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A Cure for Addiction

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It was exactly the kind of party that Jihoon liked. Low, mellow lighting – probably a result of Soonyoung’s refusal to change any lightbulbs in his tiny, overpriced house since the fateful day he signed the lease – and a good amount of beer in the fridge. There was a games console next to the television set and a small group of people were quite content to test their skills against Wonwoo, who, upon sitting cross-legged on the floor after wandering inside, seemed determined to remain in front of the screen until the evening had run its course. It gave Jihoon a strange kind of comfort to see that nothing had really changed; he’d arrived at Soonyoung’s place late (as always) and expected it to be smarter, emptier – hell, maybe even cleaner.

They were postgraduate students now. Doctoral candidates and research students: the university’s best and brightest. Jihoon wasn’t exactly sure what that meant besides ensuring a couple more years of twiddling his thumbs in academia and the deferral of soul-sucking interviews for jobs he never really wanted in the first place. Were they “adults”? Did he have to start wearing cologne and flossing his teeth two times a day?

He thought at the very least he and his friends would have to sober up.

Thankfully, Soonyoung’s house was as damp and dimly lit as it always was; Jeon Wonwoo still hadn’t learnt how to be a functioning, social human being; and no one seemed less inclined to get blackout drunk before the first week of term.

Jihoon shook off the early autumn chill as he closed the door behind him. Summer had been a tortuous couple of months that dragged on and on with no apparent end, but now that he was back on campus it was little more than a distant dream. He’d briefly stepped out of his life – his real life – and now he was back, standing in the thick of it. He was Lee Jihoon again; the boy that was on track for a Master’s degree in music production. Not a despondent and uninspired undergraduate that his parents couldn’t brag about.

‘If you’re waiting for someone to take your coat, you’re gonna be there a long time.’

Seungcheol’s voice came from just above him. Standing at 5’11, he made Jihoon feel small and insignificant whenever he stood next to him. But he wasn’t a bad friend to have. Not when he owned a freaking Tesla and was kind enough to be the designated driver for the first big party of the academic year.

That was another thing that hadn’t changed. Ever since first year when Jihoon had opened the door to his new dorm with bated breath and saw his brand new roommate unpacking a state of the art Bluetooth speaker, they’d rocked up to every social, club night and house party as an inseparable duo. Sure, they both had their faults, but they shared a common love of music and a general distaste for small talk. They hadn’t always gotten along perfectly when they lived together; Seungcheol brought home far too many strangers for one night stands, and Jihoon had a tendency to work on his music until the sun came up, keeping his roommate up with him. Now that they’d given each other the space they so obviously needed they could spend hours in each other’s company without exchanging a single harsh word.

Jihoon had learnt to stay out of Seungcheol’s business when it took a turn he disapproved of – as it was so likely to do tonight.

‘I’m just taking in the ambience,’ Jihoon retorted, breathing deeply. ‘I’ve missed that smell. What do you think it is? Slug repellent? Really old lube?’

Seungcheol wrinkled his nose in distaste; his own apartment had no discerning smell whatsoever besides the faint, lingering odour of bergamot aftershave. It was a smell that followed him wherever he went and Jihoon could almost detect it over the cacophony of sensations that Soonyoung’s home produced.

‘I know exactly what really old lube smells like, and it’s not this.’ Seungcheol took a few cautious sniffs of the air. ‘If I had to guess I’d say it’s a gross combination of Soon’s body odour, a shit ton of bleach and the weird mushrooms that are growing in the cupboard under the sink.’

Jihoon grunted in disgust as the two made their way to the kitchen. It wasn’t their friend’s fault the house was so repulsive. This was a college city, and landlords knew how to pull off a good con. Not to mention Soonyoung and his two housemates Boo Seungkwan and Lee Seokmin were the most gullible, immature people he’d ever come cross.

That being said, they threw a damn good party.

In the kitchen there was a huge fish bowl of “punch” presided over by Seungkwan and Vernon, who had clearly already drunk a good deal of it. They couldn’t stop giggling as they attempted to explain its contents to Jihoon and Seungcheol. Cranberry vodka, three cans of energy drink and a bottle of Jägermeister had been emptied into the bowl. Naturally, Jihoon had a cupful of it, and it wasn’t long before he understood why the two younger boys were falling about laughing.

Jihoon, thank god, had drunk far less of it than them, and felt a pleasant buzz that coursed through his head. It made him feel light, alert and perennially amused as he worked the room, greeting old friends and making new acquaintances.

He used to be just like Wonwoo when he first arrived on campus – cynical and mistrusting of his more extroverted peers. Truthfully, Jihoon’s idea of the perfect Saturday night would always involve a warm cup of coffee and a vinyl on the record player, but being Choi Seungcheol’s closest friend had opened him up to a number of new sensations. It felt good to let loose sometimes and exorcise the tension he stored up in his small, stress-ridden body. If the gym couldn’t do that for him, a party was almost just as good.

‘It feels busier than normal,’ he remarked to Seungkwan, who was rhythmically swaying his hips to a distant, dirty hip hop beat coming from the living room.

‘We’ve branched out,’ Seungkwan replied, eyes still shut as though he were in a trance. Jihoon looked to Vernon for context. The other boy was in an opposite state to Seungkwan, bouncing up and down on his tiptoes like a puppy expecting a treat.

‘Soon and Seok wanted to take things up a notch so they told as many people about tonight as they could. And then they told them to bring their friends.’ He furrowed his brows in concentration. ‘And then I think they told them to bring their parents too.’

‘There are moms here?’ Seungcheol mused. ‘Nice.’

Jihoon, desperate not to hear any more of his friend’s milf fantasy, tried to keep the conversation on track.

‘I guess that means more people spilling beer on the carpets. This place is going to be even more repulsive than usual.’

Vernon shrugged, looking totally oblivious to the way Seungkwan was attempting to grind on him.

‘Say what you want about the stains and shit, but it’s never stopped Soonyoung from pulling. Every single year, bro.’

‘We don’t want to know about Kwon Soonyoung’s sex life, thank you very much,’ Jihoon retorted.

‘Well if you run into him tonight, you’re gonna have to. It’s his start-of-term tradition – he’s pretty proud of it.’

Vernon shrugged as though it were no more intimate or embarrassing than discussing the weather. Everyone around Jihoon was comfortable with sex except for him. There was always something that churned in his stomach when he so much as thought of divulging the details of his private life. Looking to his left, Jihoon could see Seungcheol staring off into the distance as he took a swig of punch. He above all others was unbothered by sex. It was like there was a part of him permanently switched off – desensitized.

Jihoon knocked back the dark liquid in his solo cup and tried very hard not to think about the parts of Seungcheol’s personality that made him shudder. There were some things that no one could change, even with the right amount of care and patience. Jihoon used to think that there were parts of people – people like Seungcheol – that were irreparably broken. Now he knew better; he knew that human beings were strange and fascinating in their own peculiar ways, and Jihoon was no better or worse than any hopelessly drunk student shoved into the compact four walls of Soonyoung’s kitchen.

Or maybe the punch was stronger than he thought.

Jihoon wrapped his hand around Seungcheol’s cup and gingerly pulled it away from his friend’s mouth. He didn’t want the night to end with him pulling Choi Seungcheol’s huge, muscular body into the backseat of an uber again. Not when he could be driven home in a supercar.

‘Are you guys still here? Can’t you see me and Vern are having a moment?’

Seungkwan’s slurred voice disturbed the even pulse of the bass that Jihoon had found himself bopping to. It didn’t look like anyone in the kitchen was experiencing anything close to a “moment”, but Seungkwan was scowling and pouting far too aggressively to be ignored. Jihoon took another cup of punch for the road and the duo headed back towards the living room with its low-glowing fairy lights.

A few people were playing Uno on the unvacuumed carpet. The sofa next to them was crammed full of strangers whose intimate conversations were muted by the throb of loud music. Two people were already making out on the loveseat, just underneath a neon sign that eloquently spelt the word “penis” in glowing red letters. It was the handiwork of their absent friend who Jihoon imagined was in the midst of aggressively propositioning his party guests for sex.

Just when Jihoon was about to feel awkward enough to make small talk with the couple sucking face, a head popped out of what looked like a blanket fort.

‘You made it!’

Lee Seokmin was beaming at them with his signature smile. Seungcheol wasted no time in crawling into the cavern of blankets that had been thrown over the back of a chair and some upturned dumbbells.

‘Neat! Blanket forts are sick as fuck,’ Seungcheol said, sticking his head out. ‘Come on, Jihoon. It’s so soft.’

Jihoon’s motor skills were impaired enough to make his crawl into the blanket fort last a good three minutes. It wasn’t until he’d made his own generous contribution to the alcohol stains on the carpet that he found himself safely tucked inside next to his two friends. He found himself with a new, more direct view of the make-out couple, who were now trying desperately to grope each other’s asses. Jihoon made a very audible gagging noise.

‘Have you been sitting here watching this shit?’ he asked Seokmin. The other boy reddened in response.

‘Ew! I’m not a peeping tom. I was just trying to have a nap. You know how I get when I’m tipsy.’

‘I sure do, buddy,’ Seungcheol gave Seokmin a gentle pat on the back. ‘I couldn’t use the bed for a whole night when you were drinking peach schnapps at my place.’

Seokmin mumbled out a bashful apology and Jihoon found himself oddly inclined to giggle. Perhaps it had something to do with his near empty cup and the smell of too-sweet alcohol that lingered on his breath.

‘I’m drunk’, he said for no apparent reason.

‘You know Vernon put cough syrup in that, right?’ Seokmin replied, raising an eyebrow.

‘No, we did not know that.’ Now it was Seungcheol’s turn to take the cup from Jihoon. For his part, Jihoon tried very hard to put up a fight but his friend was stronger, sterner and a whole lot more sober. It was really no contest.

A few moments of comfortable silence passed in the warm recesses of the blanket fort and Jihoon felt himself nodding off. Seokmin’s shoulder was incredibly soft and his hoodie smelt like the kind of soap new mother’s use on babies at bath time – a feat in itself considering the state of the hellhole he lived in.

Seungcheol, meanwhile, looked like he was getting antsy. There was no alcohol in his system to make him feel tired and spaced out: his night had only just begun. And Jihoon was pretty sure of how he was hoping it would end. Not wanting to be a bad friend, he pinched the skin of his cheeks and reluctantly pulled himself up off Seokmin’s shoulder.

He was going to try and make conversation – think of something to do that would capture Seungcheol’s attention and wake him up in the process – but his friend was already tapping Seokmin’s side with something like a grin on his face.

‘Hey, who are those guys?’

Jihoon followed his gaze to the sofa at the opposite end of the room; the one tucked in the nook behind the loveseat. It was the group of people he had noticed earlier. Some of them were splayed out on the carpet and some were reclining on the settee, but all of them were playing a heated game of Uno. Jihoon wasn’t a very good judge of character – nor could he really consider himself a people person – but the ragtag group of students that sat before him were a somewhat interesting specimen of college life.

On the floor was a young boy that looked to be a fresher, his body stocky and compact. His companion was an older-looking lanky young man with long hair that he occasionally attempted to blow out of his eyes with quick, careless breaths. Above them, holding their cards like fans, were three boys that appeared to be Jihoon’s age. Two of them were handsome and one was downright beautiful in an audacious, androgynous sort of way.

‘I have no idea,’ Seokmin said, ‘but that’s the fun of it. We wanted to have a big party so we could make new friends. Why don’t we go find out?’

Even drunk, Jihoon didn’t feel quite equal to the task of making new friends, but Seokmin was already holding his hand and skipping across the room with Seungcheol in tow. Before he could mentally equip himself, Jihoon was face to face with the hot Uno players, desperately hoping he wasn’t drunk enough to make a complete fool of himself.

Whenever he was forced to meet strangers, Jihoon tried to change himself a little. Not enough to classify as putting on a front, but just the right amount to come off as a better version of himself. This person – himself, but unlike himself – was Nice Jihoon. Nice Jihoon was a music major that loved to meet new artists and invite them to his studio; he was ready with a dry quip or a witty retort that would leave a small crowd of onlookers chuckling; he never ran off and hid in the bathroom and only very rarely stuttered over his words.

When the group of strangers all looked up from their card game and stared directly at him, Nice Jihoon became a distant, unattainable memory. Tonight, he was just Drunk Jihoon whose skillset consisted of (but was not limited to); dozing off; stating every appropriate and inappropriate thought that crossed his mind; and staring at people that intimidated him until the atmosphere was suitably awkward.

Did he mention the dry mouth? The dry mouth was a bitch.

‘Nice to meet you,’ Seokmin waved and smiled so brightly it almost hurt Jihoon’s eyes to look directly at him. ‘I’m Lee Seokmin – this is my party and these,’ he gestured proudly at his companions, ‘are my friends Seungcheol and Jihoon.’

‘So this is your house? I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I hate what you’ve done with the place.’ The boy in the middle of the sofa had a voice that dripped with sarcasm and Jihoon instantly hated him.

‘I’m Jun, by the way. Care to join us? I play better with an audience. It inflates my ego when I win.’

‘Only if you deal us into the next round,’ Seungcheol offered. He was speaking in that certain tone that made Jihoon’s skin crawl. It was deep and meaningful, and when Jihoon raised his head and looked at his friend, he saw that his attention was entirely directed at the beautiful, angel-faced blonde boy that sat on the very end of the sofa.

The look went unnoticed, however, and Jun simply hummed in approval and the game resumed. Jihoon and the others very quickly learned that the Uno game was a good deal more convoluted than most. They slapped down cards absentmindedly – as an afterthought in between heated exchanges that were part debate, part full-blown argument.

‘The only idiots that think Freud is all about incest are the ones that actually want to fuck their parents,’ the angel-faced boy said, throwing down a red card onto the messy pile.

‘Pick up three. Freud is irrelevant in the twenty-first century. Even a liberal arts major could read The Interpretation of Dreams and understand it.’

The long-haired lanky boy picked up three cards and swore under his breath.

‘Damn it, Chan! You just sunk my battleship.’

‘Wrong game.’

‘Whatever. I’m with Jeonghan on this one. It’s pretentious to overlook Freud when he’s given us so much knowledge that we rely on today. He built the modern world as we understand it now, you dumb bitch. Reverse order.’

A red double-headed arrow signalled a change of direction and Jihoon’s head swam. He was far too drunk to keep up with what was turning out to be the weirdest game of Uno he’d seen in his life. The short boy, Chan, sighed and picked up a card from the pile.

‘There, there,’ Jeonghan said, patting Chan on the head. ‘If it’s any consolation I agree with you in some respects; Freud has become a bit mainstream. Oedipus and Electra are old news.’ He waved a hand in dismissal. ‘But I can’t fault his theories on the psyche. Eros and Thanatos; desire and death. Those two principals rule our lives.’

Jeonghan finished his spiel with a smirk and the careful placement a card on the pile.

‘Uno.’

‘Fuck. What’s the point in playing anymore? Hannie’s obviously going to win,’ Jun complained, tossing two red cards onto the floor below him. They scattered as they fell.

‘Sorry to disappoint, but this round actually goes to me.’ It was the other boy, the one that had been sitting very quietly the entire time Jihoon and the others had joined the circle of card players. As he spoke, he dropped a single card to the floor and reclined back against the sofa. Jihoon thought he looked very nice and normal. He would have almost come across as a square if it weren’t for the piercings that lined his ear with specks of silver.

‘And maybe next time leave the psychoanalysis debate to the expert,’ he pointed at himself, and Jihoon noticed a small glint of cockiness in his eyes. ‘Don’t talk trash about my boy Freud when I could diagnose half of you right now according to his theories.’

The boy with the piercings let his eyes wander around the circle, taking in each of them. He gave Jihoon a cursory, amused look and narrowed his eyes at Seungcheol for a second too long to be coincidental. Jihoon felt naked, and helplessly folded his arms around his torso.

‘Take Hannie, for instance.’ The makeshift group snapped to attention and cast their eyes on the blonde boy, who was in the process of quietly rolling a joint. His delicate, efficient fingers made swift work of their task. Jihoon couldn’t help noticing the perfectly manicured shape of his nails.

‘Classic oral fixation. There’s always something in his mouth.’

Jun snorted and therapy-boy immediately turned on him.

‘Shall we talk about the way you displace your aggression on anyone and everyone but the people that actually deserve it?’

There were a few beats of unnamed tension – as though the room were holding its breath – and then the deep smell of marijuana rolled out on an exhalation of smoke. Shoulders dropped. Jun’s entire body relaxed. It was like a social cue, Jihoon thought; the burning embers of a joint signified comfort and closeness better than any verbal consolation could.

‘You should have some of this, Josh. You’re a real bitch when you’re sober.’

Jeonghan passed the spliff to therapy-boy and began making belated introductions.

‘Well, now that you’ve seen us at each other’s throats I suppose you ought to know who the hell we are. I’m Jeonghan; this adorable little boy is Lee Chan; next to him is Xu Minghao; the mean one is Josh. You already know Jun— he had to make sure he introduced himself first. Big surprise.’ Jeonghan rolled his eyes.

‘So you’re psych students,’ Seunghceol said, more a statement than a question.

‘Josh is a psych postgrad. I’m a neuroscience research student.’

‘Same difference.’

Jeonghan’s eyes glittered in a way that made Jihoon oddly uncomfortable. Something about him had suddenly lit up with mischievous amusement. It was like Seungcheol was a shiny new toy that someone had laid out in front of him. Now he raised an eyebrow in a gesture dripping with ridicule.

‘Josh sits you down on a couch and listens to you complain about your childhood. I cut you open and see what makes you tick. Huge difference.’

Seungcheol was ready for the snide remark; god knows he’d been at the centre of enough flirtatious exchanges not let Jeonghan’s venom bother him in the slightest. He was clearly just getting started, and when he had his mind fixed on something – or someone – he would almost certainly get it. Jihoon had half a mind to take Seokmin and go back to the kitchen. Even spending the evening with a highly intoxicated Boo Seungkwan was preferable to watching Seungcheol try and get his dick wet— again.

‘You don’t have to cut someone open to see what makes them tick. You could always just ask.’

Jihoon cringed all over. He’d had enough of Jeonghan and his pretentious pack of friends. The alcohol was beginning to leave his system now, and he was sober enough to know that none of them were particularly likeable. Besides, he and Seokmin would only get in Seungcheol’s way.

‘Come on,’ he said, yanking his friend up off the floor with more strength than he intended. Seokmin snorted, evidently just rousing from a deep sleep. Jihoon pulled the other boy along behind him and was confidently heading to the door when Jun shouted after them.

‘Leaving so soon? Are we too boring for you?’

Jihoon couldn’t stand the sweet lilt of his voice. Everything about him seemed insincere; a thin candy coating that masked a bitter core.

‘Not at all,’ the grin that strained his face probably looked as forced as it felt. ‘I just thought I should say hi to Soonyoung,’ he said, before quickly adding under his breath; ‘not that you have any idea who he is. Gate crashers.’

Without caring to look back, Jihoon and Seokmin wandered deeper into the heart of the party until the crowds of dancers and the pounding bassline swallowed them whole.

 

-

 

There were a dozen unfinished songs humming around in Jihoon’s head when he sat down at the top of the staircase. It wasn’t easy building a melody in your mind whilst the suggestive lyrics of outrageously loud pop songs reverberated in the background, but Jihoon was always captivated by music. Choruses whispered in the recesses of his mind at the least opportune moments; he’d find himself rustling through his bag for a pen and paper in a darkened movie theatre, or as his bus was pulling in at the stop. The party was no different. Maybe if Seokmin hadn’t abandoned him in favour of a game of beer pong things would be different. He could be three cups deep into Vernon’s cough syrup monstrosity and blissfully unaware of his steadily increasing workload.

At least there was no one on the first floor to bother him with unwanted conversation. Occasionally, someone would stumble up the stairs and offer him a slurred greeting as they passed by, on their way to use the bathroom or – Jihoon shuddered at the thought – some other room upstairs. In both cases, nobody was keen on befriending the lonely boy leaning against the banister.

Jihoon was quickly learning that big parties weren’t for him. He’d missed Seokmin and Vernon and Seungkwan; their little clique was unbelievably awful at staying in touch over summer break and, despite his unwillingness to admit it out loud, Jihoon’s life was boring without them.

A door swung upon. The sound of chuckling cut across Jihoon’s thoughts and it felt as though the strangers were laughing at him. It was a cruel disruption, and one that made Jihoon turn his head to glare at the perpetrators.

A familiar face caught his eye, and something within Jihoon softened – albeit briefly. Soonyoung’s hair had been red when they last spoke six months ago. Now it was a deep, true black that made his skin look faintly luminous in the mood lighting. His clothes were black too, and as Jihoon caught sight of him, Soonyoung was struggling back into a leather jacket. The other person – a girl Jihoon had never seen before in his life – was stepping into a pair of heels with feline ease.

It was sex again – the one thing that had consistently ruined Jihoon’s night so far. And he was about to come face to face with it again. The girl brushed past him on her way down, and Jihoon was struck with the presence of her, how she felt uncomfortably warm against his skin. For a fraction of a second her slim body was frighteningly real and unbearably close to his own and Jihoon tried very hard to shake off the vicarious image of his own body pressed flush against someone else’s.

It didn’t get better when Soonyoung joined him on the top stair.

Neither of them were speaking, but Jihoon had an inkling that he was the only one feeling uncomfortable. He’d have to be casual, normal. He’d have to be a little more like Choi Seungcheol and a little less like Lee Jihoon.

‘Having a good night?’ he asked.

‘Hell yeah,’ Soonyoung’s grin was easy, untroubled. ‘But it’s even better now that I’ve finally found you. I missed you, dude.’

The hug was clumsy and heavy but far from unwelcome. Despite the lingering notes of a stranger’s perfume, Soonyoung still smelt overwhelmingly of himself. Breathing in his friend’s detergent after a night of disappointment felt a lot like going home. Jihoon let his head flop onto the other boy’s shoulder.

‘I missed you too, asshole. There’s no one even nearly as annoying as you back home.’ Jihoon took a breath before adding. ‘As much as I’m glad to see you, please spare me the details of whatever that was.’

‘That? Oh, I struck out,’ Soonyoung laughed. The sound of it was good natured, self-deprecating and ever so familiar. ‘I got to second base, but she wasn’t feeling it, so we just chatted instead. Have you ever heard of Tik Tok? It’s hilarious. I might not have hooked up with anyone yet – and I will, it’s my tradition, after all – but the twenty minutes I just spent in Seokmin’s bedroom haven’t gone to waste. Check it out.’

Soonyoung whipped out his phone and unlocked it with the pad of his thumb. The screen lit up to display a seconds-long video of himself lip syncing to an aggressive country song, the sound of very nasal laughter just discernible in the background.

‘Wow?’ Jihoon tried very hard to be sincere, but sarcasm wasn’t an easy habit to ditch.

‘Roll your eyes at me all you want, but I’m going to be the next big thing – you know, like those white dudes that paint their nails and show their abs. E-boys secure the bag.’

‘You have to get the abs first, idiot.’

Soonyoung puffed out his chest and put on an unconvincing air of cockiness. ‘I’ve already got ‘em! You’re looking at the man that can eat two large pizzas a day and get shredded at the same time.’ He leaned in closer; ‘the secret is protein.’

Not having the energy to explain the importance of a healthy diet to Soonyoung, Jihoon decided to change the topic. He didn’t want to spend a second longer thinking about the amount of pizzas his friend had ordered from local delivery spots.

‘Do you want to get drinks? Seungcheol’s found his latest victim and I’m way more sober than I’d like to be.’

‘Hmm? Who’s the lucky girl this time?

‘Guy. And it’s some neuroscience student. Jeonghan, I think his name was.’

Soonyoung whistled in admiration. Or was it shock?

‘If it’s the same Jeonghan I’m thinking of, Seungcheol would be better off keeping his distance.’

Soonyoung leaned back and tilted his head in thought. His leather jacket fell open and Jihoon could see the slim edge of his waist and the black sheen of his belt. If he wasn’t so familiar with how much of a slob his friend was, Jihoon would’ve been jealous of his figure – if not outright impressed. Soonyoung continued.

‘He might actually meet his match. I don’t really know Yoon Jeonghan but he has a funny way of getting people to dance to his tune. He’s like the pied piper,’ Soonyoung paused and furrowed his brows, ‘if the pied piper was a twenty-four-year-old gay man with bleach blonde hair.’

And Jihoon could almost believe it; could almost believe that the boy with the Cheshire cat smile and the dark eyes could have Seungcheol bowing at his feet. But the thought was just absurd enough for Jihoon to shake off. This was Seungcheol they were talking about, and there had never been an instance where Seungcheol hadn’t gotten exactly what he wanted. If it was a game of wills, Jeonghan would surely yield.

‘If the pick-up lines and the muscles don’t do anything for this Jeonghan guy, then the money definitely will.’ Jihoon said, as an entertaining thought began to take his fancy. ‘Care to make a wager? Twenty bucks says Seungcheol will get Jeonghan in his bed.’

Soonyoung hesitated, his hand ghosting over the empty pocket of his jacket. Jihoon knew for a fact his friend kept his money in an Iron Man lunchbox that was hidden in a “secure location”, but the gesture was an instinctual, protective one. Soonyoung, however, wasn’t one for playing it safe and whatever remained of his restraint and good sense was abandoned very easily.

‘Deal,’ he said, and when they shook on it, Jihoon’s cold hand was smothered by Soonyoung’s sweaty palm. ‘But you’ll have to tell me how it turns out – I’m about to drink so much I won’t even remember who Seungcheol is by the end of the night.’

‘Actually, that sounds like a great idea.’

-

Seunghceol was living his life all wrong. It was a love story in reverse; turned inside out and gutted so that love wasn’t even a factor anymore. He’d seen enough films to know how it usually went.

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl get to know one another. Boy develops feelings for girl. Girl reciprocates. Then comes the first kiss, and then the sex and then – always – marriage, or some promise of monogamy. Seunghceol used to wonder where exactly he went wrong until one day, he realised he was never right to begin with. With him, it was distorted;

Boy meets girl – or girl(s), or boy, or anyone in between. Boy takes them back to his place. Boy fucks or gets fucked. Boy leaves. Rinse and repeat.

It was such a familiar routine, the same old story, that Seungcheol knew his lines by heart now. He knew all the cues and all the actions and all the tropes. So when Jeonghan suggested they go into the garden for some fresh air, the skin on the back of Seungcheol’s neck prickled with anticipation. It was a Pavlovian response; Jeonghan had dangled a bone in front of his mouth and now he was salivating, poised to take what was just within his reach.

Outside the air was crisp and tinged with the oncoming cold of autumn. Jeonghan had slid the glass door open and led Seungcheol outside in one swift and self-assured movement. They made themselves comfortable on a wide seat that was half bench, half rocking chair. It swung slightly under Seungcheol’s weight but only stuttered when Jeonghan rested his slim body on the opposite side.

It wasn’t a bad garden, all things considered. Seungkwan might not have cared much for doing dishes and washing sheets but he had a formidable green thumb that he put to good use in the claustrophobic patch of green at the back of the house. A botany student through and through. Seungcheol could only name a few of the flowers – roses and peonies that he’d once bought to appease a neglected lover – but it made an attractive backdrop nonetheless. Jeonghan was just as beautiful as they were, if not more so, although his glinting eyes and quick tongue had a sharpness about them more akin to nettles than blossoms.

Someone had the foresight to light candles and fit them inside empty mason jars so that the perimeter of the garden was vaguely illuminated. Seungcheol, for the life of him, couldn’t think which of the three tenants was most likely to have bothered.

‘Economics,’ Jeonghan said, his voice making it sound less like a question and more like a statement. Seunghceol looked up and caught his eye.

‘Good guess. What gave me away?’

‘I’ve been puzzling you out since we met, Choi Seungcheol, and I think I’ve just about got the measure of you. Economics makes sense. You’ve already got a lot of money; you just need an authority figure to tell you what to do with it.’

Seungcheol was impressed, although he’d never admit it. He was playing to win now, and he didn’t want the ball entirely in Jeonghan’s court. Across from him, his companion smiled sweetly. His teeth were immaculately white, very small and very neat. He’d finished his joint a while earlier and occasionally brought a finger to his mouth, running it along his bottom lip and biting down on it a little. Classic oral fixation. Seungcheol liked the way it looked and stared at Jeonghan unashamedly, wondering what else his pretty mouth could do.

‘Any other observations?’

‘Hmm,’ Jeonghan mused. ‘You’re either extremely boring or a student athlete, because I offered you that joint twice and both times you refused. You dress like an Instagram model but you’re not showy about your wealth, so I’d say you’re a trust fund baby. Am I wrong?’

It was a challenge. It was an invitation.

‘Right on all counts. You’re good, Sherlock.’

At this, Jeonghan clapped with satisfaction. Seungcheol found his smile infectious and infuriating, not a sign of progress but an indication of a shift in power between them. He needed the upper hand. He needed to have Jeonghan on his knees begging for his touch by the end of the night, and that didn’t involve jumping through hoops to earn the other boy’s approval.

‘You’ve got expensive taste yourself. The one useful life skill I’ve gained from being a trust fund baby is recognising brands.’

He’d noticed it as soon as they’d met. Jeonghan was wearing a baby pink Versace t-shirt, one he knew only came in women’s sizes. It was tight and cropped on Jeonghan’s frame so that Seungcheol could see his abs when he stretched out. With his silver choker, denim jacket and skinny jeans, Jeonghan was dressed for attention – and Seungcheol was more than happy to give it to him.

‘Oh, this?’ Jeonghan pulled at the tight fabric of the t-shirt. ‘I have very generous friends that like to give me presents when I’m good to them.’

Seungcheol was pretty sure Jeonghan just insinuated he had sugar daddies. Plural. The immediate thought of it went straight to his dick, but Seungcheol composed himself and let a smile creep across his face. He knew how to play this; he had cash to burn.

‘Are your friends, by any chance, old, ugly rich men?’ Seungcheol said, and Jeonghan’s laugh was all the confirmation he needed. ‘Then in that case I think you’re in desperate need of some new friends.’

Jeonghan eased himself over on the bench so that he was closer to Seungcheol. It swayed beneath them, and Seungcheol could feel his thigh pressed up against Jeonghan’s. There was something very much like amusement in his eyes, marked with a hint of condescension – but whatever his dark gaze was saying, his body language immediately contradicted. All the signs were there; Jeonghan was interested and Jeonghan was easy. Almost too easy. It was a bit of a disappointment to win him over with so little trouble and the thought of it made Seungcheol angry. Across from him, Jeonghan looked like a bad angel very recently expelled from heaven and in his frustration, Seungcheol allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to take him down a peg.

‘What can you do for me that they can’t?’ He batted his eyelashes with mock innocence.

Deciding that honesty was the best policy, Seungcheol threw away the last of his resolve and locked eyes with Jeonghan.

‘Well I can easily bench press your weight at the gym, so I could lift you against the wall when I fuck you. Figured you might be bored of missionary by now.’

It was hard for Seungcheol to feel anything close to nervousness in situations like these, but the moment of silence that followed his proposal almost made him squirm. It wasn’t that he lacked confidence in himself, but Jeonghan was a wild card; his moods unaccountable, his reactions utterly mystifying.

He ran his eyes down Seungcheol’s body. They worked slowly, drinking in every inch of him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Then, after the slightest pause of hesitation, he placed a hand on Seungcheol’s thigh and let it wander up towards the waistband of his jeans. He pulled at his belt buckle in contemplation and Seungcheol felt a burning need to push Jeonghan up against a wall.

But it was over before it had even started; Jeonghan pulled back his curious hand and offered a mischievous smile instead. Seungcheol decided he much preferred being touched to being stared at.

‘What’s in it for me? Besides the honour of getting to ride your dick.’

Jeonghan’s hand was back at his mouth again and Seungcheol was approaching the end of his patience. The sound of the party was beginning to break through the fog of infatuation that surrounded Yoon Jeonghan, and Seungcheol knew that he could have anyone – anyone – else if he just reached out and took them. A small voice deep in the back of his head told him that no one else would do – no one else could compare.

‘Name your price. I’ll give you anything you want; but that won’t matter when I’m through with you.’ He tried one of his best flirtatious smiles and hoped that it didn’t look as hollow as it felt.

‘Anything?’

Seungcheol nodded and Jeonghan looked like a kid in a candy store, eyes lit up with pure want.

‘Okay then, I want you to prove your affection for me. Win me over like a dashing medieval knight. Get down on your knees and beg for me, if you really want me.’

It felt a little like a punch to the gut. Jeonghan’s taunting smile took his breath away and Seungcheol stumbled up off the bench and looked down on him.

‘You’re saying no to a mutually beneficial proposal? A win-win situation? I can’t believe you’re that petty.’

‘I never said no. I set out my terms fair and square – but I guess you don’t have it in you to get me fired up. You just want a quick, convenient hook up that only satisfies yourself.’

Jeonghan’s words were like precisely aimed arrows fired directly into the fragile armour of Seungcheol’s ego – but there was no real malice in them. He spoke with a cold, factual certainty and every syllable of it made Seungcheol’s heart sink in his chest.

‘I can satisfy my partners perfectly well – why else would I have a phone full of friends with benefits?’ He held it up for emphasis, but only ended up looking more heated in the face of Jeonghan’s cold disinterest.

‘Oh brilliant! Have they left any glowing reviews? Did they give you five stars?’

Jeonghan laughed at his own joke but quickly quietened down when Seungcheol ran a hand through his dark hair. The mood softened somewhat.

‘Believe it or not, I kind of like you – I even feel a little bit bad about being mean. As you can see, I’m a lot of work, which is probably why only four people have ever been able to tolerate my company,’ Jeonghan looked longingly through the window and the orange light that shone out ghosted across his face. Without warning he stood up, stretched out like a cat and walked over to Seungcheol before pressing a light kiss onto his cheek, full of promise.

‘I’ll see you round.’

Seungcheol didn’t say goodbye, nor did he watch as Jeonghan made his way back into the house. All he could do was stare at the flickering candle lights and hope that the early drops of autumn rain would snuff them out.

-

Seungcheol was so incredibly hungover that his black coffee lay more or less untouched on the café table. His mouth was dry, his throat sore, his memory patchy at best – even three shots of caffeine couldn’t save him from himself. It wasn’t like him to get black-out drunk at a party, but he’d wanted nothing better than to lick his wounds and drown his sorrows after Jeonghan had finished with him. It hardly mattered that he couldn’t see straight when a tall, curvy undergrad took him by the hand and led him to the first-floor bathroom; he knew very well where he was going and what he was about to do. Seungcheol’s bruised ego made him fuck harder and finish quicker. He could hardly recall the endless shots and beer bottles, but Seungcheol couldn’t shake the memory of his nameless hookup’s euphoric moans when he grabbed her hips hard and pulled her hair, imagining it was blonde and not mousy brown.

He’d woken up on Soonyoung’s coach the following afternoon, bits and pieces of the night scattered around him. The hazy light of a clear day had eased through the closed curtains and cast a warm glow on the sleeping forms of his friends. In a brief moment of peacefulness, Seungcheol recalled seeing Jihoon and Soonyoung dozing in each other’s arms under the blanket fort; but then a snore had woken them and a general cry for coffee found them strolling up to the campus café.

Everything was far too loud, his friends included. Jihoon, not hungover at all, sat opposite him besides Wonwoo who was working hard at his laptop. Soonyoung had abandoned his seat next to Seungcheol in favour of leaning over the other two with an excited smile on his face.

‘Can you take a break from that coding stuff for just five minutes? I wanna see it…’

Jihoon groaned and rolled his eyes at Soonyoung.

‘Not the dark web again.’

Soonyoung slapped the shorter boy on his shoulder and looked around frantically, as if they were being watched.

‘Shh! Don’t talk so loud, this is highly illegal stuff!’

‘Why are you shouting at me then, you idiot?’

Jihoon’s voice was strained with vexation but even with a pounding headache, Seungcheol could tell his friend was enjoying himself. It was nice to see Jihoon relaxing and coming out of his shell – but it would’ve been even nicer if he didn’t have to be so goddamn loud about it.

‘I’m not sure I like how into the dark web you are,’ Wonwoo hummed, ‘I keep thinking you’re going to take out a hit on one of us. But I can hack your phone if you want.’

Wonwoo spoke so casually about invading the privacy of others that Seungcheol gripped his own phone defensively. He had a sneaking suspicion that Wonwoo had engaged in a very thorough and very exposing background check of him the day they met, but the less Seungcheol thought about that the better. His mother had always warned him to keep his income to himself; obscene amounts of money had a funny way of encouraging insincerity in others. If Wonwoo was aware of the exact amount in his bank account – or the net worth of Choi Industries – it certainly hadn’t stopped him from ruthlessly killing Seungcheol in Fortnite.

Soonyoung, never one to act in an advisable way, tossed his phone onto the table and watched Wonwoo with beaming eyes. In response, Wonwoo fished his own phone out of his pocket, typed out a quick text that lit up briefly on Soonyoung’s screen, and then got to work on his laptop.

‘This technique is called Midnight Raid. Hackers usually attempt it at night when people leave their phones unattended; thankfully I have a willing volunteer right here. One phone acts as a GSM modem and the other receives info. It’s a pretty sweet trick.’

Seungcheol heard the bell on the café door ring as more customers stepped inside. He couldn’t help feeling a little on edge being in the presence of an accomplished cybercriminal, even if he was one of his closest friends.

‘I’m in your text messages now. Let’s see what Kwon Soonyoung has been thinking.’ Wonwoo cleared his throat, preparing himself for a dramatic reading of his friend’s messages. He stopped short, however, when something caught his eye. ‘You didn’t hook up with anyone last night? But it’s your start-of-school tradition…’

‘Really?’ Seungcheol finally piped up. ‘You had a perfect record, almost as good as mine.’ The words sounded insincere, but the others didn’t seem to notice.

Soonyoung looked a little sheepish but didn’t have the chance to defend himself when another voice disrupted the conversation. It was the group of people that had entered the café, now standing beside their table holding trays of coffee and pastries. Seungcheol groaned at the sight of their familiar faces.

‘Well, look who it is. I thought I recognised you,’ Jeonghan’s voice was chipper, ‘do you mind if we pull up some chairs? This place is packed.’

Not waiting for a response, Jeonghan and two of his companions grabbed stools and nestled in around the table. Seungcheol recognised Joshua and Jun and was less than pleased to see them. His friends didn’t know that he’d struck out for the first time in his life and Seungcheol had no faith in Jeonghan’s ability to keep that a secret.

‘It’s good to see you again, Jihoon,’ Joshua decided to break the ice. ‘You never stuck around long enough to play a round of Uno with us.’

‘What can I say? Card games aren’t my thing.’

‘Why don’t you introduce us to the others? I remember your friend Seungcheol with the phallic fixation, of course.’

Seungcheol coughed loudly; ‘with the what?’

Jihoon appeared to be too perturbed to notice Joshua’s attempt to psychoanalyse his friend, and instead grumbled out the names of Soonyoung and Wonwoo.

‘Oh, so that was your party? We all had a great night – except for Seungcheol here. Bad luck, my guy.’ Jun laughed and slapped Seungcheol hard on the back. His friends eyed him up suspiciously but help came from a surprising quarter; Jeonghan captured Jun’s attention before he could expose Seungcheol any further.

‘If you’re done with the small talk, can we please get to the main event? You said you wanted my advice and I’ve only got twenty minutes until I need to be at the lab.’

Jun hummed his assent and moved his phone so that Jeonghan could see it. He began moving his thumb very quickly across the screen and it took Seungcheol a good few seconds to realise he was swiping on a dating app. It might have been Jun’s account, but the way Jeonghan was openly gawking at the stream of potential suitors felt like rubbing salt in the wound.

‘Ooh, swipe right on that one. I like guys with thick thighs.’ Jun moved quickly through an endless stream of single men and Jeonghan continued to voice his approval and dissent. ‘Yes to the sweatpants. Left on that one; never match with a guy that puts his friends in his profile pic. It’s no better than catfishing.’

Seungcheol was growing steadily more frustrated – and he was fairly sure Jeonghan’s quick-moving eyes had lifted once or twice to meet his own with deliberate coquettishness. It wasn’t until wonwoo gave a sudden yelp that he noticed his other three friends were busy themselves.

‘What the fuck,’ Jihoon cursed and held a hand over his eyes, shielding himself from whatever had sprung up on Wonwoo’s laptop. Soonyoung’s mouth was slightly agape. Feeling that his afternoon couldn’t possibly get any worse, Seungcheol flipped the laptop towards himself and immediately let out his own grunt of disgust. Slap bang in the middle of Wonwoo’s computer screen was an uncomfortably high-quality photo of a penis.

Before he could even begin to form a coherent question, Jeonghan unsuccessfully stifled a raucous laugh. Surprisingly, it was Jun that offered an explanation.

‘Wow, I didn’t expect to get a free phone hack with my Americano. I would be mad, but that’s a damn good dick pic. And you,’ he said, turning to Wonwoo who was cowering away from his laptop, ‘if you’re going to hack phones you really should be prepared to see another man’s cock and balls. That’s pretty standard stuff.’

Seungcheol, feeling somewhat responsible for the gang of idiots sat in front of him, surprised himself by offering Jun a modicum of sympathy.

‘I’m really sorry about this. They mean well but they’re…’ dumbasses? Jerks? Socially inept losers? Seungcheol’s hungover brain couldn’t find an appropriately offensive word so he allowed himself to trail off.

‘Don’t apologise, Cheollie.’ It was Jeonghan’s sweet voice that chimed in. He was a little breathless and heady from laughing, but Seungcheol was too taken aback by the sudden fond nickname to remark on it. ‘If anyone should be sorry it’s Jun. You’re the people that had to look at his junk.’

Besides him, Jun sniffed proudly.

‘I’ve never apologised for my dick before and I’m not about to start doing it now. They’re the ones that got the free show. I normally charge for a picture that good.’

‘You can get money for dick pics?’ Soonyoung piped up. Seungcheol could practically see the gears of his mind moving as he weighed up his own options, no doubt measuring the size of his dick against the sum of overdue rent.

‘Hell yeah. The sugar baby business pays big time. I don’t mean to brag, but Jeonghan and I have a talent for sniffing out the richest daddies.’

Everything came down to money. Seungcheol sipped at his cold coffee and leaned back in his chair. Transactions, deals and bargains; life was a series of business endeavours and everyone wanted their cut. Seungcheol felt strangely adrift in moments like these – cut free and untethered from material concerns. He was the man on the other side of the phone, the shady, indistinct figure whose pockets were far deeper than his heart. Money was irrelevant: sex ruled his life. As his friends chattered on about bills and earnings, he felt a surge of guilt in his stomach. This conversation wasn’t meant for his ears.

Perhaps Jihoon noticed the way Seungcheol retreated into himself. He tried to bring the conversation to a concise end.

‘Before anyone gets ahead of themselves and downloads any apps, let me remind you that you’re heterosexual, Soonyoung. You can’t give these creepy old dudes any sugar.’

The defensiveness in Soonyoung’s voice brought Seungcheol back to himself;

‘Ew, I’m not hetero. And I’m pretty sure I never said I was.’

Jihoon looked absolutely scandalised and Seungcheol couldn’t help feeling bad for his friend. Even he was aware that Soonyoung’s sexuality was a lot more fluid than it first appeared. The lack of surprise on anyone else’s faces had Jihoon looking even more lost.

‘I mean… I thought that’s why we all hung out together. We share the common experience of being LGBT in a pretty fucked up homophobic world,’ Wonwoo said sheepishly.

‘You’re gay too!?’ Jihoon’s face was getting very red very quickly. ‘But wait—does that mean—?’

‘Well, I couldn’t be sure,’ Seungcheol found himself smiling slightly, ‘but yes, I had a strong gut feeling you were into guys too.’

The grating squeak of Jihoon’s chair being pushed back was abrupt and full of tension. His friend began gathering his things and attempting to stutter out some kind of apology. Jihoon was on his way to the door before anyone could try and laugh off his chaotic exit.

‘Sorry, I’ve got a…. a thing. I’ll umm, text you. Bye.’

