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light the way and let me go

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Hongjoong is that guy who starts a rock band with his three closest friends in the garage of his parents’ suburban Long Island home. It’s the summer between his junior and senior years of high school and playing the same video game for hours gets boring. 

Speaking entirely objectively—which of course, seems impossible—they aren’t actually terrible. They all took Band as an elective and actually cared about it so they’re decently proficient at their instruments, anyway, so it’s not like they’re the Wyld Stallyns or something. And for a privileged, middle-class teen, Hongjoong writes some pretty deep stuff.

Hongjoong plays guitar and leads on vocals. He doesn’t purport to be the best singer, but it’s rock; he’s not belting soaring ballads. That’s what they have Jongho for. He does all their backup vocals and he plays keyboard. That kid is far more talented than Hongjoong believes himself to be, and he has written entire songs just to show off his vocal abilities. Mingi is on bass, and provides some of their more subtle background vocals. His deep voice is a stunning contrast to Jongho’s, and it’s highlighted in a lot of Hongjoong’s work. Yunho is a wizard on drums on the stage… and off, he’s their emotional backbone. So many disagreements are abated because of him. Hongjoong doesn’t think they would have made it this far without him.

Their friend San appoints himself as acting manager. He handles all of the logistics, the bookings, and Hongjoong is honestly grateful it doesn’t all fall to him. He doesn’t think he could deal with it all.

Some might think they’re just being edgy millennials , and maybe they are. They name the band All to Zero , and no one will ever ask, Hongjoong thinks, but he chose the name because it seems kids these days aren’t even starting at zero; between the economy, student loan debt, the terrible job market… it’s like starting in the negatives. You have to crawl your way up to zero just to get your start.

Hongjoong doesn’t think anyone will ask, but later, when they’re interviewed for the first time—it’s a minor rock music publication, not exactly Rolling Stone —they ask, and he tells them proudly.

They start in that garage, with yard sale amps and hand-me-down instruments and varying opinions on whether or not they will actually be successful.

After a few years, they start playing the local bar circuit. They only get a time slot because San knows a guy who knows a guy, but it happens. The bar patrons are largely ambivalent, except maybe the four people who showed up on purpose to see them. The videos he takes of the performances, however, get them a nice little following on Twitter.

San is also a social media wizard. He knows all the right times to post, the right things to put out there to drum up interest, and all the networking techniques. He recommends Jongho—who has been obsessed with photography since taking a workshop in his freshman year of college—take edgy headshots of the band. San takes a few of them all together, just basic promo stuff, but Twitter eats the photos up when the U.S.A. Kpop community catches wind of an all Korean-American band who performs in English. It helps their turnout at the bar shows, to the point that they’re just not feasible anymore. Greeting the fans after the shows becomes complicated, and they decide it’s time to move to bigger venues.

This whole band thing was Hongjoong’s idea, Hongjoong’s dream, but San handles most of the logistics. Hongjoong has less and less time to deal with it, since his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer a few years prior and her condition has been steadily worsening. He’d dropped out of college to take care of her, since his father is always away on business, and it allows him to focus on his music, so he doesn’t exactly regret it.

What he does regret is that he’s the only one around to comfort and care for his mother while she’s rapidly deteriorating. His father comes by the hospital all of once, but his big corporate health insurance is paying for her to get the best care, to keep her as comfortable as possible, so Hongjoong can’t fault him too much… except he does.

Hongjoong doesn’t realize how long he’s been at the hospital until one of the nurses startles him coming in to check his mom’s vitals and wakes her. He’s been composing, headphones on, while she was sleeping. They had talked a little when he first got there, but the pain medication did a good job of knocking her out and she’d been asleep for some hours.

He’d already texted his dad to let him know he was going to stay there overnight with her—a shameless guilting tactic, he will admit—but when his mother sees him still sitting in that uncomfortable vinyl chair, she insists that he go home and get real sleep in his real bed. He protests, but his mother’s word is law, as far as he’s concerned. It breaks his heart that she still has so much concern for him when she is the one who needs looking after.

He leaves, but only because she insists that he does.

***

Hongjoong gets home from the hospital and walks in on his dad fucking some other woman on their couch.

He only manages to get out one thing; a strained, shocked, “What the fuck?”

He says it with such disgust, apparently, that his father doesn’t even know how to react at first.

His memory of that moment becomes a bit of a blur of the woman’s shrill, panicked babbling and his father saying his name over and over again… just his name, begging and pleading for an iota of understanding. Hongjoong thinks he might puke.

He just turns around and heads back out of the house. His mom might not let him stay at the hospital but he sure as fuck isn’t staying under the same roof as his piece of shit father.

He crashes with Yunho and San, because they have the brightest dispositions and he hopes against hope they can somehow lift his mood. They don’t manage it, but they do commiserate and drink with him and say “fuck your dad!” with every shot and he falls asleep in a stupor on their too-small couch.

The next day, Hongjoong goes back to the house because he didn’t grab any clothes and fuck his dad, it’s still his house too.

The place feels… empty. His dad’s closet and office are cleared out, and he finds a note on the kitchen table. There’s a contract surrendering the deed of the house to Hongjoong, a platinum American Express card and a brochure for a funeral home.

The note reads: “For when the time comes. I’m so sorry.”

Hongjoong crumples the note in one hand and pegs it against the wall with a scream. How dare he apologize. His father has some fucking nerve if he thinks this even begins to absolve him of what he’s done.

Hongjoong doesn’t tell his mother. Her condition worsens by the day, and he tells her that her husband was called away on another critical business trip and wishes more than anything that he could be there. He lies when he tells her he’s trying to come tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, until it’s her last.

He holds her hand as she slips away, and he sobs and sobs until it just… stops. He wipes his tears and he doesn’t cry again. Not through arranging the funeral, not through the funeral itself. After he gives his eulogy, his bandmates huddle around him and it feels like they don’t let him go for an entire week.

He still doesn’t feel anything, though. It’s like he’s gone completely numb.

The bank finishes the paperwork for the transfer of the deed (his father uses a business mediator so he doesn’t have to see his sorry fucking face, thankfully) and then it’s just. Done.

He sits in the empty house that’s now his and he cannot sleep, because all he sees are the ghosts of awful memories haunting every room, every hall, every corner.

He cannot sleep, so he drinks. It’s a different kind of numb. Numb and dizzy. Numb and floating. It’s better than numb and nothing.

He cannot sleep, so he writes. He composes. By the time San finds them a small performance venue interested in hosting them, he has three new songs ready for rehearsals with the band.

He still can’t feel anything.

***

The first time he takes a razor to his skin, it feels inevitable.

It starts with scratching… absently, at first, at his cuticles, at the places where his legs peek through the holes in his jeans, at the tender flesh at the inside of his forearms. He scratches until the skin breaks, then keeps scratching until his nails are bloody and his skin is ruined. He picks at the scabs when they form, so they don’t really heal.

He starts wearing long sleeves to hide the scars from his bandmates. They don’t notice anything amiss because around them, he feels like it’s easy to fall into old, cheerful habits. They can chat and mess around and tease each other during practice and it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to fake enthusiasm but it’s like the moment they’re gone, he’s back to feeling numb. Swallowed by the void.

He has a lot of free time now. The guys all have part-time jobs or are still in school. He considers picking back up a class or two, but that would mean he’d have to get a job himself… one that pays better than unsteady music gigs. Then again, the credit card his father left him with has no limit and hasn’t been cancelled, so he wonders if that’s some form of penance, too. He’s sure if he tries to buy anything too exorbitant on it, he would cut him off, so he sticks to basic, small purchases. None of them ever get declined.

Hongjoong has a lot of free time, and he spends a good amount of it drinking. It feels like he can’t compose anymore unless he’s at least buzzed. He hardly goes out anymore, but when he does, it’s usually to grab some kind of unhealthy comfort food.

He’s sucking down some boba milk tea with a massive crepe when he walks past a thrift shop and spots a window display that catches his eye. A mannequin is done up in leather and studs, boots and all, with a peeling red guitar resting against one hand on its stand.

Hongjoong imagines how much better the jacket will look with a split down the sleeve held together with safety pins, with red lettering along the back, and that guitar with a fresh coat of paint and lacquer.

Hongjoong figures it’s high time he picked up another hobby, anyway.

The thrift shop happens to have a few old sewing machines tucked into a back corner. He figures, why the hell not. He buys a bag full of clothes he can see a lot of potential in. He buys a simple sewing machine, and he buys the guitar.

He spends hours watching YouTube tutorials while ripping seams out of jackets, cutting sleeves off of shirts, pinning and painting and experimenting.

It’s all just a giant mess at first.

He ends up with a few things he can wear, maybe, and a couple he plans to give to his bandmates.

The guitar he leaves for another day.

