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all my stars

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Here’s the thing: Johnny doesn’t remember.

It’s not like Taeyong expects Johnny to remember him, really. They’d only ever been in one class together, during their last year of primary school, and, back then, Taeyong hadn’t exactly been the type to make friends.

Back then, Taeyong had always been the quiet kid, content to entertain himself. He would catch himself yearning, sometimes, to be part of the fun and the roughhousing, the loud screams on the playground during recess, but every time he tried, he found himself gripped by fear, paralyzed. It wasn’t until a few years later, when he could explain his feelings more eloquently than “panic,” that he and his family realized he might have social anxiety, and he was able to start going to therapy after receiving a diagnosis.

He was lucky, back then, to have immediately clicked with his therapist, who has now been with him for the better part of a decade. He was lucky, back then, to have been in the same class as one Seo Youngho during the fifth grade, because when Taeyong was finally able to start thinking about who he wanted to be, as a person who had to interact with other people (when he was finally able to control, to a certain extent, being scared), he would remember the bright, bright boy in his fifth grade class, with a warm smile and even warmer heart, and think to himself, You can do that, too, if you try hard enough.

Even as ten year olds, there were still people who thought that being popular meant that you could be mean, that you could make fun of others for things as inane as looks or voice or introvertedness, as if those were things that could be controlled or meant anything at all when you were ten. Or at any point in life, really.

But then there was Youngho. Kind, kind Youngho who loved to make people laugh, who greeted everyone with a grin, who everyone loved, and who loved everyone right back.

He was never mean, never exclusive. He even invited Taeyong to his going away party at the end of fifth grade, when he was supposed to move back to America. Taeyong hadn’t gone, back then, because he and Youngho weren’t actually friends and the thought of all those people was terrifying, but it’s still something that Taeyong remembers, to this day, when he thinks about the kind of person he wants to be.

So, yeah. Johnny doesn’t remember Taeyong, but Taeyong remembers Johnny, but he doesn’t really remember Johnny either, because he remembers Youngho and he’s not quite sure if Johnny—if this giant tree of a man, now 21 and in his last year of college—is the same Youngho that Taeyong remembers.

Taeyong has his hopes, though, because the smile that Johnny shoots him when he says, “I’m Johnny Suh, or, like, Seo Youngho. Whichever works!” is just as warm as Taeyong remembers.

 

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Like most of the problems in Taeyong’s college life, this one starts with Ten.

Well, to give credit where credit is due, this one technically starts with Yuta, with his invitation of Taeyong and Ten to a “welcome back to campus and a new school year” party hosted by Yuta and some of his soccer teammates.

Taeyong blames Ten, though, because while this could’ve been like most other parties Yuta invites him to (where Taeyong declines politely, citing exhaustion and work and introversion, and Yuta simply agrees because he knows, but invites Taeyong every time anyways because he wouldn’t be one of Taeyong’s best friends if he didn’t), it wasn’t.

It wasn’t like most other party invitations because Ten begged him to go, as much as Ten ever begs for anything.

Normally, Ten doesn’t need to beg. Ten is extroverted and bold and daring in a way that Taeyong admires. Ten is self-assured in a way that gets him what he wants, in a way that pushes him—and those around him—out of familiarity, out of the ordinary. Being like Ten is not something Taeyong thinks he could ever manage (or wants, really), but he is grateful to have met Ten anyways, because Ten has led Taeyong into doing things he otherwise never would’ve.

It’s not that Ten is inconsiderate of Taeyong, either. Sure, there are sometimes when Ten acts before he thinks, and pulls Taeyong along with him. Sometimes, it makes Taeyong incredibly anxious, but when that happens Ten always knows, and he always apologizes. The fact that Ten shines like a beacon of light is good, too, in addition to his perceptiveness. Ten can tell, most of the time, when Taeyong is starting to feel uncomfortable and knows how to deflect attention onto himself or manipulate the situation seamlessly. It’s a skill that Taeyong has come to greatly appreciate.

So, Ten understands how Taeyong feels in crowds, knows about the therapy and the fear, and he’d mentioned it when he asked Taeyong to go. He told Taeyong that it was fine, really, if Taeyong didn’t want to come, but Taeyong agreed because Ten was actually nervous, for the first time in maybe forever, to go to a party by himself.

