Sungmin’s scandal hits him hard.
Ryeowook catches himself scrolling through some of the comments left on news articles. Scum, some wrote. Lowest of the low. Get the fuck out of Super Junior. Take your bitch wife with you.
Would they say the same things to him too, if they found out? To Henry? Henry already got enough hate from the fans who consistently reminded him he didn’t belong there, on the same stage as them. Would they turn their backs on him, too?
If a member getting married elicited that kind of violent loathing, what would an inter-band relationship do? A gay relationship?
Ryeowook abruptly closes the window, deletes the browser history, and slams the computer shut. His heart is racing in his chest, and he blinks back anxious tears. The thought alone is enough to send his thoughts racing into dangerous territory, worst case scenarios bleeding into each other in an endless stream. He presses the heels of his palms against his eyes as if to block out the images behind his eyelids.
They’d only told a handful of people about them. There was some measure of control by limiting the number of people who knew, people they could trust. But things happen. Things beyond even their most trusted friends’ control. If anyone ever finds out…
He can’t stomach the thought.
He spins out of his desk chair and sits heavily on the edge of the mattress. He wonders if there would ever be a universe where he could walk down the strip mall hand in hand with Henry, even if they weren’t celebrities. But they’ll never be able to. They’re men, they’re two men and the world curses men like them, not celebrates them, and certainly not in Korea.
The trembling comes first, starting in his fingers until he feels them rumbling up his spine. His eyes burn with tears, and it almost startles him when he registers the pain of his nails digging into his palm where he’s clenched his shaking fingers into fists. The tears spill over, streaking down his cheeks, and he breaks.
His hand creeps up to his collar, gripping at it until his knuckles are white, as though he can’t breathe. He reaches the point where he’s crying so hard that he can’t draw a breath without shuddering violently. All the hate comments, the secrecy, the hiding, the fear, the want, it’s all piled up and finally crushed Ryeowook under its weight and he can’t bear it anymore. It’s agony.
He cries, and cries, and he just can’t stop.
. . .
Henry comes home to find him sobbing quietly there, on the edge of the mattress, pitiful whimpers like he’s trying to stifle the noise. Startled, he drops his bag beside the door, closes it behind him and makes to embrace Ryeowook. But Ryeowook slaps him away, hunching over on himself. Henry stares, hurt and perplexed.
“Ryeowook?” He’s tentative, because he doesn’t know what’s wrong, but Ryeowook has never pushed him away like this before. Ryeowook shakes his head, still crying.
“I… I c-can’t,” he shudders. “I can’t.”
Ryeowook can only keep shaking his head, curled up like a frightened dog. Henry stares, wide-eyed. He’s never seen Ryeowook like this before. He doesn’t know what to do, and he’s afraid to get close again for fear of upsetting Ryeowook more. He gets to his knees, trying to catch Ryeowook’s gaze.
“Please, talk to me. You’re scaring me.”
“It h-hurts,” Ryeowook gasps.
“What does?” says Henry, desperate. He finally reaches out to put a hand on Ryeowook’s knee, and Ryeowook flinches like he’s been struck. Henry yanks his hand back, stunned, but Ryeowook finally looks him in the eye, waves a hand in a vague gesture at nothing.
“Everything. All of this. Us. I just… I don’t know anymore.”
Henry feels like his heart can’t decide whether it wants to stop beating or hammer its way out of his chest, settling for an irregular lurch that nearly makes him nauseous. He takes a grounding breath in, out, and moves to sit next to Ryeowook on the mattress. It hurts him so, that Ryeowook scoots away, but Henry doesn’t move any closer.
“Ryeowook. You need to calm down and talk to me,” Henry says, sounding a lot calmer than he feels. Ryeowook shudders with his tears and Henry wants nothing more than to take him in his arms and shield him from all that’s bad in the world. But then a creeping thought worms its way into his head, and dread settles in his stomach.
“Is it something I’ve done?”
Ryeowook shakes his head immediately, emphatically, still weeping. “No, Henry, it’s not you,” he manages, taking a few gulping breaths to steady his voice. “It’s not you. It's—I—” Watching Ryeowook dissolve into tears again, Henry realizes that he’s not getting anywhere rushing him. So he sits, fingers itching to comfort and instead twisting in his lap.
After an uncomfortable silence, save for Ryeowook’s sniffles, he asks quietly, “Is it someone else?”
“No!” And here Ryeowook startles, looking taken aback and almost insulted. “How could you even say such a thing?”
Frustration bubbles in Henry’s chest, and he does his best to quell it. He’s trying to be understanding, to understand, and it’s hard to not let his patience wear thin. “Gee, I don’t know. Maybe it’d help if you told me what was bothering you instead of making me sit here and guess what you’re thinking? I’m not a mind-reader, Wook. I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
There’s a long, tense silence between them while Ryeowook struggles to get himself under control. Finally, and with a mighty sniff, Ryeowook wipes his tears away with his sleeve before running a hand through his hair. “You’re right, I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I just… hiding this, hiding us,” he waves a hand between them, “I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
Henry doesn’t understand. He says as much.
Ryeowook buries his face in his hands. “Don’t you see? All it would take is one whisper to destroy us. And not just us, but the others, too. Besides maybe three people, we can’t tell anyone what we are. We can’t do anything. How are we supposed to keep living like this? This—this sort of half-life?”
“Half-life?” Henry repeats, incredulous. “Is that what we’ve been living? Is that all we are to you? A half-life?”
“That’s not what I meant!” Ryeowook cries. Now he’s clearly frustrated too. “We can’t even tell our families. What are we meant to do, at every holiday? Every family vacation? What are we meant to do when our families start asking why we haven’t settled down, gotten married and had children yet?”
There’s a wild frenzy in his eyes, and it hits Henry that this has been plaguing Ryeowook for a while. Even so, Ryeowook’s own words echo back into his ears, and he frowns.
“When we got together,” he says slowly, “we talked about this. About how hard it would be. And we decided we would cross those bridges, together. What happened to that, huh? We talked about not being able to do things like normal people do, but we decided that it was okay. That it was enough just to have each other.”
Ryeowook lets his hands fall down to his lap, and he can’t meet Henry’s eyes. “I don’t think it’s enough, anymore.”
Deep breaths, Henry reminds himself, as he feels the panic rising. “So what are you saying?”
“Let’s break up.”
Henry feels his world tilt off-kilter. Had he been standing, his legs might have given out beneath him.
Ryeowook rushes through the next words, still staring at his hands clenched in his lap. “It’s not that I don’t love you anymore, Henry. Of course I still love you. I don’t think I have it in me to stop loving you. But I can’t do this anymore.”
Whether it’s stubbornness or denial, Henry can’t tell. But the first thing out of his mouth, without hesitation, is, “No.”
“I said, no,” Henry says, more snappish than he intends for it to come out. “You’re exhausted, you’re emotional, and you’re upset. I’ll give you some space for a while, so you can cool off. We can talk about this later when we’re both not strung tighter than a high wire. But I’m not giving up on us, and I won’t let you give up on us either.”
Ryeowook’s expression darkens like thunderclouds, and Henry immediately regrets his choice of words. “So I’m emotional, now? High-strung? I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I needed your permission to make my own decisions,” he bites out.
“Ryeowook, please,” Henry says, desperate. “Please don’t do this. I don’t want to be fighting with you.”
“If you would just let this go, we wouldn’t be fighting,” Ryeowook snaps back.
“I can’t,” Henry says, and now he’s in tears. “I can’t let this go so easily. Maybe it’s easy for you to just give up—”
“—but I can’t,” Henry plows on through as though Ryeowook didn’t say anything. “I love you too much to let you go. I know that’s selfish. I’ve been selfish. I didn’t realize you were hurting this badly. And I’m so sorry for that.” Here he chokes, and has to grip the sheets until his knuckles turn white to keep from reaching out for Ryeowook. He has to stop for a moment to collect himself, and Ryeowook’s face softens again, if only slightly.
“It’s not your fault,” he says, terse and on-edge. “I didn’t say anything.”
Henry nods. “Exactly. Let’s discuss things when we’ve both calmed down, talk things over. And if you still want to break things off, then…” Henry heaves a deep sigh, swallows past the lump in his throat. "Then we’ll… we can part ways. But I’m begging you, let’s not do this now.“
Ryeowook wants to protest, he can tell, but gives him a curt nod anyway. That settles it, then. And though it will be the first night in months they haven’t slept in the same bed, Henry stands to leave.
"Can I at least get a hug?” Henry asks quietly, almost nervous that Ryeowook will say no. The wind has gone from his sails now that he’s said his piece. Ryeowook shrugs, and Henry wraps his arms around him and squeezes. Ryeowook looks away, not tensing like before, but not hugging back, either. Henry sighs and steps away again.
He moves to pick up his abandoned bag from the doorway, shouldering it and pausing with his hand on the handle. “I love you, Ryeowook,” he says quietly, not turning to look at him.
“Love you,” Ryeowook murmurs back, and it’s not much, but it’s something.
Henry leaves, shutting the door with a soft click behind him. To Henry, he feels like he might as well have slammed it, for the way his heart feels leaden on his way out the door.
Memories, in hindsight, are oh so bittersweet.
There’s a light on at the end of the hallway.
Ryeowook doesn’t know what it is that makes him approach the light – some kind of inexplicable compulsion. It isn’t much, just a thin strip of dim orange gold slipping from a cracked door. His footsteps echo loudly in his ears, each footfall seeming to announce his approach as he eases the door open and makes his way into the room.
A single occupant sits in the room – no, that isn’t right. He’s lying down, sprawled out beneath the mirror at the far end of the room. Ryeowook racks his brain for recognition of the face that was slack in deep, exhausted sleep, and it rolls off his lips in a whisper before it registers in his brain.
The lateness of the hour suddenly occurs to him, and he frowned. Henry must have stayed late for extra practice, then, just the same as Ryeowook did. A number of things run through his head, jumbling together in his already sleep-deprived thoughts. Henry’s going to get sick like this, sleeping on the cold floor and drenched in sweat. Had he even eaten dinner? If he’s anything like Ryeowook, he’d probably skipped, but Henry’s clumsy reputation preceded him and Ryeowook knows he’d probably not brought a snack to make up for it. And—
And Henry’s shirt is riding up, just a little, but enough to show a sliver of the expanse of stomach beneath it. Ryeowook stares as though transfixed. It’s mostly smooth, a faint trail of hair running down beneath the waistband of his sweats. His eyes follow the trail until he abruptly realizes what he’s doing.
Right, he thinks, feeling his face heat up. None of that. He’s a kid. You can’t be thinking about him like that. That’s so wrong. He tore his eyes away, fixing his gaze on Henry’s face. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Still… he can’t resist the urge to brush Henry’s bangs aside from where they’d flopped into his face, before resting his hand on Henry’s shoulder and giving a gentle shove.
“Henry, wake up,” he murmurs. It takes two more shoves for Henry to stir with a groan, throwing an arm over his eyes to block out the light. Ryeowook almost feels like cooing.
When Henry finally moves his arm, he squints up at Ryeowook. “Ryeowook-hyung?” he says, his tongue still awkward on the pronunciation. Ryeowook can’t find it in himself to be bothered by it.
“Are you hungry? You missed dinner, right?” Ryeowook says. He suddenly remembers his own gym bag – had he had that the whole time? – and rummages through it for some crackers. Though Henry blinks at him in confusion, once his eyes lands on the crackers, his stomach gives a decidedly loud rumble.
Ryeowook chuckles, holding out the crackers in an offering, and Henry flushes a deep shade of red. “Thank you, hyung,” he mumbles, accepting them with a sheepish grin. They sit in a comfortable silence, save for the quiet crunch of Henry nibbling on the crackers.
When Henry has almost finished, Ryeowook says, “You shouldn’t sleep on the floor like that, you know. You’ll catch a cold, and then all the extra practice in the world won’t have done you any good.” Henry blinks at him again, and Ryeowook resists the urge to sigh. “And you probably didn’t understand a word I just said, huh.”
Henry’s face falls, hearing the chastisement in Ryeowook’s tone even without understanding much of it. “My Korean is… not good. Still very bad,” he says, turning the almost-empty packet between his fingers. “Sorry.”
Ryeowook’s stomach turns a little, for reasons he doesn’t quite know. It feels like he’d just kicked a puppy, what with the downtrodden expression on Henry’s face. This time he does sigh, reaching out and pulling on Henry’s wrist, tugging them both to their feet.
“Let’s go home, okay? If you want to debut properly, you need to sleep. In a bed, preferably, but with a blanket would do.”
Henry probably only catches the word ‘sleep,’ but it didn’t matter – his face perks up ever so slightly, and Ryeowook’s stomach does another little flip. He refuses to think about the implications of that little flip – that’s a road he does not want to go down – instead dragging Henry from the practice room, and from the building, and back to his room at the dorm.
Why he brings a trainee back to his room, he isn’t sure. Henry probably should have gone back to the trainee dorm, knowing his roommates will probably worry, but Ryeowook is exhausted, too, and he finds himself falling into bed beside Henry. Sleep washes over them both easily.
When Ryeowook wakes, it’s to a startled yelp, and Ryeowook blinks blearily through the last vestiges of sleep. He doesn’t remember falling asleep on Henry – but then again, he doesn’t remember Henry looking so much older than he did when he fell asleep. Well, not that much older, but definitely not the seventeen-year-old he’d been the night before.
“Please tell me I—we didn’t do anything last night,” Henry says, voice strangled. Ryeowook looks up from where his head had laid on Henry’s chest, an arm thrown casually over his hip.
“We’re both fully clothed,” he says without a second thought. Should he have had a second thought? He isn’t sure. “But no, we didn’t do anything besides sleep together. Platonically,” he adds when Henry’s eyes widen to the size of saucers. It’s too early for this, the clock reading a dismal half past six in the morning, so Ryeowook settles back down on Henry’s chest.
Henry keeps quiet for half a beat before asking, “Um. What are you doing?”
“Trying to go back to sleep, what’s it look like,” Ryeowook grumbles into Henry’s shirt.
“On top of me?”
“You’re nice to cuddle,” Ryeowook quips back, his tongue faster than his brain can keep up with. Well, that isn’t how he’d planned on confessing. Confessing what, he isn’t sure, but that’s probably because he was woken up at a godforsaken hour.
“Nice,” Henry repeats, and Ryeowook thinks his voice still sounds strained. Curiosity wins out over exhaustion, and Ryeowook sits back up. He props his chin up on his hand, planting an elbow next to Henry’s head. Even in the dim light of early morning, he can see how red Henry’s face had turned.
“Am I making you uncomfortable?”
