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White Dwarf

Chapter Text

            Taeyong stared miserably down at the notepad in his lap, pen hovering patiently over the paper, but no matter how hard he tried to engage his brain, the words just didn’t want to come.

He threw his tool onto the bed covers, abruptly swearing under his breath when ink splattered on the pristine sheets. Scooping up the offender and muzzling it with its lid, he leaned back against the headboard and raked a hand through his hair, allowing his shoulders to sag with a deep sigh of resignation.

Gifted with a sudden sense of curiosity, he turned back the pages until he found the last rap he’d tried to write. It was nearly two weeks ago.

If he had Mark with him right now, he’d be subjected to an optimistic garble about writer’s block and how all he needed was a good smack over the head to get his gears in motion again. And then he’d have to fend off a sudden attack from the human embodiment of a golden retriever puppy.

Taeyong glanced up at the clock and blanched when he saw the sturdy black arms resting over the number two. He hadn’t realised he’d been staring at a blank sheet of paper for so long. He hadn’t even noticed that no sunlight peered tentatively out from underneath the curtains at the window, the dull glow of the lamp convincing him that it was still day time.

His eyes wandered to the bed across the room where a Johnny-shaped mound was protruding from underneath the nest of blankets, a large foot poking out at one end and a tuft of hair protruding from the other. Now that he was looking, Taeyong realised there was a soft purring sound coming from his hyung’s throat.

He made a mental note to tell Johnny that he snored.

Pinching the bridge of his nose to try and quell the pain throbbing behind his eyes, he discarded his notebook on the bedside table and crept out of the room, shimmying his slim body through the smallest crack in the door he could make so that the light from the hallway wouldn’t wake Johnny.

It wasn’t until he almost turned off into the living room that he saw the skylight was open, a soft breeze filtering through the hole in the roof and into the house. The chest of drawers had been moved underneath it and a pair of shoes sat ownerless on the carpet.

Frowning in bewilderment, Taeyong clambered onto the cupboard, hooked his hands onto the edge of the trap door above him and hoisted himself up, allowing his biceps to curl just enough for his head to poke through the opening.

At the sight that awaited him, he felt a smirk curling his lips and grunted with the effort of swinging himself onto the rooftop.

“You are in so much trouble.” He tried to sound stern but couldn’t help the hint of affection that slithered into his tone at the sight of Jaemin’s rabbit-in-the-headlights expression.

The boy was crouched on the asphalt that topped their dorm, a magnificent sleek black telescope perched on a tripod in front of him, lens pointed skywards. At the sight of Taeyong, his shock was replaced with excitement and he leapt up, grabbing his hyung’s hand and pulling him over to his majestic new toy.

“Hyung, come look.”

“Na-Na, it’s two in the morning,” Taeyong whined but still he knelt and pressed his eye to the brass. “Okay, what am I looking at?”

“You see that star? That really, really bright one?”

“Yeah …”

“It’s called a white dwarf.”

Taeyong withdrew from the telescope and turned his full attention to Jaemin who was kneeling beside him and staring up into the sky with an awestruck expression on his face. Taeyong realised he often forgot how young some of the members were and how fascinating they still found the world around them. Age and exhaustion and too many hardships had stripped him of that privilege long ago.

There was something in the innocence he saw in Jaemin’s face that made him want to protect the kid from that fate for as long as he possibly could. And if engaging in his newfound interest was a way to do that, he would happily oblige.

“And what’s a white dwarf?”

“It’s part of a red giant,” Jaemin babbled eagerly as he ushered Taeyong out of the way so he could gaze through the lens himself. “When a red giant dies, it sheds its outer layers and they become these huge stars called white dwarves. It’s beautiful.”

“I never realised you knew so much about stars,” Taeyong smiled, ruffling Jaemin’s hair.

“My dad taught me when I was little …”

Taeyong’s grin faded as he watched Jaemin running his fingers over the engraving on the telescope’s flank, tracing their outline with a longing expression on his face. N.J.H. His father’s initials. Taeyong reached out and took Jaemin’s shoulder, squeezing tightly.

“He must have been a really good teacher.”

Jaemin met his eyes, his lips twitching in an attempt at a display of happiness but the façade was ruined by the single tear that slid down his face.

“I miss him.”

“Come here.” Taeyong pulled him into his lap and they sat there on the rooftop, gazing up at a sky filled with pinpricks of burning energy that were so beautiful and powerful that they could only be viewed from afar. “You’ll see him again someday.”

 

              Taeyong’s alarm didn’t just pierce the veil of sleep. It drilled a hole through his skull and dug nails into his brain. He let out a moan of discomfort and rolled over, his blankets tangling uncomfortably around his legs and his arm flopped about on the bedside table, trying to find his phone. He felt its smoothness under his fingers but it slithered from his grip and made a soft thud as it hit the floor.

“Fuck!” It came out as more of an indecipherable whine than a sharp curse as he had intended and he crawled off the bed in search of the incessant beeping sound, trailing his blankets with him like a mermaid’s tail.

Finally prying the sleep crystals out of his eyes and forcing his lids open, he found the phone and silenced the hellish warble. But the pain remained, a vine of agony pulsating in his temple and he pushed himself to his knees with a groan.

“Are you drunk?”

He looked up and saw Johnny sitting up in his bed, staring at Taeyong in his blanket croissant on the floor with an expression of incredulity and amusement.

“I wish,” was all Taeyong muttered before allowing his head to drop onto his folded arms.

He remained there while Johnny showered and dressed, wishing for the headache to subside, but when his hyung wrapped his overly long arms around his chest and pulled him off the floor, the throbbing was still omnipresent.

“Are you alright?” Johnny asked as he threw his dongsaeng’s clothes at him. “You look awful.”

Taeyong grunted in response, fervently wishing he had just gone straight to sleep last night instead of sitting with a blank notebook and an equally blank mind for hours on end.

“I have a really bad headache, hyung.” He heard Johnny’s hum of sympathy. He always seemed to have a headache these days.

“Do you want some aspirin?”

Taeyong reached out and grabbed a fistful of Johnny’s shirt, staring up at him through bleary eyes. “You are my saviour.”

Johnny pushed him off with a smirk and left the room with an order to shower and then get his ass down to breakfast.

When Taeyong finally appeared in the kitchen, the two tablets were already sitting on his placemat waiting for him. He gave Johnny a thankful smile as the other 127 members chorused a round of Morning, hyung! He reminded himself inwardly to check in on Jaemin when he came back from rehearsal. The two of them had stayed up on that rooftop until an unacceptable hour in the morning.

He sunk into his chair and gazed gloomily at the toast on his plate, the butter already melting into the crispy crumbs and reducing them to a soggy swamp of grease and fat. And after a few bites, he was already regretting eating at all.

His stomach was churning, threatening to reject everything it contained if he sunk his teeth into one more morsel. So he set the toast back down and downed a glass of water before he realised that everybody else had already finished and were slipping on their shoes in the hallway.

“Taeyong-ah?” came Johnny’s shout from by the front door.

“Yeah?” Taeyong responded, massaging his temples as he disposed of the uneaten toast and reached for the coat on the back of his chair.

“Can you find the keys for me? I think I left them on the counter.”

Taeyong slid his arms into his jacket sleeves and turned to the counter, eyes roaming over the surface in search for the ring of metal. He was unsuccessful.

“They’re not here, hyung!” he yelled back, wincing as the raised tone added another twinge of pain to his ever-increasing migraine.

Johnny came marching into the room with a sigh of frustration, rummaging in his pockets and sweeping the room with his eagle-eyed glare, muttering something under his breath. Then he stopped. He looked at Taeyong and raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

Johnny took a step forward, reached behind Taeyong and picked the keys up off the counter. “Not here, huh?”

Taeyong stared at the keys, his eyebrows scrunched together in pure bewilderment. “I …” He looked down at the counter and then back at the keys. He could have sworn they weren't there a second ago.

“You really are drunk, aren’t you?” Johnny laughed as he linked his arm around Taeyong’s shoulders and pulled him into the hallway. “Come on, Woodstock, before you lose the ability to walk in a straight line.” 

Chapter Text

            If it weren’t for the ever-increasing pressure building up inside his skull, Taeyong would have got down on his knees and kissed his manager’s feet when he told them that he needed him and Mark for a recording session. It meant he got to leave the dance practise where he was already on the verge of curling up on the ground and refusing to move.

He snapped the headphones over his ears and stepped up to the microphone, skimming over the words on the paper in front of him for the billionth time. He could have recited them in his sleep.

The beat picked up, slow and steady at first while Mark wrapped his tongue around the tricky twisters in the first verse, eyes closed as he felt his way through the music and right hand punching the air every time he enunciated a word.

Then the tempo rose, gaining momentum as the full instrumental kicked in and Mark, now completely hyped up, gave his hyung a beckoning motion as his part drew nearer. Bring it on, it said, show me what you’ve got.

Taeyong grinned at him and then dived head first into the cascade of words that tumbled out of his mouth with all the grace of a waterfall. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, headache forgotten in his bliss at doing what he loved.

And then something happened.

As he formed the shape of the word ‘charisma’ and prepared to toss it out of his mouth, his tongue shut down and all that came out was a stuttering slur. He stared down at the lyrics in front of him, stunned.  

He knew what they were. He knew them better than he knew his home address. He had no trouble remembering every syllable and yet he couldn’t speak them. His lips wouldn’t cooperate.

The music cut off and he raised his head to see Mark frowning at him with concern etched in the furrow his brow, and his producer glaring at him from behind the glass.

“Is there a problem, Taeyong-ssi?”

“No, hyung-nim.” Taeyong shocked himself with his own voice. It had returned to him just as quickly as it had been taken and he found himself repeating the word ‘charisma’ under his breath as if to confirm that he knew what it sounded like. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”

The producer didn’t bother to hide the way he sucked his teeth in a disapproving tut but he started up the music again without further complaint. Taeyong caught Mark’s eye and nodded in answer to the silent question. He was okay. It had been a moment of madness.

He completed the second attempt without a fault in pronunciation, flow or rhythm. It was perfect and Mark slapped his back in congratulation. He forced a smile, rolling his tongue around his mouth to exercise its movements and ensure he never suffered a loss of verbal function again.

But as the two of them were trudging down the corridor towards the studio, Mark looked up at his hyung halfway through his explanation of why a killer whale was in fact a dolphin, and faltered in his steps.  

“Hyung, your nose …”

Taeyong lifted his hand to his face and felt the wetness smear over his top lip. He pulled back and stared at the scarlet smudged over his fingers. The warm rivulets of blood continued to trickle over his skin without any sign of stopping.

“Here.” A tissue was thrust into his hand and he clamped down on the bridge of his nose, already feeling the moisture soaking through the wafer-thin material.

“It’s alright, Mark,” he said as he caught sight of the kid’s worried face gazing up at him. “It’s just a nosebleed. It’ll stop in a moment.”

And it did, but not before it had contaminated an entire pack of Kleenex with its crimson disease.

Ignoring Mark’s insistent remarks about going home to rest, Taeyong tossed the bloody tissues into the bin and strode into the studio where the other members were still pumping their bodies to the beat and stomping their feet in perfect unison. And he joined them before Mark could make any more attempts at mothering him.  

 

 

       As he sat in the car on the way back to the dorm, watching the stars beginning to burn through the vast expanse of royal blue space above them and thinking of Jaemin, the headache returned and this time, it hit him like a truck.

He clapped a hand to his temple as pain exploded – no, erupted – inside of him. His brain was ablaze, flames licking at his skull, needles burrowing into his skin, a marching band making an instrument of his ear drums, and suddenly he couldn’t see.

His vision clouded out completely, white lights popping in front of his eyes, fizzling and sizzling and then fading to black. His whole body burned with agony and he hadn’t realised he’d been gasping in pain until he was pulled downwards.

His head was cushioned against a leg and fingers started to rub soothing circles into his scalp, calming the battlefield until, at long last, his mind announced a ceasefire.

Taeyong opened his eyes. There were stars above him, winking at him from their safe haven of darkness and serenity. They were beautiful. He now understood Jaemin’s fascination with them.

“Hyung?”

He shifted his gaze and the owner of the leg that rested his head came into view. Kun was still running his hands through his hyung’s hair, expert fingers working some kind of voodoo magic to ward off the demons inside his skull.

From the hard surface digging into his back and the sudden chill that snapped at his skin, he deduced that he was on the ground outside. Not wanting to turn his head for fear of releasing Hell’s wrath again, he let his eyes wander to the left and spotted the car parked beside him. Faces were peering through the window, identical in their concern. He didn’t remember Johnny pulling the car over or being dragged out of it.

“Taeyong-ah?” That was Taeil. Where did he come from? “Johnny’s going to call an ambulance, okay? I’m going to come with you to the hospital and they’re going to check you over, alright?”

Taeyong whined and immediately felt embarrassment burning at his face. He was not a child. He was their leader and their role model and he was strong. But he felt so weak. So tired. And although the pain was nowhere near the calibre it had been a few moments ago, it still ached if he even moved an inch.

“No hospital, hyung,” he whispered. “I just want to go home.”

“Taeyong-ah …”

“Please, hyung.” Taeyong never begged. Never. He gave the orders and the others followed them because he was their idol and their guardian and he was strong. “It’s just a headache. I want to go home.”

He watched with infuriating helplessness as Taeil exchanged a worried look with Kun and then turned to peer over his shoulder at somebody Taeyong concluded to be Johnny. He let his hand wander until it found Taeil’s and squeezed as tightly as he could in his weakened state.

“Please, hyung.”

“Okay,” Taeil finally relented. “But tomorrow morning, you’re going to the doctor. This has gone too far.”

Taeyong blinked to show his agreement, too afraid to nod his head.

“Can you stand?” Kun asked from above him.

“Yeah.”

Regaining vertical status was a battle all on its own. His legs felt like the noodles Sicheng had cooked for too long, floppy and rubbery and useless. The humiliation of having to use Taeil and Kun for support was enough to ensure his face was flushed a bright red by the time he was finally back in the car.

On one side of him, Jaehyun gently manoeuvred Taeyong’s head onto his shoulder and on the other side, Kun fastened a secure grip around his thigh. It grounded him, comforted him, gave him an anchor from the pain that throbbed mercilessly.

He closed his eyes and allowed sleep to claim him. He was so deep into the folds of unconsciousness when they arrived back at the dorm that he didn’t even stir when Jungwoo loaded him onto his back and carried him inside.

Chapter Text

          “Are you sure that isn’t a bit of an overreaction?” Taeyong asked, playing with his fingers in his lap as his leg bounced nervously against the floor.

He was suddenly reminded that the itchy woollen chair he was pressed into had harboured a thousand backsides of children with snotty noses and sticky fingers, teenagers with STDs and bad attitudes and a whole host of elderly people with God knows what kind of problems.

He shuffled uncomfortably, trying not to imagine all those diseases burrowing into his skin. He looked up at the doctor, watching her fingers flying across a keyboard without even having to look at it.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” she said with a smile that was probably drilled into her at medical school. “An MRI will give us a better clue to finding out what’s causing you the headaches and then we can decide how to treat it.”

“Okay.”

He felt his mind racing, remembering how he had watched one of those machines swallowing Jeno after he screwed up the tissue in his ankle. The kid had been so terrified that he had refused to lie on the gurney until Taeyong promised he would be at the microphone, talking to him about everything and nothing until the scan was over.

“Can I have something for the pain in the meantime?”

“Oh, I’ve booked you in for later this morning.” She flashed him that infuriatingly fake smile again as she finished her email and sent it whizzing off into space. “11:15 at the radiology department, Seoul General Hospital.”

Taeyong blanched. “So soon? Can’t I have some time to talk to my boss first?”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” the doctor repeated.

As she handed Taeyong his appointment slip and waved him out the door to where his manager sat in the waiting area, he couldn’t shake the feeling that they may be being safe and yet somehow, they would still be sorry.

 

As he lay with his arms flat at his sides and his legs stretched out straight, like a corpse positioned carefully on a slab in a morgue, while the machine clanked and whirred above him, he truly started to wish he had asked someone to come with him.

The noise alone was terrifying and with the addition of having a blank white wall just inches from his face, he started to wonder if this was what it felt like to be in a bomb shelter. Or being buried alive.

The headphones he’d clamped over his ears did next to nothing to combat the electronic vibrato that accosted his eardrums and he closed his eyes, scrunching his hands into fists as he tried to breathe through the overwhelming claustrophobia.

With nothing to do but stare at the back of his eyelids, having been instructed to move as little as possible, Taeyong found himself questioning why he had agreed to this modern form of torture.

He was having headaches. That’s all they were. Headaches. Migraines. And one nosebleed. It was probably just stress. Because, let’s be real: who in his situation wouldn’t succumb to the pressure of leading the biggest group in Kpop, rehearsing for up to sixteen hours a day, composing songs that would determine the success of their next comeback and having to maintain composure in the omnipresent public eye, all at the grand old age of twenty-three. 

And now he could add the cost of an MRI scan to that list.

All of this over-dramatization of a few aches and pains was really starting to scare him. They had taken his blood, shone lights in his eyes, waved fingers in front of his face, posed to him a thousand queries that all seemed to be variations of the same question when all he really wanted was some prescription pain killers and a note to say he could have a day in bed.

He had never been so thankful than when they pulled him out. He ripped off the hospital gown like it had burned him, taking immense pleasure in the comfort of his jeans and hoodie. When the nurse wished him good day, he barely even gave her a second glance as he barrelled through the doors and practically leapt into his manager’s car.

The familiar throbbing behind his eyeballs was back again and he didn’t know whether it was the stress of the MRI tampering with his paranoia but he couldn’t shake the crushing feeling that a storm was rolling in.

Angry clouds were looming over him, blotting out his only access to the sun and seething under the weight of their watery bullets that were threatening to pummel the earth at any given moment. Thunder was growling in the distance, approaching with each passing second.

And there was nowhere to take cover.

Chapter Text

         Taeyong slipped into the dance studio, planning on tossing his rucksack into the corner and subtly filtering himself into rehearsal. He had long ago come to use dance as his release from all the stress that was thrown his way and all he needed at that moment was to let the music take control of his aching body.

The first thing he saw was Jungwoo sitting in the corner of the studio, legs crossed and elbows resting on his knees, his cheeks bloated in a pout. The second thing he saw was Ten and Yukhei standing in the centre of the studio, facing each other and gesticulating wildly.

“I am sick and tired of you always making fun of my laugh!” Yukhei was yelling, much to the amusement of the others who were all sitting against the wall, gnawing on protein bars and swigging at energy drinks. “If I want to be a hyena, let me be a fucking hyena!”

“Language, Yukhei,” Taeyong interjected.

“Korean, Taeyong … Oh, you’re back. How was the doctor? Never mind, more important things first. Now tell Ten I have the right to be a hyena.”

Taeyong switched his gaze to Johnny who just shrugged from where he was slouched against the mirror with the air of a parent who had long since given up and was already formulating the emancipation documents.

“Yukhei, I think you should have a chicken strip.”

“Fuck you and your chicken strips!”

“Yukhei!”

“No one understands me!”

Yukhei flopped down on the floor, snatched Yuta’s granola bar and ran his tongue over the flaky oats before his hyung could wrestle it out of his hands.

“At least I’m not a dolphin,” he spat at nobody in particular before receiving a heavy-handed slap to the back of the head from Kun. “Explanation please!”

“You just insulted Chenle and I deem that unacceptable.”

“So …” Taeil said, turning a falsely bright smile towards a stunned Taeyong who still stood in the doorway, rucksack hanging limply at his side and eyes roaming bewilderedly over the crackheads sprawled on the floor. “Any questions?”

“So many …” Taeyong replied. “But I’ll go with this one: Why is Jungwoo in the corner?”

“He said we should all have infinity dollars so he’s having some alone time to think about the effect of financial inflation on the economy,” Doyoung said without looking up from his phone.

There were three beats of silence.

“I’m going to dance now.”  

This is what he needed. Them. Just being them. With their hyena laughs and their chicken strips and their childish antics. They were his shelter from the storm.

Jaehyun approached as everyone picked themselves up off the ground for another round of practise, speaking low to avoid alerting any of the others.

“Is everything good? You were hours longer than we expected you to be.”

Taeyong brought his hand up to run it through his hair, feeling his skin tingling uncomfortably. “Yeah, they wanted to run an MRI.”

He tried to turn away so he could move to his position before the music began but Jaehyun grabbed his arm, pulling him towards the wall and out of the way of the others.

“An MRI? Hyung, is this … Should we be worried?”

“No!” Taeyong hastened to reply. The warmth that he tried to flavour his tone with was extinguished by the wobble in his voice that showed just how afraid he really was. It didn’t help with the anxious look on Jaehyun’s face. “Please don’t blow this out of proportion. If you panic, I’ll panic and then we’ll look like idiots when it turns out to be something stupid.”

He looked up with imploring eyes boring into Jaehyun’s concerned expression, begging him to say that everything was going to be fine, that it was nothing a few days of rest and some antibiotics couldn’t fix, that the storm wasn’t going to swallow them whole.

“Okay,” was all he got before Yuta turned the music on and they were forced into position.

 

Taeyong danced his heart out.

There was a fire within him that gave him the drive to stomp his foot in perfect time with the beat. A fire that would burn and blaze, spraying sparks and projecting embers into the air. A fire that spread its warmth and its light with so much determination that it could be visible from another planet. A fire that burned for millions of years. Just like a star.

His footwork was impeccable, his timing was perfect, he even found himself rapping along with the lyrics and giving Jaehyun playful slaps on the backside. And when the third break finally rolled around and he slumped onto the floor with a water bottle pressed against his forehead, he felt truly happy.

“Hyung, your phone’s ringing!” Mark called from across the studio and moments later, a mobile came sliding across the polished floor towards him.

Taeyong picked it up, still lying flat on his back, and pressed the ANSWER button.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Lee Taeyong?”

“Yes, can I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Dr Park from Seoul General Hospital.”

Taeyong sat up, his overworked muscles whining in protest from the involuntary movement. Why were they calling so soon after his appointment? He’d been told an MRI could take weeks to be followed up on. The all too-familiar sensation of dread was beginning to gnaw at his insides once more.

When he didn’t respond, the doctor continued.

“We would recommend that you come to the neurology department immediately.”

Taeyong felt his words sticking to his throat, clinging on for dear life so that they wouldn’t be forced out of his mouth. Because once they were … He didn’t want to think about it.

“I’m … in the middle of a rehearsal,” he finally managed to stutter out. “Can’t it wait?”

“I’m afraid not.”

That was when the terror really started to kick in because now it was finally clear that these were not migraines or a simple virus that a few pills could conquer. This wasn’t a storm. It was a hurricane.

“Okay. I’m on my way.”

He hung up, his hand trembling as he lowered the phone to his side. His eyes skirted around the room, trying to figure out if anybody had heard his conversation but the only person who was giving him any attention was Johnny.

The elder seemed to read the fear on Taeyong’s face as he pushed himself off the floor and sauntered over, keeping it calm and subtle and discreet. He helped his leader to his feet, taking a step towards him so that they were close enough to whisper. And Taeyong’s voice cracked.

“I need you to take me to the hospital.”

Chapter Text

         He had insisted Johnny wait outside. Whatever it was that was going on inside him, he wanted to be able to process it before he had to deal with anyone else’s emotions. He didn’t want Johnny to see him cringe or crack or cry. He wanted to be strong.

So he built up his walls and pushed his hyung into a seat outside the neurologist’s office, firmly stating that he wanted to be alone. Johnny had argued but had eventually given in. Taeyong suspected there would be a kindling of resentment for the rest of the day but he cleared his mind of all guilt as soon as he sat down in front of the doctor’s desk.

“I’m not going to beat about the bush, Mr Lee,” the doctor started, removing his glasses and leaning forward so his elbows rested on the table top. His mouth was a grim, straight line, and it did nothing for Taeyong’s confidence.

“The MRI showed a mass in your cerebral cortex. Now, the size itself is concerning but the most pressing issue is that your blood-work revealed the tumour is malignant. A glioblastoma to be specific. I am truly sorry. Now, the cancer is in the early stages so surgery is still an …”

“Wait!” Taeyong cried out, his fingernails digging into his palms as he stared at the doctor with tears brimming his eyes. “Just stop for a moment.”

He took a few deep breaths, counting to three repeatedly in his head. Everything this man had said had been complete and utter gobbledygook, just random syllables thrown together to make him sound clever, but then had come that word.

It was like the real world’s Voldemort. It instilled a terror in people that compared to nothing else. Because it was evil and unstoppable. It devoured souls and happiness and safety, tearing families to smithereens and rendering the strongest of figures a pile of bones in a bed as a heart monitor counted down until the flatline.

“I have cancer?”

“Yes, Mr Lee. I am sorry.”