He watches hours of tutorials before trying to tackle it, but he’s meticulous about it to ensure that he doesn’t ruin it. When he finally finishes, it’s a gorgeous deep red that makes him consider dyeing his hair that color. He doesn’t, but he thinks about it.

He looks at this thing he’s restored, reformed… this thing he’s put literal blood, sweat and tears into—and he doesn’t feel anything.

Hongjoong cuts his seams open with razors. He read online they’re better than traditional seam rippers, especially for leather, as long as you have a careful hand.

He doesn’t even notice he’s dug the corner of one of the razors into an old scab until he feels the sting of it coming loose. He looks down at the fresh blood pearling in the reopened wound and his mind goes fuzzy.

It’s just a natural progression from there.

The scars littering his arms become uniform, rows and rows of perfectly parallel, horizontal lines stacked from his wrist to his elbow. His left arm gets the worst of it, but his right isn’t unscathed. 

Yunho is the first to notice… at least, he’s the first to approach him about it. He pulls him aside one night after practice and he looks so brokenhearted as he cradles his hands and tells him that he can talk to them—to him—about anything, that they’re here for him, and he knows he just wants to help but it just. Doesn’t.

He’s dismissive, and continues to be dismissive when they bring it up, bring up the drinking… everything. He tunes it out, most of the time. Sometimes he tries to convince them he’s doing better, feeling better. He is, around them. They read his sunny disposition around them as improvement. They do not know the problem lies in the moments when he is alone, when the numbness sets back in in the wake of no distractions.

San forges ahead with getting them more gigs, and delights in letting them know he’s set up something bigger than they’ve ever done before.

Hongjoong isn’t sure if he’s ready for their first show in a real venue, but there’s no going back now.

***

The show goes as well as it possibly can.

They play to a packed house. It’s a small venue, but it still feels like a victory.

They gather in the dressing room backstage after the show and share an elated toast of champagne, San’s treat. Hongjoong partakes, but he soon returns to his trusty bottle of Jack.

They record a little something for Instagram and Youtube, then get everything packed up. Hongjoong ensures his guitar gets taken care of, then lingers in the corner and zones out watching the others.

“Hongjoong? Did you hear me?”

He zones back in to San talking to him. He shakes his head.

“Afterparty. At the club? We talked about this.” San rolls his eyes. “Really?”

“To be fair, you barely ran it by us. Maybe he doesn’t remember.” Yunho reasons.

“To be fair, there’s always an afterparty when San is involved.” Mingi adds.

“Is it at least a club that plays actual music?” Jongho grumbles, and they devolve into argumentative banter.

“I think I’ll pass.” Hongjoong says when they finally stop. “It’s fine, I’ll catch you guys later. Just. Go on without me.”

Worry mars Yunho’s brow, his eyes doing that thing where they sparkle with concern. “What? But—”

“Oh just leave him. He’s such a party-pooper.” San huffs, grabbing the rest of the band members and shoving them toward the dressing room door. They all look fairly hesitant to leave, casting glances back at Hongjoong, but San eventually manages to corral them out.

Hongjoong lets out a long, long breath, and grabs the bottle of Jack on the vanity. He tips it back, doesn’t even react as he downs two or three shots’ worth, then sets it on his thigh. He bounces his leg for a moment, jittery, and catches his own eyes in the mirror.

A wave of disgust boils up in his gut and he gets up with a huff, walking out of the dressing room.

He heads for the bathroom. He doesn’t really know where he plans to go after that, but he’ll take it as it comes. He has absolutely no interest in partying with the rest of the band… they always go to too-loud clubs and take bets on if San can seduce random men on the dance floor and he’s just. Not in the mood. He’s never in the mood.

Hongjoong snaps the door shut behind him and takes another long pull from his Jack before he sets it on the side of the sink and heads for the stall. He has to fight his way out of his leather pants, and his fine motor skills have taken a nosedive thanks to the alcohol so it’s a struggle. It’s worth it for the look, though; they make his ass look spectacular.

He returns to the sink after a frankly embarrassingly long time, taking another pull from his Jack. The glass thunks loudly on the ceramic and he shushes it.

Hongjoong catches his own eyes in the mirror—dingy and cracked in one corner—and that same feeling as before roils in his belly. He rests his forehead against the glass, then knocks it against the mirror hard enough that it stings. He does it again, harder, and the shattered corner of it comes loose, pulling free and clattering into the sink.

He stares at it for a long moment. It’s strange how it feels almost right, like… serendipity. Like fate. He feels as though he’s being given a sign.

It isn’t a good sign. He never gets those. Some people may receive small gifts from the universe in the form of tiny coincidences that brighten their day. Hongjoong just receives reminders that he is worthless and broken.

He picks up the shard, then pulls up his sleeve. His inner forearm is already littered with scars, some which are fresher than others. He picks a spot between two cuts that have long since healed. The skin seems too flawless there.

The bite of the glass digging into his skin instantly draws his focus, forcing him to hone in on that singular point of pain, unable to let himself think about anything else. Everything around him fades into nothing but white noise as he drags it across. It’s just enough to tear open the first few layers of the skin, blood pooling up to the surface before trickling down over the side of his forearm. He watches it dribble into the sink, the drip of it on the ceramic a grounding sound. The deep red of it paints a stark contrast against the white surface, against his skin, and he stares for a long while before he moves the glass again, digs the corner in—

There’s a thud as someone opens the bathroom door behind him, the latch pulling away from the strike plate so loudly that it startles him, causes him to jump and nearly knock over his bottle of Jack. He doesn't know if he didn’t lock the door, or if the locks in this old place are just shit, but it swings open all the same, revealing an unfamiliar person.

The guy halts. Hongjoong doesn’t recognize him; he doesn’t work at the bar and he doesn’t think he’s seen him at any of their other sets. He would have remembered that face. He’s stunning; sharp features, black hair swept up in a dramatic swoop and makeup done in crimson tones. He’s Asian—Hongjoong would venture a guess he’s also Korean, but he might be biased.

That pretty face looks sorry at first, like an apology is about to come tumbling out of his mouth… but then, his eyes track down to Hongjoong’s arm, then to the glass that’s in his grip, covered in his blood. His expression falls. He doesn’t look shocked or disgusted, he just looks… aggrieved. 

“No… not you. Not you.”

His voice is soft and soothing and deeper than he expects.

There’s a clatter as Hongjoong drops the shard of glass. He doesn’t move, just stares like a deer caught in the headlights. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen someone so beautiful , and for a delirious moment he wonders if he’s hallucinating some kind of celestial being.

The stranger moves. He snatches up a wad of paper towels, grabbing for Hongjoong’s arm. He jerks back, causing the man’s hand to wrap right around the cuts, his palm pressed against the open flesh. The sweat there burns—salt in the wounds—and Hongjoong thinks it might be the sweetest pain he’s ever felt.

His arm is dragged under the faucet, and within seconds, there’s water running over it. There’s another harsh sting; soap, he thinks, and then the water is off and those paper towels are being shoved against the open cuts, pressed tight against the skin.

Vermillion bleeds through the cheap paper in seconds.

For a long moment, neither of them says anything. Hongjoong feels the room sway, feels the ebb and flow of it, but he can’t get his brain to formulate a response. Part of him wants to tell the guy to get lost and mind his own fucking business. The other part of him wants the guy to keep manhandling him. But first, he needs to get that raw, piteous look off his face. It’s so earnest and bare that it’s like he can see his heart flayed open before him.

“I know that it must hurt,” The stranger says, and he knows what he means, what he really means, “But please… don’t do that to yourself. Please.”

Hongjoong doesn’t even know this man, but the ardent, broken tone in which he begs makes him want to stop. He just nods, his mouth hanging open a little.

It feels like a binding contract, etched into his very soul and sealed in blood.

***

Hongjoong is blitzed. The stranger tries to get some information out of him, ask him where he’s staying, where he can bring him. The rest of the band is at an afterparty. He’s really not in the mood. Hongjoong’s unhelpful mumbling and nonsensical, incomplete sentences apparently finally become enough and the guy says he’ll take him back to his own hotel, which is just around the corner, and he’s welcome to leave when he sobers up. He says something about not trying to overstep or be pushy but he can tell Hongjoong is in no condition to be on his own. To be honest, Hongjoong doesn’t care what this guy wants to do with him… he’d let him.

When they stumble into the guy’s hotel room… five star; the place is classy , he’s still clutching tightly to his bottle of Jack. It’s peeled out of his hand and set on the nightstand gingerly, but Hongjoong is too distracted by the fancy lighted mirror to argue. 

While he primps in front of it, twisting the little beaded clips that are scattered into the longer hair at the back of his neck, the stranger peels off his own boots and jacket and flops down on the bed. Hongjoong watches his reflection in the corner of the mirror, and he looks like he wasn’t expecting his night to go like this. He seems a little overwhelmed, a little out of his depth.