“No, no, it’s—fine. This is fine,” Henry stutters, and Ryeowook hums. That feeling is back—the one that blooms in his chest like a warm spring rain whenever Henry is concerned, one he can’t quite put a name to—and he wonders… would this be okay…
He moves to straddle Henry, thighs on either side of Henry’s hips and a hand on the pillow on either side of Henry’s head. Henry’s breath hitches, wide eyes darting from meeting Ryeowook’s, to staring at his mouth, to looking at anything but Ryeowook.
Henry’s eyes flicker back to Ryeowook’s, and there’s something in his gaze that Ryeowook can’t pin down. Hesitation, or maybe even fear. Ryeowook's fingers itch to stroke his hair from his face, but the moment feels so fragile that even a breath out of time might break it.
“Is this okay?”
Henry takes a steadying breath, licks his lips. He looks down again, eyelashes standing out starkly against the rosiness of his flushed cheeks. In lieu of an answer, he asks instead, “Are you just messing with me?”
It isn’t what Ryeowook was expecting. Something in him aches, seeing the vulnerability on Henry’s face, coming to realize that maybe Henry has been hurt before. This time he does reach up, cupping Henry’s face so, so gently.
“No, I’m not.”
Henry blows out a breath Ryeowook hadn’t realized he’d been holding, a tentative smile creeping at the corners of his mouth. “Then it’s okay.”
A smile tugs on Ryeowook’s face too, and he leans in. He feels like the world could be spinning around him, as their lips meet, and a spike of pleasure jolts through him. Dimly, it hits him that the world actually has shifted, and he and Henry are on their feet.
On stage. In front of thousands. And yet, he can’t really bring himself to care. He reaches up and threads his fingers in Henry’s hair, and he feels the weight of Henry’s arms around his waist like they ground him. There’s shouting somewhere behind them—the members, his logic tells him—and he can barely make out the words over the din of shrieking fan girls.
“It was supposed to be a dare!”
“I didn’t think they’d actually do it!”
And when they pull apart, Henry’s eyes glitter under the lights, a grin spreading from ear to ear. He can’t help a smile of his own, and a laugh bubbles out before he can stop it. Henry’s face screws up like he’s laughing too, but instead of laughter, there’s the sound of a mechanical trill.
Ryeowook can still feel the warmth of Henry’s hands on his hips, the thrill of their lips pressed together as the world shifts back into focus, the blinding stage lights swimming into the early morning softness of his bedroom at dawn. The soft chirping of his phone rings in his ear, and it takes several heartbeats for it to click with him that it is his alarm.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes with one hand, he fishes for the phone with the other to silence the alarm. His heart has only just started to settle to a normal beat, the churn of his stomach slowing. A kiss in front of thousands is both the realization of his worst nightmares and his very best dreams.
Ah, he thinks absently. It was only a dream. Even so, he can feel the burn of his cheeks, the tug of the smile on his lips as he played the image again in his head. Can still see the brightness in Henry’s eyes as he drew closer, and closer.
He’s typing on his phone before he realizes what he's doing. His fingers move of their own accord, opening the messenger app and pulling up Henry’s chat out of muscle memory.
You’re never going to believe the dream I jus
And then, abruptly, he stops. The images he’d seen fade, the Henry of his dreams moving away as quickly as he’d moved closer. In its place, hurtful, hurting, desperate words filled his ears louder and louder, until it’s almost a roar.
Please don’t do this. I can’t let us go. I’ve been selfish, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you.
Had that really only happened last night? It feels like it had been a century, for how long it had taken him to fall into a fitful sleep, so sure he’d done the right thing but hurting so terribly in having followed through. His stomach starts churning again, this time in a much more unpleasant way, and Ryeowook stares at his phone in growing horror. The half-written message feels like an accusation staring up at him.
He can’t delete the message fast enough. His hands tremble, so much so that it takes him several tries to hit the delete button, like the message refuses to go away. It takes him several tries more to close the app. And then Henry’s face stares back at him on the home screen. With a stifled whimper, he throws the phone across the room and hears it crash against the opposite wall as the regret threatens to suffocate him. He curls up into himself, pulling the covers over his head.
What have I done? Oh God, what have I done?
Sungmin’s voice sounds thunderous over the roaring of his pulse in his ears, even though he can’t have been speaking in more than a whisper. Ryeowook says nothing, waits as Sungmin peers his head into the room through a crack in the doorway, waited as Sungmin decides what he wanted to say. He had to have heard the phone being thrown.
Sungmin finally sighs. “It’s time to get up. You should eat before your schedules today, if you want me to make you some porridge.”
Ryeowook swallows past the lump in his throat, and hopes he sounds somewhat normal. “I’m not feeling so great,” he says. “Do you think you could have the manager cover for me today, at least for the morning? I’ll be okay before the radio show, I think.”
The tension is almost palpable in the room as Ryeowook waits to hear Sungmin’s reply. Almost daring him to push him on it. Thankfully, Sungmin decides not to push it. “Yeah. I’ll call him for you. Just…” he pauses. “I’m here, if you need anything.”
“Yeah. Thanks, hyung.”
He can hear the floorboards creak as Sungmin shifts his weight, pausing again before shutting the door with a soft click. The thought of having to put on a brave face for the world is unbearable today. His stomach already sits somewhere in his throat.
The tears come before long.
. . .
At long last, what feels an age but is only mere hours, Ryeowook finally summons the will to get up and get water. His body feels leaden, aches with exhaustion, and his eyes are terribly swollen for how hard he had wept. He welcomes the silence in the dorm, thankful the others are busy enough that they'd likely been gone most of the day.
Water feels like a blessing on his parched throat, the realization of how dehydrated he must have been not hitting him until he takes a sip. After a second glass he sits his cup next to the sink and leans back against the counter, eyes roving over different walls for the first time in almost a full day. There are a handful of dirty dishes on the table, not unusual for a house full of men. Shirts tossed over the backs of the dining room chairs, miscellaneous pictures on the walls and pinned to the fridge.
And then there’s the calendar. Ryeowook's breath hitches at the sight of his own handwriting in different colored ink, knowing that what’s written there corresponds with the labels on different plastic tubs in the freezer.
Meals he'd set aside for Henry, with instructions for reheating. He doesn't have to look at the labels to know what was written on them, instructions aside.
He takes a deep breath, one that rattles in his chest. And another, and another.
Nope. He can't do this.
His hands are shaking again by the time he reaches the phone in the living room, one so rarely used outside telemarketers. He dials quickly, holds the phone to his ear and prays the call would be answered.
One ring. Two rings. Please pick up. Three. Oh god, four. And finally--
Ryeowook lets out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Hey, Hyungsik. Do you mind if... Can I stay with you for a few days?"
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
He'd thought his friend would be their number one champion. How wrong he had been.
Zhou Mi must have noticed how out of it Henry had been, when he pulls Henry aside after a particularly rough practice. It certainly must not have slipped his notice how Ryeowook leaves as soon as time was called, not even sparing a passing glance their way. If anyone else notices, they hide it well.
“Are you okay?” Zhou Mi asks, switching to Mandarin as they hang back in the practice room as the others file out. Henry almost doesn’t hear him, eyes still trained on the door with the sight of Ryeowook’s back still burned into his eyes.
Henry sighs, and turns to look at Zhou Mi. “Yeah, sorry. I mean, not really. No.” Zhou Mi raises an eyebrow in a very okay you know that’s not gonna cut it manner, and Henry bites his lip. “I haven’t spoken to Ryeowook in four days. Well, other than for work.”
“Did you fight about something?”
Tension seeps in between Henry’s shoulder blades, and he leans back against the mirror. He keenly feels the weight of Zhou Mi’s stare on him. “Not really? I mean, I guess we did, but I know it’s not because he was mad at me. He said so.”
There’s a moment of tense silence, the unspoken words hanging between them. Zhou Mi says nothing, clearly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Henry runs a frustrated hand through his hair.
“He wants to break up with me,” he murmurs. Zhou Mi’s eyes widened, but Henry barrels on before he had the chance to say anything. “He’s scared, I think. Of everything that could go wrong. But I don’t understand, we talked about it before we even started dating, so why now?”
Zhou Mi’s face settles into a calm expression, and he says, “What did he say, exactly?” He leans against the mirror too, and Henry settles in for what he expects is going to be a long conversation. Still, Zhou Mi’s presence at his side is a comfort he’s sought many times, and the logic his question commands helps settle his nerves, if only a bit.
So he drags in a deep breath, and he tells him. “He… he said that it was too much for him. Keeping secrets from everyone, and hiding us. He…” Henry chokes here. “He called it living a half-life. But he said that he still loves me. A-and when I told him about how we’d talked about all this before, he said it’s not enough anymore. That… that we’re not enough.”
His hands are clammy and trembling, and he clenches them into fists. He hasn’t been able to look at Zhou Mi, struggling enough to say the words to the floor. With one more shaking breath, he finishes, “And then he said he wanted to break up, and I told him no.”
“You told him no?”
The ice in Zhou Mi’s tone startles him, and his head snaps up to meet his gaze. His face is still that calm demeanor, but Henry can see a flash of steel behind his eyes. “Of course I told him no,” he says, disbelief clear on his face. “He said it himself, he still loves me. I’m not going to let him give up on us.”
“Henry, you—” Zhou Mi abruptly cuts himself off, taking a moment to choose his words carefully before starting again. “You can’t force him to do anything, especially something he’s not comfortable with. I’m sure this wasn’t an easy decision for him to come to.”
Henry feels his jaw dropping. “So you’re saying to leave it? To let him break up with me?”
“That is exactly what I’m saying.” There isn’t an ounce of hesitation, and Henry simultaneously feels his stomach drop and a surge of indignant anger.
“How can you say that?!” Henry hisses, barely keeping his temper from rising in his voice. The pain from days ago, still as fresh as it was the day after, makes the tears burn behind his eyes again, but now he’s pissed. “You of all people…! You—you’ve been here since the beginning, you should know of all people how much he means to me, and you’re telling me to let him go without a fight?”
“And you of all people should know exactly what it is that Ryeowook fears, and how his fears are very real,” Zhou Mi quips evenly. His shoulders are square, and his voice is level, but Henry suspects he’s getting angry, too, by the way the man nearly grits his teeth. “I’m telling you what you need to hear. Do you even understand what you’re risking? What you’re asking Ryeowook to risk for you?”
“We both know the risks damn well, Zhou Mi. Stop talking to me like I’m a child.”
“You’re acting like one,” Zhou Mi says, his eyes narrowing. Henry opens his mouth, an angry retort sharp on his tongue, but Zhou Mi doesn’t give him a chance before he continues. “A lesser man would have caved to the pressure much sooner than now. You’ve had a good run with him, Henry, but sooner or later this was bound to happen. This was the best outcome you could have asked for.”
“The best outcome?” Henry cries, almost hysterical. “How on Earth do you figure that this is the best outcome?”
Zhou Mi finally loses his temper. “Because I’ve been there!” he snaps. “I’ve been where you are. And I’ve had to make the same choice you’re making. At least he still loves you enough to let you go before he comes to hate you!” Zhou Mi’s shoulders are heaving by the end of it.
Henry has no response to that. His throat works around words that don’t come out, and his entire being is shaking from frustration and anger and fear. Finally, he tears his eyes away from Zhou Mi and he snatches his gym bag from where it rests across the room.
“You know what?” he says, voice shaking. “I don’t need this.” And he storms from the room, making sure that he slams the door to make sure his point is made. He pretends that slamming the door on Zhou Mi keeps the look in his eyes from following him, and pretends that Zhou Mi’s words aren’t ringing in his ears.
It isn’t enough that Henry feels like a thunderstorm is roiling in his insides, apparently, when he runs into Donghae in the parking lot. The older man is chatting with one of their choreographers, all bright smiles and animated gestures. It’s almost cruel, Henry thinks, and tries to make a beeline for his car.
Donghae spots him, and says a quick goodbye to the choreographer before jogging to catch up. “Henry!” he chirps. While his good nature normally is infectious, today Henry feels it like barbs into all the wrong spots.
“Hey, hyung.” Henry tries for enthusiasm anyway, because Donghae hasn’t done anything wrong. His half-smile doesn’t even reach tepid.
Donghae’s lips curl into a concerned frown, and he claps a hand on Henry’s shoulder. “What’s the matter? Practice got you down?”
For a brief moment, Henry is temped to tell Donghae everything. The break-up, the fight with Zhou Mi, everything. He is one of the few who knows, after all. But the thought is only half formed in his mind when another thought strikes him, one much more terrifying.
What if Donghae reacts the same way Zhou Mi did?
His stomach does a nasty somersault somewhere near his throat, and he ends up shaking his head. “It’s nothing,” he mumbles. “I just really don’t want to talk about it.”
Donghae’s frown deepens, brow furrowed and eyes working over Henry like he can’t decide whether he wants to push it. In the end, he doesn’t. After a long and awkward silence, he finally says, “If you’re sure, then. You know you can come to me with anything, right?”
Henry isn’t so sure, but he doesn’t say as much. “I know. Thanks, hyung.” Donghae sends him off with another clap on his shoulder for good measure, leaving Henry alone with his thoughts. Henry wastes no time, making a beeline through the parking lot, keeping his eyes down to avoid any more unwanted conversation.
There are so many thoughts spinning through his head, some a crescendo to the forefront while others fade to whispers, and it’s so much a cacophony that he struggles to make out even just one straight thought. His body is on autopilot when he makes it to the car, throwing the keys in the ignition and going through the motions.
Zhou Mi’s words perhaps echo louder than everything else, and he can’t help but replay the conversation – could he even call it that? – over and over. The streets flicker by and he’s only half aware, the accusations and the glares Zhou Mi threw at him prickling like needles under his every nerve.
He blinks, and he’s sitting in front of his apartment building. It almost startles him. Belatedly, he remembers to put the car in park, sliding his foot of the brake and letting his hands fall into his lap. He stares at them blankly, feeling both empty and too full of emotion.
Zhou Mi had spoken of risks. For all the certainty he had had during the fight, Henry feels the doubt creeping in. What if Zhou Mi was right? What if he is wrong, what if he doesn’t know as much about Ryeowook and his struggles as he thought he did? The mere thought burns a hole in the pit of his stomach. If all this time, he’d been fooling himself...
And now he has no one to talk to. He’d been so certain that Zhou Mi would be their number one champion, that he’d have the answers on how to fix this. How wrong he had been. Who else can he turn to? He racks his brain, but now the fear of dismissal as Zhou Mi had done outweighs almost everything. Almost.
He feels so alone.
He rests his head against the steering wheel, still staring at his hands, and they start to blur. The tears well up and overflow, and quietly he sits there and sobs.
What do I do now?
It is the silence that hurts more than anything, when Ryeowook comes back to the apartment for the first time in days.
