin has gained one.

Woojin just has that effect on people.

“By the way,” Chan says, to Woojin, “we’re not keeping you from anything, are we?”

Woojin grins. “Of course not, this is so great,” he says. “Also… you guys have Kim Seungmin cleaning your restaurant for free…?”

“It’s not just for your birthday, don’t feel too special,” Felix says cheekily. “The Nine & Dine is just that cool.”

It’s a good time. They stick candles into Jisung’s cheesecake, eat it, and discuss how Jisung should open up a business; Hyunjin and Minho do Spiegel Im Spiegel, and accidentally make Changbin cry; Woojin plays Congratulations, and Seungmin looks he’s just heard the angels call. From Seungmin’s grin, though, Hyunjin guesses Woojin agreed to be his piano backing.

Then they dance, using the clean restaurant space as a makeshift dance floor; and they karaoke, Changbin spitting improvised fire. The whole thing goes on for about two or three hours, ending around eleven thirty, at which time Woojin thanks them and promises that he’ll still continue being a regular, even though now he’s an old man who should probably go to a retirement center.

And Hyunjin is so happy.

---

Hyunjin looks for Changbin when the thing is over, but Changbin has miraculously vanished. And he’s taken the car.

“What…” Hyunjin mutters. Changbin usually isn’t so careless. No, scratch that— Changbin isn’t that careless.

“It’s okay, I’ll drive you,” Seungmin says. Seungmin probably owns a fancy car— multiple fancy cars— but what he uses to drive around here is a beat-up gray Toyota, the seats not even leather.

“Thanks,” Hyunjin says, grateful. “I don’t know what Changbin’s up to. Maybe he forgot he had a deadline or something.”

But when they go outside into the parking lot, they don’t head to Seungmin’s car. There’s an unspoken agreement to sit upon one of the parking lot curbings; it’s a spring night, cool but not overly chilly, and up above there’s a few pinpricks of stars alongside a silver moon.

“That’s Mercury,” Seungmin says, haphazardly pointing at the sky.

“Is it really?”

“Maybe, I have no idea,” Seungmin says, and Hyunjin laughs. It’s a little chillier now that the dance workout is cooling off. He thinks about giving Seungmin his jacket, like in high school. But he refrains.

Seungmin removes his face mask, his sunglasses. The entire plaza is dark, save for a couple of streetlights that give the two of them multiple shadows, intertwined on the ground. Passing cars whiz by. It’s one AM in a city that only Google Maps knows about, and Seungmin is just Kim Seungmin rather than Kim Seungmin right now. And… Kim Seungmin is beautiful. Hyunjin’s chest feels so full and empty at the same time, defying physics, his heart a black hole of want.

Seven years and Seungmin still messes him up.

“I…” Seungmin says, suddenly. “I’m thinking of ending my hiatus right now.”

Hyunjin looks at him, eyes wide. He can’t have heard right. “What?”

“I mean, it’s as good of an ending as any, right?” Seungmin says. “I just went to a birthday party, and I heard this amazing rendition of a Day6 song, and now I’m here, looking at the stars— ah, but I guess Woojin needs time to learn the music. There’s the catch. Woojin. I can’t just drag him along.”

“Woojin aside, why do you want this to end?” Hyunjin asks, desperate. What the hell is Seungmin talking about?

Seungmin stares at the sky. “Because, Jinnie—” it’s a nickname Seungmin rarely ever uses; people from his childhood called him Jinnie, but Seungmin has always called him Hyunjin “— I think I might be in love with you again.”

Like the first time, Seungmin’s confession makes Hyunjin’s whole world stand still; he is the eye of a storm, the bridge from one land to another.

“And I have thousands of escape routes, if you don’t reciprocate,” Seungmin says, with a small smile. “I’m the one who will run this time. It couldn’t last, anyway.”

Hyunjin doesn’t think, just acts.

The concrete curbing is cold and the air is cool and Seungmin’s lips are warm when Hyunjin presses their mouths together. And the angle is inconvenient, and they’re not close enough, so he pulls Seungmin into his lap, Seungmin’s legs on either side of his waist, shins braced against the sidewalk. There is no one to see them. A passing car would only witness a single silhouette, easily mistaken for a fire hydrant or a boulder.

Maybe Hyunjin needs that two-foot space between them, since he likes this way too much.

