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Forget Me Not

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As one half of the designated parental unit line and part-time hooligan wrangler, Kihyun’s days were never boring. Sure, he had his own schedules and practice times and interests, but being the one that others could depend on gave him a certain satisfaction. He liked being needed. As long as he was there, none of the members could accidentally kill themselves in obscure and slightly hilarious ways. He liked his role in their little family unit. Especially making dinner.

 

Kihyun hums along to a Seventeen track while cutting onions, the slice of bread hanging out of his mouth flopping back and forth to the beat. A heavy weight settles itself on his shoulder.

 

“What are you cooking?” The low rumble tickles the inside of his ear. Shownu .

 

“It’s ramen. Should be done in about an hour. Maybe less.”

 

“Hm,” he chuckles, “Wonho is going to cry in excitement. I hope you’ve made extra.”

 

“Triple recipe. Just in case. I know how much you two eat.”

 

A hand snakes out in the space between his arm and his chest. “Can I have some of this?”

 

“There’s a reason I cut up fruit before making dinner.” He chides. After so many years of living together, he'd learnt a trick to prevent ShowHo from consuming their dinner before it was even cooked: distraction food. Just a little something to keep their mouths busy and hands off his things. Without even looking, Kihyun can feel the pout on his leader’s face. “Here, eat your strawberries.”

 

“But I don’t want fruit…. I wanna eat beef.”

 

“There won’t be any beef left if I let you. Here, fruit.”

 

Shownu contemplates his choices, but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he reaches out. Kihyun’s hand flies faster than his mind can interpret what’s happening. He just knows the other man’s hand is zeroing in on the cutting board to snag a piece of meat, and that he needs to stop it ASAP. The product of hypervigilance, he calls it.

 

“Ya! I told you no! Don’t eat the ingredients! Don’t do that!” He’s about to ask what in the dickens Shownu is thinking when a shaky voice calls out under the ambient noise of the kitchen.

 

“Sorry papa, didn’t mean it.”

 

His eyes dart over to Shownu rubbing his hand, looking much more vulnerable, distinctly more hurt than he did five seconds ago. There are tears forming on the edges of his eyes, and when they finally roll down his cheeks, Kihyun’s heart breaks.

Wait---

What?

What?

Before he can ask a more intelligent question, Shownu is gone. Kihyun stands in the kitchen- socks, shorts, oversized t-shirt and all- bewildered. The gears crank slowly, then pick up speed as he replays the scene in his mind, realizing what it all meant. The name, the look…. There’s only one thing he knows that fits, a term he’d heard in passing and knew just a little about. Had that really just happened? There was no way, not a chance. This was Shownu he was talking about! Their oldest, their leader. He was undeniably masculine and huge. So why the sudden change? Shownu was cute, don’t get him wrong, but he didn’t lend himself to that natural kind of baby cute that Jooheon and I.M oozed. His was more of a confused, eager puppy who would follow you around until you gave him food.

 

But….

 

That had just happened. And Kihyun had had an inkling, sure he did. But it was never anything he took seriously. It was a hope, just a passing thought whenever Shownu was doing something cute and he looked cuddly and adorable. It was a go-to answer for all the times Kihyun got the urge to wrap him up and give him kisses and make him giggle, but he never expected it to be a reality.

 

“Little Shownu….” He says to no one. The words feel odd on his tongue, but the more he says them the better it gets until he’s imagining all of the cute stuff they can do now that he knows. They could watch cartoons, doodle in coloring books, use sippy bottles (was that something he liked? Please let it be something he liked), and eat ice cream as a treat after dinner.

 

Speaking of which….

 

Shownu must’ve been hungry when he wandered into the kitchen. He hadn’t eaten much earlier, and Kihyun had chased him out of the kitchen in the worst way possible. Packing up the rest of his dignity and nerve, he pads out quietly to Shownu’s room.

 

“Nu, why don’t you come back out?” He asks softly. “You wanna tell me why you were crying, honey?”

 

No response. Kihyun grabs the doorknob.

 

“Can I come in?”

 

No response.

 

Kihyun prays to whoever is listening that Shownu won’t be mad about him walking in without verbal consent once he’s big again. There’s no telling how little Shownu is when he’s in his headspace (holy moly, a headspace! He didn't even know there was a headspace to speak of until just now!). Kihyun looks left and right before settling on the pile of blankets huddled by the foot of the bed. He’s trying to make himself as small as possible but struggling. Kihyun moves in closer.

“Hi, baby.” Shownu’s eyes grow wide as saucers at the pet name. He’ll have to remember that later. But not now! Priorities, Kihyun, get yourself together. Shownu peeks out from his fuzzy protective casing, but hides his face again when their eyes meet.

 

“Sorry papa.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize, sweetheart. You don’t have anything to be sorry about. Why don’t you sit with me out here, hm? Papa still needs to cook.” While he would love to just sit in the comfort of the bedroom, he also needs to make sure the dorm doesn’t burn down. With some struggling, he manages to coax Shownu back into the kitchen. He almost bites Changkyun’s head off when he hears him about to come out. “Will you tell me what’s wrong?”

 

“Papa mad.”

 

He curses his lack of patience internally, resolving to not be so strict now that he knows how sensitive Shownu is. God, he’d screwed up. He hadn’t meant to, he had to make up for it. “No! No, baby, never.”

 

“Not mad?” His voice is higher, softer.

 

Kihyun smiles, “I could never be mad at a precious little thing like you.” He goes to stroke the little’s (his little’s???) hair, but retracts his hand when he turns away from his touch.

 

“Too big. Not cute.”

 

“Not cute? Who told you that?” He asks. Shownu’s cheeks turn a lovely shade of embarrassment pink. “Would you sit for me? Hm? Sit for papa?”

 

Shownu sits down with a loud bang, not caring to check where he’d be landing before hurtling to the floor. He looks so cute, looking up at Kihyun with wide eyes and puffy cheeks that he can’t help but grin. “Thank you, baby. Are you hungry?”

 

A nod.

 

“Sit tight right there, I’ll feed you while I work on this. Would you like that?”

 

A vigorous nod.

 

“Ok….” Kihyun rinses off his hand so he can grab a strawberry from the emergency snack pile. He crouches down slightly to reach Shownu’s height, takes a nervous breath and moves in. “Open up, here comes the airplane.”

 

Shownu’s mouth tries to follow Kihyun’s hand as it weaves all around. Kihyun attempts to make propeller noises with limited success. He also tries to contain his uwus with even less success.

**

Getting Shownu to sleep is the easiest thing he’s ever done. He’d yelled at the rest of the hooligan brigade that dinner was done and that he and Shownu were going back to his room, no they are not allowed to make inappropriate jokes about that and no, Minhyuk is never allowed to be the designated adult, and sealed the door behind them. Little Shownu was so much more pliant when he ate. He’d look at Kihyun with each bite, looking for praise (which he was more than delighted to give). After spoon feeding him through two bowls, he’d gotten so full and sleepy that he laid down on the spot. He hadn’t moved since. Not even an inch.

 

Incredible…

 

Kihyun cocoons himself on Shownu’s bed. He doesn’t want to stray too far, just on the off chance that Shownu is still little when he wakes up tomorrow or if he has a nightmare. He falls into an easy, satisfied sleep, cozy and content with his Little beside him.

**

Shownu wakes up with a teddy bear in his arms and the sinking feeling of terror rising in his gut. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was the kind of thing that only Jooheon and I.M could pull off, and only because they were young and cute, and at least they knew when too much was too much. The last time Shownu had gone Little, he wasn’t able to make himself Big again. It had been too much, and…

And…

And it shouldn’t have happened.

 

“Good morning, baby.” A voice chirps from the doorway. Kihyun. “The others are awake. Do you want to come out and say hi?”

 

The others? They’re awake? God… did they know too? He can’t face them, not after last night. Shownu shakes his head no.

 

“Alright, we’ll let it go for now. But we’re going to have to talk to them eventually, ok?” He nods. “There’s a good boy. I’ll tell the others to clear out so you can eat in the kitchen.”

 

The pet name makes him feel hazy in a way he hasn’t for a very long time. The closest he’d come before was that time they’d made a dogpile for their photoshoot, back when they were getting ready to release The Code. They were all together.

 

Except him. They were all together in the kitchen except him, and if Kihyun chased them out, they’d know something was wrong and they’d come prying. That can’t happen, Shownu thinks as he chews on his lower lip.

 

“Or would you rather eat here?” The blush creeps across his cheeks again. Was it too much to want Kihyun all to himself right now? “I’ll be right back with some food.”

 

The smaller man gives him a soft kiss on the forehead before closing the door quietly behind him. From the down the hall, he can hear Minhyuk’s higher pitch rambling off like a runaway train. It stops for a moment, then comes back in short bursts only to stop again, this time for good. Another voice takes its place, this one deeper. It must be Hyungwon or I.M. Shownu flops back onto the bed. This was such a mess, and it was all his fault. He wasn’t supposed to become little again! The last time he’d done it was before he came to Starship. He’d almost convinced himself he didn’t need that kind of safety anymore.

Clearly you were wrong about that…. A nagging voice in the back of his head says.

 

Before he can figure out a way to save himself any more embarrassment and leave the country to become a potato farmer, Kihyun comes back in. He’s carrying two plates in one hand and a cup in the other, closing the door with his foot.

 

“Here we go. Ready? Here comes the airplane…” A forkful of pancake weaves across his line of vision, coming closer until Shownu backs away and puts his hands up in a sort of surrender.

 

“Ohmygod, Ki, I’m not little anymore.”

 

“Oh.” He says, lips together forming a small circle, “Um… Do you want me to leave?”

 

Shownu thinks for a moment. If Ki left now, he’d be stewing in his own regret.

 

“Please don’t.” He says, and like magic, Kihyun’s mood has completely changed. He looks relieved.

 

They eat in silence, Shownu eating from his own plate and Kihyun looking distinctly conflicted about not hand-feeding him. He knows that look. It's the same look he has when they're on shows and being asked to do Dumb Idol Things and he doesn't understand why. 

 

"What is it?" 

 

“Can I ask you a few questions?” He expected this, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Shownu nods. If there’s anyone he would rather talk to, it’s Kihyun. For all the loudmouthing and venom the other man could spit, he was fiercely protective of his members. He’d never do anything to hurt him. “You said you weren’t cute. Did someone say that to you once?”

 

Oh.

Oh no.

 

“I… It was a difficult time for me. I just wanted to fit in, y’know? So I tried out for swimming, made the team, made some friends. It was great… until my growth spurt hit, and I started to get more muscles from sports and working out. And then… I used to have a caregiver. A long time ago… I’m sorry, that isn’t making much sense, is it?”

 

“You don’t have to push yourself, I can sort of see where you’re headed.”

 

He wants to cry. He doesn’t deserve this. He just dumped all of this on Kihyun without warning. What if it hadn’t gone so well? Surely Kihyun resented him at least a little. Shownu can’t look him in the eyes, not after yesterday.

 

He musters up enough courage to say, “I’m sorry.”

 

A small hand rests itself on his shoulder, squeezing lightly.

 

“Shownu, you may be our leader, but we all think you’re incredibly cute. So do Monbebe! You may be big, but you’re our big, cuddly, fluffy, baby bear. And we’ll always love and support you, no matter what, ok? We love you.”

 

And now he’s being wrapped in a hug, warmer than he would expect from someone of his size, but overflowing with conviction. He forgets for a moment that he’s just revealed his deepest, darkest secret, the one he’d kept for so long. And it feels… freeing. It’s terrifying, but he feels better than he has in months. Shownu’s arms move into place around Kihyun.

 

“I love you all too.”

Chapter Text

Kihyun is getting worried.

 

It isn’t unusual for him to fret unnecessarily over his members, but he can’t help it. He loves them all so much. He wants what’s best for them, which, for Shownu, is dropping into Little space. But said Little has refused. Repeatedly. It’s been nearly three weeks since he last dropped, a month since that time in the kitchen. He leaves when kids’ shows show up on the TV. When the others start using silly voices to annoy one another, he tells them to knock it off, come on guys, in that playful yet serious voice that warns them not to toe the line. He gives Kihyun a suspicious look whenever he comes into the kitchen and is asked to taste-test something straight from the other man’s outstretched hand. And it hurts Kihyun physically, if the pain in his chest is any measure. He’s got to do something.

 

Their schedules are going to pick up again. To deny it would be foolish. They’ve survived comebacks before, sure, but now that he knows-- and now that Shownu has dropped once-- things are different. The worst part is that he’s scheduled to appear for a singing show in a week.

 

Alone.

 

It’s just for a little bit, but he won’t be there in case-- well, it’s not like he’ll drop anyway, right? No one else knows, so he won’t be comfortable being little so he won’t drop. Kihyun stops sweeping.

 

He won’t be comfortable.

 

He won’t have a choice.

 

He’s got to do something, and soon.

**

Kihyun moves along with muscle memory, not caring enough to make his movements crisp. He’s a singer, not a dancer, so the choreographers don’t mind, but they do notice how his eyes stay trained on something that isn’t there. Quietly, he runs through thousands of scenarios, picking out the possible problems.

Was there anyone he could trust enough to be a caretaker? What if Shownu got hurt? Does he tell anyone? What are the consequences of telling? What are the consequences of not?

He nearly runs into someone when they do one of those fancy position switches that looks better from above, his foot coming down hard on the studio floor.

 

“Are you ok?” A voice calls, hands helping him up. He nods. The music continues. Kihyun gets back into position, head in a daze. How had is never occurred to him that this could be exactly what he's looking for? It had been in in front of his face the entire time. He finishes the dance with fewer thoughts and what might, if he’s lucky enough, be a solution.

**

Now that he's started the conversation, he feels squeemish under the eldest member's glare. 

 

“I don’t like it.” He grumbles, glasses almost at the end of his nose. He’d caught their leader right before bedtime in the hopes that he’d be more relaxed talking about the little-caregiver arrangement.

 

This, clearly, was not the case.

 

“I know you don’t. This is all new, you don’t trust all of us. And I know-- no, hyung, you don’t have to say anything, I know you care about all of us, this doesn’t have to do anything with that. It’s about what you’re comfortable with.”

 

“You know I wouldn’t have told you if I had a choice.”

 

“I know, and that’s why I’m nervous. What if something like that happens? I know you’ve been trying to avoid the things that will make you drop, but there’s always the unknown. They’re smart kids, as much as we like to tease otherwise. They’ll figure it out eventually.”

 

He’s thinking it over, weighing one side against the other. About ten seconds later, he’s nodding slowly, then with more conviction. “You have someone in mind?”

 

“I do, actually, yes.”

 

“And you’re sure he’ll be ok with this?” Shownu whispers.

 

“I don’t know anything for sure, but he’s our best bet. And you don’t have to tell anyone else, it’s just because having two caretakers is much safer than having just one. Two is all you need, unless you want more, which we can talk about later.”

 

“Ok.” he says finally. Kihyun lets out a breath, smiling for the first time since the conversation started.

 

“Ok.”

**

For all his tomfoolery, Minhyuk could be a trustworthy guide when it came to life advice. He’d steered Kihyun more than once, bringing him back from the brink of almost disastrous situations. He knew more than he let on, and for that reason, he was the one who needed to know next. Kihyun knocks on his door once, twice, again.

 

“Hey, you have a moment?” The door opens a crack, revealing eyes unevenly blinking as they take in the sight of the smaller man. The door almost slams open.

 

“Sure! Come on in!” Minhyuk’s room has more whale plushies than usual; no doubt gifts from fans. He surrounded himself in their love when the antis got too strong or when his ability to block them out grew too weak. It must have been a tough week. Kihyun will have to keep an eye on him. “What’s up?”

 

“I need to talk to you about something sensitive. I really would have liked to keep this private, but I took a peek at the upcoming schedule and I can’t risk it.”

 

The blonde man’s arms wrap around him, his cheek pressed into his back so they don’t have to face each other. It’s a small mercy. “You can tell me anything, Kihyunnie. We’re November buddies, monfamily.”

 

“I… When I tell.. Please, just don’t say anything until I get this all out.” He takes a breath to calm himself, “Shownu has a lot of stress, we all do, what with being idols and all, but he puts himself under pressure as our leader.” Minhyuk gives a quiet hum, nodding every few seconds to encourage him. “He looks out for us on top of his own schedules. So, to relieve stress, he… likes to be Little. Do you know anything about age regression?”

 

In the blink of an eye, his head rockets up. He’s smiling. He’s smiling?  “Age regression? Yeah, I actually know a lot! Here, you can take my notes. Are you his primary caretaker? This is great, I’m glad it’s you! There are a few things you should probably know, just the basics like talking to him about his limits, the things he does and doesn’t like, just to make sure he feels safe, y’know? Of course you do...”

 

Minhyuk piles three folders and a composition notebook onto Kihyun’s lap as he rambles. His hands move in small circles like a conductor as he tries to remember what he needs. Kihyun's face is still slack. 

 

“You knew this whole time?”

 

“Me? Know? No, not a chance, I wouldn’t have expected it out of Hyung- he’s the strong silent type. I’ve seen it in other groups though. The sunshines like to talk- me, J-Hope, DK, Youngjae, some others- we keep tabs on one another just in case. We get sad sometimes in a way we don’t like talking about. Anyway, J-Hope has one in his group and was asking us. We all did our own research and then came together to share, and then we made a big master list of things everyone should know. Which you, my lucky little friend, are now in possession of.”

 

“Wait, that’s not actually what I wanted to ask you about. Have you looked at the upcoming schedule?”

 

“Yeah, we’ve got those interviews and then I head off with Shownu-hyung to Hello Counselor while I.M and Jooheon go off to the states for the rap workshop, and you go off to do I Can See Your Voice and Wonho-hyung and Hyungwon work on choreo. Why?”

 

“I’m going to be gone for a while, and I’m worried. Like… what happens if he drops and no one’s there to take care of it? He said he hadn't dropped in a long time- years, maybe. I didn't even know it was about to happen- I don't think he did either. What if he needs to drop and he can’t and it hurts him?”

 

“You wanted to ask if I would look out for him?” Kihyun nods furiously. “Have you spoken to him?”

 

“He’s less than pleased, but I told him it would be better to have two, just as a safety measure, y’know?”

 

Minhyuk did, indeed, know that having a backup was safer than having just one caregiver, especially since this Little (his Little???) had just dropped for the first time in years. He’ll have to have a long talk with Shownu, but that doesn’t bother him.

 

“If he’s ok with it, then I’m ok with it. You’ve got yourself another caregiver.”

**

Leaving has never been easy. He hides it well, at least he thinks he does, as the others whack him on the back and tell him to break some eardrums while he’s gone. He made sure to leave everything in perfect order so they wouldn’t destroy anything. Everything is organized in the emergency Little Box, Kihyun has given all of the pointers he can (which are not many, now that he thinks about it), and he’s instructed Minnie to keep him updated everyday, so help him Jesus. Minhyuk and Shownu had agreed to talk once everyone had dispersed. Wonho, Jooheon, Hyungwon, and I.M would be breathing down their necks leading up to him leaving; they couldn’t risk it. Beyond that, there isn’t much more he can do.

 

He wraps his arms around his leader’s shoulders, gentle. “Call me if you need me and I swear to all things good and holy that I’ll pick up. I will physically leave the building and fight my way back.”

 

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be ok.” He whispers back.

 

Kihyun moves onto Minhyuk. “Promise me you’ll be careful with him. Please, be gentle.” He lets go when one of the managers pulls on his elbow, urging him to go. They’ll be late as it is. Promise me, he mouths as he gets into the car.

 

Minhyuk promises.

**

The first few days are ok. They’re moving like gears, like normal. Everyone’s schedules are different and it keeps them a good kind of busy. Minhyuk keeps track of Shownu out of the corner of his eye. He doesn’t put the TV on, nor does he use any of the silly voices. It feels wrong to ease him into Little space like that. If Shownu has to drop, he’ll show some sign. He’ll see the sign.

 

It’s driving Kihyun crazy though. Each day that he sends an status update text is met with some mild grumbling and some vague complaining. On top of doing the show, apparently he’s required to meet with some company partners. It’s a PR thing, Kihyun doesn’t even understand it fully. No one bothered to explain it before they shoved him a car and carted him off to a fancy restaurant.

 

“It wasn’t even that nice, Min!” He moans. There’s a loud poofft which sounds distinctly like someone bellyflopping on the bed.

 

“It’s better than that incredibly awkward lunch Hyungwonnie and Wonho-hyung had with PD-nim. They had to make small talk. You know how Hyungwon is with small talk.”

 

“Sounds like a good story for when I get back. I’ll have to interrogate him about it.” A beat of silence crosses the phone line. Minhyuk knows what comes next. “How is he doing?”

 

“Alright, I guess. He’s stressed like usual. We spoke, and he told me not to worry too much. He hasn’t shown any signs of dropping though.”

 

“He’s stubborn like that. Won’t move if he doesn’t want to, won’t drop if he can convince himself out of it. But that’s why we love him.”

 

Minhyuk hums along in agreement. They talk a little longer, moving fluidly from things that happened while on set to how cooking is going now that Kihyun isn’t there to how much less Minhyuk has been speaking since he was put on Caregiver duty. Eventually, Kihyun excuses himself, says he needs to sleep, he has another day of singing and talking to boring people about boring things, goodnight Minnie, take care of yourself. Minhyuk puts down his phone for the first time in --- call duration: 1 hour, 42 minutes -- and gets on his laptop. He’s got more research to do.

**

Minhyuk is sitting on the couch, reading a novel a fan recommended, when it happens.

He hears a muffled snicker. He almost doubts himself, but then there’s another delighted noise and he’s onto his feet. Peeking around the corner, he sees it. A smile comes across his face slowly, unstoppable, then blindingly wide.

 

Shownu is laying on his stomach dressed in a black onesie with big white stars on it, a blanket partially over him but mostly over his head. The muffled sound of children’s television is coming out of his ipad, which now has a pastel blue child-proof case on it, one of the ones with a handle and silicone arms and little feet than can stand up on its own. One of the characters gets whopped over the head. Another giggle comes out, this one followed by a hand coming over his mouth and doing a very poor job of blocking the sound. It’s just so cute, so intimate to catch him off guard like this, but it feels wrong.

 

He shouldn’t meet me, not like this.

 

He hasn’t noticed Minhyuk yet, which is good. He’d be motified to find someone has snuck up on him when he’s this vulnerable. He can’t risk it. Minhyuk steps back out again to compose himself, then clears his throat loudly enough for Shownu to hear. “Is that my baby in there?”

 

The laughter stops.

 

“It’s Minnie, baby. Are-”

 

“Minnie?” Shownu turns, head still mostly covered by the blanket but unmistakeably startled. He can see the thoughts moving back and forth through the Little’s head, trying to decide if he should run or hide or maybe try to become Big again. “What??? Why-- Gotta be alone, Minnie, no--”

 

“Hey, hey! It’s ok, sweetheart.” He sits down cross-legged, non-threatening. “It’s ok, baby, you’re safe. What are you doing, honey? Wanna tell Minnie what you’re watching?”

 

The words are barely a whisper, coming out in a jumble due to letters and sounds the Little doesn’t have a grasp on yet. “...Ses’me Street.”

 

“Sesame Street? I love that show! Can Minnie watch it too?”

 

The words are met with silence. Minhyuk wonders if he’s done anything wrong, prays tht he hasn’t said the wrong thing, but finally finally he sees his shoulders lower and his muscles relax. With a look of determination, Shownu gets off of his stomach and trudges over to Minhyuk on his knees. He puts the screen mere centimeters from his caregiver’s face, smile bright, and says, “Ses’me Street!”

 

Shownu settles in between Minhyuk’s legs, head resting on his shoulder. He balances the ipad on the floor where both of them can see, then pulls the blanket over them. Minhyuk wraps his arms around the Little’s waist, earning a squeal of delight as said Little nuzzles further into his warmth.

 

Hm, he grins, I could get used to this...

**

The day has been… eventful, for one. Who knew Little Shownu liked to be held so much? And how on earth did Kihyun do it? Did his little body secretly have superhuman strength?

 

“Minnie! Minnie!” Shownu makes grabby hands, pulling the other man down onto the floor. Minhyuk takes it in stride, rolling around so he can wrap his arms around the Little. He presses loud kisses to his head.

 

“Hi baby! Are you hungry?”

 

“Mmmm yes! Food!”

 

“What would my baby boy like to eat?” The Little looks at him, then thinks hard. He scrunches up his face as he tries to think up the things he likes and the words he knows how to say.

 

“Eat Minnie!” Without warning, he latches himself onto Minhyuk’s arm by the jaw. It isn’t hard enough to hurt, but the warmth and the occasional pass of a tongue tickles. Shownu takes this as permission to topple Minhyuk and softly bite his shoulder, falling on top of him. Minhyuk can’t stop laughing, which makes Shownu bite him more until they’re both in a breathless heap.

 

God, Little Shownu is going to be the death of him.  

**

His mobile rings on the nightstand, jarring in the quiet of his fancy single-bed suite.

 

Bedtime for cutie the text reads.  

 

Kihyun grins at the sight of Minhyuk squatting beside Shownu's bed, smiling his crooked smile. His favorite teddy bear plushie, Nounours, is tucked securely under his (admittedly massive) arm. Minhyuk is going to have to take a bath to wash off all of the marker stains on him, but by the light in his eyes, Kihyun doesn’t think that will be much of a problem.


Thank you .

Chapter Text

Normally, Kihyun would consider himself a patient person, but if they don’t get home by tonight, he’s going to throw something and by something he means himself.

 

Preferably out a window.

 

He’s been stuck in traffic for almost three hours now and the car has moved approximately 50 feet since they got on the highway. At this rate, he’ll have enough time to figure out how to do his taxes. Sigh . He’s going to have to do something drastic soon. Maybe he’ll get out and walk the rest of the way. It’s only 22 miles home. Would that be acceptable? He can’t imagine Monbebe would be too pleased to see him walking in between cars. Or maybe they’d laugh? There would be pictures and stories… his company would murder him. He’ll have to stay put.

 

The driver is an older man who doesn’t say much. Usually Kihyun can strike up a conversation with the younger drivers, or if he’s lucky he can practice his English, but he’s got no such luck this time around. The guy looks like he’s got about two more good years in him until someone’s got to play spontaneous trust fall with him. He drives and fiddles with the controls, complaining about all the gadgets he doesn’t know how to use, but doesn't manage to figure out how to work the radio. The silence doesn’t help Kihyun manage his thoughts.

 

The more time he spends here means less time he gets with a possibly-Little Shownu, which means that MINHYUK gets to have him ALL TO HIMSELF. He can’t be mad though- he’s the one who asked him to be a caregiver in the first place. And he should be grateful since it was in a last-minute slip of great desperation, and Minnie just magically happens to be great with kids, knows a ton about Littles, and is way more qualified to take care of their Hyung than Kihyun is. He’s glad, really, he’s totally not jealous, what’s that? Who’s she? We don’t know her. That uncomfortable feeling in his gut? Indigestion for sure.

From being in the car.

For hours.

In traffic.

God, he really needs to get home.

**

Minhyuk pulls out his phone for what must be the fifth time this minute. He’d gotten a text with a short ‘be there soon’, but that was almost an hour ago and Shownu is getting more and more antsy the longer Kihyun isn’t there to baby him. He feels helpless as he watches their leader turn at the slightest noise, hoping it’s the door only to be disappointed.

 

“I know, hon, he’s gotta be around here somewhere. Be patient, he’ll--”

 

The words aren’t even out of his mouth when a black leather duffle flies across the room, door slamming open. Kihyun almost punches a hole in the wall with the sheer force of his excitement. He’s been gone for far too long.

The room lights up with energy.

The first one to reach him is Changkyun, who came out from nowhere, having most likely been hiding out in one of his various nooks around the house. “Ki-hyung!” The commotion brings the rest of the members running.

 

Wonho reaches him next, throwing his body onto him. “You’re back!”

 

“Hamtaro! How was your trip!” Hyungwon takes the opportunity to use Kihyun as an armrest, something that’s not nearly as fun when the armrest is Changkyun. “Thank goodness, I thought I was going to starve out here with Wonho cooking.”

 

Kihyun rolls his eyes as the others start bickering (“It’s not that bad!” “You could sooner get me to wear clothes while gaming in Minnie-hyung’s chair than you could make me eat more grilled chicken!” “It’s good for you!” “Ya! Leave my chair out of this!”) and greets the two people he missed the most.

 

Shownu’s body envelops him, his tender warmth more of a welcome than any joyous outcry. “Welcome back. We ordered takeout- Thai. It would be a crime to have you cook when you haven’t even been home for 24 hours.”

 

That’s a relief. It’s not like he doesn’t have 15 recipes on hand for emergencies, but it’s one less thing he has to worry about. One less hour he has to spend away from his Little. A tap on the shoulder brings him out of his thoughts and onto--

 

Minnie .” he says, and that’s all he has to, because Minhyuk knows what’s going on, knows how hard it’s been on Kihyun to be away, and he just gets it. He pulls the taller man into a tight hug.

 

Ki .”

**

They sit on the floor in the living room, each member lounging in a comfortable position as they pass containers of food back and forth. Hyungwon retells the Smalltalk Incident so that they can all get the full effect of how terrible of a time it was, Wonho throwing in details when necessary. Jooheon tells them about the weird habits the Americans have and the way their accents make it difficult to understand some of them and ‘not all of them are naked all the time, that’s just Changkyun’s thing!’. Kihyun’s episodes won’t be back for another few weeks but he won’t give them any details about it. Changkyun tries to aegyo his way into getting information, but he won’t budge, says it’s for the best, just trust him. When it’s all over and there’s little more than grains of rice and leftover sauce, Minhyuk offers to do the dishes, the saint he is, roping Jooheon in the process, and the others get up to brush their teeth and do skincare. Kihyun offers his hand to Shownu, leaning back to give himself some leverage.

 

“Come on, let’s get ready for bed.”

 

They barely make it to the room before Shownu dissolves into a bundle of smiles and squishy giggles and wow, how did Kihyun ever survive being away from his baby boy for that long? If someone told him he had to go away for that long again, he’d tell them to fuck off, are you insane, no way.

 

“Hi baby. Did you have a good time while I was away? Were you good for Minnie?”

 

“Yes! Good for Minnie, but missed Papa.” Kihyun kisses his forehead.

 

“I missed you too, pumpkin.”

 

Shownu is trying to pull Kihyun into bed, voice high and a little strained by the effort. If his heart hadn’t already melted, it would be in a puddle now. How did he get so lucky to have such an adorable, sweet baby boy? He probably wants to be cuddled- that’s what happened the other time he dropped into headspace. His smile is so endearing, but Kihyun has priorities and says,

 

“But we’ve got to take a bath, you don’t want to be dirty going into bed, do you?”

 

Shownu looks conflicted, trying to decide if that really is something he wants. He looks at his caregiver, then at the floor, then at Kihyun again, this time a little longer. “Papa, come with?”

 

KIhyun’s heart swoons. “If that’s what my baby wants, then of course I’ll be there! I’ll be right there with you.”

**

Shownu’s face when he’s concentrating ranks high on the list of Kihyun’s Favorite Expressions. It’s right up there with the one he makes when he’s eating but he’s already really full, when he gets this glazed over look of euphoria and his cheeks are all puffy. Feeding Shownu was one of the best perks of being a caregiver. Was that weird? He hopes that’s not weird.

 

After what seems like an eternity, Shownu finally picks a bath bomb. It’s one of the ones that makes a ton of bubbles and smells like raspberries and happiness. Kihyun runs his hand under the faucet to make sure it isn’t too hot or cold, then hands the bath bomb to the Little. He directs Shownu to get in and hold it under the stream so he can get as many bubbles as possible. Soon, the tub is filled with a mountain of bubbles and the Little is happily collecting them and making shapes.

 

Getting through shampoo and conditioner was easy- all he had to do was scrub-scrub-scrub and then use a small container to pour the water. It seems to go well enough. He spends about ten minutes struggling to get body wash everywhere before giving up. It’s too difficult to try scrubbing Shownu down from outside of the bath, so he rolls up his shorts and sits on the edge, feet in the warm water. It’s much easier this way, he thinks, and also much more fun.

It’s so much fun that he doesn’t hear footsteps approaching the bathroom.

Knock knock.

“You in there?”

 

With a quick glance over the shoulder, he can see the shadows of two feet under the door. Jeez, could the timing be any worse? Kihyun shushes Shownu, one hand flailing about. “Yeah….?”

 

“Are you taking a bubble bath?”

 

Kihyun swallows, hard. “.......yeah….?”

 

The door bursts open, Minhyuk in a towel holding a bucket of rubber duckies.

 

“AND I WASN’T INVITED?!”

 

Kihyun can only get out a strangled ‘HOLY MOSES’ before Minhyuk overhand throws the rubber duckies in the tub, backs up, and screams,

 

“GERONIMO!!!!”

 

Shampoo and bath bomb bubbles and soap suds fly everywhere. There’s water where water has no place being; in the medicine cabinet, on the rug, in his mouth, even on the mirror above the sink. They will most definitely need to replace the hand towel and the roll of toilet paper. In his drenched clothes, Kihyun feels like a wet cat.

 

“MINHYUK!” he screams, but he can’t stay mad at the blonde, not when his Little finds the whole exchange hilarious and can’t stop laughing. It’s rare to see Shownu laugh, and it’s even more rare to see him laughing this hard. His hands come up to cover his face, but they never stay there, splashing into the water each time he can’t contain himself. Minhyuk gives them a dazzling smile as he picks up a sponge and helps finish washing Shownu off.

No, he could never stay mad at him.

**

Getting Shownu re-dressed into his onesie is easy. He even zips himself up, what a good boy. There’s a five-second argument over who gets to read him a bedtime story and sleep with him before Minhyuk declares that if they can all sleep crammed into the back of a van, then surely they can all fit in bed together, come on Ki, don’t be such a party-pooper. Kihyun reads the book, a thin one with bright pictures, in silly voices he didn’t even know he had while Minhyuk makes sound effects and acts the scenes out.

 

With the story over, they wind down the energy. Shownu is still smiling, but his eyes are starting to gloss over as he phases in and out of consciousness.

 

“Goodnight, baby.” Kihyun kisses his forehead, rolling to the side so that Minhyuk can give him a kiss too. They fall into a quiet, just the sound of them breathing almost in sync, but then Shownu falls asleep and his breathing turns slow and heavy, and then Minhyuk falls asleep and his breathing becomes silently soft. It doesn’t take Kihyun much longer to fall asleep, arm wrapped around the best Little he could’ve asked for and the best caregiver he could’ve found.

Chapter Text

“Morning, angel. Did you sleep well?”

 

Shownu feels his mind hurtle back into his body. Hm. He must have dozed off again. Between promotions and interviews and flying criss-cross around the globe, he’s been exhausted. He felt himself falling asleep the last time he propped himself up against the table; he can barely afford to sit down.

 

Wonho is looking at him with an expectant sort of patience, waiting for an answer. He calls out to him again, calls out for his angel-- was that him? What? Since when? How did he know? The pet name makes him feel warm and fuzzy, but the tone sounds wrong. It sounds wrong when it isn’t coming out of Kihyun’s mouth. But it's so soothing, especially since Wonho is such a gentle soul, he knows he would never do anything to hurt him. The drop is coming, he can feel it, and if Wonho keeps using those words, keeps using those soft bunny smiles, he’ll become Little. He's panicking, he knows he is. 

 

“Hey, it’s ok! You don’t have to worry.” Wonho is next to him now, his strength creating a safe nook for Shownu to hide in. For a minute, he stops struggling. “Minnie and Kihyunnie told us about what’s going on. I wish you’d told us earlier! We could have been spoiling our baby boy this entire time.”

 

His eyes grow wide as saucers at the implication. “We’ll have to make up for it.”

 

They… they really didn’t mind it? Well… if Kihyun told them… then it had to be ok, right? He trusted Kihyun with his life as his caretaker. But where was he? Wonho's saying something now, something along the lines of breakfast, and that he should go see the others. Shownu gets up, doubt punctuating his steps. He glances back at Wonho, looking for approval.

 

“Go on, I’ve got to get something from my room, but I’ll be out there in a few minutes.”

**

The light streams into the kitchen in beams of dusty pastel yellow. Shadows of utensils create a cityscape on the floor, and in the middle of it is Changkyun, cooking. It was unusual for him to cook, just as unusual as it was to see Jooheon work out, which was to say he was good at it, but it still came as a pleasant surprise. His lips pull up into a dimpled smile, the one that Wonho always said made him look like a puppy.

 

“Good morning, sweetheart. I’m making waffles for breakfast.”

 

At the counter, Jooheon pats the seat next to him, beckoning Shownu to come sit. When he does, the rapper pulls the seat towards him with a grunt. He's writing something, Shownu can't tell what, probably a rap for their upcoming album. On his other side, Hyungwon takes a seat and ruffles the Little's hair. The sensation feels oh-so-good, so relaxing. He can feel it when he has to physically pull himself back from dropping. When he opens his eyes, he can see the white-haired man is frowning slightly, but still in a good mood.

 

“We’ve got the day off, why don’t we get your blankies and we can all watch cartoons together?” He smiles. 

 

The others hum in agreement, and somewhere in the middle of trying to say yes, his brain function slows because oh my god they don't mind!!!! A stubborn blockade won't let him speak more than a few words, any thought beyond that turning into a jumbled ball of wire. Little Shownu only cared about what was for dinner and who’s going to watch TV with him and where his next scrap of praise is going to come from. He cares about very few things, exposing himself not being one of them. He lets himself be fawned over by Hyungwon and Minhyuk.

 

"I can't believe it! He really IS a Little!" Changkyun does a high kick in celebration, his happiness manifesting in fighting the air, spatula still in hand. 

 

He feels himself pulled to the left. Jooheon's cheek is squished into his, and even though he can't see it, he knows there's a dimple showing on that cheek. “Dibs on cuddling him first!”

 

“No fair! I thought we agreed that I would get--”

 

“No way, I’ve got forever dibs on him!” When he turns, Kihyun is there. That’s his papa, the one who makes sure everything is ok, the one who protects him. And Ki looks so secure, so proud of him, so proud that he reaches out and calls, “Papa!”

 

The other man reciprocates, earning a chorus of 'awwwws' as he scoops up Shownu in his arms. He litters kisses on his Little's hair, showering him in love. 

 

"That's my baby boy." 

**

Having a day to themselves is such a rarity, relaxation such a commodity, that no one objects to having a Disney movie marathon. They sit in an arc around the television, most of them brushing against one another. Minhyuk and Kihyun are leaning against one another, surrounding Shownu in the kind of comfort only caregivers could give. Off to the side, Jooheon is playing body Tetris on the couch with Changkyun, who is sitting upside down and crooked. Hyungwon and Wonho vanished a few minutes ago, probably to get more snacks. They're at the part of The Aristocats where the alleycats are all singing and they keep breaking through the floor when a noise ricochets through the living room. 

 

Thump .

Thump.

Thump.

 

“I’m gonna get ya…”

 

Five heads turn in unison to look down the hall. The movie fades into background noise. Someone has the smart idea to turn down the TV. 

 

THUMP.

 

“I’m gonna get ya!”

 

Wonho comes out of his room in a green onesie, arms raised above his head, fingers curled into claw-hands. He lifts his leg up in a wide-legged stance and brings it down with a--

 

THUMP.

 

“I’M GONNA GET YA!”

 

Dragon-Wonho’s steps are picking up now, loud thumping moving closer. It takes only a moment for everyone to be on the same wavelength. The others start throwing around words like ‘run, it’s the dragon!’ and ‘we need a hero!’ while dramatically flailing about.

 

“I’ve got you!” Thick arms wrap around his chest, legs moving forward so that the other man is over him. They're laughing now, all together. The others join in to pepper kisses over Shownu's face as the 'dragon' eats him up.

 

He feels hazy and warm and full. It’s a dream come true. The colors start to fade in and out and draw into watercolor splotches.

**

He wakes up satisfied, realizing he’s smiling even before he’s fully awake. The room is still dark, the hours not quite as awake as he is, but that’s alright. He’s got six caregivers who love him, who will be coming to get him---

Wait.

WAIT.

NO.

NO.

NO.

NO.

His body snaps upright, all traces of sleepiness lost. He’s fumbling around in the blankets, nerves twitching as a tendril of contempt wraps itself around his core. How foolish it was, to dream of such things.

 

It wasn’t real . He says. None of it was real.

 

Shownu draws in his legs, arms around his knees.

 

It will never be real .

 

Tears pool on the inside corners of his eyes, ugly sobs tearing through the space. It’s too late for any of the others to be awake, thank goodness. When the daily chorus of alarms starts going off, he’ll need to look fresh. They can’t know--

 

“Shownu?!  Are you ok?! What’s wrong?!” He hears the sound of someone falling to their knees, feels the vibration through the floor as hands move him.

 

Minhyuk .

It’s always been Minhyuk.

“I've got you! It’s ok, it’s ok, I’ve got you, you’re ok.” The two of them are on the floor, Shownu’s hands resting limply on the other man’s folded knees. Minhyuk cradles his head as he rocks back and forth, back and force, hypnotized in the motion, not daring to look anywhere but straight ahead. He’s got this terrified look on his face, the words repeated over and over meant to calm him and not Shownu. He feels guilty for forcing this upon his bandmate. He should have been able to deal with this on his own. He shouldn’t need this. He wishes he could stop.

 

“It’s ok. You’re ok. I’ve got you. You’re safe. It’s gonna be alright.” Minhyuk’s arms wrap around him tighter, willing him to stop shaking. Shownu doesn’t have the heart to tell him it won’t.

**

Kihyun is away with Changkyun and Jooheon, the three of them being the most confident in their English. He won’t be back for at least two days, three if they make him do that meeting that he doesn’t want any part of. The meeting is important- they know their presence in other countries will be affected by what they say and do, but it still isn’t fair. Their main vocal is just itching to get home, crossing off the days impatiently, willing the sun to set so he can sleep away the time between now and when he’ll be on the return flight home. Every day holds the same question of ‘how is he doing?’ to which Minhyuk gives a very honest and in-depth answer, which also means he’s going to have to lie to his bandmate’s face, er, ear. Minhyuk can’t tell him. He can’t distract him like that. If Minhyuk knows Kihyun-- and he does know him-- he’ll rip through anyone and everyone to get back home, schedule be damned.

 

“Shownu? You wanna come out, hon?”

 

No response.

 

His phone starts ringing, a familiar silly face popping up on his screen. As he swipes up to answer, a smile crosses his face. No one can see it, but it’s easier to sound happy if he pretends.

 

“Haemjigga! I was worried you’d forgotten about me.”

 

A digital laugh crosses the lines, “Don’t flatter yourself. But man, have I got stories for you. How is he doing?”

 

Minhyuk bites his lip, letting the other man fill the silence, making sure he can’t hear the conflict in his voice before starting his usual string of thoughts. Kihyun will be furious with him when he gets home, but he will understand.

Chapter Text

They wait in the darkness, set in a line. The shadow of a hand comes down, counting them off with a familiar rhythm.

 

“Ready? 3...2…”

 

Lights blare in harsh bright white on the main stage. The hosts start up their usual banter, leading into their introduction. Minhyuk goes on first, followed by Wonho, followed by I.M, followed by Shownu. Jooheon nudges him in the back to tell him to move, come on Ki, what are you doing?, and he takes his place in front of the camera.

 

“Welcome back, you just had a successful comeback, is that right?”

 

“We have,” a voice says, surprisingly his own, “It’s a pleasure to be here.”

 

The pre-recorded sound of an audience dials down. It’s just another interview. They can do this.

 

He can do this.

**

Being on variety shows is like riding a bike except the bike is on fire and there’s a bear about 20 feet back and there may or may not be an invisible wall coming, who knows. They’re all standing with their faces in bowls of water, holding their breath, trying to yell numbers but not the same number and not at the same time before they're forced to come up for air. The prize is immunity from another challenge, and on a show like this, it’s worth it. Kihyun is trying his darndest to hold his breath for as long as possible when Minhyuk and Hyungwon come up at the same time and yell ‘FIVE’ simultaneously, even though Wonho had yelled ‘THREE’ maybe a second ago. They look at each other in disbelief, water streaming down their faces, and when Minhyuk brings his hand up to point at Hyungwon, when he opens his mouth to screech, the others jump into action. I.M and Kihyun spring up, hair whipping back and spraying the camera staff with water. Jooheon slips off his podium and accidentally knocks over his bowl. Like a Christmas miracle, Wonho flies in from offscreen. To put a stop to the chaos, Shownu scoops up Hyungwon while stiff-arming Minhyuk, the normalcy of the situation shown in his well-practiced motions. His expression doesn’t even change from 'mildly disappointed’. Minhyuk’s arms spin like a windmill, Hyungwon flailing with his feet off the ground, but eventually they stop and Shownu lets go.

 

“Wow, so strong…” the hosts say. One of them touches his arm, but when he feels the dense muscle under Shownu's shirt, he starts feeling around further. He brings the other host closer, and now they’re touching him and...it's weird.

Really weird.

There’s nothing anyone can do about it. He’s strong of course, but he’s strong in other ways too. His size is a charm point, for some obscure reason, and the more they talk about it the more Kihyun has to shuffle and laugh nervously to stop himself from yelling at them that they’re making him uncomfortable. With a quick glance down the line, he sees that Minhyuk is already looking at him with a similar expression. “Women must swoon over you, someone’s strong husband.”

 

A few months ago he wouldn’t have thought twice about it. That was how things were; just another way to make them marketable, like the way Kihyun could cook and the way Wonho was covered in shiny muscles. Shownu’s big. That’s nothing new. But… It sounds so wrong.

 

“Hyung is great in a lot of other ways,” He says without thinking through all of his options. Minhyuk signals at him to stop talking to no avail. “He’s got good leadership skills. He is a very strong person internally, and will treat you right. Hyung will always be there for you, he'll always listen. He'll always care.”

 

Minhyuk facepalms internally. The hosts are on the other side of the line, unaware of his panic, but their faces are loud and in Kihyun’s personal space.

 

“If you keep talking like that, people will start to think your heart flutters for Shownu-ssi.” They laugh.

 

The notch between his eyebrows grows as he moves from initial shock to confusion and then to irritation.

 

How dare you.

 

That’s their baby boy right there, and it’s uncomfortable to see him treated like that, not when they’ve seen him giggle over bubbles, not when they’ve seen him light up just because they’re reading him a story and giving him kisses. Kihyun and Minhyuk are the ones taking care of him because he deserves to be taken care of, because he’s sweet and wholesome and wouldn’t hurt a fly, even if it meant getting hurt himself. And he would never break anyone’s heart, never, because his own is made of soft, pliant gold. Kihyun is an animal when it comes to retribution- Minhyuk’s even worse- but Shownu isn’t like them. He gives freely, unabashedly. He needs to be protected from the ones who would take advantage of that.

 

“Sometimes it does, is it so wrong for a heart to beat faster between two men?”

 

Silence.

 

In the back, all of the camera ops are looking at one another with wide eyes. Soft squeals from young makeup and wardrobe attendants get absorbed into the growing background chatter. It was a mistake to say that.

 

Like it usually was when he opened his big mouth.

 

Hyungwon, by some grace of Jesus, bails him out by doing the Park Jimin (aka conveniently falling with both legs in the air) while on his way over to shush Kihyun. The ruse is supplemented by Wonho’s ‘be careful, don’t hurt yourself before we perform’ and him brushing the imaginary dust off of his best friend with an overly-fond look. Jooheon and I.M decide that now is a fantastic time to flying-koala hug one another. They look absurd, Changkyun sporting his best ‘panicked gay’ face and Jooheon with his mouth fully open. Shownu belts out a noise akin to that of a elephant seal. In the distance, someone drops a lamp. The entire group is a mess. The entire set is a mess. The entire broadcast is a mess. The hosts don’t know what just happened, and now they’re scrambling to do damage control, which Kihyun supposes is the best way this could’ve possibly gone, what a relief. It takes them a full five minutes to get Hyungwon to stop running zig-zags across the stage. It takes another two to get I.M to stop barking.

 

“Just another day in the lives of Monsta X.” They say, slightly out of breath.

 

Minhyuk facepalms externally.

**

When the tapes finally stop whirring, two staff members whisk them away before the hosts have a chance to bark at them for their behavior. Kihyun tries to stay close to Shownu but it’s hard when they’re moving this quickly. His hand rests loosely in the crook of the other man’s elbow, leading him but not pulling.

 

The group practically jogs to the parking garage; flies into the car. Their managers are all on their phones, speaking different languages, no doubt trying to appease the three-piece suits who sign their paychecks. Jooheon receives a congratulations from Jackson Wang and about 15 different Showki fanvideos with commentary that makes it look like his caps lock button is broken. Mingyu from Seventeen sends I.M a video of his entire group running circles in their practice room, screaming at max volume. Kihyun even gets one from Yoongi, busy as BTS may be, with a short ‘Haha pabo, support you anyway’ with a (no doubt fanmade) picture of Kihyun, red cap, overalls, and a sticker mustache, dramatically saving Shownu, who’s in a Princess Peach dress.

 

“You’re a complete idiot, Yoo Kihyun.” Minhyuk mutters, taking his phone back after showing him a stream of twitter comments, courtesy of Astro’s Cha Eunwoo. He gives a hum in response. Those things don’t matter to him. If his words are what’s causing Shownu to stutter and blush every time someone brings up the conversation, it’s well worth it.

**

The Higher-Ups aren’t nearly as mad as Kihyun expected. With the weight of suspense off their shoulders, they’re free to hang out and talk about their favorite moments. It’s worth a good laugh when they get back to the hotel. Eventually Jooheon starts teetering in and out of consciousness and Changkyun takes him back to their room. When Wonho and Hyungwon excuse themselves to go back as well, they all decide to call it a night and instead head back together. The room Shownu and Kihyun have is nice. It’s one of those modern minimalist ones with pretty-looking showers and abstract sinks. It must be expensive, Kihyun thinks, spitting into said abstract-looking sink.

 

“Ki?” From the other room, Shownu is wiping off his makeup, taking off the day’s work.

 

“‘eah?” Only his head pops out of the bathroom, face sideways with a toothbrush sticking out, hand hidden behind the door frame.

 

“Did… when you… on the show today… did you really mean all of those things?”

 

“I say a lot of things, you're going to have to be more specific.”

 

He hears what sounds like the start of a protest, then a quick 'no nevermind, it's doesn't matter’. But it obviously does matter if the way Shownu keeps his arms crossed in front of him, close to his body, is any measure.

 

“Are you talking about when I complimented you? When I said you have other qualities besides being handsome?”

 

The blush itself would have been enough of an answer, but Shownu nods, not looking up.

 

“Well… yeah. I mean, you’re a great leader. You look after all of us so well, keep us out of trouble. Beauty isn't everything and you have a lot to offer besides that.”

 

“Don’t you think…. Aren’t… Am I a burden to you?”

 

Kihyun nearly lobs his toothbrush in surprise, throwing up his hands. Where was this coming from? Had someone said something? Was it Hyungwon? It was definitely Hyungwon. When Kihyun got through with him, Turtle Boy wouldn't even know what hit him--

 

“What?! No! No, you could never-- what happened? Did someone say something?”

 

“No, no one said anything… But ever since I became Little again…. And I just threw that on you when it isn’t your responsibility to be a caregiver.”

 

Oh thank goodness. He breathes out, the worry leaving his body. In the span of two seconds, Kihyun is sitting on the bed, his leader's hands safely in his. “If I didn’t want to be your caregiver, which I do, and which Min also does, then we would’ve found some sort of solution. We could never hate you.”

 

The words don’t convince him. He’s staring off, not disappointed but clearly not pleased. He’s pouting now- he needs something, probably some love, he’s just too scared to ask.

 

“Come on.” He says, patting his thigh. “Come here.”

 

“But I--”

 

“Would you rather stand?”

 

“Well I mean… I don’t… No, not really….”

 

“Then come and sit. It’s ok.”

 

“I’m too big.”

 

“Nonsense! You’re the perfect size for cuddling.”

 

Shownu sits down, not putting his full weight on him out of courtesy. The effort is cute, but not what either of them need now. With a mighty heave, Kihyun pulls upwards and backwards, tossing them onto the bed. The mattress sinks under their weight until it morphs into the outline two bodies pressed together, Shownu now comfortably laying sideways with Kihyun instead of crushing him. It feels cozy with someone’s arms around him. He could stay there forever if the sun wouldn’t rise.

 

The idea of either of them moving to the other bed is tiring, so they they pull the blankets up instead, preferring to stay tangled. After he turns off the lights, Kihyun brushes the hair away so he can press three kisses to Shownu's forehead, soft and sweet.

 

“Goodnight, pumpkin.” he says. The name earns a laugh.

 

“Ki,” he says, voice drawn out, “I'm not Little.”

 

“You may not be Little, but you're still my baby boy.”

 

His head twitches to the side, trying to look but failing with the dark. It's not the answer he was expecting from his caretaker, on duty or not. His eyes are wide with wonder, taking in the words.

 

His baby boy.

 

Shownu turns so they can properly spoon.

 

“Goodnight, papa.”

 

Kihyun is the big spoon, of course.

Chapter Text

There are never enough hours in the day to get everything he wants done. It would be so helpful if he didn't have to sleep or eat, but for better or for worse he isn't a robot and he has mortal needs.

 

11:53

 

Ok, that’s good. He has a little bit of time before he reaches his limit, the hour when the speed of his brain will plummet to a drunken crawl whether he likes it or not. There are files which need rendering; he can let those run in the background while he does something else. He can work on lyrics and give a status update to PD while he’s still coherent.

This is fine. He’s fine.

He’s got some time.

**

When he finishes his last round of edits, he looks at the clock.

 

3:30 .

 

The customary halting of all logical thought happened maybe an hour ago, but he hadn’t finished so he trudged through the rest with the sheer power of his determination. The sound of his laptop closing feels final, and it feels good knowing he got his work done. It’s 3:45 when Shownu closes the door behind him. He does the nightly shuffle up to his room, making a mental note of whose lights are still on and who’s still out working. Three items remain unchecked on his laundry list of tasks to complete before the next cycle of work ‘tomorrow’.  

Sigh .

There's always tomorrow.

**

Shownu is trying to keep himself awake, but it’s hard.

 

It was a mistake, he knows it was, but he'll keep making these kinds of mistakes. Jooheon accidentally unplugged himself from the speakers and the noise rocketed through the house, which meant he was awake when he really shouldn’t have been. And while it wasn’t ideal, he’d much rather know than not. So up the stairs Shownu went, pulling his dongsaeng away from his work despite protests that he was ok and that he wouldn’t be up for much longer, he just needed to finish one last thing. Shownu had to watch him get under the covers just to make sure the rapper gets some sleep. It was 4:17 by the time he tumbled into his own bed.

 

Sitting there in the white-walled board room, he can feel the lack of sleep wearing on his body. He’s at the point where he can drink coffee like it’s water and he drinks more coffee than water. Come to think of it, he drinks more coffee than he eats food.

Come to think of it, he doesn’t eat much of anything anymore.

But that’s ok. If it means everyone is taken care of, it’s ok.

Someone announces that their meeting is over and the seven of them take off like deer at the sound of a gunshot. The others rush off to their own schedules, Shownu jogging to the staff meeting with the PD.

There isn't enough time.

**

Kihyun can’t stop staring, and he knows that it’s bad, but he physically can’t tear his eyes away.

Shownu moves with a certain frantic tempo like a spinning top, one which dared to collapse if he faltered. He’s a bundle of nerves operating on muscle memory and the trust in himself that he can get through this. He needs to slow down, but they all know he can’t. None of them can. It’s never even a consideration.

 

“You ready over there?” he asks after about a minute of trying to see if Shownu would respond without having to be prompted.

 

“Yeah…. Yeah, just give me a minute…” Shownu’s hunched over by the speaker, plugging his phone in so they can run through the choreography again. Kihyun yawns for what must be the seventh time this hour.

Then he sees it.

The plug won’t go it. Or it would, but Shownu keeps missing the audio jack. His mechanics are all off- it’s like watching someone try to walk over cobblestones blindfolded except it shouldn’t be like this, not when it’s the middle of the day.

He wants to take the object from him, but then the leader stops.

Shownu is staring at his left hand, which is shaking uncontrollably. He doesn't do anything to stop it. He doesn't even look scared. He just puts it down and tries for the sixth time to get the jack into the port. With the others distracted by their own conversations, Kihyun touches his arm with a quiet 'hey’.

 

“Are you ok?”

 

Shownu stops, putting the phone down. He opens his mouth to say yes, opens his mouth to tell him not to worry, but an undercurrent takes the strength out of him, drowning him in exhaustion and guilt. There are going to be tears soon. He closes his mouth and nods 'yes’ instead.

 

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

 

No, no, he can't. If Kihyun keeps asking, Shownu knows he's going to break. He shakes his head ‘no’.

 

Kihyun pats his arm, comforting and thoughtful. “Ok.”

 

He doesn't push the issue further. Shownu pinches the bridge of his nose to stop himself from crying.

**

He doesn’t leave Shownu’s side, and in the moments when he’s forced to, he practically flies back to his post at the first chance he gets. They make it through practice just barely- the staff can see the sorry state they’re all in and the choreographer lets them go home early. The lot of them stumble home like a crowd of zombies across the building and up the stairs, spilling messily into the kitchen and then into their own rooms. Kihyun keeps one hand on his leader the whole time just to be safe, guiding him to the ground once they reach the safety of Kihyun’s room.

 

He leaves for a moment, just to get some tea and saltine crackers, the kind of stuff that goes down easy. Shownu’s organs have started objecting to the obscene amounts of caffeine he’s been trying to get into his body, his mouth hesitating to push the fluid down with a reluctance like medicine. Now that he’s without it, the black spots in his memory that appear when he blinks are getting worse. His body is trying to put itsself asleep, but it’s fighting against the man’s will, and everyone knew that when Shownu put his mind to something, there was rarely a force that could  stop him from succeeding.

 

Kihyun’s hands move up and down along his leader’s spine, as though coaxing the tea down. “You ok, baby?”

 

He looks at him-- really looks at him-- and the light shines on sleepless red eyes. The hours on hours of moving, never allowing himself to rest, too scared of sitting, too scared of eating because those things make him sleepy, and he can't afford to sleep. He shivers with the effort to prevent his mind from fraying into a thousand strands.

 

I'm so tired .” he says.

 

And he drops.

**

Shownu is Little.

Shownu is Little.

Kihyun's hands twitch as he comes closer, trying to comfort the trembling mass that is his baby but finding that he shakes just as violently in his arms. God, what kind of caretaker was he? Minhyuk knew was he was doing, he could probably fix this in a heartbeat, but Kihyun... he doesn't know enough. He knows how to take care of everyone, just the basic things, but this? This is beyond him. Inconsolable, tears of exhaustion.

 

“Papa, good?” Shownu mumbles.

 

The words pull him out of his mind. He can't think about that now. He has to be there. “Yes, pumpkin, so good for papa.”  

 

“No….” He climbs over Kihyun’s legs on all fours, then sits on his knees. Hands come out to rest on his chest, one hand over Kihyun’s heart. “Not me, Papa good?”

 

He opens his mouth in surprise, then closes it in favor of smiling. Of course . Leave it to Shownu to think of others before himself, even when he’s working with his most essential, Little thoughts.

 

“Papa’s good.” Kihyun kisses the tip of his Little’s nose. “Rest, baby, papa’s good.”

 

The words seem to do the trick, Shownu becoming more pliant without having to worry about being a burden. The Little rubs his eyes, a soft whimper tumbling out, then another. His mouth pulls down into a frown, fighting back sniffles. “Tired…”

 

“Shh, shh…. It’s ok, I’m right here. I’m right here….” Kihyun pulls him close, cradling his head so Shownu is laid against him. His body rocks out of instinct trying to calm the thoughts of Oh my god, no, no, not like this, please God because it isn't like the first time, when he was upset and it was fixable, because this wasn't something he could fix with a few words and some kisses, this was exhaustion and hardship and pain. His baby is in pain. And he knows that this will, without a doubt, be something that happens in the future. And despite all that, he's still helpless. Shownu is crying, and he can’t tell whether he should feel his panic or his heartbreak more. He can’t do this. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to do, so he does the only thing he’s ever known how to do.

 

He sings.

**

It’s something in English. Shownu isn’t exactly sure what he’s saying, but it’s mourning and it’s nostalgia and it’s longing all at once. His voice bellows with its power but it’s gentle, held back like a wave, towering.

 

And those dizzy stargazers who dreamed of the black

Kept their heads in the clouds and they never looked back

They kept wandering and never did they look down

 

Charting Neptune by the fire of the sun

Kept looking for new constellations

New constellations

 

It’s so soothing, feeling the vibration of Kihyun’s chest as he sings, feels the rhythm of his heart. His breathing eases, tension receding.

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s wrong to want more

Than the truest of blues and a love like a roar

I will run to wherever I want to go

 

Shownu’s head grows heavier on his chest. Good. This is good. Kihyun uses his free hand to dim the brightness on his phone, typing out the word ‘little’ in the text box.

**

He's trying his best to not let the others know anything is wrong, but Minhyuk's pounding heart is betraying him. Kihyun had texted him one word and he had excused himself without second thought. If Jooheon had known the situation, he would have understood, but as it is he doesn’t, but that’s an issue Minhyuk will have to deal with another day. He can hear something coming from the other room, the sound of singing, just singing alone, trailing out into the hall.

 

Child of Neptune, I’m the daughter of the sun

Keep showing me new constellations

New constellations

 

The light filters through the crack in the door, shining light on Kihyun, who makes eyes contact with him but keeps singing, and Shownu, who is most definitely in his Littlespace. “Hi baby, look at you~” Minhyuk's voice trembles as he his steps slow, body bending down so he can look at his Little. He’s so fragile, so precious here.

 

Eyes blink open as the Little tries to makes heads or tails of what’s going on through the filter of sleep. 

"Minnie!" he slurs, hands reaching out to touch his caretaker.  

 

“Hi, yes, it's me! Your papa told me you were tired.”

 

The Little’s bottom lip pushes out into a pout. He nods.

 

“Our baby has been working so hard. Let's get you to sleep.”

 

Shownu falls asleep leaned against Kihyun’s body, wrapped in a cocoon of plush blankets, Minhyuk’s arm draped across him. Kihyun's head is on Minhyuk's shoulder; Minhyuk’s head is on top of Kihyun's. They're leaned against one another like ragdolls, slumped over, but still holding onto him like he'll drift away if they let go. Shownu smiles to himself.  

 

They are going to make wonderful fathers some day.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t even notice himself going to sleep- one moment he’s switching to laying on the ground on his stomach, the next he’s waking up and the room is dark. The tabs on his computer are all still open, waiting, reminding him that he was supposed to be productive today.

 

The feeling of failure washes over him. The others weren’t asleep. Why wasn’t he as strong as them? Instead of being one hour ahead he’s now two hours behind, which means he’s going to have to stay up until four to get everything he wanted done, which means he’s going to get less sleep, which puts him behind for tomorrow.

 

Changkyun curls up into a ball and takes a deep breath. He swipes across the mousepad, the bright blue of his screensaver lighting up the wall.

 

Ok…..

Ok, you can do this.

 

**

He stands up for the first time since sitting down at 1:30. The pile of work on his desk isn’t getting any neater, but at least he’s putting a dent in it. If he can chug a monster and pull through until four without any distractions, he--

 

“Kyunnie… what--- why are you awake right now?”

 

Hyungwon stands in the middle of the doorway, pajamas much too big for his thin frame, eyebrows furrowed as he looks at Changkyun. The younger man’s gaze is trained at nothing, tormented, like a shell-shocked soldier. “I have to finish this.” he says in a hollow voice.

 

“Can it wait? It’s like… almost three in the morning.”

 

“I was supposed to work today… I got back an hour earlier but then I took a nap for three hours so I have two more hours of work to catch up on.”

 

He gives a concerned look but he doesn’t tell him it’s foolish. He understood what it felt like, the panic. “I took a nap too and I’m going to bed.”

 

“But---”

 

“You aren’t going to get any good work done this late at night. Let’s go to bed. We’ll wake up early tomorrow, when we’re all rested, and pick it up then.”

 

“What are you doing awake?”

 

“Me? I’m always awake now. I sleep in six hour shifts- why do you think I’m always falling asleep during the day?”

 

“Yeah, but…. But… I haven’t done enough…” Changkyun can feel the tears coming forward, swirling his vision. He lowers his head so that Hyungwon can’t see him about to cry. He can’t be seen like this- he’s the maknae, he already has so much he has to prove. The others are going to see him as weak if he cries. They can’t see him like this. They can’t---

 

“Hey, hey! It’s ok, what’s wrong?” Hyungwon’s lanky arms loop around him, holding him close.  “It’s ok, why are you crying?”

 

“Because I’m weak.”

 

“Weak? Who ever said that?” Changkyun cries harder. The tears just keep coming, and he wishes he could stop it, just cut himself off while he still has some dignity left, but he can barely breathe much less control his outcry.

 

“You and the hyungs all work so hard, you’re so strong. I can’t keep up.”

 

“Hey, none of that! You’re not weak, you’re human. We all are. And you’re amazing!” Hyungwon wipes away the tears, nimble fingers ghosting across his cheeks. “And do you know how the others do what they do? By getting regular amounts of sleep. Come on, let’s go to bed.”

**

Hyungwon doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even make a sound, when Changkyun comes into his room twenty minutes after he'd tucked the maknae into bed. He’s thinking too hard, how cute, hands wrapped up in sweater paws as he tries to find the right words. Hyungwon throws the covers down so the rapper can climb in. The bed dips as he climbs in, then continues to dip as he fidgets. Hyungwon tell him to stop fidgeting, just get comfortable, it’s ok, and he does.

 

Changkyun rises from the haze of sleep for just a moment, when he hears quiet giggles and the shutter of someone’s (Kihyun’s) camera. It’s too early for this, it must be. Changkyun rolls over to snuggle further into the covers. Whatever teasing is awaiting him at the breakfast table, it can wait. He buries his face into the clean scent of fresh linen and the lingering traces of perfume on Hyungwon’s clothes, and he drifts off to sleep again.

Chapter Text

Window shopping with his leader had always been an interesting time, even before Kihyun knew about the Little situation. Neither of them were shoppers, not like Minhyuk or Wonho or even Changkyun, so they mostly treated it like a leisurely stroll, using the time to catch up.

 

“So there I was, mic in my hand, about to be covered in paint, getting ready to bust a rhyme, and then—- Shownu?” Kihyun stops walking when he notices that there isn’t anyone next to him.

 

Ten steps back, Shownu is standing in the middle of the corridor, fixated on something in a window. It’s a duck onesie, one meant for a toddler. Both the inside and the outside are covered in cloud-soft yellow fleece, perfect for keeping warm and snuggling. It even has a tail! It's too cute, so cute that he doesn’t even register Kihyun slipping in next to him, hands folded behind his back.

 

“I think it suits you,“ his caregiver says, ”the color matches your eyes.”

 

“But my eyes are brown.” He laughs.

 

“I know, and they match perfectly.” The compliment makes him blush, lips pursed into a bashful smile. “How about when we get home, we order some things for you?”

 

Shownu gasps, “You would do that for me?”

 

Kihyun’s jaw drops. Did he really think that he wouldn’t? “Of course I would! This is happening. The second we get home I’m grabbing Minhyuk and we’re picking out some goodies for you.”

 

The blush deepens. “Thank you, papa.”

 

“Anything for my baby boy.”

 

**

 

“LEE MINHYUK!!!” The shrill call enters the room long before Kihyun does, an embarrassed Shownu being tugged along by the wrist. He doesn’t stop moving, walking straight down the hall while yelling ‘GET IN, LOSER, WE’RE GOING SHOPPING’ through the archway to the living room.

 

“WE’RE WHAT?!” Even though he only understands maybe 3% what’s going on, Minhyuk goes along with it anyway. As he reaches out to enter Kihyun's room, a hand snakes out, pulling him into the darkness. The door closes behind him, Kihyun leaned against it.

 

“Us. Shopping. Online. Baby stuffs.”

 

His eyes open wide in surprise. Then, they glow with the fire of excitement. “Ohmygodyes.”

 

**

 

Back in the living room, Changkyun’s papers go flying into the air, the rapper leaning back against the couch with a huff.

 

“Ok I can't do this anymore. Have you guys noticed that something weird has been going on between those three recently?”  

 

Jooheon nods furiously, “I thought I was the only one!”

 

Hands wave over him, a magical spell to be quiet, shush, or else they'll hear us. They speak in whispered tones, excited and curious. Wonho nearly tackles Jooheon when he hears a squeak come from Show-Min-Ki’s general direction.

 

Hyungwon doesn’t say anything, the only noise coming from him is the sound of his thin fingers picking the sheets up off the ground. Changkyun is right- there’s something off about them, something weird.

 

Truthfully, it started months ago.

 

*

 

**

 

***

 

****

 

***

 

**

 

*

 

Hyungwon is confused. Granted, since he goes to sleep and wakes up in the middle of conversations, he’s used to it.

But Minhyuk and Shownu?

Since when had they gotten together?

He’d always assumed it would be Shownu and Kihyun since Kihyun was like their mom and Shownu was most definitely their dad. Wasn’t that what usually happened? There was Jin and RM, and there was JB and Jinyoung…. But none of them had ever thought of one another like that. Sure, there was the occasional truth-dare ‘who would you date if you were a girl’ shenanigans they did when they were younger (Hyungwon had said he would fight the others for Wonho) (and if he couldn't get him, he'd take Changkyun) (and if he couldn't get either of them, well shit), but this was different.

 

Minhyuk flutters around like an attentive bird, swooping in at the first sign of danger, but then diverting his path at the last minute when he sees he’s overthinking. Hyungwon pretends not to notice- some people think he’s just a pretty face attached to the body of a model, brain not included- but he can see the way the two care for one another, the way Minhyuk can help Shownu calm down and let go.

 

He wants to ask what in the world is going on, but when the words actually lead to the leader calming down and letting go, he shuts his mouth. Whatever it is, it doesn't matter. It isn’t his place to bring up something like that. Whatever is going on…. It’s probably for the best that he doesn’t know.