He glances around the room. Next to the coffeemaker, there’s an ice bucket and some fancy crystal glasses. Hongjoong grabs one and heads over to pluck his Jack off the nightstand, pouring it into the cup before throwing it back. The stranger gives him a withering look, but when he pours a second glass, he moves.

“All right, that’s enough.” He protests, snatching back the bottle and the glass and setting them both on the nightstand. “You should be drinking water. Here.”

He crosses the room and cracks open one of the overpriced Fiji bottles the hotel will surely gouge him for, handing it over before settling on the bed again.

Hongjoong makes a face, pours about two fingers’ worth of water on top of the whiskey in the glass, then goes to drink it. The guy squawks an affronted protest and snaps it back, setting it on the nightstand with a glare.

“Just the water.” He grunts.

Hongjoong heaves a well and truly affronted sigh, but he obeys. He chugs about half the bottle before giving a sarcastic smile, waving both hands.

“Happy now?”

“It’s a start.” The guy tells him.

Hongjoong grimaces and moves to case the room again, staggering a little as he sips at the water. There’s a makeup case on the bathroom counter that’s already fully put away, the surface wiped clean of powder. A flat-iron sits next to it; the cord coiled around it neatly. The suitcase in the corner is open, the clothes inside still neatly folded. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen a cleaner hotel room that was occupied.

“Hey.” Hongjoong says, setting the water down and turning to face the stranger. “You never told me your name.”

“Everyone calls me Mars.” He replies. Kind of edgy… not what he was expecting.

“All right, Mars .” Hongjoong responds in a sort of mocking way, crawling up onto the edge of the bed on all fours. “You brought me all the way here. You looking for a good time?”

Mars has the audacity to balk, looking at him like he’s shocked he could ever come to that conclusion. Hongjoong starts thinking he might be onto something with his hallucinated celestial creature theory, because there’s no way he’s real.

“What? No. You’re here to sleep off this bender of yours, and then you should meet back up with your band.”

Hongjoong frowns, moving up on the bed and into the other’s lap. He balks again, jerking back when he runs his hands up his chest, black-polished nails catching in the holes in his striped sweater. “That sounds pretty boring. I had something else in mind, you know?”

He grinds his hips down, biting his lip. Two large hands grab his waist to stop him from moving. He trills a little at the rough grip.

“You were so sweet to me earlier. Lemme repay you.”

That earns him something like a scoff, and there is a gentle, but firm attempt to push him off. “I didn’t do it for… no. You need to stop.”

Hongjoong whines, going for the hem of his sweater. “Don’t be like that.”

“Stop. Stop. You’re drunk.” His hands are peeled away several times, Hongjoong refusing to let up.

“So what? Can’t remember the last time I was fucked sober.” It sounds disdainful coming out, and it earns him a frown.

“You won’t change my mind.” He says softly, and Hongjoong believes him. 

After a long moment, he drops his hands—finally—huffing a great sigh.

“Fine. Don’t fuck me. I can just… find someone else to do it, you know. I’m not half-bad even when I’m shitfaced—”

“Don’t.” It’s a warning, but it sounds almost weary. “You aren’t leaving this room until you can walk a straight line, so you may as well get comfortable.”

Hongjoong would normally reject even the suggestion of someone presuming to have that much control over him. But something about it flares warm in his chest in some weird way he can’t explain. So instead of fighting it, he plasters a smug grin on his face and flops down onto the other’s lap, draping himself across him with his back against the guy’s torso.

“Fine, I’ll fucking stay here with you then. You can bore us both to death.”

“Not to death. Maybe to sleep, though. You look like you could use it.” He mumbles.

“Hey, I’ll have you know this ‘tired and dead inside’ look is about forty percent makeup and it is entirely on purpose.” Hongjoong bites back.

“Sure.” He quips doubtfully.

They both fall silent for a while. Hongjoong is loathe to admit that he’s actually incredibly comfortable… he’d flopped on top of the other to be petulant, but now he’s finding the warmth comforting. He could almost nod off.

He nearly does—in fact, he might drop off for a few seconds, or minutes—but he jolts back into awareness and shakes his head, turning to regard the other with a somewhat judgemental look. 

“So, what the fuck kind of name is ‘Mars’, anyway?” Hongjoong asks.

“It’s a play on my Korean name.”

Hongjoong perks up at that. “Ah, you’re Korean too. Where from?”

“Busan.” He replies. “We moved over when I was ten.”

“Still got that Satoori accent?” Hongjoong asks in perfectly-pronounced Seoul dialect.

“No, my parents beat it out of me with a stick.” His answer is spoken in passably neutral Korean, and there isn’t any humor in his tone. It makes Hongjoong think he isn’t joking.

There’s a pause, Hongjoong idly playing with one of the pins on the other’s sweater.

“So, why’d they move over here?”

“The American Dream, of course.” It’s said so sardonically that it takes him by surprise. Most children of immigrants that he knows, no matter how strict their parents are, are deeply thankful for the opportunities their parents are trying to provide for them. The way he says it doesn’t strike him as ungrateful… which makes Hongjoong think on just what kind of people his parents must be.

“Mm, my dad, too. Got a real cushy corporate job just after I was born and brought us over. But he fucked off a few months ago, no idea where he’s at now.”

“He just… left?”

“Yeah, while my mom was dying from cancer, too, which was awesome. It was a whole… thing.” Hongjoong gesticulates with one hand, but the other is still fiddling with the pins on that ribbed sweater.

“I’m… so sorry.”

“Well, now you know why I drink.” And other things, he thinks bitterly, but does not voice it.

“I’m so sorry.” He repeats, softer. “Have you ever… talked to someone?”

Hongjoong scoffs, motioning to the bottle on the nightstand. “Sure, my good friend Jack. Sometimes his buddy José if I feel like blacking out.”

Hongjoong knows he means therapy. A pipe dream, in this hellscape of an economy. Plus he’s never been one to take his problems to others. He just drinks and writes dramatic angsty music. It’ll be fine.

(It’s not fine.)

“That’s not…” Mars sighs, looking away. “I know that I don’t know you. I have no right to tell you what you should do with your life. But as a fan of your music, I admire your art, so it’s… hard for me to hold my tongue when you say something like that.”

“Don’t hold your tongue, then.” Hongjoong quips back, a challenge. “Lemme have it.”

“I’m not looking to scold you.” He bristles. Hongjoong waits for the ‘but’, followed by the inevitable (albeit fair) criticisms of his coping mechanisms. “But,”—Hongjoong internally delights, smirking to himself—“It feels criminally irresponsible to not at least… reach out. Like I said, I don’t know you, I don’t know your life… I don’t know how many people are already doing everything in their power to help you through all of this, but I’m not the kind of person who can just sit back and assume you’ll get help because that’s how people end up…”

“Offing themselves?” Hongjoong murmurs, lost in thought. What Mars is saying goes completely against what he was expecting. 

The other’s voice cracks when he responds. “Yeah.”

“Let me guess… fan of Chester? Or Cobain?” Hongjoong drawls, and there’s a bite in his words he feels might be unfair. “Or, you’re Korean. Maybe Jonghyun?”

Mars lets out a huff of a breath. “Don’t mistake my empathy for some self-delusion that I can be your savior or something. They are all examples of mental illness winning out, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t fighting. Maybe someone reaching out to them could have helped, maybe it would have bought them an hour, or a day, or maybe it would’ve done nothing at all. But doing nothing just isn’t an option for me.”

“Everyone always laments after the fact. Suicide memorials are just testaments of other peoples’ regret.” Hongjoong mutters.

“That’s why I’m reaching out now.” Mars tells him. “I know that I don’t know you for shit, but I won’t be complacent in the bystander effect. I won’t just assume you’re getting help. If my kindnesses can stop you the next time you want to cut, then it was worth it. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. Maybe it doesn’t stop you at all. But maybe I gave you one small moment you can think back on and believe that the world isn’t complete shit.”

Hongjoong’s lip trembles. His fingers have stopped fiddling with the pins on that striped sweater; now they wrap around the other man’s wrist as he lets out a shaky sigh. “It’s not that I… want to die, or anything. So don’t… worry about that, okay?”

Mars cocks his head, gaze curious.

He shouldn’t want to spill his guts to a complete and total stranger. He shouldn’t want to, but he does.

“I’ve never… told anyone this before, but. It’s just. After my mom died, I… I just. I stopped feeling anything. I felt inhuman. I still do.” Hongjoong murmurs, voice shaking. “I just wanted to be able to feel something again. Even if it was pain.”

“Hongjoong…”

“It started with just drinking. And… scratching? I kind of, ruined my cuticles picking at ‘em all the time, and then just going at my skin with my nails constantly. I couldn’t stop. It was like it was the only thing convincing me I wasn’t some kind of ghost.” Hongjoong rambles, and it’s like he can’t stop now that he’s finally getting it out. “And then one day I moved on to blades. It was better… cleaner. Sometimes, on a really bad day, I’d pour alcohol on them just to feel the burn of it.”