But he didn’t stop speaking. He ploughed on as he fiddled with papers in front of him, his glasses returning to their nasal perch. He sounded as if he spoke a different language. The words were too long and complicated and only one seemed to matter.

Cancer … Cancer … Cancer … Cancer.

“Now a glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of brain tumour. It grows with exceptional speed and, with time, it implants roots into the brain tissue. But, as I said, we have been lucky enough to catch it at Stage 2.”

Cancer … Cancer … Brain tumour … Cancer.

“The most effective course of treatment that I sincerely recommend we proceed with is a tumour resection. Now this is a highly invasive surgery where we drill a hole into the skull and try to cut out the growth.”

Cancer … Brain tumour … Surgery … Cancer.

“There is, of course, a very high risk but luck is on our side, Mr Lee, and you are a fit young man who …”

“Stop!” Taeyong bent forwards, lowering his head towards his knees and fisting his hands in his hair. The panic was reaching a climax and he felt the pressure building in his chest. “I can’t … I … I can’t do this …”

He was wheezing, gasping, hands ripping at his shirt collar so hard that the top button popped off. But the tightness around his throat was released and now that he was feeling slightly less suffocated, he found the ability to move his legs.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered as he leapt to his feet, giving the doctor a half-hearted bow before stumbling towards the door. “But I really need to think things through before I make any decisions.”

“Mr Lee!” the doctor called after him, alarm evident in his raised tone. “I know this is a frightening discovery but I’m afraid we cannot afford to waste time.”

Taeyong looked around frantically and snatched a leaflet off the top of the pile that had been sitting on the desk, undoubtedly waiting for him. He held it up, showing the words BRAIN TUMOURS printed proudly over the front in bubbly pink letters, like it was some sort of children’s book.

“See? I’ll read it and call you back when I’ve had some time to think.”

And he was out the door before the doctor could say another word.

“Taeyong-ah? Are you okay?”

Taeyong froze in the hallway before he composed himself enough to crush the leaflet into his back pocket. He had forgotten Johnny had been sitting outside.

He rose to his feet, worry creasing the frown lines on his forehead.

Taeyong just stood there, panting slightly, mind racing at a thousand miles a minute. His inner cogs were turning like crazy but even in their haste, they still couldn’t fathom all the information that he’d just been run over with.

Cancer … Brain tumour … Surgery … Glio-something-or-other.

It was too much. It couldn’t be real. Cancer didn’t happen to him. Cancer happened to other people. Cancer had always been an other-people thing. Not him. Never him.

“Taeyong-ah?”

Taeyong hadn’t realised the first tear had escaped its eyelash prison and made a bid for freedom down his cheek. He felt Johnny’s hands on his shoulders and reached up to take fistfuls of his hyung’s hoodie, trying to disguise the fact that he wasn’t sure he could stay standing alone.

“It’s fine,” he said, a smile forcing its way onto his face as he prayed Johnny didn’t notice how stiffly his lips curled upwards. “I’m just relieved it wasn’t anything serious.”

It wasn’t real. There had been a mistake. And once Johnny had driven him home and he had cooked up a thousand packets of ramen for all eighteen of them to enjoy, he would call up the doctor and tell him how foolish an error he had made. It wasn’t real.

“So it’s not serious?” Johnny asked, hope creeping into his tone and giving his eyes that same spark that made him who he was.

“It’s just a migraine.”

Chapter Text

           Life carried on as normal.

He woke up, he made breakfast, he went to rehearsal, he came home, he went to bed. He laughed. He joked. He showed Jisung how to shave. He let Jaehyun teach him to play chess. He lay back and watched as Winwin and Yuta filled Taeil’s shoes with cheese sauce. He sat with Chenle in front of the kid’s math homework with a blank expression on his face until he finally gave up and called Doyoung over. He found Jaemin back on the roof and listened to a lecture on how a star is born. He sprawled in bed while he and Johnny talked about everything and nothing until they finally drifted off to sleep.

Life carried on as normal.

He cried in the bathroom when he was certain nobody else was listening. He blocked his doctor’s number so that he wouldn’t see it popping up on the caller ID every morning. He crammed the information pamphlet into the back of his sock drawer and let the smell eat away at it. He had to restart dinner because his nose had bled into the ramen. He forgot dance steps halfway through a routine even though he had them burned into his muscle memory. He stumbled over not just words, but entire phrases in his raps. He bought a dozen boxes of aspirin to keep up with his daily intake of pain medication. He found himself unable to finish a full meal.

Life carried on as normal.

It had to. As long as he ignored it, it meant it wasn’t really happening.

He was running down the railway line at lightning speed, free as a bird and grinning from ear to ear but the train was approaching, gaining ground and blasting his eardrums with a piercing whistle of warning. He kept running. But it was faster. And at any moment, it was going to hit him. 

Taeyong lay flat on his back in bed nine days after his diagnosis, staring blankly up at the ceiling as he listened to Johnny softly snoring on the other side of the room. The headache demon was back with a vengeance, plaguing his body with an irritable and persistant throbbing.

Unable to take the silence any longer, he rolled over and dug through his sock drawer until his fingers closed on paper. Having retrieved the pamphlet, he tiptoed out of the room and sat on the top of the stairs, letting the hallway light illuminate his bedtime reading material.

He had to understand. He had to make sure. He was almost certain the doctor had been wrong. He was twenty-three, fit, young, healthy, in perfect condition. He couldn’t have cancer. People with cancer looked sick and weak and pale and … bald. He felt tears pricking his eyes. He didn’t want to be bald at twenty-three.

Swatting away the tears, he skimmed through the information pack. There was a page filled with hippy dippy rubbish about not being frightened of the word ‘cancer’. He was sure as fuck frightened right now. There was a list of symptoms that he scoured, his grip tightening on the paper until the corners ripped.

They were all there. Headaches. Nosebleeds. Loss of appetite. Fatigue. Mood changes? He thought he’d just been tired and irritable.

Speech impediment? The raps he’d butchered with his inability to speak.

Impaired vision? The car keys that had sat right in front of his eyes.

Nausea? Not yet.  

Decline in brain function? Oh, God.

Seizures? Holy shit.

And now it was too real. Too fast. Too sudden. Too unexpected. Too unfair. And yet it made sense. It all made sense.

He threw the pamphlet aside, his socks slipping on the carpet as he scrambled to his feet and dashed down the hallway, hand pressed over his mouth. He slammed into the bathroom door and it groaned in protest under the restraint of the lock. Taeyong slapped his palm against the wood, fingers digging into his lips in a desperate attempt to keep the bile at bay.

“Please open up!” he choked. “I’m going to be sick! Please!”

There was a click of the lock and he tumbled onto the bathroom floor, landing hard on his stomach and eliciting a squeak of shock from whoever had let him in. He didn’t even register who it was as he dived for the toilet and spilled his guts into the bowl, retching and heaving with disgusting volume.

He felt a hand rubbing smooth circles between his shoulder blades, tentative at first but then more confident when he made no protest. Not that he could have even if he wanted to.

At long last, his body finally gave up on trying to regurgitate his own intestines and he rested his face against the toilet seat, relishing the cool surface against his burning cheek. He guessed he could now check nausea off the list as well.

“Hyung, are you alright? Do you want me to get Johnny-hyung?”

Taeyong opened his eyes to see Donghyuck crouched beside him, still massaging his back and gently scraping his sweat-soaked fringe behind his ear. He felt a strong sensation of guilt at having interrupted the kid in what should have been a private moment.

“No, Hyuck-ah, it’s alright,” he croaked, throat hoarse from all the coughing. “I’m alright now.”

Liar.

Donghyuck handed him a handful of toilet paper and he took it gratefully, wiping the excess vomit from around his mouth before finally allowing himself to sit up with his back pressed against the bathtub.

“I’ll … um … I’ll get you some water.” Donghyuck made to straighten up and that was when Taeyong saw it.

He threw out an arm, his fingers snagging on the kid’s sleeve and his suspicions were confirmed when Donghyuck gave a yelp of pain, his other hand leaping to defend its counterpart.

There was blood on his shirt. It was seeping through the material even as they were sitting there, formulating thin, perfectly parallel lines to match the pattern that undoubtedly lay on the skin underneath.

“Donghyuck …” Taeyong whispered, looking up at his dongsaeng and seeing pure misery and resignation. He knew he’d been caught. “I thought you’d stopped.”

Donghyuck’s lip began to quiver and Taeyong pulled him down onto the floor so they could embrace, the younger sobbing into his hyung’s shoulder.

“I did …” came the muffled cry buried in the fabric. “I promise, hyung, I did but the comeback’s only in a few weeks and the new manager says I’m not good enough and I need to practise more but I’m just so tired, hyung. I’m so tired and I can’t eat because I’m scared I’ll gain weight and I can’t sleep because my body just won’t let me and my voice is all croaky and my legs are always aching and I’m just a mess …”

Taeyong listened, running his fingers over Donghyuck’s knuckles and inwardly cursing the Dreamies’ new manager, his sweat-soaked body and vomit-flavoured tongue forgotten. He knew he didn’t like the guy and now he had half a mind to call their CEO and get him sacked.

But there was also a deep-set blame for himself for not noticing the kid had sunk back into old habits. Old habits he thought he’d recovered from. Old habits that had once been so severe that they’d had to break down the bathroom door only to find … He couldn’t go back there.

“Do they need bandaging?” he asked when Donghyuck had finally finished his explanation.

He knew that scolding the kid, giving him ultimatums or showing any kind of reaction that wasn’t love and devotion would only feed the despair growing inside of him. Once the damage was done, it was already too late and the only thing to do was patch him back up and ensure it didn’t happen again.

“I don’t think so …” Donghyuck snivelled, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. “No,” he said with more conviction after a moment’s consideration.

“Can I have the blade, Donghyuck?”

“Hyung, please …”

“Give me the blade, Donghyuck.”

He wasn’t rough or commanding. He made sure his voice was soft and his tone was gentle and that he continued to stroke Donghyuck’s hand, to be certain he didn’t feel like he was in trouble.

After a few more sniffs and whimpers, Donghyuck rose to his feet and reached underneath the sink. Taeyong gaped as his dongsaeng produced a razor blade from the underside of the basin where he had taped it. Where no one would find it.

Taeyong took the thin sheet of rusted metal, trying not to think about the bacteria that had to be crawling along its sharp edge, wrapped it in a wad of toilet paper and stuffed it in his pocket, making a mental note to dispose of it once Donghyuck was back in bed, safe.

“We’re going to go back to how it was, okay, Hyuck?” he said, stroking the brown mop until it was flat against the kid’s scalp. “I’m taking your razor and you can ask me when you want to shave but you don’t lock the bathroom door. After every shower, you come and show me your wrists and your thighs and if you slip up then come and find me immediately so I can assess whether you need a hospital or not, okay?”  

Donghyuck nodded deftly. They’d been through this before and he knew that resisting was futile.

“And if you feel like you want to …” he faltered. He hated the word that people used. It sounded so criminal when all it was was just a plea for help that almost always went unheard or ignored. “… do something, you come to me or Mark or Johnny or whoever you feel comfortable with and what do you say?”

“Green.” Donghyuck whispered.

It was their code word. Green meant getting agitated and antsy and starting to consider the deed. Amber meant the temptation was truly starting to kick in and he needed to be distracted immediately. Red meant it was already too late. Red almost always meant 911 and stitches.

“Okay.” Taeyong pulled him into another hug, cradling the smaller body against his chest before he snaked his arms around the skinny shoulders and steered him back to his room where Ten was lost in an open-mouthed dream completed with drool on the pillow.

Donghyuck flopped onto the mattress without a moment’s hesitation, murmuring in thanks when Taeyong smoothed the blankets over him. The leader sat on the floor with his back against the chest of drawers, watching as Donghyuck’s breaths gradually evened out and he succumbed to sleep.

And he knew that there was absolutely no way he was telling that fragile little boy that his hyung had cancer.

Chapter Text

           Taeyong awoke with a stiffness to rival all stiffnesses accumulating in his neck. He groaned under his breath and started rolling his head on his shoulders, trying to work the knots out of his cramping muscles. He hadn’t realised he’d gone to sleep on Donghyuck and Ten’s bedroom floor, slumped against the dresser at an angle that had mutilated his back.

He stretched, relishing in the satisfying pop of his joints before finally hauling himself to his feet. Both Ten and Donghyuck were fast asleep, smothered by blankets like little human croissants, as Yukhei had once called them. He checked the time on the bedside clock and winced. 6am. He supposed he had the uncomfortable sleeping position to thank for his early arisal.

Still flexing his shoulders, he emerged from the bedroom and trudged down the stairs, picking sleep crystals out of his eyes.

The kitchen was empty, just as he’d expected, and he went about the pancake-making process, ensuring that there were plenty of blueberries in the fridge. Blueberry pancakes were Donghyuck’s favourite and the kid needed a pick-me-up if he was going to be frogmarched back into that studio with that appalling excuse for a manger after the night he’d had.

He was just inwardly congratulating himself for flipping the first pancake to perfection when he heard a door creak open upstairs. Footsteps clunked above him as the weary member plodded towards the staircase, probably drawn from the folds of sleep by the smell of the cinnamon and syrup.

Then, very abruptly, the footsteps stopped. Taeyong could hear the creaking of floorboards which he took to mean that someone was shifting their weight from foot to foot at the top of the stairs. He frowned in confusion, glancing towards the hallway and opening his mouth to call out to whoever it was before the movement continued, speed picking up the closer they got to the kitchen.

The door opened and Doyoung stumbled in, his feet catching on nothing in his stunned state. His eyes were wide and brimming with unshed tears, his breath was hitching and he looked like he was on the verge of a mental breakdown. 

“Do …” Taeyong started but before he could finish, Doyoung extended his arm, something gripped tightly in his trembling hand.

“What is this?” he asked in a barely audible whisper.

Bewildered, Taeyong looked down and felt his lips part in horror as the blood circulating his body plummeted to below zero.

There, right in front of his eyes, quivering along with Doyoung’s entire body, was the pamphlet he had abandoned on the landing in his dash to the bathroom the previous night. The pamphlet with the words BRAIN TUMOUR stamped proudly across the front.

“Doyoung …” He couldn’t find the words. This was not how he had wanted them to find out. He hadn’t wanted them to find out at all, at least not until after he’d figured out what the hell he was going to do about it. “Doyoung, I …”

“What is it?” Doyoung’s voice cracked and the first tear spilled onto his face. “Tell me it’s for some research project. Tell me, Taeyong!”

The lack of honorifics was what finally broke Taeyong’s heart because Doyoung never spoke informally to anybody, no matter what his situation. He could only imagine what the younger must be feeling for him to drop every rule of formality that had ever been drilled into him.

“Doyoung …”

Why couldn’t he say anything other than his name? He needed to say something else. Doyoung was crying, begging, pleading with him and he couldn’t even get a word out. He didn’t want to lie to him. He didn’t want to lie to any of them, but as soon as he said it, that would make it well and truly official and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that.

“Tell me!” Doyoung sobbed, stumbling forwards and fisting his hands in Taeyong’s shirt.

Taeyong gripped him back, his fingers curling into the fabric covering Doyoung’s shoulders as he shook his head, feeling his own eyes beginning to burn.

“I can’t,” he whispered. It was all he could get out before they both broke down.

Doyoung’s hands moved up to his hyung’s face, clasping his cheeks and digging his fingernails into Taeyong’s scalp as he pressed their foreheads together and sobbed.

And Taeyong sobbed with him, not only because his secret was out and he couldn’t run from it anymore but because he had somebody to share in his terror and his pain and his fear. He had somebody to shelter with as the hurricane rattled the windows from outside.

It was a long, long time before he realised he’d burnt the pancakes. He prised Doyoung’s hands from his face and removed the frying pan from the hob, grimacing at the shrivelled black lumps welded to the bottom.

He wiped away his tears and turned to face Doyoung who was doing exactly the same thing. They had broken, they had cried, they had allowed themselves to be human beings and now they had to be strong again.

“How long have you known?” Doyoung said, clearing his throat so that his voice no longer betrayed his meltdown.

“Since last Thursday.” He watched Doyoung nodding, his gaze fixed on the floor.

“What’s your treatment plan?”

Oh. That.

“I …” Taeyong stuttered, fiddling with the fraying hem of his sleeve. “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? Is it radiotherapy? Chemotherapy?”

“Surgery.”

Doyoung flinched and Taeyong understood why. It was a terrifying prospect. It was literally brain surgery. The thing they used to measure the difficulty and danger level of something. The thing that was supposed to be nigh impossible. 

“When are you having it?”

“I’m not.” The words were out of his mouth before he had a chance to stop them and he was probably more shocked than Doyoung who let out a strangled ‘what?’

“I’m scared, Doyoung-ah.”

There was silence.

“I’m really, really fucking terrified. Hyuck relapsed last night and it just made me realise that I can’t leave you. I can’t go away and abandon you to fight through this industry on your own.”

“Hyung, you have a brain tumour.”

“I know.”

“Do you? Do you know what could happen if you don’t have this surgery?”

“No, I don’t but I have a pretty good idea what could happen if I do: Brain damage. Permanent, irreversible, drooling-at-the-back-of-the-nursing-home brain damage. They’d be sticking knives into my skull, Doyoung-ah. One wrong move and I could forget how to walk, how to speak, how to go to the fucking bathroom. I could forget my name … I could forget all of you. I don’t want that.”

Doyoung was looking up at the ceiling, a trick they’d been taught as trainees to try and stop themselves from crying. Taeyong pressed on, mercilessly, desperation evident in his tone.

“If I have this surgery, I could die.”

“And if you don’t have this surgery, you will die.”

Silence once more.

“I need time to think about it,” Taeyong admitted, investing a great deal of interest in his left foot picking at a loose piece of floor tiling.

“What is there to think about?” Doyoung cried, throwing his hands up in the air in frustration. “This isn’t some contract deal, hyung! This is life or death. This is your life or your death we’re talking about here. You choose one and you might die. You choose the other and you will die. I know it’s fucking terrifying but do you really see any other viable option here?”

“Taeyong-hyung? Doyoung-hyung?”

Both heads snapped up, paralysed in fear that somebody had walked in on their argument which had undoubtedly drifted up the stairs. It was Jeno, shifting uncomfortably in the doorway, his eyes darting from hyung to hyung.

“Jeno-ah, could you give hyung and I a moment?” Taeyong asked with a softness to his voice that he only ever reserved for the Dreamies.

“Hyung, I need to tell you something.”

“Jeno, go back upstairs,” Doyoung shot at the younger, the frustration that was evident in his body language escaping into his words. Jeno blanched, staring at his hyung like he’d been slapped even though they were at least ten feet apart. “Now, Jeno!”

“Renjun didn’t come home last night.” 

Chapter Text

         “Have you called him?” Taeyong grabbed for his phone, already whizzing through his contacts before jabbing his thumb down on Renjun’s number.

“He’s not answering,” Jeno replied and sure enough, the call went straight to voicemail. “The new manager said he wanted him to stay late to help with choreography.”

“Fucking prick …” Doyoung muttered but Taeyong felt the tension in his shoulders draining.

At least he knew where Renjun was: at the studio. And although the kid was getting a serious talking to when he came home, it was a million times better than wondering if he was lying bloodied and bruised in the street or facedown and lifeless in a river.

“I swear to God that manager is getting fired,” he said as he hooked his coat off the back of his chair and slid his arms into the padded sleeves.

“Hyung …”

“What is it, Jeno? I need to go find him.”

“Manager-nim likes Renjun.”

“I don’t care if he likes Renjun,” Taeyong shot back as he tugged on his trainers. “He doesn’t have the right to keep a minor overnight, no matter whether he’s his favourite or not.”

“No,” Jeno shook his head and for the first time, Taeyong noticed there was an edge of fear to his voice. “Manager-nim likes Renjun.”

“What’s that supposed to …”

And then it clicked.

“Oh my God … Oh my God …”

“I’m calling the police,” Doyoung cried as he snatched the landline from its cradle.

Taeyong didn’t wait to hear the dial tone. He bolted out the front door, his untied laces flapping dangerously at his ankles and threatening to trip him up at any moment. He ignored Doyoung’s distant shout from the kitchen and ploughed down the driveway, heart rate racing.

He should have known … He should have known … He should have known …

He had been so wrapped up in his own health that he hadn’t registered the touches that were way too friendly to be considered innocent and he hadn’t noticed the look in that man’s eyes when he taught those kids. And Renjun had been gone all night.

He didn’t trust himself to drive, not with his diagnosis, so instead he took off down the street, pumping his arms at his sides, regulating his breathing to elongate his stamina and putting as much force into his footsteps as he could, pushing himself faster and faster.

He had to get there in time.

He had to get there in time.

He had to get there in time.

He wasn’t going to get there in time.

The muscles in his legs were starting to tear from the impromptu sprint and he had a stitch like a knife in his ribs but adrenaline kept him going.

The studio was only two miles away. He could run two miles in his sleep. Two miles was nothing. On a normal day, two miles was nothing. But today, two miles was everything. Today, two miles was what stood between him and Renjun. And God help anything else that tried to do the same.

As he burst through the double doors and barrelled up the stairs two at a time, he made himself a promise. If something had happened to Renjun, he would refuse the surgery. If something had happened to Renjun, he had to be the one to pay the price for letting it.

Left. Right. Left. Left. Double doors. Fire door. Door that creaks too much. There were too many obstacles in this Godforsaken building and each one succumbed to his desperation, his instincts to protect, to save.

The office door didn’t stand a chance against him. He flung it open, bouncing it off the wall with an almighty crash to reveal a mess of muscular limbs flopped into a chair. There was a wine bottle sitting on the table in front of him, empty and dry, and from the way drool was trickling from the corner of the man’s mouth, it was clear that he had been the one to drink it.

Renjun’s jacket was in his lap, his fingers caressing the leather even as he slept.

And what was worse, his fly was undone.

Taeyong made it across the room in two strides, his expression thunderous and his hands reaching out, ready to grab, to choke and to murder. The man jerked awake as he was dragged from his seat and thrown to the floor, a body straddling his chest and pinning him to the carpet.

“Where is he?” Taeyong screamed, shaking the worthless piece of filth that lay underneath him.

A collection of bewildered grunts emanated from the mouth that smelled of 100% pure alcohol and bloodshot eyes rolled around in their sockets until they found their attacker.

“Tell me where he is!”

When there was no answer, he struck his victim across the face, his flat palm causing a ripple through the cheek fat. The man reached up for his own counter attack but Taeyong pinned the offending arm to the floor with ease. He wasn’t drunk and he had absolutely nothing to lose. The cancer hadn’t made him weak. It had made him dangerous.

“I said tell me!” he screeched, so loudly he thought his throat might tear.

He felt a sick twinge of satisfaction when the face below him twisted into an expression of fear. There was a voice inside him that was screaming, look at yourself! You’re acting like a monster but he was perfectly willing to sprout horns and grow fangs if it meant he could wrap his arms around Renjun at that very moment.

He raised his hand for another attack and the manager made an incoherent cry of protest, his drunken lips slurring out a word that was unrecognisable to Taeyong’s ears.

“Where,” he whispered, leaning so close that he could feel the panicked breath on his face. The breath that stank to high heaven. “Is my brother?”

“B … athroom.”

Taeyong snatched Renjun’s jacket from the floor, intending on disposing of it once he found the kid because there was absolutely no way he was letting his dongsaeng wear something that had been defiled by this monster but he also wasn’t letting said monster keep it as a trophy.

He took enough time to give the intoxicated man a swift kick to the ribs before he was charging down the corridor towards the bathroom.

Please don’t let him have done what I think he’s done … Please don’t let him have done what I think he’s done … Please … Please, God, please …

Chapter Text

      Taeyong’s head felt like there was a tap inside of it, slowly filling his skull with water to the point that he would burst if it kept going. His legs were screaming at him to give them a rest and he could already see the weeks of sitting to the side at dance practise to let his mutilated muscles heal. His mind was repeating itself over and over again.

Please don’t let him have done what I think he’s done … Please don’t let him have done what I think he’s done …

Then the door was in front of him and he only just managed to stop himself before he kicked it open with all the force of a charging elephant. If Renjun was in there and he had been … Then bursting in on him would be a mistake.

Trying to shove down the bubbling vat of dread inside of him, Taeyong pushed open the door and slipped into the bathroom.

The lights were out, leaving the room eerily dark and horror-movie-like, complete with the dodgy dripping sink. He groped blindly along the wall until he found the lightswitch and clicked.

There was a hum of electricity before the bulbs illuminated, one by one, flickering slightly before they found their little sparky feet. He surveyed the room and from what he could tell, it was empty.

He took a step forwards, his footfalls echoing off the stone walls, and then he froze. He could have imagined it in his adrenaline-panicked frenzy but he was almost certain there had been a sharp intake of breath from within one of the stalls.

