Jinho could never forget Hwitaek; and the first look he received from Hwitaek confirmed that he too recognised him. For a brief moment, it was like the past five years of separation had never happened—but there was nothing friendly in Hwitaek’s eyes. There was no sweet smile awaiting him.
Hwitaek was still angry. Jinho turned away; why did he ever agree to come to Hwitaek’s welcoming party? He positioned himself behind Wooseok and Yuto, for once pleased to be shorter than them. Just being on opposite sides of the room, separated by a throng of fellow trainees welcoming Hwitaek—including one very eager Hyojong who was clearly making Hwitaek feel at ease—didn’t feel like enough protection.
“Hey, Jinho,” said Hongseok. Jinho jumped; where on earth did the taller trainee appear from? “Have you met him yet?”
“No,” said Jinho. He looked up at Hongseok. “Have you?”
“I have. He said he’d trained with SM in 2009. I thought you might recognise him.”
Jinho wanted to wince at Hongseok’s words. If only he knew their full history. Instead, Jinho clasped his hands tight as he nodded; he tried not to worry about whether he was blushing or not.
“Now you mention it, he does look familiar.” Jinho turned to look at Hwitaek again, but he had moved somewhere else since.
“Lee Hwitaek isn’t exactly a common name.” There was a glint of suspicion in Hongseok’s eyes.
“SM had loads of trainees. I didn’t know all of them.”
“Have you met our hyung yet?” was all Jinho heard before Wooseok placed both hands on his shoulders, and manoeuvred him around so he was directly in front of Hwitaek.
Jinho just blinked as his mouth fell open a little. Was he still breathing? It felt like he’d stopped. Hwitaek’s face had matured, and he did seem taller than before, but otherwise he was still the same. It was bad enough that he had Hongseok eyeing him from behind, but he didn’t like the way Hwitaek was glaring at him either.
“Yes, we have,” said Hwitaek at last. His tone was civil, but there was no warmth in his words. “We trained at SM together.”
“We did,” said Jinho. There was no way he could avoid bringing it up, not when they were in the same agency again.
“Woah, no way hyung,” said Wooseok. Jinho turned around to see him, Yuto, and Hongseok all staring at him, followed by a barrage of questions: how long had they trained for? Did they know each other well? What was Hwitaek really like as a person?
Jinho clutched his head. “Sorry,” he said, without looking at anyone, “sorry, I’m not feeling too well. I’m going to head back to the dorm.”
Jinho made further excuses as he pushed past the other trainees, and he managed to escape the room, thankfully without Hongseok tailing him. He made his way to his dorm two floors down where, the moment he jumped into his bed, he sat with his knees pressed to his chest and stared at the floor.
Jinho had never wanted to end his relationship with Hwitaek. He had never been happier in those three months with his first, proper boyfriend—but then he was chosen for SM the Ballad, and the pressure had begun. This was his first real step to becoming an idol; he wouldn’t want to mess it up by having some semblance of a private life, would he? Who ever heard of an idol debuting as anything but single? Imagine if the press found out! He would be the first idol whose total number of fans was in negative numbers.
All the pressure had been too much, and so Jinho ended the relationship. They had both cried; a lot of screaming had been done on Hwitaek’s part; and Jinho had been left with the burden of emptiness and regret for the past five years. It had taken a lot of courage for him to become a trainee again; and now he had to face Hwitaek once more.
From that moment onwards, they were placed in the same classes. They saw each other five times a week, and ran into each other as they retired to their dorms for the evening; and yet, not a word passed between them, only a look to acknowledge the other’s presence. Jinho wanted to say something, but his brain always hollowed whenever they met; and Hwitaek was still unwilling to engage in any conversation with him.
What pained Jinho the most was watching Hwitaek and Hyojong drawing closer and closer. The two of them began to sit a little further apart from the rest of the trainees, and they often entered and left classes together too. Once, Jinho ended up sitting next to Hyojong in the car journey back to their dorms; and as Hyojong had never once turned his phone off, Jinho could see that he never stopped talking to Hwitaek on Kakao. It was exactly how Jinho had once behaved with Hwitaek. Had it really been that obvious back then?
Almost three weeks after Hwitaek’s induction, Hongseok was the first to make the observation to Jinho. They were at the back of the classroom, and sat next to Yuto and Hyunggu. Hwitaek and Hyojong were in full view on the other side, so Jinho angled his chair to keep as much of his back to them as possible.
“How long do you think it’ll take before they’re a couple?” said Hongseok. There was a pointed tone in his voice.
“How am I supposed to know?” said Jinho. “Maybe they’re just good friends.”
“Hmmmm.” Hongseok had his arms crossed. “No, they definitely look like they’re flirting.”
