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celestial mechanics

Chapter Text

…and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty which is, of course, a garden, which is
a tenderness, which is a room, a lover saying Hold me
tight, it's getting cold. We have not touched the stars,
nor are we forgiven, which brings us back
to the hero's shoulders and the gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence, but despite
the abundance of it.

- Richard Siken, 'Snow and Dirty Rain'

--

 

If you’d asked Myungsoo before everything what he thought of Lee Howon, he would have tilted his head to the side and after a moment of thought said that Lee Howon was exactly what you pictured when you thought of an alpha. He was strong, and handsome, and he even had sharply pointed canines that sometimes made his smile look more wolfish than an omega like Myungsoo was really comfortable with. And he seemed to be good at everything. He did well enough to please parents in all of his classes, and though he didn’t play on any sports teams, he could have—he was always one of the best players in whatever they did in gym class. And everyone knew he was one of the best dancers in the city—lots of students spent more time sneaking into clubs to sigh over his moves than they did studying. And while he had a sharp tongue that sometimes got him scolded by teachers, he was a nice guy, too. Everything an alpha should be.

 

(If Sungyeol was around when you asked this question, as he most likely would be, he would interrupt Myungsoo to point out that he’s buying into stereotypes—that alphas aren’t really all that much better at things than everybody else, even if they are usually bigger and stronger, which is just selective breeding, and that it’s just alpha privilege that over the millennia has become so embedded in human society that people just assume alphas are better at things than anyone else. And he would add, quite emphatically, that betas are not boring. At all.)

 

But Myungsoo didn’t really think much about Lee Howon, and not just because he didn’t really know him—he didn’t think much about any alpha. Which wasn’t exactly expected for an omega; the rest he knew liked to bend their heads close to each other during study hall and whisper about which alpha they’d most like to have nearby when their heat came over them, like mating with an alpha was a sure thing. Betas would step in if there wasn’t an alpha around, of course, and with there being more betas than alphas, it was actually more likely that they’d end up with a beta, but everybody glared at Myungsoo when he brought that up, so he’d stopped bothering long ago—no need to stick out even more when they already thought he was weird because he didn’t seem to think much about his future mate at all.

 

But that—the not thinking about his future mate—was because he had a plan. Well, Sungyeol had really been the one to come up with it, shortly after they were both tested and Myungsoo saw the word omega printed on the little yellow card, but it was Myungsoo’s now. The omegas in his family always presented late, their first heat coming on them in their early- to mid-twenties instead of during their adolescence, and that gave Myungsoo plenty of time. The plan was really very simple: the omegas in Myungsoo’s family were almost always summer-heaters, which worked out perfectly, especially if he used the Pill to schedule it. The two of them could go to university—they hadn’t quite settled on which one yet, because they needed to find one with a really good photography department and the best drama department possible, but they weren’t too concerned about choosing yet anyway—and share a dorm room, and then Myungsoo could go spend his summers with Sungyeol’s grandparents in their cozy little house in the middle of nowhere in Gangwon. He’d be far enough away from any betas or omegas that he would be safe, and Sungyeol’s grandparents were both too old to be affected by the pheromones, and they wouldn’t embarrass Myungsoo about his heat. And after the summer was over, he’d come back to Seoul—they’d definitely decided to go to school there, at least—and carry on with his normal life. And then once they graduated, Myungsoo could get his army exemption and go straight to work, and heat leave was available annually until he found someone he wanted to mate with—someone he was in love with. Sungyeol would come back from the army and they'd room together till one of them got married or mated, and even after that they'd live close together and be best friends forever. It would all work out.

 

It wasn’t the exact future Myungsoo would want if he got to choose each detail; he liked lots of alone time and quiet places, so he didn’t so much mind the middle of nowhere part of the Gangwon section of the plan, but if he could, he’d want Sungyeol there with him, and that just wasn’t possible if they didn’t want to risk mating. There were always the hormone suppressants, of course, but the effectiveness rate was only 90%, and that one-in-ten chance was just way too high for comfort. Myungsoo had often had the thought that it wouldn’t be bad at all being mated to Sungyeol, that he’d probably prefer it to anyone else he knew, but he knew that wasn’t fair to Sungyeol. They weren’t in love, after all, and for all Sungyeol’s bluntness and porn-watching, he knew Sungyeol would only want to bond with someone he was in love with. So Myungsoo never pushed the issue, and when he thought about the future at all, which he rarely did, he had a digital-clear picture in his mind: summers spent taking lots of photographs of the Gangwon scenery and Skyping with Sungyeol every night and enjoying the break from university. That didn't sound bad at all. Besides, Sungyeol said his grandma was a fantastic cook.

 

It was as close to perfect as a plan could be. Which is to say: not quite. And it was the not-quite-ness of it that tripped up everything in the end.

Chapter Text

I: Apoapsis

 

The popular belief around school is that Howon had gotten permission to use the old gym for dance practice in the afternoons because he was an alpha and he’d intimidated Mr. Cha, the vice-principal, who’s widely known to have an inferiority complex about his beta status. That isn’t true at all—the school has an unwritten policy of allowing students to use any facilities they request for any approved activity, provided the room isn’t already in use by a school-sponsored club or team, and Howon had simply been the first one to ask during his second year. But Howon doesn’t bother to correct the rumor, because he doesn’t much care about rumors at all (well, except for the time in middle school that he’d beaten some kid bloody for saying that he’d peeked while they were in the bathroom and discovered that Sungjong was really a girl. Sungjong had been furious, but not at the rumor-starter—“I don’t care what that loser says, hyung! If you get in another fight over something so stupid I’ll never speak to you again.”—and after that, Howon merely sets his teeth whenever anything negative is said about Sungjong).

Besides, the rumors never last long, because something else to talk about always pops up immediately, usually a lot more interesting than anything that's said about Howon—like how some presumed beta who hadn’t ever bothered to be tested had ended up being a late-presenting omega and ended up costing an entertainment company millions in wasted training costs when her new mate insisted she quit immediately, how someone’s older sibling was pregnant and would be dropping out of university, how someone had a cousin in another province who had gone into heat in the middle of his chemistry class and a bloodbath had resulted, how some kid at their rival school from a long line of alphas had found out that she was a beta and jumped off the school roof, that sort of thing. Really, nothing Howon did could even begin to compete with those sorts of rumors, and so he spends many of his evenings practicing without anyone much caring.

 

Howon likes practicing in the old gym. Yeah, it smells like mildew and the floor isn’t exactly the most well-maintained and the acoustics are weird and it’s always at least ten degrees on the hot side of pleasant, but it’s private and it means he doesn’t have to practice in an alley somewhere or spend all his money renting an noraebang. The school has been using it as a storage room, but it’s easy to kick aside enough old boxes of student files waiting to be scanned into the computer and haul broken chairs to the far corners of the room to clear a space big enough to practice in. Now that he has a consistent space to work in, he feels like he’s making real progress. The other dancers at the clubs he frequents have asked him to join their groups, but he has bigger things in mind, and he’s sure that he’s nearing the point where he can start to make them a reality. And so he takes every opportunity he can to practice.

 

Later, he’ll wonder how things would have turned out for him if he hadn’t left his English book in his locker that Friday, or if he’d just decided to blow it off and try to finish his homework during lunch the following Monday instead of going back for it. But he does go back for it after he shuts off the battered boom box and locks the door to the old gym behind him.

 

Howon has always liked walking through the school when it feels empty. He knows there are students studying in some of the classrooms and he’s pretty sure the manga club has a meeting this afternoon, but they are all quiet or in different parts of the building, and it’s easy enough to pretend that he’s completely alone. His shoes squeak against the floor as he walks by the long rows of lockers, the sweat from practice drying on his skin in the pleasantly cool hallway, his uniform jacket tossed over his shoulder. After the loudness of the music he’d been practicing to, the hum of the lights hovers insect-like in the back of his head.

 

He’s spinning the dial on his locker when his shoulders start to twitch, his nose itching with a scent that seems familiar even if he can’t place it. He shrugs, swinging the door open so that it makes a metallic clang when it hits the locker beside it, digging out his English book with one hand and using the other to keep a pile of old papers and his physics notebook from falling out onto his head. It’s when he stows his book in his bag that he realizes his head is buzzing with…something and that the smell is growing more intense.

 

Howon is not really the curious type; he mostly minds his own business and expects others to do the same. But there’s something about that scent, and he’s started sweating again, which doesn’t make any sense, since he knows the hallway is too cool for that. He slams his locker closed, hoping the sound will jolt him out of the funk that seems to be thickening around him, but the noise seems strangely muted. His skin feels a little weird, too—too tight, maybe, and definitely hot.

 

It’s as much the weird energy surging through him that makes him follow the scent to the art room down the hall as it is the itching question of what that smell is. Usually after a really good dance practice, as today’s had been, he feels the tingles of adrenaline dying down and the pleasant burn of his muscles, but this is different, insistent, tugging at his gut and at his feet and keeping him walking forward and—

 

He opens the door without actually thinking about it and something—hot and churning and, yes, insistent—surges up through him, filling every hollow space inside him, right down to his fingers and toes, and he can feel it sloshing around in his brain and—

 

When he finally clears his head enough to be aware of anything other than the strange energy inside him, the first thing he notices is the breathing. Deep, raspy, desperate-edged breathing that’s so much more intense than regular breathing, even after exertion, that it takes Howon a few seconds to figure out what it actually is.

 

A suspicion bobs in whatever it is that’s filling up his brain, but he can’t quite get a handle on it, not with that overpowering smell—and not with the way his body feels like it’s being pulled towards something, caught in the magnet pull of an opposite pole.

 

He isn’t even aware of it when he drops his bag, doesn’t feel the jacket sliding off of his shoulder, doesn’t notice his own feet moving forward. But then another smell—sharp, chemical, higher notes than the muskier one it mingles with—fills his lungs and he rounds the corner and is actually in the room and there’s a boy.

 

It’s the boy who’s breathing so heavily, so heavily it sounds like his lungs are being shredded. He’s standing in front of a door to a small room with no light, and somehow the illumination of the fluorescent bulbs in this room make him stand out against the dark rectangle like he was painted there, the white of his shirt so white it almost hurts Howon’s eyes, the dark blue creases in his uniform pants so distinct Howon thinks they would cut the hand of anyone who touched them, his lightly tanned skin burnished like marble. But if the colors are too vivid, the rest of him seemed edged in haze. His dark hair is mussed, the texture around his hairline and neck where he’s sweating contrasting with the straightness of the rest of his hair. His hands are shaking, and a button is missing from his shirt where it looks like it’s been ripped open, revealing the skin of his chest, slick with sweat. His face is blotchy, too red, too slack in places and too tense in others, and his bottom lip is trembling like a child’s does when he’s trying not to cry. His hips are—fuck—moving in a way that would make even Howon, who isn’t the delicate type and knows more than a bit about the movement of hips, blush to see if his cheeks weren’t already scarlet with heat.

 

And his eyes—he’s staring right at Howon, and it makes Howon want to roar—he isn’t sure how it’s possible, for fear and desperation to shine in someone’s eyes like that at the same time, but that's what's burning in those wide, dark eyes. His eyes.

 

Howon stands there and stares back for a long, long moment. He’s vaguely aware that he knows this boy, that they'd been in class together last year, though the boy sat in the back with a tall boy who talked a lot while Howon sat in the front. He knows this boy’s name, he’s sure he does, even if they’ve probably never said much to each other before. But for some reason he can’t think of what it is.

 

He can’t think of anything, really, not anything at all but the way the boy’s pants cling to his thighs and the sweat-slick skin where his shirt gapes open and the pink of his tongue swiping at his lips and the movement of his hips. And somewhere, echoing very distantly in the roar that is filling his head, Howon knows exactly what’s going on.

 

Howon doesn’t know how long it is before the boy’s mouth drops open even wider and he whispers, harsh, short in the space between his wrenching breaths, “Please.”

 

It’s the fear in the boy’s eyes that gives Howon the kick he needs to wrench his thoughts back into his own control for just a moment, long enough to be horrified at what he knows is about to happen. Long enough to whisper back, his own voice huskier than he remembers it ever being: “I’m sorry.”

 

And then he’s across the room.

 

 

 

 

 

That rasping, heavy breathing is so hot on Howon’s skin that he’s sure the heat of it will melt through him. He can feel it so vividly, feel it like he feels the jut of the boy’s hipbone in one of his hands, the texture of the boy’s hair in the other, the hardness of the length of his body against Howon’s own. The way he can taste the boy’s salty skin under his tongue as he sucks—practically gnaws—on the boy’s neck, and fuck, nothing has ever tasted so good in his whole life. Howon digs his fingers harder into the boy’s waist, squirming them under his shirt to feel smooth, hot skin, and the boy makes this whining noise low in his throat that Howon feels like a jolt through his whole body. The boy is rubbing himself against Howon’s leg as Howon’s mouth drags down to the boy’s collarbones, and it’s the feeling of it that makes Howon realize that he’s hard, too—hard, harder than he’s ever been.

 

It’s—so much. It’s never been like this with Hyorin. Their fooling around is great, fantastic even, good for both of them and something to look forward to. It’s easy to get caught up in the taste of her mouth, the weight of her breasts in his hands, the roll of her body against his. That’s why they keep going back to each other—neither of them want anything like love or romance now, but they like each other, enjoy each other’s company, and the sex is great. They can get each other off in her bedroom when her mom runs to the market; then, still grinning and tingling in the aftermath, pull their clothes on and joke around over literature homework or Howon can even leave right away. No matter what, there’s never any awkwardness. Dongwoo sometimes refers to Hyorin as ‘Howon’s girlfriend,’ but that isn’t quite right. They aren’t committed or anything, and that’s the way they both like it.

 

As great as they are together, Howon has always suspected that it might be even better with someone he was in love with—but he’s always told himself that he has plenty of time to find that out later. That makes sense—that the emotions would heighten the whole experience, make it even better because it’s about unity of hearts and not just bodies.

 

But this—he doesn’t even know this boy. He can’t ever remember speaking two words to him despite them having been in school together since Howon moved here at the beginning of middle school. So how can it be this much more than it ever has been with Hyorin? How can the little gasping, whining sounds this boy makes make him feel like his head is going to explode with need?

 

It’s the heat. He knows it’s the heat. This boy is an omega—Howon had known that, just like he knows the status of all the other students who have been tested or already presented—and he’s entered his heat for the first time and is giving off those pheromones they always hear long lectures about, and Howon is an alpha, he couldn’t have resisted the call this boy’s body is giving off if he wanted to. And he would have wanted to, because this is mating. This is forever. He doesn’t even know this boy and yet—

 

All of this is floating vague and unformed around the edges of Howon’s mind while the rest of it is full of heat and musthavemusthavemusthave. He’ll catch onto a real thought for a moment, then it will be buffeted away by the churning of lust, and the way the boy feels and smells and tastes is all Howon knows.

 

Somehow he ends up pulling the boy down onto the ground, barely aware of a dampness on the floor soaking into the knee of his pants and the more intense smell of chemicals down here, nor does he even hear the clatter as a kick of one of the boy’s feet sends a plastic canister rolling away to bang into the leg of a chair. Howon’s too busy with peeling the boy out of his shirt and running his mouth and tongue over the boy’s torso while the boy’s fingers dig into Howon’s hair, his shoulders, his back, and both of them rock against each other, the boy’s movements so desperate that Howon thinks he might shatter under Howon’s hands.

 

Howon is so busy being caught up in the feel of the boy, the smooth slickness of his skin and the way his chest rises and falls so rapidly under Howon’s fingers and mouth that it takes him some time before he becomes aware that the boy is panting words now, not just whines—one word, actually, one word over and over and over again: pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease.

 

Howon’s hands start jerking the boy’s belt open without any instruction from his brain, and it seems to take far too long and yet no time at all before he’s got the boy’s pants yanked down to his ankles—his boots are in the way of getting rid of them completely, and Howon can’t imagine taking the time to get them off, and there’s no way the boy’s going to be any help there, not with the mindless tossing of his head and rocking of his body—and he’s hard and hot and throbbing in Howon’s hand and making a keening sound like he’s dying and Howon isn’t sure he’s going to be able to retain the mental capacity to pull down his own pants for much longer, so he better do it now. It’s almost impossible to do one-handed, but he can’t bring himself to release the boy’s dick, not when the boy keeps thrusting his hips up and moaning that way, his face so slack with pleasure and need that Howon almost doesn’t recognize it. Howon pumps the boy and stares at the paleness of his thighs as he struggles to get his own pants down, and when he has, he ducks his mouth and bites down—a little harder than he normally would, but not hard enough to break the skin; the heat hasn’t turned him into a complete monster (except it has it has)—on one of those perfect thighs. The boy jerks, wails, fingers scrabbling in Howon’s hair, and Howon knows this needs to happen now.

 

He’s never done this before, never let his fingers prod at the cleft of someone’s ass this way, but he’s familiar enough with how it works that somehow he stumbles through it. If the boy weren’t in heat, they’d need lube, Howon thinks distantly, and he’s so glad he doesn’t have to stop to find something that would work that he almost lets out a sob. The boy wriggles against Howon’s fingers, still whining and keening that pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, still throbbing in Howon’s hand, and then Howon has the very clear thought: good enough and then he moves his own dick into place and—

 

 

 

 

Later, Howon will just remember the heat and the squeeze and the sounds the boy makes, the hammering of his own hips and the boy’s fingers biting into the flesh of his shoulders. He’ll remember the smell of chemicals and the smell of the boy’s pheromones and the heart-rending wail the boy lets out when he comes, splattering onto Howon’s hand and abdomen. Most of all he’ll remember how mind-blowingly good it is, so good that he thinks he’s going to die if it gets any better—and then it does.

 

And then, for a minute, he won’t remember anything at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Supernovas are exploding in his head when Howon finally comes back to himself. His lungs are panicking inside his chest, scared they won’t get enough air, so greedy with each breath, and the acid of the still-unidentified chemical just makes both lungs and headache worse. And then he opens his eyes, and the lights are like a smack, and there’s the boy’s face, still flushed, and his eyes are screwed up tight and his cheeks are damp and—fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

 

Howon’s first instinct is to jerk away, but he remembers at the last moment that he’s still inside the boy, and he pulls out steadily—steadily even though the rest of him is shaking, and shakes even harder when the boy lets out a little whimper as his eyes flutter open. His eyes.

 

Myungsoo. That’s the boy’s name. Kim Myungsoo.

 

Breath still shuddering, Howon reaches out a tentative hand—to clean him off? To reassure him? To touch him to prove to himself that this is real?

 

It doesn’t matter, because Myungsoo lurches away from him immediately, wild eyed and shaking even harder than Howon. He’s forgotten about his pants and underwear pushed down around his ankles, though, and tangled like that they yank at his legs and make him sprawl awkwardly, fighting against his efforts to move further away from Howon. It would probably be funny, in any other circumstances, the ungainliness of Myungsoo’s motions. But it isn’t funny at all.

 

Myungsoo finally manages to jerk his pants back up around his waist and haul himself back against the wall, staring at Howon with eyes that remind Howon of a terrified animal. Something lurches in Howon’s throat and he’s suddenly not sure if he wants to throw up all over the floor or start sobbing. Instead, he shimmies his pants back up to his hips, wiping his hand on them, and then stiffly—his hips ache—drags himself into a sitting position. He has to wipe his hand again when it ends up in the chemical-smelling liquid. Through it all, he doesn’t take his eyes off of Myungsoo.

 

Myungsoo has his knees pulled up to his chin, back still pressed tight against the wall, and he lowers his head and stares at Howon over the top of his knees, only those eyes and the mess of his hair visible behind the black of his pants. His long arms are looped around his legs, though, and his shoulders are broad enough that Howon can see the edge of a big red-purple bruise on his right collarbone that he knows will climb up the length of Myungsoo’s neck.

 

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

 

Again, the only sound is the sound of their breathing, still not back to resting rhythm, but there’s a ringing in Howon’s ears and he doesn’t know what to do. Part of him thinks he should reach out and at least rest a hand on Myunsoo’s shoulder—on the one that doesn’t bear the painful-looking mark of Howon’s mouthohfuck—another part wants to run screaming out of the room and all the way back home and into his bed and pull the covers over his head and never come out again.

 

There’s only one part of himself that doesn’t scare him to death, and that’s the part that again makes him whisper, “I’m sorry.”

 

Myungsoo lets out a choked noise that sounds like he’s stopping himself from screaming and then he’s lurching to his feet and Howon has a split second to think, He’s going to run right out of here with no shirt on and everyone he passes will know and then everyone will talk and—and his hand shoots out and grabs onto Myungsoo’s arm. The sharp little intake of breath—scared—and the way he tries to jerk away make Howon feel like the worst person who ever lived, but he doesn’t let go.

 

“You can’t—“ He doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice, husky and strained, even after he clears his throat. “You can’t run out of here like this.”

 

He doesn’t let the boy go as he bends over to pick up the boy’s shirt. But it’s torn, a few of the buttons ripped off, and it would barely be better than walking back topless, so Howon starts fumbling one-handed at his own buttons, getting the shirt as far off as he can before he lets go of Myungsoo for only a second to remove it entirely. But Myungsoo doesn't move: he seems frozen now, eyes closed again, and Howon can see the tearstains so clearly in this light, see the dampness of his eyelashes. He swallows down the bile in his throat and, gently as he can, puts the shirt on Myungsoo’s shoulders. Myungsoo doesn’t show any sign of moving other than the trembling that’s still shaking his body, so Howon stiffly pulls both of his arms through the sleeves the way you dress a child or a doll, then silently buttons up the buttons, trying not to look at where the bruise rises out of the collar and runs up Myungsoo’s neck. The shirt hangs loose on Myungsoo’s body, for all it’s a bit too tight across the shoulders and too short to fit quite the way it should. Myungsoo is taller than him.

 

Myungsoo’s uniform jacket is hanging neatly on the back of a nearby chair, and Howon starts to put it on him as well, hoping the collar will cover the bruise a little bit more. But he’s only got one of Myungsoo’s arms through a sleeve when Myungsoo suddenly jerks and his eyes snap open. Howon catches one glimpse of those eyes and then Myungsoo is gone.

 

Howon stands for a long time in the middle of the room, looking down at the slightly yellowish puddle of whatever that chemical is on the floor at his feet and trying not to think about what he just did on that floor and what it means. After a long time, he rebuttons his pants and makes his way over to his bag, fumbling around inside till he finds an old t-shirt and pulling it on regardless of its stale smell. He finds some paper towels and wipes up the chemical on the floor and puts the abandoned canister on a table. There’s a camera sitting nearby, professional looking, and it’s heavy and cool in Howon’s hands when he picks it up. He looks at it for a moment, then stows it as carefully as he can in the bag beside it, though he’s pretty sure it’s not in there right. Then he picks up that bag and Myungsoo’s schoolbag beside it and bends to snag his own jacket off the floor, and then he turns off the lights and walks out the door.

Chapter Text

God must hear prayers that Myungsoo hadn’t even thought to offer, because Sungyeol opens the door himself, not his mom as usual. He’s got a handful of some starchy snack food Myungsoo can’t identify, his mouth half full, and he looks just like he always does. His voice sounds the same as always, too, even with the food in it—he talks with his mouth full a lot.

 

“Dude, I’m glad you came over, Daeyeol got this new video game and I was just about to blackmail him into letting me play it first and you can—“

 

Sungyeol’s mom won’t like having to clean up whatever that food is when she sees the messy orange all over the floor, Myungsoo thinks distantly. Why did Sungyeol drop it?

 

Sungyeol’s always had pale skin—he preens over it sometimes—but right now he looks like he was drawn on paper, harsh charcoal lines against the white page, the only color the brown of his big, big eyes. The biggest eyes in the world, Myungsoo thinks distantly, big enough to fall into. And just keep falling. Forever. They’re a nice color, too, lighter than Myungsoo’s, and Myungsoo thinks it wouldn’t be so bad to keep falling through that color for the rest of time. It’s a very soothing color. Familiar.

 

Sungyeol’s hand is still stained with the orange residue of whatever he was eating when it very slowly steals up and his long, pretty fingers brush against Myungsoo’s neck. Myungsoo flinches, and Sungyeol jerks back, and he takes the longest, slowest breath Myungsoo has ever heard, and Myungsoo knows that he knows.

 

The first sob rips through Myungsoo so hard he thinks it’s going to tear him right in half, and then there’s Sungyeol’s arms and the sound of the door slamming shut behind him, and Myungsoo loses it completely.

 

 

 

 

 

He lays for a very long time in Sungyeol’s bed, crying harder than he’s ever cried before, even that time his mom was about to leave for the hospital and there was a possibility that the surgery wouldn’t go well and she wrote letters for both of her sons and Myungsoo actually read his and cried in front of all his friends while his mom wiped his eyes and nose like he was a little baby and he couldn’t even bring himself to care. Sungyeol doesn’t wipe his nose or eyes, but he also doesn’t yell and call Myungsoo a name when Myungsoo’s snot gets on his shirt, just wraps his arms tighter around Myungsoo and doesn’t say anything. Sungyeol almost never reciprocates Myungsoo’s skinship, for all he lets Myungsoo cling to his back or his wrist sometimes, but now he holds Myungsoo closer than he ever has, and the bed smells like Sungyeol, and there’s the sound of someone cutting grass outside like it’s any other evening and Myungsoo cries until no more tears come out and then keeps on crying.

 

His breath is still shuddering when Sungyeol finally murmurs into his hair, “Who was it?”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t think he’s going to be able to answer, but after a while, he does. “Lee Howon.”

 

Sungyeol’s fingers run through Myungsoo’s hair, and Myungsoo has the almost-funny thought that he’s always wanted Sungyeol to play with his hair and now he finally is. “I thought our plan was perfect. I’m sorry, Myungsoo.”

 

There aren’t any more tears, but Myungsoo still shudders out a sob at the words, at the reminder, at the echo of what Lee Howon had said to him in the empty art classroom, at the silence that followed that Myungsoo himself hadn't been able to break.

 

Sungyeol keeps stroking his fingers through Myungsoo’s hair, and after a moment he says, “At least he’s hot.”

 

It isn’t anywhere close to a laugh, the sound Myungsoo lets out, and he pounds his fist against Sungyeol’s chest and tries to pull away, but Sungyeol’s arms tighten again. “Okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, that was insensitive.”

 

Myungsoo isn’t really all that angry—doesn’t have the emotional energy to be angry—so he allows Sungyeol to bring him back against him and lets himself acknowledge that that was the most perfectly Sungyeol thing to say and so just exactly what he needed to hear.

 

 

 

 

Howon can’t go home. Both his parents will be there and his little brother and he just—he can’t. Not tonight. Things are already tense enough with his dad, and Howon knows he couldn’t bear the sound of his dad’s voice tonight, much less the words he knows will come. He can’t go to Dongwoo’s, either, because though Dongwoo does actually know how to be serious when it’s needed and would show Howon nothing but compassion, Yejin might be there, and even if she isn’t, her picture is all over Dongwoo’s room, and the last thing Howon needs is the reminder that there are happy mated couples who actually chose each other.

 

There’s only one place for him to go, and he didn’t really even consider any others. He has a key to the door, and doesn’t even bother knocking, and he walks through the quiet house and up the stairs the way he would in his own home. He’d have to knock on the bedroom door, of course, except that it’s open, and Minha is there, long legs stretched out on the bed, but she’s fully clothed and Sungjong is sitting at his desk chair.

 

He jerks to a stand when he sees Howon. “What the fuck happened?” It’s always been funny to Howon, funny and endearing, the way that Sungjong’s pretty voice sounds when he’s angry. His lips try to smile.

 

Minha’s scrambled off the bed too—well, she doesn’t scramble, she’s too elegant for that—and she and Sungjong both have a hand under Howon’s elbow before he can even think about it and are leading him to the bed. Howon drops his bag and sets down Myungsoo’s as carefully as he can, then lets himself slump down heavily onto the bed.

 

“Hyung, what is going on with you?”

 

“Howon, are you okay?”

 

He looks back and forth from one concerned face to the other. They’re both so beautiful and pale, and he’s always thought they look like a prince and princess out of a fairytale or something. But right now they just look scared, and comparing anything in real life to fairytales just seems vulgar.

 

“I mated,” Howon says, and then he laughs, except that it sounds wrong, not really like a laugh at all.

 

Minha gasps and Sungjong’s eyes go very wide and then narrow and Howon realizes he’s finally stopped shaking.

 

Neither of them ask if it was planned—they both know it couldn’t have been. They both know he’s intended not to mate with anyone, not unless it’s someone he loves, but even then only later. Later, after he’s accomplished what he wants to accomplish. Accidents happen, of course, but rarely now that testing is possible and suppressants are available to allow for planning, and they’d all thought he’d be able to avoid mating easily and—he laughs again, his not-laugh.

 

Sungjong looks fragile, but his hand, as always, is strong on Howon’s shoulder. “Who was it, hyung?”

 

Howon not-laughs again, and then the image of those big, scared eyes pops into his head and he stops. “Kim Myungsoo.” He’s pretty sure it’s the first time he’s ever said that name. And now it’s the name of his mate.

 

“Fuck,” Sungjong whispers, and the cursing isn’t like him—Sungjong’s no prude but cursing isn’t his thing—and Minha bites her lip. Then she stands and puts her hand back on Howon’s shoulder. “I’m going to let you two talk, okay? But if you need anything, Howon-ah—“

 

Howon waves her off. There isn’t anything anyone can do, and as much as he likes Minha, he wants as few people as possible around right now. He notes absently that she doesn’t kiss Sungjong goodbye as she leaves as she usually does, and he almost smiles at the unnecessary thoughtfulness.

 

They sit in silence for a long moment after she leaves, and then Sungjong shifts. “Hyung, how long ago was this?”

 

Howon has no idea what time it is, no idea how much time has passed since he walked down the hallway to get his English book. “Just—just before I came here.”

 

Sungjong’s eyes narrow again. “Did you leave him, hyung?”

 

Howon is stung by the accusation in Sungjong’s voice. “What? No! What kind of jerk do you think I am?”

 

Sungjong looks slightly less stern now. “Then why aren’t you still with him? You two don’t even really know each other, do you? You should be getting to know each other.”

 

“I know that, Sungjong.” We’re mates now. “But he left. He just—ran off. I didn’t—“ He mops a tired hand over his face. “Fuck, Jjongie, what am I going to do?”

 

Again, silence stretches between them, and that’s really the answer: there isn’t any answer.

 

“You’re going to be the best mate you can be, of course.” Sungjong’s voice is as confident as it ever is, but Howon can see the lurking worry in his eyes. “You’ll make the best of it.”

 

“The best,” Howon echoes, and thinks of how often he’s tried to be just that. He wanted to be the best. The best dancer in the city. The best dancer some audition panel at some company has ever seen. The best trainee, the best idol. The best.

 

And now—he has to be the best mate. To a guy he barely even knows.

 

“Myungsoo is a really good guy, hyung. A really good guy. If it had to happen—” Sungjong trails off.

 

Howon doesn’t want to think about things having to happen, but he had forgotten that Sungjong is friends with Myungsoo. “Are you two close?”

 

Sungjong shrugs. “Pretty close. Not like him and Sungyeol. Not like me and you. But he’s a really good friend. He’s a little awkward sometimes, but one of the best guys I know.”

 

The best. Howon looks down at his hands, picks at a hangnail on his thumb. “I don’t even know him, Sungjong. I’ve barely ever said anything to him.”

 

Sungjong is silent for a moment. “You two don’t have a lot in common,” he finally says, as though he’s admitting something. “In interests and things. But you do have a lot of the same friends. There’s me, and I know Dongwoo really likes him even if they aren’t super close. And Woohyun runs around with Sungyeol and Myungsoo all the time, too. And—I really do mean it when I say he’s a good guy.”

