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The news hits the internet on a sunny April morning, just after Seonghwa had his first full night’s sleep in over three months. Being rested for once feels so nice that it takes him a few moments to realize that his career is, essentially, over.

Singer Park Seonghwa caught kissing a fan!

Under the big, flashy title is a blurry picture of what may or may not be Seonghwa, pressed against a backstage door by the fan in question. He's mostly hidden by the other body but his clothes, the visible parts of his hair, the location - it's not hard to connect two and two. That is bad, in itself, but what makes it a disaster is that it takes a miniscule amount of effort to realize that the fan is actually a man. 

Seonghwa zooms the picture and stares at it for a few long moments. The fact that it has reached the public means that damage control is too late already. At least the second person is barely visible. A nameless fan is someone people can forget; who the shitty photographer has actually caught, not so much.

considering the amount of views the article has, the fact that Seonghwa’s phone isn’t blowing up yet and there are no angry knocks on his door can only mean one thing. 

The knocks never come, mainly because Jongho lets himself in with no regard for Seonghwa’s privacy, as always. It seems extra ironic in this case and Seonghwa laughs under his breath.

“Laughter is not among the things I expected to hear from you, I’ll have to be honest,” Jongho says, voice oddly calm considering the situation. 

“I don’t see you breaking my furniture,” Seonghwa points out, flopping back on his bed. His phone falls in the sheets around him and like a spell, buzzes once, twice. Every few seconds. Both he and Jongho ignore it.

Jongho shrugs. “I’ve spent the last two hours arguing with people higher up than me. And anyway, I’m angry that you got caught but I’m more angry that who you got caught with is the bigger problem.” A beat, then Jongho sighs. “He’s not a fan, is he?”

“We were drinking and I was frustrated, Seonghwa can only stare straight ahead. “Is it too late for damage control?”

He knows the answer but something in him wants to make sure anyway. Jongho's tone doesn't change but that's somehow worse. “They say they caught it too late. If it goes away now it’ll become even worse, your name was already on real time searches for a bit.”

“So I stay put for now?” 

Jongho nods, doesn’t say anything else.

It’s a strange feeling, Seonghwa thinks, having the world as you know it crumble down. Maybe he’ll cry later or better, be angry, but right now all he feels is… nothing. Void. Like both his brain and his heart are merely rooms in a house for sale. Silent, dusty and everything covered in white.

Seonghwa’s phone has stopped buzzing for the time being and he dares to check it. There are a whole bunch of missed calls from unknown numbers, one from his mom, followed by a text with a simple I love you. Another text, from a number he’s saved as a star emoji. Can we talk?

“Chan wants to talk,” Seonghwa says out loud. It’s never a good thing to hide things from Jongho, especially in a time like this. 

Jongho frowns. “It’s a bad idea.”

Seonghwa drops his phone back in the sheets. “I know. But if we don’t talk he might do something stupid and ruin everything for himself as well. Drag his whole group down.”

Jongho’s frown deepens, even if he’s already tapping away at his tablet. “I’m going to arrange a meeting but it’ll have to be a short one.” Tablet aside, he glances at Seonghwa and sighs, yet again. “Please try not to get caught this time.”

*

By the time a meeting is arranged, Seonhwa has had some time to think. He’s had some time to binge the two albums Chan’s group has released and time to think about himself, what he’s doing with his life. 

He’s had time to make a decision.

The meeting is arranged in a secluded office space the size of a broom closet. Chan is already there when Seonghwa arrives, pacing the three square meters like it’s a hallway.

“I’m so sorry,” he says, eyes terrified, like Seonghwa is going to lash out at him. 

Seonghwa, on the other hand, still has yet to feel anything but empty. “It’s not your fault. It’s not,” he repeats when it looks like Chan is about to say something else. He’s quite into putting everyone before himself, probably what makes him a good leader. It’s one of the things Seonghwa was drawn to in the first place. He takes a deep breath. “I’m going to come out. Publicly. They’re going to tear me apart anyway, might as well go out with a bang.” 

“Your career will be ruined,” Chan argues, his hands balled into fists. 

Seonghwa takes them in his, untangles his fingers one by one. “My career is already ruined. At least this way everyone will be too busy judging me to look too hard into who I was with.”

“It’s not fair-”

“Nothing is fair,” Seonghwa interrupts, unconsciously squeezing Chan’s fingers. He sees him flinch, then lets go completely. “Please don’t try to play hero. It’s either I go down alone or I drag you and maybe your whole group with me. It’s an easy choice.”

Chan seems to deflate, finally, and Seonghwa sees it - the fear. The relief, however small it is. He has no doubt that Chan would have tried to do something stupid but at the end of the day, being in the music business is a fragile thing. No one wants their dreams shattered to pieces.

“I wish there would’ve been feelings involved, at least,” Chan says in the end, defeated. “Drunken makeouts seem like such a lousy reason to crash and burn.”

“You’ve seen too many dramas,” Seonghwa laughs and is somewhat amazed how easy it comes. “Someone has to go and it’s better for all of us if that someone is me. Who knows, maybe something good will come out of this.”

Chan laughs, a wet thing, and Seonghwa pulls him into a hug. His voice comes out muffled in the fabric of Seonghwa’s coat. “Will you be okay?”

Seonghwa thinks about it. He can feel it, the panic, the fear. Like flames licking at the curtains in his empty house for sale. It’ll be on fire, soon enough. “Maybe not right away, but I will be. I think.”

What choice does he have anyway?

*

His apology letter goes public at the same time the news of him leaving the company does. It was prepared beforehand and as soon as the label confirmed that Seonghwa doesn't plan on causing trouble, things were set into motion. He hasn't even read it - they have people for that. He doesn't want to read it anyway. Leaving was never truly a choice and he's not sorry for what happened. He is going to miss his fans though. But those are few and far between now, judging by the few times he dared to look himself up in the past few days.

Seonghwa’s mom is disappointed but supportive, even asked if he wants to come home. He’d only had to glance at the mess his usually neat apartment was in to make a choice. No one needs to see the mess that his life has become, not until he sorts it out. If only on the outside.

The internet buzzes with Seonghwa’s name for a few more weeks, though the monster seems appeased after his departure. Seonghwa spends all those weeks holed up in his apartment, though at least the mess doesn’t last. His inner clean freak can only handle so much, even if the metaphorical house is still on fire.

On week four (or is it five?) Jongho shows up at his door.

He lets himself in, subsequently scaring the shit out of Seonghwa. Sure, Seonghwa was the one who provided the key in the first place but so far Jongho has never used it. I’m your manager, he’d said. Not your keeper.

Funny that he uses it now, when he’s not Seonghwa’s manager either.

“You look better than I thought,” Jongho says, making himself comfortable at Seonghwa’s kitchen counter. He glances at the sink which is brimming with dishes, then back at Seonghwa. “But maybe I should reconsider.”

“I'm fine,” Seonghwa argues. "I'm allowed to be a little messy from time to time."

It's probably true, even if under normal circumstances he would've probably gagged, then cleaned the entire apartment just because. From the look on Jongho's face he's thinking the same. 

At least he doesn't comment further on it. 

"Anyway," he says instead. "I know you probably need some time but I also know that it'll drive you crazy."

Seonghwa nods. It already is. 

Jongho cracks a smile but it looks anything but happy. "You and I both know it'll be quite a while before you'll be able to get back into mainstream music, if at all."

"Are you here to rub it in my face?" Seonghwa grumbles, going for a joking tone but falling just short. He sighs. "Because I do this myself enough as it is."

"And that's exactly what I'm here for." Jongho says grandly, grin a little more genuine now. "We’re going out. I have some friends that are playing a show tomorrow night. Two of them are fanboys, it's kind of adorable. I may or may not have mentioned you're currently sulking on your own as a hobby and they were very convincing in getting me to make you go."

"I'm not sulking," Seonghwa says on instinct. It's such an odd, incomplete word for the things he's experiencing. Then again, trying to dress his house of fire into words seems damn near impossible. You'd think there would be no more house left to burn after all this time but there it is - still burning. "Why are you even doing this," Seonghwa says eventually, when the words still fail to come out. "This is a terrible idea from a manager perspective."

"Good thing I’m not your manager then," Jongho grins, voice soft in a way Seonghwa has rarely heard before. "But I am your friend still."

*

Despite the fire, Seonghwa is, after all, a human being. A curious one. He barely waits until a semi-appropriate morning hour before he asks Jongho to send him videos. He isn’t exactly a diehard rock fan but there is something enchanting in the grind of the guitars, the violent smashes of wood against leather. It slips around Seonghwa’s tangled emotions and throws them out in the open, rips the knots apart until Seonghwa is left empty and… free, somehow. It’s a flash of a feeling but it’s there nonetheless.

The band’s name is Horizon and after the third shaky video Jongho sends him, Seonghwa finds he quite likes them. The quality is abysmal but their stage presence is breathtaking, even through the grainy screen. They’re theatrical and enthralling the kind of artist that lives and breathes through their music. Seonghwa can’t quite make out their faces but if he did, he has a feeling he wouldn’t find the carefully crafted stage expression he’s used to seeing in idols. 

Like most things, it’s when Seonghwa looks them up himself when things go to shit. Something Jongho’s videos have been suspiciously empty of and yet it’s in every single one Seonghwa finds himself, is… a performance thing. Most likely? 

Through the grainy quality, Seonghwa watches as Horizon’s singer, doubling as bassist, stalks off to one of their guitarists and pulls him into a hard, bruising kiss mid-song. It cuts off the end of the chorus and the guitarist looks a bit grumpy, even if Seonghwa can’t quite make out his features. The singer is laughing in that way Seonghwa so rarely sees: lost in the feeling, the stage. He’s experienced it only once before, for his debut performance. Stepping off stage felt like leaving a lover.

Seonghwa spent that evening being berated by both his dancing and singing instructors for the mistakes he made. He never quite let himself get lost afterwards.

But this person. All of Horizon, they seem like they are lost, in a way Seonghwa can only envy. The kissing, too, seems to be part of their thing even if not bound to a certain song or a certain band member. Sometimes it’s rhythm boy leaning over the keyboard of the person next to him and sometimes it’s their singer plopping himself in the drummer’s lap right before the song truly starts.

It scratches something deep in Seonghwa, scratches it raw. He never had the comfort of a group he’s forced to be touchy with for the fans but he’s somewhat glad for that; What he sees on the screen, from this band is only part performance. He can see it in their eyes. They’re aware of the effect it has but no one is forcing anyone. He clicks off the video and opens his messaging app before he really has time to think his words through.

Are you making me go just because they’re also into men? How fucked up is that?  

A moment after the little Sent appears under the message, Seonghwa wishes there was a way to recall it. Not even two minutes later, his phone rings.

Seonghwa stares at Jongho’s caller ID in horror. Five minutes may not be a long time but they’re quite enough for him to spiral into a pit of self-hatred. He’s had a lot of practice. 

It’s only the years of Jongho continuously seeing him at his worst and dragging him out by sheer force that allow Seonghwa’s finger to press the Accept button.

“I’m being the bigger person here, ironically,” Jongho says. He doesn’t wait for a reply but then again, Seonghwa doesn’t have one. “I couldn’t possibly imagine what it’s like to be in your position and quite honestly, I have absolutely no idea what to do about it. I’m sorry that I hid their stage thing from you and I’d be lying if I told you there were no hopes that it’ll help you be yourself somehow or whatever.” Jongho takes a deep breath and Seonghwa mirrors it. “But look, hyung- they really are friends and they’re good. I’ll respect it if you don’t want to, regardless of the reasons but it hurts me to see you holed up and avoiding the thing that makes you happy,” and here his voice goes soft like Seonghwa rarely hears it, and Seonghwa wants to cry.