 

**

 

The first time he really notices something is off is when Kihyun comes home from the broadcast. They eat dinner together like usual (Hyungwon is such a sucker for Thai), but the second they call it a night, he takes off with Shownu, a quick good night thrown out as second thought. The others assume he’s exhausted, who wouldn’t be? Doing shows alone was seven times more stressful than doing them as a group. He tries for a while to figure out what they’re doing, passing by their door and hearing nothing but the end of a muffled conversation. He nose-dives into the closest room (which happens to be Wonho’s) to avoid being seen. They’re headed to the bathroom.

They’re headed to the bathroom!

It could mean nothing, all of them have showered so often together that it’s commonplace to see two or more people heading into the bathroom at once, but whatever, those are just details. This is different!

 

Hyungwon lurks around to try and find Minhyuk, just to see if he knows anything.

 

“Hey Minnie, do you know where Ki and Shownu-hyung are?”

 

“Um… I think they’re taking a shower together. Why? Did you need something?”

 

His tone doesn’t sound disappointed or anything either... Hyungwon nudges the conversation forward. “Oh you're probably right, I heard the tub running earlier. Nah, I just wanted to ask Kihyun something.”

 

“Oh, ok. Well good luck with whatever it is.”

 

Not even two minutes later, he hears BANG! a distant ‘AND I WASN’T INVITED?!’ come from Minhyuk. This is it, he thinks. This is where it all comes together and Minhyuk and Kihyun and Shownu all fight over who loves whom and have a big cry session and then the group ends up splitting up because of their inevitable heartbreak, and Hyungwon has to go back to modelling and look back on his time as an idol with a wistful stare, and would they ever get over the loss? He’s halfway through his emergency plan (maybe Kihyun could take his picture? They’d probably make a lot of money), when he hears Minhyuk yell something akin to a warcry and a loud splash! and more hollering. Hyungwon peeks down the hall just enough to see Kihyun push the door closed, all three of them in the tub together. They look...happy?

Hm.

Maybe he can hold off on his disaster plans after all...

 

(Kihyun comes into Hyungwon’s room with a face mask and the Mom Look.) (Apparently he needed something urgently, or so Minhyuk said after launching himself into the tub with him and Shownu in it.) (Hyungwon laughs, says no, he found what he was looking for, thanks though, and ends the conversation there.)

 

**

 

The mental notes he’s been keeping make no sense. None of the pairs are spending any more time than another. He’s actually noticed that most of the time, all three of them will disappear together into Shownu’s room for the night.

 

Kihyun won’t say anything.

Surprisingly enough, Minhyuk won’t either. The usual quips still have an effect on him, but Hyungwon can’t weasel out the usual blast of too much information. Sometimes he’ll look at the three of them and then at Changkyun, who will acknowledge that something’s off, but he what it is, he doesn’t know. It’s a relief- at least he isn’t going insane. At least what he’s seeing is real.

 

**

 

It's all too real.

 

Standing there in the shadow, he feels like a criminal. It was supposed to be quiet now. Kihyun, Jooheon, and I.M were away, and everyone else had been so exhausted that he just assumed they would go to sleep the first chance they got. He’d just gotten up to get some water, his six hour sleeping shift was about to begin, he really meant no harm.

 

It’s ok. You’re ok. I’ve got you. You’re safe. It’s gonna be alright.

 

It feels wrong to be hearing this. The words aren’t meant for him. They don’t even know he’s there. Hyungwon stumbles back to bed and tries to pretend that that didn’t just happen, that he didn’t just witness that. He has to go to bed with music playing to stop his mind from replaying the words, churning over and over the pain and the horror in Minhyuk’s voice. He doesn’t go to sleep for a long while, and when he finally does, it feels like mere minutes before his alarm calls for morning. He’s sleepy and he’s hurting and when he walks into the kitchen, Hyungwon has to duck behind a pillar to avoid ruining the moment.

 

Minhyuk kisses Shownu’s forehead, sweet and tender.

 

Like lovers.

 

Hyungwon suddenly doesn’t feel hungry anymore.

 

**

 

The others return home about two days later. It’s good to be a group of seven again. It doesn’t feel right being any less. But he comes up to Minhyuk and they hug and he whispers something in his ear that makes Hyungwon wonder if it wasn’t Shownu and Minhyuk but actually Kihyun and Minhyuk the whole time. He rubs his eyes, as though that would erase the etch-a-sketch of a diagram he was making of this love triangle.

 

Triangle? Was it a square now that he was in it?

 

Hyungwon has never been good at the geometry things.

 

It must be some kind of poly relationship, one of the ones with a bunch of people. It would make sense why they would share Shownu--

Nope.

Nope nope nope nope nope

Whatever is going on, he trusts them. He hopes they're happy, and he hopes that they’ll feel comfortable enough coming out to the group.

**

Broadcasts are one of his least favorite activities, but this one is particularly bad. Kihyun is going to get himself into so much trouble if he keeps talking like that. Maybe he can be obvious at the dorm, but they can’t afford to slip up here.

 

“If you keep talking like that, people are going to start thinking your heart flutters for Shownu-ssi.”

 

Please don’t say anything stupid.

Please don’t say anything stupid.

 

“Sometimes it does, is it so wrong for a heart to beat faster between two men?”

 

Goddammit Yoo Kihyun we ask for one thing and this is what we get in return----

 

Whatever secret Kihyun is keeping, poly or not, he better have a damn good explanation as to why he’s bringing his Gucci-brand baggage onto national television with him.

 

Well…. No time like the present…

 

Hyungwon trots over until he knows he’s in the frame and throws his leg out, crashing hard onto the ground. There’s a sharp pain radiating out from his back, but in an instant Wonho is there to help him up and check him over, pulling attention away from Kihyun. Behind him, Jooheon and Changkyun make some sort of grunting noise, followed by the sound of two bodies colliding. Shownu opens his mouth to scream, but not like a normal scream, more like a kermit the frog/dying llama kind of scream. Kihyun looks furious, but less furious than he did a minute ago. It’ll take some time for the other man to calm down, but that’s ok, they love Kihyunnie for his fearsome temper. With a knowing look, Changkyun starts galloping around the set, low-pitched barks radiating off the sound equipment, Hyungwon starts zigzagging across the stage.

It’ll take a few minutes for Kihyun to calm down, but that’s ok.

At the very least they can buy him some time.

 

**

 

Hyungwon has had some shining moments, ones where can think 'wow, this was a good decision’.

This….

Well, it's not his best, but it'll do.

 

His sleep schedule is all sorts of wrong, but for once he’s glad that he was awake when no one else was. Originally he’d planned to snoop on ShowKiHyuk, which was most definitely not a universally-approved idea, but he got sidetracked by a wobbly shadow trudging down the hall.

 

“Kyunnie… What-- why are you awake right now?”

 

He’s sure Changkyun wouldn’t want anyone to see him like this. He looks distraught. He’s thinking of so many things, too many things, but his worries move faster than his mind can make a timetable and it’s breaking him.

 

“I have to finish this…” He looks so haunted, so shell-shocked. His body trembles but not from cold. It hurts just to look at him. Hyungwon holds him, tells him it’s ok to be human, that’s what they all were, and tucks him into bed. About a minute after getting into his own bed, he realizes that he should’ve offered to let Changkyun sleep with him.

 

He briefly considers getting up again to continue his Not Very Good investigation, but in the middle of Escape Plan #37, the sliver of light leaking into his room grows larger, the silhouette of a very vulnerable-looking man appearing on the wall. The silhouette moves, then stops, then moves again only to stop. Hyungwon lifts the cover, Changkyun running to join him. It takes a while, but eventually the maknae falls asleep, face pressed into Hyungwon’s back, using him as his comfort. It would be a crime to wake him. Trying to catch those three at…. Whatever they were doing will have to wait.

Chapter Text

The view of the ocean looks better from this park bench. The sound of waves sound off like a mantra, the feel of the tide’s push and pull still a memory on his body. They’re doing a promotional photoshoot for a new makeup brand, one of the ones with a bunch of extra letters from a country Shownu has no chance of pronouncing. It’s a natural concept; none of them are wearing anything extravagant, nor are they wearing performance-grade makeup. To the untrained eye, they’re just four kids.

 

“What do you MEAN, ‘you’re lost’, we took literally one turn! You were right behind us! I asked you maybe five minutes ago if you knew what was going on and you said ‘yes’!!”

 

Well… they were just four kids, but right now they’re two kids with a photographer and a manager and there are another two kids without either of those running around somewhere that is distinctly not here . Kihyun is doing that thing where he breathes slowly and counts to ten so his words don’t come out as in incoherent, angry jumble of sth’s and ‘jinjja!’s.

 

“Hyungwon and Wonho said they’re by a fountain and I think I know where that is.” He says, head turning to face all three of them. I’m gonna get them, shouldn’t be more than 15 minutes.”

The manager nods, tells him ok, and to text him once he finds them.

And then he’s gone.

 

**

 

It really should be him going out and looking for the members. Kihyun had been gracious enough to make the call, and he’s thankful, of course he is, but he’s the leader- it’s his job to look out for his members. At the same time, the knot in his side isn’t getting any better; the product of eating out one too many times and eating things that he knew would make him sick. They tasted so good, tasted like home, how could he resist? His stomach hadn’t dealt with that kind of heaviness in so long that it didn’t remember how to process it. He wants to move, maybe try to walk it off, but each time he shifts it feels like there’s a block of wood inside him, squashing his insides. He doesn’t regret it, not at all, but he did wish the pain would die down. He won’t be moving any time soon.

 

There’s no point standing around if they aren’t going to do anything, and the lunch break was short as it was so the manager and the photographer decide to reconvene in 10 minutes, we’ll be back soon, do you need anything? It’s a safe enough place where not as many people know who Monsta X are, so they mull it over for a moment before ultimately deciding that there’s nothing wrong with leaving Shownu on his own.

 

Which, with 20/20 hindsight, he realizes was the wrong judgement call, if the lady walking towards him is any indication.

 

“Hey, sorry to bother you, but my friend over there thinks you’re cute...”

 

Shownu takes a deep breath, but it barely feels like he can breath at all. She doesn't seem to notice.

Good.

He's dealt with people before. He can handle this. 

**

 

“---then don’t tell me you know where you’re going if you don’t!”

 

“But we thought we knew!”

 

“You guys are such dummies, who turned you lose?” The only thing he can think to do is shake his head in disbelief, turning his attention to the staff members and away from the headache that was Hyungwonho. “Hey, I got them. Should we start?”

 

“Sure. We texted Shownu-ssi to come back a few minutes ago, when we saw you come through the gate, so he should be back soon.”

 

Kihyun whips out his phone, fingers already typing in his password, moving so fast until he

 

stops.

 

Wonho double checks him. “You ok?”

 

“Yeah, yeah… it’s…. Yeah, it’s ok.” He says, fumbling as he tries to open Google Maps. “I’m gonna go get him. Be back in ten.”

 

**

 

Kihyun power walks to the boathouse, the one that Shownu sent in as a shaky picture as an answer to where he was. A red- tinted hand swings back and forth, fist clenched tight around his phone, which is still on. The words ‘please come back’ jostle in their colorful bubble.

 

He’s jogging by the end, picking out Shownu’s giant frame balled up next to a tree, uncoiling and shaking into a standing position as he realizes Kihyun is back.

 

“There you are! What are you doing out here?”

 

“Kihyunnie, I don’t feel so good.”

 

“You said that when we were in the car, did it get worse? Do you need to go to urgent care?” his features draw in, head ticking to the left as he tries to chart the best course of action.

 

“My stomach has been upset since this morning.” He says, voice trembling as his body jitters, ”I thought I could get through it… I was sitting down and there were some girls talking to me and I didn’t like it so I left, but then I didn’t know where to go so I tried to make my way back but it started hurting again...”

 

He looks down at the ground, lip wobbling as he tries not to cry, and in a very small voice, he whimpers, “Papa I don’t like this anymore, I wanna go home.”

 

They freeze.

 

Oh.

 

Oh my god

 

Ok. This is….

 

Ok. This is happening.

 

Shownu looks around in horror as he realizes what’s going on, what he’s just done, and where he's just done it. He babbles desperately, trying to pull himself up only to fall each time. It takes a moment for Kihyun to get over the initial shock, body shifting gears from the tense-muscled panic to the wave of relief to the soft tenderness blossoming inside of his chest. Because no matter what, that's his baby. That will always be his baby. The feeling radiates through him, flowing through his hands which come up to cup his Little’s cheeks. Kihyun puts his hands on Shownu’s face, urging him to calm down, to breathe.

 

“Hi there, sweetheart.” he says, watching his words work like a key to wind down Shownu's worries. “I’m gonna take care of this. I just need you to keep quiet. Can you do that for me?”

 

He nods.

 

“Thank you.”

 

**

 

With one hand holding the Little’s and the other raised to his ear, he makes the call.

 

“Minhyuk, I need your help.”

“Thank goodness you didn’t call ten minutes ago when I was guest starring on Jooheon and I.M vlive.” The voice on the other end rasps, “What is it?”

“Shownu dropped. We’re still in public. It’s a long story, I’ll tell you when we get back.”

 

He hears the sound of a chair scraping against the floor, followed by what he assumes is the sound of a knee banging into a table. There’s some quiet cursing and rustling as Minhyuk uses his free hand to put his jacket on. “Shownu is with you, right? Is he ok?”

 

“Yeah, but he doesn’t look so good. He’s sick. Everything’s unfamiliar and there are tons of people, he’s having a tough time. I didn’t realize humans were all this loud, I thought it was just you.” He throws in for a laugh.

 

“I’m gonna have to go over there. This town is only quiet enough for one loudmouth.”

 

Kihyun lifts up his shoulder so he can tuck his phone between it and his ear. It frees up his other hand so he can open up the plastic baggie in his emergency pack. “We're meeting the car at another entrance. I need you to get someone over here to get Wonho and Hyungwon. I’m putting masks on us so that way fewer people talk to us. It’ll buy us a few seconds.”

 

“On it. I’ll take care of messaging them. Text me whenever you can.”

 

“Thank you, Minhyuk. You’re a lifesaver.”

 

**

 

PD tells them to take it easy. Sicknesses are sicknesses and at the very least they have pictures of Kihyun and Shownu from the first half of the day and therefore won’t need to schedule another session. It comes as a relief- he can’t be distracted by those thoughts now, not when the other ones, the ones that yell louder to be there and to fix this and to care , climb their way over all his priorities.

 

Kihyun comes through the door at a speed which says ‘urgency’, but with the time and effort to not be too loud opening doors or calling out to Minhyuk. The blonde man comes at a trot, immediately receiving the both of them. With his help, Kihyun is able to slowly lower Shownu to the ground.

 

“There, is that better?”

 

“Mhmm. Thanks papa.” He nods, going back to chewing anxiously on his finger. Kihyun takes it out of his mouth, offering a plushie in its place.

 

“I’m glad you texted me, bub. That was quick thinking of you.”

 

“Papa proud?”

 

Kihyun perches himself up on his right hand, left brushing down Shownu’s face, then rubbing soothing circles onto his chest. “So proud of you. You’re such a good boy.”

 

He gasps. “Good?”

 

The spark of brightness in his eyes is returned with a kiss. 

 

“The best.”

 

**

 

They hear the crunch of gravel coming from the van below a few hours later. Kihyun sits up, tells Shownu to sit tight and rest, summons Minhyuk, then walks out. He wants to be out there when the others get home, that way they don’t think anything is too out of order. He doesn’t want them to come looking. One day they’ll tell them, and they’ll be able to share the responsibilities, but for now it isn’t his place. He greets them all with a nonchalant wave, asks them how they are, how the rest of the shoot went, and tells them to have fun at their meetings. The door finally finally closes, leaving just the three of them and the low whistle of a kettle.

 

Kihyun watches his right hand shake, his left one having taken over tea-stirring duty. It’s still too hot for Shownu to drink, Little or not. He’ll have to be extra careful not to drop it.

 

“Hey,” the form of a body comes in from behind him. Minhyuk . “You doing alright?”

“I... “ He stalls, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ok. It’s just tough to see. I can fix this one at least. It’s not as bad as last time, but it’s not good by any means.”

 

“He’s asking for you, you know. That’s why I came in.” Minhyuk places his hand over Kihyun’s. The rhythmic clink of metal against ceramic stops. “Go. I’ll take care of this.”

 

**

 

Knock knock

 

“Baby, it’s me.”

 

Shownu’s head quirks to the side when he hears the door squeak open. His words come out mumbled with a slack-mouthed sleepiness. “Papa!”

 

“Yes honey, it’s me. How are you feeling? Any better?”

 

He shakes his head no, pout reappearing. Minhyuk managed to get him changed into a soft, oversized pastel sweater and shorts.

 

“I’m sorry, bub. This must be a lot for you. Do you want to watch cartoons?”

 

He nods. “Mmm…. like toons….”

 

“Let me get you all set up here.” He holds out his hand, an invitation to come closer.

 

Shownu tries to get up, tries to do what Kihyun says, but a sharp pain rips through him, gutting him from left hip to the bottom of his right lung. His face scrunches up as he tries to hold in the cry that wants to come out.

 

“No no no I’m sorry baby, I didn’t know you were hurting that much. You just stick tight, I’ll go get some blankets from the other rooms, OK? Let papa take care of it for you.”

 

Let papa take care of it? He can do that… “‘Kay…” Shownu nods, and with the confirmation, Kihyun walks back to his room and starts tearing it apart.

 

Ok… well he doesn’t look like he’s having a great time trying to sit up, so he might as well keep everything low, on the ground. But he also needs to see the screen. Will he be too warm or too cool with these? I can put this one down and this one over here… Yeah! These should work….

 

The way he moves is like a bee, rushing from place to place, leaving blankets out on the floor, blocking out a space for them, then running back for more. The comforter goes down, then a thermal, and a thinner, softer blanket. All of the soft blankets end up bunched together so Shownu can pick and choose the ones he wants. The pillows are next, Kihyun grabbing as many as he can in one go without falling over. He drops them at the head of the pile. The last element he needs the edge of the nest, which he makes by turning up the edges of the blankets. Standing back, it looks good- comforting, warm, and big enough for the three of them.

 

Ok, looks good...

 

He beckons with one hand with the other taps the nest. “Come on, honey, we’ll get you tucked in.” Shownu crawls over slowly, stomach still clenching and churning, placing one hand then one foot on the nest before finally laying down.

 

“Oh! I almost forgot!” He runs out again, then brings back an armful of stuffed animals. There are the teddy bears that Shownu always got from fans, plus the giant hamster one Kihyun had won while they were in Japan. He picks out several of the larger plushies off of Minhyuk’s bed.

 

“Whale!” The Little says, hand reaching out in a grabby motion.

 

“Whale?”

 

“Mnmm, like whale.”

 

Something twitches in Kihyun, something that he’s going to have to stick on his bulletin board of ‘Things That I Will Deal With At A Time that Is Not Now’, because it feels like it could be jealousy, but that would be dumb, why would he be jealous over Shownu preferring the whale plushie over the hamster one? If it makes his baby happy, then who is he to argue?

 

Shownu hugs the whale close, snuggling into it, a content smile on his face. 

 

Happy. 

 

Kihyun's heartstrings sing.  “Then the whale it is.”

 

**

 

Minhyuk comes back with two mugs, balancing on one foot so he can toe the door closed. 

 

“Hi, sweetheart, there’s some tea in this mug for you and some oatmeal in this one. Do you want to eat?” He shakes his head no. “Alright, we’ll try again later.”

 

“I don’t think he has any plans of letting Marne go.” Kihyun laughs, stroking the Little’s hair fondly.

 

“That’s ok. You’ll take good care of her, won’t you?” He smiles, he wouldn’t really mind if Shownu got his whale dirty, not really. There’s nothing they could stay mad at him for. Minhyuk slips under the covers, pulling the plush comforter over himself, then nestling down further. It’ll be a challenge to get him to move any time soon.

 

Minhyuk tinkers around on the iPad, scrolling through the list of saved shows. Shownu groans slightly, rolling so he can tuck his face into Kihyun’s chest. Kihyun wraps an arm around him. 

 

“Awww… my poor baby…” He says, slipping his hand under Shownu's sweater to rub the Little’s stomach. It’s so warm, like a soft little oven, which isn’t good by any standards but it pulls at his heart nonetheless.

 

“Thanky papa....” Shownu gives the best smile he can muster. His papa gives him a kiss.

 

“You’re welcome, precious.”

 

**

 

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Kihyun was supposed to come out, grab a few bottles of water, then go back in for another episode of Sesame Street, but fate (and by fate he means Hyungwon) has other plans for him.

 

“Look…. I… I know I’m not the best when it comes to talks like these, but I wanted to let you know that me and Kyunnie and Seokkie and Heonie all support you, Minhyuk, and Shownu.”

 

Kihyun cocks his head to the side, not entirely sure where the conversation is headed but going along with it for the sake of argument. “That’s fantastic, Hyungwon. Not entirely sure why you’re telling me this, but awesome, good to know.”

 

“Wait-- you mean--? But I thought?” The other man sputters.

 

They both stare at one another, the gears turning he realizes the implication. Hyungwon braces himself for impact as Kihyun twists his body and yells, “ What?

 

“You guys aren’t dating each other???”

 

“No!” He yelps, “We’re not--- god, Hyungwon, what kind of drugs are you on?”

 

“I hear you and Minnie and Nu-hyung all the time… You guys all took a bath together. Are you-- You’re absolutely sure nothing is going on? Like you’re not just saying that and then later you’re gonna come out like ‘SURPRISE’ and then--”

 

“No! Nothing is happening, nothing is going on. End of discussion.” Kihyun storms out of the room leaving a very confused Hyungwon wearing a grimace.

 

**

 

He twists the doorknob before pulling the door closed, the click a quiet vibration. He considers slipping back into the empty space meant for him, but instead crouches by his co-parent’s side.

 

“We need to talk,” Kihyun whispers, careful not to wake his baby, “First of all, you’re really loud.”

 

A scoff, “I don’t know, Ki, have you seen me? I could be way louder.”

 

Minhyuk ,” his voice is tense; a warning, “Hyungwon knows something is up.”

 

The words register, Minhyuk twitching his head to look between the door and Kihyun, eyes wide. “Does he know what , exactly, is up?”

 

Kihyun shakes his head. “No, but if we don’t get our stories straight we could be in for some trouble.”

Chapter Text

 

“Yeah but I mean what if we move this over here, then we can say that it was for educational purposes….” the marker squeaks as Minhyuk draws yet another arrow, this one spanning across the entire whiteboard that Kihyun wheeled in about two hours ago. They’re writing on top of the remains of old notes, bits of color sticking out at the borders, new words written and erased and written over again.

 

The change doesn’t seem to impress him, a second color coming in to cross out one bubble and recircle another, a new line headed off to one of the many circled words on their timeline. “No way, they won’t buy that. But if we change this section, we can rearrange it so that this happened before that…

 

Minhyuk waves his hands out in front of him, “This is so confusing. Why don’t we scrap this and try it all again, from the top.”

 

“Absolutely.” The each grab a tissue and clear the board.

 

Shownu lets out another sigh. The two of them have been at this for hours. Kihyun’s one-track mind and Minhyuk’s ever-expanding imagination have kept them there, in that room, away from everyone else too long for it not to be suspicious. He stopped checking his watch once he realized that all of his evening tasks would have to be done tonight and all of his tasks for tonight would have to be squeezed in between those or shoved to tomorrow.

 

Enough .” His voice cuts through with its low tone, the one that could stop any member in their tracks. They look at him, waiting for what sort of announcement could follow, “That's enough. We should tell them.”  

 

“What?”

 

“We should tell them. It’s ok. We’ll sit them down and we’ll tell them.”

 

“I mean--- We-- Are you--- Are you sure? You don’t have to. It’s your personal life. If you don’t want to, you shouldn’t feel like you have to because of someone else.”

 

“Yeah, don’t push yourself if you don’t feel comfortable. We can figure something out, right Ki?” Minhyuk throws in. Kihyun nods in confirmation, already drawing up the familiar timeline they've been working with this whole time, ready to get back to work. 

 

 Shownu does know that they could figure something out- they're them.

That’s why he has to do this.

 

“No, it’s ok. We’ll have to tell them at some point. I have a feeling they already know a little bit, so if we let them be, they'll come to their own conclusions and it'll be more difficult on us later. We might as well clear the air.” He stands to his full height, “Apart from this Little…. situation, in the end I’m still the leader. I have a responsibility to all of you to guide you. That means leading by example. What would it say to the others if I were to hide this from them, to hide from myself? It would mean that our habits, even the stranger ones, are things we are not allowed to have. I know personally that this is a struggle, and it’s not something I’d want anyone to go through.I know you two want to help me, and I appreciate that, and at this point, the best thing we can do is be honest and hope for the best. We have to trust in our teammates. The others deserve to know.”

 

Kihyun looks at him, hard. So much trust, so much care, the mentality of leadership was never just an action but an entire lifestyle. They’ve come a long way from being clumsy trainees, too nervous around one another to have anything more than a four-sentence conversation. They’ve done it all, together, with Shownu to show them the way. He’s proud to have Shownu as his leader. Kihyun looks at Minhyuk to find that the other man is already nodding.

 

“Ok… let’s tell them.”

 

**

 

“It’s happening!” Jooheon motions for them to come forward, into the living room for the meeting. The motion is all that it takes. Wonho and Changkyun look at one another, then fumble to unwire themselves from their studio. Getting up, they see Minhyuk and Kihyun flash past the doorway, Shownu in tow. They take up their customary positions, except Kihyun and Minhyuk are on either side of Shownu instead of in their usual positions on either side of Jooheon.

 

Kihyun shakes his hands, expending the nervous energy that’s been building in him. “We’ve called you all here because when we formed, we agreed there would be no secrets between us. The three of us had a long discussion, and we wanted to keep our privacy, but it’s only fair for you to know-”

 

“It’s ok, we know.”

 

“You do?” Shownu visibly pales.

 

Wonho steps in front of the younger three on his side, shielding them as the eldest. “Yeah, and if you guys are all happy together, then we’re happy. I don’t really understand polyamory but love comes in many shapes and forms, and the times are changing, so you shouldn’t feel like you have to hide.”

 

A pin drop.

 

Then, chaos.

 

“Wait wait wait no that’s no--”

 

“We aren’t--”

 

“I mean I love you guys but not like that--”

 

“Are you not--???”

 

“No! We aren’t! That’s not even why we came out here.”

 

“Oh.. so then….?

 

Shownu puts his hand up, effectively drawing attention to himself. It seems to distract them enough to quiet the chatter.

 

“We came out here to discuss a very serious matter. Not like that serious, not like relationship-serious, but still we would like you to all listen to what we have to say all the way through and hold onto your questions until the very end.” Shownu waits until he has their full attention, no side conversation or staring off into space, to begin talking again. He begins the long process of explaining with a heavy sigh.

 

“Where do I start? As you all know, the idol life can be very stressful. We have a lot of pressure to keep up appearances and also keep up performing. I love being an idol, I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world, but sometimes it gets overwhelming. So, to cope with that, I regress into Littlespace.

 

“Littlespace, or age regression as some people and online forums like to say, is a way for me to relieve stress. I behave and think like a child, which allows me to temporarily forget about my responsibilities. Some of the activities I enjoy are watching cartoons and drawing. I also like soft blankets and being cuddled. Anything that makes me feel safe and secure. Being in my headspace gives me a safe space to let go. ”

 

He’s shaking by the end of his speech, chest heaving though it still feels like he’s out of breath. There’s so much more that they have to cover, but he’s done enough, Minhyuk thinks, resting his hand on Shownu’s shoulder before picking up the conversation.

 

“Kihyun is the primary caretaker. That means that 90% of the time, Shownu will go to him when he feels Little. The other 10%, he’ll come to me because I’m the backup caretaker. Being a caretaker means making sure Shownu is comfortable, happy, and safe. We do our best to make sure that he’s stress-free when he’s in Littlespace because that’s what the headspace is for. Taking care of a Little can be a handful, so a lot of the time, we do it together. That’s why you’ve seen us leaving and being alone together.”

 

The room is silent. No one is brave enough to ruin it by breathing. The members are stuck in various states of shock, ranging from Wonho’s open-mouthed gawk to Changkyun’s bug eyes. Suddenly his skin feels too warm. He swallows, as though that would push down the sickening feeling threatening to make him retreat into himself and never come out again, and asks, 

 

“Any questions?”

 

**

 

The words ‘Little’ and ‘Caretaker’ and ‘headspace’ play on the lips of the four members, each of them putting together the words and figuring out a way to attach their meanings to their leader, who was strong and brave and steadfast but was also stressed and in need of some help. And it’s not like they weren’t all like that, they were. Life was stressful even before they became idols, but it reached a new high whenever they started performing. And the revelation… isn’t exactly what they were expecting.

 

Hyungwon is confused. Like actually confused. Like genuinely, stupidly, ‘I’m sorry could you repeat that again’ confused.

 

“You’re a what ?”

 

“A Little.” he says, voice wavering with uncertainty, “It’s a term people use for when someone enjoys age regression. In my case, I use it to let go and relax”

 

“Why didn’t you tell us earlier?”  Jooheon inserts before Hyungwon can get another word in.

 

Kihyun’s eyes narrow. He tries to keep his voice even, but he can tell the tone bites. “I know we said that we wouldn’t have any secrets, but he also doesn’t owe you that kind of information.”

 

He recoils, hands up in surrender; an apology. “I’m sorry, I was just curious.”

 

Minhyuk is quick to put his hand out, quick to stop Kihyun before things unravel. “What he means to say is that it’s a sensitive topic. It’s not something you can come out and say right away. There are a ton of ways a conversation like that could go, and that can be daunting.”

 

“There aren’t a ton of ways I can think of… I mean, you’re still you, but now there’s another side of you. There are lots of sides to all of us…. And I’m sorry that the reason you have to become Little is because of us.”

 

“It’s not because of you all, Heonie. I was a Little before I met any of you. Please don’t blame yourself.” he continues, “And I’m glad that you know that I haven’t changed. But no one can ever be sure. Littlespace isn’t a widely-known topic. People associate it with pedophilia when really it couldn’t be any more different.”

 

“How often do you drop? I had no idea any of this was going on. Was I blind or was there not much to catch onto?”

 

“You didn’t realize it because you didn’t have a reason to be looking for it. You couldn’t have known. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

 

The sound of Wonho asking a question pulls their attention away from him. Jooheon doesn't look up. If he did, he would be looking at least one person in the eye and he doesn't think he could handle that. He gets it. He really does. He just wishes he could’ve done more.

 

**

 

The others mull over their questions, wondering what’s too much to ask and weighing it against what they want to know. Wonho mainly ping-pongs back and forth with the three of them, asking what things Little Shownu liked, and if he was willing to try new things, and what things did he already have. It helps buy time for Hyungwon to muster up the courage to raise his hand halfway, put it down, then raise it fully. Kihyun motions for him to speak.

 

“Is... are you guys… is Littlespace sexual in any way?”

 

The shiver running down Shownu’s spine forces him to sit up a little straighter, rolling out his muscles to get rid of the discomfort. He was expecting to have to answer this, but it still twisted his insides to do so. “Some people’s Little-caregiver relationships are. For me, there’s nothing sexual about it. I just use it as a destresser.”

 

“So any romantic feelings are separate from it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you don’t have any romantic feelings towards either of your caregivers.”

 

“No, I don’t.”

 

“Huh…” Hyungwon’s head bobs lazily as the information sinks in.

Not in a relationship.

Nothing sexual about it in the slightest.

So he was completely wrong.

He feels like an idiot for confronting Kihyun, for eavesdroppping, for every time he bent over backwards just to try to see something that wasn’t there. It’s a headspace.

 

It’s just a headspace.

 

As if to encourage him, Minhyuk smiles and says, “That’s a good question, Wonnie. Since sex is an element in some relationships, it needs to be acknowledged. It’s good to get them out so everyone is on the same page.”

 

The confidence seems to die down as he gives a half-hearted ‘oh ok good to know, thanks’, unable to bring himself to look the Little or either Caregiver in the eyes.

 

**

 

“I… I have a questions?”

 

“Sure, Changkyun, go ahead.”

 

“What does it feel like to drop?”

 

“It’s a good feeling, like when you get into bed. Content. And maybe a little sleepy? I know that isn’t the right term, but everything moves slower. It’s difficult to speak, which is why you’ll only hear me use one or two words at a time.

 

Changkyun raises his hand again to ask a followup. “Do… do you remember it? When you drop?”

 

“Bits and pieces, here and there. Enough to remember that I’ve dropped. It’s like waking up from a dream. Sometimes I remember all of it. Sometimes I don’t.” Shownu is keeping calm, Kihyun will have to praise him for being so good about the entire situation. He can tell that it’s a relief to not have to hide anymore, but it’s also a huge strain.

 

When it seems like there others have run out of questions, Minhyuk steps in to formally close the conversation.

 

“I know this is a lot to take in all at once. We aren’t asking you to help, we--”

 

“I’ll help!” Minhyuk's shoulders fly up to his ears, startled. There's a hand waving around, attached to it is a smitten-looking Wonho bouncing excitedly from his couch spot. His face flushes patchy pink, embarrassed by his own outburst, his other hand pulling down the raised one as though it were not part of his body. “I’d like to be a caretaker, if that’s possible.”

 

“Oh! Um… thank you, we really appreciate it. We have a few rules, nothing crazy. Since this is a new topic, we didn't want to talk about it all right now. Let you guys get your heads around the situation, y'know? The rules are just so there are limits and so that Shownu can feel safe when he’s Little. In the beginning you’ll probably be with one of us, but later on once you get a feel for it, you can do it on your own.”

 

Beside him, Hyungwon rubs his arm and murmurs, “I… I’m not the best at these kinds of things, but if you need me, of course I’ll be there.”

 

Jooheon and Changkyun nod too, throwing in their own soft ‘yeah I can be there if you need me’s and ‘it’s not an issues, I wouldn’t mind helping’ in support.

 

Shownu looks between them, around at his team. The look of determination wears tightly on Kihyun’s sharp features, the same determination pulling Minhyuk into a placid stare. In front of him, four pairs of eyes look on with not so much confusion, but acceptance. They may not know exactly what is going on, but they know enough to trust in the three of them; to trust in him. The right words don’t come out, or maybe they do, or maybe there aren’t words to express the kind of relief and gratefulness he feels.

 

“Thank you. All of you. Thank you, so much.”

 

**

 

When they part in the hallway, Minhyuk wishes them goodnight, he has to check in with the Sunshines for some advice, he won’t be back for a while, get some sleep you two. The click of the door feels final, the wave of exhaustion from his anxiety finally crashing down as he allows himself to breathe. They did it. They made it. And honestly? He feels better for it.

 

“Hey.” Kihyun breaks his concentration with a gentle hand on his arm. They’re so close, and looking at him, Shownu can see a quiet, vulnerable side to the man. It’s one that doesn’t show its face often, hidden in the most secure chambers buried deep inside of his being. “You did really well today. I can’t imagine it was easy- that was a huge part of yourself you put out there. And… thank you for trusting us. You believed in us before I believed in us. I’m grateful that we have you as a leader.”

 

Shownu’s lips part in a dizzying awe, body pulling away from his mind. If he were honest with himself, he’d say that it sounds like a confession, that Kihyun is bearing his soul for Shownu to hold and cherish. He would say that Kihyun sees something in him that is braver than Shownu himself can see, and that he wants to protect and explore it with him.

 

If he were honest, he would admit that the words make him feel the same sort of joy that he feels when he’s in Littlespace, when all he’s capable of feeling is love and warmth.

 

But he won’t, at least for now- it’s dangerous to admit things like that, even if it’s just to himself, even if it’s just a whisper.

 

He’ll let himself pretend a little longer.

Chapter Text

He acknowledges the floating feeling in the back of his mind, then gently pushes it away. It would be nice if he could curl up with a book and listen to Kihyun’s voice, husky and sore from singing but still so willing to read to him. He just wants to lay down, roll over into a curled up ball of sleepiness and be told he’s a good boy, a good Little, and be given kisses by his Papa. Was that so much to ask?

Perhaps.

They’re in public, he can’t drop now, there’s no time. But that’s ok. He can do it later. He’ll go to Kihyun or Minhyuk (or really he could go to any of them now, Jesus Christ) and ask them if he can drop. It has to wait. He needs to not do it, at least not now.

Shownu looks down at himself. He’s dressed in muted tans and off-whites, colors that will, without a doubt, bring out the darkness in his skin. The deep V of the shirt (is it a shirt? It doesn’t look much like a shirt...) cuts deep, showing off the top of his toned stomach. Just a little tease; an insinuation of what could be there, if someone were to unbutton the garment a little further.

His hand runs over his chest, feeling the tenseness of his body, squeezing the block of muscle by his ribs. It reminds him that he isn’t a child, he doesn’t have any of the softness one would want out of a Little. His hand slips down, over his abs, pressing into the stiffness and reminding himself that those things most definitely do not belong on a Little. He isn’t cute, he’s a grown adult. If he can force himself to focus on the hard angles of his body, he can keep himself out of Littlespace. Shownu's mind wanders down further, to the weight between his legs.
That doesn’t belong on a Little.
Because he’s not Little.
He cannot be Little.
The mellow haziness of headspace lessens.

Ok...
This is good.

The photographer instructs him to move, and now he’s safely away from that dangerous drop point. The position shows off as much skin as possible, amber lighting shining yellow off of him. He looks like a summer night, the steam rolling off the sidewalk after a sunshower. He looks hot. He looks like sex.

“Good!” She smiles, one eye wide behind a rapid shutter. “Stay just like that!”

**

Kihyun eyes him with a thin-lipped suspicion, eyes flicking up and down over him.

There’s something wrong.

Kihyun can’t put his finger on it, but he knows something is wrong. Call it hypervigilance, call it his sixth sense, call it whatever- something doesn’t sit right with him, and it’s making him shift every fifteen seconds to try and shake it, but nothing works. He can’t ask what’s bothering Shownu because Shownu would never tell him. He’s the leader, the one who carries everyone’s burden but never the other way around. It would be pointless because Kihyun would be met with a practiced smile and an ‘I’m fine’ which made him want to throw himself out a window because that meant things were most certainly not fine, and they’d be getting nowhere with that kind of cyclical talk.

They’ve been out for hours now. The only thing they want is to go back and rest- not even sleep, just sit down and not have to panic about where they need to be. Relaxation is a rare commodity, and in a way, they have to strong-arm their way into self-care. That’s why the Little situation existed in the first place. And Kihyun wishes he could make it easier, wishes he could be there for him all the time, but they--

“-hyun, you good?”

His head whips, trying to zero in on the direction of the noise. “Hm?”

“It’s your turn.” Wonho’s voice whispers from behind.

He looks over, bleary-eyed, at the photographer motioning for him to come on, let’s get moving, we haven’t got all day. Shownu looks at him, hesitant. The clothes hang off of him with his one foot on the stage, one foot on the floor.

“Oh, sorry.”

Kihyun takes his place on the prop one of the assistants indicated to with a floppy hand.

“We’d like you to look this way, please…” more hands touch him, moving him into his pose, the number slowly decreasing once each attendant is satisfied. The first set of flashes goes off, and he prepares himself for the long haul of sitting perfectly still.

The outfit isn’t… bad, per say. They could’ve dressed him worse. It’s more of Minhyuk’s style though. Minhyuk doesn’t mind toeing the line between masculine and feminine. If he confuses people, he confuses people and that’s it, because no one is going to stop him from wearing skirts and florals if he wants to.
Because he wants to.
Because he chose them.
He chose them in the sense that stylists would give him an option and he would take it. An option that is not an option for Kihyun. He’s used to it by now, but he still grumbles about how dumb it is every time they do this to him. People call him out on his size and effeminate beauty and so on and so on and ok fine, whatever- Kihyun is attractive. He knows he is. He isn’t exactly blind and Monbebe aren’t exactly quiet. And this photoshoot? It’s no different. He can imagine what he looks like in the camera. He knows how the angles and lighting make him look.

Beautiful.
Porcelain.
Delicate.
The same role he’s--

Oh.

He has an idea of what it might be wrong.

**

When the photographer announces that the shoot is a wrap, a collective sigh ripples through the seven of them. They can’t get to the car fast enough. Wonho had to give Changkyun a piggyback ride so the maknae wouldn’t collapse on the spot. He’s pretty sure Jooheon fell asleep before hitting the seat. Shownu’s bent over the back of his chair, buckling the rapper in, just in case. He lets out a loud sigh as he plops down in his own seat, the rumble of the road soothing his mind. .

“Are you ok?” Kihyun whispers.

Shownu nods. “Yeah… just a weird day, y’know?”

He nods, “I know. We’re almost done though. It’ll be over soon.”

It’s about two more hours before they finally make it to the garage, Hyungwon ousting Changkyun for the piggyback ride and falling asleep with his head on Wonho’s broad back. The stumble into the kitchen, then into their own rooms. Kihyun sets his things down in one fluid motion, dragging his feet to his bed, falling---

“Ow! What--?” he rolls over to glare at the object digging into his side. He’d forgotten it was there. The knock on the door earlier that morning had startled him, but he remembered what it was, what was in it, and how he’d quickly thrown it inside and covered it with a blanket before anyone could intercept him. A lopsided smile slides across his lips.

He might not know how to make Shownu feel more comfortable about his body when he’s big, but at least he could make things a little better.

**

The sting of a papercut is quickly shoved into his mouth so Kihyun can focus his attention on the box in front of him. Shownu will be out any minute. He gets back to struggling with one hand.

The bathroom door opens and closes, footsteps padding down the hall.

Here goes...

“Shownu, come here, please?”

The footsteps stop, thinking, then grow louder. Shownu peeks in through the door before he enters, making sure to close it behind him. He’s polite like that, what a gem.

“The things we ordered came in. Would you like to see them, sweetheart?”

His eyes open wide, mouth parted as he tries to think of a word, any word, to express how much he wants to. Something stops him though. He doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t want to be a bother.

“You’ve gotta tell me, sweetie- use your words.”

Looking down, the red of a blush starts inching up his cheeks. “...wanna see…”

“Anything for you.” It doesn’t take long for him to start pulling what looks like miles and miles of fleece from the first box. It pools in Shownu’s arms and his caregiver drapes it over him, and oh God, it’s even softer than it looks. He wants to bury his face in it, wrap himself up and never get out of bed. He wants someone to cuddle him while he’s in his cocoon of softness, or maybe cuddle him with both of them inside the cocoon. A content noise rises out of his chest, higher than his usual tone.

Kihyun takes it as a success.

**

“Hey Ki, I saw you left you stuff out there and I-- OH MY GOD THAT’S THE CUTEST THING I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY ENTIRE BLESSED LIFE!!!” Minhyuk drops everything into a pile in front of the door, throwing himself inside to fawn over Shownu. His left eyes is obscured under the fluffy brown fleece of his new hoodie, complete with rounded bear-eyes perked up in surprise. A poofy tail swings behind him as he turns.

“Is this the stuff???”

“Yeah, it arrived earlier and I threw it in my room. We’ve had a long day. What better way to end it?”

“I’m so excited--”

“I can tell.”

His head throws back. “I’M SO EXCITED!!!”

The others aren’t tired enough to ignore the shrill call, so when they hear Minhyuk doing The Good Kind of screaming, they have enough brain cells to put 4 and 4 together. Jooheon comes traipsing up the stairs with Hyungwon in close pursuit. Changkyun emerges from another one of his secret nooks, Wonho taking up the rear as the train of hooligans piles into the room. They first three stand with their mouths and eyes open, slowly processing the sight of their Hyung, finally seeing what Littlespace was like. The fourth stands behind them, overjoyed. 

“Is that--??”

“Where did you get that?”

“He’s a real life bear cub!”

As they move in closer to get a better look, the sudden movement towards the Little strikes something inside. Without thinking, Kihyun stands up, blocking the others from moving in. “Guys! Chill out, you don’t want to overwhelm him.”

The four of them backtrack, apologetic, finding a place to sit on the floor, on the bed, on each other.

 

"You're right," Changkyun starts, "what should we do? What do you need us to do?" 

 

They remind him of those racoons from that one x-ray episode; so eager. It comes as a pleasant surprise, Kihyun thinks, beginning his long explanation. 

 

**

 

The thin plastic covering of the onesie tears open silently, all noise lost to the fiddling the others were doing. Shownu sits contently between Minhyuk’s legs, Changkyun and Hyungwon’s curious, almost apologetic questions and Wonho’s more enthusiastic giggles filling the silence as he concentrates. They're making their way through the stuffed animals and little toys that also came in the box, each of them taking turns to offer one to Shownu so he can play with it. Once all of the tags are off, Kihyun looks up for the first time in 20 minutes to find Wonho’s head turned over his shoulder, looking on with wide eyes.

“Can I put that- I mean, can I help him put that on?”

The corner of Kihyun’s mouth twitches. He looks at him, then at the Little, then back. Wonho’s bright eyes and puffy-cheeked smile never fade, even as Kihyun runs through all of the possibilities of saying yes with a narrow-eyed gaze. He trusts Wonho with his life, sure he does, but he isn’t sure if he trusts him with Shownu’s. He was enthusiastic, and that would be useful in the future in the event they weren’t there, but he needed to be more than that- a caregiver wasn’t just someone who took on the adult responsibilities, they were people who made sure their Littles we're happy and comfortable. But then again, it's Wonho, and Wonho was one of the people who knew what they were doing when it came to children, knew what to say and do and how to love fully and without hesitation. It’ll be ok he tells himself. He and Minhyuk are right there, if anything happens. Which nothing will, because if anything goes south, they’ll stop it right away.

“It’s not up to me. You have to ask him. You’ll have to see if he’s comfortable with you.” he nods, holding his hands out; a request.

“Nunu!” He lets the fabric unroll, holding it up and looking around from the side. “Wanna try this on?”

All eyes turn towards him. Kihyun gives Minhyuk a nod when the other man gives him a questioning look. The Little checks it up and down, eyebrows furrowed. “What that?”

“It’s a onesie. It has cute feeties and a tail, see?” Wonho turns the onesie around, moving the tail for effect. The motion mesmerizes him. “Would you like me to help you put this on?”

“Yes Tokki, want please!” he smiles, and Kihyun breathes out a sigh of relief, oh thank goodness. Wonho looks like he's about to cry.

“Let Minnie help you with that…” Nimble hands reach out towards the zipper giving Shownu trouble. He slips out of the sweater, which Changkyun and Jooheon grab with an ‘ooh’ and an ‘aah’ and a ‘I completely get why he likes this so much’.

“Up up, pup.” Wonho’s rolled the pant legs of the onesie so they're bunched up in his hand so that they can see into the footie. He holds it out like an offering, encouraging with a nod of his head, though what he’s trying to encourage, Shownu isn’t sure.

“Lift your leg up for Tokki?”

He brings one foot up, then the next, letting Wonho slip on the feeties and pull the rest of the onesie up.

“Zipper…. Got it!” the ring on the front goes up with a fzzzt, Shownu feeling even more secure now that he was completely covered. The others let out a string of coos. Wonho starts actually crying.

“What a good boy.”

**

It’s Minhyuk who rallies the others to the living room, whoever gets there first gets to pick the movie, but we can’t watch The Lion King again because that’s what we saw last time and we have to switch it up, Kyun. Kihyun had given him The Look, his head ticking towards the Little, who was looking overwhelmed with the number of conversations and voices he was surrounded by. Minhyuk had stood up and made his announcement, then walked out so the five of them could continue their conversation in the kitchen.

Shownu turns to follow them, but a hand placed on the crook of his arm pulls his attention back towards Kihyun.

“Baby boy, there’s one last thing....” He says, holding his hand behind his back, “Can you wait here for a minute?”

The Little cocks his head to the right. “Go?”

“I’ll be right back, I just need to run to the bathroom for a moment.”

“Come back?”

“Yes! Of course, baby. Close your eyes and count to ten and Papa will be right there when you open them.”

He hesitates. The yucky feeling in his stomach gets worse when he thinks about not being able to see his Papa, but to make him proud, he has to be good. Shownu covers his eyes with both hands and counts.

1, 2
Quick footsteps jump out of the room
3, 4, 5
Across the hall, a faucet turns on.
6
The faucet turns off, then silence.
7, 8
More footsteps zig-zagging closer to him.
9
The door closes.
10.

Shownu opens his eyes. The baby elephant on the pacifier trumpets against a pastel green background. There’s a smile on its face below little black-dot eyes. A striped green heart sticks out at the end of its nose. His eyes are glued to it, all distant chatter muted.

It’s for him.

Kihyun got that.

For him.

“Open up, honeypot.” Kihyun shakes off the water while his other hand strokes the Little’s face. He watches his Papa focus, making sure to place the rubber bit precisely into his mouth.

“Do you like it?”

He wants to say yes, he loves it, thank you for this, for everything. He wants to tell Kihyun that he’s the best Papa ever, that he’s the luckiest Little around. His words collide into one massive trainwreck, thoughts cycling as though they were a ship blown off course. The only thing he can say is,

“Yes! Likes a lot!” Shownu teeters over, then collapses on Kihyun, sending both of them to the ground in a soft puddle. “Thanky Papa!”

Kihyun uses the momentum to lean back so his Little’s head is resting against his chest, kissing his cheek.

“You’re welcome, baby.”

Chapter Text

It wouldn’t be an X-Ray episode if it didn’t have that element of ‘what in the world is going on’ that Monsta X always brought, he thinks, walking away from the circle. Whatever the outcome, it shouldn’t be too bad. It isn’t like one of those tequila plans Kihyun laughed about, and though Shownu doesn’t really understand it first hand, he has an idea of what he means. But this isn’t one of those. It’s probably more of a ‘I thought this was a good idea at the time but now that I’m here I think this is a terrible decision’.

 

KAI! BAI! BO!

 

Screams erupt from three of his members; groans of misery trickle out of the rest.

 

“We’re going camping!!!”

 

Ok, fine- it might be a little like a tequila plan.

 

**

 

The cameramen see them off at the boathouse, helping them get their mini stick-mounted cameras ready. Within 100 meters, the waving figures only register as changes in the shadows between the trees. It could easily be mistaken for a branch bending in the wind. After 300 meters, none of them are sure what shadows are people and which ones aren’t.

 

It’s a welcome change from the usual sights and sounds of Starship. The continuous cycle of moving between six locations could get boring after a while. The only times they got to go out and explore were for episodes like these, or when they were on tour and got turned loose in whatever city they’d be performing in that night, and even then it was only for a few hours. It’s a well-deserved reprieve from the usual lives. This trip will be good for all of them.

 

After forty minutes of walking in one direction, Shownu is still trying to make heads or tails of the map, eyebrows scrunched up in concentration. The others are on recording duty, which meant they would be looking at plants and getting within five centimeters of each other’s faces, but as long as they were having a good time, he didn’t mind being the resident adult. Being the leader and having survived Law of the Jungle AND Real Men meant he was deemed most capable of leading them through the forest (though it should really be someone like Wonho, who loves being outside, or Changkyun, who just sort of knows what he’s doing but yeah, sure that’s cool) and therefore he would be the one steering this metaphorical ship. His eyes alternate between squinting at the miniscule lines on the paper and looking down to check for roots. According to the compass dial bobbing around in his left hand and the miniature ruler he’s been using to scale the distances up and down, the campsite should be ahead of them.

In that….

General area….

...

It’s gotta be around here somewhere, right?

 

Shownu lets out a disgruntled sigh. They’d been walking for a long time. How far was that? He’d need to measure again…. He mumbles his logic to himself, trying to create a checklist of the things he should be doing.

 

None of which, he realizes, include checking behind him to make sure everyone is following.

 

Which, now that he’s checking, most of them aren’t.

 

**

 

Kihyun may or may not be panicking- it’s completely debatable. He’d bent down to watch a tree frog hop its way across a log at the behest of Hyungwon, who found the whole thing adorable, but now, getting back up, he realizes that there are no other humans in sight.

 

“Wonnie, get up.”

 

The other man doesn’t budge, instead moving his camera closer. The frog starts munching on a cricket. “Aww, but Ki….”

 

“Wonnie, I don’t see anyone.”

 

“You don’t-- oh.”

 

Looking around, the only thing he can see are trees and bushes and more trees and nothing stands out, nothing. Were they far? Was Shownu alright? And where were the others? He only has a general idea of where they’re supposed to set up camp, but he doesn’t have the map or anything.

 

He’s about to make a futile attempt at radio-ing the others when Hyungwon whacks him on the shoulder, then grabs him in an iron grip. “Do you hear that?”

 

“No, I-- wait, is that water?”

 

“That’s what I thought too! Our site it close to water, if we follow it, we should get close enough to meet up with the others.”

 

It’s a long shot, but it’s one of the only shots they have.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

**

 

They made a turn at a giant moss-covered boulder, but at this point everything looks the same and it would be even worse if they were to get lost themselves. At each stage, Shownu and Jooheon had taken turns blowing the Safety Whistle- a system someone had suggested in case they lost sight of one another- but were met only with the sounds of forest creatures and the creak of old wood. The fact that they’re out of earshot of one another means that the situation is even worse than they originally thought. Back on the path, Shownu’s steps are more powerful; purposeful.

 

“Hey, are you ok?” Jooheon is the only one who needs to keep up with him, and though he also wants to get to the site as quickly and efficiently as possible, Shownu needs to slow down.

 

“I…. We're running out of time.” His words are disjointed, defeated. It’ll be dusk soon. The edge of the sunlight kisses the highest hill, sky beginning to radiate soft purples. The harder he tries, the worse off things feel. “I don’t like being away from the others. Let’s find them quickly.”

 

“They can’t have gone too far.” he says, but looking around, the only thing he can see are trees, bushes, and more trees. Even the sky is mostly covered by the dense leaf cover. “Come on, I’m sure we’ll find them.”

 

Jooheon puts down the selfie stick he’d been given, instead extending his hand as an offering. When Shownu looks at it with questioning eyes, he does a quick flick with his hand.

 

Come on.

 

Shownu places a hand in his. He doesn’t say anything when they start walking again, this time with Jooheon in front. In a way, it feels good being led. He can lead them through interviews and awards shows and red carpets in his sleep, but here, he’s out of his element. Being on Law of the Jungle was easier than this because he’d been set off in a direction and told what to do. He can come up with solutions- that’s why he’s good at his job- but it comes as a practiced skill, a way of being which applied itself in many but not all situations. He doesn’t even notice himself panicking until Jooheon tugs on his hand and points.

 

“Have you ever seen flowers like this?”

 

Jooheon is crouched by a bush full of small purple flowers, pointing to them with a dimpled smile on his face. They’re vibrant blue with a white center, yellow pollen dusting the insides of each petal. Shownu bends down to look at them.

 

“I haven’t.”

 

“They’re pretty. How many of these bushes do you think there are? I counted fifteen.”

 

He counts up to twelve, but that doesn’t sound right so he counts again just to check. By the third time, Shownu realizes what Jooheon is doing. He stops, letting the bashful smile come over his face.

 

“Better?” The other man’s dimples look deeper now that the full orange glow of sunset is upon them.

 

“Yeah… better.”

 

**

 

They walk with hands held for another ten minutes. As much as Shownu was reluctant to go on a hike, he doesn’t mind going if it means he can spend some time with Jooheon. The rapper was always cooking up a new project, perfecting the songs in his new mixtape, or just becoming more proficient in his art in general. It felt like the only times they had seen each other had been when their schedules overlapped, and then it was all business and no fun. It was good to see him like this, enjoying himself.

 

“Here, why don’t you try the safety whistle again?”

 

In the distance, another whistle calls back. The lights in Jooheon’s eyes grow brighter. He whacks his hyung’s shoulder lightly, with excitement.

 

“Try it again!” Shownu looks around, trying to place where the second whistle came from. The shrill call echos through the forest, and in the distance, they see Wonho, Changkyun, and Minhyuk, perched atop a boulder.

 

“There you guys are!” Minhyuk waves with one long, lanky arm.

 

“Are you ok?” Shownu shouts back.

 

“Yeah, we’re fine.”

 

In the distance, someone shouts something similar to ‘LAND HO’ in what may or may not be Kihyun’s voice, but it’s mangled and changing in tone as everyone runs towards it. When they reach the clearing, they can see both Hyungwon and Kihyun with their pants rolled up, wading across a pond towards them.

 

With the seven of them back together, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted. Jooheon is being coddled by Minhyuk, Kihyun is chastising Hyungwon for being so distractible, and Changkyun has his hands on his knees, catching his breath. When he sees an opening, Shownu slips into place beside Jooheon.

 

Thank you .” He says, voice soft enough that he’s not even sure if it’s audible. If there were words to say, and if he could find them, Shownu is sure he would say them, but this kind of mercy was the one that sounded in a look.

 

The other man shines a smile in return.

 

**

 

They make up for not recording during the hike by recording literally every part of the tent-building process, which was mostly Shownu and Wonho attempting to wrassle with the tent poles while Minhyuk, Hyungwon, and Jooheon shoved cameras in other people’s faces for the sake of comedy. Kihyun had yelled at them earlier about sitting too close to the whisper light, and they had since created a semi-circle around him, narrating the entire process like a nature documentary.

 

“The hamster turns up the dial on the fire. Now we’re really cooking!”

 

“Ya! Go away!” He barks, tossing the remains of a bell pepper their way. They scattered like birds, which was to say they jumped up to move away, then went right back to their business as soon as they weren’t in immediate danger of wearing food scraps. They eat dinner by the light of a campfire, going over what each of them thought of their trip thus far.

 

Jooheon is in the middle of describing the flower bush they found earlier, but stops when he hears what sounds like two pieces of wood rubbing against one another.

 

“...it was about yea-high and--” he stops again when he hears the szzzt szzzt szzt noise again, “Kyun, you ok?”

 

Nails scrape over his skin in what they can now see are vibrant, pulsing red marks. “Yeah, no…. I’m fine, I think…. I think I stepped in something. Or I touched something? I’m just… ow, this is really itchy.”

 

Kihyun shuffles away, “You might have touched a stinging plant.”

 

“Certainly feels like I have…”

 

Putting his things down, Shownu rummages through his bag. Map, compass, breakfast for tomorrow, clothes … but nothing to take away the itch. “Who has the med kit? Could one of you---”

 

“I’ve got it!” Wonho already has the tub of anti-itch ointment raised in the air like it’s a trophy and his reward is getting to rub down Changkyun with it.

 

Which isn’t much of a reward, really, but he’s glad to be of use.

 

He pulls the rapper towards their tent, letting the others resume their conversation. Changkyun sighs. Of all the people who could be doing this, he’s glad that it’s Wonho.

 

**

 

Wonho is humming along to a song Hyungwon doesn’t recognize, placing dollops of ointment on each of the red patches remaining on Changkyun. He steps inside, then zips up the entrance behind him.

 

The inside of the tent is nice. It’s new- probably bought specifically for this trip. Since there are three of them in this one, he’d suggested laying everything out and sharing. Wonho’s sleeping bag ended up on the bottom to insulate them from the ground. The other two were being shared between them as blankets. He rearranges their bags off to the side to make space, then watches as Changkyun, looking like a scolded puppy, sits while their hyung paints him with ointment. It’s adorable and a little pitiful and he can’t help but laugh quietly. When he’s deemed covered enough, they let him take one of the sleeping bags before he exiles himself to the far corner. He and Wonho take the other sleeping bag and wish him goodnight.

 

Wonho goes to sleep in an instant, like flipping a switch. One moment he’s there, the next he’s snoring lightly, and Hyungwon wishes he could do that but no- he’s preoccupied watching the far corner of the tent. It’s a painful sight, watching as Changkyun shivers, alone. Every few seconds, he’ll stop shaking, then start up again just as hard. Hyungwon can’t let him keep going like that, so he reaches out to tap the mass.

 

“Come on.” He whispers, arms open, but he shakes his head ‘no’.

 

“No, I don’t wanna get it on you.” His voice is weary, just like the rest of him. He needs to get to sleep, but at this point, they both know he won’t.

 

“Bring your sleeping bag.”

 

Changkyun scoots over, still seated. His eyes follow as his hyung takes both ends of the fabric and cocoons them around him, sealing him and his poison ivy inside. With one strong pull, he pulls them together, then lays them down.

 

“Sleep, you’re ok.”

Changkyun doesn't need any more encouragement than that.

 

**

 

A loud sigh escapes Shownu as he bends down, then rolls backwards onto his sleeping bag.

 

“Eventful day, hm?” Kihyun shuffles inside of his sleeping bag, trying to find a comfortable position.

 

“Long day.”

 

They exchange ‘good night’s, sleep well, there’s a whole day of hiking tomorrow’. When the sounds from the other two tents dies out, Shownu realizes that there’s no way he can get to sleep now. His tossing and turning have done nothing to help. He’s pretty sure Kihyun hasn’t moved at all this entire time.

 

He thinks back, further, beyond today. Thinking of how capable Kihyun was, how quickly he’d been able to adapt to overcome any situation. If he couldn’t do it with his voice, he could surely do it with his abilities. He was a utility knife of a human. Any problem, he could take it on. And while Shownu could too, his method came with sweat and sharp movements, toiling as one did on the earth, while the other man moved like a cutting wind.

 

He was furious and hilarious and bold and unapologetic, but most of all he made sure that everyone was taken care of.

 

He’s not perfect, and that’s why he’s perfect. ..

 

“Hey, Ki?”

 

In the dark, he can see the outline of a head coming up. It isn’t entirely conscious, but it’s enough. “Hm?”

 

“Can I…? I mean, would you mind if I…?”

 

“Yeah, of course.”

 

Shownu drags his sleeping back over to Kihyun’s. Making sure not to disturb the other man too much, he rests his head on Kihyun’s shoulder.

 

Hm . He thinks, thought already slowing, the magic of an arm wrapped around him and the steady pulse of a heart vibrating in his ear.  

 

Perfect.

 

Chapter Text

It’s dangerous having no place to be, he thinks. Hands hook onto the neck of his hoodie, his hips jutting forward and swinging while he waits patiently for a response.

 

They have a break in the middle of the day, which is odd considering that that’s usually when they’re at the peak of their schedules. There’s a feeling like mismatched gears in his gut, one he’s become accustomed too more and more recently, and it won’t let him go without a fight. It had been odd to verbally ask for Kihyun’s help, especially with something like this. He doesn’t need to drop, but he definitely needs something, and somehow without saying a word, Kihyun knows what he’s asking.

 

“Give me a minute to put my things down, then we’ll get you set.”

 

Shownu sits down with his knees tucked in and his arms around his knees, then, just to double check, he leans over an peeks outside to make sure no one is there.

Left.

Right.

Nothing.

Good.

He wouldn’t want anyone to disturb him during his two-minute brainstorm. There’s a thought that’s been bothering him, but it isn’t scared or angry. It isn’t sickly jealousy or a harrowing regret. He honestly has no idea what its name is- he’s been waiting for the right word to make everything click, but so far he’s come up with a million wrong answers. He knows that once he finds it, everything will be right in the universe and he can take care of it and go back to business as usual. But until then, he’ll have to come up with answer number one-million-and-one. The only thing he knows for certain is that it has to do with their activities this morning, and specifically it has to do with Kihyun.

 

Hm.

 

Just the thought puts a smile on his face. Kihyun really was such a gem, a safe place for all of them. Where would he be without him? And not only him, but to the rest of the team too. So talented, and a natural caregiver... Was is possible to be any more lucky than he already was? He presses his palms to his face, hoping that they’ll cool down the bubbly warmth. Aish, why was he like this? And over Kihyun! It wasn’t like he liked him, not like that….

 

Something with a sick sense of irony sings to him in Kihyun’s voice, laughs to him in Kihyun’s laugh. It finds a home in the way Kihyun treats him like he’s golden. It tricks him into smiling the widest smile at the words ‘honey’ and ‘baby boy’ and ‘sweetheart’.

 

His face grows warmer.

 

Pull yourself together! Shownu hisses, but it comes out more like a whine with a ‘mwoya’ thrown in every few seconds for good measure, just in case the universe didn’t already know he was not too pleased with it. If shaking his head could dislodge the thoughts, he would make like a blender and rid himself, but alas, nothing could never be that simple.

 

“Got everything right here!” In the doorway is a triumphant-looking Kihyun looking like he’s playing a game of one-trip grocery shopping. His knees buckle when he falls to reach Shownu’s level, spilling the array of markers and crayons and snacks onto the blanket that’s become a permanent fixture in his room. And he when he reaches out to ruffle his hair, his smile shines with his silver tooth, but its stirs the feeling inside of him. If he could hold onto that smile, if he could be the cause of that smile….

 

The hand pulls away.

 

“Give me a minute to get this working, and then I’ll be all yours…”

 

If he were being honest, the music was the least of his concerns. On the desk, he sees an arm move and then a click and a mumble and a bzzt . The gentle ebb of rain underneath the piano pulls all of the stress from the day right out of him; a deep sigh music to Kihyun’s ears. He looks so peaceful, so soft.

 

The gentle coo he lets out is music to Shownu’s.

 

**

 

Feet tick back and forth with a careless rhythm. The cat he’s coloring in stretches from this angle, chin tucked in the crook of his arm. It warps every time he blinks, the puff of his cheeks bunching up. Kihyun is focused on… whatever it is he’s staring into space out, which means he can start trying to untangle the part of him that still feels out of place. Going back to their interview that morning, he remembers how he got here.

 

*

**

***

**

*

 

Kihyun pulls the slip of paper out of the jar, reading off the prompt in his perfect English; his lovely accent.

 

“If you could switch bodies with a member for a day, who would you choose and why?”

 

They all look at one another, daring each other to go first. It comes down to Shownu raising his hand because he’s the leader and it’s his job to do things when they don’t want to be done. It’s a tough question though. He could be Hyungwon, thin and elegant, beautiful and ethereal. He could be Kihyun, opening his mouth to channel the sounds of the Heavens each time he sings. He could be Jooheon, fearsome and dignified, mind built like an engine to make everything he is into art. He could be Minhyuk, vibrant and sunny and so proud to be a member; proud to call himself theirs. But there’s one answer that sticks out, one that he keeps running back to.

 

Shownu wants to say Changkyun.

 

It’s an obvious choice for him because he's the maknae and he automatically gets love from everyone, who couldn't love him with his dimples and soft puppy smiles, and his body is so lithe and flexible that he's perfect for cuddling and being fawned over. It’s the kind of attention Shownu can only get when he has a caregiver. It’s the kind of attention Shownu can only get when he allows himself to drop. Even if Changkyun were a Little, which he isn’t, the others would have no problem showering him in praise. There’s so much that he’s good at! He's so smart and speaks English, he's a blessing to this team. He can connect the best with Monbebe and he's so thoughtful and deep, he knows things the others couldn't imagine, wise beyond his years. He’s pensive and hardworking and mature, he’s seen more of the world, and at such a young age. Shownu doesn't have any of those things, and sometimes he wonders if he should be doing more, and the guilt gets to him when Changkyun can be so strong in all the places Shownu can't. The way he can brush off comments and handle himself so well without needing to drop.

 

Shownu wants to say Changkyun, but he puts on a brave face and picks Wonho instead.

 

*

**

***

**

*

 

The poking feeling in his chest calls out to him that yes! This is the thing you’re not happy about! , which does nothing but irk him more. While he would like to not be dealing with these kinds of things now, it’s better to do it this way. Being in this halfway space makes the mental conversation more comfortable- it’s more like an inquiry than a wallowing. He thinks through his logic, checking for holes like a captain on a ship. It isn't the qualities of the other members, no, definitely not. And it isn't that Changkyun has maknae privileges, that's completely normal too. But the thought spurs something, nudging him to explore the topic further.

 

Changkyun doesn't need to drop. 

OK. 

Shownu shouldn’t want to drop.

Fine. 

He shouldn’t need to drop.  

True. 

Maybe no one wants him to drop. 

Oh. 

Maybe that's what happened last time with Him

Um. 

And maybe Kihyun will do the same as Him. 

Oh no. 

 

The discomfort replaces itself for something more knowing, something he doesn’t want to name. It’s the same one he felt so many years ago, enough years ago to make him forget what it is. Shownu pushes it away, firm. This is not one of the things he can deal with in his headspace.

 

**

 

Kihyun wouldn't consider himself an artist, but the picture he drew is pretty darn great if he does say so himself. He’d filled a sippy cup with apple juice, slung the snack bag over his shoulder, and declared that he was going to spend time with the Little.

After which he had shoved an entire box of chunky kid’s crayons in his mouth to free up his hand enough to grab the stack of blank papers. They’ve been laying tummy-down on the floor for an hour, Kihyun drawing outlines of flowers and animals for Shownu to fill in and Shownu happily doing just that. The orange crayon is still in adult-position gently swiping back and forth to color a starfish that Kihyun haphazardly put together. Shownu hasn't said much- he mainly keeps his eyes on his paper and sighs every once in a while. He mist be thinking, Kihyun reasons. He looks a great deal more relaxed, which he also supposes means that he’s completed his purpose.

 

The thought strikes him in the same way that a cold hand on his back would, like when one member would come from the storm outside and touch another if only to hear their shriek. Except there’s no one here. In fact, no one is even aware that he’s thinking this. What if one day Shownu didn’t want him any more? If Shownu asked him to leave because he didn’t need him anymore, he would do it, of course he would... But would his heart truly be capable of it?

 

“How old are you, baby?” he asks, chewing on his lip.

 

“I'm still me, it's just calming. I don't think I need to drop completely, just get my mind off of things.”

 

They sit longer. Shownu doesn’t say anything, doesn’t give any indication that he’s one way or another or somewhere in the middle, and that’s ok. He’ll take the time they have now as it is.

 

**

Hyungwon’s heavy footsteps sound like horseshoes clopping on pavement, stopping outside the door to lean with one hand on the frame “Hey Shownu, PD is here. Could you come out here for-- oh is he…?”

 

Kihyun puts his hand on top of the crayon, wordlessly telling him that it was ok to keep drawing, that it was fine, he was fine. “No, he isn’t, but Jesus christ... tell him that Shownu is… I don’t know, in the bathroom or something.” he hisses.

“You seriously want me to tell PD that the reason Shownu isn’t coming out is because he’s in the bathroom?”

 

Kihyun didn’t actually want Hyungwon to tell PD that, no, but what he did want was for a minute of peace and quiet where he didn’t have to try to forcefully pull Shownu out of headspace. That was a dangerous task, one that ruined the security that it existed for.

