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The Emperor of a Dead-Eyed Kingdom

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“I wish you would give these people a fair chance.” 

I wish you would give these people a fair chance,” Kihyun imitates Hyungwon, mimicking his deep voice and slow cadence. “Playing guitar takes much more than tugging a few strings. Where’s the passion? Where’s the charm? Where’s the STAGE PRESENCE?” 

Hoseok sighs as their lead singer goes on another rant about stage presence. He zones out and doesn’t feel bad about it. By now, he has heard it after every audition that they had held over the past 15 days. He feels like he is caught in a time loop where every day starts with the hope of finding a guitarist and ends with Hoseok, Hyungwon, Kihyun, and Jooheon slouching on the beat-up sofa in Jooheon’s grandma’s basement while listening to Kihyun rant about, well, stage presence. 

“Okay, Beethoven, calm down. It isn’t that serious,” Hyungwon says, his eyes clenched shut as if merely looking at Kihyun will make him stab his own eyes out with a fork. Hoseok knows this because it’s what Hyungwon had shouted yesterday while gritting his teeth as Kihyun had finished his rant. 

“Please tell me you are fucking with me right now. Surely, starting our tour with a decent guitarist is serious enough to warrant your attention?” Kihyun sneering is a thing of beauty. Hoseok is yet to see someone affect others with just the right intonation as Kihyun does.

Kihyun could say ‘I love you’ to someone with just the right twist of his tongue, and the words would wrap the listener’s neck in a deadly grip until they are choking with hatred. Hoseok is absolutely terrified of Kihyun’s power. He is also pretty sure that someday someone is going to beat Kihyun to death. It would be a sad day but Hoseok won’t be able to say in court that Kihyun was innocent. 

Sticks and stones may break your bones but Kihyun’s words will twist your bones, crush them, grind them into dust until all that is left of you is some intangible memories.

“What warrants my attention is how selling your kidneys for a dollar will have much more worth for this band than your whole presence right now.” Hyungwon taunts. 

In Hoseok’s opinion, if Kihyun is blue fire, then Hyungwon is glacier ice. He hasn’t seen anyone retort to Kihyun with such laidback nature as Hyungwon does. His visage speaking of his amusement rather than anger. His whole persona of a man sunbathing while watching an angry monkey dance. 

He takes Kihyun’s words and his tone as if they aren’t thorny vines but just a badly sung lullaby. It’s annoying but nothing that some headphones or a light smack wouldn’t solve, his patient smile says. 

If Kihyun is impulsiveness, then Hyungwon is patience. But he does have his moments as well. Once a year, he’ll let something get to him and then they’ll see the tornado that had been building and building with the pressure mounting on him. It leaves them all injured and their places in tatters. It always happens so swiftly that they can’t ever anticipate and prepare for it.  

Kihyun scoffs. “As if. I am the lead singer. The fuck you’ll do without me? Work in a circus probably, you lanky freak.” 

Hoseok’s groan gets ignored by the now bickering duo in front of him, sighing he lets his body droop on the couch, eyes flickering sideways to see that Jooheon has his eyes closed, oblivious to the chaos around him with his headphones on. He wishes, not for the first time, that he was the youngest so he didn’t have to act mature and babysit all of them at such times. 

“...What do you even know about playing? All you do is scream and make disgusting faces at girls in the audience.” Hyungwon states, his patient smile widening if anything else. 

“Guys!” Hoseok shouts and finally, his two bandmates look at him. 

“This is getting out of hand. Listen to me, okay? Kihyun, Hyungwon is right, you need to lower your standards. You are hoping for a miracle that doesn’t exist,” Hoseok puts up a hand, already anticipating Kihyun’s protests, “and Hyungwon, you need to take this more seriously. Our new guitarist will be a part of us. They won’t only go on tour with us but they’ll also help us in composing our future albums. Hell, their name will be linked with ours from then on. They need to be someone skilled and a good person.” He emphasizes his last sentence with a resolute nod.

They both nod back. Kihyun chastised, Hyungwon patient. Hoseok turns his head to look at Jooheon to make sure he heard him but finds the boy snoring. A fond smile creeps on his lips and he takes off Jooheon’s headphones. 

When he looks up, he finds the same smile reflected on his bandmates’ faces, reminding him that in all this chaos, he has to make sure that their friendship stays untainted. 

Hyungwon’s phone vibrates and he unlocks it, his movements slow. “Hyunwoo just texted me. He is almost here. Let’s move up?” Hyungwon whispers, his fingers already typing a response. 

 

***

 

“No,” Kihyun declares, his arms folded in defense not daring to go his full feral mode in front of Jooheon’s grandma. 

They are now sitting on the couch in the living room. Hyunwoo sitting in the lone chair beside the couch. Jooheon’s grandma puts a tray full of cute little sandwiches and orange juice on the table right in front of them. “I am going to go buy some groceries. You kids want anything?” 

They all shake their heads, already guilty of disturbing her with their loud arguments. Hoseok asks her if she wants the company of a handsome young man. Her dimples peek out from her wrinkles but she pinches his cheek and rejects him like every other time.

Just as Hoseok shuts the door behind her, Hyunwoo starts. “Kihyun, we are running out of time and frankly, you’ve auditioned all the people that will fit with you guys.” His face holds no expression but the subtle grumpiness in his tone is loud to everyone in the room. 

Hyunwoo, in Hoseok’s eyes, can never do anything wrong. If tomorrow Hyunwoo asked him to jump from a cliff to find a guitarist, Hoseok would jump with a smile. Amidst the fire and ice of their group where strong personalities clash, a sword strike to a limb, an arrow to the eye, blood on their clothes, Hyunwoo is his shield, their shield. Their safe house. Their anchor.

They had met the man two years ago when they had just finished touring for their first album. There was apprehension in his heart when Jaebum, their label owner, had assigned them Hyunwoo as their manager but that soon changed as they worked with him. 

They were cocky, barely adults who thought that the world should be grateful for their music. Their early fame was heady and in their mind, they were the shit. They were riding high on the overwhelming success of their first album that soon saw them in a haze of parties, alcohol, drugs, and groupies while touring.Their love for music became secondary to their love for fame.  

Looking back, it had been pathetic the way they acted and Hoseok couldn’t believe that they had been so self-destructive. 

It was Hyunwoo, their newly appointed manager, and Jaebum’s disappointed lectures which kept them in line and finally made them snap out of their trance. If they both had delayed their intervention, they would have continued on the same path that would’ve seen them to a short-lived career and a destructive lifestyle.

Sometimes when Hoseok starves himself for two days straight for a big performance, he still feels that he is headed to the same end. The difference is that there is no one to interfere or join him this time around.  

Their second album was written in a stage of healing and renewal. Hyunwoo had rented them a cabin in a secluded hilly area. And lying in its backyard, they had written songs about summer and lost loves as the warm sunlight had wrapped them in its arm until they had found their love for music again.

It took them a lot of time to record the album, always tweaking, always improving until the final song just vaguely resembled their original hummed-out tune. 

Hoseok had drawn lyrics from his whimsical dreams and mixed it with the fallibility of humanity. He wrote about love, carnivals, and ticking clocks with wooden legs. He painted pretty pictures with the brush of absurdity in his hands. There’s a song about a scarecrow working as a drug farm entrepreneur, a song about a sad clown and a happy butcher, there are fairy tales that end with a car crash. There’s life and death but it’s yellow and summery. 

Hyungwon had spent nights searching for instruments and arrangements that could capture that perfect summer sound. Kihyun had recorded the songs in a new singing style that was more cheery and less I-hate-everything-so-I’ll-scream-my-lungs-out. Jaebum had flown in from a vacation and had played the guitar for all their songs because their own guitarist, Gunhee, had cracked right after the first tour and left them to live his life without fame.

When Jaebum had heard the final songs, he had stared at them as if he couldn’t believe they were the same cocky teens who had written about sex, cheating, cutting, and giving the finger to the man, complete with angsty convoluted metaphors. 

Where the loud music used to compete with Kihyun’s high notes before, Kihyun’s voice made love to their mellow tunes now.

“It’s weird. I like it.” Hyunwoo had told the three eager children who had been looking at him with stars in their eyes. Later, at night, as Hoseok had played the album on repeat, he had thought, “You saved us, Hyunwoo. You saved us. You saved me and you don’t even know it.”

 

“Are you sure about that, Hyunwoo. I think you are just shirking from your job as our manager.” Kihyun’s cutting tone makes Hoseok snap out of his daydreams. 

Hyunwoo sighs and rubs his forehead, a familiar gesture of frustration. Hoseok can’t help but feel awful for him so he intervenes. “Kihyun, please. Let Hyunwoo finish.” 

“Thank you, Hoseok.” Hyunwoo, with his patience of a saint, smiles at Hoseok. “I really did call in everyone and I would’ve believed you if I hadn’t been here for some of the auditions myself. There were some good people there but for some reason or another, one of you,” He looks at Kihyun meaningfully who sticks his tongue out in response, “had a reason to reject everyone.”

“No, they were awful and I won’t let my band flop because of mediocrity.” Kihyun declares, his eyes daring anyone to oppose.

So, of course, Hyungwon dares. 

Our band will flop if we didn’t decide on a guitarist soon. We are starting our tour in a week, the fuck you think we have time to indulge your fantasy.” 

Before they can start bickering again, Hoseok decides to put a stop on it. “You say that Hyungwon but you didn’t decide on a guitarist either.” 

Kihyun’s triumphant ‘Aha’ gives Hyungwon a reason to look betrayed but Hoseok just shrugs and smiles.

“You are wrong. I did like one,” Hyungwon drawls and for some reason, Hoseok feels like an idiot. Kihyun and Hyungwon are similar this way. They always make him feel like an idiot with just the right stress on all the wrong words. Sometimes he just manhandles them till they whine their apologies, at other times they keep him up at night until he has dissected his every insecurity. 

“Oh? Who?” Kihyun’s voice is curious and even Hoseok is intrigued. 

“Changkyun’s friend? That shy guy who had stuttered through his introduction. What was his name? I can’t remember it.” Hyungwon’s voice trails off as he tries to summon that name out of the deep wells of his memory. 

“You don’t even remem-”

“Lee Minhyuk.” Hoseok interrupts Kihyun and immediately feels everyone’s eyes on him. 

Hoseok remembers Lee Minhyuk not particularly because he stood out with his guitar playing. He remembers him because when he had introduced himself, all shy and self-conscious, Hoseok had thought that he was cute and when he had almost tripped and let his guitar fall from his hands and then scurried to pick it up, his eyes looking hopeless, Hoseok was forced to revise his decision and give him the title of ‘The most adorable kid on the earth’.

He hadn’t thought of him in the last eight days that had passed since he last saw him but now that Hyungwon mentions him, his image floats in Hoseok’s mind again and he decides that Minhyuk still retains that title.

“I remember him. He had all the chords memorized, he played well. His original riffs were alright too. You could see that he practiced a lot.” Hoseok shrugs, giving his unbiased opinion. 

“Well, so did many people. What makes him special?”  

Hoseok shrugs again because he doesn’t have the answer. 

What made Minhyuk special? 

Maybe it was the way he had looked at his fingers so intently while strumming as if judging his every tremble and every fumble. 

Maybe it was the way he had given a quick forced smile when Kihyun had told him that they’ll call him back and let him know their decision. 

Maybe it was the way he had turned at the door and stole another glance at Hoseok who was looking at him back.

Maybe it was the way he had smiled widely at him when their eyes had locked before leaving. 

There are so many things but none will convince Kihyun or anyone sane. Now that Hyungwon had mentioned his name though, Hoseok couldn’t help but root for him. After all, among the sea of people that they had auditioned, Minhyuk stands out in his memory. Even if he can’t put a finger on it, his intuition tells him to go with the flow.

Luckily, he doesn’t have to untangle these knots that overwhelm his thoughts right now because Hyungwon takes it upon himself to convince Kihyun.

“He performed well. You can tell that he really likes music from the way he was singing under his breat-” 

“We aren’t looking for a back-up vocalist, we have plenty of those. We are looking for a GUITARIST. He was mediocre. He had memorized all the chords, his playing was robotic. It was a cheap imitation of Jaebum’s own style. His original riffs were okay but then so was everyone else’s. We aren’t looking for a touring guitarist who’ll fade into the background, we need a member. Someone who’ll stand among us and still stand out.” 