Seungcheol knew his friend too well to be offended. He’d accepted him fully with open arms when Seungcheol had first raised the topic of his attraction to men. It was a sigh of relief when Jihoon had pulled him into a tight hug and told him he was stupid for worrying about his reaction. It didn’t make much sense for his best friend to suddenly become a bigot.

‘Well that was certainly entertaining,’ Jeonghan said, tearing off a piece of his cinnamon roll, ‘I mean, until he walked out and left you guys hanging.’

He looked fairly pleased with the turn of events as he tossed wedges of iced pastry into his smiling mouth. Jun stirred his coffee and watched the proceedings with wide, fascinated eyes. Joshua, meanwhile, had stayed quiet since he introduced himself and was writing steadily in a notebook. Seungcheol decided he liked him a lot more for his indifference; Joshua was more concerned with his homework than other people’s issues.

‘He didn’t leave anyone hanging. I think I know Jihoon a little bit better than you do,’ Seungcheol’s voice came out low and territorial. He snuck a snide look at Jeonghan and saw him biting his bottom lip until it turned cherry red and swollen.

‘Cheol’s right,’ Soonyoung said, sounding defiant. ‘It probably just came as a bit of a shock. He’s never seen any of us with boyfriends, after all.’

‘You’ve never dated a man before? Is something holding you back or has the opportunity never arisen?’ Joshua’s easy, melodic voice chimed in. Seungcheol was sure he hadn’t been listening.

‘Well I’m pansexual and I’m interested in pretty much anyone, but dating is a lot of effort. I prefer making friends and fooling around. And Wonwoo is a computer nerd that hacks people’s phones for fun. Need I say more?’

Jun snorted. ‘No, I think that paints a very detailed picture. You should let Minghao and his boyfriend queer-eye you sometime. I know we could get you a date. Unless Mr Tall-Dark-And-Handsome has gotten into your head too and made you think that casual sex is the answer to everything.’

Seungcheol didn’t like the way Jun raised a condescending eyebrow at him. Nor did he appreciate the direction the conversation was very quickly heading in. Jun continued.

‘It might reassure you to know that being a fuckboy doesn’t always get you anywhere. He definitely had a dry spell last night.’

It was about time Seungcheol took control of the narrative. Jeonghan and his friends had been with them for all of ten minutes and already they’d managed to make a mess of just about everything. Jeonghan himself had been strangely quiet throughout the whole encounter, and Seungcheol was fairly sure he’d been sitting back and listening carefully to everything.

‘I might not have hooked up with Jeonghan but I definitely didn’t have a dry spell last night. It’s not my fault your friend is picky.’

‘So you found some poor, unsuspecting girl to take my place? How was she?’ Jeonghan grinned. Seungcheol hated how perfect his smile was.

‘That’s none of your business.’

The others went very quiet, although it hardly mattered to Seungcheol if they were watching or not. He was entirely absorbed in the warm darkness of Jeonghan’s eyes.

‘You’re very quick to anger, you know that right? It’s not a very attractive quality in a potential mate, realistically speaking, but on a biological level I’m sure it helps the panties drop. Humans are very simple creatures.’

‘But you’re above that, right? You’re too smart for the likes of us. You want someone to play along with your mind games. When Yoon Jeonghan says “jump”, they all ask “how high?”’

‘Easy there, Cheollie. I think you’re just bitter that you didn’t have what it takes. I told you I’d fuck you; you just have to put in the work,’ Jeonghan said, standing up from his seat and throwing a backpack over his shoulder. ‘On that pleasant note, I better head to the lab. I’m working on my research paper and doing some scans.’

Jun and Joshua wasted no time packing away their own things and preparing to head off. Jeonghan, buttoning his coat, seemed to hesitate for a moment as if deep in thought. Then he looked back down at Seungcheol.

‘If you’re free tomorrow morning at 10:00 you should come by. I’d really love to look inside that head of yours, Choi Seungcheol. I’ll see you round.’

And for the second time in as many days, Seungcheol watched Jeonghan walk away from him.

Chapter Text

The last person Jihoon wanted to run into when he was a sweaty, dishevelled wreck was Kwon Soonyoung.

He hadn’t quite noticed Jihoon yet – there was a long row of ellipticals between himself and the man he’d been trying so desperately to avoid – but it was only a matter of time. Jihoon felt himself shrink as he sat on the bench in the weight training area of his local gym. The dumbbells he’d curled made his biceps wonderfully sore, sore enough to briefly clear his head, but this was an ache of a different kind; just as deep and muscular, only centred around a tender part of his chest. It was shame and it was fear, and maybe (just maybe) it was a little bit of excitement too.

Jihoon couldn’t place his own feelings, nor had he ever been any good at understanding the madhouse that was his brain, but this was most definitely a new low. Barley able to repress an agitated sigh, Jihoon reached down and took a swig of his energy drink, its cold, sucrose body a noxious blue. Soonyoung sauntered through the gym in a tank top that made him look effortlessly cool and infinitely more attractive than Jihoon could ever hope to be. Jihoon wondered if he should suck up his own pride and crawl on his knees to Yoon Jeoghan and Joshua Hong, begging them to undo whatever damage his parents had unwittingly done in his childhood. But even fuck ups have standards and getting psych sessions from a couple of assholes was a low Jihoon didn’t feel prepared to reach.

For the time being.

‘Lee Jihoon, as I live and breathe!’

It was somehow both comforting and disappointing to see Soonyoung’s easy smile. He spoke as if nothing was wrong, as if Jihoon hadn’t walked out on him when he’d lain his heart bare and then ghosted him for a week and a half.

‘I was going to ask what was so important that you couldn’t spare a minute for your old pal, but I see you’ve been busy working on that body,’ Soonyoung chuckled. He grabbed Jihoon’s sore biceps for good measure, an action of flippant intimacy that Jihoon was entirely unprepared for.

‘Sorry, man,’ Jihoon said, ‘I just needed to take some time away from… everything.’

It sounded pathetic, but it was the best Jihoon was prepared to offer. It didn’t feel appropriate to gush about his fucked-up sleep schedule, the songs that never quite sound as good as they do in his head, the rent that’s due in two days’ time. And besides, Jihoon didn’t feel like breaking down in tears right next to a couple of raucous gym bros.

For what seemed like the first time in his life, Soonyoung appeared to be thinking – deliberating, almost holding himself back. Jihoon could see him playing with his hands: a subconscious manifestation of pent up energy. But all too soon, he was smiling again, laughing thoughtlessly and carelessly.

Careless. That was one word for Kwon Soonyoung. Jihoon hadn’t quite decided if it was a good trait or an unforgivable character flaw.

‘Don’t worry about it!’ He said, stretching out his toned limbs in a warmup exercise. ‘We all need a break every once in a while. I hardly even noticed you were gone.’

‘Asshole,’ Jihoon rolled his eyes.

The worst of it was over. Soonyoung was shallow enough to disregard what had happened in the café – or perhaps he was stupid enough to misunderstand the implications of his exit. Either way, Jihoon was content to join his friend on the treadmills without any worries of owning up to his fears of being outed. Because that’s what it all boiled down to; love, sex, romance; that undeniable pull of biology that he so badly wished he could ignore.

Jihoon was a private person. He was sometimes a stranger even to himself. And there were certain thoughts he couldn’t bear to let in: it was safer to lock his doors and shut them out—

‘I keep telling Seungkwan to ask Vernon out, but he just won’t listen. Doesn’t he know I’m older than him and therefore wiser? I could be his love sensei, training him in the art of seduction.’

Jihoon was pulled out of the cresting waves of distress. Reality came in the safe familiarity of Soonyoung’s stupid quips.

‘”The art of seduction”— what the fuck are you talking about? The most romantic thing you’ve ever done was making a valentine’s card for that girl you liked in the fourth grade. I’m pretty sure you made her a bracelet out of uncooked macaroni too.’

‘Yes, and if Seungkwan listened to me, Vernon would be walking around right now with a dope pasta necklace.’

‘Only a very special kind of idiot would ever walk around college campus wearing a pasta necklace.’ Jihoon felt himself smile as he broke out into a jog on the treadmill. Beside him, Soonyoung was content with maintaining a walking pace. The sound of his footsteps was rhythmic and regular – soothing.

‘If you’re not too busy being a recluse, you should come out with us tonight. Me, Seok and Seungkwan are gonna grab a few drinks and go dancing.’

‘And who else will be joining you on this bender?’ Jihoon knew Soonyoung well enough to see through his casual tone; never in his life had he gone out for a quiet drink with only a couple of people.

‘It’s just a casual thing, seriously. Maybe a few other guys will show up for a bit, I don’t know,’ Soonyoung shrugged. The action made him almost lose his balance on the treadmill. Jihoon wondered how it was even possible for someone to be so hopelessly clumsy.

Jihoon’s quick-coming breaths provided a convenient excuse for his moment of silence. There was a pleasant feeling of dizziness in his head, a dull ache in his legs, and a good deal of thoughts swarming around his mind. He was supposed to go home early. He was supposed to flip off the recording technician and give himself a well-deserved break, perhaps an early night. There were beers in his fridge just waiting to be uncapped. He could finally put the Etta James single on his turntable and just lie back, letting the rich, honey voice of heartbreak wash over him until sleep eased his eyes shut.

‘Sure. I guess I’ll come for a little while.’

‘Hell yeah!’ Soonyoung fist pumped. He was walking quickly now, whole body bobbing up and down with comical exaggeration. It was fairly obvious he was new to cardio. Jihoon almost wondered if he’d only shown up to the gym to try and find him in the first place – but no. There was no way Kwon Soonyoung, the guy with a friend in every major, would waste his precious time scouting out an antisocial loser.

‘Can I bring Cheol?’

As much a safety blanket as a best friend, Jihoon felt a sense of relief when Seungcheol was by his side. Even if their nights invariably ended with a third person being driven back to Seungcheol’s apartment and Jihoon being dropped off hurriedly a few blocks before his own flat, it was comforting. It felt like a load was being shared, a weight lessened and eased.

‘Uh, yeah. I mean, I can’t think of a reasonable explanation why he shouldn’t come.’

Jihoon eyed his friend with suspicion, but Soonyoung was trying very hard to adjust the incline on his treadmill, pressing the touchscreen with deliberate slowness.

‘I’ll take that as a yes then.’

‘Okay,’ Soonyoung said, exhaling deeply and switching the machine off. ‘I’ll see you both tonight.’ He stepped back onto the thinly carpeted floor of the gym and gave Jihoon a thumbs up before quietly adding; ‘for better or worse.’

As Soonyoung walked away, Jihoon was left feeling as he always did; a mess of anticipation and fear; torn down the middle and riddled with contradictions.

 

-

 

‘I’ll need you to remove your earring.’

Seungcheol hesitated in front of the technician. He was sat on the padded edge of an MRI machine, looking up at the tight-lipped woman like a lost child. It’d been over a week since Jeonghan had invited him to drop by the lab for a friendly brain scan, and Seungcheol was beginning to regret finally taking him up on his offer.

He fiddled with the small silver stud in his right ear and dropped it into the technician’s hand. Her slender palm closed around it, and for a second Seungcheol felt an ugly pang of mistrust. Precious things like Chanel earrings weren’t hard to come by, but there was a funny sense of unease that he couldn’t quite shake when other people – people that weren’t like him – ghosted a hand over what wasn’t there’s. It was invariably his mother’s voice that murmured in his head at times like these;

People always want what they don’t have.

When Seungcheol was left alone in the MRI room, it occurred to him that his mother was perhaps smarter than he gave her credit for. He knew for a fact there were a great many things he wanted but could never ever get. What was sex if not an act of desire; a frustratingly unfulfilling communion of want. When he took someone home with him in the slim hours of the morning, did he ever expect to feel good about himself at the first peek of early dawn?

No. Never.

But would that stop him from trying? From pulling and touching and sweating and kissing until his whole body was spent and sated?

No.

Never.

‘Don’t you look dashing.’

It was a playful voice, high and light with mirth. Jeonghan walked into the darkened room wearing a white lab coat that made him look somehow even more elegant than normal. Seungcheol felt stupid sitting in a hospital gown that tied up at the back. If he so much as stood up there was a good chance Jeonghan would see his Calvin Klein underwear.

‘You know me. I always like to make an effort.’

Jeonghan hummed in acknowledgement and set about making a few preliminary notes on a clipboard. Seungcheol noticed he had a pencil tucked behind his ear, sharpened and worn down to the length of a stubby cigarette. It looked as though Jeonghan had forgotten it there, his mind too focused, too quick-moving to recall an unimportant pencil.

‘It was very inconsiderate of you to keep me waiting,’ Jeonghan said, not looking up from his notes. ‘I’m only a first-year postgrad. We get to use the machines once or twice to get used to operating them by ourselves and then it’s on to the next thing. Josh bravely volunteered his body to science when you didn’t show up, but I told him no one else would do. I’m just dying to take a look at your brain, Seungcheollie.’

Seungcheol hated himself for finding Jeonghan endearing. What kind of sick, kinky masochist was he?

There were a few beats of silence that verged on awkwardness as Jeonghan started setting up the MRI machine, instructing Seungcheol to lie down and get comfortable. He was offered headphones for the noise and the option of listening to his favourite music but Seungcheol was struck with a sense of curiosity. It wetted his mouth with thirst, with keenness. He still wanted Jeonghan; he wanted some obscure, profound part of him that lay tantalisingly out of reach. Jeonghan himself was a figure of allure and repulsion. His angel hair was invitingly soft, his face as perfect as a Grecian statue. Everything about him was lithe and sensuous: he was pure promise, tied up in a ribbon.

But Jeonghan was also a snake. He reminded Seungcheol a little of the serpent that tempted Eve in the garden of Eden, his eyes glinting reptilian with greed and his smile tinged with venom. Seungcheol hated him. But he hated himself even more for walking willingly into his trap.

‘Why me?’ He asked, the question worded with certainty on his tongue. ‘I thought you weren’t interested in my body.’

‘Again, I never said I wasn’t interested. I’m still waiting for you to sweep me off my feet – I want to find out if your capable of it.’ Jeonghan turned to look at him, biting his lip absentmindedly. ‘I have a hypothesis that you’ll break eventually and force yourself to woo me. Animals don’t tend to act against their natures; we’re all creatures of habit and none of us really want to change. Unless there’s something we very badly want. So, Seungcheol, how badly do you want me?’

The experiment had already started. Or was it more of a game? Jeonghan liked to play around and make a mockery of Seungcheol, using every weapon in his arsenal to render the other man completely helpless and frustrated. Seungcheol was used to exorcising his rage on the soccer field – the coping mechanism of a student athlete – but the burning desire to punch a wall was fairly new to him.

‘Look, I’m not the kind of man that wastes his time chasing after blonde bimbos – even if they happen to be smart-ass neuroscience students – so I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you on that front.’

It was meant to be an insult to knock Jeonghan’s pride down a few pegs, but across the room, he only looked amused and ever so slightly taken aback.

‘I’ve never been called a bimbo before.’ Jeonghan rolled his eyes; a gesture that seemed to say, ‘do better’.

Not deigning to give Seungcheol the reaction he desired, Jeonghan clapped his hands together; ‘Now, why don’t we begin?’

 

-

 

Seungcheol emerged from the curved centre of the MRI machine feeling disconnected from reality. When Jeonghan scanned him, he was surrounded by a heavy banging sound that thundered deep inside his head despite the noise cancelling headphones. It felt a little like he’d been swallowed by a sea monster. Suspended inside the belly of the beast, Seungcheol allowed himself to drift towards his subconscious, thoughts becoming indistinct, regressive, dream-like.

The whirring and banging were familiar sounds, after all.

Seungcheol was ten years old again, sitting in the small back room of his mother’s penthouse apartment. Around him, the raw, industrial noise of clothes in the broken dryer. Legs crossed. Arms too small for his red sweater – his mother never could never remember his clothes size – Seungcheol let himself drown in the spinning, clanging groan of the outdated machine. It was better than hearing the pants of strange men and the shouting that almost always followed it.

Now that the scan was over, Seungcheol struggled to find a sense of gravity again – something that could ground him in the here and now and stop him drifting into memories that only made him angry, detached.

Jeonghan, oddly attentive to his mood, hopped onto the edge of the machine and sat next to him, a plastic cup of water in his hand.

‘We’re not supposed to bring any food or drink in here, but I’ve never been overly fond of rules. Here, have some.’

Seungcheol took the cup gingerly. He tried his best not to brush his fingers against Jeonghan’s own.

‘Your amygdala isn’t as small as I expected – although it’s a little below average.’

‘Meaning?’

‘You’re pretty capable of feeling fear.’

Seungcheol let out a dry laugh.

‘I didn’t need an MRI scan to tell me that.’

Jeonghan hummed in acknowledgment. Something about him was softer, more careful. As though he were treading lightly around Seungcheol. What had he seen inside his head? What secrets had he teased out? Jeonghan’s pity was almost as irksome as his contempt. Painfully aware that he was about to defy their unspoken truce, Seungcheol was turning on the other boy before he knew it;

‘For a neuroscientist, you really have no idea how human beings think, do you? You can look at that machine all fucking day if you want, it’s still not gonna change the fact that you’re an entitled asshole that has no idea how to talk to other people.’

Seungcheol had opened the flood gates; his words came out in an unrestrained flow of vice that he couldn’t seem to hold back. Just like anyone else, Seungcheol knew he was capable of cruelty; casual sex was a form of cruelty in itself, a rejection of intimacy in its purest sense. So too was extreme wealth; simply by circumstance alone, Seugncheol’s entire existence was an affront to every low-income family, every homeless, jobless soul that couldn’t even afford one meal a day.

Ultimately, though, Seungcheol considered himself a kind person. A good man.

He tried to cling to that conviction when he watched Yoon Jeonghan break for the first time under the weight of his words. It was only the briefest second of unguarded weakness, like the slipping of a well-secured mask – but it was there. Seungcheol felt the immediate pang of devastation and almost tried to form an apology, but Jeonghan was back to his regular self again.

He sat up straight and efficiently fastened the top three buttons of his lab coat until his whole appearance was one of tightness and austerity.

‘It’s funny, I’ve heard that a lot. My entire life, actually. But I just don’t agree; I know exactly how human beings think. Take you, for example. I knew from the first moment we met that you think of me exactly as everyone else does. I wish I could say I’m offended, but I honestly couldn’t give a shit.’

Jeonghan’s smile was congenial, practiced. He stood up and collected his clipboard, walking a few paces so that he was directly in front of Seungcheol.

‘My offer still stands, by the way.’ Jeonghan’s voice grew quieter, more deliberately seductive. ‘I’ll even lower the bar a little to make it easier for you; show up at my apartment tonight with a bottle of the most expensive champagne you can find in your bachelor pad and I might just give you what you want.’

It was too easy. If Seungcheol walked into Jeonghan’s apartment and gave into his every whim – his deepest desires – he would be no better than a rabbit caught in a trap. Jeonghan would have him weak and wounded, ready to be metaphorically skinned alive.

‘No thanks,’ Seungcheol replied. ‘I already have plans with Soonyoung and Jihoon. Boy’s night out.’

The smile Jeonghan offered was positively angelic. His eyes sharp and glittering with expectation. Seungcheol couldn’t help thinking he’d been fooled, tricked into giving Jeonghan exactly what he wanted all along: an extended courtship. Something more than just the one-night stand that was so easily within his grasp; something instead that would have him pleading at Jeonghan’s feet like a desperate fool.

‘Oh really? I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time.’

Jeonghan left the room toying with a pencil between his parted lips and Seungcheol was left with only the beating of his own traitorous heart.

 

-

 

The club was called the Tiger’s Eye, and Seungcheol had no trouble guessing who’d picked it. Soonyoung’s personal branding was reasonably well known within their circle of friends; he loved anything to do with tigers and was perhaps a little too open about it. Seungcheol wondered if it was a poorly judged attempt at appearing tough, but he never quite had it in him to ask.

The group of them had arrived almost forty minutes earlier. It was not yet midnight; the room they’d settled in was sparse and relatively small, the bar all but empty. Seungcheol never enjoyed heading out so early, but Jeon Wonwoo had a strict No Clubs policy that could only be broken with the promise that he’d back in his own bed by 1:30 if he so desired. Of course he looked happy enough, sipping at his piña colada and scrolling on his phone, so amused by the little paper umbrella he’d decided to take a dimly-lit photo of it.

Jihoon, meanwhile, had scrubbed up well in his leather jacket but looked miserable enough to appear faintly absurd next to their table of colourful party drinks. Seungcheol could smell the cologne he’d bought him two Christmases ago and wondered why he finally decided to use it tonight.

Soonyoung, Seokmin and Seungkwan were having a whale of a time. For reasons beyond Seungcheol’s understanding, they’d decided to order cosmopolitans and were pretending to sip them like rich, city socialites. It would have been a lot more amusing if he were more drunk.

Seungcheol couldn’t help feeling like he and Jihoon were the responsible parents of the group with four impossibly difficult teenage sons. On more than one occasion he’d caught himself telling Wonwoo to get off his phone and interact; not to mention the scandalised gasp he struggled to suppress when Soonyoung jumped out of the taxi in a crop top.

‘You’ll freeze your ass off! You don’t even have a jacket!’

All in all, it was gearing up to be a night Seungcheol would likely regret. He’d been grouchy since his interaction with Jeonghan earlier that day, and the effects of their conversation hadn’t yet worn off. Seungcheol wasn’t entirely sure he was angrier at Jeonghan or at himself for being so deliberately hurtful. The orange and red strobe lighting of the club washed him in their wavering colours as he sipped at his beer and wished, for once, that he was at home instead.

There were things about Jeonghan – feelings that he elicited in Seungcheol – that were new and wildly confusing. Seungcheol had a feeling that a rager with the boys was a bad place to unpack all his complicated emotions.

‘Shots, bitches!’

Seungkwan carried a tray over to their little table and Seungcheol knocked back a warm helping of vodka. His throat was rough with its impossible bitterness.

The thought of doing some serious thinking alone in his apartment was becoming more and more ridiculous with each passing second. Seungcheol felt his body loosen up under the influence of alcohol; it was early days yet, but even the placebo effect of downing a couple of drinks was a welcome distraction.

There were a handful of other people in the compact room now. Seungcheol and Jihoon had entered into a comfortable conversation, half shouted over the pounding music, and almost didn’t notice the arrival of several other partygoers. In fact, Seungcheol was only partially aware of the steady stream of shots that Seokmin and Seungkwan forced into his hand. Like an obedient little boy taking his medicine, Seungcheol raised each little glass of sucrose-sweet liquid to his mouth and knocked it back. It was instinctual, habitual. How many times had he been out in clubs just like this, looking for thrills and hoping for company?

For a few hours, it had almost seemed as though he’d forgotten who he was. Seungcheol leaned against the wall, tipsier than he wanted to be, and realised it hadn’t even occurred to him to pick someone up. The thought was liberating but fleeting. No sooner than he’d felt the weight lifted from his chest, he felt it crash down upon him once again. It was only a momentary loss of desire; with a vicious suddenness, Seungcheol found himself scanning the room for appealing faces. His old habit.

His addiction.

‘What the fuck are they doing here?’ Jihoon’s voice was exasperated.

Seungcheol tore his eyes away from the crowd of dancing people and saw a few familiar faces walking towards their little table. One in particular stuck out for him, and Seungcheol choked down a pang of desire that fluttered in his chest.

‘We’ve got to stop meeting like this,’ Jeonghan joked. But the certainty of his eyes told a different story; this was no accident. This was planned.

Seungcheol had just enough time for a quick headcount – he noticed Joshua, Jun and Minghao too, as well as a very tall man he didn’t recognise – before Soonyoung launched into an explanation-apology that sounded as though it had been rehearsed beforehand.

‘I know you might be upset that I invited Jeonghan and his friends, but they’re really quite lovely people when you get to know them. I promise. We’re all adults at the end of the day and we can learn to get along with one another—'

‘Can you repeat that, Soon? The music is so loud,’ Seokmin all but shouted from his seat.

Before Soonyoung could read his lines for a second time, Jihoon got up with a sigh.

‘I’m gonna need a drink.’

Seungcheol very much agreed with that sentiment and wasted no time standing up and following his friend through the sweaty mass of swarming bodies. But he wasn’t alone. Feeling a hand holding onto the sleeve of his denim jacket, Seungcheol looked back and saw Jeonghan right behind him. He clung to Seungcheol, careful not to lose him in the growing chaos of the dancefloor. A very drunk young man stumbled a few paces and almost knocked Jeonghan off his feet, but Seungcheol was quick off the mark; before he knew what he was doing, he swerved around and held the other boy steady.

Their eyes locked in the glowing, dizzying darkness and Seungcheol felt something inside him break. Jeonghan was there. He was really there. For the briefest of moments, he was in Seungcheol’s arms; slight and warm and real, as though he were a normal boy that wanted normal things and lived a normal life. Seungcheol allowed himself the luxury of pretending he could have Jeonghan. For the first time in his life, he entertained the strange notion of romance. Jeonghan was wonderfully complicated, as cruel as he was fascinating; it would take a lifetime to figure him out. Yes. Seungcheol could spend an entire lifetime with this boy and never get bored.

The thought made him feel sick.

Seungcheol turned around and continued to the bar, taking some comfort – or was it disappointment? – in the fact that Jeonghan wasn’t just another lonely heart looking for love. Sometimes it seemed as though he wasn’t even human.

The bartender raised a hand in greeting and Seungcheol leaned in, asking for a Jack and coke. A chastising pat to his shoulder turned his head.

‘Aren’t you going to buy me a drink?’

Seungcheol’s resolve cracked far too quickly.

‘What’re you having?’

‘Sex on the beach.’

Seungcheol rolled his eyes and Jeonghan smiled to himself wickedly. Soon enough they were sipping their drinks in a silence that was surprisingly comfortable.

Under the lights of the bar, Seungcheol had a chance to look Jeonghan up and down (covertly, of course) and decided he liked what he saw. Tonight, Jeonghan was wearing a loose-fitting pink silk shirt that hung off him and revealed his collar bones. His hair had been gently waved, two silver hairclips slid in on either side. The makeup was the real killer – Jeonghan’s eyelids were defined with a very precise, very thin black line and his eyelids glittered in the dim light of the club. Seungcheol took a moment to take it all in. Jeonghan was feminine enough to be considered pretty, but masculine enough that no one would mistake him for a woman – at least, not with his hair any longer than his jawline. It was the perfect blend of androgyny.

Maybe it was the alcohol taking over, but Seungcheol was struck with the dizzying urge to undo every neat button on Jeonghan’s silk shirt and undress him until he was naked. Until there were no more layers to hide under.

Instead, he satisfied himself with a simple question;

‘What’s with you and pink?’

Jeonghan hummed in consideration. The plastic straw in his cocktail hadn’t left his lips since he’d ordered it. He let it ghost his lips and occasionally chewed on its tip as he puzzled out the best answer to Seungcheol’s question.

‘It just suits my mood. I’ve been feeling pink lately. Ever since we met.’

Seungcheol had no idea what Jeonghan meant by that, but he was struck with the sincerity of his words. This was Jeonghan being honest, as straightforward as he knew how. Why was he playing so nice all of a sudden? What happened to all the secrets and the tricks he’d come to expect after just a few days of being in Jeonghan’s company.

Seungcheol was preparing himself for a blow. It was like being on the soccer field; after a while an experienced player learns how to anticipate an accident, a mistake. Seungcheol knew how to suck in his breath and shut his eyes tight just seconds before the heavy mass of another player collided with his body and brought him down hard. Chaos was preceded by a deep, electric silence that made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. Seungcheol felt it then, in the noisy sprawl of the Tiger’s Eye club; he and Jeonghan existed momentarily in a tiny pocket of isolated time. A bubble that was bound to burst.

Impact.

‘Hannie!’

A man was waving his way through the crowd, a huge, delighted smile on his face. Seungcheol’s first impression was one of confusion – the stranger was hailing them with so much familiarity he thought he must have known him – quickly followed by disgust. Understanding coursed through his body like drunkenness and Seungcheol figured out who he was the minute he saw the older man’s hands.

Seungcheol had learnt to identify people by their accessories. He couldn’t quite help himself; it was second nature to assess someone’s income, to estimate their worth through their worldly belongings and figure out if they were like him or not. Not exactly elderly but far from young, the man’s hands looked as soft as a baby’s skin, his nails cut and neatened with inhuman precision. The Cartier ring was a dead giveaway. Its sleek, gold body glittered maliciously as he wrapped an arm around Jeonghan’s shoulders and pulled him in for a hug.

Seungcheol finished his drink in one go and reminded himself that he didn’t care. Jeonghan was an asshole, a bitch – a boy that had nothing to give him but spite. It didn’t mean a thing if he wanted to meet up with one of his sugar daddies.

But a more obscure, desperate part of Seungcheol couldn’t help asking;

What can he give you that I don’t have?

As if things couldn’t get more confusing, a switch was flicked inside Jeonghan and Seungcheol watched in disbelief as the boy who always kept his cool began jumping up and down with excitement. Squealing like a schoolgirl. It looked as though he were genuinely happy to see the greying man. It looked as though Jeonghan liked him, cared about him – was interested in every stupid joke and every boring detail of his day.

But Seungcheol wasn’t drunk enough to be tricked that easily. He wasn’t a pathetically lonely businessman with too much money and no one to spend it on. Seungcheol was detached enough to see Jeonghan for what he really was; a shark smelling blood, stalking its prey just to watch it squirm. Far too smart to be taken advantage of. They were dancing now – Seungcheol all but forgotten at the bar – and Jeonghan moved with his back against the older man’s chest. His slender hand reached back and played with short, grey hair. The action was insincere and vapid, but it was enough to make Seungcheol’s skin crawl. When the sugar daddy bent his head down to whisper into Jeonghan’s ear and place a kiss on his neck, Seungcheol fought off dizziness.

He’d reached his limit.

On the other side of the crowd of dancers, Seungcheol’s group had thinned somewhat. Perhaps they’d moved on to better, more exciting things, because the only two people left at the table were Seokmin and Minghao, a boy he’d barely spoken to. Seokmin’s head had rolled back against the plush, leather seat, his mouth agape as he dozed peacefully. Minghao sat very still himself. His posture was absolutely straight, and his eyes watched Seungcheol approach with a resigned calmness that somehow managed to help ease his anxiety. Minghao looked simultaneously younger and older than the others, and Seungcheol couldn’t quite get his head around that.

His drunk state kept the awkwardness of initial conversation at bay.

‘I’m having a shit night.’

Seungcheol’s words were more slurred than he expected. He placed a hand on the seat to keep himself steady; his whole body was becoming distant and almost numb to the touch.

‘Perhaps it’s time you went home,’ Minghao rubbed a soothing hand on his shoulder and Seungcheol felt a sudden shock of tears well up in his eyes. He couldn’t bear gentleness. He’d spent his whole life feeling certain he didn’t deserve it.

‘I’m not going home, I’m not sad—’ Seungcheol couldn’t speak without sobbing so he shut himself up. He couldn’t explain the tears, but he was sure they weren’t for Jeonghan. Were they?

‘Shh, it’s okay.’

Minghao pressed a tall cup of water into Seungcheol’s hand and watched him drink with careful eyes. He reminded Seungcheol of an elementary school teacher, firm and authoritative and kind at his core.

‘I hate him. I really hate him. I don’t know how anyone could like him.’

Seungcheol’s cheeks were slightly wet and he wiped them as he spoke. Minghao knew immediately who he was talking about and spoke directly into Seungcheol’s ear, his voice unwavering over the thumping bass of the club.

‘I met Jeonghan a few years ago and I honestly thought he was the cockiest asshole in the entire university. It was at a party, actually. Full of science kids trying to flex their intellects and make a good impression. Well, I’m an introvert; I hate big parties where I don’t know anyone. I was stuck at the back of the room, listening to Yoon Jeonghan talk about everything from Jung to Virgil to Batman with so much confidence, I couldn’t help hating him. It felt like he didn’t notice anyone else. But I was wrong. He notices things more than anybody – he noticed me back then.’

Minghao smiled fondly and looked on past the dancefloor, eyes fixed on a distant point in time. A moment already passed.

‘He just doesn’t think like you and me. I know it’s difficult to understand, and I know he can be cruel, but he doesn’t mean it. Jeonghan is a curious person; a lonely person, too. You know, I sneak him into the dissection room sometimes – I’m a medical student – because Jeonghan likes to be alone and study the cadavers. I don’t know what he sees in them that’s so fascinating. Even now, I feel a bit nauseous when I do dissections, but I think Jeonghan can look past the fact that they were real people with real lives.’

Seungcheol was a little awed and very, very tipsy. He indulged Minghao as he spoke with adoration about their mutual friend. Trying very hard to concentrate on what the other boy was saying, Seungcheol found his mind lingering on the image of Jeonghan – painfully beautiful Yoon Jeonghan with his angel eyes – leaning over the cold, unmoving body of a dead man. Seungcheol could see the rosy tint of his cheeks light up with a curious smile; he imagined Jeonghan reaching out a hand filled with life, heart hammering with a lust for arcane knowledge as he touched the dead thing. It was a mental image as repellent as it was captivating.

‘He’s never told me, but I’m pretty sure Jeonghan has an eidetic memory. He snuck into one anatomy class and came out knowing every single part of the human body. He learnt more sitting quietly by himself with a textbook than listening to a qualified doctor.’

‘Impressive. Still doesn’t change the fact that he treats me like shit.’

A mild flash of annoyance sparked across Minghao’s otherwise peaceful expression, and Seungcheol reminded himself he was talking to one of Jeonghan’s closest friends. There were some things he just couldn’t say.

‘Jeonghan doesn’t owe you a damn thing. I know what you want from him, and you haven’t exactly got a good rep yourself, Seungcheol.’

How could he have forgotten? For the second time that night, Seungcheol had lost himself. He’d shrugged off his baggage like an old coat and thought he could cast it aside and be someone else. But it wasn’t that easy. He was Choi Seungcheol; college campus fuckboy; playboy trust fund baby; borderline-sex-addict. Even Xu Minghao, a boy he’d never once seen around campus, knew he was bad news.

Seungcheol felt an itch inside of himself that he couldn’t scratch. He needed something – or someone.

‘I’m sorry, I’m a little drunk and it’s been a long night. Forgive me?’

Minghao surprised him with the sincerity of his smile.

‘I understand.’

A thought – an impulse – crossed Seungcheol’s mind and as always, he rolled with it.

‘You’re hair’s so long. It’s really pretty,’ he said, voice smooth and intimate. ‘I haven’t been able to stop looking at it since I sat down here.’

The stare Minghao gives him is one filled with pity and Seungcheol reaches a new low. He feels antsy, unfulfilled. Ashamed.

‘I’m sorry, I’m already taken. That big guy over there,’ Minghao raised a slender hand and pointed to the dancefloor. Seungcheol was more than a little surprised to see the very tall man that arrived with Minghao and Jeoghan dancing with an extremely smiley – and tipsy – looking Wonwoo.

‘He’s a flirter,’ Minghao rolled his eyes with fond exasperation. ‘I know he doesn’t mean anything by it.’

They looked so happy. So incredibly happy. Seungcheol couldn’t possibly understand how Minghao could watch his boyfriend spin another man around on the dancefloor like that. He was jealous by nature; jealous that someone else had managed to make his stoic friend smile and loosen up; jealous that Minghao was happy and settled; jealous that Jeonghan slept with other men that weren’t him.

‘Seungcheol?’

The question was cautious and tentative, quiet enough to be partially lost beneath the layers of shouting and singing and pounding music. Seungcheol was already up and staggering away. He needed to clear his head. He needed to be anywhere but that small, loud room.

 

-

 

The bathroom was quiet. It still echoed and reverberated with the aftershock of sound, but it was distant and separate from the chaos of the club. Seungcheol was relieved to find it empty. He leaned back on the black wall against names and curse words that had been scratched into the paint with house keys and acrylic nails. It occurred to him that perhaps he should add his own name to the memorial wall. Seungcheol had a desperate, burning need to do something. It felt as though he wasn’t real; as though his life was as pointless and fleeting as a ripple in water.

He would find someone.

He would splash his face with some cold tap water, breathe a few deep breaths, go back out there and find someone.

It was his usual resolve, and Seungcheol felt uncharacteristically aware of the toxicity of his mindset, but there was nothing else for it. He wanted to feel again.

He moved to turn on the tap at the nearest sink, but something caught his attention. It was a deep, hushed sound coming from the stall at the back of the bathroom. He noticed then that the door was slightly ajar. Seungcheol saw the brief movement of a shadow and again, the moan. He was very familiar with toilet-stall trysts – he’d taken part in his fair share of them – but something about this particular scene was unsettling. Try as he might, Seungcheol could only make out the voice of one man. It was an aggressive, lust-filled noise that sounded sinister in the relative silence of the bathroom.

Seungcheol was sober enough to intervene. He paced over to the stall and pushed the door open.

‘Hey—’

A familiar grey head turned around, revealing an even more familiar shock of blonde hair. Jeonghan. He was pressed up against the bathroom wall, the old man in front of him, bearing down on his body. The grey-haired man was frozen in motion, one hand shoved down his pants, the other hovering over Jeonghan’s open blouse. A few neat pink buttons lay scattered on the floor. It would have been a tableau of passion, if Jeonghan didn’t look so painfully passive there against the wall. Before he caught sight of Seungcheol, Jeonghan’s eyes were distant and empty – almost bored.

It was not the face of someone who wanted to be pushed up against the wall and touched all over by a sleazy, intoxicated middle-aged man.

When Jeonghan realised what had happened, his pink mouth parted in momentary shock and he locked eyes with Seungcheol. There was something in the way he looked at him then that was hopeful, desperate: charged with meaning.

Seungcheol gained the courage he needed to march forward and pull the sugar daddy off Jeonghan, the force of it causing his body to collide with the bathroom wall. There was a hard thud and the man grunted, scrambling for Seungcheol.

‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing, pal? Are you crazy?’

He was clearly intoxicated – more so than Seungcheol, who was sobering up with a speed that astonished even him.

‘I’m gonna need you to back off. You’re drunk; go take a walk.’ Seungcheol took advantage of the man’s stumbling to move in front of Jeonghan protectively, his body acting as a barrier. He didn’t want it to come to an altercation; it wouldn’t be a fair fight. The greying sugar daddy looked completely pathetic with his Armani tie hanging limp around his neck. He smelt overwhelmingly of luxury aftershave and booze.

If this was a ghost of Seungcheol’s future, it was a wakeup call of the highest order. He never wanted to become that desperate, needy man with money enough to waste on the fantasy of sex with people much younger, and much more beautiful than himself.

‘I don’t want to “take a walk”, can’t you see I’m in the middle of something?’

‘Jeonghan isn’t interested. It’s time for you to leave.’

The man let out a bitter, gargling laugh. ‘What do you mean? He’s loving it! Aren’t you, baby?’

Seungcheol couldn’t help looking over his shoulder. Jeonghan remained entirely silent, but his face betrayed him. His brows creased in an instinctive flinch of disgust, and he pushed himself further against the wall. It was rare to see Jeonghan so raw and unguarded. So vulnerable. Seungcheol was about to turn around and offer him a hand – sugar daddy be damned – when a startling jolt of pressure slammed against his right cheek. First came the shock of adrenaline, disorientating and thrilling like a shot of undiluted energy. Then the pain arrived. The whole right side of Seungcheol’s cheek throbbed and stung, and he couldn’t ignore the distinct taste of blood in his mouth.

Seungcheol spat on the floor and wiped a trail of red from his mouth.

One look at the bloody, angry mess that was Choi Seungcheol had the other man scampering away from the nightclub bathroom. There was an excruciating moment of tension that only eased when Seungcheol heard the bathroom door swing shut, creaking a few times on its rusty hinges.

‘Are you okay?’

A small voice next to him. Had Yoon Jeonghan ever sounded small before?

He looked dazed. Jeonghan’s slim frame was laid bare against the draughty chill from the open window and he shivered as he reached out a hand to the corner of Seungcheol’s lip.

‘It’s split,’ Jeonghan muttered to himself, running a hand along the fresh cut. Seungcheol smarted at the touch but remained steady. ‘And swollen too.’

‘I’m fine, Jeonghan. More importantly, are you okay? You should never let a creep like that touch you. I can’t always be there to fight them off.’ I can, Seungcheol thought to himself, I’ll always be there if you let me.

And Jeonghan was himself again.

Like an actor getting into character, he straightened up and stepped away from Seungcheol. His expression altered smoothly from shaken to self-assured. The smile he offered Seungcheol was mischievous and taunting.

‘You did a great job at defending my honour. Except for the part where you let a skinny fifty-year-old man sock you in the face,’ Jeonghan chuckled. ‘And besides, I didn’t need any help. It was all perfectly consensual. But perhaps this is just your attempt to win my affection. Have I really had that much of an effect on you? Are you in love with me, Choi Seungcheol?’

Perhaps he ought to have been angry; furious at the accusation that he would ever be capable of something as juvenile as love. But Seungcheol just felt tired. Utterly defeated and hurt in a way he couldn’t quite understand, Seungcheol let out one shaky laugh of disbelief. His whole face was tender with pain. There was blood on his paper-white sneakers.

Seungcheol walked away, leaving Jeonghan alone in the empty bathroom stall.

 

-

 

‘Now this is much better!’

It was nearing 2am, and the main floor of the Tiger’s Eye club was packed with the worst sorts of people. Jihoon and the others had left the small room on the first floor and headed into the heart of drunken chaos, wading through a sea of heavily inebriated dancers until they reached the bar. Everyone was rowdy, careless of those around them as they moved their bodies and jabbed their elbows into Jihoon’s side. There was nothing he could do in retaliation besides shoot them glares that went unnoticed.

Jihoon’s wallet had taken a bad hit, but at least Soonyoung was having a good time. The jury was still out on Jun and Joshua – Jihoon had been denied the chance of getting to know Minghao when the boy volunteered to keep an eye on Seokmin – but Seungkwan and Soonyoung were entertaining if nothing else.

It was more or less expected that Seungcheol would ditch them, but Jihoon couldn’t quell the feeling of unease in his chest when he recalled the way Yoon Jeonghan had followed his friend to the bar, winking at the others conspiratorially as he left. It was like an inside joke. Seungcheol was nothing more than a game to him, and Jihoon would be more worried if he wasn’t absolutely certain that neither of the two were capable of catching feelings.

He winced at the cheerful beep his contactless debit card made against the pin machine. The bartender laid out five plastic shot glasses and with a flourish, filled them to the brim.

‘Cheers!’

The apple flavoured shots were gone as soon as they were poured. Jihoon was left with a bittersweet aftertaste that lingered in his mouth. He asked the bartender for some much-needed water.

‘I just remembered,’ Soonyoung’s hand was on Jihoon’s shoulder. It was a comfortable, warm feeling. ‘You owe me twenty bucks.’

‘I do?’

Jihoon was feeling loose; it was as though a tightly coiled thread inside of him was being steadily unwound. Content to let the strange sensation take its course, Jihoon allowed himself to be pulled onto the dancefloor by a grinning Soonyoung.

‘You’re always smiling,’ Jihoon said, voice as casual as he could manage. Soonyoung spun him around like a ballroom dancer and Jihoon added; ‘I like it. It’s a really fucking nice smile.’

‘I’m going to be smiling even more when you hand over the money.’

Distantly, Jihoon was aware of a hand trailing down his back. It was almost pleasant until said hand reached his ass and slipped inside the back pocket of Jihoon’s jeans.

‘Hey!’

‘Damn it, you don’t keep your wallet in there. Is it in you jacket?’

Soonyoung slipped his hands beneath Jihoon’s leather jacket and held him around the waist. It was obvious what he was doing – he was going to rob him blind in the middle of the dancefloor – so why wasn’t Jihoon stopping him?

‘Bingo.’ Soonyoung pulled out a wallet from Jihoon’s pocket and leafed through it. ‘I’m in.’

‘Why the hell are you taking my money? Are you that desperate for cash?’

Somehow Jihoon’s hands were on Soonyoung’s waist now. He had no idea how and when it had happened. They moved clumsily to the beat, leaning into each other’s ears to speak.

‘My party. We made a bet, remember? I said Seungcheol would never get Jeonghan to sleep with him and judging by how much they hate each other’s guts, I’d say I’ve won.’