There’s a hand lying over his, now, clutching it tightly. Its owner’s gaze is piteous, again, but there’s a horrified grief there that captivates Hongjoong. Like he cares, cares deeply.

“My friends, the band… you know, it’s not a burden I can put on them. I’ve hid it from them pretty well. The things they do see, I make sure they know they’re powerless to stop me. Because then it’s my responsibility alone.”

“It isn’t human nature to try to go it alone. You said so yourself.” Mars protests. “How does it go? ‘Leave your tired heart in my arms and just trust me’. My favorite line you’ve ever written. You should listen to yourself. It’s okay to let others hold you up when it becomes too much. That’s the beauty of friendship and love.”

Hongjoong balks, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly, to the point that he surely must resemble a fish. It takes him a long while to get out a response.

“I think you… really might be some kind of celestial being I dreamed up.” He says so quietly that it’s mostly to himself.

Mars huffs a laugh. “Oh I’m very real and nothing like that. I’m just a mess of a college student with a big fat crush on your composing and lyricism.”

Hongjoong goes quiet for a long moment, just watching him. Admittedly, those things are nine-tenths of Hongjoong’s personality. He wonders if that means Mars has a crush on him by proxy.

He takes a deep breath, nervous when he speaks again.

“I know you won’t… do more. I know you don’t want to, but… would you… could I… kiss you?”

Mars blinks at him, appearing confused by the sudden shift. He’d thrown himself at Mars when they first got to the room, and this is such a different approach that he’s not surprised the guy is getting whiplash.

“I don’t think seeking out physical comfort or validation from a stranger is—”

“Better than gouging into my skin with razors and glass?” Hongjoong interrupts, giving him a look. “I don’t want validation. I really like you. Maybe it’s stupid, maybe I’m stupid, but I—”

“Stop.” He murmurs so softly. “You aren’t stupid.”

“Can I?” Hongjoong tries again.

Mars frowns. “Are you… are you sure? You’ve had more than a bit to drink, and I wouldn’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”

Hongjoong rolls his eyes. “I hope you realize I would let you rail me against the headboard right now. I promise I will not regret kissing.”

Mars grimaces, his mouth twisting up into a disappointed sort of pout. Maybe the railing comment had been a bit much.

Hongjoong still doesn’t lean in. He waits, like maybe he wants to show him he can be good. In truth, he just doesn’t want to make the other do anything he’s not comfortable with, because that wouldn’t be any better than him taking advantage of him while he was drunk, if he didn’t want it. But god, Hongjoong does.

He must look like he’s chomping at the bit. His hips may be wiggling just a little because he’s vibrating in anticipation, his fingers trembling where they grip at that ribbed sweater. He’s all but chewing on his own bottom lip, his eyes tracking between the other’s lips and his eyes.

Finally, a beat later, Mars tips his head up, and nods. It feels like an invitation, and Hongjoong has to rein himself in, stops himself from just crashing into him full-force for all his eagerness.

He pauses long enough for a breath—just one—before surging forward to capture his lips.

The hands that find his waist are respectful, nothing more than grounding… though for whom, Hongjoong isn’t exactly sure. The kiss is less hesitant than he expects; his own subdued eagerness is met in equal measure. It makes him want to loosen those reins a little, sliding closer, opening his mouth and angling to the side and oh—

They slot together like they belong there. Mars isn’t kissing him like the guy you meet in the club just to get frisky with. He isn’t kissing him like a prelude to a sordid rendezvous in a club bathroom or even just a one night stand. It isn’t rushed or insistent or expectant. It’s languid and unhurried and purposeful. He’s kissing him like a lover.

It’s so intimate that he feels heat crawling up his neck, his spine trembling with shivers. A hand comes up to curl beneath his ear, a thumb gently skirting over his jaw in time with the sweet, coy sweeps of a tongue between his lips. 

He’s kissing him like he’s trying to press the idea that he is loved into his lips. This man hardly knows him —doesn’t know him, really—just the idea of him, the image of him his brain has conjured up from, he imagines, listening to his songs on repeat. 

But Hongjoong weaves his soul into those songs… inks little pieces of himself into the prose, and somewhere between the verses and the notes and the beat-drop, there’s something of himself to be found there. Maybe Mars had. Maybe he knows him after all.

He doesn’t know how long they kiss for, but eventually, Mars pivots them both to lay him out on the bed on his back, dutifully keeping his hips from pressing in too close between Hongjoong’s legs. He gives him two more tender kisses before he finally pulls back, looking down at him with an unreadable expression.

There is warmth blooming in Hongjoong’s chest, the stirrings of something he hasn’t felt in a long, long time. He blinks slowly, letting out a soft, satisfied hum. It earns him a fond grin.

“Finally tired?”

“Mm.” Hongjoong grunts, smiling.

“You should sleep.” Mars tells him, leaning down to kiss his forehead.

Hongjoong doesn’t protest because he suddenly doesn’t have the energy. The darkness swallows him and, for once, it does not feel like an endless void.

***

The morning finds Hongjoong with a dull pounding in his head as he slowly wakes and realizes he has no earthly fucking idea where he is.

It takes him a long minute of blearily blinking his eyes open to realize he’s in a fancy hotel because someone had taken him in last night.

Mars.

He realizes the reason he awoke is that his phone is trilling loudly. He blindly flails a hand toward the nightstand, grabbing for it. He knocks the glass filled with Jack and water over, making a mess. He groans and flicks the liquid off his hand, then grabs his phone and silences it.

It’s an alarm he hadn’t set. The alert says “Check Out”. He wonders if Mars set it for him. He could’ve done it with Siri without unlocking his phone.

Hongjoong sits up and looks around. The suitcase, jacket and boots are gone.

Mars must be gone. He must have already left.

He glances over to the nightstand. There is a note written in meticulous handwriting on the motel stationary, and he snaps it up quickly. One entire side of it is barely legible where the watery alcohol had spilled across it, turning the ink into one grayish water stain.

The “Dear Hongjoong” is perfectly preserved, of course, because that isn’t the part that matters. On the opposite side of the page, several inches down, his signature is completely ruined. It’s also long.

He’d given him his real name.

Beneath it, a phone number starts with what he recognizes as the beginnings of a New York area code, but ends in a ruined smudge.

Hongjoong is struck by the horrifying realization that without his name, without his number… he will likely never see him again.

Bile roils in his gut. There has to be something he can do.

After cleaning himself up, he heads to the front desk and sees if he can find out the name on the room reservation. He tries sweet-talking, tries begging, but nothing breaks the concierge, who insists it is a breach of their privacy guidelines to give that information out; they can only confirm it. He tries tossing ‘Hwaseong’ out there, because the man had said that Mars was a reference to his name in Korean. They insist it doesn’t match their records.

He leaves when they threaten to call security. It feels like once he walks out of the lobby, he’s losing every chance he has of ever finding him… but he doesn’t have much choice.

For the first time in months, he feels visceral emotions roiling up in his chest, clawing into his heart.

He only wishes it wasn’t such crushing despair. 

***

Hongjoong doesn’t have much to go on, but he searches anyway.

He has a nickname and he knows his face. He knows he’s Korean, which should narrow it down… but it doesn’t help in any meaningful way. He desperately searches Twitter so see if he can find his account, if he even has one, but comes up empty. He tries the hashtags for the band, the concert, even the venue. Nothing.

Hongjoong feels the cloying dread set in, the thought of never seeing him again. He gets a little desperate.

He writes a post on the band’s twitter account, the first one he’s ever put up entirely in Korean: “Mars, come and find me again.”

He checks religiously, but nothing comes of it. The fans think it’s a teaser for a new song or album, and start trading theories in the replies.

The band is growing increasingly worried. They’re used to his normal bullshit, but this is new territory for them, Yunho tells him one night while they’re all curled up together on the secondhand couch at Mingi and Jongho’s apartment. Their two hosts are passed out, worn out from going to war with each other over a video game.

“I just. I have to find him.” Hongjoong murmurs, his voice raw.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he can’t.

He hasn’t picked up the bottle since that day. Hasn’t picked up his razors, either, even though his fingers so often itch to reach for them. He’s picked at the scabs of the last cut he made, the one which had been so kindly tended to. He scratches at it until it bleeds, as though keeping it open will keep the memories of that night alive. Will make it real.

He doesn’t know why that singular meeting, why this stranger, was the tipping point for him to want to get his life together, why he was the catalyst for his sudden need to do better, but he was. He is.

And maybe it’s because he knows there’s someone out there, someone who doesn’t know him for shit save for the words he puts to the page, the words he sings his entire fucking soul into. But the idea that someone cares not because of some familial obligation, or for the sake of a decade-long friendship… it means more than it should. 