“What do you mean by mediocre! He played every chord perfectly. He wasn’t robotic, he was tense just like we were when Jaebum had auditioned us for the first time. He’ll loosen up. Of course, he imitated Jaebum. Did you expect him to show off his own style while playing our song in which Jaebum played the guitar? You didn’t ask him to play in his own style. As for fading into the background, did we actually look at the same person? Did you even see his face? Girls are going to eat him up,” he pauses, seemingly realizing something and adds, “and boys.”    

“Take up your gay fantasies somewhere else. I didn’t mean his face, I meant his playing. All of us except Hoseok were still in our teens when we had auditioned, so that’s not even a fair comparison.”

“It’s a fair comparison, he just turned 20!” 

“Great, we are adopting a child then!” 

Hyungwon runs a hand through his hair, and Hoseok knows that soon Hyungwon will start taunting Kihyun who will take the bait and start screaming at him. 

“Guys?” Jooheon’s sleepy voice comes from the door and Hoseok breathes a sigh of relief. Jooheon yawns, his eyes barely open and dawdles towards him. He cuddles up to him like a particularly affectionate cat and Hoseok indulges him by patting his hair. 

“Are they still fighting about the guitarist?” his third favorite kitten yawns. 

“Yes.” Hyunwoo and Hoseok say.

“No.” Hyungwon and Kihyun lie.

“Hmmm. What about the guy who was Changkyun’s friend?” 

Hyungwon smiles like he hadn’t for the past 15 days while Kihyun groans. “What’s with everyone and that guy?” 

Jooheon shrugs. “He played well. He is pretty. He is Changkyun’s friend and Changkyun rarely recommends his friends.” 

“Choosing him just because he is Changkyun’s friend is nepotism and I won’t stand for it.” 

Hyungwon rolls his eyes. “No one is choosing him because he is Changkyun’s friend. We are choosing him because Changkyun recommended him. That’s different. As Hoseok said, we need someone who can play and is not a bad person. With others, we don’t have any chance of knowing that. Considering that we’ve known Changkyun for four years now, two of which he has been our rodeo, I think we can trust his judgment.”

Jooheon chimes in, his tone whiny, “Come on, it’s Changkyun! He would rather die by eating rat poison than take responsibility for another person, yet for some reason, he is taking responsibility for this one. That ought to mean something!” 

Hoseok can tell by Kihyun’s deflated shoulders that he is giving in but stubborn Kihyun who would join Changkyun in eating rat poison rather than agree with Hyungwon just shakes his head. 

“Okay, that’s enough. All the arguments have been made. Unless you have another name, we’ll go with Minhyuk. We can always let go of him after the tour if you don’t like him. Agreed?” 

Everyone except Kihyun nods. Hoseok knows that Hyunwoo won’t move this along until everyone agrees so he elbows Kihyun gently. “I think he’ll be great. Trust me?” 

Kihyun stares at him, apprehension clear in his body language, and Hoseok thinks of another time when he had asked Kihyun to trust him.

They were still in school when Kihyun had found out that his girlfriend had cheated on him. The news had made Kihyun shake with fury not knowing what to do or who to blame. 

Like the hothead he is, he had invited the other guy for a fight behind the school building. Hoseok had tried stopping him but all Kihyun saw was red and all he heard was the other guy mocking him for his height. 

He had come with six people and Kihyun had come alone with Hoseok trailing behind him, still trying to stop him. Finally, when he had seen six people on the other side of the road, who looked older and stronger than him, probably in college, Kihyun had snapped back to reality. But, he was prideful and stubborn and had refused to retreat. 

Watching Kihyun’s foolishness, Hoseok had sighed and walked towards the other group alone. Kihyun shouted behind him, asking him what he was doing. He had turned and just like now, had asked, “Trust me?”, Kihyun had nodded dumbfounded. Hoseok had told him to wait for him and had gone up to the guy who looked ready to pounce on him. 

When he had come back and covered the distance between him and Kihyun, the guys were retreating but not before giving Kihyun a mocking salute. Kihyun thankfully had just gritted his teeth and bore it. 

“What did you do?” he asked. 

“Nothing. Just told them that you were angry and hurt, and didn’t mean it. They were understanding.” Hoseok lied. 

The next day, he had handed over his complete comic collection to the guy. Comics that he had collected since he was a mere child, comics that he had continued to collect well into his teens while doing odd jobs because he didn’t want to burden his parents. 

His comic collection was his pride and made him famous in their school but Hoseok gave it up with only a slight hesitation because it wasn’t worth Kihyun’s battered face and body. He had asked Kihyun to trust him after all. So, he had given it up and didn’t utter a word to anyone even as he sobbed well into the night because the loss seemed so big and made him feel so empty at the time. 

Kihyun had come over the next week and snooped in his cupboard to take out something to read and found it empty. He had connected the dots when Hoseok had sputtered to make up a lie. It was the first and the last time he had seen Kihyun sob and blubber his apologies while clutching Hoseok, repeating his promises to do better. 

Kihyun had paid him back by gifting him comics every month from then on. And then, years later, came the time when Hoseok had broken down and couldn’t get out of the mattress in his rented room because he felt worthless. 

His rose-colored glasses had cracked when he entered business school and he was disheartened by the reality. He had retreated into his mind, blaming himself for his inability to go on with his major in business because everything seemed so ruthless and cold in its utilitarianism. 

First semester in and he had already given up. He had asked himself to stop being a weakling and just attend his classes like everyone else but his body had refused to get up.

Kihyun had come like an angel of destruction and had hauled him up, forced him to clean up and then made him ramen. Hoseok’s mind that has a tendency to always fly away to fantastical places when people talked stayed put that day as Kihyun had talked to him.  

The next day, he had called his mum, sobbed his heart out, and finally, finally dropped out. For the next six months, he lived on the money that he made off from doing odd jobs. He was still not sure of his career but Kihyun and Hyungwon helped him or otherwise he would have caved in for an unsatisfying career in anything just to feel less like a waste of space. 

Depression and isolation is a breeding ground for art, Kihyun had scolded him for thinking this way. He had told him to stop romanticizing his suffering but Hoseok didn’t know how to do that. Escaping into his fantasies where his suffering was just fodder for his lyrics, he had written and written and written. 

He wrote of cheating girlfriends, Kihyun’s experience. He wrote of drugs, his girlfriend’s experience. He wrote of standing up to the man, Hyungwon’s experience. He wrote of alcoholic fathers and neglecting mothers, Jooheon’s experience. He wrote of body image issues, Gunhee’s experience. 

He wrote about everyone’s experience, vision, idealism, and suffering. He uncovered them layer by layer and took out all the bad bits till every song hurt, every sentence pierced, every word cut. 

Finally, he wrote about a doll in a glass cage surrounded by suffering, watching it, observing it, bawling about it but doing nothing, always blaming her class cage. One day, her glass cage cracks and she gets out of it, only to realize that she can’t do anything about the suffering surrounding her so she glues her cage back and then retreats, blaming the glass cage for her inaction again. He had finished it and called it his own song. 

Kihyun had found these lyrics in his diary and overnight they shifted from a Blink-182 cover band to someone...someone else. They had recorded the songs in Jooheon’s grandmother’s living room, and Hyungwon and Jooheon produced their demos in GarageBand. 

Hoseok hadn’t expected anything. He really hadn’t. It was fun but nothing more. Instead, he finally had felt a glimmer of hope when someone had spotted him doodling in the park and had asked him to make him an illustration of a kid playing with bunnies. Hoseok shrugged and drew it. His bunnies exaggerated in their cuteness and the kid manga-ish. The man had bought the sketch for him for 10 dollars. It wasn’t much but suddenly Hoseok had realized that he could do this. He could start a career in illustration or art or something like that. 

Even before he could tell Kihyun and share this exciting news, Kihyun had called him. What followed changed the course of their futures. It got him into this band. It made him part of this exciting life with his friends. It made him find his calling. 

Now it was time to extend what the universe gave him to someone else. 

Perhaps, that was it. Minhyuk was special because he reminded him of a younger Hoseok who had the same helplessness in his eyes with the same self-deprecation in his body language.

Except. 

Except that’s not it. Except there is a hidden confidence, a hidden passion, a hidden determination that had peeked out from Minhyuk’s abrupt and mischievous smile. Whatever it was, it had Hoseok intrigued. And, yeah, that was it. 

Minhyuk was special because he intrigued him while the other people in all the other auditions didn’t. 

So, when no answer comes, he asks again, this time staring into Kihyun’s eyes. “Trust me, Kihyun?” 

Kihyun’s eyes soften as they always do when Hoseok spoke in his soft voice. “Yeah, of course.” 

They smile at each other but their moment is broken by Hyungwon clapping his hands. “Finally, Hyunwoo please call him or Changkyun and arrange stuff. We’ll start practicing starting tomorrow. We only have a week after all before the biggest tour of our lives!” 

Hyunwoo smiles. “It’s just your second tour. Hopefully, there will be many to come.” 

Jooheon closes his eyes, ready to sleep again, a soft smile pouting his lips, “Amen.” 

Amen.

Chapter Text

“Christ. Is he going to be late on his first day?”

The irritation in Kihyun’s tone makes Hoseok look up from his diary.

It takes him a moment to find the source of the voice but he finally finds Kihyun hovering near the door, ready to attack Minhyuk as soon as he enters. Even though Hoseok is sitting against the farthest wall of the practice room, he can still see Kihyun’s upper lip curled in annoyance.

A person running late on Kihyun’s time is a person asking for decapitation and other gnarly things.

Kihyun turns around with a huff and stomps towards him. Hoseok observes his quick and light steps and thinks that Kihyun moves like a rodent or a ninja.

Rodent Ninja?

It seems like a mystery that should be explored more but Hoseok shakes his head and consciously grounds himself in the present. Kihyun had once told Hoseok that his mind is like an untied balloon that just needs a little wind to fly to places that are far away. But Hoseok thinks his mind is like pesky pollen that finds itself in faraway places without even trying and sprouts things of all kinds.

“How do you even decipher what you write?” Hyungwon’s mellow voice comes from his shoulder and Hoseok looks down at his diary again. Scattered all over the page in tiny scrawl are his thoughts. He tries to find something with the right rhythm that would fit with the tune he had heard Hyungwon hum last evening.

Sharp razored smile on those rosy cheeks,
you better be careful, my love,
or the emperor might just trade you in for a buttery feast.

Hoseok circles this verse and then keeps circling because he isn’t sure if it will fit as much as he wants. Besides him, Hyungwon yawns. His head moves a little to adjust his straining neck as he watches him write and scratch lyrics with placid eyes. “I like this one. Keep it.”

Hmmm.

Okay, Hyungwon~

Kihyun groans. “What the hell? Is no one concerned with our new bandmate being late? It’s 11:10, he should have been here by 11. In fact, he should have been here before 11 if he actually cared.”

Hyungwon lifts his head from his shoulders and cracks his neck. The loud crunching sound makes Hoseok wince.

“Chill out, little guy. Hyunwoo texted me last night that Minhyuk would be coming around 11:30 instead of 11.”

Kihyun’s mouth twists with a snarl and his nose flares like a baby dragon. “Then why wouldn’t you tell me? I’ve been saying this for the past 15 minutes!”

Hyungwon yawns, his jaw almost unhinging and then shrugs. “I just remembered.”

Liar.

The actual reason behind Hyungwon not telling Kihyun is because he likes annoying Kihyun. Something Kihyun should’ve picked up on years ago but still hasn’t.

“Fuck you. I need to buy a phone so that I can get updates directly from Hyunwoo. You can’t be trusted with shit.”

“Okay, let me know when. I’ll come with you so that you don’t get conned into buying a brick inste-”

A timid knock on the door catches their attention. Kihyun yells “Come in” and the stranger on the other side obliges.

The door opens slowly to reveal Minhyuk, an embarrassed smile on his face. “Hi,” he chirps like a summer bird asking another summer bird to let her borrow her nest.

