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a rainwatcher's paradox

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Joonmyun is born in the summer amidst the biggest storm Seoul has seen in decades. The sky swells black and heavy with clouds, even at midday. Rainwater runs in torrents in the streets and the Han breaks its banks, sending several districts knee deep underwater.

Growing up, Joonmyun's grandmother always told him that it meant he was a child of the storm, of the wind and lightning and clouds, of the rain. She passes away one January, and as a ten year old Joonmyun stands between his parents by her grave biting back tears, the clear, cold winter sky opens up and sends the finest drizzle of rain down on them.

Joonmyun’s father curses the luck that has the only winter shower of the season fall on the day of his mother's funeral, but Joonmyun just closes his eyes and lets the fine mist of rain drape around him, resting over his shoulders comfortingly like a cloak, the invisible hands of a silent, watchful guardian.

 

 

Over the course of a single week, a mild, monotone summer gives way to an uncharacteristically rainy autumn. It's the wettest October South Korea has seen in a decade, if the reports are to be believed, and Joonmyun wouldn't mind except that his hair was bleached last week and the humidity makes it puff up in an untameable cloud of powder white around his head. They've left it long this time too, so he's constantly blowing strands of hair off his face. He's taken to wearing it in a ponytail around the house and at practice, even though Kyungsoo tells him it looks stupid and Joonmyun knows he's right.

There's a mini album in the works to be released at the end of the month, followed up with another round of asian tours. Joonmyun's been doing this for long enough that he knows that this, right now, the twelve hour dance practices and recording until his throat aches, is the easy part.

The promotion cycle is hard, when he can go days without eating, weeks without taking off his makeup. The concert tours are worse, flights and endless, endless hours of waiting at the airport replacing the time that he’d normally be asleep. Looking back, there are entire months Joonmyun has no recollection of, whole cities he knows he's visited and thousands of photos and videos to prove it, but no memories to show for it other than crowds screaming and blinding lights and the taste of ash and acid in his mouth.

No, he tells himself, this is easy. This is easy.

This should be easy, but it's been years and Joonmyun is exhausted. Someone once told him, Yunho, or maybe Jonghyun, that it gets easier with time. That eventually it becomes second nature for his cheeks to cramp from smiling so hard, to run on nothing but caffeine and nerves and willpower, to be awake for twenty hours a day and still not see the sun. (It's been raining for weeks and Joonmyun has yet to feel any of it against his skin.)

But he's waited and waited and the years have only made him thinner, emptier, more exhausted. He knows the others feel it too. Not that they say anything of course, but what is there to be said, to be done, when Baekhyun coughs up crimson into the sink for the third night in a row, other than watch it swirl down the drain, or to bring Jongin hot pack after hot pack on nights when his back aches so badly he can't sleep. Joonmyun does it, because it is his responsibility, and he understands what that means better than most, and because these boys don't have any other leader.

But it's wearing him down, carving him hollow from the inside out.

"Be careful."

The voice jerks him out of his thoughts, and he takes an instinctive step back as a car rushes past in a blur of metal and momentum, inches from his face, horn blaring an accent into the late-night lullaby of traffic.

"Thanks," Joonmyun breathes out, heart stuttering in his chest. He couldn't hear the voice clearly, but it sounded a little like Yixing.

No one replies. He straightens up and looks around. The others are waiting for the van on the other side of the carpark. There's no one near him, no one even looking in his direction. The sidewalk around him is empty, and there is no one across the road. He is alone.

The wind kicks up a little, swirling around him with just enough bite to bring up goosebumps on his skin, to sting his eyes. Overhead, the sky is grey and mutinous and the air is heavy, thickening in his throat when he inhales. Joonmyun looks around himself one final time before making his way back to the others.

They should hurry home. It will rain soon.

 

 

Joonmyun discovers disappointment at the age of twelve, shiny new sneakers rubbing blisters on his feet and a whistle ringing shrill in his ears.

"You three, dressing rooms!" The coach is greying at the temples but still a big mountain of a man with keen eyes and a hardened, expectant face. Beside Joonmyun, the two other boys deflate. "Maybe next year," the man adds, before spinning away to toss the basketball in his hands to the remaining hopefuls.

Joonmyun's older cousin was captain of the team all through high school, and Joonmyun has had four years to listen to his aunt brag at family barbecues, to watch the collection of trophies on the mantelpiece at their house swell, to lie awake at nights weaving golden dreams of a sport he'd never played.

The nice lady at the shop had told him these shoes would let him jump as high as the moon. He kicks them off without undoing the laces as soon as he gets into the change rooms.

One of the boys sidles up next to him. He's round and flushed, but has a friendly face. "We can always try out for football in the fall," he says to Joonmyun, looking optimistic. A few drops of his sweat hit the tiles beneath them. Joonmyun says nothing, goes into the shower stall.

The boy is gone when he comes out. Joonmyun puts his uniform and black shoes on, packs his gym clothes into his bag and leaves. When his mother asks where his new shoes went, he'll tell her he lost them, that they were stolen out of his bag during the day and so he didn't even get the chance to try out for the team.

And there might've been a few more droplets on his cheeks than strictly warranted by the shower water streaming over his skin from overhead, but Joonmyun would never admit to that either.

 

 

Every job has occupational hazards. Joonmyun had listed them once, a few weeks before debut, lying awake in his bedroom. Car accidents, airport mobbings, sasaeng fans. Exhaustion, dance injuries, vocal nodules, eating disorders. The hazards of this particular occupation are unconventional, but then again so is committing to spend the rest of his life dancing around in eyeliner and glitter.

But it hadn't taken him long to realise that the most dangerous place he would ever be was the stage, where the lights are caustic and bright, peeling back the layers until he's bare in front of the hundreds, the thousands of eyes watching with predatory fascination.

Smile. Smile, and don't you dare stop. Remember to breathe, but not too hard. Everyone's listening and you can't look tired. Dance. Don't stumble, don't miss a move. They'll notice. Sing too, if you can without fucking it up. Fuck it up? Too bad. Keep smiling. Going to throw up? Swallow it. Going to faint? Don't. And keep. Fucking. Smiling.

"Focus, Joonmyun.”

Joonmyun snaps back into the present. Baekhyun is beside him, concern in his eyes behind his blinding, plastic smile, but the voice hadn't belonged to him. Joonmyun clears his throat, looks down the lens of the camera and reads his lines. His cheeks ache from the smile he's forcing as he introduces the next group. His voice is shaking, and so are his hands.

"What happened out there?" Baekhyun asks him, once they're backstage. "You completely froze up."

"Nerves, I guess." He rubs at his cheek with a makeup wipe, and it comes away thick with foundation.

"We've been doing this a long time." Baekhyun leans back in his chair and props his feet up on the counter. He never bothers to remove his makeup anymore, and it's smudged and ashy beneath his eyes. "You don't get nervous. Not anymore."

That's not true, not at all, but Joonmyun has never tried to correct anyone and he doesn't now. "I just zoned out. It's not a big deal."

Baekhyun raises an eyebrow at him, but says nothing more on the subject. Not until a week later, when they're performing for a promotional event in China. It's child's play compared to what they're used to; two songs, a brief ment, a closing performance.

And yet, by the end of the second song Joonmyun's breathing hard. He can feel sweat slick between his shoulder blades under his suit, and he shakes his head to clear away the ringing in his ears but it only makes him lose his balance, stumbling into Chanyeol.

"Hyung?" Chanyeol asks, one hand covering the mic taped to his cheek. His eyes are wide, and Chanyeol's voice has always been loud but Joonmyun can barely hear it.

The stage lights are so bright, so hot and stifling against his skin that his vision is starting to blur, to blacken. His head is spinning and the ground tilts and his legs have gone numb. The roar of the crowd is tidal, a surge of pure energy, and Joonmyun is helpless as it sweeps over him, can do nothing but let it pull him under.

The next thing he's aware of is silence. Silence, and swaying. He doesn't think he can open his eyes, so he doesn’t try. The silence is resolving, like the ripples on a lake slowly dissipating in calmness. There's a crowd, screaming. Louder than he's ever heard before. A voice, Yixing, maybe, echoes over the top. Closer, there's someone, more than one person, saying his name: Joonmyun, Joonmyun-hyung.

He forces his eyes open. Zitao is peering down at him from above, and everything is still swaying gently. He's being carried, he realises, being carried off stage by Zitao. His head is still spinning and there's sweat cooling on his skin, all over. The rocking motion of Zitao's walking is making his stomach heave.

"Close your eyes."

He does, and when he opens them again he's lying down. Zitao is gone and Minseok is standing over him, pressing a cold bottle of water to his cheek.

"I'm okay, I'm..." Joonmyun tries to sit up, but Minseok presses him back down.

"You're not," he says, face as unreadable as ever. "You fainted."

"I need to go back out. We need to finish the concert and--"

"No, I need to go back out. You are not going anywhere." Minseok loosens the cap on the bottle of water and presses it into his hand.

"But the choreography, my lines--"

Minseok's eyebrow raises. "Please. We can handle it. Give us some credit."

"But I..." The words die in his throat as Minseok stares at him, seeming to debate something.

"Joonmyun, if something were wrong you'd tell me, right?" he asks finally.

Joonmyun swallows hard. "Yes. Of course."

Minseok has the best poker face of anyone he knows, so Joonmyun can't tell if he has bought the lie or not.

"Okay," he says after a long moment, stepping back, toward the stage. "Wait here. We'll be done soon." And then he's gone.

"Rest, Joonmyun."

Joonmyun slips into muted nothingness as the opening chords of their latest title track boom out over a stadium of thousands, all of them screaming his name.

 

 

He does end up trying out for soccer in the fall, and, despite his better judgement, for basketball again the following year. This time the coach doesn't tell him to come back again, so he resigns himself to the fact that he's just not cut out for anything physical, that he'll never be a sports star like his cousin.

He dedicates himself to his studies instead, because while first ranked in his grade doesn't have the same ring to it as premiership captain four years in a row, it's still very respectable, respectable enough to be mentioned over champagne at dinner parties. His parents don't have any other children.

When he's stopped on the street and handed a card by a woman in a suit the irony is so biting that he almost laughs in her face.

"You should come by and audition," she says, tapping the address printed in stark capitals on the card with a lacquered nail, red on black and white. "You have the right face for it."

His face won't enter into it once they've seen him dance, he thinks bitterly, but nevertheless he finds himself on a subway to Apgujeong that Saturday. SM Entertainment trainee isn't as impressive as premiership captain or as respectable as first ranked in his grade, but it's an acceptable enough pastime for a well-rounded student, and, even more than that, it’s a rarity, a novelty, a neat party trick. (His parents don't have any other children.)