 

“I’ll go talk to him. Watch him, I’ll talk to PD.” His right hand pats on his Little’s shoulder, “I’m gonna go take care of this. Wonnie’s here.”

 

“Awesome.” Legs fold into a criss-cross as he settled into the space. “Hey, can I draw with you?”

 

Shownu scoots himself over so that there’s enough space for both of them.

 

**

 

Somewhere along the way, Hyungwon puts on cartoons. It’s just background noise, it’s not like he’s trying to get Shownu to be Little. It’s just a nice thing to have; something that they know won’t be violent or startle either of them. A limber figure with its arms raised to stretch passes by, noiseless, but after all this time they never needed words to know.

 

“Kyunnie! What are you up to?”

 

“Just finishing up some things. Coloring, I see, wow! Looks like fun!” He plays up the tone so he sounds more like a parent speaking to a child than a maknae speaking to his hyung.

 

“It is! You should join us.”

 

Looking back from the direction he came from, it’s easy to see the task blocks stacking and unstacking with each flick of his eyes. His lip curls under a sharp tooth, “Aish, I really can’t, I need to get this done...”

 

“Please? Just for a little bit. You work so hard.”

 

He looks beyond where Hyungwon can see, to his room, which means that there’s a 95% chance he’ll say yes because he definitely does want to, but it’s all a game of whether he’ll let himself.

 

“Just for a little bit.”

 

His hand punches up and down in victory with a ‘yeah!’ under his breath. Changkyun shakes his head. What a silly hyung. Hyungwon throws a blanket around him, one of the ones he pulled from his own bed. A pile of papers and a rather pitiful assortment of markers is pushed in his general direction, and a weight settles on the back of his legs. Shownu looks at him, asking if he can stay there, and when Changkyun doesn’t move, he takes it as a yes.

 

**

 

It seems like Hyungwon is the only one still awake. He can hear the traces of conversation going on outside, and what sounds like a vlive coming from Minhyuk’s room, but other than that, it’s quiet. It quieter now that 20 minutes ago, and it’s getting quieter. The breadth of crayon strokes gets shorter and the pace gets slower. Looking over, he can see the Little’s head falling and being slowly raised back up, then falling, like he’s on a slow rollercoaster.

 

“You look tired.”

 

“Am tired…”

 

“Little?”

 

“No… not Little.” He falls back into a seated position, legs spread out before him. Shownu checks his position, then elaborates, “A little Little.”

 

He’s just too precious thinks Hyungwon, moving to snatch the fuzzy blanket out of the Baby Box.

 

“It’s ok, you can rest. We don’t have anywhere to go any time soon. I’ll wake you up a bit before.”

 

**

 

PD is most definitely not happy. He shakes his head before he leaves, please pass the message on to the rest of the members, thank you Kihyun. He says fine, the change in schedule isn’t too much of a shift anyway, though he does resolve to not mention that offhand comment about work ethic and responsibility.

 

Kihyun has only the letters ‘cance-’ in his textbook when closes the group chat in favor of opening his camera. Hyungwon has Changkyun on his shoulder and Shownu laid on top of him like a baby otter, his own eyes closed.

 

Adorable...

 

Kihyun takes the picture to send to Minhyuk. Minhyuk sends him back a meme of himself crying.

Chapter Text

It takes a few minutes for Shownu to finish explaining why he wants to be Wonho. It’s a good choice. Wonho is beautiful and dedicated and gentle. He’s a composer and sometimes Changkyun wishes he could be like him. There are other times where he wishes he could be Hyungwon with his choreography skills, his mind thinking spatially, zooming out into 3D. Or times he wishes he could have Kihyun’s confidence, even though the others rag on his and he’s technically one of the sensitive members, but he doesn’t let it bother him. Or times he wishes he could have Minhyuk’s ability to connect with people, even ones he’s only known for 45 seconds, and just understand them beyond being able to communicate with them. He could pick them, but it wouldn’t be right.

 

Changkyun wants to say Shownu.

 

Changkyun is, among other things, tired. He just wants to do well, that’s all he’s ever wanted. He wants people to tell him they’re proud of him and tell him he’s doing a good job. But everyone sees him in this scary, mysterious, bad-boy light and it makes them think he’s full of self-confidence and sophistication and that he doesn’t need to be told that his lyrics are great because he knows. Which he doesn’t. He can guess, and he can ask the others, but he can never tell. When they threw him into ‘No Mercy’ it was the worst time of his life, but he persevered because his desire to become an idol was enough to block out his need for approval.

 

And he loves being an idol, sometimes less than others, he couldn’t image his life being any other way. And it’s tough, sure it is, but it’s different with him and Shownu. He’s just so wholesome and sweet that Monbebe automatically love him. Even if he isn’t their favorite, Shownu still has his own special space carved just for leaders in Monbebe’s hearts, separate from all that bias stuff. It’s an odd thought since Changkyun’s technically the most popular member, but it doesn’t feel the same. Not when people default to him because he’s the English-speaking one. It’s like how they default to Wonho because he’s the hot one, which is by no means fair, but that’s a 67-page master’s thesis for another day. Shownu is strong but not overbearing, not trying to control, but guide, as a leader should. His kind of power is patient and gentle, like helping a deer learn to walk or a child to ride a bicycle. It's not hard to find reasons to admire him. The Showcubs love him and cherish him and sometimes it hurts . Changkyun gets those age-old evil maknae jokes, followed by the jokes about how he can get away with anything because he’s the baby and everyone loves him. But the others adore Shownu, actually love him, when they can only tolerate Changkyun. He doesn’t blame them. He knows he’s a pain to take care of; the attention is more than he deserves.

 

Changkyun wants to say Shownu, but he puts on a brave face and picks Jooheon instead.

 

**

 

He wakes up with a blanket around his head and sleep-heavy breaths being huffed onto his neck. Without waking Shownu or Hyungwon, he stands up and tip-toes out.

 

It makes sense why he was given the Sin of Envy when they did their last comeback. He’s a snake. He doesn’t deserve this. The comfort that his teammates could provide was more than he was worth.

 

It must be nice, he thinks, to have two people to love you the way Kihyun and Minhyuk did. They bickered often, but when it came down to it, they really cared about one another and about their group. They’d protect anyone, and they’d protect Shownu above anyone else.

 

It must be nice.

 

The walk to the studio is brisk, cold air whipping up the ends of his jacket. Maybe he’ll sleep at the studio tonight. It’s getting late, there’s more to be done. Maybe if he focuses enough, maybe he can give away the heaviness in his heart to his music.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t know much about the military, but when he imagines a drill sergeant preparing cadets for a training exercise, this is almost an exact image of what came to mind.

 

“There are a few rules that we have.” Kihyun starts, “You have to make sure he’s safe, first and foremost, and that includes making sure he feels comfortable with you. He has to know that you’re there for him. You can’t leave, or if one of you leave, the other HAS to be with him, do you understand?”

 

“We understand.” They say.

 

“Good. Sometimes, he’ll do things for praise. He wants to make you happy. He’s not a difficult Little by any means. Let him know.”

 

“Let him know?” Changkyun echoes.

 

“Let him know.” Kihyun emphasizes, “tell him he’s good, thank him for helping, that kind of stuff.”

 

The door creaks open under Minhyuk’s hand. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call. We’ll always answer.”

 

Wonho gives him a salute. “We’ve got it under control!”

 

Minhyuk grabs Kihyun but the jacket shoulder and pulls him through the door ahead of him so he won’t glare holes through the maknae and their second-eldest. “Thank you for doing this! We shouldn’t be gone for too long!”

 

The two of them make up a very sorry-looking going away committee, but they’ll do.

 

“No problem!!!”

 

**

 

Wonho might have a bit of a problem. One that there isn’t a foreseeable solution to. He thought he could handle anything that could be thrown his way, but clearly the universe has some sick sense of joy putting him in this situation.

 

It’s Shownu’s pout.

 

More specifically, it’s Shownu’s pout when he can’t have more than one cookie and is ok with not having another one even though he really wants one. Somehow, the self-restraint pulls at his heartstrings stronger than if Shownu were to pull out the doe eyes and beg. But he can’t do it. Kihyun said not to because Shownu needs to be healthy and he’ll be unhappy when he’s Big again.

 

But why!

Is!

It!

So!

Hard!

 

Wonho is this close to losing his mind and screaming at the ceiling, but he doubts the staffers on the floor above would take kindly to his outrage. Shownu has no business being this cute. Seriously. It makes him want to fight someone, primarily himself, but maybe also God and the universe while he’s at it.

 

“Is ok, Tokki. No more cookies.” He mumbles with his mouth around the last ⅛ of a cookie in his sweater paws.

 

Wonho calmly kisses Shownu on the head, yells at Changkyun that it’s his turn to look after Little Nu, then excuses himself so he can go outside and scream.

 

**

 

It’s been quiet for a while.

There needs to be some noise.

Changkyun flips through the kid’s section on Netflix and decides that Dinosaur Train is sufficiently loud for today.

He checks the doors down the hall.

Good , Wonho doesn’t seem to notice or care.

 

“I’ll be back in a second, ok?” Shownu doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on, but he’s entranced by the television so he assumes it’s ok if he leaves for a little bit.

 

He runs to his room, throws open his closet, and starts pulling things out.

 

Changkyun is going to do it. That’s it. It can’t hurt, can it? He’s in control. He can do this. He can drop into his headspace and jump out in case Little Shownu needs him. Hyungwon has been on his case recently saying things like ‘you need to get out’ and ‘hey are you ok, you don’t talk much’ and it’s getting more and more difficult to avoid him. He appreciates the effort- they’re all so busy at all hours of the day, so the fact that there’s someone looking out for him makes him smile- but it also makes it harder for him to tell Hyungwon to not .

 

Which is why he’s going to do it now.

 

If he doesn’t do it now, he’ll accidentally slip and that will be…. He doesn’t even want to think about it. With the sudden and meteoric rise in the simple activities and cozy cuddle times, the pull was getting harder and harder to deny. If it were difficult then, it was almost impossible now. He’d come too close to slipping the last time he was with Little Shownu, when he and Hyungwon were coloring and it looked so cozy and safe that he couldn’t stop himself from joining them. If he’s with someone else, Hyungwon can’t say he’s isolating himself, which will blow him off the trail. And it’s not like Shownu will remember, right? He said it himself, it’ll look like a dream, he won’t know what he saw. And even if he does remember, Changkyun can pass it off as him playing along with the Little.

The odds are good!

It’s fine if he slips for a few minutes- an hour, tops . Wonho got put on co-caregiver duty but he’s engrossed in his work and periodically screaming so he won’t come out unless he has to go to the bathroom. And even then, he uses the other bathroom so it’s not like he’ll even see anything unless he comes looking, which he won’t.

 

His hands make a loud clack! against hard plastic.

 

As long as they don’t give him a reason to.

 

**

 

He verbally apologies to the dark blue box in his closet, saying he’s sorry that it’s been so long, sorry that he’s been away. He opens the lid.

Just the way I left it…

The soft fur feels comforting under his fingers, the headband like a protective helmet. It’s been so long since he’d last been in headspace. He’s never even had an owner! It felt too risky, and then he joined Starship and it all got away from him.

 

He takes a deep breath, double checks that music is still coming out of the studio, then drops to all fours behind the couch. The commotion is enough to get Little Shownu’s attention. He’s curious. That’s good.

 

“Puppy!” Shownu cries with glee.

 

That’s right.

Puppy.

 

Changkyun barks in agreement, deep and rough. He’s missed this so much. It’s better with Shownu, even better than what he imagines it’s like with an owner. Each time he lolls his tongue or he puts his hands down signaling he’s ready to play, Shownu squeals in delight, opens his arms. He doesn’t see a person in dog ears crawling around on hands and knees. He sees a playmate, someone he can be with without having to worry about judgement. In a way, Changkyun and Shownu are very similar here.

 

He doesn’t waste time basking in the feeling.

 

**

 

They play tug of war until the stuffie gets too slobbery, courtesy of Changkyun’s mouth and his inability to keep it closed for very long. His teeth are sore but it’s good kind of sore, one that makes him want to play more just so he can show how good he is at this game. He gnaws on one end with his sharp canine tooth, holding the stuffie in place with his gloved hands.

 

“Puppy! Wants cookies?”

 

He looks up. Shownu seems set on it, already wobbling to his feet and toddling over the kitchen. Changkyun barks in agreement, even though cookies aren’t really the same when he’s in Petspace. It seems to be a good enough answer. Shownu uses all of his concentration to shove a chair up to the counter, then climbs on the chair. He’s rummaging around in the cabinet, shuffling the plates and cups to find where he saw Kihyun hide the cookie jar.

 

Left...

Right...

Left..

!!!

Oh no!

Look out!!!

 

The cups land with a crash and a bang, one too loud for Wonho to miss, and Shownu comes down not too long after. Changkyun runs over, checks for damage but he can’t tell heads from tails like this, his head is too fuzzy. He hears a chair screech against the floorboards. Wonho!!! Was he already on his way?  He’s gonna be so mad. Is he gonna punish Kyun? He doesn’t want to be bad, he’s a good boy.

 

“What’s going on?! What happened?!” Wonho’s muscles are flexed into sharp lines, entire being hyper aware and looking for trouble. He peeks into the living room, then back down the hall, then runs into the kitchen only to stop midstep. He’s trying to come up with the words but his mouth is clenched shut. Eyes flick between the fragments of pottery and the maknae sitting on his knees looking terrified.

 

His face grows warmer as Wonho keeps staring at him. Both heads snap to face the source of a soft groan coming from the Little, who is still on his back.  

 

“Shownu, honey, are you ok?”

 

Of course he would go to Shownu. Shownu is so cute when he’s Little. Changkyun is just… He’s gross. He’s like a furry or something, and he hates it. The fog passes, leaving him uncomfortably aware.

 

“I’m sorry.” He rambles, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, please don’t be mad. I’m sorry.”

 

He’d dropped to far. He’d dropped too far . Changkyun runs into his room and locks the door behind him. He’s wiping away the tears with the back of his fuzzy cashmere sweater, tearing off his dog ears and his tail, berating himself for this decision, his decision, which he knew was bad.

 

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. He knows he shouldn’t have done it. It was risky, at the very least. The voices in his head are merciless in their attack.  

You’re disgusting.

This is gross.

No one wants you like that.

They’re going to hate you.

 

He curls up in a ball and plays his music twice as loud as usual to block out the sound of Wonho calling the others back home.

 

**

 

“I leave,” even from two rooms away, he can hear Kihyun take a dramatic breath, “for ONE MINUTE and this is what I come back to?!”

 

Wonho’s face scrunches up in discontent. It’s too loud, they both know it is, especially for two headspaces. He turns back, intent on not letting the others distract him. “It’s ok, baby, it’s ok. You can come out.”

 

Changkyun shrinks into the shadow of his room. He can’t come out, he doesn’t deserve to. He may not be a full puppy at the moment, but the traces of his headspace whisper that he’s a bad Pet, a bad person, and that the others are going to hate him.

 

“No one is mad at you, sweetheart. Please come out?”

 

He doesn’t want to, he really doesn’t, but… this is Wonho. He can’t deny the request. Changkyun steps out, head bowed, ready to be told how it’s impractical for him to drop, and that he shouldn’t do it anymore. Wonho’s hand wraps around his, then pulls to lead him. He’s ready for anything, just get it over with already. Using Wonho as his guiding eyes, they join the rest of the group.

 

There are too many voices, too many people. Minhyuk and Kihyun ping-pong ideas off one another, Shownu sitting nearby and nodding periodically. Jooheon is still in his jacket, fresh from the outside and piecing together the story the longer he stands there. Changkyun sits down on the floor by the couch, knees pulled up to his chest, trying to make himself as small as possible. A hand strokes through his hair at a steady beat, calming him.

 

Shownu.

 

“So… I know we’re all a little… surprised….” Wonho tries to start, but falters. The others give conflicted ‘yeah’s and ‘well sort of’s and ‘I mean….’s. “But it’s better if we talk.”

 

“The short version is that he’s a Pet. Do you want to explain?” His hair flips back and forth as he shakes his head ‘no’. “That’s ok. You can take your time.”

 

There’s a moment of silence. Actually, it’s more than a moment and God, Changkyun really wishes he wasn’t the cause of it. Everyone is waiting for him to say something, anything, but he's tongue-tied. Come on, say something, say something....

 

“It looks like you’re thinking pretty hard. What’s going on, Wonnie?” Minhyuk’s pipes up. The other man has the posture of a chess strategist, elbow on knee, hand over his mouth. He rocks back into the couch.

 

“I. Don’t. Know.” Hyungwon claps in between each word. His lips are pursed in frustration and confusion. “I don’t know. I thought I knew, and then you come and tell me Shownu is a Little. And now that I’m used to that, Changkyun is a Pet. What next? What even is there?”

 

“You should have told us.” At the head of the group is Kihyun, sporting his best ‘I’m a certified, responsible adult’ voice and boy, does he feel guilty. He should have been able to control it better. He shouldn’t have had to fall in the first place.

 

“Or you should have at least not offered to take care of him. We got lucky this time.” Minhyuk adds quickly, trying to soften the blow.

 

The words sting as Changkyun somehow manages to make himself even smaller, as though they might not tear into him if he could disappear.

 

“I thought I could handle it.”

 

“Look… The issue is matching up when you need to drop with when Shownu needs to drop too. We need to match up who is being a caregiver--- Do you need a caregiver? Or an owner or something? We need to match up who’s taking care of whom and when. And we need to establish rules. Limits. Those kinds of things. I’m gonna need that whiteboard again, Wonho, come help me...”

 

“You’re…. not…. You aren’t grossed out?” Jooheon and Minhyuk stop rock-paper-scissoring over who got to be Changkyun’s owner first to look at him, confused. There were so many things they could do now that they knew. Sure, the concept of a headspace had been odd at first, but it became a treat for all of them to take care of Shownu. Something about the caregiving process made their daily lives less stressful, even if it was a lot of work. They had become closer over the past few months since their big talk. He couldn’t really think they would think those things about him, could he?

 

“What? No- I’m incredibly frustrated with your lack of forethought, you absolute chowderhead, but I’m not grossed out.” Kihyun writes something on the board in dry erase marker as they finish trekking it in. “We just have to be careful. How comfortable are you with dropping? Do you stay in headspace for long periods at a time? What signs should we be looking for? Does it ever take you by surprise?”

 

All eyes turn to him, his mouth still open in surprise. They… they didn’t mind? 

 

“No, I’ve… I can usually control it pretty well. I mean, this time was.... I’ve never had an owner before, I’ve never had to ask….”

 

“That’s fine. Do you have a favorite pet name?”

 

Changkyun blushes. “Um… yeah….”

 

“......and….?” Minhyuk’s hands travel in small circles, expecting more.

 

“I can’t-- it’s embarrassing, I don’t wanna say it.”

 

“Aww, maknae is embarrassed. That’s too cute.”

 

The lack of answer seems to spur more, and suddenly the others are trying to ask their own questions.

 

“What animal are you?” Hyungwon interjects.

 

“I’m a dog.”

 

“Cute.” Minhyuk is nodding, letting the words sink in.


Warmth seeps across his face, filling into pockets of deep pink on his cheeks. “Really?”

 

Jooheon nods profusely. “Super cute!”

 

“Everyone, let’s take a minute, give him some space. We’ll have time to talk about this later, when we’re all more calm. This can be a lot to handle.”

 

Shownu raises his hand, and despite the conversation being a mish-mash of voices speaking over one another, they all quiet out of respect for their leader. It feels like an even brighter, hotter spotlight is on him with the undivided attention of his leader on him. “I have a primary and a backup caretaker, in addition to all of you. It’s important that you have someone or someone’s who you feel comfortable going to when you feel yourself dropping. Have you put in any thought about who you want to have as your caretaker?”

 

He nods, cheeks flushing a furious red. He’s been thinking about it for a long time, ever since they became a group. He’s never expected to be revealing it. “If it’s ok…. I’d like Wonho-hyung to be my primary owner.”

 

The last word comes out as a squeak, but when it does, Wonho jumps three feet in the air. “Of course!!! I’d love to be your primary, Kyunnie!!!”

 

His laugh is forced; nervous as he tries to gauge the room before speaking. He doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. “And… I’d like Wonnie-hyung to be my backup.”

 

All eyes and heads turn in unison, like a shot going off in the dark. At the end of their stares is an equally-as-confused-looking Hyungwon. “I-- Wow, thank you, I’m happy that you trust me this much. I don’t know how great I’ll be but I’ll do my best.”

 

“Nonsense, you’re great!” The members offer their support while Wonho pulls him into a bone-crushing hug. He looks for a hint of contempt, a hint of distrust, but finds none from them, only form himself. They trust him with this. Changkyun trusts him with this. He lets out a long sigh, but by the end he’s smiling.

 

“Then I’ll do what I can.”

 

**

 

“Go on, go to Tokki...” Shownu opens the door and closes it behind a figure three feet high, which scampers over to him. From what he’d gathered, it had been their leader who offered to be the overall supervisor for this new caretaking experience. Wonho had to wait until both Minhyuk and Jooheon get a turn playing with him, but it's a small price to pay. Now, he can have Changkyun all to himself for however long he wants to stay in his headspace. If he doesn’t have a mental breakdown on the spot, of course. People usually thought of him as some big, tough, sexy guy but if they could see him right now rolling around trying not to cry actual tears, they’d think differently. Changkyun is seated on the ground looking up at him with complete adoration and oh my god lord save me now because Wonho might die and he’s not even being dramatic.

 

“Our adorable Kkukkungie!” Wonho ruffles his hair, his (his???) Pet’s tongue lolling out involuntarily.

 

Changkyun can feel himself floating dangerously close to this slipping point, the one he calls The Deep End. His head swims at the attention. He wants more; anything that Wonho is willing to give him. The hand stops, the other one tipping his chin up to look him in the eyes.

 

“Is that---? Is that the name? Your favorite pet name you were so worried about- is it the one I gave you? Is that it, Kkukkungie ?”

 

Changkyun’s body goes slack as he falls into The Deep End.

Wonho knows.

Wonho knows and he doesn’t care .

 

He barks in agreement, earning a hand running through his hair, putting the discarded dog ear headband back on him. It feels so good to be this close, he’s preening under the attention.

 

Hands cup his cheeks, bringing him nose to nose with Wonho. “Look at my cute puppy! Who’s a good boy? Is it you? I think it is!”

 

He's a good boy? Wonho thinks so?

 

He peppers kisses all across his cheeks, on his nose, in his hair, “Such a sweet puppy.”

 

Changkyun barks again, this time louder, showing his appreciation. He’d never had an owner- never even considered it because it hadn’t been realistic and he didn’t want to get his hopes up.  But, if he were so bold as to guess, he doesn’t suppose he would be too far off by say that Wonho was the best.

Chapter Text

Kihyun is stuck in this weird limbo point which, he has decided, is of the utmost discomfort so if it could kindly fuck off, that would be fantastic.

 

He's trapped in a cycle of wanting to say something, not knowing what to say, wondering if it's better to say the wrong thing or to say nothing at all, and then missing his window of opportunity completely. The entire morning has been like this.

 

If anyone deserves to go on vacation, it’s Shownu. He always worked so diligently, and he’s a human too- a human who needs to relax and be treated. If there were an Olympics of good humans, he’d be in the top 3. Seriously. It’s not even an exaggeration. Shownu’s taking the schedule change well. He doesn't seem terribly bummed out about not being able to go home, but all of them know it's tough being away from friends and family for so long. It’s especially tough this time since he had to cancel plans- ones he had made and painstakingly combed through- at the drop of the company's hat.

 

So to say it isn't fair is an understatement, but it's an unfortunate reality.

And Kihyun, for the love of God, can’t figure out what he’s supposed to do to make it better.

 

The only upside to this whole debacle is the fact that M2 wants Shownu back to film another mukbang episode next week. The first one was such a hit and he always came back from those shoots with a smile on his face and a full stomach. Kihyun would be lying if he said he hadn’t been inspired to have a list of new recipes at the ready just to see what kind of expressions he could get out of their leader.

 

Actually….. That’s not such a bad idea….

 

**

 

“Did he really just mention Ki-hyung? Again ?” Changkyun wears an expression of disbelief but also a touch of annoyance, not that he would admit that to Jooheon. It’s not his fault that their leader is being… like this..

 

Whatever this was.

 

It’s seriously weird, or maybe he’s just overthinking it. It gets hard to separate those two sometimes, but with the way this shoot has been going--

 

“Ah! That reminds me of another time when we were all together. Kihyun-ah was looking at one of the food stalls…”

 

Nope.

Nope nope nope.

It’s not him. It can’t just be him. That would be statistically impossible. And for Changkyun, a person who has zero business doing any sort of funny math and has no idea what it means, that’s saying a lot. Shownu has mentioned Kihyun at least once every five minutes. No, he isn’t checking his phone.

(He’s checking his watch, and very discreetly, he might add.)

(He isn’t some kind of heathen.)

(He’s a classy kid, sue him.)

It’s both a blessing and a curse that said hamster has been busy each time with his own schedule. He and Minhyuk would have been on him weeks ago, when that first story about how Kihyun won the game and they ate chicken instead of seafood when they were by the seaside got dredged up again. Who did something like that?! They had fresh fish and oysters RIGHT THERE and that dummy chose CHICKEN?! Ugh. It’s fine. He’s totally not bitter about that. He’s got this under control.

 

“Do you think it’s too obvious?”

 

Changkyun scrolls through the latest videos, checks the comments, tries very hard and spectacularly fails to figure out how ‘asdfghjkl’ is supposed to be pronounced and what kind of acronym needs that many letters. The vast majority of them are calling Shownu cute, which is an undeniable truth, so he skips past those. The next most frequent comment type is people telling M2 that this is the kind of content they like, that they’d like to see more. That’s good- that means his hyung will be eating well. He’ll have a variety of foods to indulge in, and the rest of them will be torn between wanting to call him cute the next time they get Little Time and wanting to go out to eat. The next most talked about topic is- you guessed it- Kihyun. It’s loud too. If anyone goes through it, they’ll see it for sure. It’s all in caps, the only way he’d miss it is if he were blind. It’s like Showki extreme.

(Yes he knows all the ship names, he’s a tech savvy kid too- step up your game.)

(Showki is one incredibly strong boat- this was a fact of nature.)

(So is Hyungwonho. This too is common knowledge.)

 

“If you mean has it gone unnoticed, no, but it’s drowned out by the progressively louder voice of the Showcubs doing what they do best.”

 

“We’ll have to thank them at some point with… I don’t even know what.”

 

They get home, Kihyun receiving him in the doorway like a grandmother who hasn’t seen her grandchildren in years, cradling him despite the vast size difference. He asks how the shoot looks, what people have been saying, did they like it? Completely in their own world, Shownu tries to answer them, still in the doorway. Changkyun leaves them in peace. Let them sort out what the rest of the members have noticed.

 

**

 

The episode comes out the next Tuesday, like clockwork. The ones who weren’t there to see it live play it in the background while they work on their personal errands. From his spot on the couch, Shownu can see Hyungwon flailing his hand around in search of the handle to the fridge.

 

“Aish…. again? You’re gonna expose yourself….” Eyes still trained on the screen, he tuts quietly.

 

“Hm?” The sound of his voice seems to startle the younger vocalist.

 

“Nothing, I just…. I thought… You just mention Kihyun a lot. Like... constantly.” Hyungwon crosses both his arms and legs when he places himself on the opposite couch next to Wonho, looking like a skinny pretzel while he watches.

 

“You think so?”

 

Shownu doesn’t really get what the other man is getting at. Wasn’t it normal for him to mention his members? They were together constantly, and he loved them like brothers.

 

“Yeah, brothers my left pinky toe….” he grumbles. At the speed of light, Wonho’s meaty arm whips across to whack him across the chest, which is met with an ow, sorry, he forgot, but Wonho is already whisking him away to another part of the dorm and now all of a sudden Shownu is alone again.

 

What.

What in the world.

What just happened?

 

His mind comes up blank. Was there some new trend going around that he didn’t understand? Were the other members playing tricks on one another and forgot to tell Shownu? Like he says- no idea what’s going on. A little ways away, someone mentions something about Kihyun (again, there’s a loud noise that sounds like skin slapping skin which means that person got whacked too) and is told to keep quiet, but that doesn’t make any sense. It’s just the members, and they had no secrets. He-

 

“Hey, I made dinner for us.”

 

Kihyun’s voice comes as a murmur meant only for him, a hand rested on his arm, and were his eyes always that warm? Shownu gets up before he can start naming all of the other things he can notice on the other man.

 

“Oh! Thank you, Ki. You know, I was just about to go down to the---” ”

 

The screen door slides the rest of the way open while his mind tries to interpret what he’s seeing and his heart tries to stop beating wildly. There’s a sheet tied to the rails of the porch, red and white checkered pattern rolling with the wind. Over the skyline of the city, the sun fades out into saturated yellows reflecting off pink and red clouds. There’s a picnic basket in the middle, one that he’s pretty sure they don’t own.

 

“What--?”

 

“Surprise?” Kihyun sheepishly rubs along the back of his neck, “I thought that since you wouldn’t be able to go on your trip... maybe I could bring a bit of you trip to you….?”

 

"Did you...? For me...?" 

 

"It wasn't a big deal, just whipped up a few things--" 

 

The words are barely out before arms envelope him in a full-bodied hug.

 

“Thank you for this. For being you." He leans back in the hug so they can see each other properly, “Next time we get a break, we'll go. We’ll take the trip together one day.”

 

Kihyun isn’t sure whether ‘together’ means just him and Shownu or him and the rest of their odd cohort, but he supposes that either way, he’ll enjoy it.

 

**

 

They talk, mostly, in between eating and feeding one another. Kihyun doesn’t consider himself a great chef- he knows how to put things together, knows how to not kill anyone via food poisoning (that time with the hamburgers doesn’t count, Jooheon, that was four years ago)- but with the help of the internet, the meal’s turned out better than expected.

 

It’s been a while since they could spend time like this. Getting ready for concert series and doing interviews and comeback prep occupied every waking moment (and even sometime their dreams too), and Kihyun hadn’t realized how much he’d been missing out on while being shipped from one obligation to the next. He doesn’t know the last time they could sit out on the porch and enjoy each other’s company. Granted, he doesn’t even know what day it is, but he knows it must have been weeks.

 

“Hyung, try this.” He says, holding up a wrap Shownu opens his mouth and tilts his head back to make it easier for Kihyun to feed him.

 

The photographer in him yells to preserve the moment, to take a picture while Shownu is lost in the effort of trying to shove the rest of one entire lettuce wrap into his mouth without dropping any of the pork. He wants to capture the natural reaction, the one that isn’t forced. They have to smile and they’re good at it after so many photoshoots, but the genuity always shines through, always. He finally swallows and thanks Kihyun again for what must be the thousandth time.

 

“Have you tried this yet? It’s a new sauce, someone gave me a rough rundown-“ he doesn’t finish the sentence. Shownu has already dunked his food in it and it’s in his mouth, verdict on the way in 3, 2, 1.

 

The sudden motion from ‘picking up’ to ‘shoving in mouth’ catches him off guard and he laughs, sputtering, Shownu’s full cheeks tensing to smile with him.

 

“I like it! It’s spicy, but not too spicy… It reminds me of something I had a while ago, when I was a kid….”

 

He continues talking, but what he’s saying, Kihyun isn’t sure. The words flow in one ear and out the other while his eyes stay fixed on cataloging his expressions. It would be great to capture this moment of pure bliss, this moment of just the two of them, but he’ll forgo the camera flashes for now and try to commit Shownu’s eye smile to memory.

 

Too cute.

 

**

 

Whoever coined the term ‘after lunch slump’ must have really known what they were talking about. His body feels extra heavy. He must be at the peak of chubby mountain. Shownu opens his mouth so that Kihyun can feed him more of those berries he loves.

 

He stands corrected- he must be the planet above chubby mountain.

 

There’s a stark contrast between his state (slumped up against the rails with his eyes half-open) and Kihyun’s (neat and tidy and careful not to get even a drop of fruit juice anywhere). It exaggerates their differences. It’s entrancing to watch him move with such precision without being aware of it.

 

His mouth moves in the distinct circular motion, the one that Monbebes said made him look like a hamster. Kihyun’s third, fourth, and pinky fingers stay spread apart as he picks up a blackberry and shakes off the water. “You ok over there?”

 

“Sleepy….”

 

Kihyun pauses, every muscle freezing in place as though he’d just found a small animal in the forest and if he even breathed wrong it would run away forever.

 

“Baby?”

 

“Hnnnng….” Shownu uses the back on his hands to rub at his eyes, “Papa….”

 

Kihyun lets out a coo which tapers out into a bewildered laugh, “Oh my goodness, hi sweetheart, do you want to go take a nap?”

 

He rolls over onto his side, arms splayed out overhead, eyes already closed.

 

“Let’s get you into your jammies, ok?”

 

He groans again, this time in a high pitch, “Wanna sleep…”

 

“Come on, baby, you’ve gotta get up. Be good for papa.”

 

Shownu…. Doesn’t exactly get up. It’s understandable- he’s probably very snug right where he is, but in about two or three hours he’s going to be regretting everything while holding onto his back senior citizen-style. He makes a valiant attempt at moving vaguely in the direction of his room, but settles for propping himself up against the porch door. Kihyun steps over him, around him, next to him, trying to logistically figure out a solution to getting him into his room. He looks around, but there’s no one in sight.

 

He’ll just have to do it on his own. “Come on, little one…”

 

He isn’t entirely sure how he does it- it must be one of those things like when someone gets pinned under a car and someone comes to their rescue and uses the ungodly power of adrenaline to lift it and save their life- but Kihyun manages to sling Shownu’s arm across his shoulder and hoist him in a half-judo-throw type carry. He plops down on the bed, bouncing a few times before falling over face first into his mattress. Kihyun tucks him in, gives him a kiss, and turns on the night light.

 

“Sleep tight, pumpkin.”

 

“G’night papa.”

Chapter Text

The world vanishes for a moment as the shining white overtakes his whole window. It lasts for a moment- if he’d blinked he would have missed it- but he keeps his eyes peeled and his hands over his ears as he waits for the—

PHTOOOOOooooom!!!

—-that he knows follows without fail. The sound of a northern downpour pounds hard against his window. Normally it wouldn’t be so bad. Normally the loudness wouldn’t bother him, but normally there’s a nightlight left on for him and tonight there isn’t and he’s most definitely bothered by this. The power went out some time around dinner, and so they’d finished their meal by candle light before stumbling to their own rooms using the flashlights on their phones. But obviously they can’t leave candle burning overnight, that’s a fire hazard, so he’s been huddled in the dark trying to fall asleep before the next crash of thunder can hit and it’s not working. It’s just too loud, it sounds like it’s right there with him, holding him down. He needs to get out of here. He needs to go somewhere where it’s safe.

His window flashes again with the same blinding light.

Shownu covers his ears and squeezes his eyes closed.

It’s ok. It’s ok. He’s ok.

PHTOOOOOoooom!!!

He’s not ok. It’s on top of him, he can’t breathe. Shownu is on his feet sprinting two doors down, running into the room and closing the door behind him, tripping over himself and onto the floor and crawling the rest of the way. He tugs on the blanket spilling over the edge.

 

“Psssst…..Papa!”

 

He hears a groan overheard, but nothing more than that. He reaches a hand up to pull on Kihyun’s shirt sleeve.

 

“Papa!!!”

 

“Hnnng…?” He isn’t fully awake. He’s still in that in between phase where he probably isn’t completely aware of what’s going on. Outside, the world goes white again. He doesn’t have much time. Shownu tries to climb into bed with Kihyun still occupying most of it, but he can’t figure out where he fits into the space but he needs to go soon, he needs to be in there before—

PHTOOOOOoooom!!!

Shownu lets out a whimper as he curls into a ball on the floor, hiding his face in the bit of blanket over the edge of the bed. It smells like Kihyun, at least, and it’s enough to get him through until the thunder crash stops. But it doesn’t work as well as having his actual caregiver there with him.

He can’t help himself when the tears start coming.

 

“Sweetheart? Is that you down there?”

 

Shownu looks up. It’s so dark that it’s virtually impossible to tell which shadows are his Papa and which ones are the furniture.

 

“Papa!!!”


“What is it? What’s wrong?” His voice is deeper and scratchier than usual. He’s panicked now; awake.

 

“Loud…”

 

“Are you scared of the thunder, baby?”

 

He nods, not that Kihyun can see it. “Scary…”

 

“It’s ok, pumpkin. Come in. Papa’s here.” He heard what he can only assume are sheets being thrown to the side and Kihyun moving over to make space for the both of them. Shownu doesn’t waste a second jumping in. The whiteness strikes again.

He wraps himself up tight in the blankets and pulls the covers up to his nose.

PHTOOOOOoooom!!!

Shownu’s body trembles like a leaf as he tries to hide. He pulls the covers up over his head in a full cocoon and burrows under a pillow for good measure. It’s sounds so much louder than it was an hour ago, he wants to go somewhere quiet.

 

“Shhhh… it’s ok, baby.” Kihyun pulls the Little in to spoon. “It’s ok. It’s just a noise, it can’t hurt you. I’m right here. No one can hurt you.”

 

His head swims with the weight of an arm around him; it drowns when Kihyun snuggles in to hold him closer.

It’s ok. He’s right there.

The whiteness shines again.

Kihyun holds him tighter.

 

**

 

He wakes up to the sound of birds and a heavy weight leading around his waist up to a hand by his heart. Kihyun’s fingers stay slotted between his despite Shownu’s attempt to move them. The fuzziness hasn’t left yet. If he tried to do anything strenuous, he doubts he’s be able to.

Behind him, the mound of blankets moves.

 

“Morning. Sleep well?”

 

“Better.”

 

Kihyun’s head quirks up chin-first, the way they always poked fun at but it was endearing nontheless. “Baby boy?”

 

Shownu giggles, “Papa.”

 

“Hi sweetheart! Last night was super scary, wasn’t it?” He can feel his bottom lip start to quiver as he remembers the horrible feeling. Kihyun is quick to hold him, putting his hands on his cheeks, “I know, honey, but you were so brave!”

 

“Brave?”

 

“So brave! Such a good boy.” The magic words lead back to chubby-cheeked smiles, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t we go to the kitchen and try to scrounge up something?

That sounds good, that sounds like something he can do. Kihyun leads him by the hand out the kitchen, where they find Jooheon and Minhyuk already eating, to their surprise. Their eyes trail to the door, where three figures stand in a sort of half-in-half-out stance trying to figure out a way to properly end the conversation while Minhyuk is attempting to roping them into another one of his dream retellings. The managers brought them take out from the diner since eating bagels straight out of the bag sounds like a creative form of torture and PD has expressly stated to not, for the love of the shining sun and all the creatures below it, open the fridge under any circumstances.

 

“What is this?” Kihyun gestures to the bags and bags of food on the counter.

 

“If anyone asks, we didn’t buy this.” Manager Hongseok puts his finger up to his lips.

 

“Breakfast? What breakfast? We haven’t seen anything.” Jooheon’s puffy cheeks are full of French toast when he looks around like a dog being confronted with the shoe it just chewed up. They thank the managers again and wait until they’re completely gone to pick up conversation again.

 

“Sit down, cub. Papa will get your plate ready.”

 

Minhyuk’s eyes furrow down. “Is he--??”

 

“Woke up like this, right baby boy?” Shownu finds himself nodding along even though he didn’t catch all of what Kihyun said. His cheeks is being pulled between Jooheon’s fingers, but he’s cooing so it isn’t so bad.


“Cute.”

 

Kihyun sets a plate in front of him and they dig in, the others trickling vaguely in as they’re roused by their bodies as opposed to their usual alarms. Someone said to him once that when the table was silent except for the sound of silverware against plates and chewing, that it was the sign of a good meal and hungry kids. They fit both of them, Kihyun supposed, but that was a minor detail. He’s more focused on saying ‘ah’ as he tries to get food into the Little’s mouth with his less-than-fantastic left-handed aim.

 

“It’s supposed to storm for this whole weekend.” Minhyuk doesn’t look up from his plate; casual.

 

“We’ll have to go out and get another nightlight.”

 

“Did yours burn out?”

 

“His isn’t battery operated.”

 

“Oh, well then we could stop by--- Actually, wait a minute…” Minhyuk hops off his stool and trots to his room. Their eating pace doesn’t change despite the bangs and booms coming out of the other man’s room. He comes down out of breath 30 seconds later. “You can borrow this one, Nunu.”

He passes off the little white whale with dot-eyes and two fins, now glowing a dim white underneath matte plastic. “Thanky Minnie.”

 

“No problem, sweetheart.”

 

**

 

Most of the schedules have been cancelled- not just theirs but across all the groups. It’s something about making sure the backup generator doesn't burn out. They're only got one running and it's connected to one area of the building. The only thing they could do was vocal practice and even that was a stretch. The building seems even emptier once dusk hits. Everyone has either gone home to their families or gone home to their members (which in reality is the same thing, he’s realized). He’d managed to pull himself out of headspace long enough to go to vocal practice on his own and back, but when the first sign of a storm rumbles in the distance, he feels himself fall all over again.

Kihyun is asleep in his own room when he falls into his. He can’t even get changed completely before jumping under the covers- there’s just no time. The thunder sounds inhumanly loud; a thought that would have been impossible to comprehend 24 hours ago. Minnie’s whale nightlight is sitting on the dresser, but it’s on the other side of the room and when it turns red, the room gets really dim and it’s scary. He doesn’t like this, not at all. He needs to be safe to fall asleep.

He needs his Papa.

Shownu tumbles out of his bed and sprints back to that familiar place. His feet patter softly in a one-two-one-two until he’s next to a familiar set of bedding.

 

“Papa.” He whispers, pulling on the bed sheets. “Papa, loud.”

 

He wakes up easier than he did last time. The covers get thrown back again and there’s already enough space for him to climb up and hide himself in his Papa’s safety. “It’s ok, baby. Come on.”

Shownu scoots himself in so his face is hidden in the space Kihyun has made for him in his arm. The sheets are warm where his body once was, settling into his bones and making him feel safe and this is it, this is the feeling he wanted to wrap up and keep with him wherever he went, the one that only Kihyun could give him because he would always look out for him. 

 

"Night, papa..." He snuggles in further, resting his head on Kihyun's chest.

 

"Goodnight, baby."

 

It doesn’t take long for him to fall asleep after.

 

**

 

He wakes up feeling better than he has in a while. He feels ready to fight the sun, though it might not be out today, who knows. He’s ready to be productive except for the fact that Kihyun is still wrapped around him so tightly that he will, without a doubt, be woken up if Shownu attempts to move.

But he needs to get some things done.

He tries to wiggle his way out of the hold by propping himself on his arms, but this doesn’t do much to help him.

 

“Go back to sleep. Schedules are cancelled again, baby.” He blushes at the pet name and the tone. Kihyun’s voice sounds like a car running over gravel, deep and rough. Sure enough, when Shownu taps on the phone on the dresser, there’s still a little message bubble with those words and PD’s number there.

 

Ok, so maybe he doesn’t need to get some things done.

But he also doesn’t have an excuse to be in bed with Kihyun, he isn’t Little.

 

Oh my god he isn’t Little.

 

Before he can make his getaway, Kihyun pulls him by the waist so that Shownu is practically on top of him. He can feel a wild heat filling his face as he tries to control himself, tries contain the almost-purr of satisfaction. Since when did that feel so good? They've all ended up more or less piled on top of each other before, but it hasn't eflt like this. If Kihyun would let him, he'd stay like this all day.

 

“Morning, sweetheart. Do you want breakfast?” Nod. “Do you want me to feed you?”

 

Normally, Little Shownu wouldn’t think twice about saying yes, and with great gusto, but the situation is different and there are only a few ways he can see this going and none of them are particularly good. He shakes his head no.

 

“Feeding yourself? What ambition! Come on, let’s get you dressed. Then we can go and hang out with the others." Kihyun reaches up to boop his nose.

 

Shownu’s eyes blow wide open in surprise.

It doesn’t make him slip, no, he’s ok in that regard.

It makes him think.

He watches how Kihyun concentrates, how his hands move to flatten out any crease. The area between his eyes and above his nose scrunches up each time he picks something up and decides that that won't do for his Little. He takes such care in picking out his clothes, searching up the weather, making sure he won’t be too hot or too cold and that the things he picks are comfortable. There are a lot of things he doesn’t notice when he’s not expressly looking for them, Shownu notices. There were colors he'd just picked out and little tan flecks peppering his face and neck and the more he keeps looking the more he finds. He'd just scratched the surface that time they'd had the picnic. Spending time out of headspace never resulted in this sort of proximity. They’re a functional group, a sort of subunit of one larger one. And that’s not a bad thing! It’s just…. There’s so much he’s never noticed.

 

“What a big boy getting dressed on your own! Good job.”

 

And it's odd, he thinks, seeing all of the effort that usually goes way over his head when he's in his headspace. Kihyun does so much for him, and he does it like it's second nature. He looks so proud, so lovingly at him, like he’s everything and they don’t have five million things going on at all hours of the day, like there aren’t another five people out there that they’ll have to face. Kihyun looks at him like he’s the only one in the world when he’s a mystery all his own.

He almost feels guilty for how much he hasn’t noticed.

But maybe, just maybe, by being close like this, he can change that.

 

**

 

He lets Kihyun take his hand out of its sweater paw and lead him out to the living room, into the loving company of the others. He does his best to not give himself away. What would they say if they knew what he was doing? They’d be angry for sure. And what kind of leader would that make him? As the eldest, he needed to lead by example. He feels guilty about doing it, but there isn't too much he can do now that he's within their sight.

“Hey there, sweetheart! We’re gonna play some games and then marathon Toy Story!” Minhyuk bounces over so that he’s perched on the arm rest, giving them enough space to fit between him and Wonho. He goes about setting up Settlers of Catan for himself, Kihyun, Wonho, and Jooheon. Hyungwon and Changkyun aren’t there, much to his relief. The fewer to watch himself around, the better.

He sits on the floor between Kihyun’s legs with his head rested on the other man’s thigh. The game carries on in its usual banter, and even though he can follow along, he lets the motions pass without looking too hard into them. Maybe it’ll make him slip- most likely it won’t- but that’s ok. If they can take this time to be just them, the sound of healthy, mischievous competition will be enough. He spends his time watching pieces move across the board, his members helping and sabotaging each other in turn.

 

“How’s the game going?” Shownu looks up the feet in archway and past the long legs to a sleepy-eyed Hyungwon. The mass on his back doesn’t show its face, only the fuzzy ears stick up over his shoulder. He sits down on Wonho’s otherside and lets Changkyun crawl out so he’s on Wonho’s lap.

 

Jooheon smirks as he throws rolls and picks up another white rectangle. “Minhyuk is about to eat it.”

 

“Hey! Take that back!”


“There’s no way you’re getting the largest road!”

 

“It’s going well, thanks.” Kihyun cuts them off, and Shownu can feel him shifting above. “Hi puppy.”

Oh. 

Oh.....

Kihyun is petting Changkyun.

Kihyun is petting Changkyun and why does the thought of it make him want to throw up? It's not something he wants. He knows that the maknae needs love too, he deserves it just as much as they others did, and despite it making sense logically, Shownu still feels awful. It’s natural for Changkyun to want someone to take care of him.

But was it so much to want Kihyun all to himself?

It might be, now that he's thinking about it. It would be selfish of him to ask Kihyun to pay attention to only him, he can't do that, he has no right too, especially with both of them needing to be lookd after. No, it's alright, he can deal with... whatever it is he's feeling. Kihyun will take care of Changkyun the way he takes of Shownu and everything will be ok and Kihyun loves him dearly as a Little. He tries not to think about it. He doesn’t want to be selfish. Wrapping an arm about the leg beside him, he tries to ignore the feeling in his gut.

 

**

Not many of them make it to the end of Toy Story 2, but a bleary-eyed Minhyuk presses ‘play’ on the screen anyway. None of them make it to the end of Toy Story 3, instead waking up in the dark with the loader screen still on and the animation loop running. Hyungwon shakes Wonho awake, telling him to come and take Changkyun to bed, the pup’s exhausted and I can’t carry him, please hyung, I’ve tried and I really can’t. The commotion wakes up the rest of the group starting with Jooheon and ending with Shownu. He stretches out his arms and extends his back and all of a sudden there’s a hand grabbing his. Shownu’s head turns.

Oh, it’s just Kihyun.

 

“Time for bed. A proper sleep in your own bed and not on your butt against the couch.”

 

Shownu lets himself be led. He’ll make sure to ‘wake up’ Big again tomorrow, but for now he’ll let Kihyun help him brush his teeth and comb his hair. He even gets tucked into bed, plushies and all.

 

“Are you sure you don’t wanna come sleep in my bed tonight?”

 

He shakes his head no. He can’t do that, not after today, not while he’s this aware of what’s going on. Kihyun turns on the nightlight.

 

“Sounds good. If you drop in the middle of the night again, don’t hesitate to come and get me.”

 

His blood freezes in his veins. Kihyun knows he wasn’t Little. Kihyun knows he wasn’t Little and was pretending to be Little. Kihyun knows he wasn’t Little and was pretending to be Little and ran with it and oh my god Shownu has just abused his Little-Caregiver rights .

 

“You knew?” he croaks.

 

“Not… at first. There were a few things that gave you away, like the not talking at all, but you’re usually more… floppy? That’s not the right word… It’s easier to lead you around and do things with you. You're open to suggestions. You’re more pliant when you’re little.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” the words come tumbling out like that episode of X-Ray where he dribbled orange juice down his chin but this is nothing like that because this is horrible and he's horrible and Kihyun went out of his way even though he didn't have to, ”I woke up and realized I was big again but by then we were doing stuff and I couldn’t find a good time to tell you, I didn’t mean to take advantage. I appreciate everything you do and what you mean to all of us. Please don’t be--”

 

“Hey, hey! I’m not mad or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s not a big deal, don’t stress yourself out, I had fun.” The silence between them stretches for miles. “You know… it’s supposed to storm again tonight. You’ve ended up in here twice already. Why not start there?”

 

He wants to object, wants to hide away, but something inside of him paints an image of a warm bed with a strong body holding onto him and his heart sings.

 

"Ok."

 

**

 

Minhyuk has a feeling in his gut that leads him to Kihyun’s room. Even in the dark, he knows his way perfectly. The floorboards don’t creak as much as they used to but he moves with staggered steps like a cat until he’s right in front of the door. He opens his mouth to ask if he’s seen Shownu, he wasn’t in his room and it’s loud out, is he ok?

His heart settles as soon as his eyes fall upon two figures intertwined on the bed. There’s a stray limb here, a sniffle there, but they’re both sleeping soundly.

He opens his mouth but instead he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even take a picture. Instead, Minhyuk closes the door and turns off the nightlight in Shownu’s room.

 

Chapter Text

There’s a certain ability in the human mind to be able to block out intense amounts of pain. Some people do it when they break a bone. Others do it when the burn of a tattoo artist’s needle drags across their skin.

 

Kihyun does it when he’s in the airport.

 

The constant moving from one place to another is one of his favorite things to do, though it’s draining and the inability to commit to one timezone causes him to sleep at times he shouldn’t be and want to sleep at time he can’t. But the hours in the air counts as ‘working’, technically, and so it doesn’t feel like they’re wasting time. Of course, Jooheon and Changkyun still have to write their lyrics and whatnot, but it’s more relaxed when they’re up there. There’s no technology except what’s been allotted for them in the cushy first-class seats. They get to eat food from different places, even though it is sort of a mockery and Kihyun will be swarmed with requests to make it properly, please?, I bet it would be so much better if you cooked it, to which he begrudgingly agrees.

 

But he has to get through the airport first.

Which means he’ll have to get through whatever mess is waiting for them there.

 

He takes in the flash of camera lights from between the bodies of security guards who are capable but not so much willing to guide them to their dock, but the sensation falls on blind eyes. He’s been here before, he knows the drill. His mind relaxes and runs on autopilot as they enter the gate.  

 

**

 

He doesn’t bring himself out of the trance until they’ve made it to their own portion of airport security, the one behind closed doors where no one else can go. Everyone except for three of their managers has to go through regular check-in, and with the noise level dialed down, he can slowly start--

 

“Pardon me, but weren’t there seven of you?”

 

Heads turn, each one counting the others.

 

One, two, three, four, five---

 

But where…?

 

We lost one .”

 

More counting. More murmuring.

 

“What do you mean, we lost-- Hold on, where’s Shownu?”

 

And Kihyun is torn out of his self-protective bubble.

 

There are five of them, it doesn’t matter how many times he counts. Someone needs to find him, bring him back. Is he ok? Is he still in the building? What’s going on?  He’s on the other side of the metal detector with Hyungwon getting his shoes back on while Jooheon gets patted down off to the side. Wonho is literally inside of the metal detector. They could send Changkyun out, but that wouldn’t make sense, he hates crowds more than anything.

 

“Minnie, you have to find him. You’re the fastest out of us,” His words come out like a runaway train, “Please Minnie, go.”

 

He’s gone before Kihyun even finishes his sentence.

 

Minhyuk is tall- taller than most of the members at least. Sure, he’s no giant like Shownu or a tree like Hyungwon, but he’s the next-best thing they’ve got in the height department. He surveys over the tops of heads standing between 5’2” and 5’6” with a few 5’8”’s thrown in here and there.

 

Where could he be? It’s impossible to lose an entire member, especially one as big and as well-loved as Shownu.

 

Well-loved!

 

That’s it!

 

He taps on the uniformed shoulder beside him. “I need your help. Do you see a group of girls anywhere, not with this main cluster? I'm looking for someone, he's probably in the middle of that them.”

 

“No, but I’ll spread the word.” The man says something into the radio in English, spreading the word faster by spreading it so everyone can hear. He hears a few responses, some letters and numbers he vaguely recognizes as Chinese, most likely different officers calling out which part of the building they were in. Another voice comes on for longer. The officer beside him asks a question back. The other voice answers. “I think we’ve got him. Broad guy, tall. Black backpack with a trinket on it?”

 

“Yes! Yes, I think so.”

 

“Fantastic. Come with me.”

 

It’s tough for someone like him who usually has more energy than he knows what to do with to slow down and let himself follow. He wants to get the location, to run ahead, but he needs to be protected just as much as Shownu does. He can’t afford to get swamped. The officer with him is mercifully aware of his situation and moves as fast as he can with his pod of staffers to get him to the other side of the airport, back where they came in, and how did no one notice he wasn’t following them? All the way down the hall, he can see a large figure alternating between looking at his phone and looking around like a lost child, anxious and nervous. Minhyuk waves at him to get his attention.

 

“There, you are! We’re--”

 

He stops.

The look.

The panic.

They’ve been through so many airports in their lives, it’s second nature to Shownu. He shouldn’t look this terrified.

But it isn’t Shownu.

Or at least not Big Shownu.

 

“Come on, come with Minnie, sweetheart.” Minhyuk whispers into his ear and all of a sudden he feels a tremendous weight bearing down on him. Every movement around him makes him twitch. Every sound is the sound of alarm. He needs to get them out of here.

 

“M’kay…” Shownu lets himself be tugged along through the high-ceiling hallways and the chaotic shuttle of passengers and Monbebes alike. It feels so much easier being out of control. Relinquishing it. Minnie will take care of him because that’s what he’s always done.

 

He can see his Caregiver’s side-eyes tracking the moment of the mobile phones beside them, careful not to make their actions so apparent. They’re a friendly group, but this is more than that- someone is bound to realize unless they play it perfectly. Minhyuk turns away and covers his mouth with his hand so no one can see his words.

 

“Stay behind me, baby.”

 

Shownu crosses behind Minhyuk to his other side, the safer side, the one away from all the noise closer to the wall. He hears questions and thank you’s and there’s so much screaming, he wants Minhyuk to move faster but even like this they both know they have an obligation.

 

They rush away behind a gap in the metal security barrier, between four officers, then through a set of glass doors to the separate security checkpoint, the one left available for people like them. Minhyuk undoes his shoelaces and throws his bag on the conveyor belt before unclipping Shownu’s pack and instructing him to take off his shoes.

 

“Follow me, angel.” He waves him over as he walks through the metal detector.

 

Which beeps.

Why did it have to beep.

Why now .

 

“Please step over here, sir.” the woman says. Minhyuk rushes off to the side and holds his arms out. Come on, come on…. She needs to hurry up, it isn’t good for them to be separated, especially with the Little so skittish right now. He watches her move across his shoulders, down his torso.

 

“Please wait until she’s done.” Shownu is on the other side of the metal detector looking around at the guard, the metal detector, and Minhyuk. He jitters impatiently as he waits.

 

“Hey,” The woman is halfway done patting him down. He’ll be done soon, they just have to last until then. “It’s ok, I’m right here. See?”

 

After what feels like an agonizing eternity, the woman lets Minhyuk pass and motions for him to come forward. “Please step through.”

 

Shownu practically jumps through the metal hoop and thankfully his doesn’t blip. Minhyuk throws his things back on and grabs hold of the Little’s hand before he can get any more jittery than he already is.

 

“Come on, angel. Let’s get your things and then we can be with the others.”

 

“Papa?”

 

“Mhmm!” The Little chews on his lip, mulling over the words, which is an odd reaction, Minhyuk thinks, but he lets it go. Shownu tries to get on his backpack but it doesn’t quite work so Minhyuk ends up holding it the same way that people held newborns in a front carrier. The others are all gathered in the gangway talking amongst themselves, which immediately stops once they’re in each other’s sights.

 

“Oh my god! There you are!” hands hold onto his face, breathing a sigh of relief that smells like clean mint and holding him in a cloud of oranges and teakwood. Are you ok? Are you hurt?”

 

He shakes his head. He’s ok, nothing happened. He’s fine. Kihyun holds onto him and kisses his forehead. He wants to reach out, but stops short and instead wraps his arms around himself,

“Papa left…”

 

“I know, baby, I’m sorry. We didn’t realize we’d left without you, and by the time we’d made it through security, Minnie was the only one who could get you. There were so many people and your Papa is short. We didn’t mean to leave you, it wasn’t on purpose.”

 

Kihyun rubs his shoulders when he doesn’t accept the answer right away.

 

“What is it, Nunu?”

 

“Papa... still love?”

 

Kihyun wonders if the members can hear the sound of his heart shattering. Of all the things that he could possibly hear, this one… This is one he could have never imagined.

 

“Oh my god yes, of course Papa loves you. We all love you.” Shownu cries for a few minutes, enveloped in a group hug with him and Kihyun at the center.

 

“I’m never letting you out of my sight again.”

 

**

 

Kihyun stands in the aisle, his baby boy’s hand firmly in his; reassurance that he’s still behind him even those there aren’t many places any of them could wander off to in this big metal bird.

 

“Hey, just a suggestion- hurry up?” Changkyun whines from the caboose position in their train of incredibly physically and emotionally tired Korean kids.

 

Kihyun squeezes Shownu’s hand twice. It’s something his parents used to do with him to tell him that they loved him, or that they were proud of him, or any number of things. He hopes Shownu understands that that’s what it means. He also, with Changkyun, wants the others to hurry up so the rest of them can settle in.

 

It doesn’t matter where they sit. They just need to sit down, period., so they can get this show on the road. It’s a long flight to…. Where are they going again? Hong Kong? Japan? The tour dates are all so confusing, he just gets thrown in the car and told where to be and at what time. And if things don’t work out, that’s not his fault because he’s just a spectator on this ride.

 

“Minhyuk, for the love of all things good and bright, turn your carry on sideways.

 

Minhyuk follows his orders and turns his pack sideways, slotting it in next to Jooheon’s. They sit down the farthest row, then Changkyun and Wonho take up residence on the other side of the isle. Kihyun guides Shownu to his seat (the window, of course. He doesn’t want anyone even remotely close to him) and Hyungwon gets to have two seats to himself, which he promptly uses to lay down and take a nap.

 

“Here we go…” The plane takes off at a rumble and a rush of turbines spinning back where they can’t see. “Look, baby. We’re on our way!”

 

Shownu’s mouth stays open in a permanent ‘woah!’ as they ascend up to where the sun shines brightest and the sky is punctuated by fluffy white clouds. The cabin lights go out. One by one, they fall asleep, Minhyuk first and then Changkyun, Wonho next, Shownu, Jooheon, and Hyungwon and then finally Kihyun falls asleep too. He makes it through an hour or so of restful sleep before he’s jostled awake.

 

“Papa!”

 

“Hm? Wh- What is it, baby?” Not fully awake, he turns over so he’s practically on top of Shownu, looking for the cause of the upset.

 

“Oh,” his movements slow again as he leans back, “still here…”

 

Seemingly satisfied with the body beside him, Shownu nestles down into his blanket and goes back to sleep.

 

Kihyun, unfortunately, cannot.

 

**

 

They're left alone again the moment the cab makes it to the hotel. The media doesn’t pay too close attention, thank goodness. Not that he would mind explaining what happened, but it’s one less thing they have to worry about. Which is good because there are a lot of worries, one of which is Shownu’s increasing need to be Little as their newest comeback approaches and the occasional surprise drops they had to work with.

 

Kihyun walks to Minhyuk as slowly and smoothly as possible, careful not to let himself stand out.

 

“We need to talk.” His voice is dangerously deep, the kind that demands attention. It’s enough to pull Minhyuk from the circle of wide-eyed stares and into a conference room somewhere hidden deep in the halls. He paces like a wolf until he feels comfortable enough to start talking  again “Something happened to Hyung.”

 

Without missing a beat, Minhyuk’s back straightens, eyes narrowing to focus. “You've noticed it too.”

 

“It didn’t occur to me… we’ve never left him alone before, unless you want to consider that one time with Kyun, but no one really counts that one… I didn’t realize it was this bad.”

 

“No one did. Don’t blame yourself, Kihyunnie.”

 

“I want to know so badly, but I don’t want to push him, y’know? He’ll tell us when he’s ready. It’s just..” His eyes stare off into the distance at nothing, “You know what he said to me? On the place?”

 

“I didn’t.”

 

“He woke up and… Minnie, I think he has separation anxiety. I think someone hurt him.”

 

“I think you’re right.”

 

“You do?”

 

“Maybe, I’m not sure. Nothing is really for certain… But it reminds me of something” Minhyuk breaths out, nervousness shaking his body. Nervousness? Minhyuk? Since when? “He had a nightmare.”

 

Kihyun's pacing stops.

 

He….

He what?

He WHAT ?!

 

“What do you mean , he ‘had a nightmare’?”


“I honestly don’t know. I wish I did, I really do. But I don’t know. When I got there, he was crying hard. I think he might have said something about being left behind but I couldn’t tell, it was too garbled.”

 

“I-- Wha-- When-- When was this?!”

 

“It was a long time ago. You were away. It was when you were in the States with Jooheon and Changkyun.”

 

The pieces click in place as he remembers, the timestamps rearranging themselves into a complete picture and oh my God, Minhyuk hid information from me . “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

 

The accusation sends Minhyuk into action. His body leans forward, upwards. The sharp features of his face pull back into a snarling defense. “You were away ! You were meeting with business partners !”

 

“All those nights that I called you, all those nights I asked you what was going on, you just lied to my face ?!”

 

“It would’ve been a distraction! I couldn’t do that, I know how you are!” He’s right, he knows he’s right, but the rage boils in Kihyun’s heart in a way it hasn’t in years.

 

“A distraction ?! He’s more important than any damn meeting!” His body shakes with the force of his suppressed righteous anger. “You should’ve said something!”

 

“And what, have you come back early?! I KNOW you, Ki, do you think I’m stupid?! You would have thrown away that opportunity! You would have told the managers you were sick just to get back here! Tell me I’m wrong, Ki, just try me!”

 

I should have been there for him! ” Kihyun screams back.

 

He’s seething . He’s seething because how dare Minhyuk come in and make these accusations when he’s the one keeping secrets. And so what, Kihyun would have dropped everything in a heartbeat at the first sign of danger?

He has a responsibility to the group before any individual schedules.

He has a responsibility to Shownu before any member in the group.

 

The noise that comes out of Kihyun’s mouth sounds more like a growl than a scoff.

 

Minhyuk is a lot of things. He’s foolish and flimsy. He says too much and too little all at once. He’s made up of psychological alphabet soup and useless facts that don’t help anyone.

 

But the worst thing is that he’s right.

 

God, he hates when Minhyuk is right.

 

**

 

They don’t come out for dinner. They don’t even move from their positions. Kihyun sat himself against the sliver of wall jutting out into the middle of the room when his breathing finally slowed back to normal. Minhyuk sat against the adjacent wall leading to the fancy industrial kitchen. There are people coming in, most likely to get dinner underway for the unsuspecting guests. They aren’t the only people in the hotel. They need to resolve this and keep moving. They don’t look at each other, too sullen to do much more than think. The weight of their worry is a burden they share.

 

“What are we gonna do?” Kihyun’s voice comes out as a murmur, worn from its abuse, startling even to him.

 

Minhyuk's voice isn't faring much better. He has gravely tone instead of its usual rasp, grating against his throat as he attempts to swallow and only does so in great pain. “He can’t be left alone. We won’t do that again. He still thinks of himself as a burden. Thinks that we don’t love him. We’re learning. We’ll be better.”

 

“How do we do that?”

 

“It’s not as simple as spending time with him or telling him that we love him. We have to show him. It takes time. It takes patience.”

 

“You know those are two things I was not blessed with.” The statement earns a laugh, just a quiet one, one that understands and sympathizes. Minhyuk’s mouth turns upward into a sullen smile.

 

“I know. But we’ll get there.”

Chapter Text

He doesn’t remember what happened once the plane took off. He’s always been weak to the rumbling of airplanes. It’s like when he’s in the car and he drifts off to sleep, but it’s stronger. It’s not like he’s trying to sleep through the flights, but it’s an added bonus.

 

They hang around in the lobby for a little bit while their managers are getting their keycards and going over the whole discretion PSA they’ve done a million times before. They don’t like visiting the same places twice. Makes it easier for saesang’s to stake them out. It’s a pain but if they can have a little privacy, it’s well worth it. Kihyun asks Minhyuk to come with him in a tone that can only mean trouble. When he obliges, the rest of them are left in an awkward silence, picking up their conversations but not quite as loud as before, just so they can hear if anything goes wrong.

 

“Hey, don’t worry too much. I’m sure they’re ok.” Honey is rubbing Shownu’s back and right, right, he’s Little, completely forgot.

 

There’s a loud thump in the distance, like the sound of someone throwing something, but they’re all so tired it’s entirely possible that it’s just their imagination and nothing is going on. It’s not like his teammates would actually hurt each other, but…. It’s better if they take a convenient strolls up to the room about now.

 

Wonho looks like he’s got his arms full carrying the sleepy Pet up to their hotel room, and with Minhyuk and Kihyun still battling in the basement, he pulls Hyungwon off to the side.

 

“He’s tense, probably doesn’t like being away from his Caregivers for so long.”

 

“Wanna come with Honey and Wonnie, angel?”

 

Shownu looks in the direction that both his caretakers went, but eventually he holds out his hands. They each grab one and lead him inside.

 

**

 

Hyungwon scrolls through the newsfeed on Twitter while he waits in the bathroom in Wonho and Changkyun’s room. Something about being quiet and lowkey, whatever, he just wants to get out of here and go to bed. He slips it into his back pocket when he sees a figure approaching.

 

Wonho closes the door quietly behind him. “I put the pup down to sleep. How’s Shownu?”

 

“Honey’s got him. What did you want to talk about?”

 

“Remember when I said we shouldn’t do anything?” Hyungwon did, indeed, remember this, and with a sour taste he might add. “Ok well I take that back. I don’t think they’re ever going to notice, and after today…”

 

“They aren’t on a good course. Crash and burn.”

 

“Don’t say that!” He pushes lightly into the bony angles of the other man’s collar. “Think positive.”

 

“Yeah, yeah... “ Hyungwon settles himself onto the edge of the tub.  “So what were you thinking?”

 

“I think we should follow Honey’s lead.”

 

*

**

***

**

*

 

Jooheon was part of team ‘could we please maybe possibly do anything but camping?’ along with Hyungwon and Kihyun, but he’s looking at his closed fist with horror and at Wonho’s victorious, open-handed cheer with dread and braces himself for auditory impact.

 

We’re going camping!!!

 

He sighs but accepts his fate.

It could be worse.

They’ve definitely done worse…

They’re piled into an 8-passenger van not long after. He’s barely awake after the car ride but then someone is shoving a GoPro in his hands and turning him lose in the forest and it’s so loud until its

Quiet.

So, so…. Quiet.

Everything seems to be still in this neck of the woods. Shownu is at the front because he’s the one most qualified to get them to their destination in one piece. And as their leader, he knows how to lead his members whether it be down the red carpet or through life or through something like this they would have to endure until they got out. Honey stays close to him as they travel for what seems like an eternity, Hyungwon going off to look at something with Kihyun is tow; Minhyuk, Changkyun, and Wonho on a parallel path above them.

They walk for a while in silence and in peace, but then Jooheon stops to take a sip of his water and realizes they’re alone. He goes to tell his leader but said leader knows, is looking around, is getting more and more stressed upon realizing he’s lost five of his members.

 

“Hey, are you ok?” He knows he isn’t, but he needs to approach this carefully.

 

“I… We’re running out of time. I don’t like being away from the others. Let’s find them quickly.” His eyes flick across the expanse before them, searching but finding nothing. He needs to do something.

 

“They can’t have gone too far. Come on, I’m sure we’ll find them.” He puts his hand out.

 

And thank goodness, Shownu takes it.

 

“Have you ever seen flowers like this?”

 

“I haven’t.”

 

“They’re pretty. How many of these bushes do you think there are? I counted fifteen.” He didn’t actually count fifteen- there are only twelve- but that’s enough time counting to get his mind off things. Shownu counts through once, twice, then stops halfway through the third, realizing what’s going on with a bashful smile. “Better?”

 

“Yeah…” Shownu grips his hand, “Better.”

 

**

 

He’s starting to get antsy himself, but he can’t let Shownu know. It’ll make him panic again and they’re doing so well. They’ve been walking through the forest for… who knows how long.

 

“Here, why don’t you try the safety whistle again?” Jooheon plugs his ears so that Shownu can blow full force. “Try it again!”

 

A couple of heads pop up over a boulder and who else appears but Minhyuk, Wonho, and Changkyun?

 

“There you guys are!’

 

Shownu cups his hands around his mouth, “Are you ok?”