They all greet him back enthusiastically. Even Kihyun’s ‘Hey!’ has an exclamation in its tone. It lifts his sentence at the end just like the corner of his lips. He is probably satisfied by Minhyuk coming almost 15 minutes early.

Minhyuk steps in and fiddles with the straps of his guitar case. “I am sorry, I came a bit early. I hope I am not disturbing you guys?”

He is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and Hoseok thinks of summer like their songs and summer like the heat of the oncoming dog days. His eye catches on a bracelet on Minhyuk’s wrist spelling something that Hoseok can’t read from this far.

When they had released their first album, Hoseok had bought five personalized bracelets for his band members. It was a black leather bracelet that had the name of their band on it. He thought of it as a symbol of their friendship, a wish for their successful careers, a promise to stay in this together.

Does Gunhee still have his?

Hyungwon gets up from the floor with a grunt and Hoseok hears his knees crack. He really needs to get Hyungwon into some kind of physical activity. The cracks of his bones sound too loud to Hoseok. This can’t possibly be healthy for a 22-year-old man.

Hyungwon’s long legs cover the distance between him and Minhyuk quickly. He swings his arm around Minhyuk who looks a little surprised with this sudden act of familiarity from the guy who had told him during his audition that his guitar looked tacky.

“No, you didn’t disturb us.” Hyungwon smiles widely, his face shifting into something friendly, and Hoseok can already tell that he is laying down a trap. “Don’t act so formal. You are officially a member now. We are going to be best friends! We’ll spend six months on the same tour bus so you need to be comfortable with us. Like real comfortable.” He steers Minhyuk towards KIhyun with his arm. “You’ll probably see our dicks a lot ‘cause you know the tour bus gets real hot easily.”

Minhyuk confused smile turns to a grimace. “Uh. That doesn’t sound nice.” Hyungwon halts and snatches his arm away, acting offended. “Are you saying seeing our dicks doesn’t sound nice, newbie?” He says this in his most menacing tone which is pretty menacing considering it has been honed throughout the years of bullying that he went through in school.

Hoseok, who has seen Hyungwon play this game many times, sighs and gets ready to step in.

“No. No! I meant the van getting heated doesn’t sound nice.”

Hyungwon acts satisfied with the answer and puts his arm around him again. “Cool! Often people make a big deal about seeing another man’s dick but I could tell that you’ll be chill about it.”

Minhyuk gives a nervous little laugh. “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s just a body part, I don’t care,” getting a little confident, his husky voice becomes a little louder, “in fact, I’ve seen a lot of dicks, so my mind doesn’t even register it as a private part anymore.”

Hoseok almost chokes while Hyungwon’s forehead furrows with confusion. It’s the first time that his initiation process has faced such a hurdle. His arm loosens its hold and he looks at Minhyuk first and then at Hoseok and Kihyun as if he probably imagined the words coming out of Minhyuk’s mouth but, no, they did actually come out of his mouth because while Hoseok is sitting there just as confused as Hyungwon, Kihyun is cackling.

Coming out of his shock, Hyungwon narrows his eyes at Kihyun and then looks at Minhyuk again. “I..see. Where are you seeing all these dicks, Minhyuk?”

“Oh, I work at this studio as a PA where they shoot vintage porn movies. Once they shot like this gay orgy and I swear, Hyungwon, I saw like,” he holds out his hand and counts on his fingers, “30 dicks? I could be a little off though. But it was like a grand finale for them so they did have many people in it.”

Hyungwon nods slowly and Hoseok who is completely baffled by this interaction that even his brain that always leaps at any chance to pick a word and explore that tangent until he is far far away finds itself glued to this current conversation.

“Are you for real?”

Minhyuk’s grin is all teeth and gums while his eyes gleam with mirth. “No. I am just messing with you!”

Hyungwon shakes his head while laughing. He removes his arm and pats Minhyuk’s back in acknowledgment. Minhyuk laughs a little too and then extends his hand towards Kihyun who takes it and shakes it confidently but not aggressively, possibly charmed by the way Minhyuk threw Hyungwon off his game.

Minhyuk then moves on to Hoseok, who is still sitting on the floor, and bends down while extending his hand. Hoseok takes it in his own. His hands completely envelop Hoseok’s and he finds himself fascinated with its size.

Do his slaps hit harder? Or if there’s more area there would be less pressure?

“Hi, I am Minhyuk.”

His grip is loose and gentle, a far cry from the way he had shaken Hyungwon and Kihyun’s hand. Hoseok doesn’t know what he did to deserve this special treatment but it’s almost like Minhyuk is holding his hand rather than shaking it.

“Hello. I am Hoseok.”

Minhyuk smiles again. “I know. You are kinda popular.” The smile suits him. His already high cheekbones rise and his cute front teeth peek out. Like a bunny. Minhyuk tilts his head, still smiling. or like a puppy.

He hears Kihyun clearing his throat so he removes his hand from Minhyuk’s loose hold, probably a little too late. But better late than never. “Oh, uh, that’s so sweet. Thank you.”

“Okay, then.” Kihyun claps his hands to get their attention. “Our drummer is running a few errands. Until then let’s just get to know each other. You can put your guitar over there.” He points towards the corner of the room where Hyungwon’s bass is lying flat on the ground in its black case.

Minhyuk puts his own guitar case there and then sits opposite Hoseok, completing their quasi-circle formed by the other two sitting beside him.

Hoseok closes his diary before Kihyun can do it for him.

“So, tell us about yourself. We know about your music tastes and influences from the conversation,” interview, grilling, interrogation, “we had during your audition. But, tell us about yourself. Like what are you doing these days? What are your hobbies just stuff like that,” Kihyun asks, not a hint of malice in his tone.

He is weird like that.

Kihyun doesn’t like change. So, he doesn’t like when new people enter their circle. It inconveniences him because he is forced to make adjustments in his anger, in his tone, in his jokes. It’s a chore that requires him to reconfigure the dynamic of their group.

That being said, he is also the one who goes out of his way to include new people in conversations. Because nothing scares Kihyun more - not even death - than loneliness. He doesn’t like loneliness, not for himself, not for the others. The only person who is more scared of loneliness is Jooheon. Together they sometimes make up a picture of such pity that Hoseok’s heart feels like weeping.

“Uh. I wasn’t really doing anything right now. Just going around playing gigs for people who needed a guitarist. Just played at a wedding yesterday. Other than that, I sometimes work as a kennel attendant at this vet clinic near my house.”

Minhyuk’s voice is so unique and husky, it was the first thing that Hoseok had noticed when he had given his introduction during the interview. It’s a voice that carries a melody, not in its vocal range, but in its tone.

There are so many songs in the many pages of his notebooks about longing and hope. They lay unexplored because he didn’t have the right voice for it. But, here is Minhyuk, dropped into Hoseok’s lap with his husky voice that is lively and sweet like cotton candy.

“Sounds cool. What does a kennel attendant do though? You must get to pet so many dogs!” KIhyun says, excitement seeping into his voice.

“Not really. Sometimes. But mainly, I clean dog poop.” Minhyuk shrugs back, wincing a little.

Hyungwon wrinkles his nose. “That sounds gross. Don’t you feel grossed out?”

“I had a dog so it wasn’t unfamiliar. In the beginning, it was gross but I am used to it now. It’s just a routine that doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Hyungwon picks up the line and pounces on it like a hungry hyena. “A lot of things don’t seem to bother you including seeing dicks and cleaning dog shit. Anything else?”

Minhyuk tilts his head in thought and taps his finger on the side of his forehead. A subconscious habit? “There are many things that bother me. As you said, we’ll be spending a lot of time together. You’ll probably find out some of them.” He smiles gently but to Hoseok there’s something puzzling about it. A hidden glint of challenge? Or a spark of hidden mischief?

Hoseok is trying to decipher that glint when Minhyuk’s eyes lock with his and he winks.

Hoseok startles and his own eyes widen a bit. “Did you just...wink at me?” he asks upfront because his mind doesn’t have space to mull over the subtleties of human interaction that goes above his head sometimes.

“What? No? Oh. I WASN’T WINKING AT YOU. I have an uneven blink!” Minhyuk says urgently while pointing at his eyes. “See?” Hoseok watches his eyes and yeah, he does have an uneven blink. Huh. How fascinating.

Hoseok has never met anyone with an uneven blink. He once met a guy who could move his ears though. It’s kinda cute, this uneven blink. Why did Minhyuk sound so defensive though?

“Show me!” Hyungwon exclaims. Minhyuk turns his face in his direction. “That’s so interesting. Did you ever have a misunderstanding because of it?” Hyungwon asks.

“Not really. The most that happens is a stranger staring at my eyes to see if I winked or not. I can tell when that happens though.”

Hyungwon deflates. “Ahhh. I thought something must have happened since you kinda panicked.”

Minhyuk’s eyes stray away from Hyungwon and meet Hoseok’s again. “Yeah, I thought you might misinterpret it and maybe feel uncomfortable.”

Hoseok shakes his head, his newly dyed lavender hair bouncing. “No. No. Don’t worry.”

Minhyuk looks up from Hoseok’s eyes to his hair and then back to his eyes again. “The hair color suits you,” he says quietly, seemingly out of nowhere.

There’s something about Minhyuk. Something about his gaze, his expression, his whole posture that makes Hoseok feel as if he is the only one in the room with Minhyuk. He wonders if everyone who talks to him feels the same way. It makes Hoseok feel like Minhyuk wouldn’t mind joining him wherever his mind takes him.

He’ll probably even follow Hoseok to the land of quick Kihyuns who decapitate latecomers with their own army of rodent ninjas.

But, he probably won’t. Hyungwon had told him that he trusts people too easily. That one day a guy will come in a van and offer him candy and Hoseok will go with him. Hoseok had twisted Hyungwon’s hand behind his back to let him know what he thought of that.

“Thank you. Uh, I like your…” his mind searches for something, “eyes.” Minhyuk raises his eyebrows and Kihyun elbows Hoseok. “I don’t mean the color! I mean I like the way they blink!”

Kihyun facepalms while Hyungwon sniggers behind his hand. Minhyuk’s face blooms into an impudent smile, a glint of mischievousness here and a touch of joy there. “You don’t like the color?”

“Uh. No. I mean yes. It’s okay.” Hoseok stares into his eyes again because he has no idea what color they are actually. “It’s brown, right? It’s a great color.”

Minhyuk laughs. “Thanks. I like your eyes too. You know what else I like?”

“No?”

“I like how cute you are.”

Huh?

Hoseok sits there a little stunned because never has a guy called him cute in person before. He had thought he had gotten immune to being complimented on his appearance because of their fans but here he is, mouth agape, cheeks burning, and somehow more affected than he remembers ever being.

“T-Thank you.”

“Pleasure is all mine.” Minhyuk’s smile fades a little but it’s still there and Hoseok has to look somewhere else.

Kihyun smacks Hyungwon who is openly snickering by now.

“So, what are your hobbies, Minhyuk?” Hyungwon asks, laughter still apparent in his voice.

“Basic stuff. Reading, gaming, doodling, watching things. But, lately, I don’t really find any motivation to do anything so I just spend time on the internet.”

Hyungwon perks up. “Yeah? I like gaming too. Maybe we should play together sometime.”

“Yup, we should!” Minhyuk shrieks. His tone increases suddenly, and he raises his hand in a hi-five which Hyungwon reciprocates with his own little happy scream.

Hoseok observes this human interaction in complete bafflement because wasn’t Hyungwon bullying him a few moments ago? What goes on?

The way Hyungwon has so many friends even though he is a bully makes Hoseok lose his faith in humanity. But, then, again he is best friends with this bully so perhaps he isn’t the one qualified to point fingers.

Soon Hyungwon and Minhyuk fall into a conversation regarding games in which Kihyun occasionally chimes in with his own comments, a little irked by the newbie liking Hyungwon more than him. Hoseok just sits there and zones out, letting a few stray comments enter his ears.

Jooheon comes in with some pizza boxes in his hands and greets Minhyuk. He puts the food in the center of their circle and settles down between Hoseok and Kihyun. They talk a little more while eating. One thing leads to another and Jooheon asks Minhyuk how he got to know about their audition.