‘Oh, please. You’d have to be completely obtuse not to pick up on all the sexual tension between them. Besides, I know for a fact that someone can annoy you so much you start to want to kiss them.’

Soonyoung gave him a strange look, and Jihoon tilted his head in confusion. He didn’t think he said anything wrong. His inebriated mind was light and airy, pleasantly buzzed as he swayed to the beat in Soonyoung’s arms.

Something wasn’t quite right. The room was spinning slightly, and Jihoon noticed Soonyoung looking over his shoulder a few times too often to be a coincidence.

‘Don’t ignore me,’ he grumbled, pulling the other boy closer and causing him to look bashfully at his feet.

‘Jihoon, I—’

A second of hesitation; a moment between time where everything stood still. Soonyoung looked over Jihoon’s shoulder and gave a small nod. Then the unthinkable happened.

Jihoon was suddenly pushed right up against Soonyoung. The other boy brought his head down, wrapped his arms tight around Jihoon and kissed him. Right on the lips. Soonyoung’s mouth was slightly wet and very sweet, the taste of artificially flavoured shots clinging to his tongue.

Jihoon kissed back.

A yelp of surprise emerged from the back of Soonyoung’s throat, and then he was pulling away. Jihoon, confused and drunk out of his mind, was startled again by the flash of a camera right in his face.

‘No way, that was so easy!’

Jun, Seungkwan and Joshua were standing right next to them. They were alternately laughing at Jihoon and looking at the photograph they’d just taken of him to commemorate the moment. All but Joshua were enjoying themselves immensely. Jihoon felt like he wanted to curl up and die when he saw Soonyoung laugh and high five Jun.

‘What?’ Jihoon sounded stupid. So fucking stupid.

‘Dude, it was a dare. We told Soonyoung to kiss you because we knew you’d hate it. Was it like being smooched by a Labrador? I bet it was,’ Seungkwan laughed and pushed Soonyoung playfully.

They didn’t seem to notice him. Jihoon was incidental; he was the joke itself, the sad punchline that lay forgotten in the aftermath. The collateral damage.

‘Fuck this. Fuck you guys. I’m leaving.’

Now they paid attention. Stunned and maybe a little ashamed, the others stopped their joking and stared him down.

‘Jihoon, I’m sorry…’

And Soonyoung sounded as though he meant it. Jihoon felt his heart break just a little more when he looked up and saw, for the first time, that Soonyoung had ditched his signature grin. He looked absolutely devastated. Jihoon felt strangely guilty then, as though this had all been his doing. He’d ruined the fun, stopped the dancing, made Kwon Soonyoung forget how to smile.

Jihoon hated himself even more for walking away.

 

-

 

‘You know this isn’t the exit, right?’

Jihoon had been trying to clamber over a row of barriers that were placed in a semicircle outside of the club. Too pissed off to ask even the bouncers for help, he’d wandered through the dark rooms of the nightclub hunting down the exit as best he could. But Jihoon was hammered, and Jihoon was a wreck of anxiety. When he stumbled upon the makeshift smoking area, he’d thought fuck it, and tried to climb over the silver gates as best he could.

He knew it wasn’t exactly good for him to linger in a confined space with a group of smokers, but Jihoon was too far gone to summon up the willpower to venture back inside the club. It’d been just over a year. Twelve whole months of fresh breath and clear lungs. But in that moment, he wanted a cigarette more badly than ever before; almost as much he wanted to disappear off the face of the earth.

So, when Joshua Hong showed up behind him raising an eyebrow at his ungainly manoeuvre, Jihoon was grateful for the distraction.

Joshua had the uncanny effect of being able to blend into his surroundings very efficiently. He was absolutely neutral – in personality and presence – and when Jihoon looked back it him, Joshua was almost lost in the dark chaos of the club behind him. His hair was black, his t-shirt was black, his jeans were black too. Jihoon thought he looked a little like the grim reaper and the idea was sinister but amusing. Joshua would guide lost souls to the afterlife with as much calm efficiency at the most practiced of demons.

‘Yes, I know that. I’m just trying to…’ Jihoon sucked in a breath and heaved himself on top of the barricade. ‘Trying to—’

‘Run away again? Like you did at the café?’

‘Exactly. Now you’re starting to get it, goth boy.’ Jihoon would’ve sounded a lot more sure of himself if he hadn’t immediately slipped back off the fence onto the cold, hard, gum-stained pavement.

Joshua sighed and offered him a hand. Jihoon decided he’d finally reached rock bottom – what could it hurt to accept the strong, sturdy hand that was stretched out in front of him? Jihoon wobbled to his feet and embraced the downward spiral his night was taking.

Disregarding Joshua’s tut of disappointment, he asked a stranger for a smoke. Nicotine entered his system with a sweat, burning rush. It all happened more quickly – more easily – than he ever imagined it could. As it turned out, Jihoon’s year-long resolve was as fragile as a house of cards. One small gust of wind and it had been utterly destroyed.

‘Do you want a drag or something?’

Joshua turned up his nose in distaste. ‘That’s okay. It’s all yours. I suppose it must help to ease your mind – otherwise you wouldn’t do it.’

‘Smoking?’ Jihoon thought for a moment. Before him, was the very clear image of high school Jihoon, hiding behind the locker room with a Bic lighter in his hand. ‘It doesn’t help at all, actually. It’s just… habit.’

He always found himself in the same place. Jihoon’s life was like a scratched record stuck on repeat.

‘I suppose you’re gonna try and tell me I should stop. Isn’t there some kind of cure for addiction you therapists have up your sleeve? Maybe you could hypnotise me with a pocket watch,’ Jihoon suggested.

Joshua’s reply was certain, unequivocal;

‘There is no cure for addiction. Really, it all depends on you.’

The night was running its course, taking in throngs of thrill-seeking students and spitting them out again. Jihoon could see groups of girls stepping out of taxis, stiletto heels balancing impossibly over patterned manhole covers and silver drains alike. Not far from them were a group of young men lying in a cannabis-infused stupor against the wall of a twenty-four-hour convenience store. He had been those people. Those people had been him. Jihoon took a painful drag on his borrowed cigarette and thought about how he must look to them. Perhaps they didn’t see him at all.

‘That’s a fun thought. I guess I don’t have a hope in hell then.’

Chapter Text

‘Okay, maybe your night was worse than mine after all.’

It gave Jihoon a modicum of comfort to see Seungcheol sporting a cut, swollen lip as he held the door to his apartment open. Perhaps it was cruel of him to take comfort in somebody else’s misery – in their pain – but that was just the kind of mood Jihoon was in. He’d been feeling nihilistic, self-destructive. It was getting harder and harder for him to pretend to be good when he knew, deep down, that he was rotten to his core.

Shaking off the dark thoughts that nagged at him, Jihoon invited himself inside.

Everything was immaculate as always. Choi Seungcheol ran a tight ship; he had a battalion of cleaning and catering staff to mother him as best as their generous wages would allow, and they left no surface unclean. Sometimes they’d leave tubs of homemade soup in the fridge, and sometimes Seungcheol savoured the little handwritten sticky notes they placed on top. But Jihoon was respectful enough to pretend he hadn’t noticed those raw moments of weakness.

There were no obvious signs of life in the apartment that morning besides Seungcheol himself. Echoes of passing cleaners made their vague presences felt in the lingering smell of lemon detergent, but they themselves were long gone. Even Seungcheol was ghostlike, distant – no more real than the fake vase of flowers set out on the dining room table.

‘I tried calling you yesterday, but it went straight to answer phone. I thought you were doing another one of your disappearing acts,’ Seungcheol said as he poured a glass of water. Straight from a pitcher in the fridge, the water fogged the glass with its palpable coldness.

‘I don’t “disappear”, I just like being alone sometimes. But I’m starting to realise maybe talking to my friends when I feel shitty isn’t such a bad thing to do.’

Seungcheol pretended to choke on his water. At least, Jihoon hoped he was faking it. Surely his personal growth wasn’t such an outrageous concept.

‘Who are you, and what have you done with Lee Jihoon?’ Seungcheol almost smiled, but it looked as though the strain of his grin pulled at the cut on his lip. Jihoon winced in sympathy. ‘I heard what happened,’ Seungcheol continued. ‘I really didn’t think you’d be this okay with it all.’

Was he okay with it? Jihoon didn’t feel okay. He didn’t even feel marginally alright with what had happened two nights ago. But a lot had transpired since then; more than he ever thought possible for someone as hell bent on self-pity as him.

‘I’ve been talking it through. With Joshua – Joshua Hong – but it’s really not a big deal anyway. It was just a stupid dare. And I was drunk out of my mind.’

Seungcheol pinched the bridge of his nose. Jihoon could almost see the inner workings of his mind as he tried to process what he’d just heard.

‘You talked to Joshua? The psych student? You willingly talked to him?’

‘Yeah, it wasn’t—’

‘Nobody held a gun to your head, right? Did he kidnap you?’

Jihoon groaned in frustration and lay down on the long, grey sofa. He didn’t know how he could even begin to explain this to Seungcheol. It hardly made any sense to himself, but Joshua had been so quiet, so gentle, so willing to listen that Jihoon found himself bearing his soul on the pavement outside a trashy club at three in the morning. And then there was the more formal “session” the next day; Josh with his notebook and fountain pen, humming with his deep, contemplative voice as Jihoon let everything spill out of him in one ten-minute-long speech.

They weren’t friends – how could they be friends with such an imbalance of intimacy? – but they were something close. Jihoon couldn’t describe their relationship and in truth, he felt a little ashamed of it. Seungcheol had solved his problems with a good old-fashioned fist fight, and Jihoon had taken himself to therapy.

And besides, even if he was able to face up to the fact he had issues, it didn’t make the pang of fear in his chest any duller when he thought about his lips colliding with—

‘That means you’ve been to Joshua’s apartment. Doesn’t he live with Jeonghan?’

Seungcheol spoke in a trance. Soonyoung was grateful for the distraction but more than a little concerned by the distant look in his friend’s eyes. He hadn’t wanted to hear about what exactly transpired between them; Yoon Jeonghan was not a person Jihoon could ever find it in himself to trust. He knew if it came to it, he wouldn’t be able to hold back his negative thoughts and god knows what Seungcheol would think, infatuated as he was.

‘He does. I didn’t see Jeonghan though. It was so quiet – I don’t think he was home.’

Now Seungcheol was tapping his leg in an urgent, subconscious rhythm. It looked a little manic, a little erratic, and Jihoon found himself sitting upright and grabbing his friend’s arm. Perhaps it was time to address the elephant in the room.

‘I know you don’t do feelings, but Seungcheol, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why do you keep letting him get inside your head? You’ve never shown an interest in anyone before, and this is far from healthy. It’s like…’ Jihoon struggled to find a palatable word.

‘…It’s like an obsession.’

A silence fell between them. Jihoon and Seungcheol were hanging over the edge of a precipice – this was uncharted terriroty and Jihoon was badly out of his depth. He had no idea how to navigate the dark pathways of Seungcheol’s mind – he hardly understood his own – but this was necessary. He glanced over at the other boy, reluctant to make eye contact, and saw that he was twisting a silver ring on his finger. It looked brand new: too impossibly bright to be anything other than an expensive new indulgence. Jihoon caught himself wondering if he’d even recognise Seungcheol without the layers of designer clothes and branded watches. How much of what he saw was Choi Seungcheol and how much was a front? The shell of a man that didn’t really exist?

‘It’s not like that. I thought it was at first; I couldn’t get him off my mind. It drove me mad thinking that he wouldn’t have me – and he rubbed it in too. Made sure I knew I wasn’t good enough and never would be. But he was right about all that in the end. I’m not good enough. I want to help him, Jihoon, but I don’t know how.’

‘I don’t think Jeonghan is the one that needs help in this situation. He’s a manipulative little shit who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.’

Jihoon knew he fucked up. Something in the way Seungcheol carried himself shifted; the air grew heavy. It’d been years since they’d fought and Jihoon wasn’t prepared to reverse the clock now.

‘You don’t know the first thing about him. Believe me when I tell you, he hasn’t got his shit together any more than I do – or you for that matter.’

‘Okay, well in that case why don’t you just talk to him? Tell him you’ll listen to his problems or something.’

Seungcheol looked exasperated. Jihoon was starting to lose his own patience too. There wasn’t much he could say that would ease Seungcheol’s mind – at least, nothing he was willing to hear.

‘I’m pathetic Jihoon, I can’t even defend myself against some skinny old man. Jeonghan saw me get socked in the face and he…’ Seungcheol had prised his ring off and held it tight between his thumb and forefinger. ‘… He laughed. I thought for a second he was really worried about me, but then he had that grin on his face again. I need to be better. I want to be a good man.’

Good and bad, right and wrong. If Jihoon had to take a guess, he’d say Seungcheol and himself were never quite good and almost always wrong when it counted. Who was he to give advice? He’d just made out with a boy that didn’t even like him in front of a handful of flashing cameras.

Jihoon swallowed hard. The thought of Soonyoung made his stomach turn.

‘It’s pretty fucked up that Yoon Jeonghan has got you completely convinced you’re a pathetic human being. If you want my honest opinion, this relationship is toxic. You don’t know what you’re doing – your whole life has been a serious of one-night stands – but this is not normal.’

‘Says the guy who refuses to admit he’s been in love with Kwon Soonyoung since the first day of orientation. I’ll start taking relationship advice from you when you actually have the guts to come out of the fucking closet’

The urge to run: it was there again. It pounded in his head with an animal logic that ran deeper than words. Jihoon felt it in his blood. Like a rabbit caught in a trap, he kept himself steady and bit down the screaming desire to bolt out of Seungcheol’s apartment and never face him again.

This was what Seungcheol did. Jihoon knew this, he’d spoken to Josh about it; he was all pent-up frustration, unfulfilled passion. Seungcheol swallowed his pain and washed it down with a healthy dose of fragile masculinity for good measure.

‘This isn’t about me,’ Jihoon was surprised by his own calmness. He felt like a tamer raising a gentle, placating palm towards a startled horse. He had to show Seungcheol that he was unafraid. As fractured as their relationship had become in the short few minutes they’d spent together, Jihoon wasn’t going to give up on his best friend. Even if deep inside, he felt wounded – bruised.

‘Maybe you’re right about me and Soonyoung. But when I’m ready to talk about that, it’ll be on my own terms and no one else’s. Until then, you don’t get to tell me I’m a fuck up – not when I’m trying. Which is more than I can say for you.’

Jihoon stood up and placed a hand on Seungcheol’s shoulder. The other boy flinched a little; he never had been used to intimacy.

‘You can talk to me when you’re ready – or someone else if you prefer – but for now, it’s best if we give each other some space. I… think I need it.’

 

-

 

Jihoon walked out of the automatic doors onto the pristine street with a confusing mix of relief and devastation inside him. Fighting against his nature might be a losing battle, but Jihoon knew he had to try.

Soonyoung, of course, was an entirely different matter.

The blow had landed so suddenly that he was still raw from the aftereffects. Jihoon was used to putting lids on parts of his mind that he couldn’t bear to think about. They were boxes filled with baggage that he stored safely in the most obscure parts of his psyche. The one labelled “Kwon Soonyoung” was heavy; it’d been waiting for him a long time.

And it would have to wait a little longer.

Jihoon pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket. As he paced down the sidewalk, he noticed the first blush of early frost tainting the windows of sportscars and creeping up the sides of luxury condos.

It was a good day for a smoke.

 

-

 

Kim Mingyu looked like everything Seungcheol feared he himself was.

Tight fitting t-shirt, biceps that looked as though he were permanently flexing, a shit-eating smirk and flawless white teeth. Mingyu was a fuckboy of the highest order, and Seungcheol had no idea why Wonwoo utterly and completely captivated by him.

Of course, Seungcheol’s first impression was full of inaccuracies – as first impressions so often are.

Mingyu seemed to be – for lack of a better word – sensitive.

Sure, he was on the basketball team and spoke with a voice that was audaciously loud for a library, but Mingyu was sweet all the way through. Cut him open and he’d bleed candy. Seungcheol listened with some amazement as Mingyu ranted on and on about fashion and hair. They’d known each other precisely seventeen minutes, and Seungcheol already knew that Mingyu’s dream was to finally flunk out of college and become a hairstylist.

‘I’m telling you; I can work miracles. You’d look so good with silver hair! Please, please let me dye it!’

Wonwoo was fighting down a shy smile as best he could. The resulting half-grin looked incredibly uncomfortable in a way only Jeon Wonwoo could manage.

‘I don’t know, Gyu. It seems a bit crazy…’

Seungcheol looked up from his laptop. It wasn’t just “crazy”; in Wonwoo terms it was outright unprecedented. This was the guy that wore the same pair of shoes for five years and refused to replace them even when they were falling apart and covered in black duct tape.

‘But you’ve got that whole classically handsome thing going on – great bone structure – and I just know a nice ash grey tone would elevate your look.’

Wonwoo’s body contorted in bashfulness; he shrunk in on himself, shoulders stiffening in an ungainly fashion. Seungcheol always thought Wonwoo was an attractive guy, but it appeared no one had ever said as much to his face before. Minghao had warned him his boyfriend was a flirter, but Seunghcheol never expected his pick-up lines to be so effective.

Mingyu, Seungcheol thought, was probably his kryptonite; a double from a parallel universe; himself but inverted. Both of them were confident, cocky and flirtatious but Mingyu’s brand of seduction was entirely insincere. Wholesome, even. He could go to sleep every night with a clean conscience knowing he’d never broken anyone’s trust; never used anyone else for his own satisfaction.

‘Oh, sorry,’ Mingyu said, noticing Seungcheol staring from across the desk. ‘Were we too noisy for you? I should be using my partner voice, not my group voice. Minghao always tries to remind me.’

And poor Minghao probably has his work cut out for him looking after you.

‘It’s fine, I’m not getting much done anyway.’

At that, both Wonwoo and Mingyu looked concerned. Seungcheol hated pity. It was tiring just looking at the two sad smiles opposite him.

‘You’re a bit distracted, right? Jeonghan told me you guys uh… had a falling out.’

‘He did? He spoke to you about me?’ Seungcheol immediately perked up. Wonwoo suddenly found his phone very fascinating and politely looked away.

‘Umm— I don’t think I’m really supposed to talk about what Jeonghan’s told me. You know, privacy and stuff. But yeah. He speaks about you. A lot.

Mingyu practically rolled his eye. Everyone was clearly getting tired of Jeonghan and Seungcheol’s endless disagreements. But this was news to Seungcheol; he had no idea Jenghan cared enough about him to constantly mouth off to his friends. He’d thought himself insignificant. A minor annoyance at best.

‘You’re a lot nicer than I thought you’d be though.’ Mingyu looked down at his hands. ‘I’m not even nearly as smart as Jeonghan, but I think maybe he’s got the wrong idea about you. It sucks ass that he won’t speak to you anymore.’

‘Excuse me? Yoon Jeonghan has told you – explicitly told you – that he’s never going to speak to me again?’ Mingyu looked like a kid that just broke his grandmother’s favourite antique vase. The expression of pure guilt on his face was all the confirmation Seungcheol needed. ‘Fuck.’

Seungcheol was panicking more than he should. It made no sense for it to matter so much, but everything felt hopeless. Things were going to end like that – with Jeonghan watching Seungcheol leave him alone and distraught in a dingy bathroom stall. Yes, Jeonghan had been cruel and venomous – he’d struck Seungcheol where it hurt the most – but he didn’t deserve to be abandoned. And now he’d convinced himself Seungcheol was no better than that pathetic excuse for a sugar daddy; just another lowlife looking for sex and nothing else.

Wait.

What was he thinking?

When had Seungcheol stopped wanting exactly that – sex with no strings attached – and when had he decided that Jeonghan meant more to him than a one-night stand. It shouldn’t matter that Jeonghan thought of him as a playboy looking for a quick fuck. So why was Seungcheol cursing himself for never getting his number? Wondering if he could show up at the lab unannounced?

It was all too much for him.

In that moment, sat at the graffiti-marked study desk in the campus library with two concerned but hopeless idiots opposite him, Seungcheol realised he’d caught feelings.

There were butterflies in his stomach, and he wanted to tear them out. The understanding of it all made him feel light and heady – but nauseous too. Seungcheol knew were that particular road led; he’d avoided it his entire life, always clinging on to the image of his mother, half-ruined from the cheating and the pathetic attempts at fidelity to ever truly be whole again. She couldn’t even find it in herself to love her only son.

But Seungcheol was intoxicated. Jeonghan was the only thing that mattered. He’d defy his nature for him, risk his happiness, become a reckless, love-sick fool if he had to.

‘Cheol?’ It was Wonwoo. His phone now lay abandoned on the table. Evidently Seungcheol’s existential crisis was a lot more interesting than the basketball mini game he’d been playing.

With a sudden rush of recollection, Seungcheol’s mind drifted to his last, tumultuous conversation with Jihoon.

You can talk to me when you’re ready – or someone else if you prefer…

‘Mingyu?’

‘Yeah, buddy?’ The other boy replied with cautious encouragement.

‘If you gave me Joshua Hong’s address, no one could complain if I came to see him and, I don’t know, happened to run into Jeonghan – right?’

Understanding spread in a slow grin across Mingyu’s face. As innocent as he was endearing, Mingyu was totally onboard with orchestrating an impromptu romantic encounter. Even one that had a high likelihood of going up in flames and failing spectacularly.

‘I’ll send it to you right now.’

 

-

 

It was cosy for a student house. The living room had cream walls and warm, red curtains that framed the windows. There was nothing special about the view, of course, but Joshua confessed it put people at ease to glance out at the passing clouds, the cars that moved slowly on to uncertain destinations.

He wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Seungcheol had looked it up online; Joshua Hong was running an unlicensed psychotherapy practice in his living room. He didn’t have his postgraduate qualification yet – he might not even have completed work experience either. Yet here they both were, sat comfortably in the small, rustic room about to delve deep into Seungcheol’s psyche and rustle around.

Mingyu had called ahead to see if Joshua was around and could spare a little time to help a troubled soul. It’d been so easy. One minute Seungcheol was a mess of feelings and desire, sitting hapless in the college library; next thing he knew he was in Jeonghan’s house, reclining on Jeonghan’s couch, talking to Jeonghan’s best friend.

Joshua was a gracious host. He’d answered the door with a polite smile and Seungcheol could already hear the kettle whirring and steaming urgently as it reached boiling point. A second after ushering Seungcheol inside, he’d reappeared with two mugs of tea. It smelt like cinnamon, orange and chamomile and Seungcheol was at first reluctant to take a sip. Joshua, for all his gentlemanly charm, encouraged mistrust and suspicion.

Perhaps it didn’t help that he always looked like an elegant goth. Joshua’s black hair was so thick and dark it could’ve been dyed – and that’s saying nothing of his fashion sense. Today it looked as though he’d taken a pair of scissors to his charcoal-grey jumper and cut thin slits in it, just big enough for the black of his t-shirt to peek through. But Joshua was only ever half a rebel; no other part of him screamed counterculture. It was strange, Seungcheol thought, to see someone so simultaneously edgy and sophisticated. His skinny jeans were as pristine as his hair. Joshua’s long hands were neat, his body free of tattoos. When Seungcheol accepted the mug, he almost expected to see black painted nails. Joshua’s eyes had watched him staring; his gaze was curious, hungry.

‘It feels like I’ve only heard about you by proxy. I’m glad we finally have a chance to talk face to face.’

It wasn’t an invasive introduction – not even a particularly intriguing one. Joshua’s disinterested tone made it seem as though they really had just met up for a chat. Nothing more, nothing less.

But life, unfortunately, was never that simple.

‘Jihoon told me you helped him with—’ Seungcheol faltered, ‘—with what he’s been going through.’

‘Is that why you’re here? Do you consider yourself as someone that’s “going through” something too?’

Seungcheol decided to finally take a sip of his tea. It was too hot. The spices tasted like winter, sweet and warm. He hazarded a glance towards the hallway: still no sign of Jeonghan.

‘I guess. But isn’t everyone?’

‘I wonder if you’ve ever thought about yourself, Seungcheol. Not anyone else, not Jihoon or your other friends – just you. This is our first time talking, but I’ve heard a lot about you from a lot of different people. Despite that, in my experience sometimes appearances and reality don’t quite match up.’

Already feeling hopelessly out of his depth, Seungcheol tried to focus on something – anything – to keep him grounded. There was a bookshelf opposite the couch crammed full of paperbacks with weak, faded spines. Shakespeare, Keats, Freud and Kerouac. Seungcheol wondered which books belonged to Jeonghan and which to Joshua. He felt like he could picture the pages falling open in Jeonghan’s slender hand, a practiced thumb flicking through to his favourite passages.

‘It’s not that hard to figure me out. I’m an open book really,’ Seungcheol shrugged. Jeonghan had read him the moment he saw him, after all: cover to back. He might have skimmed over a few important chapters and misread his meaning, but he’d picked him up and looked inside when no one else had ever thought he was worth a second glance. That meant something.

Seungcheol continued;

‘I mean, yeah I sleep around more than most people but it’s not something I’ve ever been ashamed of. There’s no guilt on my conscience, I don’t go around breaking hearts.’ Seungcheol wasn’t entirely convinced by his own reasoning but he was speaking as honestly as he could.

‘Shame isn’t always a bad feeling. It’s healthy, actually; when people feel guilty after one-night stands it’s a sign they know they’ve done something they’re not proud of. I’m not saying casual sex is bad – far from it – but for someone that goes through so many people without ever forming attachments and feeling any remorse, I’d say a little shame would be valid once in a while.’

In the silence that followed, Joshua leaned in and pushed harder. Seungcheol already felt like cracked glass. He’d been fractured for days now, ever since the house party, and each passing moment caused a deeper fissure. It wouldn’t take much to shatter him entirely.

‘What does sex feel like to you, Seungcheol?’

It should’ve been a weird question – an uncomfortable question – but Seungcheol knew exactly how to answer it.

‘It feels like chasing something. Like I’m running a marathon and I can see the finish line – I just have to reach it. Everything else is kind of… shut off. Dark, I guess. I can’t see straight again until I get what I want.’

‘And what is it that you want?’

Some kind of answer was on the tip of Seungcheol’s tongue. It was a realisation, a deep, enduring part of himself that had never quite come into being until that moment. His gut twisted.

The sound of a ringtone chimed with a perky, upbeat certainty and everything Seungcheol was about to understand about himself – his trauma – fell back into the shadows of his unconscious mind. Joshua, usually the perfect image of tranquillity, actually looked minorly disgruntled.

‘I have to take this, do you mind?’

Seungcheol shook his head, still feeling a little dreamy. He was reminded of the distant feeling he’d gotten from the MRI scan and wished Jeonghan was standing by with another glass of water and a pat on the back. He’d been in therapy all of twenty minutes and already he was a mess.

After some muttering, Joshua hung up the call and rose from his armchair. Leaning over to the windowsill, he produced a pair of car keys. Based on the cutesy cat keychain, Seungcheol guessed they didn’t belong to him.

‘I’m so sorry, I have to pop out for a little while. I shouldn’t be gone too long. Jun’s left his car keys behind and he has a lecture in fifteen minutes.’ Joshua paced out of the living room and poked his head back in to add, ‘help yourself to the cookies in the kitchen.’

And then the front door was carefully shut.

The house was empty now, the only human presence his own unsteady heartbeat. On the table, Seungcheol’s tea was going cold. Joshua’s absence instilled in him a freedom that had Seungcheol standing up and wandering around the house before he could even second guess his own judgement. There was so much he was curious about and so little he knew about Yoon Jeonghan. Was this affection? Did this thrilling urge to be surrounded by Jeonghan’s presence mean he was already smitten beyond hope?

Seungcheol wasn’t used to feeling.

Everything was a new sensation to him, as real as the smooth surface of the banister he gripped as he made his way upstairs.

It was funny how easy it was to find the right room. A door slightly ajar felt to Seungcheol like an invitation and then, a moment later, he was standing in Jeonghan’s bedroom. It didn’t quite feel like an invasion of privacy, and Seungcheol was aware of the distinct lack of guilt that followed him as he pushed the door closed behind him. Rather, it was a warm feeling. Comforting and exciting. Seungcheol had crossed a threshold into Jeonghan’s own world, and he was determined to take in every little detail.

Colours were pale and muted; everything had its place and was sorted away into drawers and storage bins and small jewellery boxes. The bed was a double – big enough for two – and had been made so neatly it looked as though it had never been slept in. Seungcheol resisted the shameful urge to smell Jeonghan’s pillow, instead opting to distract himself by opening the large, white wardrobe. Items were arranged by colour, and Jeonghan’s collection of clothes formed a soft pastel rainbow of sweaters and blouses. Nearest to the left door, most recently worn, were fabrics of light baby pink, edging into blue and then purple.

Seungcheol remembered his conversation with Jeonghan at the bar:

‘I’ve been feeling pink lately. Ever since we met.’

He ran a hand along the cotton and nylon until he noticed an empty hanger midway along Jeonghan’s closet rainbow. Evidently Jeonghan was in a purple mood today.

Perhaps he’d gone too far, seen more than he was ever supposed to, but Seungcheol couldn’t stop himself. Never in his life had he been able to resist a temptation.

Seungcheol felt his gut twist in surprise as his hand closed around organza. He pulled out a sheer purple dressing gown, almost weightless as it draped off the hanger. It was long, see-through and very clearly meant for women. Seungcheol returned it to the closet and swiftly shut the door; he’d seen too much.

There wasn’t much time left. Joshua had promised a quick return and Seungcheol knew he couldn’t get caught snooping around, but his attention was diverted by Jeonghan’s chest of drawers. Its flat surface had been turned into a shrine of sorts – a shrine of colour – that was littered with small, precisely arranged items. Jewellery boxes and storage units each contained a different collection of similarly coloured things. Set out on display were a few rows of purple knickknacks; Seungcheol noticed amethysts, marbles and sprigs of dried lavender, still half-fragrant as he held a bunch up to his nose.

He couldn’t help the fond smile that spread across his face. This was Jeonghan’s quirk, the unaccountable oddness that made him him. He didn’t understand it, not even slightly, but Seungcheol felt strangely heady when he recalled that it was him that had made Jeonghan feel pink.

Pink.

It was the colour of a blush, of budding flowers, of sweetness and candy hearts and lips slightly parted.

Seungcheol left Jeonghan’s bedroom feeling like a giddy teenage girl. If this was what a crush felt like, perhaps love wasn’t the agonising betrayal he’d always thought it was. Seungcheol felt high – or what he’d always imagined being high felt like – and it hardly even mattered to him that Jeonghan wasn’t there. He was infatuated with the idea of him. All of Jeonghan’s cruelty and venom were nothing more than distant, unpleasant memories – complications that Seungcheol would sweep aside to reach the truer Jeonghan. His Jeonghan.

Seungcheol was so deeply absorbed in his thoughts he found himself walking away from the staircase and towards another half-open door.

What could it hurt to take a peek inside Joshua’s bedroom? Seungcheol was sure he’d have black walls, closed blinds, maybe even a few skeletons in the closet.

He wasn’t expecting a whole load of nothing.

Joshua had decorated his bedroom in the style of an Ikea catalogue, minus any zany coloured cushions and patterned bedspreads. The walls were white, the curtains grey, the floor bare and wooden. Joshua’s desk was the only thing of interest; the only part of the room with any sense of personality. And Seungcheol didn’t like what he saw.

A swarm of post-it notes coloured the wall with angry yellow, overlapping each other in a chaos of quickly scrawled thoughts. Joshua’s handwriting was illegible: a long, horizontal scrawl. Each note had been written with the dark, unforgiving point of a mechanical pencil. The mere look of it gave an impression of sharpness.

A single notebook sat in the centre of Joshua’s desk. Seungcheol let his hand ghost over it as he recalled he’d seen it before. The morning after the house party, in the café. At the time he’d admired Joshua for his commitment to homework – for keeping his nose out of business that didn’t concern him. But there was a horrible uncertainty in Seungcheol’s mind now. Call it foreboading.

The notebook was red and inviting, hardback and pristine without a single page dogeared and torn. Seungcheol felt its weight in his hands. The cover fell open before he could muster up the courage to peer inside. He had no idea why he felt so cautious, so full of an unexpected, nameless fear.

Seungcheol felt his heart drop as he flicked through the pages with a growing speed. Horror turned to a chaotic rage as he spotted Jihoon’s name, then Wonwoo’s and finally – with a sudden finality that felt like a cold-water shock – his own.

He only had time to spot one more underlined heading before he darted downstairs and out of the front door, and that name relentlessly clouded his mind:

Yoon Jeonghan.

 

-

 

Jihoon’s night off was about as melancholy as expected. And maybe he’d be lying if he said there wasn’t a certain amount of pleasure to be gained from wallowing in his own self-pity.

He was getting better. Really, he was.

But some days he just felt like giving up.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to recalibrate your brain; to trick your own mind into believing things are better than they are. Cognitive behavioural therapy, Josh had called it, although it felt more like euthanising his entire personality and rebuilding from the ashes.

Tonight, Jihoon was enjoying the luxury of throwing in the towel. He’d cracked upon a beer, put an angsty grunge record on the turntable and crashed out on the sofa. The apartment was a mess. It badly needed cleaning and Jihoon was afraid his place was a few missed garbage days away from turning into Soonyoung’s house of horrors.

Soonyoung.

Fucking Kwon Soonyoung.

Why did he have to go and ruin a perfectly good friendship? In one stupid, ill-advised prank he’d utterly destroyed years of happy memories. It was beyond repair now. Jihoon couldn’t imagine ever facing Soonyoung again.

The memory was still fresh. He could smell the cologne, the booze, the electricity in the air as Soonyoung pressed against him. And he’d kissed back.

He’d kissed back.

Surely Soonyoung knew now. It was such a shameful part of himself, his pathetic one-sided crush, that Jihoon had never allowed himself to think about it. Instead he pressed it down, hid it away, locked it up.

But there was no avoiding it now. Especially when Jihoon’s disgust was mingled with an undeniable lust that he couldn’t seem to quench. A flame had been lit, and it couldn’t be easily extinguished. Jihoon had a sneaking suspicion that the only two cures for his little infatuation were to go cold turkey and let time work its inevitable magic, or to knock on Soonyoung’s door and push him up against the wall. He’d put his hands in his hair and his tongue down his throat until Jihoon was satisfied and no longer wracked with desire—

What was he thinking?

He wasn’t Choi Seungcheol; he couldn’t sleep with someone so freely, so thoughtlessly.

And besides, Soonyoung didn’t like him that way.

So time it was. Jihoon would give himself time. He’d embrace it like an old friend and let it comfort him in the ways no one else could. In the ways Soonyoung would never want to.

Jihoon was feeling particularly masochistic tonight. He took a sip of his beer and unlocked his phone, opening the app he’d downloaded on a whim. Jihoon had enjoyed checking out TikTok every once in a while, since he’d heard of its existence – only for Soonyoung, of course. He had no interest in watching gen-z kids lip sync to horrendously produced songs. There was only one thing he cared about on the app, and it was Soonyoung’s goofy smile; the way his videos invariably ended in a fit of giggles or – more often than not – with a phone being dropped on the floor. Jihoon liked those ones best. Soonyoung’s face would come close to the camera as he picked it up, eyes warm and gentle.

Of course, the rift in their relationship hadn’t affected Soonyoung’s output. He’d been more prolific than ever. Jihoon had a dozen new TikToks to scroll through, each of them tinged with a moody, dark filter that he hadn’t used before. This was Soonyoung playing at sadness, Jihoon realised. He lip-synced to edgy songs about heartbreak with an insincere expression of suffering that would’ve made Jihoon angry if he wasn’t already so completely miserable. Everything about Soonyoung was skin deep. He was all surface where Jihoon’s own mind ran deep and internal.

Why did he have feelings for such an asshole?

The record ran into near silence as the last song came to an end. It fuzzed and crackled. Jihoon supposed he should get up and put it back in its sleeve.

A notification pinged up on his phone, stopping him in his tracks.

Against his better judgment he hoped it was Soonyoung, but the other boy had maintained his uncharacteristic absence. It was a social media notification – an event.

Jihoon almost swiped it away – he was in no mood for socialising, he was in the mood for pain and lonliness – but this wasn’t just another club night.

Feeling pleasantly self-destructive, Jihoon tapped the notification.

After all, what did he have to lose?

 

-

 

‘Jeonghan!’

Seungcheol almost couldn’t believe it was him. He’d been standing outside in the cold so long the sun had set, encasing the psych campus in darkness. There was no guarantee that Jeonghan was even in the lab today, but Seungcheol was feeling desperate enough to waste his afternoon waiting.

A head of blonde hair turned around. Jeonghan was bundled up in a mauve scarf and a fluffy looking white coat. Seungcheol would’ve found him cute if it weren’t for the look of frustration in his eyes.

‘What do you want? I’ve had a long day.’

Seungcheol closed the space between them in a few eager strides. He didn’t even know where to start.

‘We need to talk. Can we go to a café or something? Maybe my place?’

Jeonghan scowled even harder. Seungcheol couldn’t see his mouth but he was fairly sure it was set in an unforgiving frown.

‘Aren’t you tired of this? Let it go, Seungcheol. Find someone else to fuck. I’m not in the mood.’

How could he get it so wrong? He still didn’t know the first thing about Seungcheol; despite everything, Jeonghan couldn’t see past his exterior. But that hardly mattered now. Seungcheol had other things to worry about.

‘Fine, if you won’t come out of the cold, we’ll do this right here. I went to see Joshua today, for a little “therapy” session and Jeonghan, he’s not the person you think he is—’

‘What are you even saying?’ Jeonghan’s voice was heavy with exasperation.

‘Listen. This might sound crazy to you, but I found his notebook: the one he carries around with him everywhere. He’s been…’ Seungcheol trailed off. It was more difficult than he thought to put it into words, especially in front of Jeonghan. His eyebrows were raised in a withering, dismissive nature that made Seungcheol feel even less adequate to his task of delivering bad news.

‘… Joshua’s been watching all of us – you included – and making all these notes like we’re his little science experiments or something. And I know he’s a psych student and treating people is kinda his thing but this is worse, this is messed up. I saw what he wrote about me – about Jihoon, Wonwoo. He’s deliberately pushing us, causing tension to see how we’ll react. It’s—’ Seungcheol raised his hands in the air, grasping at nothing ‘—psychopathic!’

It was impossible not to feel his skin crawl as Seungcheol’s mind wandered back to the pages of the red notebook. He’d thought he was fucked up – Joshua Hong was another level of crazy. In the elegant doctor’s scrawl he’d admitted a number of disturbing facts; he’d encouraged Jun to dare Soonyoung in the club, just to see how Jihoon would react; once or twice he’d probed Wonwoo on his love life, pushed him to act rashly; and worst of all, he’d meddled with Seungcheol and Jeonghan’s relationship. Seungcheol hadn’t had the stomach to read through Joshua’s detailed plan of manipulation, but seeing the first few lines of observation set out on the smooth, white paper was enough for him to take action.

Things were already tumultuous enough between the two of them without a twisted little psychotherapist pulling their strings.

‘Seungcheol,’ Jeonghan’s voice was crisp, as cool as the late autumn air, ‘I know.’

‘You— what?’

Raising a gloved hand, Jeonghan pulled down his thick knitted scarf. Seungcheol could see his whole face now. It was as perfect as the night they’d met, just as tantaslisingly beautiful. Seungcheol felt it again: that disruption in the air. The coming of a storm. He could taste it like cold metal on his tongue.

‘Do you really think I could live with Josh for two years without even knowing what kind of person he is? I found his journals myself two weeks after I moved in.’

Seungcheol hesitated before asking, ‘And what did you do?’

‘I read them – all his observations – then I ordered us dinner from the Thai restaurant down the street and we talked about his findings. He’s a very smart guy. Although not quite as smart as me.’

‘Have you… have you seen what he’s written about me? Do you know what games he’s been playing?’

Jeonghan shrugged, the action noncommittal. He looked bored.

‘I’m not that interested anymore. Josh has his games, I have mine.’

Crushed. That’s how Seungcheol felt: crushed. Like every fluttering heartbeat, every moment of sudden warmth he’d had in Jeonghan’s room had been torn up and stamped out. He realised then just what a fool he’d been. If he loved Jeonghan, he loved a static image of him that never quite existed in reality. Seungcheol had developed an infatuation with soft smiles, blonde hair and eyes that undressed him where he stood. Yoon Jeonghan himself was not such a simple creature. He was artful, impossible; a fleeting reflection on the surface of water.

Even as his heart broke, Seungcheol felt the cruel, unmistakable pang of affection.

He hated himself.

‘How can you be okay with this? It’s sick.’

Jeonghan considered Seungcheol’s words, taking some time to bite his lip. Even in the relative darkness of early evening, his mouth was a vivid, cherry red.

‘There’s a philosopher I like – a guy called Spinoza. Ever heard of him? Well I’ve been reading his work lately, mulling it over in my mind. He thinks that all living things have one desire: to persist in their own being. We’re all slaves to our natures, Seungcheol. The sooner you accept that and stop trying to fight, the easier life becomes.’

And Jeonghan turned away.

Jeonghan left him in the bitter, hair-raising wind.

‘Goodnight, Seungcheol.’

 

-

 

Deadlifting was hard work, but that was exactly what Seungcheol wanted. It wasn’t ideal, of course; what Seungcheol really wanted was to completely erase every memory of Yoon Jeonghan from his brain, but seeing as that wasn’t possible, picking up girls at the gym was the next best thing.

It didn’t usually take too long. Seungcheol was waiting for a convenient moment, a chance encounter. All it took was a lingering glance or a polite hello. Maybe he’d leave his phone on the treadmill, ask if someone was nearly done on the leg press. He was charming and he was persistent – he would chase down what he wanted with a vengeance.

Seungcheol suspected his heart wasn’t quite in it when he saw Soonyoung doing crunches and hurried over.

It felt like it had been a week, maybe two, but the disastrous events of two nights ago lay like a heavy reminder between them as Soonyoung sat up and raised a hand in greeting.

He looked skinny. Seungcheol had never actually seen Soonyoung work out before; this was his and Jihoon’s gym. None of their other friends had shown any interest in stopping by and making any kind of positive lifestyle change. Until now.

Soonyoung’s white t-shirt was four sizes too big for him. Its crinkled surface boasted the unfulfilled slogan “I’m with stupid”, the comical finger pointing at an empty space on the exercise mats. Seungcheol made a conscious decision not to sit on that side.

‘You look a bit down in the dumps,’ Soonyoung said, voice chipper.

‘Gee, you noticed?’ Seungcheol wiped the sweat from his brow and frowned. A hot blonde was in the weight training area – he was missing his chance.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not gonna pry. Besides, it’s not exactly hard to figure out what’s going on. I had a feeling Jeonghan would be a bit too much – even for you.’

That sounded a lot like prying to Seungcheol.

‘I just… feel like I need a change. Something to get my teeth stuck into. I’m sick of feeling so helpless all the time.’

I’m sick of Jeonghan thinking I’m weak.

Looking like a puppy whose owner just returned from a week-long absence, Soonyoung perked up and pulled out his phone.

‘Oh! Oh! I’ve got the perfect tonic for you, my friend. Just you wait…’

Soonyoung’s eager figers left sweaty thumbprints on the phone screen as he swiped and tapped. Seungcheol took advantage of the moment to really look at his friend. Unlike Jihoon who was faking his way to acceptance and doing a shitty job at it, Soonyoung looked as unaffected as ever. One of his oldest friends had kissed him, ran away and ghosted him.

Was Soonyoung capable of a single negative emotion?

Did he actually care about anything?

‘Check it out,’ Soonyoung thrust the phone under Seungcheol’s eyes, far too close for him to make out any text. ‘The event of the year. Fight Night.’

Soonyoung looked mesmerised. Seungcheol was just confused.

‘What am I looking at, Soon?’

‘Didn’t you get the notification? It was spreading around social media last night like wildfire. I’ve heard one or two people signed up right away.’

Seungcheol scanned the page but was more interested in Soonyoung’s expectation. He had a special way of selling things that made the dullest of excursions sound like the opportunity of a lifetime. Seungcheol needed a bit of that positivity.

