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The way Yuta likes to tell it, he was flipping through channels when divine intervention stilled his hand and fate shimmered to life on the TV screen. The Super Arena, washed in scarlet while DBSK gleamed onstage like the rising gods they claimed to be. One look and he was enraptured. Later, the dozen or so years he spent carefully cultivating dreams of pro football would fall away simply, like so many feathers.

“So cool,” Jaemin had chirped once, back when he didn’t even come up to Yuta’s shoulder. “To feel it in your bones like that. The right choice for you. Wasn’t it scary to come all the way to Korea, though?”

In response, Yuta had passed his hand over the semipermanent cowlick at the back of Jaemin’s head, ignoring his squeal of protest. “Hyung doesn’t scare easy.”

Hours after the echo of Jaemin’s impressed crowing had stopped bouncing off the walls of the practice room, Yuta cocked his head at his lone reflection. His tank top was slipping off his shoulder, bangs flattened with sweat. Grinning crookedly at the mirror, he’d tried to believe it, too.

The way Yuta likes to tell it is not the way it actually happened, of course. But including the fractured tibia and capsized boats of painkillers and plank-stiff leg propped on the table while he watched clips of the same concert over and over—thumbing the volume button up every time his shin twinged—well. There are a lot of stories Yuta loves, but the whole truth isn’t one of them.

Naturally, Taeyong was the first person to hear it.

“Don’t you think it’s too sad?” Yuta had mused. He dug his hand into the deflated bag of shrimp crackers balanced across his stomach to fish for the crumbled bits at the bottom. “Most people find their dream, right? Their dream doesn’t find them when they’re beached on the couch with a broken leg.”

“I don’t know,” Taeyong said back, gesturing for Yuta to pass the crackers. “I mean, I only auditioned because the scout bought me toast. It wasn’t very romantic.”

Yuta wriggled around to blink up at Taeyong as best as he could with his face smushed into Taeyong’s thigh. “What if I just kept playing football?”

Taeyong had hummed in that melting way of his. “You would have broken a lot more bones, probably.”

“I could still break a few now.”

“Don’t try.

“Okay,” said Yuta, placid. He thought for a moment. “I might have been really happy.”

“You might’ve,” Taeyong agreed.

It was nearing three in the morning, Yuta remembers. They were both damp from the shower, exhausted and wound-up with cricks in their necks that wouldn’t quit. It had hurt to tilt his head all the way back to meet Taeyong’s eyes upside down, but he’d done it, staring at the forbidding cut of his jaw. “I don’t think I want it anymore,” Yuta had said. “I can’t imagine not meeting you.”

And then Taeyong had laughed, quiet and sleep-drunk, and cupped the side of Yuta’s face with his palm for a split second before the warmth retreated.

They were twenty or so. The couch they’d sprawled out on was leaking stuffing from one side and coffee-stained on the other, but Yuta faithfully extolled its comfort every day and mourned with vigor when they replaced it. The lamplight had glazed the curve of Taeyong’s cheek orange. It occurred to Yuta for the first time, somewhere in the crosshairs of that moment, that he felt safer in Taeyong’s hands than anywhere else, his own bed included.

There’s no productive reason for Yuta to be thinking about that now. He doesn’t know why this memory is the one that rises to the surface fastest, but once it’s behind his eyelids, it ripples outward in endless concentric rings. Taeyong’s laugh. His touch. His lap, inviting.

Today, Taeyong has returned from touring with his new group that does not include Yuta. After he wisps past the front door, dark circles curled beneath his swollen eyes and head-to-toe Balenciaga hanging off him at the wrong angles, he peels away his mask to present a wan smile.

“It’s late,” he says. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I wanted to welcome you back home,” Yuta answers, sliding his hands into the pockets of his sweats. He bunches the fabric between his fingers, despising how he suddenly feels awkward. The moonlight spills in over Taeyong’s shoulders as if he’s some sort of messiah.

“Oh.” Taeyong pulls off his bucket hat to ruffle his newly dyed hair. “Okay. Thank you.”

Thank you? Yuta wants to parrot, incredulous. Why are you acting like you don’t know me?

“Yeah, so,” says Yuta instead. “Welcome back.”

Taeyong only smiles again, even tighter and smaller than before.

*

ONE MONTH EARLIER

Here’s the problem. Or, at least, one of them.

“Lee Haechan,” Yuta groans, one arm flung over his eyes to protect them from the overhead lights all flicking on at once. “You’re the problem.”

Donghyuck considers this. “I’ll bite. What internal crisis are you trying to pin on me today?”

SuperM is set to embark on the final leg of their first world tour soon. Obviously, this means Taeyong is busy. Yuta’s familiar with tour life, too; he gets it. It’s just that Yuta and Taeyong have never not had time for each other before, even if it means replying with a quick spam of Kakao stickers instead of real words or video calling at five in the morning. Even if it means saying hold on or talk later. The longest Taeyong has ever left him on read was for two days when he accidentally waterlogged his phone in the bathroom sink, and at the time, they’d still been seeing each other daily regardless.

Taeyong’s been leaving Yuta on read for going on two weeks now.

“So?” says Donghyuck. “He’s working.”

“Two weeks,” repeats Yuta. “There’s no way he didn’t have five seconds to spare somewhere in there.”

Donghyuck dims half the lights and sits cross-legged next to him, shoes squeaking obnoxiously on the waxed floor. “Are you worried about him?”

Yuta thinks about it. “Yeah,” he replies. Again, an abridged version of the truth.

“Mark hyung says he’s fine,” Donghyuck reports, tapping at his phone. “And eating enough.”

“So Mark clearly has time,” says Yuta snippily, then is splashed by an appropriate wave of shame for guilt-tripping. He shakes his head. “Whatever.”

“Is there something—” begins Donghyuck.

“No.”

“Hey, you don’t even know what I was going to say!”

“I know enough,” says Yuta and plucks gently at the sleeve of Donghyuck’s sweater. It’s okay. Forget about it.

Donghyuck tilts a sideways look at him from the corner of his eye, masterfully nailing the halfway line between cute and impudent. “Whatever you say, hyung.”

So there’s one iceberg. A different problem rears its head later, once Donghyuck has left the practice room and Yuta’s lungs have started to burn. Chronologically, this problem comes first by a mile and pulls a host of other tangentially related crises behind it. Yuta hates to think about it, which is how he ends up thinking about it most waking hours.

When Yuta was younger, less adept at disguising his fear and still with a softness at his jaw, the phantom that gnawed him to the bone was straightforward. He ate, breathed, and—if he was particularly lucky—slept with only the goal of debut in mind, whether that was with the first team or the next. Alongside his friends or faces he would have to learn to pick apart, it didn’t matter. Chasing one thing with such single-minded focus was its own kind of relief. There’s a reason that prizewinning horses race with blinders on.

These days, a murkier shadow trails behind him. Yuta’s multi-step combative routine is primed for efficacy, but he can’t help the suspicion that it accomplishes the work of a placebo at most. In the morning, he runs and stretches by the riverside; when evening wanes, he does some light reading; during the rest of the day, on and off as the urge crawls under his skin, he practices. His scheduled time in the dance rooms tends to go towards polishing official choreo, but.

Singing to the showerhead is practice, as is testing out snappier jokes to the audience of his bedroom wall, as is prodding at the knobs of his shoulders in the mirror and doing twenty extra reps the next day. Watching Taeyong and Ten perform their duo stage, one cut into protractor angles and the other rippling like water, and trying to manifest their same ease of movement is a familiar drill. Shielding his eyes from Taeyong’s golden boy glow and trying to wrestle down creeping envy is perhaps the most exhausting routine of all.

Yuta is smart and harbors few delusions. Of course he’s disposable; drafted into a group whose formation lacks a single comprehensible rule to date, he’d swallowed that pill a long time ago. If you were to assign each member of NCT, Inc. an epithet, he is automatically the Japanese one (at least until another is unveiled), and he’s had to make his peace with that, too.

Why, then, is he still hungry?

Breathing hard, Yuta collapses to the ground. It’s smooth against his clammy neck, cold where it meets his bare skin. He reaches for his phone and taps open his Kakao chat with Taeyong.

The last signs of life received are dated the night SuperM flew out from ICN. The exchange was brief:

Dress warmly and don’t catch a cold!!

Our Tyongie needs all his strength to show the world what he can do^^

I will ㅋㅋㅋ

I’ll come back to you safely~

Yuta rubs his thumb over the two text bubbles the way he sometimes does with the back of Taeyong’s hand. He misses him, but that goes without saying. He misses Taeyong so bad he’s dreamed several times now about a doctor with latex gloves reaching down his throat and scooping out the part of him that aches like the seeds of a pumpkin.

This is another thing changed from Yuta’s past. When the bonds of their relationship were spongy and just-formed, he used to waste long stretches of night gazing up at the cracks in his ceiling and wondering whether he wanted to be with Taeyong or just be him.

At present, Yuta has known for years exactly how his love for Taeyong is shaped. He loves Taeyong’s creative flame, his voice when he hums and when he croaks good morning, the tenderness of his fingers. That doesn’t mean Yuta doesn’t still wonder what it might be like to possess that kind of gravity, sucking relentlessly inwards until no one in the vicinity can take their eyes off you.

“I love you,” Dream-Yuta announces to Dream-Taeyong moments before the nurse hauls him off to the examination room. “Before they take it from me. I wanted you to hear that.”

He never finds out what response his confession would earn because in this dream, Taeyong always looks away.

*

LOOP 1

The new day is christened by the low sizzle of Jaehyun’s egg in the pan.

“You want one, hyung?” he offers as Yuta walks in.

Yuta rubs at his eyes in precisely the way the makeup noonas are always telling him not to. “I’m okay. No one else is up yet?”

Shouldering the cabinet closed, Jaehyun passes a bowl to Yuta. “In the shower, maybe.”

The chair Yuta drags out clatters against the floor, obtrusively loud in the stillness. He’d been unable to sleep in till his alarm, instead sliding into consciousness with a stale mouth and a nervous hum in his bones that belies his exhaustion. Jaehyun winces in the direction of where Yuta’s fingers drum a frenetic rhythm into the wood.

“Early,” he mumbles.

Yuta pulls a face but stops, redirecting his energy towards serving himself the porridge their dorm auntie left on the stove. The smell of chicken broth drifts up to greet him as soon as he uncovers the pot, and he lingers there for longer than he has reason to, sleepily steaming his face.

By the time Yuta has settled in to eat properly, Jungwoo and Taeil have joined them at the table while Mark roots around for juice in the fridge. “Are we out?” he asks after a fruitless minute, turtling his head out from behind the door.

“We just restocked,” says Taeil.

Mark finally procures the bottle, but barely anything sloshes when he shakes it, more of a sad trickle than anything else. “Aw man,” he wails, “seriously, who keeps drinking it and putting it back almost empty?”

Yuta cuts his eyes at Jungwoo, who feigns great interest in his bowl. Mark, absorbed in moping, misses the exchange. He resigns himself to his porridge eventually, though not without gulping the last mouthful of juice and sliding the bottle down to the end of the counter where they pile stuff to be recycled.

Like clockwork, Mark dozes on Yuta’s shoulder in the car. He’s been drowsier than usual lately, out of whack from bouncing back and forth and across continents between his obligations to 127 and SuperM. The thought bolts across Yuta’s mind, a stray cat, too quick for him to catch: he wonders how Taeyong has been dealing with it.

Mark squirms as if the split second of wondering has telepathically disturbed him. “Wha—”

“Shh, go back to sleep.” Yuta smooths Mark’s fringe.

“Mother hen,” says Jungwoo wryly from the passenger seat, and Yuta pulls a face at him through the rearview mirror.

Thankfully, the rest of Yuta’s contemplation is back burnered as preparations for the morning kick into full gear. He’s tempted only once, while he’s having eyeshadow swept onto his lids and glimpses Taeyong across the room between blinks. The makeup noona instructs Taeyong to look up as she smudges deep brown into his lashline and he does, over chairs and heads, right into Yuta’s eyes.

A lump swells in Yuta’s throat. He looks away first.

Trying to snip Taeyong out of his periphery is in turns easy and impossible. Easy in the sense that onstage, with the obnoxious bassline of Kick it rattling and swirling around Yuta’s ribcage, Yuta pulls his focus so sharply inward that there’s scarcely room for anyone else. Taeyong exists in the capacity of a body in space, their center, and that’s about it. But when the music quiets between run-throughs, he flickers back to life in even crisper definition than before. The set of his brows, at once compelling and defiant; the artful sweep of his fingers; the bead of sweat trying to break free at his temple, a coordi rushing to blot him dry. Being enamored with him isn’t a revelation, it’s a resting state.

Jaehyun nudges his shoulder. “Our fight scene looks good today.”

“Of course,” says Yuta, floating back down to earth. He snaps his gaze away from where Taeyong’s face blooms on the monitor. “It’s the two of us, how can it not?”

“Ah, hyung,” Jaehyun demurs, but his cadence is pleased.

Johnny passes a bottle of water and cracks the seal one-handed, showing off good-naturedly. They trade sips until it’s nearly finished and Yuta makes as if to upend the last bit on his head, to Johnny’s delight.

Out of consideration for the outrageous amount of product in his hair, Yuta doesn’t actually pour the water, but he plays up the rakishly disheveled state of his bangs by pushing them off his brow. Gradually he becomes aware of a weight on his back and pivots, looking for lingering eyes, but no one’s even turned his way. Except Taeyong, though his line of sight is fixed studiously on the cameras. Yuta thinks of earlier, Taeyong’s shadowed eyes locked with his own, feels a hot, tremulous wave ripple from the nape of his neck to the base of his spine.