The people overseeing the audition manage to keep straight faces as Joonmyun dances. The music is something American with deep bass and a strong beat, and it's turned up loud but not so loud that he can't hear the squeaking of his shoes against the polished wood, the faint, melodic undertones of the traffic outside, or the muffled snickers from the others behind him. But he keeps going and does the best he can, because he has a responsibility to his parents, and they don't have any other--

He falls back into line when it's over, slightly out of breath, red-faced from something other than exertion and wishing he'd just stayed home. The girl next to him steps forward on the stage. The snickers die down instantly, and then the whispers start. She's good.

They loop the same song, over and over and over as they dance one by one by one, and by the end the rhythmic thudding of the bass is louder in Joonmyun's head than his own thoughts. A handful are as good as the girl beside him, most are okay, and only one or two are as bad as Joonmyun.

They're told to sing next, the national anthem, unaccompanied and as loud as they can. Joonmyun knows he can sing, but his voice is not made for the stage. It's a choir voice, good for harmonising, for support, but too weak to hold a candle to the boy second in line whose voice resonates out through the auditorium, or the girl three down from him who has the clearest, highest soprano Joonmyun's ever heard. Nevertheless, he follows instructions and does his best, because his parents don't--

The girl next to him, the dancer, is tone deaf. It's a sickly satisfying twist of events, but it's bitter too. She's slightly built, has a pretty face, and was that good a dancer that Joonmyun knows it doesn't matter that she can't hold a note. The others must know it too, because no one so much as cracks a smile, even when she falls horrifically flat on the final note.

Someone important must've seen something Joonmyun hadn't though, because they call him during the week and ask him to come back in for a second round of auditions, and by the following week they're offering him a contract.

His father only laughs over his newspaper when Joonmyun tells them one morning, in a way so flippant Joonmyun wonders whether he’d actually heard what he said or just read a funny comic strip. His mother sets a plate of rice and egg in front of him, wipes her hands anxiously on her apron.

"As long as it doesn't get in the way of study. And you'll leave well before your college entrance exams, of course."

She goes with him to the agency to sign the contract the following day, and Kim Joonmyun, who can't dance his way out of a paper bag and can sing, some of the time, becomes an SM Entertainment trainee at the age of sixteen.

He loses his virginity a month later to a pretty girl in the grade above him. SM is a prestigious company and word spreads fast. It's a fair trade. For Joonmyun it's teenage curiosity, and for her it's an investment, so that maybe one day she can look at her TV screen or at billboards on the street and say 'I fucked him'.

It's awkward. Joonmyun doesn't know what he's doing, and she obviously does. She's kinder about it than she needs to be, does her best to guide him, whispers encouragements to him even though they both know this is a one-time thing. Joonmyun comes quickly, and she doesn't at all. She doesn't try to stop him when he leaves her house soon after it's done, and he deletes her number from his phone on the way home.

 

 

That night, back at the hotel, he records a video on his phone. He apologises, excuses, reassures, apologises again, and then makes Sehun upload it to his Weibo. It's only been a few hours since the concert, but the internet is already buzzing.

"Wow, hyung. 'Suho fainting' is already the second most searched item," Sehun says, sitting on the edge Joonmyun's bed after uploading the video, computer balanced across his thighs.

"Really?" Joonmyun asks. He tries to push himself up and his head spins so badly that his stomach heaves.

"Lie down."

Joonmyun falls back into the pillows more out of shock than anything. There's only two of them in the room, and it was not Sehun who had spoken. Thankfully, Sehun doesn't seem to pick up on anything.

"Yeah, really." He suddenly barks out a laugh. " 'Is Suho dead?' is fifth and, fuck, 'Tao's leather ass' is seventh. I told him those pants were a good idea."

Joonmyun smiles, but it feels brittle. "Can't say I noticed Zitao's ass. But I'm definitely not dead."

Sehun pauses, his eyes lifting from the computer screen but not quite meeting Joonmyun's either. "No, you're not. But it was pretty scary to watch, hyung."

Joonmyun doesn't try to sit up again, instead he reaches out and rests his hand on Sehun's forearm. "I know, Sehun, I'm sorry. There's nothing wrong. You don't need to worry about--"

"No, but that's just it, hyung," Sehun says, his voice quiet but sure. "I'm not going to pretend I know what's going on with you, because I don't. None of us do, not since--" He swallows, his brow furrowing. "But you don't need to pretend because you want to protect us. I'm almost the same age now as you were when we debuted, and I've been doing this just as long as you. We all have. We know what it's like better than anyone. So stop pretending and start trusting us a little."

Joonmyun gapes at him for a moment. Sehun blushes, suddenly shy, and ducks his head into the monochrome light cast by his laptop screen.

" 'Is Suho pregnant?' is twelfth, in case you were wondering," Sehun says, after a few moments. Joonmyun laughs and Sehun smiles at him, small and relieved, before murmuring a quiet goodnight and retreating to his own room so Joonmyun can rest.

The door clicks shut behind him and Joonmyun is left listening to the sounds of faraway Beijing traffic, wondering how Sehun managed to grow up when Joonmyun still feels twenty years old and more lost than ever.

 

 

 

Joonmyun has always liked to be in control. When he was young he used to sneak upstairs and peek into the back of his parents' closet so he'd know what he was getting for his birthday. Once when he was in preschool he took the red car, the coolest one with flames painted down the side, out of the toy box during recess and hid it under a rock outside. Not because he wanted to play with it, just because he liked to watch the other boys yell and cry and accuse each other of taking it when he was the only one who knew the truth.

When he gets older, it manifests as borderline neurotic study habits, strict schedules that never waver, a single-minded focus.

There is very little that surprises Joonmyun. Which is why, when he decides to quickly run through some new vocal techniques after his lesson at the company and glances at the clock only to realise it's been two hours, he's so entirely shocked.

He throws himself into the chair at his desk as soon as he's home. He's already hours behind schedule and he has a history test tomorrow. He flips open his books, selects a pen from the neat row of them on his desk, and presses it to the paper.

The wall clock behind him is ticking. Traffic hums melodically on the main road a few streets away. Joonmyun's hand is unmoving, and the words in his textbook dance around each other in an incomprehensible jumble. He looks up and catches sight of himself in the floor length mirror on the back of his door.

The clock is still ticking, and Joonmyun vaguely registers that the tempo a perfect match to the combination they'd learned a few days ago in dance practice. He had stood in the back corner and struggled through it. He has another dance class tomorrow evening.

Legs that aren't quite his own push him up, the chair scooting back from the desk. Of its own accord, his body starts to mark out the routine, the ever present ticking of the clock keeping him in time.

The homework on the desk behind him is whispering his name, begging for attention. Its voice sounds a lot like Joonmyun’s own, and he forces it quiet as he loses himself in the burn of his breathing, the stretch and pull of his muscles.

 

 

Somehow, Joonmyun makes it back to Korea, to the apartment in Seoul. It’s hard to tell, but the crush of bodies around them at the airport seems denser than usual, the screams of his name more frequent, louder, more desperate.

(Yixing stands behind him the whole way, arms firm around his waist. Joonmyun thinks he might not’ve made it if it hadn’t been for the voice murmuring in his ear; “Stop here,” and “Turn left,” and “Cameras, look down.”)

His hunch must’ve been right, because Chanyeol and Jongin huddle over Chanyeol’s laptop at the kitchen table that night, watching fancams with sounds of amazement.

“They’re really worried about you, hyung,” Jongin says, turning to look at Joonmyun, who’s getting a glass of water by the sink. He comes to stand behind them, watching the screen.

The quality is good, and the angle shot from the upper floor of the arrival lounge. Joonmyun, with his white blond hair, is easily spotted in the writhing crowd. Yixing is close behind him, his mouth set in a tense frown.

Joonmyun frowns. Something… Something’s not…

On the screen, Joonmyun stops abruptly, then steps left into a patch of space that’d only just opened up. He’d been looking the other way.

“Turn left.” There’s something about this that isn’t quite…

Yixing is behind him. The video quality is good and Yixing is behind him, his mouth set in a grim line.

The glass hits the floor with a deafening crash. Joonmyun doesn’t hear it.

Chanyeol yelps and Jongin jumps about three feet in the air. Joonmyun doesn’t move an inch, rooted to the spot as the blood drains from his face, eyes locked on the laptop, on Yixing’s face.

“Joonmyun hyung? Are you… are you okay?” Jongin asks, eyes huge.

“I--” Joonmyun tries. “I’m…. I have to go." His voice a trembling wreck even to his own ears.

He takes a step toward the corridor. Jongin gasps and Chanyeol booms out a “Wait!” just as there’s a sharp stinging pain in his heel. His sock feels wet against his skin but he doesn't stop, and they let him go.

"Joonmyun?"

"Joonmyun?"

"Stop it," he hisses, clutching his head as it throbs painfully.

"Oh... Sorry?" Joonmyun looks up to see Kyungsoo stepping out of the bathroom and looking at him very strangely.

"Kyungsoo. Sorry. I'm, uh. I just..."

"Perhaps," Kyungsoo says very slowly, "you should go to bed early tonight."

"Yes, sleep."

"No! I mean, yes. I'll go. To bed. Thanks." He staggers down the hall away from Kyungsoo's keen gaze.

He all but collapses into the first bed he sees. There are shivers running over his entire body and a roaring sound in his ears, overlapping with the sickening swirling of his thoughts. He pulls the blanket up to his chin with trembling arms. His throat is aching with thirst but he can't remember where he put his glass of water.

Be careful.

Stay there.

Rest, Joonmyun.

Start trusting us a little.

Close your eyes.

You don't get nervous.

The words come back in Minseok's voice, in Baekhyun's and Yixing's and Sehun's, but he... he doesn't know. Was he watching them all? Did he see their mouths shape the words? He can't remember. He can't remember, and he just doesn't know anymore.

The roaring reaches a fever pitch in his mind. And then he realises it's not in his mind, not this time. It's outside.

Rain, it's rain falling on the windows.

He throws back the covers and falls out of bed, stumbling toward the window on unsteady feet. The curtains are rippling slightly-- the windows must be open already. He grabs fistfuls of fabric and throws them aside.

The cold hits him first, ferried through the open window on a mild breeze. And next it's the light of the setting sun, pressing weak but bronze into his skin from a clear sky.

A clear sky. A clear sky. A cl--

The roar in his head begins to fade away, revealing a terrible, terrible blankness behind.

