there was never a break in time, there was never a definite pre and post. there was only waking up with a ring on his pinky, and going to bed without one.
there was a time before the shining lights though. when "minghao" was masked with "myungho", and beneath his shades of cotton candy was black like the night sky. all they ever knew back then was the yellow lights of the practice room at midnight, and how the lines of the wooden floorboards would distort when sweat trickled into a puddle. how the squeak of shoes sounded against each beat and how the sound of knees hitting the floor always broke through the soundtrack. the only difference then, minghao would say, were the strong arms that would pull him to his feet again. again, again, let's go again. and somehow, his shaky knees always manage to hold him up.
all they ever knew back then was the anxiety of tomorrow, would it be the stage that haunted their dreams for so long? or back to the same room where the only people that looked at them were their reflections in the mirror? just like how joshua would keep singing the same damn line, or how seungkwan would keep clinging onto hansol, it was like wearing the same tshirts over and over because that's how much he had in his luggage. the routine that had become his life. it was comforting, it was safe. because just like how he would always groan over little things like the emptied toothpaste at the end of the week, he always knew that he had someone to hold on to at night, when nightmares arose in his dreams or when home seemed particularly far away.
and then their small, god awful green room became olympus. blinding lights and thunderous screams that was a symphony in harmony with their own voices.
oh. so this is how it feels like.
but, after the makeup is wiped off, when his hair is no longer stiff with gel, it's back to the room with tightly packed bunk beds and junhui's warm body against his. it's easy to hide in a room full of people, but nearly impossible when the boy next to you looks at you even in the dark. junhui asks him what's wrong with a whisper on his collarbone, and so minghao whispers back.
it's junhui that tells him it's okay to love, so he does.
minghao kisses mingyu for the first time in the same room a week later. mingyu was easy to kiss, to hold, to love, and minghao needs someone to kiss, to hold, and to love. in his months with mingyu, he clings onto the older boy. both figuratively and literally. he clutches onto mingyu like he's an anchor, like minghao's afraid that he's going to be washed away. or maybe really, he's just afraid that he himself will end up drifting away. when minghao realises this, he can't help but taste the the bitterness of burnt toast every time he kisses mingyu, he can't help but feeling scorched after every touch. so he ends it.
junhui's there to help minghao through it. he feels his heart clench, but it's only a dull ache. he strokes minghao's hair and tells him it's okay. he just wishes he could tell minghao he loved him. but no, he can't. too soon, too soon. at least he doesn't have to bite his lip every time he sees minghao and mingyu slip away after dinner. it's not to say they fell out though, mingyu is still just as easy to love, just not in that way anymore.
but at least back then he had an anchor. minghao reaches for his phone, more emails with job offers, an acting gig, discussions for a tour. sometimes he forgets that he never sent a text message the night before, and that a quirky reply will never come. it hasn't for years, and maybe it's his own fault. like a momentarily confused magnet, he doesn't know whether he wants to pull or be pulled. his phone lights up with a call.
“myungho, the ceo's expecting you today, you need to discuss your november schedule."
minghao hums in response, he knows what they really need to discuss and his skin prickles. he pads out of bed towards his closet, where his coats and shirts hang neat and ironed. he flicks through the shirts but he's not really looking until he realises that he picked out white shorts and a brown winter coat.
"we need to figure out if the reunion stage is possible"
ah, there it is. minghao wants nothing more, but can't help but dread the meeting. he can't have his hopes crushed again like last april, when junhui's new drama, soonyoung's tour, chan's comeback was just too much. the prospect of seeing them again makes him feel more alive than he had in months, and minghao felt pathetic. maybe it was more than just disappointment, maybe it was the fact that they had moved on past minghao, while minghao is still stuck in retrospect. it's not to say he hasn't progressed. in fact, his face is maybe the most recognised face not just in Korea, but in the world. arguably, he was the one who ended up riding the wave the furthest. (so why does he feel like he's drowning?)
he hums again in response before the call ends.
"i want to be a star"
"i want to have a house by the sea, where i admire the sunset with my dog and my lover"
out of all of them, it was minghao who always seemed to know where he was going. he had said it so many times that this was his answer by habit, and at some point, he forgets if it's even what he wants anymore. he doesn't question it though, because these are the two things he's always wanted for as long as he has known. while he knows that people change, he forgets that this includes himself.
now he's not so sure anymore. the inkling feeling is still there, it'll never fade he reckons. just like the memories he carries in his heavy heart. no matter how small that feeling gets, it'll never truly be gone, not when it's tied with memories of what seems like basically half his life. so he tells himself this is what he wants. it's easier to convince himself until he believes it. that is, if he ever truly believes it.
minghao puts the shorts back and pulls out a pair of black pants. he goes to put his phone down on the dresser, but can't help but look down for a second longer than he should have. minghao's heart constricts when he glances at the picture junhui chose for his wallpaper all those years ago. he hasn't changed it in forever, his hair was still wine red if that said anything. it just doesn't feel right to change it, and it'll hurt too much to do so. minghao never ponders about it, but if he did, he would have realised that he's always needed that anchor. maybe he's just torturing himself at this point, or maybe he's waiting for the day his heart stops pounding when he looks at the photo.
it takes jihoon, victor and zhengting for minghao to figure it out. by thaty’ve time, the years have trickled by. all those years ago, it was never about whether it was okay to love, it was about whether it was okay to love junhui. and minghao realises maybe a beat too late.