There’d been some part of him—some small, foolish part—that had hoped Henry would be waiting for him when he got back. That Henry had meant it when he’d begged for them to talk things out. That maybe Henry would take the initiative this time and come looking for him. That he still has a chance to fix things.
Even if Henry hadn’t been waiting for him there, Ryeowook would have given anything for a text message, a phone call, something. Even if he’d always been the one reaching out first, he hoped beyond hope that Henry would be the one to do it this time. He’d begged--
Ryeowook stops, swallowing hard as though trying to swallow the thought.
There is no taking back what was said. The silence reminds him of that much as he stands in the doorway looking into the empty apartment. His shoulders droop in spite of himself. And then he immediately scolds himself for being disappointed.
This is all your fault, Ryeowook tells himself, kicking off his shoes with a little more force than necessary. You’re the one who pushed him away. He begged to talk things out, and you didn’t even give him the chance.
He drops his overnight bag down next to the shoe cabinet and pads his way through to the kitchen. His eyes burn when he spies the calendar again, and he tears his eyes away. “It’s over,” he says aloud. His voice trembles, and he hates it. “It’s over and it’s all your own damn fault. Accept it and move on.”
He figures maybe a cup of tea will help him calm down. He’ll need to be calm before the others come back, so he can explain away his absence.
If only the first mug he lays eyes on wasn’t Henry’s favorite.
He takes a shuddering breath, and reaches for it. The cartoon dog stares back at him innocently, and Ryeowook can’t help the tears that slip past the corners of his eyes, awash with memories.
He wonders if perhaps his memories aren’t punishment for letting Henry go.
Henry breaks down, and offers his vulnerability to his last wispy thread of hope.
goguma =/= sweet potatoes. that is all.
His bag slips between his fingers and hits the floor before he even has time to register that he’s back in his apartment.
The dawning sun is peeking through the crack in the living room curtains, but to Henry, it just seems to emphasize the distance between the little foyer and the couch. It feels like a chasm, exhaustion tugging at every nerve. After the red-eye from Fukuoka, and the concert before it, and the rehearsals before that, where Ryeowook hadn’t so much as glanced at him—
He slips his shoes off and stumbles to the living room. The couch is lumpy, used and old, but collapsing face-first into the tacky throw pillows feels like the closest thing to heaven right now.
His phone dings, and dings again. Henry groans before reluctantly digging the phone out of his pocket. There are a couple of missed calls, and some missed texts. The manager, and Leeteuk, and Sungmin, and Donghae, and Heechul, all varying degrees of worried and annoyed (but that was mostly Heechul).
He thinks back to the airport, and in hindsight, maybe he should have let someone know he was going to catch a cab instead of riding in the vans with them. All he could think was that if he had to stomach another minute of Ryeowook clinging to Kyuhyun like a burr, he was going to snap.
A quick text to the manager to let him know he made it home okay, and Henry shuts off his phone. The manager will let the others know, right? That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. He lets his phone drop on the coffee table with a clatter, and it’s mere minutes before sleep takes mercy on him and pulls him under.
He sleeps in fits, but it’s more than he’s had in days.
When he wakes, it’s not at all graceful. He’s groggy, and his stomach seems to be eating at him from the inside, and the noonday sun is shining in through that same sliver of curtains, right on his face. That he managed even a few hours of sleep is nothing short of a miracle, but right now, all he can think is jdhfaipuyiodk.
He throws one arm over his eyes to block out the damn sunlight, letting his other arm slip off the edge of the couch. It takes a breath or six to gather himself, focusing on the feel of cool hardwood against his fingertips. Maybe if he tries hard enough, he can drift back to sleep. His arm is doing a pretty good job of blocking out the light.
His stomach rumbles. Okay, maybe not then. Henry huffs a sigh before struggling to sit up, his limbs like lead. Upright and mostly awake, he contemplates what he could do about food. He looks drearily to the kitchen and decides, nope, not up to cooking today. The mere thought makes him tired. He could order in, but that would require talking on the phone, and that’s almost just as bad.
It’s how he finds himself wandering the same three-block radius around his apartment twenty minutes later, listlessly glancing from restaurant to restaurant. He hadn’t even bothered to change clothes. At random, he picks a curry restaurant, orders by pretending he doesn’t speak Korean and pointing at the menu, and hopes he’ll be left alone.
It works well enough. The food comes out quickly, and it smells good. Henry’s stomach gives another decided rumble and he mumbles his thanks to the waiter before digging in.
Only, it’s all wrong. There’s something he can’t quite put his finger on. It doesn’t exactly taste bad, but he finds himself comparing it to the curry Ryeowook would make him. The spices in this one are just ever so slightly off, it’s more bitter than the curry he’s used to. And is that goguma? He chews slowly, remembering an exchange he and Ryeowook once had.
Goguma is delicious!
Goguma is a sweet potato imposter and I will not be persuaded otherwise.
The goguma debate had ever continued, but Henry realizes now that after that, Ryeowook had never added goguma to his curry. Suddenly, Henry’s not really that hungry. The food in his mouth suddenly tastes like ash, and he barely manages to swallow.
The leftovers go straight in the trash, as soon as he walks out the door.
At almost five in the evening, Henry finally makes it back to his apartment. The walking was a good distraction, filling his ears with foreign words that drowned out his own thoughts. But he could only wander for so long. He’d been exhausted from the start, and now his legs ache on top of everything.
His roommate must have been by while he was out, because the curtains are thrown open now, letting in the orange glow of the setting sun. The dim light casts long shadows about the room, the lonely hour of dusk pervading in the stillness and the quiet of the empty apartment.
Henry hesitates in the doorway. He wonders why, all of a sudden, he feels like a stranger in his own home. The corner of the doorjamb digs painfully between his shoulder blades as he presses back, staring into the rapidly darkening room like it will give him the answers.
And then it hits him. This isn’t his home.
His eyes travel from the wilting potted tree in the corner by the door, to the lumpy old couch, to the kitchen he never uses, each one feeling more foreign than the last. The lump in the back of his throat grows, his mouth goes dry, and his hands feel clammy. This place, this apartment, it was never his home.
His home is, and had long since become, where Ryeowook was.
The inexplicable urge to flee consumes him. He wants to run, but to where? Going to Ryeowook is out of the question. And Zhou Mi has made his stance perfectly clear. Who else could he turn to? Where else could he go? Sungmin? Donghae? Amber? Could any of them be trusted to not react the same way Zhou Mi had?
The dilemma he’s faced for days rears its ugly head a thousand fold, and in desperation Henry runs through a list of people in his head that he can trust with this.
There isn’t anyone, anymore. He’s alone, so, so alone.
And as the room grows darker around him, it occurs to him that it might just stay that way. That whatever happened between him and Ryeowook in that bedroom those nights ago, that was it between them. That this is final.
Henry’s breathing quickens and he feels the stinging behind his eyes. He presses the heel of his palms onto his eyes and tries to breathe deep, but it just catches in his throat on a sob. His knees give out and he collapses on a pile of shoes, and he weeps.
He has no sense of time, no idea how long he sits there crying. He weeps until he’s gasping for breath, hiccups coming between every sob. The shoes dig painfully into his thighs, though they do little to keep him grounded. A little part of him longs for his mother’s comforting embrace, her soothing hands on his back like she used to do when he was a child.
The thought dawns on him slowly, his tears slowing gradually. His mother. The thought of telling her hadn’t occurred to him; Ryeowook had always been vehemently against telling either of their parents about the relationship. Truthfully, he’d been scared to tell them, too. Until now, he had been all too happy to keep the secret.
It’s a long shot, but it’s his last shot.
Slowly, Henry gets back to his feet. Stumbling over to the couch and sinking into it, Henry pulls his phone from his pocket. For a long moment, he simply stares at it. Can he do this? Can he really tell his mother now, after all this time? Is he ready for this?
No, not really, but…
His hand shakes as he pulls up one number in his phone, the last person he'd thought he'd be calling about this. But if his mother can't help him, no one can. And that thought is horrifying.
His thumb hovers over the little green phone button. He takes a deep breath, and presses it before he can change his mind. All the while every nerve in his body screams NODONTDOTHISSTOPHANGUP and every ring makes his stomach rise higher until it sits somewhere in his throat.
One ring, two rings, three, and then a murmured, "Hello?"
He can't help it; he starts crying again. "Hi, mom," he whispers.
"What's the matter, baby?" It’s stifled, and quiet, and perhaps said through half a yawn, but there’s no mistaking the concern in her voice.
He wonders for half a heartbeat if he was that transparent, for how she'd known by two words something was wrong. Then he realizes, oh. It's probably half past four in the morning there.
Henry takes a shuddering breath. The words catch in his throat. He tries to force them out, but his mouth feels like cotton and he… he just can’t. Not right now. The quiet stretches on for another breath, before he can force any words out at all.
"Mom, can you... just talk for a bit?"
There's a shuffling on the other end-- she must be getting out of bed so as not to wake his father. Another stab of guilt bubbles in his chest and he bites his lip. He shouldn't have called.
To his mother's eternal credit, she doesn't press him. Instead, she talks about the weather, about the Christmas gifts she got for his siblings. Henry lets the quiet timbre of her voice wash over him. He doesn't focus on her words, just the sound, and finds it as soothing as he had when he was a child.
When it's apparent his breathing has settled, his mom says, gently, "Do you want to talk about it?"
“Mom, I…” How does he even begin to cover what torments him? But his mouth moves before his mind can catch up and he barrels over the words. “I’m gay.”
For a long moment, Henry can swear he only hears his heartbeat throbbing in his ears. His hand his trembling where it holds the phone to his ear and all he can think is this is it, I’ve ruined everything, she’ll hate me. But then there’s a soft giggle on the other end of the line, and then he wonders if he’s actually lost it.
“Oh sweetheart, I’ve known all along,” she says, not unkindly.
Henry doesn’t know what to say to that. He blinks, stunned, as his brain scrambles to find words. Finally he blurts out, “You did?”
“I’m your mother, of course I knew. Mothers just know these things, you know.” Henry stares at the opposite wall in shock, and he can almost imagine his mother’s lips turning up in that little smile of hers. It’s a small comfort where he desperately needs one. When he doesn’t say anything else, she adds, “I’m glad you finally told me. But you wouldn’t be calling me at this hour like your world’s come crashing down just because of that. Tell me what happened, and maybe we can work through it together.”
The shock of her taking this so well lingers only for a moment, before the overwhelming weight of everything comes crashing back in like a tidal wave. Henry clings to the phone so hard he thinks he might break it as the tears spring anew, and he starts to sob again.
His mother calls out his name, startled by the sudden tears. Henry can almost hear her heart breaking for him over the phone, and it only makes him cry harder. He manages to choke out a strangled, “Mom,” pressing his other hand against his lips to try and stifle the sobs.
“Henry, sweetheart, please calm down and tell me what’s wrong.”
“I’m going to lose the love of my life and I don’t know how to stop it,” Henry sobs, his bottom lip quivering. He knows he has to give his mom more details than that, and he takes in a deep breath. “We fought, like, a week ago. I don’t even know what brought it on, but he completely flipped out and said that he was tired of living a half life, tired of hiding, but we’ve been dating for more than three years and we’d talked about this all before we started dating. But now he’s completely ignoring me, even though I begged him for the chance to work things out, and I just don’t understand where we went wrong—”
“Take a breath,” his mother interrupts, and Henry realizes he’d been rambling and he takes another deep breath. “Okay, so just so I’m understanding correctly, he’s wanting to break up with you because he’s sick of hiding your relationship? Would you be okay if it became public?”
“No, no, you’ve got it wrong,” Henry stammers. “He’s always been the one who’s always been more worried about keeping our relationship a secret. He’s afraid of us being found out, because we’re… you know. Gay.” He still can’t believe his mother is okay with this.
His mother hums thoughtfully. “Okay. So you’ve known him for three years, and up until now, he’s been okay with dating you in secret.”
“No, I’ve known him since—uh, longer than that.” Henry scrambles to dance around the subject of Ryeowook’s identity; it’s one thing to come out to his own mother, but he’s unsure of how his mother would take it knowing he’s been seeing his band member. He’s unsure of how Ryeowook would take it, knowing Henry had outed him to his mother. He shudders at the thought. “I’ve known him a long time.”
He can almost see the raised eyebrow on the other end of the line, and barrels on. “But yes, we’d discussed it before we got together. About the risks of being together, and the risks of getting caught, I mean.”
“But if you were to get caught, wouldn’t you be the one who suffered more? Since you’re in the limelight.” Henry remains silent; after that close call, he’s not sure how much sure how much he should say. At length, his mother catches on, a quiet ah escaping her. “He’s a celebrity, too.”
“Yeah,” Henry murmurs. “If it became public, we’d both be ruined. He’s terrified.” Henry feels his knee bouncing rapidly, and forces himself to still. “But Mom, I can’t live without him. Just him pretending I don’t exist for the last week has been hell, and having to put up with his cold shoulder for most of the working day is killing me. Like, I saw him being so close and affectionate with—” Shit. Shit. He quickly backpedals, “with someone else, instead, and it hurt so, so much.”
“So it’s a celebrity you work with often,” she says slowly. “And on top of that, he’s already flirting with other people?” Henry is shocked to hear a tinge of anger to her tone, and he panics.
“It’s not like that!” he almost shouts. “It’s not, they were already close before we started dating, it’s just— they’re just good friends. But now that he’s ignoring me, it just hurts to see his friendliness towards him. Towards everyone but me.”
“Henry…” his mother starts. “He freaks out on you, out of nowhere, by your own admission. Breaks up with you out of nowhere, going completely cold to you, and then cozies up to someone else? In front of you, no less?” She sounds skeptical, and when she puts it that way, Henry can see where she’s coming from. But god, Henry feels this conversation going downhill fast, and his heart pounds somewhere near his Adam’s apple. If she tells him he’s better off this way too… he doesn’t think he can take it.
“He wouldn’t do that to me,” Henry says tremulously. “He wouldn’t. Mom, you don’t understand, he’s been there for me through so much shit. Honestly, I wouldn’t have lasted a day in Korea if he hadn’t been there for me. And I—” He feels the sobs coming back. He bites down on his cheek to keep from crying again.
After a long pause, his mother finally says, “Who have you known for so long that I’ve never seen or heard about him?” Henry knows that tone; it’s the tone she’s always used when she knows he’s lying to her, a mix of disappointment and, tonight, tiredness. Henry’s breath starts coming quicker.
“I can’t—I’m really sorry I kept this secret from you for so long, Mom, but you don’t understand,” he says again. “He still loves me, I know he does.” He’s dancing around the subject of who exactly that is, and he knows it.
“As much as I want to believe that Henry—truly, I do,” his mother says carefully, “everything you’ve been telling me leads me to believe otherwise. I can’t trust that with the way you say he’s acting.” The implied and you won’t even tell me who that is hangs heavy over the line.