“Renjun?”

A strangled sob cut through the silence and there was the clatter of the lock being slid back. Taeyong turned just in time to catch Renjun as he flung himself at his leader with a choked cry of, “Hyung!”

He clung to Taeyong, his grip iron tight and yet feeble and faint all at once as he sobbed into the elder’s chest. Taeyong held him, his nose pressed into the hair that smelled strongly of sweat and fear and he wanted nothing more than to sweep Renjun up in his arms and carry him straight home for blueberry pancakes. But first, he had to know.

However, he waited. He didn’t relinquish his hold until Renjun had indicated that he wanted him to do so. Thumbs gently brushing at the tears on the younger’s face, Taeyong knelt down so that his eye level was below Renjun’s. That way, Renjun would feel in control and powerful and not like he was being dominated.

“Are you hurt?” he whispered, eyes tracing over the skinny figure in front of him for any sign of blood or bruise.

Renjun shook his head, hiccupping pathetically into his trembling hand.

“What happened?”

He moved his hands off Renjun’s body and instead took the younger’s fingers in his grip. Maybe then the memories would be less traumatic.

“Manager-nim, he …” Another choked sob followed by Taeyong’s gentle shushing.

“Take your time.”

“He tried to … He wanted me to …” he shook his head, fresh tears streaming down his cheeks. “But I ran in here and I locked the door and he was banging on it and telling me to let him in and I dropped my phone in the toilet and I was so scared, hyung … I was so scared and I wanted to go home but I thought he might be waiting for me so I stayed here and … and … I was so scared …”

“But he didn’t do anything to you?”

“He didn’t do anything to me.”

Thank God. Thank God. Thank you, God, thank you so much, was the only thing Taeyong could think as he straightened up and pulled Renjun into his embrace once more.

“You did really well, Renjun. Hyung’s so proud of you. You’re so brave.”

He kept repeating those words in a soft whisper, carding his fingers through Renjun’s hair and letting him cry until he was bone dry.

Deep inside, there was some sadistic part of him that wanted to go back into the office and choke the life out of that disgusting creature for scaring his brother so horrifically that he had locked himself in a bathroom stall overnight. But he would be damned if he ever let him out of his sight again.

It took almost ten minutes to convince Renjun that his attacker was not waiting to pounce on him on the other side of the door and that he could leave the bathroom. He kept a strong grip on the kid’s shoulder, making sure his presence was forever known, as they made their way out the front doors.

Doyoung and Jeno were standing with two police officers on the roadside, one of whom was scribbling in a notebook. They looked up at the sight of movement in their peripheral vision and there was an audible cry of relief from Jeno as Renjun stumbled into his arms.

If it weren’t for the increasingly intensive agony building up between his ears, Taeyong would have smiled at the way the kids clung to each other, happiness flooding their teary eyes.

This was his reason to live.

To teach Jisung to shave. To play chess with Jaehyun. To watch Taeil suffering under Yuta and Sicheng’s antics. To at least attempt to help with Chenle’s homework. To talk about everything and nothing with Johnny into the early hours of the morning. To hold Jaemin when he missed his father. To see Donghyuck through to recovery. To run two miles to pull Renjun from a bathroom stall. To be their leader. To be their hyung.

This was his reason to survive.

He would not tell them what it was for – absolutely not – but he would have that surgery.

For them.

He looked up at Doyoung and opened his mouth, reaching out to clasp his dongsaeng’s shoulder.

“I’m going to have the surgery.”

But something was wrong. The words that he had intended to be music to Doyoung’s ears came out broken and weak, syllables melding together to create one smooth slur that didn’t sound like him at all.

“Hyung …” Doyoung’s hands reached out, steadying Taeyong as he swayed on the spot.

The world was beginning to spin, the trees keeling over for a well-deserved nap, the birds flying upwards instead of forwards, Doyoung’s terrified face swimming in front of him.

“Hyung …” But it was distant now, as though he were underwater. Sinking further and further and further towards the icy depths as the pressure in his head reached breaking point.

“Hyung!”

He fell. 

Chapter Text

           It was a seizure.

Doyoung knew it the moment it started but whatever knowledge he had about them couldn’t prepare him for watching one up close. It was the most terrifying thing he ever witnessed.

Taeyong just keeled over. He didn’t throw his hands out or look scared or try in any way to protect himself. His legs just crumpled underneath him and the only thing that stopped a potentially serious concussion was Doyoung catching his head before it hit the concrete.

Then Taeyong started to twitch.

Doyoung could hear Renjun sobbing as Jeno pulled him into his chest so he wouldn’t have to look and he could hear one of the policemen yelling for an ambulance down his radio but the only noise he could properly focus on was the awful, gut-wrenching, choking, gargling noise that was coming from Taeyong’s mouth.

He clung to his leader, hands cupping his head and holding it still while the rest of him spasmed and jerked on the concrete, the merciless gravel scratching away at his skin and clothes.

“It’s okay, hyung … I’ve got you … It’s okay …”

But he knew Taeyong couldn’t hear him and from the way his eyes were glazed and lifeless, he knew he couldn’t see him either. He was locked in a body that wasn’t his own and ravaged by a tumour he couldn’t control that was slowly ripping him apart from the inside.

He didn’t realise he was crying until a tear splashed onto Taeyong’s face, mingling with the blood that was starting to trickle out of the corner of his mouth.

Swearing with a voice that wavered with terror, Doyoung grabbed hold of his leader and heaved him onto his side, still using one hand to cushion his head while the other rubbed what he hoped were reassuring circles on his shoulder.

Thick white froth began pooling in front of Taeyong’s mouth, accumulating with the dirt he was lying on and tinted red from where he’d bitten his tongue. Doyoung just held him. He had tried to time the seizure but in his fear, he had lost count of how long it had been since it started.

He just held him and sobbed and waited for the sound of sirens to bless his ears.

 

      Doyoung was folded up in the uncomfortable waiting room chair when Johnny came stampeding down the corridor. His hair hadn’t been brushed, his face was a mess and from the look of his sweatpants and thin T-Shirt, he hadn’t changed out of his pyjamas. Doyoung had forgotten it was only 8am.

Johnny stopped short when he saw him, doubling over to rest his hands on his knees and regain his breath before he fired his volley of questions.

“Is he okay? What happened? Has anyone come out to see you yet? Why were you at the studio so early?”

Doyoung just stared at him over the top of the knees he was hugging to his chest. He knew his eyes were swollen and rimmed with red and it probably did nothing for Johnny’s fear but still he sat there in silence.

“Doyoung-ah, say something!”

Doyoung blinked. He wasn’t going to lie. He wasn’t going to let Taeyong play his selfishly selfless game anymore. He was going to tell the truth because he couldn’t keep it in, not when he was terrified that at any moment a doctor would approach and tell him his best friend would never open his eyes again.

“You’re going to want to sit down, hyung.”

Johnny swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat, and reached out a groping hand that could guide his shaky legs to a chair.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” What had previously been a loud, panicked tone was now a hoarse, terrified whisper. “It’s actually serious.”

“Yeah,” Doyoung nodded. He didn’t cry. He had cried enough. He didn’t have anything left in him. “It’s bad.”

And he told him.

He told him how he’d found the pamphlet on the landing. He told him how he’d confronted Taeyong and the truth had finally come pouring out. He told him about the surgery that had caused his leader such paralysing fear. He told him about Renjun and how he’d had to send him and Jeno home with the police while he rode in the ambulance.

And by the end of it, Johnny was paper white and dead-looking, having sunk in his seat until he had almost liquefied.

“He told me it was just a migraine …” he finally murmured, staring at the blank wall opposite them with absolutely none of that Johnny-spark in his eyes at all. “He told me it was nothing.”

“But they’ll treat it,” Doyoung said, ignoring the fact that his voice cracked and his hands shook in his lap. “He’ll have the surgery and he’ll be fine. He’s strong. He’ll beat this.”

Three long seconds of silence.

“He has to.”

At the same time, they both reached out and took the other’s hand, needing to feel warmth and life and something that wasn’t cold and hard and … cancerous. Needing to feel united. Needing to feel together. Needing not to feel alone.

“Are either of you Lee Taeyong’s next of kin?”

They both looked up, sluggish movements turning lightning fast at the sound of their leader’s name. Johnny was the first one to stand, addressing the doctor in front of them.

“I’m his emergency contact,” he said. It wasn’t a lie. “His parents … He doesn’t have any.”

The doctor nodded solemnly, pushing his glasses up his nose before a smile stretched across his face. It was a warm smile. Kind. Gentle. Fake. Rehearsed. It gave a false sense of security that everything was going to be fine.

“Why don’t we go somewhere more private? There are some things we need to discuss.”

He might as well have said that they were fucked.

Chapter Text

            The first thing Taeyong registered when he was pulled from the warm folds of unconsciousness was that his head didn’t hurt. He had become so accustomed to the sensation of pain throbbing at his temple that the lack of such a thing made him feel strangely weightless. He made a mental note to find out what painkillers he had taken the night before to have this kind of effect.

The second thing he noticed was that there was something thin and hard under his nose, tracing over his cheeks and hooked behind his ears. He reached up with a leadlike hand, expecting to find a noodle or something equally ridiculous having been placed there by one of his many children. He felt his brow creasing in confusion, however, when all he felt was plastic under his fingers.

A hand closed around his, pulling it away from his face and he pried his eyelids apart to see Mark smiling back at him. But it wasn’t a nice smile. It wasn’t a Mark smile. It was a sad smile. A smile that said I’ve been crying for hours but I’m going to pretend like I haven’t because there’s something very wrong with you.

The realisation finally came to him as he registered the white walls, the heart monitor beeping away beside him and the IV embedded in the crook of his elbow.

“Hospital?” he croaked and Mark nodded, giving his hand a squeeze.

“You had a seizure.”

But Taeyong wasn’t listening. Instead, he tried to sit up, shifting his elbows so they could prop underneath him, his head turning groggily from side to side.

“Where’s my phone?” he mumbled, moaning in protest as Mark pushed him back onto the bed.

“You don’t need your phone, hyung. Can you just listen for …?”

“I need to make sure Renjun’s okay,” Taeyong insisted, feeling his strength beginning to return to him with each passing minute as he continued in the search for his phone.

“Hyung, please, just …”

He didn’t give Mark a chance to speak. He didn’t want to hear the questions and look at the teary eyes and he didn’t want to tell his dongsaeng why his body was failing him so suddenly.

“And I need to call Taeil-hyung and tell him to check on Donghyuck and has somebody told management that I’m going to be late for the meeting? And have the police come by? I need to give my statement and …”

“Shut the fuck up and listen for once in your life.”

That was enough to penetrate the barrier. He hadn’t even noticed Jaehyun sitting in the corner of the room, his arms folded protectively over his stomach and his eyes thunderous as they glared at him. It was the shock that truly silenced Taeyong. The shock that Jaehyun even had it in him to speak like that, with so much disrespect.

“Okay,” he whispered, allowing Mark to add another pillow behind him so that he could sit up a little more. “I’m listening …”

He could feel his heart hammering in his chest, could almost see the IV in his arm palpitating along with his racing pulse.

“We know.”

“About what?”

“Cut the crap, hyung. We know about the tumour.”

Taeyong felt Mark tensing beside him and flicked his gaze over to see the younger picking at the skin around his fingernails.

He felt himself deflating. His secret was out. And it didn’t feel good this time, not like it had when he’d told Doyoung. Now he felt violated. He felt isolated. He felt ashamed.

“Do you all know?” he asked, his voice a mere rasp in his hoarse throat.

Jaehyun shook his head. “Only the people in this room, Doyoung, Johnny and Taeil. Johnny and Taeil-hyung are talking with the managers. Doyoung’s with the others. We kept it from them.”

Taeyong shuffled on his pillows and reached out to take Mark’s hand before the younger could snap one of his nails off.

“It’s going to be okay,” he said pointedly, deliberately slow and clear to be sure they understood. “I’ll have the operation and the tumour will be gone. Call the doctor in and I’ll sign the papers right …”

“You’re not having the surgery,” Mark whispered, fresh tears splashing onto his T-Shirt.

Taeyong stared at him, confusion clouding his mind and halting him mid-sentence.

“What do you mean?”

But Mark was shaking too badly, his shoulders heaving too violently, to get an answer out. So Taeyong turned his questioning eyes to Jaehyun, pleading for an explanation. Jaehyun refused to look at him, his lips pressed together in the classic tell that meant he was trying to hold back his own sobs.

“Jaehyun-ah?” he prompted gently.

“The tumour grew,” Jaehyun finally spat, still neglecting to meet his leader’s eye, now focusing on Mark’s quivering body slumped over the bed. “It’s too close to the brain stem. They can’t operate without killing you.”

Taeyong’s hearing cut off.

All he could process was white noise, blasting through his brain. His brain that was poisoned. His brain that was irreparable. His brain that was inoperable.

“So … I …” His tongue wasn’t cooperating properly, and he didn’t even know what he would say if it was.

“You waited too fucking long,” Jaehyun hissed, rising from his chair and pointing an accusatory finger at Taeyong’s chest. “You waited too fucking long!” His voice cracked and he stormed from the room, slamming the door before he completely broke down.

Taeyong was numb. He couldn’t understand what that meant. If he couldn’t have the surgery, then what was next? What miracle treatment would they procure from thin air to combat this disease festering through his brain tissue?

His movements sluggish in his shocked state, he brought his hands up to Mark’s head and started stroking his hair. His mouth moved as it muttered words of reassurance that he couldn’t even hear himself because they meant nothing.

He had waited too long.

He had waited too long.

What did that mean?

He had waited too long.

“Mark?”

Mark raised his head, showing the pinkish tinge to his cheeks and the swelling around his eyes and Taeyong hated himself for asking this question.

“Am I dying?”

A strangled sob escaped Mark’s lips as he nodded and Taeyong threw his arms around the smaller body, pulling him into the bed and onto his chest so that they could lie there together.

One cried and one comforted.

You’d have thought it would be the other way around.

 

 

A couple of hours after Mark had sobbed himself to sleep on top of Taeyong, Johnny had showed up to take him and Jaehyun – who had just been threatened by security after kicking a vending machine – back to the dorm. He had hugged Taeyong before he’d gone, whispering some halfhearted promise of a bright future that neither of them believed in.

It was Taeil who sat with Taeyong when the doctor finally made his appearance, pinning a flimsy black sheet onto the wall in front of the bed.

“See, hyung? I told you I had a brain.” He looked up at Taeil, hoping for a smile in return but got nothing. Now was not the time for jokes.

“This, Mr Lee,” the doctor began, pointing to the thick white blob in the centre of the skull on the films. “Is the glioblastoma the first time we took the MRI.”

He put another up beside it. “And this is the MRI we took when you were brought in yesterday.”

Taeil swore, burying his face in his hands. That white blob had doubled in size, at least. While in the first scan, it sat comfortably in the centre of the grey fuzziness of brain matter, it was now invading more than a third of the organ, pushing aside anything that dared stunt its growth.

“So what happens now?” Taeyong asked, reaching out to rub a comforting hand on Taeil’s back.

The doctor removed his glasses, folding them neatly and tucking them into his breast pocket. He walked to the end of the bed and rested his hands on the frame, staring Taeyong right in the eye. It was unnerving.

“I am truly sorry to have to tell you this, Mr Lee, but we are now looking at prolonging your life rather than saving it.”

Wait. What? Replay.

We are now looking at prolonging your life rather than saving it.

Once more.

We are now looking at prolonging your life rather than saving it.

He got it that time. And it felt like being hit by a train. The train he couldn’t outrun any longer.

His gaze flicked to Taeil, some small part of him asking for his hyung’s comfort, and Taeil took his hand, squeezing tightly. It brought an inordinate amount of security.

“We can look at a course of chemotherapy and radiation but I’m afraid the effect would be incredibly strenuous on your body. You would lose your hair, there would be a great deal of nausea, weightloss, fatigue … I know you’re a performer but I’m afraid you would not be able to participate in any physical activity throughout the course of the treatment, and unfortunately, I believe it would only grant you another nine months.”

Nine months. Nine months. He had spent longer writing a song. He had spent longer properly getting to know of all the kids he was supposed to take care of. The kids he was supposed to lead. The kids he was going to leave behind in nine months.

And he found himself speaking up when he hadn’t realised he’d wanted to.

“And what happens if I don’t have anything?” he said, refusing to meet Taeil’s eye as the elder looked up at him sharply. “What happens if I don’t have any of the chemotherapy and all of that? How long would I have?”

The doctor sighed, a long, drawn-out, torturous sigh that had Taeyong on the edge of his metaphorical seat.

“From the size of the tumour and the rate at which it appears to be growing, I would estimate four months.”

“And I’d still be able to dance and perform and do all the things I used to do?”

“We can give you medication to fight the seizures and the headaches and the nausea so … for a few more months, yes, you would be able to engage in marginally-strenuous activities.”

Only then did Taeyong look at Taeil, the first tears of the day breaching the barrier he’d tried to set up behind his eyes. His hyung knew what he was thinking and yet he was still smiling. He was even nodding.

It wasn’t even a choice. Four months with minimal pain and the ability to still be himself or nine months of hospitals and puking his guts up every waking moment and running his hands through his hair only to find clumps coming away in his fingers. It wasn’t a choice. And Taeil understood that.

“Will you help me tell the others?” he asked, barely concealing the hitch in his voice.

Taeil reached up and put a hand on his cheek, rubbing his thumb against the smooth skin. The perfect skin. The skin that would be nothing but food for the worms in nine … no, four months.

“I would help you conquer the world if you asked me to.”

“I think that would be easier.”

Chapter Text

              “It’s a joke, right?”

Taeyong looked up from the floor for the first time since he’d started speaking to see Yuta standing behind the sofa, his hands on Sicheng’s shoulders and his head turning to look at the others scattered around the room. His mouth twitched in a nervous smile as he continued to scour the sea of mortified faces for any hint that he was right.

“You’re playing a joke on us.”

“I’m not,” Taeyong shook his head, feeling Taeil’s grip on his thigh tightening as the elder sensed his distress. “I wish I were but I’m not, Yuta.”

“Nah.” Yuta laughed but the sound that escaped his throat was strangled and broken, a mere mask that stood as the only barrier between him and acceptance. “There’s a camera somewhere, right?”

He turned around to the cabinet that stood behind him and started sorting through the pictures and ornaments, picking each one up and flipping it in his hands, shaking it, trying to dislodge a recording device.

“Yuta …” Taeyong pleaded, rising from his chair despite the tremor his legs were experiencing. “Yuta, there’s no camera.”

He took a step forward just as Jaemin scrambled up from the floor and bolted from the room, his sweater paw clasped over his tear-soaked face. Taeyong changed directions and made to follow him but Doyoung held up a hand, shaking his head and mouthing the words “give him some space.”

“Yuta, cut it out.” Johnny reached out a restraining hand as Yuta’s search turned more and more violent, tossing photo frames over his shoulder and repeating the same mantra under his breath.

“Where is it? Where is it? Where is it?”

He was almost crazed, his breathing eratic and his eyes wide and when Johnny’s hand connected with his shoulder, he finally snapped.

“No!” he howled, shoving his hyung away from him and hurling a crystal paperweight across the room. The sound of shattering ricocheted off the walls as glass shards skittered across the floor in all directions, eliciting a yelp of shock from Renjun.

But Yuta didn’t care. His tirade continued, turfing others out of their seats so he could rip the cushions from the sofa and screaming in a way that almost sounded feral when someone got too close.  

“Yuta, please, stop!”

“No! Where’s the camera, Taeyong? It’s not funny anymore! Where’s the camera? WHERE IS IT?”

Sensing that the situation was now completely out of control, Jungwoo grabbed a sobbing Chenle and practically threw him into the hallway, dragging Donghyuck with him as Jeno and Mark followed with Renjun and Jisung, extracating the youngsters from the chaos that was rapidly spiralling into insanity.

Jaehyun was leaning against the doorframe, his head resting against the shiny paintwork and his arms folded, eyes staring at the ceiling. Yukhei had sunk in his seat, fixated on the gentle tapping his toes made against the carpet. Kun finally took the initiative to steer Ten out of the room before the boy had a complete mental breakdown and Sicheng was gazing around at the scene before him with wide Bambi eyes.

At last, it struck Taeyong that they had never told the Chinese kid what the Korean word for “cancer” was. Because why would they? Why would he need to be tarnished with such poison? Why did any of them need to be infected with the greedy arms of a disease that takes and takes and takes until there’s nothing left but flaking skin and brittle bones and white flowers atop a wooden box.

It wasn’t until Yuta gave Johnny a shove so hard that it sent the elder reeling backwards into the wall, dislodging a photograph from its position, that Taeyong finally reunited with his long-lost leadership skills.

He dived forwards, tackling Yuta to the floor. He straddled his waist and pinned his wrists by his head, holding out against the writhing and the struggling as Yuta continued to screech incoherent words.

“Yuta!” Taeyong bellowed and Yuta finally faltered in his impression of ‘The Exorcist’. “You are not the only one who’s scared and you certainly do not get to fall apart when there are literal children going through exactly the same thing! You do not get to be the only one who suffers here! You do not get to be selfish! So pull yourself the fuck together and act like a fucking hyung!”

The last words were screamed into Yuta’s face and, with his wrists still pinned to the floorboards, he had no way of defending himself from the spittle that flew from Taeyong’s tongue, peppering his skin. He just lay there, a marionette with its strings cut underneath his leader’s body.

Then came the tears.

“I’m sorry, hyung …”

Taeyong scrambled off him and pulled him into a hug, cupping the back of his head and stroking his messy hair back into a smooth mop.

“Me, too …” he whispered back. “Me, too.”

Yuta hiccupped one final time and then gently pried Taeyong’s grip off him, pulling himself to his feet. He scrubbed a hand over his face to dry it of the tear tracks before he began to clean up the mess he’d made, wordlessly and shamefully. The others watched him for a few moments before, one by one, they started to help.

Taeyong pulled Taeil away from the glass-shovelling and the photo-frame-salvaging and nodded his head towards the stairs, trying not to comment on just how disastrously that had all gone.

“Can you help Jungwoo with the kids? Remember that Renjun’s still fragile and Donghyuck can’t be left alone. And if you can, check on Ten but I’m pretty sure Kun’s got him. I’m going to go and find Jaemin.”

Just before he left, he heard Sicheng pulling Yukhei aside to whisper the words he could just about make out with his basic knowledge of Chinese. And they well and truly broke his heart.

“What does ‘cancer’ mean?”

 

Taeyong wasn’t the least bit surprised to find Jaemin on the roof, his legs dangling over the edge as his shoulders shook and his eyes streamed. The telescope still sat on its tripod with the stars winking above it, just anticipating the shower of admiration they experienced most nights, but the lens remained untouched.

Clearing his throat softly to alert Jaemin to his presence, Taeyong sat down beside him, letting his feet swing casually over the street far, far below. It felt like flying.

He put his hand over Jaemin’s and they sat there, allowing the tears to fall for a good ten minutes before they finally broke the silence.

“I can’t go through this again.”

Taeyong looked up, his brow furrowed in confusion at Jaemin’s words. Then he remembered. And it felt like drowning.

He remembered the phone call. He remembered the breakdown. He remembered the emergency flight back to the kid’s hometown. He remembered the diagnosis. He remembered the treatment. He remembered the funeral.

He had watched it all unfold in front of him and there had been nothing he could do to stop it. And now history was repeating itself. Because history was cruel. The world was cruel. Because it hadn’t taken enough from this kid sobbing on a rooftop and it wanted more.

“Your dad had cancer, too,” Taeyong whispered, letting out a long breath of sympathy as Jaemin nodded his pink little head.

“I watched him disappear. I watched him withering away right in front of me and no matter how much I prayed or how hard I apologised or how tight I hugged him, I couldn’t make him stay.”

It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair. For any of them. Least of all Jaemin. This child had suffered enough. What did you say to somebody who had just learnt that the most traumatic memories of their past were about to relive themselves once more? What did you say to a child being tortured by a demon that was hunted by the entire planet and yet refused to be killed?  

“Nana, look up.”

Jaemin lifted his tear-soaked face, glazed eyes roaming the night sky that glittered with a billion tiny spheres of energy, and he let out a soggy snort of mirth.

“Hyung, if you’re about to tell me that when you’re gone, you’ll become a star, I don’t want to hear it.”

Taeyong smirked. “Are you kidding? Stars can’t be people. They’re just a collection of gas and dust crushed into a nebula by a Supernova Shockwave.”

Jaemin raised his eyebrows.

“See? I do listen to you.”

He sighed again. Why did he have to do this? Why did this have to happen? What had he done to deserve such a punishment? What had he taken from the world to warrant a death sentence so harsh it couldn’t even see him until his 24th birthday?