 

Howon thinks about that. Mutual friends don’t mean everything, but they don’t mean nothing. It’s a good sign, at least. He’s going to need all the good signs he can find if he’s going to keep from losing it completely.

 

“Can I stay here tonight, Sungjong?” He does it sometimes on occasion when things have gotten too tense with his dad at home, and Sungjong’s never turned him down.

 

“I’m sure there’s enough leftovers for two.” Sungjong’s parents often get home late, and his brother is in every club the middle school has. “I’ll go heat something up. But hyung, you should really call him.”

 

Howon looks up, surprised. “But I don’t have—“

 

“It’s in my phone,” Sungjong says, nodding towards the phone sitting on his desk. “Seriously, hyung. Call him.”

 

 

 

 

Howon knows that Sungjong left him alone as much so he could have some space to think as to heat up dinner, and he can’t decide if he’s glad of that or not. The thought of being around people right now is enough to make his stomach churn again, but at the same time, being alone with his thoughts feels like too much.

 

But Howon’s never been one to avoid things. So he lays himself down on Sungjong’s bed and makes a mental list of the things he knows about Kim Myungsoo. It’s not a very long list.

 

+ He’s an omega. (The first thing the most important thing the only thing.)

+ Sungjong likes him. (A very good sign, Howon would note, if he was capable of thinking that rationally.)

+ He’s best friends with Lee Sungyeol, the tall boy with the gummy smile and the sense of humor of a class clown. (He actually is pretty funny, Lee Sungyeol.)

+ He’s really good at math. (Howon remembers him always being ranked first in calculus last year.)

+ He doesn’t talk much. (Or maybe it’s just compared to Lee Sungyeol that it seems that way?)

+ He usually has a camera with him if he’s not in class. (Camera. The art classroom. The smell of chemicals in the air. The darkened room behind Myungsoo. Using the art room’s dark room after school the way Howon uses the old gym. All alone, except for Howon passing by.)

+ And he’s beautiful. (Some of the more crass alphas like to have long, boisterous discussions about which of the omegas they’d most want to go into heat around them. Those discussions make Howon sick, but he’s had to hear them in the locker rooms or the cafeteria, and he knows more than one student who’s had leering things to say about Myungsoo’s legs or ass or mouth, and remembering those things makes his fists clench. Even if Myungsoo keeps mostly to himself and Sungyeol, it’s not like no one would notice how attractive he is.)

 

That isn’t—that isn’t anything. He thinks of the things he knows about Sungjong, about his favorite color and his first friend in kindergarten and the dances he likes to do and the first time he told Minha he loved her and the things he has nightmares about and the things he argues with his parents about and what foods he refuses to eat and what book made him cry and how he feels about being an alpha and the questions he has about God and the things he worries about his little brother and all the details of his plans for the future. All the little things and the big things that Sungjong has shared with him over the years, the things they’ve built their friendship around, the things, that assembled together in context, make Sungjong Sungjong. He doesn’t know anything about Kim Myungsoo, not in a context that reveals anything, not one thing about what makes him him. How the fuck is he supposed to be his mate when he doesn’t even know what his favorite movie is?

 

But…there are some other things that Howon does know that he forgot to put on the list. Things like the way Myungsoo’s collarbones taste under a sheen of sweat. Things like the way the skin of his thighs smells. Things like the sounds he makes when he wants to be touched. Things like the way he squeezed so tight around Howon that he was sure that no one who ever lived had ever felt anything so good. Things like all the emotions swirling in those dark eyes when he blinked them open after and looked up at Howon.

 

Howon can’t think about that now. He can’t—he can’t. He buries his face in Sungjong’s pillow and screams for a minute, then yanks out his phone and his earbuds and finds one of his dance playlists and cranks the music up so high that his eardrums throb.

 

Howon has always lost himself in the music, in the motions of the choreography he builds to supplement it. He aches to dance now, but there’s really no space here in Sungjong’s small room, so he goes through each move in his mind, picturing the way his body will move and how each step will feel. His body has always been his best tool: it does what he tells it do even if sometimes it takes practice before it meets his standards. He’s never minded practice, never minded hard work, has relished the burn of muscles stretched to new limits, the aches that come from doing something he’s never done before. He’s aching now, but it’s a different kind of ache, and he tries to latch onto the music, onto mentally dancing, hearing each step, each gesture sharp in his mind.

 

 

 

The playlist has run through twice and is starting on its third loop when Sungjong comes back. Howon has his eyes closed and doesn’t see him pause in the door to take in Howon lying on the bed, Sungjong’s cellphone still sitting on the desk exactly where Sungjong left it. But he feels the dip of the bed when Sungjong sits down beside him, lets Sungjong tug one of the buds out of his ear.

 

“Hyung. Call him.”

 

Sungjong doesn’t ever take no for an answer, not when he’s serious about something. And Howon’s always been more than happy to go along with whatever idea Sungjong has. He likes to make Sungjong happy, and there’s never any reason to say no. But right now, Howon wants to ignore him.

 

Sungjong stands up again, grabs his phone off the table, picks up Howon’s hand and slaps the phone into his palm. “Call. Him.”

 

Howon sits up suddenly, the motion jerking the other earbud out of his ear so that the room is gilded with the tinny, distant sound of the music. “And say what, Sungjong? What the fuck am I supposed to say to him?”

 

Sungjong’s face is set, and the sight is so familiar that it’s comforting even if it doesn’t dim any of Howon’s anger. The anger isn’t aimed at Sungjong anyway. They both know that. “Ask him if he needs anything.”

 

“What could he—“ Howon stops suddenly. Oh. Right. He’ll need a morning-after pill or something—fuck.

 

Sungjong gives him a ‘you’re an idiot’ look. “Ask him when you can come see him.”

 

The thought of going to see Myungsoo is more than Howon can handle. He isn’t sure if he wants it more than he’s ever wanted anything or if he’d rather die than even consider it.

 

“Ask him if he wants the treatment.”

 

Howon blanches. The treatment. The chemical means of dissolving the mating bond. The only thing worse than being bonded to someone he doesn’t even know. He saw an interview once where a former cancer patient who had undergone it said it was worse than chemo. That would be months, and billions of won, maybe, if his parents don’t have the supplemental insurance or if Myungsoo’s don’t or—

 

“No, don’t ask him that, not yet,” Sungjong corrects himself, and Howon feels like throwing up in relief. “Just tell him that you’re willing to do whatever he wants to do.”

 

Howon lets his eyes fall closed again. “Sungjong—“

 

But Sungjong isn’t going to listen to any of his excuses. “This isn’t an option, hyung! This is what you have to do if you want to be able to live with yourself!”

 

“I already don’t know if I can live with myself!”

 

The silence seems hollow after the words burst of Howon’s throat, and he sees Sungjong’s fingers twitch. “You didn’t do anything wrong, hyung,” Sungjong says after a moment, voice quiet but not soft. Sungjong isn’t the soft type.

 

Howon snorts. “No, nothing wrong at all.”

 

“I know what you’re thinking, but you didn’t rape him. Or if you did, he raped you, too.”

 

“What the fuck, Sungjong—“

 

“You know that heat isn't like any other time—he couldn’t help what his body made him want and you couldn’t help doing what you did and—“

 

Does Sungjong thinks this is comforting? Or maybe that’s not what he’s trying to say; Sungjong isn’t the type to coddle. “If I’d been stronger, had more control—“

 

“That’s bullshit, and you know it. Almost no alpha or beta who’s hit puberty and hasn’t already bonded can stay away from someone in heat.”

 

“Did you hear the operative word there?”

 

“Oh, so you think you should be that ‘almost’? That you’re so special?”

 

The scorn in Sungjong’s voice stings, though Howon knows it’s aimed at the idea, not at Howon himself. “I could have walked away! I got curious about the scent and I went into the art room—if I’d just ignored it and walked away, then he—“

 

“Then he’d still be there humping the floor all night, feeling like he wants to die. Or someone else would have come along. Maybe someone—worse.”

 

The laugh Howon lets out is bitter. “So I did him a favor? Put him out of his misery?”

 

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

 

“Then what are you saying?”

 

“I’m saying that his body wanted what it wanted and wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I’m saying that once you smelled his heat, there was no way you could walk away. I’m saying that it’s okay for you to feel like you violated him—but that he probably feels like he violated you, too, and neither of you did anything wrong!”

 

Howon’s throat is so dry and his hands are shaking again and he drops his head. He and Sungjong argue sometimes, and they’ve had some fights over the years, but only about how Sungjong wants him to leave home, and Howon knows that’s motivated by concern about him, no matter how frustrated Sungjong gets. This is like that, too, Sungjong frustrated but only because he cares about Howon. Howon knows that. It doesn’t make him feel any better.

 

“Your God, Sungjong.” They don’t talk about God and Sungjong’s faith often, because Howon knows that it hurts Sungjong that Howon doesn’t believe too. Or—it’s not that he doesn’t believe in God. He just isn’t sure either way. He can’t imagine having faith the way Sungjong does. In anything, really. “You say he’s good. But how can he be, when he lets our bodies do these things to us?”

 

The thing about Sungjong is, he doesn’t answer immediately if he doesn’t know the answer. He takes his time. He thinks about things. Howon has always appreciated that.

 

Sungjong looks very torn when he finally answers. Older, and tired. “I don’t understand it either, hyung. I could give you a lecture about free will and the Fall, but—“ He sighs, a sound that makes Howon’s chest ache even more than it already is. “The only thing I know is that when I read the Bible or about the lives of the saints, bad things happened to them, too. Terrible things. And when they did—they got mad. They yelled at God. They lashed out and wrote psalms about God forsaking them. And God never told them to stop. Sometimes when they argued with him, he even told them they were right and changed his mind about things. I don’t really know what that means, except that I know that it’s okay to get angry or to feel abandoned. I think God gets angry and heartbroken, too. I don’t know why he doesn’t swoop in and fix everything, but I know he’ll listen, no matter how angry or bitter or heartbroken you are. And I think…I think that means that he doesn’t think it’s fair either. And that’s…something.”

 

Something. Not much. But Howon thinks of his father, who wants him to go to college and become a doctor or a judge or something and who calls Howon ungrateful whenever Howon dares to suggest that he wants something else out of life. His dad just wants Howon to smile and nod and be the dutiful son, obey and have whatever life his father picks out for him—and be grateful on top of it. If Howon gets angry—even rolls his eyes—it just makes his dad angrier. A God who tells you it’s okay to get angry, that he doesn’t think it’s fair either…well, maybe that is something.

 

But it doesn’t really help now. Howon is angry: angry at himself, at his failure to control his own body, angry at evolution or God or whatever made this whole fucking system of alphas and omegas and betas and heat and mating. And he’s scared. Really, really scared: that he’s hurt Kim Myungsoo beyond repair. That they’ll be stuck with each other forever and never be able to choose someone for love. And, selfishly, about what his future will be—or won’t be—because now he’s shackled to a mate he doesn’t even know.

 

“You should have seen his eyes, Sungjongie.” The barely-audible rasp scrapes its way out of Howon’s throat. “He was so scared and so hurt and—“

 

“And so were you,” Sungjong interrupts, voice back to quiet-but-not-soft. “You both were.”

 

“He’ll probably hate me. I forced—“

 

“He might hate you,” Sungjong agrees, and Howon feels a lance of pain between his ribs. “But I bet you right now he’s hating himself as much as you’re hating yourself. You’re blaming yourself for forcing yourself on him. But I bet you he’s blaming himself for forcing you to force him.”

 

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

 

“It is, isn’t it?” Sungjong stands up, nudges Howon’s hand that’s still holding his phone with his hip. “Call him, hyung.”

 

Howon raises his eyes to his best friend, helpless. “What do I say to him, Jjongie?”

 

Sungjong doesn’t do his exasperated ‘I already answered this question, hyung!’ bit. Instead he just looks at Howon steadily. “Just show him that you’re trying, hyung. That’s all you can do.”

 

Sungjong closes the door softly behind him, leaving Howon to stare down at the phone for a very long time.

 

 

 

 

In the end, Howon ends up pulling out his own phone and texting his little brother to ask him to tell their parents that he’s staying at Sungjong’s tonight. That’s the easy message, and once it’s done, he still paces around the room, blowing out big breaths and running a hand through his hair before he finally punches the number from Sungjong’s phone into his own and raises it to his ear.

 

There are enough rings that Howon begins to hope that Myungsoo just won’t answer at all and he won’t have to deal with this tonight. But finally the rings give way to a voice, and if it’s a little huskier than usual, Howon can still recognize it as Kim Myungsoo’s. Something leaps up in his chest and he isn’t sure if it’s going to make him vomit or make him want to run straight to wherever Kim Myungsoo is.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Myungsoo-ssi.” He doesn’t think about it, the formality of the honorific. He and Myungsoo are the same age, the same year in school, even if Myungsoo somehow seems younger. They should use banmal with each other. But somehow it doesn’t seem right.

 

Myungsoo doesn’t answer, but Howon thinks he hears his breathing speed up. He stumbles on. “I—this is Lee Howon.”

 

Again, Myungsoo doesn’t reply. Howon switches his phone to his other hand, wipes his damp palm on his pants, winces at the sweatiness of his ears. “I wanted to—I mean—do you need anything?”

 

“No,” Myungsoo finally answers, and even if his tone is completely dull, just hearing it makes Howon’s pulse speed up again.

 

“Well, if you—later, I mean, you can—“

 

“I don’t need anything.” That same dull, lifeless tone.

 

“Right. Well.” The phone he’d had pressed close to his ear slips away in a jerk for just a moment, and he has to breathlessly adjust it, anxious that he missed something else Myungsoo might have said. “Do you want to meet up? Not today, I mean, but later, I could—“

 

“I’m hanging up now.”

 

“I have your bag! With your camera!”

 

Howon isn’t sure what makes those words burst out, voice tipping shrill, but they make Myungsoo pause. Then: “Later.” And then he hangs up.

 

Howon’s ear feels unnaturally cool when he lowers the phone. He holds it for a moment in his hand, then sets it down, walks slowly to the bathroom, kneels down beside it, and expels all the contents of his stomach.

 

 

 

 

Myungsoo’s hand is shaking when he puts his phone down on Sungyeol’s bedside table. There’s no way he can get it back into the pocket that he fished it out of when it rang. He almost hadn’t bothered to pull it out: there was no one he wanted to talk to. And once he had, he very nearly didn’t answer it: he didn’t recognize the number and the tug in his gut was enough of a guess as to who it might be. He still doesn’t know why he answered. He didn’t want to hear Lee Howon’s voice, not when just thinking of it makes his head echo with the sounds Howon had made above him.

 

On the phone, Howon sounded stilted and raw, and it made Myungsoo want to sob again, only he knew if he started again he wouldn’t stop, even if he made himself sick.

 

“Hey.” Sungyeol closes the door behind him and walks over to set the laundry basket down on the bed beside Myungsoo. He isn’t trying to be either overly cheerful or acting as though someone had died. He’s casual, just as he always is. Myungsoo is very glad.

 

“Hey.”

 

Sungyeol turns to look at him fully, leaning his hip against his desk. “I know it’s not fair and it fucking sucks, but you know it’s not anyone’s fault, right?”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t respond, but he wants to snort or laugh or something. Instead, he just says, “Yeah.”

 

After a second, Sungyeol shrugs, a typical gesture, careless even if his eyes aren’t. “Okay, well, change clothes.” He tosses a t-shirt and a pair of pajama pants at Myungsoo. “I’m not sharing the bed with you if you’re wearing that.”

 

 

 

After changing (Myungsoo didn't figure out until he almost had the shirt off that it wasn't his shirt at all, and then he had yanked it off so fast he almost ripped it. And he could tell that Sungyeol wanted to make him take a shower, too, but he just grabbed some wipes from the bathroom and nudged Myungsoo to clean himself up as best he could), Myungsoo spends the rest of the night in Sungyeol’s bed, staring at the ceiling while Sungyeol does his homework. Later Sungyeol goes down and brings dinner up to Myungsoo, too—Myungsoo doesn’t even want to know what he told his mom, so he doesn’t ask, just picks at the food until Sungyeol jerks the plate away and says if Myungsoo isn’t going to eat it, then he will. He does, too, though Myungsoo sees him wince as he forces down the last few bites. Then he fishes out his phone and calls Myungsoo’s house and tells Myungsoo’s mom that Myungsoo will be staying with him tonight.

 

He puts a DVD on on his laptop and sets it up so they can see it from the bed, then pulls Myungsoo close to him again. Myungsoo takes full advantage of the rare cuddle session, squirming as close to Sungyeol as he can get, fingers tangled in the soft of Sungyeol’s t-shirt, listening to the cracked sound of Sungyeol’s laughter at whatever the movie is. Sungyeol lets him treat him like a teddy bear without complaint and doesn’t ask him anything else and Myungsoo goes through memories in his head, one by one, memories of when he and Sungyeol were little and all the insignificant trouble they got into. He falls asleep to the memory of the fortress they made in the crawlspace under the Lees’ stairs, full of pillows and blankets and the creepy light of a flashlight and his and Sungyeol’s laughter.

Chapter Text

Myungsoo doesn’t wake up when Sungyeol slips out of bed, just clutches the pillow Sungyeol slides into his arms and buries his face in it. There had been a few moments through the night where he’d almost surfaced to wakefulness, but it was as though his unconscious mind had known that waking would mean remembering would mean pain and had rejected it, and so he’d sunk back into sleep. It isn’t until he feels Sungyeol jabbing him in the ribs that he finally blinks his eyes open.

“Are you going to sleep forever? Because if you are, you aren’t doing it in my bed. We can take you to the hospital and hook you up to your very own life-support system. And then I can finally have my bed back.”

Myungsoo rubs the sleep out of his eyes and drags himself upright. He can tell when Sungyeol is not going to let him go back to sleep no matter how much he wants to. And he wants to: a lot. As soon as his eyes are fully open, he remembers everything that had happened the day before, and all he wants to do is groan and fall face-down back onto Sungyeol’s pillow and never, ever wake up again. But Sungyeol has flopped down beside him, still digging an elbow into his ribs, and is waving a pill and a glass of water in front of his face.

 

“Take this before I shove it up your ass,” Sungyeol says, and Myungsoo squints at the red pill.

 

“What is it?” Sungyeol isn’t one for swigging vitamins or herbal supplements. ‘That’s for old people,’ he always says. ‘Like Sunggyu-hyung.’

 

Sungyeol shrugs uneasily. “It’s for you—you know. So you won’t….”

 

It’s the way he trails off awkwardly that makes Myungsoo realize. He flushes scarlet, grabs the pill and water, and downs it. The water feels nice and cool against his sandpaper throat.

 

“Although you would have unreasonably cute babies,” Sungyeol says, nodding in satisfaction as he watches Myungsoo drain the cup. “They’d be awkward as hell, but I bet they’d have your dimple.”

 

Myungsoo is not ready to joke about this particular topic. Better change it quick before Sungyeol makes a reference to potential babies taking after Howon. “What, you just had this lying around the house? A house full of betas?”

 

“No, doofus, I went to the pharmacy this morning while you were still snoring loud enough to wake the dead.”

 

“Oh.” Myungsoo wonders if that was awkward. There’s only one reason you buy something like that.

 

“I also got you some stuff to put on your—“ Sungyeol gestures toward Myungsoo’s neck, and Myungsoo ducks his head.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“I don’t know if it’ll help.”

 

Myungsoo takes the small tube anyway.

 

“I think I have a turtleneck you can wear home if you want. I’m sure I can find it.”

 

“I—no. I’ll have to tell them.” He doesn’t want to lie to his parents, even by omission. Not about something this big. “Maybe if your dad could drive me, though…?” The thought of walking home, even three streets over, and having some ahjumma working in her garden see the big sign on his neck that says WENT INTO HEAT; HAS MATED and starting the neighborhood gossip is the only thing he can imagine that would make this worse.

 

“Yeah, sure. You should probably shower or something, though.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I’ll go see what Mom saved you for breakfast.” Sungyeol pauses before opening the door and looks over at him again. It’s weird, being on the receiving end of a studied look. Sungyeol doesn’t usually look at him like that. Myungsoo finds his eyes dropping to the small tube in his hands.

 

“We’re gonna be okay, you know,” Sungyeol says finally, and Myungsoo knows him well enough to know why he said it like that. Sungyeol doesn’t offer false comfort, and they both know that maybe nothing will be okay for Myungsoo ever again. But Sungyeol is saying that they—the two of them, best friends since they were little kids—will be okay. Later, when Myungsoo starts feeling something again besides the urge to sleep forever, he’ll be grateful.

 

Now, though, he just nods. “Yeah,” and tries to smile at Sungyeol. It doesn’t quite work, and he can see the worry in Sungyeol’s eyes even after the door closes behind him.

 

 

 

 

Howon wakes with an itchy feeling between his shoulder blades and a strange awareness that his hands are empty. He flips over onto his back and lays there staring up at his hands for a while, trying to figure out why they feel this way.

 

“It’s the mating-bond.”

 

He looks over to see Sungjong coming into the room. It’s Sungjong’s little brother’s room; one phone call and the youngest Lee was more than happy to spend the night with a friend. “That’s why your hands feel like that,” Sungjong continues, nodding towards the hands Howon is still holding in the air above his face. “It’s not really your hands that are empty, it just presents like that.”

 

Right. He’d learned that in health class. He’s going to feel a tug to be with his mate—with Myungsoo—for a few days until they spend some time together. Then it will settle down, at least if they aren’t separated for too long. The thought makes him uncomfortable.

 

“You never said what he said on the phone last night,” Sungjong says, sitting down on his desk chair to look at Howon.

 

Howon shrugs, sitting up and blinking his gritty eyes. He hates sleeping in his contacts. He should really start carrying his glasses around in his bag with him like Dongwoo does if he’s going to make a habit of sleeping at Sungjong’s. Although—who knows what’s going to become a habit for him now. “He didn’t say anything.”

 

Sungjong isn’t amused. “Nothing, hyung?”

 

“He said he didn’t need anything. And that he’d get his bag later.”

 

Sungjong bites gently on his lip, eyes turning thoughtful. “Myungsoo-hyung hates letting his camera out of his sight. If he’s not arranging to get it as early as he can, he must feel pretty….”

 

There isn’t a word for what Myungsoo must be feeling, for what Howon is feeling. Angry and scared and self-loathing and bitter and nervous and a whole bunch of other negative emotions all mixed together. There isn’t a word for that.

 

“Did he say when you can see him?” Sungjong asks, shaking his head and his eyes clearing.

 

“No.”

 

“Did you ask?”

 

Yes, mother, I asked.”

 

Sarcasm from other people doesn’t affect Sungjong. “You should text him again later, at least.”

 

“Or maybe I should let him have some space.”

 

“Of course you should let him have all the space he wants.” Sungjong is obnoxious when he sounds contemptuous like that. Howon wishes he didn’t think Sungjong was so great; then he could hate him for it. “But you also have to let him know you’re there or he’s going to feel like you abandoned him.”

 

“How the hell can I abandon him if I don’t even know him?” It is too early for this shit, and Howon’s already feeling antsy.

 

Sungjong doesn’t even blink at being snapped at. “It’s a hormones thing, you know that. You’re feeling like you abandoned him right now, aren’t you?”

 

“Fuck,” Howon whispers, jerking the sheets back and getting out of bed. “This is so fucked up, Sungjong.”

 

“It is,” Sungjong allows. “Maybe you should go talk to Dongwoo-hyung. He’s been through this before and—“

 

“What the fuck does he know about this? He and Yejin-noona chose each other! Besides, he isn’t even the alpha, he doesn’t know—and for God’s sake, stop telling me what to do, Sungjong, you aren’t my father!”

 

Anyone else would either get mad at Howon for yelling or be hurt and mutter something about trying to help. Sungjong, though, is not anybody else. “I was also thinking I could call Sungyeol-hyung,” he continues, as though Howon hadn’t yelled at all. “He’ll definitely know by now, and maybe it will be easier for you two if we take over the communication for you.”

 

All of the anger wooshes out of Howon and he blinks at Sungjong. “You’d do that?”

 

This time Howon completely deserves the contemptuous look. “If I can find time for you in my schedule, I might be able to work you in.”

 

And Howon is reminded again that Sungjong is a better friend than he deserves.

 

 

 

Myungsoo spends a very long time after his shower staring into the mirror at the bruise on his neck. He could have just left the mirror fogged and smeared on the ointment without looking at it. It probably would have been better for his peace of mind if he had. But instead, he’d cleared a window in the steam and has been staring at the mark as the rest of the mirror gradually clears.

 

It looks big. And…violent. Like someone really hurt him. From just underneath his earlobe to halfway across his shoulder. Like a birthmark or the remnants of a fight. Except that anyone who looks at it will know, just as Sungyeol had, exactly what it really is.

 

Myungsoo tries not to think about where it came from. Tries not to think about the way he’d jerked his hips against Lee Howon’s leg as Howon’s mouth (those fangs he always shows when he smiles) made him gasp and moan. Tries not to think about the way that Howon had tried to cover it by jerking the collar of his uniform jacket higher before Myungsoo ran away. (He tries not to think about how he ran away.)

 

Myungsoo hasn’t even had his first kiss. Even when Sungyeol and Woohyun tease him, he’s always stood firm about wanting to save it for someone he really loves. And now he’s got this huge mark on his skin and he’s lost his virginity and he’s mated and—

 

He still hasn’t had his first kiss.

 

He starts to laugh.

 

Later, Sungyeol will, in typical Sungyeol fashion, tell it as a funny story: about how freaked out he was by the sound of Myungsoo laughing alone in the bathroom (‘You don’t understand—it didn’t sound like a real laugh! I thought he was completely losing it!’) and ran and got a screwdriver and took the handle off the door and burst inside to find Myungsoo, wearing only his boxer briefs, hunched over and laughing so hard he looked like he was going to topple forward and hit his forehead on the sink counter. ‘And die on the spot,’ Sungyeol will add. ‘Of course he’d be even more clumsy when he’s actually gone crazy.’

 

But in the moment, it clearly isn’t funny to Sungyeol, not with how white his face is and how hard he grasps Myungsoo’s upper arms. “Ya! Kim Myungsoo! Snap out of it before I punch you in the face!”

 

With Sungyeol in front of him and so obviously worried, the laughter dies down until it becomes a heavy gasping that could easily turn to more sobbing if Sungyeol hadn’t jerked him upright. The bite of Sungyeol’s fingers on his biceps is real enough to dispel the remnants of hysteria, and Myungsoo is finally alert enough to notice the relief on Sungyeol’s face.

 

“Dumbass. You’ve been in here forever and you haven’t even put the junk on your neck. Were you waiting for me to do it? I really prefer to help hot girls in bikinis put on sunscreen, but—“

 

“Shut up, Yeol.” Myungsoo snatches the tube from Sungyeol’s hand and barely glances at his reflection as he smears on the cream. He glares at his best friend in the mirror, but Sungyeol just arches a brow and doesn’t leave the bathroom even when Myungsoo pulls on his shirt and jeans, only following him out when he’s dressed.

 

“Dad can drive you home whenever,” Sungyeol says as they head back into his bedroom.

 

“Okay.”

 

“And Mom still has some rice and—“

 

“I’ll eat at home.”

 

Sungyeol shoots him a skeptical look. “You better.”

 

Myungsoo shrugs, bending to pick up his abandoned uniform from the floor. He folds it quickly, trying not to look at the shirt that doesn’t belong to him and stuffs it hurriedly between the folds of his trousers.

 

“Oh, and—Sungjong called me while you were showering.”

 

There’s a weird note in Sungyeol’s voice. “Really.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Myungsoo would typically get excited at hearing from their friend, but right now he’s just tired. And oddly colder than he thinks he has the right to be.

 

“He thought maybe it would be good for you and—“ Sungyeol clears his throat “—Howon to have us kind of…communicate for you. If you want.”

 

Myungsoo’s mind goes blank, thinking about the phone call the night before, the one he hadn’t told Sungyeol about.

 

“Myungsoo?”

 

Myungsoo shrugs. “Yeah, whatever.”

 

Sungyeol hesitates. “Okay, so…is there anything you want me to tell him?”

 

“No.”

 

“He said Howon can meet up with you whenever. At your house or his or somewhere else if you want—Sungjong even said you can go to his place, since you’ve been there before and—“

 

“Is your dad ready to go?”

 

Again that weird not-Sungyeol-like studied gaze. “Yeah.”

 

“Okay, good.”

 

Myungsoo’s almost out of the room before Sungyeol’s voice catches him. “And he has your camera bag.”

 

Myungsoo’s gait hitches. And his school bag, too, but Sungyeol—and Sungjong—both know what he’s really missing. “You’re playing messenger, you can go get it,” he says, before rushing down the stairs and seeking out Mr. Lee.

 

Sungyeol’s dad is his usual cheerful self as he leads Myungsoo out the car. He doesn’t say anything at all about the mark on Myungsoo’s neck, though it’s clearly visible in the t-shirt Sungyeol had loaned him. He also doesn’t keep glancing at it side-long or anything, just acts like it’s not there at all.

 

Myungsoo is really glad, because he’d hate to be rude to Mr. Lee, who’s always kind to him and treats him like one of his own sons. But right now he feels twitchy and numb at the same time, unnaturally cool and all too aware of the bruise on his neck, and he knows he was a jerk to Sungyeol just now, especially after how great Sungyeol was to him last night—perfect, just exactly what Myungsoo needed—but he can’t help it. He doesn’t know if it’s post-mating hormones or just the knowledge of how his life has changed or what, but he wants to scream and start running and keep running forever and never stop.

 

But instead he sits quietly in the passenger seat and smiles whenever Mr. Lee laughs at whatever he’s saying—Myungsoo’s not really listening. It’s so hard to listen when all he can think about is that in just a few minutes, his parents will know.

 

 

 

“What did Sungyeol say?” Howon asks as he waits for Sungjong to pull the gate to his house closed behind him.

 

“Not a lot,” Sungjong answers, pocketing his keys and joining Howon in heading down the street. “He thought it was a good idea. But I don’t think Myungsoo-hyung is really ready to face it yet.”

 

Howon has to stop himself from saying ‘I told you so.’ “Okay.”

 

“Sungyeol-hyung might text you later about coming to get Myungsoo-hyung’s bag, though.”

 

Howon can feel his own eyebrows rising. “Yeah?”

 

“Myungsoo-hyung is really overprotective of his camera. I’m sure he’ll feel better when he has it back.”

 

Howon’s feels his hands twitchy, that empty feeling flaring up. It makes him want to walk straight to Kim Myungsoo’s house—not that he knows where it is—and hand over the bag himself, show him that he took good care of the camera and that it’s all in one piece. But then he remembers those dark eyes staring at him over the tops of his knees and—

 

“Okay. Tell him to text me.”

 

They walk in silence for a few minutes, their footsteps falling in sync despite their height difference, and Howon tries to focus on the pleasant spring air and not on the fact that that itch between his shoulder blades is getting worse and that Kim Myungsoo doesn’t want to see him.

 

“Are you going to tell your parents, hyung?” Sungjong asks after a minute.

 

“Not now.”

 

He expects Sungjong to argue, to tell him that he’s still underage and so his parents need to know and that it’s no use putting it off and it will only make things worse in the long run. But Sungjong doesn’t say anything at all. Sungjong has always known not to push when it comes to Howon’s parents (to Howon’s dad).

 

They walk together in silence till they reach Howon’s house, and then Sungjong pats his arm. “If you need anything, hyung.”

 

Howon shakes his head. “Thanks, Sungjongie. You’re really great, you know that?”

 

Sungjong flips his hair out of his eyes, all attitude. “You only tell me every day.”

 

Howon smiles wanly. “I’ll try to tell you more often. Wouldn’t want your self-esteem to suffer.”

 

He can feel Sungjong watching him as he heads up the walk and to his gate.