He knows it shouldn’t be that way. He’s knows it’s fucked up the way his brain dismisses the very real love his friends have for him, he knows he’s probably a pathetic piece of shit for latching so desperately onto that gesture, that moment, that single night. How many helping hands from those closest to him had he spurned? How many times had he just flipped them off and tipped the bottle back anyway? How many times had he screamed through the bathroom door that he didn’t want their help, then dug the razor deeper just to spite them? He’s a shit friend. He’s a shit human.

But he wants to get better. He wants.

***

Hongjoong quickly realizes that he has not written a song when he wasn’t drunk out of his goddamn mind in months.

He sits in front of his laptop in his little makeshift studio and nothing comes. Nothing.

He has words. Words come so easily to him; there’s a ratty notebook next to him on the desk that’s filled with words, notes scribbled into the margins for how full the pages are. Words came like a flood in the wake of that chance meeting, a torrent, flowing like poetry onto the page. But that’s all they are; words. The music won’t come.

It’s like the songs have all left him.

The feeling is cold and isolating.

A bottle of Jack Daniels and a single glass sit in the corner of the desk in front of him. He stares at them for a long time, warring with himself.

He reaches forward, snapping up the bottle and moving the glass in front of him. He stares again for longer still, not moving.

Hongjoong finally tips the bottle, the amber liquid sloshing into the glass. He sets down the bottle, then picks up the glass. His hand shakes when he puts it to his lips. It’s cold where it rests against his chin, and his wrist twitches. He wants to, so so fucking badly. He burns with it. He aches with it.

His fingers tighten around the glass. A pause, then, he rears back and pegs it against the far wall with a scream. It shatters, the alcohol splashing into the wall. He throws the bottle next, harder, and it explodes against the plaster. A tiny cube of a shard ricochets back and pain blooms across his right eye.

He yelps, cupping a hand over his eye. It’s wet, and it hurts , the sting of his tears making it even worse. When he tries to open it, he sees red. Blood ekes out from beneath his palm. Horrified, Hongjoong wonders if he’s just blinded himself.

He collapses to sit right there where he stands, huddling under his desk with his knees to his chest. He sits and he shakes and he cries and he just wants to stop hurting .

Chapter Text

Six months go by.

The first two weeks following the glass incident, he spends wearing an eyepatch. Thankfully it had only left a nasty cut on his eyelid and his vision was perfectly fine. It still hadn’t felt like a victory.

Hongjoong doesn’t give up on trying to find his mysterious ‘Mars’, but he does give up hope, after a time. He continues to post vaguely, then not-so-vaguely on social media, but none of his DMs turn out to be from him. He leaves a ticket at the box office for him at every show. He insists on adding a “preferred nickname” box to the VIP meet & greet signup forms. Nothing ever comes of it.By 

Writing without alcohol is hard, but it gets easier. Eventually, the melodies flow, though not as freely as before. He writes an ambitious new song…  Hearts Awakened, Live Alive. It charts on Billboard and finally— finally— they don’t struggle for gigs anymore. People are calling them. 

San officially abdicates as their “manager”, letting them hire a real industry professional. San stays on as a PA of sorts, and he makes a much better liaison than a manager. They have a tour in the works before any of them really know what’s happening.

Hongjoong is being given deadlines and expectations and it’s… good. It helps to be distracted. It helps to keep busy. But he will not deny the call of the bottle every time things get a little hard, every time he can’t write for shit or sleep for more than three hours or even fall asleep before five in the morning. It cloys at him, but he resists. Every time. Sometimes he thumbs at the scar on his eyelid, or at the last scar he put on his arm. The one that had been so lovingly cleaned and covered.

He thinks he can push through if he remembers that kindness, so he reminds himself of it often… even if it hurts to know that it’s lost to him.

The tour details are finalized and released to the public. Ten planned stops across North America, ending in their home state of New York. It’s a whirlwind of rehearsal and prep and logistics, and it creeps up on them before they know it. They’re greeted by packed houses—the venues are small, but they aren’t tiny, and everyone who is there is screaming their names. It’s a far cry from bar gigs and busking, where half the bystanders couldn’t care less about them. The fans start bringing glow sticks, at first appearing to be undecided on the color; their audiences are, for a time, a sea of glowing lights like a rainbow or…

Or an aurora.

In Dallas, stop five, Hongjoong feels more inspired to write than he thinks he ever has been. He pens a song he calls Aurora, and doesn’t even wait for an official release. He posts an acoustic version of it on the band’s YouTube channel, because it’s for the fans. It’s for his band. It’s for… him. Wherever he is. Mars.

They have a small break in between the first and second legs of the tour, which is mostly used for filming behind-the-scenes fluff for a YouTube series management wants to put out, plus clips for social media. While they’re in Florida, Hongjoong steals away to visit a tattoo artist he follows on Instagram. He thinks he misses alcohol more that day than he had in the entire six months he’s been sober, but the pain is worth it for the result. His scars aren’t just scars anymore. He can finally look at his own body with something other than disgust.

Florida is actually the worst, because even though there is air conditioning basically all over, it doesn’t ever seem to be enough. It’s hot and humid and everything is sticky and it’s like summer in the subway stations but… everywhere, all the time.

It takes just two too-long days in the Florida outdoors for Hongjoong to decide that mullets are overrated and chop his hair off. He gets it dyed red to match his guitar, and the fans like it judging by the twitter posts, although many lament the loss of the mullet. San jokes that he’ll grow out his own hair in remembrance, and he wonders how long that will actually last.

The rest of the tour goes off without a hitch. They add Aurora as an acoustic encore and it just feels right. Cathartic. Hongjoong sees some girls at the barricade cry almost nightly. It takes everything in him not to cry, too, his eyes sparkling wetly under the countless spotlights.

He finds himself getting nervous as the New York show approaches. It’s their hometown, so ending it there feels right. It’s also where he met him. He holds out the tiniest tendril of hope that he will show up, but the ticket he leaves at the box office for “Mars” goes unclaimed. They play to a packed house in a small theater in Brooklyn, and the sea of lights in the audience sways in near-perfect unison during Aurora.

This time, Hongjoong cries.

There’s an afterparty at a club several blocks down from the venue but Hongjoong wants none of it. He can’t even stand the smell of alcohol anymore… half of it is disgust, but the other half is that underlying temptation cloying at him to indulge. He can’t. He won’t.

The guys have been kind enough to switch to sparkling white grape juice for their backstage celebrations. He doesn’t know what he’d do without his band.

But right now? He just needs some quiet and solitude. He gets himself a Lyft and steals away to Long Island.

His childhood home looks exactly the way he left it. It hasn’t been lived in in months… he has a cleaning service that comes out once a week, but it’s just been sitting empty all this time. He thought of renting it out, maybe selling… but some part of him just can’t let it go.

He has so many memories here. They aren’t all good ones. 

He ends up in the garage, looking over their old equipment left behind. Ratty amps and cords that are more duct tape than anything else. Their management had rented them rehearsal spaces in the city since signing them, so they hadn’t used the garage in a while. He can’t help but imagine what it would be like to have everyone back here now. A little strange, he thinks.

Hongjoong’s phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out, finding a text from San.

 

[Sannie]

Where are you?

[Hongjoong]

The house. I’m okay. Just checking out our old digs. Memory lane and all that.

[Sannie]

Okay.

 

There’s a pause, and Hongjoong thinks that’s the end of it. Then another text comes through.

[Sannie]

Listen, in like forty minutes, check outside.

[Hongjoong]

Okayyyyy? What for?

[Sannie]

Just do it.

 

Hongjoong frowns. It’s late already, so that limits the potential shit San could pull. Maybe he’s taking pity on him and ordering him food? Then why all the mystery?

With a sigh, Hongjoong opens the garage door. It shrieks loudly, not having been used in a long while, and the pleasant night air pours into the musty space. He settles down on an old, broken amp. He sits, and he waits.

In forty-three minutes, a car pulls up. The driver seems to spot the light of the open garage and stops right out front. It’s a black sedan, pretty nondescript. Hongjoong sees the pink Lyft sticker on the window just as the back door opens and a man steps out.

Hongjoong feels all the air leave his lungs. He clambers to his feet, stumbling a little on the thick wires tangled along the ground beneath him. The Lyft drives away, leaving the man standing there alone at the end of the driveway like a wandering specter.

His hair is bleached blond now, but it’s him. It’s Mars. San, that son of a bitch, he found him, he actually found him—

“It’s you.”

That’s all that comes out. It’s all he can manage while his brain runs through the last six months without him. Mars walks up the driveway, crossing the precipice into the garage.

“It’s me.” He murmurs, looking down guiltily. It’s not quite a question, but it doesn’t feel like a statement, either. It’s like he has no idea how to respond, like he has no idea just how much Hongjoong’s wanted this, prayed for this.

“How did… how did San find you?”

“San is… the guy my friend Wooyoung just started seeing? I think? I’ve only met him once.” He answers. “Your friend?”