"No. It was raining. It was raining, I heard it, I--"

But the phantom rainfall retreats, pulling back like a tide at dusk, revealing more of the gaping silence behind. Joonmyun grasps at it but it's no use. It dissolves, and then there's nothing but an all-consuming whiteness rising up before him and his own harsh breathing.

Then, "Don't be afraid, Joonmyun. I'm a friend."

His heart gives a jolt that sends ice through all of his limbs. For the second time that week, he feels blackness rush forward to meet him. The room around him sways.

"Breathe in."

Joonmyun obeys out of instinct, the breath coming as a harsh gasp. He'd been holding it, he realises. He exhales, then pulls air back in. It comes easier this time. The walls around him stay in place.

"Good. Close the curtains."

Joonmyun does, arms stiff but no longer shaking.

“Go back to bed."

Joonmyun crawls back into the bed, pulling the blanket back over himself and holding his knees to his chest. The yawning blankness is still there, but he's oddly comforted to know he's not facing it alone.

"Sleep."

And thankfully he does, the blissful nothingness seeping into his mind easier than it has in months.

 

 

By the time he's seventeen, Joonmyun is no longer a stranger to disappointment. Yet, somehow, it still throbs anew when shortlists for a new boyband and are announced and he isn't on them.

He doesn't ask, because he knows by now that that isn't how things work here. He doesn't ask why not me, even though he's been here as long as all of the boys on the list, longer than some.

He doesn't ask, just practices, even harder than before. He takes down the clock in his room. He doesn't like to dance to it anymore. He's not as young as he was once; there are kids running around the company now that are half his age.

Minho sends him texts, then calls him when they go unanswered, and calls some more when Joonmyun doesn't pick up.

Three days after Joonmyun's eighteenth birthday SHINee debuts, and Minho stops calling him after that.

 

 

Joonmyun wakes up to whispering somewhere close by. He doesn't move, staying coiled up beneath the comforter.

"Uh... Why is Joonmyun in my bed? What's going on?" He can't quite tell who that is.

"Nothing, Sehun. It's nothing. Sleep in my bed tonight, okay? And tell Baekhyun to sleep in Yixing's." That's Minseok, definitely. Shuffling footsteps fade away. Then, after a pause, Minseok asks, "What are we going to do?"

"For now? Sleep." This voice is Yixing's, a little rougher than usual. It must be late. "He might just need a good night's sleep."

The silence is strung out. "You and I both know that's not--"

"I know," Yixing says, almost sighs. "But what else can we do?"

There's another pause, and from the weight on his back Joonmyun knows they're both staring at him.

"Let's sleep, then," Minseok murmurs finally, his voice tainted navy with concern. A few minutes later, as they drift into sleep, the room desaturates into the grey of newly forming storm clouds.

Joonmyun finally rolls over. The room stays static around him, and he stares at the ceiling until it starts to illuminate with specks of dawn.

Once the hum of morning sets into the apartment and the shower has been running for half an hour, Yixing brings him a small bowl of warm rice and a glass of water. Minseok and their manager watch from the doorway as he sits up and accepts them both from Yixing.

He swallows a mouthful of water and gets two bites of rice down before his stomach spasms and he leans over the edge of the bed, all of it coming back up onto the floorboards.

Yixing rubs his back, the other hand by Joonmyun's hip, having darted in to steady the glass of water there.

Their manager sighs. "I'll call ahead to the radio show. Ask them to edit him out of the script."

When Joonmyun finds the strength to lift his head he sees Yixing and Minseok staring at each other over his back. Minseok shrugs, and Yixing slips out of the room a moment later.

"What?" Joonmyun asks, throat raw.

Minseok redirects his gaze to Joonmyun for a long, hard moment. "Rest well," he says finally, as Yixing returns with a wet cloth to clean the mess beside Sehun's bed.

"That's gross, I'll do it," he says, leaning over to take the cloth out of Yixing's hands.

Yixing bats him away. "Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm serious--"

Yixing fixes him with a stern look, the concern beneath it heavy in his dark eyes. "You're sick, Joonmyun. Rest. Please."

"Rest."

Joonmyun jolts in surprise. It seems an absurd thought, but he'd completely forgotten the voice in his head. He manages to cover his surprise as discontent, and lies back on the bed. Soon, Yixing has finished cleaning and is off to the radio station, along with the rest of them, leaving Joonmyun in the silent dorm, but not quite alone.

 

 

A week after he turns eighteen, Joonmyun returns home from dance practice late one night to find both his parents sitting at the kitchen table, untouched and likely cold mugs of tea before them both.

"Is everything okay?" Joonmyun asks as he steps warily into the room.

"Sit down, Joonmyun," his mother says, gesturing to the chair opposite. He sets his bag down and sinks carefully into the chair.

His mother takes a deep breath, steeling her thin frame. "We've decided that that's quite enough of this idol business," she tells him. "It's time to leave that company and focus on your studies."

Joonmyun says nothing, and she takes this as encouragement to elaborate. "I ran into Jooyoung's mother at the supermarket. He's been taking after school classes since middle school. Your grades are good but if we aren't careful you'll fall behind, and we can't have that."

Joonmyun takes a deep breath. "I can't."

His father makes a low sound of disapproval, and his mother looks aghast. “I’m sorry, Joonmyun?”

“I said, I’m not leaving the company.”

He started this for them, and now, just when he might be starting to want it, really want it for the first time in his life, more than he ever wanted to be on the basketball team or first-ranked in his grade, they’re trying to take it away from him.

“You will cancel your contract, and that is that,” his mother says, her mouth thinning and her lips pale.

Joonmyun shakes his head. “I’ll take up extra tutoring. I’ll stop going out on weekends, if it’ll make you happy. But I’m not leaving the company.”

An angry flush crawls up his mother’s chest, but it’s his father who speaks. “Do what you like, Joonmyun. Just know that if your grades suffer and nothing at all comes of this idol business, that your mother and I will be very disappointed.”

It’s these words that Joonmyun repeats to himself to stay awake into the early hours of the morning all throughout his final year of high school, the ones that he says every time he feels like giving up on a difficult dance move.

He scores highly in the college entrance exam, but even so those words never quite leave him, a ghostly presence at the back of his mind whenever he opens his textbooks or catches sight of himself in the floor length mirrors of the dance studios.

 

 

 

Three days pass and little changes. Joonmyun is exhausted and his head throbs endlessly and nothing he eats will stay down. Yixing and Minseok hover nervously, and converse outside the door when they think he's asleep.

"We can't just watch him fade away," Yixing says under his breath. "He doesn't eat, he can't get up, and he's quiet all night but I'll bet money he's barely sleeping either."

"What can we do?" Minseok sighs. "Management won't excuse him from practice much longer. Then what? He can barely walk to the bathroom, let alone dance."

Yixing lets out a frustrated huff. Something thuds lightly against the wall. His back, maybe his palm. "We've all gotten sick before, but this..."

"I know," is all Minseok says. "I know."

 

 

 

Against all expectations, Joonmyun's own included, a group is slated to debut in late 2011 and Joonmyun is to be a part of it.

They're thrown into the dorms together in September. It's a tight fit at first. He's known Jongin for the best part of a decade, and Jongdae barely a month. Zitao knows a total of ten words of Korean.

But the excitement in the dorm is palpable, and above it the unspoken knowledge that this, them, is going to be very permanent very soon. They all want it, need it to work, and so it does.

They dye their hair soon after. Chanyeol's comes out auburn and permed, for fuck's sake, but he's delighted.

"It makes me feel like a superhero. Like I could take over the world!" he booms, grin blinding, and Joonmyun thinks hair that can take over the world is even stupider than shoes that make you jump as high as the moon.

Once the debut has been finalised, Joonmyun's parents invite all their friends over. His father doesn't say much, but gives off an air of satisfaction as he chats in the corner with work colleagues. His mother drops the news in the most hushed, dramatic way to as many different people as possible.

Joonmyun smiles through the congratulations, and wonders why, as the pride shines in his parents’ eyes, the taste in his mouth is so sour.

 

 

Sunlight sharpens into a point against the side of his face. Joonmyun squints, shades his eyes with his hand. Noise fades in, a low hum of life, and someone passes by him, the light momentarily turning to the cold of shadow on his cheek. He blinks a few times, and looks around himself.

He's in an airport, though he can't seem to pinpoint which one. The floor tiles are like the ones at Incheon but the shape of the windows reminds him of Beijing, and the billboards look just like the ones he'd seen in Heathrow, years and years ago.

There's a crowd at the gate closest to him. He makes his way over. He has to stand on his toes to see over the heads of the crowd, and when he does his stomach drops to the ground.

He hasn't seen Yifan in person for over a year. He's taller than Joonmyun remembers.

A scream at the other end of the terminal catches his attention. He turns to see another crowd surrounding the gate opposite this one. He thinks he knows what he might find, but he makes his way over anyway.

He doesn't try to look over the crowd this time, instead pressing his way through. His suspicions are confirmed when he reaches the center. Joonmyun hasn't seen Lu Han with black hair for years. It looks good on him.

"Lu Han." Lu Han doesn't seem to hear him. "Hey, it's me." But Lu Han is ushered through the gate by security, throwing one last cheerful wave over his shoulder at the fans.

Joonmyun slips through the security and follows him through the gate. Lu Han turns a corner and Joonmyun speeds up. He wants to catch Lu Han before he boards. Joonmyun rounds the corner and stops in his tracks.

In the center of the corridor is a mirror. It touches the floor and ceiling and both walls. He presses his fingertips to it. Lu Han must've gone this way, somehow. There's nowhere else to go.

The mirror feels warm beneath his fingertips for a moment.

"Are you sure you want to go this way?"

Something flickers in the corner of his vision. With a sense of slow-burning unease he looks straight into the mirror.

It is Joonmyun, but it is also not. It looks like him, the serious set of his father's brow and his mother's gentle nose, but the expression, the light behind the eyes, that is all wrong.

"What do you mean?" he asks.

He should be expecting it, but it still surprises him when his reflection opens its mouth when his own remains still.

"Are you sure this is the path you want to choose?"

"Where's Lu Han?" he says instead. "Where did he go?"

His reflection smiles, but it's knowing and very sad. Joonmyun didn't know his face could make that expression.

"You're the one who's been talking to me, aren't you? Why?" His voice doesn't waver. Inexplicably, he's not afraid.

"I want to help you."

Joonmyun squints at the mirror. "Who are you, exactly?"

"I don't have a name, but you can call me Suho."

Joonmyun swallows. "You can’t be. I'm Suho."

"No,” his reflection says, smiling faintly. "You’re Joonmyun."