 

 

 

Myungsoo’s mom cries. Moonsoo looks completely shocked, and even Dad sounds choked up, though he tries to pass it off as gruffness. Myungsoo doesn’t cry—a numbness has settled over him since the phone call last night, and he isn’t sure he knows how to cry anymore. He lets his mom hug him, lets his dad rest a hand on his head. He even tries to smile when his mom stammers apologies between sobs. “I really thought—all my family, going back for generations—“

 

He knows she feels guilty. She’d been so sure that he wouldn’t go into heat until he was older, and in the summer, and so they’d decided to save the money he could have spent on suppressants or insurance to save for his and Moonsoo’s university fees. Of course, there was still a chance that this could have happened even with the suppressants, but it doesn’t matter now. She’ll beat herself up forever, and he feels terrible about that—at least he thinks he does, under the thick swaddling of numbness. He will feel terrible about it, when the numbness cracks. Eventually he’ll try to reassure her that he doesn’t blame her. But just now he needs to be alone.

 

He extricates himself from her clinging arms and starts towards the stairs to his room, only looking back when he hears his dad call out.

 

“Is he—she—a good person, son?”

 

Myungsoo thinks of what he knows about Lee Howon. It isn’t much. But there’s Sungjong and Dongwoo-hyung and Woohyun-hyung and none of them would be friends with someone who isn’t a good person and even if Myungsoo didn’t know for sure, there’s really only one thing he can tell his parents.

 

“Yeah. He is.”

 

It doesn’t seem like much reassurance to Myungsoo, but his dad’s shoulders sag in relief and his mom lets out an even bigger sob, and he can’t stand it anymore: he runs upstairs.

 

 

 

Howon had steeled himself for anger—or hatred, or at least judgment—in Lee Sungyeol’s eyes, but when his mom calls him down from his room saying that there’s a visitor for him, Lee Sungyeol’s face on his doorstep is strangely calm. Assessing, yes, like he’s trying to weigh what kind of man Howon is with just the force of his gaze. But Howon doesn’t see any hatred there.

 

“I hope you took care of his camera,” Sungyeol says without preamble. “If you broke it, you will not enjoy the rest of your possibly short life.”

 

It’s a joke, yeah, but Sungyeol doesn’t have the laughing face he usually does when he jokes in class or in the hallways at school. Howon smiles wanly. “I was careful with it.” He hands the bag over to Sungyeol two-handed. Sungyeol takes it without taking his eyes of Howon, and Howon shifts from one foot to the other. He’s not sure if he wants Sungyeol to say something or if he wants him to just leave. Either way, he doesn’t like the owl-like gaze that Sungyeol has leveled on him.

 

“Myungsoo is going to take a while to get used to this,” Sungyeol says finally. “We had—we had a lot of plans this might affect. It’ll take him some time to adjust to the idea that his future will be different than the one we’ve planned. I don’t think he’s ever considered a different one.” Howon swallows hard at that, fighting back a surge of emotion. He nods in acceptance. Sungyeol’s mouth twists wryly. “And the only mated couples he’s ever paid attention to are his parents and the ones in manhwas, and they’re always in love. He’s—he’s a romantic. He’s going to take this hard.”

 

Howon can’t think of a single thing to say. “I’m sorry,” he says finally, words thick in his throat.

 

Sungyeol shrugs. “It’s not your fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. You’d just better do right by him.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“If you do, once he wraps his head around it, he’ll do right by you, too. He’s a good guy.”

 

“That’s what Sungjong says.”

 

“And Sungong’s always right.”

 

Howon smiles at that, and Lee Sungyeol smiles back. “I’m watching you, though,” he says, pointing a long finger at Howon and turning to go. “Don’t think I’m not. I see all.”

 

For the first time since everything, Howon actually feels like joking. “Just my luck. My mate’s got an omniscient best friend.” He’s proud of himself for not tripping over the word mate. It’s a start.

 

“Just think about it this way,” Sungyeol says, swinging the gate open and flashing Howon another grin. “At least he’s hot!”

 

Howon can hear Sungyeol’s laughter even after the gate closes.

 

 

 

Myungsoo sits up on his bed and sighs with relief when he sees Sungyeol walk into his room, Myungsoo’s camera bag in his hands and his school bag slung over his shoulder. He reaches out for the camera without thinking—he hadn’t realized until this moment just how anxious he was about its safety. He never lets it out of his sight unless he’s left it at home, safe in his room. His mom likes to joke that her son would run out without his head if it weren’t attached to his body but that he’d go back for his camera even if the house was about to blow up. He knows no one else really understands—they think it’s about the fact that it’s expensive and he saved up for so long to be able to afford it. But it’s not really about that. It’s about how he just feels more right, feels more like himself with his camera in his hands. How it’s always seemed like a guarantee of the future he and Sungyeol are headed towards.

 

Except not anymore.

 

But he needs the reassurance it’s always given him now. Before he can take the bag, though, Sungyeol swings himself away so that Myungsoo’s fingers close around empty air. He blinks up at his friend blankly.

 

“Yeol—wha—“

 

“You’re not getting it back until you actually make a decision.”

 

Myungsoo narrows his eyes. “What are you talking about?”

 

“I’ll give it back to you when you tell me when you’re going to see Lee Howon. Or when you’re going to call Lee Howon. Or something.”

 

If Sungyeol weren’t holding his camera hostage, Myungsoo would just lay back down on his bed and flip over with his back to the room to let Sungyeol know what he thinks about this line of conversation. But Sungyeol has his camera. He stands, eyebrows forming a v of warning.

 

“Lee Sungyeol, give me my camera.”

 

Sungyeol dances further away from him. “Nope. No camera until you tell me when you’re going to actually talk to him.”

 

Myungsoo stalks closer to his friend. Sungyeol may be taller—but not by much—but Myungsoo’s got more bulk. He’d definitely win if it came to a fight. Not that it ever would. They wrestle all the time, but actual fights—which they have pretty often, actually—have never turned physical between them.

 

“Lee Sungyeol—“ he growls warningly, and he can hear the seriousness in his own tone. He almost always plays along with Sungyeol’s games; Sungyeol’s playful nature has always delighted him. But right now he’s not in the mood for playing. At all.

 

He’s got Sungyeol up against the wall within seconds, and his hands slap onto it on either side of Sungyeol’s head. “Lee Sungyeol—“

 

Kim Myungsoo.”

 

Myungsoo blinks, takes a half-step back, his arms falling to his sides. He’s known Sungyeol for most of his life, and he’s never heard a tone like this. He hadn’t even known that Sungyeol was capable of that tone.

 

Sungyeol’s eyes are so serious as they meet Myungsoo’s surprised ones. “Listen.” That tone. “I am not telling you you have to talk to him today. Or even tomorrow. I know this is bigger than I can even wrap my mind around, and I’m not going to pretend like I understand. But this is the rest of your fucking life—the rest of our lives. We don’t know if he wants to go to college abroad after we graduate or if he wants to stay here forever and take over his dad’s business or if he wants to live as a hermit on some desert island or what. But we need to know. You need to know. You need to know what you two are going to do. If you’re going to do the treatment, that’s fine. If you’re going to try to make it work, that’s okay too. I’m still going to be by your side no matter what. But somebody has to make some sort of decision, and you two can’t do that until you talk to each other. And I’m not walking out of here until you tell me that you’re planning on actually doing that and not just ignoring it forever.”

 

Myungsoo stares at Sungyeol for a long time, and he doesn’t see the little boy with the gap-toothed grin who’d been his first—his only—best friend. Sungyeol is almost grown up now: still gangly and high-spirited, sure, but there’s a core to him that Myungsoo would have been the first to attest to, but that he hasn’t actually seen clearly before.

 

It’s here now, and it reminds him of how very close Sungyeol is to being a man. And that just reminds Myungsoo of the fact that—terrifyingly—he is too, and that the future they’ve always planned is so close. And that for the very first time, it’s a jumble of uncertain possibilities instead of a clear composition in his mind.

 

Myungsoo sinks down onto the bed wearily and pulls his legs up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. “I will. I will, but—“

 

Sungyeol walks over and sits down beside him, setting the camera bag down carefully between them. “You can take a couple of days. I’m not pushing you, I—“

 

“Yeah, you are.”

 

Sungyeol’s half-eyebrows fly up at the interruption. “You are,” Myungsoo repeats. And then his mouth twitches just a bit. “I need you to.” A smile, weak and crooked, but a smile, spreads across his face. “I guess I’m pretty far gone if I need Lee Sungyeol to remind me about responsibility.”

 

“Ya! Kim Myungsoo! I can responsible your ass into the ground! Who did Teacher Jo assign to take care of the class pets over the summer?”

 

Myungsoo laughs outright, a completely different sound than his hysterical breakdown in the bathroom. It’s a bit creaky, but it, too, is real. “Are you still talking about that? We were eight. They were fish. All you had to do was feed them and change the filter! It was no responsibility at all!”

 

“Ya!” Sungyeol smacks him hard on the back with the heel of his hand. “Fish are delicate creatures! And all four of them were still alive at the end of the summer! I did a great job taking care of them! Teacher Jo said so!”

 

“And of course you believe Teacher Jo—you were completely in love with her!”

 

“Kim Myungsoo, I’m going to—“

 

“Now that I think about it,” Myungsoo says, jumping out of Sungyeol’s reach, “Minyoung-noona kind of looks like her—no wonder you stayed lab partners with her when you could have—“

 

Any more teasing Myungsoo would have done is cut off when Sungyeol leaps on top of him and they go down on the floor in a pile of flailing limbs. And this is what Myungsoo needed—something to drag him out of his own head, Sungyeol being Sungyeol and teasing and letting himself be teased and just a chance to make jokes about the pretty older girl in their class who Sungyeol denies having a crush on. He needs the roughhousing and the shouted insults and the reminder that even if every single other thing in his world has suddenly shifted, at least Sungyeol is still the same.

 

They end up laying side by side on their backs, staring at the ceiling and breathing hard, and Sungyeol doesn’t kick Myungsoo’s foot away when Myungsoo hooks his ankle over his.

 

“You’re kind of scary when you’re acting all grown-up,” Myungsoo says idly. “Like Sunggyu-hyung would shit his pants and then ask you for lessons.”

 

“Dumbass. It’s your own fucking fault for making me have to be like that. I don’t like it any more than you do.”

 

It’s nice to just be quiet together, to hear the faint sound of whatever show Moonsoo is watching downstairs, to hear the clacks and clinks of his mom putting up newly-washed dishes in the kitchen.

 

“Yeol?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“When you said that if Howon—“ he hurries over the name “—wants to go abroad or stay here forever or—“

 

“Myungsoo?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Don’t worry about that now. We’ll figure it out.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They sink back into silence and in this moment, safe in the only home he’s ever known with the warmth of Sungyeol beside him, Myungsoo can almost believe it.

 

 

 

When the house is dark, Howon sneaks out in his practice clothes. He’s spent the whole day up in his room avoiding his parents—his mom, at least, would know that something is wrong if she got a good look at him and he couldn’t tell her anything she wouldn’t tell his dad and if she wasn’t satisfied with his explanation she’d worry and that would make his dad mad and— Anyway, it was better to avoid everyone else altogether. It isn’t rare for Howon to stay so entirely in his room, or at least it hasn’t been over the last few years since he told his parents about his dream and things turned sour with his dad. Mom had snuck him some food to his room and Dad had pretended not to notice, just as usual. His younger brother had barged in at one point and demanded to borrow his Playstation. He’d exchanged a few texts with Sungjong and a few with Dongwoo. But interruptions aside, he’d mostly laid on his bed, trying to ignore the empty feeling that hasn’t gone away and trying to figure out what to do next. Next—and for the rest of his life.

 

By the time the rest of his family goes to bed, he’s so antsy that he doesn’t even wait a safe amount of time until he’s sure his parents are asleep. As soon as the light goes off in their room, he’s down the stairs and slipping outside, climbing the fence instead of dealing with the gate and heading off at a jog towards school.

 

One of the side doors was jammed by a student a few years back so that it seems to close and lock but if you slam your hand up under the handle and jiggle it for a second, it will open. It’s come in handy quite a few times when he’s most needed to burn off steam in the middle of the night, and he’s glad of it now.

 

The hallways are dark and quiet the way Howon likes them, but the reminder of what happened just over twenty-four hours before ruins the mood, so he doesn’t take off his earbuds as he makes his way past the shiny new gym with its brand-new-tennis-shoe smell and unlocks the door to the old one, starting to sweat as soon as he moves into the room and not bothering to turn on the lights. The moonlight and the floodlights outside fall in big squares on the old wooden floor that’s waiting for him.

 

No one else is in the building, so he blasts the music as loud as he wants it, so loud that he can feel the vibrations in the floor and the bass pulse in the air seems to wrap around him. It’s so easy to slide into motion, to dance routines he’s practiced a million times, to feel the snap and glide of each movement. He dances until he’s run out of routines, and then he freestyles, wishing the music would swell louder and louder as he dances and sweats and doesn’t think about anything but the music and the movements. For once, not even his dream is hovering in the back of his mind. All there is is the dance.

 

When the music ends and he lurches to a stop, he’s breathing almost as hard as he had been yesterday, and over the mildew stench of the room and the musk of his own sweat, he smells something familiar—newly familiar, and way too appealing. He jerks around and for a moment he’s sure he’s hallucinating—there’s a figure in the doorway, and while most of him is in shadow, a beam of moonlight falls right across a pair of dark, familiar eyes.

 

He stares at Myungsoo and Myungsoo stares back, and then Myungsoo mutters a quick, “I’m sorry too,” and then he’s gone.

 

Howon slowly lowers the arms he hadn’t realized he’d reached out.

Chapter Text

Sunday had been long. Long, and uncomfortable, and Howon had been sure he was going to lose his mind entirely. There was the itch that wasn’t quite an itch between his shoulder blades, the way his hands felt empty even when he was holding something, a restlessness and irritation even dancing hadn’t quieted. He’d spent the morning pacing his room, fighting his body’s urge to run straight to wherever Kim Myungsoo’s house is—Howon has no idea where he lives, but he’d been pretty sure that somehow his body would find it. When the edginess had gotten too much for him, he’d eased his way down the stairs and slipped outside before his dad could catch him and things could head south. He’d jogged around the neighborhood, hip-hop pounding in his ears, but that wasn’t enough, so eventually he’d ended up back at the old gym again, dancing until his legs gave out and he collapsed in a sweaty heap on the floor to stare at the ceiling and wonder if he’d dreamed what he thought he saw Saturday night. But no. Myungsoo had been there, standing in the door, had spoken, had run away again. And in the moment when he was standing in front of him, Howon had felt—better. The twitchy energy had eased and for a moment he’d been calm. And then Myungsoo was gone—again—and it all came flooding back.

 

He hadn’t mentioned the feelings to anyone—and by anyone he means Sungjong, who’d texted him a few times. Sungjong probably knows anyway; he reads enough that he’d know any and all post-mating symptoms. Instead, Howon had kept his whole focus on the movements of his body: pacing, jogging, dancing, lying in bed waiting for sleep to come over him as he relaxed one muscle group and then another. It seemed so surreal, how just a few days before his body had betrayed him so entirely by wresting control of itself right out of his hands.

 

It’s surreal, too, walking through the hallways on Monday morning, the same hallways he’d walked down as he headed to his locker on Friday evening, completely transformed by the light and the noise and the animal warmth of so many bodies.

 

He smells them more clearly than he ever has before. It’s always been mild, the separate scents of alphas and omegas, just intense enough that he could be aware of it when he thought about it, but not so powerful that he noticed it on a day to day basis. It would be more noticeable when Sungjong sat close beside him or when Dongwoo would sling an arm around him—Sungjong’s alpha smell, Dongwoo’s omega smell. Betas don’t have their own scent, and Howon had always been uneasy with that: either everyone should have one or no one should. There’s an absence to them, and he was always more aware of the scent Woohyun doesn’t give off than the ones his alpha or omega friends do.

 

But today he’s far, far more aware of the latter. He can smell the other alphas more vividly, and the omegas most of all, so much so that it’s distracting. He knows it will die down a bit once he and Myungsoo…settle in, but at the moment it’s almost enough to give him a headache. Probably would give him a headache, except that every step he takes down the hallway, the disquiet and irritation that have swaddled him all weekend dim.

 

Myungsoo must be here already.

 

Fuck, Howon hates this.

 

When he turns the corner, it’s like there’s a magnet pulling his gaze: through all the jumble of students, dichromatic in their uniforms, his eyes go immediately to Myungsoo’s face, to Myungsoo’s eyes that seemed to have been waiting for Howon’s, though he knows they weren’t. Something bursts loose inside him or maybe something snaps into place, but either way, there’s an overwhelming sense of rightness now that he’s looking at Myungsoo, a rightness so strong that it overwhelms his ability to be weirded out by its presence.

 

But it only lasts for a moment, because then there’s a buzzing in Howon’s ears and he realizes that Myungsoo is latched onto someone’s back, pressing his body against someone’s, and the next moment Howon is all the way down the hall, his hand clamped around Myungsoo’s arm, jerking him away from whoever he’s cuddling and dragging him behind Howon’s back.

 

In the dead silence that follows, Howon becomes aware of how hard he’s panting and that it’s Lee Sungyeol’s large, startled eyes that are staring back at his now. That it was Sungyeol that Myungsoo was backhugging, Myungsoo’s best friend who everyone is used to seeing Myungsoo hang all over, and that Howon had pulled Myungsoo away and everyone in the hallway had seen.

 

And everyone in the hallway knows exactly what it means.

 

“Fuck, dancer-boy got the pretty ‘mega!” he hears someone say, and then the silence shatters into dozens of whispered and hissed conversations, and Howon is jostled as Myungsoo wrenches his arm out of Howon’s hand.

 

Howon turns to stare blankly at him, notices the flush of anger on Myungsoo’s skin. But before he can even open his mouth, Sungyeol steps forward. “He couldn’t help it, Myungsoo. It was instinctual. You know that.”

 

Howon blinks at Sungyeol’s serious expression and tone, at Sungyeol defending him.

 

“I don’t care!” Myungsoo’s voice is sharp, and Sungyeol slaps a hand over his mouth and then grins around at the remaining students in the hall who haven’t rushed off to tell everyone the latest gossip. He removes his hand with a warning look directed at Myungsoo, and when Myungsoo speaks again, his voice is quieter, at least, if it’s no less angry. “I can touch my best friend!” He glares at Howon, and Howon feels the itch return. “You don’t have any right to pull me around like that!”

 

“Yes he does, Myungsoo.” Sungyeol backpedals when he sees the two mates goggling at him. “I mean—no, he shouldn’t manhandle you. But he hasn’t learned to control his hormones yet, so cut him some slack, yeah?”

 

Now the force of Myungsoo’s fury is directed at Sungyeol. “What the fuck, Sungyeol? I don’t even know him! You’ve been my best friend my whole life and now you’re taking his side?” His voice sharpens with what sounds dangerously close to tears. The thought makes Howon want to throw up again; he doesn’t know what he’ll do if Myungsoo starts crying.

 

Sungyeol looks around furiously at the onlookers and their curious eyes, then nearly scares Howon out of his skin by shoving both him and Myungsoo into a nearby classroom.

 

“Get lost!” Sungyeol commands, and Howon notices dimly that even though the three guys by the chalk board are alphas and would normally throw their weight around if they got called out by a beta, they all disperse immediately at the whip of Sungyeol’s voice.

 

“Get your head out of your ass, Kim Myungsoo,” Sungyeol snaps once they’re alone in the room. “There aren’t sides in this. There’s you and your mate and me trying to help you make this as painless as possible. Do you want to be miserable for the rest of your life?”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t say anything, just crossing his arms and glaring stony-faced at his best friend, but at least he doesn’t look like he’s going to cry anymore. Howon’s back is still prickling, though.

 

“This isn’t going to be easy for either of you,” Sungyeol continues. “You’re both going to be acting like shits till your hormones settle down, and he’s going to be all possessive whether you like it or not, so you need to cut each other some slack.” When Myungsoo doesn’t respond, just looking away, Sungyeol throws his hands up in the air. “Or don’t! Whatever! Torture yourself if you want to!” And then he storms over to the door, though he pauses before throwing it open and looks back at them. “You’d both feel better if you touched. But no one has to listen to me, it isn’t like I know anything!”

 

The slamming of the door makes Howon jump even though he knew it was coming, and then the room is quiet except for the dimmed conversation out in the hallway. Howon wants to look away, but he can’t help but stare at Myungsoo’s face that’s turned away from his. He’s still scowling, face not quite so perfect as it is when it’s in repose, and there’s the slightest pout to his lips that makes him look even younger. Howon’s hand almost closes around Myungsoo’s hip before Myungsoo takes a big step back and glares at Howon.

 

“You don’t get to touch me until I say so.”

 

Howon jerks his hand back; he hadn’t even meant to reach for him. “I’m sorry, I—“

 

“And you have to get over your stupid hormones or whatever, because I’m still going to touch my best friend.”

 

Howon’s anger, which hadn’t surfaced out of the shock he’s been in since he found himself standing between Myungsoo and Sungyeol, stirs. “I know that, I didn’t even mean to—“

 

“I don’t care if you meant to! Now everyone in the whole school knows! I shouldn’t have even bothered with the makeup! It took forever!”

 

That last has Howon so confused that he forgets to feel angry, and then he realizes—Myungsoo must have covered the mark on his neck this morning so no one would realize he’d mated and—now that Howon looks, he can see that there’s makeup caked on the side of Myungsoo’s neck and the faintest hint of a bruise under it. Howon closes his eyes and tries to get his emotions under control. Anger is only going to make this situation worse.

 

When he opens them, he shoves any lingering fury away and tries to smile. “Were you a shit yesterday, too?”

 

Myungsoo blinks at him, dazed. “What?”

 

“I got annoyed by cars I passed. People who were driving just fine. Every time someone looked at me I wanted to bite their head off. I had to turn off my phone because even when Dongwoo-hyung texted me a joke I wanted to call him back and scream at him.”

 

Myungsoo’s anger is shifting to wariness now, and the intensity of his eyes on Howon’s face feels better than it should.

 

“I was okay on Saturday, except that I felt really restless and my back kept itching. But yesterday I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes and this morning I got to school in half the time it usually takes me because I was walking so fast. Were you okay yesterday?”

 

Myungsoo still looks uncertain about this conversation. Finally he licks his lips—Howon tries not to follow the movement of his pink tongue with his eyes—and says slowly, “I stayed in my room all day because I kept picking fights with my brother and talking back to my mom and she kept crying.” He bites his lip, like he hadn’t meant to say that last.

 

“It sucked,” Howon says. His anger really is gone now. All he feels is uncomfortable, but that, at least, is better. He takes a deep breath. “I felt better when I saw you.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes go wide and he ducks his head, a flush rising in his cheeks. He smells really, really good, Howon notes.

 

“I’m sorry about—with Sungyeol. I wasn’t thinking; it just happened. Of course you can touch your best friend.” Howon means it, too, even if he feels more than a bit uneasy at the thought of anyone else touching Myungsoo. But that’s just hormones, he reminds himself. He’s got to get them under control like Sungyeol said.

 

Myungsoo is fidgeting now, fiddling with the straps that hang from the bottom of his backpack, staring at his feet.

 

Feeling like a total ass and a sap at the same time, Howon forces himself to say the next words, even if they make him cringe. “I think we would feel better if we touched.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes fly up to his and then avert quickly, and his cheeks are redder than before.

 

Howon’s never felt so awkward in his life, but he just knows that the twitchiness would go away if he was touching Myungsoo. He knows it.

 

“I’m not—I’m not ever going to touch you if you don’t want me to.” Howon hates every single thing about this conversation. “I wouldn’t. But….” He trails off, noticing the sweep of Myungsoo’s eyelashes as he steals glances at him. Myungsoo doesn’t say anything, and in the silence Howon has to try so hard to keep himself from sniffing so as to get more of Myungsoo’s scent in his lungs that he almost turns around and runs away before he can embarrass himself.

 

But then, without raising his head, Myungsoo shuffles forward a bit. Howon holds his breath, and then Myungsoo edges a bit closer, and then a bit more, and finally Myungsoo is right up against him and Howon lets out the breath so deeply that it almost turns into a sob, and Myungsoo makes this little startled noise low in his throat, and every bit of irritation and itch and restlessness flows right out of Howon at the feel of Myungsoo’s warmth against him.

 

It takes Howon a moment to realize that he’s got his eyes closed and his arms wrapped around Myungsoo’s waist and when he does, he feels a wave of embarrassment, but he doesn’t step back. It feels too good. It feels—right. Like that first sight of him down the hall earlier, but more so. And he smells so fucking good and he’s gone a bit limp in Howon’s arms so that even though Myungsoo is taller than him, Howon still feels like he’s holding him, and even though his body is relaxed against Howon’s, Myungsoo is still breathing a bit rapidly and Howon thinks he’s trying not to cry.

 

“I’m really sorry,” Howon murmurs, eyes practically rolling back in his head at how good it feels when Myungsoo’s nose nuzzles against his neck. He can’t seem to hear anyone outside the room at all, though he knows the students must still be there, and all he can smell is Myungsoo. He can feel a stirring in his pants, but he knows that’s just residual hormonal affects and he fights it back. “I wish I hadn’t gone back for my English book.” Myungsoo hums a noncommittal sound, and the slight vibration of it against Howon’s shoulder feels better than it should. “We’ll make it work. We can do whatever you want, okay? Whatever you want.”

 

Myungsoo slumps a little more against him, and one of Howon’s hands is stealing up towards Myungsoo’s hair when they’re jarred apart by the shrill sound of the warning bell. Myungsoo pulls away from him so violently that Howon almost falls over, and he’s pretty sure he’s never seen anyone look so embarrassed in his life as Myungsoo studiously doesn’t look at him.

 

Now that they aren’t touching, Howon’s feeling the full bite of embarrassment himself. He’d just been holding Myungsoo like he’s never held anyone and he doesn’t even know this kid. It doesn’t matter that he knows they’re just acting on instinct, still feeling the bonding hormones that always kick in post-mating. It’s just nature, ensuring the kid that could have been created (and fuck, Howon really needs to ask if Myugsoo’s taken the pill yet, but not right now, not when they’re both so embarrassed) will be raised by people who care about each other. It isn’t real, that rightness Howon had felt. Sungjong would insist that it is real, that chemicals in the brain control all emotions, so it’s no different from any other. But Howon doesn’t believe in the reality of anything someone hasn’t chosen, and he hadn’t chosen this. This was something done to them, and it doesn’t matter if it was their bodies that did the doing. It isn’t real.

 

Myungsoo slams his toe into the leg of a desk and almost trips as he hurries towards the door, and Howon jerks his own hands back so he doesn’t grab Myungsoo to steady him. Fuck, this getting-hormones-under-control is going to be harder than he thought. He shoves his hands into his pockets as he follows Myungsoo towards the door.

 

When Myungsoo throws it open, they’re presented with a back—and then the person that back belongs to turns around and it’s Sungyeol, uncrossing his arms and looking at them expectantly. Howon doesn’t need an explanation to know that Sungyeol was guarding the room to keep anyone from disturbing them.

 

Myungsoo grabs Sungyeol’s arm and is clearly about to drag him away towards class, but then Howon says, “Myungsoo!” the name jerking out so quick that he almost doesn’t feel the pleasure of it on his lips. Just hormones.

 

Myungsoo doesn’t quite meet his eyes as he looks back at him, and Howon is sort of glad. “Can we…talk later?” The words roll around uncomfortably in his mouth, all the more so because of the interested eyes of the kids streaming by towards their classrooms.

 

Myungsoo’s shoulder jerks awkwardly, evasive, and then Howon glances down and sees that he’s taken Myungsoo’s hand in his. He drops it immediately and lets out a ragged breath as Myungsoo speeds away.

 

“You and Sungjong come eat lunch with us today!” Sungyeol calls back as Myungsoo drags him away. “Bring Dongwoo-hyung, too!”

 

Howon takes just a second to collect himself and then, very purposefully not flinching under the weight of all the stares of the other students, heads towards his classroom.

 

 

 

“I didn’t tell you you could invite him,” Myungsoo hisses at Sungyeol as they head into their classroom. “You’re supposed to be my messenger, not my decision-maker.”

 

“And you’re supposed to feel better now, not keep being a dick.” Sungyeol pulls his arm out of Myungsoo’s grip and pushes his face up close to Myungsoo’s like he’s a specimen he’s studying. “Or did you not let him touch you?”

 

Myungsoo stomps away from his best friend, but he knows his cheeks must have given him away because when Sungyeol dumps his own bag onto the desk next to Myungsoo’s, he says, “Well, why are you still all pissy, then? It’s supposed to make you feel better. All the experts say so.”

 

Myungsoo notes distantly that that means Sungyeol’s been doing research, and again he feels a little bad at being a jerk to his friend who’s been nothing but great—if pushy—during this whole thing. “Shut up. Class is about to start.”

 

Sungyeol gives him a skeptical look, but promptly closes his mouth when the teacher enters. Myungsoo knows this topic hasn’t been dropped, but he’s glad of the respite. It’s not like he’s going to tell Sungyeol that he did feel immediately better as soon as Howon touched him—as soon as he touched Howon, and isn’t that the most embarrassing thing of all? It wasn’t enough that his own stupid hormones forced Howon to have sex with him and bond with him for life. No, he also pressed himself up against Howon in that classroom and hadn’t even cared about his own embarrassment, not when Howon felt so good and smelled so good and every bit of the ‘pissy’ energy that had surged through him yesterday dissipated immediately and he’d finally stopped feeling cold.

 

That’s what’s making him pissy now. That he’d felt so terrible this weekend and all of it had just immediately disappeared as soon as he touched this guy he’s not even friends with. Myungsoo knows the power of touch. Nothing in the world makes him feel better than a hug from his mom or sitting close enough to Sungyeol that their sides are pressed together. Sungyeol and the rest of his friends tease him about his skinship addiction, but he’s never been irritated with himself over it before. He loves his family and his friends and he feels good when they touch him. He’s never thought much beyond that.

 

But this, just now with Howon, this had been different. This wasn’t about affection, it wasn’t even really about comfort. It was just hormones making him snuggle up against this guy who’s practically a stranger.

 

And if that wasn’t enough, everyone he passed in the hall had stared at him and even now his classmates keep sneaking glances at him whenever the teacher’s back is turned. It makes Myungsoo want to scream.

 

He hates attention. Or, no—he hates attention from anyone he isn’t close to. He adores attention from people he loves, craves it. But while he likes most of his classmates fine, they aren’t the people whose attention he wants, and he feels like shriveling up under their gazes. Those gazes aren’t concerned like Sungyeol’s or even guilty like his mom’s. It’s all about the gossip. He knows for a fact that when the next bell rings and he walks out into the hall again, every single student in the school will be talking about him. The thought is too much for him.

 

He can feel his breathing speeding up, the contentment he’d felt after Howon touched him bleeding away as his anxiousness grows.

 

And then—

 

Then there’s Sungyeol’s hand, resting on his knee. Myungsoo looks down at it, then over at Sungyeol, but Sungyeol isn’t looking at him at all, eyes on the teacher and pen tapping in his right hand. But he squeezes Myungsoo’s knee, and Myungsoo can’t help but feel better—not just because skinship from Sungyeol always makes him feel better, but because he knows what Sungyeol is saying. I’m still right here. We’ll get through it.

 

We’ll make it work, Howon had said. We’ll do whatever you want. Probably they had just been nonsense comfort words, not really something Howon meant or had even thought about. But maybe—whatever Myungsoo wants? Like university in Seoul with Sungyeol? And Sungyeol living with him? (Myungsoo immediately shies away from the thought that it might be with them, that he and Howon might live together too.)