According to Yuta, Jaehyun would be there.

According to Ten, he and Jaehyun had officially met over the summer, both at an internship for a fashion magazine. Officially, because they had seen each other at parties and the like before, but had never actually talked to each other.

Ten, of course, was interning at the magazine because he lived and breathed fashion and art (along with dance), and it showed in everything that Ten did, in everything that Ten was. Jaehyun was there because he loved to write and he found journalism fascinating. He loved putting words together, in the same way that Ten loved putting pieces of fabric together or strokes of a brush together or a series of movements together, to make something beautiful.

They had bonded over beauty, Ten had not stopped talking about Jaehyun all summer, and Taeyong could not stop smiling every time he heard Ten so happy.

For all of Ten’s bravado, he just wanted to be understood.

If Ten thought that Jaehyun understood him, Taeyong was going to do everything in his power to help his friend get what he deserved.

Besides, in the wise words of Fergie, a little party never killed nobody, right?

 

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At 11pm on the Saturday before the official start of classes, Taeyong finds himself at the entrance to a frat house.

The party, Yuta had explained, was sort of a joint collaboration between the soccer team and the frat because a lot of the soccer players were in the frat. Quite frankly, Taeyong didn’t care one way or another, but Yuta gets so excited any time he mentions the team that Taeyong had just let him talk.

He’s dressed very simply: a white graphic tee tucked into a pair of ripped, black skinny jeans with his feet shoved into a pair of old Vans he doesn’t care about getting ruined. Honestly, he’s looked more put together and has worn more ostentatious clothes to dance practice. It’s not like he’s trying to impress anyone tonight; he’s just here for moral support. Ten had taken one look at him and snorted, “Fine. Fuckin’ pretty privilege.” Why Ten talks like he isn’t also pretty and knows it is beyond Taeyong.

Ten, on the other hand, is dressed to kill. He brushed subtle makeup over his lids that sharpens his eyes, makes his gaze even more dangerous than it already is. Ten is a fashion student, so his outfit is impeccable: a muscle tee he designed himself, tight leather pants, a well-worn pair of easy-to-clean creepers that still look better than probably every other person’s shoes at the party. He’s wearing layers of thin, silver chains, too, both around his neck and adorning his ears. It’s an outfit that, Taeyong knows, will draw attention to Ten in the crowd of people, if his presence alone isn’t enough. Which, well, it probably will be.

People stare at them as they pass the throng at the front porch easily, though Taeyong can’t tell if it’s because of what Ten’s wearing or because of the way they bypass the wait. They aren’t freshmen, for fuck’s sake. They know people.

Yuta swings the door open to let them in. He loops his arms around both their shoulders and the three of them maneuver their way through the cluster of bodies towards the bar.

There’s a rule at college parties: the only people allowed behind the bar are the bartender(s), the host(s) of the party, and the close friends of the host(s). This rule means that whenever Yuta invites Taeyong to parties, and Taeyong accepts, he knows he has a safe space. People care less about respecting unspoken rules about going upstairs, especially when they’re horny, especially when they need to pee. But behind the bar? Untouchable.

After making small-talk with the others behind the bar, Ten takes a few shots with Yuta while Taeyong watches on, amused.

“Are you ready now?” Taeyong teases.

Ten nods his head resolutely and waves his phone, “Jaehyun just texted me where he was. We’ll see if I can find him.”

“If you don’t text me in an hour, I’ll assume everything’s fine and I’m gonna head home, okay?”

“I know, TY, we talked about it before we left,” Ten rolls his eyes. “Look, I’ll even set an alarm, just for you.” Ten really does set an alarm for an hour later with the heading, “TEXT TAEYONG!!!” He pockets his phone after he does so and offers them a two finger salute.

“Go get ‘im, tiger!” Yuta shouts as Ten melts into the crowd.

Taeyong’s giggles evaporate into silence after a few moments.

“You okay?” Yuta asks.

“Just concerned, is all,” Taeyong answers. “Ten seems to really like this guy.”

Yuta’s face softens in comprehension, “He’ll be okay. From what he’s told us, this guy seems to really like him, too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see if he can handle Ten.”

