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Shards of glass grated between the man's teeth. The sizzle of champagne turned bloody in his mouth. He swallowed some of it, but at that point it didn't matter. His smile hadn't even faded away when he had; his little finger gone, the bottle in a million pieces and pierced through the bottom to the neck. The bullet got him right in the head.

Hoseok was lucky he had his mouth full of cock, kneeling face-down in front of the man. He felt the man cum on his tongue before the glass shreds grazed his skin; before he even heard the gunshot.

When he did, he looked up. The mess that had been a man's face stared split open right back at him, gaping and gushy. There was a hole at the back of his throat. Everything was powdery and soaked in champagne which was turning the black blood blush.

“Fuck,” Hoseok whispered. The cum stung on his tongue. “What the fuck!

Then it occurred to him to turn around.

There were three men standing at the entrance leading to the basement, their features shadowed in the dim light. One of them had his gun pulled out, arm still outstretched.

“Him too?” the shooter asked.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Hoseok didn't sign up for this when he let the man take him home.

It was enough for Hoseok to look into the barrel of the gun to know he had to bail. So he ran.

He heard a shout behind him that resonated through the basement, filling the oozy place. But Hoseok knew where to run, and they didn't. Soon the night swallowed him. Still, there were too many neons, too many eyes, and he dashed forward on and on until he couldn't.

Halting in the middle of a bridge, he doubled over, resting his sweaty palms on his thighs. He heaved into the river.

There were no people passing by, only cars. None of them stopped at the sight of him, yet at every sound of tires Hoseok shivered and looked behind his shoulder, sure that it was them, that they had found him at last.

But nobody came.

For the longest time, he could barely move. All he did was lay his shaking hands on the rail of the bridge, staring down into the rippling, rushing dapples of light on the surface of the water. He spat several times, trying to get the aftertaste of bile and cum out of his mouth. It didn't work. He could still taste him; could still smell him, hear him speak in that hushed way that was both eerie and tense, and suddenly, though he had never thought twice of it before, he realized he never even knew the man's real name.

It wasn't like he'd known Hoseok's, either. Neither of them had exactly expected to be the witness to the other one's murder, Hoseok reckoned.

God , he thought, his throat turning sour again. He just saw someone die.

Someone he knew. Someone he had slept with and sometimes even laughed with.

He had been to the man's place before, bending him over, taking his money. Calling him darling when the man shook at night. Hoseok had nowhere else to go, crashing at cheap motels when the man didn't invite him over. The place had become somewhat familiar to Hoseok although he liked it better when the man left to take care of business.

What kind of business, he never asked.

He should have.

He goddamn should have. It could've been his head. His life. It still could be.

He was a nobody. No one would look for him if he disappeared.

Suddenly, he remembered he had left his stuff in the man's bedroom. His whole little livelihood was in the pocket of his windbreaker; his ID, his money, the crumpled certificate that said he was qualified to teach dance – only he never had.

Until now, he didn't even notice the chill, too crippled by fear to care. He could live without the windbreaker, he supposed, and he could make some cash somehow, like he always did. But he couldn't leave his ID lying next to a dead body.

He had to go back.

He almost heaved again at the thought. The only thing that kept him going as he slowly, numbly returned to the center of the city was the certainty that the police or the men would find him otherwise.

The city was pulsing, alive. Though anonymous in the restless crowd, Hoseok felt naked, seen. He jumped whenever a stranger brushed shoulders with him. People around him were faceless, moving fast.

The boulevard was too bright. Paranoid now, he took a turn.

The street seemed deserted.

It was quiet in the house. He stood in front of the unlocked door, too frightened to go inside and too frightened to turn back. The silence was deafening. Finally, the stillness of the street creeped him out enough to enter the building.

He was alone.

That was, unless he counted him.

The dead man glittered in the light, covered in a thin layer of glassy dust. Blood was no longer oozing out of his wound. God, he was a wound from the neck up, one big gash that didn't resemble a human at all.

So this is what death looks like. Hoseok tore his eyes away and quickly walked past. Opening the door to the bedroom, he dashed towards the bed, climbing over it to reach for the windbreaker he had thrown there in the evening. It seemed like another lifetime.

Out of nowhere, he heard a noise at the entrance – a rustle – and then footsteps. At the same time, a gun was pressed into his back.

“Don't say a word.”

The whisper chilled him to the bone. A hand grasped at him, pulling him to the ground. It wasn't the strongest grip. Hoseok flinched on instinct and fought – tried to fight, his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth – but the gun was cold and dug into his spine, and soon he was lying facedown on the floor, an unfamiliar weight on top of him.

“Be still.”

Hoseok breathed heavily, his body paralyzed. Not even realizing it, he closed his eyes shut and covered his head. In the self-imposed darkness, the footsteps carried louder now. Torn between the imminent and approaching danger, he pressed his face closer to the ground, not uttering a sound. He hoped the bed would shield him from the eyes of the third intruder.

Hoping that the two strangers would finish each other off would probably be too fanciful.

Muted, a male voice appeared to be arguing with someone over the phone. Hoseok didn't understand a word of what the voice said, and he was glad of it. The phone call grew urgent, then hushed again, and then there was silence.

It took forever for the third man to leave. When he did, Hoseok still didn't dare to make a sound or move an inch. All he did was breathe out, long and ragged.

It drew the gunman's attention.

“You one of them?”

“One of who?”

“One of Nam's men.”

“I don't know any Nam,” said Hoseok.

“It's a little too late to try to play dumb with me.”

“I'm not!” Inhaling dust and grime off the floor, Hoseok tried to buckle. It earned him another shove between his shoulder blades as the man used his body weight to keep Hoseok down. “I don't know what you're talking about. I have no idea why –” Why you killed the guy.

“Bullshit. Why did you come back?”

Panicking, he rushed to answer: “For my things. All I have is here.”

“So you belong to them.”

“I don't know any them! I just crash here from time to time. I have nowhere else to go.”

Hoseok had to make him understand. He had to get out of this.

Doing his best to sound calm, Hoseok ground out: “Please. I haven't seen anything. I won't say a word.” Who would believe him if he did? They would think he'd done it. “I won't go to the police, I swear –”

“The police won't help you, anyway.”

“I know that. I know that, so please. Let me go.”

“I can't.”

Fuck.” He gripped his head. His eyes were still squeezed shut, his jaw set tight. “Don't do this. You don't have to do this.”

He heard almost a chuckle and he thought of his mom, safe though unhappy somewhere in Belgium.

At that moment, he wanted to plead, but couldn't. He'd die in silence, like a sheep.

All of a sudden, the pressure on his back ceased as the man lifted himself up. He was as noiseless as when he had stalked behind Hoseok a while ago. Choked up all the way from his chest to his throat, Hoseok turned his head in slow motion to look back.

“Get up,” said the man. “Slowly.”

He was fucking tiny. Chances were Hoseok could probably wrestle him and wrestle the gun away from him.

He could also end up with a bleeding gut.

Limp, Hoseok stoop up, his legs gummy under him. There was so much power he wasn't able to use surging through his arms that his skin tingled. Before he knew it, the gun was back at the small of his back.

“That yours?”

Turning a little, Hoseok saw the man motion to his windbreaker. He should have left the damn thing here. He should have fled the country.

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Now stay still.”

Too swiftly for Hoseok to take advantage of his distraction, the man picked the piece of clothing up, patting it before crumpling it in his free hand.

“Get moving.”

“Where?”

“Ahead.”

It took all of Hoseok's strength not to use said strength and deck him in the face. Letting out a shaky breath, he took one tentative step, and then another one, prompted by the now warm barrel of the weapon. It scraped at his sweaty skin, hurting his spine.

Outside, the street was soundless and dark. And yet Hoseok saw lit windows illuminating a string of houses when he briefly took a look around. Skyscrapers stood in the distance, equally as lit up. The city was overflowing with people and life. He could call out.

As if sensing where his mind was going, the tiny fucker nudged at him harder, making him walk faster.

“Don't make me regret this.”

Hoseok's mouth went dry.

“I won't. Just tell me. Tell me where you are taking me.”

“To the boss.”

That didn't reassure him at all.

Within a few blocks, they approached a car. Its windows were tinted. Hoseok glanced around one last time in hopes that he would spot someone, anyone who could help him. The lane was deserted. The next thing he knew, he was pushed inside.

Coming face to face with two more men made him reconsider his plan to twist in his seat and just swing at the gunman when he least expected it. Hoseok recognized the other two immediately. One of them was the shooter.

Hoseok gaped at them, and they gaped at him, and then the both of them scrambled for their weapons. The door slammed shut behind Hoseok, locking him in with a click. Soon all four of them were sitting in the car.

The old-faced guy sitting in the back seat right next to Hoseok stretched out his arm, laying a gun at his neck. He never left Hoseok's eyes as he addressed his accomplice.

“You've got to be bloody kidding.”

“Do I look like a stand-up to you?” the tiny fucker shot back.

“You ran him down to let him live?” the guy asked, incredulous.

“I didn't run him down. He came back.”

“The hell? Was he armed?”

“No.”

“Well, then,” said the guy, “what the fuck?”

“Look, we weren't supposed to shoot up the whole street. Whoever he is, it's not my place to decide whether he dies or not.” Growing snappish, the man who was now in the passenger seat turned to the driver. “Go.”

It was dead silent in the car as they drove through the city.

So that was it. Out of all the ways to go, of course Hoseok would choose the single most pointless one. It wasn't even him the hitmen had been hired to kill, but here he was, cruising the midnight streets of Seoul with three butchers who already had a bullet ready with his name on it.

Well, it did make sense to go the way he lived.

After a while, the back seat guy tapped Hoseok with his revolver.

“Did Nam hire you as a bodyguard?”

It was clear to Hoseok that he meant the dead man. He shook his head, mindful of the slight pressure against his neck. Hoseok decided he preferred to be threatened from behind. At least then he didn't have to see the hitman's expression, both mellow and merciless.

“What did you do for him? Run errands?”

“No,” he managed.

“Speak.”

“We mostly just... I slept over sometimes,” said Hoseok, a little faint.

“You a rent boy?”

He flinched. “No.”

“Some kind of stripper, then?”

“I'm not a stripper. Look – I just took what he offered, alright? I don't know him, I won't – I won't say anything because I don't know what to say, anyway – we just had this deal.“

“You're still a sugar baby at your age? That's embarrassing.”

“At least I don't fucking kill people.”

At that, Hoseok blanched. He almost forgot. They were going to kill him, too.

In the rearview mirror, he noticed the man in the passenger seat was watching him, weighing his answers.

Sounding worn, the driver spoke for the first time. “He may have heard something important while he was with Nam.” There was a pause as he took a turn. “And if not, I suppose we can always get rid of him later.”

“Can we drop the murder talk for a second?” Hoseok snapped.

He seriously considered wrestling all of them down. Oh, he'd get shot, but maybe, just maybe, he would make it to the hospital in time.

The guy next to him smiled.

“We can talk about prostitution instead.”

“I'm not a prostitute!”

“Was he your boyfriend, then?”

“No.”

“That means he was your client.”

“No!”

“But you fucked.”

Hoseok reckoned he was ready for some more murder talk.

Sooner than he expected, the car stopped in front of a building which looked like a hotel, except there was no sign and no people around. It was large but unimposing, lost in a row of similar constructions.

“You want me to go with you?” asked the old-faced fucker.

“No, I've got it,” said the tiny fucker. “He won't run.”

Well, he was right about that. Greeted with the familiar gun, Hoseok grew tense. The inviting autumn air hit him upon getting out of the car, reminding him of the freedom he had lost. Nevertheless, he chose the path of least resistance and let the man lead him, knowing full well that any funny business would trigger him and pull his trigger.

So he marched in, barely taking in the spacious, unlit lobby, and then he marched on still; the weapon digging into his spine getting old, and then they got into one of the elevators. Hoseok watched the man press the button -14 and suddenly his nausea was back. The elevator door slid shut and they went down.

The man locked his gun and put it into a leather holster at his waist. Damn, was he confident. Hoseok could strangle him right now.

Glancing up, the man caught his stare. Then, as if in one liquid motion, he shifted his gaze to the corner of the elevator. Hoseok followed him with his eyes.

There was a camera.

Most likely, they were already being watched.

Reaching into the front pocket of Hoseok's windbreaker, the man pulled out his ID, only giving a once-over to the folded and refolded certificate that was there too.

“Lee Hoseok.” The way he said it made Hoseok's sweat turn cold. “You really are a little too old to be a sugar baby.”

“I'm not a sugar baby,” he retorted.

“Either you're that, or his accomplice. I suggest you say the former when we meet Hyungsoo.”

“Who the hell is that.”

“The boss. Your boss, if you're clever.”

“Look, I don't care about any damn killer clown –”

As soon as he said that, the man lunged at him, his forearm crushing Hoseok's windpipe.

He was stronger than he looked, but that wasn't Hoseok's first thought. Instead, he was surprised that the gunman wasn't that much shorter.

“Say that again,” he whispered.

“Let go,” said Hoseok, gasping, and when he didn't, Hoseok tore his arm away in one swift movement.

But, fuck, his wrist was slim. Hoseok almost felt bad for gripping it like that.

They were both breathing hard when the elevator stopped with a clink.

Now that he knew for sure he could beat his captor to a pulp, he felt less like doing it. Trailing after the man, Hoseok tried to decipher the meaning of his words. What was that about their boss being Hoseok's boss, too? Did he still think Hoseok was a prostitute? Somehow, it made him bitter.

They paused in front of a heavy door, both receiving a pat-down. A clumsy but powerful giant took the man's pistol before announcing to anyone inside the room that “Kihyun was back.”

A man over thirty was sitting inside the office Hoseok was pushed in.

“You brought a friend,” was all he said after Kihyun bowed to him, splaying his fingers over Hoseok's shoulder blade to make him bend down as well.

Not missing a beat, Kihyun went straight to the point: “He's got intel on Nam.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes.”

“Why do I need intel on a corpse?”

“He can help us trace the rest of his men.”

Hoseok did his best not to choke on his tongue. Those were all blatant lies.

Still, he stood next to Kihyun almost docile, letting him gamble with his life.

“What made you think he's not with them?”

“He's a hired escort.”

“So?”

“He has no connection to the underworld.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“We found him unarmed with a dick in his mouth.”

Now, Hoseok did his best not to choke Kihyun.

Hyungsoo, as Kihyun had called him, seemed coldly amused by that.

“Do we have anything else to identify him with?”

“We do, actually,” said Kihyun, pausing to unravel Hoseok's certificate before laying it flat on the table with Hoseok's ID on top.

The few spare won Hoseok had crammed in his pocket rustled sadly.

Saying nothing for a while, Hyungsoo scanned the card and the paper. Eventually, he pushed them both back towards Kihyun, focusing on Hoseok.

“You want to join us, then.”

What .

“He does,” said Kihyun.

“Does he have what it takes?”

“He'll learn.” Kihyun fell silent for a second, adding in a different tone: “He's strong.”

Hoseok had to say something. He had to get out of here.

It was one thing to score another wallet to live off, even if the owner of said wallet was a criminal. After all, as Hoseok realized, it wouldn't be the first time he had gotten involved with someone dangerous. The man he'd been with before must've done some pretty messed up things to deserve this kind of death.

But this wasn't it. They were trying to make Hoseok one of them.

“I thought I'd just...” His voice broke off.

“Just what?” Hyungsoo's eyes pierced right through him. “Either you're all in, or you're not.”

Kihyun dug his nails into the tender skin on the back of Hoseok's arm. He barely stopped himself from hissing out loud.

“He's in.”

Soundlessly, Hyungsoo got up. Letting his gaze drop down to the holster at the boss's hip, Hoseok realized he was the only armed man in the room. He approached Hoseok. Up close, there was something intimidating about him, but also charismatic. He wasn't a handsome man, nor a big one. He was unnerving as hell, though, since he never blinked once.

Out of nowhere, Hyungsoo pulled out his gun, unlocking it and aiming it between Hoseok's eyes.

Hoseok stared inside that black little hole of the barrel, sensing it stare back.

Fuck.

He felt a surge of frustration more powerful than any fright he had felt that night.

“What. The. Fuck,” he spat, almost voiceless. “Fucking kill me already, then. I swear if one more motherfucker swings his gun at me, it's the last thing he's gonna do.”

His arms shook.

It took a second or two. At last, the gun clicked and Hoseok held his breath and closed his eyes shut, but there was no gunshot. Hyungsoo locked his pistol again, putting it away as he smiled in a sickening manner.

“Good. I'll take him. Your team has been short of one guy for way too long already, anyway,” he addressed to Kihyun, his eyes never leaving Hoseok. “I'm glad you finally decided to listen.”

At that, Kihyun's face darkened. He didn't say anything.

“You're in charge of the dancer boy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now go.”

Hoseok walked out numbly, barely noticing when Kihyun took his things back from the giant at the door and strapped the belt with the leather holster back around his waist. They boarded the elevator, Kihyun pressing the button with the number four on it. Just his luck.

As the weight of everything that had taken place in the room dawned on him, Hoseok shuddered.

“I'm not gonna do it.”

“Do what?”

“Kill people.” Tingling all over as if being stung by a thousand needles, he added: “Like you do.”

“It's either that, or be killed.”

“No, it's not,” Hoseok shot back. “I've been living just fine until now without killing anyone.”

“You've just been leeching off people.”

“Yeah, so?” He raised his voice. “I gotta survive somehow.”

“You're the kind of scum we clean off the streets.”

“Go fuck yourself,” said Hoseok quietly. He did all he could not to sound hurt. “I'm – not – doing it.”

“Then it's over for you.”

“So be it.” There was nothing of the bravery in him that his tone seemed to suggest.

“You don't seem to understand,” Kihyun gritted out as he grabbed the nape of Hoseok's neck, yanking him close, “that you don't have a choice. We're both done if you say no. You'll die, and I'll die, and I'd rather not end up in a mass grave somewhere like some slab of meat, much less with you.”

There wasn't a shred of fear in that stony face of his, and yet he spoke with such urgency, such need to stay alive, that Hoseok felt it, too.

The thing was, Kihyun acted as if dying now was the problem, not dying. He wasn't frightened at all, and that in turn frightened Hoseok.

“I don't want to do it. I can't.”

“I fucking let you live,” Kihyun said. And then it was quiet.

 

On the fourth floor, the corridor was long and sharply lit. There were no windows, only a row of doors. A fleshy-looking, dark green plant stood at each end of the hallway.

The building really resembled a hotel, even from the inside.

Their footsteps echoing, they stopped in front of room 67. Two more doors down and Hoseok would be truly, thoroughly pissy.

The gilded number glistened and then its lustre faded as Kihyun's shadow fell over it. He pulled out a key. Unlocking, he motioned for Hoseok to go in. A little awkwardly, he did. They hadn't said a word to each other since the exchange in the elevator, and even though it had only been a couple of minutes, to Hoseok it already felt stifling.

He was alive for now, after all, and it was only thanks to Kihyun.

Did it mean Hoseok owed him his life, though?

Glancing back when Kihyun put the lights on, Hoseok realized he didn't follow him inside.

“What is it?” Hoseok asked, his throat tight.

“Stay here for now. I still have to take care of something.”

“But you'll be back, right?”

“Yeah.” Ready to leave, Kihyun halted, raising his hand. He was still holding Hoseok's windbreaker. “I am taking this with me.”

It was only after Kihyun had locked him in and walked away that it occurred to Hoseok that he took his ID and money so he wouldn't run. All of a sudden, he was feeling extremely petty, and lonely, and even though the room wasn't cramped or dim, it started to close in on him.

It was way too white and spotless for his liking, too.

Unsure, he stood in the middle of the one-room bedroom for a while, looking around. It really wasn't small, but the drawn blinds were giving it the impression of isolation, three French windows offering nothing of the bustling city view. He walked towards one of the windows and raised the blinds.

For a minute, he could almost forget who he was and where he was. Lights shone and flickered in the distance, liquid. The city was athrob with neons. Touching the cold window pane, he took the cityscape in.

Behind him, the lock clicked.

Hoseok turned around.

It wasn't Kihyun in the doorway. It was the grandpa-faced guy.

“Kihyun is still out?”

“Do you see him anywhere?” Hoseok asked.

“Dunno. He's pretty compact. He could be hiding in your pocket.”

“He's not in my pocket.”

“You sure? I think I should check.” Slowly, the guy looked from one end of the room to the other. “Or he might be lying dead somewhere. Under the bed, maybe.”

“As in, I killed him and then locked myself in,” said Hoseok, stony.

“That's what I would do. To avoid suspicion.”

They stared at each other. The grandpa-faced guy seemed so unbothered by it that Hoseok's eyes started to water. Damn. He had never been good at staring people down.

It didn't exactly help he was still a little bit queasy in the guy's presence. He was the shooter, after all.

He had wanted to put a bullet in Hoseok's head.

Uncomfortable, Hoseok shifted his body towards the window once more, knowing full well it wasn't clever to turn his back to the hitman. He told himself he wasn't being a wuss. He just didn't like the creeper's face, is all.

The creeper finally entered the room, shutting the door behind him and settling down on one of the two narrow beds, the one closer to Hoseok.

“So you're really going to work with us now?”

“No.” Swallowing hard, Hoseok faltered. “I don't know.”

“Did Hyungsoo like you?”

“I suppose? He didn't shoot me or anything.”

“But he did that thing with his burner, right? The I'm-gonna-blow-your-head-off thing.”

Bitter, Hoseok said: “Yep.”

“Did you shit your pants?”

“Look, I don't know what your deal is, but can you kindly fuck off?”

“You aren't very sweet for a sugar baby.”

“I'm not a sugar baby,” said Hoseok.

Somehow, he'd rather be grappling with Kihyun.

The tiny man didn't mess around, but he didn't mess with Hoseok, either.

And he had spared his life, so there was that. For some reason, Hoseok was quite sure the other two hitmen wouldn't be as merciful, and it unnerved him.

Sprawled out on the bed, the guy whistled a happy tune, smiling a little. He knew he was driving Hoseok up the wall. As he swayed to the rhythm of his own melody, his shirt rode up a bit, revealing a knife handle.

“What are you if not a sugar baby, then?” the guy asked after a while.

A homeless nobody.

Hoseok pressed his lips together, turning away once more.

“Come on, hyung, I was just making a small talk.”

It felt all kinds of funny and wrong to be called hyung by an old-looking, Min Joongook-looking murderer who seemed to be used to shooting people mid-fellatio.

The guy went on before Hoseok gathered his thoughts.

“Okay, look, I get it that you're grumpy.”

“Grumpy?” repeated Hoseok, not believing his ears.

“Yeah. I mean, I'd be grumpy too if I got kidnapped and threatened and whatnot. So, like, sorry about that.”

“Thanks,” said Hoseok, terse.

“Actually, sorry about almost shooting you. The whole kidnapping and bringing you with us part is on Kihyun, though. First he tells us not to run after you, then he's all like, okay, I will wait for this dumbass, he left his things here, and then he doesn't even finish you off. He's such a bloody softie sometimes.”

“Am I, now?”

With a deadpan face, Kihyun walked in. He held a plastic bag and a briefcase in his hand. He set them both down on a bedside table.

His entrance didn't startle the guy.

“Well, you did let him live just because he begged a little.”

“I didn't beg,” said Hoseok, unheard.

“I didn't give you the fucking key to just saunter in as you please,” said Kihyun, dragging the guy off the bed by his ear.

Suddenly, and to Hoseok it seemed so strange he balked, the old-looking guy went pliant and yelped as a kid would as he was being pulled towards the door.

“I just wanted to be friendly!”

“Out.”

“This is what I get for being caring and shit. Hyung, wait. Were there any cops at the place?”

“Not yet.”

“So it's all clear? Fingerprints and all?”

“Yeah. Now, out.”

“But I wanted to talk to the sugar baby some more,” pleaded the killer, looking different somehow. Young.

They all looked very old, very worn perhaps, but young. Hoseok just hadn't noticed.

To Hoseok's relief, Kihyun pushed the guy outside and locked the door from the inside, pocketing the key.

“Take the bag,” he told Hoseok, not looking at him. He took off his heavy coat, hanging it meticulously inside a tall wardrobe. “Don't touch the briefcase.”

“What's in it?”

He got no response, so he plodded towards the bedside table, peeking into the bag. A toothbrush and a set of toiletries peeked back at him.

His chest tightened. He was really staying here, then.

Really, really staying here. A voice inside his head grew panicky and strained. They won't let you go. Probably not ever.

Another smaller voice chimed in. You will have a home.

“Has Changkyun been here the whole time?”

So the creeper's name was Changkyun.

“Basically, yeah,” said Hoseok.

“Was he a little shit?”

“Yep.”

“Don't mind him much. You'll see once we go for a hit that you can trust him.”

“Trust him?” Trust any of them?

It was such a foreign thought that Hoseok just stood there wide-eyed, rooted to the floor, and watched Kihyun unstrap his belt and sit down to clean the gun.

“Yeah. He's never had any casualties. He does what you tell him to do, too, you just have to handle him smartly.”

“No offense, but you're just freaking me out.”

Kihyun looked up. God, did he look softer somehow. His brows were drawn in an intent yet tired expression, his legs stretched out. The way he handled the gun told Hoseok that this was his routine; he probably came back to this lonely room late and run-down every night, sleeping through the day to gather energy for the next kill.

It was funny, almost, that they were both used to being wide awake when everyone else slept.

It wasn't very funny he killed people for a living.

“Sorry.” Kihyun was serious as he said it; grave, even. “I should've just finished it.”

“Don't say that like you're talking about the weather!”

“You'd be at peace, now. With your lover.”

It took Hoseok a second to realize Kihyun wasn't being serious at all.

He was fucking with him.

“Funny,” he said, his tone petty.

“You could've laughed a little. I saved your life.”

“This is messed up.”

“Kinda.”

“How are you all so –” Chill. Human. To quote Kihyun, kinda.

“Desensitized?”

“I suppose that's the right word.”

“I've been doing this for ten years. It sorta happens over time.”

Hell.

“So why did you? Save my life, I mean,” Hoseok whispered. All of a sudden, he felt closer to death than with the pistol pressing against him. It was the sheer knowledge that Kihyun had truly been meant to kill him, and that he had meant to kill him initially, that made Hoseok mindful of his luck, however double-edged that luck was. It reminded Hoseok he was still breathing and his veins were still working, and his whole body burned with the realization that he was still here. A little rushed, he asked again: “Why did you bring me with you?”

“Well,” said Kihyun, reassembling his gun, “you said you had nowhere else to go.”

Hoseok faltered.

“Yeah.”

There was a brief silence.

“No job? No friends? No parents?”

“No. Not anymore.”

He'd last seen his mom when he was nineteen. It had been six years.

There wasn't much Hoseok could do for her now besides send her some spare money every once in a while in case she needed it. She wouldn't let him take her away from that man.

Hoseok hadn't been able to keep the flat she had left him upon leaving Korea for long, not with his measly income, and then he suddenly had no flat, and no job, and then he'd found out that men really, really wanted to be fucked by him.

But he wasn't about to pour his heart out here.

“And you never had anything to do with whatever Nam was doing,” asked Kihyun.

It was more of a statement, but Hoseok still replied.

“I didn't even know his name was Nam,” he said quietly.

“That's cold.”

Hoseok flinched.

“If it helps, he was selling laced drugs to his clients. Killed a few hundreds before we got him.” Blank, Kihyun got up. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt. “We don't do this for fucking fun.”

“I... I figured.” But still.

“But still,” said Kihyun. “You think we're fucked up.”

“I think this is fucked up,” Hoseok corrected him, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He was getting fidgety under the man's attention.

Earlier, he had thought he could kill Kihyun with his bare hands if he had the guts. And he probably could, if only their strength was considered. But Kihyun had been killing men – even men like Hoseok – for ten years already. Ten years.

Realistically, Hoseok had no chance.

“It is fucked up,” said Kihyun. He held Hoseok's gaze. “I won't try to excuse it. It's what we do, and it's what we're paid for. We kill killers, but that doesn't make us heroes. Killing is fucked up. That I brought you here... is fucked up. I was sure that you...” He paused suddenly, leaving the unfinished sentence to hang in the air.

“You were sure that I what?”

“The way you look,” said Kihyun. “I took you for one of his men. Someone who's used to this.”

“But I told you I wasn't.”

“Obviously, I thought you lied.”

“So. I'm only alive because you made a mistake.”

And here he was hoping Kihyun was actually somewhat of a softie.

Somewhere deep, deep down, under all those layers of grit and severity.

Hoseok breathed out.

“You only took me with you because you thought I would snitch and join you.”

“That was the plan.”

“So you didn't spare me.”

“Let's say I didn't.”

“I'm useless to you, then.”

They looked at each other.

“Yeah. You kinda are.”

Hoseok's skin tingled.

He really didn't want to die now. Not after all of this.

“You gonna...” He couldn't finish.

“I'm not gonna do anything today.”

That didn't calm Hoseok down at all.

Kihyun went into one of his silences again, though, and the conversation was over.

 

The adjoined bathroom was almost as spacious as the bedroom. There was no tub, but the shower stall took up one whole wall.

Damn. He could get used to this, and it scared him.

It scared him all the more because even if he decided to bite the bullet and stay, there was a whole other bullet waiting for him. Possibly in the morning. Possibly while he was asleep. Kihyun might still change his mind.

Hoseok was tired. He had gone through so many emotions within the past few hours that he was spent, unable to even feel sorry for himself. All he wanted was a shower. And afterwards, if he was supposed to be killed in his sleep, well, at least he wouldn't feel anything.

He stayed in the shower for a solid twenty minutes, letting a rush of hard-hitting drops burn his body. He lifted his face up, rubbing at it, half-asleep and feeling a headache creep in. If only he hadn't sucked that cock. If only he had said no to the man's coin. If only he wasn't a nameless, faceless bum, easy to be written off.

Alright, so maybe he was still feeling sorry for himself.

Turning the water off, he got out, wrapping a towel around his hips. He halted in front of a mirror, taking in how swollen and jumpy he looked. His dyed hair was making him look positively ashy. Well. He did just escape death only to be threatened with it again. If anyone had the right to look like shit right now, it was him.

He began to brush his teeth, glad to get the stale taste out of his mouth. Spitting out the toothpaste, he splashed cold water on his face, hoping it would somehow help him look his usual self. It didn't.

He looked even less like himself when he put on Kihyun's clothes. The shirt was so small it was positively cropped on him, the pyjama trousers long enough but tight. He felt awkward going back like that, chafing his dick on the fabric of the trousers because of course Kihyun wasn't going to lend his underwear to a stranger.

That he was letting a stranger sleep in his room didn't seem to phase him.

Hoseok peered in. Kihyun was hunched up at the table, sorting out the contents of the briefcase. His sleeves were rolled up and he had glasses on. The top drawer of the desk was open, a row of handguns glistening there in the light of a reading lamp.

Walking in quietly, Hoseok did his best not to stare. He laid down on the bed closer to the door, assuming it to be the one that was normally vacant.

“Do you live here alone?”

He winced at himself.

“There's over a hundred people in the building,” replied Kihyun.

“I meant here. In the room,” said Hoseok, fussing with his pillow first, then the blanket.

“Yeah.”

“Why the two beds, then?”

“Every room has them.”

“Oh.”

Outside, a car sped up, resounding through the whole street.

“You could, like, push these together and sleep like a king.”

There was no response from Kihyun. Instead, he eventually shut the briefcase and the drawer, securing both with a code. Putting the light off, he disappeared inside the bathroom.

A little miffled, Hoseok fluffed the covers, rolling onto his side.

It wasn't like he was trying to hit on the straightie. He didn't have to be rude.

Behind the wall, a stream of droplets was whispering softly, misting the glass the way it had when it had been Hoseok in the shower. He could just imagine it, and then he did, and he wondered whether Kihyun felt cleansed at all after a task like that. He wondered whether Kihyun put his face up or hung his head down under the water.

Wrapping himself tighter, Hoseok thought to himself that he really disliked the atmosphere the room had when he was alone in it. It stank of loneliness. Unable to doze off just yet, he watched the ever-shifting orange glow behind the windows.

The shower stopped running and then he heard footsteps.

He knew now why Kihyun was so reluctant to lend him his underwear. It was the only thing he wore besides a long-sleeved T-shirt as he walked back in, smelling of camphor and something lighter.

He wasn't very shy.

With a gun under his pillow, Kihyun rested his head on top of it, his gaze calm but nevertheless concentrated on Hoseok in case he tried to pull anything stupid.

For a while, neither of them did anything, listening to the sounds of the building instead.

Hoseok felt heavy, leaden even, though it was only his body that was beginning to beg for sleep. His mind was astir.

At last, Hoseok whispered: “Hyung?”

“I'm not your hyung.”

He bristled at that. “You don't have to be hostile.”

“I'm not being hostile. I'm not your hyung.”

“Hold up.” Hoisting himself up on one elbow, Hoseok quickly did the math. “That's bollocks.”

“Kindly inform me about my age, then.”

“No, I mean... You said you've been doing this for ten years.”

“Yeah.”

“That would make you, like, fourteen at most when you first started.”

“I was exactly fourteen, yes.”

Hoseok felt as if there was a heavy palm pressing on his chest, not letting go. The windows let a scattered glow inside, dancing on the glass. All he saw of Kihyun was a silhouette sloping softly as a tiny black crest against the window, buried in the off-white blanket. Hoseok lifted his eyes, trying to focus them on Kihyun's face.

It was almost as dark and unreadable as the darkness inside the room.

How was he supposed to talk informally to this man? It felt all kinds of fucked up. First of all, he killed people. Second of all, he didn't kill Hoseok. So he was younger, but at the same time he looked like someone who had lived through several lifetimes already.

His temples throbbed.

“What should I call you, then? Godfather?”

“Don't be silly.”

“Just father, then.” The line was dropped before Hoseok thought it over.

Kihyun sighed, and that was all. Clearly, he did not deem the awkward joke worth answering.

Alright, then. Hoseok swallowed a little.

“Kihyun,” he tried, the name leaving his lips with surprising ease. When Kihyun didn't say anything, Hoseok leaned over in his bed to have a better look at Kihyun's expression. Of course, it was void. Somehow, though, Kihyun's silence made him spill what he'd been holding in. “Look. I'm grateful to you, in a way, I truly am. I mean it. But I just really... I really can't do this. Whatever it is you do. I can't. I'm petrified. I just – can't.”

Kihyun was quiet. He didn't even stir, didn't even blink. As if Hoseok didn't exist.

And then, finally:

“You won't have to. Not right away, anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“You're not a made man yet. Hyungsoo won't allow you to just strut in and possibly mess up a contract. You don't even know how to handle weapons. Just keep your head low for now and let me handle things.”

“Oh, thank fucking god.”

For how long, though?

“And don't fucking swear all the time.”

“Look, shrimp, it sounds really rich coming from you.”

“So this is the first day we're spending together and I'm already sorry I didn't pull the trigger.”

“Ow. Too soon.”

“Was it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well. That's the first time I've been told I was too soon.”

Hoseok gaped a little, feeling his neck flush. So the straight guy could be corny back.

And then the soft voice inside Hoseok's head was here again. Please, let it be like this. Let me forget what they do; let me just have a roof over my head, and maybe some money, and someone to talk to.

Fuck. For all the sugar babying he'd done in the past, he was person-starved. People didn't usually want him to talk. They just needed him, for whatever reason. When they said they would “handle things” for him, they meant they would pull out a wallet so Hoseok would handle things for them. Then they would buy him a meal, already touching his thigh under the table as if he wasn't even allowed to eat like a human being; as if he wasn't designed for anything else but sex.

He smiled at himself, a little tiredly, for feeling sorry for himself all over again.

“Kihyun?”

“Yeah.”

“What am I supposed to do here, then? I don't have any intel. I don't – I can't do anything. I'm really totally useless to you.”

“You're strong.”

“Yeah, but –“

“Just look big and don't let people know you're actually just a big pansy.”

“Well, thanks.”

“You're welcome.”

Hoseok seethed. He rolled onto his other side, sensing Kihyun's level stare burn into the back of his neck.

He fell asleep faster than he thought he could.

 

Gasping, he sat up. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe.

He grasped at his throat, but there was nothing obstructing it, nothing except for the nightmare that was still in front of his eyes, overcoming his body with fear as flowy and thick as tar, filling him.

He'd seen the dead man in his dream. Looking around, Hoseok was sure the man would still be there, sitting on his bed, his cock out and head split, blood gushing out in clots as his mouth still moved, asking Hoseok to hold him, asking him not to shoot.

“I didn't,” he gasped out, forcing some oxygen into his lungs.

Unable to control it, he bent over the edge of the bed and threw up.

Something moved at the other end of the room and then someone got up from a chair. Hoseok didn't flinch just because he recognized Kihyun's figure immediately, almost grateful to realize he was there. The room was dim, but it wasn't as dark as in the middle of the night. It was going to be dawn soon.

The lights snapped on and the paling sky turned all but black again behind the windows. A hand shook Hoseok lightly, soothing him.

“I didn't do it,” Hoseok said to no one in particular, his voice raspy.

The hand pressed on him harder, trying to bring him back to reality.

He was paralyzed. He didn't even tremble when Kihyun started to wipe at his sweat with a coarse towel, loosening his tensed up muscles in the process.

It took him a while to be able to breathe evenly.

But then he began to tremble.

“You're alright,” said Kihyun, toneless, still rubbing at his arms. “You've had a rough night.”

That was a blooming understatement, but Hoseok let Kihyun lull him, his sense of safety depending solely on that little bit of contact. He wasn't dead. He wasn't dead yet. The man wasn't here.

He gripped Kihyun's wrist.

“Don't let them...” He didn't finish. He was so worn from thinking and talking about death that he wasn't about to say it out loud. Not anymore. He'd never seriously considered dying before, not even when freezing outside with no cash and no one to help him. He was so young. So strong, too, as Kihyun had said. Dying was a foreign concept, something unreal. He wasn't prepared for it to become so tangible, not a threat but an inevitability. So, more desperate than before, he said it again: “Don't let them do it.”

“I won't.”

Hoseok trusted him.

He trusted him because he had no other option.

He realized he'd sweated through his tee. He didn't give off that healthy smell that comes with a good workout or good sex; he stank of fear.

Standing up, Kihyun freed himself from Hoseok's grasp, heading to the bathroom. He came back with a rag and a glass of water which he handed to Hoseok. Stiffly, he held it with both of his hands. He watched sheepishly as Kihyun started wiping the gunk off the floor with the wet rag.

“I'll do it,” Hoseok offered.

“It's alright.”

“I'm sorry.”

“It's alright,” Kihyun repeated. “It's just wood.”

He disappeared again, washing the rag and his hands. Hoseok listened to the rustling stream of water, suddenly feeling foolish in the brightly lit bedroom. Nightmares were the last thing he should be scared of right now. The dead couldn't hurt him. It was the living he should be wary of.

And yet, as Kihyun came back to check on him, Hoseok was stunned by that surge of trust once more.

The last time someone took care of him like that, Hoseok had been sick and very vocal about it, and his mom had cradled his head and sung to him.

Scoffing at himself, he reckoned he couldn't very well ask Kihyun to sing to him.

“Do you think you can go back to sleep?”

This time, Hoseok actually scoffed. “No. I don't think so.”

“Are you hungry?”

“No.” But considering he hadn't eaten anything since lunch and he vomited twice, he had to concede. “Maybe a little.”

“Get dressed, then.”

“Are we going somewhere? Where?”

“The night market.”

They took the same car that had brought Hoseok here, setting off from an underground garage full of similar vehicles. Some were smaller, streamlined, as Hoseok noted, and some were huge and suited for what he assumed were different kinds of “orders.” The colour and tinted windows were the same, though.

Kihyun drove them to the outskirts of Songpa, not far away from the bridge Hoseok had heaved from into the Han River. They passed a nearby fish market, but it was closed at this hour, the vendors only just shuffling around to set up their stalls. A few blocks further, Kihyun parked and got out of the car. Hoseok followed him, quiet and a bit ashamed.

They hadn't talked during the whole ride.

The DongDaemun night market sizzled with voices as always. The venue crawled with people who moved in clusters. Music pulsed from some of the stalls, a different tune in every aisle. Bright lights and hard-staring signs clashed for attention, burning artificial and cold. An off-gold hue of regular lightbulbs hung above every booth. All around, vendors called to the customers, offering fried octopus and souvenirs and underpriced tech gadgets.

“We should get you some new clothes first,” said Kihyun, his eyes already trained to the end of the aisle.

“I don't have anything to pay with,” Hoseok reminded him, picking up pace to keep up with him.

“You're not paying.”

“You're not going to steal, are you?” he asked in a loud whisper.

“Do I look like some trifling pickpocket to you?”

“Well, no...”

“It's all on Hyungsoo now.”

Probably thinking it was self-explanatory, Kihyun led him towards the men's section.

Soon, Hoseok's arms were full of coats and hoodies and tees with Kihyun heaping more and more on top as they went on. Kihyun was a fast shopper, not haggling with vendors much unless he had a good argument for getting a nice discount. He eyed each price tag cursorily before checking the size of the item, gazing at Hoseok searchingly every now and then.

Used to this treatment, Hoseok just stood there, holding the stuff Kihyun was piling up on him like a vicious hamster. As a pair of trousers landed on top, Hoseok blew at the tag so it would flip and reveal the price. It wasn't that pricy, but it wasn't the cheapest, either. He supposed he could just let Kihyun handle things. It wasn't like he had to be dressed to kill.

Immediately, he flinched at that thought.

“Need something else?” Kihyun asked him in passing.

“Some undies would be nice.”

“Alright.”

He became daring.

“Shoes, too.”

“Leave the stuff here.” Kihyun motioned to the counter, reaching for his wallet. “Make it quick, will you?”

Hoseok gave him a look.

“And no funny business,” said Kihyun just for good measure, not sparing Hoseok a glance.

Hoseok gave him another look and then he ventured inside the spacious stall, browsing for some briefs and boots. He was done in a minute. Apparently, he was a fast shopper, too.

“Is it possible for him to get changed right away?” Kihyun asked the vendor, his voice so polite and distinguished it startled Hoseok.

The lady led Hoseok to a fishy cubicle made entirely of hanging canvas. He slid inside, noting there were no hangers or mirrors. Oh, well. He threw the heap of clothing on the ground, undressing. Not picky, he chose the first thing that lay on top, donning a pair of black jeans and a sweater. At last, he put on an overcoat, the material waterproof and slightly iridescent. Reaching behind his back, he scratched himself before tearing off the tag.

Gathering the things, he walked out of the cubicle, searching for Kihyun.

He stood about two metres away from the spot where he was supposed to wait, his body turned sideways. He was scrutinizing a silk tie, fingering the fabric. He was focused, his face pointed. As if sensing Hoseok's presence, or perhaps it was because he saw him from the corner of his eye, Kihyun glanced up. He took several of those ties and walked towards Hoseok. He laid the ties down next to two all-black suits he must have selected for Hoseok while he was changing.

Picking up the bags, they made their way through the throng. Hoseok was used to places like this, often spending the night there, walking aimlessly, pretending to be one of the customers. It didn't surprise him the spot was still as busy and chirpy as ever, people talking over each other, hassling, laughing. The glow and glitter of lights put him at ease.

Hoseok sat down on one of the myriads of steel stools, Kihyun taking a seat beside him. They ordered the first dish they were offered because there were so many to choose from that Hoseok was overwhelmed, and when the cashier suggested the oyster omelet to them, it just sounded so good he had to try. Kihyun asked for a cup of coffee while Hoseok ordered some kind of milky tea that even looked sweet.

As he chewed on his food and watched the crowd go to and fro, a thought occurred to him that excited but nearly terrified him. He could run.

Kihyun couldn't pull him back even if he tried, and he couldn't exactly whip out his gun right there in the open, either, not with all these witnesses milling about. Hoseok could easily get lost in the labyrinthine venue and never look back.

He glanced at Kihyun.

The younger man sat there with a void expression, terribly tired although his features and movements were as sharp as usual, and Hoseok knew he couldn't do it. Even if he made a run for it and managed to escape, it would come at a price.

He told himself they would go after him and eventually get him, anyway. Only Kihyun might be done for by then, all because Hoseok was feeling brave for a second, and that thought turned the food in his mouth into bile. Yeah, he just couldn't to it.

Hoseok didn't owe him his life. But he did owe Kihyun the life he had put on the line for Hoseok. Kihyun's life.

Fuck.

Noiselessly, Kihyun got up, noticing that Hoseok was done eating. They left the market, got into the car, and drove off.

They took a different route than before. Steering the wheel to the left, Kihyun took a turn, trailing alongside the Han River. In a moment, he took a turn again and they ended up leaving the highway altogether. Hoseok grew tense in his seat, but kept his mouth shut.

Unlit, the river bank was deserted, the early dawn painting it pink but eerie. Kihyun unlocked the trunk and took the familiar briefcase out of it, laying it on top of the roof of the car and opening it. Inside was an opaque plastic bag, black and strangely compact, block-shaped.

Kihyun looked at Hoseok.

“Your stuff.”

It took Hoseok a minute to understand Kihyun was asking for his old clothes, and when he did, he complied, though tentatively. Kihyun wrapped the bag inside Hoseok's tank top first, then the windbreaker, and then he weighted the whole package down with his torn jeans and tied it all together. Not saying a word, Kihyun darted towards the brink, picking up speed until he suddenly threw the whole thing into the deep water.

“Are you nuts?” Hoseok demanded, rushing to him. “Those were my only things! My ID was still there! My –”

“You won't need them anymore.”

Hoseok balked. “Oh, god. You are going to kill me here.”

“I'm not going to kill you,” Kihyun snapped. “But I goddamn should've. You're so high maintenance.”

Heading back to the car, Kihyun left him there to gape. Fuming but speechless, Hoseok trailed after him in the end, making a show of slamming the door harder than he had to.

Upset, he fussed in his seat to fasten the seat belt.

“I could've run, you know,” he suddenly said. “I could've just left you there and you wouldn't have been able to do shit.”

“Should I thank you for having some common fucking sense?”

Hoseok folded his arms over his chest to stop himself from flipping Kihyun off. He felt himself grow puffy in the face as he always did when he felt wronged. He turned to look out of the window, taking in the morning landscape shadowed by the tinted glass.

He didn't get it.

One minute, Kihyun was being merciful and soothing, and the next he was a proper douche.

The way back was as tense as the way there.

Once back, they put Hoseok's new things on the floor next to his bed.

“Sort it out, or don't. I have to go somewhere.”

“Where?”

Kihyun didn't say anything and walked out of the room. He locked Hoseok inside with an “I'll be back soon.”

Hoseok glared at the door.

So he trusted Kihyun enough to stay and was silly enough to feel sorry for him to the point he might have sacrificed his own future, and yet the slimy shrimp thought it was necessary to shut him up like a prisoner.

Well. Hoseok could always be petty and lurk in his absence.

Which was exactly what he did, ignoring the heap of clothes that needed to be sorted.

Yesterday, the room had seemed stuffier to him somehow. It might have been because of the looming danger, or because of those artificial lights, or even because Hoseok had barely paid attention to anything else besides how to survive and where to sleep.

Today, the blinds were raised, grey and glossy. Behind the three floor-to-ceiling windows, an equally grey morning scene was unfolding. Streets were getting busier and busier by the minute, light after light going out until it was only the sun that poured its whiteness over Seoul. Buses and cabs and people rushed past the building to avoid traffic jam. Hoseok wondered how many of them had the slightest idea that a syndicate of men and women who dealt in death lived among them.

When he got tired of the view, he slowly, carefully started moving about, as if expecting Kihyun to creep in and scold him for snooping. But snoop he did, touching chairs and walls in passing as he circled around them, taking in the unnaturally clean bedroom. It was lived-in but spotless.

There was very little to disclose Kihyun's personal taste. Or maybe it was just that he had none. But somehow, the bedroom undeniably belonged to him. It was functional but hollow, furnished in pale furniture. A single prickly cactus adorned the writing desk. The drawers were locked. When Hoseok peeked into one of the row of fitted cabinets, he slammed it shut immediately, regretting that he was being nosy. It was full of secured guns of all kinds, and not only that. There were tools, too, the sort which he would expect to see in a morgue.

He shuddered.

Kihyun was one creepy fucker.

Still, it was comforting, knowing that Kihyun was so deadly.

It meant Hoseok was safe with him.

Hoseok's bedside table was completely empty except for his crumpled certificate. He stared at it. He thought Kihyun had drowned the thing along with everything else that tied Hoseok to his former life. He touched the softened edge of the paper and felt nothing of that yearning pull he used to feel when thinking about dancing.

Straightening up, he glanced at the tiny table next to Kihyun's bed.

If he looked inside, he would really cross a boundary.

Thinking it was probably locked anyway, Hoseok climbed over the bed, reaching to pull at the handle. It slid out without any resistance.

A little unnerved but all the more curious, Hoseok peeked inside.

There was a fully loaded spare magazine and a case for glasses. It was just like Kihyun, to keep something so mundane next to something so scary.

Deciding he'd had enough, Hoseok closed the drawer shut and, paranoid, polished the handle.

Waiting for nothing in particular, he sat cross-legged on his bed. He looked outside the window again, noticing the sun had climbed higher, lacquering the walls of skyscrapers yellow.

Solitude was getting under his skin.

It always did.

It was different in the dead man's house. Hoseok could play the stereo there, listening to some mellow music and generally to the sound of people talking. Sometimes he would even manage to tune in a Belgian broadcast station. He would listen to the crackly voices and think about that one time he'd visited. In that dingy basement, Hoseok had preferred to be alone.

In this hotel room, though, he was growing more restless by the minute.

There wasn't really anything to amuse him there besides a laptop which was sitting on top of the writing desk. It looked brand new and shiny and, he noted with some bemusement, it was placed exactly in the middle of the table. Hoseok wasn't about to turn it on and find out what kind of files Kihyun stored there. Something told him he could lose his neck while doing so, and he rather liked his neck.

He might be a lurker, but he wasn't a suicider.

A knock was heard, and then a metallic rustle of the lock, and Hoseok's head snapped towards the door.

It was Changkyun again.

“Hi, hyung.”

Hoseok eyed him with some suspicion.

“What are you doing here?”

Feeling at home, Changkyun sauntered towards Hoseok's bed, flopping on top of it. He stretched.

“What a nice day.”

“Is it?” asked Hoseok, terse.

“Too nice to sleep through it. I tried to tell that to Kihyun, but I guess he must've been really tired. He never takes naps during the day.” Changkyun's eyes twinkled. “What did you do to him?”

Nothing, he wanted to say.

Then he realized he'd kept Kihyun awake.

And it wasn't just because of Hoseok's nightmare; Kihyun had not slept at all. At some point during the night, he had moved from his bed to the chair, sacrificing his sleep. He must have been distrustful of Hoseok still, watching over him in case he decided to break away.

The funny thing was, Hoseok hadn't even thought of it.

“I might have kept him up,” Hoseok confessed.

Changkyun's expression turned wolfish. It wasn't pleasant to look at.

“I'm wounded. I thought he was biased against everyone, but I guess it's just me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you guys fuck?”

“We didn't fuck!”

Did the guy only think of loading a gun and busting a load?

“Did you guys talk, then?” Changkyun asked, all too sweetly.

“We went outside.”

“The hell. After he had cleaned the whole damn mess in Nam's house and made sure there wasn't anything that would point to us? To you, too?” His voice unreadable, Changkyun tilted his head. “No wonder he's passed out in my bed.”

Hoseok's belly churned as he was swarmed with one too many emotions, the most suffocating of which was guilt. Pettiness, though, was a close second.

So Kihyun still thought Hoseok might try to strangle him in his sleep.

Even after he'd stayed.

He felt small.

Hoseok supposed he couldn't blame him. They had known each other for one day. One. Kihyun had risked for him for all the wrong reasons, and Hoseok was still here for all the wrong reasons.

And yet, it didn't sit well with him that Kihyun distrusted him so much.

Hoseok had told himself not to depend on anyone, ever.

It was easier said than done. Absence made the heart grow fonder, and Changkyun's presence made the heart definitely very fond of anyone who wasn't Changkyun, and so when Kihyun came back, Hoseok sprung to his feet.

He looked better, Hoseok concluded.

Prettier, too, without that long black coat which made him appear strange and sinister and broader than he was.

“Do you think this is free real estate?” Kihyun snapped at Changkyun.

“What? You can crash in my room, but I can't come to yours?”

“Not when I'm not here.”

“Well, you left the sugar baby here alone.”

“He's your elder. You better mind your tongue,” said Kihyun.

“This really is the pits. I'm the youngest, I should be cherished. But all you guys do is order me around.”

“And don't you like it.”

It sounded almost ominous, but almost not.

It sounded as if they were lovers.

Hoseok was rooted to the spot, not saying a word.

Sprawled on Hoseok's bed, Changkyun smiled a mellow smile, the same kind as when he had pointed his handgun at Hoseok's neck. He was goddamn pleased.

Not minding Hoseok's cloudy expression at all, Changkyun flopped onto his belly, following Kihyun with an unblinking stare. Unbothered, Kihyun walked towards the wardrobe, undressing as he did so. He really wasn't shy at all.

In broad daylight, Kihyun's skin was so pale it looked nearly unhealthy.

Changkyun propped himself up on his elbows and rested his head on his fists.

“For the record? This is why I come here,” said Changkyun.

“Wipe the milk off your chin before you speak to me.”

“It's not milk.”

Strangely, Kihyun snorted at that.

Hoseok didn't feel like laughing at all.

“Ready to go?” asked Changkyun when Kihyun changed into clean, warmer clothes.

“Yeah.”

“Wait,” blurted Hoseok, “you're going already? Now? I thought – I thought you guys only left at night.”

“We're not vampires,” said Kihyun, something of the amusement still tangible in his tone. “Also, you're going with us.”

“No.” It was like Hoseok was being pushed under water, not wave by wave, but with one crippling and drenching surge. His chest felt full and choked up. “I'm not going. You promised.” Stumbling over his words, he took a step towards Kihyun only to stop again. “You promised I wouldn't have to. You said you'd handle things.”

Kihyun cut through him with a cold look.

“We're going for breakfast.”

“Oh.”

Hoseok was a lily-livered fool.

A fool that Changkyun seemed to enjoy snickering at.

To be fair, he also snickered at Kihyun.

“Is that what you promised him?” Changkyun teased. “That's cute.”

“I can also promise you a beating.”

“Please, do.”

That did it.

Unusually daring, Hoseok pulled Changkyun off the bed by the ear so he would stop hitting on men and walked him towards the door.

The little shit liked it, anyway.

Chapter Text

The mess hall was located on the ground floor. On their way there, they picked up another man, the driver Hoseok has already met the night before. Joining them with a mumbled hello, the driver appeared just as sleepy as back then.

A cordial, chubby man was tending the kitchen. He positively beamed when he spotted Hoseok beside the run-down trio. He even stuck his head out of the serving hatch to take a better look at Hoseok, declaring that “not even in his kitchen was there so much meat as on this boy's bones.” Hoseok laughed at that, a little embarrassed. In a significantly brighter mood, he sat down next to the bemused trio.

Well, it wasn't his fault they were all either tiny or scrawny.

He reckoned it didn't take much to become a gangster.

He would have told them his observation, but it would make Kihyun douchy again and Hoseok didn't like it when he was being douchy.

Soon, Hoseok was sneakily being adopted by the cheerful cook. He promptly served Hoseok a hearty meal, almost too hearty even for his bottomless stomach. He dug right into it, the chubby cook fussing around him and praising his appetite. When Hoseok asked for another bowl of rice, he could've sworn the cook looked touched before disappearing into the kitchen.

For the first time in the last twenty four hours, Hoseok forgot where he was and who he was supposed to become.

His peace was not meant to last long.

“So, what are we going to do about him?” asked Changkyun, pointing at Hoseok.

Kihyun took a sip of coffee, mulling over the question.

“I already called Jooheon. He should be here any minute now.”

“What are we going to do about Hyungsoo, though? He's gonna expect results soon. Like, yesterday kind of soon.”

“I'm aware of that. Hyunwoo offered to fuck with his schedule a little, so he won't have time to think about Hoseok or the rest of Nam's men for a while. Still, I have two or three days at most.”

“So Hyunwoo's in, too? Sweet,” Changkyun smiled.

“Yeah,” said Kihyun, glancing up. His face was blank. “I don't want any of you to get involved too much, though. If Hyungsoo finds out I lied –”

“Don't be daft,” said the driver, “we're in this together.”

Listening to their cryptic conversation, Hoseok suddenly didn't feel like finishing his meal.

“What's going on?” he piped up, not a bit desirous to hear the answer.

“It's nothing,” Kihyun replied quicker than he needed to. “Don't worry about it.”

“He should worry about it. He could get you killed.”

“Nothing's gonna happen to me.”

“We're lucky that Jooheon's been on Nam's track for a while now,” Changkyun pointed out. “He should crack the code within days. He's never let us down before,” he added, suddenly sincere.

“What code?” asked Hoseok, his heart shrinking in size.

“The one that will lead us to Nam's biggest supplier.”

The roof of Hoseok's mouth went parched.

“You're going to...”

“We're going to give him to Hyungsoo,” said Kihyun, taking in Hoseok's startled stare, never turning away.

“That means you're going to murder another person,” he said very quietly.

He didn't expect the men at the table to burst out laughing. Changkyun seemed to have to most fun, but the driver took a good minute before he was able to swallow a mouthful, wiping at his eyes afterwards.

“You were right. He's adorable,” said the driver.

Hoseok's skin turned to ice to needles to fire. Stiffly, he returned his gaze to Kihyun.

Although he wasn't laughing anymore, Hoseok reckoned it was worse than if he did. Kihyun's eyes were all crinkled up and crescent-shaped when he smiled.

It was too terrible.

Hoseok's belly tightened.

“I hate it when you guys do this.”

“What? Make light of our debilitating trauma?” offered the driver amicably.

Hoseok had nothing to say to that, and so he held his tongue. Reluctantly, he drew the tray with his unfinished meal closer, picking at his rice.

In about ten minutes, a man about Changkyun's age walked in.

“Ayo, Great White,” the incomer called to one of the men, smiling. His voice carried through the open mess hall, its echo tickling and tinny.

To Hoseok's surprise, it was Kihyun who greeted him back.

So this was Jooheon. Knowing that this man's savvy was the only thing keeping Kihyun and himself afloat, Hoseok was a little awed to meet him.

There was something imposing about Jooheon – about the way he confidently flipped one of the chairs to sit on it backwards, his arms leaning on the backrest. He had a set of slanted, searching eyes that lent more slyness to his face than he actually possessed. He pulled out a laptop from his backpack and proceeded to unpack a set of wiry gadgets Hoseok had no idea were intended for. When he was done, he held out his hand to Hoseok.

He was just as friendly as the chubby cook.

Only better looking.

“You know, it's not like people don't join us from time to time, but they're usually willing. You,” said Jooheon, his fingers running fast over the keyboard, “were just unwilling to conk out. I respect that.”

“Thanks?”

“Like, fighting is a lot like dancing, anyway. You're gonna learn soon.”

A very curt “I'd rather not” was on the tip of his tongue, but Hoseok decided not to make waves.

“I guess,” he managed instead, not about to antagonize Jooheon.

“Then again, like, not to be an asshole, but why didn't you just get on with it?” Jooheon raised his eyebrows at Kihyun, cool as a cucumber, as if that was a regular thing to ask in a convivial conversation. “I wouldn't have to cram a month's worth of work into a few days.”

“He begged so sweetly,” singsonged Changkyun.

“I didn't beg,” said Hoseok.

“You kinda did,” said Kihyun matter-of-factly.

“I politely asked not to have my brains blown away,” retorted Hoseok.

“He was lying face-down on the floor, shaking like a leaf.”

“You pushed me!”

“Yeah, I did,” smiled Kihyun.

It really was too terrible.

Jooheon cracked his knuckles, smirking.

“I guess that's fair. Let's get down to business, then.”

 

They've been at it the whole morning and afternoon, Hoseok not understanding a word of what the remaining three men said. It wasn't until it got dark and Seho, the cook, turned the lights on “so you damn kids wouldn't go blind” that they had to acknowledge defeat. They – and by “they” Hoseok mostly meant Jooheon – managed to hack into one of Nam's bank accounts and from there track his last payments. But while that lead them to more of Nam's associates and accomplices, it didn't give away the name of the main supplier.

Around nine, Kihyun decided to call it a day. The corners of his mouth have taken on that slightly pursed shape they did whenever he was pensive. Which, Hoseok thought to himself, was nearly all the time.

Back in the bedroom, Hoseok moped in his bed, lying there fully clothed and restless.

Anxiety gnawed at him and he tossed around, irritated at Kihyun for mending one of his leather belts in utter silence and composure. Hoseok wanted to talk to him, but all of his attempts were quickly fended off. In the end, he took a nap.

He wished he didn't.

He woke up screaming, not even realizing it was him who was making the noise.

It was pitch-black, the darkness viscous, pouring into him to drown him alive.

His first thought was that he was alone in the room, and it terrified him.

His second thought was to find Kihyun.

And then Hoseok heard him, recognizing the sound of his tread immediately. He reached into the gloom of the room, grasping at the air before he finally took hold of Kihyun's sleeve. He seized both of his wrists, nearly crushing them. He brought them to his face. Kihyun's hands were cool on his damp temples, a little lifeless but there.

“Turn the lights on,” Hoseok gasped out.

“You gotta let go of me first.”

He didn't want to do that.

Slowly, he eased his grip and let Kihyun go. The lights snapped on, flooding the barren room.

Hoseok's clothes were drenched, sticking to his skin.

But there was no dead man with a flower-shaped wound whose face would change from Nam's to his to Kihyun's and back. Relieved, Hoseok rubbed at his eyes to wake himself up.

“Bad dreams?”

Gently, Kihyun sat down next to him. Hoseok took one of his hands again, looking at it. In the sudden brightness, he was too ashamed to ask for more soothing touches.

“I thought you were gone.”

“Not until another hour.”

Hoseok exhaled sharply.

“Why were the lights out?”

“I didn't want to wake you up.”

Hoseok's lips went pallid as he pressed them together.

“Do you have to go tonight?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Kihyun yanked his hand free and Hoseok leaned towards him as if drawn by a magnet, breathless, and that made Kihyun pause. Taking pity on him, he pulled the hem of his sleeve down and patted at Hoseok's brow.

Savouring the contact, he mumbled:

“Do you leave every night?”

“No. But I have to take care of Jooheon's contract so he can carry on with the decoding.”

“Are you scared?”

At that, Kihyun's forehead creased. “It's just reconnaissance.”

“I'd be scared.”

“I can see that.”

Laughing a little, Hoseok breathed out long and hard, sensing his body unwind. The nightmare was gone and though there was still that deep sense of unease feasting on his nerves, he knew it couldn't hurt him anymore.

Nothing could hurt him in this room.

Everything welled inside him.

Reaching up, he pressed at the back of Kihyun's hand.

“I'll stay,” Hoseok sighed. “I mean it. I'll stay here. But please...”

“Yeah. I know. I'll do the work.”

Hoseok let his palm slide down Kihyun's forearm, closing his fingers over it. God, was he slim. Hoseok could break his bones. And yet, this tiny man was willing to protect him. Even from fear. The guilt that tore at him didn't go away as Hoseok became aware he needed to use Kihyun's kindness one more time. He needed to be reassured again.

“Tell me something,” Hoseok said. “Anything that will... that will make this less terrible.”

“Whatever I tell you won't really change the fact that we do what we do.”

“I know that, but –” he broke off. Frustrated, and still leaning into the touch, he muttered: “Lie to me, then.”

Expressionless, Kihyun sagged a little in his seat.

“This isn't even a lie, but okay,” he said in a low voice. “The people we take care of are those who deserve to die. Sometimes they're hitmen like us. Sometimes they run drug cartels and are responsible for thousands ruined lives. Sometimes they are pedophiles who distribute child porn, cunts who abuse and rape women and fuck toddlers to death. Sometimes they are corrupt cops who've become too powerful for the legal system to do anything about them, and that's when we come along.”

Hoseok has closed his eyes without realizing it and was now squeezing them shut even harder. However calming the trickling caress of Kihyun's fingertips on his skin was, inside, Hoseok felt leaden and filled with grime from just thinking about what he had to deal with on a daily basis. It was as if his insides grew pulpy and black, dissipating into sheer nothingness that glassed his body in. There was that familiar bitter pull at his throat which threatened to make him heave.

“That's so gross,” Hoseok said at last, knowing full well it didn't even begin to describe the reality for what it was.

As soon as he spoke, the hand was gone.

“Yeah. It is. But that's what we do.”

“No, I meant... I meant what they do,” said Hoseok. And it was true. “It's awful.”

Kihyun gave a gloomy chuckle.

“No kidding.”

“So you really do get rid of scum. That's...”

“No. Don't fucking glorify it.”

“I'm not. I'm just,” Hoseok halted, not knowing what to say. “It makes it easier. Just a little bit.”

“Hoseok, it's not easy. That's the thing.”

“But you guys laughed about it.”

Suddenly distant, Kihyun got up. Hoseok knew that the moment – the closeness – was over. He knew it before Kihyun even spoke up.

“You should walk it off so you don't have the same dream again when you fall asleep.”

Hoseok listened to him, pacing around the four plain walls once or twice, feeling hollow. His mind was racing within his languid body. Trying to stretch to get some life back into his limbs, he paced until he finally settled for doing a set of push-ups, fighting adrenaline with more adrenaline.

When he grew pleasantly taut, he got up, went to the bathroom and washed his face. He took off his tee to wipe the his sticky sweat with it. He cupped a handful of icy cold water and patted the back of his neck with it, shaking off any remainder of his sleepiness. Still, it didn't calm him the way someone else's presence did, and he stepped back into the bedroom, noticing immediately that Kihyun has opened one of the windows.

The autumn air was biting, but not unpleasantly so, heavy with fumes and decaying leaves. The smog-glazed sky was violet, yellowing at the edges where it was the closest to street lights.

Hoseok approached Kihyun a little sheepishly.

Sitting down on the ground next to him, careful not to get too close to the open window which opened straight into the void underneath and blew chilling gushes of air at them, his eyes darted towards Kihyun.

“I'm sorry,” he said, his voice barely audible over the sounds of the rippling city. “For causing a scene.” Again.

“I'm sorry for bringing you here.”

The tension was back.

“Are you?”

“Yeah. I fucked up big time.” Kihyun didn't move, didn't even seem to breathe. “I thought you were... and instead you're...”

Shaking his head, Kihyun trailed off. He was staring off into the distance, not focused on anything in particular. The curve of his chin and nose was lit from the below and so was his brow bone, making it seem like the eye underneath it was sunken and all-black.

“We all chose this, you know. We saw what was happening and we wanted to stop it and whatever measures we have to take, we'll do it. It almost feels rewarding at times. This is the only thing we're good at. We know we're lost cases.” Abruptly, Kihyun paused, perhaps realizing he's said too much. “But you don't belong here.”

Somehow, Hoseok wasn't even good enough to be a lost case.

He run his finger alongside the window frame, ribbed and cold to the touch. It appeared to him the outside world which was lying right behind it was unreal.

“I don't belong anywhere else, either,” Hoseok said at last.

“Bollocks. You could've had a future.”

“That's the thing, though,” he said. “I never had a future.”

“You did, but sucking that drug lord's dick for money was way more fun, I guess.”

That hurt like a motherfucker. “It's not like I didn't try. Do you think I just woke up one day and thought to myself, hmm, how many dicks can I possibly fit into my mouth for a few won?”

“Dunno. It's a pretty big mouth.”

And the moment was gone again.

When it came to stinging with words, Kihyun was worse than a hornet.

Standing up, Hoseok stalked to the bathroom, locking himself in. He needed a shower. A long one. Frigid droplets fell over his shoulders like shards of glass, too bruising to bear, and yet he stood there, shivering, letting the pouring cascade numb him.

Eventually, he fiddled with the handle, craning his neck so the now hot stream would warm his face. The bathroom misted over, each panel of glass and the mirror turning milky and sweaty.

When he got out, Kihyun was no longer there.

Hoseok wondered briefly what a reconnaissance mission might entail. Kihyun had said he wasn't scared, but was that even telling when he was already so dazed, so used to danger?

The window was still open. Taking a cushion, Hoseok laid it on the hardwood floor and plopped down. He supposed he should wear something warmer, seeing that his hair was still damp and dripping. But, as he pulled at Kihyun's duvet and let it slide over the floor with some satisfaction, he decided he didn't need to get up after all. Wrapping himself tightly, he was very much vindicated. The mean neat freak could sleep under a dirty blanket for all Hoseok cared.

The fabric smelled of Kihyun, though, and suddenly Hoseok wasn't fussy enough to stay mad; he was just sad.

Kihyun hasn't been gone for an hour when Hoseok longed to have him back.

Kihyun meant safety. And however uncertain their standing within the organization was right now, at least with Kihyun the unease within Hoseok went away.

It's just loneliness, he told himself, not a bond. Nevertheless, he stared down at the lit but vacant street, waiting for Kihyun to appear.

Countless times, he's burned himself before ultimately learning not to depend on anyone. Instead, he depended on things. He depended on nonstop diners and cheap fleece jackets, on coins tinkling heavy in his pocket and on the bank machine at the corner next to the store in Garak-ro from which he sent any surplus money to his mom.

With other people, Hoseok could keep his indifference because that's what he had to do where money was involved. Somehow, at the crumpled, well-thumbed smell of bills his heart always emptied itself. Any shred of affection that might have been there leaked out until Hoseok was nothing but a container for someone else's illusions.

Kihyun didn't pay him. He didn't take anything.

All he did was give.

Even if he gave insults as freely as compassion.

Hoseok rested his chin in the folds of the fluffed up blanket. In the distance, the Lotte World Tower loomed tall and luminescent, inviting the tireless crowd to eat and shop and laugh, livening up the center and the nearby park. Inhaling the crisp air through his nose, Hoseok imagined the rows and rows of rustling trees outlined against the solid shine of neon signs. He thought of all those people who were free to roam and of couples seated in dim cinemas, waiting for the lights to fade so they could touch each other in the dark.

He wanted to join them, and yet he knew that even if he was able to walk out of this building a free man, he still wouldn't be one of them. He's tried. He would just end up wasting space again.

While he sat there, his ears began to freeze. He rubbed at them every now and then, but when that didn't help, he got up and closed the window with a soft thud. Swaddled still, he shuffled towards Kihyun's bed. He planned to leave the blanket there and pace around some more, too afraid to fall asleep alone, but once he sat down, it was too easy to sprawl out and rest his head on Kihyun's pillow.

It smelled even stronger, of something woodsy and of lily-of-the-valley. The undertones were dark and cut to the marrow, reminding Hoseok of forgotten fears and old abandoned hanoks, but the milder scent of flowers lulled him, softening the edges of the too-white room.

He buried his face in the pillow.

 

The ceiling lights were still on when someone shook him. It was just in time before his dream could go bad.

Kihyun smelled of rain. He looked dead tired and as cold as his hand felt. Nevertheless, Hoseok tilted his head into the wet palm, touch-starved. He'd seen Nam again, and in the dream the man had laughed through the little hole at the back of his mouth.

Hoseok could still hear him wheeze.

Covering himself up to his chin, he closed his eyes again.

That didn't seem to please Kihyun.

“Get out of my bed.”

“Can't. Too tired.” His eyelids too heavy to lift them up again, he mumbled: “You're freezing.”

“Fucking move.”

All Hoseok managed to do was roll onto his side to make some space, but by that time Kihyun was gone and so was the cool but calming contact. Hoseok heard a rustle coming from the other bunk and then he dozed off.

The next time he woke up, the room was filled with daylight.

Hoseok propped himself up on his elbows, blinking. The bed Kihyun had slept in was vacant and crisply made. Untangling himself, he noticed a slip of paper which has slid into one of the folds of the sheets. He picked it up and stared at the note dumbly before he understood its meaning.

It was from Kihyun, telling him they were all in Changkyun's room. They were working on the Nam case. Hoseok took in the slanted handwriting as well as the no-nonsense message. His eyes darted to the bottom of the paper.

Of course the creepy toddler's room number was 69.

A little grouchy, Hoseok washed up and put on some clothes before he headed out of the door. As he touched the handle, he hesitated. Cautiously, he tried to press at it.

It gave way.

The corridor swam in fluorescent light, a creeping plant standing at each end of the hallway, the shade of green as deep and glossy as always.

Hoseok didn't even consider running while he took the short walk two doors down. He didn't even realize he didn't consider it. He was still too hung up on the fact that Changkyun the ogler has deliberately chosen that particular room with that particular number, knowing full well it would annoy everyone.

Why did Kihyun assemble the meeting in his bedroom, anyway?

Pausing to fume at the gilded number adorning the door, Hoseok knocked and was let in by a very swollen though very energetic Jooheon.

The room was packed. Unlike in Kihyun's bedroom, Changkyun had the two separate bunks pushed together, creating a lush den. Hyungwon and an unfamiliar blond man were sprawled on top of it, both going through countless folders, flipping page after page, their eyes droopy. In front of the window, a metal desk was overflowing with open laptops and gadgets, a fan blowing lightly on the fuming machines. Under the seat on which Jooheon flopped down stood a pile of paper cups and ripped foil wrappers. Empty water bottles were strewn all around, half-crumpled, and there was some unfinished food in containers balanced on top of every other spare piece of furniture.

It was a mess. Most of the men must have been on the case since yesterday.

Hoseok searched for Kihyun, who occupied one of the chairs in the corner. He was wearing glasses again. His hair, unkept and softly waved away from his face, was falling over his eyes whenever he looked down. Changkyun was perched on the cushy armrest, hunched forward. He patted the screen from time to time to point out something Kihyun must have missed.

Just as Hoseok found him, Kihyun stretched, squaring an ankle over his knee while he repositioned the laptop he was holding. He caught Hoseok's glance and wordlessly patted the chair next to him.

Hoseok went to him.

He sat there awkwardly, not greeted by anyone except for Jooheon (because Hoseok didn't count Changkyun's cheeky smile as a greeting). After a while, he grew fidgety.

The room was anything but quiet, yet no one really talked. Oh, they were all communicating in some sort of way which was foreign to Hoseok, calling out numbers and passwords, but even that was curt and only uttered for the sake of being able to focus in silence again.

Once or twice, they mentioned names that tickled Hoseok's memory, making him recall the first and last soirée that Nam had taken him to. There had been a foreign man whose surname Hoseok would forget forever if he didn't hear it again today, and a woman who would have bought Hoseok's services and whose money he would have accepted if it hadn't been for Nam. His patron never took Hoseok anywhere afterwards. Perhaps it was because of the woman.

Funny, how Hoseok recognized the names of Nam's accomplices – or at least their aliases – but Nam's name was still strange to him.

The clock ticked away.

Fingertips ran over well-worn keys, papers rustled.

Hoseok leaned forward, tapping at Kihyun's wrist.

“Can I do something?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“Yeah. Grab yourself something to eat.”

“I meant, can I do something helpful?” said Hoseok, a bit peevish.

“Refill my cup.”

Well.

He supposed it was better than killing people.

The kettle was almost empty, so he brew some more coffee, cleaning and redistributing the cups to the taciturn group. Taking a smaller mug for himself, he sipped at the unsweetened liquid, pulling bitter faces. There were enough snacks lying around for Hoseok to make a small breakfast for himself. They were oily and stale, but Hoseok has never been a picky eater.

Nestled in the chair again, he amused himself by watching Kihyun.

Kihyun concentrated in waves. He poured his whole being into the task at hand and he neither budged nor blinked until it was done. After he was finished, he had to distract himself with a sip of coffee or a glance out of the window. Sometimes he just sighed, drumming at the armrest. He had small, cunning hands. There was a ring on his forefinger.

For all he's done for him, Hoseok wanted to hold his hands for a bit. But then Kihyun wouldn't be able to work and he'd be snappish, and so Hoseok put his own hands into his lap and just stared.

Seho the cook came past noon, pushing a tray in front of him. Laughing at the mess all around, he brought some mirth into the high-strung room, but as soon as he left, so did the lively atmosphere.

They took a break to eat. Mostly quiet, they dove into the food, not savouring it the way Seho's culinary talent deserved. There wasn't much to be told except for when the giant Hoseok had met on his first day here peeked in, motioning for Kihyun to follow him outside. When Kihyun came back, it was as if there was a clock ticking above his head.

“What is it?” Changkyun prompted him.

“We've got time until morning. Hyunwoo told me that Hyungsoo wants to see Hoseok at nine, and if we come up empty-handed...”

“We won't,” said Jooheon, his face firmer than his voice. “I'm almost there. I know it. It's just...”

“Yeah. I'm not worried.”

I trust you , Kihyun seemed to say.

“You can always give him the wrong name,” offered the blond. “They all belong to Nam's crew, anyway, and the more of them we get, the better. So what if we can't give Hyungsoo the supplier on the first try?” he rambled. “It's not like we're putting our people in danger if we take a little longer.”

“I've considered that. But then he won't trust Hoseok.”

“He's only alive because Hyungsoo believes he's got some intel,” explained Hyungwon.

The blond appeared to contemplate over that, though his concern for a stranger like Hoseok was obviously non-existent next to his concern for Kihyun.

“How about we just bring him a dead body? We can look for the real supplier later.”

“In the long run? If he finds out, I'll be even more fucked,” Kihyun turned the plan down.

“Well, everyone can make a honest mistake.”

“I've already made one, Minhyuk.”

Hoseok flinched in his seat, trying to shrink in size.

Yeah. It wasn't the first time he's been called a mistake.

Pushing their plates away, the group returned to their laptops and folders and files. Hoseok had nothing to do except pretend he was cleaning the place so he could feel useful. Somewhere along the way, he started to tidy up for real just to get rid of the thought that he was going to see the boss again.

His memory of the man was too vivid to look forward to it. This time, the boss was going to ask questions, and if Hoseok didn't have any answers, he'd end up at the bottom of the Han River.

They spent the day holed in Changkyun's room. By dusk, everyone was covered in a nasty sheen of sweat and the room smelled quite unpleasant with the odour of salt and grease and bodies. It was as if their nervousness has condensed above them, a putrid cloud that no amount of fresh air could crowd out.

The evening came and then it was after midnight and the machines were still running, overheated and screeching now.

It was still not enough.

They weren't going to make it.

Kihyun took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. He tilted his head back and wearily rubbed at his neck. It didn't take long and he was hunched over the laptop once more.

Around four in the morning, Hoseok began to fall asleep in short fits, always jerking awake to draw in a few shallow breaths. He tried to stay up, but he dozed off again, disturbed either by nightmares or plain fear.

At six, it was Kihyun who woke him up.

“We've done it.”

“What?” he said, somehow both mushy and raspy.

“We have the name.”

Hoseok barely understood him, but then he did.

“So you're safe,” he whispered and he fell asleep again.

 

Hoseok shut the door behind him softly, sagging against the wood.

He glanced around the room.

They were all there, seated on the bed and in chairs. The only person missing was Hyunwoo, the giant guarding Hyungsoo's office who had walked Hoseok there and back.

“So?” asked Minhyuk, the least patient one. “How did it go?”

“I... it went well?”

“Did he ask a lot of questions?”

“Yeah, kinda.”

“But was he satisfied?” asked Jooheon, his carved-in eyes attentive despite the lack of sleep.

“I think so,” said Hoseok, finally taking a step into the room. Naturally gravitating towards Kihyun, he went to his chair and leaned against the armrest, seeing that the other seat was occupied by a curled up Changkyun.

“Did you remember all the names?” asked Hyungwon.

“Yes. Names, figures, dates. All of it. I don't think I made any mistakes,” said Hoseok.

“And he trusted you?”

The question came from Kihyun.

Hoseok glanced down at him, taking in his folded shoulders and papery wrists. He's done this to him. He's worn him out and made him sacrifice the bond with his boss. He's made him into a tired, high-strung shell, while Hoseok himself was alright and chirpy and rested.

Shifting a little, Hoseok tore his gaze away.

“I guess so. He was all mysterious and shit.”

“Sounds like him,” piped up Minhyuk.

“I think he was the most curious about how a hired escort could possibly know so much. I told him that Nam made a lot of his phone calls from the bedroom when he thought I was asleep.”

“Did he believe that?” Hyungwon asked sceptically.

“He didn't. So I told him Nam hired me for a party where I met some of his henchmen.”

“Hyung, are you fucked in the head?” Changkyun bolted up. “That's too detailed for a lie!”

“It wasn't exactly a lie. He did bring me to a party once.” Hoseok fiddled with the string of his hoodie. “I told him where it was and he seemed pleased. Like, I guess it was a place you guys busted already? Anyway. I think the boss thinks I'm credible.”

Jooheon leaned forward, resting his forearms on top of his thighs. “Was it that steakhouse behind Oryun station?”

Hoseok nodded in assent.

“Yeah, we shot that bitch up,” said Changkyun, still perked up.

“You realize you were lucky,” said Kihyun.

He was toneless again. He couldn't hide the pull at his cheekbones, though, and Hoseok knew right away he was displeased.

“I wasn't lucky,” Hoseok retorted. “I had it planned out.”

That, obviously, was a steaming bag of lies that no one bought.

Hoseok couldn't have known the boss would ask him the name of the place, and there had been no way to predict that the place used to be notorious for harboring Nam's men. Yeah, Hoseok got lucky.

“You're all clear, then,” said Jooheon, visibly cheered up.

It moved Hoseok more than he was willing to admit.

“I hope so.”

“Did he say anything else? Did he say you can stay with us?” inquired Changkyun. He's made himself comfortable again, but, in that creepy-crawly way of his, he kept observing Hoseok.

“He told me I can either join you guys, or go through some kind of training to become his bodyguard.”

“What?”

“No way?!”

“Yeah,” said Hoseok. “But I said I'd rather stay with you.”

They gaped at him.

And then it got loud again.

“You said no?!”

“Are you mad?”

“I can't believe this dolt.”

That startled Hoseok. “Was I supposed to say yes?”

“You could've had the cushiest job!” Minhyuk exclaimed.

“Or the deadliest,” retorted Hyungwon. “I remember quite distinctly that Hyunwoo needed a liver transplant after he got stabbed by that one-eyed fucker.”

“Well. That was one time.”

Hoseok didn't feel like asking who was the one-eyed fucker, and after hearing about punctured organs, he didn't feel like becoming a bodyguard, either.

“What did he do when you refused?” Kihyun wanted to know.

“I didn't offend him or anything,” said Hoseok mildly. “At least he didn't seem offended. He just said your team has been missing a member for a while and that I should fill in for some Gun guy just nice, and then he let me go.”

Suddenly, there was a hush.

It was the kind of hush that no one seemed too eager to disrupt.

After a moment, Minhyuk got up with a loud yawn, dragging Hyungwon to his feet as well.

“So. It's been a blast and all, but I think we all deserve some goddamn rest. I haven't pulled an all-dayer and all-nighter since I was in high school and, like, never again.”

One by one, the guys trailed away, Jooheon stopping to press at Hoseok's arm. All Hoseok could do was blurt out a rushed thanks which he knew was too insignificant in comparison to the welling gratitude he overflowed with.

Run-down, Changkyun stood up, reaching up to work the joints in his body. He slowly edged towards his bed, falling face-down in the middle of it.

“You guys can stay here,” he said, muffled by the covers. “There's room for everyone.”

“At least take your shoes off,” nagged Kihyun, not sparing a glance at Changkyun's comfy nest.

“Don't wanna.”

Kihyun went over to him and removed Changkyun's shoes as the guy's socked toes wiggled.

“Stay here,” Changkyun implored again, his voice so low from fatigue it sounded like it was coming from a deep well.

“Not today.” Kihyun reached out to caress the back of his head, spreading a blanket over him.

He didn't have to bother. Changkyun was already asleep.

It was weird, Hoseok thought to himself, to witness gentleness in a place like this. When Kihyun looked up, Hoseok pretended not to watch them.

Back in their bedroom, Hoseok let Kihyun use the bathroom first, doing some squats in the meantime to kill time. It was absurd, in a way. A few hours ago, time was a commodity they would pay in cash and blood for.

Kihyun came out, his birdcage of a chest close to translucent in daylight. His veins were visible, trailing up his forearms, a dark greenish tint. He put on a thick sweater, rolling the sleeves up. He fiddled with the lock on the desk drawer for a bit before he pulled out a disassembled pistol.

“Sit down,” he told Hoseok.

He did, a bit wary.

Motioning towards the pistol, Kihyun said: “Try to put it back together.”

“How?”

“With your hands, I guess.”

Hoseok glared.

“I wasn't about to do it with my mouth.”

“Isn't that how you do things, though?”

Sleep-deprived, Kihyun was a gaping asshole.

Hoseok told him so.

“I should just put you to sleep,” said Kihyun darkly. “I still can.”

“Would you stop freaking me out for one minute?” Hoseok demanded.

“Once you learn how to handle a gun, you won't be freaked out every goddamn second.”

“Why do I need to do this? You said I won't have to. We're in the clear now, so –”

“That doesn't mean you can just parade around and do nothing like this is one big sleepover. You're gonna have to pull your weight somehow, and you can't do that if you don't know the first thing about self-defense. You are going to learn to handle weapons and shoot and fight, and –“

“Kihyun, no –”

Hoseok could see him soften.

“And you're going to learn all of this, not so you can do it, but so you can teach the others. I'm keeping my word. But you can't stay here and leech off people who protect you.”

At that, Hoseok froze, his body and breath and all.

“I won't,” he said, trailing his quickly numbing fingers along one of the dismantled pieces of the gun. “I'll do it then. If you say I should.”

“Good.” Pushing a few of the parts Hoseok supposed belonged together towards him, Kihyun fixed his gaze on him. “You have to become indispensable.”

Hoseok wasn't sure he could ever be just that.

Uncertain but unresisting, he reached for what he thought was the barrel.

He was abysmal at it.

The well-polished components kept falling out of his hands, his grasp too big for some of the more intricate parts. He harboured a respect for weapons that was too strong for his good and that bordered on paranoia – because what if the disassembled gun decided to fire anyway – and it made him clumsy.

It didn't help that Kihyun was leaning against the table, observing him in a dooming silence. His arms were crossed, his eyes sunken.

At last, he said: “You're the worst decision I've ever made in my life.”

“Well, you're making me nervous! I'm sure I'd do better if you weren't staring.”

“I'm sure,” said Kihyun, caustic.

“You could help me instead.”

“I could.” Still, he didn't move.

The corners of his mouth dropping, Hoseok brought the pieces to him, inky black and slippery in his palms, and managed to cram the wrong spring into the wrong slot.

Kihyun snapped.

He took the gun apart completely, checking for damage. Hoseok prayed there was none and his prayers seemed to reach some kind of celestial will because all Kihyun did was spread the components one by one on the desk, ordering them by size. And then he began.

Steadily, Kihyun put the thing together with a string of quiet clicks and thuds, his face smooth while he concentrated on the task. The gun trilled in his hands. It took him barely fourteen seconds.

Hoseok gawked.

It was a little bit hot.

“Got it?” Kihyun didn't wait for an answer. “Now slower.”

Oh. Oh, now it was making sense.

Hoseok took the half-assembled pistol and, daring, he finished the job.

“Good. Just,” Kihyun paused, tapping at the magazine well, “don't be afraid to slam the magazine in. You've got to secure it.”

“Got it.”

“Now hold the grip.”

Tentative, Hoseok listened. Kihyun pushed himself off the table, standing behind him. He had to lean down a little, repositioning Hoseok's grasp on the gun. He nudged at his index finger, forcing it snug against the trigger.

And then he talked. He talked of muzzles and frames and slide locks, making Hoseok examine everything, making him remember each piece by touch. After a while, he got Hoseok to stand up. Kihyun pressed at his shoulder and lifted his arm to correct his stance, this time satisfied with the way Hoseok held the grip.

It was strange, and chilling, and even though the weapon wasn't loaded, Hoseok had troubles swallowing as he aimed at the window in front of him, visualizing the shattering glass.

He couldn't imagine zeroing the muzzle in on a man.

“You could be good if you weren't such a wuss,” said Kihyun out of the blue.

“You know,” retorted Hoseok, “you don't always have to say everything that's on your mind. Didn't your mom ever teach you some manners?”

“Never met her.”

Shit.

He should've known.

There wasn't a hint of anything in Kihyun's face. He just locked eyes with Hoseok when he looked back over his shoulder, his brows draw together.

Sensing none of Hoseok's alarm, Kihyun asked: “Want to try it again?”

“I... guess so.”

“Alright. You know what to do.” Kihyun stepped away from him. “I'm gonna take a nap. I don't have to lock the door, do I?”

“Wait, you'll just –” Leave me here?

“What is it? Out with it, but quickly. I really need some rest.”

Guilty, he felt his tongue go thick in his mouth. He didn't want it to be quiet and lonely again, but Hoseok knew all too well that Kihyun hasn't slept a wink and that it was his fault, in a way.

But then a thought occurred to him that made his belly churn.

“Are you headed somewhere tonight, too?”

“Why? Do you want to get rid of me already?”

“No,” said Hoseok, his mouth quicker than his mind, “I'm just worried.”

“Worried?” repeated Kihyun, not stopping in his tracks to look at him. He kicked off his trousers, folding them neatly like the freak he was, and slid under the covers.

“Well, yeah,” said Hoseok, fainter than before. “You might get shot or something.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

He winced.

“Will you be alright?”

“I suppose,” said Kihyun. “I haven't died yet, after all. And I've been in the business for a while.”

It was Hoseok's turn to parrot him.

“In the business,” he said dryly.

Finally, Kihyun looked up.