“He really does!” Henry protests. “He told me as much, the night we fought.”
His mother sighs heavily. “Sweetheart…”
Here it comes. The tone gives it away, and an involuntary shudder runs down his spine. Zhou Mi flashes in his mind, echoes of this is the best outcome ringing in his ears, and his mother gears up to tell him something he knows he doesn’t want to hear. Henry feels himself pushed against the precipice, his heels slipping off the edge.
“Why are you—”
“Wait,” he says, biting back the tears and swallowing the bile that threatens to rise in his throat. He can’t do this. She has to understand, she just has to, or else the curry will always be wrong and the bed will always be cold and he’ll never get that special smile, the one reserved just for him. “Just, wait. Please.”
He’s shaking so hard he might drop the phone and he’s pretty sure he’s hyperventilating. He can’t keep this a secret anymore. She’ll understand once she knows, because she knows Ryeowook, she’s met him and she likes him and then she’ll be able to help him fix this. He has to fix it.
A pause. “Okay,” she says at length, giving him a moment to compose himself.
Rubbing a furious palm against his eyes to clear the tears, Henry breathes deep. His stomach is in knots again, and there’s not much he can do about the shaking. He’s just so damn scared. If she doesn’t understand after this, he doesn’t know what he’ll do. “You’re not going to like this.”
“Henry,” his mom says quietly. “It doesn’t matter if I like it or not. No matter what, I am on your side.”
It’s the bolster he needed. He shuts his eyes tight, praying to any god that will listen that this is what does it. She will understand. She has to.
A difficult conversation, and a meeting.
The silence stretches on, and it’s more than Henry can bear. His stomach churns with fear and after what feels like an eternity but in reality can’t be any longer than a minute, Henry blurts out, “Mom, please, say something.” The silence is agony.
He hears his mother blow out a long breath and fears the worst. “Now it all makes sense.”
His heart stills and his stomach flips, but not in the way he expected it to. “Huh?”
There’s a hum on the other end of the line, and Henry hears a mug tap a counter somewhere. “Do you remember when I took your band out to dinner? After the concert of yours I went to?”
Henry remembers vividly; he’d anticipated her coming to Taiwan for weeks prior to her arrival. Ryeowook had helped him through so much, but amidst all the hardship, he’d longed for his mother and she was finally going to make it! But… what does any of that have to do with this now?
“Yeah, I remember,” he murmurs, still shaking. He’s still terrified; he can’t get a read on her reaction.
She must hear the hesitation in his voice, because her voice is warm. “Henry, he spent the whole night trying to impress me. ‘Mama, does it taste good?’ ‘Mama, can I get you anything?’ ‘Here, Mama, have some more!’” She chuckles, and Henry listens in almost a startled wonder as she goes on. He feels struck dumb. “His grammar was terrible.”
Henry laughs despite himself, the feeling almost foreign bubbling from his throat. His mother’s impression of Ryeowook’s Chinese is spot on, down to the stilted accent, halting words and exaggerated tones. But the deeply personal reminder serves only to drive home just how much he stands to lose, and the laughter fizzles away almost as quickly as it had come.
“Why are you laughing?” His mother says. “You were no better, you know. You looked at him like he hung the stars in the sky.”
Henry can’t help it; he feels the flush spread straight from his chest all the way to the tips of his ears. “I… But I didn’t even know I liked him then!” But that’s not really true, is it? He thinks back to those early days and how he had almost always been drawn to Ryeowook, like a moon in orbit. Perhaps consciously, he didn’t realize it, but in hindsight, it’s so clear. Why had it taken him so long?
“But you know now.”
Henry nods, even though his mother can’t see it. “I do. Mom, I love him so much. He’s been there for me for so long, I can’t imagine my life without him anymore.” He takes a long, shuddering breath.
“Even so, that’s not an excuse for him to treat you poorly,” his mother says, coming back around to the whole point of conflict. “All of this sounds very out of character for him, based on what you’re telling me. Did something very stressful happen recently?”
Henry thinks for a long moment. There’s the whole media scandal going on with the group because of Sungmin’s wedding, but that’s the only thing he can think off of the top of his head. “Well, yeah, but I don’t think it has anything to do with this.” He pauses. “He said it wasn’t anything I did, and he always tells me if I’ve done something wrong.”
His mom doesn’t sound convinced. “Well, it’s got to be something that stressed him out a great deal. Whether it’s intentional or not, he’s taking it out on you. Are you sure this relationship is good for you, baby?”
He fights off the panic that threatens to swell again. “Yes, mom, I’m sure. I told you, he’s the one who’s been there for me. He takes such good care of me.” And now he can tell her exactly how. Now that his mom knows, he feels the weight that had settled in his stomach lift, just a tiny bit. He can speak freely now. He hadn’t realized just how liberating that would feel.
So he talks. It’s a like fresh flood pouring out of him, starting from the beginning. He tells his mom of how caring and stubborn Ryeowook is, how silly and dedicated. How he’d always approached Henry first, like the first time they actually talked that late night in the practice room. How one time he’d fallen asleep in the gym instead of finishing his turn on cleaning duty and woke to find Ryeowook had done it for him. How he’d lost count of the times Ryeowook’s hand had found his when he couldn’t keep from trembling. How he always, always seemed to put Henry first.
Henry finally trails off, fresh tears stinging the corners of his eyes. His mom is quiet for a long moment. “He really does take good care of you, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Henry sniffles. “Yeah, he really does.”
There’s another pause. “And do you take good care of him, too?”
The question catches Henry off-guard. He opens his mouth, the retort of of course I do on the tip of his tongue, but he stops. His mind flashes like a projector reel, images flitting in and out and a sinking, cold feeling blossoms from the pit of his stomach. He’d let Ryeowook feed him, take care of him, work to include him. Ryeowook had made it so easy for him to say yes, sure, but had Henry even tried to give back?
He had, in the beginning. Ryeowook had only laughed and took Henry’s hand in his, stroking the back of it with a calloused thumb. I enjoy taking care of you, Henry, he’d said. Let me spoil you!
So he had. Nausea tastes bitter in his mouth as another thought occurs to him; what if… what if, somewhere along the line, Ryeowook had started to feel less like he was babying Henry and more like he was babysitting him? His face feels flush with humiliation at the mere thought, but it’s shame that fills his mind. He swallows back the thick knot in his throat and tries again to answer his mother, but he can’t. He doesn’t have an answer for her.
Maybe he’s been avoiding the question all this time.
He can’t lie to his mother, though. Not after all of this. “I don’t know,” he says, finally. He feels so small right now. “Maybe… maybe not.”
“Hmm,” his mom says with a sigh, not unkindly. “Let’s put it this way. What do you do for him that’s along the lines of what he does for you?”
That deer-in-headlights feeling is back, feeling so put on the spot. He scrambles to give her an answer. He just can’t bear the thought that he contributes nothing. That just can’t be true. “Well… I do laundry for him… sometimes…” he trails off. “And I support him in whatever he wants to do! He has a lot of ambition, and I encourage him when he comes up with ideas of things he’d like to try.” It feels very much like he’s grasping at straws.
He can almost hear his mom nod on the other end. “That’s a start. So you’ve been supportive when things are going good for him. What about when he’s struggling?”
Oh. “I… I didn’t realize he struggled. He never told me.” It shames Henry, even more so, to admit that it took it all but smacking him in the face to realize that of course Ryeowook struggled. If he’d paid attention…
The exasperation in his mother’s voice stings, but at this point, maybe he deserves it. “Henry,” she starts, “Everyone struggles at one point or another. You mean to tell me that you haven’t once, not once, seen him down?”
Henry doesn’t mean to get defensive, really. “I mean, I have! But Ryeowook is such a positive person that those times are few and far between!” He barrels on, unable to keep from talking. “So I… I mean, I definitely haven’t been there for him the way I should have been. But what can I do about it now, if he really doesn’t want to try and fix things with me?”
“Okay, okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here.” His mom is trying to placate him, and he knows it, despite the fact that she has every right to be annoyed with him. He’s annoyed with himself, and more. He lets his head fall back on the back of the sofa and stares up at the ceiling, letting his mom talk. “If he doesn’t want to try, then there’s nothing to be done for it. But right now, you don’t know that, do you?”
“…I’m not sure,” Henry says at length. “I mean, he said he still loved me, and he agreed to at least talk.” He really doesn’t want to rehash the fight, but his mom wants to help him, so he has to at least help her help him. With a lump in his throat, he starts from the beginning, from when he walked in to that God-forsaken bedroom what feels an eternity ago. He keeps it brief, sticking to the most important details, in part because it’s painful and in part because he’s starting to go hoarse and if he stops talking, he may not be able to bring himself to start again.
If he purposely glosses over exactly how difficult it was to get Ryeowook to agree to talk at all, and how he hadn’t explicitly said he’d agreed, and that Henry was going off of that one little nod… well, his mother doesn’t need to know that. He couldn’t bear it if she started doubting him again.
Henry draws a long, shuddering breath when he finishes, giving his mom time to digest everything. Guilt sits heavy in the pit of his stomach, on top of everything else, when he hears her stifle a yawn, but she speaks before he has a chance to comment on it. “So this is good, then. He’s given you the chance to straighten things out. That means he still cares.”
“Yeah,” Henry deadpans, biting his bottom lip, “but he still hasn’t said a word to me in a week.”
His mom sighs, and Henry can’t help but flinch at the exasperation in it. “Come on now,” she starts gently. “You’re going to have to be the one to reach out to him first. He’s probably hurting just as much as you are, right now. This is your chance to take care of him, this time.”
She’s right, of course, but it doesn’t help the swell of anxiety that threatens to drown him. He can feel its vice-grip tight on his chest. “What do I even say to him?”
His mother hums in thought. “This isn’t going to be a conversation you can have over the phone. Perhaps ask him to meet you somewhere you can talk things out without being overheard, but in public enough a place that he doesn’t feel like he’s being cornered. The last thing you want to do is come off as manipulative.”
Henry startles at that, an indignant flush blooming down from his face and across his neck and chest. “I would never—!”
“I know you wouldn’t mean to do it,” his mother says quickly. “But think about it. You’re used to getting your way with him, and that means there are things you do without realizing to make that happen.”
The words feel like barbs in Henry’s ears and in his heart, but the more they sink in, the more he realizes their truth. Instances flicker to the forefront of his mind, a flash of annoyance on Ryeowook’s face, or a resigned sigh. Brief little moments that Henry had always chalked up to a bad day, until now. And more and more frequent over the last year or so, to boot. Horror looms over him and he just wants to break down all over again.
God, how terrible he is. What an ass.
“Henry,” his mother’s quiet voice breaks the silence. “I know what you’re thinking. Yes, you were wrong, but you didn’t know, and he never told you. But you know now, and you can do something about it now. Just be mindful, and be honest.”
She says it like it’s so simple, and maybe it is, but with so much at stake Henry feels like there should be more to it than just…being honest. He drags a hand down over his face, wiping at the last of the tear tracks. He needs to pull himself together.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he says at length.
His mom hesitates for a moment, as if waiting for Henry to say more, before she asks, “Are you okay now?”
No, not really, he thinks, but he’s better. He’s getting there. And his mom truly has helped him, lifting the burden of secrecy from his shoulders. So instead he says, “Yeah.”
He’s not sure if there’s anything else he should ask her, if she would even have any more suggestions to give him. It’s so much easier to have her guidance, to have her tell him what to do when he feels so lost and wandering through the dark. But when he doesn’t say anything more, his mother finally breaks down and lets out a huge yawn.
“I’m glad to hear it, baby. I’m going to go back to sleep, but you call me back later if you need to talk, okay?”
Henry nods absently, pulling the phone back to check the call timer. He winces—he’s kept her up for almost two hours now. He hurries off the phone, giving his mother one last reassurance that he’s okay now, or he will be. When the call ends, he lets his hand holding the phone drop to sit in his lap, and he stares at it.
He needs to reach out first, this time. He needs to prove to Ryeowook that he’s willing to change, willing to pull his weight, willing to take care of Ryeowook as much as Ryeowook took care of him. He rubs his face again, finding it a touch more effective at grounding him this time around.
It takes him four tries to get the message right. The third try is more like how he usually texts Ryeowook, but as his hand hovers over the send button, the smiling emoticons stare back at him, almost accusingly.
He deletes the message. Be mindful, his mother had said. You don’t want to be seen as manipulative.
Finally, he settles on something simple, no more than a line, and he prays that this will work. He swallows hard, gathers his courage, and sends the message. And he waits.
The waiting is so, so much harder now than it ever was before. He hadn’t known it could get harder, until it did. He’s putting himself out there. But he understands a bit better now how there could be silence for so long. This is torturous.
After a long moment, the message still hasn’t been read, and Henry forces out a rush of air between his teeth. Patience, Henry, he tells himself. You’re the one reaching out. Of course he’s not going to read the text the minute you send it. To distract himself, he puts the phone down on the table and heads to the bathroom. Yes, a shower is just what he needs to clear his thoughts right now.
And then he needs to prepare himself for what comes next. Whatever that may be.
Can we meet Wednesday morning?
Ryeowook had thought there wasn’t anything left in him to shatter. He was wrong.
By now he must have read the message a hundred thousand times, every word, every letter burned into his memory, and yet still he reads over again. The message sounds nothing like Henry, the lack of the usual cuteness a glaring difference from the last message Henry had sent him. It is plain, and just a touch formal.
That was three days ago. It had taken Ryeowook several hours to respond to the text, still only managing to send a simple That’s fine. Anything else, and the floodgates would have opened, and nothing Ryeowook could have done would have stopped the torrential flood that followed.
Henry had responded right away. Great. I’ll meet you at the usual Kofi Haus at ten. And Ryeowook’s stomach had sunk.
A public place, the polite form of the words in the text instead of the usual casual form… Ryeowook knows in his heart what this means, and it hurts so terribly.
But this is what he told Henry he’d wanted… right?
Which is how Ryeowook finds himself at the little coffee shop tucked off the main road, sandwiched between a boarding house and a convenience store. He’s slouched over a long-cold coffee in a seat in the back corner, away from the windows, but the shop is empty except for the barista. Too late for the breakfast rush, and too early for lunch. Ryeowook can’t help but wonder if Henry had planned it this way.
He’s staring absentmindedly into his coffee, stirring in what must be the eighth sugar packet into it, when the bells on the door chime. Ryeowook stiffens, but he can’t bring himself to look up. He doesn’t want to be here right now. He doesn't want to be meeting Henry, he doesn’t want to hear the words come from Henry’s mouth.
He doesn’t want them to be over.