They kiss for an unknown amount of time but it’s Seungmin that pulls away first, eyes wide and dazed. It’s too dark to tell if he’s blushing, if his lips are darker than they were before. He pulls himself upright and looks around, like he’s checking for the flash of a camera, for people hiding in the bushes. It makes Hyunjin hate himself.

What if someone saw?

Hyunjin stands up as well. “I’m sorry. Let’s go home.”

“Don’t… don’t say sorry,” Seungmin says, voice strained. “Just tell me if you meant it.”

“Yeah.” Hyunjin swallows. “Yeah, I did.”

They get in Seungmin’s car and hold hands over the console like teenagers and Hyunjin stays at Seungmin’s that night. They make out against the doorway; Seungmin is so hot; and Hyunjin wonders what the hell is happening, if this is a dream.

---

Hyunjin is. Well. Screwed.

Let me have this just for a moment.

“What’s with the smile?” Jisung says, poking his side, when he sees Hyunjin the next day. “It’s fucking Monday . Are you on drugs?”

Maybe he is. “What,” Hyunjin says, and attempts to force his face into an expression suitable for the current office mood. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Whatever you’re on, give me some of that,” Jisung groans. And then he gasps. “No, wait, that’s like— a you’re in love face, did something happen, with who?”

“No one,” Hyunjin denies. Jisung is scarily perceptive. “Nothing happened.”

“I’ll buy you coffee for this information. Wait, you don’t like coffee. Um— I’ll give you a cheesecake for this information.” Jisung grins wickedly, knowing he’s torturing him.

“I swear, nothing happened,” Hyunjin pleads. “My facial muscles are just spasming.”

“No, I’ve seen you try to wink, that’s not it,” Jisung says. “Ugh, you suck. You’re the worst coworker ever.”

“Then talk to the people in your branch.”

“No, they’re gross— please, Hyunjin, if you withhold this information—”

“I made out with Beyonce in a parking lot last night.”

Jisung rolls his eyes. “I’m sure you did. You’re a great liar, Hyunjin. It was the serial killer tenant, wasn’t it?”

What the fuck? “Now you’re just reaching.” You have no idea how right you are.

The conversation with Jisung does dampen his mood slightly, though, bring him back to earth. The world can’t know. Scratch the world, even his friends can’t know. Hyunjin loves Jisung, loves the people at the Nine & Dine, and he has to keep his mouth shut around them, too.

He will never do anything to jeopardize Seungmin’s career, and he will never do anything to jeopardize the safety of his friends.

But Hyunjin will allow himself a little bit of time before he touches down to reality. A week, he tells himself. Because there’s a dizzying euphoria in knowing that Seungmin reciprocates , feels the same way, that Hyunjin can flirt and Seungmin will like it and that Hyunjin can press a kiss to his mouth and Seungmin will let him.

He stays over at Seungmin’s overnight the next day— he didn’t do that before, for a lot of reasons, but now he supposes he can. He will stop short of bringing a toothbrush over here, because that implies permanence, but he will do everything else.

“I wrote a lot of song today,” Seungmin says. “Not sure how much of it is actually usable. But you’re like a catalyst.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“I think… that is a lot of things.”

Seungmin ducks his head, hair falling into his face. Hyunjin keeps his hand to his side, but then remembers he is allowed to do things like brush away his hair now, and so he reaches up and does just that.

Seungmin’s cheeks glow red. “... What do you want to do now?” Hyunjin mouth curves up. “ No, Hyunjin , get your mind out of the fucking gutter—”

“It wasn’t in there in the first place,” Hyunjin protests, he’s just smiling because Seungmin’s cute, but now it’s there. “I don’t know. This is just new, okay? Um… I guess we could like, make dinner? Since you didn’t eat at the Nine & Dine today.”

“I’m not always eating there.”

“Right, you only eat there ninety percent of the time, my bad.”

“I ingest other foods. You guys are just a healthier alternative to freeze-dried grocery store stuff.”

“You’re such a functional human being,” Hyunjin teases. Seungmin punches him.

The two of them end up microwaving ramen and eat while watching a movie, not horror this time, but a new sci-fi release called District 9 featuring a dystopian environment and a bunch of plot twists. (They actually watch it, by the way. It’s a good movie.)

Hyunjin can say, without outlying circumstances, being with Seungmin is easy.

