If there is one thing Donghae is absolutely confident about, it’s his amazing smile. Whenever someone compliments his smile, then proceeds to ask what orthodontic procedure he had done to achieve it, he proudly says that it’s all-natural. His chest puffs out just a tinge and he feels like he’s grown a few centimeters taller.
So you could only imagine his surprise when he feels discomfort on the left side of his face, taking notice of the tender feeling when he brushes his teeth on the left side. That’s odd , he thinks as he halts his brushing for a moment and then continuing but this time a bit more gentle than his usual pressure. After spitting the bubbles out, brushing his tongue, and rinsing his whole mouth with mouthwash, Donghae leans towards the mirror to take a look if there’s something out of the ordinary, maybe a piece of meat that has wedged itself between his teeth or some form of redness or bleeding.
When he finds none, even after holding his phone’s flashlight at the different crevices of his mouth, Donghae thinks maybe he just bit on something wrong and that it’ll be resolved on its own.
But boy was he wrong.
When he woke up the next morning Donghae was feeling a bit feverish and the pain on the left side of his face was much more evident, he had to swallow slowly to prevent his teeth from occluding. It was as if his teeth on the left side wanted to jump right out of their sockets or (and the more disturbing thought but who could blame him he had a very active imagination) something from inside his jaw wanted to get out. Slowly he gets out of bed, gently clutching on the tender and warm side of his face, Donghae goes into his bathroom and the first thing he notices is the obvious swell of his left cheek compared to his right. He winces when he softly pokes at his swollen cheek, watching it give under the pressure then bounce back to its swollen form when he removes his finger. He just knows this will cost him the rest of the week.
The next few days after that night, Donghae has been trying to get it together as he has meetings lined up that week. He’s been popping anti-inflammatory medicine like it’s his job just to be able to get through the day without clutching at his jaw. It’s also kind of a blessing that wearing a mask is now mandatory because of the pandemic, at least he wouldn’t have to constantly explain why half of his face is swelling.
However, that only solves one part of the problem, his biggest dilemma is the fact that he can’t eat, like anything at all. All he’s able to consume are liquids, which could be anything from soups only , porridge with really small pieces of meat, and any type of beverages that don’t need any type of chewing. And at first, Donghae thought, yeah okay, I could make do with that, but he failed to realize early on that there were only a handful of varieties of soups and porridges before it became redundant.
So by the end of the third day, Donghae asks his assistant if it would be possible to book a dentist appointment for him as soon as Saturday because clearly , this pain won’t just magically go away like all the other toothaches he’s gotten in the past. To which Jeno, bless his kind soul, informs him the moment he steps inside the office that he’s scheduled telemedicine consultation with Dr. Lee at a dental hospital a few blocks from the office. Donghae may or may not have shed a tear because guardian angels really do exist.
Saturday couldn’t come any quicker, it’s a good thing Donghae works out or else he wouldn’t know how to calm himself down with breathing exercises. Not to worry , Donghae tries to reassure himself because his heart is now rapidly beating for a whole different reason because honestly, Donghae doesn’t know what to expect. Worst case scenario is that the dentist would advise for more than one tooth to be extracted, judging from the pain he felt through the week. Yet nonetheless, he slowly breathes in for four counts, holds, and then slowly letting go for another four counts. I’m ready.
As it turns out he’s not ready, like at all . He couldn’t believe he would be wrong twice in one week yet here he is, sweating like a sinner in church for a whole different reason. Totally (but somehow it kind of is?) unrelated to the reason for his appointment.
Admittedly he doesn’t have the best pc setup, the only reason he got it was because of the pandemic, so the video feedback from zoom isn’t the best but it was enough for him to distinguish the facial expressions of those in the meeting with him. Oddly enough, this was one of those times where he doesn’t regret not accepting Shindong’s offer for a monitor with a higher resolution. Because then it would be really embarrassing to be caught staring at your ex-boyfriend’s face for a good thirty seconds the moment he enters the meeting room.
Now, it’s not like he doesn’t want to see him , it’s actually quite the opposite. Rather, Donghae would very much appreciate it if he were to be well prepared in the event that they would meet again. A simple warning would have sufficed.
Time has been so incredibly kind to Hyukjae. It’s been five long years since he’s last seen him up close, albeit this time through a computer screen, nonetheless, this somewhat pixilated version of his ex was still a sight to behold. Clad in a white pinstripe shirt and a doctor’s coat over it, his light brown hair falls just below the rim of his round glasses, he looks mature and professional yet still retaining the soft aura he had in college.
The sound of someone clearing their throat is what shakes our main protagonist from his daze, he feels his face heat up and he’s sure it isn’t because of his aching tooth. “Your assistant scheduled for a consultation, he said it was for a toothache?”
“Uh, yes, that’s correct—I didn’t know it’d be you, I swear!”
“Please relax Mr. Lee, all I’ll be doing is consultation. Plus this is a recorded meeting, I wouldn’t want my superiors and interns reviewing this and learning something other than the cause of your toothache.” Donghae breathes a little better after this, his stiff figure visibly relaxing as he leans back on his office chair. “Let’s start to when you started feeling the pain when did it first occur, and what were you doing?”
“Um, I was eating my dinner Monday night. I took too big a bite of chicken mayo and rice and then felt a dull pain on the left side. I thought it was normal since it went away as quickly as it appeared but then when I was brushing my teeth I felt the pain again only this time it lingered.” he then sees Dr. Lee write down things on his patient form before he adds, “It’s the first time, although I’ve had toothaches from the same region before, they normally subside after two days then it’s all normal again.”
“The toothaches from before, were they all from the same region or tooth? Could you pinpoint which one it’s possibly coming from?”
“Yeah, it’s always on the upper left side,” Donghae gestures to the left side of his face, pausing for a moment to try and recall from where the pain was originating, “the pain comes from the back I believe?”
“Could you describe the pain from before? Does it throb, is it a sharp kind of pain?”
“It throbs sometimes, other times it feels like there is something pushing against it?”
“Okay, how about the pain you feel now? Is it similar to before?”
“No, it’s definitely more painful now.” he answers immediately, back then when he had toothaches it wouldn’t cause him to have a fever, much less cause half of his face to swell up so besides “It still feels like there’s something pushing against it but it’s more sensitive this time. I even took pain medication because it was just so unbearable.”
“Hmm, did you notice anything leaking, or was there bleeding when you were brushing your teeth?”
“Uh, nope, no bleeding. I checked in the mirror, there wasn’t anything out of place.” Dr. Lee continues to write on his form, granting a few beats of silence to pass between them. Donghae is still a bundle of nerves, although now it’s a bit subdued because of the other’s impeccable professionalism.
“I’ll be needing you to come in for a mouth examination and radiographs, is tomorrow at 10:30 am okay for you?” Donghae briefly checks his calendar, even if he already knows that he’s free for the weekend, maybe just to cover up that he’s spaced out for the nth time since the zoom call. “Yes, that’d be alright.”
“Okay, I’ll also be prescribing you an antibiotic for the infection, would you like more potent painkillers and anti-inflammatories, or is the one you’re taking good enough for you?”
“It’s fine, I don’t normally take them unless the pain is already unbearable anyway.”
“That’s good, okay, your antibiotics should be taken after every meal, that way it’s easier to remember, for seven days. You can continue taking painkillers every four hours from today until the third day or until you no longer feel the need to. Don’t worry I’ve written the instructions on your prescription so you won’t forget. We’ll be sending you your prescription and medication through our delivery rider so that you can get started on it. Are the address and the unit number written here on your patient form correct?”
“Yes, it’s updated, would it be okay to pay with my card?”
Dr. Lee rips his prescription from the pad once he’s done writing and hands it to someone, his intern maybe, “Of course, you could also hold off until tomorrow since you have an appointment anyway.” Hyukjae suggests, he is now looking straight at the monitor which allows Donghae to see his face. There’s still no sign of any emotion other than concern and although he’s only seeing the other through the screen, he doubts Hyukjae would be that good of an actor to conceal his true emotions.
“That won’t be necessary, it might slip my mind, you know how forgetful I am,” Donghae adds the last part absentmindedly, he’s much too focused on thinking of ways to keep the call going even for just a while longer. But if he wasn’t too lost in his own mind he would have heard a soft chuckle coming from the other end of the video meeting, followed by you haven’t grown past that huh? laced with longing, and maybe a tinge of hope? But before he could dwell in it, Dr. Lee cuts it off, “Don’t forget your appointment tomorrow Mr. Lee , also your prescription is on its way, I already informed them you’d be paying through the card.”