Hoseok thinks Changkyun but Minhyuk surprises everyone by saying through Hyunwoo. He can’t be the only one who didn’t know this, Hoseok thinks as he reads the same surprise on everyone’s face.

Minhyuk wipes his mouth with the tissue and continues, “Hyunwoo had been there at this small band competition where I was filling in for someone’s regular guitarist. He told me about the audition and gave me his card.”

“Didn’t Changkyun tell you?”

Minhyuk head jerks as if startled by this sudden information. “Changkyun? No? How do you guys know Changkyun?”

“How do you guys know Changkyun?”

What?

“He has been part of our rodeo crew for the past two years. Before that, we knew him as our junior in school.” Hyungwon relates, his own tone confused.

“Ah.” Minhyuk presses his lips together. “Did he say that he knew me?”

“Yeah. The day you came in? He called Hyungwon in the morning to say that ‘My friend Minhyuk would be auditioning today.’ We thought he must be the one who told you about the audition in the first place.” Jooheon says, his mouth slightly open, lips protruding in confusion.

Minhyuk shakes his head. “No, he didn’t tell me.” He looks down and laughs a little. “This is so in character for him. Once he bought me a shirt and then threw it on my bed while I was sleeping.”

“You guys close?” Jooheon asks, smacking his cheese-stained lips.

“Yeah, I think so. We are roommates. We even dated each other some time ago.” Minhyuk says casually as if he is talking about the weather over some breakfast.

But, perhaps, it is casual for him.

Maybe his friend circle isn’t made up of three boys who grew up in conservative homes in a small conservative town and have never really made a friend who wasn’t straight. Well, that’s not true, Hoseok adds to his own thoughts because Changkyun is their friend, the only difference is that they never knew about his sexuality. They just assumed he was straight like they did for everyone they met. But, then he thinks of Changkyun hooking up with girls left and right during parties and finds himself even more confused.

“You are gay?” Jooheon blurts out in surprise and promptly receives a smack on the head by Kihyun. “That’s not polite, Jooheon. Sorry, Minhyuk. You don’t have to answer that he is just surprised.”

Minhyuk throws his head back and laughs while clapping his knees. His loud laughter takes Hoseok by surprise. It’s so unrefined, raw and so childish in its unrestrained glee.

Minhyuk comes out of his fit of laughter and looks at their surprised faces. “No. No. It’s fine. I don’t mind. I am open about it. But to answer your question Jooheon, yes, I am indeed quite gay.”

Jooheon rubs his head, ears burning red and a sheepish smile on his face. “Sorry.”

“That’s fine. It’s no problem. I am not ashamed of it or anything. In fact, I almost rub it in people’s faces,” Minhyuk giggles and then does a ridiculous over the top wink that involves clenching his right eye and lifting the corner of his mouth until his face is scrunched up into something ridiculous.

Jooheon laughs, easily amused as always.

“You know what. I think we need to level things here.” Hyungwon declares, his hands spreading with a flourish. “I think we should go in a circle, introduce ourselves and announce our sexuality so Minhyuk doesn’t feel alone.”

That’s a ridiculous idea considering Minhyuk already knows their name and they’re all straig-

“Yeah. That sounds like a great idea.” For a guy who had just declared that there was no problem, Minhyuk says this a little too enthusiastically.

“Okay, I’ll go first. My name is Hyungwon. I am 22 years old. I am straight.” Hyungwon nods at Kihyun who rolls his eyes but still bites.

“I am Kihyun. 22. Straight.”

“I am Jooheon. I am 21 years old and I am straight too!”

Minhyuk’s soft smile stays intact while his eyes move from Jooheon to Hoseok. There is seemingly no difference in his expression but still his gaze prickles at Hoseok’s skin. Hoseok doesn’t know if he is reading too much into it but Minhyuk’s eyes tell him that he is going to listen to Hoseok’s answer carefully.

There is nothing to listen for though.

“I am Hoseok. I turned 23 last week. I am straight.”

Perhaps, Hoseok was reading too much into Minhyuk’s expressions because if he had been looking for a particular answer like Hoseok had thought then his smile wouldn’t have widened upon hearing that.

Minhyuk’s gaze finally lets go of its hold as he sweeps his eyes at everyone present. “I am Minhyuk. Lee Minhyuk. I am 20 and I am gay. The gayest. That a problem?”

They shake their head, a litany of flustered ‘No’ spilling from their lips but of course, Hyungwon has to take it a step ahead to prove his conviction. “Of course, no. This is the most ideal scenario. It just means less competition for Kihyun who is already competing against my beauty and falling short. If you get any offers by girls, throw him a crumb. Maybe he’ll finally get laid.”

“Like your skinny ass and dead aura on stage is attracting any ladies!” Kihyun snaps.

Hyungwon looks up and taps his chin. “Maybe it’s his face, maybe it’s his personality.”

“What about you, Hoseok?”

Hoseok, engrossed in their fight, startles a bit hearing his name come out of Minhyuk’s lips.

“Huh?”

“What about you? Am I to direct any girls towards you if I get any offer?”

“Uh, No. That’s quite alright. I have a girlfriend.”

Three groans come from beside him and Minhyuk looks at them in surprise and confusion. Hoseok grits his teeth, already on the defensive.

“Did you patch up with her again? You said that you won’t!” Kihyun whines.

Hoseok looks down, not wanting to see Minhyuk right now, “Not now Kihyun.” is all he manages to get out.

Kihyun scoffs but doesn’t say anything else while Hyungwon crosses his arms over his chest, looking at Hoseok with blank eyes, followed by Jooheon’s sulky pout.

Hoseok might have delayed it but he is going to get a piece of their mind once Minhyuk leaves. That’s alright. All he needs to do now is make sure that he leaves first.

“I think it’s about time we start practicing,” Hoseok mutters.

***

Their practice goes by smoothly. After all, they have perfected their own pieces. Jooheon’s drum joins Hyungwon’s bass and Hoseok’s keyboard to give the perfect harmony to Kihyun’s vocals. Now all they have to do is help Minhyuk perfect his part and make it fit together with theirs until their sound is cohesive and one.

Minhyuk plays perfectly on the first run but Kihyun’s grimace tells him that he isn’t satisfied. It’s not irrational though. Even Hoseok can see the problem here. Minhyuk copies the sound on their album perfectly and that’s the problem.

He copies.

It makes his playing robotic and stilted. The same happens for the second and third song until Kihyun huffs loudly. Minhyuk let his arms fall, and asks Kihyun if he is doing something wrong. The direct confrontation flusters Kihyun who stammers a “No”. Minhyuk forges ahead and tells him that if he didn’t give him feedback then he’ll continue to do things the wrong way and that’ll just make their performance abysmal. The words ‘abysmal’ and ‘performance’ make Kihyun give his feedback, unfiltered and a little too harsh. It even makes Hyungwon wince at one point.

Minhyuk takes it all stoically and nods at all the right points. The next run through sees him much looser. His fingers move in their own rhythm, matching the arrangement but not the playing. A little too forceful tug here and a little too quick change of strings there makes him stray a bit but it’s nothing people who didn’t spend almost a year and a half coming up with these arrangements can catch.

Once the song is finished, Minhyuk looks at Kihyun with a questioning tilt of his head. Kihyun nods back with a little smile. “Yeah, that’s more like it. Give me more of that.” Minhyuk nods back, his lips pursed in determination.

From there, they fly. Minhyuk’s playing gets better and better, more dynamic until Hoseok can’t even recognize him as the same person who had played the first song. They take a few breaks. Drinking water, talking, listening to their songs to better their playing. Minhyuk does the last one a lot.

Evening comes and they declare their last run-through. Hoseok feels wiped and he can read the same exhaustion on the other members but Minhyuk surprises them with his sudden burst of energy in the last song.

Taken from their first album, the song has the fastest tempo in their playlist. Minhyuk’s eyes close, his head jerks forward and backward with the rhythm, he bends, he arches, he moves, he sways and all Hoseok can do is look at him in awe, his own fingers moving over the keyboard absentmindedly, his attention sucked in by Minhyuk’s energy.

The song ends and Minhyuk opens his eyes, his breath coming in small pants. Kihyun puts the mike back and then claps while looking at Minhyuk. Soon, they all follow. Minhyuk grins widely and takes a bow.

***

After a cool-down period which involves them lying flat on their back on the floor, their limbs thrown in every direction, they pack their instruments and put them in one corner. Hoseok locks the room carefully and hands over the key to the receptionist. He confirms their booking for another six days and then goes outside to meet the others.

He spots them standing across the road with their bikes. He takes the key for his own bike out of his pocket and unlocks the chain while the others try to convince Minhyuk to join them at Jooheon’s grandma’s house for a movie and free food but Minhyuk declines. “I am so sorry! I would have loved to come but I need to sort some things out today. But, next time, for sure.”

This reminds Hoseok of his plan and he panics. “You didn’t bring your bike? Come on, let me drop you on mine.” Even before he is done speaking, he realizes that he doesn’t even know where Minhyuk lives.

God, what if the reason he didn’t bring his bike is that he lives far away and has to come here by bus? Hoseok is an utter idiot who doesn’t know how to lie even after spending so much time with Hyung-

“Thank you.”

Minhyuk says his goodbye and on his turn, Hoseok gives them his fake smile. “Okay, I’ll see you guys later.”

Kihyun rolls his eyes, already knowing that he won’t see Hoseok today. “Uh-huh. See ya.”

Hoseok puts the key in his pocket and gets on the bike, wiggling to adjust in the tiny seat. He turns his bicycle so that it’s facing the opposite direction that the others would take.

“Hop on, young padawan.”

Minhyuk giggles and ‘hops on’ he does, shaking Hoseok and the bike completely.

“Sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

They wave their goodbyes and then they are off.

***

Hoseok rides his bike until he takes the first turn. He stops pedaling to look back and exhales a breath of relief when he doesn't spot any of them. He glances at Minhyuk who is watching him in amusement.

"Uh. Hi."

Minhyuk laughs. "Hello."

“I kinda don’t know where you live.”

“Yeah. I know. I just wanted to give you your way out.” He gets off the bike, stumbling a little to keep his balance. “You don’t need to actually drop me. I came on foot anyway.”

“I want to drop you though.”

“You don’t need to.”

“Come on. I don’t have anything to do anyway. Think of it as us hanging out.”

Minhyuk looks down and kicks the ground with his right foot. “You are so nice.”

“Am I?” Hoseok asks, genuinely puzzled.

“Yes.” Minhyuk nods.

“Well, shouldn’t you listen to the nice man then?”

“I should.”

“Then, get back on.”

“Okay!” Minhyuk sits back down, this time carefully.

“I live on the Madison avenue, behind that private school, the one with the-”

“-huge sports complex?” asks Hoseok a little surprised because while he knew that Changkyun moved, he didn’t know that he moved to such a posh area. But, to be fair, he also didn’t know that Changkyun and Minhyuk were roommates before today. That’s how Changkyun rolled, saying everything but nothing at the same time.

“Yeah. You sound surprised.”

Hoseok pushes the ground with his foot and starts pedaling, the wind whipping his hair. “Yeah, I was just surprised that you and Changkyun can afford that. It’s kind of a posh area.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, I didn’t know. I am not from here.”

“You are not?”

“I lived in the city.”

“When did you move here?”

“It’s been a month, I think.”

“Tired of the city?”

“No. I like it there. It’s always busy and chaotic. I like that. I think I might move back.”

“Yeah? What made you move here?” Hoseok drives over a bump and hears Minhyuk muffled scream. “You should hold me.”

“Sorry?”

“You’ll slip off and fall down. You should hold my shoulders instead of the seat.”

Two gentle hands come up and hold Hoseok’s shoulder lightly. “Thanks.”

“No problem. Hold tightly, okay?”

The grip tightens. “You asked me something?”

“Yeah, what made you move here? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“No, that’s okay. I moved here for Changkyun actually. We met in the city, started dating. He had to move back here because of some personal reasons. I followed him here. We started living together and then we broke up. So I kinda don’t have a reason to stay here anymore.” Minhyuk relates this like someone else’s story, devoid of emotions with just pure facts.