They cram themselves onto Seungmin’s bed and make out and talk about whatever, like Minho accidentally setting his apron on fire at work today and Chan having to douse him with the fire extinguisher and Seungmin’s methods for lyric-writing ( isten, it’s just putting together rhymes, it’s not that impressive. ) ( I bet it is, I could rhyme Lee Know with this stage name blows and it wouldn’t be a song).

It’s just like being friends with him except now Hyunjin can pull him close until their bodies line up and fit like puzzle pieces, can mouth compliments at his pulse point and look at him like he hung up all the stars in the sky.

Seungmin’s apartment is like a safety bubble. The only problem with bubbles is that they eventually pop.

---

“You guys are dating,” Changbin says flatly.

Hyunjin’s alarm is still screaming HWANG HYUNJIN WAKE UP! , and it’s early in the morning, but Hyunjin is now more awake than he has ever been in his twenty-four years of living. “I’m sorry,” he says slowly. “What?”

“You. And Seungmin. You guys are dating.”

This scenario is something straight out of a nightmare; the only coherent sentence Hyunjin can form is, “Please have this conversation with me when I have pants on.”

“Oh, right,” Changbin says. “Wait, are those my penguin boxers—?”

When Hyunjin is sufficiently dressed and has rubbed the last vestiges of sleep out of his irises, he swallows down his fear and walks over to where Changbin is sitting at the coffee table, laptop open with a lot of angry capital letters streaming across the screen. He’s probably stuck on a novel again.

“We’re not dating,” Hyunjin says.

Changbin just raises his eyebrows, and Hyunjin realizes that he can’t lie to Changbin, who pays his part of the rent with correct characterization.

“We’re not…” Hyunjin says, then tries to rephrase. “He’s on hiatus. We’re not dating. Dating would imply some kind of permanence.”

“So it’s like… an one-month stand. But emotional.”

Please do not refer to it as that,” Hyunjin begs. “But yeah, I guess.”

Changbin chews his lip. “And you’re okay with that?”

“I… have to be okay with it,” Hyunjin says.

Because he will take anything he can get.

The problem is that the two of them are both too practical, too disillusioned, to try and do something like keep this going after Seungmin’s hiatus. Hyunjin refuses to land Seungmin in that kind of scandal— a secret relationship ? And, with a guy ? God— who would Hyunjin be, if he were the person who cut off Seungmin’s voice, who prevented Seungmin from singing to the people? And Seungmin, in return, refuses to flip Hyunjin’s life upside down, to turn Hyunjin into just an evening headline, to set the paparazzis upon him and his friends.

A part of Hyunjin wants so badly to show Seungmin off to the world. But the world would turn their relationship into something about status and money, and the media would tear it apart like vultures. Hyunjin isn’t allowed to date Seungmin, in their eyes. Hyunjin isn’t nearly good enough.

(Maybe the worst part is that Hyunjin thinks about that stuff also. He knows he isn’t good enough for Seungmin, for his wit and his bluntness and his open-mindedness and the clear lens he uses to view the world. Hyunjin… isn’t good enough. In all of the senses.)

(He’s guilty of seeing Seungmin at times as a public figure rather than a person, too. How can he convince the world, if he can’t even win against his own mind? That’s the aspect that seals the deal.)

“Please don’t get your heart broken,” Changbin says to him.

“It’s a little too late for that. It’s like Romeo and Juliet. Except we’re both men. And no one dies. Hopefully. Maybe Minho will set the kitchen on fire on accident—”

Hyunjin can’t stand to talk about this anymore, and Changbin can tell.

“I’m always really impressed when authors can give people realistic happy endings,” Changbin murmurs. “Like, anyone can kill someone off or break someone’s heart. But letting a character be happy… that takes a lot of bravery. And intelligence.”

Hyunjin looks away. He doesn’t know if he’ll get a happy ending. He just knows he’ll get an end. Seungmin knows it, too.

He’ll kiss Seungmin in a lull between one chapter and another, though.

Hours tick down. The two of them have conversations at 2AM and design hypothetical ice cream sundaes and explore the expanses of each other’s skin. They don’t talk about the real world. They don’t talk about when Seungmin is going to leave.

But both of them are prepared for it.

Hyunjin knows it is the final day when he walks into Seungmin’s apartment and Seungmin stops when he’s two feet in front.

“I finished my album,” Seungmin tells him. “I think… it’s the best I’ll ever get. It’s very mediocre, but at the same time, I’m kind of proud of it.”