“ Wait! Can—is it, is it okay if we talked after the appointment?” In a perfect situation, Donghae would have loved to have this talk face to face, he owes Hyukjae that much. But desperate times call for desperate measures, plus he doesn’t know how Hyukjae would react and what he thinks of him outside of being his dentist, better shoot his shot now than regret it later.
So with bated breath, he watches Dr. Lee stare at him through the screen and remains unmoving for a few seconds before the other relaxes a small smile forming on his lips before saying “One painful experience at a time, Mr. Lee.”
After the call ended yesterday, Donghae was left in a trance, still perplexed by his ex-boyfriend’s behavior. He contemplated calling Heechul immediately after the consultation, but he figures he should gather more information rather than have someone else’s opinion thrown so early in the mix. Also, he doesn’t want to further fuel the false sense of hope in him that’s already forming, knowing how soft Heechul is for him it’s not unlikely, no matter how blunt the older is most of the time.
So he wakes up the next day with anticipation coursing through his veins, Donghae is a hodgepodge of emotions, and no amount of mental hyping up and preparation could quell the trembles and butterflies inside. He instead gives up on worrying about seeing his ex again in the flesh after five years, opting to just leave it to fate and go on with his morning like usual. With coffee in hand, he goes about his routine of checking his work email for updates from his assistant, together with possible inquiries from the higher-ups.
After he’s done replying to the third email, his heart is a lot calmer and his mind is far from the jumbled mess it was when he woke up. Finally having a better hold of himself, when his computer is successfully shut down, he proceeds to his bathroom to take a quick shower and begin getting ready to go to his appointment.
“I take it you already started drinking your antibiotics?” Hyukjae, or rather, Dr. Lee is now clad in blue scrubs with the hospital’s name and his name and title embroidered on his left chest— Seoul Dental Hospital, Lee Hyukjae DMD, MBBS, seeing those titles next to Hyukjae’s name brings a sense of pride in Donghae knowing that the other was living his dream. He doesn’t prevent the small smile from blooming on his face, for now, it’s all he could offer as a form of congratulations, “I have, I started after lunch yesterday,” he answers smoothly, he was lost in his head a bit there but Donghae is glad he got a hold of himself immediately.
“That’s good, please take a seat. Could you point to me which tooth you think the pain is coming from?” Dr. Lee sets the clipboard on the counter behind him and carefully clips the bib over Donghae’s chest. All of a sudden Donghae feels nervous again for a whole different reason, as he hears Dr. Lee wash his hands on the sink behind him. This is the first time he’s gone to the dentist because of a toothache, and judging from the questions yesterday, it sounds more complicated than normal tooth sensitivity.
Dr. Lee seems to sense his dilemma, his voice sounds much softer than when he was interviewing Donghae yesterday. He even reassures Donghae that what he would be doing right now would not involve anything other than the mouth mirror and, if absolutely necessary, the sharp hook-like instrument called the explorer. “This restoration on your second molar, how long has this been here?” now donned with blue sterile gloves and a surgical mask covering his nose and mouth, he feels Dr. Lee carefully retract his left cheek with the mouth mirror and then stopping near the teeth at the back. Donghae waits for the instrument to be removed from his mouth before answering, “I’ve had that for so long now, I think I got that done about five to six years ago?”
Dr. Lee reaches over for his chart and writes something on it, “Hmm, do you remember how your previous dentist did this? Like did they do it in parts or did they just stuck it there in bulk and cured it in one go?”
“Uh, I don’t really remember but this was done in one appointment, I think?”
“Okay, I’m going to gently tap on these three and the three below them with the butt end of my mouth mirror, you tell me which of those six feels painful okay? Don’t worry okay, I don’t want to add to the pain you’re feeling right now. I just want to know which of these are causing you pain.” Donghae gulps but ultimately agrees, he trusts Dr. Lee. The dentist then tells him to nod his head if he felt pain when the tooth is tapped and to shake his head if there’s nothing.
The first tap felt fine, Dr. Lee even tapped the one below just so Donghae would know how hard the tap would be. “Is this okay?” the dentist asks, to which he nods his head and tells the other that it didn’t hurt. This prompts Dr. Lee to proceed and tap the tooth next to it, and then the next one when he gets a negative result. They continue on with this for the next two teeth, and they get the same negative result, but when Dr. Lee taps on the third tooth, the farthest one, Donghae winces causing him to close his eyes shut. Dr. Lee immediately removes the mouth mirror from inside his mouth and asks him if needs a moment. “I’m okay doctor, I think we found the culprit.”
“Okay based on what I gathered from the interview yesterday and the examination just now, it’s clear that the pain is coming from your upper left second molar, the one you pointed out.” Dr. Lee is back to scribbling notes on his patient profile, he notes the other’s furrowed eyebrows prompting him to think of the worst. “I kind of already have an idea what caused it but I’m still going to need a radiograph to see the extent of damage, it will also help us determine how to best approach your treatment.”
Dr. Lee then rolls his chair towards his desk and retrieves a pad of paper, and continues to fill up the blank lines, before returning to Donghae with the torn-up paper from the pad which turns out to be a request slip for the two x-rays. “I’m going to need you to go to Jinki at the front desk and show him this slip so that he could inform those at the radiology department of the request, he’ll also show you where to go from there. After you’re done there, come back here so we could look at your radiographs together and finally know what’s really going on.” Dr. Lee removes the clips and the bib from his chest, and Donghae diligently follows his instructions step by step.
After Donghae is done with having his radiographs taken, both procedures done so quickly it surprised him, he relays Sehun’s, the radiology tech, message for Dr. Lee to check his inbox for the images.
Donghae is back to sitting upright on the dental chair while Dr. Lee loads the images on the diagnostic monitor attached to the chair. With hands clasped on his lap, he twiddles his thumbs together as he waits with bated breath for Dr. Lee to say something, anything but all he hears is the doctor letting out a deep and heavy sigh as he examines the images displayed. Oh no, he thinks, that doesn’t sound so good. Dr. Lee moves the monitor so it’s also in his line of vision, the monitor is showing an x-ray image that’s focused on what he could deduce as the tooth that is causing him pain.
Using the tip of his capped pen Dr. Lee encircles on the restored cavity of the tooth in question, “I’m confident they’ve done this in one sitting, I’m pretty sure they didn’t use a base at all despite the depth of the cavity. In cavities as big as this we would usually put a base first, normally it’d be calcium hydroxide, and then we’d pack the composite in increments to prevent any voids in the restoration. Voids usually mean space for microorganisms to grow and reproduce, which is most likely what happened to you.”
“Do you see this translucent part on the restoration as well as the apices of the root? Usually, when there is a persistent irritation very near your pulp, this translucent chamber you see in the crown of your tooth, its natural response is to form a barrier between itself and the irritation so that the tooth remains vital. In your case, since there is no way the microorganisms could escape, much less stopped, they’ve continued to multiply which resulted in overwhelming the pulp that its attempts at protecting itself are futile. Those toothaches you were feeling before were signs that an infection was and is taking place.”
“This is why we remind our patients to have their checkups annually if twice a year is too much.” then Dr. Lee releases a heavy sigh, making it more obvious that although he has countlessly reminded his patients of this, close to none ever visit the dental office for just a checkup. Unfortunately, it isn’t the large cavities that need filling nor the impacted third molars that need to be extracted that cause dentists like Dr. Lee to feel like he has succumbed to monotony. Rather it’s the constant simple reminders such as this, although he knows this would remain futile as his reminders would only enter one ear then exit the next moment the patient steps out of the room.
Looking back, Donghae remembers the sparkle in Hyukjae’s eyes when he would exit his last class at dental school. No matter how hard the subjects were or the endless amounts of dental and medical terms he needed to memorize and understand after a day’s work weighing heavy against his lithe body shaking in exhaustion and most of the time hunger, he would always find something to be excited about. That was definitely one of the things that always fascinates Donghae about his then-boyfriend.