 

“We’re fine!”

 

“LAND HO!”

 

All heads turn towards the sound, then a thundering of footsteps running towards a clearing. The members collide with one another, laughing, filling each other in on what they missed. Jooheon feels someone tugging at his arm.

 

“Thank you.”

 

Jooheon’s mouth quirks into a smile.

No problem.

 

**

 

It isn’t hard to see how the atmosphere changes once they’re all together again. Shownu’s eyes wander but they only leave for a second before coming right back to Kihyun. He’s diligent, even if he doesn’t notice.

But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it- Minhyuk started singing that bumblebee campfire song and he’s at the part where he’s ‘picking up his baby bumble bee’ and he guesses that must be him because Minhyuk is trying to tear him off of his log with the fury of a thousand suns. Whatever is going on with Kihyun and Shownu, it can wait. He’ll deal with it later.

 

**

 

It was a nice day until Wonho grabbed him and threw him into the linen closet. Really, it was- he’d been working on getting his verses done, playing with Yoshi and Gucci in between, until a hand had snatched him away and locked him in the dark. He isn’t surprised, just annoyed.

“Move over! You’re stepping on my foot!”

 

“Do you think I would be if I had a choice??? Jooheon’s hand in practically up my ass!”

 

“Gross, hyung! I don’t need to know that!”

 

“Grow up, Kyun!!!”

 

“I’m not the one who started this!”

 

“GUYS!” Changkyun, Jooheon, and Minhyuk turn their heads. Hyungwon attempts to turn his head but has to settling for throwing Wonho a shady side-eye from over his shoulder, which he supposes he’s earned since he is the one who threw him into this linen closet in the first place. “Arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere. You know why I called you all here, right?”

 

“All you did was pull me from the couch! I’m gonna have a bruise tomorrow…”

 

“I told you not to say anything!”

 

“They’re both so oblivious, it’s not like they’ll notice!”

 

“I’m sorry I whacked you, Wonnie. From now on, no one should be hitting anyone.”

 

“Yeah, hyung, no hitting.” Kyun growls at Minhyuk.

 

Kkungie.” Wonho says in that tone, and that’s all it takes for him to shut his mouth, a furious blush overtaking his face. “Good pup. Thank you.”

 

“So what, you just wanted to make sure we all have eyes and we use them?”

 

“Sort of. I think everyone here has noticed what’s going on, or at least seen a change in how Kihyun-ah and Shownu are acting.” A round of begrudging ‘yeah’s go around. “I want everyone to be on the same page. I know we don’t have any secrets from each other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have privacy. And… I get that what they’re doing is out in the open for everyone to see, but I think we should leave them alone for now. No one say anything, no one make them feel awkward, no one push them. Let them sort it out. Ok?”

 

“What if they don’t sort it out?”

 

“We’ll cross that bridge if we get there. But I know it’s tempting to say…. Certain things…. But let’s just respect their space and let them take their paths, are we all on board with this?”

 

Something doesn’t sit right with him. They’re so… them. They’ll never figure it out, and then they’ll be miserable and the rest of them will suffer unnecessarily. “Can we try to inch the truth out of them?”

 

“If they admit it on their own, fine, but don’t tease them. If you think you’re being a jerk about it, you probably are. Can we all agree with that?”

 

Someone opens the door before they’re done agreeing and everyone spills out into a heap on the floor. And none of them are really sure how this will go, but he supposes they’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out.

 

**

 

Work doesn’t stop for the weather, they all know this, so when the thunderstorm outside said ‘no one is going to get anything done today’, Honey and I.M had put on their raingear and said ‘hell no’. It’s only him at the 24 hour café now.

 

He returns to the dorm at what must be the crack of dawn by now. The sun isn’t up but it’s still raining outside so it’s throwing off his sense of time. Whatever it is, he intends on brushing his teeth and not being conscious as soon as possible.

 

Aish, the others must have been so tired to have left a door open like this. He goes to close the door and oh, woah, look.... Kihyun and Shownu are curled up together, and honestly? They look so peaceful together, like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and they’ve all slept with or on one another before, but it’s different now.

 

Like they belong.

 

Jooheon doesn’t take a picture. It wouldn’t be right to steal this moment from them. Plus, the light would wake them up and then the hyungs would be mad at him. He closes the door to their room and goes to sleep.

 

**

 

There’s a miraculous thing called electricity that they don’t have that makes their alarm clocks work. Jooheon wakes up with a start, panicked. He looks at the black screen of his phone, prays that it isn’t past 10:00, and turns it over.

 

8:28

 

“Phew…”

 

Manager Hongseok and two other staffers he’s seen from the editing department come by again to give them breakfast.

 

“If you open the fridge, everything will spoil and then you’ll have to clean the whole thing out.” He’d said, “better to keep it sealed until the power’s back on.”

 

In the meantime, they could eat the takeout they picked up from a diner spared by the storm. It feels a bit like déjà vu- they just did this exact thing yesterday. He doesn’t ask about what he saw, just observes. Shownu is feeding himself Belgian waffles with Kihyun’s enthusiastic support.

 

“You’re doing so well, sweetheart!” He watches as Kihyun returns to his own plate of food, making conversation with Minhyuk but never letting his left hand leave Shownu’s arm. And it’s curious, he thinks, seeing them like this. Usually Shownu is focused on whatever is in front of him, whether it be food or a drawing or a stuffie, but today his gaze is trained on Kihyun, and Kihyun only. He watches with great intent as his Caregiver speaks, as he gushes over him, how he makes sure that he’s takes care of. Shownu looks so happy with Kihyun’s attention.

 

You must really love him.

 

“Hm?”

 

“You must really love him.” Jooheon says louder. Minhyuk shoots him a panicked look, but when Kihyun laughs it off and continues their conversation, he relaxes. Jooheon joins in the conversation just for the noise. They go back to eating, but the way that Kihyun’s hands falter doesn’t escape him.

 

*

**

***

**

*

 

They survive their concert. It’s a good start before they head off to Europe and then to the States- there was a lot riding on it, and the fact that the crowd received them well sets the tone for the rest of the tour. They’re riding on the high but crashing continuously from the time that they pack up their things, to when they head back to the airport, to when they fly back to Seoul, to when they crash into the dorm.

 

“GOODNIGHT.” Someone yells, two doors slam in quick succession and another two closing gently.

 

Jooheon falls into his own bed. It feels good to be home.

 

**

 

Kihyun bounces on the soles of his feet, hips swishing back and forth to the sound of an electric piano. He raises the wooden spoon to his mouth like a microphone. The kick drum pounds out in 1, 2, 3

 

What I want, you got

And it might be hard to handle

 

Shownu watches him with great bemusement and yeah, he can understand why. He looks absolutely absurd with his apron and his gym shorts and his wildly mismatched socks because laundry goes in tonight and he literally has just this outfit and another singular sock left in his dresser. The Little is sitting on the floor because he feels smaller when he has to look up at anyone walking through (plus it helps not having to worry about him falling off a stool!). He hadn’t been planning to drop today, but sometimes these things happened and Kihyun was there for it.

 

Like a flame that burns the candle

The candle feeds the flame!

Yeah! Yeah!

 

He actually uses the spoon the way it was meant to be used- to stir the pasta that’s currently on the stove and then the chopped onions simmering in the pan beside it- before spinning around to match the song.

 

Yeah, well, well, you

Ooh ooh, ooh ooh

Oh yeah! You make my dreams come true!

 

He makes sure to exaggerate the combination finger-pointing and skier-jumping on each of the ‘ooh’s, jumping closer each time.

 

You make my dreams come true!

 

He throws the spinach and peppers in with the onions, stirring while he sings along.

 

Twist and shout my way out

And wrap yourself around me

 

The pasta looks about done, so he pops a cavatappi in his mouth (and possibly burns himself, he’ll have to see in a minute). Al dente! He pours everything into the colander in the sink, then rushes over so he’s ready for the next verse.

 

Now listen to this!

 

Kihyun violently headbangs at the sets of two piano chords, the ones with no other instruments behind it, then slides over to the fridge and headbangs again, this time landing in a victory pose with the hand holding the spatula raised in the air and the other one in a fist at his side making him look something like a domestic superman.

 

Which wouldn’t be too far off, if he were to be so bold as to claim.

 

I’m down on the daydream,

Oh that sleepwalk should be over by now, I know

 

Kihyun stomps over to the Little, steps matching with the beat, and sure, maybe the people downstairs won’t be particularly happy with him, but at this point he doesn’t really care. Shownu hasn’t stopped smiling since the song started, hasn’t stopped smiling since Kihyun’s ‘American Rock And Some Other Things’ playlist accidentally started playing through the speaks. So if the neighbors don’t like it, let them not like it. He’ll deal with them later.

 

I’m waiting for you

You make my dreams come true!

 

Whatever, the food is almost done, he can afford to not pay attention to it for the rest of the song.

 

I’m waitin’ for, waitin’ for you

 

A string of ‘waitin’ for’s go by which find Kihyun alternating between bouncing on his left or right foot. His can feel his hair flip over to one side as he throws his neck out of place to exaggerate the motion of him tilting his head to the side.

 

You make my dreams come true!

 

The music dies off, but Kihyun adds in one more verse, just so he has enough time to cup both of his cheeks at ‘dreams’ and plant a loud kiss on his forehead at ‘true’.

 

“What’s next, baby? What do you think?”

 

A few notes come out, instantly recognizable.

 

“Micha!”

 

“You’re right, baby! Good job!”

 

Shownu claps in excitement as he watches his Papa go into full Michael Jackson mode, claw-hands up and at the ready.

 

“This is thrillaaaaaaaaaa!!!”

 

Honey’s words echo in his head.

God, he loves him so much.

 

Chapter Text

Changkyun can feel himself slipping away with each step. He barely makes it to his room before crashing to the ground. He needs to drop.

 

“Kkukkungie? Is that you?”

 

Owner! Yes! “Seokkie play?”

 

“I can’t, I need to finish up these files and send them over for scrubbing.”

 

“Hnnnnng…” he groans, pouting, “Kkungie stay?”

 

“Of course, pup.”

 

Wonho’s nails click on the keyboard, not typing, just trying to think. Changkyun secures his puppy ears and slips under the desk, right in between his owner’s legs. His chin rests on Wonho’s knee, watching him concentrate.

 

He’s beautiful, but it’s more than that, Changkyun thinks, happy blush hidden by the shadow of the desk. Wonho is a wonderful human being, one of the best out there. Always willing to help, always willing to give out his love… The laughter which bubbled out of his chest and the lisp he was so embarrassed about- those just added to his charms. He could make any day better just by smiling.

 

He’d certainly done that for Changkyun.

 

**

 

“Sit, stay!”

 

A shiver runs down his body, eager to be moving. He really wants that treat. He deserves it, doesn’t he? He followed the command, he did exactly what Wonho asked him...

 

“Good boy!”

 

He opens his mouth, a red gummy bear placed just in time to catch on his tongue. This is his favorite tradition, just a few minutes of training each day. He used to eat gummy bears all the time until he got too much of a good things and quit them for good. But it’s different when someone’s feeding them to him.

Especially if that someone is Wonho.

 

“Roll over!” Changkyun drops to an elbow, rolling onto his left side and getting up on his right. When Wonho gives him another gummy bear, he barks in appreciation.

 

“What a good puppy, so smart!”

 

He loves hearing the words ‘good’ come out of his Owner’s mouth. It makes him feel all warm and fuzzy inside. He preens under the praise, chest puffed out between two arms rooted firmly on the ground. Wonho pets between his ears, down the back of his neck.

 

“Sorry Kkung, that’s it for now- I’ve got to get back to work. There’s still more to do!” A little quieter, he adds, “There’s always more to do…”

 

Changkyun bumps his nose into his Owner’s knee, whining. Wonho has been working for hours at this point, and there’s only so much a pup can do without getting destructive.

 

“What is it, Kkukkungie?” He asks, “What do you need, hm?”

 

A warm hand slips under his chin, fingers running along his jaw. Wonho pats his leg twice.

 

“Come on up.”

 

He wanted him up there? In people space?

 

“Come on, pup. Sit.” And he looks so inviting, Changkyun can’t help but obey.

 

A green gummy bear is presented before him. Changkyun opens his mouth, still unsure of what space he should be. He crawls out from under the desk, then gingerly perches himself on his Owner’s lap.

 

**

 

Wonho is going to explode with the amount of squealing he has to contain. If they have to drag him to the hospital, it’s totally his fault. Puppy Kyun is such a cutie that he’s worn red teeth marks into his own knuckles to stop himself from uwuing too hard.

 

He has a lap full of Pet, his knee bouncing periodically to keep Changkyun from wandering or playing with his tools. It really isn’t so hard to keep him happy- it comes down to the methodical timing of giving praise, kisses, and cuddles. Each time Wonho moves his hand to type and isn’t touching him, he only lasts about fifteen seconds before he nose dives into the crook of his neck.

 

“Awww my needy puppy. You just need tons of love, don’t you?” Changyun whines a little, not wanting to use his words. Words were stressful. They forced him to take control, to take responsibility, and that was the last thing he wanted now. “That’s ok, you deserve it. Aren’t you just the best boy?”

 

Instead of the bark he was expecting, the Pet headbutts him again. It's too cute, watching him be embarrassed but simultaneously loving what's going on. The dynamic they have... it's something he never wants to change. There's a tap at the door, like fingernails against hollow wood. 

 

"Hyungwon?"

 

Wonho spins a couple of extra times in his chair to amuse Changkyun. Hyungown retreats slightly, seeing the youngest member settled into the lap of the second-oldest. “Oh! He's Fluffy, I didn’t know. I’ll come back later.”

 

“He what?”

 

“When Shownu drops, we say he’s Little. But we don’t have one of those for Kyun so I’ve been referring to it as being ‘Fluffy’.”

 

Wonho jostles him on his knee. “Do you like that name? A fluffy baby pup?”

 

Changkyun barks, yes, he loves it, it makes him feel warm and fuzzy inside, and Hyungwon would never admit it to anyone but the other two people in the room that that simple sound brings him joy.

 

"What did you need?" 

 

Hyungwon chews on his lip, thinking, but ultimately decides not to relay PD's message until later. Who knows how long they'll have him in headspace for. They might as well savor it while they could. 

 

"Nothing. Don't worry about it." 

 

**

 

The quiet tap tap tap of a early afternoon rainshower patters against the window. The room is a little darker, the natural lighting having disappeared behind the steel-grey clouds, but Hyungwon popped on the light before leaving for the practice room. 

 

Changkyun finishes his nap, considerably more relaxed and focused. He’s ready to get back to the grind.

 

“Thank you.” He says, coiling up his tail neatly so it fit inside the arch of his headband, “Thank you for being there. For letting me stay.”

 

“You’re always welcome, Kkukkungie.” 

 

But it doesn't feel like it's enough, just to say thank you. “What can I do to repay you?”

 

Wonho ruffles his hair, moving it out of the way so he has full access to his forehead. He gives him a kiss there even though he knows he’s out of his headspace and watches with delighted, gummy smile as the maknae's dimples come out. 

 

“You don’t have to do anything, pup. I’m always here for you.”

Chapter Text

“Papa, help?”

 

“What is-- Ooop! Hold your horses just a second there, angel.”

 

Kihyun finishes drying his hands in a rush, throwing aside the hand towel and then wiping them down the front of his sweatpants for good measure. In front of him is one determined-looking Shownu with this hands thrust out in front him, covered by long sleeves. He’s a man- er, Little- on a mission.
A mission to wash his hands.
He kneels down so they’re on the same level. Kihyun flips over the cuff of the new peach-pink fleece sweater Wonho got him while he was shopping online. It’s got a raccoon on it and it totally suits Shownu, he should wear it more often, it’s adorable, and by the look on his face when he saw it and the giggle he let out when he first put it on, Kihyun figures he won’t have any trouble convincing him. He flips the fabric over three more times, then scoots it up the rest of the way past his elbows.

 

“Other hand, please.” Shownu sticks out his left hand with conviction and watches with awe as Kihyun’s hands work to roll up his other sleeve, 3, 4, 5 scoot! He gets a pat on the arm as confirmation. “All set!”

 

“Thanky Papa!”

 

Shownu washes his hands with the aid of a chair placed in front of the kitchen sink. He doesn’t like being Little and then seeing himself in front of the mirror. It puts a sad look on his face when he sees himself dressed in cute socks and pastels and oversized sweaters (though Kihyun can not for the love of all things good and bright figure out why because his Little is the cutest on the entire planet no matter what), so they avoid it unless they absolutely need to go there. The look doesn’t suit him. He doesn’t deserve to feel anything less than absolutely adored and cherished.

 

“Here, why don’t you dry your hands off?”

 

He gets down so Kihyun can move the chair back over to the island counter in the middle of the kitchen. Once it’s secure, he gives back the towel and mount the chair again. Sitting on his knees makes him feel smaller. From this angle, he can peer up and watch what everyone is doing, and everyone looks so big that it makes him feel nice and soft, just like now! In front of him are the tools of the day, accompanied by a very large book duct taped back together in a condition something awful. He’s not much of a cook himself, but it’s even harder when his brain won’t interpret the letters in the cookbook as words. But that’s ok, he thinks- he has his Papa right there with him.

 

“Ready?”

 

Shownu nods. Yes, he’s ready. He’s so ready. They’re gonna do an A+++ job on this cake and the others are going to be so happy when they get home. Kihyun already promised to write his message to them on the homemade card he made earlier.

 

“Ready!”

 

Kihyun gives him an incredibly enthusiastic high-five.

 

“What does the first step say?”

 

“Ummm….” Shownu tries to read the book, he really does, but it’s hard to keep track of where all the letters are and it’s even harder to try to put them in order. He looks up, sheepish. “Papa read?”

 

“No problem.” Kihyun presses kisses into his hair, each one marked by loud ‘moom’ sort of sound, as though he were trying to gobble him up. “First step is to get the butter and sugar, then we do the eggs." 

 

Butter and sugar aren't that big of a problem. They go in with a plop and they throw it in the microwave for a few seconds. Kihyun hands Shownu an egg. He smashes it so he put the insides into the bowl, but it doesn’t go quite the way he wanted to be because now he’s covered and the batter is looking distinctly eggless. There’s a sound like someone just got their foot stepped on and they’re trying not to shout, but he doesn’t see anything except for Kihyun, who hands him another egg, with his eyebrows scrunched in and lips pressed together. Shownu tries to be gentle with this egg. It doesn’t smash into a shelly puddle but more of it ends up outside of the bowl than it in, which is an improvement but not a fantastic one.

 

“Why don’t you let Papa crack these while you stir?”

 

Good idea. His Papa is so smart! He knows exactly what to do. Shownu takes the spoon in his fist and gets to work while an egg is perfectly cracked above. He watches the batter turn from crumbly to smooth to glossy with each pass of his hand. It's already looking so good, he can't wait. It’s going to be fantastic. They’ve got this.

 

**

 

Shownu is having an excellent time yelling the names the ingredients Kihyun is passing him at the top of his lungs. The whole pre-measured ingredients thing is working fantastically for them, and now they’ve got a whole batter which Kihyun has had to stop Shownu from eating right then and there at least four times. But they’ve got the pan buttered now, and the Little is scraping out the very last drops into it.

Set to 350 (whatever that means), his Papa holds his hand up to the oven.

 

“This is hot, don’t touch it.” he instructs.

 

Ok, that’s simple enough. He can do that. Shownu crosses his arms in front of him in an ‘X’. “No touch!” he crows.

The cake pan slides into the oven with a click and a swwwwooop and then the door comes back up, closing off the wave of heat.

 

“You’re being such a good listener.” Kihyun gives him a kiss on the forehead and Shownu blossoms under the praise. Anything Kihyun tells him to do, he does, and without hesitation. Except…. What is that? His Papa is taking some more bowls and food coloring. What is he doing?

 

“It has to bake for an hour. Why don’t we get the frosting ready?”

 

Frosting? They can make that?

 

“What colors do you want to make? You can do any ones you want.”

 

Shownu looks at the little bottles of colors in his Papa’s hands like they hold the secrets of the universe, then at his Papa with wide eyes.

FROSTING.

 

**

 

The bunny on the timer stuck to the fridge reaches the carrot on the end and sirens out in a ding-a-ling but not the nice kind, more like the kind that made him plug his ears and sit all curled up in a little ball. Kihyun doesn’t let it run for too long. Soon enough, it’s quiet again and there’s the scrumptious smell of cake wafting out from a crack in the oven door.

 

“Is done!!!”

 

“That’s right, baby! All ready to come out of the oven!”

 

Kihyun slips on gloves and moves with great precision to take the cake out of the oven, checking over both shoulders to make sure Shownu is a safe distance away. He sends the door back up with a flick of his foot.

 

“Gotta let it cool for a little bit, then we can decorate. Ok?”

 

Shownu nods.

 

“My patient boy.”

 

Kihyun keeps him preoccupied by writing down everything that needs to go on the card, taking prompts from the Little and filling in where necessary. 15 minutes doesn’t seem like an eternity when he’s having fun. The cake comes out of the pan with a little help from a butter knife, but it’s all there and oh boy, is that a big canvas for Shownu’s next culinary work of art. And there are so many colors to pick from! Kihyun helped him make so many while they were waiting, he can’t choose one.

Might as well use all of them!

Shownu squirts out a trail of icing from the hole in the corner of the ziploc baggie. Kihyun sits back, relaxes, and lets the magic happen.

 

**

 

The others are scheduled to come back any minute now. Schedules all end around now… Where were they? Kihyun was sure he’d timed it right…

 

“Tokki! Kkung!”

 

Still with his hand clutching the doorknob, Changkyun freezes when he hears the name. He stands still like a statue but unfreezes when he realizes oh, this is Little Shownu, not one of the Owners, this is ok. He almost gets knocked over as a pastel mass goes to tackle-hug him.

 

“Welcome back.” Kihyun walks over with the proudest look on his face and a crown of flour and icing tattoos painted up and down his arms. But that can only mean...

 

“Did you bake this for us?”

 

Shownu’s head nods up and down with a ‘mhmm mhmm’ matching it. “Cake!”

 

“He was such a good helper, I couldn’t have done it without him.”

 

“Honey!!! I makes!”

 

He wriggles out of the maknae’s arms so he can give the same treatment to Jooheon. “Thank you so much, baby boy!”

 

A bedhead pops up from what Kihyun had mistakenly assumed was a massive pile of someone’s laundry left in the middle of the floor. “There’s cake?”

 

“Bugi!”

 

“Hi sweetheart. Is this for us?” Shownu nods. “Thank you so much, cupcake!”

 

“Come!” He’s a ball of energy and wow, they’ve never seen him this energetic before, it’s adorable. Where was he hiding this kind of disposition? Had it been tucked away or had they stretched it thin across the days and years of their lives? Shownu pats the seats on the sofa with his hands to urge them. “Sit!

They would have had to be heartless to ignore him. But based on the pains in the area behind their chests? They most definitely aren’t.

(“It’s called ‘feels’, hyung! It’s a story term!” “Tell me you aren’t reading those fanfictionss again.” “...... ok, LISTEN--” “KYUN!”)

They each get a slice of vanilla cake with a decorative mix of colorful swirls. What color it is, none of them are entirely sure, but it tastes good and Shownu made and by god, were they going to enjoy it. Hyungwon and Wonho take turns feeding each other while Shownu laughs at the silly faces Jooheon is making. 

 

He holds the spoon up as best he can in his fist and calls, “Minnie!”

 

The blonde man turns his head, “Yes, baby?”

 

“Aaaah!”

 

“Aaah?”

 

“Aaaah!”

 

Minhyuk opens his mouth so wide that his eyes are barely visible; the kind of feat only a loud person like him could accomplish. It takes one, two, three starts for Little Nu to aim just right and land the cake in his mouth. Of course, there isn’t a ton of food left on it by the time Minhyuk’s mouth clamps around it, but it’s the thought that counts. Shownu takes the spoon and tries to---
Shownu tries to---
Shownu---
Hey wait a minute!

 

“Minnie! Let go!” He pulls on the handle of the spoon but it just won’t come out of his mouth! Minhyuk has it in a firm grip and it doesn’t look like he’s ready to let go. Each time Shownu comes close, he turns away or ducks into a lowered position like a playful dog.

 

“Minnie!” But what’s a Little to do? He needs his spoon, how else is he going to eat his cake? He could ask his Papa, but he wants to show that he can be a big boy and feed himself.

 

“You’ve gotta say the magic words, Nunu! Do you know what they are?”

 

“I think I know.” Hands overlap as Kihyun guides Shownu to pick up the wooden stirring spoon.

 

“Are you ready?“ Shownu nods. Together, they make a figure eight in the air. ”Open sesame!”

 

It seems to work well enough. Minhyuk lets go of the spoon, now oddly clean for having just been in someone’s mouth. Shownu falls back against Kihyun, and everyone is laughing now, pure and unfiltered, just them. Things are good. This is good. They're good. 

**

Kihyun sends the others away before things can get too out of hand. Minhyuk and Hyungwon were two slices away from starting an all-out foodfight, so he’d announced that this was splendid, we should do it again some time, everyone get out. Now it's just him and Shownu and the monumental task of getting him all cleaned up. 

 

“You’ve got icing all over your eye!” The warm washcloth works like a magic eraser, clearing out patches of color and crumbs to reveal clean, tanned skin. Shownu giggles each time he announces the newest piece of food that he’s wearing. It’s like a game to him, and oh, Kihyun could just eat him up right now. The way he looks when he’s smiling and letting out wheezy laughs, laughs that are almost suppressed but sputter out of him until he doesn’t care for trying to hide anymore and does so with his entire body.

 

“Such a silly baby….” Kihyun boops his nose. “So messy. I think we’ll have to take a bath.”

 

“Bath time! Bath time!” The Little rockets up, vanishing into his room so he can get his bath things. A head pops out attached to arms carrying a towel, clothes, and some toys. “Papa! Papa! Let’s go!”

He’s like a little bolt of lightning, bottled up in the days until he let himself out. And while it’s becoming more and more common to see him like this, Kihyun holds onto these moments as tightly as he can, trying to keep the memories for the melancholy days which came and passed. But he’ll worry about those times when they come, when they’ll face them together. Right now he has a Little who’s calling for him because he can’t figure out how to get the tub to work, and that’s all that matters.

 

“I’ll be right there!”

Chapter Text

The marker cap clicks against the whiteboard, Shownu looking at it with disappointment and then at his hand in despair.

Ugh…. mornings….

He uncaps the marker and gets to writing. Shownu’s always up before the others- it’s one of those things he’s learned to do as a leader. It takes time to get everyone ready, and that’s before he can even get himself ready. The overlap and underlap and ‘hold on we lost one’ are common when he's in his zone, but it’s harder when he isn’t rocking full brain capacity.

 

“What still needs to be done?”

 

At least he has Kihyun there. It would be even worse if he didn’t. There wouldn’t be a reason for him to stay awake and then where would he be?

 

“Honey’s meeting got pushed up to today. Need to remind him it’s happening so he doesn’t miss it.”

 

“Right, right… Do Wonnie and Kyun have that guest appearance?”

 

“No, that got cancelled. They have…. I can’t remember what they have instead.”

 

“Subunit check in.”

 

“Yes, that one. Absolutely right. Thank you.”

 

He makes a few more words that turn out looking like squiggles with the potential to be words if someone squinted hard enough, but he lets it go. As long as the others know there's something there, they'll figure it out.

 

The marker clicks against his teeth. 3...4… Kihyun needs to do an extra photoshoot because he had to miss their last one, Wonho is going to meet PD about a new song…. "I feel like I'm forgetting something."

 

“Just yourself.”

 

Right, right, of course….

 

"I’ll be doing most of the housekeeping today, but that's flexible. I’m taking on most of it but we can slip the rest between our other activities."

 

Shownu holds his phone up sideways to take a picture for the group chat. One by one, the others acknowledge the message with a meme or an emoji. Hyungwon starts typing something but then his bubble disappears, signifying that he’s gone back to sleep and that someone will need to go get him in five minutes.

 

Kihyun’s alarm goes off on his phone.

 

“It’s time?” he asks, but he already knows the answer.

 

“Yeah. I’ll be back for dinner.”

 

“Do you have everything?”

 

“Got it ready last night.”

 

“You’re on top of it. Have a good time at the shoot.”

 

“I won’t but I appreciate it.” There’s some rustling, some muttering, a yawn here or there. Then there’s the sound of keys jingling, and finally the door closing. The dorm falls back into silence for a minute with the ambient sounds of the members pulling themselves out of bed. It feels emptier without Kihyun, but he needs to get moving. There are things to be done, meetings to attend. Shownu leaves for Hyungwon’s room.

 

**

 

Dishes done? Check. 

Email written? Triple check. 

Dinner started? Check.

Doctor's appointment set? Begrudgingly check. 

Laundry? Working on it. 

 

Overall? The day isn't looking too shabby. Cleaning days are more relaxing than any other. It doesn’t take much higher though to be able to scrub down the kitchen or vacuum, even if the cord is about fifteen feet too short and he has to keep unplugging and replugging to reach all of the corners of their living room. It's almost 5:00 and order in the dorm has been restored.

 

Shownu makes it through two members' rooms to pick up laundry and finally gets to Kihyun's room. joggers and sweatpants into the hamper; the kinds of things they lived in. They’re worn at the seams with patches and little holes where they hadn’t bothered or hadn’t had the time to fix them. Kihyun never notices these… he’s got too many other things on his mind. That’s why they love him though.

 

Over the end of the chair is a black and white sweater that looks like it would fit Wonho comfortably and that everyone has borrowed at least once. Kihyun is still out, it’s not like he would notice….

 

Shownu listens for any indication of his members. His heartbeat vibrates in his ear.

Booboom

Booboom

Booboom

 

Nothing. Good. It wouldn’t hurt for him to slip it on for a minute. He places the basket down and, with mild struggling, pulls it over his head.

 

It was a common occurence to wrinkle one's nose upon entry to the dorm, particularly after a practice or a late night out (a 'late night' coming home from a red-eye, that is). But no matter what, Shownu found Kihyun comforting. It was the kind of smell that comes with being lived in, the one that got lost for a few days after washing the blankets but always came back. He always smelled like home, like comfort. It was cozy and strong and it was him.

 

It's all around him, and he brings it closer. He wraps his arms around himself, a wave of tranquility skittering through his chest, down to his stomach, radiating out to his arms and all the way down to his feet. Shownu's lost in the feeling of being bundled up tight, even if it's just him on his own. He's drowning in his comfort but it feels so warm, like his mother's melody or the way it felt to fall asleep outside in summer. He could stay there forever if time would let him. 

 

“We’re back!” someone yells.

 

But of course it won't. The words bring him back to reality, the one where he needs to get back to being a leader and taking care of everyone. Shownu plays with the ends of the hoodie's drawstrings, reluctant, wanting as long as he could have with it. He doesn't want to take it off. 

 

“Shownu? You there?”

 

Oh. 

OH. 

No no no.

He needs to take this thing off.

He needs to take this thing off NOW. 

 

“Give me a minute!” he wrestles to get the sweater back over his head and throws it in the hamper with the kind of frantic power people possessed in dire situations like when a spider dropped down onto them. He checks himself over, fixing his hair, does he look ok? He shouldn't have done that. Why did he do that? Will they know what just happened? Should he go get changed just in case? Ugh, there’s no time, he needs to get back out there. 

 

"Hey! Welcome back, how was it?" 

 

Minhyuk starts telling him about his day, how long it was, how he’s so ready to take a shower, and Shownu makes sure he’s attentive and nodding to keep him going. Kihyun and Wonho scoot around him to go back to their rooms. The longer Minhyuk talks, the longer the focus is off of him. As long as he can play it cool, they'll be none the wiser. 

 

**

 

The feeling of dampness on his arm when he wipes his forehead feels like an accomplishment, like he’s putting a dent in the laundry list (it’s a pun. He’s made a pun. He’ll have to make a note on that later) of chores. He's finished everything except for dinner, which should be done..... 10 minutes ago. Is that right? Shownu isn’t a chef, he can barely keep himself together, but he knows a thing or two and that’s enough to put food on the table. Kihyun is usually the one who does this since he has at least one culinary bone in his body and that’s one more than the rest of them. Shownu's been directly summoning the awesome power of HEY SIRI to help, so it won’t be as good as Kihyun’s but that’s ok.

 

Aish, why is he thinking of Kihyun again? True, they’re always together, but something about their vocalist puts him in a trance, fixated on even the smallest of things. He’d made a promise to himself to pay more attention, but now that he is he can’t stop himself. And it isn’t just that, it’s the feeling of excitement in his stomach whenever he comes home or when Kihyun comes announces his return to the dorm. It’s the unreasonable amount of satisfaction every time Kihyun praises him, and somehow it's gotten so out of hand that it carries over to when he’s Big. Shownu had brushed it off at first, but slowly, slowly, it crept its way into his life and now it's on him like a barnacle. He can’t get enough. Kihyun could yell 'jump' and Shownu would ask 'how high'. If he could draw out those kinds of words, he would, and he'd keep them all for himself. And fine, it might be selfish, but he doesn’t care- he loves the way Kihyun makes him feel. God…. was that too reckless of him? The thought of not being around Kihyun puts such a bad taste in his mouth that he turns up the volume on his speaker just to drown out his doubt.

 

But his hand stays on his phone and he can't move because wait no what was that word that I just used and his mind is moving so fast, it’s like tearing down old wallpaper, but underneath are all of things he’d told himself were completely normal to feel for a platonic friend and he’s tearing down the protective cover of ‘that’s just what we’re like’, and it isn’t that they’re like that, it isn’t even that they’re so close. This is different. This is new. This---

 

This is love. 

 

The whistle of steam rising out of the stewpot goes unnoticed. Shownu stands in the middle of the kitchen, his words resounding while music blasts in his ears. 

 

**

 

"You can do it- eight minutes and four seconds and then we all get to take a break to stand." 

 

"Monsta X, fighting!" 

 

Changkyun had refused to come out for dinner until Shownu had suggested that he bring his things so they could all suffer together, which seemed to be a marginally better solution than being alone and miserable. Then Wonho had joined in because he hated being holed up in his studio, which brought Hyungwon as well and soon all of them were in a small circle on the floor groaning about whatever wasn't working on their screens. He doesn’t want to say anything, but… Shownu’s been staring for a while. Kihyun’s kept his head down to avoid making direct eye contact, but it’s been maybe three minutes and this is definitely the longest this has ever happened for. Is there something on his face? Does he look pale? What's going on? 

 

“You ok?”

 

Shownu blinks.

No.

No, he is definitely not ok.

He never expected to find himself the father of five kids in their 20’s at the ripe old age of 28, but here he was, and it isn’t too hard to imagine what things will be like when he starts a family for real. He imagines waking up in white sheets with bright morning light. He imagines travelling for fun, not for business, meeting new people and hearing new languages. He imagines exploring himself, the world, his partner. And it used to be ok, dreaming of such things, because back then he could safely dream about a blank canvas, a clean slate, one that would wear a specific face once he was ready but now he is.

And when he dreams of such fantastical things, the one he wakes up to is Kihyun.

He imagines what it would be like to walk into their kitchen- not here, a place all their own with a shingle roof and a big back yard and one of those rounded windows his mother would stare out of for long periods of time when the stormclouds ate the sun- and see Kihyun there, singing, one hand sorting through the mail while the other holds a baby on his hip. He imagines hearing about spring break, field trips, teaching kids- his kids- about everything. Imparting all of his knowledge, shaping them as they grew.

 

“Yeah.” He says after a pause long enough to say the opposite, “yeah, I’m ok.”

 

**

 

Their study party is brought to abrupt halt when Hyungwon leaves for his room,  then runs back fourteen seconds later to yell, “SHIT! A LITTLE HELP HERE, GUYS?!”

 

“HYUNGWON!!!” Minhyuk stands up on numb feet, trips his way over the mess of knees and ankles and paper plates below him with the grace of a drunken pirate, and covers Changkyun's ears. “NOT IN FRONT OF THE BABY!!!”

 

Better late than never, he supposes. The hands are thrown off with a playful sway. “I'm not the baby, I'm the pet, remember?”

 

Everyone goes quiet.

 

He tries to stop it, he really does, but nothing to stop Shownu’s giggles. Knowing the comment hasn’t upset anyone, it seems like a weight has been lifted and they’re allowed to laugh to their heart’s content until--

 

“I’M SERIOUS, SOMEONE HELP???”

 

It’s Shownu who gets up to help, “I’ve got it, you stay and-”

 

The sharp smell overwhelms him like a slap from a medical disinfectant.

Then, his eyes water uncontrollably.

 

"Oh my god, Wonnie, what did you spray in here?!" Shownu feels his way around the corridor until the hand he’s supporting himself on finds an open door and he falls like a tree in the wind.

 

"I'm sorry I'm sorry I dropped one of my essential oil skincare thingies and it broke! I cleaned up the glass but I can't mop up the smell."

 

“What did you do?!”

 

"Kihyun-ah, I can’t see. Am I crying?"

 

"Yeah. Am I?"

 

Shownu stares at him hard, but it's difficult to make out any distinct features with his glasses fogging up. He takes them off in one fluid motion and squints. In the moment where they watch each other with red eyes and tears, they burst into laughter.

 

They manage to clean up as well as seven kids who can't see can be expected to clean up, but at least now their eyes aren't suffering. They look like a pack of vampires, or maybe they look like they've caught a zombie virus, and each time they try to hold conversations it ends in one then both of them laughing, then the rest. It seems like the ruckus has finally died down, everyone is sitting quietly, but out of nowhere Minhyuk lets out a sound akin to that of a chair sliding against a wooden floor and everyone loses it again. Changkyun starts running with his back flexed straight and his arms pinned back in a t-rex pose like he's doing The Creep after Jooheon, who finds the act both hilarious and mildly terrifying. Hyungwon is at the point of laughter where he isn't even breathing, just turning red and then a little blue and maybe someone should help him.

 

Kihyun has laughed himself out of the room, but he's back now, admittedly on the floor but he's in the general vicinity so he'll count it as a win. He's leaning against Shownu, smile stretched so wide that his eyes are all squinty, and the place where Kihyun's hand meets his shoulder tingles under the touch. He looks good like this, being happy, Shownu thinks. He should always look like this.

 

"Ugh, god, I love you guys so much." Kihyun says as he wipes away his tears. 

 

He couldn't agree more. Shownu is howling by the time he catches his breath enough to call an early, formal end to their work. It's late as it is and they're all delirious. Let them enjoy each other's company, let them have this. One night of fun won't kill them.

Chapter Text

It starts off like any other day, moving from activity to activity at the pace of a jackrabbit, bouncing here and there and only stopping once in the safety of their home. For Shownu, who has mentally battled his way through three formal meetings with an expensive suit thrown on top of his practice clothes, the day can’t come to a close any sooner. He strips in record time and heads to the shower.

 

His mind feels clearer when it’s all fresh and clean. He smells like roses (it’s that new shampoo Minhyuk has him hooked on) and at this point, nothing short of a meteor could stop him. Going through his closet (“slippers, pants, shovel? Oh there it is”), he hauls out his big box of Little things. Maybe tonight he can ask the Caregivers if he can drop. It’s been a few days since he last became Little. It’s not the end of the world if he can’t, but it sure would be nice.

 

The other members come home, 1, 2, 3 and 4, 5, all 6 together, weary bodies soaking up the warmth of the shower, then remembering there were others who needed to do the same. They gather in the kitchen to throw together whatever they can find- ramen, chicken, what in the world did Changkyun squirt into his soup? The last round of microwave beeps stops and Shownu takes it as his chance to pop the question.

 

“Do you have a lot of work to do tonight?” A head pops up, lips slightly parted as the words align themselves into words and then match up to meanings.

 

“A little, but I’ve got a handle on it. We’re just about done with the collab, just scrubbing at this point.”

 

“Can I drop?”

 

“Of course! You don’t have to ask! Go get your things and I’ll grab you as soon as I’m done eating.”

 

There’s a huge smile on his face and he’s nodding fervently, even though he isn’t Little yet. Shownu runs off to get his stuffies and paci. Kihyun is such a blessing, he thinks, wrapping himself in a fleece blanket. Call him biased, but it was tough to dislike him. And he can’t forget about Minhyuk! Where would he be without the both of them? It was by chance that they all met and became a group. Maybe things really did happen for a reason.

 

“Shownu? You ready in there?”

 

“Appeoji! Nunu time!!!”

 

“Ready to drop?”

 

“Dropped!!!”

 

Kihyun pushes his door all the way open, met with grabby hands. “Awww there he is! Let me get a hug from my baby boy!”

 

He’s a whoosh and a streak of damp hair as he nosedives into the Little, scooping him up in his arms. Shownu feels himself bubbling with happiness. There's security in his arms and he loves it, loves him. It’s like an addiction and he can’t help himself, it’s like he’s being pulled in by his magnetism, his charm, and it’s not meant for him when he’s not like this, he knows it isn’t, but he’s like a robber in a temple of gold and everything looks so good when Kihyun does it. He soaks in the feeling like a forest in a rainstorm.

 

“Why don’t you come out so we can watch TV on the big screen?” Kihyun grabs two pillows off the couch and lays them out so they can stay close to the floor. The table has already been moved courtesy of their failed study party- perfect! He settles in between his Papa’s legs and throws his blanket over the both of them. 

 

**

 

It starts off like any other day, really.

Shownu isn’t sure where that day went, but it’s gone.

He doesn’t know what happened. Things feel like a dream in his headspace, but weren’t they just laughing together? Weren’t they just having fun? Kihyun had been making terrible jokes and tickling Shownu each time he didn’t laugh, and Shownu would flail and Kihyun would give him kisses. It was fine!

 

It was fine…

 

“Fu—” Kihyun throws his hands over his mouth to stop himself from cursing. “Ouch, ow, ow, ow, that really hurt…”

 

“Sorry Papa!” he clamors onto his hands and knees and reaches out but Kihyun turns to face away.

Is this….. because of him?

Did he…. Did he hurt his Papa?

 

“Papa, I—”

 

Kihyun keeps his hand over his mouth and shakes his free hand. “MINHYUK!!!”

 

“YEAH???”

 

“WATCH HIM, PLEASE.”

 

It’s enough to get Minhyuk running into the room. Kihyun doesn’t scream when Shownu is Little- it must be serious.

 

Minhyuk stumbles into view, does a quick once-over of the situation, sees the blood starting to escape past the barrier of Kihyun’s fingers, sees the panicked look on the Little’s face. “Oh!”

 

“Minnie!” he wails. He feels like he's about to cry, but before he can, there are hands on his face, directing his focus away. 

 

“Hi baby!” There's enough room now for he and Kihyun to trade places, and Shownu wants to get up, wants to follow his Papa to wherever it is he’s going, doesn’t want him to be out of sight. “Stay here, baby. Be good for Minnie?”

 

“But—”

 

“Nunu, stay.”

 

The terrible feeling comes to knaw at his stomach in churning knots. He wants to throw up, anything to make it go away. Minhyuk strokes his back but it does nothing to quell the storm of throughts. Kihyun comes back after a few minutes with a wet face and a swollen lip but he insists he’s alright, really, don’t worry. They go back to watching TV with both caregivers holding him, and with the Little moving around as little as possible.

 

“M’sorry…” he murmurs, just a gasp above the characters on the screen. Kihyun ruffles his hair but doesn’t kiss him.

 

“It doesn’t hurt that much, don’t worry about it.” Shownu tries not to worry about it. He tries when they’re there. He tries after Minhyuk announces that he’s going to go to bed. He tries when Kihyun puts him down for the night.

Alone, Shownu keeps trying.

 

**

 

He doesn’t drop for the rest of the week. He doesn’t drop the week after either. Not because he’s scared of what Kihyun will say! He trusts him, both in and out of headspace. It's definitely not that. No, that would be silly….

He just…

It doesn’t matter. It’s been a while, maybe Kihyun has forgotten about it. He knocks on the door.

 

“Hey, are you busy?” Only his eyes and nose are visible from his position in the doorway. Kihyun spins in his chair.

 

“We screwed up a little on the last rendering so we’re still trying to recover the data. Why? What’s up?”

 

“Oh! Nothing, I was just wondering if I could drop.”

 

“I’m sorry, Shownu. I can’t today.” He says, knees pulled up to his chest in his seat. Haven’t they been there together like this before? Maybe, but when it was less busy... He shouldn’t be greedy. Kihyun probably hates that.

 

“It’s ok.”

 

“Another time, I promise.”

 

His feet feel cemented in place, the silence drags on for too long. Is Kihyun mad because of him? He didn’t mean it…. Is he too much to handle? Or was it something else he did, something he does absent-mindedly? He doesn’t even know what he did wrong, but he didn’t mean it. He doesn’t even know what he meant, but it wasn’t this. If it was this easy to mess up, what did the others think? Were they fed up with him too? The last thing he wants is to be a nuisance.

The thoughts fester in a bog of self-doubt, swarming with the buzz of insecurity. He’s really done it this time…. Maybe he can retreat to the backdrop and ride out the rest of the months until he has to enlist, but even lasting that long makes him feel awful. Shownu wanted to get closer to Kihyun, that’s great, but now he’s triple guessing himself and if all those times he took on the role of caregiver he was doing it because he didn’t have a choice. Did he resent him?

Does he really want to know the answer?

Oddly enough, he doesn’t feel Little anymore. Just…. Uncomfortable.

Like really uncomfortable.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, and he’s sure it won’t be the last. Anxiety came out to haunt the lot of them at the most inconvenient times. Over the years they’d learned how to quiet the raw, whispering voice which spoke falsehoods in poisonous decrees. But before he had his members, and this time he has no one but himself. It reminds him of the time before he was a trainee when all of the other athletes would see him and wave because they knew his face, but no because they knew him. Back then he’d blamed them for never bothering to take a closer look, but on the inside he knew his fear of rejection was the root of his loneliness all along.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Ki. Finish your work- that’s more important.”

 

Since joining a group, he’s acquired six friends—six brothers—who know him so well; really know him. And he knows them too. More than he’d like to sometimes, but he can see when something is wrong and when they need to make an impossible choice. If they joke about knowing too much and then share that ‘too much’ with the rest of the world, they do it out of love.

Or maybe they don’t. Shownu can feel himself getting out of hand. They don’t hate him, that’s for sure. Maybe some of them even like him, but at the very least they tolerate him. This was such a mess… why did this always have to happen?

He slips into his pajamas and pulls the covers up. It’s too early to go to sleep. There’s work to be done, but if he takes a nap now, he can wake up in a little bit, once everyone has gone to bed, and he won’t be a bother to anyone. 

 

**

 

How soon was soon? How soon was too soon? ‘Another time….’ Kihyun had said… He’s been drowning in work, they all are. The role of leader meant he needed to be on top of his and everyone else’s responsibilities. So he knows about Wonho’s new diet. He knows about Hyungwon’s possible injury that he insists he’s fine to dance on.  He knows about Changkyun struggling through his raps and Jooheon having to help him. It’s totally understandably why Kihyun can’t watch out for him. He won't bother him. 

 

He stands outside of the last room in the hall for at least three minutes, just standing there, willing himself to move, telling himself that he needs to get going, this is the only option, he doesn’t have time for this, but he can’t. He’s stuck there, frozen, and god, he just wants the thoughts to stop stop stop stop shut up stop thinking but he can’t, he can’t un-see his expression when Kihyun saw him and waved and closed the door behind him. Like he didn’t want Shownu there at all.

 

Knock. 

 

Knock knock. “Minhyuk?”

 

“Hey! What’s up?”

 

Shownu chews on his lip. Here goes nothing.... “Could…. Are you busy?”

 

“No, not really. Do you need to drop?”

 

No, he doesn’t need to drop, he just wants to because it would be more comfortable than being like this, but he nods instead with a little hum to accompany it.

 

“No problem! Let me put this away….” all of his papers get unceremoniously stuffed into a folder and his laptop goes right into the bag. Shownu can feel hims lipping away, this one stronger than the last. It's been so long. He needs this, but he still tries to keep himself Big for as long as possible until Minhyuk is ready. “Why don’t we go out and see the others? They're all working hard. I bet they’ll be happy to see you.”

 

Something about that statement doesn’t sit right with him, but he can’t tell what and in this mindset he’d rather not find out what it is. But he doesn’t want to make his caretaker mad by saying no, so he nods and lets himself be led out of his safety.

Chapter Text

Ok hear him out- he really did mean to have Little time with Shownu. He was going to do it the next day but then the next day turned into the next night which turned into tomorrow which turned into Friday which turned into now. It's been who knows how many days since he was a grade-A idiot who thought tickling his baby boy relentlessly was a good idea. Is it…. Five- no, that’s not long enough- Seven? He really doesn’t know how long it's been. What he does know is that the cut on the inside of his lip has healed and that he wouldn’t hesitate to make the same bad decision to tickle Shownu if the situation presented itself. THre just needs to be a time for him to actually, y’know…. do it. Which there hasn’t been. Which is totally not anyone’s fault! It’s just…. it’s an unfortunate reality. THey’re walking home from the company building, path illuminated by the overtaxed streetlamps. He and Changkyun have three brain cells between them and they're using them to argue over when Schrodinger's Dawn occurs.

 

"It's at 4am!"

 

"Is not! It's at 5!!!"

 

"5am is when people start waking up!"

 

"4 is too early!!!"

 

“No it isn’t! 5 is way too late!!!”

 

They’re the only ones talking in the group. Come to think of it, they’re the only ones talking on this entire street. It’s an ungodly hour to be awake; the others are practically sleepwalking. They argue the entire way back to the dorm and decide that the point where you start feeling tired is the appropriate time to stop saying that it is very late in the night and start saying that it is very early in the morning. Minhyuk falls face first into his room and leaves his feet trailing out into the hallway for his members to trip over. Jooheon manages to close the door to Hyungwon’s room around said member’s unconscious body.

 

They can take a breathe, or maybe take a snore, but not much more. Kihyun has a report he needs to read over and give feedback on. Someone needs to meet with PD for the umpteenth time. He gives Shownu a wave and a tight, 'here we go again, crazy, ain't it?' kind of smile as the other man passes by, probably on his way to do just that. In the next room, the maknae is unpacking and repacking his bag. Kihyun attempts to close his door, but only succeeds in making it bounce off the frame. Changkyun follows Wonho out through the kitchen to the front steps, closing the door behind him. Jooheon hikes up the stairs to another part of the house. Kihyun finally shuts the door behind him.

They can have Little time soon. They’re almost there, just a little longer.

 

**

 

Minhyuk shuffles through his papers picking up one pile and then the next to look for that sheet with the haphazardly written notes on it from their session earlier that he was for sure not paying attention to. (“Ugh… but we’ve already done this one! Why do we have to do it again...”) It’s got to be around here somewhere- the desk looks like a mess, but he has a good idea of where in the chaos everything is. The ideas for new social media posts are on top over here and the printouts for the fanmeeting itinerary are over there and-- ah! Here it is!

 

Knock.

Knock knock.

 

“Minhyuk?”

 

Shownu? He gets part of the way up to unlock the door, but gravity brings him back down to a seated position. He spins in his chair, twirling in- oh. Something must be really bad, Shownu hasn’t looked like this since Beautiful era. He looks distraught, but that doesn’t make any sense- what would he have to be distraught over?

 

“Hey! What’s up?”

 

“Could… are you busy now?” He knows that tone, they all do. Minhyuk does a mental run through of the things he needs to do imagining where he’ll be in an hour and then two hours from that and then four hours beyond that. He built in some slack for himself just in case and he can multitask on the fan letters….

One hour, two hours….

Yeah... he can pull it off.

 

“No, not really.” he tilts his head, “Do you need to drop?”

 

Shownu doesn’t say anything, just chews on his lip. He doesn’t want to be a bother, he never does, but if it’s something he has to do, then of course he should. Minhyuk has told him dozens of times that he doesn’t mind being on Caregiver duty. It might be a handful at times but it’s fun to play with a kid. Finally, he nods.

 

“No problem! Let me put this away...” He throws his things together, but falters on putting his notepad in. The gears turn…. Oof, eek, that puts a wrench in things. Maybe he should have taken another four seconds to think. He actually needs to grab Jooheon for a minute…. Ugh, he’s upstairs working on a new melody… He’d need to either bring all of his things in there or Minhyuk will have to go to him. He’s probably with Hyungwon, who he actually needs to have a word with too….

 

Minhyuk turns so his leader doesn’t see the conflict in his expression. Shownu should be ok being with the others, right? He’s been around them before and nothing bad has happened... it should be fine. “Why don’t we go out and see the others? They’re all working hard, I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you.”

 

Shownu is still in the limbo phase where he hasn’t fully dropped, but he’s slipping away. It’s uncomfortable, judging by his facial expression. Minhyuk shoved his pens into his bag while waiting for any kind of confirmation or refusal. He looks back. Shownu nods.

Phew. Dodged a bullet on that one.

He grabs a few things- the iPad, a blanket, one of the whale plushies- and leads the Little outside.

 

**

 

Minhyuk's arms are around him, one on either side, long fingers typing on the keyboard in front. It's a pretty banged up computer but it does the trick, not that Shownu is paying attention. He's more concerned with the iPad in his lap and the characters on it. Minhyuk put on Pocoyo in English for fun and he's been trying to make the 'ff' sound for the whole past episode. He's already got the 'th' down and the 'vv'- Minhyuk gives him praise each time he learns something new, which only adds to his motivation.  

 

"Good job, baby! Such a smart boy, so good."

 

It’s him and Minhyuk stacked together on one of the folding tables they hauled up; Jooheon and Hyungwon occupying the other with Kihyun in between them, posture atrocious as he tries to work on a desk that’s much too low to the ground for how high up he’s sitting. They take breaks every few hours, wake each other up when necessary. Sometimes they’ll hold his hand when they take a lap around the house. It’s nice.

 

BAM! BAM! BAM!

 

Everyone’s heads turn.

 

Changkyun stalks through the house, footsteps too loud for it to be an accident. He’s upset, Shownu can recognize that, even in his headspace. Hyungwon’s phone lights up not a minute later and with a graceful, long-legged glide on the staircase and out of sight, the space is quiet again. Eyes stay trained on the work in front of them but no one sees the words and images, they're just trying to look busy out of courtesy. Long minutes pass. Shownu tries to stay focused on Pocoyo but it’s just so hard now that they’re all anxious. But then there are footstops, not just any- distinctly Hyungwon’s slow gait and Changkyun’s skittering- and they walk in with a leash.

 

“Go ahead. It’s ok, puppy.”

 

Everyone watches without distraction as the Pet is led towards their setup behind a very tired-looking Hyungwon. He stops short behind the wall.

 

“It’s ok. Come on, sweetheart.” Hyungwon keeps his hand low by his side and pats his thigh twice. The Pet doesn’t want to come out, that much is clear, but he has the encouragement of the others and does anyway.

 

Shownu watches with an unsettling pit in his stomach as Kihyun extends his hand palm-up towards the Pet. Changkyun looks at it, then at the vocal, then dips his head into the touch.

 

“Awww… good boy.”

 

And something breaks inside. At first it's furious, but then it quiets into melancholy musing. Did Kihyun know about his feelings? Was this his way of saying he wasn’t interested?No, no…. no, he was careful, he made sure to keep away. Or… he thought he did…? He double, triple checks his memories, scans through for any sign of change, which is what everything looked like in this state. Maybe he did such a good job t hiding it that Kihyun truthfully doesn’t know, in which case, he only has himself to blame for the nauseous contempt he feels.

 

Aish… what a mess….

 

When Kihyun focuses on one thing, it’s the only thing he can see. And right now? Right now, that one thing is Changkyun. Changkyun is such a good Pet. He'd make a fantastic Little. Kihyun is already used to looking after him after years of being a group. It makes sense that he’s paying that kind of attention, he’s a caretaker, not just his caretaker. He has a responsibility to everyone, not just him.

 

Minhyuk does the same, touching down briefly before adjusting Shownu on his lap to bounce him. Well… he still has Minnie. It doesn’t feel like he’s being ignored when Minnie pets Kyunnie.  Minnie gives him kisses and tells him he’s good too. And while it might not feel quite the same as when Kihyun does it, he enjoys. It was foolish of him to get so attached to Kihyun. He doesn’t feel like sticking around.

 

“Go bed?” He asks, looking at his caregiver, hair still a dusty rose pink, worn eyes looking on in fondness.

 

“It’s ok, you can go.” Both Minhyuk and Shownu turn when they hear Kihyun speak. He’s looking their way but with one hand stroking Changkyun’s cheek, smiling that same smile, the one that hurt to look at because it was tender and sweet and not meant for him .

 

He shouldn't have gotten so attached. Someone shows him a rumor of kindness and all of a sudden they’re the love of his life? He should have grown out of his naïveté by now . It’s high time he unlatches himself from his dependency on Kihyun; give him a well-deserved break. He looks back at Minhyuk for confirmation and receives a pat on the thigh.

 

“Go on, honey.” With Minhyuk’s ok, he feels a little better about leaving. He has permission. He may not have the kind of mental capacity to express himself fully, but he knows sulking in the private of his room is better than doing it out in public. How would Changkyun feel? He knows he would feel terrible if the roles were reversed. Shownu hops down from his knee and retreats to his room.

Chapter Text

It’s an stroll down to the studio, the big one, the one that the company keeps on reserve for the main producers like Wonho and Honey. They’ve got their backpacks on and from a distance, it looks like they’re two kids on the way to school, like they’re normal. Wonho keeps himself closeby, so close that he can feel the warmth coming off of him. Or maybe that was because of his personality. Changkyun feels himself beaming even behind his facemask.

 

He's gonna tell him.

 

The overwhelming feeling of his body being too small for his heart is driving him up a wall, and there’s so much he wants to say, but it never comes out. Wonho smiles at him, and it’s like the entire earth is experiencing a revival, and he couldn’t be more lucky to have him as a caretaker.

 

And even though he’s the Pet and Wonho is the owner, he still wants to worship him, his mind, his body. He deserves it. He deserves so much more.

 

“I’m gonna go run and grab something from downstairs. Be right back!”

 

“I’ll be here!”

 

He deserves much more than what Changkyun can give him, but maybe he’ll grow to be that kind of person. He just needs to wait until he gets back from his errand.

 

**

 

Wonho comes back empty handed and with an expression that matched the squiggly-mouthed emoji. Here goes nothing.

 

“Hey, out of curiosity, hyung” He asks, shaking off the last vestiges of his apprehension. “What do you like?”

 

The tone is unmistakable. “Me? There's no time for that, Kyun. We're idols. We're busy.”

 

Changkyun grumbles at the answer. “There has to be something, anything. Something you’re into?”

 

Wonho sighs, defeated, “Let’s just finish this.”

 

“Would you like being with a girl? Or maybe a guy?”

 

“I would like neither of those, now if we could get back to working on this, we can be out of here and get dinner before heading back to the dorm. I think that there needs to be an ambient low melody in the middle of the---”

 

Screw it, this is going nowhere. He sets his hands down on the armrests, leaning in.

 

“Tell me, hyung… what do you want?”  

 

He gauges the reaction. Oh. Oh no. Oh no no no this is not going the way he thought it would. Changkyun recoils with the force of an electric shock, eyes blown wide as he transitions through surprise and then pain, and no no no now Wonho is getting up, he’s running. He’s running away from him.

 

All traces of Wonho are gone in under a minute. It looks like he’s dancing as he scoops up his back, closes down his station faster than Changkyun even knew was possible. The response haunt him like a memory.

 

I want you to stop.

 

**

 

Wonho doesn’t realize where he is until he stops in the middle of the street and looks down at his sorry self, short and sandals, ballcap cockeyed over his messy hair, his laptop bag not across him but held precariously by the strap in one hand. The people around him have stopped staring- the novelty of watching the fool has worn off. This is absurd, he isn’t some child who can hide from his problems. He’ll need to go back to the dorm tonight. He can’t run for forever.

 

But he can run for now.

 

**

 

He needs to do something, anything, maybe cry, maybe go to sleep, anything to make this feeling go away. Changkyun passes through the house with the frantic destruction of a windstorm. The doors slam behind him, bringing the burning gaze of attention upon him. He jumps into the safety of his room and texts Hyungwon.

 

Pat. pat. Pat.

Stop.

Pat pat.

 

Fingers rattle against the wood.

 

“Come in.”

 

Hyungwon stays at a distance. His body is coiled up- one long leg crossed in front of the other, hands up by his shoulders to hold himself. He’s out of his element, he wants to say, get Minhyuk, but hem doesn’t. “You don’t look so good. Is everything ok?”

 

He chews his lip. Hopefully Hyungwon won’t hate him for throwing this on him with no notice. Changkyun makes a split-second decision. “Drop?”

 

Hyungwon kneels down and starts digging through the closet. “No problem. Help me find your things?”

 

The box is right where he left it, not that his Owner would know that. It makes a clank on the ground as the metal bits inside rattle upon impact. Changkyun plops himself down on the ground, hands resting between his legs, which are spread out wide. He’s getting close to his drop point. Hyungwon moves around him to attach the clip of the dog tail to his pants He pulls off his shirt to exchange it for a black cashmere sweater. It doesn’t even matter that the other man is dressing him; they’ve all seen one another naked so many times, they’re desensitized. His eyes grow wide as Hyungwon takes out the final touch, the piece that pulls it all together. Changkyun sits himself up nice and tall to make it easier to put the dog-eared headband on. It feels so secure on his head, so nice to have his body wrapped up in softness, that he drops.

 

“There’s my cute, fluffy pup. What’s wrong?” The pet nuzzles into him.

 

“What do you need, hm, Kkung? I’m sorry I’m not very strong, otherwise I could walk you, but I’m sure Wonho-hyung will be back soon and can do it.” He recoils at the name. If there’s one thing he doesn’t want to think about, it’s his hyung. “Why don’t we go out and see the others? Then you can get some extra love from them. They’re all working together, I’m sure they’d be thrilled to spend time with you.”

 

Hyungwon pets him behind the ears, strokes along his chin. Changkyun is safe with him. He lets himself be led out of his room and up the stairs.

 

“Go ahead. It’s ok, puppy.”

 

He stops outside of their space, eyes peering out from behind a wall. Shownu is out there. He’s in headspace too. Would it be ok to have both of them there at the same time? He doesn’t want to intrude. Changkyun feels his position in his headspace, the depth at which he’s fallen. It wouldn’t be impossible to pull himself out. Should he do it? He doesn’t want to think about Wonho, but if he has to, he will.

 

“It’s ok. Come on, sweetheart.”

 

Hyungwon pats his thigh twice; a suggestion to follow.

And who was Changkyun to argue with his Owner?

Chapter Text

Kihyun is going to throw down with universe if he has time after vanquishing himself.

Seriously, with the amount of time they all spend on their phones, you’d think he’d remember to plug his in before going anywhere, or maybe have the bright idea to bring his charger or battery with him, but apparently he could count the number of working brain cells he has on one hand which is why he’s in this mess in the first place.

And yes, he did remember that gas stations sold cheap, dinky lighter socket-to-usb converters and power cables that lasted about four and a half days. He knows they have them because he bought one. He plugged it in and it seemed like everything was looking good.

And then twenty miles down the road he noticed a little yellow light in the bottom left corner of his dash.

And then he stopped moving completely.

And then he promptly rested his head on the steering wheel and yelled FUCK!

Flash forward one call to roadside assistance, one call to the company, and one attempted but never completed call to MInhyuk later, he’s sitting on the side of the highway waiting for a middle aged man named Oongcheol to come rescue him like the angry damsel in distress he isn’t. Kihyun sighs. Of all the members to have bad luck, it just had to be him. He only has himself to blame for all this- he should’ve been more aware- but shaking his balled fist at the sky makes him feel a little better so he’s going to run with that one. And of all the times this could have possibly happened too! If it were literally any other day, he would have been fine with it- enjoyed it, really- but he just so happened to make a promise which he was so, so sure he could keep not even 48 hours ago.

A promise to Shownu.

A promise to Shownu to have Little time.

A promise to Shownu to have Little time which Minhyuk would probably have to step up to do because Kihyun is an idiot and Oongcheol said he would be there in 40 minutes two hours ago and if he ever makes it off of Gyeongin expressway he’s never getting behind the wheel again. He checks his watch again, as if that would make time go faster.

8:29

Aish, what a disaster… Kihyun runs a hand through his hair to move it off of his forehead, the cool air pulling the warm from it. It’s the only thing he can think of doing to release the mounting tension in his body beside trotting behind his car for a good scream. But that isn’t a socially acceptable thing to do, and it’s not like he’s in the middle of a cornfield where there aren’t enough people to hear it or care.

 

It surprises him, now that he has the time to think and take in the uniform buildings which had a full sweep of the horizon, the overlapping sections of bridge, the mix of timeless mountains and the age of technology hurdling them forward, how impersonal it all is. No one has stopped to check if he’s ok. Hell, as far as he can see, only a handful of people have spared him a second glance. It’s like the only thing they can see is where they’re going. The only thing that exists is what needs to be done most immediately. It's like they don't even see him.

And then it strikes him.

Maybe being stranded out there isn’t so bad.

 

It’s rare that they can get a moment to themselves, especially now that more people recognize them, and his best work usually comes when he’s in the middle of doing something else and physically cannot dedicate his time to it. He writes down his ideas in a pocket-sized book and saves them for a rainy day. (But not an actual rainy day- he’s usually inside working then, too.) But there’s a difference between having time to do the things he wants to do and having time to do nothing. Kihyun’s been forced into this no-distraction situation where he has no books, no music, no phone, no one to talk to, nowhere to go and it lets him sort through the boxes he’s left all tidy in his metaphorical attic for a time like this.

 

He's lucky, even if he doesn’t feel that way sometimes, to be able to do what he does. And even though their work has been picking up, he’s been more than blessed by fate to have the opportunity to travel the world and do what he loves. The company is giving him more solo work, just some collabs so that others can borrow his vocal chords. He’s met so many artists in the past six months-more than he’s met in the past two years, if not three. He’s seen so many new faces, heard so many life stories, been shown that what he does has a real impact on people… It's more than that kid who walked up on audition day could have ever imagined.

 

And what’s even better is that he gets to do all of it with six people he cares about and, despite the amount of bantering and hand-holding-while-roasting sessions they’ve had, generally enjoys the company of. They have two of the strongest rappers around, two producers, the miracle that is Lee Minhyuk, and the best leader any of them could ask for. Kihyun’s come to realize over the years how fortunate having a leader like him for a group like theirs has been. Sometimes people come into their roles at the wrong place and the wrong time and it shows, but they've dodged that bullet, an entire fourth anniversary later. It was almost like they were all meant to be together, and he remembers a long, long time ago, before he grew up and went off for training, how his mother would tell him that all things were as they should be, and that someone was looking out for him. And she would look him in the eyes and see his entirety, ruffle his hair, and call him a ‘good egg’.

 

Just the memory of it warms his heart. He wants to do that for Shownu, let him know how much he’s loved, how Kihyun would do just about anything for him, how he deserves the world. He wants to ruffled his baby’s soft chocolate-colored hair and call him a good egg and watch him beam under the spotlight of praise. He loves him so much, more than he thought he was humanly possible. Kihyun would love nothing more than to be home cuddling his baby and give him some kisses which he can do as soon as he gets off the side of this godforsaken shoulder of the road while cars that now have THEIR GODDAMN HEADLIGHTS ON WHIZZING PAST HIM AT THE SPEED OF SOUND.

 

“Where is this guy?!”

He looks at his watch.

8:36.

Kihyun lets out a distraught wail. This is going to be one long night.

 

**

 

The knock on the window startles him out of his nap, Kihyun attempting not to call off the back seat as he searches for the light.

 

“Hey!” he turns to try to find the source of the voice, “Are you Yoo Kihyun? I got a call from um…. Starship Hill that you needed some assistance?”

 

“Yes, that’s me!”

 

“Great! I’m glad I found you. Sorry for being so late. Something happened further up the line where we got detoured. Took me a whole hour to do two exits!!! Honestly, it’s been a crazy day…” Kihyun definitely knows how that feels, but there are things he needs to do, places he needs to be, and the curt smile paired with his head tilted to the side yells ‘not the time’. The man shrinks, embarrassed, “It’ll take too long for me to get back on the highway to get gas and come back. Let me get you onto the hook and then I’ll take you to the nearest station.”

 

He doesn't need to be told twice. 

Hell, he doesn't even need to be told once. 

The man hooks up his car to the back of the truck and motions for him to get in. Kihyun throws open the door and hops in with his feet barely touching the ground. he's already buckled in when Oongcheol slams the driver's side door behind. 

 

"You all set to go?" It looks like he's bouncing in place, trying to get comfortable, and wow, if this guy moved any slower Kihyun would think that he's caught in some sort of time slip. They need to get moving, preferably this instant but any time within the next fifteen seconds would also be suitable. 

 

"Yes!" he shouts, startling Oongcheol which in turn startles him. Kihyun throws a hand over his mouth, "Yes, I'm all ready, thank you." 

 

The car puffs and coughs to a start, the entire vehicle rattling like an old toolkit. The headlights go on and click click click click click click Oongcheol looks over his left shoulder and slowly pulls them onto the highway. He tucks his head into the space between the headrest and the wall so he can look out the window. The mountains crawl by in the dark distance, wishing him goodbye. Kihyun watches as the lights in the buildings he'd become so acquainted with illuminate as everyday people came home to make them as such. The white lines on the asphalt blur beneath him at the speed of life. He's just another face in the window.

 

Soon. He thinks, just hold on for a little longer.

 

**

 

Kihyun is a whirl of color and messy hair, panting heavily as he darts from the garage under Starhill up to the ground level, waiving at the night guard, then bursting out the front door towards the dorm. He weaves past unsuspecting gentlemen and finely-dressed ladies taking a pleasant stroll through the city with the quick steps of a cat and for once he’s glad that he’s on the small side. He can fit through groups of people easily, and his light frame means he can shoot any gaps he sees and make it without a doubt. He’s crossing the street (rather recklessly, he might add,) after five minutes. He’s at their front door shaking out his keyring to isolate the one he needs in half the time it normally takes.

 

Kihyun bursts through into the kitchen, looking left, right, hello? Anyone there?

 

“There you are! Where have you been?! You were supposed to be back hours ago!” Minhyuk hisses.

 

“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I had to get a tow truck to come get me. Long story, I’ll explain another time. Is-“

 

“Why didn’t you call?”