“Funny. I’ve heard Changbin say that exact same thing once.”

“He’s a writer, right? I’m pretty sure it’s a universal feeling for artists.”

Seungmin swallows; Hyunjin traces the bob of his throat.

“You’ll listen to it, right?” he asks. “... you can be the first person who isn’t related to me to hear it in its entirety.”

Hyunjin nods, and Seungmin slips a pair of headphones over his ears and presses play. The entire album is about half an hour long, and there’s a raw honesty in all of his songs. It tells a story, the way Seungmin’s first complete album did, too (the first one was about a relationship, and it wasn’t self-produced).

But this one, it’s about growing up. The first song reminisces about childhood, the way one looked to the sky unhampered by prejudice and fear; the next few about teenage years, about being angry at society and feeling like an outcast and not knowing how to deal with emotions because no one ever taught him how; the last about how he doesn’t know how to say goodbye, how to make it in the world alone.

Seungmin looks at him and Hyunjin knows that he could kill him with just a phrase.

“You like it?” Seungmin asks, voice a whisper.

“I love it,” Hyunjin responds immediately.

And then, because that’s not enough, he leans forward, and adds—

“I’m not so good with words but… it’s very you. And it’s very relatable. I think you’ll give a lot of people help they didn’t even know they needed with these songs. It’s like you translated your heart and memories and then burned it into a CD.”

Seungmin nods. “I’ll try to remember you said that when they bash me on Reddit.”

“Fuck Reddit.”

“That last song is maybe the most truthful,” Seungmin says. “I don’t know how to say goodbye. You… don’t mind that, do you?”

“I personally don’t like goodbyes.” This is something that’s changed in Hyunjin. “It’s like implying you’ll never see someone again.”

---

When Hyunjin goes over the next day, the apartment has been stripped bare.

There’s a single CD in the middle of the room, plain silver in a black case. Hyunjin pockets it and walks out.

---

BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH KIM SEUNGMIN

They missed the actual interview, but three hours later, when Felix flips the sign to closed, they all cram around Minho’s cracked iPhone 2X and click on the link. “Full-size it,” Felix says.

“I’m not dumb,” Minho says, and complies.

The logo of the show flashes onscreen before they show Seungmin walking onstage, wearing a shirt that probably costs more than a month of Hyunjin’s salary (the office one and the restaurant one, combined), face collected and confident. Seungmin is good at this by now. There are no cracks in his facade.

“He’s not that cool,” Felix says, voice cracking. “We know he’s not that cool.”

“Are you crying?” Chan asks, horrified.

“There’s just— we cut onions—” Felix says, and wipes his eyes. Hyunjin passes him the roll of paper towels. “Thanks.”

He should be here with us and not up there with them.

But who is Hyunjin to say that?

“Kim Seungmin,” the MC says, and Seungmin flashes a lazy peace sign. “We haven’t seen you in almost two months. Where’ve you been?”

“I’m sorry, but that’s classified information,” Seungmin answers, smiling.

“Classified information, I see,” the MC says. In the restaurant, all of them wince, simultaneous. “Are you secretly a government agent on the side?”

“Well, you know I’m only a singer from nine-to-five…”

“Oh, so I’m not wrong?”

“Well, who knows?” The audience is loving this. “In all seriousness, though, I’ve been working on a new album during my hiatus… to everyone who follows me on Instagram, I’m sorry for all the pictures of ramen I posted. Those are my brain food.”

“You ate a lot of ramen while working on the album?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Then I’m sure it’s a very good album.”

“Well, I would certainly hope so, I basically robbed Costco of all its instant noodles.”

Felix is still crying, and at this point Minho has joined him, tears silently sliding down his cheeks. Hyunjin understands Seungmin’s reasoning for his sudden disappearance, but anyone who hasn’t been subjected to the whole twisted thought process would just find it depressing.

Seungmin looks so painfully unattainable up there, someone Hyunjin could only see through the screen. He wonders if Felix, Minho, and Chan are thinking the same thing— that Kim Seungmin had only been some sort of shared fever dream, wearing ripped jeans and gray sweatshirts, hands soapy with lemon cleaner. His hiatus was supposed to be two to three months; Seungmin worked his ass off on the album, and left before two had passed, not wanting to prolong this, knowing it’d just hurt more later.