“But there are millions of them up there,” he muttered, face turned up towards the pinpricks of light. “And each one can live for billions of years, just burning with so much energy it can be visible from a trillion miles away. Not everyone knows it’s there. Not everyone sees it or remembers its name. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less important than all the others. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t shine as bright or live as long, it’s just as much of a miracle as any of its peers. And eventually, it will burn until it has nothing left in it and then it will just disappear. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean it has to be forgotten. That doesn’t mean it was any less beautiful or any less important or any less of a miracle. Because it got to witness the birth of others around it. It got to watch them grow and develop and learn and when it dies, it will know that they will shine brighter than it ever could. And it will be happy.”

He threaded his fingers through Jaemin’s hair, combing the tangles without his eyes leaving the constellations above him.

“I don’t want you to go,” Jaemin whimpered at last and Taeyong wanted to scream.

He wanted to throw himself off this rooftop right now. He wanted to run back inside and curl into Taeil’s arms and sob until he had dried up every last drop of fluid within him. But he had to be strong. He had to be the leader. He had promised he would be all those years ago and he would keep that promise. Until he died.

“But I am going to go,” he said softly. “I can’t give you a date and even if I could, I wouldn’t because I don’t want you counting down the days until I do. But I’m here right now and I’m going to love you right now and we can do anything and everything you want together because ‘right now’ is all we have.”

Another stretch of silence. And then another sob.

“You’re going to see my dad before I do.”

Then Taeyong crumpled. Then he let the tears do their job. Then he let the grief manifest itself onto his face as he pulled Jaemin onto his lap and let the kid bury his nose in the crook of his neck as he rubbed comforting shapes into his back. Some part of him wished that someone else would do that for him.

“And I will tell him every last detail about the person I’ve watched you grow into and he will be just as proud as I am.”

Chapter Text

            “I want one more concert,” Taeyong spoke up at the dinner table, dropping his chopsticks to land with a clatter against the side of his bowl. He had been going insane with the awkward silence that hung over all of them as they ate with their noses buried in their noodles.

They all looked up at his words, food halfway to mouths that slipped from between the utensils and plopped back into the sauce with a destructive splash.

“I want one more concert,” he repeated. “All eighteen of us, together. I’ll tell the fans I’m taking a break and then I want to …” he trailed off, frowning as he considered his options carefully. “Go skydiving.”

“Skydiving?”

“Why not? The world is a lobster.”

“Oyster.”

“I said lobster therefore the world is a lobster.”

“You can’t just say something and then decree it to be a thing.”

“I’m dying, I can do whatever the hell I want.”

He knew the second he’d spoken that he had screwed up spectacularly. He’d been so caught up in his playful argument with Johnny and the words had slipped from his mouth before he could stop them.

The silence that followed could have cut glass. It wasn’t awkward like before. It was terrifyingly still and horrified and … awful. Nobody was looking up from their food, shoulders hunched and eyes downcast at the painful reminder of their predicament.

“Damn it … I’m …” Taeyong stuttered, mind pulsating with guilt and self-loathing for his grand screw-up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t … I didn’t think.”

“Probably a side effect of the brain tumour you refused to get treated.”

“JAEHYUN!”

Taeyong felt the breath squeezed from his lungs, rendering him completely speechless as Jaehyun threw his chopsticks onto his plate and leapt up so violently that his chair toppled over onto the floor with a resounding crash. Chenle let out a strangled yelp of surprise.

“SIT DOWN!” Doyoung roared but Jaehyun was already storming out of the room, slamming the door with a force that was strong enough to knock the calendar off the wall.

If Taeyong thought the aftermath of his verbal slip up had been bad, it was nothing compared to the atmosphere that smothered them at that moment. Jaehyun had never acted like that. Never. Especially not in front of the kids. It was terrifying.

“Um …” Taeil spoke up, his voice trembling slightly as it cut through the silence. “I think everyone can go finish their food in their rooms.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, there was a scraping of chairlegs on tiles and a flurry of bodies that didn’t need to be told twice. When the thundering of footsteps on the landing as they all fled to their rooms died down, Taeil got up to close the door in case anybody had thought to listen.

Taeyong just sat there, staring at his barely-touched food. For days, his appetite had been decreasing and the dozens of pills he was taking morning, noon and night were doing nothing to change that.

“Taeyong-ah …” Taeil started but trailed off when Taeyong, too, rose from his chair and started towards the door.

“Don’t,” was all he said before he allowed his legs – which he knew were decreasing in diameter with every passing day – to carry him up the stairs.

He didn’t take his food.

 

 

          Detonation occurred three days later.

For seventy-two hours, all they had done was practise, eat and sleep. No one wanted to be in the same room as Jaehyun and the latter seemed to be perfectly fine with that. He would slouch down the stairs at meal times, swipe his ready-made bowl off the table and retreat back to his room to finish. He did not engage in conversation of any kind and literally growled if anybody tried to do so with him.

Taeyong had tried to approach him the morning after the outburst but had received the middle finger and a shoe thrown in his direction, narrowly avoiding his head.

It felt like a dream. A nightmare. One where he would wake up and find that he’d fallen into an alcohol-induced hallucination. One where he wasn’t sick. One where Jaehyun didn’t look ready to commit murder every time he opened his mouth. One where the kids weren’t afraid to look at him. One where he wasn’t counting down the days until his fuse reached its end.

But as he lost sensation in his left foot and crashed to the floor of the dance studio halfway through the routine, he was reminded that there would be no waking up from this particular dream. And one day, there would be no waking up at all.

He cursed under his breath, pushing himself up onto his elbows as he reached for his numb foot, trying to massage the feeling back into it. Yuta crouched down beside him, his face creased with too many lines for a man so young. There was concern in his features but also frustration. Taeyong understood it. He felt it too.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. You’re doing well,” Yuta reassured him, scrubbing a hand over his face as he helped Taeyong to his feet, steadying him when he tried to put weight on his foot. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I just need to rest for a minute.”

Yuta nodded and then raised his voice, glancing over his shoulder to the congregation of worried faces behind him. “Everybody grab a drink. We’ll regroup in ten minutes.”

Taeyong smiled his thanks, already experiencing the nerves in his foot beginning to reawaken and feeling completely and utterly useless for not even being able to make it through a dance routine.

Seemingly satisfied that he wasn’t about to keel over again, Yuta clapped his hyung on the shoulder and strode away to converse with Sicheng about something insignificant and random. That’s all any of them talked about these days. Anything to get their mind off the truth that was charging at them head-on.

“Earth to hyung?”

Taeyong snapped out of his reverie and looked up to meet Yukhei’s face, a water bottle being shoved under his nose.

“Sorry,” he forced a grin, taking a grateful swig and relishing the cool liquid as it soothed his hoarse throat.

“It’s nothing,” he continued in response to Yukhei’s worried eyes. “My foot fell asleep. It’s fine now, see?” He rotated his ankle in the air and even did a little Charlie Chaplin hop just to see that award-winning smile stretch across his dongsaeng’s face.  

It was barely even audible. He hardly heard it. But it was there, unmistakable and cold and harsh and completely humourless: a soft snort of contemptuous mirth. He swivelled his head around, peering over his shoulder for the source of the reaction and found a sigh of resignation escaping his throat.

Jaehyun turned away from him, his teeth ripping into a protein bar with all the ferocity of a wild animal, shaking his head with his eyes downcast. Despite his hunched posture, he failed to conceal the smirk that curled his lips.

“Have you got a problem?” Yukhei snapped sharply, eliciting a raised eyebrow from his hyung as Jaehyun slowly turned back around to face them.

“Have you?”

“Yeah.” Yukhei’s voice was cold. Yukhei’s voice was never cold. It was warm and full of life and laughter and love. “You.”

“Yukhei, leave it,” Taeyong muttered as he put a restraining hand on Yukhei’s shoulder, meaning to steer him away from the confrontation but Yukhei shrugged him off and stepped out of his reach.

“You’re acting like an ass, hyung,” he spat at Jaehyun whose eyes blazed, an inferno of fury that had been kept at bay all this time finally igniting with all the energy it had been repressing.

“I’m sorry,” he hissed, every word laced with ice that sent chills down Taeyong’s spine. He barely even recognised the person he was looking at. “That I’m not tending to our precious leader’s every whim.”

By now, others had started noticing the commotion. Some of them were edging towards the door, probably intending on making a run for it before the bomb finally exploded and they would be forced to clear up the collateral damage. Some of them were just standing stock still, waiting for an excuse to intervene. They didn’t have to wait long.

“He brought all of this on himself.”

That’s what did it. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the key that opened the floodgates. That was the spark that ignited the flames. And now fire was fighting fire.

Yukhei lunged at Jaehyun and before anybody could react, the two of them were crashing to the floor. There was a collective yell of shock and protest but the two of them were in their own little world where the only things that existed were their fury and each other.

Jaehyun reached up and tightened his hands around Yukhei’s throat, rolling over so that he was on top of the younger, straddling his chest. Yukhei was strong – very strong – but something in Jaehyun had awoken the moment he’d heard the news. Something had snapped inside of him and now he was not the Jaehyun that they knew. Now he was hurting one of his own.

Someone was yelling as multiple arms tried to pry the two tussling bodies apart. Legs were kicking, fists were flying, faces were curled into snarls and swear words laced with poison were spat from frothing mouths, incased in salivated bullets of rage.

They were going to kill each other Taeyong realised with a spasm of horror coursing through his malnourished body. They wanted to kill each other. Because of him.

“STOP!” he screamed, plunging into the thicket of the fight and inserting his body between the two opponents. He pushed out a hand to each chest, ignoring the feet that connected with his knees and the nails that raked over his throat. But the second they registered who was in the danger zone, they stopped. Hurting their leader was enough of a threat to overcome their pride.

They all stood there, breathing heavily, with their hearts thudding in their chests. Jaehyun ripped Jungwoo’s arms from around his body where they had been restraining him and turned to glower menacingly at Yukhei. The younger glared right back but didn’t force Johnny to relinquish his hold on him.

“I’m sorry,” Taeyong panted, wondering why he seemed to be more out of breath than those who had actually been engaging in the fight.

“I know you’re angry. I know you’re hurting. I know it’s not fair. But whether you like it or not, I’m not living to see my next birthday. I may not even live to see the next Spring. That means that, unlike the rest of you, I have a use-by date already set in stone for me. Every second is more precious than I ever thought it could be and I’m wasting a shit tonne of them yelling at you!”

They were all silent, heads hanging in shame.

“We perform in two weeks,” he continued. “My last concert. My last chance to do what I love the most with the people I love the most. I want to do it with you, all of you, united and together and as a family. Because that is what you are to me, every single one of you. And I know that this is too much. I know it’s terrifying and if you want to walk out of this room right now and take the next flight back home then nobody is stopping you. I’ll even pay for the plane ticket. But let me hug you before you go because it’s probably the last time I’m ever going to see you.”

He watched them and with each tiny movement one of them made, he thought they were going to walk out and if they did, he wasn’t sure he would be able to act strong anymore.

But no one moved.

No one took a single step.

“We’re staying.” Jisung said it so confidently with his back straight and his chest puffed out to prove just how adamant he was. “We’re all staying.”

Taeyong nodded, blinking back the tears. This was not going to turn into a mushy moment. There would be plenty of those to come.

“Thank you,” was all he said before Yuta clapped his hands together.

“Can we get back to dancing now?”

There was a ripple of nods and murmurs of affirmation before Yukhei stepped forwards and held his hand out towards Jaehyun, extending the opportunity of a truce.

Jaehyun didn’t take it.   

Chapter Text

             The moment Taeyong felt the lights searing his skin, pulsating in an explosion of vibrant colours, he forgot everything. The moment he heard the excited scream of the crowd, building in volume right up until the second the music started, he forgot he was sick. The moment he felt the rush that came with every performance and the joy of feeling so immeasurably powerful, he forgot he was dying.

He felt the music in his bones, the floor vibrating beneath the pounding of his feet, as the world around him absorbed the full force of the beat. With the metal mesh of a microphone pressed into his mouth, he was stronger than the disease that infected his body. In those moments, with a thousand people screaming his name and seventeen brothers sharing his stage, he was beating cancer.

It couldn’t take this feeling from him. It couldn’t take the freedom he was experiencing. And he laughed and he yelled and he bounced up and down with more energy than he thought it was possible to have inside his failing body.

They performed everything, every single song they could cram into their three-hour limit, and he was on stage for every one. Whoever was involved dragged him on with them, sweaty arms curled around his waist and clammy cheeks pressed into his face or neck. More than once the dark spots revisited him, winking in front of him and beckoning him towards their seductive hold but there was always a body to keep him steady and a smile to warm him from the inside out.

Halfway through “Without You”, Yukhei swept him onto his shoulders and lapped the stage, his arms reached up to secure Taeyong’s body on top of him. Johnny ripped his pants during “Cherry Bomb”, something that Donghyuck exposed to the crowd the second the music cut off and great hilarity ensued. Taeyong finished “Baby, Don’t Stop” with Ten’s arms wrapped around his body and his face buried in the crook of his neck. And Doyoung kissed his forehead during the final endingment as Renjun clung to his T-shirt with both hands fisted into the material.

There was a strong, strong part of him that wanted to confess the true meaning behind his skinnier appearance, the fact that he tired so much quicker than the others and that he would stumble for several beats of choreography and stutter through his faster raps, occasionally forgetting them altogether. Some part of him wanted to give back to these people who screamed themselves hoarse at his mere presence, but he knew he couldn’t.

There would be articles speculating the true nature of his condition, getting more facts wrong than they were getting them right and he didn’t think he could bear to hear the screams of horror and see the tear-soaked faces when he told them he would never perform for them again.

So he lied. And it felt like betrayal. It felt like he was deceiving them in return for their unwavering support. But he forced the words out, painting what he hoped was an apologetic and reassuring smile onto his face to combat the whines of protest from the crowd before him.

He told them exactly what he and Johnny agreed he would: that NCT 127 was going dark for a period of time that was yet to be determined. Dream would still be flying to the US for their TV appearances but the elders would be vanishing from the public eye for a while.  

Throughout his heartfelt apologies to the wailing fans, he felt the tears burning at his lids. It wasn’t until he heard the last song of the night that he allowed them to fall as he circled the stage and waved to the ocean of lightsticks that rippled in gratitude for his attention.

It was Taeil’s solo.

They’d wanted to end with a promise, something beautiful and sincere and as Taeil’s heavenly vocals drifted over the concert hall, Taeyong found himself sobbing into Mark’s shoulder.

 

Even if it hurts, it’s okay because I love you

Even if I try to forget you and turn around

My heart will keep searching for you

Even if I cry, it’s okay because I love you

Even if it hurts, I’ll wait for you

Because you are my first love  

 

And he made sure that before the doors closed and secured that barrier between him and his fans for the last time, his final words resonated with every single heart beating under the same roof.

“I love you!”

Chapter Text

               He awoke to dead silence, smothered by his blankets and still in the clothes he’d left the concert in. As he struggled to remember exactly when they had got home or even how he had found his way to the bed, he came to the realisation that he had more than likely fallen asleep in the car. That meant that somebody had carried him inside, removed his shoes and laid him on his bed.

He didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or touched. He hated feeling inferior but equally loved feeling cared for. 

Rolling over with a groan of popping joints, he judged the time to be 3am by the dusky shadows that tried to hide the clock face from view. Everybody else would be dead to the world at this hour, the adrenaline from the performance having completely evaporated and left them desperately craving unconsciousness.

Feeling the need to have the icy chill of water trickling down his throat, he crept into the kitchen, turned on the lights and very nearly screamed.

Jaehyun was sitting on the floor with his legs splayed out in front of him and his back against the cupboards. He didn’t even flinch at the sudden attack of electricity that came with the intensity of the lights.

He just sat there, staring blankly at the opposite wall without the faintest hint of emotion on his slightly flushed face.

“Jesus, Jaehyun-ah, you almost gave me a heart attack,” Taeyong whispered as he pressed a hand over his chest, feeling the terrified organ inside beginning to slow down again. “What are you doing?”

The corners of Jaehyun’s mouth twitched but he didn’t answer.

“Seriously, Jaehyun,” Taeyong snapped, his irritation at the younger’s attitude beginning to break through the patient demeanour he had tried to instill in himself. “Go to bed. You must be exhausted.”

Jaehyun actually snorted that time, the ripple of air against snot filtering out of his nose. He mumbled something, his barely-moving lips making it impossible to comprehend what it was.

“What did you say?” Taeyong sighed as he turned towards the sink to fill his glass.

“I said you can’t tell me what to do.”

Taeyong turned around and leaned his back against the counter, sipping on his water as he stared down at Jaehyun with raised eyebrows. The younger was yet to look away from the wall.

“Jaehyun, you need to stop this,” he finally said, setting his empty glass down on the work surface and glaring down at Jaehyun with his arms folded over his chest. He ignored the fact that he was able to feel his ribs through his shirt. “You can’t go on being selfish and making everything uncomfortable for every …”

I’m the selfish one?”

Taeyong stared at him, incredulously. Jaehyun was finally looking at him, his eyes bloodshot and drooping under the weight of the purple bags laden with drowsiness.

“You’re the one everybody’s fawning over. You’re the one making every single day about you: the great heroic leader battling a fearsome beast for the good of others. We all know you’re going to be worm fodder by March so just do us all a favour and quit the charade.”

Then Taeyong saw it: the empty beer bottles lying on their frosted-glass sides beside Jaehyun. There were at least four of them.

“Jaehyun …” he whispered. “How much have you drunk?”

“Like you care,” came the contemptuous reply.

“Of course I care!” Taeyong retorted affrontedly, stooping down to retrieve the beer bottles and discarding them in the sink so that they were away from Jaehyun with his flushed face and his alcohol breath.

“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You didn’t tell us,” Jaehyun literally spat at him, speckles of saliva spraying Taeyong’s feet. “You didn’t tell us until it was too late. What were we supposed to think? That you didn’t trust us? That you didn’t think we were worth that kind of information? That you didn’t even give a shit how we would feel when we found out you’re fucking dying? You were only thinking about yourself and now it’s cost you your life. That cancer’s not what’s killing you, hyung. You are. You and your bigheaded ignorance.”

Taeyong wanted to feel rage. He desperately wanted to feel something that wasn’t pity and despair and guilt because he knew Jaehyun was right. He was going to leave them and it was his fault. After all that he’d promised them, after the pledge he’d made to be their leader and role model and guide, he had failed them.

“Jaehyun, you’re drunk,” he murmured, bending down to hook his hands underneath Jaehyun’s arms.

He heaved upwards, forgetting that his strength had been rapidly dwindling into pathetic standards. Jaehyun was dead weight, refusing to be of any help, and his breaths in Taeyong’s face should have suffocated him with their foul stench.

Finally succeeding in getting the indeed-very-drunken Jaehyun to his feet, he started half dragging/half pushing him towards the bathroom, intent on shoving him under a cold shower to cleanse the smell before bundling him into a bed and giving him a whack over the head with a baseball bat if that’s what it took to get him to sleep.

“I hate you …” Jaehyun grunted as he tried to stop their progression by holding onto the door frame but was thwarted by Taeyong.

“I hate you …” he hissed as they staggered into the bathroom, swaying under his weight and stumbling over the polished tiles.

“I hate you!” he screamed as Taeyong shoved him into the shower and turned the dial, opening the heavens to the tidal wave of freezing cold water that gushed over him.

Jaehyun tried to push his way out of his torture chamber but Taeyong shoved him back, refusing to listen to the cries repeated at an increasing decibel.

“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

And when he couldn’t take it any longer, Taeyong leapt into the shower and shoved Jaehyun up against the wall, pressing a hand over his mouth to smother the screams.

He felt the water soaking through his clothes, drenching him to the skin and peppering his malnourished body with goosebumps at the icy temperatures. His fringe dripped onto his nose which in turn dribbled with droplets. The sensation was deeply unpleasant and yet he still held onto Jaehyun.

The only reason he overpowered him was because the younger was hammered, completely and utterly hammered. But that didn’t stop him from putting up a fairly enthusiastic fight. He kicked at Taeyong’s knees and swung drunken fists in his direction as he continued to scream through his leader’s fingers. The words were muffled but the message was clear.

“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

“I hate me, too!” Taeyong screamed back, their faces mere inches apart as water cascaded down their skins. “I hate me, too! I know it’s my fault I’m dying but what do you want me to do?”

He shook Jaehyun, indifferent when the boy’s head bumped into the wall behind him. He didn’t care anymore. The cold and the wet and the grief was doing something to him, dulling his emotions and rendering him completely soulless.

“What do you want me to do, Jaehyun?”

Jaehyun reached up to rip Taeyong’s hand from his mouth and said with every ounce of hatred he could muster up in one sentence the words that would haunt Taeyong for the rest of his excrutiatingly short life.

“Just leave!”

Taeyong took a step backwards, his socks slipping on the shower floor and he threw out his arms to catch himself, wedging his elbows against the narrow walls.

“Just leave!” Jaehyun repeated, screeching the words at the top of his lungs as he took hold of Taeyong’s collar and pinned him up against the tiles. Taeyong didn’t stop him. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even try. “I don’t wanna play your dutiful dongsaeng until you finally kick the fucking bucket! So just go!”

He gave Taeyong another shove so forceful that he cracked his head against the wall, firing a shockwave that ricocheted through his body and sent him sliding down to rest on the floor with a splash. By the time his senses had returned to him, Jaehyun was gone, a trail of sodden footprints stamped clumsily across the floor.

Taeyong didn’t move. He couldn’t move. The water pounding mercilessly against his body was beginning to numb him to the core, burrowing into his bones and turning them to ice.

Something scarlet was accumulating with the water that was circling the drain and he reached a hand up to his nose to see his fingers come away bloody. He was broken. His body was being devoured day by day and soon, there would be nothing left of him but a fragile paper figurine in a wheelchair.

And then there would be nothing left at all.

The others would have to watch. The kids would have to watch.

Why was he doing this to them? Why was he doing this to himself? The curtain was closing anyway so why have an encore when the audience had just screamed at him to get off the stage?

What was the point?

Why sit around and wait for the inevitable?

Why not get it over with?

On his own terms.

“Just go!”

“Okay, Jaehyun,” he whispered into the sound of water pounding against porcelain. “I’ll go now.”

Chapter Text

          Sicheng hadn’t been sleeping anyway. He was too engrossed in the letter he had clutched in his hand, concealed under his duvet fortress and illuminated by his phone so that he wouldn’t wake Taeil or Yuta.

He scrutinised every word, forming the shapes with his lips to try and burn their sounds into his mind. He had spent almost two weeks on that letter, having started it the same evening Yukhei had translated the C word for him. He had been preparing and practising and pronouncing various Korean words at random points in the day, eliciting several peculiar looks in his direction from the others.

But he didn’t care. When he finally mustered up the courage to read it to Taeyong, he wanted to be word perfect. His leader had to feel all the love that had gone into it, the sincerity that laced every syllable.

And that’s when he heard the yelling.

It was distant and muffled, drifting his way from downstairs. It sounded like Jaehyun and Sicheng briefly wandered if going to investigate would get him another slap in the face for being so nosy, but then a different voice joined the argument. Taeyong’s voice.

Sicheng was scrambling out of bed without a moment’s hestitation. Taeyong was sick. Taeyong was fragile. Jaehyun was angry. Jaehyun was probably drunk. Sicheng didn’t like that combination.

He had barely made it to the top of the stairs when Jaehyun came stomping up towards him, pinballing between the wall and the railing to try and keep his drunken footing.

He was soaked to the skin, dripping a faucet from his drenched clothes and sodden hair, and as Sicheng flattened himself against the wall to let him pass, he distinctly heard a low, mumbled growl that he didn’t understand and wasn’t sure he wanted to.

The shower was running in the bathroom downstairs and the simmering cauldron of dread deep in his gut began to bubble over.

Something was wrong. He felt it before he even opened the bathroom door. It was a niggling sensation that persisted until his paranoia concluded that Jaehyun had done something to Taeyong.

He wanted to scold himself for thinking so horrifically of his hyung but at the same time, he wasn’t sure if Jaehyun was his hyung anymore. At least, not the hyung he had known and loved. Not the hyung he had been before all this … C word.

And it was the fear that had him barging into the bathroom like a charging rhino. His arms flew out and he grabbed onto the sink to stop his feet sliding from under him as they skidded on slick tiles.

The shower door was open, allowing the torrential downpour that was meant to be confined within those four walls to spill out onto the floor. But that wasn’t even remotely important compared to what was happening within those four walls.

Taeyong didn’t even look up at him.

