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“Jackson hyung,” someone whispers in his ear, soft and lisping. Drifting back from a half-sleep, Jackson stirs. Soft fingers brush his hair back from his forehead. The sensation is gentle enough that he finds it even harder to lift his head, knowing when he does the contact will stop. But he has enough sense to open his eyes to find the source of the disturbance. Bambam looks down at him, hand still resting lightly on Jackson’s forehead. “It’s time to get up.”

The warmth of the bed sucks Jackson in tighter. He shakes his head sleepily and burrows deeper, murmuring something intelligible. What he means to say is, I’m so tired. Just a few more minutes. Bambam smiles, tapping his cheek. Jackson lets out a resentful grumble. “Come on, hyung,” Bam bargains. “We can get breakfast before we go.”

Jackson opens his eyes again, smiling reluctantly up at Bam. He looks softer than ever in the early morning, his hair falling into his eyes now that he wears it longer. Jackson wants to touch it for a split second, comb his fingers through the strands. He gets the feeling that he could do that, and Bam would let him. He’s done it before, but not without prelude; this time Bam isn’t sitting on the floor right between his knees, when it would feel natural for his hands to fall to Bam’s hair.

“What?” Bam scoffs with a short laugh. “Why are you staring at me?”

“I’m tired,” Jackson mumbles, shaking himself. “I got distracted.”

“There’s a cafe downstairs. I’ll buy you breakfast. Go get ready.”

Jackson drags himself out of bed. They’re somewhere in Thailand, so Bam is all too happy to get out of the hotel and see the city. Jackson could stay in bed all day. But then again, Bam is promising him breakfast. He knows what that means: soft laughs, Bam’s eyes crinkling up at the corners, sharing a pastry that’s too sweet but that Jackson would eat a thousand of if it pleased Bam. A morning for just the two of them.

They’re out the door by 7. The humid Thai air makes breathing difficult, but that could also be Bam’s hand on his bicep. These things mean nothing, probably. Jackson would do the same with the other boys, but it wouldn’t feel the same. He wonders how Bam sees it, if he touches the others in the same way. Jackson doesn’t touch anyone the way he touches Bam. Bam would never guess.

“Do you feel at home?” Jackson asks Bambam in Korean. He understands just as well that time spent away from home can make the heart ache. He hardly ever sees his own family, even when they promote or tour in China. Almost all the other boys have it easy in that respect—they’re more often home than not, speaking their mother tongues and eating comfort food. It’s okay most of the time, but somehow, being in his own home country is when Jackson is most homesick. Bambam simply shrugs.

“More or less.”

Jackson nods, satisfied. “I didn’t bring my wallet,” he notes latently, pausing on the sidewalk. “Let’s turn back.”

“I’ll buy,” Bambam promises, and Jackson sort of doesn’t care. He feels it his duty to take care of Bambam more than the other way around, but his stomach flips at the thought of Bambam buying him breakfast. It’s not even that it’s unusual. He’s bought lunch for every member of his group before. They probably all have. It’s just that he wants it to be something more significant than having a friend’s back. But why, and shouldn’t that be enough? Perhaps they’ve all spent far too long on each other’s company; perhaps this is normal. He wants that to be true.

But there was Mark. Before Bam it was Mark who held his attention, and before Mark it was his fencing partner, whom Jackson always had affections for that he didn’t begin to deconstruct until he slept with Mark back in 2012.

“Jackson hyung,” Bambam says as if he’s said it several times already. Jackson smiles sheepishly. Bambam clucks his tongue, pretending to be annoyed. “You’re ignoring me.”

“I am not,” Jackson protests self-righteously. He puts a hand on Bambam’s shoulder. “Tell me again what you said.”

“I said, my parents are coming tonight.” They turn the corner and find the entrance of the cafe. The sign is in Thai. Jackson pulls open the door and ushers Bam inside before following him and releasing the door handle. The cafe provides instant relief from the stuffy outside air, which Jackson drinks in. Bambam walks confidently up to the counter, examining the menu up above. “What are you going to have?”

“I don’t know.” Jackson looks inside the small glass display case at the pastries. “Whatever you have.”

Bambam peers eagerly at the menu, clearly still thinking about what he wants. Jackson takes in the Thai characters and wonders how anyone could ever memorize them, but obviously Bam grew up with Thai, so it must be as natural as Cantonese for him. Bam orders and leads him over to a table by the window. There, with the light filtering through his eyes and turning them from charcoal to amber, Jackson feels like he could fall in love with the way Bam laughs like gold glitter under bright lights.

 


 

Jackson is used to the pain of dancing too hard with his lungs working overtime, but the sensation pales in comparison to the pain of hiding himself. He’s as loud and talkative as he always is, but he tucks away his secret in his pocket and waits for the right time to draw it back out—knowing that he might as well glue the pocket shut. It’s not like he just discovered this part of himself, but he wrestles with it now and then, trying to shove it back in his pocket until it rears its head again. These years since their debut have gone off without a hitch, and he isn’t going to be the one to ruin their success.

He can’t help but be glad that the Koreans believe skinship to be of such import, which veils his intentions, and he can’t help but be bitter that it’s all right for them all to joke around and play stupid kissing games because it means nothing, when to him it’s a slap in the face. And still, he can’t help but kiss his group members with more enthusiasm than can be deemed necessary. But he’s done that from the start. His whole personality is based on him being flirtatious and over the top, and for him to stop would be stranger than if he continues now.

Promotions are endless. Jackson dives into his work and tries to ignore how Bambam watches him intently whenever he talks to anyone at all. He thinks he does a pretty good job of compartmentalizing the different Jacksons he has to be. He’s happy, still—he worked hard to be an idol and it’s undoubtedly one of the shiniest careers one can have in Korea. He reminds himself every day that he is lucky.

He also reminds himself that if he had chosen a different path out of the spotlight, there wouldn’t be so much at stake.

It’s late in the studio and although his arms feel like they might fall off, he rouses himself into grabbing his bag and sitting down to retie the shoelace that came undone during practice. Jinyoung, Yugyeom and Youngjae leave first, bags slung over their shoulders and their sneakers squeaking against the studio floor. They’ll take the first car and go home first. Jaebum is reviewing a dance move with Bambam in the corner even though practice is over. Jackson takes his time and reaches down for his shoelace. A pair of hands beat him to it.

“I’ll do it,” Mark says with that gentle smile of his. It soothes Jackson’s heart. Jackson bates his breath and lets Mark tie his shoe tightly, the way he likes it. “Are you tired?”

“No,” Jackson lies. He shifts his foot so the tip rests on Mark’s knee. Mark’s eyes glitter even under the low studio lights, and he’s glad JB and Bam aren’t paying attention to them right now. A lock of hair falls in Mark’s eyes. Jackson brushes it back, only to watch it fall back in place again. Mark pulls the knot tight and pats the top of Jackson’s shoe as if to signal that he’s satisfied with his work.

“You were quiet in practice,” Mark says. Jackson isn’t surprised that Mark is the first one to notice that something has shifted. Sometimes, when Mark is silent, Jackson can almost fool himself into thinking Mark is in his own world. Mark is observant, though; he wouldn’t miss something like this. Jackson smiles, shrugging off the comment.

“I was focusing,” he defends himself, trying to dodge Mark’s concern. He doesn’t need Mark probing him. What he needs is time to think and sort this out.

“Are you sick?”

“No. Nothing like that.” Jackson lets Mark pull him to his feet. “I’m—just thinking.”

“Jackson, just tell me,” Mark reasons, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Nothing would surprise me.”

And he’s right. Mark is his best friend besides Bambam, and Mark is the only one who knows his secret. They share it, after all. It’s Mark who stays up late with him and watches music videos of other male groups. In silence, Jackson remembers that he can always count on Mark to listen and keep quiet. But he doesn’t want to give voice to his own questions in case they take on their own form and get away from him. If he keeps his mouth shut, he can control it.

“Talk to me,” Mark says, switching to Mandarin. Jackson almost doesn’t comprehend the meaning behind the words, too distracted to catch the switch from Korean. But it’s a surefire way to make sure nobody else hears them. Jackson wants terribly to tell Mark just so he doesn’t have to face this alone. But he isn’t sure somehow that he can stomach the shame of it all.

“Later,” Jackson mumbles back, glancing over at Bambam, who’s wrapping up with Jaebum. They’ll all be in one car in a couple of minutes, and he knows if he and Mark speak in Mandarin during the whole drive, they’ll sense something is up. He’ll have to catch Mark during another moment alone. Mark understands this without explanation and nods, putting an arm around Jackson’s waist and gently moving him toward the door.

 


 

Mark lets Jackson into his hotel room. Jackson has no idea where Jaebum went, or any of the rest of the group, for that matter, but his stomach knotted up as soon as Mark sent the text. All it took was a mumbled excuse and then he was out the door and shaking with the thrill. Mark tosses himself gracefully onto the bed and pats the space next to him, indicating Jackson should join him. Jackson walks instead over to the window and sits in the nook, staring impassively out at the cityscape. Mark’s eyes burn through his back.

“What are you worried about?” Mark asks, sensing Jackson’s discontent. Jackson struggles for a moment, knowing even as he stands in Mark’s confidence that what he is about to say is dangerous to share. Mark would never tell, but he cannot utter the words. “Is it your parents?”

“No.” Jackson turns around and faces Mark, feeling vulnerable even though it’s just the two of them. None of this is new, but they’ve ignored it long enough. “Do you think our fans would accept if I told them I was in love with a boy?”

Mark doesn’t flinch, but his brow furrows deeply. “Jackson,” he says softly, “you won’t be allowed to. The company—”

“Allowed to. Allowed to. What is this? They can’t control me.” Jackson runs his hands through his hair, frustrated. “I think I’m in love. Why must I hide that? Why must I play pretend? I don’t love girls. I never will.”

“We all made the same sacrifice. We signed away some privileges for a chance to be loved and adored.”

“We did not make the same sacrifice. Besides. I informally agreed not to date. The contract does not bind me to silence, nor does it bind me to loneliness.”

Mark pats the bed again, looking at Jackson with a sympathetic expression that tells Jackson the issue echoes, that Mark has cycled through the same reasoning and reached no answer. “Jackson gaga,” Mark murmurs, beckoning him closer. “It’s only for a short while. Can’t you bear it? You are young. Love can last.”

Jackson crawls into bed, feeling small and sullen and pettish. His heart aches pathetically. Mark pulls him in close and cuddles him up. It heals his hurt. “I’m in love,” he reiterates sulkily. “Love is pure. I want to take care of him. Why do others get to love carelessly? All I have ever asked is to be loved, and then I will love back.”

“Who is it?” Mark asks, though Jackson is sure he knows. Perhaps he wants the truth fresh and sour from Jackson’s lips, a brackish confession of sin. Does he want to know who took his place?

“Doesn’t matter,” Jackson says firmly, snuggling into his side. “Haven’t you ever wished you could be yourself unashamedly? Why do you not want to tell the truth?”

Mark is quiet at first. He puts an arm around Jackson’s shoulders and then mumbles, “I’m afraid of what people will say if I do. They’ll make a fool out of me. And they’ll make a fool out of you, too. You will be burned.”

“Let them say what they want,” Jackson snaps. “They’re not my keepers. I am my own man.”

“I don’t want that for you.” Mark pulls Jackson’s SnapBack off and pushes his hair back, a loving gesture. “You have the biggest heart and I think the world of you. I can’t watch them ruin you.”

Jackson bristles at the implication that this has anything to do with Mark, that he should be expected to keep quiet for Mark’s comfort. Why should this be anyone’s business but his own? The company, the fans, his group—they have no say in this. The nerve of anyone to imply it’s in any way their decision rubs him the wrong way. After all, he’ll be the one to suffer the fallout, not Mark. “It’s not about you,” Jackson says sourly, knowing he’s overreacting.

“No, listen.” Mark wrestles him into his arms, holding Jackson against his chest. “What if the situation was reversed? Would you tell me to disregard the company, my family, all of you—and risk everything? I would be expelled from the group, ostracized from the industry, and publicly humiliated. You would tell me to wait.”

“I would tell you to do what you want.”

“I won’t be able to defend you. None of us will. Do you want that? To be at the mercy of the media? If I were being shamed, would you be able to watch without speaking out?”

“I would not ask that of you.”

“But I will have to watch you crash and burn. If it were any of us, you know you would suffer to watch us fall from grace. Expect me to do the same.” Mark pleads with him now. “Don’t destroy yourself. You deserve better.”

As Jackson lies in Mark’s arms, he realizes that he’s been looking at the whole thing with tunnel vision. He could go at it swinging and brace himself for the fallout, but maybe he isn’t as ready to deal with the backlash as he thought he was.

 


 

They start their American tour not a month later. It’s bigger than the first time they toured America, with more dates and a longer stay. There’s something about America that thrills him and frightens him in equal measures; it is so vastly different from Asia that, no matter how good his English is, he always feels apprehension when they touch down. Even the Big Apple feels like an echo of the cities he’s used to. He falls asleep on Bambam’s shoulder during the plane trip and misses dinner; he wakes up two hours before landing with dried drool on the side of his mouth where it touches Bambam’s jacket and Bambam’s hand stroking his hair gently. He pretends to sleep for ten minutes more just so Bambam won’t stop touching him. When he finally lifts his head, Bambam touches his arm and asks if he slept well. He did, he admits.

“You missed dinner,” Bambam murmurs, and reaches for a little cup on his tray-table. “I saved you some pudding from mine.”

Jackson takes the cup gratefully and takes one tentative bite before determining it too sweet in his groggy state. Bambam tosses his blanket over Jackson’s legs where it’s slipped off, and a cold hand presses into his own underneath it. Jackson is afraid he’ll grip too tightly.

The promotions come fast and hard at them, and Jackson finds himself fielding most of it with only Mark to share the load. They’re still the only ones whose English is passable enough to facilitate the interviews, so they do their fair share of translating and laughing at their group members whenever they try to speak with their stilted, heavily accented English. Jackson’s own accent has gotten stronger after so long in Korea, but he feels lucky that he can get by.

Jackson keeps rooming with Bambam, and one cold night Bambam simply crawls into bed with him. Jackson recoils when Bam’s cold feet touch his leg, chilling the skin and giving him goosebumps. “A-yah,” he mumbles, pulling his leg back. Bambam noses at his shoulder, making a contented noise. Jackson willingly accepts him into his arms. Once Jackson puts his arms around his roommate, Bam nestles himself into the curve of Jackson’s body, hands curled by his chest to keep warm. Jackson pulls the covers higher over them both, trying to keep Bam warm. Bam’s eyes are scrunched shut determinedly, his forehead barely resting against Jackson’s.

Jackson stays awake for a while after and thinks as he tenderly strokes Bam’s hair back that it would not take much to kiss him.

 


 

Jackson isn’t sure what possesses him, but he’s alone in a hotel room in New York and he’s lonely, so lonely. When he stares out the window, all he sees is an unfamiliar cityscape that feels cold and intimidating. The lights are burning his eyes and as the sun sets on the horizon, the whole world seems to be set ablaze. And he knows Bambam went out with Jinyoung and Jaebum and he could just go next door to see Mark, Youngjae, and Yugyeom, but he doesn’t know what he’d say. Sometimes it feels like his secret is drawing lines between him and his group mates. He wonders if they know about him, if they know about Mark. If anyone has any clue where Bambam falls on the spectrum. The metal skyline could eat him and grind him right up tonight.

So he leaves, walks right out the lobby doors of the hotel with his key card in his pocket. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but the crisp air clears his head and pushes oxygen back into his lungs. Eyes watering against the chill, he strides down the street, taking comfort in his anonymity. Not that he’s ever been mobbed by adoring fans, but in Korea, he risks being recognized no matter where he goes. Here in America, he can go anywhere.

Ten minutes of walking in the brisk evening air calms his raging nerves. The fluorescent lights that beam out from every nook and cranny of the city remind him of some of the commercial streets in Hong Kong at night, except that the signs are in English instead of Cantonese. It doesn’t feel like home by any stretch of the imagination, but he prefers the bustling night life into which he can blend seamlessly. Nobody looks at him twice, but he still pulls the bill of his baseball cap down over his eyes, wary of anyone who might recognize him. The chances are so small they seem almost negligent. Before he knows it, he’s down alleyways and boulevards with the hotel far behind him. He fingers the wallet in his pocket, wondering if he’ll have enough for a taxi home. He’s distracted by a graphic black and white sign with a bold font that reads BARRACUDA. There’s music coming from inside, a pounding EDM beat that rattles his ribs. Drawn, he drifts toward the doorway.

He hesitates before going in. He has his ID, and he’s no stranger to drinking, but still. The ramifications of getting too intoxicated could be resoundingly harmful for not only him, but the whole group. That one video of Yugyeom drinking a beer underage haunted them for months. And Jackson cares for nothing more than those who have become his brothers. He would never ruin their success with his own selfishness.

That’s what you’re doing. That’s what you want to do. If you come out, the world might cave in on you—and them.

But fuck it, he decides. He’ll go inside, just stay until he can bear to go back to an empty hotel room. He won’t drink a single drop of alcohol. He’ll just dance until his feet hurt.

He slips inside without being seen. The room is stuffy with the heat of bodies crowding every square meter. Jackson makes his way toward the bar to get a soda and sees two women grinding on each other in the middle of the floor. It strikes him as something he would do as a joke to one of the other boys. He reaches the bar and orders a coke from the barista, thinking nothing of the scene. He checks his phone to no avail, finding not only no missed messages or calls, but ridiculously flaky cell service. He’ll get out of here in an hour and check in with the others. For now, he shoves his phone back in his pocket and focuses on his surroundings.

As a glass of Coke with condensation beading up tantalizingly on the sides is slid to him, he notices something else strange, which is the two men kissing on one of the couches. One is African-American and the other looks Hispanic, which surprises Jackson; the racial diversity in America must lend itself to interracial relationships. But it also surprises him to see two men kiss with such unabashed passion, completely unconcerned with the world around them. Lips parting, Jackson tears his eyes away and scans the room for the first time. It is then that he realizes what he’d ignored, which is that he entirely missed all the same sex couples around him. Or, at least, some are couples, he assumes. Any of them could be strangers looking for love or less. Here he is in the heart of New York in a gay bar, somewhere he definitely shouldn’t be, and he wants to throw up about as much as he wants to watch the men on the couch kiss like they have nothing better to do. Americans are strange, he thinks. They allow this sort of silent presence to thrive. In Korea, these same people would be disparaged of, left on the street without a job if discovered.

He wishes Korea hosted similar venues. Maybe they do. He’s never sought one out. By some mad stroke of grace, he’s stumbled right into the arms of Lady Liberty herself. What he does with himself now is a test of his courage. He doesn’t dare to dance, afraid that he might end up with his back to someone else’s front in the heat of the moment. He abandons his Coke, though, and creeps to the wall. He flattens himself against the red wallpaper and tries to be inconspicuous. His eyes trail hungrily over the bodies all tangled together, shameless and carefree. His body is alight with fear and hope and hurt. The sequence feels like a dream with the hazy red lighting and the sights that abound in joyful glory before him. Did he fall asleep in the hotel?

He pinches himself to be sure.

Jackson has never been shy, but when a man separates from the crowd and comes toward him, he shrinks back and loses his voice. He swallows nervously as he approaches. The man is Asian, too—probably Chinese. It only puts him slightly at ease.

“Did you find your way in by accident?” he asks with a smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes. Jackson takes longer than usual to comprehend and translate in his head, in part because of the loud music and otherwise because his brain has ceased to function. Jackson almost says yes, then thinks better of it. After all, it isn’t an accident that he’s here.

“No,” Jackson yells back. His mind doesn’t supply any other words.

“If you did, it’s okay,” the man says kindly. “Or are you just shy?”

Jackson doesn’t know what to say. He nods rapidly, grateful for the explanation he never had to actually give. The man stands next to Jackson, taller and broader. “I’ve never been to a place like this before,” Jackson says, feeling vulnerable.

“You have an accent. Are you American?”

Jackson shakes his head. “I—” He very nearly blows it and says, I’m from a Korean pop group. The man wouldn’t recognize him still, but he wants the cover of anonymity. “I live in Hong Kong,” he tells the man. “I’m just visiting.”

“And you don’t have gay bars in Hong Kong?”

“No.” Jackson doesn’t feel like reciting the state of affairs surrounding being gay that circulate in China. It would probably kill the mood to spout off Chinese history and politics. “I didn’t know that’s what this was.”

“But you are gay, right?” The man laughs, clapping Jackson on the back. It startles him out of his rigid state. “You must really be new to all this.” Jackson nods. “You’re cute, kid.”

Jackson doesn’t know how to respond. He’s pretty sure he’s flushed dark red and his mouth isn’t quite working. But the man is attractive and his stomach is fluttering like he’s on a roller coaster, and he realizes that this is it. This is the only place he’s ever going to be allowed to be himself, and he can’t screw it up. He’s shaking, dumb, quieter than he’s ever been in his life. He has to remember his charm before it leaves him floundering and alone.

“Thank you,” he says uncertainly, folding his hands together. It makes him sound small, shy. The other man braces one palm against the wall by Jackson’s head, casting Jackson in shadow. He’s out of his element. “I think you’re...hot?”

He doesn’t know how Americans flirt, but they don’t look afraid of each other. There’s no need for introduction here. It must not be the wrong thing to say after all, because the man laughs and leans forward, going in for the kiss. Jackson sees it coming and tenses up, holding his breath, not sure if he’s excited or frightened. In the slow motion second, Jackson thinks two things. He thinks first that if anyone sees him, his career is over. He thinks second that he doesn’t care right now.

He thought he’d have had to be drunk to be kissing a stranger in an American bar, but there are big hands cupping the back of his head and surprisingly soft lips against his own and any inhibition flies right out the window. He hasn’t kissed anyone since Mark, but there’s a rush in kissing someone whose name he doesn’t even know in an unknown place. It feels shamefully good, and he thinks he gasps when the man moves his mouth down to his jaw and then to his neck. It’s then that Jackson pushes him back just a bit, an apology on his lips.

“No marks,” Jackson says breathlessly. “I’m not allowed.”

“What?”

“My job. I—”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. Hush now.” The man goes back to kissing Jackson, and Jackson sighs and indulges. He shuts his eyes. He won’t fall in love with an American tonight, but something tells him it doesn’t matter what his intentions are. He shouldn’t even be here, but he’ll be gone in a couple of days, and then he can pretend he slept tonight instead. Nobody has to know he was ever here.

“I have to go.” Jackson pushes him back again, realizing he’s been out for over an hour. He has to get back to the hotel before someone gets worried about his absence. “Sorry. Thank you.”

He slips out the door of the bar and doesn’t look back.

 


 

Whatever he expected to change after his New York experience, doesn’t change. If he thinks it’s obvious on his face that he’s done something wrong, nobody else seems to see it. Mark occasionally touches his shoulder and asks if he’s all right, but he knows that’s because of their conversation. Jackson shrugs him off every time, unwilling to delve back into the subject. He won’t say anything as long as they’re all on the same team. He couldn’t conscionably jeopardize any of their futures.