“Yeah, since we were kids.” Hongjoong tells him, distracted. Wheels are still turning in his head and he feels like he’s thinking too fast for his mouth to keep up when he speaks. “He… you…” 

“I thought you might’ve… believed I had ignored you after, but. It looked like you never reached out.” He says. “My parents found out I was at the concert that night and… well, I wasn’t supposed to be. They took my phone, my laptop, micromanaged everything…”

“You were grounded.” Hongjoong responds incredulously. “You’re in college.”

“I might be understating just how controlling by parents are.” He replies, looking at the ground. “I was almost finished with my undergrad so I just… dealt with it. I finished, though, a week ago… and then I left home. Couldn’t get my old phone number back, but I logged back into my social media thinking you might’ve messaged me, except you hadn’t...”

“No, it’s… it’s only because I lost your info. I’m so… I was so fucking stupid, your note, I ruined it, and I didn’t even have your real name—”

“Seonghwa.” He tells him quickly, as though if he waited any longer, the opportunity might be lost. “It’s Seonghwa Park.”

“Seong… hwa.” Hongjoong laughs bitterly with the irony. “Backwards. Your name was Mars backwards, in Korean. I thought… it was Hwaseong. Or just something that sounded similar in Korean. I… I looked for you.”

“Yeah, San showed me the posts.” Seonghwa replies, looking down guiltily again. “I’m so sorry. Even if you had reached out, I wouldn’t have been there, and that’s...”

“No don’t…don’t apologize. Your parents sound awful. And I’d know, I’m an expert on that front.” Hongjoong dismisses. He holds out his hand, and Seonghwa finally looks up. “Come inside. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, yeah?”

Seonghwa nods, and takes his hand.

Hongjoong flips the lights on as they go, and the house seems a little less hauntingly still once all the dark corners are illuminated.

“So this place is… yours?” Seonghwa asks. He still hasn’t let go of Hongjoong’s hand, allowing the other to lead him into the kitchen.

“Yeah, funny story actually. Remember I mentioned my dad fucked off and I don’t know where he is? The gist is basically that I came home one day and caught him banging his mistress right there on the goddamn couch, while my mom, his wife, was in the hospital dying from cancer. He was pretty humiliated and so was the woman. The next day he signed over the house to me and left. I don’t even know if he stayed in the U.S., to be honest, and frankly I don’t care. I think he was terrified I’d tell mom but… I didn’t. I let her die in peace and ignorance.”

Seonghwa frowns, squeezing his hand tighter. “I’m sorry. That’s… man. Parents can be so awful. I’m still sorry about your mom.”

“It’s fine, I’ve adjusted surprisingly well. Since… uh.” Hongjoong looks away, playing with the short hair at the back of his own neck where his mullet used to be. He can’t just tell Seonghwa that a single night with him suddenly made him want to turn his whole life around. That’s not how this works. It isn’t fair to pile so many expectations on him just because his fucked up brain decided he was worth getting his shit together over.

“Since what?” Seonghwa asks, and fuck, now he really can’t avoid it, can he?

“I, uh. Well. I was a mess when you met me. But… after that night I…” Hongjoong can’t do this. It sounds pathetic. He feels pathetic. He groans, then spits it out. “I’ve been sober for eight months. I haven’t cut either.”

He says it so fast that it takes Seonghwa a moment to process it… but once he does, his whole face lights up. His smile is agonizingly genuine. “I’m so proud of you.”

It’s not condescending or piteous or placating, and when Seonghwa pulls him into a gentle hug, Hongjoong returns it fiercely, starved for touch.

He might hug him a little too hard, fingers digging into the curve of his ribs so hard that it causes Seonghwa to hiss in pain.

Pain?

Hongjoong startles, pulling back a little. He could have expected a small reaction if Seonghwa was ticklish, but not pain.

Seonghwa is looking at him almost… guiltily. It might even be embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I’m just. Um. I’ve got some… bruising.”

He makes a circular sort of motion over his torso. Hongjoong cocks his head, confused.

With a sigh, Seonghwa grabs the hem of his shirt and lifts it to his solar plexus.

The flesh along his sides, particularly around his ribcage, is bruised in varying shades of purple and red. The edges have barely begun to turn yellow.

“Seonghwa.” Hongjoong’s tone is more grave than he means it to be. It’s too pointed, too accusatory, but he has to know. “Who did this to you?”

Seonghwa swallows.

“Seven or eight months ago… after they found out I went to your concert… my dad was so pissed he beat me worse than he ever has. Broke two of my ribs.” He explains, his voice so so low.

Hongjoong’s fingertips brush over the bruised skin. It jumps under his touch. “But. These are fresh.”

“Yeah, they healed, pretty much. I graduated last week, and then I reached out to my friends because I needed to get the fuck out of there. My dad caught me packing. He didn’t break anything this time, but not for lack of trying.” Seonghwa tells him. “My friend Yeosang, he put me up for a couple days, and then when Wooyoung came and checked on me, he told me about the concert, figured it would cheer me up. He was with San, I guess, and we all met up after the concert, and that’s when he told me everything once he realized I was Mars.”

“Please tell me you won’t go back.” Hongjoong murmurs, soft and pleading. Seonghwa shakes his head.

“I won’t, I… I can’t. I know that. He might kill me next time.” He sighs, letting his shirt fall. He holds gently to Hongjoong, fingers finding purchase on Hongjoong’s forearms. “I can’t keep freeloading on Yeosang, but I’ll figure something out. Anything not to go back there.”

“Stay here.” Hongjoong says, too quickly. He doesn’t exactly regret the split-second decision, though. “You can stay here.”

Seonghwa blinks at him. “I’ve met you twice.”

“So? You a serial killer? Honestly, I don’t care. You changed my life.” It comes out so easily that he doesn’t realize just what he said until Seonghwa’s expression tips him off.

“I didn’t do anything more than what anyone else should have done.” Seonghwa protests. “You can’t put me on a pedestal, I’m not—”

“Stop, listen. Listen.” Hongjoong hushes, soothing his hands up along Seonghwa’s biceps. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand why yours was the one act of kindness that finally got through to me, but it did. And I’m not under some delusion that being with you will make everything fall into place and I’ll suddenly be fine. But after I met you, I wanted to be better. I did better. I’d even consider therapy.”

Seonghwa’s expression suggests that he’s glad to hear that, but he still looks agonized. “I’m not some… paragon of mental health, you know. I hide it well, but I have my own baggage. I could… make you worse.”

“Nothing you could possibly bring to the table could ever make me worse.” Hongjoong scoffs, pulling him close again, gingerly hugging him as though he is some precious and fragile thing. “I could never get worse because of you.”

“So, what? Do you think it’s as simple as two broken people filling up the cracks in each other?” Seonghwa asks with a bitter laugh. “You think we can just fix each other? Because it doesn’t work like that.”

“No.” Hongjoong huffs. “I know you can’t just… save me. No amount of affection or love or attention will fix what’s fucked up in my head. I know you can’t just fuck me better, okay? And I can’t fix you. This isn’t… this isn’t that.”

“Then what is it?” Seonghwa questions, his voice low.

Hongjoong lets him go, holds his hands up between them, fingers splayed out.

“I want you to fill this place up with yourself.” Hongjoong tells him, and he’s already imagining it in his mind's eye. “This place is mine, but it’s permeated with awful memories I can’t shake. I want to hear your footsteps echo on these wood floors. I want you to press your bad habits into these walls. I want to take every tainted memory I have of this house and replace it with you.”

Seonghwa is staring at him with an expression he can’t read, his tone no more telling. “Hongjoong…”

“I know all the shitty memories I have of this place are never gonna go away. I’ll still see someone on the couch and feel the same dread I felt when I caught my dad cheating. But then I want to see that it’s you eating a bowl of cereal and watching Netflix. And I’ll never forget walking by the bathroom and hearing my mom puke her lungs up after chemotherapy, but one day I just want to walk in on you doing your skincare routine and laugh as you pin your hair back and paint on one of those dumb charcoal masks.”

Hongjoong wraps his fingers around Seonghwa’s wrist, cradling his hand in both of his own. It isn’t desperate, but it’s a plea all the same. “We can’t ever scrub away the stains seeped into this place, into us. The wounds will always leave scars. But… I want you to help me cover them with something beautiful.”

He takes his right hand off, grabbing the sleeve of his own jacket and pulling it up. He turns his arm over, watching for Seonghwa’s reaction.

His forearm had once been home to nothing but rows and rows of scars, but now, it is painted in an array of colors; an aurora in gorgeous, vivid watercolors. The greens and yellows bleed up into a deep sapphire-blue. It continues up, disappearing under the rest of his sleeve. What Seonghwa cannot see is the remainder of the night sky inked into his bicep and over his shoulder. There were hundreds of stars throughout, but none more prominent than the centerpiece: the constellation of Scorpio with a little red planet ascendant within.