Jinho didn’t want to know, but he knew it would be weirder if he kept his eyes on Hongseok. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see Hyojong brush a strand of hair out of Hwitaek’s eyes. Hwitaek smiled, and Jinho was focused far too much on the way his eyes seemed to almost close shut and curve a little. He’d always thought his eyes complimented his smile; but to see him use it on Hyojong—! Jinho kept his face as straight as possible as he turned away.
“Hyojong’s just being nice to Hwitaek,” said Jinho. He wanted to brush Hongseok’s hair out of his face to prove his point, but he resisted. It might have been two months since Hongseok had tried to ask him out, but Jinho still had the feeling that Hongseok wasn’t quite over him yet.
“Hyung, there’s hair in your face,” said Yuto. He leaned over to brush Hongseok’s fringe aside; and Hongseok flinched and made a face at Yuto.
“Alright, fine,” was all Hongseok said, and he changed the subject.
Their group split up at the end of class. Hyunggu said something to Hongseok that held him back, leaving Jinho alone with Yuto. As they left their agency’s building, Jinho took the chance to thank Yuto.
“You don’t need to thank me,” said Yuto. “It’s obvious Hongseok hyung is still bitter.”
Jinho had no idea how the other trainees found out about him and Hongseok. He had been sure they’d been alone, and he really could have done without the mortification of turning up to the next class to find all eyes on him and Hongseok. Nobody had been too sure how to behave around them; and since Hongseok had seemed determined to keep things awkward, it had fallen on Jinho to smooth things over alone.
“I wish he’d stop being such a…” Jinho hesitated, wondering how to phrase his feelings in a way that Yuto, with his limited grasp of Korean, would understand.
“I get you,” said Yuto, smiling. “I just don’t understand his obsession with Hwitaek, or why he keeps bothering you, hyung.”
“He thinks I must know Hwitaek really well because we trained together at SM,” said Jinho, with a sigh, “but I keep telling him we never really talked. He didn’t even stay at SM for that long. He left while I was promoting—”
Jinho stopped, worried he’d given too much away. If his story was that he hadn’t seen Hwitaek that much, then how come he would know when he left the agency? Yuto stayed silent, and Jinho could sense that he had quite a few questions he wanted to ask. For a moment, he considered how much of the truth he wanted to reveal to Yuto. He knew that the Japanese trainee wasn’t a gossiper, and at the moment, he was certainly more trustworthy than Hongseok.
“I believe you, hyung,” said Yuto at last. They were within sight of the main entrance now.
Jinho smiled and, deciding it was wisest to say no more, changed the subject. They stayed together in the car journey back to their dorms, and although they talked, Yuto was distracted by his phone. Someone kept messaging him throughout the ride, and Jinho was careful to avoid looking when possible.
They remained together up until they arrived at the lobby of their dorms, where they found Hwitaek alone. Nobody spoke until a lift arrived; when it did, Yuto pulled his phone out of his bag again and excused himself, leaving Jinho and Hwitaek to share the lift together. Jinho had enough courage to utter Hwitaek’s name as the doors closed, but then fell silent as they went past two more floors.
“What is it?” said Hwitaek. He was looking up at the floor number instead.
“Can you tone it down?” said Jinho. “It’s so obvious you’re flirting with Hyojong.”
Hwitaek turned around so sharply it was like he was doing a double take. There was some surprise in his voice as he said, “I thought you didn’t care.”
“I don’t,” said Jinho, speaking in a forced tone of calmness. There was no reaction from Hwitaek; he was either genuinely indifferent, or he still hadn’t learnt how to distinguish when someone was lying to him. “What I care about is that Hongseok keeps bothering me. It’s doing my head in.”
The lift doors opened, and Jinho ran out without looking at Hwitaek. He thought he could hear him calling his name, but he convinced himself that it was only his imagination.
The next morning, Jinho was feeling restless; and after deciding that a walk around the building would do him some good, he went to take the stairs. When he neared the stairwell, however, he found the door had not shut properly, and he could hear Hyojong speaking. He peered through the window, where he could see the backs of Hwitaek and Hyojong; they were both sitting on the top step that led to the floor below.
“—but he’s quite nice,” Hyojong was saying. “I’d really love to debut in the same group as him.”
“What’s his deal with Hongseok anyway?” said Hwitaek. “It sounds like something happened between them.”
Hyojong turned to look at Hwitaek, and Jinho ducked down so he could only hear their voices. He was sure that they wouldn’t be able to see him properly if they turned to the window, but he wasn’t going to take any chances, especially if the conversation seemed to be about him.
“Don’t you know?” said Hyojong. “Hongseok tried to ask Jinho out about … two months ago now.”
“Jinho rejected him?”
“Yes. It was so awkward. Hongseok wouldn’t speak to Jinho. Hey, did hyung ever go out with anyone at SM?”