He is crying, he realizes. There are no sobs, no shaky breaths but the tears are streaming down his face like they belong there but they don’t. Seonghwa is so sick of crying.

“I’ll think about it,” he says, just as soft. It’s the best he can do right now. 

“That’s all I ask,” Jongho replies, gentle, and Seonghwa feels a new wave of tears soak into the collar of his shirt.

He mumbles a goodbye to Jongho and vows to follow up on his promise.

*

By that same evening, Seonghwa is fairly sure he’s made a decision.

It’s the third time he made a decision in the past eight hours, though, so he’s not actually sure.

*

At four in the morning, sleep deprived and a little delirious, Seonghwa opens Jongho’s message thread and texts an, I’m in.

He doesn’t expect a response but is somehow not surprised either when Jongho’s reply comes within seconds, in the form of a single, strangely pleased emoji. Seonghwa scrolls through his own emoji keyboard but it's not there. It figures, Jongho’s resourcefulness would extend even to texting. 

Surprisingly, or maybe not at all, Horizon has a show the following day. Seonghwa isn’t prepared. He’s barely left his apartment in the past weeks and the thought of stepping outside fills him with anxiety but the thought of skipping despite the promise opens a void in his chest, something that tastes like regret and missed chances. He already messaged Jongho.

Seonghwa didn’t say no, so now he has a rock show to get to. 

And to dress for. 

Oh no. 

*

"Don't get me wrong," Jongho says from Seonghwa's bed about an hour later. "I'm very glad to see you show signs of life again but I don't understand why I have to play wardrobe assistant."

"Because I've never been to a rock show before?" Seonghwa explains, elbows deep in said wardrobe. He throws a maybe-shirt backwards, but when he glances back, it looks like he's severely miscalculated the trajectory because the shirt is now on Jongho's face. He quickly gets up to retrieve it. "Sorry. I was saying, it's been a long time since I've been to a normal club, let alone a fancy underground one. I don't wanna stick out."

Jongho stares at him for a long moment. "You were a chart topping soloist that recently got into a scandal. I don't think 'not sticking out' is an option here."

"I don't want to stick out for being inappropriately dressed," Seonghwa amends. "I’ll likely bring attention to the show for the wrong reasons. I need to at least try to make their fans like me. Probably."

“I’ve never given much thought to how I dress when I went to their shows,” Jongho says. He points at himself for good measure and Seonghwa gives him a critical once over. There is a certain expectation to how you should look as a manager but Jongho doesn’t dress all that different off duty either. He’s currently in a pair of jeans and a shirt, nice and comfortable but then again… 

"So you never stood out like this?" 

Jongho shrugs. "I never paid attention honestly." He picks up a shirt that has somehow landed just next to his thigh. "I think you have this whole thing backwards. Even if you dress like one of those alternative shops threw up on you, it won't have much of an effect on their fans' opinion on you. Or theirs, for that matter. It's about how you feel and what you like, there are no more stage clothes."

Seonghwa is inclined to disagree, he's seen glimpses of the audience in the live clips he watched. It was a sea of dark colors and glinting metal and he doesn’t have a lot of either.

Jongho sighs. “Just put something that makes you feel good. You don’t need to add extra discomfort to an already unfamiliar experience.”

Another look at the pile of clothes in Seonghwa’s wardrobe, on the floor, on his bed around Jongho and Seonghwa decides there may be some truth to the words.

*

At the end of the day, Seonghwa dresses much like he would for any normal club, even if he went a bit harder on the makeup than he normally would. He did opt for the darker part of his wardrobe but this is still one of the more expensive ones he owns. When Seonghwa wore it to the airport once, in a similar outfit overall, some fans said he looked… mysterious? Something along the lines. He figures mysterious would have to do for now.

Jongho visibly resists an urge to roll his eyes as he meets him outside the club’s entrance. Seonghwa decides to ignore him. At least Jongho was nice enough to not ditch him to fend for himself in a wholly unfamiliar environment. Jongho claims it’s not because of Seonghwa, he just hasn’t seen his friends in a while, but Seonghwa is grateful nonetheless.

They may not be idol and manager anymore but old habits die hard and they’re already inside the club when Seonghwa realizes Jongho has been pushing through the crowd for him. It’s fine; Seonghwa takes advantage of it when Jongho’s bigger frame clears them some space at the bar. Again, when Jongho leans over him to order drinks, essentially blocking the unmistakable flash of a phone.

"You look like you need a drink," the bartender grins at him, sliding a glass of clear liquid towards him. Seonghwa doesn’t drink a lot usually, not hard alcohol at least, but the distinct smell of acetone tells him this would’ve been an experience even if he did. 

He downs it in one go. It burns down his throat and he barely registers the bartender’s impressed whistle.

He does see Jongho’s disappointed expression, though.

“Song Mingi,” Jongho grits, somehow threatening even though he has to shout over the music. “I swear to god, if I have to scrape him off the floor on the way home-”

“It’s not like my reputation can get worse,” Seonghwa mumbles, interrupted by a hiccup. Somehow they both hear him - has he been shouting too?

“You clearly underestimate the power of a person with a keyboard and no hobby,” Jongho sighs.

This Mingi person, at least, looks sympathetic. “Your reputation is just great to those with a brain.” He reaches over the bar to pat Seonghwa’s shoulder in… an attempt at comfort, probably? The result, however, is that Seonghwa spends a solid minute thinking about his hands. 

They’re big hands. 

Seonghwa needs another drink.

*

To his annoyance, Jongho doesn’t let him get plastered. It's maybe for the best. Seonghwa still feels a little woozy from that first glass and when he reached for a second, Jongho had promptly dumped an entire can of cola in it. There was overflowing. Jongho did not look apologetic, even though Mingi glared at him.  

Seonghwa can’t bring himself to argue even though Jongho has no legal obligations to keep him safe anymore. It’s especially hard to obey, though, when the band spills into the club not soon after. They’re loud and excited and some while for some the excitement errs on the side of uncomfortable, Seonghwa swallows it down. It’s quite clear who his fanboys are. They’re nothing like some of the rude fans he’s met in his career but with the draught of human interaction he’s gotten lately, even this much is… a lot.

He has the urge to down whatever alcohol there’s left among all the cola but a glare from Jongho confirms that it’s a very slim chance that he’ll get anything else alcoholic in the near future. 

It's not as bad as it could have been. He meets Yeosang, the keyboardist, first then Yunho, the drummer. The fanboys, definitely. Yunho seems to pick up on his discomfort, thankfully, and his babbling redirects to the stage and the songs they're gonna perform and how nice it is that Seonghwa is going to see them play in person? 

Seonghwa is then introduced to San, the bassist and Wooyoung, proudly announcing he’s in charge of the rhythm guitar. Both of them sneak glances at Seonghwa, timed just right for him to catch them but not make it obvious. It’s a different kind of welcome and one that has something twisting at the pit of Seonghwa’s stomach, not entirely pleasant. Neither of them makes a move to take it further, though, and Seonghwa is grateful.

"It's just because you're hot and they're perpetually horny," a voice mutters, low enough that Seonghwa isn’t sure if he was meant to hear. 

Kim Hongjoong. The reluctantly kissed lead guitarist. The image is burned behind Seonghwa’s eyelids but this close, he finds that even the highest video quality wouldn’t do this man justice. He’s breathtaking, Seonghwa’s brain supplies unhelpfully. His features are a stark contrast to the scathing tone of his voice, but Seonghwa chooses to ignore that. Or tries to, at the very least.

In fact, he pretends he doesn’t hear the whole sentence altogether. The words are accompanied by a frown which deepens the longer Seonghwa stares. More than ever, he wishes the glass in his hand held more alcohol than cola. The words sting more than Seonghwa would like to admit but he swallows them down and plasters a smile on instead. It's the one thing stardom taught him perfectly. 

He's still nursing the same concoction, the ice in it long gone, when the lights in the club dim, more than they already were. The stage lights up instead and there are instruments that weren't there when Seonghwa first came. His stomach turns with something like anticipation. It feels a lot like fear.

*

It starts with a guitar riff. There's no one on stage yet but there are a few screams anyway. The club is stuffy, its poor ventilation struggling to accommodate the crush of breathing humans surrounding the stage. Seonghwa has performed in larger venues than this, to much larger crowds but this feels infinitely scarier somehow. He tries to imagine himself up there and fails just short. He's made to be a daydream, a pretty package all wrapped nicely for everyone to admire. Music always came as an afterthought somehow.

As Yunho jumps up on stage, quite literally, hair sticking in all directions and drumsticks twirling between his fingers, it feels like everything but the music seems like an afterthought here.

San and Wooyoung walk in together, then Yeosang and at last, there is Hongjoong with his guitar slung sideways. He jumps as it swings back into place and Seonghwa jumps in turn, convinced the poor instrument will shatter on the floor any second now. It doesn’t; Hongjoong looks madly gleeful as another riff rips through the speakers and the crowd screams. Seonghwa has heard screams before. Screams of his name, fanchants, screaming in general whenever a fan gets too close to him unexpectedly.

Neither of those feel like this does.

You could be up there, a distant voice whispers in Seonghwa’s mind. I could.

It’s a strange feeling. It feels a lot like dread but something like excitement, too.

*

Somewhere between the set and the moment when the band shows up around the bar again, Seonghwa has managed to sneak another glass of vodka behind Jongho’s back. He feels giddy like a kid caught doing something naughty, which is a little ridiculous given that Jongho is younger, but true nonetheless.

The vodka makes Seonghwa feel like his blood is on fire - it’s funny, all the people saying it makes things blurry but he feels the world around him crystal clear. Every person, every single sweaty body pushing through the crowd in the bar feels like its own little world and Seonghwa can see all of them.

He can see Kim Hongjoong too, sitting on the bar with eyes boring holes into Seonghwa’s gut like little ice pics filled with hatred. Like this, Seonghwa feels fearless the bridges to his past long since burned and the ones to his future filled with cracks and splinters. 

But it’s okay. He’s on fire, and he feels none of them.

Seonghwa stalks over to Hongjoong at the bar, jabs a finger in his chest.

“And what do you hate me for, hm?” He asks, words only slurring a little. “What did I ever do to you?”

“Fuck off,” Hongjoong grunts, slaps Seonghwa’s hand away but Seonghwa moves closer instead, close enough to feel the alcohol on Hongjoong’s breath. Hongjoong’s eyes drop to his lips, briefly, merely a fraction of a second but Seonghwa sees it anyway.

It makes a laugh bubble out of him, short and breathless. Hongjoong’s expression is painted in disgust but Seonghwa sees right through it. “You wanna kiss me, don’t you? Is that all? Because you want to kiss me?” Hongjoong huffs, pushes him away and Seonghwa stumbles, laughing again. Hongjoong’s hand shoots out to steady him so he takes it, slides Hongjoong’s fingers down the buttons of his shirt. He leans close, the world tilting for the first time tonight but Seonghwa pays it no mind. “You can. Kiss me.”

There are fingers digging into Seonghwa’s thigh and he uses the pain to ground himself. It doesn’t quite work, because the next time he gets his bearings he’s pushed into a cold, metal door. A bathroom door? A dirty bathroom door, probably, one that makes an ugly creaking sound each time Seonghwa is slammed into it but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care, because Kim Hongjoong is biting bruises into his shoulder, nails digging into his bare thighs.

For a fleeting moment, his old life flashes behind his eyes. What would his fans think if they saw him now? It makes him giggle, which makes Hongjoong growl, bite harder, dig deeper. Seonghwa whines, a choked off sound, and it hurts but the pain washes out Seonghwa’s thoughts, taking sole control over his mind. In that moment, as the last pieces of his mind float away, Seonghwa thinks he might be a little in love.

*

Seonghwa wakes up feeling like his brain is made of used cotton balls. There is no pain, not in the traditional sense, and for a brief moment he wonders if this is even a hangover or just exhaustion in general. 