And hearing something as small as not heeding his reminder, how much it burdens Dr. Lee, Donghae couldn’t help but feel some sort of nostalgia. Those nights staying up hours past midnight studying for multiple quizzes the next day, the countless times he would forego a hearty meal just so there would be enough money for materials and instruments for a procedure that needed to be done and especially the number of times, too many to recall each one, he would breakdown encased in Donghae’s arms out of a lot of reasons—exhaustion, anxiety and probably the one that broke Donghae’s heart every time, him contemplating on giving up on his life-long dream.
Yet now as he allows himself to drink in his former lover’s accomplishments adorning the walls of his office space, despite everything that happened in the past, he’s so happy and proud of how far Hyukjae has come. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, he was the bravest and most tenacious person he knows; he has always been deserving of the best.
“Just follow through with the antibiotics and then come back here at the same time Sunday next week, we’ll do another percussion test—the one we just did where I tapped your teeth, and then when you no longer feel pain when I tap on your second molar we’ll start your treatment.” Dr. Lee removes his rubber gloves and disposes of them, he pulls down his surgical mask and focuses his attention on Donghae’s radiographs, “Unfortunately we’ll be extracting your second molar since it’s too late to save the tooth, the infection has already eaten away half of the pulp chamber and created its own exit through the bifurcation of your molar.“ Dr. Lee emphasizes this by encircling the points he was talking about on the periapical radiograph. “If you would have sought help during those times you had a toothache, it would have been possible to do a root canal treatment and save the tooth.”
“I honestly didn’t think much of it, I thought maybe I just bit on something hard.” he’s sheepish, all those times he’s boasted about his naturally perfect set of teeth now feels silly and futile. The irony of it all doesn’t stop there when the one who’s in charge of doing his treatment is his ex-boyfriend no less. Dr. Lee must have caught on from his expression of his regret and remorse for underestimating a toothache that he sends him a comforting smile, “Better late than never, I guess?” he adds.
Silence veils over them, for reasons he could not make out, but they both spend the next minute just staring at each other. There’s something unreadable in Hyukjae’s eyes, gone was the professional stature and gaze, was it longing? Because Donghae has never stopped seeking the warmth that he let go of five years ago. Maybe it was hope, but even Donghae thinks that is a little far-fetched, albeit even he is holding on to the smallest possibility there was.
Oddly, even if Donghae could not decipher the meaning behind the emotion in Hyukjae’s eyes, he doesn’t find any malice nor hate in them. Instead, he feels at peace staring into them, which further confuses him as to why? Why doesn’t Hyukjae hate him? When he was nothing but a jerk for leaving because of a cowardly reason. Why was he not indifferent and pass Donghae’s file to one of his colleagues instead? Why be kind and thorough and help him to the best of his abilities to alleviate the pain he was feeling when Donghae has caused him more than the ache he was nursing?
Sadly Hyukjae looks down on the chart on his lap before he could even speak a word, the questions flying from the top of his head remain just that, questions.
“As for the restoration—” “Would it be too much—”
Both males let out embarrassing chuckles, lifting the heavy veil of emotions from earlier, “You go first Dr. Lee.”
“As I was saying, the choices you have for restorations would be an implant, a two-unit bridge, and a removable denture. The cheapest option would be the last one and the most expensive would be the implant, however, the longevity and aesthetics of an implant are impeccable. A two-unit bridge is also ideal since your first molar already has a composite restoration on it, we could just remove the previous restoration and prepare the crown for porcelain, porcelain fused to metal, or a resin bridge, whichever you prefer. No pressure though, you could follow up on your decision on our next appointment, for now, our main concern is to control the infection.” Dr. Lee then gestures it’s now his turn to speak, Donghae then clears his throat and sits a little straighter on the chair. There’s no turning back at this point so he’s biding his time as his heart rate begins to pick up knowing that Hyukjae’s attention is on him, “Okay, umm, w-would it be too much to ask you out for coffee sometime this week? I’d like to make amends by telling you the whole story, i-if you would allow me to.”
Another pin-drop silence washes over them, there had already been so many and by now Donghae has this urge to crawl under somewhere and deprive himself of his five senses for a few minutes just so he could control his racing heart and jumbled mind. “I’d appreciate that but, can we hold it off until after your recall? I don’t want the interns to think that accepting invitations like this from patients is allowed.”
“Okay, yes, th-that’s completely understandable, yes.”
“Okay then, I guess I’ll see you at the same time next week?”
“Yes, okay, next week—I’ll see you again next week.”
“So let me get this straight, after years and years of yearning and secretly looking for ways to see your ex again the one time you do is because of a toothache? That’s like so cliche, someone send that idea to a scriptwriter, teenagers love that kind of plot.” Donghae didn’t think your best friend recalling his attempts at searching for his ex could sound so pathetic when his mouth was also busy chewing on the chicken meat he has just bitten off from the bone and yet here Kyuhyun was, proving him wrong once again.
Right after his appointment, Donghae quickly orders takeout enough for three people from his go-to restaurant and calls up his two closest friends, Heechul and Kyuhyun, to which both agreed to right away, mostly because there was free food. So as much as Donghae doesn’t appreciate the ridicule, he should really expect no less from the two, really he was setting himself up to be made fun of.
And despite this, he still tells them everything that happened yesterday and that morning, because—well, he’s been keeping too many pent-up emotions and if he didn’t let it out to someone else he might just blow up.
“You know I don’t really seek medical help unless absolutely necessary, plus I didn’t think he’d be practicing here in Korea. I assumed he moved or migrated to another country.” his friends are very aware of that, it was very frustrating at first. During college, the only time you could get Donghae to go to the university clinic was if you were able to drag him there. One event immediately comes to mind.
It was raining hard that day and Donghae was running late for his class. In hindsight, running through the halls on soaked shoes was not the smartest move to make, especially when the floor was basically made of smooth concrete. Yet that does not stop our main lead from running to his classroom, as in full-on sprinting from one point to the other, since there were basically no other students in the corridor. He was really feeling it, being a member of the soccer team, running should be a piece of cake.
And, oh how did that little sliver of cockiness bite him in the butt.
One moment Donghae was cruising through the hallway smoothly like a seasoned ice skater performing their flawless routine on the ice, the next he’s lying face-up on the cold hard floor, the pain from the impact has not registered yet as adrenaline was still coursing through his veins. At least he was smart enough to remain there on the floor for a few minutes, mentally assessing if there was anything broken or sprained.
The pain only set in when one of the kind cleaning staff asked if he was okay, followed by more than one set of footsteps rushing towards him. Said set of footsteps belonged to none other than Kyuhyun and Heechul, who, unfortunately, also witnessed the whole accident. “Yah, Lee Donghae ! Are you an idiot or just plain stupid?”
“Uh, I’m sure those two are the same hyung.”
“Now is not the time for a vocabulary lesson, Cho.”
“Suit yourself, I was just saying those two words aren’t entirely diff—”
“Guys, stop being an old married couple for a minute, I really need help getting up.”
“Don’t be disgusting Lee” he hears Heechul’s eye roll clearer than he sees it, and on a normal day Donghae would just laugh it off but now that his friends are carefully lifting him up to a sitting position, the spot on the back of his head where it connected with the floor is starting to throb. The wince he lets out now that his mind is able to process the parts of his body that took the most hit from the fall sounds as painful as he was feeling, which was evident from the change in his friend’s faces, concern now written all over their features. “Let’s get you to the clinic once you’re good, what else hurts besides your head?”
“I’m fine hyung—”
“No, none of that, that’s a lie and you know it. Once you’re good to go we’re taking you to the clinic, we’ll drag you there hand and foot if we have to.” Donghae chooses not to contest with Heechul, he’s sure the older would smack him on the back of his head if it didn’t hurt so much. Plus he knows not to underestimate Heechul’s perseverance when the older sets his mind on something, against even the tallest of odds, he could move mountains despite his frail stature. “We also need to text Hyukjae, I want to witness the scolding you’ll get later when he gets to the clinic.”
“No, don’t! Please hyung, he doesn’t need to know about this.”
“Don’t be difficult hyung, you know Hyukjae hyung would be more upset that you’d rather hide something like this.” Kyuhyun makes an excellent point like he always does, but a part of Donghae still wants to keep this under wraps. He doesn’t want to add to the list of things his boyfriend has to worry about, his school load is heavy enough as it is. So even though it’s against his will, he accepts his fate.