They walk along the river in Chicago, avoiding the railing where spiders hang in every space. Jackson swears he saw one the size of his thumb. Bambam laughed at him when he said he’d rather break his neck falling down the stairs than hold the railing. But he holds Jackson’s arm now, ostensibly to prevent him from falling. Jackson vows never to hold a railing again. Up ahead, the other five walk in various pairings, chatting amongst themselves. Jackson figures they should join in and be present with the group, but he doesn’t want to let anyone else into their conversation. After all, he has Bambam to himself right now.

“I’m cold,” Bam whines, sticking close to Jackson’s side.

“Tch,” Jackson scoffs, slipping an arm around Bam’s waist and pulling him closer. “You’re always cold.”

Bam doesn’t comment on that, but snuggles a little closer with his hand on Jackson’s shoulder. Jackson thinks of the man’s hands in his hair, on his cheeks, and blinks fast, washing away the image. Bam will never touch him like that. He cannot have more than what he already has.

“Walk faster,” Jaebum chides, Jinyoung’s arm slung loosely around his shoulders. Jackson sighs, pulling his arm from Bam’s. Bam gives him a confused look, but doesn’t argue. Jackson speeds ahead and leaves him behind. Bam takes the hint and keeps pace.

The chill brings out red in Bambam’s cheeks, and his lips look pinker than ever. Jackson likes when the stylists put gloss over them for shoots. He thinks again about how it would feel to kiss Bam. Soft, probably. He’ll never know. But he does know that his cheeks are as soft as silk and his hands could hold the Earth with steady confidence, and could crush Jackson’s heart with the same strength. And he knows how it feels to run his hands through Bambam’s hair. Imagining such things is painfully illusory, but once the thoughts start in, they don’t stop. He’ll picture Bam’s hands in his own until the day he dies, and it seems like it’s going to be that way unless he finds a way to move on.

He doesn’t see how he can move on when Bambam sleeps by his side every night and has the kind of lips that could send Jackson to hell for just thinking about.

A few nights later in a California coast side hotel room, Jackson leans back against the pillows of his bed and watches out the window at the distant view of the ocean, notebook half forgotten in his lap. He’s sure he can spin some lyric about the water meeting the shore in the way Bam’s hand meets his cheek, but he doesn’t feel like working it out. Bambam is eating some shitty Chinese food he picked up at some takeout place down the street that Jackson refused to buy from, some Panda Express or something, and soon enough Bam is tossing the box in the trash can and coming to sit on the bed with him. There’s no reason for him to, when his own bed is comfortable enough. Desperate to touch him anyway and dig his grave a little deeper, Jackson reaches out and tugs at his arm, forcing Bambam to lean against him.

“I can’t believe you ate that crap,” Jackson says, frowning. “You’re coming back with me to China someday. We’ll eat like kings.”

“I just wanted something familiar,” Bambam says. “There’s no Thai place around here.”

Jackson doesn’t bother arguing that American Chinese food is not Chinese food at all; he’s tried it, and the greasy knockoff stuff turns his stomach. Americans should stick to cooking their own food. “If you get sick, I won’t baby you,” he warns, which isn’t even true to a degree. He would do anything if Bam was in pain.

Bam smiles and shoves at Jackson’s shoulder. “If you’re mean, I’ll throw up on you.”

Jackson snorts, but gives up on convincing either of them that he’d treat Bambam with anything less than the utmost care. The sun is setting behind the waterline and the room is cooling rapidly. When the light has almost faded underneath the horizon, Jackson feels like lying down.

“Bam-ah,” he starts, softening his tone so Bam will listen, “can you turn off the lights?”

Bambam clucks his tongue. “What do you want to sit in the dark for? I can’t sleep at this hour. It’s the afternoon in Korea.”

“I want to lie down.” Jackson scoots up the bed and pulls back the covers. He slips inside and adjusts the pillows under his head. “Aren’t you tired? You should rest for a bit and relax your muscles.”

Bambam acquiesces with no further argument, getting up and switching off the lights. The only illumination that remains is the bleeding city lights coming in through the uncurtained window. Jackson waits for Bambam to get into his own bed, but Bambam waits instead by the side of Jackson’s bed. “I’m cold, hyung.”

Jackson sighs as if he’s making a sacrifice, but he’s tremulously pleased. They hardly ever sleep apart these days, for one reason or another. When they do, Jackson longs for the warmth of body that eschews him. Tonight will be another torturous flirtation with the idea that he might truly love Bambam. Shifting to the side closest to the window, he lets Bam under the covers. Bambam wriggles around until he lies flush against Jackson. Jackson tries to breathe calmly. Needing to fill the silence, he says, “Aren’t I a good hyung? I let you warm your freezing feet on me and let you share my covers. Jinyoung would never let you sleep in his bed, would he?”

“Just you,” Bam says with a wry smile.

“Mmhm. Am I good to you, Bam-ah?”

“The very best,” Bam promises, kissing Jackson’s shoulder soothingly. Jackson smiles back, but it feels weak and despairing. He is so fond of the way Bam feels in his arms and his sweet, affectionate disposition. How can one stand such fondness without their heart bursting?

“I love you very much,” Jackson says without thinking. He doesn’t regret it, per se, but he thinks he might have been too blunt. He should have found the key before he took up the battering ram. He lacks finesse, and always has. There’s no ease in his approach.

Bambam says without pause, “I love you too, hyung.”

You’re a fool. He is not fond of you the way you are of him. Don’t you risk losing the beautiful boy in your arms.

“You are precious,” Jackson whispers, and turns his face toward the ceiling so he won’t see Bam’s face. He couldn’t bear it if he saw something he wasn’t supposed to.

“Would you like to kiss me?”

Jackson turns his head and stares at Bambam, startled. With a nervous laugh to cover his confusion, he turns on his side and juts his chin out, aiming for Bam’s cheek. His hands twitch at his side in search of something to hold. A second before he makes contact and a second too late for him to pull away, Bam turns his head, and Jackson’s lips hit something soft and damp instead.

The worst thing about it is probably that he doesn’t pull away immediately. He knows with a crashing feeling that he should pull back and apologize for his mistake. But he gives in to what he wants and for a second feels his whole body go weak. It’s probably long enough to be a whole Mississippi if he’d been counting. It’s long enough to condemn him for his infraction.

Jackson makes a strangled sound and pulls away, scratching blindly at his face. He rubs at his lips, trying to wipe them clean of whatever he has just done. Did he see it coming, and suppressed the instinctual urge to avoid it? Bam says nothing, so he takes the plunge instead, rushing to explain himself in his frenzy. “I’m sorry. I only meant to kiss your cheek. I never meant—”

“Hyung,” Bam says softly, looking away and something akin to shame crossing his face. “I did.”

Jackson exhales heavily, reaching up to cover his face with his hands. His mind spins like he’s stepped off a teacup ride. “Do you want me?” he asks thickly, forcing himself to look Bam in the eye. “It’s okay if it was a mistake.” It’s not okay, he thinks. It would shred his heart. But he would rather let his own heart die than make Bambam feel uneasy or pressured to continue whatever it is they have. He’ll still keep Bam as a friend. Somehow, he’ll find a way to survive.

“Of course I want you.” Bam looks at him with wide, sober eyes. “It’s always been you.”

“Always?” Jack huffs out a surprised laugh. He can already feel his heart lightening as if turning from lead to pure sunlight. All his worries are diffused. Wherever Bambam falls, it’s on his side. He wonders how many of their touches during these last few years were coded.

“For a long time.” Bambam laughs out loud, too, then reaches out for Jackson’s hand. Jackson accepts it eagerly. “I thought it was just because you were my hyung. You always take care of me.”

“Of course I do,” Jackson says immediately, his throat tightening. There’s something about the way the light from the window hits Bambam that makes him too beautiful to bear, and brings something up in his throat. He wants to cry in that moment for no particular reason, except that everything is happening all at once and it is, perhaps, too good to be true. Sometimes beautiful things are too much to withstand, like the sun glittering across ocean waves, or the stars in the countryside. “I care about you.”

“You’ve been acting so strange.” Bam smiles sadly. “Was it because of this?”

Jackson nods, not trusting himself to speak, and swallows against the lump in his throat. Bam detangles his hand so he can cup Jackson’s cheek and smile with bright eyes. “It will be okay,” he promises.

“This isn’t allowed.” Jackson thinks of the last time he was in this situation, and the way his heart had crumbled when Mark told him it would be best for them if they parted ways. Likely, Mark had no premonition that they would debut together after all, but even if he had, Jackson suspects things wouldn’t have turned out any differently. Mark had made his decision: safety and security over a love that was dangerous enough to compromise his career. And here Jackson suggests the same thing, that they should put a stop to this now before they get too involved. He doesn’t know if that would truly be better, or if he causes more pain by refusing to give them a chance.

“Nobody has to know.”

“The company—”

“They won’t know,” Bambam says, fingers pressing firmly into the soft flesh of Jackson’s cheek. It’s the most forceful he’s capable of being. “It’s just for us to know. Just us.”

“You’re acting like I’m your dongsaeng in need of protection,” Jackson snorts, finding some humor in the situation.

“A-yah,” Bam mutters, rolling his eyes. “We kiss once and already you want to argue like a couple.”

Jackson sighs, the smile fading quickly. “We could lose a lot,” he reminds Bam softly. “If anyone ever finds out—”

“They won’t.”

“You would risk that?”

Bam brushes Jackson’s hair back with one long finger and smiles. “Nobody will find out. They will think we are just good friends.”

“I’m scared,” Jackson whispers, and the full force of what he’s getting into hits him. This isn’t just a little fun behind closed doors. It’s a powder keg in the dark, and when someone lights a match, the whole house will go up in flames. This has the potential to blow apart everything he is right now, and he’s not afraid of change, but he is afraid of oblivion. And he feels that, sooner or later, it will blow up in his face.

“We aren’t the first to walk this path,” Bam says, and as Jackson shuts his eyes, Bam’s words echo in the chamber of his soul. “There were others before. They may live in the dark, but they still live. If we go down, we go down together.”

“We still go down,” Jackson says, so softly he’s not sure Bam even hears it.

 


 

Loving Bambam is like the morning sun through the clouds, the touch of peach when it peeks over the horizon. Jackson is shy, but Bambam is not. When they wake up, Bambam is all over him, hands in his hair and lips on his cheek. Everything is fuzzy and golden, sunlight pouring in through the window. Nobody would know that inside the walls of this room, two boys drape themselves about each other with careless abandon. The love Jackson has been pushing back for years is stronger than his will to resist. His doubts from last night seem overbearing and exaggerated now in this light. His love is pure, and as such, the good in them both will carry them for now.

“We should get ready,” Bam says at some point, glancing at the clock. Jackson doesn’t want the warm, comforting weight over him to leave, but he knows that Bam is right. He thinks for a blind second that someone will be able to tell they were kissing. Their lips must be dark and bright. But it’s just his paranoia creeping back up his throat. Nobody will know. Even if they look him in the eye, they won’t know.

“Do we have to?” he asks quietly, hands resting on the small of Bam’s back. He would be content to lie here all day—content, in all entirety, for the first time in years. He didn’t know what was missing, and doesn’t remember what that felt like. Is this what perfection is?

“I think so.” Bam kisses the tip of his nose and slides off, tapping his hip. “Come on. Jaebum hyung will worry if we’re late.”

Jackson sighs with resignation and rises. Life is what it is, and he must uphold his responsibilities, if not for himself, then for his group members. “I call the shower,” Bam says, walking ahead with a hint of a smile. Jackson rolls his eyes and follows. He locks the bathroom door after them and reaches for his toothbrush as Bam undresses to his right. He squeezes out a tiny dab of toothpaste and leans over the sink.

“Be quick,” Jackson says around a mouth full of foam. “Don’t take all the hot water.” When he thinks Bam isn’t looking, he sneaks a sideways glance, wondering what he’ll glimpse. Bam’s still in his boxers and, thankfully, doesn’t notice Jackson’s wayward gaze. He’s just curious, after all, and it’s nothing he hasn’t seen. Bam’s stomach is almost flat, not defined the way his own or some of the others’ are, but smooth and pale. Bam has never been able to put on weight of any kind, so he knew what he was going to see. Fondness growing in his chest, he turns back to the mirror and focuses on brushing his teeth properly as Bam steps into the shower behind him and shuts the curtains.

As their days in California run out, Jackson gives himself over to half a dozen mornings just like this and lets America tangle up his insides.

 


 

He might have concealed it from his groupmates a bit better; Jinyoung comments that his mood is day and night from days ago. It doesn’t mean Jinyoung knows, but it’s then that Jackson realizes he must have been seriously moping during the entire American tour so far. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. He manages to push any worries he has out of his head so he can focus on the tour and pleasing the fans. At night, Bambam crawls on top of him and he forgets the tour.

It feels strange, still, to keep such a big secret. He thinks about telling Mark, maybe even Jaebum, but he and Bam have only just started seeing each other. It’s too early to call. He wants them to share in his happiness, wants them to know how much he truly loves Bam, but he knows too that there are bigger things at bay.

Life as an idol is inherently lonely, not at all like what Jackson expected. He’s surrounded by six other boys daily—boys he cares for like old friends, and yet none of them have anyone to come home to except for each other. They’ve all had nights where they shared a little too much with each other, have made themselves available to each other because they’re the only ones who truly understand the lifestyle. He wonders to himself how each of his group mates would take the news. There are other idols in the industry who are the same way; they all know that. Jackson figured that at least a quarter of the idols he’s met and befriended harbor the same secret that he, Mark, and apparently Bam do. That they are interested at the very least in those who are the same gender, and even some who like both. But knowing and knowing are two different things. They never talk about it. Nobody wants to mention the curse that threatens so many of them with disinheritance.

So Jackson doesn’t tell. Instead, somebody else figures it out before he can even guess at what to do. It’s a few nights before they leave America to return to Korea, and Jackson wants to walk around the city they’re in until he’s had his fill. Jinyoung volunteered unexpectedly to accompany him, which Jackson is glad for. It’s been a while since he got one on one time with the rest of his group. He misses Jinyoung especially. Jinyoung always sees him for who he is.

“You seem to be doing better,” Jinyoung says again. “Your stage presence is much better.”

“My stage presence has never suffered.”

“Perhaps not to the public eye. To my eye, however—it has suffered.” Jinyoung puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m not insulting you. You don’t sulk. If something bothers you, it can’t be helped.”

Jackson feels his shoulders relax with Jinyoung’s words. He can’t stand the feeling of being blamed for something. “I am better,” he confirms. “Things shouldn’t be that way anymore.”

“So you’ve found a solution to your problem, then,” Jinyoung says nonchalantly. Something about it makes him squint. “Something changed?”

Measuredly, Jackson nods, and puts his hands in his pockets. He’s aware he can’t tell Jinyoung exactly what changed, and to tell him might be comparable to career suicide in this situation. He has no handle on how Jinyoung feels about men who sleep together.

“It’s Bambam, isn’t it?”

Jackson’s heart skips a beat and he blinks dumbly. Someone could hit him over the head and he’d look the same. “I’m sorry,” he says automatically, “what?”

Jinyoung hardly looks fazed. “It’s Bambam. He and you are—he’s the solution you needed.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“You love him.” It’s almost accusatory in tone, but that could be Jackson’s creeping sensation that something has gone wrong. “It’s okay. Mark told me—”

What did Mark tell you?

Jinyoung’s eyebrows raise and his eyes widen. Perhaps he hadn’t expected such force; still, given the weight of his revelation, he should have. He looks at Jackson with something akin to sympathy, not quite pity and not quite understanding. “He told me, a long time ago, that you had a thing for each other,” he admits. “You can’t be mad at him; he didn’t tell anyone else. So he told me you might be in love with someone. You’ve always been close with Bambam, so—”

Jackson shuts his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. Mark ratted him out. Snitched on him, twice. Who knows who else he might have told without Jinyoung’s knowledge? He can’t tell if he feels more hurt or angry. “He has no right. Why did he tell you?”

“He was upset that you had found someone else.”

“He broke up with me.”

“We all miss people whom we let go of. Mark doesn’t want you back, he’s not jealous. It’s not his fault for mourning that someone will now hold the place in your life that he once held.”

Jackson feels like his world is slipping away. He’s reeling with the shock of being told that Mark’s been trading secrets behind his back. There’s nothing to do now about it except damage control to make sure it goes no further. “You can’t tell Jaebum hyung. Or anyone. As far as everyone knows, we’re straight. It has to stay that way. You understand, don’t you?”

Jinyoung stops and forces Jackson to face him, hand still heavy on his shoulder. “Of course I’m not going to tell anyone. Do you think I don’t care about you? It’s okay, Jackson. There are plenty of people like you.”

“It’s bigger than me,” Jackson says, tears welling up in his eyes. “I have never taken such a risk before. If this is leaked, I am ruined.”

“Shush,” Jinyoung murmurs, pulling Jackson into his arms right then and there on the pavement. It comforts him more than he thought it would; it’s not a fix, but for the moment it makes him feel close to someone. “I’m not going to tell anyone and Mark isn’t either.”

“Mark already told you.”

“He’s not mean like that. He would never throw you two under the bus on that scale. And I figured out it was Bam on my own. Mark doesn’t know for sure any more than I did five minutes ago.”

Jinyoung is right. Mark doesn’t hold grudges in quite that way. The split was painful for both of them; Mark had done it out of what he saw as necessity, not disregard for Jackson’s feelings. They haven’t spoken about it enough to heal their wounds, but time has anesthetized the residual pain. Of course it would still be difficult for Mark to see him with someone else, but he thinks Mark wouldn’t stand in his way, either. He certainly wouldn’t out them both, knowing the consequences that would fall on their heads thereafter. Everyone in the entertainment industry knows to keep each other’s secrets. To sell even the mildest of whispers would be catastrophic for those in question.

“Do you think less of me?” Jackson forces himself to ask, hushed.

“No.” Jinyoung pulls back and straightens Jackson’s shirt, helping him smooth out the fabric that was rumpled between them. “Don’t be stupid. We all have our suspicions about other idols. Idols in our own groups. I guessed, but it doesn’t make a difference. All I care about is that you keep working hard and you don’t slack off or feel sorry for yourself.”

Jackson smiles weakly and rolls his eyes. “I don’t feel sorry for myself.”

And I care that you’re happy,” Jinyoung adds reluctantly, smiling back. “Come. I’ll buy you dinner to make up for putting you through this. Okay?”

 


 

Jackson can’t remember looking back what pushed him to move so quickly, but the best answer would probably be that he had some sort of premonition that he wouldn’t have the time to draw it out. Maybe it was because the life of anyone in the spotlight is fast-moving, and he couldn’t help himself. Either way, things moved quickly in those last days from kissing to impulsive handjobs, and Jackson put his mouth places he never thought he would before.

He doesn’t feel self-hatred after any of it; he just feels something strange and off-kilter, like it’s something he should feel guilty about, wants to feel guilty about. Then, at the least, he could justify it to himself. The next second he’ll look over at Bam, laid out on the bed, skin smooth and shining with a light sheen of sweat, stomach rising and falling, eyes blown out, and he’s overtaken with tenderness. He feels a touch obscene at times, realizing what he’s done with another man, his group mate no less, and imagines what his other group mates would think of him for doing such terrible things. He did those things with love, but he could never explain how close he felt to Bambam each time.

Tonight is the last night in America, and Jackson has this odd thought that maybe, when they go back to Korea, everything will go back to how it was. Everything happened so quickly, so fortuitously, in America. He firmly believes that America is the only place that this could have taken place. He tells himself that this is ridiculous; after all, Bambam isn’t going to leave him as soon as the plane touches down. He tells himself that some things are temporary, but Bambam isn’t one of them.

Hot water floods from the overhead faucet, soaking them. Jackson watches for a moment in the cold as Bambam’s hair slowly grows limp and water droplets cling to his skin, all the way down his soft back to his pink heels. Bambam doesn’t ever seem self-conscious when he’s naked in front of Jackson; there’s a sense of familiarity in everything they do. Bambam steps aside to let Jackson back under the water and smiles fondly, reaching up to massage the water into his hair. Jackson rolls his shoulders, shivering. “You’re giving me goosebumps,” he complains. “My whole spine is tickling.”

“Hush,” Bam commands, but smiles anyway. “Turn around. Let me do your back while you do your hair.”

Jackson complies, feeling vulnerable when he turns away and can see nothing but the wall. It means Bambam is in control. And he trusts Bam, of course; he just isn’t used to the feeling of putting his faith in one person like this. It’s cathartic and frightening at the same time. As he works the conditioner and shampoo into his hair, Bambam’s hands trail over his shoulders and back, gentle but firm. Jackson wishes he could stay here forever. He would give anything to let things stay perfect.

“Go back under the water,” Bam tells him, nudging him back under the flow. Bam rinses the soap off until there’s no soap separating his fingers from Jackson’s back. “Hyung, will you do my hair?”

“Sure, shut your eyes.” Jackson squeezes out some shampoo into his hand. Bam obediently scrunches his eyes closed. Jackson reaches forward and starts to massage the shampoo into his hair, rubbing it all the way into the roots. Bam rocks slightly with the motion. Jackson smiles to himself and tells him he’s done, but not before tapping the tip of Bam’s nose with a soapy finger, to which Bam reacts with a noise of discontent.

“Jerk,” Bam grumbles.

“Step under the water. Let me wash it out.” Jackson takes Bam’s shoulders and guides him under the water, tipping his head back. Carefully, he rinses out Bam’s black hair. Mollified, Bam beams up at him, eyes bright.

“Jackson hyung,” he starts. Jackson pauses, sensing that Bam is about to say something important. His stomach tightens in anticipation. Something sad takes over Bambam’s face then, and Jackson thinks he might burst. “You know that—no matter what happens, I’ll be with you, right?”

Jackson smiles unhappily and looks away. “You told me nothing will happen.”

“I just mean—” Bam sighs and leans forward, wrapping his arms around Jackson’s neck. His skin is warm and flushed and comforts Jackson. He might be turned on by the amount of contact in another situation, but he wants to be as close as possible with Bam. “I love you, and people in Korea are going to say things about—people like us. But it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”

“You love me?” Jackson is genuinely taken aback by the honest admission. He wants to cry, because part of him thought he might never hear that from anyone’s mouth. He vividly remembers leaning in toward his fencing partner and being so sure that his fencing partner was leaning in too, and the harsh rejection when he leaned away and asked in Canto, What are you doing? The next day he was assigned a new partner. Then there was Mark, his new roommate with the hair cropped too short and the sunshine smile that only peeked out from the clouds once in a while. Mark never told Jackson he loved him. Both of them were too afraid to ever say the word love. And so Jackson thought that maybe, maybe he was never going to hear those words. He had no intention of ever covering with a girl—he could never have sustained such dishonesty.

“I don’t see why people think it’s such a big deal,” Bam murmurs, tucking a strand of wet hair behind Jackson’s ear. “After all, it’s not like we just met. I’ve known you for years. I know your heart. I love you. Is that so terrible?”

“I love you too,” Jackson says, touching Bam’s wet cheek. And he does. There is nobody in the world Jackson would rather be with right now, nobody else with which he would rather do this. Bam has been his best friend since their debut, and now he’s shared his body with Bam. He would sacrifice everything to protect Bam.

Bam kisses him quickly on the lips and nods. “We should dry off.”