Ryeowook has half convinced himself it’s not Henry when he sees the familiar worn out sneakers approach the table. This is your fault, Ryeowook reminds himself, bracing for the conversation. He’s gripping the coffee spoon so tightly his knuckles are white, and he’s pretty sure his hand is shaking.
Finally, Ryeowook looks up. And his stomach lurches unpleasantly when he’s met, not with the terrible impassiveness Ryeowook had anticipated from the message, but with a small, hopeful smile on Henry’s face. In his hand, a small stuffed giraffe, no bigger than the length of his hand and a little ribbon tied around his neck.
Ryeowook feels the breath leave him all at once when Henry meets his gaze. There’s a softness in the way his eyes crinkle and that small, hopeful smile grows ever so slightly. Henry gives a little wave with his free hand.
What's broken can be mended. Will it?
There’s a heavy silence that hangs over the both of them, but it’s not as tense as Henry imagined it would be. Ryeowook’s eyes rove over Henry, like he’s searching for something. Henry sees the flicker in his eyes and nearly stumbles over himself to hold out his gift before Ryeowook has the chance to say anything.
“Here, I got you a little something,” he says. He musters all his strength into managing a shadow of his usual charming smile.
If his hand trembles as he waits for Ryeowook to take the gift, Ryeowook has the grace not to comment on it. The shroud of misery begins to lift when Ryeowook takes it, lines of tension easing on his face and his lips twitching into the beginnings of a smile.
Henry feels the warmth of a flush flare up his neck and across his cheeks, so he shrugs his jacket off and drapes it over the back of the chair. His eyes catch movement under the height of the table, and he allows himself a glance to look. Ryeowook’s fingers work over the plush of the head and mane, and when his eyes flit back up to Ryeowook’s face, his breath catches at—dare he think it—a split-second flare of hope on the older man’s face.
Henry commends himself on resolving to wear something with buttons. He’d found his white shirt, unworn and sitting abandoned at the back of his closet for something like a year and a half if he had to hazard a guess. The very same one Ryeowook had previously made no secret of liking on him. Even now, another quick look, holding a flash of unguarded desire, ends in the tops of Ryeowook’s ears turning pink. Henry brushes his hands down the front unconsciously, hoping to smooth out the phantom wrinkles and buy himself a moment or two to recall all the planning he’d done.
No dice. It’s all leaked out his ears. Instead, he says the first thing that comes to mind. “Thanks for agreeing to meet with me.”
Ryeowook’s hand still on the plush. “Of course. Are you… going to order something to drink?”
“In a bit.”
Everything about this feels so different from the entirety of the past week, starting with the fact that they’re making eye contact and they’re smiling at each other. It’s amazing, Henry thinks in awe, how such a small gesture to show his intentions can make such a huge difference.
Emboldened by the reception he’s getting, Henry tentatively leans across the table and lays a soft hand on Ryeowook’s shoulder, coaxing one of his hands out from under the table so he can place his own on top of it. Comforting, but not obviously intimate.
Ryeowook’s smile brightens, even just a smidge. Even so, there’s a look of uncertainty that lingers behind his eyes, a muddled mixture of shame and apology and a tinge of anxious nerves. Henry knows that last bit all too well—he feels it like a stone in the pit of his stomach, threatening to lurch to his throat any minute. He opens his mouth to speak, only for Ryeowook to start nearly in the same breath.
“I have a-”
Both stop as quickly as they’d started, eyes wide and staring. Henry feels compelled, almost, to keep his gaze locked on Ryeowook’s. Like he can’t pull away. Ryeowook caves first, lifting his hand from under Henry’s and gesturing vaguely.
“You go ahead, it’s fine,” Ryeowook says, and in a blink he’s lost his smile, the shutters coming down around his face. Just like that. Henry forces a deep breath and sits back in his chair. Don’t force it, he tells himself. He almost has the urge to ask if it’s really okay, to ask permission. But it feels hollow, even in his head, and he swallows the words down.
“I have a lot I want to...” A lot I want to tell you? Too pushy. Too one-sided. “I want to talk with you about.” Better, he decides.
Ryeowook swallows, looks away. Finally nods, after a long moment. “Okay,” he says quietly. His eyes land on his own stone-cold coffee.
The return to silence is too much. All at once, the hurt from him pulling away hits Henry, an involuntary pained gasp breaking out of him in an audible burst. He didn’t want it to go like this, he wanted to be strong and confident, but after that glimmer of hope, coming face to face with Ryeowook’s stony gaze proves too much to bear. No surprise there. No matter how hard he tries, he’s never been good at holding back when it’s just the two of them.
He blinks hard, presses his lips together until he feels his teeth digging into them from the inside, sees Ryeowook soften almost imperceptibly across from him.
“You should go get yourself something,” Ryeowook says. He sounds so tired. But Henry doesn’t know what else to do.
“Oh... Okay...” Buzzing blank static is all that fills his mind. Awkwardly, he pushes his chair back, the scraping sound it makes against the floor grating and loud. What’s worse, he makes the table tip when he leans a bit too hard on it getting up. He rushes away to stand in front of the menu, looking at it without seeing it. He’s rooted to the spot, trying to convince himself that he’s not running away.
What are you doing?! He asks himself silently. You’re an idiot for running away like that! How’s that going to help?!
He notices his hands tightening into fists and forces himself to relax them. I’m regrouping, he tries to tell himself, but it falls flat.
Over in the back corner, where he makes himself look, Ryeowook looks so small sitting in the chair, hunched in on himself. He looks... near tears, to be honest. Henry thinks, no, he’s sure he should do something about that.
I wish I knew what he wanted. Whether he still wants- He shakes his head to cut off that train of thought.
Take care of him, his mom’s voice reminds him in its place. But how? Right, he’s overthinking this. There’re cookies right in front of him, and the cashier’s probably gonna think it’s weird if he takes any longer.
Fuck. What kind does he like? A fresh wave of embarrassment floods his system. Come on. Think. He steps towards the small pastry case. His hand hovers in front of it, not touching the glass, while the gears turn. There’s a chocolate one that looks good. That should work... Though it might look better if he gets two - something less blatant about it that way, he suspects - his stomach’s in knots and ardently refuses. He settles on the one cookie and an iced coffee for himself. Not that he’s any more keen on that.
It'll work. I just gotta tell him. He'll understand.
“I don't know if you've- been waiting a while, so, um, I thought you might want one.” He hands over the cookie, going for a smile that he can feel is too dim, more twisted up and pleading than he wanted. Looking up at him, Ryeowook seems surprised more than anything as he takes it. Henry cautiously sits down, looking at him looking at the cookie.
Then, without asking, Ryeowook breaks the cookie in half and holds one of the halves out to Henry in offering. It's almost a little funny because he bought the cookie in the first place, but Ryeowook's looking at him like it could mean something, a tinge of worry almost imperceptibly tightening the lines around his mouth the only break in the fresh mask of calm he’d just put on, so Henry takes the offering and nibbles on it anyway. It gives him a few seconds to try and word what he's going to say.
Inside, though, his heart soars. He hopes it's a sign.
He can still feel where their fingers brushed. His chest tightens, and he remembers all the times he finished his own cookie too soon, making a pitiful expression until Ryeowook chuckled and gave him half of his own untouched one.
"Thanks," Henry says belatedly, quiet and touched. It’s a few seconds too late, but the lines around Ryeowook’s mouth have relaxed, at least.
The impulse bubbles up to explain how he didn’t know what kind the other man likes, and the dawning realization that he’d always gone ahead and gotten two of Henry’s favorite instead, and an apology for never noticing, but… they’re not there yet. He’ll have to save that for when he knows they’re actually going to talk. Which isn’t a sure thing by any means.
So, he thinks with a deeper breath, he has to get them there first. There’s no more second chances.
"What I want to talk about isn't anything bad," he says as reassuringly as he can. Ryeowook looks at him with guarded curiosity, but only nods. “It’s actually kind of funny,” Henry continues, his grin brighter this time, full of anticipation that soon, they’ll be laughing together again.
The slightest hope of a smile writes itself across Ryeowook's face, the tense shield easing another fraction. It makes Henry lean forward onto his forearms on the table, his voice dropping to right above a murmur. "See, I told my mom about us-"
Ryeowook startles, his expression contorting as he angrily hisses, "Have you lost your mind?! You can't talk about that here!"
Henry's eyes widen and his hands fly up in front of him of their own accord. "Hey, calm down," he says, struggling to put his public face on. He can see Ryeowook's jaw clenching, hears the stilted breath of forcing a calm exterior. He gingerly lowers his hands to his lap. The last thing he wants to do is make this look worse after he shoved his foot in his mouth.
He fumbles his keys out of his pocket and rests the heel of his palm on the edge of the table, spinning the keyring around on his index finger a couple of times. "Tell me where to go," he says, hunching in on himself.
Fury still etched into his features beneath the thin veneer, Ryeowook exhales loudly. "Take me home." He looks away as he says it.
It’s too quiet now, as neither of them seem to want to be the first to get up from the table. With stomach-twisting reluctance, Henry decides to make the first move to leave. The chair shrieks where it scrapes against the floor, then he drops his keys on the chair, then they slide off the seat to the ground before he can grab them.
If Ryeowook was that angry before, Henry can’t imagine his fumbling has improved the situation any.
Their hands bump into each other when they both reach to throw away the wax paper the cookie came on. He shrinks back and lets Ryeowook handle it, not trusting himself to not mess things up any worse. They don’t meet each other’s eyes the entire time.
Nothing disastrous happens after that, at least... The best that can be said is that it doesn’t actually get worse. Although, to call the drive back tense would be an understatement.
With Ryeowook staying turned away from him, sullen, arms crossed, the lines of his body are drawn tight, as though ready to pounce given the slightest provocation. The air feels heavy, almost suffocating. It's hard to tell what he's thinking, only that it can't be good.
Henry's hands clench the steering wheel, and in his mind, he tries to go over all the things he still plans to say. Messing up like that feels awful. He wishes he didn’t have to think about it. But giving up now isn't an option.
He couldn't even turn some music on as a distraction. when he was driving over- back- over that long-ago evening, he'd gotten it into his head that he should learn Kiss Goodbye too, now that he was going on shows by himself more. He couldn't hear it in his own voice in his head, though, so he kept messing up the lyrics, which frustrated him, so he'd stuck it on repeat.
And when he started the ignition, after he got into his car after their fight, the song started playing again. He could've broken the button with how hard he turned it off. Didn't, but could've, he felt.
Anyway, even hearing it for a second would be too long in the wrong moment for it, which this one definitely is. That means there's nothing to distract him from glancing over at every stoplight to see Ryeowook still turned away from him, arms crossed, unyielding tightly coiled tension from head to toe.
For all that he’d like to project some confidence, Henry can admit this isn't going according to plan.
It’s a good story - will be, if he can just get to the end of it. They’ll laugh, it’ll lift the mood, maybe he’ll suffer a teasing hit to his arm. It’ll be good. All that needs to happen is for Ryeowook to listen. Hopefully, the little signs mean that he’s willing to.
Hope’s all that’s left, except the telling.
If Ryeowook's surprised that Henry follows him into the building, he doesn't show it. So at least they're still gonna talk. There'll be yelling at first, Henry's sure of it, but he's still got that confidence burning in him again, that he just needs a chance to explain everything he's figured out, and once he does, it'll be obvious that things'll get better. That they can work it out.
He's dealt with worse than the strained walk and elevator ride up. No, where he falters is the doorway.
Absentmindedly holding the door open with the right side of his body, he can see the worn couch, the messy dining room and- that calendar, the one he kept expecting to see somehow in his own apartment. Already, he doesn't know if he belongs here anymore.
Still, he steps forward, trepidation overcome by the same need that's been driving him ever since the phone call. The need to make it right.
Ryeowook's eyes are blazing with anger, his mouth pressed into a thin line. The front door hasn't even finished closing when he grabs Henry by the wrist, all but dragging him into his room and slamming his poor, rickety door shut with a rattle.
"What were you thinking?!" Ryeowook screeches, throwing his arms into the air, his hands hovering in the air a bit above his head.
"We're in a public place,” he continues with angry, forceful gestures, “and you just blurt out that you told your mom about us!"
Henry tries again, because he gets it, really, and he’s trying to apologize. Trying being the key word here. “I know I-“
“Of all the reckless, stupid things to do,” Ryeowook starts pacing in the small room, which amounts to about four steps before he turns back, “I never thought you would-“
Suddenly, it all stops. He blinks. In an instant, the anger drains from his face, replaced by wide-eyed confusion, as if right now is the first time he's looked past his rage to realize what it is that Henry had revealed.
Maybe it is.
His brow furrows in clear bewilderment. "You told your mom about us?" Ryeowook asks, all gentle hesitation. He sounds lost, with a matching expression, meeting Henry's eyes now that his tirade has deflated.
Finally, a chance to pull this up from a nosedive. Henry shoots him a teasing smile. "She said your Chinese grammar is awful, but it's fine, you know she likes you."
Ryeowook starts crying.
"It's okay, we can work on your grammar!"
The other man squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, the tears now visibly streaming down his cheeks. That's as much as Henry can take; he stops holding himself back, erasing the few short steps between them to embrace Ryeowook. Every cell in his body screams with relief at offering the comfort he's wanted to so badly to give this entire time, denied until this moment.
Ryeowook's hands cling to his shirt. One of them gently thwaps his chest. "I can't believe you!" He wails. Another thwap. "I can't believe you told your mom about us!" He drops to clutching the bottom hem of Henry's shirt, laying his forehead near the top of Henry's chest. "I can't believe she's okay with it," he says more quietly, sniffling and shaking.
With that, Henry leads them both to sit on the bed, as much for his own sake as anything else. He fears that his legs won't hold him up any longer, much as his voice has abandoned him. He thinks they might be okay, that they've gotten somewhere, but he's not sure, and he doesn't know what comes next.
It's not like he's ever done this before.
So he waits for the sobbing to run its course. All he can offer is a comforting touch, and the readiness to listen. He gathers up every bit of it that he has inside of him, every scrap of energy left after the tightrope act they’ve just gone through. He draws strength from being close once more, from the lingering scent of Ryeowook's hair, the damp spot on his shirt from Ryeowook's tears, his love's warmth that he misses already as they move to sit a small ways apart.
“I’m so sorry!” Ryeowook’s voice holds the threat of another round of tears. “I never should’ve asked you to break up. I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry!” Fistfuls of the covers are bunched up in his grip.
“It’s okay,” Henry says gently. He cups Ryeowook’s cheek, stroking away a tear track. The hardest thing to do is pull back, but he has to, because they can’t let anything fester under the surface. “I'm not gonna lie, it hurt. But I understand why it happened.” And he does, too. He's gained clarity over the past couple of days now that he could think instead of just panicking.