Ten minutes have yet to pass when Hyukjae comes into the clinic, evidently distraught and uneasy. There was no need to ask the nurse, Kyuhyun had taken the liberty of waiting for him near the entrance so he could take him to Donghae quickly. “The doctor says there seem to be no bones broken or out of place but Donghae hyung hit his head really hard on the floor so he needs to stay for monitoring.” they reach Donghae’s bed, the curtains surrounding it is closed to provide whoever is inside privacy, this also serves as a pause and gives the person on the opposite side a moment to compose themselves which is what Hyukjae is currently doing. Kyuhyun senses Hyukjae’s hesitance so he places his hand on the other’s shoulder as well as offering a reassuring smile his way, “He’s fine hyung, Donghae is the strongest person I know.” the lack of honorifics successfully cracks Hyukjae’s tense aura, “Don’t tell him I said that, I’d never hear the end of it.”
Hyukjae takes his nth deep breath and slowly opens the curtain in front of him. Heechul’s back is what greets him first, the older having a conversation with his boyfriend who was comfortably laying on the bed. He didn’t catch what they were talking about but he feels his worries slowly fading away hearing laughter coming from them both.
“Hyukkie!” Heechul exclaims and gets up from his spot on the bed to maneuver Hyukjae into making him take it instead. “This klutz you call your boyfriend is ready for all hell you’ll release on him, let him have it!” opposite to Heechul’s enthusiastic behavior, is his boyfriend’s dejected face. Donghae is looking at him with his puppy eyes looking uncharacteristically shiny like he had shed a tear or two, and his lips are pursed into a pout complete with his fat bottom lip trembling, making it really hard for Hyukjae to remain the stern look on his face. So he places his palm over the man’s face to stop it from taking effect, the snorts and snickering from the other two in the room with them is instantaneous. He hears Kyuhyun say ‘ oh my god this is gold ’ and is followed by Heechul’s explosive laughter but he pays them no mind, he has an oversized five-year-old to deal with.
“Lee Donghae,” Hyukjae interrupts, his voice stern enough to demand attention from the other yet there is still a degree of softness to it that reminds Donghae his boyfriend loves him no matter what, “I’m not going to lecture you, you’re old enough to know the gravity of what you’ve done and what could have happened.” he then takes his boyfriend’s hand and encases it between both his, patting it twice then holding it tight, “All I’m going to say is that the next time you even think of doing something as stupid as this, I want you to remember all the people that will be visiting you at the hospital just to tell you I told you so , and you can bet every damn cent you have that I would be the first to do so.”
“I second that!”
“I’ll even take a selfie with you to commemorate that day.”
Needless to say, Donghae has never again attempted to run through slippery floors with neither wet or dry shoes ever again.
“So what’s the plan now? You asked him for coffee so that you could lay everything down, and then what?” after a quick trip down memory lane and Donghae’s dilemma since yesterday morning, which warranted a bottle or three of soju, partnered with an unopened tub of ice cream Heechul found in Donghae’s fridge to help balance out the salty meal they just had. His friends are now caught up with what happened and they are now huddled at his coffee table, the television is on but Heechul and Kyuhyun’s focus is on their friend who looks more perplexed now that he’s let it all out. “Were you hoping you could start again?” Kyuhyun supplies when Donghae has resulted to just staring at his glass.
“I—honestly, I thought about that when he said yes to the invitation, but now it doesn’t seem fair of me to ask that from him.”
His friends understand his sentiments but given how much nervous energy Donghae let out when he opened the door, he was physically trembling because of it, they assumed that their friend would ask for some sort of second chance. Even when Donghae has never verbally conveyed it, until the end, his heart would and will only belong to Hyukjae.
So this form of forfeit, although not unexpected, is a bit of a letdown to Heechul and Kyuhyun. They’d assume that Donghae had some sort of plan to win his ex’s heart again—it was obvious their friend still yearned for the other, but not this, giving up entirely. There was only one other time they saw their friend give up, and that was five years ago. Although they were completely against it, Heechul and Kyuhyun’s hearts broke seeing their best friend so devastated and lost over something that could have easily been avoided.
You see, Donghae had graduated earlier than Hyukjae since the latter still had two years left of his course. And naturally, Donghae had been ecstatic to be able to close one chapter of his life and open a new one. He can finally start making his dreams and goals into a reality.
The newly graduated Donghae stretched himself to the limits applying to any company that was hiring, he had always believed that there was no one sure way to get to his goal, if he could squeeze it into his schedule, why not? Surprisingly, although it was expected, the first few months after graduation was a standstill. He’d hear a news here and there, a few of his more well-off batchmates were already in positions a newly grad could only dream of attaining, most of his batchmates, like him, were either helping at their parents’ house in the meantime or were juggling more than two part-time jobs at the same time. Those first few months were rough, Donghae would attest to that but he had a goal, and laying around his room at his parents’ home waiting for an email was not going to help him.
So oftentimes, Donghae would push aside the worries about getting a proper job and being a burden to his parents and boyfriend, by working himself to the bone through part-time jobs, day and night. A huge gulp of water would often suffice to quell the insistent rumbling of his stomach yearning for a full meal. A power nap of thirty minutes was considered a blessing when he comes home from his morning job, that two hours of rest in between the two jobs serving only to give him enough time to change out of his previous uniform and into the next after a quick shower to help keep him awake. This continued on for two months, both his parents and Hyukjae tried to convey their worries about him burning himself out too quickly, but like most things, it just passes one ear and exits the other.
And after months and months of struggling with this type of lifestyle, something finally pushes Donghae to snap.
It was supposed to be a normal family dinner, nothing out of the ordinary. His grandparents had been aching to see the whole family again, so when everyone was available his family took a road trip to his grandparents’ house. Being only just graduated, Donghae had been put in the spotlight. His aunts and uncles congratulated him the moment he stepped inside the house, their warm faces and tight embraces felt so good, after all the mental berating he had been subjecting himself in, it’s overwhelming to hear you’ve done well once again.
Except all that positive energy was drained away by the one person he hopes he doesn’t have to interact with.
He wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place, not with the restraining order against him . But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, really—they did say evil finds its way to come back when it’s been deprived of its meal.
We all have that one type of family member that just can’t be happy with the small things we’ve achieved. Nothing was safe from their scrutiny, everything was put into the finest sieve to point out even the smallest inadequacy with your chosen path in life. That’s the main reason why everybody in the family mentally prepares themselves for big gatherings such as this because the moment his father’s second brother opens his mouth it was guaranteed there was nothing pleasing coming out of there.
Donghae no longer remembers when it first started, he doesn’t know why his existence was such a bane to his uncle, his father’s younger brother, that he personally goes out of his way to point out every single thing he’s doing wrong.
Sit up straight will you? This is why your brother is doing much better in school, even when he’s sitting down he exudes confidence and authority!
Is this how you spend all your free time? Huh, no wonder your brother is better.
You’re already proud of this? Your brother aced all his exams, why are you so useless?
Are those tears in your eyes boy ? You’re never getting anywhere being a crybaby.
The final straw was when his uncle caused a scene at his twelfth birthday party.
His parents made sure that his uncle wasn’t invited, he was a lost cause anyway. There was no amount of reprimand that could make his uncle realize there was nothing right with the way he’s treating his nephew. In fact, this only fuels the immature adult to barging in a joyous and peaceful celebration completely inebriated and clearly looking for trouble.
As twelve-year-old Donghae braces himself to blow out the candles on his birthday cake, it’s like his life flashed before his eyes as he meets his uncle’s cold and sinister gaze locked on him and only him. The image of his tormentor forcibly trying to pry away the collective arms that are determined to keep him away and send him outside the house was the last thing the visibly trembling birthday boy sees, his mother’s hands covering his eyes and wrapping her other arm protectively around him as she ushers him out of the room.
He hears his mother talking to him, but it was all muffled like he was submerged underwater, and funny enough, Donghae doesn’t want to come up for air.
Sweetie, are you okay? She asks, his mind screams I won’t ever be okay when he’s involved but his mind refuses to cooperate. He feels his mother gently pat down his sides as if he was physically injured and she’s checking for damage. Too bad, he thinks, the damage is already done.
