epilogue: contact binary
Myungsoo smells Howon as as soon as he opens the door, and the relief of the familiar scent melts the weariness right out of his body. Their apartment always smells like Howon, of course, but there’s a difference between the memory of him lingering where they live and the scent when he’s actually present. Myungsoo had trudged home from the bus station, his feet heavy and shoulders slouched, but he kicks off his shoes and shrugs off his backpack quickly now, hurrying through the small but tidy living room and down the photograph-lined hallway to the bedroom. He lurches to a stop in the doorway, though, heart beating in his throat.
Howon is on the bed, back propped up against a pile of pillows, barefoot and wearing just a ratty tank and a pair of old sweats, his glasses on and his hair drying into cowlicks. He looks up from his ipad, tugging his earbuds out of his ears, and smiles slow and wide at Myungsoo, and Myungsoo rushes forward, clambering up onto the bed and collapsing right on top of his mate.
“Oof—Myungsoo! You’re like a dog that doesn’t know it isn’t a puppy anymore!” Howon huffs, but Myungsoo just hmms happily in response, burying his nose in Howon’s chest and breathing deep. This isn’t the most comfortable position in the world—one of Howon’s knees is digging into Myungsoo’s side and his back is bowed more than he’d really like—but he doesn’t care. He wants to be touching as much of Howon as he possible can, to feel his mate’s heat and strength and hereness seep into his own body. He wriggles his arms under Howon’s back till he can wrap them completely around Howon’s torso and then lets out a sigh of contentment. This. This is what he’s been missing for—
“You act like you haven’t seen me in months,” Howon says, amusement tinging his voice, but his fingers are already sliding into Myungsoo’s hair, scratching lightly against his scalp and making Myungsoo shiver with pleasure. “It’s only been a few days.”
Myungsoo cranes his neck back just far enough that he can give Howon a scornful look. The position hurts, but it’s worth it. “Four days,” he spits out balefully. “Four days.”
Howon throws back his head and laughs at that, all shining white canines, and Myungsoo wonders, not for the first time, just how the stylist noonas can get his teeth that white. But it’s not a question he cares enough to pursue at the moment, and he drops his head back down onto Howon’s chest, relieving his neck. “I missed you,” he mutters into the soft cotton of Howon’s t-shirt. It smells like fresh laundry, and Howon’s skin underneath has the clean scent of his bodywash, and underneath it all is Howon himself.
“I missed you, too,” Howon says, the grin still evident in his voice. “I wasn’t sure you were going to come home tonight.”
“Me? I’m not the one who’s been in the practice room for four nights straight.”
“Comeback is next week,” Howon reminds him, like he could forget, with a new piercing shining from Howon’s cartilage and the lighter streaks in his dark hair. Comebacks mean new hairstyles and new choreo and Howon sometimes not coming home at night. Of course, they also mean Howon high and fierce on post-performance adrenaline and Howon dragging Myungsoo to the practice room in the middle of the night to show him the new choreo alone. There are upsides to everything. “It wouldn’t be the first time you stayed in the darkroom all night. And your project is due next week, too.”
Myungsoo had thought about sleeping on the sofa in the photography department instead of dragging himself all the way back home—he had thought Howon would be gone again and he was so tired and miserable at the thought of an empty bed. But he isn’t tired anymore. Just content.
“I almost did. You didn’t tell me you were coming home.” He jabs a finger into the space between Howon’s ribs to display his displeasure.
“I barely managed to talk the managers into letting me leave. I had to play the whole ‘I’m feeling faint because I haven’t seen my mate in days’ card.”
Myungsoo hmphs; there are definitely advantages to being mated. “How long have you been home?”
“‘Bout an hour.”
“Why weren’t you sleeping?” Myungsoo doesn’t have to ask if he’s tired. He knows he is. That’s another thing comebacks mean: next to no sleep, and Howon’s face turning smeared or haggard. Myungsoo hates it, but, as Howon reminds him, it’s the job. And one day he’ll be able to set his own terms, if he works hard enough now.
“I was waiting for you,” Howon says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, and okay, so Myungsoo had known the answer already. He just likes hearing Howon say it. It still makes him go warm all over, his insides fuzzy with happiness.