Jinho clasped both hands over his mouth, as a precaution. If only he could edge the door wider, so he could hear them better. He leaned in a little closer, not daring to touch the door in case it creaked. Why was Hwitaek taking so long to answer? He wasn’t about to tell the truth to Hyojong, was he—?
“I don’t know,” said Hwitaek. “We didn’t really see each other back then.”
“Oh.” There was disappointment in Hyojong’s voice. “I wondered why hyung never mentioned you.”
“How much has he told you about SM?”
“Not much. He doesn’t really like to talk about it. We still don’t really know why he left SM. Do you know?”
“No. I was in JYP by then.”
Jinho remained crouched as he tiptoed away from the door. He only stood up when he felt he was far enough, and he walked off. Hwitaek was guarding their secret too; Jinho could breathe a little easier now.
The incident happened during dance class on Monday. Their teacher had given them a five minute break while he went to the toilet, so Jinho had been joking around with Wooseok and Changgu when he heard Yuto screaming Hyunggu’s name from the other side of the studio—and Jinho saw Hyunggu lying unconscious in Yuto’s arms.
Jinho ran over, and he almost pushed Hwitaek out of the way as he stopped by Yuto. He kneeled down to check on Hyunggu; there didn’t seem to be any injuries, he wasn’t bleeding, and he was still breathing. Jinho looked up at the panicking trainees surrounding him; Wooseok was pale, but he was doing his best to comfort Yuto, who was still clutching onto Hyunggu with tears in his eyes; Hongseok didn’t seem to know what to do; Hyojong was clinging onto Hwitaek’s shoulders, and they were both as wide-eyed as each other.
“Someone get the teacher,” said Jinho. He heard someone run, and the door opened and closed. In a gentler tone, he said to Yuto, “Put Hyunggu down on his back.”
Yuto nodded as he lowered his friend down. Jinho was on Hyunggu’s left, and he stretched out Hyunggu’s left arm, making sure to keep his palm facing upwards. He folded Hyunggu’s other arm so the back of his hand rested on his left cheek, and with a slight stretch, Jinho managed to crook Hyunggu’s right knee into a right angle. He gently pulled on Hyunggu’s knee to roll him over until he was lying on his left side. Jinho tilted his head back, and was just making sure that Hyunggu could still breathe when he vaguely heard the door open, and their teacher appeared.
Jinho wanted to stay with Hyunggu, but then other members of staff came into the room, and they were all ushered into the studio opposite. What happened after that became a blur in Jinho’s memory; all he knew was that he went around, checking up on all the trainees, and that half the time had been spent hugging and comforting Yuto in particular. Then, at some point late in the evening, their teacher had entered the room with the news that Hyunggu was awake and responding well to the paramedics. There seemed to be nothing wrong with him, but it was determined that he should sit out of classes for the rest of the week, just to make sure.
They didn’t see Hyunggu again for the evening. The next evening bought a little more luck, for Yuto had been allowed to see him for an hour; and after he’d been forced to leave, the first person he’d gone to find was Jinho. Hyunggu was healthy and awake; and although he’d been told to rest, he was either practicing his singing or catching up on his studies.
This only left Jinho even more eager to visit Hyunggu; and when classes concluded the next day, he decided that he would check up on Hyunggu. He knew that Yuto was going to visit him again, and he was going to find him when he heard Hwitaek call his name. He lingered behind as the other trainees slowly filed out of the room.
“I didn’t know you knew first aid,” said Hwitaek.
“I only learnt it after I joined here,” said Jinho. “I didn’t expect to use it so soon.”
“Are you OK?” Hwitaek put his hand on Jinho’s shoulder. “You were probably the calmest out of all of us, but it must have still been a shock seeing Hyunggu like that.”
Jinho looked down at Hwitaek’s hand. His heart seemed to stop beating for a second. With a smile, he placed his own hand over Hwitaek’s, and he gently lifted it off his shoulder. He was mainly holding the back of his hand, but he still clasped his fingers across his palm as he lowered their arms by their sides. He felt Hwitaek’s fingers twitch.
“I’m OK,” he said.
Hwitaek looked concerned. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” said Jinho. He let go of his hand. “I’m 23 now. I’m everyone’s hyung here.”
Hwitaek never had the chance to respond; they were interrupted by agency staff to leave the room, and they ended up in separate cars back to their dorms. As Jinho was alone in the back, he was at liberty to think everything over in peace. He didn’t dare hope, but Hwitaek had been on the verge of holding his hand back—and he had even been looking out for him!
Then more melancholy thoughts began to settle. Their conversation had reminded Jinho that five years had passed, and that certain aspects of him had indeed changed over time. Yet all Jinho had seen so far was the same Hwitaek as before; but he must have changed too; the Hwitaek he missed couldn’t possibly exist anymore. Jinho closed his eyes, and only opened them again when the car parked up, and he heard seatbelts being unclicked and the doors sliding open.