Seonghwa falls silent for a long moment, his free hand coming up to gingerly run his fingers over the artwork. The scars are still visible, but they are blurred beneath the boundary of ambiguous lines. It had hurt more than anything else, more than any of the cuts—it had been agonizing— but it had been worth the pain.

“You… you’re a poet. You know that, right?” Seonghwa murmurs, finally. His voice is raw and rough and quiet in the silent house. “Normal people don’t… talk like that.”

“It helps to have a muse.” Hongjoong says with a grin.

“You wrote plenty of beautiful songs well before we met.” Seonghwa protests.

“Well, I can’t wait to discover what I’ll write now that I’ve found you again.” Hongjoong tells him, meaningful.

The emotion that flits across Seonghwa’s face before he schools his features is something he tucks away to never be forgotten.

“Hongjoong—”

“Please don’t turn this down.” He cuts him off. “You can turn me down but don’t… don’t tell me I’m not allowed to help you. You reached out to me once, and it changed me in ways I never could’ve imagined. So let me… let me return some of that kindness? Please?”

Seonghwa’s face softens. “I’m not turning you down. It’s just. This is… a far greater kindness than I ever showed you, really. But I… can see how much it means to you. And maybe there’s something to be said about how we found each other again, after all this time, and now it’s me needing that kindness.”

“I couldn’t agree more. I can’t wait to wax poetic about fate and destiny and parallels in my next seven albums.” Hongjoong jokes.

“Seven? Ambitious. Don’t overwork yourself.” Seonghwa tells him with a fond smile, and Hongjoong thinks he is already so far gone for this man.

“Don’t worry… that’s at least the next two years’ worth. That way I won’t burn out.” Hongjoong teases, winking just to rile him up.

Sure enough, Seonghwa huffs. “This isn’t Korea, you know. Artists here get by on one album every two to five years. Sometimes ten.”

“I could never sit on my songs for that long. I’d go stir-crazy.” Hongjoong dismisses. “I’m already holding onto five or six dozen, because I haven’t perfected them yet or they don’t fit the tone of the albums I’m working on.”

“Five or six… dozen?” Seonghwa balks. “Then again, that isn’t too surprising. I was banned from social media for eight months and I still managed to miss so much. I had a lot of catching up to do this past week.”

“That was your first concern? Catching up on my discography?” Hongjoong admonishes, though he can’t help but sound incredibly touched.

“Well, Yeosang practically forced me to stay in bed covered in ice packs, and then he convinced me to bleach my hair in an act of rebellion because my parents would have never allowed it… so I had plenty of time to listen.” Seonghwa tells him. “Aurora is really something. I think it’s my new favorite.”

“Really? What was your first favorite?

“I may have given you clue the night we met. It’s From.” Seonghwa answers, and yeah, Hongjoong remembers his own lyrics from that particular song being recited to him all those months ago. “I think the… progression of it all, that’s my favorite part.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, in From, the lyrics tell us to rely on you. But in Aurora, they’re about reaching out for protection… almost as though you’ve come to rely on the fans yourself.” Seonghwa explains. “It feels like a… love letter—to your audience.”

Hongjoong stares for a moment, stunned. “Yeah, it um… yeah. It kind of was.”

Seonghwa smiles, then, and it’s so earnest.

“It’s beautiful, Hongjoong.”

Hongjoong’s heart feels like it seizes in his ribcage, but his chest is so warm.

He loses control of his mental faculties for a moment, because the only thought surging in his brain is Seonghwa and how much he’s missed him and how much he wants him and just that, a sweet and ardent comment—reminds him just what he’s been so desperate to find again. And he has him. He’s here.

Hongjoong presses in close, dragging Seonghwa in, and he goes as easy as anything. They meet in the middle, and it is no less electric than the first time. It is almost as though time had bypassed them altogether, their connection untouched by the passage of hours and days and months. It has been so long since he was allowed this, since he was given this, and yet it feels so familiar. Like coming home.

Desperate to believe in the reality of this moment, of having him back, Hongjoong holds him tight, nudges back until Seonghwa hits the wall and he can press him into it, their bodies as close as humanly possible without simply melding into a single entity.

Seonghwa grunts in pain, letting out an involuntary hiss. Hongjoong pulls back as though he’s just been burned.

“Your bruises, oh my god I’m so sorry! I forgot, I’m just… you’re here and—”

“No, it’s all right, just… handle with care.” Seonghwa teases with a strained chuckle that wrenches Hongjoong’s heart counterclockwise under his ribs.

“Let’s, um. Bedroom. Soft bed, yeah.”

Seonghwa smiles, following him up the stairs. One of the changes Hongjoong had actually bothered making to the house was taking over the master bedroom. He’d long since turned his childhood bedroom into what amounted to a large closet, and his father’s old office had been repurposed as his creative studio. Another spare bedroom became his actual studio, but he mostly only used it to record guides nowadays since they had access to professional equipment through their new management.

The master is probably a little juvenile; it’s sparsely decorated, but it has a massive king-sized bed centered on the main wall. He’s also never here so the room is, thankfully, not a complete disaster.

He guides Seonghwa to lie on the bed, coaxing him up further on the mattress until he’s settled into an arc of soft pillows. He sighs at the feeling of it, smiling up at Hongjoong in a way that makes his heart stutter.

“Thank you.” He murmurs, but Hongjoong doesn’t say anything in response.

Hongjoong kisses him sweet and tender, just like he remembers Seonghwa having kissed him all those months ago. The other goes pliant under him, the tension bleeding out of him, so he must be doing something right.

“Just relax, I’ll take care of you this time.” Hongjoong assures, earning him a soft hum of approval.

He’s so careful where he puts his hands, how much pressure he’s applying, and when he helps Seonghwa shimmy out of his too-tight pants, he watches his face to make sure he’s not tugging too hard or being too forceful. After he tosses them over the side of the bed, he maneuvers out of his own clothes before his hands grip at the hem of Seonghwa’s top.

A hand finds his wrist, halting him, and Hongjoong looks up in confusion.

“Maybe… leave mine on.” Seonghwa suggests guiltily. “I don’t want to kill the mood.”

“Do mine ‘kill the mood’?” Hongjoong asks, grabbing Seonghwa’s wrist to run his fingers over the uncovered scars on his right arm. There are far fewer of them than on his other, but they are still there, rigid lines across his forearm.

Seonghwa stiffens, shaking his head as his expression warps, horrified. “No… no, of course not.”

“Then neither do yours.” Hongjoong insists, and Seonghwa lets him help him out of his shirt.

Maybe he understands that the way he sees it, they’re both wearing battle scars. Hongjoong’s been fighting his own demons for a long time. Seonghwa’s are from someone else, but they both fought tooth and nail to survive them. Hongjoong doesn’t see anything shameful in that.

It’s still a little hard to look at the purpled skin trembling beneath his gentle touches, because Hongjoong’s are old but these are new, they’re fresh, and he wants to eviscerate the person who did this to him. 

Hongjoong shifts over Seonghwa, straddling his legs, and when Seonghwa moves a bit to accommodate him, Hongjoong doesn’t miss the way he winces.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?”

Seonghwa nods earnestly. “Yes. I want to. Just… nothing that requires much core strength for a couple more weeks, mm?”

“Okay, okay…” Hongjoong breathes out, swallowing and moving down the other’s body to mouth at his stomach. “Then you just relax, let me…”

“God, no… don’t do that. I won’t be able to stay remotely still.” Seonghwa protests, trying to pull him back up. “Just… come here. Just kiss me.”

“M’gonna do more than just kiss you.” Hongjoong grumbles against his lips, but he does oblige him. He settles higher, lets their bodies meet again, and hisses sweetly when their groins slide together.

“Nngh, yeah…” Seonghwa encourages, grabbing Hongjoong’s hips and dragging him against him to mitigate the desire to rut up against him and irritate his ribs. Hongjoong gets the memo and rolls his body in a careful, languid cadence, and Seonghwa lets out a long, low moan. “Yeah, just like that…”

Seonghwa’s eyes fall closed, but Hongjoong finds that he cannot look away, watching the way his brows twitch and scrunch up, the way his mouth falls open on a soft groan or sweet sigh. He’s breathtaking and Hongjoong wants to give him everything.

He tries to keep his hips moving as he leans up to the nightstand and grabs the lube he keeps stashed in the top drawer. Seonghwa peeks at him through hooded eyes, tracking his movements as he opens the cap and drizzles some over the both of them. The slide on the next roll of his hips is gloriously smooth, and they both let out stuttered moans.

Hongjoong reaches down to grip the both of them, and internally curses his small hands. His fingers hardly make it entirely around Seonghwa’s cock, let alone the both of them together, and he huffs a little as he brings his other hand down, palms cupping them from either side instead. The improvisation might work for now, but he’s having to balance all his weight on his knees and his thighs start burning almost instantly from trying to keep up a steady rhythm.