"Joonmyun."

A beam of sunlight reflects off the mirror and into Joonmyun's eyes. He squeezes them shut, and when he next opens them a dark figure is leaning over him.

"Joonmyun, wake up." Jongdae's voice is pitched low and he smells like toothpaste.

"What?" Joonmyun rubs at his eyes. "What're you doing here? What time is it?"

Jongdae raises his finger to his lips. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes? What's going on?"

"Come with me," Jongdae says. His voice lilts up at the end like a question, and his eyes are shining with uncertainty.

"Where are we going? What about rehearsals? Do the others--"

"Go with him."

Joonmyun trusts that voice for a reason he can't quite grasp, like the ending of a half-forgotten dream.

"Okay," he says finally, and Jongdae beams.

As they walk out of the lift, Jongdae produces the keys to Sehun's car from his pocket. Joonmyun decides not to ask. It’s still dark outside when they pull out of the underground parking lot and into the Seoul streets.

"Where are we going?" Joonmyun asks again. And why did you tell me to go with him?

The answers overlap and it takes Joonmyun a moment to untangle them.

"Somewhere quiet."

"He's good for you."

Joonmyun looks out at the still, pre-dawn tableau of Seoul as it rushes past his window. "Okay," he replies quietly.

Jongdae pulls onto the freeway, heading south. Half an hour after sunrise his phone begins to vibrate in his pocket. Jongdae keeps his eyes fixed on the horizon until it stops, only for it to start again a few seconds later

"Are you going to answer that?" Joonmyun asks tentatively.

"Probably not," Jongdae admits, dawn casting pale gold onto his skin. He reaches between them and switches on the radio. Baekhyun’s voice blares out from the speakers, and Jongdae changes the station before Joonmyun can even ask.

The freeway is busier than it'd been in the city, supply trucks and commuters alike winding through the outskirts of Seoul. They stop at a gas station mid-morning. The bathrooms are small but clean enough. The high window above his cubicle is open, and Joonmyun can hear every word Jongdae speaks as he argues over the phone outside.

"The company? I could stab myself in the leg and they'd give me some painkillers and a day off. You could snap Jongin's damn spine and they'd tell him to ice it." Gravel goes skittering, hits the outside of the building.

"They don't give a fuck, Minseok. We've got to fix this ourselves." There's a pause. Jongdae exhales heavily. "I know. But some space and some quiet might do him good. Just a few days, that's all I ask." There's another, longer pause. "Three, then. Thank you. Oh, and don't be too hard on Sehun, I talked him into it. He just wanted to help."

Joonmyun refuses food, when Jongdae comes back around into the shop, not because he's not hungry but because he can still feel the toxic air of the city in his lungs, choking up his throat, making it hard to breathe and impossible to swallow. Despite the owlish concern in his eyes, Jongdae says nothing.

They're back on the road by eleven. The radio is still on, a static-y hum in the background.

“Wednesday the twenty-fourth,” the newscaster recites, “eight degrees and fine. Thursday the twenty-fifth, ten and cloudy. High wind warning. Friday the--”

"Will it rain, where we're going?" Joonmyun asks. Jongdae's eyes flick to him momentarily, then focus on the clear blue horizon.

"I don't think so," he says, and Joonmyun leans back in his seat and closes his eyes.

 

 

By lunchtime they reach the sea. Joonmyun has not seen it since he was young, when he used to visit his grandmother. It is so big, so impossibly blue, that Joonmyun is speechless for a moment.

"We'll stay here tonight," Jongdae says, cutting the engine as they pull up outside a small, beachfront motel. The town around them is quiet, autumn falling cold and lethargic over places like this, where tourists swarm to the streets and sand in summer.

"How did you know about this place?" Joonmyun asks, as they both step out of the car. The air is chilly, edged with the tang of salt.

"My family used to come here in summer when I was young. 'The Marseilles of the east', my dad used to call it." Jongdae laughs a little, and Joonmyun can see it; a younger, smaller Jongdae in a t-shirt and flip flops, running around these streets with his brother, laughing this exact same laugh.

The woman behind the reception at the motel is in her sixties and friendly, if a bit surprised to see them.

"We don't get many travellers this time of year," she says, as she checks them in. "You city folk can't handle the cold."

Jongdae laughs. "We couldn't get time off work until now, and the cold never bothered me much anyway," he replies easily.

"Will that be a room with one bed or two?" she asks, glancing between them with a hint of a smile.

"Two. Please." Jongdae's grin doesn't falter but the tips of his ears are turning alarmingly pink. Joonmyun averts his gaze out the window, fixing his eyes on the sapphire ocean and biting his lip to avoid laughing.

The room upstairs is basic, but it's comfortable; two single beds, two armchairs and a coffee table by the window, and a small television on a dresser opposite the beds. The paisley patterned bedding reminds him of the ones his grandmother used to have.

Jongdae disappears as Joonmyun explores the room. He stares and stares at himself in the mirror over the sink, but the reflection doesn't waver, the shade behind the eyes still undeniably his own.

He snaps out of it when he hears Jongdae unlock the door and kick off his shoes. Going by the stiffness in his legs, some time has passed.

"The tap is broken," Joonmyun announces, walking back into the bedroom.

"Leaking?" Jongdae sets down a plastic bag of groceries, and two overnight bags. Joonmyun had barely had time to dress this morning, so he's surprised to see that one of them is his.

"No, the water doesn't come out, no matter how much I turn it." He walks over and unzips the bag. The clothes neatly folded inside are all his.

"We'll tell reception next time we go down," Jongdae says, sitting down in a chair by the coffee table and pulling some pieces of paper from the pocket of his jacket. He glances up sheepishly when he notices Joonmyun looking through the bag, confused.

"I packed some of your stuff while you were asleep and the others were out. I hope that's okay?" The hesitant lilt is back in Jongdae's voice. Joonmyun doesn't like the way doubt looks on Jongdae, a little small and a little tight around the eyes.

"Of course it is," he says, and Jongdae smiles, his relief sparkling brighter than the azure ocean behind him. "What are these?" he asks, sitting down in the chair opposite Jongdae.

"Maps. Apparently there are great hiking trails around here." Jongdae glances up at him through his eyelashes. "If you're feeling up to it, that is."

Joonmyun presses his lips together. They're dry, but he can taste the salt clinging to them. "I am."

They set out mid-afternoon, the air cold but the sun bright and high in the sky. Jongdae walks beside him as they cross the street parallel to the beach, backpack on his shoulders and a folded map in his hand. The town is set into a cove, two high cliffs rising in a crescent shape either side of the beach.

Jongdae comes to a stop when they reach the sand. "So," he begins, head swivelling left and right, and then looking to Joonmyun. "Which one do you want to climb?"

Joonmyun has always liked to be in control. "Left," he says decisively. The trees are thicker, and it's a little higher than the cliff on the right.

"Left it is," Jongdae says, setting off down the road. Joonmyun follows a moment later, a gentle, salty breeze stirring in the treetops.

The trail up the cliff is too narrow to walk two abreast, so Joonmyun lets Jongdae walk ahead of him. It's shadier here, beneath the tall pine trees. The path turns to rock and gravel as they climb, and it's slippery with sand. Joonmyun watches Jongdae's sneakers in front of him to know where to tread.

It takes just under an hour before the path ahead of them lightens significantly. A few steps later Jongdae's shoulders and his messy, russet hair illuminate with sunlight, a few more and Joonmyun feels his own skin warm. He blinks, momentarily blinded, before the scene in front of him resolves.

The ocean stretches out before him into the distance, a huge expanse of the deepest sapphire, glittering where the sunlight catches on the surface. The sky is clear, a desaturated mirror of the ocean below it. It's still cold, but with the sun and the exertion of the walk, Joonmyun can't feel it.

Jongdae is sitting on a raised rock a few metres from the end of the trail, a few more metres from the fenced off edge of the cliff. Joonmyun sits beside him, accepts the bottle of water Jongdae wordlessly offers him. He takes the apple Jongdae hands him too, without much thought. The first bite goes down easier than anything has in months, and Jongdae hides his smile against the curve of his own shoulder.

In the centre of Seoul, silence is cold and jagged and dangerous, like panes of shattered glass. But here, the silence is welcoming, organic, alive with birdsong and the crush of water on rock far below. Jongdae is quiet too, but it's a warm silence, like he belongs here.

They sit atop the cliff watching the ever-changing blue of the sea until the day wanes enough that the edge of chill in the air has Joonmyun shivering beneath his clothes.

"Should we go back down?" Jongdae asks. It's the first time either of them have spoken in a while.

"We should," Joonmyun says, dusting his jeans off as he stands. Jongdae packs everything back into his bag as Joonmyun goes right up to the railing. He leans over, looks down to where the elements violently clash; water against earth.

"Joonmyun?" Jongdae is standing at the top of the path, looking back at him patiently.

Joonmyun glances over the edge a final time. "I'm coming."

Joonmyun takes a deep breath that leaves the taste of salt and pine on the back of his tongue, and lets Jongdae lead the way off the cliffs.

 

 

They eat at a barbecue restaurant Jongdae had spotted on his way to the supermarket in the afternoon. It's almost empty, a few older couples dotting the booths around them and one bored-looking waitress. Joonmyun unwraps his scarf from around his face, even though he's not wearing makeup. He hasn't been in public with his bare face uncovered for a long time. It feels strange.

Joonmyun lets Jongdae grill the meat because he knows he secretly likes to do it. Jongdae is smiley and hums under his breath to the backing track of sizzling meat. The waitress keeps throwing furtive glances at the back of his head over the counter. Her hand doesn't twitch in the direction of her phone; it's not the kind of look that says I know you, but rather I don't know you but I'd like to.

Joonmyun smiles against the rim of his glass. "The waitress is into you," he murmurs across the table.

Jongdae chokes on the melody in his throat. "I'm sorry, what?" he splutters, throwing a glance over his shoulder.

"The waitress is undressing you with her eyes." Jongdae gives him a sceptical look. "I'm serious! She's pretty. Our age, too." Joonmyun raises a suggestive eyebrow at him.

Jongdae flips a strip of pork particularly violently. "Please don't do that. The eyebrow thing," he says, but his ears are turning pink.

A few minutes later the waitress brings them a bottle of soju and two glasses. "On the house," she purrs, her eyes locked on Jongdae. She smiles, leaning over much further than strictly necessary when setting the bottle down. Jongdae's eyes flick to her chest. He gulps visibly, and Joonmyun has to bite the inside of his cheek to stop from laughing.