 

Myungsoo knots his hands together, not even bothering to focus on what the teacher is saying. He breathes deep and reminds himself not to get too excited. Maybe Howon hadn’t meant it. It wouldn’t do to get his hopes up only to find out that Howon wants something completely different. Alpha or beta mates of omegas aren’t supposed to use their social power to make omegas do whatever they want, but Myungsoo knows it ends up happening a lot of the time anyway, especially with alphas. Myungsoo doesn’t think Howon is the type to do that, but you never know.

 

And there’s the rumor about the vice-principal and the old gym. Myungsoo had never believed it, but that was where he’d found Howon Saturday night.

 

He flushes at the memory, burying his head in his crossed arms and resting his forehead against the cool desk. He hadn’t meant to go to the school, hadn’t been looking for Howon at all. But he’d had to get out of the house—never mind it was the middle of the night—and he started running, and he didn’t think about where he was headed, just focusing on how the movement felt a little like relief, and then he was at the school, jiggling the handle to the side door to get inside. And then he was walking down the hallway as though pulled, and then there was the music and he followed it, and somehow he wasn’t surprised at all to see Howon dancing in a square of light on the gym floor.

 

He doesn’t know how long he stood there watching, and he feels humiliated at the thought, because if he’s honest with himself he knows it was a long time. Even worse is that he’d gotten turned on watching him, that even while he watched Howon’s body bend and twist, he’d been caught up in the memories of that body over him and in him, sweaty and strong just like it was as he danced.

 

It feels wrong to Myungsoo, that he keeps thinking about the mating. He wants it to be an ugly thing, a shameful thing, because his mind feels that it is. They hadn’t chosen that—Howon hadn’t even ever really looked at him before, would never have chosen Myungsoo, and Myungsoo hadn’t ever noticed Howon. They’d been at the mercy of their bodies, and it’s ruined both of their lives, and so he should have hated what they did.

 

But he doesn’t hate it. He didn’t hate it then, of course, not when he was immersed in need and Howon was making him feel so good as he gave him exactly what he wanted. He’d been so scared and overwhelmed when it was over—not scared of Howon but scared of…everything else. But even now, in the aftermath, he still can’t hate what happened. Hate that it happened, yes—but not how it was. It was too good. Too mind-melting. He may hate the fact of it, but when he’s alone in the shower or in his bed or standing in a doorway watching Howon move (or even, a little bit, when he was leaning against Howon in the empty classroom earlier), he remembers how they had felt together, how it had been beyond anything Myungsoo had ever imagined could exist, and he finds himself aching for it again.

 

He hates that. Hates that he still wants Lee Howon, hates that he feels terrible when he doesn’t see Lee Howon, hates that when Lee Howon touches him, the whole world feels like a good and perfect place.

 

But he doesn’t hate Lee Howon. That isn’t what he feels. It’s much worse than that. If he hated him, he could be angry with him. Instead, he just feels ashamed and embarrassed whenever he sees his—his mate. Even his yelling earlier in the hallway had been more fueled by humiliation than anything. When Howon had dragged him away from Sungyeol and set his body between Myungsoo and his best friend, Myungsoo had felt a pang of satisfaction right before it gave way to horror. Horror that he had reacted that way. Horror that everyone knew. Horror that he was going to have to face Lee Howon, who had every right to hate him and yet somehow didn’t seem to.

 

Myungsoo knows Howon feels awkward too. He knows Howon must have plans of his own that his connection to Myungsoo will interrupt. But that one moment of possessiveness aside, Howon hasn’t done or said anything that makes it seem like he resents Myungsoo or what Myungsoo’s fucking pheromones did to him.

 

And that just makes Myungsoo feel worse. That makes Myungsoo hate himself, more than a little.

 

Without raising his head, Myungsoo slides one of his arms under the desk and tangles his fingers with Sungyeol’s. Sungyeol lets him hold his hand, and the feeling of it keeps Myungsoo grounded, keeping him from losing control of his emotions.

 

But it doesn’t do anything to scare away his self-loathing or his fear. He isn’t sure even the rightness he feels when he’s close to Howon could do that.

Chapter Text

“Hoya! Are you okay? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Even if the voice hadn’t been instantly recognizable, Howon would know exactly who had grabbed him into a hug from behind—the only person who ever grabs him into a hug. He pats one of the arms crossing his chest and then extricates himself from them.

“I’m fine, hyung,” he says, turning to look at Dongwoo’s huge, concerned eyes. It’s always been funny to him, how tiny Dongwoo is and yet how full of emotion. He’s never been sure how one small guy can contain so much, and right now Dongwoo looks like he’s going to burst with worry.

“How are you fine? I was such a mess for like a week after we mated that I thought I was going to lose it—and we’d planned it! How can you be fine?”

Howon winces, but it’s Sungjong who answers. “Of course he’s not really fine, hyung. But he will be.”

Sungjong’s words don’t lessen the anxiety in Dongwoo’s eyes. “When did it happen, Hoya?”

Howon’s fingers twitch at the nickname; he’s always enjoyed it, the name Dongwoo came up with, the one he uses when he dances, the one he’s always intended to be his stage name. But right now it’s a reminder that his dream might be compromised, and he doesn’t want to think about that.

“It was Friday night, hyung,” he answers quietly, knowing that the students they’re passing are probably eavesdropping. He takes Dongwoo by the arm and starts steering him towards the cafeteria, Sungjong falling into step beside them.

“Friday—but I didn’t even know until Amy asked me about it this morning!”

Dongwoo looks so hurt that Howon can’t even feel a stab of jealousy at how casually Dongwoo talks about his mate, how he calls her by her American name even though no one else does. Dongwoo and Yejin are everything a mated couple should be, everything Howon is painfully aware he and Myungsoo aren’t.

“I’m sorry, hyung,” he says, shoving comparisons away. “I didn’t tell anyone, no one but Sungjong—“ And Minha had known too, but that was incidental and not something he needs to tell Dongwoo “—and you were the second person I was going to tell but….”

The hurt streams out of Dongwoo’s eyes as quickly as it had come. “But you had your accident in the hallway this morning. I get it.”

Howon isn’t fond of the way Dongwoo says ‘accident’ like he’s talking about a half-housebroken puppy making a mess on the carpet, but he guesses it isn’t too different.

“Hormones are rough,” Dongwoo adds with a nod as they turn into the cafeteria. “A couple of days after we mated, Amy saw me talking to one of my noona’s friends and I thought she was really going to hurt her. I was almost scared for a minute.” Howon doesn’t really want to hear any stories about Dongwoo and Yejin at the moment, but Dongwoo’s laughter is so infectious that he ignores his discomfort. Probably it’s just irritability building up again since he hasn’t seen Myungsoo in a couple of hours.

Dongwoo starts heading towards the table where they usually eat, but Sungjong stops him with a hand on his arm. “Hyung, we’re going to eat with Myungsoo and Sungyeol today. You can come if you want.”

Dongwoo looks momentarily surprised, but then he looks at Howon and his eyes go thoughtful and Howon is reminded that even though Dongwoo can sometimes seem disconnected from any reality but his own, he can also be incredibly observant and thoughtful when he wants to be. In this moment, Howon feels like Dongwoo is reading him like a book. “I think I’ll sit with Amy today,” he says. “But if you need anything—Hoya, we can talk or you can talk with Amy if you have any questions or—“

“Thanks, hyung,” Howon says, cutting him off. “Maybe later.”

Dongwoo nods, unfazed, and then puts his hand on Howon's shoulder. "I know it's going to be hard. It's so big on its own, and that's if you get to choose. But Howon, I'm really glad it's Myungsoo. He's such a good person."

Howon smiles wanly. Everyone keeps saying that, and he understands why they do. But it honestly makes it a bit harder; if he'd mated to someone who was a complete jerk or totally selfish or any number of overwhelmingly negative things, it would be so easy to just say, 'We're getting the treatment, end of discussion,' and then suffering through it would be worth it, however terrible it is. It's the fact that Myungsoo is a good person that makes accepting the bond even a consideration.

Dongwoo gives him a reassuring smile, then crushes him in a brief hug which Howon calmly endures before setting off towards his mate at the table she’s sitting at with Amber and some other girls. Howon and Sungjong exchange glances.

“It probably would help to talk to him and Yejin-noona,” Sungjong says. “They could really help.”

“Later,” Howon says, heading towards the food line, and Sungjong doesn’t push, just falls in place in line behind him and takes the tray Howon offers.

“Myungsoo-hyung and Sungyeol-hyung usually sit outside,” Sungjong says, once they have their food. “Under the tree by the soccer field, you know?”

Howon doesn’t say how glad he is to hear that—between the unpleasantly intense smell of all those alpha and omega bodies all together in one room and the force of all of the sidelong glances the other students keep giving him, the cafeteria feels suffocating—but he’s sure Sungjong knows anyway. It’s a relief to head outside and away from the press of people, and Howon knows it isn’t just because he’s headed towards Myungsoo.

Howon feels a little hitch in his chest when he sees his mate sitting side by side with Sungyeol, their backs pressed up against the trunk of the huge tree at the edge of the soccer field, and his heart—or his stomach or his damn hormones or whatever—jumps again when Myungsoo looks up and straight at him even though they’re a long way off. Myungsoo averts his eyes immediately, but Howon can feel Myungsoo’s awareness of him as they approach, can see the twitching of Myungsoo’s fingers and the flush of his cheeks once they get close enough. It makes Howon’s own face feel hot.

“Jjongie, please tell this dumbass that I’m right and that Death Note is a way better than Itazura Na Kiss,” Sungyeol demands as soon as he notices Sungjong and Howon’s presence.

Sungjong has an amused expression on his face as he sits down facing the other two, but Howon doesn’t notice because he’s too busy looking at how dark Myungsoo blushes and how he hasn’t raised his head to look at the newcomers. Myungsoo likes romance mangas? It’s unexpected, but then Sungyeol had said Myungsoo was a romantic. And it’s kind of cute, too. Howon looks away from Myungsoo and down at his own tray as he settles in the shade of the tree. He can hear shouts and conversation from other students gathered in knots around the grounds, but they seem very far away. Under this tree it’s just the four of them and the pleasant spring breeze and the smell of Myungsoo, and Howon doesn’t think it’s his imagination that makes him think his breathing is coming easier.

“You know, when I first met Myungsoo-hyung, I thought he looked a lot like L,” Sungjong says, tapping his chopsticks against his lips.

Sungyeol snorts. “This kid, the world’s greatest detective? He never has any clue what’s going on around him unless he’s looking at it through his camera lens. Though I guess he did have the hair back in middle school.”

Howon has the sudden memory of Myungsoo during middle school, an embarrassingly large mess of dark hair that was much too big for his head—he must straighten it now to get it so smooth like that (and if Howon’s fingers itch with the desire to touch it again and see if it feels the way it felt the other night in the art room, Howon fights back the desire immediately)—and a face that hadn’t figured out that it was going to be beautiful yet. Howon isn’t sure just when Myungsoo became so handsome, but he knows that back then, the only second glances he’d gotten were because of his hair.

“Are you rereading Itazura Na Kiss, hyung?” Sungjong asks.

Myungsoo shoots Howon a horrified look, and opens his mouth, clearly about to deny it, but Sungyeol answers for him. “No, he’s reading Princess Tutu right now, but we were just talking about favorites.” Sungyeol gives Howon a conspiratorial grin and lowers his voice as though sharing a secret. “Myungsoo reads a lot of shōjo. Ow! Kim Myungsoo!”

Howon stuffs some rice into his mouth to keep himself from laughing at the furious look on Myungsoo’s face and how Sungyeol is rubbing at his shin where Myungsoo just kicked him—hard.

“I don’t know why you always freak out when I mention it to anybody,” Sungyeol shoots at his best friend. “I think it’s cute.” Again he turns to Howon. “He must be embarrassed to have you know that he’s a total girl. Ow! Kim Myungsoo, do you want to die?”

“Myungsoo-hyung isn’t a girl,” Sungjong says sternly. “He just knows what he likes. There’s nothing wrong with reading shōjo, is there, hyung?”

“Huh?” Howon drags his eyes away from Myungsoo’s face. “Oh—no. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I get Howon-hyung to do girl group dances with me sometimes,” Sungjong continues. “You should see him do ‘Bubble Pop’. He’s terrible at the butt-popping but he’s pretty good at the hip-swinging. Not as good as me, though.”

Sungyeol bursts into laughter, but Howon doesn’t even feel embarrassed because Myungsoo’s surprised eyes shoot up to meet his and when Howon shrugs sheepishly, a tiny grin twitches at the corners of Myungsoo’s mouth. It’s the closest to a smile Howon has seen from Myungsoo since it all happened—the closest to a smile that Myungsoo has ever directed towards him—and it loosens a bit of tension in his shoulders.

Sungjong and Sungyeol launch into a round of ‘who can tell the most embarrassing story about their best friend’ that sets Myungsoo to punching Sungyeol in the ribs and to scowling as he blushes a few more times, especially when he glances up at Howon and finds Howon still looking at him. Howon knows his gaze is probably too much pressure for Myungsoo, but he can’t keep his eyes off of that face, and it isn’t just because he’s so handsome. He’d always thought that Kim Myungsoo was pretty inexpressive—when he wasn’t laughing at something Sungyeol said or did—but now he sees that there are all kinds of minute shifts in expression that give away far more than Myungsoo probably knows.

It isn’t like Howon to stay so quiet; he isn’t a huge talker, no, but he’s always ready to throw in a few sarcastic comments or—terrible, Sungjong says—jokes. But for some reason, talking feels like too much, like if he says something Myungsoo will take off running again. It always rips something inside of Howon, when he sees Myungsoo walking away, and even if it’s just the bonding, he doesn’t want to feel it any more than he has too. So he keeps quiet, except for laughing now and then at what Sungjong and Sungyeol are saying, and watches Myungsoo.

It feels ridiculous, almost first-crush-like, for Myungsoo to be watching Howon from under his eyelashes as Howon stares at him, neither of them saying anything to each other while their friends chat. It is ridiculous—just a few days ago they were sweating and panting on the floor of the art room, having better sex than Howon had even known existed, and now they’re listening to their friends talk about their quirkiest traits. How can a Myungsoo who reads shōjo and blushes like this exist in the same world as a Myungsoo who thrusts up into Howon’s hand and begs him to have sex with him? It’s the hormones, Howon reminds himself, and yet whenever he thinks of how intense Myungsoo’s eyes can be, he wonders if it’s only the hormones.

Sungyeol and Sungjong grow tired of embarrassing stories and turn to just exchanging facts about their best friends instead. Their tones are light and casual, but Howon isn’t stupid; he knows exactly what they’re doing. It’s a little patronizing, sure, but he and Myungsoo are so awkward around each other that he can’t think of another way for them to get to know these things about each other. Howon listens carefully, even if he’s sure it seems that his whole attention is devoted to looking at Myungsoo. He wants to know everything he can about Myungsoo.

Myungsoo likes to eat the same things over and over again—kimchi jjigae or udon—and he used to only wear plaid outside of school but now he only wears black and he’s good at Japanese and even if he’s mostly a klutz, he’s weirdly good at martial arts even if he hasn’t taken them since he was a kid. Myungsoo loves photography more than anything and his pictures are great—“I’m not saying that because I’m prejudiced,” Sungyeol insists. “One of Woohyun’s uncles is a photographer and he looked at Myungsoo’s stuff and told him he was really good and had a lot of potential”—and he develops his own film in the art room. Myungsoo sleeps like the dead—except when he sleep talks—and eats more than anyone else Sungyeol knows and he never gives his parents trouble and he’s teaching himself to play the guitar and he’s the worst dancer on the planet—“He dances like a drunk spider having a seizure,” Sungyeol crows, earning another kick in the shins.

It’s just surface stuff, the things Sungyeol tells, but it’s something, and Howon hasn’t heard one thing he doesn’t like. Myungsoo has a reputation for being a little strange—probably because of his tendency to zone out and stare at nothing quite frequently—and Howon thinks he probably is, but not in a bad way. He wonders what Myungsoo thinks of what Sungjong’s been saying about Howon, if he thinks he could ever like him. Sungjong was right: they don’t have much in common as far as interests go, but Howon doesn’t think that matters as much as whether you just like each other as people. He thinks he could like Kim Myungsoo, even if like is a very far cry from love.

He’s too busy studying the line of Myungsoo’s nose to notice the looks Sungjong and Sungyeol exchange once they’ve finished their lunch, but he blinks up at them when they stand.

“We’re going to head inside,” Sungjong says. “But you two should talk. You’ve got a few minutes before the bell.”

Myungsoo’s scrambled—ungainly, like a drunk spider, Sungyeol had said—to his feet and is looking at Sungyeol in alarm. Before he can protest, Sungyeol points a finger at him. “Stay here and talk, Kim Myungsoo, or I’ll burn your entire Naruto collection to ashes, you hear me?” And then Sungyeol slings an arm around Sungjong’s shoulders and steers him towards the building, Sungjong casting a significant look over his shoulder at Howon.

Howon rises to his feet, very aware of the tense line of Myungsoo’s shoulders. He can see it in the tautness of Myungsoo’s body: he wants to run again, to bolt and get away from the heaviness Howon can feel growing between them now that they’re alone. It would be so easy to let him.

 

 

 

“Myungsoo-yah.”

Howon’s voice isn’t loud, but Myungsoo still jumps a little, schooling his features as he looks away from Sungyeol and Sungjong’s receding backs and back at Howon. Howon’s looking at him dead-on again, and it feels as substantial as a touch, and Myungsoo can’t decide if he hates it or craves it. It’s just so…much.

“I don’t read just shōjo.” The words are out of Myungsoo’s mouth before he can think about them. “I like Death Note, too, and Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist and things like that.” Myungsoo knows he sounds defensive; he wishes he hadn’t said it at all.

But the corners of Howon’s mouth twitch, and it’s a different kind of smile than the one that shows his fangs, and Myungsoo feels something tighten in his gut. “I’m not judging you,” Howon says. “I mean, I thought Hana-Kimi was pretty great.”

Myungsoo blinks at him for a moment, but then he feels a smile touching his own lips. “Sometimes Sungyeol and I do Orange Caramel dances in his bedroom when no one else is home and we’ve drunk his parents’ soju.” He hasn’t told anyone that before, but somehow he isn’t at all embarrassed now.

Howon’s smile widens, and now his fangs are popping out, and there isn’t anything ominous about them at the moment, unless you count how the sight of them—and the memory of how they felt on his neck—makes Myungsoo feel a little warm. “I don’t just do girl group dances,” Howon says. “I do badass American b-boying, too.” Myungsoo can feel the words ‘I know’ pressing at his lips, wanting to tumble out, but Howon continues, and Myungsoo is grateful—the last thing he wants is to talk about finding Howon in the gym the other night. “But I don’t know what Sungjong’s talking about. My butt-pops are sexy as hell.”

Myungsoo can’t stop himself from laughing—just a little laugh—and the look Howon is giving him now feels less like pressure and more like a caress. That’s the hormones again.

There’s a shout from someone behind them on the soccer field, and it jolts the smile off of Howon’s face. “Uh, Myungsoo-yah.” The sound of Howon’s voice speaking his name is one of the best things Myungsoo has ever heard. Hormones. “I meant to ask you—“ Howon seems so different when he’s awkward like this. Usually he looks laid-back and confident, moving through the hallways at school without paying much attention to the people around him. But right now he looks young. “Do you need—I mean, have you taken care of—do you want—“

It suddenly occurs to Myungsoo what he’s trying to ask, and he feels his cheeks heating up again. Fuck, he’s blushed more during this lunch period then he has in his entire life up to this point. “I—“ His voice cracks and he swallows hard. “No, I already took it.”

He can see Howon’s shoulders slump just a little, and Myungsoo can’t blame him at all for the relief on his face. Howon must have assumed Myungsoo would take the pill—almost everyone does who isn’t actively planning parenthood, especially those who are still students—but there are a few religious groups out there that deny any use of contraceptives. There was the tiny chance that Myungsoo belongs to one of them. It must have been gnawing at the back of Howon’s mind, the fact that Myungsoo could make him a parent whether he wants to be or not.

“I—good,” Howon says, and even though it’s clear that’s set one part of his mind at ease, he’s still a bit stiff. “And did you want to apply for the treatment, or…?”

Myungsoo looks down at his feet, studying the grass thrusting up on either side of his shoes. What does Howon expect him to say? What does Howon want him to say? Does Howon want him to want the treatment so they don’t have to deal with this mating thing? Or does he want to try something else? The last thing Myungsoo wants to do is force Howon into something he didn’t ask for. Again.

The silence stretches warped between them for a moment and it must be clear that Myungsoo isn’t going to answer, because Howon clears his throat and says, “I was thinking we could…get to know each other a bit. Before we make the decision, I mean.”

Relief leaves Myungsoo feeling wrung out. He lifts his eyes to Howon’s. “Yeah. Yeah, that would be okay.”

“Okay.” Howon smiles at him again, more nervous than before, without the fangs. “Then we’ll…do that.”

“Okay.”

There’s a pause, and then Howon sighs, and when he speaks again, he’s back to being the laid-back guy Myungsoo has always seen. “Look, I know this is not what either one of us planned. And it’s a big decision, about the treatment. I feel awkward around you even if you make me feel better, and that’s going to make getting to know each other weird, so let’s just take our time, okay? You don’t have to think of me as your mate yet. We can try to keep our lives as close to what they were before as possible. Nothing really has to change.”

That’s the most ridiculous thing Myungsoo has ever heard—‘nothing really has to change’—and yet he knows just what Howon means. Everything has changed, but the minutiae of their lives doesn’t really have to. They’ll go to school and hang out with their friends and study and do homework. Myungsoo will take pictures and Howon will dance. And they’ll get to know each other and eventually they’ll make a decision.

“Yeah. Okay,” he says.

A bit of the awkwardness twitches back onto Howon’s face, but he straightens his expression back to a slight smile almost immediately, trying to keep his voice light. “I don’t know about you, but I feel like a fucking mess right now, and I know this is the worst come-on of all time, but I feel a lot better after I’ve touched you, so—“

Myungsoo lets go, gives in to his instincts, doesn’t let himself think about what’s about to happen, and launches himself forward, arms closing around Howon’s neck, biting back a groan at the feeling of comfort and rightness that floods through him. Howon lets out a half-surprised, half-relieved sound even as he stumbles back a bit in surprise, and Myungsoo hears Howon’s foot hit against his abandoned tray laying on the ground, but Howon rights himself easily, and then his hands are clasping Myungsoo’s waist and his cheek brushes against Myungsoo’s neck.

“I didn’t know you’d be that easy,” Howon says, voice breathy, and for a second Myungsoo is horrified at the words, humiliated and angry—this guy doesn’t even know him—but then he realizes that Howon is as unsettled as he is, totally overwhelmed by this thing that has them in its grip, and the joke-making is his way of handling it. It isn’t Myungsoo’s way; he doesn’t really understand it. But Sungyeol is sometimes like that, too, and he’s learned not to take those jokes to heart (“At least he’s hot.”).

That doesn’t mean his face isn’t burning when he pulls back. He hadn’t meant to throw himself at Howon like that, had been half-dreading, half-yearning for their next physical contact since they left the empty classroom that morning. But something about what Howon had said there—“I’m not ever going to touch you if you don’t want me to”—combined with the undeniable way that any contact with Howon is like a shot of instant relief and comfort makes him feel safe enough to just go for it.

“I like hugs anyway,” he says. He feels unbalanced but also a little giddy with the influx of good that touching Howon had given him. “Sungyeol says I’m skinship addicted.”

Howon runs a hand through his hair. It’s a nervous gesture, but an attractive one. Sungyeol was right about him being hot. “I’m not really all that into it usually,” Howon says. “Unless it’s part of—“ He breaks off, looking horrified at what he almost said, and Myungsoo’s whole body feels hot knowing that Howon had meant to say ‘unless it’s part of sex.’ Howon waves an awkward hand as though he can dismiss what he almost just said. “But we need it now, right?” Myungsoo nods. “You can—anytime you want,” Howon says. “Just—I’d rather not at school. Like, in front of anyone.”

Myungsoo looks around quickly, noting that there are a few kids on the soccer field and that they almost certainly saw the hug. “I’m sorry, I—“

“No, it’s okay,” Howon interrupts before Myungsoo can descend into humiliation again. “I was asking you if we could anyway. But I mean, in the future. I’d rather people not see. I’d rather it just be for…us.”

Myungsoo can’t name what it is that courses through him at that word. Us. He can hear the breathlessness of his own voice as he answers. “Okay. Yeah.”

Howon offers him a grin in return, toothy this time, and he bends to scoop up his own tray and Myungsoo’s as well. “The bell’s about to ring,” he says, ignoring the hand Myungsoo holds out for the tray. “People will only talk more if we’re late to class.”

Myungsoo winces. “I don’t think anything could make them talk more than they already are.” Feeling strangely like a girl in a movie whose books are being carried by her boyfriend—it’s just a tray. And he’s not a girl—he falls into step beside Howon.

“We’re probably the best gossip of the year,” Howon agrees. “I wish I could duct tape all their mouths shut.”

“I’d rather cover their eyes. I hate when they look at me like that.”

Howon glances at him. “People should learn to mind their own business. But they won’t. We’ll just have to deal with it until something else happens that makes them forget about us.”

The next wave of gossip can’t come quickly enough in Myungsoo’s opinion. Walking down the hallway beside Howon, with everyone staring at them, makes him feel like a goldfish in a bowl—no, like a frog on a table, all cut open for dissection. He makes himself reject the idea of saying he needs to go to the bathroom and rushing away from Howon. The more time he spends next to his—mate, the better he’ll feel, and the students will be talking either way. If he and Howon aren’t together, they’ll talk about how they must hate each other and how dramatic the whole thing is. If they were holding hands, people would sneer about how they’re showing off. This, just walking side by side down the hall, is actually the least rumor-fueling thing they can do. But that doesn’t keep Myungsoo’s insides from curling under the force of all the eyes on him. He does his best to keep his eyes forward and his shoulders back. They can talk. It’s not like they know anything. No one but he and Howon really know what happened in the art room. Even Sungyeol and Sungjong will never know everything. As long as that’s true, Myungsoo can deal with it.

But he can’t help but flinch when he hears a girl’s voice through the rest of the conversations: “I wouldn’t mind having seen those two mate.”

Myungsoo almost trips over his own feet, but there are Howon’s hands on his waist and then they’re gone and he’s back on firm ground again and Howon is standing between him and whichever girl said it and Myungsoo can’t see his face, but he can see the veins running down his arms to his knotted fists and the sharp line of his shoulders.

“What did you say?” Howon’s voice doesn’t sound like it usually does. It sounds like—it sounds like it had in the art room, when he was gasping and groaning, except that it sounds angry, and of everything Howon was in the art room, he wasn’t angry. Myungsoo feels a shiver race up his spine and tingle along his occipital.

“Oh, cool it, lover-boy.” The girl flips a lock of hair out of her eyes, and she’s completely unfazed by the fury Myungsoo knows Howon must be leveling at her. That’s all Myungsoo needs to know to know that she’s an alpha. “It was a compliment. You and your ‘mega are hot. Everyone else was thinking it.”

“Yeah, well, keep your compliments in your head unless you want—“

“That’s enough!”

The hallway suddenly goes absolutely silent. Myungsoo spins around to see that Headmaster Uhm is standing just behind him, his ruler in his hand. In the silence, the bell reverberates through the hall.

“Everyone get to class. Miss Ham, if I hear that you’ve said that sort of thing again, there will be consequences.” Mr. Uhm doesn’t elaborate, but he doesn’t need to. Everyone knows he’s a hardass and his ‘consequences’ are the kind no one wants to face. “Mr. Kim, Mr. Lee, please join me in my office.”

Chapter Text

Howon doesn’t get called to the headmaster’s office. The most trouble he’s ever gotten into is for skipping class to go to a dance battle in another town or saying something a bit too sassy in response to teacher’s question—not things that draw the attention of Headmaster Uhm. Ordinarily he’d be sitting here cool and relaxed since he knows he hasn’t done anything wrong—well, okay, he probably got a bit too angry at Eunjung in the hall earlier, but he didn’t actually do anything, and if she got off without a warning, he should, too—but Myungsoo is twitchy in the chair next to him, fingers fidgeting and foot tapping nervously against the floor, and it makes Howon feel on edge, too. There’s usually some emotion-bleeding for mated couples, he knows that, but it’s still weird knowing that the nervousness he feels is mostly Myungsoo’s. After the bond settles down, it won’t happen so much anymore except for really, really intense emotions or profound physical pain (or sex, which Howon doesn’t let himself think about). That time can’t come quickly enough for Howon’s tastes. It’s not that he minds that Myungsoo is nervous, it’s just that he doesn’t like anyone else’s feelings clouding his own. It seems wrong. He likes to know that what he’s feeling is really him; it’s why he’s never been interested in drugs and rarely gets drunk. But feeling someone else’s feelings? That’s even worse.

Mr. Uhm takes his time settling at his desk and looking at the two of them. Howon looks back at him steadily.

“Have you two registered yet?” he asks finally.

Of course he knows. Every single person on campus knows, and even if they didn’t, he would have been able to tell by Howon’s reaction in the hallway earlier.

“No, sir,” Howon answers. Myungsoo’s foot taps faster.

“You have two weeks before the fines kick in. Take care of it as soon as you can.”

“Yes, sir.”

“When I heard two of our students had mated without planning, I was concerned, but then when I heard who it was, I thought, ‘Ah, well, at least it’s two that won’t give us trouble.’” Mr. Uhm’s eyes rest heavy on Myungsoo, but Myungsoo is staring down at his hands knotted in his lap, so the headmaster shifts to looking at Howon. “But given what was about to happen in the hallway, perhaps I jumped to an incorrect conclusion. Are you going to need hormonal supplements to keep yourself under control, Howon?”

Okay, now what Howon’s feeling is entirely his own, and it’s frustration—with himself. He’s not the kind who can’t control himself. That isn’t who he is. He makes mistakes and wrong choices sometimes, but they’re always his and he rarely makes them without thinking about them, no matter what his dad says about short-sightedness and getting carried away by childish dreams. This, with Myungsoo, is the first time he’s ever had something affect his life that he had no control over in this way, and even if it wasn’t his choice, it sure as hell is his choice how to react to it. There’s no way he’s going to be one of the people who can’t handle the hormonal influxes and have to resort to getting pumped full of chemicals. He can take care of himself.

He grits his teeth. “No, sir. I’ll make sure nothing like that happens again.” He can tell by the arc of Mr. Uhm’s eyebrow that his frustration must be coming through on his face, in his tone, but the headmaster doesn’t seem put out.

“See that you do. But remember that if you do need supplements and your insurance doesn’t cover them, the school can request them as part of its budget. I will not have hormonally-addled teenagers disrupting others’ learning. If someone says something inappropriate as Miss Ham did earlier, report it to a teacher instead of taking it into your own hands, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Mr. Kim?”

Myungsoo’s head flies up and he blinks rapidly. “Yes, sir.”

“Trust me, the administration will take any such comments extremely seriously. We do not allow alpha-mouth here.”

Howon almost snorts, but he manages to stop himself. The administration may think that they keep alphas from saying whatever they want to the rest of the students and commenting lewdly on omegas’ sexual availability, but Howon knows good and well that it happens anyway—just mostly not as loud and careless as Eunjung had been in the hallway earlier. Howon’s always hated it, but he’s mostly ignored it as long as the alphas don’t actually say anything terrible to an omega’s face. When that happens, usually someone speaks up: Sungjong’s known for not tolerating that kind of talk around him, though Howon himself has only told someone to shut up a few times, like once when he was a first year and some alpha third year cornered a shaking first year girl in a corner of the library and started telling her in graphic detail how he would react if she went into heat around him. Howon had taken one look at her white, trembling-lipped face and told the guy to shut it. It was probably foolish, taking on an older student like that, but before the guy could start something, Sunggyu-hyung had walked up and taken Howon’s side and that had been the end of that (except for the crush the girl had developed on Sunggyu, who let it go to his head and had to be mocked for a while by Howon and Woohyun to take him down a peg).