Definitely a hangover, he decides, when he tries to get up and gravity disagrees. Every movement feels like the world is tilting around him so he flops back in bed. It’s better to wait out the worst of it. Throwing up is a messy ordeal Seonghwa has zero interest in dealing with right about now.

As he stares at his ceiling, he tries to piece together the night before. He wasn’t blackout drunk, that’s for sure, but some memories are fuzzy at the edges, he has to make an effort to remember. The first part of the night is relatively clear - he remembers Jongho acting like a babysitter and despite the initial reluctance then, given the state of his body now, Seonghwa wishes he’d listened better. 

Things start blurring together when the band comes into the picture, especially post show. He remembers Hongjoong, though, even if he wishes he didn’t. It’s not a clear memory, small mercies, but Seonghwa remembers the important things. Fingers digging in his skin, teeth, the feeling of cold metal against his cheek. 

He vaguely remembers coming out of the bathroom, alone and disappointed about it. An exasperated sigh from Jongho, more alcohol. It gets blurrier after that and Seonghwa could probably remember if he really tried but he doesn’t feel like trying. 

Instead, he does the next worse thing: looks up his name again. 

Most of the articles are old news but there is a very recent one, tucked between the bigger website headlines announcing his downfall. 

Park Seonghwa turns a new page? 

The article is judgy but well-written at least. It features a grainy picture of him and Jongho in front of the club, with a brief note about its ties to the more controversial side of the music scene. Whatever that means. It says there was a band playing that night but doesn’t mention Horizon. The author wonders if Seonghwa is planning to return to music. 

Seonghwa wonders the same but it's superficial now. He's decided, has promised, and if there is one thing he prides himself in, it’s keeping his promises. 

I read that article about you

The text comes right as Seonghwa is about to scroll down to the comment section. He clicks on it, closing the article in the process.

There are many articles about me.

That one, comes Chan’s reply. It links to the same article Seonghwa just closed and his finger hovers over the link. In the end, he scrolls down to the text box just as another message arrives.

Are you really starting over? 

It’s Chan and Chan is sweet and caring and kind but Seonghwa’s brain insists there is an undertone to the words so that’s what he replies to.

Should I not?

He is not. Or is he? His phone is ringing before the message really registers as sent. 

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Chan says instead of a hello. “I just wanted to know what I should look out for.”

Seonghwa laughs, the anxiety dissipating just like that. It’ll come back, probably as soon as Chan hangs up but for now, he feels light as a feather.

“I know, I know,” he says, eyes on his ceiling. 

"I'm happy for you," Chan says softly. It's his words but also the tone of his voice; his group is probably nearby. 

Seonghwa sighs. "There's nothing to be happy for. It was just Jongho taking me out of the apartment."

"That's a very valid thing to be happy for," Chan insists, in a way he probably uses on the younger members of his group. "Proud, even."

It is one of those times Seonghwa is reminded that Chan has a whole year more on this Earth. Wonders if it makes a difference. But then again, a year could be an eternity to people like them. People like Chan, now.

"Thank you," ends up saying, probably too late. It doesn’t matter; Chan gets it. 

*

So are you still in?

Seonghwa blinks at his phone but the words don’t magically rearrange themself in a message from his mom. Or Jongho. The contact ID stubbornly remains Sannie ♡♡♡.

He hesitates before clicking reply, even more when it turns to send. In the end, he only sends a string of question marks.

You don’t remember??? :( you promised to sing for us

This ID has been saved as peek-a-woo. Seonghwa can only stare at it in horror, right before he goes into his contact list to change it to Wooyoung. He hopes it’s Wooyoung. The introductions had been made when he was relatively sober so he’s pretty sure the name is right but the moment this contact ended up in his phone is completely lost. 

Why would you want me to sing for you?

His phone pings almost immediately, the two new texts coming almost exactly at the same time.

You promised!! And it would do us good to have an actual vocalist, instead of just me jumping around with the guitar :(

Ur hot. And can sing obviously

Of course. It's just because you're hot and they're perpetually horny. The memories may be fuzzy but Hongjoong’s words ring clear as day in Seonghwa’s brain, quiet as they were. 

He doesn’t bother replying this time.

*

“So you’re really not going to accept?” Jongho asks, over a cup of steaming coffee. Seonghwa would hate him, for making him get out of bed first and poking at the wound second but he did bring coffee. And food. Seonghwa is feeling mildly more alive now, which is good progress.

“I was drunk,” he points out, like the cloud of hangover-induced irritation isn’t there, casting a shadow over his messy hair. “Why would they need a new singer anyway? They seem to be doing pretty good as it is.”

Jongho stays quiet for a moment. There is no amusement in his words when he speaks again. “San takes everything very seriously. He’s their main attraction right now but he also has a part time job aside from the band. They’ve been looking for someone to share the spotlight for a while now.”

“And they just happened to ask me to join even though we only met last night?” Seonghwa raises an eyebrow. He suspects it doesn’t look as threatening he means it to, given that his head is still pounding and Jongho doesn’t bat an eye. But then again, there are few things Jongho would bat an eye to.

“You’re famous,” he points out. “They already know you can sing and that you’re not afraid of a few theatrics. I guess they liked you well enough last night.”

It’s because you’re hot.

Seonghwa sighs. “And because I’m into men?”

“I suppose that played a part,” Jongho admits and Seonghwa appreciates the honesty. “There are many straight people who would be happy to play the part too, though,” Jongho adds. “You should know.”

“I’m still not sure if this means I should join a band, though,” Seonghwa mumbles into his coffee cup. The memories of a certain guitarist, a sticky bathroom door flood his mind unwanted. It’s just because you’re hot.

There are hesitant fingers on his shoulder and when Seonghwa looks up, he finds one of those rare, sad smiles that Jongho sometimes gives him since the Incident. “Doesn’t mean you should deny them the chance, either.”

*

Seonghwa deems the idea discarded, then keeps thinking about it throughout the day. The night. At four in the morning, he decides to look them up.

He finds videos; Jongho had shown him some, sure, but the internet is vast and Seonghwa has trouble falling asleep. He buys their music, too - when he looks up the download links, a few foreign ones appear as well. They have rather active social media accounts, full of music, lyrics, artwork. Loud statements and louder music and angry thoughts with no label to filter them. It’s a niche of music Seonghwa knows exists but has never come into contact with before. And why would he need to? He is a mainstream pop star.

Was.

And yet, the thought of letting his words be unfiltered, of being this open about himself fills his entire being with dread. He can’t even begin to imagine the comments if he did decide to join Horizon. They’re bad enough as it is. Seonghwa only allows himself to look at them very late at night, when anger and regret blur into something rotten and disgusting in his gut, eating away at whatever’s left of his pride. He has a folder on his phone with the worst ones. That he doesn’t allow himself to look at but each of them is seared into his brain already. 

It’s still light outside but Seonghwa decides fuck it. Maybe his pity party should start early.

The articles are getting harder to find by the week. Seonghwa has no doubt it has more to do with someone at the company not wanting people to associate Seonghwa with them rather than the talk dying down but it’s a nice feeling nonetheless. Today, however.

Today, there is a fresh new wave of forum talk.

What about his partner, though? Are we sure he’s a fan?

What if it’s another idol? Oh nooooo

I’m sure we’ll find out sooner or later, if he’s an idol

Seonghwa’s blood runs cold. Selfishly, he’s never given much thought to how Chan was doing throughout all of this. It’s just as much his scandal as it’s Seonghwa’s, even if he was the one to take the fall. He wonders if Chan reads the comments, too.

He wonders if he’s reading these ones.

Just in case, he opens Chan’s chat thread.

Don’t do anything stupid. 

Chan’s reply is instantaneous. I’ll try. But if they find out.. .

They will not. That’s what Seonghwa tells himself and what he tells Chan, too. He’s at the bottom already. It couldn’t have been for nothing.

For the first time in many hours, Seonghwa lets his phone drop on the pillows next to him and sets a foot out of bed. He paddles over to his bathroom and once inside, finds his way to the sink with his eyes closed. There is a mirror above it and that’s something Seonghwa has been avoiding ever since his apology went up. 

The face that meets him when he finally dares to meet his reflection is- tired. There are bags under his eyes which he’s used to but they are full color now, no layers of concealer to hide it. His hair is clumped together, sticking out in a mess that his stylists would’ve probably cried over. 

He has no stylists now so it doesn’t matter. His hair dye is fading, the natural brown lightening to an ugly dark orange and it makes Seonghwa laugh. Part of his appeal had been his relatively natural look, hair always dyed black or brown but dyed anyway, barely-there makeup that takes an hour in a stiff chair with an overworked makeup artist that doesn’t get paid enough. 

None of it matters. His image doesn’t matter anymore because no one cares who he used to be and even less people care of what he sang about. It stings and in a rare moment of honesty, Seonghwa decides he hates it. He may have loved what he did but he hates the world he’s leaving more. 

All the way back in his bathroom cabinet, there is a secret. About a year ago, in a fruitless fit of rebellion, Seonghwa decided that if his management wouldn’t let him stray out of the carefully crafted image, he’d force them to. At this very same sink, a year ago, Seonghwa packed the hair bleach up and pushed it all the way back on his hair products shelf.

A year later, today, Seonghwa takes it out and decides that secrets were never meant to last.

*

The hair change goes as well as he could’ve expected - which is to say, not very well at all. If the fading brown was ugly, whatever his hair is doing now is worse but Jongho assures him this is a normal phase of hair lightening (even though Seonghwa can see him stifling laughter). At least the apartment is free of dirty dishes now. Seonghwa spends a day, two, three - before he decides that being in a band may not actually be that bad. He considers asking Jongho to ask them if the offer is still up but while Jongho would probably agree with a bit of wheedling, Seonghwa has to remind himself he’s not an idol anymore. He doesn’t have a manager; only a friend.

In the end, he texts San again.

Almost instantly, he gets a string of exclamation points from San, then another from Wooyoung. A meeting is arranged the following Tuesday because Horizon are playing another club on the weekend. Seonghwa politely declines the invitation this time because he knows Jongho is busy and his last Horizon show was hard enough when he was there. He’s not sure he’s ready to face Kim Hongjoong again either, especially alone.

*

Seonghwa wakes up ridiculously early on the day of the meeting, even if the meeting isn’t until late in the afternoon. Something about the band being all night owls. It strikes Seonghwa as odd, considering most of his schedules as an idol took place before sunrise.

But then again, odd is nice, maybe. His old life is dead. It’s a good thing that there aren’t all that many parallels to draw.

They are supposed to meet in a basement. It’s an old house, tucked at the edge of one of the outer districts. It’s not far enough to be truly uncomfortable for travel but it’s not close, either. But then again, it is a house. A house with a basement. San had let that slip, that they don’t exactly have a fancy practice space, just Hongjoong’s basement that doubles as instrument storage and practice room. It sounds a little too underground but then again, Seonghwa isn’t stepping on a music show stage in the near future, possibly ever.

Funnily enough, it’s not San that’s arranging his arrival but Yunho; one of the people Seonghwa has spotty memories of, except that he’s tall. And apparently the only one to be trusted with directions. Despite his nerves, Seonghwa texts the number San gave him once he’s triple-checked that he is, in fact, in the right location. A few minutes later a Yunho bounds out of the house looking around once, twice before his eyes settle on Seonghwa. Seonghwa doesn’t blame him - he’s especially covered up today even though the weather is warming up at an alarming speed. Going out with Jongho was one thing. Now he’s alone and while it has been weeks, while people are starting to forget about it, Seonghwa still sees the occasional reporter or a probably-ex-fan lurking around his house. It’s scary, even if they rarely try to do anything but lurk.

Once the man’s eyes meet Seonghwa, he freezes for a moment, before the biggest, brightest smile Seonghwa has seen in a while breaks out on his face.