The weekend came, and Hyunggu had suffered from enough cabin fever. He somehow convinced their managers that he really wanted to take a turn around the gardens that the back of their dorms overlooked, and he was allowed to go outside on the condition that Jinho and Yuto accompanied him. The three of them set off, but in the lift down, Jinho noticed how Yuto kept an arm around Hyunggu’s waist, even though Hyunggu didn’t need the support.
“I haven’t had a chance to thank you yet, hyung,” said Hyunggu. “Yuto told me that you put me in the recovery position.”
“It was the least I could do,” said Jinho.
“I’m so glad we’ve got you, hyung.”
Jinho glanced down again; Yuto’s arm was so firm around Hyunggu’s that his biceps had hardened. He let them exit the lift first, and then he made his excuses to go another direction as they stepped out of the lobby.
“Our manager said we had to stick together,” said Hyunggu, frowning.
“You’ll be fine with Yuto,” said Jinho. “Text me when you want to go back, yeah?”
Both Yuto and Hyunggu looked like they knew they should object, but they were just as pleased to be left alone together. Jinho watched them walk off first, before he wandered away in the opposite direction. For a few minutes, he followed the path without really paying attention to where he was going. Then, as he passed by a row of raised hedges, he heard Hyojong’s voice.
“I’m really happy you chose to join here.”
Jinho turned to his right to see Hyojong and Hwitaek sat on a bench. Hyojong’s back was turned to him, but Hwitaek was facing his direction. Jinho retreated by a large step so he was covered by the hedge once more, but for a split second he could have sworn that Hwitaek had seen him.
“Me too, Hyojong-ie,” said Hwitaek. “I never thought I’d meet such a great group of people.”
“I’m glad to have known you in particular.”
Through the leaves, Jinho managed to glimpse Hyojong resting his head on Hwitaek’s shoulder. His eyes widened. For a moment, he wanted to back away, but he couldn’t bring himself to move either. If Hwitaek and Hyojong did get together, he would rather see it happen than hear someone else tell a botched, embellished version.
Hwitaek turned his head past Hyojong’s, and right to the spot where Jinho was standing. The latter wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but they seemed to be making direct eye contact with each other. Then Hwitaek turned back, and he gently raised Hyojong’s head off his shoulder. Jinho still couldn’t see Hyojong’s face, but neither of them moved as a short silence passed between them.
“I’m not ready for a relationship yet,” said Hwitaek gently. He took one of Hyojong’s hands into both of his. “I really like having you as a friend, and I’d like it if we stayed that way.”
Jinho’s knees seemed to weaken, and he stumbled back from the hedge. If he had to fall, he wasn’t going to cling onto the plant and make himself known. How he managed to stay on his feet, or how he kept his breathing quiet he had no idea. Hwitaek didn’t want to date Hyojong—! He’d seen them flirt all this time—and, like Hongseok, he’d been sure they would start dating—but he’d just witnessed Hwitaek refuse Hyojong—!
“It’s alright, Hwitaek-ie,” he heard Hyojong say, “I’ll—”
It was at that moment that Yuto and Hyunggu appeared from the other side of the gardens. Hyunggu now had both arms wrapped around Yuto’s one arm, and his head was resting on Yuto’s shoulder as well. Jinho retreated even further, and he waited until he heard the four of them greet each other before he began to walk past, and then stopped to pretend that he had just seen the group too.
It was the first time he saw Hyojong’s face; and as they exchanged their “hi”s, Jinho studied the younger trainee. His face was redder than usual, his eyelids weren’t as heavy as before, and he did seem a little startled by the sudden appearance of three more people. Jinho didn’t dare look over Hyojong’s shoulder, where he could feel Hwitaek looking at him.
“We’re ready to go back, hyung,” said Yuto. He turned to the other trainees. “Do you want to come with us?”
Hyojong stood up, and he wriggled his hand out of Hwitaek’s. “Nah, I’m going to walk around a bit longer,” he said. “I’ll see you all later.” Without looking behind him, he walked past Jinho and soon disappeared out of sight.
Jinho only dared to look at Hwitaek when the latter also stood up, and he found himself making direct eye contact with him for a second. If he’d been hoping for any clues that he’d seen him beforehand, then he received none; Hwitaek was just looking at him. Then Hwitaek looked over at Yuto.
“I’ll come with you,” he said.
They left together, but there was a clear distinction on the way back. Hyunggu and Yuto remained glued to each other, and Jinho and Hwitaek kept their distance. Jinho’s silence stemmed from his doubts over whether Hwitaek had actually seen him or not. The latter’s lips kept twitching, like he was torn between saying something and maintaining his silence.