‘It’s only the most exclusive night in the student calendar! Totally top secret though, the dean and staff have no idea it goes on. It’s an underground boxing event, Cheol. Students sign up, get trained and then go at it! Last man standing wins. It’s black tie, too; for those of us who prefer our violence directed at somebody else, of course. But you’re just the kind of lean-mean-fighting-machine that could really make a splash.’

Seungcheol knew it was a stupid idea. It was totally illegal and more than a little dangerous. And perhaps Soonyoung was only so invested because he was looking to put his money on a winning horse.

But in that moment Seunghcheol hardly cared.

He hazarded a glance across the gym. The blonde was stretching out, posture unguarded – welcoming, even.

Seungcheol turned back to Soonyoung’s phone and began entering his details.

Chapter Text

Jeonghan’s parents had taken him to see a doctor because he read too much.

Until that point, Jeonghan was convinced he knew exactly what was wrong with him; the baby teeth that took a long time to fall out; the bout of tonsillitis that landed him in the hospital; the mysterious rash that took two long months to fade away. He was good at keeping up to date with his ailments. Jeonghan was a meticulous boy – he’d written everything out in his special diary and drawn a few pictures – or “diagrams” – with his colouring pencils for good measure. But as it turned out, the very act of keeping his diary was what landed him in the serene, white office of a psychiatrist with his parents each holding one of his hands.

They’d been concerned about how quiet he was. It wasn’t normal for a nine-year-old to recite a T.S. Eliot poem from memory after hearing an adult read aloud. It was strange that he never spoke to kids his own age and instead talked to his stuffed animals about the maths problems he was working on. And then there was Jeonghan’s love of colour.

That very morning, before the appointment, Jeonghan had stood on his little step – the one that made him level with the bathroom mirror – and enjoyed the soft comfort of blue. It was all around him. His toothbrush was blue, his socks were blue, the rocket ship sweater that kept him warm in the long winter months was blue.

Jeonghan found it tricky to explain it to the psychiatrist lady with her wide, fascinating brown eyes. Blue, to Jeonghan, was quietness. It was thoughtfulness, shyness, uncertainty. Youth. Blue was drinking warm milk in the holidays and spending his afternoons thinking and humming to himself, not quite lonely but most certainly alone.

The doctor had told his mummy and daddy that it was likely a form of “synaesthesia”. And that Jeonghan’s memory worked in a special way that made him different from other boys and girls.

But Jeonghan already knew this.

That was why his teddy bears were his most trusted friends. The kids at school didn’t want to talk to him – one of the taller, rougher boys liked to push him over in the playground. Jeonghan hated the way his scraped knees were always sore and red. He’d never once been in a red mood. The colour threw him off. Each time it happened he’d stare at the weeping cuts and prod them, feeling the way each part of his body, each synapse, was connected in a buzzing cacophony of pain.

Jeonghan told the doctor about this.

He told her that he hated getting hurt but always made the most of it.

Jeonghan would never let them see him cry.

 

-

 

‘Yes! Go on, Cheol! Show them how it’s done!’

Soonyoung was getting tired of shouting but Seungcheol, god help him, needed the motivation. It was one in the morning and he’d been in the training room for six hours working with an unforgiving boxing coach. Maybe Soonyoung was partially responsible for this turn of events – okay, totally responsible – so showing up to support him for an hour or so was the least he could do.

And it was a lot better than facing yet another quiet night at home.

Soonyoung glanced to his right. Vernon was on his phone again, texting somewhat frantically. He gave the other boy a hard nudge with his elbow, sparking him to life.

‘Oh, right – go Seungcheol! Punch him right in the uhh… nutsack!’

Soonyoung frowned. ‘That’s not regulation.’

Vernon lifted his gaze and looked slightly apologetic. ‘Sorry, man. I’m not really into boxing. I’m more of a pacifist really. Couldn’t he just join the debate team instead?’

The idea of Choi Seungcheol presenting a coherent fact-based argument in a formal, academic setting was just hilarious enough to issue an ungainly snort from Soonyoung’s nose. A very sweaty Seungcheol looked over at them from the ring, a look of bemusement on his face. Soonyoung gave him a reassuring thumbs up and tried to command his expression into one of seriousness.

‘Come on, Vern. This is the best thing for him; the guy needs to work out all that pent-up sexual tension somehow, because Jeonghan sure as hell isn’t gonna sleep with him.’

Vernon sighed in acknowledgement. He turned back to his phone with a look of frustration. Soonyoung’s interest was piqued.

‘Who’re you texting? You look mad as fuck.’

‘Seungkwan – who else? Sometimes I think he likes having me around and then the next thing I know, he’s cancelling all our plans and hanging out with the kids on his course instead.’

Soonyoung was very familiar with Seungkwan’s latest attempt at playing hard to get. He’d warned his friend that Vernon was not the kind of guy that enjoyed the push and pull of high-school level flirting, but his advice had fallen on deaf ears.

But what did he know about matters of the heart anyway?

Soonyoung was well aware that he was the least qualified person to give advice on romance. He’d found a sort of kinship with Seungcheol of late; neither of them had ever been on one measly date in their entire lives. It was reassuring to know that however bad he felt about himself, there was always someone that had it worse.

And that someone was currently panting on the floor of a boxing gym.

‘Taking a break?’ Soonyoung and Vernon walked over to where Seungcheol had spread himself out on the floor.

‘Nah. Throwing in the towel. You know I’m supposed to get out of here before the next guy comes in for training – rules and all that.’

Vernon knelt down and glanced over Seungcheol’s dishevelled appearance. ‘Want us to help you up or something?’

Soonyoung took one look at the sheer amount of sweat on his friend’s body and sincerely hoped he’d decline Vernon’s kind offer.

The sound of conversation at the door of the gym had Seungcheol bolting upright immediately. Soonyoung felt bad for whoever was stuck with a training session in the early hours of the morning, but one look at the familiar faces that greeted him pushed all other thoughts out of his head.

Seungcheol rose and stood next to him, something close to a growl of anger in his throat that Soonyoung thought went beyond friendly competitiveness. But he didn’t have it in him to hold the other boy back – not when he himself was rooted to the spot in paralysing fear.

Joshua and Jihoon made their way towards them, both looking entirely indifferent in the face of Seungcheol’s rage and Soonyoung’s awkwardness. It was like they hadn’t read the room at all: or simply didn’t care.

But that was fine, Soonyoung didn’t care either. He was easy-going, chill, always congenial.

He offered them both a friendly smile.

‘You’re fighting, huh?’ Jihoon said, voice non-committal as he wound tape around his hand. He looked confident, prepared. More so than Seungcheol.

‘Oh yeah, Seungcheol’s in good shape!’ Soonyoung didn’t know what compelled him to speak. He blurted out his words with loud, clumsy eagerness. Perhaps he just wanted things to be easy again – he wanted Jihoon to speak to him like he always did.

For his part, Jihoon looked as though he hadn’t anticipated a conversation with Soonyoung. He looked a little taken aback, but ultimately unfazed by the interaction.

‘Then I guess we’ll be meeting in the ring. No hard feelings, Cheol,’ Jihoon gave Seungcheol a firm pat on the shoulder. He received no discernible response – Seungcheol was far too busy staring Joshua down like a lion stalking its prey. Vernon was glancing at Soonyoung helplessly and Soonyoung— well he was just trying to tear his eyes away from Jihoon’s biceps.

When had he become so effortlessly cool? So icy and detached? Soonyoung couldn’t’ help missing the old Jihoon – the one that got nervous making phone calls to customer services and hated small talk with a passion.

But this was fine. He was fine. Everything was fine.

‘We need to talk. Now.’ Seungcheol’s stern voice tore through the tense silence.

‘Yes, I think that would be a good idea. Lead the way.’

Joshua and Seungcheol headed back into the locker room and Soonyoung was mentally screaming at his friend for leaving him behind with the boy he’d kissed for a dare.

‘I’m gonna… yeah,’ Vernon made his pathetic excuse and darted out of the gym. If only life were so simple and Soonyoung could evaporate out of existence at will. But no, he was stuck with Jihoon who was trying (unsuccessfully) to wrap tape around his right hand.

Jihoon cursed under his breath as the tape slid off his hand. This was somewhat familiar territory; Soonyoung could deal with an exasperated Jihoon: not a sexy, aloof one.

‘Come here,’ he said. Soonyoung had some experience doing this now, having taken it upon himself to become Seungcheol’s boxing momager. If Kris Jenner could manage the careers of five insta-famous daughters, he could take care of one sexually frustrated twenty-four-year-old.

‘You’re good at this.’

‘Don’t sound so surprised, I’m a man of many talents.’

‘Yeah, but none of them normally involve being good with your hands,’ Jihoon immediately clammed up, noticing the rather innocent innuendo in his words.

Soonyoung couldn’t help thinking back to the last time he had his hands on Jihoon; touching his chest, his back pockets, his cheek.

‘All set,’ he said, trying not to make eye contact. Jihoon, however, had assumed his surly composure again, punching the air as a warm-up exercise.

‘Do you want me to stay and cheer you on? I’m getting pretty good at yelling support now.’ Soonyoung felt a lump in his throat.

This was fine. He was fine. Everything was fine.

Jihoon didn’t hate him.

‘It’s late. You should go home.’ Jihoon had his back to him now.

‘You’re right, I’m totally beat,’ Soonyoung laughed. ‘I’ll see you round then.’

Soonyoung waited for a response that never came. Then, smiling, he braced himself for the cold of the night and let the gym doors swing shut behind him.

 

-

 

It took every ounce of Seungcheol’s resolve not to slam Joshua Hong against the lockers. Maybe the repetitive, mind-numbing violence of the boxing drills was getting to him, but it felt so easy, so simple. Sure, his body was wiped out, his muscles sore and tender, but Seungcheol would rather hold Joshua’s slim frame aloft and shake him about rather than having a fraught conversation.

Seungcheol was so tired of talking. He was a physical being, a man that lived by the demands of his body, not his mind.

Although Joshua would no doubt say otherwise after their little therapy session.

‘I don’t want to have to say this twice so listen carefully; leave Lee Jihoon the hell alone. And any of my other friends you’ve been playing around with.’

‘Or what?’ Joshua was grinning – actually grinning – as if Seungcheol wasn’t about to sock him square in the jaw.

He was dressed in a long black coat with a leather messenger bag crossed over his shoulders. His shoes were neat and functional, pointed at the toes in a mature, formal way. Joshua looked like a satanic salaryman on his way to a business meeting. Seungcheol, meanwhile, felt all but naked in his sweats and drenched muscle tee.

‘Or you’ll be making your journal entries on a goddamn Dictaphone, you son of a bitch.’

Joshua creased his brows. He looked frustrated, not terrified. Seungcheol’s resolve was quickly turning into uncertainty. For the first time it struck him that being alone in a room with Joshua Hong may not have been a good idea. He stamped out the thought as soon as it arrived.

‘I’m supposed to feel bad, aren’t I? Okay then Seungcheol, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’ve ended my investigations into you and your friends – when you found out about the experiment it ruined its effectiveness. I figured you’d go ahead and tell everyone they were being watched.’

Joshua’s eyes glinted. ‘Jihoon still wants my help though. Surely there’s nothing wrong with that? You have my word that everything is totally above the belt.’ He raised his right hand in a gesture of sincerity.

Seungcheol felt himself take a step back, something like relief and exhaustion washing over him. He didn’t trust the other boy – not one bit – but Seungcheol was sick of holding everything together. There were cracks forming in his life, in his friendships, in his peace of mind. Sometimes it was easier to sit back and let it at all shatter.

If it held, then it held.

‘What the hell is your deal? No offence, but you seem like an honest to god psychopath sometimes.’

‘Not a bad guess, actually. I’m a sociopath,’ Joshua replied. Then, after a beat, he added, ‘does that bother you?’

Seungcheol wasn’t sure how he felt about it. Was he supposed to be scared? Afraid for his life? Did sociopaths have a tendency to become serial killers?

As if reading his thoughts, Joshua broke out in an unnerving but strangely sincere feline grin. ‘I’m not an axe murderer, Seungcheol. This isn’t a cheesy nineteen-nineties slasher film. I just have empathy issues and an inability to learn from my mistakes; not a great personality trait when it comes to fitting in.’

He shrugged as though he didn’t really care. Seungcheol was struck with the difference between Joshua and Jeonghan. Of course, they were both two highly intelligent outcasts that had managed to find each other, but Jeonghan was flighty; human. Joshua had the emotional range of a pebble but Seungcheol did, oddly enough, feel somewhat closer to understanding him.

It was just as Jeonghan had tried to tell him that night outside the psych building:

All living things have one desire: to persist in their own being. We’re all slaves to our natures.

Thinking about Jeonghan had become easier now. Seungcheol felt as though he’d given up a small, undefined part of Jeonghan that he’d been holding onto – a part that may have never even existed to begin with. If he was being honest with himself, Joshua was only ever a scapegoat. Seungcheol had been hurt, heartbroken, and now he was ready to move on.

Even if the dull ache in his chest refused to go away.

Surprising himself, Seungcheol held a hand out to Joshua. The other boy took it, grasped it in a firm and binding handshake. He was cold to the touch, but his palms were pleasantly soft.

‘Truce?’

‘Truce.’

 

-

 

The sex was good.

Third contact in his phone; always a favourite, always up for anything and everything. Seungcheol never bothered to save her name and she’d never bothered to remember his, but he knew her address well enough. He walked there in a dreamy haze of tiredness and struck the door with his fist rather than using the bell.

His calling card.

Her bedroom smelt like sandalwood incense mixed with hairspray and Seungcheol felt her in his arms – very real and very alive – as he unfastened the buttons of her shirt.

They didn’t speak. They never did.

Seungcheol made it quick and urgent, his hips moving with a hint of frenzied desperation until he was spilling out inside of her, utterly spent.

He should’ve gone home.

Joshua had left him in the locker room alone with his thoughts and his heavy, sweaty limbs, and Seungcheol should’ve gone home.

But he hadn’t.

It was almost 2:30am. The streets were quiet except for the odd group of partygoers emerging from bars and flats, drunk and happy with no intention of getting up for their 9am lectures. The sky was faintly luminous. Deep blue behind black. Seungcheol felt hot and cold at the same time, grateful for the extra layer his coat provided but still, somehow, clammy from overexertion.

He tried to feel ashamed.

Joshua said it was abnormal to be cut off, distant to the act of sex. But Seungcheol couldn’t feel that way. Perhaps once, years ago, he’d understood the snaking sensation of regret that constricted his chest with its furious grip; but fucking was as natural and meaningless to him now as eating, breathing.

The only thing that made him feel dirty, was a strange wave of guilt that Seungcheol couldn’t quite stamp out.

I shouldn’t be doing this, he thought, I belong to someone else.

Seungcheol put his hands in his pockets and braced himself against the night breeze. How many times did he have to break his own heart? Some mornings he’d wake up with a vague excitement after a vivid, tender dream only to remind himself that he had no hope. No chance. He wasn’t meant to be loved.

As Seungcheol turned a corner he felt himself collide with another body. The action was sudden but soft – not aggressive enough to warrant the stranger falling to the floor in a mess of unsteady limbs. In the streetlight overhead, Seungcheol felt his heart flutter and then still.

What had he done in a past life to warrant multiple, unplanned encounters with Yoon Jeonghan? Seungcheol couldn’t tell if it was a blessing or a curse.

Whilst he attempted to regain his composure in the face of the boy he’d been desperately trying to get over, Jeonghan groaned and then giggled. It took Seungcheol a second to realise he’d been wandering home from one of the bars near campus, hopelessly inebriated and completely lost.

Seungcheol lent Jeonghan a cautious hand and pulled him to his (unsteady) feet.

‘Woah, you’re strong,’ Jeonghan exclaimed through a fit of giggles. Seungcheol hardly knew how to respond – he’d never seen Jeonghan so entirely uguarded before – so he opted for the next best option: staring awkwardly.

Jeonghan was wearing black skinny jeans and a purple t-shirt and his entire body was shivering in the oppressive, unrelenting autumn wind.

‘Jesus, what are you doing out here stumbling around on your own? Is there someone that can take you home – Josh maybe? Or Jun?’ Something in Seungcheol’s brain had switched on. Every anxious thought about facing Jeonghan had faded into nothing. Some kind of instinct – call it protectiveness – had him instead taking off his parka and handing it to Jeonghan.

But the other boy was feeling mischievous. With childlike mirth, Jeonghan swerved and avoided Seungcheol’s arms as he attempted to wrap the coat around his shoulders.

‘Why are you being such a brat? I’m trying to help you, asshole.’

‘Ooh, he’s mad,’ Jeonghan said to no one in particular. ‘If I’m a brat maybe you should put me in my place.’

Seungcheol’s brain was malfunctioning. Jeonghan had given him a chronic form of emotional whiplash. Just when he thought he’d got a handle on the kind of person Yoon Jeonghan was, he’d slip out of his grasp and change again.

Was this a truer, more honest Jeonghan? One free from the tyranny of his own self-repression?

Strangely enough, watching Jeonghan laugh and duck away from the warm weight of Seungcheol’s coat made him seem more human than ever before.

He’d never smiled like that before. Jeonghan’s nose crinkled as he grinned and panted, dizzy and short of breath.

He was beautiful.

Seungcheol felt his heart break just a little more.

Closing the distance between them, Seungcheol gave Jeonghan a light flick on his forehead. In a moment of confusion, he grabbed the other boy and tugged the coat over his skinny arms. Seungcheol pulled up the hood for good measure and instantly regretted it. Why did Jeonghan have to look so cute?

‘Ow,’ Jeonghan whined, rubbing his forehead with a look of scandalised betrayal on his face.

‘Don’t complain, you deserved it. Now, can you explain to me why you’re out here alone?’

As it turned out, Jeonghan couldn’t do that.

He was far too busy staring at Seungcheol, mouth slightly agape as he eyed him up and down.

‘Do you work out?’

‘Uhh… yes?’

‘Hmm. I like the sweatpants and muscle tee combo. It’s very…’ Jeonghan staggered a little and placed a hand on Seungcheol’s pec, ‘sexy.’

Was that meant to be seductive? Jeonghan was effortlessly coquettish, sensual by nature, but in his drunken state his best efforts were embarrassingly blunt. Seungcheol rolled his eyes and tried to kill the part of himself that had started to reignite; the part of him that still had hope.

He couldn’t have Jeonghan. Ever. But he’d look after him for as long as he needed to.

‘Let’s try to stay on track here,’ he said, gently removing Jeonghan’s hand from his chest.

‘S’no big deal. I was meeting a sugar daddy and he bought me lots and lots of drinks. And then he tried to take me back to his place but no – nope. Didn’t want to. So he left and said I should find my own way home.’

Seungcheol felt anger swelling up inside of him.

‘Can you give me your phone so I can call your friends.’

‘Can’t. It was his gift to me and he wanted it back.’

‘That fucking creep made you give him your phone?’

Jeonghan nodded and Seungcheol felt sick. He was so goddamn tired and incredibly out of his depth. Jeonghan was his responsibility and his alone. If only he’d gotten Joshua’s number and hadn’t let Mingyu call him on his behalf – then maybe he’d be back home in his own bed, conscience guilt-free.

‘Cheollie?’

‘Yeah?’ Seungcheol snapped to attention. He hated just how quickly he turned his head to look at Jeonghan.

‘I feel sick.’

 

-

 

Seungcheol didn’t have any experience with infant care, but after taking care of an extremely intoxicated Yoon Jeonghan for a single hour, he felt qualified enough to open his own day care centre.

First, he’d thrown up and Seungcheol rubbed little circles into his back as he retched. It was new territory for him. Seungcheol had never stuck around any of his drunk friends long enough to see the after-effects of a night of binge drinking. Jeonghan had kneeled over on the ground, spewing up the contents of his stomach in some poor soul’s front garden as Seungcheol muttered some words of consolation and held his hair back from his face. Each blonde hair was soft and a little knotted. Without thinking, Seungcheol had found himself untangling the matted strands as best he could, the action soothing and repetitive.

And then, of course, Jeonghan got hungry.

For a few fitful minutes, he ran around like a headless chicken looking for strawberry ice cream despite Seungcheol’s best efforts to remind him that no dessert places would be open at such an ungodly hour.

Seungcheol was at his wit’s end. Jeonghan was there with him, laughing and running beneath the open night’s sky. There wasn’t a star in sight; no strange destiny that promised love and desire, the fulfilment of all his most secret urges. No. This was painful reality; this was circumstance and happenstance. Jeonghan was only with him because in that particular moment, he had nobody else.

It hurt in all the worst places and all the right ways.

As it turned out, the only way to get Jeonghan to behave was to feed him fast food. They walked with some difficulty to the nearest twenty-four-hour burger joint, Jeonghan insisting on holding his hand the entire time. He skipped and staggered down the pavement humming to himself and making the occasional poorly timed pass at Seungcheol.

Seungkwan had somehow managed to convince Seungcheol not to take his car everywhere when he could walk just as easily. He silently cursed the other boy for being such a persuasive eco-warrior. Seungcheol was supposed to be getting over Jeonghan, not taking him out for food.

The exchange at the restaurant was brief and, to Seungcheol’s relief, didn’t involve any more displays of brattishness from Jeonghan. Once or twice on the way there he’d asked to be spanked – at least he’d gotten it out of his system when no one was around.

Seungcheol used his black card to pay before directing Jeonghan out and upon to the steep incline of a nearby grass-covered hill where he could safely deposit him on the ground. It was a nice spot. Too nice. Seungcheol wished they were somewhere boring, somewhere uninspiring, but no – spread out in front of them was a view of the city and its many tiny houses, each one lit and glittering in the night.

Was this the universe’s way of making peace with Seungcheol?

You’ve got no chance with Jeonghan but here, enjoy this sweet little moment. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to going on a date!

Seungcheol wished the universe would keep its nose out of his business.

Beside him, Jeonghan let out a moan of satisfaction as he took a huge bite of his burger.

‘Damn, go easy. Your mouth is stuffed,’ Seungcheol said, trying to keep the fondness out of his voice.

Jeonghan’s speech was slurred as he tried to chew up his mouthful. ‘That’s the point. I love it when there’s something big filling my mouth. Didn’t Josh tell you about my oral fixation?’

Seungcheol coughed into his hand and looked away. Jeonghan was unperturbed and determined to overshare in his drunken state.

‘He diagnosed me himself, although it doesn’t take a genius to notice it. There’re all the joints I smoke, chewing pencils, licking ice cream. Oh, and my favourite: sucking fingers. Doesn’t just have to be my own.’

‘Okay, I think I’ve heard enough. Be quiet and eat your fries.’

Jeonghan tossed a few fries into his mouth and looked over at Seungcheol, staring him down with narrowed eyes. Seungcheol couldn’t even begin to imagine how he looked to Jeonghan – at least, this particular Jeonghan. He was sure that when the other boy was snarky and sober, Seungcheol appeared to him as a pathetic, desperate sleazebag.

‘Why are you being so awkward? I don’t like it.’

The question was ridiculous enough to make Seungcheol sit up.

‘Only because you’re acting so… so—’ he sighed in frustration, ‘—different.’ Seungcheol willed himself to meet Jeonghan’s eyes. For once, they were gentle, inviting. ‘You’re being nice to me. I’m pretty sure on a good day you hate my guts.’

‘That’s very stupid of you. Of course I don’t hate you, Cheollie. Especially now you’ve taken such good care of me. Look,’ he said, raising the little red box of food as if it had any significance beyond being an emblem of consumerism, ‘you bought me a Happy Meal.’

Jeonghan took out the small toy, a pink plastic cat, and tossed it up in the air a few times before adding, ‘I think I was wrong about you.’

It meant everything and nothing for Seungcheol to hear that. A powerful sense of relief spread over him as he sat beneath the empty October sky – Jeonghan understood, he finally understood – but it was tinged with a sharp realisation. Was this Jeonghan any more authentic than the Jeonghan that tore his heart into a thousand tiny pieces?

Would he even remember this night at all?

‘It made me happy that you didn’t tell everyone about Josh. Even your friend – the one with the mean looking eyes.’

Seungcheol had been trying not to think about Lee Jihoon. It had rattled him to discover they’d be meeting in the ring. After all, Seungcheol couldn’t find it in himself to be angry with Jihoon for the altercation in his apartment. Since their conversation, he’d thoroughly learnt his lesson; his crush on Jeonghan was as sad and pathetic as Jihoon thought it was. Seungcheol had kept his distance for a different reason.

He didn’t want to be the one to break the bad news that his emotional support emo boy was, in fact, a sociopath with voyeuristic tendencies. And whilst Joshua may not have turned out to be quite as despicable as he’d first thought, Seungcheol had a hard time picturing himself acting natural around Jihoon.

‘Life is tricky for people like Josh. And people like me. So thank you for being cool about it,’ Jeonghan continued. He’d finished off his burger and was making good progress on his French fries. Lying back against the hill, Seungcheol noticed a sad smile on Jeonghan’s face. He couldn’t stop himself from speaking.

‘There’s something that’s been bothering me,’ he began, clearing his throat. ‘Why do you have all these sugar daddies if you don’t even like them? Why do you let them do what they want with you?’

‘I’m lonely,’ Jeonghan shrugged.

The devastating weight of his simple words, spoken so casually, made Seungcheol’s heart sink. Jeonghan’s confession was spoken out into the cold night air along with a curl of smoky breath. He was still smiling, still staring off into the sky as though he could see something written there – some sad destiny that waited for him in the unforgiving darkness.

‘Other people don’t seem to like me, and I can never quite understand them. I think even my friends get tired of me after a while,’ he laughed, the sound light and musical. ‘Having sugar daddies is great for my tuition fees but even better for my social life. If I give them my body, they’ll give me their time. I can talk on and on about the papers I’m reading, the colours I like; I can get inside their heads and probe around without them getting mad at me.’

Seungcheol put his head in his hands. Of course Jeonghan mistrusted him. It made so much sense now; he was just another rich asshole looking to put his hands all over Jeonghan’s body.

And was Jeonghan wrong for thinking that?

On the night they’d first met, Seungcheol had fully intended on taking Jeonghan back to his apartment, fucking him and throwing him away. It didn’t matter to him that Jeonghan was a real person with a real mind and a real heart that could shatter like glass; he’d seemed so eager, so teasing, so entirely unreal.

And later, in the days that followed, Seungcheol had grown to think of him as a tormentor; a bad angel sent directly from heaven – or was it hell? – to tempt him and torture him in equal measure. He wasn’t human. He was an object of desire, of intense infatuation and unshakable disgust.

Seungcheol had misunderstood him – exactly as Jeonghan thought he would. He deserved nothing from him. He didn’t deserve the beautiful, perfect boy that lay under the moonless sky, bearing his soul to the bitter wind.

‘Oh no! Please don’t cry!’ Jeonghan was on his knees, shuffling over to where sat. There was concern on his face. His hands, still clumsy, wiped the tears from Seungcheol’s cheeks. He had no idea he’d been crying.

He hadn’t cried in years.

When was the last time? His mother had been packing a chic black carrycase with shaking hands. She’d stuffed it full of unfolded clothes and little bottles of pills whilst Seungcheol, aged thirteen and about to be abandoned for the fourth time in his life, had stood in the doorway and watched. In the end he’d held the front door open for her as she left.

She was his mother, after all.

The recollection was too much for Seungcheol and he felt even more helpless than he had before. Jeonghan’s awkward but determined kindness only made the tears come harder.

‘Fuck. I’m such a baby,’ he said, pulling away and getting himself together. The only way to stop that sort of outpouring of emotion was to stifle it up and lock it away. Jeonghan looked at him with so much concern and confusion that Seungcheol felt awful for letting his feelings get the best of him.

He reached out and ruffled Jeonghan’s hair. ‘I’m fine, Hannie. And I definitely don’t deserve your pity. I’m exactly the kind of asshole you always thought I was.’

The nickname came out before he could stop himself. It only served to make him sadder – it was only a fake form of intimacy. By morning, he’d be just as removed from Jeonghan as he always had been.

‘Not true,’ he said, pouting. ‘If you were, you wouldn’t have refused all my advances and bought me food. And you held my hair back whilst I puked – I asked Jun to do that for me once and he gagged just thinking about it.’

‘Yes, but those are all embarrassing side effects of my raging crush on you,’ Seungcheol thought, instead remaining silent as he stared at the boy in front of him. Underneath the big faux-fur-lined hood of Seungcheol’s coat, Jeonghan’s blonde hair was a mess. His lips were slightly parted and moist from eating and, to top it all off, the cold had caused Jeonghan’s nose and cheeks to turn red.

‘Why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer,’ Jeonghan had caught him staring. There was a look in his eyes – a glittering, eager look – that Seungcheol couldn’t quire decipher.

He decided to take Jeonghan’s suggestion literally.

His phone’s flash went off as he snapped a quick, stealthy picture of Jeonghan. For a moment there was nothing but silence and then, against all odds, Seungcheol found himself laughing – Jeonghan looked so scandalised and comically upset.

‘Hey! Delete that!’ Jeonghan lunged forward, trying to take the phone from his hand but Seungcheol was quicker. He shoved it inside the pocket of his grey sweats where Jeonghan wouldn’t dare venture and offered him a look of smug satisfaction.

‘Sorry, it was your idea,’ he shrugged.

‘I can’t believe you’re gonna be in a boxing ring beating people up in two days’ time and you’re acting like a mean little kid.’ Jeonghan poked his tongue out and Seungcheol thought perhaps he wasn’t the childish one out of the two.

‘Well I can’t say I’m really looking forward to it. I’m gonna have to fight my best friend and honestly, Jihoon is way more prepared than me – I’ll be beaten to a pulp. Hell, maybe I even deserve it.’

‘I’ll come.’

‘What?’ Seungcheol didn’t let himself believe it.

‘I’ll come to your fight. It’s the least I can do.’

Seungcheol breathed in the cool air and looked over at Jeonghan. For a second he almost looked sober – certain of himself – but the moment passed. He allowed himself an insincere smile.

‘Alright. I’ll look for you when I’m in the ring.’

 

-

 

Hanging out with Joshua wasn’t exactly fun, but Jihoon was running out of options. Fighting his best friend in the ring had the funny effect of making his other friends split off and pick sides. And, since Soonyoung was overwhelmingly in Seungcheol’s corner, Seungkwan and Seokmin were more or less off the table too. Vernon had remained emphatically neutral – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say uninterested – and then there was Wonwoo.

Jihoon had asked him to meet for a coffee; a request the other boy normally never refused. Free caffeine paid for by Jihoon was a rare treat that Wonwoo had always appreciated immensely, even if he did insist on bringing his laptop to the café. But now, against all odds, Wonwoo was busy. He had plans. He was sorry, but he just couldn’t make it.

Jihoon knew exactly who to blame, but Kim Mingyu was six feet and two inches of student-athlete muscle and Jihoon didn’t exactly want to piss him off by insinuating he was leading his poor, guileless friend on.

So Joshua it was.

As a general rule, getting coffee with your therapist probably isn’t such a good idea. Namely because they’ll talk loudly about your mental health in public with no regard for who might be listening. At least that was Joshua’s approach.

It was only when they’d reached the counter that he quietened down, much to Jihoon’s relief. Josh switched to what Jihoon had started calling his “Observation Mode”; characteristics include wide-eyed staring, blank expressions and occasional note taking. Jihoon hoped to god he wouldn’t whip out his notebook in the middle of the campus café.

‘Can I get a cappuccino and an iced americano, please?’

‘You’re one of the guys that’s going to be fighting tomorrow!’

The barista looked extremely impressed and showed no visible sign that she’d heard Jihoon’s order.

‘Uh… yes? How do you know that?’

She smiled and Jihoon noticed, belatedly, that she was very pretty. Too pretty for him to keep a straight face whilst he was talking to her. Jihoon suddenly wished Josh was in a talkative mood again. Jihoon gave him a quick look over his shoulder and— yes, of course, he was writing in his goddamn notebook whilst simultaneously staring the nice barista down. There was very little hope of them not coming off as a couple of anti-social weirdos.

‘Please, it’s Fight Night. You guys are all over social media,’ she replied. ‘What’s your name.’

‘Why? What’s yours?’ Jihoon physically winced at his awkwardness. What the hell was he saying!?

The hot barista with the brown hair just laughed. She seemed entirely unaware of the fact that a long line had formed behind Jihoon and Joshua.

‘It’s Nayeon,’ she said, pointing to the badge on her green apron that very clearly displayed her name. ‘Now do you mind telling me yours so I can fix you a drink?’

Nayeon twirled a marker pen around in her hand and Jihoon wished the ground would swallow him whole. She only wanted to know his name so she could mark it on the cup.

‘Jihoon,’ he said hurriedly, ‘and Josh.’

‘Cool, your drinks will be ready in just a few minutes.’

Jihoon was very grateful that Nayeon’s colleague prepared their orders and handed them over. He didn’t think he’d be able to handle another painful interaction with the cute barista. Jihoon wasn’t equipped to deal with attractive people – his brain had a tendency to go into overdrive. He’d learnt that the hard way from years of dealing with Soonyoung.

At their table, Joshua leaned back and closed his read notebook. Jihoon had no idea what he wrote in it and knew better than to ask. Joshua struck him as the kind of man that liked to keep his secrets close and Jihoon himself was no better.

‘Have you looked at the sleeve on your coffee? You’ve been sipping it for precisely—’ Joshua looked at this watch, ‘—eight minutes, and you haven’t once noticed the cup.’

‘What is there to notice? I’m not a basic white girl that likes taking photos of coffee cups and— oh.’

Nayeon had written her number on Jihoon’s drink along with a heart and a smiley face. Jihoon had just gotten a girl’s phone number. How? How!?

‘I saw her staring when we were waiting in line. You should call her and invite her to the fight.’

Jihoon put his cup down and stared at the neatly written phone number. He didn’t know how he felt about it. Surely this was everything he wanted – exactly what he needed. It was a chance to move on and expel every lingering thought of Kwon Soonyoung from his mind.

‘Why should I bother? I have no luck with romance,’ Jihoon said, resisting the urge to faceplant on the table. It was an excuse, and a shoddy one at that.

‘Regardless of whether it goes well or not I’d find the whole thing very interesting. To get a better sense of how your mind works, I mean,’ Joshua offered him a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

‘I’m going to be fighting in front of a huge pack of drunk, aggressive college students tomorrow. I think I’ve got enough on my plate without adding a girl into the mix.’

Joshua took a sip of his drink. ‘I disagree. You’re dealing with Fight Night remarkably well – I think you could use a bit of a challenge. If you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone, you’ll never grow as a person.’

Jihoon wasn’t convinced, but Joshua spoke with all the quiet authority of a seasoned medical professional.

It felt like a betrayal when he entered the phone number into his contacts. Jihoon hit save and tried not to notice the unopened message notifications from Soonyoung.

Then the phone was in his pocket again: out of sight, out of mind. Jihoon picked up the drink.

His coffee was getting cold.

 

-

 

Soonyoung thought he scrubbed up pretty well. He’d rented a black suit that was just about in his price range and put on his neatest, most formal pair of silver earrings. It was Fight Night after all, the most exclusive black-tie event in the student calendar. And it was also the night Lee Jihoon was about to get his ass handed to him.

He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but Soonyoung felt awful. This wasn’t normal; he loved nights out. He loved the socialising, the drinks, making memories with his friends and staying up until the sunrise. Surely having two of his closest friends take to the stage to win fame and glory would’ve made it all the more thrilling. But no. Soonyoung just felt faintly sick whilst he and Seokmin wandered down to the backstage area.

Originally an abandoned factory just off the beaten track, the space had been transformed into a theatrical boxing venue with spotlights, pyrotechnics and plenty of seating for the huge, excitable audience. Backstage was a little less impressive. Staff members ran about madly, shouting commands into their headsets whilst a few of the student brawlers took selfies and warmed up.

They cornered on the dressing room and knocked twice before letting themselves inside.

Evidently, the budget had been spent on the stage and all its extravagances because the fighters themselves had to share one undersized dressing room littered with discarded clothes, bags and the occasional anxious loved one.

Unfortunately for Soonyoung, he was greeted immediately by a shirtless – absolutely shredded – Lee Jihoon. He had on loose silk boxer shorts and his hands had already been wrapped with tape. At least Soonyoung didn’t have to force his ungainly hands to help out again.

Jihoon raised an eyebrow and Seokmin nudged Soonyoung in the back, whispering, ‘Go on, dude, give him the thing.’

The “thing” in question was an underwhelming bouquet of flowers that Soonyoung picked himself. They’d wilted a little and were wrapped in a page of newspaper. He had two makeshift bouquets in each hand – one for Jihoon, one for Seungcheol – each hidden behind his back.

‘Oh, uh… here,’ he said shoving the sad, floppy flowers against Jihoon’s bare chest.

Jihoon looked as though he was about to say something. He’d been looking Soonyoung up and down, the ghost of surprised smile on his face, but another voice – a female voice – destroyed whatever moment they were about to share.

‘Is this your friend? Hi, I’m Nayeon. Jihoon’s…’ she paused and giggled awkwardly to herself, ‘… Jihoon’s own personal cheerleader.’

Okay. Okay, so she wasn’t his girlfriend.

Yet.

Soonyoung couldn’t explain the strange anger that clouded his head. He liked meeting new people – why did Nayeon’s toothy smile offend him so damn much?

‘Good luck out there! You’re gonna be great, you’re in excellent shape, my dude,’ Soonyoung had no idea what he was saying. He tapped Jihoon’s abs for good measure and instantly wished he had more self-restraint.

‘Can you make sure Cheol gets the other bouquet? We worked hard foraging for those flowers. Soon wouldn’t shut up about how much he thought they suited you—’

‘—Ooookay, I think we’re done here,’ Soonyoung wrapped an arm around Seokmin’s waist – perhaps a little too aggressively – and guided him back out into the hallway.

Luckily, he was just in earshot to hear the last dregs of a conversation as the door slammed shut behind him; ‘Your friends seem lovely. How long have they been dating?’

Soonyoung felt his face burn with embarrassment and he powerwalked back to the main stage where, hopefully, he’d be swallowed up by the crowd and never have to see Jihoon again.

‘Soon? What’s wrong?’

‘She thought we were dating,’ he grumbled in response to Seokmin’s earnestness.

‘Why does it matter?’

Soonyoung stormed ahead, his true anger masked by a sense of performative sulkiness that had Seokmin laughing breathily behind him. He didn’t understand why it mattered to him at all.

Passing a staff member with a tray of champagne glasses, Soonyoung shook away his uncertainty and turned around to give Seokmin a mischievous grin.

A wordless agreement passed between them and on a silent count of three they each grabbed a glass from the unsuspecting waiter and dashed off towards the stage.

It was going to be a good night. Soonyoung would make sure of it.

 

-

 

Seungcheol didn’t know it was possible to feel so nervous. Until very recently, nothing much had mattered to him. Adult life was treating him well – it was easy.

But nothing had been simple for a while.

He had all the money in the world – or at least enough to never worry about tallying the income of his stocks and shares and checking the shopping total at the cash register – so why the hell had he willingly signed up to an underground boxing match?

This was it.

A bass-heavy song started playing and a staff member placed an urgent hand on the small of his back, guiding him out onto the walkway. Seungcheol heard the crowd before he saw it; all screams, cheers and wolf whistles. As he stepped out into the spotlight and walked towards the ring, he pulled the hood of his red boxing robe over his head, partially for dramatic effect and partially to hide himself from the overwhelming sense of being looked at.

Seungcheol’s legs felt like jelly as he ducked into the ring and felt another crew member pull the robe from his shoulders. Now he was bare before the hungry eyes of the audience. Seungcheol hardly recognised them as his friends and peers; decked out in suits and cocktail dresses, they looked like elegant bystanders hungry for bloodshed. He glanced over the room, spotting Soonyoung and the others at a round table near the front.

No Jeonghan.

But had he really expected him to show? The Jeonghan that made that promise was probably already gone, already faded into memory as the effects of alcohol slowly left his body. Very likely the entire recollection of his night with Seungcheol had faded too.

It was nothing. It was a beautiful moment that had lived and died in the darkness.

Another burst of music brought Seungcheol back to his sense and with all the tacky bravado the event managers could muster, Jihoon, dressed in blue, walked out to join him in the ring. Of course, they were facing each other – Seungcheol had an inkling that the organisers had caught wind of this friendship and decided to pit them against each other for added drama. The way the emcee was hyping the whole thing up didn’t dissuade him from his theory.

No amount of training was enough to prepare Seungcheol for the sound of the starting bell. He was expected to move, be light on his feet just as the trainer had drilled into him over the last week of preparation. But Seungcheol’s legs felt like jelly. Jihoon looked absolutely focused, cool and detached in a way that unnerved Seungcheol immensely as they cornered each other in the ring. He was vaguely aware of some shouting – was it Soonyoung egging him on? – before a fist collided with his face.

It was a damn good punch and it hurt like a bitch.

Seungcheol was slow enough to feel the full brunt of Jihoon’s gloved hand against his cheek, but fast enough to turn his head in time to spare his nose a painful break. He blinked twice and tried to remember his advantages.

One: raw power. Seugcheol had a fury in him that had emerged during training. He could channel it, make it a strength rather than a liability. All the chaotic energy inside himself could change the tide of the fight, swing it in his favour.

Two: height. Jihoon was far shorter than him, his arms less long. Seungcheol could reach further and push ahead, cornering Jihoon and beating him down.

The only problem was Seungcheol didn’t feel angry. Any pent-up frustration that fuelled him through training had dissipated after his cathartic night with Jeonghan. And Jihoon, despite his shortness, was nimble and powerful and altogether a much better fighter than Seungcheol.

Suddenly feeling a little helpless, Seungcheol’s body reacted quickly. Without thinking, he slammed his fist against Jihoon’s face. He hardly expected it to collide so firmly, but when Jihoon looked back up, he was sporting a bloody nose and a look of anxiety that probably matched Seungcheol’s own expression.

They were both very out of their depth.

Seungcheol wondered if that was it – they could both throw in the towel and laugh about it later over a drink at the bar. But Jihoon caught sight of something – or someone – over Seungcheol’s shoulder, in the direction of the table their friends were sitting at.

He had only a moment to prepare himself before Jihoon hit him with a fierce upper cut. And then another hit, this time to his right eye. It was bruising up already, and Seungcheol heaved a sigh of relief when the referee rang the bell.

Seungcheol hissed in pain as someone pulled him down onto a stool and, to his surprise, made a sharp incision near his bruised eyelid. He could feel the warm rush of blood trail down his cheek as the staff member attempted to reduce his swelling. Seungcheol was quickly losing vision in his right eye but the cut, oddly enough, had kept it from progressing any further. He turned to give the man a word of thanks, to the staff member and was stunned to find a familiar face looking at him with concern.

Was he in a dream, or had Xu Minghao just treated his injuries?

That didn’t seem very safe and legal. Seungcheol had a vague recollection that trained medical staff were supposed to be on hand for moments like this; all he’d seen was Minghao, dressed for a night out in a slim-fitting suit, standing by the side of the ring with his arms folded in concentration.

But it didn’t matter. The bell rang again and Jihoon was facing him. He looked exactly like Seungcheol had felt these last few weeks – strained, wild, full of undiluted frustration that had been left unchecked and ignored. Then it struck him that perhaps Jihoon had been trying so hard to keep his cool that he’d allowed himself to reach breaking point.

He needed this, just like Seungcheol had needed Jeonghan wiping away his guilty tears.

Jihoon hesitated and Seungcheol hit him hard. It was enough: the other boy strung into action, his face no longer a mask of collectedness but a mess of emotion. He hit Seungcheol hard and square on.

The cut on his lip – from the last punch-up he’d been in – reopened and Seungcheol tasted blood. It was warm and metallic and filled him with relief. He’d needed to have his ass handed to him. All these years he’d needed someone to take him down a peg.

Jihoon kept hitting him and Seungcheol couldn’t feel his face.

He went down onto his knees, vision and hearing slowly giving out. Seungcheol’s legs were so unsteady, but he willed himself to kneel long enough to pull himself clumsily to his feet. There were so many faces starting back at him – some in horror, others in a state of alcohol-infused euphoria.

Seungcheol thought his mind must have been playing tricks on him when he saw the face of an angel in the crowd; blonde, standing, eyes wide in alarm.

The last thing Seungcheol saw before he blacked out was Yoon Jeonghan.