Ryeowook, however, looks puzzled. “What do you mean?” He sniffs.
“You felt like you had to shoulder those burdens by yourself. You don't! But you need to talk to me. Tell me what you're feeling. Please.” He has to force out the next words, make them real when it’s the last thing he wants. “I don't want this to happen again,” he finishes hoarsely.
Ryeowook nods twice, growing somehow more teary-eyed. He wipes it away. “I understand.” He looks down for a few seconds. Henry lets himself feel how drained he is until their eyes meet once more. Then, he grows nervous, excited, his heart shaking in his chest.
He leans closer. He desperately hopes he’s reading this right. That the ground hasn’t crumbled beneath them.
They respond to each other in painfully slow increments, Ryeowook tilting his head a bit more, inching up and forward only when it mirrors Henry's approach. He’s the first to close his eyes, trust and hope splashed across the tension between his brows, his mouth falling open slightly. Henry trusts in turn, taking it for the gift it is, could be. It seems neither of them were sure they would connect until they do, a soft, tentative collision of their lips that leaves him feeling like the first breath he's been able to take in far too long. Until right now, he wasn't sure they would be okay again.
He can feel it. They'll really be okay. They part almost as slowly as they joined, as if reluctant to let go.
It's not over.
This doesn't fix everything, no. But answers can wait until tomorrow. Henry relaxes onto the pile of pillows at the head of the bed, opening his arms for Ryeowook to crawl into. They're touching at every point possible from neck to hip, Ryeowook's stuttering breaths tickling Henry where they skim over the side of his head. The feeling of holding him again is indescribable.
Henry smiles when Ryeowook presses a soft kiss to the top of his ear. Tears come dangerously close to the surface, borne of relief that they're here, they made it here, together again. He returns the gesture, pecking the curve of Ryeowook's shoulder, then lays back down.
Upon hearing a sleepy whine in his ear, he realizes he must not've been alone in dozing off like that. "Hey," he says.
Ryeowook groans. "Didn't mean to fall asleep." Suddenly, he sits up. "We should decorate the tree!"
"I... I didn't want to do it without you," Ryeowook admits.
Henry smiles softly. “You waited this whole time? For me?” He links their fingers together. Joy that he can do that soars through him.
“Of course I did,” Ryeowook says, looking down afterwards. “I said I didn’t want to do it without you, didn’t I? It wouldn’t be the same.”
“You’re amazing,” Henry murmurs. He tips Ryeowook’s chin up and kisses him. Ryeowook’s hand rests above his knee; they take their time taking each other in. It’s with great reluctance that Henry’s the first to pull away. “Let’s do it later when I get back, okay?”
“Oh... You’re leaving?”
“Not yet, but in like an hour. Sorry, I have a thing I couldn’t get out of.” He pouts apologetically. Stroking his hair, Ryeowook immediately assures him it’s alright. Henry takes that hand and places a kiss in the middle of his palm. “I’ll come back here right after, okay?”
“You’d better,” Ryeowook almost-threatens, but he’s smiling, adoration sparkling in his eyes. Henry knows exactly what he has to do.
“Let me make lunch before I go.”
Late as it is by the time he can keep his promise to come back, he gets a delivery order in as soon as he’s parked, and wills the elevator to move faster.
Returning to normalcy is more wonderful than he could’ve imagined. Though they don’t talk much while they eat, it’s a comfortable silence, and he basks in it. It’s something he came too close to losing; he’s not going to take anything for granted.
The tree is messily decorated with more winding strings of lights than its small stature is meant to hold, surely, and they only get two wooden figures settled on it before agreeing that that’s the limit, laughing giddily as they do. They’re both tired, but unwilling to do anything beyond sitting next to their creation side by side.
“I’m sorry,” Henry blurts out.
“Hm?” Ryeowook looks at him askance. “You didn’t do anything.”
“Yeah, I mean, no-“ Henry holds his hand up, stopping for a second so he doesn’t get thrown off track. “I didn’t take care of you. You did so much, and I didn’t return it, and I’m sorry for that.”
Ryeowook turns to look at him, part sweetness, part fond exasperation. “I don’t need that,” he says weakly, without confidence. Rolling his eyes and laughing, Henry leans over, wrapping both his arms around him.
“Shush. Yes, you do, you stubborn jerk.” That gets Ryeowook to chuckle. He missed that sound so much. “Everyone needs that sometimes.”
Ryeowook leans into Henry’s hold with a sigh. “Okay, I guess that’s true.” A tear in the fabric between them mends, one of many to go.
Once they’ve crawled into bed, late into the night, Henry leans over to press a kiss into Ryeowook’s hair, smiling into it unseen. “Merry Christmas, babe,” he murmurs.
“Mm.” Ryeowook curls into him sleepily. “You’re the best gift I could’ve asked for.”
Sure, it’s cheesy, but in a really cute way that no one else could pull off, so Henry only says, “Yeah, me too.”
Waking up curled around him, back to chest, the scent and feel of him being the first thing the morning brings, is the best feeling in the world, Henry thinks. He never wants to get out of bed.
After the fog of sleep wears off, though, Ryeowook starts wriggling away, though not without getting some tickles for his trouble. Things are easy between them until they’re working around each other to put breakfast together; the atmosphere between turns into something unsure.
What lies there doesn’t surface until he brings two mugs of tea to the couch. Ryeowook sets his down on the coffee table, so Henry does too. He watches the steam roll off it, and wonders.
"I promised my parents I'd visit today," Ryeowook says hesitantly. They turn to look at each other simultaneously. His expression starts worried and quickly turns to terrified.
That he’s worrying is almost comforting. He still cares too. Henry smiles and strokes his cheek with his knuckles. "Okay. I understand. Just let me get a picture for my mom before you go. She hasn't seen you in forever."
Ryeowook’s shoulders slump with obvious relief, the corner of his mouth pulling itself upwards. “I haven’t put any makeup on yet. She’s the only one who’ll see it, right?”
Henry can’t help but laugh. “Honey, you look great. I promise.” Ryeowook makes an admirable attempt to stare him down. “Yes, it’s just for her. Don’t worry.”
He quickly tamps his hair down using his phone’s preview, gets them pressed together cheek to cheek, and snaps the picture before Ryeowook can start nitpicking. “See?” He shows it briefly. “You look great.”
Ryeowook seems unconvinced. “Let me see that.”
“Nope!” Rolling back to avoid his grasp, Henry sends his mom the picture with only a ‘Merry Christmas!’ attached, laughing as Ryeowook tugs at his fingers. “Already sent.” With that, he lets go so that Ryeowook can get his hands on Henry’s phone, looking at the picture with a moue.
“…I guess it’s fine.”
“I promise you look very handsome,” Henry says as a prelude to pulling Ryeowook down onto him. The other man is the one to close the gap, however, their kiss firm and full of feeling. He smiles up at his love when they part, not caring at all how smitten he must look.
“I really should get going,” Ryeowook says, his natural pout falling into place. He sits up between Henry’s knees, seeming reluctant to leave.
“Go. We’ll talk more later.”
“Thanks for understanding.” He pulls Henry up into one last kiss before sliding off the couch, the clack of bottles and brushes following soon after. Satisfied, Henry picks up his tea, finding it just the right temperature to drink. He sets down the other mug on the counter, at the far end from where Ryeowook’s getting ready.
Loving each other is easy. Deciding to work at it is the hard part.
For that, they’ll have all the time in the world.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
It's with trembling hands and unsteady feet, but the next step forward is made together.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Look, I don’t know what I’m doing either,” is what Henry starts with once they’ve settled down. He looks at the door, the desk, off in five different directions, tapping his foot, uncrossing his legs and bending one knee up, all before Ryeowook can decide whether he should be comforted or worried by that statement.
He settles on some of both. Ultimately, he finds himself matching, one knee bent. He rests his arm on that, then his chin on his arm, then abandons the whole thing to lean back on his hands. He nods in lieu of an answer.
After Christmas, it took them a few days to get back into as normal of a routine as was ever possible in their line of work. Then the new year came and went - they ordered noodles and watched some movie with subtitles. It was nice. There was talk of starting as you mean to go on. They did the whole thing a couple of days late, but that’s normal too.
But... There’s always more. Even though part of him wants to, he couldn’t put it off forever. So, here they are, sitting together on his bed yet again, close but not touching, close enough that he can feel the faintest warmth radiating from Henry’s knee onto his own, about to talk about the kinds of difficult things that no one really warns you are going to come up.
Frankly, they haven’t even started, and Ryeowook hates it already. Why do they have to use up their limited synched-up hours like this? Couldn’t they- No, no more of that, there’s no hiding from it, or at least, he won’t anymore. He knows; it’s just... it’s awful. It feels awful. He picks at a loose thread sticking out from the hem of his shirt, trying in vain to steel himself for the first topic of many.
The one where he nearly broke them.
Though he knows he should cut it instead, he rips off the thread, feels it snap. There’s a certain satisfaction to it; it feels like the only thing he’s in control of right now. Still, there’s no getting around it. Henry put their relationship before his pride, which is the only reason they still have a relationship, so Ryeowook’s stepping up to do the same in turn, just like he agreed to when they reconciled.
He feels a little bad that he’s making Henry start it. Not bad enough to do it himself, though.
“Well, alright, we’re here to talk, so, let’s talk.”
“You freaked out on me... really suddenly.” Henry tilts his head and crosses his arms as he speaks, then quickly uncrosses them. “To me, I felt like it came out of nowhere,” he continues, wearing an expression that’s cautious but not unsympathetic.
Ouch. Yep, this is going to be its own kind of hell. “Yeah...” He toys with the drawstring of his pants, this time. No matter how badly he wishes he had something else nearby, sending the message that he’s not taking this seriously is something he wants to avoid more than he wants to get up and grab something to do with his hands.
“But, um, I kinda get where you were coming from.” That’s... honestly shocking. Ryeowook leans forward, his mind racing to figure out what he means by that. Henry rubs his palms on his own thighs and hunches in on himself. “It’s just... I don’t think breaking up is the solution to any of those problems.”
He meant he understands the problems I talked about. Wow, it takes courage to say that in this situation. With a self-deprecating sigh, Ryeowook tries three times to decide whether to bridge the gap, his fingers opening and closing each time. “No, I know that now. I regretted it so much. From that night, to be honest.”
“Why-“ Henry visibly swallows. “Why didn’t you say something?” This might be the first time since that brief moment in the café that he’s showing the true depths of his pain. Seeing how strong he’s been makes Ryeowook sick to his stomach with shame.
When he tries to speak, only a choked gurgle comes out. He smoothes his hands down his face and tries again. “After I treated you that badly-“ He has to stop again or he might well start outright sobbing. Saying it hurts almost as much as remembering. “After that, I was sure you changed your mind and it was over.”
If he didn’t know better, Henry’s expression would come off as pity.
“I should’ve been braver.” Ryeowook risks placing his hand on Henry’s knee; the other man stiffens under his touch. Dejected, he withdraws. He supposes he deserves that. “I’m sorry.”
Henry nods. “I know. It’s, uh, not about, not about feeling bad. Like I said, I kind of get it. I mean, I kind of get where you’re coming from better now.” He bounces in place a couple of times. “But look, I felt... so much better when my mom, um, took it well. When I told her.”
It’s Ryeowook’s turn to nod along then. He waits a beat too long before realizing that Henry finished what he was saying. “Right. I feel better knowing that, too. Kind of surprised.” He furrows his brow, not sure himself where this is going.
“I do feel bad about telling her without talking to you first... To be honest, I needed- advice. About our problems. And I feel so bad that I couldn’t ask you first, but you get it, right?”
Ryeowook tries to convey his agreement without the words he hasn’t found yet. How haunted must he look instead, for Henry’s expression to turn so worried? He tones it down, forcing a weak smile on and shaking his hand in front of him as though to ward off their troubles, tell them they’re uninvited. “Of course. Believe me, if I thought my mom would take it well, I’d talk to her too.” It’s a loud ‘if’. Understanding passes between them. Loosely, they hold hands for a second, then break apart in a slow, sad dance.
Henry shoots him a wry smile, rocking a bit from side to side. “Yeah, but, I’m sorry. I did try not to... Actually, I, well,” he purses his mouth, “I tried to talk to Zhou Mi first, but he didn’t want to help.”
Upon hearing that, Ryeowook can’t help but roll his eyes, seriousness be damned. “Pfft. He didn’t, huh.” He laughs at himself. “I mean, look. He and I are close, but he’s always thought that dating you wouldn’t be good for me.” He sees Henry’s unsure, distraught expression, and lets out an audible breath, holding his hand up to indicate that there’s more. “And I did... I was crazy for a little while there. When it came to you.” He cringes at the admission. Somehow, that’s the one that takes a lot of out him.
This time, Henry’s the one who laughs. “Really? I thought you were just,” he gestures vaguely into the air, “you know, being you. Like, you feed everyone. Check up on people. That kind of thing.” A slow grin forms on his face, a hint of teeth peeking out. The sight is enough to make anyone’s heart skip a beat. “I mean, obviously, I get it now. And, uh,” His smile suddenly drops, and he wrings his hands together. “He was kind of right, wasn’t he?”
“No! What are you talking about?!”
“I totally-“ Henry waves his hand over his head once, moving it front to back. Ryeowook looks on in confusion. The other man briefly shakes his head. “It’s just, there was a lot I missed. A lot that I didn’t see, or, or I should’ve been doing. You know?”
“Okay, but... I didn’t realize it was weighing on me. It’s not like I imagined. Ever. I didn’t know it would go like this.”
This, this right here is the only kind of talking he’d never learned how to do. Do all couples talk like this? He finds the notion inconceivable. There was no class on how to leave himself open and vulnerable, no training on the best way to spill out his insides raw, taking all the things that make him feel weak and useless and scared and letting them out into the light. The slightest opening of that door is already making him want to bolt.
By sheer willpower, he doesn’t. He won’t. Almost too late, he realizes what kind of devastation he could be leaving on the table. “But that doesn’t mean he was ever right. Okay? He wasn’t. He was worried. Whatever.” He sounds angry when he wants to be comforting and it’s all jumbled up. “You’re, you’re not- Being with you isn’t a mistake and it never was.”
He tips his head back. His tone was more forceful than he’d wanted, when he longed to be sweet and comforting the same way he could be when things were clear-cut and easy.
That was his moment, and he blew it.
But the thing is, it doesn’t matter how much more he owes Henry; if not bolting is as much as he can do for now, it’ll have to be good enough. Yeah, he knows he can be uncharitable under stress.
“Right. I’m- glad,” Henry says, a small smile curving under the most heartbreaking, unsure look in his eyes. He rubs his own arm, his gaze sinking towards the floor.