 

“Phone died. Once it was on I called up PD to give him the report so I could come back the second I reached the company building. He wanted to do a full sit-down but I told him it wasn’t necessary. Where is he?”

 

Minhyuk’s arms stay folded around his angular physique. He looks in the general direction he assumes Shownu must be in. Finally, he looks back, “Honey’s room.”

 

Kihyun leaves his things underneath one of the kitchen chairs to pick up later. They’ll still be there when he’s done. Little Shownu, on the other hand, might not. 

 

Calm down. You made it. 

Slow down. 

Deep breaths. 

Calm down...

 

He brushes his hands down his shirt, checks that he looks like a respectable human, and knocks.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“It’s me. Can I come in?”

 

A pause, a murmur. Jooheon asking Shownu if that’s ok. Silence. Kihyun bounces his right leg as the seconds drag on. Please, please, please….

 

“Come on in.”

 

He doesn’t need to be told twice. There’s a little tuft of hair and part of an eye peering out from behind a white and grey polka dotted blanket. He’s sitting next to Jooheon with his legs over the rapper’s and a children’s book propped open before him.

 

“Look who it is, Nunu!”

Jooheon points with the hand that isn’t being used to support both their weight. Shownu makes a startled noise when Kihyun kneels down to get a better look.

 

“Hi baby, have you been good for Honey?” The Little locks eyes with him. He nods slowly, “That’s good. I’m sorry I came back so late. What are you two up to?”

 

“Readin’…”

 

“Can Papa read with you too?”

 

“Is ok… don’t gotta….”

 

The arm behind him bends to shake them both. “I’m sure Kihyun would love to read you a few stories before you go to sleep, isn’t that right?”

 

“I would love---"

 

“Papa don’t wanna--”

 

There’s a beat of silence, both Caregivers looking on with expectant gazes, which only results in a self-conscious head being tucked into the crook of the rapper’s neck. Kihyun jumps to action.

 

“No, sweetheart, of course I want to!” He’s tripping over his words, trying to find a way to apologize but also not wanting to scare the Little, “I wasn’t thinking and made a mistake. A nice man in a big truck had to come get your Papa. I would love to read a story to you.”

 

“Bu… but…. left….” He can see the Little trying to piece together the meanings. Fuzzy eyebrows scrunch together. “Papa….. tired of baby.”

 

Kihyun’s heart screams in pain, falling, rolling in a thousand needles as he tries to wrap his head around the thought that Shownu could think of Kihyun that way—that he could think of himself that way.

 

“No, angel, never!” Jooheon tilts his head back as the Little tries to bury his nose further into the crook of his neck. ”I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner, but could I read you a few stories before it’s time to go night-night? Is that ok?”

 

Shownu doesn’t look so sure about it, but he lets himself be moved off of Jooheon’s lap and lets his hand be taken when he’s led into his room. Kihyun tucks him in and plays with the Little’s hair as he reads. He must have been exhausted, he looked it, eyes starting to close when he’s flipping the first page and then drifting off completely before he’s even halfway through the book.

 

He steps carefully around the clothes and Little things left out. Shownu stays in his solemn, peaceful sleep.

Kihyun, on the other hand, is not lucky.

Chapter Text

His hand is held loosely, fingers leaving some space in between. She must have done to someone else’s fansign- he’s fairly sure he hasn’t seen her before. She tells him to take of himself, good luck overseas, thank you for everything. Minhyuk isn’t entirely sure what she’s referring to, but he accepts the sentiment with a sheepish smile and a signature. The attendant behind him pulls the giftwrapped box out from beside him and places it with the others. In a few hours, seven crates with their names in big, blocky letters will be on their way to the shipping yard to be flown back to Starship Hill.

 

It’s tiring, sitting through fansigns, but the people they meet and the mementos and notes they receive make it more than worth the effort. The girl moves over to Jooheon, who’s spotted his fancam and is doing his signature aegyo towards it. He resettles himself, shines a smile with those mile-deep dimples, and takes over. There are so many people this time around, maybe three or four times the number at their first fansign. He leans back to widen his view of Monbebes chattering, excitedly sharing this experience with one another. And to think he was worried about not being successful when they debuted… Things have changed tremendously since then, but one thing that’s stayed more or less consistent is their lineup.

 

There are a few rules they keep. It used to be out of comfort but then it became a habit and now they don’t have to say anything, they just sit down in their seats and wait for the people they know will be on either side of them. For Minhyuk, those people are almost always Jooheon and I.M, sometimes next to one or the other, sometimes sandwiched between them. Shownu goes to the first seat, as per usual, while Hyungwon gets to be the caboose. Their positioning beyond that is pretty flexible- sometimes Kihyun will be next to Shownu, sometimes Minhyuk will be next to Hyungwon while Wonho takes the caboose. From a viewer’s perspective, there isn’t anything wrong with the way they’re sitting now.

But this time….

This time it’s particularly interesting because he’s being squished by Wonho’s bulk on one side, and next to Hyungwon is Kihyun. And even before either one of them could throw the lame attempts at ‘but we’re going to change things up this time around’, he knew that something like this was bound to happen. Usually when members scuffled, they would fix it immediately, but this…. They’ve never had a problem like this. And they've never had one that extended to the whole group like this. It’s been the longest two weeks of Minhyuk’s life, and it’s starting to wear on all them. He can practically feel it. Even though the only thing separating most of them from each other is a few inches and two layers of fabric, they’re so tense. The group is on edge. Hell, even he’s on edge, and he’s never on edge.

 

“—meet you, good afternoon!”

 

There’s a Monbebe in front of him handing over a Shiba Inu plush, one of those super soft ones from that arcade he’s been meaning to go to in Japan. He rests his head on the top of the tan dog’s. Behind her, a slowly growing chorus of ‘awws’ trickles out of the seats.

 

Right, right… not the time to be distracted.

 

Minhyuk’s body assumes its correct position. He needs to focus. He can deal with the disaster that’s been rolling around, picking up speed these past few weeks once they’re done. This is the last round of signatures. He can do it.

 

“Thank you for coming here today. It’s nice to meet you!”

 

Minhyuk finds the ‘M’ bookmark in her album and flips to that one picture of him in the black robe that everyone seems to like gushing over. She turns away when he slots their fingers together. There are no words, just blushing.

 

Hm. She must be new.

 

*

 

**

 

***

 

**

 

*

Kihyun hears the footsteps before he sees anything. First they scamper over to Minhyuk’s room, then over to Jooheon’s. They pat pat pat over to the staircase, then….. nothing. Kihyun holds his breath. He’s been on high alert, looking for an opportunity to redeem himself as a proper Caregiver. The last time Shownu dropped, he'd tried to help him and the Little had given the biggest smile and said ‘I gots it!'. And yeah, maybe it hurt a little that he ran back to Jooheon, who somehow took over Caregiver duties because he had beaten Kihyun to the punch, but that’s ok! He’s receiving love from everyone, Kihyun should be happy. There will be plenty of opportunities! It’s not like he’ll force Shownu to drop if he isn’t feeling it, but if it’s time, Kihyun is 110% ready to jump through hoops like a circus tiger.

 

“Please let him be Little, please let him be Little…”

 

His hands are clasped together in prayer, chin tilted to look at the ceiling. To whom he’s praying, he isn’t so sure, but at this point anyone who’s willing to listen to him cry about the struggles of parenthood is good enough for him. He takes a deep breath, focuses, and opens the door.

 

**

 

So.

 

It’s going well.

 

It’s going well?

 

It’s…going. Albeit at a snail’s pace, but it’s going.

 

He’d expected the apprehension to go away once Shownu realized that this was something they both enjoyed, but now he isn’t so sure. Kihyun had tried to go in for his usual hugs and kisses and cuddles and profession of love but found the human equivalent of a statue in his arms. Cut to a few hours later, the Little’s focus has been almost exclusively on the setup of plushies in front of him, moving them around, muttering something too quietly for Kihyun to hear.

 

At least he's doing something. Breaking out the plushies was the only thing he could get him to agree to. Kihyun is pulling out everything he can think of, which is why he's standing in front of the microwave with a dazed expression watching the numbers count down- 54, 53, 52, 51, 50....

 

Maybe he'll try to watch cartoons. That's a classic. Low-effort, comfy cozy... And Kihyun can throw the blankets in the dryer for a minute so they're all warm. Maybe Wonho will join in too. He's already in caregiving mode while Kihyun- 37, 36, 35, 34 --- gets the silverware out. It's hard not to let his mind run away. Shownu feels more rigid today than usual; robotic, even. It's like his joy is gone and he needs to recharge, but that doesn't make sense since Little time usually is his recharge time. Is he sick? Did Kihyun do something wrong? Is he upset about Kihyun missing Little time last time? Because he said he was sorry for being so careless and Shownu had said he forgave him and that he knew Kihyun didn't mean anything bad by it, it was out of his control how long it took for roadside assistance to get there, but sometimes people said the things they thought the other person wanted to hear because they felt obligated. He'd promised to do better next time, and this is his 'next time', and as long as Shownu is willing to give him a chance, he's sure he can make it work, he just---

 

Beepbeep 

Beepbeep

Beepbeep

Beepbeep

 

Kihyun's head snaps up. 

 

Finally.... 

 

Kihyun comes back with a few ideas and two piping bowls of leftover ramen in hand. He pushes the door with his hip, peeking behind just in case someone is behind it. But the sight is such a treat that he stops halfway.

 

Wonho is in some sort of downward dog position and oh, it looks like they’re playing forest animals. Shownu is also on his hands and knees too, much less invested in the whole act as Wonho is, but based on the slight smile on his face, it looks like he’s having at least a little fun. It looks like he’s a…. um… Nope, Kihyun has no idea what animal he is. Super cute though, he must admit. It looks like they’re wrestling, or at least sort of, with Wonho flopping back and swatting at Shownu, Shownu swatting back once every few times.

 

Kihyun places the bowls down on the desk and then exaggerates putting his hands on his hips, puffing out his chest.

 

“What’s going on in here?” He asks in a booming, cartoon-like voice. He puts a hand up to his forehead to survey the room. “What animals will I see today on my exhibition?”

 

“We’re Bare Bears! I’m a panda bear,” Wonho’s lisp is so prominent when he says it that he laughs, “and Nunu is Ice Bear.”

 

And heck, that’s adorable, there’s no way Kihyun could pass up on an opportunity to join in. “Why don’t I be the grizzly?”

 

He kneels down so they’re on the same level, ready to go, but Shownu shakes his head ‘no’. Kihyun pulls back because wait, what? that’s a funny reaction. 

 

“I can’t be the grizzly?” Shownu shakes his head again, scooting himself away and bundling himself up again into a ball.

 

“Maybe he just isn’t feeling it.” Wonho shrugs, rubbing his back. He says it like it’s nothing, but it’s not nothing, not when it looks so effortless to him. The words strikes a piece of him Kihyun didn’t know he had.

 

He pushes down the ball of fire churning in his stomach. This is not the time. This is not the place. It’s not Wonho’s fault that Kihyun is being pulled in fourteen million directions and can’t figure out what he's doing wrong. It’s his own issue, and he’ll handle it on his own. He’ll go back later and maybe try to dig through his emotions like Amanda Young in the needle pit, he’ll drink some tea, listen to some music, post a selca, punch a wall, dammit no, scrap that last thing, don’t do that Kihyun, that’s not how normal people deal with their feelings. He shakes out his arms to get rid of the feeling and tries again.

 

“Come on, Nunu, don’t you want Papa to play with you?”

 

Shownu retreats further, head shaking furiously. “Don’t wanna.”

 

For a moment, his mind goes blank.

Five minutes.

He couldn’t have been gone for more than five minutes and Wonho just… came in out of nowhere and did what’s he’s been trying to do this whole afternoon. Kihyun gnaws on his tongue in disbelief.

What the hell.

What the actual fuck is going on.

First it was Jooheon and that was fine because everyone has a soft spot for Jooheon whether they want to admit it or not, he’s like an overgrown kitten who raps and does aegyo, but Wonho? Seriously??? Kihyun is the one Shownu chose, the one who’s been there for him as much as he possibly can, but Shownu looks like he's frightened of him and he’s just exhausted, he’s trying so, SO hard to keep up with all of the projects the company is forcing down his throat and it feels like everything he's doing is wrong and he can’t finish anything fast enough, it feels like he’s letting down his teammates because he isn’t strong enough to pull three all-nighters in a row like Changkyun and Minhyuk, he just wanted this to go well, that’s all he wanted out of this night, and goddammit, why did things never work out, why did he even try when clearly Shownu prefers the others.

 

Kihyun stands up slowly. His tongue pushes on the inside of his cheek, rounding up to his gums. He sighs deeply. “I'm gonna go.”

 

“Hm? Already? It's only 8.”

 

“I know, I'm just... I’m going to bed, ok?" He says a little faster and sharper than he intended, "You've got it under control, right? You don't need me here."

 

The other man stumbles over his words, trying to get up but tipping over on one knee. “I mean… yeah, I do, but---”

 

“Awesome. He needs to be in bed by midnight." Kihyun interjects. He just wants to be out of there, damn what anyone says, he'll deal with the consequences later. His ruthless pragmatism is starting to crawling out of him. He needs to be out of there before the pitch-black side of him comes out. He attempts to uphold some form of politeness with a wave as he stands in the doorway. "Have fun together. Goodnight, Nunu. Goodnight, Tokki. See you guys in the morning.”

 

**

 

He feels the weightlessness first.

Then, the dread.

Kihyun slinks down the wall.

He holds himself tight, coiled up.

It was one thing to be angry, everyone lost their temper, that was a human condition, but to hurt someone like that… that took thought. That took knowing the intricacies of one's mind inside and out and Kihyun did that. And to a Little. That was the worst thing he could possibly do. That was not how a caregiver acted. Like a predator sporting vile coherency between sharp fangs and jutting boar’s teeth, red with fury and the spark of a lighter, flickering, then

 

gone.

 

It's not like he can go back in there and try to explain that it was a slip of the tongue- he'll have to wait until Shownu is Big again. Little Shownu probably doesn’t know why Kihyun left, he was probably embarrassed and didn’t know how to tell Kihyun to his face that he would rather have someone else and no no no this is all wrong, why did he do that. He doesn’t deserve to be Shownu’s Papa. God, why did he do that?

Why didn’t he stop?

He knows the answer, looking back at it. He feels the ghost’s touch of jealousy that shocked through him when he saw Minhyuk, when he saw Jooheon, when he saw Wonho; all of them spending time with the Little, loving him, receiving his love. But… that isn’t right, being jealous. That would assume that the others have something he doesn’t, that they have his love and he doesn’t, but that isn’t it. He has Shownu’s love… and he doesn’t want anyone else to have it.

It’s greed.  

He has Shownu's love....

He had Shownu's love....

And he ruined it. 

Shownu deserves a better Caretaker than Kihyun. He deserves someone who can love him the way he was meant to be loved; fully, unabashedly. Not the way he’s been doing it, trying to squeeze in time between activities, as though being a Caregiver was buried in his list of priorities. It isn’t, he promises it’s at the very top of his list, but he’s done a downright abysmal job at showing it. And while Minhyuk might be in the same sinking boat, he’s doing a little better. He’s at the dorm more often and is more available. Come to think of it, Minhyuk has always been more qualified- he’s the one who taught Kihyun about Littlespace, who worked with his network of friends to figure out tips and tricks to make sure Shownu was comfortable. And maybe….

 

Maybe it should have been him taking care of Shownu instead of Kihyun all along. 

 

If Minhyuk can give him what he needs, then Kihyun can be ok stepping to the side. It’s ok if he doesn’t get to see his baby as often as long as he’s happy and healthy. And if it’s someone else holding him, giving him kisses before tucking him, telling him that he’s loved, then he can be happy knowing he’s taken care of.

Yeah….

He can be happy.

 

*

 

**

 

***

 

**

 

*

 

Minhyuk drops his pen immediately once the last person of the last round (praise be the sun and the creatures below it that everything went smoothly despite their weirdness with one another) moves on to the rest of the line. They’ll have a break, play around, do a dance but like the silly one, not the serious all-out we’re-trying-to-get-an-award one. Maybe someone will pull a prank. They probably won’t. He looks at Wonho purposely drifting from one side of Shownu to the other so he can be farther away from Changkyun. He watches Shownu frantically check to see if Kihyun will spare him a glance, which he doesn’t because he hasn't looked anywhere that isn't the floor this entire time, and goes back to trying to pretend like it doesn’t affect him.

 

“Monbebe, what song do you want to hear?”

 

There’s a chorus of shouts, mainly for Alligator and Shoot Out but a few stray calls for Play It Cool, Dramarama, and Beautiful. Hyungwon passes by him in a flash of color; practically flies over to Wonho the second he’s done, putting an arm around the man. Changkyun sticks with Jooheon and chats with him from the Monbebe side of the table. Shownu is still lost in space.

 

“How about something from our two newest albums?”

 

Minhyuk hands Shownu the mic so he has something to do and attempts to comfort Kihyun, but he rolls out of the touch. The thunderous sound of ‘Shoot Out’ starts playing. Minhyuk’s mind races through the choreography. First rap, bridge, chorus, second rap, bridge, chorus, segue…. No, that’s him and Hyungwon, that’s ok…. last chorus, ending... perfect, none of the people doing the avoidance tango with one another will have to interact.

 

Excuse me, I’m walkin’ like zombie

 

They switch formations. Hopefully once the song ends, they can have a formal sit-down discussion. For now, all they can do is endure, like they’ve always done.

 

Chapter Text

It’s been long enough.

 

It's already been three weeks too long when they make it back from the fansign. Granted, it feels like a step, blink, and breath since the incident- they’re still talking about last week’s events like they happened yesterday and last month’s even like they were last week- so overall, not too shabby, but they need to get going now or else it’s going to get even worse when they head overseas. When they’re at the dorm, they can’t make up the usual excuses like packing suitcases or going over the itinerary or playing a dangerous game of ‘English Time with Monsta X’ for the sake of vlive or running to catch a plane or double checking if they have their passports or running back to the hotel because someone lost their passport or goddammit Hyungwon there was a reason we told you to check your bag before you left and it wasn’t just because we like the sound of our own voices.

 

So yeah! He’s caught them at a good time!

 

Like he had an option.

 

He watches as Kihyun runs around so deep in micromanaging mode that no one has heard as much as a squeak out of him. He turns on his laser-focus and piledrives through whatever is ahead of him that day. It’s like he’s in a permanent state of looking like he’s going to steal someone’s soul, or maybe hurt someone’s feelings, but Minhyuk knows that isn’t it. Because Minhyuk is consistently on the receiving end of Kihyun’s doubts, the shoulder that he grabs onto for stability when he loses balance on the tightrope he’s walking.

 

And completely opposite of him, Shownu moves slower than usual; more emotionally tired. He keeps himself very organized and minimalistic. Even at this distance, it’s like Minhyuk can hear his thoughts. He’s like a ghost when he whispers to himself, asking if he needs to brings this, that, or the other thing before ultimately deciding that he doesn’t. Minhyuk hasn’t had to caretake since ‘that time with the thing that happened’ that no one explained in great detail beyond ‘Kihyun lost his cool for a second and then left’ which really puts a hurdle in his ‘I’m trying to help you, you dummies’ mission since knowing what he’s giving advice on would be great for if he actually gives the advice, the keyword here being if.

 

Because if they ever confront each other is still a toss up. 

Which is absurd. 

 

Minhyuk knows for an absolute truth-of-the-universe fact that if he leaves those two to their own devices, it’s going to end up like one of those fanfiction stories Changkyun reads and they’re going to be miserable until one of them breaks down and confesses because Shownu doesn’t think he deserves anything beyond being a functional group member and Kihyun seems to think this weird self-punishment thing makes everything ok. Which it doesn’t. Minhyuk knows it doesn’t and he’s going to do something about it before he has to carry yet another conversation because Kihyun won’t make his usual jabs and Shownu is ready to take the extra two steps into the background and be completely mute during their interviews. It isn’t difficult by any means to cover for him, just like how it isn’t hard to cover when a member is off doing another activity or is sick and trying not to pass out. He just needs to act like a puppy on espresso while Changkyun takes the brunt of the questions, which he’s already doing since they’re in English, so it works out. But the point is that he shouldn't have to. He shouldn't have to be the mediator for Shownu and Kihyun. 

 

“Minnie….” Shownu says, stumbling into his room, “’m sorry, Minnie, ‘m just so tired…”

 

Minhyuk shoots up from his bed to get a better view. A large Little in footie pajamas rubs his eyes in his doorway.

 

"It's ok, angel, you can drop." 

 

Their discussion will have to wait. 

 

**

 

To say he's confused is an understatement. Shownu used to be more touchy, seeking out his caregivers and his members... was that all a figment of his imagination? The Little had seemed more subdued when Minhyuk tucked him in the last time, but he assumed it was the exhaustion showing. He glances down at the bundle of soft fabric clutching a stuffie, sitting upright and crosslegged and-- hold on, wait a minute, he needs to test this theory out-- yeah, he's definitely not imagining Shownu leaning away every time they graze one another. 

 

Minhyuk pauses his game."What's wrong, little one? Are you ok? You haven't asked for hugs or kissies at all." 

 

"I'm bein' a good baby!" 

 

The Little shines him a smile and hugs the teddy bear in his arms, proud of himself, though for what, Minhyuk will have to find out. He cocks his head to the side because huh, that's not at all the answer he was expecting, but ok, he'll bite the line; he'll keep pressing. "A good baby?"

 

"Yeah! Not gonna hurt Minnie! Then Minnie don't go away!" He says, and he says the words with the biggest smile on his face, so big that Minhyuk can't help but be horrified. 

 

"What? No, I'm staying right here with you. I'm not going anywhere."

 

Now it's Shownu's turn to tilt his head to one side, like a confused puppy. "No...?"

 

"No! Why would I go?"

 

"Cuz.... cuz Papa..." He looks down, intent on not completing that sentence. He was worried about him leaving? Did Kihyun say something to Shownu during that day no one will talk about? Or did he--

 

OH.

 

Oh... oh no.... he thinks back to when Kihyun asked him to watch out for the Little while he took some personal time, to the times they wouldn't look at each other, to the constant stream of self-doubt and the pieces are clicking together so quickly in Minhyuk's head and he understands

 

"No! No, no honey, he didn't leave. He's just taking a little break, he'll be back."

 

“But... but why?”

 

“Oh honey…. He’s scared, like we all are. He’s scared of hurting you.”

 

“But… did the hurt--- Papa hurt.” He sits up on his knees, hand tapping his chest, waddling forward. "Baby hurt Papa!

 

A little more quietly, he adds, "Baby miss Papa..." 

 

Minhyuk scoops him up into his arms, stroking the Little's hair. 

 

“I know, sweet pea, and I’m sorry this happened. I wish I could show you that it’ll be ok because it will be, I know it will. But know that we’re all here- Me and Tokki and Honey and Wonnie and Kkungie. And even though it may not seem like it now, your Papa loves you more than anything in the world. He would do anything for you.”

 

He pulls away to look him in the eyes. “Do you trust me?”

 

Shownus’ stomach stick forwards, his chin grazing his chest as he nods.

 

“Trust Minnie.” he says, and his caretaker presses a kiss to his nose. 

 

“Thank you, baby.”

 

**

 

It's much too early in the day to be disturbing the peace like this, but he's a desperate man at the end of his rope and heck, if this whole act he's doing doesn't beget any results, then that's it, it's hopeless, he's throwing in the towel.

 

“YOO KIHYUN!!!” Minhyuk screams the three stories up to their balcony. The sound of ‘X GON’ GIVE IT TO YA’ comes to an abrupt stop leaving everyone within a 100-meter radius in a deafening and awkward silence, “YOU ARE COMING DOWN HERE AND YOU ARE DOING IT NOW AND WE ARE GONNA TALK ABOUT OUR FEELINGS LIKE REAL ADULTS.”

 

“JESUS, MIN, FINE! STOP YELLING!” The other members keep watch from the balcony, waiting the two minutes it takes Kihyun to grab his jacket and then pop out the back door. Minhyuk straightens himself up to his full height.

Ok, focus. They’re going to have a civil conversation, and then Kihyun is going to talk to Shownu once he gets back from that shoot in the park with Wonho, and then everything is going to go back to sort-of-normal. Shownu won’t feel perpetually scared about hurting Kihyun and he'll be happy again and---

The memory strikes him like sudden plunge in the dark.

All of the reasons why he’s doing this, the memory of Shownu’s downright determination, the way no one will tell him what the fuck is going on, fills Minhyuk with the fury of a thousand suns.

 

“I don’t know where you got the idea that this self-punishment thing was a good idea because I can confirm by the amount of running I’ve had to do between you and hyung that it isn’t. It’s like you two are cut from the same stubborn, dumb-as-a-brick-wall cloth. And we love you, we’d thrown down with anyone who so much as looked at you wrong and we wouldn’t think twice about it, but ARGH!” Minhyuk strides into Kihyun’s person space with his hands raised together, moving them back and forth as though he were strangling someone. “By why do you two have to be so dense?!?!”

 

And Kihyun has the audacity to raise an eyebrow and look at Minhyuk like he’s the one who's insane.

 

“I don’t see how considering someone else’s well being is being dense. Shownu doesn’t want me there, so I’m going to give him space.” Kihyun squeezes the words out through his teeth, not quite believing them himself. He remembers how Shownu looked at him, how he was so perfect, so willing, so eager to be everything Kihyun wanted him to be. Kihyun didn’t deserve to have that kind of trust.

 

He puts a hand over his forehead in disbelief, sitting back on his heels. He loves Kihyun, he really does, the guy is like the brother he never wanted nor had, but at this rate he’s going to send him on an all expenses paid trip to the afterlife.  ”I can’t believe you. After all this time, after all this chaos, you had to make it worse.”

 

“Why can’t you get your head out of the sand and clean up your own mess?! Aren’t you supposed to be the resident adult in this place?! Aren’t you the one who talks things out?!”

 

“This is different!”

 

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”

 

“He doesn’t want me anymore!”

 

“DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE CALLS ME?!” Minhyuk turns on his heels, the words thrown over his shoulder as his lip curls up in a snarl, “Not Appouji, not Papa, I’m Minnie, I’ve ALWAYS been Minnie. Do you know why?! Don’t make me say it, Ki, I swear-“

 

“I almost hurt him!”

 

YOU’RE HURTING HIM NOW!”

 

Minhyuk sighs. He wants to cry—or maybe laugh? Laughing took less effort, but it also made him look four times weirder than usual. He settles for running his hands down his face.

 

“You know what? I give up. Talk to him. Or don’t. You’ve always been the kind to do things on your own watch. Just… talk to him, would you?”

 

Minhyuk storms back in the house, taking his time going up the stairs. Three pairs of eyes follow him, looking on at a scene Kihyun isn't privy to see. 

 

No one stops him. 

**

 

Jooheon’s words reverberate in back of his conscious like a demon, or maybe an angel on his shoulder.

 

                You must love him so much.

 

But…. was it too much?

He must have a million hole punches in his ‘I’m being an asshat’ card. Seriously, there has to be a whooping around the corner. This isn’t the kind of reaction he would have for any of his members. He wouldn’t even make a big deal about it if it were himself. There’s something about when Shownu is hurting that makes it different.

But what?

Wonho’s steps thump-----thump-----thump as he struggles to keep his balance. He and Shownu got back a little while ago, shared some words that he couldn't hear, and parted ways, Wonho knocking on the maknae's door. He knows they had some sort of heart to heart- Minhyuk was intent on hearing how their talk ("Finally! You should take note, Ki!") went- and now Changkyun, in floppy dog ears and a fleece sweater, is latched firmly onto him with no intention of letting go. He keeps shuffling to make sure his head can stay resting on his Owner’s shoulder, but each time they move forward, it bounces off and he squirms to put himself back.

 

“Stay still, Kkungie- I don’t want to drop you.”

 

The Pet immediately stops fidgeting. He even earns a quick kiss pecked onto the side of his head.

 

“Thank you, sweetheart.”

 

They walk out of sight, vanishing into Changkyun’s room, the sliver of light coming out of his room growing thinner and thinner, but the image of them doesn’t leave him. Suddenly, one thought overwhelms him.

 

That should be us. 

 

Kihyun has the urge to give Shownu kisses and shower him in love. They haven’t spent time together and he’s the only one to blame. He wouldn’t be surprised to find Shownu’s faith in him long-gone by the time he gets over… whatever this is. It’s good that Shownu stays with Minhyuk. It’s good that Kihyun stays away. Not too far! He’s there just in case he’s needed in an absolute last-resort act of desperation, but he’s far enough where Shownu can drop and not have to be paranoid about Kihyun coming in and ruining everything. The last time they spoke- or at least he spoke- he’d apologized, told Shownu that he would be better off having a good caretaker Minhyuk, and Shownu had opened his mouth to tell him that Kihyun wasn’t a bad caretaker like the good leader he was. The part after got kind of fuzzy- a self-protective measure to make sure he didn’t start bumbling like a dummy on the spot- but he remembers Shownu saying that it was ok, that he understood, and that Kihyun should take the time he needs, but it’s said in the same tone parents reserved for their children or their loveless spouses, as though Shownu had no more fight left in him.

As though this was the best he could expect from Kihyun. As though he would have to settle.

He shakes his body out. No, Shownu shouldn't have to settle. He deserves a better version of Kihyun, one that he's going to get, eventually. Minhyuk is right- they need to talk. He needs to show him that he's serious. It’ll take some time, weeks, months maybe, but he’s determined, and nothing could strike a determined Kihyun down. If Wonho can do, it surely he can too. 

 

He can talk to Shownu. 

 

He can do it. 

Chapter Text

The day couldn’t be any more perfect- 75 and sunny, clear skies made for a perfect afternoon. 

 

“You’ve been awful quiet, Wonho. How have you been?”

 

The distant shutter of a camera parses the silence, their bodies staged in conversation, though it be a waste for Shownu not to take advantage of their closeness. With the others gone, they can have this quiet moment to talk.

 

“You know… same old-same old…” Wonho sees the woman in a semi-crouched position but not taking photos, signifying that it’s time for a new pose. He takes the chance to climb up a nearby tree, using the distance between them as a protective cover. “Why?”

 

“Just wanted to make sure. It’s my responsibility to check up on you all.”

 

The sun shines directly on Shownu in a hazy summer filter which makes his skin look darker, and from here the stark contrast between Wonho’s pale porcelain and his leader’s caramel expanse acts as the perfect dichotomy. The photographer can’t get enough of it. She seems preoccupied enough for Shownu to stop dancing around the question.

 

“I heard you and Changkyun had a bit of a scuffle. Are you ok?”

 

Wonho shuffles in place. He swallows, opens his mouth, then closes it again. Lips pull back into a tight line. 

 

There it is

 

“Yeah, I, uh… I’ve been meaning to apologize for running out on him, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”

 

Shownu switches his position to lean against the branch Wonho’s feet are dangling from. “You ran out on him?”

 

Dammit .

 

“Yeah, long story short…”

 

“You don’t have to explain it to me. It’s not my place to know the exact details, but he’s been moping around ever since it happened. You need to talk to him.”  And it strikes Shownu as ironic because he’s the one who still needs to apologize and thank Kihyun for everything, but he’s always been better at giving advice than he has been at taking it, and maybe someday he’ll give himself a mental peptalk and get down to business, but for now, attention needs to be one Wonho's ... whatever this weird situation was called. “He’s a good kid. He’ll understand.”

 

“I know he is—he’s relaxed about most thing—it’s just…” The volume goes down to barely a murmur; a habit he had grown out of after years and years of public speaking but still called out during times like this when he felt especially timid. “What if I talk to him, tell him what’s going on with me… what if….”

 

What if I lose his friendship.

What if I screw this up.

What if i apologize and it isn’t enough. 

What if I’m not enough .

 

The silence speaks louder than his words and Shownu gets it, gets it completely, but also knows a few key truths of the universe.

 

“That’s a risk you’ll have to take. Do you trust him?” 

 

“Of course I do.” 

 

“The choice is yours.”, he switches positions again, “Whatever you choose, it'll be ok. Don’t think too hard about it.”

 

Wonho’s eyes stay downcast, head nodding lamely in thought. The rest of the shoot goes on in silence. 

 

**

 

He doesn’t sense a body behind him when he finally unlocks the door.

Huh.

Shownu glances down to check for feet near his and finds none.

 

“Wonho?”

 

“I’m right here, I just…” He breathes in, chest puffing out in exaggeration, pulling air in slowly to calm himself down. In through your nose out through your mouth. A voice in the back of his mind says like a television teacher from the fifties. He watches the other man breathe in a few more times before opening his eyes. “I’m gonna do it.”

 

“Do you want me there? I was going to take a-”

 

“Nah, I’ll be alright. I’ll call if I need you. Do your thing! Go shower!”

 

Shownu leads him inside (and his heart almost leaps out of his chest when he sees Kihyun), then wishes Wonho good luck, tells him to knock a few times and say something like ‘hey did you send that file to me?’if anything goes wrong and he’ll get out immediately. Wonho throws him a ‘wish me luck’ in return. Shownu turns on the water. It’s out of his hands now. Whatever their decision will be.

Maybe he shouldn’t put his speaker on while he’s in there. Just in case. You never know, right? It couldn’t hurt.

 

**

 

It’s a gamble deciding when to get out of the shower. 

 

The dorm doesn’t seem to have burned down and no one is storming him first thing out of the shower, so he assumes that the talk went well, or at least went decently. That’s a good thing, he thinks- no immediate disasters to take care of. 

 

“Hey! Do you have a minute? I wanted to talk to you.” says a voice suddenly beside him.

 

Kihyun. 

 

“Sure. No problem. Does it have to be this instant?”

 

Kihyun is about halfway (or what Shownu would assume is halfway) done with his speech on how it doesn’t really matter and it’s not that important when Shownu walks into Kihyun’s room and wordlessly tells him to get inside, let’s talk it out. Kihyun scampers inside after him. 

 

“Now,” they have some semblance of privacy, though the others are home so they know that they could be listening if they really wanted to. “What did you want to talk about?”

 

Kihyun holds out his hands; the sign of a serious talk, and it makes him just a tad bit nervous because things seem to go from bad to worse but he’s the leader, he needs to be there for his members when they need something, even the smallest thing. Shownu reciprocates by taking them. 

 

“Wh-”

 

“I'm sorry this has gone on for so long and that things have been awkward and that I got mad at you and I’m sorry, just--- I'm sorry for so many things.” the words tumble out of Kihyun’s mouth faster than he can control them, his mind tripping over itself as though trying to catch them and stem the flow.

 

And this is not exactly what Shownu was expecting- he hasn’t had enough time to think up scenarios and plan for each one accordingly- and oh no, he’s frozen in place trying to recover, come on Shownu, say something, say anything, but he doesn’t know what. Kihyun takes his stunned silence as a lack of acceptance. 

 

“I shouldn’t have left you like that, it was too sudden. I’m sorry. That wasn’t right of me.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, Ki. Caretaking is hard. Little’s are naturally difficult to take care of, even with other people helping out, I…” Shownu starts, but now the other man is giving him double eyelids and a look perfectly expressing ‘???????’ and now he’s supremely lost. The pace at which he finishes telling him about the trials of headspace slow down until they stop completely, picking up with a quiet, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

 

“That-- That wasn’t--- You thought you were difficult?”

 

He feels the hot spotlight of scrutiny come over him. He tries to shrug nonchalantly, but Kihyun’s lived with him long enough to know he’s doing it to minimize the effect the conversation has on him. “Littles are inherently difficult.”

 

“That’s not-- Oh my god, I’m an idiot.” his hands rub over his eyes and down his cheeks, “I’m an idiot. I should’ve explained this better. I should’ve explained it sooner. You’re not difficult at all!!!”

 

“I’m not???”

 

“No!!! Taking care of you is like… among my top ten things that I enjoy doing, it’s the highlight of my day.” Kihyun words spill out of him, “I just didn’t want to hurt you.”

 

“You hurt me? The only time anyone’s gotten hurt is when I’ve hurt you.”

 

“Hurt me? What? When?” Kihyun’s eyes look up left and right as though sorting through his memories. “I mean the only time anything happened was once when I was being an idiot tickling you but don’t think you’ve ever hurt me, not really.”

 

Shownu’s heart leaps. He hadn’t hurt him. Kihyun wasn’t mad at him. Kihyun wasn’t planning on leaving. All of the feelings pent up from the last few months aren’t going away immediately, but damn, does it feel like he’s won the lottery. 

 

“I’m glad that that’s the case, I was really worried about that. But what are you talking about?”

 

“You were with Wonho and I lost my temper for a second and snapped, and I shouldn’t have and I’m sorry. That was wrong of me.”

 

“Oh, that’s why? I thought I did something wrong.” 

 

“OH MY GOD NO!” He sputters. The man practically pounces with his hands outstretched, as though he could tackle the words so they didn’t come out. A moment later he’s nervously taking Shownu’s hands again, “No, you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve been perfect, don’t think of yourself as any less. You’re a perfect Little and this whole thing has been my fault and I promise to be a better caretaker.” 

 

“It takes two to tango, Ki. I’m sorry too.”

 

“You have nothing to be sorry about.” 

 

Shownu squeezes his hands. “How about this- let’s have better communication from now on, ok?” 

 

“Ok, I can do that.” Kihyun bounces on his heels. “Are we good? We’re still friends?”

 

“We’ll always be friends. We’re good.” 

 

With those words out in the open, he breaks their hand-holding to hug him. His head bumps into the hard muscles of his chest and he can feel Shownu chuckling, and Kihyun feels like the weight of the world has been transferred back to Atlas, like he can catch his breath again. They’re not completely back to normal, but they’re on their way. They’re friends, they never weren’t friends, and they’re get through this. 

 

Kihyun stops.

 

Friends.

 

That was all well and good,  but…. Were they just friends? Somehow it feels like they’ve been more, like all those times when Shownu would talk to him late at night or Kihyun would lecture him because he cared too much make it feel like they’re beyond that. They’re friends…. But why was there still a part of him that remained empty? Could it be…. No, it definitely isn’t love. He definitely isn’t in love with Shownu. He…maybe isn’t in love with Shownu. 

Which would also mean that he.. Might be in love with Shownu. 

Kihyun pulls back to look up at his leader, his Little, his friend. He starts to put Shownu's name and the word 'love' next to one another to see how they feel, but stops himself. 

 

They’re friends. And that’s good. 

He'll leave it at that. 

 

**

 

Coming down from the high-strung conversation leaves both of them feeling exhausted. Kihyun put on Animal Planet as a sort of peace offering since it appeared to be the most acceptable sort of content. 

 

“I’m glad that we got to talk,” he starts, “but did I intercept you at a bad time? You looked like a deer in headlights.”

 

“I just got out of the shower, actually.” Shownu laughs awkwardly, and yeah, now that Kihyun’s paying attention, he can see the tufts sticking up in all directions, and being the perfectionist e is, that just won’t do. 

 

"Can I brush your hair out?" 

 

"Oh….. sure…?" 

 

He shuffles back on his bed using his arms. His legs stay open, leaving a Shownu-sized space between them. “Sit down for me?” 

 

“I’m not Little.” 

 

“I know. But it’s either you sit down here or I stand on the chair, and I think it would work better for both of us to be on the same level.” 

 

“Oh! You’re right, that makes a lot more sense…” Kihyun pats the space between his legs; an offering for Shownu. He settles down into the familiar scenery, the ivory linen, the sand-colored spreads. Orderly, immaculate, just like his vocalist. He sections off pieces and gets to work. 

 

“Brush brush brush….” he says, and the way he says it reminds him of how his father would try to brush his hair on the days his mother only had time to give him a kiss and tell him she loved him before running out the door so she wasn’t late for work. He would go in quick, short strokes and announce what he was doing because if he couldn’t get the action to be perfect he could at least make it fun. He looks up at Kihyun, perfect hands tussling his hair as he tries to sort out where the knots started and ended, and while Kihyun may not be typical Papa material, somehow that made it even better. He was small, and Shownu; smaller. 

 

Littler. 

 

“Brush brush…. Kiss?”

 

Kihyun freezes with the comb in his mouth.

 

Oh my god-

Oh my god it’s happening. 

OH MY GOD I HAVE BEEN BLESSED 

 

“Does my baby want kissies?” He doesn’t want to rejoice yet- just in case he has to bring himself back from the high. Watching with bated breath, he waits for the answer. 

 

“Kissies!” Shownu explodes into a ball of softness and happiness, and Kihyun internally praises all the powers of the Heavens and the Earth and the deep seas for putting him in that situation at that moment because everything is ok, he has his baby, he hasn’t magnificently screwed things up beyond repair, and SHownu is so cute looking at him like that that it feels like his heart is combusting.

 

“So many kisses for my angel!” Kihyun scoops him up in his arms and pulls him so they’re laying down, Shownu on top of him in the perfect position to be given kisses. From the other side of the room, it would look like he’s a baby otter laying down on his parent, and Kihyun plants loud kisses in his hair.

 

“Brush brush brush…” he says while dealing with the stray tufts. The feeling of fingers raking through his hair contrasts with the prickly feeling of a comb dragging through it. He grimaces internally each time he feels a sharp pain, but it’s replaced with hands gently separating the strands as not to hurt him, and the way Kihyun does it feels so natural that he almost wishes he had more knots! “Brush brush…. Kiss!!!” 

 

Kihyun leans over, moves the hair out of the Little’s forehead and starts peppering kisses all over his chubby cheeks and his squinted, smiling eyes. He has a soft spot for Shownu the size of Jupiter but how could anyone not? 

 

"All the kisses for my baby, so good for Papa!"

 

He brush-brush-kisses until his hair is all nice and fluffy, and it’s a little sad that it’s over, but now he gets to have that hair treatment stuff that smells like coconut and happiness put on him. Hands massage into his head and oh, he’s feeling so sleepy now… but he wanted to spend more time with his Papa… 

 

"You’re tired.” Shownu rubs his eyes, signifying a ‘yes’ before he can even get the words out. “Lay down, it’s ok.”

 

He lays back into the warmth of the body behind him, a content sigh escaping him. Kihyun's arms create a safety barrier, keeping him in place. His chest feels so strong, so secure, the steady rhythm of his breathing like waves on the ocean. Shownu is a ship in the harbor being rocked back and forth. He feels himself drifting further, further, farther... 

 

He yawns, succumbing the sweet temptation of rest. Since Kihyun said it’s ok, maybe he’ll shut his eyes for a little bit…. 

 

**

 

It could be a trick of the wind, but that would be absurd considering he’s inside and the day has been hotter than hell in a stagnant sort of way, the way humidity bore down under a windless blaze. He could have blamed it on an oncoming heatstroke but-- 4, 5, nope it’s not that-- but he whips his head around left and right to find where the sound came from. 

 

Minhyuk!!!”  

 

He takes one step, then two towards the door, leaning over to peek inside. “Hey, wh--” 

 

I need your help! ” Kihyun aggressively whispers. His hand is still raised motioning ‘don’t say a word!!!’, his other still with a pen in its grasp writing in perfect penmanship on his nightstand. He’s moving as little as possible as not to disturb the figure between his legs with his head tilted to the left, using Kihyun’s chest as a pillow. From between parted lips come slow, steady breaths. 

 

Sleeping??? Minhyuk mouths in disbelief, partially because the ShowKi situation had been looking dismal less than 12 hours ago and partially because Shownu is so cute that he might die.

 

Kihyun nods furiously. 

 

Could you get me my laptop so I can do work?” he glances down to make sure Shownu hasn’t been disturbed in any way. With the hand holding the pen, he indicates that the device is over there, somewhere- he can’t see because that would require turning his torso which is most definitely not an option. 

 

Minhyuk steps carefully into the room, aware that one of the floorboards (he should have paid more attention to his surroundings!!!) made a particularly loud squ---

 

iiiiIIIIIIIIIIIIIIiiiiiRRRRRRR

 

Minhyuk freezes in place, curses himself quietly, and removes his foot. With one foot still in the air, he looks over his shoulder at Kihyun, also frozen in place, the hand pointing towards the bed still raised. They count the seconds, ready to shush 

 

6, 7, 8

 

Shownu repositions himself so his legs are down to his left, his cheek now safely nuzzled into the crook of Kihyun’s neck. Minhyuk finally exhales. With a long limb supporting his near-45 degree body, he’s able to snatch the laptop off of the bed. 

 

Thank you! ” Kihyun mouths. He stops his thanks to move the harsh blue light so that it doesn’t shine on Shownu, and usually Minhyuk would prod him for being so particular, but he shines instead with his gigawatt smile. 

 

No problem! ” he says, and closes the door behind him. 

 

**

 

Jooheon’s phone pings once, twice, then in rapid succession like a phone call. Minhyuk’s name takes up his entire screen with the equivalent of yodeling across the airwaves. 

 

I AM THE CAPTAIN OF THIS SHIP

FULL STEAM AHEAD

 

Five crying memes and a blurry picture- probably the result of the other man moving so quickly- of what he recognizes as Kihyun’s room show up on his screen. No one else keeps their space as impeccable as he does, and the minimalist palette is easy to pick out. He puts his face closer to the screen to get a better look. 

 

The large mass taking up 80% of the bed is Shownu, sound asleep, feet dangling over the edge and head in the lap of one Yoo Kihyun, who's at a strange angle leaning back on his pillows with his hands still rested on top of his keyboard. He looks like he’s asleep, or at least on his way there. 

 

THEYRE SO CUTE 

IM GONNA DIE

:D:D:D:D:D:D:D:D:D

 

Jooheon rolls his eyes, giving a lazy shake of the head. He sends back a few emojis and tells Minhyuk to get out before he wakes them up. 

Chapter Text

They step out of the car and onto the sidewalk in front of the studio, and immediately a chorus of cheers swells around them. Someone publicized their activities, which meant that this would be the first of many impromptu fanmeets, but that was ok, Monbebe were historically pleasant, and they were learning to keep their distance and give the members space. The sea of cell phones raised and pointed at them is less than desirable (it’s never made sense to him-why not enjoy the moment with their own eyes?), but it isn’t terrible, they aren’t obnoxious, they’re just... there. Kihyun adjusts his jacket while Changkyun, Jooheon, and finally Shownu exit the car.

They set about saying their hello’s and nice to meet you’s in the few minutes they can spare before a manager comes by to usher them inside. Wonho uses the opportunity to take selfies with fans who give him blushy smiles and use that one phrase to call him cute. (What was it, owo? Uwu? It was definitely uwu.) Changkyun is doing that thing where he tries not to bite people’s heads off even though he really wants to and he comes off as quirky and savage. Shownu is---

Woah woah woah

Hold the goddamn phone

Kihyun pushes the inside of his lip, his teeth clicking together around air.

Shownu is at the peak of his physical condition but God, becoming merged into the public eye had its downfalls. He’s got his arm flexed so that someone can squeeze his bicep and she thanks him, but that isn’t what gets him. It’s the people around him. They look at him with hungry eyes and enthralled gasps and one girl actually licks her lips as she looks up at his shoulders then down at his ass and then back up to consider his face and ugh, gross, who is she and where did she come from, don’t do that.  Someone needs to collect. God, who is this lady?

He checks over to Wonho, who is flanked by Hyungwon and Changkyun so he’s safe. Kihyun takes half a step forward and pulls Shownu down to whisper in his ear.

 

“Ah! Do you see that? That’s such a cool sign!” He points in the distance to the marquee sitting royal atop a vintage-looking awning.

 

“That’s in English…” He says, rather dismayed.

 

“It lists the names for new plays at that theater. This is a famous place, hyung!”

 

He explains a bit of history, the area, the sights. They’ve never been here before but Kihyun is the one who reads ahead about each stop along their tour so he could get the most out of their short visits. ‘Are you sure you aren’t a dad?’ Minhyuk had laughed, and had received a whack on the shoulder, but it’s not like he was wrong. He remembers going on trips with his parents, and that was how they did things, and those turned out well. Kihyun gazes back at the lady who needs to go home.

 

Any Monbebe who came to see him would be happy to watch them be so close like this. Even if they only got to see one member, they would enjoy it because they appreciated each one for who they were and what they brought to the table. Whether it was him and Shownu talking or Jooheon blowing kisses or Minhyuk lightening the mood, each action was taken in stride. Their Monbebes loved all seven equally. The woman is gone; her view of Shownu effectively ruined by Kihyun’s interference, and it puts the most satisfied smile on his face.

Good.

Good riddance

 

**

 

The studio faced outward onto a breathtaking view of the water, based on the pictures Shownu had Googled, but the entrance lay hidden away inside this nondescript brick building in the company of a few modest window fronts boasting fancy words like ‘attorney’ and ‘consultant’, which Kihyun had pointed out and then promptly asked Changkyun to define. They walk in the kind of silence usually found in elevators full of strangers, but that’s not a bad thing. Now is as good a time as any to mentally prepare himself. Even after years of practice, it never hurt to take a moment to focus himself, imagine the way he wants to come across, practice the words he wanted to deliver.

 

He breaks his concentration to step onto the escalator after Wonho, Kihyun falling in place behind him. A nervous thrill shoots through him knowing that he’s right there. Is he watching? Does he care? Shownu can feel the butterflies wake up in his stomach. They’ve been walking on eggshells since their talk, but where they are now is miles above where they were before.

His breath hitches.

An arm slips over his right shoulder, looping across his chest until the hand can sit on his left where it’s met by the other. Kihyun rests his chin atop Shownu’s head, weighing down his left shoulder. It’s an act made to ask Shownu if he needed anything, and if he did, to let him know because Kihyun would be there to listen and help, and come to think of it, this was the most Kihyun-thing he could possibly do. He always looked after the members, even when he didn’t need to, and they could always count on him to do his best and to be there foe him. The butterflies run wild up into his chest.

His arms feel like a heavy crest of armor around him, protecting him.

Shownu places his hand atop the other man’s forearm in thanks.

 

**

 

“Have you all had a chance to look over the questions?”

 

The group nods, no one looking up from their manuscripts.

 

“Great, we don’t want to surprise you. We’ll be doing things in about five or six minute segments. You’ll answer a few questions, we’ll announce that we’re taking a break, and then you can take a moment to relax. We’ll go through that three times. Does that sound alright?”

 

Again, heads nod out of sync. They’re used to having headphones on and microphones in their faces. They might be in another country, but the set up stayed consistent.

 

“Fantastic. There are a few more things that need to be set up so if you could all sit here, we’d appreciate it.”

 

“Everyone prepared? Last minute bathroom break? Ok then, 3….2…1..” The woman’s composure morphs from relaxed to of the utmost professionalism with such speed that Kihyun is momentarily stunned, “Good afternoon everyone, and welcome back. Today on the show we have a special treat. We’ve been teasing at this for a few days now and the guesses you’ve come up with have run that gamut. Are you all ready to see who it is?”

 

The host puts her hand up to signal and they all stomp together.

 

“Hoo! Monsta X! Annyeonghaseyo, Monsta X ibnida!”

 

A ripple of laughter makes itself around the sparse crew. “It’s great to have you here.”

 

“Thank you for having us.” Jooheon replies.

 

It’s the usual run through of who they are and what kind of music they make and where they are in their tour, going over the last album and some of their notable achievements. The others are able to handle answering in English, even if they aren’t the most coherent, but the host holds their hands through it. Hyungwon stumbles a little but a ‘you’re doing great!’ gives him enough confidence to lead him to the end of the sentence.

 

“You’ve come out with a new song titled ‘Who Do You Love’, and from what we’ve read and heard, this is a major accomplishment for you. Could you tell us a little bit about it?”

 

They received the questions earlier, so Kihyun knows that this is more of a prompt than anything.

 

“Sure!” Kihyun begins his cordial relay, “’Who Do You Love’ is our first collaboration since joining an American label and all of us sing in English. It’s very….”

 

Ah, what’s the word, what’s the word….

 

“…it’s very smooth and catchy. We mixed the vocals so the members overlap when singing and it adds volume to the chorus. On top of the easy beat, all of our roles complement one another.”

 

“What did you think when you first heard it?”

 

“It’s relevant,” he tucks his foot under his knee to buy himself a precious second to collect himself, “The lyrics are part of a conversation and we see the side of the person asking the question ‘who do you love’ and saying that they can’t be in a relationship if the other person is only half there. That’s the way it should be, and we’re pleased with the outcome in this final cut.”

 

Everyone applauds- he’s been practicing that since they started recording since he knew it would be asked, but now that’s he’s said the sentence once, he feels relieved. Changkyun will have to handle the brunt of the conversation, but at the very least he can be helpful here. The host flips to the next part of their script.

 

“Thank you, Kihyun! Let’s got to some fan questions.”

 

A screen clicks on, shrouding them in violent white until one of the assistants can make it over there and turn it off. The little blue bird in the top right corner makes him groan internally but he removes himself. He can tell that there’s conversation going on around him, but it takes a back seat to his own thoughts.

Jooheon’s words haunt him again.

You must love him so much.

And in mockery, his own voice sings back.

Who do you love….

 

**

 

Shownu’s always been a summer person- the sunset shows the most vibrant colors, the stars dot the night sky, and running around outdoors is the most natural thing. They’ll have to head back to the hotel soon so they can get some sleep before their next flight, but he’ll enjoy being out of the spotlight while he can. The performers are still in full swing even in act 4; it’s a shame they won’t be there to see the finale. It’s one of those Shakespeare-in-the-Park type things but they’re speaking a language he doesn’t recognize so he isn’t entirely sure where in the play they are or how many acts there were to begin with. Still, he was getting invested in the second male lead’s plight. It looked like he’d promised to deliver something to the female lead but no one’s seen much of him for the past twenty minutes and he’s getting a little worried.

 

“Shownu,” he feels a tap on the arm and his head swings around, “We’re going.”

 

“We’re going now?” He looks down and oh gosh, Kihyun’s face is so close to his. The heat spreads up his neck to his cheeks and he hopes to whatever powers may be that the darkness of his skin hides his blush well enough.

 

“Mhmm.” Kihyun turns away and twists an arm behind him, “Follow me.”

 

Fingers wriggle; an invitation to hold onto them. Shownu throws his jacket on in one fluid motion and accepts it.

 

The crowd around him doesn’t seem so intimidating with everyone’s eyes facing the same direction. The crowd from earlier got left far behind, thank goodness, and it looks like the average age of all the people within eyesight is 65. They aren’t the kind of people to make such a racket, and even if there were, it’s the kind of culture built upon mutual respect and order where it wouldn’t be tolerated. Life is slower here- too slow for him to want to settle down permanently- but it has the charm of a fantasy with well-dressed women and gentlemen in elevated conversation. There’s a delicate liveliness here he’s found in no other country.

 

Ahead of him, Kihyun leads the way. Shownu side steps around people in the shadow of where Kihyun has created a path, almost like he’s hiding behind the other man, as funny as it sounds. He’s the leader, it should be the other way around, but he feels protected, treasured, listening to Kihyun throw out ‘excuse me’s and ‘pardon me’s in that deep voice he reserved specifically for speaking English.

 

In the spots of trouble where that require dancing around a family or past people moving in the opposite direction, Kihyun’s hand squeezes his and his heart does summersaults. And oh, how attractive the other man is from this position, taking charge, leading the way, making sure that Shownu is taken care of in every sense of the words. The way he exudes confidence, the way people move for him, makes his insides bubble until he’s looking down, sheepish, biting his lip.

It’s almost like he’s being shown off as a trophy and damn, does it feel good. 

 

The crowd is thinning out- they’re getting further away from the main stage and to a point where they can safely regroup.

 

“Where we going?” Jooheon asks, the man hidden somewhere close.

 

Shownu’s head perks up, His members are around here, somewhere, though it’s still hard to pick them out from- oh look, that’s Wonho’s mess of hair next to Changkyun, and it looks like Minhyuk has stuck with Manager Hongsik.

 

“Is that everyone?”

 

They look around and do a more thorough headcount as not to have a repeat of the airport incident.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

 Hyungwon left after the first break (which was admittedly suspicious given the suddenness and the look on his face) (Shownu is a little worried about him but he’ll do a check in once they’re settling down).

 

“Yes, we’re all here!” Kihyun lets go of his hand.

 

Out in a parking lot populated by two other cars, a familiar black van awaits them. Shownu piles into the back row with Minhyuk while the others kai-bai-bo for the two frontmost seats, which eventually go to Wonho and Kihyun. Their manager rolls his eyes and whisks them away from the world.

 

Shownu rubs his hands and smiles at the ghost of Kihyun’s fingers intertwined with his.

Chapter Text

“Who in your group is closest? You all have great chemistry, but do you sometimes split up? " The woman in the main chair asks. Everyone looks down at their paper scripts.

 

“Yes, we split into units….” Shownu takes over the conversation, leaving the rest of the members mercifully out.

 

No one can see it, but underneath the table, Changkyun has his hand firmly around Wonho’s thigh and it’s sending waves of excitement through him. Sometimes he can’t believe it himself, that he could have something like this, but Changkyun leans over to tell him that yes, it’s real, this is it, with a head resting on his shoulder like it always belonged there.

 

*

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Wonho has never been mathematically inclined. His skills in the critical thinking department got him through school but once he had his diploma in hand, he turned back to music and words; his comfort zone.

Unfortunately, neither of those things were helping him calculate how his macros needed to be divided up so he hit his target.

The little bell on the door to the 24 hour supermarket jingles, Wonho snatching one of the little wire baskets on the floor. Protein powder, bananas, fruit for breakfast, one of those granola in a bag things Changkyun likes, a bottle of coffee just in case… he doesn’t need much, just the basics. They’ll do a proper food run all together later, when they’ll be at the dorm for an extended period of time.

It’s getting late- the only other people in here are the cashier at the front and a lady in a black dress- he should get back the studio before it gets even later. The last thing he needs is that milk that Changkyun drinks like it’s an addiction (if the number of bottles littering their living space was any indicator). The poor kid must be so tired, running between music production and then meetings to discuss his raps. It’s good that he has Jooheon there, but he needs a break. Maybe a little time in Petspace. Anything to make him relax. Hopefully he’ll appreciate the choco-milk—or was it banana milk that he liked? He feels like he should be able to remember whether the labels were brown or yellow but he’s currently juggling between them in his hands, trying to figure out which would be best. He supposes he could get both, but he doesn’t drink either so it would be a waste. But someone else at the dorm would drink it, wouldn’t they? Aish, he needs to hurry up, he’s taken so long that the woman in the black dress has circled past him twice! Changkyun probably thinks he died or got lost… and of course he didn’t bring his phone. Wonho drops the choco-milk in his basket and forgoes the other. That should be everything. And on-budget too! He makes his way up to the register, and hey, isn’t that the woman in—

 

Oh God not again.

 

“Excuse me!” she says. His body turns automatically, his mind cursing his reflexes for doing their job before he could stop himself. “I saw you earlier, I just wanted to tell you that you have an incredible physique and are exceptionally handsome.”

 

She finishes off the compliment with a faux-sheepish smile, like she’s trying to get out of something, or trying to get what she wants.

Wonho has seen enough of those smiles to know the difference.

 

“My name is Mikyung.” She holds out her hand, which betrays her youthful complexion.

 

“Hoseok,” he replies with a curt bow, “Thank you.”

 

He raises his hand in a polite wave. The faster he can get out of this situation, the better. He can check out and retreat to the studio and forget about this awkward encounter.

 

“Of course. But I imagine you’ve heard it a ton of times. Do you have a girlfriend?”

 

There’s a tingling and an itch under his skin, one that he can’t shake out. Why.

Why couldn’t she leave him alone.

The question blocks him into a corner- one where he can’t give any other answer than ‘no’. If he tries to weasel his way out of it with a clever quip, it’ll cause a nightmare Upstairs. Management will kill him. If they don’t, PD definitely will.

 

“No, I don’t.” He laughs. Wonho switches the basket so it rests on both arms, propped up on his stomach like a barrier wall.

 

“Would you like one?”

 

“No, but I appreciate the offer.” He laughs again and just from the way it sounds in the empty store he can tell he sounds more nervous. Wonho steps away, hoping that she’ll get the message and end the conversation right then and there.

 

“Are you gay?”

 

“No, I’m not.” Again, same issue. If he doesn’t play this right, both he and his group are going down. He takes another step, but this time she steps in closer.

 

“What’s wrong? Scared of having a little fun?”

 

“Yep. That one. That one for sure.” He skitters backwards, “It’s been a pleasure to meet you but I need to go.”

 

He drops his things in front of the cashier, who probably heard everything and doesn’t look mad. If anything, he looks sympathetic. Wonho throws an apology for making him do all this extra work.

He doesn’t hear the end of the man’s ‘have a good night’ as he bolts out the door.

 

**

 

He counts the steps to make sure he doesn’t look too suspicious. The constant 1-2 beat carries him back to the familiar awning of the company building. Wonho reaches out for the door long before he gets to it. Here he’s safe. Here he doesn’t have to worry about putting on his façade.

He tries not to dwell on it. It’s no use bringing that kind of negativity here, but it’s so hard. He tries to keep his focus on his melodies but his attention span is nowhere to be found. On top of all that, Changkyun is watching him like a hawk. 

 

“Hey, out of curiosity, hyung” He finally, finally, asks after an eternity of silence, “What do you like?” 

 

Weird question, but he’ll take it. He has a lot of interests, only a handful of which he can actually indulge himself in. “Me? There's no time for that, Kyun. We're idols. We're busy.” 

 

“There has to be something, anything. Something you’re into?” 

 

Wait.

He recognized that tone.

 

No…

Not you too….

 

Wonho sighs, defeated. Why. Why did he have to ask that. “Let’s just finish this.” 

 

“Would you like being with a girl? Or maybe a guy?”

 

“I would like neither of those, now if we could get back to working on this, we can be out of here and get dinner before heading back to the dorm. I think that there needs to be an ambient low melody in the middle of the---” 

 

Before he can properly tether himself back into the sound system, his swivel chair is spun so now he’s facing the maknae, faces inches away. The other man is leaned with his weight on his arms, caging him in. It's so warm between then, so intense and sudden.

 

“Tell me, hyung… what do you want?” 

 

Wonho lets out a heavy sigh.

He's so tired. Tired of this, tired of it all.  

 

Wonho wants a lot of things. He wants to take a nap. He wants to finish this song. He wants to be able to go outside without people ogling or accosting him. Right now, in particular, he wants to find a closet or a cupboard or some other small place that’s dark and quiet to hide in because he wants to be anywhere but here. 

 

“I want you to stop.” 

 

Changkyun recoils with the force of an electric shock, eyes blown wide as he transitions through surprise and then pain. 

 

Wonho scoops up his backpack and shoves his laptop back in while he jogs down the stairs. He doesn’t look back to check if Changkyun is following him. It would slow him down too much, and he needs to get out of there. Down, down, down the stairs, down the street, away from here, where no one will find him. He finds solace in the shadows of a back alley where no lamps shine and no one strays. He finds peace in the silence of the night.

 

**

 

He’s avoiding Changkyun. He knows it isn’t fair. He knows that it’s less than he deserves. But… he can’t bring himself to apologize. He can’t explain himself, not when the mere thought of holding a conversation sends him into a shaky panic. Wonho sticks next to Shownu whenever he can, and he sticks with Hyungwon when he can't. It prevents Changkyun from approaching him. The more people he has around, the better his odds are. 

 

That’s why he knows heading into the photoshoot that it’s going to be bad.

Granted, it could be worse- it could’ve been just him and Changkyun (he’d thanked all his lucky stars that it wasn’t)- but Shownu is a responsible adult who asks the necessary questions and guides the members step by step to their answers, no matter how uncomfortable they might be.

 

“You’ve been awful quiet, Wonho. How have you been?”

 

“You know…. Same old-same old.” He tries not to give himself away, but he’s historically been terrible at it so he doesn’t doubt that Shownu can tell. “Why?”

 

“Just wanted to make sure. It’s my responsibility to check up on you all.” The camera clicks in rapid succession which only adds to his worries. Shownu tilts his head so the sun hits him just right. “I heard you and Changkyun had a bit of a scuffle. Are you ok?”

 

“Yeah, I uh… I’ve been meaning to apologize for running out on him, but I haven’t gotten around to it.”

 

“You ran out on him?”

 

Dammit, Wonho, look what you’ve started!

 

He takes a deep breath.

 

“Yeah, long story short-“

 

Shownu cuts him off. It isn’t his place to know, he says, and that’s good because Wonho isn’t exactly sure where he would start from.  

 

“You need to talk to him. He’s a good kid, he’ll understand.”

 

Wonho knows he does- it’s the only way they’ll move past it. He’s at Changkyun’s mercy- the only thing he can do now is trust.

 

 

**

 

 

It's not that he isn't attracted to Changkyun. He's a handsome kid- yes, Wonho has eyes, he likes to use those. They’ve gotten closer since becoming Owner and Pet and there have been many a night when the others have gone to sleep and it’s been just them, and the maknae has opened up about his worries and thoughts, and Wonho has too, in return. But that being said, he's not going to do anything with him. And he needs to know that. So for better or worse, he’s going to know. 

Because Wonho is going to tell him. 

With his mouth.

He definitely can’t do this. He’s too chicken. 

 

“Oh no you don’t.” A voice says, and now arms are pushing him into Changkyun’s room, and Changkyun is staring at him both surprised and horrified. “You can do this.” 

 

The door closing behind him feels final.

 

“Hyung?” 

 

Wonho takes a deep breath. It’s just Changkyun. He’s just a human, just like you. “Hi, Kyunnie.” 

 

“Did the other hyungs put you up to this?” 

 

“More like they gave me a shove in the right direction.” He laughs. The other man’s hands worry away. His voice sounds like it’s been abused recently, like he’s been awake for too long.

 

“It’s ok, you don’t have to say anything. You were never obligated, no one expected you… that’s ok. I’ll get over it, don’t worry.” 

 

“No, it’s not… it’s not that I don’t like you…”

 

His head picks up, then cocks to the side. “Then what?”

 

“It’s difficult to explain…”

 

“It’s ok, I’m listening.” His tone doesn’t push him; he’s waiting, waiting for whatever information Wonho would make him privy to.

 

Wonho takes a deep breath, tries to collect himself, fails, and speaks anyway.

 

 

**

 

 

He'd wondered for a long time if he was broken, if he just hadn't found the right person yet. With his first girlfriend, he’d been a virgin and mocked it up to clumsy inexperience. At some point he thought that once he found the right person a switch would magically turn on and he would see what was so great, but deep down he knew it was just a cover. 

 

He remembers what it was like to discover that he wasn't the only one who felt that way. 

 

And he remembers what it felt like to accept himself. He remembers how freeing it was to have a way to explain what he experienced. How it felt to belong. 

 

Which was followed by all the times he had to hide in plain sight as he waited for broadcasts, shows, you name it, to start.

 

Is he good in bed?

Oh my god, the sex is fantastic

That must make your relationship interesting

 

He had been just a spectator to the conversation; one of many. It shouldn’t have irked him as much as it did but was that all anyone cared about? He could name a million things so much more important than who was doing what with whom. He’d turned his mind off in favor of going over the choreo that he already knew inside and out just so he wouldn’t hear it. It didn’t matter to him who people wanted to be with- that was up to them, and it was none of his business anyway.

 

He just doesn't understand. 

 

It's something that he's supposed to like. He's supposed to be this big, muscular sex God and he's not.

 

And he hates it.

 

Monbebe paint him into a corner, though they’re getting better about it the more they learn about him. His role is the protective, muscly boyfriend who’s simultaneously soft and lovable but also possibly kinky as hell, depending on who’s being asked. The duality is his charm point, the thing that makes him marketable. 

 

And at this point? He just runs with it. 

 

The mask which he wove to protect himself is nearly a part of him now. And it isn’t the worst- they could’ve left out the soft part. He doesn’t mind that people look to him as a haven. He’s willing to be a shelter for others, if that’s what they need. Some fans have written him letters thanking him for being him, for making them feel safer, for looking out for them when they felt no one else was and he thinks 'yes, good, this is what I was made for'. The drive to make others happy is one of his main powers. But then there are the letters praising him for his looks, the hands that rake over his skin, the words that paint pictures of what people would do to him if he’d let them.

 

The cold hand of anxiety latches around his throat.

 

The whole sex thing doesn’t make sense in the slightest. Sometimes he wishes he could tell his members, or at least come up with the words for when there was time, but something came along like a runaway train that forced his attention away each time, without fail. There are so many moving parts that it’s easy to get lost in the movements, but sometimes the thoughts get too loud and he has to retreat from himself. 

 

He does so through music. Everyone was so surprised to find him making refreshing songs like Neol Hada, but it was the only thing he could think of, the only thing that made sense because he understood beauty with a textbook-like monotony, but not the part that urged desire. Nothing like beauty to be had, only to be admired. He wants to cherish the people, not their bodies. When he doesn't look like this anymore, he wants to know that the person who loves him won't leave. When the person who loves him finds out that he’s asexual, he wants to know they won’t force him to act otherwise. He wants to be a loved, fully, truly; not just a toy. 

 

 

 

**

 

Wonho finishes his retelling by putting his head down to stare at the floor.

Changkyun waits for him to regain his confidence before he speaks.

Changkyun keeps waiting.

Changkyun keeps waiting.

Changkyun…. Decides that speaking softly will be just as good.

“So…… can I ask you again now? Now that I know, that is…. What do you like?” 

 

Wonho thinks for a moment, voices turned inward staggering, trying to find the right thoughts, or maybe just the right words. “I like soft things.” he finally says.

 

“Like wine and candles and slow kisses?”

 

“No,” he says, “like quick pecks on the cheek before running off to work and tucking the kids in for the night, watching the rain from the porch and coffee on an early Sunday morning.” 

 

The older man’s eyes glaze over to play the reel of dreams, and even from this small distance away Changkyun feels like a ghost observing from the outside. He's looking in on a life they can't have, at least not for now. 

 

“Oh.” is all he can say, “That sounds lovely. Would you mind if I stayed by your side?”

 

Wonho inhales sharply. Hands slip around his tight waist bringing them closer, and even though he doesn't want anything more than this, the heat still turns his face a sunburnt red. 

 

“Changkyun,” he chokes out, “I can’t, I’m sorry, I’m a grey-ace.”

 

They sway back and forth to an unheard rhythm. “Awesome, good to know, but about me taking you on a date, maybe getting dinner for you sometime-” 

 

“Wait what?”