“Look. We have to depend on each other and trust each other, but that doesn't mean you should go around getting too chummy with people. And that includes me.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Don't get attached.”

Hoseok stayed silent for a while.

“To you?”

“To no one.”

“That's a pretty sad way to live.”

“That's the only way that isn't sad.”

“Whatever,” said Hoseok. “I won't worry you with my worry, then.”

He expected Kihyun to say something back, but it seemed he was out of it the moment he laid his head down.

Returning to his task, Hoseok assumed it was a good thing Kihyun was no longer unable to fall asleep in his presence

It was just as nice to know that he seemed to be at ease slumbering away with an armed Hoseok behind his back.

 

One day, Kihyun came back at daybreak, smelling of blood.

It was probably because he stumbled as he treaded through the unlit room that Hoseok woke up with a start. The tangy scent was faint but hard to ignore on the roof of his mouth, immediately sending a rush of anguish through his vessels. Grasping around, Hoseok gave up on trying to find the switch and rolled out of bed. He didn't even knock before barging into the bathroom.

Kihyun was standing in front of the mirror with his shirt open, the fabric slit at the front.

The gash on his chest ran from side to side, slanted, bleeding petal-like and dark. Hoseok dashed forward. In the mirror, he saw the fissured edges of the wound and almost went dizzy at the sight.

“Are you...” his voice gave up on him.

“Alright?” finished Kihyun. He was way too lively for someone who just got cut. “Yeah, I just need to clean it. Go to sleep.”

“How am I supposed to go to sleep when you're right here, bleeding!”

“It's nothing.”

It certainly didn't look like nothing. For such a shallow slash, there was a lot of blood, and Hoseok fretted.

A first-aid kit was lying next to the sink, the sink ablush with blood-water stains. Kihyun searched through the contents of the kit, his movements deft and all too practised. He pulled out what he needed, setting down a roll of gauze and a bottle of medical disinfectant that reeked of hospitals even with the lid still screwed on. Dabbing at his wound to clean it up, Kihyun cut a piece of the gauze and swiftly began to bandage his chest. He set his jaw a little tighter as he reached behind and under his shirt, so Hoseok quickly stepped closer. He lifted the hem of Kihyun's shirt up and helped him wind the strip of gauze around his back.

“Doesn't it need stitching?” asked Hoseok, uncertain.

“It's not that deep.”

“It looks painful.”

“Well, it didn't exactly tickle when I bought it.”

Russet bloomed through the bandage at first, dampening it, but as they added more and more layers, Kihyun's blood stopped staining it. It was done. Hoseok tugged at Kihyun's shirt lightly to pull it back down. At the same time, Kihyun fastened the buttons one by one.

Kihyun had told Hoseok not to worry; he had told him he mustn't worry.

And yet, here he was, weak at witnessing Kihyun's weakness.

“I'm kinda bummed about the suit,” said Kihyun in the echoey quiet of the bathroom, trying to diffuse the tension. Sure enough, the sleek black jacket was the worse for wear.

This wasn't a goddamn joke, though.

Meeting his eyes in the mirror, Hoseok didn't move a muscle.

He turned around and went to bed.

Kihyun came not too long after, giving off a stinging smell of disinfectant which was even more grating than the smell of blood. The mattress creaked under Kihyun quietly as he lay down bit by bit.

The silence was complete and it suffocated Hoseok. It was as if Kihyun didn't just dodge death – as if he didn't just touch his own flesh, his hands seasoned and used to treating wounds like these – as if he wasn't a human being who wanted to be cared for. Hoseok's thoughts swarmed, once with anger, once with distress.

Hoseok wanted him to say something, anything. He wasn't even sure if he wanted to comfort Kihyun or be comforted by him, but he supposed either would be fine. Like this, he hurt at the nothingness.

In the end, he couldn't stand it anymore. He got up and hovered above Kihyun.

“Move.”

Kihyun's lids fluttered open. He was so slim and tired.

Not waiting for him to react, Hoseok put his knee on the edge of the bunk.

“What do you think you're doing?”

“I'll sleep beside you.”

“I think the fuck not.”

“Someone's gotta make sure you don't flip on your stomach or something.”

“I never sleep on my stomach.”

“Move it,” repeated Hoseok. The tight knot in his chest has made him bold. If it came to it, he would just lift Kihyun up. He had enough strength to do that.

And he told him so.

Kihyun's eyes glinted, probably with mockery. Nevertheless, he braced himself up and carefully, ever so slowly made some room for Hoseok.

It was cramped and Hoseok had to lie on his side, one arm stretched underneath his head. Immediately, he was enveloped by the scent of camphor that was warm on Kihyun's pillow.

They weren't touching, not until Hoseok placed his hand on Kihyun's hip over the blanket to prevent him from rolling over. Somehow, he knew Kihyun wouldn't swat him away.

Hoseok wasn't unsure. He wasn't desirous, either. Not at that moment. And yet his chest burned and so did his eyes, almost.

He's only been with the organization for a little while and he's already managed to do exactly what Kihyun had forbidden him to do.

But so what.

“Does it hurt?” he muttered, his thumb rubbing soothing circles over Kihyun's hip bone. He didn't even realize he was doing it.

“No.”

“Does it sting? The disinfectant, I mean.”

“What do you think?” said Kihyun, waspish with fatigue. “It stings, but I've had worse.”

And he really must have. This wasn't the only mark on his body. There were other scars, healed and newer ones alike; and though they were scarce and Hoseok had seen them before, in the golden light of the wall-mounted bulb above the mirror they had seemed more real somehow, tangible. Hoseok could finally imagine the kind of pain that had preceded them.

“How can you do this every day?”

“I can't do anything else.”

“And that's it?”

“That's it.”

“Bollocks.”

“You got me. I'm actually here to get revenge on someone who took from me the person I loved.”

“Funny.”

“Well, you didn't laugh. That's just rude.”

“I recall quite distinctly when you said you weren't a stand-up.”

“I guess I really can't change professions, then.”

“But would you?” It was a dumb question. Still, Hoseok carried on: “Would you ever?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you had the chance, would you leave?” A frosty hand grabbed at his guts, mincing them. “Can you ever leave?”

“I can. This isn't the Yakuza. And Hyungsoo knows I would never betray him, even if I left.”

“Then why don't you?”

“What's out there for me? Everything and everyone I know is here.”

“Now who's attached.”

“Yeah, well, I knew what I warned you against.”

That was something Hoseok hasn't considered. The people here, they appeared to be... devoted. Not only to their boss and to carrying out his orders, but to each other. They were like a clan, tight-knit and ready to stick out their necks for one another. Even Hoseok, who was a stranger amongst them, has experienced their protectiveness, albeit it was a second-hand experience. He has become acquainted with Kihyun's circle of friends ever since that search for Nam's supplier, shyly but surely, and now he felt new amongst them, but no longer unwelcome.

Was that it? Was that the reason Kihyun was willing to sacrifice all he had, staying with the organization although he could lead a normal life? It seemed he had a choice, unlike Hoseok, and that choice has been earned with blood and gore and fierce loyalty.

For all Hoseok knew, it could be the case. If Kihyun never even met his mother, if he joined Hyungsoo at fourteen, what other family could he possibly have? What other goal than to keep them safe?

Hoseok may never find out.

After all, he didn't really know anything about him.

And it wasn't just Kihyun. Hoseok didn't know any of them; their full names; their head counts. He had no idea how many people even belonged to the organization. How big was it, anyway? The headquarters were vast enough to harbour a hundred. What lay in all those fourteen floors that descended underground or the four floors rising above the pavement?

Sensing a ripple after ripple of emptiness push at every fiber of his being, Hoseok held onto Kihyun tighter. Even here, he still didn't belong. Or he was scared to.

“You should've been more careful,” he whispered.

“I was,” said Kihyun, understanding right away Hoseok was still hung up on that wound. “It's really not that deep. No pun intended.”

Grudgingly, Hoseok chuckled. It strained his throat to do so.

“Was there no one with you to help you?”

“Oh, there was.”

“Who?” he wanted to know. He was ready to scold Changkyun.

“Jooheon. But I was supposed to protect him, not the other way around, since he's our main informer. And I did. It was a success.”

“Was it,” said Hoseok darkly.

“It was. It's better than a slit throat. Mine or his.”

Hoseok recoiled at that. After all Jooheon's done for the both of them, he really wasn't about to be petty.

Or maybe he could be petty, but aim it at Kihyun.

“You know, I can't imagine you wrestling some huge freak with a knife.”

“Good. Don't. I suck at wresting huge freaks.”

“I figured. You're so little.”

“I still beat you, though.”

“That hardly counts,” said Hoseok, too glad he was unwinding Kihyun to truly care about his remark. “You threatened me with a gun.”

“Are you saying I couldn't fight you?”

“I mean, you could fight me. But you could never win.”

Kihyun gave him a cold once-over.

“I'd say I've been in more fights that you.”

“That's possible, but have you seen those?”

Hoseok flexed.

“I haven't seen them put to use,” retorted Kihyun. “For all I know it's all steroids and tears.”

“Why tears?”

“You whine a lot.”

Affronted, Hoseok challenged him: “Let's do it when you're all healed, then. We'll see who's a better fighter.”

“We can do it right now.”

“No. I don't want you going around, saying that you were at a disadvantage.”

“Because of that little cut? I'm not that petty.”

“Listen, we'll wait. I'm not hurting you.”

“I don't see how you're going to win, then,” Kihyun almost laughed at him.

“As I said, have you seen those?”

Hoseok flexed again.

“Yeah, I've seen those,” said Kihyun, his voice lighter.

Unwittingly, Hoseok flushed.

He put his arm back down, brushing Kihyun's hip bone.

“But it's gonna be terrible if I really beat you,” he suddenly uttered. “I will know for sure that you're out there, trying to square up with guys twice your size... and...”

“And what?”

“And that you might lose one day. While I'm here,” he said quietly, “doing nothing.”

“You'd do nothing even if you went with me,” Kihyun said, this time giving a light chuckle. Hoseok's gaze immediately fell on his rising chest. There it was, the gash, gaping somewhere under the torn shirt. In the murk, Kihyun didn't seem to notice Hoseok's stare as he added: “Anyway, I usually take Changkyun with me. I couldn't be safer with anyone. He's never hesitated to risk for me.”

That's because he wants you. “That's not reassuring at all. You're both scrawny.”

“Not to mention Hyungwon always patrols from afar,” continued Kihyun.

“He's the scrawniest.”

“He's also the best sniper.”

“Oh.”

Hoseok didn't say anything else for a while. He shifted towards Kihyun. This way, he could watch the clean-cut contour of his profile without being seen. It sloped in harsh angles, only softening around the lips.

“Kihyun?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“You can ask. I'll see if I answer.”

“Are you always this ominous?”

“Is that the question?”

“No.” Hoseok edged closer still. “I want to know more about... what you guys do.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I,” he halted, searching for words, “I want to know more about you.”

“Well, what about us?”

“You said that Hyungwon is a sniper and Jooheon is an informer,” he said. “Hyunwoo is a bodyguard, and you... a leader?”

“Officially, I guess. And I only lead our little group, which is basically me, Hyungwon and Changkyun. I'm the oldest, after all.”

“Shouldn't I be the leader now? I'm older than you.”

“Don't get cocky.”

“Roger that, leader.”

Kihyun seemed oddly placated by that.

Eyeing him, Hoseok asked: “So what does Changkyun do?”

“Except annoy the shit out of us all?”

“Yeah, except that,” Hoseok smiled.

“He kills.”

“Jesus.”

“Honestly, Hoseok, what did you expect?”

“Is he, like,” he hesitated again, “some kind of head hitman?”

“He's a hitman, but he's not getting head.”

“Did you just...”

Kihyun smiled back. He did.

Because of that, Hoseok couldn't suppress his curiosity.

“So you guys are – you and Changkyun –” Hoseok trailed off. He didn't seem to be able to finish a single thought. It was perhaps because he wasn't sure he wanted a definite answer.

“We're not.”

That was it, then. Kihyun was straight. Just as Hoseok thought.

He was straight and a killer and very much mortal.

It couldn't get any worse.

“He seems territorial, though,” Hoseok pointed out, still expectant somehow like he hasn't learned his lesson yet.

“You're both needy as hell, so I don't really see a difference.”

It was meant in good humour and Hoseok laughed a little bit, but it hit too close to home.

It was dim in the room although it wasn't dark anymore, and still they talked, their tones hushed as if not to disturb an invisible third person. It was intimate, or close to it, when Hoseok inquired about the others who worked for the organization and Kihyun answered; truly answered him; his sentences getting longer and more melodious as he shed his snarkiness.

He told Hoseok of Hyunwoo and how he'd seen him rise in ranks; he told him of Jooheon, a genius in his field who possessed not only knowledge, but also intuition enough to lead them on the right track countless times. In passing, Kihyun mentioned that Hyungwon has always been just there, like some kind of primordial being, even before Kihyun himself had joined Hyungsoo and his men. He said that Changkyun had taken several of them down prior to being scouted. With a chuckle, he told Hoseok how Minhyuk had actually thought he was joining a petty gang and how he had decided to stay because they would let him light things on fire.

Meanwhile, the sun has risen high enough to break through a mass of indigo-coloured clouds, tinting them deep pink and orange. It wasn't until then that Kihyun fell asleep mid-sentence, scaring Hoseok.

He touched Kihyun's chest gently, feeling it rise and fall.

If he could, Hoseok would listen to him until the sun went down again.

After Kihyun has dozed off, Hoseok slept in short fits that were calm but yearning somehow because of Kihyun's presence. In an hour or so, he got out of bed. He glanced at Kihyun one last time before he sneaked out of the room.

The mess hall was vacant at this hour, the only person there being Jooheon. He was finishing his breakfast.

Hoseok didn't know whether to approach him or not, but Jooheon waved at Hoseok the moment he noticed him linger in the doorway.

Warmed by the greeting, Hoseok took a seat across from him. Jooheon's face was fresh yet plumper than usual, probably with sleepiness that made him look younger. Hoseok supposed he was just handsome.

“Is he alright?” was the first thing Jooheon asked.

He didn't have to specify whom he meant.

“Yeah. He's asleep now. He said it was nothing.”

“He always says that,” said Jooheon, “only to bring it up like a year later.”

The statement tugged at the corners of Hoseok's mouth.

“That sounds like him.”

“It wasn't a deep wound, was it? He wouldn't let me look,” Jooheon inquired with some worry.

Hoseok hesitated. “It bled a lot, but it didn't need stitching.”

“And the hip?”

“The hip?”

“He busted it pretty hard. I guess he didn't mention it.”

“No. He didn't say anything,” managed Hoseok.

And Hoseok had touched him there. Pressed on it, even.

“Man,” Jooheon rubbed at his eyes. “I should've known they'd be there.”

“Who?”

It was the first time Hoseok genuinely wanted to know. He wanted to hear their names, and remember them, and –

And even though there wasn't anything he could do, knowing who's hurt Kihyun would give him a grim sense of ease. They would no longer be faceless enemies, figures of smoke he had no way of defeating.

“It doesn't matter now.”

“Did... did Kihyun...?”

“No – but he scared them,” said Jooheon, matter-of-fact. “They were just the henchmen of Park's henchmen. Fucking flies. They wouldn't be able to lay a single scratch on us if there wasn't five of them.”

“Did they get you, too?” Hoseok blurted.

Instead of answering, Jooheon leaned over the table and craned his neck. There was a small slash behind his ear, yellowish with iodine.

“It's, like, barely there,” Jooheon snorted, “but you wouldn't believe how much it hurts.”

“I would,” said Hoseok. “It's the papercut type of thing. The smaller it is, the more it hurts you.”

“Exactly,” grinned Jooheon. “I'm better at hacking websites than whacking people, anyway.”

“How did you even end up here?”

“Didn't want to go to college.”

Hoseok balked. “That's it?”

He couldn't help but find Jooheon's sheepish grin endearing.

“Yeah. I wanted to learn, but I didn't want to study. And that's literally it. Hyungsoo got me all the equipment I need and he lets me do what I can and what I want.”

Hoseok watched as Jooheon poured more tea into his mug. He carried on as he did it.

“You know, every code that's ever been made is also inherently made to be decoded. Even when you say that word – the code – it already sounds like decode. That's all I want to do. Break down every barrier that people put up to fend me off,” he smiled, a little impishly. “It's not a great ambition or anything, but I get paid for it and I know I work for someone who gives a shit.”

“It's good you're so skilled at this. I never properly thanked you for what you did for us,” said Hoseok. “I don't even want to think about what would've happened if it weren't for you.”

“Don't stress it, man. We're in this together.”

“I suppose,” said Hoseok, touched.

They got more side dishes so Hoseok could eat something, his appetite huge despite the early hour. He found himself cramming everything into his mouth so he could return upstairs as soon as possible in case Kihyun was already up. It seemed that Jooheon, who had finished a while before him, noticed exactly what Hoseok was doing. He got up and came back a while later with a tray full of breakfast dishes.

“Tell Kihyun I'm sorry?”

Jooheon pushed the tray towards Hoseok.

“He's not mad,” said Hoseok softly, his cheeks full.

“I know, but still. Better appease him now than listen to his nagging later.”

Hoseok agreed with that wholeheartedly.

Taking the food upstairs, he made sure not to spill the coffee. Trying to appease Kihyun without coffee would be like trying to move an ocean with a spoon.

Kihyun was still in bed. His eyes cracked open when Hoseok entered.

Setting the tray on the bedside table, Hoseok hovered next to it.

“How's your hip?” he asked coolly.

“Well, good morning to you, too.”

“You didn't tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“That they got you twice.”

“Why would I tell you?” Before Hoseok had the time to bristle up, Kihyun pushed himself upwards and reached for the cup. “You were freaking out enough as it was.”

“But I...” I touched you.

“It's just bruised.” Kihyun took a sip, visibly drained. “Thanks, by the way,” he said, motioning to the tray.

Hoseok wondered if he meant only that.

“You should have told me,” he insisted, though weaker now.

“Why? So you could fret?”

“I'd rather fret than be kept in the dark.”

Downing his coffee, Kihyun looked up thoughtfully.

“I think you'd be better off if you moved to another room.”

“What?”

“You won't have to worry and I won't have to worry about worrying you. And besides, I won't disturb you anymore when you're asleep.”

“No.”

“It wasn't really a suggestion.”

Hoseok's skin went cold, as if coated by glass or ice.

“I'm fine here. I don't mind it one bit when you come back late.”

“Look, I kept you here to keep an eye on you when I still thought you might be a spy, but I don't see the point in grating on each other's nerves for any longer than necessary. I believe your story now.”

It was worse, somehow. Kihyun trusted him, and yet he couldn't stand him around. A honey-like ache ate away at his tongue, not sweet at all.

“But I don't want to be alone.”

“Everyone is.” Once more, Kihyun's statement was doomy enough to suggest he was speaking generally. “No one here really bunks together. Unless they fuck.”

“Let's fuck, then.”

He was fuming by that point, and that was a rare emotion for Hoseok.

The person who's become the center of his day-to-day life, whether Hoseok liked it or not, wished him gone.

He's promised himself not to become a fool again, not for anyone; he's promised himself never to be left again. He had been through the same with countless of now nameless friends and men and women, and it had always been survivable, but Kihyun wasn't nameless. He wasn't a nobody, a stain on Hoseok's past and bed sheets.

He saved his fucking life.

The only reaction he got out of Kihyun was a short snort. His eyes squished up and his mouth thinned in an open-mouthed smile.

To him, Hoseok was a joke.

But still, Kihyun was Hoseok's home now. This place was his home, too. This lived-in yet hollow room, and this hollow yet lively man.

Hoseok knew he was going to hold on to both.

“I'm not leaving.”

“Well, and I'm not listening to any more fussing.”

Hoseok's facial muscles hardened. “It was you who shanghaied me here, so now deal with the consequences. If you don't want me to give a shit, I'll give twice as much shit.”

“That's a very dumb threat.”

“It's genius. It's gonna annoy the living shit out of you.”

“It already is,” said Kihyun, genuinely amused.

And then Hoseok couldn't fume anymore.

Fuck.

Before he was able to say anything else, Changkyun barged in without knocking. He made a beeline for Kihyun's bed. He threw himself down next to him while Kihyun did all he could to salvage the tray sitting on top of his thighs, lifting it rattling above his head. His brow creased in annoyance.

“I heard you were hurt,” announced Changkyun.

As if to confirm that, he pulled the blanket down to Kihyun's waist, searching for any wounds. Only now it occurred to Hoseok that Kihyun must have been seriously beaten down yesterday since he never even stripped.

Changkyun paid no attention to the reddish slash on Kihyun's shirt and went straight for the hip where a strip of darkening skin glared plum-coloured from under the white hem. He dragged the waistline of Kihyun's pants down.

Unwittingly, Hoseok's gaze followed the swelling bruise.

It was nasty. It even looked painful.

And it spilled over the hip that Hoseok had kept squeezing at night.

Trying his best to look innocent, Changkyun turned to Kihyun. “I'll kiss it better.”

Kihyun's whole face scrumpled into a grudgy expression and, holding the tray with one hand, he pressed at Changkyun's forehead with his palm to keep him at bay.

“You can kiss my ass.”

“I mean, I'm trying.”

That did it. Hoseok didn't even think as he lifted Changkyun up, dumping him on the other bed. He let out a heavy breath, more mad than strained.

“That was kinda hot,” said Changkyun, comfortable. “Do it again.”

“Out with you.”

“Aw. Where is that sweet, sweet hyung who used to be scared of me?” queried Changkyun, peeking under pillows to check and opening drawers theatrically. “What did you do to him, Kihyun?”

“I bled on him a little and now he thinks he's hardcore.”

“I meant it,” Hoseok tried again, though with less authority than he felt when he used his physical strength. “Out. Kihyun needs rest.”

“I'm fine,” said Kihyun.

“He's fine,” said Changkyun.

Hoseok glowered. “In that case enjoy being kissed better.”

“Suddenly, I am dying.”

“I'll bring you back to life,” piped up Changkyun.

It didn't surprise either of them that this time, Hoseok hauled Changkyun outside.

 

Chapter Text

The revolver was small in his hands. He could envelop it whole if he tried. Only the muzzle would peek out from between his fingers, aiming at the target. The sleek blackness of the gun glistened, a sharp white line gleaming over the length of the barrel.

His temples and back were sweaty, and he knew his disquiet would consume him if he didn't pull the trigger soon.

So he did.

The shot resonated through the firing range, getting to him even though his ears were protected.

“This one was better,” said Kihyun from behind him, lifting Hoseok's earmuffs. “Just don't aim for so long. Your hands will start shaking if you do.”

“How am I supposed to aim when I can't focus on it?”

“Quickly,” said Kihyun dryly.

Hoseok grew sullen, glancing back at the target. After all this time he's spent here in the last few weeks, he expected the bull's-eye to be riddled with bullets by now. It wasn't.

“I'm never gonna do this right.”

“Don't moan,” said Kihyun, the hand on Hoseok's back more scolding than his voice as it pushed Hoseok's body back into the correct stance. “You're quite decent already.”

“That's because the target doesn't move.”

That remark made them both pause.

Kihyun, being the sarcastic shrimp he was, spoke first.

“You'll never shoot at a moving target, anyway. You'd stomp on the gun first and give the guy your lunch money.”

“Funny.”

“I guess I really can't be a comic.”

“Please. Spare us all.”

He heard Kihyun chuckle. Then he pressed his palm between Hoseok's shoulder blades once more, the touch cool even in the stale, lukewarm air that grew hotter and hotter with every gunshot, or so it seemed to Hoseok. It forced him to broaden his upper body while his spine ached because of that pleasant pull, his muscles shifting until he stood upright.

Then the contact was gone and Kihyun placed Hoseok's earmuffs back, which was his cue to try again.

He did. And then he tried again. And again.

There was a ringlet of holes around the bull's-eyes, none of them penetrating the center and gravitating towards the bottom of the target instead.

Kihyun seemed satisfied, though. His contentment was obvious in the way his lips lost that pursed shape they moulded into whenever he had to deal with something annoying (or someone, usually Hoseok). It showed in the way his gestures seemed more liquid. He was at ease, and yet there was a certain firmness to him that never went away.

Even though there were no windows underground, Hoseok reckoned it has got dark outside by the time Kihyun told him to disassemble the revolver and clean it.

Kihyun has made him polish all of his weaponry so many times that Hoseok didn't even try to worm his way out of that tedious task. It was easier to just do it, and do it right, otherwise Kihyun would pick the weapons one by one, pursing those tiny lips again while burnishing each knife and each gun, making sure Hoseok heard his mutters. Hoseok didn't like it when Kihyun's tone bit at him, as sharp as a songbird in the night, bickering with itself. So he laboured away, too busy to even steal glances at the younger man.

Hoseok's days have shrunk into a string of chores that gave a backbone to his otherwise lonely schedule. He was learning to handle handguns and blades, work with tapping devices, and he visited the underground gym every day to stay in shape, meeting up with Hyunwoo occasionally to spar. It wasn't in Hoseok's blood to fight, but he was picking up basic self-defense techniques quite quickly. Sometimes, Kihyun would join the two of them; not to work out or fight, but to nag.

When Kihyun nagged, though, he did it with his whole body, moving Hoseok left and right. Kihyun was only able to do it because Hoseok let him; damn, he almost savoured it. It was the only kind of closeness Hoseok would ever receive from him, after all; or from anyone.

Mornings Hoseok spent watching over Kihyun as he slept after he had carried out an order, waiting for him to wake up so they could go to the mess hall together. There they usually met the others, and more often than not Hoseok would meet complete strangers as well; strangers who by now called him by his given name.

He's gained a little bit of a rep for himself, though it still left him sheepish as well as pleased to recall the reason why.

It was all because of that bet with Kihyun.

One morning, Hoseok and Kihyun had been taunting each other about the bet yet again, amassing some audience in the dining hall with their jabs and laughter. His hip still healing and fading from indigo to bluish to yellow with surprising slowness, Kihyun had been adamant to try beating Hoseok in a proper match. Hoseok hadn't had the heart to give Kihyun a proper fight, though. He had kept avoiding the matter, making light of it. That had only served to provoke Kihyun to even more pointed barbs and quips. In the end, Jooheon had chimed in with a “Why don't you guys arm-wrestle instead?” and a smile, and of course Kihyun had said yes to the suggestion. It must have been because Hyungwon had immediately started humming the Funeral March.

When they had linked fingers, Hoseok had once again been reminded that Kihyun was stronger than he looked.

He had also been reminded that Kihyun was still nowhere near as strong as him.

There had been a strange layer of ease and confidence smoothing Kihyun's face that day. Although he had gripped Hoseok to the point of hurting him, Kihyun must have known he would never win. Perhaps the knowledge had made him so calm.

He had put up a fight – but he would never have lasted as long as he had if Hoseok hadn't let him at least try.

He had felt bad when he laid Kihyun's hand down gently to the cheers of the table. He had made Kihyun cry out – sing, almost – and the sound had gone straight to his belly.

Naturally, the others had swarmed around Hoseok to try their luck, too. Out of all of them, Minhyuk had been the closest to matching Hoseok's strength, grasping at his fist with both of his hands and yelling almost victoriously even when losing. One or two gapers had challenged Hoseok afterwards, leaving soon with bruised egos. A woman called Hyolyn had approached him, too. She was small but sturdy, and she had given Hoseok an even bigger hell than Minhyuk. Still, she had gone down.

Hoseok supposed he should thank his lucky stars that Hyunwoo hadn't come to breakfast that day.

Rubbing at his wrist and elbow, Hoseok had found Kihyun in the crowd. Startled, he had welled up at the look he had seen in Kihyun's eyes. It was pride, or something very close to it.

Hoseok was still uncertain whether it had been planned on Kihyun's side – to lose. To lose publicly, too, so no one else would challenge Hoseok's place.

He wasn't about to ask and Kihyun wasn't about to tell.

He was just goddamn sorry that he had no excuse to spar with Kihyun anymore now that the younger man has healed.

When they returned from the shooting range, the blinds were raised and the bedroom was dark, pierced with stripes of orange glow coming from the outside. Neither of them turned the ceiling lights on, opting for the reading lamp instead.

It was the time of the day during which Hoseok grew the most forlorn and jumpy, awaiting the inevitable buzz of Kihyun's phone. It didn't go off every day or even every other day, but it summoned him way too often for Hoseok's liking. Sometimes he could say Kihyun was about to leave even before the phone buzzed – even when Hoseok didn't hear it go off at all. He could just sense it.

On days like those, Kihyun would rest a bit, which was unusual for him. He would focus on his weaponry and that would make him quiet. It always turned Hoseok's blood into a rush of icy needles.

The soft beep that was heard around eight in the evening didn't surprise Hoseok, but it brought back the disquiet he was able to forget for a while. He watched Kihyun read the message in the low light.

He wondered which one of the coded contact names Kihyun had saved there was calling to him. The phone was empty otherwise, and Hoseok only knew that because he had snooped, sensing his skin crawl at those unfamiliar aliases in Kihyun's contact list. The only ones Hoseok recognized were Sleeper, which had to be Hyungwon; Boss, which was self-explanatory; and Little Sun, a nickname Jooheon had once called Minhyuk in Hoseok's presence. They sounded almost lovely until one realized that Hyungwon literally put people to sleep and Minhyuk was an arsonist on the lam.

“When do you have to go?” uttered Hoseok, stretched on the bed.

“Around midnight.”

“Who else is going?”

“No one.”

“What?” That was new. Hoseok lifted himself up. “You're going alone?”

“Don't start again.”

“I'm not starting again. I've never finished,” he said tersely.

“All I'm gonna do is gather some information. I'm going to meet this guy, listen to what he's got to say and then come back.”

“Which guy?”

“A guy.”

Hoseok's face hardened.

“What if he's armed?”

“Of course he's going to be armed. He's not a suicider,” Kihyun scoffed, “although they say he's mad enough to do about just anything. They call him Mad Clown, after all. I know him, though. He's not that brave.“

“He's not dangerous, then?” Hoseok dared to ask.

“Oh, he's dangerous.”

“Then why are you going alone?!”

He was sitting up now, feet planted on the floor.

Kihyun turned his head in Hoseok's direction. Otherwise, he barely moved a muscle.

“I just told you. I know him.” Supine, Kihyun put one arm under his head for more comfort as he gazed up at Hoseok. “He's only going to talk if it's me who comes to him.”

“I don't like this. I don't like this one bit.”

“That sounds like hellova your problem.”

Hoseok stiffened. He recalled how wiry Kihyun's forearms had been when they had arm-wrestled, and how fragile.

“I'll go with you.”

“Fuck no.”

There was such ferocity to it, and such decisiveness, that it was almost sweet.

“Why?” Hoseok faltered.

“I promised I won't make you do this.”

“You're not making me do anything. I want to go with you,” he insisted.

“You don't. You're being dramatic and fanciful, but as soon as we'll get into the car, you'll wimp out.”

“I'm not a coward,” he said coldly.

“I'm not saying you are. But you don't have the stomach for this.” Kihyun weighed his next words. “It's not a bad thing that you don't. It'll keep you safe.”

“And what will keep you safe?”

“Me.”

“I can help, though,” said Hoseok.

“Look, I'm not being funny, but you're already stressed out and we haven't set a foot outside the building yet. I don't even want to know what you'd do if shit went down.”

“Didn't you say you're just going to gather information? That shouldn't be too stressful for little old me,” Hoseok clipped.

“What's gotten into you?” Kihyun was sitting up now, too. “Not too long ago, you were begging me not to make you do this. I've kept my word.”

“I didn't know the first thing about self-defense then.” Or you.

“And now you're that confident,” said Kihyun, sceptical.

“Yeah. You'll be there.”

“I won't really have the time to walk you through it today, Hoseok. I won't have time to coddle you.”

At that point, Hoseok was done. “Coddle me afterwards, then.”

“I'm being serious. If you panic –”

“I won't. You won't even know I'm there. I'll just look big and menacing.” For good measure, he flexed. “Look at these.”

Kihyun glowered.

For a while, it was all he did.

“Get up,” he finally said.

“What? Really? Are you sure?” Hoseok listened immediately, standing up with some tension in his limbs. “Are you taking me with you?”

“Do you want to go? Make up your mind.”

“I'm going.”

“In that case we'll have to equip you.”

“Am I gonna get my own gun?”

“It's gonna be loaded, too, so don't get carried away.”

His heart was beating. He was nearly sick with apprehension, or anticipation; he didn't know. He just knew his victory was Pyrrhic. He was allowed to go and keep an eye on Kihyun; but just as he had said, Hoseok might, quite possibly, wimp out.

On Kihyun's cue, he got changed. He chose something unobtrusive and flexible, letting Kihyun strap a belt around his waist, the familiar revolver concealed at his side. A ballistic knife fit snugly in his front pocket, flat enough not to draw attention.

Kihyun put a balisong into his own shoe and hid it under the trouser leg. Straightening up, he fastened a holster to his hip, sliding a gun into it.

“Ready?” he turned to Hoseok, giving him the last chance to back out.

“Ready.” Or not.

His stomach dropped as they left the room.

 

It wasn't until Hoseok followed Kihyun for the first time that he found out he was controlling as fuck.

“We're headed to Gangdong,” Kihyun announced when they got into the car, the same one that had brought Hoseok here.

It felt like ages.

Hoseok nodded, too nervous to speak. He fastened his seat belt. The atmosphere was oppressive. He changed his mind several times before they even crossed the outlines of Gangdong, venturing further as lanes and shops and crowds zoomed by. They went fast, avoiding the busier parts of the district. Lights glowed in long brushstrokes as they passed them, already disappearing somewhere behind.

The smoky midnight drew on, descending on them in thick darkness. The closer they got to their destination, the less lamps shone.

Staring out of the window, Hoseok all but jumped when Kihyun spoke.

“The guy we're going to interrogate used to be one of Park's men.”

“Who's Park?”

“Someone who should've been dead and buried ages ago, but that's not important today. We're only going to scour intel on one of Park's men. Mad Clown used to work for Park. He never moved up in ranks, though, and he caused more problems than good, so he got sacked.” Kihyun steered the wheel, turning left. “Might have fucked a couple of kids, too. He always used to scout them off the streets and the kids would appear and disappear and no one could really keep track of them.”

He was so matter-of-fact that Hoseok balked.

“Hyungsoo keeps Mad Clown alive because he's sometimes willing to exchange intel for money,” Kihyun carried on. Maybe it was his way of distracting Hoseok from drowning in anxiety. It wasn't working. “Dunno why Park didn't dispose of him long ago. He just canned the fucker.”

“So,” said Hoseok thickly, “we're going into some pedophile's lair?”

“Basically. Good thing we're grown.”

“Kihyun, that's so not worth it.” Revolted, he swallowed. “You said you get rid of people like him.”

“What, should I kill him for you?”

“No!” Yes. No. What the fuck. “All I'm saying – whatever you need to know, it's not worth it getting it from him. Is it?”

“It is. Hyungsoo believes he knows where to find Song Gunhee.”

“And who the hell is that?”

“Someone who betrayed us.”

“Is he that important?”

Kihyun didn't respond. He steered the wheel again, driving past the Godeok Station. The car slinked into an unlit alley and Kihyun turned off the engine. The dome light went out.

“You can stay in the car if you want to.”

“No. I'm coming with you.”

“Alright, then.” Kihyun patted the weapons he was packing. “When we're there, don't say anything. Don't do anything. Don't even move until I tell you so.”

“Can I, like, breathe?”

“If you must.” He unfastened the belt. “I like it better when they don't.”

He really wasn't very humorous.

As he watched the man pull the key out, Hoseok thought that this was a whole another Kihyun sitting next to him. Without changing the timbre of his voice, he's gone strangely merciless. It was in the precision of his fingertips, the downward tug at the corners of his mouth. His whole air altered. It was the Kihyun he had first met.

They got out of the car. The block of flats they took long-legged strides towards loomed black and shabby in the night, covered with graffiti. An unsettlingly even crack marred the glass door, resembling a spider web. They walked in.

It was clear Kihyun has been there before. He found the switch with ease, illuminating the cramped corridor with a click. A row of letterboxes hung from one wall, overflowing with leaflets no one cared to collect. The stairs were missing tiles.

The studio flat they entered reeked of mildew and dust, the furniture surprisingly new and sleek but grimy somehow.

Mad Clown fit there. He was a small man with shrewd eyes behind a pair of round glasses. Dressed in designer clothes, he seemed the type to live large one day only to go on instant noodles for the next few months. His flat click-clacked with gadgets, but the only thing that truly ever stirred in the black-grey living room merged with a kitchenette was a lizard in a terrarium.

Mad Clown ushered them in as if he was awaiting them for a pleasant visit. He talked very little at first, in a high and nasal tone that spoke of the man's lethargy and that lulled Hoseok. There were dark circles under the man's eyes although he seemed young – too young, but Hoseok knew he was older than the both of them. Still, he resembled a child, almost.

The man got comfortable on his low, smallish sofa. It was made of fake leather, glistening like a swarm of black bugs.

He never invited them to sit down.

“You didn't say you'd bring company, loverboy.” His gaze glided lazily from Kihyun to Hoseok, taking in the latter's figure. There was something penetrating about the way he eyed Hoseok. “Should I order a casket?”

“You should get to the point,” retorted Kihyun.

“Who is he?”

“That's none of your business.”

“But I think it is. He's in my house,” drawled Mad Clown.

“I came here to get answers, not to give them.”

“I'm just curious. Why would you still look for Gunhee when you've found yourself a replacement?” Mad Clown leaned back in his seat. From the way he studied Hoseok, he wondered whether the creep was trying to think of ways to kill him. “He seems capable, too.”

“He is.” That was a goddamn lie. Kihyun drew one of the tinny dining chairs nearer, sitting down with his legs spread and comfortable. He leaned forward. “And neither of us has time to spare, so spill it. Where is Gun?”

Not moving in his seat, it looked as if Mad Clown was growing into it, dissolving there languidly.

“I don't think the sum you brought is worth the intel.”

“It's the sum you agreed on.”

“I guess I changed my mind.”

Both of them grew solemn.

“In that case, you can take it up with Hyungsoo. He'll see what kind of reward you deserve.”

Kihyun got up.

There was such finality to his words that it suggested he wasn't talking about cash anymore.

“...Wait.”

“Well?”

“Leave the money. I suppose I can tell you where I saw Gun the last time.”

With care, Kihyun reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, taking out a booklet envelope. Its flap was sealed. He didn't give it to Mad Clown. Instead, he held it in his hand. It rustled a little as he ran his thumb over it.

“Where is he?”

“I met him in Jinmi three days ago. The diner.”

“That's too long ago.”

Kihyun made a move to put the envelope back.

“...Wait.” There was a pause, and a trickle of thoughts behind those round glasses. “I'll tell you more. If you lend me the muscle. I've run into some problems.”

It took Hoseok a minute to realize he was the muscle.

“Lend him? Does he look like a book to you?” Kihyun asked coolly.

“Don't be so touchy, loverboy. We've shared things before.”

“Tell me more first and I'll see.”

In the hush of the room, only the lizard made a constant clicking sound.

There was a voice at the back of Hoseok's mind that said Kihyun would use him. He'd use him to seal the deal and find the Song guy.

The worst thing was, the same voice crowed at him that he might as well start being useful.

He looked at Kihyun, trying to control his face when he couldn't control his movements.

Mad Clown spoke up.

“Our Gunhee has made quite a life for himself. He's got a whole mansion in Irwon.”

“That's a long way away from Jinmi. You were about to send me scour a completely different neighbourhood,” Kihyun smiled. It was chilling.

“I can't just rat him out for free, can I? After all, he was once dear to me, too.”

There was scorn in his remark.

“He was never dear to you.”

“You're right. That was you.” Bolder now, though still listless, Mad Clown smiled as well. “And yet he left.”

Kihyun's face tempered like steel. He threw the envelope into the man's lap.

“This is all you're going to get from me. I hope it solves your problems.”

“That's not what we agreed on.”

“I don't recall agreeing on anything,” said Kihyun.

“You're still the same sly fucker,” said Mad Clown. He was pocketing the thick envelope, only his fingers quick as the rest of his body sagged into the sofa. “But it never really did anything for you, did it. Even after five years, you're still chasing after him.”

His jaw set, Kihyun gritted out: “What can I say. Easy does it.”

Mad Clown went mellow at that. Slowly as a reptile, he stood up. He walked towards them, giving Kihyun an unreadable look before turning to Hoseok. He put out his arm. Taken aback, Hoseok mentally prepared himself for a sweaty handshake with the deviant.

That was when the muzzle of Mad Clown's gun dug into his gut.

Not again, Hoseok thought.

Please, no, he thought right after.

“I'm borrowing him,” said Mad Clown.

His stare was watery yet unflinching. He was quick for someone who put up that laid-back act. He stripped Hoseok of the holster within seconds, proceeding to pat at his pockets where he found the blade. He brushed Hoseok's cock as he did it.

Then he turned to Kihyun.

“Leave your stuff here.”

After sizing each other up for a moment, Kihyun did as he was told and cautiously unstrapped his pistol, placing it as far as Mad Clown indicated him to.

Kihyun lifted his eyes. They landed on Hoseok. They were void of any emotion.

“Don't move,” Kihyun said, low.

Hoseok wasn't about to. All he has learned from Hyunwoo left his brain in that moment, scattering away because of the cold touch under his navel. It would be difficult to defend himself from the front even if he tried, since Mad Clown would be able to read Hoseok's moves beforehand.

He'd be dead before he tried.

“I see you're still sweet on your partners,” said Mad Clown. “But isn't it sad? When your sorry ass still wants Gun.”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“What is it? Did I hit a nerve?”

“Let him go. Keep the cash. Keep our weapons.”

“I don't need your weapons. I need someone to kill a few loan sharks for me. Well, a little more than a few. And either you're gonna do it, or it's gonna be your muscle over here.”

“That's too bad. I'm not helping you.”

“He's gonna do it, then.” Mad Clown glanced up at Hoseok. “You don't want your little friend hurt, or do you?”

Hoseok froze.

Fear made him expressionless. To a stranger, he might even look fearless.

But he wasn't.

“I don't,” said Hoseok, hoarse from being quiet for so long.

He knew immediately from the look on Kihyun's face it was the wrong answer.

Calmly, Kihyun put his arms up.

“Let him go,” he told Mad Clown.

“You're gonna give me what I want, then?” Mad Clown's mouth split wide. He found the turn in Kihyun's demeanour funny.

“Yes.”

Ever so slowly, the pressure against Hoseok's navel disappeared. The man was too fast again. He was aiming at Kihyun's head now.

“I don't trust you with pistols, though.”

“Good. Because I like blades better.”

Hoseok reacted as if hypnotized. Suddenly, he knew what Kihyun was about to do. Hoseok grabbed the man's wrist and slammed a palm into the inner part of his elbow. Mad Clown dropped the gun.

Kihyun was at him by then, the butterfly knife singing in his hand. It spun its wings until it sank lower than any man would ever wish.

There was blood, and shrieks, and Hoseok heaved as he stumbled away.

Kihyun cut the guy's cock.

Cut the whole thing off.

Retching, Hoseok didn't dare to look back.

He had no idea how he got into the car, or how Kihyun got their things back. His head was full of screams and begging and gore. He saw the thing when it fell to the ground, the man's ballsack lying there, looking like a mouldy apple. His mouth filled with bitter saliva and he had to roll down the window to spit it out.

Kihyun turned the ignition on.

Hands shaking, Hoseok braced himself against the door and the edge of the seat. His head unwittingly shot up, drawn to the lit window where Mad Clown was probably still wriggling on the floor.

“We're – we're just going to leave him there?”

“There's a hospital nearby. He'll live,” said Kihyun darkly.

“He was – I disarmed him. You didn't have to do this,” he said.

“I guess.”

“That's all you're going to say?!”

“Were you about to play along with him?” Kihyun shot a look at Hoseok as he started driving away. Then he said in a mock-prissy tone: “Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was you who didn't want to negotiate with the fucker in the first place. You said we're supposed to take care of scum like him. So I did.”

“But you just –“ He didn't even say it and yet the word brought bile back into his throat. “You castrated him. It was completely mindless! It was mad!”

“No more mad crown for our Mad Clown.”

“Fuck, Kihyun!”

He met Hoseok's eyes and upshifted.

“I told you not to come.”

“I –”

Hoseok stopped short.

It was the truth. Kihyun has told him repeatedly not to put on a brave front.

He wasn't prepared for this. He wasn't prepared for things to go awry even though he spent every waking second agonizing over just that. All day and all night, he would fret that Kihyun might be in danger. All day and all night, he would think of ways to keep him safe.

He didn't need saving, though. Hoseok was the weak link. If it hadn't been for him, Mad Clown would have never gained the upper hand.

“I fucked up,” he said, dismayed.

“You didn't. You pacified him.”

“But first I let him get to me.”

“It could have been me. You were just standing closer to him.”

“No. He chose me.”

“Alright, then. He chose you because he knew you are a newbie. But you didn't panic.”

“I did. I froze.”

“Hoseok, you did well. You're alive.”

For a moment, Hoseok longed to hear the same pride he'd seen in his eyes once. He searched for it in Kihyun's voice. If it was there, though, it was buried under anger.

He was still so angry.

He's been like this ever since the man had started taunting him about Song.

It was scary.

“That Song guy,” Hoseok risked angering him more by mentioning the name. “He belonged to your team?”

“Yeah.”

“And he left?”

“Yeah. Him and Mad Clown worked for Park for a while after that,” he said, toneless. “But when Mad Clown got sacked, Gun stayed.”

“He still works for Park, then?”

“Yeah. All the more reason to get him.”

“You'll kill him, then? When you find him.”

Kihyun got quiet.

“Yeah. I'll have to.”

He kept forgetting Kihyun really was a killer.

“But he was your friend once. Wasn't he?” Hoseok asked faintly.

“That he was.”

“It sounded as if...”

There it was. At the back of his mind.

He's just witnessed a man being cut and his own body still spasmed at the memory of it, his throat tight. And yet his dumb ticker decided to dwell on things Mad Clown had said instead. What he had said about Kihyun and the other man.

“It sounded as if what.”

Hoseok tore himself away from the window. Outside, purple clouds were lit yellow from below, an undivided mass.

“As if you loved men.”

“I don't love anyone.”

“Don't be fucking deep. You know what I mean.”

Kihyun's lips curved up grimly.

“Yeah. I'm into men.”

Hoseok felt chilled to the core. This was what he wanted – secretly, or not so secretly – wasn't it?

He yearned for Kihyun. Anything he was willing to give him, Hoseok would take and give it back tenfold.

And Kihyun was giving. God, was he giving despite all that tough talk. Hoseok has received so much already that he dreaded every day it would just stop. He's gained Kihyun's loyalty. His trust. His friendship. And though he would gladly and greedily take more if there was anything else to take, he would never risk ruining what he had now. He's made Kihyun into a home, a haven; but he would never say it out loud. Hoseok would never impose on his kindness. The last thing he wanted was for Kihyun to avoid him, or pity him.

His resolutions and what he wished for, however, were two distinct things. Just because he knew he'd never have Kihyun, and just because he's come to terms with it, it didn't mean he never wanted to.

There was this thing, though. Hoseok had thought that all he needed was a chance. It was all a matter of chance – and it was his bad fucking luck that Kihyun was straight. Right? Hoseok had always thought that if Kihyun liked men, that would be it. They were both young, and closer now, and Hoseok was confident in his looks. It was bound to happen.

But it wasn't. It never would. Knowing that left him chasmed.

Kihyun was interested in men. He just wasn't interested in him.

Hoseok decided he liked neither guns nor Guns.

“I thought you were straight,” said Hoseok. His own voice sounded foreign to him. “Since Changkyun... since you...”

“Yeah, I'm not into him. He's a baby,” said Kihyun, harsh, as if the idea itself was absurd.

“He's our age.”

“Barely. And he's never had a childhood, so I'm ready to baby him until he's sixty.”

Hoseok went silent at that.

After a while, Kihyun said:

“If it helps, I wouldn't know you were gay, either, if I didn't see you with that cock in your mouth.”

Hoseok once more thought of the man's cock on the ground, just lying there.

He had to turn away. He rolled the window down again.

He had nothing to say afterwards, willing himself to keep the bile down.

The breeze was cold on his face.

 

Droplets scorched his scalp, soothing him, the sensation cleansing him from the inside out. Hoseok rubbed at his skin, feeling his numbed feet grow warm as the tiles under them did. Soon, the glass panels misted over.

He soaped himself up, trying to rid himself of tiredness.

Sighing, he lathered his shoulders and armpits, going lower in small circles. The stream falling on his back burned, but it was a good kind of burn. He always took showers that were either stinging cold or too hot for comfort. For someone who flinched away at any hint of pain, Hoseok sure loved to test his body.

Perhaps he was just trying to forget what was going on inside him.

He's seen to much today. He's heard too much.

When the shock and nausea and sadness all vanished, all he was now was fucking moody.

It didn't help when someone stormed in with a “Sorry, hyung” which, to add insult to the injury, didn't sound apologetic at all.

Peering out of the shower stall, Hoseok saw a bloodied Changkyun collapse down on a stool next to the sink. A gash on his neck glared red, disappearing under the collar of his shirt. Kihyun was there, too, upturning the contents of the first-aid kit.

“What the hell?” demanded Hoseok. He grasped for a towel, but it was too far, so he turned off the water and walked out of the stall in the raw, quickly wrapping the towel around his groin.

Changkyun, who seemed faint and whose forehead had a sickly sheen to it (though Hoseok didn't know whether it was due to the wound or the humidity), stared straight ahead.

“I'm in love,” said Changkyun.

Kihyun flicked his ear.

“Take off your clothes.”

Changkyun listened, his movements slow. He hissed. Strangely, the strain of it all seemed to bring a smile on his lips.

In the reflection of the mirror, Hoseok could see the slash snaking down Changkyun's back, gaping.

What a fucking night.

“You're gonna have to move again. Go lay down on the bed,” said Kihyun, eyeing the gash critically. “Hoseok, would you help him?”

“I'm your guy,” he gritted out.

Still wet, he held out his arm to Changkyun and walked him towards Kihyun's bed, where he laid the kid face-down on top of the covers. Pondering for a second, he returned to the bathroom to grab some more towels, placing them around Changkyun.

Outside, a pale sunrise was spilling over the sky, eating away at it bit by bit. The bedroom was harshly lit, Changkyun's back a ghastly sight.

Kihyun emerged from the bathroom, placing several things he's taken out of the kit on the bedside table. He spared Hoseok no attention while he straddled Changkyun's hips and got to work.

Weary, Hoseok dragged a palm over his face, not quite certain he was up for more gore and suffering. Yeah, he decided, it was a hard pass.

Disappearing into the other room to dry himself off, he picked up Changkyun's clothes, which were discharged on the ground. What was it with these guys ruining perfectly nice suits? Moodier than before, Hoseok put the shirt and jacket away.

When he dressed himself and towel-dried his hair, he called out to Kihyun to ask whether he was done, and Kihyun said he was almost finished, and Hoseok moped for a bit more, and then he ventured back anyway. He sat down on his bunk, trying not to look before he did.

The slash was long and deeper in places, as if someone had tried to stab Changkyun while dragging the knife down his back. Most of it was stitched up by now, but Hoseok didn't like the sight any better. Of course, Kihyun was precise and gentle, his gestures deft even as he scolded Changkyun for buying it in the first place. But Hoseok had the feeling the wound would scar, anyway.

Suddenly, he recalled when Kihyun had come home hurt, not even telling Hoseok about the ripening bruise on his hip. It set his mouth into a frown, and when he frowned, he looked sullen.

Well, he supposed he was sullen. That, and bitter.

Intent, Kihyun couldn't look more different than he had a couple of hours ago. The same man who had not hesitated to cut off someone's body parts was now mending another person's injuries, murmuring softly. The outline of his profile struck Hoseok as tender, his brows creased in focus.

It was the same Kihyun who murdered and mutilated and made jokes about it later. The same Kihyun who has given him mercy and held him as Hoseok started awake from his nightmares, weeping.

It was scary.

He wanted them both.

He wanted all of Kihyun.

And now that he knew he technically could, that Kihyun wouldn't recoil at the idea of being with another man but at the idea of being with Hoseok, the nothingness inside him spread mightier than before. It filled him to his fingertips. They could be together, but they never would.

“You're all set,” said Kihyun. He run his hand down the wound, swabbing at the edges with light touches to get rid of the caked blood. “You shouldn't move much. Stay here for the night.”

“I wasn't going to move,” mumbled Changkyun into the pillow.

For a hitman, he looked comically cuddly.

Kihyun covered the stitched up cut with a strip of some type of adhesive gauze, giving it a slap afterwards that made Changkyun wince.

“Shit, hyung.”

“Don't act like you don't like it.”

“I mean, if you're not gonna kiss it better after, what's the point?”

“You should've gone to to the medical wing, anyway,” Kihyun pointed out and got off him.

“Yeah, I don't like those.”

“Bora would have done a much better job than me.”

“Well, I'm shy. She always makes fun of my tummy.”

“It's a squishy tummy,” smiled Kihyun. “You could've gone to Seokjin, then.”

“He's even worse. He pinches it.”

Kihyun snorted, placing the blanket carefully over Changyun. He caressed the back of his head once and then, because he couldn't help himself, flicked his ear for good measure.

After he washed his hands, Kihyun took a brisk shower, putting the lights out when he came back. By that time it was murky at most. He laid down next to Changkyun, sliding under the covers. Hoseok heard Changkyun sigh.

Nothing happened for a while. Hoseok reclined in his bunk, willing himself to sleep. At daybreak, sounds still carried to him from the outside – the constant stir and buzz of cars and sirens. He kept stirring, too.

He knew the other two weren't asleep, either. Listening to their breathing, Hoseok missed the heat of the shower, or maybe he missed the warmth of another person. It was funny. He was jealous.

In the other bed, Changkyun burrowed closer to Kihyun.

Hoseok got up without thinking. Planting his feet firm on the hardwood floor, he bent down and pushed his bed forward. It creaked. He pushed against it harder, spreading his arms wider to distribute his strength better.

Perking up, Changkyun lifted his head. He didn't say a word while he watched Hoseok labour away. The bunk was narrow but sturdy, and old, too. It made a wailing noise as he dragged it across the floor, the frame finally hitting the side of the other bed. Exhaling, he straightened up. Then he looked down.

Kihyun was observing him with that ponderous, pointed expression of his. Not able to stare him down, Hoseok cracked the joints in his shoulders instead and, as if nothing happened, he settled down.

Oddly enough, Changkyun reached out to him and took his hand. Right after, he closed his eyes again.

It calmed Hoseok down, in a way. The tiny touch.

And then he stole another glance at Kihyun only to realize he's never ceased studying him.

Hoseok breathed in, a little too sharply, and tried not to yearn.

“I wish you'd just drop this goddamn job,” he muttered. “Both of you. We could all up and leave.”

“Not you. You can't leave yet,” Kihyun reminded him in a whisper. “Hyungsoo would follow you.”

He knew that.

“In a couple of years, then.”

“Who knows what will happen in a couple of years.”

“But you can't do this forever. You don't plan to, do you?”

“Of corpse not. It's a dead-end job.”

It took Hoseok a second.

He squinted.

Kihyun pretended to squint back.

“I'm gonna strangle you,” Hoseok promised.

To his amazement, the corners of Kihyun's eyes crinkled before the rest of his face did, and he let himself drop on his back, shaking with laughter that couldn't be heard, only seen.

Before he knew it, Hoseok chuckled, too. It wasn't Kihyun's awful sense of humour that got him. It was the way Kihyun's face regained some of its boyhood, and perhaps even happiness, the dazed lines disappearing in favour of laughter lines.

It unclenched his whole chest.

But with the awe, so came the sadness.

 

One by one, they woke up as the sun climbed higher. Kihyun was the first one to stir. Crawling out of bed, he left to get them breakfast. Hoseok rose not long after, noticing that Changkyun's hand still rested in his.

Kihyun came back with a full tray. He kicked the door shut, startling Changkyun.

“Morning.”

Changkyun groaned, burying his face back into the pillow.

“Fuck off.”

“Mind your language when you speak to your elders.”

“Fuck off, please.”

Kihyun grew gloomy. “Next time, bring your sorry ass to someone else when you get knifed.”

“I mean, Hyungwon offered to mend me, but he's even deadlier with a needle than with his rifle.”

Groggy, Changkyun hoisted himself up.

Hoseok reckoned he could get used to room service like this. He pushed himself up against the bed rest. Finally freed from Changkyun, he reached out to help Kihyun set the heavy tray on the flattest part of the bed.

They ate like kings that morning.

Hoseok felt better in daylight. He could see that Changkyun's wound would heal, and he could no longer muster any kind of remorse for the man who called himself Mad Clown, though what Kihyun has done to him was dreadful. Hoseok has emptied himself of pity. Whenever he recalled the gun pointed at Kihyun's forehead, all he perceived was a deep cold sense of satisfaction in his gut.

The man had it coming.

Nevertheless, as Hoseok chewed on bite-sized pieces of kimchi, he couldn't shake off the grating unease that has fallen over him yesterday – the defeat. He found himself in a deadlock.

Kihyun will probably never be swayed again to take Hoseok with him, smarter and stronger and seasoned now. He won't let Hoseok protect him or learn how to do it. But not only that. Kihyun will never be with him.

It would have happened by now.

After all, Hoseok was gone before he even knew it.

It was clear the feeling wasn't mutual.

Kihyun was pouring himself more coffee, lifting the kettle up with both hands. Hoseok wanted to help him, but he could already imagine the hell he'd catch for it.

So, here Hoseok was, in the presence of a person who's become the center of his days, and he wasn't able to repay him for all he's done, not in the smallest way. He couldn't reach out to him. He couldn't hold him.

He tried to think back and remember the moment when he has become like this. He couldn't.

He would have to go all the way back.

Sappy and ready for another cup of tea, Hoseok leaned his back against the wall, sipping quietly. He's finished three servings before Changkyun even got to the bottom of his first bowl. Delicately, Kihyun was also still picking up pieces of green onion eggs with a pair of wooden chopsticks, taking bites that were too big for his cheeks.

Hoseok wondered why everything about him suddenly had to be so kissable.

It wasn't fair.

This whole time, he had regarded Kihyun without lust.

Or, at least he thought he had.

Of course, there were the occasional glances when Kihyun was getting ready to hit the sack in nothing but his sweater and underwear; and there was some awe on his side when Kihyun took guns apart to reassemble them again; and, sometimes, Hoseok would just plainly stare for too long. He has always considered Kihyun as someone to be safe with, though. The rest never mattered.

That was before he's found out there was no tangible barrier he mustn't cross.

Suddenly, because it wasn't wrong, only impossible, Hoseok could imagine kissing Kihyun quite clearly. He could imagine everything else, too.

It was hell.

Putting the empty bowl down, Changkyun stretched his legs, wiggling his feet in Kihyun's lap.

“I could use a drink,” he declared.

“It's ten in the morning,” said Kihyun. “And if you say that time is an illusion, I'm throwing you out.”

“You taught me that joke, anyway.”

“Yeah, and it was only funny once.”

“About that drink, though.”

“We're not going to drink before noon like savages.”

“So. Are we going to drink after noon like savages?”

“Preferably, none of us is going to drink like a savage,” clipped Kihyun.

“But we're going to drink,” chirped Changkyun.

“I don't know about you,” Kihyun cut him short. “Alcohol delays healing.”

“I don't mind. At least I can charm people with my sick scar. Seulgi really likes scars.”

Hoseok's eyebrows shot up. The last day has been full of surprises.

“I thought you were into guys.”

“He's attracted to anything that breathes and doesn't have more than two legs,” supplied Kihyun.

“But less than two legs is alright in my books,” said Changkyun pleasantly.

“Amazing,” said Hoseok, not amazed.

“Isn't this great?” Changkyun looked around. “We're bonding like one big happy family.”

“Yeah, I wouldn't go that far,” muttered Kihyun.

A bit down still, Hoseok proposed: “I actually wouldn't mind going out for a drink, though.”

Kihyun paused in his tracks.

“You, too?”

“Well, I miss it. I don't miss booze, but... going out. Having fun.” Dancing.

It was true. He's barely left the hotel in the past few weeks. The only places he frequented were the shooting range and the gym, and both of those were located underground.

Kihyun seemed to consider what he said.

“We could go out tonight,” piped up Changkyun, seeing that Kihyun's defenses were dropping piece by piece. “If nothing else comes up.”

“Where do you want to go?” Out of nowhere, Kihyun's features grew steely. “Not that seedy hole in Itaewon?”

“Yes, that seedy hole full of seedy holes.”

“Jesus!” Kihyun made a move to smack him, which Changkyun avoided with his best fatally-wounded-child expression, pretending his back was in pain.

“It was just a joke!”

It seemed Kihyun lost his appetite.

“It's far,” he said, downing his coffee bitterly.

“It's not that far if we take the car,” Changkyun coaxed.

Kihyun's face darkened a notch.

Changkyun beamed. “You're gonna drive us, right?”

“Or we can ask someone else to go along,” said Hoseok, though he didn't even know which one of them he was taking pity on.

Probably both.

“It's alright,” Kihyun grudged, glad to be grudgy. “I'll do it.”

“Hyung, you are the best.”

“Remember that when I'm hauling your wasted ass back to the car and try not to throw up on my shoes.”

“I'll throw up on Hoseok's shoes instead.”

As Changkyun said it, he was busy avoiding a clip round the ear from both sides.

 

Kihyun was pissy as he upshifted, crossing the river to get to Itaewon.

Not only was he the designated driver for the night, but he also had to sacrifice his dignity and go to a place called Homo Hill, a district that sparkled with strings of gay clubs. Well, whatever an injured Changkyun wanted, he must get.

Hoseok smiled a little, still incredulous at the name, though he wasn't mortally offended by it like Kihyun. To him it was funny, and it was funnier still since Kihyun found Hoseok's amusement even more offensive than the name itself.

It was going to be a bumpy night.

The club was called Queen, which made Kihyun pull an exasperated expression, though he declared it could have been worse. Pushing Hoseok to the front, they cut in line. A big bouncer gave Hoseok a once-over before letting them all in.

The neon sign above the bar drowned the top of the counter and the surrounding walls in blood orange colour. The lights that hung from the ceiling were an even redder shade. The rest of the club was dim except for a few bright white fluorescent tubes snaking down the walls all around. The dance floor was busy.

They sat down at the bar and ordered, Kihyun prissly taking a sip of his still water.

Hoseok considered staying sober to show some sympathy, but that plan went out of the window when Changkyun ordered a Red Lotus for him, and then a Salty Dog, and then there was a lot of soju afterwards, leaving a sting on Hoseok's tongue.

His skin was damp before he even set out for the dance floor. Changkyun was at his heels. Blinded by the flashing lights, they merged in with the crowd, snug amongst waves after waves of bodies. It was crammed.

Hoseok stumbled a couple of times, grinding rather than dancing. Alcohol was getting into his bloodstream. It was dizzying his vision up, making him laugh a splitting laugh that seemed infectious to Changkyun since he laughed too, his head thrown back.

They went for more drinks, and sweated more, and tried to get Kihyun to join them.

He eyed them as a parent would eye two happy toddlers before he shooed them off.

A slower song came on. The throng barely even calmed down, only some of the couples pressed close.

Changkyun gave him a look. Hoseok gave a Changkyun a look. Grinning, they danced chest to chest and then chest to back as Changkyun turned around to wave at Kihyun.

Wryly, he waved back.

“Let's get him,” whispered Hoseok into Changkyun's ear.

“Let's get him drunk,” cheered Changkyun.

Of course, they weren't able to do that, seeing that Kihyun stayed adamant about being bored and boring. They were able to convince him to join them for a song or two, though.

Enclosing Changkyun between them, they swayed to the pulse of the music. Hoseok giggled in gusts, aglow with delight when he saw the two of them dance. When it was just Changkyun, it wasn't so noticeable, but together, they were really, really bad.

Overjoyed, he told them.

It appeared they found it equally funny.

It even provoked Kihyun to show them some more moves, and god, Hoseok laughed so hard his mouth hurt. Kihyun was trying to body-roll. It was way too precious. Hoseok pulled him back just to stop him and Changkyun got so cosy between them that he almost didn't want to go for another round of drinks. But in the end, soju lured him in and they all collapsed on their bar stools.

Hoseok got another Red Lotus and another Salty Dog, savouring the sweetness of the first and the tang of the other. After he downed both drinks, he didn't reckon he could charm anyone with his moves, either, seeing that he was barely able not to fall off the stool.

It was well past midnight when they decided to head back. They ambled towards the parked car while Kihyun nagged at them not to run off, not to sneak into another bar, not to...

Hoseok laughed.

Inside the car, he hardly fastened his belt before he started drowsing. He didn't remember the ride at all. He didn't remember being carried by Changkyun and Kihyun into the elevator, either.

Changkyun, naturally, sneaked away the second the elevator door slid open, followed by a tirade from Kihyun which eventually faded into a murmur.

Somehow, with a lot of huffing and puffing, Hoseok ended up sagging against their bedroom door, held up by Kihyun's knee as the man struggled to unlock. The key jangled in the keyhole, scraping the inside before it clicked. Hoseok would fall backwards if it weren't for Kihyun.

This way, they both flew into the room, tripping over each other. Hoseok was too heavy for Kihyun to support and soon he was splayed on the bed, laughing, with Kihyun on top of him. Kihyun pushed himself up, his murmured rant back and as waspish as ever.

“I should've left you in the car,” he told Hoseok.

“I'm hot,” was Hoseok's intellectual reply.

“For fuck's sake.”

Kihyun leaned down again and tugged the zipper of Hoseok's hooded jacket down. But that didn't sit well with Hoseok, either, because while he was too warm, he quite liked that bit of fluffed up fur which lined his hood and made him all cosy. He told Kihyun so.

“Tough shit,” Kihyun gritted out, stripping Hoseok of the jacket. He took off Hoseok's shoes after.

“I'm still hot.”

He felt it to the core when Kihyun touched his forehead. It chilled him so sweetly he hummed.

“You really should've passed on that last round.”

Kihyun was right, of course.

His mouth felt like the ocean and honey at once.

“I taste like lychee and salt,” Hoseok moaned.

“Sounds overwhelming.”

“It is.” He reached up and took Kihyun by the nape of his neck, bringing him closer. “Taste it.”

When he didn't, Hoseok lifted himself up instead.

“Sleep it off,” said Kihyun, trying to force him back.

“No, taste it first.”

Kihyun made a move to pull away, but Hoseok had way too much might to let him go.

Hoseok landed a sloppy kiss on his chin, his lips too far as Kihyun held his head high. Struggling to brace himself up, Hoseok landed another one on his jaw.

He could smell the scent Kihyun used behind his ear. It was bitter on his lips when he kissed the spot, dragging them over it. He breathed out, opening his mouth. He went lower, and lower. His teeth grazed Kihyun's skin as he did so.

Suddenly, his face was lifted up, cupped in those cold hands.

He gazed up.

“You don't want to try it, but it's really nice,” Hoseok accused.

“I'll try it in the morning.”

Hoseok considered that.

“Okay,” he said softly.

He let Kihyun lie him down. He closed his eyes.

Morning was fine.

 

In the morning, Hoseok was ready to die.

Breakfast was laid out on the bedside table, his tea slowly getting cold. Kihyun was nowhere to be seen, and all the better. Sitting up, Hoseok downed the tea. He went to wash up before he dug into the food. It was silent and lonely in the bedroom and it smelled of the club; of sweat and musk and smoke.

Setting the empty tray away, he went to open the middle window, immediately drawing in a breath as the harsh air bit at his skin. A light drizzle hazed the city. Autumn was almost gone. Winters in Seoul were full of frostbite and could kill. He knew. It was in winters he sought patrons the most.

He took a step away, then paced. There was no note from Kihyun, nothing to hold on as he waited.

Hoseok wondered whether he should just disappear for the day and not show his sorry face in front of him. He'd bet his last coin Kihyun was pissed, and a pissed Kihyun should be avoided at all costs.

The thing was, he really wanted to see him.

So he paced.

And waited.

And did some sit-ups.

And waited and paced some more.

When Kihyun came, his hair was damp. He must have gone out.

“Morning.”

“Hi,” managed Hoseok.

Kihyun reached into the inner pocket of his coat, taking out an envelope. He laid it on the desk and pushed it towards Hoseok.

Hoseok stared.

His first thought was that maybe he had fucked Kihyun and this was his reward, and his stomach went leaden.

“What's this.”

“Your wage.”

“For what,” he said, hushed.

“The Mad Clown job.”

“Oh.”

The money burned in his palm and he set the envelope aside without looking inside.

He could breathe again.

“So you... you found the man?” Hoseok couldn't bring himself to say Song's name.

“Not yet.”

“Oh,” he repeated dumbly.

“We've found some of his trainees, though.”

“Trainees?”

“Yeah.” Kihyun threw him a look before he went to one of the fitted cabinets, the one that held his weaponry. “You're one now, too.”

“Oh,” he said again.

Then he realized Kihyun hasn't taken off his coat yet.

“You're headed back? Now?”

“Yes. We have to act before they scatter again. We might squeeze some information out of them. And if not, at least we'll get rid of them.”

“But won't he know for sure you're on the move if you go after his people?”

“He's known that for five years.”

The tone in which Kihyun said it made Hoseok think of insects crawling inside his rib cage and alongside his spine.

“Who's going with us?” Hoseok asked at last.

Kihyun stayed as calm as glass.

“You're not going.”

“Like fuck I'm not.”

“Didn't you have enough last time?”

“I did. I'm terrified.” Before Kihyun could say a word, Hoseok carried on: “I'm terrified because I know now that even the most harmless commission can go wrong and you won't even know what hit you.”

“Exactly. I'm not leading you to this slaughter.”

“But you're going?”

“That's different. You haven't even learned to shoot yet. This is no recce, Hoseok. We're not going to interrogate, or negotiate, or scour for intel. We're going to kill five people if they don't turn Gun in. And if they do, we're going to kill them after.”

“Well, who else is going?” Hoseok's voice hardened. “You'll need all the help you can get.”

“Yes, but not yours.”

A wave of anger surged through him.

Hoseok wanted to grab him by the arm and use as much power as necessary to keep him here. He'd make it hurt if it meant Kihyun would realize Hoseok wasn't letting him go. That he wasn't letting go of him.

He wanted to take him away from this place.

He wanted to kiss him hard.

In the end, all he did was whisper:

“I promise I won't fuck up this time.”

“This isn't up to you. You can be as ready as you'll ever be and still fuck up. I have. So many times I can't even count them.”

And one of his fuck ups was Hoseok.

“We can protect each other,” he objected nevertheless.

“I won't protect you by bringing you with me. Don't you get it?”

“You've done enough for me already,” Hoseok said, quicker than he intended to. Still, he went on. “I have to pay you back.”

“Stay the fuck alive, then.”

“I will.” Hoseok took a step towards him. “But I'm still going.”

He couldn't stand it. He would suffocate it he stayed.

They weren't staring each other down, not really. Somehow, he knew Kihyun would back down this time. He was almost sorry for that; because if the silence went on for a little longer, he would have an excuse to cradle Kihyun's face, and say it again, and make him understand.

“Changkyun and Hyungwon are going with us,” said Kihyun levelly, “and someone who helped us with the search.”

“Who?”

“She used to belong to Nam's ring. I believe you met her.”

There was only one woman in Nam's inner circle and Hoseok recalled her instantly.

“Did she switch sides?” He didn't wait for an answer. “That's good. That's really good. She was so nice to me.”

Kihyun gave him a look that clearly said he was regretting everything.

After all this time, Hoseok was still too meek for his own good.

“She used to be in a drug cartel. She's hardly nice,” Kihyun remarked.

“But she's helping us now.”

“Yeah, she came to us before we could come to her. That's cunning, not niceness.”

“Well, do you trust her?”

“This time, I do. But that doesn't mean I trust her, period.”

“I'll keep you safe from her, then,” said Hoseok, grasping for a way to make light of the situation.

He hated fighting with Kihyun.

It made his heart go out to him.

“Was I supposed to laugh?”

Or not.

“You were supposed to thank your hyung.”

“I will sooner gut this hyung.”

Hoseok grew gentle at that.

“No, you won't.”

“Get dressed,” said Kihyun, suddenly curt, stealing a glance at his phone. “If you insist on going, you've got ten minutes.”

Hoseok needed every single one of those ten minutes to throw some clothes on and let Kihyun equip him. Arms outstretched, he watched as Kihyun skillfully strapped the holster on him, this time putting a taser as well as Hoseok's revolver there.

“Don't do anything I wouldn't do.”

“Got it.”

They took the elevator to get to the underground garage. While it went down, Kihyun's phone buzzed, the sound urgent and unceasing, echoing in the small cube. He picked it up.

There was a murmur on the other end of the line, and then an “Understood,” and “Yes,” and “Good” from Kihyun.

He hung up.

“Change in plans,” he said, sliding the phone back to his pocket. “Jooheon's coming too. The group split, so we'll have to split as well.”

“But I'm staying with you, right?”

“Yeah, don't worry.”

It wasn't himself Hoseok was worried about.

“Did they find out we're coming?”

“They must have.” Kihyun was unreadable again. His whole face shut down.

Hyungwon was already in the car, his head thrown back as he dozed peacefully. He was clutching a drag bag between his knees, his beloved rifle inside. Jooheon and Changkyun were waiting for Kihyun outside, both leaning against the hood of the car.

“No fucking way,” said Changkyun with that creepy smile of his he seemed to have reserved for moments like these. “Hi, hyung.”

“Hullo.”

Hoseok felt like a fish out of water.

These men were prepared to strike, which was obvious from their bearing to the way they were packing concealed carry, while his sole motive for going was Kihyun.

He truly was a fool, wasn't he.

And yet he wouldn't turn back, not even when Kihyun unlocked the car with slow deliberation, giving him the chance to back out and walk away with dignity. Soon they were all seated inside and on their way to Gangnam.

In the rearview mirror, Hoseok could see Jooheon play with a balisong. He flipped the blade around, making it dance around and between his fingers. All the while, he was watching the buildings and trees come and go behind the tinted glass.

“How's Gain getting there?” Jooheon asked out of nowhere.

“She's already there. She should take care of Yoonho.”

“But the bleeder is merciless,” said Jooheon and shifted in his seat.

“So is she,” said Kihyun matter-of-factly. “You still up to the plan? Are you going to take down Seokwon?”

“Yep,” confirmed Jooheon. “Just got a message that he should be hiding at Copo Biz. He thinks we won't reach him there.”

“More like, he thinks we'll leave him be as long as he's surrounded by witnesses,” singsonged Changkyun.

“Yeah, well, it's always the dumbest idea to hide at a hotel. They're so anonymous!” said Jooheon, a bit riled. “No one cares whether you're getting butchered in your room.”

“Can we, like, drive in peace for a minute?” offered Hoseok faintly.

“Word,” hummed Hyungwon, who was not happy to be disturbed from his slumber.

There was a brief silence which somehow oppressed Hoseok the same way the conversation did. He was nearly glad when Changkyun spoke again.

“I think I should take Kwangji instead of you,” he told Kihyun. “I match his style better. He's a gunner, too.”

Kihyun waited with his answer as he pulled the car through a busy intersection and crossed the border between Songpa and Gangnam.

“Alright. Do away with him. We'll take Minkyun.”

“Sweet.”

“None of you asked me if I want to deal with Yoosu. It's like I don't even exist,” drawled Hyungwon.

“Don't you want to get back at him for what he's done to Minhyuk?”

“What happened to Minhyuk?” Hoseok stirred. Sometimes, worry felt like a hot rush, but this time it was different. It was steely and whispery, hardening him.

“He got clocked when he was tracking Yoosu. It's nothing serious,” said Jooheon, putting his hand on Hoseok's shoulder from behind. “But you know Minhyuk. He's petty as hell.”

“He wants me to clock Yoosu back before I get him,” said Hyungwon, yawning. “I asked him how am I supposed to do it from fifty metres away, but he just got even more petty and stopped talking to me. Good times.”

Shortly, they were in Nonhyeon and dropped Jooheon off. Changkyun and Hyungwon followed soon after. Then it was only the two of them left, cruising slowly through neighbourhoods. Reaching a block of abandoned apartment buildings near a shut down market, Kihyun stopped the car.

Even at their grimiest, the streets of Gangnam retained some of their past glamour. Signs above boutiques and convenience stores alike shone golden and dogwoods out of bloom fringed a small park in the distance. Kihyun let the engine purr for a couple of minutes, observing the place with a sharp eye. Finally, he seemed satisfied and he turned the ignition key. It got quiet.

“Look left.”

Hoseok flinched at the sudden command. He did as he was told.

A man walked down the pavement across the road, slinking along walls. He never looked around, but his stride had a spring to it as if the ground was shattering under his feet.

Hoseok's nostrils dilated.

“That him?”

“Yes. You can stay here before I –”

“No. We've been through this.”

“You'd help me the most if you could patrol this place,” said Kihyun, not taking his eyes off the man.

“Bullshit. There's literally no one here.” Hoseok unfastened his seat belt. He pointed to the retreating figure. “The only danger is him.”

“I'm glad you realize that.”

“I do. That's why I'm going with you.”

While they argued, the man charged towards one of the tenement houses. He climbed the fire escape, dashing up the staircase as a nimble animal would. On the third floor, he came to a halt, pushed up the sash of one of the windows and slithered inside.

“Let's go, then,” said Kihyun glumly.

They locked the car, the click only audible because the street was empty. They made no sound, marching straight ahead.

As they neared the entrance, Kihyun spoke up.

“Whatever happens, don't panic.”

“I won't.”

“Alright. We'll go in this way,” he gestured towards the secured door, taking a picklock out of the pocket of his trousers. Within seconds, the door gave way. Calmly, Kihyun opened it. It creaked. “If he's expecting anyone, he's gonna expect them to come the same way he did.”

Kihyun's voice was hushed as he said it.

Hoseok followed him inside, treading carefully.

His tension came crashing back in full force. There was nowhere to turn now. His gaze fixed on the nape of Kihyun's neck, Hoseok shadowed him. Noiselessly, they climbed the stairs. Their movements merged as if into one. When Kihyun moved, Hoseok moved.

It was in that moment he thought this was more than want or affection. He was reliant on Kihyun as a person. And if Kihyun couldn't be Hoseok's haven, he could be his lighthouse in the dark. He would lead him, distant but there. If they came back alive every time, it would be enough.

It had to be.

The run-down door had no number on it. It didn't matter. Kihyun had probably calculated the location of the flat before they even walked into the building, seeing that he approached the entrance with no hesitation. Not pausing in his march, Kihyun blasted the lock off, the shot muffled by a silencer but still resonant in the vacant hallway.

The sound pierced through Hoseok, but he had no time to lose it. He kicked the door open.

Venturing inside, they took in the emptiness of the room, glancing up at the leaking ceiling.

A wide-eyed man stormed inside right after and halted at the sight of them.

He had a switchblade and it shone ugly in his hand.

Kihyun was armed, too, but he took a step back, forcing Hoseok out.

“Put that thing down,” said Kihyun. “We're here to talk.”

The man didn't respond.

It was a split second of calm before the storm.

The man threw his switchblade at the same time that Kihyun slammed the door shut. The knife made a thud as it sank into the wood and then Kihyun shouldered the door open again and pulled the trigger.

Hoseok didn't look away this time.

There was a scorched hole in the man's forehead. It was so small that it appeared harmless, but it was dark and it went through.

“I really can't stand it when they don't listen.”

Kihyun walked in, squatting down next to the folded lifeless body on the ground. He put on latex gloves and searched the man's clothes before he moved to scour the rest of the apartment. But it yielded nothing. It was void, and it was clear the dead meat had only meant to hole up here.

“Do you think the others got some of the trainees to crack?” asked Hoseok.

“I hope the fuck so.”

Simmering and pumped up after the kill, Kihyun headed towards Hoseok and made him walk out of the flat, laying one gloved hand on his shoulder blade. Hoseok followed the wordless command, not sparing a glance back.

As he started descending the stairs, he felt a funny waft of breeze tickle his thigh. He looked down.

His trousers were goddamn ripped.

“Shit,” he said. “I ruined my pants.”

“Is that what you're worried about?”

“They were nice pants.” Hoseok tried to tug at the fabric to cover his skin, but it was useless. “I look like a pervert now.”

“Better than a killer.”

“I mean, these thighs could kill.”

“Oh, are we being funny? You're not going to freak out on me today?”

“No.” If Kihyun doubted his words, Hoseok didn't. “I'm just glad it's over.”

“It's never over.”

“You know what I mean, you fake deep shrimp.”

In the car, Kihyun peeled off his gloves and put his hands on the steering wheel. Silky green veins ran over them and there was a powdery sheen to his skin because of the gloves.

They got to Gain first, receiving a message that she was badly hit. When they arrived at the spot, they had to track her down in one of the glasshouses behind an unused garden centre. The woman was sitting on the ground. Her clothes rustled dusty with dirt, her right knee smashed and bloody, her temples sweaty. The man lying in caked mud next to her had no face, no teeth, and no fingertips. His face had roughly the same consistency like Gain's knee.

“Took you long enough,” she greeted them.

“You've done a work on him,” said Kihyun, sounding somewhat impressed.

“I got bored. At least no one will be able to identify him.”

That, though morbid, was true.

After his bout of bravery, Hoseok felt drained again, a mutilated body being the last thing he wished to see. Still, he lifted Gain up on Kihyun's cue, offering a timid “Hi” to her “Hello, stranger.”

“I never would have thought I'd meet you again. And here,” she said conversationally. She must have been in pain, excruciating pain, even. Yet, she didn't bat an eyelash as Hoseok carried her outside. Her pupils were dilated. Maybe she took something to mellow down the agony.

“Yeah, I could say the same.”

“Are you still taken?”

Hoseok laughed a little.

“Yeah. Still taken.”

“This day sucks,” she declared in his arms.

Hoseok had to agree.

Kihyun gauzed up Gain's wound with a bit of bandage he found in the glovebox. After that, they made a speedy route to pick up the rest of the group. They got to Hyungwon first. He was unharmed and visibly livelier than he had been before the job was done. Changkyun hopped inside the car not long after. He smelled of powder burns, but apart from that, he seemed okay. The cheeky shit even managed to buy himself some instant noodles while he was waiting to be picked up.

Jooheon got in the last. His neck was scarfed to hide and protect a fresh wound that was starting to leak through the fabric.

“Look at us being all hole-y,” Jooheon joked, shifting uncomfortably against Gain in the tight space of the back seat.

“The holiest,” said Gain, not minding what was going on around her much. She leaned against the headrest as waves of pain washed over her. She was getting sickly pale. “And I had the loveliest legs, too,” she hissed.

“Still have, noona.”

She gave a chuckle.

Kihyun drove fast.

None of them was able to make the trainees sing.

 

In the morning, there were two packed envelopes on top of his bedside table.

Hoseok eyed them, his hands heavy as he finally reached for one of the envelopes and peered inside.

It was terrible.

Had he known killing was so lucrative, he would have never sold his body.

Well, that was a lie. He'd rather sell his organs than touch this money.

“I don't want this,” he said adamantly. He wasn't looking at Kihyun. The cash had a strange pull at Hoseok. While it felt like pure acid in his palm, the fullness and suppleness of each envelope lured him to open the flap again, touch the bills and let their leathery smell stain his fingers.

He had to do something. He couldn't just accept this.

“Don't spend it, then,” was Kihyun's curt answer. He was polishing his equipment at the desk, his back turned to Hoseok.

“I don't want that, either.”

“You can be really fussy sometimes.”

“Well. This is a big decision. It's a lot of money.”

“Yes. And it's yours.”

“Could I –” he began as a thought hit him. “Could I maybe send some of it to my mum? I don't want the rest. I don't really need it, so, I dunno, put it on Seho's payroll or whatever, he deserves it more –”

It was then that Hoseok noticed the hush. Kihyun ceased in his movements. He set his butterfly knife down.

“Send it to whom?” he asked.

“My mum.”

With a creak of the chair, Kihyun looked behind his shoulder.

“You told me you had nowhere to go. You told me you had no one.”

“I don't.”

The clock ticked away. Hoseok felt the need to explain, to open himself up, open himself raw and wait for salt or remedy to come. With Kihyun, he never knew.

“My mum's gone to Belgium. I'm not welcome there.”

Kihyun pierced through him with glassy eyes.

“What the fuck have I done to you.”

Hoseok was floored. He's never heard Kihyun talk like this.

So softly.

“You gave me a home,” was all Hoseok managed to say.

“This is not a home.”

You are, though, thought Hoseok.

“It is for me. The only one I have.”

“How come you're not welcome there? At your mother's?”

“Well,” Hoseok smiled a little, “I'm a grown ass man. I should take care of myself. She's got her own family now.”

“Why does she need your money if she doesn't need you?”

That cut deep and swift and both of them were aware of it. At the same time, Hoseok knew Kihyun didn't mean to hurt him. It was there – in the way Kihyun turned to him, the way his nails tapped the backrest, a staccato sound demanding answers because, maybe, he cared.

“It's not like she asks for it. We're not in contact anymore, but... I know her husband can get cold and then he takes whatever money she has and she still has to tend to the household. So I'm sending her spare cash whenever I have it.”

“You're too fucking meek,” said Kihyun, suddenly cold as well.

“Well, she's my mum.”

“Family is supposed to stick together. Always.”

“Don't get preachy with me. You don't understand. You can't.” You don't have a mother, Hoseok almost said.

It still hung in the air even though he stopped himself short.

For a heartbeat, he believed Kihyun would lash out. There was a storm raging all over his face. The steady tap of his fingernails died out, too, as if he was readying himself to strike.

“I'll try to help, then,” he said instead. Hoseok's head shot up, but by that time Kihyun was back to his task, touching the tip of the blade to assess its sharpness. “I'll have to talk it over with Hyungsoo first, just so you know. We'll have to check her account to make sure you're not sending cash to some other organization.”

“That's fine by me,” said Hoseok faintly.

“What do you want to do with the rest of the money?”

“I don't know. Don't care. Burn it. Take it.” Finally, both envelopes lost their grasp over him. He set them aside, relief flowing down his shoulders. “Figure something out. I'm sure there are people who need it more than me.”

“You're really so fucking meek.”

Yeah. That he was.

 

Chapter Text

The windows fogged over. Hoseok wiped at the glass with his sleeve, sitting down on the cold ground. Outside, snowflakes chased after each other, after cars, after the scuttling walkers. They fell silent into the wet dirt crusting the pavements, dissolving into glassy, spray-like puddles. Tiny islands of white were turning grey by the minute, and then black, crushed under heavy boots and stilettos alike.

“I wonder if there's more snow in the suburbs,” said Hoseok, huddled in his sweater. He took a sip of cocoa. He didn't know whether it was the warmth or the sweetness that had such effect on him, but he suddenly felt much cosier. Lighter, even, ready to drift like one of the snowflakes.

“I guess,” was Kihyun's unenthusiastic reply.

“I'd give anything to go.”

“Why? You'd just catch a cold.”

“I wouldn't.”

“Hoseok, last time you caught a cold just from staying in the garage for too long.”

“That's because I gave my scarf to Changkyun,” he said fussily.

“Yeah, well, I'm not putting up with your neediness again. You swore you were dying. And you went on like that for ten days straight while I had to pamper you.”

Kihyun closed the book he was reading shut, knowing full well that Hoseok was feeling talkative, and when Hoseok was feeling talkative, there was no way of paying him dust. Not for too long, anyway.

“I really thought I was going to die, though. I couldn't even breathe.”

“I know. You snored the whole time. Ten damn nights.”

Hoseok had the decency to give him an apologetic look.

Since Hoseok had rammed the bunks together, they both slept in the big bed. And although both of them kept to their side, it was harder to ignore when the other one stirred or sighed.

There was a bright side to it. On those not so rare occasions when Hoseok's bad dreams came crashing at him, leaving him wrecked and soaked and gasping for air, Kihyun would be right there. He would cradle his head and let Hoseok clutch onto him, powerful enough to bruise. Kihyun would talk to him until Hoseok got hold of reality and truly woke up.

It was still a bit of a puzzle to him that Kihyun never told him to move the bunks back. Hoseok had seen him try to drag the bunk on the right to its place once. Whether it was by luck or the lack of it, Kihyun had managed to pull a muscle upon the first push and given up immediately. Hoseok had pretended not to see and not to chuckle, and the beds stayed the way they were.

Shifting his weight forward, Hoseok drew a circle on the blurry window.

“I really wanna go outside.”

“Well, then go.”

“You're not coming?”

“I've already showered.”

“So?”

“It's night.”

“It's better to be out at night. The city's beautiful and everything is glimmering.”

“I didn't know you were Han Kang.”

“Funny.”

“But what's outside the city?” asked Kihyun. “You said you wanted to go somewhere where it snows. What's up there, though?”

Hoseok made a turn, sliding easily on the polished floor to face Kihyun.

“You'd go with me?”

“To do what? Sit my ass on a bench somewhere so I can admire the glimmering city?” he mocked.

“We could build a snowman.”

“The hell.”

“Or have a snowball fight.”

“I'd say we fight often enough without that.”

“We don't fight,” Hoseok opposed. “We roast each other lovingly.”

“I meant on the job, but okay.”

“Oh.”

“I don't care for any of that, anyway, so you can go alone.” Kihyun stretched before placing the book back in his lap, thumbing the pages.

“We could go ice skating,” Hoseok proposed quickly.

“Where do you want to get the ice-skates?”

“We could buy some. You're packed.”