Letting his head fall forward, Ryeowook replies, “I mean it,” almost hitting the sweetness he’s aiming for. His fingers curling around Henry’s neck, he tops it off with a quick peck, which seems to be the only thing nowadays that gets Henry’s shoulders down from around his ears when he looks like that. Like it’s all going to fall apart. Or he will.
Guilt churns through Ryeowook’s stomach once more. They’re quiet for a bit. Thankfully. That’s a few more seconds where he can tighten whatever flimsy gauze is holding him together in one piece. He wouldn’t go through this for anyone else, he thinks.
In some small way, he finds that comforting.
“I’m going to get us some water.” He scrambles off the bed without waiting for a response, leaves the room in a hurry. Another second in that tense stew and he would actually explode.
He takes his time getting to the fridge. The two bottles he grabs from the back of the shelf burn uncomfortably cold in his hands, but, again, he’s all too aware that dawdling any further could look like the start of giving up. So it’s on him to set his jaw and get back in there, because god forbid they have to do this twice.
After he hands over the other bottle and takes a swig from his own, twisting the cap on and off gives him the outlet he’s needed for a while now. The bolting impulse grows louder for a moment when he senses that more is coming.
“Hey, there’s one more thing,” Henry says with with an unreadable, almost forced-blank tone.
“Hm?” Ryeowook moves his head forward again, though he can do no more than look in Henry’s direction. This conversation already leaves him feeling both antsy and drained. He didn’t want to be right that there was more coming, fears what could strain him past a new breaking point. He’s so tired. Trying to walk on all this shaky ground is exhausting.
“I was thinking... It’d be easier if we told the rest of the members about us. I think... it would take some of the pressure off you. And it-it’s not like they’re gonna tell anyone, right?” Laughing weakly, Henry holds his hands open in a sort of pleading gesture.
It’s a big ask. Eventually, Ryeowook nods slowly. Thinking through it logically, the way he wasn’t able to before all this, the potential consequences would compel the others to be at least equally cautious. “You’re right, it’s a good idea.” He pauses to prepare for another tough one. “I mean, except Siwon. Don’t tell him.”
When he looks up, he sees Henry grimacing. “No, I guess not, huh.”
Because he’s kind, or not an idiot, Ryeowook spares him his actual thoughts of not wanting to be lectured by that self-hating hypocrite until the end of time. Because he knows how important that friendship is to Henry, he instead gently says, “He wouldn’t understand.”
Turning his head and looking down, Henry nods for a while, haphazardly, as if he doesn’t realize he’s doing it. “No, that’s true, let’s just not rock the boat on that one. It just... sucks.”
Ryeowook nods too, doesn’t have anything to say to that - a state that changes quickly when the fear rears up, squeezing his chest with a vise grip. “Not right away. Okay? I need- a little time to get used to the idea. Especially about talking to the straight ones.”
“Of course!” Smoothing Ryeowook’s hair back, Henry smirks, and it’s devastatingly attractive when that’s not what Ryeowook wants to be thinking about. “I’m not going to, like, drag you to their doorsteps and make you fess up.”
“As if you could make me do anything.”
Henry gives him a defiant look and wiggles his ears between his fingers, the brat. Ryeowook whines and gently smacks him away.
It’s weird. He feels awful and drained and really good and connected, all at the same time. He doesn’t know what to call it. What do you call that? Does that have a name? Intimate seems too light and easy to describe such a jumble.
“Fine, I could do that better myself anyway,” Henry says. He does that wiggling thing with his face, which gets him a tap to his chest because this is so not the time for that. Ryeowook refuses to laugh, even though he wants to, because that’s so him, to do something that silly at a time like this.
Never one to take a hint, Henry smiles all cheeky and says to him, “You wanna know something?”
And Ryeowook has to tamp down his grin, narrowing his eyes suspiciously even as his pursed lips make it really obvious that he’s barely holding back his unaccountable mirth. “What?” He says it as indulgently as he ever has, ruining the façade.
“I think you’re still a little crazy when it comes to me.” With that, Henry pounces.
Ryeowook halfheartedly squirms out of every hold, unable to mount an offensive, Henry getting the upper hand only because he can’t stop laughing at the sheer fact that they’re actually wrestling. He’s let himself be pinned, the pressure on his wrists falling short of painful. They stop there, a frozen moment, eyes locked on each other transmitting a message that can’t be put into words. After long seconds, Henry’s eyes flicker down to his mouth and back.
“It’s too bad,” Ryeowook says, putting on a mask of regret.
His attention diverted, Ryeowook takes advantage of the leverage Henry left open to his legs, rolling them to their sides before flipping them. Their positions nicely reversed, though perhaps a little too easily, Ryeowook pulls up the other man’s calf where it dangled off the bed after that move, straddling his stomach. He looks down with a smirk. “It’s too bad for you that I think you’re right.”
Henry smirks right back at him. “That’s no problem for me.”
For his insolence, Ryeowook steals the victory kiss.
“Sit down already. No one’s keeping score, so you don’t have to cook every time now.” He says it with a teasing expression to take any edge off the blunt sentiment.
“Okay,” Henry says, kissing his cheek before stepping away from the counter.
“What do you want to eat?”
“Actually... I, um,” he rocks on his heels with his hands behind his back, “I wasn’t planning to bring it up, but, I was hoping we could go out? We’ve both been pretty busy, so we haven’t done that in a while...”
Hesitating conveys his feelings quite clearly.
So, too, does the way Henry’s shoulders droop.“...Babe...”
Ryeowook sighs. He can’t help how he feels.
"It’s- I understand your fears. You know I do,” Henry says, not unkindly. “But... you got so scared that it made you paranoid." He frowns, takes Ryeowook’s hands in his. "No one's going to think it's weird if we go out once every other week," he asserts, gently but firmly.
Fuming, nostrils flaring wide, Ryeowook rips his hands away and balls them into fists at his sides. “Paranoid? That’s too extreme!”
“You know what I mean!” Henry pleads, but it doesn’t really register.
“Right, you mean I’m wrong to be cautious! In what world does that make sense?!” Ryeowook regrets his sharp words as soon as he’s said them, but he’s still mad all the same.
Henry squeezes his eyes shut, takes a long breath. “Please. That’s not what I said. Just- forget the word, okay? I...”
“What?” Ryeowook huffs.
“I’m not trying to fight with you. Okay? I just feel,” Henry says slowly, with infuriating calm, “that that contributed to that blowup you had.” He looks off to the side, sticking his entire hands in his pockets. “You don’t need to...”
Ryeowook runs a frustrated hand through his hair, then shakes his head as he lets his palm slide down the back of his head to his neck. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be fighting you either.” Once he realizes how close he got in his anger, he takes a step backwards, looking away as he tries to unclench his jaw. What the hell is he doing?!
He realizes all at once. “It’s embarrassing, because, I think you might be right.” A deep breath clears his head further. That was really bad. He’d gone tense all over and it felt like it just- happened. “Sorry again. I shouldn’t have exploded like that.”
The worst part, he thinks, is that Henry didn’t even yell back at him; he’s going to be thinking about this for a long time yet. The guilt likes to taunt him, almost - Is this why? Are you going to do it again? That went so well last time.
“It’s okay,” Henry half-mumbles with heartbreaking sadness. “I know it’s a sensitive subject for you.” Not surprisingly, he steps back until he finds his way to sitting down at the table.
“That doesn’t excuse it,” Ryeowook finds himself saying into the distance between them, more surprised that he means it. The other man looks at him with a mixture of pride and hope fit to make his heart burst.
“Thank you for saying so.”
Somehow, it feels like there’s so much more left unsaid, but not in a bad way. Maybe that’s what progress feels like. But there’s still the fact that they had to do this in the first place to get stuck on, and who knows how far there is to go.
For the first time, he wonders whether they were both thinking the same thing. Ryeowook closes his eyes for a couple of seconds before shooting Henry a resigned grin. “When did you get so... wise or something?”
Unexpectedly, Henry squirms. “I, uh, picked up this book. A short one,” he strangely reassures him. “I really wasn’t trying to upset you.”
How sweet, Ryeowook thinks, his expression turning soft. “I know.” He smiles and walks forward, rubbing Henry’s shoulder and upper arm. The other man gives him a sad smile.
“I know that what I was doing didn’t work, so I’m trying different things. I think about these things a lot now.”
“A lot?” Ryeowook worries. The guilt prods at him harder. “That doesn’t sound good for you.”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. I promise.” Henry tilts his head far to one side, rubs his cheek against the back of Ryeowook’s hand. His eyes close in the way of pleasure; that tugs at something else, something not yet ready to be unearthed.
With a laugh, Ryeowook concedes. “Okay, fine. You’re too cute, you know.” Henry grins at him.
“Let’s just try it, okay? I promise it’s not dangerous.”
Ryeowook exhales loudly. It’s hard to trust anyone else about this - no matter how many times his friends had told him similarly. But Henry’s clearly thought about this, judging by the fact that he had a specific frequency of going out in mind, and, if he can set aside his fear for a few moments, Ryeowook can see that what his partner is saying makes sense.
Plus, they should have some sort of warning before his nightmare scenario could even possibly come true. There’re enough other eyes on that that someone would catch a hint of it. (Nothing’s ever come of the periodic chatter speculating that he’s gay, after all.) “Okay. But all the other rules still apply, you hear me?” He hopes his shaking isn’t obvious.
Henry bites his bottom lip and smirks. “There’s the bossiness I love.” His tone stirs something that won’t be followed up on for now. But it’s there. Part relief, part playing with fire, or at least, that’s what it feels like when the currents between them churn so much from one day to the next. Heat enough to not know whether to come closer.
Where Ryeowook hesitates, Henry chooses closer as though there was no question, standing confidently, placing his hands on either of Ryeowook’s shoulders, leaning in intimately close, keeping just enough of a gap to talk. “So, where shall we go?”
Judging by the faint flutter he feels in his belly, Ryeowook has to agree that this is the right thing for them to do. So that’s next place they start anew.
Going out on dates isn’t new, though it’s certainly nice to no longer fight over how often to do so. (Yes, even if it was his own fault they were fighting. His pride isn’t about to let him say such a thing out loud.) And he’d be lying if he said there wasn’t a new energy to them. Still, what’s really novel is what comes after.
Not that - something still leaves them mutually stopping short.
He doesn’t have the words for that something, but he can tell that they both respect its presence. Regardless, what they do do afterwards is both go back to his room and close the door, Henry propping the pillows up so he can half sit up and hold Ryeowook close to him.
No lie, even with the practice they’ve already had and their physical closeness relaxing him - and he does luxuriate in it - it takes a lot of coaxing to get Ryeowook to really open up (which he feels a little bad about), but once he does, he talks all on his own for a long time about his fears and worries: about his abilities, his career, his family.
What’s nice is how it gets a little easier each time they talk like this. He particularly likes how Henry doesn’t expect to solve his problems. Not that Ryeowook himself expects that either, by any means - just that it’s a refreshing change of pace from his usual confidants.
During the first part, while it’s not his turn, Henry asks questions that outright sound like they came from a book - “How does that make you feel?” and “What do you plan to do about that?” He says these phrases slowly and precisely, and his grammar’s a little clunky and stiff. At other times, it makes Ryeowook laugh, because what kind of weird experiment is this? In the moment, though, it works, somehow.
That’s one of Henry’s charms, he has to admit.
Unwittingly, he finds himself saving up the first round of discussion outside of his head about a thorny issue for for their next post-date talk. For lack of a better word, it feels safe. He feels safe.
After it’s done, when he does notice, he doesn’t know how he feels about it. Not bad, but... uncertain. The whole thing goes in layers like an onion, except that they sometimes have to go back to the same layers. So maybe it’s not quite like an onion. But kind of.
Some of the hardest, most painful parts are admissions that delve into the mess they’re still untangling, about how easy it would be to fall back into their old patterns, and how terrifying the prospect of ending up back where they were truly is. Wrapping up with lots of enthuastic but tired cuddling and no small number of kisses, at least one of which was, to quote, “seriously, I can show you the page where it says it,” recommended by the mystery book, they often doze off just like this.
Just like they used to when they first started dating and Henry kept pouting at him that he didn’t want to go home. That he wanted to sleep here.
It became an automatic thing, until it wasn’t. And now, it kind of is again. Should they talk about that too? Ryeowook has to wonder, will things ever be easy again? Or perhaps they weren’t actually easy at all, merely silent.
He regrets having taken it for granted when he had it. He misses that time.
But he’s too quick to forget the easy parts when he gets stuck in his head like this - teasing each other mercilessly when they’re out together, holding hands when they watch a movie at home, their whispered reminiscing in bed, finding the perfect comfy spot for him to rest his head, the cute messages to have a good day that wait for him when he does wake up alone. Or that come later when he’s the first to leave.
Speaking of easy, he finds the second half of their talks easier, when Henry’s the one talking out all his emotions; the role is familiar to him, and it sparks in him the protective drive he recalls being overwhelmed by before. He’s eager, even, to get to the part of the evening when they switch.
Could be that easy’s overrated.
Much to his surprise, overall, he feels... better. On the surface, to everyone else outside their huddles, it looks the same, but in private... The changes are palpable. They’re real, and good, and he’s not happy with how angry he was at first.
Oh no. It hits him all at once: he realizes that how he was feeling before was resentful. Despite everything, part of him resented having his feelings dragged out of him like that all the time. Now, he knows that’s not fair - he can see the results, how he doesn’t hoard emotions and let them build up until something goes horribly wrong.
At the oddest times, he finds himself chuckling and shaking his head. He thinks, who discovers such simple things at his age? And keeps that thought to himself.
This time, after the third round of these talks, he’s relieved to be the one who wakes up first. Not that he doesn’t like the gentle touches and forehead kisses he’s been greeted with before, but... he needs a minute or two. So, so carefully, he slips out of Henry’s sleeping hold, the other man unconsciously scooping up a pillow to take his place while he walks out as quietly as he can, gingerly picking up his phone off the nightstand along the way.
He answers a couple of messages on the way, and rests against the doorframe to take care of a few more, just to let his mind clear. Then he scrolls through his feed. Reluctantly, he makes himself put the phone down, faced with something buzzing in his head.
It’s interesting. Or weird. The way Henry looks at him sometimes, like he’s already solved the puzzle and is just waiting for Ryeowook to catch up. What is it that he’s found? Determination? What’s the secret ingredient that makes him able to keep working at this?
Or, even scarier, what makes him so sure that it’s worth it?
Fear stabs sharp into his gut; he wraps his arms around himself. The water running from the faucet feels too loud and runs too long before he snaps out of his daze and turns it off. On top of that, the bathroom door creaks loudly the slower he tries to open it, so he resigns himself to making a regular amount of noise.