His eyes were cold and emotionless, ringed with red and puffed at the lids, but no longer there. There were scarlet-tinged droplets rolling down his neck from the nosebleed he wasn’t even trying to stem, only to be swept up into a pearly concoction on the shower floor.

The only thing he was focused on, as he sat under a waterfall of ice, were the handfuls of pills he was shovelling into his mouth.

“Stop!” Sicheng screamed, oblivious to the fact that Taeyong probably wouldn’t understand the Chinese that was spouting from his mouth.

He lunged forwards, his face connecting with the shower door as he skidded on water and came crashing to the ground with a grunt of discomfort. His cheek throbbed painfully and he could already envision the purple rose that would bloom there in a couple of hours.

But the sole focus on his mind was his floundering body scrambling into the shower with Taeyong, flinging the pill bottle from his hyung’s hand.

The empty pill bottle.

The force of Sicheng colliding with him sent the tablets that were still in Taeyong’s hand skittering to the floor where the water turned them into frothy little bath bombs and they dissolved into sherbert. There had only been a few of them.

“No eat!” Sicheng screamed in his broken Korean as he fastened his arms around Taeyong’s chest and dragged him out of the shower.

It was hard. Despite the copious weight he had lost, Taeyong’s drenched body and refusal to do anything but stare blankly into space gave Sicheng the sensation that it was a corpse he was heaving across the bathroom.

“No eat, Taeyong-hyung! No eat! Please!”

He threw his leader against the toilet, planting a hand between his shoulder blades to ensure he bent over the bowl. His trembling grip fastened on Taeyong’s chin, nails digging in until the boy was forced to open his mouth and accept the fingers that crawled down his throat.

“I’m sorry … I’m sorry …” Sicheng sobbed, no longer aware whether he was speaking Korean or Chinese. It didn’t matter. You didn’t need to assign yourself a language when all you were doing was choking on a tidal wave of tears.

Taeyong gagged, a strangled wretch bubbling up his windpipe before Sicheng snatched his hand back out to make way for the contents of Taeyong’s stomach.

Sicheng’s crying only intensified when he saw just how many pills were coming back up; a hailstorm of poisonous white capsules that looked so harmless and yet could easily have stopped Taeyong’s heart.

He clung to his hyung’s shoulders, wrapping himself around the skeletal body and wailing into the sodden T-Shirt as Taeyong threw his guts up, groaning in protest every time Sicheng’s fingers reappeared in his mouth.

“I love you … I love you … I love you …” he gasped into Taeyong’s back, repeating the mantra with double the ferocity when his leader began to quiver with his own tears.

“Thank you for everything you done for me,” Sicheng cried, trying his hardest to remember the pronunciation of every goddamn word in that letter he wrote. “You teach me so many and I wouldn’t survived without you. You patient and kind and clever and talent and I love you more than could ever say.”

He knew the grammar was wrong and he’d wanted more than anything to be fluent but he’d also wanted this scenario to go slightly differently and it seemed neither wish had been granted.

In his mind’s eye, they had both been crying, yes, but one of them wasn’t supposed to be preventing the other from killing themselves.

“I love you.”

That was the only sentence he was sure of, so he repeated it over and over and over again with his eyes screwed shut and his face buried in the nape of Taeyong’s neck.

“No leaving! I love you, Taeyong-hyung! I never leave!”

“WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?”

Yuta nearly broke his nose on the door frame as he came barrelling into the bathroom, eyes swollen in their post-sleeping state. It only took him three seconds to survey the scene in front of him before he put empty medication bottle and puke in the toilet together and got his answer.

That was all the time it took for Taeil to find the carnage and by then, Yuta had already turned off the shower.

There was a moment where the only sound was the two boys sobbing in front of the toilet before Yuta finally gathered himself together and peeled Sicheng off of Taeyong. With a considerable amount of soft persuasion and then brute force, he succeeded in extracting his hysterical counterpart from the bathroom.

Very slowly, Taeil knelt down and pulled the leader into his chest, indifferent to the sopping hair that began to permeate an uncomfortably icy patch of wetness onto his pyjama shirt. He just held him. There was nothing else left to do.

“I just wanted it to be over with,” Taeyong cried at last and from his broken speech and bodily tremors, Taeil realised that he was shivering. He inwardly cursed himself for not registering how cold the boy must be.

“I know,” Taeil soothed as he snagged a towel from the wrack and bundled his shivering dongsaeng into the furry folds. Then he shut out that mothering instinct and allowed his voice to become hard and cold. “But you can’t go like this. You can’t do this to us.”

“I’m dying anyway! Today or in three months. What difference does it make?”

Taeil stared at him incredulously, skidding through the water on his knees so that they could look each other directly in the eye.

“It would make a difference to whoever would have found you dead on this floor. What if it was Jisung? Or Donghyuck? Are you telling me you really don’t know what would have happened to him if he’d seen your corpse? You know as well as I do that he’d kill himself too.

It makes a difference to the children – children, Tae – that want to make as many memories with you as they can before they have to figure out how to live without you, once they’ve had a chance to say goodbye. You weren’t going to give them that chance and then you weren’t going to be there to pick up the pieces.

And it makes a difference to me because day by day, I am watching you get closer to death and I am trying so hard to be strong and it hurts so fucking bad that some days I can’t breathe. But this way, I have something to blame. I can blame this fucking cancer. But if you opt out … I have no one to blame but you. If you kill yourself, I will hate you and I don’t want to hate you, Tae. I can’t hate you, not after everything we’ve been through.

I know that at some point in the much-too-near future, I am going to be holding your body and trust me, Tae, I am so angry and I am so scared and I can’t imagine how it must be for you, but you are dying. And I can lose you to cancer. I can figure out how to deal with that and I can explain that to the kids because there is a reason behind it. There’s science and genes and all that nerdy shit that Doyoung would be way better explaining than I am. But I can’t lose you to suicide and I can’t tell the others that you chose a bottle of pills over your last few months with them and I can’t hate you. I can’t. Please don’t make me hate you, Tae.”

There was a silence as they stared at each other, kneeling in a rippling lake that reflected their misery right back at them, tormenting them with their own haunted images.

“I don’t want to die,” Taeyong finally whispered and Taeil pulled him into his chest once more as they cried together on the bathroom floor.

“You’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

I just want to say, I know that this is such a hard time for the Kpop community. Exactly a year ago, the Earth lost one incredible human being and there are so many still grieving. And while it’s okay to cry about such a tragedy, it’s also really important to remember the good things. Jonghyun’s voice was stunning, his laugh was contagious, his kindness was paramount. That is who he would want us to think about at this time.

And remember that everybody grieves differently. I am a terrible griever. The only way I know how to cope with loss is to pretend like it never happened. I don’t talk to other people about it and I honour my loved one in my own private space. I remember their presence in my life but I don’t like to be constantly reminded of why they’re not with me anymore. But that is just me. Remember, everybody does it differently.

That being said, I am well aware that this story is being posted at a really bad time. That wasn’t what I intended when I wrote it and I feel very guilty that that’s the way it’s turned out. For those who wish to take a break from me for the duration of these incredibly difficult days, that is okay. There is no judgement. But if you can manage it, I do urge you to continue reading when you are ready. There is so much more to this story than just death. I really put a tonne of work into writing an ending that hopefully brings peace to those who have lost a loved one.

So let’s not remember the one moment  - and there was only one – in Kim Jonghyun’s life where he wasn’t perfect. Let’s remember all the moments where he was. We miss you, angel.

 

 ----

 

 

          Kun’s birthday celebration was the distraction they had all been craving. It didn’t take the pain away but it dulled it, giving them a sensation of floating above the haze of hell that was the looming prospect of waking up to find Taeyong no longer a part of the planet.

The days leading up to the event itself were rife with energy, chatter and laughter as people discussed gifts and surprise parties and how they were planning on rudely awakening Kun on the morning that signified twenty-two years since his birth.

It was all overly enthusiastic but no one mentioned it. No one wanted to admit that they were all just desperately clinging onto something that didn’t revolve around the word “cancer”.

Taeyong occasionally caught Taeil or Johnny looking sadly at the kids as they argued over which was the best way to wrap a waffle-maker and he knew that as soon as the celebrations were over, they would go back to how they had been before: depressed and quiet and finding as many excuses to be out of the dorm as possible.

Only a select few knew the true extent of what had happened that night in the bathroom and Taeyong had found himself dripping in relief to wake up the next morning – sandwiched between Sicheng, Yuta and Taeil on the beds they had pushed together – to find that Jaehyun had passed out on his bedroom floor and hadn’t remembered a thing that had been said or done.

He looked down at the stew he was stirring absently, finally snapped out of his reverie and turned up the gas, watching the thick sweet-smelling paste begin to bubble satisfyingly. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stomach more than a few mouthfuls but watching the others eat with beaming grins on their faces would be more than enough sustenance for him.

Turning away from the stove, he reached for the bottle of pills on the window sill, jiggling a smartie-shaped tablet into his palm and tossing it down his throat. It had taken nearly a week to convince Johnny and Taeil to let him take his own medication again without them policing his every move for fear he would … try again.

But the headaches had been steadily increasing and even the strongest pain killer seemed no longer enough to conquer the sensation of his temples being crushed with an iron press. He had vomited, too, for the first time in several weeks. The doctors had upped his dosage but nothing seemed to be helping anymore.

And he was tired.

He was so tired.

All the time.

And his head swam.

And his legs ached.

And his vision clouded.

And his eyes rolled back.

And his knees buckled.

And his body hit the floor.

And somebody screamed.  

 

Kun had been sitting patiently on the rug in the living room, letting Chenle tie his hair into tufty “birthday” pigtails when the fire alarm cut through the jovial atmosphere like a whip crack. It screeched at an impossible decibel, prompting everyone to clap their hands protectively over their ears to at least attempt to dull the assault.

It took him several seconds for his affronted brain to register that a fire alarm was probably going to mean fire.

He scrambled off the floor, staggering through the living room door and using the frame to push himself towards the kitchen. That’s where Taeyong had been, preparing the birthday dinner like he always did despite his newfound hatred of food. Kun didn’t know where exactly the flames were but he did know that his first priority – and probably everyone else’s too – was their sick and vulnerable leader.

The door didn’t stand a chance against his determination to set eyes on Taeyong as he burst into the kitchen and felt a cry of horror slip from his mouth.

The stove was on fire, flickering tongues of heat and destruction wriggling happily in the saucepan.

His feet carried him forwards and his hand snagged a washcloth from the sink, shoving it under the tap before he hurled it onto the flames. There was a hateful hiss followed by a slowly softening sizzle as the moist fabric conquered the danger.

Sighing in relief, he took a step away from the hob and felt his foot connect with something hard and cylindrical, causing him to stumble as he tried to regain his balance.

Breathing out a soft “what the …?”, he looked down and saw the scene that would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life.

Taeyong was curled up on the floor as every muscle seemed to contort with horrific brutality, his body jerking and twitching where it lay in a swamp of his own vomit. There were traces of it on his face and mashed into his hair and through his half-closed eyelids, only whites were visible. His fingers were curled into misshapen talons as his body lost control to the beast that savaged his mind.

“No …” Kun whispered, dropping to his knees and grabbing for Taeyong’s head, feeling his fingers ghost over the vomit on the floor and resisting the urge to empty his own stomach. He tried to hold his hyung’s skull steady to stop it bouncing off the floor but the convulsions were too violent for his trembling body to overpower.

“Stop!” he screamed at Taeyong in hopeless desperation, at a complete loss for what to do. “Stop! Stop! Stop!”

But it didn’t stop.

There were others around him, voices mingling with each other and screaming orders and someone had finally silenced the fire alarm but the only thing he could see was Taeyong’s face and the way it was so twisted with pain that it no longer looked like Taeyong.

And when they ripped his leader from his protesting arms and carted him away in a metal machine of warbling laments and blinking lights, Kun was left to clean the bile off the floor as the kids sat in the living room and cried their grief and their fear together.

He scrubbed at the half-disgeted chunks of whatever Taeyong had managed to choke down in the last twenty-four hours and he found himself sobbing into the silence as he imagined how the others would have sung him happy birthday.

 

 

          Taeil leapt to his feet the moment the door to the doctor’s office opened. Johnny emerged and the eldest hyung saw for the first time just how skinny he had become. His cheekbones were unhealthily prominent, his skin unnaturally pale and if he looked closely, he could see that there were miniscule patches of baldness hidden amongst the once-lustrous black hair on Johnny’s scalp.

He couldn’t imagine how stressed the guy must have become over the past few weeks, having taken over the majority of management meetings and leading duties to get Taeyong an opportunity to rest.

He reached out his arms and took hold of his dongsaeng’s elbows, guiding him into the chair he himself had occupied for the last twenty minutes, waiting with baited breath for Taeyong’s latest prognosis to be revealed to him.

“Johnny …” he prompted gently, panic increasing at the half-dead look in Johnny’s eyes as he stared blankly at the opposite wall. “What did they say?”

“I can’t,” Johnny whispered flatly.

“Can’t what?”

“I can’t do it. I can’t go in there and tell my best friend that …” he broke off, lips parted and skin sunken. He looked like he was having a night terror, locked in a shell of torture with no way to break out.

“Johnny,” Taeil pushed, his desperation to know what was happening beginning to cloud his promise not to pressure his brother into uttering words he wasn’t ready to say. “What did the doctor tell you?”

Johnny finally raised his head to meet his hyung’s eyes and in that moment, Taeil knew without even having to hear the words.

“No …” he mumbled, shaking his head as tears brimmed his eyes and he found himself retreating until his back pressed against the corridor wall.

“The tumour’s growing faster than they thought.”

“No …” His knees buckled and he crashed to the floor, sending a sickening impact ricocheting up his body.

“It’s entirely wrapped around the brain stem.”

“No …” He squeezed his eyes shut, resisting the urge to cover his ears because he needed to know but at the same time he wanted to go deaf.

“He’s got two … maybe three weeks … at the most.”

Taeil keeled over, toppling into the foetal position in the hospital corridor with his arms over his head and his body plagued with violent sobs. He wanted to scream so badly. He wanted to curse the world because not only had it decided it would snatch Taeyong from them but because it had given them a time limit and then taken that time limit away. He wanted to scream.

So he did.

He didn’t care that they were in a hospital where screaming meant that somebody was dying. Because somebody was dying. And there was nothing a single white-coated figure in this building could do about it. There was no pill, no surgery, no magic wand that could give Taeyong his future back.

And now they had to figure out a way to go and tell him that. To tell the twenty-three year old that his three months had become three weeks. That the time he thought he’d had left no longer existed.

He screamed because there was nothing left to do. There was nothing to stop the inevitable and the worst part was that they had no idea when it would come. And he didn’t want to be the strong one anymore. He didn’t want to be the reassuring voice when he didn’t believe a single word he was saying. He wanted someone to hold him and stroke his hair and tell him that everything was going to be okay.

But there was nobody to do that.

So he hiccupped himself dry, swatted the moisture from his eyes and used the wall to pull himself to his feet. Johnny hadn’t moved from his chair, his eyes still blank and emotionless, and Taeil left him to his dissociation as he marched past the staring patients and pushed open Taeyong’s hospital room door. 

Chapter Text

           The speed at which Taeyong deteriorated upon his return to the dorm was nothing short of terrifying. All the defiance and determination not to let this disease kill his spirit seemed to have deserted him and every day, he grew paler and weaker and frailer as the tumour sucked the life from his bones.

The hospital had given him a wheelchair, an aid that had him turning his nose up in disgust and categorically refusing to use. It had been his number one fear: being so weak and helpless that he had to be confined to a metal contraption when just over a month ago, he had been one of NCT’s strongest dancers.

His members had honoured his wish, wanting to gift him with as much control as they could, but Taeyong had barely made it out of the hospital doors when he had grasped onto the front of Johnny’s shirt to stop himself from falling, his face greyish and his breathing shallow.

Still, he had refused to be loaded into the awaiting prison cell and only conceded when Johnny had threatened to deal him the ultimate humiliation and carry him.

Taeyong cried quietly into his scarf the entire way home.

Ten and Doyoung had rallied the others and together, they had all constructed a mountain of blankets and pillows in the middle of the living room floor that would be Taeyong’s permenant residence seeing as the stairs were now out of the question.

He had feigned his gratitude, desperately trying to conceal his hatred for them running around and looking after him when it should have been the other way around. He had always been the caretaker and now he was relying on them for everything.

But he had lain on his goose-feather platter with Kun pressed into his side, apologising again and again for his part in the catastrophic birthday celebration. Kun had entangled his fingers in his hyung’s shirt and cried himself to sleep as Taeyong hummed a whisper-weak rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ into his hair.

Someone slept beside him every night, holding his hand or brushing his hair or babbling on about something irrelevant and insignificant until he fell asleep. With the Dreamies’ tour in the States fast approaching and each of them terrified of leaving Taeyong’s side, it was usually one of them who crawled under the blankets with him.

He wondered if that was how they would find his body. If he’d just go in the middle of the night without anyone knowing until they arose the next morning to find him pale and pulseless on the pillows.

It was Jisung who had been curled under his arm when he found himself paralysed by the heaviness of his limbs and the weight that seemed to be sitting on his chest and adding an extra three kilograms to his skull. He hadn’t been able to move to the bathroom and as a result, he’d lost control of his body.

The maknae had awoken to the soaked sheets and Taeyong with his back to him, shoulders shaking as he muffled his sobs with his fist in his mouth. He was mortified. He wanted to shrivel up and die right there and then to save himself further humiliation.

Why had it had to have been Jisung? Out of everybody – all seventeen of them – the teenager was singularly the last person he would have chosen to find him in that state.

Jisung had left the room, probably to escape the horror show and take a thorough shower. Taeyong was thankful that the kid had at least woken Johnny who wordlessly lifted him into his arms and carried him to the bathroom.

He said nothing as he turned his back to let Taeyong strip and climb into the tub, determined to preserve at least a wafer-thin shred of his leader’s dignity but wary that if he left, he could slip or vomit or try to drown himself. But he didn’t utter a word as he helped Taeyong into clean pyjamas, knowing how embarrassed the boy would be and how the last thing he would want to do would be to talk about it.

Despite Johnny’s tact, fresh tears had formed in Taeyong’s eyes when he’d been taken back to the living room to find Jisung exchanging the soiled blankets and pillow covers for fresh ones. And when Johnny settled his burden back into the clean and crisp mound, the maknae lay down beside him without a moment’s hesitation.

“Jisung-ah, you don’t have to …” Taeyong started as soon as Johnny’s snores drifted over from where he’d collapsed on the couch, but Jisung cut him off with a soft hiss as he rested his head on Taeyong’s chest. He tried not to think about how he could feel each individual rib concaving his cheek.

“I don’t mind, hyung,” he whispered as he nuzzled into Taeyong’s shirt. “I want to be with you. I want to look after you like you’ve looked after me and I don’t care what I have to do. You never have to apologise or be embarrassed because you are worth anything and everything under the stars. Literally.”

He pointed up at the glow-in-the-dark solar system Jaemin had fixed to the ceiling, perched precariously on Yuta’s shoulders to allow him to reach, seeing as Taeyong couldn’t climb onto the roof with him anymore.

“I love you,” Taeyong stated, bringing his hand up to card his fingers through the soft hair. “I will love you forever.”

“No, you won’t,” Jisung croaked, a clear indication that he was battling the urge to cry. “Because you’re not going to be here forever.”

His baby’s words hit him like a punch to the gut, iron fingers clenching around his heart and squeezing until it snapped clean in two. He felt his breath hitching and his gentle stroking of Jisung’s head faltered in his horror.

“And I want you to be,” Jisung continued, his shoulders starting to tremble as the words tumbled from his quivering lips, unfiltered and impulsive as he poured out everything he needed to say. “I want you to watch me graduate and teach me to talk to girls and help me learn to write and compose and choreograph. I want you to only be a few doors down the hallway when I have a nightmare and to be in the audience when I win my first award. I want you to stand beside me at my wedding and hold my first child and hear them call you “uncle” and I want you with me forever ‘cause I don’t think I could ever begin to learn how to live without you.”

He signalled the end of his testimony by turning his face into the crook of Taeyong’s neck, dousing the skin with the warmth of his tears.

Taeyong was speechless. What was there to say that could take away this pain that was so profound in a boy so heartbreakingly young? Nothing. No words could even come close to bringing a smidgen of comfort. But maybe an action could.

He tugged at the fastening of the bracelet around his wrist until it finally slipped over his bony fingers. It was a simple accessory, a plain circuit of plaited leather he had bought from a market in Osakawa. It was nothing special, it had no significant sentimental value, but he was about to give it the most precious meaning he could. It was all he had left.

He took Jisung’s hand, stroking his thumb over the skin that was tainted with tears as he fastened the trinket around the skinny wrist, dusting it with a gentle kiss. Jisung choked on another sob as he pressed his own lips into the same spot Taeyong’s had touched. Where his DNA would remain.

“Forever,” Taeyong breathed.  

 

         The Dreamies left two days later. There had been a strong debate about whether or not to cancel the tour but Taeyong had silenced the indecision by adamantly refusing to let them stay. It was an opportunity no idol group in their right mind would refuse.  

The sheer volume of tears that were shed the morning they said goodbye seemed to surpass all the grief over the past few months combined. Taeyong wished more than anything he could have gotten up to hug each of them for as long as their short time frame allowed them but he barely had the energy to lift his head and squeeze their hands as, one by one, they lay down beside him.

Renjun went first, sobbing into the crook of Taeyong’s neck while his hyung pressed his lips into his hair, stroking his fingers over the skinny arms that clung to his shirt.

The words “I love you” were repeated by both mouths, pinballing backwards and forwards because both of them wanted to be the last to say it.

They eventually agreed to utter the words together on the count of three but Renjun still called them out once more just before he forced himself to leave the room, not giving Taeyong a chance to reply.

 

Jisung tried to hide his tears as he curled into Taeyong’s side, making himself look unbelievably small and just like the baby he always denied he was.

They both kissed the bracelet one more time, whispering the word forever as though they were trying to ingraine it into their minds.

“I watched you grow,” Taeyong breathed into Jisung’s ear. “And it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

Chenle cried too, but there was a smile ghosting over his lips as he brushed a stray curl of Taeyong’s hair behind his ear and made him fervently swear that he would watch them on all their TV show interviews.

“You have to promise, hyung,” he said with eyes that were glistening with love and grief and heartbreak.

“I promise,” Taeyong had answered as he brushed his mouth over Chenle’s forehead.

 

Donghyuck settled himself down on the pillows, looked Taeyong in the eyes, blinked back his tears and whispered one feeble word.

“Green.”

And Taeyong pulled up the kid’s sleeves, kissed each of his fading scars and told him that he was going to be alright as they held onto each other for dear life.

Because life was something they were both struggling to keep in their grasp.

 

Jaemin was the only one who seemed to know for sure. Because he had experienced it all before. And he knew just as surely as Taeyong knew that this was the last time they were ever going to see each other.

“Look at the stars,” he breathed and they peered up at the fluorescent sky on the ceiling above them. “Look at them every night. I will, too.”

Taeyong nodded and Jaemin leaned over to kiss his cheek.

“Tell my dad I miss him.” 

 

Mark lay with Taeyong on his side so that they were facing each other, noses just about an inch apart.

“Wait for me,” the kid implored, his eyes boring into Taeyong and pleading with every pore of his body. “Wait for me to come home. Please.”

Taeyong had denied him an answer, merely wrapping his arms around Mark’s shoulders and pulling him closer so their foreheads could rest together.

And once Mark had finally gathered the strength to walk away, something they had all struggled with, Taeyong reached out a weak hand to Jeno who had stayed motionless in the doorway as he watched his friends saying goodbye.

“Jeno …” he begged but Jeno just shook his head, eyes swimming and lips quivering.

“I’m not going to say goodbye, hyung,” he said through a constricted throat. “Because if I don’t, you have to hang on until I get back. You won’t go if I don’t say goodbye.”

“Jeno, please.”

“No. You fight and you wait for me to come home and then we can say goodbye. You have to wait.”

He grabbed hold of his suitcase and walked right out the door, leaving Taeyong crying amid his blankets.

Chapter Text

           It got worse.

Taeyong became unable to stomach a single bite of food without hacking up his guts into the nearest trashcan to hand. For every day that passed, the decrease in his body mass was like a slap in the face, his cheekbones sharp and prominent and his skin clinging snugly to his bones.

He would get cold, too. Even if they cranked up the central heating to the point where the rest of them were walking around in T-Shirts and shorts, Taeyong would remain cocooned in his blankets and shivering with his lips and fingernails tinted a pearly blue.

Speaking was a rarity and when it did occur, his voice was croaky from lack of sustainance and weak from a severe difficiency of … everything.