“Oh, excuse me, should I buy you shit because you don't want to get paid? Should I waste my money on something that you're going to use, like, once? Maybe? Should I be that silly fool?”

His voice tinkled despite the tirade, as if with amusement.

Hoseok perked up.

“Pretty please?”

“Holy shit. Don't make that face. Don't,” Kihyun chided him while Hoseok continued to do just that and give him exactly that look. It made the younger man sigh in irritation. “You're a hitman now.”

“Hitmen can be cute.”

“I can't believe this.”

“Are we going, then?”

“Alright.” Defeated on all fronts and positively grudgy because of it, Kihyun put the book away. “But you better believe that I'm letting you drown if the ice isn't firm enough.”

 

It was firm enough.

The sky stretched cold and inky above the countryside. They missed neither the moon nor stars as they walked on, following a paved but deserted path to a lake that lay ahead. Hoseok knew this place, though he's never been here at night before. It was just as nice as he envisioned it, only whiter because of snowdrifts that sparkled in the silverdark. Far away, the skyline shone in clusters of lights. No sound carried here from the city center. Hoseok felt as if this part of the world was created only for the two of them.

Circling the brink of the lake, reeds shot up rigid from the slushy snow. Hoseok went past them, speeding up now that they were at their destination. He didn't stop until he was at the very end of a run-down pier. He plopped down, sensing the dampness of the wood. He wasted no time changing his shoes.

He was on ice before Kihyun even got to the pier.

The last time Hoseok skated was when he was fourteen or sixteen. He was wobbly at first, but he reckoned this was one of those things a person just doesn't forget. His body moved on itself, balanced, the blades screeching and singing under him depending on the way he twisted and turned. The untouched rink soon grew riddled with lines. All the while, Kihyun kept fussing with his ice skates, doing everything in his might to put them on.

Hoseok smiled his brightest smile. He skated towards Kihyun, resting his hands on each side of his thighs.

“What is it, little man? Are you scared?”

“Shitless,” said Kihyun, so honest it disarmed Hoseok. “I've never done this before.”

“But you agreed to go.”

“You were relentless. Like a child,” he couldn't stop himself from adding.

“Well, and now who's sitting here, sulking like a child.”

“I'm not sulking,” said Kihyun with dignity. “I'm trying to figure out how to stand on these.”

“Preferably with your legs,” replied Hoseok, simpering.

Kihyun threw him a dirty look.

“Come on,” said Hoseok, caressing his thigh to coax him.

With a muffled exhale into his scarf, Kihyun allowed Hoseok to help him to his feet. Hoseok held him tight, steadying him as Kihyun immediately slipped. He couldn't help a chuckle. This was his first time seeing Kihyun so completely, utterly out of his element.

It was endearing.

“I think I'm good,” decided Kihyun, grasping behind him to lean on the pier. “I'm just gonna sit here and –”

He didn't finish as Hoseok pulled him close, skating backwards and dragging Kihyun with him. They slid further onto the rink dusted with crystals, following in the tracks Hoseok has already left there. Focusing his balance into his legs and strength into his arms, Hoseok led the wobbling Kihyun to the middle of the lake, all smiles.

Kihyun was anything but happy.

Hoseok slowed down and let some distance between them, taking Kihyun's hands into his. Everything stilled. Kihyun's forehead was creased with those sea-like lines that appeared there every time he was distressed about something.

Shakily, Kihyun let go of Hoseok.

He was standing on his own.

“This isn't that hard,” Kihyun uttered, half-wary and half-awed, and then he moved.

Both of his legs flew so high it was a miracle he didn't cut Hoseok in half with his blades. Cursing, Kihyun fell flat on his back, his spine saying hello to the solid ice.

Hoseok guffawed. He bent over, his laughter resonating through the darkness, sending a small echo along the surface of the lake.

“Glad to crack you up,” Kihyun gritted out, doing what he did the best – making sure the ground was polished. Except he did it with his coat.

Hoseok laughed harder.

“You know,” he squeezed out, trying to keep himself steady, “I've been wrong all along. You could be a fucking comedian.”

“Geez, aren't I glad.”

He could almost taste Kihyun's wounded pride. He was too precious as he lifted himself up on his elbows, glaring upwards.

Gently, Hoseok's laughter turned into chuckles and those into a smile.

“Here,” he said, making an effort to keep his voice neutral. He held out his hand. “Let's try it again. Don't let go of me this time.”

Kihyun wasn't exactly grateful as he linked his arm with Hoseok's.

Hoseok yanked him up in one go, so fast that Kihyun's head fell backwards. Damn. He was such a doll. Pretty, too, with stray snowflakes melting on his lashes and eyebrows. And yet he was firm in Hoseok's grip, gloved fingers digging into his forearms, denting the skin.

“Easy,” Hoseok bubbled.

“It would be, if you stopped laughing for five fucking minutes,” snapped Kihyun.

“It would be even easier if you stopped falling.”

“Look, fucker.”

And then he went flying again.

This time, not even Hoseok could save him.

He was laughing way too hard for that.

“I think I hit my head,” croaked Kihyun. He pawed around, looking for the least slippery spot against which he could prop himself up. “I'm done. This better stay between us, or...”

“Or?” hiccuped Hoseok.

“Or you're dead, obviously.”

“That's cute. But you're full of shit. You'd sooner chop your hand off than lay it on me.”

Dismally, Kihyun said: “I guess that's right.”

Finally, Hoseok lost the last of his giggles. His joy turned into a heavier, longing gurgle inside his chest. He looked down at Kihyun.

He didn't do it fast enough to see what hit him.

Seeing his defenses drop, Kihyun tripped him up.

As gracelessly as Kihyun before him, Hoseok came crashing down, thudding partly onto the frozen surface, partly onto Kihyun's body. It hurt them both like hell. Still, with his teeth gritted because of the pain and cold, Kihyun let out a snort. Even that small sound carried such satisfaction that Hoseok wondered whether the younger man was used to suffering collateral damage just to take the other person down.

“That,” said Hoseok, “was really low. Even for you.”

“You haven't seen anything yet,” said Kihyun pleasantly. “It could've been your shin, and it could've been the blade.”

“Like you would,” taunted Hoseok, his mouth big again with that half-laughter that threatened to erupt at any moment.

“I still can.”

Knowing full well Kihyun might at least try, Hoseok quickly shackled their ankles together, lying flush on top of him. They squirmed a little as Kihyun realized what Hoseok was doing. He managed to land a push that made Hoseok's breath catch, but it only made him lie down heavier. They stopped moving.

“You were saying?” Hoseok whispered.

“You weight a goddamn ton.” Kihyun sounded strained.

“It's not my fault you're so tiny.”

“It's not, but I look even tinier beside you, which totally is your fault. I think it's time to end this friendship.”

“Aw, liddle guy, am I your friend now?”

“Of course you are, you great dumbass.” He eyed him as if Hoseok was slow in the head. “I'd kill for you.”

Hoseok loosened his grip on him.

“You never said that before.”

“What? That I'd kill for you? I kinda already have. Rude of you not to notice.”

“I meant the other thing.”

“What other thing.”

“That you think of me as a friend.”

“You're my family. Just like everyone else in the team.” Out of nowhere, Kihyun's whole expression changed. “I know it means nothing to you because you have an actual family –”

Yearning, Hoseok did everything in his power not to kiss him.

But he couldn't stop himself from running a hand through Kihyun's hair, wet from snow and ice. Hoseok pushed it away from his face. As he did it, his thumb grazed Kihyun's cheekbone.

It was taking him apart.

Soft-spoken, Hoseok said:

“It means the world to me.”

“Someone's sappy,” said Kihyun, a sneer back on his lips. The moment was gone.

They picked themselves up, supporting each other as they shuffled towards the brink. Hoseok had his arm around Kihyun's waist, feeling the pointed dig of Kihyun's fingers on his own hip. The snow fell heavier now and clouds gathered above them in black tufts.

Hoisting himself up on the edge of the pier, Kihyun instantly started to take the ice skates off. Somewhat sadly, Hoseok thought that this might be their first and last time here together. It was clear he was the only one who enjoyed it.

It was past midnight before they returned to the car. Kihyun turned on the heater as they drove back to the city.

The radio played quietly and a little rustly while they were still in suburbia.

Hoseok could almost forget who they were and what they did for a living. But even if he didn't, he was as happy as he could ever be. He always was with Kihyun; it just never occurred to Hoseok the man was fond of him, too. Not to that degree. It filled him. It made him void. It stripped him bare and he didn't mind.

He didn't mind. So what that Hoseok would only stay by him as a friend. It was better than nothing.

It was better than what anyone else has ever given him.

“Thanks,” he said and he immediately panicked a little, wondering whether Kihyun could read his thoughts. “For bringing me here.”

“No problem.” Kihyun increased the volume a notch, an ambient rhythm flowing through the warm but stuffy space. “Did you have fun?”

“Oh, yeah. Especially when you fell on your butt.”

“Yeah, well, you know who's dying if you say a word about it.”

“You, of shame.”

It made Kihyun grin that dimply grin of his.

Hoseok grinned back.

Yeah. He could live with that.

They made a stop at a nonstop café in a part of Songpa he's never been to before. Hoseok mentioned he was hungry, so Kihyun drove them there. It was situated in a calmer neighbourhood, all but vacant at this hour. And yet a string of shop windows lit up like aquariums glowed in the dark, inviting the freezing walkers in.

A slow song dripped through the speakers, something between hip hop and jazz. The song was suited for lazy winter nights.

They sat down and ordered coffee and something to eat. Kihyun didn't pay much attention to his plate, so Hoseok stole food from him, sneakily at first, but when he realized Kihyun was giving him an exasperated look anyway, he just stole from him openly.

“This is why you're so little,” Hoseok commented.

“I'm not little. I'm your height.”

“Barely.”

“Makes you a half-pint, too.”

“I've never seen you in a gym,” Hoseok ignored the jab.

“And you never will.”

“How can you even fight a man with these?” he grabbed at Kihyun's wrist, waving it in the air to prove his point.

But hell. Kihyun was sly.

He flicked his wrist in an angle that would hurt another man, tearing himself free; then slammed Hoseok's hand down. It made a crash against the table top. The china jarred.

“Fuck,” said Hoseok in a very high, very strained whisper. The bones in his fingers felt numb for a second.

“This was my last nice warning.” Kihyun gave him his best I-didn't-just-smash-your-bones-to-dust expression as he brought a mug to his mouth.

Sullen, Hoseok rubbed at his knuckles.

So the man had some tricks up his sleeve. Okay.

It was hot, somehow.

“Wasn't very nice,” Hoseok grumbled.

“Oh, it was. I didn't even touch the knife.”

Hoseok decided to take the dessert knife away from him, just to be sure.

“You could still use some workout,” he bit back.

“I do work out. I run.”

“That does nothing for your strength.”

“Yeah, I think stamina is more important.”

“For what? Cleaning?”

Kihyun clucked his tongue, his cheek hollowing as he did so. And fuck, Hoseok wanted to suck on that tongue.

“I feel like you're trying to goad me into another spar or something.”

“I'm not. I know I'd win.” Hoseok paused, stirring his caramel latte with a spoon. “I already did.” He paused again, fixing his gaze on Kihyun. “And don't even try to say you let me. I know you didn't.”

“I didn't,” Kihyun shrugged.

“You knew you'd lose, didn't you.”

“Yep.”

“But you still did it.”

“Hoseok, you were shaking like a leaf every time we left the room. You needed some ego boost.”

Hoseok pulled back, a tad peeved although he was fully aware that the statement was true.

“I'm braver now,” he praised himself.

“You are,” agreed Kihyun, the corners of his mouth quivering as the rest of his face remained impassive. “It's a pity, though.”

“Why?”

“You still think you're immortal.”

Recoiling again, Hoseok glowered.

“You really have to be ominous all day every day, don't you.”

“I was being serious now.”

“Well, don't. Don't spoil this.”

Surprisingly, Kihyun went silent at that.

The tune changed. Another, more rhythmic and poppier song came on. A female rapper rasped in low tones, her words streaming like a brooklet, talking of rushing memories and fucking up and bed sheets. Hoseok looked up. Kihyun wasn't watching him. He was staring somewhere out of the window.

He moped for a bit, finishing the last piece of his yaksik.

Maybe he was the one spoiling it.

Stretching his legs under the table, he hooked his foot between Kihyun's ankles.

“Do you come here often?”

Kihyun turned to him, confused at first.

“That a pick up line?”

“Might be.”

“No wonder you needed sugar daddies.”

“Wow. And I thought I was your friend.”

Kihyun rested his elbows on the table. He linked his hands, laying his chin on top of them.

“You know, as your friend I have the moral duty to tell you some unpleasant news.”

He stiffened. “What is it?”

“You're gonna have to ditch that hair colour.”

“Why?” Hoseok bristled up, running a hand through his dyed hair. What was he even talking about? Blond was his colour. “Don't I look good?”

Kihyun deadpanned.

“You look moderately good, but you're way too noticeable. The word is already being passed about you. It's quite a striking sight when someone your size and with hair like this swaggers around, not to mention if you were to do it fully armed. You won't be able to go on a single undercover mission if you look like this.”

Still fussy, Hoseok grew a bit gentler.

“You think I'm striking.”

“I think you're one vain motherfucker,” said Kihyun, too serious for Hoseok to laugh it off. But, well, it wasn't like he wasn't right. Hoseok wasn't mad about it. Not one bit.

“I guess I can dye it back,” said Hoseok, hesitant. “But are you ready for it? I'm really striking with black hair, too.”

“I think I'll live.”

“I don't think so, little man.”

Kihyun let that one slide.

“Besides,” Hoseok continued, “Minhyuk dyes his hair, too.”

“And he's hardly the inconspicuous type, now is he?”

Hoseok had to grudge his assent.

“There's one more thing,” said Kihyun, serious again.

“What?” Hoseok straightened up in his seat. The old familiar unease breathed down his neck.

“Someone's going stop by any minute now. I saw him pass by the window and he saw us here. Saw me here,” Kihyun corrected himself. “It will be better if you don't talk when he comes. Don't answer him, either.”

“Who is it?” Quickly, Hoseok began to whisper: “Kihyun, we didn't bring our guns –”

“He's not here to attack us. I know him.”

“Well, but is he – you know?”

“Yeah. Yeah, he is.”

Hoseok didn't like that at all.

At that moment, the chimes above the door swayed as someone walked in.

The man was neither tall nor imposing, sporting an almost handsome face. He was young, but looked older. Not sparing a glance towards the counter, he locked his eyes on Kihyun, a hint of a smile on his lips. He sat down at their table, uninvited by anything else besides Kihyun's silent consent.

“So it's really you. It's been a while,” he said instead of greetings.

“Four years? Five?” asked Kihyun conversationally.

“Must be five.”

“I guess you didn't come here to be sentimental, though,” said Kihyun, finishing his coffee.

“No. I came to warn you about Mad Clown.”

“What about him?”

“He was discharged from hospital. He ran straight to us to rat on you and while he was at it, he pulled out some silly loan shark sob story to squeeze some cash out of Gunhee for old times' sake...” the man paused, looking at Hoseok as if he only just noticed him there. He didn't say a word to Hoseok, returning his attention to Kihyun instead. “And of course Gun gave in. I don't think Mad Clown is going to use that money to pay his debts, though. He's too sore for that. He's got the means to get someone to do his dirty work for him now. You better watch your back, Kihyun.”

“Yeah, I expected as much,” said Kihyun. There was a cold, icy crack in his voice, though he didn't move a muscle. “Don't tell me you're here to give me old news.”

“Park never gave us a free hand to actually do Mad Clown in, so I suppose he still finds him useful. But I don't want him around Gun anymore. And I can't kill him myself. My hands are tied.”

Kihyun tilted his head back. It made his nose and chin sharper.

“Where's he now?”

The man laid down a note with an address on it.

Kihyun slid it towards himself, pocketing it without inspecting the writing too much.

“I'll see what I can do.”

“I suppose you can't lay off Gunhee in return for this?”

At that, Kihyun smiled.

“I can't.”

The man mimicked his expression, standing up.

“How's Yoongi, by the way?”

“Better since he left,” said Kihyun.

“It's always the best ones who leave, isn't it.”

“Like you wouldn't know.”

The man chuckled at that and held out his hand to Kihyun. He took it. It was a short contact.

And then, with one last look at Hoseok, the man was gone.

Hoseok didn't dare to speak until he saw him disappear into the night.

“What was that all about?” he piped up.

“He wants me to kill Mad Clown.”

“I figured that much,” Hoseok clipped. “But – what the fuck? Is he one of Park's men? Why the hell would you help him?”

“I'll be helping myself, too. I can't just wait until the cockless fool hires someone to get rid of me.”

“But how can you trust this guy? For all we know, he's lying about everything! You haven't seen him in ages, and he's one of Park's men!” hissed Hoseok.

“I can trust him. We grew up together.” Pushing the empty cup aside, Kihyun got up. “And dying men tell no lies.”

Hoseok had no time to react as Kihyun walked up to the counter, taking care of the tab. When he came back, he passed right by Hoseok, which he took as a cue to follow Kihyun out.

In the car, Kihyun looked Hoseok up and down critically.

“Now we have one more reason to get rid of that dye. They'll know all about you.”

 

He couldn't sleep.

They got back at four in the morning, showered and lay down with their backs to each other. The clock kept ticking, mocking Hoseok. He was too full of thoughts to be tired and too tired to think properly. He had half a mind to just up and leave, go to the gym and wear himself out.

He didn't, though, because he knew that Kihyun wasn't asleep, either.

Would it always be like this? Maybe there was no other way. He would fret and he would be left out, no matter how hard he tried to help; to understand.

He was always left to connect the dots by himself because Kihyun would withdraw inside his little shell at the worst times. Brooding over what he had heard tonight, Hoseok realized once again with ferocity that frostbit at his insides that he's never been truly allowed into Kihyun's life. It was ridiculous. Hoseok longed to be a part of Kihyun's past when he wasn't even a part of his present. He marvelled at the bond Kihyun had with that strange man, a bond which didn't seem to be able to destroy even by them standing on enemy sides. It was a morbid marvel.

Maybe Hoseok didn't want to belong in Kihyun's past after all. He just wanted to know. He wanted to know the faces Kihyun once knew, the stories his scars could tell. Hoseok wanted to know where he came from.

He used to hope that somewhere along the way, Kihyun would share these things with him.

What if he never would, though?

Kicking at his blanket, Hoseok rolled onto his back. He stared at the ceiling, and then at the frozen glow of the cityscape far off, and then his eyes glazed over the shape of Kihyun's body.

He'd give his all to be able to touch him. Not to kiss or fuck him, but to be so close it would be silly. So close it would make them one, or one and a half. They kind of were one and a half already, given Kihyun's tininess. Hoseok was the whole one when it came to size, and yet he orbited around Kihyun as if he was incomplete without him.

Hoseok had no idea how to tell him without telling him too much – that all he needed was to keep him safe and to belong.

But yeah. If Kihyun let him, Hoseok would press his mouth on his and fill it with little whispers.

His limbs tingling, Hoseok sat up. Questions swam in his mind, shattering like waves against a breakwater.

“Kihyun,” he said tentatively.

Nothing happened.

“I know you're awake.”

“I'm trying to sleep.”

“Who was that man?”

“Song Mino.”

That was easier than Hoseok expected, but still it solved nothing.

“Well, who is Song Mino?”

“Someone I knew.”

“No shit,” he snapped.

Slowly, Kihyun shifted under the covers, glancing over his shoulder.

“What's up with you?”

“I'm sick of this. I'm sick of being left in the dark.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“I'm talking about never knowing what's going on,” said Hoseok. “I just float around and wait for you to explain shit to me, but you never do.”

“What's there to explain?”

“How come you know someone who works for Park? How come you don't even stop to consider he might be lying to you, or tricking you, or spying on you?”

“I told you. I grew up with him.”

“Yeah, great. I'm totally enlightened now.”

“Glad to help.”

“Don't get smart with me. Not now.”

“I'm not.”

“How is that possible? That you grew up together?” A thought dawned on him. “Are you guys related or something?”

Kihyun lay down on his back. His eyes didn't gleam once in the dark; his lids were too heavy for that.

“In a way. I used to work for Park, too.”

Hoseok didn't know why that took him by surprise. He's never met Park, of course; the boss was a phantom threat for him. He was a person to be avoided and defeated and all he needed was Kihyun's word for it. So how come Kihyun just casually told him that he used to do that man's dirty job?

“Kihyun, start fucking spilling. I'm losing my patience here.”

“It's better this way. It's better when you don't know much.”

“Yeah, for who?” Hoseok spat.

There was no response. Irritated, he leaned over Kihyun.

He had his lids closed.

It took Kihyun a while to say anything at all.

“I worked for Park because I was scouted by Mad Clown. He still worked for Park back then.” Only his chest moved. “I was twelve.”

Quiet, Hoseok waited for him to carry on. And soon enough, he did.

“Mino and Gunhee were already there when I first joined them.”

So Kihyun wasn't related to that Mino guy. Not by blood. But both of the Song men must have been. They shared the same surname.

There was something worse weighting on Hoseok's mind, though; something dreadful.

“Did that – did that kidfucker ever touch you?”

Kihyun opened his eyes.

“Not me. I was an ugly child.”

“This isn't fucking funny.”

“I'm not joking. You should've seen me.”

They were trying to outstare each other now and neither of them was about to give up. Both of them pushed at the other without a single touch, willing the other to break.

Hoseok was the first one to speak.

“You and that other Song guy.” He couldn't say his name now. He wouldn't. “You left Park's clique to join Hyungsoo.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because I began to realize what we were doing. I began to realize it was messed up.”

At this isn't, Hoseok almost asked, but he bit the remark back.

Kihyun continued: “Park endorsed drug dealers and bailed abusers out of jail. He didn't care who worked for him as long as they delivered. He's never even disposed of as many people as we do here,” he said, probably thinking it was funny in that grim way of his, “but the people he has ordered to kill were innocent.”

“How do you know that?” Hoseok asked.

“They were mothers who couldn't pay back his loans. Wifes who filed reports against their husbands. Cops who cracked down on money laundering and human trafficking. I was too grateful back then to ever even doubt what Park's people were doing. They were the first people who took me in.”

“You never had a home?”

“If I had, I don't remember it.”

And all this time, Hoseok was feeling sorry for himself.

He reached out to graze Kihyun's temple, running over the tender skin with two fingers.

Kihyun's features hardened although he didn't draw back.

“Sorry. You didn't sign up for a fucking sob story.”

“Don't,” Hoseok implored. “Don't ever apologize.”

“You had it rougher than I did. You had someone to miss.”

Hoseok laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh.

“I didn't have it worse. I wouldn't last a day in your place.”

“You would. You do.”

“It's different. I'm grown now, and still scared.”

“I wasn't scared when I was a child. I just did what I was told. Kids are easy to mould. Mad Clown groomed me. By fourteen, I was ready.”

“When I was fourteen, I played goddamn video games.”

“Sounds a little dull.”

“Kihyun, I swear.”

“Alright.” Kihyun covered Hoseok's hand with his, but before he could even savour the caress, Kihyun pulled him away, letting go of him at the same time. “No more jokes tonight.”

Hoseok tried not to feel chilled at that. He clenched his hand.

“When did you join Hyungsoo?”

“At sixteen. I took Gunhee with me,” Kihyun added needlessly.

There was a pause.

“But then he left?”

“Yeah. He went back.”

“Why?”

“He didn't exactly sit me down to break it down for me gently. One day he was just gone.”

Well. Hoseok would allow him that bit of sarcasm.

“And now you have to get him,” concluded Hoseok.

“Yeah.”

“But you love him.”

“That's the fucked up thing about choosing your own family. You think of them that way no matter what happens. It doesn't really go away.”

That wasn't what Hoseok meant, but he was glad he didn't have to hear the answer.

He couldn't bear it.

He couldn't bear it when he loved him.

He had to lie back down. It struck him – his own love, the weight of it.

Settling onto his side, he kept taking Kihyun in, only a silhouette and a voice in the dark.

Kihyun turned to face him.

“Just so you know.”

“Yeah?” asked Hoseok.

“You'll end up the same way if you break faith with us.”

“Would you stop threatening me for one day? I'm not leaving. Ever.”

“That's a little too long, though.”

“You're gonna have to deal with it. I'm not going anywhere. Remember? I don't have any money. You'll just have to let me crash with you indefinitely when we leave this place.”

“If we leave.”

“We'll leave,” said Hoseok firmly. “I don't care when. I can wait. When you say it's time to go, I'll go. I'll listen when you lead me, but don't ever leave me in the dark again. You're not protecting me or whatever you think you're doing, you're just being a git.”

“I was, though. Protecting you.”

“Don't do it again, then. Not like this.”

“But you won't let me do it either way.” There was a swish of sheets and the slope of Kihyun's shoulder edged up. “Whatever I do, you find a reason why it's wrong.”

Hoseok wondered at that.

“What do you mean?”

“You change your mind so much that I know you can't be doing rational decisions, and yet you go through with them. You make me give you a promise – then you make me break it. You won't even shoot at moving targets – but you rush into danger like you're made of iron. It's like you don't even care as long as...”

He broke off.

Hoseok wanted him to say it. To realize it.

But Kihyun didn't.

In the end, Hoseok shrugged: “Well, I owe it to you.”

“Here you go again. You don't owe me shit.”

“I do, though. You spared me.”

“It wasn't because of kindness.”

“It kinda was.” Hoseok didn't look away. “I know you by know. I know it was.”

“Let's go with your logic for a while,” said Kihyun curtly, “and say that I did it because I felt sorry for you. But that doesn't bind you to me in any way.”

“Still. The least I can do is return the favour. Maybe someday you'll need it.”

“I'd rather you didn't. You're not cut for this.”

“Look, I might be a big pussy, but I'm more scared when you leave me behind. I can't stand it. I won't.”

“Neither can I.”

It was too much. He brought Kihyun close, dragging him by the blanket as if the body wrapped in it weighted nothing. He all but shattered him in an embrace that to Hoseok burned like cinders. Too afraid to speak, he was flooded by Kihyun's scent, his lungs drowning in it.

“Don't,” Kihyun pushed at him. “I don't like hugging.”

Hoseok wasn't about to hug him, but he settled for it.

“Try to break out, then, little man.”

Hoseok heard him sigh. And then Kihyun yielded and caressed his hair, laying Hoseok's head on his chest, cradling it.

Crushing him closer still, Hoseok buried his face in that birdcage of a chest. He breathed out.

He hasn't been this close with anyone for what felt like ages. Not even with the men who paid him to fuck them.

Later, there were mutters, Kihyun conceding to teach him and Hoseok promising to learn, to listen; and, internally, to lend out all he's got, to lay it at his feet.

Off-white rays crept into the room, pouring over them as they slept.

 

The phone rang, jolting them both awake.

It was a complete whiteout inside as well as outside. Hoseok squinted, sinking into the pillow.

Half-asleep, Kihyun stirred, making the cold bed colder still as he pulled away from Hoseok.

The ringing stopped.

“Hello.”

Kihyun was hoarse, his torpor quickly shifting to alertness.

“What the fuck?” It was barely a whisper.

Then Hoseok felt a caress on his ear, not very gentle. It grew even less gentle as it moved to his face, forcing it up.

Kihyun never moved, hair pushed back and his widow's peak like a dark tear on his forehead.

His eyes were slicing through Hoseok.

“What the fuck are you on about,” he repeated into the phone. “He's right next to me.”

Hoseok pushed himself up, resting his weight on his forearms. Kihyun followed after him, his hand merciless, pressing at his jaw. Hoseok tilted into it. Windowsills heaped with snow. It was so bright in the bedroom that he closed his eyes again.

“But Jung Hoseok was supposed to be in Gwangju. This can't be.”

His voice held even more alarm now. It made Hoseok stir. He sat up, covering Kihyun's hand. He didn't seem to notice. He didn't as much look at Hoseok as through him.

“Yeah. Yeah, I get it.” Kihyun still didn't move. “Does Yoongi know?”

Then he fell silent, and then there was a “Fuck,” and then there was nothing.

 

During the three days the funeral lasted, Hoseok saw many faces, familiar and unfamiliar alike. People came and went like black walking orchards, marching in, marching out, laying flowers everywhere because there were so many. Hoseok didn't spend much time at the actual venue, feeling a stranger there. And he was.

He's never lost anyone. Not like this. When Kihyun brought him to the funeral home to pay his respects to their lost comrade, all he could do was watch over the others.

Hoseok barely knew the dead man. He recalled his quips which often resonated through the mess hall at late mornings, setting the whole table atingle with laughter. The man whose name was the same as his, but with whom he would never speak again, used to be sunnier than their own Little Sun; that much Hoseok knew.

The funeral home was open day and night, and although Hoseok didn't feel it right to return after the first visit, he understood that Kihyun had to use all three days to go. Hoseok went with him each time, waiting outside or at a nearby little café merged with a flower shop, observing the clusters of people dressed in mourning pass to and fro.

Hyungsoo came the very first day like Hoseok did, spending a silent moment in the room, bowing to the shrine.

There was an older lady in hanbok who came each day.

And then there was Yoongi. Kihyun has tried to persuade him to leave, to sleep, to eat something over and over again, but until the funeral was done and the body gone, Yoongi never left the building.

He was one of the people next to whom Hoseok felt like an intruder although Yoongi never said a word to him, never questioned his presence or right to be there. He just sat there, as tiny as Kihyun, both of them drowned from within with honey-thick sadness so viscous and strangling that it made them mute.

Hoseok had no idea what to do. No idea what to say.

On the fourth day, Kihyun brought Yoongi to the hotel and Hoseok offered to vacate the room.

“We can fit,” said Yoongi without a single care in the world. He had a mushy voice that sounded as if he was asleep and sleep-deprived at the same time.

Those were the first words he's said since the beginning of the rites.

So they all stayed, Kihyun and Yoongi huddled together at nights on one side of the bed, Hoseok wide awake on the other. He's heard enough not to mind, not to be dumb and ache again. He's heard of Yoongi and the other Hoseok, and how Yoongi had retired from the organization, never knowing Jung Hoseok would stay and leave him behind.

And when he saw Kihyun cling to him and Yoongi cling back, he couldn't bring himself to be pained. It would be all kinds of fucked up, and so he got used to the third man in their room. Sometimes, other people would come, those Hoseok has seen around and even chatted with; Jimin and Namjoon and Seokjin, who came several times with sleeping pills that Yoongi swallowed without question.

There were nights when even five of them dozed off in one bed.

And then one day Yoongi was gone and so were his friends. Kihyun didn't say much, only that they left to take care of Yoongi.

“You won't go with them?” Hoseok asked, hushed.

“Can't.” Kihyun rubbed at his eyes, leaning back. “We've finally found Gun's house. Now we need to find him.”

Hoseok didn't ask anything else after that.

 

It was taking longer than Hoseok could ever expect.

When another batch of spies came back empty-handed, Changkyun announced that he needed a drink, as he did every other day, but this time Kihyun relented. They found themselves back in Queen, this time accompanied by Minhyuk and Hyungwon who worked on the Song case as well.

It seemed that everyone needed to drink away something.

For Hoseok, it was the fact that no one seemed to care about the threat that Mad Clown posed. In a way, he supposed it had to be a good thing. No hired hitmen appeared to shadow Kihyun. There was no sign of Mad Clown himself, either. It unsettled Hoseok, this unusual dead calm, but at least it meant that Kihyun abandoned his plan to go after the man for the time being.

Even if he only did it because he was after someone even deadlier.

Yeah. So Kihyun had warned Hoseok this job wasn't glamorous or heroic or even rewarding and that there would be things he could never be prepared for. And Hoseok truly wasn't. He wasn't ready to face death. Neither as some abstract danger presented by Mad Clown or Song, nor as the shrine with Jung Hoseok's name on it.

He also wasn't prepared for Kihyun to be so distant all of a sudden. Not again – not now.

He supposed it had happened during the funeral, or perhaps after it. Perhaps it didn't even happen until Kihyun has become so engrossed in his search for Song.

Hoseok couldn't tell. He just wanted Kihyun back.

It was the day after the New Year's Eve and the club was packed. The throng swallowed them all, splitting their group into two. Hoseok used his breadth to break through the mass of dancing bodies. Other people's sweat and scents clung to his skin.

They got to the counter. Kihyun asked for water as usual.

When the bartender placed their order in front of them, Hoseok took both glasses and switched them.

“Drink,” he said, addressing Kihyun. “I fixed things with Hyungwon. He's going to drive.”

“I don't feel like drinking.”

“I don't feel like you staying sober.”

“Someone has to mind the kids,” Kihyun refused.

“I'll do it. I'll take care of all of you.”

“I don't like these frilly drinks, anyway.”

“We'll order you something else.”

He wasn't about to back down and Kihyun must have sensed it. Either that, or he actually felt like getting wasted because when the bartender stopped by, Kihyun asked her for a shot of vodka. While they waited, Minhyuk forced his way towards them, grabbing the ruby-rose cocktail Kihyun pushed aside and downing it in one go, fruit and all.

“It's amazing here. Everyone is staring at my ass,” Minhyuk announced.

“You barely have one,” supplied Kihyun.

“I'm still getting more stares than you.”

Kihyun didn't dispute that. “Where's Hyungwon?”

“The bleeder is already getting proposed to. He's not even bi-curious, so what the fuck.”

“Neither are you. You only thirst after Hyunwoo.”

“He's thirst-worthy.”

“Can't argue with that.” Kihyun threw the shot of vodka back, grimacing. “Even Hyungwon is bi-curious for Hyunwoo.”

“Everyone is bi-curious for Hyunwoo,” concluded Minhyuk sagely.

“And not for me?” piped up Hoseok, pretending to be petty while he was actually a little bit petty for being left out.

“For you, hyung, I'd go all in.”

Hoseok laughed, pleased.

“Where did you leave Changkyun?” inquired Kihyun.

“Wouldn't you like to know?” Minhyuk pretended to be mysterious for a minute. “He's already up for some slap and tickle, I'd reckon. Last time I saw him, he was fondling some girl by the jukebox.”

Their heads snapped in the direction Minhyuk was pointing to, and sure enough, there the kid was, pressed against the wall. A tall woman was laying kisses all over his neck.

“So he really swings both ways,” said Hoseok, impressed.

“He swings all ways. That's Hanbit, Changkyun's friend. She's a trans girl.”

“So, a girl,” said Hoseok.

Kihyun smiled at that. “Yes.”

“She's pretty, too,” declared Minhyuk. “I can't believe I'm the only one who's going home alone today.”

“You're not. There's us.”

“Yeah, that's not really reassuring coming from two bum buddies who sleep in the same room together. I know how it is. I don't need your pity.”

Kihyun didn't deign to acknowledge Minhyuk's remark in any way, gesturing for another glass of vodka instead.

After taking a sip of Hoseok's water, because apparently everything within his reach was for free, Minhyuk disappeared back into the crowd. They were alone again.

Silence came crashing over them.

It felt perverse, to be quiet inside a throbbing bar where everything from lights to music to people screamed; screamed with fun and rapture.

It was as if they've done something unforgivable to each other.

Hoseok would do anything to bridge that chasm.

“You holding up?” he turned to Kihyun, watching a stream of red spotlights fall over the bridge of his nose, pooling at the curve of his upper lip.

“Yep.”

“I'm not talking about booze.”

“I know.”

“I'm here, you know.”

“Yeah.”

“I feel like –” Hoseok stopped himself short, trying to find a better way to voice whatever was on his mind. “I feel like I wasn't able to help much. With... you know.”

“You were.”

“Well, we didn't really talk about it. You never... you never came to me.”

“There's nothing to talk about. I was mostly concerned for Yoongi. I didn't know Hoseok that well. He worked in a completely different field.”

“But you're so –”

Dazed. Distant.

Kihyun looked at him. There was already a liquid sort of quality to the way his eyes moved, and even his tone was reminiscent of water somehow.

“I'm what?”

Not knowing what to say, Hoseok shifted to check the dance floor.

“You're up to showing everybody in this place your deadly moves, I hope.”

“I'm not that drunk yet.”

“Bottom's up, then.”

“You know,” said Kihyun, swirling his glass, “there's a club nearby that's called just that.”

“No way.” Seeing that Kihyun was serious, he chuckled. “Sounds like a name you'd pick.”

“Am I that cheesy?”

“You're even cheesier. You'd name it, like, The Cockpit or something.”

Kihyun snorted into his glass. The ring on his forefinger tapped the rim.

“I have class. I'd call it Nine Inch Males.”

“With a sign – Enter through the back door,” added Hoseok, amused.

Then he thought that Kihyun might say something more because of the look he gave him, but it was gone as soon as he noticed it. Instead, Kihyun finished his fifth shot.

“You wanted to dance?”

“If you're up to it,” said Hoseok, taken aback, or glad, or both.

“I think I'm tipsy enough to live down the shame.”

“I'll lead you,” Hoseok smiled.

And he did. He led him to the dance floor, finding a slit in the sea-like crowd and seizing it immediately. They spotted Minhyuk in the distance. He was surrounded by two bears and obviously too happy to pay attention to anything else.

It was so jammed that they had do stay pressed close even during upbeat songs; but those soon turned into a heavier, pulsing tune, the rhythm suiting their languid movements more. Taking in the shadow play on Kihyun's face, flashing red and dark, Hoseok grasped his hips.

Kihyun leaned into him. He didn't touch Hoseok except in fleeting feels, but he touched it all; the back of his arms, the ridges between his ribs. He even brushed his thigh once. They didn't say a word, riding the rhythm.

The place was swarming and it took Hoseok a minute to realize that someone else has joined them in the throng, dancing beside Kihyun. They both noticed him at the same moment.

Hoseok didn't know whether Kihyun was being coy or cocky when he turned his head back for the stranger to get closer. He just sure as fuck knew he wouldn't let it slide on his watch.

He embraced Kihyun, this time from behind. He put his head on Kihyun's shoulder, so close to kissing him it hurt, but he settled for breathing in that woodsy scent instead, nuzzling at his neck.

It didn't defer the stranger. If anything, the two of them were face to face now. Hoseok could only watch as Kihyun reached towards the man, dragging his fingers up and down his throat. The man ground against Kihyun, tilting his head back, inviting him to do what he willed.

Fuck. Kihyun made him lean even further back, sliding towards the dent between his clavicles. The man's mouth fell open.

Hoseok let go of him.

He was too sober to share. Too sober to watch this.

As he made a turn, someone pressed flush against him. Hoseok knew it was Kihyun and he went meek as fast as he went frigid a second ago. He grabbed at the hand on his hips, toying with Kihyun's ring before linking their fingers.

He lost track of time. If Hyungwon didn't find them in the end, they wouldn't even think of going back. But seeing that Changkyun was passed out and Minhyuk seemed to be on his way there, Hyungwon ushered them all to the car. He was a bit sleepy behind the wheel but adamant that they leave.

It took Hyungwon a while to drive through the unfamiliar Itaewon. As they crossed the Songpa border, though, he sped up, a mass of orange street lights becoming blurs.

They didn't get to the hotel until early morning. Kihyun looked sober, but wasn't. It only showed in the way his features lost that constant watchfulness they normally sported. He swayed once in the elevator while it began to rise, sending a spark to their bellies.

By joint effort, Hoseok and Kihyun made sure Changkyun got to his room safely. The little shit cursed at them in his stupor, then mumbled about really, really liking them both, and then he cursed again.

Kihyun straightened up, staggering into the hallway. It was lit as always, too white for comfort. They didn't put the lights on in the bedroom. They didn't even strip.

Falling supine on the bed, Kihyun exhaled. His brows creased. It occurred to Hoseok with some guilt that he might have a massive headache tomorrow and he brought him a cup of water. He made Kihyun drink some of it, setting the half-empty cup on the bedside table.

He touched Kihyun's cheek, bold after what they had done in the club.

“Better?” he whispered.

Kihyun laughed.

“No.” In a heartbeat, there was more laughter, though there was no joy in it. “It's worse than it fucking was.”

Sinking next to him, Hoseok grazed his temple, willing the hangover away.

“I thought it was you,” said Kihyun.

Hoseok faltered, bending over him to read his face. He couldn't, though.

The next moment, Kihyun was asleep.

Hoseok stayed up, watching over him.

 

The dining hall glared empty save for the table Jooheon used to sit at.

It was his hour. While everyone else either slept or was coming back from the job, Jooheon was here, hunched over a laptop so tiny Hoseok was awed that it was even usable.

Hoseok filled his tray and took a seat across from Jooheon.

“Getting ready for the order?” Jooheon greeted him, something in his tone hindering the usual ease with which he talked.

“What order?”

“It's happening. You're going to take Gun out.”

“What?” Hoseok stopped mid-chew. “Did you find him?”

“Yeah. I've already sent the word to the team. Gun has got another guy with him, so Hyungsoo is dispatching twice as many people than he planned.” Shutting the lid of his laptop, Jooheon fixed Hoseok with a look that all but pierced through him. It was urgent. “You're going with Kihyun, right?”

“Yeah. Well, we never talked about it, but yeah. Of course I am.” He wasn't about to stay huddled here while Kihyun had the most difficult task ahead of him.

But you love him.

Hoseok was glad he never got the answer to that, though he always knew.

It seemed that Jooheon's thoughts ran the same way.

“Good. He'll need you.”

“You're not going?”

With his head down, Jooheon spun his mug by the handle in circles.

“No. I can't.”

Hoseok understood him quicker than Jooheon could explain.

“You knew him, too.”

“We all did. But it's different for me. He was my best friend. Still is, in a messed up way.” His face and voice were flat. “I haven't seen him since he left, and I know what he's done since, but...”

“I know. It's always like this with the family we choose.”

Jooheon's dimples appeared, though he didn't smile.

“It's as if I just heard Kihyun speak with your voice.”

“He might have told me something along the lines,” Hoseok admitted.

“So he's told you all about Gun.”

Hoseok fell silent.

“He's told me some things.”

“Listen, hyung,” said Jooheon, pausing, “this isn't a fair thing to ask, but you gotta do it, anyway. You gotta be there for him. After it's done, I mean. After he's... Kihyun won't let any of us in.”

Hoseok would be stunned if he didn't consider Jooheon's statement to be an exaggeration.

“You're all much closer to him,” he muttered.

“We are – because we have always been. We got to know each other when Gun was still here. Back then, Gun was like... Gun was everyone's link, I guess. He brought people together. Now he kind of keeps us apart. It's like we're afraid he'll come up in a conversation, so we talk less. It's the worst for Kihyun because, well, you know.”

“Because they loved each other.”

“Yeah. The two of them go way back. They fell in love when they were still kids, or that's what Gun told me. It's – we tried to get Hyungsoo to pull Kihyun out of the operation, but he's relentless. He thinks Kihyun will do the best job.”

“Because he's hurt,” supplied Hoseok, his tongue dead in his mouth.

“Yeah. Hurt and pissed.”

He felt so bad it almost gutted him alive.

For ten years, Kihyun has killed and for ten years, he's loved Gun. There was no way Hoseok could break through a single layer of grime that choked his heart.

He'd try, of course. He'd try and try again.

It wasn't about him anymore.

Jooheon seemed to want to say more, but at that moment they heard a noise at the doorway. Leaning onto her crutches, Gain walked in and began to make her way towards them. Her knee was mended and put in a cast that stretched over her whole leg. The thing was already covered from top to bottom in scribbles that looked like some of the designs Hoseok has seen on Jooheon's laptop.

Jolting up so quickly he jarred the trays, Jooheon ventured to help her.

He got whacked out the way by a crutch before he even offered Gain his arm.

“Sit down, kid.”

“I just wanted to help you, noona!”

“If you want to be helpful, bring me breakfast.”

Gain limped towards the table and plopped down. She pulled out a chair and laid her leg on top of the seat, sighing.

Only then she acknowledged Hoseok's presence.

“Hello, handsome. Heard you've got a big day ahead of you.”

Hoseok flinched.

“Yeah. Does everyone know already?”

“Probably not. I got a message from the kid, so I thought I might come and see what's going on.”

“But surely you're not going?” Hoseok eyed her cast.

“Do I look like I want to club someone to death with these?” she gestured to her crutches.

She kind of did, but Hoseok kept that remark for himself. Gain tossed her head, forcing a stray strand away from her face.

“He keeps checking on me, is all, so now I know everything that's going on in this damn hellhole. I never would have thought how dull it can be in an underground organization that specializes in killing people when you're the only one who can't leave the bed.” She tapped at the plaster. “All I can do is watch the kid practice his damned graffiti on me.”

He supposed she was referring to Jooheon, who was choosing side dishes at the serving hatch.

“I guess he's nervous,” said Hoseok levelly. “There's no one to talk to at this hour.”

“I'm fucking flattered.”

“He's about to lose his best friend and he can't do anything about it.”

“I heard.”

“There won't be anyone for him when we're gone in the evening, either,” Hoseok hinted.

Gain threw a glance at Jooheon.

“Are you saying I should babysit him?”

“Only a little. It's not like you have anything better to do, or do you?”

“You're all sappy fuckers. Just do the job, do it well and then forget about it.”

Hoseok smiled ruefully.

“It's not always that easy.”

“Men,” said Gain under her breath.

 

Kihyun was up when Hoseok returned with breakfast.

He must have seen Jooheon's message already. Although it was still early, he was fully dressed, browsing through his assortment of balisongs and pistols. Loaded magazines were laying all over the table, so Hoseok had to make room for the tray.

“Thanks.”

“Don't mention it.” Hoseok reached out to feel Kihyun's forehead. He stopped himself short. “Are you alright? No headache?”

“No, I'm fine.”

“And other than that?” Hoseok asked. “Are you alright?”

“Never better.”

This time, Hoseok did touch him. Lightly, he brought Kihyun's face to him so they would look at each other.

“I'll be there with you.”

“You're not allowed to go.”

“No. We're not going through this again.”

“It's not up to me,” said Kihyun, “it's been decided. Hyungsoo hand-picked the team.”

“And did he say that I specifically can't go?” Hoseok countered.

“No, but we don't need any more help.”

“Won't you need me?”

There was a ripple along the line of Kihyun's brow, but that was all.

“I need you to take a shower. You haven't even changed.”

Hoseok sniffed at himself a little.

“To be fair, I haven't slept, either.”

“Don't talk to me until you do.”

“I think this is more important than a shower.”

“I think you need to listen for once in your life.”

“I will. To every word you say. I won't rush or fuck up –”

“Fucking listen,” Kihyun lashed out. He cradled Hoseok's face, the grip close to unpleasant. “He's brought a killer with him. A killer that we'll be lucky to match. He's brought a man that even the Triad doesn't want anything to do with. Not a single soul in Hong Kong claims him because he's so messed. You won't stand a chance. Not even against Gun.”

Hoseok knew that. He knew he couldn't compare to Song.

He would never come close to what Song and Kihyun had. Ever. And it was even less likely that he could take Song down, or at least harm him and remain standing, even if he had the stomach to do it.

Knowing all of that full well, he said:

“I'm still going.”

Kihyun shook his head. “I'm not risking this.”

“I am.”

“We're through, then. I won't have insubordinate wankers in my team.”

Hoseok froze at the threat.

“What do you mean?”

“You can find yourself a new leader.”

With that, Kihyun was all business again, returning to his assembly of gun parts and blades.

Hoseok could still feel the force of Kihyun's fingertips blazing over his skin and he missed the contact so much already he had to steady himself. Or perhaps it was because of the weight of Kihyun's words.

He'd lose him if he went, he realized. But he'd lose him in so many more ways if he didn't go.

Speechless, Hoseok stared at the back of Kihyun's neck, willing him to turn around, willing him to take the words back. He didn't, of course, and something told Hoseok he never would. They'd truly be through.

And then it came to him that he's pushed the boundaries one too many times already. He's endangered the both of them only to sate his fancy or fear. He's disrespected Kihyun's orders over and over and somehow, each time, he got away with it.

This was different.

Hoseok understood that this time, he was powerless. There was no conceivable reason for him to go, so he couldn't even argue his case. This wasn't a mission he could contribute to in any way except for keeping Kihyun safe and sane.

But how was he supposed to tell him that?

Hoseok stood rooted to the spot.

Was he even able to do it? Did he even have what it took to be a rock for Kihyun, a harbour, like he was for Hoseok?

He didn't know.

He didn't know.

He just knew he would go nevertheless.

Tongue-tied, he turned away.

 

Full of dim stars, the midnight sky hung cold over the even colder city. Snowflakes fell translucent on wet asphalt, one by one, little by little crusting lines along pavements and crystalizing on ornamental citrus shrubs.

Hoseok had slept through the day, so now he was alert, almost painfully so. He felt every dent and speed bump as the car drove through Gangnam, avoiding the bustling center. The streets were still clustered with people at this hour. Display windows and fluorescent signs flashed as they sped by. Congested roads led them further on to Irwon.

Everyone in the car was quiet save for Minhyuk, who was humming to a non-existent tune, probably giddy with anticipation. He was armed, but what chilled Hoseok was the trunkful of cans Minhyuk was bringing with him which were filled with god knows what. He had a couple of smaller containers strapped on himself the same way other people carried their guns. Whatever was in them, Hoseok didn't doubt it was inflammable as fuck.

It didn't calm Hoseok one bit – knowing that Minhyuk was prepared to turn into a walking torch just for the fun of it. When Minhyuk said he was ready to “blow that bitch up,” naturally, Kihyun asked whether he meant himself. It was a grim kind of humour, and the only one who laughed was Minhyuk.

There was no one else with them as Kihyun drove them. Hyolyn took the other car, boarding the rest of the group. They had all met in the underground garage before setting out to go over the details of the mission. Hyolyn's team was supposed to take care of the Hong Kong son of a bitch. Changkyun had equipped himself with guns and chains, rattling as he walked and smiled. Hyungwon had been there in the garage too, attentive tonight although his body language would never have given him away if it hadn't been for the concentration in his eyes. The last link in Hyolyn's team was Hyunwoo. Yeah. Shit was going down.

Hoseok was told some people were already on the spot, monitoring the place and tracking the movements of Gun's bodyguards. Strangely, there didn't seem to be that many. Hoseok couldn't shake the feeling that they were running headfirst into a trap, but when he voiced his anxiety to Kihyun, all he got from him was an “Of course we are.”

They arrived to Irwon faster than Hoseok wanted.

The mansion that belonged to Song was unlit. Their way cleared by the scouts and hitmen Hyungsoo had sent out before them, they pried the metalled door open. Its wings slid soundlessly to let them in. The whole neighbourhood slept, Song's wealthy neighbours resting easy in their beds. Not a voice was heard, not a bird's call. Still, Hoseok sensed the swarm of allies and enemies alike somewhere behind his back as he walked in.

Thumbing his revolver, he swallowed. The fucker was living it up. Even in the flicker of flashlights and stripes of orange light pouring inside through unblocked windows, Hoseok could see what a cushy home Song has built for himself. It was bigger than a single man could ever need, luxurious but careless somehow, as if waiting for the finishing touch.

“We're gonna take the upstairs,” said Hyolyn in a low voice, setting off. Hyunwoo, Changkyun and Hyungwon followed after her, not saying a word.

“Minhyuk, take Hoseok and go to the basement,” Kihyun ordered. It was barely a whisper. “Place that shit down.”

He was referring to the explosives and cans Minhyuk had brought with him.

“Roger that.”

“Don't do anything until I tell you.”

“Okay,” singsonged Minhyuk.

A chill ran down Hoseok's spine. He stood in place, his body becoming a running mass of slush. This wasn't what he was here for. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Panic clogged him.

He grabbed Kihyun by the elbow.

“I'm coming with you.”

There was a snap of the lock of Kihyun's gun and then the tip of the silencer touched Hoseok's chin.

“Go.”

He didn't breathe in or out. He would never move again if it weren't for Minhyuk who got him to take the first step, and another, and another. At the same time, he made Hoseok lift up an armful of containers. Hoseok walked, stupefied, his feet so cold he didn't feel them. He didn't feel his tongue, either.

He glanced over his shoulder, but Kihyun has already blended in with the darkness of the room, setting out to find Song.

Hoseok barely knew he was walking down the stairs, holding Minhyuk's hand as he did so.

It was really over. It was over between them.

He wanted to keep Kihyun from breaking, but instead he broke his trust.

He's broken it all.

As he heard Minhyuk slink along the walls, making sure there was no one else in the basement with them before securing the explosives, Hoseok let out a breath, or perhap a sob, dry and choking. When the lights snapped on, he didn't even take the space in. He put the cans down. He stood there lost.

He stood there lost until he didn't.

“Minhyuk,” he called quietly.

“Yeah?” Minhyuk straightened up. He caressed his holster. “What is it? Someone's coming?”

“No, but... but I have to go.”

“To him?”

“I – yeah.” The words were thick in his mouth. “I – what if he's –”

“It's alright, man. Go. I'm surprised you're still here.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Please,” said Minhyuk. “Do I look like I still have my murder cherry?”

So bad jokes ran in the family.

Hoseok didn't wait a second longer. He ran up the stairs, venturing into the cool and quiet of the hall. It was blacker than before now that his eyes have gotten used to the light downstairs, and he set out blindly, grasping around. There was no way he was going back for a flashlight. He couldn't lose another second.. He went on, getting used to the obscure, shadowy night.

Kihyun was nowhere to be found, and neither was anyone else.

He made his way to a sliding door that led into the garden. Dust danced against the panes, and outside, it was still snowing. All was covered with a silvery layer, not light but sparkling.

Hoseok briefly considered turning back and trying his luck upstairs, but then he saw it. There were footprints on the veranda.

Sliding the crisp door open, he came forth.

The path led to a winter gazebo. It stood dark and enclosed with wooden walls. At the entrance, he noticed a movement. He saw Kihyun as he disappeared inside.

Hoseok started running.

When he dashed inside, the gazebo was empty. He looked around frantically, his mind void of anything except for that soaking, crippling fear that was so familiar to him. It wasn't until he heard two voices that he spotted a trapdoor. The noise echoed from there. Without thinking, Hoseok rushed towards the trapdoor and dropped down.

It wasn't the smartest thing he could've done. He landed hard, the sound startling both of the men inside the hidden room. They whirled towards Hoseok, pointing their guns at him instead of at each other.

Hoseok was a fucking fool. He still hasn't even pulled out his revolver.

“Well, that was interesting,” said the stranger, his tone sweeter that Hoseok would ever imagine, boyish. But that was all that was boyish about him. He sat in a chair, only stirred by Hoseok's grand entrance and settling deep into his seat again as he assessed him. Leather creaked over leather as he did so, the studs of his black jacket glinting.

He looked like a common thug, but handsome even though his face wasn't. His hair was black and slicked back, bringing out his features. He wasn't nonplussed at all.

He had been awaiting them.

Awaiting Kihyun.

“Get out.”

Kihyun's voice was so low Hoseok barely heard him.

It was nearly hateful.

But Hoseok was more concerned about the fact that Song had them at gunpoint while they didn't.

Cautiously, Hoseok approached Kihyun, never taking his eyes off Song.

He stared back.

“That him?” asked Song, pointing his chin to Hoseok. “I was hoping you wouldn't bring him.”

The remark pulled Kihyun together. In a fluid motion, he targeted Song again.

That seemed to amuse the man.

“So what happens now?” he wondered in a half-mutter. “I shoot him, you shoot me?”

“Hoseok, get the fuck out,” said Kihyun, his cheeks hollowing.

It split him in half.

“Why is he still alive?” Hoseok demanded, sounding foreign to himself.

“I'm really wounded,” said Song. “All I wanted was a little reunion.”

“Speak,” said Kihyun, addressing Song this time. “Where is the rest of your men?”

“There's no one here.”

“You're forgetting your imported goods.”

“Oh, yeah, Jackson's here. He needed to get out of Hong Kong. I thought I would move him outta here before you found me, but you had to be sneaky as always.”

“Am I supposed to believe he's not here to help you?”

“He's not.” Song looked around. “Do you see him here?”

“What are you playing at?”

“I told you. I wanted a little reunion.” Song stood up. With his arm outstretched and pistol ready to fire, he returned his gaze fully to Kihyun. “I missed you.”

“Missed you, too,” Kihyun didn't miss a beat. The words sunk down like a cold stone into an even colder well.

Song smiled. “You're still wearing it.”

Although Kihyun didn't say anything, it was clear he knew what Song was talking about.

Catching the flicker of the ring on Kihyun's forefinger, unfortunately, so did Hoseok.

He felt invisible, and useless, and he lapped at the air which was both thick and thin.

This was too fucking much.

Dumbly, he reached for his holster.

He shouldn't have done it. It happened in a flash. As his fingers brushed the cool steel of his revolver, Song moved to dispose of him.

The safety catch clicked.

Moving on instinct, Hoseok crouched. There was a gunshot or two, but Hoseok's registered neither of them, running forward at the man. He rammed into him.

They fell backwards to the chair, toppling it over.

Hell. The guy didn't mean to give up, that much was clear to Hoseok when another blast burned his skin.

Putting all his might into it, he took the man's wrist and smashed it against the ground, smashed it over and over, shattering the gun into pieces before it fell out of Song's hand. There was blood, and a shriek, and still Song fought; he fought even fiercer now.

He was on the shorter side, sturdier than Kihyun but nowhere near as sturdy as Hoseok. The realization surged through him. He could end him with his bare hands. He could snap his neck and it would be over. All that kept him from doing so was the look on Kihyun's face as he dashed towards them.

The moment of inattention was all Song needed. When Hoseok looked back at him, the edge of a knife nearly missed his eyeball.

Hoseok stilled.

It wasn't dread that soared within him. It was sheer helplessness.

He was this close to killing him, once and for all.

“Don't move, either of you,” said Kihyun; and Hoseok wasn't sure whether he'd fire at both of them if they disobeyed him.

It got quiet.

Hoseok could sense the spasms that ran through Song's hand as it twitched, half bones half pulp.

He didn't dare to blink because of the blade near his eye.

They were in a deadlock.

“Put the knife down, Gun,” commanded Kihyun.

“Should I?” he gritted out, grudging a laugh. “So he can strangle me?”

“He won't.”

“I fucking will,” hissed Hoseok.

Gun laughed some more. He had blood on his teeth, pooling in the gaps, and Hoseok realized they must have been grappling for longer than it seemed to him and that he must have landed more punches. Dully, he noticed a wave of pain in his abdomen. He also must have taken more hits that he thought.

“Gunhee.” There was no tenderness in it, and yet Hoseok almost lost his hold on the man when he heard Kihyun call him that. “Spill. What the hell is this all about? Why are you here when you knew we were coming? Where is the rest of your hitmen?”

“I don't know how many times I have to tell you,” said Song, his breath tinny. “I wanted to see you.”

Kihyun never moved a muscle.

“So now you do. I hope you know it's the last time.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“You must have known I'd kill you.”

“I knew. I know. It's okay. I have nowhere to turn now, so do your best. Either you'll do me in, or Park will.”

A moment passed.

“What the fuck have you done?” said Kihyun.

“I broke faith with him. I refused a job and then botched it when he sent me to do it anyway.”

Silence stretched over them, viscid like terror.

At last, Song spoke again, a boylike grin on his lips: “You're not even gonna tell me to hide from him and go with you, love?”

“You had all the time in the world to come back.”

“Did I?”

“You spent it by killing people I was trying to save.”

“Yeah, that I did.”

At that, Kihyun squatted down and laid the muzzle of his gun snug against Song's temple.

“Give me the blade and I'll do it quickly.”

“I have something to ask first.”

“I don't give a shit, love.”

“Please.” There was a small chuckle, self-derision bubbling in it. “Please, Kihyun. You have to do this for me.”

“I don't owe you anything. It's you who left.”

“Yeah. I fucked us up.”

“The knife.”

“Wait.” Song brought the blade closer and it whispered over Hoseok's eyelid while the man turned to Kihyun. “You have to promise me it's you who does it. Not him.”

“I wouldn't miss it.”

“And you have to let Jackson walk free, or take him in. He's got things on Park that will help you bring him down.”

“You must think I'm a fucking tool.”

“I'm not fucking with you, Kihyun. Let me do this before it's over. I used to work for you once.”

Kihyun didn't budge. “Wang is probably dead already, anyway.”

“I hope for your own good he's not,” said Song.

He was losing strength, Hoseok could sense it. A few more minutes and he could wrangle the knife away from him.

Kihyun pressed his gun closer to the pulsing vein on Song's temple, covering it.

“The knife,” he repeated. Any trace of life or emotion was gone from his voice.

“One more thing.”

“Out with it.”

“I love you.”

“I loved you, too.”

At that, Song closed his eyes and dropped the knife.

The gunshot was faster than Hoseok.

He didn't even flinch away, holding the now limp body in a tight grip. Song's head turned to mush, not so handsome anymore, and Hoseok inhaled deeply, the scorching sting of gunpowder eating at his lungs.

It was over.

It was fucking over.

Hoseok flung the dead man down on the floor, hoisting himself up in a hurry to get to Kihyun. He cradled his face, searching.

Kihyun turned to him slowly, locking the gun with a deft movement.

“It's alright now,” said Kihyun. Somehow, he ways trying to soothe him.

“Fuck,” was all Hoseok managed.

“Are you hurt?”

“No – are you?”

“He didn't touch me.”

“That's not what I meant,” he said, too quick.

Kihyun didn't answer. He gave Hoseok's cheek a light tap, grazing the corner of his eyelid to check the damage. He seemed satisfied. Then his expression shut down again.

“Get up. Let's bail.”

His legs gave out under him, but still Hoseok wobbled up, trying to support Kihyun while he weighed him down instead. With joint effort, they stood up.

Hoseok wanted to ask more questions, a whole stream of unsaid words gurgling within him, but he couldn't. He wasn't even afraid to hear the answers this time. He just knew Kihyun wouldn't give him any. Not now, and maybe not ever.

As they walked out of the gazebo, it felt like he was walking alone.

Minhyuk was waiting for them in the hall of the mansion.

“Took you long enough. The others scoured the first floor, but nobody was there. If Hyungwon didn't climb on the roof to keep an eye on the neighbourhood, we would've totally missed Wang.”

“So he was here.” It wasn't a question. Kihyun didn't slow down as he passed Minhyuk, so the blond joined them. “Did he injure anyone?”

“No. He didn't fight at all.”

“Good.”

“He's in the car now.”

That got Kihyun to stop.

“What the fuck? The order was to take them both out.”

“Yeah, well, apparently he was sitting on a shitload of documents he's gathered on Park. Like, literally sitting on them. He had them under his ass because the roof was cold. What a goofy fucker. He said he'd trade secrets with us if he take him in.”

“Why was he holed up there if he planned to make a deal with us?”

“I guess he wanted Gun to clear the air first.” At the sound of Song's name, Minhyuk faltered. “Is it done?”

“Yeah.”

“Did he put up a fight?”

“Not until someone waltzed in.”

Hoseok winced.

“Give him a break,” said Minhyuk, coaxing Kihyun. “He meant well.”

“He could've lost an eye.”

I didn't, though, Hoseok wanted to chime in. But he was more tired than sullen, and heart-broken as fuck. And he assumed that so was Kihyun.

The rawness of the night poured over them as they left the building. Hoseok tasted salt on his lips and he wondered whether it was sweat or blood.

Both cars were still standing in their designated spot, hidden from sight. The engine of Hyolyn's vehicle was purring lightly, the dome light off, only the control panel giving off a red and blue glow.

“You guys good?” Hyolyn inquired.

“We came back in one piece, didn't we? Hey, should I blow the bitch up now? Do you guys wanna watch the fireworks?”

“Calm down, Minhyuk,” said Kihyun. “Where's the fucker?”

“We put him in your car,” Hyolyn smirked at him. “No room in this one.”

“But guys, the fireworks,” insisted Minhyuk.

“Wait until we're all inside,” said Kihyun, seating himself behind the wheel. He threw a glance in the rearview mirror.

A man was wriggling on the back seat, cussing in a foreign language – or at least Hoseok reckoned that's what he was doing. His wrists and ankles were cuffed.

As Hyolyn drove off, the street grew quiet. Hoseok and Minhyuk got in the car. Minhyuk pulled something out of his pocket. He let out a way too overjoyed “Okay!” as he set the bombs off.

Hoseok managed to cover his ears, but the detonation was smaller than he expected, muted. The mansion shook in its foundations and suddenly a hot wave of air rushed out, shattering the windows. Fire spilled out next, swallowing the walls and licking its way upwards.

“Fuck,” muttered the man in the back seat in Korean, awed. He watched the flames go up. Slowly, he turned forward. “He built it for you.”

“Who built what for who?” Minhyuk wanted to know.

“The house. Gun built it for him.”

“It looks better when it burns,” Minhyuk assured him.

With the amount of flammables and explosives Minhyuk had placed in the basement, it was clear that even if the neighbours called for help, the building would be in cinders before it came. Kihyun started the engine, not minding the Hong Konger's prattle.

It wasn't going to be a peaceful ride.

“Did Gun tell you I am yours now? I have information. Your colleagues took it very rudely. But I have more information in my brain. I no stupid.”

His accent was thick and his mouth ran faster than Minhyuk's.

“We'll see what Hyungsoo does with you,” said Minhyuk, seeing that neither Kihyun nor Hoseok was about to entertain the man.

But Wang was relentless. He kept trying to catch Kihyun's eyes in the reflection of the rearview mirror. At last, he succeeded.

“Did Gun tell you about the boss?” he asked immediately.

“What about him?” clipped Kihyun.

“That he turned him out,” the man said.

“Yeah. He told me about Park.”

“Not Park,” cut in the man. “Well, Park too. But before that. He turned Gun out.”

The pause that followed wasn't as much stunned as it was weary.

Finally, Minhyuk spoke up.

“Who did?”

“Your boss. He canned Gunhee.” Wang was now enunciating each syllable with care and it would look like mockery if he wasn't a foreigner. “He fucked up, so he was canned.”

“That's his thing. He always fucks up,” Kihyun brushed him off.

Jackson nodded at that, getting more eager since he had everyone's attention on him. The rush made him slur his words.

“Yes, he fucks up. Correct. He messes up a few contracts and Hyungsoo boss says, out!”

“Hyungsoo?” repeated Minhyuk, at loss for once. “Bullshit. Gun went on his own.”

“Ask him.”

“No need to ask him,” said Kihyun. He upshifted. He used more power than he needed and the car hiccuped.

“There is a woman called Park Bom,” Wang continued loudly. “She was the boss's bodyguard back then. Ask her! Gun said ask her!”

The name rang a bell to Hoseok. Park Bom was a dainty woman who looked older than she was, perhaps because she was badly scarred and in a wheelchair. Rumour had it she had been injured in a hit gone wrong.

It was all collapsing down on Kihyun, every shout and every accusation, Hoseok could tell. And yet he stood his ground, eyeing the man calmly in the rearview mirror whenever he could afford to glance away from the road unfolding ahead of him.

“Minhyuk?”

“Yessir?”

“Keep him tied up. And gag him.”

“Got it.”

“Fucking – mhhf –!”

Pissed, Jackson struggled as Minhyuk thrust a balled up handkerchief into his mouth, smiling almost fondly at the man.

Despite that, the rest of their way back home remained as far from calm as it could.

A tight knot of dread formed itself in the pit of Hoseok's stomach, growing right next to the place which Song had pummeled with his fist during their fight. It would leave a mark, but it was Hoseok's foreboding that bruised him from the inside out.

All he'd seen in the gazebo came back to haunt him. All he'd done. All Song had said.

What if all they've heard today were lies and there would be more bloodbath and revenge to come? What if it was all a part of some intricate plan that used Song and Wang as pawns to lure Hyungsoo and his troops out? But if so, where were Park's men? Why was it all so easy?

He let Wang's words slice through him.

What if it was all true?

Hoseok went leaden in his seat, his hand instantly reaching to the left to rest on Kihyun's thigh.

He was shaking. He was fucking shaking.

Hoseok looked at him.

Kihyun wasn't cracking. He was already broken.

 

Chapter Text

“Leave these here and go,” ordered Hyungsoo, laying a hand on the stack of documents they had brought with them. “Hyunwoo, call Soyou and Dasom to interrogate him.”

Nodding, Hyunwoo took the tied up Hong Konger by the ropes, leading him out of the office. Everyone left at once except for Kihyun and, after a short hesitation that didn't show in his body language, Hoseok.

He was past worrying. Planting his feet on the ground, he stood behind Kihyun.

He's risked it all, bringing Kihyun's fury or indifference on his head in the process. There wasn't anything more to mess up.

Hyungsoo looked up.

“I said you can go. You did well.”

“Did I?”

“You exceeded my expectations. I knew I could trust you.”

“Of course you can,” said Kihyun blankly.

“I'm pleasantly surprised by you, too,” the boss addressed Hoseok. “You've proven yourself.”

Hoseok didn't utter a sound; he didn't even lower his head.

“There's something Wang said that I need to confirm with you,” said Kihyun, staring ahead.

Hoseok didn't know whether it was calm before the storm, or whether Kihyun was truly calm.

The expression Hoseok had seen on his face in the car has vanished, leaving nothing behind. Kihyun's features have become a mask, allowing no emotion to rise up and ripple the surface.

Hyungsoo nodded. “What is it?”

“He claims you canned Gunhee all those years back.”

God. Hoseok bit on his lip, willing Kihyun to fuck around at least a little bit. He could be so blunt sometimes.

Hyungsoo seemed as serene as Kihyun looked.

“That's true.”

No one said anything for a while. The words festered in Kihyun's wound; or so Hoseok assumed. Even he went empty at the answer.

The stillness was all-embracing.

“Did he also say why I did it?” demanded Hyungsoo when Kihyun remained speechless for too long.

“Because he botched an order.”

“He did more than that.”

“What could he possibly have done for you to turn him out? You knew where he came from. You knew where you'd be sending him.”

“I cannot work with insubordinates. Gunhee never had discipline. He never learned to work quietly and precisely.”

“And that's it? You let him go because he was messy?” asked Kihyun. His tone never stirred. “So's Minhyuk. So am I.”

“But on your part, it's never intentional. It's never mindless. All that was keeping Gunhee in check was you.” Hyungsoo rested his palms on top of the desk. “It wasn't me. It wasn't this organization. It was just this little puppy love of yours.”

Kihyun didn't miss a beat. “Still, he was loyal.”

“To you. That's not what I need in a hitman. Sooner or later, that love would go away, and with that, so would the last bit of restraint he had.”

“You were wrong about that, though,” said Kihyun. “It never went away. Not until you made me kill him.”

“Is that what he told you to spare his life?”

“He never tried to save himself.”

“Listen to me now, boy,” said Hyungsoo, approaching Kihyun.

Hoseok moved forward. Kihyun stopped him, shielding him with an outstretched arm.

Like a feline, Hyungsoo moved in front of Kihyun, forcing his head up.

“Listen to me. Gunhee was a liability. He left so many unfinished jobs I had to dispatch people to clean up after him. And these people got hurt because of him. Because of me, since I was the one who took Gun in.”

“You could've moved him into another division,” retorted Kihyun, cracking at the contact. “You could've just kept him off commissions.”

“And now tell me whether he would stand it. Tell me whether he would be able to go on without killing. Tell me,” he insisted, “whether he would listen.”

“I don't know.” Kihyun's face grew pained as he sucked in a ragged breath. The tip of his nose looked more pointed now as it always did when he was trying to control himself. It was too late, though. Ever so slowly, his eyes glazed over, tender with such grief that it was a wonder they didn't brim over. The tears only ever wetted his lashes. “But the thing is, neither do you.”

“I knew him well enough to make that decision.”

“But you made me live with it. You let me think he left me.”

“It was for your own good, boy.”

Kihyun didn't laugh or shake him off.

“I don't know about that.”

“You'll see it when the shock is gone,” Hyungsoo assured him.

For the first time, Kihyun tried to back away.

“You had no right to do this.”

“I had every right to protect my people. That includes you.”

“It also included Gun. He was one of yours.” And you did him in, hung unfinished in the air. “I wonder what happens when I screw up. Or one of my people.”

“You never broke my trust.”

“You broke mine.”

At that, Hyungsoo loosened his grip on Kihyun, squaring him with a level stare.

“In time, you'll see it differently.”

There was no reply.

Hyungsoo didn't expect any. “Now go. Both of you.” He turned to Hoseok. “Take care of him.”

“I will.”

 

The elevator ride was quiet.

It was so bad Hoseok thought the silence between them would never be bridged again.

And it was worse still inside the room.

He's never felt anything so consuming yet disconnected like Kihyun's silence that night.

Kihyun went around things the way he always did. He unstrapped his belts, cleaned his gun and removed the magazine with a single fired bullet. He put his things away, he took a shower. He lay down, shielding his vision from the sunrise.

Hoseok lowered the blinds in a futile attempt to make Kihyun's face a little less haunted. The room dimmed, offering some solace from the severe light.

Still, Kihyun didn't speak. He didn't utter a single sound.

It was as if he was dead, too.

Afraid to lose sight of him even for one minute, Hoseok simply changed his clothes and slipped under the covers next to him. He touched him – the way one would touch a wounded animal. His breath bated, Hoseok run his fingers through Kihyun's hair, pushing them away. The roots were a bit damp.

Hoseok touched the carved curve of his cheekbone after that. Wordlessly, he grazed the skin up and down and up again, close to the corner of Kihyun's eye. It was damp, too.

“Kihyun,” he whispered, willing himself to keep his own feelings at bay. He had to be strong for the both of them. He had to keep his own misery inside.

Or that's what he told himself.

Not knowing how, his tears welled up and fell at seeing Kihyun lie so lifeless beside him. Hoseok's self-command has been disintegrating bit by bit in the last few hours, leaving him crumbling, and finally he couldn't carry on knowing Kihyun was in so much pain.

It wasn't even pain anymore; he wasn't just grieving for a dead lover. It was torment. Kihyun had to go on knowing that he murdered a man who would never have left him on his own volition.

And, Hoseok knew at the back of his mind, he'd love him more for it.

So Hoseok swallowed a sob, overcome with sadness that Kihyun couldn't express. When the second sob came, he wasn't able to silence it.

Kihyun's eyelids fluttered open, so heavy that they had to equal his heart.

“Why are you crying?” he asked calmly.

“I don't know,” Hoseok lied. “I don't know.”

Tacitly, Kihyun wiped at his tears only for more to run over his fingers. After that, his hand sat frozen on Hoseok's face, unmoving. Hoseok took hold of it and opened his mouth against Kihyun's palm, letting some warmth on it as well as hot teardrops.

Kihyun lifted himself up.

“Don't cry. You have no reason to.”

“I know,” he cried even harder.

“Stop it. Stop, you dummy.”

That's what he was. A fucking dumbass. A great airhead who tried to be a hero only to watch the people around him get hurt without any way to prevent it.

And then Kihyun was kneeling above him, hugging him, hushing him. He caressed Hoseok's hair, cooling his hot head. Hoseok wept open-mouthed and without any restraint now, clutching at Kihyun's sides and staining his sweater.

“It's okay. You're okay,” Kihyun repeated, but it stung so bad.

He was consoling Hoseok.

It should've been the other way around.

Somehow, he always ended up being a burden.

“I'm so sorry,” he managed, his voice runny.

“Don't be.”

“I fucked up again.”

“No. Never.”

“We could have – we could have saved him,” he blurted what was oppressing his mind, creeping like ivy through and up his throat. The thought has been draining him ever since the car ride.

“He was done for,” whispered Kihyun. “Neither Park nor Hyungsoo would ever take him back, and Gun knew it.”

“But that's so terrible.”

“Hoseok,” Kihyun laughed at that, though it was hollow and short-lived, “all we do is terrible.”

Hoseok clasped at him even more desperately.

“I'm so, so sorry.”

“No. I'm the one who's sorry. I almost did to you what Hyungsoo did to Gun.”

“I deserve it. I keep... I just...”

“Shh.”

But he cried and cried; cried for Kihyun as he held him tight. He wept himself to sleep, still sitting down and soaking Kihyun's sweater in salt.

 

The days that followed unfolded slowly.

Kihyun stopped talking again. In fact, he only ever functioned when someone else needed him. He hushed Hoseok at nights and watched over the rest of his little team as if nothing happened. He was there for Jooheon when the news got out and prevented him from lashing at Hyungsoo.

Seeing that it was useless to try and keep Jooheon in his room after that because he claimed it felt claustrophobic to him, their whole group kept the boy company in the dining hall where they tucked him away in the furthest corner and poured him a cup after cup of coffee.

Jooheon was so not ready to mourn that kind of loss, one that was completely needless, that all of his remaining naivety that sometimes flickered in the sweetness of his dimply grin gave way to a clay-like sort of cynicism. He spat his anger out in little speeches when he could speak at all, and even Hoseok blanched at their harshness, probably because they were so true.

But faced with that anger, Kihyun took it all and he turned Jooheon's venom into a salve with his own words, doing his all to put out that distrust that threatened to take over the boy and drive him away.

After everything, Kihyun still stood by Hyungsoo and never said anything to question his ways – unless it was to Hyungsoo himself. In front of everyone else, he seemed to accept the decision that fucked over his and Gun's life alike and to sanctify it as necessary, soothing the storm that foamed and festered within them all.

It was so wrong – and yet it was the only thing to do.

Hoseok did very little, or he felt like it. He became a shadow that was twice Kihyun's size but dimmer somehow, invisible due to his powerlessness. All he could do was be there for Kihyun, and even that appeared useless as he never showed any need to have Hoseok there, or anyone else for that matter.

About a week later, their little congregation which was by that time enriched by Gain and, oddly, Jackson Wang, sat at their usual table. Jackson, who hovered around the hotel guarded by two gunmen at all times and who was getting chummy with all and any of them, was allowed to stay after the interrogation, not redeemed but too dangerous to walk free and too knowledgeable to kill.

There was something about that man's presence that got Jooheon to listen every now and then, listen bitterly at first when Jackson talked about Gun, and then just listen – because it was hard to talk over the mouthy man. It never lasted long, though, these moments in which Jooheon would settle down with his sorrow.

He lost some of his plumpness, causing those sculpted features which could appear intimidating but usually never would look positively that. His work suffered. He was unable to do anything, growing restless and prone to mistakes. Gain kept an eye on him when no one else could, seeing that she was discharged because of her wound and “bored anyway,” but it was not enough.

It was one of Jooheon's worse days when Hyunwoo approached them all, dressed warm as if he was ready for a trench war in Hwacheon, and told them all to up and pack their things. By Hyungsoo's orders, they were supposed to leave first thing in the morning and relieve the group he had sent to accompany Yoongi some weeks ago.

The only reason Hyunwoo was going with them was clearly to keep them all from deserting. It chilled Hoseok. It wasn't much of a vacation, as instead it was a hunt.

Hyungsoo cared for his men, but he cared for the organization as a faceless entity more.

Eight of them went. Both cars were crammed with people and luggage and, naturally, weapons, although there didn't seem to be a reason to haul those to Yoongi's secluded log cabin. Still, as Hyunwoo said in a mild voice, there might be bears. So they sat squashed in the overheated vehicle, watching the gritty Seoul streets change into suburbs and those into a white, seamless landscape.

The trip was long and tiring although nothing really happened. Or perhaps that was the reason for their exhaustion. Hoseok didn't know. Cooped up in the back seat next to Kihyun, he put a hesitant hand on his thigh to bring him back from a stupor that seemed to have taken hold of him once again, but he failed. With some consolation, Hoseok reckoned he could be glad that Kihyun didn't shake him off, and so he was; he was grateful to be at least able to offer the support that wasn't taken.

By dusk, they arrived. The forest road winded towards the cabin in what would be an utter darkness if it weren't for the January snow.

There were bags strewn all over the veranda, shielded from the falling snowflakes. The blinds in one of the windows stirred. Alerted by the sound of winter tyres, a group of men walked out, already dressed in coats and ready to hit the road. Gusts of air condensed in front of their mouths as they spoke, giving the arriving company hearty but serious greetings as well as goodbyes. Hoseok recognized Seokjin and Jimin in the group and he was almost sure that he spotted Namjoon in the midst of all that commotion and luggage hauling, too, though he wouldn't bet his life on it. There were more men he's never seen before, younger than Hoseok and loud and just everywhere.

Yoongi walked out of the cabin calmly, his ears turning pinkish because of the sudden cold. With a soft “I heard,” he laid something akin to a kiss on Kihyun's forehead. He was only able to do it because he was still standing on the last step of the stairs leading down from the veranda. He mumbled something more after, but it was left unheard in the noise.

Hoseok briefly wondered how was the cosy but smallish cabin going to lodge them all. Sure, the men could bunk with each other, but there was also Gain who was dispatched with them to heal physically.

Everyone else was supposed to just heal.

Something told Hoseok that they might kill each other before that, if Hyunwoo didn't do it first.

Inside, it smelled of something sweet and musky; of men and sleep and comfort food. A fire was just dying out in the hearth, warmth still seeping through the living room. All of them gradually shed their gloves and boots and coats, apart from Hyungwon who still huddled in his.

They threw their bags on the floor for now, letting Kihyun take care of any dinner that wasn't instant noodles. The waste bin was brimming over with paper cups and foil wrappers and Kihyun immediately started nagging at that, his tirade flowing from the kitchen, as warbled as that of a bird. It made Hoseok's chest tighten.

The night fell.

Finally fed and comfortable, they fell silent.

Yoongi spoke up first in a distinctly muted tone that slushed around, lulling people.

“There's four rooms if I count this one and the office, so I guess I'll take the couch here. There's another one in the office and it can fit two people just fine.”

“We should leave one of the bedrooms to Gain,” said Kihyun.

“Yeah, that's the plan,” Yoongi gave a nod.

“I can share,” said Gain, languid in a chair with her leg outstretched. “It's not like I haven't seen a cock before.”

Jooheon straightened up. “It would be better if you took the bedroom alone, noona.”

“I'm telling you, it's fine. Just give me someone who doesn't stare too much. But don't give me the gays because they wouldn't stare enough.”

“I stare moderately well,” piped up Minhyuk. “I'm short-sighted, but enthusiastic.”

“I'm in.”

“You can't just do that,” protested Jooheon. “I'm bunking with Minhyuk.”

“Alright, touchy,” Gain bit back. “Keep him. I'll take the big boy instead.”

Hyunwoo seemed to realize that she was talking about him a second too late after everyone's head already turned to him.

“I mean, wouldn't that be a little...” he managed.

“Exactly!” said Jooheon. “It would be just wrong.”

“So I'm supposed to be bored here, too,” Gain smirked, mirthless. “Great. Have it your way, kid. But when your asses are cramped and grouchy, don't come complaining to me. I tried to be generous.” Then, as if something has just dawned on her, she pulled herself up in the chair. “Wait. I can't exactly wobble up the stairs, anyway. I'll just take the couch.”

“But you'll have no privacy!” protested Jooheon.

“For fuck's sake, and are you going to carry me up and down five times a day?” she snapped at him. “I don't think so. I'm taking the couch. At least I'll know what's going on at all times.”

“In that case, the master bedroom goes to Yoongi,” said Kihyun. “We shouldn't impose too much.”

“It's alright, man.”

“Look,” Gain stretched in her seat, “this could take all night. Here's what we're gonna do.”

Though immobile in her chair, she ushered them all upstairs, sending Minhyuk and Jooheon to the office, Yoongi, Hyungwon and Hyunwoo to the master bedroom, and the rest of them to the guestroom.

“And if someone doesn't fit, I'm keeping him,” she concluded.

Like caned dogs, they got up and carried their luggage up the stairs, scattering into their assigned quarters with some sheepishness.

Although Hoseok wouldn't exactly cheer at the idea of being stuck with Changkyun some months ago, today he was relieved. Kihyun had a soft spot for the kid and Changkyun usually managed to bring a wry smile to his lips.

Hoseok didn't mind sharing. Whether it was with Yoongi or Changkyun, he didn't mind. It was Gunhee's ghost he feared.

The guestroom was tiny and smelled of wood.

The ceiling slanted downwards on one side, which made the room seem even tinier. Oh, it would accommodate them alright, but it would be a tight fit.

Immediately, Hoseok chided himself for that thought and even more so for that spark it sent down his groin.

Yeah, so after spending his days with Kihyun but somehow apart from him, he craved to be touched. He craved to be touched back, even if it was just a pat on the back or that thing Kihyun used to do to calm him down, that half-hug during which he cradled Hoseok's head instead of his body.

He'd have every excuse to be close to Kihyun now and every opportunity to hold him in his sleep, but Hoseok didn't know how to feel about it.

He knew it was unwanted.

Not just unsolicited; it was utterly unwanted because Kihyun's love lay elsewhere. It was a love that could never die because the man it belonged to was already dead.

Pushing his self-pity aside, Hoseok plopped down on the bed, patting the mattress in a cheesy gesture. He didn't have to wait long before Changkyun jumped right on top of him, knocking the wind out of Hoseok. He groaned, but allowed the pest to the nestle next to him. He then lay an arm out for Kihyun.

It took a while for Kihyun to join them; to even spare them a glance, actually. He unpacked their things, putting them away so the luggage wouldn't take up space in the already cramped room. Looking up at a skylight, snow-covered and glazed with icy patterns, Kihyun seemed to consider opening it a crack to let some air in. In the end, he decided against it. It may have been pleasant downstairs by the fireplace, but here, they could be glad to share body heat under the thin covers.

And they did, keeping the sheets warm while they left one by one to line up for the bathroom. Hoseok chatted with Changkyun first, humouring him with a promise to go sledging if they found a hill high enough (or a sledge). Then it was Hoseok's turn to take a shower, though the idea of cold tiles and lukewarm water didn't do much to make him enjoy it. Changkyun was the last to go, leaving them alone in silence.

It was Kihyun who broke it.

“There's no food in this house.”

“That so?” Hoseok lifted himself up a little.

“No proper food, anyway. And Yoongi is running out of coffee. We can't have that.” In an undertone, Kihyun asked: “You up to a trip tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Yeah, definitely,” Hoseok said a tad too eagerly.

“We'll take the car to the city.”

“Do you know the way?”

“I've been here before.”

“With Yoongi?” It sounded as foolish as it did in his head.

“With whom else?”

He hesitated. “Was he still with Hoseok back then?”

“Not anymore.”

Hoseok watched a slice of light as it fell through the skylight and silvered along the line of Kihyun's nose. Kihyun looked so small. Frailer than usual. Despite that rigidity his body normally possessed, he was unwound now, and not in a good way. Anything and anyone could strike him down when he was like this.

“If you'd rather share the room with him, we can still arrange that,” said Hoseok gently.

“No. I don't want to fuck the pain away. I don't have any.”

Hoseok inhaled. So they have fucked.

“I don't think that's true,” he said quietly.

“It is, though. I should feel something, but there's nothing there. I feel nothing.”

“But that's the thing that hurts the most.”

“Is it?” asked Kihyun. “I thought that hurting hurts the most.”

“Don't be such a smartass,” Hoseok whispered.

Sparing him a small smirk, Kihyun grazed Hoseok's temple, smoothing the edge of his eyebrow. Hoseok leaned in. God, he missed this. He missed the reminder that even after everything, he was still Kihyun's family. He still chose him, or chose to forget Hoseok's slip ups. Either was good. Hoseok would take anything.

“You could have had such a good life,” said Kihyun out of nowhere.

Hoseok's brow creased. He thought for a second that here it was, the hurt Kihyun claimed he didn't feel.

“I chose to stay,” was all he could say. “I wouldn't trade it.”

“Then you're silly.”

“Well, we're both here, so I guess that makes us both pretty silly.”

“I guess,” said Kihyun in a small voice.

At that, Hoseok couldn't bear it. He teared up even before Kihyun did. Frantically, they both took hold of the other, crushing each other in an embrace that stifled but calmed them. He heard Kihyun sob into his hair and the dam within Hoseok burst, drowning him with emotions he didn't even know he had; didn't even know humans can feel.

He was wrong. Nothingness wasn't the worst. But Kihyun was wrong, too. Hurting wasn't the worst, either. It was seeing other people hurt.

When Changkyun returned, they were still holding each other tight, barely making any sound aside from an occasional sniffle. The kid laid down beside them, snuggling against Hoseok's back. He reached behind to pull Changkyun closer.

The room was pallid, never dark but never light during the night, illuminated by the washed-out winter sky.

They slept in fits.

 

The kitchen lay chestnut-coloured and narrow between the staircase and the living room, separated from both by a half wall on one side and and a counter on the other. Hoseok treaded softly, trying not to wake up Gain. He failed miserably, of course, but she only mumbled something that sounded like “fuck off” and dozed off again.

He opted for boiling water on the stove, seeing that it was the silent way. He poured some into a copper cezve because Yoongi had no regular kettle lying around, put it on the stove and set out stealthily to find at least one tea bag in this coffee-loving residence.

It was an impossible task.

The water bubbled gently, making him search quicker. He almost jumped at the sound of Kihyun's voice.

“Good morning.”

“Is it?” Hoseok wanted to know. He was tea-less and cold and the tiniest bit bitter. Kihyun had gone before Hoseok had woken up, his side of the bed already chilly. Only Changkyun had snored against the back of Hoseok's neck, keeping him warm.

Then his sullen mood evaporated when he turned around. Kihyun was way too lovely in his down jacket and woollen socks. It looked like he just came back from the outside, his fingertips and nose blushed. His features stood out arched against the chubbiness of his clothes. He was so little.

“You smell like wood,” he blurted.

“Hyunwoo and I were hauling some logs inside so we can make fire later.”

“What? You should have woken me up! I could've helped you!”

“Do I look that weak to you?” Kihyun brushed him off. He took the now sizzling cezve off the burner. “What were you looking for?”

Hoseok was reminded of his sour mood. “Tea.”