“I hope you are doing okay.”

“Oh, thanks. I am doing pretty well. It wasn’t a big deal. We are like best friends now.”

“That’s great. Changkyun is a great guy and you are a great guy too. So, I am glad that it worked out.”

“Yeah, me too.”

There are so many questions in Hoseok’s mind. They bounce from one surface to another in his brain as his teeth rattle because of the rough road that he takes. But they are too intrusive so Hoseok clamps his mouth shut. They don’t talk until that road passes and Madison avenue comes in sight. Minhyuk presses down on his shoulders. “Drop me here. The second one is my place.”

Hoseok stops and lets Minhyuk get off. His eyes rake over the house that looks small but in a quaint way. Even with rent, it’s really too nice of a house in too nice of an area for two 20 somethings with no regular job.

“Thanks for dropping me.”

Hoseok looks at Minhyuk’s smile and his own smile overtakes his face. “It’s no problem at all. It was nice talking to you.”

“Yeah, same here.”

Hoseok feels a little awkward now that they are alone and have to face each other while talking.

“The distance is too far for walking, so don’t forget to bring your bike.”

“I kinda don’t know how to ride one.” Minhyuk mumbles.

Hoseok looks at his sad pout that can beat Jooheon in its power to evoke pity and then thinks of the distance that’s really too much for walking. “I’ll pick you up and drop you then.”

Minhyuk waves his hands. “No. No. No. You don’t have to. I am really fine.”

Hoseok lifts his shoulder in a half-shrug. “It’s on my way,” it’s really not in his way, far from it actually, “I just thought it would be nice to have company. It’s just a few days anyway.”

Minhyuk’s cheeks lift and the corners of his eyes wrinkle. “Okay. Thank you.”

Hoseok smiles back. “I’ll be here by 10:45 then. Is that okay?”

Minhyuk nods shyly. “Bye. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Minhyuk.”

Minhyuk turns on his feet and strides towards his house. He reaches the gate and looks back only to find Hoseok still standing there. He gives him a big wave that Hoseok returns before entering the house. Hoseok sees the door shut behind Minhyuk and finally leaves.

There are so many things about Minhyuk that Hoseok is curious about and he can only hope that their time together will help him find that out.

Chapter Text

Like a fish out of water, Hoseok’s arm flops on his bedside table until it finds his ringing phone. Its screeching and twitching comes to a halt as Hoseok hits the snooze button, eyes barely open. He sits up and scratches his arm. His eyes keep fluttering close but he forcefully opens them up and finally looks at the time.

5 AM.

He gets up from his bed silently and stretches his arms and legs. He had slept around 2 last night. Not because he was busy doing something. His mind kept running a mile per minute, and no matter how hard he had tried it just wouldn’t shut up. His anxieties had piled up until it became something physical in the form of his racing heart. Finally, his body had taken mercy on him and his eyes had closed on their own.

 

It’s 5:30 when he reaches the gym. It’s more or less the same people. They acknowledge each other with polite smiles and nods.

He does a few stretches again and gets on the treadmill. As Queen’s I Want to Break Free plays in his earphones, he starts running.

Why Hoseok loves to exercise is a mystery to his band members.

Hyungwon thinks it’s because he wants to build muscles and look attractive. Kihyun thinks it’s because Hoseok likes suffering. Jooheon thinks it’s because Hoseok has body-image issues.

To an extent, it’s all three, throw in the other hundred issues that he has and you’ll have your answer.

He exercises because it makes him feel like he’s doing something with his life. It makes him feel productive. He likes exercising because it makes him feel in control of his life. But, lastly, he likes exercising because it empties his mind.

The more he strains himself, the more his mind goes blank. His life reduces to every shallow breath, to every quick heartbeat until he is free of reality, of dreams, of whimsy, of hope, of loss, of longing, of suffering.

Of humanity.

 

He gets back at home around 8, on the way he sees his little brother, who starts jumping up and down when he spots him on the other side of the road. Hoseok grins at him while waving at him and his friends.

At home, his dad moves from one room to another while looking for his glasses. His mom ignores him and pours some kale juice in two glasses, one for Hoseok, one for her. They drink it together, making disgusted faces at each other afterward. Only then she goes to their bedroom and gives his dad his glasses.

His dad leaves for a not so long day at school, his hair set in a stiff coif, his tie knot intimidating.

Hoseok eats breakfast with his mom, chatting about mundane things.

“How is Anya doing?” Hoseok asks while eating his half-fried omelet, carefully trying to eat around the yolk to save it for the last few bites.

“She is improving. Yesterday, she played the Harry Potter theme song for me. She had been practicing for a while secretly to surprise me. It was almost perfect. She has great potential, a few more months, and she’ll surpass me.” His mom responds, eyes scanning the music sheets in front of her.

Hoseok rolls his eyes. “You say that about your every student. You said that about me when I was 4.”

His mom looks up, an adoring smile on his face. “It’s true for my every student including you.” She gets up and piles his empty dish on top of hers before Hoseok can protest and puts them in the sink. “You surpassed me when you were in my womb.” Hoseok groans and follows her to the kitchen.

His mom folds the sleeve of her blouse up to her elbows and starts washing the dishes while Hoseok stands there with a cloth in his hand, ready to dry them.

“I think that you’re the best piano player in the whole world, ma.”

“I think you are a bad liar.”

“Fine. You are the best piano player and teacher I know but honestly, your cooking skills could use some practice.”

A tinkle of laughter peals out of her mother’s mouth. Hoseok thinks back to the time when Kihyun had told him that he has the same laugh as his mother. That’s not the only thing that he inherited from his mother though.

They have the same lips that curve inside at the corners, the same heart-shaped smile, the same love for music.

At the age of 3, his mother had sat him down at the piano table and started teaching him everything he knows about music.

She taught him how to press the keys with just the right pressure, how to move your fingers at just the right speed and then how to read music and make your own compositions that are much more than a few notes stringed together.

When Hoseok became an adult and the world seemed too cruel and too harsh, his mom sat him down again until he learned how to move that pain from his heart onto the keys. The lyrics came later. But music is something that he owes to his mother.

"Now, remember, Hoseok. Music is soul and practice. You need to have both, okay? I know that you think that if you played day and night, you’ll become better. But that’s not how it works. The music has to move you, only then it will move the others."

Hoseok dries the dishes carefully, years of following the same ritual now registered as a muscle memory until his hands do the wiping motion on their own while adjusting to the shape of each utensil and his brain is free to roam in different planes of reality.

“I think I am going to visit your aunt and stay there for a month.”

“Hmmm. Dad going with you?”

“No. He can’t take so many days off.”

“You can always go during summer vacation."

“He will be managing the summer camps this year as well.”

“Ah. You’ll be okay traveling this far alone?”

“I think it’s time I try.” Her actions halt, the spoon and the sponge in her hands shake as she gives a self-conscious laugh. “You are an adult. Your brother will be going to college in a few months. It’s the perfect time for me to do the things that I’ve always wanted to do, and I don’t want to drag others with me.”

Even as a child Hoseok could tell that ‘others’ means his father.

If his mother taught him to put soul into his passion, his father taught him to work for his passion with discipline.

He taught English literature at the same school as Hoseok. The only advantage Hoseok can remember having is his father handing him his lunch box when he forgot.

For as long as he can remember his father got up at 5 in the morning and slept at 10 in the night. His morning routine stayed the same. Getting up, going for a walk, taking a bath with lukewarm water, getting ready, waking his mother up who cooked breakfast for him, eating alone because his mother didn’t like having breakfast so early, and then giving his mother a soft peck before leaving.

The routine stayed the same even during the holidays. It's a habit that’s his mother’s bane of existence. His father never missed a day of work. In school, his classmates used to say that he probably came to school even on his wedding day and then spent his first night marking the papers.

Considering that Hoseok was born exactly nine months later, he is inclined to disagree.

When Hoseok went to school, he, his father, and his brother used to wait for the school bus together. Thanks to his father, Hoseok and his brother never missed the bus. He did miss the deadline for many of his English assignments though and his father never hesitated to cut his marks.

Hoseok doesn’t know his father like he knows his mother. His mother, like Hoseok, wears her emotions on her sleeves but his father never really gives his story.

On a lazy Sunday, when Hoseok sees him sitting in the front yard reading his beloved books with a hunger that hasn’t been sated even after so many years while his mother sits in the drawing-room watching her overdramatic soap operas, Hoseok thinks that his father is a sad man and his mother a sad woman.

When he sees his father give his mother a daily peck, to him, it looks like he is pecking a stranger. Instead of love, he sees duty. When his mother plays her compositions, not realizing that Hoseok can hear her through the thin walls of their humble abode, to him it sounds like a woman mourning for her lost youth.

“That sounds great, ma. I hope you’ll remember to buy a gift for me.”

His mother gives him a smile that speaks of unfulfilled dreams and hopes. “Of course.”

 

***

 

Hoseok starts from his home at 9:05. If his estimate is correct, he’ll be at Minhyuk’s place in half an hour. He takes the narrow but less busy streets, touching the main roads here and there. There’s no breeze like yesterday evening but there's no summer heat as well. It's still March and the scorching heat of summer is definitely coming.

He passes by the local theatre and sees a vintage style movie poster of a woman in a man’s arms laughing. Hoseok wonders how long it’s been since he went out and saw a movie with his friends and finds himself blanking.

Even at home, which was the last movie that he saw?

The answer comes to him in the form of a memory of his girlfriend’s broad smile as she had laid down with her head in his lap while they had watched The Breakfast Club a month ago.

The next night they had broken up.

Once again.

It’s one of his favorite movies. He likes the minimalism of it. It’s almost like a bottle-episode in its isolation and limitation.

He likes how the characters are stereotypical in their characterization and yet have so much nuance to their personalities.

Often people look at a person in a superficial way and put them in a box.

This box is simple. It’s black or white. It’s contents are digestible, either you are good or you are bad.

But, in the movie, the characters and the audience get to explore beyond the surface of these characters. Perhaps, the movie said it best.

"You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out, is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal."

Hoseok remembers watching the movie for the first time when he was 17 and then rewatching it again because for some reason it blew his mind. He was left reeling as he felt his subconscious ideas being shaped into consciousness when Brian had read the last letter.

He wanted to share this revelation, this masterpiece with the others. So he had shown it to Kihyun who didn’t get what was so great about it. Hoseok had stood there, an urgent madness in eyes, as he had explained it to Kihyun.

“There are these teenagers. Each of them represents a clique, right? When we watch a show or a movie set in high school, how many times do we see these characters? Either they are caricatures or they have depth but it’s almost forced. But, here is this old movie. This old movie that talks about how there’s so much more to teenagers - to people - than the stupid labels you put on them. And it does it without being preachy. Everyone has something going on, so we should be more understanding and maybe we’ll find something in common with them?”

Kihyun, who always tries to follow Hoseok’s thought process even though it goes above his head most of the time, still gives it a try. “I can see where you are coming from but I don’t know. It didn’t seem anything special to me. I think it’s naive and unrealistic.”

“How so?” Hoseok asks, a little annoyed because he hates the word ‘naive’.

“Such different people wouldn’t just start talking and become friends so easily. And it’s just a day in their life. What makes you think that the jock didn’t bully the nerd the next day to fit in with his friends? What makes you think that the aggressive guy wouldn’t turn out to be a school shooter because the princess rejected him?”

Hoseok clenches his hands in frustration as his mind screams. You don’t get it, Yoo Kihyun. You always see the bad in people. You always jump to the worst conclusions. Don’t you see there’s much more to people? There’s so much good in people. Why can’t you see that?

But he doesn’t say anything out loud because just like the movie Kihyun sees him as naive and there’s nothing Hoseok can do about it.

He tries again with Hyungwon.

Hyungwon watches it with mild interest, throwing fistfuls of popcorn in his mouth. Then comes the scene when Andrew talks about his bullying episode where he taped another guy’s buttcheeks together.

From that dialogue on, he can feel Hyungwon’s mood shifting. The hand doesn’t go back in the bowl of popcorn and his eyes don’t move away from the screen while his face changes from detached curiosity to wrathful fury. Something that Hoseok had never seen before.