But Taeyong – their Taeyong – was still in there. He would still smile whenever one of them lay down next to him and he would still give their hands as strong a squeeze as he could when their fingers interlocked with his. They had taken to telling him that they loved him each time they left his side, planting their lips on his forehead or in his hair.  

Because death would rap its decaying knuckles on their windows every night when Taeyong’s heart rate was at its lowest and his body was at its most vulnerable. And every night, he would send it away with a surge of defiance that made them thankful for each day they woke up to find him blinking sleepily up at them.

And then came the greatest day of all.

Johnny had lumbered down the stairs, scrubbing a hand over his tired face and shovelling his dishevelled hair out of his eyes, to hear the sound of laughter from the kitchen. It was so unexpected and so unheard of that he lost his footing and very nearly plummeted down to the hallway carpet.

It was Taeyong’s laugh. Weak and strangled and distorted but it was definitely Taeyong. And he had pushed open the kitchen door to find Ten standing at the stove with a look of purely bewildered helplessness on his face.

Taeyong was a few feet away with one hand secured on the counter and the other resting atop Jungwoo’s arms that were wrapped around his waist from behind. They were probably the only thing that was keeping him upright and yet he looked stronger than he had in forever. There was even a hint of colour to his cheeks.

“You’re hopeless!” he was crying, leaning his head back onto Jungwoo’s shoulder as he shook with hysterical laughter.

“I require an explanation,” Johnny interjected, raising his hand as though asking permission to speak.

“Ten can’t cook pancakes,” Jungwoo supplied, grinning from ear to ear as Taeyong let out another snort when Ten gave the frying pan a violent jerk and the still-raw batter attached itself to his T-Shirt.

“I can’t cook pancakes,” he confirmed in defeat and Johnny took a step forwards to swipe his finger through the mix splattered down Ten’s front. He touched his tongue to the creamy gloop and pulled an exaggerated expression of disgust.

“You really can’t cook pancakes.”

The cackling that burst from Taeyong’s mouth signalled a stampeding of frantic footsteps on the stairs before Doyoung and Taeil burst into the room. Once they saw their leader encased safely in Jungwoo’s arms and the smile that stretched over his chapped lips, their panicked faces melted into relieved grins.

“That laugh could cure cancer,” Doyoung chuckled before he realised his mistake.

All heads whipped towards him, eyes wide and lips pursed in horror at such an insensitive blurt. Johnny was about to break the awkward silence with an equally awkward cover-up when Taeyong made a small noise that had all attention transferring to him.

There was a moment where the leader stared right back at them, his mouth twitching at the corners before he laughed with his entire body and the others joined in at the sight of Jungwoo’s temporary terror that he was going to drop his charge.

“I feel better already,” Taeyong wheezed and it set them off all over again.

It was euphoric.

 

No one wanted to look the gift horse in the mouth. No one wanted to question where Taeyong’s newfound strength had come from or what it meant. It was like having their old leader back, admittedly he was still unable to stand for too long or walk more than three steps but he laughed with a smile that stretched to his eyes rather than just his mouth.

And they took advantage of it.

So once Taeil had taken over the breakfast-making and Taeyong had even managed to stomach half a pancake without puking, they bundled him up in as many coats as they could find to combat the January weather he was so desperate to endure.

When Sicheng and Yukhei came downstairs they had burst out laughing, clutching their stomachs and bending at the waist at the sight of Kun zipping up Taeyong’s fourth jacket. It added what seemed like a foot of padding to their hyung’s disastrously skinny body and the result made him look a bit like an egg. He may have even appeared healthy if it weren’t for the pasty palour of his skin.

They packed the wheelchair in the car, folded up and compacted to make it as unnoticeable as possible, but they didn’t ask Taeyong to use it because they knew he’d refuse. Instead, as the vehicle pulled to a stop on the edge of the sand, Yukhei hefted his leader onto his back and began the cautious trek down to the shoreline.

Taeyong rested his chin on his noble steed’s shoulder, watching the waves clustering forwards with an excited swooshing noise only to retreat again once they’d tasted foreign sand on their frothy tongues. The sky was a murky grey, an impenetrable cloak of dense fluff but he didn’t mind. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the sea. Or the sky.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispered without realising he was speaking aloud and he felt Yukhei’s cheeks bunching up as he smiled into the wind that buffeted at their hair and clothes.  

“Not so bad yourself, hot shot,” he retorted with a suggestive slyness to his voice.

Taeyong bit his ear.

His teeth were already starting to chatter despite having Yukhei as his own personal windbreaker but Jungwoo came up behind him to slip a blanket over his back, one hand in between his shoulder blades to keep it in place.

A seagull flew over their heads, wings spread as it glided effortlessly through the air. The gale that must have been twice as sharp at that altitude did nothing to stop its journey to wherever it decided it wanted to go. It was invincible. Unstoppable. Untouchable. Free.

That’ll be me one day.

Taeyong smiled at the thought, burying his frozen nose in the crook of Yukhei’s neck and sniggering at the yelp of surprise from his dongsaeng when cold cartilage met warm flesh.

They set up camp by the shore, not close enough to warrant moving if the tide came in but not far enough away that Taeyong couldn’t inhale the scent of salt or feel the gentle spray on his face. He lay bundled up in a blanket burrito with his head on Taeil’s lap, listening to his hyung singing to the sea while the gleeful shouts of the others’ antics drifted to them from the shoreline.

“I love that song,” Taeyong murmured, moving his eyes from Johnny chasing Doyoung with a strand of seaweed up to Taeil’s face. “Would you sing it at my funeral?”

“Tae …” Taeil sighed, running his fingers through Taeyong’s hair with a slight trace of a whine in his voice.

“What?” Taeyong defended, peering up at him through eyelids that always seemed too heavy to heave open every morning. “I love to hear you sing. I wouldn’t ask anybody else.”

Taeil smiled down at him, picking at loose grains of sand that the wind had swept into his leader’s hair. “Okay. I will.”  

“Taeil, go have some fun for once in your life. I’ve got him.”

Taeyong turned his head to see Johnny stalking up the beach with his hands dripping and the cuffs of his jeans drenched.

“Not like that you don’t,” Taeil snorted. “You can’t touch him until you’re dry.”

But as soon as Johnny was satisfiably no longer a danger to Taeyong’s non-existant health, Taeil was sprinting off down the sand to gift Yuta with a surprise piggyback ride, leaving his leader resting on his new pillow.

There was a yelp of joy and Sicheng suddenly straightened up from where he’d been stooped over a rockpool, holding something small and grey wriggling as it tried to nip his fingers with its tiny pincers.

“Crap!” he yelled with a proud grin stretched across his face and everybody immediately collapsed with laughter at the adorable mispronunciation.

“You know what my biggest regret is?” Taeyong asked without looking away from Kun rolling over the sand, clutching his stomach as he shook with untameable hysterics.

“Not turning down the role of visual so that I could have it?” Johnny replied, smirking when Taeyong reached up to pinch his thigh. It was a weak and pathetic attempt to elicit pain but Johnny still had the tact to hiss and wince as though it had actually hurt. “No, Tae, what’s your biggest regret?”

“That I didn’t have children.”

“Tae …” Johnny smirked as he followed Taeyong’s eyesight to the shoreline where Yuta was explaining Sicheng’s mistake to him while trying not to cry at how confused his baby looked. “What do you think defines a parent?”

“Well, hyung, when a mummy and a daddy love each other …”

“No, Tae … I mean, yes, biologically but there are thousands of people out there who call a man ‘daddy’ when they aren’t even related.”

“Please think about that sentence.”

Johnny thought about it.

“Lee Taeyong, I am trying to pass on my infinite wisdom and have a serious and meaningful moment and your ignorant, hair-dye-obsessed head is lodged firmly in the gutter!”

Taeyong laughed, a wheezy chuckle bubbling up his throat and he watched Johnny’s exasperated expression melt into an endearing smile.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Taeyong blurted, forcing his face into a neutral expression and trying not to let his lips curl up at the edges. “Please gift me with your knowledge, oh wise one.”

“Cancer or not, I will hit you.”

“You are a despicable person.”

“Shut up. Infinite wisdom time. What defines a parent is not whether they gave birth to you or if their DNA is in your genes – or wherever the fuck DNA is …”

“Infinite wisdom?”

“Shut thy ungodly mouth! I am speaking! As I was saying, you’re a parent even if you haven’t raised the child since birth or been there for every single second of their lives. You’re a parent if you have nurtured, cared for and taught everything you know to that child and most importantly, you are a parent if you love that child with every fibre of your being and every nerve in your body. A parent is just a synonym …”

“That’s a long word. Can you spell it?”

“I will throw you in the sea. A parent is just a synonym for a guardian. And what is the definition of a guardian, I hear you ask? A guardian watches over you and protects you and never leaves your side, even if you can’t always see them. And if you do all of that without even realising what it makes you, you are the greatest parent of all time.”

“Hyung …” Taeyong started, already feeling the tears welling as he stared up at his Johnny’s dead serious face.

“Look at them, Taeyong.”

Taeyong looked. He saw laughter and love and full-grown adults acting like children because why the hell shouldn’t they? Why not run through a field with your arms spread wide or sprint into the sea on a freezing January morning? The fact that you are even able to is a gift that not everyone gets to experience.

He saw people he’d nurtured and cared for and taught everything he knew to. He saw boys he’d watched over and protected and had vowed never to leave even when he became a different type of guardian. One with wings. And he saw children that he loved with every fibre of his being and every nerve in his body.

“You did that,” Johnny told him.

And Taeyong’s words were drowned by the tide that suddenly gushed forwards in its eagerness to swallow Ten’s feet, so that not even Johnny heard the syllables that slipped between his lips.

“I did that.”

 

          Barely fifteen seconds after the sky started spitting on them, Doyoung was sprinting up the beach and yelling for the others to help him pack the blankets.

“He can’t be in the rain! His immune system’s shot!” he cried as Johnny finally understood and swept Taeyong into his arms, passing him to Yuta as easily as if he were a parcel at a post office.

“Take him to the car!” he ordered and Yuta began his speedy yet sturdy trek up the sand, trying to move as quickly as possible without jolting Taeyong who had his arms fastened around his neck.

There was a scrambling as everybody else bundled rugs and jackets and shoes into their arms. Doyoung stumbled, his wet feet slipping out from under him and bringing him to one knee. The sand latched itself onto the damp denim of his jeans and he swore, not even bothering to be discreet about it when he dropped his shoes for the second time.

“Do, calm down,” Taeil soothed, reaching out to help him to his feet.

The rain was thickening, bullets hardening as they pounded against their scalps and shoulders and forced them to squint through the sheet of grey that engulfed them.

“No!” Doyoung yelled, snatching up his last remaining belongings. “We shouldn’t have brought him out here! He’s sick! He’s fragile! He’ll catch his death and it’ll be all my …”

“Doyoung, look.”

Doyoung whipped around, already prepared with a snarky snap, but then he felt all the anxiety and the fear and the dread drain from his soaking body.

Yuta hadn’t even made it ten feet towards the car. He and Taeyong were standing on the sand, facing each other and gripping hands to keep the hyung standing while the rain pummelled their bodies. Taeyong’s coat was slick and shining and Yuta wasn’t even wearing one, his clothes clinging to his skin and outlining the shape of every muscle.

But they were laughing. Looking at each other and laughing. And everyone was watching in awe as Taeyong took a step backwards, slipping his fingers from Yuta’s grip. He tipped his head back to let the droplets splatter on his face, threading themselves through his hair and eyelashes and rolling down his skin.

Doyoung knew he should be panicking. He should be diving forwards, throwing Taeyong onto his back and making a desperate dash for the car.

And yet he couldn’t.

Because in this moment, Taeyong was free.

He wasn’t holding on to someone or something to keep his knees from buckling. He wasn’t hacking his guts into a trash can or crying into his pillow when he thought they were all asleep.

Because in this moment, Taeyong was alive.

The scream he sent skywards could have so easily been swept away by the wind and drowned in the torrential downpour, particularly with the weakness he had spoken with for the past few weeks, and yet his words were crystal clear, laced with every ounce of energy left in his dying body.

It was his final message to a world that had failed him when he had done nothing but serve it.  

“FUCK YOU, CANCER!”

Chapter Text

         Taeyong had fallen asleep on Yuta’s back on the return trip to the car and hadn’t even twitched an eyelid until several hours later when he was ripped from the comforts of unconsciousness by the unmistakable feeling of bile slithering up his throat.

He didn’t even have time to open his eyes before he was choking on the foul-tasting soup that spilled into his mouth. His arms were too heavy, leaden weights by his side that refused to help him and condemned him to suffocate on his own innards.

He was just starting to wonder if this was how he was going to die when a hand hooked around the back of his neck and pulled him upwards. Something hard was pressed into his chin and he emptied the contents of his body into it with his chest heaving in gratitude.

At long last, the container was retracted and Taeyong cracked his eyes open as he felt somebody sitting behind him, letting him lean against their chest while they positioned their legs either side of his body. A tissue was gently wiped across his face, sweeping up the excess vomit, and he hummed his content at the comfiness, tilting his head back to get a look at his saviour.

“Jaehyun?”

“Are you alright now?”

Taeyong blinked up at him, disorientated, before he felt a bud of guilt blossoming in his gut. He was deeply ashamed to admit that he had forgotten about Jaehyun’s existence, what with his dongsaeng never leaving his room or coming to attend to the patient like everybody else did. Taeyong had thought he’d finally packed his bags and flown the coop so as not to ‘play the dutiful dongsaeng’. He had been wrong.

“I’ll be alright when this is all over.”

Jaehyun winced at the morbid bluntness but Taeyong had already lowered his head again, his neck starting to ache from craning upwards.

“I’m so sorry, hyung …” Jaehyun whispered. “I hate myself. I really do and I can’t …”

“Shut up,” Taeyong murmured sleepily, taking hold of Jaehyun’s hand and squeezing it as hard as he could. He wished it could have been harder. “Life’s too short to fight.”

“I know.” Jaehyun’s voice was quivering but his free arm wrapped around Taeyong’s chest, his chin resting atop his hyung’s head. “That’s why I checked into rehab the same day you went back to the hospital.”

Taeyong’s eyes shot open and he looked back up, ignoring Jaehyun’s hiss of pain as his chin collided with his hyung’s head.

“You did what?”

“I had to, Tae. I couldn’t stop drinking. I was way too close to hurting somebody. I wanted to get better and then come and take care of you, just like you deserve.”

Taeyong felt tears stinging his eyes as he tightened his grip on Jaehyun’s hand. “When did you get out?”

“Today.”

When they had been at the beach. Laughing and joking. Without him.

“God, Jaehyun …”

That was where he had been all this time. He hadn’t been festering in his room like Taeyong had thought, or lounging on a balcony somewhere with his family, carefree and unburdened. He had been enduring God knows what in a fucking facility just to recover from a disease Taeyong had caused him to develop. He could have been recognised. His career could have been over if just one person had snagged his picture. 

“I needed to tell you, hyung,” Jaehyun continued and Taeyong could hear the way his heart was thudding in his chest and his shoulders were quivering with barely-concealed sobs.

“I needed to tell you that I don’t hate you. I’ve never hated you. I just didn’t know how to cope with the thought of losing you and it just got out of control and I’m so … so … so sorry. I wish I could take it all back. I wish it was me who got sick instead of you. You’re the only one who knows how to deal with things. You always know how to help Hyuck when he’s relapsing and Sicheng when he wants to speak and you saved Renjun and you stopped me killing Yukhei and no one else comes even remotely close to …”

“Jae, stop.” Taeyong was too tired from the day’s activities to speak over a whisper. But Jaehyun still sputtered to a halt obediently, hiccupping through his devastation.

Taeyong reached up blindly, unable to see what he was doing, and his wandering hand found the side of Jaehyun’s face, cupping his bony fingers against the warm cheek and brushing away the tears.

“I knew you didn’t mean it,” he breathed. “And I am so happy that I got to see your face again. Even in all its ugliness.”

Jaehyun choked, his laugh bubbling up his throat to congregate with his tears.

“I love you,” he sobbed and Taeyong smiled weakly.

“I love you more.”  

 

Just when Taeyong thought he could finally succumb to the sleep he was craving once more, everybody came filtering into the living room, laughing and cooing at the way Jaehyun cradled him against his chest.

“Wha’s going on?” he muttered in irritation. “’M tired.”

“I know, baby,” Johnny replied as he flopped down beside them and kissed Taeyong’s temple, ignoring the grunt of disapproval at the pet name. “But the Dreamies are on Live TV in five minutes and if I recall correctly, you promised Chenle you’d watch.”

Taeyong made a non-committal noise of consent, shuffling himself slightly higher on his human pillow as he pried his eyelids apart, groggily picking at the sleep dust crystalised in his lashes. Johnny was right. He had promised.

Once they were all settled in various places around the room – some snuggled up against Taeyong or with their heads resting on his legs, and some draped over chairs and sofas – Sicheng turned on the TV. A cheer rang out around the room, accompanied by Yukhei’s hollering, as they watched Mark leading the Dreamies up onto the stage.

“So cute!” Kun cried as Jisung came out last, the maknae’s jaw dropping open at the sheer volume of their audience.

Taeyong wanted to cry. He had never felt pride like this. And the tears surfaced because he knew there was so little time to feel more of it. So he watched and he cried and he smiled as the boys – his boys – joked with the host, taught him some dance moves he had no idea how to replicate, played games that shattered the language barrier and had them all in hysterics, and finally, they introduced their grand finale.

“We wanted to perform a song tonight that we haven’t officially released,” Mark explained in his flawless mothertongue and a ripple of excited murmurs circled around the audience, both in the TV studio and in the living room. “It was written and is going to be performed by one of our youngest, Chenle.”

“Did anyone know about this?” Johnny asked, looking around at the others with a perplexed expression on his face. They all shook their heads and Taeil shushed him so they could return their attention to the screen.

“There’s somebody very, very special to us back at home in Korea,” Mark continued and, behind him, Renjun was looking at the floor as if to hide unwelcome tears. “And we pray he’s listening to us right now and we want to tell him that we love him more than anything.”

Taeyong reciprocated the squeeze Jaehyun gave his hand, his watering eyes fixed on the television screen as Mark looked right into the camera.

“I’m listening,” he whispered.

“This is called …” Chenle stuttered in his broken English, occasionally looking to Mark for conformation that he was doing a good job. “’For My Hyung’.”

There was a smattering of endearing ‘ahhhs’ from the audience and Yukhei gave a long, low whistle as all eyes turned on Taeyong. He didn’t lift his gaze from the screen, granting Chenle his full undivided attention as the kid took the stage.

He looked so tiny behind the microphone stand all on his own and his hands were trembling but a nervous grin stretched across his face when the crowd gave him an encouraging cheer and Donghyuck yelled “Chenle, fighting!” from the wings.

Chenle took a deep breath, closed his eyes, brought his hands up to the stand, opened his mouth and released the most beautiful sound Taeyong had ever heard. It washed over him, a seed of warmth planting itself in the centre of his chest and slowly permeating through his body until it touched every part of him.

It was like floating. Like arms were encircling him, embracing him in their comforting touch and gently lifting him, leading him away from the pain and the sickness and the cancer.

He felt safe with his back against Jaehyun’s chest, listening to the sound of a steady heartbeat. A strong and healthy heartbeat. He felt loved with Johnny sitting beside him, one hand on his arm with long fingers squeezing in excitement. He felt proud with Ten’s head on his thigh, watching the boy laughing at the TV screen with so much happiness and freedom and life.

And when Chenle sang, staring right down the camera so that he and his hyung could share this moment together, Taeyong felt that it was alright. That he’d done well. That he’d done enough. 

So he looked up at the glow-in-the-dark stars. He listened to Chenle’s words. He cried. And he smiled.

 

Dear Hyung

I used to want to be just like you

And I told myself I’d always try to

But at some point I gave up

I’m out here living my life while you’re laid up

The cancer’s really got you weighed up

And even though it’s ravaged your body, it hasn’t taken your heart

But there are times, even now, I can tell it shakes you hard

And to be honest, it shakes us too

I remember whispering to Mark-hyung at night, “what should we do?”

We could hear you crying in the other room

He’d just tell me not to worry, that’s what big brothers do

The doctors gave you four months

And somehow you tried to push through

I used to want to be just like you

But that was before I realised I’m nothing like you

The smallest battles are hard for me to fight through

You’re a warrior, I’m an amateur, I’m no match for you

You carry the weight of responsibility and disease

But you’ve never let it take you to your knees

I used to look to God for help, I’d beg and I’d plead

I’d ask him to heal you, “please, God, please”

But still the cancer just wouldn’t leave

And every day I go without pain, I remember you don’t

And when I think about living to be an old man, I’m reminded you won’t

And I don’t know how much time I have left with you

But sometimes it’s hard for me to even speak to you

I mean, honestly? I just want to hug you

I’m not here trying to make you proud of me

I love you and I hope you can see that you did this for me

Every performance I give and chorus I lead 

You’re responsible for the best in me

But I know too well that the best of me isn’t all that’s left of me

I carry a lot of pain, not physically like you, but emotional and blue

It’s like I can’t help but think I should have had that disease and not you

But then again, it would have crippled me, I’m not as strong as you

But why is it that my hyung has to battle this demon to death?

I promise if this disease was visible, I’d cut off its head

I hate cancer but even I know this: life isn’t always sunshine and roses

If I could push back the waters you’re drowning in

I’d split the ocean like Moses

And you’d land on dry ground and you’d be pain-free

I want you to know it was your example that raised me

And everything good in me, you gave me

I could have made a billion mistakes but it was you who saved me

And I hope to at least be half the man you are

Because I know being just like you would be too hard

 

In the TV studio, there was a standing ovation that lasted at least two minutes. In the living room, there was silence that was finally broken by Taeil’s soft and barely audible: “God, Chenle.”

Johnny swiped at the tears in his eyes and turned to Taeyong, reaching out to take his leader’s hand. He found himself smirking as he saw the boy’s head resting back against Jaehyun’s chest, his eyes closed and his expression peaceful.

“You fell asleep,” he chuckled, tugging the blankets a little higher up Taeyong’s body. “Typical.”

All the others were distracted by their infinite love for Chenle as they finally broke out of their stunned stupors and leapt to their feet to give their own standing ovation that nobody but they could see, jumping up and down and shouting about how awesome their little brother was.

“Hey, Jaehyun, we’ll have to find it on YouTube for him later,” Johnny said as he flicked his gaze up to Jaehyun’s face. “Jaehyun?”

Something was wrong.

Jaehyun was crying. They all were. But Jaehyun was crying.

Pearls of glistening grief were cascading down his cheeks as he hugged Taeyong to him, staring at the TV screen with eyes that were blank and lifeless and filled with something terrible.

“He’s alright,” he whispered.

“Jaehyun?” Johnny repeated blankly, uneasiness beginning to bubble up in his chest. He didn’t understand what was making Jaehyun act so bizarrely. This was a happy moment. A proud moment.

“He’s alright now.”

Johnny’s heart began to race as he reached out for Jaehyun’s shoulder. The fear was starting to set in, churning the blood in his veins as it turned them to ice.

“Jaehyun, talk to me. What’s …?”

His eyes drifted down to Taeyong and then some part of him just knew.

The world had already felt different. It had already felt empty and meaningless and insignificant and only now did he understand why. Because, after all, it had just ended.

It no longer spun on its axis, displaying every angle of itself so the entire galaxy could admire the miracle that it was. The birds no longer sang, cooing their sweet serenade to welcome the morning sun. The world had ended.

So why was everything still moving? 

There were tear tracks on Taeyong’s cheeks, a snail trail of his fossilised happiness clinging to his skin. His lashes brushed a feather-light touch against their final resting place, concealing those beautiful eyes from the view they so deserved but would never again receive. His lips that had uttered a hundred encouragements, a thousand rallying calls, a million declarations of love and pride, were curved at the edges.

Jaehyun finally looked up at him and pressed a quivering finger to his lips as more tears forged fresh paths down his face. Johnny understood.

The others didn’t know. The others were still laughing and nudging each other and hollering at the TV screen. Their world hadn’t ended yet. It would. But for now, it was still turning and they were still living.

Taeyong wasn’t.

Taeyong had left that world the same way he had lived in it: surrounded by his members with a smile on his face.

Chapter Text

          Johnny told them before they could find out for themselves. If anyone was going to bring the sky crashing down, he owed it to them to do it himself.

But he watched them for a few more moments, letting them have these final seconds of euphoria where they cheered Chenle and laughed at each other’s tears and rocked back and forth on the floor with their arms latched around each other.

He pressed his lips to Taeyong’s scalp and squeezed the lifeless hand before he cleared his throat as loudly as he could without revealing the sobs he was desperately trying to keep at bay.  

“Guys …” They didn’t hear him. “Guys!”