It’s disgusting, the things alphas say—sometimes even the things betas say, though they usually don’t do it when alphas are around because only an idiot would do that. But Howon’s never pushed back too hard at the just-alphas talk, besides saying something snarky and changing the subject; there’s no point—they’d just wait till they’re out of his hearing or things would turn physical and he’s not the kind to start fights if he can help it. Now, though, just thinking of the kinds of things he knows other alphas say and imagining them saying them about Myungsoo makes him so angry his fists clench reflexively.

He forces himself to relax them, though, because he can’t do that. He can’t let the hormones get to him, especially the possessive, protective ones that are most likely to cause problems. It’s one thing to crave Myungsoo’s touch and to give into it, but he refuses to break his word to Mr. Uhm and lose his grip on his anger.

“Good, then,” Mr. Uhm says. “If you don’t allow your mating to disrupt the school environment, there’s no need for you to hear from me again. Now get to class.”

Myungsoo almost whacks his head on the frame of a picture sitting on Mr. Uhm’s desk as he bows, and the sight is funny enough to shake the last of Howon’s anger. No one’s said anything. No one but Eunjung, and it wasn’t that bad. She should keep her mouth fucking shut, but whatever. I don’t have any reason to be angry.

Myungsoo hesitates once they’re out in the hallway, looking relieved now that they’ve escaped the headmaster without any punishment.

“Want to meet up after school?” Howon asks. Myungsoo looks a little white at the idea, and Howon remembers how relieved he’d looked earlier when Howon told him that nothing had to change. He’s probably panicking at the idea of spending all his spare time with Howon. “To walk home together,” Howon clarifies. There’s no need for them to be together all the time, even if time apart will make them feel worse. Howon knows good and well that Myungsoo will want to escape and forget about him for a while—Howon wants the same thing. It’s not that he objects to being around Myungsoo; it’s just that it’s impossible to forget about everything that’s happened when they’re together. “You live in Woohyun’s neighborhood, right? Mine isn’t very far away. We can—“ He waves his hand, knowing that Myungsoo will know that they need to touch a bit before they’re separated for the evening. “—and then you can do whatever. I’m not going to take up your whole night.”

“Yeah, okay,” Myungsoo agrees and then gives Howon a weak smile before he hurries off down the hall towards his classroom, only almost-tripping once. Howon turns away with an explosive sigh, running his hand through his hair and trying not to think about all the emotions he keeps cycling through today. Too many. Far more than he really wants to deal with. Far more than he’s ever really dealt with before, blow-ups with his dad and frustrated ambition aside.

Class is a nice escape, allowing him to settle back into calmness even if the itching—which Howon can now clearly recognize as his body objecting to a lack of Myungsoo’s presence—is still annoying. It eases, though, after the last bell is rung and he grabs his stuff from his locker and heads outside and sees Myungsoo. The rightness is no less intense than it was before, but now that he’s getting used to it, he can feel the difference between it and normal emotions.

He pauses just outside the door, watching as Myungsoo laughs at something Sungyeol says, face crinkling up and hands slapping at his knees. Myungsoo’s mirth seems to take over his body, like he’s helpless against how hilarious he finds Sungyeol, even if, from Howon’s perspective, the flailing-limbed impression he’s doing of—something isn’t that funny. It’s cute, though, how unselfconscious Myungsoo is. The really good-looking people Howon knows—Sungjong excepted—mostly worry about their image all the time, but Myungsoo doesn’t seem to care that the perfection of his face is all crumpled up when he laughs. It’s nice.

“Really, hyung?”

Howon looks behind him to see Sungjong approaching, an unimpressed ‘you’re spying on him now?’ look on his face. “You’re not going to turn into one of those lurky, stalking alphas who never lets his mate out of his sight, are you hyung?”

It isn’t a serious question; Howon’s never been the possessive type. “He’s different with Sungyeol,” he explains. When he’s just with Sungyeol, all the tension disappears, the withdrawn air completely melting away. The new mating bond isn’t happy about it, how much happier Myungsoo seems with Sungyeol, but Howon reminds himself that that isn’t fair.

“He’s comfortable with Sungyeol,” Sungjong corrects. “He’s known him forever and they’re always together. He’s like that with me, too, and Woohyun-hyung and Dongwoo-hyung, and sometimes even Minhwan and Daniel and Kyoungjae and Sooyoung. Everyone’s different with their good friends than they are with people they don’t know. Most of the school would never believe that Dongwoo-hyung can be really serious sometimes and that Woohyun-hyung has lots of insecurities. Or that you get scared at haunted houses and nearly crush my hand when we watch horror movies.”

Howon glares at him. “And they wouldn’t guess that you’re a total pushover when it comes to Minha and you’ll do anything she asks you to.”

Sungjong is unperturbed. “It’s going to take a while before he’s used to you. No one can blame him for feeling uncomfortable.”

Howon definitely doesn’t. He’s plenty uncomfortable himself. He likes Myungsoo now, as much as he knows about him. But that isn’t anything like being comfortable with each other. (That isn’t anything like what a mating-bond should be built around.)

“I’m leaving now,” Sungjong says.

“I’m gonna go with—“

“Yeah, I know, Sungyeol-hyung told me. See you tomorrow, hyung.”

Then Sungjong’s gone, probably off to hang out with one of his zillion and a half friends, and Howon takes a deep breath and starts to head over towards Myungsoo. But a voice stops him.

“Howon-ah.”

Fuck.

He turns. “Hyorin. Hey.”

It’s the first time he’s ever felt anything other than glad to see her. One of the best things about Hyorin is that she doesn’t cling. They hang out when they feel like it, they don’t when they don’t. She’s never given him any reason to be reluctant to see her.

“Don’t look at me like that.” He’s always loved her grin. “I’m not here to make your life any more awkward than it already is.”

He grins back, a bit sheepish. “I know. Things are just a mess right now.”

“How’s that going for you? Being mated?” Hyorin’s manner has always seemed flirtatious, but Howon knows her well enough to recognize the teasing is just her way of being friends. A lot of people assume she’s some sort of seduction-queen and, yeah, she’s sexy as hell, especially when she dances. But there’s nothing about her that comes on too strong. She’s a lot more laid-back than people think.

“Fucking weird,” he answers, honestly.

She snorts. “Yeah, I imagine. But he seems like a sweetie, your mate. Dasommie knows him a little—she says he’s a good guy.”

It’s annoying, the little thrill he gets at someone else referring to his mate, even if he’s sick of people reassuring him that Myungsoo is a good person, like they think that’s the only thing Howon needs to hear in order to be completely fine with the mating. “Yeah, he seems okay.”

“Speaking of. Are you thick enough that you need me to tell you that we’re okay?” She laughs at the face he makes. “Don’t even pretend like you didn’t hear me call you and immediately wince. I saw you, Lee Howon.”

“That was hormones,” he defends himself. “All instinct.”

“Sure. It had nothing to do with you worrying that I was going to go all teary or clingy or something now that you’ve got a mate.”

“You aren’t the teary or clingy type. If you ever had serious competition, you’d just destroy them. And then repaint your nails.”

She laughs, a sound that makes him feel suddenly and intensely nostalgic. He knows what this conversation is.

“It’s a good thing I don’t see that sweet guy as competition,” she agrees. “I’d hate to have to hurt that pretty face.” Her laughter melts away, but her eyes are still fond and there’s still a smile on her face. “We were good, weren’t we, Howon?”

“We were good,” he agrees. And they were. Never anything but good.

“I have to say, I didn’t think our thing would end because of mating—or at least not you mating. But I always thought you’d be a good boyfriend, even if I knew you weren’t for me. I really hope it works out for you.”

Her smile is so genuine, and this right here is why he’s always liked her so much. “Me, too.”

“We’re still friends, though.” It’s a pronouncement, not a question. “I’m not your ex. If you avoid me or something, I’ll make you regret being born.”

“My life would be way too boring without you.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Hug,” she commands, and he has to laugh as she holds her arms open. The smell of her hair reignites the nostalgia, though he isn’t sad. Their thing was never forever—it wasn’t even long-term. It was good in the moment and now that moment is over and he's left with nothing but good memories and a good friend. He squeezes her tight and makes her squeal by lifting her off the ground.

Next second he almost drops her, though, because cold surges through his body and he hears a very small surprised sound.

Fuck.

 

 

 

“So maybe he’s not so bad after all?”

Myungsoo glares at Sungyeol. His best friend can be so obnoxious when he thinks he’s right. “I never said he was bad.”

Sungyeol rolls his eyes, hopping up onto the low wall at the edge of the school’s front lawn. “But you’re starting to like him, right?”

Myungsoo doesn’t really want to talk about this, but he knows how persistent Sungyeol can be. Better to get it over with. “I like him so far. He’s easy to like. But—“ How can he even explain this? He likes plenty of people—most people, really. But liking people isn’t the same as being friends with them and being friends with someone—even being best friends with someone, like with Sungyeol, where he can’t even imagine who he would be without him—isn’t the same as love. And if he’s going to be mated, he wants love. Love like his parents have.

It’s a very long way from like to friends and from friends to best friends and from best friends to love. So long that it seems immeasurable to him. Liking isn’t the issue.

“You can’t expect to fall madly in love with him right away,” Sungyeol points out, and Myungsoo has never had reason to be annoyed with how easily Sungyeol can trace the patterns of his mind before. “This isn’t a drama.”

Myungsoo ignores that, sitting down on the wall and feeling the pleasant warmth of it beneath him. “I could like him more than anyone and that still doesn’t mean I’d want to be mated with him.”

Sungyeol hmms. “Don’t worry so much about it. Take your time, like he told you to. He isn’t going to rush you. If he tries, Sungjong and I will kill him.”

“You mean Sungjong will kill him and you’ll stand there shouting insults.”

“Hey! I’ll have you know that I am a very dangerous guy!”

“Dangerous to what? Coffee?”

“Ya, Kim Myungsoo!”

There’s a tussle, of course, that nobody passing by pays much attention to since they’re all used to it. Somehow it turns into Sungyeol doing a ‘demonstration’ of how he would kill Howon, which sets Myungsoo to laughing so hard that his sides ache.

“Hey, there’s Woohyun,” Sungyeol says suddenly, pointing to where their friend is chatting with Kibum by the parking lot. “I’ll walk back with him, okay?”

Myungsoo had kind of hoped that Sungyeol would walk home with him and Howon, but he knows it’s not fair to turn his best friend into a third wheel. It’s fine when Sungjong is with them—or anyone else, really—but Sungyeol will only get impatient dealing with the stiltedness of the new mates’ conversations. “Okay,” he agrees.

“I saw Howon and Sungjong talking by the side door earlier,” Sungyeol says, hopping off the wall and sweeping up his bag. “Maybe you should head over there.” And then he’s loping off towards Woohyun with a wave over his shoulder and Myungsoo turns to go look for Howon.

He’s just where Sungyeol had said—barely around the corner in front of the side door—but he isn’t with Sungjong anymore. Instead he’s talking with Hyorin, one of Dasom’s friends. Myungsoo doesn’t really know her, but he’s always thought she seemed nice and she has really good hair, even if her personality is a bit too vivid to really drawn his eye (Sungyeol always says he’s terribly predictable when it comes to girls, but it isn’t his fault that he thinks innocent girls are the prettiest). Myungsoo hesitates in his approach, his feet stuttering when he remembers that Dongwoo had mentioned Howon and this girl once. What had it been? Dongwoo had said something about her being Howon’s girlfriend, and Woohyun had corrected him that they weren’t dating that, that they were—what had he called them? friends with benefits.

Myungsoo’s always been repulsed by the idea of having sex with someone he wasn’t in love with. Or at least he was till it happened to him. Now he knows that it can still be good, even if the emotions aren’t there. But that doesn’t make him any more at ease with the idea of doing it habitually. He reminds himself that other people are different, that they don’t all associate sex and love together, and that Woohyun had said that the situation was what both Howon and Hyorin wanted. That’s what matters, Myungsoo knows. As long as somebody’s not using somebody else or making the other person think they feel more than they do, it should be okay, even if it doesn’t fit easily into Myungsoo’s mind.

What isn’t okay is how unsettled he feels at the thought of Howon and this girl…having benefits. Most of it is the hormones, annoyed at the thought of his mate with someone else even if it was back when Howon barely knew Myungsoo existed. He can set those aside, or at least remember that that sort of thing is unreasonable.

But some of the discomfort comes from the thought that Howon has lots of experience, that Hyorin always seems so sexy and confident, that Myungsoo had seen her dance last year in a performance and the way she moved made it seem like she would be really…good in bed. A girl like that knows what she’s doing, and she probably made Howon feel really good. And then there’d been Myungsoo, who’d never even kissed anyone, and now Howon’s stuck with him and can’t have sex with anyone else without getting violently ill, and will Howon resent him? He got to have sex whenever he wanted with someone who knew exactly what she was doing, and now he can only have sex with Myungsoo—except that Myungsoo isn’t even going to think about them actually having sex since they don’t love each other. Howon has to feel a least a little bitter at having to give up Hyorin. And what about her? What if she’s mad at Myungsoo, too?

His stomach is churning and he’s feeling more than a bit clammy as he edges closer to the talking pair. Howon’s got an easy grin on his face and Hyorin is grinning back, and that should be a good thing, right? It means they aren’t going to be angry with each other so maybe they won’t be angry with Myungsoo? The sight of Howon smiling at someone that easily, especially someone Myungsoo knows he’s touched, makes him feel…lonely. Or something. Whatever it is, he doesn’t like it.

But whatever it is, it doesn’t compare to the way he feels when Hyorin holds her arms out and Howon sweeps her up into a hug, lifting her up off the ground, still grinning. Cold, acidic-edged and sharp, sweeps through Myungsoo and though there’s a tiny voice in the back of his mind saying, ‘It’s just a hug, it doesn’t really mean anything, you hugged Sungjong almost just like that earlier,’ it’s drowned out by the roar of mingled fear and insecurity that make Myungsoo’s knees weaken till he feels sure he’s going to drop to the ground.

But before he can, Howon’s head snaps around, face shocked, and he lowers Hyorin quickly to the ground, staring at Myungsoo. Myungsoo wants to slink off somewhere and cry.

“No. No, Myungsoo-yah, it’s not—it wasn’t like that—I—“ Howon is approaching him slowly, eyes huge and hands reaching out reassuringly, even as he looks scared. It doesn’t make Myungsoo feel any less cold.

“Howon, don’t just stand there, go hug him,” Hyorin snaps—not angry, just urgent, and Howon glances at her, dazed, before he rushes over and then his arms are around Myungsoo.

Myungsoo sags into them, cold leeching away, and he still wants to cry, but this time it’s in embarrassment. His reason has returned, and he feels so stupid: Howon had just been hugging someone he clearly cares a lot about, and there hadn’t been anything romantic or sexual about it, and even if there was, it wasn’t Myungsoo’s business. Howon has a whole life that has nothing to do with Myungsoo, and he doesn’t have to answer to Myungsoo for anything—

but there’s the bond.

Myungsoo stiffens in Howon’s arms, and he can feel Howon’s own tension against him, and Myungsoo jerks away, averting his eyes. Fuckfuckfuck. This is horrible and embarrassing and all his self-loathing is roaring in his ears at how Howon had no choice but to hug him and—

“You’re Myungsoo, right? I’m Hyorin, I’m friends with Dasom. I don’t think we’ve ever talked before.”

Myungsoo’s head jerks up and there’s Hyorin standing in front of him, smiling at him. It isn’t like the teasing grin she’d been giving Howon. It’s just wide and friendly and she looks completely sincere and not like she’s pitying him or sneering at him at all.

“I—yeah,” Myungsoo manages to say. “I’m Myungsoo.”

“God, post-mating hormones are so dramatic, aren’t they? It’s even worse than being pregnant, and believe me, my sister was totally off her rocker while she was. But when she and her husband bonded, it was even worse. She’d start crying whenever he talked to anyone she thought was attractive at all for the first week or two, and at first I was so annoyed with her all the time. But I realized how she hated it even more than I did and there wasn’t anything she could do about it and I couldn’t stay mad. I’ve never dealt with anything like it myself—I’m a beta. But I can imagine. I guess we should all just be glad that it’s only right at the beginning, right? Imagine if bonded couples were always like that. Everyone would be either crying or raging all the time!”

Myungsoo stares at her, dazed, not entirely sure he’s managed to understand all of her friendly ramble. “Yeah,” he says a bit too late. “That would be bad.”

“Well, I need to get going, I’ve got loads of homework tonight. But I’m sure I’ll see you around and maybe we can hang out sometime. Good luck with settling in. Bye, Howon.”

And then she’s gone in a twirl of long hair, leaving both Myungsoo and Howon bemused in her wake.

Myungsoo looks around and is relieved to see that the school grounds are almost entirely empty. Maybe nobody saw his little breakdown. Or if they did, maybe they’re nice people like Hyorin who know it’s just par for the course and won’t start texting all their friends about it. Myungsoo hopes.

“Hyorin and I—“ Howon clears his throat. “She and I used to—but we—“

“Can we not talk about it? I just want to go home.” Myungsoo thinks his own voice probably sounds hollow. He doesn’t look at Howon’s face.

“Okay,” Howon agrees. “But she and I aren’t going to—“

“It’s not like you could anyway,” Myungsoo interrupts flatly. “You’d get sick if you tried.”

“Right.”

Still avoiding looking at Howon, Myungsoo turns and starts walking towards home, fingers tangling in the straps hanging from his backpack. Fuck. Bonding isn’t like this in the manhwas. There, it’s all wanting to touch each other 24/7 and sexy, strong alphas defending swooning omegas. There isn’t anything about continual seething humiliation.

He can feel Howon fall into step beside him, but he doesn’t look at him. He wishes Howon would just leave.

He doesn’t, though, walking silently beside Myungsoo. It should be the best kind of day to enjoy a walk home: pleasantly warm, a beautiful pure blue sky ornamented with big cotton-ball clouds. There are people out everywhere, working in gardens, taking a jog, pushing their kids in strollers towards the park. It’s just the kind of afternoon Myungsoo most likes to pull his camera out of his bag and start snapping pictures of everything. But he keeps his hands where they are, the straps biting into the skin of his palms, far away from the zippers that separate him from his camera.

It feels like his embarrassment is warring with the contentment his hormones are pumping through him with Howon beside him. He’d rather just feel the embarrassment, honestly.

He still doesn’t say anything to Howon when he turns into his driveway, hoping the other guy will take the hint. But Howon stops him with a call of his name.

“Myungsoo.”

Myungsoo doesn’t really want to stop, wants to keep going up to the gate and let himself in the house as quickly as possible. But he stops anyway.

“I know you’re really embarrassed. It’s really fucking awkward for me too.” Howon’s voice is quiet, and he sounds tired. It makes something inside Myungsoo ache. “But I know it’s not you. I know you can’t help it.”

Myungsoo feels a hand on his shoulder, and though he stiffens, he doesn’t pull away. After a second, he feels Howon step closer, and then Howon’s arms are around him again, pulling him into a backhug.

Myungsoo doesn’t get backhugs. He backhugs Sungyeol and sometimes Sungjong and Dongwoo-hyung. But having always been the most affectionate of all his friends, he isn’t often on the receiving end. He’s fantasized a bit about it—about some guy or girl loving him so much that they can’t stand to see him walk away and have to throw their arms around him. He always thought it would be perfect and exciting. He hadn’t realize that it could be kind of sad.

The rightness is there, steady and undeniable, but around the edges, Myungsoo feels a sort of exhausted resignation that he knows is purely his own. Neither of them asked for this. But here it is.

“It’s easy for me to say that you shouldn’t be embarrassed.” Howon’s voice is very quiet, right up against Myungsoo’s ear, sending something hot snaking down his spine. “I know it doesn’t help. We’re probably going to both feel awkward for a while. But—“ Howon takes a deep breath, and Myungsoo tries not to think about how good he smells, how much he likes the rise and fall of Howon’s chest behind him even with Myungsoo’s backpack between them. “I don’t think you’re pathetic.” Myungsoo stiffens immediately, and Howon’s arms tighten in response. “I can feel that’s what you’re feeling,” he hurries to clarify. “But I don’t think that. Nobody thinks that. Everybody knows it’s the hormones, and the ones who don’t are asses and if they make you feel bad, I’ll pound their faces in.” Myungsoo knows he doesn’t mean that—it’s what the bond makes Howon want to do, but Howon wouldn’t let that take over, wouldn’t actually act on it. Myungsoo doesn’t think. “It’ll get easier.”

Howon’s words peter out and they stand there for a long moment, Myungsoo staring at the peeling wood of his gate, listening to the sound of Howon breathing. The shouts of kids playing some game floats from around the corner and Howon lets out a long sigh.

Myungsoo pulls away and Howon’s arms release him immediately. He can’t bring himself to turn around, raising a shaking hand to punch in the numbers on the keypad. He knows he should say something, that Howon just said shit he didn’t want to say to make Myungsoo feel better. But he can’t quite do it.

When the gate creaks open and he’s stepping inside, Howon says, “See you tomorrow, Myungsoo,” and then Myungsoo closes the gate.

Chapter Text

II: Apsidal precession

Howon is surprised to see Myungsoo and Sungyeol standing beside Sungjong the next morning at the corner where Howon always meets up with his best friend to walk to school. After the tension the night before, he’d assumed that Myungsoo would want to avoid him for a while. He doesn’t really blame Myungsoo; he can only imagine how humiliating it is to almost start crying because your almost-a-stranger mate is hugging someone else. The guilt Howon had felt when he saw Myungsoo’s devastated face was as much for making Myungsoo feel that way as it was a hormonal reaction. Even though the coldness gripping Myungsoo evaporated as soon as Howon hugged him, the embarrassment that took its place had even more of a bite. Howon had realized, not for the first time, that omegas get the raw end of the deal. The possibility of pregnancy, plus the more embarrassing reactions—the jealousy that manifests itself in heartbreak and sadness instead of anger and a possessive need to protect. The alpha-rage may be more dangerous to others, but the omega reaction is far more mortifying to deal with. No wonder Myungsoo hadn’t looked at him or talked to him the whole way home. He’s probably only here now because the bond is demanding some touching to make up for their overnight separation.

Myungsoo still doesn’t really meet his eyes after a first quick glance. Then there’s the tense shuffle of ‘we need to touch to make ourselves feel better; how do we do this without it being totally inappropriate?’ that ends with Howon slinging an arm around Myungsoo’s shoulder and Myungsoo standing steel-stiff even as he presses his cheek against Howon’s temple (the height difference is not helping he awkwardness situation). Howon knows it would be better to full-on hug, but Myungsoo doesn’t look up for that and he doesn’t really want to do it himself. Sungjong and Sungyeol keep up a light chatter that doesn’t really soothe the moment, and Howon hangs on as long as he can before he has to pull away.

“That totally wasn’t enough, you know,” Sungjong says conversationally as they start towards school. “You two should at least hold hands till we get there.”

Howon doesn’t look at Myungsoo and Myungsoo doesn’t look at him as their hands brush and then Myungsoo’s fingers wiggle in between Howon’s. It does help, even that one little touch, though both of their palms are sweaty and this is far more awkward than the first time he held hands with a girl—he was nine and it was Jia-noona on the playground at school. It’s amazing how this mating whose purpose is to turn them into parents seems to make them act like they’re back in middle school and just beginning to be interested in other guys and girls. Myungsoo hurriedly extricates his hand from Howon’s about a block away from school and doesn’t say anything as they part to go to their classrooms.

Things are easier at lunch. Sungyeol hits on the idea of the mates sitting side-by-side with their backs against the tree and their arms pressed together and Howon has to admit that it’s far more comfortable than sneaking off somewhere to hug. The warmth of Myungsoo’s arm against his all during lunch eases something that’s been tightening Howon’s throat, and he relaxes enough to actually join in the conversation today. Myungsoo doesn’t say very much, but he seems less tense than he had on the way to school, and when the four of them walk back home together, he even contributes to the conversation and says a quick ‘bye’ to Howon before he lets go of Howon’s hand and speeds up his drive to his gate.

The next several days are variations on that routine. Sungjong and Sungyeol have obviously figured out that it’s best not to leave them alone, and each day that passes with the four of them spending time as a group makes things less tense and more comfortable. Myungsoo still doesn’t say much in the mornings when Howon greets him with a hug and they hold hands on the way to school, but Howon thinks part of that might just be that Myungsoo isn’t a morning person. Myungsoo actually starts to talk to him again at lunch—not as much as he does the other two, but enough that Howon can see he’s really trying—and if he doesn’t start many conversations on their way back home, he answers Howon’s questions and actually makes eye contact before heading into his house.

It’s—well, it’s simultaneously more and less awkward than Howon had anticipated. He reminds himself to do something nice for Sungjong and Sungyeol because their plan of having the group hang out instead of just the mates is really helping. Sometimes Dongwoo and Woohyun join them, though Howon has definitely noticed that Dongwoo hasn’t brought Yejin along whenever they do. When it’s the four or more of them hanging out together, it’s easier to forget about mates and bonds, and holding hands with Myungsoo or sitting up against him by the tree at lunch starts to feel commonplace. It’s not enough physical contact to completely regulate their moods, and both of them get pissy and moody often enough that Howon doesn’t know how their friends put up with them, and he knows they should really be having sex or at least sleeping together, but there’s no way he’d push Myungsoo for that—he doesn’t want that himself. The touching they do is enough to get by for now, even if it means that it will take a lot longer for the bond to stabilize.

The gossip eases a bit, too. There still hasn’t been a newer, juicier rumor to take its place, but Howon has noticed that people aren’t constantly staring at him and Myungsoo all the time. He’s sure they’re still the main topic of conversation—and he’s more than glad he hasn’t overheard any of it—but the constant stares and whispers aren’t as intense as before. Myungsoo must have noticed too, because he doesn’t look as peaked as he did before, and Howon can see him relaxing, too.

Having a routine is a relief: it allows Howon to focus on the moment and not have to confront the future just yet. The future would only be a distraction, especially with how much Howon needs to focus on controlling his emotions. There aren’t any more real incidents, though there are a few close calls. There’s the time he turns a corner and sees Myungsoo talking with Minhwan—who anyone can see with a single glance has a huge crush on Myungsoo—and he has to turn around and run to the third floor bathroom and splash water on his face till he calms down and stops fantasizing about beating Minhwan bloody. He tenses up, irritation crackling along his bones whenever he sees Minhwan, which is just stupid, because Minhwan is a nice kid and he can’t help who he crushes on.

Then there’s time Myungsoo spends most of one lunch period texting with Sooyoung—who’s in his phone under ‘Lizzy’ for some reason Howon isn’t clear on—and laughing at whatever she says and Howon has to excuse himself early before he grabs the phone and hurls it as hard as he can against the sidewalk. He’s somehow managed not to feel more than mildly irritated with Sungyeol when Myungsoo hangs all over him, which he suspects is a combination of his bond finally figuring out that Sungyeol isn’t a threat and the fact that Howon just likes Sungyeol. Sure, he’s louder than Howon really prefers in his friends and he has exactly none of the same interests as Howon, but he’s funny and a good friend and Howon doesn’t mind at all that his circle has broadened to include Sungyeol among the people he spends the most time with.

All in all, he thinks he’s handling the more violent side of his post-mating syndrome really well. Until what happens after gym class.

In the hopes of lessening the stringency of at least one aspect of the school hierarchy, Headmaster Uhm had decided to have students in different years have gym together. Mostly Howon likes this arrangement because it means he gets to spend time with Dongwoo and Woohyun and he doesn’t mind being around his hoobaes either. But there is one absolute douche in the year below him and as hard as Howon tries to ignore Bang Minsoo and his friends, the guy really bugs him.

He’s never actually confronted Minsoo before, though, no matter how obnoxious and alpha-mouth-prone he is, and he’s fully intended to never do so, except that one day about a week after the mating, Minsoo decides to run his big mouth.

Teacher Kim had blown the whistle and declared class over early and assigned them to clean up the gym, leaving them alone to take care of it. As usual, some of the students—Dongwoo, especially—do more work than some others—Minsoo, especially—but everyone expects that and no one bothers to call out the ones who are slacking.

Howon’s sweeping up the floor in front of the bleachers and listening to Woohyun and Dongwoo’s news about Sunggyu-hyung’s band’s latest gig when he hears someone say Myungsoo’s name and suddenly all his attention snaps to focus on that voice.

“—he’s got a sweet ass, is what I’m saying. And those legs are just made to be up in the air, you know what I mean? A kid like that should always be on his back."

Ordinarily, hearing something like that would piss Howon off, sure—the sheer lack of respect to someone who’s older—‘kid’?—and an infinitely better person than Minsoo would be enough for anyone to be disgusted by the words, even without the sexual element. It’s the kind of talk that Dongwoo would put a stop to or that Woohyun would somehow manage to end by being a giant goofball and interrupting the conversation so the topic would change.

But this—this is Myungsoo. And Myungsoo is just as good of a guy as everyone had said. Howon can’t think of one negative thing that Myungsoo deserves to have said about him. To have someone reduce him to a sexual object is more than enough to make Howon furious, and would have even before the bonding, if he’d known Myungsoo then.

But Myungsoo is also Howon’s mate, and the anger that otherwise would simply be justifiable indignation at someone saying something so ugly about one of Howon’s friends feeds on the mate-bond and its buzzing refrain of protectminemineminemineminemine and hits the flashpoint, exploding into a rage so white-hot that any Howon has felt up to this point seems like a firefly’s glow in comparison to a bomb’s destruction.

The wooden broom handle actually snaps in Howon’s hands, the bottom half clattering to the ground, and he turns very slowly to face Minsoo where he’s lounging on the bleachers.

“What. Did you say?” If Howon weren’t so totally inhabiting his own anger, he would probably be scared at the dangerous sound of his own voice. As it is, he doesn’t even notice. He also doesn’t notice that the entire gym has gone silent and that everyone there has tensed up and is holding their breaths.

Minsoo doesn’t flinch. Which is proof, Howon will decide later, that he’s either stupid or straight-up evil, because even another alpha, much less a younger one, would at least back down a little at the kind of fury that’s knotting Howon up.

Minsoo just smiles. “I said your ‘mega’s a hot piece of ass. If he was mine, I’d just drop out of school and fuck him 24/7. He hasn’t been walking funny, though, so it seems you’re not alpha enough to do what needs to be done.”

Molten lava is surging up inside Howon, and at any moment the thin shell around it is going to crack and it’s going to come streaming out. At any moment. But right now, Howon has just enough control to want to try to keep this from returning violent.

His voice is still low, taut and warning, and if he weren’t so livid he’d probably notice several of the betas and omegas in the room flinching at the sound of it. “If you ever say anything about my mate ever again, I’ll—“

Stupid. Or evil. Because Minsoo interrupts. “You’ll what? You going to beat me up?” He throws back his head and laughs, but even his friends don’t offer a titter in response. Everyone else can feel what’s about to break loose, and the part of Howon that isn’t totally immersed in fury is aware of the tension of each body in the room. “You know, if you get tossed in jail, your ‘mega gets expedited treatment. Automatic grounds for dissolution of the mate bond. That means next time his heat comes on, he'll need someone to take care of him. Don't worry—I'll treat him real good."

A roar rips out of Howon and he’s hurling himself forward and it’s like the urge to tearbiterend is gushing up inside him and he can almost feel Minsoo’s neck in his hands—but then something slams into his side and he hits the floor so hard it jars his skeleton and Woohyun is trying to pin him down, chanting, “Howon, you can’t do this you can’t do this, Howon, you can’t” over and over again and Howon doesn’t even care that Woohyun is his friend and Myungsoo’s friend and would only ever say good things about Myungsoo: he’s fighting back as hard as he can, and Woohyun is strong, sure, but Howon is stronger and even more than that he’s in alpha-rage and later he’ll realize just how brave Woohyun had to be to do this, because there was no way he was ever going to win and he had to know that he’d probably end up getting hurt.