And then he takes a breath and compartmentalizes. Time and place, or something to that effect. He straightens his vest, redoubling his attention on Johnny.

Aside from a minor issue with Doyoung’s mic, their part of the prerecording concludes without further incident. Yuta accidentally on purpose falls into line with Mark as they troop back to the waiting room, ignoring the exasperated little huff he gets at first before he’s worming shamelessly into Mark’s personal space.

Spirits are wearing thin this morning as the toll of the breakneck past few weeks starts to hit. Donghyuck attempts to scrap together footage for a backstage vlog before he turns the camera on Taeil, who has fallen fully asleep, then looks for Jungwoo to salvage it before realizing that Jungwoo is snoring openmouthed across the room. Though Doyoung humors him for a while, nothing even vaguely funny emerges from almost ten minutes of rolling. Eventually Donghyuck turns the camera off, muttering about trying again at Inkigayo, and Doyoung seizes the opportunity to nap as well.

Yuta glances around for someone else to bother, but Jaehyun and Johnny have their heads bent together in the corner and Mark has wandered off to the bathroom. That leaves Taeyong, doing conveniently little besides playing with the cuff of his jacket.

The two of them used to joke sometimes that they had their own version of a sixth sense (“A seventh sense,” Taeyong insisted, humming the droning bass) that enabled each to see into the other’s thoughts. It was almost true for a while, their speaking habits and daily routines having synced up enough to make their thoughts fairly predictable. But as with most things, distance and time frayed that connection enough for them to fall a bit out of step and then some. More and more, it seemed like Taeyong’s mind operated on its own inscrutable terms and that it perhaps wasn’t worth spending restless nights trying to decode him.

Somehow, Taeyong retained the uncanny habit of seeing into Yuta precisely when he’d rather be looked past. Like now, when he snaps his head up as though the invisible brush of Yuta’s eyes has somehow manifested weight and depth as it skates along the contour of his jaw. Taeyong makes eye contact for the second time that day again with the same burning inquiry, and Yuta again is the first to shrink away.

It’s not—it doesn’t feel like a challenge, is the thing, is what keeps Yuta from biting back. He thinks it might be easier that way. If he and Taeyong had a proper fight like they used to back when they were dying for something to prove. On occasion they’d even escalate to shouting, and an equally young Johnny with his long, floppy hair would have to wedge himself between them. In a perverse way, Yuta kind of misses it. At least Taeyong talked to him every day. More importantly, Yuta had the balls to start shit himself when Taeyong didn’t.

These days, the air between them is more frigid than impassioned, fragile where they used to step carelessly, and the stakes feel higher perhaps because at least being mad at each other in the past didn’t stop Taeyong from slipping into his room at night.

(“Move over,” Taeyong would say quietly. Yuta would roll onto his side, squinting against the darkness to make out Taeyong’s silhouette even though he knew full well who it was already, and peel back a corner of the blanket for him.

One time they’d fought worse than usual and he’d muttered instead, “Go fuck yourself,” expecting the conversation to end that easily. Instead, Taeyong had stayed and said, “Look, I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to sleep since one and I still can’t.” Yuta had felt for his phone, and upon discovering that it was well past four, groaned and patted the other side of his twin size mattress that was never meant for two to begin with.

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” Yuta had said, meaning to sound threatening, but that part had maybe gotten lost along the way. And if he sighed a little when Taeyong crawled in and tucked his knobby knees against the give of Yuta’s thighs, they didn’t say any more about it.)

It hasn’t been that long since Yuta last shared a bed with someone else, but he’s unfortunately discovered that nobody is quite the same. Jaehyun, in the rare event that he allows it, tends to start awake in the middle of the night, and Mark is kind of an annoying sleep talker, anyway. If Yuta is to be completely honest, he knows he could forgive either habit in a heartbeat if they were Taeyong’s—but that’s neither here nor there.

“What do you guys want to order for lunch?” asks Johnny suddenly.

Yuta blinks. “What?”

“Food,” Johnny repeats, “for later. Hey, are you okay?”

“Yeah, hyung, you haven’t been eating much,” says Jaehyun, still tucked into Johnny’s side like his pet or something.

“I’m fine,” Yuta deflects. “And whatever is fine for lunch, too. You all choose.”

“I kinda want noodles,” says Mark, pausing the video he’s watching.

“The salt,” laments Doyoung, who’s since woken up. “All I do these days is look puffy on camera.”

“I like noodles,” says Taeyong, and Doyoung scoffs at him.

“You could eat salt for every meal of the day and still come out well.”

Taeyong raises his eyebrows. “That was an impressively angry compliment.”

“Oh! So sorry,” Doyoung snarks. “I’ll say it again smiling for your benefit.”

Yuta laughs at Doyoung’s expression, steeped perfectly in self-righteous indignation, and Taeyong glances sideways at him before falling silent. Caught off-guard by Taeyong backing down, Doyoung goes quiet, too, and then Yuta’s laughter is the single, fading sound in the room.

Lately more than ever, he hates this. It’s not that Yuta minds being the loudest, and he certainly doesn’t mind taking up the mantle of moodmaker when the setting calls for it, but there is possibly no feeling quite as grating as someone going out of their way to show you that they don’t want you around.

Even when the topic is compliments and contributing is as simple as picking a favorite detail from the group’s performance—Taeil lavishing praise on Donghyuck’s stage presence, and him reciprocating in kind, or Jungwoo and Jaehyun commending each other’s vocal prowess—even then, Yuta had honestly said the first thing that came to his mind and the energy waned straight away. “Taeyongie’s charisma is no joke,” he’d offered. There was an extended pause while everyone looked at Taeyong, who finally shrugged it off and went on to discuss Johnny’s arms at great length. Worst of all, it had been captured on camera, and while the editors trimmed that section before uploading, no one could splice Taeyong’s awkward, offbeat reaction from Yuta’s memory.

In present time, Mark neatly sweeps Taeyong’s attention away with talk of an upcoming schedule, and the conversation forks on its own after that.

Yuta mumbles something about going for a walk to clear his head and slips out of the dressing room, skirting past the staff in the hallways as fast as politeness will allow. There’s this vending machine on the opposite side of the floor that always gives you an extra green tea if you press the right combination and give it a whack right before the bottle’s supposed to come out. That’s what Yuta needs right now.

When he gets there, he hits the combo that he knows by heart and kicks sort of gently in the vicinity of the dispenser, but only a single bottle clatters into the tray. Bemused, he kicks again, then tries shaking the machine a little bit, and still nothing gives. It appears they’ve fixed the machine. Or unfixed it, for Yuta’s purposes, and it stings extra given the chip on his shoulder.

Twisting off the cap has green tea frothing and overflowing down his fingers despite him not even having shaken the bottle. He stands defeatedly in the too-bright hallway, watching the drips slowly coalesce into a larger puddle at his feet, and tries to comfort himself with the knowledge that at least he’s already hit his low for the week.

*

Yuta is very wrong about this, though he couldn’t have known it at the time beyond a general premonition that one ought not to tempt fate. The live broadcast of Music Core airs at three, after which everyone piles sticky into the car and commences an intermission before their next and final schedule of the day. For most of them, that entails a radio thing later in the evening. For Yuta, Taeyong, and Doyoung, it means a photoshoot that Yuta’s been trying to push out of mind since he found out about it.

Doyoung melts into the backseat and sighs. “I want to lie down.”

“You could put your head on my lap,” suggests Yuta half-seriously from where he’s sitting on the other side.

Taeyong, riding shotgun, swivels over his shoulder to face only Doyoung when he talks. “I don’t think you’d fit.”

“I can probably fold up,” Doyoung says, cracking one eye open. He casts a look over Taeyong’s stiff posture that wanders almost apologetically back to Yuta. It’s not a secret, the way things have been going. The others would have to be deaf and blind not to notice, especially given the way Yuta and Taeyong stuck to each other before, but they’ve also been dancing around it in the assumption that the two of them would resolve their own mess.

Not for the first time since they left MBC, Yuta wishes he’d ended up in another car. With Mark, who graciously chooses most of the time not to let on how much he observes. There’s nothing to do about it now, though, so he resigns himself to staring out the window.

On reaching the shoot location, there is fortunately work to focus on again. The three of them bow to the staff, are shuffled into dressing rooms, and doze through hair and makeup. GQ is gunning for a refreshing spring concept this time: silks and linens, muted pastels, the works. The slouchy lilac suit jacket given to Yuta nearly swallows him, but the layers underneath are flimsy. He contemplates the ways he could shrug off a sleeve, bare some shoulder.

Across the room, stylists are busy pinning Doyoung’s shirt in at the waist. He pulls a face at Yuta over one of their heads and Yuta wiggles his eyebrows back at him. Taeyong is nowhere to be seen.

Yuta feels stupid looking for him. For the tenth time of the day, the thousandth time this month, whatever. It’s long since stopped being productive to keep count. Name any unspecial day after Taeyong shimmered into his life and see how Yuta was already blooming in his direction, neck craned.

Steadying his breath, Yuta zeroes in on something unassuming. One of the photographers has a piece of hair sticking straight up out of her ponytail, bobbing with her movements like a little flag, and he stares dully at it long enough to empty his head. Taeyong will turn up when he has to. It’s none of Yuta’s business.

Taeyong ultimately materializes with minutes to spare while one of the coordi noonas fusses over the arrangement of dainty chains at Yuta’s throat. Doyoung curls a hand loosely around Taeyong’s wrist as he passes and whispers something in his ear. For half a second, Taeyong’s brow creases, tempted to frown. He nods and moves on without comment.

“Relax a bit,” says the coordi suddenly.

Yuta snaps to attention. “Sorry?”

She gestures at his face. “Your jaw is so tight. We’re just about to start shooting.”

“Right, thank you.” He makes sure the smile reaches his eyes.

The shoot proceeds. Yuta spends as much of it as he can get away with on autopilot, letting his hands and stance readjust themselves when cued. It mostly works, too, except for the terrifying moment midway through during which Doyoung is swept to Taeyong’s right and Yuta to his left, and every time Yuta thinks they’re all close enough already, the principal photographer flaps her hand and says, “More.”

If Yuta gets any physically closer to Taeyong, he will die, actually.

“More,” repeats the photographer, taking her eye off the lens for a moment. “Are you afraid he’ll bite?”

The corner of Taeyong’s lip observes a wan uptick and he leverages a glance at Yuta. Well?

Yuta slings a businesslike hand around Taeyong’s waist and pretends not to have seen it.

“Lean into it, use your neck. There.”

The cameras flare to life again, snapping in quick succession. Doyoung tilts his head sweetly towards Taeyong’s, giving them gentle springtime romance, dewy flower boy, whatever. It disguises some of the tightrope act Yuta’s performing on the other side, schooling his face into handsome disinterest while his brain overheats at the proximity to Taeyong. He’s near enough that Yuta is breathing in the fruity scent of his body wash with every inhale. This is the most they’ve touched in months.

If Yuta was to be held at gunpoint and ordered to recount what happened for the rest of the shoot, well, he would be resting underground now.

The folks at GQ are sick and twisted enough to make Yuta sit through an interview afterwards. The three of them are lined up in front of a coral backdrop and presented with a little basket filled with folded slips of paper—Taeyong in the center again so that Yuta has no choice but to sit beside him.

It starts off slow, asking for their favorite snacks and recent hobbies, the items they won’t step outside without. One slip asks them to try a part switch, so Taeyong warbles a few bars of Love Song, then Yuta and Doyoung jointly attempt to rap a verse of Mad Dog in exchange. The next question is where things pick up:

“The member I would date if I were a girl,” reads Doyoung and chuckles nervously. “I guess that would be Johnny hyung? I like the dependable type… someone well-mannered who knows what they want. He’s someone I feel secure around.”

Taeyong is next. He makes a show of thinking about it, fiddling with his rings. “My choice is Doyoungie,” he decides finally. Doyoung sputters next to him, flustered in his charming way, and they all laugh. “The way I see it, he’s smart when it comes to reading people. He always takes care of us well, too. I think I could learn a lot from him.”

They’ve gotten this stupid question in all its myriad forms a handful of times over the years, and Yuta knows what his answer will be, but it doesn’t preempt the sad little Pavlovian flicker in his chest. He squashes it. “Mark,” he declares, eyes huge. The camera lingers on him, and he milks it, cracking a smile at the last second. “He’s so cute. Seriously, he’s so cute. It’s fun to get a rise out of him. I think he’d treat his girlfriend really well.”

The following question is Taeyong’s to draw. He unfolds the paper with his bottom lip caught between his teeth. “A member whose habit is troublesome to live with.” There’s an ensuing explanation of how their dorms are split, meaning that the three of them don’t necessarily interact as much as they used to, after which he says something mild about how long Donghyuck takes in the shower. Doyoung pitches in with a similar gripe.

For a wild, fleeting moment, Yuta imagines contributing something well and truly out of pocket. “Jaehyun and I always fight over the toothpaste cap,” he says instead. “He says I don’t close it, but it’s really his fault half the time.”

The interview continues in this fashion, the questions rotating between them until they’ve bled the well dry. They managed a few compelling responses; Yuta estimates around ten will survive the editing shears. Taeyong leads them in delivering a neat closing statement, plugging the new album one last time, and they all beam and wave.