“Are you doing anything next weekend?” said Hwitaek at last, when they were in the lift up to their rooms. Jinho shook his head. “I haven’t really been out to the town since I came here. I’ve got permission to go, and … I was wondering if you want to join me.”
The lift came to a halt, and the doors opened on Hyunggu’s floor.
“Sure,” said Jinho, as the other trainees left. With a smile, he added, “I’ll come with you.”
Hwitaek smiled back, and Jinho hurried out. He hoped his face wasn’t too red, and he was glad that Hyunggu and Yuto were perceptive only to each other right now.
“You know what, Jinho?” said Hongseok, as he looked across the room, “I think you were right.”
Jinho followed his glance, and saw he was looking at Hyojong and Hwitaek. They were sat together, talking and joking as usual, but they were no longer isolated from the rest of the group. Then Hwitaek looked their way, and Jinho flinched.
“Of course I was right,” said Jinho. “You were reading too much into things.”
Hongseok didn’t look convinced. “I wonder what made them change their minds.”
“I’m curious as well.”
“Why are you smiling?”
Jinho started. Had he been smiling? He could have sworn he’d kept his face expressionless.
“I wasn’t,” said Jinho.
“I’m sure you were.”
“You imagined it.”
“You definitely smiled. Your face completely changes when you smile.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“It does. You look…” Hongseok narrowed his eyes, like he was about to say something he knew that Jinho would disagree with. “…you look cuter.”
“That’s just your opinion,” said Jinho, with a slight blush. As pleased as he was that they’d drifted away from Hwitaek and Hyojong, he wasn’t exactly going to pursue something that would give Hongseok false hope; so he cleared his throat, and without much effort, managed to change the subject.
Saturday came, and the plan was for Jinho to meet Hwitaek in the lobby. Things altered when the first lift came along and the doors opened, and Jinho laughed as he saw Hwitaek standing inside. He was in the middle of taking off his scarf when he too spotted Jinho, and his face became a mix of annoyance and surprise.
“What a co-incidence,” said Hwitaek, as Jinho joined him.
“You were always good with time,” said Jinho. “What’s wrong?”
Hwitaek rolled his eyes as he held his left arm out. He was wearing a denim jacket that was a shade lighter than his jeans, and at first, everything looked fine. Then Jinho saw the seam of the arm had split, about half-way between the armpit and elbow.
“I don’t know what I did it to it,” said Hwitaek. “I only noticed when I got in.”
“It’s not that obvious,” said Jinho.
“I know, but it’s bugging me a lot.” Hwitaek folded his scarf at the corners, so it formed the shape of a triangle. He then began to roll the scarf up, which he completed just as the lift doors opened to reveal the lobby. “I’m going to use this to cover up the split, but, erm … can you tie it for me?”
Jinho nodded, and they entered the lobby first before he tied the scarf around Hwitaek’s arm. The moment he pulled the knot tight, Hwitaek winced and his knees buckled a little.
“Ah—I don’t need a tourniquet—” said Hwitaek.
“Sorry.” Jinho laughed as he loosened the knot again. “Is that better?”
“Yeah,” said Hwitaek. He went to touch the scarf just as Jinho let go—and their fingertips ended up brushing.
Jinho flinched, his cheeks flushing. Hwitaek’s hand hovered on the spot before he clasped the knot. He kept his head down, but Jinho was sure he could see him blushing too.
“When did you learn to tie your scarf like that?” said Jinho, as they finally left the building, and they were making eye contact again.
“I just picked it up,” Hwitaek answered, with a shrug.
“You didn’t used to care that much.”
Hwitaek pressed his palm on his forehead. “Don’t remind me about that,” he said, in a mock pained voice, “I was young, I didn’t have much fashion sense back then, OK?”
So of course Jinho began to tease Hwitaek by reminding him about all the fashion disasters he’d seen whilst they’d been SM trainees. Hwitaek retorted with his own list; and they bickered until they arrived at the main shopping center, both out of breath from speaking and laughing so much.
Jinho didn’t speak much to Hwitaek during classes, and they usually sat apart, but afterwards, in their own rooms, they would text away to each other until one of them fell asleep first; and over the weekends, they often met up. For the days they stayed in, Hwitaek had found a way to pirate movies and TV shows on his laptop, and they ended up watching a mixture of Korean and foreign programmes.
They usually stuck to comedies, dramas, and thrillers. Once, Jinho had suggested they watched a popular horror film, but neither of them had been able to get through the first fifteen minutes before turning it off—and of course it was Hwitaek’s luck that he turned the film off just as a jump scare happened, and he’d screamed and scurried over to Jinho and hugged him tight. Another time, they were watching a drama where the main character died at the end; and Jinho, knowing very well that Hwitaek would cry, had already grabbed all the tissues he could find, and silently passed them over as they got through the end.