When they leave for the airport with the rest of the group, Jackson has to fight not to want to hold Bam’s hand. For security, for reassurance. He wishes fleetingly that they could just be , without fearing judgment or management’s retribution. He thinks to himself how funny it is that when they came to America, he was ridden with angst over his feelings for Bambam and the long haul ahead, and in leaving, he is relieved of those fears.

 


 

Jackson remembers a time during which they shared a tiny dorm that could barely house seven boys. With their success came an upgrade in lodging. They still share rooms, but they don’t have to stumble over each other’s things in the night for lack of space.

Jackson is sharing with Jaebum, and he wishes he wasn’t. It has nothing to do with Jaebum and everything to do with the fact that for several months he’s been sharing a bed with Bambam and had the cover of night and the privacy of a room to do whatever he pleased. Bambam looks equally put off to be sharing with Yugyeom.

(It has a little to do with Jaebum. His scented candles give Jackson a headache, and he snores.)

“Jaebum hyung,” Bambam starts, voice already tinged with a whine. “Won’t you switch with me?”

“I already decided rooming arrangements. You got to room with Jackson for the whole tour. Don’t complain now, we’ll form stronger bonds this way.”

“Hyung, my bond with Yugyeom is just fine.”

“If you put the maknaes together they’ll be insufferable,” Jinyoung supplies, catching Jackson’s eye. Jackson smiles behind Jaebum’s back, grateful for Jinyoung’s assistance. From his place on the couch, all he can see is Bam’s petulant face, but from tone alone he can imagine the stern look on Jaebum’s features.

“Enough. We can change in a few weeks. For now, try to make the most of it.”

Bam looks like he’s going to pout, so Jackson quickly motions him over. Acquiescing, Bam flops down on top of Jackson, back to front. Jackson wraps his arms around Bam’s middle, unconcerned. This at least is inconspicuous; Bam always sits on his lap. “It’ll be fine,” Jackson soothes, kissing Bam’s cheek when he thinks nobody else is looking. “Hush, now. Don’t be upset. You like Yugi, anyway.”

Things are already changing. The smell of the vanilla scented candle Jaebum lights that night doesn’t feel quite like a lover’s embrace.

“Why wouldn’t you let us switch?” Jackson asks out of the blue, wondering privately if maybe Jaebum suspects. Maybe Jinyoung told him. Or maybe Mark did. It seems all his secrets get passed through the grapevine these days. The flickering light of the candle casts JB’s face into uneven shadow. “Yugyeom and Bam are good friends.”

“Tcheh, not this again,” Jaebum sighs. “It’s just for a few weeks. We leave for the Japanese tour next month. Are you angry with me?”

“No. Don’t be ridiculous.” Jackson sighs. “But Bambam, you know—”

“Ah, Bambam will be fine. He’s not so young anymore. You think you still need to take care of him. He will be okay.”

“He is still young,” Jackson says softly. He thinks of how small Bambam is underneath him. He’s touched those slim hips, knows that Bam has so much growing up to do. He’s not even twenty yet, not yet a man. “Jaebum hyung—I care for him, and—we are used to sleeping in the same room now.”

“We all have to adjust as life goes on.” Jaebum waits, allowing that to sink in. “Are you so unhappy here? If it becomes an issue, you can move.”

Jackson feels it thoughtless to agree. JB is a good leader after all, and thinks this the best way to keep the team strong. And besides, JB has feelings too. He senses that JB is put out by his resistance to the rooming. “It’s okay,” Jackson says, backing down. “I’m fine here. It’s just—to be honest, it’s your candle. It gives me a headache. A-yah, you choose such awful scents.”

JB sounds sheepish. “Is that all? You make mountains out of molehills.” He snuffs it out with his fingers. “Are you happy, precious one?”

“Sure.”

“What a relief.”

Jackson turns the question in his head a few times, trying to work up the courage. He knows what he can expect from the group leader most of the time. He doesn’t think Jaebum would be cruel toward him, but that doesn’t mean Jackson would risk it. He knows Mark was right, too; he shouldn’t come out to the world. He shouldn’t even come out to Jaebum. But he wants Jaebum’s backing. “Jaebum hyung,” Jackson starts, fingers twisting in the blankets. His stomach flutters weakly and his blood seems to rush in his ears. “You know how we aren’t supposed to date?”

“What about it?”

“Well—if you wanted to date someone, in secret, do you think you’d be able to?”

Jaebum is silent for a few seconds, presumably thinking about it. Jackson can’t imagine him ever doing it; he’s serious about his work, probably the most serious besides Jinyoung. He doesn’t lack for emotional depth—heaven knows he’s smarter than Jackson ever feels—but he would never choose love over music. And Jackson—well, hasn’t he already?

“I think we all have to make our own decisions about whether the consequences are stronger than our joy,” Jaebum says carefully. “Would it be worth sacrificing years of your hard work for temporary bliss?”

“It’s just a question,” Jackson lies.

“Is there someone in your life?”

Jackson shifts in bed and tries to be as convincing as possible in his answer. “I’m 23. I’ve been thinking about the future.”

“Just keep in mind the balance,” Jaebum says cryptically. “Everything in moderation. Don’t jump head first without looking. Especially if there are rocks at the bottom.”

“Ah,” Jackson scoffs, flipping onto his stomach. “I don’t understand half the things you say. I don’t even think you understand the things you say.”

“Was I helpful to you?” Jaebum asks genuinely, his concern warming the edges of Jackson’s heart.

“I guess so.” Jackson buries his head in the pillow. “Goodnight.”

 


 

Jackson finds every excuse to be next to Bambam in every photo shoot, every interview. It comes all of a sudden, the feeling that he never wants to be apart from Bam or know a day without him and the ache in his heart that tells him he loves too hard, too fast. It is, perhaps, his weakness—that he loves recklessly, blindly. That brings him to wonder whether he’s too in love to see the ugly nature of what they’re doing—risking everything for the rush of it.

Sleeping apart is difficult, nearly unbearable some nights. Knowing Bambam isn’t far at all makes it even harder; he could go next door and be with him in less than a minute. But life doesn’t always play to his side.

It’s after a long day of promo that Bambam says to him, quietly, “We should go on a date.”

Jackson touches Bam’s arm, runs his hand down the sleeve of his jacket. His fingertips stop at the cuff, resisting. He loves the way Bam’s hand feels in his own, long, slender fingers twining with his own. His palm is always so soft, especially on Jackson’s cheek. “Where do you want to go?” Jackson cups the side of Bam’s face, thumb tracing the line of Bam’s cheekbone.

“Anywhere,” Bam murmurs, smiling. He reaches up, covers Jackson’s hand with his own. His eyes hold that sort of bright warmth Jackson has always been head over heels for, and if they weren’t surrounded by people, he would touch those strawberry lips just to see how soft they were, even though he knows .

You’re so beautiful, and I am so in love with you.

“I’ll take you to dinner,” Jackson tells him. “Anywhere you want. Would you like that?”

“Tonight?”

“Sure. Tonight.”

Bam smiles, leans forward, and kisses his cheek. Even after he steps back, Jackson can still feel it. “Okay,” he says.

Jackson touches the spot on his cheek and stares as Bambam goes off to talk to Youngjae. The touch of a butterfly couldn’t have been any lighter, and yet it takes his breath away.

 


 

“Here, let me,” Jackson says, hurrying to pull out the chair for Bambam. He can’t remember how this is supposed to go down; it’s been a long time since he’s been on a date. And Bambam looks so good sitting across from him that he nearly loses his hold on language altogether. “You look—nice.”

Bambam glances coyly up at Jackson. The candle in the center of the small table flickers, the flame reflecting as tiny pinpricks of light in Bam’s eyes. “Thank you,” he says. “You look nice, too.”

Jackson feels the pressure to be smooth and show that he’ll be a good boyfriend. Logically, he’s sort of aware that they’ve been friends for ages and it shouldn’t be any different, but the tremor in his hands says otherwise. He wants to appear confident so Bambam will continue to look up to him. “Do you want to share something?” he offers, reaching for the menu and opening it up.

“Sure.” Bambam looks at the other menu, running his finger down the side and looking at the options. “Do you know what you want?” Nervous, Jackson shakes his head and bites his tongue. Bambam looks at him sympathetically, perhaps sensing his unease, and puts a hand on jackson’s. “Jackson hyung, don’t be nervous. It’s just me.”

Jackson smiles weakly and tries to be natural. He wishes he’d asked Mark for advice on first dates.

And, granted, he has Bam in the palm of his hand already. He’s already gone the distance. The pressure just pulls him under. He can’t think of anything to say; every time he looks up at Bam, he goes cross-eyed. He bounces his leg under the table, trying to dispel his energy. He needs to be able to focus.

“Here, we’ll order number three. Okay?” Bam pats his hand encouragingly. “It looks good, doesn’t it?”

“Ah, yes. That’s good,” Jackson says, relieved. Truthfully, he’ll eat anything, especially if Bambam is sharing it with him.

When the waiter brings the food, Jackson is jittery still. He can’t seem to say anything without sounding stupid and spends a good fifteen minutes mentally assaulting himself for saying such awkward, brainless things. He can tell he’s botching it badly, although to Bambam’s credit, Bambam doesn’t vilify him or stop smiling calmly. When Bambam asks him to pass the dish to Jackson’s right, Jackson grabs it and reaches across the table. His hand, in his careless ignorance, knocks his fork right off the table. Hissing in annoyance and feeling his face flush, he slips off his chair and bends to pick it up. When he stands up hastily once more, his head slams into the corner of the table. The plates clink together obnoxiously.

Jackson manages not to cry and sits down again.

“Is your head okay?” Bam asks concernedly, leaning forward to check. Jackson winces and nods, face and ears burning. He feels like an idiot and knows he looks like one too. It makes him want to cry, makes him want to sink into his chair and disappear, makes him want to hide in the bathroom until he can face Bam again. He doesn’t do either of those things. He mumbles out an apology and turns his face, unable to look at Bam in that moment.

“Why are you nervous, hyung?” Bambam asks patiently. “Are you worried someone might see us?”

The thought had occurred to him not an hour earlier, but as long as they don’t actually kiss, it shouldn’t look suspicious. Group mates have dinner together all the time; nobody should know that they’re on a date.

“I’m nervous because—because I want to impress you,” Jackson blurts out. “I want to make sure everything is perfect and that I make you feel precious.”

“Jackson hyung,” Bam says gently, “whenever I’m with you I feel precious. You don’t have to worry about impressing me. I already love you, so don’t be so anxious.”

Jackson cracks a smile. He doesn’t feel much better. “I’m making a fool of myself.”

“You could never.” Bam touches his hand again. “You will never be a fool to me. Not even if you set the whole restaurant on fire.”

“Don’t jinx me,” Jackson warns. “There’s a candle right here.”

Bam laughs, and then he feels a little better, because it can’t be so terrible after all. So he hit his head; he didn’t knock the plate of food into Bam’s lap, didn’t knock his water over—both possibilities he considered with apprehension. He’s here with a friend—more than a friend, but somehow just that. His mother told him when he was a child to marry a friend so he would never be in doubt of their loyalty and trust. Worse things have happened than a bruised head.

“Okay?” Bambam says softly. Jackson nods.

The butterflies in his stomach don’t simply fall to the ground dead; he can’t quite vanquish them. But he manages to keep it together for the rest of the night, even manages to say a few things that border on smooth. It’s a process, learning how to date, and he’ll get there.

Jackson is almost sorry to see the night pass at last, but he’s also eager to leave the restaurant and take the cab back home. Then he can be with Bambam, alone. If Bambam falls asleep on his shoulder, he can think of worse ways to spend a night.

In the cab, Bambam leans right up against him. The darkness of the night blankets them in safety; it’s becoming late and Jackson is glad for the lights that blink out one by one around the city. Silently, he reaches for Bambam’s hand and finds it, squeezing lightly. Bambam squeezes back.

“I had a good time tonight,” Bambam murmurs, tilting his head up toward Jackson. “Thank you.”

“I did too.” Jackson’s arm tingles behind Bam’s back. He shifts it up to come around Bam’s shoulders, stroking his far shoulder gently with his fingers. “I’m glad to have you.”

“You were perfect tonight.” Bambam pecks his cheek, smiling infatuatedly. “Don’t ever doubt yourself. There’s nobody in the world like you.”

“You’re too good,” Jackson says, pulling him closer and kissing the top of his head, soft hair shifting under his lips. He means it, too; Bambam’s heart is good, the kind of good that gives to the universe more than it takes and pulls out the good in Jackson. He’s sure he has something special in his arms. And he wouldn’t trade it, wouldn’t prize anything above it.

“Jackson hyung, look,” Bam whispers, and points out the window. They’re crossing over the bridge back into the city now. “Can we stop for a second?”

Jackson nods and signals the driver, asking that he drop them off on the by the bridge instead of the dorm. The driver agrees and stops the car a minute later, a couple hundred meters from the bridge. The air is colder than he remembers, and he wraps an arm around Bam’s shoulders protectively, trying to shield him from the cold. He’s small and thin, and shivers easily. Bambam leans in gratefully. The waters are depthless and dark beneath the bridge, and as they stop on the side and look over, Jackson is thankful for the stars and the lights that reflect onto the water in golden spills.

“It’s beautiful,” Bambam says, huddling close. “Don’t you think?”

It’s close to midnight, and there’s hardly any traffic left on the bridge. It’s beautiful, Jackson agrees in his head. He leans over the railing and thinks of what he would give for this moment to last. “You are also beautiful,” Jackson tells Bambam, the wind stinging his eyes to tears. “You are beautiful. The world should bow down at your feet when you laugh.”

Bambam puts a hand on his bent back. Jackson stands up again and faces Bambam, hesitating only a second before taking him into his arms. Bam’s arms loop around his neck.

“Don’t cry,” Bambam says, cupping the back of his head. He presses his forehead against Jackson’s.

“I can’t help it,” Jackson breathes. “You’re so beautiful.”

Jackson doesn’t know who moves first. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there was never a kiss before that made his world explode in stars across the night sky, and never will be again. Not like this. Snowflakes don’t fall twice. Love is only new once.

They catch another cab when they run out of breath and hold hands the rest of the way home. They sneak past Youngjae, who has fallen asleep playing games in the living room. Jackson pulls Bambam past his and Yugyeom’s room and into his own, puts Bambam into a pair of his own sweatpants and then falls in bed with him. He draws the covers up to their chins and wraps himself around Bambam under the sheets, cradling him close and not caring whether Jaebum finds them in the morning.

These moments happen once, maybe twice in a lifetime, he muses. He won’t let them pass him by.

 


 

“Wake up,” Bambam says to Jackson, shaking his shoulder. Jackson stirs slightly and grumbles, reluctant to come out of sleep. “Jackson hyung. You need to wake up.”

“A few more minutes,” Jackson begs, but the shaking doesn’t cease.

“You have to wake up now. Come on.”

Jackson blinks blearily up at Bambam, confused and tired. Bambam’s eyes are glassy and Jackson knows immediately something is wrong; he missed it in his tone, but he can see it now. “What’s wrong?” he asks, reaching up to touch Bambam’s face.

“Jaebum hyung wants to talk to you,” Bambam says, voice thick and choked. Slowly, Jackson sits up, looking around the room. Jaebum is, as assumed, already out of the room. He can’t imagine what Jaebum wants to talk to him about, much less why it would upset Bambam.

“Okay,” Jackson says, shaken. He swings his legs over the side of bed and pushes himself up. He doesn’t know what he could have done that merits discussion. “Am I in trouble?”

“Just go.” Bambam watches him, looking smaller than ever. “It’ll be okay.”

Jackson rises and walks toward the door. He pauses once in the door frame and looks back; Bambam says nothing more. As he walks down the hallway, he tries to shake the sense of dread that creeps up his spine. He rounds the corner into the living room, stopping just with his hand on the wall. He doesn’t want to go any further for fear of what might lie in wait.

“Jackson,” Jaebum says, noticing him. Jackson swallows hard. Five pairs of eyes fixate on him. The room is absolutely silent, which never happens, not even this early in the morning.

“What’s happened?”

Jaebum’s eyes flicker down to his laptop with a sober expression. “What happened in New York?”

It’s then that Jackson feels the eyes really burning into him. They’re all trying not to look, and yet he can see them sneaking peeks at him to see the disgrace of the hour. He can feel their pity and their worry and suddenly it feels like he’s on fire all over.

In New York, I kissed a man in a gay bar.

“What?” Jackson says, voice raw. “What do you mean?”

“Sit down.” Jaebum pats the sofa next to him. Jackson’s hands are shaking as he crosses the room and sits on the couch cushion, the leather squeaking under his weight. Jaebum turns to him, voice low and serious. “I need you to be calm and understand that none of us—none of us here are judging you. We’re your brothers, and we’re going to try and find a way to help you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jackson feels painfully tense all over, and knows his voice is giving far too much away. “What are you telling me?”

“Show him,” Mark mumbles, curled up in the armchair a few feet away. “He deserves to know.”

“We can fix this,” JB says, turning the laptop towards Jackson.

Jackson feels the hush in the room as he trains his eyes on the screen and starts reading down the Twitter thread Jaebum has pulled up. From the corner of his eye, he can see Bambam peeking out from around the corner. Everyone is watching him, waiting to see how he reacts.

@gatsebens: i can’t believe jackson invented being gay

@sunshinechoi: @gatsebens lol he’s not gay....

@thejackson7: @gatsebens @sunshinechoi um actually there’s a lot of proof that he is

@gatsebens: @sunshinechoi @thejackson7 please leave me out of this i was just joking

@sunshinechoi: @thejackson7 what do you mean? it’s just skinship

@thejackson7: @sunshinechoi does this look like just skinship to you? http://t.co/8sjIFT7C2K

Jackson feels the air rush out of him like a punctured balloon, all at once. The picture, though admittedly a bit fuzzy and in bad lighting, is clear to him at the very least. His face is half obscured by the face of another Chinese man, but he knows the shape of his eyes and the slant of his nose, and even if he didn’t, he knows the baseball cap he’s wearing is recognizable as the one he owns, and the rest of his clothes are, probably, too. When he scrolls down a little further, there’s a shaky video from the same user where the other man pulled back far enough to positively identify Jackson. To make things worse, someone’s thrown in a picture of him and Bambam eating dinner from a night ago.

“Jackson-ah,” Jaebum says so softly. Jackson covers his mouth with his hands. The laptop screen blurs. His entire body trembles. The pictures, the video, are too clear to be mistaken. He knows by the resounding silence in the room that they have all seen it already. That means they know that he likes men, knows that he sleeps with them. There’s nothing he can do to defend himself to them; even if they manage to defray the issue to the public, they’ll know from this point forward. It feels like his entire world is tipping on its side.

“I—” Jackson starts, his voice breathy and high-pitched. He’s going to cry. And what does he have to say, really? They saw what they saw. He can’t bring himself to look at any of them. He’s afraid he’ll see their disgust. His courage fails him completely. His humiliation and panic paralyze him. This is what it feels like when your world collapses on you.

“There might be a way to minimize the damage,” Jaebum says, touching Jackson’s knee. Jackson jerks his knee away and stands up, sweat prickling the back of his neck. “I’m sorry.”

Jackson keeps his palms glued to the sides of his thighs so he doesn’t do anything stupid like pull out all his hair or slam the damn laptop shut so he doesn’t have to see that picture, so nobody does. His eyes are already brimming by the time he reaches the hall again, Jaebum calling out his name at his retreating back. He doesn’t bother explaining himself, and although JB can’t stand it when any of them turn away from a conflict instead of addressing it, nobody says a single word to him. He passes Bambam, who turns tail and quickly starts to follow him. Jackson wishes he wouldn’t.

“Jackson hyung,” Bambam says tearfully, catching the door of the bathroom before Jackson can close it between them. “Wait. We need to talk about it. Jaebum hyung can—”

“Jaebum can’t do anything,” Jackson bites out, leaning over the sink and fighting the urge to throw up. “He can’t change what already is.” He doesn’t want to cry in front of Bambam; to the end, he has to be strong. He feels like he’s being tugged from all sides. He can’t bear to be with Bambam right now. It’s enough that he had to witness his shame. “Go, Bam-ah. Just let me be. If you grant me anything, let it be this.”

“I don’t want to leave you alone while you’re like this.”

“I told you I want to be alone.”

“Bam-ah,” comes Jinyoung’s voice in the hall. “Let him be.”

Bambam gives him once last unhappy glance before letting go of the doorknob. “You’ll talk to me later?” he asks. Jackson nods, not because he wishes to talk later but because it’s the only way Bambam will agree to leave him alone. The second Bambam steps back into the hall, Jackson shuts the door and locks it.

His life seems to be in tatters, and so he does the only thing that makes sense and starts a shower. He runs the water as hot as it goes and takes all his clothes off. The bathroom fills quickly with steam, fogging up the mirror. Breathless, he wipes off a clear spot with the heel of his hand and stares at himself to see what the world sees now—himself, Jackson Wang, stripped bare. Is this all he is? Nothing else, not a musician or a dancer or an entertainer—just his sexual preference?

He tears his eyes from his reflection and steps into the shower, pulling the curtain shut behind him. The water scalds his back and shoulders, but he welcomes the burn. Somehow he’s managed to keep himself together this long, but as the steam rises off his body, he sits down under the flow and starts to cry. He does so quietly at first to make sure nobody hears, but he’s an ugly crier, and he knows the harsh sound echoing off the tiles won’t go unnoticed. His tears wash away down the drain with the water and he rubs the snot off his upper lip. He sits in a ball at the bottom of the flow and lets his body shake as he weeps. If anyone saw him, he would appear half the man he is. His father once told him that in times of genuine distress, people show their true faces. If that’s true, he must be a truly strengthless person.

When his tear ducts ache and he feels completely raw, he rests his chin on his knees and starts to think of what he has to do.

  1. His parents will know soon, if they don’t already. He’ll have to call them. He doesn’t know what kind of things they’ll have to say to him. He doesn’t know if they’ll still let him call himself their son. He doesn’t know if they’ll want to talk to him at all. They aren’t bad people, but they would think twice before saying the word gay out loud. Jackson is the sort of person people talk about in whispers. Jackson is the sort of person parents warn their kids not to idolize.
  2. He’ll have to create some sort of excuse if he wants to get away with this. He can’t be fired from GOT7; he’ll never find work anywhere else after this, and he would rather die than face the humiliation of failing out of the industry. He doesn’t want to end up in a dumpster in Seoul, either. He’s heard about that happening before, and it won’t be him.
  3. It won’t be Bam either. The only proof against Bambam is the photo of them at the restaurant, and that in itself isn’t incriminating. He can pull all the blame onto himself. If he has to admit his sexual orientation, it won’t involve Bambam. To the rest of the world, their first and perhaps last date was just a night between friends. That will save Bambam.
  4. Lastly, he’ll have to decide how much to tell the rest of the group. Jaebum promised that they would all be there for him, but this isn’t the way he wanted to come out to them. He doesn’t owe them anything. His personal past isn’t for them to pick apart like a corpse on a mortuary table. He deserves more respect than that.

He gets out of the shower at last and dries off, skin red and hot to the touch. He starts counting in his head, and makes it to ten before he starts crying all over again.

 


 

He lets Jaebum talk to him first. Jackson owes him that much, for his kindness in trying to break the news as gently as he could. And he owes him an explanation for how he could have put all of their futures in jeopardy. By now his eyes hurt and he’s tired himself out, but it’s no time to be sleeping. Not when there’s so much to grapple with. It feels like it might just crush him under the weight.