Kihyun walked towards the sink, standing on his toes to reach the upper cabinet. He blindly rummaged through the odd cans and containers until he finally pulled out a package of Lipton tea. It was the citrusy kind Hoseok liked.

“Why is it stacked there so no one can find it?” Hoseok grumbled.

“So the vultures don't drink it before you do,” said Kihyun as if it was the clearest thing under the sky. “I only brought one package.”

Hoseok stopped grumbling. “Did you pack this because of me?”

“Obviously. Who else than you is such a big baby that he needs more sugar in his coffee than the actual coffee to drink it?”

“Changkyun,” Hoseok bit back.

“Well.”

“Jooheon, too.”

“You got me there.”

“The only two demons who drink this shit unsweetened are you and Hyungwon.”

“I guess I have more babies than I assumed.”

Hoseok chuckled.

“But you hid this for me, not for them,” he said, pleased with himself.

“Because you are the fussiest.”

“Whatever you say, little man.”

“Again, I'm your height.”

He kinda was, so Hoseok let him have it.

There wasn't enough water for Kihyun to fix himself a cup, so they boiled some more. Hoseok was savouring the lightness of it all, even if it was only temporary or pretended. He couldn't be sure with Kihyun anymore. Whenever he thought he had him figured out, the man would turn unreadable, or worse, he would fall into pieces like the night before.

Aching at that, Hoseok watched him, taking in the swiftness of his movements. The ring never left his forefinger, of course, and he assumed it never would.

They set off for the nearest city before the others woke up, saying goodbye to Hyunwoo who looked like he had half a mind to go with them. In the end, he decided it was more strategical to watch over the bigger part of the group. After all, him and Kihyun went way back and there was no reason for distrust between them.

The town was palm-sized. It was snowed-in and tranquil safe for a couple of relentless kids scuttling in the drift alongside the main road and some workers munching on their breakfast behind the window of a diner.

They filled up two shopping carts, Hoseok pushing his with ease and pushing Kihyun's when he wasn't looking. Bickering about prices and about the necessity of buying three kinds of cereal (Hoseok was certain of said necessity), they moved on to the aisle with spices. Hoseok could only observe as Kihyun run his fingers over the display, already preparing a whole ass menu in his head.

He never knew Kihyun could cook until yesterday.

Damn, though. That control freak streak of his came in handy when he was minding the stove. Kihyun wasn't as quick as Seho, Hoseok supposed, but he could equal him just fine when it came to quality, and it wasn't just Hoseok's dick talking.

In the aisle rowed with refrigerators, Hoseok grabbed a huge plastic packet stacked with hanwoo.

Kihyun took it from him and reached for chicken instead.

Hoseok took it from him and reached for hanwoo again.

Kihyun snatched it and put it back only for Hoseok to grab it once more, this time holding it high above his head.

“It's too expensive!” Kihyun snapped.

“So what? You guys earn a lot.”

“So would you if you weren't so squeamish about taking blood money, you big leech-face.”

Hoseok blinked. “I can't believe you just called me a leech-face.”

“A big one.”

“Look, shrimp.”

“What? Are you seriously going to beef with me over beef?”

Hoseok squinted.

He bodily prevented Kihyun from snatching the meat once and for all and buried it at the very bottom of the cart.

“That was very victorious for someone who doesn't have a wallet,” remarked Kihyun coolly.

Fuck.

Then, Hoseok smiled.

Yeah. He liked Kihyun snippy. When he was snippy, he talked.

And when he talked, his voice all but sang, as did every fibre of Hoseok's body at the sound.

It wasn't just Hoseok's fancy. There truly was a melodious quality to Kihyun's tone whenever he argued. Normally, he would speak flatly, dropping the bluntest statements without a single ripple in his voice, but when he ranted, it turned into a birdsong.

He decided to rile Kihyun up just a little bit more by dropping blond hair dye into his cart.

“Oh, hell no.”

“My roots are showing,” said Hoseok pleasantly.

“I told you you are too noticeable like this.”

“Good. I want to be noticed.”

“It will get you killed.”

“Christ. Do you have to get so dark all the time?” Pushing the cart, he peeked at Kihyun. “Besides, if I dye it black, it might get you killed.”

“I'm sure.”

So Hoseok switched the packages out of spite, taking care so Kihyun wouldn't notice it at the cash register.

On their way back to the car, they stopped at a fish market that consisted of precisely three stalls. They bought no fish because, apparently, Kihyun couldn't stand the smell. But Hoseok didn't complain when he lifted two plastic bags full of prawns, seaweed and clams.

Passing the third stall, Hoseok eyed the display laid out and glittering in crushed ice. He nudged Kihyun.

“Look,” he pointed, “it's you.”

“I swear that if I look and there are fucking shrimps –” he didn't finish.

There were fucking shrimps there.

Hoseok felt so smart he grinned at his own joke.

The ride back was quiet safe for the prattle of the radio. Hoseok toyed with the volume first and when that irritated Kihyun enough to legitimately swat his hand away, he started switching between stations next.

He was unprepared to hear the familiar burble of Belgian language, so pliant that it was like wrought gold.

He put his hand down, growing silent as he listened.

“Tired of your own shit already?” asked Kihyun after they traveled a few more kilometres in utter stillness.

Hoseok flinched.

“I can't annoy you the whole day.”

“You've been annoying me the past four months just fine.”

“Has it really been that long?”

“What is it? Are you getting sentimental?”

“Maybe,” he said, staring ahead where he could already discern the peaks of the pine forest surrounding the log cabin. Soon, they would be back amongst the others. He didn't want to give Kihyun up just yet. “It's just... it reminds me of my mum. The language.”

“Is it Belgian?” Kihyun asked, milder. “I thought it was French.”

“They're similar,” conceded Hoseok. “I used to... No, it's stupid.”

“Say it. I don't like it when people leave things hanging.”

Hoseok put his hands in his lap.

“It's dumb, though. I used to listen to this one Belgian broadcast station whenever I had the chance so it would be like... like she's with me or something.”

Kihyun stole a glance at him.

“When did she move?”

“When I was sixteen.”

“That's rough,” he said carefully. “Did you stay with your dad?”

“I never met him.” The corners of his mouth quivered a little. “Mum used to say he up and left when he saw what an ugly baby I was.”

That got to Kihyun. “And were you?”

“I had really big ears.”

“You still do.”

“Thanks.”

“Who did you stay with, then? When your mother remarried?” Kihyun darted another look in Hoseok's direction.

“No one. I just stayed where I was.”

“But who looked after you?”

“No one,” he repeated. There was a dull pull at his throat.

Neither of them felt like speaking for a while.

“That's messed.”

Hoseok was expecting that.

“It's not like I wasn't grown,” he said feebly.

“You weren't. You were a teen.”

“You were younger than me when you were already living on the streets,” Hoseok reminded him.

“But no one abandoned me.”

There it was, the blunt cut again. Hoseok had to turn away.

“Yeah, well,” he said thickly, “I was alright until I lost the flat.”

“Hoseok, what the fuck.”

“'S alright.”

“No. Fuck.”

“I managed. I'm still here, after all.”

“Why did you keep this to yourself?” Kihyun retorted.

Hoseok shrank at that. “You had it worse.”

“It's not a goddamn competition.”

“I know, but...” he faltered.

“You should've told me.”

“Do you get it now, though?” Hoseok urged. “This is my home. It's the best home I've ever had.”

He said too much, too easily.

He didn't even notice they were at the edge of the forest already.

Smoothly, Kihyun pulled up to the winding road, driving slower now that they were surrounded by evergreens which made it difficult to see. He followed the icy path.

“I get it,” Kihyun said at last.

They didn't have time to say anything else as they were welcomed by a hungry horde upon their arrival.

Everyone wanted to eat, though no one wanted to help carry the bags inside, instead opting for loud cheers as Hoseok grabbed five of them at once. It wasn't until the commotion alerted Hyunwoo, who was in the shed chopping up more wood, that someone lent them a hand, and two at that, both as sturdy as Hoseok's.

Kihyun threw together some speedy but nutritious breakfast, all the while bickering with Minhyuk about the right amount of this and that. It was obvious that Minhyuk didn't have a clue about cooking and that he was in for some serious nagging session. Hoseok regarded them with amusement and longing.

It could've been the radio that got him melting, or it could be the warmth coming from the hearth in waves, or this.

At the sight, Hoseok really thought things might be alright for one day. Until Yoongi came gown, freshly woken up. He ambled towards Kihyun, laying his chin on his shoulder. Then there were mutters and a kiss, hardly a peck, but it was on the lips. It was so domestic Minhyuk gagged at them.

So maybe Hoseok lied when he said he could share.

Or maybe he could share, provided he didn't have to see it.

Or maybe he could share if it meant he got to do these things, too.

He didn't know.

He looked away, only now realizing Changkyun has nestled in his lap. He petted the kid, glad of the contact.

After the belated breakfast, everyone went their own way and dawled about in the cabin. It appeared that Hyunwoo's inner handyman has been awakened by the place. As soon as he finished his meal, he got up to oil creaking hinges and anchor a fallen bookcase to a wall. Changkyun found himself a spot in Minhyuk's lap for a change while Minhyuk watched a tiny TV, flipping through channels. Jooheon, who barely touched the side dishes and just mechanically swallowed mouthfuls of rice, stared at the TV screen. He didn't join the conversation around him. He didn't even stir when Minhyuk finally found what he was looking for – his favourite channel that broadcast cheesy 80s horror movies from morning till night.

Hyungwon never came downstairs, so Yoongi grabbed some leftovers and ventured back up, probably not to be seen until the evening, judging from the fact that he had his office for himself again and had to make use of it.

Making short trips around the couch whenever she grew restless, Gain was the only one who didn't appreciate the serene nature and cosy surroundings very much. She settled down with a book, but grudgily, casting glances towards the TV more often than not, even if it was just to spook Minhyuk during the dramatic parts.

Hoseok was startled when Kihyun walked past him, patting his shoulder as in a command to follow him. He did, wordlessly putting on a coat and gloves before coming out of the cabin.

Kihyun never looked back.

“I figured you might be up for a little walk,” he threw over his shoulder.

“You figured right,” said Hoseok although he wouldn't have set out into the cold on his own.

Everything around them was snowflake-coloured. The ground lay hidden under a thick cover which gleamed like shards. Following the known road at first, they diverged into the woods, treading through ankle-deep drifts.

Trees enveloped them, becoming denser and the path duskier as they went. The walk kept Hoseok warm, but he idly regretted not bringing his earmuffs.

“There's a game reserve a bit further on into the forest. Wanna see?”

“Sure.” He sped up, catching up to Kihyun. “What's there?”

“Deer.”

He saw the opportunity and he seized it.

“You don't have to call me dear.”

Kihyun stopped. Hoseok stopped.

Hoseok simpered.

“I'm going back,” announced Kihyun.

“Aw, come on. It was just a little joke.”

“You're sparkling with wit today.”

“What can I say. I just want you to be happy.” Fuck. “As happy as a clam,” he added.

“Is this another seafood joke aimed at my height?”

“You got it,” lied Hoseok.

“That's it. How tall are you?”

“I'm not telling you.” He wasn't the tallest of them all.

“I'm betting my balls we're the exact same height.”

“Please, don't bet your balls,” laughed Hoseok. “You'll lose them.”

“I'm only betting the left one, then.”

“Deal with it, little man. You're pocket-sized.”

“You know what else is pocket-sized?”

“What?”

“My knife.”

“Kihyun,” he groaned.

“What? Too dark again?”

“Super dark.”

“I've got something lighter for you, then.”

Hoseok gazed at him with some suspicion.

“And what does that supposed to mean?”

“Look,” said Kihyun, pointing his chin towards an enclosed reserve separated from them by a lake-like clearing, soft and silver. “Have you ever seen white deer before?”

He hasn't.

He's never seen a deer in real life, much less a white one.

“Wow,” he whispered.

As on cue, they started treading gentler than before, mindful of every crunch and rustle. The snow was deeper now. At one point, Kihyun disappeared into the drift up to his knees, cursing under his breath. Hoseok clasped his hand and helped him out, though there was no salvaging his trousers.

He didn't let go of Kihyun as they continued towards a wooden fence, finally leaning against it.

The reserve was vast, allowing some freedom to the animals. It took Hoseok a minute to realize there were more deer than he noticed at first, those in the distance disappearing against the white sheet of snow completely.

“Do you think they'll come closer?” Hoseok whispered, awed.

“I'm not sure,” said Kihyun. “Sometimes they do. They're used to people.”

“How many times have you been here?”

“A couple.”

He wondered if Yoongi had brought him here.

So he asked aloud.

“Yeah. He was so pissed when he found out there was a gamekeeper's lodge near his place that he wanted to break off the contract with the seller. He wanted to be as far away from everything and everyone as possible.” Kihyun didn't chuckle, but his cheekbones grew more prominent as if he was about to. “These beauties kept him from selling the cabin back, though.”

“Can't blame him,” said Hoseok. “They're really something.”

And they truly were. The one closest to them grazed gracefully, picking at the frigid ground with a dainty hoof. The stag had sad, serious eyes and hair like silk. There was pride about him, and fragility.

Hoseok darted a look at Kihyun.

His hands were stiff with cold. He didn't bring his gloves.

Hoseok wondered if he should give him his.

“I will take you there, if you want,” Kihyun suddenly said.

It confused Hoseok.

“Where?”

“To Belgium.”

“What?”

“I could take you there,” he repeated. “Next time Hyungsoo doesn't need us, you could visit your mother.”

Hoseok was floored.

“What?” he managed.

“You could come to her as a self-made man. You wouldn't have to depend on her hospitality to see her. You'd come and go as you pleased, with your own money.”

His heart was in his mouth, beating.

“You could stay there, too,” continued Kihyun.

“What do you mean – stay there?” Hoseok eyed him.

“You wouldn't have to do this anymore. You can't leave Hyungsoo yet, but in a few years he might let you walk free. And if not, you'd be out of his reach, anyway.”

“No.”

“It would solve so much,” said Kihyun and Hoseok had no idea how to read him.

“I wouldn't stay there even if I wanted to,” he said, more forceful than he meant to. “I would never leave you. I won't. I told you. I'm home here. I mean, not here,” he gestured to the whiteness around them a little awkwardly, “but... here.”

“But hasn't it really been enough for you?” Kihyun returned his gaze. “Haven't you had enough?”

“I had. Yeah. So what? I'm still staying.”

“Hoseok...”

“Don't push me away like this. Ever again.”

Kihyun gaped. “I'm not.”

Hoseok wished that was true.

But what if it was.

Funny, how they were surrounded by pines. It was a whole mood because he was pining, too.

Pale crystals sparkled on Kihyun's lashes. He'd give anything to kiss them away.

And then he thought that maybe, just maybe, if he did it like Yoongi, in that effortless way that seemed to relieve Kihyun, he could get away with it. Maybe he should just do it.

He took one step, and another step, and then there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do than brush their lips together.

Kihyun pushed him.

For such a pipsqueak, he was strong as hate sometimes.

Hoseok staggered backwards, caught unawares. He found his balance quickly and was about steady himself on the wooden railing. It was then that he stepped on a particularly glazed snow mould and slipped. He didn't even have time to yelp.

He hit himself on the fence so hard he thought his arm would fall off.

So, instead of yelping, he roared.

“Shit!”

Distantly, he heard a thunder of hooves as his voice frightened off the deer. Only one hind stayed not far away from the pen, too serene to move.

Hoseok, on the other hand, was anything but serene.

Swiftly, but leaving some space between them, Kihyun kneeled down next to him.

“You alright?”

“Am I alright?” he snapped. “Shit, it burns.”

“Roll up your sleeve. No, wait. You'll have to take the coat off.”

“Like fuck. In this freezer?!”

Then he yelped as Kihyun thumbed his forearm over the cushiony sleeve of his coat.

They both stilled.

“Did you break it?” asked Kihyun, still assessing the damage. Somehow, it sounded like a threat.

You mean, did you break it?” Hoseok gritted out.

Hell. He sure as hell hoped it wasn't broken.

 

It was broken.

Kihyun secured Hoseok's arm with a scarf and ushered him into the car, setting off for the town for the second time in one day. They didn't even pause to tell the others where they were headed.

They were lucky there even was a hospital in this backwater.

The doctor was a middle aged lady who loved to laugh at other people's misfortune, but she worked adroitly and painlessly, taking care of the fractured bone. That didn't mean Hoseok didn't tear up a little bit, because he did, perhaps from sheer frustration. It burned so bad. All over.

As the doctor set his bone back to place, Hoseok fussed, mincing Kihyun's hand in his for good measure. There was some swelling and redness, but the X-ray had showed that the wound was actually less serious than either of them had initially thought and Hoseok was sent packing not too long after being admitted.

Sullen, he walked out of the hospital with Kihyun at his heels. He watched with an even cloudier expression as Kihyun made a quick stop at the local diner, ordering takeout because it got too late to cook anything in time for the ravenous mob that was awaiting them at the cabin.

They got into the car. The radio was on mute.

Neither of them addressed the non-kiss.

The heater was on because Hoseok couldn't put his coat on properly after the doctor had placed the cast on his arm. He eyed it dismally, imagining all the more or less artsy designs Jooheon might come up with to embellish the thing with. Hoseok supposed it was still better than letting Minhyuk or Changkyun do it, seeing that he might end up with massive dicks on his arm.

Literally and figuratively.

The car stopped with a light purr. Hoseok looked at his cast, at the cabin, at his cast again.

“I think I'm going to stay here. Forever,” he said darkly.

“Why?”

“They're going to laugh at me.”

“For Christ's sake.”

“They are, and you know it,” insisted Hoseok.

Kihyun raised his eyebrows at him. “But we'll have to go in eventually.”

“No. I'll just live here as a hermit.”

The engine was off for a minute or two already, but they just sat there, not saying anything.

Exasperated, Kihyun turned to him.

“Are you cold?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Then what are those?”

Hoseok shifted to find out what he was talking about, only to realize Kihyun was pointing at his chest. He looked down.

His nipples were visible through the white fabric of his turtleneck.

Trying to cover both of them with one hand and failing, he clipped: “I was born with those.”

“Come on in. You must be freezing,” Kihyun tried to persuade him.

Wrapping the coat tighter around himself, Hoseok decided that he better go and get it over with, though he did so begrudgingly.

He was a fool in love, but on top of things, he was a regular fool, too. And everyone was there to witness it.

It truly was a fistful of salt rubbed right into his wound.

They were welcomed with an uproar when they walked in. Hyunwoo, who was the most worried, was also the most easily placated by food and a brief recollection of what had happened. He munched on his buckwheat noodles, nodding slightly before reminding Kihyun that he could've at least called. It was the first time Hoseok has seen Kihyun being scolded by someone, and although it was petty of him, it improved his mood a notch.

Gain positively cheered when she saw Hoseok trudge in and called him her castmate. She asked him if she could draw a dick on his plaster.

But that still wasn't the worst. The worst, of course, were the kids.

“Did you slip?”

“I thought dancers were supposed to be graceful and shit.”

“Especially strippers.”

“How did you not die yet, hyung?”

“We should, like, get the house childproofed or something.”

“How the heck did that even happen?”

“Did you guys go sledging without me? Is that how it is?”

“Did you guys fight in the snow?”

“Did you guys fuck in the snow?”

Hoseok sulked. How was he supposed to tell them he tried to kiss Kihyun and ended up flat on his back instead? And not in the good way, either?

So he just glowered at Kihyun when he wasn't looking, mimicking his I'm not pushing you away sourly under his breath.

Yeah. So he couldn't even compare to Yoongi.

Kihyun has claimed Hoseok as his family, or so he said, and yet he wasn't good enough to be let close. To comfort Kihyun if not heal him. To heal him if not love him.

As usual, his moodiness dissipated within minutes and what was left was that known old yearning again. It ate at him, reducing him to a sad sucker who would've sacrificed his all for Kihyun's happiness, but who still hoped for a drop of it for himself.

He was realizing, more and more acutely, that even if Gun always remained a wall between them, it would not keep him away. Not him. He'd become a shelter if he had to, a shoulder to cry on, a fuck buddy, even. He'd become a Yoongi. It wasn't the worst thing. It had to be better than this – than this helplessness.

The only one who could keep him away was Kihyun.

 

“Let's go dye that bird's nest of yours.”

Hoseok was startled by the sound of Kihyun's voice. He was standing in the doorway of their little room, already washed and smelling faintly of flowers.

“You're gonna do it?” Hoseok piped up. He was lazing on the queen-sized bed, the cast heavy on his chest as it was still strapped to his neck. He hoisted himself up on one elbow when Kihyun approached him and bent down to heft Hoseok's plaster.

“Yeah. It's not like you can.”

“But I can do this.” He flipped Kihyun off.

Unimpressed, Kihyun grabbed his finger and pulled it up.

“Ow, ow, ow!”

“Get up.”

Before Hoseok collected himself, Kihyun was already on his way down the hallway.

“Let's do it before the others hog the bathroom,” he called.

Groping around in the semi-darkness, Hoseok found the box he had thrown carelessly under the bed after their return from the market. An unfamiliar nervousness pooled at the pit of his stomach at the idea of being alone with Kihyun, but he'd rather do that than be alone, period.

The bathroom was humid and hot, almost pleasantly so. The tiles on the walls were wet with a haze of droplets.

Hoseok just knew that his skin would get itchy under the plaster sooner or later. Nevertheless, he sat docilely on top of a small stool Kihyun had brought upstairs from the kitchen. He stood behind Hoseok, leaning on an outmoded washing machine. He unwrapped the box.

“It's black,” he said blanky.

“Yep.” Looking up, Hoseok risked a smile.

Kihyun studied the package for a while.

“So is this how I die?” he said at last.

“You bet.”

Sparing him a dubious grimace, Kihyun draped a towel over Hoseok's shoulders.

“Do you reckon Yoongi has something like cream or balm laying around?” he asked afterwards, talking to himself rather than Hoseok.

Without waiting for a reply, Kihyun reached into a cabinet above the washing machine. He pulled out a teeny container and examined its lid before he cracked it open. It smelled of coconut. Hoseok watched as Kihyun dipped his little finger inside. Tentatively, he spread a bit of the substance on his lips.

“This should do,” he said, and Hoseok thought the words alone glistened.

“Put some on me, too,” he blurted.

“I was about to. Otherwise, the dye's gonna stain your whole forehead.”

“I meant here,” Hoseok tapped at the corner of his mouth.

“Sure.”

Warmed with oil, and slick, Kihyun ran the tip of his little finger over Hoseok's upper lip. When he got to the bottom lip, it sent a shiver down Hoseok's body, tingling down his thighs.

Sooner than he wanted to, the contact was gone. Kihyun put on the gloves that came with the kit. He slathered a generous layer of coconut oil all over Hoseok's hairline, temples and ears. He was sure his ears went pink at that and he shrank in his seat, his shoulders sloping forward.

“You know,” said Kihyun, “they're smaller than I thought.”

“What is?”

Instead of replying, Kihyun rubbed his ears again.

It sent them ablaze.

“Are they?” Hoseok managed.

“Yeah. But they're sticking out like crazy.”

“Respect your hyung.”

“Technically, we're the same age now.”

“Say what?”

“Have been, actually. For a while.”

Hoseok stared at him.

It felt wrong.

Not noticing the shift in the atmosphere, Kihyun began to apply the dye, his features pointed with focus.

“It was your birthday?”

“That's how it usually goes. People celebrate it at least once a year.”

Hoseok prickled up. “Don't get smart with me.”

“What can I do? I'm smart.”

“When was your birthday?” Hoseok insisted, feeling colder and colder.

“The end of November.”

“But that was two months ago!”

“Time flies.”

Setting down the brush, Kihyun run his fingers over Hoseok's scalp to distribute the stuff better, tender as not to scrape him.

“Are you telling me,” said Hoseok, very slow, fighting the urge to close his eyes at the touch, “that in those whole two months, it never occurred to you to tell me?”

It was Kihyun's turn to stare.

“Why would I?”

“Because friends share stuff like that! Mine's in March. See?”

Feeling his eyelids flutter when those deft hands started moving in small circles, Hoseok mumbled out:

“I could've... I could've bought you a present.”

“With whose money? Mine?” retorted Kihyun.

“I could've given you a birthday hug.”

“You can do that next year.”

“I could've given you a birthday kiss.”

Kihyun went silent.

Quietly, Hoseok said: “I still could.”

There was no answer.

Kihyun's hands stilled.

Immediately, Hoseok tried to smile it off. He glanced behind so Kihyun would see he wasn't being serious.

What he saw rooted him.

Unconsciously, Hoseok stood up. Still, there was no response. No reaction. Nothing. Only that look that didn't say no at all; a look that burned through him.

Maybe that moment by the pen wasn't it. Maybe this was it.

After all, Kihyun always had to plan ahead. He had to know exactly what was going on, but once he did, he took charge. Maybe he was ready now.

Hoseok searched in his face, uncertain.

“Should I...?”

He barely finished. He didn't know which one of them leaned in and when. Their cheeks brushed, then their lips, opening at the touch. He drew nearer, so rushed he startled himself.

Kihyun did the same.

Sweetness whispered down his belly, but the kiss wasn't sweet at all.

It was too intense to take, full of bated breaths. They went in and then tore apart, pausing only to kiss deeper next time. There was a tug on his upper lip and he let Kihyun in again. He tasted the tinge of coconut on his tongue when Kihyun sucked on it, leaving him senseless. It was open-mouthed and loud without a single word, a single groan.

Hoseok laid his palm down heavily on the edge of the washing machine, steadying himself. He wanted to get closer but couldn't, the cast between them solid like a breakwater. Still he tried, hissing as he did so.

Kihyun pressed at his chest, firm enough to stop him from hurting himself. He grazed Hoseok's nipple, making him exhale hard into his mouth. Kihyun never moved to tease it, though, and only laid his thumb over it.

His world went dizzy. His head went dizzy. He craned his neck and pushed at the small of Kihyun's back, doing his all to bring Kihyun to him somehow.

Then Hoseok felt Kihyun drag the thumb up and down his stiffened nipple.

He moaned. Laying his forehead against Kihyun's, he paused to gather himself. He kept gazing at Kihyun's lips, starting at them between breaths as if to take them again.

Kihyun wasn't better off when he forced Hoseok away, far enough for him to try to get back at once. That was when he noticed he has smudged Kihyun with the dye, right under that soft peak of his hairline. He laughed a little, too full for fear or insecurity to take root in him, and moved to wipe the stain off clumsily with the tip of the towel.

They couldn't really postpone looking at each other after that.

Hoseok was breathless again.

For a moment, neither of them spoke. It wasn't perhaps very long, though it felt like ages.

“Happy birthday to me,” said Kihyun.

And like that, he was gone, glancing at the phone.

Hoseok shifted his weight, not knowing what to do or say. He simply stared.

“We should wait twenty more minutes before washing it off,” Kihyun announced. Only his mouth retained that kissed-out look to them. The rest of him went impassive the second they pulled apart. “I'll go get us some tea.”

“Okay,” Hoseok said dumbly, though all he wanted was to haul him right back.

The door thudded as Kihyun left, the air stilled, and Hoseok's heart fell.

He grabbed the empty kit to dispose of it. He washed the brush. Checking himself in the mirror, he saw his hair has started to darken already. Good.

He noticed the print of a palm on his pec. He flushed.

He sat down on the stool and waited.

After an eternity, Kihyun appeared with two cups and a “Five more minutes.”

“Thanks,” said Hoseok, taking the cup. It was scolding, of course, so he set it down again. “What took you so long?”

“I found Jooheon alone on the veranda. He hasn't really recovered yet.” Taking a whiff of the tea without sipping on it, Kihyun continued, subdued: “I think he doesn't see there was no saving Gun.”

It was the last thing Hoseok wished to do now – to talk about Song. Still, he mumbled:

“Do you really think there wasn't?”

“Yeah. Out of everything he could've done when Hyungsoo turned him out, he went for the easiest option. He never tried to make things work. That's who he was.” There was that tired strain about Kihyun again, the same one Hoseok has seen so many times before. “He wanted to fight, but never cared about winning. He wasn't used to it.”

Swallowing thickly, Hoseok said: “I can't imagine what it must be like for you. All of you. Knowing that...”

“It sucks.”

Hoseok gave an unhappy chuckle.

That I can imagine.”

“Can you?”

He clammed up at that. Only for a moment, though.

“Is Jooheon going to be okay?” he murmured.

“I don't know.” Kihyun was at it once more with his disarming honesty. “Gain is with him right now, but I better hurry downstairs.”

“Oh.”

“Come on. We'll wash the stuff off.”

With Kihyun's help, he sheepishly took the ruined turtleneck off. Both of them were aware of the stain, but when Kihyun didn't comment on it, he decided not to say anything, either.

It took them ages to get it done. Hoseok had to hold his arm as far from the showerhead as possible while Kihyun shampooed his head. He was dying at the touches, the kiss still raw on his lips.

Kihyun didn't waste time. He tended to Hoseok swiftly, taking care not to get water or shampoo in his eyes. He dried Hoseok's hair with a clean towel afterwards. There was a pause before Kihyun carefully dabbed at his ears. They didn't speak. Hoseok couldn't and Kihyun wouldn't.

By the time they were finished, Hoseok was certain this was the first and last kiss he'd ever get from him.

He stepped in front of the mirror. Experimentally, he mussed up the now black strands up and pushed them back.

“Does it look good?”

“It looks really good.”

“I know,” he forced a smile.

When he saw Kihyun roll his eyes, he was almost content.

 

He liked the mornings in this place. They creeped in slowly, and then all at once. The inside of the cabin turned milky by nine, golden by noon, milky again by early afternoon. Nights were sudden, too.

Hoseok was snacking in the kitchen sneakily so no one would judge him when Yoongi padded down the stairs. Wordlessly, he joined Hoseok at the pantry, choosing a chocolate bar and a sachet of raw instant noodles to chew on. He opened the ramyun first.

For a moment, they were both just crunching.

“Thanks for letting me crash at yours. Back then,” Yoongi said after polishing off the noodles.

It threw Hoseok off.

“I should thank you. You're housing a whole kindergarten.”

“Yeah, well. It's less lonely like that.”

Hoseok grasped for something to say.

“It's good to have friends around. Especially when something like that happens,” he said diplomatically.

“I never thought Kihyun would have to go through the same.” Grimly amused, Yoongi snorted. “We're really synchronized like that. We were both left at the same time. Twice.”

Unsure, Hoseok inquired: “But I thought it was you who left the organization back then?”

“I did. Only to retire, though. I never meant to cut off contact with anyone.” Contemplating whether to eat the bar too, Yoongi played with it in his hands. He had the kind of hands one can imagine on someone else's body. “I guess I couldn't keep up. It gets rough very soon, this kind of work.”

“It sure does.”

“You're new. It will get to you, too.”

“It gets to me every day,” he confessed.

“No wonder. Kihyun told me that you have to stay with them for now, whether you want or not. It's a real catch twenty-two, isn't it. You can't walk until you prove yourself, but by the time you've proven yourself, it's even harder to go because then you don't really belong outside anymore. 'M sorry about it.” There was a pause. “So's he.”

It was clear Yoongi was referring to Kihyun.

“He doesn't have to be,” Hoseok entreated.

Yoongi assessed him shortly.

“That's good. He's already feeling guilty as it is. About the both of you.”

“The both of us?”

“Gun, too. He brought you there both, but neither of you is really suited for that sort of job.”

Hoseok bristled at that.

“I won't leave, though. I'll manage.”

“I hope so.”

The remark had a trace of threat to it, or so Hoseok fancied.

He kept being threatened by pipsqueaks.

“Why are you all so ominous? I swear I haven't had a single conversation with Kihyun that didn't end up getting dark.”

“Kihyun? Dark? And ominous?”

Strangely, Yoongi smiled. It showed off his gums.

“He is,” insisted Hoseok, a bit miffled.

“I mean, he can be. But he's mostly just worried.”

“No, he's super menacing.”

At that, they both chuckled.

Yeah, Kihyun could be menacing. Most of the time, though, he chose not to.

“Wanna see something?” Yoongi asked, not so tonelessly. Given that dazed way he normally spoke, this was new. It wasn't dissimilar to shyness.

“Sure.”

Reaching into his back pocket, Yoongi pulled out a well-worn leather wallet. He fiddled with it for a bit before he pulled out a polaroid picture.

“That's him when we first met.”

Hoseok took it. It felt small in his awkward grasp.

It wasn't just Kihyun in the photograph. Yoongi was there, too, with an arm around Kihyun's shoulders. Beside them stood their respective boyfriends, still alive and sunnier than the other two boys in the middle. A ring glistened on Gun's finger as he posed with a peace sign. Sun poured from behind them, making the edges of their silhouettes blurry.

They couldn't have been older than seventeen.

And yet, even back then when they were so happy, they were killers.

Hoseok didn't feel chilled because of it. Not today. All he felt was loss for something he's never had. Something that Kihyun would never have again.

Kihyun was laughing in the picture. He looked tinier than ever, dressed in what Hoseok reckoned was Gun's leather jacket. He had a fringe, too, and it was all tousled as if someone had touched it not too long ago.

“He's been holding up so well,” said Yoongi, startling him from his trance. “I think you must've helped a lot. I couldn't do a whole lot for him this time.”

Sluggish, Yoongi took the polaroid back.

Hoseok smiled, too empty to speak.

He didn't have to. The door banged open, letting in a limping Gain who looked three times her size wrapped in a blanket. She was leaning on one crutch while Jooheon was leaning on her. Hoseok instantly noticed the boy was as white as a sheet and wobbled even worse than Gain.

Gleefully, Gain declared: “The kid sprained his ankle.”

Hoseok and Yoongi stared the duo down in unison. Jooheon's larger figure loomed over Gain, though she wasn't by any means delicate.

Goddamn, was she strong.

“How the hell did you manage to do that?” Hoseok exclaimed. “I literally saw you guys sit on the stairs, like, half an hour ago.”

Jooheon paled a notch. “I slipped.”

That rang way too many bells to Hoseok. He unconsciously scratched under his cast.

“If it's just sprained, it's gonna be alright in a couple of days,” said Yoongi. “It just needs ice.”

“Just ice?” Gain smiled. It wasn't a pretty smile.

Turning on her heel, she dragged Jooheon back outside. Before the two of them could do anything, there was a yelp and a thud and yeah, Jooheon got all the ice he needed.

A whole pile of it.

 

He stirred with Kihyun's thigh clamped between his, Kihyun's eyes on him, and a hard cock.

Hoseok inhaled, rubbing his face.

Fuck.

It wasn't the first time he's woken up with a boner in front of Kihyun. It wasn't even the first time Kihyun has seen it; and Hoseok has seen his, too. But it was the first time either of them had it pressed against them first thing in the morning.

“You good?” asked Kihyun, unfazed. It was still raspy with sleep.

“Too good, it seems,” Hoseok tried to laugh it off.

Kihyun freed himself from between Hoseok's legs and got up. He stretched to open the skylight.

Hoseok reckoned he was in the clear. Kihyun had a hard-on, too.

It was normal, after all.

The day went on lazily. All of them chilled together downstairs, snacking and watching terrible soap operas that no one except Minhyuk and Hoseok found even remotely funny.

Kihyun never mentioned the kiss, or the morning, and so Hoseok pretended like nothing ever happened.

The next night they slept with Changkyun between them, the boy tossing and turning to glean as many cuddles as possible from both of his hyungs. Another night, Hoseok was in the middle again, and then Kihyun. It helped, somehow, to orbit like this. It felt more innocent.

They stayed in the cabin for a month.

On their nineteenth day, Jooheon finally snapped. Somehow, he managed to find Yoongi's not so secret alcohol stash and break into it, downing a whole bottle of tequila before anyone was able to find and stop him.

He made a scene, but there wasn't a shred of anger in it. All he did was cry.

He cried because the snow was pretty and because his throat hurt and because Gain wouldn't sing to him. He cried because they took his bottle and because he felt sick.

He cried because Hoseok and Kihyun had gone to see the deer and he wanted to see them, too.

He cried because he missed Gun, and after missing him for five years, he'd miss him forever.

In the end, he just wailed, embraced by Kihyun while Hyunwoo awkwardly patted his back.

First, it was bad, and then it was just sad.

They decided it was time to get collectively wasted so Jooheon didn't feel alone.

At midnight, they were still going strong. At the other side of the room, Yoongi was flipping through channels, gravitating between a documentary about strange sea creatures and a music channel that played rough hip hop. Changkyun has made himself comfortable on the armrest of Yoongi's chair and, low-voiced, they were rapping along, both of them lost in a silly haze. It was good to see Yoongi like this.

Boldened by alcohol, Gain threw away her crutches and wobbled outside to build a snowman, stealing the last carrot from their supplies so it would have a nose. They sent Hyunwoo after her to bring her back, but that good soul ended up rolling snowballs for her instead. When Hyungwon went to check on them, the duo was trying to find bits of coal so the snowman would have buttons like a perfect gentleman. Sighing, Hyungwon joined them.

Kihyun was tipsy, tending to Jooheon and singing to him softly when Gain wouldn't. It was so quiet Hoseok couldn't hear him.

They talked about Gun, too, as Minhyuk and Hoseok listened.

“I would've helped him,” Jooheon kept saying over and over. “I would've...”

“I know, love,” said Kihyun.

“We could've all walked.”

“I know. And Gun knew that, too.”

“But he let me think it was something I... something I had done,” Jooheon choked out. “Hyung, he let you think that...”

“Shh.”

“I fucking hated him,” he confessed, “and now I'm so sorry.”

“Don't be. It was his decision to give us up. He could've changed.”

“I'm always so scared that everyone is going to leave,” said Jooheon, his face cleared into a flat mask due to exhaustion, though it was still full of tears. “Everybody always leaves.”

As he said that, Gain, Hyunwoo and Hyungwon returned, cheeks nipped with cold.

Jooheon looked up a teared up again.

“Noona, it was me who found you,” he suddenly said, then started to cry some more. “I decoded it. That's what brought you to us. You're safe with us now.”

“Well, thanks for that. I've never been better,” she clipped sarcastically, rapping at the plaster on her leg.

“You're welcome,” Jooheon sniffed. “But why do you always leave me?”

“Who's leaving you?” she bit back. “I'm right here.”

“You always do,” he insisted. “No one stays.”

“He wasn't like this when I went outside. Who let him drink more of that shit?” Gain turned accusingly to the rest of them.

“No one,” said Minhyuk. “The poor kid just can't hold this liquor for shit. He'll be like this until he sleeps it off.”

“I'm not a kid anymore,” said Jooheon, snot-faced. “Noona, I'm a man.”

Gain decided to ignore that eloquent statement and limped towards the kitchen.

It only brought more wails from Jooheon.

“You're leaving again!”

“For fuck's sake.”

“But I cracked the code. It brought you to me.”

“For fuck's sake!” repeated Gain.

Hoseok got up. He brought Jooheon to his feet as if he weighted nothing.

“Let's take you to bed,” he said, hoping someone would help him with the boy. His chest was shattering at the sight of it all.

Naturally, it was Hyunwoo who lent him a hand. Kihyun walked up the stairs behind them, steadying Jooheon by placing a soothing palm on his back.

They tucked Jooheon into bed and waited until he fell asleep, still teary.

They heard footsteps. It was Minhyuk. He leaned against the doorframe.

“At this point,” he announced sagely, “I don't even know if he was into Gun, or if he's into Gain.”

“I'd say the latter,” said Kihyun grimly.

“Man. He's really so unlucky.”

“It's not like you can help who you like,” said Hoseok. He straightened up, sighing. “Someone should stay with him over night.”

“I'll do it.”

The grumble came from Gain. She had one crutch under her arm. A few strands stuck to her face, a little damp from the effort it took for her to make her way upstairs.

The men exchanged looks.

“You won't put a pillow over his head in his sleep, will you?”

“No. It's not his fault he's a fool.”

“Well,” said Hoseok, “be nice to this fool. He's our fool.”

“I hope he's less foolish when he stops grieving,” she said and plopped herself down on the edge of the bunk. Checking Jooheon's temperature, she asked: “What do I do if he starts vomiting or choking on his tongue? Should I help? Or should I just leave him deal with it like the man he claims to be?”

They exchanged looks again.

Pleased with that reaction, Gain laughed.

“Go. I'll let him live. For now.”

 

Chapter Text

They would stay at the cabin longer, for Jooheon's good as well as Yoongi's, if it wasn't for the call.

There had been an attack back at home. After a month, it was no longer a secret that Jackson Wang was being harboured by Hyungsoo and his organization, and it seemed to piss off more people than anyone had expected. No one has dared to touch the actual headquarters yet, but Hyungsoo's men were being sniped on the streets, completely in the open, either as a warning or a full-blown revenge.

They packed haphazardly, setting off for the day-long journey back. They tried to convince Yoongi to join them so he wouldn't have to stay in the woods on his own, but he waved them off, saying he was up to some fucking solitude already.

When they reached the outskirts of Seoul, there was another call.

This time, Park didn't aim to scare or injure. He took a hostage.

“Taehyung and Namjoon just got back from a recce. They believe they know now where Jimin is being held. He's still alive,” said Hyunwoo after hanging up the phone and reflecting on the conversation soundly for a minute. “Hyungsoo is forming retrieval teams. He's dispatching Hyolyn and Soyou to secure the building. Jungkook is going, too.”

“Who else is going?” urged Minhyuk when Hyunwoo paused, focusing on the road ahead of him and slowing down, though involuntarily, to pass a collapsed snowdrift.

“He wants you and Hyungwon to join the girl's team. I'll join Jungkook. We're supposed to pick up Uhm Junghwa first thing when we arrive to Songpa and go immediately.”

“Her?” Changkyun chimed in. “But she's been retired for years! She left around the time I was scouted!”

“Yes,” said Hyunwoo. He looked calm, but like everyone else in the car, he wasn't. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he added, a little late, because he had his eyes fastened to the road. It turned from ice to tarmac soon and he sped up.

“I can't believe I'm going to meet her again. What a legend,” said Changkyun respectfully. Then he cocked his head. “Wait, I'm going, right?”

“Yes. You, Kihyun, Seulgi and Irene are the last team. You're supposed to get Jimin.”

“Sweet.”

“But there won't be time to woo anyone, Changkyun,” said Hyunwoo in a manner which suggested he was more mindful of his surroundings then he appeared to be at first glance.

“I'll flirt afterwards, then.”

Wedged between Kihyun and Changkyun in the back seat, Hoseok felt his skin go to ashes. He wasn't on the list. Anxiety took hold of him at once, more caustic and consuming than ever before because it had slumbered for so long, waiting for him to drop his defenses, growing stronger in the meantime. It knew where to strike now, and it did. It filled every corner of his mind.

Of course he couldn't go. He was wounded, and although he assumed his bone was probably as good as healed, he has yet to get rid of the cast.

Blindly, he grabbed Kihyun's knee, bringing it closer. Their thighs touched.

He didn't even realize how hard he was pressing down until Kihyun patted his hand and laid his phone in Hoseok's lap.

“Stay in touch,” he told Hoseok, turning back to the window. “I'll let you know when things are done.”

It was Hoseok's tongue that turned to ashes then. He couldn't say a word.

He just pocketed the phone and squeezed Kihyun again.

When they arrived at the hotel, those of them who weren't sent to the retrieval mission were left in the garage with the luggage. Everyone was worn out and smelled of leather.

It looked like this was a normal day and they were normal people returning from a trip.

They weren't, though.

They hauled the bags up and scattered to their rooms.

Hoseok didn't unpack. Restless, he took off his coat and paced for solid forty minutes, checking the phone although he knew it was too soon to receive any messages yet. Before long, he grew tired of it and he took the elevator to the ground floor.

When he got to the dining hall, he found out that he wasn't the only one who gravitated towards the idea of some company. Jooheon and Gain were already there, hunched over a couple of laptops. And, at this point unsurprisingly, Jackson Wang was with them as well.

Hoseok regarded Wang with second-hand bitterness. The man was Gunhee's last gift to this organization. To Kihyun. A murderer who was supposed to help them, but only brought more chaos upon them.

Was it ever meant to be different? Would there ever be good times?

“Yo!” Jackson greeted Hoseok when he spotted him. “Big boy! You have a new head!”

“What?”

“It's black now!”

“Oh.” Hoseok ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah.”

“Good! Now I'm the only good-looking one,” Jackson said pleasantly, mussing up his platinum strands.

“How can you just sit here and make dumb jokes like someone's life isn't in danger because of you?”

The reproach from Jooheon. Even after everything that has happened over the past month, Hoseok has never seen him so white with wrath. He was seething.

“Of course, of course. Park kidnapped that Jimin boy of yours,” said Jackson. “But he won't kill him. It's his nephew, after all.”

“That only makes it worse. He won't give him up, either,” Jooheon shot back.

“He won't give, so we take.”

“There's no we! You don't belong here!” Jooheon was about to get up. He grew docile when Gain grabbed his wrist.

“There is, though,” she said. “It's us now. You guys accepted me, so you have to accept him, too. He's here to help.”

“That's right,” Jackson smiled harmlessly. “I promised Gun.”

Hoseok didn't know whether Jooheon was about to bend or break.

He sat down next to the boy, placating him the way Gain did.

Jooheon was trembling. He had to take his hands off the keyboard of his laptop. The thing was always at his side; and even now, numbers and letters were running all over the screen, rushing in a secret language of codes.

A window popped up suddenly. It stilled Jooheon. With more purpose than force, he shook both Gain and Hoseok off to quickly hit a key.

“What is it?” Gain asked. “Do you have him?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I tracked him down,” said Jooheon, a little absent-minded.

“Where is he?”

“In Songpa. He's so close,” whispered Jooheon.

“Who is?” Hoseok glanced up. “Jimin?”

“No. We already know where Jimin is.” Jooheon hit more keys. “Mad Clown.”

“He hired gunmen on Gun's lover while you were away,” supplied Jackson.

Hoseok winced hard.

He didn't know which part of that sentence stung him worse.

Jackson carried on in broken Korean which suggested he's learned most of his phrases from the TV.

“Your boss took care of Mad Clown's hitmen when they tried to loaf around, but the man will send more soon. Or that's what I'm told. He's got money now. He used Gun. He used his loneliness and got so much cash out of him it's not even funny.”

“He won't send anyone now. I've got him,” said Jooheon, glued to his laptop. Like quicksilver, all about him changed. He was his old self again, even if it wasn't meant to last. Focused. Driven. “I've got his accounts tracked, too. It would have shown in his recent transaction by now if he had hired anyone else.”

“Unless he hand-picked his next batch of killers and paid them in cash,” Gain pointed out. “That way, we wouldn't even know who to go after. We'd have no names.”

“Yeah,” mumbled Jooheon, typing furiously. “We would just have to wait for them to come. Maybe we'll have to wait for Mad Clown to turn up on his own as well. Sending spies after him didn't help the last time. He's already escaped once. Hyungsoo sent a whole team after him while we were away, and he still ran.”

“Hold up,” Hoseok blurted. “And are you sure this is where he is?” he tapped the screen.

“Positive.”

It didn't seem right.

Hoseok shook his head.

“Some time ago, Kihyun got an address – it's where Mad Clown was supposed to be hiding –”

“Yeah, we know. Hyungsoo tried that one already about a week ago. He sent a team to do Mad Clown in when his hitmen first showed up, but they missed him and he never came back because the place's been busted. That's why Hyungsoo called for me as soon as we got back.” Pausing, Jooheon grimaced. “We should've looked into that address long time ago, even as we were searching for Gun.”

“But we didn't and Gun's lover is no longer safe now that he is back in the city,” added Jackson, probably oblivious to the darkness of his statement.

“Does he know?” Hoseok forced out. “Does Kihyun know?!”

“I don't think so. Hyungsoo only alerted the three of us,” said Jooheon, “since we're here and we can actually work on something. It would do nothing good to alarm the rest of the team when they have an important job ahead of them.”

“So Kihyun has no idea?”

“He knows Mad Clown is after him.”

“Yes, but – about what's been happening,” insisted Hoseok. “About Mad Clown running away and sending hired guns to patrol around.”

“We'll have to tell him when he comes back,” said Gain. “He can't be in two places at once.”

It felt as if someone was pressing at the dent between his collarbones, burrowing in and in.

Dread made Hoseok think fast.

He stood up heavily.

Blanky, he said: “I'll wait for Kihyun upstairs.”

“You won't stay here with us?” Jooheon looked up. His brows creased.

“No. I think I need a cold shower.”

“Alright. Alright, hyung.” Clasping his healthy arm, Jooheon said: “Take care.”

“You, too.”

Hoseok didn't realize he was taking the stairs instead of the elevator until he was halfway up. He went on, his footsteps leaden but noiseless on the carpeted stairwell. A dark damp leaf of a plant brushed his cheek when he turned the corner and entered the hallway on the fourth floor. He walked on.

It was still a little surreal to lock and unlock the door by himself. He was home.

Inside the room, he stopped as if wondering what he came here for.

With long strides, he crossed the space and pulled out the drawer of the desk. He took a revolver and strapped it on. Pausing, he grabbed a taser and three knives, one of which was Kihyun's favourite.

He's seen the address.

 

Seoul in February seemed hushed somehow, and eerily depopulated. It could have been because it was past midnight, or because it was wet and cold, or it was simply the fact that the Macheon Station has never been the most pleasant place to frequent.

A cool touch of metal licked at Hoseok's skin as he got off the subway, burning against his calves with icy tongues where two blades rested hidden in his boots. He kept his weapons and weaknesses alike covered by a long coat, his arm unslung and weighted down by the cast under the thick fabric. The revolver and the taser at his hip gave him a sense of security.

It wasn't supposed to be much further.

His footsteps carried through the system of streets. Lights were getting dimmer and dimmer and shops sparser as he went. A narrow back street lined with drainage channels led him to utter darkness.

The map on Kihyun's phone led Hoseok to an unused factory. Black as a sharp-edged shred against the faded sky, it stood abandoned, glass scattered under a chain of hollow windows.

He observed the building for a minute. Every now and then, a scarce snowflake descended down, cooling his hot head.

Playing with the balisong that was slid inside his plaster, Hoseok circled the blunt end of its handle with his finger pad. He couldn't use the blade properly, but it didn't matter. It was only there as a last resort. And however inexperienced he was, he knew that men could be killed with less skill than he possessed.

Kihyun could be proud. He would be, Hoseok thought to himself. He has prepared for everything, just like Kihyun had taught him.

His thumb idly polishing the handle of the balisong, Hoseok started walking again.

He stepped into the factory, cursing inwardly. Inside, it was inkier than ink. Torn between using the phone as a flashlight and risking being discovered and groping his way around blindly, he decided for the latter.

The rooms were vast. High-ceilinged, they were conjoined by a row of similar rooms, creating a maze. Here and there stood machines that haven't been touched in years, judging from the layer of dust that lay everywhere.

It made no sense to wander around. Mad Clown was holed up somewhere near. If Hoseok went on, he could get stabbed in the neck. He had to lure him.

Bracing himself against a wall with his back to it so no one would sneak behind him, he stilled.

The pulse in his neck was ticking like time.

He didn't think this through. What was he supposed to do now?

Yell?

Racking his brain for a couple more seconds, he realized he had no better idea.

So it was exactly what he did.

“Hey!” Hoseok bellowed, the echo of his roar cutting through him. He let it fade, inhaling deeply. Then he yelled again: “I heard you put a price on Yoo Kihyun's head! I have him here!”

Nothing happened.

He felt silly. This couldn't work. He heard nothing but his own voice snarling back at him, leaning into him as tangible as a physical entity.

Hoseok swallowed his fear although it almost choked him.

“Come out, you cockless cunt!”

For the last time, he allowed himself to close his eyes.

Then he heard it.

A rustle. It made Hoseok think of hands sliding over dry walls; sliding towards him.

He opened his eyes and almost jumped at how close Mad Clown stood.

This is how he remembered him. Liquid but quick, more shifting sands than a man. Hoseok tasted bile at the back of his mouth.

“Who the fuck are you?” swore the man. There was a familiar slither in his voice. Hoseok recalled it all too well.

Mad Clown's eyes glasses made his eyes invisible.

“No one,” said Hoseok.

“Where's Yoo?”

Hoseok steadied himself.

“He sends his regards.”

Two things happened at once. Mad Clown snapped on his flashlight, searing Hoseok's sight; and Hoseok crouched, disappearing from the beam of light before he dashed forward.

Running forth, Hoseok flung both of the knives he had hidden in his boots, but missed the target.

He's always been better at brute force.

Crashing into Mad Clown, Hoseok knocked the flashlight out of the man's grip. It rolled away, flickering. With a buzz, it turned off. Everything got dark again.

They ended up on the ground. Mad Clown smelled of piss, and no wonder.

“It's you,” he heaved out. There was all the hate of the world in it.

Hoseok wasted no time. He grabbed Mad Clown's face and slammed his head backwards.

There was no scream, only a chortle.

Hoseok whacked the man's skull against the ground again.

But god.

God.

It cut Hoseok to the bone. This wasn't right.

Mad Clown fought back. He was strong.

There was no way a man of his size could equal Hoseok, and it lapped at the edges of his mind that Mad Clown might still be heavily sedated after what's happened to him. Or rather he was drugged to the point of reaching some kind of obscene elation. He felt no pain. He had no restraint.

Gritting out a gasp, Hoseok strangled him with his good hand. The man rattled under him. He buckled, gnawing at Hoseok's throat before hitting his chest and stomach.

That's when Mad Clown found Hoseok's gun and pulled it out.

Hoseok rolled off him. The room resonated with a gunshot, and another one, both fired aimlessly. Raising himself into a crouch, Hoseok made a move to his hip, finding the taser holder empty, too. Shit.

He looked up. Mad Clown was a shadowy heap in front of him, slinking upwards and waving the revolver around in all directions. It fired again.

Not thinking, Hoseok swung at him with the cast. It hurt so bad he gave a cry. It sent Mad Clown backwards. Hoseok kneeled on his chest and brough the cast back down on Mad Clown's face. His mouth split, but it still wasn't enough. He was still holding on to the gun. Hoseok tried to force it away from him, but couldn't. All he could do was hold the barrel away from himself as bullet after bullet fired out until Mad Clown emptied the magazine, the gun clicking.

Hoseok was sweating. His arm throbbed. He felt the indent of the butterfly knife against the swollen veins in his forearm.

He pulled the blade out.

“This is for the both of them,” Hoseok rasped.

The knife sunk into Mad Clown's eye.

He screeched.

He didn't screech for long.

Hoseok thought he's gone deaf when the body under him finally stopped writhing.

The victory was grim but great, turning his body into a storm-struck ocean.

He did it.

He did.

Then he sobbed. He did it. He killed a man.

He killed a killer.

He sat there in silence.

 

The numbers on the clock above the subway exit shone bright blue. It was four o'clock.

It was even later when he got back to the hotel. He ached all over. Pushing the entrance door open with his shoulder, he slipped in.

He had to shield his eyes because of the bright light that poured over him.

The harshness of it struck him. Something was wrong. The hall was never lit at night, only the corridors.

He made himself peer ahead.

Kihyun was there, reclining in one of the lobby chairs, half-asleep. Changkyun was curled up next to him. On the ground, Minhyuk and Hyungwon sat huddled together, their backs pressed against the chair. All of them were dozing off. And all of them were injured though bandaged already, Hoseok noticed with a rush of panic. He hastened towards them, the thud of his boots stirring first Kihyun, then the rest of them.

The way Kihyun looked at him made Hoseok stop right then and there.

Half-awaiting a frigid greeting and a tirade, Hoseok tried to prepare for it mentally. He'd take it, and then he'd tell Kihyun everything, and then it would be alright.

Kihyun didn't speak at all.

“Where have you been?” yawned Minhyuk.

Suddenly, the wind was taken out of Hoseok's sails.

How exactly was he supposed to tell them that he had gone to slaughter a man?

“I... I don't know if Jooheon told you anything,” he started, hesitant.

“Told us what?”

“About Mad Clown and his gunmen.”

“Yeah,” said Hyungwon, blinking. He was fighting off sleepiness. “When we got back.”

“The mission went well, by the way. Rude of you not to ask,” piped up Minhyuk. His hands were wrapped in a thick layer of gauze. It occurred to Hoseok that Minhyuk has probably burned himself and he bit the inside of his cheek at the unpretty picture.

“Is Jimin safe?” Hoseok asked.

“A bit ruffled, but he's back.”

“Are there any losses?”

“Not on our side.”

“But dude,” insisted Minhyuk, “where the heck were you? We thought you deserted.”

“We didn't,” said Hyungwon wryly. “We thought you went out for some snacks since Kihyun wasn't breathing down your neck for once.”

“Doesn't seem the case, though. You look like you haven't eaten or slept in a month,” declared Changkyun.

“You look like death,” added Hyungwon bluntly.

“Well, I had a little date with it.”

They snorted, then stared.

“Explain.”

It was the first word he got from Kihyun. Hoseok clung to it.

“I –” Quickly, he tried to order his thoughts. “When Jooheon told me Mad Clown was waiting for you, I...”

He still couldn't say it. To do it was different than to come to terms with it.

“Don't tell me,” said Changkyun, sitting up.

“I – yeah. Yeah.”

“You found him?”

“Jooheon did. I just...”

Hyungwon was the first to get it.

“You croaked him.”

Hoseok went silent. Then he nodded.

“No way.”

“No way.”

“Did you go alone?”

“Why did you go alone?”

“I didn't know you were this bloodthirsty.”

“Were you, like, bored or what?”

“I still think it's rude you didn't wait for us to see if we're alive. Just plain rude.”

“Did you get hurt, hyung?” Changkyun drowned out the noise.

Finally, Hoseok gathered himself. “No. I'm not hurt. I hit my arm a bit, but that's all.”

“What about him? Is he really dead?”

“I checked the pulse.”

Leaning back, Minhyuk remarked: “You should've waited for us, you know. You didn't have to do this.”

“We would've hopped on it first thing in the morning,” added Hyungwon.

“But what if... what if it was late by then,” Hoseok managed.

“I guess you're right,” said Minhyuk.

There was a brief pause.

“You didn't answer any of my calls,” said Kihyun, shattering the stillness.

Shit.

Hoseok patted his pockets. The phone was gone. He must've lost it in the factory.

That was bad enough. Seeing Kihyun's face was worse.

“I left the phone there,” Hoseok admitted. The wave of shame that came over him turned him into a burden once more. He didn't want to imagine what would happen if anyone found it there, casually lying next to a cadaver. “But I brought back everything else. I can go back for it – I can go now.”

“I'll go,” said Kihyun. “It's my phone, after all. If it turns up, it might lead the police to me.”

It felt like a slap.

“You're not going anywhere,” said Hyungwon. “You can barely walk.”

“I can drive.”

“Like, I'm not offering to go in your stead, but I gotta agree with Sleeper here,” Minhyuk chimed in. “You can't wobble anywhere with that butchered toothpick you call a leg.”

Hoseok's eyes darted down. Until now, the only injury he could spot was a single stitched up gash that snaked down Kihyun's neck. The rest was hidden underneath his clothes.

He wanted to take them off so he could lay tender kisses along each and every wound. He wondered how many there were.

“I can go,” offered Changkyun and rose. “I'm the least battered of you all.”

“You can't drive,” Kihyun pointed out.

“I can take the subway. Is it far, hyung?”

Hoseok hesitated. “I don't want you to see it.”

“Why? Did you skin him?”

“Did you decapitate him?”

“Or dismember him?”

“Did you paint the walls with his guts? Because I've seen that before, too,” said Changkyun, not a hint of humour in his statement.

“No, nothing like that,” said Hoseok, horrified, “but...”

“Just tell me which subway to take. Some of us need some sleep, and the sooner I get to sleep, the better.”

So Hoseok told him.

It felt all kinds of wrong to have someone else clean up his botched up work.

He was just glad that it didn't have to be Kihyun.

Their little congregation scattered after that. Hyungwon trailed off, his willowy silhouette disappearing at the end of the ground floor corridor. With an all too cheery wave, Minhyuk left the elevator on the second floor. The door slid shut.

With a pull at Hoseok's belly, the cube rose.

When they got off, Hoseok moved to support Kihyun. He could see that standing up was beginning to put a strain on him. Kihyun gripped his arm, but something remained gaping between them. A glass wall fell between them, flexible to touch but impenetrable.

Hoseok led Kihyun to the bed.

“Come on,” he said, “sit down.”

But Kihyun just stood there.

“What is it?” Hoseok implored.

Still, he came up empty.

“You're not going to talk to me?” he asked.

“There's nothing to say.”

“You always have something to say.”

“Now I don't.”

Hoseok suppressed a sigh.

Something occurred to him.

“Are you... pissed?”

“No. I won't waste my time with that.”

“What, am I a waste of time now?”

“Don't.”

“Talk to me, then,” Hoseok pressed. “If it's about the phone – I'm really sorry about that. I didn't even know I lost it.”

“You never answered it.”

“I couldn't exactly – couldn't exactly make a phone call when I was there – doing that,” said Hoseok with some effort. It dawned on him he might never be able to put it into words.

“You never cared to check. Not even afterwards.”

“That's not it,” he insisted. “I didn't know I was there for so long, is all.”

“You weren't supposed to be there. Ever.”

“I know. You were gone, though, and –”

“And that gives you the right to do whatever you please?”

“It didn't please me to do it,” Hoseok recoiled.

“It would've pleased me,” said Kihyun. “It was supposed to be me. I was supposed to kill him for what he's done. Not you. Never you.”

“I know. It's never me.”

It came out like that.

But Kihyun didn't understand him.

“What the hell is even wrong with you? I tried until I bled to keep you away from this,” he uttered. The words dripped like salt.

Hoseok didn't know what's gotten into him when he spat back:

“That's right. You're good at keeping me away.”

“It's what you wanted. And even though you change your mind every five fucking minutes, I thought we were at one about this – that I would protect you from this. That you would not kill.”

Kihyun's mouth was raw. It curled up in a way that brought forth all of Hoseok's yearning and anger.

“I was already willing to do it back then,” said Hoseok, growing more raspy with each syllable. “When we went after Song. So you wouldn't have to. So you wouldn't blame yourself.”

It was true. He had been ready to strangle Song.

“Are you fucked in the head?”

“Yeah. Maybe I'm fucked in the head. But then so is everyone else here.”

“Of course we are! Do you think we are okay? That we feel fine after a lovely little hit? Do you think we'll ever be able to live a normal life after this? A good life?”

As Kihyun's voice got barbed, his features turned taut, tempered by resentment that almost made him look hideous. Hoseok has never seen him like this. Not ever. They've argued and roared and cried, but this wasn't either of that.

“I don't know,” Hoseok admitted. “I never had one to begin with. Until now.”

“Bullshit.”

“Kihyun, listen. Let's sit down. Let's –”

Kihyun struck his hand away.

“Don't.”

“Please. Please, don't do this to me now,” Hoseok tried again.

“You should've fucking thought this through, but you never do. You were gone. You didn't even tell anyone you're going. You could've ended up cold and unburied somewhere and I wouldn't even know.”

“But I didn't,” implored Hoseok. This time, he took Kihyun's hands. He pressed them to his face and chest. “Look. I'm alright. I'm here.”

He felt Kihyun tense up.

“I'm here,” Hoseok repeated. “I'm unharmed. And the fucker won't ever get to you because I took care of him.”

He was rushing now. He might have kissed the tips of Kihyun's fingers as he spoke.

Kihyun shoved at him.

“No one fucking asked you to. You were supposed to stay put, that's all, and you couldn't even do that. You wanted to be a hero.”

“I didn't! Don't say stuff like this. You know I'm not like this.”

“Get off. I can't even look at you.”

It only made Hoseok hold him tighter.

“Kihyun, stop,” he said quickly. “I wanted to protect you, and I did –”

“Is this what you think you did? Is this what you're telling yourself?” Except with his face, Kihyun laughed. “That's really fucking precious.”

Then he shoved Hoseok again. When he resisted, Kihyun went straight for the jugular. Hoseok didn't want to hurt him any more, so he never thought to fight back. He let Kihyun push him away by the throat, gasping at the force.

He could just let go, but he didn't.

He opened his mouth and closed it. Silence came first, then a sob.

“Kihyun, I killed him,” he choked out.

He's killed.

It came forth and over him, colliding with his rib cage. How he had smashed the man's skull. How it had cracked. How he still had gone on. The both of them. Hoseok felt dust on his palms, as if noticing it for the first time, and suddenly he had to get it off. He had to. Drawing back, he rubbed at himself. He rubbed at his sides to get it off. It burned.

The balisong under his plaster felt molten. Hoseok pulled it out and threw it away. His palms were still etched with dust.

Everything was blurry as Kihyun cradled his face.

“Hold me,” he sobbed, though Kihyun already has.

Hoseok wrapped his arms around him. Breathing out hard and open-mouthed, he nosed at Kihyun's neck. Not even the scent he knew so well could calm him down. Not even the lithe body against his.

“I fucking knew it,” Kihyun hissed out, but this time there wasn't a whisper of harshness in it. “You were never meant to do this. Never.”

“I've done it,” Hoseok whimpered.

“Jesus, Hoseok.”

“But you're safe,” he said as he gazed at Kihyun, cupping his face with a fearful caress. “I was so scared.”

“So was I, fucker.”

The harshness was back and Kihyun moved to withdraw.

Hoseok kissed him first.

His lips were swollen and salty, his breath too hot, but Kihyun didn't force him away. After a second of standing there frozen, he tentatively touched the back of Hoseok's head, bringing him closer. He opened his mouth into the kiss.

Hoseok groaned. He took a step forward, standing so close their hips locked. Kihyun's hip bones dug at him, teeth grazing his lips, but it only made Hoseok crave it.

It was the kind of pleasure-hurt he would normally shrink from.

Not with Kihyun. Even if it came with sharp edges, he wanted it.

And it did. It cut and bit at him, the tongue on his teeth like a razor. Kihyun pulled him by the hair, making him tilt his head. He filled him so good Hoseok forgot to cry.

Shifting forward, Kihyun grabbed Hoseok under the arms, sliding his hands down.

He brushed the holster.

Everything deadened. Kihyun stopped kissing Hoseok back, motionless. His mouth was still parted and Hoseok started at it, trying to pull him in.

Kihyun let him lay sloppy, half-finished kisses on his lips and jaw. Carefully, he unstrapped the belt fastened around Hoseok's waist.

It felt like Kihyun lifted the weight of the whole world off Hoseok's shoulders.

“Kiss me,” said Hoseok, but Kihyun didn't.

Instead, he made Hoseok rest his head against his neck, the injured side of it, and Hoseok was too afraid to nudge at it. So he stood there and inhaled and exhaled and inhaled and exhaled. He was home, and safe, and entirely messed up.

He could never regret it, though. He'd go on with the guilt, but never regret.

Kihyun took the taser next and made Hoseok slip off his shoes, removing the knives. He stripped Hoseok off every weapon he carried. It was redeeming, and he waited without a word, his arms lifeless. When it was done, Kihyun glanced up at Hoseok before bringing his face close again. They did nothing except look at each other. When Hoseok shook with a suppressed sob, Kihyun brushed his cheek, hushing him. He almost moaned at the idea of being cared for.

But it was done too soon.

Kihyun used Hoseok's daze and wobbled away from him and towards the table, stacking the gun and the knives inside the topmost drawer without cleaning them.

“Go wash up,” he told Hoseok without turning to him.

“Can't.” He was so tired all of a sudden.

“Come wash your hands at least.”

Kihyun helped Hoseok get the grime off, taking pains to clean it from under his nails, too. There was a blade-shaped strip of caked blood running across Hoseok's palm. Kihyun ran a wet washcloth over it until it was gone. Hoseok sat there slumped forward on a stool, resting his forehead against Kihyun's stomach.

In the end, he was so exhausted he didn't even manage to embrace Kihyun as they lay down beside each other.

 

He started more at the slap on his ass than the surge of light that sliced through his eyelids, thought both happened at the same time. Groaning, Hoseok turned to see a very frisky Changkyun sprawled on the bed behind him. He groaned again. He rolled back just in time to spot Jooheon walk to the last window and pull the blinds up.

Another wall of white light hit him.

“Sod off,” Hoseok mumbled, probably at the both of them.

“Wake up, hyung.”

There was another slap and Hoseok lashed out, no longer sleepy.

“The hell!” he demanded.

“Kihyun told us to take you to the hospital wing.”

“Why? I'm fine,” he said, hollowing a little at the fact that Kihyun was gone.

“Yeah, we know. You're getting your cast off.”

“Oh.”

“Gain is going, too. We're betting on who cries more.”

“It's not going to be me,” sniffed Hoseok.

“You sure? Kihyun said to kiss you a little if you cry, though.”

It cut through him. “He did not.”

“Did, too.”

“Did not.”

“Alright, he didn't. But I still volunteer.”

Hoseok's face darkened.

“One of these days, you're going to catch these hands.”

“Into mine,” said Changkyun theatrically, cupping Hoseok's hands.

Hoseok wrangled himself free and got up to shower and throw on some clothes.

Everything felt disconnected as they took the elevator underground. They walked into the hospital wing, Changkyun immediately cosying it up in Seokjin's grand chair. The ward was all white and air-conditioned, though there was no natural light or breeze.

Hoseok's cast was gone in a blink of an eye, then Gain's, and she laughed out loud because her shin was just as hairy under the plaster as Hoseok's. Laughing made her look lovely.

“Kid, come here,” she beckoned to Jooheon.

“He's a man,” warbled Changkyun in his best drunk Jooheon impression.

“Let's compare who's manlier.” Gain stroked her leg hair invitingly.

It was either because he was ashamed, or because he indeed wasn't manlier than Gain, but Jooheon decided to ignore them both.

Seokjin was done with them before he was done with his work. He sent them all packing, reminding Gain and Hoseok not to strain themselves so he wouldn't have to deal with them again too soon.

On their way out, they stopped by one of the sickrooms to visit Jungkook.

Hoseok flinched when he saw him tucked in the wiry bunk. He had no idea. No one had told him someone was this hurt.

And then it dawned on Hoseok that he never asked.

Kihyun had every right to be mad at him for being careless. It was possible he still was. Why else would he disappear on him again?

Especially after the kiss?

Jungkook seemed cheerful despite everything, not minding his broken nose or ribs or the cauliflower ear he has come back with. Looking around to check if Seokjin wasn't snooping, Changkyun reached under his hoodie and pulled out a comic book. It was still freshly sealed and on the cover, a cute girl in heavy armour stood above a dead body. With a shy thanks, Jungkook slid it under his pillow, pretending to be mortally ill when Seokjin chimed in with a tray of various bottles and instruments and a bowl of watery broth.

Hoseok didn't know which looked more dreadful, the graspers or the food.

They decided to retreat, none of them feeling particularly brave to weather Seokjin's snippiness.

In the elevator, Hoseok tried to move his wrist in small circles.

“How's everybody else?” he piped up eventually, his eyes cast down.

“Didn't Kihyun tell you?”

“We... didn't get to talk about that.”

“Aw,” smiled Changkyun, “someone was getting scolded.”

“I wasn't getting scolded,” lied Hoseok.

“Maybe he was getting snogged silly,” suggested Gain, leaning on Jooheon's shoulder instead of the now needless crutches she held under her other arm.

“I wasn't!” he lied again, this time even more abysmally.

“Hyung, what even possessed you to go?” asked Jooheon, too quiet.

Fuck.

The cabin got tighter all of a sudden.

“Why?” Hoseok managed. “Did you get yelled at?”

He must have. If it hadn't been for Jooheon's intel, Hoseok would never even had thought of going. He would have been helpless, holed up in the hotel room as always, hating every second of that powerlessness that crippled him whenever everyone else was gone and he couldn't do anything for them.

“He didn't get yelled at,” said Gain. “He thought he sent you to die.”

The elevator stopped with a tink, but no one got off.

It felt like facing Kihyun in his worst fury all over again. It felt like waiting for a phone call from his mum that never came, and like sending money to an account he wasn't even sure she still used.

Hoseok couldn't utter a sound.

With everyone still inside, the box shook and started to descend once more. Changkyun shifted, tapping at the buttons.

Finally, Hoseok croaked out: “But I'm alive.”

It was a feeble protest, so he tried again, straightening up to lend his words some strength.

“You didn't do anything wrong,” Hoseok told Jooheon. “If you hadn't told me – well, look at it this way. Mad Clown could've got to Kihyun, or he could've taken out someone else while trying. Now he's gone, and everything's good –”

It wasn't, but nothing could feel as bad as knowing he never lifted a finger for the man who has risked his all for him.

Inhaling, Hoseok rubbed at Jooheon's arm.

“And even if I wasn't here right now, it would be on me. You didn't make me go. No one could make me do... do that.”

“But I put it in your head.”

“You didn't. It's already full of stupid ideas.”

Still, the kid looked unconvinced.

Hoseok truly was an airhead. Of course making the single most life-damning decision came with consequences – he was already facing them. But he never paused to think that he wasn't the only one affected by it.

They couldn't talk afterwards since the elevator filled with more passengers, some of them striking up a conversation with Changkyun.

Passing through nine floors has never seemed so endless to Hoseok.

 

He found Kihyun inside.

He was fresh out of shower, his hair trickling. Hoseok's gaze dropped to a burn on Kihyun's thigh. So that was what's been ailing him. It has blistered overnight, glaring salmon-raw.

They didn't get to greet each other as Hoseok stalked right towards him.

“It looks painful,” he said.

“It is.”

“Shouldn't you go to Seokjin?”

“I already got a tetanus shot from him yesterday. And this.” The tender spot between Kihyun's eyebrows became clouded as he studied a small plastic jar. He held it up higher before he took off the lid.

“Hold up,” said Hoseok, taking the jar from him. “I'll wash my hands and do it. Look. I have both of them now,” he goofed, trying not to recoil at the sight of the burn. He's seen worse things, terrible things, but not in daylight. The wound glistened ugly and curled at the edges.

“I don't need your help.”

“Well, I can't look at you torturing yourself.”

“So you're going to torture me instead,” said Kihyun wryly.

“No! I'll be more careful than you.”

“With those huge ass hands?”

“Look, little man, at least these huge ass hands will have it done quicker.”

“I would be done by now if it wasn't for your fussing,” Kihyun retorted.

That got Hoseok moving. In a moment, he was back, kneeling under Kihyun to get a better look at the burn. There were more blisters than he noticed at first, all clustered around the same spot like a translucent bunch of grapes. The wound unfolded in waves, darkest in the middle and paler where it blended into Kihyun's skin.

Hoseok drew in a sympathetic breath.

“I'm gonna do it, alright?”

“Sometime in this century?”

He scowled at Kihyun, but his heart wasn't in it.

He started spreading the antibiotic cream over the less sore parts first. It had no smell and no colour. It went on well, layering over the textured skin as a protective film. Then Hoseok got to those blisters. Kihyun didn't wince once, but he sat bent forward, the muscles in his legs taut with pain. Hoseok heard a suppressed hiss or two, but pretended he didn't. He just tried to be even gentler when it happened.

When he was finished, he didn't let go of Kihyun. Hesitating for a second, he laid a peck above his knee.

“Don't,” Kihyun nudged at him, pushing himself backwards on the bed. He reached for a roll of gauze and began to unravel it.

“I'll do it,” Hoseok offered.

“You've done enough.”

Somehow, he knew he wouldn't win this time.

It was alright, though.

He was just grateful that Kihyun came home.

This was all they did for the next two weeks. Hoseok would put salve on the burn and Kihyun would dress it and they wouldn't exchange a word unless Hoseok initiated the conversation. It wasn't an angry silence on Kihyun's side, Hoseok was sure of it, but perhaps a tired one. Somehow, it felt worse.

Neither of them was scheduled for any missions during that time, not even a simple secret trading, and Hoseok had to admit to himself that he was glad of it. He could still see split mouths and pouring eyeballs in his dreams.

Whenever that happened, he would wake up in the middle of the night as dumb as a doll, unable to even call out or weep. He would sit up drenched in sweat, hoping that Kihyun might hear his gasps.

Kihyun was a light sleeper. More often than not, he stirred when Hoseok did, bringing him back down into a hug that was just as tired as his silence.

That was all. Hoseok didn't dare to take another kiss from him.

The word got around that Hoseok has made his bones. Some members of the organization regarded him with more respect for it, some even with friendly pats on the back never offered before. Some didn't care. It's what everyone did over here.

The slight shift in the way he was treated didn't matter to Hoseok. He kept to his people.

His days were short. He spent them at Bora's ward where she made him repeat stretching exercises to loosen his stiff joints and regain muscle mass. After, he usually went to gym where he sparred with Hyunwoo using wooden swords. Hoseok knew Hyunwoo was humouring him, teaching him a technique that was useless to him in real life, but it felt almost like dancing and it rejuvenated Hoseok to the point that he was brave enough to enter the bedroom and face the stillness there.

Mornings were growing chillier and chillier, approaching the time of year when snow gave way to ice and mist gave way to wintry winds. It made Hoseok languid at first and he felt cosy in the shelter of the hotel. Until he didn't.

Even when the city peaked ugly and colourless outside, roofs frosted over, Hoseok was always at the window. He sat there for hours, touching the cold glass. There was a restlessness within him that willed him to walk out; and then there was another pull, a tether keeping him inside, and it was the fact that Kihyun was healing slower than expected. The burn scarred. It wasn't supposed to. And yet whenever Kihyun stood or walked for prolonged periods of time, the blistering would be back.

It took until the second half of February for it to seal.

When it did, Kihyun started getting commissions again. Brief tasks, sometimes recces and sometimes what he called escorting. He wouldn't warn Hoseok in advance anymore, setting out while he was in the shower or in the gym. Instead, Kihyun picked up a habit of leaving his phone on Hoseok's bedside table. After the job was done, he'd send an empty text to let Hoseok know he was okay.

Hoseok clung to those wordless signals as if they were tangible.

They were, in a way, because they always brought Kihyun back to him.

So that was them now. He has breached Kihyun's trust one too many times for him to depend on Hoseok and there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing but wait and learn and gain his confidence back.

But it was Changkyun who chose to take Hoseok along for his first mission in weeks, not Kihyun.

“It's a hit, though,” Changkyun warned him as they got into the car. Hyungwon was already inside.

“I know,” said Hoseok. “I'll just do whatever you tell me to do.”

“You could patrol outside.”

“That's Hyungwon's job. I'll do anything. I mean it.” He put on the seat belt. “I want to be useful.”

“Well, in that case it would be really lovely if you could put this one motherfucker in a chokehold,” said Changkyun sweetly. “I need to pry some stuff out of him before we snuff him out.”

“I'm your guy.”

Hoseok didn't understand at first why they stopped at a bathhouse.

He followed Changkyun through the entrance while Hyungwon drove off, the engine of the car humming for a bit before it parked not too far off.

Inside, they removed their shoes and put them into a locker. They walked up to the counter. Behind it stood a woman. Changkyun paid the regular fee, taking two keys from her.

Hoseok recognized her right away. It was Hanbit.

He shot a quizzical look at Changkyun, but the boy only beckoned Hoseok to the changing room. They stripped and washed up before going inside the baths.

A string of soaking pools lined the walls. Some were smaller and circular, some larger, a milk-like layer of mist hanging above them. There was no one in either of the cold tubs, but a young man sat with his limbs outstretched in a hot tub.

He was quite built, though it didn't help him when Hoseok squeezed his windpipe from behind.

The man thrashed and called out. Hoseok reckoned that if Hanbit heard him, she paid as much attention to his cries as to a far-off song that wasn't even her favourite.

“Let him quench the thirst a little,” said Changkyun, sitting open-legged at the rim of the pool.

Hoseok did. He forced the man's head under the surface and gave it a few seconds before he brought him back up. The splashing of water was the only thing he focused on; that and the man's hands, which Hoseok held behind his back.

Even with his bad arm, he didn't have to use much force.

It was frightening, almost.

But it was nowhere near as frightening as watching Changkyun work.

He made the man drink alcohol, grooming him for his own death because people drown all the time when they bathe drunk. He asked question, letting the man beg and believe there may be a way out if he cooperated. Sure enough, Changkyun got his answers.

Ripples lapped at Hoseok, too hot against his already hot skin. He was relieved when Changkyun waded through the water towards them and gave the final nod.

Hoseok pushed the man's head down. He felt him fight, and it nearly broke him.

“It's okay,” said Changkyun, taking his place. “You can let go now.”

He did. He climbed out of the tub, listening to the swish and slosh of the dying man. He dried his face with a towel, then rubbed at his neck.

When Changkyun joined him, Hoseok knew it was over. The body floated face-down while the two of them sat butt-naked on the cold floor. Eventually, Changkyun arranged the bottles of soju around the pool, throwing one inside next to the floater.

Sensing his pulse slow down, Hoseok asked: “What if someone comes to investigate anyway?”

“They can try. This hole hasn't been cleaned in three days, so there will be more fingerprints and DNA samples than they can ever go through.”

“You had it all planned, then.”

“Well, no shit. Do I look like an amateur to you?”

“You really don't,” Hoseok laughed hollowly.

They dressed and returned their keys to Hanbit.

Hyungwon was waiting for them. They hopped in the car, dashing back through the throbbing city.

“Did he spill?” Hyungwon wanted to know.

“Yep. There's five more fuckers wandering around somewhere. They're waiting for Jackson to show his face. They're all Triad men. It really was Park who hired them. No surprise there,” Changkyun grumbled.

“Five? Fuck.”

“I mean, if all of them are this easy to track and fool, we should be fine.”

“I wouldn't call it easy. It took us two months to find Im. It might take us even longer to get to the rest. Park knew what he was doing when he brought them here.”

“But we've got clues now. We'll find the rest quicker,” Changkyun assured him.

Hoseok was barely there.

He could see himself taking another shower as soon as possible.

Then he stirred in his seat.

“Kkukkung?”

“Yeah, hyung?”

“Could you send a text to Kihyun?”

“Sure. What should I write?”

“Just an empty text will do.”

“Like, I'm not being funny, but the two of you have some creepy ass habits.”

Of course this would be what Changkyun found creepy. He sent the message, though, and some of Hoseok's unrest finally subsided.

They returned at two in the morning.

Kihyun was awake.

“Hi,” said Hoseok at the doorstep.

“Hello.” Putting down a book, Kihyun straightened up in his chair. “Did it go well?”

“I... yeah.”

“Did Im sing?”

“I have to take a shower first,” he said, a little breathless.

Kihyun looked him up and down. “Alright.”

It took Hoseok good twenty minutes. When he emerged out of the bathroom, Kihyun was waiting, the book closed and balanced on the armrest of the chair. Heavily, Hoseok sat down across from him. Enough distance separated them so Kihyun wouldn't have a reason to run even further.

After giving him one more once-over, Kihyun asked: “Did you do it?”

“No, I didn't have to. Changkyun finished it.”

“Did you get anything from Im?”

“Yeah.”

Hoseok told him in short what Im Jaebum had said before drowning. Park had reached out to the Triad, a crime syndicate in Hong Kong that wanted Jackson dead. With Park's intel, the Triad has dispatched six men to go after Jackson, their common enemy. One was down.

“So there's five more to hunt down.”

“Yep.”

Nodding, Kihyun reclined back.

“Thanks for the text.”

It took Hoseok aback.

“You're welcome,” he whispered.

Kihyun was boring into him and it occurred to Hoseok that perhaps he'd been awaiting his arrival with the same sense of unease that took him apart every time Kihyun had to leave.

“Are you tired?” Kihyun asked.

“Yes,” said Hoseok, “but I don't want to go to sleep. Not yet.”

“Might be better if you wait until it's light outside.”

It never really helped, but waking up trembling when the room was white and shadowless was better than staring into a void.

“I don't want to keep you up, though,” said Hoseok.

“I was about to go out, anyway.”

“What?” he fidgeted. “What is it? Is it a hit?”

“No,” Kihyun seemed to soften around the edges, “I was just hungry.”

“At two in the morning?”

“That's when I'm the hungriest.”

That was a big fat lie. For someone with such a messed up schedule, Kihyun kept his habits healthy.

“So you're leaving?” Hoseok asked quietly.

“You could go with me.”

“Is it a date?” he joked, folding his hands in his lap.

“Nevermind.”

“No, I'm going,” said Hoseok.

Lights glittered sharp in the distance. They drove for a long time, their first stop being the café Kihyun had taken him to all those weeks ago. They sat there for a while, downing a cup each. Even Hoseok ordered one although his was as frilly and foamy as a ballet dancer's skirt. He needed some caffeine, but he didn't need to die drinking it.

There was a fast food restaurant nearby. It smelled salty when they walked in, but Hoseok liked it. He could hear hot grease sizzle. It was comforting. The establishment was empty but still busy at the drive-through.

They sat next to each other instead of across the table, plunking down on a bench. They shared the food. Kihyun sure had an appetite for someone so small. Still, it was Hoseok who ate more than half of everything and then asked for seconds.

It was a good sign he could stomach it.

This time, there wasn't blood on his hands, only the clinging stench of chlorine and piss as the Jaebum guy had given up on bravado.

And yet, finishing off someone who was begging to be saved stained Hoseok worse than killing Mad Clown. It wasn't self-defense this time. Not yet. Hoseok had to remind himself over and over that they had to do what they had to do in order to keep Jackson out of harm's way. One day, he would return the favour.

They were already closer to getting Park, weakening him, cutting off the mob boss's ties with his former accomplices thanks to the incriminating documents Jackson had compiled when secretly working with Gun. It was a slow process, but they were making enough progress for Park to grow apprehensive.

Hoseok wondered when the day would come – the day that they would all be safe again.

But it didn't strike him as a thing that could ever happen. After all, if it wasn't Park or the Triad who posed a threat to them, it would be someone else. There would always be someone to defeat. Evil men. Less evil men. More evil men. Evil women. Evil was the people.

He slurped at his soda. He offered some to Kihyun and watched as he put the straw into his mouth without taking the cup from Hoseok. Bird-feeding him, Hoseok was unable to quench the affection that welled inside him, and so he stared. He stared even when Kihyun leaned back, cleaning his fingers with a paper napkin.

He would sit there and stare for the whole night if a silvery twinkle didn't catch his attention. Hoseok's gaze fell, taking in the dainty movements of Kihyun's hands. There it was, the ring like a reminder that Hoseok would never mean to Kihyun what he meant to him.

It was alright, though. It was enough that Kihyun cared.

Hoseok got some pretty good fries out of it, too, so he shouldn't mope.

Still, as Kihyun wiped around the silver circle on his forefinger, Hoseok blurted:

“Do you miss him?”

“Who?”

It was too late to think of a lie.

“Song Gunhee.”

Kihyun didn't still at the sound of the name. He merely put away the napkin, folding it like the freak he was.

“No.”

But you're still wearing it.

“But you're still thinking about him.”

Patting his pockets to make sure everything was inside, Kihyun retorted:

“I thought about him more when I thought he betrayed me.” Then, without missing a beat, he said: “I guess I'm heartless.”

“You're not,” said Hoseok. “You're healing.”

The ceiling lights hung low, bathing them in deep yellow. It made Kihyun's features more prominent, as if quickly carved and deep-set.

“There's nothing to heal. All I had was anger, and now I don't even have that.”

“You love him, though.”

“Yeah, I loved him.”

Hoseok clammed up. Then, on impulse, he touched the ring.

As soon as he did, he was sure Kihyun would swat him away. Hoseok's head shot up. But Kihyun just watched him glaze the tip of his finger over the ribbed band. An inscription ran over the whole length of it, though it didn't say anything. It was just ornamental, Hoseok supposed.

He studied it with some bashfulness.

“I can't believe you're letting me touch it.”

“It's just a ring.”

“It was his, though. Before it was yours.”

“How do you know that?”

Hoseok could kick himself.

“I saw the picture. The one Yoongi keeps in his wallet.”

“Did he show you?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“I guess he wanted me to see that church boy look you had going on when you were a teenager.”

If there was something like a laughterless laugh, then that's what they both did. They never looked away.

“Shut up,” said Kihyun. “As if your Hidan phase was any better. And let me remind you that you were a grown ass man when you were walking around with that on top of your head.”

“I looked good, though.”

“Well, better than me with a fringe.”

Not thinking about it, Hoseok linked their fingers.

That's when the neons seemed to flicker colder, the air grew stifling with oil, and Kihyun withdrew from him.

“Let's dust,” he said, standing up. Hoseok could only grab his cup and follow after him.

He really had a knack for fucking up.

In the car, he fell into a fitful sleep. From behind a dreamless membrane, he was aware that Kihyun kept cruising the city, the radio on low. Hoseok felt like he was being dragged by a river, wave after wave after wave lapping at him, the motion both calming him down and rousing him. He woke up for good when the car stopped.

Ahead of them was the lake.

It was still ice-crusted. A film of fog hung above the surface as if someone has breathed on it.

“What are we doing here?” Hoseok mumbled, pulling himself up.

“Dunno. I wanted to come here for a bit.”

“We don't have ice skates with us.”

“Good,” said Kihyun grimly.

Hoseok let out a giggle.

“It was fun, though, seeing you all flat on your back,” he said.

“For you. I quite literally shattered my spine.”

“But you still wanted to come back.”

“Yeah. It's so peaceful here.”

And it was. It wasn't quiet; the engine was running and the radio was still on. A song that was soul-stirring to Hoseok but probably silly to Kihyun was playing. Birds shrieked above every once in a while, not unpleasantly, only reminding them of the approaching sunrise. Hoseok thought that sometimes silence was the least peaceful thing on Earth.

“It's odd,” Hoseok muttered. A small smile tugged at his lips. “I would've thought that the Great White must be in his element this close to water.”

“Don't call me that,” said Kihyun, bemused. His voice tinkled with self-irony.