"Fine, you were right," Jongdae hisses once she leaves.

Joonmyun laughs. "So, should I book a separate room for tonight?" he teases, and Jongdae grabs the bottle of soju with both hands and opens it so fast some of it sloshes onto the table.

Everything becomes a little fuzzy after that. They finish the meat and call for more. Jongdae's voice comes out lower, and his laugh goes the other way, pitching so high that other patrons turn to stare.

Joonmyun is fumbling to open their fourth-- fifth? bottle of soju when he hears it.

"Maybe you should slow down."

"Oh, shut up," he mumbles, shaking his head to clear it.

"I didn't say anything," Jongdae slurs, peering at him through half-closed eyes, slumping against the wall of the booth.

"Wasn't talking to you," Joonmyun says, pouring himself another glass.

"Oh. Okay," Jongdae says. He takes a piece of meat from the grill with his chopsticks but drops it on his chest before he can eat it. Joonmyun laughs into his rice.

They stagger out into the cold and dark some time later. Jongdae is pink-cheeked and laughing as he sways on his own two feet.

Joonmyun glances back at the restaurant briefly. "We're going back alone tonight?"

Jongdae's smile dulls for a moment. He doesn't look at Joonmyun. "Yeah," he says, moonlight blazing silver on the planes of his face. "Yeah, we are."

The two of them are not exactly coordinated at the best of times, and this is certainly not that. The walk between the hotel and the restaurant takes them twice as long as it did on the way there. Only once does he have to grab Jongdae by the shoulders when he lurches too close to the road as Suho murmurs "Car."

"Thanks," Joonmyun says, as the headlights fade. Jongdae peers up at him strangely from where he's nestled underneath Joonmyun's arm. Suho doesn't reply.

They navigate the staircase with some difficulty collapse onto their respective beds.

"I think," Jongdae says very slowly, "we are drunk."

Joonmyun hums in agreement. The room is spinning around him, but in a pleasant, fuzzy way. "Can I ask you something personal?"

"Preferably not," Jongdae mutters, his voice muffled into his pillow.

"Are you a virgin?" Joonmyun says, and Jongdae sits bolt upright and stares at Joonmyun.

"What? Just curious, no one knows." Within the group there's an unspoken knowledge of what most of them have or haven't done; Jongin's never touched a girl, Chanyeol seven, Yixing just one. Jongdae, and Joonmyun for that matter, is one of the few that's either never disclosed or the people's he's told have managed to keep it quiet. Minseok if anyone, maybe Baekhyun too.

Jongdae looks conflicted. "I'm not," he says. "I've... I've, yeah." He looks like he has more to say, but his mouth falls into a tense line.

"Just once?" Joonmyun presses. He hasn't been this drunk in a while. He'd forgotten how quickly and completely his tact goes out the window.

"Just one person. Not... not just once," Jongdae says, still a definite furrow to his brow.

"Same," Joonmyun says, stretching his arms out above him. "Just one person, I mean. But only once." Jongdae is curious now, a hint of a smile tilting the corners of his lips. He looks like a cat. "She went to my high school. We were both young. It didn't mean anything."

"So were we," Jongdae says, leaning back against the headboard, tongue loosened by the alcohol. "In high school, I mean. It might've meant something though, I think."

Joonmyun wriggles out of his coat and throws it onto the floor between them. "It usually does," he says. He doesn't mean it to sound sad, but it does. "Who was she?" he asks.

Something in Jongdae's jaw jumps. "An exchange student, from England."

"An exchange? That's some real daytime drama storyline shit, that is."

The muscle in Jongdae's jaw locks. "It's really not."

Joonmyun tilts his head. The room spins again, but Jongdae stays focused at the centre of the chaos. "Why? Did you get her pregnant or something?"

Jongdae laughs a little. "No. God, no."

"What’s wrong?" Joonmyun asks, "I think a mini Jongdae running around England, screaming perfect high G notes would be pretty cute."

Jongdae snorts. He pulls his coat from his shoulders too, tossing it on top of Joonmyun's.

"What was her name?" Joonmyun asks.

"Alex," Jongdae says, lips twisting into an almost smile.

"And she left?"

"Yeah. After a semester. " Jongdae picks at the bedsheets beneath him. "I used to think about it a lot. All the time, because I knew I'd never be able to have anything like that again. Not in this profession."

"You could, though. It's risky, but it's possible. Just look at Baekhyun."

Jongdae laughs, but it's low and dark. He runs a harsh hand through his hair and doesn't answer.

"You still think about her?" Joonmyun asks.

"I used to. But lately, not so much." There's something beneath that too, something Jongdae's not saying, but Jongdae stays silent and Joonmyun doesn't ask.

They quiet for a time, and Joonmyun reaches up and switches off the light. He thinks Jongdae might be asleep until he rolls over in the bed next to him and sighs audibly.

"Does he ever talk to you?" Joonmyun asks into the darkness.

Jongdae stills. "You mean... No, not to me. But he's been talking to Yixing, sort of. They make Lu Han send messages between them, an 'ask him how he's been' and a 'tell him I liked his movie' every few weeks, like he’s their pigeon. It's kind of cute."

"Wait, you're talking about... No, no, not Yifan." Joonmyun frowns.

"Then who do you mean?" Jongdae sounds confused.

Joonmyun swallows hard. "Chen."

"Chen?" Jongdae's voice is lower now, hushed with concern. "Joonmyun, I am Chen. He can't talk to me."

Joonmyun doesn't say anything. He can see Jongdae's silhouette propped on his elbows in the bed across, staring at him.

"Go to sleep, Joonmyun," he says finally, his shadow falling back into the bed.

Joonmyun stares at his still form for a few moments before he too rolls over and closes his eyes.

 

 

When Joonmyun wakes Jongdae is out and the air is heavy, crackling with expectation. He gets out of the bed and opens the curtains. The sea outside is dark and tumultuous, the sky a web of low-hanging grey cloud.

"It's going to rain," he says softly, his breath fogging on the glass.

"Wait for Jongdae."

"No, I have to go out there." Joonmyun is still in the clothes he slept in the night before, jeans and a now crumpled white sweater. He steps into his shoes and is out the door in moments. The clock in the lobby reads 10:22. It ticks audibly as he passes underneath it.

Outside the air is even more potent than it had been inside, an almost electric buzz conducted on the humidity. Joonmyun sets off toward the forest at the base of the cliff at the right of the cove.

"Go back inside. Wait for Jongdae."

"No," Joonmyun murmurs. "No, I can't. It's going to rain."

This forest feels different to the one on the other side of the cove. It's bigger, emptier, more gloomy. He can't hear birdsong or imagine Jongdae's laugh ricocheting off the old wood, only the forlorn howling of the wind through the treetops remaining.

Joonmyun shivers. His sweater is thin and he'd left his coat on the floor of the hotel room. He can't go back for it now, and after a while the bite of cold fades into numbness.

He walks for a long time, running his hands along the bark of ancient trees, leaves crunching damply underfoot. There's a break in the tree line, and beyond it a field. Joonmyun looks up at the sky as he crosses it. It looks even heavier, even darker than when he'd walked into the forest. He holds out his palm, but there's still no sign of rain.

There's a building across from the hill, red brick and grimy concrete. He walks up the steps and peers inside. It's empty, abandoned, shattered glass and discarded bricks inside. Graffiti litters the bare concrete walls.

There's an unbroken window at the end of the room, letting in weak sunlight as it overlooks the fields. He steps up carefully on the windowsill, keeping one hand on the frame for balance. He can see the next hill over. The clouds above it are ominous, nearly black.

He leaves the building through the back exit. There's a drained swimming pool here, in a clearing surrounded by trees. He turns his face to the sky again. The sky is dark and swirling, and he can all but feel the phantom drops of rain on his face.

He drops into the empty swimming pool. The walls rise up just beyond his head, and he walks to the other end before sitting, his back propped against the wall.

"Joonmyun, go back."

He says nothing. The muffled crack of thunder rings out in the distance, drawing ever closer, and Joonmyun drops his head, looks down at his hands. A final burst of thunder, gunfire loud. Joonmyun tips his head back, looks up at the sky, and it's then that the dam breaks.

Joonmyun closes his eyes just as the first drop of rain falls onto his cheek.

 

 

The boom of thunder, impossibly close and impossibly loud, is the next thing Joonmyun is aware of. The water has filled the pool up to his chest, and the storm seems to be screaming his name.

The sky flashes again and, in a moment of still clarity, illuminates a figure standing atop the edge of the pool. He hears his name again, and that definitely wasn't the storm. He lets his head fall back against the wall.

The next thing he knows are hands, so so impossibly warm, on his skin, his wrists, his face, his shoulders, and a voice saying, "Joonmyun, Joonmyun oh god, what have you done?" against the side of his face.

Another flash of lightning, and Joonmyun is left with an imprint on his eyelids of Jongdae, his hair soaked and falling over his face, his lips blue with cold and his clothes soaked through. Jongdae, kneeling in the filthy water, holding Joonmyun's face between his hands and looking down at him like he thought he'd never see him again.

"Jongdae," Joonmyun whispers, lips numb and voice barely audible.

"Jesus, Joonmyun. How long have you been out here?" Jongdae pulls him against his chest. "I'm sorry. I should've found you sooner. I'm so sorry." The lightning flashes again, this time only giving Joonmyun an up close view of Jongdae's chest. The following crack of thunder is a little softer, a little later than the one before it had been.

"Don't scare me like that." Jongdae is so close that his soft tenor runs through Joonmyun's entire body. "Don't ever do that to me again, Joonmyun." His voice is desperate, thick and wavering with emotion. "You hear me? Never."

Jongdae pulls away and the absence of his body heat brings attention to the fact that Joonmyun is cold, cold right down to his bones, colder than he's ever been in his life.

"Come on, Joonmyun," Jongdae says. "Let's go."

Joonmyun shakes his head vehemently. "There's a storm. I can't go back, not yet."

Jongdae takes Joonmyun's face between his palms and forces him to look at him. "It's over, Joonmyun. The storm is over." The rain is falling around them in a weary drizzle, and the wind has abated enough that Jongdae doesn't need to shout to be heard. The sky, dark with night, not storm clouds, flashes, but the answering crack of thunder is distant, growing farther and farther away. "It's time to go."

"Go, Joonmyun. Go with him."

A shiver runs up the entire length of Joonmyun’s body. "Okay," he says, and allows Jongdae to pull him to his feet and lead him out of the aftermath of the storm.