“What if I didn’t come home?” Myungsoo demands. Tired of the way this position is bowing his back, he wiggles himself lower till he’s laying on top of Howon’s legs and can press his nose against Howon’s bellybutton through the cotton of his shirt. Howon’s legs aren’t as comfortable as the mattress, but at least he’s laying mostly flat now.
“I would have texted you, dumbass.”
“What makes you think I’d come just because you texted? What if I stayed on campus anyway?”
“Never happen,” Howon says, sounding way too smug for Myungsoo’s liking. “You always come running when I call. You’re easy that way.”
It’s completely true, and only more so now that Howon’s group is taking off and he’s so in demand; they have less time together than ever, and Myungsoo has learned to drop everything except classes themselves (well, sometimes classes themselves. But not enough to affect his grades) to hurry to Howon whenever he has free time. Myungsoo isn’t ashamed of it, either: Howon may be able to play cool better than he can, but he’s the one doing the calling, and he’s always as happy to see Myungsoo as Myungsoo is to see him, even if he doesn’t show it as visibly. It seems like decades ago instead of just five years that they were first mated and Myungsoo was insecure about everything having to do with their mating. Now he’s so secure in Howon’s love that he never feels ashamed of showing his own.
But that doesn’t mean he’ll let Howon get away with saying things like that. He reaches up and slides his hands under the hem of Howon’s shirt, grabbing onto the flesh between his ribcage and hipbones on both sides—there isn’t much to grab; Howon is all muscle, it seems—and pinches hard.
“Ow! Okay, fine! I’m easy for you, too!”
Myungsoo’s mouth curves in pleasure. “That’s what I thought.”
He doesn’t have to lift his head to know that Howon is shaking his head at him. “How’s it going, though? Your project?”
Myungsoo considers this carefully. “I’m happy with the shots I’ve taken. I think it’ll be finished in time.”
“Let me see it.”
“I want to see what you’ve got so far.”
Myungsoo loves that Howon always wants to look at any and all of his pictures, loves showing them to him. But right now the thought of getting up to get his album out of his backpack is too much for him. “It’s in my bag,” he says, making a vague gesture in the direction of the living room.
“You are the laziest ass I’ve ever met in my life. You’ve what, been standing in the darkroom all day developing pictures? Poor baby.”
“But I’m tired,” Myungsoo whines. It doesn’t sound that exhausting when you put it like that, but he’s been running on three or four hours of sleep for the last week or two, trying to make his project the best it can be and keep up in all his other classes too, and he really needs his eight hours a night. He doesn’t know how Howon survives on so little sleep over such extended periods of time. He doesn’t think he could ever do it.
“At least you don’t have to work on top of all of that,” Sungyeol had said unsympathetically this afternoon when Myungsoo had made himself take a break and stumbled, blinking, out of the darkroom and across campus to the coffee shop where Sungyeol is a part-timer. Sungyeol had made Myungsoo an iced coffee without Myungsoo having to order it and slapped it down on the table just inches from Myungsoo’s face, startling Myungsoo out of his whining about how much work he had to do. “Some of us don’t have sugar daddies to pay our rent.”
“I bet Minyoung wouldn’t mind if you got a sugar daddy to pay your rent. I bet she’d like to watch,” Myungsoo had shot back in revenge for the splatters of condensation that ended up on his face. He sat up and took a sip of his drink, smirking around his straw as he watched the flush rise in Sungyeol’s cheeks.
“Ya, Kim Myungsoo!”
“How does she put up your whining anyway? Does she gag you?”
“What did you just say? My whining?”
“‘Oh, poor me, I have classes and I’m starring in three plays at one time and I actually have to work, too, in a coffee shop of all places! It’s so terrible even though I once described it as as close to paradise as you can get without sex!’” Myungsoo’s impression of Sungyeol is really bad, but he gets great enjoyment out of performing it.
“That was back when I could actually drink coffee, you jackass! Now it’s like if you worked in a camera store and never got to take a single picture! It’s miserable!”
“It’s your own fault you drank so much coffee it started affecting your heart. Who knew it was even possible to o.d. on coffee?”