It’s a smile Seonghwa has seen often on fansigns - a little dreamy, a little starstruck. Seonghwa doesn’t remember it as such but then again, during their first meeting Yunho had been preoccupied with other things. The smile, the look makes Seonghwa recoil, and Yunho immediately straightens up.

“Hi! I’m Yunho,” he introduces himself, still smiling, still very polite but there’s something gentle in his eyes now.

Seonghwa takes a moment to accept the hand he’s been offered but once he does, he almost manages to smile back. “I know. We met once, I believe?”

Yunho cringes, letting go of Seonghwa’s hand. “Ah yes, sorry. I don’t have the best track record when gigs and alcohol are involved. I’m sorry about that too,” he waves a hand vaguely, mostly gesturing at himself. “That was kind of inappropriate of me? I didn’t mean to make things weird.”

“It’s fine,” Seonghwa says on instinct. He’s not entirely sure it is but at least Yunho doesn’t seem to mean any real harm. Seonghwa would need to get used to being stared at again eventually, and with a lot less positivity too. Yunho doesn’t seem convinced, so Seonghwa puts up his best idol smile. He’s long since perfected the insincerity into something believable. It never quite reaches his eyes, but he’s found out people tend to focus on the sparkle on your eyelids more than what’s beneath them.

But there is no sparkle now and Yunho frowns. 

“I really am sorry,” Yunho insists and the strangest thing is, Seonghwa believes him. But then again, he’s not particularly used to people apologizing, so who knows.

Seonghwa only nods, for much the same reasons. Yunho’s frown deepens but he doesn’t try to keep the conversation going and Seonghwa finds himself thankful for it.

They don’t meet in the actual basement, to Seonghwa’s reluctant relief, but knowing he is in Hongjoong’s living room instead doesn’t bring him that much comfort either. The place is full of mismatched furniture and pillows, and color, and posters of bands Seonghwa has only heard of in passing. A number of chairs with suspicious stability are strewn around the space and almost the entire floor is carpeted. Yunho takes his shoes off at the edge where the carpet starts and Seonghwa follows suit. 

No one is actually on the chairs. Most of the group are sprawled across the carpet, with Wooyoung sprawled over San’s lap. It feels weird seeing them in person again, makes everything feel real. 

There is someone on an actual chair, on second glance. He would’ve been there on the first one too, if Seonghwa had allowed himself to look. Kim Hongjoong is still looking at him with the disdain that stuck through Seonghwa’s hangover memory and he hates himself for the tiny flip his heart does when their eyes meet for a brief moment. He has a feeling that regardless of the quality, neither a video nor his memory would’ve ever done this man justice.

“Soo I don’t really remember if we were all introduced,” Yunho starts, a warm smile on his face as he points Seonghwa towards one of the more stable-looking chairs. Because it’s just Seonghwa’s luck, it happens to be right across from Hongjoong. “Wooyoung tells me you already know him and San,” Yunho points at the two of them, both of whom wave at him, eerily similar grins at their faces. They both greet him with a lot more enthusiasm than their brief meeting in the club warrants for, or the texts even, but Seonghwa takes it in stride; it's nice to feel welcomed. 

Yunho points at Yeosang, who gives him a little wave. “This is Yeosang. And this,” finally, he points to Hongjoong and grins. “This is Hongjoong. He likes to pretend he’s our leader but don’t let him fool you, the ruling vote here is pretty much whoever screams the loudest.”

“I do write half of our songs,” Hongjoong grumbles, but it’s exasperated, a little fond. He smiles at Yunho but when his eyes fall back to Seonghwa he looks mostly annoyed again. Seonghwa feels the phantom pain of his bruises still. He clears his throat, pushes the memories away.

“And for that we love you, our dear leader, even if you’re barely tolerable sometimes” Wooyong says solemnly, shifting to turn more towards Seonghwa. “But you, my dude. You look like f un.”

In all honesty, Seonghwa has never seen himself as particularly fun. Still, he shrugs. “Whatever you say. I’m Seonghwa, but you probably already know that.”

“Of course, big idol boy,” Hongjoong mocks, voice dripping sarcasm. Yunho cuts him a look but Hongjoong just shrugs. “Am I wrong? How many reporters followed you here?”

The bite in Hongjoong’s words barely registers past idol. Seonghwa feels a pang in his chest, something a lot like nostalgia - but he’s not allowed to feel that anymore. “None,” he states. At least he thinks. He did his best. “And I’m not an idol anymore.”

Hongjoong huffs but doesn’t continue, even if the frown never slips off his face. Seonghwa can’t stop glancing at him even through his conscious effort to look anywhere else.

“Anyway,” Yunho starts again. He’s oddly chatty for a drummer but then again, maybe Seonghwa is playing into stereotypes. “Now that you’ve met the band, officially and sober” Yunho continues, smiling again. “Have you decided if you wanna join us?”

For once, Seonghwa completely tears his gaze away from Hongjoong, only to stare at Yunho instead. “Just like that? You haven’t even heard me sing.”

“He owns a photocard collection of you,” Yeosang snorts, nodding at Yunho who blushes in turn. “Believe me when I say, every single one of us has heard you sing way more than necessary.”

“Whatever’s left after all the editing anyway,” Hongjoong mutters. No one pays him any mind.

Yunho points an accusing finger at Yeosang. “Excuse you, half of those were traded with you, you have no room to talk.”

There’s a stunned silence which Seonghwa has no idea how to respond to. At the end, he turns to Hongjoong. “I had very little control over what was edited out or smoothed over. I would happily show you what I can actually do, though.”

Hongjoong raises an eyebrow. The silence is still hanging heavy in the air but there is a tension laced through it now. “Show us, then.”

So Seonghwa does. Closes his eyes and sings a verse from one of Horizon’s songs, one he saw referenced in their Instagram account and stuck with him ever since.

I did not need anything

The first moment I saw you

Can not stop thinking about it

He’s suddenly glad he warmed up this morning, even if he’s not entirely sure he wants to come back to this house again. The look in Hongjoong’s eyes makes something burn in Seonghwa’s gut, a desire to prove himself he hasn’t felt since he was a trainee. 

His little performance ends with a round of excited applause (Yunho), a few oddly suggestive praises (Wooyoung), and another huff from Hongjoong. He doesn’t look disappointed, at least, but he doesn’t look impressed either. The fire spreads across Seonghwa’s chest.

“Whatever,” Hongjoong says, then gets up from his chair and heads towards the small door in the back. “You guys will take him no matter what I say but at least I know he’s not completely useless. I’m out.”

Seonghwa bristles at the words but it’s San that draws his attention back.

“Don’t mind him,” he says, and Seonghwa forces himself to focus on the voice, on San’s gentle expression. “If he really thought this badly of you he wouldn’t have let us even invite you, despite Jongho's recommendation. He’s just not very good with new people.”

“Oh yeah,” Wooyoung laughs, shifting in San’s lap. “He made me play five songs with almost no breaks when Yeosang referred me to the band.”

Yeosang nods. “He’ll come around.”

“Right,” Seonghwa says, because what else is he supposed to say? Does he even want to stick around to see it happen?

Yes, a traitorous voice whispers in his mind. Yes, you do.

If Seonghwa was conflicted on the way to this house, the way back home is about a hundred times worse.

*

For the first time in a long time, Seonghwa doesn’t feel like the walls of his apartment are pressing in on him. It’s been a while since he was among other people properly, enough to make him forget that he actually enjoys it for the most part. The rush of energy feels fickle, like it’ll go out any moment now, so he uses it as best as he can - he does his laundry, texts his mom that he’s doing okay. He’s not sure if he can handle a phone call but his mom has always been a lot more attuned to his emotions than he is. She only texts back, Thank you for telling me. Eat a lot. I love you.

Seonghwa clicks the reply button but by the time he figures out what to type, the energy has fizzled out already. He locks his phone and flops on his bed, desperately trying to find his way through the million thoughts in his head.

The strongest one is simple: he wants nothing to do with Horizon. He doesn’t want to go back, doesn’t want to see any of them again. Especially doesn’t want to see Kim Hongjoong again.

But then come the weaker, more hesitant thoughts. Are you sure? Don’t you miss music? What about Chan? Is it this easy to give up? Are you sure?

And the truth is - Seonghwa is not. He knows that he’s scared, as much as he hates admitting it. He knows that it’s going to be hard to rise again, no matter how small the altitude. People love to talk and Seonghwa is not strong enough to stop listening. 

But maybe he could be strong enough to keep going despite the noise instead. 

*

Wooyoung takes their second meeting in person as a green light to blow up Seonghwa’s phone, which is as cute as it is annoying. He’s taken to sending him videos of Horizon playing - rehearsals, mostly, but occasionally live clips too. His favorite ones, apparently.

So you get a feel of what the stage is like.

I know how it’s like, Seonghwa types, then deletes the letters one by one. Maybe he doesn’t. Everything in his idol days seems so far away now, despite being a mere few weeks ago.

It’s not a pleasant thought, so Seonghwa thinks back to Horizon instead. His memories inevitably drift to Hongjoong, the displeased turn of his mouth, the blank look in his eyes. He wonders how Hongjoong even agreed to follow up with their drunken offer, given how much he seems to hate the very idea of Seonghwa. These types of decisions seem like they’d be voted on by the whole group.

Another parallel to draw with his old life - management doesn’t exactly make a habit of taking opinions into consideration.

Most of all, Seonghwa suspects that it’s Hongjoong’s opinion in particular that mattered. Not because he’s above the others, Seonghwa doesn’t know enough about band dynamics to confirm that but he did see the way the others looked at him. Under all the teasing looks and offhand remarks, all of them glanced at Hongjoong first whenever an important question was asked. In an industry where you’re rarely allowed to speak, Seonghwa has long since learned to read far between the lines. Yeosang and Yunho may have been fanboys but he would bet whatever’s left of his trainwreck career that if Hongjoong had said no, all of them would’ve followed, no questions asked.

But Hongjoong didn’t say no. Hongjoong hadn’t said no back in the club, either, even if he made Seonghwa’s body pay for it.

*

In the span of a few weeks, Seonghwa’s life goes from a hectic mess to complete stillness, then to another hectic mess. 

Horizon don’t practice nearly as much as Seonghwa was forced to both by management and guilt, but they do meet almost every day. He gets to officially meet Mingi The Bartender who apparently lives with Hongjoong? Mingi gives him knowing looks a lot of the time but what he knows Seonghwa has no idea. He’s sweet otherwise, though, so Seonghwa counts it as a win towards expanding his social circle beyond work as his mom used to encourage him. In a way, Horizon count as that as well.

Sometimes practice is just Yeosang and Wooyoung because San and Yunho have work, sometimes it’s all of them and sometimes it’s only Hongjoong because everyone else has things to do. Seonghwa accidentally ended up in one such band meeting once, where Yunho was supposed to be there but cancelled at the last second. Seonghwa decided the extra practice was worth more than a few hours spent alone with Hongjoong.

That had been a fun experience. San had kindly pretended not to see the fresh set of bruises along Seonghwa’s neck when he showed up after his shift.

They’re fading to ugly yellow already and Seonghwa has a whole new set of concealers to deal with the… problem. It doesn’t help conceal anything when he is still in his pyjamas on a sunny afternoon in which Jongho chooses to show up unannounced, featuring two cups of coffee.

His eyes zero in on Seonghwa’s neck. The bruises are barely there already but he gives Seonghwa a Look regardless.

“When I encouraged you to join them,” he starts, pushing one of the cups towards Seonghwa, “I was hoping this would provide a bit of a healthy distraction.” He nods in the general direction of Seonghwa’s neck. “I’m not sure this is healthy.”

Seonghwa shrugs. “But it is a distraction.”