Jaebum hovers in the doorway. Jackson isn’t used to seeing him so serious. It rocks him; he’s afraid he might be chided for his foolishness and indiscretion. He may deserve a scolding, but he certainly isn’t strong enough to take one. And Jaebum seems to know; he sits down on the bed with Jackson and exhales heavily. “How are you doing?”

Jackson is sure the violent red of his puffy eyes gives it away, but he has to force himself to say, “Not good.” That in itself is difficult to admit. Jackson has never taken joy in being the one in need of comforting. He can’t stand the feeling of being weak.

“Jackson-ah, I’m sorry,” Jaebum says sadly. “How are you feeling?”

Jackson snorts. “Angry. Sad. Ashamed. Humiliated. Scared.”

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“So you don’t think it’s gross that I sleep with men?” Jackson challenges him abruptly, angry enough that he almost wants to hear Jaebum admit that he thinks it’s wrong. He’ll play with fire if it’ll make him feel alive. “You know what men do with each other? Can you imagine it without feeling disgusted?”

Jaebum’s mouth parts in surprise. Jackson might be going too far. Jaebum’s brow furrows. “Jackson-ah, I—”

“Don’t tell me to not feel embarrassed,” Jackson says hysterically, waving his arms about his head. “My personal affairs have been aired out in the public. You’re free to keep your secrets, and so is everyone else. And besides, you don’t know what it’s like. There’s no place for me in society. Not here, and not in China.”

“When did you know?” Jaebum asks. Jackson wets his lips and fidgets, surprised by the unabashed question. He thinks back to when he had some inkling, before he could admit it to himself. He has never shared the truth with anyone, finding narrative to be unnecessary and a waste of time, but perhaps if it helps Jaebum understand, he can help Jackson out of this mess.

“I was maybe 15 or 16,” Jackson says. “My fencing partner—he was kind to me. We wrestled sometimes, and I mistook our physicality for intimacy.”

“Your fencing partner?” Jaebum moves closer an inch or two, touching Jackson’s knee with his own. Jackson nods.

“His name was Yanlin. I kissed him when we were wrestling one day—he told me if I tried ever again, he would tell everyone. He asked our coach if he could switch partners.” Jackson feels shame like lava rise in his chest, hot and vile. He’d been so humiliated by Yanlin’s repulsion, pinned to the mats as he watched him exit the room. He went home that day and vowed to himself to never look at another man as long as he lived, and then betrayed himself again and again. Everything he has done since that day has been a repercussion of the first domino falling. If he hadn’t kissed Yanlin, perhaps he would have lived believing he could find a woman he loved.

Jaebum is silent a while. The weight of the situation tosses Jackson deep into the river and pulls him down. His life hangs in the balance of their actions going forward. Jaebum says, “You will have to lie if you want this to pass.”

“Even that will not be enough.”

“They told me this morning on the phone that it would be. Even then, you would have to be careful. Another slip wouldn’t be pardoned.” Jaebum adds softly, apologetically, “Whatever it is you and Bambam have gotten into, you can’t continue. You risk too much.”

Jaebum is probably wondering whether their conversation reached Jackson at all that night. Jackson can tell he’s blaming himself for failing to stop this before it happened, for not knowing, and for not being there. It reflects very little on his leadership and very much on the gravity of the situation. And Jackson jumped without looking; Jaebum never would have been so careless.

“Do I get no say?” Jackson asks desperately, angrier about having to give up Bambam than about having to lie. He has lied for a long time; there is no reason to stop now, even in the face of this development. But he bristles at being forced to return to the loneliness of being alone with his secret.

“I can’t tell you what to do. You will do what you want. You have never listened to me the way the others do.” Jackson listens in chastened silence, startled. Jackson has always taken his directions when it mattered. “Your will is stronger than mine. It is the reason you are able to handle everything you have faced so far. A weaker will would have crumbled. But I am asking you to listen to me now. As your friend, as Bambam’s friend, I wish you two happiness, together or apart. I tell you honestly your relationship doesn’t bother me; it isn’t my business. But as your leader, and still your friend, I beg you to put an end to it until we are no longer in the industry. You are risking too much. I don’t wish to see you expelled from the group.” Jaebum stares him down, stern but not unkind. “Do you understand?”

Jackson understands. He understood from the start. Perhaps if he’d resigned himself to the truth earlier, he wouldn’t be in this mess. He doesn’t know what would have been worse—to live in secrecy, or to live in the public but give up everything.

He doesn’t give Jaebum an answer before Bambam comes into their room unannounced, wringing his hands and beelining straight for Jackson. He stands in front of the bed, disregarding Jaebum entirely. “Hyung, please let me see you,” he begs, lower lip trembling. “Tell me you’re okay.”

Jackson glances at Jaebum, who stands, still watching Jackson. “Think about what I’m telling you,” he says, heading for the door and pursing his lips. “I’ll leave you to be alone.”

Jackson doesn’t even wait for the door to click shut before he’s reaching out and pulling Bambam onto the bed with him. Bambam straddles his lap; Jackson wraps his arms around Bam’s middle, clinging to him. He doesn’t want to speak; he lets Bambam brush back his hair and trail his hands down his cheeks, as if checking for physical damage. He clenches his teeth tightly shut, battling the urge to cry again. Bambam finally whispers, “Tell me what to do.”

“I can’t.”

“You have to.” Bambam’s eyes are filling with tears. “Tell me what to do, hyung. I don’t know what to do. You always know how to fix things. So fix them.”

“Bam-ah, I can’t,” Jackson says, throat tightening against his will. “I don’t see what I can do except lie. I can’t make this all go away.”

“It has to be enough. You have to lie. If that’ll save you, then lie.”

Bambam looks fiercer than he ever has, determination burning in his eyes. Jackson gets the sense that he would go to any lengths to get what he wanted, no matter the cost. Jackson remembers that the most dangerous man is one who loses his self-preservation.

“Jaebum wants us to stop,” Jackson says, unable to meet Bambam’s eyes; he might burn to death in the fire. “He thinks it’s too dangerous.”

“He doesn’t know anything.”

“He’s right,” Jackson says against his own will. “We got carried away.”

“So what?” Bambam asks, jaw tensing. “You’re going to listen to him?”

“No.” Bambam relaxes in his hold. Jackson looks despairingly up at him. “Bam-ah, I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess.”

Bambam’s determined glare sags into a look of sorrow. He cups Jackson’s jaw, his touch soft and tender as always. Jackson melts into him, tears glossing his eyes. Each one that falls down his cheek burns hotter than molten metal. “You did everything right,” Bambam whispers. “You always have.”

Jackson tugs Bambam down to lie on the bed next to him and wraps him tight in his arms. Bam’s head rests on his shoulder, nestled in the warmth of Jackson’s body. “Sleep here tonight,” he says, kissing Bambam’s forehead. “I’m going to need you.”

 


 

Management tells them that the interviewer the next day has been told specifically to address the scandal. They give Jackson a script to memorize. He feels slimy whenever he reads it to the mirror; he has no integrity left. He said once he didn’t like projecting an image to fans, because he wanted them to love him for who he truly was, not a smokescreen. He has maintained that the one exception is his sexual preference, but he never explicitly lied about it before, unless omission is considered to be equivalent.

I understand that the pictures that came out recently are meant to depict me and another man kissing. However, I can assure you that we were not actually kissing. He was trying to talk into my ear, as it was loud in the room, and the picture was manipulated. As you can see in the video, we’re just talking. I understand that it appears convincing, but I am not interested in men, and never will be.

He locks himself in the bathroom the night before and reads through the comments on Twitter. He cries when he reads the responses of fans who say they were disgusted by the allegations, fans who are angry that anyone would suggest he’s gay. He can feel their vilification, their driving need to believe that he would never consider something as repulsive. There’s confusion, and argument. Somehow, he forgot the strength of hatred facing him.

Jaebum sleeps in Yugyeom’s room that night, but Bambam sleeps in Jackson’s bed anyway.

Jackson agonizes over his clothing the next morning. He’s never particularly cared, but management told him it would be best to dress as masculinely as possible to leave no doubt in everyone’s mind. He doesn’t know exactly what constitutes as such. Everyone is out the door and waiting for him, and he keeps pulling clothes out of his closet.

Youngjae comes back to find him. Jackson sits on the edge of the bed with a pair of jeans in his lap, feeling utterly paralyzed. “Jackson hyung,” he calls, knocking on the doorframe. “Hurry up.”

“Okay,” Jackson says, his sense of urgency kicking in. He’s wasted too much time trying to find the perfect outfit. “Youngjae-yah, what’s my manliest shirt?” Youngjae stares at him like he’s grown another head. Jackson shakes his head. “Never mind. I’ll be there in a minute. Tell Jaebum to wait a little.”

“It doesn’t matter what you wear,” Youngjae says, coming closer and scanning over the garments tossed haphazardly on the bed. His hand hovers over a shirt. “This one.”

Jackson accepts it; he has no time to question it. He gets dressed as quickly as possible. When he finishes, he turns to Youngjae. “Do I look like a man?”

Youngjae makes an exasperated noise, frowning and straightening Jackson’s collar. “What does it matter? Why are you so concerned today?”

“I was told to dress in a manly way.” Jackson feels almost ridiculous saying it. “They want me to project a certain image to make this go away.”

Youngjae purses his lips and looks upon Jackson with sympathy. His eyes are the kindest, Jackson thinks, and his laugh the lightest. “People call me ugly sometimes,” Youngjae says. “Or fat. I know compared to others, it may seem that way. But I still have fans, because of who I am and the work I put in. There is something about me they admire anyway. And because of that they find me attractive. Perhaps this will be the same.”

“I have to lie,” Jackson says, brow furrowing. He doesn’t understand what Youngjae is trying to tell him. “And you aren’t ugly or fat. But I am interested in men.”

“People may admire you for your character and integrity.” Youngjae looks hopefully at Jackson. “I have always looked up to you because you’re good person. You take care of all of us even though it isn’t your role. If you lie, none of us will judge you. But if you don’t, you’ll still find admirers. Perhaps fewer than before, but they will be your true fans, and your true friends.”

Jackson reaches forward to hug Youngjae unexpectedly. Youngjae obediently hugs him back. “Thank you,” Jackson whispers. “You should be a counselor for a living. If the music thing ever falls through—”

“Ah, don’t say that,” Youngjae exclaims with a short laugh. “No matter what you say today, I will be with you as you have been with me.”

Jackson finds it in himself to smile despite the heaviness in his heart. He knows he’s at an impasse; regardless of what he says, his conscience will plague him. His hand goes to the paper in his pocket with the words scrawled out in his own handwriting. It crinkles quietly, a conspicuous noise to his own ears but inaudible to anyone else’s. He repeats the lines in his head.

I am not interested in men, and never will be.

“Hey! Hurry up!” Jaebum yells from the front of the dorm. “We’re leaving!”

Jackson has to lie.

The drive to the TV studio is torturous; his stomach is knotted up and he feels like he could legitimately throw up. He knows what awaits him. Yugyeom tries to help by rubbing his back in the car, and Jinyoung keeps asking if he needs water, but Jackson shakes his head and tries to focus on the words he has memorized now. His hand hovers over the paper whenever a word slips his mind, but he remembers—they’re wrong, so they stick in his head. In a couple of hours, this will be over, and he’ll be on the other side.

The interview is straightforward and full of lighthearted moments that fail to make him smile. He can’t explain why he feels like a man walking the plank; after all, this lie will get him off the hook. But still he dreads the moment. He tries to stay locked into the interview, but finds his mind wandering at every opportunity. He waits anxiously for the question to come.

They save it almost for the end, and by that point he’s convinced himself they won’t ask at all. He’s watching Jinyoung talk when the interviewer turns to him and asks, measuredly, “Jackson, you were recently photographed kissing another man while you were in America. Is that true?”

The studio falls silent as the camera pans to him and the eyes of everyone in the room zero in on him. Jackson’s mouth goes as dry as the summer sand, and it suddenly seems impossible for him to speak. He might have sat there for five minutes or five seconds; it feels like too long a pause. He hopes the TV crew will edit out the silence later.

I understand that the pictures that came out recently are meant to depict me and another man kissing.

“I understand that the pictures that came out recently are...” Jackson starts, rubbing his palms over his knees in an attempt to dry them. “Um, I understand they’re supposed to look like me kissing another man.”

“That’s right,” the interviewer says, and forces a laugh to lighten the mood. “Were you filming something like your SNL Korea skit?”

There’s another out. Jackson can’t take it, because if he does, people will expect some video to come out at some point, and it won’t, because the filming is a lie. But it gives him the opportunity to explain it away, still. He looks down the line of his group and scans each of their faces. They’re waiting for him to spit out the scripted words. They’re counting on him. He agreed to do what he had to do to save his career.

You’ll still find admirers. They will be your true fans, your true friends.

“No,” Jackson says absently, trying to remember what the script said. “I, uh, wasn’t filming anything, actually. The pictures—” He stops again, distracted by Youngjae’s eyes on him. His heart is beating out of his chest. And then there’s Bambam, waiting with parted lips and desperate eyes.

He can pinpoint the exact moment he changes his mind. It’s when Bambam nods at him, and whatever it’s supposed to mean—if it’s even supposed to mean anything—he thinks about how much he loves Bambam. That’s it; he loves him, and if he lies, does that mean he’s ashamed of it? Does it mean that he’s allowing other people like him to be pushed underground by denying a part of himself?

“I was kissing a man,” Jackson says, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders. “While I was in America, I went to a bar. See, in America, they have places just for people who want to be with someone of the same gender. I went to one of those places. I don’t have any regrets or shame about going there. I know by saying this I might alienate some fans; I don’t say it lightly. I have always said that I don’t want to live behind a veneer, so I am being honest and myself.”

Jackson senses the collective panic emanating from his group members and forces himself not to look at them. His hands are shaking; he hides it by sandwiching them in between his legs. The interviewer laughs nervously, confusion clear on her face. “Are you saying you like men?”

“Yes.” Jackson chews at his lip. “But—please understand. The pictures taken of me and Bambam—they have nothing to do with this.” Jackson looks at Bambam, taking in the fear in his rigid posture that someone else might not catch. But he knows. “We are good friends. It’s simple coincidence that the pictures were taken around the same time. Fans can rest assured that this admission is only for myself.”

Everything seems to happen in a blur after that. The interview wraps up at breakneck speed, his confession echoing still. He keeps his eyes on the ground, afraid that his group members might look at him with scorn or anger. He feels absolved of weight, and yet can’t bear to think about what might happen in the next 24 hours. When the cameras shut off, he braces himself for argument.

The first thing that happens is that Mark says to him, face a blind mask of shock, “I told you what would happen if you came out. Why didn’t you listen?”

The second thing that happens is that Jaebum says, “Enough. You can talk at home. Jackson, you ride in the car with me, Bambam, and Jinyoung. Mark, take Youngjae and Yugyeom.”

Mark looks like he wants to say something else, but Jaebum gives him a look that could freeze the blood in his veins, so Mark nods and grabs Youngjae and Yugyeom, heading for the car. Jackson shuts his eyes, panic racing through him as he realizes the scale of his actions. Jinyoung is silent, holding an arm around Bambam’s shoulders.

Jaebum doesn’t let loose until they’re in the car. He sits in the back with Jackson, Jinyoung and Bambam sitting in the middle row, and finally says, “You never listen to me.”

“I—”

“Just be quiet and listen,” he cuts Jackson off, holding up a hand. “I told you exactly what to do. Management gave you a script. You decided to go your own way. This isn’t a fantasy; it doesn’t all work out. You don’t get a fairy tale ending. You make stupid decisions because you feel invincible and you forget that you are not. Do you think JYP will let you continue saying you’re gay? They will shut you down. I guarantee right now they’re already writing a termination of your contract.”

Jackson sits in stunned silence, face crumpling. Jaebum’s scathing condemnation leaves him in consternation, fighting with all his will to not cry. He doesn’t want to show that Jaebum’s words have hurt him. Jinyoung leans forward from the backseat and touches Jaebum’s shoulder. Softly, he says, “Jaebum hyung. Cool off.”

“Don’t undermine me,” Jaebum snaps at Jinyoung, eyes blazing. “Do you think I’m telling you this to hurt you? I’m telling you this because I know what they will do to you now. If you had listened to me, we would be in the clear. You could have even continued to date Bambam behind my back and I would have turned a blind eye to you both. But you chose instead to make a decision that damages the team and, above all, destroys you.”

“You wanted me to lie. I can’t do that. I would have lost my integrity.”

“To hell with your integrity. We’re entertainers, not scholars. Do you think it is better to live in shadow as an honest disgrace than to live in the spotlight as a dishonest success? If you are expelled after all, never complain to me.”

Jackson shuts his mouth and leans against the window. He knows from experience that there is no arguing back with Jaebum. The best way to deal with him in this state is to let him cool down on his own. Jackson takes off his hat and runs a hand through his hair, going through the motions of his normal mannerisms to battle the feeling that an avalanche of change is crashing down on him. The car falls into charged silence in the wake of Jaebum’s tirade. Nobody dares break it.

And that’s it, he thinks. In less than two minutes, his words were enough to put an end to his career and perhaps his friendship too. One rash decision brought him to his knees.

Bambam’s delicate hand comes to rest on Jackson’s shoulder, a small comfort. Jackson doesn’t touch him back.

 


 

In all his years of being in the group, Jackson has never felt so alone. He stands on the precipice of a great catastrophe, eyeing the depths of his imminent fall. Although Bambam lies with him on the couch and tries to console him, he worries that the treacherous drop will shatter him. Jaebum breaks a plate in the sink in his fit of anger. Mark paces anxiously. Yugyeom tries to lighten the mood by making lunch, but nobody is hungry, and the food is ignored. Youngjae and Jinyoung try to calm JB down, but they all know that the only way is to let him burn it off.

“It’ll be okay,” Mark says to Jackson, sitting by his head and patting his hair in a brotherly way. Everyone can tell how hard Jackson is taking the situation. “They won’t kick you out of the group. We need you. You’re the most popular.”

“Have you seen what people are saying on Twitter?” Jackson asks. He looked when the show aired, and it wasn’t kind. The backlash is brutal, violent even. There’s a niche of acceptance from some of the international fans, but Jackson knows then that social media is kinder than the Asian news outlets and everyone he knows will be. His worst fear of all, though, is how his parents will react. He knows that by the time he calls them, the news will have spread throughout his entire family like wildfire. Some of them, he knows, won’t want to see him again. Some of them might come around. But he’s guaranteed to lose some of them along the way.

“Don’t look at Twitter,” Mark begs him. “People will come around. What you did was brave. Insane, but brave.”

“There’s some support,” Yugyeom jumps in. “Some of the fans say you’re an inspiration.”

“My parents are going to kill me,” Jackson says. His stomach twists and turns, thinking of what they’ll say. In China, people don’t talk about sex. They don’t talk about this sort of thing at all, even in a clean sense. It’s admittedly better in Hong Kong than on the mainland, he knows, but he’s never heard his parents express their feelings on the subject. He rubs his cheeks, chest heavy. Bambam strokes his knee and reaches for his hand. “If they kick me out and my parents don’t want me, I’ll have to put up in a hotel or something.”

“If your parents won’t take you, you can stay with my parents in LA,” Mark offers. “They’d take you in.”

Jackson checks his phone for the millionth time for a call from management or his parents, to no avail. The waiting is the worst part; the longer he imagines the possibilities, the worse his panic becomes. It grows into something monstrous and fearful. Is happiness so short-lived? Does everything come to a sorry end?

The call comes first from the company, and Jackson finds his hands are trembling as he stands from the couch and hovers his finger over the accept call button. Even Jinyoung and Jaebum fall silent from the kitchen and look over as the ringtone echoes in the living room. Jackson rapidly makes his way toward the hallway so he can take the call alone, waving off Bambam’s attention. He feels weak as he shuts the bedroom door behind him and sits on the bed.

“Hello?” he says in as strong a voice as he can muster.

The call lasts six minutes. Jackson is dizzy with dread the entire time, and yet there’s a hidden blessing in their bitter reproach of his actions. He senses their distaste, but although he recoils when they say the word hiatus, he realizes that he has probably very narrowly avoided expulsion. He guesses that his reintegration into the group will probably involve some sort of repentance, and isn’t sure he’ll be able to go through with it if they ask him to rescind his statement. When the call ends, he still feels like crying; he remembers 2 PM and how they put Jaebeom on a hiatus, only to terminate his contract after all. It’s no guarantee of anything.

For now, he’ll go back to Hong Kong and wait out the storm. He wonders as he stares at his blank phone screen whether his parents will allow him to come home. If not, he’d be better off going to LA and staying with Mark’s parents. At least there he’d have something close to home.

Delivering the news is difficult; he feels some shred of embarrassment that he has to leave the group in such disgrace. He creeps back down the hallway and stands in the open doorway, clutching his phone. He stands with deference, prepared to apologize for the transgression that takes him away from his team and inconveniences them. They will pay for his indiscretion.

“Ah, listen up,” Jinyoung says, nudging Youngjae and Yugyeom. Bambam already looks at Jackson with watery eyes, and Jackson feels in that moment that he holds Bambam in the palm of his hand, and is the one now with the power. He should never have put him through so much, but of course everything can be seen clearly in hindsight. “Do you have news?”

Jackson nods, readjusting his grip on his phone. “They’re putting me on hiatus,” he says, eyes dropping to avoid their gaze. “I don’t know for how long. If my parents will take me, I will book a ticket to Hong Kong for tomorrow. I will be gone in a day or so, if all goes smoothly.”

“So soon?” Bambam asks, fists clenched in his lap. He couldn’t look more beautiful if he tried, even now, with his flushed cheeks and bright eyes. Jackson is sorry to leave him.

“There’s no use in me being here if I am not allowed to participate in promotion or press events. I will go home for a while.” Jackson ducks his head, bowing slightly. “I apologize for the inconvenience to you all and will do my best to return as soon as possible.”

“This is ridiculous,” Jinyoung says, scowling and standing up. He paces aggravatedly behind the couch. “I’ll call them myself. We should look at your contract again. There’s nothing in there about this.”

“It’s okay,” Jackson says, shaking his head. He’s resigned himself to the idea of going home for a bit. “Honestly, I think it’s best that I leave for a while. I want to go home and settle things there while I figure out how to deal with everything.”

The thought of being alone for months hits him like ice in his blood. It’s a cold feeling, and he thinks about floating on his back in a river and sinking to the bottom. The uncertainty of the future looms like a guillotine mouton above his neck. He doesn’t know what might unfold in light of his confession, but it can’t be much good.

“We will push for your return,” Mark says.

 


 

“Mama,” Jackson says, lip trembling, “have you seen the news?”

His mother breathes erratically on the other side of the phone. Has she been crying? Face is important; his news will have brought her shame. “Ka-yee, why did you say such terrible things?”

Jackson covers his mouth with a shaking hand, trying to compose himself. His eyes sting with acid tears. She has said all but one sentence, and already he feels like he is breaking apart. He’s the old china thrown into the street, fragmented into shards of something once beautiful. “Mama, I couldn’t lie anymore.”