minghao kisses junhui for the first time after their last ever stage, their last ever say the name, their last ever goodbye. a dichotomy between a beginning and an end. maybe in another universe, another timieline. but not now, it was never meant to last. and minghao realises maybe a beat too late. yet junhui lets minghao kiss him, a consolation if anything. whether it's a consolation for minghao or junhui, he doesn't know.
minghao does have to admit that it was nice while it lasted. that is until their paths diverge. seungcheol and jeonghan enlist, junhui returns to china, minghao stays in korea as myungho and the rest of them are scattered about. focusing on building a name for themselves and not for them as a collective. it's unfamiliar at first, an apartment that seems too empty without mingyu fussing over the tiniest amount of dirt or wonwoo playing his shooting games without headphones. when junhui calls to check up on how he's doing, minghao says he's fine. he's really not. junhui says he's fine too. but he really is fine.
"i finally got casted!"
minghao smiles into the receiver. he knows junhui can't see it. "that's amazing ge, i'm sure you'll kill it"
and that's how the conversation goes, just like many others that follow every once in a while. too short for minghao to spill his heart out, but too long to keep hearing junhui breathe on the other side that it makes him go insane.
the meeting goes well, and the reunion is confirmed. it's been months, maybe even years since minghao has felt this light. all those years ago he thought reality was infinite, and now he feels like he's stolen more time. it's like fate knew, and it's giving minghao another chance to turn the timer upside down, another chance for the sand to flow once last time.
for the first time, minghao manages to get through his recordings for the day without a hitch. he lies to himself and pretends that it’s just another one of those days where he’s recording without the members and that they’ll have saved him dinner by the time he returns to the dorm. he pretends that it’s not a reunion in a few weeks time, but just returning home after a particularly long break. it’s easy to pretend that they last forever, because in some regards they do. seokmin never fails to send him updates every now and then and mingyu never fails to pick up the phone despite being half way across the world. so in some ways, they are forever drifting but forever connected.
november cannot come sooner in minghao’s opinion. returning to the members makes him feel like he’s odysseus returning to ithaca. The world may have forgotten about the8, but like penelope recognises odysseus, the members all hug him like they had never parted before.
the cheers ring in their ears one more time, and the waving lights are enough to fill an ocean of darkness. they sing their hearts out one last time, they dance with desperate passion, like it’s the night before their debut.
“we can do this hao, we have to, we have to”
they’re laying sprawled on the hard wooden floor, minghao’s head next to junhui’s. their sweat makes their bangs stick to their foreheads and their muscles feel like they are about to break. yet their eyes sparkle, like a fire has been lit within. minghao turns his head and glances out the window. it’s pitch black but he knows the stars are out. and he believes that fate really has a way. that the only reason he’s allowed to feel this wave of excitement amongst exhaustion is because he exists under these stars, because he exists along with twelve stars.
“come on guys, one more time”
seungcheol’s voice breaks him out of his thoughts and he heaves himself up to join his members.
it’s after the reunion stage where everything starts to hit. they all joke and laugh like they used to, but now they’re also talking about their own lives. an aching reminder that life goes by too fast to even catch hold of it. minghao finds himself between chan and soonyoung in the van. he notices that they had both grown since he last saw them but chooses to ignore it. Instead, he reminisces the times when they recorded for music bank at ungodly hours and pretends that this is just one of those nights. (that is until they vans stop and they are at their hotel)
they’re all staying at the same hotel in seoul, only that it’s thirteen rooms now. they agree to spend the next day together for one final time before retiring to their own separate rooms. minghao wonders if maybe they all are pretending that this is just another tour stop, another day as seventeen, just one last time. he doesn’t have time to wonder because junhui catches up with him first. A knock on his door and there he stands, still in his stage attire. minghao invites him in and they sit on the bed, next to each other, not touching, but close enough that minghao can move his hand and it would brush against junhui’s. closer than they had been in years, both emotionally and in physical proximity.
it's easy to hide in a room full of people, but nearly impossible when you sit next to a boy who has known you for over a decade. junhui doesn’t need to ask minghhao what’s wrong, he knows. he knows. instead, he asks minghao what he’s running from, and minghao tells him. at some point, junhui’s hand slips into minghao’s, and he doesn’t protest.
“you know, we all exist under orion right? it doesn’t matter whether if you’re here with us in seoul, if you’re with me in china, or if you’re just myungho wherever in the world. you don’t have to follow after the stars, they follow you.”
minghao grips onto junhui tighter, like he’s a lifeline. junhui lets him and continues. “expecting anything to last forever is ridiculous, because all we have is now hao. now. good or bad alike, none of it is forever. i think all of us have had to come to terms with this.”
with skin pressed onto the skin, his shoulder leaning into junhui’s, he finally begins to realise, this time not too late. the him now, doesn’t need to align with his past or future. in a flash of clarity, all he needs is to find balance within himself now. he doesn’t need to worry about what minghao, myunghho or the8 would think, he just needs who he is now.
in a second of impulse, minghao leans in to kiss jun. it might as well have been the first time since it had been so long, too long. junhui melts into minghao’s touch, and for now, it all seemed okay. fuck fate, destiny, or alternate universes. because right now, minghao wants junhui, and junhui wants him back. it will have to be gradual, but minghao begins to realise that even if who they are now don’t exist forever, they will always exist in some form or another. so while nothing lasts forever, confined to a shape or a form, in one way or another they will go on forever.