Chapter Text

They were very quiet as they sat on the floor of Jeonghan’s bedroom, darkness obscuring the concern on each of their faces. Night had a funny knack for softening all the hard, uncomfortable things in the world; it made everything simpler; it broke down boundaries that Jeonghan was too afraid to cross in the harsh light of day.

He could, for instance, run a hand along Seungcheol’s cheek as he slept, deep in the oblivion of unconsciousness and pain. The blood had dried and matted in his hair as blood so often did – Jeonghan knew it would happen, he knew everything about being human – but the sadness it incurred in him was as unexpected as it was profound. He didn’t like seeing Seungcheol like this. He didn’t like seeing him unmade.

Seungcheol had a black eye. Ecchymosis. Jeonghan was no medic but he was more than certain that Seungcheol would find it hard to see when he eventually regained consciousness. In the morning he’d have to apply a cold compress, if he could face it.

‘It’s not like you to bring someone back to your room,’ Joshua was only half joking. He didn’t like anything that disrupted the status quo of his peaceful, sociopathic existence. Jeonghan knew him well enough to understand this particular weakness – and all the others – even if Joshua thought himself faultless, a more evolved human being.

In reality, he was no more perfect than his diagnosis would suggest. Nobody was.

‘I want to do the right thing, Josh. Contrary to popular belief, I do actually have a heart.’

Joshua snorted in derision. ‘I know. It’s the one thing I don’t like about you.’

Jeonghan stared at Seungcheol. He’d never really seen him before – never really cared to look – and Jeonghan took some small enjoyment from studying his bone structure. Seungcheol had an aquiline nose, long eyelashes and thick lips. He was soft in places and angular in others; masculine and oddly childlike at the same time. Jeonghan didn’t believe in innocence, but if he did, he thought it would probably look a lot like the sleeping form of the man in front of him.

He’d seen his brain. Scanned it himself. Seungcheol had been afraid that day in the MRI machine, vulnerable and anxious. Jeonghan could read him like a book. Everything about Seungcheol had been laid bare in front of him, the intricacies of his neurology mapped out in luminous black and white. Yet somehow, he’d got him all wrong.

Jeonghan wasn’t used to making mistakes.

‘If you’re just going to sit here and complain, you might as well go to bed.’ There was no malice in Jeonghan’s voice. Joshua didn’t require emotional responses, nor did he appreciate them.

‘Fine. But I want to have a chat tomorrow and make some notes. Choi Seungcheol has brought out an interesting side of you.’

Joshua’s feet moved softly in the darknesss. He walked with a slow certainty like a cat moving quietly through shadow. And then he was gone. Jeonghan, unwatched and with a new freedom, shuffled closer to the edge of the bed. He tilted his head to the left, aligning it with Seungcheol’s sleeping face so they became a sort of mirror image of one another. Jeonghan compared the two of them in his mind, blurring the boundaries of body and skin until he could almost feel the keen sting of a cut lip, the heaviness of a swollen eye.

He thought about what it might have been like in the ring, under the obnoxious glare of the spotlight. Each time Seungcheol had been hit, the nociceptors in his body sent out flaming signals of pain into the spinal cord and on, through those bundles of nerves, to the brain. Jeonghan had been irrevocably aware of that. As he arrived late to the venue and saw Seungcheol being jostled into a corner of the ring, Jeonghan could see his injured body working overtime – so why had he kept going? His limbic system ought to have made him cry, made him afraid, made him concerned enough to stop. To stay down.

But Seungcheol had stood up again. Jeonghan wasn’t sure if he was going to turn up for the fight; he’d waited until the last minute to throw on a lilac shirt and jump in a cab. It would have been easier to rearrange himself and recover the sense of practiced distance that kept him safe from the worst sorts of people – people like Choi Seungcheol. But as he’d watched Seungcheol’s body slump to the floor with a sickening, resounding thump, Jeonghan had abandoned all his uncertainty.

He’d watched them pull him up and carry him off through a sea of onlookers. All Jeonghan had been able to think about was the gentle, steady grip of Seungcheol’s large hands as they held the hair back from his face. They’d been so shockingly tender that night, after all.

Now, as Jeonghan rested his head on the pillow alongside Seungcheol, he took one of his hands in his own. He hadn’t meant it to be an intimate or invasive gesture, just an act of honest curiosity. But Seungcheol’s warm palms were charged with a meaning Jeonghan didn’t care to acknowledge.

He was starting to feel overwhelmingly pink. The purple shirt that draped off him was wrong, inadequate to express the aching fullness of his mood. Tomorrow, if Seungcheol was well enough to move about, he’d have to change the bedding to reflect his pinkness. He’d delve into the rosy, pastel colours of his wardrobe and cover himself in their warm sincerity.

Jeonghan always wore his heart on his sleeve, even if no one else could decipher the hidden meanings of colour in the way he could.

Over the years he’d learned that other people lived by the laws of colour as well, even if there’s was an unconscious compulsion. Joshua, for instance, favoured black. Jeonghan’s synaesthesia hadn’t condemned it as a dark and menacing colour as society was so quick to do; to him, it meant coolness, efficiency, a gritty determination. All these things, too, were Joshua. And whether he knew it or not, Seungcheol had an inclination for blue and white – the perfect blend of colour to throw Jeonghan off. White was a selfish and unforgiving. Blue was perfect peacefulness: the hue of Jeonghan’s childhood. Perhaps it was why they’d never quite understood one another; Jeonghan had let the afflictions of his mind get the better of him. He was still so weak, after all these years.

It was late. Sleep would find him one way or another, and Jeonghan was determined not drift into unconsciousness at the foot of Seungcheol’s sickbed. There was an urge he felt to protect himself from the other man – a desire to hide away the soft, personal parts of himself, lest they spill out in a mess of pathetic emotion.

Jeonghan tiptoed to the door and didn’t look back as he closed it behind him.

That night, Jeonghan slept on the couch. He curled up under the warmth of single blanket and tried, against all odds, to quell the overwhelming sensation of pink.

 

-

 

‘Good morning. I’ve been watching you in your sleep.’

Seungcheol tried to curse but his throat was so dry that all he could manage was a raspy, startled cry. Joshua Hong, black hair carefully styled as though he’d been awake for hours, was leaning over him with a smug smile on his face.

Seugcheol’s first sensation was one of pain – then the recollection of the previous night hit him like a kick in the balls. But there was no time to feel sorry for himself before he was struck with the uncomfortable implications of the strange bed he’d found himself in. This was Jeonghan’s room, and Seungcheol would’ve been elated by the fact that the other boy really had showed up to the fight and cared enough to bring him home – but Joshua’s threatening presence put a dampener on everything. Notebook and pencil tucked under his arm, he looked down on Seungcheol with a grin that could only be described as evil.

‘You drooled on Jeonghan’s pillow. He won’t like that. Oh, and did you know you talk in your sleep?’ Joshua’s eyes glittered with sadistic pleasure, more elementary school bully than terrifying sociopath; ‘Want me to tell you what you were saying?’

Seungcheol could only look on at Joshua, bemused and rattled, until another voice – one that was calm and steady – spoke up from the other side of the room. ‘Please don’t torture my patient, Josh. I think he’s been through enough.’

With some difficulty, Seungcheol managed to sit up. He removed the pillow from beneath him, placing it instead against the wall so he could lean back and support his aching head. Minghao smiled at him good-naturedly as he removed medical supplies from a backpack. There was another boy with him, too: one that Seungcheol faintly recognised.

‘It’s good to see you again, Seungcheol – and even better now that you’re not being beaten to a pulp,’ Minghao said.

Seungcheol felt nauseous when he spoke. ‘I thought it was you that made that cut by my eye, but I wasn’t sure. Sort of seemed like I was in a dream.’

‘I did what any good doctor would do – I stepped up. The organisers hadn’t thought it was worth their time and money to hire a qualified medical professional and someone had to help with concussions and bruises. I had a busy night even after your fight was done, believe me.’

Minghao’s slender fingers arranged the items from his bag with dexterity. The shorter, stockier boy stood by with his arms folded. He looked like Minghao’s personal bodyguard, although his presence wasn’t a physically threatening one. The boy had never once stopped smiling at Seungcheol in a way that was so aggressively friendly, eye contact became difficult. If this was his attempt at a good bedside manner, it certainly needed some work.

As the two boys walked forward to where Seungcheol lay, Minghao turned his attention to Joshua; ‘you can leave now, if you want.’

‘I think I’ll stay if it’s all the same to you,’ Joshua replied. At some point during the conversation he’d pulled out his notebook. Minghao raised his eyebrow – a gesture indicating that it most definitely wasn’t all the same to him, but nobody put up a fight. Seungcheol could hardly blame them. Even he knew arguing with Joshua was a pointless endeavour.

‘You remember Chan,’ Minghao said as he knelt by the side of the bed and shone a small light into Seungcheol’s good eye. ‘He was playing Uno with us at Soonyoung’s party.’ Seungcheol tried to turn his head and give Chan a nod of recognition, but Minghao was too quick for him – he held a hand out and kept Seungcheol facing him.

Seungcheol could feel the rubbery touch of Minghao’s gloved fingers as he pressed gently against his swollen eye. He hissed at the feeling of it and Minghao looked apologetic. ‘It was a bit risky, making an incision, but bleeding out the swollen area is the most effective way of stopping it in its tracks. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done it. The last thing you needed was the chance to get back in that ring.’

‘No, you did the right thing. Thank you, Minghao. Really.’ It hurt to move his cut lip into a grin but Seungcheol did it anyway. He tried to ignore the hurried notes Joshua was making in his red book of doom. Perhaps he was delirious from pain, but Seungcheol wondered if it was some kind of death note, and Joshua was manically writing “Choi Seungcheol” over and over again. He shuddered at the thought.

‘As much as I’d love to stay and bandage this dude up, we’ve got to be at the hospital in fifteen minutes,’ Chan spoke up, his voice surprisingly pleasant on the ears. ‘And Jeonghan told me he’d make a flask of hot chocolate for the road.’

‘Well I don’t want to stand between a man and his hot chocolate,’ Minghao said, words dripping with fondness. He redirected his attention to Josh; ‘there’s rubbing alcohol on the desk over there and antiseptic wipes too. He’ll need to ice his black eye— and I haven’t even looked over his chest and ribs yet. Take good care of him, okay?’ And with that, Minghao was pulled out of the bedroom and off down the stairs.

Seungcheol was left feeling dazed and lost. Even after being awake for ten minutes, he still had no idea why he was even in Joshua’s house – in Jeonghan’s room – and not his own. As for the whereabouts of the blonde boy, he didn’t dare ask.

Alone with Joshua as his sole carer, Seungcheol couldn’t help thinking about “Misery”, that Stephen King book Jihoon had recommended. It wasn’t a far stretch of the imagination that Joshua might play sadistic tricks on him in his vulnerable state – whisper in his ear, make him obedient, maybe break his leg with a sledgehammer if he ever tried to escape.

But the other boy wasn’t on the offensive; he was glancing over at the table full of caring supplies with a look of mild disgust on his face, as though the idea of playing nurse for Seungcheol was some kind of heinous punishment. They were in a stand-off, neither one of them prepared to make the first move or even acknowledge the other, until someone approached the bedroom and swung the door open.

Jeonghan. Seungcheol felt briefly flustered; he was suddenly very aware of the fact that he was an intruder, an outsider. Some poor, beat-up stray that had been brought in off the streets. Jeonghan, for his part, looked as indifferent as he always did and as immaculate as ever. Seungcheol felt a twinge of guilt thinking of the other boy spending an uncomfortable night sleeping on the sofa, but Jeonghan’s clear complexion and soft blonde hair betrayed no signs of a rough night. Today he wore a fuzzy, hot pink sweater and loose-fitting blue jeans. Before he spoke, he pulled something out of his mouth and Seungcheol realised, belatedly, that it was a lollipop.

‘I think I’ll take over from here, Josh,’ he said, voice nonchalant. ‘I’ve given the kids some snacks and sent them on their way.’

‘Better you than me,’ Joshua hurried to the door before stopping to give Seungcheol one final taunting smirk; ‘see you later, Rocky.’

Then, with an ominous finality, the bedroom door was slammed shut, leaving Seungcheol and Jeonghan completely alone. The room felt smaller. Jeonghan was just a few metres away from him and Seungcheol could see the way his lips lingered on the hard candy as he stared him down. They were both holding their breath, assessing the situation – choosing the masks they’d wear and the people they’d be.

And then, in a turn of events that utterly mystified Seungcheol, Jeonghan rolled up the sleeves of his jumper and set about collecting the medical supplies.

Jeonghan’s hands worked carefully as he read the label on the rubbing alcohol and removed wipes from their packets. It made Seungcheol want to cry. He’d thought he’d never see that particular side of Jeonghan again – the side that was so gentle, so artless and honest. But he’d remembered that night. He was there in front of him, tucking Seungcheol’s hair behind his ear as he rubbed lightly at his wounds.

There was cold sting and Seungcheol winced. For a while, neither of them spoke because words were not needed. Seungcheol knew exactly what the tender silence meant: that things were clear between them. The slate had been wiped clean and, finally, they understood each other just a little bit better.

But there was still so much left to learn.

‘You came to the fight,’ Seungcheol said, unable to keep the pleased smile off his face. He knew he looked and sounded like an absolute fool, but he didn’t care.

‘Just in time to see you get your ass handed to you by that short friend of yours.’ Jeonghan had kept the lollipop in his mouth as he worked and had to pause what he was doing to take it out and speak. It wasn’t very practical but Seungcheol wasn’t going to complain; Jeonghan sucking on a lollipop was mesmerising and – maybe – just a tiny bit sexy too.

‘You were out for a while and Minghao was worried. In the end you came around, but you were concussed and confused – in and out of consciousness. I had to hold your hand to stop you babbling, so in the end I thought it would be best for me and Josh to take you home. It was really quite troublesome.’

Jeonghan sounded disgruntled, but Seungcheol couldn’t help smiling even wider.

‘Get that stupid grin of your face. You’ll split your lip even wider,’ Jeonghan snapped. ‘As long as you’re a guest in my house you’d better do as I say— and Joshua too. He was the one that changed your clothes, after all.’

With a complete lack of grace and tact, Seungcheol scampered to get a look at himself under the covers. He was wearing pyjamas – somebody else’s pyjamas – that had been put on him by none other than Joshua Hong.

‘That evil motherfucker!’ Seungcheol all but shouted. ‘He’s seen me naked! No man should have that much power!’

Jeonghan laughed. It was an ungainly sound and an unexpected one; the kind of laugh that comes out in a snort after being held back and resisted. He’d seen him smile and chuckle before, but that was drunk Jeonghan, not sober Jeonghan. Seungcheol was amazed. He felt his heart stutter in his chest in a way that was simultaneously thrilling and devastating. Each moment he spent with Jeonghan made it that much harder to get over him.

‘You really are such a complete idiot, Choi Seungcheol. But I like that,’ Jeonghan said, rearranging himself. ‘We need a little stupidity to reign us all in.’

‘We?’ Seungcheol asked, not taking any offence at Jeonghan’s good natured teasing.

‘My friends and I. As a matter of fact, everyone’s coming over this evening for dinner. It’s about time you all got to know each other properly.’

 

-

 

A group of kids ran past Jihoon and nearly knocked the spoon out of his hands – not that he was using it anyway. On principle, Jihoon grumbled at them and shot their uninterested mother a condescending glare that said ‘keep your children in check.’

There were altogether far too many people below the age of twelve in the ice cream parlour. Jihoon had no idea why Nayeon liked the place so much. The décor was a kitschy, 1950s pastiche, complete with mint green leather seating and waitresses that wore little paper hats and inauthentic smiles. It was loud, too, with the aforementioned screaming children occasionally breaking out into tears over ice cream sundaes that melted quicker than their stubby little hands could shovel ungainly helpings into their mouths.

Nayeon’s friend Sana had served them. She’d been at the fight – who hadn’t? – and insisted on making Jihoon an elaborate banana split complete with sparklers in celebration of his victory. She’d delivered it to the table herself and didn’t appear to notice the grimace on Jihoon’s face as he watched the sparklers fizzle out. The whole display had attracted the attention of the snot-nosed toddlers in the next booth over, who stopped what they were doing to turn around and stare at Jihoon with gaping mouths.

And that wasn’t even the worst part.

Crammed next to Jihoon was Kim Mingyu and opposite, Jeon Wonwoo. It wasn’t even a date; or if it ever had been, Wonwoo and Mingyu had completely ruined the mood by insisting on showing up and talking very loudly about topics that made Jihoon want to jump off a bridge.

They were flirting more than he and Nayeon were. Although, that wasn’t a particularly impressive achievement considering Jihoon was so sapped of energy he could hardly find the willpower to string a sentence together.

Everything in his pathetic little life had connived to let him down. Jihoon’s resolve had collapsed at the mere sight of Soonyoung in the crowd; he’d unfairly directed his frustration at Seungcheol and beaten him to a pulp; and to top it all off, Joshua was ghosting him. He didn’t know how to process his own feelings without Joshua to guide him along. And the realisation of his desperate, unquenchable desire for Kwon Soonyoung was far too much for him to deal with alone. Now, he was left with nothing but the knowledge of his own ineptitude and inadequacy. Oh, and a bowl full of ice cream.

‘Maybe I should stop talking about coding,’ Wonwoo said shyly, continuing a conversation Jihoon had been trying to tune out. ‘Maybe you should,’ he thought.

‘Wonwoo, I could listen to you talk about computer shit all day. Never apologise for being yourself.’

Jihoon didn’t miss the satisfied smile on his friend’s face, and he didn’t like it one bit. He was setting himself up to have his heart broken – just like Jihoon had with Soonyoung, and Seungcheol with Jeonghan. He looked over at his not-quite-girlfriend; Nayeon was totally oblivious and very happy to amuse herself taking selfies with her ice cream cone. Everything about her was so bubbly and cheerful. Jihoon had an inkling they weren’t suited to each other – she was far too much like Soonyoung, after all.

‘You should come over later. To my apartment,’ Wonwoo all but blurted out. He was talking to Mingyu and Mingyu alone. Jihoon wondered what would happen if he threw his glass bowl on the floor and watched it shatter into jagged shards of glass. He doubted anyone would notice.

‘Okay,’ Mingyu responded all too quickly, something intense and determined in his eyes that made Jihoon feel somehow protective of his friend. If he wasn’t so mentally exhausted, he would’ve interfered then and there, reminding Wonwoo of the hopelessness of his situation. But Jihoon had his own problems to deal with, chief among them being the fractured relationship with his best friend.

Jihoon knew exactly where Seungcheol was. Last night he’d tried to get to the dressing room, to push his way through the crowd of concerned people and fall down on his feet at Seungcheol’s side, begging for his forgiveness. But Jihoon was small and unassuming, his voice just quiet enough to go unnoticed amidst the swell of shouts and murmurs. But he’d seen what had happened; like a vision in a dream, Yoon Jeonghan held onto Seungcheol’s hand as the injured man muttered something incoherent. Jeonghan hadn’t looked malicious – nor had he appeared startled. His jaw had been set with single-minded certainty; calm and serene in the face of crisis, Jeonghan volunteered to take Seungcheol home. Jihoon had taken that as his cue to leave.

‘You must be really sad if even a banana split can’t cheer you up.’ Nayeon’s voice came low and gentle, disturbing Jihoon’s as though they were leaves in the wind. There was earnestness in her eyes and Jihoon felt bad for ever finding her annoying.

‘I can’t even face Seungcheol after last night. He probably hates my guts.’ Jihoon let the spoon slip from his fingers and slide into the glass bowl. He wasn’t eating his dessert anyway.

‘Well, there’s only one way to find out,’ Nayeon raised an eyebrow.

‘She’s right, you’ve been pouting like an abandoned puppy dog for the last hour and it’s not a good look on you. Just go and see him already, you big softie.’

‘Thank you for that valuable advice, boy-I’ve-only-just-met. Are you always this upfront with total strangers?’ Jihoon asked, words tinged with sarcasm. Wonwoo shot him an apologetic look before chiming in himself.

‘He’s right, though. You’ll just make yourself more miserable staying here.’

Jihoon was already halfway out of the booth when he remembered Nayeon. He turned to her, expecting some sort of regret to cloud her pretty face but instead, the grin she offered him was warm and genuine.

‘I’ll be fine. Go smooth things over with your best friend.’

As Jihoon paced out of the ice cream parlour, early evening was setting in. Streetlamps had turned themselves on, their glow familiar and encouraging. It wasn’t too far to Joshua’s house; he could walk it and give himself some fresh air.

Jihoon turned back once to look through the window of the ice cream shop. He saw Wonwoo reach out a hand and wipe the corner of Mingyu’s mouth, lingering there for a second too long to be accidental.

He pulled his jacket tighter around himself and kept walking.

 

-

 

The shower hurt like hell, but Seungcheol still felt a sense of relief spread through him as he turned the temperature up as hot as he could take it. Surrounded by steam and the smell of Jeonghan’s shampoo – or was it Joshua’s? – Seungcheol finally felt at ease. The huge weight that had been holding him down was gone, pulled off along with all his remaining uncertainty about Jeonghan.

The heartbreak still stung – more so than the feeling of the water pressure on his black eye – but Jeonghan had softened himself around Seungcheol. He’d let his guard down in a way that proved he trusted the other man enough not to put up a front. Seungcheol had a vague sense of apprehension for the future; his crush was only going to get more difficult to manage now that Jeonghan was so tantalisingly within his reach.

But Seungcheol felt as though he’d earned the right to one or two days of relaxation. Maybe a few stolen glances at Jeonghan’s gorgeous face and his beautiful, slender body.

These were bad thoughts to have in the shower.

He turned the water off with a sudden firmness and threw a towel around his waist. Getting an awkward boner in Jeonghan’s shower was not particularly high on his bucket list.

Especially when the aforementioned boy was standing in the doorway, mouth agape.

‘I was just… about to put these towels away in the— uh, cupboard,’ Jeonghan said, not showing any inclination of completing his task. He was rooted to the floor with a dazed look in his eyes.

It was only when it became obvious that Seungcheol was more flustered than he was, that Jeonghan’s startled gaze turned dark and mischievous. Seungcheol found himself gripping the towel he’d already tied efficiently round his waist. He felt unbearably exposed, water dripping off his damp hair and trailing down his bare chest. At the very least, he was in good shape and probably wasn’t too bad to look at – discounting the cuts and bruises that disfigured his face.

Jeonghan spoke with an all too familiar cockiness that took Seungcheol right back to the first night they met. ‘Oh, please don’t stop on my account. Dry off and get dressed. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, believe me.’

Like a deer in the headlights, Seungcheol froze and felt absolutely helpless. He’d been lucky enough to see Jeonghan at his most gentle for the last few days, he’d almost forgotten just how calculating he could be. Although now things were different; whereas previously Seungcheol had been roused to anger by Jeonghan’s manipulative wiles, now he felt a kind of adrenaline pumping through his veins.

There’d been a time where Seungcheol’s pride had gotten the better of him; he never would’ve consented to wooing Jeonghan and trailing after him like a lovesick fool.

Now he was willing to play his games.

‘Well don’t just stand there,’ Jeonghan said, biting his lip, ‘didn’t I tell you to do obey my every word as long as you’re under my roof? Drop. The. Towel.

The steam from the shower gave the air an electric humidity as Seungcheol turned around with deliberate slowness, facing the wall instead of Jeonghan. Then, with all the obedience he could muster, he let the towel fall to the floor. Seungcheol found a kind of confidence in his naked state – instead of immediately hurrying to put his clothes on, he decided to stretch out and flex his back muscles a little, putting on a show for Jeonghan. When he eventually stepped into his underwear, he turned back around again.

Jeonghan raised an eyebrow at Seungcheol’s conceited grin and held the pile of towels tightly to his chest. There was a faint blush on his cheeks – not from embarrassment but perhaps from something more akin to excitement – and he stepped forward, closing the space between them.

‘It’s not normally so easy for me to get my own way,’ he said, voice a little breathy and eyes glittering.

‘If there’s a man out there capable of resisting you, I’d like to meet him.’ Seungcheol was surprised at his own honesty. He hadn’t meant to be so deliberately flirtatious. For a moment he held his breath, worried that an ambiguously placed line had been crossed, but Jeonghan remained where he was. Close enough to stand in a little puddle of water that had dripped from Seungcheol’s half naked body.

‘You’d be surprised,’ Jeonghan said. ‘When it comes to sugar daddies it’s usually me that ends up being unravelled. Give an inch and they’ll take a mile.’

Seungcheol took a deep breath and held it. Somehow, Jeonghan’s voice was laced with seduction and it was taking every ounce of his self-restraint not to pick the other boy up and have his way with him, right there on the bathroom floor. Or better yet: in the shower.

Seungcheol was not doing a very good job at staying calm – and his Calvin Klein underwear was doing an even worse job at hiding his growing arousal. He was only half hard but judging by the way Jeonghan kept quickly looking down, Seungcheol was certain it hadn’t gone unnoticed.

‘Which reminds me,’ Jeonghan started, ‘I was supposed to be meeting one of them tonight, but instead I’ll be here looking after you. Funny how you’ve managed to mess up every aspect of my life, Choi Seungcheol.’

‘Fuck those guys. It’s about time you taught them a lesson.’ Seungcheol was surprised to see Jeonghan rolling his eyes at him. Against his better judgement, he held Jeonghan by his shoulders, the touch firm but careful. ‘I’m serious. You’re worth more than all of them put together and it’s about time you had some payback. So stand him up – god knows he deserves so much worse.’

It had been a long time since Jeonghan looked venomous, but now his eyes were positively serpentine. Seungcheol wasn’t sure exactly what he said to get the other boy so fired up, but there was a familiar calculating cruelty in the way Jeonghan held himself. There was a longing, too; a burgeoning darkness that somehow made Seungcheol’s boner even more difficult to conceal.

‘My knight in shining armour.’

That was the last straw. Seungcheol was about to throw caution to the wind and do the absolute worst thing he could think of – fucking the boy that didn’t reciprocate his feelings – when another voice interrupted their little liason.

‘If you’re going to have sex, can you please hurry it up? The garlic bread is nearly ready and everyone will be here in about—’ he looked at his wristwatch, ‘—six minutes. That should be more than enough time for Seungcheol to finish, but it’s better to be on the safe side, don’t you think?’

Joshua managed to close the bathroom door behind him just in time to evade the loofah Seungcheol hurled in his direction.

Jeonghan’s musical laugh followed him out of the room.

 

-

 

As it turned out, Joshua was a very good cook. Seungcheol couldn’t imagine him eating – he looked as though he didn’t need food to sustain him but instead some sinister, dark energy or perhaps human blood – but Joshua put on a good spread. Tonight’s menu was Italian food and it smelt divine.

A glass of red wine sat on the kitchen counter, and Joshua sipped from it intermittently whilst plating up spaghetti and penne arrabiata. It was a sad turn of events when Seungcheol willingly put himself in a room with Joshua Hong, but Jeonghan was busy greeting his friends at the door. Never normally one to shy away from social interaction, Seungcheol felt somewhat bashful and apprehensive tonight; his world had been so recently shaken up and rearranged that he felt a sense of mistrust for anyone that wasn’t entirely familiar to him. Bizarrely, being around Joshua was starting to feel more a lot more comfortable – their rivalry more friendly than vicious.

With a delicate, attention-grabbing flourish Joshua placed a leaf of basil on each plate of pasta.

‘Okay, Hannibal Lecter. No need to show off,’ Seungcheol rolled his eyes.

‘Now now, is that any way to talk to a bloodthirsty cannibal? You’re lucky I’m not serving up one of your legs for dinner tonight. Lot of good thigh meat on there.’

Seungcheol gave his thighs a cursory, self-conscious glance. For the first time in his life, he wished he was as skinny as Wonwoo.

‘Grab a plate and go on through,’ Joshua said, taking a dish in each of his hands. Noticing Seungcheol’s reluctance, he sighed. ‘I know it’s not easy connecting with other people – believe me, I’m a clinically diagnosed sociopath for god’s sake – but if I can do it, then you can. Jun already likes you a lot. Or at least, he likes your money.’

Joshua wasted no more time delivering his pep talk and headed out into the dining room. Seungcheol took a sharp breath and picked up two plates before following the other man. He hoped his black eye didn’t make him look too terrifying; at the very least he expected he’d put some people off their food.

That is, if anything made by Joshua could be considered as safe for consumption in the first place.

Everyone was already seated and, embarrassingly, the place at the head of the table had been left vacant for Seungcheol. He felt like the patriarch of a family he barely knew and was slightly afraid of. Joshua’s sly grin was proof enough that the seating arrangement had been deliberate.

‘Ah, there he is! Jeonghannie’s injured stray. How are you feeling, big boy?’ Jun asked, taking a big sip of wine. The whole bottle was next to him and almost half empty.

Seungcheol absolutely hated being called “big boy” but he was acutely aware of Jeonghan’s intense gaze. He was supposed to be a good guest. He was supposed to behave.

‘Never been better.’

And with that, Jun’s attention was directed elsewhere. Conversation turned naturally to old topics and an intimate familiarity that Seungcheol wasn’t a part of. He was quite content to sit back and enjoy Joshua’s arrabiata which – although he’d never admit it – absolutely divine. If it was poisoned, it would be worth it.

Seungcheol never could resist temptations that were bad for him.

Whilst they talked, Seungcheol looked around the table and took note of all the dinner guests. At the opposite end to him, seated like the matriarch of their little makeshift family, was Jeonghan. Along one side of the table – on Seungcheol’s left – were Jun and Minghao. On the opposite side were Joshua and Chan, the boy he’d seen earlier. He looked a good few years younger than them, and it became glaringly obvious that Jeonghan doted on him with a fierce passion. He wasn’t quite like the others. Throwing table manners out of the window, Chan had elected to demonstrate his ability to burp his ABCs. Jeonghan had scolded him, but the smile on his face was so unbelievably genuine that Seungcheol had to look away. It felt too personal and too full of love – not meant for anyone else’s eyes but Chan’s.

Five minutes into dinner, Seungcheol had decided he wanted to adopt the boy himself. Maybe he could steal him away and risk incurring Jeonghan’s formidable wrath – he’d make an excellent addition to the boys’s nights at Soonyoung’s house. The kid looked like he knew his way around a keg.

Seungcheol felt a little ashamed of himself for thinking about beer pong when the conversation around him was so decidedly intellectual. This was a side of Jeonghan that Seungcheol had no claim to. He really couldn’t keep up with the endless segways – all the name-dropping and quotations made his head spin.

Tonight’s main topic was nothing less than the nature of good and evil.

‘Mankind is ultimately inclined towards goodness— or the appearance of goodness. It’s subjective, I know, but you only have to look back through the literary canon to see that good almost always trumps evil. Although we ourselves are morally complex creatures, society favours innocence and conformity.’ Even tipsy, Jun was full of opinions.

‘Yeah, well if that’s true then why do we all love bad boys so much?’ Chan raised his eyebrows, confident in his flimsy line of argument. Seungcheol was absolutely certain he was about to get intellectually jumped by a room full of pretentious grad students.

‘He has a point,’ Minghao said, voice smooth and quiet. ‘If we’re talking classic literature, the best characters are the ones that operate in a grey area. We like Dr Jekyll, but his story wouldn’t be worth reading without Mr Hyde.’

Joshua chimed in; ‘Yeah but he dies in the end. Typical Victorian sensibility – they expel all their dark desires onto the page and then exorcise them with predictable, sappy endings.’

‘Your inner sociopath is showing,’ Jun said, pouring yet another glass of wine.

Jeonghan had been uncharacteristically quiet, but now he spoke up. ‘”Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell” – Milton, Paradise Lost. Satan himself is the protagonist. “Evil be thou my good;” perspective is everything, motivation is everything. We think there’s a difference between right and wrong – good deeds and terrible betrayals – but they’re two sides of the same coin.’

The table fell into contemplative silence. Seungcheol was overwhelmed with the beautiful grace of Jeonghan’s mind, the way his thoughts leapt in directions that no one else’s could.

‘Judging from the way you’re staring at me, I assume you have something to add to this discussion?’ Jeonghan asked him. Seungcheol felt momentarily flustered. ‘Perhaps there’s a unique insight you can give us – the student athlete perspective.’

Seungcheol speared two pieces of penne on his fork and considered this. ‘Actually, I think I agree with you on this one. Competitive sport teaches you a lot about that kind of thing. It’s so easy to lose your temper out there on the pitch, to start an altercation with members of the opposite team. But that’s all it comes down to at the end of the day – teams. Whose you’re on and whose you’re against. Everyone’s chasing after the same goal and no one’s really in the wrong.’

‘A surprisingly valid argument from our resident Neanderthal,’ Joshua added.

‘I dare you to come over here and say that again, you slimy little—’

Seungcheol was broken off by the sound of the doorbell. Before he could so much as rearrange his thoughts, Jeonghan was up and out of his seat. The moment to deliver his insult was quickly passing, and Seungcheol grumbled at the smug look on Joshua’s face.

Jeonghan looked back over his shoulder as he headed to the front door;

‘Don’t stop on my account, I’ll be back in just a few minutes.’

 

-

 

Jihoon wasn’t entirely sure what he’d expected, but he wasn’t mentally prepared to deal with a very condescending looking Jeonghan. Dressed in a vibrant pink and with his blonde hair soft and perfect, Jeonghan somehow managed to maintain an air of regal authority that made Jihoon feel a lot like a peasant that was supposed to get on his knees and bow.

‘Can I help you?’ Jeonghan asked.

‘I’m here to see Seungcheol.’ Jihoon tried to remain firm and assertive. He wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable.

‘Well, I would invite you in, but I don’t want my house to stink of cigarette ash and inadequacy. Perhaps you should take yourself elsewhere.’ Jeonghan spoke with a polite and cheerful tone. His smile was positively radiant. It took Jihoon a few moments to register that he’d just be insulted.

‘There’s no need to be petty. I just want to see Seungcheol and patch things up between us.’

Jeonghan laughed, the sound of it melodic but hollow. ‘Patch things up? That’s funny. The only thing you’re capable of is causing damage and fucking up. Seungcheol’s better off here, far away from you and your little bubble of self-pity.’

The door was already being closed. Jihoon panicked and jammed his foot in the doorframe, holding it open. He could feel the warmth emanating from inside; he could hear the sound of light-hearted bickering. It made Jihoon suddenly very angry to think of someone as vile as Yoon Jeonghan enjoying the company of others – having friends and being loved. Why did he get comfort and happiness? Why was he deserving of Seungcheol and Jihoon wasn’t?

‘You think Seungcheol is better off with you? You’ve made him fucking miserable. You’ve broken his heart— and for what? All so you can run around pimping yourself out to sugar daddies, waiting to be rescued by prince charming.’

Things had gone from bad to worse. Jihoon was fairly sure Jeonghan was either about to slap him across the face or break down in tears, but luckily, a familiar voice interceded. Jihoon watched with some amazement as Jeonghan rearranged his face; every suggestion of pain was wiped away in favour of a look of cool detachment. When he turned to face Seungcheol, it was with a congenial easiness that betrayed nothing of their interaction.

‘Jihoon,’ Seungcheol said, some amazement apparent in his voice.

Eyes closed, Jihoon braced himself for an oncoming storm of anger; what he wasn’t prepared for was Seungcheol’s entire body weight slamming against him in tight embrace. They didn’t need to say anything. Jihoon and Seungcheol had never experienced that level of intimacy before and the action spoke volumes. A bond was reforged between them, and Jihoon knew better than to question the particulars of it.

Seungcheol wrapped an arm around him and escorted him inside, talking excitedly about how he’d arrived just in time for dessert. Even as relieved as he was, Jihoon didn’t fail to notice Jeonghan’s watchful eye as they passed him in the corridor. He realised then that it wasn’t spite or malice that had instigated his anger at the door, but rather a sense of protectiveness. For Seungcheol.

Jihoon glanced over his shoulder and saw Jeonghan following them in, eyes now trained on the floor in a contemplative bashfulness. He briefly wondered if Seungcheol understood this change in feeling, but one look at his friend’s face was enough to persuade Jihoon of his obliviousness. This was something they’d have to work out for themselves, and the road ahead would no doubt be a rocky one.

Jihoon felt awful for the way he’d spoken to Jeonghan, but he never had the courage or the opportunity to apologise to him. In a rushed turn of events, Jihoon found himself in a room full of people he hadn’t been prepared to talk to. Jun was loud, a force of nature; Lee Chan made himself known immediately with a booming laugh and boisterous charm – it was almost enough to distract Jihoon from the guilt that pooled in his stomach each time he looked at Seungcheol’s hideous black eye.

He was offered cheesecake and a seat crammed in at the table where there wasn’t enough space. The first order of business was to deal with Joshua Hong. Jihoon shoved a helping of cake into his mouth and wasted no time airing his grievances.

‘Why haven’t you been answering my calls?’

Joshua swirled his wine glass, red liquid lapping at the rim with rhythmic certainty. ‘Would you believe me if I said I was busy?’

‘No.’

‘Then Jeonghan forbade me getting in touch with you. Something about keeping Seungcheol all to himself,’ Joshua gave Jeonghan a sly smirk, much to the other boy’s dismay. Jihoon had a feeling this little interaction would make its way into the red notebook.

‘Whatever. I had other people to keep me company. Nayeon and Wonwoo are just as helpful as you – Mingyu not so much, but he meant well.’

Jihoon had meant it as a taunt, a way of making Joshua irritated or amused. He hadn’t anticipated the look of unrestrained concern on Xu Minghao’s face.

‘Mingyu was with you? He was with Wonwoo?’ Jihoon nodded at Minghao’s question and put down his fork. The cheesecake wasn’t as appealing as it had been earlier.

‘He told me he was staying home to study.’ Minghao looked down at the crumbs on his plate. It didn’t seem like his words were directed at anyone in particular. An awful silence consumed the dinner guests; everyone’s faces confirming Jihoon’s own worst suspicions. Mingyu had lied to his boyfriend.

‘Kim Mingyu has the attention span of an over-excited golden retriever,’ Jun said wryly. ‘He probably tried to study, got bored and went out for a bit of fresh air. Right?’ He was looking at Jihoon for reassurance, to back up his claims. The ice cream parlour hadn’t felt like a spontaneous study break – not even slightly.

‘Yeah. He was probably only with Wonwoo by chance,’ Jihoon lied. Minghao seemed a good deal calmer at this, and the room released a pent-up breath. Across the table, Jihoon locked eyes with Joshua. The look seemed to convey an understanding – astute as he was, had he known all along that Mingyu and Wonwoo were playing with fire? That Wonwoo’s attraction had perhaps not been so one-sided after all?

Jihoon shook the thought from his mind. He trusted his friend, and Mingyu had never been anything less than endearing. They deserved the benefit of the doubt.

‘It’s late,’ Jeonghan piped up. He was looking primarily at Seungcheol who was slumping in his chair, likely in pain. Jihoon was reminded again of his own guilt. ‘Shall we call it a night?’

‘Let me take him home. You’ve done so much for him already, but I can take it from here.’

Jeonghan raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t imagine those stubby hands of yours would be any good at cleaning his wounds. He stays here. And he’ll remain in my care until he’s fully recovered – no sooner.’ His sharp, confident tone allowed for no questions – which was a shame because Jihoon had a whole bunch of them. He wondered what on earth could’ve caused such a change of heart in the man that, until recently, had been so unremittingly cruel and dismissive. Seungcheol, for his part, seemed dazed and elated. Every second spent with Jeonghan probably felt like a blessing direct from god. Jihoon sympathised; if Soonyoung had resolved to nurse him back to health, he certainly wouldn’t have put up a fuss.

‘Okay, I see your point. But still…’ Jihoon forced himself to look at Seungcheol’s bruises, ‘I don’t want to leave him when I’m the one that beat him up in the first place.’

‘There are two couches,’ Seungcheol suggested to Jeonghan. ‘Jihoon can sleep in the living room with you.’

Jeonghan pursed his lips. His mind worked quickly, calculating the pros and cons, reaching the most favourable decision. Jihoon found it hard to disguise his shock when Jeonghan sighed and nodded his consent.

‘Alright then. But if he snores, he leaves. And I’m not joking.’

 

-

 

Jihoon lay very still in the dim unclarity of night. The room that had been so familiar to him in daylight was a place of strange shadows and silence in the steady darkness. He’d sat on this very sofa during his therapy sessions with Josh – had it always been so stiff, so uncomfortable? It didn’t feel fair that Seungcheol was resting soundly in Jeonghan’s bed upstairs, but Jihoon checked himself; sleeping on a hard coach was more or less what he deserved after going apeshit on his best friend.

Jeonghan had been absent for quite some time, having stepped out to use the bathroom. Now, light footsteps approached the half-closed door and Jihoon found himself feigning sleep. A creeping line of light gaped through the door. No one stepped inside. Acutely aware that he was being watched for signs of wakefulness, Jihoon opened one tentative eye, careful not to be noticed.

He saw Yoon Jeonghan looking down at him. His pyjamas had been switched out in favour of a billowy blouse and a face full of soft makeup. Confusion and a bizarre feeling of dread set Jihoon’s heart racing. Jeonghan remained in the doorway for a few more excruciating seconds and then, confident that Jihoon was asleep, he carefully closed the door.

Jihoon held his breath. In the almost perfect silence of the night, he heard Jeonghan leave the house.

 

-

 

Mingyu’s bedroom was a beautiful mess, a scene of ordered chaos. They’d found their way to his place instead of Wonwoo’s, with the promise of a makeover and the use of Mingyu’s extensive wardrobe. He still lived in the university dorms, sharing a communal living space with a few other undergraduates that had luckily made themselves scarce. Wonwoo was grateful for their seclusion; he savoured it like he had with each helping of mint chocolate ice cream at the dessert space, licking the spoon for good measure.

He wanted to do the same with Kim Mingyu – to have him in his entirety and feel overwhelmed with a cool, melting sweetness. He’d eat the cherry on top too, that last little flourish of mouth-watering candied desire that should have been just too much, just out of reach. But he was greedy. And Wonwoo had never before allowed himself an indulgence quite like this.

They were illuminated only by a string of fairy lights. Mingyu sat behind him, fussing with his hair, pulling it this way and that. Wonwoo was hyperaware of his body. Mingyu radiated a vital heat – it felt a little like the warmth of a purring, contented cat – and Wonwoo was entirely enveloped by it.

‘All done.’

Mingyu’s voice was low and quiet.

Wonwoo wanted to turn around and face him, but he was afraid of what might happen if he did. So instead, he picked up the pile of clothes from Mingyu’s wardrobe and made his way to the en suite, stepping over piles of library books that were gathering dust.

‘I’ll just try this on, and you can tell me what you think.’

 

-

 

Five drinks.

A beer, a glass of white wine and three shots of tequila.

Jeonghan, sober and more alive than he’d felt in years, was still sipping his first piña colada. The old man was getting sloppy, leaving his tips in huge piles of coins and slipping off the barstool every time he laughed.

The way his wrinkled face flushed with lecherous pleasure disgusted Jeonghan, and he wondered how he’d ever put up with such inferiority. He’d been lonely. So lonely that he’d forgotten just how much he was worth – he’d sold himself too cheap.

It was getting very late. Jeonghan looked at the clockface behind the bar and thought of Seungcheol sleeping in his bed. Everything about him was uncertain, full of promise and terror.

‘Am I boring you?’ The old man slurred. ‘Because sluts like you aren’t hard to replace. I could have anyone I want; you hear me. Anyone.’

Jeonghan took the man’s tie in his hand and pulled him up off his seat. It was red and made of silk. Jeonghan had always hated red and everything it stood for.

‘You don’t need to find someone else tonight. Why don’t we go have some fun?’

 

-

 

Wonwoo knew it suited him. The mirror offered up a version of himself that was foreign and alluring. Even before he’d walked back out into the bedroom, he was certain that the leather jacket fit a little too well. The eyeliner made him fierce and unpredictable; he was himself and not himself. Uninhibited and reckless.

Mingyu didn’t speak at first, merely watched as Wonwoo stepped back over the mess of discarded possessions.

‘You look great,’ he offered.