“Doubt it,” Yuta snorts.

Taeyong shoos Yuta off afterwards (“This is a soccer party, and you’re the soccer team captain!”), promising that he’ll be fine by himself, tucked into this little corner of the kitchen. He settles himself into a chair and begins playing games on his phone.

He zones out for a good amount of time, intent on leveling up as much as he can while he’s stuck here with nothing else to do. His concentration is only broken after he hears a “Hey” coming from close to his left ear.

“Gimme a sec,” Taeyong grits out, propriety taking a backseat to beating the level he’s on. He’ll think about this later, when he’s under his covers, and agonize over the fact that he can’t seem to have one normal interaction with a stranger. Now, though, the voice just chuckles, “Take your time.”

He beats the level, saves the game, turns towards the sound of the voice, and apologizes, “Sorry about that. Did you need anything?”

Taeyong is met with the sight of droopy eyes, lips pulled into a smile, floppy brown hair, and legs that seem to go on for miles. He thinks very little of it, other than the fact that the eyes are kind and make him less nervous than he usually is when he’s talking to someone new.

“Not really,” the person replies. “I was gonna ask if you wanted anything to drink.”

“Oh,” Taeyong says, “I’m fine. I’m not really trying to drink tonight, so.”

The person hums in acknowledgement as he fixes something for himself and Taeyong thinks that will be that. He’s about to start the next level when the person speaks up again, “Not that you need to drink in order to have fun at a party, and also not that you owe me an answer if you don’t want to, but can I ask why you’re here?”

Taeyong stills. Opens his mouth. Closes it again. Feels discomfort trickle up his spine.

“Sorry! I didn’t mean for that to be rude or nosy or anything!” the person blurts out, eyes wide and worried. “I was just curious ‘cause you’ve been in this corner behind the bar for the better part of an hour, and seem perfectly content to continue staying here when… well, when there’s a whole ass party happening.”

“You’ve been watching me for that long?” Taeyong asks, incredulous.

The person flushes red and splutters, “Sorry! At first I was just concerned, but when I realized that you were perfectly content, I got kinda curious. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable!”

“It’s… that’s fine, I guess.” Taeyong winces at how fucking awkward this entire situation is. He doesn’t think the person is at fault, like it is when he meets others for the first time, but the circumstances of their conversation are making him overanalyze. He’s suddenly very aware of his limbs and shoves his hands and phone into his pockets so he can stop thinking about how his arms are flopping uselessly at his sides. It doesn’t work. “I’m just here for moral support. Like. For a friend. Yeah.”

“That’s cool,” the person replies easily, seeming to have recovered. Taeyong wishes he could do that in social situations, bounce back quickly from embarrassment. “You’re a good friend for coming here, especially when you’ve been by yourself this whole time.”

Taeyong shrugs, “It’s okay. I don’t mind.”

There’s a lull in whatever weird back and forth they’ve been having and Taeyong isn’t religious at all, but he seriously prays that this person will finally go back to the party and leave him alone.

Taeyong will continue to not be religious, however, because the person opens their mouth again and says, “I’m Johnny Suh, or, like, Seo Youngho. Whichever works!”

That name… that name… where has Taeyong heard that name before?

Then, it clicks. Fifth grade. Taeyong hopes that his eyes aren’t bulging out of his head right now, because that’s certainly what it feels like—like his entire brain is imploding—when the realization hits.

Holy shit. Is it actually Seo Youngho, in the flesh, after all these years? It has to be him. Two names and one of them is english? What a small world. When the fuck did he get so tall?

He doesn’t get the chance to dwell on it too much. His phone rings the next second, jolting Taeyong out of his shock. He unfreezes his limbs to pick up the call.

“TY, let’s go home,” Ten says from the other line before Taeyong even has the chance to say “hello.”

“Are you okay?” Taeyong asks, brows furrowing in concern. From what Taeyong can hear over the music and chorus of voices, Ten doesn’t sound too distraught. But then why is he asking to go back home? “Where are you?”

“I’m outside” is all that Taeyong gets. “Let’s go home.”

Ten abruptly ends the call after that, and Taeyong can only stare at his phone in bewilderment. What the fuck happened?