It doesn’t take more than a few seconds of scuffling before Howon slings Woohyun off of him and is scrambling to get to his feet so he can get to Minsoo, but then something pounces on him and he’s back on his back more because of the surprise than because of the person’s strength and then a pair of lips are pressed to his and a tongue is prying open his mouth and—

And Howon throws the person off of him, leans over, and vomits all over the floor. His head is pounding and his skin has broken out all over in a cold sweat and even after his lunch and the remnants of his breakfast are gone, he keeps retching over and over, covered from the soles of his feet to his scalp in clammy damp, suddenly shaky and so weak that he can’t even bring himself to move his face so that the stench of the vomit isn’t so overwhelming.

He lays there, propped up mere inches above the mess he’s made by his shaking elbows, gasping and retching and thinking Myungsoo’s not okay, I need to get to Myungsoo and distantly he hears Woohyun’s voice shake, “What the fuck, Dongwoo?”

Dongwoo’s voice is sharp and sad at the same time, and it’s a combination Howon hasn’t heard from him before though he isn’t really paying attention enough to think through the implications of that. “I had to stop him some way. It was the only way I could think of.”

Howon musters all his strength to push himself away from the vomit and roll over onto his back. It’s still close; he can still smell it; but it’s such a relief to lay down, to stare up at the lights on the ceiling. Myungsoo.

“Hakyeon, Taekwoon, go tell Principal Uhm what happened, and find a janitor on the way to clean this up.” Dongwoo may be an omega, but Howon hears the other boys’ feet start to move, feels the vibration of their footsteps through the floor, as soon as Dongwoo gives the order. It must be something to do with how Dongwoo’s never sounded like that before. He’d probably snap to attention, too. “And make sure you tell him that Howon didn’t hurt anyone, got it?”

The footsteps head out the door, and then Woohyun’s voice, quiet now. “Do you think it’s okay to touch him now?”

Dongwoo still sounds like a general. “Yeah, get him up Woohyun.”

Woohyun’s face appears over Howon’s. “We’re gonna get you to the infirmary, okay, Howon-ah?”

“Myungsoo,” is the only thing Howon can rasp out and Woohyun offers him a tight smile.

“Yeah, he’ll be going there, too. You’ll be with him soon, okay?”

“Myungsoo,” Howon says again, and Woohyun must take it as some sort of agreement, because he drags Howon upright, positioning himself under Howon’s arm. Howon feels the way he did when he was in middle school and he got the flu and after almost a solid week of barely being able to keep any food down and living mostly on broth and liquids, his fever finally broke and he tried to get out of bed. And collapsed right back onto it. Woohyun’s arms aren’t going to let him collapse again, but he can feel the strain of them. Dongwoo should probably help him, he thinks idly, but just the thought makes his stomach clench up again and he has to double over to keep it from trying to rip its way out of his mouth, and it takes Woohyun another minute or two to wrangle him upright again.

“Daniel, can you?” That’s Dongwoo’s voice again, and then another person is slipping under Howon’s other arm.

“I wish you’d killed him,” a voice says into Howon’s ear, and after a long moment, it filters through that it’s Chae Daniel, Myungsoo’s friend.

“Myungsoo,” Howon says.

“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” Woohyun says, sounding a little out of breath against Howon’s other ear. “Myungsoo. Now can you please try to focus on walking to help us get you to the infirmary?”

Howon tries.

 

 

 

 

The teacher is droning on about some particularly boring part of history and Myungsoo is doodling little figures dancing around the margins of a page in his notebook when it slams into him. Before he can even register it, he’s hunched over and freezing cold, throwing up all over the floor and trying to keep himself from tumbling right into it, hands scrabbling against his desk. When he finally gets a grip, he latches onto it so hard he thinks the bones of his hands will snap right in two, and all he’s aware of is a blanket of cold misery wrapped tight around him and a who? echoing in his head. Vertigo replicates the feeling of being on a ship in a storm only times a thousand.

“Somebody help me!” That’s Sungyeol’s voice, shouting, Myungsoo dimly recognizes, and then there are hands on his shoulder, dragging him out of his chair and he wavers upright for a moment before collapsing onto something warm and Sungyeol-scented.

“Get him to the infirmary immediately!” the teacher snaps, and Myungsoo is aware of Sungyeol trying to get him to stand and of another person’s arms slipping around him to support him.

“I’ve got him, Sungyeol-ah,” a girl’s voice says and after a moment it occurs to Myungsoo that that’s Minyoung and that Sungyeol must be really excited since she’s talking to him.

But he doesn’t sound excited as he demands that someone move the desks, and then Sungyeol and Minyoung are dragging him out of the room, and the ebb and flow of motion in Myungsoo’s brain makes him wonder when walking became as uneven as a rollercoaster ride.

“Listen, Myungsoo,” Sungyeol says, and Myungsoo always listens to Sungyeol, even though it’s harder right now to focus on him and why is it so cold and why does Sungyeol’s voice sound like that? “We’ve got to get you to the infirmary, okay? You’ll feel better once you’re there, so try to walk, okay? Even just a little bit of walking helps.”

It’s several more staggering paces before Myungsoo’s lurching brain digests that comment and then he stops trying to keep himself from shivering and instead tries to focus on the movements of his feet. It’s really hard.

“How are we going to get him there?” Minyoung pants into his ear. “The infirmary is on the opposite end of the building two floors down.”

“Kim Seonsaeng-nim!” Sungyeol suddenly shouts, and the sound of it almost startles Myungsoo off his feet, but Minyoung keeps him from toppling over.

Then Minyoung and Sungyeol are gone and Myungsoo is swinging through the air and it really doesn’t feel that much different than it did when he was standing up, but then something hard digs into his gut and he realizes he’s slung over someone’s shoulder. “I’ve got him,” the voice that belongs to that shoulder says, and Myungsoo finally processes that it’s their gym teacher with his big muscles and his air of always knowing what to do.

Then he’s moving swiftly forward and it makes him feel even more dizzy and he’s still so cold and he can hear Sungyeol’s voice saying something, sharp and rising in pitch, and Myungsoo closes his eyes because the blur of the floor tiles rushing underneath him is too much to handle.

Even through the shivering, freezing misery, the who? still bounces around in his head, and he doesn’t even know why he’s wondering that, he only knows it’s one of the most important questions he’s ever asked.

It gets briefly jarred out of place when they finally reach the infirmary and Teacher Kim rushes in at Nurse Song’s instructions and lowers Myungsoo down onto a bed. It’s nice and soft, and it’s nicer still to be lying flat and not moving, and Myungsoo’s fists bunch up in the sheets because he doesn’t want to float up to the ceiling. It’s much nicer here on the bed.

“What happened?” That must be Nurse Song. She’s nice, too.

“We were just sitting in class and he keeled over and started puking his guts out and shivering like he was in Antarctica!” But nobody’s as nice as Sungyeol.

“Something must have happened with his—mate,” Minyoung offers, and Sungyeol thinks Minyoung is really nice. Or maybe not nice, but he likes her a lot even if he pretends like he doesn’t and—

Mate? Who?

“I’m going to report to Headmaster Uhm,” Teacher Kim says, and Myungsoo feels a soft, warm hand on his forehead.

“How are you feeling, Myungsoo?” Nurse Song’s voice is nice, too, just like her, just like her hand.

“He won’t say anything,” Sungyeol says, and he sounds so worried and Myungsoo wants to hug him but if he lets go of the sheets, he’s going to float to the ceiling and he doesn’t think Sungyeol is up there.

There’s a commotion that Myungsoo doesn’t pay much attention to, shouts and orders, and then, as quickly as the cold had come, a flash of heat runs through him.

“They’re mated, aren’t they? Get him over here quickly. No, no, on the bed with Myungsoo.”

“They won’t want to—“ Sungyeol’s voice starts.

“It doesn’t matter what they want, it’s what they need. Dongwoo, why aren’t you helping?”

“Uh, I was the one who, uh—“

“Ah,” that’s Nurse Song. “Well, yes, in that case don’t touch him for a couple of days.”

Myungsoo is blinking in the aftermath of the heat when he feels something settle heavy onto the bed inside him, and there’s something warm against him and then it gets closer and he hears his mate’s voice whisper, raspy and barely audible, “Myungsoo,” and he doesn’t feel sick anymore or too cold or too hot, just tired—so, so tired—and that’s when he starts crying.

“Out, out!” Nurse song says, but Myungsoo barely hears her.

“But Myungsoo—“

“The only thing to do is to leave them alone together for a while. You all go back to class.”

“But—“

“You’ll see them once they’re better. There’s only one more period to the end of the day anyway. Go!”

And then it’s very, very quiet except that Myungsoo can hear his mate’s breathing against his ear and the sound of his own crying.

“Myungsoo.” His mate’s hand rests on his cheek and it only makes Myungsoo cry harder.

“He only did it to keep me from hurting someone.” His mate’s voice is still raspy and his breath doesn’t smell very good. He’s very warm against Myungsoo. “I’m sorry.”

“Who?” Myungsoo manages to choke out between sobs, and he feels an arm go around his waist.

“Myungsoo, it wasn’t anything. I’m so sorry.”

“Who was it?” Myungsoo doesn’t know why he’s demanding this, he’s so tired and he can’t stop crying and he just wants to sleep. But he needs to know.

There’s a pause and then his mate’s voice is very small. “Dongwoo-hyung.”

Myungsoo lets out a little wail, and then another arm slips underneath him and he’s pressed right up against his mate, and there are fingers in his hair and his mate is whispering, “It was nothing, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Myungsoo, it was really nothing,” over and over again and Myungsoo still can’t stop crying, even when he feels lips press against his forehead.

 

When Myungsoo wakes up, all he feels is a bit wrung out. Well, that and warm, warm and wrapped up in someone’s arms, a chest rising and falling under his cheek. He also hears whispers.

“I don’t care if he’s still being stubborn, after this he has to listen to us. I’m going to make him talk to Amy—tomorrow. And I’m going to talk to Myungsoo. They can’t keep pretending like this isn’t happening.”

“It could have happened to anyone, hyung. It was because of what Minsoo said. Any alpha would have lost control at hearing someone say those things.”

“Yeah, any alpha would have lost it, but not like that. That bruise is going to be all over Woohyun’s face for weeks and it’s a wonder none of his ribs are broken.”

“It’s not that big of a deal, Dongwoo.”

“Yes, it is. He didn’t even really want to hurt you, he just wanted you to get off of him. Imagine the damage he would have done if he’d actually gotten to Minsoo. Minsoo was right about one thing—the courts wouldn’t have looked the other way if he got hauled in for assault, no matter how young their bond is. If they’d been spending more time together and having sex—or at the very least touching more—their emotions wouldn’t be moodswinging every five seconds and he’d be able to control himself better.”

“How can we ask them to touch more when they barely know each other, hyung? They’re doing as much as they can.”

“Do you think I like this any more than the rest of you? I know how hard it’s got to be. But I’m worried about them, for their own sakes. They either need to start taking the bond seriously or take hormone supplements or something.”

“I think today they just need to go home, hyung.”

Myungsoo’s foot jerks suddenly like it does sometimes when he’s falling asleep or has just woken up, and the voices fall silent. He misses them—he hadn’t been paying attention to what they were actually saying, but they’re all familiar voices, ones he likes to hear.

“Myungsoo?”

A hand is resting on his head, and when Myungsoo opens his eyes, Sungyeol is looking back at him. Myungsoo tries to smile, because that’s what he does to Sungyeol unless they’re fighting, but he’s not really awake yet.

“How you feeling, kiddo?” a cheerful voice asks, and Myungsoo recognizes it as Woohyun’s.

“I got sick,” Myungsoo says to Sungyeol’s serious eyes, voice barely audible.

Sungyeol laughs his breathy laugh and his thumb strokes over Myungsoo’s forehead. “Yeah, you did. I’ve never seen someone vomit like that—it was like The Exorcist.”

But why had he gotten sick? He hadn’t eaten anything weird for lunch and there’s nothing going around and—

And then it all comes back: the cold misery and Teacher Kim carrying him down the hall and they brought Howon in and they were curled up against each other and Howon said he was sorry and Myungsoo had asked who and Howon had said it was Dongwoo-hyung, Dongwoo-hyung who Myungsoo adores who tried to steal his mate and—

And that means the chest he’s lying on is Howon’s.

Suddenly, violently awake, Myungsoo shoots upright, his head very nearly knocking right against Sungyeol’s, though he doesn’t notice. He looks down, horrified, at where Howon is blinking awake, then scrambles off the bed and towards the door.

But Dongwoo-hyung is standing in the doorframe, Sungjong and Woohyun beside him, and just the sight of him makes Myungsoo’s stomach fist up and he bounces back to the other far corner of the room, where he’s as far away from both Howon and Dongwoo as he can get.

His gaze pingpongs from one to the other, from the mate he’s now mortified is sitting up and looking at him—he’d cried. he’d cried and slept on Howon’s chest—to the hyung who he wants to scream at even as his stomach churns at the sight of him. He knows Dongwoo wouldn’t have done anything wrong—Howon had said Dongwoo did it to keep him from hurting someone, which doesn’t make sense right now in Myungsoo’s churning brain—because Dongwoo is good and kind and he loves Yejin-noona. But even knowing that—knowing it without any doubt—doesn’t stop his stomach from lurching.

“I think you should go, hyung,” Sungjong says suddenly, and he looks a little paler than usual.

“Yeah, you’re right, Sungjongie,” Dongwoo says, and then he gives Myungsoo a smile that’s all affection and compassion and Myungsoo wants to pick up the nearest object and hurl it at his face. But Dongwoo slips out of the room, and his stomach sinks out of its knots.

But Howon is still there, looking at Myungsoo, and it’s too much right now. Why does he always have to look at him? Myungsoo likes to look at people, but only people he loves, like Sungyeol and Sungjong and Dongwoo-hyung (not right now. he doesn’t think he’ll want to look at Dongwoo-hyung for a very long time). But Howon doesn’t love him like that, so why does he look at him?

“Okay.” It’s Sungjong’s voice, brisk and efficient as usual. “Here’s what happened. Someone said something really douchey about you, hyung. Howon-hyung got really mad and Woohyun-hyung tried to stop him from getting violent, but unfortunately it didn’t work.” Sungjong gestures towards Woohyun, and for the first time Myungsoo notices the big ugly bruise rising along the left side of Woohyun’s face and the ice pack Woohyun is holding against it, notes the edge of a white bandage of some sort peeking out below the hem of his shirt. Woohyun smiles wryly. “There wasn’t any other way to get him to stop and so Dongwoo-hyung kissed him. And then he threw up and you threw up and they brought you here and we brought him here. And it didn’t mean anything at all, and there’s no reason to worry about it, but I’m sure you still will.”

Myungsoo opens his mouth to say something, but closes it when he sees Howon open his. Howon doesn’t say anything either.

“You two are going to need to touch a lot more to help you recover from this.” Sungjong’s voice is still matter-of-fact, but his eyes are soft as they look at Myungsoo. “I know it sucks, but that’s literally the only cure. The best way is for you to sleep beside each other tonight.”

Myungsoo’s mouth falls open and Howon looks down at the floor and then Sungyeol claps his hands. “So. Anybody up for a sleepover?”

Chapter Text

Yejin-noona grins when she sees him. “Rough night?” she says, sliding into the chair across from Howon and taking a sip of her bubble tea.

“I’d really rather not do this now,” Howon answers. He has a headache, and even knowing that it’s entirely stress-fueled doesn’t help take the edge off of it. The table in the little shop is cool under his hands and he’d like to lay his cheek against it, potential stickiness be damned. It’s not quiet here, but the buzz of conversation is even and could be soothing in its own way. Anything would be better than actually having this conversation.

“I know that.” It doesn’t make the least bit of sense because they don’t look anything alike, but somehow the look in Yejin’s eyes as she studies him reminds Howon of Dongwoo when he’s being thoughtful. Maybe it’s true that mated couples start to look more like each other. The thought is not one Howon wants to entertain. “You had a bad day yesterday.”

Howon snorts. He hadn’t known it was possible to feel that awful—to feel that angry, to feel that sick, to feel that guilty, to feel that embarrassed, to feel that awkward. Howon is pretty sure he’s been feeling emotions humans don’t even have names for since he and Myungsoo mated.

“But it’s not going to make things better to keep putting this off,” Yejin continues. “Dongwoo is worried about you.”

Howon’s stomach lurches at the name, and he grabs his cup of water and sucks some down. It doesn’t do anything to soothe the ache in his belly.

“And from what he’s told me, I’m a bit worried, too.”

“Look. Noona.” Howon likes Yejin, has liked her since the day Dongwoo introduced her as the new girl from the States who had just joined his class. She’s got a great sense of humor and is kind and the best mate for Dongwoo Howon can imagine. But right now, he can’t muster any warm feelings towards her at all. “It’s nice that you and hyung care about us. I know you want to help. But your situation is completely different than ours—you loved each other, you chose each other. I really don’t think there’s anything you can say that’s going to help me.”

Yejin is quiet for a long moment, sipping her bubble tea contemplatively and leaving Howon to stew in his annoyance. He’s about to just stand up and leave when she sets her cup down and folds her hands on the table in front of her.

“I got sick yesterday, too,” she says calmly. “Not the way you and Myungsoo did, but I was sitting in Japanese class and suddenly felt like I was seasick. And I was freezing and angry. I knew that Dongwoo had kissed someone. And it didn’t matter that I trust him enough that I knew there had to be a good explanation for it. I still felt like ripping someone’s head off, and I didn’t feel better till we went home after school and got to spend some time together.”

The jumble of emotions Howon feels at this information is overwhelming. If he’d thought about it, he would have realized that of course Yejin would be affected. But he hadn’t thought about it.

He clears his throat, scratching at the back of his neck. “And hyung?”

“I think he had a hard time staying on his feet after he kissed you.” Howon flinches, but Yejin doesn’t seem affected at all by her own words. “He was probably almost as sick as you were. But he’s stronger than people think. He knew he had to take care of the situation and of you. Sometimes he manages to do things through sheer force of will that should be impossible.”

Howon doesn’t say anything. He’s thankful to Dongwoo for what he did, but he doesn’t know how to address it, not after what happened and how he felt. How he still feels, to be honest.

“You got the best sleep of your life last night, didn’t you?”

The question seems so abrupt and out of nowhere that Howon can do nothing but gape at her. What the fuck?

Yejin is unperturbed. “He explained to me about what happened,” Yejin continues. “About the gym and why he had to do it. He said you went to Sungjong’s house last night and had a ‘sleepover.’” Her mouth flexes into a grin around the word. “That was smart of Sungyeol—you’re lucky to have him; he’s so sharp. Making it less awkward for you.”

Less, maybe, but it was still plenty awkward, heading to Sungjong’s house after being dismissed from the infirmary. Sungyeol had gotten his mom to come pick them up because Howon and Myungsoo were still too shaky to walk the whole distance, and Howon had spent the car ride trying not to think of Myungsoo squeezed between him and Sungjong or to look at Sungyeol’s mom’s worried eyes in the rearview mirror. He and Myungsoo spent the afternoon sitting stiffly side-by-side on the couch, not looking at or talking to each other and barely communicating with anyone else, all too aware of their sides and thighs pressed together, of Howon’s arm around Myungsoo’s shoulder. Sungyeol, Sungjong, and Woohyun had tried to keep the mood light and fun, putting in comedy DVDs and making sure there was as a ton of junk food, but all Howon could think about was Myungsoo crying and sleeping on top of him and the waves of embarrassment coming off of him now. As terrible as those thoughts were, though, they were at least a distraction from remembering how close he’d come to really hurting Minsoo. Just the thought was enough to make him feel exhausted. He’d come so close to almost destroying his life completely. Even if he managed to escape jail, he’d never be able to become an idol if he had something like assault on his record. It was terrifying to think about, and he felt like if he moved the terror would take over him completely, so he sat still, Myungsoo brooding and warm beside him.

The others had eventually given up on trying to raise the mates’ spirits, and when Myungsoo’s eyelids started drooping, Sungjong announced that really they probably just needed some sleep to recover.

The other guys had spread out their blankets and pillows on the floor in the living room like it was just a normal sleepover, but again, it didn’t do anything to ease the tense mood. “Just sleep back to back,” Sungyeol commanded, and Howon had grabbed that advice as the least awkward position he could imagine at the moment.

Still, though—plenty awkward. Myungsoo’s back was so warm against Howon’s, and Howon could smell him so clearly. He even felt like he could hear the sound of Myungsoo’s breathing over all the other sounds in the room, which was ridiculous considering how loud Sungyeol snores. Every time Myungsoo moved, Howon felt the shift of his shoulder blades, and sometimes their feet would touch and Myungsoo’s skin against his felt better than Howon wanted to think about.

He’d fallen asleep so quickly, though, which he hadn’t expected, even though Sungjong had said something about emotional upheaval being incredibly draining. And Yejin was right—it was some of the best sleep he could remember, deep and dreamless, even if it ended abruptly when Howon woke up the next morning and found that he had rolled over onto his side and somehow pulled Myungsoo into his arms, Myungsoo’s nose tucked into his collarbone and his hand tangled in the fabric of Howon’s tank top. It had felt—it had felt perfect, Myungsoo so warm, the smooth skin of his arm under Howon’s hand, the smell of him filling Howon’s lungs, the rise and fall of his chest against Howon’s. But it was his own morning wood that made Howon jerk away, lurching into full awareness without any lingering grogginess, sitting up and scooting away from Myungsoo, whose face crinkled in his sleep as though discontent. Howon breathed hard through his nose, thinking blank thoughts until he finally brought his arousal under control. Fuck.

It felt so easy, sleeping with Myungsoo in the infirmary and again on Sungjong’s living room floor. Howon wasn’t a cuddler, but this was warm and comforting without feeling confining. And yet, he knew—he knows now—that those feelings are false, that they aren’t him, they’re just lies his hormones are telling him, and getting hard was all the reminder he needed of that. He’d pulled the blanket up to Myungsoo’s chin and sought out Sungjong, already awake, in the kitchen. Sungjong, thankfully, didn’t say anything about seeing the mates cuddled up together and he didn’t even ask how Howon slept—better than he could remember—or felt—completely refreshed, except for the growing uneasiness of about just how little of his own life was under his control. First it had been his dad forbidding him to pursue his dream, then the mating taking over him. Now it’s these feelings he doesn’t want to have. If he can’t even control his own feelings, what does he have at all?

His disquiet had only grown when Dongwoo had texted him a while later and commanded him to meet Yejin at the bubble tea joint that afternoon. Howon hadn’t been surprised by the text and he was less stunned than almost anyone else would be at Dongwoo being so forceful. But he hadn’t wanted to do it, had only agreed to go because Sungjong threatened to ‘destroy’ him if he didn’t.

Even then, he might not have actually gone if Myungsoo hadn’t stumbled into the kitchen, blinking like a kitten, hair rumpled and face creased from his pillow. He looked absolutely adorable, honestly, except for the way his borrowed sweats clung to his ass and legs, reminding Howon again of waking up hard, of the art room and the taste of Myungsoo’s skin and the scent of pheromones and chemicals. Howon had fled as quickly as he could without hurting Myungsoo’s feelings, and he’d jogged home and taken a cold shower that didn’t help at all—he ended up jerking himself off to the thought of Myungsoo’s flushed face, his flawless skin, his heat and tightness. Howon had wondered, briefly, if Myungsoo ever ended up aroused because of Howon, and the thought of Myungsoo touching himself while thinking of him was what sent Howon over the edge. He’d managed up to this point to keep himself from actually acknowledging that it’s Myungsoo he thinks about when he jerks off now, but this time there was no denying it: the conjured image of Myungsoo in his own shower, neck tilted back and Adam’s apple jerking as he slid his hands over his body and whispered Howon was seared in Howon’s mind. The orgasm was fantastic, but the aftermath—guilt and shame—twisted it into something bitter.

Maybe he’d ended up here with Yejin more out of penance than anything. Myungsoo would surely be horrified if he knew that Howon was masturbating to thoughts of him, even if it was to be expected due to their bond, and all the more because it was still in flux. Howon still felt like he was taking advantage of Myungsoo, even if his hormones were all whispering that Myungsoo was his anyway and there was nothing to be ashamed of.

The conflict he’d felt over it had started to make his head pound, and now that he’s sitting here with Yejin, he can’t even really remember how good he’d felt this morning. It seems very far away now.

He swallows hard. “So I slept well. That’s the hormones, right?”

“Yeah, that’s the hormones,” Yejin agrees. “The first week or two after Dongwoo and I bonded, I slept better than I ever have in my life. It’s not quite so good since our bond settled—I dream again now, and sometimes if I’m stressed or upset I have trouble sleeping just like anyone else—but I still feel better rested if Dongwoo’s with me than if he isn’t.”

Howon wants to say something snarky about how it must be nice to have a mate you love so you can snuggle up and sleep so well every night, but he tries to curb his tongue around Yejin. She’d sass him right back, and often does when they’re just teasing each other. He’s never dealt with an actually angry Yejin, but he can’t imagine it being pleasant. Dongwoo has told him that they don’t fight often, but when they do, it’s intense.

“Howon, we both know that what you should really be doing is having sex with him.” She holds up a hand to halt him when he almost jerks to a stand. “I know you’re not going to. No one is asking you to. But that’s what the bond is designed to do. If you were having sex, your hormones would have settled down some and you’d probably be completely back to normal within the next week—well, back to normal as far as bonded couples go. But the less you touch, the less time you spend together, the longer the settling process will take. And the longer it takes, the greater the danger is that you’re going to lose your temper—again—or that Myungsoo’s going to fall into depression or something.”

Howon looks away from her, feeling a muscle jump in his jaw. She’s right, and he knows it, but that doesn’t make him feel any less irritated with her.

“Hey.” Her finger pokes into his forehead and he blinks as she turns his head so that he’s looking at her again. “Someone could get hurt, Howon. Seriously. Someone already has. Woohyun’s ribs are bruised and he’s going to be in pain for a while, but it could easily be so much worse. You could end up locked up forever and then you and Myungsoo will have to go through the treatment. You cannot carry on this way. You have to start spending more time with him, touching him, or you have to take the hormones or something. Are you seriously willing to put your future at risk?”

His future. He’s barely let himself think of it since that night in the art room, keeping his focus firmly on the present. He hasn’t allowed himself to think about the ways a mate could disrupt his plans, hasn’t been practicing his dancing as much as he had before, as much as he should. His dream has never seemed further away.

“What the fuck am I supposed to do, noona?” Yejin doesn’t flinch at the crudity; she knows it’s not directed at her. “I like him, but we still don’t feel comfortable around each other, and it’s clear he wants his life to be disrupted as little as possible—what the fuck am I supposed to say to him? How can I ask him to do anything more at all?”

Yejin’s face is very serious now. “I know it’s hard with Myungsoo. You don’t want to hurt him.”

“I don’t want to hurt him any more than I already have. Fuck, noona, you should have seen his face right after we—“ Howon’s voice breaks, and the pain sparking through him is tinged with guilt. “He was terrified. He was practically broken.”

“Howon, you couldn’t have—“

“I fucking know I couldn’t have done anything differently! But that doesn’t change the fact that he looked at me like—“ He can’t even think of the words to describe Myungsoo’s eyes afterwards. He never wants to think about that again. And yet after his orgasm earlier this morning, when he was still panting and wrapped in the steam of the shower, it had been those eyes he’d seen, those eyes that sent him on his spiral of guilt.

“Of course he did.” Yejin’s voice, in counterpoint to his, is very quiet. “Would you expect anything else?”

“No—I know. I know it was to be expected. I know it, but—“

“Noona’s right. How else would you expect some kid who’s never even been kissed to react?”

Howon and Yejin’s heads swing around just as Sungyeol slings one long leg over the back of the chair beside them and settles himself into it, sipping at his bubble tea.

“Sungyeol,” Yejin chides, but she’s got a fond grin on her face. Dongwoo had said she and Sungyeol are close.

Sungyeol just gives her a cheeky grin, turning back to Howon, who’s staring at him in horror. “What, you didn’t know? Yeah, Myungsoo’s never kissed anyone. He was waiting to fall in love for the first time.”

Howon drops his forehead to the table, ignoring the slight stickiness and trying to wrap his mind around this new information. “Fuck.” Well, that’s just fantastic. Myungsoo hadn’t just been a virgin, he hadn’t even kissed anyone. Well, at least Howon hadn’t kissed him either. He lets out a bitter little laugh. At least Howon hadn’t stolen that from him too.

He feels Sungyeol patting his head and groans.

“How did you know we were here, Sungyeol?” Yejin asks.

“Dongwoo-hyung told me. I thought you might need me. After all, I’m the expert on Kim Myungsoo.”

A spark of jealous resentfulness snakes through Howon at the thought of anyone else being an expert on his mate and—fucking hormones.

Sungyeol grabs a fistful of Howon’s hair and pulls his head up. “As amusing as the wallowing is, it’s time to talk. I’m going to tell you what you need to know. Pay attention because this stuff is important.” He releases Howon’s hair and Howon fights the urge to let his head drop back down again.

“I’ve mentioned this already, but Myungsoo is a romantic. You’ve probably figured that out, what with the shōjo and the never being kissed.” Sungyeol looks thoughtful and fond and serious and amused all at the same time, and Howon thinks that if he hadn’t already known that Sungyeol cares more about Myungsoo than anyone, he’d figure it out now. “He really believes in deep, beautiful love, and you can’t even write him off as naïve, because his parents have some swoony story they raised him on about it being love at first sight and them deciding to mate and living happily ever after blah blah blah blah blah,” Sungyeol continues, waving his hand dramatically. “He’s also sensitive, and I don’t just mean that in the sappy way. Yeah, he can get hurt easily, but he can also get angry if you push him too far, and he’s scary when he is. He hates being reduced to his looks—he could care less how handsome he is, and he’s got this insecurity about people only liking him for who they think he is, not who he really is. He’s going to be a fantastic photographer one day, and he wants like a zillion kids—he’s fucking great with kids, it’s adorable—and he likes being close as he can be to people he cares about, physically, emotionally, it doesn’t matter. He’s clingy.” The fond look falls off of Sungyeol’s face and he focuses his gaze on Howon, dark and unflinching. Howon shifts in his chair.

“He is,” Sungyeol emphasizes. “If he really likes you, he wants to be with you all the time. When we were little, the only temper tantrums he ever threw were when we had to be separated when he wasn’t ready. Fuck, last year my family went on vacation and we were only gone for a week, by I know for damn sure that he was all mopey while I was gone. He nearly drives Sungjong crazy with wanting to squeeze his face and touch him and smell him all the time, and the only reason I haven’t killed him already is because I’ve had practically my whole life to get used to it. If he ever really fell for someone, he’d never want to let that person out of his sight, and he’d be super fucking intense about being in love, and he’d want to be touching them 24/7 and—“ Sungyeol leans over the table, gaze fixed on Howon. Howon’s head has started to spin from all this information coming at him so fast, but something about Sungyeol’s eyes make him feel at least marginally stabilized.

“And if those are things you can’t deal with, then you should apply for the treatment right fucking now.” Sungyeol’s voice, Sungyeol’s eyes are so intense Howon can’t drag his own eyes away. “He’s who he is, and he can be overwhelming to some people—hell, I get overwhelmed by him sometimes myself. But he feels so much and he has so much that he wants to give and he deserves someone who can appreciate all those things about him, and if you can’t, you need to walk away.”

It’s very quiet around the little table as Sungyeol sits back in his chair. The buzz of conversation from the other customers seems very far away, like the three of them are encased in their own little bubble world. Howon finds that he’s been gripping the edge of the table and makes himself loosen his fingers and put his hands back in his lap, trying not to think about the way they fist up immediately. Finally, he clears his throat. “I’m not—I’m not like that.”