Wonwoo felt as though he’d left a part of himself back in the en suite bathroom, along with his neatly folded clothes and discarded glasses. His eyesight wasn’t quite as good, and neither was his reasoning. The Wonwoo that hated other people, that had no self-esteem, that spent all his time in front of a computer had undergone a transformation. Now he was entirely Mingyu’s creature; his creation.

There wasn’t much space between them. Wonwoo was backed against the wall: nowhere to run.

If he’d wanted to run in the first place.

 

-

 

It felt so damn good when the old man, stumbling into the hotel room, rested his unsteady weight on the king-sized bed. It felt even better when he popped open the complimentary champagne and drank straight from the bottle as Jeonghan knelt between his knees.

The man giggled childishly. Champagne dribbled from his smiling mouth and Jeonghan unbuckled his belt. Then, he slowed his fingers to a deliberate stop.

Steeling himself, he leaned over and kissed him hard on his liquor-stained mouth. The taste was horrible and entirely consuming.

It was barely even reciprocated.

‘You look so sleepy. Why don’t you let me tuck you in?’ Jeonghan spoke sweetly. He eased the drunk man onto the bed and pulled the duvet over his slumped body.

Quickly, Jeonghan set to work rearranging himself, retying the bow on his blouse and running a hand through his tousled hair. The wallet he picked up with deliberate carefulness.

‘You don’t mind if I help myself to a little something, do you?’

Jeonghan filled his fist with crumpled bank notes.

Revenge was a rush of adrenaline and euphoria that made his mind clearer than ever.

 

-

 

A beat of unbearable silence.

Kim Mingyu’s mouth was an inch away from his. And then the distance was closed.

In the end, Wonwoo hadn’t had it in him to make the first awful move – but Mingyu had. An ache of yearning spread through Wonwoo’s body, from his fingers to his toes and he kissed back.

And then he did more than just kiss back.

He swivelled them both around, changing places so that Mingyu was the one pressed up against the wall. He was hungry and he was desperate. Wonwoo’s fingers felt the length and breadth of Mingyu’s body, roaming in places he’d never thought he’d touch.

Mingyu let out a moan.

There was nothing that could stop them now, nothing in the world holding them back.

Wonwoo found his way to the hem of Mingyu’s t-shirt. He pulled it off in one go.

 

-

 

Jeonghan’s hands were shaking as the door of his house closed behind him. He tried to count the bills, add them up so that they made some sort of sense, but it was futile. Everything blazed with an intensity too bright to tune out. The world was alive and so was he.

The feeling of pink – hot, burning pink – flared up around him.

Chapter Text

A gentle tap at Soonyoung’s bedroom door had him dropping his phone on his face. A small gasp escaped his lips as he winced at the bruising pain and hurried to close the app he’d been staring at. Before Seokmin and Seungkwan could come inside, Soonyoung had swiped away Jihoon’s Instagram page. Only the brightly coloured recollection of the most recent photo remained in his mind: Jihoon and Nayeon on a park bench, his arm around her shoulders.

‘Hey, Soon. Have you got a minute for a bro to bro talk?’

Soonyoung put on his best smile – the most congenial of all his toothy grins – and ushered his friends inside. Seokmin nearly tripped over a half-open backpack as he made his way to the edge of Soonyoung’s bed. He only ever cleaned up when he had company, and after years of being together, his two closest friends almost didn’t count as other people. They were extensions of his own being; his heart and his soul.

Soonyoung’s soul was currently making a show of discarding his dirty socks with a look of pure disgust. ‘Ugh. You’re the reason we have lice in this house,’ Seungkwan offered, sweet as always.

The chastising look Seokmin gave the other boy didn’t go unnoticed. Soonyoung was fairly sure they were about to have a serious talk, and he didn’t do serious. Ever.

Seokmin cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice was an octave deeper than normal and full of forced authority. ‘How are you doing, buddy? Are you, uhh… feeling okay?’

Soonyoung sat up on his bed and narrowed his eyes at his friends. He’d had a feeling this was an intervention of some kind – and it was a lot less fun being on the receiving end. The three of them had once tried to corner Seungcheol and talk to him about his obsession with sleeping around. Naturally, it’d ended with Seungcheol lobbing a pillow at his face, but the mock seriousness of it all had been mildly entertaining. Now that he found himself in the hotseat, Soonyoung wished his friends would let him make his poor life decisions in peace.

‘Let’s just cut to the chase. Are you mad at me for spending too much time on TikTok? Because I can stop. I’m not addicted at all, its’s normal to spend five hours on there every day.’

‘Wow that’s unhealthy on so many levels, but no. This is about you and Jihoon,’ Seungkwan was always blunt. He had a knack for facing up to uncomfortable situations that Soonyoung usually admired when it wasn’t aimed at him.

‘I don’t have a problem with Jihoon; you know me, I’m a chill, easy-going kinda dude. I guess he’s a bit put out because of that stupid dare. But he’ll get over it,’ Soonyoung shrugged. If he felt vulnerable, he made sure not to show it.

Seokmin, with his impossibly kind eyes, was determined to tear down each and every one of Soonyoung’s defences. ‘I know that’s not what you really think. We’ve been best buds since we were in diapers, Soon. I can tell when you’re hiding something – even if you don’t know it yourself.’

‘And that’s why we’re here,’ Seungkwan added, firm but lovingly. ‘To tell you what you’re too stupid to realise for yourself: that you’re jealous. And you’re gonna have to do something about it because life isn’t the same when you’re all sad and mopey.

‘I’m what?’

‘Jealous,’ Seokmin clarified. ‘It’s when you wish you had what someone else has got—’

‘I know that, Seok. But who exactly am I jealous of?’

The real question was who wasn’t Soonyoung jealous of; he wished he had Seungcheol’s money, his cockiness and sex appeal; he wished he was a good person like Seokmin; he wished his mind was as steady and reliable as Boo Seungkwan’s. At his core, Soonyoung was fragile and pathetic. He overcompensated with energy and a flightiness that prevented him from ever being even remotely sincere. He was always the joker, they funny guy, and that was a deliberate, calculated decision on Soonyoung’s part.

‘Ugh, I can’t take this anymore. Soonyoung, you’re jealous of Nayeon because you’ve got feelings for Jihoon.’ Seungkwan rubbed his temples, easing back the early signs of a tension headache. Soonyoung would’ve felt sorry for Seungkwan if it weren’t for the heavy, damning weight of realisation that descended upon him in that exact moment.

Oh god. He didn’t do feelings, he never got attached. How did Soonyoung allow someone to worm their way inside his heart and rearrange all the little pieces of himself. Everything led back to Jihoon and he hadn’t even realised it. Soonyoung felt as though he’d just been dealt a bad hand – the worst hand in the history of card games – and lost everything to a luckier opponent. He’d unwittingly given up his measly little heart to Lee Jihoon and Soonyoung wanted nothing better than to snatch it back.

‘Oh boy, I feel sick. Is this what love feels like? Like eating a three-week-old burrito? Fuck, I think I’m gonna vomit up my feelings.’

Out of the corner of his eye, Soonyoung saw his friends exchange a pointed look. ‘Yep, this is pretty much exactly how I expected this would go,’ Seungkwan sighed.

‘What do I have to do now? Propose to Jihoon? But diamond rings are so expensive, and I don’t even know where we would live because it’s sure as hell not gonna be this shithole. Oh crap! He’s with Nayeon now, isn’t he? Am I gonna have to challenge her to a duel? I can’t even fight, this is ridiculous.’

‘He’s spiralling.’ Seokmin said. Soonyoung felt the bed creak and dip and Seungkwan scooted over to him.

‘Here, drink some water. And when you’re done with that, eat this,’ he pulled out a bar of chocolate from his pocket and Soonyoung tried to calm himself down. He resented being bribed with sweet treats like a kid, but it was embarrassingly effective.

‘Let’s be grown-ups about this,’ Seungkwan assumed his most mature, straight-faced expression and corrected his posture. Instinctually, Seokmin and Soonyoung copied him. The long silence that followed was a painful reminder that there wasn’t, in fact, a single “grown-up” braincell between them. It was like a standoff, each boy glancing at the other, hoping that someone would make the first move. Soonyoung wanted to take charge of the situation – it was his romantic crisis, after all – but all his mind could do was scream helplessly into the abyss.

In the end, all he could manage was a little honest desperation.

‘This sucks. Jihoon was so mad when I kissed him, I’m sure he doesn’t like me back. Nayeon’s got so much that I don’t have – she’s smart, pretty, friendly. Plus she has boobs.’ Soonyoung sighed and Seokmin nodded gravely in the interim. ‘Jihoon and I would never work out.’

‘Well, what are some things you really like? I’m sure you’ve got more in common with him than Nayeon does.’

Soonyoung thought for a moment, pulling up a mental list of his favourite things. He counted each item out on his fingers. ‘Let’s see… places that serve breakfast food all day – they’re the shit, compilations of people getting hit in the nuts, animals wearing people clothes and… light beer.’ It only took Soonyoung a moment to register just how stupid his answers were.

‘Jihoon doesn’t like any of those dope things! He likes sudoku puzzles and people that walk fast in public so they don’t hold him up. His favourite drink is black coffee and the best thing in the world to him is spending time alone listening to music.’

Seokmin and Seungkwan exchanged another look, this time more hopeful and ever so slightly amazed. ‘Soon… you’re like a walking Jihoon encyclopaedia. You might not have boobs or like all the same things as him, but you know him better than anyone else. We can do this – we can get you guys together Man, I’m fired up! Romance really gets me going!’

‘I should’ve brought some chocolate for Seokmin too,’ Seungkwan rolled his eyes, but looked just as pumped as the other boy. ‘But he’s on to something here. I think we should have a little party at our places tomorrow – just a few, trusted friends and Jihoon of course – then we can turn up the heat and see if sparks start flying.’ Seungkwan looked like an evil mastermind from a James Bond movie; all that was missing was a white cat on his lap. ‘And maybe I can finally seduce Vern. Two birds, one stone.’

Soonyoung had a feeling it would be more like no birds, many badly aimed stones, but he couldn’t deny that it was a relief to understand his own heart a little better. Tomorrow he’d face Jihoon and do everything in his power not to fuck it up too badly.

Or something like that.

 

-

 

Seungcheol’s week had been painfully disappointing. Sure, Jeonghan keeping his distance had saved him a lot of heartbreak and emotional toil, but Seunghcheol would’ve been lying if he said he didn’t secretly crave every brief, charged interaction they’d shared. He’d remained at Jeonghan’s house for several more days, receiving visits from Chan and Minghao to check on his progress. Joshua brought him homecooked meals – frustratingly delicious – and Jeonghan was otherwise occupied at the neuroscience lab. Every now and then he’d ask Seungcheol how he was, taking great pains to listen to his every word, and then Jeonghan would scamper off and disappear again. It was a strange, aloof kind of friendship – if it could even be considered a friendship at all. Seungcheol had no idea where he stood, but he took some small comfort in Jeonghan’s constant pink attire. It was a reminder that they were linked; that Seungcheol had somehow given him that feeling of beautiful, blushing pinkness.

He’d been home for two days and everything was suddenly a whole lot more difficult. Seungcheol’s ribs hurt when he reached up to the top cupboard where he kept his snacks; daily life was a challenge without Joshua and Jeonghan bringing things to him. And then there was the loneliness. His apartment was comfortable, clean and state of the art – but it all meant nothing now that he had no one to share it with.

Seokmin’s text inviting him to a house party – written in all caps – was an extremely welcome distraction. Perhaps it was a little too soon to be drinking and playing rough, but Seungcheol was desperate for something to do.

And desperate to see Jeonghan again.

By the time he buzzed Jihoon up to his apartment, Seungcheol was almost jumping up and down in excitement. Things had settled down between them remarkably well after the fight. Seungcheol had missed his best friend terribly, and never harboured any bad feelings towards him at all. He knew better than most that sometimes feelings needed to be released – and Seungcheol hardly regretted the series of events that had brought him to into Jeonghan’s house, into his very bed.

‘You’re not looking too shabby this evening,’ he greeted Jihoon. Both of them were wearing their best suits; Seungcheol’s a classy, tight-fitted Tom Ford number and Jihoon’s a more understated grey affair. ‘Are you sure Soonyoung said it was a formal event?’

‘He was very adamant that tonight is gonna be “classy as fuck” and formal attire is a must,’ Jihoon said, exasperated. ‘Wearing suits in that hellhole of a house is so stupid, I’m already cringing.’

‘Oh please, as if anything Soonyoung does has ever stopped you from gazing at him longingly across the room. I know you’re looking forward to this.’

Seungcheol led Jihoon through to the bathroom. Before he could put up a fuss and grumble as he was so prone to doing, Seungcheol positioned him in front of the mirror and dragged a comb through his hair. He wasn’t exactly a practiced stylist, but Seungcheol considered himself something of a metrosexual male; he was a collector of colognes and aftershaves, a connoisseur of grooming products and regular subscriber to GQ. So naturally it irked him when Jihoon showed up with greasy hair, the lingering smell of coffee about his person and a suit that was a little too long in the leg.

Jihoon resisted Seungcheol’s comb as best he could, but it only made him look like a disobedient child having a tempter tantrum. ‘Shut up, you’re no better. In fact, you’re even worse – every time Jeonghan so much as brushes past you, you start salivating. I still don’t understand why you can’t just deal with your sexual frustration elsewhere.’

Seungcheol had tried that and it hadn’t worked. Jeonghan remained a constant presence in the back of his mind, even when he had someone else’s legs wrapped around him. Strangely, the need for casual sex hadn’t entirely gone away with the arrival of Seungcheol’s romantic feelings. He still slept around here and there – although he couldn’t bite back the feeling of betrayal that reared its head after every one-night stand. This was an addiction – a habit – that didn’t have a cure. Or at least, not one that was attainable.

‘I won’t deny that I’m a little excited to see Jeonghan tonight. But man, when it comes to him, I can’t really explain my own feelings. I know it’s totally hopeless and he’ll never reciprocate, but things have changed between us. There’s this chemistry in the air, you know?’

Jihoon looked deep in thought. Seungcheol took advantage of the moment to tuck a pocket square into his friend’s jacket and stealthily wrap a luxury watch around his wrist. He felt like a reverse pickpocket, securing a $25,000 timepiece to Jihoon’s arm, hoping he wouldn’t notice and complain.

‘You might not be totally deluded. That boy is crazy protective of you for some reason. He wouldn’t even let me inside at first, when I came to see you.’

Seungcheol hated the ludicrous feeling of butterflies in his stomach. He didn’t want to get his hopes up. And besides, romantic feelings were still a new and uncomfortable territory for him. Life was so much simpler and safer when it only revolved around sex.

Although Seungcheol’s thoughts about Jeonghan weren’t always entirely pure and innocent.

‘Is it stupid that I’m nervous?’ Seungcheol asked.

‘Yes. Most definitely.’ Jihoon didn’t look as calm and collected as he sounded.

Seungcheol was already buzzing, his heart racing a mile a minute. ‘Ah, fuck it. Let’s take the Tesla tonight. I need all the courage I can get.’

 

-

 

Taking the Tesla was not a good idea. For one thing, it looked faintly ridiculous parked on Soonyoung’s dilapidated street next to Toyotas and the occasional chained up bike. But perhaps more crucially, it only served to make Jihoon and Seungcheol look even more overdressed than they already were.

The door was opened not by their three gracious hosts, but Kim Mingyu who already had a half empty bottle of beer in his hand – probably not his first. A sense of palpable dread and embarrassment shuddered through Jihoon’s body as he took in Mingyu’s jeans and bomber jacket. Instead of greeting them, Mingyu looked over his shoulder and called back to the guests already inside.

‘Check it out! This dude’s got a fuckin super car!’

To make matters worse, Jun made his way to the front door.

‘You two are flexing pretty hard for a house party. If you’re expecting champagne and caviar, you’re going to be extremely disappointed.’

Jihoon wished the ground would swallow him whole. It would be an act of mercy to spare him from Mingyu’s loud obnoxiousness and Jun’s catty remarks. To his left, Seungcheol looked just as humiliated – perhaps even more so, given the fact he normally hated feeling separate or superior because of his wealth.

‘There was clearly some miscommunication here. Soonyoung told me this was a formal party?’

‘Yeah, he seems to think so,’ Jun rolled his eyes. ‘I’m pretty sure you were the only person he remembered to tell. If it’s any consolation, the three idiots are dressed “formally” too – and I use that term loosely.’

Jihoon and Seungcheol must have looked extra pathetic, as Jun decided to take pity on them and invite them both inside with minimal teasing. Mingyu had bounded off somewhere spilling beer on the already disgusting carpet as he went, leaving Jun to usher them into the living room where everyone else was. Everyone else being, thus far, only Vernon and Lee Chan. The lights had been dimmed and a small LED disco ball was rotating, casting circles of rainbow around the room. Jihoon noticed a table of snacks. An abandoned iPhone was linked up to a speaker, playing tacky party anthems from the early noughties.

‘Where’s everyone else?’ Jihoon asked after greeting the other two boys. Thankfully, they’d kept their comments to a minimum after seeing Jihoon’s borrowed Rolex.

‘They’re having a house meeting in the kitchen. Super secret stuff. I went in there a few minutes ago looking for some artichoke dip and Seungkwan threw a shoe at me.’ Vernon looked mildly perturbed, but Jihoon had a hard time feeling sorry for him. He was wearing a flannel shirt, for god’s sake – supremely comfortable and not at all humiliating.

‘Minghao’s got a night shift at the hospital so he couldn’t make it, but Jeonghannie and Josh should be getting here soon,’ Chan smiled, walking back over with beers for Jihoon and Seungcheol. Jihoon decided he was a good kid, not at all like his meddlesome friend who was still covertly chuckling at Jihoon’s pocket square.

‘Wonwoo’s here, too. He went to use the bathroom, but guys, something about him seems different—’ Vernon was cut off by the sound of someone humming. Speak of the devil, Jeon Wonwoo himself strode into the living room. He seemed confident and relaxed. Not at all like himself.

‘Are you wearing eyeliner?’ Seungcheol asked.

Wonwoo turned sheepish, as though he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, and shrugged in response. Jihoon took a swig of his beer. Something most definitely wasn’t right.

Finally, after a few more minutes of small talk, the evening’s hosts decided to make their grand entrance. With some awkwardness and a faux sense of grandeur, they walked into the room with loud, overly-formal greetings of “good evening”. For the second time that night, Jihoon wished the ground would swallow him up – and he had a feeling I wouldn’t be the last. Soonyoung was suited up too, in the same rented outfit he’d worn to the fight. Jihoon couldn’t even imagine how bad the late fee was if he still hadn’t returned it. Seungkwan had on a bow tie, of all things, and Seokmin had opted for a t-shirt with the design of a suit instead of the real deal. All in all, they looked about as ridiculous as Jihoon feared they would.

Soonyoung stepped gingerly towards Jihoon. ‘Nice night, eh? Are you enjoying yourself? Do you want anything to eat? Another drink? A breath mint maybe?’ Before Jihoon could get a word in, he was edged backwards towards a sofa. ‘Please, sit down. Make yourself comfortable.’

He didn’t feel very comfortable with Soonyoung pressed up against him practically breathing down his neck. Soonyoung was acting strange – but that was nothing new. Jihoon just wished his friend was capable of reading the atmosphere. This was the closest they’d been in days and Jihoon was hyperaware of every part of Soonyoung; he was incredibly present and painfully real.

‘So,’ Soonyoung said, folding one leg over the other as he sat on the couch, ‘tell me about your day. Spare no detail, I want to hear everything.’

And he really did look like he meant it, too. Soonyoung’s eyes were positively twinkling. If he had a tail, it would’ve been wagging side to side with anticipation.

‘This morning I did the—’

‘—crossword in the newspaper!’ Soonyoung interrupted him, correctly finishing the sentence. He cleared his throat and looked away from Jihoon. ‘Sorry, carry on.’

‘Yes, I did the crossword. And then I went to the studio on campus and recorded a drum solo.’

‘Ah, of course. I know how much you love drumming. I, too, am a fan of percussion. It’s so great when you hit the drums with those sticks, and they make that big booming noise. That’s some real good shit, right there.’

Soonyoung leaned in. Jihoon could smell pizza on his breath – the remnants of which had made it onto the collar of his white shirt. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering why on earth he’d developed a crush on someone so unbelievably stupid. Soonyoung was obtuse as well; he must have been, to talk with such sudden familiarity and disregard all of the tension that had amassed between them.

‘We have so much in common, don’t we? You like drumming, I like drumming – our chemistry is insane!’ Soonyoung added.

‘Uh huh, sure,’ Jihoon said, scooting further away from his friend. He didn’t mean to be hurtful, it was just getting too difficult to look at Soonyoung’s lips without remembering how they felt colliding with his own. Noticing the momentary look of disappointment on Soonyoung’s face, Jihoon tried to quickly rekindle the conversation.

‘Tonight should be fun, thanks for inviting me.’ He didn’t mention the dress code fiasco and the general uncomfortableness of his night so far.

Soonyoung perked up immediately.

‘It most definitely will be fun. Seok, Seungkwanie and I have a few things up our sleeves, just you wait and see.’ He looked determined and Jihoon didn’t like it one bit. When Kwon Soonyoung planned something, it almost involved mischief, tricks and a good deal of childishness. Just for once, could Jihoon have a nice, normal night?

‘Oh! You finished your beer! I’ll get you a new one right away. I’ve kept them in the fridge so they’re ice cold – just for you.’ Soonyoung skipped away with a parting wink.

Jihoon was left feeling a lot like a disgruntled nineteen-fifties salaryman, making his poor stay-at-home wife fulfil his every whim. Only he’d never asked for anything. And Soonyoung had never before been so attentive, so aggressively interested in every part of his life. It was odd, but not entirely unwelcome.

Jihoon loosened his tie; it was going to be a long, confusing night.

 

-

 

The night was getting under way. As the alcohol flowed and beers were uncapped, the two friendship groups that had previously been at odds now began to coalesce. Mingyu was a boisterous force to be reckoned with and so was Lee Chan; his ability to shotgun a can in record time earning him the admiration of Seokmin and Soonyoung. Seungkwan was deep in conversation with Vernon, batting his eyelashes like a flirtatious schoolgirl whilst he talked about kickflips and skate tricks. Even Jihoon seemed like he was enjoying himself, even if he wouldn’t admit it to anyone. The short boy was getting tipsy with Seokmin and Jun, bonding in a way Seungcheol never would have anticipated.

But Jeonghan still hadn’t shown up. Seungcheol had a feeling he was always the type to be fashionably late, but this was pushing it. Feeling antsy and dejected, Seungcheol had found himself a nice, quiet corner to mope in – right behind the neon “penis” sign Soonyoung had made – and unlocked his phone. For some reason, he’d been too scared to look at the photo he took of Jeonghan that night under the starless sky. Seungcheol had a feeling he’d only be disappointed. It was probably blurry, unfocused, grainy from the darkness.

But he felt like he needed to see Jeonghan, even if the picture didn’t live up to the real deal.

Unbelievably, it took Seungcheol’s breath away.

Jeonghan was smiling. It was a dazzling, toothy smile; his nose was red from the cold and scrunched up a little in glee. Seungcheol almost teared up looking at it. All he had was this picture, this moment that came and went with such terrible swiftness that it all seemed to him now as distant as a dream. It made him feel wonderful and terrible all at once; Jeonghan had looked at him with pure happiness, had smiled and laughed and let himself be photographed by Seungcheol; but all that remained of that fleeting moment was a single picture on a phone screen.

Seungcheol wanted to race home and print it out, maybe frame it and hang the photograph above his bed.

But that would’ve been extremely pathetic. Surely he wasn’t that desperate?

When the doorbell rang, Seungcheol pocketed his phone and dashed out to the hallway. He had just about enough self-restraint not to open the front door himself, but couldn’t resist waiting behind Seungkwan as he turned the handle. Seungcheol deliberately avoided the eyeroll his friend sent his way when he swung the door open to reveal Joshua and Jeonghan. Seungcheol’s heart did a somersault and he felt a lump in his throat. He hardly managed to return their greetings because Jeonghan – in a turn of events that Seungcheol was entirely unprepared for – walked inside wearing the parka he’d lent him. Was this some kind of power move? Did it mean anything? Was Jeonghan toying with him— or worse, flirting with him?’

Jeonghan caught him staring.

‘I’m not returning this, if that’s what you think. It’s grown on me – and besides, you’ve got all the money in the world. You can replace it in a heartbeat.’

‘It looks better on you anyway.’ Seungcheol didn’t hadn’t meant to let that thought slip out unfiltered. His voice was choked and uncertain; not at all like his usual, cocky self. Jeonghan had completely destroyed every last confident bone in his body.

Seungkwan looked between the two of them with condescending bewilderment. Seungcheol thought it was a bit rich for him to judge their awkward exchange, given the way he’d clung to Vernon for the last hour, but he kept that thought to himself.

‘You can hang your coats up on the bannister. Come inside as soon as you’re done: then the real fun can begin.’ Seungkwan left with a mysterious smirk. Seungcheol was too busy being charmed by Jeonghan to pay any notice to the other boy’s foreboding remarks.

Seungcheol had thought he’d already reached breaking point after seeing Jeonghan in his jacket— oh boy, was he wrong. It was when the coat came off that his really meltdown started. Jeonghan was dressed to kill. Seungcheol’s malfunctioning brain took in blue jeans covered in very large, very revealing rips, a retro-looking pink crop top with the word “Angel” spelled out in little metal studs, and a pink choker that looked more like a collar, a silver heart at its centre. Seungcheol’s face burned. When the fuck had he gotten so bashful?

He was no stranger to nudity, to lingerie, to the tight leather garb favoured by the worst kinds of fetishists. Yet somehow, Jeonghan’s lean stomach and pink eyeshadow were enough to drive him crazy.

‘Are you okay there, Seungcheol? You look a little feverish.’ It was Joshua – of course it was Joshua – that broke his reverie. His own black turtleneck and straight legged trousers provided a comical contrast to Jeonghan’s pastel thot aesthetic.

‘Shut up. I’m fine,’ he grumbled, painfully aware that he’d been watching them both with an open mouth. He turned his attention to Jeonghan, trying for a more confident voice this time. ‘You look nice.’

‘Just “nice”?’ Jeonghan raised an eyebrow. His eyes were dark and inviting – just dangerous enough to send Seungcheol’s heart racing.

‘No, no! Definitely more than nice. You look good. You look— hot.’ Everything Seungcheol said felt wrong. If this was a test, he was most certainly failing it.

Jeonghan gave no visible indication of whether or not Seungcheol’s incoherent babbling had pleased him or not. Instead, he raised an eyebrow and walked past him into the living room, Josh trailing along behind. When Seungcheol finally managed to calm himself down and join them, he found the entire party sitting on the floor in a large circle.

‘What is this?’ He asked. Seungcheol couldn’t figure out why exactly he’d been required to show up in a suit, only to find himself creasing his trousers on Soonyoung’s un-vacuumed carpet. Jihoon tapped the empty space on the floor next to him and whispered in Seungcheol’s ear as he sat down; ‘These idiots have something planned. I guarantee you it won’t end well.’

Seungcheol didn’t need jihoon’s bleak premonition to know that the night wasn’t likely to go in his favour. It wasn’t just excitement, but fear that made his shoulders tense up and his eyes wander helplessly in Jeonghan’s direction. Seungcheol’s tormentor had helped himself to the makeshift snack bar; Jeonghan had grabbed a paper plate and piled it high with strawberries and grapes. Probably a wise choice, given that everything else had come from a can or a packet and was probably a good few months out of date. Unfortunately for Seungcheol – who was sat opposite Jeonghan in the circle – that meant watching the other boy wrap his mouth around the large, red strawberries and lick up excess juice off his pink lips. He remembered how Jeonghan had told him about his oral fixation – about how he relished the feeling of his mouth being filled. Seungcheol was turned on and incredibly frustrated.

Jeonghan looked like trouble, with his bedroom eyes and flushed cheeks. Seungcheol was terrified of his intentions, just as much as he welcomed them. He’d longed for Jeonghan, lusted after his lithe body and his pretty mouth, but things were more complicated now. He didn’t just want the seductive boy in pink; Seungcheol wanted the boy in the photograph, the one with the nose that scrunched up when he smiled. He knew he’d likely never have both, but that didn’t stop him relishing in the masochistic pleasure of Jeonghan eating strawberries and looking at him like he wanted to remove every last piece of his clothing.

Seungcheol realised he’d adopted his own dark, flirtatious stare. He’d furrowed his eyebrows and watched Jeonghan like a predator in the wild, marking out its prey moments before darting with animal quickness into a frenzied chase. Tooth would collide with flesh, bodies would wrestle and tussle for dominance in a violent, satiating cacophony of touch.

This was ridiculous. He needed to focus.

‘Tonight, we’re going to take part in two age-old traditions – two iconic rites of passage if you will. First up in our journey of self-discovery and friendship is…’ Next to Seungkwan, Seokmin made a drumroll on his legs. ‘… Never have I ever!’

A communal groan immediately followed Seungkwan’s dramatic announcement.

‘We’re grad students,’ was all Jihoon could manage before he put his head in his hands. ‘Grad students…’

‘I don’t wanna,’ Vernon whined. ‘Can’t we play beer pong instead?’

‘Let’s not be too hasty here.’ Surprisingly, it was Joshua who piped up. Seungcheol was extremely relieved to see that he hadn’t brought any note taking materials with him. ‘Juvenile games like this are an excellent way of encouraging bonding. Things have been rocky between our two groups – maybe this could ease the tension.’

‘Yeah! What he said!’ Mingyu raised his beer bottle, creating yet another spillage – this time on Jun’s unsuspecting shoulder.

‘So it’s decided,’ Soonyoung rubbed his hands together eagerly. ‘We’ll play never have I ever – for the time being, anyway.’

Seungcheol wondered what else they had up their sleeves. He hoped to god he wouldn’t find himself trapped in a closet playing seven minutes in heaven with Wen Junhui. He shuddered at the thought.

‘I’ll go first!’ Seokmin said excitedly. Seungcheol raised his hands, matching everyone else. ‘Never have I ever kissed a girl!’

He immediately lowered a finger – as did almost everyone else. Seokmin looked extremely happy for someone that had just openly admitted he never got any action. Wonwoo – perennially single and resolutely uninterested in women – also kept his ten fingers intact. Everyone turned their attention to Jeonghan, the third player unaffected by Seokmin’s power play.

‘What?’ He shrugged. ‘I always knew I was gay.’

It shouldn’t have been surprising to Seungcheol, but he didn’t really know much about Jeonghan. Not on an intimate level. Perhaps Seungkwan had been on to something, after all.

With the exception of Seokmin, Wonwoo and Jeonghan, everyone in the room took a sip of their drinks. With the amount of ill-advised (and occasionally perverse) things Seungcheol had done in his twenty-four years, he’d almost certainly be blackout drunk by the end of the night. This was not a game he could win.

Things went from bad to worse when his friends had their turns, each of them picking more and more specific, incriminating things that – unfortunately – Seungcheol had done;

‘Never have I ever had my dick sucked in a lecture hall.’

‘Never have I ever fucked someone’s mom.’

‘Never have I ever fucked Soonyoung’s mom.’

Seungcheol was beginning to look like a bit of a man whore – okay, he most definitely was a man whore, but he didn’t necessarily want Jeonghan knowing every single one of his dirty little secrets. Surprisingly, the blonde boy seemed serenely calm and marginally entertained by it all. Soonyoung was the only person (rightfully) upset by Seungcheol’s filthy escapades.

When it was finally his turn, Seungcheol badly wanted revenge. If there was any mercy left in his body, the alcohol from every single failed round made sure it was pushed aside in favour of pettiness. It only remained to choose a victim. Jihoon, god bless him, was a real ride or die and hadn’t thrown him under the bus: he was safe. Soonyoung had already suffered enough, discovering that his divorcee mother wasn’t quite as lonely as she’d made out. It had to be Vernon – it was his fault for bringing it up in the first place.

‘Never have I ever had a wet dream about Boo Seungkwan.’

At first no one moved a muscle, but slowly and surely Vernon lowered a reluctant finger. Perhaps it was the inner high schoolers in them that stopped them from lying, holding things back. There was a sacredness to the game, after all; a sense of profound gravity that accompanied each confession. Nothing left the circle, and everything was fair game.

Vernon noticed everyone was staring him down, chief among them Seungkwan himself.

‘Uh, yeah… that happened. I had a wet dream about Seungkwan.’

‘Did you enjoy it?’ Jeonghan asked. Seungcheol had learnt he was a bit of a gossip that took great relish in the sharing of juicy secrets and shocking confessions.

‘I will neither confirm nor deny that.’

The game continued with Jeonghan’s friendship group taking similar shots at each other. Seungcheol was surprised just how much he was learning about the people he’d been previously so mistrustful of. Lee Chan had pantsed his high school homeroom teacher; Mingyu once peed his pants in a supermarket; and Jun had turned down not one but two proposals of marriage.

Seungcheol needed more details, but the game was ruthlessly quick.

Whether it was out or respect or fear, no one attempted to expose Jeonghan’s private life. Seungcheol would’ve been disappointed by this as the game drew nearer to its conclusion, but he had a persistent feeling that this was only the beginning of a long and eventful night.

‘There’s no point in playing anymore,’ Jun grumbled. ‘It’s obvious who’s gonna win! This guy is fucking boring!’ He pointed to Wonwoo who miraculously still had all ten fingers up. ‘I’ve never seen someone so vanilla. He’s the polar opposite of Choi stick-my-dick-in-everything-that-moves Seungcheol.’

Seungcheol and his friends were entirely unsurprised by this outcome – and he could hardly raise an eyebrow at Jun’s comment about himself when it was so obviously accurate. Wonwoo, however, usually took pride in his bookishness, his love of order and routine. Not tonight though. Tonight he avoided eye contact and bit his lip as if he were holding himself back.

One look at Jihoon had Seungcheol even more concerned about this change in their mutual friend. Years of proximity had granted Seungcheol the ability to read his best friend’s emotions – no easy task considering Jihoon’s penchant for compressing his feelings and burying them deep inside – and tonight, he was certain Jihoon knew something about Wonwoo that he didn’t want to admit.

There was no chance of getting to the bottom of it, though. Not when the three hosts had a packed itinerary of middle-school party games.

‘Jun’s right,’ Soonyoung piped up. He seemed restless, as though he hadn’t gotten what he wanted out of the night so far. ‘Wonwoo’s a nerd, of course he’s gonna win this game. Better to play a game with no winners or losers, right? A game like truth or dare.’

This time the room was tipsy enough to agree wholeheartedly with the change of events. Seungcheol couldn’t help looking forward to anything that might throw him and Jeonghan together.

‘Let’s get right into it, shall we?’ Seungkwan wasted no time. It was almost as if the three housemates had some kind of agenda. ‘Seungcheol, truth or dare?’

Unprepared for the attention to be so suddenly thrown on him, Seungcheol chickened out. ‘Truth.’

Seungkwan almost didn’t need to think about his question. It always came back to sex; it was what had powered the evening so far, spurring them all on with its tempting elusiveness.

‘We all know you’re up for anything, but what are your actual kinks? What gets you going? Spill the tea and spare no details.’

It was funny. No one had ever asked Seungcheol something like that before. People cared about the outrageous details of impromptu hook-ups, the salacious and daring stories of public sex; not once had Seungcheol ever been asked what he enjoyed. Giving himself a moment to consider the question and taking generous gulp of his almost empty beer, he finally piped up.

‘It’s probably kinda boring, but I like sexy underwear a lot. And uh— spanking my partners. With their consent, of course.’

‘You’re a real-life Christian Grey,’ Jun added, drunk. ‘I’m not kidding when I say I’m down to fuck. My ass is yours.’ Too well acquainted with this kind of dirty talk to feel embarrassed, Seungcheol laughed good-naturedly and felt a weight lift off his chest. It’d felt good to talk about himself in a meaningful, personal way. Seungcheol smiled openly and caught Jeonghan averting his eyes – how long had he been staring at him? And what did his flushed cheeks mean?

As always, Seungcheol had all the questions and none of the answers.

The game carried on. ‘Jihoon, truth or dare?’

It was hardly even a question: Jihoon picked truth almost immediately.

‘What the hell is going on between you and Nayeon?’

Jihoon groaned. ‘I was waiting for that question. Honestly? I have no fucking idea. She’s cool and nice and all, but sometimes I get scared when I’m around her; like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m way out of my depth. Then I start to wish I was with someone I could be comfortable around. You get me?’

‘Yes.’ Soonyoung spoke up. ‘I know exactly what you mean. I could only ever see myself with someone who really vibes with me. Someone I’ve known for years…’ Seokmin was gazing at his friend, eyes wide and encouraging, but he trailed off and let his shoulders sink under the weight of words unsaid.

Jihoon was staring at Soonyoung. Seungcheol was so sick of missed opportunities and unrequited feelings; he wanted Jihoon to be happy. And if he couldn’t quite manage happiness, then contentment would do. The only person in the world that was capable of bringing a little peace into Jihoon’s life was Kwon Soonyoung.

The night went on, unrelenting with its onslaught of drunken excitement. Beer always made Seungcheol drowsy; powerless to hold back the dizzying pull of sleepiness, he found himself zoning out whilst his circle of friends volleyed secrets and dares back and forth. Seungcheol didn’t care that much about Wonwoo revealing his dick size, or Mingyu drinking a bottle of ranch.

He did care, however, when Jun posed the fateful question, ‘Jeonghan, truth or dare.’

Seungcheol grabbed his empty bottle.

‘Dare.’

The word was teasing and pink on his tongue. How could a word sound pink? Seungcheol didn’t know, but he understood that it had something to do with the way Jeonghan said it.

‘I dare you to make out,’ Jun began, and Seungcheol felt his heart almost stop, ‘with Joshua.’

He wanted to throw his bottle right at Jun’s head. It was supposed to be him! Not Joshua Hong, with all his gothic charisma. The boy in question had at first seemed disinterested, but after locking eyes with a very helpless looking Seungcheol, he smirked and turned to Jeonghan.

Then he did the unthinkable. He put his hand in Jeonghan’s beautiful hair and pulled him into a deep, passionate kiss.

It had a kind of possessive hunger to it that Seungcheol knew was deliberate and designed to shatter to his already fragile ego. Jeonghan moaned a little in surprise but leaned into it.

They were using tongue.

Seungcheol was faint with anger; confused in his drunken state. But there was something else there, rearing its head – the old, familiar sensation of desire that he’d felt so many times before in dingy clubs and the backseats of cabs. Joshua, who he’d despised for so long, had his mouth all over Jeonghan and Seungcheol – god help him – was enjoying it. Hate so often morphed into lust, and Seungcheol found himself wanting to do things he’d never dreamed of.

When they finally broke away, he’d so successfully buried the shameful thought that Seungcheol was almost convinced it’d never crossed his mind in the first place.

‘Wow,’ Mingyu said, filling the stunned silence, ‘right in front of Seungcheol’s salad.’

‘Er— well seeing as Joshua completed that dare rather than Jeonghan, maybe he should be the one to choose the next player.’ Seungkwan tried to regain some sense of order amidst the chaos.

‘Soonyoung, truth or dare?’ Joshua had been ready. Seungcheol wondered what twisted scheme he had in mind this time. He hoped it would at least distract him from the uncouth thoughts that swarmed in his head.

‘Dare, obviously.’

‘I dare you to give Jihoon a lap dance for thirty seconds.’

Seungcheol could feel his friend tense up and panic; Jihoon was stiff with anxiety, and understandably so. The last time someone had dared Soonyoung to do something, it had ended with Jihoon run away and ghosting everyone for a good few days. But this felt different. Soonyoung looked a little flustered too – as though it mattered to him in a way it hadn’t before.

‘Can I at least have some music?’ He asked, standing up and pretending to do some overexaggerated warm up exercises. In the span of seconds, Soonyoung had adopted his usual happy-go-lucky personality. Jun darted over to the speakers and queued up a song whilst someone procured a plastic lawn chair for Jihoon. Seungcheol knew from experience that something sturdier would’ve been a lot more adequate to the task, but he seriously doubted Soonyoung owned a real dining room chair. He hoped for Jihoon’s sake it wouldn’t break mid-performance.

Seungcheol locked eyes with his friend. Jihoon was non-verbally screaming for help. All he could offer him in consolation was a sturdy pat on the back before Jun hit play.

Of course, it was the most cringeworthy song imaginable: ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine. Seungcheol had a feeling he’d heard it in Magic Mike – somehow, he doubted Soonyoung could pull it off quite as well as Channing Tatum.

Seungcheol thought wrong.

First of all, Soonyoung slowly removed his jacket and dropped to the floor between Jihoon’s legs, the position so suggestive Seungcheol felt like a voyeur watching something he shouldn’t. Jihoon stared down at Soonyoung as he slowly undid his top buttons. Then, when his shirt was half open, he got up and positioned himself on Jihoon’s lap to the sound of cheers and wolf whistles. Seungcheol couldn’t help chuckling himself; he imagined his friend was probably having the time of his life, even if he wouldn’t admit it. Soonyoung started grinding his hips and for a split second, Jihoon lifted his arms as though he were about to give in and grab the other boy by the waist before holding himself back.

Thankfully, Jun called time as soon as Soonyoung’s hands started to unbuckle his belt. Unlike Jihoon, Seungcheol had no desire of seeing Soonyoung in his underwear.

The room was filled with laughter and Seungcheol noticed Seokmin give a discreet high five to Soonyoung. Everyone seemed happy except for Jihoon who was beet red and visibly sweating.

‘Can we please stop this game now?’

 

-

 

The door slammed shut behind him. He’d made it. Each risky second was as euphoric as it was excruciating, and Wonwoo didn’t know how much longer he could keep face. He could have been asked to say anything, to do anything and there wasn’t an inch of restraint in his body.

Wonwoo had tasted something dark and delicious, and now he wasn’t the same.

He sat down on the side of the bath and wrapped a hand around his wrist. Wonwoo’s pulse – that beat of stuttering life – reminded him gently that he was alive. Sometimes he was convinced he’d wandered into a dream so beautifully deep he’d never find his way out again.

A hand on the doorknob.

‘Wait—’ he said, feeling strangely vulnerable and ashamed.

But the other person was already inside, and the other person was Mingyu – vibrant, short of breath and incredibly drunk. Wonwoo could smell his cologne; that rich, masculine scent that reminded him of bitter citrus. It was like a pavlovian response. He only had to smell Mingyu to know he wanted him.

And Mingyu wanted him too.

He pulled Wonwoo up off the bath and placed fierce kisses on his neck, whispering ‘we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t’ in between each one like a form of desperate punctuation.

Wonwoo didn’t hold back.

We should, we should, he thought as he brought a hand to Mingyu’s hair. It was always styled so perfectly, always thick with gel or hairspray. Wonwoo took great pleasure in ruining it. After their trysts, when they lay naked side by side, he made a point of taking in the sheen of sweat on Mingyu’s golden skin, the way his hair fell down over his eyes and stuck up at the back. It was Wonwoo’s way of marking him as his own. Mingyu had forbidden him from leaving any love bites, and it was only in moments like those that the guilt set in – it was only then that he’d thought of the man he shared Kim Mingyu with.

But he didn’t think about him now; not when Mingyu was reaching a hand down his pants and cupping him there. Wonwoo sighed, his voice low and gruff as Mingyu wrapped a hand around his dick.

This was how it usually went. They’d start out cautious, taking their time and holding back as best they could. But with each lingering touch and passionate kiss, Wonwoo abandoned his caution and let himself be consumed by desire.

Minutes ago, he’d been scared and alone, ready to go home and hide away from the world. Now he was calculating how long they’d take to fuck, hoping that Mingyu had brought condoms with him. Wonwoo still hadn’t got any of his own; Mingyu had been his first, the only man he trusted enough to guide him from innocence to experience.

‘Ah!’ Mingyu winced into their kiss. Without thinking Wonwoo had bitten down on his bottom lip and now he tasted blood. Unsure whether he ought to feel apologetic or ashamed at his fierceness, he pulled away. But Mingyu only grunted in response, pulling Wonwoo in even harder, kissing him with even more reckless abandon than before.