Despite how fervently Yuta wishes he could sag to the floor once they stop rolling, there are still airs to maintain until they get home. They change out of their suits and silks, thank everyone on set, regroup in the car. The eyeliner penciled between Yuta’s lashes feels gummy, and his foundation is separating around his nose despite several meticulous efforts to blot it smooth. He feels disproportionately wrung out, as if he’s been forgotten in the washer to swirl round and round until he shrinks in on himself.

“You okay?” Doyoung cuts through the haze with a hand on Yuta’s knee.

Yuta blinks a few times until the swimming patches of Doyoung’s face converge back into shapes that make sense. “Sure.”

Doyoung’s mouth purses. He pushes a clump of moussed hair aside and places the back of his hand against Yuta’s clammy forehead. The touch, though not unwelcome, makes Yuta shudder a bit. He thinks Taeyong’s eyes dart over to them in the rearview mirror for a second.

Then, the car lurches to a screeching halt, sending Doyoung flying partway into Yuta’s lap. They’re all frozen for a moment while their manager swears, white-knuckling the wheel. “Sorry,” he says, “there was a stray dog that just bolted in front.”

Taeyong is ghost-pale in the front seat, one hand clutching at his heart and the other a startled claw in midair. Yuta squeezes Doyoung’s shoulder as he rights himself and wishes, pointlessly, that he could have done this for Taeyong, too. Held his outstretched hand, even.

Anyway, they’re driving smoothly again before a minute is up. Taeyong is probably fine. Yuta’s not doing himself any favors by worrying. He closes his eyes and tries to sleep for the rest of the ride.

*

Yuta claps a hand to his heaving chest, doubled over. The music fades out and then restarts. This is probably the fiftieth loop or so, but Yuta hasn’t succeeded in bleeding any of the itch from his system since he slipped into the practice room hours ago, seething over his water bottle.

He pauses the song, wondering if he should start working back chronologically—he’s stretched his hips in case he decides to tackle Cherry Bomb tonight—and the door cracks.

“Oh,” says Taeyong. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were in here.” He’s washed his face, and his undereyes look hollow and blue.

“It’s fine,” says Yuta warily.

It seems to dawn on them at the same time that this is their first proper conversation all day. They both shift in discomfort. Pettily, Yuta resents that even this movement plays out in perfect, mirrored sync, as if their joints are linked with puppet string.

“I’ll just—do you want me to go—?”

“No, no, stay. We’ll split down the middle.”

“I only brought a speaker…” Taeyong falters.

Yuta taps one Airpod. “I’ll be quiet. No worries.”

A pause, and Taeyong lets the door shut behind him. “Thanks.”

He sets up his speaker on the opposite side of the room while Yuta pretends not to watch him. It’s been a long while since they’ve practiced together like this outside of group rehearsals, and longer still since that was jointly planned. These days, Taeyong prefers to retreat to the studio after schedules are over, and Yuta often won’t see him again until all nine of them are wilted in the makeup chairs at dawn.

Taeyong begins to go through his stretches. As always, his shirt is three or so sizes too big and slides easily with him. Arms swoop over his head and the neckline tugs to the right; he bends over one flexed calf and it billows off him, baring his pale chest underneath. He glances up.

Ears warming, Yuta tears his gaze away. He feels as though he’s disrupting Taeyong’s privacy by being here at all, even though he had the room first. What’s worse is that it’s been years since he’s even had to stop and fret about seeming obtrusive. Taeyong had actually been the one who’d taken to clinging first, and Yuta carefully followed suit. Even before there was love, there had been an insistent sort of fascination, and Yuta hadn’t wanted to step too close for fear of tripping over the threshold.

“Hey,” says Taeyong softly. “Actually, I think I’m gonna go.”

“What? You didn’t even start.”

“I’m just tired today.” He retrieves his speaker almost sheepishly. “Sorry. I’ll leave you to it.”

Yuta shrugs and returns to the sequence he was drilling until Taeyong has gone, after which he slumps against the wall and contemplates the fact that he’s being lied to now. For all that Taeyong has learned to ease up on the gas, his relentless pursuit of perfection does not and cannot stop with being tired. It’s barely ten in the evening, and he’d left without breaking a sweat. He is absolutely going to go locate a different room and practice alone. Which is fine, obviously, but it eats at Yuta that Taeyong didn’t just tell him so.

Before they were plucked from the pool of hopefuls to debut in the same group, they were friends, and they’ve never particularly had to embellish it. Yuta wonders if this is where the hill crests and the boulder begins to roll back down—where they become strictly coworkers, then maybe even less. He nukes the thought immediately after it springs up because he is not in the mental straits to be considering a world where Taeyong has unburdened himself of their shared history.

He dances for as long as he can stand to be alone, then trudges back to the dorms and boils himself in the shower. The others had returned from their radio broadcast hours ago, and he saw the blanketed lump of Taeil’s figure as he passed their room. Yuta kills the lights, collapses into bed with his hair still wet, and hopes that tomorrow will be different.

*

LOOP 2

The new day is christened by the low sizzle of Jaehyun’s egg in the pan.

“You want one, hyung?” he offers as Yuta walks in.

Yuta rubs at his eyes in precisely the way the makeup noonas are always telling him not to. “Nah. No one else is up?”

Shouldering the cabinet closed, Jaehyun passes a bowl to Yuta. “In the shower, maybe.”

The chair Yuta drags out clatters against the floor. He’d been unable to sleep in till his alarm. Jaehyun winces in the direction of where Yuta’s fingers drum a frenetic rhythm into the wood.

“Early,” he mumbles.

“That’s what you said yesterday,” Yuta complains, but he stops anyway. His eyes feel even heavier today. He hardly notices as the others appear, tuning them out until Mark demands to know who drank all the juice and left only a tiny sip at the bottom.

“We’ve been over this,” says Yuta, puzzled. “Actually, didn’t we run out completely?”

Mark sags over the empty bottle. “Just now, yeah.”

He dozes on Yuta’s shoulder in the car again, waking with a start when they stop moving. The salon is a flurry of movement that it’s by far too early to process; the rhythm of clicking compacts and dabbing sponges nearly lulls Yuta unconscious again. Across the room, the makeup artist working on Taeyong tells him to look up. Their eyes meet like the day before.

Curious, Yuta holds it this time. Taeyong’s cheeks go faintly pink, and he jerks his head away to say something to Donghyuck in the chair beside him.

The reality that something is amiss doesn’t sink in until they arrive for prerecording. Yuta squints at the building through the car window. “Why are we here again? Today’s Sunday. We should be on Inkigayo.”

Jungwoo yawns into his fist. “It’s Saturday.”

“No, look—” Yuta grabs for his phone, then stops short. His traitorous lock screen reads Saturday, March 21, 2020. “What the fuck.” He furiously cycles through the calendar app, Twitter, his text messages. Any record of the last 24 hours has disappeared without a trace.

“Are you feeling okay, hyung?” Mark pins him with a look that makes Yuta’s skin crawl.

“I’m not crazy,” he snaps.

“Whoa, no one ever said you were!”

Yuta quiets. He can sense the attention of everybody in the car becoming concerned and intent, hates that he feels compelled to defend himself. This isn’t a conversation they should be having. Yuta knows that yesterday was Saturday because he’d lived it—what more proof does he owe? “Whatever,” he says eventually. “Let’s go inside.”

He doesn’t drop it altogether, though. While they wait to go onstage, Yuta rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, trying to dispel some of the gnawing air of foreboding. He shouldn’t be here, recording for Music Core, in the same clothes he wore the day before. He also cannot make a scene in public.

“Hey,” he hisses to Doyoung, a detail coming back to him. “Check your mic before we go on. There’s going to be an audio issue.”

Doyoung pauses his shoulder stretch. “What?”

“Just do it,” Yuta says. He doesn’t know if confirmation will make him feel better or worse about suddenly losing his mind, but he may as well try.

“Fine,” says Doyoung, bemused. NCT 127 is called on in five, and his mic does indeed suffer the same brief technicality as yesterday. He squints at Yuta from across the narrow stage but waits until after they’re done recording to push. They’re straggling back into the hall when he swoops to Yuta’s side and demands, low and suspicious, “How did you know?”

Yuta cracks his knuckles. “I already lived through today once. Either that, or I’m going insane.”

“Hyung,” wavers Doyoung. He’s still not good at picking up on Yuta’s brand of in-jokes as they happen in real time. Yuta can tell from the furrow of his brow that he doesn’t know whether to ask.

“Never mind,” Yuta sighs. “Kidding, Doyoung-ah.”

Being cooped up in the dressing room afterwards is a thousand times worse now that Yuta’s sitting on some impossible secret. He scrolls through political updates and tabloid articles and netizen forums almost obsessively, half-hoping the date attached to each page will give if he stares hard enough. To his growing frustration, none of them do.

As if he wasn’t in a shit mood already, Yuta looks up from his phone to catch Taeyong staring. He arches his brows. “Can I help you with something?”

It comes out perhaps more combative than intended, if the flash of irritation that briefly lights Taeyong’s eyes is anything to go by. Donghyuck even stops fiddling with the camera settings and glances cautiously up. Yuta turns away, nearly scrubbing a palm over his face before he remembers to mind his makeup. He hopes Donghyuck hadn’t caught the remark in his vlog footage, then scoffs to himself. Maybe it would be better if he did, actually. At least then Yuta would have concrete evidence that today had happened, that it was real, and that he won’t have to go through it again.

“Hey, where are you going?” asks Johnny, stirring. “And what do you guys want to order for lunch?”

Yuta continues crossing the dressing room, doesn’t look back. “Bathroom break. You choose what to eat.” It dawns on him that he’ll have to put up with the same loops of dialogue for the rest of the day, too, and he contemplates tearing his hair out.

Why is it only him that’s living out some fucked up prophetic dream? What is he supposed to do about it, exactly, if he can’t prove it to anyone around him? He still has the photoshoot to endure after this, then the volley of trite interview questions that wouldn’t have been especially hard to predict even without a psychic advantage, and he’ll have to shoulder all of it with a cranky Taeyong beside him. Pressed into him, even, for the sake of the magazine spread.

Yuta employs a tremendous leash of self-control to refrain from kicking in the bathroom door. Once inside, he collapses back against the wall and clamps his sleeve between his teeth to muffle his scream.

*

“More,” repeats the photographer, taking her eye off the lens for a moment. “Are you afraid he’ll bite?”

Unsmiling, Yuta plasters himself against Taeyong’s flank and tilts his neck inward before they can tell him to. He’s even closer this time, mostly because he’s decided to play stubborn today, but the only one who’s suffering for it is himself. Taeyong smells so good it’s actually making Yuta sort of lightheaded. The sweetness of his skin, the cologne he’d layered sparingly on top, even the vaguely chemical scent of the product caked in his hair. The elaborate lighting setup has all of them on the verge of sweating, even in such light fabrics, and the faintest sheen is forming along Taeyong’s exposed collarbone.

Yuta seizes the chance and tucks his chin over Taeyong’s shoulder. It must look good because several of the staff hum approvingly, and the camera flashes accelerate. Doyoung takes it as a hint and drops his own face into the crook of Taeyong’s opposite shoulder. Under ordinary circumstances, Yuta doesn’t quite know how he’d feel about that, but he’s grateful for it now. It makes him feel less exposed. This is a job, after all. The more clinical the experience, the safer. If Yuta let his eyes slip shut for even a second, he thinks he would stay fitted against Taeyong like this for as long as Taeyong would allow him. He could be content with just breathing him in for several centuries, at least.

“Beautiful,” murmurs one of the assistants before the three of them are directed into a different pose.

The word hangs in space for a moment. Yuta glances at Taeyong, now a respectable body width away, and echoes it quietly inside his chest. Taeyong is—well, it’s no secret. He’s a vision in blush pink, satin suit jacket shaping the already impressive breadth of his shoulders and falling open down his chest. The eggshell lace he’s got on underneath is immodest at best. If Yuta were to turn for an eyeful, the dusky peaks of Taeyong’s nipples would be prominent. The lace must be chafing them sensitive, he thinks, then viciously forces himself to stop thinking whatsoever. This is too dangerous a tangent to explore when every shift of his expression is being captured and saved.

He doesn’t dare look at Taeyong again until they’ve sat for the interview, and even then only because it would read awkward if he kept his reactions confined straight ahead to the audience. Yuta laughs when appropriate, helps Doyoung along with anecdotes. He’s careful not to touch Taeyong besides the slice of thigh that necessarily connects them on the bench.

Doyoung draws the question about dating their members. “The member I would date if I were a girl,” he begins.

Yuta zones out. He knows that Taeyong will name Doyoung in turn, and he came prepared with his own answer. Selfishly, he dedicates a few seconds to thinking about choosing Taeyong. It wouldn’t particularly matter to the viewers. But it would matter to him, and Yuta would go from wading knee-deep in whatever suffocating force of decay has been hounding their relationship as of late to sinking in it up to his neck. Taeyong would ask why. He might be uncomfortable, even, because they’re not like that anymore. And that’s fine, Yuta will just—he’ll just—

“Mark,” he declares when it’s his turn, turning up the wattage of his grin. He’ll just carry on.

Afterwards, in the car on the way back to the dorms, Yuta remembers something else. It was around this bend, after the intersection. Here, when the wheels crunch onto a narrower strip of road. “Stop the car,” he says.

Doyoung bristles. “What? We’re not even close to home yet.”