Johnny’s been watching this whole time. When Taeyong stands up and shoves his phone in the back pocket of his jeans, Johnny asks, “Everything alright?”

His voice is full of concern, and even though Taeyong isn’t entirely sure that this Johnny is the same Youngho from fifth grade, he can’t help but think that this kind of sincerity is exactly like the Youngho he remembers.

“Not sure,” Taeyong answers. “Duty calls, though.”

Johnny nods in response, “Good luck. Nice meeting you!”

Taeyong waves awkwardly, then takes long strides towards the front door. He thinks he hears Johnny call out to him again (maybe to ask a question?), but before he considers turning back to double check that he wasn’t being spoken to, Taeyong has already entered the throng of sweaty bodies and heavy bass.

And that, Taeyong thinks, should be that.

 

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He’s wrong, though, of course he is. He’s half-convinced that the universe hates him.

The first piece of evidence that the universe hates him is that the Starbucks near campus doesn’t have nearly as many packets of dried sweet potato snacks as Taeyong wants to buy, which kind of sucks because he’s been looking forward to this all day. He’s had a long-ass day of classes, and the soreness from both class and practice is starting to set into his muscles, and he really wanted a shit ton of those snacks as a pick-me-up. He’ll have to come back again tomorrow when they restock the shelves.

The second piece of evidence is the fact that when Taeyong fiddles with his phone while waiting for the baristas to make his usual (a grande pink drink), someone taps his shoulder.

The “someone,” of course, is none other than Johnny Suh.

“Hey!” Johnny greets Taeyong with a bright voice and even brighter smile. “You were at the soccer team’s party last Saturday, yeah? Behind the bar?”

“Mhm, that was me,” Taeyong says. God, he hopes they finish making his drink soon. “Johnny, right?” As if Taeyong could forget.

“Yup!” Taeyong wonders how so much enthusiasm can be stored in a single person at 4pm in the afternoon. “I don’t think I ever got your name, though.”

“Grande pink drink for Taeyong!” a barista calls out. Taeyong turns to take the drink, bowing slightly and offering a quick word of thanks before the barista announces more completed orders.

“So, Taeyong, then,” Johnny grins.

“Yeah,” Taeyong responds, “Lee Taeyong.”

Sooner than Taeyong can excuse himself and leave, now that he has his snacks and his drink, Johnny hums thoughtfully, “Y’know, I used to go to elementary school with someone who had the exact same name. We were in the same fifth grade class.”

What?

“H- how do you still remember that?”

Johnny’s name and order (a venti iced americano, which is pretty aggressive for 4pm on a weekday, in Taeyong’s opinion) are called, and Johnny smiles apologetically at Taeyong before taking his drink.

They move away from the order counter, in order to not clog up the space, and, to Taeyong’s slight perturbation, Johnny doesn’t even stop to add sugar or milk or anything to his iced americano. It turns out that they’re heading in the same direction (although, Taeyong is going back to his apartment, while Johnny is going to another class) and never in a million years would Taeyong have imagined himself walking alongside Seo Youngho, engaged in a casual conversation.

“Anyways,” Johnny says when they’ve made it out of Starbucks, “I remember a lot about that year because it was a big year for me? My family was moving back to Chicago, where I was until college, so I remember everything that happened around that time pretty vividly. Plus, if I’m being honest, he always made me super curious. I remember that he never really hung out with the rest of the kids in our class, but he also never really seemed sad about it. I think he was shy? But he’d read or doodle or otherwise be in his own little world, and I remember thinking that it was pretty cool, how someone could be creative enough to entertain themselves like that.”

Taeyong is stunned. He’s never seen himself as particularly admirable, especially not the traits and actions he links to his social anxiety. It’s interesting—and a little disorienting, to say the least—to hear a compliment from a stranger.

“Also, he was the one person who didn’t come to my going away party. Sad.”

It’s abundantly clear that Johnny’s just saying that for humor’s sake and he definitely doesn’t actually care, but Taeyong feels the overwhelming need to apologize anyways.

“Ah, um,” he says, “sorry about that?”

One of Johnny’s eyebrows raises. “What?”

“I think… I think that was me? NCity Elementary? Ms. Kim’s fifth grade class, right?”