“Hongjoong can be a little stubborn,” Jongho sighs. “More like a-pain-in-the-ass stubborn, really. Once he decides he knows something he’ll cling to it against any logic or common sense. It’s not always a good thing.”

“Seems like I’m not the good thing in this case,” Seonghwa laughs. It sounds empty to his own ears but he’s fine with that. He’s fine with a lot of things; that’s part of the reason he keeps letting Hongjoong step all over him. It makes him feel things for a little more than a second, where the feeling lasts more than its cause. It makes Seonghwa hurt long after Hongjoong has left. It’s so much better than the empty feeling that has become the norm lately.

“You know,” Seonghwa adds softly, "sometimes I wonder why he agreed to let me join. It's quite obvious he doesn’t respect me as an artist. Or as a person, really? But he agreed to let me join them and I may not remember much from that night but I feel like San offered me to join after…" He trails off. They’ve never spoken about it but Seonghwa always suspected Jongho knew. It seems he was right.

Jongho looks conflicted for a moment. "I really don't think-"

"Don't worry about it," Seonghwa interrupts, with a smile he puts slightly more effort in. "I'm fine. I will be, anyway. They're nice and it's nice to feel like I'm doing something again. The walls of my apartment are getting boring, you know?" 

“Right.” Jongho says, somewhat reluctant. Seonghwa gives him another smile.

*

“Bonding time!” Wooyoung announces as soon as Seonghwa steps through the door of Hongjoong’s house. “San and Yeosang both can’t make it today because of work and we might as well use the time.”

Seonghwa nods hello to Yunho, then to Hongjoong. Only Yunho waves back.

“And you didn’t think to tell me before I came all the way here?”

“Why?” Hongjoong asks, finally looking up to meet Seonghwa’s eyes. “Would you have skipped? Too busy for us?”

It’s one of the rare times Hongjoong addresses him outside of their… arrangement and those are always snappy, mean. More than when they are in private, or maybe just different. Seonghwa is learning to mirror it. 

“If it was just you that was left, maybe.” The words scratch their way out of Seonghwa’s throat because they’re a lie. There’s nothing he wants more than Hongjoong alone. It’s a drug - the sex and the bruises but also the constant hope that it’ll be better afterwards; that Hongjoong will maybe be nicer this time and maybe Seonghwa will, someday, earn a real place in this group. That hope is always followed by the disappointment of reality but Seonghwa has yet to extinguish it.

He wonders if Hongjoong would be different if it was his bed he pressed Seonghwa into, instead of whatever secluded corner they drag each other to each time.

“Bonding time, then!” Wooyoung says with a loud clap, easily dissipating the gathering tension.

*

Wooyoung’s idea of bonding is, apparently, coffee.

The coffee shop he takes them to is rather secluded, close to where Hongjoong lives, with a good selection of non-caffeinated drinks, to Seonghwa’s relief. They pick a table close to the windows because it’s sunny outside but the café doesn’t have outdoor tables. 

It takes Seonghwa about a minute to notice the photographer lurking just outside.

Yunho gets up to get their orders and Wooyoung hurries to volunteer his help, not without a quite conspicuous glance at Seonghwa and Hongjoong.

Hongjoong isn’t even looking at him, eyes glued to his phone instead. Seonghwa knows, because he is.

His conversation with Jongho flashes through his mind.

“Why did you agree to let me join?” He ends up asking, voice quiet, somewhat hoping Hongjoong wouldn’t hear.

But Hongjoong finally looks up from his phone, expression unreadable. He sighs, and a little of the sweet person Seonghwa sometimes catches glimpses of shows through, even if he looks tired. 

“We’ve been a band for years,” he starts, aiming for condescending. It sounds resigned. “They all want to do music, I want to do music but the club gigs are the farthest we’ve gotten. San has to spread himself thin between the band and work and I thought-”

He stops abruptly, doesn’t finish. Seonghwa fills in the blanks.

“Ah,” he laughs, more breath than sound. “So it’s my name, then, not my body. Nice.”

For once, there is not a trace of disdain on Hongjoong’s face, even though he’s looking straight at Seonghwa. It looks more like surprise, in fact, but Seonghwa doesn’t let it have meaning. It works out, really. If they want to make noise he can help them make noise. Noise on him would mean less threat for Chan, too. 

“There is a photographer outside,” he starts, staring straight at Hongjoong for once. “Don’t look. If you kiss me now, it’ll end up in at least two articles tomorrow and people are resourceful. They’ll find out who you are, who the band is. There are ways to help them if they don’t.”

Hongjoong is frozen for a brief moment, then his eyes narrow. “What’s in it for you?”

Seonghwa shrugs. Attention away from Chan, attention on Horizon. Fresh content for his hate folder. “Does it really matter?”

Another moment, and Hongjoong nods. “Fair enough.”

Then he gets up, leans over the table and with his pretty fingers cradling Seonghwa’s jaw, kisses him like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

They rarely kiss when they’re fucking but it’s nothing like that anyway. Hongjoong’s fingers are impossibly soft on Seonghwa’s skin and for a moment, he can almost imagine it’s real.

Then the moment is gone and Seonghwa is left there blinking, desperately trying to find his way back to reality. Hongjoong is back to his phone and when Seonghwa finally tears his eyes away, he sees both Yunho and Wooyoung staring at them, openmouthed, a cup in each hand.

To their credit, they snap out of it pretty quickly and no one mentions it afterwards. Seonghwa is grateful.

*

Yunho has to leave early and Wooyoung ditches them soon after, so no one is there to witness Seonghwa disappearing into the bathroom, only for Hongjoong to follow soon after. They still don’t kiss but there is a moment of gentleness before Hongjoong fucks into Seonghwa’s mouth. It’s so brief Seonghwa is sure he imagined it. It’s so much easier to focus on the fingers pulling on his hair.

*

There is not one article. There are at least ten, each rephrasing the same information and sometimes adding new details, most of which wildly untrue. None of them is a big news outlet, though, which confirms that someone is, indeed, paying a price for Seonghwa to not be a pain in the ass.

At least he doesn’t have to make fake fan accounts. People have not only found Horizon’s name but Hongjoong’s too, along with a solid list of facts. Apparently he used to be an idol trainee, too.

Seonghwa isn’t entirely sure if it’s to be trusted because the same article also swears Hongjoong is the mysterious fan in the photo that ruined Seonghwa’s career. It’s a good assumption, in the direction Seonghwa wants it, even if Hongjoong’s hair is a faded strawberry red and Chan’s was and is a warm caramel tone.

He’s still scrolling through Hongjoong’s supposed trainee history when his phone lights up with a message. The number is unknown but Seonghwa has it memorized from the list of emergency phone numbers pinned to their group chat.

Your plan worked. We have a last minute gig scheduled the day after tomorrow and two consecutive ones next weekend.

Seonghwa saves the number as a plain KHJ, then clicks out of the messaging app.

*

“We don’t have enough time to plan Seonghwa’s grand reveal!” Wooyoung wails, even though he doesn’t look all that distraught by the idea.

“I’m pretty sure the reveal has already happened,” Hongjoong grumbles, annoyed but a little amused, too. “At this point the surprise would be if he didn’t show up with us on stage.”

San hums, fingers drumming along his guitar. “Are we sure, though? As far as those reporters are concerned, it’s just you that has a thing with him. I’m fairly sure at least a few of them are convinced you’re his secret lover or whatever, and the band is only mentioned as an afterthought.”

“More reason to prove them wrong,” Seonghwa says, forcing his brain to skip over the secret lover part of that sentence. “They’re going to expect me to be at the show, whether in the audience or on stage.”

“We have… a reputation,” Yunho says carefully. “Are you okay with that?”

Ah yes, the reputation. The San-occasionally-making-out-with-random-bandmates on stage. Seonghwa hadn’t thought much about it, to be quite honest. Between Hongjoong and the whiplash of his career crashing and then restarting in a completely different way, he had almost forgotten about the kissing.  

It felt like such an impossible hill to climb when he first saw the live clips. Now, he’s almost looking forward to it.

He shrugs. “I already kissed Hongjoong for a camera, how hard can it be?”

“Wanna practice with me?” Wooyoung suggests, cheeky, laughing like it’s a joke Seonghwa may or may not be the butt of.

"Sure," Seonghwa says, watching the way Wooyoung rises an eyebrow in expectation, then in surprise when Seonghwa stalks over and slots their lips together. 

To his credit, Wooyoung takes it in stride, kissing back and harder almost immediately. Seonghwa is a little out of breath by the time they separate and Wooyoung looks incredibly smug.

For a moment, no one says anything.

“If a few months ago someone told me I’d be watching Park Seonghwa make out with Wooyoung in Hongjoong’s living room,” Yunho says thoughtfully, “I’d probably want what they were drinking. Or ask for the fic rec.”

That makes Seonghwa laugh. “You were reading fanfics of me? Were they self-inserts?”

Yunho blushes, which only makes Seonghwa laugh harder. 

“You know,” he says conspiratorially, leaning into Yunho’s space. “We can act those out if you want. I did star in a drama once.”

“Was that not a shitty web drama?” Hongjoong asks. His voice betrays nothing even if there is a slight twitch to his lips, once Seonghwa dares to look at him.

It was, but Kim Hongjoong has no place shitting on it.

“I liked it!” Yunho squeaks, somewhat defensively. 

“Of course you did,” San says gently, with a soft pat to Yunho’s shoulder. He looks so concerned it’s hilarious but it’s not Seonghwa that laughs this time.

“Of course you did,” Hongjoong mocks, still cackling. He turns to Seonghwa, expression going serious again. “Yunho has a thing for you, if you haven't noticed. And he would fuck anything that walks.”

Yunho huffs, throwing Sans’s hand off him. “Excuse you, I have standards”

“Yes,” Hongjoong nods. “Set in hell”

The most self-satisfied smile spills on Yunho’s lips. “Maybe you’re right,” he shrugs, voice solemn. “I did fuck you too after all.”

Once again, the silence settles over the room.

“So uh,” Yeosang starts, voice hesitant but the look he gives Seonghwa is one of determination. “I guess that’s the faster way of letting you know most of us are casually intimate?”

It takes another moment for Seonghwa to realize they expect him to have a reaction about it.

He does his best fake-surprised face. “Oh no, how could you? I never thought you’d be like this, when you constantly kiss on stage!” Hongjoong snorts, which Seonghwa refuses to take as a personal win, so he drops the act entirely. “Did you think I was in love with the person they caught me with or whatever? I was an idol, there were hot people by the dozens constantly around me. I’m quite familiar with casual intimacy.”

“Wait, so it wasn’t a fan?” Wooyoung asks.

Of course not is almost out of Seonghwa’s mouth before it dawns on him that he barely knows these people. They’re sweet and nice most of the time and they’re friends with Jongho but he doesn’t know them, not really. He can’t just tell them, there is too much at stake and none of it is Seonghwa’s to lose. And yet the implication that he took advantage of someone that looks up to him eats at him. He doesn’t know the band, yes, but he doesn’t want them to know him like that either.

In the end, what comes out of his mouth is, “I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t deny it either,” San points out, leaning on Wooyoung’s shoulder where they’re curled up on the sofa.

Seonghwa shrugs. “If my grand reveal is so soon shouldn’t we be practicing?”

There are hums of agreement and Seonghwa ignores all the inquisitive looks aimed his way. Especially Hongjoong’s.

*

A show being this close means neither San nor Yeosang can take the day off work which, in turn, means practice goes well into the small hours of the night. It’s a venue they haven’t played yet apparently, some up-and-coming mix between a bar and a nightclub named Jade Hours. They have to make an impression.

Seonghwa already has a good grip on the band’s original songs, few as they are, so he tries to focus on the covers they’ll be doing to fill up their time slot. He’s suddenly grateful that Horizon already had a well established practice schedule already. This he knows: practice. He’s good at it. 