 

“Dinner. For you. Because you’re special to me and I appreciate you.” 

 

“You don’t mind?” he asks, cautious, waiting to see if this behavior stood up to his hopes or if it was just a trick of the light.

 

“You feel what you feel. If you like girls, you like girls. If you like guys, you like guys. If you don’t like anyone, you don’t like anyone. That’s how it goes, doesn’t it? But if you like someone and want to spend time with them to get to know them better, you date them?”

 

“You--- date me? Wh-”

 

“I thought it was pretty obvious how much I like you, but I can do one big declaration about how I love your massive heart and how inspiring it is to watch you work out and make music, among the other four thousand things that make you great if that tickles your fancy.” 

 

“No, no, that’s not necessary, I just thought…. I mean, I’m not going to have sex with you. Like… at all, pretty much. Or I mean, I might, maybe, it’s hard to explain…” 

 

“I don’t care.” He says, “I love you. I think you’re wonderful. I think you’re bright and exuberant. Your name is the sun through the clouds before dusk, a wish on a dandelion, the warmth of a summer breeze. You could tell me a thousand secrets and I would still search for you.”

 

Changkyun was a lot of things.

He had seen so much of the world and been changed in a way that Wonho never had. His words were chosen carefully, all sentences deliberate. He saw things through some astral kaleidoscope that made Wonho twist his head this way and that just to get a glimpse of what went on in that beautiful head of his. Just being around him was exhilarating.

He was resolute.

He was bold.

Wonho loved it.

 

“You should put that in a song.” 

 

Changkyun leans in, hesitant, flickering between eyes and lips and rose-colored cheeks. And when he kisses him-- when he finally kisses him-- a drop of silence creates ripples through his body, only the thought of completeness sounding in him. 

 

It would never do you justice.

 

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Chapter Text

Minhyuk doesn’t wait for Shownu to ask who it is nor Kihyun to ask him what in the world he’s doing, banging on their door at 10:30 at night, shouldn’t he be in his own room resting?

 

“Well hi to you too.” He mutters. Minhyuk can’t hear him- he’s busy pulling out some particularly loud plastic shopping bags from his backpack like a magician pulling ribbons from their mouth. He peeks nose-first into one bag, then the next, then the next, looking for something but turning up unsuccessful each time, and from his position with his hand still holding the door open, stunned, Minhyuk looks a hummingbird searching for the perfect flower.

 

Kihyun closes the door , silent footsteps padding over the faux-wooden floor of the hotel room.

 

“What’s up?”

 

“Me? Nothing. Just saw these earlier and wanted to go back to get them. Who knows when we’ll be back, right? Anyway, it’s not a lot, just a few little treats and trinkets.” He rummages some more before deeming one of the bags he looked in earlier the appropriate one. “Stores here close really early, I’m still used to being in the hubs like London and Seoul and New York. Almost didn’t make it!”

 

Minhyuk moves like a flash and suddenly Kihyun has an armful of odds and ends.

 

“Um… thanks…?” His voice trails, hands digging through the contents with hesitation, as though he was scared the contents would bite him. Minhyuk gives a nod and a ‘mhmm mhmm’, but he’s not really listening- he’s mentally in a land far, far away- and oh boy, that’s concerning. He only looks like this when he’s got worries on his mind. When Kihyun will have the chance to talk to him, he isn’t sure, but it won’t be now- the other man is on the way to the other member’s rooms, he has to catch the Hyungwon before he goes completely to sleep, goodnight guys, take care.

 

He’d come in like a flash of lightning, and just as fast, he’s gone.

 

...

...

..

What?

...

...

...

 

“….bye?” Kihyun says to the echo of empty space.

 

Behind him, he can hear Shownu getting up from the bed, catching his laptop before it slips off the plush cotton sheets. “What is it?”

 

He’s not actually sure- he knows he looked it in, he knows it was full of things, but it was like when a teacher would talk about something of supreme disinterest and Kihyun would drift off and imagine what it would be like to be an idol performing around the world, living the life he was living now. Shownu’s finger hooks around one edge of the bag and pulls, eyebrows raising as he looked inside.

 

“Oh! Nice!!!” His dives in with both hands and all Kihyun can do is stand there in a daze while he pulls out a bag of those maple syrup honey waffles, the kind that they saw being sold in packs in the little shops along the cobblestone walkway in the town center. He remembers seeing them because Changkyun had started to explain what they were with the same words reserved for speaking to children, for which he has promptly whacked in the shoulder. (“We’re not dumb, Kyunnie! You don’t have to explain everything!” “You literally just asked me what that word meant!”) Shownu goes back to his bed on the far side of the room to work on unwrapping his treat.

 

Fingers turn and spin the package, trying to find the best way to open it without completely destroying the contents (because there were bound to be crumbs, and if he was anything, he was neat), and maybe that was why he was so good at working with numbers, but that’s not what Kihyun sees. He tries to stifle a laugh, holds his breath to stop himself from cooing at Shownu being the personification of the word ‘babybear’, wearing a pout and furrowed brows until he figures out that there’s a tab hidden within the creases and his mouth opens into a smile.

 

Kihyun goes back to digging through his bag for his skincare products, of which there were too many, which is why more likely than not a housekeeper in Amsterdam had already found or was about to find a bottle with densely-written Korean slish-sloshing with the aloe toner his makeup artist told him to use, for the love of god, and stop picking at your whiteheads! It isn’t the worst- he has two other toners he regularly slaps on his face. Once this cleanser has done his job, it’ll be time for his facemask and serum and toner then serum again, after which he can decide whether he rather smell more like lemon or lavender. Or maybe he should forgo them- it depends on what they’re doing tomorrow. What are they doing tomorrow? He can’t remember whether they’re hopping on the plane in the morning or the afternoon or if that’s happening today or in their version of today since they’re all still operating in terms of KST.

 

“Hey Shownu?” He walks out with both hands rubbing circles into his cheeks.

 

“Hmm????” The muffled voice responds.

 

“Are we flying out tomorrow?”

 

“Hmmmghnnntnmm—” he scrambles to break off the piece of stroopwaffel so he can answer properly. Shownu’s head tips back to make use of gravity, but now the motion of his lips pulling the rest of it into his mouth makes the whole act look like a spectacle. “The plane leaves here around 6am, but it’ll feel like 10 to us.”

 

Kihyun does the ‘ah’ head nod, the one he usually used for when someone said something in English and he didn’t really understand it but knew he was supposed to agree. His face is all covered in cleanser and assuming it’s been 30 seconds, he leaves to wash it off. He emerges with facemask in hand.

 

“Ugh, you reminded me I need to do skincare too….” He groans, dismayed. Shownu looks down at himself and his lap full of waffle, hands covered in sticky honey, wondering what to do with them and himself. It would be a hassle for him to get all cleaned up and he’d probably make a huge mess.

 

“Here, why don’t I--- hold still, let me—” Shownu stops fidgeting so Kihyun can lean over to try to find the best position. Is it a squat? No, that’s going to make his muscles burn later… Is it a straddle--- oh dear god no, his poor inner thigh just screamed at him. With one hand holding the jar and the other hand already covered in pink clay, he pushes his knee in between Shownu’s, creating a space for him to step into. From here, Shownu’s nose is about rib-height, which is perfect for what he’s about to do. “I’ve got it, just relax. This is mine but it’s good- it always clears me up and keeps my skin soft.”

 

Nimble fingers paint a triangle of rose-smelling mask into the area between Shownu’s eyes leading down to his nose. They graze over his skin and he soaks in the feeling as though he were touch-starved, as though he was a desert and Kihyun, a rainstorm. A tingling sensation trickles down and spreads to the rest of his body. It’s like he’s falling asleep, almost, or like he’s floating.

 

“Did you see the place we’re staying at?” Kihyun says, snapping Shownu back to the present. “It’s supposed to be really nice.”

 

“I haven’t.”

 

“It’s right in the center of the city. I think one of the managers was talking about getting us tickets for a bus tour. It’ll take us to the historical sites. We might go to a cathedral! The architecture is breathtaking.”

 

Shownu opens his mouth to ask what, exactly, he means, but stops.

Kihyun has this thing.

He gets super excited about art.

Like…. Super excited, more than the average art buff. He doesn’t have an affinity for numbers but like they’ve always said, they each offer something that the others don’t. In a way, Shownu completes him- he can take care of the wordly issues of tax returns and finances but Kihyun?

Kihyun could talk about the history of art for ages.

There’s a lot of downtime moving between cities and countries and towns and every other kind of subdivision, and it’s good in a way because he doesn’t feel guilty about spending time attending to his personal interests. How did they think he knew cameras so well? Why did they think he freaked out over visiting MoMA? He tears through books on photography and painting and music and every other kind of creative practice out there, architecture included, with ferocity.

He reads, and that’s what keeps his mind sharp for when he’s pressed to pull out quick-thinking in the face of Changkyun or a host who tries to poke fun at him. (He doesn’t know how to react other than to throw words back like he’s heading into the verbal equivalent of WWE Smackdown Live.) (Deep down he’s sensitive, shhh, don’t look at him.)

 

God, he’s adorable when he’s passionate…. Shownu sighs, but not too deeply. If he were alone, watching from afar, he’d give a sigh that would give a love-stricken teenager staring at the window on a hot summer night a run for their money.

 

Kihyun paints lines along Shownu’s high cheekbones that look a bit like warpaint, or maybe a rave, then fills them in gently. He might be known for violently applying toner, but that was to himself, his own body. Kihyun can’t be rough with Shownu; can’t even take the risk. Sure, his leader probably wouldn’t bat an eye if he were moving with more haste, if he were pressing harder than necessary. He probably wouldn’t say anything either, just count the seconds until Kihyun finished. He turns his finger so the sharp edge of his nail doesn’t catch on his face.

 

“….and that’s why it’s such an important monument- you can literally see the history in its walls. It’s an evolving project hundreds of years in the making. It’s been shaped by every ruler it ever saw, by everyone who’s ever stepped foot in it. It’s been here long before us and will remain long after.”

 

He stops his rambling, only now noticing that it’s been a one-person conversation since the word ’alhambra’ came up. It’s a little embarrassing, blabbering like that, but luckily Shownu is a good listener, and he likes listening more than speaking.

 

“Sorry, I’m doing it again.”

 

“Don’t be sorry, I know more about Spain than I did five minutes ago.”

 

Sheepish shoulders pull close to his body, lifting to meet his ears. “Is that how long I’ve been talking?”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” He says, but Kihyun’s ears are still red, which means he’s still worrying about it, but he shouldn’t- he doesn’t need anyone’s permission to like the things he liked. And art of all things? That was a great interest to have! Shownu looks around, trying to find something to distract the other man with so he stops dwelling on it, but he can’t think of anything. Aish, if only there was something with reach. He looks down at his hands.

That works too!

Shownu holds up the waffle in his hand up to where he assumes is mouth level to Kihyun. “Ah?”

 

The other man tips up on his toes to reach it. His lips pull back to give him a clear shot and he takes a perfectly rounded chomp out of it, and when he chews his nose moves and Shownu has to stop himself from smiling like an idiot. (He really is like a hamster, he thinks, and he saves that mental image for later.) He take a bite for himself.

 

“So… the red arched ceilings?”

 

Kihyun’s face illuminates. “Right! Those!”

 

It’s as thought he never broke concentration, speech interspersed with damped chewing noises and pauses to swallow. He’s more relaxed now that he knows he isn’t boring Shownu to death. (Quite the opposite, he must admit!) Shownu munches along, feeding himself and then feeding Kihyun in turnm listening intently. Kihyun dabs along the upper lips and underneath his chin, making Shownu look something like that one character in that Persona game who wore the skull mask. It’s a cool look- maybe they could do something with it in the future.

 

“Wait wait wait, let me take a picture.” He slides the jar onto the tall dresser next to the minifridge, then slaps around in his bag for his phone. He isn’t so coordinated with his left hand, but he manages to unlock it with only two heart-seizing near-drops. Kihyun’s own facemask is nearly dry now but he slips in beside Shownu to take a low-quality selfie. His thumb taps in the wrong place a few times, but eventually the little preview in the bottom right corner of his phone expands to take up the whole screen. “Perfect.” 

 

 

The smile isn’t scrunched like usual or wide like when they're posing- it’s a little surprised, a little bashful. The light pink clay brings out the depth in his skin and he looks lovely. There are much better words to describe him, but that's the one which yelled loudest in his mind. Beside him, Kihyun is leaned over in an awkward position and his hair is a mess but he’s grinning his fullest. They look good together, like they belong.

He moves the picture to the folder marked ‘Keep- Memories’ and turns off his phone.

 

Chapter Text

There’s a low hum coming from the cars on the roundabout which dash this way and that below the floor-to-ceiling glass window. Minhyuk stands with his back to the dim walkway light, face darkened under the amber from the streetlamps outside. He shakes out the nerves from his shoulders, bouncing his arms, limp hands shaking. He takes a deep breath.

 

“Wonnie?” 

 

 

No response. 

 

 

“Wonnie, I know you're awake.” 

 

 

No response. 

 

 

“Come on, please, don’t do this. I’m sorry.” 

 

 

“Please go away.” 

 

His voice waivers as he tries not to cry. He can't cry in front of him. Minhyuk will make fun of him and he'll never be able to live that down. If he cries now, he might as well leave the group. “Please, Minhyuk, please just let me go to sleep.” 

 

 

“I’m so sorry, Wonnie, I thought you were ok with it, that you were ok with us teasing you.” 

 

 

There’s no point in pretending anymore. He moves back to lean against the wall.

 

 

“It's not… it's not about teasing, that's fine. No, really, Min- it’s fine. You've always teased me, and I didn't care because it didn't matter. But this one… this matters. This isn't just about me sleeping all the time or looking like Kermit the Frog. It's about being part of the team. And I…. I know that it seems so natural to you. You just start talking and people gravitate to you, but I'm… I'm not like that. Sometimes it feels like I’m on the outside looking in. I have to really put all my attention towards trying to hold a conversation, and even then it's terrifying. And I hate missing out on things. I'm trying, but I'm not there yet.” 

 

“I'm so sorry, I didn't know.” 

 

He pulls his knees up to hide his face. Minhyuk isn’t an inherently bad person. But they’ve had this discussion before- he should know by now. “I know you didn't know, Minnie, but you have to be careful. Jooheon will tell you when he's upset, but people like me and people like Seokkie won't. We keep it inside. You could seriously hurt us.” 

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s ok.” It really isn’t. “It’s just—”

 

He stops himself by chewing on his tongue. Damn, he didn’t mean to say that, he was supposed to end the conversation there.

 

He swings around forward, “What? What's wrong?” 

 

“It's… it's nothing, really. I'm overreacting.”

 

The silence stands between them like a moderator. What say you? it asks, but Hyungwon wants to go to sleep, wants to sleep all his feelings away.

 

“You know…. You can’t hide from yourself forever.” Minhyuk whispers, “Sometimes we try to outrun our demons, and then somewhere down the line we realize they were our shadows all along.” 

 

He coils in on himself tighter. “That sounded like it came from experience.”

 

Minhyuk hums, head hanging down. His hands run over his arms absent-mindedly.

 

He sits there a while longer and leaves like a spectre.

He never answers.

 

**

 

His phone buzzes with a text from Minhyuk telling Hyungwon to call him if he needs anything, to let him know if there's anything he can do. Hyungwon tells him not to worry about it, it's his own problem and he'll figure it out, but if he could send Kihyun in, that would be great, thanks. He’s painfully awake now- the kind where he’s physically exhausted but he can’t seem to stop running around in mental circles no matter how many sheep he counts or how much he writes. He thinks about Minhyuk’s words, about how he left. How it felt to be surrounded by Wonho and Changkyun wearing matching pairs of rose-tinted glasses and Shownu and Kihyun blissfully lost in their own world. How it felt for Minhyuk to tell him that he should fix his social issues and be more outgoing all because he made one mistake when describing his and Changkyun’s friendship, and that because of that he doesn’t know understand at all.

 

But that isn’t right

 

Hyungwon understands him. He understands Wonho too.

 

“I understand them better than anyone…”

 

*

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He’s the kind of person who won’t get mad outright. He won’t shout, he won’t seethe. He’s the kind to fade away, to retreat where no one can find him, until he’s little more than a trick of the light framed in the foreground. It’s happened before. It’s happening now. The others will pick up on it in a few days but Hyungwon knows that by then, Wonho will have suffered far too much.

 

His fingers tap against the wood of the door in a soft pitter-patter as oppose to a knock. It’s much gentler to enter the room this way- Wonho already knows who’s waiting on the other side. He knew by the way the floorboards croaked beneath him, by the way they stopped so he could peek around corners to make sure he wouldn’t run into anyone. The door opens a crack, then there’s a flop, sheets and pillows rearranging as he makes space for Hyungwon to move into place around him.

He steps in, one leg, then the next. He slides down to rest the other man’s head on his shoulder.

 

They never talk right away- neither of them are ready. It could be anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours before they try to unpack their emotional baggage.

 

When he tucks his head into Hyungwon’s neck to avoid looking at him, he knows it’s time.

 

“I know that you and the others talk about sex sometimes…. Is that important?”

 

Hyungwon cranes his neck to look down. “It’s nice, but it’s one small part of many. Are you trying to tell me you’re gay?”

 

“No…”

 

He puts his head on top of Wonho’s.

 

“It’s just… I think…” Hyungwon’s hand strokes down Wonho’s back in slow, steady motions. They have time. He doesn’t need to rush. “I think I’m asexual.”

 

He flinches away, as though expecting Hyungwon to yell or ridicule him, turning into a ball of tensed muscles in Hyungwon’s bony arms. Seconds tick by. This isn’t what he was expecting, but he’s glad he knows. There are a million worse things he can imagine him saying, but this? This isn’t bad at all. He gives a thoughtful nod to try and downplay the severity of the situation just so that he can see that he shouldn’t be scared of who he is.

 

“It could be that you’re asexual,” he starts, “or it could be that you’re just you, Shin Wonho, and a person shouldn’t have to label themselves as something so other people can understand it.”

 

The silence waxes and wanes.

He hears a loud, relieved exhale.

 

“I wasn’t expecting that good of an answer.”

 

“I have my moments.”

 

Wonho’s body untenses, fitting into his space more easily, finding comfort like a cat. They lay there for god, who knows how long. The time they spent together alternated between feeling much, much longer than it actually is or much, much shorter. Hyungwon’s arm is starting to go to sleep, but he can’t find a good place to move it so he doesn’t.

 

“GuuuuUUUUUUUuuuuuys!!!” Kihyun’s voice rings through the house, “Food’s done! Shownu and I are gonna go back to my room!!!”

 

“DIBS ON BEING THE ADULT!!!” Minhyuk shrieks, if only to be shot down a minute later. The door to Changkyun’s room opens then closes with a BAM! The others must all be out there. They can eat and then come back and go to sleep holding one another like they usually did when the weight became too heavy. It would be easier to sleep that way with someone there to chase the nightmares away

 

“Come on, I heard Kihyun made extra ramen. He knows how much you and Shownu-hyung eat.”

 

Hyungwon climbs out of bed, then leans back with all his weight to pull Wonho up. The shorter man rocks on the balls of his feel, then falls forward, and maybe that’s where it all started, when instead of staying upright he landed in Hyungwon’s surprised arms like it was the most natural thing.

 

“Thanks.” The voice vibrates through the worn fabric of his bedtime shirt, tickling his stomach.

 

A seed nestles itself in the core of his being, sprouting up with golden liquid which overflows when Wonho smiles at him, and for a moment it’s just them, and no one knows what they know, and they have each other. His lips finally closes from their unsuspecting gasp and he ruffles the other man’s hair. “You’re always welcome.”

 

**

 

There had been a loud voice speaking a mile a minute, which was unusual since Wonho never spoke that quickly AND that loudly; always one or the other. His heart had risen into his throat. What happened? Was he ok? They race home from their subunit meetings. Kihyun tears through the house looking for Shownu, Minhyuk hot on his tail. Jooheon goes to find Changkyun but finds Wonho instead outside of his door. Hyungwon… stays stunned in the living room.

What in the world is going on?

They assemble in a mishmash, Hyungwon hasn’t been feeling like himself, he’s probably sick or something, so it feels like everyone is timetravelling. Kihyun looks like steam should be blowing out of his ears. Shownu sits on the side looking especially anxious. Wonho appears with Changkyun in tow, hands wrapped up in sweater paws. He takes a seat on the floor next to Shownu, who pets his hair to calm him down.

Words fly.

Changkyun is a Pet.

Changkyun is a what? What’s that? He’s never heard of this one. Granted, he never heard of Little’s and Caregivers before Shownu shared with them. Was this like that? He isn’t mad or disgusted or anything, just confused. He’s not as perceptive as the others, but that didn’t mean he was completely blind, did it?

 

“Of COURSE!!! I’d love to be your primary, Kyunnie!!!”

 

 Wonho almost touches the ceiling, he’s so excited. He’s a good choice for an Owner. Hyungwon almost touches the ceiling too, but not for the same reason.

His name had been said in Changkyun’s voice along with the word ‘owner’ and for a moment he thought he’d died and gone to the afterlife. All eyes look at him, and for a moment his mind goes blank besides the ringing sounds of he trusts me.

“I—Wow, thank you, I’m happy that you trust me this much. I don’t know how great I’ll be but I’ll do my best.”

 

“Nonsense! You’ll be great!” Wonho pulls him into a bear hug and it feels so warm, but there’s also Changkyun looking at him with complete trust and unfiltered relief and It gets to him.

 

He tries to make the dormant nest of butterflies go away but they can’t, and it’s like a spark has gone off in the night. He’ll do his best for Changkyun.

He’d always do his best for Changkyun.

 

**

 

Something’s going on with Changkyun and Wonho. No one will say anything up front, but they all feel the tenseness, like wild animals alert to the danger in the air. Changkyun doesn’t feel like dropping tonight, but he wraps himself up to take as little space as possible on the bed, inviting Hyungwon to come lay beside him. This isn’t the first time- he’s certain it won’t be the last. A nimble frame bends to intertwine with his. Changkyun, unlike Wonho, likes to lay head to head, where they can see one another. It helps him gauge what he’s saying; check that the other person is listening.

 

“Wonnie… what do we fall in love for?” he whispers.

 

It’s a loaded question, one with no answers. “What do you mean?”

 

“Like….” He searches for futile words to match what he knew inside to be true, “what makes a good relationship?”

 

That’s…. a tough one. He really doesn’t know.

The others have better answers- he only knows a thing or two.

Still, Changkyun asked him, so he’ll tell him everything he knows.

 

“I think it’s most important that you feel comfortable with one another. That you listen and help each other grow. That you teach each other. I think….” Hyungon’s mind is starting to run away, into a hidden pool of memories so far gone that he thought they were a dream. But they weren’t, and he would rather not dip into this pool. He’d rather deal with these from the safe abstraction of a song.

 

He'd rather not deal with these memories, but he’s already there. He backtracks one year, two years, five, seven, not even disturbing the surface, merely gazing at his reflection from the past with the bitter wisdom of his older self. He wants to tell him what he knows now, but instead he takes all those thoughts and says aloud, “I think… it takes mutual trust. It takes effort. It takes loving someone for all of them, not just some parts. To accept flaws but not settle for them. It takes patience. Most of all, it takes time.”

 

Hyungwon’s heart pounds in his chest. Can he feel it? Can he hear the counting his head going in, out, in, out, not too fast, just breathe?

 

“Have you ever been in love?”

 

“Twice.” He says, and leaves it at that.

 

They sit there longer. Changkyun doesn’t push him for an answer.

 

The hours drag on until they’re both struggling to say awake. Changkyun rubs his eyes with the back of his hand and he looks so cute, like an actual baby, that Hyungwon’s heart clenches. He snuggles in closer.

 

Thank you.”

 

Hyungwon tells him that not it’s nothing, that he’ll always be there if Changkyun wants to talk.

 

But not not- they’re both fading too fast.

 

“Y’know….” He yawns, “Whoever gets you for keeps is one lucky person…”

 

Hyungwon tells him not to say that, that he’s just doing what any good friend should do.

Hyungwon tells him to save those words for someone he loves.

He isn’t sure if he says it because he wants Changkyun to be more careful with his heart or because he wants to smother the ember in his own.

 

**

 

They stand outside Changkyun’s door side by side. Wonho’s been back for less than ten mintues, two of which have been spent standing here. They haven’t looked at each other. They haven’t said much either.

 

“I know what you’re going to say.” Wonho sighs.

 

“Then why haven’t you done it?”

 

“It isn’t that easy, Wonnie…”

 

“Nothing is ever easy, but it’ll be worth it.”

 

His chest rises.

 

“I can’t do this.” He cries, and Hyungwon doesn’t blame him- it’s terrifying to open up like this, especially after everything those two have been through. A long arm pulls them together, Wonho’s hands covering his face and Hyungwon’s chest hiding his tears.

 

“It’s ok, it’s ok, you’re ok. Don’t push yourself. You can do it when you’re ready.”

 

Wonho is strong as a person, that’s one of the things he admired, which means he’ll sort it out. But a part of him hurts to think about that future.

Changkyun and Wonho will work things out and they will be happy. Shouldn’t he be as well? The wallowing sadness overtaking him doesn’t belong. Why is it here? They suit each other, but for the love of all things good and bright he can’t figure out why he can’t be happy.

 

**

 

All this thinking makes him want to sleep. If he could sleep away the time, dream of better world, he would do it.

He would do anything to stop the pain blooming inside.

 

Hyungwon makes a hasty retreat to him room.

 

The thought of laying his head on a solid chest sounds so appealing. If he could have someone with him, someone to hold each night, it would be so much easier to fall asleep. The want almost drives him to tears. It feels like his waist is pulling in while his organs are spilling out. It feels empty and dry like an itch he can't scratch deep in his chest. The soreness calls out for someone to pull it, to hold it, to pick him up and let him be carried to bed. He wraps his arms around himself, letting his hands press around his middle and touch his back. The pressure helps him forget why he's in that state.

 

He doesn’t want these feelings. If he could trade them for something easier like getting stabbed, he’d take it, no questions asked. 

 

He hates the hazy feeling of complete adoration he gets when he looks at Wonho, hates the way his mind can come up with a million and one scenarios of how their life would play out. Wonho is smart and caring and loving. He’s patient and works hard and god, Hyungwon is so head over heels for him that it makes him sick. 

 

And the reason?

 

Because his mind yells to protect and care and cherish Changkyun whenever he looks at him. He wants to cup his cheeks and give him kisses because he deserves kisses, he deserves so much more. He deserves to be loved and Hyungwon wishes it he could be the one to protect him like a shield.

 

But he can’t.

At least….

Not like this. 

 

How pathetic was he, to want two people when he could barely figure out how to love one? And it wasn’t like he could intrude upon their relationship. And even if he could, he would say no because he would ruin it. 

 

So it’s better for them to be together, that’s fine. 

He just wishes it was easier for him to stay away. 

 

 

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Kihyun can see Shownu teetering on the lovely edge, happy, sated, kissed by Lady Slumber. He turns back to Minhyuk who had unceremoniously barged in for the second time that night, goddammit, waving with his hand that he can go, he’ll check on Hyungwon in a moment. He turns his attention back.  

 

“And you’re sure you’ll be ok?”

 

“’m not Little, Ki, I can handle being alone.”

 

“Ok. I’ll be right back though.”

 

“Promise?”

 

Kihyun intertwines their pinky fingers, then presses their thumbs together; the unbreakable pact.

 

“Promise.”

 

**

 

He hears the door open and a light weight settles at the foot of the bed.

Kihyun.

He knows it isn’t the maknae because he would never sit there (he would climb to the other side) but also because Minhyuk, no matter how upset he is, will always do right by his members.

 

“How are you?”

 

A deep sigh. “Could be better.”

 

A hand presses down into the mattress and Kihyun leans ever so slightly closer.  

 

“What did you want to talk to me about?”

 

He leaves the floor open, and maybe that wouldn’t be the best way to do things but Hyungwon doesn’t have the energy to keep hiding.

 

“How did you confess to Shownu-hyung?” he murmurs so quietly that it almost sounds like he didn’t say anything, and it takes a minute for the words to process.

 

Kihyun stops breathing.

 

“How did I what?”

 

“You and Show- why are you looking-- aren’t you guys together now?” Hyungwon looks like he’s seen a ghost…. feels like he’s just become one too.

 

Both stumble to compose themselves. Kihyun waits until he’s turned a less offensive shade of red to respond, “No, we aren’t! Why would you think that?”

 

Hyungwon is propped up on his elbow now, and to the untrained eye their postures would convey sleepy lovers, and that is NOT the visual Kihyun wanted out of this conversation. “I thought you two sat down to have talk!”

“We DID have a talk, but it wasn’t THAT kind of talk!”

 

Hyungwon is fully upright with his fingers bridged together, touching his lips, his melancholy all but gone. “But I thought--- you like him, don’t you? You two go together so well, like it’s natural, like you were always meant to be.”

 

He’s about to yell NO! but something stops him. He likes him…. As friends.

Just friends….

More than friends?

 

“I….”

 

His memories pop up like an overflowing spring.

Jealousy. Admiration. Is it more? What did he want out of this? What does he want from Shownu?

 

Leadership.

Happiness. 

Comfort.

Golden.

Soft.

Lovely.

Love.

 

It feels like his lungs don’t remember what oxygen is, and now everything is making sense, why he was acting the way he was. It’s always been Shownu- it was always going to be him. Long before he knew.

Before Kihyun’s possessive streak popped out.

Before their date-that-wasn’t-a-date on the porch.

Before everyone knew about Shownu being a Little.

Maybe before he knew too. It’s been there this whole time, he’d just been too blind or too stubborn or both to see what his heart knew all along.

 

Kihyun’s heartstrings play chords he’s never heard before.

 

“I do.”

Chapter Text

It’s totally normal to not realize the signs when they’re right there , right? 

That’s why he did not always know about his feelings, no Minhyuk, that’s not how it works. It was always there, but it was only now that it just…. Snuck up on him and went ‘ah!’. 

 

And he went ‘Ah!’. 

 

And he hasn’t stopped going ‘AH!’ since. 

 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened. It was one of those things that took form while he wasn’t looking, but now he was boxed in by it and there were no keys to this place he’d built and kept for himself. 

Not that he minds. 

It’s something of a shrine to Shownu. It’s his sacred hideaway where he can store all of their memories together. He keeps it perfectly tended like a precious garden and its undying care wells out of him when he tries to wrap him up to keep him safe from the world. He’s whipped. Minhyuk said it (not actually, but he insinuated it and that was close enough) and it isn’t even like he’s wrong . He can’t even be mad because he loves being needed. He loves seeing how happy he can make someone, and how much they grow in return. ‘You’d make a great parent’ they’d said, and he agreed because he was good with kids, but he’d never be half as good if it weren’t for Shownu. 

 

And it’s not because he’s Little, it’s not even because they’re a group of seven kids riding out this tsunami of a music industry a la Jackass, specifically in that one opening credits scene where they’re riding down that hill in an oversized shopping cart and everything is exploding around them. While those have been eye-openers, it’s mainly the way that Shownu inspires him to do better, to be more considerate. Every thought has someone else with it. What impact will he have on others? How will this affect their group in the future? It’s the forethought that comes with every action, the kind that leaders had, that has changed him for the better. 

 

How Shownu does it, he’ll never know. Maybe it’ll hit him one night when he’s in his thirties rocking a baby back and forth at one in the morning, and he’ll have to tell Shownu to go back to bed, he’s got this one and there’s stupidly large cheshire cat-smile pulling across his face as he returns to the splendid vision of raising a family with him again. A giddy, childish joy rises out of him and he tries to stop the storm of butterflies in his stomach but how could he? He wants that life so, so badly. Call him a sap, call him traditional- he’s been dreaming of having kids of his own and providing for them like a good father. He’s been dreaming of watching new lives being shaped and finding their way in the world. And maybe, yes, sometimes the prospect of the future looks daunting, but if he has Shownu there, it doesn't matter. 

If he has Shownu there, that will be enough. 

 

“He’s in there? Ah, ok, thank you Minhyuk-ah.” Shownu’s muffled says from the livingroom, where Minhyuk so mercifully offered to intercept their leader in order to help Kihyun. 

 

Hands brush down the front of his jeans, trying to make himself at least somewhat presentable. They’re going to have the talk. 

They’re going to have the talk. 

Kihyun is most definitely so ready and not at all ready all at the same time. He’s never been more and less ready for anything ever. Did that even make sense? The urge to scream ‘I LOVE YOU AND WANT TO SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE WITH YOU AND GO ON DATES AND PICK OUT FURNITURE FOR OUR HOUSE TOGETHER AND FALL ASLEEP WITH YOU’ is getting so strong that sometimes he has to excuse himself to go to the bathroom and have a quiet crisis. Everything makes sense, like there’s a 10,000 gigawatt lightbulb flashing over his head and a ‘ dingdingding we have a winner ’ following him around like the most least helpful entourage. Everything feels right. 

But... 

At the same time, what if Shownu doesn’t want that with him? He’s his caregiver. It throws wrenches into mix. And what if by adding a romantic part, he doesn’t feel safe anymore? He knows that there are people who take advantage of their Littles and while Kihyun knows there’s something not quite right with Shownu’s past, he can’t put him finger on it. Whatever it is, he won’t know until Shownu tells him. 

 

Minhyuk throws him the ‘ok’ sign with his upper body while his lower body is trying to walk away to give them ‘alone time’ and sweet buttery baby jesus he’s panicking. He’s panicking so hard. Where’s the nearest window? If he throws himself out of it, will he die? Is there a closet he can jump into? He’s running out of time, out of options, 4,3, 2, 1-

 

“Hey.” he says. In the distance, Minhyuk herds the others out the door. 

 

“Hey.”


“You wanted to talk to me?”

 

“Yeah, I did.”

 

“Ok. Is it anything serious?” The words catch him off guard, but then Kihyun realizes something. 

 

He realizes that Shownu has no idea what he’s about to say. As far as the leader knows, Kihyun wanted to talk to him and wanted to do it in private. This isn’t the first time he’s broken down and admitted to Shownu that he doesn’t feel confident, or that they’re pushing him too hard with all the high notes, or that he misses his home, misses his mom, misses being normal. 

And he also realizes he has a choice to make. 

He could jump ship. He could do it right now, just pick from a list of things, A, B, or C, and Shownu will accept the answer at face value because he knows that sometimes his members aren’t ready to admit what’s wrong right away, but it’s a start that they’re willing to talk to him in the first place and he’ll take whatever they’re going to put down. He’ll listen with intent and give thoughtful feedback and that will be it. Kihyun will go away with a promise to himself to come up with the most perfect way of confessing. 

But he could also admit his feelings right now. He needs to admit his feelings, but right now? Time is wearing on. Shownu can see him thinking. He needs to give an answer. Kihyun takes a deep breath. He’s gonna do it. 

 

“Could you sit down?” he says before he has the chance to stop himself.

 

“Sure. Are you alright?” 

 

“Yeah, I…..” He pauses, “I’m alright. I’m doing fine. Are you ok?”

 

“As good as can be expected.” 

 

They laugh; just something to fill the space. Kihyun lets out a long exhale. 

 

“I… it’s funny, I don’t know how to say it. I’ve gone over this conversation a million times in my head but I never thought of a way to start it.” 

 

“That’s ok. You can take your time.”

 

“No, no I can’t. That’s the thing, hyung, It’s been so long already and I feel like if I wait any longer it’s going to be scarier and scarier and then we won’t have this talk. But we need to. I need to.” 

 

If he doesn’t calm himself down in the next four seconds he’ll start rambling and then who know if they’ll make it to the conversation before Kihyun jumps ship. His hands shake. Shownu can see it.

 

And Shownu, with all his might and his movement, slows the conversation down just enough to give Kihyun’s mental static time to come into focus. 

 

“Ok. Let’s start with that. What makes this scary?” 

 

Kihyun’s head drops. He can’t look him in the eyes. “I’m afraid that this won’t go the way I hope it will. But I’m also scared that it will. I’m sorry, this doesn’t make much sense, does it?” 

 

“No, but keep going.” 

 

“It’s just that…  this matters so much to me. More than anything has in years. Maybe more than ever. I’m scared that… .I…. the only thing that could happen is I misspeak don’t want to mess it up. I’m not….. I’m not perfect by any means. There are a lot of things I screw up, and usually it doesn’t matter because we’re all in a group and we take care of each other and fill in the gaps where others can’t. But this is different because it won’t be the group, it’ll just be me. I’m just me and sometimes I wonder if that will be enough. And if it isn’t… then what do I do? Is it better to wonder ‘what if’ or to be hurt in the end?”

 

He takes a gasping breath, looking up to see if Shownu is following along with his usual respectful nodding, but instead he finds gorgeous brown eyes widening and plush lips falling open. 

 

“You sound like you’re in love.” 

 

And inside, Kihyun screams because yes, yes , he is, in fact, in love. He’s in love with Shownu who is the most wonderful person he’s ever been so blessed to meet. He’s beautiful and wise and when he smiles one of his eyes is more squinty than the other and it’s the cutest thing Kihyun has ever seen. Shownu has the cutest giggle when he lets himself laugh- a true, full-bellied laugh, not the one showing restraint for a camera- and he wants to hear it for the rest of his life. Yes, god yes, he's in love-

 

“I am. And god, I wish I had realized sooner. There were so many times I thought that things were normal, and that this was how normal kids did it, and that was it. And then I realize I’m in love with you.” 

 

A pause. 

A gasp. 

Silence. 

 

More silence. 

 

A cold sweat. 

 

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t--” 

 

“No, it’s ok! Don’t… don’t apologize. It sounded like it came from an honest place and you let it out without thinking. It’s good to be honest.” 

 

“I’m sorry.” he says again, but he isn’t really sure which part he’s sorry about, he just knows that he is. 

 

“It’s ok, Ki, really.” He says, but he’s breathing isn’t right and oh no, Kihyun just ruined everything, didn’t he? “Did you mean it? What you said?”

 

His eyes look up, left, straight back at his leader, squinting, second guessing his words, trying to remember if he had said them out loud or just to himself, trying to find the best way to express himself…. 

 

“Yes. Yes, god, yes I love you. Everything that you do, everything that you are. Everything that you will be. I love you in the same way that old souls do when they meet after a long time, spanning across timelines. There are some people who are meant to find each other again no matter how far they start off… I’d like to think we’re like that. There’s this sense of rightness that I feel when I’m with you. I see you and I know you. I think I’ve loved you for a while, maybe I always have.” 

 

Kihyun looks u to see Shownu hiding his smile in clasped hands.

 

“I… I can’t believe this, I love you too.” 

 

Kihyun is on his feet trying in an instant, words beaming through his mind asking did he really just say that? Me? He loves ME? Am I losing my hearing??? 

 

“Really?! You’re… you’re not just saying that, right? Don’t feel like you have to return it if you don’t. That wouldn’t be--” he verbally fumbles. Kihyun needs to take a breather. Or just sit. 

 

“No, I’ve actually… for a while now. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to lose you.” 

 

“I--- just--- Can I?” He stalls opening his arms, looking away in embarrassment. “Please?” 

 

Shownu’s heart thrums in his chest. The thought of being held so closely like that out of Littlespace sends a streak of excitement through him. He walks over and lowers himself, not putting his full weight on, but then Kihyun’s arms are around him and he’s being pulled onto his lap fully. The thrill of being held shoots through him, glowing, radiating. Shownu finds that Kihyun’s shoulders are at a perfect height to rest his arms. 

 

“You’re perfect.” His head falls against Shownu, right between the arm that’s holding onto him and the warm bulk of his chest. “So perfect in every way.” 

 

He doesn’t know how to respond to that kind of sentence other than to blush and hide his face, which only makes Kihyun’s arms close around him tighter. He isn’t sure what kind of spirit possessed him, but he ends with a kiss to Kihyun’s temple. 

 

And Kihyun is most definitely not thinking. 

He’s screaming inside but it’s the good kind of screaming because this is everything he’s ever dreamed it would be. 

 

“Hey, can… can I...?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“Can I kiss you?” 

 

Shownu’s eyebrows raise, then his face breaks out in an overwhelming heat. 

 

“Yeah. you can.” He readjust and waits. He isn’t the kind to initiate, and Kihyun did ask if Shownu would like to be on the receiving end of the kiss. He waits, but nothing happens. 

 

“Here, let me….” Kihyun frets. He guides Shownu onto the bed so they’re sitting next to one another. This is it. This is the moment he’s been obsessing over for the past week. He wants it to be perfect. Or as perfect as a 25 year old high on his own nervosa could make it. “Let me take care of you.” 

 

Kihyun’s hands are gentle as they rest on his hips. He’s pushing, but it’s a suggestion more than a demand. Shownu leans back into the plush bedding with a sinking hand supporting himself on the mattress. Their faces are mere inches from each others’, and now there’s a thumb brushing feather-soft along his cheek. 

 

“If you want me to stop, if you want me to do anything, just say the word.” 

 

Kihyun looks him in the eyes one more time before closing the distance between them. He never falters, steadfast in his conviction. He moves slowly to give Shownu enough time to turn away if he doesn’t want the kiss. Being this close could be daunting- they both know this. He pauses only when they’re half a breath away, eyes flicking down, and in that moment of doubt, Shownu lifts his chin up to bring Kihyun’s top lip between his own. 

 

It’s enough to give him the courage to move closer. Their thighs brush up every few moments when Kihyun leans in to take control of the kiss, if only to relinquish it a second later. He doesn’t push, he doesn’t pry- as much as he wants to lay Shownu down and show his just how much he adores him, he can’t risk scaring Shownu away. 

 

His pace is agonizingly slow but even more mind-numbingly sweet than he could've imagined. Shownu is so eager to be good that Kihyun can’t help but want to give his everything. He feels a hand rest on his shoulder complementary to the one he’s placed on the back of Shownu’s neck. He smiles into the kiss, then lets his tongue flick out. It catches Shownu off guard enough to make his mouth open in a breathless gasp, which makes just the right amount of room for Kihyun to open the kiss wider. 

 

He lets his tongue slide over the backs of the other man’s teeth, feeling Shownu pressing into the underside, moving upwards in a lapping motion. He repositions himself to get a better angle, eager to explore the way he could give him kitten licks but also be so hot about it. 

 

“Stop, please.” He murmurs so quietly that Kihyun is almost uncertain if what he heard was a figment of his imagination, but he felt the vibration of the words against his skin, and he’s hyperaware of each miniscule movement he makes. He needs to give Shownu his best with his kiss, and included up to when they stopped. He pulls back.

 

Shownu’s face is flushed the most perfect tint of pink underneath his gorgeous melanin. His hands don’t know where to settle, eventually settling once they’re held in Kihyun’s. 

 

“Too much?” 

 

“Too soon.” He looks nervous admitting it, like Kihyun will pounce on him or push him, which he won't, which he would never. Shownu’s shoulders are brought in closer to his body, legs pressed together, trying to make himself smaller. . 

 

“I’m sorry, baby.” He kisses him on the forehead, watching as one of Shownu’s eyes reflexively winks. “Thank you for telling me.”

 

They come down from the adrenaline rush the same way one would meander, moving this way and that, giving themselves enough time to come back to normal before speaking again. Kihyun’s fingers rake through Shownu’s hair, fixing nonexistent imperfections. 

 

“How do you feel?” 

 

“Good,” he exhales, “like I'm floating. Like I'm trying to internalize what just happened.” 

 

Kihyun grins, then nods once. “Good, I’m glad.” 

 

“Does this… are we together?” Shownu takes a shallow breath, caught unaware by the weight of the sentence, then holds it. 

 

“Do you want to be?”

 

“Yes!” He blurts. Shownu claps his hands over his mouth, “I mean… if you want to, too.” 

 

“I do.” Kihyun kisses his forehead, his cheeks, the tip of his nose. Shownu's hands bundle up knot his hem of his shirt. Too cute

 

**

 

Kihyun’s room is the one that gets the most light in the morning, which seems like the logical place to be since they’ll have to get up early tomorrow to start promotions. Shownu gets changed in his room and practically skips over to his boyfriend’s (oh my god he can actually say that now holy roly tony moly what a time to be alive). They settle in, Kihyun taking his role as big spoon very seriously. It takes some shuffling and moving the covers on and off before they get it right and they’re both comfortable.

 

“Goodnight, Ki.” He says, Kihyun’s chest presses into his back. An arm loops over his waist, and he kisses the back of the hand belonging to the fingers intertwined with his. 

 

“Goodnight, Nu. Sleep tight.” 

 

**

 

They wake up a few short hours later to the sound of alarm clocks and members rising like the walking dead. Shownu and Kihyun get to work bringing the rest of them the rest of the way out of their slumber. 

 

Kihyun gives him a quick peck on the lips before telling him that he’s going to try to get Minhyuk out of bed. Shownu flicks the ceiling lights on, brightness blinding both him and the large mound buried underneath a pile of blankets. 

 

“Up and at ‘em, Honey.” 

 

The large blanket cocoon metamophosizes into an exhausted rapper whose eyes are still closed, though his glasses are now lopsided on his face. He yaws, then tumbles onto the floor. “Ugh, why are you so awake right now?” 

 

Jooheon looks like a frumpy cat, propped up in Shownu’s arms like a ragdoll, but Shownu himself is luminous and golden, like a child of the sun. 

 

“No reason.” 

Chapter Text

He sheds his clothes much the same way a snake would, peeling them off his sweaty body and discarding them in small heaps at his feet. The knob twists all the way to the left, then is brought back slowly, slowly until the water is hot, but not too hot. Shownu steps inside.

 

His head tilts back.

 

He lets out a sigh, releasing all of the tension from the day into the warmth around him. It feels like he’s being shrouded in a layer of comfort, which is a welcome change from the pressure of keeping up appearances while they’re out. He’s thankful for all the love the group is receiving, really, he is, but the solitude is almost like a ‘welcome home’.  They’ll have a full day to unwind when they’re back in Korea, but until then, he has this.

He bends down.

Showers weren’t made to be sat in, but he’ll sit in this one because it’s the fancy kind with a long stone slab at the front acting as a walkway, adding to the whole aesthetic of the place. It transports him to another world. The dark brown stone and the wooden walls are a portal to a fog-shrouded forest where he can be alone with himself. It’s been non-stop since they released ‘Are You There’, and the wear and tear shows when he presses a hand from his shoulder down to his chest, lower, lower. His sighs grow longer. He’s spent the majority of the last year living out of a suitcase, the impending travel dates keeping his premade toiletries kit fully assembled. They were home, but they weren’t home. They move so fast, all he can think of is what needs to be done next and whether it’ll be done in sunlight or darkness. It’s like he’s running and constantly needs to look out a few hours, a few days, a few weeks ahead so he doesn’t trip. It’s like he’s running at full speed and jumps, and for a second he isn’t not moving at all.

A beat.

Inhale.

Then hitting the pavement.

The water beats against his chest in a thunderous rush. The sound fills his head and it’s so peaceful when he can’t hear anything.

Anything including Kihyun opening the door a crack and peeking his head inside.

 

“Sorry to bother you-”

 

Shownu’s leg reflexively kicks out. Every inch of skin still feels like it’s on pins and needles, god Ki, don’t do that, but his heart is slowly returning to its normal beat. Kihyun rubs the back of his head, “Haha, sorry, I should’ve knocked before barging in like this.”

 

“Don’t worry about it. What do you need?”

 

“Minhyuk barged in on Jooheon’s shower before I could get there and Wonho and Changkyun went in long before they did. I came to find you to ask if I could hop in with you…?” Kihyun’s shoulder’s shrug up to his ears, his body tilting away, his pitch slowly rising the more nervous he got. He stays tensed, mind undoubtedly running through every possible bad scenario.

 

But it’s not a big deal. It’s just Kihyun, and they’re no strangers to the demands of their schedule. Shownu pushes the door open with one outstretched arm, jumping back to be under the water again. “No problem.”

 

Kihyun sheds his clothes like he’s at the beach; slow, methodical, and ordered. This isn’t a place that’s familiar to him- they’ll probably never see this hotel again- and there’s a sense of unease leaving his things laying about, even if there is someone who’s being paid to clean. Shownu glances over to see how far he’s gotten in the undressing process (so Kihyun doesn’t scare the daylights out of him when he steps in behind him) and stops breathing. Kihyun is pulling one leg out of his jeans, hopping on the other, and thank goodness it’s the leg that’s farthest away from him. Even in the 0.02 seconds he was looking, he could see smooth, tan skin with little dark lines where the man had gotten into scuffles and other rambunctious youthfulness. He could see the shadow of a calf muscle and the lines in his tricep straining as he tried to hold onto the counter for balance, and trailing up he can see Kihyun looking at him.

Shownu turns away immediately, a furious blush sweeping into his face.

It’s not that he’s embarrassed to be seen naked, or even that he’s self-conscious about his body.

(Ok…. maybe it is a little bit of that last thing.)

He’s nervous to be this exposed.

He’s nervous that they’ll get one long, lingering, heavy gaze and Kihyun will be on him in an instant. He can see it playing out like the designated sex scene in a firey action movie where Kihyun kisses him and Shownu can’t stop his himself from rutting up against him and he knows where things go from there. He can imagine things heating up until they’re both breathless messes, and if he doesn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to kiss him and the longshot of sex, he’s going to have the boner of a lifetime and that cannot happen. He’s better than a quickie in the shower, moaning out loud while lukewarm water pours over him.

Shownu gulps.

He can see it so vividly. That how it would be if Kihyun were to take him right here, right now.

Kihyun steps into the shower behind him. He doesn’t say anything, thank goodness- simply holds out the bottle of body wash and the scrubber.

 

“Back up for me?” He asks, and Shownu is pretty sure that he would do anything that Kihyun asked, including but not limited to throwing himself into the fourth dimension for his boyfriend (there’s a loud noise in his head, like internal screaming, when he thinks about those words).

 

Kihyun’s hands press hard with the scrub brush, and even though it’s scratchy and hurts a little, he feels clean, which makes him feel more like himself. It’s easy to unfocus himself and refocus on things other than the fact that at some point, Kihyun is probably going to be inside him.

He’s able to stop himself from thinking about that, and that’s good.

But curiosity?
Not so easily sated.

Living with so many other guys meant that at some point, they would see each other’s dicks, and that was fine (and it was usually Changkyun’s), but it’s not like they made a point of trying to see what the members around them looked like. They saw it, they recognized the general shape, then they turned right back around. But it had always been quick and to the point. Professional, almost, like how athletes would shower in the locker rooms and no one would care because they all needed to get on with their lives, because the world didn’t stop for them.

But this time….
This time, Shownu’s just a tad bit…

a teeny bit….

Ok fine, a lot bit curious about what Kihyun looks like.

They switch positions, Shownu being rinsed off while Kihyun stands with his stomach nearly at the wall, offering his back for Shownu to scrub.

The fine lines of his muscles span across his back and oh, is it gorgeous.

Shownu makes quick, thorough work of him and spins him so they’re facing one another; so Kihyun can see exactly what he’s doing with no surprises.

The outline of bone blooms from the center of his chest only to be covered by dense muscle, which would not normally have been expected of someone of his size- usually the members coupled the thought of his body with the way that Changkyun’s looked, but Kihyun had always had more substance to him, even in the beginning. Where Changkyun was limber and flexible, Kihyun was rigid and upright. Where Changkyun had been thin and relaxed, Kihyun had been muscled and Most Definitely Not Relaxed. Shownu internally yells at himself to stop leading every thought to the same place with questionable success.

 

“My turn!”

 

His heartbeat races like a rabbit running from a fox, and maybe that isn’t too far off, because the way that Kihyun looks with his half-turned smile and his tapered features made him look alluring and devious all at once under the droplets of water. It isn’t like they haven’t done this before, but before, they were just teammates, and it was as though the inconvenience was part of the job. It was like that one time that they were hard-pressed to get to their show and had one shower which made for an interesting time with an outdoor garden hose and five men in a bathtub. It was like a duty they had to endure.

Kihyun sees him beyond his skin. He could kiss him right here, show him how much he loves him, right here. Their bodies could slot together so easily, it would be so, SO easy to access every little piece of him, everything that Kihyun would want to explore of him.

A warm, languid feeling sits low in his abdomen.

Oh.

OH.

Nonononononononono--

He can’t decide whether his hands should go down so Kihyun can’t see the hard on forming or up so Shownu doesn’t have to look him in the eyes.

 

“Babe?”

 

He goes with his hands slapping over his eyes.

 

“Babe, what are you doing?” He chuckles. The rough bristles of the scrub brush scritch-scratch into clouds of suds over his abs. Shownu grumbles in response. “Are you embarrassed?”

 

He nods, then grumbles louder.

 

“Why are you embarrassed? I’m sure we’ve seen everyone naked before. I’m pretty sure you guys were all naked with that one time with the garden-“

 

“But it’s different now!” He moans, “It’s you.”

 

“I’m still me, no matter what.” Kihyun says, but Shownu looks like he’s ready to die on the spot from embarrassment. “It’s ok, gorgeous. You don’t have to hide.”

 

His tone walks the line between comforting and the one he used for Caregiving. Shownu isn’t sure what it feels like to be stuck in a vacuum chamber and unable to breathe, but heck, is this coming pretty close to it.

 

“No hiding, ok? You don’t need to be embarrassed around me. I’m pretty sure anything and everything you do is cute in my book.” A hand strokes along the side of his cheek. Fingers push back the strands of hair and god, he won’t be able to shower alone again. As scary as that is, it’s also exciting, and he loves being this close.

His hands slowly inch down his face to make eye contact. Kihyun tips onto his toes to kiss him. “There’s my pretty boyfriend.”

 

**

 

Kihyun declares that he’s going to put lotion on him, no Shownu it’s ok, it isn’t a burden, he wants to do it. His heart still goes flippy-floppy when Kihyun kisses him (probably because they’re both still naked), but this kind of small pampering is something he could get used to. They take flying leaps on the clean white linen and shimmy to press up next to one another.

 

“What do you wanna do?” He asks, pressing an exaggerated kiss into Shownu’s cheek.

 

“Netflix?”

 

“Control’s all yours.” The laptop is placed onto his legs, endless possibilities at his fingertips.  

 

There’s a series on fixer-upper houses and converting small places into chique living spaces, and it seems to be best coupled with the Ben and Jerry’s one of the managers most graciously dropped off for them. Laying there with one leg over Kihyun’s, ice cream in one hand, he comes to a realization- one that makes him sit up straighter and become aware of everything around him. He feels like he’s been thrown from his body to become a third-person spectator.

 

He realizes that Kihyun is as much Shownu’s home as Shownu is Kihyun’s. They carry their home with them in the way they carried themselves, and that was their comfort for all the times they couldn’t be in their own beds, walking around barefoot over the familiar billows and bends in their kitchen floor. Living in the dorm isn’t the most luxurious of lifestyles, but he knows for a fact he’ll get misty-eyed when it’s time to say ‘so long’.

 

An elbow pushing against his side brings him back into his own body; just the two of them.

 

“You ok?” Kihyun’s hair sticks up in an artfully tousled bird’s nest, effortlessly beautiful, almond eyes quirked up in a questioning glance. Another spoonful of ice cream makes it into his mouth despite his eyes staying firmly locked with his. He waits patiently for an answer and Shownu….

Shownu can’t believe this is real. His heart is so fill with the way Kihyun looks after him and the way this image is one of domestic bliss. They’re still in the phase where everything is new and exciting but at the same time the way they coexist is familiar.

He slides his carton onto the nightstand and rolls over to tuck his face into the crook of Kihyun’s neck, arm laid over the soft hollow of his stomach.

He can’t see Kihyun looking at him with concern, like he doesn’t quite accept the lack of answer, but he can hear the ice cream carton being slide onto the adjacent nightstand. The soft hollow turns into hard muscle which pushes him just enough to let Kihyun slip into his space. A hand runs over his tired shoulders and down his back. The other wraps around to cradle his head.

 

“It’s ok.”

Chapter Text

Kihyun is gonna die. Kihyun is gonna combust into fifteen million tiny little pieces and he’s gonna be totally ok with that. He’s gonna be more than ok with that. Like way, way, WAY more than ok with it. He’s gonna go on a one-way trip to the afterlife, shake hands with whoever’s waiting for him there, and give this life a steller 10/10-would-absolutely-do-again rating. This life gets a five-star Yelp review going the whole nine yard with pictures and quotes and everything, no questions asked.

 

“Appouji! Appouji! Look at me!!!”

 

“I’m watching, sweetie!”

 

Cue, one Little Shownu, jumping up and down with his hands waiving wildly back and forth, his chest puffed out as he does his best to get his Papa’s (that’s him! He’s Papa!! The most lucky Papa in the world!!!) attention. He takes a running start (albeit a little more wobbly and little less sure-footed than usual) (but hey that only adds to the Good Pain in Kihyun’s heart) and leaps onto the back of a waiting Wonho, squatted in a Craig Kimbrel bird pose. His upper half spins around with Wonho while his legs jerk to the side to keep up. They go around and around and around and around until---

 

“aaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!”

 

Wonho crouches low enough to let Shownu’s feet hit the ground, sending him off like a newly-born baby deer on in a crash course to say hello to the ground. He stumbles left, then right, then back left, and he’s mostly horizontal now, and OH! He’s in the grass!

 

“What’s my baby doing?” Kihyun puts his hands on his hips, exaggerating his posture with drawn out, booming words.

 

“Dizzy!” He giggles. Whatever sense of balance he had is long gone, his legs spreading out wide to help prop him up, chest still bouncing with laughter. Hands plant themselves in the ground in a feeble attempt to go vertical, but he loses his balance and tips over, starting the laughing fit all over again.

 

Normally people would consider this a creative form of torture, and honestly Kihyun has no idea what he’s witnessing, but if he’s having fun, then that’s all he can ask for. And if anyone has a problem with that…. They can answer to him and their entire team.

 

“Such a silly baby…”

 

No one had expected to see the Little today- there had been no indication, no particularly heavy stressor that would have put them on alarm. No- Wonho had been out with Shownu for another photoshoot and all of a sudden Kihyun was on the phone listening to a happy Baby gush about the yummy smells and the soft shirt a very nice ajumma had dressed him in.

 

“Tokki cuddle!”

 

“Such a cutie!!!” Wonho had said, somewhat muffled, probably because the clatter three seconds earlier had been him placing his phone on a nearby tabletop. He can hear squeals and coos and Kihyun’s heart does a mildly medically concerning rendition of Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria.

 

“Yah! Save some for the rest of us!!!” He barks.

 

One van ride later, and they had changed him out of his jeans and put him into his lighter pants so he wouldn’t get too hot under the summer sun, and untucked his shirt from his waistband, since it would be uncomfortable for him later, but he had grown so attached to the worn jersey cotton around him that he looked almost sullen at the prospect of parting with it. Kihyun had looked him in the eyes and told him that it was perfectly fine for him to keep it on because ‘you like it and it makes you happy and I can always wash it later’, to which Shownu had beamed his brightest smile before running off to resume playing with Wonho, and Kihyun had felt most proud.

 

Cut to thirty minutes of ‘spin me till I can’t see straight and then I crash into the ground for fun’, and Kihyun is endeared in all of the ways. He’s trying to capture it on his Canon but it would ruin the moment. That’s the thing with photography- it loses its meaning when it’s staged. It’s this raw emotion, the passage of time caught in a wooden frame, bodies moving freely, just being there. And the dilemma tears at him, at his hands, which try to click the shutter to catch the right moments, but also stay fixed in his lap so he won’t miss a single moment.

 

“Tokki! Tokki! Again! Again!!!”

 

There’s the sound of a screen door slamming three times, one for each member who can’t seem to remember to be polite to the one behind them, when they’re racing out to see what the commotion is. Changkyun stops short, Minhyuk crashing into him due to being preoccupied with keeping his mouth open in a thrilled, inhumanly wide-mouthed gasp; Jooheon sprinting past both of them in the fastest sprint anyone has seen him run besides that one time in the haunted house, and Hyungwon closing the door quietly behind him, as not to disturb the peace.

 

“What are you doing, Nunubear?” Minhyuk hobbles over in his silly walk, the one that has his arms out by his side as he bobs back and forth on his long, skinny, slightly-bent legs. He looks like the embodiment of the word ‘oompa loompa’, and hot on his tail is Changkyun, looking like he’s been challenged to gallop like a horse.

 

“Are you having fun with Tokki?”

 

The Little nods ‘mhmm mhmm mhmm’. Shownu screams across the yard for Kihyun to watch him, watch him Papa, watch him as he goes in for another flying leap. Members skirt out of the way in whatever way they react in first- Hyungwon performing an impressive backwards vertical jump onto the front stoop, Jooheon hail Mary-diving out of the way, Minhyuk landing in a bush, and Changkyun scaling a small tree in record time- so they don’t stray into the path of the off-kilter spinning man with the Little on his back, who’s slowly losing his footing. Wonho dips down to let Shownu off his back, then goes careening, quite ungracefully, into the grass next the tree Changkyun was in. The Little’s legs buckle a few times, but stamp out in front of him in time to catch his balance, perpetuating his dizzy fall. He crashes into the ground with a not-quite-loud scream.

 

“Are you ok, baby?” Kihyun says with a hand in front of his mouth, trying not to show how close he is to laughing.

 

In response, Shownu props himself up on one knee. He raises his hands in an unsteady victory pose.

 

“Tada!!!”

 

He falls to the ground.

Everyone comes down to meet him there.

 

**

 

There’s a reason why home videos involving children and cake usually make it onto those evening shows, the ones where they play videos--- was that just a think he and his family did? Anyone else know? It was like a much more wholesome precursor to Vine compilations. Was that the thing the kids used these days? God, he’s getting old… Whatever it is, he’s imagining a particularly large screen and an audience and this.

 

“Nunu!” Minhyuk gasps for air, trying to keep himself from passing away from the power of his own laughter, “That’s not how you eat that!”

 

“Wanna eat!!!” His bottom lip pushes out as he tries for what must be the fourteenth time to eat cake with a ladle. Where he found it and how he got so attached to it; a mystery. But the fact that they don’t know doesn’t change that he’s doing the very best a Little can to eat an inherently messy food with the most inappropriate of utensils. He brings the ladle down to scoop up some cake but alas, with no success.

(Read: He overhand whack-a-mole-bashed the ladle into the cake.)

Everyone’s covered, but no one’s mad. Jooheon is a little uncomfortable but that’s minor, and he’s shaking the icing off his hands well enough. And they can get a proper cake for him when he’s big again, when they do the customary nice dinner of Shownu’s choice (usually beef or seafood) and the gift exchange. It’ll be a nice, quiet (Kihyun crosses his fingers on both hands and on his toes) sit-down and they can share stories together.

It’ll be like they’re a real family.

Kihyun watches as Hyungwon becomes the first person to convince Shownu to take a bite from his outstretched hand, the other scooping up pieces off the tray into the own hands just to have a chance at watching his chubby cheeks munch away.

He smiles, snapping a few pictures, then tucking his phone away to join the fray. There’s screaming and cake being painted from Minhyuk’s hand onto Jooheon. Someone starts a food fight, and it’s all over from there.

The memories will stay in his phone, a glimpse of here and now.

And in that time, he’d swear he’d call it paradise.

Chapter Text

“NOW BOARDING:

FLIGHT

Four-Eleven

TO

 Jeju Island

AT

gate two-A.”

 

The small array of bodies rise together out of their plastic seats, shuffling as though they were one into neat lines between blue stanchions. Hyungwon turns his head right, glances left, then exhales heavily.

 

“Let’s do it.”

 

He’s been accepting more of those offers to model, the ones he used to turn down because being part of an idol group was already fun, and he didn’t want or need any more excitement.

 

He hands the ticket to the woman at the counter who double checks the name on his passport and stares at the eyes peeking out over his facemask, which means that there’s a good chance she recognizes him. God, this isn’t what he wanted today. No one knows he’s here so there weren’t any fans waiting for him at the airport, and being another person in the crowd is like a luxury. His face begins to burn under the prospect of being called out, but the next person in line, thankfully, must be in a terrible rush because he’s dropping his ticket into the woman’s hands before he’s being asked to. Hyungwon takes his ticket, rushes to his seat, and opens up his itinerary folder.

Allure, Korea

The per-diem contracts keep him busier than usual, spending a grand total of a few hours with the members for a practice here or a performance there or an interview unceremoniously shoved between the two before he’s being carted off to a corporate plane full of suits and briefcases checking their rolex’s like it’ll change the fact that the flight will only leave when it’s ready and not a moment sooner. This is a small flight- forty maximum capacity- but he knows from waiting at the terminal that the array will be checkered with empty seats. Everyone around has either their laptop and/or their notes out on the folding trays, and even though they’re all in the same 50-square-meter box it feels like he’s alone.

He puts his headphones on and opens up the file he’s been working out of for his newest EDM set.

If no one else is going to talk, he might as well keep himself amused, right?

It’s better than when he’s with the other models, he supposes.

Back when he’d started, the limelight and the gasps from ethereally beautiful men and women telling him he was beautiful had made his confidence soar and left his head in the clouds. It was all so new, all he could do was take in as much of the conversation as possible, learn as much as he could, talk to as many people as would let him hold a conversation. The luster has worn off, but the incessant chatter always lingered. He didn’t care for those things anymore. They would amuse one another with stories of what they did to one another, what they did to themselves.

He knows because he used to be part of that talk.

He used to be someone the others talked about.

It wasn’t….

It wasn’t bad, per say.

Casual sex is normal- it’s a consequence of never being able to settle down. He and everyone else in the dressing room would be here for a few days, have their fun, and be gone to their respective counties or companies or shows, leaving as though they had gone out for brunch or for an early dinner instead of being skin to skin, soul to soul, fully exposed beyond what any camera could make them feel.  

It’s a curiosity of the universe.

He lost his virginity to an older boy who must have been riding the same post-fashion show adrenaline, because he didn’t say bother to say goodbye in the morning before leaving Hyungwon’s hotel room. His hair had been shorter then; his cheeks, rounder. He was too tall for his body but it looked good in all sorts of clothes, it was meant to be put on a stage, so he was called upon like a trophy and made to parade along catwalks with other men and women stepping high above crowds with their expensive heels and their elaborate makeup.

And he couldn’t have felt more naked, wrapped up in white linen around his bony frame, ignoring his manager’s calls to come downstairs because the ache in his hips called out louder.

It’s like he can hear the echo of them together, when they were one. He can hear the way the other man’s breath hit him ragged, his face buried in the crook of Hyungwon’s neck, Hyungwon on his back desperately trying to hold onto him as though he would disappear right then and there.

He laughs.

His manager is already barking at him when he swipes up to accept the call.

Apparently he couldn’t hold on tight enough.

 

“Good morning, this is your captain speaking. Welcome aboard the 8:10 flight from Incheon International Airport to Jeju international Airport. Conditions are clear and are expected to stay that way, with an expected arrival time of 10:47. We are being cleared for a runway and shall depart shortly.”

 

The flight attendants take up their place in the center aisle. Hyungwon puts his headphones back on- he’s heard the speech enough times before. There are more pressing things to think about, like which sound effect he should add to his board and what happened after that first time.

He was so….

So foolish then, it baffles him.

There was nothing good about this situation, he remarked to himself in the post-orgasm haze. It’ll be different this time though- he’s the giver this time, and the givers leave, and he knows he won’t. He’s an optimist, and the feeling of someone’s heartbeat next to his is like an addiction. Hyungwon wraps his arm around the figure in front of him. The weightlessness of comfort makes him smile.

Then, he crashes.

Light streams in through coffee-colored curtains, and suddenly it’s time to go again. There’s an empty spot in the place where thrill resided, vacated in the same way that his second man leaves before the sun is up. Maybe this was happening because he picked these kinds of people.  Yes, that must be it. There must be a reason. He’ll be sure to do better next time.

 

“This is your captain again, we are next on the runway. Please close your trays and put your seat in the upright position as we prepare for takeoff.”

 

The vessel turns, lining up with the white lines leading out into an expanse he can’t see. The grass rolls by slowly at first, then faster, faster, as they pick up speed. The plane rattles, then enters weightlessness. He opens up his laptop again and matches up the song he’s working on with the one he wants to play next.

 

The third man leaves while he’s awake.

He pretends to be asleep.

 

Hyungwon decides that that’s enough memories for now.

 

**

 

He gets off the plane in the same time zone, thank goodness, and finds a sign with his name on it in bold laminate print; not the old hand-written ones he used to get when he was just starting out. Before he’d become a recognized professional worth the extra few days it took to get a sign printed specially for him, he would sheepishly run over to the driver just so they would take down his name and save him the embarrassment.

The older man opens the door for him, for which he expresses a quiet thanks. The studio isn’t too far, but it’s far enough to let the tendrils of memories slip out from the place he locked them away. The taxi comes to a halt outside of a small-looking house, the minimalist type, in a town where the ocean can be heard lapping against the edge of the island.

The man carries his bag to the door and receives a generous tip from the head of the studio, a foreign woman in her sixties with threads of silver hair decorating her braids and knowing eyes between matching sets of crow’s feet. She shows Hyungwon where the makeup and hair stations are, and where the wardrobe station will be set up once the stylist manages to get out of the hour-long traffic due to an overturned cement truck, leading him further, further back to a seat which she offers him on the other side of an epoxy resin table.

 

“Thank you for coming in today. We’re excited to have you.”

 

“Thank you for having me.” He automatically responds.

 

“Let’s go over the concept, shall we? It’ll be an eight-piece set but there are twelve outfits prepared and I’d like to get your opinion on them.” That’s unusual- every other photoshoot he’s been to has been someone telling him what to wear and which props to hold. The only time he’s had to make stylistic decision has been when one of the staff members has gone temporarily missing. “The concept is light and darkness...”

 

Silky photographs spill out over the wood between them, and Hyungwon finds himself pointing out different style combinations he knows will compliment his body type. The woman challenges his ideas, makes suggestions, makes him think. It’s like they’re working together as one team, and this shoot is already more enjoyable than 97% of his past ones. He considers going into the fashion industry again before yelling at his brain to calm down and focus on his current occupations first.

 

“What do you think about a windswept hairstyle?” he says, holding up a photo of a black jumpsuit, “Since I haven’t cut it in a while, the sweep will work well. I think it’ll stand out even against an all-black outfit.”

 

“I’m having trouble visualizing which parts are going where. Do you have a picture?”