And it’s partially Hyunjin’s fault. Maybe Seungmin would have stayed longer if Hyunjin hadn’t held on so tight, taken so much of his heart. And Hyunjin— Hyunjin can’t even make himself regret it.

“I hope you like Time Lapse, it’s written for all of you,” Seungmin finishes. There’s the sound of applause, the logo flashes again, and then the screen goes black.

Felix wipes his eyes. “This was a mistake.”

Hyunjin’s not sure if he means watching the interview or something else.

---

The CD glints dull silver in the night. Hyunjin pops it into his laptop and sticks his earbuds in. It’s an unreleased track; Hyunjin knows that probably no one but him has heard it.

It’s just Seungmin’s voice with simple guitar accompaniment, but it’s powerful nonetheless.

When the cameras flash from up above
And I’m answering a’s to all their q’s
If I tell them about my first love
You know that ‘she’ is code for u
They say you’re just a memory
I say we’re at a temporary disconnection
I’ll meet you in later in reality
When we cross at intersections

When we cross at intersections, yeah

Hyunjin doesn’t cry. He just hits replay.

---

The problem with seeing in technicolor is that it’s hard to go back to monochrome.

After Seungmin leaves, Hyunjin at first throws himself into his work, getting promoted two times in the span of three months. But he realizes fairly quickly that this will not fill the emptiness inside him. Besides, he doesn’t want to be that guy all the subordinates talk shit about while he sips overpriced coffee from a #1 Boss Mug .

He is twenty-four, and maybe he should give himself a chance to get unstuck. One night, when he can’t sleep, he exits out of a profit data chart and purchases a one-way ticket to America.

“You’re going overseas?” Jisung asks, disbelieving. “Dude, no way!”

“Well, I just bought the ticket, and they don’t do refunds.”

“Oh my god,” Jisung says, which is what Hyunjin had said to himself when he’d waken up the next morning with the purchase verification email in his inbox. “Then… wait, are you coming back? You’re coming back, right?”

“I am,” Hyunjin assures.

It takes a solid ten minutes for Jisung to digest the information, which is pretty good, in actuality. Changbin went through the five stages of grief in an hour trying to process it.

“Ah, I’ll miss you,” Jisung finally mumbles, hooking Hyunjin into a suffocating hug; Hyunjin feels his ribs crack. “Now I’ll actually have to eat lunch with my branch.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t apologize, you’re going to goddamn America!” Jisung says, suddenly excited. “Dude, I hear they have this giant metal bean in Illinois. Make sure to go there and send me a pic.”

So Hyunjin boards a plane to America with no set plan. It’s uncomfortable at first, with his strong accent and his unfamiliarity with the culture, but he adapts. He touches down in LA, acquires a camera and a van, and starts driving east.

He’s not good at photography at first, but he learns, acquiring words like exposure and ambient light (he supposes he could step up his selfie game now, if he were the sort to post more on social media). He visits Chicago, and, as promised, takes pictures of the Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, and the way the Sears Tower rises up into the clouds. He sends the photos Jisung, along with Changbin; if a picture is worth a thousand words, then it’s Changbin who can extract the story from a snapshot.

Through a turn of unexpected events, he gets in contact with Jeongin, who’s living in New York, making a living as a kindergartener teacher who sometimes sings on the side. (Privately, Hyunjin thinks that he would like Woojin a lot.) So Hyunjin heads over to New York, which is eerily similar to Chicago despite the distance, with its sprawling transportation system and jagged skyline, like the two places are connected by a set of synchronized hearts.

“Hyunjin, over here! I haven’t seen you in ages!” Jeongin exclaims, when they finally find each other in the Bronx. New York is loud, and expensive, and so new ; Hyunjin doesn’t know where to look. “How’ve you been?”

Stupidly, what comes out of Hyunjin’s mouth is, “You got your braces off.”

Jeongin laughs. “What, you thought they were gonna stay in my mouth forever?”

“No, it was just—” Hyunjin has no good way to explain himself. “Nevermind. It’s just really good to see you again.”

Jeongin’s eyes glint. “It’s really good to see you again, too. I’m glad you could recognize me, even without the braces. How’ve you been?”

“Let’s get bubble tea, and I’ll tell you about it.”

They don’t end up getting bubble tea, because bubble tea is expensive, but they talk, and make a plan.