“Why not? It's kinda cute.”

“Great white sharks are cute to you?”

“No, dummy. It's cute that a pipsqueak like you has a bloodthirsty code name like that.”

“Give me a better one, then.”

Hoseok gaped.

He had to turn it into a joke, otherwise his heart would be shredded.

“You, little man, should be called Dwarf Lanternshark instead.”

“The fuck is that,” clipped Kihyun, not liking the dwarf part already.

“It's the cutest palm-sized motherfucker of them all. Imagine that. You're born like a shark and you're like, hell yeah! But then you realize you're basically smaller than the fish a regular shark eats. A bummer, really. All you can do is look adorable and glow in the dark.”

“I don't glow in the dark.”

“Oh,” said Hoseok, a little mischievously, “but you're adorable? Is that it?”

Kihyun snorted.

“You know what. Shove that nickname up your ass.”

“That wasn't very adorable.”

“Too bad, Bunny Boy.”

“Bunny Boy?” Hoseok exclaimed, laughing. “The heck is that?”

“Your code name for when you get your own phone.” Kihyun played with the car key for a bit. “You can't hog mine forever.”

“Why Bunny Boy?” Then he got it. His laughter was gone in a second and he grew petty. “It's the ears, isn't it.”

“It indeed is.”

“If you ever call me Bunny Boy again, our friendship is over.”

“Does Rabbit Man sound better to your tender ears?”

“No!”

“How about the Hare Scare? It even rhymes.”

“Get out,” Hoseok cackled again. “I'm not scary.”

“No, but you're always scared.”

“I'm not scared to throw you out of the car and drive off.”

“You can't drive.”

“I'll manage.”

“Alright, I have more rhymes up my sleeve. I'll call you Ear and Tear. Because, you know, you cry a lot.”

“That just sounds like you're naming a very sketch diner,” Hoseok bubbled out, trying not to let Kihyun know how much he was enjoying his dorkiness. “Or some sort of furry porn.”

“Wow. I think you out-cringed me just now.”

“Is that even possible?”

“You know what? I'll just save you as Sugar Baby.”

“Little man, you're on thin fucking ice.”

“I thought we weren't skating today.”

Unable to contain himself, Hoseok reached out to ruffle Kihyun up. Just a little.

Just to be friendly.

It brought out a grin that scrunched up Kihyun's face into an almost child-like expression.

Hoseok went docile at once.

“Alright, alright,” Kihyun conceded. “You choose, then. I tried my best.”

“You tried your worst and you know it.”

“I'm the best at being the worst.”

Hoseok gave him an exasperated sigh.

“You could just save me as Shin, I suppose.”

“Shin? Like, God?”

“That's what guys usually say along with my name.”

Kihyun looked unimpressed.

“Why Shin?”

“It's my mum's surname,” Hoseok said, milder.

“I see.”

“It would be meaningful to me and it wouldn't blow my cover.” Pausing, he added darkly: “And anything is better than Sugar Baby.”

“I dunno. I quite liked the Bunny Boy. Where is he, that eary lad?” Kihyun pretended to gaze wistfully into the distance.

“Leave my ears alone!”

“I would, but they are stirring up the wind.”

Hoseok launched at him again. They shoved at each other, Kihyun's head thrown back in noiseless laughter. Soon, it got all pushy and the two of them went breathless. Kihyun ended up squished into the corner of the seat, one knee dug into Hoseok's chest to keep him at bay.

“You talk a lot of shit for someone who's your size,” said Hoseok, beaming.

“I'm more tricky than you. I could still take you down.”

“Am I sensing another bet here?”

“A lost bet,” simpered Kihyun.

Backing off a little, Hoseok pulled Kihyun up.

“You're already losing. And I didn't even use my strength yet,” Hoseok picked at him.

“Who said I was using any?”

He could be so coy.

It always threw Hoseok off because Kihyun was normally so combative. Controlling, even.

Either was good, he supposed. Either made him tighten up all over.

The radio rattled as Kihyun started up the car. He laid an arm over the backrest of Hoseok's seat to look behind. When they left the frozen path, Kihyun turned to him.

“Feeling better?”

Hoseok deflated and overbrimmed with love at the same time.

“Yeah,” he managed.

Yeah, so Kihyun wasn't a lanternshark, but he kind of did glow in the dark; at least for Hoseok. He was a lantern.

He was also one little bragger whose butt was going to get handed to him.

 

Chapter Text

He didn't know how much sucking up and pestering it has taken for Changkyun to finally persuade Kihyun to bring Hoseok along. But here he was, sleek in a tux, the revolver Kihyun had given to him flat against his back under the black jacket. The club glittered with gold and gems and champagne. Hoseok swirled his glass without taking a sip. He mustn't. Not just yet. Golden flecks spun at the bottom of the glass, stirring the bubbles.

Despite being situated in the basement, the room – a string of rooms, really – was airy, with high ceilings. It was dim, low light spilling down from petal-shaped lamps.

Rather than shine, there were shadows.

Hoseok kept his eyes on Kihyun as the other man surveyed the space. They were both leaning against the bar, each at the very end of it.

Kihyun turned to him at last and nodded.

Hoseok took his glass and moved towards one of the booths, the one Kihyun had indicated him to sit at. Soon, Kihyun was next to him.

“It's bad. She spotted me looking at her. Twice.”

“Of course she did,” Hoseok mouthed back. “You're already pretty starey even when you're not really spying on anyone.”

“I guess it's a Scorpio thing,” said Kihyun wryly. “You're gonna have to track her instead. She's noticed me already and she's on edge. If she catches me one more time, it's gonna be bad.”

“Maybe she just stares back because you're good-looking.”

“Funny. Where is she now?”

Kihyun was all business. He held a low whisky tumbler in his hand, his wrist naked, the cuff on his sleeve glimmering an almost dark bluish hue. Intent on not looking back, his stare was soaking up Hoseok instead.

Stiffly, Hoseok reclined back and skimmed the room. Their target was still there, sitting in another booth and chatting with a circle of acquaintances. All he could see of her was a pale slim arm.

“Still in the same spot,” said Hoseok lowly.

Without reply, Kihyun tapped the watch on his free hand as if checking the time. It sent a signal to Hyungwon and Changkyun to stay put.

They pretended to talk, Hoseok's gaze glued to one place. He was alright while the woman couldn't see him, though he knew he would grow nervous if he wasn't hidden in her blind spot.

“You're too stiff,” he heard Kihyun say. “It makes you suspicious.”

“I guess that makes us even,” he shot back, knowing full well he was being snappish.

But it was hard to loosen up when the club swarmed with people who were corrupted to the bone, wore stolen jewellery, and carried their guns in the open. One bad move and he'd risk his life as well as Kihyun's.

The woman got up. Accompanied by a circle of men, she stood idly for a minute, listening to whatever proposals they were making. Hoseok didn't know whether they were buying or selling.

“She's standing by the pillar now. The one with the painting.”

“Does it look like she's headed out?”

“I don't know. Not yet, I don't think so.”

He allowed himself to steal a glance at Kihyun only to find out he was quite calmly rolling an ice cube inside his mouth. He hasn't touched his whisky, just as Hoseok hasn't touched his champagne.

Hoseok swallowed. Quickly, he turned ahead, prepared to see the woman's back.

He was met with her face instead.

Narrowing in on them and noticing Kihyun, too, she seemed to ponder over something.

Hoseok blanched.

“She's seen me.”

“Act natural.”

“I can't.”

“Hoseok, calm down.”

Panicking, Hoseok grabbed him.

“Kiss me.”

“What?”

“She knows we're here together now, but she doesn't know why.”

Before he even finished, he felt the tip of Kihyun's nose brush his neck.

He squirmed in his seat, laying heavier into it. Kihyun hasn't even kissed him yet and he was already tipping over. The woman turned away at the sight, but she kept checking over her shoulder. He told so to Kihyun, though he only hummed, his lips ghosting over the vein running down Hoseok's neck.

Hoseok did his best to keep an eye on the woman without alerting her any further. Instead of gaping at her, he vaguely gazed slightly above her, his head tilted back with pleasure he pretended to pretend.

Setting his tumbler down on the table, Kihyun rested his hand on Hoseok's thigh to lean in better. He parted his lips, letting his cold tongue run over Hoseok's skin.

“Is she still put?” he muttered.

“Yeah,” managed Hoseok.

“Still checking?”

“Yeah...”

At that, Kihyun opened his mouth, dragging the melting ice cube between his teeth towards the collar of Hoseok's shirt and up again. Hoseok's breath hitched. He caressed Kihyun's nape, pulling him in.

The cold contact disappeared.

“Easy. Don't lose track of her.”

“I won't,” Hoseok mumbled.

The woman sipped at her drink, courted from both sides. Eventually, she stopped looking. It took her another couple of minutes to finish her gin and tonic and don her coat.

By that time, Hoseok was a mess. Kihyun's mouth grew hotter and hotter against his skin, trailing wet pecks before sucking.

Hoseok encircled his wrist.

“She's leaving.”

Kihyun stopped immediately. Hoseok could only take in the slightly swollen arch of his upper lip as Kihyun downed his whisky in one go, patting Hoseok's thigh to make him stand up.

He couldn't believe he had to walk through the bar full of gangsters and bribed politicians with a hard-on.

Their target was already taken care of when they walked up the stairs and left the establishment. Changkyun was a convincing flirt and Hyungwon never missed. The street was black as if poured over with tar, the neighbourhood one of the gilded but avoided ones.

They didn't dispose of the body, leaving it in the open as a warning instead.

The dome light snapped on when they parked in the underground garage.

“Hyung, what is this?” Changkyun poked at Hoseok's Adam's apple.

“It's my neck,” he said blankly.

“It's bruised as heck.”

Hoseok flushed.

“Must be a shadow or something.”

Wriggling himself out of the car, he retreated as far as he could from the nosy kid.

Not far and fast enough, though. After all, there wasn't anywhere to run in an elevator full of four people.

“Gross,” Changkyun smiled, poking at the mark over and over. “I take it that you had fun.”

Hoseok was hoping Kihyun would intervene and scold the kid, but the tiny fucker stood there all peaceful and did nothing. Not a thing.

After giving him a massive hickey, too.

Hoseok was bitter. And bullied. He smacked Changkyun's poky fingers away.

Hyungwon poked him from the other side.

It was hell.

He was glad to shut the door behind him, the too bright bedroom suddenly welcoming in his opinion.

Except Kihyun was there, too, taking off his coat and jacket nonchalantly.

It must have been exactly that composure he emanated which was making Hoseok timid. And he wasn't a timid man. Not about stuff like this. He had worked as an escort, after all.

He was overthinking the whole thing. It wasn't like what they had done in the club was anything to stress over. They had kissed properly before, so some light neck play shouldn't be swaying Hoseok this much. Shaking his head, he started unbuttoning his collar.

He was being silly.

And fanciful.

Again.

But they kept touching more and more, didn't they? And Kihyun was slowly letting him in.

Wasn't he?

Kihyun was calm at least, and he wasn't avoiding Hoseok the way he usually did as they walked past each other, brushing a little. So Hoseok drew nearer the next time, trying his luck. Kihyun stepped out of his way and nagged at him for lumbering.

“I'm not lumbering,” said Hoseok sourly, “I'm just restless.”

“Why? You did a good job.”

“Yeah, so did you, right here,” he pointed at his Adam's apple with some irritation.

“Please,” said Kihyun, “it's barely there.”

“The kids noticed right away!”

“But you wouldn't even know if they didn't tell you.”

“But you must have known,” retorted Hoseok.

Oddly, Kihyun's cheekbones turned more refined, which usually meant he was being sly. He didn't say anything as he disappeared inside the bathroom, coming back with a watering can to water his single cactus.

Only Kihyun could water cacti while talking about hickeys.

“Did you do it on purpose?” Hoseok pressed.

“You told me to do it.”

“I said kiss! Not suck!”

“I'll lend you a scarf, you big crybaby.”

Hoseok inhaled. “You really have no respect for your hyung, do you.”

“We're the same age now.”

“No, we're not. Not anymore.”

“What do you mean? You said your birthday was in March. Do you celebrate it the whole month?” Kihyun raised an eyebrow at him. “Because that sounds exactly like something you would do.”

It was kind of touching that Kihyun remembered. He just had to ruin it with the quip. Hoseok shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“It's on the first of March, actually.”

Kihyun checked his wristwatch.

“But that's in two hours.”

“Yep.”

“That means I still have one hundred and twenty minutes to be utterly disrespectful to you.”

Hoseok sniffed at that.

“That sounds exactly like something you would do,” he imitated Kihyun.

“I should make you some seaweed soup.”

That rooted him.

“You would do that?” Hoseok inquired.

“It's the polite thing to do when it's someone's birthday.”

Yeah. Yeah, but Hoseok didn't want Kihyun to be polite.

In any way, he wanted that soup.

“I thought you were going to be disrespectful to me,” said Hoseok cautiously.

“I can spit in the pot if you insist.”

“You're horrible.”

“Well, and you're old. You're almost thirty now.”

The grin that split over Kihyun's face right after was the only thing that kept Hoseok from feeding him the cactus. Him! Old! He was in his prime, thank you very much.

“Are you gonna make that soup for me or what?” he asked, miffled.

“Let me change first.”

Comfy in their sweats, they headed towards the mess hall. Hoseok was still half-awed, half-suspicious when they walked in. It was dark and eerie, as a sunken ship – a place where one was reminded of people even though they were no longer there. Kihyun led him to the serving hatch. Hopping onto the counter, they climbed into the kitchen. Kihyun put the lights on.

“Won't Seho be pissed?” Hoseok asked, whispering for some reason.

“What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over.“

“Alright, grandma.”

“You're the one who's turning thirty soon.”

“I'm turning twenty-six!”

“And yet you're such a baby,” said Kihyun, amused. “Everything riles you up.”

“Someone's witty today.”

“Yeah. It's me. You should try it sometimes.”

Hoseok sulked. So he sat on the counter, hogging Kihyun's workspace with some satisfaction. Kihyun didn't seem to mind, though, and he got down to business. Hoseok watched him soak the dried seaweed and cut beef into thin slices. Kihyun sautéed both in soy sauce and sesame oil, adding water afterwards. His fingers were dancing. He wasn't the fastest cook and Hoseok reckoned they might stay in the kitchen until midnight, but he didn't mind. Not one bit. Even when sullen, he enjoyed every minute of it.

From time to time, Kihyun would bring a stirring spoon to Hoseok's mouth, making him taste this and that, asking if it needed more garlic or salt. His brows would crinkle, awaiting Hoseok's judgement, and it tickled his ego like nothing else could.

In about an hour, Kihyun was finally making some finishing touches, garnishing the dish. He didn't look up when he spoke to Hoseok.

“Did you know that new mothers eat seaweed soup because it helps their bodies produce breast milk?”

Paranoid, Hoseok checked if his nipples were stiff again. It was cold enough for that.

He was in the clear, but it made Kihyun snort so loud he regretted that he ever fell for that.

“I swear if that soup isn't even good –”

“Try it first before you drown me in it.”

So Hoseok did.

And he couldn't stay mad if he tried.

Kihyun rested his palms on the counter, standing in front of Hoseok. He was tiny like this, his face put up to watch as Hoseok relished in every spoonful.

“Am I forgiven?” Kihyun asked at last.

“Yes. For now,” he said quietly. He reached for a clean pair of chopsticks and picked up a nicely sized bit of beef, wapping it in miyeok. “Say ah.”

Kihyun opened his mouth. It shouldn't have shaken Hoseok the way it did, but here he was, at twenty fucking six, feeding a man who had no desire for him and getting butterflies because of it. He longed for those serene times when his dumb crush hadn't reached his crotch yet.

The bowl was big enough and they shared the rest of the soup.

There were still some minutes left until midnight when they finished the meal. Hoseok toyed with Kihyun's watch as the other man stacked dirty dishes into the sink with his free hand.

“You know,” said Hoseok.

“Yeah?”

“Now all that's missing is a birthday kiss.”

“Do you already have a victim in mind?” Kihyun asked, moving away from him and towards the sink.

“I mean. I gave you one,” he said expectantly.

“But I just cooked for you, you greedy git.”

“But it was a pretty good kiss, wasn't it.”

It was the first time either of them has addressed it.

“It was also pretty delayed, so I have two more months to give it back.”

Hoseok smiled.

“You're the worst.”

“I'm simply keeping things fair.”

“Well, how about this. If you beat me in a fight, you don't have to do it at all.”

It was Kihyun's turn to smile.

“You might regret it.”

“I'll just smooch Changkyun if I lose.”

“Do I get to watch?”

“Little man, you're on thin ice again.”

“So are you, if you don't at least help me wipe the dishes.”

“But it's my birthday!”

Kihyun glanced at his watch.

“Damn. It is.”

Chuckling, Hoseok picked up the dish towel, anyway. They were silent as they worked. Perhaps too late, Hoseok wondered if this was it. He wondered if Kihyun would shut himself down after this. He always did, whenever he would show a tad too much kindness or do something... something that made Hoseok start hoping all over again.

He tried to push his luck one more time.

“So when are we having that little match?” Jokingly, he cracked his knuckles.

“Now.”

“What? Here?”

“In the gym, dumbass.”

Now?”

“There's no better way to venture into your thirties than with food and fights.”

“For the last time, I am twenty fucking six.”

His body has already begun to tingle. This was too good to be true. Kihyun would call him a dumbass once more and then he would call it a day and –

“You up to it or not?”

Oh, he was.

At that hour, the gym was lifeless. The mirrored walls made the space seem even larger than it was. Though air-conditioned, the room smelled faintly of sweat and leather.

Hoseok stood with his feet apart. They sank into the thin but cushy mat. He beckoned to Kihyun.

“Try to take me down. I won't fight back just yet.”

“Sounds easy.”

Hoseok smirked, expecting a shove.

But the shrimp went for his kneecap. Hoseok didn't even blink when his left leg budged and he had to steady himself, planting his feet down with more purpose.

Alright. So Kihyun was quick.

“Was that one of your famed tricks?” Hoseok asked, eyeing him anew.

“I told you I had some up my sleeve.”

“I'm still standing, though.”

Kihyun circled him. He laid a hand on Hoseok's hip from behind, doing nothing.

He glanced over his shoulder.

“What're you doing?”

“Testing the waters.” It was as if he was assessing how much muscle he actually had to wrestle down. “I could go for your throat or eyes or ears, but I won't. The others will, though, so if you ever use your fists instead of your gun again, keep that in mind.”

“Roger that,” Hoseok cracked a smile.

“You should shield your crotch, too.”

As soon as Kihyun said it, he swung at Hoseok from behind. He flinched. He barely stopped the blow, grabbing Kihyun mid-strike.

“Good reflexes.”

“Is this a lesson in self-defense, or are you finally going to fight?” snapped Hoseok, mindful of the clamminess of his own skin as he crushed Kihyun's fist in his.

Kihyun didn't reply. Out of nowhere, he pushed at the back of Hoseok's knees, making him buckle. His own mass almost brought him to the ground, but he was a dancer. He could take a stumble.

He turned to face Kihyun.

“That all you got?”

Just then, Kihyun slammed an open palm against his chin from below. It wasn't a hard hit, but it struck him dumb.

“Told you to cover your throat,” said Kihyun, so cocky Hoseok could stub him down like a cigarette.

That did it. He went for it.

“I tried to play nice,” Hoseok warned before launching at him.

Kihyun was quick. He was water slipping through Hoseok's fingers, too slick to even get hold of. He dodged and crouched, always one second ahead of Hoseok. He managed to deliver some jabs at his ribs, too, making Hoseok huff.

But when Hoseok did get hold of him at last, he clasped him fast and tripped him in one go.

They both fell on the mattress, rolling. Kihyun nearly broke free, using one of his manoeuvres, but he forgot that Hoseok was agile, too. He shoved Kihyun down and straddled him.

Hoseok breathed out slowly, settling heavier on top of him. He didn't need to use force anymore. All he did was keep his palms spread over Kihyun's wrists, and though there were the occasional tugs and shrugs, he had him pinned down good.

Kihyun was splayed under him, hair tousled away from his face, his mouth open. They were both flushed.

There was nothing sweeter than sensing that, bit by bit, Kihyun was giving up in his grip.

God. Hoseok knew that if he stayed like this for longer, the tightness pooling in his belly would go straight to his groin. Reluctantly, he let go of Kihyun's wrists, straightening up as he did so. He didn't get up, though. Instead, he sat down flush.

Kihyun was hard.

“You alright there, little man?” Hoseok whispered, pretending not to notice.

“Never better.”

That did go straight to Hoseok's dick.

“You look quite chirpy for someone who just lost.”

“Dunno. It feels like a win.”

Yeah. His dick swelled.

Neither of the men averted his eyes. Steadying himself on his palms again, Hoseok leaned forward. The shift caused Kihyun's eyelids to flutter, though he uttered no sound. Hoseok stared. He didn't know what he was going to do. Perhaps kiss him, take his prize. But now he remained stuck in place, longing for that expression to appear again. So, he moved his hips.

Kihyun grasped his thigh.

At the same time, Hoseok's hard-on pressed against Kihyun's belly.

Something flickered in his eyes again. Reaching down and behind Hoseok, Kihyun took hold of the root of his cock, lifting it up against Hoseok's ass. He pressed it there snugly.

Hoseok stilled.

That was new.

He glanced over his shoulder and then back at Kihyun, taking in the too-intense look he was giving him. It was searching.

Hoseok ground down.

The gym was hushed, only the two of them breathing out in shallow gusts, both too astonished to talk or moan. All they did was take the other one in, never looking away.

This really was new to Hoseok. He didn't care. He's never been shy or afraid; not of pleasure.

If it meant he'd have Kihyun, he didn't mind having him inside, too.

Hoseok ground against Kihyun's cock again, then dragged himself up.

That's when they heard the voices.

Their heads snapped towards the entrance. They saw silhouettes first, too many to count. It must have been a whole group coming to cool off after a hit.

Neither of them was eager to be seen, so they rolled off each other. They pretended to be taking a break and sat on the ground with their legs bent so as not to give away that they were both aroused.

At least six people came in, taking up the very farthest corner of the gym. They weren't loud, but they were there, and Hoseok swallowed some of the burn he felt in his throat.

He stole a glimpse at Kihyun. It jolted through him to realize the flicker was still there.

“Let's go upstairs,” Hoseok said quietly.

“Give me a minute.”

Shit. How was he supposed to get limp now?

Kihyun eventually got up. He walked as if containing something. Hoseok trailed after him, following him into the corridor. Inside the elevator, they stood beside each other with some tension. Hoseok moved towards Kihyun, but all he got from him was a mutter.

“The camera.”

Of course. The cabin was monitored.

It took ages for them to reach the fourth floor. When they did, Hoseok's hands were tingling. No sooner did the door shut behind them in the dark bedroom that he turned around and kissed Kihyun long and desperate. Taking a step forward, Hoseok pressed him against the door.

With a hiss, Kihyun cupped Hoseok's face, pulling him into the kiss.

He wanted him back. Hoseok was dizzy just knowing that.

He was even dizzier when Kihyun yanked at the hem of his hoodie and tank top, pulling them up in one go. Hoseok lifted his arms. For good measure, he slid his sweats off, too.

“Shit.”

Hoseok gave a short laugh that died out when Kihyun went straight for his nipple. Shit, indeed. Kihyun took it between his teeth before running his tongue over it. He circled the other one with his thumb. Hoseok looked at him and then up, gasping when Kihyun tugged at both. His legs would give out if he did it again.

“Get naked,” he breathed out.

“I'm kinda busy here.”

“Do it.”

Kihyun trailed an entire way up to Hoseok's ear, brushing his earlobe.

“You do it.”

He could burst. He hooked his fingers under the waistband of Kihyun's sweats and brought them down along with his boxers. Kihyun kicked them off. As Hoseok reached for the hoodie, he ran over the length of Kihyun's cock. It was hard for him again, and hot. Soon, Kihyun wore nothing, and neither did Hoseok save for the bruises on his throat.

Hoseok went flush against him again, tightening all over when Kihyun muttered:

“I don't have anything to fuck you with. No rubber, nothing.”

Gods. He's really scored himself the tiniest top in Seoul.

“We don't need rubber.”

“No lube, either. I'm not going in dry.”

“Just rub your cock against my ass, then.”

He didn't know Kihyun could look so dazed. He took advantage of it, picking him up and carrying him to bed. Hoseok straddled him again, locking him in place. He bent down to kiss him.

There it was, the look. It didn't make him timid this time. It couldn't; he craved it. Craved to be craved. Kihyun traced Hoseok's arms up and down with something akin to reverence. Then his sides.

“Am I heavy?” Hoseok asked quietly.

“Yeah.” Kihyun outlined his hip bones with wandering fingertips. “I like it.”

He had to laugh at that, though the sound faded quickly as their mouths met. Hoseok bent down even lower, shifting so he would get the same friction he had in the gym.

“Wait,” said Kihyun. Everything stilled. “Lie on your side.”

Feeling himself unfreeze, Hoseok did.

“The other side.”

So he was bossy during sex, too. Okay. It sort of thrilled Hoseok.

Slower than before, he rolled over.

Kihyun was pressed against his back in less than a second. With the same wonder and firmness he had traced his arms, he gave Hoseok's thigh a squeeze, forcing it forward. All at once, Kihyun spread his legs, grazed the tender spot behind his ear with his teeth, and squished his cock between Hoseok's ass cheeks.

He leaned into all of it.

It was so much better without clothes.

He said so out loud.

Kihyun gave a shuddering chuckle, caressing Hoseok's thigh in circles. Gradually, he let his fingers trickle down the back of Hoseok's leg, reaching under it. He took hold of Hoseok's dick and made it impossible for him to close his legs. That is, unless Hoseok wanted to crush Kihyun's wrist first.

There were other things worth crushing, though. He clenched his arse.

“Fuck,” he heard from behind. It was so low he wouldn't have picked it up if Kihyun wasn't still toying with his earlobe.

Curious now, and smug as fuck, he clenched again.

“Don't,” Kihyun mouthed against his skin.

“Then move.”

With a groan, Kihyun did. He set a pace that was almost too sluggish at first. His hips and hand moved in unison, stroking Hoseok's cock as he dragged himself against his ass. He planted soft bites down Hoseok jaw and neck, lips parted.

They were like a pair of curious teenagers, and equally clumsy at times, but neither of them cared. Hoseok reached behind, pulling Kihyun into a kiss. He soared when Kihyun moved up, forcing his mouth open. He felt the length rub over his asshole and he wondered whether Kihyun could come like that, just from this. Hoseok wouldn't mind sucking him off after. He wouldn't mind getting sucked, either.

The thought made him arch into the contact. Kihyun made a small sound and sped up. The pressure got sweeter, too. Kihyun fondled his balls, his dick, his belly, all the while tracing Hoseok's spine with his tongue, inhaling the scent of his hair.

Hoseok tilted his head backwards. His ballsack was starting to tighten. He gasped out and clasped Kihyun's hand, making him move faster.

With a mutter he couldn't comprehend, Kihyun ground harder against him, the head poking at Hoseok with every snap of the hips. They were both getting sloppy, the slap of their bodies louder. A swell strong enough to take him to the brink rushed through Hoseok.

And then the tip grazed his asshole, nudging at it shyly – and with each thrust. He shook all over. His chest hurting, Hoseok leaked over Kihyun's hand. He moaned into his mouth, spent but still arching when the tip drove at him again, stretching the rim.

With a whimper, he grabbed Kihyun's hair and that did it.

Kihyun came all over and he came in.

Nothing happened for a while. Kihyun silenced any noise he might have made otherwise. He buried his face in the crook of Hoseok's neck. He kept moving, but those were just spasms now. Hoseok hauled him closer by the arm and Kihyun embraced him from behind, shivering with cold.

So that was it. Hoseok haven't had a dick yet, but somehow there was cum all up his ass.

He let out a shaky breath.

He couldn't believe it. They did it. They really did, like two horny schoolboys.

There was that well-known urge to grin which always came after he did, lazy and loosened up. So he grinned away, running his fingers up and down Kihyun's forearm. He had to be freezing. To Hoseok, orgasms always felt hot and almost stifling, dampening his skin. They made him sizzle with energy.

Kihyun seemed the opposite. He's gone solid, gripping at Hoseok.

He had to see him. Turning over, Hoseok touched him so he would open his eyes.

Kihyun's features have sharpened, but somehow he looked frail. The light was still there when he fixed his eyes on Hoseok, though it has dimmed down.

He rolled onto his back and Hoseok followed after him, laying soft pecks along his collarbone. He continued up and up, tracing the curve of Kihyun's chin until he brushed their lips together. With a small sigh, Kihyun deepened the kiss as he dragged his palm over Hoseok's pecs.

He really seemed to love it when his nipples were hard.

Hoseok could live with that.

Parting slightly, he stared at Kihyun in the darkness.

“How's that for a birthday kiss?” Kihyun mumbled.

“Not bad,” he smiled.

“I can't believe this, though.”

“What?”

“You really have a whole ass flower on your whole ass.”

Hoseok snorted. The tattoo tended to surprise his lovers.

“Don't you like it?”

Idly, Kihyun stretched. “Never said I didn't.”

Hoseok kept watching him. This was a different Kihyun altogether. Hoseok didn't think he'd ever get enough of him.

“You look tired,” said Hoseok.

“I am.”

“Did I wear you out?” It sort of pleased him to know he did.

“You wear me out every day.”

So they were back to banter. It was alright. He didn't expect Kihyun to be a cuddler.

Hoseok was, though, so he pressed himself against Kihyun's side, half-hugging him.

“We should wash up,” said Kihyun, his voice lower than before.

“We should,” said Hoseok.

Neither of them moved.

Outside, the hum of cars turned monotone and Hoseok dozed off. He felt Kihyun stir sometime during the night and get up not long after. There was a trickle of water coming from the shower. Hoseok wanted to wait for him and spoon him viciously, but he fell asleep before Kihyun came back.

 

He woke up to an empty bed and breakfast on the bedside table.

There was nothing better than a naked breakfast, so he dug in, both blankets pooled around his waist. All that food almost made him forget his feet were cold and the room vacant.

Kihyun didn't return until lunch, but when he did, it was with lunch and a cup of tea from a nearby coffee shop.

Hoseok stopped leafing through Kihyun's books, which was what he always did when he got bored, and followed the faint scent of meat and spice.

“Is that for me?” he smiled, stalking behind Kihyun before he could even put the bags down and take off his coat.

“No, it's for me.”

Hoseok pulled a face.

“Can I have a bite?”

“Have this,” said Kihyun and gave him the cup. It was full.

Kihyun opened the bags and left them like that for Hoseok to ravage their contents while he slipped into the bathroom.

Taking a sip, Hoseok unpacked the bags with his free hand, counting side dishes.

So Kihyun knew how to take care of a man.

Not that it surprised him.

He perched himself on the table, already feasting when Kihyun walked, his coat gone and sleeves rolled up. He sat down without a word, drawing a tray of sushi towards him. It was the vegetable sort because he was squeamish about the stench of fish. As Kihyun picked one roll up and dipped it in soy sauce, his ring gleamed almost white.

Hoseok recalled the night before. It only now occurred to him that Kihyun had stroked his cock with his left hand.

“So,” he said, chewing slowly. “About yesterday.”

“What about it?”

“It was nice.”

Kihyun laid his chopsticks against the edge of the tray, reaching for a small packet before pouring a bit of wasabi sauce out. He unscrewed the box of pickled ginger next, putting one delicate pink slice into his mouth with the chopsticks.

“It was,” he said noncommittally.

“Though it would be worth trying again when we have some lube.”

“It's better that we didn't have any.”

“That so? Do you have some kind of ass rubbing kink I should know about?” Hoseok poked his cheekbone.

Tilting away, Kihyun shrugged.

“Things would be weird if we went through with it.”

“Weird, how?”

“Colleagues shouldn't fuck.”

“But dry humping until you come is alright?” Hoseok chuckled, already drained of that short joy that had filled him the night before. He felt cool all of a sudden, but drinking his scalding hot tea didn't help.

“Well, if you put it like that.”

“Is there any other way to put it?” he said a little too curtly, so he put on a grin and quickly added: “I can't believe you came like that, though. It's embarrassing.”

Kihyun bristled up. “You kept clenching, you asshole.”

“Just wait until I clench my asshole.”

It came out like that because Hoseok was never too shy for a good innuendo. Oh, he could be shy – but hardly about sex.

He would have regretted saying anything if it didn't bring the single most shocked expression on Kihyun's face. Hoseok grinned.

Kihyun returned to his meal, his head down.

“Yeah, I guess it's enough I embarrassed myself once. I won't have you giving me cheek like that ever again.”

“Not even butt cheek?”

“I thought I was supposed to be the unfunny one,” Kihyun clipped.

“You are. All the time.”

So maybe Hoseok wasn't ashamed to talk about sex, but Kihyun was.

He was prissy enough for that.

It was precious as fuck.

Hoseok laughed louder. It made him feel less hollow to laugh.

“You won your bet,” said Kihyun suddenly, “so let's leave it at that.”

Hoseok watched him for a while, but deciphered very little since Kihyun was focused on eating.

The thing he knew for sure, though, was that Kihyun wasn't just being timid. He genuinely didn't want to do it again. Hoseok could sense it; he probably has the whole time. It was always telling when he had to wake up alone.

The food and all, it was just Kihyun's way of letting Hoseok down gently.

“Don't sweat it, little man,” he said at last, so carefree he surprised himself. “I don't want things to get weird, either.”

“Glad we're on the same page.”

“Yeah.”

But it was weird.

It was so weird that Hoseok thought Kihyun would unlearn to talk to him at all.

Their missions were mostly split for the next month or so, Hoseok going with Changkyun and Kihyun keeping to Jooheon and Jackson, who barely ever left the hotel anymore, pinned to their phones and laptops. While Kihyun's team was trying to track the rest of the Triad's sent killers, Changkyun has been assigned to a string of commissions he called “interviews.”

It was more like a full-blown inquisition, though. Hoseok was glad he didn't have to witness anyone's death, but considering the way Changkyun played with his targets, he reckoned there have been some close calls. Oftentimes, Hoseok would only pose as an intimidating shadow in the corner of the room, willing his stomach to settle. He would tighten ropes and take care the interrogated person wouldn't run, but that was all. When there was the need for brutal force, they would call Soyou.

Hoseok just couldn't torture people, not even the bad ones. It was funny. He's killed before, but he still couldn't hurt.

He supposed he never would.

He would just hurt himself aching for things he could never have.

Although they spent a lot of time apart, Hoseok and Kihyun also spent a lot of time together. They went to the shooting range every day and trained. They sparred in the gym, with or without knives. They touched – but without desire; they talked – but without the need to carry on.

Kihyun seemed to favour knives. He was good with them, deft. It was disarming to watch him spin the balisong in his fingers, the blade oscillating silver and deadly.

He knew he would never be as nimble as Kihyun, or as cunning. When Kihyun was teaching him new moves, he would sometimes lay strikes on Hoseok that would leave him winded, perhaps not with the force but because of the painful place there were delivered to. It made sense. Kihyun had to make up for his size somehow.

There were times that even that kiss of metal against his skin felt good to Hoseok because it was all he'd ever get.

Somewhere deep down, he knew that these rigorous training sessions meant Kihyun still cared. He just didn't want what Hoseok did.

So they sparred instead, and shot at targets, and sparred some more.

And yet, whenever they would fight for real, Hoseok would win simply because of that sheer power his body contained. Even if it took him a solid half an hour to get through Kihyun's trickery, he'd do it in the end. Then they would stare at each other, brows sweaty, taking in the sour smell of the mat.

Kihyun did take Hoseok down once, though. It cost him more than it gained him since he tore the tender scarring on his thigh, which Hoseok only found out later. It was their longest match yet and Hoseok understood why Kihyun always boasted about his stamina. That night, he had probably walked into the gym with the resolution to win, and so he did. Hoseok ended up face-down in a fucking knot, Kihyun restraining him with his whole shivering body.

Hoseok was so hard for him then that it was almost unreal. He wanked off in the shower later, trying to touch himself the way Kihyun did.

The sub-par release made him frustrated, so he slid back into his workout clothes and left the bedroom without a word. He tried everything. He hit the punchbag, he ran on the treadmill, he did over a hundred pull-ups. He sweated through his tee again, but all in vain. There was still a dull pulse in his groin at the very memory of Kihyun's weight on top of him, or his on top of Kihyun.

He wiped his face with the hem of his tee, angrier than before. He sat there, staring at nothing in particular for a while. If one of the fluorescent lights above his head didn't flicker and fade with a crack, startling him, he'd si there until the sun rose.

Kihyun was cleaning the wound when Hoseok returned. There was blood all over it although he must have just got out of the shower. He was perched the bed in only his sweater and boxers, his strands wet.

Rooted at the sight, Hoseok forced himself to move. He climbed on the bed, sinking his fists into the mattress as he bent forward to take a better look. Shit. The gash looked like torn papier-m â ché.

“Let me.”

“It's alright.”

Fucking let me.”

He almost winced at his own voice.

Kihyun didn't gawk at the harshness, nor did he rebuff him for it. All he did was try to wrangle the wet cloth and a bottle of medical disinfectant back from Hoseok. Of course, to no avail. Hoseok set the things down out of Kihyun's reach and then fluffed up the pillow he was leaning on against the wall. He shifted closer, positioning himself over Kihyun's good leg so it was between his thighs.

“It really is alright,” said Kihyun.

“Yeah, which is why it's bleeding. Silly me.”

“You're being fussy.”

“So?” he challenged.

Kihyun let his head fall backwards.

“Do your worst then.”

“Thank you. But you had to be dramatic first,” Hoseok grumbled, wiping at the torn skin.

It killed him over and over to pour the stinging liquid over the edge of the gash as red blossomed into diluted pink. He knew it had to be unpleasant for Kihyun because his muscles grew tense, the veins in his forearms swollen and running softly down to his wrists.

“I'll dress it,” said Kihyun when Hoseok was done.

“No, you won't.”

“You don't know how to do it.”

“I'll learn.”

“Glad to be your guinea pig,” Kihyun muttered.

“I can't hurt you more than you've hurt yourself.”

It was true, and Kihyun had the grace not to dispute it. He reclined back again and bent his knee so Hoseok could bandage the wound. With Kihyun's instructions, or more precisely nagging, he put a protective pad over the scar before wrapping several layers of gauze around it. Hoseok was clumsier than Kihyun, but he managed just fine. In any case, he was all the gentler for it. Carefully, he secured the gauze with clips. He looked up.

“You shouldn't have gone so hard,” said Hoseok, a bit rueful. “It wasn't worth it.”

“It was.”

“Like hell it was. You look like a rag doll. But, like, a one that's been ripped apart by a pack of dogs.”

“Poetic.”

“I'm serious.”

“What a pity. I was such a looker before.”

Hoseok was unimpressed.

“I mean it, Kihyun. What's gotten into you?”

“There's a hit I'm assigned to. It's two men.”

What? No. You can't go with that leg. Alone?”

“Hyungsoo trusts I can do it.”

“And what does it mean to be trusted by someone who's broken your trust?”

“Don't. Don't ever.”

Hoseok gaped. His hands grew hot with anxiety.

“Alright. I won't,” he whispered. “But you can't go when you're not okay. You can't go alone.”

“I can. I'll manage. Hyungwon will drive me and keep an eye on the area. And anyway, I took you down.”

“You didn't have to take me down! Just take me with you!”

“Not this time.”

“Here you go again. Here you fucking go again.”

“Hoseok, this time it's bad,” he said, his tone sinking. “You would have to kill again.”

“Then I will.”

“You didn't even think about it twice. You're rushing into things again –”

“I'm ready for it now.”

“I don't want you to. I don't want you to be.”

“It's a little too late for that,” Hoseok reminded him, much milder now. Rivers of rage and sorrow kept merging like milk and ink within him.

“And whose fault is that?” uttered Kihyun.

“Mine. It's on me. But I can live with it.”

“It's not on you, though. That's the thing. I don't want you to look back one day and hate me for it. For allowing all of this.”

And so the rivers stilled. Hoseok thought he's already been through it all, felt it all. But he was wrong.

He wished more than ever to know what went on in Kihyun's mind.

He settled for letting Kihyun know what was going on in his.

“I will hate it if you leave me behind.”

“I can live with that.”

With a mirthless snort, Hoseok brushed Kihyun's cheekbone. Then, using a little force, he made Kihyun glance up almost patronizingly.

“It's not your choice to make. It's mine. I don't need to be coddled anymore.”

“That's too bad.”

On instinct, Hoseok shuffled forward.

“We'll tackle this together,” said Hoseok, barely louder than a whisper.

Kihyun drew in a breath, probably ready to counter him with some witty quip. Hoseok spoke up before he could.

“Oh, and by the way? I forgot to give you something.”

“What is it?” A lovely crease appeared between Kihyun's eyebrows.

Wordlessly, Hoseok planted a peck on his lips. It was longer than a peck, perhaps, but still too short to count as anything else. He left his mouth closed, pulling away after a second or two. A tad giddy even from so little, Hoseok decided he was a genius.

After all, this was the only thing that ever got Kihyun quiet. For days, sometimes.

“What was that for?”

“You won the fight.”

“I didn't know we were still betting.” Kihyun shifted.

“We're not. If we were, you'd be so, so deep in my debt.”

 

They walked down a dusky street. It was drizzling in Gangnam the way it always did in early April. Droplets sprinkled his hair, wet and glittering under the lambent lights. The pavement glistened, their shadows cutting black over the liquid-like spill of orange and neon blue on asphalt.

Every bit of Hoseok's skin that wasn't covered by the thick coat tingled with cold. He put his hands inside his pockets.

They passed a couple of young boys lamping around the corner of the street. Hoseok eyed them briefly, the chill seeping deeper. It could've been him still.

Mentally, he went over everything Kihyun had told him during the car ride. They had two targets, a man named Tuan and the One-Eyed Fucker, whatever his name was. Neither of them was Chinese or even Korean, which, as Kihyun had pointed out, made them all the more dangerous, seeing that their ties to the Triad and especially to Park were uncertain enough that they could be expected to protect their own asses at all costs. Hoseok and Kihyun were after men who didn't care to be there in Korea, searching for their former friend, and who were angry because of it.

It made sense. Exiled from their country and exiled again to a completely foreign place because of someone who had betrayed him, Hoseok would be angry, too.

Most of their intel depended on Jackson and on Gain's recollections of the spot they were headed to, since she was no stranger to it. Nevertheless, Hoseok was utterly unprepared for the splendour of the building in front of which they stopped. It was massive, looming like a ship against the smog-veiled sky. Waterfall-like, a fluorescent display of rainbow lights flowed up and down alongside the whole length of the front of the building, and under it, the Seven Luck Casino sign sliced into the darkness in white lines.

The casino swallowed them. Inside, swarms of people and chains of poker tables erupted every now and then with roars, melodies, and small applauses for winners. The lobby was sun-bright and, once more, Hoseok was reminded of a grand ship as he briefly took in its interior. The luxury of it all would floor him if he wasn't keen on trailing after Kihyun. His slim but confident figure cut through the crowd, choosing a path that lay in blind spots of the security cameras strewn along the lobby.

Slot machines glowed in the back of the room, a whole sea of them. And the people glued to them were captured sea creatures, just as programmed as the machines. Pulling levers up, down, and up again, they stared blankly at their victories and losses alike. The barrage of noises grew close to unbearable when Hoseok and Kihyun crossed the space, the jitter of coins ringing in their ears.

This part of the casino got dimmer save for the luminescent flash and flick of the slot machines. As one, Hoseok and Kihyun made a turn towards a gargantuous staircase, passing an indoor oasis full of aesthetically overgrown plants, wet-looking and dark.

There was a steely grey door under the curve of the staircase, hidden by a cluster of rubber plants and bamboos. Without a sound, they slipped inside.

The corridor that lay behind it was narrow, the walls windowless. As the door shut behind them, the ruckus of the lobby died down.

Hoseok tried to suppress his nervousness. There wasn't any reason to fret just yet; no one has spotted them, the vigilant guards cruising the casino having no reason to zero in on the two of them in particular.

Fully aware of all of that, he nevertheless whispered: “Won't they know we're here?”

As soon as he said it, a silhouette appeared from behind the nearest corner.

It was a man so huge he dwarfed Hoseok. They stopped in their tracks.

Greasy in the face, the man stood with his feet apart, regarding them with thorny eyes.

“How can I help you?” he asked, gruff.

“We have an appointment with Mr Tuan,” was Kihyun's quick-witted reply, though it hardly helped when things went awry.

At the same time that the man lunged himself at Kihyun, Hoseok lunged himself at the man.

He was all fat and muscle, scarcely any weak spot in sight. But Hoseok was trained now, and all muscle, and his height gave him an advantage over the taller bodyguard. Using Kihyun's technique, he went straight for the throat, punching him before laying another open-palmed blow to his chin from below.

It sent the bodyguard backwards. He rammed into the wall, his meaty body shuddering. Hoseok grabbed his face and smashed it against the wall with all his might. There was a crack, and then there was nothing. The man slid down, leaving a gooey trail of red.

Sotto voice, Kihyun remarked: “Now they'll know we're here.”

Pulling his gun out, Kihyun screwed a silencer on the muzzle and stalked down the hallway. Queasy, Hoseok followed him. They got to an entrance at the very end of the corridor and without a further word or warning, Kihyun blasted the lock off.

They kicked the door open together.

It looked like a goddamn clubroom inside, except for drug dealers. Hoseok noticed two cosy leather chairs, display cases packed with bottles of whisky and a literal billiard table in the very middle of the room. A jukebox was playing – a funky 80s tune that carried too loudly.

He rushed in. At the same time, he heard Kihyun call his name to alert him. He didn't manage to stop before a metal baseball bat hit him square in the chest. Another one swooshed through the air blindly, aiming for Kihyun. It missed; Kihyun knew. He knew it the moment Hoseok barged in headlong. Their targets lured them in on purpose.

Seeing white, Hoseok felt another blow. It got him in the chest again. Kihyun hurried after him, crouching under the swing of the bat. It hit him over the shoulder blades instead.

Hoseok dodged just in time to avoid the next whack. He retreated into the clubroom – far enough so that one of the two men who stood hidden at each side of the door had to pursue him, losing the safety of the wall behind his back. It was the One-Eyed fucker. His remaining eye shone mad, distorting the rest of his features. A tiny BB tattoo stared black right under it. He took another swing at Hoseok.

Awaiting the assault, Hoseok kicked the thing out of his grip. He landed the second kick straight into the fucker's stomach and sent him flying.

He made a mistake then. He quickly turned around to see Kihyun.

He was rolling on the ground with Tuan, the one on the top bashing the other one's head against the floor and then vice versa when they rolled again. Kihyun was alive when fighting. A snarl curled his lips. Tuan was unarmed now, clutching Kihyun's hand so he couldn't pull the trigger of the gun he was forcing into the man's mouth.

Starting to help him, Hoseok was held in place with the bat that encircled his torso from behind along with a pair of sinewy arms. It pressed at him. Hoseok gave a gasp, gnawing at the man. All it got him was a titter and a tighter squeeze. But this time, it was on his throat.

He choked. It was crushing his cartilage. Grasping wildly, Hoseok seized the man. He bent over and hauled the fucker over his shoulder, slamming him into the ground. As the man cried out, Hoseok wrangled the bat out of his fist and bashed his face in with it. Drawing in lake-like breaths, Hoseok beat and beat him and he didn't stop. Not until there was no face to speak of.

A muffled gunshot made him snap out of it.

His heart up where he still recollected the dull press of metal, Hoseok whirled around.

The relief that struck him was so powerful he had to squat down. Kihyun was above Tuan, his teeth bared. The gun he had crammed into the man's mouth made a slick sound as he pulled it out. Turning, Kihyun aimed the muzzle at the still twitching One-Eyed Fucker and shot him.

Hoseok run his hands over his face. They were shaking.

The jukebox blasted away, the tune even funkier than before. Relax, don't do it when you want to go to it. Relax, don't do it when you want to come. He laughed. It was too terrible.

They could've died during an 80s gay anthem.

His laughter was short-lived. He tried to get up, but he wobbled. His throat felt like it has been minced. Coughing, he rushed on forward and practically picked Kihyun up.

“Are you okay?” he blurted, searching for any wounds. His fingertips quivered as he ran them over Kihyun's temples and cheekbones.

“Yeah. Just a bit leaky.”

“What?”

Then he saw it. There was a truku knife lying next to Tuan's corpse. He parted Kihyun's coat to reveal a mass of cuts that sliced and tore through his shirt.

“Shit!”

“Don't panic.”

Hoseok thumbed one of the slashes like the rash fool he was, drawing a hiss from Kihyun.

“Shit, I'm sorry! Did he...”

“No.”

He had to see. He took a step back, hitting the edge of the billiard table with the back of his thighs. Swiftly, he unbuttoned Kihyun's shirt, or the first few studs. Kihyun forced him away before he could go on.

“I'm alright. But we'll have to do something about this,” he nodded towards Hoseok's neck. “It's getting swollen. You can't just walk out like that.”

“Lend me your coat, then.” Unlike Hoseok's, it had a high collar.

“Will it even fit?”

“It'll have to.”

It fit, but barely.

Kihyun swam in his. He had to roll up his sleeves and it only made Hoseok so much more tender, so much more worried, that he clumsily embraced him.

They stilled and then they hugged tighter. Hoseok nosed at the spot where Kihyun usually put his cologne. The scent of wood washed over him.

All the while, Kihyun clung to him, too.

“I'm so sorry I barged in –” Hoseok began.

“Don't be. You couldn't have known.”

“You knew. You even tried to stop me. But it never even crossed my mind they would try to surprise us. I just –”

“Don't even say you messed up. I would've been done for without you. I had no idea about the bodyguard.”

Hoseok shut up.

He was so grateful he enveloped Kihyun whole.

He was so bony. So manly, still. How was it even possible?

A tiny touch caressed Hoseok's ear.

He froze. And then – then he kissed him.

With two dead bodies on the ground and shitty music playing, Hoseok kissed him good and uncompromising and Kihyun let him do it. He craned into the contact when Hoseok hopped on the table and dragged him nearer.

He pawed at Kihyun anew, unhooking the buttons of his shirt. He grazed his collarbone, his jaw, his lips.

There was a thrust against his belly that Hoseok noticed with a brief delay as if it happened in another dimension parallel to his, behind a solid haze. It dawned on him a second later that Kihyun was half-hard. Either the adrenaline did it, or the pain.

Hoseok cupped his cock.

“We can't,” blurted Kihyun, kissing him all the same.

“We can.”

“No, listen,” he muttered and held Hoseok's face to steady him. “We're already being stupid.”

“So?”

“So,” said Kihyun, the sibilant sound harsh, “it's not worth it. What we do is dangerous enough. We can't – we'll be vulnerable. We might start acting without thinking to protect each other –”

“I don't know about you, but I'm the strongest when I'm protecting you,” said Hoseok and crashed against Kihyun's lips even harder than before.

Whatever war he was trying to win, Kihyun kissed back.

Their cocks brushed and he swallowed Kihyun's groan. It throbbed through him – knowing that he yearned for it the same way Hoseok did. Whether it was fucking or closeness he seeked, Hoseok would give it to him. He'd give it gladly. Their mouths parted and he searched Kihyun's features for a quiver, a hint of resistance. He didn't find any.

“You want me.”

“I thought that was obvious,” said Kihyun, winded.

Hoseok parted his lips just enough to let out a gasp-like chuckle.

This was messed up, and he was messed up, but he didn't care.

He brought Kihyun's hand to his mouth and pressed a peck into his palm. Their dicks rubbed again, but here he was, softened by that single whisper. Perhaps he was trying to imprint himself into Kihyun somehow; to stay cupped in that little palm. Hoseok kissed his fingers next, taking them between his lips. He had petite fingers. Hoseok supposed he could take them, one by one. God, he wanted to.

“Hoseok...”

It sounded almost pleading. He already had him.

He bit at the pad of Kihyun's middle finger.

“Finger me.”

“What?”

“Finger me,” Hoseok said again, quieter. “Let me touch you.”

“Here? Now?”

“Yeah. Are you scared?” He wasn't about to give him even half a chance to run. Not anymore.

Not when he knew Kihyun needed him, too.

It happened in a flicker. The change was stunning when Kihyun spoke up.

“Open,” he uttered, stretching Hoseok lips with three fingers at once.

God.

He obeyed.

It filled his mouth, making him breathe through his nose. Would Kihyun give him three? Hoseok ran his tongue over them, coating each finger with saliva. His pulse was ticking in his temples. There was something elating about it when Kihyun lost control of himself and gained it over Hoseok. Exhaling through his nose again, Hoseok pushed Kihyun's fingers apart, licking between them.

It didn't end there.

Kihyun made him suck on them.

Hoseok knew he was watching his every move and he bobbed his head as if sucking on a real dick.

Suddenly, Kihyun was on him, making him lean back.

Fumbling at the fly of his trousers, Kihyun pulled them down to Hoseok's knees. Hoseok waited for nothing. He took Kihyun by the wrist and led him where he wanted him.

But fuck. It burned.

Even the first wet knuckle felt like too much. He put his heel up and rested it on the edge of the table. As he grasped behind him for support, he sent the billiard balls rippling, one or two falling into a hole.

Kihyun slid in further. It didn't spread him too bad, but he was so unused to the intrusion that he made a pained noise.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. No.”

At that, Kihyun withdrew. He rubbed a soothing circle over the back of Hoseok's thigh.

It was weird to face him when Hoseok was impatient and empty and he's allowed Kihyun to put a whole finger in. He wasn't shy about it. He just couldn't stand the idea that this was it.

“Don't stop,” he ground out.

Kihyun regarded him, then took a hurried kiss from him and kneeled.

Hoseok was speechless. For a moment, he thought Kihyun would blow him.

Instead, he lapped at his asshole, pulling it apart with both thumbs. He pushed his tongue inside, the tip first, then the rest, so hot and slick it stretched him snug. Hoseok grabbed him by the hair, holding him in place. Hell. His cock got heavy. He moaned hard when Kihyun slid out, nuzzling the rim before shoving back in.

Hoseok lay down. It sent more balls rolling. The felt cloth that covered the table scratched at his skin. He didn't have a care in the world.

Kihyun tongue-fucked him, never slowing down. He gave Hoseok no time to talk or think. Everything became a void except for that fullness inside him. The clubroom, the corpses, the song. Even his own mind turned to mush. All he did was open his mouth quietly, choking out gasps.

So this was how it could feel. To be needed. To be filled.

He fisted his cock, stroking it in the same rhythm that Kihyun was eating him out. It was fast.

“Faster,” he demanded anyway.

Kihyun listened to him; had to, since Hoseok was ready to manhandle him by the hair. He did, kind of. He wouldn't let Kihyun pull back or out anymore, not even to breathe. He was buried tongue-deep, clutching Hoseok's thighs.

And then he felt Kihyun moan into him and he thrashed. Gasping for air, he came thick and wordless.

Kihyun ate him through it. He'd go on if Hoseok didn't call out his name and drag him up.

His lips were wet. He looked dazed again, and it only intensified when he took Hoseok in, cum and all.

They both stumbled as they tried to get Hoseok back into his pants. He reached to palm Kihyun's erection, but he swatted him away, scolding him with the same lips that still glistened with saliva. They had to go. They had to go now.

Hoseok listened, though unwillingly. He put his clothes on properly, cramming the hem of his shirt in and covering his throat. Rapid, Kihyun put on disposable gloves and cleaned up the place with razor-like movements, wiping off the bats and knives and the table.

The gap between them sizzled as they walked up the street, spotting Hyungwon in the car.

They got in.

“Fucking finally,” droned Hyungwon. “Five more minutes and I would've called for a backup.”

They didn't look at each other, but Hoseok pressed his leg against Kihyun's. They stayed like this the whole ride, each of them staring out of the window. About two blocks away from the hotel, Kihyun tapped the headrest of Hyungwon's seat and told him to drop them off.

“I ran out of bandages.”

“You can borrow mine,” said Hyungwon.

“It's alright. You might need them one day.”

“Well, aren't you pleasant tonight.”

“I'm told I can be quite ominous.”

Hyungwon pulled up in front of a department store that shone silver into the night. They got off, Hoseok sparing an absent-minded wave at the leaving car. He was at Kihyun's heels right away.

They walked into a drugstore. There were no other customers around.

It was silly. Neither of them talked, but they knew what they were after and what they were about to do. Hoseok barely dared to edge closer as Kihyun studied different packages and jars. He feared Kihyun might suddenly realize the physicality of it all, the realness, and back out again. So he stood there, his hands twitching with impatience, and watched as Kihyun weighted the bottles.

“Just choose one,” he blurted.

“Don't rush me,” said Kihyun in an undertone. “What if I hurt you?”

“With this, you won't. I was just – I was just dry.”

They were speaking softly, but Hoseok glanced about anyway. He's learned to be paranoid.

Kihyun turned around. His features were drawn in an expression Hoseok haven't seen on him yet. It would've startled him if it wasn't for the kiss Kihyun planted above the bruise ripening on Hoseok's neck. It lasted too short, but it melted away his anxiety.

Kihyun still wanted him.

No longer petrified, only brimming with nervousness that nearly felt good, Hoseok followed Kihyun to the counter and then outside. Their footsteps fell fast on the pavement. Hoseok took him by the sleeve. The coat was so huge on Kihyun that Hoseok had to hold his hand like this as they went on.

Kihyun wrenched himself free when the building of the hotel emerged ahead of them.

Hoseok didn't find it in him to be bitter.

He quickened his pace.

They were at each other before the door even shut. They left the lamp turned off, undressing between kisses. The blinds were half-drawn, only letting slices of light in. They fell on Kihyun's face, leaving his eyes shadowed.

There was fumbling and then there was the first what the fuck moment when they saw each other's chests, both bruised and bloody, and the other what the fuck moment when it really hurt to hug, and Kihyun told him to turn around and Hoseok did.

He kneeled on the bed, fists clenched and sunken into the mattress. The sinews in his arms were taut. Kneeling behind him, Kihyun told him to spread and Hoseok did that, too.

He felt Kihyun's mouth at the nape of his neck, open but unmoving. He felt the warmth of it. He heard the soft clink the ring made when Kihyun took it off and put it on the bedside table. Hoseok went motionless.

Until a finger slid into him and he moved forward with it. Kihyun stilled him, guiding him back with a hand on Hoseok's belly.

It went in so easy he grew hot all over. He's gone supple thanks to that tongue and he welcomed every touch. It glided in, glided out, and it glided in further and for longer.

“Good?”

The word was warm on his nape.

“Yeah,” Hoseok mumbled.

“Tell me when you're ready for another one.”

“Put it in.”

“I said when you're ready.”

“And I said put it in.”

Kihyun breathed out hard and obeyed. The second finger spread Hoseok tighter, almost forcing him to take his words back. But Kihyun went slow, leading him onto his hand. Hoseok moved his hips without thinking; his body took over. He found a better angle, gaping to take Kihyun in.

Yeah. He had been right. He could take those petite fingers one by one. By the third one, it felt like his whole weight was in his dick. It throbbed, too.

Lips parted, he looked over his shoulder. It was maddening, that look that erased and reshaped Kihyun's countenance every time he hungered after something. After Hoseok. He straightened himself up. If it pained Kihyun to have Hoseok lean into his chest, he didn't say so.

He got the signal.

With a nudge that didn't go quite in, Kihyun pressed himself against Hoseok's back. He embraced him so he wouldn't graze the welts on his torso, sliding his hands under Hoseok's arms to rest them on his shoulders from behind. There was no space between them left, nothing, not when Kihyun finally pushed inside.

Hoseok tilted his head back. He had steeled himself for this, but it didn't hurt. It didn't hurt at all. It spread him and made him feel heavier, aching for something, though the discomfort was only a whisper away from something else. He didn't understand it.

He brushed his cheek against Kihyun's mouth.

“It's so good,” he mumbled, “so good.”

Kihyun trembled.

And then he started fucking him.

His vision went black. It wasn't rough, but it wasn't gentle, either. He tried to arch into it, but couldn't. Kihyun wouldn't let him get away, not even to press his ass against him.

It was absurd. He could break free – and yet it meant more to be held than to be fucked.

He glanced back to be kissed.

Kihyun groaned and shifted forward, but it was Hoseok's ear he went for. Hoseok shuddered as that cock slid in deeper, as deep as it could go, and he reached down to cup his own.

“I might come soon,” Kihyun hardly even whispered, nibbling at Hoseok's earlobe.

Thank god Hoseok didn't have to face him. He wanted to see Kihyun, but he wasn't sure he wanted Kihyun to see him. He reached behind to bring Kihyun nearer, to hear each and every moan.

Kihyun ran his hands over Hoseok's shoulders and arms now, revering in the shadow play of muscles under the smooth skin. His thrusts sped up.

It was pushing Hoseok to his limit, too, knowing he's done this to Kihyun.

He wanted to turn him into an even bigger mess.

He clenched.

It brought them both down.

Kihyun touched his throat, a little too tightly, but Hoseok was so out of it he didn't even notice. He was focused on the tension building up in his stomach which made his cock leak right after. A rush of pleasure resonated through him until it became an echo and the echo turned into a deep, thorough calm.

He still rocked his hips, languid now, riding Kihyun as he clasped Hoseok from behind.

The grasp under his jaw disappeared and in its stead there was a caress as Kihyun put his palm protectively over the marred spot.

He got soft inside Hoseok and slipped out, fussing with the rubber.

It made Hoseok hollow not to be held. He followed after Kihyun, turning around to lay him down. He hovered above him, too afraid to hug Kihyun since they were both sore from the fight. Kihyun was cold again, shivering even as his breathing eventually slowed down.

Hoseok rubbed at his arms. He stroked his hair and that pretty pointed face of his, his hip bone, his limp dick. Kihyun shivered more violently and opened his eyes.

He was bone-tired. It was visible in every movement he made. And yet he disentangled himself from Hoseok and headed to the bathroom to dispose of the rubber and dress his cuts. Hoseok padded after him. They showered together and Hoseok kissed him under the stream of water, brushing droplets off Kihyun's lips with his own. Kihyun kissed back, though with some distraction. There was that worrisome line between his eyebrows once more, keeping everything and everyone that didn't belong inside Kihyun's inner world even further away.

Still, he took care to wash Hoseok's wounds, mindful of the tenderness of his muscles. He could be so gentle sometimes that it made Hoseok sad.

They looked worse for wear, that much Hoseok found out in the reflection of the mirror above the sink. His bruise had the colour of hand-crushed blueberries and those on his chest were quickly gaining the same shade. Kihyun was worse off, though. His torso and thigh were wrapped in gauze while all Hoseok needed was a bit of salve and a few big adhesive pads.

Kihyun put his ring back on when they sat on the bed, naked and bandaged.

In a way, it felt like lying here with a married man. A man married to a shadow.

But Hoseok was used to being just a lover, wasn't he?

He lay on his side so he could reach Kihyun better, ignoring the pull at his pecs.

“Are you sleepy?”

“Yes.”

“Like, are you actually sleepy?”

“Yes.”

Hoseok shifted. “I feel like talking.”

It was quiet.

Planting a peck on Kihyun's shoulder, he tried again.

“I really, really feel like talking.”

“You are talking. I can't exactly stop you.”

“You can,” he said, quieter.

The wrinkle was back, just as worrisome as always. Kihyun skimmed over the back of Hoseok's hand lightly.

“How long has it been?” he asked.

“Since what?”

“Since you've done this.”

“Well,” Hoseok faltered. Never. “Does it matter?”

“I guess not.”

Hoseok contemplated it for a minute.

“How long has it been for you?”

“A while.”

“Was it with Yoongi?”

“Yeah.”

“When was it?”

“I don't remember.”

“Those are some juicy answers.”

“I told you. It's been a while.”

“So, like, two months?” he guessed.

“What? Try two years.”

What?” Not when they were at the log cabin?

“It was after Yoongi and Hoseok split for good.”

“And – that's it?” Hoseok asked incredulously.

“That's it.”

He said it so simply Hoseok had no reason not to believe him.

“So it was only Gun before that?” he inquired. The question stung on his tongue. Nevertheless, he needed to know.

“Yeah. Just him and Gun.”

“And me,” said Hoseok after a while.

“And you.” With a sigh, Kihyun rubbed at his face. “I'm so fucked.”

“I sure hope you are. Thoroughly fucked. Nicely fucked,” Hoseok muttered, gathering the courage to muster a small smile. He run his fingers up and down Kihyun's side. “Fucked so good you won't wait another two years for it.”

“What? Hold up.” Finally, Kihyun gazed straight at him. “You want to do this again?”

“You don't?”

“Well – it's not up to me.”

“And who else?” Hoseok laughed at him, though he wasn't mocking him. Not really.

“You can do this with about just anyone. You don't need me.”

“Are you telling me to find a fuck buddy? Like, besides you?”

“That way, we won't jeopardize our job.”

Hoseok didn't stir. “Jeopardize, how?”

“By risking too much just because we had sex.”

“We won't do that. It's not like sex alone can make you too attached to someone, if that's what you mean.” You'd have to be attached before you fuck, he added for himself. “Look. A pedant like you? You'll sooner let me die than muck up a plan. And me? I am already bad at this, it's not like I can get any worse.”

“You're very convincing.”

“I wish I was,” said Hoseok; and if his tone had something provocative in it, well, what could he do?

It got Kihyun quiet. Not for long, though.

“It's a bad idea.”

“What are you so afraid of? That we'll go at it in the middle of a mission?”

He winced at himself.

Kihyun fixed him with such an incinerating stare that Hoseok grew sheepish.

“We already did,” Kihyun said icily.

“Listen, if we had done this ages ago, we wouldn't have ended up crumbling like that.” Imploring, he hoisted himself up on one elbow and leaned above Kihyun, just a touch away from his mouth. “Face it, little man,” he said, hushed. “You fancied it.”

“I did.”

Hoseok knew it, but it was even better to hear him say it.

“What's the big problem, then? You like it, I like it – and that's literally it.”

“You really don't see it, do you.”

“See what?” When Kihyun didn't answer, Hoseok took his lower lip between his teeth and tugged at it before letting go. “The only thing I see is that we're goddamn good at anything we do together.”

Hoseok was sure Kihyun would counter that, and he was ready to argue his point with everything he had, every fragment and fiber of his being, but all Kihyun did was sigh.

“I suppose we are.”

“Well, fucking finally.”

“But don't you see, Hoseok?”

Whatever Kihyun was striving to say and in whatever way he was trying to distance himself again, it wasn't going to work on Hoseok. He wasn't going to let anything destroy his little happiness, even if it wasn't supposed to last. He'd laugh while it did, and he'd love, and he'd accept just any piece of affection and wear it within him as a keepsake. He'd make it so it was enough.

It wasn't a matter of choice anymore, anyway; but if it was, he'd still choose it. He'd choose Kihyun.

He locked their lips together to seal that thought.

 

Chapter Text

The dining hall shimmered in a veil of daylight. It was sunny that day, but it was the subdued, whitish kind of sunny that doesn't hurt one's eyes.

Of course, it was too sunny for Jooheon who kept grumbling and shifting in his seat so the sunlight wouldn't hit the screen of his laptop, his lips in a tiny pout. Gain was at his side again, or he was at hers; Hoseok wasn't sure anymore. They haven't said a word to each other, whether it was because they were busy cracking codes, or busy ignoring the other, or both.

Hoseok sipped at his tea, brushing Kihyun's thigh with a warm spread palm every once in a while, enjoying the tiny flinches it elicited from him.

He was really so prim out of bed. So constrained.

Kihyun wasn't a bashful man, at least not normally, but there has been a layer of awkwardness hanging over him since yesterday which coloured his every word and every gesture. Or perhaps it was a sort of unwillingness to act like other silly mortals who got swayed by a little bit of lust; an unwillingness to cling.

Well, Hoseok could be clingy for the both of them.

He simpered as he squeezed Kihyun's thigh again, this time higher up. The poor thing tensed up all over and put down his cup. Hoseok thought Kihyun was about to pierce him with a scolding stare, but instead he sat there tamely. He was probably raging on the inside, swallowing his snippiness because they were surrounded by people and, of course, he didn't want to cause a scene. Gentled by the sight, Hoseok touched his other thigh, the scarred one, not to tease him but to console that prickled pride of his.

Jackson came along, squishing himself next to Gain. He gaped at the various gadgets that were scattered around Jooheon as per usual. He amused himself by asking a ton of questions in semi-broken Korean which was getting better by the day – that is, if he cared to sound intelligible. Sometimes he just didn't. When Jooheon's responses got terser, Jackson turned to Gain and then to the tools and devices strewn all over the table.

“Why is everyone so quiet today?” he boomed in the end.

“We're not quiet,” said Jooheon quietly.

“You are! It's like you all fucked and now you're embarrassed to look at each other,” Jackson insisted.

Everyone except for Hoseok flushed.

“We didn't fuck!” said Jooheon too quickly.

“I'm not saying you fucked. I'm saying it's like you all fucked.” Pausing, Jackson gave a titter that was somewhere between boyish and maniacal. “Hold up. Hold up.”

“Don't.”

“You did.”

“We didn't!” Jooheon was white in the face.

“I am wounded. You seal the deal and you won't even tell your best friend.”

“You're not my best friend,” Jooheon said coldly.

“Of course I am. Gun bequeathed me to you,” said Jackson pleasantly, proud of his advanced vocabulary.

“People can't be bequeathed! You're not a house or a boat! And besides, he can keep you and take you to the grave with him. You're not my friend.”

“Aw, no anger, man. It's a happy day because you finally fucked!”

“What does he mean, finally?” Gain spoke up, turning slowly to Jooheon.

“He was a cherry boy.” Jackson all but beamed. He outstretched his arms in an all-embracing manner. “And how do I know this? Because we are best friends. See?”

Now Gain was white in the face.

“Can we drop the fuck talk?” uttered Kihyun.

“Why? Did you guys fuck too?” quipped Jackson.

“I said drop the fuck talk.”

“Hey, no hate! Fucking is nice!”

“What a pearl of wisdom.”

“Okay, okay, I understand. In this country, everyone pretends sex doesn't exist. I will hush now,” Jackson promised, making a silly salute.

It looked like Gain in particular still had something to say, but the screech of a chair cut her off. Gathering his things, Jooheon practically stormed out.

Then it truly got quiet.

“So I might have fucked the kid,” Gain threw in nonchalantly.

“I knew it!” said Jackson at the same time that Kihyun groaned.

“Can I fucking eat in peace?”

Gain pretended not to hear him. “What do I do now?”

“What do you wanna do?” asked Hoseok.

“If I knew, I wouldn't be asking you, would I.”

“Just go and do it again,” advised Jackson sagely.

“That's a dumb idea. Next.”

“Tell him how you feel,” tried Hoseok.

“I don't feel anything.”

“Well, don't tell him that,” Kihyun muttered.

“I don't feel anything worth talking about,” Gain reiterated. “It's not like I'm pissed or something.”

“So you're glad?” tried Jackson.

“I don't know about that.”

“Maybe just tell him you're not pissed it happened,” suggested Hoseok with some caution.

“But he knows that.”

“Does he, though?”

Inhaling through her nose, Gain sat back, crossing her arms on her chest.

“Men are so complicated. And boys are even worse.”

“He's not a boy. He's twenty-three,” remarked Kihyun.

“A baby,” rebuffed Gain.

“A baby you fucked, so either never speak of it, or go and do it again,” Kihyun snapped.

“Maybe kiss him afterwards,” suggested Hoseok.

“Gross.”

“But he'd like that. He's a cuddler,” Jackson piped up. “Especially when he cries.”

“I didn't make him cry, for fuck's sake.”

“Yeah, but coming and crying is close,” Jackson shrugged.

“What kind of messed up things do you do in bed?” asked Gain, unimpressed.

“No, I mean it's a vulnerable thing!”

“I'm full,” said Kihyun primly, pushed away his tray and got up. He made a move as if to leave, but then changed his mind and turned to Gain. “Just leave him alone if you're not serious about him. It's that simple.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you're right,” said Gain, unreadable.

 

It was odd, they way Kihyun could forge his face into just any facade he wanted. How he changed depending on his surroundings. He was so mindful of everything around him that even a minuscule shift in the atmosphere brought his guards up, which in turn made him into a mask.

It was odder still that when they were alone, Kihyun was his old self – or the self which was the closest to that tired, strangely sorrowful man Hoseok had met for the first time over half a year ago. When it was just the two of them, Kihyun was easy to read. So easy it sometimes stung. His features were quick to give away displeasure and even cunning. Hoseok was dumbfounded when he recalled those times he couldn't understand Kihyun at all, deciphering his voice instead of that sharp shadow play of mimic muscles under the pale scrim of his skin.

On the outside, Kihyun changed like weather. His expressions had rules, though, like everything else about him. He could say something cryptic, but the pull at his cheekbones would betray that he was just joking. He could say something so serene that it clashed with the worried crease between his brows, and yet Hoseok would know Kihyun meant it because he was always at his most guarded when things were going smoothly, as if he was already expecting the dead calm to end.

Yeah. After knowing Kihyun for so long, he wasn't that big of an enigma.

So laying down next to him while he seemed so unaffected by what they'd done the night before was a little bit of a blow. They didn't sleep together tonight, not in the literal sense, because they were both still sore and healing. They barely touched each other. Kihyun kept to himself on his side of the bed and Hoseok, chilled by that expressionless front, stayed on his.

He almost smiled at himself for expecting too much. Kihyun desired him, but that didn't mean he would desire him day by day, night by night. Hoseok kind of wished he did because then they'd be even.

In the morning, he woke up unusually early to Kihyun curled up next to him. His bandages have become loose sometime during the night. His chest looked better; the swell has gone away and his cuts and scratches have already crusted over. He hadn't been badly hurt, but he always bled so much that it occurred to Hoseok he might be anemic.

Trying not to make a sound, Hoseok rolled onto his side and embraced him. His hair smelled so nice and sleepy Hoseok could bury his whole face in it if he wasn't afraid it would rouse him.

It didn't take much to alert Kihyun, though. He woke up at the very warmth of Hoseok's arm around him.

“Hi,” said Hoseok, uncertain.

“Hey.” He was raspy. It made Hoseok think of sex and Kihyun's mouth on his ear when he had told him he would come soon.

He shuffled, but it was a little too late for that. All he accomplished was nudge Kihyun with his semi.

He was about to say something. Apologize, perhaps. Turn it into a joke.

But Kihyun beat him to it.

“Now?” he asked drowsily. Only half-awake, Kihyun hugged him lightly, running one hand over his lower back and for a second Hoseok felt as if he was already inside him.

“I mean, if you're up to it...?” he whispered.

“Let me brush my teeth.”

“Screw that.”

“No. Don't be gross.”

Kihyun was wrong if he thought Hoseok would let him leave.

“Just take me from behind again.”

The hand gripped him. Hoseok's sinews sung at the contact and he arched, sensing Kihyun's fingers sink deeper into his back.

“You say the worst shit sometimes,” Kihyun mumbled.

“What's so wrong about it?” asked Hoseok, his smile big, but instead of a reply there was a tug at his thigh. Hoseok sat up into a kneel. He did so with his back to Kihyun.

Half-light shivered in the room. It was cool since one of them has forgotten to shut the farthest window. Through the crack, grey sunrise poured in along with the hum of the city.

“Need me to shift or something?” Hoseok glanced over his shoulder when Kihyun hasn't done anything for a while.

But god. The same way Kihyun's veins stood out in his forearms at times, there they were too, silken, at the base of his cock. He was already hard.

He was pouring lube over his fingers. The ring was gone.

“It's okay,” he said. “Stay like this.”

So Hoseok did, pressing his clenched fists into the mattress between his legs.

And then Kihyun was close, so close Hoseok felt loved for a minute. And then he felt spread and it was even better.

“Is this alright?” Kihyun muttered into his skin, brushing Hoseok's shoulders and the crook of his neck.

“Yeah,” he managed. Grasping behind, Hoseok took him by the wrist and led it to his stomach where he forced Kihyun to splay his fingers. He laid his own hand over Kihyun's.

Nosing at his neck, Kihyun pushed at the taut curve of Hoseok's belly to bring him nearer as he fingered him. He went at it for so long with just the middle one that Hoseok grew restless, though he let him do it. The later this ended, the better. Even if he was supposed to go mad from that dull sense of incompleteness, Hoseok didn't care. He could take it for a little longer, he could.

But then he felt something.

He groaned.

He's had quite a few men under him, begging him to stretch them open and find that sweet spot, and yet he never paused to think how sweet it actually was.

And Kihyun was only one finger in. Hoseok shook, bringing himself backwards. Whispering something, Kihyun hugged him hard in an attempt to soothe him. It made Hoseok's dick lie sensitive and heavy, grazing the covers.

“Give me another one,” he groaned.

“Let me go slow.”

“Let me come.”

Hoseok was sweating. It was bad. They have barely begun.

Behind him, Kihyun stilled before he gave him what he wanted. It took a few strokes for him to get to that angle again, but when he did, Hoseok threw his head back. He wasn't even able to moan. The thickness building up in his belly scared him.

“Put it in,” he said with a sob.

“No.”

Reaching back, he grabbed Kihyun's hair. He tugged.

Kihyun's cock rubbed against his ass, squished between the two of them, but that was it.

Hoseok yanked at him. Kihyun mouthed something against his ear as he dragged his teeth over its soft outline. It sounded either like “easy” or “please” and Hoseok glanced back.

Kihyun had his eyelids shut and lips parted. His mouth moved a little with every glide and every little push in a need to be heard but also to conceal. Whatever he was thinking, it was spilling out like one endless wave from a broken dam – only voiceless.

Hoseok wondered how that tiny body encompassed so many contradictions within it. After that thought, he had no capacity to wonder anymore. Kihyun slid the third one in.

It wasn't a build-up anymore. It was there, but so long and lingering that it seemed to Hoseok he was still on the brim after he's soiled the sheets. Kihyun finger-fucked him through it, then took away finger after finger until Hoseok was hollow.

The still slick hand took his limp cock, stroking it. Hoseok spasmed at that and buckled backwards only to be filled in one go. His arms almost gave out.

“Wait,” he choked out.

He still had a fistful of Kihyun's hair, so he took advantage of it.

There was a laughter-like moan.

“Pull me harder.”

Hoseok didn't know if he wanted to do that. He already used too much strength.

He didn't want to fucking break Kihyun.

He arched instead, hissing at the fullness when it only made Kihyun sink balls-deep, and he caressed the nape of Kihyun's neck. He led him closer and Kihyun listened, kissing Hoseok's throat before touching it.

They stayed like that for a moment or two, Hoseok breathing heavily but quietly. Kihyun didn't move inside him although he made up for the stillness as he steadily worked on Hoseok's dick. It stiffened again, and so did his nipples.

At last, he twitched not with too much pleasure, but with too little.

“Okay,” he said softly and rocked his hips, “okay. Fuck me.”

They went slower and for even longer than the first time. Hoseok ran his hand through Kihyun's strands over and over, pulling without hurting him, or so he hoped. It seemed good enough if he could judge from the little noises Kihyun was making.

Kihyun let go of his dick to play with his nipples, not far from rough. But when Hoseok told him to go easier, he did, his fingertips trembling.

“You're so goddamn strong,” Kihyun ground out, caressing Hoseok's chest.

It made his head spin. It made him lean back and spread his own ass cheeks.

It made him say Kihyun's name.

Kihyun came. He never stopped thrusting, though, not until Hoseok got there, too.

Afterwards, Kihyun fussed with the rubber and it made sense now that Hoseok knew he had only been with two men before him. Hoseok watched his shaking hands and then cradled his head to kiss the top of it as many times as Kihyun allowed him to.

It wasn't too many times.

It was alright. He had all the time in the world to pepper more kisses into Kihyun's wet hair when they were in the shower, the harsh whisper of scattered droplets scalding their shoulders. He pressed Kihyun against the tiled wall, making out with him so messily it was as if they were only about to have sex. It was making him giggly – intoxicated, even – how hard Kihyun tried not to face him.

Hoseok wondered whether no one had done this to him before.

If not, it was too sad.

Naturally, he asked him when they were drying off.

“What do you mean?” Kihyun didn't spare him a glance, towel drying his neck.

“I mean, don't you normally make out a little after sex? Don't you talk?”

“About what?”

“Anything. About fucking.”

“Why would I talk about it? We literally just did it,” he said curtly.

“About other stuff, then. It's so clinical to just go around, pretending like nothing's happened.”

“Dunno. It always worked for me.”

“Well, it doesn't work for me,” Hoseok told him.

Kihyun was silent as he started dabbing at the scar on his thigh with the towel. Softening, Hoseok approached him and took the towel from him. He kneeled down, putting Kihyun's foot on his bent leg as he began to dry the spot gently. A slowly healing gash ran in the middle of the burn. Not thinking, Hoseok kissed it.

“I don't like doing this mushy shit,” said Kihyun suddenly.

“What's mushy about it?”

Looking up, Hoseok smiled and pecked the same spot again.

It didn't impress Kihyun.

“There are just things you do in bed and things you do out of bed,” he explained stiffly, “and things you say in bed and things you say out of bed. That's it.”

“That's dumb.”

“You're dumb.”

“But you like fucking this dumb hyung.”

“Stop.”

“Alright. I will. But first I have a question.”

“I don't want to answer it,” said Kihyun, wrangling himself free. He made his way to the bedroom.

“You don't even know what it is yet,” Hoseok called after him, amused. He followed Kihyun out, watching him as he put his clothes on.

He threw some to Hoseok, too. Grinning, Hoseok started dressing.

“Just leave it. Fucking is fucking and talking is talking.”

“We talk when we fuck, though.” He recalled those unheard words dangling on Kihyun's lips. More than before, Hoseok wished to know what he had been saying.

“Yeah, about fucking. Not about, like, groceries.”

“Thank god,” Hoseok laughed. “Though it wouldn't surprise me. Not from you.”

“Thanks.”

“Does it really make you that shy?” he blurted.

Kihyun froze.

“It's not shyness.”

“I'd say it is.”

“Well, screw it, then. It's making me shy, so stop it.”

“I don't want to,” Hoseok simpered.

“You know what? Do what you want. It's all you fucking do.”

“That's not true. I'd be hugging you otherwise.”

“Hoseok, this really isn't my thing.”

“Maybe you're just not used to it. I wasn't used to taking dick, but hell, it's nice.”

They both stared at each other.

Hoseok felt his ears grow hot.

“You can't be saying what I think you're saying,” Kihyun threatened.

“It's not a big deal.”

Yeah, Hoseok was daft for not telling him in the beginning. It could've eliminated that whole dry finger fiasco.

“But you were a – an escort. You...”

“I mean – everyone just sort of sat on my dick.”

“So you've never – not even –?” Kihyun cut himself off.

“Not even what?”

Hoseok nearly forgot to be wary. A part of him regretted he said anything, the reasonable part.

Another part of him quivered at Kihyun knowing. He might like it.

But Kihyun just gaped at him.

“I could've hurt you really bad.”

“You didn't,” he countered. “You've been good to me.”

“But I could've. I'm used to –” There was a hard pause. “Forget it.”

“You're used to what?” Hoseok went after him, taking him by the elbows. A thought tickled him. “Rough sex?” he tried.

Shaking Hoseok's grip off, Kihyun muttered: “I guess you could say that.”

“With which one of them?”

Hoseok knew he should be treading softly. He could scare Kihyun off for good. Instead, his curiosity got the better of him.

He supposed Kihyun was right. He kept doing what he wanted.

He realized for the first time that he really might be pushing him too hard.

“Both,” was all Kihyun said.

“Look, not to be all I-told-you-so, but this is exactly the reason why people talk about sex.”

“Except you never told me you've never done it this way,” Kihyun shot back.

“Yeah, it didn't quite come up,” he said awkwardly. “I wasn't expecting all of this.”

“Have you at least – with yourself?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Nope.” He reconsidered that. “I almost tried after we sparred and did that thing.”

Kihyun seemed to swallow.

“That's... I honestly had no idea.”

“It's alright.”

“But it baffles me.”

Hoseok laughed. “Is it really so weird?”

“I mean, I guess if I only look at you, it makes sense.”

It was kinda it. People only ever looked at him.

“And you see straight into my soul,” Hoseok joked quietly.

“I don't know about that. It just feels like you want to be spoiled.”

“Geez. Thanks.”

“I want to do that for you.”

They were both sheepish and quiet for a minute. Inhaling, Kihyun once more used all his might to pull away, but Hoseok held him fast.

“I want you to,” he whispered.

“Well, let me go so I can bring you some breakfast.”

“Kiss me first.”

“Kiss my ass.”

“You kiss mine,” Hoseok grinned.

“I might. Later.”

Defeated, he let Kihyun slip away, though he did so reluctantly.

He didn't have to wait for long. Soon they were both nestled across each other, a tray full of delicious dishes between them. The outline of Kihyun's cheekbone was dewy in the sunlight, shimmering gold. His skin soaked up the sun, inviting touches that Hoseok kept himself from giving.

It was still chilly in the room because they opened all of the windows, but it was pleasant as they took sips of their coffee and tea. Hoseok rubbed his feet on Kihyun's.

He could stay that way forever. Sitting, staring, and pining.

He felt like he was drifting on a tide of daydreams, but at the same time he was grounded in the moment, fiercely conscious of Kihyun's presence. Everything they've said and done since sunrise seemed so tangible to him that he almost ached. Whatever it really was they've reached today, Hoseok considered it a victory. He's got so far – he's made Kihyun his. He's made him give in and give up and give. Perhaps it was wrong to seek that much, and to actually get it, when he knew full well it would only last a while and that it didn't mean anything to Kihyun.

He could live off second-hand love, though. That's what he's always done.

As long as Kihyun had any desire for him left, there was nothing that could take Hoseok's tiny victories away from him. Or so he assumed.

It was laughable that a single glint of a ring could shatter that safety.

Hoseok's gaze dropped to where Kihyun was playing with the band on his forefinger, the gesture more so a habit than a deliberate thing.

Fuck buddies or not, the ring would always stay where it was. Hoseok should be happy he could substitute Song even though it was only physically. Not even Yoongi was allowed to do that, not since ages ago.

Hoseok wasn't disheartened, but he started picking at his food.

“About that rough sex thing,” he said out of nowhere.

“Christ. I thought you were quite finished,” Kihyun grumbled.

“Well. We're in bed. I'm sticking to your rules although I still think they're dumb.”

Kihyun rolled his eyes at him.

“So,” Hoseok prompted him.

“So?”

“Is it something you like?” Because he has squeezed Hoseok's throat harder than was pleasing once or twice, and he has tugged at his nipples so it nearly hurt, and oh, he definitely appeared to have a thing for being roughhoused. Hoseok wasn't sure he could take that every time. He definitely didn't wish to go too far and shove Kihyun around too bad.

“I won't even answer that.”

“It must be, since it's what you're used to.”

“I'm not asking you about your sexual life, either.”

“You can, though. It's not like I'm hiding anything.”

“Let me try, then. Would you be comfortable if I asked you how many men you slept with before me? Would you be comfortable if I asked you what kind of things you've done to them? What names you called them? Whether you ever felt anything for them?”

It cut.

Hoseok remained motionless, weathering the coldness with which Kihyun spoke.

“That's not what I meant,” he said finally.

“Look, was it enjoyable for you? What we did?”

“Yeah.” There was no way he could tell him exactly how he yearned for it, for him, so Hoseok never tried.

“In that case that's all that matters.”

“But how about you? Did you even like it?”

Kihyun glared at him. “What do you think.”

Shrugging, Hoseok decided to be coy. “I dunno.”

“I know what you're trying to do. Don't.”

Hoseok shrugged again.

Kihyun was as silent as a grave.

Hoseok nudged him.

“Are you pissy?”

“No.”

“Sure?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn't mean to pry.”

“You did, but I forgive you.”

Hoseok gave a chuckle.

“But just so you know? I've been with less guys than you probably think and I called them boring stuff.”

“That's your business.”

“It's yours now, too.”

“No. I don't wanna know. You'll just try to pry more shit out of me in return.”

“I'm not that sneaky,” said Hoseok sneakily.

“You really aren't – because I can see right through you.”

“I'll just wait until you want to tell me.”

Kihyun rolled his eyes again.

“Let's not get deep, alright? The only thing that needs to be deep is my dick.”

Hoseok bubbled into his tea.

“Oh, I'm sorry? What was that? Did Mr Yoo Kihyun just make a sex joke?”

“I can make those. It's just weird when other people make them. Especially people I've seen naked.”

“Still. I am appalled,” Hoseok did his best to act pearl-clutchingly.

“We're in bed, as you have kindly pointed out, so I'm actually observing my own rules.”

“Touché.”

At that, Kihyun's eyes crinkled into crescents as he tried not to smile.

Hoseok was fucked and he wasn't even mad about it.

 

As soon as they returned from one of the “interviews,” Hoseok took off his tee and went to the bathroom to check himself in the mirror. After he had wrestled the target down, the ripping sensation in his chest still continued to nag at him. He noticed no new bruises, but his flesh felt sensitive to touch. He grimaced, patting his shoulder joint experimentally and rotating it a little.

“What's wrong?”

He saw Kihyun in the reflection of the mirror. He tried to smile it off.

“Nothing. I think I pulled a muscle.”

“Then it's not nothing, is it?” said Kihyun tersely. “You should go to Seokjin.”

“That's exactly what I'm not going to do,” countered Hoseok, chills running up his spine at the very idea of it. “I'll just sleep it off.”

“You'll wake up all stiff.”

“I always wake up stiff next to you, anyway.”

Kihyun's tone darkened.