After a moment, Seonghwa nudges one of his hands away, replacing it with his own. His fingers reach around enough that they rest over Hongjoong’s, and on the first hard stroke, his gut twists. The sound that punches out of his chest is embarrassing, except Seonghwa doesn’t seem off-put by it. He looks like he’s trying to concentrate on not letting himself hold too much tension in his chest, digging his teeth into his bottom lip and keeping his eyes on Hongjoong. Heat roils in his gut again.

Hongjoong lets go, running his lube-slicked hand over Seonghwa’s pubic bone, the vee of his hip… sensual touches that egg him on, make him twist his wrist or swipe his thumb over them both as they chase the feeling together. Seonghwa has kept his eyes open, kept them on Hongjoong as if gauging his reactions to everything.

“God look at you, you’re so fucking beautiful.” The words tumble out unbidden, but Seonghwa shivers, digging his teeth into his own bottom lip and staring at Hongjoong with an expression that’s nothing short of smoldering.

Seonghwa had told him he was a poet. Hongjoong is more than happy to use his words, if he cannot offer anything else.

“Don’t think you understand just how much I’ve been thinking about you.” Hongjoong lets himself ramble. “Would get myself off imagining all the things I would’ve let you do to me that night… and every night after if I ever found you again.”

Seonghwa’s skin is flushed from navel to clavicle, and he trembles under him at that. “H-Hongjoong…”

“Was half convinced I fucking dreamt you up…” Hongjoong continues, letting his hands wander up over Seonghwa’s pectorals, his hips still moving gently in time with Seonghwa’s strokes. “I’m still not sure I didn’t. Just looking at you now… how are you even real?”

“Hongjoong.” It’s almost a complaint, or maybe a warning of just how much of an effect his words are having.

Hongjoong finds himself staring at Seonghwa for a long moment, unable to look away. His mouth has dropped open, his tongue resting in between his teeth in something like concentration. He wants to flick his own across the tip, to suck on it, graze his teeth along the sides ever so gently… and then he realizes, he’s allowed. And so he does.

The sound it earns him is well worth the hiccup in their pace as Seonghwa is momentarily distracted kissing him back fervently, moaning into his mouth. Hongjoong ruts his hips to compensate, and Seonghwa gets the memo and just holds them both, lets him fuck into the circle of his hand, against the curve of the other’s cock. Fuck it’s so good, it shouldn’t be this good, but every touch is electricity and fire and warmth.

“Ah, fuck, m’so close, Seonghwa…” Hongjoong groans against his lips, rhythm faltering just a little.

“Me too.” Seonghwa whispers back like a harsh confession. “H-Hongjoong…”

He’s already heard his name from Seonghwa’s lips in so many different ways, and yet he can’t help but selfishly want more. He licks the taste of his own name out of the other’s mouth, and Seonghwa gives it to him, a litany whispered over and over again as they both make a mess between each other.

Hongjoong lets his weight fall on his arms to either side of Seonghwa, only allowing the barest amount of pressure on the other’s chest as they both come down, breathing heavily. Eventually, Hongjoong slides off to one side, lazily kissing at Seonghwa’s neck and trying to find the motivation to get up, to clean them both up.

Seonghwa must sense how worn out he is, because he tries to sit up, wincing a little. Hongjoong pushes him back down gently.

“Easy there, tiger. Once you’re the one blowing my back out, I’ll let you do the clean-up. For now, let me handle it.”

He presses a chaste kiss to Seonghwa’s lips, cutting off any potential protest, before he pads off to the bathroom. He cleans himself off first, then returns with a warm washcloth and does the same for Seonghwa.

Once they’re both no longer disgusting, Hongjoong gently drags the covers out from underneath Seonghwa, then slides in next to him after turning out the lights.

“S’this okay?” Hongjoong asks a little self-consciously as he settles against Seonghwa’s side, head resting against his shoulder. Seonghwa wraps his arm around him, nodding, and he feels just a little better about being so clingy. “I just… I don’t know. I keep thinking I’m dreaming. That I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone.”

“I’ll stay.” Seonghwa murmurs against his temple, pressing a soft kiss there. “I’ll ask Yeosang to bring my suitcases over tomorrow. I don’t have much, I won’t take up too much space—”

“We’ll buy you more.” Hongjoong tells him resolutely. “I told you, I want you to take up as much of this house as you can manage. Make it yours. Make it ours.”

Seonghwa goes quiet for a moment, and then he kisses his temple once more, just as soft. “Okay…”

“Tour’s over, so I’ll just be working on new songs.” Hongjoong says casually, wanting to make Seonghwa feel more comfortable with the idea of staying with him. “I have a makeshift studio here at home so I can stick around while you’re healing.”

“And… after?” Seonghwa asks in a voice that’s a little raw, cracking at the edges.

“After what? I finish my next album?” Hongjoong hums. “I mean, I might be away a bit during the days for recording, but it’ll be a while before we have another tour, so I’ll be around.”

“No, I mean… after I heal.” Seonghwa clarifies quietly.

“Oh. Well… whatever you want. What do you want to do?” Hongjoong asks.

Seonghwa grimaces, like he’s never really thought about it. “I don’t know. I… I want to continue with my education, get a better degree. But school is so expensive—”

“What do you want to go to school for?” Hongjoong questions, looking up at him with an earnest, curious expression.

Seonghwa blinks at him before answering. “Um. Child psychology.”

Hongjoong’s eyes soften. He thinks he knows exactly why. “Where? NYU? Fordham?”

Seonghwa swallows. “Ideally Columbia, but again, it’s expensive—”

“Don’t worry about that.” Hongjoong waves him off. “Apply for all the scholarships you can, get whatever loans you have to… and when my band makes it big, I’ll pay them all off.”

Seonghwa sputters. “What? Hongjoong—”

“What, you don’t think we’ll make it big?” Hongjoong counters, acting like he’s offended.

“No, I do, of course I do—it’s just…” Seonghwa grunts, sounding frustrated. “You’re offering me a place in your home, offering to pay for an education pipe dream of mine and… I’m not… I’m not anything to you.”

Hongjoong sits up a little, then, actually affronted. “Wha—Seonghwa Park, don’t ever say that you’re not anything to me.”

There’s a sort of fierceness to it that stuns Seonghwa into silence. It could almost be mistaken for anger, if not for the sheer devastation underlying the words.

“You… if anyone knew exactly how much my life changed after a single chance meeting with you… they’d probably have me thrown into a mental institution, okay? And I know it’s not healthy, I know it’s not fair on you for me to hang my entire recovery on your shoulders, but I can’t help how my brain works. I’m trying so hard not to place you on that pedestal you resent so much but you did change my life, and I think it’s fair for me to try to give back in light of that. I… I think I’ve earned that right.”

Hongjoong thinks he might just be ruining everything by letting himself ramble like this but he can’t let Seonghwa believe he’s some kind of burden, that this is some case of pity or even that his kindness only extends as far as he feels his perceived debt needs to be repaid.

Seonghwa just stares at him for a long moment, appearing stunned. It’s several seconds before he manages to form words, his voice rough and raw when it finally comes out. 

“Your music changed my life, too. It sounds so juvenile, and kind of pathetic, but there were times when listening to your work was the only thing I could look forward to some days. And that’s why it… it broke my heart to see you hurting yourself, to know that meant that deep down, you were suffering. I knew I couldn’t just take your pain away, as much as I wanted to be able to… but I knew I had to make sure that you understood that someone cared. Even if it felt to you like the whole world didn’t give a damn, I wanted you to know that there would always be at least one person who did.”

“Seonghwa…”

“You’d already done so much for me, before we even met. So when you look back on how our meeting helped you, in whatever way it did… you’re thinking of all these ways to repay me. But the fact of the matter is that you had already done so much for me. I was repaying you.”

It all made sense, then. How intimately Seonghwa understands him. He had listened to his songs so many times that he had gotten to know Hongjoong himself, in some way… and without even knowing it, he gave him exactly what he needed to better himself. It was almost as though Hongjoong had written his own recovery into those songs, in a sense.

“My mind hasn’t changed.” Hongjoong says slowly, offering a soft smile as he presses a kiss to Seonghwa’s knuckles. “I still want to offer you all those things. It would be my privilege.”

“Hongjoong—”

“I just want you to focus on healing for now. Everything else, we can take it a day at a time.” Hongjoong assures, settling back down against his side. “Now get some sleep. It’s late and I probably already pushed you a bit hard with what little we did do.”

“I’m fine.” Seonghwa insists, nosing against Hongjoong’s hair. “That was nice. More than nice.”

“Mm, just wait… when you’re all healed up, I’ll let you rail me against the headboard.” Hongjoong teases, and Seonghwa swats at him.

“You’re terrible.”

“Mm, you’ll get used to it.” Hongjoong says like a promise.

Judging from the fond smile Seonghwa gives him, it seems as though he looks forward to doing just that.