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Numbered Promises

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Hoseok nudges Jooheon as they sit in the audience. Jooheon doesn’t look but nudges back. He looks up at the stage and locks eyes with Changkyun before sending him a small thumbs-up. Changkyun presses his lips together in an attempt to smile, his mortarboard sitting crooked on his head.

“I can’t believe our baby is finally graduating,” Hyungwon whispers from Jooheon’s other side.

“I can’t believe he beat out Jihoon for valedictorian,” Hyunwoo whispers back, leaning across Hoseok’s lap to say it.

“Could you please be quiet?” Kihyun hisses under his breath.

“Or what? You’ll burn this place to the ground? How would that make Kyunnie feel?” Minhyuk hisses back.

Jooheon purses his lips in an attempt to keep himself from laughing. The Headmaster is wrapping up his speech about how well this class has done throughout their career here at the school, knowing full well that most of the graduating students wouldn’t be going anywhere at all. Just moving from one dormitory to another just like Jooheon and all his friends had. Just like Changkyun was planning on doing.

“Is he nervous?” Hoseok whispers to Jooheon.

“Rule number six, Hoseok,” Jooheon replies under his breath. Hoseok sighs in response but doesn’t press any further.

“Now I’m very pleased to announce this year’s Valedictorian, Changkyun Im.”

Everyone around them politely claps while their little cluster of friends lets out a collective whoop with a few “You go, Changkyun!”’s sprinkled in for good measure. The Headmaster throws them a weary glance while Changkyun smirks down at his speech.

Jooheon smiles fondly up at Changkyun the entire time he talks while not listening to a single word he says. After hearing Changkyun rehearse it for three days straight, he’s sure he could probably give the speech himself.

It’s after graduation that matters, when the six of them are all huddled around the table full of pretzels and chips as they stare at every single graduate flowing out of the gym into the corridor.

“What are the chances he makes himself invisible and just leaves?” Hyungwon asks before shoving a whole handful of pretzel sticks into his mouth.

“I’d freeze his toes off,” Minhyuk replies easily.

“Harsh,” Jooheon says before nibbling on an almond from the trail mix bowl.

“You realize we’re the only alums here? Hell, Hyunwoo really is embarrassing himself by being here,” Kihyun says.

“There’s nothing embarrassing about supporting your friend,” Hyunwoo replies before just picking up the bowl of trail mix to eat from, holding it between him and Jooheon, so Jooheon can still eat from it if he wants.

“I agree with Hyunwoo,” Hoseok pipes up.

“Of course you do,” Hyungwon mutters under his breath with a roll of his eyes.

Jooheon feels an unpleasant tingle run down his spine before he grabs a handful of the trail mix and waves Hyunwoo away a bit too rigidly.

Hoseok always had a slight hero thing for Hyunwoo. He looked at him like he was the reason the sun lit up the skies, and the firmament didn’t come crashing down around them. It had been bad enough when they were kids, but now? It gnawed a bit on the inside of Jooheon’s cheek like that raw spot you accidentally bit down on a few days ago, but now you can’t stop messing with.

“I’m sorry that he’s right most of the time,” Hoseok counters smugly before popping a chip into his mouth and biting down.

Jooheon wishes he was the chip or Hyunwoo or a weird hybrid of both of them as long as Hoseok looked at him like that or maybe held him between his teeth.

“There he is!” Kihyun exclaims as Changkyun hurriedly makes his way over to them. He runs straight into Kihyun’s arms, and Jooheon decides that’s also another talk they’ll probably all have later over a bonfire.

“Congrats, grad!” Minhyuk says with a huge grin, and Changkyun groans, his face and hair disappearing for a moment, leaving his mortarboard floating in the air.

“That’s so cheesy. Like a greeting card,” Changkyun’s disembodied voice says before he phases back into being and hugs Minhyuk.

“Aw, let him be cheesy, he’s proud of you,” Hyungwon says before he pulls Changkyun into a hug of his own.

Changkyun pats Hyungwon’s back, eyes closing contentedly before he sets his sights on Jooheon, a big grin lighting up his face.