“Suit yourself.” Instead of crossing the room towards Hoseok, he left.

“You could give me a massage,” Hoseok called after him, but got no response. “Kihyunnie!”

“Don't call me that,” was a dour reply that carried from the bedroom.

“You'll just let me suffer?”

“Yes.”

Not heeding him, Hoseok started rummaging through the contents of the cabinet under the sink. He heard Kihyun's footsteps behind him within seconds.

“It's in the upper one,” Kihyun instructed him.

“Oh, is it? So you're doing it?” Hoseok asked innocently.

“Am I supposed to listen to your whining the whole night?”

“I'm not whining,” retorted Hoseok. Yet, he added internally.

“Get the oil,” said Kihyun before he vanished again, pulling his sweater over his head.

Hoseok sat down on the bed cross-legged, a small bottle in his lap. He unscrewed the lid and took a whiff of the liquid inside, recognizing the scent of cinnamon and something sweeter and deeper. It had a different base altogether than the salve which he used to put on Kihyun's burn.

Speaking of which, the wound snaked pale down Kihyun's thigh, divided in the middle by another gash. He really hated wearing trousers when they were alone. As Kihyun settled down in front of him, Hoseok immediately traced the scar within the scar. Kihyun swatted him away, but Hoseok just waited until his hands were full and then he found the jagged line again.

“We should put some nice music on,” Hoseok joked.

“You'll sing enough,” said Kihyun ominously.

Pouring some oil into his palms, Kihyun rubbed them together to warm them. It was a weird sensation when he placed them over Hoseok's pecs. The contact was still cooler than what Hoseok expected, forcing him to flinch. He flinched again when Kihyun pressed at him.

“Stop flinching,” Kihyun commanded him.

“I'm not flinching,” he said as he flinched.

“You know what? Lie down.”

Falling backwards, Hoseok did as he was told, his head almost at the very edge of the bed. He craned his neck a little to see Kihyun.

“Does this make me look fat?” Hoseok asked, tucking in his chin.

“You look great from the neck down,” deadpanned Kihyun, kneeling by his side.

Hoseok stopped doing silly faces.

“Do I?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you like about me?”

“Do I have to choose?”

Deftly, Kihyun rained more drops of oil over Hoseok's sternum and spread them out with small circles, using his thumbs. Shit, that was nice. Feathery.

“You don't,” Hoseok sighed out. “I never said you should compliment only one thing.”

“Look, you vain fucker, let me focus.”

He ran his hands down to Hoseok's abdomen. It tightened at the touch. Too soon, Kihyun returned back up, kneading his sore trapezius muscles. Hoseok let out a hiss.

“Does it hurt that bad?” Kihyun threw a look at him.

“Yes. So flatter me. I want to feel better.”

“I told you. I can't choose.”

“I told you. You can talk as long as you want.”

In the silence that followed, Hoseok winced a couple of times while Kihyun moved to trail the tender tendons at his sides.

“Arms up,” said Kihyun.

Hoseok listened. He sighed louder, the pressure at his ribs nearly pleasing.

“You look good when you stretch,” Kihyun murmured.

“That's so vague,” said Hoseok, but his breath was bated.

“I don't know what to tell you. It's nice when you stretch. Take it or leave it.”

“I'll take it,” Hoseok chuckled.

“This bit.” Kihyun paused briefly to outline the dent of Hoseok's armpit and continued downward along his rib cage.

The flicker of fingers felt like charged to Hoseok. He shuddered, then inhaled to make that part of his body more pronounced.

“And what else?” he prompted in an undertone, soaking up the stare Kihyun was giving him.

Wordlessly, Kihyun drew his palm over Hoseok's belly, making sure to trace the mole by his belly button.

He fought the urge to arch.

He watched Kihyun's hands go up and splay in a fan-shaped curve over his breast and out towards the shoulder. Despite the pressure, Hoseok's ligaments were getting heated up, partly because of the cinnamon oil and partly because he was being caressed. Kihyun dug at him at times, but he always brushed the spot lightly afterwards, almost in an apology.

“What else?” Hoseok whispered again when he got no reply the first time.

“Does it still hurt?” Kihyun tried to change the topic, rapping at Hoseok's torso sharply with loose fists.

“Ow, ow! Yes. Stop hitting me.” He grabbed Kihyun's wrists.

“I'm not hitting you. It's a legitimate technique to get your blood flowing.”

“Well, don't. I'd rather die.”

“You're already lying here like Snow White.”

“So what? Let me be a pillow princess.”

Kihyun snorted through his nose although he managed to keep his face straight.

“It'll be quicker if I pat you here and there.”

“I don't care about quick. Make it painless.”

“First you'll have to let go of me.”

Hesitant, Hoseok held him tighter.

“You promise you won't hit me?”

“I wasn't hitting you, for fuck's sake.”

Houseok pouted. Bit by bit, he released Kihyun.

“Would you do that other thing?” he piped up.

“What thing?”

Grasping him again, Hoseok guided Kihyun to spread his palms over his pec.

Kihyun pushed at him slightly, sliding over the taut skin towards Hoseok's shoulder and back.

Then he made a displeased noise.

“I can't get to the other one,” he grumbled.

He started to climb over Hoseok, but changed his mind and straddled him instead.

Hoseok's gaze dropped. Until Kihyun was kneeling, his hard-on wasn't visible. But now it was, and oh, it swelled under the fabric of his boxers very nicely.

“Do you like making people suffer so much?” Hoseok demanded.

“I like making your ears go red.”

“Are they red right now?”

“So red.”

He just knew his chest would flush at that, too. And sure enough, a soft blush spread down his neck, forming a V.

“Do you have a thing for my ears or what? I thought you only liked me from here,” Hoseok tapped at his throat, “down.”

“I lied.”

That explained why he kissed his ears so much. Hoseok wasn't complaining. He shifted, causing Kihyun to cease what he was doing for a moment. When he started anew, it was with more force.

Hoseok groaned.

“So,” he began, enduring the tension, “what else besides my ears?”

“Your nose.”

“My nose?”

Kihyun hummed.

“But it's big!”

“That's the point.”

“How come you never went after Changkyun if you fancy big noses?” Hoseok quipped.

“I fancy anything big.”

“Is it because you're so small?” he smiled.

The look Kihyun fixed him with was positively murderous.

“I am of average height.”

“But you're petite.” To demonstrate, he clasped Kihyun's waist. He dragged his hands down to his hip bones. “Like, super petite.”

“Go lower.”

Shit. With a fleeting glimpse at Kihyun's face, he did. He cupped his cock.

Yeah. Not so petite, after all.

Kihyun bent forward, leaning on Hoseok's shoulders.

“There's something else I fancy.”

“What is it?” said Hoseok, hushed.

Grazing the tip of Hoseok's nose with his, Kihyun took his upper lip between his teeth. At the same time, he circled Hoseok's nipple with his thumb.

He tugged at both.

“Hell,” Hoseok mumbled into Kihyun's mouth. “This was one sneaky frontal attack, little man. A double attack.”

“I'll make it triple,” said Kihyun and ground into his dick.

Hoseok seized his hips. Hard.

There was this thing about Kihyun. He always took Hoseok's breath away somehow. It didn't matter if it was with his words or if it was something utterly wordless. Hoseok could only count on things never being the same with him. He was so fluid for someone so rigid – it made zero sense, and yet it was natural when Hoseok guided Kihyun closer, making him ride his cock over the layers of clothing that separated them. It was that coyness again, that pleasure-seeking part of Kihyun which allowed Hoseok to use his might and lead him.

Mid-kiss, Hoseok thought of how they clicked. They both believed the other one not to cross the line. Kihyun never tried to degrade him or cause him pain that wasn't wanted; and if that was none, he'd cause none. Instead of domineering, Kihyun was controlling, and his urge to regulate rather than force extended even to himself. He always had himself in check before he attempted to venture to the outer world, shaping it instead of crushing. Like he's shaped Hoseok. Shaped him inside. Like he used and admired Hoseok's strength without the need to squash it.

Every time Hoseok defeated him when they sparred, there was pride glazing Kihyun's eyes over, lending them a glinty depth. There was gladness that Hoseok knew how to fight and survive.

It made him feel so safe he moaned.

Kihyun made out with him long and good, so good that he nearly forgot about the soreness. He teased Hoseok's nipples, pulling at them gently, so gently, so relentlessly. In turn, Hoseok gripped at him, leaving quickly fading marks all over Kihyun's hip bones. He really was slim – to the point it scared Hoseok sometimes. But man on man, it didn't matter. Kihyun felt heavy on top of him and his touches and dick were firm and Hoseok panted for him to take him.

Kihyun shivered.

“Spread your legs.”

As he said that, Kihyun withdrew to take off the rest of his clothes. Hoseok shimmied out of his sweats and briefs, taking in with a pang the way Kihyun turned to pull out what they needed from the bedside table, lean ligaments in his back rippling.

Hoseok considered complying with Kihyun, but in the end he decided to roll onto his stomach instead. It gave him a sense of security which could be shredded by a single tiny shift of Kihyun's features otherwise. Hoseok was strong, but he still wasn't strong enough to see Kihyun as he filled him. What if he saw nothing there?

A light caress crawled up his inner thigh. It nudged his legs apart. Open-palmed, Kihyun grazed Hoseok's ass cheek, the one with the flower on it. He pulled at the flesh, exposing Hoseok's asshole.

“Put the light out,” said Hoseok.

“Okay.”

There was a click, the lamp snapped and the room swam in blackness.

His senses heightened.

He was expecting fingers, but there was a kiss, and then a warm tongue ran between his cheeks. Hoseok clenched involuntarily, preventing Kihyun from slipping in. So he lapped at the rim a little more, nuzzling it open with the tip of his tongue. It didn't take long for Hoseok to relax.

Kihyun slid in then, all hot and slick, and when he did, Hoseok stretched to grab his hair. The grunt Hoseok got out of it stuck in his head.

Tongue-fucked and finger-fucked next, he just wanted to be fucked. He put his hips up.

It earned him another kiss.

“Easy, baby.”

That stuck in his head, too.

He could pretend it was said lovingly, and he sure did as Kihyun kissed his way up Hoseok's spine. He pushed at him with his cock and pushed some more until he slid halfway inside. Hoseok buckled backwards and then the whole thing was in, making him laugh breathlessly. God, he loved this.

He said it aloud.

“Do you?”

Kihyun lay on top of him, bracing himself so he wouldn't weigh Hoseok down when his chest hurt.

“Yeah.” The first thrust caused his words to catch in his throat. “Fuck, Kihyun. Fuck...”

He knew that once he started talking, there would be no way of stopping.

“Tell me what you like.”

Hoseok laughed again, more helplessly. So Kihyun was about to even the score.

“Besides you inside me?” he uttered.

“Yeah. Besides that.”

Kihyun began grinding into him slower.

“Your tongue,” Hoseok groaned. “When you eat me out.”

He heard a sharp intake of breath.

“What else?”

“Your whole fucking face. I like it when you kiss me.”

Hoseok cringed at himself. What kind of dirty talk was that?

A hand guided his hips higher as his torso stayed pressed to the mattress.

“What else?”

Noiseless, Hoseok opened his mouth.

“The sounds you make when I squeeze your cock,” he gasped.

“Do it.”

Hoseok obeyed. They both moaned when he clenched his asshole, locking Kihyun in. Hoseok felt the wetness as Kihyun parted his lips against the nape of his neck, mouthing something. He could only thrust deeper now because he wouldn't be able to pull out if he tried. So he sank in, skimming over Hoseok's side and down to stroke his dick.

“You're so good,” Kihyun breathed out. “So good.”

Hoseok arched, bringing himself back.

He could listen to that all day long.

“Let me suck you off next time,” said Hoseok shakily.

“You'd want that?”

Hoseok hummed and tilted his head, resting it on Kihyun's shoulder.

“I want you to suck my cock, too.”

“I'll do it,” was Kihyun's whispered response.

He could only imagine filling those small plump lips.

Kihyun was buried inside him, going in shallow strokes that were all the more acute. He picked up a faster pace, taking care of Hoseok's dick, nibbling at his ear. It sent shivers all over Hoseok's body, to be so looked after. He couldn't concentrate on anything besides the convulsions growing fiercer within him, stirring him to the core.

“Gonna,” Hoseok moaned out.

Then there was a tremor and a free fall and for a minute, he barely even knew he existed. When he came to, Kihyun has stilled inside him. He was still holding Hoseok's cock so it wouldn't chafe against the sheets. Weary, Hoseok collapsed down, feeling Kihyun's full weight on him. It made him groan, but it wasn't because of pain.

“Shit. Sorry.”

The strain disappeared, and so did Kihyun's softening cock. It was too bad. Hoseok wanted him inside for a little longer. Looking up, he saw Kihyun slump down next to him, cold after coming. A sheen of oil and lube and cum glistened over his hands.

Not in the mood to get up just yet, Hoseok threw his arm over Kihyun, hauling him nearer. He closed his eyes while he tried to rub the quiver away from Kihyun's shoulders. They narrowed whenever he shook like this. With a sigh, Hoseok shifted towards him, sharing his body heat.

Kihyun seemed so powerless, his lashes fluttering as he kept his eyelids shut, that it got Hoseok to hoist himself up and hover above him. He kissed the lovely peak on Kihyun's forehead, pausing to do the same to his freckles. There was one right above his eyebrow, Hoseok knew, and another one on the other side of his forehead, close to his hairline. He couldn't see them in the dark, but he had them memorized.

He noticed Kihyun was observing him, half-lidded.

“What is it?” Hoseok mumbled. He cracked a smile. “Too mushy?”

“A bit.”

“Watch this, then.”

He hugged Kihyun hard, his unwound muscles smarting the way they did after a workout.

Strangely, Kihyun chuckled at that.

“You're really the worst sometimes.”

Hoseok chuckled too.

 

When he received his own phone, it was late April and the first thing Hoseok did was almost drop it. He grinned at Kihyun, who looked like he had half a mind to take it away from him right away.

“It took longer than I expected,” Kihyun commented, a tad wary of Hoseok's movements. “I guess Hyungsoo had to make absolutely sure you're on our side. That whole sending money to a foreign account stuff did throw him off a bit, if you ask me. He had Jooheon check it, but still.”

“So I'm really one of you now?”

“You've always been one of us.”

Hoseok grazed the display of the little black thing with a careful fingertip. It was so small and unassuming in his palm, not at all like those expensive smartphones he would see when window-shopping in Gangnam (because, as Kihyun had quipped, this one was actually supposed to work).

“Whose number should I save first?” Hoseok asked.

“I've already saved those you'll need.” Kihyun pulled out a paper note. “Here. Memorize it, then shred it.”

“What's this?”

“Our code names.”

Hoseok skimmed the aliases to see the Great White, but he didn't find it. Instead, in tidy and grudgy handwriting, there was “Lanternshark” at the very end of the list. Hoseok lit up.

“You forgot the dwarf part,” he piped up, smiling.

“I didn't. I ignored it purposely.”

“Did you save me as Shin?”

“Yes.”

Kihyun could sometimes speak with a sort of sweetness in his tone, and this was one of the times. It always took the wind out of Hoseok's sails, though he wasn't truly surprised by it anymore. He wondered if Kihyun even realized how he sounded – how bird-like and hushed although there was an undeniable assuredness about him. Hoseok clung to those half-whispered words, and he clung to every tiny display of kindness; and because they were so frequent, he clung the most to those moments when he could discern lust from the way Kihyun gazed at him or didn't gaze at him at all.

“You can try it out today,” said Kihyun, bringing Hoseok back from his reverie. “I'll be gone for the night.”

“What?” They rarely ever had separate missions anymore. “To where?”

“A recce. I'm going with the guys.”

So Changkyun and Hyungwon would be there to keep him safe. Hoseok was glad of it, but it still threw him off that Kihyun waited until the last minute to tell him. He was like that sometimes. He would open like a pearl oyster in Hoseok's inquisitive hands and he would laugh and cup Hoseok's face when he leaned in too close – only to shut off completely the next minute, leaving things unsaid and undone.

Hoseok was learning to deal with that. After all, he couldn't have it all. He never imagined he would.

He's already received more than anyone else. More than Yoongi, even.

Of course, Hoseok wasn't so fanciful as to include Gun. No one would ever equal him; because even if someone came close to the love Kihyun and Gun had, he could never surpass the tragedy of it.

When Kihyun left, Hoseok immediately texted him. He wasn't expecting a reply, and yet it came, an empty message that said it all. Kihyun was fine and reachable and he would write again when the recce was over. Rolling over to lie on his belly, Hoseok studied the list of code names, chuckling at some. Anyone who named Hyunwoo “Godfather” was undeniably right, but Hoseok didn't think he wanted to know the full story behind it.

His eyes fell on Jooheon's alias, a very Caucasian-sounding name that actually made him quite curious. He tried to recall the last time he's spoken to the boy, but he came up empty. Jooheon has stopped showing up in the mess hall, or else he came and went at different hours. Hoseok has barely seen him these past few weeks. When he did, the familiar figure of Gain he's grown used to seeing at Jooheon's side was nowhere in sight. Instead, it was Jackson who trailed after Jooheon, chatting away without pausing to breathe. Hoseok reckoned this was the outcome of Gain's choice.

The thought sow a sorrow within him he wasn't able to feel for himself. But when it came, it came to drown him. He put Kihyun's note down, resting his chin on a heap of pillows.

Jooheon was right. People leave.

Hoseok recalled the empty flat he had had to vacate and some of the jars on his mum's night stand that still used to smell of her favourite skin cream and all those lovely pots and paintings that belonged to someone else by now. Hazier, he managed to fish out from his memory the condo in Belgium, shabby but full of expensive appliances and peace lilies on the counter.

More than his mother's face, he remembered the stern lines around that man's mouth.

He clutched the phone. He still knew her phone number.

The message was sent before he could change his mind. It was very short and signed as “Your son, Hoseok.” He stared at the phone, unable to do anything else. If staring could bring him an answer, it would come within seconds. But of course, nothing happened. Hoseok put the phone down and closed his eyes.

A beep petrified him. Urgently, he scrambled up.

He sat there unmoving for a long while, re-reading the text that asked him for more money.

It wasn't until a good hour later that Hoseok got another text. He almost dropped the phone. It took him another ten minutes to even take a peek at who it was from.

His heart leaped. It wasn't from his mother.

It wasn't empty, either.

I'll be late. If you're still awake, we can meet at the coffee shop. I should be there around midnight , the message read.

It was dumb to eclipse one void with another, but Hoseok put his windbreaker on so fast he nearly ripped it. He didn't think twice as he pocketed the keys.

Soon he was descending a seedy, rubbish-littered escalator that was out of order. He waited for his train, got on, and got off a dozen stops later. He left the subway station behind, heading straight to the rendezvous point.

He got there before Kihyun did. There were still a few minutes left until midnight.

He sat down, watching the elderly lady who owned the place. Then he inspected a lazy fly while it crawled up and down a leaf of a massive yucca plant. When he grew bored of that, too, he just stared out of the window. It started to drizzle. Tiny specks sprinkled the glass, each holding within it a balmy reflection of a bright orange street light that stood nearby.

A silhouette appeared at the end of the street and crossed the road. It was so small huddled in a light coat that it couldn't be anyone else but Kihyun. Hoseok made a move to stand up to welcome him, but he composed himself, waiting for his little man to come to him.

The tip of Kihyun's nose was blushed from the unexpected chill the soft rain has brought with it when he took his coat off and sat down across from Hoseok. His hair was misted with silk-like droplets. Quiet, Hoseok did his best not to touch it. He nearly failed when Kihyun turned towards the old lady, ordering a cup of coffee. The line of his neck and one soft wave curling into his face almost brought Hoseok down, so inviting and delicate it truly washed away his stupor, if only to replace it with another kind.

He gazed at Kihyun when they were alone again. He looked unharmed.

It made Hoseok cheeky.

“So I know you miss me and all, but you didn't have to ask me out on a date.”

“Dream on.”

Hoseok mustered a grin.

“Where are the guys?” he asked.

“Still there. We are taking breaks in turns.”

“And you're wasting yours on me?”

“I'm not wasting it. I got coffee out ot if.”

Leaning closer, Hoseok put his forearms on the table, the tips of his fingers brushing the saucer under Kihyun's cup. The dainty china was as cold as Kihyun looked. His shirt was bulky on him. He sounded tired, though not unusually so.

“Is it going to take much longer?” inquired Hoseok.

“Yeah. Probably until morning, actually.”

“Did you know that when you were leaving?” he said, willing himself to squash the sense of surliness and spleen which held onto him like seaweed sticks to stone.

“I expected as much.”

“I thought we would leave together,” Hoseok blurted.

Kihyun looked at him, then at his cup. He swirled the coffee with a spoon.

“I'm sorry. I guess I thought you might get bored at the hotel,” said Kihyun levelly.

“Well, you weren't wrong about that.”

“I can drive you back before I have to go,” he offered.

“No. That would just make this date shorter.”

“It's not a date.”

“Whatever, little man.” Hoseok sipped at his tea, which was lukewarm by this time. “What're you guys up to, anyway?”

“We're scouting for any intel about Park Jinyoung's movements. Jooheon tracked his credit card yesterday and this neighbourhood is where the guy last used it.“

The name rang a bell to Hoseok. He was one of the Triad's big six. Or, to be precise, one of the remaining three, as Hoseok corrected himself with grim satisfaction.

He decided to give Kihyun more cheek.

“So you're out there hunting for men?”

Kihyun fixed him with a glare. “Yes,” he deadpanned.

“I'm wounded.”

“You should be. I hear he's a looker.”

“You don't know what he looks like?”

“I've got a picture, but it's all blurry,” said Kihyun, pulling out said photograph out of the front pocket of his trousers. He put it on the table.

Yeah. There wasn't much to be seen besides a black hood that shielded the man's identity. He had a pretty chin, though.

“I guess I'm safe,” said Hoseok in a light tone. “I'm way cuter.”

“Maybe I'm into guys who are not that cute.”

That would explain Song, Hoseok grouched.

“Maybe. But will he let you fuck him the way I let you?”

“I will cut you.” Kihyun's nose grew redder.

Hoseok laughed and intertwined their fingers.

“You're making this so easy.”

“And you're making this really difficult,” Kihyun retaliated, but when he reached for his cup again, it was with his left hand.

“For you. I'm having fun,” Hoseok gloated.

Boldened by the lack of sour comebacks, he brought Kihyun's hand to his mouth and kissed one knuckle and then another one. He kissed them all, all the while holding Kihyun's stare. Hoseok was never particularly good at outfacing him, but today it was easier. He just wanted to see him – so badly that he could weather any glare.

Kihyun wasn't exactly glaring, per se. Rather than that, it seemed to Hoseok that he was dissecting him, his every move and every word. So he dissected Kihyun back. Exhaustion hung around the corners of his mouth, but his eyes still retained that carved-out look, the sharp shape that reminded Hoseok of something entirely feminine.

At times, there was something feminine about Kihyun, he realized. And yet he never doubted himself as a man. It was so goddamn attractive to Hoseok, that confidence – partly because he was the same. He possessed the same kind of self-assuredness despite all of his dualities. Unlike Kihyun, Hoseok perhaps couldn't be called feminine. But he could be childish and meek and still look the manlier of the two, and he took pride in it.

They would've clashed so bad if one of them was insecure.

The weariness was back, making Kihyun sigh. His lids drooped lower, though his gaze never softened. Hoseok grazed Kihyun's freezing fingertips with his lips.

Guilt clenched at his stomach. One of the reasons Hoseok has set out so willingly to travel across the entirety of Songpa was that he might get some help from Kihyun. But seeing him like this, too drained of energy to even fight Hoseok with wit and quips, the thought quickly evaporated. He couldn't ask Kihyun for money or for more help. He just couldn't. He would have to figure something out, whatever it was. He's taken enough from Kihyun.

The truth was, Hoseok didn't have the slightest idea what Kihyun did with his wage; what he regularly spent it on and if he saved some cash after a hit to be able to build a future one day. Whatever it was Kihyun did with his paycheck, it wasn't Hoseok's place to pry or try to take that hard-earned cash from him. He'd have to work for his own blood money.

Minutes trickled away and there was less and less coffee in Kihyun's cup. Hoseok kept a bright facade on for him, getting a rise out of him every now and then to take some weight off Kihyun's mind. He looked like he needed it. Hoseok already wanted him in his arms, just curled up and asleep.

When it was time for Kihyun to go, Hoseok kissed his knuckles again, one by one, before he let him amble towards the counter. He was so bent on imprinting Kihyun's lithe figure into his memory that he almost missed a movement he noticed out of the corner of his eye. He looked up to see another late night customer walk in. Hands in his pockets, he was covered in raindrops. His face was dipped in shadows under his black hood.

Involuntarily, Hoseok's eyes dropped to the photograph lying on the table.

He yelled out Kihyun's name so desperately it startled the shooter as well, but it was too late. Kihyun turned around to six gunshots. They pierced through his chest and he stumbled backwards, sliding down the counter. A wound blossomed over his shoulder, blood pouring out.

Hoseok stood up without knowing. He lunged at the shooter without knowing. He roared without knowing.

There was nothing but bottomless rage within him. It seeped into his bones, erasing any human emotion, erasing his name. It saturated his every fibre as he crushed that man's head against the ground, shooting him in the eye before feeding him his own gun and pulling and pulling and pulling the trigger until the magazine was empty.

He never stopped. He threw the gun away and gnawed at the man's throat as if to kill him twice. Not a twitch was left in that body underneath him, but Hoseok went on. He went on. Viscous gore stained his fingers and the sight gave him a sense of purpose – a sense of victory in a world in which he's lost his everything.

The man resembled a butcher's goods rather than a person by the time the old lady shook Hoseok awake.

He almost lashed at her, too, and then he sobbed so hard it burned.

“Stop messing up my tiles any more than they are!” the lady barked at him. Her hair was frazzled, but her expression as she bent above him remained eerily calm. “Take the boy to hospital before he bleeds out,” she ordered, her voice croaky.

“I'm alright, noona,” was a weak whisper that didn't come from Hoseok.

Hoseok head snapped in Kihyun's direction. He's paled so bad his lips turned invisible. But he was still alive. God, he was still alive.

Hoseok scrambled towards him, kneeling down.

The old lady bristled up. “Who are you calling noona, you brat? All you give me is problems and cheek. I've told you over and over not to bring your job here!”

“I didn't know,” Kihyun choked out, “that he was following me.”

“In that case you're pretty useless at what you do,” was her waspish reply.

“Kihyun,” Hoseok murmured, afraid to touch him. He let his hands hover just above Kihyun's temples. Paralyzed, he was scanning for blood. There was less of it that he expected.

Kihyun wheezed. “It's okay. Don't panic.”

“How can I not panic?! We have to get you to hospital – we – I –”

“Help me to the car.” Attempting to stifle a cough, Kihyun failed. He started to get up.

“Kihyun, you know I can't drive – wait, I'll call an ambulance –”

“No,” said Kihyun and the old lady in unison.

“I'll drive myself back,” said Kihyun.

“You can't!”

“I can't stay here. The police might come.”

Hissing, Kihyun sat up. More red rushed down his shoulder. As his coat slumped open, Hoseok noticed there were five more holes in his shirt, scorched at the edges, but no sign of bleeding.

Shakily, he clutched the collar of Kihyun's shirt and brought it down his collarbone.

He was wearing a bulletproof vest.

“You tiny fucker,” Hoseok wailed.

“It hurts like fuck, so could you please help me to the car?”

“You can't –”

“Hoseok, I don't think I can do this alone.”

That robbed him of words.

Kihyun was making sense, though his words were beginning to become slurred. Hoseok knew that a bulletproof vest never took away the pain caused by gunshots, the sheer force with which they rammed into one's body mincing flesh and ribs alike. And Kihyun has bought one bullet on top of that, the wound draining him of colour while glaring ruby.

He trembled with worry and euphoria and more worry as he picked Kihyun up.

“I meant you should help me walk,” Kihyun gritted out, gasping when another pang pierced through him.

“Shut up. Shut up, don't speak. Don't wear yourself out.”

All that kept him from running was the pain written all over Kihyun's face. A sheen of cold sweat dampened his brow.

Hoseok was at the door, the old lady opening it for him.

“Thank you,” he offered quietly.

“Just hurry, boy.”

“I'll send the cleaners,” promised Kihyun.

“You better,” the lady called. “You know it spooks me when someone dies here. Their spirits linger.”

“I know.”

They leaped into the night. Hoseok walked through the drizzle, his gait hasty. Droplets came down dewy on Kihyun's skin. No one was there to pay them any attention and Hoseok was glad of it.

The car waited down the street and Kihyun still insisted on driving.

“Hold on,” Hoseok muttered, fumbling to place Kihyun down gently. He couldn't even put the safety belt on him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Keys chattering in his clutch, Kihyun started the ignition.

Hoseok got in. He was a storm while Kihyun appeared composed, nothing save for the rigidity of his muscles disclosing that he was fighting off shivers.

Realizing they didn't even dress the injury, Hoseok shook off his windbreaker and, after a split second of hesitation, pressed it against Kihyun shoulder.

“Fuck,” Kihyun hissed out.

They drove off. Kihyun gripped the gear lever limply with his right arm, but more often than not he reached to upshift with the left one which was unharmed. Eventually, Hoseok took hold of the wheel, his thoughts a petrified swarm. He stared ahead, the shock of it all making him teary. He blinked furiously. Lights sliced through the windscreen in punctuated intervals to reveal the stain spreading over Kihyun's chest.

They were getting nearer to the hotel.

“I'm sorry to worry you, love,” mumbled Kihyun, his breath reeking of metal, “but I need you to call Bora. I don't think I'll...”

He didn't pass out, but everything about him went glassy.

He had to let go either of the wheel, or Kihyun. Cursing, Hoseok let go of him, never taking his eyes off the road as he patted his pockets to find the phone.

By the time he spotted the outline of the hotel, Hoseok's whole body thrashed with nausea. It filled his veins, his tongue. He saw figures dressed in white at the entrance.

He had to pat Kihyun on the cheeks to get him to slam the brakes.

Then Kihyun passed out.

A child-like wave helplessness clawed at Hoseok, even more so when the figures swarmed the car and took Kihyun away. He rushed after them blinded by rain and tears, the whiteness of the crowd searing his sight. Someone tried to stop him. Someone was screaming and maybe it was Hoseok and there wasn't enough room in the elevator and more people were pulling him away and then white white white everything was white.

After that, all he knew was darkness when he swallowed the pills Seokjin gave him.

 

Chapter Text

The shade of Changkyun's skin was waxier than usual. For a second, Hoseok couldn't comprehend why that cheeky child would stare at him with an expression so grave. His features were glass-like and all too readable. There was no sign of mischief in Changkyun's face; no brutality, either. He peered at Hoseok with utmost seriousness from up close, repeating his name.

Hoseok felt calm. But even on the surface of the calmest sea, a ripple is bound to appear. It did, and it lapped at the brim of Hoseok's consciousness. He wasn't supposed to be this tranquil. Was he?

He recalled the pills he had swallowed yesterday and the numbing peace within him suddenly made sense. Still, there was something wrong with it.

Why did he need to be sedated?

Why was it so bright?

“You're awake.” A hint of relief coloured Changkyun's tone.

Stirring, Hoseok groaned as he tried to loosen up his stiff spine and protesting limbs. He spotted hazy figures in the distance; or not that far away, he couldn't really tell. His head was spinning.

“You've been out of it for quite a bit,” Changkyun whispered. “Seokjin had to give you, like, horse pills to calm you down, hyung. I was so worried.”

“Why?”

He knew why before Changkyun had the chance to speak up.

He got up with a start.

“It's okay. Sit down.” Changkyun grabbed Hoseok to stop him from dashing to the nearest door – or down the corridor – or just somewhere. Anywhere. He only succeeded because Hoseok's whole body swam in a lake of inertia. He had no strength. Pressing at his forearm, Changkyun said: “He's alright. He woke up not too long ago.”

“Where is he?” Hoseok rasped.

“He needs rest. Bora said he can't have any visitors right now.”

“But where is he?!”

Hoseok's voice carried clear and loud, so loud it pierced through his own ears. He managed to wake up a few of the heap of slumbering men who were huddled together across what had to be a waiting room.

He didn't care.

It all came back to him. All that blood. Kihyun, comatose. The scene Hoseok had caused. Hoarse screams that had been his. And those that hadn't. A good half a dozen people who had held him down long enough for Seokjin to work his magic. The blackout after.

He saw again and again how they had taken Kihyun away.

Hoseok trembled. With unfeeling hands, he gnawed at Changkyun so he would let him go.

“Sit down, hyung,” Changkyun tried to placate him. “No one can see him now. He's got a couple of broken ribs. The bullet went straight through the shoulder and he lost a shitload of blood, so –”

It was worse than what Hoseok imagined.

He shook Changkyun off and rushed headlong towards Seokjin's tall silhouette which at that moment walked out of an all-white door at the end of the narrow room.

More footsteps followed behind Hoseok. But as he soon realized, no one else was in a hurry to get to Seokjin. They were in a hurry to restrain Hoseok.

He buckled when Hyunwoo caught him in a headlock. Minhyuk and Changkyun joined in, hanging off his arms. Wordless, Hyungwon loomed beside Hoseok. He never tried to stop him physically, but it was telling that he deigned to stand up at all, ready to shield Seokjin from whatever fury Hoseok might unleash on him.

Breathing hard in Hyunwoo's grasp, Hoseok stared at Seokjin.

“Let me see him.”

“Not now. I don't have the authority to do that.”

“I need to see him!”

“You need to sleep it off,” Seokjin told him sternly.

“No,” Hoseok choked out. “I won't take any more pills.”

“No one said anything about pills. If I gave you any more, it would knock you out for good. But you need rest, and so does Kihyun.”

“I won't bother him.” By this time, Hoseok was pleading. “I won't. I just have to – I need to see him – he's my –”

Hyunwoo held onto him firmer now. If it hurt, Hoseok didn't feel it.

“Just wait for a couple of –” Seokjin started.

“A couple of what? Minutes? Hours? No. Fuck no! I have to see my man!”

All that commotion didn't sit well with Seokjin. Stonily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys with deliberate slowness. He didn't break eye contact with Hoseok when he locked the door behind him, barring the only way to Kihyun.

Hoseok has been so close this whole time.

He began kicking. He yelled out Kihyun's name. More people surrounded him and he recognized Jooheon amongst them. Standing still behind Seokjin, the boy shortly shook his head. He touched the keyhole, then his lips.

It took Hoseok a minute. But when he finally understood, he went limp. He would have sagged on the ground it he wasn't still clasped by Hyunwoo and torn at from all sides. It finally began to ache, but it was nothing in comparison to what was going on within him. Each moment without knowing whether Kihyun was truly alive and alright was like taking a breath under water.

Even as Hoseok ceased struggling, no one seemed too eager to let go of him. It wasn't until Seokjin left, grumbling under his breath, that Hoseok was set free.

Hyunwoo patted his shoulder, almost fatherly.

“Come on. You have to do what the doctors said.”

“No. You don't understand,” Hoseok said shakily. “I'm not going anywhere until I see him. I have to make sure – I –” Then it all poured out. “He got shot right in front of me and I couldn't do shit. I had to look and I did nothing and now he's – now...”

He couldn't finish. He couldn't see. Everything went liquid.

“You did help. You killed the fucker. We've already sent cleaners to Youngok noona's café,” Changkyun attempted to hush him.

“But he could've died!” Hoseok roared. “In front of me! While I was sitting on my ass! I have to tell him I'm sorry – I –” He got choked up again. “I have to tell him I...”

A tinny click of the lock made Hoseok whirl around.

“Hyung,” Jooheon spoke up very quietly, “you can't make any noise now. Come here.”

Pocketing a gilded picklock, Jooheon opened the door.

“That's a bad idea,” Minhyuk trilled. He sounded cheered, not forbidding at all. “Really, really bad idea. Bora is going to chew your ass out.”

Hoseok shook so bad he swayed as he started walking ahead. But with each step, he went quicker and quicker. No one tried to stop him. He halted when he got to Jooheon and, bringing the boy's head down, he kissed his forehead. It earned him a sheepish smile and a push and then he was inside the recovery room.

It was so dark that he immediately wondered whether it was night; whether he's gone a whole day or longer in a happy haze, sedated, while Kihyun was struggling for his life. There were no windows that would let him know if that was true since the hospital ward was located underground. He saw no daylight, no neons.

He shut the door behind him. It got even dimmer.

Only a pair of machines that stood silent next to a single bed gave off an eerie light. It bathed Kihyun in a bluish hue. His profile cut into the membranous darkness, so sharp and sallow that it filled Hoseok with pure ice. He looked dead.

He dashed ahead.

Up close, Kihyun seemed to blend in with the pale bed sheets. His torso was thickly wrapped while an even thicker bandage protected his shoulder. Yellow with iodine, his skin looked like it has wilted away. His bare arms were riddled with tubes and catheters. The sight would've wrenched a sob out of Hoseok if it didn't paralyze him first. He stood there staring for a solid minute before he dared to hover above Kihyun and take in what's happened to him in full force.

It crippled Hoseok to know that this was all on him.

He could've prevented it. He could've spotted the man sooner.

With agonizing gentleness, he fingered one damp strand that stuck to Kihyun's temple. He tucked it away.

Nothing happened. Kihyun was cold to the touch.

Hoseok inhaled. It sounded as if he was sucking in water.

When did he begin to cry?

Has he ever stopped since the shooting?

Sitting down heavily on a hard plastic chair beside the bed, Hoseok gazed at Kihyun, willing him to wake up. It took another tiny touch for Kihyun to react.

His eyelids fluttered.

He was awake. Hoseok no longer strove to hold his tears back. He was awake.

“Stop crying,” Kihyun mumbled.

It only made Hoseok cry harder.

“Stop dying!”

“I'm not,” Kihyun whispered. He never opened his eyes. Like a small spider, his hand moved towards the edge of the bunk. “Seok...”

“Yes,” he croaked. He took Kihyun's hand into his. He pressed his wet face into the cool, clammy palm. It was so tiny – so frail without that fat ring. “It's me. I'm here.”

“I know. I could hear you make ruckus all the way from the waiting room.”

Each word was uttered with fatigue.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.” Hoseok's voice was watery. The blade-like scent of medical disinfectant all but suffocated him, but he kept burying his face in Kihyun's hand, hiding, perhaps. His shoulders thrashed. “Kihyun, I thought you... I...”

“I'm okay.”

“You're not. You could've bled to death. You – you fainted.”

“Did I? That's embarrassing.”

“Don't,” Hoseok lashed out, though very quietly. “Please, don't do this.”

“Do what?” It was barely a sigh.

“Turn this into a fucking joke. Don't.” He shuddered before he mouthed into Kihyun's palm: “I thought I lost you.”

“It was only one shot.”

“Kihyun, please.”

There was a pause. Faintly, Kihyun squeezed his fingers.

“I shouldn't have brought you there,” he said afterwards.

It was one thing to blame himself, but knowing that Kihyun blamed him too made Hoseok speechless. He opened his mouth in a voiceless wail. He crushed Kihyun's hand harder.

“Hyung, it hurts...”

He could just collapse.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” Hoseok muttered over and over, kissing that translucent bit of skin he's covered with tears. “I'll do anything. Kihyun, I'll make it right. I won't ever let this happen again. I promise, I promise,” he went on and on, cracking a little more with every sob. “I'm so sorry.”

“What?” Breathing in and out with some strain, Kihyun opened his eyes. “What are you on about?”

“I – I watched you get shot. I could've – but I didn't –”

“Hoseok,” he said tiredly, “I shouldn't have brought you there because it could have been you.”

“But it wasn't,” Hoseok choked out.

“Thank fucking god. You didn't have the vest.”

Hoseok knew that his voice would betray him if he tried to say anything. Instead, he pressed more wet kisses into Kihyun's palm.

He never really considered the danger he had been in. Yeah. It could have been Hoseok. Funny, how it still didn't matter to him. At least he would never have to see Kihyun sag in the driver's seat, his eyes white.

So this was what Kihyun kept talking about. Mortality. Hoseok has agonized over death and dying before. He's witnessed men die. He's killed. He's buried a comrade, though the man who had shared his first name was as good as unknown to Hoseok. But nothing has ever laid a shadow of a shroud over him like this has.

There would be nothing left of him if Kihyun was gone.

He wondered idly if this was past any healthy feeling; if it was just plain obsession. But if it was, he wouldn't trade it for anything else. His heart couldn't be arsed to stop. Even if it was supposed to destroy him in the end, Hoseok could never care about any other kind of love. This was love. The only one that has ever made him whole. It consumed and derided him and it made him stronger even as he fell apart.

“I told you to stop crying,” Kihyun nagged weakly.

“I'm not crying,” Hoseok sniffed.

“Hyung?”

“Yes?” Tender at the way Kihyun called him, Hoseok edged closer.

“Can you forgive me?”

“There is nothing to forgive.”

“But there is. I was careless.” His grip weakened. “I made you kill again.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Hoseok repeated. “It's me who couldn't protect you.”

“What?” Feebly, Kihyun turned his head to face him. “You saved my life.”

“What?”

“Twice in one night, too.”

Hoseok gaped at him.

“You brought me back,” Kihyun added when Hoseok said nothing.

“You've got it messed up. I couldn't even drive you back,” he protested.

Of all the things Kihyun could do, he laughed.

It brought about a fit of coughing that startled Hoseok. He got up and lifted Kihyun's head.

Though he couldn't nag as well as Kihyun, he did his best.

“I told you to stop dying!”

“I'm trying. I don't want to die now.” With each pained cough, his chest rose and sunk, the gauze that protected his broken ribs constraining him. “I thought I've done all I needed to do when I got Gun, but I was wrong. There are still some things I want to do.”

“Like what?” Hoseok asked dumbly. Slowly, he laid Kihyun back down, smoothing the pillow underneath his head.

“Grow old.”

Hoseok shook.

Without thinking, he bent forward to brush his lips against the teardrop-shaped peak on Kihyun's forehead. He stayed like that for a moment, screwing his eyelids.

“Don't,” Kihyun muttered. “I'm all nasty now.”

“You're not.”

“I am. And I look like a goddamn sieve. More than I did before.”

“So what?” Hoseok kissed his hair. “The only thing that matters is that you're alive.”

“I mean. It would also be nice if I didn't look like a sieve.”

“Tough shit, shrimp,” Hoseok whispered as he leaned back to look at Kihyun.

“That's it, then. I'm a shrimp again and not your man anymore. I'm wounded.”

Hoseok squinted.

He didn't even flush when he realized Kihyun must have heard him yell. He was too hung up on that terrible pun.

But there was something about the way Kihyun said it that would sooner make Hoseok tear up than get upset.

“You're my man,” he said softly.

“Even when I'm like this?”

“Yes, you vain dummy.”

“You could have anyone, though.”

Not you, Hoseok thought.

“I guess I fancy tiny guys with a lot of scars.”

“Well, lucky little me.”

As soon as Kihyun said that, he had to stifle another cough, which only made him cough harder. Hoseok watched him and his own chest burned. He'd switch places with him if he could. He'd rather lie there in that bed than have the image of Kihyun's lifeless body flash in front of his eyes every time he closed them.

Above all, Hoseok never wanted to hear that trace of uncertainty in his voice again. Kihyun didn't really think he was that shallow, did he? That one more scar would repulse him?

He didn't have time to mull about it.

Bora barged in with a thunderous expression. She zeroed in on Hoseok with a stare that chilled him more than winters in Seoul did.

“Out,” was all she uttered through gritted teeth.

He turned back to Kihyun. He nodded at Hoseok slightly.

Fuck. He had to be exhausted.

With one last yearning look, Hoseok headed out of the door.

The remainder of the night was sleepless.

 

Of course he sneaked back into Kihyun's room first thing in the morning. The door was unlocked this time.

The next day, he did the very same thing. He didn't even glance around to see if Bora or Seokjin lurked nearby.

It went on like this.

Kihyun slept through most of Hoseok's visits, but that was fine by him. It was soothing to see him actually get some sleep, though the whole getting shot before getting some rest thing kind of spoiled it.

Hoseok savoured those moments he could spend at Kihyun's side, observing the way fluorescent light danced on his face, illuminating it. Without any sun to get in, his lips remained pallid, his eyes sunken. The inside of his elbow has gone purple since it was punctured by catheters. There were so many that Kihyun's bony arm looked overrun with creeping ivy. He was healing slowly. It wasn't news to Hoseok because every wound on Kihyun's body took too long to seal, but it tore at him all the same. Whenever his gaze wandered to Kihyun's slim shoulders and wrists, Hoseok wished to pick him up, carry him away from that depressing recovery room and take care of him himself.

He missed Kihyun so bad even when he was next to him.

The truth was, Hoseok was so fucking lonely in their barren bedroom that he spent the nights at Changkyun's. The kid didn't have the heart to make it weird. They just snuggled next to each other. Hoseok could tell Changkyun was just as worried about Kihyun as he was, and it brought them closer. They frequented the recovery room together.

More often than not, the others were there, too, keeping watch over Kihyun. On the third day, Yoongi showed up. He was back in the city. The message got to him when he was visiting Jung Hoseok's grave first thing upon his arrival. He joked in a tired tone about making rounds between his dead and dying men and made Kihyun giggle, though it was a sad sound.

Hoseok had hardly any chance to be with Kihyun alone, much less to touch him. He was too timid to hold his hand in front of everyone else, but god, did he want to. If he could, he would pour his own energy into Kihyun's colourless fingers. He'd colour Kihyun anew. With brighter shades, too.

He couldn't, though, and so he sat there in silence day after day.

Four weeks passed.

A sluggish humid Sunday was ahead of him. He spent it loitering about the hospital ward because he wasn't allowed in. Kihyun had so many check-ups that day that Bora specifically assigned Seokjin to hunt Hoseok down whenever he tried to slip in. And there was no fooling Seokjin, especially if someone was as big and noticeable as Hoseok. When he finally gave up and went upstairs to get some fresh air, he balked at the change of weather. Evenings in the city could grow cold fast.

That night, he didn't sleep at Changkyun's. He didn't sleep at all.

He found Jooheon in one of the underground clubrooms, eating alone in a secluded spot. He was puffy and looked puffier still as he crammed the rest of the meal into his mouth without much relish.

“I don't know how much cash you can get out of it, though,” Jooheon said after they had greeted each other, Hoseok taking a seat across from him. “Hyungsoo didn't really want me to go and I don't think I will get paid for it, but you will if I list you as my bodyguard.”

“You won't mind?” asked Hoseok, placing his hands in his lap.

“Not to be a coward or anything, but I'll actually feel better if you go with me. A lot better, to be honest.” Jooheon put his chopsticks down. “I didn't want to go by myself, but I wasn't going to say anything to the guys because I don't think they'd agree with me going.”

“Maybe we shouldn't go, then,” Hoseok suggested.

“There's nothing to be afraid of now. We'll be safe if we go together. And it's settled with Hyungsoo, so no one can exactly be mad that I tried.”

Hoseok nodded with some hesitation.

If it meant he would make some extra money, he was willing to go. They might be lucky and return soon, which was what he was secretly hoping for. He needed to be back by daybreak at the latest. He didn't want to trouble Kihyun.

They set off on Jooheon's motorcycle, aiming for the outskirts of Songpa. Hoseok sat behind Jooheon, clutching his waist.

Ornamental citrus trees lined the pavements from which sleek futuristic buildings towered above the center. The streets they cruised through were aglow with silver-gold light pouring from glass-walled shopping malls and restaurants.

As they gradually left the busier parts of the district, Hoseok could see less and less people. There was still so much light that the sky looked milky.

Crawling cars were of no concern to Jooheon who just zigzagged amongst them, speeding at times to get to the location faster. Hoseok recognized the path. They weren't headed far from the place where Kihyun had got shot. It made his belly churn.

It also made his mind strangely steely.

Jooheon was out to talk to Song Mino, a man Hoseok had first met in Mrs Youngok's coffee shop. It made sense they travelled along the same road, along the same river, along the same necklace-like thread of street lamps to get to Song's flat.

It began to drizzle again.

When they finally got off the motorcycle, their hands were chilled with wind. Jooheon didn't take off his fingerless gloves.

“Hyung,” he uttered into the rain-soaked silence, “if he says something about Kihyun, anything at all, don't get provoked. Okay?”

“Okay,” Hoseok agreed numbly.

“We're here to negotiate,” Jooheon reminded him.

“Don't worry. I won't mess up. I'm just here to have your back.”

“And to collect that fat paycheck,” Jooheon gave him a small smile, something so rare to see on his handsome face nowadays that Hoseok unconsciously smiled back.

“I mean, it's definitely a factor.”

They entered a block of flats that didn't stick out in any way from the monolithic queue of similar buildings that stretched down the lane. Hoseok was instantly reminded of his very first mission. The cramped corridor was vandalized, letter boxes on the wall gaping in neglect. Some of them were picked, a stash of trampled flyers lying littered underneath.

Instead of going up the stairs, they descended into the basement. Hoseok didn't touch the grimy railing. There were cigarette butts strewn all over the staircase.

Song was expecting Jooheon to come, that much was clear. But he was less than enthusiastic to invite Hoseok in as well.

He lived in a bedsit that reminded Hoseok of a sickroom. At the back of his mind, he recalled Kihyun saying something about dying men who tell no lies. Suddenly, he didn't think the statement had been figurative.

Two long narrow windows placed right under the ceiling would give Hoseok a glimpse of the pavement if the blinds weren't shut. Ashtrays and bottles of painkillers lay wherever there was a bit of space. Only what seemed to be a shrine of some sort under a small TV was void of these. Two sticks were lit besides a plain photo frame, filling the bedsit with a sickly sweet smell of incense.

When Hoseok took another step into the one-room abode, he almost recoiled. He recognized the face in the photograph.

That's right, he thought. The Song men were either brothers or cousins.

Hoseok immediately looked away.

Besides the shrine, the only fancy thing inside Song's home which actually showed that a human being lodged here was a built-in aquarium above an unmade bed. It gave off a luminous film that spread over the bed sheets, making them seem liquid and rippled. Still, it contributed to the ghostly atmosphere of the place rather than to its cosiness. Hoseok wondered how some of Park's best men, or at least somehow valued men, lived like this.

As far as Hoseok was concerned, he felt no sympathy for any of them. They could live and die like rats; the sooner the better.

Standing broad and as tall as he managed, Hoseok shadowed Jooheon with a stony expression, tracing Song's movements in case the man decided to attack them. After all, even though Song and Jooheon must have been acquainted through Gun and even though Kihyun claimed the man to be trustworthy, Hoseok had no reason to be this sentimental. He eyed each pull at Song's mimic muscles, each jerk of his hands as he lit a cigarette. Song motioned for Jooheon to sit down.

Hoseok paid more attention to what was done than what was said – to the timbre of each word rather than the words alone. He's learned to search for what lay underneath.

Watching Song Mino was like shining a flashlight through pure water. There was nothing about him that indicated anger or ulterior motives. He sat there tranquil, only now and then raising his gaze to let it slide over Hoseok, smoke leaving his mouth in wall-like gusts.

The stillness he emanated was unsettling to Hoseok.

Perhaps it was the pills.

Song had a washed-out aura about him. He couldn't be more different from Gun.

A school of fish swam left, swam right, swam left again inside the aquarium. Their movements sent fin-fleeting shadows across the bed sheets.

A veil of intimacy that was bizarre to Hoseok encircled the two men as they spoke. They didn't talk of old times or old friends or even older grudges. Jooheon was here to convince Song to desert. Song has agreed to meet up because he believed that after all those murders in the open ordered by Park, Hyungsoo was willing to give Jackson up at last. The men almost smiled at each other when they realized five minutes into the conversation that they would not reach an agreement.

Still, they went on and on.

And on and on.

And when Jooheon finally got up to leave, it was without bloodshed.

There was no conclusion, either.

They got back so soon that Hoseok had all the time in the world to collect his payment and head to Garak-ro. Spotting the old shabby bank machine he used to rely on when he had been homeless, he fed it more cash than he ever has and transferred all of it to his mother's account.

And then he waited.

It wasn't that late in Belgium yet.

Hoseok sat at a corner store next to the bank machine and toyed with his phone. He sent one text, two texts, three texts. The last one was pleading, apologizing for taking so long to provide.

A cup of instant noodles stood on a counter in front of him. It was getting cold.

There was no reply.

Counting quickly in his head, Hoseok decided to wait one more hour. Eleven still wasn't that late, was it? Midnight still wasn't that late. Was it?

His ramyun swam soggy in the paper cup. The owner of the store began giving Hoseok wary looks.

He knew he shouldn't be doing it when he dialed his mum's number.

If nobody picked up, it would be okay. He'd know that his mum was sound asleep and safe.

A beep cut through him.

She didn't pick up. She didn't let the phone ring, either.

Hoseok stared at the screen. Maybe she declined the call by accident. Scrambling, he dialed her number again.

A beep cut through him.

Slower than before, Hoseok put the phone down.

He ate the noodles. He got up.

 

A slow sunrise barely drenched the cityscape in a rose-tinted halo before he stole inside the recovery room. A goldish glow flooded Hoseok upon entering. Kihyun was reading by a bedside lamp. It lent a welcoming hue to the enclosed space, though the monitoring screen that stood vigil by the bunk swiftly shattered that notion. There was hardly anything welcoming about hospitals, even private ones.

Kihyun looked up. He took off his reading glasses.

“You're here early,” he said.

“I guess I missed you,” Hoseok forced a smile.

He took slow strides into the room at first, then quicker. By the time he got to the bed, he was rushing. It alerted Kihyun. He couldn't get up, but he stretched his good arm towards Hoseok, as if beckoning him.

Hoseok gripped it hard.

“What is it?” Kihyun searched in his face.

“Nothing.”

“You're tearing up,” he said bluntly.

“Am I?”

Grasping for a chair, Hoseok tried to smile again.

“Come here.”

Weakly, Kihyun pulled at him. The sheets rustled. Clenching his jaw, Kihyun shifted to make some room on the narrow bunk. Hoseok scurried to stop him, but Kihyun slid further away, grazing the edge of the mattress.

He touched Hoseok. It was all that was needed for the dam to break. With a shuddering breath, Hoseok climbed on the bed to lie next to Kihyun, crushing his good arm in a clammy grip. Curling up, Hoseok prevented himself from pressing too close against Kihyun's side so he wouldn't hurt him.

He could smell Kihyun's wounds, but that didn't scare him.

What scared him was that Kihyun kept moving. He craned his neck to bury the tip of his nose in Hoseok's hair. He neither asked questions nor demanded explanations. He lifted his left hand in that tight space between them and brought it up to caress Hoseok's cheek.

All the while, Kihyun said nothing as Hoseok wept. He said nothing when Hoseok clung to him stronger than he wanted, stronger than he even realized.

It was terrifying that he just knew. He knew that Hoseok wasn't injured or panicked when he stormed towards him; and he knew that words had no power over him now.

Kihyun waited until Hoseok had no life in him left to cry. Sighing, he shifted again, laying a kiss that was barely there on Hoseok's temple.

“What is it?” Kihyun repeated. The warmth of his voice disarmed him.

So Hoseok told him.

He told him what he's done and where he had been that night and that his fancies brought him down once more and that it didn't matter, not really, because it wasn't like he expected anything, or maybe just a tiny text back, but he couldn't exactly make people care, he knew; so it was alright, it really was alright.

Kihyun started up.

“No, don't get up,” Hoseok stammered and laid a protective palm over his collarbone.

“Come to me, then.”

“I can't. I will crush you.”

“Hold yourself up. What are those muscles for?”

Swollen from crying, Hoseok listened as on autopilot. He propped himself up on one elbow to shift above Kihyun. He had to be a sight to behold. Still, he leaned in until their foreheads touched.

They didn't quite hug because they couldn't, but this was the closest to it they could do. Breathing in and out, Hoseok hovered above Kihyun, taking in the smallness but security his body offered.

“I will never fucking learn.” It came out ragged, half-sob half-chuckle.

“Yeah. Maybe you won't.” Kihyun trailed butterfly touches up and down his arm. “Or maybe you already have. You just choose to hope and forgive anyway.”

“I'm sick of it. It hurts so bad,” he choked out.

“I know it does.”

“What if she never writes again?” he blurted. “What if she only ever writes for money?”

“I'll send it. I'll take her messages and I won't let you know until she asks for you.”

“And if she never asks?” Hoseok nearly laughed.

Kihyun paused. “You have a family.” He paused for even longer. “I know it's not the same, but you have us. I wish you could have both.”

Sniffing once and hard, Hoseok laughed for real. He's dried up. He was in pieces and those were sharp though still pointed inside, not out. He wondered if it would ever be the other way around.

“Listen to me,” said Kihyun, softer this time. “Let me take care of it.”

“I don't think I want to earn blood money for her anymore. But I can't – I can't leave her,” he rushed to say with more insistence than he felt.

Kihyun looked at him. “I told you. I'll send it.”

It twisted his guts. As if burned, Hoseok withdrew.

“No. No, absolutely not. I won't have you earn it.”

“I have the money.”

“No!”

Forgetting about the damage the bullet has done, Hoseok made Kihyun tilt his head back, almost mean, boring into him.

Slack in his hold, Kihyun let him do it.

“I want to do that for you,” was all Kihyun said.

“No. I'd rather she never writes back than have you do this. Fuck no.”

“Don't say stuff like that.”

“I mean it. I mean every single word of it.”

“But you care.”

“Not enough to put you in danger! Just look at yourself!” Hoseok exclaimed.

“You won't be putting me in danger. I have the money,” he repeated.

“No. No, Kihyun. I won't take a coin.”

“I mean, you've already taken some. I kinda buy shit for you,” Kihyun pointed out, not unkindly.

He flushed. “I'll pay you back when I have a regular job.”

That, for some reason, screwed up Kihyun's whole face.

He was laughing.

He was laughing at Hoseok.

Laughing in that silent, squished up way that made him speechless until he was done.

Hoseok fought off a glare. “What's so funny?”

“You are. We might never leave, you know.”

“I dunno about you, but I won't be hunting criminals when I'm in my thirties. All I can do is dance. If I wait for much longer, I'll never be able to pay you back,” he uttered, a little sullen. “I'll miss my train and that will be it.”

“You could become a martial arts teacher. You'll be skilled by then.”

“Me? A teacher?”

“Yeah. Because, you know, maybe you never learn, but you teach people.”

Hoseok stared.

All of a sudden, he felt like another fit of crying. He tilted his head back and drew in a short breath. Blindly, he grazed Kihyun's cheekbone with his thumb, probably to let him know that he was okay, just overwhelmed. It was too much. His eyes remained fixed on a dented spot on the wall. He couldn't look at Kihyun when he was being so goddamn nice. He was lying here, shot, but instead of resting and receiving support, he was the one supporting Hoseok.

As fucking always.

“And you say I'm the meek one. Look at you being all soft,” Hoseok mumbled to lighten up the atmosphere.

“It's the meds.”

“It's not.” Hoseok finally glanced down. “It's you. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me.”

“I thought that was my dick.”

“Okay. You're the second best thing.”

“I just played myself.”

“You sure did, little man.”

With a smile that didn't reach his eyes just yet, Hoseok pecked him.

It made Kihyun furrow his eyebrows. He pecked Hoseok back. Then his expression darkened.

“You reek of ramyun.”

“You can smell it?” Hoseok pulled away.

“I leave you alone for a little bit and you're already surviving on junk food.”

“Well, you shouldn't leave me at all.”

“I guess that's right,” Kihyun grumbled. “I should cook for you again once I'm not on a drip.”

Hoseok recalled that night Kihyun had made him seaweed soup before he had made him come.

“You should,” he muttered.

“But do you know what you should do?”

“What?”

“Go get some sleep.”

“Can't I stay here?”

“You can,” said Kihyun, brushing their noses together. “But Bora will get ballistic on your ass.”

“I'll stay only for a little bit longer, then.”

But he didn't. He fell asleep squished besides Kihyun, kissed and whispered to, and when he woke up hours later, it was Kihyun who was sleeping.

A very cheeky Changkyun was perched on the plastic chair beside the bunk, too comfortable there in Hoseok's opinion. He was eyeing them while snacking on something that looked suspiciously like Kihyun's lunch.

Bit by bit, and a tad sore, Hoseok sat up.

“What time it is?”

“Time to die.”

Then it occurred to Hoseok to turn around. He shrank.

Bora stood there like the goddess of wrath and war.

From the look on Changkyun's face, he found it too hot to be concerned for Hoseok's safety – or his own.

She dragged them both outside.

 

Kihyun truly was a slow healer.

With a sling and smarting ribs, he was moved to a regular sickroom once Bora decided there shouldn't be any complications ahead. She kept Kihyun within reach, though, because he still suffered from frequent bouts of pain he didn't talk about in front of Hoseok.

He wouldn't even know if he didn't drop by Kihyun's sickroom outside of his regular visiting hours. He found Hyungwon there, hunched, wiping Kihyun's forehead. Minhyuk sat nearby, fiddling with the nurse call button.

Hoseok was at Kihyun's side within seconds.

“What's going on?”

He locked eyes with Kihyun. His were red-rimmed.

“Come by later, Hoseok,” he spoke through a bated breath.

“Are you in pain?” he pressed.

“Only if I do this,” said Kihyun, moving to poke at the dressed bullet wound in his shoulder.

Hoseok grabbed him so quickly and violently he nearly bent his finger backwards.

“Are you out of your mind?!”

“Not yet.”

Kihyun spoke thickly.

“Kihyun –”

“Go. Go away.”

“Come on, man,” said Minhyuk mildly, walking up to Hoseok. “This isn't going to be pretty.”

Of course, there was no way a lanky streak of piss like Minhyuk could do much to a man like Hoseok, especially with those hands that would forever remain stiff with burns. Hoseok didn't budge.

At that moment, Seokjin waltzed into the room with no hurry whatsoever and attempted to shoulder Hoseok away from the bed. Like Minhyuk, he failed. Hoseok stared ahead as Seokjin tapped the inside of Kihyun's elbow to find a vein. He did, and he put a needle in it.

It slid in so easy.

Hoseok didn't have time to avert his gaze. The nausea only came when the syringe was already gone. His stomach was in his throat. He had to turn away.

Not quickly enough.

Kihyun's eyes turned inward.

 

He didn't leave the gym until deep into the night. His weightlifting belt was still on and he barely got to towel dry himself when his legs carried him to the hospital wing. Not even realizing it, he skulked along the walls to avoid anyone who might try to stop him, the outpour of white light that descended at him from all sides making him a shadowless man.

He supposed he was just a shadow.

The sickroom swam in darkness. He crossed it with light footsteps. Hesitating, he sat down on the edge of the bunk. It creaked under him.

A small monitor above the bunk gave off a faint flicker every now and then. It lay glossy over Kihyun as he slept. It bathed him in shades of blue. His bird-like bones peaked the pallid skin, the dents above both collarbones hollow and fragile.

“It's rude to stare.”

“Fuck!”

Kihyun's lids fluttered. Then, in the dark, he bore into Hoseok with a black gaze. There was neither glint nor light in his eyes, only a glazed quality to them.

“Fuck, indeed,” Kihyun murmured. He laid a palm over Hoseok's pec. “Hello.”

“You scared me.”

“You look good.”

“You look like you're still out of it.”

“I'm not.”

The reply didn't comfort Hoseok at all. He could still see Kihyun with his eyes rolled back and his sinews strung until the release hit him.

“I'm sorry I woke you up. You should go back to sleep,” Hoseok said quietly, though he couldn't bring himself to get up. He'd rather watch Kihyun doze off and then watch over him.

“That's all I do. Sleep. All day. Every day.”

“Because you need rest,” Hoseok reminded him softly.

“I don't need any more rest.”

“You do.” Unsure if he should, Hoseok caressed his cheek. It was moist, warmer than usual. “You're in pain.”

“Not now. Not until morning.”

He said it so calmly.

“How do you know?” Hoseok asked, but he already knew.

“It's always like that.”

“Kihyun, how long have you been getting those shots?”

“For a while.”

Hoseok's tongue turned to ashes.

“How long?” he repeated.

“A week. Two.” Kihyun trailed a path over Hoseok's pecs, pressing a little. It was like one person was talking to him and another person was touching him. “Before that, I was on a drip, so. That was nice.”

“Kihyun, what the fuck. What the absolute fuck,” he whispered.

“You're so handsome tonight.”

“You're drugged,” Hoseok all but recoiled.

“I'm not drugged.” Leisurely, Kihyun thumbed his lifting belt. “I'm pain-free.”

Hoseok couldn't decide whether Kihyun was talking nonsense or not. All he's said until now was making sense, and yet it sounded wrong; it sounded wrong to hear it from him.

Leaning in, he tried to still Kihyun by cupping his face.

It was the wrong move. Kihyun went for his pecs again, rolling his fingers so he would rub Hoseok's nipple between them. It made Hoseok inhale sharply.

“You've got so big while I've been rotting here,” Kihyun muttered. “It's so goddamn nice.”

“Don't. I don't want you to say stuff like this when you're doped.” Hoseok encircled his wrist to stop him.

“I'm not doped.”

“I still don't want to hear it.”

“I'm not saying anything I wouldn't be thinking all the time,” Kihyun pointed out. Even this pliant and with his voice resembling water that sloshed around softly, he never lost that confidence he always had. It outlined his every feature. Basked in blue, he looked sterner somehow, more serious than Hoseok dared to think he was.

“But you don't normally say it, so don't do it when you're like this,” Hoseok uttered at last.

“Well, I don't particularly enjoy being a fawning fool.”

“Why?” he asked coolly. “I enjoy being fawned over.”

“We're friends first.”

“Yeah. Friends.” Hoseok deflated. “Best buds!” he added sarcastically.

Kihyun didn't move.

“But aren't we?”

All went static between them.

Hoseok squeezed his wrist tighter, running over the satiny veins that stood out there. It throbbed through him so bad to be let so close, to mean so much, but to still stand behind a closed door. He longed to imprint those words into his memory forever; and yet, he couldn't he be content with what Kihyun was giving him.

Last autumn, Hoseok never would have thought this man would claim him in so many ways. As his family. As his lover. As his best friend.

He felt so inadequate, so undeserving to be just that – and too greedy to be only that.

While Kihyun put his trust in him, all Hoseok did was break it or walk around it. He's breached promises and tried their friendship and he's loved him when he wasn't allowed to. It was like betraying Kihyun all over again, harbouring those feelings for him.

In the silence that stretched over them, Kihyun regarded him without a flit of emotion.

“I guess we're not,” he said. “See. This is why I don't say shit.”

“That's not it,” Hoseok rushed to say although it ached. “Don't ever think I don't feel the same.”

“But you don't. You don't touch me anymore unless it's you who's hurting.”

Tides after tides crashed into him.

“That's not true,” Hoseok said feebly. Or was it? “It's just because we are never alone nowadays. You hate it when I'm all over you in public.” But when they were alone, it was Hoseok everything revolved around. His fears. His need to be reassured. He grew quiet. Oh, god.

“I don't mean to be needy, but I kind of want you to touch me,” said Kihyun with that eerie solemnity he's been enclosed in this whole time, disconnected from Hoseok while connecting with him physically.

“You're injured,” Hoseok entreated.

“And that makes me not a man.” It wasn't far from a scoff.

“You know that's not what I meant.”

“Let go of my hand.”

Hoseok did, on instinct. He knew he wasn't doing the right thing. But it felt like a balm to be admired by that cold hand that trailed up and down his chest. Kihyun didn't mind that he was sweat-soaked from the gym, a tang of salt hanging around him. He studied Hoseok with the kind of care that an artist needs to create a sculpture. Tenderly, because even on morphine or god knows what it was that has taken his pain away, Kihyun remembered what Hoseok liked and he nuzzled his nipples with light fingertips.

When he gripped Hoseok's arm, though, it was anything but tender.

He still had some strength in him. It soothed Hoseok.

It was winning him over. Was this really not right?

“I want you so bad,” said Kihyun in a silent voice. He dented Hoseok's muscles in a vice-like grasp. “So bad, Hoseok. It's been so sad here.”

There were no thoughts left in him when he kissed Kihyun, kissed him fiercely to swallow that sadness he spoke about. Hoseok would rather make it his than hear those words again. Balancing above him, Hoseok deepened the kiss with a small moan. It wasn't lust yet.

Still, he wanted to be wanted, and it emptied his head when Kihyun moaned too.

His mouth was void of taste. His mouth scorched. His mouth was all Hoseok knew for what felt like an eternity.

The kiss grew fragmented. Hoseok lapped at his lips, bit at them to earn himself another sigh, another sibilant whisper of his name.

Seok, Seok, Seok.

Oh, god. Hoseok was going mad.

If it took doubts and drugs for Kihyun to be this – this devoted – Hoseok would rather have him cold.

But it didn't take much for Kihyun to become just that.

“Let's fuck.”

“Kihyun, no.” Hoseok tried to please him otherwise, with pecks and tugs.

That didn't appease Kihyun, though. He tilted his head backwards to be unreachable to him.

“I miss you. I miss you when you're right here.”

Don't say this. I won't have this drunk talk.”

“I'm not drugged. I'm goddamn honest.”

Stricken, Hoseok made Kihyun look at him.

“Why are you like this?”

“Like what?”

“I – don't know. Emotional.”

Kihyun gave a listless laugh. “I'm a person, you know. I can be that.”

A swell of shame had Hoseok speechless for a second.

He really has taken shit for granted, hasn't he.

Uncertain, he offered: “I can suck you off.”

“No. I don't feel clean enough for that.”

“It's either that or a handjob. We can't shag. We both know what happens when we have no lube,” Hoseok reasoned.

“But we have some.”

“Yeah, where?” he raised a sceptical eyebrow. “You're out of it for real, little man.”

“I had Yoongi bring me some a good week ago.”

Hoseok pulled back.

“Why?” With a pang, he searched Kihyun's face. “Did you sleep with him?”

“Well, yeah. Two years ago. I told you already.”

“I meant now.”

“No.” Kihyun looked up owlishly. “I thought we made this fuck buddy thing sort of exclusive.” Nothing moved. “You called me yours.”

“You are,” Hoseok breathed out. “Mine.”

“Good.” Stroking his side, Kihyun began to outline Hoseok's ribs higher and higher up, touching him sweeter. “Let me. Let me do it.”

Hoseok had to close his eyes shut.

“You keep forgetting about the fact that you're fucking injured.”

“I'm pain-free now,” Kihyun reminded him with quite a bit of patience, the statement punctuated. “I will be for a while.”

“It will be worse when the narcotic wears off.”

“Well, future me can suck my dick.”

“Kihyun, are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yeah. If you want to.” He held Hoseok's hand for a bit before he led it under the blanket where he placed it over his cock. It was hot and swelling under his palm, and so silky Hoseok really thought of putting it in his mouth. “Because I do,” Kihyun assured him.

It didn't happen in a hurry, but it seemed so to Hoseok when he sprung out of bed to barricade the door with one of the plastic chairs. He undressed on his way back. He found the lube and a pack of condoms under the bedside table, not inside, because the nurses snooped and Kihyun was sly like that; or shy.

All the while, he felt Kihyun's eyes on his body. Hoseok was hyper-aware of his gaze as it flowed after and over him, following his every move. He knew he was being vain when he stood tighter and let his muscles tense up. He took his time unwrapping the rubber. He supposed it really was a nice sight, him standing in a blue glow. Kihyun was already holding an arm out for him when he turned back.

Hoseok went to him. He took Kihyun's hand and pressed it to his stomach.

“The belt kinda suited you,” Kihyun remarked.

“Should I put it back on?” he asked without thinking.

Kihyun smiled.

“Fuck,” was all he said.

“What is it, little man?” In an undertone, Hoseok goaded him: “Would you like that?”

“I might like it too much.”

Hoseok put it back on. By the time he did, he was just as hard as Kihyun. He waited by the bed, half-seated.

Their hands brushed as he rolled the rubber on Kihyun's erection. Hoseok held him at the root firmer than he needed, which made Kihyun go rigid on his back.

“Now what?” Hoseok asked, a little expectantly.

The thing was, he genuinely wondered what to do next. They couldn't sleep together the way they normally did. Which, well, was a pity.

“Sit on it.”

His breath hitched.

So perhaps it wasn't that much of a pity.

“What about your scar, though?” Hoseok reminded him.

“It's okay if it rips.”

“The fuck, Kihyun! No, it isn't!”

“I'm in a hospital, after all.” Boring into him, Kihyun patted his leg to beckon him. “I don't mind if you hurt me a little.”

“I do mind. I fucking mind.”

“Ride me gently, then.”

God.

Hoseok straddled him gingerly and bent down for a kiss. He didn't expect Kihyun to give it all open-mouthed and ardent. He barely managed to draw back enough to fumble with the bottle of unscented lube when Kihyun hooked his hand under Hoseok's belt and tugged.

Because he didn't anticipate it, it brought him down to a kneel. He gasped out, grudging a chuckle.

“You had this planned out, you little shit,” he accused in a whisper.

“Yes.” Kihyun drawled out the s sound. “From the minute you walked in.”

“You gotta ease up. I have to prep myself.”

“Finger yourself like this.” Lips parted, Kihyun stared at his. “I feel like being kissed.”

He already half-loved it. To be had in the palm of Kihyun's little hand. Pulled in. Desired to the point that Kihyun lay under him open and raw – to the point that he would not let go.

They made out, whispering in between. Hoseok was clumsy as he hovered above Kihyun, reaching behind to probe at himself. It was easier to close his eyes and seize Kihyun's mouth over and over, welcoming his tongue. He could pretend the tongue was inside him.

All he needed was two fingers. He was ready – or he was just rushing – but in any case, he sat on Kihyun's cock.

Kihyun stroked Hoseok's thigh to halt him.

His chest grew hot. The gesture only pushed him to take the tip in all at once.

A shiver ran through him and he steadied himself on his palms, resting them on each side of Kihyun's shoulders. He gripped the sheets.

“Go slow, baby,” Kihyun whispered.

That did it. Hoseok bottomed out.

The strain it brought to Kihyun's body sent rapture through Hoseok's last nerve although he felt stretched, too stretched. He let his weight help him take Kihyun whole. He watched as it contorted Kihyun's face, pronouncing his already angular features even further. His jaw invited Hoseok to kiss it all the way alongside it.

“Fuck... fuck, hyung.”

Unsteady, Kihyun ran his fingers down Hoseok's cock, covering it with soft touches. He took a better hold of him, teasing rather than jacking him off.

The truth was, Hoseok's dick jumped at all of it; he didn't even need to be caressed.

But it distracted him from the feeling of being spread beyond comfort.

He dragged himself up and ground down.

Kihyun threw his head back. Something not far away from laughter tinkled like glass on his lips.

With another thrust, Hoseok made him hiss.

“Am I hurting you?” Hoseok worried.

“No. No, you're perfect.”

His mind was already hazy, his groin stirring at everything Kihyun has said tonight so far. He could survive being called baby. He could, shakily, survive being called hyung. But this had him winded.

He started fucking himself onto Kihyun's cock.

It was overwhelming, the way his body reacted – and the way Kihyun reacted to his body. He stroked Hoseok everywhere, mapping him with such worship that Hoseok arched only to give him a better view, to wreck him; to utterly ruin him for anyone who might come after him one day. He allowed Kihyun to yank him down by the belt and he trembled at the closeness. Almost on top of him, Hoseok spread his thighs further and took Kihyun deeper, slicker, tighter, until the tip grazed him there.

Hoseok grunted. He tried to muffle the sound against Kihyun's neck and the lovely dent between his collarbones. To no avail. Kihyun scraped at his inner thigh, moving up to his navel where Hoseok felt him, and further still to claw at his back. He slid down over the curve of Hoseok's ass, opening him.

Hoseok didn't try to be silent after that.

“That good?” Kihyun mumbled, craning to take Hoseok's earlobe in between his teeth.

“S'good,” he mouthed. “So good. God...”

“Fuck yourself faster.”

“I can't. I can't Kihyun,” he choked out.

“You can, baby. You can take all of me.” His breath ghosted over Hoseok's ear while his hips buckled up to glide into him with more force. “I'm fucking yours.”

Hoseok thrashed. He put one hand underneath Kihyun's neck to bring him into a kiss as he came. He cried into his mouth only to become breathless the next moment.

His skin on fire, he waited for it to be over, just over, but it wasn't; the echoing throb within him wouldn't go away until Kihyun still had the strength to move, to bury into him with shallow thrusts. It was minutes and minutes and minutes, until it almost hurt.

All's gone black.

Hoseok cupped his face blindly. “Come. Come for me,” he begged.

Kihyun groaned. It broke into a smaller, fainter sound.

He fucking obeyed.

His face turned fragile as he voicelessly mouthed Hoseok's name for the last time. He didn't close his eyes. There was clarity in them, and a light that seared, and it sowed doubt within Hoseok all anew whether he had any sedatives in his system left. As his orgasm ebbed, Kihyun started to shiver. A small crease appeared between his eyebrows as he drew them together.

With a loose fist, Kihyun followed the play of shadows down Hoseok's chest, stroking it almost absent-mindedly. It looked like he was grasping at Hoseok to calm him down and to be calmed all at once.

Hoseok has been so wrong to avoid seeing this the whole time.

 

Kihyun was a selective asshole depending on how much pain he was in after he got discharged from the hospital wing. And yet when he snapped and withdrew and told Hoseok off for fussing too much, Kihyun did so with obvious satisfaction at being surrounded with things he owned and rules he has set for himself. He was glad to be back.

He still looked bloodless on most days, especially on pale mornings that quickly turned sickly yellow due to the blazing sun. Hoseok watched over him during his morphine withdrawal. He took it upon himself to give Kihyun smaller and smaller shots – not until his chronic pain went away, but until he learned to live with it.

It wasn't until autumn that he did, and by then the sun still blazed, though autumn suns rose softer and sank dimmer.

Kihyun grumbled with his usual gusto whatever the season. He grumbled when his scar itched and when Bora forced him to exercise. He grumbled when he was assigned only petty commissions or none at all, which meant he had to stay inside the hotel for the most part, brooding. He grumbled when he had to continue to sponge bathe himself, unable to take a proper shower yet, because he was so obsessed with cleanliness and it irritated him. He grumbled when Hoseok kissed him, so he just kissed Kihyun harder and harder and then he slowed down, smiling into the other man's mouth and waiting for him to push back, to kiss back.

The only times Kihyun didn't was when he went straight for Hoseok's ears.

Or dick.

The inability to take brought up the part of Kihyun that sought to give; to care. Hoseok hasn't got so much head in his whole life like he has in the last couple of months. He hadn't been touched by anyone the way he was since Kihyun was back, sharing the same bed, roaming Hoseok's body with both hands although it had to hurt him to do that, at least in the beginning.

When he did take Hoseok, it was from behind. Not kneeling down like they used to, because that always tempted Kihyun to embrace him and pull him and put his upper body into it and strain the wound, but with Hoseok on all fours. It was the only way that didn't leave Kihyun's shoulder sore; not even when Hoseok rode him made sex painless.

Hoseok was constantly torn between being filled and looking into that pretty face as Kihyun deep-throated him, his eyes glazed over.

And then the rainy season began and Kihyun ached more than ever, but he braved it. In front of Hoseok, at least.

Coming back from his workout once, Hoseok heard Kihyun talk to Hyungwon in a tired voice, declaring with a snort that it was as if each raindrop seeped into his bones to eat at him. Hoseok never fancied Hyungwon to be a hugger, not with that silent shell around his solitary self and especially with that bony body, but the man tugged Kihyun towards him and they both reclined in one chair, listening to the rain.

“I feel old,” Kihyun muttered.

“You're not old. You're just an ugly little sieve,” replied Hyungwon.

There was a gush of laughter and Hoseok felt too much like an intruder to actually enter the room, so he disappeared again. When he returned, Changkyun and Minhyuk were there, too. It took Hoseok a moment to notice Jooheon who waved at him before he returned to what he was doing, which was pat the soft spikes of the cactus that stood at the desk. The boy was too absorbed in his thoughts to lift his head up after that.

Changkyun wasn't perched anywhere near Kihyun as was usual for him. Instead of that, he was rummaging through Kihyun's wardrobe with Minhyuk's help, claiming that the clothes that hung there were the actual, literal fifty shades of grey.

“That's not true,” said Kihyun, too lulled by either the pitter-patter of the rainfall or by pain to truly oppose him. “I've got some blues there.”

“Because you are one blue sucker,” supplied Minhyuk.

“No, it's because he looks good in navy,” Hoseok chimed in with a smile. “What's going on here?”

“We're getting shit-faced tonight,” Changkyun filled him in cheerfully, his head inside the wardrobe.

“Oh?” Hoseok found Kihyun and took in his mellowed out figure. “Is that a good idea?”

Kihyun shrugged. “It's the best idea the kid has had in a while.”

Hoseok wondered whether the agony has subsided, or whether it has got so bad that Kihyun was willing to try and drink it away.

“And you need to be all dolled up for that?” he crossed the room to sit on the armrest of the chair Kihyun was sitting in.

His hand sought out Hoseok's thigh immediately, squeezing the supple skin poking from under his gym shorts.

“Minhyuk seems to think so,” Kihyun said sourly.

“That's because I don't have the heart to see your sorry ass get ignored again for the whole night. Like, even by those really tragic gays who have no standards left,” Minhyuk explained. “It's sad.”

“Yeah, well, I'm not exactly hunting for anyone.”

“It's not about hunting. It's about being hunted,” Minhyuk said wisely.

At that, Kihyun could only sigh in exasperation. Idly, he drummed at the inner part of Hoseok's thigh.

Trying not to pay much attention to the contact when they were surrounded by the others, and trying even harder not to gloat at the fact that Kihyun didn't seem to mind their presence enough to rob himself of this tiny demonstration of intimacy, Hoseok mustered a sunnier tone:

“Who else is going?”

“The whole squad,” drawled Hyungwon. “Even Hyunwoo agreed to go.”

“No way?”

Minhyuk smiled an ominous smile. “I told him that Queen is a place where the prettiest girls go. You know, which is why it's called Queen.”

“Someone's gonna die.” Hoseok did nothing to suppress the wave of amusement that lit him up.

“Let's hope that if Hyunwoo decides to kill Minhyuk, he'll choke him. Because that's what he enjoys the most,” philosophized Hyungwon.

“I stand by my kinks proudly,” Minhyuk brushed him off.

Oblivious to their bickering, Changkyun emerged from the wardrobe, holding up two outfits by the hanger. One was simple and sleek and black except for the washed-out Guns n' Roses T-shirt.

The other one had Hoseok floored.

“Which one do you guys vote for?” The corner of Changkyun's mouth curved upwards.

The kid really, really did his best to feign innocence.

He knew which outfit was the winner before the commotion even started and before Minhyuk flung the “boring dad shit” back into the heap of clothes that Changkyun has created in the otherwise tidy space.

Oh, god. So Hoseok was really about to witness Kihyun in ripped jeans and a loose white shirt that was missing the uppermost two buttons, wasn't he.

It got even better when Changkyun took off his fine gold bracelets and dangled them next to the outfit.

“Amazing,” marvelled Minhyuk. “It got even sluttier.”

“Excuse me,” clipped Kihyun, “but I never agreed to wear this.”

“It's okay. The wise majority has spoken for you,” Minhyuk assured him.

“I think it's going to look good,” Hoseok offered a tad timidly.

Kihyun soured in his seat. “Well. I guess I don't have to take off my coat if it's too terrible.” He paused before he called to Changkyun: “Throw me that navy one.”

Unenthusiastically, Kihyun sauntered towards the bathroom to change. The rest of them waited for Hyunwoo to pick them all up. Not a private person, Hoseok shimmied out of his workout clothes and threw on something else without much care. He knew he gave off a healthy glow after a good exercise; it didn't matter what he wore.

Hyunwoo showed up. It was clear he came here straight after a hit. A steely kind of determination still lingered in his mimic muscles.

Kihyun reappeared, eliciting a whistle that was more cheeky than anything else from the devil duo. Liquid-like bracelets shimmered on his wrist.

He did, indeed, look a little bit slutty, Hoseok realized with a tingling rush that reached his belly and cock.

“Blue jeans,” sang Minhyuk.

“White shirt,” Changkyun immediately joined in.

“Walked into the room, you know you made my eyes burn,” they finished in unison.

Kihyun didn't even deign to endow them with a death glare. He simply flipped them off.

“You don't look half bad,” Hyungwon offered honestly.

“Thanks, I hate it.”

“Don't be dramatic,” Minhyuk quipped. “You can look decent for one night. It won't kill you.”

“Yeah, but every time I move, this happens.” Kihyun demonstrated what he meant. Sure enough, the open collar and a large slit in his jeans showed just what he'd prefer to hide.

“Someone's gonna dig it, so stop whining,” concluded Minhyuk before he took it upon himself to throw his arm around Hyunwoo's shoulders, leading the burly leader out and into the elevator.

Of course, once Hyunwoo stirred, everybody did.

In the car, Hoseok squished himself next to Kihyun, placing a warm palm over the scar that flashed sometimes through the slit in his jeans, pale and twisted. He stroked it lightly with his thumb. Kihyun let him.

They arrived a little before Hyunwoo and Minhyuk did in the other car. Hyungwon chose a spot as close to the club as possible because “he wasn't going to drag anyone's ass down the block like the last time.” They climbed out, chilled by the nipping air.

A slow tune poured into the semi-darkness when they walked inside the club. It resonated through bodies and made it seem as if the fluorescent tubes snaking white around walls quivered. The air was heavy with scents and voices.

Hoseok's mouth was already drowning in that well-known sweetness of lychee. He downed two or three Red Lotuses before he noticed that, for the first time in his life, Kihyun was sipping on a harmless-looking, peach-coloured drink in a lovely champagne flute that curved into his hand instead of some boring bitter bullshit.

When Kihyun ordered another one, Hoseok found out the drink wasn't harmless at all, and he only balked as the bartender sloshed absinthe and champagne together with crushed ice inside the glass. She placed it in front of Kihyun.

“One Death in the Afternoon.” She gave him a professional smile.

With a mouthed thanks, Kihyun sipped some more.

The way he handled the glass was too reminiscent of the way he handled Hoseok.

God.

Was he feeling slutty?

Hoseok almost dropped dead when Kihyun looked up with a straw in his mouth.

“What?” Kihyun scowled a bit because he didn't like it when Hoseok stared. In public, that is.

Nothing, he wanted to say. But instead of responding, Hoseok leaned towards him.

There were the others, of course, and so it wasn't surprising that Kihyun moved away and bent forward in his seat. Well, it was fine with Hoseok. He nosed at the spot behind his ear that smelled heady and woodsy, so manly it clashed with Kihyun's appearance, especially tonight. Tonight, he looked like Hoseok could break him in half and Kihyun would thank him.

No one said anything even when Hoseok dragged his mouth over that scented bit of skin, savouring the bitter impress it left on him. No one cared. Hyunwoo, who was nursing a bottle of non-alcoholic beer, either wasn't fazed by the nature of the club, or else he never even noticed. He was too busy being flirted with by the bartender. Hyungwon was getting philosophical again, this time with Jooheon who, although quieter than usual, sported a sort of tipsy halo that gleaned a dimpled grin out of him every now and then. And Changkyun, well, he looked like he was enjoying the show, snickering as he watched Hoseok being silly.

Yeah. So he was in the clear as he nuzzled at Kihyun. The only one who would potentially make any comments was Minhyuk, but that boy was as good as lost in the throng.

Still, Kihyun shifted further in his seat, focused on his opalescent cocktail.

Hoseok pulled back.

Then he pulled a face.

Then he threw back something that tingled smoky and spicy on the roof of his mouth. Grains of salt melted on his teeth. He noticed there were hot peppers and cayenne pepper frozen inside the ice cubes in his drink and then he felt the burn.

Shit. He coughed and laughed a little; and Changkyun dragged him from the counter to dance before Kihyun could nag at Hoseok for trying out drinks that were deadlier than his stare.

Absorbing red spotlights that fell fluid from above, the crook of Changkyun's neck seemed the best place for Hoseok to place his chin as they swayed, not from side to side but back and forth.

Changkyun tilted his head backwards to rest it on Hoseok's shoulder.

“You know,” he whispered, but it was a loud whisper since it would be drowned by the music otherwise, “Kihyun can be smart, but he can also be super dumb.”

“I mean, you're not wrong,” Hoseok smiled, “but what exactly are you talking about?”

“Look at him,” Changkyun prompted him, amused.

So Hoseok did. Things swam a little, and those that lay at some distance even more so, but he found Kihyun sitting at the bar. He was taking his time to spin the champagne flute in circles. And then – he darted a glance at them.

“He thinks he's being lowkey,” Changkyun chuckled low in his throat, “but he's been staring like a vulture.”

“Has he?”

“Yep.”

“Well, he's starey.” It's a Scorpio thing, Hoseok added internally.

“That he is. Especially when someone's touching what is his.”

To solidify his words, he reached up and fondled Hoseok's face. It was a friendlier gesture than it looked like from afar.

Kihyun turned ahead. His profile cut chiselled and unyielding into the dark. He was still as water, though without any of its fluidity.

“Told you,” intoned Changkyun to the melody that engulfed them.

“Which one of us is his, you smartass?” Hoseok smirked.

“He thinks that you are. And he also thinks that he can't think of you that way.”

Somehow, Hoseok didn't know whether he could humour Changkyun for much longer. He grew serious all of a sudden.

“Has he told you that?”

“He'd sooner feed himself bleach.”

“Then don't go around spreading stuff like this,” said Hoseok firmly. “You're making it seem like he's jealous when he's probably just... judgy.”