Sungyeol glances at Yejin, who shakes her head. “I know you’re not?” Sungyeol says, like he has no idea what Howon’s trying to say. “Fuck, I knew that before we even knew each other.”

Howon shakes his head. “No. I mean—I can’t be that intense.” That’s not true, not exactly. He’s that intense when he’s dancing. He can be that intense when he’s working hard at something—anything—that he finds important. He thinks maybe he’s that intense when he’s having sex. But maintaining that? He can’t come close. “At being romantic and shit. I’m not—I’m never going to be able to stare into his eyes for hours and plan romantic nights or something. That’s not me. I can’t give him that.”

Yejin hides a smile behind her hand, but Sungyeol merely looks like he understands. “I wouldn’t worry about that. Actually, I think it’s better for him to be with someone who’s not that way.”

“What does that mean?” What had Sungyeol meant with his long speech, if not that that’s what Myungsoo wants?

“It means that that’s who Myungsoo is. But can you fucking imagine if he was with someone who was like that, too? Everything would be so intense and sappy and nothing would ever get done. If someone would let him, he’d sink so deep into love that he’d never pay attention to anything else, even his camera. He needs someone who can make him pull back sometimes. He needs someone laid back, frankly. The only reason we work as well as we do as friends is because I can push him away and he trusts me enough to know that I’m not pushing him away. Honestly, what he needs is someone to let him get as close as he wants to the edge but then pull him back when he’s about to fall.”

“That’s really poetic, Yeol,” Yejin says when Sungyeol finishes.

“Shut it, noona,” Sungyeol shoots back, but Howon’s mind is churning too fast for him to recognize the ease between them.

“I don’t know if I can be that either.”

At his quiet voice, Sungyeol and Yejin’s heads turn to look at him again. Sungyeol’s fingers drum a spider rhythm on the table.

“Okay, let me be honest,” he says, and Howon snorts. Sungyeol acknowledges the irony with a wry grin. “I’m serious. I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I think you need to hear it.” Howon braces himself, but while Sungyeol does indeed look serious, he doesn’t look grim and he’s lounging back in his chair again instead of leaning forward with intent. “I think you can. Be that, I mean. I’ve thought it from the beginning. Well, no—at the beginning I was just freaking the fuck out inside and trying not to let Myungsoo see it because if I freaked out, he’d lose it completely. But I was terrified, let me tell you. Myungsoo’s like—“ Sungyeol waves his hand awkwardly like he thinks it will make what he’s about to say less earnest. “—the most important person in the world to me. I couldn’t stop thinking of what this would do to him. But then, that first night, I saw his phone while he was asleep, and I saw that you called him and I felt a tiny bit better. And then Sungjong called me and he told me that you were just as messed up as Myungsoo, and I thought about the fact that you’re Sungjong’s best friend, and then you brought the camera over and—“

Sungyeol looks really uncomfortable, the tips of his ears turning red. “And I thought about what Sungjong said about you and I even called Woohyun and Sunggyu-hyung and I started to think, ‘Maybe this could turn out to be a good thing.’”

Howon tries not to get angry, he really tries. But the words still force their way out of his mouth anyway. “Easy for you to say.”

“No!” Sungyeol’s ears are still red, but his eyes are sharp now, and he’s leaning forward again. “It’s not easy for me to say! That’s the whole point. Don’t you get it? I care about Myungsoo more than I do about anything else in the fucking world, and if I say this to you, I mean it. This whole situation sucks balls. It does. It’s fucking awful, and you’re both bordering on miserable all the damn time when you aren’t fully there, and I don’t blame you. But that’s right now. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy because I already know it isn’t. But I’m saying that I think that if you get past this bonding bullshit, you two could be good for each other. You’re a good guy and you don’t want to hurt Myungsoo if you can help it, but if that were all, I’d probably still be telling Myungsoo to at least think about the treatment. The reason I haven’t is because, bond aside, I think Lee Howon and Kim Myungsoo could be good for each other. That’s what I’m saying.” He falls back against the back of his chair, looking strangely haggard all of a sudden.

Howon’s throat feels like it’s closing up, and it’s hard to squeeze the breath out to fuel his question. “Why would you say that?”

Sungyeol waves his hand again. “Because you’re steady. When the hormones aren’t fucking you up. You’re laid back and you may have more, like, intense emotions than I know about, but you don’t let them rock you. You can be practical and realistic and you work hard and you’re more about actions than words.” Howon needs for his head to not start spinning again, so he doesn’t think about the implication behind Sungyeol’s words: that he’s been using the time they’ve spent together to scope Howon out and figure out if he’d be a good mate for his best friend. “And I think that you could balance out Myungsoo. You could—you could give him—shit, you could give him a foundation that I can’t always be around to give him. If you loved him, even if it wasn’t big fireworks romantic, even if it was just really good friends, you might not be about the gestures and the intensity, but you’d still show him enough that he’d feel safe. And honestly, that’s all I can fucking ask for him. I just want someone who won’t hurt him and who’ll appreciate him and who he’ll feel safe with. And I think you can give him that.”

Howon unknots his fists long enough to wipe his palms on his jeans. It’s always been weird for him, hearing what he looks like from other people’s perspectives. Even when they say good things, he’s never felt comfortable with it, not when it’s sincere and insightful and not just ‘Oh, Howon’s good at dancing’ or ‘Oh, Howon’s hot.’ Surface-level compliments he eats up, with a snarky grin and a prompt for more. But this is a different thing altogether. “And me? What would I get from him?”

He knows it sounds like a selfish question, but fuck it, if this isn’t the time to be a little bit selfish—when figuring out if he wants to be bonded to someone for the rest of his life—then he doesn’t know when that would be.

Sungyeol’s smile is fleeting, not gummy, more adult-looking than most Howon has seen from him. “If you tell him I told you this, I’ll fuck you up. It’ll go straight to his head.”

Howon’s shoulders are still tense, but he manages a smile back. “I’ll keep it for blackmail purposes.”

Sungyeol seems amused by that. “Well, for one thing, you’d never have to doubt even for a second that someone out there thinks you’re the greatest thing on the planet.” Howon lets out a little bark of a laugh, still tense but actually amused, and Sungyeol grins again. “I’m serious. I’ve never once had to worry that no one liked me. Myungsoo always made sure I knew how he felt without even really meaning to. The kid is loyal the way a barnacle is loyal. And he’s clingy, sure, but he also wants to spoil the shit out of you. It’s kind of nice. Most of the time. And when it gets too intense you just tell him and he’ll back off. Mostly. He’s also funny, once you get to know him, and he’s fucking adorable, and he’s talented and smarter than he lets most people see. And no one is better at pulling someone out of a funk. Like if you came home all down about something at work, I can guarantee you he’d be able to distract you one way or another. He wouldn’t make you talk when you don’t want to, and it takes a lot to make him angry, and he’ll listen to you talk about absolutely anything at all if it’s important to you and even if he has no clue what you’re talking about, it will really be the most absorbing thing in the world to him just because you care about it. And he’d never, ever look at anyone else.” Sungyeol waggles his eyebrows. “And don’t tell me the sex wasn’t awesome.”

Howon isn’t one for blushing, but he flushes red, images from the art room flashing through his head and tangling themselves up with the more recent memories of jerking off in the shower this morning. “That was the hormones.”

Yejin takes this as an opportunity to reenter the conversation; Howon had almost forgotten she was still here. “It is the hormones, yeah. But it’s not only the hormones. They make heat-sex more desperate for someone, definitely, but they can’t keep someone’s personality from coming out.” A wicked little grin shoots across her face. “I’m just saying—when Dongwoo’s in heat, we still end up laughing in bed. Before he makes me scream, of course.”

“Noona!”

She just laughs at their faces. “I’m just saying.”

Sungyeol clears his face of disgust and turns his attention back to Howon, more relaxed now after Yejin’s levity. “Look. I think it could work. Sungjong thinks it could work. So do Woohyun and Dongwoo-hyung and Sunggyu-hyung and Yejin-noona.”

“You’ve talked about it?” Howon should probably feel more irritated than he does.

Sungyeol gives him a ‘what the fuck do you think?’ look. “We all know you both now. We’ve got your backs and we’ll help you out if you need it—even if you won’t fucking ask for it. But we’ll also understand if you decide you can’t do it.”

“You’re going to have a support system whatever you choose,” Yejin adds.

“Even if you’re both skeletal and gross from the treatment, we’re still going to be here,” Sungyeol says with a shrug. “So think about it, yeah?”

Howon looks away, and Sungyeol taps his finger on the table. “Yeah?” he prompts again.

“Yeah,” Howon agrees with a sigh.

Sungyeol nods, satisfied. “Good. Now I’m going to leave you two alphas alone so you can talk about alpha-y things.”

Yejin rolls her eyes at him and slugs his shoulder as he jerks his body out of the way and unfolds his ridiculously long limbs to stand. “And uh, if you need to ask me anything,” he says, straightening but not meet Howon’s eyes, “You can.” He snorts. “Someone should benefit from my encyclopedic knowledge of Kim Myungsoo. Even I don’t like to think about how much I know about that kid.” He tugs on the end of Yejin’s ponytail affectionately, then gives Howon an awkward pat on the back and then he’s gone, striding away through the shop without looking back. Howon lets out a long breath.

“So,” Yejin says, drawing out the word as they look back at each other. “Let’s talk about hormones.”

Chapter Text

"Okay," Dongwoo says, and his face is very calm. “I’m going to stay right here and you’re going to stay right there and we’re going to be okay, all right?”

 

Myungsoo isn’t sure he believes that at all—that they’re going to be all right. Not when he feels like he’s going to start sobbing at any moment or else jump right across the table and start choking Dongwoo. He knots his hands up in his lap. “Hyung, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

 

Sunggyu’s hand settles against the back of Myungsoo’s neck, warm and paternal. “You need to do this, Myungsoo.”

 

Nobody at school would recognize Dongwoo, probably—they wouldn’t believe that he can look this serious and mature. It’s no surprise to Myungsoo, though. “I know it’s not ideal for us to do this now. I wish I could stay away from you a little longer. But this is really important, Myungsoo.”

 

Myungsoo looks down at his lap, trying to relax under the feeling of Sunggyu-hyung touching him. He’d nearly slumped with relief when he walked into the restaurant and Sunggyu had been sitting there. Myungsoo hadn’t expected him to come down from Seoul for this, not when he knew that Sunggyu was so busy with band practice. But his hyung had merely smiled his familiar smile—even if it looked different under his now-dyed hair than it had back when he was in school—and pulled Myungsoo down beside him at the table. ‘Hyung will buy,’ he’d said, and Myungsoo wasn’t one to turn down meat. He’d gobbled down enough for three people while Sunggyu laughed at him and told him stories about living in the city. It had felt almost normal, and Myungsoo had started to relax, letting himself feel the sense of well-being he’d had when he’d woken this morning.

 

Yesterday had been hellish, and it wasn’t much better after they’d left school and gone to Sungjong’s house. Even sitting pressed up against Howon, Myungsoo couldn’t bring himself to look at him. All he could think about was how he’d reacted and he knew it was all the mating-bond—he’d thrown up and had vertigo for God’s sake, that wasn’t something that just happened for no reason. The pain and feelings of rejection had been hormonal, too. But fuck, he can’t help but burn with embarrassment whenever he thinks about how he’d cried his heart out and felt like he’d been abandoned.

 

‘You’re just moody because you haven’t been spending enough time with him,’ Sungjong had said, brushing Myungsoo’s hair out of his eyes with a gentle hand as he helped Myungsoo get cleaned up in the bathroom. It was almost funny, the thought that the only cure for his perpetual mood swings was spending more time with Howon when almost every moment he spent with Howon made him feel awkward and ashamed.

 

He’d still felt awkward and ashamed when the other guys started spreading out blankets to sleep, and it had taken him a long time to relax with his back to Howon’s. Howon seemed to be giving off heat like a furnace, but it didn’t make Myungsoo sweaty or too warm, it just made him want to get closer, and the smell of him was better than clean laundry or kimchi jjigae. Myungsoo had been sure he’d never relax enough to fall asleep, but he had, almost instantly once he finally unknotted the muscles in his back, into one of the most refreshing nights of sleep he’d ever had. He’d woken up for once merely groggy instead of feeling like he’d been run over by a tractor trailer as he usually did, and when he realized that he was practically throbbing in his sweat pants, he’d been glad Howon was nowhere to be found so that he could concentrate on unappealing images and deep breathing until he had himself under control.

 

Howon had been in the kitchen with Sungjong, but he’d left very soon with a tense smile at Myungsoo and murmur that he’d see him later. Myungsoo had silently eaten the breakfast Sungjong offered, almost annoyed with himself for how physically refreshed he felt. He felt like he could take the greatest pictures in the world and solve the most unsolvable equation. Or he had until Sungyeol and Woohyun got back from their morning run and Sungyeol informed him that Dongwoo-hyung wanted to meet up later.

 

Myungsoo had been about as excited about going as he would be to stick all of his photographs in a shredder, but his friends had looked so solemn and concerned when they asked him to promise to go that he couldn’t deny them. He’d been a mess when he walked into the restaurant until he saw Sunggyu-hyung alone, but all the feelings from yesterday had come surging back through him he was stretching in the aftermath of his meal and looked up and saw Dongwoo-hyung approaching.

 

There’s usually no one he’s more happy to see than Dongwoo—except for Sungyeol. And Sungjong. But today…today all he wants to do is go find Sungyeol and his camera and go to a park and take pictures of cute kids or something. Just the sight of Dongwoo’s kind face makes Myungsoo’s stomach lurch, and every time he looks at Dongwoo’s lips, he wants to burst into tears. He feels pathetic and small, totally at the mercy of his storming emotions, and he’d give anything to just stand up and walk out. But he’d promised.

“I know it’s not really fun for you to see me right now,” Dongwoo continues. “But none of your other good friends are mated, and I didn’t think you’d want to talk to a counselor or something. So let’s try.”

 

“We just want to help make this easier,” Sunggyu says, thumb rubbing a comforting pattern on the skin of Myungsoo’s neck.

 

“I don’t really think that’s possible.”

 

“We can’t make it easy,” Dongwoo acknowledges. “But we can make it not-quite-as-hard.”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t say anything, just staring at his hands in his lap, but he can still tell that his hyungs are exchanging looks.

 

“Right now, everything makes you feel moody, doesn’t it?” Dongwoo’s voice is just the right balance between understanding and matter-of-fact. Myungsoo shrugs. “Every time Howon looks at someone else, you feel like crying or at least scowling. When you get just one question wrong on a test, you feel like it’s the end of the world. You can’t concentrate for terribly long even on things you love to do and you keep getting turned on whenever Howon touches you.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes shoot up to stare at Dongwoo, but he doesn’t look like he’s laughing or judging or anything at all. Still, Myungsoo’s cheeks burn at the idea of talking about this with his hyungs, and he scrunches his eyes closed trying not to remember all the times he tries not to think about.

 

“Not much,” he whispers. “Just a little, most of the time, but—“

 

But whenever Howon full-on hugs him, whenever more of him is up against Myungsoo than isn’t, Myungsoo gets embarrassingly hard. He can handle the stiffening that results when they hold hands or lean against each other. It’s annoying and embarrassing, of course, but it’s like when he first hit puberty and got…excited way too often. He’d learned then how to deal with it, a combination of ignoring it, relaxing his body, and thinking about other things. But the post-hug hard-ons or waking up in the morning with head full of dreams of Howon or laying in bed at night wanting Howon so badly he could cry—that’s agonizing. He hasn’t jerked off so much since he was thirteen, and even then each touch of his own hand, each jerk of his hips, each orgasm hadn’t felt so intense. And the fantasies hadn’t been so concrete then either—back then, he’d just thought vaguely sexy thoughts of skin on skin and labored breathing and that was enough. But now, whenever he thinks about sex at all, he tastes salt on Howon’s skin and feels Howon deep inside of him and sees Howon’s flushed, sweaty face above his, and it’s terrible. Except that it isn’t. Except that it is.

 

“I know this is awkward, but your body wants you two to be having sex.”

 

Myungsoo ducks his head still further at Dongwoo’s quiet words, but Sunggyu’s thumb on his skin doesn’t falter in its rhythm.

 

“I know you don’t want to do that right now since you don’t love him. That’s okay. Nobody’s going to ask you to. But Myungsoo, you need to spend more time with him, okay? Real physical contact. And you’re probably going to get turned on, but you still have to do it. It’s the only thing that will make you feel better.”

 

“But…” Myungsoo bites his lips, feeling burning heat around the edges of his eyeballs. He isn’t going to cry. He isn’t. “But every time I see him I feel like—like my skin is too small but also like…like really, really good.” He isn’t good at putting these things into words. He could write them, maybe. But all his life he’s left the speaking mostly up to Sungyeol. He hasn’t had practice. “It’s so embarrassing and—“

 

And he feels like Howon must be looking at him and thinking that he’s pathetic. Always crying or needing Howon to touch him. Some stupid kid who took over Howon’s life and is forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do.

 

“I don’t even know what I’m feeling that’s real and what’s—“ His voice cracks, and Sunggyu squeezes his neck harder. Myungsoo focuses on the pressure and manages to fight back the tears.

 

“The feelings you’d be feeling anyway and the mating-bond are feeding off of each other,” Dongwoo explains, voice still quiet. Myungsoo knows that if he looked up, Dongwoo’s eyes would be swimming with compassion. Myungsoo hates that every word that comes out of Dongwoo’s mouth right now grates on him, that he’s still feeling that niggling in the back of his mind that says he tried to steal your mate. Dongwoo did no such thing, but the bond doesn’t understand that. “You’d be embarrassed at crying for what you see as no reason even if you hadn’t mated. You’d feel ashamed because you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve forced something on Howon that he doesn’t want. But your hormones are also making you weepy or lonely or irritated, and when those slam into your other feelings, things get really bad. I remember. The first week or so, whenever Amy wasn’t with me, I felt like I was being abandoned. If she laughed at something someone else said, I felt like she liked them better, like she might reject me. And I knew she loved me—she’d been the one to bring up the idea of mating in the first place. But my feelings didn’t care.”

 

Myungsoo looks at the threads making up his jeans, how closely they’re woven together, tracing the over and under pattern with his eyes.

 

“It didn’t last so long for me, because we were spending as much time together as possible and also sleeping together. So I know that what I went through isn’t anything nearly as extreme as what you are. But I have felt like my feelings were out of my control and that there was nothing I could do about it. I felt helpless, and I hated that.”

 

Myungsoo jerks his head in acknowledgment. Yeah. Helpless. That’s the worst of it.

 

“You have to teach your body to trust Howon. That he isn’t going anywhere, that he’s not going to choose someone over you. I—I didn’t help with that yesterday. In fact, I know I set you both back. I’m really sorry, Myungsoo.”

 

Myungsoo’s head flies up, eyes wide. “Hyung, no!” He still feels a bitter acidic jealousy when he looks at Dongwoo, but his rational mind that reminds him that he still loves this hyung so much can’t let this stand. “You were trying to help!”

 

“I was,” Dongwoo acknowledges. “And I’d do it over again—there wasn’t any other way. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not sorry that it just made things harder for you.”

 

Myungsoo drops his eyes back to his lap. “I’m sorry that I—right now, hyung, I really want to scratch your eyes out.”

 

Dongwoo lets out a loud laugh, overshadowing Sunggyu’s chuckle. Dongwoo’s mirth is usually one of Myungsoo’s favorite sounds in the world, but right now, he winces. “I know! And Amy’s probably with Howon right now wanting to scratch his eyes out and trying not to let it show. What a mess, right?”

 

Myungsoo lets himself smile for the first time since he looked up and saw Dongwoo approaching the table. It’s a wistful smile, though. His life had been so simple just a few weeks ago, and he hadn’t even realized it. “Yeah. A big mess.” He sighs deeply. My whole life is a big mess now. And I made that mess.

 

“Myungsoo,” Sunggyu says abruptly. “Howon doesn’t resent you. He doesn’t blame you. I know you can’t quite bring yourself to believe that, but you have to keep reminding yourself until you do.”

 

Myungsoo isn’t usually the bitter type, but this is a new world he’s living in. “How can he not? If I hadn’t gone into heat and—“

 

“And if he hadn’t walked by, and if he’d only been born an omega too or if you’d only been born an alpha or beta,” Dongwoo interrupts. “You can’t let yourself think like that. It was like an earthquake or a tsunami. It’s terrible, but there’s nothing anyone could have done. You can’t focus on blame. You have to start focusing on what you’re going to do next.”

 

Myungsoo raises his eyes again. “What am I going to do next?”

 

Dongwoo smiles reassuringly. Dongwoo’s always had the best smile. Myungsoo hopes it won’t be long before he can appreciate it again. “You’re going to go get registered. Monday after school, how about that?”

 

Myungsoo nods reluctantly. Neither he nor Howon have really brought up the registration process yet, but it’s best to just get it out of the way.

 

“Any of us will go with you if you want. Or your parents will. I’ll even come back down to go if you want me to,” Sunggyu says.

 

“You don’t need to do that, hyung.” But it makes Myungsoo feel pleasantly warm that Sunggyu would offer.

 

“It only takes like twenty minutes; it’s really simple. They take some blood to go on file and write down all your information and ask about your family member’s status as far back as you can go and give you a card for your wallet. All the stuff about putting you in the database and contacting the military and stuff they’ll take care of later. You don’t have to worry about it at all. Getting your driver’s license is way more complicated,” Dongwoo says.

 

Sunggyu snorts. “You’d be the only one who’d know about that.”

 

Dongwoo grins. “Getting registered is really the easiest part of the whole thing.” His grin falls off his face and his eyes go solemn again. “But after that, you two either have to spend more time touching or you both need to go on supplements.” When Myungsoo doesn’t respond, Dongwoo’s eyes soften. “Do you know if your parents have the insurance, Myungsoo?” he asks gently.

 

Myungsoo nods, fighting back tears again for no real reason. I can’t keep on like this. “We’re covered,” he manages to answer.

 

“That’s good. It would be more complicated to go through school. Have you researched the supplements yet?”

 

Maybe it’s the gentleness of Dongwoo’s voice that makes Myungsoo feel fragile, like he’s going to crack open at any moment. At least it’s distracting him from the insistent dislike he’s still feeling. “No, hyung.”

 

“I talked with the counselor about it after Amy and I mated, just so I could know everything even though I knew we weren’t going to use them. They’ll help steady you a little—you’ll still have mood swings, but they won’t be as intense and they’ll be easier to control. Like yesterday—Howon would still have gotten furious, but we would have been able to talk him down. And if someone had done what I’d done, you’d have gotten sick and maybe even thrown up, but not nearly as bad—maybe like after a card ride if you get motion-sickness.”

 

That sounds like such a relief. “Why doesn’t everyone use them then?” Myungsoo hasn’t heard a downside yet.

 

“Because when they suppress the hormones, they suppress the bond itself.” That doesn’t sound so bad to Myungsoo, but Dongwoo keeps talking. “It makes you feel less connected—a lot of people talk about how it makes them feel colder and kind of lonely a lot. They compare it to that feeling you get when you know you’ve forgotten something but you don’t know what it is—only times a hundred.” Well, that’s unpleasant, but it still sounds worth it to Myungsoo. If it’d make him quit bursting into tears and being so needy, he’d do just about anything. But Dongwoo is shaking his head. “And the really bad thing is that they make it take longer for the bond to settle.”

 

Myungsoo’s stomach drops. “Longer?” he echoes. It’s already taking so long. How can it take longer?

 

“I remember this from health class,” Sunggyu says suddenly. “The different timelines. If you mate and keep having regular sex, lots of physical contact, lots of time together, the bond usually settles down within a week, maybe two. If you don’t have sex but get enough touching and time, it can take a month or more. And if you don’t have sex and are taking the supplements, it can take—months? I don’t remember exactly.”

 

“Three to six,” Dongwoo says. “On average. Some are longer or shorter.”

 

Myungsoo’s head is ringing. He remembers studying this in class, too, but he’d mostly just memorized the information without really thinking about it, certain that it wouldn’t apply to him since he’d only ever mate with someone he really wanted to mate with and of course their bond would settle within a week. The only part he’d really paid attention to was the bits on how to suppress going into heat, but even then he’d filed the information away thinking it would be a lot of years before he’d need it.

 

Months? Three to six months? Could he carry on like this, swinging back and forth between elation at seeing Howon to feeling horribly depressed or guilt-ridden or embarrassed, multiple times a day for half a year? Just the thought made his palms start to sweat and his breath hitch.

 

“This is why you need to start touching more, no matter how awkward you feel around Howon,” Sunggyu says, sliding his hand from Myungsoo’s neck up into his hair and starting to stroke it. Sunggyu-hyung never used to touch him quite so much as this—he’d grab his shoulder or sling an arm around him, but this is more affectionate than Myungsoo’s seen him be with anyone but Dongwoo and—occasionally—Woohyun. Myungsoo must be doing a really bad job of hiding his panic. “You just have to grit your teeth and bear it. If you do, it can all be over sooner.”

 

“Like ripping off a bandage,” Dongwoo adds. “It hurts so bad for just that moment, but then it’s over. Except not like that, because the touching feels good even if you’re embarrassed, right?”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t really want to talk about how the touching makes him feel. If he was going to talk about how he…reacts to Howon, he’d do it with Sungyeol or maybe Sungjong. He adores his hyungs, would trust them with anything if he needed to, but when it comes to personal things, he prefers to go to Sungyeol. Sungyeol has always said that Myungsoo takes age roles too seriously, that he’s half-awed by his hyungs. ‘They’re not superheroes, Myungsoo,’ Sungyeol will say with an eye roll. ‘They’re just like us, only older. Fuck, Woohyun’s as immature as I am. It’s why we get along so well.’ Myungsoo knows Sungyeol is right, and sometimes he even feels like a fond hyung himself when he sees Dongwoo bouncing around being cute. But when things are serious, he feels the age gap very clearly, and he never wants to do anything that would make them disappointed in him. He trusts Sungyeol and even Sungjong with his mistakes, but he wants to be perfect in his hyungs’ eyes, or as close as he can get.

 

“So I have to feel like I’m going to die from embarrassment for a few weeks or else have not-as-intense mood swings for months?” Myungsoo can hear the wryness in his own voice; it sounds unfamiliar.

 

“Unfortunately, yeah, those are your options.” Dongwoo pauses. “That or starting treatment right away.” Again he hesitates. Then: “Myungsoo, do you want to get the treatment?”

 

Myungsoo looks up at him quickly. “Does Howon want to get it?”

 

Dongwoo looks surprised. “Haven’t you two talked about this?”

 

“Yeah, but…” They have, but it doesn’t mean Myungsoo hasn’t kept worrying that Howon secretly wants it and just hasn’t told him. That, maybe more than anything else, is his biggest fear.

 

Sunggyu-hyung can be solipsistic at times, but he also has moments where he knows exactly what Myungsoo is thinking, and this seems to be one of them. “I don’t think he wants it yet,” he says. “Or maybe at all. He wants to give this a try first, if you want to.” Myungsoo relaxes a little; Sunggyu sounds sure. “But if you wanted to do it, he’d do it. If you wanted to.”

 

“I don’t—I don’t think—“ He can’t quite get the words out. It’s not just that he’s scared of how awful the treatment is to go through. He’s heard the stories, seen the survivors on television. Worse than chemo. No one dies from it, but a few people still feel a sense of loss for the rest of their lives. Like a phantom limb. Something’s gone, but the memory of it still aches.

 

That would be scary enough, but he also isn’t sure he could handle the shattering of everything he’s ever believed about mating. Mating is beautiful and romantic and infinite, and he isn’t sure how he’d handle proof that it isn’t.

 

“Howon wants to give it a try,” Sunggyu says again, still stroking Myungsoo’s hair. “I think you want that too.”

 

Myungsoo nods jerkily. “Yeah. But I—I’m really scared, hyung.” Scared that he’s making Howon continue with this when he doesn’t want to. Scared that he and Howon will always feel so awkward with each other. Scared that they’ll want different things out of life and Myungsoo will have to give up his dreams or Howon will have to give up his—Myungsoo honestly isn’t sure which would be worse. Scared that Howon will like him but not love him and he’ll have to settle for that. Scared that he’ll never get to fall in love.

 

If Myungsoo was looking at Dongwoo, he’d see that Dongwoo looks like he wants to crawl over the table and hug him and that it’s actually paining him to stop himself. But Myungsoo doesn’t look up, and Sunggyu pulls him against him in a hug. Myungsoo lets himself go limp against him. “We know. But we’re all here.”

 

“The two of us are here, Myungsoo,” Dongwoo agrees. “Hyung will come down any time you need him. And you’ve got Sungyeol and Sungjong and Woohyun and Amy and Minha. And you have other friends who love you and your parents and your brother. We can’t make this okay for you. But we can help you through it.”

 

It’s nice to lay his head on Sunggyu’s shoulder and feel his hyung’s hand in his hair. He still feels like bursting out crying at any moment, but they’re right. He has a lot of people who love him. But there are a lot of different kinds of love, and he hasn’t experienced all of them yet. Or—

 

“Do you think—“ His words are barely audible, his cheeks red again. He isn’t sure he can actually bring himself to ask this. “Do you think—“

 

“Do I think what, Myungsoo?” Dongwoo asks gently.

 

Myungsoo scrunches his eyes closed. “Do you think he could love me?”

 

He doesn’t have to be looking at Dongwoo to hear the smile in his voice when he answers. “Yeah, Myungsoo. I really, really do.”

 

 

 

His mom has taken to dropping whatever she’s doing and coming to hug him whenever she hears him enter the house. He doesn’t mind, really—he likes the hugs, of course, and the smell and feel of his mom makes him feel like a little kid again even if he’s almost a foot taller than her now. But the hugs remind him that she still feels guilty and he hates that. He wishes he could convince her that he doesn’t blame her. But then, he knows better than most that it’s hardest to convince yourself.

 

When she releases him from the hug, his mom takes his face in her hands. “You’re home later than I thought, my Myungsoo.”

 

“Sunggyu-hyung came home to visit and we ate together,” he explains. No need to tell her what the meal was really about.

 

“Oh, that’s lovely.” She’s always so happy for him when even the smallest good thing happens. It makes his chest ache. “And did you have fun at Sungjong’s house?”

 

“Yes, Umma.” It’s not like he’s going to tell her about how it really was.

 

“Was—was Howon there?” She’s still tentative when she talks about Howon.

 

“Yeah. He was there.”

 

She releases his face and licks her lips, a habit he’s inherited from her. “Myungsoo, are you sure you’re spending enough time with him? I—“ She looks like she doesn’t want to have this conversation. He doesn’t either, but this is apparently the day for conversations he doesn’t want to have. “I know we told you to wait till you were married or at least in love, but—Myungsoo, you’re mated now. If you two need to—“

 

Okay, this has taken a turn into territory Myungsoo isn’t prepared to explore, even on his conversations-he-doesn’t-want-to-have day. “We’re not—we’re not doing that, Umma. We don’t even know each other.” Will he ever stop blushing?

 

“Oh.” She looks relieved but still worried. “Well, if you do, then—“

 

“We’re not—we’re not going to be ready for that for a long time.”

 

“All right.”

 

Myungsoo is about to turn away, but she takes his hand. “We would really like to meet him, you know.” Myungsoo turns back to look at her, and he can see the eagerness and anxiety in her eyes. “He’s going to be so important to you….”

 

She looks older, Myungsoo thinks. She’s still the most beautiful woman in the world to him, but there are wrinkles on her face he’s never noticed, and she looks tired. Guilt pricks at him; his parents have been really good about not pressuring him; they haven’t made him talk about it or anything. But of course she’d want to meet her son’s mate. She’s the greatest mom in the world.

 

“I know, Umma.”