Silence fell, still smattered with occasional hiccups as the laughter subsided into confusion at the sight of Jaehyun clinging to a motionless boy with white skin and no breathing motion.

Johnny opened his mouth without having even decided on what he was going to say. What words did you use to deliver the worst news any of them would ever hear?

“It’s over.”

So many things were over. An era. A life. A legacy. But also pain. And suffering. And misery. And waiting for the end.

“Tae’s not going to hurt anymore.” 

There was a moment where nobody understood before the realisation slowly dawned on each face, one after the other. Johnny watched each one of them crumple and break right in front of him and he had no words of comfort to offer because he himself was already shattered inside.

Ten was the first to buckle. His eyes shot to his leader and once they had confirmed that there was no soul within the broken shell that Jaehyun held, his knees gave out and he crashed to the carpet with a choked cry of agony. He brought his hands up to his face, pressing them against his nose and mouth as though he could somehow fashion an oxygen mask with his own fingers.

Doyoung crouched down beside him, his hands scrabbling clumsily over the younger’s body until he finally pulled him into a hug. His gaze never left Taeyong but he showed no emotion. He looked blank and numb in the silence he lapsed into, letting Ten sob into his chest as he absently stroked his dongsaeng’s hair.

It took a few seconds of processing before Kun joined the miniature huddle, engulfing both Doyoung and Ten in his arms and shifting himself so that his body blocked Doyoung from staring at Tae’s corpse. He cried too, but it was silent and reserved with his eyes closed and his face tilted back towards the ceiling where the stars continued to give off a pathetically-faint greenish glow.

Yukhei turned away from the scene and staggered to the wall. He pressed one arm against the paintwork and leant his forehead against it, shoulders heaving and free hand fisted in the thin fabric stretched over his chest. His breathing sounded like metal grating against metal as he slowly lost his grip on sanity and collapsed into the corner to curl in on himself.

Yuta caught Johnny’s eye from where he stood clutching at the sofa armrest as though he might cease to exist without its contact. There was a silent and infinitely teary exchange before Yuta staggered sideways, his trembling legs failing to make it to Yukhei before he lost sensation and fell. Choking down a sob, he crawled the rest of the way, gently laying his hands on Yukhei’s shoulders and starting to talk him through the panic attack.

Sicheng’s reaction was arguably the most painful to watch. He shuffled towards Taeyong until he was close enough to reach out and place his hands either side of his leader’s face. There was a moment of heartbreaking acceptance that flickered in his eyes before he leant forwards and kissed Taeyong’s forehead. He whispered something in Chinese that Johnny could neither hear nor understand but the sentiment was clear when Sicheng settled down to lie with his head on Taeyong’s stomach.

Taeil was standing by the door, staring at the scene in front of him, and as Johnny watched him, he realised that the eldest wasn’t blinking or moving or breathing. He wondered if Taeil was trying to mimic Taeyong, as though they could communicate on some spiritual level of unconsciousness, or as though he just wanted to join the leader in his peaceful bliss. His mouth hung open, his eyes held no spark and he looked just as lifeless as his best friend.

Johnny didn’t realise he had been watching the others so intently, desperately trying to analyse their mental stability, until he heard the front door open and then slam shut. Only then did he process that Jungwoo was no longer in the room.

He scrambled to his feet, trying to ignore the fact that the second he had let go of Taeyong’s hand, his arm had flopped lifelessly back to the floor. He staggered forwards, willing his feet to obey his commands, until he almost crashed into Taeil.

“Hyung …” he whispered, clutching at Taeil’s face in an attempt to get the boy to at least look at him. “Hyung, come back to me … Hyung, please!”

He slapped him.

He wasn’t responding so he slapped him and he knew as soon as he’d done it that he was going to be in for a world of pain but all Taeil did was lift his sluggishly slow gaze to meet Johnny’s.

“Be strong …” Johnny pleaded, giving Taeil a gentle shake as he fisted his hands in his hyung’s collar. “Just a little longer … Be strong …”

He didn’t wait for a reply before he was bolting out the front door after Jungwoo, not even bothering with shoes or a coat because he knew that Jungwoo had neither and if they were going to freeze to death in the darkness then at least they would do it together.

There was a numbness to his bones and he couldn’t tell whether it was from the cold that seemed to be penetrating his every pore or whether it was from the inability to comprehend that his best friend no longer breathed. He found himself wondering how long it took for hypothermia to set in but he was thankful for the frost that seemed to gift his feet with an immunity to rocks and shards of broken glass.

The stars were out, giving him cheeky winks – mocking him – from their place in the inky void above. He wanted to count them. To see if there was one more than there should be, but he knew it was absurd. He had one job to do: find Jungwoo and get him home.

Then, and only then, could he fall apart.

 

He acquired his target just as he reached the main road.

Jungwoo was standing with his toes touching the tarmac, staring blankly as the traffic soared past him. Johnny approached slowly, not wanting to spook the kid without knowing his true intentions for standing so close to such a threat.

He joined him where he stood, allowing their shoulders to press against each other as the metal monsters seemed to be swallowed up by the darkness as quickly as they were spat out. There were people inside them, Johnny thought. People who had no idea what kind of tragedy had just occurred. People who were just continuing on their journey, gifted with a blissful ignorance, and sheltered from the storm that was ripping him apart from the inside out.

“Jungwoo-ah, we have to go back,” Johnny said at last. He had long since lost feeling in his fingers and toes and briefly wondered if they were even still attached to his body.

“I don’t know how to do this.”

Johnny turned his head, winding his arms around himself to try and squeeze some warmth into his body. “Don’t know how to do what?”

Jungwoo was still staring at the traffic with a kind of enthralled longing, as though he wished he could just dash right into the midst of danger and let it flatten him into the ground. Johnny reached out a tentative hand and snagged it on the younger boy’s T-Shirt, just to be safe.

“I don’t know how to be this person. I don’t know what to do. Are you supposed to cry? Scream? Smash stuff up? Do we start planning the funeral? Do we call the kids? Do we post a memorial on Twitter? I don’t how to deal with this, hyung. Should I sit at the window and stare at the trees until I turn to stone? Should I stop eating and sleeping while everyone tries to force feed me and get me to pop pills? People do that, right? Should I pretend everything’s okay and shut everyone out until I snap and go on a psychotic killing spree like they do in the movies?”

Johnny stared at him. Heartbroken didn’t even begin to describe it. He wanted to cry but it was too cold. His tears would freeze the second they left his eyelids. Jungwoo looked so lost and confused in his shirt and shorts, bare feet scratched from the twigs on the ground and caked in mud.

“And why does it hurt so much?” he continued, suddenly clutching at his chest so tightly that his knuckles began to turn white. “I feel like I’m dying but I’m not. I’m alive but he’s not. And I don’t understand why. Why does nobody tell you why?”

He finally turned his gaze from the traffic and lifted it to Johnny’s face.

“I just want to know why,” he whispered so softly that he was almost drowned out by the sound of the cars zooming by. “Why did he get sick when he was so good? Why did he have to go when he’d done nothing wrong? Why does it hurt so much when I’m so fucking healthy? And it’s so dark, everywhere is just black because the sun’s never going to shine again because the most incredible person in the world isn’t … in the world anymore and no one can ever dance or play football or eat an ice cream because he doesn’t get to anymore and I feel like I’m never going to be happy again.”

By now, he was hyperventilating, reaching out with trembling hands to clutch at Johnny for stability. “I miss him. He only just left and I already miss him. How is that possible? How do I already miss him when he was here just a moment ago? How is he gone when he was only here a moment ago? It was a good day. We went to the beach, we had fun, Chenle was singing and then he was just gone. Just like that. I didn’t even say goodbye. I should have said goodbye. Why didn’t I say goodbye? Why didn’t I tell him I love him? We always do that, every night. So why didn’t I do it tonight? I didn’t tell him I love him.”

“Jungwoo …” Johnny choked, shivering from head to foot as he gripped Jungwoo by the elbows, afraid that if he let go, he would watch the boy combust into nothingness.

“And why can’t I say his name, hyung? Why can’t I say his name? I can’t do it! What does that make me, hyung? Does that make me a bad person? Should I say his name? I should, shouldn’t I? He deserves that. I owe it to him to say his name but I can’t. And it hurts. It hurts so much. Hyung, please make it stop hurting. Hyung, please … Hyung, I can’t breathe … Hyung, I think I’m dying … Hyung, help me …”

His knees finally gave out and Johnny went with him, both of them splashing into the mud that was still fresh from the rain only hours previously. Jungwoo was scrabbling at his chest, his teeth chattering so violently that his words were no longer coherent. His eyes were snapping from side to side, unable to focus on anything in the pure panic that overtook his body.

And Johnny found that for the first time in his life, he didn’t have a clue how to help. He just took Jungwoo’s face in his hands, forcing his head up so that their noses were inches apart, watering eyes mirroring each other in their shared grief.

“I’m here,” was all he could think of. “I’m right here. I’ve got you.”

He wanted to tell him that it would be okay. But that was a lie. There was no way they were going to recover from this. The brightest star had been ripped from the constellation and without it to complete the picture, they were just a jumble of disconnected dots without any idea how to put themselves back together again.

“I want Taeyong-hyung!” Jungwoo suddenly wailed, burying his face in Johnny’s chest as the elder ran numb fingers through his hair.

“Me, too.”  

Chapter Text

          Jungwoo had finally succumbed to unconsciousness, or at least a catatonic state where his eyes remained open but he neither responded nor acknowledged Johnny’s existence. Johnny didn’t know whether he preferred that to the hyperventilating or not.

Yuta and Taeil were sitting on the bottom of the stairs when he finally stumbled through the door, frozen to the core with a virtually hypothermic Jungwoo slung on his back. They looked up at him with matching expressions of exhausted, puffy-eyed grief, heads resting against each other and hands interlocked.

“He needs a hot bath,” Johnny finally said and Yuta nodded with lifeless obedience as he used the bannister to pull himself to his feet. He looked far too tired for a man so young.

“I got him,” he muttered as Johnny helped shift Jungwoo into the other’s grip before Yuta trudged towards the bathroom, head hanging low and movements slow and sluggish.

The sound of the taps running drifted down the corridor and the two eldest remained silent, listening to a sound they heard every day and yet tonight it felt so wrong because the universe was now void of its brightest light and therefore darkness was the only component it could possibly hold. Everyday sounds had no meaning anymore.

“Where …?” Johnny croaked, startling himself with the roughness to his voice.

“They’re upstairs,” Taeil supplied hollowly, dissociated gaze fixed on something that no longer existed. “I put them in my room. They’ve said their goodbyes. But Jaehyun …”

Johnny glanced up from behind his greasy, tangled fringe that he had neglected to trim for far too long.

“Jaehyun won’t leave.”

“Okay,” Johnny whispered, already preparing himself for what he had to do. Already readying the tools he needed to put yet another broken brother back together despite nobody seeming to notice that he was crumbling to dust too. “Okay.”

He gave Taeil a squeeze on the shoulder before he pushed open the living room door.

Jaehyun was exactly where he’d been when Johnny had left to look for Jungwoo. His eyes were still unfocused and his arms still encased Taeyong’s empty shell but he wasn’t crying anymore and his fingers were gently combing through the greasy hair of the bundle he held.

“Jaehyun …” Johnny began, fighting the urge to turn around, run right out the front door and lie down in the middle of the road.

“I know,” Jaehyun interrupted without faltering in his absent hairdressing.

“Jaehyun …”

“I know!” His voice cracked and his eyes glazed over but he ploughed on regardless. “I know that I’m holding his body because I felt the moment he stopped breathing. And I know that nothing and no one is going to bring him back to me but I can’t let him go. Because as soon as I do, they’re going to take him away and put him in a box in the ground where it’ll be dark and cold and he’s going to stay there on his own forever with no one to hold him or stroke his hair or tell him he’s loved and he won’t be able to see the stars anymore so I know that I have to let him go but I … can’t.”

Johnny looked up at the solar system stuck to the ceiling, a pathetic and unrealistic model of the real thing and he found himself wishing, not for the first time, that it had been him with the poison blossoming in his brain.

Why had it had to have been Taeyong?

Taeyong was the one person who would have known what to say, what to do, who to call and how to feel. And Taeyong was the one person who wasn’t here.

Except he was, because Jaehyun was holding him right there on the floor. But it wasn’t Taeyong anymore. It was just a fingerprint, a clear sign that he had existed but was now long gone.

And then Johnny knew what he had to do.

“Jaehyun,” he murmured for the third time, folding his legs underneath him as he knelt on the floor, ensuring he kept a safe distance. Jaehyun was grieving and unstable and Johnny wouldn’t have put it past him to start throwing punches.

“Please don’t let them take him from me,” Jaehyun begged, tightening his grip on Taeyong.

“Jaehyun, he’s not here anymore.”

Those words alone were enough to shatter the protective barrier Johnny had managed to put up between himself and his emotions, and he felt the long-overdue breakdown threatening to burst through and engulf him.

“He won’t be lonely or cold or scared because he’s gone. You said it yourself, that’s his body in your arms. His corpse. It looks like him but he’s not there anymore. It’s not even a shadow of what he was.”

The tears were falling thick and fast and he didn’t even know where the words were coming from but they were bringing him an inordinate amount of comfort and he could only hope they were doing the same for Jaehyun.  

“You have two choices right now, Jae. I have to call someone to come and … look after him … and you can sit here, kicking and screaming, while they physically rip him from your arms, or you can tell him how much you love him, put him down and walk out of this room with the knowledge that you were the person who got to hold him when he left us. You were the last person he touched and yours was the last heartbeat he heard and that is a memory that I would kill to have. But I don’t have it, you do. So preserve that memory, Jae, and don’t ever let anything ruin it.”  

He held out his hand, palm turned towards the ceiling where those fake plastic stars sat stuck to the surface, and his entire arm was trembling as he fought the urge to burst into hysterics.

“I got to hold him,” Jaehyun whispered, turning his head towards Johnny to reveal the tears cascading down his flushed face. “One last time.”

“Yeah,” Johnny nodded, hand still outstretched. “And now you have to let him go.”

There was a moment where Jaehyun seemed to cling onto Taeyong tighter and Johnny was beginning to worry that he would have to be true to his threat and call someone to tear his two dongsaengs apart, but then Jaehyun reached out and took his hyung’s hand.

“Okay.”

Johnny moved at once, cupping the back of Taeyong’s neck and gently pulling him forwards so that Jaehyun could climb out from behind. Only when his friend was free of the prison that he wanted so desperately to stay within, did Johnny realise that now Taeyong was in his arms, he didn’t want to let go either.

It would mean that he was acknowledging the end. But the end had already acknowledged itself and he was far, far too insignificant to contradict it.

So, as carefully as if he were handling glass, he lay Taeyong back against his fortress of pillows until his head rested on a blanket that was so alive with patchwork colours it brought out the greyness of his skin and the blueness of his lips.

He pulled the covers higher up Taeyong’s body, as though he were tucking him in, preparing him for bed. For a sleep that would never end.

He pressed his lips into Taeyong’s hair, his tears rolling down his cheeks and congealing with the strands that had been abused by years’ worth of hair dye.

“I love you so much,” he sobbed.

And then he let go.  

 

He didn’t let himself look back as he snagged Jaehyun under his arm and pulled him from the room where Taeyong’s body now lay unprotected and unloved under the phony stars he had stared at every night.

He closed the door behind him, securing the barrier between them and their leader, finalising the end.

Taeil was waiting for them and without a word, he took hold of Jaehyun’s other arm and the three of them staggered up the stairs together, sandwiched shoulder to shoulder by the narrow passageway. It would have been easier to walk single file but none of them were sure they were capable of standing without support.

When they reached the bedroom, they found that everybody else had fallen asleep. They were slumped over each other, some of them on the bed, some of them on the floor but none of them without physical contact of some kind. Almost every face was swollen and as Johnny helped Jaehyun onto the bed beside Ten, he swore he saw a tear trickle out of Sicheng’s closed eyelids.

“You have to be the leader.”

Johnny’s head snapped up, the sudden attack hitting him squarely in the chest and feeling like a gunshot.

He stood there, speechless, for half a second before he seized Taeil’s arm and dragged him out of the room, closing the door as quietly as he could behind him so he wouldn’t disturb the morbid slumber party within.

“How can you say that?” he hissed at Taeil, his heart hammering in his chest. “He’s barely … He’s barely … He only just left and you’re already trying to replace him? And with me?”

His breath hitched painfully and he turned away from Taeil’s expressionless face, interlocking his fingers behind his head as he tried to regulate his breathing and calm himself down.

“Someone needs to lead us.”

Taeil sounded so empty as he leant heavily against the corridor wall. He sounded like every emotion had been gouged out of him, leaving a wafer-thin crust in its wake.

“Someone needs to take control and make all the decisions and ensure that none of us starve ourselves or slit our wrists or get drunk and do something that we’re going to regret. We need someone to lead us, John.”

Johnny didn’t realise how heavily he was crying until he lost the ability to stand. He slid down the wall and crashed to the floor with a blatant disregard for his bones as they groaned under the sudden trauma.

He knew Taeil was right. But at the same time, the thought of doing Taeyong’s job, taking care of Taeyong’s members, playing Taeyong’s role, made him want to vomit. Up until now, he had just been a regent. But now the ruler was dead and somebody had to pry the crown from his barely-cold hands.

“You’re the oldest,” he choked, staring up at Taeil with a hint of pleading behind his tone. “You’d be better.”

“We both know that’s not true,” Taeil responded, settling himself on the floor opposite Johnny’s trembling figure. “You worked magic with Jungwoo and Jaehyun even though this is probably the worst night of our lives. If you can do what you did when you’re grieving as much as you are, imagine what kind of leader you’ll be once we’ve had time to start recovering.”

Johnny fisted his hands in his hair, pressing his forehead into his knee and clamping his lips together in an effort to silence his sobs. To have everyone sleeping after the discovery they had made was a miracle and if he woke them now, he wouldn’t be able to let out the grief that was clawing at his chest.

“I can’t be Tae,” he coughed out, swiping his hand under his nose to collect the snot that was trickling onto his top lip, probably making himself look incredibly ugly. “No one can ever be Tae.”

“And no one’s asking you to,” Taeil said flatly. “But if Tae were here, he’d want somebody watching over us. And that someone is you, John. We both know it.”

Johnny tilted his head back until it hit the surface behind him, screwing up his face as the tears rolled freely down his cheeks. He wanted to kick the wall that faced him, planting his bare and filthy feet into the plaster until he punctured a hole. He wanted to scream until his throat tore in two and his tongue fell out of his mouth.

He wanted to hurt like Taeyong had. He wanted to suffer like Taeyong had. He didn’t want to live in a world where Taeyong was nothing but a watermark, a name on a headstone or a frozen image in a photograph. He wanted somebody to hold him like he had held so many people over the past few weeks, listening to their confessions of fear and grief and drying their tears with love and compassion.

He didn’t want to be alone anymore.

“Help me …” he whispered.

And Taeil launched himself across the corridor to wrap him in his arms.

And Johnny clung to him like his life depended on it as he sobbed silently into his hyung’s shoulder.

And they held each other until it hurt but even then they didn’t stop because they were already experiencing a pain that compared to no other and with every passing moment, that pain built and built and built, and the only thing that seemed to eliviate a tiny thread of it was to hold each other.

Hold each other and cry. 

Chapter Text

Something I never thought would happen happened. 

I got plagiarised. 

I've just found out that a person who has commented on my story multiple times, leaving really kind thoughts and compliments, has taken my storyline, changed it to BTS and has posted it on their own account. The plot is identical. Exactly identical and I find myself at a complete loss for what to do.

There is no mention of me or my work in the notes of this story even though I know that it's mine.

I am not angry at this person. If they read this, I want them to know I'm not angry but I have reached out to them and I'm hoping they will respond because I feel like I need to talk to them about what they've done. I think I should be flattered that they enjoyed it but at the same time, I would have liked them to ask permission and at least say that their story took inspiration from mine.

Until they message me, I'm not going to be posting anymore chapters. I'm really sorry but I have no idea how to deal with this.

If anyone can help me or counsel me on what to do, please, please, please leave a comment because I've been in tears all night not wanting to make a big deal out of this and it's tearing me apart. 

Again, I'm so sorry for disappointing you all, but if this person ignores my attempts to reach out to them, I'm seriously going to consider taking this story down.

Thank you for your understanding. 

I hope you have a good day and I'm sorry one more time.

Andi xxx

Chapter Text

People. I have no words. I always thought words were something I was good at but right now, I am useless.

I got plagiarised yesterday and although it may sound silly to some people, I felt absolutely shattered. I sat in the corner of my room with tears streaming down my face, reading this person’s story over and over and wondering why this was happening to me.

I read through all the comments it was getting and it just broke me into even tinier pieces even though I couldn’t explain why. And I felt terrible because I thought that I had to be thankful to this person for liking my story enough to post it on their own account. I also worried that I was making a big deal out of nothing because, after all, the work has been re-worded and it’s just the plot that remains identical.

I thought I would have to take down this story and it means the world to me. I worked on it for months, I suffered through it but I also enjoyed it and as I’m posting it, I feel like I grew so much as a writer because of it.  

So I made a post, hoping that somebody would help me decide what to do. I expected maybe one or two replies telling me to report it or contact the other author or just pull myself together and get over it. Instead, I was absolutely blown away. So much so that I have decided to keep these two chapters because they were so touching.

You people fought for me like crazy. You contacted me privately to talk me step by step through what you thought I should do. You gave me your opinions and advised me as best as you could. You sent me the most amazing comments that filled me with warmth and made me smile so wide and you really saved me. I can’t tell you what that means but please know that you did.

Whenever idols or celebrities say that they love their fans, I always thought “well, you don’t know them so how can you really love them?” but now I understand. And no, I am not arrogant enough to call you guys fans but I now know what it feels like to have people supporting you with everything they have even though they’ve never met you before.

I wish I could say thank you to each of you in person but I can’t so here are just an infinitesimal amount.

Ryn, you are my hero. Truly, honestly, you are. 

Tsubaka1021, if you’re reading this, you were the only person I could think of to contact and you responded within moments. Thank you.

Lowkey_yoonmin, please adopt me. I love you.

Luzalluria, there are not words for what you did. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

K_Rene17, your comments really hit me hard. I am so sorry about your work that was plagiarised but how you told me you coped with it really left an impact. Because of you, I will continue to make things that I love and will always try to look for the silver lining.

There are so many more and those are just a few but to all of you, thank you so much. Even if you didn’t comment, thank you for reading my story and for liking my story enough to stick with me through my teenage meltdown.

The situation has now been resolved by myself and the author in question. She admitted her mistake and apologised and I forgave her because, come on, life's too short. In addition, she is younger than I am and I'm 15 so SHE'S YOUNG. I've spoken to her, we've said all we needed to say and there are no hard feelings left so, even though I know no one here would ever do such a thing, please don't go after her. She has redeemed herself.

 

Thank you, guys, for all the love and support. The next chapter will be up on the 6th. 

Andi xxxx

Chapter Text

           “This is probably going to be the hardest conversation I will ever have,” Doyoung murmured as he sat with his shoulder pressed up against Kun’s in the VIP airport room.

He almost chuckled. He didn’t know why. None of his emotions seemed to be up to par with expectations these days.  Everyone seemed to be waiting for him to snap and hurl a frying pan across the room or break down crying in somebody’s arms. But it just hadn’t happened. And he didn’t know why.

“We’ll do it together,” Kun told him.

Kun had cried. Kun had cried plenty. No one was judging Kun for his actions. Crying was apparently good. Crying meant you weren’t dead inside. Doyoung didn’t think he was dead but he definitely wasn’t alive. He was just eating, sleeping, planning the funeral, surviving.

The two of them sat there in silence until the door was flung open and the sombre atmosphere was suddenly thrust into one of joy and excitement as a stream of boys came bouncing into the room with simultaneous cries of greeting.

Doyoung painted a smile over his face and forced a spring into his step as he leapt off the sofa and wrapped his arms around Donghyuck, lifting him off the ground and spinning him round. It was the last time in a while they were going to hold each other like that.

He reached out and grabbed Jisung, pulling him under his arm while, behind him, Kun was fawning over Chenle, Renjun and Jeno.

But Mark and Jaemin didn’t surge forwards like the others. They stood back and watched the heartfelt reunion with identical expressions on their faces. Doyoung couldn’t identify if they had a name but he knew what they meant.

He caught Mark’s eye over the top of Jisung’s head and there was a silent exchange, a moment where a message was transferred through a gaze that spoke a thousand words. And all of them were devastating.

Doyoung saw the moment his dongsaengs broke. Mark turned away from the sight of his members jumping up and down in their excitement to share their adventures and took great fistfuls of his own hair. When Jaemin put a hand on his shoulder, he shook it off roughly and threw himself into the corner of the room to shrink into a ball and bury his face in his hands.