“Stop,” repeats Yuta, just a tone or two below flat-out shouting, and their manager is so startled that he slams the brakes. His neck jerks forward to examine the road.

“Oh, there was a stray dog,” he says, surprised. “Thanks, Yuta. I almost didn’t see it.”

“You would’ve,” Yuta mutters.

Taeyong releases a long, slow breath. “I didn’t see it, either,” he admits quietly. He looks to Yuta through the rearview mirror, undisguised. His jaw works like he wants to say something else, but he seems to think the better of it.

“Yeah, that’s crazy.” Doyoung folds his arms across his chest and scans Yuta up and down. His bunny mouth is twisted up in calculation. “Yuta hyung has been catching all kinds of accidents today.” Before they even happen, he doesn’t add, though Yuta hears it loud and clear.

Yuta smiles thinly. “Someone’s got to watch out for us.” He would explain it to Doyoung for real, but the day has nearly ended already. Besides, Yuta doesn’t know how much explaining he could really do. He wasn’t entirely joking when he said he could be going insane. With each dragging hour, it feels more and more true.

*

This go around, Yuta has the advantage of knowing that Taeyong will walk in on him. He strains his ears for the footsteps down the hallway, waits until the door gives.

“Oh,” says Taeyong. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were in here.”

“It’s fine. Come in.”

Taeyong does, clutching his speaker to his chest. “I don’t want to bother you…”

“No trouble,” says Yuta. “I’ll keep to the left side.” It’s an offer as pointless as it is generous. The practice room is huge, easily big enough to fit the whole group plus a cohort of background dancers if they wanted. This is for Taeyong’s benefit, so that he can simulate practicing alone.

Yuta thinks back to how Taeyong had frozen up yesterday and deliberately keeps his eyes from wandering. A harder task than it sounds, because Yuta is someone who has, for better or worse, spent about a third of his life now making Taeyong the focus of his world second only to their work. And even then, Taeyong was so fully integrated into his daily routine—they’d joined SM the same year, been roommates, persevered and trained and eventually shared a bed together—that the boundary wasn’t so distinct anyway. He woke up in the mornings or in the dead of night to find Taeyong within reach. He looked without reservation because most of the time Taeyong would look back, or maybe lay his head in Yuta’s lap.

Embarrassing as it is, Yuta would probably give a kidney on the spot to have Taeyong do that again. Instead, he fixes his focus on the mirror and keeps to his massive half of the room. He’d come here even faster today, hadn’t bothered to change anything but his shirt, and his makeup is wearing off in tired streaks. His reflection is hunched and wan.

He reaches for his phone and restarts the music to avoid dwelling on it. In his peripheral vision, Taeyong is working through an unfamiliar sequence, maybe something he’s brainstorming for their dance channel. Yuta bites down on a smile. He loves Taeyong always, but he might love him most like this: fierce concentration, centered in himself, his pull implacable. The lack of cameramen makes little difference. Anywhere he performs becomes a stage built for him alone.

And then Taeyong stops dancing and tilts his head, inquisitive, and Yuta realizes that he’s been staring. He swallows a curse. Turns out it’s hard to break eight years of habit through a single burst of willpower. “Sorry,” says Yuta, futilely.

Taeyong blinks at him. “What for?”

“Just, I mean. I don’t want to distract you.” A splotchy flush rises to the back of Yuta’s neck. “Whatever you were working on looked good, by the way.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah.”

“Thank you,” says Taeyong, lashes sweeping his cheek as he drops his gaze to his twisting hands. Yuta is torn between aching at Taeyong being so awkward around him again, as if they’re really reverting to strangers, and finding him endearing. Such is the curse of yearning, he supposes.

Clearing his throat, Yuta returns to practice. He’s been sitting on lingering dissatisfaction with today’s performance since morning, even though there’s nothing necessarily wrong with it. His limbs feel too long for his body somehow, and he can’t shake the feeling that his dance reflects it. He counts the intro of Kick It in his head, half-time, doubling down on the footwork. By the time he’s run it a handful of times front to back, Taeyong has gone.

Yuta slows to a stop. He’d tried to be better today, to fix this much, at least. It occurs to him that this is how Taeyong must feel around him all the time: squirming out of his skin, unable to share even a space this large in the quiet. There’s probably something to be said about the fact that this immediately feels like the worst part of his entire shitty waking dream. At Music Core, he’d had seven other unique distractions, and at the photoshoot, he’d had Taeyong dizzyingly near him, and both were work occasions that intrinsically demanded a mask.

Here, there is nobody to tell Taeyong to look to Yuta and smile. Nobody used to need to, anyway.

*

LOOP 3

The new day is christened by the low sizzle of Jaehyun’s egg in the pan.

“You want one, hyung?” he offers as Yuta walks in.

Yuta abruptly stops rubbing at his eyes. “Jaehyun,” he says, “what day is it?”

Jaehyun taps his phone awake on the counter. “Saturday?”

“Fuck,” hisses Yuta. “Fuck, no, how the fuck does that even happen?”

“Usually that’s what happens every week after Friday,” says Jaehyun slowly. “Is everything okay?”

Yuta stomps to the table and glares at his lockscreen, which offers a cheerful confirmation of the date. “No. Everything sucks. I’m either losing my mind or having the most detailed nightmare a human brain has ever conjured.”

Jaehyun’s brows twitch. “So no egg?”

Leering, Yuta flattens his hands on the table.

“Got it,” says Jaehyun, abashed.

Throughout the morning, Yuta’s mood only snowballs. He scowls through the trip to the salon, to Music Core for their prerecording, and even throughout multiple runs of the song because his furrowed brow and tight mouth can pass off as charisma. When the vlogging camera gets shoved in his face backstage, he fixes the lens with a look that makes even Donghyuck shiver and retreat.

If Yuta is being punished by divine forces for some wrongdoing, then snapping like a leashed animal at everyone forced to interact with him today probably isn’t earning him any brownie points, but he’s also too furious to care. He’s seen the corny time loop movies where the protagonist is forced to stomach some moralistic lesson by adapting to the challenges of the day; he’s not so self-absorbed as to think there’s nothing left for him to learn. But Yuta also doesn’t think he’d done anything wrong the first time. Not enough to warrant being put through the cosmic meat grinder, at least. He flicks through a mental catalogue of those 24 hours: practice, a harrowed few hours of sleep, work, more practice. He’d treated the staff as politely as he ever had, and the members—well. There’s his mostly unspoken thing with Taeyong to consider, maybe, but that hardly counts as a fight.

Also, thinks Yuta, feeling the hot pool of irritation in his throat come to a boil, wouldn’t that imply that Taeyong should be suffering the same? But if he’s also been living the same day on repeat, he’s hiding it with masterful grace. All questions addressed to him are answered the same way; all the emotions he displays settle neatly in line with how they did the today before this, and the today before that, too.

Yuta shoves his hands into his pocket and shoulders his way out of the waiting room. He’s going to go find the vending machine and he’s going to kick the shit out of it even though he knows now that it’ll only give him the one drink, and it won’t help him cope any better, but at least he won’t be taking it out on someone whose feelings he can hurt.

*

“More,” repeats the photographer, taking her eye off the lens for a moment. “Are you afraid he’ll bite?”

Odds are more likely that Yuta bites him instead. He glances at Taeyong from the corner of his eye, a vision in watercolor smudges of soft rose and cream. He still smells so good. There’s a faint duochrome sheen to the fabric of his jacket that Yuta hadn’t noticed before, the threads reflecting mint green in the light whenever he shifts.

As if perturbed by the eyes on him, Taeyong turns to look right back at Yuta, unmoved, head-on. Cameras wink and shudder. The flash follows half a second after. It’s a rare unstaged moment, their faces angled together as if they were about to—Taeyong’s lips, reddened from bottled tint and slick where he’s darted his tongue out to wet them—and Yuta, close enough to—if he wanted—

The photographer contemplates the shot somewhat quizzically before opening her mouth. Yuta readjusts himself before she has the chance to tell him off, leaning away until he can’t feel the tranquil huff of Taeyong’s breath against his cheek anymore. This is, of course, more for his own sake than anyone else’s.

If he wanted? What a fucking joke. There are few things in this world that Yuta wants more.

A hand snakes across Taeyong’s back to rest on Yuta’s shoulder—Doyoung. Admittedly, Yuta had forgotten he was here. The weight of his palm is familiar, though, grounding, his rings pressing cool against the flush crawling up the base of Yuta’s neck. The staff seem to like it as well, and the shoot transitions cleanly into the interview phase before the hour is up.

“Which member would die first in a zombie apocalypse? And last?” reads Taeyong. They breeze through it.

“What’s your go-to song at noraebang?” reads Yuta. “Can you sing a few lines for us?” Doyoung handles this one.

“The member I would date if I were a girl,” reads Doyoung and chuckles nervously. Yuta’s attention catches immediately on the edge of his laugh, the absent drumming of Taeyong’s fingers against the cushion of his chair. “I guess that would be Johnny hyung?”

Yuta leans back in his seat while Doyoung finishes explaining his choice. He doesn’t mean to, but this question always forces him to tune back in. Maybe it’s his secretly guarded masochistic streak that wants him to be present for this, to watch Taeyong’s mouth form around a name that isn’t his. The phrasing of the question doesn’t really matter. He just wishes that he could see the face that reflexively pops into Taeyong’s mind. He wishes that Taeyong would think of him.

The following question is Taeyong’s to draw. He unfolds the paper with his bottom lip caught between his teeth. “A member whose habit is troublesome to live with.” There’s an ensuing explanation of how their dorms are split, meaning that the three of them don’t necessarily interact as much as they used to, after which he says something mild about how long Donghyuck takes in the shower.

Before Doyoung has a chance to speak, that liquid frustration is back, steaming, boiling over.

“Taeyong is really a terrible communicator sometimes,” Yuta cuts in. He knows he’s lashing out, and that it’s hypocritical besides, but the venom refuses to be stoppered. “Usually he doesn’t have any problem with talking things out as a team, but I think he’s scared of interpersonal conflict. Shouldn’t a leader be less of a coward? Shouldn’t they be able to take the first step?”

There’s a long, fraught silence. Taeyong is staring at Yuta with huge eyes like he’s never seen him in his life. The staff have frozen in place, hands paused over tripods and makeup compacts and headsets. All the air in the massive room seems to expand at once, crackling and white-hot, and the resulting explosion numbs Yuta to everything that comes next.

He says nothing while the editors titter nervously about cutting that part, and while the interview grinds to an awkward end. He says nothing when their manager tears into him the second they step off set, even before they’ve made it into the car, and while Doyoung snaps, “Yeah, what the fuck is wrong with you?” He says nothing during the drive home, though he recalls the stray dog. It won’t cause an accident. They were fine the first time, so they’ll be fine this time, and this entire day will repeat tomorrow like it hadn’t even happened. So Yuta lets everyone have their fill of righteous fury because he sort of craves it, in a terrible, nauseating sort of way, and they won’t remember it regardless.

At the dorm, Doyoung goes up to the 10th floor along with Yuta instead of getting off at the 5th and corners him outside the elevator. “The hell is your problem,” he demands. “What has Taeyong hyung ever done to you? Huh?”

“Nothing.” It’s true.

Doyoung’s fingers clench into a fist at his side. He looks tempted to wind back and punch, and for a second, Yuta even believes he’ll do it, but after a moment he deflates and jerks his head the other way. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he begins tersely, “but don’t take it out on the person who deserves it least. Okay?” His fist quivers, and he thumps it against Yuta’s heaving chest. It comes off more plaintive than it should. “You need to apologize.”

He’s right, but Yuta would rather eat glass than admit it right now. Instead, he shoves Doyoung off and stalks down the hall without glancing back, because seeing Doyoung’s face right now would only make him feel guiltier. He has the rest of the night to stew in that, and maybe even the rest of eternity, depending on how long this time loop thing plays out. May as well put it off while he can.

Yuta doesn’t bother going to practice tonight. He knows Taeyong will, and that’s not a confrontation he can bear. Instead, he turns in early and yanks his blankets up over his head and steadfastly pretends that his pillowcase isn’t growing cold and wet.

*

LOOP 4

There’s a crick in Yuta’s neck, and Taeil is snoring. He glares up at the ceiling for a few sleep-hazy seconds, willing both to subside. Neither obeys in the slightest; if anything, Taeil gets obnoxiously louder.

He fumbles for his phone and squints at the display; it’s coming up on four in the morning, which is too close to their call time for going back to sleep to be satisfying or worth it. It’s also Saturday. For the fourth time. Yuta doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry about it, so he sits up and considers a third option.

The bathroom lighting makes him look even worse than he feels. Curves of purpling shadow have taken up residence below his eyes, punctuating the sallow tint to his complexion. The remnants of yesterday’s makeup are smudged below his lashline where he’d neglected to remove it all properly. He hasn’t shaved in a while—apparently that’s something that doesn’t reset with the rest of the day. All the wear and tear accumulates on Yuta’s body, on his psyche, unforgiving and separate from everyone else. It makes him feel half a ghost, drifting through the infinite loop like restless spirits do through the human overworld. Yuta cautiously raises a hand to the mirror to make sure that he can still touch it. A few more cycles and he might just start disintegrating permanently.