I won’t let him near you ever again, okay? Your father, brother, and I would protect you, he’ll never set foot on our block or anywhere near us ever again after today. She’s seething with anger and hurt, knowing that someone would personally go out of their way to belittle his innocent son makes her heartache. So as she pulls Donghae in her arms, she holds him tight and secure, hoping that in this way her little boy’s fear would be overpowered by her warmth and support.
It takes a while before Donghae shows any form of reaction nevertheless, his mother does not let her hold on him loose and let go. She starts to hum a song close to his ear, the soft melody feels familiar. With it, his body slowly relaxes and this encourages his mother to continue humming, the sound now steady and clear until the veil of unpleasant thoughts fade and his mind finally registers the warmth coming from his mother’s embrace, the feeling of security being in his mother’s presence and the unspoken promises of reassurance and protection carried through with her calm humming.
Once the invisible grip of his tormentor is released by his mother’s love, Donghae breaks down in tears and reciprocates his mother’s hold on him. His tiny arms never let go, it only tightens as his father and older brother find them in his room and wordlessly join in on the embrace.
It’s funny that no matter how old the scar is, the pain is the same as the first time. And at that moment, when he locks eyes with his uncle for the first time in a decade, his mind takes him back to his twelfth birthday party, the way his body is involuntarily staying rooted in place and is slowly being enveloped in a cold embrace. Everything around him is starting to get muffled and even so, even when he doesn’t hear what his uncle said to him, those negative voices that he hasn’t heard from for as long as he hasn’t seen his uncle, supply him with thousands of words that hurt just as much. He was already in the embrace of his inner demons and they have a death grip on his whole being.
So Donghae, although it’s labored, tries to take a slow deep breath and does this two more times before he uses his all to force his head up and smile at the face of his tormentor. He knows his mother is looking at him, so even if the years worth of building himself above the torture and belittlement is slowly crumbling before his eyes, even if the voices in his head is louder than the sound of his own labored breathing, he gathers all the strength left in him to hold himself together for his mother’s eyes.
His father’s side of the family all send his tormentor away, even threatening to call the police on him for violating the restraining order filed against him. Everything after that was a blur, he faintly recalls everybody’s concerned gazes and comforting pats on his back but nothing registered. He was already numb.
Heechul, Donghae, and Kyuhyun know each other like the backs of their hands, they basically grew up together. So without a second thought, Heechul and Kyuhyun already know something is wrong when the three best friends meet up for dinner a week after the incident.
The moment they saw Donghae enter the restaurant, they already knew something was up. It was the way instead of bright eyes and wide smiles that was effortless, it was awkward and forced. The dark circles under Donghae’s eyes were also concerning, as well as the lines on his forehead and most especially the way he was hunched in on himself. The Lee Donghae they knew walked carefree yet still exuded confidence, this was the main reason why he’s a head-turner.
However, as much as they knew confident Donghae so well, they were also well acquainted with this Donghae, and honestly, Heechul and Kyuhyun’s blood still boils thinking about the amount of damage one person could do to someone as sweet, caring, and loving as Donghae.
They don’t bombard Donghae with questions, instead, they dote on him, recall their funny shenanigans and crazy accidents when they were still university students, and order all of Donghae’s favorite dishes. Heechul and Kyuhyun spend the rest of the night glued to Donghae’s side, pinching on his soft cheeks and affectionately patting his head like he was the youngest out of the three. And it doesn’t take long for Donghae to let out his signature flustered laughs, the type that forces his body to double over, his eyes disappearing into slits and the smile he has on is so wide it takes up more than half his face. Seeing and hearing their friend’s genuine laughter causes Heechul and Kyuhyun to breathe out a sigh of relief, at least for tonight they were able to take away some of his pain.
Donghae breaks down and spills everything out when he invites both his friends back to his small apartment, they deserve to know . He tells them everything that happened at the family dinner, he doesn’t hide anything at all no matter how much the urge to keep it to himself is strong. With his head nestled on Heechul’s shoulder and Kyuhyun rubbing slow comforting circles on his back, he lets out every negative thought that has passed and simmered in his mind for the days succeeding the family dinner.
It was hard to take in that their friend had been fighting his inner demons by himself for more than a week already. They knew how strong Donghae is, he was able to help himself get back up after being tormented for most of his childhood and in a span of a decade he has become this confident young man that was full of love, a gentleman to all, and a generous giver. Heechul and Kyuhyun are enraged at the same time heartbroken that all of their friend’s hard work was put to waste in a snap.
“Hyung, does Hyukjae know?” Kyuhyun asks with caution, he already has an inkling as to the answer but he wants an opportunity to bring up the possibility of having another person be a source of support for Donghae. Hyukjae may be busy with his studies but he still deserves to know about this.
Donghae takes a while before he answers, opting to stare into space for a few seconds before he answers, “I know it’s unfair, but I don’t want to tell him. He doesn’t know I have this side of me, hell I thought I’ve long buried this side of me, and yet here it is again, I don’t want him to see me this weak. He already has a lot on his plate.”
“Are you afraid that he’ll pity you, that his love for you will change? Because if that’s the case, I’m going to stop you from thinking that way, Hyukjae loves you with all his heart, the good, the bad, and especially the ugly.”
“Not right now, I’m not yet ready.” Donghae shook his head, he was defiant and there was nothing that could make him change his mind, “I know he loves me but these voices are getting louder by the day and it’s getting really hard which ones to believe and which to cast away.” he adds, it is clear in Donghae’s voice that he was frustrated, tired and a little desperate. Heechul’s heart breaks when he sees tears forming and threatening to fall from Donghae’s eyes, he quickly wipes them away and tightens his hold around his friend’s shoulder, “You have us, okay? Always. No matter what, nothing won’t change how we see you, how much we love and support you. You won’t ever have to be alone, we’ll carry everything with you.”
“We’ll get through this together hyung, we did it once we could do it again. We’ll conquer this, together.” Heechul and Kyuhyun refused to leave Donghae’s side that night, he was forced to cuddle up with his two friends on his small bed. It was cramp and the blanket barely covered them but that didn’t matter, as Donghae let sleep whisk him away the only thing that matters was that it had been a while since the last time he slept that well.
Sadly life is going to keep moving forward, regardless of whether you’re ready or not. And the life of a young adult who just wants to pick himself off from the ground sucks ass .
Admittedly, Donghae knows that he should never make decisions when he’s failing to balance his workload and emotional load.
Being a new hire meant that he had to be flexible, and being flexible meant there was no room to say no to his superiors, no matter how far-fetched the task was. This would also entail that he was the first one in the office, and the last one out.
It hasn’t even been more than a month and yet he already feels a year’s worth of fatigue from being stretched too thin from work. Then again how else was he going to keep his mind preoccupied when his best friends are busy with their jobs as well while his boyfriend is swamped with journal and article reviews on top of being an intern at a dental hospital.
So Donghae powers through, no questions asked, he accepts everything that is thrown at him just so he doesn’t have to be plagued with his inner demons.
Along with this, naturally, Donghae would have to sacrifice his free time. Texts remained unanswered until he got home, and even then it was dependent on whether or not he had enough energy left for himself to do so, or else it would just have to remain unanswered. Most of the time he skips dinner takes a quick shower instead and falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow, paying no mind to his grumbling stomach. That’s, also, tomorrow’s problem.
It didn’t take long before his best friends and boyfriend caught on, and they took it upon themselves to barge into his apartment one night with take-out and an assortment of homemade food in Tupperware containers that could easily last him for a week. In authentic Kim Heechul fashion, the older picks the lock on his apartment door and dramatically announces his arrival by shouting Donghae, Donghae wherefore art thou Lee Donghae? on the top of his lungs, noise complaints from his neighbors be damned.
Hyukjae wastes no time decreasing the distance between him and Donghae, his arms automatically wrapping themselves around his boyfriend’s neck. “Yah I know you’re busy, we all are, but a simple hi would have sufficed. At least we know you’re alive.” Heechul exclaims his complaints but it’s futile when Donghae is being enveloped by the scent of home, which was a mix of minty toothpaste with lingering notable hints of citrus and honey from Hyukjae’s perfume. As he allows himself to sink into the comfort that only Hyukjae’s embrace could bring, everything around him blurs out and fades out of view. His worries, fatigue and all things negative no longer hold power to his state of mind; once after a long time, everything is peaceful and quiet.