“I didn’t raise you to be like this. I should never have let you go to Korea.”

“You didn’t raise me to be like this. It’s just who I am.”

“You didn’t leave Hong Kong this way. When you said you wanted to be an entertainer—”

Jackson sinks down onto the bed, tucking his knees up to his chest. This, he thinks, is the worst part. Telling the world was easy. Facing his mother is devastating. “Mama, I’ve always liked boys. It has nothing to do with me being an idol.”

“You were always so good with girls.” His mother sniffles, crying harder than he is. “I don’t understand. People are saying horrible things about you online.”

“I was trying to make you happy.”

“Well, why didn’t you keep it to yourself, then?” She says it as if her heart is breaking, and Jackson blinks back tears, eyeing the door and hoping nobody comes in. “You have shamed our family. We were respectable. Your father and I built a legacy for you to take. When you decided to be an idol, I gave you my blessing. Is this how you repay us?”

Jackson squeezes his phone so tightly he expects it to break. “I’m in love, Mama. Can’t you understand that at least? I love him, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I love him. I want to marry him someday.”

“What a ridiculous idea.” She sniffles again, pathetically. “Men can’t marry other men. You’ll grow out of this. It happens to some boys at some point in their life. You’re going to have to grow up and be realistic, Ka-yee. It’s not practical to keep this up. You’re getting older.”

“Mama. I’ve always known. Why can’t you understand? All I want is to be with him. I don’t want money, or even your blessing. Just for you to understand, and to love me anyway.”

His mother exhales jaggedly and says, choked, “Come home, Ka-yee. You’ve been away too long. I hardly know you.”

“I know. I know, Mama, I’m coming home in a couple of days. Just say you still love me.”

“Of course I still love you. I don’t know what to say to you right now, but you’re my son.”

“Figure it out then,” Jackson says, finger poised over the end call button. “I’ll be in Hong Kong the day after tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

 


 

Jackson considers where he went wrong, if he could have somehow circumvented the trouble that surrounds him now. What if he hadn’t kissed that man in New York? It was providence that led him to the bar, but his own faltering will that pulled him into the quagmire. And if he had shut Bambam out like he should have? Could he have then avoided sinking so deep into boys and the unspeakable?

Or if he hadn’t kissed Yanlin all those years ago. Then, perhaps, he wouldn’t have ended up here. But then, he might have ended up here somewhere down the road. Maybe he would have married a woman without thinking and realized a year into their marriage that he didn’t love her after all. Maybe he would leave in the dead of night and dally with men in the alley. Maybe he would live in aching depression. It seems fated that all roads bring him to the point of collapse. If ever there was a time to break down and then build back up, this must be it.

He stares at the stars. He was told once that the stars people see are the ghosts of stars already gone; light travels slowly enough that the stars he sees now have been dead for centuries. How can a star still shine on for so long after its death?

“Bit late to be up here, isn’t it?”

Jackson turns, surprised, and finds that Jaebum has climbed through the window and onto the roof behind him. Immediately he shuts his mouth and watches apprehensively as Jaebum approaches and sits down next to him at the edge of the landing. Jackson rests his chin on his knees, glancing sideways at Jaebum. Jaebum squints out at the stars, quiet. He doesn’t speak again, and Jackson feels the wall of tension between them.

“What are you doing here?” Jackson asks, unable to help the touch of bitterness in his tone.

“I saw the window was unlatched. Is it a crime?”

“Are you here to scold me for what I did?” Jackson curls around his legs to shield himself from the night chill. He can’t believe that tomorrow, he’ll be leaving Korea; it’s been too long since he’s been to Hong Kong, but he doesn’t want to go now that he has the chance.

“I came to apologize,” Jaebum says, his breath fogging in the air. He looks sideways at Jackson, pursing his lips. “I was overly harsh on you. I should have been more sensitive to your feelings. I was only angry because I knew they would punish you. I don’t want you to be taken away from the team, Jackson. I may be the leader, but the truth is, you’re an integral part of the team. Your spirit is indomitable, and the others look up to you.”

“I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not,” Jackson says.

“I understand.”

“Why did you say integrity didn’t matter?”

“I was angry.” Jaebum blows on his hands and rubs them together. “I would rather you had lied and stayed with us. You could have still been honest with us, even if not with everyone. But we are different people. I don’t know what it feels like to hide something like that. I understand why you made your choice. One man who denies another’s freedom does not deserve his own freedom. Thus, I would be remiss to shackle you.”

“I don’t know if I made the right decision,” Jackson admits, drooping. “My mother is ashamed of me, and everyone seems to hate me now. On top of everything, I have to leave. If I made the right choice, why am I reviled?”

“There is no right decision. Battles are hard-won. Justice is never achieved without a fight.”

Jackson nods to himself. It doesn’t seem fair, but if it is his lot in life, so be it. “Jaebum hyung,” he says softly, “Tell me what to do. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. The path isn’t clear. You always have the answer, so tell me what I should do now.”

“I can’t tell you the answer this time.”

“Please. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do now. Tell me the right way to go. I’m lost.”

Jaebum puts a hand on his shoulder, and the whole world stills. The sky is endless and black save for the dots of light that break up the suffocating darkness. He wants to tumble right off the edge of the building and into the comfort of nothing.

“This is your path, Jackson,” Jaebum tells him. “I can’t walk it for you.”

I don’t know what to do, Jackson thinks again. Please be my leader still. Please don’t leave me to face this alone.

Jaebum climbs back through the window, so Jackson stares at the moon and hopes that the answers will come to him.

 


 

The day he leaves for Hong Kong, it rains, soaking the streets. As Jackson stands by the front door with his suitcases and pulls on his windbreaker, Bambam looks up at him with tears in his eyes and pulls Jackson’s hood up.

“Come back to me,” Bambam says, touching Jackson’s cheek. His fingers are cold and soft. Jackson can’t kiss him in front of their group mates, and yet he would kiss him anywhere. “Stay dry. Don’t catch a cold, okay?”

“I can take care of myself,” Jackson says, but his voice is strained. He doesn’t want to cry in front of everyone, doesn’t want them to see how difficult it is for him to leave.

“I know, but you always pretend you aren’t cold when you are.” Bambam straightens out Jackson’s jacket, lower lip drawn between his teeth. He won’t stop fussing over Jackson. “That’s why—” His voice breaks. “That’s why you always give me your jacket.”

“Bam-ah, please don’t cry,” Jackson whispers, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be okay. It’ll just be a little while. You can call me any time.”

“It won’t be the same.”

“Jinyoung will take care of you for me,” Jackson murmurs, brushing a strand of hair from Bambam’s forehead. “He promised to look after you while I’m gone. If he teases you, you tell me, and I’ll scold him.”

“Ah,” Jinyoung grumbles in the background, “I wouldn’t.”

Jackson turns his head to see the rest of his group waiting patiently with long faces. If this is how he leaves them, let them see him being strong. He makes himself smile. “Don’t worry about me. I will be fine.”

“Travel safely,” Jaebum says gravely, bowing his head. “We will miss you.”

“I’ll walk you to the car,” Bambam says, opening the front door for Jackson. He takes one of the suitcases himself and then they step into the rain. Bambam opens the umbrella over both their heads, and as the rain pelts the fabric and drips off in torrents, Jackson feels desperation take hold of him. He wants to walk in the rain under this umbrella with Bambam forever. He’s afraid of what happens when Bambam turns back and leaves him to brave the rain alone.

The driveway is only so long, and the taxi is waiting already. As they pile the suitcases in the trunk, Bambam looks up at him one last time. Jackson wants badly to kiss him once before he goes, but he knows he can’t. They walk around to the door of the taxi, and Bambam holds it open for him. Bambam inhales sharply, his face so pale in the grey light. He looks tired and sad, but beautiful, still beautiful. Even without the makeup he so meticulously applies, he looks like a dream.

“I’ll be back before you know it,” Jackson whispers, and leans forward to kiss his cheek. Bambam watches him get into the car with his lips parted and his knuckles white around the umbrella handle. The last thing Jackson sees as the car pulls away from the curb, the last thing he remembers about Korea, is the look on Bambam’s face, and the rain that falls down his cheeks.

Chapter Text

Jackson arrives in Hong Kong at night. It feels less like home to him than it ever has, and maybe that’s because he’s afraid to actually go home. He has always loved his family more than anything else, and their censure is scalding. He hasn’t spoken to his father, and doesn’t know what he’ll have to say.

There are reporters outside of the airport, waiting with bulky cameras and yelling questions at him. The constant flashing nearly blinds him; he shields his eyes and pushes through, ignoring their persistence.

Is it true you’re dating another idol? What do you have to say about the comments online? Who else in the industry is gay?

Jackson gets into the first taxi he sees and slams the door shut. He turns off airplane mode on his phone to find a slew of texts.

 

Bambam: Jackson hyung, have a safe flight. xx

Bambam: text me when you land. I love you. things will change for the better

 

Jinyoung: Bambam is in my bed and won’t let me get up to go to the bathroom

 

Jaebum: I’ll work on getting you back as soon as possible. Until then, don’t hang your head.

 

Jackson only texts Bambam back to assuage his worries. The rest of his attention he focuses on finding a cab and getting to a hotel for the night. He won’t wake his parents this late at night. Bambam responds with a dozen heart emojis, which puts a weary smile on his face. A thousand miles away, he hopes Bambam smiles back.

 


 

His childhood home is forlorn and small in his eyes. After all the fancy hotels and the comfort of his dorm, home doesn’t feel like home. He steels himself for what he might see or hear once he steps inside. During past vacations, he wasn’t able to contain his excitement about seeing his parents. Now, he’s afraid to knock on the door.

Hesitantly, he raises his fist and raps cautiously on the wooden door. After a moment or two, he hears footsteps from within the house and pushes down the handle of his suitcase. He tips his head back and swallows hard, trying to compose himself. He spent half an hour trying to groom his hair to look acceptable for his mother. When the door opens just a crack, he straightens up and tries to keep a neutral expression on his face.

“Ka-yee?” His mother stands before him, looking tired and ill, more so than he remembers. She hasn’t been in good health for a while, now, but she looks especially run down. He feels the urge to tell her to lie down and then bring her a cup of tea, but perhaps she doesn’t want him to. Perhaps they should talk first. Perhaps...

They stand in silence, him on the porch with his bags and his head down, and her in the doorframe, looking far older than she is. He is the first to break the pause: “Hello, Mama.”

“Come inside, come inside,” she says hastily, reaching to help him with his suitcases. He beats her to it, picking both up, one in each hand.

“You shouldn’t, with your back,” he murmurs, following her into the house despite the obvious unease between them both. “Are you and Baba doing well? Are you in good health?”

“Yes, everything is fine. Take your suitcases to your room. I’ll make you tea.”

“You don’t have to.”

“You just came home. I’ll make you tea.” She moves to the kitchen, hardly glancing at him. Jackson holds back everything he wants to say and drags his bags to his room. He’s happy to find nothing has changed. His bed is neatly made and all his things have been put away. It makes him feel like a teenager again. How different his life is now from how it was then. He looks out the window across the street, at the houses he’s seen a thousand times. If only he had as few worries as he did before. He was always sure of himself; he always had a feeling he would be great someday. But now it doesn’t seem to matter.

He wanders back to the main part of the house when he can’t justify staying in his room any longer. His mother is just pouring the tea from the kettle into her prized tea cups. He knows from experience that his mother’s cooking and tea are the best there is. His mouth waters; he can’t remember how good her tea tastes, but he remembers her making him a cup every day when he came home from school and packing him dumplings every morning. He sinks into a chair at the kitchen table, and she places the cup in front of him. The steam hits him square in the face.

“Thank you,” he says, and takes a sip. It burns his tongue. He doesn’t mind. He takes another sip despite his best judgment, eager to drink the tea he’s missed for years. She sits down across from him, and he can’t decide whether to keep drinking his tea or look her in the eye.

“Have you eaten yet?” she asks.

“Yes, this morning at the hotel.”

“I’ll make you some soup.”

“Mama, I’m not hungry.”

“Sure you are. You just need some home cooking.” His mother stands up and begins bustling about the kitchen, searching for a pot. Jackson leans back exhaustedly and rubs his face.

“Mama.”

“I’ll make it just the way you like it.” She turns to him, pleading. She doesn’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. He should have expected as much. People don’t like to talk about problems; they’d rather sweep it under the rug for the sake of face. Asking her to address the tension head on is ambitious to say the least.

“Mama, I want to talk,” he says gently. “Please. Let’s not use smokescreens. I love you and I want to be honest with you.”

She stands tentatively in the kitchen, worry clear in the lines of her face. He doesn’t want to hurt her and hates the idea that his coming out pained her. It shouldn’t have been that way. He should have told her before he said it ok TV; she should have heard it from his mouth. “Ka-yee, I don’t know what to say to you,” she says haltingly. “You weren’t like this as a boy. Did I do something wrong to cause this?”

Stricken, Jackson reaches across the table to touch her hand. “You didn’t do anything. You raised me just fine. You gave me everything I needed and I am who I am because of everything you and Baba did. This is just—a part of me. It’s like my eyes, or my skin.”

“But you will have such a sad life. Gay people—they either kill themselves or end up alone.”

“But I’m not alone,” Jackson insists. He takes a deep breath. “Mama, I have someone now. And he’s wonderful. He’s my best friend and the person I want to be with forever. He makes me happier than I’ve ever been. He sweeps me off my feet. What does it matter that he’s a boy? He makes me a better person and I thought that’s what love is about.”

“You cannot have kids. Don’t you want children?”

“Yes, of course, but I love him so much that it doesn’t matter. We can be happy without children. He makes me so happy.”

His mother eyes him warily, but she doesn’t remove her hand from under his. It makes him believe that maybe they can heal this rift. He wonders if she’ll ever fully come around to understanding.

“I will need time to accept it,” she says finally. “I don’t want to be angry with you when we already see each other so infrequently. But I cannot defend you to anyone. I will not speak on your behalf.”

Jackson knows she’s ashamed of him—most of China has a long way to go before they reach acceptance. He knows their relationship will be strained for some time, maybe forever. His fantasy of living exactly in the way he had before is just that: fantasy. If he ever gets around to marrying Bambam somehow, whenever one of their home countries legalize it, he knows his mother will not be in attendance. Her reluctant tolerance is simply to minimize the tension between them to maintain their relationship, not real acceptance.

He isn’t quite okay with that, but he pretends he is so he doesn’t hurt her by saying he needs more, so much more. He didn’t want to cause her pain, and she’ll be hounded by the whole family, but he can’t force her to stand up for him. The lot of them will never accept it, anyway. They’re stuck too far in the past.

“Thank you for the tea,” he says, and stands, ready to put it in the sink. “I think I’ll take a nap if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course,” she says absently. “Whatever you want.”

He trudges up to his room and lies down on his pristine bed, sighing heavily. He pulls out his phone and texts Bambam.

Jackson: I miss you, precious one.

 


 

Jackson sleeps right through his father coming home and eating dinner. The past few days have been exhausting. He doesn’t have the heart to check on the news about him, though he’s gotten several texts from his group members that he feels obligated to answer. His mouth is dry and his lips are caked in dried drool. He feels like he’s been asleep for a thousand years. The clock tells him it isn’t really so late, and he can hear his father’s voice mingling with his mother’s, but he’s too afraid to face him right now.

Rolling over onto his side and switching on his desk light, he reaches for his phone. He smiles when he sees a slew of texts from Bambam and scrolls through them.

Bambam: I miss you too <3

Bambam: how’s staying with parents?

Bambam: Jinyoung says I’m not allowed to sleep in his and Mark’s room anymore because I kicked him in my sleep

Bambam: he’s already being mean to me

Bambam: also JB says you left a sock behind and he’ll mail it to you. I told him you can buy new socks but I don’t think he believes me

Bambam: I hope you’re not sleeping. don’t want to wake you up

Bambam: actually I don’t care I’m bored and JB says if I complain about Jinyoung one more time he’s going to murder me I think he’s serious if I disappear you know who did it

Bambam: this is Jinyoung here and Bam is being annoying you can take him back now

Bambam: dkkdk its msiid JIdkyounfb herekd

Bambam: text me when you wake up I gotta go

Jackson quickly texts back.

Jackson to Bambam: I just woke up. sounds like you’re doing okay. call me xx

Jackson to Jinyoung: are you bullying Bam??? I’m going to beat your ass when we meet again

Jinyoung to Jackson: he’s exaggerating I’ve been the best hyung

Jackson to Jinyoung: let him sleep in your bed

Jinyoung to Jackson: never again

Jackson is about to continue fighting Jinyoung when his phone screen is taken over by the Facetime screen. It’s from Bam. He reaches for his earbuds, praying he’ll be able to talk without his parents noticing. He clicks the accept button. In a moment, Bambam’s face fills his screen. He smiles, heart skipping a beat.

“Hey,” he murmurs. Bambam smiles back. His hair is combed carefully to the side, that beautiful red-maroon color that Jackson likes so well on him. Jackson wants to reach through the screen and touch him. He seems so close, and yet not at all; a touch of yearning sparks. He vows to not let Bambam see his longing. “How are you?”

“So formal,” Bambam teases. He adjusts the angle of the camera so Jackson looks at him squarely instead of from an upward slant. “I’m fine. It’s strange that you’re gone. Jaebum hyung said I could sleep in his room if I wanted, but I think Youngjae’s going to move off the couch and in there instead. You know how he and Jaebum hyung get along.”

“So where will you sleep?”

“I don’t know. Maybe with Jinyoung if Mark will agree to room with Yugyeom.”

Jackson nods and leans against his pillows. “Are you really doing okay?” he asks, voicing the worry that’s been nagging at him since he left Korea. Bam’s eyebrows lift in surprise. “Has anyone asked about you being—?”

“My mom doesn’t keep up with me so closely,” Bambam says, voice dropping in volume. Jackson turns up the volume on his phone to compensate. “She hasn’t really heard about it. I’m sure some people don’t believe what you said. They mostly want to talk about you.”

“But do they speculate?”

“Of course. They always do.” Bambam pauses, looking serious. “I want to defend you, but the company won’t let us. They said it would make it seem like we support what you said.” Another pause. “And I do. I don’t think any of us want to defend you as much as I do. But they say whoever says anything could be placed on hiatus, and we’re already short.”

“I don’t expect any of you to say anything,” Jackson says to soothe his worries. “I think they might want me to take back what I said. This hiatus, it’s—I’m sure it’s to send a message to other idols in the company. The only way I can reenter the kingdom is to go back to pretending I’m attracted to women. I won’t do it, Bam-ah. They can’t force me to.”

“So you’ll be out of the group forever. Is it worth all that?”

“There will have to be another way. Surely they know that losing me would be a hit to the company. I have Chinese fans and Korean fans as well. I won’t compromise myself.”

Bambam sighs, waving a hand in front of the camera. “Let’s not fight. Tell me how it is to be home.”

Jackson senses a bit of hope in his tone. He tries to think of the good things. “I forgot how good homemade tea is,” he says, tipping his head back. He got a rush of nostalgia whenever he took a sip. He can’t imagine what it’ll feel like to eat dinner at home again. “One day, maybe, you’ll come over and try my mom’s tea.”

“How did your parents take the news?”

Jackson hopes Bambam can’t read him properly through the pixelated image. Through everything that’s happened, the one thing he maintains is that he cannot let Bambam worry about him. He can’t let anyone worry. Nobody can question his choice or feel sorry for him. He wishes Bambam were here; Bambam would hold him and kiss his forehead and tell him that they’ll sort things out together. There is nothing comparable to that security, the haven of the one you love.

“My mom is adjusting,” he says finally. “I haven’t talked to my dad yet. I don’t think he’ll be happy.”

“Jackson,” Bambam murmurs, face crumpling into concern. The screen gets closer to his face. Jackson hurries to keep talking.

“I need to call my brother. If he takes my side, I’ll have a better chance of convincing my parents it’s okay. They trust him, I think, because he’s older.”

“If you think that’s best.” Bambam shifts again. Jackson remembers that he has a thing for boys with bright lips and bright eyes, like Bambam and Mark and Yanlin, and when the lighting is just right, Bambam is the brightest by far. “I miss you. I’m so cold without you.”

“Ah, you were using me for my warmth,” Jackson says, eyes glinting mischievously. “All this time?”

“I’m cold inside,” Bambam complains. And Jackson knows what he means. There’s an ache inside of him too that chills him. He desperately needs the warmth of his partner right now. Being so far apart under the circumstances is painful. But it’s the path he chose. “You always warm me right up.”

“I’ll be back before you know it,” Jackson assures him, softening. At that moment, hot tears sting his eyes; what he would give to be reunited again just so he wouldn’t be alone. It occurs to him that perhaps he needs Bambam more than the other way around. He has always seen himself as the protector figure and taken pride in looking after his younger group mate. But Bambam, even given his youth and gentleness, is stronger than Jackson gives him credit for. Jackson, on the other hand, has always been emotionally fragile, no matter how hard he tries to hide it. He takes things hard.

Bambam can’t seem to tell that Jackson’s eyes glisten; Jackson is thankful for once that the camera hides so much. It shelters him. “I should go. I don’t want my parents to know I’m awake.”

“Okay. You can call me any time. We’ll keep fighting to get you back, okay? I love you.”

“I love you too,” Jackson echoes. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Bye, Jackson hyung. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Jackson ends the call. He sets his phone on the corner of his bedside table and sighs, pulling the covers up to his chin again. He’s a little too tall for this bed. His feet touch the baseboard. All the posters and decorations are from an era past. He may have thought once that he could come home and squeeze into the place he once held, but it seems he’s outgrown it.

 


 

 

“You’ve gotten your ears pierced again,” his father says impassively, scanning over Jackson like he’s nothing more than one of his fencers. Jackson swallows impulsively; he feels bare, standing here in the kitchen and waiting for judgment. If there was tension between him and his mother, there’s a chill of animosity between him and his father. It isn’t because his mother believed any differently, or decided to be lenient; it’s simply that his father is less willing to overlook a slight like this.

“We all have,” Jackson says, reaching up to touch one of the piercings. “Jaebum has six or seven by now.”

“And you look fit,” he adds. “Been training?”

“Yeah. A bit.” Jackson bites his lip, and then turns to the cabinet to get a glass of water. He isn’t thirsty, but he can’t keep standing here like a deer in the headlights. “I have to stay in shape when I’m dancing all day.”

“So what’s this business about you liking—” His father clears his throat, as if the word itself lodges there and won’t tumble out. “All this business about you being, you know. Abnormal.”

Jackson freezes where he is, glass set on the counter and hand on the tap. His neck prickles. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” he says carefully.

“Come on, Ka-yee, you know what I’m talking about. I watched the program, you know. Do you know what it’s done to your mother? She’s already in poor health.”

Jackson thinks privately that the big deal they’re making out of it is probably a bigger hit to her health, but doesn’t say so. He turns, meeting his father’s eyes. He’s careful to steel his expression into something unreadable the way he used to when his father coached him and he didn’t want to let on that some of the criticisms could hurt. It was part of the sport, and never intended maliciously, but he’d been sensitive even then.

“I’m not abnormal,” Jackson says. “I’m perfectly normal. And I don’t see what all the fuss is. I’m not hurting anyone.”