In a little while, he’ll have to walk into the kitchen for breakfast and do this whole thing over again. And Yuta’s not weak by any means—he’ll put up with it because he doesn’t have a choice—but he doesn’t know how long he can manage it before his legs and hands and heart give out on him. Yuta closes his eyes and presses his forehead to the cool surface of the mirror, tries to fall through it. He wishes Taeyong were here with him. And that he could apologize for yesterday and have it mean something instead of Taeyong forgetting, like he will, like he must, because Taeyong doesn’t have a choice, either.

Jaehyun’s egg is sizzling in the pan by the time Yuta drags himself to the table. “You want one, hyung?”

“Yeah,” sighs Yuta. “Thank you.”

*

LOOP 5

Mark shakes the juice bottle despairingly. “Aw man,” he wails, “seriously, who keeps drinking it and putting it back almost empty?”

“Look in the back,” Yuta says, gesturing with his chopsticks. “I bought more yesterday.” It’s as much a science experiment as it is an act of goodwill. He’d run to the convenience store after the photoshoot had ended and slipped the juice into the fridge before heading to bed. Everything else in this universe seems to reset once he wakes up for the day, but maybe little interferences can be pardoned if they’re for the greater good or whatever.

“I don’t see it,” says Mark. The fridge door all but swallows him.

Yuta frowns down at his bowl. Apparently not, then.

“Wait, no, it’s right here!” Mark retrieves a new bottle, full, the seal still uncracked. He’s beaming and sleep-mussed. “Thanks, hyung.”

Huh. Yuta allows himself a smile as he pinches the apple of Mark’s cheek, drawing a halfhearted whine of protest.

Just minutes after getting in the car, Mark’s already knocked out on Yuta’s shoulder like he’s been doing all week, and Yuta’s somehow still charmed despite almost having been drooled on each time. He thinks of sitting beside Taeyong in the car, how they’d sleep between schedules pressed clumsily up against each other like cats soaking in a patch of sunlight, Taeyong’s lashes crooked and face puffy as casualties of the early hour. Of course, it never mattered much because Taeyong’s beauty is stubborn and nearly impossible to dissuade. Yuta still felt lucky to be able to see him that way, though, before he had to compose himself for the stage. As gentle at the edges as he is at his core. Vulnerable, essentially—although Yuta’s been having a rough time with this word and its implications lately.

With each cycle of the same day, Yuta’s own vulnerability seems at once more smothering and more elusive, always hovering in his face but still just beyond reach. He wants to own it the way that Taeyong has learned to. He’s exactly the kind of coward that he’d accused Taeyong of being. It was just easier, then, to propel that sentiment outwards instead of into himself where it belonged.

In the salon chair, Yuta cracks one eye open while shimmering powder is dabbed across the lid of the other one. Taeyong is still there, across the room, like he’s always been. Within arm’s length, if Yuta was brave enough.

One of the makeup noonas instructs Taeyong to look up. Yuta’s prepared for their eyes to lock—mentally, at least—but the rest of him thrills under the heady wash of Taeyong’s attention. His stomach performs an unsteady flip.

Pretty, he mouths, tapping a finger to the corner of his own eye.

Taeyong startles with enough force that the hand resting on his cheek jostles and slips out of place. Me? he mouths back, as if Yuta has ever looked at anyone else. “Sorry,” he murmurs aloud to the makeup noona before she can scold him.

Who else?

The next part of his face to be glossed and tinted is his mouth, effectively forbidding his reply, but the shy smile that twitches across Taeyong’s lips doesn’t escape Yuta’s notice.

*

LOOP 7

“My back is killing me,” Yuta groans, sprawling across Jungwoo’s lap. He raises an eyebrow to make it clear he’s demanding a sympathy massage.

Jungwoo laughs and complies, kneading one hand into the knot between Yuta’s shoulder blades while the other pauses a game on his phone. “Is your age catching up with you, hyung?”

“I’m only three years older than you,” sniffs Yuta. “And that’s rounding up. Brat.”

The phone gets set down on a nearby table so Jungwoo’s other hand can join the massage effort. Yuta purrs, pleased. “You’re stretching properly and everything before you dance, right?”

“Yeah.” Yuta turns his face so that his cheek isn’t being mashed into the meat of Jungwoo’s thigh. “Stress, maybe.” He’s not typically fond of owning up to aches and pains, but the past week has been a hell on par only with the month leading up to NCT 127’s debut. The throbbing in his head and twinge of the tendons around his scapulae have worsened incrementally with each day, and the fitful snatches of sleep he’s stolen between them are nowhere near enough to compensate. He wonders if a time loop can kill you the same way radiation does, slowly building exposure until your body finally collapses.

The waiting room hums softly around them. Donghyuck is fiddling with the vlogging camera’s zoom lens in the corner, trying to score an unflattering close-up of the pores around Johnny’s nose. Jaehyun bats him away for a few seconds before switching gears to egging him on. Beside them, Taeyong’s eyes are closed, arms folded across his chest. He’s developed the uncanny ability to nap shallowly and upright like a soldier reluctant to leave the line of duty. Yuta thinks about tucking something around his head—a wadded-up blanket maybe, or a seat cushion—to support his neck before Jungwoo digs his fingers into a knot so hard that his mind goes completely blank.

“Too much stress isn’t good. Hyung should hurry up and get better so that I can get a back rub, too.”

“Aren’t you still young and flexible?”

“Only three years younger.” Jungwoo bats his eyelashes. “And that’s rounding up.”

Yuta snorts.

To Yuta’s distress, though, the pain doesn’t entirely retreat even with Jungwoo’s help. They’re in the middle of the GQ interview when he feels a lance of heat jab into his side. It’s perhaps not so noticeable to the staff across the room, but Doyoung definitely feels him stiffen.

“Are you okay?” he asks after they’ve wrapped shooting. He shrugs out of his powder blue suit jacket and drapes it politely into a coordi’s waiting hands. “You went pale as a sheet partway through.”

Yuta examines the rolled-up cuffs of his own jacket and tries to maintain a neutral face. “It was that obvious?”

“Only to me,” Doyoung says. His eyebrows knit together. “Hey, is something wrong?”

Everything is wrong, Yuta wants to tell him. Nothing’s been right for months. You know it too, right? You feel it too?

“Just a little sore,” he says instead. “Nothing to worry about.”

Doyoung prods gently at the small of Yuta’s back, watching for a wince. “You know I worry anyway. It’s half my personality.”

“Hm? And the other half?”

“Being funny and charming and handsome, of course.” Some of the pressure withdraws, but his hands remain. Yuta still likes the weight of them. Doyoung’s hands are reassuring in a tangible way that little else can be, his long pianist’s fingers firm and decisive. “You’re sure you’re okay?”

“I’m pretty sure that being funny and charming and handsome are all qualities that I trademarked a long time ago—”

“Yuta hyung.” Doyoung’s mouth pinches tight.

“Yeah,” says Yuta, exhaling long and loud. “I am, seriously. So I better not find out you’re losing sleep over me.”

Doyoung scoffs. “As if I’d ever.”

That doesn’t mean that Yuta isn’t quietly delighted when he finds a neat stack of heat therapy patches on his bed that night, wrapped loosely in a nondescript ribbon and tied off like a birthday gift. The lopsided bow is oddly charming.

Yuta tugs at one of the ribbon’s loose ends to unravel it and rolls its sleek length into a spiral for safekeeping. That’s going in his jewelry box, preserved in the midst of his eclectic ring collection as evidence of Doyoung’s inner softie. These heat patches are the nice, name-brand kind, too. Tomorrow, coupled with some painkillers, they’ll be lifesaving. He traces along the smooth edge of one packet and grins to himself.

*

LOOP 9

“Check your mic,” says Yuta, catching Doyoung by one bony shoulder before they head onstage for prerec. “It won’t work right.” Warning him has become habit at this point, as much as double checking his shoelaces and running vocal warmups.

Today, though, Taeyong’s close enough to hear, and his brows furrow as if trying to meet in the middle. He doesn’t say anything until afterwards, when they’re headed back to the waiting room.

“How’d you know?”

Yuta fairly jumps out of his skin. Taeyong’s voice is low and close, curling up to his ear in the hallway crammed with people. It’s the first time Taeyong’s spoken to him unprovoked since… well, since before the days all started looking the same, probably. “Call it premonition.”

Taeyong cocks his head. “You have magical powers now?”

“I wish,” Yuta laments. He’d give anything to see the actual future instead of being jailed in an unending past. “It doesn’t exactly work on command.”

“Hmm,” says Taeyong and casts his gaze like so much fishing line around Yuta’s eyes, his bare arms, the splay of his hands in their fingerless gloves. As if he’s looking for a tell. Yuta draws himself up to his full height—perhaps uselessly, given that they stand about equal with each other—and waits for an elaboration that doesn’t come. Taeyong drifts away as soon as the waiting room door cracks open.

But even after the warmth of him has departed, Yuta keeps looking. There’s something pathetically romantic, or maybe just pathetic, about the way that Taeyong approaching him first makes his entire stomach jump into his throat. He wonders briefly how he’d ever managed to talk to Taeyong nonstop while maintaining any sort of poise.

The only practical theory is that Taeyong is a presence to which everyone around him must acclimate, something akin to the long days of summer; you get used to it being bright all day long until you stop going outside at the cusp of autumn and all of a sudden the sun sets at five p.m. All of a sudden Yuta’s painstakingly built-up tolerance is down to nothing, and two sentences from Taeyong have him sighing across the waiting room like a lovelorn shoujo manga protag. Which. Given the way the cookie has been crumbling as of late, Yuta supposes that description isn't too far off.

Huffing into his gloved palm, Yuta watches Taeyong raise somebody’s half-full water bottle to his lips. Indirect kiss, supplies the pea brain rattling around unsupervised in his skull, then: wish it was mine. Yuta thinks he’s going insane sooner than anticipated, actually.

*

“You can come in, you know,” says Yuta and pauses his music.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were in here—”

“Never mind that.” Yuta turns his back to the door and restarts the song. “There’s more than enough room, so just come inside already.”

Taeyong’s hands curl around his speaker. “Thanks.”

Yuta chances a glimpse through his peripheral: the same billowing shirt, Taeyong’s hair bleach-fried and unkempt, the column of his throat lustrous in the thin white light. He’s missed it, even though it’s only been a few days. The heat patches have helped combat the lingering pain in his back well enough for extra practice to be permissible again, so that the soreness in his arms and thighs comes from the satisfaction of being worked deep and not divine retribution. Although the universe still won’t make it easy for him—Yuta had discovered yesterday morning that the patches and their dainty ribbon don’t last into the next 24-hour cycle. His own gifts can defy the reset, but not gifts anybody else gives him.

Still, there’s a simple workaround: Yuta drops the same comment about his back aching to Doyoung when their shoot concludes, and then the heat patches appear on his bed like magic. He figures that asking for it directly is too forward, or otherwise embarrassing to Doyoung’s tsundere sensibilities. Basically, the how and why are unimportant so long as this arrangement continues.

“I can leave if you’re too uncomfortable,” says Yuta suddenly. “I’ll find a different room.” He doesn’t want to be walked out on again.

“You don’t want me here? I thought—”

“No!” Yuta plucks at the worn hem of his shirtsleeve. “Not me. I want you here. I’m asking for you.”

Taeyong wraps an arm protectively around his middle and rocks back onto his heels. “Why wouldn’t I want you here?” he says eventually.

“I don’t know—”

“Yuta—”

“Wait,” says Yuta. “I mean, sorry to interrupt. But I want to say this.” He shoots a glance at the floor-to-ceiling mirror, which unhelpfully reflects his own mild terror, then decides that staring at his feet is exponentially preferable. “You’re a great leader. And you’re really—you’re brave in ways that I still wish I was. I think however much love you receive won’t ever be enough, but that doesn’t mean, um, that doesn’t. Mean that anyone should try any less to give it to you.” Yuta becomes aware that he’s sweating buckets. “Taeyongie,” he finishes softly, too tender in his epilogue.

Taeyong’s legs buckle all jellylike and then he’s on the floor.

“Taeyongie?” Yuta repeats, verging on panic. Oh fuck. What if he’s killed him?

“Yeah,” wheezes Taeyong. “Still here. Just. Give me.” He curls like a pillbug and buries his face against his knees. “One minute.”

Yuta kneels to face him. “Okay,” he agrees, not without concern. It’s been a long time since he last took a CPR course. If Taeyong keels over semi-comatose right now, how many breaths is Yuta supposed to give him? Wait, that would involve putting his actual lips on Taeyong’s lips. Yuta feels his cheeks heat inadvertently. Taeyong’s deathbed is not the time to be getting shy about the possible homoromantic subtext (or bold text!) of mouth-to-mouth.

After a minute is up, Yuta gingerly taps the back of his hand. “Should I go get Doyoung…?”

“No,” says Taeyong, sucking in a huge lungful of air as he finally surfaces. There’s a blotchy shock of red across his face that spreads all the way down his neck and disappears into his overstretched collar. He drifts his fingertips over Yuta’s for a second before skittering away. “Thank you, I… appreciate it. That just caught me off-guard.”

Yuta, in all sorts of disarray himself, manages to give him a flimsy pat on the shoulder. “I meant it.”

“If you didn’t, I’d be pissed that you nearly sent me into cardiac arrest for nothing,” Taeyong warns, but his eyes are still watery and baseball-sized, and he can’t make it sound threatening. He tries a second time to stop smiling and gives up, the peal of his laughter cracking in midair like candied fruit rinds. “Thank you, Yuta,” he says again once he’s recovered his voice.