Jooheon holds his arms open like they don't cuddle every single day, and Changkyun throws himself into them like they don’t hug every chance they get. Jooheon feels a tickle in his mind, an overwhelming collective thought, and he opens one eye to look around them at all their older friends smiling fondly at them. Jooheon sighs because he knows that the collective thought was just the word cute! being screamed in every one of their minds.

Sometimes they all made it hard to follow Rule Number Six.

“I can’t wait to finally officially room with you,” Changkyun says with one final squeeze before he kisses Jooheon’s cheek and pulls away.

“I can’t wait either, roomie,” Jooheon says back, and Changkyun bounces a bit in place before moving on to give Hoseok and Hyunwoo their hugs.

“So where do you want to eat? My treat,” Hyunwoo says.

Jooheon smirks to himself before Changkyun even answers, already knowing without knowing.

“Fuck, I would kill for some bottomless fries,” Changkyun says.

He hears Hyungwon sigh. “He could’ve asked to go to the fanciest restaurant, but no, we’re going to travel two hours to go to Red Robin again.”

“Hey, it’s his day, let him crave Red Robin,” Kihyun says.

Jooheon laughs as they head outside to watch Changkyun toss his mortarboard in the air with the rest of his class. The mortarboards are a mess of them catching fire, freezing, teleporting, going all kinds of crazy directions, and Changkyun’s little weird flickering invisibility thing he is far too proud of.

+++

It’s summer now, which means they don’t have to do anything. They all study here on scholarship for their “extraordinary skills”, and now that they’re all legally adults, the school lets them run wild during the summer.

They’re sitting around the fire pit, watching as Kihyun snakes an arm beneath the glimmering shield that Hyunwoo insists they make (because Rule Number One, safety first, protect your friends ) before he snaps a fire to life on the wood and dry leaves they collected on their way there. Once it really gets going, Hyunwoo drops the shield, and Kihyun gets up before he goes to sit down next to Changkyun.

“Wanna see something I’ve been working on?” Changkyun asks. Jooheon feels the collective apprehension at the question, and he rolls his shoulders back to wave it off.

“What exactly have you been working on?” Hyungwon asks, a beer from the cooler floating through the air toward him. Jooheon squints his eyes at it. Telekinesis had always been the much preferred mind power in his opinion. Much better than reading minds ever was.

“Something cool,” Changkyun replies cryptically. The apprehension rises again, and this time Jooheon coughs a bit to make it go away.

“Do I have to set up another shield?” Hyunwoo asks, pouting at Hyungwon until Hyungwon sighs and another beer floats through the air before landing in Hyunwoo’s lap.

Jooheon doesn’t miss the way Hoseok watches Hyunwoo pop open the beer and drink down half of it in three gulps. He doesn’t miss it, and he’s never wanted to break rule number six so bad.

“Nah, it should be fine, just watch the fire,” Changkyun says.

They all watch as the flames flicker once, twice, and then they flicker out of existence even though Jooheon can still feel the heat coming from a fire.

“Holy shit,” Minhyuk says.

“Kihyun isn’t even reacting,” Hyungwon grumbles past the beer bottle on his lips.

“Well, now we know who he’s been practicing with,” Jooheon says. Changkyun giggles softly before the flames roar back into reality, and everyone claps a bit for him, for a new parlor trick he has up his sleeve.

“I’m working on multiple objects at once, but it’s trickier,” Changkyun says.

“I’m sure you’ll get it down,” Kihyun says.

It doesn’t take a mind-reader to see Changkyun internally combusting at the praise, though it might take one to see how pleased Jooheon is with his own pun about Kihyun making someone combust.

Jooheon looks around the circle and sighs. He’s happy here with them. Has been for years. But he can’t help but notice that he’s the odd one out even with all the love and affection he gets.

Changkyun sits next to Kihyun on the log to his left. Hyungwon and Minhyuk share the log across from him. Hoseok and Hyunwoo sit to his right, and he sits on a log by himself, the cooler full of beers the only thing keeping his direct company.

He wishes Hoseok would sit next to him and smile at him the way he does at Hyunwoo. Like he was so glad that he was alive and there and with them . Although Jooheon guesses that Hoseok is glad that Jooheon is there with him. He is the reason that Jooheon even became friends with this strange little motley crew in the first place.