“The fuss is that it’s not the way of things. Men like that, they’re—they’re not you. They’re the sort who act feminine and have no sense of masculinity. You were a sportsman before you were an entertainer. Perhaps it’s this industry that has changed you. I assure you it won’t fly. My old colleagues have been calling and asking how you managed to go wrong when your mother and I set you up for greatness.”

“Tell them I will always be great for what I do and not who I have sex with,” Jackson says bluntly. “There are sorts who act that way, yes. But it isn’t human nature to be homogeneous. Men and women come in many forms. And femininity isn’t weak. Mama isn’t, and certainly those of us who have to bear yours and others’ criticisms can’t be weak.”

“It’s all right for women to be feminine. We’re all made a certain way, and if we were created a certain way then we must never stray. People who defy time-tested traditions are stamped out.”

“Then surely I wouldn’t exist, no?”

“I’m begging you, Ka-yee, to put an end to this nonsense. I won’t stand for it. Your mother may be soft with you, but I will not be.”

Jackson swivels and drops the glass in the sink. The glass cracks and splinters on impact, shards distorting the aluminum underneath. The noise is harsh and startling, even though he was expecting it to break. His father inhales sharply, and Jackson knows he’s in for it.

“Ka-yee. Apologize now.”

“I don’t have to,” Jackson says. He boils with something brave and dangerous. He doesn’t know where his volatile anger comes from, but he won’t be silenced. “I’m 23. I’m an adult. I make my own choices and I’m not going to change on your account. If you want to tell your friends and the whole family that I’m a freak and a disgrace, I can’t stop you. But I won’t force myself to take it in silence. I am my own man, whether you see me as one or not.”

Jackson pauses long enough for his father to hiss, “When did you become so insolent? You may be a celebrity, but you are still my son. Show respect to your elders.”

“Show me some first,” Jackson says, striding forward and passing his father, his shoulder bumping his father’s. He goes straight for the foyer and yanks on his shoes, gritting his teeth. His hand goes to his back pocket to make sure his cell phone is still there. “I’m not a little kid anymore. You can’t tell me what to do with my life. Whether or not you approve of me means nothing to me now.”

“Come back here right now! Don’t you dare walk out that door, Ka-yee! I’m not done talking to you.”

Jackson slams the front door shut behind him. The second he’s out of sight, the tears pour unbidden over his cheeks, his hardened anger cracking to allow his pain to seep through. He wishes he had a hat on that he could pull over his face to hide his tears. Someone could easily recognize him, and even in his state of disgrace, he wants to preserve what’s left of his image. He tries to pull himself together as quickly as possible, striding down the street to escape the house. He hasn’t lived here for over five years; even if the area hadn’t completely changed, he wouldn’t know where to go.

Well, he has a phone, and wherever he goes, he’ll find his way back.

He gets a sense of deja vu walking through the city, though he can’t say whether he’s remembering his childhood in Hong Kong or the feeling of being alone in a crowded city. His tears dry on his face and cause his skin to pull. He keeps his head down, never sure if people’s wayward glances are signs of recognition or signs of simple curiosity. The city that once placed him on a pedestal probably could not care less now about whether or not he ends up in a gutter.

It isn’t until he finds a park that he finally throws himself down on a bench, panting and rubbing at his sore eyes. The cold, heavy air makes him think it might rain. Perfect, he thinks miserably; a rainy day would just top off everything else right now. He rubs his hands together to warm them and wishes for a moment Bambam was there to warm him.

He pulls out his phone to call Bam, but thinks better of it. He doesn’t want Bambam to worry about him. On a path a few hundred feet away, a young couple walks with a toddler. The father swings the boy up by his arms and the boy’s bright laughter reaches Jackson’s ears. He imagines having a little boy like that, or maybe a girl—a child with his own jet black hair and smile. He’s always wanted kids, but he has to give that up if he stays with Bambam. He has to give a lot up, and after all that, he isn’t certain they can or will stay together. And they’re both young; he doesn’t even know what else life holds. He’s barely started.

When he moved from Hong Kong to Korea to begin training, he felt absolutely lost. Jackson has never backed down from anything; it isn’t in his nature. But he considered moving back home during the lonely months he spent trying to communicate in poor Korean with the other trainees. Even then he had a concept of feeling homeless, knowing he could not go back to Hong Kong of his own free will without feeling like a disgrace, and not being able to settle down in Korea. Now he knows the feeling by heart. He feels more displaced in Hong Kong than he did back then; he fears that he will never know the feeling of home again, and is condemned to wander amidst the shadows as an outcast.

Or perhaps this is merely a bump in the road. Could everything really spiral out of control so fast? Even sitting disgraced in a Hong Kong park when he should be preparing to tour in Japan, he finds it difficult to believe that this is the end of all things good. This isn’t the crushing of his spirit, either. He has to let things play out before he gives up.

Stomaching his parents’ shame is difficult, perhaps worse than the vilification from the media. After all, he can shut the media out as a buzz of voices that are too numerous to distinguish. His parents’ voices ring loud and clear. He hasn’t texted his brother yet, afraid he might also have something unsavory to say. Based on the fact that he hasn’t called yet, Jackson guesses he’s right about that.

But Jackson feels he has a duty to himself to see this through. He won’t back down yet. He’ll go back home and face his father. He can wear his parents down to tolerance; he just has to be patient and brave. A man does not back away from a challenge, and Jackson is determined to prove himself a man.

 


 

 

Jackson doesn’t see his father when he comes home hours later. His car is gone from the garage, so he must have left sometime after Jackson did to blow off steam. His mother stands alone in the kitchen chopping vegetables, a bowl of ground pork defrosting on the counter. She’s already rolled out circles of dough on a sheet of wax paper. He doesn’t have to ask to know she’s making dumplings. When he was a child, he ate them too often to enjoy them. Now that he hasn’t had his mother’s dumplings for years, his mouth waters and his jaw aches just in memory of the taste.

“Ah, Ka-yee,” she says, pausing. “Your father says you fought.”

Jackson nods, pulling off his jacket and hanging it in the linen closet. He can tell from the look on her face that their argument upset her. He can only imagine what his father told her. Her brow is furrowed in distress and her knuckles are white around the knife. “He was angry with me,” Jackson says simply. “I thought it was best to put distance between us.”

“You should apologize to him. He’s only upset because he’s worried about you.”

Jackson thinks she’s too willing to overlook her husband’s faults, but he swallows the retort that comes to mind. “I’ve missed your dumplings,” he says instead. “When I went to America...Bambam ate something called Panda Express.” He smiles tentatively, hoping the anecdote will make her smile but afraid she might not want to even think about his partner. “Have you heard of it? It’s American Chinese food. Ah—fake Chinese food.”

She nods warily. “He did?”

“Yes. It’s very popular in America. It made me miss your cooking.”

She smiles hesitantly back at him. “You always complained I fed you dumplings too often.”

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Jackson fidgets with his fingers in front of him. “Can I help you?”

“You’re a guest now,” she insists. “You shouldn’t work.”

“I want to.” To prove his point, Jackson turns to the sink and washes his hands. Only a tiny sliver of glass remains in the sink. “Your back is bad. I’ll help you so you can rest before dinner.”

To be honest, if it hadn’t been for his mother, he would have stayed in a hotel instead of coming home. He would have rather kept his distance than faced his father. But he knew his mother would be hurting, and hoped that he could mend the rift. He wanted to be there to take care of her for however many months he’s excluded from the group. He can’t stand to imagine her in pain, even if he’s the reason. He takes his place beside her at the counter and breaks the pork up with a wooden spoon as she directs him, trying to prove that he can be the son she needs.

“You used to ask if you could help me cook all the time when you were a child,” she says quietly, eyes fixed on the vegetables. “I would tell you to go play, but you just wanted to be in the kitchen with me. Your father—he said you would grow up to be a good husband to some lucky girl someday.”

Jackson almost can’t bring himself to speak. The shame is overwhelming and almost suffocating. He can’t take the heartache of his own mother being embarrassed by him. He has let her down; she gave him everything, and he was selfish and insisted on doing things his way. “Mama,” he says softly, tears springing to his eyes, “I can’t change this part of me. I can change many things. I can think of new jokes and make new friends and come home more often. But I can’t change this. If I could, don’t you think I would? I don’t want all this.”

“Gaga, you can’t live like this,” she says, tearing up as soon as she sees his own watery eyes. “I don’t want you to be unhappy for the rest of your life.”

“I have to live honestly. I need to do what makes me happy. Bambam makes me happy.”

“So you refuse to change your mind?” A tear slides over her cheek, a single shining thread like silver. “Your stubbornness will be the death of you.”

“Please,” Jackson gasps. “I can’t bear you being ashamed of me. I have done everything I could to make you proud. The one thing I can’t sacrifice is him. I can’t bear to lose him, and I can’t bear to lose you.”

She cups his face in her hands, heedless of the tears that soak her palms. He can feel her pain as acutely as his own, and it magnifies the sharpness in his chest. “I am grieving the son I knew.”

“I am still myself,” Jackson cries, trembling under her touch like a child.

“It seems that way to you. I feel like I’ve never really known you. You never told me. You are already 23, but I feel like I’m starting over.” She wraps her frail arms around his shoulders, eyes buried in his shirt. Shaken, Jackson reciprocates. “I’m trying to understand, but I feel like I’ve lost my son.”

Jackson listens in chagrined silence. He hadn’t thought about it from her perspective, at least not this way; he wants to yell that it isn’t about her, that he’s the one who is being crucified from every direction. It isn’t fair for her to act like this. But he also knows that in order to get her on his side, he has to make some concessions. He can’t expect her to take this on the chin.

“I’m sorry,” Jackson says as steadily as possible, wiping his eyes. “I understand you feel that way. I am sorry to have brought shame upon our family. Truly, I am.”

“I am sorry that I told you you brought shame to us,” she says, still cupping his face even as he looks at the ground. “You have been a good son to us all these years. I will also try to understand you.”

“Baba thinks I’m a disgrace,” Jackson spits out, turning his face to the side. “He wouldn’t listen to me at all. People here—they’re too stuck in their ways. I left and saw the world, and it’s different out there. We don’t have to live like we did anymore.”

“Some of us are happy living the old way,” she chides. “What’s wrong with living like this?”

“Nothing, Mama,” Jackson sighs. “I just mean that there’s more to life than living in a bubble.”

“You’re young. Your mind could change.”

“Not about this. This at least I’m sure of.” Jackson goes back to breaking up the pork with the spoon. “Mama, please. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Tell me how Popo and Gonggong are doing.”

“Are you sure that you won’t change your mind?” she repeats wistfully, and when Jackson looks at her and sees her tired face, he feels only regret; regret that he didn’t tell her sooner, that he didn’t tell her himself, that he put her through this at all. And most of all, he feels terrible that this is so difficult for her, and that he can’t be the son she wanted or even needed him to be.

With great remorse, Jackson says, “I’m sorry. This alone I can’t change.”

 


 

Jackson puts off calling Bambam, or any of his group mates, for a week. He exchanges a few texts with Bambam only, just to stave off any undue concerns. He knows he needs to lie low for a bit. He avoids his father at all costs, even around dinner, choosing to eat dinner in his room or earlier than his parents do. He’s afraid to leave the house in case he’s recognized by fan or paparazzi alike. But none of these habits can continue forever; something has to give.

Bambam texts him one evening, is everything ok? haven’t heard much from you lately.

Jackson’s gut twists. He doesn’t want to lie outright to Bambam; they’re supposed to be there for each other, and if the roles were reversed, he would be desperate to help. But the thought of burdening Bambam with the knowledge that this is exactly as hard as he thought it would be—maybe harder—is difficult to bear.

Jackson: can I call you?

He stares at his phone screen and the little blue chat bubble containing his words. After a minute or so, the grey chat bubble that signifies Bambam is texting him pops up underneath. Jackson brings his thumb to his mouth and bites down on the tip, nervous and trying to think of what he’ll say and how much to disclose.

Bambam: of course you can. you okay?

Jackson decides not to bother with answering and calls instead. He lies back on his bed and waits for Bambam to pick up. Finally, the ringtone ends. “Hello?”

“Bam-ah, hey,” Jackson says, exhaling in relief and relaxing his grip on his phone. “Are you alone?”

“Yeah, we just finished dinner.” There’s some shuffling on the other end of the line. “Is everything okay? I haven’t heard from you for a while.”

Jackson purses his lips and stares up at the ceiling. “Yeah, everything is okay, I guess. What have you been up to?”

“We had a dance practice today. We had to reblock some of the parts because you aren’t there anymore.”

Jackson shuts his eyes and rubs his forehead. It’s hard not to feel left out, even if he knew this would happen. What if they decide they don’t need him? He doesn’t want to be in Hong Kong for the rest of his life. “I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.”

It’s Bambam’s turn to sigh. “Hyung, please don’t feel bad. We all agreed you shouldn’t have been isolated for what you said. It’s unfair that they’re making you sit out.”

“I know. Just, I guess I knew they would do something like this. I was selfish.”

“Are you okay? You sound down.”

Here it comes. A week and a half’s worth of troubles threaten to spill out of his mouth. “It’s been a rough few days,” he says carefully, wary of sounding too distraught. “As expected. I might be able to change my mother’s mind. I don’t think my father’s mind will change. But I suppose it’s just a matter of waiting it out.”

“Jackson hyung,” Bambam says sadly, “you don’t have to pretend that everything is okay. I know it’s not.”

“Bam-ah, please don’t worry. I’m really okay. Of course it hurts to hear the things they say. I don’t want them to think badly of me. But I have a roof over my head and food to eat. Shouldn’t that be enough?”

Jackson is aware that the only thing between him and Bambam realizing how tough things are is the fact that Bambam isn’t here in person. If he were here, he would be able to tell in an instant how worn-down Jackson feels. His body aches and his eyes are dark-rimmed from lack of sleep. Most of the time he wants to curl up in bed and sleep, but he knows that he needs to keep his head up and be stoic if he wants to prove that he can come back to the team.

“You sound so sad,” Bambam mumbles. “I know you care about your parents. You do everything for them.”

Not anymore, he thinks. He does everything for his mother, and Bambam. His father feels like a stranger after just a week and a half of turmoil between them. He thinks for a moment that the primary reason he’s so desperate to return to the team is that he wants to be with Bambam again.

“Bam-ah, please. I’m okay.” His voice wavers, a betrayal at which he clenches his teeth. “I don’t like it, but things happen this way. I’m just tired, that’s all. Nothing endures.”

Bambam exhales heavily on the other end, as if unduly burdened. “It’s not fair,” he says softly, “that you have to suffer all this while I get to continue without consequence. I was the one who pushed you to kiss me. You wanted to remain discreet and I took advantage of your desire. I should have admitted our relationship and stuck by you.”

“Are you feeling guilty? Don’t. I promised I would take care of you from the beginning. I knew if I had a choice in it, I would be the one to take the blame. It is my responsibility as your hyung.”

“Forget that you are older. If I am your lover, then it is equally my responsibility to take care of you. We’re in this together or not at all.”

“Bam-ah. Please. Don’t do anything rash. You are safe as long as you are silent.”

“You weren’t silent.”

“Yes, and that was stupid.”

“It wasn’t stupid. It was brave.”

“Some would argue that’s the same thing.” Jackson flips over onto his side and stares at the wall instead. “If you do one thing for me, don’t come out. At least not for my sake. I’m not in need of saving. What use is it for both of us to be isolated?”

There’s a long, heart-pounding pause. Jackson feels as if he’s been stretched to his limits. He’s brimming with concern for Bambam now, afraid he might do the same thing Jackson chose to do. Bambam shouldn’t suffer this heartache too. He’d rather protect Bambam. “I don’t want you to be alone,” Bambam says finally.

“I’m not. I have you. Believe me, I have you.” Jackson gnaws on his lower lip, debating if there’s anything else to be said. He has to be sure that when he hangs up, Bambam doesn’t do it after all. “Promise me you’ll be prudent. Don’t do anything reckless. I don’t need you to come out to know you’re on my side. It’s enough to know.”

“I won’t.”

“You promise?”

“If I came out, we could be together.”

“We’ll be together at the end of this mess,” Jackson promises. “Even if we’re apart now.”

“I wish we didn’t have to wait.” Bam adds, softly, “I’ve been missing you, tuun hua.”

Jackson smiles, surprised. He doesn’t understand the last thing Bam said, but recognizes that it’s the tonality Bam uses when he speaks Thai. “What did you say?” Jackson says, keeping his hand by his mouth like he does when he gets shy or bashful.

Bambam clears his throat. “I said, I’ve been missing you.”

“After that. In Thai. What was it?”

“Tuun hua,” Bambam repeats, sounding embarrassed. “It means beloved. My aunts and uncles used to call each other that. I don’t have to say it again if it embarrasses you.”

Jackson beams and scrunches his eyes shut, momentarily flustered by the endearment. He muffles his tiny squeal of happiness in his pillow. “I like it. It doesn’t embarrass me.”

“Because you are beloved to me. Do you know that?”

“I know that,” Jackson says, but it feels so comforting to hear. He needed that boost today. He’s reassured that despite all the angst of being at home, he has someone in his corner. “You are beloved to me too. That’s why I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I’m old enough to protect myself from getting hurt, hyung.”

“I know. Promise me, Bam-ah, you’ll stop feeling guilty and be smart about how you handle yourself. It’s all I’ll ask of you.”

Bambam sighs. At length, he says, “I promise.”

Jackson’s heart relaxes. The promise soothes him enough for him to say, “I love you. I’ll take care of everything.”

“You always do. I’ll sleep now. Goodnight, tuun hua.”

“Goodnight, Bambam,” Jackson murmurs. “Sleep soundly.”

 


 

Jackson finally leaves the house again when his mother makes a trip to the grocery store. He doesn’t want her to carry the heavier bags all by herself and throw out her back, so he pushes aside his fears about appearing in public and gets ready to go out. He finds a baseball cap and a face mask to hide his face as well as he can without wearing a full-on ski mask. His mother raises her eyebrows at him; he shrugs. He has to do what he has to do in order to preserve his privacy.

“You don’t have to come with me,” she reminds him, but really, he does. He can’t help her when he’s with the group, so regardless of the circumstances, he’s determined to make up for the times he couldn’t be there for her. The thing he always felt worst about when he left Hong Kong as a teenager was that he felt as if he was abandoning her. No matter how many times she pushed him to pursue his dreams, he was conscious of the fact that she was only going to need more help going forward and he wouldn’t be around to help her. He worried about her getting seriously injured and not being at home if she had to go to the hospital. It doesn’t matter what she thinks of him; he wouldn’t turn his back on her even if she never wanted to see him again.

“I don’t want you carrying everything on your own,” Jackson assures her.

“You know, Gaga, I’ve been shopping at least a few times since you’ve been gone.”

Jackson smiles, casting his eyes downward as he buckles himself into the passenger seat. “I know. I just want to help.”

“You’ve always been such a thoughtful boy,” she sighs, backing out of the driveway with a wistful smile on her face. He used to come with her to the marketplace when he was a child and try to carry as many things as he could to help out. Sometimes she would buy him a sweet for his trouble. “I never thought you and your brother would end up living so far away.”

“I’ll come back to live in Hong Kong,” Jackson says without thinking. “I don’t want to live in Korea. This is my home.”

“I always thought you’d stay. But perhaps you will consider living elsewhere? America?”

Jackson shrugs, disinterested. “America is fun for a few weeks. But I want to live here, close to you and Baba.”

Privately, though, he wonders if he’ll actually live in Hong Kong after all this blows over; perhaps a place like America, where this sort of thing is more accepted, might be more suitable. It would be quite a change of scenery, and he’d be far from family and friends. Why should he have to give up what he knows just to live in peace? But he’d do it, if Bambam wanted to. Or whomever he marries. If it becomes unsafe, he’ll leave Asia. What a thought, that he could just up and go. He did it once before, but he never thought he would do it again.

Does Bam assume he’ll settle down in Thailand? Jackson isn’t keen on living in a country he’s completely unfamiliar with, but if Bambam wanted to, he would consider it. Anything to make him happy. And then Jackson remembers again that their relationship might not survive, that the strain being put on them both as a unit and as individuals is, by anybody’s account, nearly too much to bear. If Bambam decides not to stay with him, he’ll search for someone in Hong Kong.

He’s apprehensive of the busy market as he’s never been before. He’s wary of the crowds and the possibility of recognition. He forces himself to brave the crowds anyway and sticks close to his mother, trying to make sure she can get through the swarms of people. He isn’t so much taller than her, but he’s broader and stronger, and he can shoulder through easily. “What do you need to buy?” he asks, peering at the vendors’ signs. “Do you need me to go to the crowded stands for you?”

“Ah, yes. Can you go to the fishmonger stand for me?” she asks, digging in her wallet for a few bills. “Here. I just need a few terapons for dinner tomorrow. The line is sometimes quite long. Go to the vendor at the very very end and tell him you are my son.”

Jackson takes the crumpled bills and grimaces as he turns away. There are hundreds of people around, and although none of them pay him a second glance and his face mask nearly obscures his face completely, he feels exposed. Still, his mother asked him to do something, so he pushes into the crowd and makes his way through. He pulls the bill of his cap down low and immerses himself in the buzzing marketplace. Nobody looks at him, so he moves quickly and never looks anyone in the eye.

“Three terapons,” Jackson says breathlessly, voice muffled by his face mask. He thrusts the bills out at the fishmonger before he even hears the price. The man pulls some fish out of a bucket of ice and begins to clean and wrap them. Jackson glances anxiously around, but he finds no cause for fear after all. He distantly sees his mother’s profile at the other end of the market. Well, he’ll be back with her soon.

“Here,” the man says, handing the fish to Jackson without further ado. Jackson thanks him with a nod of his head and looks around properly for the first time, some of his fears subsiding. He got lost here once as a child, and could see only a few feet ahead of him through the jungle of legs. He had been frightened, but he also felt the world still in the midst of the chaos, and he suddenly owned his own little pocket of universe. Now he can see above the crowd, and the magic of childhood is lost. He feels the heartache of nostalgia as he stands with his package in hand and wonders when he stopped feeling like he could own any of the universe, even a tiny piece.

He pushes through the crowd, away from his mother. She’ll be busy awhile buying fruits and vegetables at the produce stands. Curiosity tugs him in the opposite direction; his eyes roam over the hand-painted signs many of the vendors have put up, and he smells street food, the kind his mother warns him about steering clear of but also the kind Jackson sometimes craves the most.

When he breaks free of the hordes, the air seems to clear. The gutters are dirty with litter and silt. Jackson clutches the package to his chest and ventures further, eyes roaming over the posters glued to the brick walls. Most are advertisements or flyers for local performances. They’re always being ripped down or pasted over. Jackson walks a few steps further and freezes when he recognizes a full-size poster with his own face on it, staring blankly back at him. They’re his eyes, and yet they look cold to him. It’s an old picture from a photoshoot he did with Bazaar China last year. Scrawled over his image is a series of hastily written characters.

Si fat gwai Kayee, Jackson reads in his head, and shivers.

He remembers the term. When he was younger, some of the boys at school would yell that at other boys who acted femininely or expressed, in one way or another, some variance in behavior. Jackson held himself back and watched. He never intervened out of fear and uncertainty. At that age, he certainly didn’t know he would be targeted with the same slur, but he knew that something about it felt wrong and personal. And now, seeing his own picture defaced with the words, his blood runs hot and his ears burn. He looks around again, fear taking root. He backs away quickly before anyone can notice him staring at the poster and put two and two together.