“You’re not sick, are you? Your legs gave out like—” Yuta makes a whooshing gesture and adds sound effects for good measure. “Did you eat something bad? Are you hurt anywhere?”

Taeyong dusts off his pants and blossoms upright. “Nowhere,” he insists. “I was only surprised to hear this so suddenly from…” He bites his lip on the sentence’s end, rubbing at the nape of his neck.

From you, he obviously means. As far as Taeyong knows, the two of them haven’t been talking at all. The truth of the matter is both more complicated and worse; the best of their recent interactions have been strained, and the worse ones, well. Yuta would be lucky if he could forget them like everyone else.

Yuta tries a shrug and hopes it comes off more casual than it feels. “I thought it was the right time to say something. We haven’t been—lately we haven’t—”

“Yeah,” agrees Taeyong. His mouth is drawn into a straight, contemplative line. “We haven’t.”

In the impassive view of the mirror, they both look smaller than they are. Taeyong is tired, Yuta knows. If what he wants is to go back to what they were like before, all he has to do is say the word. Yuta would take the first step himself, but he doesn’t want to burden Taeyong even more if it turns out that’s not the case and Taeyong actually prefers this distance. Of course, Yuta is also just making excuses.

“I’ll go back to practicing now, if you don’t mind,” Taeyong murmurs.

Yuta laughs. This one definitely doesn't come off casual, but: “Go ahead, why would I?”

He’s said his piece, anyway, though he’s not sure how much an apology counts for when only one side remembers the insult. He could get on his knees the way Taeyong had been just minutes earlier and apologize properly a dozen times. He could start another fight just for the sake of it, or he could come clean like he’s never dared to. I keep having this dream, you know, about a doctor who has to reach inside me to scoop out the parts that love you. And, I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize myself afterwards. So much of me was shaped by your hands.

None of it would matter, Yuta supposes. In the end, they’ll be pulled back to the beginning.

*

LOOP 10

“You’re in a mood today,” Johnny observes.

Yuta readjusts the chains layered under the neck of his stage outfit. “Thanks so much for noticing.”

Johnny raises a brow. “Wasn’t too hard.”

Despite being well-acquainted with Johnny’s good intentions, this conversation has long since started to grate at Yuta. It wouldn’t if this were the first time. As it stands, however, Johnny’s opened with this exact line six times out of ten—the other times, when Yuta had bothered to put on a smile, he’d offered Yuta a sip of water in genial silence—and there’s little Yuta can do besides play along.

One of the unexpected worst side effects of this time loop deal is that the personhood of the individuals around you starts bleeding out the longer you cycle. It’s been ten days of Mark asking after the empty juice bottle at breakfast; of Doyoung blushing his way through a gossamer-veiled admission to his crush on Johnny on camera; of Taeyong pressing at the seams of Yuta’s life from every angle, opaque and oblivious while Yuta burns from the inside out. More often than not, when someone opens their mouth to Yuta, he’s already fast-forwarding through their dialogue in his head like they’re NPCs in some existentialist video game.

“It’s nothing major,” Yuta sighs. His warped reflection in one of the monitoring screens suggests that his hair is currently a travesty, courtesy of his power nap, and he waits for a stylist to notice and come running. Each time, he’s tempted to tell them not to bother; that no one who catches the broadcast of this Saturday’s Music Core will have any recollection of it because they’ll never stop watching it for the first time. Each time, still, he holds back. “Can you tell Doyoung to check his mic settings for me? I have an off feeling about it.”

“Really? What are you, psychic?”

Yuta mouths along to Johnny’s reply with his back hunched and facing the wall. Johnny does tell Doyoung, though, which is most important. To Doyoung, like to the stylists and camera crew and everybody on earth who isn’t karmically cursed, this is a workday like any other, and any problem that pops up in the process demands a solution.

To Yuta, they’re plot points that he’s already seen resolved. He’s tried a loop where he doesn’t give Doyoung the heads-up: it just makes their section of the prerecording stretch ten minutes longer. These small mercies are for himself.

After their run throughs, Yuta slides in next to Taeyong in the waiting room and thumbs at a stray smudge of glitter along his cheekbone. “You had something,” he explains, showing Taeyong the sparkling pad of his finger. “Fairy dust, maybe.”

“Oh,” says Taeyong, coloring faintly pink. His bottom lip falls open a fraction, just enough to expose the wet gleam of his teeth, and puffs out when he blows a wisp of hair from his eyes.

These moments are for Yuta, too.

*

LOOP 11

“The member I would date if I were a girl,” reads Doyoung and chuckles nervously. “I guess that would be Johnny hyung? I like the dependable type… someone well-mannered who knows what they want. He’s someone I feel secure around.”

Taeyong is next. He makes a show of thinking about it, fiddling with his rings. “My choice is Doyoungie,” he decides finally. Doyoung sputters next to him, flustered in his charming way, and they all laugh. “The way I see it, he’s smart when it comes to reading people. He always takes care of us well, too. I think I could learn a lot from him.”

The camera turns to Yuta. He traces his eyes along the slant of Taeyong’s jaw, the twin dips at the corners of his mouth where his lips curl up, expectant, catlike. “For me, it’s our leader, Taeyong. He’s the one I want to take care of.”

*

LOOP 13

Jaehyun nudges Yuta’s shoulder. “Our fight scene looks good today.”

“Of course,” says Yuta, lingering by the monitor. The recording of Taeyong glows through the screen, tilting his head at just the right angle for the stage lights to glaze the tips of his bleached hair silver. “You’ve been working hard, and it shows.”

“Ah, hyung,” Jaehyun demurs, but the tips of his ears burn cherry.

“Taeyong looks good, too.”

Jaehyun blinks, startled. “Sure. He matches the concept really well.”

“Nobody pulls it off quite like him,” Yuta agrees. He knows that Taeyong is standing behind them, well within listening distance.

He grabs a green tea before heading back to the waiting room, where Donghyuck has already brandished the vlogging camera. Currently it’s aimed at Taeyong, who stares up into the lens with only the top half of his head in frame. “Can you explain a little bit about today’s styling, Lee Taeyong-ssi?” he asks, adopting the grandiose voice of an interviewer.

“Of course,” Taeyong begins. Yuta stifles a laugh as Donghyuck zooms in even tighter, so that Taeyong’s round, shining eyes take up the entire screen.

“Actually, let’s start from the makeup. What do you think this look is trying to express?”

“Ummm,” goes Taeyong, brushing the scar at the corner of his eye with one self-conscious fingertip. “Something powerful, a little intimidating? Like a hero who takes you to another world, that kind of feeling.” His voice catches on the last syllable with a hoarse click.

Donghyuck hums. “Instead of a hero, you seem more like a kitten right now, though?” He dances away before Taeyong can squeeze in the last word.

“Dry throat?” Yuta slides into the space Donghyuck had left open. He offers the bottle of tea.

“Oh, that’s okay,” says Taeyong, regarding Yuta’s extended hand like it had sprouted from his head. “I have my own water somewhere.”

“Just drink it,” says Yuta, “and I’ll find your water in the meantime.”

Taeyong mouth drops open a bit, but he takes the tea, at least. “Thanks.”

Waving it off, Yuta scans the waiting room for an opened water bottle. There’s a couple in front of Jungwoo and Taeil, and another two grouped together with Jaehyun and Johnny. None of these seem likely. By the time he’s found it—kicked behind the leg of Taeyong’s chair, probably by Donghyuck—Taeyong has unscrewed Yuta’s green tea and tipped his head back to take a long draft.

It occurs to Yuta that this definitely constitutes an indirect kiss, and the thin plastic of the water bottle in his hand squeaks and crumples under his tightening fingers. “Here,” he says, shoving it into Taeyong’s face. He avoids looking at Taeyong’s mouth just in case it kills him on the spot. “This is yours. Um, keep the other one, too.”

He couldn’t feel any more fucking stupid as he hurries back to his seat. The number of times that he and Taeyong have exchanged drinks, or stolen each other’s food, or straight up just fed each other numbers well into the hundreds. The count of times they’ve showered together is no small sum, either. Yuta knows what Taeyong’s bare back looks like knobbed and pale and slicked by sheets of water. He’s as instinctively familiar with the rhythm of Taeyong’s breath once he’s fallen asleep as he is with the music they perform onstage. He’s felt Taeyong’s palms pressed against his own, against the curve of his cheek—up under his shirt, even, because Taeyong likes to wrap his arm around Yuta’s waist whenever they share a bed. There’s no impetus for him to unhinge now, of all times.

Yuta chalks it up to the stress, like he does with every problem that resists categorization, and collapses into his chair like a dead man walking.

*

In the second it takes for Taeyong to open the passenger door to the car, he seems to have changed his mind about something. He turns over his shoulder to face Doyoung, chewing pensively at his lip. “Do you want to sit up front?”

“I don’t not want to,” says Doyoung. He examines the hesitant curl of Taeyong’s fingers over the door’s edge. “Do you—would you prefer to sit in the back?”

Taeyong lets the door go. “Yeah. I think I would.”

Doyoung casts a wondering look at Yuta, who returns it, but soon enough he shrugs and ducks into the seat beside their manager. That leaves Taeyong and Yuta to study each other in the thick stillness of the parking lot.

“After you,” says Yuta. He pulls a back door open and gestures all gentlemanly, and it makes Taeyong laugh. He slides all the way to the end seat. Yuta settles into the opposite side and makes to put on his seatbelt when:

“Is it okay if I sit here, actually?”

Taeyong’s scooted into the middle seat. His thigh brushes Yuta’s, the material of their pants rubbing and catching. His hands, though, have flown into his lap as though expecting to be reprimanded.

“Of course,” says Yuta, embarrassed that it comes out as more of a whisper. Taeyong smiles at him, a tiny, careful thing distorted by the grainy light through the car window. Yuta savors it anyway.

Minutes into the drive to the shoot location, Taeyong falls asleep. His head jolts every time the road grows uneven, or when they make a tight turn, and Yuta can only watch his eyelids flutter in discomfort for so long before he’s pulling Taeyong’s head into the crook of his shoulder.

Through the rearview mirror, Doyoung arches his eyebrows. Yuta doesn’t respond, more concerned with the way Taeyong groans quietly and turns his face into Yuta’s bare skin, inhaling long and deep until his lungs must be full to bursting. His lips skim the ticklish hollow of Yuta’s clavicle.

Yuta dares to look at him, always younger than his years in his sleep. He winds an arm around Taeyong’s shoulders to hold him there.

*

Yuta’s already partitioned the practice room down the middle in anticipation of Taeyong’s arrival, but when Taeyong walks in and looks curiously at the hoodie strewn across the halfway mark of the floor, Yuta decides it won’t be necessary. He pauses his music and retrieves it, tossing it across a bench. “Take as much space as you need.”

Taeyong nods and closes the door behind them. He crouches to set up his speaker at the front of the room. “Do you want to practice together?” he suggests, apropos of nothing.

“Yeah,” says Yuta. His heartbeat picks up to a lively three-fourths time signature, waltzing. “I’d love to.”

“Okay,” says Taeyong, then looks down at his hands. He looks somehow better-rested today. “Okay,” he repeats, softer, echoing himself. “You’ve stretched, right? Let’s get started.”

Afterwards, when they’re sprawled panting on the floor and the mirror is fogged over with the proof of their efforts, Yuta’s hand wanders dangerously near the vicinity of Taeyong’s wrist. He’s wearing a thin bracelet, all yellow-gold and dainty chain links. Yuta hooks the tip of his pinky against it and tugs.

Taeyong glances up through his lashes. There’s a beat of sweat escaping his bangs, trickling leisurely down the knife-cut line of his cheekbone. Yuta thinks about collecting it in the heel of his palm. He thinks about licking it and tasting the salt.

“What kind of songs do you work on when you’re alone in the studio?” Yuta asks. “You never show them to me.”

“Oh, I mean, I don’t really like to show them to people when they’re unfinished.”

“You show them to the fans all the time.” Yuta determines that he can get away with pouting.

The flush across the bridge of Taeyong’s nose and down his neck deepens. “That’s different. The fans are the fans. You’re… you.”

“Great explanation,” says Yuta. “Thank you so much.”

Snorting, Taeyong swats at him. “You know what I mean.”

Yuta doesn’t, or at least he isn’t sure, but he knows what he’d like to believe. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“I don’t know,” sighs Taeyong, shifting against the floor. His hair spreads in a staticky halo below him. “Songs that are comforting, I guess? Songs that are honest? Whatever makes me feel less lonely.”

“You’re lonely?”

Taeyong looks away. He swallows, and his throat bobs, and this alone is more tempting than it should be. “Well, sometimes.”

Yuta pushes as many fingers as he can fit between the bracelet and the warmth of Taeyong’s wrist, then ventures even further down until his fingertips are grazing the jut of Taeyong’s knuckles. “How come?”

“You say it like it’s so easy not to be,” says Taeyong.

“It is,” says Yuta. “It should be. I’m here.”

Taeyong’s wrist twitches. After a moment, he turns his hand so that the circle of his bracelet slips free and they’re palm to palm instead. He doesn’t intertwine their fingers, but he lets them touch. “How’s your back?” he asks when an appropriate silence has passed.

“My back?”

“Yeah. I heard you talking with Doyoung about it after the shoot. It’s bothering you lately, right?”

Yuta thinks of the heat patches that he knows will be waiting on his bed when they head back to the dorms. “I can get by.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but.” Yuta turns his cheek to look Taeyong in the eye. “How’s yours?”