This was their dynamic, and it had surprised even him at first. Mingyu had been such an overwhelming presence, so dominating both physically and socially that Wonwoo diminished beneath him. But when the pent-up tension had finally been released, Wonwoo found himself taking control. He’d thought Mingyu would’ve been against it, but it only made the other boy more eager; sloppier and more desperate than before. Later, he’d confessed to Wonwoo that he’d been his first. Minghao never went inside him; never dominated him and unravelled him until he was a mess of moans and whimpers.

Wonwoo was thinking of this when the door opened and his world shattered.

It could have been anyone standing in the open doorway, looking at the two of them caught in a guilty embrace. Wonwoo supposed he was thankful that at least it was Joshua Hong. The black-haired boy didn’t look surprised at all – instead he was smug, and maybe a little excited too.

‘Josh, please—’ Mingyu said. ‘Try to understand—’

‘I do understand, Mingyu. I understand perfectly well.’

Wonwoo realised in that moment that he was right; Joshua had known everything they’d done and everything they were about to do. He’d been observing, biding his time. Perhaps waiting for a confirmation of what he was already so certain of.

He wanted to say something to Joshua. Something that could secure his silence and maintain the illusion of hope for just a little longer. Wonwoo didn’t want the spell to end. He felt like Cinderella dancing night after night with Prince Charming, praying that he wouldn’t wake up in tatters, his greatest and only love nothing more than a glamour.

But Joshua backed away with a polite smile and retreated into the darkness of the hallway, himself no more than a passing shadow cast in black.

‘Have a good night, you two.’

And he closed the door on Wonwoo’s little world, leaving him alone with the gravity of what he had done.

 

-

 

It was funny how life repeated itself. Seungcheol, feeling too keenly the effects of alcohol in his veins, had stepped out into the garden for some much-needed air. It was as neat as it always had been, only now it was arranged for the unforgiving bite of early winter frost. Seungkwan had covered small fruit trees, no bigger than saplings, with burlap to protect their infant branches from the cold. It was careful and tender; not at all like it had been all those weeks ago. Back then the garden had a tantalising warmth to it that had spurred Seungcheol on, made him that much bolder. He remembered the tealights with their small orange flames – where were they now?

Everything was cold and then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Arms snaked around Seugcheol’s waist, and he thought for a moment Jun had been more serious about hooking up than he thought. But even before turning back, Seungcheol knew exactly who was holding him; whose breath was sweet and soft on the back of his neck.

The proximity was almost too much. Seungcheol was filled with questions and filled with longing.

‘Jeonghan?’ He said, low and quiet, more a statement than a question really.

In response, Jeonghan hummed to himself. It was practically a purr. Seungcheol thought he must have been drunk to be so openly affectionate, but he didn’t recall seeing him pick up a single beer. No. He’d been satisfied enough with the strawberries.

When he turned his head back, Seungcheol could still smell them on his breath. It was the taste of intoxicating summer, so at odds with the stark coldness of the garden.

‘Last time we were here you told me I should find new “friends” – ones that could satisfy me better,’ Jeonghan said, his arms still tight around Seungcheol. He remembered that conversation. At the time, the idea of Jeonghan’s sugar daddies had mildly turned him on. Now it was a source of never-ending concern.

‘Well,’ he continued, ‘I think I’m finally through with boring old men. I took my revenge, too; helped myself to a little extra cash when one of the poor guys was sleeping. He just couldn’t hold his liquor.’

‘Jeonghan!’ Seungcheol raised his voice, scandalised at the other boy’s open confession of theft, but was quickly silenced with a finger to his lips.

‘Quiet, Cheollie. Or do you want to cause a scene?’ When Seungcheol didn’t reply, Jeonghan grinned smugly. ‘That’s what I thought. Now, where was I? Oh yes, I was just about to tell you that I’ve had a change of heart.’

Seungcheol furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. He could hardly believe what he was hearing.

‘I’ve been a bit lonely since cutting off all my “friends”, Cheollie. I think I might need you, after all.’ Jeonghan sighed in exasperation at Seungcheol’s resolute inability to form a coherent sentence. ‘Don’t make me regret this, you big idiot.’

Jeonghan took Seungcheol’s face in his hands and kissed him.

And in that moment, Seungcheol felt as though he knew what heaven tasted like; it was the rich tang of strawberry on Jeonghan’s lips. If heaven was a feeling, it was Jeonghan’s waist, bare beneath his crop top, in Seungcheol’s hands.

He tried to slow it down, to savour it tenderly, but Jeonghan’s intentions were far less pure. The kiss was a message; an indication of willingness to be touched all over, to be fucked. Seungcheol thought about pulling away. How could he give up his body to Jeonghan when all he really wanted was to give him his heart?

As it turned out, he could give it very easily. Seungcheol was powerless: he always had been when it came to Jeonghan. Even though he cared for him and wanted to adore him in every possible way, Seungcheol was just masochistic enough to allow himself to be used. And perhaps, in a way, he was using Jeonghan too.

He couldn’t deny he wanted to fuck him.

Badly

In the end it was Jeonghan that pulled away first, a giddy laugh escaping his lips as he looked at Seungcheol.

‘Come to my place tomorrow at 7pm. Josh will be out for a few hours.’ He bit his lip as he walked away, turning back one last time to give Seungcheol a seductive look. ‘Oh, and don’t be late.’

In the quiet of the garden, Seungcheol could feel his heart pounding with as much sorrow as elation. A sense of profound understanding struck him as he looked over at a bed of winter roses, petals soft with white frost;

He was in love with Yoon Jeonghan.

Chapter Text

Things were easier now. Jeonghan glanced at the time on his new phone – the one he’d bought himself and was free to use as he pleased. It wasn’t quite as flashy as the one he’d been gifted several months ago, but it was gloriously uncomplicated and unshakably his.

Fifteen minutes to seven.

Things were easier now in a way that Jeonghan couldn’t quite fathom. He understood that happiness was for children – the unattainable goal of fools that hoped for perfection and never settled for mere contentment – but he felt the magnetic pull of joy in his palpitating heart, nonetheless. This was freedom in the truest sense; this was pinkness unbridled and fully pigmented, lain out before him and tied up in a ribbon. Not quite understanding why, Jeonghan felt as though he wanted to tear something apart with his bare hands; he wanted to take the things he hungered for and glut on them, licking clean the bones of life.

And then there was the more familiar need for fullness. Jeonghan had sucked two lollipops down to their sticks and still wanted more. But perhaps he also wanted to be filled in a different way – crammed full to the brim with new sensations and dangerous, spontaneous desires.

Those desires had taken the form of Choi Seungcheol. At first, Jeonghan had chastised himself for wanting him; he knew the intricacies and follies of his own brain well enough to realise that he found Seungcheol so alluring precisely because he shouldn’t. He’d been wrong about him, of course, but that didn’t change the fact that Seungcheol was ultimately unnecessary – surplus to Jeonghan’s needs. On the hill that night, when Seungcheol had found him, Jeonghan couldn’t quite put a finger on why he pretended to be drunker than he was. Under the mask of intoxication, he’d tricked himself into a loophole and, miraculously, he found he could say aloud all the wrong, lewd things he thought he never could. Jeonghan could wipe the tears from Seungcheol’s face and tell him he wasn’t the bad man he thought he was.

Stupidly, Jeonghan had shown up to the fight two nights later and allowed himself to be embroiled deeper in the tangled web of Seungcheol’s life. He’d let temptation in and, being just as hopelessly human as the next man, was powerless to resist its demands. Like a snake coiled around his heart, Jeonghan felt a constricting need for Seungcheol that he couldn’t shake.

So he’d decided to satisfy it.

All it took was to cover himself in baby pink and glittery eyeshadow and whisper in the other man’s ear. Jeonghan had felt his tongue move silver as he spoke his deepest, most personal cravings into the night. In fact, that whole evening had felt silver and pink; a cruel mix of exuberant affection and single-minded calculation.

Jeonghan was still calculating and planning now, as the time on his phone lit up at just five minutes to seven. He was sat on his bed in the all-consuming silence of an empty house. Everything was exactly as he wanted it; small candles cast the room in flickering shade, like the shadows of inconstant lovers; small tokens of pinkness were laid out on the dresser as though it were a shrine to some impossible god of kitsch; and most crucially, a hanger from his closet had been carefully removed and laid out in the bathroom. It awaited him there and Jeonghan fixated on it. Like a mantra, he replayed Seungcheol’s words from the night before – his confession that hadn’t gone unnoticed.

And then, like an answered prayer, the doorbell rang.

 

-

‘Oh, champagne,’ Jeonghan said, remarking the bottle in Seungcheol’s hand. His cheeks were red and his voice a little breathy; all signs that Seungcheol was about to get exactly what he wanted and had never quite prepared for. Jeonghan’s body and all its intricacies were waiting to be explored and Seungcheol found himself walking inside like a man possessed.

This wasn’t sex as he knew it; this wasn’t a mechanical transaction that would likely end in him chasing a thoughtless orgasm. Somehow it felt like the process had already begun. Seungcheol felt undone as soon as his fingers brushed Jeonghan’s when the other boy took the bottle.

Perhaps a little disappointingly, Jeonghan was dressed for a casual night in; although his lips were covered in the same pink glossy tint they had been at the party. It mesmerised Seungcheol then and it mesmerised him just as much now.

As for himself, he’d fretted about what to wear for a solid hour before settling on a simple black tee. Seungcheol was glad now that he hadn’t opted for anything flashier. There was a part of himself that, despite everything, still thought he’d made a mistake; he could hardly believe Jeonghan wanted to sleep with him after so many weeks of saying no.

‘Where do you want me?’ Seungcheol said, immediately regretting his provocative choice of words.

Surprisingly, Jeonghan was already feeling flirtatious. ‘I’d gladly have you anywhere, but why don’t we start with the bedroom?’

‘That— sounds good.’ Seungcheol had never been nervous when it came to sex, but he was downright bashful now as he followed Jeonghan upstairs.

If Jeoghan’s intentions were uncertain before, they were crystal clear when Seungcheol walked into his bedroom and found it lit up with candles. Jeonghan uncorked the champagne bottle with a resounding pop and a thin white vapour ghosted out of the open rim. Seungcheol had been so careful to keep it cool; leaving it in a bucket of ice until the very last moment. It felt like the one thing he had some control over, and now Jeonghan was pouring out the remnants of his certainty into a wine glass and pressing it into Seungcheol’s hands.

‘This will be a lot better than Joshua’s red wine. He buys it from the convenience store,’ Jeonghan rolled his eyes and nodded his head in the direction of his desk; upon it a dark glass bottle, still corked.

‘You’re not gonna pour yourself a glass? This is the good stuff, I promise,’ Seungcheol said. He didn’t dare take a sip of the champagne in his hand when he was so transfixed by the dark gleam in Jeonghan’s eyes. He felt drunk enough already.

‘I’m good for the time being, Cheollie. Actually, I’m just going to freshen up in the bathroom. Make yourself comfortable.’

As Jeonghan left the room swaying his hips, Seungcheol thought a little liquid courage probably couldn’t hurt after all. The golden liquid fizzed on his tongue and it felt electric; it tasted like excitement and promise and all the things Seungcheol told himself he couldn’t have. Feeling bold, he called out to Jeonghan.

‘When I was last here everything was purple— all your little toys and keepsakes, I mean.’ As he spoke, he glanced over at the dresser, his heart contracting at the sight of the small pink cat Jeonghan had fished out of his Happy Meal that night on the hill. He’d kept it: that had to mean something.

A voice called back, distant but musical. ‘It’s your own fault, Cheollie.’ Jeonghan giggled. ‘Everything about you is so pink it’s infectious.’ Seungcheol could hear the faint sound of movement and he vaguely wondered what Jeonghan was up to.

‘I barely own any pink clothes. How come I’m so pink? I think my colour is black really – you know, like a black card, or a black suit or—’ Seungcheol stopped talking when Jeonghan stepped quietly into the bedroom.

Seungcheol’s entire world flipped upside down and all of a sudden, he couldn’t quite form a sentence.

‘You were saying?’ There was a wicked grin on Jeonghan’s face, but Seungcheol was mostly looking elsewhere. He was wearing the purple organza dressing gown – the one he’d seen in his wardrobe the first time he’d looked around. Its material was so thin, so teasing, and the loose sleeves were lined with feathers. As Jeonghan walked forward, Seungcheol could see his bare, slender legs through the split in the fabric. It was too much.

‘I had a feeling you liked this,’ Jeonghan said, getting closer and closer. Seungcheol wanted to ask how, but his vocal cords were still having trouble remembering how to function. Jeonghan was kind enough to elaborate. ‘Oh, I’m well aware you’ve been snooping around in here; do you think I wouldn’t notice a misplaced hanger? I’m far too smart for that, Cheollie.’

He nodded in agreement and Jeonghan practically purred with satisfaction. By now Seungcheol was cornered against the bed – one firm finger on his chest, and Jeonghan pushed him down so that he stumbled onto the edge. Seungcheol sat there, dumbfounded, until Jeonghan carefully positioned himself on his lap. There was the faintest amount of friction against his crotch; Seungcheol already had an embarrassing semi.

‘This isn’t a private dance. You can touch me if you want.’

Jeonghan barely had a chance to roll his eyes at Seungcheol’s stupidity before two very firm hands grabbed his waist. Seungcheol let out an audible sigh of pleasure as he felt Jeonghan up, the other boy leaning into his rough touch. Seungcheol was careful to note that Jeonghan liked being manhandled.

‘I’ve been holding myself back for so long,’ Jeonghan said, ‘now I can finally take what I want.’

And Seungcheol was entirely unprepared for the way Jeonghan pulled him into a hard, desperate kiss, rolling his hips forward at the same time, needy and urgent. In response, Seungcheol’s hands wandered down to Jeonghan’s ass and he squeezed, wanting badly to slap him there and make him cry out for all the neighbours to hear. But it still felt like a test and not the reward he’d so longed for; Jeonghan’s body was warm and real beneath his hands and Seungcheol was sure he was on borrowed time.

‘This isn’t one of your games, is it?’ He asked, knowing full well he risked breaking the spell.

‘Fuck games,’ Jeonghan’s voice was strained. He brought a hand down to Seungcheol’s dick and grabbed him there, simultaneously leaning in to kiss his neck. The feeling of Jeonghan’s mouth on the sensitive skin of his throat made Seungcheol tremble – it was even worse when he bit down and sucked, marking a large red hickey that would be all too visible come morning. ‘I’m through with playing. I just want you.’

That was enough of an invitation for Seungcheol, and he was starting to tune out his doubts when suddenly Jeonghan pulled away and stood up. Seungcheol almost whined, but the sight of Jeonghan raising a hand to the neat bow that tied up his dressing gown was enough to distract him from the immediate loss of contact.

‘I was listening very carefully at the party, Cheollie. I know exactly what you like. This purple thing is pretty enough, but it’s not pink – it’s not me. At least it’s not me as a I am now.’ Jeonghan let it drop from his shoulders in a mess of soft organza and feathers. Underneath he was wearing nothing but a sheer pink negligee and beneath it – Seungcheol realised with a dawning sense of shock – what looked like women’s panties.

‘Oh fuck, Hani.’ He reached out to grab the other boy but had his hands swatted away.

‘Nuh uh. I’ve been waiting all evening for this. I need you.’ Seungcheol wondered briefly how Jeonghan could claim to need him but refuse his advances in the same breath. It only started to make sense when Jeonghan dropped to his knees, the strap of his negligee slipping down his shoulder, that Seungcheol understood his intentions.

Jeonghan was already making swift work of Seungcheol’s belt buckle when he finally spoke up. ‘Are you sure Hani?’ It all felt so sudden, and Seungcheol had never had someone so goddamn excited at the thought of sucking him off before.

‘Oral fixation, remember?’ Jeonghan said hurriedly as he pulled Seungcheol’s jeans down and tugged at the waistband of his boxer briefs. ‘I like big things in my mouth. Feels good.’ Seungcheol nodded, a little dazed and painfully aroused as Jeonghan finally got to his dick and gave it a few pumps to reach full hardness – it didn’t take much.

Seungcheol let out a shaky breath when Jeonghan licked up his length and finally took him in his mouth. He could tell instantly that Jeonghan was no stranger to oral sex; he bobbed his head like a pro before occasionally going slower, taking Seungcheol further and further into this back of his throat. When he got as far as he could take him, Jeonghan hummed contentedly and Seungcheol couldn’t help bucking his hips.

‘You’re so beautiful,’ he said, quickly grabbing a handful of Jeonghan’s hair to counteract the shameful fondness in his voice. This was supposed to be an act of pure passion not love. Seungcheol momentarily worried that he might have exposed his own feelings too blatantly, but all thoughts left his head when Jeonghan picked up the pace.

When eventually he pulled off for air, Jeonghan let out a noise halfway between a moan and a sigh. A trail of precum and drool ran down his chin and Seungcheol couldn’t quite believe Yoon Jeonghan, with all his neatness and certainty, was giving him the dirtiest, sloppiest head of his life. It was hard to tell who was enjoying it more; barely two seconds after taking a few steady breaths, Jeonghan was filling his mouth with Seungcheol’s cock again. He looked up at him with his angel eyes and his pink, swollen lips and Seungcheol died a little.

He was so close.

‘Maybe you should— ah shit!’ Seungcheol was cut off at the sensation of Jeonghan’s hand joining the action. It was already too late. Seungcheol pulled hard at Jeonghan’s hair as he climaxed, releasing straight into the other boy’s mouth. Jeonghan seemed a little surprised at this but swallowed down the remnants of Seungcheol’s orgasm all the same.

‘Dammit, I got carried away. It’s so hard to stop myself.’ Jeonghan sat down on the bed next Seungcheol and pouted. His hair was a beautiful mess, his lips still swollen and moist. Seungcheol could see he was already half hard and frustratingly untouched.

In that moment – that blissful, heavenly moment – Seungcheol knew exactly what he wanted to do. He would worship Jeonghan’s body, he would make him feel valued and adored, exactly as he deserved to be. If there was one thing Seungcheol knew, it was sex. And he liked to think he was pretty damn good at it.

Jeonghan was still moping, probably disappointed that he’d have to wait for Seungcheol to chase away his orgasm before he was ready to go again. He had no idea who he was dealing with; and he had no idea just how much he drove Seungcheol crazy.

Taking him entirely by surprise, Seungcheol threw him down on the bed and lay over him, holding himself up on his forearms. Jeonghan let out an ungainly yelp as he was manhandled down.

‘What are you doing?’ He asked, breathy. ‘Don’t you need a moment?’

‘Nope,’ Seungcheol said, peppering kisses on Jeonghan’s neck. He edged further down his body, pushing aside the strap of his negligee to kiss Jeonghan’s collarbone and chest before shifting down and getting to work on his thighs. ‘The only thing I need is to make you feel good.’

Seungcheol reached a hand under the hem of Jeonghan’s lingerie and the other boy froze. Fear and regret immediately clouded Seungcheol’s judgement and he looked to Jeonghan for guidance. He wouldn’t do anything without his permission.

‘You don’t have to do… that. Just fuck me Cheol, I know you want to.’ Jeonghan’s voice was seductive but ever so slightly uncertain. ‘No one’s ever done that to me before.’

Seungcheol was surprised by Jeonghan’s admission, and furious too. Older men had used him for his body, taken what they wanted and left. Seungcheol wanted to make things right.

‘Will you let me suck you off, Hani? Not because I have to, but because I want to.’

In the flickering candlelight, Seungcheol saw Jeonghan nod. His eyes had a cool, analytical quality to them that just about masked the glimmer of mistrust he’d noticed earlier. Jeonghan was curious – Seungcheol could work with that.

He pulled down Jeonghan’s lace panties with a reverent gentleness that surprised even himself. Jeonghan was already hard, already leaking precum and Seungcheol wanted nothing better than to get to work immediately – but he had a responsibility to make this as comfortable for Jeonghan as he could. So Seungcheol left more soft kisses on Jeonghan’s thighs, slowly working his way closer to the other boy’s cock. Then, wrapping one hand around his length, Seungcheol began a steady rhythm and Jeonghan bucked forward into his palm needily.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Seungcheol took Jeonghan into his mouth. He’d always been good at blowjobs; his lips were full and plush, and he had a natural determination to please his partners. Jeonghan gasped at the contact.

‘Ah—Cheol…’ Jeonghan moaned, gripping the sheets. ‘More. Faster.’

Jeonghan was thoroughly enjoying himself, exactly as Seungcheol predicted he would. Satisfied that the other boy was comfortable, Seungcheol settled into a quicker rhythm. He wasn’t lucky enough to have a non-existent gag reflex like Jeonghan, so he couldn’t deepthroat his dick, but Seungcheol was pleased enough with the blissed-out noises coming from the other end of the bed.

When he pulled off and looked up at Jeonghan, the other boy was a wreck. Seungcheol felt a rush of blood to his dick; Jeonghan’s negligee had ridden up his legs, revealing his slender thighs and toned stomach. His hair was even more of a mess than before, thanks to the way he’d been writhing around on the bed, and Seungcheol wanted nothing better than to fuck him senseless. It’s what he’d always wanted, from the moment he’d first laid eyes on Yoon Jeonghan in all his angelic glory. Only now things were more complicated; now Seungcheol was burdened with a love that made him careful and cautious. He couldn’t quite allow himself the indulgence he craved.

So instead of letting all hell loose and fucking Jeonghan with a violent urgency, he hesitated again.

‘You wore that underwear for me – what can I do for you?’

‘What do you mean?’ Jeonghan sat up. He looked a little dazed and, not for the first time that night, ever so slightly surprised. The way he stared at Seungcheol made him feel like he was being looked at for the first time – seen for the first time.

‘I’m asking what your kinks are. What’re you into?’ Seungcheol hoped he sounded gentle and encouraging, and not as though he were desperately holding back the need to throw Jeonghan down on the bed and have his way with him.

Understanding dawned on Jeonghan’s face, first in a look of amazement and then in a mischievous, teasing stare. ‘So eager to please,’ he said, voice dripping with cruel sarcasm. It made Seungcheol angry and even more aroused; something about Jeonghan’s malicious side was as attractive as it was infuriating. He was trying to be a gentleman, but he was at the end of his rope.

‘You should’ve paid more attention. I already told you once that I like fingers in my mouth. And I have a thing for wearing necklaces and chokers for a reason; do you think you can figure it out, or is that too much for your less evolved brain to handle?’

Seungcheol growled. ‘You really are a fucking brat. Don’t test me.’

‘Or what?’ Jeonghan asked, kneeling on the bed, a hair’s breadth from Seungcheol. He smelled like strawberries and the scent was maddening.

A furious stare.

A smile.

And then in an instant they were colliding with each other. Both of them moved with a startling urgency. Seungcheol cast the rulebook aside and put away all thoughts of proving himself, instead pulling Jeonghan against his body and kissing him sloppily with tongue. It was only when Jeonghan violently pulled the t-shirt off over his head that he remembered he was still wearing all his clothes.

Jeonghan broke away, panting, to put a hand against Seungcheol’s chest and trail it down from his pecs to his abs. ‘That’s more like it,’ he said, biting his lip. Seungcheol had a feeling Jeonghan was fond of his body ever since the shower incident. Formulating a better idea of the other boy’s turn-ons, he grabbed him by his ass and pulled Jeonghan onto his lap.

The gasp that escaped Jeonghan’s mouth was reassurance enough that he enjoyed their difference in strength and was partial to being thrown around. Before he could think too much about his actions, Seungcheol lifted his hand off Jeonghan’s ass and slapped it.

Hard.

Jeonghan moaned – louder and more perversely than before – and Seungcheol followed up with another hard slap. And another. And another. He was sure Jeonghan’s ass must have been red with slap marks and tender to the touch. Every sweet, tortured sound that escaped Jeonghan’s mouth went straight to Seungcheol’s dick.

‘You drive me crazy,’ he said, somehow trying to justify himself.

‘I know.’

With Jeonghan’s legs securely wrapped around his waist, Seungcheol dipped forward so they were lying on the bed. There was no more time to waste. He needed to be inside Jeonghan, to unravel him and strip him bare and consume him in the only way he knew how. Seungcheol grabbed Jeonghan’s panties and pulled them clean off; not before stretching the material first and leaving a small tear.

‘Those were from Victoria’s Secret! Do you have to be such a brute?’ Jeonghan sounded indignant, but the way his dick twitched made Seungcheol think he didn’t mind the roughness at all.

‘So?’ Seungcheol said, voice low, ‘I can rip anything I want. When I’m through I’ll buy you the whole damn store. Anything for you, angel.’

‘Fuck,’ Jeonghan’s command of language was turning monosyllabic and Seungcheol grinned to himself. He’d found precisely what made Jeonghan tick.

‘I’ll buy you all the pretty pink things you want. Just be a good boy for me, okay?’

Jeonghan whimpered and nodded and Seungcheol took advantage of the moment to pull off his own jeans.

‘You got lube and condoms, cutie?’ He asked. Jeonghan just about managed to reach inside the drawer at the side of his bed and throw a small tube in Seungcheol’s direction. He caught it one handed and popped off the cap. He really was on a roll. As Seungcheol covered his fingers in the slick substance, Jeonghan tossed a condom packet by his side.

When he pressed up against Jeonghan’s entrance, he was met with very little resistance and a lot of babbling from the other boy, who was turning out to be an extremely vocal sexual partner. ‘Hurry up,’ he said, as Seungcheol pushed a finger inside. It would’ve been tempting to give in and follow Jeonghan’s bratty demands, but Seungcheol wanted to do this right. He was still a little in awe at Jeonghan’s body; he marvelled at the sharpness of his hip bones and the way his slim frame seemed so delicate beneath him.

Cautious, Seungcheol added a second finger. For a while, all that could be heard was Jeonghan’s heavy breathing until Seungcheol started moving around. He was experienced enough to find Jeonghan’s prostate first try and started a punishing rhythm that had Jeonghan making even louder noises than before.

‘Cheollie, I want you,’ he gasped, ‘I want you now.’ Seungcheol had never been able to resist Jeonghan’s pet names. If he was being led on, he didn’t care. His mind was filled with Jeonghan’s name and Jeonghan’s eyes and Jeonghan’s mouth and Jeonghan’s everything

Seungcheol pulled his fingers away.

 

He opened the packet like it was second nature, because it was; everything he did was practiced and mechanical, freeing up his mind to fixate on the sheen of sweat that coated Jeonghan’s body.

Seungcheol pushed himself inside and felt Jeonghan all around him. Both of them sighed at the contact, Jeonghan wincing a little as he got used to the way Seungcheol stretched him. Not wanting to rush things, they stayed like that for a while. It took every ounce of restraint in Seungcheol’s body to stop himself from leaning down and kissing Jeonghan’s forehead. He knew there was an unspoken line he couldn’t cross. Seungcheol had to kill a part of himself to be this close to Jeonghan, to be surrounded by him and utterly overwhelmed.

It was a price he was willing to pay.

In the end it was Jeonghan that moved first; tired of Seungcheol’s carefulness, he took matters into his own hands. Seungcheol couldn’t help feeling like he’d become a service top, and the realisation angered him into action.

‘Did I say you could move?’ His voice was gruffer than expected. Jeonghan’s eyes gleamed darkly.

‘I need to satisfy myself somehow because you sure as hell aren’t doing anything.’

Seungcheol found himself snapping once again, only this time the lust and frustration and all-consuming need for Jeonghan was powerful enough to send him over the edge. Deciding to give Jeonghan exactly what he wanted, he fucked him mercilessly. Jeonghan’s hands immediately grabbed his bare back, clawing at Seungcheol’s skin and scratching lines that would leave their mark for weeks to come. The pain was glorious, and it only made Seungcheol more ruthless and urgent in his love making.

Jeonghan was moaning at the top of his voice now, and the small part of Seungcheol’s brain that was still able to form coherent thoughts was grateful there was no one else in the house. Seungcheol was vaguely aware of his own noises; strained, rough and tortured. He and Jeonghan moved as one and they moved quickly. It felt as though they’d both been desperate for each other for so long and now, when there was finally nothing keeping them apart, they wanted to consume each other in a mess of sweat and sweet desire.

Seungcheol closed a hand around Jeonghan’s throat.

It was narrow and moved swiftly with each panted breath, stuttering beneath Seungcheol’s palm. He tightened his grip and Jeonghan’s eyes met his, piercing and painfully real. This was it; this was as close as he could ever get to owning Jeonghan.

‘Get up,’ Jeonghan said between pants.

Seungcheol hated how eagerly he obeyed Jeonghan’s every word. He pulled out and sat back on the bed, suddenly feeling cold and incomplete at the loss of Jeonghan’s body. Had Seungcheol served his purpose already? Was he about to be cast aside and thrown out with his orgasm unsatisfied and his body aching and tender?

But Jeonghan was sitting up now too and sitting on Seungcheol’s lap. Like it was the easiest thing in the world, Jeonghan lowered himself back onto Seungcheol’s dick.

‘You take me so well,’ Seungcheol said, unable to keep the amazement out of his voice.

‘Shut up and fuck me.’

Everything felt so good. Seungcheol was in a world of pink; pink flushed skin, pink satin against his chest, pink all around him in the air like a hot, burning veil of smoke. Seungcheol remembered again that he was in love with the boy that cried out on top of him. The realisation was enough to make him whimper with bittersweet satisfaction. He reached a hand towards Jeonghan’s blonde hair. With as much shaky gentleness as he could manage, Seungcheol tucked a strand behind the boy’s ear.

Jeonghan seized his hand and brought it instead to his mouth. Jeonghan took two of Seungcheol’s fingers into his mouth as he fucked him and moaned. Seungcheol cursed at the lewd sight of Jeonghan with his mouth filled up, but knew it was as much a chastisement as it was a fetish. He’d been too doting, too sweet.

The final nail in the coffin came when Jeonghan growled and pushed him back against the bed. Seungcheol relished the surprising loss of control as Jeonghan held him down and rode him, greedily chasing his own orgasm. When he came, he slowed the panicked movement of his hips into a deep, intimate rhythm that drove Seungcheol crazy. Seungcheol reached his own climax watching Jeonghan’s knees shake, his perfect pink negligee stained with his own cum.

‘Ugh.’

Seungcheol couldn’t manage words.

He hadn’t expected Jeonghan to be one for aftercare or cuddling, but he got up off Seungcheol with an alarming quickness and paced out to the bathroom to clean himself up.

In the end it was all over so quickly that Seungcheol felt as though he were crashing, coming down from a high so powerful he didn’t know who or where he was. With his muscles tired and heavy, Seungcheol allowed himself to indulge in the comfort of Jeonghan’s soft bed. It was still so warm from the presence of their bodies and it still smelt overwhelmingly of strawberries – just like Jeonghan.

Seungcheol closed his eyes.

 

-

It was only when Seungcheol felt something soft against his chest that his eyes fluttered open and he realised he’d been sleeping.

At first, the last hour had been a complete blank, but with a slow certainty, Seungcheol was struck with the memory of Jeonghan moaning in ecastacy beneath him. It wasn’t a dream; he really had sex with the boy of his dreams.

Said dream boy was currently sitting between Seungcheol’s legs with a towel in hand. Jeonghan had changed into a pair of very comfy looking pyjamas and was wiping the excess sweat off Seungcheol’s body with a look of concentration on his pretty face.

‘Did I die and go to heaven?’ Seungcheol’s voice was groggy with sleep and exhaustion. ‘Because I think I’ve just seen an angel.’

Jeonghan slapped him with the towel. ‘If you’re conscious enough to make a pass at me, you can clean yourself up. I already had to take the condom off you. It was icky.’

Seungcheol was always amazed at Jeonghan’s surprising softness. He hadn’t expected to be cared for at all, let alone cleaned up in his sleep. He had a funny feeling he was pushing his luck now, and that Jeonghan would suddenly snap back into character, remembering that he wasn’t supposed to treat Seungcheol as anything other than the dick appointment he was.

‘Right, I should be going.’ Seungcheol decided to rip the Band-Aid off himself. It was better than having what was left of his heart broken for the hundredth time.

‘I do my best thinking after sex,’ Jeonghan all but blurted out. ‘It clears my head – do you have that too?’ He hardly waited for a response before continuing. ‘It makes me want to stay up late and talk about anything and everything until the sun comes up. I feel antsy, like I need to occupy myself; maybe look around in someone else’s mind to distract myself.’

Seungcheol frowned in confusion. Jeonghan wasn’t making much sense. He had a feeling the other boy’s mind worked quicker than his; saw things that Seungcheol never could and very occasionally got a little overwhelmed by it all.

‘I’m saying I want you to stay. Stay the night. Please.’

Jeonghan looked lost. Seungcheol gave him a warm smile when really all he wanted was to break down and cry. ‘What do you wanna talk about? And also, do you have any spare pyjamas?’

 

-

 

‘I’m not kidding, I really think that bastard’s got some dirt on me!’

Seungcheol was only half angry, only pretending to be enraged. Jeonghan, lying in his arms under the covers, laughed with abandon. When had they gotten so close? They’d been lying together like lovers for the past few hours and it felt like the most natural thing in the world.

‘I’m pretty sure Joshua thinks I’m a nymphomaniac.’ Seungcheol said. They were both so close he could feel Jeonghan’s breaths and the way his chest moved when he spoke.

‘Well you fuck like a nymphomaniac, so he might not be wrong there.’

‘Oh yeah, then what does that make you?’ Seungcheol used his other arm to put Jeonghan in a headlock, eliciting a small screech and a few hard slaps. ‘Because I don’t think I’m the one that asked to be choked.’

‘So I happen to like a big strong man wrapping a hand around my throat. Sue me.’ Jeonghan, free from the headlock, turned his head to the side and looked at Seungcheol. ‘I hope you weren’t kidding about buying me new underwear. It’s the least you can do after ruining my best panties.’

He was talking like there was a next time. Like they had a future.

‘Your wish is my command. Just say the word and I’ll drive you to the mall myself.’

Jeonghan hummed in agreement and went quiet. He was still a little restless, his mind full of thoughts he couldn’t quite pin down, and Seungcheol had come to realise that Jeonghan couldn’t be rushed. He had to follow the pathways his brain led him down and all Seungcheol could do was be patient and listen, maybe jump in when he was needed.

If this was what it was like to be with Jeonghan for extended periods of time, he could see why all the sugar daddies – who were just in it for sex – tended to lose their tempers with him. Seungcheol remembered the night at the club, when he’d found a very distant, spaced-out Jeonghan pressed up against the wall. He must have been far away in some distant, expansive thought that the middle-aged sleazebag couldn’t follow or even hope to understand. It baffled Seungcheol that there were parts of Jeonghan people didn’t like. He could lie arm in arm with him all night and listen to talk.

‘You shouldn’t listen to Josh. I don’t believe in psychotherapy.’

And just like that, the conversation had reversed several paces and Seungcheol backtracked.

‘You can’t not believe in psychotherapy. It’s not like santa claus and the easter bunny,’ Seungcheol smiled faintly, but Jeonghan was deadly serious.

‘Everything can and should be questioned, Cheol.’ The nickname was as distracting as ever, but Seungcheol tried to focus. ‘Trauma and memory. That’s all it is; just pain that we inflict on ourselves over and over again.’

‘I’m not sure I follow.’

‘Of course you don’t, so let me explain. Psychotherapy is built around the idea that we should delve into our most painful memories and talk about them. But I’m a neuroscientist, I know how the mind can hurt and how it can suffer better than any psychologist. The more we relive our trauma, the more ingrained it becomes in our memories; the more we torture ourselves with the past. It’s so much better to just…’

Jeonghan made a fist and opened it, a gesture to suggest letting something go.

‘…forget.’

Seungcheol couldn’t quite understand why, but he felt profoundly sad. He thought of all the memories of his mother walking away, or shouting, or crying her eyes out in a locked bathroom. He’d held onto them so tightly – treasured them, even, in a strange way. What would it be like to let go of those ashes and let them scatter to the wind?

Seungcheol wondered if he’d also have to let go of Jeonghan and all the pain he’d caused him. It would be like tearing up that photograph – the one on the hill where Jeonghan was smiling – and burning the torn-up pieces of his heart until there was nothing left. How glorious it would be to feel finally free, untethered.

But Seungcheol couldn’t do it. The smiling boy with the blonde hair and the cheeks red from the cold was his heart. He’d sooner live with all that pain and trauma than cut it out and throw it to the fire.

‘I suppose you don’t think about bad stuff at all,’ he said.

‘I wish I was that lucky. I’ve never been able to forget anything,’ Jeonghan tapped his head. ‘Eidetic memory: more of curse than a blessing.’

Seungcheol felt him move a little closer, looking for warmth under the covers. He hoped Jeonghan couldn’t feel the way his heart was pounding in his chest.

‘I remember everything you’ve ever told me,’ he said, yawning. Jeonghan’s voice got quieter as he spoke, sleep claiming him slowly. ‘Like on the hill, when you said “I definitely don’t deserve your pity. I’m exactly the kind of asshole you always thought I was”.’ Jeonghan’s grip on Seungcheol’s arm weakened a little, his head resting more comfortably on the pillow as he muttered out the last of his words;

‘I never once thought you were an asshole, Cheol…’

 

-

 

Jeonghan sensed him before he saw him. Like a hunter in the dark trying not to startle his prey, Joshua sat in the shadows of the living room. When Jeonghan came upon the doorway, he switched on a lamp by the armchair.

‘Come down for a glass of water? You were doing an awful lot of shouting, I bet your throat is killing you.’

This was a well-aimed shot; Joshua was looking right at the red marks on Jeonghan’s throat like someone that had just discovered a shocking, deeply hidden secret. But he never had any luck disarming Jeonghan, who thought of secrets not as something shameful, but rather as small pieces of himself that lay only partially obscured from the harsh light of truth. If he felt ashamed, it wasn’t because of what he’d done but who he’d done it with.

‘I take it you’ve heard everything.’

‘Unfortunately, yes. I’ll never understand why someone would want to do something so disgustingly physical.’ He wrinkled his nose in disgust. Jeonghan was all too familiar with Joshua’s asexuality and felt faintly guilty for being so loud when he was in earshot. He had a soft spot for his roommate; the only other person in the world that vaguely understood what it was like to operate on a higher level than most. But tonight, Joshua was in one of his pushy moods.

‘It baffles me even more when someone refuses to acknowledge their own feelings. In fact, it’s downright infuriating. Jeonghan, I’m asking this as a friend who’s tired of watching this endless will-they-won’t-they; just give in already.’

Jeonghan stilled. It felt as though he wasn’t breathing. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed, I already have given in. There’s not much more I can give Seungcheol, he’s already had my body.’

‘I think you know what I’m talking about.’

‘Josh, I have no interest in that man beyond sex.;

Joshua raised a taunting eyebrow; he was enjoying this far too much. ‘Oh, I beg to differ. If all you wanted was a fuck buddy, he wouldn’t be asleep in your bed right now – and you wouldn’t have taken him home and played nurse after the fight. And do we have to talk about all the pink? I know how your synaesthesia works.’

Jeonghan was powerless in the face of fact. He’d known for a long time, too long, and no matter how desperately he’d tried to hold back the floodgates, Jeonghan had a feeling they’d break sooner or later. It had begun in the bathroom of the Tiger’s Eye club; amidst the dirty mirrors and trickling faucets, Jeonghan felt the first keen blush of pink. Seungcheol had been hit and when he’d looked back up, mouth grazed with red, Jeonghan could feel the earth shifting beneath him. He was at a loss for words, overwhelmed with a pain he experienced vicariously and a heart that would not still.

It was easier to be vicious than to be vulnerable.

He’d asked Seungcheol if he was in love with him, but it had been his own heart that ached and yearned.

Since then, Jeonghan had hidden behind cruel words and taunting looks and pushed Seungcheol away until finally, at Soonyoung’s party the previous night, his desire had gotten the best of him.

He could still feel Seungcheol, even then. Jeonghan could feel the asphyxiating grip of love against his throat; the ghost of a touch around his waist, gripping his thighs, coiling a warmth deep inside of him.

Jeonghan’s sorrow showed itself not in tears, but in the one question – shaky and fearful on his breath – that he’d been so afraid to ask.

‘What do I do?’

Chapter Text

Jihoon smoked on the way to the house of the boy he loved. The cigarette burned the back of his throat and it felt like all the unspoken words he’d held back were screaming to get out, desperate to be yelled and made real. Nicotine was as much a punishment as it was an indulgence; Jihoon enjoyed the way it fucked up his voice and made his lungs struggle for breath. It felt like exactly what he deserved and precisely what he needed.

This was Jihoon’s own personal form of self-flagellation. Like a monk doing penance, he took drags on high-tar cigarettes, hoping to scorch away what was left of his treacherous heart. He couldn’t love who he was supposed to. Fate had dealt Jihoon a bad hand – why of all people, did he have to catch feelings for Kwon Soonyoung? He could’ve loved Nayeon; he could’ve loved anyone else in the whole damn world, but it had to be him. In some distant plane of existence, a particularly cruel cosmic being was probably laughing at his pitiful state. Poor Lee Jihoon, stuck pining after a boy who eats whipped cream straight from the can.

And now there was no going back.

Nayeon had finally thrown in the towel, sending Jihoon a single cryptic text message that he’d read over and over countless times.

I think it’s better for us to just be friends. I’m setting you free, Jihoonie 

Free to fall face first into the blackhole of hopeless adoration, never to return. It astounded Jihoon just how quickly he’d slipped back into old habits. If cigarettes were an addiction, so was Soonyoung; or the feeling of pining after him, at least. The hopelessness of it all was bittersweet and Jihoon had come to understand why all the best love songs were tinged with a beautiful sadness. He’d written his fair share of them about Soonyoung, but they never turned out quite as poetic as a Chet Baker tune or a Frank Sinatra hit. How could they, when the subject of the songs seemed to defy all conventions of romanticism? Jihoon couldn’t write a ballad about Soonyoung’s tendency to burp whilst laughing; nor could he wax lyrical about his treasured Beyblade collection, kept in mint condition circa 2005.

Soonyoung was a fool; a hopeless, pitiable fool.

But he was Jihoon’s fool all the same.

When he rounded the corner onto Soonyoung’s street, he dropped his cigarette onto the pavement and stomped it out. This was the first time he’d been back since the party, and things with Soonyoung had ended on a strange note. Neither of them spoke much after the chaotic game of truth or dare, and Seungcheol was determined to sober up in the garden and drive Jihoon back home in the Tesla. After a few more hours of comfortable, tipsy chatter, Soonyoung had said goodbye to them at the door. Quieter than normal, he’d hugged Jihoon hard and squeezed his hand for good measure. It felt like Soonyoung was seeing him off on a long and dangerous journey, a hint of melancholy in his warm brown eyes.

And now Jihoon was outside the front door – because what else could he do? Two days after the events of that night, Soonyoung had texted him about a rather expensive watch that had been discovered down the back of a sofa. Jihoon didn’t recall losing Seungcheol’s horrendously expensive Rolex, but he knew he absolutely had to go get it back.

When Soonyoung opened the door, he looked more like himself than he had done in days. The suit had finally gone – back to the rental shop, Jihoon hoped – and now he was wearing a pair of grey sweatpants and an all-too-familiar “I’m with stupid” t-shirt, currently pointing at one of Seungkwan’s many houseplants.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

Jihoon was never a man of many words, but he wished he could be a little more eloquent. Truthfully, he was a little distracted by Soonyoung’s sweats; they hugged his thighs extremely well. Too well.

‘Can you come in for a bit? You know, to talk and stuff.’

Jihoon didn’t like the sound of stuff but he nodded and stepped inside anyway. When Soonyoung patted him on the back, Jihoon caught the scent of his detergent and immediately softened. Soonyoung smelt like comfort; like easiness and tranquillity and the very feeling of home.

Jihoon sat down and tried to make himself comfortable.

‘Where’s the watch then? Or have you guys already sold it on the black market?’

‘Ha ha, very funny,’ Soonyoung rolled his eyes. ‘We might be cheap, but we’re not that cheap. I’ve got a strong moral code.’

Jihoon took the watch from his friend’s hands and pocketed it, instantly afraid he’d break the thing and owe Choi Seungcheol a debt he could never repay.

‘That moral code of yours didn’t stop you from drawing on Seokmin’s face with a sharpie the other night,’ Jihoon added, grateful to be able to joke around with Soonyoung again.