Hyunjin needs to do a shit ton of paperwork, but he finally obtains a year-long VISA and a place to stay. Jeongin currently lives alone, and the apartment he’s in is extremely shitty, because apparently everything in New York is expensive, not just the bubble tea. So he and Hyunjin make a plan to together and sharing the expenses in a slightly nicer apartment a few blocks away.  

Hyunjin gets a job as an accountant— fortunately, money is universal, even if Hyunjin’s job has caused him to hate capitalism. He’s at the very bottom of the company tier, and he makes nowhere as much money as he did in Korea, but this is nice. He eats street food with Jeongin and sings karaoke with Jeongin’s friends on Fridays; he takes pictures and captions them carefully and sends them over to Changbin via email: thin-crust pizza, the blur of an L train, three girls in a plaza sitting and talking about everything and nothing.

And he keeps in contact with Jisung, Minho, Chan, and Felix. Sometimes they video call; it’s around the three-month mark when it’s finally possible for all of them to be present at the same time.

Felix is the one who manages to setup connection first. “Hey!” he tells Hyunjin. “I miss you. It’s nice to see you again, even if you’re all pixelated.”

“I’m handsome no matter what resolution I’m in,” Hyunjin says, framing his face with his hands. “Just kidding, just kidding.”

“You’re not wrong—”

Just kidding,” Hyunjin pleads. “Anyway, how are you all?”

“They let me off floor duty to try and set up call with you on Chan’s shitty prehistoric laptop,” Felix beams. “Oh, man, I’ve got so much to tell you?”

“Me too, what a coincidence!”

“How’s America?”

“How’s it back home?”  

“Ey, what’s up!” Chan says, skidding into view, Minho close behind him.

“Hyunjin!” Minho says. “We have to catch you up.” And Hyunjin feels warm, because they miss him, but they’re not sad. They look happy.

They tell him about how Felix snagged a lead role, how Chan’s getting serious with his girlfriend, how Minho is scaling off his medications and got a position in a local dance troupe, how Changbin is writing a book with the help of the photos Hyunjin is sending him. In return, Hyunjin tells them about New York, the stuff he’s seen, confides his insecurities about his accent and his inability to understand half the slang he hears, and also talks about his new roommate.

“He’s out right now,” Hyunjin says. Jeongin had gone out on a run and had probably, Jeongin-style, gotten distracted midway through. “I’ll introduce you to him when he gets back, though.”

“Yes, I wanna meet this guy,” Felix says. “He sounds cool from what you’ve said.”

They also fill him in about how Jisung accidentally started a cheesecake business. (Hyunjin notes, with slight amusement, that Felix is the one who talks most about it, except he talks more about Jisung than the actual business aspect itself.) The cheesecakes come wrapped in paper printed with nice, handwritten messages, and the Nine & Dine has incorporated it into their menu, and some of the local grocery stores sell the cheesecakes on their shelves.

It’s pretty good. A day can brighten considerably with a little cake and kindness.

“Bro, he’s got this vegan cheesecake, and it’s amazing,” Chan adds. On Hyunjin’s side of the call, the door creaks open. “Wait, hey, who’s the guy that just came in?”

“Is that Jeongin?” Minho chimes in.

“Hello, yes, I’m Jeongin.” Jeongin is sweaty, hair matted to his forehead, and he seems embarrassed to be introduced in this state. “Hyunjin’s told me a lot about you guys.”

“Aw, he loves us,” Minho says jokingly.

Hyunjin smiles, slight. Yeah… he really does.

 

[26]

 

It’s a hazy summer night, skyline kissing the fabric of the stars, when Jeongin asks, “So what brought you over here to America?”

Hyunjin opens his mouth, closes it, before saying, “Long story.”

“We got all the time in the world.”

And Hyunjin is all ready to say a lie when he realizes that maybe he needs to tell the truth to someone.

After all, nobody knows the whole thing, not even Changbin. And Jeongin is kind, invisible in the heart of New York, and Hyunjin’s VISA will expire in two weeks— could there be any better person to tell? So Hyunjin starts.

“Well, I worked at this place called the Nine & Dine…”

It feels like recounting a dream, really. But Hyunjin knows it’s not, because Seungmin has both made him impossibly better and also ruined him for anyone else, taught him how to be brave but also gave him a thousand reasons to hold back.