 

 

Joonmyun is barely able to keep his feet by the time they're back at the room, his legs trembling too badly beneath him to support his own weight. The moment the door closes behind them Jongdae has him propped against the wall. He undoes the button of Joonmyun’s soaked jeans and pulls them down his legs, helps Joonmyun balance as he steps out of them. He pulls his sweater off too, soaked through with dirty water and freezing to touch.

Jongdae strips back the covers on his bed and manhandles Joonmyun into his bed, pulling the blankets back over him. Joonmyun shivers and shivers as Jongdae takes off his own sodden clothes.

It hurts.

"Tell him."

"Jongdae?" Joonmyun's voice comes out small and weak.

Jongdae stills, shirt halfway off, and turns to look at him. "Yes?"

"You know the polaroids Yifan used to stick on the wall by his bed?"

"What about them?" Jongdae pulls on a dry shirt and sits down at the edge of Joonmyun's bed.

"When he left for China that last time he only took three with him. One of EXO M, one of him and Zitao and one of him and Yixing. He left mine there."

Jongdae stills. "I'm sorry. That's not fair."

"I know I was never his closest friend or anything like that, but I... I thought he'd be the one I could count on no matter what. And he didn't even care enough to keep my photo."

"Joonmyun..."

"Did you know that when we were trainees, I was almost always the last one out of the dance studio? It was Jongin, sometimes, but more often than not it was me. I don't bring it up often. It doesn't make for as good a story as Jongin's. Not as inspiring. Not when I still dance like this." He laughs a little but it's short and humourless, shaky because of the continuous shivering of his body.

"Joonmyun, I--"

"My parents don't have any other children," he says. He's never said it out loud before, but the phrase is so familiar he could say it in his sleep. "This group doesn't have any other leader." This phrase is newer, but just as binding. "I've given everyone everything. Sometimes I wonder whether there's anything left for me."

Jongdae presses a warm palm to his cheek. "You're freezing," he says softly, and then pulls back the covers and climbs in beside him.

Jongdae tenses at the first press of their skin. Jongdae's body feels like a furnace against his, so he can only imagine how icy he must feel against Jongdae's bare skin. Their legs tangle, and Joonmyun sighs, presses his face into Jongdae's neck.

Jongdae has a lot of warmth to give, but Joonmyun has been handing his out for years. He doesn't have any of his own left, and not even Jongdae can replace what he's lost.

"I'm cold," he murmurs some time later, still shaking in Jongdae's arms.

Jongdae rolls out of bed and Joonmyun whines at the loss of his heat, until Jongdae is wrapping his arms around him and pulling him out too. He leads him into the bathroom and switches on the shower with one hand, keeping Joonmyun anchored upright with the other.

The spray is scalding on his bare back when he steps under it, and he curls into Jongdae. The lights are still off, and there's silvery steam forming against the backdrop of darkness. The water isn't so hot anymore, and he can feel his muscles thawing out, relaxing. Jongdae is still standing against him, shirt newly soaked, arms holding Joonmyun up. Joonmyun lets himself slump into him, lets Jongdae take his weight.

"Better?" Jongdae asks, after long enough that Joonmyun can feel the tip of his nose and all his fingers again.

"Better," Joonmyun confirms. He feels one of Jongdae's arms unwind from around him and reach for the tap. He catches it with one of his own. "But can we stay here? For just a little longer."

Jongdae stills, then places his arm tentatively back around Joonmyun. "Okay. We can stay."

Once both their skin is wrinkled and the steam is so thick he can barely see a foot in front of him, Jongdae switches the water off. Joonmyun is exhausted, too sleepy to do more than loll on Jongdae's shoulder. Jongdae drapes them in a single towel and dries them both. He pauses when he gets to Joonmyun's soaked boxer shorts.

"You should take these off, or you'll get cold again," he says, voice hesitant but deeper than Joonmyun's ever heard it.

"Yeah," Joonmyun agrees, but can't find the will to lift his drained limbs. After a pause, Jongdae reaches over and hooks his thumbs in the elastic, pulling them down efficiently, letting Joonmyun kick them off once they reach the ground.

"I'll find you a dry pair," Jongdae says, and it's dark in the bathroom but Joonmyun's sure Jongdae's face is blazing red.

Jongdae helps him step into the dry pair when he comes back, with averted eyes and no unnecessary touching. He helps Joonmyun, warm and sleepy, back to his own bed, before changing his own sodden clothes for the second time that evening.

Joonmyun is falling into the clutches of sleep when he sees Jongdae climbing into the bed opposite him through half closed eyes.

"Are you going to make me ask?" Joonmyun says, words dull from sleep. Jongdae looks at him, uncertain hope flashing across his face. Joonmyun pulls back the covers of his own bed in invitation.

Jongdae's smile is blinding even in the dark. He climbs in beside Joonmyun, and lets him sling an arm across his waist, to press his face into a chest that is still warm from the shower spray.

With the ghosts of a storm fading into the past and only warmth around him, Joonmyun slips into an easy, dreamless sleep.

 

 

When Joonmyun opens the curtains the next morning, the sky is cloudless and bluer than it’s been in a long time. Jongdae groans at the light and rolls over in bed behind him, and when Joonmyun turns he has disappeared completely beneath a mound of blankets.

Joonmyun makes breakfast in the tiny kitchenette with the groceries Jongdae bought on their first day. He leaves a bowl in a slowly blinking Jongdae's hands as he props himself up in bed, and then eats his sitting by the window, watching the calm, deep blue ocean.

The day blurs away easily. After breakfast they go for a walk along the length of the cove. Joonmyun collects shells and Jongdae plays in the waves, running in as close as he can when the shoreline pulls back and stumbling away when the next wave comes. He misjudges and gets both shoes horribly wet, so takes them off and rolls up his jeans, walking ankle deep in the water.

They explore the town after, weaving through tiny antique shops and souvenir stands. Jongdae buys a stack of old records and Joonmyun finds a bracelet, a simple strap of black leather with a single silver bead.

"That looks nice on you," Jongdae comments as he passes. It reminds Joonmyun of the sea, so he hands the lady behind the counter the correct sum and keeps it on his wrist.

They have lunch at a little cafe on the boardwalk at the edge of the cove, overhanging the sea. Jongdae falls asleep on top of his bed when they go back to the room, mid-afternoon sunlight streaming down on his still form. Joonmyun notices his phone sitting on the coffee table and, after a moment of deliberation, picks it up and slips out of the room.

He checks the time, and then brings up the keypad on Jongdae's phone and types in one of the few numbers he knows by heart. The phone is picked up after two rings.

"Hello, Kim residence." There are sounds of soft sizzling in the background.

"Hi, mother. It's me."

"Oh Joonmyun, good. I've been meaning to call you. Will you be in town this January? Your cousin is getting married and I need to RSVP to the wedding."

"I'll check with management and get back to you," Joonmyun says, looking out across the ocean and picking at his thumbnail.

"Good, please do. How is everything? This isn't your usual number." Her voice is slightly distant, and there are sounds of cutlery clinking, like she's holding the phone between her shoulder and ear as she cooks.

"I'm using a friend's phone. Ma, do you remember when I tried out for basketball in sixth grade?"

"Yes, of course. Your shoes got stolen. What about it?"

Joonmyun heaves out a sigh. "I lied. My shoes weren't stolen. I was cut from tryouts and pretended my shoes were taken so I wouldn't have to tell you."

The sound of clinking utensils stops and for a long moment, Joonmyun's mother is silent. "Why?" she asks finally.

"Because I wanted you and Dad to be proud of me, the way Aunty and Uncle were of Chanshik. I didn't want to disappoint--"

"No, Joonmyun," his mother interrupts. "I mean, why are you telling me this now?"

Joonmyun kicks at the loose gravel beneath his feet. A light, salty breeze tugs at his clothes. "I don't know. I guess I just wanted you to know."

His mother hums. The sounds of cooking start back up. "Well, thank you for telling me. You didn't have to do that."

"I know," Joonmyun says, but there's the strangest relief in his chest, as open as the sky around him.

"Do you want to speak to your father? He'll be home from work soon."

"No, it's okay. Just give him my love." Joonmyun scratches at the back of his head.

"Okay, I will. And Joonmyun?"

"Yes, mother?"

"We've always been very proud of you. I hope you know that."

Joonmyun smiles down at his shoes. "I... Thank you."

"Get back to me about January, okay?"

"I will. Bye, mom." Joonmyun hangs up and smiles up at the blazing sun for a few moments, before walking back into the hotel lobby.

He nearly collides with Jongdae, his hair a mess and pure panic in his eyes.

"Jongdae?" he asks, catching him by the shoulders. "Is everything okay?"

"You..." Jongdae says, breathing fast. "I woke up and you were gone again and I thought... I thought maybe..."

Joonmyun holds up the phone in his hand. "I had to make a call. You thought what? I'd gotten lost again?" Jongdae swallows hard, nods. Joonmyun stoops to catch his gaze, which is anchored somewhere near Joonmyun's chest. "Hey, look at me."

Jongdae does, his brow knotted over wide, tragic eyes. "Do you know what it was like, to get back to the room just as the rain started and not be able to find you anywhere?" Jongdae bites his lip as Joonmyun feels his heart wrench, just a little, in his chest. Quieter, he says, "When I looked down into that swimming pool and saw you curled up like that I almost... Only your shoulders and head were still above the water, Joonmyun! Do you realise how--" Jongdae breaks off, the sunlight sparkling wet and bright in his eyes. He takes a deep, trembling breath. "You were so still and so pale and as cold as ice and I... I've never been so scared in my life."

Jongdae looks so small as he stands there, bottom lip caught between his teeth and eyes downcast, breath quick and tremulous. Joonmyun reaches out and pulls Jongdae against him so he won't crumble where he stands. "I'm sorry," Joonmyun says, as Jongdae hesitantly brings his arms up around Joonmyun's waist. "I'm so sorry."

"Promise me." Jongdae's voice is muffled against Joonmyun's shoulder. "Promise me you won't let it go that far again. Promise me that, from now on, you'll let me in."

Joonmyun feels the cloudless sky above them, and hears the rush of the ocean behind him. There won't be any rain for a long time, but that's okay. "I promise, Jongdae."

 

 

I've worked you out. Joonmyun sits alone on his bed, waning sunlight pressing pale into the room and cooling breeze drifting in through open windows.

"Have you?”

Yes. You're a paradox.

"By definition, paradoxes cannot exist, Joonmyun."

I know. Jongdae has gone to find a place for dinner. He should be back soon. But you don't exist.

"Don't I?"