He nearly got carried away. Again.

“Oh, he's jealous.”

“Look, kid, you don't know what you're talking about.”

“But I do. He's fought for you, you know. Even before you became one of us. And after that even more.”

“What do you mean, even more?” Hoseok peered at him.

“It's one thing for Hyungsoo to give you a pass, but it's a whole another thing for the rest of us to accept you.” Lazily, Changkyun rolled his hips. “See, you kinda need to have a reputation before you can come to a place like this. You don't just join.”

“I did,” Hoseok disagreed.

“Yeah. That's the thing. Some fuckers have been saying it's unsafe to take you in. It died down a bit when you made your bones on that Mad Clown case. Now, though... It's got bad again. People have been talking about you a lot. The two of you. Whether you are fucking or dating or whatever.”

“No one has said anything to me.”

“Yeah, not to you. To Kihyun. Someone tried to bring you up again and said that we should put you back on the streets and that Kihyun is making the same mistake – you know. Like with Gun.” Changkyun paused to allow a grim grin blossom over his lips. “Kihyun kinda choked him for it. You know how quick he is? So quick that he doesn't need to be strong sometimes?”

Ice-crusted needlepoints sank into Hoseok.

“Yeah,” he said without thinking.

“It's hot, but, like, it wasn't very hot when he started bleeding a bit. He was still healing back then.”

Hoseok remembered that night. Kihyun had gone to “clear his head” into one of the underground clubrooms only to come back with the wound oozing. He had claimed he never noticed the leaking. He hadn't let Hoseok to fuss about him, either.

Hoseok had been petty about it at the time, but now it made sense.

His eyes flowed towards Kihyun only to meet his. Kihyun broke the contact.

It didn't escape Changkyun, who chuckled once more.

“How did you even do it, hyung?”

“Do what?”

“Make him dumb.”

“I didn't,” he said blankly.

“Alright, then. Keep your secrets. I've given him up, anyway,” Changkyun half-mocked, half-assured him.

“I'm telling you. It's not what you think.”

“Right.”

Whirling around, Changkyun pored right into him while he hitched Hoseok's tank top up. He exposed his stomach, studying the firmness of it with a touch that was as friendly as the previous one – but twice as taunting. Before Hoseok could react, Changkyun backed away.

“Now watch.”

With that, Changkyun slithered away through the crowd. Hoseok stood there stricken until another song snapped on, a heavy drum line enhancing the too-slow singing part. His movements dragged out when he started dancing again, too numb to do anything else.

He was about to shake off a pair of arms that encircled him from behind when he noticed those gold bangles; the cold ring.

“Hello,” Kihyun mumbled against the nape of his neck.

“Hi.” He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder.

“Having fun?”

“Now I am.”

He heard Kihyun inhale. The hands traced him up and down. Recalling Changkyun's words, Hoseok almost let himself believe it was done to reclaim him.

“You look really good.” He said it so quietly that Hoseok would have no chance to pick it up if Kihyun wasn't pressed against him. He had to stand on his toes next because he grazed Hoseok's ear with the tip of his nose. “Really good.”

“It's the absinthe talking.”

Hoseok shuddered. He forced a smile even though Kihyun couldn't see it. He had to smile. Had to smile it off.

“No, it's my dick.” Speaking of which, it brushed semi-hard against Hoseok's ass. “Also, I'm not blind.”

Oh, but he was. So, so blind. It was a good thing, though. He would've detached himself from Hoseok long ago otherwise. He would know how bad he pined.

“What is it that you like so much?” Hoseok inquired.

“Are we playing this game again?”

“What can I say. I love being complimented.”

“I know you do,” Kihyun hummed. He hugged Hoseok tighter, grasping his own wrist to add strength to it. The contact loosened too soon and Kihyun went on to feather his fingertips over Hoseok's chest, marvelling at the force that rested there. The funny thing was, Kihyun could command all of Hoseok's power with one little finger because that was exactly where he had him wrapped.

“And yet,” Hoseok tried to put some ease back into his tone, “you never praise me. Not unless you're... drunk.” He almost said drugged.

“That's not true.”

Maybe it wasn't. Hoseok got quiet for a bit.

“Not unless it's behind my back, then,” he said.

He paused, a little expectantly. But he didn't know what it was he was expecting. For Kihyun to own up to standing up for him? He'd never admit it. There was a reason Kihyun never said anything about the incident in the first place. Either he thought it would worry Hoseok, or he was ashamed for losing his cool.

It still sweetened the burn in his mouth that Kihyun had lost his cool – because of him.

“Well. I'm quite literally standing behind your back, so I can say it. You look goddamn good tonight.” Touching his way up and embracing Hoseok the way he did whenever he fucked him kneeling, Kihyun breathed out, those petal-small hands laid on Hoseok's shoulders. “People stare at you.”

“Do they?”

“Yeah. They're not blind, either.”

Hoseok grew daring. “Have you been staring?”

“You know the answer.”

“But you're the pretty one tonight.”

Kihyun snorted. “It's the clothes. With you, it's... well, you.”

He could get drunk on that.

He took Kihyun by the wrist. Strokes of light flitted over the jewels he wore. To Hoseok, it was as if he was branded by two other men. He wished to reclaim him, too.

Turning around, he took Kihyun by surprise and locked their mouths together. Hoseok tasted absinthe on his tongue, and he knew that Kihyun could taste spice on his.

Gasping, Kihyun pulled away. “Chilli,” he said out of nowhere. With knitted brows, he kissed Hoseok again, this time mumbling: “Lychee.”

“What else?” muttered Hoseok before he let him in deeper.

There was a moan. “Cayenne?” And another stifled one. “Salt.” The word sizzled on Hoseok's lips as Kihyun took them.

“And what else?”

Kihyun put his arms around his neck.

“You,” he said.

There was no stopping Hoseok after. Knowing full well that the others might see them, and knowing that Kihyun knew, he sucked on his tongue hard, and then on his throat, and then Hoseok pushed down the collar of his shirt and traced one delicate collarbone with wet kisses. He laid some on the glass-smooth scar. All the while, he crushed Kihyun close, so close he really could break him.

He would pick him up and bring him even closer if he wasn't afraid of bruising his ribs. He still tried to treat Kihyun with care, however much he told Hoseok not to.

Kihyun groaned. “You're so handsome. It's not even funny.”

He whispered that right against the soft outer shell of Hoseok's ear.

With unsteady hands, he wrapped Kihyun up; protected him; owned him. Or that's what he yearned for. For a little while, he could pretend the last part was true.

“So are you,” Hoseok said in a weak voice.

“No, you don't get it. You're... fuck. You're gorgeous.” Kihyun gently pushed Hoseok's face back to peer into it. “All of you.”

So Hoseok forgot all about the ribs and caution and the whole club and he lifted Kihyun up. He was heavy, and the gaze that bore into Hoseok was even heavier, but he could bear both. He could bear just about anything right now.

Cradling Hoseok's head, Kihyun leaned down to dip a kiss everywhere he reached.

Hoseok wondered if he could live off this forever. This substitute for happiness that came in doses too small to sate him, but too big to let him go.

“You're going all mushy on me,” Hoseok managed.

“I'll go hard on you when we're home.”

“No. No, stay mushy.”

Kihyun paused. “Okay.”

He didn't know for how long they danced, or rather stood in the middle of the dance floor, touching, talking. It wasn't until Hyunwoo scouted them all that they left the bar. It was raining outside and Hyungwon was already waiting at the exit, hidden underneath a dark blue umbrella he's obtained from a love-struck suitor. He was unfazed enough to take it.

The ride back robbed Hoseok of his senses. Not minding anything and anyone, Kihyun laved at Hoseok's neck, somewhat dicreetly at first. But that discretion didn't last. Shy or not, sober or not, Kihyun soon leaned into him in the back seat and made out with Hoseok the whole way from Itaewon to Songpa. He palmed his cock, too, and Hoseok nearly shied away because he didn't want Kihyun to regret this in the morning. In the end, Hoseok didn't. He couldn't. There was the same clarity in Kihyun's eyes he'd seen in them that day in the sickroom; the same glow that sought to get the most out of everything.

Sometimes when Kihyun ate him out, he went so supple and yielding he didn't need fingers. This was one of the times. Laced with alcohol, the tongue was hotter somehow, nimbling its way into Hoseok. When it wasn't inside him, Kihyun kissed his tattoo and muttered and breathed out and you are so good and oh god Hoseok and spread a little more. Hoseok didn't even mind being on all fours; not that he ever has.

He'd fucking cry-come if he faced Kihyun tonight.

 

Chapter Text

A hush has fallen over the hotel that had nothing to do with the impending midnight or the drizzle that calmed the city and soothed ornamental ginkgo trees scorched by the September sun.

They lost six people that night with only Jungkook coming back from the mission. Half of his face was melted off. He was alive, but barely, and there was no way of knowing whether the sacrifice was even worth it. He wasn't waking up.

The trap Kim Yugyeom had set for them snapped shut snugly, metaphorically grazing at Hyungsoo's fingers to let him know the Triad wasn't going to give up. They weren't going anywhere, not until they got Jackson; and so, as Kihyun said without a shred of colour in his voice, the Triad men would stay here forever, buried in the Korean ground once the organization got to them.

No one was allowed to see Jungkook, and judging from the look on Seokjin's face when he had left the operating theatre, it was for the better. Still, good two dozens of men and women stood vigil in the waiting room as hours ticked by. No one talked.

Hoseok wished he could glass himself in and dissolve in a state of inertia. He wished to watch this all from a distance again. When they had suffered their last lost, it hadn't been easy, but it hadn't touched Hoseok personally.

But he knew Jungkook. He's talked to the kid and they've exchanged workout tips and Hoseok even knew small things about him, like that he was a black belt and his nose has been broken two times. Now Jungkook had no nose to speak of. No ear.

Silence spread over ´the waiting group, rising up, a relentless tide.

There was little time to mourn.

The rites for the dead came and went, and Hoseok had to think of how bodies were normally only burned afterwards, not before. It added to the surreality of it all. One day, Dasom and Brother Su and the others were alive; the next day, they turned to ashes that couldn't even be retrieved from the place that had blasted with them inside.

Hyungsoo was adamant they go about the chase in a roundabout way if they couldn't attack Kim Yugyeom head-on. He wanted his men safe; but that didn't mean he would stop because he wanted Park's men dead a little bit more. He had Jooheon track the remaining two Triad men in any way possible, through any source that was available. He ran the boy down until it almost broke him; but, strangely, it seemed Jooheon benefited from pouring his whole self into work. The drive he used to possess was back at full force, and even as his face grew wan due to lack of sleep, there was an edge to this new Jooheon, a focus he had been missing for a long time.

Within days, Jooheon was able to dig up enough information about the men's whereabouts, the most crucial of which was that Kim Yugyeom has found himself a lover during his wait, an actress of sorts.

It was a goldmine. Actresses were easy to track.

Especially those who were popular enough to be casted as queens in period dramas.

Hyungsoo called Hoseok to his office about a week after the rites. Perhaps his reason to assign Hoseok to the task was that Hoseok was close to Jooheon and therefore he was always updated on the boy's findings. Or perhaps it was simply because of Hoseok's physique. Hyungsoo needed someone strong, convincing, and, well, at least a little bit good-looking to track the actress.

Hoseok reckoned the fact that the crushing majority of the men who worked for Hyungsoo were considerably older than him, and weathered, and scarred, and on the fucking lam, was also a factor in the boss's decision.

So that was it. The first mission Hoseok was supposed to lead.

He spent the day at gym, as if that additional workout was supposed to somehow enhance his chances at succeeding. He wasn't even meant to use power. He just had to look powerful. And pretty, so he wouldn't be questioned as an extra roaming the site where the actress's newest sageuk was being filmed.

Towards the evening, he stopped by at Jooheon's room. Jooheon has already got his hands on three fake passes to the filming location.

That meant he could only take Changkyun and Hyungwon with him.

Hoseok kind of hoped that would happen. It made his decision easier.

He didn't want to drag Kihyun along, not when he should rest. Not when he was mourning.

But when Hoseok returned to the bedroom and saw Kihyun sitting in his favourite chair with folded shoulders, he suddenly didn't want to leave. He didn't want to leave Kihyun alone for any longer after spending so much time underground today. He didn't want to go without him.

He knelt on one knee in front of the chair. It seemed Kihyun only just noticed him. There was a book in his lap that he kept tracing with a slow touch even as he looked up.

“Are you ready?” Kihyun asked quietly.

“I guess.”

“I'd like to hear your plan if it's alright with you.”

Hoseok hesitated. “Well. We come. We steal some clothes. We blend in with the crowd.”

Kihyun didn't say anything.

“One of us is on the lookout in front of Song Jihyo's trailer,” he continued, a tad uncertain. “Probably Hyungwon. Changkyun is better at bugging places.”

“Okay,” said Kihyun.

But Hoseok wondered whether it really was okay.

Edging closer, he covered Kihyun's hand with his.

“I'm listening.”

Kihyun looked at him owlishly, as if considering Hoseok's reaction. Hoseok squeezed his hand.

“It might be less conspicuous if only one of you dresses as a background actor,” Kihyun suggested. “If a lot of props disappear at once, people will notice. That stuff is expensive.”

“What about the other two?”

“There is always something to do. Catering. Someone can pretend to be a paparazzo and monitor the set from the outside.”

That hasn't occurred to him. It would look less suspicious for a caterer who was bringing refreshments to walk inside a movie star's trailer than for a random extra. The paparazzo plan was even better.

He stared at Kihyun's petite fingers.

“Hyungwon could do that,” Hoseok blurted. “He could monitor the place. We could be in touch that way. He could – yes, if he finds a place to watch the site from the above –”

His mind started racing.

Yes. That would also eliminate the whole thing Hoseok was secretly worried about – that Hyungwon might actually draw too much attention to himself and, as a result, to all three of them. A wanted criminal shouldn't really be appearing in front of cameras, now, should he? Not to mention that if Hyungwon stayed outside, they would have intel delivered to them from a vantage point.

And it would mean there was one fake pass left.

Hoseok remained rooted in place, though.

He didn't want to leave Kihyun behind – but he didn't know if he could bear to bring him along. He wasn't even on the team yet and he was already taking over.

What was worse, he could get injured doing something rash if they had to flee.

It wasn't until Kihyun put his face up with a small touch that Hoseok snapped out of it.

“What is it?” Kihyun looked at him searchingly.

“It's – no, it's nothing.”

Just like Hoseok a few minutes ago, he said: “I'm listening.”

“I... shouldn't do this to you.”

“Do what?”

“Drag you with me just because I might need you.”

They both paused.

“You'd take me with you?”

“That's beside the point! You should stay here and heal and –”

“If I hear that one more time...” Kihyun reclined in his seat, a vacant expression haunting his face once more.

“It's true, though. You're still in pain.”

“At this point, I'll always be in pain. It's a fucked up place to get shot. But I got lucky. No nerve damage.” He waved at Hoseok dorkily. “I can handle shit.”

“Yeah, but –”

“I can handle you.”

“Listen, little man. If I took you with me and something happened –”

“I won't fuck up.”

That sounded way too familiar. Hoseok stared up at him.

“I know you won't. But I might. And instead of protecting you, I would...” he trailed off. He shook his head. He didn't even want to think about it. “I would be putting you in danger. I don't want that.”

Kihyun went silent at that.

“Okay.”

It was the wrong kind of “okay” again.

“Kihyun. I just want you safe.”

“I'll be safe with you.”

His throat grew tight. This really felt too familiar.

“I won't lay this responsibility on you,” Hoseok reasoned.

“What responsibility?”

“You – taking care of all of us,” he said without thinking.

“I'll take care of what you tell me to,” Kihyun told him as he knitted his brows in perplexity.

Pulling back, Hoseok gaped at him. “You wouldn't lead us?”

Pulling even further back, it was Kihyun's turn to gape.

“It's your mission. I can't be arsed to do your job.”

“What?”

“Hyungsoo chose you and you hand-picked your own team. It's not my place to lead the guys, it's yours,” Kihyun said as if it was the most obvious thing on earth. He pursed his lips. “But I guess I'm useless to you. You didn't pick me.”

Hoseok exhaled. “Kihyun.”

“It's okay. I'm nothing but a discharged sieve.”

“Stop calling yourself a sieve.” He couldn't help the tug at the corners of his mouth.

“A discharged one,” stressed Kihyun.

“You're being silly.” He caressed Kihyun's thighs to coax him into taking that statement back, but it didn't work. Kihyun just looked at him. Sighing, Hoseok reached forward and brought Kihyun towards the edge of the chair by the waist. He laid his head against Kihyun's stomach. The scent of forests and flowers flooded him. “So silly,” he repeated.

“I'm not, though. That's the thing. You'd rather have me caged here than take me with you.”

“Because I'm scared – not because I don't trust in you,” he said loudly.

For a moment, nothing happened.

And then he felt a peck at the top of his head.

He hoped he wasn't too sweaty although it wasn't like Kihyun ever minded.

“What was that for?” Hoseok mumbled.

“For believing in this old sieve.”

“You're not a sieve!” he groaned.

“A fishing net, then.”

“No. You're my man.”

It kind of slipped. They weren't in bed, Hoseok realized with a chill. He glanced up.

Kihyun wasn't fazed. “Yeah, that's even sadder. Not even you will have me.”

“Kihyun,” he warned mildly.

“No, I get it. I will just rot here. With my sadness.”

“That's it. You're going.”

“...Am I really?”

“I mean – fuck.”

The way Kihyun's cunning little face sharpened made it quite clear to Hoseok that he's swallowed the bait and the hook.

“You're making me dumb,” he said darkly.

“I shouldn't take credit for the hard work of your genes.”

Hoseok squinted. Before he could get into his famed petty mode, though, Kihyun pecked him for the second time. Then, tilting Hoseok's head back, he did more than that.

He clung to Hoseok in a way that spoke volumes as they kissed. It was a silent thanks. A thanks that, for a split second, he could be silly. That despite the funerals and the undefeated danger looming somewhere close, he could do and say things that would at any other time bring laughter and ease and not be guilty about it. It was one thing to be a human and another thing to feel human.

Hoseok clung to him just as fiercely.

They got to the site after dusk.

The gates of the Gyeongbokgung Palace stood tall and impervious, but not to them. A ship-shaped roof above the entrance rose above them as they walked in through the middle gate, showing off their passes. Once inside, they became anonymous, nothing but silhouettes amongst a sea of them. Lanterns and led lights alike illuminated the courtyard with golden honey tones, bringing up shadows that dipped into carved ornaments on walls and banisters. Hanboks shimmered and rustled; the air smelled of overheated lamps.

So many voices clashed all around that it was clear no scene was being shot here at the moment. All the better. They could skulk into the inner courtyard without disruption.

They set off to steal into one of the cleared out residences where the staff stored props and costumes. Venturing in first, Changkyun took care of anyone lingering inside, putting them to sleep for a couple of hours.

Changkyun was already dressed as a caterer, doing his research beforehand and sporting the company's logo on a primply starched polo shirt. Kihyun merged in equally easily in a cap and unobtrusive clothes. He acted invisible enough to be taken for one of the lighting technicians. But while the most intricate task lay ahead of Hoseok, Kihyun was the one in biggest danger. He would be the easiest to spot – the one most likely to blow his cover if a member of the crew realized they didn't recognize his face.

Hoseok turned to Kihyun.

“Maybe you should do it,” he suggested.

“Do what?”

“Go undercover.”

“Didn't you say Hyungsoo picked you because you are built?” Changkyun raised an eyebrow at him.

“That's true, but consider this. If I get discovered, I'll be able to ram my way out. Kihyun won't.”

The risk that came with roaming here differed from the risk they usually took. Normally, their life would be in danger. Tonight, it was their freedom. No gangsters lurked around waiting to kill them; no enemies. If they were discovered, they would be brought straight to the police. While Hoseok has never had a run-in with the police before, Kihyun and Changkyun haven't been as fortunate.

If they got caught, they would have to take the blow for Hyungsoo.

Kihyun regarded him.

Hoseok... I don't think we have that much time to argue.” There was something akin to indecision in his tone. However, it wasn't his words he seemed to be hesitant about. “We shouldn't change the plan unless it's absolutely necessary. And besides, I don't fit the profile. You do. You look like a sageuk actor. You got the perfect eyebrows for this. Like the old noble Shins of the Yeongsan clan,” he pointed out.

Hoseok and Changkyun stopped to stare at him.

“What?” Kihyun stared back.

“Nerd,” Changkyun piped up first.

“You think I've got perfect eyebrows?” Hoseok teased him. He did it to stop himself from asking how come Kihyun knew about the history of his surname. But, well, he was a nerd. It could've been a complete coincidence and Hoseok didn't want to look too hopeful or even a little bit ridiculous.

And, after all, they were kind of in the middle of something.

The teasing didn't get to Kihyun. “Yeah. They're super straight.”

Changkyun seized the opportunity.

“That's the only thing that's str –”

“Don't even finish that,” Kihyun threatened.

Chuckling, Hoseok disappeared into the changing room only to emerge a few minutes later, all dolled up in a costume that fit him a little too snugly and enhanced the breadth of his chest. A gust of night breeze blew past him and he slightly tossed his head to get a loose strand which flowed down a dark-haired wig away from his eyes. He wondered how women did it.

He laid a wandering hand on the hilt of his jedok geom.

“So?” he prompted the mute duo uncertainly.

“So. We're fucked,” said Changkyun, turning to Kihyun. “He looks like a crown prince, not a guard.”

Hoseok's mouth got big as he tried not to laugh aloud. He really liked the kid.

“Tough shit. It's not like runts like us can go instead,” grumbled Kihyun.

Following Hyungwon's intel, they split. Hoseok sent Kihyun to search for the actress's manager, Changkyun to search for her trailer, and he went after the actress herself.

He passed shrines and bridges, stone stairs and roofed corridors lined with hanji doors, the paper inside their wooden frames translucent and lustrous in the dark-shine of the site. The occasional crackle of Hyungwon's voice in Hoseok's ear steered and calmed him.

He got to the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion. The reflection of a myriad of lanterns spilled like oil over the lake that surrounded the building from three sides. The pavilion stood squat above the still waters. The path that led towards it swarmed with extras dressed like Hoseok. Calmly, he joined them.

 

It took time, but it was done.

Getting his hands on the actress's phone to tap it was a nightmare. And Hoseok knew nightmares.

This was worse.

He just hoped the guys were successful, too.

When he got back, Kihyun was already there, toying with the shaft of a led lamp that stood not too far away from the residence that harboured the changing rooms. It sent a spark of relief through Hoseok to see him.

When he spotted Hoseok, Kihyun tucked his hands into his pockets and ambled away from the tall lamp, avoiding its light. He followed after Hoseok as he walked into the building. There was no one inside. Their voices carried lightly with a wooden echo.

“Your highness,” said Kihyun, his voice atinkle with either amusement or awe.

Hoseok felt a flush creep from his shoulders up. He decided to play along.

“Concubine Yoo,” he bowed.

“Oh, am I a concubine? Not your empress?”

Of course, Kihyun was just being cocky, his jawline cut like glass as he tilted his head back. Hoseok wanted to kiss that pride off his lips and then pour it back – pour it back even stronger because Kihyun was so beautiful when he stood proud.

“You are my low-born little concubine and we're kinda star-crossed because we can't actually get married, but I go to you each night and you sing to me while my four wives and my whole harem curse you,” Hoseok supplied happily.

“What kind of Empress Ki bullshit is that?”

Hoseok smiled. Yeah. So he really was a nerd.

Then it hit him before it hit Kihyun.

“Empress Ki,” Hoseok grinned so big that Kihyun groaned.

“Don't.”

“I'm never calling you anything else ever again,” he simpered.

“I won't have you calling me Ki.”

Empress Ki,” he emphasized.

“I hate this.”

“It's okay. I love this,” Hoseok assured him with a grin even wider than the previous one.

“It doesn't really help that her husband was called Emperor Huizong, does it,” Kihyun clipped.

It sounded too fucking similar. Hoseok laughed.

“Little man, were we soulmates in our past lives?” he taunted.

“I hope not. Those two didn't end up very happily.”

“How come?”

“They stopped loving each other after she's grown too influential because, you know, Huizong was a weak ass man. And then he died and then she disappeared and that was it. Also, her whole family got massacred because Ki and her brother were kinda power-greedy. A bummer, really.” Kihyun contemplated the woman's fate for a bit. “But she got to become empress in the end, so I guess that's fair.”

“But isn't love a little better than a throne?” Hoseok opposed, knowing very well Kihyun might laugh in his face.

“Not if you have to share that dick with hundreds of other women. I'd rather sit on that throne.”

“I'm talking heart and you're talking dick,” Hoseok gave a fake sigh.

“You can't sit on a heart.”

Hoseok sighed for real.

“Did you manage to tap the manager's phone?” he asked although he was tempted to continue with the banter; too tempted.

“Yessir. And her laptop.”

“Holy shit.” Hoseok didn't know for sure which part roused him more.

“Glad to see you smitten.”

Yeah. That he was.

He smiled.

“You know, it's a pity you didn't dress up,” said Hoseok.

“Why?”

“I'd like to see you in a hanbok.”

“I'd look like any other man.” Suspiciously, Kihyun looked him up and down. “Unless you mean it in a kinky way and you actually want to see me in a women's hanbok. Because then I would probably look like any other woman.”

“You would,” Hoseok agreed, a splitting smile brightening up his features. “You're such a doll.”

“Me? A doll?”

Actually, with the cap and all, Kihyun looked sort of fuckboyish. Sort of hot.

But Hoseok recalled the club and the loose shirt that had slid shimmering over Kihyun's clavicles and opened up to him slim throat. He recalled those wrists he could mince. The glassy film in his eyes when he choked on Hoseok's cock and still swallowed it whole. It was the only kind of choking Hoseok could get down for.

Yeah. A doll it was.

It was lucky Changkyun chose that exact moment to appear because Hoseok didn't mean to fuck during a mission again.

They left the site together.

 

It was rumoured that Jungkook got worse. Hyungsoo took it upon himself to fly the boy to Macau where he would receive better medical care, or a quieter end. In any case, it was safer for the boy and the boss alike to leave the country for the time being.

No one had the energy to go out, but their whole group ganged up in an otherwise unoccupied clubroom to drink and pretend to chat and chill. The space was windowless, lined with long vertical light bulbs that trickled down the whole length of the walls.

A slow melody chanted from a ceiling speaker. The song had a jazzy feeling to it that sometimes grated at Hoseok when he heard the squeal of violins. The sound creeped him out although it was beautiful. But the music carried muted enough for him to bear it.

They drank so much it was unreal. They could almost make it seem they were happy.

In a way, they drank to forget that tomorrow was going to be the D-day. Hyungsoo had picked the team before leaving. All of them were supposed to go – except for Jooheon and Kihyun. With the help of the tapping device planted into the actress's phone, they had Kim Yugyeom tracked; and, even more astonishingly, Jooheon has found out that the woman was in regular contact with the remaining Triad member as well.

Jooheon's hands and mind were truly made of gold.

If their team had any luck at all, they could take out both of the men at once. If not, they could still take them out one by one.

It was getting cloudy as Gain chain-smoked. The heptagon-shaped room offered a corner for every loner and every couple who preferred to lounge and get shit-faced on their own, but the faint scent of cigarettes reached Hoseok even where he sat. He didn't mind it as much as he thought he would. The only thing that mattered to him was the warmth of Kihyun's body.

They weren't exactly touching. Nevertheless, they sat close enough for their thighs to press together every now and then. Hoseok kind of wished that all that whisky Kihyun has downed made him sweet again, but with every glass he threw in, he became more and more solemn instead.

It wasn't like Hoseok was going to be in danger tomorrow. His job was to protect Hyungwon, which meant he was hardly supposed to set a foot inside Kim Yugyeom's lair.

Still, Kihyun sipped gloomily, only sparing a word or two in Hoseok's direction when he was being asked something.

A harsh click disturbed the stillness. Hoseok turned at the sound to see Changkyun, who was holding an old Polaroid camera and aiming it at Gain. The boy took another snapshot of her as she let a soft haze of smoke rise from her mouth. She grinned at him and posed some more. Pulling photographs out of the slot to shake them, Changkyun snapped her two more times.

“I thought you would never use it,” commented Kihyun.

“I do use it,” Changkyun protested. “I take dick pics with it.”

“Thanks,” said Gain, amused. It earned her a snicker from Changkyun.

“Dick pics and amazingly artistic pictures of beautiful women,” he grovelled.

“Better,” she smiled.

“It takes gorgeous shots, hyung,” said Changkyun as he looked at Kihyun. “Thank you.”

“Well, just don't break it.”

“Geez, I won't. I'm cherishing it. Look.” He cradled the camera in both hands.

“Did you buy the kid a camera?” Hoseok inquired.

“Yeah. Some two years ago. The ungrateful prick.”

“Really? How come I only get kisses?”

“Because I buy shit for you throughout the year,” said Kihyun wryly.

“Still.”

“A kiss is all you're gonna get,” he deadpanned. “And you better come back alive to give me mine.”

They both paused. Hoseok recovered first.

“So... I'm not getting even a tiny gift? Not even a keychain?”

“I said what I said.”

Hoseok pretended to sulk. “And they say that empresses are gracious and generous and shit.”

“Don't start with that Empress Ki bullshit again –” Kihyun threatened only to be interrupted by another click.

Changkyun simpered at them as he shook the picture by the corner.

“Was this a dick pic?” Kihyun asked darkly.

Chankyun's face fell. “Aw. I wanted to make that joke.”

“Get on my level.”

Instead of replying, Changkyun took more snaps. Always the one to be pretty, Hoseok posed as zealously as Gain before him. He forced Kihyun to hold up a peace sign although he did it with an exasperated expression.

He got even grudgier when Hoseok squished him into a hug for the last photograph.

Seeing that his and Hoseok's antics were quickly getting on Kihyun's last nerve, Changkyun crept away with a grin. Somewhere on the other side of the room, he started clicking furiously, taking Hyunwoo by surprise.

Kihyun stopped talking again, but at least now he sat leaning against Hoseok, resting his head on one sturdy shoulder.

Because it got so quiet in their corner of the clubroom, Hoseok could hear it when Jooheon joined Gain on the low sofa she lazed around in. The two of them stayed silent for a while, but Jooheon broke the ice.

“Do you have to go tomorrow, noona?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I mean,” said Jooheon in a low voice so as not to attract attention, “can't someone take your place? At least this one time?”

“Why?” Gain blew smoke in his face. “Is there something wrong with me?”

“No,” he uttered.

“Am I missing arms or legs or brains?”

“No,” he repeated, this time with a little more insistence.

“Then let me handle it, kiddo.”

“It's not about handling things or not,” he persisted. “But this is – this is really risky, okay? Can't you at least pair up with someone else than Jackson? If they get to you – they'll – they're pissed,” he finished a little lamely.

“No shit.”

“You'll catch the biggest heat if you're with him of all people.”

“I'll tell you what I will really do. I'll keep myself and your pal safe.” She said it in such a no-bullshit tone that Hoseok was sure Jooheon would lay off. And he did, for a minute.

Then he inhaled.

“But I can't... I can't stand the idea that it was me who found the guy and who sent you there. What if...”

“There are no what ifs,” Gain cut him off, not unkindly. “I either come back, or I don't. It makes sense that if I go, I go because of those little codes of yours. They brought me here, they should send me back.”

Jooheon stared at her.

He didn't have the chance to say anything else as Gain got up and joined Jackson by the minibar. Jooheon stood up not long after, except he left for good, slipping through the door unseen by anyone else than Hoseok.

He wondered if he should follow him. He would have to admit that he listened to their conversation, though, and so he decided not to add insult to the injury.

Sighing, he let his gaze wander until it landed on Kihyun. He was already looking.

Hoseok stilled.

No. No, he knew immediately that he wouldn't go anywhere. He wanted to spend the night with Kihyun, the entirety of it, because he knew that it worried him that Hoseok has been assigned to go.

Hoseok leaned in to brush their noses together. The only reason he broke eye contact with Kihyun was to take in every shift, every quiver, every flicker of light that ran over his carved-out features.

Up close, there were so many tiny freckles on Kihyun's face, pale ones and darker ones as well, that he barely even began to count them when he found himself kissing them all instead. The one above the corner of his mouth. Those on the tip of his nose. The one inside the curve of his ear, too.

There was one on the pad of his forefinger, right at the joint. Hoseok kissed that one the longest.

“There are people, you know,” said Kihyun, observing him.

“Let's go somewhere where they're not.”

“Already?”

“I want to be alone with you.”

He really did. It had nothing to do with kissing or sex, either. He craved a whole another kind of intimacy.

Ultimately, he would settle for anything.

“I feel like I've grown into the seat,” Kihyun confessed.

“Are you that tipsy?”

“A little.”

“Do you want to stay?”

“...No.”

With joint effort, they got up and said their goodnights.

Kihyun undressed as he walked towards the shower stall.

“I reek of smoke,” he said a tad tiredly.

Yeah, him and Hoseok both, so he trailed after Kihyun and slid into the stall with him.

They made out slowly under the hot stream. Mist rose around them. Hoseok tilted his head backwards as Kihyun washed his hair, rubbing soft circles and telling him to close his eyes. He did the same for Kihyun, only he pulled him nearer first.

Towel drying himself, Kihyun walked to the sink to wash his face. Hoseok wondered whether he did it on purpose to put some distance between them, or if he did it unconsciously. Whatever it was, it didn't sit well with Hoseok. So he padded after Kihyun and started kissing his neck from behind, continuing towards the slope of his shoulder.

“I've been thinking,” said Kihyun. He sniffed and patted at his face with the towel.

Hoseok pressed closer. “About what?” he asked in between pecks as he laid them up Kihyun's neck.

“I think I should become a full-time cleaner.”

“Like, a janitor?” Hoseok peered at him with a silly smile.

Kihyun wasn't in the mood for jokes.

“A scene cleaner.” He put the towel down and looked in the mirror. He wasn't looking at Hoseok. “It's the only thing I'm better at than knives.”

Hoseok's heart leaped.

Switching jobs would put Kihyun out of harm's way.

Perhaps he wouldn't be safe, but he would be safer.

“Does that mean you wouldn't take solo missions anymore?” Hoseok asked carefully.

“I guess.” This time, Kihyun darted a glance at him. “I could arrange it so that I'm with you whenever Hyungsoo assigns you another hit.”

Warmth like molten metal ran through his veins. He took Kihyun by the waist.

If the plan went through, it would mean no solo missions for Hoseok, either.

“Is it so you can keep an eye on me?” he teased, but he neither smiled nor smirked.

Obviously.” The honesty with which Kihyun spoke, and the simplicity, had Hoseok aching. Even more pragmatically, he added: “And besides. I'm bored here.”

Oh.

“Well, it's not all Netflix and kill.”

Kihyun was unimpressed. “The hell. Are you coming for my unfunny comedian spot?”

“No. It's all yours,” Hoseok retorted and nipped at him.

“It better fucking be. It's what I charmed you with.”

He suppressed a smile. “I didn't know I was charmed at all.”

“Of course you are. And if it wasn't my wit that did it, well. There are other things. I mean, look at all these scars.” Kihyun craned his neck to show off the sealed bullet wound. Lower still, there were pearly spots and lines like blade trails, pale and smoothed over. Some were very old. “There's no way you can resist this amount of testosterone and tragedy.”

“I guess I really can't.”

“But would you mind, Hoseok? If we worked together?”

“No. Not one bit.” He didn't have to think about it twice. He didn't have to think about it at all. “It's what we've been trying to do, isn't it? What we've been trying to reach.”

“I suppose.”

“It would be me leading you from now on, though,” he realized, seeking Kihyun's reflection in the mirror. “Are you okay with that?”

“Yeah. It's not like any of you fuckers actually listen to what I say, anyway.”

“I do,” opposed Hoseok.

“Okay, let me reiterate. None of you fuckers listen to what I say, and you especially,” said Kihyun. “You got a gut feeling that guides you, though. I don't have that. I've always been a planner.”

That was true. Kihyun searched for paths rather than paved his own. He had to have unlimited access to information, to other people's thought processes, and to everything that went on around him before he even attempted to act. He came up with ideas and put plans together, but those were usually options, not ultimatums. He let others choose which route to take.

Oh, Kihyun has grappled with Hoseok, and he has tried to keep him away, and he has almost given up on him once. And yet, after all of this, Kihyun would rather yield and watch than force him. In the end, the decision was Hoseok's. Whether it came to work or sex, it didn't matter. Kihyun would steer him and shield him, striving for something common. An agreement, perhaps. Safety. Pleasure. As much as he remained unrelenting about his own limits, Kihyun didn't push his.

In that sense, Hoseok was less eager to compromise. He's failed Kihyun before because of that. He's failed and he's been forgiven. He has botched and saved missions due to that stubborn streak of his. It wasn't a sense of adventure – he still had his fears – but an instinct that led him.

On its own, neither was enough. Mere instinct and mere plans couldn't compare to the combination of the two.

“You'd let me guide you for real?” Hoseok tested the waters.

“If you let me guide you for real, too.”

“I will.” And he meant it. Leader or not, he was still a newbie next to Kihyun.

“So that's settled,” said Kihyun simply.

“So... are we like gangster-married now?”

Rolling his eyes, Kihyun shot back: “No. You're just one of my killer concubines. You're not the only one who needs a cleaner.”

“But I'm your man.”

“That you are.”

Everything swarmed within him, but in a good way.

“Kihyun, do you want to...?” he trailed off and waited. He dipped a kiss into the delicate dent above Kihyun's collarbone.

“Won't you be tired tomorrow?”

“Why? Do you plan to fuck me silly?” he grinned. “Just fuck me to sleep.”

“You say the worst shit.”

Kihyun took him by the hand and Hoseok trailed after him, a smile dangling on his lips. Before they got to the bed, he tugged Kihyun back to him several times only to press their mouths together. They walked half of the way blindly, their tongues locked.

They didn't rush. Hoseok straddled him because Kihyun has had enough whisky to drown the pain. He sat on Kihyun's fingers; one at first, then two, and then, as he rolled his hips, he took the third one in. It wasn't enough to quieten the hum within him.

The rubber on, Kihyun's cock glistened. He wanted it inside.

“Wait. Come here.”

Kihyun motioned to him. Hoseok went after that silvery voice to drink it in, and he did. Still, Kihyun pulled him down until Hoseok lay flush on top of him. He covered him whole.

And then the world went upside down. Kihyun had to put his whole body into it, using Hoseok's weight against him to slowly lie him down on his back. All the while, he held Hoseok, held him to push him further, held him because he wouldn't stop kissing him.

“Hold up,” Hoseok tore away from him. “You'll hurt.”

“So be it.”

“Kihyun, we can do it the way we normally do –”

“Look, I don't care. I want to fuck like a person, not a dog.”

Hoseok's belly and cock tightened at the same time.

It happened again when Kihyun sucked on his nipple – sucked on both until they rose and went dark and swollen. His hands drifted all over the stretch of Hoseok's chest. There it was, the reverence, the way Kihyun bowed his head in benediction before Hoseok's body. Hoseok clutched Kihyun close; stroked his back; his wet hair.

He pulled at it to make Kihyun look up.

“Are you sure?” Hoseok urged as he already knew he wasn't going to give this up.

Kihyun grazed the bud with his teeth, tugged at it, then let go of it. It was as puffy as his lips.

“Yeah. If you want to.”

“Totally,” Hoseok breathed out. “Come to me.”

He stretched his arms above his head, taking hold of the pillow.

It was all Hoseok wanted when Kihyun dragged his palms over the length of his arms, going slowly down over the smooth skin, denting it in places. He run his thumbs over the sensitive bits of Hoseok's armpits and down his sides where he stopped only to run his hands back up. He brushed his nipples again.

Hoseok was so undone and open under him it didn't even surprise him that Kihyun went in in one stroke.

He started up as if to kiss Kihyun, and Kihyun did the same, and then there was a breathless giggle because they didn't actually do anything; they just looked at each other. Kihyun snapped his hips.

“Good?” he mumbled.

“Great,” said Hoseok and started at his lips again. “Don't worry. I'll be okay.”

Kihyun stilled before he dragged himself upwards, pushing deeper.

“Be careful.” Still, no kiss. He thrusted in again. “Be fucking careful, Hoseok.”

“I will,” he whispered. “I'll come back to you.”

Their bodies touched from their ankles to their foreheads. Whenever Hoseok breathed out, Kihyun breathed in. Hoseok was tighter than usually, unused to not being spread. He moaned quietly and caressed Kihyun all over. He traced his scars, those that were visible and those that have faded, only a slight discoloration betraying they had once been there.

Kihyun glided in and out of him in a constant ebb and flow. The girth inside Hoseok felt new and almost too overwhelming, so he put his thighs apart. He heard a hitched groan, but it wasn't his; it was Kihyun's as he buried in deeper.

Baby,” he gasped. His face shattered.

Yeah, love. I know.” It slid off his tongue like silk. “Fuck me. Fuck me.”

With a another groan, Kihyun dug his heel into the mattress and picked up speed. There was more force in it, but by this time, Hoseok was agape under him; agape for him. He could take it all.

The build-up in his stomach left him dumb with pleasure when he finally came. Grasping onto him, Hoseok brought Kihyun with him.

He didn't know Kihyun could be so loud . His cock kept leaking as he listened to it.

Kihyun collapsed on him, still in, still breathing heavily. Gently, Hoseok wrapped him tight in his arms, kissing the shivers away. He felt his mind dissipate as it did whenever Kihyun trembled inside him because Hoseok knew he came good; came so good he didn't even want to pull out.

“You okay?” Hoseok muttered.

“Yeah.” His voice was tinkling glass.

Again, Hoseok was reminded of how easy it would be to wound him, to bruise those birdlike bones. But for the first time, he somehow knew he could wound Kihyun in more than one way. And maybe Kihyun realized it, too, because when their eyes met, his were narrowed. It was as if he was daring Hoseok to laugh; or to call him love again. A shimmer of detachment trickled back into his stare. It's been there ever since they had learned Hoseok was going to leave for the hit, but not Kihyun.

Their heartbeats slowed down in the expanding silence.

One wrong word and Hoseok would chase him even further away.

One wrong word would point out the vulnerability which oozed from Kihyun – and worse, that Hoseok saw it.

It never kindled a sense of power in Hoseok to see Kihyun down; not unless they fought physically. Why would he want him weak? Why would he ever want to shatter a single piece of that pride? It's been broken and tempered enough. So was his heart. He'd been abandoned by the family that had brought him to this world and the family he had chosen alike. Whether he was afraid of losing his own value or losing his new family – fuck. It was nothing to deride him about. Hoseok would sooner crack himself than Kihyun.

Hoseok wished he knew how to tell him.

All he could do was keep talking sex as if he never noticed a thing.

“Little man, I thought you wanted to fuck like a person tonight,” he whispered.

“It's you who told me to go harder.”

Hoseok chuckled. “I did, didn't I?”

“I almost fucking died.”

“Did you like it that much?” Hoseok smiled. “I guess you're really into rougher stuff.”

With a grunt, Kihyun rolled off. He fumbled with the rubber, twisting the end into a knot before tossing it on the ground.

“This wasn't rough,” he said finally.

“I guess not.” Reaching up, he nuzzled at Kihyun's cheekbone with the back of his hand. “I don't even know what you consider rough. You never told me.”

“I could use a drink,” declared Kihyun, ignoring the implied question.

Hoseok didn't feel like getting up. “You want to go back downstairs?”

“No.”

“We don't have anything here.” And I don't think you should drink any more, he added internally.

“I'll drop by at Changkyun's. He has a small stash.” He threw on Hoseok's pyjama bottoms. “I'll be right back.”

Something occurred to Hoseok as he watched him.

“Kihyun, are you in pain?”

“No.”

“Look at me.”

He did. “I'm not in pain.”

“Don't lie to me.”

“I'm not.” Kihyun returned his gaze levelly. “I just want a drink.”

“Why, though?”

“Because you look like you want to talk and I don't think I can do that unless I get a little bit more smashed.”

Hoseok was floored.

“We can just go to sleep,” he offered faintly. “You don't have to talk to me.”

“I want to. Talk to you. But I can't.” Kihyun moved to the desk and started rummaging through the topmost drawer. He found what he was looking for, the key to Changkyun's room dangling in between his fingers. “I'll stay up with you. You should sleep throughout the day so you're ready and rested.”

Hoseok couldn't decide whether it was touching or just heartbreaking. In the end, he couldn't bring himself to say anything, so he didn't stop Kihyun when he walked out. He came back a couple of minutes later with a bottle and a handful of polaroid pictures.

“The little shit was already asleep,” said Kihyun as he laid the photos on the bed next to Hoseok. He uncorked the bottle. “I think they came out nice.”

Putting one arm under his head, Hoseok picked the first picture up idly.

Yeah. Yeah, they did.

It was just unfair that Kihyun was so lovely in each and every one of them.

“You look cute,” said Hoseok, staring at the snap. Light trickled over the curve of Kihyun's profile in the picture, cascading softly over his half-lidded eyes.

“I look half your size.”

“You really do,” he laughed. “But you know what? That's because you are.”

“Thanks. That's reassuring.”

“You're so liddle,” Hoseok continued, flipping through the snaps. There was one in which they both posed with a peace sign and another one in which Hoseok held up two fingers behind Kihyun to make it seem like there were tiny horns or bunny ears sprouting from his head. In the last one, Hoseok was kissing his hair.

In all of them, he had Kihyun snuggled against him.

“Hoseok, it's not that I'm that small. It's just that you're huge.”

“No. I can promise you that you look tiny next to about just anyone.”

“Well, shit.” Kihyun took a swig from the bottle.

“It's adorable.”

“My mission in life. To be adorable.”

“What, do you want to be ugly instead?” Hoseok raised an eyebrow at him.

“No. Just functional.”

“You are, silly.”

“Not the way I used to be. I'll have to...” he trailed off.

Hosting himself up on his elbows, Hoseok regarded Kihyun from up close; the wet upper lip that had to taste of alcohol, the creases on his forehead that mimicked an ocean.

“You'll have to what?”

“Depend on you.”

“So?” he countered. “You know you can do that.”

“I know. But it only makes it worse. I already put you through so much shit as it is.”

“But you saved me from so much more shit.”

Kihyun snorted.

“You did,” said Hoseok seriously.

“I wish I could really think that.”

“Look at my lips,” he said and propped himself up even higher. With some confusion, Kihyun let his gaze drop. Hoseok couldn't help but glimpse at the breaking wave of his upper lip, too. “Watch me say it. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. Here. Do you want it signed?”

“In blood, please.”

“In yours, smartass?”

“Can be. If it keeps things the way they are.”

That put Hoseok in his place. He knew Kihyun didn't want anything more from this. From him.

“Nothing's gonna change, Kihyun.”

“It is, though. Things always go to shit.”

“What things?”

“Everything.”

“Don't be so dark.” Leaning forward, he brushed his nose against Kihyun's skin. It was cold. “Please.”

Kihyun went silent. He took a long draught of whatever it was he's brought from Changkyun's lair. Then he collected the snapshots that lay strewn all over the bed and Hoseok's belly. He put them on the bedside table along with the bottle.

“Sorry about that.”

That was worse than hearing Kihyun voice whatever he was worried about.

Hoseok moved to bring him nearer, but Kihyun was quicker. He kissed Hoseok hard. His tongue pushed in hot and searing and Hoseok wondered for a second if Kihyun was about to fuck him again, but nothing else happened.

“What was that for?” mumbled Hoseok.

“For putting up with me when I'm like this.”

“Like what?”

“Drunk and dumb.”

“You're not dumb. You're just scared,” he blurted.

“Yeah. Shitless.”

It shouldn't have surprised Hoseok that he admitted it.

Slowly, he sagged down and pulled Kihyun with him.

“Of what?”

“All of you go tomorrow except for Jooheon. Not just my team. All of you. Minhyuk goes. Hyunwoo goes. Gain goes. It's like – watching it all go up in flames. While I fucking sit here. The fucker took six of ours down in one stroke. He could do it again and – fuck,” he drew in a breath. “Sorry. Too dark.”

“No, it's not,” Hoseok urged.

“It is. It's the last thing you need to hear.”

“Don't keep it in. Don't be sorry.”

“I'm a mess.”

“So? You're allowed to be a mess.”

“No. Not in this way. Not when all I can think about whenever I touch you is that you could be gone by this time tomorrow. And everyone else I know, too.”

Hoseok felt like he had another heart; a phantom heart that gaped open within reach, right inside Kihyun's rib cage.

“That's not gonna happen,” he said very quietly. “We're ready this time.”

“We were ready that time, too.”

“No. Not enough. I promise this will be different. I promise.”

“You can't promise that,” Kihyun replied. “Just promise me you won't rush inside. Stay where you're supposed to be. Don't think you can save the day, Hoseok. Whatever place you're assigned to... stay there. Search it first. Look for wires. Check if you can smell gas or gasoline. Tell Hyungwon to scour the surroundings.”

“I know all of this,” he said before he pressed his closed mouth on Kihyun's. “You've taught me.”

“I know. I know you know this.”

“Besides. We're gangster-married now. I can't have you widowed,” he murmured.

“We're not gangster-married.”

“Of course we are. We fuck and feed each other and we fight. Marriage.”

“That's not marriage. That's heterosexuality.”

Hoseok chuckled. “But the difference is that when we fuck, it's really good So. Gangster marriage.”

Kihyun sighed.

“I should get you a ring,” Hoseok remarked, encouraged by Kihyun's lack of defense.

“I don't want to wear anyone else's ring.”

The fun died down.

“I know,” Hoseok whispered. “I was just kidding.”

“Just the kiss will do. Just come back.”

God. “I will, you big softie.”

Kihyun gave a laugh that didn't reach his face.

“Yeah. That's me.”

Hoseok held him then, and he held him until the morning crept in, and he held him still when they both fell asleep.

 

He checked the foundations of the water tower before starting his way up. Hyungwon went in front of him, a drag bag secured to his back as he climbed the ladder to the highest point. The tower stood tall, overlooking a nearby hotel. Grey streets and cube-shaped buildings snaked away into the distance, narrowing. Mint green awnings shaded the entrances of convenience stores and fast food restaurants, most of which were closed by now and barred by shutters. Barren trees stretched dark in the dusk.

The place was neither seedy nor deserted, only calm. It was the time of the day for families to watch the TV and eat late dinner and tuck their kids into beds. When an occasional walker passed by the tower, she or he never thought to look up. The only sound Hoseok heard was the hum of a row of telegraph posts.

He knew his part of the job was easy. All he had to do was guard and watch. Despite that, he was still taken aback at the quiet. Anxiety crept up his chest. Nothing moved, least of all Hyungwon. He had his rifle zeroed in on one of the hotel windows, each looking exactly the same like the one next to it, and he waited. And waited. And waited.

“The angle is bad,” was all Hyungwon remarked after a while, but there was nothing to do about that. They had no better vantage point at hand, all constructions around the hotel being considerably lower.

The chance that Hyungwon would have their target in the right place for the right amount of time before the rest of the group got to him was slim, so they didn't really count on it. Hyungwon was a backup; a last resort. Although he and Hoseok could catch glimpses of the guy and although Hyungwon could target his arm and his side from time to time, he didn't shoot. Injuring the target wasn't worth the consequences. It wasn't worth the commotion. Yes, Hyungwon would get him – but he would not kill him.

And they were going in for the kill.

Observing their surroundings, Hoseok laid his hands on the railing, sensing the rusty metal rustle under his fingertips.

“I lost him,” said Hyungwon. “But there's some movement. The others are in.”

Hoseok's stomach clenched. With a sort of morbid expectation, he turned to the window Hyungwon has marked.

There was no explosion. No fire.

Still, he didn't relax.

He couldn't bear the waiting anymore.

“Do you see them?”

“No one's signalling anything yet,” Hyungwon replied.

That wasn't bad news, but it wasn't good news, either.

Hoseok squatted down next to Hyungwon as if it could give him the power to see things the way he did, through a scope.

Although Hoseok was unsettled by the silence, he has grown so used to it that an incoming phone call startled him.

Hyungwon propelled up his rifle on a bipod and picked up the phone.

“Yeah?” There was a long pause. “You sure?” There was a shorter pause. “Roger that.”

He hung up. He looked at Hoseok.

“That Yugyeom fucker is dead. But the other one was in the suite, too.”

“What happened? Did he escape?”

“No. He can't run anywhere.” Reaching for his rifle, Hyungwon put the safety catch on and disassembled the bipod. He put both into the drag bag. “He's got a bomb on him.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“We can't leave him blow up the whole place. There are people there,” Hoseok stressed.

“I know. That's why Hyunwoo called. We have to defuse the bomb.”

“We?” he repeated.

It made Hoseok's flesh crawl when the next thing Hyungwon said was that they were supposed to go inside.

“What the fuck? So we can all die?!” Hoseok roared before he jumped at the echo of his own voice.

“No. No one else's gonna die. We have to save him.”

Save him – to kill him?

“Are you nuts?”

“Don't look at me like that. It's not my order.”

“Yeah, but –” Hoseok protested.

Hyungwon beat him to it.

“Hyunwoo says the fucker can lead us to Park. Tonight.”

 

Jooheon had been right. Hotels were awfully anonymous to die in.

The one-room suite was full of bright whites and dark wooden panels. The ceiling hung low. It smelled of blood and sweat and, since it was hot, the air has already been fouled by the odour of a corpse whose sphincter has given out.

The worst stench everyone in the room emanated was fear, though.

So they hadn't been as careful as they had thought. The Triad men had been awaiting them.

Snippets of informations swam around Hoseok and he listened to the other's talk, trying to make sense of the whole situation.

The remaining Triad man, who shook in a chair shirtless and draped with wires that led to a tiny quiet box on his back, had apparently detected the tapping device in the actress's phone. He had told his now dead colleague, who had used that connection to lure Hyungsoo's men in. It didn't quite work out for him. Kim Yugyeom had planned to blow this whole place up with all of them in it, even his Triad friend, and his plan lived on while he didn't.

He had managed to injure two of theirs before dying. The wounded were already on their way back to the hotel, accompanied by Namjoon who drove them.

Hoseok stared at the man in the chair.

He wanted to scream his throat raw, to shake everyone awake and tell them that it wasn't worth it. That they couldn't help him. The fucker had twenty minutes to live. The best they could do was drag him out of the hotel, let him die on the street, hope the detonation would cause as little damage as possible, and fucking flee.

But the soon-to-be corpse had intel and he gave it freely and immediately and he cried like a child and looked like one and Jackson begged for him.

Fuck. Hoseok had to look away.

He barely listened after that as Gain face-timed Jooheon with the Triad man's phone because, well, theirs were too fucking functional to be this advanced; and Jooheon panicked and yelled at her to leave and she yelled at him to calm the fuck down and he didn't, but he guided her through the camera as she fingered the wires; and the man in the chair sweated sourly and clasped Jackson's hands and kept mumbling over and over about how he had nowhere to turn and nowhere to run and that he's wanted to leave Korea for months, but couldn't because of Yugyeom. He rambled that if they didn't succeed, the Triad would kill them, or Park would, and that he had tried to fake his own death to escape all of this. Yugyeom had discovered his little plan, though, and he had promised to release him for real, strapping the bomb on.

“Jesus fuck, Youngjae,” croaked Jackson.

“You should go,” sobbed the man as he clung to Jackson tighter. “Just take out Park. He's made us into this.”

“Don't fucking move,” growled Gain.

It was so warm in the room, so airless and stifling, that they've all sweated through their clothes. Apart from Youngjae, Gain was the worst. She would quite literally catch the heat if the bomb went off, just as Jooheon had predicted the night before. It didn't help her that she was also within range of every gun in the room, seeing that their considerably sized group collectively held the last Triad man at gunpoint.

“Okay,” singsonged Gain in a whisper. The cap was gone. “What now, kiddo?”

“Get Minhyuk to help you,” was Jooheon's rustly response.

“Like, I'm not trying to be funny, but I buy my bombs. I know shit about defusing them,” said Minhyuk, but he was already squatting down next to Gain.

“It doesn't matter. This part needs multitasking if you don't want the thing to go off. One person can't do it alone.”

“Fuck...” Youngjae started to tremble harder.

There was a lot of scrambling and small clicks and clacks and Minhyuk bickering with Jooheon. All the while, in an undertone, Hyunwoo was on the phone, giving and demanding directions. If they truly went after Park tonight, they would need all the backup they could get.

And then there was a high-pitched scream that came from Minhyuk and he hugged Gain and she kissed the phone screen and the countdown stopped at ten minutes and fourteen seconds and Hyunwoo immediately shackled the Triad man and, exhausted with gratitude and fear, the almost-corpse let him.

Hoseok felt like he never breathed once through all of that.

He still felt like he couldn't breathe.

But there was no time to stop.

 

“This is too fucking dramatic for me,” seethed Hoseok. “Too fucking dramatic.”

“You'll live,” said Hyungwon as he steered the wheel.

They could see the landing area of Park's private airport already. The way from Seocho to Gangnam took almost an hour because even this deep into the night, the street were congested with cars. They could only hope Park hasn't fled the country yet, following Hyungsoo's example.

“I won't live for long if Kihyun finds out I was stupid enough to walk inside a building with a bomb in it,” he uttered. He turned to Hyungwon. “You can't tell him. He can't know –”

“Not to burst your bubble,” Hyungwon drawled, “but he was most likely there when we face-timed Jooheon.”

Hoseok's heart sank.

“No. He couldn't have been there... He would have said something. Anything.”

“We didn't say anything, either. It wasn't exactly the right time to chat.”

“Fuck,” he groaned voicelessly.

He's broken another promise.

The tires screeched as Hyungwon sped up. They were in the open now, nothing but privately owned grounds stretching around them. Runway lights shone milky yellow and amongst them, people swarmed in clusters.

They rushed ahead.

“Look, I don't mean to be an ass,” said Hyungwon, “but you can't think of Kihyun now. You have to focus, hyung.”

Being called hyung brought him back from his self-pity trip. As Hyungwon rolled the car towards the premises and parked it sideways with a wail, Hoseok unstrapped his seat belt and reached for his holster. The sky was black when he jumped out of the car. A dozen more vehicles enclosed the airport in a circle, trapping the crowd of criminals inside.

Crouching behind the trunk, Hoseok heard as Hyungwon rolled the window down and readied his rifle.

“He still hasn't left,” whispered Hyungwon in a tone that tasted of triumph already.

But they haven't won yet. When the first gunshot cut through the night, Park's bodyguards closed in around the boss, shielding him while they marched forward to the plane.

Hoseok realized they would have to massacre the whole group.

Park had so many people with him that Hoseok's head swam at the sight.

Three cars roared before driving forth and cutting off Park's path to the plane. The battle began at full force. Bullets flew, denting the bodyworks, whizzing through tires. The sea of people split. Some of Park's bodyguards ran at the cars that stood in their way. The solitary drivers stuck inside just sat solemnly and watched as bullets rained on them. Some of the budyguards dashed towards the cars that stood in the circle lining the airport. Bodies fell. Bodies ran on.

Hyungwon took out two men who started in his and Hoseok's direction. While he was aiming at another man, a woman clad in a bulletproof vest got close. She didn't see Hoseok behind the trunk. She kept firing at Hyungwon, who was half-protected by the bodywork and the glass.

Hoseok wasn't a sniper. He wasn't a shooter. So when he aimed for her head, the bullet went through her throat instead. He could hear her live for another ten minutes.

More men and women charged at them, but this time they hid behind the sturdiest of them all and got so close that they spotted Hoseok as well. By the time the group was within his shooting range, the muscular woman at the front of the cluster was still standing with her arms outstretched, shielding her comrades, taking steps that swayed her whole body. It wasn't until Hyungwon zeroed in on her forehead twice that she went down.

Hoseok had to leave his hiding spot and wrestle down a tall man who launched herself on the car, shoving his gun into Hyungwon's face through the slit in the window. After that, Hoseok forgot about his revolver and simply rammed at anyone who got too near.

Yeah. He was a useless shooter.

In an hour, shards of mirror and tail light glass lay everywhere, just as car and body parts did. The last bullets was fired, not for Park, who has been lying cold and face-down for a while now, but for his last protector. The woman didn't make a sound as she folded into herself on the ground.

It was eerie then.

“How many did we lose?” Hoseok asked hoarsely.

Hyungwon looked through the scope.

“Some.” Securing his rifle, he carefully put it on the back seat. “Let's go collect the bodies.”

 

It was a hateful day, but it seemed end for good the second Hoseok shut the door behind him.

The bedroom was lit, but barely. He had to search for Kihyun in the murk for a minute until he saw his small body reclined in the chair by the bookcase. With light footsteps, Hoseok approached him.

He was sleeping. His bare feet were planted on the floor. There were tremors running through them as if he had dreams that couldn't let him sleep soundly.

A chill that smelled of decaying leaves crept into the room through one of the windows. Kihyun was wearing pyjamas because of that. They were Hoseok's.

A book rested in his lap. He had been trying to stay awake.

It was nearly six in the morning. They had spent a lot of time bringing their wounded to Bora and picking up their dead.

The shiver in Kihyun's feet grew worse. A sea-swell of love filled Hoseok at the sight.

Gently, Hoseok cupped his face.

Kihyun started awake before he took Hoseok in. He sagged in his seat, closing his eyes once more.

“Hello,” he mumbled.

“Hi,” whispered Hoseok.

There was a sigh.

“You're safe.” His voice was so low and thick with fatigue it sounded like it was coming from a well.

“Yes. As I promised.”

Kihyun touched one of his hands.

“The others?”

Shifting closer, Hoseok said: “Hyungwon is fine. Changkyun got battered – only a bit, it's nothing serious.” Then came the harder part. “Hyunwoo got hit by shrapnel. He should be fine, but...” he didn't have to finish. Kihyun knew first-hand what it meant to live with complications that came after.

“Minhyuk?”

The question rang urgent although it was still silky with sleep.

“He's in the operating theatre. Don't worry,” Hoseok assured him as Kihyun moved again, “don't worry. I spoke with Seokjin. Minhyuk's fine. It will take long to take everything out, but he didn't lose much blood. It didn't hit vitals.”

“And the others?” pressed Kihyun, his lids still shut.

“We have four dead.”

The pause that followed felt like a moment of silence for the fallen.

Perhaps if the mission hadn't been rushed and last-minute, they wouldn't have lost so many. Perhaps if it had been planned, they would have lost even more. There was no way of telling. The reason so many survived was that they had been inside bulletproof cars.

“Namjoon told us everything when he came back,” said Kihyun after a while. By “us,” he probably meant himself and Jooheon. “The fuck...”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Hoseok laughed shakily. “My exact thoughts.” He searched for any and every shift that pulled at Kihyun's mimic muscles. “Are you angry I went inside?”

“You couldn't help it. It was an order. An order is above any promise.”

“Is it?” Hoseok asked automatically, but Kihyun let it slide.

“We'll be harbouring more enemies than ours at this rate,” he grouched, but that tiny quip was laced with weariness that took away the venom. It spoke volumes that Kihyun couldn't even get properly pissy. He looked tired of living.

“But it payed off. We got Park.”

“Now we will have twenty more Parks crawling up to try and take his spot,” said Kihyun.

“So we will kill twenty more Parks.”

“Sounds good.”

“I'll tell you more in the morning, okay?” he entreated.

“Okay,” said Kihyun softly.

“Go to bed.”

“Okay.”

“I'll take a shower and come to you.”

“Okay,” repeated Kihyun. The fan-like expansion of his lashes fluttered. “I'll wait.”

When he came back, Kihyun was still in the chair. Hoseok walked up to him. He was torn between watching him sleep and waking him up. In the end, he kissed his eyelids, and when that didn't do anything except for make Kihyun mumble, Hoseok picked him up.

“Oi,” Kihyun prickled up, but he didn't put up a fight.

Hoseok laid him down and kissed his eyelids again, and then the dripping part of his hairline that reminded him of a tear. Following the warmth, Kihyun roamed his body. Hoseok knew he did it to confirm that this was real. That Hoseok was breathing. So to make it realer, he embraced Kihyun in his arms, all of him.

It almost washed away Hoseok's memories of the day to be back with him.

 

Chapter Text

Outside, snow was turning to sleet. Hoseok felt wind-chilled although the windows were closed and the blinds half-shut. He supposed it had something to do with waking up alone. Yawning, he threw on some clothes and decided to loosen his stiff body by descending the stairs instead of taking the elevator to the ground floor. As he went, he stretched a bit to work the joints in his arms and legs.

Bleak daylight filled the dining hall. Quite a bit of people occupied the tables. It was the usual rush hour and the room hummed and tinkled.

Hoseok spotted Changkyun at the end of the queue by the hatch window. Creeping towards him, he hugged the kid from behind. Jumping a little at the sudden contact, Changkyun gave him a cold stare before he decided that Hoseok's warm arms were worth the scare. The corners of his eyes drooped with exhaustion.

“I almost just shat myself,” Changkyun announced, far from fresh and chirpy.

“Aw, come on. You're a gangster. Are you scared of a little bit of love?” Hoseok grinned and squeezed him harder.

“Well, yeah, because I only want a whole lot of love.”

“That's deep.”

“Go deeper.”

“I swear, kid.”

“Oh, we're getting to scolding and threats. Finally, my territory.”

Hoseok sighed and let go of Changkyun, just to be safe. The queue has shifted far enough by that time for them to greet Seho and start picking side dishes.

It occurred to him whether Kihyun has eaten today. He has vanished without a word like it has become a habit of his ever since he had switched jobs.

Trying to be lowkey, Hoseok addressed Changkyun without turning towards him.

“I guess you haven't seen Kihyun yet.”

“No.”

Well. That was helpful.

He was reaching for a bowl of seasoned bean sprouts when Seho spoke up.

“The boy was here early in the morning.” He smiled good-naturedly at Hoseok. “I gathered that he was about to leave with Gain.”

“For a hit?”

That was a useless question. Almost every time Kihyun got an assignment nowadays, it was to take care of the worst dirt, and that included dead bodies and fingerprints and gore. Too often, he had to clean up Hoseok's mess.

“They didn't say,” replied Seho as he replenished the display on the counter. “They had their mouths full, as it should be,” he winked.

Hoseok took the hint and stopped hogging the window.

As he polished off his tray, he wondered whether he would ever stop worrying. It was one thing to accompany Kihyun (or be accompanied by him) when they did their work. Just being there next to him ground any threat to dust in Hoseok's mind. But it was a whole another thing to wait at home while the other one was gone.

Kihyun felt it, too. He talked of it rarely, but when he did, it came out in outpours that made Hoseok feel so needed, so cherished, that he was sometimes left at a loss for words.

In those moments, Hoseok would just joke. He clung to closeness – and yet in his veins flowed an undercurrent of anxiety, a whisper which told him that he had to thread carefully. It told him that if he took what he was being given, if he let Kihyun let him in, it would ruin them in the long run.

After all, as soon as that weird vulnerability Kihyun sometimes showed disappeared, so did the circumstance in which it was acceptable for Hoseok to acknowledge Kihyun's soft spot for him. And then – then the abyss came.

Hoseok has become an expert at this. He knew he could push closer and closer when Kihyun was fine and guarded and waspish. When he wasn't, though, it was Hoseok's turn to put those unseen glass barriers between them. If one of them broke those walls, there would be no way for Hoseok to hide his heart from Kihyun. Not anymore.

Death wasn't the only way of losing a person. He knew. He's lost so many already. Those who were nameless and those who shared his name and his blood.

Hoseok sighed. It was barely noon and he was already being maudlin.

“Hyung, your lovesickness is showing,” remarked Changkyun into his cup of cocoa.

“I know.” He blanched. “Wait, what?” He blanched some more.

“Kihyun's gonna be alright. If he's with Gain, there's no way he's gonna come back with as much as a scratch.”

“I'm not worried.”

“Okay,” said Changkyun, a shit-eating grin gracing his thin lips.

“Well, I'm not.”

“My bad, then.”

Hoseok grew petty.

Jooheon joined them while Hoseok was still glaring daggers at the too-serene Changkyun. The boy's signature laptop was missing.

If Hoseok felt distraught, Jooheon positively looked it. He didn't say anything for a while.

“So,” drawled Changkyun, finishing off his food. “What are you two suckers who are definitely not in love going to do for the rest of the day?”

“I'm not in love,” said Hoseok pointlessly.

“I am,” muttered Jooheon. He did so in such an unbothered manner that it had Hoseok gaping. There was no victory in the confession, though. No joy.

Still, the statement held a strange freedom within it.

“What? Are you and Gain finally together?” asked Changkyun. He leaned towards Hoseok. “Hyung, give me your tea. I need to sip while I listen to the details.”

“Don't be daft,” Hoseok pushed him away by the forehead.

“We're not together,” said Jooheon. His eyes were downcast as he focused on the meal. “But I told her.”

Pausing, Hoseok looked at him properly. No, Jooheon was neither cheerful nor optimistic as he said it. A grim triumph hung all about him despite the gravity with which he spoke. It brought back the charismatic quality into his face which had charmed Hoseok all that time ago.

He supposed it truly had to be liberating – to say it out loud. Not to let those words fester inside one's chest as they rotted the rib cage away until what lay in it quivered bare and exposed.

“What did she say?” Hoseok inquired gingerly, knowing the answer already.

“Asked me if I was up for another round.”

“And were you?” Changkyun half-smirked.

“No.” Jooheon swallowed a mouthful. “So she left.”

“Cold.”

If Hoseok didn't know Changkyun better, he would have to think he was revelling in Jooheon's misfortune. Well, maybe he was, only a little bit.

For the most part, the kid was just trying to diffuse the tension.

“Do you think she...” Hoseok didn't finish.

“Nope.”

“Why did you tell her, then?”

“She already knew, anyway.”

Shit. The kid was brave. Here Hoseok was, killing men with his bare hands, weathering nightmares and those strangling surges of dread that gripped his throat and dumbed down his brain every now and then, and yet one sharp stare from Kihyun had him clammed up. Hoseok could never tell him. He had courage enough to say it – but none to bear the consequences.

Hoseok decided to tend to the boys so he wouldn't have to tend to his own thoughts. He ran them to the gym while both of them groaned, Changkyun declaring that he intended to keep his tummy squish the way it was, thank you very much. So Hoseok made him do squats. Jooheon, the good soul, whined but listened.

It was nice to have some company. With Jungkook in Macau and Hyunwoo under Bora's surveillance – which, as Hoseok saw it, the man didn't seem to mind –, he spent one too many long afternoons in the gym alone.

They didn't leave until they gasped and glistened and Changkyun cursed Hoseok's ancestors and offspring. Hoseok grinned at him and flicked his ear for good measure. What truly gave him a sense of satisfaction was that Jooheon emanated a sort of ease after the workout.

Hoseok gloated. It always worked to fight stress with a different kind of stress.

Even if the relief was brief.

It has got dark outside although it wasn't very late. Raindrops merged with snow fell wetly against window panes. This kind of weather had him yearning to be held. After a shower, he checked his phone to find an empty text from Kihyun. His hands grew warm.

The silent sign that he would be back soon should have brightened Hoseok's mood, but it only parched his mouth and set his limbs atingle. Not willing to wait for another minute, he took the elevator to the garage, watching cars drive to and fro. It was nearing the time during which teams were being dispatched en masse to carry out commissions. Hoseok entertained himself by chatting with some of the people who flowed in and out of the elevator as he waited.

The air smelled of gasoline and it chilled him. He stood with both hands crammed in his pockets.

It didn't take much longer. He jogged towards Kihyun's car when he recognized it. Smiling, he tapped at the tinted window. It rolled down.

The sight of Kihyun with rain-soaked hair and lips drained of colour took his breath away. So he decided to take Kihyun's breath away, too, and leaned inside the car to kiss those cold lips. The angle was awkward and their noses bumped and Kihyun's skin brushed damp against his skin and Gain gagged in the passenger seat, but Hoseok cared about none of it.

“Hi,” he mumbled and pecked Kihyun once more.

“Hello,” he said, just as breathless as Hoseok wanted him.

“Did you guys have fun?”

“Loads of it,” supplied Gain. “There were four men, so I could take my sweet sweet time.”

“You really did,” said Hoseok. “I've been on the lookout for you since noon. And Seho told me you've been gone since morning.”

“We had to go all the way to Guro,” explained Kihyun. Being kissed in the open still rubbed him the wrong way. He sounded prissier than usual.

It pleased Hoseok like nothing else.

“Alright. I forgive you.”

“I wasn't asking for forgiveness.”

“Still.” Hoseok pecked him. “You're forgiven for leaving me.”

“I should do it more often.”

“Don't you dare, shrimp.”

“Is this some kind of foreplay?” Gain smirked, turning comfortably in her seat to stare at them.

“Could be,” Hoseok played along to bring a darker blush to Kihyun's nose, which has already pinked due to the wintry downpour and the frigid air that condensed all around them.

Pink and pissy, Kihyun opened the door with more force than needed, hitting Hoseok with it. It barely tickled Hoseok, but of course he pretended to be mortally hit. He considered sulking when his little performance got him no reaction from Kihyun, who merely walked off stiffly.

He could be so cute.

Hoseok caught up with him, smiling big. He would've nuzzled at him some more if Gain wasn't observing them with way too much mirth and expectation, her eyes lit up. Hoseok reckoned that she was the most beautiful when she was the meanest, and he pitied Jooheon all the more.

Finally, it was just the two of them in the unlit bedroom. Hoseok squeezed Kihyun from behind.

“I missed you,” Hoseok murmured against the nape of his neck.

“Missed you, too.”

“Did you?”

“No, I'm just saying that to be polite.”

Amused, Hoseok hummed. “Did you think of me?”

“No. I was thinking of pulling out teeth and burning off fingerprints so the targets are unidentifiable.”

Kihyun could be just as acidic as the acid he worked with.

“I mean, that's hot and all, but I was kind of trying to woo you.”

“Why?”

“So we can do this.” He dragged his mouth over Kihyun's neck.

“Well, render me wooed.” He inclined his head for Hoseok to press his lips even lower. “You're glowing,” he said voicelessly.

“I've been working out the whole afternoon. Because, you know, a certain someone decided to abandon me.”

“You'd think I was gone for a month,” remarked Kihyun, unimpressed.

“You might as well could be.”

As light as petals, Kihyun laid small touches alongside Hoseok's arm and up and up.

“If it helps, I really did miss you. I'd rather work with you.”

“It helps,” said Hoseok, quieter than before. “I didn't think this through when I allowed you to take the job. I thought you'd be with me all the time.”

“Oh, I'm sorry? You allowed me to take it?”

Hoseok ignored the irony on purpose and feigned a rueful tone: “I did, like a fool. I let you run away and now I'm sad and lonely and hard.”

“Aren't we all?”

Feeling rebellious, Hoseok cupped his cock.

“Seems flaccid to me.”

Kihyun elbowed him.

To placate him, Hoseok nosed at the spot behind his ear.

“You're not in the mood?” he whispered.

“I am. For a shower.”

He wouldn't be swayed.

“Can I watch?”

“Jesus, Hoseok.”

“What?” Impishly, he bit at him. “I like watching you.” Whatever you do, he added.

“I'm nothing to look at.”

“But you are.”

“Not really. I know what I look like now.”

“Please. If I didn't fancy you from day one – well, then I fancied you from day two.” Using his strength, Hoseok spun Kihyun around. “And I still want you. Scars and all. You vain dummy.”

“I mean, that's an impeccable taste right here.”

Hoseok laughed.

“Here's my little man.”

He half-expected more snippiness. It didn't come. Instead, Kihyun traced the straight line of Hoseok's eyebrow and then the curved one of his ear. He rubbed at his earlobe a little. Hoseok went silent. He knew it sent both of his ears on fire, but he stood unmoving and docile and let Kihyun turn him to mush.

It was dark enough, but he wished for it to be darker, so he screwed his eyes shut. All he sensed after that was a hum in his temples and Kihyun's curious, cold fingers. Each caress harnessed him.

“You're fucking unreal, hyung.”

That all but startled Hoseok. He opened his eyes again.

“I thought I wasn't your hyung from November to March,” he pointed out in a soft voice.

“You're my hyung from January to December.”

“You smooth tiny fucker.”

Hoseok went flush against him and brought him into a kiss by the back of his head. Kihyun was already waiting, his mouth half-open. He soaked Hoseok in, tongue and all. The warmth was so welcoming Hoseok dazedly sought to push for more, to be kissed deeper. And then Kihyun inhaled through his nose and his breath came out ragged as a wave crashing over several rocks at once, and Hoseok felt like that rock, or that wave, because his world collided.

If Kihyun didn't tear away, he would never realize the world truly was colliding.

A guttural roar raced through the building from below as if the ground split to swallow it. The sound resonated through walls and furniture; through them. The French windows rang. A book fell, and then another. The cactus Kihyun nurtured went right after, the pot smashing to pieces.

The door flew open.

“Hyung!”

It was Changkyun. A stream of white light cut through the darkness, pouring in from the hallway.

“Bombs,” fell off Kihyun's lips, and the kid nodded. Kihyun's whole face changed. It seemed like it wasn't made of anything but bones. “Run – call everyone who isn't out – I'll search the rooms –”

Hoseok didn't know who dragged who. They were in the hallway – and again, Kihyun yelled at them to run – and the ground shook.

Hoseok ran, but he ran after Kihyun. He didn't have to look back to know that Changkyun followed them.

The fourth floor harboured almost nobody; and the third floor already swarmed with people. Hoseok kept losing Kihyun in the sea-like crowd. He grabbed Changkyun by the hand so he wouldn't lose him, too, and they rushed together, opening doors and upturning rooms. The lower they went, the louder the noise got; the more the floor underneath their feet trembled. All lights started flickering in frenetic gasps. They gave out and faded completely before Hoseok and Changkyun reached the ground floor.

Hyunwoo, Soyou and Hyolyn have secured the lobby, ushering people out. Hoseok could see small fires now. There were bits of walls strewn over the ground, the dust just as strangling as the smoke. He nearly went faint at the idea that the floors that lay under them might have caved in and buried everything and everyone inside. He dashed towards Hyunwoo to help.

Changkyun held him back.

“We have to go outside!” he screamed at him in the thunder of voices.

“No, we have to help.”

“We've already helped!”

“But there's more – underneath –”

Still, Changkyun tugged at him to stop him.

Hoseok let go of him.

“Go outside and start calling everyone,” he said loudly, just like Kihyun had before him. “We have to know who's missing.”

The kid wavered. Hoseok had to push him to get him to leave.

He barely started towards the staircase at the end of the corridor when he heard a yell. It carried over the echo of things breaking and crumbling. He looked over his shoulder.

Hyunwoo was holding Kihyun back. Kihyun struggled, so small in that grasp it stabbed at Hoseok. The coat he never had the chance to take off looked like a thousand black hands keeping him from moving. He screamed Hoseok's name again, hoarse. Screamed so it pierced through stone and flesh when Hoseok turned ahead and ran, taking steps downstairs two at a time.

Emergency lights snapped on, darkish.

As he raced, he pulled out his phone, almost dropping it. Frantically, he dialed the first number, then the next, all the while banging on doors and throwing them open. There were more damages and more smoke, but less people than Hoseok expected. The lone hitmen he passed were mostly disoriented and lightly wounded. All they needed were directions.

By the fourth floor, Hoseok met others like him who were looking for the injured. Minhyuk zoomed past, helping although he has yet to fully recover. Hoseok spotted Seokjin and Namjoon, who called to him to skip the hospital wing and and try the clubrooms.

It felt like descending to hell. The air was turning hotter and drier by the minute, the smother eating away at him. He used his sweater as a scarf and carried on. The corridors grew deserted. He kept dialing people he knew. He kept refusing Changkyun's phone calls.

Then the line rustled and Gain picked up.

“Ninth floor!” was all she shouted.

He sprinted faster. Every breath he took scalded him. It wasn't just small fires anymore; it was a fire, and it was coming from below.

The quakes have gone, and in their stead Hoseok saw their impact, unfolding. Claustrophobic hallways filled with rubble and fumes and objects that belonged to people, or used to, because now they belonged to ashes. Half-torn walls littered the burned carpet, some still creaking and coming down.

He found Gain by the sound of her voice. She was unharmed and black with soot.

It was Jooheon who was pinned to the ground, a chunk of the ceiling collapsed on top of him.

“I can't move it,” she yelled.

It was obvious she's tried. More dust and debris came down at her from above and she coughed. She didn't even blink when it got into her eyes.

Hoseok kneeled down by Jooheon. The boy was out of it. Either the smoke did it, or the pain. In any way, it was for the better. When they threw the rubble away by joint effort, Hoseok straining his muscles to the point of tearing them, they went weak at what they saw. Jooheon's legs lay there ground to pulp. It wasn't even blood, it was meat and bones.

“Is there anyone else?” asked Hoseok, unable to turn away. “Is there anyone else?!”

“Not here,” she choked out. “And there's only fire downstairs.”

“Alright. Lead the way. Wear something around your face.”

She took her hoodie off, and after a second of thinking she ripped the hood as well and gave it to Hoseok. He pressed it on Jooheon's nose and mouth before he picked him up.

The way back took them what seemed like hours. They had to avoid flames and sizzling wood. Hoseok's vision grew watery and heat-dried all at once. He was so tired by the time they met up with the rescue team that not even the clearer air could bring him to continue walking, and he was grateful to put Jooheon down on a stretcher. Seokjin marched towards them to bind Jooheon's legs right above his wounds.

Hoseok didn't know how he got upstairs. He just remembered sucking in the cold air, a whole lake of it, as people and ambulances clustered around, going and leaving. When he looked up, the hotel stood as calm and squat as always. It didn't fall. It gave him little comfort when he thought about the nethermost four floors and those trapped there by the inferno.

Smog hung purple and pulpy above the building. He kept staring at it until someone forced his head down.

“Where the fuck did you go.”

Hoseok hardly heard Kihyun because the street seethed with screams and sirens and because the city rushed on, unbothered, aglow with the usual sounds of the night. What brought Hoseok back was how silent the voice was in comparison to everything.

He stared at Kihyun hard without recognition until, finally, he locked him in his arms with a sob.

It was all that came out of him. A vice of steel pressed at his chest, making him unable to speak. All he would speak of if he could were the ruins and the blaze he had walked through. He couldn't think of anything else for a long time.

 

If nothingness was a tree, there would be a whole orchard within Hoseok.

His eyes hurt. It was less because of all the dirt and dust that had got into them during the fires than because of the splitting white light that hung like a tangible entity inside the waiting room, spreading from corner to corner, as present as air. White chairs. White wall paint. White flower pots. People walked back and forth dressed in white.

Their cars gone in flames, they had walked to the hospital where most of their people were being admitted by foot. Hoseok recalled the path only as a blur of lights and sounds and snow.

Messages were coming in clusters. Some said that more of their injured had to be strewn all over the hospitals in Seoul. Some talked of the damages. Some came straight from Hyunwoo, who led the rescue teams.

There were still many of their people missing, but it seemed that a large group of the underground dwellers had been able to escape through the garage after the detonation. That is, before the foundations had caved in.

Those of them who weren't wounded or shell-shocked were still helping the firefighters. Upon Hyungsoo's orders, which were coming from abroad, Hyunwoo had contacted a certain police branch the organization usually worked with when there was a need to take care of corrupted chiefs and politicians. The police have dispatched their troops to help and secure the hotel. That way, none of the organization's materials – if there remained any to be redeemed – would fall into the wrong hands.

Hoseok only half-perceived what was going on around him. He was curled up across two seats, his head in Kihyun's lap as he stroked Hoseok's hair. On the other side, Gain sat cross-legged on top of a flat plastic chair. She splayed her fingers over Hoseok's ankle and tapped at it in an almost soothing manner. She was glued to her phone, just like Kihyun.

His body felt slack. Nothing could stir him. He lay there almost relaxed. Not even his mind worked.

“And here I fucking thought no bombs could scare me anymore,” Gain laughed hollowly.

More nurses scurried by.

“It's going to be alright,” said Kihyun. He might as well be speaking from a void into an even vaster void. “He might not lose both legs.”

“Whoever did this, I...”

“I know.”

“We have to find them.”

“We will.”

Their phones buzzed at the same time and they ceased talking. The silence that followed went on for minutes, hours. The night turned into a rosy morning. A single window at the very end of the narrow room showed a slice of the sky. First, it warmed up with blush-coloured clouds, and it paled not long after.

Hoseok fell asleep.

He woke up ages later to the scent of lily-of-the-valley, covered with a coat that wasn't his.

 

Yoongi stepped aside to let them in.

The smallish loft seemed even smaller because of the stuff it overflowed with. There wasn't that much furniture, but half of the living space was dedicated to what resembled a recording studio with a whole workstation strewn with computers and studio monitors and microphone stands. Cables snaked everywhere.

The loft instantly became twice as crammed with the two of them on top of everything. Hoseok took off his shoes and pushed them towards the wall with his feet. When he looked up, he saw that Kihyun and Yoongi clung to each other tightly, neither of them saying anything. Kihyun still wore his coat; it looked like a shroud. He had put it back on before leaving the hospital. Hoseok missed the warmth and scent of it. He wanted it to envelop him again as he slept.

They had very little with them – Hoseok had nothing but his phone. Kihyun was better off, but until the firefighters and the police decided the hotel was safe to enter, they would have to live off Yoongi's kindness.

The man was kinder still for offering his log cabin to the organization as well. Dozens needed a place to stay. A lot of the members have been offered temporary shelter by ex-criminals who stayed mindful of their ties to Hyungsoo. The rest of the survivors were checking into motels. The more unfortunate of them whose underground dwellings have been demolished altogether were in the search of cheap apartments to rent.

It was funny, in a way. A single blow has rendered them all homeless although the building remained standing. A single well-placed attack has brought them down.

At least all Hoseok has lost was a home. He was already used to that.

It could've been his legs.

He thought of the indefinitely closed door that lead to the operating theatre where Jooheon had been fighting for his life. He thought of the split moment in which it had opened when the boy, waxy and lifeless-looking, had been rolled into one of the recovery rooms after the surgery. Hoseok shuddered, willing himself to forget Gain's whisper under the screech of the stretcher's wheels; fuck, they really took both, they took – fuck...

The inadvertent movement made Yoongi and Kihyun pull apart. They stepped away from each other and then further into the flat. Hoseok followed after them numbly.

He was afloat as he walked. His mind was split. What he saw clashed with what he kept remembering. He tried to take Yoongi's loft in: the lack of plants and rugs, the general disorder that somehow seemed to make sense, and that one windowed wall without a single curtain or a set of blinds, so very un-Yoongi-like because it let in all the sun. A floating staircase led to what Hoseok assumed was a bedroom. But however he tried to focus on colours and textures and even the men's voices, he always ended up back in the smoke-filled hallway.

His footsteps heavy, Hoseok barely even registered that they stopped inside a palm-sized kitchenette. Daylight painted it bluish. Light bulbs hung low from the ceiling on long strings, unlit.

Kihyun tugged at his sleeve to bring him from wherever his thoughts swam. Stumbling forward where the gesture motioned him, Hoseok took a seat.

Silence sat in his throat like a clot when Yoongi put a cup of tea in front of him. Next he set down a small kettle of coffee that he shared with Kihyun.

“So...” Yoongi began, even his soft-spoken voice slicing through the dead calm. “How is he?”

“We don't know yet. He hasn't woken up,” said Kihyun. He wrapped his hands around his cup. “Gain promised she would text right away, but...”

“It's good there's someone there with him.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

None of them could quite imagine waking up to being only half a person.

Not physically, anyway.

It appeared a quiet irony – how lucky Jooheon was. His job never really consisted of much walking.

“Do you suspect anyone?”

Kihyun slowly inhaled.

“At first I thought it was someone sent by the Triad, given the way...” he didn't finish. He didn't have to. They all had Yugyeom's bombs etched fresh in their memory. “But this feels almost like an inside job. Only someone who's actually been inside could do so much damage. Someone who has the patience to plant so much shit that it makes the building cave in. Yoongi, he must have been on it for weeks. He must have been on it ever since we killed Park and squashed his inner circle.”

“You don't think –” The mush of Yoongi's tone turned to steel. “Not him.”

“Who else?” Kihyun stirred his coffee. His fingertips went white as he pressed them against the porcelain. “We took one too many things from him. This was – this plan of his was half suicidal. What were the chances that we wouldn't catch him doing it? What are the chances for him now that he'll manage to disappear from us for good? This was done by someone who has nothing left to lose.”

Yoongi didn't move. His face, though, seemed to melt. His eyelids drooped. Suddenly, he looked as old as all three of them felt.

“Do you really think Mino would do that?” he asked at last.

“He's the only one fanatic enough to still think of his master's legacy. Park's men have scattered god knows where the moment he fell. Not even his sons have tried to avenge him yet. All they do is go after each other's throats to secure their father's spot for themselves. Mino is the only one who doesn't care for power. Never has.”

“I really hope you're wrong,” said Yoongi.

“I really hope so, too.”

The memory of Song Mino's one-room flat crawled before Hoseok's eyes, reminiscent of a translucent film. He recalled the easy banter with which the man had spoken to Jooheon. There hadn't been a single hateful word between the two. No thirst for blood. If Kihyun was right, the same man who had welcomed Jooheon in his own home, the man whom Jooheon trusted, was the same man who has crippled him for life.

Hoseok truly fucking wished Kihyun was wrong.

They drank in silence. When they emptied their cups, Yoongi got up, saying that he had to go back to work. Kihyun refused his offer to work from home to keep them company, and after one more embrace, Yoongi was gone.

Hoseok didn't know that when the least talkative of them left, it would become so grave – so truly like a grave.