‘Hey, that was a stroke of genius on my part. The moustache has worn off now, but he’s still got the glasses and whiskers; poor guy had to go to class looking like that.’

After a beat of comfortable silence, Soonyoung spoke more carefully.

‘How’s Nayeon?’

That was the million-dollar question. Jihoon’s stomach churned and he had no idea why he was feeling so palpably nervous.

‘She’s good,’ he said cautiously. ‘Actually, we ended things between us. I’ve been set free, apparently.’

Soonyoung’s eyes widened and he stood up from the armchair he’d been sitting in. He looked vaguely like a Shakespearean actor about to give his best rendition of a Hamlet monologue. Or perhaps he was more of a Romeo, with the rosy pinkness to his cheeks. What did that make Jihoon? Surely not Juliet.

‘Well I won’t feel too bad about picking up where I left off, then.’

It all happened far too quickly. Soonyoung moved lithely onto Jihoon’s lap, giving him an aneurism in the process. True to his word, he got to work slowly unbuttoning Jihoon’s shirt as far as dared before untying the drawstrings of his sweatpants. He really knew how to put the private in private dance; without a soul around to laugh and lighten the atmosphere, Jihoon was starting to feel uncomfortably turned on. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be enjoying this or not.

‘What’re you doing?’

‘Finally getting my shit together, that’s what.’

When Soonyoung leaned in to close the distance between them, Jihoon pushed him back as carefully as he could. This was all a bit too much for him and he was struggling to keep up.

‘Soon, I really don’t understand. If this is another joke or some kind of casual make-out session then there’s something you really should know—'

Just as he was about to throw caution to the window and reveal his deepest, darkest secret, Soonyoung grunted in exasperation and stood up.

‘You’re so stupid, Lee Jihoon! Wait here, dammit!’

Offering no further explantion, he stormed out of the living room and slammed the door behind him. Jihoon could hear his friend dashing upstairs, feet pattering angrily on the upper floor as he paced around. This wasn’t exactly what he was expecting when he showed up at Soonyoung’s house to pick up a fucking watch. Still feeling Soonyoung all around him and trying hopelessly to do up his buttons with shaking fingers, Jihoon wondered what had possessed him to almost confess.

Oddly, it had felt like the right thing to do. Soonyoung was all playfulness and insincerity, and Jihoon knew he owed it to himself to avoid being fuck buddies with the guy he had feelings for. This was a level of personal growth that Joshua Hong would be proud of.

If Soonyoung made it out of this bizarre encounter unscathed, he’d have to tell his unofficial therapist his efforts were finally starting to pay off.

All too soon, the other boy was thundering down the stairs again and Jihoon tried to take a few deep breaths to calm himself. They were such rushed gulps of air, however, that it made him feel like he was hyperventilating even more than before. The door burst open again and Soonyoung rushed in before stopping in front of Jihoon. He had something behind his back that he was clearly trying very hard to hide.

‘I’m no good with feelings. I think I have a tendency to hurt the people I care about because sometimes it’s easier to laugh than it is to be serious. When I kissed you in the club that night, I hurt you Jihoon, and I’m so sorry.’ Soonyoung paused, but Jihoon was too shocked to offer him a response so he continued. ‘I didn’t realise then what I know now, and I had no idea why I felt so shitty when you ran away. I don’t know if I can change and if there’s a cure for the way I am – and maybe I don’t even want to change in the first place, but I’m hoping you won’t care about that.’

‘What’s—’ Jihoon began, but he was cut off with a silencing look from Soonyoung. His heart was racing a mile a minute, and he could’ve sworn Soonyoung looked just as nervous.

Very slowly, Soonyoung removed his hands from behind his back. Stealing himself, he sat down next to Jihoon on the sofa and brought his hand out of his lap. Jihoon allowed Soonyoung to push back the sleeve of his shirt, and he felt a small weight around his wrist. Looking away from Soonyoung’s expression of concentration, he saw that the other boy was fastening a bracelet around his wrist.

A bracelet made of uncooked macaroni.

‘You once said only a special kind of idiot would agree wear a pasta bracelet. I’m hoping you’re dumb enough to agree to wear mine.’ Soonyong squeezed Jihoon’s hand as tightly as he had the night of the party; as though he were desperate not to let him go. ‘I like you, Jihoon. Date me.’

Feeling as though every part of his brain had been shaken up, thrown around and rearranged again, Jihoon wasn’t capable of giving Soonyoung the answer he was so eagerly waiting for. The silence dragged on so long that it actually started to look like Soonyoung was about to take back what he’s said out of embarrassment or fear of rejection. Jihoon wanted to burst into tears and was still praying that this wasn’t, in fact, some wonderfully vivid dream.

He really never was one for words.

Jihoon took Soonyoung by surprise when he pulled him into a kiss, half urgent and half tender. He could almost feel the smile on Soonyoung’s mouth, and he was so indescribably happy to have put it there. Maybe for once he’d done something right.

‘So… is that a yes?’

Soonyoung was grinning like he’d just won the lottery when they finally broke apart, arm in arm. Jihoon still couldn’t believe how easy it had all been; but then, that was Kwon Soonyoung in a nutshell. He made everything simple and honest. A grey cloud had been lifted from Jihoon’s head, all his worries going with it. This was what it felt like to feel the sun on his skin; this is what it felt like to longer crave the darkness.

‘Yes.’

Soonyoung let out a contented sigh and leaned back into the sofa as if the worst of it was over. Already Jihoon’s mind was starting to swarm with possibilities and obscure what ifs and maybes; they weren’t suited to each other; they never had been. If Soonyoung expected openness and the kind of sappy romance you get in lifetime movies, then he was in for a bitter disappointment. He doubted he’d be any good at organising dates, and did he even have the money for dates anyway? It’d been such a long time since Jihoon had slept with someone and he was sure he’d only be a disappointment—

‘Ha! Look!’

Soonyoung was pulling at the material of his t-shirt that was now pointing in the direction of Jihoon, indicating that he was the stupid that Soonyoung was with. Jihoon’s thoughts didn’t go away – nothing was ever quite so simple – but the voices of anxiety petered out into whispers no louder than wind through leaves.

‘Idiot,’ he said fondly.

‘I think you’ll find you’re the stupid one, actually. The shirt doesn’t lie.’

‘Shut up before I kiss you again. Dumbass.’

Soonyoung only laughed, smile so wide and genuine it reached all the way to his eyes, and Jihoon kissed him anyway.

 

-

 

The restaurant looked familiar but Seungcheol had a feeling he’d never set foot in it before. After a while, all the countless eateries with their polished wooden floors and candlelit tables started to bleed into one. He’d never spent an awful lot of time taking in the décor of these joints anyway – not when he was far more interested in steering the conversation in one direction.

”Do you want to come back to my place for a drink?”

It was always some variation of the same essential line, and Seungcheol would worm his way to that destination over a glass of red and a steak, medium rare. Never dessert; he was always one for a speedy getaway, and Seungcheol craved sex like it was warm and sweet and served with cream on the side. He had a sweet tooth for the scandalous and profane; an insatiable greed for somebody else’s body under his.

The restaurant reminded him of exactly that, and Seungcheol felt something of his old excitement stir deep in his chest. He wondered when he’d started to forget what it felt like: his addiction. It was tempting to think that he’d been cured, but Seungcheol was painfully and irrevocably aware that he’d only traded his old obsession in for another one. A desire that was far less easy to gratify.

Even fucking Jeonghan had felt like a longing. Seungcheol could steal feel the ghost of Jeonghan’s hungry touch on his skin, against his lips, pooling deep inside of him like a storm of growing pleasure. None of it had been enough and he knew exactly why.

Seungcheol approached the waiter at the front with a feeling of numb hopelessness.

‘Good evening,’ he smiled. ‘I’m looking for Mr. Chwe – I believe he made a reservation?’

‘Right this way.’

Still not quite believing the situation he’d been drawn into, Seungcheol was led to a small round table. Vernon and Seungkwan were sat at it, pleading with another waiter in hushed tones.

‘Oh thank fuck,’ Vernon said as soon as he caught sight of Seungcheol approaching. He made such a show of his relief that it almost seemed as though he’d been sitting at the table all damn night. In reality, Seungcheol had answered his desperate text right away, all too grateful for the distraction, and drove downtown without even picking up a jacket.

‘I think I can settle up here,’ he intervened, already pulling out his black card. The waiter eyed it up like a vulture spotting a dying animal and swooped in with a pin machine. It beeped as Seungcheol swiped his card through the machine, and then they were left alone. Looking shifty and more than a little bashful, Seungkwan and Vernon darted out of the restaurant and Seungcheol had to rush to catch up with them.

The cold night air stung at his exposed skin and Seungcheol wrapped his arms around his torso for warmth. Boo Seungkwan, the ungrateful scoundrel, was already trying to hail a cab without even so much as a word of thanks. Vernon seemed a little more reluctant or run away, but judging by his refusal to make eye contact, Seungcheol guessed he wasn’t too keen on offering an explanation either.

‘Thanks for this, I’ll pay you back,’ Vernon said. ‘Can’t believe we both forgot our fucking wallets. Guess you really shouldn’t do a bunch of bong rips before going out to dinner.’

Seungcheol waved away the other boy’s concerns and gave him a once over. Vernon was wearing a blazer – had he always owned a blazer? – and smart leather shoes. He had a scarf draped loose around his shoulders and he looked like an adult. He looked like a grown man. When had that happened? Somewhere between all the house parties and movie nights and study sessions, Seungcheol must have lost sight of him. Vernon, the kid with the little musical laugh and fondness for junk food, had slipped away from him and turned into a grown-up.

‘You look good,’ Seungcheol said, straightening Vernon’s scarf. ‘Really smart.’

He wanted to say something more. This felt like a profound moment – for him, anyway – but already even that was passing into a time gone by. And besides, what could he have said in the first place? You’re taller? Stop growing up?

I’m proud of you?

Seungcheol sniffed, his eyes slightly teary. It was cold enough to pass off as a chill and not an embarrassing sense of sentimentality.

‘What the hell are you two doing anyway?’ Seungcheol tried to regain some kind of control. ‘I thought you weren’t interested in Seungkwan and now you’re taking him out on a romantic candlelit dinner?’

Vernon’s eyes were absolutely focused, clear and perceptive. When he stared across at Seungcheol, he looked right through him. Perhaps he was seeing something deeper and more personal than just Seungcheol’s uncertain expression and his folded arms. It felt like Vernon was evaluating his vulnerable heart, considering it and formulating the best course of action to set it on the right course.

‘I don’t know how I feel,’ he said finally, shrugging. ‘I don’t know how any of this is going to end, but I woke up this morning and felt like having a nice dinner with a guy I like. So that’s what I did.’

It seemed so simple and so honest that Seungcheol’s heart skipped a beat. Vernon’s words were freeing; they made it seem like perhaps things weren’t as impossible as they seemed. But Boo Seungkwan and Yoon Jeonghan were entirely different matters. One was a possibility, the other a dead end. How could you start a romance with a boy that didn’t want to be loved?

‘But it’s not always that easy. Some things are destined to fail before they’ve even begun,’ Seungcheol offered.

‘Man, fuck that,’ Vernon sounded faintly annoyed, but his eyes remained kind and encouraging. ‘It’s pointless living your life by a bunch of dumb, meaningless rules; “men and women can’t be friends, never talk to your ex after a break-up, don’t have sex on the first date.” Well you know what? Some of my best friends are girls and after I jump in that taxi, I’m gonna go home and get boned.’ Vernon gave Seungcheol a hard, encouraging pat on the shoulder. ‘A relationship is only bound to fail if you go into it thinking it’s hopeless.’

With a grin, Vernon backed away from Seungcheol and headed towards the cab Seungkwan was getting into. ‘Thanks for the bail out, Cheol. Have a good night.’

‘Hey!’ Seungcheol called after the other boy just before he disappeared through the taxi door. ‘When did you get so smart?’

‘I’ve always been smart,’ Vernon shouted back. ‘You guys were just too dumb to notice.’

Seungcheol could still see the warm grin on Vernon’s face as the car drove away; he played it back in his mind, wallowing in the strange melancholic happiness it had brought him. He had a feeling things would be different now. Their little world was beginning to break apart; the cracks had been there a long time, only no one had wanted to see them. But like a man watching his own house blaze up and burn to ashes, Seungcheol couldn’t look away now. Change was terrible and wonderful and inevitable, and for every ounce of sorrow there was a handful of joy in tow.

Jeonghan was Seungcheol’s future, for better or for worse. He supposed that it was time to stop holding onto the comfort of the past and the uncertainty of the present and plunge into the unknown territory of heartbreak. If surrendering himself to Jeonghan was like jumping off a ledge then he’d fall, of course, and let that version of himself bleed out slowly in the darkness.

Seungcheol knew it was time to make that first step; to walk out onto thin air and feel nothingness beneath his feet. He might fail.

But he just might fly.

Unlocking his phone, Seungcheol sent a text to Jeonghan’s number. It was the very first message in their conversation thread and he had a feeling it would probably be the last one, too.

“Can I come see you? We need to talk”

 

-

 

Wonwoo wasn’t prepared to have the door opened after the first knock. Joshua Hong was already standing in the hallway, dressed in a black and white striped top that made him look half like an edgy teen and half reminiscent of a stereotypical Parisian gentleman. It was instinctual for Wonwoo to judge those that so willingly drew attention to themselves, but he was no better. The tracksuit pants and slogan tees were long gone now, in favour of skinny jeans and muscle tees that were far too tight, even on his skinny frame.

The whole interaction had made him feel extremely self-concscious and they hadn’t even exchanged a word yet. It really seemed as though Joshua had been expecting him, although he’d given no indication that he was on his way. Seungcheol had always said Joshua Hong was a demon of the highest order; perhaps he was right after all.

‘Come on in. I’ve put the kettle on – tea will be ready soon.’

Wonwoo stooped to untie his shoelaces whilst Joshua disappeared into the kitchen, soundless and swift as a soft-footed cat. He felt all together filthy even though the pavements were dry and clean when he’d walked over. Wonwoo couldn’t seem to shake the sensation of dirtiness that had followed him the past week; it made him cautious and wary of himself wherever he went. Showering had become a more frequent exercise now, along with the urgent need to remove layers of clothing. It’d seemed odd at first, stripping down to his underwear in the middle of the day, but Wonwoo couldn’t stand the way he looked – the person he was. He wanted to cast himself aside as easily as he could toss away Mingyu’s borrowed leather jacket.

Reverently, Wonwoo placed his shoes in front of the door and stepped nervously into the living room. Joshua came up behind him with a tray and two steaming cups of tea. As they both sat down, Wonwoo got a better look at the drinks his gracious host was serving up; the tea itself was a yellowy orange and it had been served in a neat little glass teacup with a chic metal handle. It was efficient, straightforward and transparent, and Wonwoo imagined that was precisely why the tea set had appealed to Joshua in the first place.

When he leaned over to take the cup in his hands, Wonwoo could feel its boiling warmth against his palms. The smell was hot, sweet and floral.

‘It’s passionflower tea; it relieves anxiety and improves sleep. Interestingly, it’s also been proven to help with the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. Amazing how one measly plant can offer some relief for the worst kind of addiction.’

Wonwoo’s gaze was fixed on the teacup as Joshua spoke, calm and authoritative. There was still at little whirlpool in the centre of the cup where Joshua had been stirring it, and Wonwoo found the motion mesmerising.

He brought it to his lips and drank, the liquid lightly scalding his tongue. It didn’t taste at all like it smelled; it reminded Wonwoo of damp earth after rain, only very distantly floral. He coughed after one sip and cleared his throat.

Joshua’s chuckle was soft and only slightly condescending. ‘Scent can be deceiving. It’s got a bitter taste like all the best medicines do, I’m afraid. Nothing about recovery is every simple.’

‘Who says I need to recover?’ Wonwoo shot back.

‘You wouldn’t be here if everything was fine and dandy. Unless I’m wrong and this is a social call after all.’ When Wonwoo didn’t contradict him, Joshua settled more comfortably into his armchair. ‘In that case, why don’t we talk? You looked like you had a lot you wanted to say after our meeting at the party.’

The only thing Wonwoo had wanted to say in that dreadful moment had lingered on the tip of his tongue for two whole days, refusing to clamber back into his throat and stay there, unspoken.

‘Please don’t tell anyone. Please, Joshua.’

‘It must be stressful for you, all this hiding. Do you think it’s worth the secrecy and the shame? A quick fuck with a dumb jock?’

Wonwoo felt anger churn in his stomach. Somehow, he’d known he’d always be misunderstood. Although the way Joshua looked at him like he already knew what his response would be suggested otherwise; perhaps he knew all too well the truth of Wonwoo’s heart.

‘That’s not what it is! This isn’t some booty call and MIngyu isn’t an asshole – he’s not using me, if that’s what you think.’

‘I’m more curious about what you think. Do you know all there is to know about Kim Mingyu? You’re risking so much for him, Wonwoo, are you sure he’s worth it?’

Wonwoo wanted desperately to be cured. He didn’t understand his affliction in the slightest; was he a bad man or a victim? A lover or a sinner? Himself or someone else – some shadowy Other Wonwoo that made all the worst decisions and never ever said no? If this was withdrawal from Mingyu – from the Other Wonwoo that was so seductively attractive – then he’d down a whole pot of Joshua’s passionflower tea just to get through it. Wonwoo took another sip and held the cup as tightly as he could, regardless of the way its burning body stung at his fingers.

‘I know exactly who Kim Mingyu is. I’ve seen him – every side of him, even the parts he’d rather I didn’t know about.’ Joshua’s gaze was encouraging, his silence a sign for Wonwoo to continue. ‘I’ve been looking at his text messages. I know I shouldn’t invade his privacy, but it’s so easy. Midnight Raid; it’s a basic hacking technique, really; I usually do it for Soonyoung just to make him laugh…’

‘Only this time you didn’t have a willing volunteer.’

‘No. No, I didn’t.’ Wonwoo let the tea scorch his throat. ‘There’s something about Mingyu that’s just so inviting. I feel like I want every part of him, you know? Nothing is ever enough. So I went looking through his messages one night after we— well, you know exactly what we’ve done, I don’t need to tell you. Anyway, I checked out his texts to the other boy, his boyfriend, and I realised that he still loved him. He lied to him, yes, betrayed him – but he still loved him. With his whole heart.’ Wonwoo put the teacup down on the table and the gentle tap of glass on wood sounded like an ending – a full stop after a long, tiring story. ‘The worst part was, he sent those texts whilst he was with me.’

He’d expected Joshua to speak, perhaps offer Wonwoo some kind of consolation that would wrap everything up neatly in a ribbon. He’d come here to be healed but he was only met with a devastating, soul-crushing silence.

‘I’ve been such an idiot,’ and with that simple admission, Wonwoo broke down into tears. It was the kind of powerful sobbing he’d only experienced as a child. Feeling pathetic and insignificant, Wonwoo wailed and put his head in his hands.

It was only when he felt a light tap on his shoulder that he looked up through tear-filled eyes and saw Joshua standing in front of him, a box of tissues in hand.

‘That was the hard part,’ he said as Wonwoo grabbed a handful. ‘You’re not in denial anymore, Wonwoo. You know exactly who you are and where you are – and I think you know what you’ve got to do, too.’

Like ripping off a bandage, Wonwoo pulled out his phone and hit send on a long message – one he’d typed up but was too afraid to deliver – before sinking back against the sofa. When Joshua laughed, he roused himself from his pity party.

‘Jeon Wonwoo, you’re full of surprises. Who’d have known you had it in you to deal with everything so efficiently.’ After a pause he added, ‘I like you. I think you’re something of a kindred spirit – not at all like that dolt Seungcheol, whose messes I’m still cleaning up, by the way.’ Joshua offered Wonwoo a hand up from the sofa and he accepted it gladly. He felt as though he’d let go of one thing and gained something else; there was a comfort in that.

‘I don’t suppose you can give me a lift to the neuroscience building, can you? You’re not the only person that needs a bit of urgent therapy tonight.’

 

-

 

‘We’re coming in now!’ A voice announced very loudly. ‘I hope we don’t see any nakedness!’

The key turned in the lock and Soonyoung shuffled away from Jihoon on the couch only to be pulled back against his side a second later. It gave Soonyoung butterflies in his stomach, but it also made him feel unexpectedly awkward; they were lovers now and they looked like it too, with Jihoon’s arm swung protectively around his shoulders. There wasn’t a mirror to hand, but Soonyoung had a feeling his hair was a mess from where he’d been lying back on the sofa, Jihoon on top of him as they made out like their lives depended on it. It’d felt like finally being able to breathe, and Soonyoung couldn’t help finding Jihoon’s neediness extremely sexy. He’d kissed Soonyoung with an urgency that had startled him at first, but they quickly got used to the sensation of being with one another.

And Soonyoung most definitely enjoyed it.

He hadn’t even noticed they’d reached the pre-approved time of Seungkwan and Seokmin’s return. The whole confrontation with Jihoon had gone a lot better than he’d ever expected in the first place; never in his wildest dreams had Soonyoung imagined he’d get to second base, let alone have his feelings instantly and wholeheartedly returned.

When Seokmin walked into the living room he still felt like he was riding an indescribable high.

‘Oh my god!!’ His best friend said, spotting Jihoon’s arm around Soonyoung. ‘You guys finaly got together!’ Seokmin wasted no time. He rushed towards his two friends and brought them into a big group hug. It almost felt like he was a part of the relationship too – but Soonyoung hardly minded the intrusion. Seokmin’s hugs had a special magic to them; his warm embrace felt like coming home after a long day and kicking of your shoes. Seokmin was comfort in human form.

Soonyoung could even feel Jihoon relaxing into the group hug – so much so that it took them both a few moments to realise the other person in the room wasn’t, in fact, Boo Seungkwan.

‘Mingyu, what’re you— oh god, are you okay?’ Soonyoung asked, getting a good look at the boy’s sickly complexion. He looked like he’d seen a ghost, or he was one. There was a distant look in his eyes and Soonyoung could absolutely believe he’d left his body and was wandering around in some kind of spirit state. Perhaps Mingyu was haunting him for putting tabasco sauce in his beer when he wasn’t looking.

‘Oh,’ Seokmin said quietly, trying to keep Mingyu out of earshot. ‘I found him in the library. He was crying and I didn’t want to leave him alone.’ He sounded apologetic, but Soonyoung hardly minded at all.

Although judging by the way Jihoon was rubbing little circles against the back of Soonyoung’s neck, his boyfriend wasn’t so eager to give up their private time. Soonyoung shuddered a little beneath his touch. The disadvantage of dating one of his closest friends was that Jihoon knew exactly where his sensitive spots were. He tried not to think about how easy it would be to make their excuses and dash up to the bedroom immediately.

‘Where’s Boo, then?’ Jihoon asked, nonchalant – as if he wasn’t in the midst of deliberately driving Soonyoung crazy.

‘Love is really in the air tonight. Vernon asked him out on a date. Can you believe it?’

‘N— no I… can’t’ Soonyoung stuttered out. He was really starting to lose his composure. Jihoon trailed his hand a little lower to the base of his neck, teasing at the collar of his t-shirt. Soonyoung was utterly torn; he wanted him to stop almost as much as he wanted him to keep going.

Soonyoung just had to keep his composure. Surely that wouldn’t be so hard?

‘Hmm, funny how these things work out,’ Jihoon offered.

‘It’s all sunshine and roses until shit starts to get complicated.’ It was Mingyu that spoke, his arms folded together as he leaned against the wall. He hadn’t even taken off his shoes and coat. ‘Love isn’t some fairy tale were everyone lives happily ever after. It’s cruel and it fucking hurts.’

Soonyoung felt the atmosphere shift into uncomfortable territory. He was aware of the bizarreness of their situation; Jihoon and himself halfway between listening attentively and fucking right there on the couch; Seokmin smiling without a care in the world; and Kim Mingyu standing under his own personal rain cloud of pity.

‘Things not going so well with Minghao?’ Jihoon spoke up. He’d ceased his gentle caresses now and Soonyoung snapped to attention, the fog of desire dispersing from his mind.

‘Everything’s fine with Hao. He’s perfect – he’s always perfect.’ Mingyu looked at his feet. Soonyoung watched on with an unplaceable sense of dread; he had a nagging suspicion he was about to hear something he shouldn’t. ‘Don’t you think it’s possible to love two people? Does it always have to make you an asshole if you catch feelings for someone else?’

Soonyoung gulped. He was way out of his depth here, having never been in a serious relationship in his life. The implications of Mingyu’s questions were vast and uncomfortable to consider. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the image of Jeon Wonwoo out of his head.

‘I don’t think love is ever a bad thing,’ Seokmin spoke up, much to everyone’s surprise. The soft smile on his face was completely innocent. ‘As long as it doesn’t end up hurting someone else.’

Mingyu looked like he’d received a final, finishing blow. He slid down the wall and sat on the floor, diminishing in size until he looked utterly harmless and completely fragile. ‘It doesn’t matter anyway,’ he said quietly and to no one in particular. ‘It’s over now. It’s over…’

Soonyoung couldn’t be sure, but he thought he could hear Mingyu sobbing to himself as he sat in a foetal position. The big, boisterous force of nature that he knew and loved had been reduced to a crying child. It was instinctual to want to help him, but Soonyoung had a feeling Jihoon would much rather be upstairs away from the drama. He was about to suggest this idea when his boyfriend spoke up.

‘Hey Seok, have you guys still got four game controllers?’ The other boy nodded, not immediately catching Jihoon’s drift. ‘It’s been a while since we’ve had a games night. Why don’t you make some cocoa and I’ll fire up Call of Duty.’ He turned to where Mingyu had cautiously raised his head. ‘Are you in, Gyu? We could use your expertise; these assholes suck ass.’

Mingyu nodded with tear-filled eyes and as Seokmin headed to the kitchen, he stood up and joined him. Soonyoung could just about make out Seokmin’s hand patting gently against Mingyu’s back as they headed out of the room.

Then he turned to look at Jihoon, mouth slightly agape with fondness. His boyfriend was wearing his signature scowl, but Soonyoung saw right through it. He always had.

‘What’re you staring at?’

Soonyoung chuckled and threw his weight against Jihoon, eliciting a gasp from the other boy as they collided against the back of the sofa.

‘Nothing,’ he said, feeling Jihoon’s arm around him again.

 

-

 

Seungcheol had just enough time to go home and pick up a jacket, but as he walked through the automatic doors of the neuroscience building, he almost wished he hadn’t bothered. The sting of cold air against his bare arms made him feel alive and real; now he was in a dream, his mind muddled with agitation. And besides, Seungcheol was about to offer his whole heart to Yoon Jeonghan – a guaranteed death sentence – keeping himself warm was the last of his worries. But there’d been time to spare and Seungcheol was restless. The only alternative was to stop by a local bar for some liquid courage, but he was already a fool when he was sober, and so pathetically inferior to Jeonghan that he knew he needed every last tool at his disposal. So he’d go to Jeonghan as a clear-headed coward, happy to fall on his own sword for the sake of unrequited love.

Choi Seungcheol: an idiot through and through.

As he made his way to the back of the building following the list of directions Jeonghan had sent him over text, Seunghcheol knew the last thing he needed was for someone to throw him off.

He never did have much good luck.

Walking through the last set of double doors was a very calm and collected looking Joshua Hong. He’d very clearly just been talking to Jeonghan, and Seungcheol felt the odds shift against him; there was very little chance his archnemesis had put in a good word for him. The evil asshole had probably poisoned Jeonghan against him right at the last second.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Seungcheol said at the sight of Joshua’s signature smirk. ‘This isn’t my night.’

‘You’re awfully negative for a man on a mission. What’s the matter – don’t trust me?’

Seungcheol was not in the mood for mind games; in fact he was only in the mood for one thing, and that was running away from his responsibilities and hiding under a layer of two blankets, safe and shielded from the world.

‘I trust you about as far as I can throw you, Hong. No, wait— you’re scrawny as fuck. I can throw you pretty damn far.’

‘Always so quick to resort to violence when you know you’re intellectually outmatched. Perhaps you shouldn’t let all that testosterone do the talking for once,’ Joshua raised a taunting eyebrow but became strangely serious. ‘Be good to him,’ he said quickly and quietly.

‘What?’

‘I said be good to him.’ Joshua looked incredibly earnest – or as earnest as he could manage, given that emotions were most definitely not his territory – and Seungcheol felt even more nervous than before. ‘Don’t doubt yourself so much, Choi Seungcheol— and don’t doubt Jeonghan either.’

With a pat on the shoulder, Joshua walked on towards the exit. He put both his hands in his pockets and sauntered away from Seungcheol as if he really didn’t care about the scene that would surely unfold in his absence. But Seungcheol knew better. He knew Joshua Hong wasn’t quite as evil as he seemed.

But the night was far from over. Seungcheol shook his head and gave himself a gentle slap on the cheek; Jeonghan was right in front of him, just through the door that Josh had emerged from. That single slab of rectangular wood was the only thing standing between Seungcheol and his destiny. He lingered there, in the last few moments before his future was written for good, and then he turned the handle and walked inside.

Perhaps he should have knocked. Jeonghan was busy pinning up brain scans to a lightbox in his office-come-research-space. His bleach blonde hair was offset against the illuminated blue of the scanned images, each one a uniquely complicated mind whose inner workings only he could decipher. Seungcheol wondered briefly if any of them were his, but Jeonghan was already turning around and facing him straight on.

‘Don’t just stand there. Come in.’

Seungcheol let the door close behind him and stepped into Jeonghan’s clinically organised office. Everything had its place and there wasn’t a single forgotten printout left on his desk or an abandoned book set face down on the countertop. Seungcheol supposed it was because Jeonghan had no need of all the data. He was a walking memory bank with a scarily vast encyclopaedic knowledge of anything and everything.

The only thing he didn’t understand was Seungcheol’s treacherous heart that had grown too fond too quickly. It felt like a betrayal to tell him – to burst the little bubble of understanding they’d so carefully cultivated – but Seungcheol had come too far to turn back now.

As Jeonghan finished assembling his brain scans, Seungcheol became more aware of the soft, melancholy music that filled the room. Jeonghan’s phone had been connected to a wireless speaker, offering some entertainment as he worked. Now it was playing a warm female voice singing a song that sounded old and comforting to Seungcheol’s untrained ears. It was the kind of romantic vintage piece Jihoon would approve of and Seungcheol tapped along to the lyrics, too nervous to think of anything else.

“I’m sentimental so I walk in the rain, I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain…”

Jeonghan stepped back to admire his handiwork. Neither of them had spoken since the door had been shut – it almost seemed like Seungcheol wasn’t the only one feeling scared. But surely Jeonghan had no idea what he was about to say – surely he didn’t understand the extent of Seungcheol’s shameful feelings?

‘Jeonghan…’ Seungcheol’s voice was surprisingly steady. The other boy’s eyes were wide and curious – as they always were. ‘That night we spent together was amazing, great actually, and I really badly want to do it again. But there’s something you should know before we get any closer. There’s something I have to tell you.’

Jeonghan’s curious look turned to one of mild confusion. His eyebrows furrowed and he seemed faintly annoyed. Seungcheol was off to a good start.

You have something you want to tell me? And it’s not about the sex being unsatisfactory?’

Seungcheol almost choked on air as he hurried to quell Jeonghan’s uncertainty. His palms were damp with sweat and he felt extremely out of his depth. ‘No, no! It was the best night of my life—’ Seungcheol barely stopped himself. He was supposed to be honest, not overbearing and clingy. ‘I mean, this isn’t about what happened between us, but it is about me and you.’

‘You hate me, don’t you?’

The silence between them was sudden and damning. Jeonghan looked cold, emotionless – distant. For a while the only thing that could be heard was the dreamy, low melody of the song still playing. Seungcheol felt his heart break a little more.

”Why can’t I be more conventional? People talk and they stare, so I try…”

‘How could you possibly think that?’

Jeonghan let his hand drop down to the surface of the desk. His palm closed around a discarded brain scan that hadn’t made it to the board and he crumpled it between his fingers.

‘You’re getting tired of me. I know how this goes, Seungcheol. I know how it always goes. It’s fun for a while but then the cracks start to appear, and you realise that I’m messed up; that I’m not like other people. I’m not right. You don’t want to be my friend anymore and you don’t want my body. Just say it: say it and leave.’

Seungcheol scoffed at Jeonghan’s bitter words. He spoke with all his usual venom, only this time the animosity was directed inwards, aimed at himself. It was hard to listen to and even more infuriating to respond to.

‘After all that we’ve been through you seriously still think I only care about your body? You’re a real piece of work Yoon Jeonghan!’ He was raising his voice. He hadn’t meant to.

‘What else do you want from me, then? What the fuck will it take for you to realise that I’m toxic, that I don’t deserve your friendship. You might as well leave now and save us both the trouble.’ Jeonghan gestured to the door and turned his head to the side, too wound up to even look at Seungcheol.

‘I can’t do that!’ He shouted. They were arguing and Seungcheol felt as though he no longer had any control over the situation.

”Let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown, you know I’ll love you till the moon’s upside down…”

‘Why?’ Jeonghan’s voice was small and taught with frustration. He looked like he was at the end of his rope – like he wanted nothing better than for Seungcheol to leave and slam the door in his face once and for all.

He wasn’t thinking anymore. Seungcheol paced forward and grabbed Jeonghan by his shoulders, looking right into his awful, beautiful eyes as he spoke and signed his own death warrant.

‘Because I’m in love with you!’

An intake of breath. Seungcheol’s hands fell down to his sides. Nothing but expectation and shock and the gentle sway of music to fill the silence. Jeonghan’s lips were parted and he looked like he’d just been shot in the heart at close range, bullet burning through his skin and leaving a perfect, vicious exit wound. Subconsciously, he lifted a hand to his chest and held it there, where he could no doubt feel the stuttering rhythm of stunned horror.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Seungcheol said. ‘I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. And now that you know how I feel, you know I’m not the one who’ll be walking away. You don’t have feelings for me— it’s okay, I already know it. I didn’t expect anything in return, I just had to tell you.’

Seungcheol was already backing away towards the door when Jeonghan’s hand gripped his arm.

‘I don’t love you, Choi Seungcheol.’

It was almost too much to bear hearing Jeonghan say exactly what he feared he would, but the other boy wasn’t finished just yet. ‘I think I like you though. I wake up every morning surrounded by pink – the pinkness you gave me – and it’s been tearing me apart. I can’t stand it. Even if you say you love me, and I never thought you would, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re impossible. I’m not the kind of person that can be loved.’

Seungcheol took Jeonghan’s hand in his own. For some reason, he didn’t have it in him to grip it tightly; he held Jeonghan like he was something holy, something too divine to touch.

‘I thought the exact same thing, until a very smart man told me that something’s only bound to fail if you never give it a chance to succeed. Let me love you, Jeonghan. Fuck fate and fuck convention; I don’t want any of that shit. I want you. I want your scarily good memory and all the intellectual debates I can’t keep up with; I want your lollipops and your messy eating; I want your blonde hair and your gorgeous eyes and everything in the world that’s pink.’

‘It’s not going to be easy,’ Jeonghan said, gaze already hopeful and hungry for something just within reach. ‘You can’t cure me. I don’t want to be cured.’ He was already placing a hand on Seungcheol’s cheek, already leaning in.

‘Jeonghan, you don’t need to be cured.’

”Don’t you remember I was always your clown, why try to change me now?”

When their lips almost met, it didn’t feel like a happily ever after. It didn’t feel like Seungcheol’s future was certain. No, for the first time in his life, it felt like Seungcheol’s future was free. His fate was undecided, wildly unpredictable; full of chaos and loss and joy and so many maybes.

A breath away from Seungcheol, Jeonghan pulled back, one final hesitation lingering on his tongue;

‘I won’t be pink forever, you know. One day I might be purple again, then maybe I’ll be blue.’

And Seungcheol decided he didn’t mind blue. He didn’t mind blue at all.

Chapter Text

J. Hong’s Journal of Private Observations, Jan 2020—

 

January 1st:

The morning after a night of chaos. New Year’s Eve is considered a highly important event in the social calendar, and J insisted on entertaining at our house. Events transpired along these lines; at approximately 7:49pm Kim Mingyu and Xu Minghao arrived, the former already extremely intoxicated and carrying with him a stolen traffic cone. I engaged in conventional “friendly” greetings and noted the odour of vodka on Minghao’s lips. Must remember to further research his alcohol tolerance, as it appears to be above the norm.

Mingyu is much improved now that he’s no longer in denial about the nature of his relationship. At this stage, it is impossible to ascertain whether or not he has revealed the truth of his affair to Minghao. It had been my aim to discover more, making good use of the festivities and large alcohol supply to make the subjects more willing to share, but – I’m ashamed to say – the night didn’t go to plan. But I digress. More of that after I’ve committed my full observations to writing.

I entered into a conversation with Mingyu and, although I was at first convinced he was speaking a foreign language, I quickly realised that his intoxicated brain was trying its very best to form coherent words. Mingyu used a fascinating combination of shouts and hand gestures to communicate with me and I was able to translate the general idea of it; he had entered into some kind of juvenile competition of foolishness with Kwon Soonyoung. At this stage, I was very curious to see how this match of idiocy would affect Jihoon, but again, I am forced to regretfully acknowledge that my skills of analysis were somewhat impaired by the end of the night.

By 9pm, when the rest of the children had assembled and were engaging in drinking rituals that involved piercing cans of beer and ungracefully sucking out the contents, I was surprised to see Choi Seungcheol emerge from upstairs. He is now extremely comfortable in my house and has taken to acting like it’s his own – so much so that I was completely unaware he’d been taking a “short” five-hour nap in J’s bedroom. It didn’t take a genius to piece together what had transpired whilst I was blissfully unaware. One look at J rubbing his lower back and sitting down very slowly with a wince was a sure indication that they’d been engaging in sexual intercourse prior to SC’s “power nap”. I was certain I would have overheard the unpleasantly loud shouts and moans, but perhaps they are becoming more considerate of others. Amendment: that seems highly unlikely, given their previous track record.

J is much easier to live with now that he is being sexually satisfied on a regular basis. SC is constantly around and has changed more than I’d initially anticipated. Case in point: two days prior I walked in on SC painting J’s toenails whilst the former spoke in immense detail about the pros and cons of genetically modified crops. Human beings truly are full of wonders and surprises. At least SC isn’t boring – even if he does leave his dirty underwear lying around my house.

J greeted SC with a kiss on the cheek – intimate, romantic. They then attempted to shotgun a can of beer together – disgusting, inadvisable. If this is love, I’ve never been more certain that I want no part in it.

Soonyoung had arrived without his shirt, and Jihoon apologised profusely for the fact that his boyfriend was – and I quote – “an absolute fucking tool”. I was then informed that Soonyoung had been drinking tequila for several solid hours before arriving at the party. This, of course, had taken its toll on Soonyoung’s already impaired wits. Upon Seeing Mingyu – who was at that point wearing his traffic cone as a hat – things got somewhat aggressive. Both mimicked animalistic, alpha male behavioural patterns as they threw petty insults back and forth. Those around me were not at all concerned by this. In fact, judging by their laughter and encouragement, I realised that this was a friendly competition with no harm meant. Deciding that I had done a good job at reading their facial expressions and behavioural cues, I treated myself to some wine that had been poured into a red solo cup. At this point, I was unaware that Vernon and Seungkwan had “spiked” said drink with a deadly combination of spirits and medicine – I only felt a pleasant buzz and a gentle loosening of my inhibitions.

As midnight approached, I joined a pleasant conversation between Wonwoo and Junhui. The two have gotten considerably closer since the Mingyu incident and I was curious to test the parameters of their relationship. Unfortunately, I had decided to help myself to another cup of the mysterious beverage and began talking inadvisably about my personal life. By this point, my memory had already become quite patchy, but I’m quite certain that I confessed to them that J had been my first kiss – and on the night of the truth or dare game, no less. Junhui, having been a close companion of mine for many years, simply patted me on the back and told me he was already well aware of this fact. I recall crying at this, and using a handkerchief offered to me by Wonwoo. Although the alcohol was badly affecting my brain, I remember the conversation that then transpired between the two of them quite clearly, and I will record it here for future consideration:

 

JN: You have a monogrammed handkerchief? What are you, a Victorian lady?

WW: Gentlemen use handkerchiefs too, okay.

JN: And how has being a “gentleman” worked out for you so far? You’re no better than Josh. I’m sure no one’s offered to give you a new year’s kiss.

WW: I guess that means everyone’s lining up to plant one on you when the clock strikes twelve then!

JN: Maybe. But I might be able to squeeze you into my schedule. If you want.

WW: Yeah, I mean I guess. Whatever’s cool for you.

JN: Okay. Nice. Cool. Good.

WW (abruptly standing up): I have to go to the bathroom now. Goodbye.

 

Whilst this conversation was taking place I had begun – bizarrely – to unbutton my shirt. My companion Junhui was too busy staring off into the distance to stop me, and by the time I had the damn thing off Soonyoung had come over and declared us shirtless twins. Although J now swears his innocence, I am quite sure I noticed him taking a photo of me in my inebriated state. If such a photograph exists, I swear now – on the pages of this journal – that I will move heaven and earth to destroy it. A momentary lapse in my judgement should be forgiven and conveniently forgotten, not kept secretly and laughed at when I’m not around.

The rest of the night passed me by in a blur of drunken madness. I can recall only fleeting glimpses of what came to pass, so fuzzy and indistinct that I can’t be sure they really happened at all. These memories are so fragmented and untrustworthy that I’ll list them briefly below:

 

1. Mingyu producing a nerf gun and shooting Jihoon in the chest, causing Soonyoung (at this point wearing a towel as a cape) to scream out a war cry and storm into battle to “defend the honour” of his fallen lover.

2. Myself, lying in the lap of Lee Chan as he gently runs a hand through my hair like my mother used to. I am confused by this memory in particular, as it seems the most unlikely.

3. The smell of birthday cake and blown-out candles; vanilla and cascading smoke. Surely no one had the foresight to bring dessert – another dream?

4. J leading SC out of the room as the countdown began. I remember their hands especially clearly – tightly held and melding into one.

5. A lot of screaming and fireworks. Lee Chan and Seokmin throwing me in the air as if we were the winning team of some highly prestigious sports game.

6. Junhui kissing Wonwoo in the corner, unnoticed by anyone but myself and Kim Mingyu, who smiled very widely and very sadly.

 

I believe I completely blacked out after that last moment of slight consciousness. I have awoken this morning with a severe headache, heavy nausea and a lot of self-hatred. But there’s no use in dwelling on my misery when there’s work to do; even though the data I retrieved last night is unreliable at best, I need to formulate a game plan for moving forward. As I write this, J is cleaning up and humming to himself – very positive for someone that drank more than his body weight in booze – and SC is lying asleep on the living room floor being spooned by an equally unconscious Jihoon. Soonyoung has gone out for eggs. Apparently our cereal isn’t good enough; bacon and eggs are the only acceptable post-party breakfast food. I look forward to seeing Jihoon wake up; how will he compartmentalise everything that happened last night? Will he look the chaos in the eye or push it aside, pretending it was nothing more significant than a passing dream? Soonyoung is a good influence on him. When they’re together, Jihoon is present. His mind doesn’t rush ahead and scrutinise the worries of a future that may never come to pass.

I did well to orchestrate that relationship.

I must keep a close eye on Junhui and Wonwoo from here on out, however. It’s early days yet, and I can’t be sure whether or not their relationship will be generally positive or completely futile. Of course, Jun doesn’t think it’s a “relationship” at this point – he sees Wonwoo as somewhat beneath him. But I know that will change. Attraction is a powerful enough force to side-line even the oldest of habits and obsessions.

This morning I am easily distracted. The smell of coffee reminds me of home; the sound of J washing dishes is so peaceful I could fall asleep to it. I want nothing better than to put down my pen and rest my eyes – but this is my old habit, and if it dies it will most certainly die hard. Even now, for instance, I can’t help noticing J’s purple hoodie. Yesterday he was pink; so much has changed already. So much is changing still.

I wonder if SC will learn to love every version of J, as he so ardently loves just one part of him now?

For the first time in my life, I find myself hoping for a happy ending.

Oh dear. I’d better stop writing. I’m getting sentimental.