The only downside of their practice space being located in Hongjoong’s basement is that Seonghwa can’t really stay behind to get some extra practice in. Unlike the others, he doesn’t have an instrument to lug around so he sings at home, pouring over the arrangements of the songs Hongjoong gave him until he could probably recreate them by memory alone. 

In turn, by the time d-day arrives, Seonghwa's eyebags are bigger than his eyes. 

“Are you sure you’re okay to perform?” Wooyoung asks as they load up the instruments into Mingi’s semi-decent van.

Seonghwa ended up helping Yunho with the drums, which means he can pretend to be too invested in not dropping the cymbals in his hands to answer. Briefly, he wonders if Wooyoung is asking because he’s worried about him or because he’s worried Seonghwa will fuck up the performance and, consecutively, their plan.

“I’m peachy,” he says eventually, when it doesn’t seem like Wooyoung will give up waiting for an answer.

Yunho glances at him, Seonghwa only catching it because he’s avoiding looking at Wooyoung.

“You look kind of tired,” San says instead, his guitar case slung over his back. “Maybe we should stop for coffee on the way?”

“I’m fine,” Seonghwa repeats, tacking on a smile to make it more believable. It doesn’t look like it worked, given the grimace Wooyoung makes in return but he’s willing to take it. “Coffee sounds great, though.”

In truth, Seonghwa has slept about half an hour in the past forty-eight and his skin is buzzing with restless energy born of caffeine and nerves alone. His thoughts are crystal clear and loud, so sharp and scattered that he struggles to focus on a single one. It’s not the worst he’s done while being an idol but it’s not the norm either. It feels like the worst, though, and Seonghwa wonders if he’s forgotten what performing in a sleep-deprived delirium feels like or if this is, in fact, worse.

The way to the bar is eerily familiar. Seonghwa never had a group to share rides with but he’s had to share with his backup dancers once or twice. Mingi’s van isn’t all that big, with the instruments stacked in the back and six grown men having to share a space there isn’t much wiggle room left. Back in the day, Seonghwa was usually given the front seat as the idol; now Wooyoung is halfway in his lap and Yeosang’s bony shoulder is digging into his own. Seonghwa suspects that at least one of those things is intentional.

Hongjoong occupies the front seat as the unofficial band leader and more importantly, the roommate. Or so he says. Privately, Seonghwa thinks that someone like Yunho would be much suitable for the front seat - Hongjoong, at least, is very compact.

He doesn’t say it aloud, of course, but allows himself a quiet laugh when San grumbles something along those lines instead.

*

Seonghwa is still clutching his americano, barely touched, as they step off the van and into the venue’s tiny parking lot. They’d sent San for drinks when they stopped for coffee because he was the most conveniently placed one for getting out and back in without causing a tetris level of seating rearrangement. Which means Seonghwa didn’t get the chance to chicken out of his initial black-coffee-no-additions order and now has to bear the consequences. 

His nerves are frayed enough as it is. With the extra boost, the only way it can go is down. 

It’s still early, the bar barely having opened at seven. They have a quick soundcheck with the few bored waiters as the audience and claim a corner of the bar before it fills up. Their slot isn’t until ten - there is a significant number of hours to kill.

“Are you nervous?” Yeosang asks as Wooyoung slides a glass of something Seonghwa doesn’t drink enough to recognize.

Is he? “I’m not sure,” he says eventually. “I think I am.”

“You did great at rehearsals, soundcheck too,” Yunho insists. Seonghwa isn’t quite so sure; he’s tired and buzzing with nerves but Yunho is so earnest he doesn’t dare argue.

Belatedly, he realizes that Yunho has moved closer, and so has Yeosang. Wooyoung and San are talking amongst themselves opposite them and Mingi is chatting to the bartender on the far end of the bar. They were spread out when they first got here but now Hongjoong is sitting alone on one side of the bar, staring resolutely into his glass while almost everyone else is crowded around Seonghwa. It doesn’t mean anything; Seonghwa is new and shiny and about to have his first show in a long time and everyone is just too nice. It doesn’t mean anything but Hongjoong is glaring into his glass like it does.

*

Predictably, Seonghwa decides alcohol may be a good idea to take the edge off his nerves. Even more so, an hour and a half to their set he finds himself pressed against a dingy bathroom door, with Hongjoong’s hands pulling at the leather pants Wooyoung bullied him into. 

Hongjoong’s pretty fingers dig into Seonghwa’s thighs so hard he’s sure the skin is bruising up even now, will stay discolored for a long time. Seonghwa lets him, lets him drag blunt nails up his ribs, lets him suck ugly bruises into his collarbones. 

“Don’t,” Seonghwa mumbles, making no real move to push Hongjoong away. A distant, slightly more present part of him chides that he’ll be on stage very soon, too soon for the bruises to fade into something manageable, his flowy shirt won’t be of much help. 

“Why, worried your so called fans will find out what you’re really like?” Hongjoong laughs but it’s harsh, derisive and Seonghwa’s heart breaks a little.

He moves away from Seonghwa’s neck but his hands are on Seonghwa’s hips again, squeezing, bruising twice as much as his mouth was. Seonghwa thinks about those fingers over a guitar, the way Hongjoong would smile at the strings as if it were a lover. A contrast to how he handles his mic stand, like something meant to be crushed under the hands that caressed his guitar’s neck not a minute ago. Off stage, in this latest bathroom, Hongjoong’s hands wrap around Seonghwa’s neck, not quite squeezing but the pressure is there nonetheless. Hongjoong’s eyes are full of rage and his body is too, making pain bloom in places Seonghwa never knew were sensitive.

His shoulders are hitting the wall at each thrust and that’s starting to hurt but Seonghwa is tired; lets that happen too. Hongjoong’s guitar may remain a distant dream but there is something intoxicating in the way he makes it hurt. Seonghwa isn’t sure it would work with anyone else. 

*

He’s not sure how he looks because looking at the mirror usually brings more harm than good but there must be something showing. As soon as Seonghwa returns, San is on him again while Wooyoung glares daggers at where he knows Hongjoong is sitting. Soon, Yunho too settles next to him, directly blocking Hongjoong’s line of sight.

Before Seonghwa has a chance to really think about it (or not think about it by virtue of more alcohol), a welcome distraction presents itself in the form of Jongho, out of breath and pushing through the crowd like avoiding random drunken elbows is his profession. 

To be fair, it is. Maybe without the drunken part, but Seonghwa has seen some things at airports.

“Hey, did I miss the show of the year?” He asks, somehow managing to slide himself between Seonghwa and Wooyoung, even though there was barely any space there moments ago.

“We still have like, maybe half an hour until our set? Maybe a little more?” Yeosang says, struggling to be heard over the music. 

It’s decently full now, people Seonghwa vaguely remembers pushing their way to the very front of the stage last time and more, unfamiliar ones. Some of them hold cameras which is a little ridiculous in a bar, but it figures. Seonghwa is used to those. With his brand new (to the public eye) hair and the rest of the band crowded around him, he’s mostly managed to remain undetected so far but that’s going to change very soon. 

Seonghwa orders another drink and for a change, it’s not his mess of a love life the alcohol is meant to wash away. The stage is just a few short steps away from him and yet, after so long, after everything, even those few steps feel like an enchanted road with no end.

He’s going to be on stage again. He’s going to sing and people are going to watch him and people are going to talk about him. Maybe even listen to the songs, if he’s lucky.

The bartender pushes the fresh glass his way and Seonghwa’s fingers grip the smooth surface. He’s never performed intoxicated before. He doesn’t think he will now either, but it’s a comforting thought, to know he could. The rest of them are chattering, mindless conversations to kill the time until they’re up but Seonghwa finds he can recognize that they’re nervous, too. At some point, he started noticing that Wooyoung gets louder when he’s uncomfortable, in a way that leaves a bitter taste in Seonghwa’s mouth. San gets quieter, on the other hand and Yunho’s expression becomes a carefully controlled mask. Yeosang chews on his lips a lot and Hongjoong… Hongjoong is too far for Seonghwa to notice his little signs. He always is, when Seonghwa is around.

It’s okay. It will be okay, in the end. Somehow. He thinks of his mom, and maybe of going back home if the whole music thing falls through. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but having a backup plan is comforting, and that’s what finally makes Seonghwa push away whatever concoction the bartender made him. 

He’s going to be okay. He’s Park Seonghwa and he’s starting over and it’s terrifying but what can go worse now, really?

This is what the bottom feels like, maybe, and Seonghwa decides the only way from here is up.

*

It’s underwhelming. There are few excited yells when the band finally takes the stage and Seonghwa introduces himself. There are few camera flashes too, but the sound is overwhelmingly gone. The Horizon fans Seonghwa vaguely remembers seem confused and he doesn’t blame them. The people there for the drama - not so much.

But they are there for the drama. Seonghwa has had enough time to sober up now but his blood might as well be made of alcohol with the way the very last of his care for the world’s opinions at large fading away. 

They’re here for the drama; he’ll give them some.

He stalks over to Hongjoong, fingers sliding into his hair to pull, like Hongjoong has pulled so many times before. Seonghwa kisses him like he was kissed too, harsh and bruising, and doesn’t spare him a glance when he gets back to the center of the stage.

“Good evening Jade Hours! We are Horizon and we’re about to blow the roof off this place.”

There is a bit more noise now. Still nothing like Seonghwa remembers from his first Horizon show but it’s enough to fuel him. It’s a stage and a crowd and that he knows. 

It may not be his stage but it will be, very soon.

*

Soon is not tonight. Seonghwa splatters his heart over the dirty floorboards, screaming Horizon’s angry lyrics to a crowd that nods along at best. 

From above, it looks like Horizon’s fans take to Seonghwa about as well as Hongjoong did. 

Seonghwa takes it in stride; he’s sung to disinterested people before. Multi-artist concerts mean a lot of times you’re singing to people who are there to see someone else and are not afraid to show it. It’s naive to think it would be different because music is music and the fans may be different now but where it matters, they’re all the same. It’s fine. Seonghwa can handle it. He’s up here, there are a few more songs on their set and he still has some of his soul left to give away.

*

When they step off stage, it's Hongjoong’s eyes Seonghwa searches for first. His expression is unreadable but there are traces of the performance clinging there, the wet ends of his hair or how his hands twitch on his guitar. It doesn’t seem as bad but Hongjoong still won't look at him and it takes that for Seonghwa to realize just how much he was counting on this first performance. To fix his strained relationship with Hongjoong, to prove he deserves a stage just like any other musician. To fix his career, maybe. To fix him.  

None of that comes true. 

It's fine. Seonghwa can handle that too. He can but he's also human, and he tries not to judge himself too hard when he gets back to the bar and orders the strongest drink he can think of. 

He does judge, just a little, when he finds himself crying, curled up on a bathroom floor. It’s probably the same bathroom Hongjoong fucked him in earlier but Seonghwa can’t truly be sure. There are things already missing from his memories - they could’ve moved bars and he wouldn’t know. At least he has enough sense to curl away from the door when it opens. There isn’t much crying alone on a public bathroom floor could do to him as a headline at this point but somewhere deep inside, there is still a bit of dignity Seonghwa has lingering. 

It’s not much, though, and it too crumbles when instead of a random stranger, it’s Hongjoong’s pretty hands that lift Seonghwa’s chin up, forcing him to blink his tears away against the shitty bathroom lighting. 

“Look at me,” Seonghwa says, fully aware that the makeup Wooyoung bullied him into is probably streaming down his face as well. Hongjoong’s hand drops and he looks away, funnily enough. Seonghwa grips his sleeve with strength he didn’t know he’s capable of. 