Andrew’s explanation and remorse make Hyungwon even more angry until his hand sweeps the remote in anger. He switches off the tv and throws the remote on the floor with such force that the batteries come out.

Hoseok sits there scared, his face paling because it’s not Kihyun and he isn’t used to Hyungwon’s anger.

“Why did you show me this?” Hyungwon’s hands shake with rage and his eyes say that he doesn’t need a matchstick to burn the world around him.

“I just thought it was interesting to see beneath the facade of these charact-”

“This is bullshit of the highest grade is what it is. Which garbage peddler wrote this fucking steaming pile of bullshit?”

“Hyungwon, you need to calm down.” Hoseok knows that saying this wouldn’t help but he feels so scared.

Scared for himself but also for Hyungwon.

“I need to calm down? You gushed about this movie so much but all I see is fucking bullshit. Bullshit! This guy just said that he bullied someone because he wanted to look - what? - ‘manly’ to his dad? And that excuses it because boo fucking hoo his dad wasn’t being the greatest to him?
What about the other guy? Huh? What about his school life? Or home life for that matter? Did this fucktard apologize to him in front of everyone or was he too busy throwing a pity party for himself? ‘How do you apologize for something like that,’ he says. Simple. You go to that person and you apologize to them sincerely. It’s as fucking simple as that. Jesus fucking christ!”

“Hyungwon, I didn’t mean to-”

“Don’t you dare, Hoseok. Don’t you fucking dare. Is this how you see people? Christ, your life must be exhausting.” Hyungwon looks at Hoseok with accusation in his eyes and Hoseok knows that Hyungwon will never look at him the same way again. “But, I guess, it’s easy to look for the good in people when they aren’t being bad to you.”

“Hyungwon, please,” Hoseok whispers, his eyes tearing up because Hyungwon is hurting so much and Hoseok did that.

Hyungwon shakes his head. “There’s no excuse for bullying like this. There’s no excuse for harassing people just because your life isn’t the best because guess fucking what? Neither is theirs. In fact, you went out of your way to make sure that their life stays fucking worse than yours.”

“Hyungwon, I didn’t mean to-”

Hyungwon stands up and storms towards the door. Hoseok holds him by his arm but Hyungwon forcefully tugs it away. “Do you remember our first meeting, Hoseok? I was curled up naked in one of the shower stalls in the school locker room for hours because my bullies thought it would be funny to take my clothes away. While they were laughing somewhere, I was sitting there almost on the verge of a panic attack because I thought I’ll have to go out naked or someone will come in and make fun of me or do something to me.
Can you imagine my trauma if that had happened? This was the third school where bullies somehow singled me out because I look weak or too pretty or whatever bullshit that puts me on their radar. I am still going to therapy because of the years of bullying I had to face. What about my life? What about my pain? What about my story? Do you think I give a fuck about their home life? They didn’t give a fuck about mine.”

Hoseok sits there, his shoulders tight. His words somehow stuck in his throat.

Hyungwon lowers his head, a bitter smile on his face. “Save your savior complex for people who actually deserve it. Not for some shitbag like him who is too cowardly to even take responsibility for his own actions."

Hoseok tries stopping him but the words won’t come. He wants to hold him there physically but his limbs just shake. Hyungwon stares at him, a world of pain in his eyes.

The door shuts close with a thunderclap as Hyungwon leaves and Hoseok feels the grey clouds hovering above him. Standing there, he thinks of Hyungwon's life and then compares it with his. His privilege makes him feel ashamed and his body hunches.

It takes days for his relationship with Hyungwon to reach the calm after the storm.

But the magic of the movie still doesn't fade away.

Over the years, it becomes a part of his series of litmus tests. He asks about the movie to close acquaintances and prospective friends and documents their reaction or lack of reaction to get an insight into how they see the world. It might be faulty but it’s a trick that Hoseok becomes familiar with.

He tries breaking away from it when he met Jiyeon. He didn’t ask her about the movie until after two years of on and off dating. But when one month ago he did ask she told him, she hadn’t seen it.

So there they sat in her room, her head in his lap, his fingers raking through her long locks but his eyes focused on the screen like the first time. Afterward, he asked her what she thought and she told him that she liked it. She could relate to the basket-case.

And that’s it.

When Hoseok asked her why she could relate to her. She just shrugged and said that she just did. Hoseok couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.

He had hoped that she would have something for him. Some new take. Some kind of analysis. Something. Love. hate. Disgust. Awe. Anything.

He had hoped for depth in her vision, in her thinking but she didn’t have anything to say. Hoseok knows that it’s unfair to expect people to care about the same thing as you but even then Hoseok couldn’t help but want more.

Even Gunhee and Jooheon had told him that they didn’t like the movie because it didn’t have any kind of action or a build-up or suspense. It wasn’t the bigger-than-life kind of movies that they preferred. Even they had something to say but she didn’t.

The next night they broke up because she felt like she was disappointing him. At least, that's what she told him. Hoseok, who had grown used to this game, hadn't stopped her.

A week later, they patched up again anyway.

Lost in his thoughts, Hoseok doesn’t even feel the time passing or his muscles exerting as he reaches Minhyuk’s street. He spots a head of dark brown hair on the staircase of the house Minhyuk had entered yesterday.

Minhyuk too engrossed in his phone doesn’t look up. Hoseok stops pedaling and the momentum carries him towards Minhyuk until he clutches the brake and the bike comes to a halt.

The commotion makes Minhyuk finally pay attention to his driver for the day and Hoseok gets paid in his warm smile.

“Hi! You aren’t even a minute late. Wow,” Minhyuk says. He gets up from his throne of concrete and pats his lower back. Dressed in an orange shirt and black skinny jeans, he looks ready to be one with butterflies of the east.

“That’s how you live your life after meeting Yoo Kihyun. Ready?”

“Yup.” Minhyuk sits on his designated seat, his hands find their place on Hoseok’s shoulder with the familiarity of someone who has been doing this for years and not just one day.

“Hold tight.”

“Yeah.”

The hold stays gentle even after Minhyuk’s answer but Hoseok doesn’t question it, instead, he pushes the earth beneath his sneaker-clad feet and his bike, like a faithful steed, takes the cue and starts moving.

“Can I ask you something?” Minhyuk’s voice is so sweet and he is so sweet. Hoseok wants him to be one of his best friends.

“Of course.”

“Does Kihyun not like me?”

Hoseok smiles but Minhyuk can't see it. “No. He does like you. He’s just a little apprehensive about new people. I promise you that soon he’ll nag you into taking rest and eating proper meals.”

“That’s a relief.”

“You were concerned?”

“Yeah. I wasn’t sure how we’ll live in such proximity if we dislike each other.”

“You don’t have to worry.”

“What about you? You like me?”

Hoseok’s mind pauses for a second to note Minhyuk’s inflection. It’s not flirtatious by any means. It’s not playful either, something that he had come to associate with Minhyuk. Instead, it’s quiet, almost sincere, as if the answer matters. But there’s no need to overthink here because playful or sincere, the answer will stay the same.

“Of course. Do you think I give a ride to just anyone?”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.” Minhyuk simpers, his tone so exaggerated that Hoseok has to laugh.

“You are funny.”

“Ugh. Why do all the handsome men find me funny? I was going for sexy!” Minhyuk grumbles. Hoseok feels something hitting between his shoulder blades and realizes that Minhyuk just bumped his head against him.

“Why? You sharpening your game for someone?”

“Not really. I just like it when I make people smile. I just thought you would find it funny if I flirted with you.”

Hoseok snickers. “It was funny.”

Minhyuk clenches his fist and gathers Hoseok’s shirt in his hold. “If you say it like that I somehow feel insulted.”

“Aww. I am sure many men fall because of your charms. After all, you dated Changkyun. But then again Changkyun is the easiest guy that I’ve met.”

Minhyuk’s hand leaves his shoulder, hits his arm lightly and then returns to its former position just as quickly. “Hey, I’ll have you know Changkyun and I have the greatest love story ever told. We literally had a meet-cute.”

“Yeah? Can I hear it?”

“Some other time. When I can see your reaction.”

“Okay. You made me curious though.”

“You’ll just have to wait.”

This time Hoseok doesn’t take the rough path but instead steers his bike to his favorite road.

The road lies beside the woods that contain many a ghost. Ghost of an unsolved murder, ghost of a tale of buried treasure, ghost of lovers coming to a spot hidden between the trees and under their canopy.

In the night, the woods intrigue the town but in the daylight, the road is the master. It’s wide and newly repaired. Devoid of any potholes, Hoseok flies on it and behind him, Minhyuk spreads his arm and throws his head back to feel the air rushing through. Trees outline the roads on both sides and for once it’s a jungle beside the concrete.

“Changkyun told me that a girl’s body was found in these woods 40 years ago.”

“Yeah?” Hoseok asks rhetorically, not surprised by any means. It’s a tradition to pass on the story to your children and the strangers that visit this town. It’s what made this sleepy town famous after all.

“Yeah. Do you know the story?”

“Of course. I was born and raised here.”

“You say it like everyone knows this story.”

“Not only do they know it but they also take it as their duty to spread it as much as they can.”

“But no one told me the story.”

“Changkyun didn’t?”

“No. He just said that a girl was found and then he asked me to do the dishes if I wanted to hear the whole story. But I didn’t because it wasn’t my turn. It was a matter of principle.”

Hoseok takes a turn. The mysterious woods and the only road without potholes and bumps behind them now.

“Well, some other time. When I can see your reactions.” Hoseok singsongs.

Minhyuk squeezes his shoulders in warning but it just makes Hoseok smile. The comfortable silence stays there until they reach the studio building. Hoseok sends Minhyuk to their practice room while he puts his bike in the parking spot and puts a chain and a lock on it.

When he reaches the studio, it’s 9:58. He spots Kihyun doing his vocal exercises and feels like he is running late even though he’s still two minutes early. Minhyuk is sitting near the same spot where Hoseok had been sitting yesterday, tuning his guitar.

Kihyun waves at him without stopping and Hoseok waves back, mouthing his hello. He takes his seat beside Minhyuk and observes him for the lack of anything else happening.

“When did you start playing the keyboard?” Minhyuk asks but his eyes stay on his hands and guitar.

“I think 5?”

Minhyuk looks up, his eyes like a startled bunny. “Did you say 5?”

“Yeah.” Hoseok bends his knees and puts his elbows on it, chin on the bridge made by his arms, he stares at Minhyuk’s face absentmindedly.

It’s just that Minhyuk’s face has a lot to say. For every word and for every mood his eyes and lips work hard. There seems to be a designated expression for every stimulus and Hoseok feels the need to document them all until he can predict Minhyuk’s mood just by the quirk of his lips and the whites of his eyes.

“Wow. Was Keyboard your first instrument?”

“No. It was the piano.”

“You started with the piano? At 5?”

“No, I started at 3 with piano.”

Minhyuk head jerks backward and his eyebrows rise comically. Hoseok thinks his neck and eyebrows work hard too.

“Wow. Are your parents into music?”

“My mother is. She plays the piano. She’s a piano tutor, in fact.”

Minhyuk’s lips stretch into a soft smile, and his eyes and fingers go back to fiddling with his guitar. “That sounds nice. Are you her favorite student?”

“I highly doubt that. When it comes to me, she is biased about many things but music isn’t one of them.”

“Did she say that you aren’t her favorite student?”

Hoseok shrugs, eyes focused on Minhyuk’s face as his brows furrow and his forehead transforms into ridges and valleys when he plays a note and it doesn’t sound the way he intended it to be.

“No, it never came up.”

Minhyuk looks up, a single dark brow raised in question. “Then why would you presume otherwise?”

Hoseok doesn’t say anything because calling himself her favorite student sounds like a disservice to his mother. Hoseok being her favorite students sounds unrealistic when she must have met and mentored actual prodigies. So instead he keeps staring at Minhyuk, burying into his own arms even further.

“Do you stare this intensely at everyone?”

Hoseok eyes don’t move, too busy cataloging the reactions of this new person in his life. “Not everyone. Just the ones I know I’ll grow close with.”

Minhyuk tilts his head, his eyes crescent moon, and his smile secretive. “How do you know we’ll grow close?”