Despite the rejection, Jaemin sat beside him. He didn’t initiate contact but he didn’t allow his friend to be alone. Jaemin knew what he was doing. Jaemin had done it before.

Doyoung didn’t realise Chenle had been talking until he felt a tug on his sleeve. He looked down into the round innocent eyes of a child whose world was about to collapse around him.

“How’s Taeyong-hyung?”

Doyoung froze up. He had volunteered himself to be the one to deliver the news and he had practised the words he would say until he could write them in his sleep, but in that moment when he had five horrifyingly young faces staring up at him in hopeful expectation, he couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

Kun saw the rabbit-in-the-headlights expression on Doyoung’s face and he took the situation into his own hands.

“Guys, why don’t we sit down?” he said, sinking into a chair and pulling Renjun onto his lap, fastening his arms around the skinny waist.

The others followed his lead, lowering themselves onto leathery cushions with expressions of dread dawning on their faces.

“Hyung, wh …?” Jeno started, his skin visibly paling with each passing minute.

“We took Taeyong-hyung to the beach,” Kun began, resting his chin atop Renjun’s shoulder and reaching out to snag Jisung’s hand, squeezing the tense fingers tightly. “He loved it. He was laughing and joking and smiling and it was the greatest day.”

No one spoke. Everybody already knew where the conversation was going. They just needed Kun to utter the words before it hit. Properly, painfully hit.

“Then we watched you all on TV and he was smiling so wide, guys. He was so proud.”

He paused. He felt Renjun trembling on his lap and he saw Jaemin and Mark curled up together in the corner of the room, Mark’s violently shaking body wrapped around Jaemin’s terrifyingly rigid one. Doyoung was still standing, gaze fixed on the floor and an absent look on his face.

“Then he closed his eyes. He just … he just went. He closed his eyes, he fell asleep and just went. And then he wasn’t in pain anymore.”

No one moved. For an eerily long time, no one moved. It felt like somebody had pressed the stop button and they had all just shut down like robots with their battery lives at an end. Like Taeyong had been their power source but their spark had died with him.

Just when the silence was beginning to drive Kun to the point of insanity, Chenle spoke up. His voice was barely even a whisper, almost inaudible, and he didn’t look up from the loose thread in his jeans as his tears painted a polkadot pattern on the denim.

“He heard me though … right?”

Kun faltered, his mind racing as he tried to understand what Chenle was asking. “Lele … I don’t …”

“My song,” Chenle clarified thickly, like he was speaking through a mouthful of cotton wool. “Did he hear my song?”

Kun raised his eyes to Doyoung who remained an emotionless statue in the middle of the room, and when he didn’t receive his friend’s attention, he realised that he was completely and utterly alone. And it broke him.  

Because the truth was, they genuinely had no idea whether or not Taeyong had heard Chenle’s lyrical message drifting through the speakers from half the world away. The only person who knew the exact time his soul had left his body was Jaehyun, who hadn’t spoken since that night, and therefore they had no way of knowing the truth.

But as Kun looked at Chenle – that little boy in the oversized hoodie with the NEW YORK baseball cap – he realised that he knew exactly what he was going to say and he wouldn’t regret it for a second.

“Yes, Lele. He heard you.”

A good five minutes into Chenle’s muffled weeping, Jeno levered himself off the couch. He looked conflicted, panting harshly with his face screwed up in what appeared remarkably similar to an expression of confusion.

“Jeno …” Kun prompted, debating whether he should gently manoeuvre Renjun off his lap and reach for the other kid. “Are you alright?”

The eruption that followed proved just how not alright Jeno really was.

 

         It was nearly forty-five minutes after the start of the meeting when Johnny got Doyoung’s text.

told them

It lacked grammar and detail, both of which were pet peeves of Doyoung’s if not included correctly. Johnny could only imagine what he and Kun must have felt when they told the kids that Taeyong had died while they were laughing and joking on live TV.

u ok?

He didn’t bother to try hiding his phone as he replied. The meeting had long since lost his contribution and no one was paying him even the slightest interest. He was just insurance, only there so they could say the idols were included in the decision they were making.

His phone buzzed and he looked down, feeling his exhaustion suck another mouthful of energy from his already-brittle bones.

no

Propping his elbow on the table and resting his head in his hand, he typed a concerned reply but after seven minutes of silence, he concluded that Doyoung wasn’t prepared to elaborate.

So instead he turned his attention back to the management team that surrounded the conference table, each one with a thick file of papers in front of them, sweat glistening on their brows and hands gesticulating wildly. He honed in on the conversation and felt his blood beginning to boil and bubble within his veins.

“The internet’s blowing up and we’ve had the media snapping at our heels for days.”

“We can’t keep them in the dark much longer. We have to make a formal statement.”

“Everyone who heard that damn song knows one of them was sick and the speculation is growing more and more aggressive by the day.”

“Those kids just had to go and pull a stunt like that without consulting anyone first. Now we’ve completely lost any advantage we had over the situation.”

“We’re going to have to prepare for one hell of a backlash when this finally gets out.”

Johnny snapped. He had to. He had been straining at the seams for too long and then he just gave out.

“Someone died,” he spat into the room that stuttered into a stunned silence. They were all staring at him, as though he had spoken some unforgiveable taboo. And it only made him angrier.

“Taeyong died. Do none of you get that? Do none of you care? He died. At twenty-three fucking years old. He’s gone. He doesn’t exist anymore. And all you’re concerned with is how you’re going to cover your own asses because God forbid the media turn on you rather than mourning the loss of one of the most incredible human beings this Earth was ever lucky enough to hold.

He was the spine and the soul and the heart of this team and now he’s lying on a slab in the morgue waiting to be buried, and you have the audacity to blame those kids when all they wanted to do was tell him how much he meant to them.

So before you shove cameras and microphones in our faces and feed us lines about how we’re so grateful for the support of our company who are devotedly seeing us through recovery, let us grieve for fuck’s sake! Let us learn how to cope. Let us remember and honour Lee Taeyong because God knows you won’t.”

He leapt out of his chair with enough force to send it toppling over behind him but he ignored it as he grabbed for his phone. Every single person in that room fell mute, watching him type furiously into his keyboard. He pressed the final button, pocketed the device and raised his gaze to glower at each and every one of them.

“There,” he growled, bracing his hands on the table as he leant forwards, perfectly aware of how threatening he must look but not caring in the slightest. “Now the world knows.”

He stormed out, ensuring the door slammed appropriately behind him. He barely reached the bathroom before he lunged forwards and emptied the contents of his stomach into the toilet bowl, sobbing through the wretched heaves.

He hadn’t wanted to disgrace Taeyong’s position at that table. He hadn’t even wanted to take it in the first place but he had agreed for the sake of his team and now he had brought shame on Taeyong’s legacy. He didn’t deserve the crown.

“I miss you!” he wailed into the cubicle, his broken voice reverberating off the walls with perfect acoustics. It would sound beautiful if he sang. “I miss you so much!”

Back pressed against the wall, face flushed and dripping with something that he couldn’t identify as tears, sweat or vomit, he fished his phone from his pocket and stared at the Tweet he had just posted on their NCT page.

It was a picture of Taeyong. It wasn’t the best one but it had been the first he could find. He couldn’t remember when it had been taken but he could still hear the joyous laughter that bubbled up Taeyong’s throat when the shutter had clicked. He would never hear that laughter again.

And underneath, he had told it how it was. He had been blunt and brutal and truthful but it was better than anything those lunatics in the conference room would have come up with.

This is Johnny from NCT. I’m devastated to reveal that our beloved friend and leader, Lee Taeyong, passed away on the evening of January 11th, surrounded by his members, after being diagnosed with brain cancer in late November. Taeyong loved each and every one of his fans dearly and he will be missed more than words could ever express. We are sorry for the shocking news and hope you can understand that our artists need time to grieve and recover. Thank you.

He could have tried harder. He had more he could have included. But he didn’t know how to cram everything that needed to be said about Taeyong into 400 characters.

Everything he wanted to write wouldn’t have fit into a million.

Chapter Text

           Doyoung still hadn’t cried.

The funeral was one night away and he still hadn’t cried. The others had asked him repeatedly how he was coping, forcing fakely jovial tones into their questions to try and disguise the concern he knew was brooding inside of them. They thought he was broken. He hadn’t cried and therefore he was broken.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to. He had curled up on the floor in the shower with the water pounding against his back and tried his hardest to squeeze out even a single tear, but they had not come.

He had even tried to imitate those sobbing noises he’d heard all the others making in their rooms or just blatantly in the middle of the kitchen, but he had remained emotionless. Dead inside. Halfway to Taeyong. Who was dead through and through.

And here he was sitting on the bathroom floor again with his back pressed up against the tub, unable to cry. Yet he could still hear the faint murmurs of sobbing coming from somewhere.

He opened his eyes from their scrunching and cocked his head, trying to hone in on the location of the distress. Kitchen.

He pushed himself off the floor, using the sink for support because exhaustion was something that had taken them all by storm this past week. No one left the house unless it was Taeil going out to buy the third round of groceries that day, Johnny being carted off to another management meeting or Jeno slipping out in the middle of the night when he thought they were all asleep.

He plodded down the stairs, some part of him chastising himself for not picking up the pace when he knew that someone was crying in that kitchen. But crying had become something they were all so accustomed to that it no longer seemed to take priority over anything.

When he saw what was behind the door, he didn’t feel horror or shock or sympathy. He felt nothing. Not a hint of anything at all.

Ten was standing at the stove, wailing loudly and hideously as he poured something thick and lumpy into the frying pan. Doyoung moved closer and saw that the boy’s pyjamas were splattered with that same substance, almost as if he had tried to swim in it.  

It was painted over the walls and floor in abstract swirls and spirals that would probably have appeared in a modern art exhibition, but the true meaning was much deeper than anything that could have been stuck on a podium in a museum. Doyoung realised that the moment he identified what it was that lathered Ten from head to foot.

Pancake mix.

“Ten …” he sighed in a monotone, the only thing he seemed to be capable of producing these days. “Stop.”

But Ten didn’t stop, grabbing the spatula and trying to flip the still underdone pancake, only succeeded in furthering the mess. Another strangled sob escaped his throat as he scraped the now-unusable mix out of the pan and deposited it carelessly on the floor before grabbing for the eggs to begin another batch.

“Ten …”

“I can’t get it right!” Ten screamed at him, voice shrill and piercing and a vein bulging in his neck as he hammered the eggs against the tabletop so ferociously that they combusted in his hand. The tears only increased as creamy yellow yolk filtered through his fingers onto the floor. “I didn’t listen when he taught me and now I can’t get it right!”

He hurled a broken egg shell across the room, its flimsy crust fractioning on contact with the wall, and reached for another box. Doyoung marched forwards, grabbing him from behind and restraining his arms from their obsessive pancake-making.

“Stop,” he stated calmly, even as Ten fought against him with none of the strength he used to possess. His heart wasn’t in it anymore.

“I can’t get it right … I can’t get it right … I can’t get it right …”

Doyoung nodded in halfhearted understanding as he pulled the boy from the room, past Taeyong’s blanket bed in the living room that no one had dared to move, and towards the promise of clean clothes and a no-longer eggy odour.

“I can’t get it right …”

“Me, neither.”

 

         Ten fell asleep ninety-seven minutes later, his hair still damp from the shower and his eyes puffy from the crying, with Doyoung kneeling beside his bed as he softly hummed under his breath.

When his breathing finally evened out, Doyoung reached for his phone, intending to find some music that would keep the younger boy in his blissful state of unconsciousness for a little longer. But his finger slipped onto the wrong icon and suddenly, he was staring at Taeyong’s face.

It felt like a punch to the gut and every millilitre of air was sucked from his lungs as he found himself falling backwards against the bedside cabinet.

Taeyong’s face. Not the cancer-Taeyong’s face. Their Taeyong’s face. Grinning right up at the lens so that it almost felt like they were making eye contact. Doyoung’s thumb trembled as he reached out to press the PLAY button, already lowering the volume so that the sudden noise wouldn’t wake Ten.

He recognised his own voice behind the camera and he sounded so different. There was happiness and laughter in his tone, his younger self still innocent and unaware that the stars would go out just a few months later.

 

“Hey, NCTzens, look who I found! It’s Taeyong-hyung! Say hi, hyung!”

Doyoung chuckled as Taeyong looked up from the notebook he was scribbling in, puffed his cheeks out and waved with both hands.

“Isn’t he so cute?”

Taeyong scowled and tried to return to his lyrics but Doyoung’s disembodied hand shot out from nowhere and snatched his pen.

“No, hyung, we’re talking to NCTzens, and they want to know where you think you’ll be in ten years.”

Taeyong let out a sigh of frustration but failed to hide the upwards curve of his lips as he leant back on the sofa and folded his arms behind his head.

And when he spoke, Doyoung felt like his voice was seeping into him, permeating through his bones and spreading through his heart like ink in water. It was warm.

“In ten years’ time … I will be … Thirty-three years old.”

“You’re useless. I’m going to find Hyuck.”

“Okay! Okay! I’m sorry. In ten years’ time, I will … be taking care of fifty-nine band members. My hair will either be a colour of my choosing – hear that SM? – or I will have none at all because it will have fallen out …”

“You know I can’t air that, right?”

“Then keep it as a momento and bring it out on my fiftieth birthday to embarrass the hell out of me.”

“If I do that, you’ve at least got to be serious so we can all laugh about the things you wanted when you were still young and foetus-y.”

“Fine. In ten years … I want to have a Daesang. No … five Daesangs. And not to be greedy but a Grammy would be cool too. I want to be married and I want to have two children – a boy and a girl, a boy first so he can beat up anyone who makes my little girl cry – but I still want to be performing with NCT. Maybe not as often so I could be at home teaching my kids to cook and dance and if they want, I’ll teach them to make music and if they also want, I’ll pay for someone else to teach them sciency stuff because I will be useless, but whatever they ask from me, they’ll get it. I want to be the kind of father mine wasn’t, you know?”

“And I’ll be godfather, right?”

“Yes, both my kids will have seventeen godparents.”

“Didn’t you say there were going to be fifty-nine members?”

“Fine, they will each have fifty-nine godparents. And even if I’m not touring or performing, I will call you every day and remind you that I raised you up to wherever you will be in ten years time and that I love you even though you will probably hang up before I even get that far.”

Doyoung’s breath hitched and all of a sudden, he was whispering the words “say it back, please say it back,” over and over into the darkness.

“You’re so cringey it makes me mad.”

His heart broke.

“I know. It’s my greatest feature. So basically, I want to fall in love. I want to start a family. I want to be the person I used to lie in bed dreaming about as a kid. And I want to find my parents – wherever they are – and tell them just how well I did without them. I just … I want to make the most of it. You know what I mean? I just want to live.”

The video ended and, once again, Doyoung found himself staring down at that face frozen in an everlasting grin that held no hint of pain or misery or disease. That was still hopeful for its future as it envisioned watching its life partner walking towards it down the aisle and wrapping its children in its arms when it came home after winning a Grammy.

And Doyoung hadn’t realised just how loudly he’d been gasping for breath as gallons of water seemed to be pouring from his eyes, until Ten slithered sleepily off the bed and snuggled his face into his hyung’s shoulder.

They sat there, huddled together, staring at Taeyong’s face on the phone screen. The last trace of a person who had deserved so much better than what had been given to him.

Chapter Text

              Jeno sat on the front row of pews, feeling the presence of a hundred grieving bodies laid out behind him. His hands shook so violently that the paper he had clamped in his grip rustled reproachfully.

He had stopped listening a while ago.

They had all agreed to have a religious ceremony because they had to believe that there was someone out there who had taken Taeyong into their care, but Jeno couldn’t listen to the Bible passages about how life never truly ended or the soul lived on or something equally ridiculous. Taeyong’s life had ended and that was that.

“Jeno?” he jumped at the whisper in his ear and his head snapped to the side to see Mark looking at him through glassy eyes. He hadn’t realised the vicar’s sombre drone had ended. “You’re up.”

Jeno nodded, clearing his throat as he rose from his seat and bore all of his weight on legs that felt too thin and weak to support him. There was a considerably large part of him that desperately wanted to sprint down the aisle, burst through the doors and keep running until he collapsed in a broken heap. But there was an even bigger part of him that knew he would never forgive himself if he did.

So he stepped up to the front of the hall and turned to face the black ocean of mourners in front of him. There were rows upon rows of them but Taeyong deserved so many more.

His eyes flickered back to the paper for the umpteenth time that day and his hand reached out to rest atop the coffin by his side – with the stars painted onto the underside of the lid – as though he could somehow draw strength from the body he knew lay within.

He blinked back his tears, pulled himself together and began to speak. With each sentence he uttered, his voice became stronger until there was no longer a trace of a waver behind the words.

And he would never tell anybody, but he could have sworn he could feel the whisper of warm breath ghosting over the back of his neck.

“I think Taeyong-hyung would be surprised to see how many people came today, especially since he didn’t have the best relationship with his family, but I’m not surprised in the slightest. He started his life fresh and along with it, he made an impact on so, so many people. More than could ever fit in a room.

Johnny-hyung was supposed to be doing this but I begged him to let me. You see, I made a horrible mistake. I left to go on tour without saying goodbye to my hyung because I thought that if there was something unfinished, he wouldn’t be able to leave me. I didn’t get to say goodbye. So I am now and I can only pray with everything I have that Taeyong can hear me.  

When I found out, my first thought was that it was unfair. It seemed that the more you love someone, the more it hurts when they’re gone and I couldn’t understand why. It’s almost as if you have to pay off a debt. The more they meant to you, the more you pay and the more it hurts. And in that moment, it hurt so bad and nobody could tell me why.

So I got mad. I snapped. I forgot I was in an airport and I went crazy. I smashed some stuff, I flipped a few tables, I even punched one of my hyungs because I was so angry. And I didn’t know who I was angrier at: the world for being the way it was, Taeyong for leaving it the way he had or myself for reacting the way I did.

And so for the days that followed, I was angry and then I was depressed and then I was numb but no matter what emotion my grief presented itself as, one thing was always constant: the pain. It was so crippling that it started to drive me insane and therefore I came to an insane conclusion.

The only way to stop hurting was to stop loving Taeyong.

It was the only thing that made sense in my mind that was so riddled with guilt and self-loathing. Because how could I miss someone if I didn’t want them to return? And I tried to stop loving him but worse than that, I tried to hate him. That was my biggest sin of all.

So I cursed him when I lay in bed at night. I screamed his name at the sky when I slipped out of the dorm at 2am. I deleted all traces of him from my phone and I smashed all the pictures of him in my room and I did everything I could think of to not feel anything at all.

But you see, the more I tried to hate him, the more I realised there was nothing to hate. He made mistakes in his life, sure, but they were nothing compared to what he did for us. The kind of care and compassion and goodness he had crammed into that annoyingly-handsome body of his was enough to devour all those sins he’d committed in that past that haunted him.

Everything he did, he did for someone else. Whether he was cooking for all eighteen of us when we were too lazy to do it ourselves or risking his job to protect us from an abusive manager or sticking by my side with words of encouragement throughout my ankle recovery, he was selfless to his bones.

And as I was realising all of this, I remembered a quote from a children’s book Mark-hyung once told me about.

‘How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.’

And finally it hit me that I was trying to carve out one of the brightest influences in my life and stamp it into the ground just because I was too selfish to accept that I could no longer have it.

So instead I changed my perspective and I came to terms with the truth that I don’t have Taeyong-hyung in my life anymore but the fact that I did was a gift I wasn’t worthy of receiving. Each person in this room was lucky enough to have Lee Taeyong written in their stories. Whether he was a page or a paragraph or even just a line, he illuminated the entire novel.

So losing him was singularly the worst plot twist of my story and I didn’t think it was going to hurt that much but the pain of missing him feels like you’re up to your waist in water during a storm. It pounds against you, constantly, mercilessly, and it’s so cold and suffocating and you feel like you’re going to die.

And whenever I find one of his hoodies or I hear his name, it’s like there’s this huge wave and it crashes down on top of me and I get swept under the water. And no matter how hard you fight against it, you can’t find your way back to the surface and you can’t take a breath and your chest hurts so much from trying to keep it all in … and then your life jacket brings you back up.

Your life jacket keeps you afloat even though those waves are trying to kill you. And I am so thankful for my life jacket. I am so thankful for my friends. And I am so, so, so thankful for the time I got to spend with my hyung.

Because Alfred Lord Tennyson once said: ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.’

So, Taeyong-hyung … Tell the stars that they’d better take really good care of you.”

He staggered back to his seat and buried his face in Mark’s shoulder, finally letting his tears fall. He remained that way, ensnared tightly in his hyung’s arms, while Taeil took the microphone.

His fingers traced the engraving in the varnished wood, hand smoothing over the lid of the only thing that would ever hold Taeyong again. He raised the metal mesh to his mouth and took a shaking breath that was amplified to the entire building, before he started to sing.

 

I couldn’t say anything to you when you looked at me

No matter how many times I called you, I couldn’t hear your voice

Our love was unstoppable, you’re the one who gave me life

I can’t send you away because you’re more precious than living

Even if it hurts, it’s okay because I love you

Even if I try to forget you, I turn around and my heart looks for you

Even if I cry, it’s okay because I love you

Even if it hurts, I’ll wait for you because it’s you

There’s one person in my life who was everything in my world

And even if you cried in front of me, I couldn’t send you away

Even if it hurts, it’s okay because I love you

Even if I try to forget you, I turn around and my heart looks for you

Even if I cry, it’s okay because I love you

Even if it hurts, I’ll wait for you because it’s you

We no longer live under the same sky but I will still search for you

My heart hurts so much that my tears will not stop falling

I can’t live without you, not even for one day

I’ll love you forever until the moment I die

Because you are the person I am most thankful for

And you will forever live within my heart

Even if I cry, it’s okay because I love you

Even if it hurts, I will wait for you because it’s you

 

 

          “Hey, Nana?” Chenle asked from his spot curled up in Sicheng’s lap and Jaemin smirked at the nickname he hadn’t realised he had missed hearing.

“Yeah?”

“What’s that one?”

Jaemin followed the kid’s finger up into the velvety sky, and spotted the tiny speckle of light that seemed to blaze with more intensity than any other beside it.

“Sirius,” he responded without hesitation. “It’s the brightest star in our galaxy.”

He saw Chenle nodding his head, his cheek rubbing against the softness of Sicheng’s chest and he found his eyes roaming around every figure that sat huddled on that rooftop alongside him.

He counted seventeen heads, including his own. He wished more than anything they had all sat under the stars when there were still eighteen of them.

They hadn’t even changed out of the clothes they’d worn to the funeral. The second they’d got home, Jaemin had shoved that cabinet under the skylight and chivvied each of them up there. It was the only thing he could think of to do when none of them looked like they wanted to wake up the next morning.

“Do you know the first thing I taught Taeyong-hyung?” he murmured, indifferent to the pain that was starting to build up in his neck from staring skywards for so long. The beauty that faced him was more than worth it.

There were a few indistinct hums to indicate they were awaiting his answer.

“A white dwarf.”

The moment the words left his lips, he felt some kind of warmth blossoming through his shivering body. He had neglected to bring blankets with them but somehow, he didn’t feel like he needed one anymore.

“A red giant sheds its outer layers when it dies and they become these huge stars called white dwarves. They’re even bigger than the sun. I always thought it was beautiful, the way it gave them its energy so that they could live on even though it couldn’t.”

He felt an arm curling around his waist and Renjun’s head resting itself on his shoulder, the presence of a warm body bringing him indescribable comfort. 

“Taeyong-hyung gave us everything,” Jaemin continued, the words appearing in his mouth without a thought from his brain. Like they were coming from someone else. “He gave us what we needed and then he died. So I think … I think we should try to shine really, really bright. For him.”

Jaehyun looked over at him, his hands combing through Jeno’s hair as the kid shifted his head slightly on his thigh.

“We’re the white dwarves,” he said softly and Jaemin nodded, feeling Renjun’s smile imprinted into his shoulder.

“And Taeyong was our red giant.”

There were a few more moments where they all just sat there, feeding off each other to keep themselves grounded and taking security in the contact they had with one another. Then Donghyuck spoke up as he pulled Johnny’s arms tighter around him so he could combat the cold with the larger body.

“I’d pull every star from the sky for Taeyong-hyung,” he whispered and Johnny gave him a strong squeeze.

“Hyung wouldn’t want that.”

All heads turned to Jisung who sat alone, his arms wrapped around his knees and his eyes fixed on the constellations embedded in their inky pin cushion above. Donghyuck made a small noise of confusion but the maknae didn’t look at him.

“He wouldn’t want you to take the stars because he’d prefer it if everyone could see them.”