Kihyun clears his throat. “So um, I’m sure it’s kind of obvious, but we thought we should tell you guys officially.” Kihyun snakes his hand into Changkyun’s, and Changkyun gets that look in his eyes like he’s so fond he could die.

“We’re dating,” Changkyun says simply, and Jooheon had expected as much, so he just smiles and nods as everyone else grumbles about finally .

“Kihyun, you know we’ll have to kill you if this goes south, right?” Minhyuk says, bottle of beer pressed against his bottom lip. Kihyun frowns at him.

“Yes, I’m aware of the vague threats to freeze my nuts off like I couldn’t beat you in a fight,” Kihyun replies. The fire flickers up a little before settling as much as a fire can. Jooheon smirks. Rule number four in action. Don’t be a hothead.

“Ha! You wish you could beat me in a fight,” Minhyuk says, cheeky grin starting on his face.

Kihyun rolls his eyes. “I could melt you,” he grumbles.

“I mean, if we’re that concerned we could always use an exception to rule six?” Hoseok says.

Jooheon frowns. That’s his rule. The rule he had made when he was twelve, and they had all snuck out to make a weird friendship pact because that’s what kids do. Especially kids knowing they’re about to form a team forever. All of them came up with a rule. Jooheon’s was simple.

No reading a friend’s mind.

Simple, even though at the time Jooheon couldn’t really control it, and he would end up exhausted everyday, fighting off their stray thoughts until he got better. Until he got used to it. Now he barely heard their exact thoughts unless they were screamed in his direction or increasingly loud like the cute from graduation. Now it was general feelings like an empath.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Jooheon says, looking over at Hoseok.

“Actually, you can. I revoke my right to rule number six for the next few seconds,” Kihyun says.

Jooheon sighs and turns back to him because once they get here, he has to. He peels away the little layer he had around his brain just enough to let Kihyun shine through.

“I’m going to stay with him forever. I fucking love him,” Kihyun’s mind says before Kihyun blinks a bit and shakes his head. “I mean I really like him, shit, please don’t tell him that.”

Jooheon snorts and looks up at the blue sky above them. “I think they’ll be fine,” is all he says, much to the disdain of the group who are all wondering why Kihyun has turned three shades of pink, and the fire keeps flashing higher.

 

They sleep outside, rolling out the sleeping bags they had hidden away out here long ago. Everyone passes out quickly, but Jooheon finds that he can’t sleep. When he gets sleepy, everything is harder to control, and his friends’ dreams show up in front of his eyes like strange flickering from a TV. It makes his mouth taste like copper, and he’s about to get up and grab another beer, hoping the alcohol will make him sleepy enough to just pass out when he hears movement.

He freezes, his mind reaching out, searching for an intruder, but there’s nothing other than the seven of them, and Jooheon turns around to see Hoseok sitting up, staring up at the sky. They were at the end of the group, Hoseok between him and Hyunwoo, and Jooheon at the end because sometimes he wanted to be a bit further away from everyone’s thoughts.

Hoseok doesn’t know he’s awake, but he’s just staring up at the sky, a small smile on his face, and Jooheon wants to break rule number six again just to know what’s going on there. Instead, he shifts around in his sleeping bag to make enough noise for Hoseok to glance down at him.

“Oh! Did I wake you?” Hoseok whispers to him.

Jooheon shakes his head. “You’re fine. What are you doing?”

Hoseok clears his throat a little, pointing up above the trees. “You can see it,” he says softly.

Jooheon rubs his eyes as he sits up and squints at where Hoseok is pointing. At first, he’s not sure what he’s looking at until he shifts a bit and sees the light shimmer in a way it shouldn’t up there. Jooheon recognizes it immediately, and his heart sinks.

“Hyunwoo’s shield?” Jooheon asks softly.

“It’s incredible, right? He’s asleep, but he’s still protecting us. And look how big it is. It covers the whole little campground,” Hoseok says, and he sounds like a kid explaining how his imaginary world worked. It’s terribly endearing while also making Jooheon feel kind of miserable.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” Jooheon says because at the end of the day, he really can’t believe Hyunwoo does this. He doesn’t even know how he’s doing it in his sleep.