 

He hands over his iPhone with a picture loaded from ‘We Are Here’, when his hair was pure white. “What I’m imagining is similar- I can explain to the hairstyle noona.”

 

“I like this idea- we can move the light-“

 

Knockknockknock

 

“Please excuse me.” She places her hand on his arm, acknowledging him, then stands. “Come in?”

 

“Miss Jeong is here with the wardrobe. She said she needs thirty minutes to get set up and can work on the outfits on a rolling basis, depending on which ones you need.”  

 

“Thirty minutes it is. Is the lighting ready?” A nod. “Backdrops? Proprs?”

 

“Everything is ready, ma’am.”

 

“Perfect.” He slides the door closed. The woman turns her attention back to him, and under her gaze he feels like a favored child under the protective wing of their grandparent.  “We’ll get started shortly. I’ll have to check on Miss Jeong, but in the meantime Miss Kim and Miss Choi can get you ready with hair and makeup. You wanted these six, correct?”

 

“Those, and these two as well, if you would.”

 

She clips the photographs together to keep them organized, Hyungwon joining in to help once he caught onto her logic.

 

“Thank you,” she says, “I’ll see you in a little bit.”

 

**

 

He’s dressed in a loose black shirt and loose black slacks, held together at the bottom in the laces of a platform boot which bounces on the rungs of the stool he’s perched upon. The camera shutter clicks again. There’s soft music playing, something in English with an easy beat that he can lose himself in.

The thoughts come spilling out from behind their locked door.

There was a boy, once.

His name was Minjoon and he was perfect.

Minjoon made him think and challenged him in the best way, in every way. He had been Hyungwon’s first everything. Not physically, but emotionally. There were tons of people in the modelling industry who wanted something platonic here and there, and that had been the norm, and he had accepted it with chagrin.

Until he met the boy with fire in eyes and novels in his throat.

And Hyungwon was like a paper doll.

He never stood a chance when it came to him, and it had felt so right, like this is what he had been waiting for his entire life.

There was a boy, twice.

There was an instant connection when he met Taeho, and he could see why Minjoon had become so infatuated.

 

“You’re going to love him!”

 

And he has to hand it to him- Minjoon wasn’t wrong.

 

Falling into the same humor and finding the same interests had been so easy, and maybe that was the issue, because he didn’t know what love was and he assumed that if he could be that comfortable with someone, it had to be more than friendship, didn’t it?

 

He didn’t know it was possible to feel this much love, to feel this much of anything.

And maybe that why it ended the way it did.

Hyungwon had been so young then, so eager. He was ready to be anything and everything his boyfriends wanted.

Maybe it was the folly of youth.

Maybe it was because he was so used to giving, and that was his issue, because sometimes the pieces would never match no matter how desperately he tried to cram them in. Sometimes he would have pieces that weren’t what the other person needed.

It was never meant to be that easy.

He didn’t notice at first when Minjoon stopped cuddling him and giving him kisses. It was like that song, how did it go?

 

I had all and then most of you

Some and now none of you

 

He tried to ask him what was wrong, was it something Hyungwon had done? Was there something he needed to do?

No, it wasn’t that, he was worrying for no reason, Minjoon had said, don’t be silly. Hyungwon had let out a relieved breath. He knew that when life got to be tough, he would have to give more of himself. In the same vein, there would be times when he couldn’t give as much, and his boyfriends would be there to help carry the weight.

He knew these things to be true.

He just had to hold on a little longer.

Minjoon was busy, he was stressed, it was understandable. It wasn’t Hyungwon’s place to ask him to give more than he was capable of. He needed to be a good, supportive boyfriend. That was what he told himself when Taeho stopped talking to him as much too. They both told him not to worry, and when he presented his feelings like a small child, they were dismissed until he stopped expressing himself at all. Months went by; months more.

Then his world came spiraling down.

All of his words were in a land far, far away when Minjoon asked him, ever so quietly, not to call him babe, because it made him feel trapped, and that Hyungwon made him feel trapped, and that he couldn’t do this anymore. Taeho looked at him with wide, conflicted eyes, trying to find the words to tell him that he liked Hyungwon but didn’t love him, not the way hearts did, not the way Hyungwon loved him, and maybe he should have because receiving those words over voicemail months later only ripped a larger hole in his chest.

He couldn’t stand being around any longer.

He couldn’t stand being himself any longer.

 

He told his mother that he changed his mind.

 

Becoming an idol would give him a broader range of talents. He could reinvent himself. One day when his skin showed wrinkles and body couldn’t keep up with the brutal demands of fashion, he would have to retire from modelling, but he could always produce music or choreograph dances. He held his breath, unsure of whether she would be angry or sad or if she would walk away.

She beckoned him to bend down so she could kiss the top of his head and told him that he should follow whatever path made him happy. She told him that she and his father would miss him dearly and would cheer him on from the other side of their antenna TV. She told him she would always love him, because he was her baby, and she was proud to see how much he’d grown. She told him that she didn’t know why he was crying all of a sudden but it was ok to feel nervous or frightened or any number of things, because change could be scary, but no matter what, there would always be people around who loved and supported him. She told him that there would always be a home for here, no matter how far away he was.

 

**

 

His final look sees under the black jacket to the formal white button up tucked into the same black slacks he’d worn earlier. The elegant contrast is a satisfying close to the shoot. The silk around his neck rest over his chest, his arms raised above his head, gaze trained at something in the distance on the ground. A song comes on that he recognizes, and he smiles. 

 

Go ahead, just tell me I'm to blame

 

His voice is well-suited for this song- it brings down the lyrics an octave, and it sounds better this way, if he were ever so bold to claim. Hyungwon settles into the natural rhythm of posing, but this time he feels each movement more purposeful; each breathy gasp pulling him further and further away into his daydream. He imagines laying on his back with Wonho on top of him, chest to chest, chattering happily about his day.

 

Mama used to say 

Boy

Love isn't easy, it's hard

She said boy,

Love isn't easy, it's heartache

 

He can see a dream-Changkyun flopping on top of him, arms wrapping around one boyfriend, fingers brushing up against the other. They move to lay side by side, Hyungwon and Changkyun leaning in to kiss Wonho in the middle. They lean in further to kiss each other. His heart thrums wildly in his chest like an untamed animal.

Then, he opens his eyes.

God…. What am I doing?

 

But I still

Still

Hold 

On

 

No, I'll still hold on

 

Hyungwon has so much faith in Wonho that it makes him nervous. But it shouldn’t- Wonho is physically or mentally out of that loop, which means that he wouldn’t be the kind of person to drop in for a casual night together and then pretend like it never happened or worse, that it didn’t mean anything. Truly loving a person for all of them took time, and it was time that Wonho was willing to take, the only time he was willing to give. If he could get Wonho to love him, it would be perfect.

It’s a sick game of numbers he plays, but it’s only to keep himself safe.

 

But I still 

Still 

Hold 

On

Still I've been holding on 

 

He’s glad to be away. It’s better to unwrap this Pandora’s box away from them, at a safe distance where the only person he can hurt is himself. Wonho has a way of letting him know when he’s upset, but it’s more difficult with Changkyun, who’s used to the uncomfortable feeling of directionless wandering and doesn’t show his uncertainty as readily. That’s why he has Petspace in the first place. Hyungwon has the sudden urge to have a lap full of pup, but he needs to stop these thoughts because Changkyun is a three hour return flight away, and so are Wonho and the rest of his members because they’re all together and he’s alone, like he usually is.

 

So done with love, it’s like tears in the rain

It means nothing

 

He hears a collection of murmurs, who are these people, what are they doing here, but his eyes are still closed. 

 

So don’t fall in love

 

"Hyungwon?" Wonho whispers. 

 

His eyes open. 

 

Because love means nothing

Chapter Text

So.

Turns out that pain in his side wasn’t just a bruise that would go away.

 

“Kihyunnie, why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Shownu chides, and damn, if he wasn’t already wallowing in the pits of despair, he should be now.

 

“I thought if I waited long enough it would turn out to be nothing.”

 

I didn’t want to believe it was serious.

 

The logic sounds incredibly dumb now that he’s saying it out loud in the sterile-white office of a certified healthcare professional, and the thoroughly unimpressed stares only accentuate it. She’s probably heard those words a million times before.

Not that it changes the situation.

Kihyun is being ordered to take bed rest.

Kihyun is being ordered not to do any strenuous activities.

Kihyun….. has never been good at taking orders.

 

“But I can perform tomorrow night, right? As long as I’m incapaci- I mean, as long as I rest all today and most of tomorrow?”

 

“You need to let yourself heal completely or else you’ll risk aggravating your injury. In my professional opinion, I highly advise against it.”

 

He leans in with one shoulder and a half-grin. “I’m not hearing a ‘no’.”

 

“You’re not performing tomorrow night.” Shownu declares. His phones buzzes for what must be the 20th time in the last five minutes, no doubt the managers dying to know more than ‘he’s fractured a rib’. Kihyun looks back at the doctor as a final Hail-Mary in the hopes that she’ll side with him, but his leader isn’t in the mood to play games.


“That means no.”

 

“OK, but have you considered-“

 

“Kihyun, you-“

 

“Think about it like this-“ She interrupts with a placating tone, “either you rest for a week now, or you risk hurting yourself more and have to rest for two weeks instead.”

 

Kihyun’s head whips around at a breakneck speed. “We have a break coming up, before we have to come back for the music festival, right? Just those late-night shows and interviews? I could do those while sitting. I’m liking the odds.”

 

And in his head, it sounds like a maybe possibly convincing argument, but based on the way Shownu is crossing his arms and standing even more straight than before, he takes back that statement. “There’s no version of this conversation where you convince me you’re in performance-ready condition.”

 

Silence.

The doctor looks back and forth at the one man in his sorry state engaged in a staring contest with the other man who honestly doesn’t look like he’s faring much better.

 

She breaks their line of sight by stepping between them, calling for a draw. “You two sound like you need to have a talk in private. If you have any questions, I’ll be outside. When you’re ready, stop by the front desk to fill out the insurance information.”

 

They both thank her and wait until she’s fully out the door. Kihyun and Shownu watch the door hiss

Slowly

Slowly

Closed.

 

Kihyun whips back around, “Shownu, I—”

 

“Ki, you heard the doctor!”

 

“It’s our last performance!!!”

 

“You need to rest!!!”

 

“When we’re done with this one I will, I promise!!!”

“Kihyun-“ he says, his tone warning.

 

“Who knows when we’ll be able to do this again! I don’t want to miss out. Please, Shownu, this is what we work for, these moments, these performances. Monbebe come to see seven, not six. I can do it, I’m strong enough to get through one more performance. I want to be out there, I want to feel that energy one more time before we go away, I can’t--- it can’t end like this, not after everything we’ve been through.”

 

Shownu is ready to object, to tell him that he’s being ridiculous, that he’s only putting his foot down because it’s for the best, but it’s impossible to get a word in when his teammate is tripping over himself and practically begging, and it occurs to him…

If the roles were reversed, he would be fighting the exact same way.

There was the thrill of performing, the one they all lived for, the one which pushed them to do better even when they thought they were at their limit. They looked forward to touring when comeback was on the horizon, and the late nights and endless days were worth it when they could line up hand in hand under a rainstorm of confetti, the roar of fans around them. There was a moment when nothing else existed, and there was only the notion of ‘us’. They would come off the stage running on pure adrenaline, wondering ‘wow, did that really just happen?’ and that’s all they would talk about the whole time while camping out in each other’s hotel rooms, and then in the car whisking them away, and then on the plane to their next destination. They would make only memories and leave no trace. But after this performance, they would come back to their dorm and resume life as though they had never left.

But they had- they’d been all over the world with their once-in-a-lifetime chance.

How were they supposed to be the same after that?

Just looking at them, no one would know how thousands of people came together to celebrate music with them. They wouldn’t know how the energy electrified an entire theater. They’ll see the sun damage on their skin but not the way they fell asleep leaning against the window because performing was exhausting, and they were exhausted, and the natural frequency of a car happened to be the one that put them to sleep the fastest. The laundry machine will wash off the lingering smells of cities across the globe off their clothes; the northern downpour they walked through that one night just for the hell of it. Their lives have been irrevocably connected and altered by these experiences. The last-minute team huddle before they took to the stage. The exploring. Having the nights of their lives. Saying goodbye to the road as they wind down.

 

The experiences, the bittersweet ache…

They were never meant to be the same.

 

And to rip that away from Kihyun so suddenly….

He understands.

 

“—so if these dates match up, then I can rest here, here, and here and be at enough practices to know the new choreo and perform without worry at the September—”

 

Shownu rests a hand on his thigh. “Kihyhun.”

 

The restless rambling stops. Kihyun tries to come up with another clever way to weasel himself out of the situation, but this isn’t like an argument with the members over whose turn it is to cook or to clean out the practice room or use the gaming system. There are concrete facts to this case. He’s hurt. He needs to rest. Kihyun peeks at the packets in the manila folder full of pharmacy scripts and instructions on how not to mangle himself any further.

 

“Let me at least sit out there.” He says as his final attempt, “Please? I’ll sit in a chair on the stage and if I have to get up I’ll walk, but I won’t dance.”

 

“Will you sing?”

 

“Hyung, I----” Kihyun looks around frantically, chest rising in shallow breaths, “I’m a singer, I have to. I was born to sing.”

 

Shownu stares at him, hard, and Kihyun knows he’s being childish, bargaining like this, but this is a matter of who he is. It isn’t just a job, it’s his entire life, doing what he loves, chasing after every opportunity that presented himself.

 

“High notes are out of the question.” He says after an agonizing ten seconds, “If it’s longer than four seconds, you aren’t holding it. Adlibs are out. You sit down for the whole performance. The only time you’re standing is when we walk in or out or we do the ‘ments. Or we’re bowing. Do I make myself clear.”

 

It isn’t a question- he’s getting Kihyun’s verbal signature on this contract. It isn’t… it isn’t exactly what he wanted, but it’s for the best, and the fact that Shownu didn’t shut him down immediately and lobby corporate against him is another example in the long list built over these four years as a team of his fairness in leadership, how he took time to listen to his members and ask for their opinions before relaying decision for them. Shownu doesn’t look mad that Kihyun is trying to pull this kind of deal; he’s worried. But Shownu also trusts him, and he trusts that as Kihyun tell him yes, he agrees to those terms, thank you, that he won’t take advantage.

 

**

 

When the statement goes out, it goes out everywhere. People are reposting it left and right, and he turns off his notifications from his ghost account in favor of scrolling through Pintrest looking for aesthetically pleasing interior designs. It doesn’t stop the sick feeling of dread that tells him that everyone knows, and that that makes it an unescapable reality, but it’s getting better now that two of his teammates are sandwiching him in a protective bubble and the other four are standing in a circle around them.   

 

“Is this ok?” A somber Minhyuk says from one side.

 

“Relax, you aren’t going to break me. I’ve had this thing for weeks, based on the report.”

 

“You say that like it’s supposed to make me feel better.”

 

“Is there anything we can do?” A teary-eyed Wonho asks from the other. A flash of guilt knocks the dread off course as he remembers that Wonho is injured too, but they’re putting off taking care of him until they’re home and making him perform whereas activities have practically come to a screeching halt for Kihyun.

 

“No, don’t worry about me. I just need rest- we all need rest- and we’ll be in tip-top shape.” He rubs soothing circles over the larger man’s shoulder with the hand on the non-fractured side. “Besides, it’s not that bad. It’s like a dull pain in my side. Minnie is a bigger pain in my ass, and I’ve lived with it for years!”

 

Everyone holds their breath.

 

“Yah!” Minhyuk yelps, undignified, “Take that back!”

 

 The atmosphere feels like it’s breathed a sigh of relief. In response, the members starting snickering and Minhyuk goes to whack him on the arm but has to settle for slapping him on the thigh. “You’re lucky you’re hurt. Just you see! You laugh now, but wait ‘til we get home!”

 

They fall into their usual banter of going over the highlights from their last concerts and the comments section of their videos. It's easy to pretend that everything is more or less the same except that they’re in a rather large room full of beeping monitors instead of at a hotel or on the city streets.

Oh wait, that reminds him…

 

“Don’t you guys have a vlive to record?”

 

“Oh yeah….”

 

“But I’m sure Monbebe will understand if we don’t. It’s not like we promised one… did we?”

 

The chatter stops. The members look around at each other like a herd of deer stuck in headlights trying to see if anyone will move.

 

“Hyungwon, Changkyun, Wonho- why don’t you go?” Shownu chooses for them to lessen their guilt.

 

“Are you sure you’ll be ok?” They ask, and suddenly Kihyun is the point of authority.

 

“I’m not going to die in the hour you’re gone. We’ll meet you back at the hotel once the final scans come back.” Hyungwon nods, but his thin lips pursed in a displeased straight line and he looks like he wants to object. Wonho has the opposite expression, looking like he’s in turmoil.

 

“Minhyuk, Jooheon- could you pick up some food? Usually staff leaves instructions and recommendations, but I haven’t seen them yet.”

 

“We’re on it.” They say, almost like they’re some sort of secret agent group, Mission Impossible theme included.  

 

“Thank you, guys. You’re the best.”

 

 The members file out of the room, leaving the main vocalist and the leader alone, in silence, an aggressively loud mechanical clock ticking away.

 

“Are you tired?”

 

“A little,” Kihyun shrugs, “why?”

 

“Just wanna make sure you’re ok.” Shownu leans over to give his boyfriend a kiss on the cheek.

 

“Why don’t you sit with me?”

 

“It’s ok, I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

He refrains from pouting- he’s a fully grown man but damn, does he want some love from his Jagi right now. “For the last time, I’m not going to break if you touch me. It’s not like you’ll be sitting on my lap. Now get your cute butt down here.”

 

Shownu’s lips come together in an ‘oh’. His brain must be roasty-toasty, why hadn’t thought of that? Yes, of course, such a smart boyfriend. (His heart is doing Fluttery Things because Kihyun called his butt cute but that’s beside the point! He has a wonderful, amazing, stupidly stubborn boy to take care of!!!)

 

“I only have my phone- I can ask the others to grab my laptop on their way back-“

 

“This is fine, don’t worry yourself over it. I’m sure we won’t be here for that much longer.”

 

The YouTube suggested feed is half food shows and half nature documentaries (can you guess whose is whose?) with a few true crime clips and game walkthroughs sprinkled in. Kihyun’s beautiful fingers flick across the screen until he passes one that he likes, scrolls down to see if there’s anything better, then flies back up to click on a video of a woman in Vietnam picking vegetables out of a forest-like garden. The loading bar circles around and around and around, and it looks like this might take a while, better get settled, but even so, Shownu wouldn’t mind waiting as long as Kihyun’s fingers stay intertwined with his.

 

**

 

He has no idea where this lady learned such mouthwatering yet simple recipes, but if she published a book, Kihyun would strongly consider buying it. He would for sure have neck pains from looking up at the vast expanse of sky watching over the fields and ponds this woman found ingredients in. A hand waves around vaguely until it finds the body next to him.

 

“Babe, could you-“ Shownu reaches with his free arm to grab a pack of crackers off of the small coffee table where a nurse had so generously dropped off a basket of treats. He opens his mouth to ask for something, his water, his mouth will get dry and gross if he doesn’t take swigs in between, and it’s presented to him before he can get the request out.

 

“You must be a mind reader. What a catch of a boyfriend I have, huh?” His neck cranes to snuggle in a semi-obnoxious way.

 

“Not that there was anyone to compare me to.” Shownu nudges him back lightly, Kihyun laughing in return and giving him a peck on the cheek, and waits for the rebuttal.

…and waits for the rebuttal.

And waits….but… that wasn’t a ‘no’. That wasn’t anything. Shownu twists to see eye to eye with his boyfriend. “There was someone before me?”

 

A hand rubs the back of his head as his tries to think of a way to dodge the question, but this isn’t something Shownu will let go of so easily, not when it wasn’t even a consideration a few seconds ago.

“There was- It wasn’t- You’re the first real boyfriend I’ve had. In the past… it wasn’t anything, but there was someone I met, a long time ago…”

 

*

 

**

 

***

 

****

 

*****

 

******

 

*******

 

******

 

*****

 

****

 

***

 

**

 

*

 

Kihyun watches the buildings roll past with one hand holding onto the railing, one hand holding onto the strap of his backpack. His supreme skills of procrastination have landed him in this position more times than he’d like to admit, his homework is due at 11:59pm, the clock currently reading—one two three four five six and twelve minus three numbers—5:45. That’s ok though- he’s done more with less. The local café that serves as the town’s go-to study spot and source of mocha-flavored death doesn’t close until 10, which gives him enough time to get most if not all of his assignment done.

He’s got this!

Eye of the tiger!!

Sometimes you’re the dumptruck and sometimes you’re trash, and Kihyun is definitely going to be the dumptruck today. He’s ready to fight the sun, he’s--

 

“Main street, next stop!”

 

The noise startles him out of his limbo state- the one where he can see and hear the activity surrounding him but is halfway to dreamland. He sighs.

 

….he was ready to fight the sun, but the sky is turning different shades of pink and purple and he’s in desperate need of something with a minimum of three shots of espresso. At this rate he’s going to have a heart attack, and honestly that doesn’t sound so bad- at least then, Mr. Choi can’t point-deduct the soul out of him.

 

The man who drives the public bus tips his hat as he gets off, acknowledging his existence with the same stone face he’s worn since the days Kihyun rode the bus with his mother holding his tiny hand. He hasn’t grown too much since then (shout out to the Height Gods, if one of them could grant him a few more inches to get him to 5’10, that would be nifty), but now he does the trip on his own and his chubby cheeks have been replaced with a scowl scary enough to stop most people from approaching him. Kihyun steps over the familiar divot in the walkway and asks for a large cold brew and some biscotti, please, all in one breath in order to snag his favorite seat before anyone else can place their bag there. Competition is fierce- there are other kids with the same barely-developed sense of time management coming in now. Settling into the booth, his notes are all out and annotated, his laptop is loading up, and the waitress is calling out his order and practically throwing biscotti at him so she can take care of the growing line forming at the counter.

Kihyun opens up the familiar word document that’s been the bane of his existence for the past week and a half, plugs his headphones in, and gets to work.

 

**

 

Kihyun slams the lid of his laptop closed on his hand, checks to make sure no one saw the coordination error that totally didn’t happen (Psssht what? Are you crazy?) and stretches out. His butt is starting to hurt from sitting too long, but he’s defeated the beast that is his Art History paper and he doesn’t care anymore- it’s finished. It’s over. If he has to do any more in-line citations, he’s gonna puke. The bell jingles on his way out, announcing his freedom to the world.

 

“Finally!”

 

He checks his watch again (9:42, not a moment too soon!) and calls his mother to let her know that he’s on his way home, see you soon, love you. His arm reaches around to slip his phone into his back pocket, where it’ll be safe when he starts powerwalking, oh god, right this instant to catch the 9:45 bus and beat the impending rainstorm he can hear coming down from across the bridge.

 

 

Phtoom…

 

Kihyun starts running.  

 

Like a cruel twist of fate, he makes it to the bus stop early enough to avoid the pouring rain but not early enough to catch the bus. In fact, he ends up there just in time to feebly reach out with one limp hand at the vehicle clanking away down the street like the fool in a sitcom.

Well… he thinks, plopping himself down on the cold metal bench, At least I saw the magic wheelchair man…

It’s a game that he likes playing with himself, usually when he’s in a better mood but he might as well try to find a positive before he goes into his usual pessimism, where he tries to find a certain man downtown, one who wears bright colors and rides in a heavily decorated motorized wheelchair. If he crosses paths with him, it’s a sign that it’ll be a good day. One time, Kihyun crossed paths with him twice in one trip and he almost burst a vein in excitement.

But he can’t see how this could be a good day- there’s a ringing in his ears from the lazy rainclouds sending down what feels like an entire ocean’s worth of water into Goyang, flooding the streets and forcing him into a squat position in the spot where he had warmed the bench. He watches a few cars pass but it looks like most people have the common sense to stay indoors while the lightning streaks past the dummies like him who decided that they’d be fine to—

 

 

PHTOOOOOOM!!!

Goddammit, where was the bus? It’s been---- Got here at 9:46…. 10:10…- almost 30 minutes and he’s ready to call it quits and ask his mother to drive the entire 30 minutes across town to get him even though she’s had a long day at work and it’s the middle of the night and he can barely see the sidewalk, much less the lines on the road which means she definitely wouldn’t be able to see them and would probably get hurt—

 

“FUCK!”

 

He sulks like a child with his forehead resting on his forearms. This sucks, he just wants to go home. All this trouble for school…. Auditions for the big companies is next month and he needs to make sure he’s ready. The numerous friends he’s roped into listening to him practice have told him that he doesn’t need to worry because with a golden voice like his, he’s a shoo-in for sure, but that doesn’t help quell the anxiety that bubbles up every time he thinks about a panel of judges scrutinizing every microscopic little detail. He can hear his heart pound, pound, pounding against pavement-

 

“Oh man, this is crazy, huh?” A voice laughs. Kihyun lifts his head off his palm just enough to speak.

 

There’s a boy his age standing on the other side of the bench completely drenched. His uniform hangs off his thin body in soggy lumps, but he probably can’t tell the difference since all of him is equally wet. He has a wide grin on his face, one that disappears briefly so he can spit out the water streaming down his face.

 

“You could say that.” 

 

Kihyun watches in bemusement as the boy tries to ring out the water with limited success, and even though he’s the one with a perfectly good reason to be upset, he seems to notice Kihyun’s lack of enthusiasm instead. “Rough night?”

 

“Busy, that’s all.” He says, nonchalant. The boy has evolved into a barefoot hooligan to pour at least a cup of water out of each sneaker. He’s pretty cute, all things considering (even though Kihyun would never admit it because he is a guy’s guy and that’s not something that they do). The boy rubs his eyes so he can see better. The wide-rimmed circular glasses mounted on his face fog up, are wiped clean, and fog up again.

 

“School stuff?” He asks with a lopsided grin, already knowing that the answer is ‘yes’ by Kihyun’s indignant groan, “What class?”

 

“It’s an art class, just another GenEd to sit through.” He shrugs. The boom of thunder sounds again, as though to mock him, and this must have been the wrong thing to say since it seems to animate the other boy, who throws his hands up with such force that droplets fly off him.

 

“You don't like it?” The boy says, looking genuinely confused, which only serves to confuse Kihyun.

 

"No...? Do you.....?"

 

“There’s such a variety of mediums in art, and so many messages! Each form fits its user, it’s incredible!”

 

“Ok, I get what you mean with the mediums, but not everything has a meaning. Sometimes it exists only for itself." 

 

"True, but is that a bad thing?"

 

"No, I was just... making a point." 

 

“Ok but have you ever heard of-“ He says, and all of a sudden he’s locked into a full-blown 120mps rant on Sottobosco painting, and Kihyun doesn’t know anything about it but painting the ground doesn't seem like a groundbreaking achievement, that wasn't even what his paper was about, he didn’t even volunteer to have this conversation. But by the way the other boy is so impassioned, he actually finds it, dare he say, interesting. He feels comfortable with this kind of banter; this kind of challenge. It’s like he’s listening to an overgrown puppy on caffeine, which is already way more interesting than the complaining he and his friends do on a daily basis, and he finds himself nodding absent-mindedly as the bus finally finally pulls up to the stop after almost two hours of them sitting under the shelter.

 

“But the content isn't the point- we get so lost in the business of everyday life that it goes unnoticed. Imagine all the things we miss- these little details, these little lives that come and go without us even knowing.” He says while waiting for his ticket to beep on the bus’s machine. “And that's only one form of expression! I’ve always wanted to go to museums in America. There are so many! Maybe one day I’ll be able to.”

 

“Do you want to be an artist?” Kihyun asks.

 

“Nah, it’s not for me. I like solving problems. I want to work on space things. Like sending out telescopes and repairing space stations.”

 

“That sounds…. Difficult.”

 

“It is, but there’s so much we don’t know about out there. It’s breathtaking, like a mystery. It’s the future, and there’s so much potential that we get to guide. There’s beauty in all things, even in the void. And even if I’m not there to see the planets across the galaxy with my own eyes, at least I’ll get to be part of it.” He tears his eyes away from the sky to ask, “What about you? Do you have any dreams?”

 

It takes a full minute of being frozen in place for Kihyun to respond.

How could he possibly respond to that?

Where did this person come from?

The feeling in his chest when the boy first came running under the bus shelter all out of breath is coming back twice as strong. He talks like he’s a child but he gives answers like he’s been around this world twenty times over.

Right, right, answers, Kihyun needs to give those. He shrinks away, sheepish. “I know it's kind of silly, but.... I want to be an idol.”

 

He waits for the 'ah, cool, cool' that always came with such declarations because being an idol was different from being a classic performer, one whose connotation carried more respect, but instead he's met with, “An idol? That's not silly at all! You'd be able to shape other people's perspectives by sharing your art. And it's something that you want to do? Like imagine yourself ten years from now, being an idol- does that make you happy?

 

Kihyun nods. 

 

"Then that's that! So you'd go as... as a singer, right?" 

 

“I’d be a vocalist. I’m auditioning next month, actually.”

 

“That’s so cool! Would---- “ He takes what Kihyun thinks but be his first one since they started this conversation. ”Sorry, you probably get this all the time. Could you sing for me?”

 

He doesn’t know what possesses him, but he feels the need to impress this boy, this stranger he’s known for less than a day. There are a million songs he could think of that are more impressive than the one he chooses to sing, but his audition has been on his mind and the notes are already in his throat so he lets them out. The boy’s mouth shoots open into a huge grin, which is quickly hidden by (admittedly elegant) hands and he listens without moving, entranced, fixated. The attention makes him second guess himself; maybe Kihyun’s singing skills aren’t as good as he thought they were and the boy thinks he’s decent at best (he usually hates being wrong but please please please let him be wrong about this).  But barely a quarter-beat passes between when he finishes as when there are hands all over him, squeezing his cheeks, gripping his shoulders, trying to convey the words that come out of him next.

 

“That was amazing, you're amazing. I was going to wish you good luck but I know you're going to do great at your audition.” He says, applauding.

 

“Thanks… I’m pretty nervous, but I’m not sure if I’ll actually become an idol or if I’ll go get a stable job like a normal person, but we’ll see.” A particularly nasty flashback of adults telling him to grow up sneers at him, but he pushes it away; it isn't important now. 

 

“Normal is relative,” the boy declares, “and if singing makes you happy, then you should do it. If you love your work, then it isn’t work, and that’s the best recipe for happiness.”

 

His mouth hangs open, bewildered, and Kihyun knows he looks dumb but he doesn’t care- someone said it. Those are the words he’s been telling himself, the ones he’s held onto for dear life when teachers and his relatives and god, his parents would look at him and say the equivalent of 'that's nice, sweetheart', patiently waiting for him to grow out of this silly phase and accept that he had to grow up, and growing up meant finding a desk job and a wife and a house and mortgage, but dreams were more than what they could see when they settled into bed at night, they were the constitution of beings, and every time he had brought his up they were dismissed over and over until he stopped talking about them at all.

It's been so long since he could open up like this.

He feels the weight come off of him, looking into the eyes of someone who barely knew him but somehow knew him better than most of his ‘close’ friends did. “Yes!!! Yes, exactly! That’s- that's what I've been saying for years. You're the first person who thinks the same way, no one else seems to agree." 

 

The boy raises one eyebrow, “What do they usually say?”

 

“Nothing. They look at me like I have three heads.”

 

“Well they shouldn’t. Everyone is so obsessed with their definition of success, but what does it matter if you’re miserable? Being happy shouldn’t be such a far-fetched concept. If your dream is to be an idol, then you should do it. You should be happy, no matter what. Promise me you’ll try?” he asks, holding up his pinky finger, which Kihyun takes, and at this point he’s 85% sure he’d try anything if the boy asked. He presses their thumbs together. “There- an unbreakable pact. You've promised me, and in return I promise to cheer you on from wherever I am once you debut." 

 

Debuting is a such a longshot that he can't even fathom what it would be like, but Kihyun imagines seeing his name shown on a birthday billboard or written into the column of a famous magazine, and God, he would make a terrible idol right off the bat- the first thing any of them do whether it’s on TV or a concert or fanmeet is go ‘HANA DEUL SET’ and say their name and he's hasn't done that, he’s an entire meatball. “Sorry, I completely forgot--- it’s rude of me not to introduce myself- I’m Kihyun. Nice to meet you.”

 

“The pleasure is mine.”

 

Hands shake and let go. There’s a silence between them, and Kihyun wonders if the implied ‘and yours?’ made it, or if the boy is hard of hearing, or if he hadn't said anything at all, or if he’s been thinking out loud this whole time like the true embarrassment he knew he could me.  

 

“... do I get to know your name?”

 

“There are more important things to know than names.” He answers with a knowing smile, and while Kihyun might not have enough common sense to time catching a bus, he does know that he won’t get anything more than that. The boy continues,“I know that you have a lovely singing voice and that you dislike art despite being an artist.”

 

 “I suppose that’s fair. I know you have a penchant for running in the rain.”

 

The other boy tilts his head back, and though he’s never been one to point out attractive body parts other than the conventional ones like legs and lips and eyes, the boy’s neck and his collarbones stand out under the moonlight and Kihyun feels like a whole new world of beauty has been revealed to him. 

 

“Speaking of which,” Kihyun starts, “Do you want to take that off? You can wear my sweater. I can’t imagine wet clothes and air conditioning makes for a comfortable combination.”

 

“Trying to get me out of my clothes already? Bold move, sir.” He watches Kihyun’s face turn the shade of ‘please God smite me’, unsure of what to do with himself in his disaster-gay state, until he follows up with, “I’m joking, don’t think too hard about it. But I will take you up on that offer for the sweater.”

 

“O-oh,” he stammers, “Absolutely, give, um—Give me a second…”

 

Getting the sweater up over his wide glasses and off of him is a struggle in such a small spot, but he manages to get it off without banging into the boy or hurting himself, which he’ll count as a victory. Kihyun shakes out the static from his hair so he can hand off the garmet without shocking him.

 

He peels off his jacket and his shirt, and he looks even smaller than he did when they’d first run into one another at the bus stop, the neat, dark scars on his body blurring with the dimmed yellow ceiling lights. The boy pops his arms through the sleeves of Kihyun’s sweater and holds himself in its warmth, warmer than one would expect from someone of his size.

 

“Thank you.” The ends of the sleeves bunch up so he can seal his hands inside.

 

“You are more than welcome.” Kihyun says, not minding the chill upon seeing how cute the boy looked wearing his clothes. 

 

"You're never getting this back, I hope you know that."

 

"That's ok. It'll be like a souvenir. You can frame it."

 

"Frame it and find a meaning?" he laughs. 

 

"Frame it and make your own meaning." Kihyun responds. 

 

Silence. 

 

Kihyun wonders if maybe he said too much, if maybe that was too cheesy, if the boy thinks he's especially dumb and doesn't want to talk to him anymore because with an intelligence like that, he probably knows people ten if not more times as interesting as he is. A thousand scenarios run through his mind, a few of them having the crash-and-burn-type ending, most of them neutral, and very few carrying a good ending because he's a natural-born dreamer struggling to hold onto the things he cared about but his father raised him as a skeptic so he could stop himself from finding new things to be disappointed in.

 

The boy smiles, and Kihyun feels his entire being halt. 

 

"Y'know..." The boy leans back against the rain-painted window, voice lowered, as though it were only him and Kihyun alone together in their own little pocket of space, "You're really something else...." 

 

He looks so soft, his eyes so bright, like he’s from somewhere far, far away from the toil of this world, and Kihyun wants to protect him and hear his truths and kiss him. It’s like he’s reading a book, and at the same time the book is reading him, and he’s never been one to believe in that fake sort of romance the movies portrayed as ‘love at first sight’ but he believes in grace and choice, and he believes that coincidences are simply fate wearing a disguise. He’s thinking too much, yet not enough and he leans in, committed, to kiss the boy in his sweater, messy and clumsy and honest as all first kisses were. The boy kisses back, and Kihyun can feel him smiling, and he can’t feel himself because he’s floating on moonlight and stardust.

 

“Masang-ro, next stop!”

 

The universe holds its breath when they break apart.

 

“That’s you.” He says, and Kihyun can only nod, the foreboding feeling creeping out of his gut like a thousand-legged insect and up into his throat. There isn't enough time, there's so much more to ask, it can’t end like this--

 

Can it?

 

“Will I see you again?” Kihyun whispers, as though that would convince the clock to stop, and the tone changes once more. 

 

“Maybe…. Maybe we’ll pass each other on a busy street. Maybe we’ll recognize each other. Maybe we won’t.” He says, clearing away the bangs from Kihyun’s face, “but you’ll always have tonight, and you can visit me here whenever you like.”

 

A hand rests on his cheek, Kihyun leaning in to soak in the feeling, to commit it to memory.

 

“But for now… you need to go, and I can’t stay.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You’ve got big things ahead of you. Things beyond this town. You’re going to go places, see things you could’ve only imagined in your dreams. You’ve got an entire world waiting for you.” And he stops, considering his next choice of words, “But that’s the beauty of it- you’ll remember me and you’ll smile, won’t you?”

 

“I will.” He promises. The bus turns down, and he can see his stop approaching in the distance like a bad omen. He’s never dreaded going home this much before in his life. “And you’ll remember me?”

 

“Of course I will- You’ll always be the boy with the golden voice who gave me his sweater, and I’ll be the boy who told you everything but his name. I don’t think I could ever forget you.”

 

The light at the front of the bus is blinking with the name of his street, and his body is moving forward because they’re slowing down, slowing to his stop. Kihyun rushes in one last time to kiss the boy in blue with bright eyes, like a gorgeous forget-me-not, and he revels in the way lips feel when they smile into him.

 

“Goodbye.” He says, his gaze lingering as the stone-faced driver waits for him to take the three steps off the walkway and out of the vehicle.

 

“Until next time.” He responds, of course with the same astral wisdom that shouldn’t surprise Kihyun but does anyway. He steps out onto the wet pavement, a light rain hitting him as he watches the boy's features become harder and harder to distinguish, until they’re turning off of his street and out of sight. The walk home occurs somewhere between his thoughts of space and the way he's going to audition, no matter what, but he doesn’t take notice of his surroundings, lulled but in a completely new way. He closes the front door behind him and slips off his shoes.

 

“Kihyunnie! Where have you been? Are you alright?” His mother touches his forehead, then brushes his hair back when she’s satisfied that he doesn’t feel fever-hot.

 

“Nothing. Just studying and missed the bus. Had to wait for few hours at the shelter.” He murmurs.

 

“It’s good that you’re back. It’s so dark, I was worried.” She goes back to whatever it was she was working on before he tumbled in. “How was your day? Long, I bet. You must be tired.”

  

“Long day, yeah. Just finished my paper.” He picks up his heavy load to trudge it upstairs. “I met-"

 

Kihyun stops. 

He thinks about the way that the boy looked as the bus carried him away, out of Kihyun’s life as though he had never been in it, like a stranger. He pushes down the thoughts. His mother can’t know, and maybe it’s a good thing that the boy didn’t tell him his name because if his mother knows then she’ll tell his father by proxy of never being able to keep anything from him, and then---

 

And then…..

 

"I saw the man in the wheelchair today.” he says, and that seems to be a good enough answer for her. 

 

“The reverse black cat?” He nods. “Did today turn out good like he predicts?”

 

Kihyun stops in his tracks, his breath escaping him. He feels the warmth of thin fingers against his cheek, the lingering taste of peaches on his tongue. He sees a boy in a bright blue sweater sitting beside him, and the vision is so vivid it feels like he could reach out and he would be there.

He feels his chest tightening, hardening, creating a space to tend to like a terrarium; the memory, its sole seed. No one can take that from him. No rules, no archaic religious beliefs…. He’ll be Kihyun’s best-kept secret, and Kihyun will be the wanderer who lost him self chasing after the stars in a boy's eyes.

 

“Yes, today was a good day.”

 

 

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Chapter Text

This is a rhetorical question, Shownu thinks as he approaches. They’ve been on the road for so long, going to so many interviews and broadcasts. Despite the monotony that being at home brought, they needed to rest. Wonho was already down for the count, and the rest of them weren’t too far behind. KIhyun, true to his word, has been resting as much as he can to not aggravate his own injury, but it isn’t enough to take a break here and there- he needs to sit down.

 

“Are you ok?”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s nothing—” Kihyun, still standing, reaffirms. He’s nearing the end of his stretching routine- give him another four or five minutes and he can sleep in peace- but getting to the end of that…. Might be a struggle. A shiver runs down his back; a consequence of the Herculean effort it took to keep himself from falling over. “I take that back, I’m gonna take a lap.”

 

One pointed finger circles around over his head like a referee rounding up players on a field. The soles of his shoes squeak against the floor when he drags his feet loosely behind him. Kihyun stumbles, then stops- a pause; a test.

 

“I take that back too, I’m gonna take a sit.”

 

The rest of the members are already gone, following along with their staggered schedules to ensure the stylists and staffers have enough time to get each one ready. Kihyun had insisted that Shownu go too (he’s just as busy as the others) and he’s glad that he ignored the request.

 

Kihyun leans over put both hands on the floor like he’s doing a bad version of the Downward Dog. As uncomfortable and hard it might be, the wooden floor looked like a great place to take a nap. He’s so tired, he just needs to rest, couldn’t he just go to sleep for a minute?

 

He feels his eyes closing, his vision blurring out of focus. Shownu is yelling something, but there’s a ringing in his ears which makes him unsure if that’s actually Shownu calling, and if he’s calling for Kihyun. His body is at some angle that isn’t 90 degrees, tilting away from standing position.

Kihyun’s lost consciousness by the time he hits the floor.

 

**

 

He’s right- he’s always right. Kihyun needed to rest and get back to full health before he tried pushing himself the way he was now. He needed to do a number of things like eat and drink water and sleep, but those were tasks, in his mind, that could wait until later. They ranked 2, 3, and 4, respectively, on his list of ‘Things that need to get done at some point in the near future’, right behind practices and lessons. Those ranks usually shifted (and by shifted he means those ranks plummeted to the bottom of his list) during comeback preparation, when they were filming their music videos and doing photoshoots for their albums and going through their setlist.

But it’s not like he was doing it on purpose!

He just…. Didn’t find the time to take care of himself.

… like an idiot….

 

Shownu is holding him the same way Romeo held Juliet when he found her at the crypt, but that’s a bad analogy because things in that play went from bad to really bad in just a few scenes, and he’d rather not do that if possible.

 

“How long was I out for?”

 

“Not long, maybe an hour.”

“Where are we?”

 

“At the hotel.”

 

“Did you carry me?”

 

Shownu nods, and suddenly his body feels like it’s sinking.

This is not what he wanted to do today. Or any day, really. He’s supposed to be stronger than this. He told Shownu he was stronger than this. There was so much more that needed to be done, he didn’t have time for this.

His bottom lashes grow heavy as guilty tears begin to pool there.

 

“It’s funny,” an arm throws itself over his face to hide it, “I can take care of an entire household but I can’t take care of myself.”

 

“You could,” Shownu says pointedly. “you just don’t.”

 

He grabs a bottle of water, cap already untwisted and retwisted for Kihyun’s convenience, from beside him. It’s like he’s thought of everything because he knew someone would need this eventually, so he might as well be prepared. Shownu doesn’t bat an eye as he checks Kihyun over for any serious injuries sustained in his impromptu meeting with the floor. That was the trait of a good leader- being able to keep calm under pressure.

 

“I’m sorry.” He says right after he fights down the urge to start fully crying, “You shouldn’t have to do this. I should be the one taking care of you. I’m your caretaker. That’s my job. You shouldn’t have to do this.” 

 

“You may be my caretaker, but I’m still your leader.” Kihyun isn’t strong enough to fight against the hand Shownu has on his forehead, forcing him to rest his head on his lap. “And besides- you’re better than the last one.”

 

Kihyun makes a confused noise and tries to get up but to no avail- Shownu’s hold is too strong and all he can do is listen and oh my god it’s happening this is not a drill it’s happening.

 

“I am?” he says, leaving the ball in Shownu’s court.

 

“Yeah…… I didn’t tell you about him. ” A pained smile flashes across his lips, eyes glassed over to visit a place of the past. “His name was Haeil. It was a long time ago…”

 

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Taking care of other people hadn’t come naturally to him, but being helpful and being good did, and somewhere along the way those qualities crossed paths and never unwound from one another. Being helpful meant taking care of the house while he was home alone. Being good meant enduring, quietly, in the face of life’s curveballs so he didn’t worry his parents. Taking care of other people meant being mature, and his mother called him that while she patted his head and used that same tone of voice she did when she was proud of him, and she was proud of him when he was Good and Helpful, so being mature wasn’t a bad thing.

 

It was tough being mature at 10.

It was tougher being lonely at 17.

 

It was the habit of loneliness to want to do everything in one’s power to be needed; to be useful. Far beyond the limitations of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, there were the things people wanted and the things people needed, and rarely did those come without a price. The only exception to this was when fate grew bored and amused itself by playing with mortal lives, throwing necessary tools one’s way long before their purpose was realized, and often these tools were discarded before this point. It was the habit of Son Hyunwoo to keep to himself for the most part and to give when spoken too. It was this sole quality, he supposed, that kept him in good favor with his friends, and he was grateful to have those, or at least to have people who vaguely knew his preferences and his interests and could say them in tones with three question marks at the end if they were so pressed to do so, which they never were because no one asked about him. It was as though no one saw him at all.

 

 The only people who saw him were his mother and father, briefly, a few times a month around their 10+ hour shifts at the hospital and in the EMS truck, respectively, which made things quiet around his little apartment but it was only for the best, so he decided it wasn’t worth being troublesome to ask for anything more. It was selfish to want his parent’s attention when they were already working so much so he could live in this district and attend that special performance school. If they were willing to do that, then the least he could do is bear a little dicomfort. His father would grab his shoulders the second he opened the door to look him up and down, as though there would be some monumental change that occurred between the days they hadn’t seen or spoken to one another. And his mother would reach up to hug him, and she would pat his head and tell him that he was growing up so quickly and that she was proud of him in the same way she had when his cheeks still had baby fat and he’d been missing his two front teeth. He would swallow the sentences he had so meticulously woven together to show his uncertainty in favor of saying ‘thank you’. He was one of the fortunate ones- that’s what his classmates told him. And for a little while, that was enough.

 

**

 

The peculiar trait of wanting to please everyone was its subtlety; its flawless integration in to one’s personality which made them ‘them’ yet no one at all. He could have best described it as being lost, if anyone had asked, but no one did since he himself was like a visitor waiting to return to the place he belonged and no one seemed to notice him until they wanted something from him or needed him to do something or had a question or any number of things. It seemed like he was a good person to turn to in crisis because he always stayed calm, but truthfully it felt like everything was a crisis, which meant nothing was, and he had become an expert at handling these disasters. But that was ok, to be the one everyone turned to for help. He was needed. He was reliable and he delivered good results, as others put it.

And that’s probably how he got onto the swim team, now that he thinks about it.

The only thing he knew how to do was keep his head down and his focus straight ahead, and that seemed to be what made him a gifted athlete. He wasn’t a water creature by nature- his build was better suited for American football, or maybe European football, and his passion was for dance- but the jolt of coldness enveloping his whole body and the echo of the pool room after hours were more favorable options, and his mother was worried, as all mothers were, about her Beloved being isolated. The last thing he wanted was to worry her, especially when he knew that she would sit on the feeling until she could come to check on him with her own eyes. He can hear his father’s concern even with the rushed radio chatter going on in the background.

 

“And you’re sure you’re ok? We’ll be up there next week, I’m sure we could figure something out.” He says, but now the muffled sound of the ambulance siren is taking up most of the space between them.

 

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Tell mom not to worry either. I’ll call her once she gets out.”

 

He pauses, sighs. That’s not the answer he’s looking for but it sounds like they’re nearing the site of the incident and he needs to be focused, so he tells his son ok, take care of yourself, and that they’ll talk about this later, love you.

 

Hyunwoo says a quiet ‘love you too’ to the lit-up screen of his phone’s homepage.

 

It wasn’t an issue for him if his parents needed to tend to more important matters. He wasn’t greedy- his morality insisted upon never begging. And besides- he didn’t need to have everything. He had school and swimming and a whole team of people he could be around every day to add some color to his life, and somehow those last two things brought with them attention and admiration from the other kids in his class. There were many words people used to describe him, like ‘big’ and ‘muscular’ and ‘hot’ and a ‘bear’, which he didn’t mind too much, not really. He would have liked to be pointed out for his swim tactics or his perseverance or any number of things that people could talk about with the same proficiency had they been blind, but if that kind of person was the one his peers needed, then he was glad to be that. They saw something in him, some quality that made others find comfort in him, and maybe that’s where it all started.

 

The number at the top of his screen read ‘unknown’ and his father taught him that if it was important, then whoever it was would leave a voicemail.

And they did.

At first… he wasn’t sure what to make of it. The first few minutes consisted of rambling justification, how they’d heard about Hyunwoo, about how they’d heard of his apparently legendary skills in the ‘friendly’ and ‘caring’ department, but it took a full ten minutes to go through the last four minutes since he was pressing rewind to make sense of the message. This person was a what? What was a Little? And what did Hyunwoo have to do with that?

But a friend (?) in need was a friend (??) indeed, so he texted back telling the stranger not to be embarrassed, and that it was perfectly ok for them to talk since he wasn’t the kind of person to tell others’ secrets, and the only thing he would get from the rest of school seeing this conversation was proof that he was a moderately decent human willing to help even when they didn’t know what was going on, and oh yeah, by the way, what in the world was going on?

 

Could we meet? The number asks, and it’s odd because this is one person in a long chain of friends knowing friends knowing friends, only two of whom he actually recognized the names of, and it sounds like a trap, but honestly what could possibly go wrong?

Many things, he imagines, and a nerve-rackingly high statistical probability of death. But then again, a spontaneous horror movie plot seemed unlikely for someone sitting at the window table in a pastel café eating a slice of cake. It was the stranger’s idea to have them meet first in public so if anything, he could blame them for the disaster that this was likely going to be. A coat falls over the back of the chair across from him; a cool charcoal grey which Hyunwoo was sure he’d seen on a model in the window of some flagship store.

 

“Good afternoon, it’s nice to meet you.” he says, and Hyunwoo briefly wonders if it would be possible to evolve into someone as effortlessly sophisticated as him once he exited Ugly Duckling stage. “I’m Haeil.”

 

“Hyunwoo.” He says, flustered.

All he did was say hello and now I’m the mess? Aish, pull yourself together!

He fidgets around to find a position that doesn’t put him at risk of supremely embarrassing himself, and the stranger- don’t call him that, he has a name- sits down with his Americano.

 

“So,” he says, taking a long sip from his mug, “how long have you been dropping?”

 

Hyunwoo freezes, unsure of how to answer since that word has a few meanings in his vocabulary, but none of them apply to this situation. “How long have I what?”

 

“Into headspace.” He clarifies, a little quieter.

 

“I- I’m not really sure what that means, I just got a text and agreed to meet here. I thought you---”

 

“OH!” Haeil says, and it looks like a lightbulb went off in his head, which is good because Hyunwoo is lost in space. “Really? I’m a Caregiver, you must be one too.”

 

The chuckle for a full awkward minute before the conversation goes stale. What is he supposed to say? They don’t know each other, he didn’t even know this was a three-person affair. Was it only three? The silence is so painful that Hyunwoo briefly considers running right then and there and pretending like this was all some sort of terrible dream.

 

“Hi, sorry I’m late! I wasn’t sure if you guys would show up at all.”

 

There’s a boy his age in a soft yellow sweater pulling over a chair, screeching, to sit between them. “I was thinking we could get to know one another in the meantime and then go somewhere more private to talk about…. Y’know….?” He trails off, but they know where he’s going. “I ordered a match latte. Is there anything you guys want?”

 

“A name would be nice.”

 

“Right right right, of course.”

 

His name is Chan, nice to meet you, and he goes to one of the neighboring schools. He’s in the same grade as Hyunwoo and he’s planning to go to SKY University once they graduate in June. Chan doesn’t seem too be a serial killer, which is fantastic because Hyunwoo is definitely ok helping out. He has time around his activities, he says, rattled off quickly so that the two think that there’s more to his life than what he’s telling them even though there isn’t. Haeil is only a few months older but already midway through his first year at the local college. He has most evenings free because higher education is great with the way it lets students pick which times they want to suffer, and he prefers to do so in the morning all at once. Haeil wants to go into public relations, which Hyunwoo doesn’t know an inkling about, but he stores that away as a conversation revitalizer for later.

 

Seeing that Haeil is done, Chan downs the rest of his drink in one go and tells them about a park he knows, it’s right around the corner, they can carry on the conversation and get to the core of the discussion there. Hyunwoo pushes his chair in (being respectful and having good manners could never be a bad thing, his father had said) and lets Haeil walk with a clip…. clip clip….. clip clip…. clip clip ahead of him.

He frowns at the limp, wordlessly asking what was wrong, and if it was serious.

“Got it from a skiing accident.” Haeil says, as though it’s common knowledge and Hyunwoo has been living under a rock for years, which wouldn’t be too far off since he doesn’t hear about any of the drama that goes on at his school until weeks if not months later. It doesn’t come up again- there are more important matters to take care of.

 

Chan does his best to explain, but Hyunwoo knows before they part for the evening that he’s going to have to do some research on his own when he gets back home. The four walls around him echo the sound of documentaries and Wikipedia pages being read aloud by his laptop’s text-to-speech option. He’s got four days until their scheduled first meeting, which will be a Chan’s house.

 

He’s nervous, admittedly, the first time he slips off his shoes and steps onto the dark wooden floors juxtaposed beautifully against spotless white walls. It’s minimalist, and all his possessions seem to have their own space. Wouldn’t his parents be mad with all of them there? Chan tells him to relax- his grandparents are his parents, and they live in a place where no one goes except for on holidays or birthdays or for funerals.

 

Hyunwoo sets down his backpack, then paces around, unsure of where to sit.

 

“You just need to make sure I don’t get hurt and then put me to bed at the end. It isn’t anything strenuous, I promise,” He says, settling into the couch and turning on the TV, “When I’m in headspace I’m old enough to use the bathroom and drink out of a regular cup. Your role here is to make sure that I don’t feel stressed, that’s the whole point of this.”

 

“How do we do that last part?” Haeil asks, placing himself in the space offered to him.

 

“By, like…. Normal stuff you do with kids to calm them down. I don’t really know… my old Caregiver used to sing to me.”

 

“Are you going to drop now?”

 

“It takes me some time to get into headspace. You’ll know when I’m there. I get clingy and a bit more pouty.” He says, and it sounds like the only way he’s going to truly understand what Chan is like when he’s Little is by seeing it so he shuts his mouth and waits.  

 

When the first episode of The Magic Schoolbus ends, Hyunwoo checks the bundle of blankets next to him.

 

“How are you doing?”

 

“Mmmm…. ‘m okay.” He says, but he sounds much sleepier, must softer. Haeil peels back the hood of the oversized sweater to see a rosy-cheeked Chan.

 

“That’s good… baby boy…?” He waits to see the reaction the pet name begets, and when Chan goes nose-diving into the bulk of Hyunwoo’s body, he continues. “What do you want to do? Do you want to keep watching cartoons?”

 

“Mmmmmm….. like ‘toons….” He nods, and he looks so cute and small that Haeil coos.

 

“Toons it is.”

 

The rest of the evening carries on the same way, periodically asking Chan how he was doing, then asking what he wanted to do. They drew together on a spare notebook Haeil had in his bag using some crayons Hyunwoo found stashed away in the box where all the Little things were until said Little’s lines started looking less like lines and more like scribbles as he faded in and out of sleep. Together, the two Caregivers manage to get him to the bathroom and motivate him to brush his teeth. They settle him into bed and give him two kisses each, then go back to the living room to clean up. The clock reads 10:07 and it’s just him and Haeil working together. Hyunwoo tries not to be biased, but from where he stands it’s like they can tell what the other is thinking without saying a word.

That kind of synergy, that coexistence….

Hyunwoo was always used to tethering himself to different people, different crushes, different role models to look up to so that he had some form of direction, but this is different.

He tries not to let his mind wander too far, but it almost feels like they’re part of his little family. Like he walked into this world of theirs and found himself home instead of having to make his surroundings his home. It’s like he’s playing the role of his father and Haeil is playing the role of his mother and Chan is him, but this removed version of him has love and attention and could have the world if he so asked for it.

He feels like he belongs.

It’s wonderful.

 

**

 

Really, it starts out wonderful. 

And he isn’t entirely sure when it stopped being that way.

But he has a hunch.

 

Four months into the Caregiving, he feels it. It hadn’t started as anything, truthfully. Just a coloring book here, an episode or two of cartoons left on in the background while he did the dishes, normal things that normal people did, because he was normal and that was safe. He hadn’t noticed any definite change, no grand announcement. No, he had sat one day with his friends, lost in space, accidentally staring at another person’s lap, thinking ‘I could sit there’. It had scared him for a moment, to be fixated like that. Hyunwoo managed to shake off the feeling before anyone could notice what was going on, but the thought came creeping back when he laid in bed that night, replaying the scene, thoughts much louder in the radio silence.

Was this what Chan felt each time he needed to drop?

 

If so….

He sees the appeal. There’s a wave of comfort, like a sigh of relief that comes whenever he settles in for the night with his fuzzy blankets and his plushies. The soft warmth envelops him and it’s like he’s being transported to another world, like he’s safe wrapped up in his little bundle.

 

He’s an honest person- it was too much work to keep track of who was told which falsehoods. But it takes him a while to be honest. Hyunwoo can see the gears in Haeil’s head spinning as he does the mental math of how much work and coordination it would be to flip the proportions and have two Little’s to one Caregiver. Chan, on the other hand, is so so so excited. Before he knows it, the Little box has been turned inside out and Hyunwoo finds himself dangerously close to some ledge that he didn’t know he had, one that has a chasm below that contains everything unknown.

 

And Chan helps him jump into that chasm.

Haeil is left looking after both of them at the same time, and he looks like he’s aged about ten years once the both of them are Big again, but he says that it’s ok for him to take care of two as long as they promise not to both be Little at the same time, the strain would probably give him an aneurysm, haha, and they promise to stay separate. Haeil loops around him and boops his nose even though he's fully aware that Hyunwoo isn't Little anymore, and he feels excited, like maybe Haeil thinks he's special, and that despite this new development, they haven't lost anything from their previous relationship.

 

Hyunwoo beams back at him, grateful to have someone willing to help him relax.

Littlespace, he finds, fills in the gaps of his own security perfectly.

And there was no turning back after that.

 

**

 

The bottom lock clicks a few times before it finally opens. There’s something wrong with it- it’s too loose, probably- but it isn’t worth the effort of calling up someone to change it when he won’t be sticking around long anyway. This apartment is only a temporary fix until he can go off to college or get accepted into an idol program. Even though it gets lonely sometimes and even though he struggles to pull himself out of bed to go to his class at 8:00, he’s eternally grateful to have this opportunity. So every morning he spends a few minutes staring out the window before throwing on his uniform and walking out the door. Most days he gets there at 8:02 or 8:05, but at least he’s still attending, and that’s enough for him.

His Littlespace is waiting for him when he gets back.

As long as he has the relief of dropping, he can get through school.

The tab on the bottom lock finally switches from vertical to horizontal, and in walks Haeil.

 

“You’re back!” He shrieks, his Caretaker now with an armful of happy Little.

 

“I am, peanut, how has your day been? Let appa put his things down and we’ll sit on the couch, ok?”

 

Hyunwoo runs over to dive onto the cushions, sitting cross legged, bouncing one knee while he waits for the boy to remove his satchel and coat. He loves his Caregiver so much, he’s such a great person. Haeil was one of those people who just enjoyed being a parent in every aspect. Even the crying parts. Even the constant watchfulness. Even the brattiness. Hyunwoo has never been any of those- he loves being good. He loves being told how good he is. It’s tough, trying to dance and try out for companies. He’s got his eye on JYP and it’s eating at his insides the closer audition day comes, but Haeil was always there with the right words and the right gentle gestures to help coax Hyunwoo out of the big, scary world and into Littlespace.

 

“What does my baby boy want to do today?” He asks, and now they’re staging a battle between the dinosaur plushies and the jungle animal ones.

 

They enjoyed playtimes together every other day, each one ending in Hyunwoo being put to sleep and waking up the next morning to a treat in the fridge and a sticky note. There had never been a time when he felt like he caretaker was taking advantage of him or pushing him in a direction he wanted to go. If there were a more perfect situation, he would’ve liked to see someone try. 

 

**

 

It’s about half a year in when Haeil stops coming by as often. That’s alright though. It's not like he can expect him to drop everything all the time for him, he has his own life, one that he keeps private, plus he’s usually at Chan’s on the day he isn’t meeting up with Hyunwoo. He needs a break, it’s completely understandable, Haeil doesn’t have to feel bad about being human when he’s doing so much for them already. He still comes by, but now once a week or maybe twice, but things are more or less the same.  When he finally comes back, he brings treats and tells him he’s sorry, that school and applications have gotten hectic and that it’s been eating up more and more of his time. Hyunwoo tells him it’s ok. He’s been swimming with his friends more often now, a stress-reliever for when he can’t drop, so it’s ok if Haeil isn’t there all the time. He leads his appa over to the couch, climbing up to---

 

“Ow, ow, honey, you gotta get off.” The muscles underneath him tense as they counter the weight- his weight- sinking into the couch. Looking over, he can see Haeil’s panicked face, hands scrambling to push him off his lap and onto the other cushion. “I’m sorry, Woobear, but I think you’re going to have to sit here from now on. But it’s ok, appa’s right here, you can lay on appa.” 

 

Hyunwoo moves between his caregiver’s legs, crawling up so they’re stomach to stomach. It feels nice, having his ear next to a heartbeat. Not as nice as being able to sit on someone’s lap and be cuddled, but it’s still nice. He doesn’t automatically receive love- he isn’t cute like Chan- which means he has to earn it by being a good Baby for his Appa, and he can do that.

 

They cuddle as the remake of The Little Prince plays on Netflix. Hyunwoo wakes up in his own bed feeling not as refreshed as usual but still better than if he were to have stayed Big. There’s a note on the fridge with a smiley bear face and a snack from the 24-hour store on the corner waiting for him in the cabinet.

 

There’s nothing to worry about. Even if things have changed, he still has his Caregiver, and he can still drop, and it isn’t the end of the world if they have to make some tweaks in their relationship.

 

This is fine.

 

 

**

 

It’s very dark, darker than usual, and his little nightlight seems so far away and so dim that it makes him terrified to even move an inch. He woke up from the sound of the people next door doing what sounded like advanced arts and crafts, complete with drills and saws and hammering even thought it’s 1-2-3 o’clock in the morning. It’s late- even with his most essential Little thoughts, he knows that it’s nighttime and that people are sleeping, including his Appa.

He stills.

Hyunwoo is all alone without his Appa to take care of him and comfort him and protect him from all the big scary things outside. What if someone came to snatch him up in the middle of the night? What if there was a monster waiting for him outside? The thoughts terrify him, and he doesn’t move an inch, because it feels like if he even peeks outside of his blanket, there will be a face from his nightmares staring back at him. It’s so hot underneath the covers, but he doesn’t dare to take them off until he sees the first lights of the day brightening the other side, signifying that he’s safe, and he relaxes enough to drift off to sleep.

 

It’s a Saturday, thank goodness, so sleeping in doesn’t matter. He still has a few hours before going to his weekend dance group.

 

I woke up Little he texts, tossing his phone only to scramble after it a second later when it dings with a notification.

 

Shit

But you’re Big now?

Are you ok?

 

Hyunwoo stares at his phone.

He vaguely remembers it, but it feels like a dream. He knows it was bad but he can’t tell how bad, so it can’t be awful, can it?

 

Yeah, I’m fine

It was startling

Don’t worry about it

 

The typing dots appear and disappear over and over again over the five minutes it takes for Haeil to respond. He doesn’t like Hyunwoo’s answer, it concerns him, but he says he can figure out a way to stay over sometimes to make sure he doesn’t wake up alone and Little.

 

But Hyunwoo has always been helpful, which means not burdening other people with his own troubles when they have enough of their own, so he says no, it’s ok, he doesn’t have to and leaves the ball in Haeil’s court. Haeil doesn’t insist otherwise because sometimes tired people did what was easy rather than what was morally right, and he was exhausted. 

 

 

**

 

He and Haeil talk over the phone a few days later. He wasn’t expecting it, standing in the middle of the hallway, all other students either going home or going anywhere that wasn’t the school. Hyunwoo doesn’t move from his spot for the entire three minutes, gym bag in hand. 

 

“I’m sorry, Woobear.”

 

“It’s ok. Will I see you tomorrow?” 

 

“I’m not sure… I’m really busy.”

 

He opens his mouth but decides that he shouldn’t push his luck, he should be thankful for the things he has. “It’s ok. I’ll see you soon?”

 

“Definitely. Take care, little one.” 

 

He lets Haeil end the call. They still text, and yeah, it's nice, and Hyunwoo's heart still jumps when he sees the familiar orange icon bubble next to the text notification, but it disheartens him. It doesn’t feel real when he shuts off his phone. His teammates ask if he’s sick, and truthfully he isn’t. Hyunwoo jumps in the pool and does his warmups. The coach gives him a hard look when his 200m time is 10 seconds slower than usual, but doesn’t say anything. His teammates wish him good night, take care, see you tomorrow. 

 

When he lays down, things don’t feel quite right, but he supposes that he’ll be ok. 

 

**

 

Hyunwoo checks himself over for the fourth time in the door mirror he’s leaned up against the wall in his kitchen, the one he bought two hours ago expressly for this purpose. It’s supposed to be a meet up to get dinner and maybe do some karaoke, but what does that mean? Can he go in sweatpants and a hoodie? Should he wear the singular business casual outfit he owns for when he does auditions? Should he go in jeans and a button-up? He doesn’t know these things- he doesn’t go out very often. He actually doesn’t do much of anything besides go to school, go to swim practice, do homework, and drop, conditions permitting. They’re meeting up at 7:00- Hyunwoo checks the watch that he’s been taking on and off according to what outfit he’s trying on- which means he has to get going within the next 10 minutes if he wants to make it here with time to spare.

 

“It looks ok….” He bites his lip, turning to check how the shoes matched with the belt, what kind of message he wanted to send. He suffered from a constant need to be liked by everyone at all hours of the day despite not doing much to interact with said ‘everyone’, but that would change tonight.

 

The possibility of this all being one big elaborate prank haunts him on the bus as he makes his way across town, but at the end of the block he can see a group of kids, thank goodness, gathering in a chattering mass.

 

“Ah! There you are!” Jinwoo, one of his swim teammates, says. He’s one of the few people who can wrap their arm around him, which he does so he can introduce him. The crowd seems to stop their racket for him, all turning to focus their attention on him, and by proxy, Hyunwoo.

 

His stomach drops.

 

The exact words were ‘going out to eat with Jaegyu and Eunji and some of their friends do you want to come’ which Hyunwoo realizes too little too late means that these people are part of the chain of friends-of-friends-of-friends that lead Chan to Hyunwoo, and that chain goes both ways.

And all the members of that godforsaken chain were assembled right here.

 

Jinwoo introduces him as ‘the guy who always beats me at the Butterfly like seriously guys he’s amazing’ and introduces Haeil as ‘the certified science nerd from the town next door, the dirty traitor’ and Hyunwoo has to physically stop himself from saying ‘got it from a skiing accident’ when one of the other friends from another corner of the chain notices his limp.

 

It feels like he’s drowning in his own thoughts, lost in a sea of faces he won’t remember.

Actually, he stands corrected.

There’s one face he’ll remember.

 

“This is Ahri, Haeil’s girlfriend. She graduated early. Just got back from her studies overseas. America, right?”

 

For a moment, all Hyunwoo can feel is rage. How dare this person, this ‘girlfriend’ barge into the little world they had so painstakingly put together. They had something good going, but not Haeil was preoccupied texting and calling and catering to her when he had a whole Hyunwoo right there. All those nights where he seemed distracted… it all made sense now. It was her fault, this- this other woman with her poison voice, this homewrecker.

 

He stops.

No….

 

That’s not right. Haeil is out here with her in public, meeting friends with Ahri. Hyunwoo couldn’t even point out that they know each other on an acquaintance level because exposing him would mean exposing himself, and he’s a coward like that. Haeil is proud to have her by his side because why wouldn’t he? There are tales upon tales of her life at school, meeting kids of all sorts of background, becoming almost perfectly bilingual. She’s so laid back- listening to her is captivating, and she’s so nice about it, but it’s like it’s the boasting equivalent of being passive-aggressive and it makes him both envious and furious. She’s the total package- the brains, the gravitational charm, the looks that could get her anywhere she wants to go (which is into AI and robotics, of course it is, thanks for asking, Ilhoon). When she laughs, everyone laughs with her, and she takes a half step back to cover her perfect smile each time before finding her way back under Haeil’s arm, outstretched and waiting for her. She fits there so easily, so perfectly, like she belongs there, probably because she does.

 

Someone loops their arm with his, and he’s being pulled along, out of his thoughts, led by an eternally happy-go-lucky Ahri with a triumphant-looking Haeil kissing her cheek, and he realizes it.

 

Ahri has everything Hyunwoo wishes he could have.

She isn’t the homewrecker.

Hyunwoo is.

 

 

**

 

They continue the same way they always have, as though it never happened, because technically it doesn’t change anything. They’ve never spoken about being anything more than Caregiver and Little because wasn’t anything more to talk about. It’s not like Hyunwoo admitted to having a crush, and Haeil doesn’t have an obligation to go on any sort of trial date with him, so that part of his private life stays separated from Caregiving.

 

It’s been almost five days since he last dropped when Haeil finally returns. It’s unexpected- there’s no call, no text, no indication. There’s just the jostle of keys at the door and a familiar shadow, heavy with exhaustion from another day of work, towering outside. Familiar footsteps count in a steady rhythm, followed by two seconds of silence which was him taking his shoes off. It’s like nothing ever changed. Routine. Hyunwoo almost doesn’t believe it, dropping immediately and running to give his caregiver a hug. 

 

“Appa! Appa’s back!”

 

“Hi, peanut.” He says, but this isn’t the Haeil he knows, this is some sad, sullen version, one that he barely recognizes. 