“You’ve gotten skinny,” Hyukjae’s hands now carefully cup Donghae’s sunken cheeks, concerned and a bit of disappointment evident in his beautiful features as he closely inspects the damage of work has done to the latter, “we aren’t leaving until you’ve at least eaten two bowls of rice.”
“We’re not leaving here, period .” Heechul dumps the big eco bag filled with home-cooked meals courtesy of all three of them pitching in with the ingredients and the actual cooking, the older of the three then turns to the couple his eyes focused on their friend who has been MIA, “You need to at least give us one valid reason for your absence and all three of us needs to agree that it’s valid or else we’re staying here the rest of the week.”
“There would also be a lecture on how to take good care of oneself, by yours truly, it’s mandatory plus there would be an exam right after, for us to know you’ve learned it by heart,” Kyuhyun says, his word is final and the wry grin on his face means he’s not giving Donghae any room for discussion. He tries to turn to his boyfriend for some sort of support but the other was too busy putting together a plate for him, “It’s for your own good, you’ve made us all worried.” Hyukjae gently reprimands him, it also leaves no room for discussion however the sweet smile his boyfriend sends his way lets Donghae know he wouldn’t be sitting in through the ‘lecture’ alone.
And it’s for the first time in so long that Donghae felt this way— human .
He’s been working his ass off to help him ignore a place in his mind that he’s afraid to conquer that he has unconsciously sacrificed his own sanity for the sake of upholding his exhausting routine.
So this scene before him brings a mix of emotions that is entirely different from what Donghae allows himself to feel. Heechul talking his ears off for making him worried for the past few days with texts left on read and calls left unanswered that he’s blaming Donghae for the prominent line on his forehead that magically appeared, all the while Kyuhyun rummaging through his refrigerator to throw away everything inedible and carefully storing away the Tupperware full of marinated meat, banchan and chopped up fruits. And lastly, his beautiful boyfriend seated next to him, the plate he’s prepared for Donghae is already in front of him, and just like Donghae, he’s not paying attention to Heechul’s yammering nor is he looking over Kyuhyun at the kitchen. He’s here, right beside him looking into Donghae’s eyes with relief and content, like he did back in college when Donghae slipped and fell on the back of his head.
It’s all too much; Donghae feels tears spill from his eyes but he makes no move to wipe them away, not when Hyukjae is quick to cup his wet cheeks with his warm hands to dry them instead. He looks beautiful still, despite worry overtaking his features. So, instead, he basks in the soft caresses and the attentive eyes that he’s deprived himself of for almost a month, almost forgetting how good it felt being in the presence of the people he loved.
There were no voices that night, not when Hyukjae plants three kisses on his face—one on each cheek and a lasting one on his forehead. Not when all three of them tuck him in bed that night, each with a promise to bombard him with texts when he forgoes reading and replying to them again.
There were no voices, not when his heart was light and very much loved. There were no what-ifs, no worries about what could have been, just assurance of a warmer tomorrow. For once in so long, Donghae felt strong again.
The both, anticipated and dreaded day of “reckoning” is only a day from now, with almost a week’s worth of preparation on top of that.
Donghae’s tooth extraction was a breeze. After he was briefed with the dos and don'ts, the possible side effects, and ways to alleviate the pain and swelling, he willingly signed the consent form and was prepped for the surgery. It was a rather simple tooth extraction, Donghae opting to just have it done under local anesthesia since his pain tolerance is quite high.
Other than the actual injection and expected pressure from Dr. Lee luxating and elevating the tooth, it was a quick and painless procedure.
“Don’t hesitate to contact us if you feel something is wrong that isn’t listed here as a physiologic side effect. Again, swelling is normal, cold compress for fifteen minutes during the first 24 hours then switch to warm compress for the next 24 hours.” Dr. Lee hands him a list of the dos and don’ts they went through before the procedure, the keywords are highlighted with colorful markers so it would be easier to read and understand, which looks like it was highlighted just now, he mentally points out, “I’ll give you sterile gauze for the wound, make sure to moisten it with sterile water before replacing the used one, and always keep pressure by biting on the gauze to help with the bleeding.”
Donghae tries to express his gratitude through words but the gauze inside his mouth is making that a difficult task, which results in him butchering the simple phrase. This elicits a giggle from Dr. Lee, making Donghae feel sheepish that he bows his head to hide the rising blush on his face, “Your recall appointment is at the same time next week Thursday, if everything looks good we can discuss your restoration plans. I’ll have you stay here for ten more minutes just as a precaution while I go grab your gauze.”
Dr. Lee dismisses him fifteen minutes after, his head feels light and it’s not because of the anesthesia.
Our leading man doesn’t remember much that was discussed for his recall appointment. I mean, yeah, he’s aware of the agreed-upon restoration—Donghae chose to have an implant done since he had more than enough money saved up in the bank. He’s also already marked his calendar for the next appointment, which was 10 weeks from today. However, none of those are the highlight of his day, nope.
The highlight was that Dr. Lee’s kindness and ease in his presence were not a facade after all.
Dr. Lee wasn’t being kind to him just because he was his patient, Hyukjae genuinely wanted to be kind to him and agreed to his pathetic attempt to get coffee the day after his recall appointment. How did he piece this together, you ask?
Well, does the neatly scribbled set of numbers behind Dr. Lee’s business card counts as an indication that he was willing to meet with his ex-boyfriend at a cafe? Or how about the way Hyukjae beat him into asking if tomorrow’s plan was still a go?
Bottom line was, Hyukjae was willing to listen to his explanation. Like actually sitting down and listening to his side of the story, despite the years that have already passed.
Now that he’s back in his own apartment, all sprawled on his couch and staring at his ceiling for god knows how long, he still couldn’t wrap his head around this revelation. Something doesn’t sit right with Donghae, there must be some sort of catch, something required of him in exchange for the kindness shown towards him. But no matter how much it’s killing him inside to know what that is, Donghae would have to make do with worrying about the upcoming meet-up with his ex-boyfriend.
Donghae is freshly showered, his blow-dried hair falls just right on his eyebrows, making him look younger than he was. He wanted to go for a different look, a complete opposite to the brushed-up style he always does for work (he’s also hoping that it’s still a certain someone’s favorite style).
The weather was perfect, not too hot and not too cold either, so he feels comfortable wearing black jeans and a navy blue button-up shirt tucked at the front, leaving two buttons open and the sleeves folded up to his elbows for a casual look. Plus he’s not going to lie, even he did a double-take on his mirror when he saw how good he looked with all the pieces put together (again, fingers crossed, he’s hoping a certain someone shares his sentiments).
He’s fidgety when he arrives that the cafe ten minutes before the scheduled meet-up, the cup of hot americano only serving as an accessory on his table as his thoughts are all over the place, he’s trying to thinks of ways to calm himself down, hype himself up so that Hyukjae doesn’t notice that he’s a nervous wreck and formulate the words he wants to say so that he doesn’t have a mental block. Every time he hears the door of the cafe open, his heart skips a beat but quickly collects himself when it’s not a certain someone he’s waiting on.
Hyukjae arrives a little late, a few minutes over the agreed time but it’s not that big of a deal. What’s important is that he came, Donghae would willingly wait no matter how long. He doesn’t notice him, not until he’s by Donghae’s table trying to catch his breath. Hyukjae’s hair is a little disheveled but it only adds to his charm, it would seem that the other has chosen to dress comfortably as well, opting to wear a soft beige sweater and dark jeans. His sweater is a little big for his figure, Hyukjae is practically drowning in the soft fabric, the hem falling just above his thighs and the sleeves are long enough to hide his palms, leaving his delicate fingers to create sweater paws. He’s still adorable.
“Sorry, I’m a little late, there was a mishap at the clinic but it’s already taken care of.”
“It’s only been three minutes, I wouldn’t consider you late just yet.” this brings out a relieved chuckle from Hyukjae, there’s an easy smile on his face now that he’s taken a breath. “Did you already order? I could get it for you—”
“No need,” Hyukjae waves his sweater paws, “I already did when I got here. I asked them to bring it here when it’s done.”
If there was one thing that has constantly happened ever since he and Hyukjae saw each other again, other than the fluttering feeling in Donghae’s chest, it’s the sudden drop of silence between them. However, this type of silence is different from its predecessors, this type of silence is comfortable and strangely familiar. Almost reminiscent of the quiet, downtimes they used to have when they were still a couple. But Donghae doesn’t get ahead of himself, he still owed Hyukjae an explanation.