“Holy shit,” Johnny breathes, voice full of shock. Taeyong relates. “Oh my god that’s so embarrassing! I just said all of that to your face! Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

“It’s fine,” Taeyong giggles. It’s kind of nice seeing someone who is as extroverted and as bright as Johnny is get flustered. Although, Johnny still has that unflappably comfortable aura around him, sure of himself in spite of his embarrassment. Taeyong thinks he can learn a thing or two, but, then again, when hasn’t he thought that?

“I wasn’t actually sure if you were the same as the Seo Youngho I remembered anyways,” Taeyong continues.

Johnny makes a little noise in the back of his throat in understanding. They walk in silence for a couple of steps, before the playful, teasing lilt of Johnny’s voice breaks it. “So, why didn’t you come to my party? Wasn’t cool enough for you?”

Taeyong laughs in disbelief, more an exhale of air than anything else. “The exact opposite, actually. You were right earlier: I was super shy in elementary school. I, um, have social anxiety and it was pretty bad before I started going to therapy for it.” Johnny begins to open his mouth, surely to apologize, but before he can, Taeyong waves his hand, as if batting Johnny’s concerns away. “It’s a lot more manageable now, so don’t worry about, like, making me feel uncomfortable or whatever. But that’s why I didn’t go. I mean, we weren’t really friends or anything back then, and I knew there would be a lot of people there because everyone adored you, and it freaked me out.”

Truth be told, it shouldn’t come out this easily. While he’s gotten exponentially more comfortable with his social anxiety over the years, it’s still not something he readily mentions. He doesn’t like the uncertainty of people’s reactions, doesn’t like the baring of his vulnerabilities. It had taken Taeyong several weeks of friendship with both Ten and Yuta (two and three years ago, respectively) before he brought it up.

It wasn’t that Taeyong felt an awkward tension when he first met Ten and Yuta, because he didn’t. With them—and now, with Johnny—there was an inexplicable sort of solace in their presences, before Taeyong even got close to them. If Taeyong felt off when he first met them, if he didn’t know what to do with his own body and he felt like he wanted to flee, it was because of the situation, not the person, and Taeyong has learned to be able to tell the difference.

Johnny made it easy. Taeyong isn’t sure if it’s the residual attachment that he had towards who Johnny was when they were 10, but Johnny made him feel safe.

“Ah,” Johnny says as he scratches the back of his neck, “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“It’s okay, really,” Taeyong reassures. “Here, I’ll tell you something embarrassing in return.” At this, Johnny perks up, face blatantly curious. “If you remembered me, then I also remembered you.”

Johnny’s lips stretch into a smile, and Taeyong looks away to hide the blush undoubtedly overtaking his neck and cheeks.

“I remembered you for how kind and open you were, and admired how easily you made friends with everyone. Like, you invited me, this kid you barely talked to, to your party, right? I always remembered that kindness and have tried to emulate it and stuff when I’m meeting new people. I’m probably doing a shit job, but, y’know, it’s the thought that counts.”

“That’s really…. Wow, thank you.” Johnny says quietly. Taeyong risks a glance back at Johnny, upon hearing the sincerity in his voice, and finds a fond wonderment in Johnny’s eyes.

“For what it’s worth,” Johnny continues as he brings them to a halt in front of a lecture hall, “I think you’re doing a fantastic job.”

Taeyong stares down at his feet as he mumbles a quick thanks and feels his cheeks heating up even more. He’s expecting Johnny to say goodbye and for them to head their separate ways.

What he doesn’t expect is the phone that enters his line of sight, screen bright and open to a new contact page.

“We might not have been friends in fifth grade, but I’d really love to be friends now,” Johnny says by way of explanation.

His entire body is red, Taeyong is sure of it, but he nods anyways and enters in his number with deceptively steady hands. He feels his phone buzz in his pocket a few seconds after he hands Johnny’s phone back.

“I have class now, but let’s catch up soon!”

Johnny walks backwards while waving, pushes the door open with his hip, and disappears into the building.

There’s a text on Taeyong’s phone that reads, “it’s johnny! ^^,” a smile blooming across his face, and relief warming his chest.

This, though, is how all of Taeyong’s problems begin.