No, I don't think so. Not here, at least. Joonmyun sighs, fixes his gaze out the window. You came because I needed help. I was... I wasn't in a good place, but that's the only reason you could speak to me, wasn't it? You've never done that before, but somehow I-- I feel like you've been with me for a long time, just watching. My whole life, maybe.

Suho's voice is smiling, when he next speaks. "I did tell you that I was a friend, the first time we spoke. I have never lied to you."

Tell me then, who-- what are you? Joonmyun frowns, chewing on his lip. Why would you help me? That's the only thing I don't understand.

"You do understand, Joonmyun. Deep down, you always have. That is the truth."

Joonmyun closes his eyes and he is ten years old again, and the rain is breaking through the clear blue sheet of sky just so he'll have someone to hold him as he cries. You know, I think you might be right.

There's a pause. "Does this mean that I'm leaving?"

Joonmyun smiles down at his lap. Yes, I think so. I'm better now, I think, or getting there at least. That's the paradox, you see. You can't be here when I'm well, and when I'm not your only purpose is to make me well again, and then you must disappear. Joonmyun pauses. It's autumn now, but it won't be autumn forever. In eight months the summer rains will be back, a billion perfect pieces of light falling over soil and city and sea, wherever Joonmyun may be. Perhaps that's the wrong word. You'll always be there, won't you? Even if we cannot speak.

"You see? You do understand after all."

Joonmyun tilts his head to stare out at the great expanse of ocean beyond the window. You'll be there, but. I'll miss you, all the same.

Suho's voice is sad and soft, like the last shower of the season. "You won't be lonely?"

A key slides into the lock and the door opens. Jongdae's voice rings excitedly out from the entryway. "I found a fried chicken place by the edge of the cove!"

Joonmyun smiles. No, I won't.

"I see." There's an amused lilt to Suho's words. Maybe Joonmyun's imagining it, but his voice seems quieter than before. "I guess this is it, then."

It is. Thank you, for everything.

"You're welcome." His voice is fading quickly now, barely audible. "Goodbye, Joonmyun. Take care."

Jongdae comes bounding into the room and Joonmyun lets him pull him to his feet and, after one final look back into the now empty depths of his mind, drag him out the door.

 

 

They order a box of fried chicken and take it down onto the boardwalk, sitting at the end with their legs swinging off the edge as they eat. The sun is setting in a spectacular smear of crimson and gold across the sky.

Joonmyun takes a sip of his beer and leans back on his hands. His lips quirk up into a faint smile, but he's not amused. "God. What happened to me?"

Jongdae pauses, then takes a measured sip of his own beer. "You broke under the pressure, I guess." He puts his thumb in his mouth and sucks the flavouring off. "It was pretty scary. We lost you for a while there." He glances at Joonmyun out of the corner of his eye. "But you came back."

"You brought me back," Joonmyun corrects, and Jongdae smiles, small and tentative, down at his lap.

Once the sunset has dissolved into black and they've both finished their beers, they go back to the room. Jongdae steps in first, kicking off his shoes, and Joonmyun lets the door click shut behind him.

Jongdae glances up at the sound and notices Joonmyun standing motionless, staring at him. "What?" he asks, pulling himself upright cautiously.

"Jongdae," Joonmyun says quietly, and Jongdae swallows harshly. "On the first night, why didn't you bring that waitress back here?"

The lights are still off, and the curtains only let in faint starlight. Even still, Joonmyun can see the way Jongdae instantly pales. "I... We weren't here for that. I wasn't here for that. I was here for you, to help you get better. That's all."

Joonmyun takes a half step closer, and Jongdae freezes as he watches the receding distance between them, like a deer in headlights. "Jongdae," Joonmyun says again. "Your exchange student. The one from England. Alex." Jongdae squeezes his eyes shut, like he's awaiting a blow. He nods.

"What was Alex short for?" Joonmyun asks, slowly, carefully.

Jongdae's body is so still, so tense, that Joonmyun is afraid he might hurt himself. Finally, with hands clenching and unclenching by his sides and eyes downcast, he says, "Alexander."

Joonmyun takes a step closer, and another, until he's right in front of Jongdae. He slides his palm against Jongdae's cheek, and he flinches. Joonmyun hates the way he looks right now, small and scared and like he wishes he could cave in on himself.

"Can I kiss you?" Joonmyun asks, and Jongdae shudders against Joonmyun's palm, then nods.

The first press of their lips is careful, tentative, all warmth and no pressure. Jongdae's lips are chapped from the sea breeze, and his skin smells like salt and sunlight.

When Joonmyun pulls away Jongdae is staring back at him, his eyes awed and shining and darker than anything Joonmyun's ever seen. Joonmyun isn't sure of much. He signed his life away at sixteen. He didn't think he'd be able to have anyone to call his own, even if just for a night, not for a very long time at least. But he does know he likes the way Jongdae looks now, his eyes liquid black and his breath short. He knows that right now, in this moment, there's nothing he wants more than he wants Jongdae.

If their first was the gentle lapping of waves at the shore, their second kiss is the sea smashing against the rocks, all fury and force and passion. Joonmyun's breath leaves his body as Jongdae all but throws himself into his arms, his mouth warm and wet and insistent against Joonmyun's.

Jongdae pushes and Joonmyun falls back into the wall with a thud, and then Jongdae's lips are at his neck, mouthing down to his collarbone. Jongdae's hips fit perfectly into his palms, and when he thumbs at his hipbones Jongdae lets out the softest sound against his skin, teeth clamping down slightly.

And Joonmyun had never even considered it before, whether he might, whether he could want this. But the way Jongdae's firm body feels pressed up against his own, the way the breathless little sounds Jongdae makes have him twitching in his pants, is answer enough.

Jongdae kisses him again, mouth wet and parted. He tangles his fingers in Joonmyun's hair, and as Joonmyun winds his hand around Jongdae and skates a hand over the curve of his ass, he whines against Joonmyun's mouth and tugs hard on the strands.

Jongdae breaks away and looks up at Joonmyun, his pupils blown. Slowly, deliberately, he presses Joonmyun into the wall using his hips, aligning them through the material of their jeans. The first stroke of Jongdae's hips has Joonmyun jerking against the wall, his head falling forward, the second moaning aloud into Jongdae's neck as pleasure sparks up his spine.

Jongdae sets a steady pace that is slowly driving Joonmyun to madness. He presses his lips into Joonmyun's jawline, his cheek, so much tenderness in the action that his legs tremble and his head spins.

"What do you want, Joonmyun?" Jongdae's voice is low and hoarse, and Joonmyun bites at his lip so hard he tastes salt. "Tell me what you want."

Joonmyun's mind is still hazy, distracted by the rhythm of Jongdae's hips, but he speaks only truth when he murmurs, into the side of Jongdae’s neck, "Anything. Everything. You."

Jongdae laughs, soft and breathless, against Joonmyun's cheek, and then everything spins and Joonmyun is falling back against one of the beds, landing propped on his elbows.

Jongdae is staring at him from beneath his eyelashes. Slowly, deliberately, his hands find the hem of his sweater, and then, gaze still burning holes into Joonmyun, he tugs it over his head, revealing planes of hard muscle and skin that looks unbearably smooth.

Jongdae crawls slowly up into Joonmyun's lap and settles on his thighs. Running his hands over Jongdae's bare chest, Joonmyun finds that, in fact, his skin is as soft as it looks, and so, so warm. He grips Jongdae's taut, slim waist as he pulls himself up, pressing his lips to the underside of Jongdae's jaw.

Fingers clench in the shoulders of Joonmyun's shirt as he thumbs at Jongdae's waist and tastes his skin, salty and warm. Jongdae lets his head fall back as he groans, Joonmyun feeling it reverberate against his lips.

Pressing his hands into Jongdae's lower back, Joonmyun tugs hard, pulling Jongdae forward completely onto his lap. Jongdae's weight settles over Joonmyun's crotch, and he groans into Jongdae's bare chest as Jongdae grinds his hips down.

Jongdae pulls Joonmyun's shirt over his head, and it's not long until they're both down to their underwear, Joonmyun straddling Jongdae's hips and pressing him down into the mattress, kissing him breathless.

And only when Jongdae's fingers skate down his rib cage to tease at the waistband of his briefs, does Joonmyun hesitate. Jongdae senses it, and stills.

"I've never...” Joonmyun says, his voice sticking in his throat. “Not like this. I don't know what to do."

Jongdae takes one of Joonmyun's hands, and presses a kiss to the centre of his palm. "We can stop, if you want."

"No, I still want... I just..." Joonmyun tightens his thighs around Jongdae and rolls them over in one swift movement. Jongdae makes a surprised sound, a hybrid of a laugh and a gasp, and as Joonmyun takes one of his hands and leads it down between them, past the bulge in his underwear, down, down, Jongdae's laughter peters off into a low groan.

He rests his fingertips lightly against him, only thin material separating him from being right where Joonmyun really wants him. "Are you sure?” Jongdae asks, his voice trembling but as dark as the night. “It'll be easier the other way, for the first time."

Joonmyun has always liked to be in control. But maybe like this, maybe for Jongdae, who drove halfway across the country so he could show Joonmyun the ocean, who was out in a thunderstorm for hours searching for him, maybe he's willing to give it up. Joonmyun plants his feet and pushes himself down into Jongdae’s touch, and even the slight pressure against his rim has his stomach fluttering. He gasps, and in a desperate voice he didn't know he had, says, "I'm sure, I’m so sure-- god, Jongdae, please."

"Fuck," Jongdae swears, eyes dark as they drag over Joonmyun. "You should see yourself right now. Holy fuck." He crawls off the bed and goes to his overnight bag, rummaging around in a side pocket.

"I borrowed this bag from Baekhyun," he says, as he comes back toward the bed. "And I'd rather not think about the implications behind that right now." He drops a condom and a small bottle of lube onto the bed and settles back between Joonmyun's legs.

He drops a kiss to the inside of Joonmyun's knee, and hooks his hands in the waistband of Joonmyun's underwear. Unlike last night, when Jongdae takes off his briefs this time it's all rough palms dragging over his hips and fluttering fingertips on the insides of his thighs. Joonmyun lifts his hips to help, laughing when they catch around his ankles and Jongdae struggles to untangle them.

And then Jongdae's slicked up fingers are grazing him in places he's never even thought about being touched before this moment. He looks down and sees Jongdae's intent gaze on his own hand between Joonmyun’s legs, before the touch at his rim becomes a pressure and the pressure builds into a stretch and--

"Oh." Joonmyun gasps, because it's strange and new and, as Jongdae's finger drags in and out shallowly, unbelievably good. "More, please, I want--"

Jongdae smoothes a hand over his hip soothingly. "You haven't even taken one finger yet. Relax. Be patient." There's a lilt of amusement in Jongdae's voice, but with the way he stares down at his own finger disappearing inside Joonmyun, Joonmyun doesn't think he finds the situation very funny.