As he sat in the kitchenette, it seemed to Hoseok he was still asleep. Sounds trickled and chimed past him, muted in comparison to what he was used to at the hotel. Yoongi's flat lay on the uppermost floor of the skyscraper he lived in, overseeing a thrum of grey blocks and crawling miniature people. Very few sounds reached them there.

He moved to stir the tea in the cup only to remember it was empty. He set the spoon down.

Kihyun broke the stillness.

“We should wash up.”

“Yeah,” said Hoseok.

“Come on.”

A pat on the thigh got Hoseok to stand up. He watched as Kihyun drew a bath and walked to and fro to find towels and spare clothes. It was a feat to find something that would fit Hoseok. Yoongi owned a fair share of oversized hoodies, but only one pair of somewhat loose sweats stuffed at the bottom of the closet Hoseok could actually put on.

Scrubbing his hands and face first, Kihyun shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves. He started undressing Hoseok. His hands were nimble. Hoseok stood still until he wore nothing. A shiver ran through him. He climbed into the tub.

Kihyun didn't join him. He kneeled by the tub instead, trying the temperature of the water with the tip of his finger. He let more warm water in. He rubbed Hoseok's hands, cleaning his bruised palms.

The body Kihyun was touching could just as well belong to a stranger. Hoseok never realized it smarted in places until Kihyun dragged his hands over them.

He's pulled some muscles; his palms were raw. Hoseok stared at them.

“You should lie down after you get out,” Kihyun said quietly.

“I'm not sleepy. Just tired.”

“I can't see you so jaded.”

“I'm okay, Ki.”

“You only ever call me Ki when you're up to something,” retorted Kihyun sternly. “I know you are lying.”

“I don't want it to be a lie.”

Kihyun paused. He dipped his fingertips in the milky water. He looked so glass-like and stricken with concern that Hoseok pushed himself up and put his wet arms around his neck. He knew he had to taste of burning cinders and dust, so he merely buried his face in Kihyun's hair. It smelled of fire.

“I'm sorry I couldn't help,” Kihyun uttered. With something akin to trepidation, he grazed Hoseok's sides. “I tried to run after you.”

“I know. I saw.”

“You should've come back to me.”

“I did. In the end.”

Kihyun didn't press the matter. He didn't reproach Hoseok for dashing headlong into the collapsing building.

He supposed Kihyun was too grateful that this mindless bout of bravery saved Jooheon.

It left Hoseok half a man, too, that he couldn't do more.

“Look,” Kihyun mumbled against Hoseok's throat, “I know that Hyunwoo needs all the help he can get, but I don't think you should go back there. Not just yet.”

“Yeah.” Hoseok let out a ragged breath. “I don't think I should go, either.”

Kihyun gazed at him with glazed eyes.

“Good. Good, love.” He cupped some water and poured it over Hoseok's shoulder, rubbing it with some force. “Do you think you can stomach making rounds around the hospitals with me?”

“To... to visit, or to guard?”

“Both. To guard, if you won't want to go inside.”

“Okay,” said Hoseok.

“Okay. I'll let Hyunwoo know.”

“Kihyun?”

“Yeah?”

“I'm sorry I scared you.”

“Don't be,” said Kihyun, a little taken aback. “This isn't about me.”

“It's about all of us, though. I didn't mean to make it seem like I was leaving you behind.”

“You don't have to tell me that.”

Hesitant, Kihyun kissed his hands, one at a time. Hoseok watched him. Then, clinging to that tiny habit, he did the same to Kihyun, kissing each knuckle.

He sat in the tub until he grew cold. All the while, Kihyun kneaded his sore muscles. He washed Hoseok's hair and feet and when he noticed the water has cooled down, he ushered him out.

Kihyun took a short bath afterwards. For the first time since he's left the hotel, Hoseok focused on something enough to be roused from his stupor. Closely, he studied Kihyun as he put one shoulder under the surface on purpose, warming up the sealed would.

“Did you strain it?” Hoseok asked.

“No.”

“Now you're lying to me.”

“It's not about yesterday. It's the weather.”

Hoseok pulled up the borrowed pair of sweats. He threw a clean towel over his head to dry his hair. He did so while sitting down on the edge of the tub. Distorted by water, Kihyun appeared to him slimmer, untouchable. And yet Hoseok touched him; touched his face to once again bring himself back to reality.

He wanted nothing of that inertia that rendered him speechless and sheltered him from what was going on around and within him. He'd sooner face the pain in one great gush than relive it a million times inside his head in smaller doses.

So, he held onto Kihyun and the reality he represented even though it stung. It brought forth an undercurrent of remorse and dread, both surging stronger with each second, which left Hoseok incomplete. Still, it was better than nothingness. He's given up on being complete long ago.

He had his other half right here.

“I keep having terrible thoughts,” Hoseok whispered as tiny ripples sung whenever Kihyun shifted. Following the spreading circles of water that folded over each other and lapped at Kihyun, Hoseok looked up and met his gaze.

“What thoughts?”

“That Jooheon might not want to wake up like this. That it might have been kinder to...”

“To let him die?”

Hoseok's lips went pallid. “Yeah. What if he hates me for it? For saving him?”

“Even if he hates you for a little bit, he'll come around. There is still so much to life for. He's got us. He's got Gain.”

“Does he, though?”

“She's not waiting at the hospital because she doesn't care for him. She didn't stay down there to burn because he's a quick fuck,” said Kihyun bluntly.

“But will that be enough? Even if we're all here for him, will that mean anything to him?” Hoseok blurted. “Look at what one shot has done to you. You hate that you're not the same you used to be. That you can't do the same work. And whatever I tell you –” or feel for you “– can't change it.”

What he said touched a nerve. Wordlessly, Kihyun laid aside a bottle of shampoo. His mouth thinned and he slid under the water to rinse. When he emerged again, he dragged his hands up his face and pushed a few wet strands back.

“I guess I'm fine with who I am as long as you still want to fuck me.”

Hoseok didn't have the mental capacity to glare. He wasn't alright enough for that.

The clothes they wore smelled of lavender. Hoseok kept sniffing at himself when he found a spot to settle down back in the kitchenette, choosing a narrow nook from which he could stare out of the window. From above, the concrete city trembled under frozen snow and drizzle. Clumps of white stretched along the horizon.

Kihyun made them a simple meal, leaving a generous serving for Yoongi. They ate, more out of habit than hunger.

The day wasted away slowly.

At night, after Yoongi came back from work, they all avoided talking so they wouldn't mention Song Mino again. In the end, Kihyun decided they should all get some sleep and took it upon himself to settle for Yoongi's dented couch.

They've all been alone with their thoughts prior to that, but somehow just being next to Kihyun made it a tad more bearable for Hoseok.

He climbed the stairs behind Yoongi and awkwardly lay down beside him on a bed that was too wide for one, but too cramped for two. Hoseok tried his hardest not to brush against Yoongi as the bed sheets rustled under them.

Yoongi fell asleep the minute he closed his eyes. Curled up in a tight ball, he neither sighed nor stirred.

Hoseok has grown used to Kihyun and his loose embraces, even the occasional light snore, and now he missed it. He missed it so much that Yoongi's calmness grated at him. The way he slept was positively cadaverous. Hoseok caught himself bating his breath to hear whether the man was still alive.

The same way the loft all but sparkled with sunlight during the day, it sank into utter darkness when the sun set. Objects became shadows; shadows became blackness. Hoseok heard and saw nothing. All he could do was take in the scent of the pillow and that was enough for him to be acutely aware that he was lying in a strange bed with a strange man. He gaped at the railing that separated the balconied bedroom from the rest of the living space. Somewhere down there, Kihyun slept soundly. Or did he?

Hoseok rolled over. He listened for a bit for any sound that might come from Yoongi, but the man didn't rouse.

He reckoned Kihyun probably had no trouble drifting off. He's been to this place before. He's slept with Yoongi in this very bed. Has taken him in all those ways he never talked of in front of Hoseok.

Did Kihyun think about it when he walked around, dressed in Yoongi's clothes? Did he remember quickies and moans and prolonged, thorough fucking that would begin in the afternoon and wouldn't end until it was dark and they were both spent?

Did he think of Hoseok at all as dreams took him?

Hoseok tossed again.

He thought of Kihyun. Way too much.

In way too many ways.

He tried to picture Kihyun their bed back in the hotel, but could only picture him in this one. It gnawed at him.

It only got worse afterwards. The image of Kihyun struggling to break free from Hyunwoo's grasp and screaming at the top of his lungs overtook his little jealousies. He had been calling Hoseok's full name. At any other time, Hoseok would have wished to kiss his own name off Kihyun's tongue. He might have burned himself had he tried.

Whenever the scene rewound in his head, Kihyun would yell a little more desperately.

It was taking Hoseok apart and putting him back all at once.

He was still awake when Yoongi got up and noiselessly started to move about, padding back and forth to throw on some clothes and make himself a cup of coffee. Soon, the entrance door fell shut with a light click.

It gradually got paler and paler. Hoseok settled for two winks of microsleep before he gave up and quietly descended the stairs. From up there, he could see the milk-thick fog that licked at skyscrapers and low buildings alike.

It startled him to find out that the couch Kihyun had occupied glared empty and crisply made. Hoseok thought for a moment he has left with Yoongi, but then a hiss of water reached him from behind a wall. Someone was in the bathroom.

Hoseok crept right inside without knocking. Suddenly, the air flowed through his teeth a little less stagnant. One look at Kihyun took his exhaustion and shrank it in size.

“Morning,” he attempted a smile.

“Why are you up so early?” asked Kihyun, his mouth full of toothpaste.

“I didn't sleep at all,” Hoseok confessed. He snuck behind Kihyun to hug him. “I'm too used to you.”

“I slept like a log.”

Hoseok grumbled something.

The floor underneath his feet felt frigid. He drew Kihyun nearer and pushed both hands under the thick hoodie he wore. The taut skin that stretched over Kihyun's hips was so warm he dug into it.

“Not here.” Kihyun spat the toothpaste out. “It's not our home. It's rude.”

It chilled him faster than the tiles he stood on.

“I'm just touching you,” he said, a little hurt.

“Don't touch me like this.”

“Like what?” said Hoseok, knowing full well what Kihyun meant.

“Like you want me to get hard.”

Hoseok let go of his hip bones only to trace the flat of his stomach.

“Better?”

Kihyun exhaled. “No.”

He wanted to suck in the sound of Kihyun's voice. He wanted to change that no into a yes.

In one stroke, Hoseok slid his hand under the waistband of Kihyun's sweats and took hold of his semi-hard cock. It tightened in his palm.

“Are handjobs rude, too?” he muttered.

Yes.”

Well, that wasn't the kind of yes he was hoping for.

He dragged his hand up and nuzzled the tip.

“I can do you quickly.”

“I'm not in the fucking mood,” said Kihyun so resolutely it stilled him.

“But I need you now,” he said.

“You think you can fuck this away, but you can't. You need a therapist, not sex.”

“I don't need a shrink.”

“I've been watching you since the quakes. You're not yourself.”

“And who am I?” Hoseok defended.

“You're all spaced out.”

“Well, I've seen some unpretty shit.”

“That's exactly what I'm talking about.”

“But it wasn't anything I would need a doctor over. I'll heal on my own. I just... want to feel a little less shitty.”

“I'm not a pill you can take.”

“I was kinda hoping you would take me.”

“Not. Here.”

Easing his grip on Kihyun's cock, Hoseok stepped away.

“Is it because of Yoongi?”

“Don't,” he hissed harshly. “I want you, and you know it.”

Hoseok went meek at that.

“Then take me,” he said quietly.

“I will. When we're back.”

“That can take weeks. It can take months,” Hoseok soured.

“Too bad. It's hand-holding and home-cooked meals for you until then.”

“That's not that bad,” he mumbled.

“I'd say it's pretty good.”

“But what if I get lonely?”

“You can hold both my hands.”

“Little man,” Hoseok whined, “it's already awful we can't sleep next to each other. Why can't we at least sleep with each other?”

Kihyun cupped his face unexpectedly.

“Listen to me. It's not because of Yoongi, okay? It's not because of you, either. But I just can't do it. Not here. Not now. It's all too fresh to –” he stopped abruptly.

“To live?” Hoseok eyed him levelly.

“It sounds silly when you put it like that. But – yeah. It's too fresh to pretend nothing's happened. So even if you can fuck this away, I can't.” He let his hands fall. “I wasn't even down there, but I've seen enough. It feels disrespectful to even stand here alive. It's plain wrong to – to just – go on like animals, even if it helps you cope.”

“Okay. Okay. Don't be mad. I won't pressure you,” he said, hushed. A little ashamed, Hoseok looked down. He brought Kihyun closer and brushed their noses together. “I'll do anything you need me to do,” he promised gravely.

Kihyun regarded him.

“I need you to tell me what you want for breakfast.”

“It's cold. I want soup.”

“Any soup?”

Hoseok hummed in agreement. “Kihyun?”

“Yes?”

“Is kissing allowed?”

“In moderation.”

Kihyun tasted of mint and life and he didn't say half a word when the kiss became anything but moderate.

 

Minhyuk wasn't as sunbright as usual when Hoseok relieved him of guard duty.

Technically, he should still be a patient, but there was not a force in this world that would make the boy sit still, not even sadness.

“Gain is coming at nine. She's taking the night shift,” Minhyuk informed him. “That's when they don't allow visits, anyway. I guess it's easier for her.”

“What do you mean? She doesn't want to see Jooheon?” Hoseok raised an eyebrow. If anything, he reckoned that Gain would want to wait inside the recovery room, perched as a cat, overseeing everything and everyone who came close to Jooheon.

Minhyuk shrugged.

“He doesn't want to see her.”

“Why?” Hoseok blurted. “She saved him.”

But maybe that was the reason.

Hoseok clammed up.

“Beats me,” said Minhyuk. He stood up and stretched. “I'll take the morning shift tomorrow again, okay?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“See ya, hyung.”

Hoseok watched him go. Then he looked at the all-white door to Jooheon's room. A vice-like nervousness pressed at his insides.

Empty-handed, because he didn't suppose oranges and seaweed soup were allowed just yet, Hoseok turned the handle and stuck his head in.

Cushy in the hospital bunk, Jooheon looked perfectly fine. His prominent, observant eyes peered without much curiosity or joy, neutral in his equally neutral face. He was calm. Handsome, even. He had no bruises on his upper body, not a scratch. Hoseok never would have thought that the heaped up blanket that covered him hid two stumps.

He smiled softly at Hoseok.

“You came.”

“Of course,” said Hoseok, his throat strained. He slipped inside and shut the door behind him. All within him raced as he studied Jooheon's bluish-tinted lips and hands. A tangle of cords covered the ground. A row of IVs Jooheon was hooked up to lined the bed. There already was a collage of get well soon cards shining white on an equally white bedside table, probably sent by those who were well but too far or too busy clearing out the collapsed underground space of the hotel. The card which lay at the very top was signed by Jackson. There was a tiger doodle on it.

A single window let in low light. It was still milky outside. It didn't help to colour the colourless room at all.

“They say you dragged me out,” said Jooheon. “I didn't know I had a guardian angel.”

Hoseok gave an embarrassed laugh.

“Anyone would do the same.”

“No one else dared to go so far.”

“Gain did,” Hoseok pointed out.

Something flitted over Jooheon's features.

“I asked her to meet me there. Before it all went down.”

“So you were together when the bombs went off?”

“No. I was still waiting when it happened.”

Hoseok ventured nearer and took a seat by the bunk.

“It was lucky you called her, you know. Otherwise, we wouldn't have known where to look for you. You weren't picking up the phone.”

Without a sound, Jooheon smoothed the blanket that stretched down from his waist.

“Lucky me,” he said with a smile. “But I guess I really am lucky. I'm allowed to stay. I was afraid for a bit that... that Hyungsoo might turn me out.”

“He wouldn't.” Hoseok meant it, but at the same time he knew it was partly true because Jooheon wasn't valuable due to his strength or assassin skills; he was valuable as a researcher. Even if he was missing both arms on top of the injury, if he didn't have a tongue or eyes, his knowledge would serve him as a shield of indispensability.

There were others, though, Hoseok realized right after. There was Park Bom, Hyungsoo's former and long dismissed bodyguard who needed a wheelchair to navigate through the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel and who hasn't been assigned to a single mission in half a decade. There was Jungkook, rumoured to be released from intensive care in Macau soon. There was Kihyun whose wounds have forced him to switch fields for good, rendering him less useful to Hyungsoo.

And still, the organization held a protective hand above them all. These tight-knit ties ran deep.

“I'm so glad I can stay,” said Jooheon, burrowing the back of his head into a clean-smelling pillow. “Thank you, hyung.”

Hoseok jumped at that.

“Why thank me? I didn't decide it, silly.”

“I would burn somewhere under the rubble if it wasn't for you.”

“And Gain,” said Hoseok quickly but shyly. “She wouldn't leave your side, you know. She even went downstairs to try and find some help.”

Jooheon stayed silent. For the first time since Hoseok's arrival, he lost that composure that enveloped him. It was only visible in the way his cheeks hollowed. The grimace brought forth his dimples, but they were as far from cheerful as they could be.

“Should take make me happy?” he asked. “That I could have killed her with me?”

“I don't think she sees it this way.”

“But it's exactly how it is.”

Hoseok picked up one of the get well cards to make his hands busy.

“It's not, though. You couldn't have predicted this. If you're afraid to face her... I don't think you have to be. She was here the whole day, you know.”

“I know,” Jooheon muttered.

“She's worried.”

“I think I know that, too.” That came out even fainter.

“It would kill me if Kihyun got hurt and he wouldn't let me go to him,” Hoseok said without thinking.

“That's different. You two love each other.”

Hoseok sat there as if scalded by scorching water.

“We're friends,” he opposed.

“That means you love each other. Gain and I... we're not friends. There's nothing mutual. Even if she cares now, she won't as soon as she sees me.” Searching for words, Jooheon let his mouth gape for a bit before he continued. “I won't have her see me like this.”

“Like what?”

“Even less of a man than I was.”

“That's crazy,” Hoseok exclaimed weakly.

“It's true. There's only two thirds of me now.” He smiled ruefully at what he said, finding it funny in some obscure way. “Now I really am the baby she would always call me. I can't even walk.”

Taken aback by the punchline, Hoseok laughed a little, and Jooheon joined in, their laughter like a small brooklet in a very silent place.

The white and seafoam green hallway drowned in a sickly light when Hoseok left the recovery room in the evening, greeting Gain who has already taken a seat outside. She looked refreshed, though that by no means made her stern figure relax.

They talked for a bit, Hoseok debating whether he should let her in on any of what Jooheon had disclosed to him. In the end, he decided against it. Gain was tenacious enough to wait Jooheon's insecurities out. Wasn't she? And if she truly left, be it before or after coming face to face with what has become of Jooheon, the boy could at least keep some of his dignity.

As he walked back to Yoongi's, Hoseok passed across puddles. They seemed bottomless on the dark pavement, reflecting oily orange lights. Small shrubs beaten down by sleets stood wet and pitiful by shops whose display windows illuminated the street in gold.

Kihyun was waiting for him at the main entrance.

Instead of going in to warm up, they kissed a bit in the cold. Hoseok couldn't stop himself from kissing the tip of Kihyun's nose for the longest.

When they filled each other in on what has happened during the day – and when they filled each other's mouth once more – they went into a nearby convenience store. Hoseok snacked on some noodles as Kihyun did the shopping. Of course, the snack earned him a couple of glares, but Hoseok was used to that. He simpered at Kihyun, his heart lifted by the visit at Jooheon's.

He carried the groceries back to the loft so Kihyun could keep his hands in his pockets.

Nights spent next to Yoongi in the narrow bed were, for lack of a better word, unaccustomable. Hoseok tossed and turned and stared and tossed again, night after night. Whatever he did and however worn out he became during the day, it all went away the second he lay down. He felt fortunate when he managed to score a few microsleep episodes before sunrise.

Hoseok's shifts changed depending on where he was needed. Oftentimes, he would stay in the same hospital for two consecutive shifts, merely pendulating between wards to keep watch over the rest of their wounded. At other times, he took the subway to another neighbourhood, but he always kept within the same district. He had Kihyun with him almost daily. Only on those occasions when he had to take care of business elsewhere and clean after a hit, Hoseok would go alone. He hated those days. Hospitals drained him.

Weeks went by.

Reconstructions started full-on by the end of December. The lower Hyunwoo and his teams went, the more gruesome their work became. They retrieved the last batch of bodies. The headcount was complete, though it still wasn't sure which body belonged to who.

The security camera footage came up partly damaged. It showed enough. Kihyun has been right all along. Hoseok didn't have the guts to tell Jooheon, so Kihyun had to do it. It didn't shake the boy. It didn't shake him at all. He reached to grab an orange Hoseok has brought him and started peeling it as he muttered that he already kind of suspected the same.

By the time their hitmen were sent for Song Mino, the man has already vanished. Another of his bombs was awaiting the team inside his abandoned bedsit, fastened to the door so it would go off if someone attempted to get in. It had been placed so slapdashedly that it left the men unscathed, but melted off half of Song's bedsit. The force of the blow cracked the aquarium above the man's bed, letting shards and seaweed and fish splash all over the floor in one foamy wave.

Days were getting shorter. To Hoseok, they felt twice as long. He still hasn't figured out a way to fall asleep in the strange bedroom.

He rolled over. His eyes burned as he once again counted shadows and creaks. He suppressed a sigh. Behind his back, Yoongi breathed in and out so quietly that Hoseok had to prick up his ears to hear it.

Living next to Yoongi was similar to what Hoseok imagined living with Hyungwon would be; only he had topics beside killing and Kihyun to talk about with Hyungwon. Still, even despite his busy schedule and frequent silences, Yoongi gave off the aura of someone people could depend on. He would often stop by in the middle of the day to check up on his temporary roommates, pretending to return for something he has forgotten to bring to work.

He could be sweet like that. That sweetness came forth in small amounts, but when it did, it was given indefinitely. Hoseok could see why Yoongi and Kihyun were so close. In many ways, they correlated, falling into each other like two tiny puzzle pieces.

Hoseok couldn't lie. It still made him fret to see those touches the two exchanged, those morning pecks offered out of habit. But it no longer forced pictures of them fucking into his head.

Gradually, Yoongi has warmed up to Hoseok enough to let him listen to the music he was producing. It usually happened when Kihyun was gone and Yoongi noticed that Hoseok was moping about. They've found that music required little talking and took care of awkward pauses; but more often than not it also sparked a string of conversations between them, conversations they could hold on their own. Yoongi would play unfinished snippets and Hoseok would let the tune transfer him somewhere else, soak into him the way resin flows from underneath bark and consumes everything in its path.

It was fun to watch Yoongi produce. It was less fun to lie in the same bed with him.

Run-down, Hoseok got up. He took spaced steps towards the stairs and tiptoed down. The staircase groaned under his weight, but he carried on, treading carefully until he stood above the couch where Kihyun slept.

Kihyun was cocooned in a thick quilt. One of his feet stuck out. Hoseok squatted down, tempted to tickle it. He grinned for himself. It would earn him a kick in the face.

There was something so serene about Kihyun, and Hoseok saw such clarity in those sharply assembled features, that he almost didn't have the heart to wake him up. Almost.

Faltering, Hoseok reached out and ran a thumb over his cheekbone.

“Ki?” he tried.

“Seok?” said Kihyun.

“Fuck!” he whispered, startled to the point of flinching. “I didn't know you were awake!” he accused.

“So you just came here to creep?”

“I came to cuddle,” he shot back.

Kihyun wiggled in his cocoon and got up, kneeling. He lifted the quilt.

Although the couch was dented and crumpled and too small for two, Hoseok seized the opportunity without a second thought. He climbed under Kihyun. He shifted to find a comfortable spot. They bumped into each other and Kihyun dug into his forearm before they settled down for good.

Hoseok wrapped his arms around Kihyun. He fit there so nicely that Hoseok couldn't help himself and squeezed hard.

Kihyun grouched.

Hoseok pulled him up and sniffed his hair.

“You said cuddle,” Kihyun pointed out.

“That's what I'm doing.”

“You're kinda breaking my spine.”

“Oh. Sorry.” He loosened his grip.

“Never said I didn't like it.”

Hoseok chuckled. He trailed the gentle peaks of Kihyun's spine up and down. Then he did it again, pushing under the hem of Kihyun's hoodie and rolling it up.

Burrowing his face against Hoseok's neck, Kihyun splayed a palm over his pec, grazing the nipple. He moved so their ankles tangled together.

“I missed you today,” Hoseok sighed.

“Missed you, too.”

“So that's why you're up for a snuggle,” he smirked at Kihyun softly. “I should make you miss me more often.”

“Don't. It's already bad.”

That made him proud as fuck.

“Well, if it means you won't go all celibate on me anymore, I'm willing to try it.”

“I'm still going celibate on you.”

Kihyun cupped his pec as he said it.

“Are you sure?” Hoseok breathed out a ragged breath.

“Positive.” Kihyun nosed at his throat before kissing it. Then he dragged his open mouth up to Hoseok's ear. He kissed it, too. “You're so warm it hurts.”

“Little man, one more word and I'm hard.”

“No more words, then.”

Hoseok knew it wasn't going to lead towards anything more serious when Kihyun pushed his tongue between his teeth and deeper and deeper, but he welcomed it all the same. So what if they couldn't shag. Hoseok craved affection more. He could lie here making out until morning for all he cared. Even if it meant his dick would get hot and leak from the tip, which it did.

A deep thrum rushed through every fibre of his being. He combed through Kihyun's hair and tugged at it, swallowing his small moans. Knowing he couldn't get more, Hoseok still pulled his thighs apart until Kihyun slid down between them. They panted into the kiss.

It stilled them both. Their lips brushing, they gave a voiceless laugh. Hoseok pressed Kihyun close one last time and their cocks ached at the contact, but instead of adding to the need to touch, the closeness calmed them down. Kihyun lay into him heavier, but he stopped moving. All he did was nibble at Hoseok's earlobe.

Inhaling, he screwed his eyes shut.

“You know how you said you miss me even when I'm with you?” Hoseok whispered. “Back then, after the surgery?”

“Yeah.”

“This is exactly it.”

“Just a little longer. You've already endured so much.”

Kihyun spoke so low in his throat it was dizzying Hoseok up. Each word was mouthed against his ear.

“I haven't done that much,” he offered.

“You have. You've put up with the messed way we live and you've fought for your place and now it's been taken from you again and you're still going. It's – I don't know. It's like no matter how bad something pains you, you can ram through it.”

“I'm not that strong,” said Hoseok honestly.

“You're stronger.”

He was used to being praised for his physique. For his might.

This other kind of esteem nearly scared him.

“I thought I was meek,” Hoseok quipped to hide his awe that bordered on fear.

“You are. Until you're not.”

“And what does that mean?”

“You always do whatever you please, but it works in the end.”

He was miffled. “I thought you were going to say something nice.”

Kihyun let out a chuckle – or it was a sigh.

“You're meek when everyone else is strong, but you you're strong when everyone else falls apart. You have this silk hiding steel thing about you.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Yeah. You can rely on us and we can rely on you.”

His throat tightened.

“So I've been promoted to a parent,” he fooled around.

“I mean. You are still the babiest.” Kihyun didn't say it maliciously.

“Sounds like you still have to take care of me,” he half-smiled.

“I will. Of every part of you.” Shyer, Kihyun muttered: “I'll make the wait worth it when we're back. I promise. I'll make you come however you tell me to, how many times you tell me to.”

Fuck.

Hoseok wanted to open up to him like an ocean.

“I can wait,” said Hoseok, clutching him. “Just... don't avoid me. I don't think Yoongi will mind if we don't live like total monks.”

“It's still weird to do anything here.”

“Because you guys fucked?”

“I guess.”

“But now the two of us fuck and you still kiss him.”

Kihyun was swallowed by one of his brief silences.

It boldened Hoseok. He touched Kihyun's hand, settling over the ring on his forefinger.

“You don't belong to either of them anymore.”

As soon as the words sank into the darkness between them, he regretted them. He turned to peer at Kihyun. So up close, Hoseok could see the same clarity in his features that has been there several times before; the same stillness marred only by the flutter of eyelashes creating slow shadows on the skin underneath.

“I know who I belong to.”

“You better,” said Hoseok, holding his breath.

“To myself.”

“Well, that too.”

Kihyun didn't answer. Not verbally. He traced Hoseok's neck with parted lips, going up until they kissed a shallow kiss.

Hoseok felt his. He felt so his that the other yours and mines didn't matter.

 

A flow of water woke him up, and then a roaring kind of hum. Someone was making coffee.

First, he realized that Kihyun's weight on top of him was missing. When he blinked, he found out it was morning already. The black of the night has turned to murk. A rayless, sunless sunrise painted the loft with whitish brushstrokes. It was going to be another day full of mist and drizzle.

Hoseok remained stuck between consciousness and a dreamless doze as a part of him listened to the soft sound of footsteps and voices. He tried to unglue his eyelids, but they fell shut right away, too heavy with sleep.

When he finally sat up, he didn't as much as groan although his back started screaming. It wasn't his brightest idea to fall asleep squished between the crooked couch and Kihyun, but he wouldn't trade it, anyway. He just wondered whether Kihyun got up every morning sore like this.

Now that Hoseok was awake, the trickle of noises reaching him from the kitchenette made more sense to him. There was a tinkle of glass, a murmur, a light yawn.

Hoseok headed towards the kitchenette. The sound of Yoongi's voice, gooey with lassitude, stopped him in his tracks.

“But you're still wearing it.”

“I don't have a grave to go to. All I have is this.”

“Yeah, but trust me, having Gun's shit around is going to eat you alive. Hell, I still haven't brought myself to throw Hoseok's things away even though at this point it only weighs me down, but at least I see what it does to me.”

“That's different. You still love him.”

“I always will. But mostly, I miss him.”

“That's worse.”

Yoongi gave a laugh. “I guess. I miss Hoseok. I miss him so bad that on most days I pretend he's alive. Those are the good days. But I know it's fucked up, and I know that when I see his sneakers in the shoe rack or when I wear his cologne, I'm not remembering him. I'm not honouring him or anything. I'm making this about myself. I'm making myself miserable.”

“I think you're doing both.”

“Maybe. It's just that...” Yoongi paused, either to gather his thoughts or to take a bite of his breakfast. “You know, when I go to to the cemetery, it hits me harder than ever that I'll never see him again. But then I can really grieve. I can really remember him. I'm there for him, not for me.” There was a quiet clang of china. “It's bad when you literally carry that place to think of your dead with you everywhere you go.”

“What else can I do, though? Throw it away? No fucking way.”

“There are urns you can rent, you know. At the cemetery.”

“We burned his house and everything around it down, so I bet there was quite a bit of ashes, but none I could put into that urn,” said Kihyun with a dash of sarcasm.

“Well, there's your place where to put the ring. At least no motherfucker will steal it.”

Without knowing, Hoseok has got so close that he could see both of the men at the table. They were bathed by the dove grey dawn. Neither of them noticed Hoseok. Kihyun sat with his back towards the living room. One of his arms was propped up on the circular dining table. Even from the distance, it was clear that he was toying with the silver band on his finger, turning it around.

“You think I should do that?” Kihyun asked at last.

“I can't tell you what to do. But I can tell you for sure it will help. You'll let him go. You won't feel responsible for his mistakes anymore.”

“Yeah, I'm just responsible for his death.”

“No. He is. But see? This is the kind of crap you're putting yourself through out of guilt. It's even less healthy than doing it out of love. And it's not just you who gets dragged down when you keep that thing on.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, I don't mean to sound douchy, but it's baggage for those around you as well. It felt like that even when Gun was still alive. We'd get down to business and instead of fucking me, you would fumble with that damn ring. You would literally finger me and still look at that thing on the bedside table.”

“I never did that,” said Kihyun in a tone that was too embarrassed to be defensive.

“You kinda did.”

“Jesus.”

Softer than soft, Yoongi cackled.

“It's alright, man. It's fine between the two of us. You thought of someone else at the time and so did I. We never pretended otherwise. But you'll find someone else one day and they will ask about that ring.”

“I won't find anyone.”

“Well, they might find you. Who cares.”

“There isn't room for anyone else.”

“So it's just you and Hoseok?”

“Unless you wanna join in,” Kihyun quipped.

“I mean. I've always been weak for Hoseoks.”

“Silly.” There was a drop of sadness in it.

“I saw you when I came downstairs,” Yoongi commented. He downed his coffee. “He's good for you.”

“He is.”

“He seems sweet on you, too.”

“He's not. It's already bad that we even fuck.”

“Not on my couch, I hope.”

“Like that fucked up thing would survive that.”

“Buy me a better one and I'll let you fuck on it.”

“Help me with that urn thing and I'll buy you a whole sofa set.”

Then Yoongi made a sugar daddy joke and Kihyun coughed into his coffee and Hoseok took it as a cue to get lost. He's heard too much. He skulked into the bathroom and didn't appear until the two were already gone.

Hoseok found the whole squad inside the recovery room when he arrived at the hospital. Only Gain sat outside, packing her stuff to set out to any temporary home she has managed to arrange for herself. Kihyun had offered to ask Yoongi if she could crash with them, but Gain had smirked at him, saying that a girl like her could always find a place to stay. Hoseok supposed that was true, but he still wondered whether she was lonely.

It was Minhyuk's shift, so it didn't surprise Hoseok to see him there, sprawled where Jooheon's legs were supposed to be and eating an orange. His chest tightened when he spotted Changkyun and Hyungwon. This whole time, they've been taking care of the wounded admitted to a hospital at the very outskirts of another district, rendering it impossible for them to meet at all. Changkyun immediately hopped into his arms and, laughing, Hoseok picked him up.

Even Hyunwoo found a minute in his busy schedule to drop by and bring Jooheon some of his belongings. Already, the boy sat pinned to one of his laptops. It was almost nostalgic to see him click and clack on the keyboard as his eyes narrowing every once in a while.

They all stayed for as long as they could. Hyunwoo told them about Hyungsoo's postponed arrival and about the progress his teams were making with the reparations. Changkyun moaned about being bored “in that butthole of a backwater” he's been assigned to and Minhyuk just moaned in general, polishing off Jooheon's stash of fruit and sweets.

Everyone avoided the topic of Song Mino, but it hung in the air, anyway. The tension only dissipated when Hyunwoo broke the ice, patting Jooheon on the shoulder with some fatherly awkwardness.

“He won't run for much longer,” he promised and Jooheon seemed to smile at that, though it was out of gratitude and not because of pleased vengeance.

Time flew by when the clan was together again.

When Hoseok unlocked the door to Yoongi's loft, the two men were already inside. Yoongi was setting up a hookah while Kihyun watched sceptically.

“What're you up to?” Hoseok approached them suspiciously. He rubbed his hands, oozing cold.

“We figured we could have some fun,” said Yoongi, placing a generous amount of tobacco in a bowl on top of the hookah. Hoseok got a whiff of watermelon aroma. Yoongi covered the shisha with a piece of foil. “Wanna join?”

“What's in it?”

“Oh, just a little bit of spice.”

“Like, spice spice?” Hoseok peered closer.

Yoongi looked up at him and then at Kihyun.

“He's adorable.”

“He's your elder,” said Kihyun.

“By a week, maybe.”

“I don't mind being called adorable,” announced Hoseok and plopped down next to Kihyun.

“Even Kihyun is going to be adorable once this stuff hits.” Saying that, Yoongi poked holes into the foil.

“Well, what's the occasion?” Hoseok asked cautiously.

“Feeling shitty.”

“Oh.”

Hoseok started to worm his way out of his heavy down jacket. He did so sitting down. When he finally freed himself, he breathed on his hands.

“How was your day?” Kihyun inquired in a low voice. “Are you weary?”

“Not really. It was nice today. The whole group showed up.”

Kihyun reached up to warm up his cheek. As soon as they touched, Hoseok knew that something was off.

He wore no ring.

“That's good.”

“Yeah,” Hoseok managed. A rush of warmth flooded his face. “They asked about you, so I told them you were out on a mission,” he played dumb.

Kihyun didn't correct him.

“Still no trace of Mino?”

Hoseok shook his head.

At that, Kihyun grew grim. He put his hand down.

Hoseok stared at it for a bit as if to make sure the chunk of silver was truly gone – that it wasn't just an illusion. It wasn't. Kihyun's hands were bare.

Yoongi took out a lighter and lighted a few coals. As he waited for the bowl to get warm, he got up and put on some music. It echoed through the living room with a slow sort of insistence, livening up the atmosphere. Hoseok recognized some of Yoongi's tracks. He leaned back, observing Yoongi as he took an experimental drag or two. Finally, a gust of smoke rose from his mouth and dissolved in the light. When the water bubbled inside the vase, Hoseok looked at it closer and saw pieces of crushed ice and mint there.

Kihyun was the second to try. He breathed in long and nice until a crease appeared between his eyebrows. Even when it came to this, he was focused. He tipped his head back and instead of breathing out, he let the dense haze rise from his mouth on its own. With his chin and Adam's apple accentuated, Kihyun reminded Hoseok of a sculpture. The ray of light that ran down his profile and illuminated it golden did nothing to uproot that thought.

Turning to Hoseok, Kihyun tried to hand him the hose. Instead of taking it, Hoseok gazed at the mouthpiece with distrust. He gently gripped Kihyun's wrist and brought it to his face. A little rushed, he inhaled. A lungful of smoke scorched him, tasting faintly foul. He coughed as the other two chuckled.

“It's disgusting,” he complained.

“That's because you pulled too hard,” said Kihyun and gave him a crinkly-eyed smile.

“You have to go slow,” Yoongi explained, “otherwise you'll burn the tobacco and it will taste like shit.”

Doubtful, Hoseok took another drag. This time, he did his best to savour the sensation of an almost tangible sting in his mouth. It tasted of ash – but it also tasted of mint and melon and winter. The smoke came out thick and chilled when he parted his lips.

They passed the hookah among them. Hoseok's limbs got heavier as minutes went by. His mind has never been clearer, though. He watched the water vaporize and gurgle, lapping at the insides of the glass jar. He watched milk-like clouds soar and spread. He watched the two men in front of him, both sharp-edged but strangely squishy as they took small puffs.

He felt something similar to a headache, except there was no pain. It infused him with tranquility. With peace. He didn't have to think hard to realize that such feeling was precisely the reason for this little ritual. Kihyun had to make peace with his decision.

Soon, they all sat around the water pipe in a triangle, shifting near each other for convenience's sake. All things stood sharp in the sea of smoke. The sharpest of all was the tip of the mouthpiece. Kihyun offered it to Hoseok in unhurried intervals, feeding him more gusts. Obedient, Hoseok drew in the flavour of watermelon, letting it dance on his tongue. Then he got an idea.

He leaned towards Yoongi.

Immediately, Yoongi knew. He must have done this in the past. With the same obedience that Hoseok let Kihyun walk him through the experience, Yoongi let his lips fall apart for Hoseok to blow the smoke in. His smile got gummy as he breathed out.

“You sure you haven't done this before?” Yoongi eyed him with some amusement.

“I dated a smoker when I was in high school,” supplied Hoseok, far from shy. He felt too good for that. “She liked shotgun kisses.”

“This is you fucking Pisces summed in one sentence,” said Kihyun darkly. “You act all innocent and sensitive and then you pull this kind of shit.”

“It's not our fault you're such a prissy-ass, virgin-ass softie,” Yoongi retorted.

“How am I a virgin when I fucked you both!”

“You're a virgin at soul.”

“A sixty-year-old one,” added Hoseok.

“And what does it make you when you're still thirsting after this grandpa dick?”

“Whipped,” said Hoseok sadly.

They all broke into laughter. Somehow, the joke mellowed Kihyun out. He took another pull. Then, very quickly, he touched the nape of Hoseok's neck and hauled him into a real kiss. Hoseok made a throaty sound. He gripped Kihyun. Gripped him hard.

It was all too short.

Right after they stopped kissing, Yoongi pulled Kihyun close. A gap remained clear between them. Kihyun sucked the offered trail of grey smoke in. It curled when he blew it out.

They went on, smoking and talking until the air turned opaque and the tobacco tasteless.

That night, they all ended up upstairs in the single bed. Hoseok lay in the middle. He drifted off the second the two small men snuggled up to him.

They kind of regretted it in the morning when everyone woke up sore and stiff.

“We really have to talk about this goddamn sleeping arrangement,” rasped Kihyun as he cracked his neck.

“I mean, you can always sleep on the ground.”

“Do I look like a savage to you?”

“Right now? You look all kinds of savage to me.”

Yoongi actually got the sofa set out of it, though it was more for Kihyun's comfort.

They spent three motherfucking months there.

 

Chapter Text

The darkish outline of the hotel rose into the purple-tinted dusk. The building looked so untouched, so intact against the starless sky that Hoseok got the idea it was mocking them. Being back brought a briny aftertaste into his mouth. He still remembered the crowd huddling in front of the hotel in snow and rain, waiting for updates and help and for the earthquake-like sensation to leave their limbs after what they had been through. He didn't have to try too hard to imagine the stream of shattered souls wandering about with lost expressions. He had been one of them.

So many lives have been ruined or ended, and yet the building stood.

He walked inside with Kihyun by his side.

The half-lit lobby had something different about it. It looked vaster to Hoseok, or more vacant. He couldn't decide whether it was due to all that new furniture, or if it was merely his imagination.

Two men occupied a couple of chairs in a corner embellished with tall plants. Kihyun was the first to notice them.

“Hey,” he greeted. “You're back.”

Jungkook turned to them and lit up. It made his disfigured appearance all but endearing. Two slits glared at them where his nose was supposed to be. Half of his head was hairless and tangled with clumps of burned skin. Next to him, Namjoon waved at them.

There was a white dog at Jungkook's heels. It shook a little, scuttering back and forth.

“Finally,” said the boy. “And for good.”

“You look better,” commented Kihyun.

“I sure hope so,” Jungkook grinned. It pulled at his scars. “But I guess I'll have to pick up girls with Miri here from now on,” he said, scratching the dog's head.

“Nonsense. You still have those killer muscles,” said Hoseok, motioning to the boy's arms.

Jungkook smiled shyly.

“Besides, you never pick up girls,” Namjoon took a gentle dig at him. “You always run away from them.”

“Well, they are too powerful,” defended Jungkook.

“Are you guys waiting for someone?” Kihyun inquired. It wasn't that typical for people to hang out in the lobby, not with all the space the hotel provided – even with the destroyed floors still out of use.

“Yeah. The guys are coming back from Yoongi's cabin today,” Namjoon supplied. “We're all going to surprise him. Give him a reward from Hyungsoo. Thank him for all he's done.”

“Steal his food,” added Jungkook.

“Do me a favour and make him eat the kimchi I left there for him,” said Kihyun. “He never fucking eats.”

“He lives off sarcasm and work,” Jungkook nodded gravely.

They all grinned at poor Yoongi's expense before parting ways.

One of the elevators was already in order. They took the stairs, anyway.

The walls on the three lower levels were painted over in varying shades of ivory. The higher they climbed, the whiter and older the colour got, showing the original paint that needed no reparations. Some doors they passed were made of a darker kind of wood. Carpets had different patterns, though the hue was consistent.

The bedroom welcomed them spotless. The cactus stood happily at the desk in a new pot. Hoseok noticed thin cracks crawling up the walls, but those could be tended to later. The teams had to prioritize, and surface damage of this degree could wait.

Kihyun snapped the bedside table lamp on. He cast a critical glimpse around the room, mellowing as he took the familiarity of it in.

They were both glad to be home.

Shedding his coat, Kihyun headed for the bookcase.

“Hoseok, could you –”

Hoseok never learned what it was Kihyun was about to ask. Probably to help him rearrange the books, since his freakish side couldn't stand having them displayed in an order he wasn't used to. He hardly took a step when Hoseok caught him.

“What is it –”

Kihyun didn't finish that thought, either. It dissolved on Hoseok's tongue.

“Remember the promise?” mumbled Hoseok, capturing his mouth once more.

“You've got to be shitting me.” Although muffled, the statement carried all of Kihyun's incredulity. “Can't you wait one minute?”

“Nope. You can arrange your precious books later.”

“How do you even know I –”

This time, it was a moan that interrupted the question, and it was Kihyun who moaned.

Hoseok tore his clothes off and then unwrapped Kihyun like a fucking present. When they were both naked, he lifted Kihyun up. It almost destroyed him when Kihyun buried his hands in his hair, so willing to be with Hoseok that he didn't mind the brief loss of control. He liked to be tossed around, anyway. Hoseok laid him on the bed. He heard a hiss that stopped him from straddling Kihyun; but it was a pity. He really wished to ride him. To watch him.

“It's alright,” Kihyun assured him.

“No, it's not.”

“I'm telling you –”

“Take me from behind.”

Kihyun's protests died off.

Hoseok rolled onto his side and so did Kihyun, lying on his good shoulder. Hoseok reached out to turn off the lamp. Blindly, he pawed around for the handle of the top drawer of the bedside table. He found their stuff there, untouched. He handed Kihyun a pack of condoms. Pouring the contents of a small bottle into his palm, he reached behind and spread it all over Kihyun's cock.

“Hurry. I mean it. Put it in.”

“No. Give me the lube.”

“Forget that. I want to feel you there even when you're gone.”

Kihyun moaned something that sounded suspiciously like “fuck, hyung” and, pushing Hoseok's thigh forward, he squeezed himself between his ass cheeks and buried the tip in.

There was nothing to swallow their gasps now; no reason to be quiet. Hoseok groaned as he was spread all anew. Touches blossomed all over his cock. Hoseok pressed back, allowing Kihyun to slide in.

And he did. All the way in.

Hoseok's mouth fell open.

“Feel that?” Kihyun murmured, closing a fist over Hoseok's girth.

The hint of arrogance in his voice did things to Hoseok he didn't know were possible. He tightened around Kihyun, grabbing his hair to get him to move.

Kihyun stroked his dick first. Then he ground into him.

“Fuck,” Hoseok whispered hotly and tilted his head back for Kihyun to kiss him.

He loved it. He loved it. He loved it.

Embraced and fucked and covered with whispers that broke halfway, Hoseok didn't try to be silent. Neither did Kihyun. Skin on skin and lips locking, they sped up.

It didn't even take a minute.

Hoseok ended up on his belly, growling into the pillow as Kihyun grasped at his sides to finish into him. Hoseok laughed, out of breath. His body grew hot as he came and it tingled all over. But it still wasn't enough. The second Kihyun slipped out and threw away the rubber, Hoseok reached behind and took hold of him, working him up again.

“Now you really got to be kidding me,” Kihyun gasped out.

Hoseok looked over his shoulder. “Why? Tired already?”

“Worried,” said Kihyun. “You didn't even let me loosen you up. You'll be so sore tomorrow, Seok.”

“That a promise?”

He could see the change come over Kihyun little by little; could see the oscillation underneath his features as they sharpened. He swatted Hoseok away and took him by the hips.

“Get up.”

He did. He went on all fours because he knew that position hurt Kihyun the least.

He heard him unwrap another condom and waited, waited, waited. A part of him toyed with the idea of letting Kihyun go bareback just to have him there, but he knew he was the only one who wouldn't mind – who would welcome it. Kihyun would think he's gone mental.

Maybe he has.

He crumpled the covers in his fists, supporting himself and stretching his muscles at the same time. He sure hoped Kihyun was getting an eyeful.

As the thought flitted through his mind, he felt Kihyun trail his way up his thighs. He fondled Hoseok's balls before he spread him with two thumbs, exposing him. A shiver shot through his spine down to where Kihyun laid his hands on Hoseok and splayed them to open him a little more.

“You're unbelievable,” mumbled Kihyun and pushed inside him.

It went in slick, up to the root. Hoseok's grip tightened and so did the rest of him, causing Kihyun to bend down and press an open-mouthed kiss on the nape of Hoseok's neck. The first thrust was shallow. It teased his asshole, nudging at him instead of going in again. Kihyun stayed flush against Hoseok's back, kissing the rippling muscles before burying his nose back against his neck. Hoseok was upholding them both, but it only added to the sweet tension.

“Don't make me wait anymore,” Hoseok breathed out.

“I'm not.”

“You fucking are and you know it.”

Without reply, Kihyun outlined two circles over Hoseok's hips and then made his way upwards. He traced each rib with admiration. He left fading imprints all over Hoseok's sides, finally clamping him from behind in a sort of hug. They both sighed when Kihyun charged at one of his nipples and ground into him deep, filling his walls.

“Better?” he mouthed against Hoseok's skin.

He would've answered if it was any less good. When Kihyun twisted his nipple and repeated the question, all Hoseok managed to get out were fragments – more – deeper – deeper. He wanted to say it all, to praise Kihyun's cock and his pretty face, wanted to fuck with his head a little to get that birdsong of a cry out of him. It was too late for a tug of war, though. The way Kihyun clutched him as if his life depended on it set Hoseok's flesh on fire. It was fucking with him.

And then Kihyun straightened up and it was even worse. He snapped his hips into Hoseok, giving him all the friction he craved but none of the intimacy.

Hoseok remembered what Kihyun had said about doing it like dogs, and this was it. Well, he got what he asked for. He braced himself and sank onto his elbows.

He shouldn't have. Now he was getting fucked like a dog and couldn't even hate it because Kihyun drove at that swell of nerves within him with each stroke. He panted out Kihyun's name.

An open-palmed hand pushed him lower. His chest grazing the mattress, Hoseok sensed the build-up spreading from his belly to his fingers and toes. He contracted and buckled forward only for Kihyun to follow after him, thrusting faster as Hoseok climaxed.

He went blank, his body slack. Letting out small sounds, he still leaked.

Kihyun wasn't done.

“Up. Up, baby,” he uttered, dragging Hoseok by the hips. “Come to me.”

With that little command he had left over his limbs, Hoseok shifted backwards and kneeled. He tipped his head back and rested it on Kihyun's shoulder, too stunned to do anything else. Kihyun closed his arms around him.

“God, you're...” He sucked at Hoseok's neck, marking him. Then his jaw. “You're so... Hoseok. Look at me.”

He didn't even know his eyelids were shut. Heavily, he opened them.

The too-intense look he was used to seeing when Kihyun got aroused wasn't there. Instead of two glinty lights in his eyes, Hoseok saw a whole mist of them, glistening like a bioluminescent sea shore. Creases appeared between Kihyun's eyebrows and folded over his nose. They cracked his face as gentleness swam to the surface.

“You're so good,” Kihyun ground out, his voice hitching.

“Then come.”

“Then kiss me.”

He had strength enough for that. Tilting towards him, Hoseok brought Kihyun closer by the back of his head and let their tongues touch.

The shudder it sent through Kihyun went into him, too. He kissed Kihyun deeper.

Kihyun gripped him as he came, riding his orgasm in several strokes.

Afterwards, Kihyun lay on his back and Hoseok huddled him in a blanket to fight off the cold.

He was still hot all over, his fingertips warm as he let them dance and drift over Kihyun. Lost in thoughts, Hoseok traced one of Kihyun's collarbones, watching shadows gather in the hollow above it as Kihyun's chest rose and fell.

Eventually, he sensed Kihyun's gaze.

Planting pecks alongside the lovely line of his clavicle, Hoseok looked up at him.

“Did you like it?”

“Did I like it?” Kihyun repeated, so weary with satisfaction that his tone lacked the usual acerbity.

“Is that a yes?” he pressed.

“Yes.”

Smug, Hoseok bit down, moving up to Kihyun's throat, watching as a fit of tremors unfolded over his torso.

“What did you like the most?”

“I don't know. All of it.”

“Boring.”

“Let me live. I just made you come like nobody has.”

Well, he had a point.

Hoseok decided to tease him anyway.

“How do you know that?” he glanced down at him innocently.

“I'm judging from the noises you were making.”

“You made quite a few, too.”

“That's because you make me come like nobody has.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah.” Kihyun eyed him warily. “Why are you staring like that?”

“I just – I dunno. Do I really?”

“Yes.”

“I'm better than Yoongi?”

“Well, don't tell him that.” Kihyun rubbed at his eyes. “But yeah. It's... more mutual, I guess.”

Hoseok could tell the exact moment in which his expression disintegrated.

Kihyun wasn't talking feelings, was he?

Oh, god. He didn't know... did he?

“Mutual?” Hoseok echoed hollowly.

“In terms of what we give each other and what we take. What we want.”

Hoseok mulled over that.

“That's normal, though. Isn't it?”

“No, not really.”

“I'd say it is.”

“Not for me,” said Kihyun shortly. “I didn't know this before you. I didn't know what it means to be wanted in both ways.”

Hoseok swallowed. Did Kihyun see through him after all?

“In what ways?” he asked, shackled with anticipation that neared nausea.

Kihyun took his sweet time answering.

“Hoseok, I'm only saying this because Yoongi doesn't mind and Gun can't mind anymore.”

“Okay,” he said uncertainly.

“I never – I never had both. Yoongi didn't want me. He wanted to fuck. And honestly, I was in for the same, but we... we had different needs. Sleeping with him usually meant that at least one of us had to be in pain. If it wasn't me, it was him. I can take pain, but I'd rather not cause it to people I care about. The thing is...” he hesitated. “The thing is, Yoongi likes being hurt.”

“Okay,” Hoseok said again, quieter.

“He had me do all kinds of shit to him that felt plain wrong. I got used to it, but I wasn't all that into it.” For a moment, it looked like it was all Kihyun was going to say, until he added: “I'm glad you cut that short.”

“You are?”

The question was barely audible.

“Well, yeah. Glad doesn't even cut it.”

“I always kinda wondered whether you don't miss it,” Hosek blurted. “All that choking and whatnot.”

“Choking wasn't the worst, but I don't miss miss it.”

“What was the worst?”

Kihyun went expressionless. “That's a bit private.”

“You said Yoongi doesn't mind if you share it.”

“I mind, though.”

“Alright. I won't ask anymore.” Hoseok rubbed Kihyun's arm, first up and down, then in circles. “I still don't get that what you meant, though. About being wanted in both ways.” He locked eyes with Kihyun. “You and Gun were in love. What else is there?”

“He wanted me, but he didn't want me inside.”

Hoseok gaped at the honesty. It made Kihyun shy.

“But you had sex, right?” Hoseok prompted him.

“Yeah, but he hated it. So we tried it the other way and I hated it, and then we sort of gave up and... did other things.” Inhaling, he turned to stare at the ceiling. “Gun, he... he eventually came around, but it was still more about fighting than fucking. It was about pride.”

“You loved each other, though.”

“Love doesn't solve everything. Just because you love someone, it doesn't make you compatible.”

“But we are? Compatible?” Hoseok asked, hushed.

“I think so.” When Kihyun looked at him again, the shame was no longer there. “You want this. Want me. Don't you?”

He did. Too much.

He settled for a “Yep.”

“Well. That's a first for me.”

Hoseok longed so bad to tell him he loved him.

He would lose all of this, though.

“See?” he said instead. “A virgin.”

It earned him a dry chuckle. “Fuck off.”

“I wonder, though,” Hoseok began.

“Yeah?”

“You said you weren't into most of what you did with Yoongi,” he said, testing the waters. “Is there something you liked? Something you'd like to do again?”

Kihyun froze.

“No.” He said it too quickly.

“No? Nothing?” he tried, a tad coy. “Come on, Kihyun. You can tell me.”

An orange stream of light flashed behind one of the windows with undrawn blinds. It fell on Kihyun's features, dipping into the creases of his eyelids and his Cupid's bow.

“There is one thing.”

“Yeah?” Hoseok encouraged him.

Wordlessly, Kihyun dragged a palm over Hoseok's pec. He took one erect bud between his fingers.

“Nipple clamps,” he said quietly.

“For me? To wear?”

“Yes.”

The sound of that little “yes” was so sibilant that it sent a throb down Hoseok's cock.

“Won't it hurt?” he asked. He patted at his own chest, trying to tug at one nipple.

Kihyun watched him do it.

“It doesn't have to,” he whispered.

“Would it look good on me?”

Some of the strain disappeared from Kihyun's posture and he seemed to submerge into the covers, his body liquid. He laughed through his nose.

“It would look great, you big vain baby.”

“Then I'll wear them for you.”

There was a heartbeat of silence.

“You mean it?”

“Yeah. I want you to cream yourself the second you see me.”

“That could quite possibly happen,” Kihyun pointed out self-ironically.

At that, Hoseok laid his hand over Kihyun's, pressing at it to get him to caress his pecs again.

“Fuck, Kihyun, you should have told me this stuff ages ago. And I mean all of it. About the guys – and about what you want. It could've been so much better for you this whole time.”

“It's already been the best,” he shrugged. It rendered Hoseok speechless, and so Kihyun carried on. “I'd rather things stayed the way they are than have you dislike something we do. I don't want you to – to leave.”

That took his breath away, too.

“I won't. Ever. I've told you before,” Hoseok implored in a small voice.

“You would if I pressured you. You should.”

“You're not pressuring me.” It was true. He was too stubborn for that. “I wanna try it.”

With a sigh, Kihyun put an arm over his face, perhaps to hide from him.

“This will fucking kill me.”

Hoseok cackled. He cackled at Kihyun with no restrain until the other one shifted to glare, and then Hoseok cackled even more and openly. He couldn't help but kiss Kihyun, giggling into his mouth. It softened Kihyun around the edges, though it took some time. They pulled apart.

Slowly, Kihyun touched the corner of Hoseok's lips.

“I like it when you laugh big.”

His laughter faded away.

“Well. You fancy anything big,” he muttered.

“True.”

“How come you've only been with shorties if you like big guys?”

“You're one to talk. You're a half-pint, too.”

“I'm not small, though.”

“You sure are not,” Kihyun conceded.

“You, on the other hand. You're so tiny,” he whispered, running his hands all over Kihyun's body. He slid under the blanket. “But you're so tight everywhere. Like, firm.”

He blushed at himself, then smiled. He was right, so what. He could ramble all he wanted.

So he did.

“You are really, really thin, though. Paper-thin.”

“You know what else is thin?”

“What?”

“The fucking ice you're on.”

Hoseok simpered. “At least you didn't say it's my dick. That would've been lethal.”

“It would also be a lie. You have a gorgeous dick.”

“You're just dizzying me up tonight, little man,” he murmured, burying his head into the same pillow Kihyun rested on.

“Again with the little.”

“Because you are. So little. So petite.” Punctuating each sentence, Hoseok laid lingering kisses on his shoulder.

“Whatever,” Kihyun grumbled. “It's you who's stuck with my skinny ass. Enjoy.”

“Oh, I'm enjoying it.”

“Do you really have a thing for guys half your size or what?”

“It's cute.” He dragged himself closer. “Do you really have a thing for guys twice your size or what?”

“Listen, little shit.”

“Do you?” Hoseok grinned, ignoring the threat in his tone.

“I suppose I can't resist when someone so huge is entirely at my mercy,” Kihyun confessed. He wasn't even being cheeky about it. He was just confident.

“Not entirely,” said Hoseok with a hint of pettiness.

“You were just now.”

The worst thing about it wasn't that it was true. It was that Hoseok had thirsted for it. Still did.

“You were kinda on a power trip there for a minute, shrimp,” he said, eyeing Kihyun.

“You wanting me is a massive power trip.”

That was a reward enough, apart from the fact that Hoseok actually liked everything they've done together so far. He leaned forward and peeled the covers off Kihyun, kissing one small dark nipple. He continued down to his belly button and up again.

“You're pretty as fuck, you know it?” he said as he bit down, teeth grazing Kihyun's throat.

“I mean, I'm okay.”

Hoseok smiled. “You're more than okay. You have this mean china doll thing about you.”

“The fuck that even means.”

“That means you're all razor-sharp, but sometimes you look like I could snap you in half. Like when you're about to cum. You look lovely.”

“I was hoping I looked manly.”

“Nope.”

“And that's getting you off? Me being lovely and easy to murder?”

“Why is it always either kiss or kill with you?” he exclaimed.

“You started talking about snapping people in half,” Kihyun defended.

“Yeah, but lovingly!”

“Well then, do it sometimes. Lovingly.” There was a pause. “I sort of miss our sparring sessions.”

“That so?” Hoseok stole a glimpse at him.

“Yeah. So many opportunities to grab a feel.”

“You can grab a feel anytime,” he chuckled.

As soon as Hoseok said it, a cool touch crept down his lower back, stopping there for a moment to knead the muscles. It was so pleasant that Hoseok stared. Gosh, he should get Kihyun to give him more massages. He moved, partially settling down atop Kihyun to be within better reach.

Kihyun squeezed his ass with both hands.

“Shit,” Kihyun uttered. He tilted his head back a little and Hoseok seized the chance immediately, nibbling at the exposed neck. “Oh, fuck. I never even used to be an ass man before. It was mostly dicks and arms.”

“And nips,” Hoseok supplied.

Kihyun hummed. He gripped Hoseok tighter.

“I've got the full package now.”

“Am I so perfect?” he taunted.

“Yes.” Kihyun didn't gaze away. He spread Hoseok, running two fingers along his hole. Up, down. Up, down. He pushed at the opening, dipping one fingertip in. It made a slick sound since it was oiled with lube. “Everywhere. All of you.”

Forcing down a shiver, Hoseok asked: “Are you just saying that because you know compliments get me off?”

“I'm saying that because it's true. Also,” he trailed off, the word almost glistening on the tip of his tongue as he licked the corner of his lips, “praising you gets me off.”

That was it. Hoseok let his full weight fall on top of Kihyun and he put his legs apart.

“Baby,” Kihyun gasped out, his one whole finger swallowed by that movement. It went in like nothing. He added another one. “Look at you. You're so good.”

“You don't need to prep me,” Hoseok managed.

“I'm not prepping you. I'm not fucking you. I want to finger you.”

Hoseok would rather ride his cock, but that thought dissolved like sugar in his mouth when Kihyun brushed him there. He was still sensitive, still swollen, and having two fingers reawaken that thrum within him had him breathing heavily.

If Hoseok thought that this wouldn't faze him after taking dick, he was wrong.

Kihyun knew where to touch him.

Slowly, and then not so slowly, those fingers explored him. And yeah. Yeah. He felt good for Kihyun. He wanted to be even better.

Embracing him, Kihyun didn't pull away to give him a break. He turned relentless. It became less of finger-fucking and more of friction-seeking.

A quiver surged through Hoseok. There was something mesmerizing about being controlled by so little.

He heard Kihyun inhale.

“I missed this. Missed being inside you. In every way.”

Moaning, Hoseok moved his hips to rub himself against Kihyun's stomach. At the same time, he backed up onto Kihyun's hand. The sounds – quick, wet – got louder, and so did he.

“Missed you,” said Hoseok. “Missed you.” He kissed Kihyun hard, their tongues hot. “Missed you.”

It went on and on since he has already come twice. And then – it brimmed over. Bliss welled inside him, deeper than when it started from his dick. Groaning, Hoseok crushed Kihyun under him. He dug into his hip bones, nails and all. His groans turned into a whine.

Kihyun sighed. “Baby. It's alright. 'S alright.”

“Pull out,” Hoseok pleaded.

Kihyun listened, but rubbed at him still, soothing him with slippery fingers as Hoseok clenched involuntarily.

“Hoseok, holy shit,” said Kihyun, the whisper breaking.

In a haze, Hoseok realized Kihyun was hugging him, arms and legs. It was as if he was trying to enclose Hoseok's bigger body; to shelter it.

The completeness that came with it made Hoseok burrow closer.

“You really love destroying me, don't you,” he accused hoarsely.

“A little.”

An echo of a smile reached Kihyun's eyes, shaping them into crescents. He nosed at Hoseok's ear.

“I kinda love it, too,” said Hoseok unhappily.

“You destroy me every time I see you, so I guess it's only fair.”

“It's not fair at all. You do the same thing to me.”

“In that case you're screwed.”

Hoseok scowled.

Kihyun glowed.

Neither of them looked away.

Suddenly, the cheekbony smile vanished from Kihyun's face, leaving him strangely bare. His legs no longer around Hoseok, Kihyun eased his clutch on him. But that didn't sit well with Hoseok. It didn't sit well with him at all. He grasped at Kihyun's thigh and brought it back.

“You better hold me after all of this,” he threatened.

“I'm holding you.”

“Hold me harder. I can barely feel these toothpicks,” said Hoseok and patted Kihyun on one wiry bicep.

Kihyun deadpanned.

“These arms may be bone-thin, but my heart will always hold you whole.”

“You fucking dork,” Hoseok laughed as it hurt.

Scrumpling his eyes again, Kihyun gave him a grin.

They didn't fall asleep until late at night. Hoseok woke up at dawn, sensing small touches trail up his sides; and Kihyun was boring into him, needy to be let in; and Hoseok arched and locked Kihyun between his thighs; and he was so drunk on sleep that it only dawned on him when the morning grew lighter that Kihyun couldn't even wait to have him again, couldn't bear those few hours until they were both awake.

The bedroom smelled of sex the next day. There were lube and cum stains all over the sheets.

Simpering, Hoseok sat and watched as a very red Kihyun changed them.

 

One whole table in the dining hall was lined with shrines. There were dozens of them. No flowers embellished them, no candles, only incense sticks. The scent didn't bother anyone. It hung heavy in the air, but not heavier than grief.

Hoseok felt chilled as he walked past the series of photographs. He felt watched.

At Yoongi's, he had been able to regard the dead as away but alive. He had often recalled their names and thought of them with a detached kind of guilt – the same way one thinks of old friends whom he forgot to call.

Here, it was impossible.

They were dead, and that was it.

It was good to see Seho again, and Hyolyn and Soyou, and the smallish group assembled around Jungkook. Still, the mood was too respectful to actually cross over to happiness.

There was one disadvantage to having their boss back, Hoseok realized as he skimmed the crowd with his eyes. Hyunwoo was back to guarding Hyungsoo's every step, which meant Hoseok and the others would only ever meet the burly bodyguard in the gym from now on, or in Hyungsoo's office.

But at least it meant Hoseok wouldn't have to work out alone anymore, which was a plus.

He followed Kihyun to the farthest table where they joined Hyungwon and Changkyun. Minhyuk's seat was empty because the man was running all around the hall, talking to everyone and anyone and livening up the atmosphere as well as he could. The tray with his half-eaten breakfast still lay there. He soon returned to finish it, stuffing his mouth.

“We were just talking about the changes around here,” said Changkyun as Hoseok and Kihyun settled down. “Hyungwon's room was totaled. It looks completely different now.”

“Got a better bed,” said Hyungwon, delighted.

“The lobby, too. It's lucky Hyungsoo's covered it all. Imagine if we had to pay for the damages like we're paying for everything else,” Changkyun theorized. “I heard a good half of people who used to crash here are too scared to come back, so they are still staying at motels and shit. Like, I'm not being funny, but I'd be more scared of the bills.”

“Well, Gain said the rent at the place where she was staying was half of what she pays here,” Hyungwon pointed out.

“Yeah, but how about Go Junggi? Poor fucker spends almost twice as much.”

Hoseok gaped at them.

He almost asked what the guys meant by paying rent here.

Minhyuk spoke up first.

“I mean, it wasn't peachy downstairs when the bombs went off. I don't blame anyone for waiting it out. Until we have Song, I don't think I'll feel super safe here, either.”

“Well, the lot of us who live upstairs should be more worried now,” Changkyun pointed out. “If Song tries the same trick again, he's gonna make sure the building actually falls.”

“Geez, aren't you optimistic.”

“I'm just saying. By the way, did anything get lost from your bedrooms while you were away?”

“Why?” Kihyun raised an eyebrow. “Did your manhwa collection get stolen?”

“No, but some of my pictures disappeared. I didn't notice until yesterday when I was going through my stuff. It's those I snapped in the clubroom.” Pretending to be thoughtful, Changkyun tapped his chin. “You don't think some of the repairmen snatched them to use them as wank material, do you?”

“Was Gain in them?” asked Minhyuk.

“No. Hyungs were.”

“Not wank material, then.”

“Excuse me,” Hoseok intoned, “I am supreme wank material.”

“I took those,” said Kihyun, nipping the foolishness in the bud.

Changkyun turned to him, looking positively owlish.

“Why? They're mine.”

“We're in them. We should have them.”

“Oh, it's we, is it?”

“That's the correct plural form when there are two or more people involved,” Kihyun deadpanned.

“Oh, I bet the two of you are very involved,” muttered Minhyuk into his meal.

“I didn't know you were so sentimental,” Changkyun teased, his fingers spider-crawling towards Kihyun to poke at him.

“I'm not sentimental.”

“Right.”

Changkyun poked at him some more.

Studying the way Kihyun's jaw set tighter, Hoseok decided to speak up and save Changkyun from a serious scolding – or Kihyun from further embarrassment.

“I asked Kihyun to bring them. I wanted to know if I looked good in them,” he lied.

“Hyung, who else would look good if not you? I swear that you and Minhyuk are the only ones who look great in every picture I took. Like, every single one. Even Hyungwon looks silly when he's spaced out, but the two of you are photogenic as fuck.”

Pleased, Hoseok laughed.

“Thanks. I know my angles.”

“And I'm just really hot,” supplied Minhyuk. “Look at this bone structure.”

“I mean, definitely. Those cheekbones? They're to die for,” Changkyun played along.

“Kihyun has nice cheekbones, too,” Hoseok put his two cents in.

“Yeah, but the rest is a real Pollock,” said Minhyuk sagely.

“You could've at least said Kandinsky, you uncultured swine,” said Kihyun primly.

Their little spat was interrupted by a steely sound. They all turned around to see Jooheon in a wheelchair. Unrushed, he pushed towards them. Gain and Jackson walked behind him like two shadows Jooheon semi-tolerated. There was a shaved patch above Jackson's ear, showing off a sewn up gash. It has almost healed. Jackson found it amusing to escape the bombs unscathed only to get a major concussion during one of the last days of the reparations.

Jooheon stopped when he rolled to the table.

“Hyung,” he said, looking at Kihyun.

Somehow, it quietened everyone. Kihyun glanced up. Immediately, a deep fold appeared above the bridge of his nose.

“What is it?”

Jooheon didn't reply. He reached under the quilt covering his lower body and pulled out a sky white envelope. It was open. He handed it to Kihyun.

Putting away a pair of chopsticks, Kihyun took the envelope. He pulled out a note. Hoseok leaned in to read it. The card seemed empty to him at first, but then he saw it. In a tiny, blacker than black handwriting, a single line cut across the paper.

I don't regret it. – Mino

No one said anything for a while, waiting for Kihyun to do something; anything.

“When did you get it?” he asked at last, not facing Jooheon. He turned the card over in his fingers, and then again, searching for another clue or another message.

“I found it this morning.”

“You found it?”

“Yeah. It was inside my room.”

Hoseok's stomach felt like filled with crushed ice.

“He's laughing in my face,” said Jooheon, void of any emotion. “And he's not just mocking me at this point. He delivered this the day after Hyungsoo's arrival.”

“It could be a threat,” supplied Hyungwon.

“It is,” said Kihyun, as emotionless as Jooheon. “This clearly says he's still able to sneak his way inside the building and he's not afraid to do it just to fuck with us.”

“I thought that when he learns what he's done –” Jooheon cut himself off. His dimples deepened, but it wasn't due to a smile. “I was dumb.”

“No. No, love,” Kihyun shook his head. “I sort of hoped for the same.”

Minhyuk snatched the note from him, reading the single sentence over and over.

“If he doesn't even regret it, it means he's gonna try again.”

“He could be planning something new as we speak,” echoed Changkyun. “Another attack.”

His chest tight, Hoseok blurted: “We have to find him first.”

“No offense, but that's what we've been doing this whole time.”

“Yeah, but not hands-on,” Kihyun disagreed, supporting Hoseok. “If spies can't find him and there's no virtual trace of him for Jooheon to follow, we'll have to lure him out. Us. Not someone nameless.”

“We should take this to Hyungsoo,” Minhyuk waved the envelope.

“I'll do it,” Jackson offered. “Bora says I can't do other stuff just yet. Tender brain,” he tapped at his head.

“Could you?” asked Kihyun, already stacking the more or less empty bowls into each other, tidying up his tray. “Someone should scour the hotel for any more explosives. Hyungsoo better hire a bomb expert in case Mino has managed to plant some more shit last night.”

“Please. After all this crap, I'm the expert,” said Minhyuk. Grabbing Jackson, he skipped away without cleaning after himself.

“How many of you can go with me? And I mean right away?” Kihyun turned to the rest of the group.

Changkyun was the first one to volunteer. Jooheon wasn't able to go, obviously, but Gain's brisk “I'm in” and Hyungwon's promise to join them once his nightly hit was over seemed to be enough for Kihyun. And, of course, Hoseok wasn't about to stay behind.

“That's five of us for now if we count Minhyuk,” summed Kihyun, a deep-set worry adding years to his appearance. “That could do for a start.”

“There's one more thing,” Jooheon broke in, sotto voce.

“Yes?”

“If you find him... when you find him,” he corrected himself, “make it painless.”

There was a hush. Water-like, Kihyun's eyes fell to the quilt thrown over Jooheon's lower body. The fabric chasmed where his legs ended.

“I'm making it anything but painless,” Kihyun stated.

“No, that's not right. We knew him once. And this is not him anymore.”

“Exactly. This is a man we have to kill.”

“Kill, but not torture,” Jooheon insisted.

“How about we only torture him a little bit?” Changkyun piped up. “You know... give him a taste of his own medicine... saw off bits and pieces here and there... Let him try what it is to lose a limb or two.”

“I don't want anyone to try that,” said Jooheon coolly. “Ever.”

“So what?” Gain cut it. “Are we supposed to let him off easily for what he's done?”

“Noona, please.”

From the look on her face, one would assume it was the first time since the quakes that Jooheon has spoken to her – at all.

She composed herself.

“Look, kiddo, you're not the only one he's fucked over. We owe it to the others, too.”

“But I was his friend. He reached out to me.”

“Yeah, to tell you he doesn't regret it,” she shot back. “You said so yourself. He's laughing in your face.”

“We laughed in his when we took Gun and then his boss. I don't want Mino to die even more hateful than he is now. We've taken everything from him. Everything. Most likely even his meds – since there's no Park to fund his hospital bills anymore.” Jooheon gazed up at Gain. “Please. Don't let them do it. Don't let them torture him. He's already dying.”

She regarded him stonily.

She didn't say a word.

 

The air around them was stuffy although it was cold. It clung to the skin.

Hoseok watched as Kihyun laid out his weapons like during the old times, sorting through them with the same dexterity. He thumbed the butterfly knives, loaded a couple of magazines, and pulled at the leather straps of his holster belt to make sure it was as ready to use as always.

Slowly, Hoseok approached him.

“I don't want you to go.”

“Why?” Kihyun asked. “You'll be there. There's nothing to worry about.”

“I won't be able to do shit if your shoulder acts up. I don't want you to go,” he repeated.

“I get it, but you'll have to deal with it. I'm going. I'm not waiting for Mino to carry on with his little vendetta while I sit here on my ass, doing nothing.”

“So we're not even going to talk about it? You're going – and that's it?”

“There's no we when it comes to work.”

Hoseok's expression glazed over.

“Of course there's a we. That's the correct plural form when there are two or more people involved,” he mimicked Kihyun. But it was humourless. “We're colleagues. You keep reminding me of that.”

“And as a colleague, you have no right or reason to stop me from joining the team. I never deterred you from a mission I knew you were ready for, not since you've proven yourself,” Kihyun reminded him, his tone willing Hoseok to drop the topic.

Except he didn't.

“But you're not ready for this,” he said hotly. “There's a reason you switched jobs.”

“Oh, so I'm not even good enough to be the bait?” countered Kihyun, his teeth glistening in an unpretty sneer. “I'm glad to know you think so little of me.”

“No one should be the bait! That's just plain stupid!”

By this point, Kihyun's face was all harsh edges and angles.

“But it would be okay if you were the one to do it? Is that it?”

“That's different,” Hoseok defended. “We agreed you wouldn't do this anymore. We agreed to fucking keep you from dying.”

All we agreed on was that I would do a job that doesn't make me feel like dying. We said nothing about actually dying.”

“This isn't funny.” His breath quickening with frustration, Hoseok regarded Kihyun with an unflinching stare. “You said you still had some things to do. You said you wanted to grow old.”

“That doesn't mean I get to abandon people who need me. Jooheon can't avenge himself. Those who died can't avenge themselves. Someone has to do it.”

Someone, but not you.” Stepping closer, Hoseok took his face in his hands. “This is needless danger, Kihyun. If the wound acts up –” He swallowed. He couldn't bring himself to even think of the outcome. “You promised we'll leave this place together.”

“An order is above any promise.”

“No one has ordered you to go!”

“It's my responsibility. I knew Mino. I met him and let him walk because I believed he would never turn on me. Jooheon believed the same. And because of us...”

Hoseok's hands fell.

“You don't really think this is your responsibility, do you?” he asked quietly. “You don't think it's your fault. Do you?”

“Whose else?”

“No. No, I won't have you thinking this morbid bullshit. I won't have you thinking you're at the center of the world. You couldn't have prevented this.” Hoseok ached to touch him again. “You couldn't have known, alright? You don't have to go to – to redeem yourself, or whatever you think you're doing.”

“And if I listen to you, then what?” Kihyun eyed him so coldly that it seemed to Hoseok his soul has frosted over under the stare. “I concede once and it's over. You'll never let me go anywhere ever again.”

“And would that be so bad?” Hoseok challenged. “Would that be so terrible if you stayed safe?”

“I don't do this job to be safe. I do it to make other people safe.”

“You're not the only one here, though. There are others who can take the baton.”

“And clean up my mess?”

“It's not your mess. It's just mess,” Hoseok entreated. “It's all so fucking messy, love.”

That well-known weariness which hung over Kihyun way too often seeped back, settling into his features and turning them pointier.

“I'm sorry, Hoseok. I don't want to worry you. I swear I don't,” he said. “But I'm still going.”

“So it doesn't matter to you at all. It doesn't matter to you if we really leave together or not.”

“It matters to me. But it's not the only thing that matters.”

Hoseok chuckled all of a sudden. It wasn't a pleasant sound.

“This will never end. You'll always find a reason to risk. A reason to stay here.”

“I'll stay until I'm needed.”

“That could be forever. You could still toil here when you're fifty.” There were men like that. Faithful, loyal, and lost. “You'll always be needed if that's what you tell yourself.”

“I won't be here until fifty,” Kihyun clipped.

“When do you see us leaving, then? When we're forty?” he shot back.

“I don't know. When we weed out the rest of Park's men and squash his sons. When we take care of the Triad if they don't stop sending their hitmen for Jackson.”

“That's not an answer,” Hoseok pressed. He supposed he sounded harsher than he intended. Still, he never took his eyes off Kihyun. “Realistically speaking, when do you want to leave?”

“You tell me,” said Kihyun, outstaring him.

“I'm already too old to go professional,” Hoseok uttered, a layer of bitterness lacing his words. “I'm too old to start anew. But I could still coach someone else. Unless I get injured first.”

And seeing how easy it was to lose one's life, one's purpose, one's health, staying here for long seemed to him pure madness. Kihyun was pushing his luck, working in the underground world for eleven years, and that luck has been dwindling lately. Hoseok didn't like the idea of battling new wars and new enemies.

Nonetheless, he knew that quitting now was not an option. Kihyun would sooner send him alone than leave things unfinished. He'd have nothing then. No one.

In the brief silence, a storm has passed over Hoseok's features without him knowing. Kihyun watched it come and go, waiting for him to carry on.

“Let's do it before we're thirty,” Hoseok said suddenly.

“Before you turn thirty, or before I do?”

“Before I do.” He didn't have to think about it for a second. Intently, he studied Kihyun to determine whether he was agreeing to the proposal, or whether he was already forming arguments to turn it down. Unable to read him, Hoseok added: “It's almost eight more months of safety.”

“Okay. Thirty it is.”

He half expected Kihyun to call him dramatic.

He fully expected him to say that three years was too soon to pick up the pieces and finish what they have started.

So he gaped.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“You'll leave with me?”

“I thought that was the plan,” Kihyun stated blankly.

Three years.

He could do that.

Hoseok could do that for him.

Wordlessly, he brought Kihyun to his chest. It happened in a heartbeat. Pressing their bodies together, Hoseok kissed him. He had to push his tongue in, opening Kihyun up because his defenses were up and his teeth set. Once Hoseok got through, Kihyun moaned into the kiss. It was all tongues and all teeth and it took Hoseok a while to calm down.

When he did, he still kept on, taking Kihyun by the chin.

“This isn't the right time for all of this,” Kihyun mumbled, starting at Hoseok's mouth anyway.

“Well, and is it the right time to tell you I still don't want you to go?”

Kihyun pulled away, looking at Hoseok's lips at first, then at him.

“You cannot be serious.”

He was. That was the worst part.

Quietly, he took Kihyun by the wrists, bringing them both up. The inner parts of his forearms opalized in the daylight, close to translucent. Hoseok kissed the silk of Kihyun's skin, sensing the pulse of those dark, greenish tinted veins that ran there. One wrist, then the other.

He did the same to Kihyun's ringless finger.

“You said you'd let me lead you,” accused Hoseok voicelessly.

“Lead me. But don't tell me not to come.”

Hoseok let out a breath through his nose.

“So if I tell you to keep to sniping, will you do it?” he tried, not looking up. “Will you keep away from knives?” Away from Song?

“I'm not good with long-range guns. I will be useless, Seok.”

Hoseok let go of him.

It didn't soften him when Kihyun took a step forward, grabbing his arms.

“See,” said Hoseok, one corner of his mouth curving upwards. “You're all talk.”

He shook Kihyun off.

The gesture stilled Kihyun in place.

“That's unfair.”

“Tough shit.”

“You want me to be even more useless than I already am.” Kihyun stared at him, no longer attempting to touch him. “Anything goes as long as it's your way. Don't you care whether we get Song? Don't you care at all?”

“Don't you care whether he gets you first?” Hoseok shot back.

“I don't have the strength to argue with you. You're not trying to lead me. You're trying to write me off.” Kihyun turned back to his weaponry. “Don't call yourself a leader until you come up with a plan that makes use of and benefits us all.”

“I'm not trying to favour you, Kihyun. But everyone else is healthy. Everyone else can fight hand-to-hand. You can't. They don't need the advantage. You do. You're the one Song will target if he sees you,” Hoseok counted on his fingers, his nostrils flaring.

“So. You just said it. The only thing I can do right now is to be used to lure him.”

“No! You're not listening!”

“You're the one who's not listening. You're thinking with your dick.”

Brushing past him, Kihyun headed to the fitted cabinets at the other end of the bedroom. He pulled out two bulletproof vests.

They undressed and put the vests on in silence. The velvet-smooth wound marring Kihyun's shoulder snickered at Hoseok, barely a bit away from the strap that could cover the piece of skin if it was any wider. The delicate throat was bare, too, and so were those slim arms. Hoseok hated the sight.

He decided that bulletproof vest were worth horseshit.

Buttoning up, Kihyun glanced up and caught Hoseok mid-glower. Not minding him, Kihyun began strapping on the belt. He put a gun into the holster. Next came his favourite balisongs, which he carried hidden.

Hoseok seethed.

“Hyung.”

“Don't hyung me.”

“Should I dongsaeng you instead?”

“Don't talk to me at all.”

Kihyun went motionless. “What?”

“You heard me.”

He felt a cold palm drift up his forearm.

“Don't do this.”

“Don't touch me,” Hoseok retaliated.

“Hoseok, you can't guide me by guilt-tripping me.”

“I can if it keeps you safe.”

“But I'm not the only person on the team. If you want to lead, you have to lead us all. You have to make sure that everyone is covered and that everyone does everything in their power to succeed. Hell, we most likely won't find Mino for days – for weeks, if we're unlucky – but you're already letting this fuck buddy thing get the best of you. You can't.” Kihyun went on and on, his voice like wind chimes. If Hoseok didn't know better, he would think Kihyun was pleading with him. “I said I would follow you, and I will, but you have to come up with a plan. It's not enough to secure one person and call it a day, especially if you give them a task they can't even carry out properly.”

“Are you done preaching?”

“Are you done being a manchild?”

Hoseok gripped him.

“I don't want you hurt, Kihyun. Not again. Is that too hard to understand?”

“You're hurting me now.”

As if burned, Hoseok flinched away, staring at the spot he had squeezed. The sleeve of Kihyun's shirt was crumpled there.

“I understand it,” said Kihyun quietly, bringing Hoseok back. “I think with my dick, too, so I know how difficult it is to put our work above this. I watch you leave at nights and I pray that next time I can go with you. But I would never discredit you like this. I would never distrust you to do your share.”

“That's not what I'm doing,” Hoseok defended quickly, then faltered. “That's not what I'm trying to do.”

“Look at me, then. You know me. You know what I'm good at. Tell me what to do.”

Hoseok didn't dare to truly look. His hand still burned.

He wondered how come Kihyun was still standing here.

“You can scout for intel,” he acceded, though it tore at him. “Go after Song, but don't let him go after you. Give us directions. And keep away from the fight when it comes to it.”

“No sniping?”

“No,” Hoseok said heavily. “No sniping. You're shit at that.”

“Will someone go with me?”

“Gain. She's the best at stealth.”

“And persuasion.”

“And she'll keep you in check.”

“That she will,” agreed Kihyun with some bemusement.

“Changkyun and I will search up Song's regular spots again. He might show up eventually when we persist long enough.”

“And Minhyuk?”

“He'll go with us for now. I'll send him with Hyungwon once he joins in. The kid is observant, but he could do something rash. Better pair him up with a sniper.”

A sigh was heard, as soothing as spring.

“See,” said Kihyun. “I knew you would sound something out.”

“I still don't like it,” he clipped.

“I don't like it, either. It feels like I lost.”

“But you'll go with it,” Hoseok eyed him warily.

“Yes.”

“And you'll listen to me when something comes up.”

Kihyun rolled his eyes.

“Well?” Hoseok prompted him.

“Yes. But don't abuse your position. Please. Keep an eye on the others.”

Grudgingly, Hoseok nodded.

His gaze lingered on the crumples on Kihyun's sleeve one last time before they put on their coats and walked out.

 

A colourless dawn tore through the night, lightening up the layer of smog that hung above Seoul. Fragments of light flowed from flat-roofed skyscrapers and down golden-white windows. Streets and pavements still trembled in the dark, shadowed by buildings.

The asphalt underneath their feet was frosted over. A whole fucking labyrinth of boulevards and side streets and parks and night markets stood in front of them, explored and unexplored both, waiting for them to take another look. Each day, a cacophony of sounds filtered through the city along with throngs that swarmed and sloshed to and fro. The abstractness of it all made Hoseok's teams anonymous, but it made everyone else anonymous as well, and by the time two weeks have passed, he started to doubt they would find Song Mino at all.

The man has vanished into thin air.

Song's bedsit remained abandoned until another resident moved in. Despite that, Hoseok had two people on the lookout for Song there at all times, monitoring the tenement house in case he came back. With reinforcements from Hyungsoo, Hoseok could afford to spare more men.

Kihyun tracked down Song's old acquaintances, most of whom he has made enemies of, but that attempt yielded nothing. No one has heard about him in ages. So they stuck to the places Kihyun knew Song used to frequent in the past. It was the only tactic left that didn't feel like grasping for straws.

At first, it yielded nothing as well, but they kept going. They kept coming back and waiting for Song to do the same until finally, finally, there were sightings of the man. Hoseok's team knew for sure the man was still in Seoul although he always managed to get lost in the crowd before they could do anything.

Hospitals came next. They checked lists of patients and loitered around pharmacies and the sightings got more regular.

They started to map out Song's movements with better accuracy.

Meanwhile, they slept in motels and cars. Every now and then, Hoseok dispatched a team or two back to the hotel to be replaced by someone new so his men remained rested and in good shape. The only ones who stayed at all times were Hoseok and Kihyun, though they hardly met until it was time to catch a wink.

Days greyed down and brightened up and Hoseok's birthday came and went, and he got a kiss, and then he put Kihyun's cock inside without being fingered. Beside that one night after their return from Yoongi's, this was the first for them. They always took prepping as a part of sex, not just foreplay, not just a necessity. Not this time. Hoseok led him in and Kihyun whimpered and came in four strokes and don't laugh don't laugh don't laugh and Hoseok did, but then he moaned.

More often than he liked to admit, Hoseok found himself double-checking Kihyun's movements and confirming his schedule with Gain. It wasn't until she snapped and told him off (“I'm not here to babysit another kid.”) that Hoseok laid off. His surveillance was completely needless, anyway. Kihyun never steered off the designated path; never disrespected Hoseok's orders.

The more trust he recovered in Kihyun's abilities, the more ashamed Hoseok felt for his outbursts. Sheepish, he tried and tried again to bring their argument up when they were alone to smooth over the matter, but in the end he never did. Unsaid apologies festered on his tongue.

What kept him going was that Kihyun still trusted him despite what he's said and done; still let himself depend on Hoseok's leadership.

And then, during the worst snowfall of March, they finally sighted Song without losing him.

Minhyuk sent the memo, summoning the teams to the Jamsil Bridge.

The roads blinked black and empty as Hoseok and Changkyun neared the Han River. The Lotte World Tower loomed behind them. They arrived to the riverbank veiled in a dark orange glow. Series of lamps hemmed the river and stretched forward alongside the length of the bridge. Outpours of light spilled down over the railing, absorbed in the blackness of the water underneath.

Snowflakes fell like opaque mist. Hoseok saw a silhouette crossing the bridge, only a dot in the distance. There he was, a dead man walking.

No cars passed by. No one to wander in the deep of the night.

Hoseok was calm. He was so calm that he wondered why nature choose this very moment to fall apart. Flur