“It’s a very common—”
“I’m going back to the darkroom. Tell me what Minyoung thinks of your sugar daddy idea. Oh, and next time you see Howon, make sure to let him know you call him that. I’m sure he’ll love the nickname.”
The visit with his best friend, short as it was, had given him a small surge of energy—or maybe that was the coffee. Either way, he’d worked steadily, only taking another break to eat a cup of ramyun, and by the time he knew the last bus on his line was about to run, he was exhausted enough that he almost didn’t think it was worth it to trek back home.
A hand smacks hard against his ass, jarring him out of his thoughts. “Kim Myungsoo, I have been dancing for four days straight. My hips will probably snap in half if I even try to stand, and I don’t think I have feet anymore, just bloody stumps. You aren’t seriously so lazy you’re going to make me walk out there myself, are you?”
Howon is really cute when he’s trying to sound stern. Groaning, Myungsoo pushes himself up so that he can crawl forward and kiss his mate. He almost moans with relief at the feeling of Howon’s lips against his. Three days is much too long to go without kisses. Kisses should be every day. Five years of them, and Myungsoo is still as addicted as he was the first time Howon’s lips touched his.
“I’m only doing this because I love you, you know. Anyone else, I wouldn’t do this for,” Myungsoo says, pulling back and crawling backwards off the bed so he can see Howon’s smirk. Howon’s face always looks even better to his eyes when he hasn’t seen it for several days.
“Oh, yeah, walking halfway across our tiny apartment. Such a touching proof of your eternal love.”
Since he had to get up anyway, Myungsoo figures it can’t hurt to hurry—besides, he wants to get back to Howon as soon as possible. Every moment away from him seems like a waste these days. So he gets to his backpack and back much faster than his personality usually allows for.
“Oh, Sungjong had lunch with me and Gyu-hyung today,” Howon says when he hears Myungsoo’s footsteps outside the door. “It was really good to see him.”
“By ‘had lunch’ you mean that Sungjong brought you takeout and the three of you stood around stuffing it in your mouths and trying to have a conversation at the same time in the fifteen minute break you had?” Myungsoo says, voice wry, as he climbs back onto the bed and jerks Howon’s legs apart so he can settle himself between them, leaning back against Howon’s chest. He tucks Howon’s arms around his waist like a seatbelt even though Howon probably would have put them there anyway.
“There wasn’t any time for more,” Howon concedes. “Sunggyu’s finishing up writing the songs for his new album—he has a comeback right after ours—and is filming like three different variety shows right now.”
“Who would have ever thought our grumpy rockstar hyung would be a variety star?” Myungsoo muses, shifting the album in his lap. “His music may be indie but he’s surprisingly good at the playing the idol game.”
“Woohyun claims full credit. He keeps calling himself ‘Nam-trainer’ and saying he taught Sunggyu everything he knows. It’s really disgusting. He’s got to be the most annoying manager anyone ever had. But I think hyung enjoys the variety shows more than he lets on. He likes being the maknae for once instead of a solo artist.”
“If you tell him that, he’ll protest all over the place.”
“Yeah, Sungjong said it and he went all stammery defensive.”
Myungsoo grins at the thought of Sunggyu holding up his hands in protest and looking more like a hamster than usual. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. Or Woohyun either. But oh, I forgot—Dongwoo-hyung wants to know next time you have a free night so he and noona can have us all over for dinner.”
“When did you talk to him?”
“Yesterday. I stopped by their studio on the way home. It’s doing really well—they have more people asking for dancing and vocal lessons than they can actually teach. Yejin-noona said something about hiring some more instructors.”
“And Sunggyu-hyung is getting to write songs of his own with Jongwan-sunbae and Sungjong’s at the top of every one of his classes.”
“We’re all happy,” Myungsoo says, grinning and letting his head rest on Howon’s shoulder. All the people he cares about, all his best friends. And his family too—Moonsoo’s doing well in his international business studies, his parents are well, and Howon’s mom has become good friends with Myungsoo’s and has opened a small craft supply store. She’s flourishing, selling origami paper and brightly colored knitting yarn and having friends for the first time in a long time. Myungsoo doesn’t think he can ask for much more than what he has.