Jinho bought up the idea of watching My Love From The Star. “I heard it’s really good,” he said. He hovered the mouse over the play button. “Do you fancy it?”
“Mmmm…” was all Hwitaek said.
Jinho looked over his shoulder. “We don’t have to watch it.”
“I’ve gone off romantic shows,” said Hwitaek.
“Really?” Jinho turned around properly. “You used to like them.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t really watched any for the past—” Hwitaek’s face seemed to turn a brighter shade of pink. Without meeting Jinho’s eye, he continued, “—the past five years.”
Jinho’s natural reaction was to also avert his glare from Hwitaek. He focused on the floor instead.
“I haven’t really watched anything romantic either in these years,” he said, after a pause.
“I guess we’ve got a new thing in common then,” said Hwitaek, and he grinned. Jinho just chuckled in response, and he found another show for them to watch.
“Hyung, there’s something we need to tell you,” said Yuto.
Jinho had a good idea already, given that Yuto and Hyunggu hadn’t stopped holding hands since they’d arrived at his dorm. Still, he nodded and, with an encouraging tone, said, “Go on.”
“We’ve been together for a few weeks now,” said Hyunggu, beaming, “and we thought it was about time we started telling everyone.”
All Jinho could do was to smile and profusely congratulate them, and hug them both over and over, both individually and as a group. He pressed them for details about how they begun, and Yuto and Hyunggu took it in turns to tell the story. It wasn’t presented fluently; they contradicted each other on several points, and they refused to move on until they had, playfully, told each other off and sorted out who was in the wrong.
Watching them bicker bought a memory to the forefront of Jinho’s mind: he’d done this with Hwitaek before. They’d been about a month into their relationship when they’d gone over their getting together story. Jinho had insisted he had initiated the first kiss, and Hwitaek had disagreed; and what followed had been plenty of scuffling and giggling and kissing, yet their argument had remained unresolved. Then Jinho had thought the dorm was unusually hot that day, and, really, the best way to cool down was to strip all their clothes off and—
“Are you OK, hyung?” said Hyunggu.
“Yeah,” said Jinho, after a moment. With a smile, he added, “I’m just happy you’re finally together.”
Jinho kept smiling until they’d left his dorm. When he was alone in his room once more, he picked up his phone and found Hwitaek’s number. He had no idea how long he stayed still just staring at the screen; but the next thing he knew, there was a knock on his door, and he was bought back to reality.
Jinho went up to Hwitaek’s room the next Sunday, and they spent most of the afternoon going through videos on Naver. It wasn’t intended; Jinho had only wanted to look up an MV to settle a dispute, but then they began to click through other related videos, and that triggered them to search for something else, and so on. They kept going through videos until they somehow stumbled across the MV for Like OOH-AHH, by a new group called Twice.
“I’m sure this is the group from Sixteen,” said Jinho, as the video began.
“What’s Sixteen?” said Hwitaek.
“It was that survival show from JYP. There were sixteen girls competing to be in a girl group. Only seven of them were meant to debut, but then JYP added in two more.” He pointed at the screen. “Momo was eliminated, but he bought her back.”
Jinho continued to name each member, but when Tzuyu appeared, he froze. He remembered now that she had been one of the younger contestants; here was someone seven years younger than him, and already an idol at 16! She was a year younger than Wooseok, for goodness sake. Yet here he was, in his twenties, sat on the floor of his ex’s dorm, and still waiting for his chance.
“Who was the one in the uniform?” said Hwitaek. Jinho paused the video. “Jinho?”
“Sorry,” said Jinho. He looked at Hwitaek. “It’s just … all these idols debuting now are getting younger and younger. Tzuyu’s the maknae, and she’s only 16. You were her age when we got—” Jinho stopped, his face now as red as Hwitaek’s. “—you know.”
Hwitaek nodded. He said, “I’ve been thinking it over. If I don’t make it this time around, like, if I don’t debut, I’m going to give up.”
“Me too,” said Jinho, in a smaller voice.
They fell silent. Jinho could tell from Hwitaek’s face that there was something on his mind; but he had a feeling it wasn’t related to debuting. He began to fiddle with the hem of his jumper.
“Can I ask you something?” said Hwitaek, as he shifted his weight. Jinho nodded. “If we’d never … would you have gone out with Hongseok?”
“No. I could never like him as anything other than a friend.” He clasped his hands together. “I want to ask you as well … if I wasn’t here, would you have started with Hyojong?”
There was a flicker of guilt on Hwitaek’s face, but he shook his head.
“We would never have lasted,” said Hwitaek. “So … what did you do after you left SM? I heard from everyone else you’d joined here not long before I did.”