He rushes back through the marketplace in search of his mother. Although the physical image is left behind, Jackson knows that he won’t ever forget the sting of the insult.

 


 

Jackson tries not to follow the group’s media appearances too closely, wary of drowning in his own self-pity. They’re on a talk show today, and Jackson can’t help himself. The host asks them what they think of Jackson’s temporary departure, and whether they believe he should apologize or leave the group so as not to tarnish their image with his deviant lifestyle. Jinyoung replies curtly that the six of them have no interest in what Jackson does with his personal life, and that they expect his return shortly. Jackson thinks that’s Jinyoung’s way of saying he’s on Jackson’s side. Mark chews on his thumbnail, staring past the camera and clearly distracted.

Bambam says nothing, but the way he glares at the host afterward―so subtly that someone who wasn’t intimately familiar with his mannerisms would never detect the hostility―makes it clear that he wants to be anywhere but there.

 


 

It’s probably been three weeks since Jackson’s been home, but his mind is still trained to think in terms of his schedule, and he knows today is the day they begin their Japanese tour. He briefly explored Twitter to see if any of the fans are disappointed that he won’t be in attendance; the outpouring of dismay from his fans is heartening. He’s not convinced that they’re the majority, but considering he’s been off social media for a while, anything is probably possible.

He’s heard less and less from Bambam since they last talked. He supposes it’s because Bambam is busy with the new tour. Jackson knows it’s unfair to feel neglected when he was the one who put distance between them, but he can’t help it. Being alone for too long has that effect on anyone.

He refrains from calling Bam, afraid of appearing needy. He helps his mother cook and clean the house and walks around the neighborhood to blow off steam now and then. His father approaches him toward the beginning of the fourth week when Jackson is watching TV in the living room, and Jackson shrinks back, apprehensive.

“Let’s stop beating around the bush,” his father starts bluntly. Such is his way, and perhaps because he’s a man he feels that he can come right out and say what he pleases. Jackson occupies the middle ground between his parents, neither passive nor abrupt. “This new attitude of yours is ridiculous. Why won’t you listen to me? I’m begging you to change your mind.”

Jackson sighs and reminds himself not to rise to the provocation. If he does, more friction will follow, and he might just break his mother’s heart after all. He says, simply, “You won’t listen to me either. There’s nothing wrong with me for not liking women.”

“I don’t have to listen to you. I am your father.”

“But I’m an adult,” Jackson says, gritting his teeth. “You may be my father, but I’m an adult and a person, and yet you have shown me no respect. You won’t even try to understand what I’m saying. I’m gay, not a leper. I don’t have a disease. I don’t wish to disrespect you or to argue, but I can’t follow you blindly, either. You don’t have to agree or even pretend to. But neither shall I. If you are not open to change and refuse to accept this, then I would rather not talk at all.”

And Jackson doesn’t feel any more empowered after he delivers that ultimatum; he feels caught between, upset that he has to draw such lines between himself and people he still loves despite their caustic reprehension. He wants simplicity; he wants the drab normalcy of ordinary days. He wants what he took for granted.

“Well,” his father says acidly, “don’t expect me to speak to you from now on.”

 


 

Jackson doesn’t care. It doesn’t sway him one way or another whether or not his father approves of his life. He tells himself this a dozen times, determined to convince himself that this is a non-issue. The more he dwells on it, the more his chest aches and his stomach knots up. If his mother, too, had condemned him, he might have packed up and gone to a hotel. He can hardly stand the pressure from his father alone.

But regardless of the situation, Jackson has never been one to mope around. He does what he can to make himself useful around the house and sends Bambam infrequent texts. He stops expecting a response most of the time. That, too, he tells himself is all right. There has to be a reason for the emotional distance.

It isn’t until he finishes dinner one night and finds six missed calls from Bambam that he starts to worry. After this period of silence, it seems strange that he would try so desperately to contact Jackson. Jackson wastes no time in dialing Bambam back and waits impatiently for him to pick up, anxious to know the reason behind the calls. It takes seven heart-pounding rings for Bambam to answer the phone. “Hyung?” Bambam almost whispers, his voice shaky and hoarse. Jackson’s neck prickles.

“Bam-ah, what’s wrong?” Jackson asks, hunching over his knees. “You called so many times. Did something happen?”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t take it anymore. I hate hearing all the jabs at you, at men who are too close―they think it’s funny because they don’t have to face it, don’t you understand? So I made them face me. I wanted them to look at me and see me. You told me not to, but it wasn’t fair. I’m not ashamed of loving you. I’m not ashamed of myself, either. If I have to act like I’m ashamed of something as simple as who I love in order to be successful, I would rather be with you openly than live like that.” Bambam runs out of breath, sounding both tearful and furious at the same time. “I’m sorry, Jackson hyung. I didn’t want to anger you. It’s just been so hard since you moved home. And with the tour and everything, I think I just forgot what it was like to sleep next to you and I started remembering how your arms felt when you held me that night we kissed the first time, and every time they raked you through the mud I got a little weaker.”

Jackson can’t breathe for a moment. He’s flooded with conflicting emotions―elation that Bambam loves him so dearly, sorrow for the consequences that Bambam will now suffer alongside him, hope that he might see Bam again sooner than expected, and guilt that he can even feel anything but empathy at this time. The first thought that battles its way to the surface is, “It’s okay, precious one. I’m not angry. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay.” Bambam sniffles, indicating that he’s been crying. Jackson aches inside. “It’s all over the news by now. I’m going to need a place to stay for a bit until the company figures out what to do. If this changes things for you as well, I’m sorry.”

“Hush, don’t worry about that now.” Jackson bites the soft part of his thumb, twisted up over the issue. “Are you going back to Thailand?”

“No. No, I can’t. I haven’t called my mom. I don’t even think I can. I’m not ready to face her. I’m not going back to Thailand. I might stay in Seoul at a hotel.”

“A hotel? You can’t put up there indefinitely.”

Bambam lets out a shuddery sigh. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Come to Hong Kong,” Jackson blurts out without thinking it through. “My mom will let you stay here. My dad―well, we aren’t speaking anyway. I want to see you.”

“There’s no way I can come to Hong Kong. Your parents are barely handling you. They won’t want to house your boyfriend too.”

“If they won’t, then we’ll stay at a hotel together,” Jackson swears resolutely. “I won’t let my boyfriend stay alone somewhere for who knows how long. You’ll go mad all alone. No, you have to come. I’ll talk to my mom. Just stay for a bit, until you can call your mother and feel out the situation.”

“Hyung, I don’t know.”

“Then trust me. Book your ticket. I’ll take care of everything. Like I always do, remember?” Jackson hopes he sounds more convinced than he is. He’s overcome with the urge to handle everything and take as much weight off of Bambam’s shoulders as he can. “I promise I won’t let you down.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” Bam breathes. If they could reach through the phone, Jackson is sure Bam would be desperately groping to hold onto him.

“I don’t want you to worry, okay? Let me take care of it.”

The thing is, maybe sometimes Jackson promises things of which he isn’t certain. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t try his hardest to pin them down. For Bambam, he would push himself to the breaking point to make things easier.

“Come home to me,” he says. “Come home to me, and I’ll take care of everything. I’ll take care of you.”

Chapter Text

Jackson doesn’t bother asking his father about Bambam coming to stay with them. He knows it will be rejected without consideration, and since his father has taken to not speaking to him, Jackson doubts there would be any point in approaching him. He goes straight to his mother instead and prays that her pity will be strong enough.

“Mama,” he says, interrupting her TV show. He sits down on the couch next to her, swallowing to soothe his suddenly dry throat. She pauses her show and turns to him expectantly. “Ah, I need to talk to you.”

“Okay. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, really,” he says hastily—a lie. “Well, to be honest, it’s not that there’s something with me. It’s that there’s something wrong with Bambam. He’s said something indiscreet in an interview about his relationship with me and now he’s being forced to take a hiatus too. And the thing is, he’s terrified of going home to his family.” Jackson bites his lip, hoping that his mother senses the urgency in his words. “He’s afraid his mother will disown him. He’s not ready to go to Thailand yet.”

“Why doesn’t he just call his mother?” she asks, forehead creasing. Of course, he thinks; she wouldn’t understand the heartstopping fear that accompanies facing your family after your secrets are exposed. She’s never harbored a secret of that scale.

“Mama, he’s scared,” Jackson explains. “And he isn’t ready. He needs to work up the courage and call her on his own time. He’s not going home right now; he’s coming to Hong Kong. I asked him to stay with us.”

His mother leans back, surprised; Jackson braces himself for a scolding and a no. She pauses and purses her lips, unreadable. Eventually, she says, “You should have asked. You already told him to come?”

Jackson nods, looking down at his hands sheepishly. “I figured I’d ask forgiveness later rather than ask permission first. Listen, Mama, if you really don’t want him here—if you don’t want him to be with me here—I’ll just pick him up from the airport and we’ll go to a hotel for a few weeks. But he really needs me right now. He’ll be in Hong Kong tomorrow.”

His mother sighs and massages her forehead like she’s developed a headache. Despite her leniency, Jackson knows that this is pushing her limits, and that she isn’t happy at all about the idea of him dating a man. But he’s hoping that she’s beginning to understand just enough that she’ll let Bambam stay with them. “I wish you’d asked. There’s nothing to do about it now.”

“I can take him to a hotel,” Jackson repeats, afraid to take the bait. “Really.”

“Your father won’t be happy about this. I can’t say that I am either. I would have wanted to prepare better.”

“I know. If it’s not okay I can go stay somewhere else with him. But I won’t leave him alone right now.”

His mother sighs and looks away, turmoil swirling in her eyes like a troubled sea. Jackson feels pressed once more, and he forces himself to not keep a mental record of everything he’s done to cause her pain. “I won’t promise to treat you as a couple. I just can’t do that. He can come, but I can only do so much.”

Despite expecting his mother to balk at the proposal, Jackson still feels a twinge of disappointment and hurt. He nods, and stands up, trying to hide his discouragement. “Thank you,” he says honestly, squaring off his shoulders. “I promise it’ll only be for a little while. You’ll talk to Baba, won’t you?”

“Yes. I can’t guarantee he’ll react well.”

Jackson nods. He’s upset and apprehensive and uncomfortable. But most of all, he’s relieved that Bambam is coming tomorrow. He’s felt the cold sting of loneliness for far too long.

 


 

 

Light streams in between the slats of Jackson’s bedroom blinds. He shifts onto one side, only half-conscious, and begs for drowsiness to pull him back under. It’s too early for Bambam to be here, but still, he lies awake after his initial burst of consciousness for what feels like ages before admitting defeat. The problem is that now that he’s awake, he remembers clearly that Bambam arrives today.

It isn’t right to bring him into such a volatile atmosphere. The last thing Jackson wants is for Bambam to be caught in the crossfire when things go south. If something goes wrong―not that Jackson thinks Bambam will be the cause―it could taint his parents’ opinion of their relationship forever and ruin any chance of gaining their acceptance. The only way to maintain the peace is for Jackson to shield him.

They decided Bambam would catch a taxi to the house. Jackson wanted to drive to get him, but Bambam wouldn’t allow him to come; there’ll be reporters swarming the area, and seeing both of them together would cause an uproar. Best to keep a low profile. So Jackson waits anxiously at home for his arrival, in the dark about everything. But there’s no use lying in bed; thinking somehow that Bam’s arrival might come sooner if he gets up, Jackson swings his legs over the edge of the bed and stands.

He takes a quick peek down the hall to see if his parents are up. His mother is sitting in the living room with a cup of tea, watching the dramas she taped the week before. Jackson tiptoes out quietly, hoping she won’t take notice of him. But she has the hearing range of an eagle, and hears his footsteps before he even reaches the end of the hall. Sheepishly, Jackson walks normally the rest of the way and pauses by the couch, unsure of whether he should sit down with her or go get breakfast. It’s still early, and he doesn’t feel like eating, but he doesn’t want to get caught in a long conversation now either.

“You want tea?” his mother asks. Jackson shakes his head.

“No thank you.”

“You’re up early.”

“Mm,” Jackson murmurs and nods, sitting down in the armchair. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Because he’s coming?”

Jackson doesn’t respond. He twists up deep inside, battles his nerves and prays his father will handle the situation graciously. He aches to have Bambam in his arms, as if that could somehow erase the hurt they have both suffered. But please, he begs, let it not be at the cost of his family. Let love grace him without costing him anything more now. If he could accelerate time, Jackson would turn the hands of the clock forward until it was time for Bambam to arrive, turn it until they could up and leave this goddamned continent and find haven with each other, with themselves.

Jackson is not spared that morning as he waits with dread in his stomach for the time to come. He listens with his guts in Gordion’s knots while his parents argue over whether to sanction their relationship, how long Bam can stay, how long Jackson can stay. Jackson remains curled up in the armchair like a child of fewer years and tries to shut out their voices.

It’s nearing nine when the doorbell rings. Jackson’s parents fall abruptly silent, and a hush settles over the room. Jackson’s stomach heaves. He stands, feeling their eyes on him, and crosses from the living room to the foyer. Jackson nearly sways on his feet as he puts his hand on the doorknob, unlatches the door, and pulls it open.

“Jackson?” Bambam says, small and travel-worn on the doorstep. His eyes are dark-rimmed and the way he hunches his shoulders makes him look so young, so vulnerable. Jackson’s breath doesn’t come easily. He takes Bambam’s hand and pulls him over the doorstep, Bambam’s fingers releasing the handles of the suitcases without resistance, and then Jackson has his arms around Bambam, shaking, fumbling. He finally gets a grip on the fabric of Bam’s hoodie and buries his eyes in Bambam’s shoulder, exhaling with a shudder. Slowly, Bam’s arms wrap around Jackson’s waist, familiar and more comforting than Jackson had ever imagined. Jackson could be anywhere right now, and he’d still be home .

“You’re here,” Jackson mumbles, struggling not to break down in front of his parents. He didn’t even realize how lonely he’d been, how worried, until now. After the maelstrom of the last few months, Bambam’s warmth brings him to tears. He thinks for a moment not of the tumultuous past nor of the uncertain future, but of his relief, and the measure of love he feels for the boy he holds.

“Hey,” Bam whispers, pulling back. He nods over Jackson’s shoulder. Inhaling deeply, Jackson braces himself for what’s to come. He turns to introduce Bambam to his parents, informally seeing as they’ve met him before, but his father is nowhere to be seen. Only his mother remains, watching their interaction with a stricken look.

“Mama,” Jackson says, voice breaking, “I want you to meet Bambam. My―boyfriend.” Jackson doesn’t know why he stumbles on the word. Perhaps it has something to do with his sudden recollection of her saying she wouldn’t accept them as lovers―just friends. Perhaps it has something to do with his father swearing that because Jackson loves someone with the wrong anatomy, the wrong expression of gender, the wrong name, the wrong everything for the role some girl was supposed to fill. Jackson doesn’t think any of those things are wrong. But what matters is that, no matter what about Bambam is wrong, he gets one thing right―he loves Jackson.

“Hello,” his mother says, nodding curtly. Bambam knows enough Cantonese to recognize a greeting, and bows his head in response. He never takes his eyes off her, even at the lowest point of his bow. He’s afraid, Jackson thinks. He’s afraid of what she’s thinking, even if he can’t hear it. Jackson is afraid too.

“English,” Jackson begs his mother. “His Cantonese isn’t good.”

“Hello,” she says in English, albeit reluctantly. “Your flight was okay?”

Pleasantries. Jackson can handle pleasantries, but only inasmuch as they aren’t a veil for something else. “It was good, thank you,” Bambam says uncomfortably. “Um, thank you for...accepting me into your home. I’m sorry to inconvenience you.”

“No inconvenience,” she says quickly, and Jackson admits to himself that her reliance on traditional manners might actually save the visit. “Glad to have you here. Please, enjoy the visit.”

“I’m going to set him up in my room,” Jackson tells her. “If Baba has a problem, make sure he doesn’t direct it toward Bambam. Only me.”

Whether or not she’ll pass on his intent is thus far unclear. Jackson is eager to sequester Bambam away in his room, away from prying eyes, so he hurried to help Bam with the luggage and beelines for his room. It’s the first time Bam has been to his house, and he looks around curiously, taking in his surroundings and starting to blend into the scene. The longer Jackson looks at him, the more he looks perfectly right. He can imagine being with Bam in Hong Kong this way.

“In here,” Jackson instructs, holding his bedroom door open for Bam. “This is the room I grew up in. You can sleep in the bed with me. I didn’t clear out any―”

Bambam turns and shuts the door with one palm and presses Jackson up against the door in a second, his other hand holding tight to the collar of Jackson’s shirt. Jackson hardly has time to take a breath before Bambam kisses him, hungry and bruising. Startled, Jackson manages to cup Bambam’s face, and Bambam brings his other hand up to hold onto Jackson’s shirt better. Jackson realizes then that Bambam’s fingers are shaking, and when Bambam finally lets him come up for air, Bambam falls forward and tucks his head into the crook of Jackson’s neck, breathing hard and heavy. Jackson doesn’t understand why he’s so worked up until he feels wetness against his skin.

“Bam-ah,” Jackson whispers, trying to pry Bam off. Bambam clings to him like a leech, and suddenly Jackson goes from being the weak one to the strong one. Bambam cries silently, his body quaking and tears soaking Jackson’s shirt sleeve. “What’s wrong?”

Bam finally shifts his head and lays it down on Jackson’s shoulder, releasing his shirt and sliding his arms around Jackson’s waist. Jackson only catches a fleeting glimpse of his glistening brown eyes. “Nothing,” Bam says firmly, sighing a little. “I just missed you.”

“Did something else happen?”

Bambam lifts his head up and wipes his damp cheeks with the shoulder of his shirt. “The reporters at the airport. They were all over me. Someone yanked my shirt, I―I almost fell. They weren’t just being aggressive, they were invasive. Everywhere I go, even here, they won’t leave me alone. Won’t leave us alone. They’re writing articles about us now. I read on the plane here.”

Jackson pulls Bambam over to his bed and forces him to lie back, passing him a box of tissues and pushing the hair off his forehead. “It’s no good to do that,” Jackson tells him. “I did that for a while, but it just gets depressing. Better to shut it out.”

“I’m just happy to be with you,” Bambam says, made unconvincing by the accompanying sniffle, and tugs at the front of Jackson’s shirt until Jackson lies down next to him. His face crumples once more. “I knew it would be hard. I just didn’t know it would be this hard. Being apart from you hurt, but I didn’t understand what you must have felt like until I was alone too.”

“Sh,” Jackson whispers, brushing his knuckles against Bam’s cheek. “You did everything just right. We aren’t apart anymore. As long as you’re here there’s no reason to cry.”

“I just missed you.” Bambam scoots down lower and nuzzles his forehead against Jackson’s sternum, sighing shakily. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”

“You don’t have to apologize. You’re an adult. I had no right to ask you to be silent, anyway.”

“You were trying to look out for me. Nobody else in my life has ever looked out for me before.”

“Well, I won’t stop trying to protect you, but you can make your own decisions.” Jackson presses his lips to the top of Bam’s hair. “Are you tired?”

“Yes,” Bambam admits. “That’s probably why I’m so weepy. Sorry. I didn’t plan to cry so much. You’re just so warm.”

Jackson knows exactly what Bambam means. It surprises him, too, how strongly he feels now that Bambam is here. When he sees Bambam’s red-rimmed eyes and feels his soft hands against his collarbones, he feels something inside him soften, a place he didn’t know existed within himself. This is the first time they were separated after getting together, and Jackson hadn’t known what it would be like. He supposes that absence makes the heart ache.

“It’s okay.” Jackson holds Bambam close, exhaling slowly. He feels smaller than ever, slender and delicate in Jackson’s arms. For a second, Jackson thinks hotly, angrily, that it’s unfair of his parents not to understand how happy Bam makes him and how unhappy he is when they’re apart.

Bam pillows his head with his hand and looks around the room, quiet for a minute. His breathing has evened back out, and Jackson feels the knot in his chest dissolving once more. “Did you really grow up here?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s strange to think of you here before I met you.”

Bam’s soft hair splays out across the white pillow. Jackson combs his fingers through it while he talks. “I don’t remember not knowing you,” Jackson admits. “Or, I do, but it just seems sort of far away now. Do you know what I mean?”

Bambam traces the lettering on Jackson’s t-shirt. “Yes. Maybe.” He purses his lips. “What would you have been doing five years ago?”

“Training.”

“Six, then. Or seven. The last time you were in this room.”

“Mm.” Jackson pauses to think about it. Where would he have been as a teenager? Going to school, attending fencing practice day and night. Singing in his room under his breath, too embarrassed to tell his parents he wanted to be an idol. Crying under his blankets with Yanlin’s name on his lips, gasping for air. “I don’t know,” he lies. “Busy with school, I guess.”

The funny thing is, despite being hardened to his father’s criticism and the shouts of every coach who came before or after, despite knowing after Yanlin what it was like to feel completely humiliated and alone, Jackson wasn’t tough when he left Hong Kong. Toughness came after when he was stuck in a foreign country and realized that to survive, he would have to be tough and let the Korean trainees’ jabs and competitive malice roll off his back. And perhaps it prepared him for what was to come, and perhaps it didn’t; he knew life as a trainee would be difficult, but he had never planned to come out. Not to anyone except those who had to know. He would have slunk behind everyone’s back like a snake in the wall.

He spent his years as an idol striving to avoid scandal at all costs, afraid of anything that might tarnish his image. He locked away the part of himself that slept those few times with Mark and did everything he could to forget about it. Even with everything, he doesn’t regret unlocking himself for Bambam; he doesn’t wish that they had done anything differently.

The worst feeling, though, is seeing the snot trails on Bambam’s hoodie sleeves because he never broke that childish habit and the ugly puffiness that obscures his eyes and the dull sheen of grease at the root of his normally healthy hair. The worst part is seeing the ways in which this has damaged the one he loves the most. And it’s ugly and repulsive. It is ugly watching the one you want to marry shrink and fear his own radiance. Love is ugly in that way, like bruised lips and swollen eyes and unwashed hair.

But of course, Jackson loves him regardless of those things. So he pulls Bambam closer, makes sure his head rests on Jackson’s shoulder where it’s softest, and decides that no matter where he was six years ago, or where he will be tomorrow, it matters more where he is right now.

 


 

Strangely, that night Jackson can’t sleep at all. But it’s the good type of sleeplessness that comes from being unable to stop thinking about Bambam’s arms around his middle. He must wake every hour to make sure they don’t come apart in their sleep. In the end, he gives up on sleep. He rubs his bleary eyes and sits up slightly, peering at his still sleeping boyfriend. The tension in Bam’s face is somewhat eased in his sleep, and he’s drooling a bit. Jackson smiles fondly, watching his parted lips. He wants to wake Bambam up so they can talk, but he knows firsthand what the past few days must have been like for Bambam, so he hesitates to interrupt what may be the first real rest Bambam has had in a while. His protective instinct wins out, and he lies back down next to Bambam, listening to the soft inhale and exhale of his breathing.