“Funny how you have no trouble looking at me when we fuck,” he says bitterly. It’s quiet, eerily so now, like the world outside the door doesn’t exist. Hongjoong looking at him with wide eyes, like he’s been told a terrible secret. As if everyone didn’t know already. “It’s okay,” Seonghwa laughs, a little empty, a little manic. “I can be your whore. I can be everyone’s!” He throws his hands out, still laughing even though the world is getting a little blurry with tears, again. “It’s fine. No one has ever cared about anything but my body anyway.”

Hongjoong has never been been the most talkative to him but now, for once, it doesn’t look like it’s a conscious choice. He reaches for Seonghwa again but his hand freezes in the air, almost touching but not quite.

Kim Hongjoong, the physical manifestation of everything Seonghwa wants but is apparently not allowed to have. The crowd loves Hongjoong; the fans Seonghwa's seen in their social medias love him too. He's talented and proud and himself and Seonghwa hates him so, so much. 

"I hate you," he sobs, and hates that too. It's one thing to break down and a whole other to do it here, like this. 

Hongjoong's fingers tightening on his jaw for a fraction of a second. "I know."

It's such a calm statement, like it's a fact, like it doesn’t matter and it only makes more empty words bubble out if his throat. 

“I’m better than this. I deserve better than you.”

Hongjoong smiles this time, at him, for the first time since Seonghwa has known him. “I know that, too.”

It feels empty. Hongjoong's smile, the bathroom, Seonghwa's insides. Seonghwa pushes the hand away, pushes Hongjoong away and curls in on himself instead. 

*

For the second time in his life, Seonghwa wakes up with spotty memories of the night before no idea how he got home. 

At least one of those things is resolved when he unlocks his phone, squinting at the too-bright screen. His notes app is left open.

Yunho got annoying and I was tired, so I left him on your couch. I hope you don’t mind -J

Seonghwa does mind, a little, because he hasn’t had non-Jongho visitors since before his great downfall but he can’t really complain either. Who knows where he would’ve ended up if Jongho wasn’t there to fix his messes.

He pads into his kitchen quietly, still unsure how to go about this. The stealth proves useless when he finds Yunho sat up on the couch, quiet and seemingly lost in thought. Seonghwa clears his throat.

“Oh sorry,” Yunho startles, eyes snapping towards Seonghwa a moment later. “I was so busy trying to decide whether it would be appropriate to make coffee or just run away.”

He looks so conflicted, Seonghwa can't help but laugh. "While I definitely don't mind you staying, I think it would be safe to take coffee out of the equation."

Yunho looks so confused it's hilarious. "No coffee?" 

“No coffee,” Seonghwa nods solemnly. “Too bitter for me. I have a lot of tea, though?”

“Tea sounds great!” Yunho squeaks. Then, a little resigned, “I should’ve probably known that.”

“You’re not obligated to know everything about me, just because you were a fan,” Seonghwa frowns. “It’s a little strange, actually.”

“Am,” Yunho corrects, and it takes a while for Seonghwa to make the connection. “I am a fan. Although, I’d rather be a friend, I think?”

Friend. Seonghwa hasn’t had that many close friends that aren’t Jongho. He’s not sure he can count Yunho as a close friend either, but just friend is a good start.

“A friend sounds great.”

*

Seonghwa would happily blame it on last night’s alcohol, but the truth is, he has no idea how he ends up pressed into his kitchen counter, with Yunho nosing along his jaw.

His touch is so much different than Hongjoong, soft, like Seonghwa is fragile and breakable. It’s so much different than how Hongjoong touches him. Yunho's hands are bigger, too, and Seonghwa can't tell if the differences are a good thing. 

Yunho kisses down his jaw, his neck, hands sliding down to his hips first, then the hem of his sweatpants. His fingers are calloused, dragging against the skin of Seonghwa’s stomach and he hates himself for how much he craves the touch being gentle for once.

“I can't,” he gets out. He may not have the will power to push Yunho away but there are things that have to be made clear. “I can't give you… More. Me.”

“I know,” Yunho laughs, his breath tickling Seonghwa’s neck. He walks Seonghwa back to his couch anyway, pushes him down and follows, sliding between his knees in one fluid motion. “We're friends, remember? I'm not asking for your hand in marriage,” he murmurs against Seonghwa’s hip, pressing a kiss into it right after. “But I do think everyone deserves to be touched with appreciation once in a while.”

*

It's not awkward afterwards and Seonghwa finds he's not truly surprised. Yunho doesn’t stay for food but he washes their mugs before he leaves and Seonghwa decides to count the morning as a win. 

It's less of a win when, against his better judgement, he looks himself up again. 

Idol fans are vicious but it turns out rock fans are just as bad. There are forum posts the size of Seonghwa's final exams in high school, explaining in detail just why he is a horrible choice as a vocalist. It would've been nice if they at least pointed his vocal skills for it. Instead, it's endless rants about his apparent act of desperation, ruining a great band to restore his dumpster fire of a career. A quote. Seonghwa screenshots it, then moves it to his special folder. There are quite a few claiming he's in the band just because he's fucking Hongjoong, which-

Seonghwa isn’t sure if he can refute that. 

He clicks out of the article, watches as his screen goes dark. It is not easy to rise out of the dirt, it's what he's been telling himself since his trainee days, when he grit his teeth against the sight of yet another one of his temporary friends packing their bags. It's not easy, wasn't meant to be or it wouldn't mean as much in the end. In the end, it'll all be worth it. 

Just this once, Seonghwa allows himself to wish it was easier, because right now, worth it doesn’t feel like a possibility at all.

*

It’s hard to unplug when your entire life revolves around the internet but Seonghwa decides it’s a fair exchange. He had a long phone call with his mom right before, in which she berated him for learning of his new group through the news, asked him how Jongho is, who the boy is. Is it the same boy?  

I wish he was, Seonghwa had said. It would make everything so much easier - he wouldn’t need to worry about Chan’s career, for one. Kissing Hongjoong like that would’ve meant Hongjoong wanted to kiss him in the first place, too.

But alas.

As soon as the conversation was over, Seonghwa had turned off his phone. 

It's a distraction - he's not strong enough to resist checking the forums and he's not confident enough to deal with whatever is in them. His folder has grown twice in size and he hates it, all of it. 

*

He shows up to Hongjoong’s fifteen minutes late to practice the next day and despite the reasoning, a small sliver of regret coils around his gut. He really wishes he had his phone to let them know he’s late at least. It’d been a tense ride there, even if almost everyone, Hongjoong included, have been late before without so much as a whisper of it. Briefly, Seonghwa wonders why his brain seems to think the rules are different when it comes to him.

The sliver of regret expands, tightens, when it’s only Hongjoong that opens the door. 

Usually it’s someone else that lets him in - followed by commotion, the distant sound of instruments or yelling or someone playing music from his phone even though their instruments are right there.

None of that is happening now. It’s just Hongjoong, sleep-soft and frowning, his shirt crumpled like he’s just gotten out of bed. He probably has, Seonghwa realizes with a start.

“Um,” Seonghwa says eloquently. Never before has he been so acutely aware of the shield a phone can provide; he could’ve known that he shouldn’t be here, provide their group chat as evidence that he should, reign in the overwhelming feeling that he shouldn’t be here, not now, not ever. Hell, he could’ve even pretended he got an important call.

Hongjoong blinks at him, the frown slowly making itself known on his face. “You didn’t see about practice being canceled?”

Seonghwa shrugs, desperately trying to make it look like something casual. “I turned my phone off last night. Sorry.”

Hongjoong gives him a look, something like pity peeking through his eyes and Seonghwa hates it. He offers a hesitant smile.

“Whatever,” Hongjoong says in the end, throwing his door open the rest of the way. “I was gonna work on some songs anyway.”

*

Hongjoong working is a fascinating sight. He has these big headphones on, ones that swallow him in a way Seonghwa can’t take his eyes off of. He’s not getting any vocal practice done, that’s for sure. It’s a little strange, just sitting there and tinkering with the sound system but the thought of breaking the silence feels infinitely worse, even if Hongjoong assured him (off-hand, without meeting his eyes) that it won’t be an issue.

Seonghwa watches him work, no longer pretending he’s busy. Hongjoong isn’t looking at him anyway.

I’m doomed.

He’s beautiful; even from here. Seonghwa thinks about the way Hongjoong commands the stage, even though he’s far from the center. Thinks about the way all the others glance at him whenever something happens, anything from Wooyoung and San’s latest bickering spree to the few times Seonghwa has witnessed them arrange a gig.

There are words stringing together in his head, and he doesn’t understand all of them, not yet, but he feels them.

And now there's no way back

He’s had a few songwriting classes back in the day. He’s tried doing it once or twice but management was never happy with the result. That’s not the type of idol you are, they’d said. Leave it to the professionals. 

Come shove me over the edge

It’s hard to forget, but occasionally, it’s even harder to remember. He’s no longer an idol. There is no management to tell him he can’t. There is only Hongjoong, hunched over his computer with his headphones on. There are only San, and Yunho, and Yeosang, and Wooyoung. And a stage. Somehow, Seonghwa thinks neither of them would tell him that’s not the type of singer he is. He is. He just is.

His fingers are itching for a notebook, his phone, something to allow the words to crawl out of his brain and string together on paper so they’d stop setting his guts on fire. He doesn’t have either and doesn’t dare take Hongjoong’s. It doesn’t feel right. For once in his life, Seonghwa decides he needs his own pages. For his words, for his life, for himself.

He mumbles a half-hearted goodbye and flies out of the basement, ignoring Mingi along the way. He’s never regretted living this far into the city before.

*

By next morning, Seonghwa has a notebook full of words. More importantly, somewhere between the scribbles and the doodles and the angry scratch marks, there is a song. He’s not sure what to do with the lyrics yet, but they’re there, they’re out and he allows himself to take a breath.

It’s almost six in the morning when he turns his phone on again.

Immediately, notifications start flooding in. A missed call from Jongho, a few promo texts, a whole string of notifications from the band group chat, Jongho, Yeosang. 

Yeosang?

Out of all of them, Yeosang is the one that texts him the least. Wooyoung is the worst offender, further proven by the blinking “14” next to his name, San and Yunho are at least reasonable and Hongjoong isn’t in the competition at all.

But Yeosang, Seonghwa can count their messages on one hand. 

It contains a link. Two of them, actually. Seonghwa follows the first one to Horizon’s official twitter page, now verified, to see a-

Hongjoong?

It’s a quote-retweet, to a post saying something about Horizon selling out, taking the worst possible, untalented, unnecessary option just so they can create noise. Seonghwa has read a hundred of those already, even if he hasn't looked at comments since that first time. The tweet is not the surprising part. It's the quote that is. 

It's signed by Hongjoong, and it reads Do you make a hobby out of bullying people on the internet? 

Curiosity eats at him, so Seonghwa clicks on the band’s profile. The feed is full of similar quote-retweets, Hongjoong calling out seemingly anyone who dared to question their choice of singer. He’s never plain mean, or rude, but it paints a very clear picture of just where he stands with the new lineup. 

Seonghwa’s phone pings, Yeosang’s name flashing again. It’s another link, followed by a, told you he’d come around. 

The link opens to twitter again, but an account Seonghwa doesn’t recognize. But his face in the profile picture he does. 

So there are fans left standing, after all.

It’s a video and the caption is in English. Seonghwa’s brain takes a moment to load the meaning, but by the time it has, autoplay has graced him with the image of Hongjoong, up close to the camera, smiling in a way Seonghwa has never seen in person. Hongjoong's hair is falling into his eyes and in the shitty lighting, it looks so much redder than it is in real life. It makes Seonghwa think of strawberries and in the darkness of his own bedroom, he allows himself to laugh. It's cute. 

Then Hongjoong frowns, and Seonghwa remembers he was meant to listen. 

"What do I really think about our new vocalist?" He reads, then looks back into the camera. "I think he's doing his best, which is quite impressive given that it's all new for him."