Jinho summarised all the important events of the last five years. He could see the concentration on Hwitaek’s face, and the latter did nod along and hum “um” and “ah” in agreement at certain points; but he was frowning as well, and Jinho knew from experience that Hwitaek was not fully satisfied with the answer. He was searching for something that Jinho hadn’t told him.
“You went through a lot, hyung,” said Hwitaek. “Did you—you don’t have to answer if—but did you ever—did you go on any dates?”
“No.” Jinho looked away as he answered. “What about you? Have you…?”
“No,” said Hwitaek.
If Jinho had been any more courageous at this point, he would have pushed the conversation further. Now was the best opening to admit that he had made a terrible mistake five years ago. Now was the time to tell Hwitaek how much he’d missed him, and how desperate he was to start over with him again. It was probably the one thing he wanted more than to debut.
There was a knock on the door, and Jinho started. Hwitaek went to answer it; and when he returned to his place, the mood had gone.
The first time Jinho heard that their agency was planning a new survival programme was on Saturday afternoon, when Hongseok burst into Hyunggu’s room. His entrance surprised everyone gathered—Jinho and Hyunggu, and also Yuto, Hwitaek, and Wooseok—but the news soon created a buzz of interest and excitement amongst them all. The rumour was that the staff were still considering which trainees to put forward; and the number of participants was said to be anywhere between seven to fifteen people, depending on who was being asked. In Hongseok’s case, he was sure there was going to be ten of them.
This excitement soon gave way when Jinho noticed how Hyunggu had grabbed Yuto’s hand straightaway. The two of them looked at each other, and Jinho decided to sit next to them on the bed. Hwitaek was sat at the desk next to them, but he was focused on his phone. Wooseok and Hongseok were sat on the floor by the door, and they were both still enthusing over the news. Their voices alone filled up the room.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all got to participate?” said Jinho.
“It would…” said Hyunggu. He was torn between excitement and concern. He looked at Yuto, who just nodded.
Jinho leaned in a little. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just … none of our managers know about us,” Hyunggu tugged Yuto’s hand. “I want us to debut together, of course I do, but … what if we get caught out?”
Jinho kept his glare firmly on Hyunggu and Yuto. If he looked at Hwitaek now, it would feel like he was back in the SM dorms again. He shuffled in closer, and lowered his voice.
“Don’t be worried,” he said. “I know how you feel. I … I’ve never told you this before, but I … wasn’t single when I was told I could debut.”
Hyunggu’s mouth fell open.
“You had a boyfriend?” said Yuto.
Jinho nodded. “I was like you two right now. The other trainees knew, but then they started to pressure me. So many people said I should break it off.” He sighed. “I listened, and it was the stupidest thing I ever did.”
There was a clatter, and Jinho started. He saw Hwitaek’s trembling hands pick up his phone from the desk. The noise halted Hongseok and Wooseok’s conversation too, and the room fell silent for a few seconds. Then the two of them began to natter away again.
“Hyung…” said Hyunggu first. He looked close to crying, and Jinho hugged him.
“Don’t cry,” said Jinho. “I’m not crying, and this happened to me.”
“I just thought it must have been really hard for you.”
Jinho felt Yuto pat him just below his shoulders.
“It was,” said Jinho, “It was really difficult staying in SM.” He let go of Hyunggu. “No matter what people tell you, stay together.”
“If our managers find out—” said Hyunggu.
“Worry about that later.” Jinho felt his phone buzz. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Hwitaek push his seat back. “It’s not easy, finding someone you love. I don’t want to see you both suffer as well.”
Jinho saw Hwitaek stagger to his feet, and he kept his head down as he walked out of the room. Jinho pulled his phone out of his pocket, and he checked his messages. Hwitaek had sent him a text full of spelling mistakes, but he still understood the message: Meet me in my dorm. I’ll be waiting.
“Hyung?” he heard Yuto say. “What’s the matter?”
Jinho looked up, wide-eyed. “I’ve got to go,” he said. “I’ll see you later.” He almost fell off the bed in his haste to get up, and he rushed straight past Hongseok and Wooseok without saying a word to them.
He had never realised how slow the lifts in their dorms were as he waited for one; but when he was inside, he thought the floor numbers were climbing up too fast. Maybe he shouldn’t have just ran out of the dorm like that—he should have at least calmed down first—but what if he had waited and Hwitaek couldn’t hold his nerve any longer, and Jinho had gone to find an empty dorm?—or, worse, what if he got this all wrong, and Hwitaek had wanted to meet him for another reason?
The lift doors opened, and Jinho began to take in deeper breaths as he stepped out. He didn’t move any further though, and he stood listening to the whir of the machine going down. He stuffed his hands in his pockets as he walked to Hwitaek’s dorm; but a second later, he pulled them out again and wrung his hands instead; and when he arrived at the door, he let his hands fall by his side.