Joonmyun doesn't either, when Jongdae's finger presses into him impossibly deeper, as far as it can go. His muscles contract instinctively against the intrusion, and Jongdae's mouth drops open. "God," he whispers, as Joonmyun's muscles flutter. "God, you're so..." He trails off as he drops a kiss to the inner crease of Joonmyun's thigh, pressing his finger in and out at a maddening pace.

"I want to try something. Tell me if you want me to stop," Jongdae murmurs, his breath hot against Joonmyun's thighs. Joonmyun is about to ask what when Jongdae drops another kiss to his inner thigh and then pulls his finger out. Joonmyun realises, and then a split second later he feels something very warm and very wet nudging his rim.

Joonmyun's fingers grasp desperately at the sheets and he arches as Jongdae's tongue dips shallowly into him. "Fuck," he gasps. Jongdae's tongue circles his hole, then delves in again, even deeper. "Fuck." His voice breaks harshly, and Jongdae laughs against him, the vibrations making him jerk like he's been struck by lightning.

Jongdae reaches up and skates his fingertips up and down Joonmyun's length, and Joonmyun all but sobs from the stimulation. "Please," he begs, not sure what he's asking for, only that he knows Jongdae can give it to him. "Please, oh god, please."

Jongdae sits back on his knees and his hand moves back between Joonmyun's legs. The intrusion feels bigger than anything Joonmyun's had in him up until now, and Joonmyun bites his lips as Jongdae rocks it into him slowly. "Two?" he asks breathily, and Jongdae's eyes flick up to him briefly, the intent in them making him shudder.

"Two," he confirms, just as his knuckles brush the outside of Joonmyun's body. With a quirk to his shining lips, Jongdae does something with his fingers that makes Joonmyun's entire body seize with pleasure. Joonmyun cries out, rocking down on Jongdae's hand as hard as he can in this position.

Jongdae nudges another finger up against Joonmyun's body, and when he slides it in along the others the stretch is just on this side of painful. It must show on his face, because Jongdae leans down and licks a long stripe up the underside of Joonmyun's cock, and laps lightly at the sensitive head as works his fingers in and out patiently until the slide is easier.

Then Jongdae's fingers are gone and so are his briefs, and he's rolling a condom down his hard length, squirting lube into his palm and spreading it over himself, and settling between Joonmyun's legs.

"Jongdae?" Joonmyun asks, and Jongdae props himself up on elbows either side of Joonmyun's head, so close that their lips almost touch. "Why don't you think about Alex anymore? What changed?" Perhaps now, just as he can feel Jongdae nudging at his stretched rim, isn't the best time to ask about Jongdae's ex-boyfriend. But he has to know.

"I met you," Jongdae says simply, and he tilts his hips so that he slides, oh so slowly, into Joonmyun.

And this stretch definitely has more than an edge of pain, but Jongdae is kissing him so fiercely that he forgets, and then his hips meet Joonmyun's ass and this, Jongdae as deep inside him as he can possibly be, feels good, so, so good, that he could stay like this forever. And then Jongdae is pulling back out and pressing back in, again and again and again, and the way he feels dragging along Joonmyun's sensitive walls is even better.

"Harder, please." Joonmyun gasps, and Jongdae complies, hips rocking with such force that Joonmyun skids upward on the bed. Jongdae drops his head to run his tongue along Joonmyun's neck, and the change in angle makes Joonmyun's cock rub against Jongdae's firm stomach.

The extra sensation makes Joonmyun tense, all his muscles pulling taut, and Jongdae cries out softly and buries himself as deep inside Joonmyun as he can go, holding himself there as Joonmyun's insides clamp down around him.

"Fuck," he mutters, shaking his head, a soft laugh in his chest and his arms shaking either side of Joonmyun's head. And then he's pulling back and hooking his hands under Joonmyun's knees, pressing them either side of his chest. He looks down at where they're connected as he rocks in and out again shallowly, his eyes half-lidded, and knowing that Jongdae is getting off on watching him spread open around his cock makes Joonmyun want to come right then and there.

Jongdae presses in even harder, deeper, and at this angle he nails Joonmyun's prostate dead on with every thrust. Pleasure sparks beneath Joonmyun's skin, peaking as Jongdae reaches between them and wraps a hand around his length, setting a steady pace. Joonmyun’s head falls back into the pillows as he moans, deep and desperate, and the arching of his back makes Jongdae slide even deeper into him.

"Fuck. Oh, fuck," Jongdae says, eyes riveted on Joonmyun's face and thrusts going impossibly harder, deeper, more perfect.

One, two, three more thrusts has the pleasure building to an unbearable peak. "Jongdae," Joonmyun gasps out once, desperately, and then he’s coming hard over his own stomach, everything fading into a haze of pleasure. Dully, he feels Jongdae's hips meet his body one final time and stay there as he pulses inside him and groans, long and deep.

When Joonmyun opens his eyes, Jongdae is collapsed on top of him, heedless of the mess smearing between their stomachs, his fingers running through Joonmyun's tangled hair.

"Holy fuck," Joonmyun says weakly, and Jongdae laughs high and melodic, like bells. He shudders when Jongdae pulls out of him, and goes to the bathroom. When Jongdae comes back he’s holding a warm washcloth, and wipes at Joonmyun's stomach and around his soft cock, even rolls him over to wipe away the excess lube on his skin, Joonmyun shuddering and oversensitive.

And then Jongdae falls on top of him, laughing as Joonmyun wheezes under the extra weight and pressing his face into Joonmyun's neck. Joonmyun wraps both arms around his bare waist and turn his head so he's looking out the open windows, over an ocean that is as calm and silent and still as, for the first time in a long while, Joonmyun's own mind

 

 

The airport is the same as last time Joonmyun had seen it, everything preserved in a static, crystalline state. The sun shines with the exact same heat against his skin, and girls wearing the same clothes, holding the same signs, crowd around two of the terminals closest to him.

There's no voice to guide him now, but that's okay. Joonmyun knows what he has to do.

He walks over to the first gate and pushes through the crowd. Yifan is there, in all his towering glory, his smile still small and gummy as ever.

"You let me down," Joonmyun says to him, and Yifan waves to the fans behind him. "I thought you and I would be in this together no matter what, and you left." Yifan pats his breast pocket to check his ticket and passport are still there. Joonmyun runs a hand through his hair. "I wish you hadn't, but I understand. I understand, and I hope we can be friends again, some day." With one final wave, Yifan turns and walks through his departure gate. Joonmyun watches him go, then turns and walks away.

At the second gate, Lu Han is hunched over his phone. "I'm sorry that it had to end like this," Joonmyun tells him. Lu Han smiles down at his phone screen. "I'm sorry you were left with no other option but this. It hasn't been easy without you, you were more important than I think any of us realised. But I know you're happier now." Joonmyun bites his lip uncertainly, but he can feel his chest lightening already. "So good luck, I guess. Come visit us sometime." There's an announcement over the loudspeaker and Lu Han stands, stretching his arms overhead. He too walks through the gate, and Joonmyun lets him go.

He walks on through the terminal, following the curve of the building to what he knows must be here. Sure enough, as he rounds a corner, a third crowd surrounds a terminal. As he nears, he hears Chanyeol's voice, deep and distinctive, carrying over the noise. Joonmyun smiles.

He pushes through the crowd, and they're all there. "Where did you go?" Jongin asks, eyes almost closed and voice vague and sleepy.

"Bathroom," he says, and Jongin nods and curls up into Sehun's side as he peers over Zitao's shoulder to scan the fashion magazine on his lap. There's an announcement over the loudspeaker, and Joonmyun can't understand it, but the others start to collect their things and move toward the gate. Joonmyun follows, waving at the fans behind them too, because why the hell not.

Jongdae steps up alongside him as they walk down the corridor. "You alright?" he asks, voice muffled and eyes concerned over the top of his mask.

"Yeah," Joonmyun says. Impulsively, he takes Jongdae's hand and doesn't let go. Jongdae looks down at their joined hands then back up at Joonmyun. There's an amused tilt to his brows, but he doesn't move away.

This is where I'm meant to be, Joonmyun thinks, and his mind is only silent in reply. Chanyeol and Baekhyun turn the corner ahead of them, and when he and Jongdae follow, the corridor tapers off into white, from floor to ceiling. It glows, like the rising sun, and the surface ripples like a light breeze over the ocean.

"Shall we go?" Jongdae asks, gesturing forward, and Joonmyun tightens his grip on his hand.

"Yeah," he says. "Let's go."

They step forward together. Joonmyun's whole body goes warm, and Jongdae's hand in his is the only solid thing in his world as he falls, flies--

Sits up in bed, the morning sunlight streaming in through the open curtains. There's something tugging at his hand.

"Too early," Jongdae murmurs, pulling at their joined hands in an attempt to get him to lie back. "Go back to sleep."

Joonmyun smiles, and lowers himself back down beside Jongdae, who drapes himself over his bare chest, settling in instantly.

And this, too, he knows with absolute certainty, is where he's meant to be.

 

 

Jongdae sings through the morning as they pack their bags, an old eighties ballad Joonmyun vaguely recognises from his mother's CD collection. Joonmyun's voice is still has its limitations, he knows, but it sounds nice layered over the top of Jongdae's. And Jongdae's blinding smile angled at him as he joins in is just as good.

"That's weird," he hears Jongdae saying from the bathroom.

"What is?" he asks, folding his clothes on his bed. Jongdae's head pokes around the doorway.

"Did you tell reception about the broken tap?" he asks, and Joonmyun shakes his head. "Neither did I. But it's working now." Jongdae ducks back inside the bathroom, and Joonmyun stares at the space where he disappeared for a moment, before he smiles and continues packing.

They drive back toward the city with the windows down and the radio turned up all the way, wind whipping so furiously in their ears they can barely hear it.

The sky above them is the cloudless blue of settled autumn and the air is cold and dry; the rainy season is over, and it won't be back until next year.

But Joonmyun has a handful of shells in the pocket of his overnight bag. He has the scent of salt pressed into his skin and threaded through his hair, and a strap of suntanned leather on his wrist that reminds him of how the sun feels on his skin.

He has Jongdae's hand in his own, and his laugh echoing colourfully in the space around him. He has the ocean and he has Jongdae, and never before has a cloudless sky made Joonmyun want to smile so brightly.