Life isn’t perfect—all of them work too hard, getting themselves established or keeping up their grades, and none of them get enough sleep or are free to see each other as much as they’d like. But they’re all doing what they want to do, and that makes a difference.
“Okay,” Howon says, nudging Myungsoo with his shoulder. “Show me.”
Myungsoo is doing what he wants to do, too; his senior project is a real challenge but exactly the kind of thing he wants to be doing. His professor had warned him that it might be difficult, and she wasn’t wrong. The other students in the class had easy access to the subjects and models they chose to focus on, but for Myungsoo, it’s taken a lot of doing to get his pictures taken. But now, turning the pages so that Howon can see the ones he’s completed, he knows it’s worth it.
Shattering Stereotypes is the working title, though he’s trying to come up with something more poetic before he turns it in. A title worthy of his subjects—alphas and betas and omegas who have defied their reproductive roles and pursued careers or lifestyles that people didn’t expect for them. There’s the stay-at-home-dad alpha, cradling his baby and looking so tender that it makes Myungsoo’s heart ache to look at the shot. The charismatic MC who overcame prejudice against ‘bland betas’ and has become the nation’s favorite—it had taken Myungsoo a while to get access to him, but once the MC heard what Myungsoo’s project topic was, he’d been eager to participate, and his wide, easy grin staring up from the photograph is everything Myungsoo had hoped it would be. The superstar omega, a beautiful and fierce rapper in an idol group, had actually been easier for Myungsoo to get in touch with—she’s friends with one of Howon’s bandmates and had been very kind to Myungsoo when they met.
“With most photographers, I feel like they want me to prove that I’m more than an omega,” she had said. “Like that I’m exceeding my omega status.” Her smile was soft and wistful, unlike the haughty look she always wears onstage. “But I’m not ashamed of being an omega. If you can show that...that would be amazing.” Maybe Myungsoo is proudest of that picture, of the vulnerability she’d let him see, let his camera show the world.
But he’s proud of all of them. His favorite professor always talks about how art should help someone see the extraordinary in the ordinary—or the ordinary in the extraordinary. Myungsoo kind of feels like in this series of pictures, he’s managed to do both.
Howon doesn’t say much as Myungsoo flips through the pages, and when he’s seen the last picture, he’s quiet for a moment. “How many of them do you get to display?”
“The gallery space has room for twelve.” A thrill sparkles through his veins at the thought: his pictures in a real gallery. Not the student one on campus, but a real one, run by a friend of his professor who opens it to the most promising graduating students for their final projects to be displayed. The pictures are even offered for sale. Someone could buy one of his photographs, put it on their wall and make it part of their home. When Myungsoo thinks of that, he thinks he must feel how Howon feels when he thinks of being onstage.
“It’s going to be hard to narrow down.”
Myungsoo snorts. “You’re telling me.” He had picked fifteen subjects, and has multiple good shots of all of them. Even as he’s developed them all multiple times, experimenting with color and black and white and saturation, he’s agonized over which ones to choose. Which ones communicate the most, which ones show off his skills. Which ones will be most likely to help him prove that he can be a real photographer, not just a promising student. Which ones will look best in his portfolio as he looks for jobs after graduation.
“I think there’s something missing, though.”
Myungsoo’s head whips around, face creasing in confusion. “What?”
Howon narrows his eyes and purses his lips for a moment. Then: “Tell Dongwoo-hyung we can come over Friday night. And make sure Sungyeol and Sungjong bring Minyoung and Minha.”
That’s a change of subject. “You’re off on Friday?”
“I will be.”
“But you said you might not have a whole night off until after the comeback. Because you made them agree to let you take off the night of my showing.” Howon hadn’t hesitated for a moment in promising to be there the whole night. Are you kidding me? This is the biggest night of your career so far. I’m going to be there for the whole thing. I’m going to see you sell your first picture. If the company doesn’t like it, they can cancel my contract. Not that they ever would. But it was still nice to hear Howon say it.
“This is important. I’ll get one more night off.”
Myungsoo isn’t sure how Howon’s going to do that, but he knows that as leader of his trend-dol group, he has some pull with management. Howon has made himself indispensable at Woollim, has proved that he’s worth every concession the company has to make to his mating status, has almost single-handedly dragged the group into public consciousness and established them as a force to be reckoned with. He doesn’t have the agency and power over his own career that he’s aiming for, but he’s getting there. A little at a time.