Jinho arrived at the dorm, and he was about to knock when the door opened, and Hwitaek jumped upon seeing him. His cheeks turned red, and so did Jinho’s.
“I got your message,” said Jinho.
Hwitaek coughed once as he stepped aside. “Come in,” he said. “Sorry about my spelling. I, erm, my hand slipped.”
Jinho chuckled. “Don’t worry. I understood you.”
“Let’s talk in my room.”
Hwitaek led the way, mainly because Jinho didn’t have the courage to walk by his side. He was sure Hwitaek was nervous—he had to be—why else wasn’t he saying a word? He entered Hwitaek’s room, but they remained silent up until when Hwitaek shut the door, and they faced each other again.
They spoke at the same time, startling each other. After a few seconds of silence, they broke into brief giggles.
“It was my fault—” said Jinho.
“I heard you talking to Hyunggu and Yuto,” Hwitaek began, again at the same time; and Jinho chose to fall silent.
“Jinho-ya, I’m in love with you,” continued Hwitaek. “I’m in love with you all over again. I’ve been an idiot all this time. I thought I could move on from you, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. I … never realised how much I’d missed you until now, and I … hope I’m not too late.”
Jinho smiled, almost on the verge of tears as he drew Hwitaek into a tight hug. He shut his eyes for a moment, savouring the way that Hwitaek’s arms wrapped around his back, and then he pulled back just far enough so he could face Hwitaek again. He combed his hands through Hwitaek’s hair as he pressed their foreheads together.
“I’m at fault as well,” said Jinho. “I shouldn’t have listened to everyone. I should never have ended it. I missed you so much, and when I saw you again after so long, I never thought you’d love me again.” Without saying another word, Jinho kissed Hwitaek.
Nothing had changed; the shape and feel of Hwitaek’s lips on his was still the same, as was the way Hwitaek made small noises from the back of his throat, and all the euphoria running through Jinho’s entire body. They were back to 18 and 16 years old again for as long as their mouths touched. When they had to part, Jinho whined a little—they could have been pressed to each other for eternity, and it still would have felt too short—and Hwitaek’s immediate response was to giggle.
“What was that?” said Hwitaek, as he struggled to keep his face straight.
“Shut up,” said Jinho, smiling and blushing, “I’ve got five years to make up with you,” and he planted his mouth squarely on Hwitaek’s again.
“So, you two dated back at SM…” said Hongseok, as he looked at Jinho only.
“Yes,” said Jinho. He kept up eye contact with Hongseok, but under the table, he lightly squeezed Hwitaek’s hand.
“And when Hwitaek joined us, and you said you didn’t know him at all, that was a lie?”
“What are you, a private detective?” said Hwitaek. “You’ve asked, like, fifteen questions already.”
Hongseok just looked at them both, and then he put both hands on the back of his head and leaned back a little.
“You better take care of our hyung,” said Hongseok, now firmly glaring at Hwitaek. “If you hurt him—”
“Oh, let it go, Hongseok,” said Hyojong, from next to Hongseok. He didn’t look up from his phone, and nor did he take a break from texting. “Jinho hyung never wanted you. Find someone else.”
Jinho rested his head on Hwitaek’s shoulder. The worst was over; somebody on Hyojong’s phone was occupying his attention more than Jinho and Hwitaek combined; and, after all the questions, Jinho was sure Hongseok had no more objections.
“One more question,” said Hongseok. “Just one more, I promise. How did you get together in the first place?”
Jinho beamed. “I fancied Hwitaek-ie from the moment I saw him, so I asked him out. Can you remember where we went?”
“I think it was the cinema,” said Hwitaek, “it was a film we really wanted to see, but it turned out, well, a bit shit.”
“Oh—yeah—it did. Then we just sort of wandered around, and I kissed him—”
“No, I kissed you, remember?” Hwitaek looked down at Jinho, smiling.
Jinho sat upright. “We’ve been through this. I kissed you first.”
Hwitaek’s mouth was agape. “Your memory’s so bad, Jinho-ya—”
“I can still remember things from five years ago. We were facing each other like this—” Jinho stood up, and Hwitaek followed him.
“Hyung, hyung,” said Hongseok, “you don’t need to—”
“Yeah, we were,” said Hwitaek, without looking across the table.
“Then I held your hands—” said Jinho, as he grabbed Hwitaek’s hands.
“—and then I kissed you,” said Hwitaek, and he began to lean in.
“Hyojong, stop them—” was all Jinho heard Hongseok say, before he felt Hwitaek’s lips meet his, and he lost all interest in his surroundings.
Hyojong just laughed; Hongseok began to protest even louder; but all that mattered to Jinho was that Hwitaek was holding and kissing him again. He could let the disagreement slide for now.