 

“Appa’s sad?”

 

“No, baby, I’m just… tired,” 

 

He shuffles in between his caregiver’s legs so they’re chest to chest, chasing the feeling he used to have, trying to encompass him in as much love as possible, trying to tell him how thankful he is without having to use his words. Hyunwoo rambles on with loose-mouthed Little speech to fill the space. Haeil nods periodically but never says much. At one point, Hyunwoo dozes off and wakes up for a fleeting moment to see Haeil typing out on his phone, one hand over his mouth in thought. Hyunwoo doesn’t think much of it. He chalks up the other boy’s smile to a figment of his imagination and goes back to sleep. 

 

There are still snacks in the cabinet when he wakes up.

 

There’s no note on the fridge this time. 

 

**

 

The times between visits keeps getting longer. This time it’s almost two weeks. Hyunwoo’s been trying to get his mind off of it, trying not to pay attention to the calendar, but when it’s his only reprieve, it’s hard. He’d woken up each morning hoping that maybe today would be the day, and usually he’d have to go about his own business and be disappointed, but not today. 

 

 

Haeil looks at his watch, then at his backpack, then at his watch again.

 

“I have to go kind of early, like at 9. Is that ok?”

 

Hyunwoo bites his lip.

 

It’s not ideal, to say the least. Headspace isn’t the kind of thing he can pull himself out of so easily. Is it possible? Sure, as far as he knows (which isn’t very far, to be honest, but he’s not in the mood to be honest), but it isn’t what he would like.

Then again…. having a few hours with Haeil is better than having no hours, and he’s been waiting to go into headspace. He even did all of his homework in advance so he could relax without any worries. And Haeil didn’t have to come today- he doesn’t technically have an obligation to Hyunwoo nor Chan, he isn’t getting paid to do this, so he should be grateful.

 

“Yeah, it’s ok.”

 

 

“Are you sure?” Haeil asks again, and Hyunwoo says yes, a little firmer this time, before he runs off to get changed into the soft onesies Chan gifted him for Christmas.

 

“Appa!” He smiles, falling into Haeil’s arms. He tells himself he’ll just drop for a little bit, and then he’ll come back out once it’s time to wrap things up just to prove that he has some control. Maybe that will show Haeil that taking care of him is easy, which will convince him to stay. It’s a longshot, but hope was a powerful animal, and Hyunwoo clung to it in the time between tethers when he lost his way.

 

 

And of course he would tell himself that- he was young and confident and still at the age where ‘it can’t happen to me’ was still the mindset.

 

The alarm on the phone beeps, and even in Littlespace, he feels his stomach drop.

 

His hands grasp at the toys in front of him, clumsy and nervous, trying to offer them to Haeil because when he’s having fun, Hyunwoo doesn’t like going anywhere, and maybe if they play together his Caregiver will feel the same way.

 

Instead, Haeil tells him no, it’s time to pack things up, come on Woobear, you said it would be ok.

 

“But Appa~” He whines. This is the first time he hasn’t immediately listened to what his Caregiver said, and he feels nervous at the prospect of being punished but excited by the thrill of disobedience. He was good all the time- was it so bad for him to act out just once?

 

Wherever he’s going, it must be important, or at least time-sensitive.

 

”I need to go, I’m going to be late.”

 

“No, Appa! Play!” Hyunwoo tries to fall back into him, but this is going all wrong, this isn’t what he wanted, Haeil is falling back onto the couch, his leg twisting, Hyunwoo shrinking back as his Caregiver lets out a pained yell. He skirts back to the other side of the room, wrapped up in a ball while Haeil holds onto his knee and shakes violently to stop himself from yelling anymore.

 

Hyunwoo feels the blood freeze in his veins when his Caregiver looks up at him, furious, eyes narrowed into angry slits.

 

Ya! I told you no!” 

 

A drop of despair falls, falls, falls into the well of fear he's always had but tried to forget about. 

 

He let his appa down. He’s not a good boy, he doesn’t deserve his appa’s love, just like he doesn’t deserve to drop. Because he shouldn’t want to drop, it isn’t a normal thing people should want to do, and he hates the way he needs it, he hates how dependent he is on it. If things were different, maybe he could handle all of the stress without having to go to his headspace. But he doesn’t have that kind of security, and now he’s grasping at straws trying to bring himself back. God, Haeil must be so tired from taking care of him. Of course he’s tired, who wouldn’t be?

He must be tired of being his caregiver.  

 

“Sorry appa, didn't mean it.” 

 

Hyunwoo runs off to his room, still Little, unable to bear the strain of going Big again. There’s no note for him when he wakes up. He doesn’t blame him- he said he had to go.

He knew he had to go.

Why did he have to go?

 

**

 

Haeil apologizes for yelling, for leaving, for everything, one day when he shows up at Hyunwoo’s door unannounced. He tells him that he’s a good Little, and that it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t have known, and that as a Caregiver he should have been there for him. There are words that come out of Hyunwoo’s mouth to forgive him, but his brain stays cemented in his confusion over whether Haeil means those words or is just trying to make Hyunwoo feel better. They stay in the doorway for a good 20 minutes before the topic of dropping, specifically if it was something that was going to happen tonight, comes up. Haeil wants to show that he’s a good Caregiver.

 

Hyunwoo pretends to have dropped.

 

Haeil doesn’t seem to know the difference.

 

 

**

There’s a difference between being alive and living, and growing up means deciding which elements counted in which, and what sacrifices one needed to make in order to hold onto one or the other.

There are no villains- only people who need to make decisions, and there are no winners nor losers. This isn’t a game- this is a play, and one person could only be the protagonist of their own story. It’s all part of the narrative. Characters come and go, and it’s time for him to go.

 

“I got accepted.” He says- it’s the first thing he’s heard out of him in weeks since Haeil promised he would be better- and Hyunwoo can see the sigil at the top of the email; knows it’s obvious.

 

Haeil has a decision to make.

Maybe it would have made him feel better if he could see his Caregiver wrestling with his emotions, but in a way, he’s glad that the decision is so obvious.

 

“Classes start on the 26th.” His tone pleads.

 

It would be selfish for him to hold on, not when this is a matter of his whole future. On the scales, this weighs much heavier. This is something Haeil has been working towards his entire life, and the only thing he has here is Chan and Hyunwoo, and they probably don’t count for much.

 

The whole situation, it’s not about who’s taking care of whom, it’s about making sure that everyone is taken care of.

It’s not fair.

But then again….

Few things were.

 

So he holds onto Haeil’s hands while he’s still there and says, “Go.”

 

 

**

 

 

He teeters on the edge of slipping, mind held in place by his refusal to think at all. Clothes shift around each other in his bag. The sparsely-filled drawer of his things is nearly empty besides the few shirts he always left behind to make sure Hyunwoo had comfort. They’ll still smell like him. Maybe he can ration out when he wears them so he can hold onto it.

 

 

“We have breaks every few months. I’ll only be gone for a little bit.”

 

Hyunwoo nods, numb, silent because talking requires thinking, and thinking will make him drop, and he can’t afford to drop now. The zipper on the bag packages up everything into a neat bundle, prim and proper as all things Haeil did were. His Caregiver looks at him with the same gentle gaze and for a moment, he wonders if this is really happening or if he’d made up this monologue and it’s was only his imagination fooling him.

 

“Be good for me.” Lips press into soft hair, hands resting on cheeks. Haeil’s eyes flick back and forth over his features, a distraught despair slowly discoloring him. It’s a struggle for both of them to walk away.

Even though they know it must be done.

 

“I love you, baby.”

 

“I love you, appa.” Hyunwoo murmurs back, and he catches himself on the brink to pull himself safely up to realist. Haeil lingers at the door, struggles with the broken bottom lock, and waves over his shoulder from the other side of a mesh screen door. His footsteps clink down the stairs quieter, quieter, fading away. The room is suffocatingly silent without his Caretaker there to be strong for the both of them, but that’s ok.

 

He can be patient.

He can be good.

He will be good.

 

 

**

 

Hyunwoo still has a few boxes left to unpack, but he’s more or less settled into his new apartment; a shoebox of a place a merciful 10 minute power walk away from the JYP company building. The message to Haeil reads ‘delivered’, so if everything on his end has settled down and he can come back, he’ll know where to look, but if he’s too busy with school, then he understands.

 

The bottom lock isn’t broken here he notes, walking into his new home.

Maybe it will be today.

 

**

 

 

 

 

Maybe it will be tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it will be this week. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it will be this month. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

**







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it will be this year.






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

**

 

Haeil never comes back. 

 

And the voice on the other end of the line tells him the number has been disconnected, please try again. 

 

*

 

**

 

***

 

****

 

*****

 

******

 

*******

 

********

 

*********

 

**********

 

*********

 

********

 

*******

 

******

 

*****

 

****

 

***

 

**

 

*

Chapter Text

“I’m sure many people would like to have someone like Shownu-ssi and Wonho-ssi to be by their side.” One of the hosts says, leaning over their table slightly to make eye contact with both idols. Kihyun gives a momentary smug half-smile.

 

Well too bad, you can’t have him.

 

The list came out on a Friday, just in time for the school-age kids to see it, and it’s to absolutely no one’s surprise that both Shownu and Wonho end up on it. What does raise some eyebrows, though, is how Shownu is above Wonho in the stackup.

To be more accurate, Shownu is at the top of the list.

He gives a small wave to the radio show host who imparted this news upon him and a little ‘hehehe’ kind of sheepish laugh to distract from how shy he’s getting. He didn’t join the idol world for this kind of recognition, he joined it and struggled for years upon years because he loved what he did, he loves what he does, and that’s reward enough, but this…. It’s a little odd for him. This is the kind of fawning usually done over the maknaes. He wants to be recognized for his skill in dancing, like how Jooheon said, how he was the best in his focus area. This is just a bonus, one that he only knows how to process in the most adorably awkward way possible. Kihyun, for one, can’t stop smiling partially out of pride because yeah, they have the best leader around, it’s high time the world knows, but mainly because ‘Top Male Idol Bodies’ list aside, Shownu trying to hide his bulk like a clumsy bear cub made him all the more precious. Kihyun has to lay his head on the table to stop himself from audibly squealing. Thankfully the camera is focused on Changkyun so they don’t catch him undergoing his third uwu crisis of the day. It’ll stop for a moment, and he’ll think ‘finally, it’s over’, and then he’ll remember the way Shownu looked at him when the host started reading off the list starting with his name, or how he pulled his sweater sleeves over his hand like a protective casing and Kihyun will have to remind himself that oxygen is an important and necessary thing that humans like him need.

 

“---can be strong too, right Kihyun-ssi?” The camera swings to face him, and hnnnng oh no didn’t catch a word of what the host just said but he has to say something and in an instant, he regains his composure.

 

“Anyone who disagrees can come and find out.” He rests his elbow on the table in prime arm-wrestling position; an invitation to throw down. The room erupts into rallying cheers. The host elaborates by describing what’s going on the listeners stuck in their afternoon commute, so phew, that must have been at least sort of correct. The others resume their side conversations except for Shownu, who still has giggles in his chest and a hand over his grin. His hand is doing a rather poor job of obstructing the movement of his lips.

 

**

 

The list makes its way around their community the way gossip in a small town did, except this wasn’t a warped rumor and literally anyone who said ‘nah, there’s no way’ could check on Google and be proven wrong in three seconds. Changkyun hasn’t stopped smiling, draped over his hyung like an expensive mink coat, nor Hyungwon, who’s staring at both of them like they’re the most precious creatures in the world.

Kihyun was, only a few hours ago, beaming incessantly, but now he looks like someone rained on his parade.

 

“Look at him over there, Min, what is he doing? Can’t he see the way they’re looking at him?”

 

The main vocalist wore an expression that one would likely assume accompanies steam blowing out of his ears. He looks like an angry, pouty cat, glaring at the Gen4 idols who just debuted soaking up every bit of information their sunbae would give them, wide-eyed and fresh-faced and being literally the least problematic people possible.


“I can’t believe this, they should really know better than to bother him like this.”

Sigh…

Minhyuk normally has wonderful patience except for when he’s hungry or he’s tired or Yoo Kihyun decides that today is a splendid day to be an emotional blockhead.

 

“I’m gonna kill him,” he mutters. The casual play of Kihyun stepping in to rescue an unsuspecting Shownu from a not-dangerous situation unfolds yet again, the fourth time today at least, and he hadn’t been paying attention from the start. “I really will just end his life.”

 

One of the younger idols (god, he can’t be more than 18) tries to ask Kihyun a question about singing or dancing or singing and dancing and the same time, and eek, oh no Minhyuk can see that there are fifteen possible ways this could play out and all of them are bad. He trots over to throw himself onto his teammates, comedic, lightening the mood.

 

“Hey there kiddos,” he says to the small flock of actual legal adults who can’t be much more than five or six years younger than him, “I’m gonna grab these two and run.”

 

“Oh! Minhyuk-sunbaenim, it’s nice to meet you!” One of the little ones (which group is he? God, Min’s memory is shot) says.

 

“Nice to meet you too!” He shakes the kid’s hand, and said kid looks like he might faint on the spot, or maybe scream, or maybe get tackled by his friends. “Stay in school! Good luck on your future stages!”

 

Minhyuk isn’t entirely sure why he went with that choice of words, but he decides to chalk it up to being a human disaster and leaves it alone. When they get back to the dressing room, it’s like he’s dragging Kihyun by the scruff of his neck, his other arm locked around Shownu’s. He refrains from throwing them, but turns to curtly address his leader.

 

“Could you check on Changkyun? He looked like he was ready to fall asleep standing up. Kid works too hard.”

 

Shownu noda. " I know what you mean. I’ll get him to drink water, maybe eat something. We’ll see how he feels.”

 

Minhyuk waits until he’s out of sight to turn to Kihyun. “You.”

 

“Me?”

 

“Yeah! What’s your deal?”

“My--- my what?”

 

“You’ve been acting weird all morning. You almost bit off Yangyang’s head!”

 

“Who?”

 

“The kid.” Minhyuk is trying really, really hard not to grab Kihyun by his idiotic chowderhead and shake him a little. Maybe it’ll be like when the Christmas lights aren’t working and he has to do the entire ‘Shake Senora’ scene from Beetlejuice with them to get them to turn on again, and maybe a lightbulb will go off that tells him he’s being irrational.

 

“Oh, right, them. But they—!”

“NOPE!” Minhyuk throws a dramatic hand behind him, turning away so he doesn’t have to hear the funky logic behind Kihyun’s actions. “Nuh uh, we aren’t doing this one. You need to chill out. You need to go to the arctic and take notes from polar bears.”

 

Kihyun thinks he’s exaggerating because he’s always exaggerating, but Minhyuk tells him to take a lap through the basement hallways to calm down, and yeah, that was probably a responsible idea, but that was before Kihyun got distracted by Shownu surrounded by a group of people wearing familiar ‘GOT7’ tags, which throws him into ‘must protect at all costs’ mode before his regular logic to can tell him to not.

 

He abandons his walk before anyone can stop him.  

 

**

 

“Really? Ah, that’s great to hear Jaebeom-ah!” Shownu leans back onto his heel, the conversation having lasted much longer than he expected it to. He hasn’t gotten a chance to catch up with his friends from JYP- between their schedules and his own members and both world tours, coordinating has been a nightmare. They weren’t even supposed to be here, but by some sorcery from the scheduling gods, they managed to wind up in the same place at the same time.

 

“That reminds me! You didn’t hear about….” Jinyoung starts. Shownu looks over Jackson’s shoulder and there he sees it: Kihyun, expression placid, eyes narrowed in deadly focus.

He swallows.

Everyone thinks that he and Wonho are big tough guys but really it’s Kihyun they have to watch out for; he’s the one with something to prove.

 

“-ung? Hyung?”

 

Shownu snaps back to attention. “Sorry, Jinyoungie, what were you saying? You were at the part with the fansign.”

 

“Right, so there we were….”

 

It’s distracting, to say the least, but he manages to hold onto his focus even with a pair of eyes burning holes through Jackson into him. How he does it, and if he’d ever be able to do it again; unknown.

The second the conversation dies down, he feels a light tap on his arm, a request asked as they bend into each other’s space, to step out with him for a minute to talk. Shownu says sure (it’s not like he’d ever say no) and gives a sheepish smile as he’s whisked away.

 

Kihyun doesn’t start talking immediately.

 

Shownu feels himself shift under the weight of the tension in the air, and now he’s just staring him down. A nervous blush creeps up from his neck, heating his face, but it’s not like he did anything wrong! They were just talking! He still isn’t saying anything, he’s just standing across the hall, zipping up his windbreaker and counting to ten so the words don’t come out as an incoherent jumble.

 

“Jagi,” he says, tone wavering as he tries to come off as collected, “was that flirting I saw?”

 

He’s closer now- if Shownu dared to look up, he’d have to look him in the eyes, which is something he’s definitely not about to do. He doesn’t think he could handle it.

He’s probably right.

 

“N-no! I was just…. We were… I mean…. It wasn’t anything, we were just talking!” He squeaks, but only just barely. Kihyun has an aura about him that takes his breath away, literally. It feels like he’s drowning, but the only thing Shownu wants to do is sink further into him; his scent, his arms, his words, his voice.

 

Arms come around him. They inch around his waist, bringing them closer until Shownu is pressed against him. The rise and fall of his chest moves steadily.

He feels stronger here- more solid.

Kihyun will always be there to protect him.

He would build a city for him, if that’s what it took.

 

“Good,” he says. Shownu feels lips coming up to his forehead, a gentle kiss upon his crown, “I wouldn’t want the others to think I’d let them steal you from me.”

 

**

 

They start with their heads down. It’s dark on the stage, but the ripples of light coming from the sea of Monbebes suffices.

 

“Ready on stage?” A voice says in his earpiece, “3… 2… 1…”

 

Jooheon starts singing. Kihyun is relegated to the back.

 

The steps are easy. They’re professionals- he’s been doing it for the past six years; others, more. It isn’t hard to do those moves that used to give him so much trouble. But that isn’t what’s making this performance difficult.

 

Kihyun is having trouble breathing.

 

When Shownu dances and loses himself in the rhythm, he becomes a different person. The way his hips move with a mind of their own and his body holds such exquisite positions drives him insane. He looks so beautiful gliding and shining under the stark white spotlight. He’s in a league of his own. Shownu is like an oasis in a drought and Kihyun; a lost pirate.

 

He manages not to trip over himself when they spin, Changkyun slipping behind him and Wonho flying left. All eyes turn to him.

 

“Who do you love?” Kihyun sings, “is it him or me?”

 

He glares at the camera. Hopefully Shownu will watch it later and know that this look is for him, and only him, for as long as he’s willing to have him.

 

Shownu is having trouble breathing.

When Kihyun sings and he finds himself in the rhythm, he becomes a different person. The way his lip curls up as he belts out a high note drives him insane. He becomes someone- something- so intense, so captivating, that he can’t resist. Eyes under the shadow of dark hair look up at the camera and holy shit, he’s amazing. It feels like he’s wandering out to sea to heed a siren’s call.

 

“Who do you love?” He sings, “is it him or me?”

 

And his neck is craned so he can tilt his head back, his expression dreamlike, then hurtling back to the present all at once. He’s like a creature of the night and Shownu would give him anything if he asked- his mind, his body, his soul, if Kihyun were one to believe in such things.

Who do you love?

There was never any competition.

 

**

 

Getting out of the car, they look like they’re trying out for a b-rate remake of Night of the Living Dead. Shownu has to stay behind to pull the sleepier members up to their feet. They lean heavily against the walls of the elevator, then against the walls outside of their doors while clumsily slapping their keycards into the lock. Satisfied that all of his members are securely in their rooms and winding down, Shownu begins his own nightly process of removing the day’s work. He sits down on the edge of the bed where Kihyun was jotting in his notebook, but has since moved to peek over his shoulder, and while it was nice to have the unwavering attention of this stellar gem of a boyfriend, he knows that it’s because something isn’t right.

 

“Hey,” he says, voice soft, “What’s gotten into you today?”

 

“What do you mean?” Kihyun looks at himself, draped across his boyfriend. His head ducks to hide his eyes in Shownu’s shoulder. “Oh, right, um... hehe, about that….”

 

“If you’re worried because of what I told you about my past…. That doesn’t affect me anymore. It’s a part of me, but I’ve grown since then. You don’t have to be nervous about that.”

 

“I know, I trust you. You’re strong, stronger than I am.”

 

“If it’s not that, then what? Are you jealous?”

 

Kihyun nearly chokes.

 

“Me? Jealous? No way.” He says, definitely not sweating, psshht what, are you crazy?

 

“Well if you were, that’d be cute.” Shownu's hand comes up to ruffle the mess of hair behind him, “Besides, I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Kihyun feels his heart rattle in his chest. He was really that easy to read? Or was it just because Shownu knew him, sometimes better than he knew himself? “I know, I’m sorry…. My possessive streak is really something, huh? It must be the Scorpio in me.”

 

“The what?” He sputters. Shownu’s mouth stays open, smiling, waiting for Kihyun to repeat what just blurted.

 

His face turns a furious shade of embarrassed. “Monbebe says that I’m like this… because I’m a Scorpio.”

 

Shownu laughs, hands over his stomach, tears in his eyes, his tiny boyfriend thwacking him on the chest because ‘come on, hyung, it isn’t that funny!’. He blots at his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “You’re adorable.”

 

“Yeah, yeah… but you’re still my baby boy.”

 

Shownu makes a show of punching Kihyun in the chest, but he comes in for a kiss and a bear hug immediately after.  

Chapter Text

The man in front of Kihyun settles into his plush armchair and reshuffles the stack of index cards in his hands. To his right, a notepad with a number of bullet points scribbled outside the lines; to his left, a mug of lukewarm coffee. It’s been a long day for the both of them.

It’ll be hours before either one can finally let out a sigh of relief.

 

“20 second pitch, go.” The man says, giving Kihyun a chance to speak freely while he buys himself some time to search for a better card.

 

Kihyun looks left, up, right, picks out the verbs and the nouns and the order he wants to say them in so he can match his English to his usual Korean statement. “My name is Yoo Kihyun, and I am the main vocalist for Monsta X, a k-pop group consisting of seven members. We have been performing together for a little more than four years now and have gone on three world tours. We recently finished touring for our third full-length album, ‘We Are Here’, and we are excited to pursue more collaborations with more artists internationally.”

 

His hands stay folded neatly on the table, only ever coming up for a moment to make his explanation more dynamic. It was distracting, he was told, and it took away from what he was saying. Usually when he’s in front of a camera, it’s with his group and using his hands helped the audience pick him out from the wide-angle shots, but in a one-on-one scenario, he needs to be more aware. The man has his cards in order now and looks up as though to ask if Kihyun is ready for the next question.  

 

“With so many members, I imagine it takes quite a bit of effort to work together on a day-to-day basis, even outside of performing. Could you shed some light on the teamwork aspect of being a group?”

 

He doesn’t catch all the words, but he hears ‘many members’ and ‘work together’ and ‘teamwork’ which are enough context clues to let him say, “Teamwork is an especially important part of what we do. We are very busy, and it is tiring, but we can rely on each other for support. I think that over the years, we’ve found which parts we play best, and combining those means everything…” Aish, what was it again? Kihyun stops and looks up as though the words were floating around above the man, who waits patiently for him to think. The heat from his face flushes his ears as he tries to remember what exactly is was that Changkyun said that one time... ah yes- “everything is taken care of. We trust each other.”

 

Another satisfactory answer, judging by the way the man nods. He continues, “That’s great. Congratulations on your four years. Going back, you mentioned collaborating with other artists. Can you elaborate on that?”

 

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Kihyun puts on a corporate smile, happy to throw out a cookie-cutter answer; one he doesn’t have to think about, “company policy and all.”

 

“Of course, of course… then could you speak a bit on the recent emergence of k-pop in the last year, and the effect that it’s had in terms of artists from many countries and languages coming together?”

 

There we go he thinks, this is more like it.

 

“I think that music extends beyond language, and it becomes more meaningful when we have such a variety. Performance is special in that way, and there are many ways to accomplish the same goal. The fact that we get to spread our music and share our experiences and passions with other artists makes it all the more rewarding.”

 

Another nod of approval. It looks like the man in skimming and skipping some of the cards. That was already question number three- they should be ending soon, either with this question or the next.

 

“You’ve had many concepts over the years. Which one do you think describes your group best?”

 

Kihyun has had to answer this question before. He knows what he wants to say, but now comes the challenge of translating it on the fly.


“We have had many concepts, but they are all different sides of us. Each one has a small piece, so none describe us better, but together, they are us.”

 

The man’s eyes flick up from his notecards.

 

“Say ‘describe?”

 

“Describe.” Kihyun’s head ticks to the side, annoyed. Monbebe had always told him that his English pronunciation was sexy, but that didn’t stop his lisp from haunting him.

 

Describe.” He tries again, with no luck.

 

“It’s ok, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t affect how well you can be understood. I was just checking.” He flips through a few more cards, then puts them down. It’s late now, but there more activities that they need to move on to and his English lessons are already dragging on longer than expected. Jooheon has been seated outside the door waiting for 10 minutes- Kihyun himself is due for a meeting with wardrobe, something about his suitcase not making to the right city or country or something. “You’ve improved dramatically over the past year. The time between asking questions and you answering is getting shorter, probably because the words are more recognizable after hearing them so often. How do you feel?”

 

“Sometimes I get ahead of myself, but if I speak slowly enough, I can put together an answer in time.”

 

“That’s a good strategy- better to go slow and have a complete answer than to go fast and trip over yourself.” Fingers flip through the notes, sliding down to look for one specific tip. “You did good on your opening question. Remember- you control the conversation. Anything that you mention there is fair game, so you can prepare a few statements, practice them until you feel comfortable, and then pull them out on command.”

 

Kihyun makes a mental note to write the advice in a remote corner of his phone’s notepad.

 

“Do you have any questions for me?” He shakes his head. “Great. If you do, you have my number.”

 

They stand, shaking hands as though this were a real interview and not just a mock up. Kihyun is practically out the door as his teacher calls out, “I’ll see you next week. Good luck on your broadcasts!”

 

He slips out into the hallway and makes a quick estimate of how late he’s going to be for his last activity for the day, building up his timetable and finding the gaps. It would be another late night; a common occurrence for them now. The sound of Jooheon shutting the door behind him brings everything back into focus, and just like that, Kihyun is gone.

 

**

 

Sometimes when he reads, it’s like flying by the seat of his pants except it’s more like flying by the seat of his eyes and his mouth spits out words faster than his brain can figure out what they mean.

 

“The Arrangement was very simple, so simple in fact that it didn’t really deserve the capital letter, which it had gotten for simply being in existence for so long…” he says aloud, face eclipsed by a well-loved copy of Good Omens a fan had gifted to him. His pacing is beginning to wear a hole in the floor, not that there’s anything but pipes and maintenance rooms below him, but still.

 

It’s good practice, Jameson (Jaemin, as all his Korean coworkers called him,) had said. Reading books was way more interesting than any textbook he could assign and it was more time-effective than watching a movie and subsequently missing half the content. It would get Kihyun used to recognizing English letters faster and to odd phrasing and pacing. Plus, he could have a little leisure time while getting his work done.

 

The daily news, on the other hand, was better for picking out definite sentences with none of the bells and whistles (whatever that meant) that came with conversation and narrative. It would confuse him less and help him pick up go-to sentences he could throw out in an emergency. That’s what Yvette said (though everyone called her Yeji because they didn’t have those letters in Korean and all of the staffers had looked like a parliament of owls staring at her) after their team meeting to discuss filming locations for their next video. He would have to queue up the videos later, once he was done with this chapter.

 

“It was the sort of sensible arrangement that many isolated agents—” A loud thump sounds somewhere in the distance down the carpet hotel hallway, which Kihyun ignores because it’s probably one of the others filming a vlive or being generally chaotic. “-working a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite-”

 

A laugh, this sound coming from somewhere much closer, makes his head turn towards the door. He doesn't move, trying to decide if it was a figment of his imagination.

 

“Shhh… you need to use your indoor voice, honey. There are other people around.” A voice whispers, and there's no way that isn't Minhyuk. Which means that laugh definitely wasn't his imagination. What was going on out there?

 

“Wants?” Comes the reply.

 

“I don’t know, cupcake. Why don’t we ask your Papa?”

 

Kihyun puts his book down and pads over to the door, and when he opens it, a blinding smile instantly appears on his face, met with the sight of Minhyuk holding a bowl in one hand and pulling along a shy Little with the other.

 

"I thought I heard a little ruckus out here. What's going on?" 

 

“Your baby boy has something to ask.” Minhyuk smiles, making sure Shownu has a secure two-handed grip on the bowl before letting it go

 

The bowl (which he can now see has little animal crackers and teddy grahams) (which are likely from is own snack bag, which means he's sharing, and Kihyun is in Proud Parent Mode) gets thrust out ahead of him, Shownu leaning back and giving the biggest doe eyes that Kihyun lets out a strangled squeak in attempts to stifle his ‘aaaaaaawwwww’.

 

“Papa!!! Want?” he says, and Kihyun does an exaggerated gasp.

 

“Did put this together for me?” His posture changes to excited anticipation when Kihyun takes the snacks from his outstretched hands, eager to see if his Caregiver likes them, which he does, of course, because animal crackers are fantastic. “This is great, Nunu! Thank you so much!”

 

“He knew you were working and wanted to help.” 

 

“That’s so thoughtful of you, baby boy!” He says, ruffling the soft mop of hair, and he feels a tad guilty for passing off responsibilities to Minhyuk when he could just as easily sit in there with him and hey, that’s not such a bad idea- “Do you wanna help Papa practice his English? Why don’t you pick out a few books and I’ll read you some stories?”

 

“Storytime! Storytime!” The Little sing-songs all the way into his Papa’s lap. “What dat???”

 

Kihyun follow’s the Little’s gaze until he sees the cover of the book on the bed with its lounging demon and all and tosses it into his suitcase before he can ask any more questions.

 

“It's a book for grown ups. Look here, sweetheart- which book would you like me to read first?” He asks, handing over the reading tablet. Kihyun doesn't quite remember who it was who suggested that he keep some books on hand specifically for times like this, but he'll have to thank them later. Shownu looks like he’s in turmoil flicking back and forth along the bookshelf in Kihyun’s amazon library. Was something wrong? Was is something he said?

 

He points to one with a green and white background and red words reading ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’. “Want this one… but also wanna read ‘bout puppies.”

 

“We can read as many as you want, sweetheart. This is just the first.” He emphasizes, unsure if that was one of the words in Shownu’s headspace vocabulary, but he makes a wide-eyed lightbulb-just-went-off ‘oooooh’ face and Kihyun relaxes, phew, just his baby being adorable as always.

 

“Yayayayay!!!” he taps on the colorful icon and waits for the cover to take up the entire screen.

 

**

 

The impending rainstorm illuminates the sky in a red filter and with it comes the promise of thunder. Kihyun will need to stay, but it isn’t like he had any intention of leaving. Shownu hadn’t been talkative while he read, but the weight on his chest has been growing heavier and heavier the longer the hours drag on.

 

“…lived in a little cottage which stood beside a stream at the bottom of a huge mountain, one so tall…. That… when….” His speech slows, the space between words stretching longer and longer as he leans, carefully, over to see if his baby’s eyes are open or fluttering closed or if he’s completely asleep. Shownu stirs as though to ask him to keep reading, please Papa, but his head lolls to the side and he snuggles deeper into the blankets.

 

“Nunu?” Kihyun whispers.

 

Silence; only soft breaths from a mind in a land far, far away. The book slides onto the nightstand without a sound, the chain from the lamp making one last click before Kihyun shuffles under the covers as well. He wraps one protective arm over the bundle in front of him.

 

 

“Goodnight, baby.”

Chapter Text

Last we left off with our plucky heroes (“I’m more of an antihero, hyung, like a Batman all dark and broody”) (“You’re mushy like the rest of us on the inside, Kyun”) (“Am not!”) (“You’re made of flowers and fleece and puppy fluff.”) (“Can I at least have Venus flytraps?”) they had secretly flown themselves to Jeju island in order to film the most elaborate behind-the-scenes vlive ever, or at least that’s what they told PD when he crossed his arms and leaned back in his fancy manager seat menacingly. Wonho feels like they’re on an epic quest, and Changkyun feels like he’s in Bond, but the driver taking them from the airport and out of the central city hub probably thinks he’s been wrapped up in a Pink Panther movie.

 

“He’s still gonna be there, right?” Wonho’s fingers tap nervously atop his bouncing knee. He flicks his wrist up to check the Roger Dubois reading 4:57- it’s not like the hands have magically budged from where they were twelve seconds ago, but it makes him feel better- and throws his hand back down. He doesn’t want to ask the driver to speed up because this guy has probably been doing this for a long time and has had more than his fair share of rude people, and if there’s anything that Wonho isn’t, it’s rude.

 

“These things take hours upon hours. You remember the last time he did an Allure shoot, when he had to fly out way before any of us got up, at like 5am? He didn’t get back until after our last practices.”

 

“But that was in Tokyo! Jeju is way closer!”

 

“He’ll be there, Seokkie, trust me.”

 

Wonho leans his head over to rest it on his boyfriend and huffs. It’s not that he doesn’t trust Changkyun with his life and everything else important to him, but things had been going good with the group ever since they sorted out their feelings and Kihyun and Shownu had sorted out theirs, apart from the fact that Hyungwon seemed to be making himself more and more scarce. Not that it was unusual to go a handful of hours or even a whole day without seeing him, but knowing he wasn’t in his room napping or down the street at one of the studios so close that they could take a hop, skip and a tackle to see him made all the difference. It didn’t feel like he was gone, it felt like he left.

And Wonho, as nervous and reluctant as he may be to face confrontation, needed to know why.

The taxi cab rolls to a stop in front of a small-looking summer home kind of place, one that’s far enough away from the closest town so they aren’t stranded, but far enough to fully appreciate the sound of the waves. Wonho fishes out a few crumpled bills from the pocket of his trackpants where he stuffed them in last-minute before running to catch their own flight.

 

“Good luck.” The driver says, getting the gist from their not-so-secret conversation. The sound of the vehicle fades as it leaves to pick up some other busy passenger, and without the rumble of a tires on dirt, the only things left besides them are the ocean and their nerves.  

 

**

 

Ok, so maybe they didn’t think this through all the way.

 

“Do…. Do we…. Do we just knock…?” Wonho’s fist is raised to the door, but it’s been there for a good three minutes now, and it’s a wonder his arm isn’t tired from holding the position. One of his eyebrows is up while the other one is down and he acts like if he leans back and tucks his chin further into his neck in confusion, the answer will magically appear before them.

 

“Well we can’t ask Hyungwon to come get us, and we can’t bang on the door ‘cause they’ll probably call the police, and while I think legitimately going to jail once would be a fun experience, I’d like to do it at literally any time that isn’t now.”

 

“So then what? We try peeking through windows?”

 

“Let’s… in general never do that.” Changkyun chuckles, ”Why don’t we see if we can find a staff door? We can see if anyone leaves and then we can use that one. And worse comes to worse we can wait around out here for him and intercept him on his way out.”

 

Wonho considers what he’s just suggested, then makes an ‘eh, ok face. They don’t have many options, but that seems like a better one.

 

It takes at least forty minutes from when they start keeping track of the time, which was somewhere between five and thirty minutes (Wonho has never been good at that kind of estimation) after they each loaded up their current projects on their laptops, before it happens.

She comes like a furious, laser-focused whirlwind with places to be and people to see, which wouldn’t be too far of a stretch considering her two rolling suitcases and the shoulder bag so large that it looks like she could fit in it. Wonho bobs back and forth in place like an MMA referee trying to figure out whether now or later or ‘oops just missed an opportunity’ would be better to intercept her. Changkyun looks like he’s going to fare better, and the first few steps look promising, but the he gets tongue tied and then they’re both standing there like dummies. She eyes them up and down with a calculating look, trying to discern whether or not they belonged there, or what they were trying to sell.

 

“Can I help you?” She says, monotone. The sharp lines of her unamused expression are framed by wide circular lenses which give Changkyun flashbacks to uptight librarians and strict schoolteachers.

 

“Hi there, yes, sorry to bother you. We’re Chae Hyungwon’s teammates from Monsta X, we were going to surprise him but weren’t sure how or where to go.”

 

At the words ‘Monsta X’, she looks them up and down again, closer, eyes almost glaring as she tries to catch cracks in the façades they aren’t wearing. Changkyun doesn’t blame her- she’s probably heard every excuse in the book by virtue of working for Allure.

 

“Nice try, but you’re not going inside.” She says, ready to bolt past them if necessary.

 

“Wait!” Changkyun does a full ‘halt’ sign with his outstretched hand, fishing in his pocket for his phone with the other. His fingers flick across the screen until he bounces, impatient, waiting for the LTE 4G to do its thing. “There!?”

 

Wonho cranes his neck, then immediately puts his face in his hands in embarrassment.

Changkyun has his driver’s license on him. Changkyun has his passport on him too.

Changkyun is triumphantly holding up his phone with his own Wikipedia page pulled up and making his very patient and obviously busy woman bend over and squint to read the words.

 

“See! That’s me! And I can pull up his too-“ he takes his phone back to presumably Wikipedia-search Wonho, to which Wonho responds by frantically tries to slap the phone out of his hands with a ‘come on, man, don’t do that!’, and it seems to be enough to put the woman in a good mood.

 

“Ok, ok, fine. At least I know you are who you say you are.” She slings the one large bag over her shoulder and nods in the direction of the suitcases. “If you’re going to come inside, at least be helpful.”

 

Wonho squats down to pick up the suitcase like he’s doing the Husafell carry and runs after the woman, who’s now holding a side door that they passed a few times open for him. Changkyun comes trotting after him with his own suitcase bouncing along over the gravel after him.

 

**

 

“Stay back here in the technical room. You’ve got them, right, Jungwoon?” The startled, bespeckled man they can only assume is Jungwoon nods in agreement despite not really knowing what he’s being asked to do. “We’re going to start soon, so you can watch from the upstairs overhang. He probably won’t notice you up there since it’ll be dark.”

 

The woman (“Jeong Jiyoung, wardrobe department, but also hair in case of emergencies and make up if the world is ending”) rushes out to receive a droopy folder full of pictures clipped together and leaves them alone with the techies quietly working around them. Wonho lets out a long breath through his nose, half-smiling and raising his eyebrows. Here goes nothing, he says without words, the way he always did when he was nervous before a performance or an interview or any number of things that were daunting, because in the last year so much had changed and change was scary, and so Changkyun had gotten used to that sound. A hand absent-mindedly runs over one shoulder that’s raised up to his ear.

 

“Hey,” he says, checking that the staff members are all out of sight before kissing his boyfriend softly, “we did it. We’re here. We made it.”

 

“I know, I know…. I just--- what if----” Wonho sighs, collecting himself before starting over, “What if he’s mad that we’re here? He’s been doing more modelling recently- what if it’s to get away from us?”

 

The words sting, but they both know it’s a possiblity. When they shaved away all the logic and reasoning they used to pad the fact that they missed their teammate, they didn’t know how he felt.

 

“We came here to check up on him, to see how he was doing, right?” Wonho nods. “If he’s mad, then we’re aware of it, and that’s better than not knowing. Then we can do something about it.”

 

“But-“

 

“Hey, the shoot’s starting, if you want to come up?” One of the staffers pops their head through the door, and the two split apart from one another, suddenly self-conscious of how close they were standing.

 

Changkyun tells him that they’ll be there in a moment, appreciate it, and holds out his hand.

 

“It’ll be ok, I promise.”

 

Together, they walk up the spiral staircase into the shadow of the balcony.

 

**

 

Wonho is doing his best not to cry on his way down the stairs. There’s something about being removed from the situation versus seeing Hyungwon right in front of him, the same way that seeing idols on a screen and then with fans put it into perspective that ‘wow, this is a real person’ that makes him shakier than when he was up above. They’re no strangers, but this is such a different scenario to be in that he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

 

They slink into the shadows of the staff members standing still to watch the shoot as soft music plays overhead.

 

Boy, love isn’t easy it’s hard

Boy, see everyone leaves and your heart breaks

So done with love, it’s like tears in the rain

It means nothing

 

“Hey man, what are you doing down here? You aren’t on staff.” An annoyed voice accuses when Changkyun accidentally bumps into him, and this is less than ideal because now everyone’s staring and murmuring. Their eyes shoot to Hyungwon, who still has his eyes closed as he dances to the slow beat.  He looks at peace yet at turmoil with himself, and Wonho is still approaching even though he doesn’t have Changkyun by his side.

 

“Hyungwon?” he whispers.

 

Hyungwon opens his eyes.

In that moment, the song ends, the room goes silent, and everything stops.

 

**

 

This…. Is not what Hyungwon expected out of his day.

All eyes are on the model as they wait for his verdict. They’ll kick the two of them out if that’s what he wants, and it’s odd because for the first time in a long time, he’s the one in control. Years of having to work with and around his teammates and months of having to sit by as a seventh wheel had made him numb, but this was his element, the place where he belonged, and the others were just visitors to their realm. Even though he doesn’t like it as much as he likes the idol community, it’s a spin on the usual dynamic.

 

“I wasn’t expecting you.” He murmurs, and the staff members relax knowing they won’t have to get into a scuffle today.

 

“Um… Surprise…?” Wonho offers. It doesn’t seem like a fantastic answer, but it’s the one that have and like hell is he going to try to make up something on the spot at a time like this. He glances around to see if everyone is still watching them. “We came to support you. Hyungwonnie, hwaiting!”

 

“While we’re here, do you want to go for dinner?”

 

He has a decision to make.

He could say no, that he’s too busy, and while it would be cruel, it’s not like he knew they would be here. He hadn’t planned to spend time with them. But on the other hand, there’s a part of him, despite the bubbling cauldron of apprehension he gets in his stomach whenever the thought of confessing piggybacks into his thoughts, that wants to spend time with them. He looks back at the white backdrop, the stool, the lighting fixtures marking out the box in space where he could be anyone, or no one; where he could be safe. He turns away.

 

“Wait for me, ok?”

 

**

 

The furnishings are very nice here, he notes, trying to focus on literally anything but the other two people with him. It had been a nearly silent cab ride into the city parsed only by the occasional ‘watch out’ and ‘this way’ as they made their way to the restaurant they’d Google searched on the fly and settled upon without so much as a three-second reconsideration. There’s no one else here, luckily- being out from the cover of the five or so burly guards and the ten or more not-so-burly-but-equally-as-alert men and women in fresh-creased black suits meant that anyone, for better or for worse, could approach them. They were lucky- it would be best not to press that luck.

 

“Did you hear about what the Company is planning?” Changkyun peeks up from where he’s scribbling on the paper table cover, taking only a second to check the surroundings for danger. He doesn’t want to worry Hyungwon- with his back to the door, he’s nervous enough as it is.

 

“I haven’t.” He responds. Getting anything more than three words out of him at any one time was proving to be a challenge, if only because he and Wonho were too nervous to ask questions that warranted more. It’s probably because they barged in and practically stole him from the shoot and no one had batted an eye. (That’s a lie, actually- the Director waved at them from the front stoop like an abuela watching her relatives go home after a long day of family festivities- but it’s not like they would try to convince him otherwise.)

 

“What about you?” he elbows the bulging bicep next to him, tensed with the weight of Wonho propping himself up on the table, getting a better look at the small text that would undoubtedly be difficult to read with his infinite vision problems.

 

“I haven’t. What is it?”

 

His words are slow, unconfident, but regurgitating the information told to him was a much safer option than trying to come up with anything of substance from his own high-strung mind. They paying only half- maybe not even a quarter- attention to him which takes the pressure off until he’s done and there’s silence again. With Changkyun feeling responsible for piloting the conversation, he turns to face Wonho, who was studying the little desert menu flipbook which had stood on a metal stand in the middle of their table. “Anything look good?”

 

“I haven’t finished reading through it yet.” He admits. Eyebrows furrow as he alternates between different levels of squinting. Not bringing glasses was definitely not on his list of things to do, and it had certainly caused some problems when he was trying to read the information on his ticket before handing it to the attendant, but desperate times called for desperate measures, and they wouldn’t have made it to the airport in time if he had to hike all the way back through their building, up the stairs, wrassle with both locks, and deconstruct his entire room to find them. It’s when he starts alternating between shoving the entire booklet within inches of his face and then holding it out far as though it were a wild animal waiting to bite him that Changkyun intervenes.

 

“You’re gonna- you’re- don’t do that, you’re gonna hurt yourself.” A hand reaches out to lay flat on the panel, pushing it lightly until it rests on the table and Ono lets go of it. “You were here, right? I’ll read from here. If you want me to skip or anything, tell me.”

 

He picks up around ‘Drinks’, and reads until the waiter places bowls of steaming noodles in front of them. They mix around the contents to cool it off faster, and it’s like they’re own little world with Changkyun picking out some of the better pieces of his own meal to feed to the other man.

It’s rare, Hyungwon thinks, to see them like this. It’s the kind of scene he’s seen before but with elderly couple in a nursing home, one with a doting wife reading aloud to her husband even though he doesn’t quite remember that that’s who he is, but his muscle memory tells him he can let his guard down with her by his side.

His brain jumps ahead.

What would it be like in twenty, forty, sixty years down the line? Would they still speak to one another? Would Changkyun and Wonho go off on their own and be happy together? He sees the vision of a stone-accented house atop a hill in a quiet suburban neighborhood, the kind where the kids next door are over all the time and only have to walk 30 meters and up a flight of stairs to be in their own beds. He sees a big backyard and a few dogs, can’t tell which breeds but that’s inconsequential, against a blurry wall of trees. It’s beautiful, to say the least, and probably expensive, but with two parents working the way they do, they’d have no trouble providing a warm, loving environment for their three children, which is a lot for Changkyun, but three was the perfect number for Wonho and he could never say no to a soul like that.

In the middle of his vision of two rocking chairs occupied by older versions of them reading together, he realizes that there’s a distinct lack of him in the picture.

And he realizes he’s crying.

And he realizes that they can see he’s crying.

 

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Two sets of eyes stare back at him, concerned. Changkyun glances beyond him and narrows his eyes into a warning glare, probably to tell the waiter who had been lurking by their table that now was not an optimal time to be ask how the food is and if there was anything he could get them. Wonho’s hand reaches out to rub his shoulder and misses because Hyungwon looks like big blotches of warm tan and grey jersey, but the effort was there- the heart was there- and he sets down his chopsticks.

 

This is not the look he wanted for today, or any day for that matter. If he were to go back in time three years ago- hell, even six months ago- and tell his younger, blissfully ignorant self that he would be sitting in a restaurant having a meltdown whilst crying over a bowl of noodle soup, he would have called his future self a liar, and he would have done it in a hushed tone out of fear that another member heard.

 

“Nothing, I’m ok.” The lie sounds louder with just the soundtrack of the back kitchen.

 

“What’s wrong? You can tell us, we’re here for you.”

 

The pressure builds behind his eyes and he holds his breath until it hurts specifically so he doesn’t let out an ugly sob. He knows that they’re there for him, that’s the whole point.

 

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing. I’m….” His mind races to find an excuse to get him out there as fast as possible. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom for a minute.”

 

His chair makes a hair-raising screech against the wooden flooring as he backs up to leave, turning left down the hall and hoping that that’s the right way because if he has to pass back through the intersection and face them again, he might actually red card himself into the timeout box of the universe. He sees a painting on one of the doors with a man wearing armor brandishing a samurai sword next to a door with a woman playing a stringed instrument wearing a kimono and body slams himself inside.

 

Breathe, just breathe he tells himself, locking himself into the spacious single stall. He catches a glimpse of his puffy lips and red-rubbed eyes blurred under the glare of the red lights and the matte black walls. God, he looks terrible. It’s a good thing he got out of there. Any longer and they would have seen-

 

Hyungwon’s head snaps to look at the door, heartbeat pounding in his ears as he prays that neither of his teammates will come knocking.

Booboom

Booboom

Booboom

 

Nothing.

 

Get yourself together he says to his reflection. It’s just dinner, he can do this. He’s done it a million times before, right? Even though all those times had been before those two were completely and utterly devoted to each other and he didn’t feel like the odd wheel out in this conference bicycle, it’s still the same.

 

When he finally leaves, Hyungwon thanks whoever designed this part of the building for installing in-wall lights that don’t blind him. He smooths down the front of his shirt, takes a deep breath to right himself, and walks back into the dining room.

 

“Sorry about that.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize. Do you feel better?” Wonho asks, and no, he doesn’t, but he manages a small grin and nods his head. “Ok, if there’s anything wrong, you know you can tell us, right?”

 

There’s something in the back of his head that urges him to crack, to let out his secrets because Wonho offered to hear them, but he knows good change he won’t like what he hears and holds his tongue. Instead, Hyungwon thanks him, picks up his chopsticks, and tries to ignore the pain in his chest.

 

**

 

They both do a valiant job at not prying into what’s Hyungwon is obviously upset over; for that, he’ll give them credit. Changkyun is less worried about the lack of answer, but he is worried about the hanging silence which wove around their conversations, tongue-tying them all, especially Wonho, who talks like he’s walking on a verbal minefield, careful not to misstep or overstep his boundaries. And it’s when they’re safety in that little alcove off the street with the evening sun setting, that he feels ready to talk. The snake called silence has been perched by them for what must be ten seconds now. It’s time.

 

“Do you know what polyamory is?” he offers. The two sets of eyes widen with recognition that this is the moment they’ve been waiting for, the whole reason they came in the first place.

 

“Sure, like when you’re seeing more than one person.”

 

Hyungwon turns to his hyung, the one who looked out for him and acted like a security blanket with his buff and his brawn when they were out in public but then played with him after hours, away from the hungry eyes and bright recording lights. He wants to tell him first because if he feels like he stole Changkyun, it’ll weigh on him, and Changkyun doesn’t like to simmer in his feelings for too long but he’s better at it. He’s waiting expectantly, and Hyungwon knows that there’s no chance that he’s expecting the kind of disaster about to come out of his mouth.

 

“I’ve been in love with you for a very long time. It started…. I don’t know, probably years ago.” The explanation isn’t enough- God, it isn’t nearly enough- but it’s something, and he’s having trouble breathing so he says no more.

 

“Wha- you’re-? What?”

 

“Please, I just…” He turns to face the maknae, the one who always seemed to know something the others didn’t and was a mystery all himself, “I’ve been in love with you, too, for a very long time. Not as long as Wonho, but long enough to know that I wanted to be something more with you.”

 

Changkyun doesn’t say anything. Wonho’s hands are over his mouth so he doesn’t say something he doesn’t mean and no no no he knew it was going to turn out like this, why did he have to open his big, dumb mouth, now he’s going to have to leave the country and hide in a cottage in the Siberian wilderness out where no one will find him and the only person who has to deal with his chaos is himself.

 

“Did that freak you out? I know, it’s weird, I’m sorry for even bringing it up. Honestly, I’ll get over it eventually, don’t feel like you have to do anything. Sorry if I made things weird.” His hands shake before they’ve shoved into his pockets and starts to walk, picking up pace.

 

“Hyungwon, wait!”

 

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’d like to be alone. I’ll see you at the hotel.”

 

**

 

They sit on opposite beds when they get back. The room feels foreign, and while usually they wouldn’t take notice, it only serves to accentuate how out of place it feels.

How out of place they feel.

 

“So… what do you think?” Changkyun hasn’t been able to do much more than stay in place, his brain recalling the words and his memory picking apart all the moments they had together as just them, or as a group, or as a triple.

 

“I’m not freaked out by it, but I’m… confused. He said ‘years’? That’s how long he’s been dealing with this? How did we not notice?”

 

“I honestly don’t know, but….” There’s a long pause, weighing the options of asking, the consequences of speaking versus missing his opportunity. “Would you do it?”

 

“I don’t know…. It’s not that I’m against it or anything, I’ve just never considered it.” If he had been walking, he would have stopped dead in his tracks. “Have you?”

 

Changkyun doesn’t respond at first, but then slowly, he answers, “A little….”

 

“Really?”

“What? Before we got together, I was open to just about anything including dating within the group, and logically Hyungwon was the first person I thought of.” As an aside, he adds, “And you haven’t? You guys were so flirty all the time during meetings. Why aren’t we talking about that?”

 

“I think we need to all talk together.”

 

**

 

Hyungwon doesn’t see the message right away, and even when he does, he wait a few minutes before answering. The other members are probably back in their own respective rooms by now. The veil of privacy has become thinner. When Wonho opens the door, he chooses to stand at the foot of the beds as oppose to sitting with one or the other or neither.

 

“We thought about what you said. We don’t…. we don’t know what being in a poly is like,” he starts, fingers purposely interlocked so he wouldn’t fidget or run away, “but you’re a person who is very dear to us, and we like being around you.”

 

“We want to give it a try.” Changkyun says, confident. 

 

“’We’?” he echoes.

 

I want to give it a try.”

 

“And so do I.”

 

He rests his face in his hands, overwhelmed. Truthfully, he hadn’t thought this far ahead. Most of the hours he’d fretted away were spent preparing for the worst and hoping for something a little better than not-a-disaster. The fact that he hasn’t been verbally eviscerated by Changkyun is a miracle to him.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“I think we should go on a date first- all three of us. Just to see how it is. If we’re comfortable.” Wonho says, playing with the sleeve of his sweater. Generally, people went on dates to get to know one another, but this was different because him and Changkyun and Hyungwon, but even saying the ‘and’ doesn’t sound right because it sounds like someone is being left out when really this needs to be an effort on all their parts. "I know it'll be a lot of work being three, but I want to try." 

 

 

"Right," Changkyun's voice sounds more steady now that they're all, finally, on the same page, "We- I don't want to overpromise you anything. If we all agreed to being together so suddenly, one of us might end up a third wheel, which is the last thing we want."

 

The answers shouldn't surprise him- they've all grown so much from the nervous pack of trainees they once were, stumbling over each other's emotions. Changkyun had learned to see things from other people's perspectives, and Wonho had learned to be supportive even when he coudln't. 

 

"Ok, we'll try it." 

 

**

 

Coming up with impromptu date ideas when 0/3 people have ever been to this county nor speak the language is surprisingly difficult, but there was a spectacular thing called Amazon Prime which let Ono watch all the dramas he wanted while simultaneously providing a treasure trove of true crime docs and TED talks to a more-than-thrilled Q. That’s why they had started off with an episode of Criminal Minds, but that was before they got distracted by the fidgety Pet sprawled across them.

 

It had started as a twitch here, a grumble there, but it had since snowballed until the only thing he could do was cocoon himself in the soft fleece blanket he’d brought from home until he was too hot or wanted affection from either of the Caregivers beside him until he was too code, and then dive back under the covers.

 

“Are you tired?” He laughs. He lifts his arms to give the baby more room to snuggle into him. One arm settles over his stomach; the other, squished underneath him. In place of a response, there’s a whine and more pouting. “My pup must be so sleepy.”

 

He is sleepy- in fact, he’s exhausted. All that excitement tired him out. He needs to take a long nap, and where better to do it than in the arms of someone he cares about and trusts?

 

The movie ends, and Hyungwon summons the powers of his peripheral vision to look for the remote, but it’s just far enough out of reach that the very ends of his long, bony fingers can touch the end but nothing more. He can’t move or else he’ll disturb the sleeping bundle on top of him, and that would be a crime in the self-imposed Pet Owner manual he’s been living with. To his rescue comes a pale hand to take them back to the home page.

 

“It’s getting late. I can take him, if you want.” Wonho holds out his hands to show that he's serious about picking up the Pet if that's what Hyungwon wants. 

 

“He’s comfortable, and so am I, so it’s no problem for me.”

 

“Are you staying in here, then?” A nod. “Do you want to be alone?”

 

“You don’t have to leave just on my account.”

 

It’s a feat of human Jenga proportions for Wonho to squeeze himself around his two bandmates. With one leg here and the other dangling off the bed, he looks like what would happen if someone paused a soccer game in the middle of a free kick. Changkyun doesn’t seem to notice, sleeping peacefully with his head on Hyungwon’s chest.

 

“He’d never admit it, but he’s been so stressed since you started spending less time around us.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Is all he can offer because he is, but that won’t turn back time and let him do things over now that he knows that this is the outcome.

 

“I understand why you did it, but…. please don’t do it again. I missed you a lot.” Wonho admits. He moves in closer to Hyungwon the way he always has, sighing as the comfort of the other man warms him. 

 

“I missed you too.”

Chapter Text

The questions come in the dead of night when those who can sleep, have, and those who can’t, pray they will.

 

“Would you do things over differently if you had a chance to go back?” Kihyun asks. He lays on the end of his bed sideways, his head resting upon his folded arm so he can watch his shows. They had a day off, it was prime marathoning time. It was prime cuddling-and-enjoying-one-another’s-presence time.

 

Shownu looks up from where he’s writing on his laptop. There’s no need for context- there’s only one conversation this heavy.

 

“With the knowledge I have now? Maybe. With the knowledge I had then… I don’t think there’s anything I could have done.”

 

On the other half of the bed, Shownu waits patiently for the next question.

 

“What would you do if you saw him again?” He whispers.

 

It's something that he's thought about before, generally in late hours like these, but he normally did so alone in his room. He imagined what it would be like to bump into the man he had waited for for years, the one who showed him it was possible to lose hope and that not all endings were happy ones. “Nearly 10 years have passed. I’d like to hear about how he’s been doing, ask how he’s been.”

 

“Would you talk about… y’know… everything that happened?”

 

“What he did… it wasn’t fair by any means, but I understand why he did it.” Shownu thinks about his words, careful to choose the most correct arrangement, “But we don’t get to pick and choose which parts of ourselves we want to keep. That’s the beauty of life, isn’t it?”

 

The words settle deep into the bottom of his heart, somewhere around the terrarium of the forget me not. 

Kihyun remembers walking through the art section of museums and seeing bowls filled with veins of gold.

We are more beautiful for having been broken he recalls.

 

“Besides, I got you in the end, didn’t I?” Shownu’s elbow presses lightly into Kihyun’s rib, still careful of the injury, “I wouldn’t the person I am today, and it wouldn’t be worth the risk if it didn’t end up like this.”

 

“You’re really something else, aren’t you?” the corner of his lip quirks up into an uneven smile, in awe of this person who could convince him to believe in the things he had been taught not to. The one who inspired him to see beyond his own limitations. “Come here…”

 

Kihyun’s hand slides into place along the sharpness of Shownu’s jaw. The way their lips slot together feels like second nature, like his body has always known how to do this and was waiting for an age-old signal to summon it. It’s a special moment, one he doesn’t want to tarnish by taking things too fast. Shownu turns onto his side, partially on top of him, to deepen the kiss. His mouth opens wider to allow Kihyun’s tongue in, if that’s something he wants, and Kihyun most definitely wants to. The weight of the other man leaning onto his chest, one warm thigh over his, feels so right against him. His body reciprocates by maneuvering to get a better angle, kissing into him deep and hungry, and he realizes very quickly that this is headed to some incredibly unholy places.

 

“Do you wanna?” Shownu asks, not wanting to say the words out loud so soon. Kihyun looks back at him with wide eyes.

 

“Are you sure?” Another kiss, another confession.

 

Yeah, I’m sure.”

 

**

 

Shownu throws his towel over the banister to dry overnight. His hair is still damp, but it’s dry enough for him to feel comfortable jumping on to the bed with his boyfriend. Kihyun lays beside him with his glasses threatening to slip off the bridge of his sharp nose. Their bodies are being pulled further into sleep, but one question reverberates in his head and out of his mouth.

 

“What about you?”

 

“What do you mean, ‘what about me’?”

 

“Would you go back and do things differently if you had a chance?”

Kihyun gives a breathy laugh, “It does not do well to dwell upon the past.”

 

Shownu nudges him in response. “Come on, Aristotle.”

 

“In the end, I didn’t really know him. Would I have liked to see where things went? Sure. We got along. It could haven been great.” Shownu’s heart sinks a little, wondering if he would ever be able to match up to this mystery boy. From the way Kihyun described him, it was like he'd hung the stars and convinced the sun to shine, and Shownu was just... him. “At the same time, it could have been terrible. It could have been a disaster and I could have The fact is that I don't know, and that I never will, but that doesn't matter to me.”

 

The kiss he receives is gentle and sweet; the side that Kihyun showed in bits and pieces and revealed only in times like these. 

 

“I’m with you, and you are real.”

 

He feels the wave of unease which had plagued him drift away flowing out of him, gently brushed aside by the words. Shownu feels lucky to have a boyfriend like him, and truly ‘boyfriend’ isn’t an adequate term. It wasn’t like finding a soulmate; more like finally finding two matching pieces of a puzzle and putting them together after rummaging through a sea of little images culminating into one larger, beautiful work of art. There were tons of pieces interlocking around them and with them, far beyond where they could see, but they had the certainty of one another.

That was all they needed.

Chapter Text

It’s a campside morning; one of those days where the air hangs cool and misty and rich with the smell of woodlands. They’re in Korea for the time being- there are more shows to perform and more people to meet, but they have now and that's enough. Jooheon is helping Kihyun whittle away the long list of housekeeping items necessary to maintain general order in the dorm. Minhyuk is helping Shownu stack the ready suitcases by the door for their flight tomorrow. Hyungwon and Changkyun come out of the bathroom squeaky clean from a shared shower. Right on cue, Wonho returns from his walk.

 

“We’re going out for Shownu-hyung’s birthday.” Hyungwon greets, then pulls him close to plant a kiss on the other man’s cheek, “Did you want me to do your hair before we go?”

 

“I would, thanks.” Changkyun makes sure to give a kiss as well before he peeks inside the plastic convenience bag around where his hyungs are hugging. He pulls out a choco-milk bottle and his face instantly lights up, and all this watching has left Kihyun the epitome of Confused. A hand shakes limply back and forth between the group.

 

“Both of your caregivers?”

 

The implications start to pull themselves together around Shownu. “Wait, you mean--? All three of you?”

 

Three pairs of eyes glance between each other, searching for an answer but finding equal amounts of confusion.The look of surprise is unmistakable, but then again, they had never formally announced to their arrangement to the group. They hadn’t been so sure of it themselves, first going on one test date and then another until the distinction between a trial and reality melded into one another. “We’re all dating.”

 

“Oh… that’s great!” Kihyun says, a little unsure of himself. The group’s uneasy gaze falls on Minhyuk, their Third, Kihyun silently apologizing for never considering this possibility.

 

“Did you want to….?” the question completes itself. The mood of the room isn’t dampened for too long as Minhyuk waves a hand dismissively.

 

“Nah, that romantic love stuff isn’t for me.”

 

A sigh of relief. At least that's one down, but then again, Minhyuk and Jooheon were on opposites side on the room. They book ended the couple and the throuple, and like a tennis match, all eyes redirected to the rapper. Shownu feels the self-consciousness over his happiness rise in him once again.

 

“I’m sure you’ll find a nice….” Kihyun inhales sharply and shoots his 50/50 shot, “girl…?”

 

“I'm bi.” Jooheon clarifies.

 

“I'm pan.” Changkyun adds. He wouldn’t want his friend to feel alone, would he?

 

“I'm gay.” Hyungwon chips in.

 

“I'm ace.” Wonho says, his eyebrows furrowing, not entirely sure why he spoke up other than because they happened to be making these declarations in a circle and he was next.

 

“I'm aro.” Minhyuk throws in for continuity. Next in their little circle is a slack-jawed Kihyun.

 

“I'm stunned.”

 

“I'm Shownu, and we're Monsta X!”

 

The room devolves into humorous chatter. Minhyuk promises to help find Jooheon a nice boy or girl even if it kills him, and Jooheon asks him to please, for the love of the moon and all the creatures below it, to not. Wonho strong-arms both his boyfriends into a hug. Standing there together, it truly feels like they’re parents watching over their kids, and the thought doesn’t scare him in the slightest. Beside him, Kihyun yells at the members to be careful and not incapacitate one another. He grabs onto Shownu’s hand with a lopsided grin.

 

“Kids these days.” He laughs, and Shownu knows there’s a big, toothy grin on his face full of the pure admiration, like Kihyun is the center of his universe, but that doesn’t matter. He squeezes the hand in his.

 

I could do this for a long, long time, he thinks.

 

**

 

They celebrate his belated birthday just in time for Monbebe to begin picking out which billboards they want to say ‘Happy Jooheon Day’. The van drops them in front of a steakhouse and Wonho owes Changkyun $10, which he only hands over once his boyfriend promises to give him a kiss, which he does, first on the cheek and then quickly on the lips, after which there was a great uproar of ‘not in front of the children’. Eyes watch them as they exit the night and step onto the fancy black marble and glance around at the decorative lighting, and the members take pictures of themselves and one another in between the smalltalk. They’re in for a feast courtesy of their company’s CEO. Their recent success has made this the most successful fiscal year yet, and the smell of the steaks and seafood dispersed over the long table is even more delectable knowing that they’ve earned this indulgence. Before any of them can dig in, Shownu waves them all down and raises his drink.

 

“Alright guys.” He leans over the table so he can see all the members. Wonho throws his napkin on the table and prepares for his heart to clench. “I won't talk for too long, I promise. I know there have been a plenty of changes in the past year. I know that there has been pain but there has also been discovery, and there has been joy and there has been laughter.”

 

He takes a moment to look down at how his posture is uncomfortably positioned and moves to correct it.

 

“We’ve all grown together. I know you all are more than capable of taking care of yourselves, and I am grateful to have been your leader. We may not always go with one another, but we’ll keep going because that’s what we’ve always done. There are wonders out there for all of you to see. I hope you’ll take them in stride.”

 

“Yah! Don’t get sappy on us!” Minhyuk’s drink raised for a toast lowers in half-offense.

 

What I’m trying to say,” Shownu beseeches, “is that these years have been the best years of my life, and I have all of you to thank. Everything is good, better than I could have imagined. There are many ends and many beginnings. This is not the finale, this is just the end of chapter in the same book setting us up to turn the page. So…. thank you, and may we have many more memories together.”

 

Not even a second after his heartfelt speech, literally everyone in the dining who speaks Korean, including but not limited to two of the chefs, a waiter, and a table full of confused senior citizens across the dining room, applauds. He feels a bit embarrassed realizing that probably everyone in the restaurant heard him, but Kihyun’s hand is resting on his arm, giving him strength.

 

You did well. He seems to say, and as the members begin to dig in, he feels a rightness in being there with him.

 

**

 

They come back home with bellies full of meat and faces hurting from laughter. The AAA Awards are coming up, so they need to start practicing their showcase, but those are issues that can wait until tomorrow. Kihyun shoves a box with ‘this way up’ written hastily on the side, gives a very flustered ‘this is for you I hope you like it’, and runs off muttering something about having to take a shower, but they both know it’s so the butterflies in his stomach don’t get the better of him.

He sets it down and folds back the walls of the package. Inside, small branches covered in leafy green bristles obscure the trunk and the soil below it. Shownu places it by the window where he knows the sun will shine, and when he rotates the object more, he sees it.

A note card sticks up in the back of the pot. 

 

If you’re wondering why I got you this tree, it isn’t because I ran out of ideas. Minhyuk told me that this was a weird gift but nothing else seemed right. You deserve something with meaning, not something to be used and discarded. You deserve so much more than that, but at least I’ll be able to give you this. I got you a tree because it reminds me of love. Love doesn’t need to be loud. It often isn’t. And with time and care, it grows, just as a tree does. Our roots stay firmly in place while we rise upward. Maybe I won’t be there to see it. I’d like to think I will. But no matter what, I hope you’re happy. I hope you find everything you’ve ever wanted and more. 

 

Forever yours,

-Kihyun

 

The center of the card bends as he holds it to his chest. Kihyun is just…. Kihyun, and he isn’t perfect, and that’s what makes him perfect. It’s these moments where he shines, because no matter what he might say at a time of weakness or do at a time of insecurity, his heart was always in the right place. He wasn’t perfect, but he was inherently good, and that was a rarity. Shownu places the tree on the ledge by the window. The elegant lines blur under the droplets of tears.

 

**

 

He drops in the middle of the day with a muffled whine pressed into his caregiver’s chest. Their flight doesn’t leave until the nighttime, which means they have a good five-six hours before there’s even a rumor of packing up to leave. Shownu lays on his tummy on the side of the bed closest to the wall so he’d protected by their home on one side and Kihyun on the other. He’s roused from the limbo state of sleep by the phone ringing on the bedside table.

 

“Hello?”

 

The little ears on his onesie flip-flop when his head quirks up to ask what’s going on.

 

“Right now? Can it wait?” Kihyun looks down and the mass clinging to his side, bites his lip, then slides out of bed. “No, no, I've got it. I'll be over in a minute.”

 

The wave of coldness makes Shownu shrink back into the comforter. He hops on one leg trying to get his shoe on, “PD needs me to pick up something from the office. Do you want me to grab Minnie? Or are you ok here on your own for fifteen minutes?”

 

“M’kay Papa.” He nods into the pillow tucked under his chin.

 

“Be good for me while I'm gone! I’ll only be away for a little bit.” 

 

They aren’t his favorite words to hear, but that’s ok. 

He can be patient.

He can be good. 

He will be good. 

 

**

 

The door slams open and closed when the number on the digital clock marking out the ten’s has gone up by two numbers. Kihyun throws off his shoes and jacket, tossing the Manila envelope on to the table before calling out, “Baby?” 

 

Before he can say anything else, there’s a loud thump from where the Little has tumbled off the bed. Footsteps patter down the stairs, Shownu now standing in the walkway. His face lights up when he sees who called him. 

 

"Papa! Papa! Papa's back!"

 

"Of course I'm back, pumpkin." he says, giving Shownu a kiss, "Were you good while Papa was gone?"

 

The Little nods, beaming under the attention. "So good!"

 

He looks so happy, so joyous, that Kihyun might have forgotten the struggles he had gone through, the ones they had faced together, and the ones Kihyun had battled through on his own. But he doesn't forget. Those were the things which made their relationship what it was, Big and Little, from time in and time out, away from the clamor of Life, a pocket in their own dimension. Those were the things he would cherish, years from now, should he be so inclined to do so.

 

But he doesn't say any of that. 

 

No

 

Instead, he wraps his arms around his Little and holds him just a little bit closer, lips pressed into soft hair to kiss him a little longer. 

 

"That's my baby boy.”