Seonghwa's phone flops down, hitting him square in the face and he straightens it up with shaky hands, just in time for Hongjoong to read another comment. 

“Is it because we're… Well. Who I am with has nothing to do with you, but let me tell you - if I chose my band members by who I would and who would fuck me, Horizon wouldn't be here right now.”

The video loops and by the time Seonghwa realizes it, he can mouth the words together with Hongjoong. He closes the app then opens it again, watches a few more times, just to make sure the clip is still there. 

Maybe, just maybe, the sun will rise for him too, one day. Maybe it could be strawberry red. 

*

They have actual practice the next day. Seonghwa knows, because he’s checking his phone now. His heart stutters in his chest at the thought of facing Hongjoong again. He thinks of the words, hidden safely in his notebook at home. Wonders if maybe one day he could show them...

Hongjoong doesn’t look at him any different. He’s not gentler, definitely not kinder. His words from the clip keep replaying in Seonghwa’s mind but they feel distant now, like maybe he’s dreamed them. The sweet fondness is still reserved for anyone but Seonghwa and Seonghwa tells himself he’s not disappointed.

He’s not. 

And yet, he sneers each time Hongjoong addresses him. Sings louder, angrier, and grins when Wooyoung wolf whistles, pretending to smash his guitar on the floor. He doesn’t look at Hongjoong unless he absolutely has to, doesn’t acknowledge his presence at all. It feels nice, being the uninterested one for a change, even if it’s all a facade. Seonghwa can sense Hongjoong bristling behind him and it fills him with a sick sense of accomplishment. It feels nice to be on the other side.

By the time practice is almost over, the tension is so bad that the others have taken to side-stepping any potential interaction between them. They talk to Seonghwa as if Hongjoong isn’t in the room and to Hongjoong as if Seonghwa isn’t. When San’s alarm reminds him that he has a shift in half an hour, he doesn’t even try to conceal the relief on his face.

“Actually,” Wooyoung says, slinging his arm over San’s shoulder. “I think I’m gonna head out too.”

He provides no further explanation but Yeosang nods, packing up his keyboard so it's not in the way. “I have a thing to get to as well. With Yunho. Right, Yunho?”

“We do?” Yunho raises an eyebrow, twirling his drumsticks. He gives Seonghwa a hesitant look. “I guess we do.”

Seonghwa waves them off, disregards the encouraging glance Yeosang gives him. He doesn’t need encouragement. He’ll probably leave soon, too - the Hongjoong situation was bad enough while everyone else was here, he does not want to deal with it alone.

As soon as the basement door closes behind Yeosang, Seonghwa finds himself pressed against the wall closest to him.

“What the fuck is your problem?” Hongjoong growls in his face and the staticky calm Seonghwa has existed in the past few hours shatters like fine porcelain. 

“What the fuck is my problem?” He hisses, shoving Hongjoong off him. “You’ve been treating me like trash from day one, in and out of all the shitty bathrooms we've fucked in. Then you go and defend me to your fans and then it's back to fuck you, Seonghwa. Am I only interesting when I'm naked, Kim Hongjoong? Or maybe it's because I'm a convenient punching bag? Is your sad little indie cred crumbling because you dared touching an idol? Which one is it? What the fuck is your problem?”

Hongjoong seems stunned for a moment, hands frozen where he was reaching for Seonghwa again. "I never meant to-" 

"Please," Seonghwa laughs bitterly. "Don't say you didn't mean to hurt me because we both know you did. I wanted you to. I don't want to anymore."

"You are not a convenient punching bag," Hongjoong mumbles but it's low and for once, it's not disdain on his face as he avoids Seonghwa's eyes. 

"You're right." Seonghwa smiles, sickly sweet in a way that almost makes him gag. "Certainly not yours."

The sun will rise for him, Seonghwa decides. And it will be his sun and no one else’s.

*

It's been hours since he left Hongjoong's basement, left Hongjoong stunned out of words for once. 

He can’t stop thinking about it.

It felt so good, standing up for himself. Yet at the same time, doubt gnaws at his insides. What if things get even worse now? Hongjoong has never been particularly nice to him but he hasn’t been openly hostile either. And then Seonghwa went and threw a tantrum in his face. A well-deserved tantrum, but a tantrum nonetheless.

Seonghwa turns in his bed, burying his face in the pillow. Maybe if he does his best to pretend that the world around him doesn't exist it could, in fact, cease to exist. Or he’d fall asleep. Either would work at this point, even if they’re both equally far-fetched. 

His phone pings where it’s face-down on the bed, just like him. Seonghwa scrambles for it and squints at the bright light of the phone screen. It’s almost four in the morning. There seems to be something magical about this hour, it seems. Most of the grand decisions in the recent weeks of Seonghwa’s life have been taken at four. Whether they were good decisions is yet to be confirmed.

There is a message. Labeled KHJ.

Seonghwa only stares at it for a few long moments. He doesn’t dare open yet it but it’s short enough that the preview is enough.

Can we talk?

A part of him sneers, the one bruised by Hongjoong’s hands and words alike. Wants to shut him off and pretend they don’t know each other. The bigger, stronger part that craved those bruises sings, childlike giddiness at being acknowledged for once.

Seonghwa hates both. He clicks the message open and types back a, Why?

Please, Hongjoong replies immediately and Seonghwa startles. He didn’t really account for the possibility of Hongjoong… following through. With the talk. Seonghwa clicks the call button, nerves eating through his resolve until he’s ready to hang up, except the call connects almost immediately.

“I’m in front of your apartment complex,” Hongjoong says instead of a hello. “Can you let me in?”

Seonghwa takes a second to sort through the million questions that statement unleashes. Funnily enough, the one that makes it out is- 

“How do you even know where I live?”

Hongjoong laughs. It's not bitter, not mocking, just a genuine small laugh and Seonghwa finds himself breathless. "Who do you think picked Yunho up after the show?" 

The truth is, Seonghwa didn't. He didn't really think as he sent Yunho away, not about him anyway. He feels bad, despite the fact that there really wasn't anything he could've done about it, except maybe call him a taxi? It doesn’t matter now and this time, Seonghwa consciously doesn’t think about it as he buzzes Hongjoong in. 

He can’t think about it, can’t think about anything, really, because the sight of Kim Hongjoong shuffling his feet at his front door is enough to wash out any other thought he may have had.

“Sorry, it’s a little late,” Hongjoong says, as Seonghwa steps aside to let him in.

He laughs. “It’s four in the morning. I’d call it early, actually. What was your plan if I was asleep?”

It’s almost surreal, how calm everything is. How even Seonghwa’s voice is, even if his soul is trembling to its core. It’s the effect Hongjoong has on him but amplified tenfold. If angry Hongjoong made his heart burst into a thousand restless moths, this hesitant, unsure Hongjoong that won’t meet Seonghwa’s eyes makes them burst into flames, leaves his insides covered in ash.

“I didn’t think that far,” Hongjoong admits sheepishly. He runs a hand through his hair and Seonghwa’s eyes are drawn to it. Maybe it’s the lighting but it looks touched up, darker, more like blood instead of strawberries. “I wanted to talk to you.” Hongjoong states, louder, standing up his full height. Staring Seonghwa down like he has something to prove.

You could’ve done that at practice tomorrow, Seonghwa doesn’t say. He’s been considering not going, never going again, really. Hongjoong didn’t know that - but he’s looking at Seonghwa like maybe he did.

“I’m-” Hongjoong cuts himself off, takes a deep breath. His hands ball into fists. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been fair to you and I- it’s not your fault? And it doesn’t excuse me and you were right, I did want to hurt you. Sometimes I still do. But that’s a me problem and you should have never been a part of it.”

“Why?” Seonghwa can’t help but ask. He knows his own reasons. Hongjoong does too, part of them at least. Seonghwa feels like he deserves the equal ground.

Hongjoong sighs, and it’s like his entire being deflates as he leans back on the wall closest to him. Seonghwa doesn’t offer him a seat.

“You’ve probably read that one article,” he starts, eyes on the ground. “I’m not sure how they found out but I really was a trainee. I had so much hope - dropped out of school to pursue it, worked my ass off. I was good too. Until…” he trails off, a bitter laugh echoing in the room. “Funny, isn’t it? Some company lady caught me with another trainee. They decided it would be best if they separated us. He was prettier, I guess, so he got to stay and I got shipped off to another company. Then another, and another, for two years. Then I gave up.”

Seonghwa stares at him, at the dejected slope of his shoulders. “You didn’t give up, though.”

Finally, Hongjoong looks up at him, a smile playing on his lips. A small one, but also a real one. “I didn’t. It wasn’t always the case but then I met the others. Mingi first, then Yunho, then Yeosang and Wooyoung, then San. I know Jongho from my trainee days, did you know that? He was a fellow trainee but decided he hates the fakeness of it all. Still wanted to be close to the stage, though.” Hongjoong laughs, fond, and Seonghwa’s heart melts. Then the laughter dies out and Hongjoong is looking at  him again. “Then I met you.”

In a single second of clarity, it clicks.

“I had what you wanted,” Seonghwa says, more sure with every word. “And then I lost it, just like you did.”

“But see, you made it first,” Hongjoong points out, quietly, like it hurts admitting it. “And then you swooped in and made my band fall in love with you, and it’s only a matter of time before you make our fans do, too. Where does that leave me then?”

For a moment, Seonghwa is too stunned to reply. “Where it always has? You’re brilliant. You’re-” he thinks about the song, burning through his little notebook, hidden deep in his desk. “Inspiring. You’re inspiring.”

 “Especially when I’m being an asshole?” Hongjoong offers with a quirk of his lips. 

“You are an asshole, though,” Seonghwa says, voice solemn. “A tiny menace.”

“Tiny my ass-” Hongjoong starts, then stops. It’s tense for one impossibly long moment, then he laughs, the sweet and tinkly way Seonghwa has only heard directed at other people before. “I guess I deserve that.”

No one says anything for a while. Seonghwa isn’t sure how to contribute to this newfound clear communication they have but he doesn’t want to let it go either.

“It wasn’t a fan,” he blurts out. Hongjoong waits for him to continue, not a spec of surprise in his expression. Seonghwa swallows. “It was another idol, one with more to lose. Your stage terrifies me but I keep thinking if I make enough noise about myself people won’t look into who my scandal was with.”

Hongjoong’s fingers drum against the wall behind him, a steady tap-tap-tap weaving a rhythm he doesn’t recognize. “It loves you. The stage. I think you love it too.” 

Seonghwa’s heart swells but a smaller, scared part of him curls away from the nice words. There have been nice words before, and none of them mattered in the daylight. 

“Promise me,” he says, sticking a hand in Hongjoong’s face before he can think it over. “Promise me that you won’t forget tomorrow? That you don’t hate me anymore?”

Hongjoong tilts his head, considering. A terrifying moment in which Seonghwa’s hand hangs frozen in the air. Then Hongjoong’s pinky wraps around his own and yet again, Seonghwa is blinded by one of those smiles he never thought would be directed at him.

“Promise.”

The room is brighter than when Hongjoong first showed up. The sun will rise soon and Seonghwa notices, because even in the better light, Hongjoong’s hair is still the color of blood. He decides he likes that a lot better than strawberries.

*

Hongjoong doesn’t stay. 

Seonghwa stares at the door long after Hongjoong has closed it, his heart erratic in his chest. It feels more like butterflies now, their little wings sweeping away the ash.

Slowly, one step at a time, Seonghwa walks into his bedroom and takes his notebook out of its hiding place. The words hurt to look at but writing them down was freeing and Seonghwa doesn’t regret it. Still, he tears the pages one by one, crumbling each and arranging them in a neat little pile on top of his desk.

Secrets are not meant to last but maybe, some truths aren’t either.