For all that Henry’s confident that splitting up won’t solve their problems, Ryeowook finds himself equally unsure that he’s up to the task of sticking it out. None of this comes naturally to him. And he hates feeling like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
But in spite of that... All he needs in order to remember to not freak out and run away from problems is to feel the chipped corner of his phone.
He runs his finger over the jagged texture, and it’s enough to propel him back into the room. Their room. Where he’s got a very important nap to finish with a very important person - one who, whatever the reason, isn’t giving up on him, so he won’t either. Whatever it takes.
On an otherwise uneventful day, Shindong stayed at the dorms after a visit with friends nearby ran late. It was looking to continue being uneventful the next morning, too. Donghae left early, and Heechul was still asleep after a night out. Ryeowook had already made breakfast, and he and Henry were quietly eating at the table until they heard distinctive footsteps coming towards them down the hallway.
Ryeowook prepares to offer him a plate. That doesn’t happen.
For whatever reason, Henry springs up from the table, telling him with a michievous smile, “Go with it.” Before Ryeowook gets a chance to ask anything, Henry pulls him up by his wrist and over to the other side of the counter, right in front of said hallway.
Then, as if that’s not confusing enough, he pulls that mistletoe he likes so much the last few weeks seemingly out of nowhere. Ryeowook is utterly lost. Instead of explaining, Henry just kisses him. He also shakes the mistletoe, making the little kind of round metal things on it jingle, and doesn’t let up either for a good few seconds.
That came out of nowhere! Ryeowook half laughs, befuddled, squeezing Henry’s upper arm a bit where he didn’t realize he’d grabbed it, and finally tears his eyes away.
At first, Shindong only looks bewildered. Then, he turns sharply in the direction of the bathroom, and merely yells, “I got it, you don’t want to go on a blind date!” Following him is what sounds like Heechul’s muffled cursing through his door.
Ryeowook starts giggling. He can’t seem to stop giggling, actually. Turning to Henry for helps gets him the exact opposite - his boyfriend has both hands clamped over his own mouth because he’s snickering so loud.
He looks so pleased with himself, though. Frankly, Ryeowook thinks he should scold him, but doesn’t, because it was... surprisingly a lot of fun. He feels giddy like when the two of them were first sneaking around together. It’s exhilirating!
Having finally stopped snickering, Henry pulls him close - well, mostly stopped, except for one or two last straggling snorts. “Thank you for trusting me,” he murmurs.
All Ryeowook can do is press further into the crook of his neck, words escaping him.
He’s braced for something romantic, corny, even, when Henry pulls back to take his face into his hands, so of course, what his ridiculous boyfriend says is, “Sorry, but I’m still hungry.” And then lets him go without a kiss or anything!
So when he turns to go, Ryeowook smacks his butt. That cuts off the giggles. In fact, since Henry just let out an interested-sounding “Oh!”, he rolls his eyes and goes for a full-on grope.
It doesn’t go as expected - at least consciously, he meant for it to be playful; when Henry reaches back to grab a handful of his top, tug-tugging him closer, the moment becomes heated somehow. From behind, Ryeowook winds his arms around his beloved’s waist, slow as anything. A heightened awareness of Henry’s body bombards every one of his senses.
The other man turns in his arms, throwing his own over Ryeowook’s shoulders, one hand shaping itself over his shoulderblade. When their eyes meet, they speak without words. Ryeowook bites his lip, swallowing hard in the face of such intensity.
Interrupted by the sound of the shower starting, they break apart, sitting back down at the dining room table. One last fleeting up-and-down look is all that he gets to tell they were ever otherwise.
The moment has passed.
So that process has officially gotten started. Since they’d gotten one done, albeit unconventionally, he decides to keep it going so it can all be over with. He says as much over what’s left of breakfast. Henry moves to the chair next to him, his plate clattering unhappily, disturbing Ryeowook’s meal with little kisses to his ear and neck, who giggles with each one and still doesn’t scold him for pulling such a stunt in the first place. As Henry’s hand rubs higher and higher on his thigh beneath the table, too, he forgets that he’d meant to.
It was hard to tell whether Shindong had kept what happened to himself, because Leeteuk, when they came around to telling him, started off very sure and very insistent that it was a prank. That’d piss off anybody, right? (Disproving the notion didn’t strictly require tongue, but it was more fun that way - and Henry didn’t seem to mind either. Ryeowook thinks he understands Heechul’s position a little better now.)
Veracity firmly established, the instant it sinks in, the leader proceeds to turn white as a sheet. Though it’ll come off as embarrassment, Ryeowook desperately looks down at the floor so that he doesn’t burst out laughing. Henry’s hand squeezing his grounds him, makes him feel like everything’s going to be okay.
After Leeteuk mutters something about Heechul and a heart attack, having recovered color to his face, he lets them get away with only a short lecture about safety, one bout of shrieking about “You’ve been together how long?!” following that, and what was quite nearly a chunk of hair gone, looking a lot like he was staving off a headache the entire time.
The remainder were uneventful, at least by comparison, which is as good as he could ask for.
...Okay, the truth is, that's very likely due to the fact that he handled those over the phone. Fewer opportunities for shenanigans or long explanations, more “Gotta go, bye!”
Still, every time he remembers it, it conjures that giddy feeling again, like he just got away with something. Who knew doing this could be fun?
Henry crawls into bed late. Very late. Something about the way he moves is worrying, too.
“Are you okay?” Ryeowook asks, barely above a whisper.
“Mm. No. I... I can’t do it.”
Ryeowook’s heart aches from the dejection he hears in the other’s voice. He tries to blink some of his sleepiness away. “Can’t do what?”
“Ah, I don’t know. Anything. All day, nothing I do goes right.” Sitting at the edge of the bed, Henry slips his shirt off, lets his head fall into his hands.
“It’s okay,” Ryeowook says, sliding his arms over Henry’s, stroking his wrist with the pad of his thumb. The fault line hadn’t run this deep in years; in the back of his mind, a fuzzy thought about the toll everything they’ve been through has taken on the man in his arms pings faintly and slips away. “Everyone has bad days. You’re just tired. You didn’t sleep well last night.”
Henry sighs. “I don’t know...” He lifts his head somewhat, but otherwise remains unmoving. “I guess,” he says at last.
Ryeowook rubs his cheek over the back of Henry’s head, a sleepy sort of comforting. “Trust me, hm? Get some good sleep and you’ll feel better.” He presses his lips to the back of Henry’s neck. “Then you’ll remember how amazing, talented, hardworking and handsome you are,” he rasps, “and tomorrow, you’ll make everyone laugh with your dirty jokes, and it’ll all be okay.”
Though he finally turns around, the darkness hides Henry’s expression beyond the faint shine of his eyes. “I love you,” he says quietly, his voice dull with exhaustion. Now, they simply hold each other.
“Love you too.” Turning into a yawn at the end, the words are more muttered into Henry’s collarbone than anything else; Ryeowook can feel himself dozing off despite his best effort.
“I’ll trust you,” Henry whispers. “Good night.”
They shuffle around until they’ve switched places. One last sloppy peck is all Ryeowook can reach for in this state, then he’s sure he’s about to fall asleep until he’s caught up in a shiver all of a sudden. Behind him, he can feel a worrying amount of bare skin.
“Hold on,” he mumbles. “If you’re gonna sleep like that, I’ll go turn up the heat.”
When he returns, it’s to a brief round of clumsy petting that probably means thanks in sleepy. The faint moonlight hides his smile for him. Instead of laughing, too, it reminds him to keep it to one strong exhale. He gladly takes up his earlier position and lets his eyes fall heavy once he’s there.
In the morning, Henry’s way too happy about Ryeowook inviting him to come along to the gym, but he’s okay with that. Getting to see his beloved back to his usual energetic self is worth giving up anything - yes, even including a few hours of solitude.
A few minutes pass between Ryeowook noticing something’s different and figuring out what it is. “You're awfully happy about having curry for lunch,” he says with a bit of bite.
Strangely, Henry just grins at him. And keeps grinning. For long enough that it gets Ryeowook smiling uncertainly and asking him, “What? Is there something on my face?”
That breaks whatever weird standoff they were having. Henry chuckles. “No, though you're very good looking.” Before Ryeowook can do anything more than mumble his thanks, Henry looks down into his bowl and simply says, cryptically, “Things change.”
He doesn't look unhappy, so Ryeowook lets it drop. It’s one of those areas where he’s improved.
The short phrase jars something loose later, though, when Henry’s insisting on doing the dishes after they're done. It's quiet, just the two of them, surprisingly. Not for the first time, fear bubbles up from Ryeowook's stomach, but it condenses into something he can say for once. "Are you unhappy?"
Henry looks back over his shoulder, confused. "...Why?"
"Well, maybe not now, but you could be in the future...” Putting one of the bowls on the drying rack, Henry turns around to listen. He looks cautious. “You're doing a lot that I used to do," Ryeowook finishes in a soft, despondent voice.
Realization steals over his face, clear as day. "Oh, you're saying because... it used to be all you taking care of me. That’s what you mean, right?” He idly scratches at his side, belying how he just drove a stake into the heart of the problem.
Still, Ryeowook doesn't know why he flinches upon hearing it put like that. He makes an agreeing noise.
"Honesty, right?" As if either of them needs a reminder. Internally, immediately contradicting himself, Ryeowook concedes that maybe he does, and Henry’s helping him save face by making it look mutual.
"...Yeah. Let's be honest." He says it as though every word costs him dearly. He’s not sure it doesn’t; not too long ago, he would’ve gladly kept such a thing to himself and tried to work it out on his own.
Maybe that’s the problem.
"Of course I still want that sometimes, it's just...” Henry runs his hand through hair and sighs. “I guess I’ve been trying to- make up for what I didn’t do.”
“Mhm.” Ryeowook badly wants to jump in, but he holds himself back, only nodding encouragingly. This isn’t his to tell - he has to listen.
“I don’t know, I probably went overboard.” It’s painful to see the self-deprecating smile Henry wears when he says that. However, at the first sign that he’s about to be interrupted, he holds up both hands. “But. How we were before is...” He quickly closes the distance between them. Damp from his hands seeps cold onto Ryeowook’s shoulders through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. Their eyes meet, and it’s almost painful, the sorrow that mixes with a glint of steel, shining determined. “I can't go back to that, knowing how much it hurt you."
That one hits hard. Thinking about him that much, caring about him that much... It's a lot. And it's especially a lot more than Ryeowook thought he'd ever have.
All of a sudden, he wants nothing more than to be taking care of Henry again. That deep desire, relentless and almost forgotten, twists his insides, driving him towards that once more. He's listening, too, though, and he doesn't want to take away from that. It’s just that he's ready for a change after these several weeks. Paradoxically, now that he doesn’t feel like he he’s expected to, he wants to give more than ever, to shift the balance back a bit to show his love the way he craves to do.
"I appreciate that more than I can say," is what he goes with. What can be said in the face of such sweetness? He pauses, wipes his hands on his pants even though he doesn’t think they’re sweaty. Can’t be sure, with the tremors of his heart. "But... I can still spoil you a little, right?"
"If it would make you happy," Henry says carefully, turning a wary, scrutinizing sort of gaze on him. This must really worry him.
"It really, really would,” Ryeowook reassures him. He can’t help but look down for a second, but only that long and no more. Feeling almost nervous, he asks with a grin and a tilt of his head, his eyebrows rising faintly, “How about I treat you to a nice dinner?"
That’s all it takes for Henry to smile back, big and bright and toothy, making his cheeks extra round and cute. It tempts Ryeowook to kiss him. "I'd like that." Henry takes one of Ryeowook’s hands between both of his own, and leans in closer. Everything about him is warm and inviting, and overpoweringly adoring. “I’d really like that.”
Because it’s almost too much to take, Ryeowook rests his head on their joined hands, presses his lips to the base of Henry’s index finger, the closest part he can reach. Inside him, something blooms, something much more than just his plans for where to eat, taking in long-awaited light.
He can’t wait. He hopes, with everything he has, that he’s not the only one.
Dinner was fantastic. At one point, Henry even whined cutely at him, which, wow, if that didn’t inspire all kinds of feelings.
If they hadn't been in public, he could guarantee he would've fed his lover bite by bite for as long as he'd be allowed, he was feeling so indulgent. (Their eyes would’ve locked onto each other the whole time, and- A mild flush creeps its way up his cheeks just thinking about it.)
The parking lot is empty of people but not other cars. Helps that a light drizzle had started up while they were in the restaurant.
He can feel the droplets clinging to his hair from their dash to Henry’s car. Sitting next to him, pulling his seatbelt on, Henry’s no better off; Ryeowook carefully reaches up, telegraphing the motion, to brush a few off of him. Entranced, he can sense the something between them shift. His hand wants to linger, but said something hasn’t quite moved perfectly into place yet, so he puts his hand down.
Henry just smiles at him, with a soft look of unmistakable adoration, like he’s everything, like he’s something precious.
Leaning up, Ryeowook takes another look to confirm the parking lot is empty. It takes him a second to get his bearings because he’s struck by how ridiculously handsome his boyfriend is with his bangs scattered just so across his forehead. Then, he does something that surprises even himself - he places the briefest, lightest kiss onto the curve of Henry’s shoulder.
He giggles into his hands with the last traces of the wild abandon that overtook him. “Okay, okay, I’m never doing that again.” It was too much. Too close to the line. Still, he amazed himself by doing it at all.
When he at last opens his eyes, turns to look, the joy that spreads over the other’s face is indescribable. Henry mouths something that might be ‘It’s okay’. Affection shines through so strongly that Ryeowook almost can’t handle it, even as it propels him forward.
They've clicked back into place together. He can feel them fit around each other. And he knows exactly what he wants.
“Hey, you’ve got your own place now, right?” After he asks, he gives in to the urge to look down towards the floor, only stealing the occasional glance. He wants he wants he wants. He wants so badly his heart’s about to explode with it.
"Yeah?" Henry’s expression from before is now tempered with a cautious hope. It's too much to look at for a second, all sorts of emotions muddling together. But even looking away, the hand sliding across the divider brings hope of its own. It stops just short of touching.
"Um..." Ryeowook only manages a sideways glance, though his smile tugs insistently at the corners of his mouth. He meets the questing hand with the side of his own, his pinkie moving into the space that opens up for it, curling around Henry’s. Asking almost seems unnecessary. "Mind if I spend the night?"
In the morning, he’s pulled back into Henry’s arms as soon as he's snoozed his alarm, all bare skin pressed together, back to chest and legs pleasantly tangled with each other. Everything else can wait five minutes, he decides as he lays his hand over Henry's. He's right where he belongs.
Huge thanks to everyone who's come along on this journey!
I also wrote a prequel: but i guess it shows (when you look into my eyes)
Please check it out! :D