Bambam only sleeps a little while longer, anyway, given that he’s running on Seoul time. He wakes with a tiny yawn and a sleepy murmur against Jackson’s shoulder. Jackson is quick to smooth back his hair and whisper a good morning to him. Bambam clings to him for a minute or two, breathing steadily and slowly, before he manages to keep his eyes all the way open. Jackson rubs his back and lets him lean on him while he musters up his energy.

“If we get up now, there’ll be some time before my parents wake up,” Jackson says, lacing his fingers with Bam’s. “I’ll make you some breakfast, some coffee—maybe we can go out for a bit. Somewhere private, if we can.”

Bambam mumbles his assent and lets Jackson pull him onto his back, thin arms draped over Jackson’s shoulders. Jackson feels fortified in carrying him, reassured of his own strength. Bam hooks his legs around Jackson’s waist and rests his chin on one arm, his warm breath tickling Jackson’s ear. Jackson smiles to himself.

He lets Bam down in the kitchen and sets him on the counter. Bam smiles sleepily and leans back against the cabinets. His hair sticks up in every direction, and he looks like a dream with drowsy eyes and chapped lips that Jackson wouldn’t mind kissing. If Jackson could forget that they’re standing in his parents’ kitchen and tiptoeing around to avoid being caught, he could imagine it as domestic life. Jackson pictures the two of them spending hours in bed when they wake up, giggling and rolling in the sheets, maybe even making love if there’s time. If it’s a work day, they’ll get ready together and see each other off with a cup of coffee in hand. If it’s a weekend, they’ll take their time; Jackson will make breakfast, if he gets up earlier, and they’ll eat together out on the balcony Jackson is sure they’ll have. Everything will have that golden-white veneer of overexposed photos, and everything will shine.

“What do you want to eat?” Jackson asks, wedging himself between Bam’s legs and looking up at him. He rubs Bam’s knee affectionately and Bambam responds by carding his hand through Jackson’s hair. “I can make pancakes, pancakes, and pancakes.”

“Hm.” Bambam pretends to think, a twinkle in his eye. “Pancakes?”

“Good choice.” Jackson leans up on tiptoes and kisses his cheek. “You just sit back and enjoy your stay at Hotel Wang.”

Bambam groans exaggeratedly, banging his head against the cabinets. “You are actually the worst person in the whole world.”

“Don’t insult the man who makes you breakfast.” Jackson starts to pull the ingredients he needs and the recipe in one of his mom’s old American cookbooks. He doesn’t have any blueberries or chocolate chips, so plain pancakes will have to do. Bambam watches in quiet amusement as Jackson gets everything ready.

When the first pancake comes off the stove, Jackson instructs Bambam to open the cabinets behind him and take out a couple of plates. He gets Bambam his pancakes first and stacks them fancily before drizzling the last of the maple syrup that’s probably years old over the top. He presents it with a little bow and delights in Bambam’s giggle. “For you, my love.”

“I had no idea you were such a proficient cook.”

“Ah, yes, pancakes are really my specialty.”

Bambam takes a big bite. “They’re good. I’m surprised.”

“What did I say about insulting the man who makes you breakfast?”

Bam scrunches up his nose and smiles. “Not to do it.” Jackson leans forward onto the counter, face upturned, and Bam knocks their noses together. “Thanks, hyung.”

Jackson finishes making his own pancakes and then they get started on them right there in the kitchen, Jackson hunched over the kitchen counter and Bambam sitting atop the counter. It’s a bit messy, but Jackson thinks to himself that it’s everything he wanted, and if every morning was like this he wouldn’t mind at all. He fits himself between Bam’s legs again and leans up to kiss the maple syrup from the corner of his mouth, and Bambam cups his face to return the favor.

“You’re the prettiest, you know?” Jackson says, resting his forehead against Bambam’s chest for a minute. “The prettiest boy I could have ever asked for.” He lifts his head again to kiss Bambam, reveling in the temporary freedom they have.

Bambam cuts the kiss off a moment later with a soft hum. “Hey,” he murmurs, and nods toward the doorway. Jackson pulls away, surprised, and turns to see his mother standing in the entryway of the kitchen.

She clears her throat and says, “Good morning.” Jackson nods, cheeks flushing. He can sense Bambam’s discomfort, as well as his mother’s. He berates himself internally for not watching the time better and anticipating her arrival. She turns her attention to Bambam. “You slept well?”

“Yes, thank you,” Bambam says politely.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” Jackson apologizes in Cantonese. He doesn’t want Bambam thinking that he’s ashamed of him. “I wasn’t watching the time. We’re going to go out today. We’ll be out of your hair.”

“Be home for dinner,” she says awkwardly, turning to the stove to put on water for tea. Jackson takes Bam’s hand and tugs him off the counter. Bambam’s cheeks are tinged red, and he bites his lip, looking away.

Jackson isn’t sure what makes him so uncomfortable, but he lets go of Bam’s hand. Bambam looks at him curiously, brow furrowed slightly. Jackson wants to explain himself, but he doesn’t. They move for the bedroom again to change and get going, and Jackson feels his skin rising in goosebumps. Why does he feel like a child with his hand in the cookie jar? His mother never forbade him to kiss Bambam. How would he be expected to, after all? But then, nobody has seen him kiss Bambam before. She must be the first one.

Perhaps, he considers, someone seeing them kiss reminds him that Bambam is another boy, makes him hyperaware of the short hair that tickles the back of Bambam’s neck and the sharp shape of his jaw. It reminds him of what’s between Bambam’s legs, that searing warmth and the tremble in his stomach. The things they’ve done bring him shame only now in the presence of someone else, someone who sees Bambam not as love incarnate but just as a man. He doesn’t like his mother seeing Bambam as walking sin when Jackson would die for him without hesitation. Love is powerful and toxic and shouldn’t be this complicated.

They change quickly, purposely choosing dull colors and shapes to give the illusion of unimportance. Jackson fears being recognized, even more so as a couple. All he wants is some time alone with his boyfriend without prying eyes or aggressors. He won’t let this, too, be ruined.

Bambam sits on the edge of Jackson’s bed, waiting as Jackson digs around for some face masks. The morning peace disrupted, Bambam hasn’t said anything for a while. It takes Jackson by surprise, therefore, when he says out of the blue, “Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here?”

Jackson turns, his chest tight. “Of course,” he says softly. “Why would you ask?”

“It seems like your parents don’t want me here.”

“It’s just my dad. My mom is okay with it, mostly. She’s still getting used to it, that’s all. Like, I guess I shattered her dreams of me getting married, ever, and giving her grandkids.” Jackson pauses, not wanting to delve into self-pity, but mulling over his relationship with his mother all the same. “It’s okay. Maybe she’ll come around. Maybe she won’t. I used to think I needed her to, but I’m not sure. Do you think it’s okay to not need her?”

“Sure.”

“Well, that’s all it is, is just us adjusting, shifting. Things never stay static.” Jackson tosses a face mask at Bambam and pulls one on for himself. “Come on. We’ll take the car.”

“Where are we going?” Bambam puts the mask on and straightens his baseball cap before picking his way across the room, stepping awkwardly over the suitcases and discarded clothing strewn everywhere.

“I don’t know,” Jackson says. “Let’s see.”

In the end, they go to the park, because it’s quiet on a weekday and they’re unlikely to be noticed there. It’s a relief to leave the house and be free of his parents for a while. They walk for a bit on the trails among the trees, talking about light things like the weather and tourist attractions they could see while Bambam is here. And it feels good, feels normal and relaxing. After half an hour, they drop down onto a bench, staring at the wind blowing through the trees and the fresh green grass. Afternoons like this are beautiful. Jackson wishes he could enjoy them more often, especially with Bambam.

“I came to this park to play when I was young,” Jackson explains. “There used to be a playground here. They razed it when I was in high school to add more natural scenery.”

“People destroy things thoughtlessly,” Bambam remarks. “Even when there’s no need to, no reason. I think people just like to destroy things. Maybe it makes you feel something.”

“I miss childhood,” Jackson admits, stretching his legs out and looking upwards at the sky, obscured by branches and leaves. “I miss being carefree. I miss not thinking. Of course I had to grow up and face adulthood, but if I could have held onto it a little longer, I might have. I was in a rush to grow up and leave home.”

“Of course we can say so in hindsight. At the time, we didn’t know what it would be like.”

Jackson nods. In hindsight, everything becomes clear. In the moment, like now, things are muddy and complicated. He would have done many things differently if he knew the outcomes beforehand. But that’s impossible. He can’t beat himself up for what has already happened. Short of being clairvoyant, he can only act according to the information he has at any given time.

“Last time I was here,” Jackson says, “I saw a couple with a child. He was beautiful. And they looked so happy. I want kids, but there’s no chance of that. We would never have children.”

Bambam raises his eyebrows. “You want children? Really?”

“I didn’t before. But now that I’m older, now that I can’t have it, I think I do want that. I see Mark with his nieces, Jinyoung with fans’ kids, and I want that. Life would be so lonely without a child, don’t you think? Just the two of us, getting older with no little ones to fill the space?” Jackson can’t bring himself to look back at Bambam. He has no idea how Bambam feels about having kids, or even the two of them living together when they’re older. He pictures them always being together, but perhaps Bambam doesn’t. Still, they’re best friends beneath everything else, so surely Jackson can bring it up without making him uncomfortable. After all, these are things they have to discuss.

“I don’t think about kids, really,” Bambam confesses. “I’m 20. It seems like it would be a long way off even if I was with a girl instead of you. I suppose someday I’ll want kids. But, you’re right, it isn’t something we can have. Not here, anyway.”

“Not here?”

“Men in America can adopt,” Bambam says. “In other places, too, but at least I know English. I never learned any European languages. But I don’t want to live in America. Do you?”

“No.” It must be easier to be gay in America, but Jackson doesn’t see why he has to sacrifice his culture because of it. It might be wishful thinking that Hong Kong will change in his lifetime. “My brother lives in Australia, but I don’t think it’s legal to marry there.”

“Then children are out of the question,” Bambam says softly. He exhales forcefully. “Is that something you’re willing to give up?”

Jackson doesn’t have to think about it. “For you? Yes. I could still be happy without children. I only wish I didn’t have to sacrifice that. I want a son, or a daughter. Even if they didn’t look like me.” Jackson looks down at his hands, saddened by the notion that raising a kid is out of reach. “I would do anything for that to be possible. But as long as we stay here, in Korea or Hong Kong or wherever, it can’t be.”

“I’m sorry,” Bambam murmurs, putting a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “I had no idea it was so important to you.”

“Only for a short time. It wasn’t important to me before, so it can be that way again, if I stop thinking about it.”

“I’m still sorry. I wish I could grant that somehow to you. I’m sorry that being with you means you have to give that up.”

“It is not as important to me as being with you.” Jackson puts his arms around Bambam’s shoulders and rests his head on his shoulder. “You will always be the most important to me.”

They stay for a while. Jackson tries to forget about the little boy he saw not long ago. There is no use pining for something he cannot have. That’s a simple recipe for heartache, and he doesn’t have time for that now.

 


 

Dinner is almost unbearable that night. Jackson’s mother insisted they all eat together, including his father. Jackson refuses to look at his father, and he senses that Bambam is uncomfortable with the tension and the overbearing silence. Well, anyone would be; Jackson wants to ease Bambam’s discomfort, but can’t bring himself to sacrifice his pride. Instead, he diligently eats his meal, nudging Bambam’s foot with his own to indicate that he should do the same. Bambam takes the hint and begins to eat.

“Is the food to your liking?” Jackson’s mother asks quietly, addressing the question to Bambam. Bambam looks up, startled, and nods.

“Yes, thank you,” he says politely. “Thank you for making such a wonderful meal.”

“Of course,” she says stoically, sparing a haphazard glance at her silent husband. “You are―important to Jackson, so I hope my effort reflects that.”

“Are you losing your mind?” Jackson’s father says out of the blue. Bambam’s forehead creases, not understanding. Jackson’s ears perk up immediately, though, and he feels his stomach do a 180 degree flip. “Why are you condoning this? He shouldn’t be here, in my house.”

“He’s important to Jackson,” she repeats, glaring at her own plate. “Hush. This is our house.”

“He perverted my son.”

“Shut up,” Jackson cuts in, his skin rising in goosebumps as if the room is cold, though it isn’t. The steam from his plate blows into his face and heats his cheeks. “Shut up. Don’t say anything like that about him. He’s just a boy.”

Bambam glances to Jackson helplessly, begging silently for a translation. But Jackson won’t tell him what they said. It’s better to shield him than to cause him shame.

“They’re doing no harm,” his mother says, eyes unblinking. Jackson can tell she’s angry and afraid to press him. “Let them be.”

“I never gave him permission to stay here. I don’t want him under my roof.”

“You don’t get to choose,” Jackson snaps. “Mama gave me permission. Can’t you put your differences aside for a week? How dare you insult someone I love like that?”

“What you have isn’t love. It’s something else. It isn’t the Christian way and it’s not the Hong Kong way.”

“There is no one way to love. As long as it’s pure, as long as―”

“You speak of nonsense. How can you possibly think that you love him? Men don’t love each other. To lie with another man is to diminish your own manhood and his alike. It’s a sin .”

Jackson seethes, his muscles tight with energy that he wants to expel violently. He restrains himself from smashing anything around him. “He’s a better man than you are,” Jackson says, face flushed an angry red. He stands abruptly and grabs his plate, clenching his jaw so tight he feels it might break. Of course, he shouldn’t have expected anything else; his father is too pigheaded and stubborn to be civil. If he can sit across from Jackson and say such vicious things, then he is no father in Jackson’s eyes. “Mama, I’d like to finish my meal on the patio.”

“Very well,” she says softly, pushing the food on her plate around with her chopsticks. He feels sorry in that moment for putting her in the middle of their conflict, but he’s too angry at his father to stay and listen to any more slander. He doesn’t feel much of an adult for storming out, Bambam in tow, but sometimes these things can’t be avoided; sometimes the safer way to end a conversation is to lead.

The two of them sit on the back patio with their plates in the falling evening light. Jackson doesn’t realize how tense he is until Bambam touches his shoulder, digging his thumb in to remind Jackson to relax. Jackson huffs out an irritated laugh.

“What did they say?” Bambam asks tentatively, as if he hasn’t quite decided if he wants to know, but might figure it out by the time Jackson is done telling him. Jackson shakes his head. No. He isn’t going to repeat what was said.

“It’s not your business,” Jackson says curtly. “I could really kill my father sometimes.”

“It’s because of me,” Bambam says miserably, setting his chopsticks down. “I’m just causing you trouble.”

Stop saying that. You think I would choose him over you? His approval means nothing to me. I would choose you, every day, over my father. He’s made it clear that I mean nothing to him, so he means nothing to me.” It isn’t really true, he thinks ruefully; his heart hurts when he realizes he might have lost his father forever with this. One month is not nearly enough to heal the fresh wound.

“I’m sorry anyway,” Bambam says. “Do you wonder whether this is right?”

“What, us?” Jackson laughs bitterly. “After all this, don’t tell me you have second thoughts. It’s a bit late.”

“Jackson hyung.” Bam tugs at Jackson’s shoulder, insisting he turn. Jackson swallows hard, afraid to see. But Bambam is persistent, and eventually Jackson turns to face him. Bambam exhales softly, shadowed by the setting sun. “I don’t have second thoughts about you. Never. But I don’t feel right about disrupting your family.”

“It was disrupted long before you got here,” Jackson says grimly. “Things are as they are and I am powerless to change them. My father will always be ashamed of me. The only reason my mother is trying to help is because she’s afraid of how our family will appear if we are disparate.”

“She loves you. She’s trying to understand.”

“And why? She’s spineless. Does she not have the conviction to love me regardless of flaws and slights?”

“I love you,” Bambam says in a rush, reaching up to cup Jackson’s face with both hands. “And she does too. Your father will be who he is. He’s too proud and set in his ways. I know that, too. Your mother, though—she sways with the wind, but she’ll always come back to you. She would never let you leave without promising you’d come back.”

“I always dreamed one day of finding someone I could really be with,” Jackson says, tears pricking his eyes. “The first time I had you, that night, when you let me touch you—that way, I felt like everything had finally settled. All the screaming inside me had stopped. Like I’d been needing you since I started existing. So how can I forgive my father for disparaging that feeling? All that waiting makes the love better. Yes, I believe my father loves my mother, but not the way I love you, for I never took that privilege for granted. How can he know? He will never feel anything so strongly as I feel for you.”

Bambam slides an arm around Jackson’s shoulder and mouths at his jaw in an oddly chaste manner. “You don’t have to forgive anyone who makes you feel less than, not if you don’t want to. You are not required to make yourself smaller to make other people feel more comfortable. I’ve seen you try before. You don’t need to.”

“Do you think there’s a silver lining somewhere?” Jackson asks, staring listlessly up at the sky. “There has to be a point to all this. All this suffering and heartache and trouble. Tell me I didn’t break my mother’s heart for nothing. Tell me this makes a difference to something.”

“I don’t know.” Bambam sighs, kicking his feet out. “I don’t know at all. But even if this was all pointless, I would have done the same every time. Perhaps it’s foolish to say that. Well, I can’t bring myself to care,” Bambam adds bluntly. “If I was given a million chances to do things differently, I would choose you every time.”

“Because you love me.”

“Because I love you,” Bambam repeats, squeezing his shoulder firmly. “So was it pointless? I don’t know yet. But they can’t force us apart.”

It seems like shallow comfort, hollow words in the face of greater strife, but Jackson doesn’t have anything else, so he lets Bambam’s heart anchor him down.

 


 

Jackson decides unequivocally that he doesn’t want to be at home. The next morning he pulls Bambam out of bed as the sun is coming out and takes his mother’s car without asking. They drive down to Victoria Harbour in the early morning light and walk by the water, talking about anything and everything. About Yugyeom and Youngjae’s terrible attempts at English in the most recent interviews, how Jaebum tripped onstage last night, how every day people seem to forget a little more that the two of them exist. The scandal has begun to fade, more off Jackson than Bambam, but people move quickly. They’ve kept a low profile, and it helps. Jackson doesn’t know if he’ll ever go back to being an idol. He wants to. He still holds on to it.

But maybe it isn’t the best idea. Perhaps he’s selfish, but he wishes that life could be a walk along the water every day with a beautiful boy at his side and the world wearing blinders. Why go back to a life where he has to live in the dark? But then, he knows nothing else but idol life. How could he abandon it? He gave up everything for this.

Bambam tells him he wants to call his mother, but she hasn’t reached out to him. He’s afraid that means she’s ashamed of him or worse. Jackson wants badly to reassure him; the worst thing about being in love is seeing him hurt. If his mother really is cruel to him about it, Jackson doesn’t know how he’ll comfort him. The weight of that responsibility falls to him. He feels it less as a burden than it sounds. He doesn’t know, however, what he’s meant to do. Bambam’s own consolations to him make him feel superficially better, but the pain over the strain between him and his parents is still there. Perhaps nothing eases some kinds of pain.

When people begin to come to the harbor to sightsee, they steal away to the car and spend hours driving around, looking at the scenery and eating takeout for lunch. When they see a billboard with half of Jackson’s face scribbled out with messy, irreverent spray paint spelling out slurs and shaping nasty images and obscuring his dignity, they bite their lips and turn away. Today is a day for being together. Jackson still tries not to cry. Bambam tries not to make it obvious that he notices.

Jackson does cry, but only for a few minutes, because Bambam is holding him the second the first tear slips down his cheek and whispering fiercely that it’s okay, he’s okay, he’s not theirs. They don’t own his dignity.

It’s hard, it is. He had a huge following in Hong Kong―even in all of China―before this happened. So his fall is visible and unavoidable. The cost of fame is that everything happens under a top-notch microscope. He had a taste of something glorious, a human’s ambrosia, but he watches his own disgrace through clear eyes. What is there to do? Truthfully, he feels shame. But he won’t cave into it. To do so would be to grant victory to the other side. Even when he cries, he feels like he’s handing over a victory. But he can lose battles and win the war, so long as he doesn’t back down.

For the first time since the initial incident, they both spend time looking over articles on their phones parked on the edge of the waterfront in an unpopulated area where they’ll be given peace. Jackson can be as self-destructive as anyone, but the fun of reading tawdry lies about himself wore off quickly. He will never see the words pervert and pedophile and deviant the same way again. But with Bambam, he feels a little more ready to face the words of the international community.

It’s awful. Some of it is, anyway. But Bambam, forever the tougher of the two of them, focuses in on articles that speak positively of the debacle. Articles that use words like representation and role models and destigmatization. It doesn’t come close to being enough, doesn’t outweigh the nasty posts by celebrities and the average netizen alike, but it wakes him up to the fact that he isn’t reviled internationally. What matters more are the tweets and comments on every form of social media that speak of people’s own stories about being afraid to leave the closet, and that they hope what Jackson and Bambam did might change the attitude toward other gay individuals across Asia. They express hope that it might be safe for them to come out too. Girls with girlfriends they only kiss in their bedrooms, boys with boyfriends they never kiss at all for fear of what they might lose. Boys and girls who have no significant other and are afraid they’ll never find one. Kids who don’t know what they are or who they are, only that it’s not allowed.

Some of the stories touch him to tears, like the girl who writes on Naver that she’s been with her partner for years and was kicked out of her home, and prays every day that her family will accept her again someday. For now, they live on their own and pretend they’re simply friends so they can keep their jobs. Jackson knows how hard it is to pretend. But the support, even hidden amongst thousands of hateful words, plants the seed of thought that maybe, maybe this wasn’t for nothing.

Maybe he martyred himself for the cause. But if there’s even a miniscule shift toward progress, maybe it’s worth it after all.

“You look happy,” Bambam comments that night. They’re sitting on a hilltop in down coats and shivering under the stars. “A day out of the house was good for you.”

Yes, it was undeniably good, but Jackson thinks not for the first time that Bambam has had a hand in his happiness―in opening his eyes and easing his heart. He could well have spent the day out alone and gleaned not a fraction of the same contentment. Love does not fix everything, but it is arguable if it does not establish at least a foundation upon which to build. It is up to Jackson to find his own happiness, and up to Bambam to do the same. Perhaps, though, it’s a crutch for him to use during shaky times.

“I am happy,” Jackson responds, “as happy as I can be at a time like this. I’ll go home and be sad again. You’ll leave for Thailand at some point and I’ll be sad again. But I’m happy to know that there is light through all of this.”

“Oh, hyung, of course there’s light,” Bambam sighs, leaning his head onto Jackson’s shoulder, arms wrapped loosely around Jackson’s middle. “I suppose the shine will fade eventually.”

Jackson shifts his crossed legs, trying to coax some blood back into them. The dirt on the lookout point dusts his jeans, but he doesn’t put much effort into brushing it off. The city is blindingly alive even at night. From where they are, it’s the only visible light, drowning out the moon and stars.

“It’ll be okay, somehow, won’t it,” Jackson says finally. “When we reach the end, it’ll be okay because we did what we thought was right.”

“I suppose so.”

Jackson knows it won’t feel right for a long time. Maybe ever. Maybe he’ll go to his grave not even knowing whether or not he did things right. But he has nothing else in the present.

Faith and love, he thinks. Faith will carry him through, and love will win. That has always been true. After all is done, however they end up, Jackson chooses to believe that they made the right choices simply because they believed in the good―in the better.