When Hyunwoo had first come to the school, his parents had called him invulnerable. Invincible. The Headmaster explained to him that while that may seem true, it wasn’t really Hyunwoo’s skin that was. It was this perfectly strong invisible shield he carried on his skin.

It wasn’t long before Hyunwoo was being taught to move the shield, make it bigger, move it around other things, make it into shapes, suction it around others to protect them.

Hyunwoo was the defense and the leader of every team he got sent out with, and he was good and kind, and Jooheon couldn’t even be mad that Hoseok looked at him like he hung the moon because Hyunwoo was literally asleep, his most vulnerable state, and he was giving up his precious impenetrable shield’s protection around him to protect all of them when nothing bad had ever happened here. When the worst thing that’s ever happened to them was when they woke up to it pouring rain on them, and Hyunwoo did exactly this to make it stop while Kihyun used his fire to help them all get dry again.

“I just think it’s so pretty the way it glimmers,” Hoseok explains.

Jooheon sighs and nods. “You really love him, don’t you?”

Hoseok is quiet for a few seconds as he hugs his knees to his chest. “Of course, I do. We all love each other.”

Jooheon shakes his head. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

Hoseok looks down and over at him. “We’re not together,” he says simply.

“No, but you want to be,” Jooheon says, and he gets it. He does. He understands wanting to be with someone and being around them all the time and still not having them. He probably gets it better than anyone.

Hoseok sighs and runs his fingers through his hair. “I know it’s bad. I know it’s obvious. But I can’t help it, you know? He was my first friend here. My first friend ever, maybe. And everyone kinda falls in love with their first friend somehow, right?”

Jooheon wonders if Hoseok is aware that he’s Jooheon’s first friend. If he knows how Jooheon feels everything inside him calcifying and turning to dust because he’s a good friend and will always be there to try to help Hoseok through his problems even when he’s so in love with someone that isn’t him.

Jooheon licks his lips and looks up at the glimmer of Hyunwoo’s shield against the sky again. “Yeah, I think so, too. The first friend falling in love thing.”

“You know, Hyunwoo was the only kid who wasn’t afraid of me? He never once treated me like i was dumb just because I was strong. He was never afraid to hold my hand or let me hug him,” Hoseok says softly.

Jooheon smiles, glad that Hoseok had that for him. Maybe that was why Hoseok had been so kind to him his first day. He remembered feeling left out and suddenly someone reached out to him. Hyunwoo was a lifeline for Hoseok like Hoseok had been for Jooheon. Maybe that was how they ended up like this.

“Have you ever told Hyunwoo?” Jooheon asks.

Hoseok shrugs. “I don’t want to ruin everything.”

Jooheon nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I get that.”

“Besides, I don’t think he would ever feel the same way,” Hoseok says, and his voice sounds vaguely sad and vaguely resigned like he just knew he was going to pine for him tragically forever.

Jooheon feels his throat get tight. He remembers a much smaller Hoseok holding up two fingers before saying that his rule was to be strong for his friends when they couldn’t be. Not to beat up their enemies. Not to be scary and intimidating because he could lift a grown adult above his head only using the tip of his pointer finger. But to be a rock and strength for the rest of them when they needed it. And it was so very Hoseok that Jooheon wanted to cry then, and he still wants to cry now thinking about it.

And Jooheon wants so badly for Hoseok to be happy because happiness is what Hoseok deserves. So he swallows down the growing lump in his throat. “I think you should talk to him. I don’t think Hyunwoo would let it ruin your friendship. And you never know. Maybe he’s in the same boat as you.”

Hoseok chuckles a bit. “Are you giving me advice or do you know that for a fact?”

“Rule Number Six. I’m just going off what I see,” Jooheon replies.

Hoseok hums softly. “We should try to sleep,” he says.

“You’re right.”

Neither of them move to lay down, though. Hoseok chuckles again, a soft airy thing between his lips, and Jooheon aches.

“Thank you for listening, honey. Good night,” Hoseok whispers before he slowly lays back down.

Jooheon watches him as he closes his eyes and falls asleep in three breaths.

Jooheon sighs and rubs his eyes. “Night. Love you,” he mumbles, mainly to himself, before laying down and trying his damndest not to see the flashes of Hyunwoo’s tan skin appearing in Hoseok’s dream.