“How did you—” Taeyong cuts himself off. He doesn’t seem to have prepared an end to that sentence.

“There’s always something,” says Yuta. “A million old injuries. At least one of them is bound to be acting up. I hope you haven’t been in pain and hiding it, because then I’d have to lecture you, and we both know that’s really Doyoungie’s area of expertise.”

“Nothing too bad,” says Taeyong. “It’s sore sometimes, that’s all.”

Yuta pushes himself up to sitting and pats his own thigh. “Come over here. I’ll give you a back massage.”

“You really don’t have to,” Taeyong begins.

“I want to.” He shifts closer until he can smell the lingering citrus of Taeyong’s soap undercutting the sweat. “You don’t have to be shy about it.”

Taeyong sits up, too, and pulls his knees in hesitantly. He tucks his chin between them so that the long slope of his back is exposed. Yuta allows himself to reminisce for a single second about what that back looks like wet and glistening before he shoves the image back down into the padlocked mental file cabinet where it belongs.

They’re both too nervous for it to be any good from the start. Yuta keeps his hands confined to the tops of Taeyong’s shoulders, digging his thumbs too shallowly against the meat of his trapezius for Taeyong to feel much, and Taeyong’s eyes dart up and down in the mirror to meet his before jumping away again. But once they’ve been at it for a few minutes, Yuta inadvertently strikes gold when he brushes against a knot of tension at the center of Taeyong’s spine. Taeyong releases a surprised breath. “That felt nice,” he murmurs. “Again?”

Yuta does it again, then a third time. On the fourth, Taeyong groans and unravels.

All at once he’s pliant as he slumps further into Yuta’s hands, rotating his neck until it cracks loud enough to echo and melting even further when Yuta touches him there, too. Taeyong has always been slight, but Yuta’s more aware of it now than ever, his ribcage sharp and frangible, the heave of his breath labored. He shifts down towards the floor and Yuta’s fingers slip, grazing that delicate skin just below Taeyong’s ear. A choked, keening noise tears free from Taeyong’s throat.

“Sorry—”

“It’s okay,” says Yuta. He was going to pretend that he hadn’t heard. “We’re okay.”

Taeyong’s gaze wanders back up to Yuta’s in the mirror, and this time he locks it in place. “Yuta,” he says, wetting his lips. There’s a speech he wants to give. That’s his leader voice, hear me out before you get angry and you know this is for your own good. Yuta’s hands shudder to a stop against the slickness of Taeyong’s nape.

He doesn’t know what’s coming. Taeyong might ask why Yuta chose him as the member he’d want to date; he might tell Yuta that it’s not worth keeping up the niceties because whatever slump they’ve fallen into is irreparable. He might even, in a plot twist that Yuta can’t anticipate, be kind. All the same, Yuta doesn’t want to hear it. Today’s Taeyong gets to say whatever he likes and wake up in the morning to a clean slate, while Yuta will have to carry it forward.

“It’s getting late,” Yuta says. “Let’s head home.”

*

At the 5th floor of their apartment building, Yuta hazards a final touch against the dusky blue under Taeyong’s eyes. “You’re sleeping okay?”

“Well enough,” says Taeyong. His hand flits to the door.

“Can I…” Yuta lets it hover in midair for a moment. He thinks about those days long gone and the ones that have only recently dripped out of reach, the knees tucked up against Yuta’s thighs, Taeyong’s perpetually cold feet. Yuta used to keep his room warmer than he himself preferred just for that, so Taeyong wouldn’t shiver through the night. “Can I sleep in your room tonight?”

To the casual observer, Taeyong would seem frozen. But Yuta’s made a career of being the most persistent kind of admirer, so he catches both the jerk of the tendon in Taeyong’s forearm and the drop of his lashes. Put together, they’re more than enough to predict the answer he’ll receive, but the part of him that hurts—or loves, it doesn’t matter, they’re the same—still waits blindly.

“I only have one bed.”

“That’s fine,” Yuta tells him. “That never mattered before, right?”

There’s the roar of a passing car kicking up a spray of rainwater from the roadside. The unnerving awareness of the rise and fall of his own chest. Taeyong’s knuckles white around the doorframe, bloodless like his face, his lip caught between his teeth.

“Yuta,” he says finally, only it emerges as more of a sigh. “Don’t you think we’re too old for this now?”

*

LOOP 14

Yuta wakes with a gasp from what must have been a nightmare. He doesn’t know; he’s forgotten already. All that remains is the pounding of his heart and the slip of cold sweat on his sheets, clammy against his bare legs.

When he checks his phone, he’s startled to see that it’s early enough to go back to sleep, definitively nighttime—but Saturday, still. Saturday, again. For a moment, he just sits there in bed, a familiar pool of wrath gathering at the pit of his stomach. The reality that he can’t move on, even now, makes him unexpectedly furious in a way he thought he’d no longer be able to manage. The longer he stews in it, watching the minutes blink by on his lock screen, the higher it builds.

What more, thinks Yuta, can be asked of him? He doesn’t have much pride left to sacrifice. Taeyong had all but slammed the door in his face. Yuta had drawn close to honesty, teetering on the precipice of laying himself open, but Taeyong isn’t interested, and that’s out of his hands. He could ask a thousand times and there’s no reason the answer should change. He’s lived this day for two weeks already, and still he performs a song that no audience will remember, and he chases Taeyong’s touch while crews of voyeurs film for posterity, and he goes to bed alone.

Yeah, fuck that. It’s barely another minute before Yuta is standing up so fast that the blood rush makes him dizzy. He dresses without paying mind to what meets his hands. Whatever he grabs first will have to do. His phone goes in his pocket before he realizes that he’ll be found a lot quicker if he carries it on him, so he turns it off and kicks it under a heap of crumpled clothes instead. Maybe that’ll keep everyone off his ass for a few hours.

It’s too early yet for the subway to be functional, so Yuta just. He shoves his way out of the dorm, breathing stilted and harsh into his mask, and he runs.

There’s nowhere in particular he means to go. He’s familiar with the residential area surrounding them, more than enough to navigate in the inky dark before dawn, and he decides that he doesn’t want to be somewhere so close by that he can find his way home. So he makes sharp turns that veer down streets he never takes, ducking past convenience stores and weaving around the few people still out, and he clutches his jacket tighter to his chest anytime eye contact with a stranger lasts a second too long. He runs with a lunatic, single-minded sort of determination that he hasn’t felt the pull of in years, accelerating when his lungs start to burn. He was an athlete for most of his life, after all. Even if he’s lost the training regimen, he’s kept the mindset.

Yuta makes it probably eight or so kilometers before the stab of exertion in his legs lights up his spine and joins forces with the longstanding pain in his back, and his entire body seizes so violently that he’s forced to stagger to a stop at the side of the road and nearly puke into a traffic cone. He swallows the urge, but the acrid taste persists at the back of his mouth, sour all the way down his throat. The traffic cone glares neon in the headlights of an approaching car. Yuta watches it come, thinks about running into the street, thinks that it won’t make a difference anyway.

Tomorrow morning, he’ll wake up the same as ever. For all practical intents, this will have never happened, and that’s fine—Yuta wants a memory untouched by the slog of routine, or by his friends and coworkers chirping their preprogrammed lines until their midnight factory reset. He wants, no, needs something to keep only to himself.

Once he can move again, Yuta crosses at the street corner and keeps going straight until the high rises and shop awnings and glowing signage behind him have smeared together, and then he walks still further. He figures it’s nearing sunrise from the slow lightening of the skyline. Back at the dorm, the group should have discovered his absence. Momentarily he tastes a backwash of guilt for the panic he knows he must have caused, but one day isn’t too long to be selfish when he’s paid a dozen times over already.

“Are you lost?” calls an ahjumma with her coat buttoned over her chin. When Yuta doesn’t respond right away, she waves across the street to catch his attention. “Lost?”

“Ah,” says Yuta, shivering into the realization that he’s been standing paralyzed between a chicken joint and a PC bang for the better part of five minutes now. “No, I’m okay, thank you.”

She squints at him a moment longer. Yuta doesn’t often get recognized by older people in public, much less with a mask covering half his face, but maybe his shit luck can rub off on this, too.

“Hm,” she says finally. “Don’t catch a cold.”

Yuta pats down his chest after she’s gone. He’s really not dressed warmly enough for the crisp spring weather, the jacket he’d grabbed sleek and thin and the shirt he’d worn to sleep sweat-damp below that. If he gets sick, the symptoms will probably carry over into the next loop just like his other aches, but he supposes it’s too late to do anything about that now.

By noon he’s taken the metro to the riverside and started along the footpath. Yeouido Hangang Park is usually crawling with tourists and locals alike this stretch of spring when the afternoons segue increasingly sunnier, but international travel is restricted these days, and the day is young yet. For the moment, at least, Yuta’s got some space to his own.

Fallen leaves speckle the long stretch of cement, but few flowers join them—Yuta has passed several notices already about the cancellation of the annual cherry blossom festival. The fringe of cherry blossom trees shadowing his head haven’t yet submerged into full bloom, perhaps discouraged without their usual flock of admirers. Yuta wonders idly if his temporal Möbius strip means they’ll never bloom at all. The same way the two girls sprawled in a patch of grass still damp with morning dew will come again tomorrow to lie side by side with their pinkies linked, and the toddler darting between bushes while her grandfather watches will again reach for his hand, bawling, when she trips over a protruding root.

That seems too sad, Yuta thinks, recalling the echoes of a conversation from years ago. Just because he’s having a terrible go of pretty much everything lately doesn’t mean that everyone else should, too, or that their lives should likewise grind to a stop. If Yuta had never come here, the cherry blossoms might’ve bloomed uninterrupted. If he’d gone pro with a Japanese football team and never met Taeyong, or memorized the breathy stutter of his laugh or the roughened feel of his palm against Yuta’s own, then tomorrow would pass by like the days before, and all the flies caught against it could shake free of their amber.

A few paces ahead, the little girl has stopped her crying. Her grandfather thumbs the last tracks of salt off her round cheek and tugs her upright. Yuta watches them disappear down the bend of the walking trail and laughs wetly, tries for discretion as he swipes underneath his own eyes.

Next he’ll burst into tears when he remembers that the bees are dying, for fuck’s sake. Or maybe they’ll never go extinct as long as Yuta never lets time move forward? The thought makes him laugh again, more genuine this time. There’s one victory, at least.

After looping halfway, Yuta settles to rest beneath one of the larger trees, swinging his legs over a low stone enclosure to tuck them out of the way of the bordering bicycle lane. The Han river glimmers in the distance. He wonders what Taeyong is doing. Selfishly, he hopes that Taeyong is worried about him.

Don’t you think we’re too old for this now?

For what, Taeyong hadn’t specified.

It can’t be about sharing a bed, or the concept of it, at least. Taeyong still drags people into his room after he gets jittery watching horror movies, and he certainly hadn’t minded it in his new group. Yuta knows this for a fact because of the dutiful text updates Mark sent him while SuperM was touring.

(just had dinner, we’re about to knock out

Good!!!! You need lots of rest

An angry Kakao sticker attached so Mark would feel his resounding threat all the way across the ocean. Yuta had hesitated, chewing his lip, then:

What about Taeyongie?

idk probably Baekhyun hyung’s room again?

might be asleep already

ah

anyway good night Mark-yah go to bed now

Hyung will know if you don’t~)

Maybe it’s about sharing a space with Yuta specifically; sharing a night, or his time. Taeyong is busy, after all. Yuta can get as broken up about it as he wants but that won’t change the trajectory of Taeyong’s sheer starpower, his inescapable orbit. He can’t tolerate complacency, but neither can any of them. Forever conjuring up better sides of yourself to show is scripture. What makes it sting extra on occasion is the fact that Taeyong doesn't only float up to new heights, but he invents them altogether, and Yuta knows that he won't be the only one to give Taeyong his roses at day's end. Since they were trainees, Yuta has feared that Taeyong would outgrow him. He just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

Don’t you think we’re too old for—what, exactly. Protecting your own feelings? Or pretending that things will stay the same forever?

Yuta draws his knees up to his chest and watches the slant of early afternoon sun cut into the steely blue and gray of the riverbank. He’s a little too old to be pining after his best friend, he agrees. But he’s gone so long like this, guarding this hope between his ribs just on the off chance that Taeyong might—that when he looks at Yuta, he also—

A single petal flutters down into Yuta’s lap. He picks it up and turns it over in his fingers. Cherry blossom, prematurely fallen. It’s pretty, though, just barely pinkened at the center with a hesitant curl to its edges.

The couple of girls in the grass have by now picked themselves up and gathered their things, preparing to leave. The taller of the two catches the other’s wrist in one hand, cups her cheek with the second, and then she leans carefully, tenderly in.

Yuta looks away.

*

LOOP 15

“The member I would date if I were a girl,” reads Doyoung with that wavery, half-fearful laugh. “I guess that would be Johnny hyung? I like the dependable type… someone well-mannered who knows what they want. He’s someone I feel secure around.” For once, Yuta’s looking at him as he says it, so this time he catches the secret smile that tugs at the corner of Doyoung’s mouth towards the end. Pleased with himself, no doubt. Yuta wonders if Doyoung will send Johnny the link to the interview once it’s out, and if Johnny understands the gravity of the affection he’s earned. He wonders if his own guises are this transparent to everyone else.