Hoseok shrugs because some intuition and feelings can’t be put into words. “I just know.”

Their eyes lock and Hoseok’s face blooms into a wide smile. Minhyuk opens his mouth to say something but the door opens with a loud bang as if someone kicked it open. Sure enough, Jooheon and Hyungwon barge in. Headphones on their heads, they rap something that Hoseok has never heard. They look at each other and start doing hip-hop gestures and Hoseok sighs.

Their performance ends with them doing a deep bow. Minhyuk applauds enthusiastically while Kihyun stands there unamused. Hoseok joins in on Minhyuk’s applause and it’s a little scattered but Hyungwon takes it and pretends to wipe a fake tear from his cheeks.

“You’re late,” Kihyun says.

“We’re fashionably late,” Hyungwon answers, his saccharine tone dripping with fake cheer.

Jooheon lets the two be and after a quick ‘Hi’ sits beside Hoseok. Predictably, the two start bickering, Kihyun angry while Hyungwon fake cheery. Jooheon takes out a packet of cookies from his backpack and they eat it silently, watching the amusing live show still going.

At 10:15, Hoseok decides that it’s the perfect time to intervene so he intervenes. They set up their instruments and finally begin.

 

The practice goes much like yesterday. They play with perfect synchronization and then think of some changes they could make to the songs of the previous albums for live performances to make them seem less tired out since they have played these songs a lot by now.

Minhyuk doesn’t say much, probably because for him the songs are quite new or maybe because he’s just hesitant. They decide on the stage and costumes next.

For the performances during their first tour, they had gone all in. Their stage was decorated in a vaudevillian fashion and they had hired an actual circus crew for dancing and performing while they performed. Their eyes were lined with deep black eyeliner bleeding into a starry night made with glittery black eyeshadow.

Kihyun was thrown into a chair as he belted the high notes while the performer from the circus had given Kihyun a lap dance. Her hands spreading Kihyun’s legs with no shame. It was the need of the five church-going boys who had lived their lives in a small town where everyone still mentioned the girl who had gotten pregnant before marriage some ten years ago.

The stage was their rebellion dressed in debauchery and spectacle.

Hoseok had worn many things during their performances but his favorite was the one he had worn for the biggest award show of their lives where they performed their one song that had miraculously topped charts.

The song had introduced everyone to them and gotten a few good-for-nothing rookies recognition among masses. Ironically, it was the song that has taken them the least time to compose. A song that was just there, it wasn’t anyone’s favorite, not one of them claimed their best work in that. Not even Hoseok.

What they didn’t know was that unknowingly they had invented an earworm that fit the need of the time for the people who listened to radios and religiously followed weekly countdowns on the music tv channels.

The young people got them to that award show hosted by the most popular music channel and Hoseok wore a black victorian waistcoat with a white shirt underneath, his hands covered with white hand gloves. His legs were clad in black fitted pants and his feet in black boots like everyone else.

They aren’t the same people now though. The loud rebellion is done with. They wanted summer and spring now. They wanted brightness with melancholy. They wanted something stripped bare. This time they wanted the performances to be about them. Without any facade of a spectacle and loud makeup.

“I think we should at least add flowers. Like your album cover?” Minhyuk starts.

“Also yellow and something woody,” Jooheon adds.

“Yeah. Let’s make it bright and nature-y.” Kihyun says, his eyes alight with excitement.

“Do you mean bright and natural? " Hyungwon drawls, clearing understanding what Kihyun meant but still not giving away the opportunity to poke the bear.

“No, you fu-”

“I want bubbles.” Hyungwon declares with authority.

“Flowers and bubbles? Let’s add fairy lights too. Could we try and make it any gayer?” Jooheon retorts and then immediately closes his eyes realizing what he just said. Kihyun doesn’t wait and immediately hits his head with a fist.

Jooheon rubs his head, his cheeks flushing and his ears turning bright red as they tend to do when he is embarrassed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I meant gay in a...happy way.”

If someday someone asked him to show a video clip displaying how to dig yourself into a hole, Hoseok would just play Jooheon’s life.

Minhyuk shrugs. “Whatever.”

The tightness of his jaw tells Hoseok otherwise. “Minhyuk, he didn’t mean that.”

“I know. He is not insulting me anyway. It’s fine. Whatever. You straight guys can’t enjoy flowers, bubbles, and fairy lights. No skin off my back.”

Minhyuk says this calmly but there’s defiance in his posture and Hoseok can tell that it hurt him even if he doesn’t want it to.

“Alright. Let’s take a break. I am kind of hungry. Minhyuk and I are going to get some Chinese food. He’s new here so I wanted to show him our favorite place.” Hoseok says while getting up. He holds out his hand for Minhyuk who looks at it for a few seconds, making up his mind, before taking it.

Hoseok hauls him up. “Usual for you guys?”

 

***

 

“Are we walking there?” Minhyuk mutters, looking straight ahead.

“Yeah. It’s just a five minutes walk.”

They start walking side by side. An awkward silence between them.

“Are you mad at Jooheon? Hoseok finally asks as the small Chinese shop comes in sight.

“At Jooheon? No.” He says it in a tone of incredulity that makes Hoseok think that he didn’t even think of that until Hoseok mentioned it.

“You seem a little...angry.”

“I am not angry at Jooheon.”

They enter the shop and Hoseok places their order while Minhyuk looks around, his eyes still spaced out. They wait in silence and even after leaving the shop, the silence goes on.

Hands occupied by plastic bags, a frown on his face, Minhyuk looks lost in his thoughts. Hoseok tries again.

“I think you are angry. You can talk to me, you know.”

Minhyuk looks at him, presses his lips softly, and slows down his pace until both of them are walking slowly side by side. “I am not angry. I am just frustrated.”

“Why?”

Minhyuk throws his head back, a lone wolf looking for the full moon, his prominent Adam’s apple on display. Girls must find it hot, Hoseok thinks absentmindedly, and guys.

“I am not angry at what Jooheon said. Changkyun and I call each other gay all the time. Just today, I called him to ask when he is going to come back from the city because he was supposed to come back yesterday and he goes “You miss me already? You are, like, so gay.” I just want him to come back with my favorite shampoo and conditioner that for the life of me I can’t find here. But, anyway, that’s not the point.” He takes a deep breath, calming himself. “The point is that it just hits differently when you are alone in a group of straight guys and they use the word ‘gay’ as some kind of...insult. Before you say that Jooheon didn’t mean it in that way, I already know that. I know it’s a stupid slang or whatever. But, I don’t know, I just feel...frustrated.”

Hoseok doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t know what to say. Truthfully, he never really thought of that word before like that. Didn’t ever question the connotations because he was never given the other perspective. It was just a word that Hoseok never thought had so much power in itself. He didn’t use it as a casual insult but he also never questioned when someone did. It was always just a word that people used as a playground insult.

Here listening to Minhyuk, Hoseok feels like he is peeking into this whole new world that he was never privy to, a world that he never paid attention to. He knew of its existence but in an abstract way like you know of the universe. Of space. It isn’t until you witness a shooting star or a meteor shower that you realize how much real the universe is and how you are just a tiny speck of dust in this whole wide universe and there are so many things outside of you that you’ll never see and understand.

Minhyuk turns towards him, a kind of restlessness in his demeanor. “I don’t know. It’s about the word ‘gay’ but also it’s not. If I wore pink and Changkyun told me that I looked extra gay, I would just roll my eyes at him but if one of you guys said that I look gay, I might get pissed off. I guess because straight people make it sound so demeaning. Like I am not a ‘real’ man. It sounds so emasculating? And, honestly, I couldn’t care less about fitting into this small box of masculinity. But there’s something so vexing about an unfamiliar straight guy calling me ‘gay’ like that.”

Minhyuk’s eyes plead him to understand and Hoseok, who is quite familiar with not being able to put into words what you want to express, tries to step in even though he has barely anything to offer. “I am sorry. I promise you that we won’t use it as an insult ever.”

Minhyuk groans. “I don’t want that either. I don’t want to be the sensitive gay guy who everyone has to circumvent around. I want to be your friend, not a coworker in front of whom you have to think twice before saying something. But I also don’t want to take anyone’s shit just because I like men.” Minhyuk kicks an innocent stray pebble on their path and mumbles, “I don’t know what I want.”

Hoseok feels just as lost as him. “I don’t know what to say.”

Minhyuk looks at him and his lips push his cheeks away to show Hoseok a self-conscious smile. “Yeah, me neither.”

Their pace stays comfortable even if the silence between them is not. Hosek thinks about what to say and what to do but everything sounds wrong.

“Since the age of 10, I studied in a boarding school,” Minhyuk starts, his gaze not meeting Hoseok. They are in the elevator alone and the way Minhyuk chooses an enclosed space to share this story tells Hoseok that Minhyuk is vulnerable.

He is taking a chance on Hoseok and opening his heart even if it means that he’ll be giving Hoseok full access to his wounds.

“Wait. I know a place, let’s talk there.” Hoseok stops Minhyuk because the least he can do is give him space where they won’t be rushed and disturbed. They go to the basement where their practice room is and Hoseok tells Minhyuk to wait for him outside the elevator.

He rushes to their room and delivers the food to Hyungwon. Jooheon and Kihyun are conspicuously missing. Hyungwon gives him a nod as Hoseok tells him that he’ll be back, his fingers tapping furiously on the screen and his face scrunching in concentration.

When he comes back Minhyuk is standing against the wall, his eyes fixed on Hoseok. They enter the elevator again. Hoseok presses the button to the third floor. A few people enter the elevator on the first floor and they get confined to different corners of the lift. On the third floor, Hoseok leads Minhyuk to the staircase. Finally, they reach the steel gate for the terrace and Hoseok takes out its key.

“You have the key?” Minhyuk asks surprised.

“Yeah. My girlfriend gave it to me. Her dad is the co-owner of the building.” Hoseok turns the key and the padlock comes free. The gate opens with a creak and Hoseok enters cautiously.

For some reason, he has this irrational fear that someday some thief who managed to climb a three-floor building will be waiting for him here with a knife instead of taking the logical way in through the main door. “We come here sometimes.”

“Sounds romantic.”

Hoseok looks around. “Sorry, we usually bring a mat or something to sit on. I guess we’ll have to keep standing or we can sit there?” Hoseok points towards the small steel staircase built to reach the elevation where the water tanks are.

Minhyuk nods and Hoseok finds himself sitting beside Minhyuk, their bodies pressed together on the narrow step.

“Still want to tell me?” Hoseok asks gently. He doesn’t want anything from Minhyuk that Minhyuk doesn’t want to give.

Minhyuk smiles softly at him before facing the front again. “Yeah, so I was in this boarding school that was this all boys private school. Boys used the word “gay” and many other much worse words all the time. Even before I realized my own sexuality and labeled myself, they started calling me gay for random stuff.

The first time, I was 10, when I was just sitting in a chair in the common room, minding my own business, and this guy just came at me out of nowhere. He looked at my legs and then my face and loudly sneered, “You gay?” with so much derision. This group of guys surrounding him started laughing like they heard the funniest joke.

That’s the first time I can remember hearing the word 'gay'. Later, I realized he called me gay because I was sitting with my legs crossed. Slowly, everything about me just became ‘gay’. People started calling me gay because I moved my hands a certain way or I liked wearing colorful stuff or whatever fit their agenda.

I started hating the word ‘gay’ even before I knew what it actually meant. I just knew that it was bad and I didn’t want to be a bad thing. I was new there and I felt so alone. I didn’t even tell my parents because I didn’t know how to.”

Hoseok stares at Minhyuk, taking all his words in. Even though Minhyuk doesn’t look at him, doesn’t give another way to Hoseok to parse through his vulnerabilities, his solemn tone makes the atmosphere melancholic. Hoseok wraps his arm around Minhyuk’s shoulders to comfort him because it feels too important of an event to ruin with his wrong words.

“I tried to fit in. I remember consciously suppressing my hand gestures, spreading my legs while sitting, wearing what everyone else wore, adjusting my gait. I tried all the things but once you are labeled, it’s a done deal. I tried to fade into the background, joined a book club and made some friends there. As the years passed, it worked, people forgot. But, I guess, my mind didn’t.”