“I’m really glad you agreed to meet with me, if I may be honest, I thought you’d treat me like a stranger when I joined the zoom call.” nice start , he breaths easy, you’re doing good, one step at a time. “I know it’s been five years but I’d like to start with an apology, I’m sorry for being a jerk and for being unfair to you. I haven’t been very honest during the last months of our relationship,” he lifts his gaze from the rim of his cup to Hyukjae’s awaiting eyes, he finds no judgment in them and only encouragement and support. So he takes another deep breath and opens his heart once again, “I wasn’t ready to tell you then but I am ready now.”
“You wouldn’t believe what Kwanghee did at the prostho lab earlier, he almost caused a fire that would have burned the whole room down and said goodbye to his hair at the same time — ” Hyukjae’s face is all scrunched up, probably already replaying in his mind the hilarious accident he was telling Donghae.
They were in Hyukjae’s small apartment for dinner, his boyfriend volunteering to cook their meal to celebrate having completed a long procedure that day. It’s been a while since they both sat down and had a meal together, often opting to text or call each other as they were both respectively busy with work and university.
As expected, the hearty doenjang-jjigae and pajeon tasted phenomenal, more so after a day’s worth of work.
“—anyway, it’s a good thing Yunho sunbae was there or else Kwanghee wouldn’t have eyebrows on our class photos.” ah, there it was. The name that has been the number one cause for Donghae’s irritation. Jung Yunho.
“Of course, the almighty Yunho sunbae ” Donghae didn’t mean to sound exasperated, he was but he didn’t want to let Hyukjae know that, not when this Yunho guy has been extremely helpful in his boyfriend’s struggles in the university.
And maybe that’s why he’s so irritated, helpless even.
Back when he was still studying, Hyukjae always came to him whenever he was struggling with requirements and exams he needed to pass. He was the one, with open arms, to welcome his exhausted boyfriend and be a source of strength and comfort when he no longer had the energy to stand. It gave him a huge sense of pride knowing how much Hyukjae depended on him.
However, now that he is busy with work, it feels as if Hyukjae has given that role to someone else. Someone other than his boyfriend, Donghae.
Now as much as he wants to look on the bright side, he does and he’s really trying to, this insecurity has become an entryway for his uncle’s words to haunt him again. This frustrates him, even more, when he’s already made so much progress after the (sort of) intervention. And to personally see and feel all that effort to be better go down the drain, more and more each time his boyfriend mentions his sunbae, Donghae feels paralyzed and stuck further down the hole than he was before.
“How many times do I have to tell you that he treats everyone that way, he’s not out to impress me — ” there was something about the way Hyukjae sounds — a mix of frustration and irritation, that sets something off inside Donghae. Though he tries to fit it down, Donghae is taking slow deep breaths to at least tamper down this ugly feeling bubbling down his throat. When he tries to focus on his boyfriend’s face as some form of support, he finds Hyukjae’s eyebrows furrowed in irritation and his whole face scrunched up in contempt, that’s when he knows he’s already lost this battle.
Donghae doesn’t need to hear his uncle’s voice whisper in his ear, he won’t ever be better than his brother no matter what he does and now, he’s failed at being Hyukjae’s boyfriend. As the cruel realization simmers in his mind, he no longer fights the cold enveloping his whole being, in fact, Donghae welcomes it — revels in it. ‘There was no use avoiding it anymore, you won’t ever be enough for Hyukjae.‘
And that’s when Donghae just snaps.
“That’s what you say because you don’t hear how much you gush over him helping you, I know he’s one in a million but tone it down for god’s sake you already have a boyfriend.” Donghae fires back, cutting off any type of explanation from the other. He’s buzzing from keeping everything pent up just so he could uphold this image of himself as a well put together person, however since his sense of reason has flown out the window, he’s letting everything out — the bad and the ugly.
“I do not gush about him!” Hyukjae’s voice rising to match his, from contempt his face now morphs into disbelief from hearing these words come out of his boyfriend’s mouth, “He’s just someone who I look up to and I’m amazed by how passionate he is with his dreams.”
“Well why go on and run after that Yunho sunbae of yours, why don’t you! Since he’s all you ever talk about, maybe he should be your boyfriend instead!” Donghae has half a mind to just stop talking all together, there’s a little voice at the back of his head asking him — begging him to stop, before he ends up regretting everything. Even so, the rage burning within is too strong, to him Hyukjae is in the wrong for making him feel this way.
“What the hell is wrong with you?! I know you’re stressed but don’t use that to fuel your spite over me!” he feels the other shove him on his chest but Donghae remains to stand his ground, his palms are starting to hurt from his fingernails digging into it trying to contain the urge to hit something or worse, someone. “You’re right, I am stressed! Here I am expecting a quiet dinner with my boyfriend, looking forward to the cuddles and kisses we’ve missed and what do I get?! Another man’s name spouting out of your mouth with all the love and affection you used to throw at me!”
“You’re the one I’m in a relationship with!! What type of bullshit are you getting about Yunho sunbae?!”
“Oh don’t play coy, I bet you’re just dying to get this night over with so you could get back to ogling your precious Yunho sunbae. Lee Donghae is just a thing of the past now, you’re going to marry Yunho and be happy and have everything you wanted because he’s rich and capable and everything I fail to be!”
“Donghae, what is this really about — ” “I want to break up . ”
There’s silence, finally, albeit not the good kind. Donghae sees all the anger physically drain out of his boyfriend’s frail body. He watches the frigid stature sag into an almost lifeless stance, Hyukjae now looks small and fragile.
“You don’t mean that.” His voice is now soft, almost like a whisper but his plea is loud and clear. It’s breaking Donghae’s heart to hear this from Hyukjae, but what the latter said was right, it wasn’t fair fueling his spite when Hyukjae has no clue as to where it’s really coming from.
He doesn’t take it back, “I do — ” he pushes out even if it’s taking all his will to stop himself from retracting it. “NO YOU DON’T! You take that back, right now!” Donghae’s eyes remain glued to the floor, even when the tremble in Hyukjae’s voice is enough to sway his decision otherwise, he keeps true to his impulsive intentions.
“Goodbye Hyukjae.” it takes all his energy to get that out, Donghae quickly removes the hands clutching at his shirt collar and grabs his coat from the couch.
The door is closed shut behind him yet Hyukjae’s broken cries ring in his ears even as he exits the apartment building.
Once Donghae is done, he moves his eyes back on the rim of his coffee mug, his americano remains untouched and is now warm in his hands. With bated breath, he waits for the other’s reaction, who has been silently and attentively listening to him. Even Hyukjae’s facial expression doesn’t give him any indication as to what he was thinking, however his kind eyes and gentle smile only encouraged Donghae to let everything out.
As worry begins to fill his head and his heart rate steadily increases, he feels a warm hand envelop his, and strangely, everything is fine. His shoulders sag in relief and the smile growing on his face feels more natural, so distinctly Donghae.
“Thank you for telling me, I can’t imagine how hard it was for you to bear it all on your own.” Hyukjae’s hand remains to hold his, rubbing soft and comforting circles on the back of his hand. Donghae’s heart soars, he feels free, finally. He knows he doesn’t deserve this reaction but he’s ecstatic nonetheless.
He releases his hold on his cup in favor of encasing Hyukjae’s hands in his, bravely and endearingly holding it between his now that he’s sure the other doesn’t mind the skinship, “I shouldn’t have kept it all to myself. I was selfish, you, Heechul hyung and Kyuhyung have always been there for me, and yet I didn’t trust you guys enough to tell you everything.”
“We have never held that against you Donghae, we knew you were holding something back but we wouldn’t force it out of you when you clearly weren’t ready.”
“Still, I should have been more honest with you at least...”
Hyukjae opens but quickly closes his mouth, then he bites on his bottom lip just like he used to do when he’s trying to work up the courage to tell him something, “I’m going to confess something, promise you won’t be mad at Heechul and Kyuhyun?”
“What is it?” the other is visibly worried, still contemplating whether he should continue or not. So Donghae gently squeezes his hand to let Hyukjae know that it’s going to be okay, take your time.
“When me and my friends went out for drinks four years ago, we bumped into Heechul hyung and Kyuhyun.”