“Okay, I’ll call him in the morning. But what does that have to do with my project?”
“The thing that’s missing. It’s a picture of all of us.”
It takes a moment for that to connect, and then it’s like everything is clicking into place: which shots and subjects he should choose, where to place them and how to light them. His whole project, clear and complete in his mind. And the centerpiece, a group shot of them and their friends, alphas and betas and omegas who love each other and ignore any stereotypes and biases and expectations about reproductive roles and are just themselves.
Myungsoo puts the album down carefully on the bedside table and then flips around so that he’s straddling Howon’s legs, looking down at him. “That’s perfect.”
Howon’s hands glide up Myungsoo’s bare arms, raising goosebumps in their wake. The look in his eyes makes Myungsoo go hot all over. “Your whole project will be perfect.”
Myungsoo rocks forward, pressing his forehead against Howon’s. “I watched your practice video again earlier. For the new single. You were perfect.”
Howon tilts his head up till his breath is fanning against Myungsoo’s lips, his hands falling to Myungsoo’s waist. “We’re a pretty fucking perfect couple.” Howon drags his lips across Myungsoo’s cheekbone, down his jaw and to his throat, making Myungsoo’s breath hitch. “You smell like developing fluid.”
“Yeah. Does it get you hot?” It’s totally ridiculous—after all these years, the smell of those chemicals still sends Howon right back to their mating. Myungsoo can’t say that he minds that the smell he takes on as a necessary part of his vocation turns his mate on.
But he pulls back suddenly, a wicked grin on his face. “Wait—you said your hips were going to snap if you even walked on them, I guess that means I should take it easy on you tonight and—”
“Trust me,” Howon cuts him off, teeth nipping at Myungsoo’s Adam’s apple. “My hips are fine.”
Myungsoo ducks his head down to capture Howon’s lips again, and, yes, this is what he’s needed for the past three days. This is what Howon’s been needing, too, Myungsoo knows it. He remembers what Howon had said back in that hotel room the night before his first tryout for Woollim: ...even if they make me practice for fifteen hours without stopping or they yell at me or make me do embarrassing things on TV or whatever...after that I get to come home to you. I get to come home to you, and you’ll make me forget about every awful thing in the whole fucking world.
They’ve had prices to pay in exchange for chasing down their dreams. Some nights when Howon gets back from practicing or filming or performing, he’s so tired he can barely make it to the bed. Some days, when they haven’t seen in each other for more than a few minutes in far too long, Myungsoo is cranky in his yearning for Howon, and it’s not hormones, just him missing his mate. But no matter what, when they finally get home together, even if all they can do is see each other or touch each other or hear each other’s voice, it’s enough.
It’ll always be enough.
Myungsoo gets the highest mark in his class for his final project, and he sells several pictures that night. But the first one he sells is of seven guys and three girls crowded into a frame, hanging all over each other and making stupid faces or wearing huge grins, chaotic and messy and warm. “We look like a pile of puppies,” Sunggyu says, trying to sound disgusted, but he can’t keep the grin off of his face. Everyone at the showing reacts that way when they see that picture—wide smiles. Some of the other pictures in Myungsoo’s collection make them tear up or laugh or think deeply. But that one, the one titled Family Doesn’t Care What You Are, Only Who You Are, makes people happy.
Of course every single person in the picture wants a copy, so one ends up on the wall of Dongwoo and Yejin’s studio, on Sungjong’s bedside table, in Woohyun’s wallet, as Sungyeol’s phone’s wallpaper. But the original, the one Myungsoo sold, hangs by the register in a little craft shop in their hometown, and Myungsoo’s mother-in-law tells him that it makes everyone who sees it smile.
“They don’t even know your story,” she says with a smile of her own, and she smiles often now, especially when she sees her son performing on television or when Myungsoo sends her snapshots. “They don’t even know that you’re all different roles and don’t care. But they know love when they see it.”
Myungsoo looks at Howon’s hand resting on his waist, at his own crinkled-faced smile, at Howon’s teeth-baring grin, and he knows it when he sees it, too.