He’s on Hyunjin’s mind, and— it’d be cheesy to say in his heart, but how else would Hyunjin explain why his chest feels so heavy, sometimes? He listens to the song Seungmin wrote him, and wonders if Seungmin’s lyrics are a fantasy; he listens to the song Seungmin wrote him, and wonders if Seungmin actually believes in them.

But Jeongin listens, and a few days later, Hyunjin goes back to Korea knowing that he has found at least part of what he was searching for.

 

[36]

 

After ten more years, Hyunjin knows the world finds him too old for adventure.

If he were to succeed, he would have achieved success by now, or be well on his way— at least, by society’s definition. A CEO of an up-and-rising company, a well-known politician, a doctor or engineer acclaimed in his field. But Hyunjin is none of those things, and he is fine with it.

Instead, he works for another company as a lower-tier financial analyst, and helps Jisung’s cheesecake business on the side. He’s also trying not to kill a pet marigold, which he’s named Binnie, much to (and because of) Changbin’s ire. He runs a blog on interior decoration that’s slowly gaining some traction. And sometimes he goes over to the local community center, where the kids know him as Mr. Hwang, the nice guy who will always let you sit in his lap and compliment your scribble drawings.

Sure, he doesn’t have money, or status, or fame. But does that make him mediocre?

Hyunjin never loved Seungmin for the way he sang or how the public screamed when he stepped onstage. Seungmin was extraordinary, but not for that. Hyunjin loved him for his eloquence, for how he put his whole heart in everything he did, for the way he held onto his dreams and the way he spoke with complete sincerity.

And Hyunjin still can’t say so much of himself— but perhaps, he’s a pretty good person also. He treats everyone like a friend. He accepts people with no questions asked— that’s why the kids at the center love him so much, because he loves them so much back. He’ll tell you (for free) what couch looks good with what shelf, and he always manages to remember his roommate’s birthday.

Of course, he’s got flaws, but who doesn’t? He’s got time. He’s still learning.

“Order ready for Table 20,” the main chef calls out, and Hyunjin goes to collect it.

He still works at the Nine & Dine, by the way. Minho, Chan, and Felix are long gone at this point, and while the new, interchanging staff never manages to have half the team dynamic the original four of them did, Hyunjin still likes the customers (they’ve got a new piano player!) and is friends with the other waiter outside of work.

It’s Friday today, and when Hyunjin delivers to Table 20— the pianist— he asks, “You gonna play us a song after you’re done?”

“You know it,” Donghyun says, shooting him a thumbs-up.

Donghyun doesn’t play Day6, instead opting for way old (Chopin and Debussy are his two favorites) or way new, somehow making peppy pop melodies and rap sound good on an instrument one would not think suited to them. Today, however, Kim Seungmin’s Time Lapse is on his setlist, and Hyunjin’s mouth twists up in a wan smile.

He hasn’t heard much of Kim Seungmin in the news lately. His last album was a year or so ago.

There’s a new customer sitting at table 29, the invisible booth. Hyunjin glances over— Jeno, the other waiter is occupied, so Hyunjin heads over. “Hello,” he says. “Would you like anything to—”

The customer looks up, and had Hyunjin been holding anything, he would’ve dropped it.

“Just water, please,” Kim Seungmin says. “And hey. Hyunjin.  

“I… hey.” Hyunjin can’t breathe. Holy shit, it’s Seungmin. Maybe he’s hallucinating?

But he isn’t.

Seungmin is real, and he’s right in front of him. He’s still beautiful. He still takes Hyunjin’s breath away.

If there’s anything Hyunjin’s learned at this point, he hopes it’s how to be brave.

Because on one hand, life is short, so he’ll do the things that make him happy, and take chances that he might otherwise not take. Life is short, and there are no guarantees for what will happen to his soul after he dies, so maybe he should let himself fall in love with Seungmin again. What’s that saying— third time's the charm?

But on the other hand, life is long, too, paradoxically. There’s not a lot of nevers and impossibles in this world— there’s always time to get better, to improve, and there’s enough time for second or third chances, to fix mistakes and correct skewed pathways. It wasn’t his and Seungmin’s time then, but it could be now, if he let it.

“Can I sit here for awhile?” Hyunjin asks, already sliding into the seat across. “Jeno can cover for me.”

Seungmin smiles, bright. “Of course. We have some stuff to catch up on.”

They do. And—

Hwang Hyunjin is thirty-six years old, and it is never too late to cross at intersections.

 

[END]