Hoseok rubs his hand across Minhyuk’s arm. “When did you realize you were gay?”

Minhyuk snorts. “It was literally so lame. I was sitting on my desk and I couldn’t find a pen so I asked my classmate if he had a spare. He smiled back and gave me one. I just sat there thinking that he was so handsome. How his brown curly hair framed his face perfectly. I kept thinking of his smile.

We started greeting each other and making small talk from the next day. I began to look forward to seeing him. And then one day when he was absent, I felt really down. And then it clicked that I had a crush on him. It was so lame.

I had a breakdown realizing that I was gay. That I was this bad thing all along the way like everyone presumed. I started avoiding him. We were just acquaintances, so it didn’t really matter to him.”

“Maybe he felt the same way?”

Minhyuk looks at him, a soft smile on his lips. “You are cute for thinking that but I highly doubt it.” He pats Hoseok’s knee. “Thanks for listening to my ramblings.”

Hoseok shakes his head. “Don’t thank me. That’s what friends do.”

Minhyuk’s smile takes over his face until he is the sun and Hoseok is a man without sunglasses. “Are we friends, Hoseok?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t we be?”

“I don’t know. We just met.”

Hoseok shrugs. “That’s how friendships start. People just meet and then they become friends.”

“Sounds easy and uncomplicated.”

“You like it?”

“Like it? I love it.”

Hoseok smiles at him and removes his hand. Now that he understands Minhyuk better, there’s something that needs to be done even if Minhyuk doesn’t want to. “I want to tell the guys to stop using the word ‘gay’ like that.” Minhyuk groans and starts shaking his hand so Hoseok puts his hand up. “But you don’t want that. So, in return, you should insult us by calling us “straight” or “heterosexual” in your most judgemental tone.”

Minhyuk giggles. “How would that work?”

Hoseok raises an eyebrow. “Something tells me that you already know how.”

Minhyuk’s mischievous quirk of lips answers his questions before his mouth does. “Yeah, I do.”

“Show me.”

“Are you sure? I can sound really judgemental. It might hurt your delicate feelings.”

Hoseok rolls his eyes. “Try me.”

“Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Minhyuk straightens his back and clears his throat. Even sitting at the same level, he manages to look down on Hoseok, his nose upturned and his posture regal. “The first time I met Kihyun, I could tell he was a straight just by looking at his shirt.”

Hoseok closes his eyes, his hand on his heart. He inhales deeply before opening his eyes to look at a grinning Minhyuk. “That was beautiful. There was something about ‘a straight’ instead of just ‘straight’ that really hit me.”

“I know, right?” Minhyuk says cheerfully.

Hoseok shakes his head, absolutely endeared by the most adorable kid on the earth. “But, seriously, we kind of never really had a gay friend. So we’ll probably mess up again. If we ever do something that hurts you instead of justifying it to yourself, call us out. Talk to us. Talk to me. Promise?”

Minhyuk nods, his eyes shining with something that Hoseok can’t figure out. “Promise.”

 

***

 

When they return, Jooheon hands Minhyuk a gift bag, an apologetic pout on his face. Minhyuk takes out the tissue paper and takes a look inside and then looks at Jooheon. Then he is screaming and tackling Jooheon into a hug who catches him and hugs him back tightly. Hoseok takes the bag away from Minhyuk’s hand who is too busy strangling Jooheon with affection.

Inside, there are two flower crowns, two bubble guns, two packets of fairy lights and two tickets to the movies. Hoseok shakes his head in disbelief as he realizes that all you need to get back in Minhyuk’s good books is a cheesy gesture. Minhyuk looks up from Jooheon’s hold and smiles at Hoseok. Okay, maybe that’s not all.

They eat their food. No tension apparent as they joke around, Minhyuk and Jooheon sitting beside each other wearing matching flower crowns. Minhyuk feeds Jooheon a bite who gobbles it like a particularly big baby bird, and Hoseok can already tell that they’ll become best friends. Minhyuk screams as Jooheon pinches him for shoving hot chow mein in his mouth, and Hoseok amends it to ‘loud best friends’.

The resume their practice again, the discussion for costumes and stage tabled for later. Lying on the floor, with Kihyun, Jooheon, and Minhyuk gulping in huge breaths, they call it a day.

 

***

 

They gather in Jooheon’s grandma’s house. Predictably, grandma tells Minhyuk that he is too skinny and Minhyuk awkwardly tells her that he eats a lot. They decide to watch a movie and as it ends, the sky has already darkened. They bid their goodbyes and Hoseok makes sure to leave with Minhyuk even though Kihyun keeps giving him looks.

On the open road, Minhyuk starts singing Michael Jackson’s Beat it in a shrill and high-pitched voice and Hoseok starts laughing.

He takes the rough path like yesterday and pedals a little faster as he joins Minhyuk singing Bohemian Rhapsody. The darkness of the night compromises his vision and his bike hits a bump. The bike shakes and he loses his balance. Heart in his throat, he clutches the brake and plants his feet firmly on the ground. The bike jerks forward but he doesn’t fall down.

When he calms down, his heart still beating fast, he feels Minhyuk's arms that are wrapped around his waist and his head pressed against Hoseok’s back.

“Hey, you okay?” Hoseok asks worriedly. He feels stupid for being so reckless. He would have not only gotten injured himself but also Minhyuk so close to their tour. Stupid, stupid, stup-

“Are we in heaven, Hoseok?”

“No?”

“Are we alive?”

“Yes?”

Minhyuk loosens his hold. His hands leave Hoseok’s waist and he gets off from the back seat with a huff.

He jabs a finger at Hoseok. “You, sir, are hazardous for my health.”

Hoseok hangs his head. “I am sorry.”

“Hey! Hey! Hey! I didn’t mean it in that way. Don’t be so sad. I meant your good looks are hazardous for my health!”

Hoseok shakes his head, face almost crumpling. God, he is an idiot. It’s one thing to pull such stupid stunts when you are alone but it’s another to get someone else in harm’s way when they are trus-

A gentle hand taps his chin and Hoseok looks up. “Are you crying?”

Hoseok sniffs. “No.” Because he is not. Is he on the verge of crying? Yes. But is he crying? Hoseok’s eyes tear up. Yes.

Minhyuk pulls him into a hug, their position awkward because of the bike. While Hoseok’s hands stay on the handle, Minhyuk’s hands rub his back soothingly. “Hey, shush. Don’t cry. We are fine. Nothing happened. Why are you crying?”

“I almost got you killed,” Hoseok hiccups, ugly tears flowing from his eyes.

“No, you didn’t. It’s an empty road. Nothing would have happened if we had fallen. Just a few scratches. But you didn’t even let that happen.”

Hoseok holds him back tightly with one arm, now bawling. “I am so sorry.”

Minhyuk pulls back from his embrace. One look at Hoseok’s tear-stained face and he sighs. He takes out a handkerchief from his pocket and starts wiping his tears. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. We were just goofing around and a little thing happened. It wasn’t a big deal. Please stop crying. You are breaking my heart.”

Hoseok stares at Minhyuk because he whispers the last sentence with such tenderness that it takes him by surprise. There they are, strangers in the night, staring at each other while standing in the middle of a road less traveled.

Minhyuk wipes his tears gently as if he is a doll made of the finest china that will crack under a less subtle touch.

“We are okay, Hoseok.”

Minhyuk’s husky voice becomes a companion to the starry night as he speaks his promise and Hoseok nods back, starstruck.

 

***

 

The incident leaves Hoseok shaken, a little less confident in his ability to ride his bike with Minhyuk sitting behind him so they decide to walk. The next turn will lead to Minhyuk’s street anyway.

Still a little disoriented, Hoseok feels like he is floating. There’s this feeling in the pit of his stomach that he can’t really identify.

“You are breaking my heart.”

Who says something like that so easily with so much sincerity? The knowledge that Minhyuk cares about him tugs at his heart. They just met and somehow Minhyuk already cares about him. How is this person real?

The bike makes a whirring sound as Hoseok walks beside it. His grip is firm on the handle, and beside him, there’s Minhyuk who is walking slowly to keep up with Hoseok. The dogs bark somewhere far and their sound reaches their abandoned street as they walk under the cover of the stars, a lone street light guiding their way.

“Do I look ugly when I cry?” Hoseok asks because he can’t ask why Minhyuk said ‘You are breaking my heart’ while looking at him like that.

Minhyuk laughs. “No.”

“Do I look handsome then?”

“You look cute. Squishy. Like a baby.”

“I am three years older than you.”

“Baby.” Minhyuk sings, teasingly.

The feeling doesn’t leave him, the tingle of...something still stays there so Hoseok asks a question that will get him into another mindset.

“Hey, have you seen The Breakfast Club?”

“Yeah. It’s been a while but yeah, I have.”

“Did you like it?”

“I did. I really like stories about people where it’s almost like a character study with their qualities and flaws in full display. So, I really liked how it was just focused on these people and the multitudes that they contained beyond the generalization that the adults imposed on them. I also like how there was no extra clutter. It was almost like seeing a play.”

“Yeah. I thought so too. You love it then?”

“I have this bad habit of remembering the bad things more than the good things so there were some things that irked me but overall yeah, love it. I should rewatch it sometime.”

“We should watch it together. Tell me the things that you didn’t like.”

“Well, you know, how towards the ending they do- what’s her name, the gothic one?”

“Allison.”

“Yeah, they do her ‘makeover’. And I don’t know, it just annoyed me. This whole movie is about seeing below people’s exteriors, right? But in the end, Allison changes her appearance to fit in. It’s kinda counterproductive to the overarching message of the movie.”

“Interesting, I just thought of it as Allison and Claire bonding in that moment.”

Minhyuk lifts his shoulder in a shrug and keeps them there for a moment. “It can be interpreted that way as well but my mind didn’t. I guess that says more about me than the movie. But why didn’t Allison do her make-up on Claire? And then they had this unnecessary kissing scene between Andrew and Allison. Why?

Just because she changed her appearance? Because she fit into his idea of beauty? What about her? What did Andrew have to get her attention? He was such a lame character. Honestly, the whole Claire and Bender, and Andrew and Allison thing felt so forced. It’s like you heterosexuals can’t stay in one place together and have a deep conversation without wanting to shove your tongue down each other’s throats.”

Hoseok bursts into laughter that comes deep from his belly, the handles shake with his body and Minhyuk gives him an amused smile.

Two people walk on a path abandoned. The road is rough. It’s made of dirt, and rocks big and small have made their home here and there. As their steps lead them to a destination not quite far, the stars oversee their conversation. The many sounds of night stalk their steps for reasons unknown. Crickets chirp, stray dogs bark, now closer to the main roads, horns honk, the whirring sound of Hoseok’s cycle brings all the sounds together but it doesn’t matter.

They can’t hear them over their laughter anyway.

 

***

 

At night, Hoseok sends his girlfriend a ‘Good Night’ text after texting with her for almost two hours. He puts his phone down and closes his eyes. Many thoughts rush in as his mind wanders to the boy of many mysteries.

To the boy who has a world of his own.

To the boy who tells Hoseok things that he never thought of.

To the boy who thinks you shouldn’t have to change for someone.

To the boy who wipes his tears while staring into his eyes with a fragile tenderness.

Just before his eyes start closing on their own, Hoseok thinks, I wish someone would care for me like that. His eyes close, and his thoughts are just subconscious mumble now. I wish he would keep looking at me like that.

Chapter Text

Hi!

I've decided to work on one fic at a time so I am going to put this on a temporary hiatus until I am done with my other Hyunghyuk fic. Instead of making you wait and wonder, I thought I will let you know because Wonhyuk fics are already a rarely spotted creature. This is generally to avoid plot-holes, maintain the character consistency and also because I have the whole Hyunghyuk story outline planned and written, unlike this fic which is just a nebulous ball of vague ideas in my mind right now.

To the people who are commenting here, I will reply when I update the fic because I want to have something to show when I interact with you guys. But, know that I am reading them and it makes me want to lick your eyeballs in affection. Meanwhile, you can come here and feed my ego if you must: Twittah! Curious Cattah! 

I will come back soon!