Taeyong is next, all fidgeting hands and doe eyes. “My choice is Doyoungie. The way I see it, he’s smart when it comes to reading people. He always takes care of us well, too. I think I could learn a lot from him.”

The camera turns to Yuta. “The gender doesn’t matter to me,” he admits, cracking a lukewarm smile. “Taeyongie’s my ideal type.”

*

LOOP 17(?)

“… who knows what they want,” Doyoung is saying.

“… think I could learn a lot from him,” Taeyong is saying.

“There’s only ever been one,” Yuta is saying, like he’s been saying for years now. “Taeyong-ah, can you hear me? Can you remember for me what I’m about to tell you?”

*

LOOP 20(?)

“Yuta hyung?” prompts Doyoung gently when he says nothing.

The producer motions behind the camera for Yuta to hurry up.

Yuta has grown to hate this place with a fervor he’s attached to little else in his entire life. He’s chafed raw by everything from the overhead lights that salivate and pin him to his seat to the diaphanous chokehold of lace around his throat. He wants to tear it open and bare his chest, or maybe he’ll ask Taeyong to do it for him. So that Taeyong can touch, finally, what Yuta keeps failing to shape with words. Like, I keep having this dream, you know, about a doctor who has to reach inside me to scoop out the parts that love you. And pressing Taeyong’s palm to the fluttering rush of blood at his sternum: This is where you make the first cut.

“Of course it’s Taeyong,” he says. “I’ve never wanted anyone else.”

*

LOOP (?)

Though he’s been here before, the 5th floor never stops feeling unfamiliar. Yuta steals what might be Johnny’s slippers at the door and sidesteps the kitchen, navigates around the common area, skirts the tangled mess of wires crisscrossing between outlets in the hallway. The room Doyoung shares with their manager is empty.

“Hey,” Yuta says, knocking at the doorframe of Johnny and Donghyuck’s room instead. “Is Doyoung around?”

“Hyung, get out,” groans Donghyuck from bed. He pops up from his blanket nest with his hair sticking up in four different directions and hefts a pillow in warning.

Johnny sends a text and sets his phone down. If he’s surprised to see Yuta here, he doesn’t show it. “Still in the shower, maybe.”

They’d returned from the shoot almost an hour ago, but Doyoung may have fallen asleep in there. Yuta nods his thanks to Johnny and moves on down the hall. The bathroom door is closed but unlocked, the shower turned off as far as Yuta can hear. He tests the handle before deciding that it doesn’t matter; however clothed Doyoung might be in there, it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before. He pushes in.

“Oh,” says Yuta.

“Oh,” says Taeyong, equally dumbfounded, and he scrambles to catch the towel round his waist before it drops from his slackened fingers. He’s not quite fast enough for Yuta to miss the flash of glistening, bare hip. Or his chest, still very much exposed, unevenly splotched in beet red the way he always gets under hot water because his skin is so sensitive. A stray droplet traces its way past his collarbone, the flat plane of his chest, clinging perilously to the bottom of his ribcage as his breath quickens.

“I was just—”

“Why are you—”

“I’ll leave—” Yuta stumbles backwards in the same moment that Taeyong lunges past him to catch the edge of the door in one palm.

“You would’ve. Hit your head,” Taeyong explains, painfully stilted. His damp forearm skims the shell of Yuta’s ear. His throat is wet and only centimeters away from Yuta’s face, his mouth. Another, larger drop beads off the ends of Taeyong’s hair and falls onto Yuta’s shoulder.

“Right,” says Yuta, swallowing. For a split second, Taeyong’s gaze flicks down.

Yuta has had so many fantasies over the years that begin this way that he can’t discern them anymore, images hurtling in a stream behind his eyelids too fast to make out the details of a single one. The want wraps in hot ribbons around his stomach and squeezes. Perhaps the worst part is that he can fill in from memory what he can’t see: the alabaster jut of Taeyong’s hip bones, the tops of his thighs that haven’t seen the sun in years, and even what’s between them. He tries and fails to suppress a full-body shiver.

“I’ll leave,” Yuta repeats around the ash in his mouth.

“Yeah,” says Taeyong, “that’s—”

His bare feet slip against the tile before he can finish. He trips half a step forward, wet everywhere, he’s fucking wet everywhere and the imprint of him is soaking slow and lukewarm into Yuta’s front.

“Sorry,” Taeyong whispers, breathing very fast now. Shallow, shuddering. There is—that’s definitely—through the towel, that’s hardness against Yuta’s hip—

Yuta wedges his thigh between Taeyong’s and jerks minutely upwards, unable to tear his eyes from Taeyong’s parted lips.

The way Taeyong says his name then is all air, more gasp than language, twisting sweetly up at the end like birdsong, like it was stolen from a place inside him that no one was ever supposed to know. Don’t you think we’re too—

Don’t you think we’re—

I keep having this dream, you know.

“I have to go,” says Yuta, and then he wrenches the door open and runs. He’s getting good at that, lately.

*

Much later that night, when Yuta is curled safely in bed, he opens up Doyoung’s contact on his phone. Where do you get those heat therapy patches, he types. Thanks btw they work really well

Doyoung’s reply is almost instantaneous. What?

Yuta snaps a picture of one empty packet with his phone flashlight on to illuminate the label and sends. He’s grown tired of having to hint and maneuver around it after so many days, weeks, even. He may as well go out and buy them for himself. I went down to your floor to ask you in person but you weren’t there??

Doyoung calls him.

“Hello?” croaks Yuta. “Why did you even call. Taeil hyung is asleep.”

“I don’t have time for this tonight,” says Doyoung unkindly. As if he’s fending off questions from a child.

“I just wanted to say thanks, okay,” says Yuta, drawing his brows together, “you don’t have to be an asshole about it.”

“I’ve never used that brand of pain relief patches in my life.”

Now it’s Yuta saying—

“What?” He rolls over in the dark, feeling for the stack he’s kept by his bedside, still wrapped with the lopsided bow they came in and everything. “I told you at the shoot today about how my back was hurting and you left them in my room for me, didn’t you?”

There’s a long, tired sigh over the line. “Taeyong hyung is the only one who uses that kind. He has like twenty boxes of them in his room. Those are his.”

Yuta’s heart stops beating. A second later, it’s in his throat, thundering, loud enough that he can scarcely hear his own voice. “You’re absolutely sure about this?”

“As sure as the sunrise tomorrow,” Doyoung says. “Go to sleep, hyung. Work this out in the morning. Please.”

The line goes dead.

*

LOOP (?)

“You want one, hyung?” Jaehyun says, looking up from the frying pan. “You’ll have to be quick, though. We have to go soon.”

“Yeah, thank you,” says Yuta. He’d managed to sleep past his alarm today, sliding into his seat at the breakfast table with hardly ten minutes to spare before they have to be out the door. His head is quiet, peaceful, for once.

“We’re out of juice,” Mark mourns around the egg in his mouth.

“Check again,” says Yuta. “You’ll be surprised.”

*

Jaehyun nudges Yuta’s shoulder. “Our fight scene looks good today.”

“Of course,” says Yuta, lingering by the monitor. The recording of Taeyong glows through the screen, a demigod in his element. “You’ve been working hard, and it shows.”

“Ah, hyung,” Jaehyun demurs, but the tips of his ears burn cherry.

“Taeyong looks good, too.” Yuta turns around. “Did you hear that, Taeyongie? You did well.”

*

“More,” repeats the photographer, taking her eye off the lens for a moment. “Are you afraid he’ll bite?”

Yuta turns his face into the crook of Taeyong’s neck. “Will I?” he murmurs, quiet enough that only Taeyong and maybe Doyoung can hear. He skims the hand wrapped chastely around Taeyong’s waist a little higher, around his ribcage to the lace detailing over his heart before it darts back out of view.

Taeyong jolts under his touch, glancing at Yuta from his peripheral. The corner of his mouth curls up.

*

“Drive carefully,” says Yuta as their manager slows the car at a stoplight. “One of the pictorial staff was telling me about how there’s a stray dog running around these roads.”

“Oh, that so? Thanks.”

Yuta nods, arranging a sleeping Taeyong closer to his side.

Doyoung watches them from the rearview mirror. “Yuta hyung has really been watching out for us today. First my mic at this morning’s prerecording, now this.”

“Yuta always watches out for us,” mumbles Taeyong into Yuta’s shoulder. He doesn’t open his eyes, but one hand creeps from his lap towards Yuta’s, his ring finger skimming hesitantly over the bump of Yuta’s knee. Yuta turns his own hand palm up and waits.

At the next stoplight, Taeyong takes it.

*

After practice, when they’re sprawled panting on the floor and the mirror is fogged over with the proof of their efforts, Yuta’s hand wanders again. He hooks the tip of his pinky against Taeyong’s bracelet and tugs.

Taeyong glances up through his lashes. There’s a beat of sweat escaping his bangs, trickling leisurely down the knife-cut line of his cheekbone. Yuta thinks about collecting it in the heel of his palm. He thinks about licking it and tasting the salt. Says, “Taeyongie, can I tell you something?”

“Hm?” Taeyong pushes himself up on one elbow.

“You have to let me finish before you say anything back, though,” Yuta says, his heartbeat starting up percussion. “Okay?”

“Okay,” says Taeyong warily.

Yuta presses the pad of his thumb to Taeyong’s pulse. It quickens. Green light. Interlacing their fingers, Yuta holds him there for a moment.

“I expected that you would have seen through me by now,” he says eventually. “Because you’ve always been good at that. Actually, I kind of thought in the back of my mind that you’d figured it out while you were overseas, and that’s why you didn’t want to be around me when you came back.” Yuta blinks up at the ceiling. His shirt has grown sticky from the toll of practice. The floor is cool against his neck, delicately electric against the fine hair on his arms. He takes another moment to ground himself in what’s sensory, what’s real. Taeyong’s hand in his own. That’s real, too.

“You should know that I’ve loved you for a really long time,” Yuta continues.

Taeyong’s breath catches.

“Since we were trainees, for sure. Maybe from the first day I met you, although I didn’t know it then.” He thinks of Taeyong’s terrified face at seventeen, three-quarters eyes and one-quarter trembling mouth, and smiles. “How could I have known it then? I knew nothing about you besides your name and that you were beautiful. The only Korean phrases I had any confidence in were for introducing myself and asking where the restroom was. Imagine what kind of confession that would have been.” Yuta lets go of the breath he’s been holding. “Then again, I don’t know if this confession is any good, either.”

“Yuta,” Taeyong tries to interject, but Yuta raises their twined hands to his lips and hushes him with a featherlight kiss against his knuckles. “I seem to recall you agreeing to let me finish, Taeyong-ssi,” he murmurs.

A glittering dampness gathers near Taeyong’s lashline.

“You don’t have to say anything back. I just thought it was time.” Yuta closes his eyes. He’s long since lost count of the days. “For us to move forward.”

Taeyong is quiet for a moment. “Are you done?”

“Yeah,” says Yuta. “If you’re going to reject me, do it quickly so that I can go back to my room and let out all my tears before Jungwoo stops singing in the shower to cover up the sound. I have an image to maintain, you know.”

“Liar,” says Taeyong softly. “Everybody knows you cry at everything.”

Yuta sighs. “You’re right. They can’t know that I cry about you, though.”

“Then don’t.” There’s a rustle as Taeyong presumably sits up. “Don’t cry about me anymore.”

“Get to the rejecting part already, Lee Taeyong.”

“No,” Taeyong tells him. Yuta can hear the smile in his voice. “Because I love you too. I’ve loved you for years now. And as for your confession…” He sucks his teeth, pretending to think about it. “Well, I guess it wasn’t too bad.”

“Hey,” says Yuta, opening his eyes. Something in his chest shivers, warms, solidifies. The part that loves. The part that wants. The part that gets to stay now, because Taeyong will let it, because Taeyong loves him back. “That’s no way to talk to a man who just opened his heart to you.”

Then comes Taeyong’s laugh, the sound Yuta treasures most. He swings one leg over Yuta’s waist so that his knees come flush with Yuta’s hips, his hand slipping free from Yuta’s hold to cradle his face. At seventeen, he was the most beautiful person that Yuta had ever seen. He still is. “If I kiss you, will that make up for it?”

Yuta tugs him down so that their lips align. “It’s a start.”

*

ONE MONTH LATER

“We’re going to be late,” Taeyong complains even as he cups both hands around the back of Yuta’s neck and pulls him closer. He’s perched on the bathroom counter wearing precious little besides a sleep shirt and a display of reddening bites that Yuta had sucked into his shoulders and chest yesterday night, to the enormous chagrin of everyone else on the floor who has ears.

“Our responsible leader should do something about that,” Yuta agrees, skimming his teeth along the silken inside of Taeyong’s thighs. He pushes Taeyong’s knees further apart and kisses openmouthed where it’s softest, grinning into Taeyong’s skin at the gentle gasp he earns.

Taeyong braces his hands against the sink behind him. “He’s—ah, I think he’s busy right now.”

“Aw,” goes Yuta, dancing one hand up to Taeyong’s shirt hem. “Real shame.”

Doyoung pounds furiously on the outside of the bathroom door. “Can you please not defile the place where I do my skincare? Hello?”

Taeyong’s shoulders shake with his repressed laughter. “Looks like we’re out of time.”

Yuta makes a show of getting to his feet and dusting off his knees, heaving multiple sighs loud enough for Doyoung to hear through the door all the while. He curls an arm around Taeyong’s waist as he pops the lock. Says, “We’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow.”