“Fuck that Lee Donghae , there are a lot of other men out there that would die to be with you, honey! Society needs to stop glorifying first loves because, while most of them are romantic, Lee Donghae is just a certified jerk for not trusting you.” Ryeowook says with his nose pointed up in the air with pride and dignity, heart is pounding loud against his tiny form as he expresses his utter disappointment and disgust to he-who- shall -be-named. And with the close friends of the said guy that is the number one cause for Ryeowook’s rage present at their Friday night hangout, Jongwoon has to physically hold his tiny boyfriend back from releasing all his pent-up anger and frustration on their innocent guests. Jongwoon even throws an apologetic gaze at Heechul and Kyuhyun, both males visibly cautious but also empathetic to Hyukjae’s tiny best friend. “To be clear we also don’t condone what he did to you, Hyukjae, and we would like to apologize for not being a clear enough voice of reason for him.”
“It’s okay Heechul hyung, Kyuhyun, it’s not any of your faults. I had no idea how heavy his burden was or what he was going through, I do admit that I had been too busy to ask about his wellbeing.” as hard as it is to admit, it still hurts Hyukjae that their relationship ended the way it did, even when it’s already been a year.
“Honestly, when Hyukjae told us the day after that happened, I couldn’t believe that Donghae would say those words to Hyukjae. I mean, yeah he there were times in the past that he was jealous but never to the point where he would explode.” Sungmin absent-mindedly turns his drink, it’s still fresh in his memory how heartbroken his best friend was when he called them all over. He vividly remembers Ryeowook immediately jumping to his feet after Hyukjae’s done telling them what happened, ready to hunt Donghae down to demand an explanation only to be stopped by Hyukjae begging him not to hurt his ex-boyfriend. “I actually had to process everything for a whole day, that’s how much I didn’t believe that sweet and caring Donghae would do such a thing.”
“I know it’s not our place to stay but I think that it’s important that you know what was happening to Donghae. Again it’s not our place, and you’re free to not believe or even choose to hear his side through us but the Donghae we know now isn’t the Donghae we came to know. And although it’s partially because of breaking up with Hyukjae, he’s changed into a total opposite ever since he got home from their family dinner.” what Kyuhyun says piques the interest of the whole table, everyone unknowingly leans in, eager to know more.
“Was this the one from his father’s side of the family? I remember asking about that and he said it went well.” is this why he sounded off? Hyukjae remembers his ex-boyfriend tense up and starts fidgeting but he’s quickly reassured by the other that everything is fine.
“He lied to you, us too but since we meet often we noticed the change in his mood and attitude so we basically had to force it out of him.”
“Look, enough with the yada yada, what’s this reason that makes up for breaking my best friend’s heart?” Ryeowook interjects, his face is still askew but from his tone of voice it was evident that even he was curious. The two friends look at Hyukjae for his permission, albeit hesitant he agrees and then Heechul and Kyuhyun look at each other after getting the go signal. “You know about his jerk uncle right? For the entirety of Donghae’s childhood, he’s done nothing but made him feel small and inadequate. From what we’ve gathered, we believe he’s projecting his inferiority complex to Donghae since his father, Donghae’s grandfather, basically adored Donghae since birth.” and there huddled into their corner of the room, Heechul and Kyuhyun spilled all they knew and remembered. They shared Donghae’s struggle coping up with the thought planted into him by his tormentor, that he was second — going as far as last to his older brother in everything. And although his parents and older brother made every effort to reassure him that that wasn’t true, that he will always be enough, his douche bag of an uncle has made it his personal vendetta to go after every little thing that Donghae did.
Heechul and Kyuhyun expressed their frustration on Donghae’s behalf towards the latter’s uncle, as well as their efforts in making their best friend realize that he is enough. They shared Donghae’s progress throughout their friendship, how, over time, he has learned to love himself, faults and all. And for a while, they knew that Donghae has learned to genuinely love himself and everything he poured himself into.
But they were wrong and became too complacent, with Heechul busy with his own business and Kyuhyun stressing being an intern for the IT company he works at, Donghae was once again left to fend all his demons alone. That’s where they fell short as well, they should have been more observant.
“Thank you Heechul hyung and Kyuhyun for telling me.” Hyukjae pats their hands both, he can see that they were still guilty that they’ve spilled their best friend’s secret but he wants to give them assurance that he understands why they did it, “I know it’s not your place but I’m really glad that Donghae has someone like you guys by his side. Please continue to take good care of him.” he downs what’s remaining of his drink and gathers his belongings, ”I think I’m going to go ahead, I’d like to be alone right now.”
“We could take you home, Hyukkie.” Ryeowook offers, his hand is already clutching at his jacket that’s resting on the back of his chair but he stops him with a wave of his hands, “I appreciate it but I think it’s best that I’d be alone for now. This is a lot to take in, I’ll text you guys when I get home.”
Hyukjae keeps it together until he gets home at least. He barely gets through his front door before he breaks down. He cries for his ex-boyfriend’s silent struggles, he cries for ignoring the signs when they were clear as day, he cries until there are no more tears to cry for missing the only one who owns his heart, still despite of.
“It wasn’t their place to tell me and they were remorseful right after they'd let it out, they only spilled because Wookie was spewing expletives about how much of a jerk you were and so on and so forth. Your best friends are loyal to a fault, as you are with them, please don’t be upset with them.”
“So you’ve known or at least had an idea this whole time?” he asks, slowly, his mind is still trying to wrap around everything. So is this why he’s reacted the way he has?
“I’m not here to tell you what you could and couldn’t have done before, that’s all in the past and I have long forgiven you for that.” Hyukjae leans forward, it’s now reversed, both his hands are now encased in Hyukjae’s. He’s holding onto them to help focus Donghae’s attention on him like he knows that the latter’s mind is already overthinking his intentions, “I’m here because I want you to know that despite everything that has happened, all those things you chose to hide and keep for yourself, I want you to know that I’m ready to get through it with you, through the good, the bad and especially the ugly. If you would allow me to.”
“Are you crazy?” his eyes double in size, Donghae’s voice increases in pitch and cracks from disbelief to what he’s hearing, “I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking you, begging you for that—for a second chance!” his outburst elicits a hearty chuckle from the man across the table, his hand quickly motions him to calm down, even when they were the only customers at the cafe.
Donghae lets out a big exhale, he still couldn’t believe this was going to be the outcome of laying it all out, even if it’s five years late. He feels like shouting at the top of his lungs, he’s physically jittery and it’s not because he’s nervous. Not anymore. He doesn’t remember being this happy throughout those five years. Sure, he’s celebrated all his accomplishments and has successfully and bravely conquered his demons but there was always something missing.
And now that the only thing his heart is yearning for is here in front of him, looking so beautiful just sitting there bathing in the morning light, he gathers strength and courage from within to bare his heart to him once again.
Donghae looks straight into Hyukjae’s eyes, his own already feels like tearing up from the overwhelming flow of emotions. It’s amazing how you don’t know the gravity of longing until the person you’re longing for is right in front of you.
“Lee Hyukjae,” he starts, then quickly clears his throat to further delay his tears from falling, “I am not perfect, I’ve learned and accepted that. The past five years have been a mix of anguish, regret, longing, and self-discovery. I’ve always thought up scenarios of us meeting again, but not one has prepared me for when you entered the zoom call, and I’m glad I wasn’t prepared because then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of being in awe of you.” they’re both crying now, happy tears of course, so they couldn’t be bothered to wipe them away, “Even after all these years, you’re still the one I love. If you’d let me care for your heart again, I promise to be honest even when it’s hard. I promise to care for you like you deserve to be taken care of. I promise to love you unconditionally, through our victories and defeat because there is no one in this world I would share my all, no one else but you.”
“Why does it sound like you’re proposing?” Hyukjae doesn’t hide the huge smile on his flushed face, both from crying and blushing at the sweet words. “It’s not far off but I have to prove myself to you again first.” We’ll get there, he keeps to himself, that’s my next goal.
“There’s no need to, you are already enough.” and that’s when Donghae loses it, there’s no stopping the tears that are falling on his face but that doesn’t hinder the relieved chuckle he lets out. Donghae has never felt so free, he can now say that he’s free from his uncle’s hold.
It felt like forever, there were times he wanted to give up as if his second chance was long gone yet he only needed to be patient. Figuratively and literally.