 

“You could invite him to eat with us tomorrow,” she suggests, her voice tentative, like she isn’t sure whether he’ll snap at the suggestion. Myungsoo can’t blame her; he’s been more short with her over the past couple of weeks than he ever has in his life. And how could he possibly refuse her when he feels so guilty about that?

 

The thought of calling Howon and asking him to come over makes Myungsoo’s stomach lurch with nervousness, but she looks so hopeful. “Okay, Umma. I’ll ask him.”

 

The way her face lights up does nothing to soothe his anxiety, but he knows it was the right thing to say, no matter how much he’s dreading the phone call.

 

Maybe he can just text.

Chapter Text

Howon runs his hands down his pant legs and lets out a deep breath as he waits for the door to open. He’d considered dressing up—dress pants or khakis, at least—but in the end he’d pulled on a pair of jeans to go with his blue button-down, thinking the comfort would do him more good than impressing Myungsoo’s family. He thinks he looks presentable enough; Sungjong had made him choose the dark-wash jeans instead of one of his more casual pair and he’d nodded his head after Howon was dressed and said, ‘You look really good in that shirt, hyung. Really handsome.’

 

Sungjong doesn’t give compliments he doesn’t mean, so Howon’s not too worried about his appearance. But it was something to focus on instead of agonizing over what this meeting would be like. He’s sure that Myungsoo’s family are really nice people—how could they be anything else, considering Myungsoo?—but he also knows that families are always more complicated than they appear to outsiders, and Howon is nothing if not an outsider. He flexes his toes in his shoes.

 

He straightens when the door opens, and there’s Myungsoo, looking back at him. He’s wearing black jeans and a black button-down of his own, and Howon doesn’t think it’s just the usual hormone-induced relief that he always feels when he sees Myungsoo that makes him look so good to his eyes. My mate is really handsome, he thinks with a little zing of pride, and then mentally rolls his eyes at himself. What does he have to be proud of? It’s not like Myungsoo chose him. But he still can’t quite shake the warm feeling.

 

“Hey,” he says, and Myungsoo’s eyes dart to his for just a moment. Howon’s seen him stare at Sungyeol or Sungjong for a solid hour, but he doesn’t seem so good with eye contact when it comes to Howon.

 

“Hey,” Myungsoo answers, then jerks the door open wider and lets Howon come in. Howon steps inside, slipping off his shoes and registering that it smells like Myungsoo and fabric softener and kimchi jjigae. He wants to reach out and pull Myungsoo into a hug, but the space between them feels too wide, and he isn’t sure how Myungsoo would react. He doesn’t have time to think much about it, though, because a pair of socked feet come pounding down the stairs just inside the door, and a teenager in jeans and a sweatshirt is suddenly standing right there.

 

“Uh, this is my little brother,” Myungsoo says. “Moonsoo.”

 

“Hey,” Moonsoo says, and Howon tries not to shift under the eyes that are studying him closely. Those eyes aren’t quite as intense as Myungsoo’s, but they’re close, and Howon can’t read them.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, Moonsoo,” Howon says with a shallow bow. Other than his eyes and the shape of his lips, Moonsoo doesn’t look much like Myungsoo at all. He’s cute, though not nearly as handsome as his brother, but his face is less boyish and more everyday-teenager-looking.

 

Moonsoo doesn’t say anything else, just cocks his head to the side in that way Myungsoo does, and Howon glances awkwardly at Myungsoo, who’s looking down at his own socked feet.

 

“This must be Howon,” a voice says suddenly, and then Myungsoo’s parents appear in the hallway.

 

Howon bows ninety-degrees to the man who spoke. “Hello, ahjussi, ahjumma.”

 

Myungsoo looks a little like his dad, only the older man is shorter, stockier and, again, not as handsome as his son. But he’s very distinguished-looking, and his eyes are kind.

 

“No, no, you have to call us abeoji and eomeoni,” Myungsoo’s mom says, smiling up at him with a smile that reminds Howon so much of Myungsoo.

 

“Umma!” Myungsoo hisses, but Mrs. Kim ignores him, stepping forward even before Howon is out of his bow and enfolding him in a hug. Howon stiffens before forcing himself to relax. His own mom barely hugs him anymore, though he sometimes catches her looking at him like she wants to. He knows it’s because of his dad; she doesn’t want him to think that she’s coddling their rebellious middle child. But the distance still hurts, even if he knows she hates it as much as he does. This hug sort of hurts in the same way, a shock of pain at the reminder of his own mother, who’s just about the same height as Mrs. Kim. The differences sting a bit, too—Mrs. Kim smells like an omega where his mom as a beta lacks that sort of a scent, and her hair when it brushes Howon’s cheek feels different, too. But he manages to hug her and smile as genuinely as he can when she steps back.

 

He tries to keep the smile in place when she takes his face in her hands. She really does look something like Myungsoo, except that her loveliness is homier, less startling than Myungsoo’s. “Oh, Myungsoo, he’s so handsome,” she says, smiling up at Howon, and he sees the dimple Myungsoo has inherited in her cheek.

 

“Umma!” Myungsoo protests again and she laughs and releases Howon’s face.

 

“I’m so happy you’re here, Howon.”

 

“We wanted you to come sooner,” Mr. Kim says. “But we didn’t want to press you and Myungsoo.”

 

Howon bows again. “Thank you for inviting me.” They’re so warm, Myungsoo’s parents; it makes him feel a bit lightheaded, but it certainly explains a lot about Myungsoo.

 

“You’re always invited, from here on out,” Mrs. Kim says. “Any time you want to come, you are welcome.”

 

Howon bows again and takes the opportunity to glance at Myungsoo, who’s shifting in place and whose cheeks are flushed.

 

“Myungsoo, why don’t you take Howon to the bathroom so he can wash his hands,” Mrs. Kim says. “You can come join us at the table when you’re ready.”

 

Myungsoo’s family disappears around the corner with one last smile from Mrs. Kim and Howon tries not to feel embarrassed when he realizes that they’re giving him and Myungsoo a few moments alone.

 

Myungsoo jerks his head. “The bathroom’s this way.”

 

Howon follows him down the hall and washes his hands quickly while Myungsoo waits outside the door. When he comes out, he doesn’t give himself time to think about it, just reaches out and pulls Myungsoo into a hug.

 

Myungsoo goes very tense, then relaxes some, but Howon can still feel the nervousness tensing his muscles. He’s a bit tense himself, but, as always, Myungsoo feels so good against him and the feeling of well-being that pours through him is like a hit for a drug addict. They stand there hugging for a very long moment, Howon just enjoying the feeling even as he fights to keep his body from reacting the way it always does when he hugs Myungsoo. Then Myungsoo shifts and Howon releases him.

 

“Your family is really nice.”

 

Myungsoo looks up at him from under his fringe. “Thanks.”

 

“I’m glad—it was nice of you to invite me.”

 

“They really wanted to meet you.”

 

Howon believes it. In that first moment, their eyes had slid over him worriedly, appraisingly, but that had instantly been replaced by welcome. It was a little overwhelming.

 

He follows Myungsoo silently down the hall, considering whether he should take his hand, but they reach the table quickly enough and settle down on the side that’s been left open for them. The food looks good, and the house is neat and homey, neither luxurious nor poor-looking. It looks just like a home, like a meal should.

 

“We have kimchi jjigae at almost every meal,” Mrs. Kim says with a smile as she gestures for them to eat and Howon reaches for his chopsticks. She hasn’t stopped smiling the whole time. “Myungsoo would live on only that if he could, and I can make it in my sleep now.”

 

Howon grins as he looks over Myungsoo, who flushes when their eyes meet but attempts to smile back.

 

Mr. Kim asks Howon the usual questions—what class is he in at school, what siblings does he have, what do his parents do, what’s his best subject. They’re easy enough questions to answer, and between them and the food and the fact that Myungsoo’s parents keep smiling at him, he begins to relax.

 

“We heard you’re good friends with Sungjongie and Dongwoo,” Mrs. Kim says. “They’re such sweet boys.”

 

“They’re my best friends,” Howon answers.

 

“It’s so good that you two share friends,” Mrs. Kim says.

 

“I expect you’ve gotten to know Sungyeol well now, too,” Mr. Kim adds, and Howon answers in the affirmative.

 

“Sungyeol is our third son.” Mrs. Kim laughs at her own joke. “And now we have four!”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes go wide. “Umma!”

 

“I keep embarrassing him, Howon. What should I do? Do I embarrass you, too?”

 

Howon can’t help it; he grins at her. “I don’t mind.”

 

“There now, see, Myungsoo? He doesn’t mind. Eat your kimchi.”

 

Myungsoo sulks into his bowl, but Howon just grins at him. He’s really cute, and his mom is probably the nicest person Howon’s ever met. It’s so easy for Howon to see how Myungsoo is the way he is, when he grew up in this home. His parents must have been aware from nearly the beginning of just how sensitive Myungsoo is and have clearly devoted themselves to creating a home where their eldest son feels completely safe. The edge of jealous bitterness he feels does nothing to spoil his genuine gratitude.

 

The meal is no more awkward than any first meal with a friend’s parents, and Howon finds himself able to relax. It ends too soon, though, with Moonsoo scraping the last of his rice out of his bowl and saying, “Can I go to Daeyeol’s now?”

 

Mr. Kim shakes his head in exasperation. “Our son is very rude,” he says to Howon.

 

Moonsoo just smiles. “I know you want to talk to them about mating things. Hyung doesn’t want me there for that, do you, hyung?”

 

“No,” Myungsoo answers emphatically.

 

Mr. Kim rolls his eyes. “All right, go.”

 

Moonsoo leans over and gives his mother a kiss on the cheek and then scrambles to his feet. “Thank you for the meal, umma.” Then he looks at Howon, and that same inscrutable look shifts into a smile—not wide, but real. “It’s nice to meet you, sunbae-nim.”

 

“You can call me hyung.” The words are out of Howon’s mouth before he can think about them, and Myungsoo looks shocked, but the parents just smile and Moonsoo takes it in stride.

 

“See you later, hyung,” he says, and Howon isn’t sure whether he’s talking to him or to Myungsoo—but maybe it doesn’t matter—and then he’s gone.

 

Howon and Myungsoo help clear and put away the table, and Mrs. Kim looks delighted when Howon offers to help with the dishes.

 

“Are your brother and Sungyeol’s brother best friends, too?” Howon asks when he and Myungsoo are standing side-by-side at the sink. He tries not to think about how domestic this is, how comfortable it feels to have Myungsoo’s elbow jostling his as they wash.

 

Myungsoo hadn’t said much during dinner, but he nods. “Daeyeollie’s older, but they used to tag after us all the time. Now they’re both more popular than us.”

 

Howon laughs. “My little brother is, too.”

 

“Moonsoo’s really good at meeting people. Everybody likes him. He was weird tonight.”

 

“Was he?” Howon had assumed that intense-gazed studying was a Kim trait.

 

“Yeah. I haven’t seen him like that before. But I guess I’ve never seen him meet my mate before.” Myungsoo’s voice trails off awkwardly, but Howon doesn’t let the silence last too long.

 

“It’s weird. You look at alike but you really don’t.”

 

“Daeyeol used to look just like Sungyeol. Once he met Sunggyu-hyung and didn’t greet him, and hyung was so mad because he thought he was Sungyeol.”

 

Howon laughs; he can easily imagine Sunggyu getting all pompous about being ignored by his dongsaeng.

 

“They look less alike now. I guess because we’re growing up.” That seems to remind Myungsoo of something, because he licks his lips—and Howon tries not to watch the motion of that tongue—and keeps his eyes on the cup he’s washing as he says, “You can say you have to go now. They’re going to—they’ll want to talk. You don’t have to. They won’t be offended if you tell them you need to leave.”

 

Myungsoo sounds like he kind of wishes Howon would, but Howon’s been trying to do less avoiding, and the Kims have been so nice to him. He reminds himself that it won't be any less awkward if they postpone things.

 

“No. It’s okay. It’s probably better if we do this now.”

 

 

“Is it okay if we ask you some questions, Howon?” Mr. Kim asks once they’re all back in the living room with some fruit for dessert. “There are a lot of important things we just don’t know.”

 

The snarky part of Howon’s mind wants to say something about how they’ve been asking him questions all night, but he understands the distinction. “Yes, sir. That’s okay.”

 

Mr. Kim looks pleased. “Good. Myungsoo’s mom and I have been a little bit worried. You two don’t seem to spend all that much time together.”

 

“We know you’re together in school,” Mrs. Kim continues. “But we remember what it was like to be newly bonded, and we’re worried that you aren’t spending enough time together to help the bond settle quickly.”

 

Howon glances at Myungsoo out of the corner of his eye. “It’s been a little bit hard,” he says finally. “Because of our…circumstances.”

 

There are tears welling in Mrs. Kim’s eyes but her voice is clear. “Of course. We understand that.”

 

“I—we’re going to do better.” That’s Myungsoo, voice breaking just a little. He doesn’t look at Howon even as Howon stares at him. “We—I know we have to take it more seriously.”

 

Howon tries not to let his surprise show on his face. He’d known that Dongwoo and Sunggyu had taken Myungsoo out to talk to him about everything—he can’t imagine how uncomfortable that was with what had happened with Dongwoo at school—but he and Myungsoo haven’t really discussed it. The hyungs must have been pretty convincing, Howon thinks in relief.

 

He clears his throat. “Um, yes. We’re going to treat it more seriously.”

 

Both of the Kims look relieved. “That is very good to hear,” Mrs. Kim says, and her husband nods.

 

“You two are young,” he says. “We know how it is, young people all together in school and with their eyes on each other, but we encouraged Myungsoo not to get serious with anyone till at least university.” Howon feels a pang at the last word but tries to ignore it. “But you two have…special circumstances. If you want to spend the night here sometimes or even move in entirely, we would welcome you.”

 

Beside him, Myungsoo lets out a hiss of embarrassment. Howon can practically feel the heat coming off Myungsoo’s cheeks and his own are tinged pink. He knows what they mean. He tries to remind himself that it must be as awkward for them as it is for him and Myungsoo. It can’t be easy to invite your son’s mate over so they can have sex together. “Um, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Howon says thickly. “But thank you.”

 

Mr. Kim nods. “I understand, but it could be a help to you just to share the same bed sometimes. You two should think about it.”

 

Howon wants to do anything but. It was bad enough on the floor surrounded by their friends, but if he and Myungsoo were alone in a bed behind closed doors—he can’t let himself think about how appealing that sounds. “Yes, sir.”

 

“I’m sure your mom isn’t ready for you to move out,” Mrs. Kim says. “I would hate for her to think I’m stealing her son. We could send Myungsoo over to your house, too. Whatever makes you two comfortable.”

 

Howon doesn’t think anything will really make them comfortable, but he just nods.

 

“How have your parents handled this, Howon?” Mrs. Kim asks. “I know it’s hardest on you children, but it isn’t easy for us parents either.”

 

Howon swallows hard, looking down at his hand clasping his fork so tight he’s surprised it hasn’t bent out of shape. The melon suddenly looks anything but appetizing. He clears his throat again. “Um, they don’t know yet.”

 

He makes himself watch the surprise on their faces, see Mr. Kim’s brow furrow. “You haven’t told them?”

 

Howon’s mouth is very dry. “No, sir.”

 

The parents exchange a worried glance, and Howon can’t really blame them. He also can’t quite bring himself to explain his home situation to them. They’ve made him feel like he’s everything they could want in a mate for their son; what would they think if they knew how Howon’s dreams have destroyed his family?

 

“He wanted to wait until after we’d registered,” Myungsoo says suddenly, and Howon hopes he isn’t gaping at him. Myungsoo meets his parents’ eyes, gaze steady. “He thought it would be easier if we went alone, and he knew his mom would insist on going too.”

 

The Kims don’t exactly look happy with the explanation, but the worry clears from their faces. “But you haven’t done that yet,” Mrs. Kim says, and there’s a hint of chiding in her voice.

 

“We’re going tomorrow after school,” Myungsoo says again, and Howon tries not to let his surprise show. Myungsoo has been so hesitant about everything since they mated, and now he’s making declarations. He must have really been thinking about this. Myungsoo’s cheeks are a bit pink as he finally turns to look at Howon, eyes tentative. “Uh—right?”

 

“Yes, that’s right.” Might as well get it over with.

 

“Very good,” Mr. Kim says and Mrs. Kim is smiling again. “And when you want the families to meet, you just let us know, all right, Howon? Your family can come here, if you like.”

 

Howon isn’t even going to think about something like that. “Yes, sir.”

 

“I’m proud of you two. It’s good that you’re making these choices.”

 

Howon’s foot is touching Myungsoo’s. He moves it just the slightest amount so more of them are in contact. “Thank you, sir.”

 

“I have to confess something to you, Howon,” Mrs. Kim says, and Howon looks at Myungsoo for guidance, but Myungsoo looks as clueless as he is. “I’m afraid I talked to Sungjong and Dongwoo’s mothers about you. And I called the school and talked to Mr. Uhm.”

 

Howon relaxes a little; that’s not so bad. It’s what a parent would do. “That’s all right, ma’am.”

 

“You see, I’m having a hard time getting used to Myungsoo mating—and so suddenly. I wanted to know that the boy he’s with is a good man.”

 

“I understand, ma’am.”

 

“I’ve only heard good things about you. I’ve heard you have a bit of a tongue, but Sungjong’s mom assures me that it’s not cruel.”

 

Howon tries to smile, sheepish. “Sometimes it gets the better of me, ma’am.”

 

“Well, part of maturing is learning to control that. I’m sure you’ll do well. Mr. Uhm says you haven’t ever been in any trouble at school. I’m sure you know our Myungsoo hasn’t either.”

 

“Everyone knows that Myungsoo is a very good person, ma’am.”

 

That was definitely the right thing to say. Mrs. Kim’s face goes even softer. “Thank you for that. I think you’re also a good person. I was so worried—I thought, ‘I might have to make him get the treatment.’ I couldn’t stand the thought of him wasting away with that poison, but I couldn’t stand the thought of someone treating him badly even worse. Please take care of my son, Howon.”

 

Howon’s palms have started sweating so much that he has to set his fork down before it slips right between his fingers. “I will try.”

 

“And Myungsoo, you have to take care of Howon, too.”

 

Howon doesn’t want to embarrass Myungsoo, so he doesn’t look at him, but in his periphery, he can see him nodding stiffly.

 

“We think it will be good as you and Myungsoo get to know each other. That will take some time, but we think it will be good. I think the real question is what are your plans for the future?” Mr. Kim says.

 

Howon’s palms, mouth and every other part of his body suddenly feel dry. “Plans?” he echoes. Not this. Not this.

 

“Yes, have you thought about what you want to study at university?”

 

Howon takes a moment to regulate his breath and find his voice. He could lie. It would be so very easy to lie. Later, he could always say he’d changed his mind. It would make the Kims so happy if he said ‘medicine’ or ‘law’ or even said he wanted to attend a fine arts program.

 

But he can feel Myungsoo’s eyes on him, and maybe this needs to be out in the open. Before he’d left the shop yesterday, Yejin had caught him by the arm and looked up at him. ‘The most important thing is to be honest, Howon,’ she’d said. ‘Even if it hurts. It’s the only way anything can work.’

 

Even if it hurts.

 

“I actually hadn’t planned on going to college.”

 

It’s the first time he’s said those words out loud since he spoke them to his dad back in middle school and shoved his family into a downhill tumble. He can’t decide how they taste on his tongue now.

 

Myungsoo is very still beside him. The Kims don’t look angry, just surprised, maybe even confused.

 

“Are you planning on taking over your father’s business, then?” Mr. Kim asks, searching.

 

“No, sir.” Just say it. Like ripping off a bandage. Spit it out. “I want to be a performer.”

 

It’s very, very quiet in the room. Howon’s words don’t echo; they sit heavy on the floor where they fell. “I see,” Mrs. Kim says finally, voice slow.

 

Howon stares at his feet. He can feel Myungsoo very tense beside him, and he isn’t sure if he wants to reach out and pull him close or if he wants to leave right now.

 

It seems like no one is going to say anything else, like Howon can feel the thickness of the other three’s thoughts, even if he can’t get any idea of what they are. He reminds himself to breathe.

 

“Howon is a really good dancer.”

 

Howon’s head snaps around. Myungsoo is staring at the floor, his body still and tense. His voice is quiet, throaty. Thick. “Really good.”

 

“Is that right?” Mr. Kim says, and it sounds like a question.

 

“Everyone knows,” Myungsoo adds, and Howon can feel something pounding in his temples.

 

What the hell can he say to make this sound less like an immature dream from a kid who hasn’t figured out how to be realistic yet? If he can’t even convince his own parents—

“I—dancing is very important to me.” That sounds so paltry. It’s my life. “I’ve worked very hard at it.” And that sounds pathetic. They had probably expected him to say he wants to become a judge or a doctor or something like that. Fuck, he’s probably ruined it all. And Myungsoo…. “I want to join a company and become a trainee and become a singer and dancer.”

 

It sounds foolish. Immature. Like a little kid saying they want to be an astronaut or a princess. Be practical, he can hear his father’s voice say in his head. Stop acting like an ungrateful child. Pull your head out of the clouds. Don’t be pathetic.

 

He somehow knows the Kims would never say those things to him. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking them.

 

“I assume you would have to go to Seoul for this?” Mr. Kim offers. Fuck, they’re still trying so hard. “That’s where the companies are?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“And you were planning on doing this instead of university?”

 

Howon tries not to think about how Myungsoo hasn’t moved an eyelash in what seems like eternity. “Actually, sir, I was going to go after the end of this year.”

 

It takes Howon a moment to realize why he feels cold. And when he realizes that it’s Myungsoo’s fear he’s feeling, he wants to throw up. He wants to apologize, but every part of him he’s poured into his dream for so long rebels against the thought. Fuck.

 

“This year.” Mr. Kim can be really inscrutable. “You still have one more year left to graduate, don’t you?” It’s not really a question.

 

“I was planning on studying for the GED.”

 

There’s silence for a long, long time. Myungsoo still hasn’t moved. Howon still feels cold.

 

“And,” Mrs. Kim finally says, and he hates himself when her voice wavers. “Are those still your plans?”

 

There isn’t an answer. There isn’t one. If he says yes, it’ll break Myungsoo. If he says no, it will be a lie. There’s only one thing to say, and so he says it. “I don’t know.”

 

There’s a long pause again, and then Mrs. Kim says. “You know we want Myungsoo to go to university.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” Every parent does. Including his own.

 

“We know photography isn’t the most traditional study choice, and we may be naïve, but we think he’s very talented.”

 

“He is.” Howon hasn’t even seen any of Myungsoo’s pictures yet. But he’s heard the others talk. And he’s seen the way Myungsoo holds his camera.

 

“And we know Myungsoo really wanted to go to the same school as Sungyeol.”

 

No one had told Howon that, but then, no one had needed to. “I know.”

 

No one says anything else for a long moment, and Mr. Kim’s gaze has turned inward. Mrs. Kim, on the other hand, has shifted her focus from Howon’s face to Myungsoo’s. Howon doesn’t need to turn his head to know that the expression she’s seeing on Myungsoo’s face is perfectly blank. His stomach roils.

 

“All right,” Mrs. Kim says, breaking the silence, and then she stands, her husband just behind. Howon scrambles to his feet. Myungsoo stays where he is. Still.

 

Mrs. Kim approaches and takes Howon’s hands in hers. Her hands are small and warm and Howon’s feel large and awkward beside them. “Being mated is hard. It’s like marriage—two people bringing their own worlds together and trying to make them into one.” Howon forces himself to keep meeting her eyes. It’s one of the hardest things he’s ever done. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to do that. Sometimes—only a few times, but sometimes—it’s impossible. And you’re an alpha.”

 

Fuck. “No—no, ma’am, I wouldn’t—“

 

She keeps talking, and her quiet voice dries up Howon’s as her hands move to his cup his face again. It feels different than it did earlier. Howon’s chest is burning. “All parents have dreams for their children. But I don’t know of one parent whose child has met their every dream. It’s a hard lesson to learn, that your children aren’t really an extension of you, that their lives won’t be exactly like you plan for them.”

 

Howon had thought he couldn’t feel worse than he did after the mating was over and he realized what had happened. And then the gym had happened, and he had thought nothing could feel worse than that. But now there’s this. Where does it end?

 

“You’re a good boy,” Mrs. Kim continues, and her hands are very soft on Howon’s face. “I have faith in that.” Her hands are very soft, and Howon could pull away, but he lets her lower his head till his forehead is pressing against hers. “Please take care of my son,” she says, and then she releases him and presses a kiss against his forehead.

 

Howon feels like his tongue has been cut out. Eyes burning, he bows as low as he can without getting down on his knees.

 

Mr. Kim’s hand is firm but not harsh on Howon’s arm. “It was good to meet you, Howon.” Howon still can’t find any words. He sounds like he means it, and maybe that’s worse than any anger could be. “It sounds like there’s a lot of thinking to do, doesn’t it?”

 

Howon manages to rasp a ‘yes sir,’ and then he finds that they’re walking towards the door and that Mrs. Kim has pulled Myungsoo to his feet and is bringing him along too. And when they’re all at the front door, Mrs. Kim smiles up at him again. “You are always welcome here, Howon,” she says, and Howon wants to drop to his knees and press his face to her stomach and cry. But he just nods jerkily and watches the two parents walk away.

 

And then there’s only Myungsoo and he’s still very still. And cold.

 

“Myungsoo.” Howon can’t even hate himself for how his voice sounds like he’s pleading. How else could it possibly sound? “I haven’t decided—we don’t have to—“

 

“You’re the alpha.” Myungsoo’s voice are very flat, and his eyes are even more unreadable than his father’s had been. Howon feels sick.

 

“That’s not—I’m not that kind—“

 

“We’ll register after school tomorrow,” Myungsoo says, still in that flat voice, and then Howon finds that he’s standing on the front step, staring at a closed door.

Chapter Text

Howon has finished dragging himself into his clothes and is trying to decide whether to go eat breakfast with his family—his stomach is growling, but after a night of almost no sleep, he knows his temper will be short, and putting it near his dad is a risk—when his bedroom door flies open and Sungjong hurtles into the room, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and shoving him up against the wall.

Sungjong is actually much stronger than he looks, but even so, Howon would have been able to get free easily if he weren’t staring in shock at his best friend.

“What the—“

“You know, hyung, I really had faith in you.” Sungjong’s voice is lower than usual and thick. Howon’s rarely heard him sound like that. “Ever since you got off of your lazy ass and called him that day, you’ve pretty much been doing the right thing. And I guess I thought you would keep on doing it. Too bad you completely failed me.”

Sungjong is somehow startlingly beautiful even when he’s barely awake and angry, which somehow makes him even scarier. It’s like seeing a demigod unleash his fury or something. Howon shifts uneasily. “Jjongie—“

“What the fuck were you thinking? Just drop the bomb on him that you wanted to leave school after this year when you were with his parents? Are you seriously that much of an asshole?”

“I wasn’t—they asked me! I couldn’t lie.”

“You didn’t have to lie! All you had to do was say you don’t know what you want for your future yet! That’s all! And then fucking talk to Myungsoo about it alone later!”

“But that would have been lying! I do know what I want to do!”

“No, you don’t!”

“Yes, I do!”

“So you’re saying you’ve absolutely one hundred percent decided to go ahead with moving to Seoul right after school lets out even though you now have a mate?”

Howon goes quiet, staring into Sungjong’s intense eyes, and after a moment, Sungjong sighs and releases his collar. He steps back, shaking his hair out of his eyes, and Howon watches him warily. “Hyung, you fucked up.”

Howon doesn’t say anything, just looks at the door, glad that Sungjong had the presence of mind to close it before he grabbed him. “How did you know?” he finally asks.

“Myungsoo’s mom called Sungyeol and he went over and pried it out of Myungsoo—hyung says he was lying on the bed staring at the ceiling and didn’t move the whole night—and then Sungyeol-hyung called me.”

They stand in silence for a few more minutes, Sungjong rubbing at his temples, and then Howon walks over to his bed and sits down stiffly.

“I should have talked to him about it first,” he says quietly, looking at his palms. “I just didn’t think they’d ask.”

“That’s right, hyung. You didn’t think.”

Again there’s silence and then Sungjong says, “He didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“I know.”

Sungjong gives him a sharp look, but Howon doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t explain how he spent the entire night shivering because Myungsoo was so miserable.

“Are you really still set on doing this?” Sungjong asks wearily. Howon doesn’t answer. Sungjong sighs, tries a different tactic. “Would it really make a difference if you delayed it a year?”

“Yes,” Howon answers, completely honestly. “It would. The older you get, the less likely they are to pick you. They want trainees who are as young and moldable as possible. That’s the point of trainees.”

“So you expect Myungsoo to drop out of school, get his GED, too, and go to Seoul with you?”

Howon closes his eyes. “I don’t know what I expect.”

“That’s the only option, hyung. Literally. He couldn’t stay here if you’re there. For the first couple of months you’d both just be achey and irritable, but then you’d get sick. Really sick. You definitely wouldn’t be able to dance. You two have to be together. That’s what mating means.”

“There’s the treatment…”

“Which would waste at least six months if not a year of your lives. You’ll both be in the hospital or bedridden the entire time, and by the time you’re able to dance again, practically another year will have gone by. You might as well have stayed here till you graduate.”

Howon drops back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Can he really make Myungsoo sacrifice everything he wants for him? Can he really sacrifice everything he wants for Myungsoo?

After a moment he feels the mattress shift and he knows Sungjong has sat down beside him. “Look, hyung, there’s no easy solution to this. I know that. And I know that as the alpha, you could easily just tell Myungsoo that this is what you’re doing and he won’t have any choice in the matter. But I don’t think you’re that type of person. If I did, I wouldn’t have been best friends with you for years. All I know right now is that you two need to talk about this. And that you have to reassure him today that you care about what he wants. Not promise him that he’ll get it. But promise that you care about it.”

Howon has an arm flung over his eyes and he focuses on the sound of Sungjong’s breathing. It feels like the cold has settled in his bones and is weighing his whole body down. “I should just give it up, right? Go to university like everyone else. Do what my dad wants me to do.” The words are bitter in his mouth.

“No.” Sungjong’s tone is very clear with only a hint of disdain for Howon’s words. “I don’t think you’re that type of person, either. This isn’t a whim, hyung. You’ve wanted it as long as I’ve known you. And I think you could make it happen. Giving up completely just because it’s what other people want would be the coward’s road. The only reason to give it up that I could respect is if it’s best for Myungsoo. But I really don’t believe it would be.”

Howon thinks that he might have given it all up before if it weren’t for Sungjong. He’s always been sure in himself, of what he wants, but there were times when his father’s rage or silence burned so deep that he started to doubt himself. In those moments, knowing that Sungjong believed in him—Sungjong who was smart and mature and practical and would tell him flat-out if he thought Howon’s dream had no chance of coming true—was enough to keep him steady on course. It’s always been a comfort.

“We should go now if we don’t want to be late for class,” Sungjong says after a while, and Howon lets out a long sigh and drags himself upright.

They don’t talk much on the way to school, but they’ve always been comfortable with silence. Today, though, the silence isn’t comfortable, but it’s not because of something between them. It’s because Howon has gotten so used to Myungsoo and Sungyeol being there, to listening to Sungyeol’s chatter and holding Myungsoo’s hand, that it feels wrong for it to be just the two of them again.

Myungsoo feels wrong, too, the coldness still gripping Howon tells him. Feeling Myungsoo’s misery on top of his own makes him feel weighed down by a heavy burden. It gets a little lighter when he gets closer to Myungsoo, but when he finally sees him down the hall, slumped against Sungyeol’s locker and looking more haggard than Howon ever remembers seeing him, the cold is still a tangible thing between them.

“Can we talk?”

Myungsoo doesn’t look at him, but Howon can feel Sungyeol’s eyes heavy on him. He can’t turn to look at him to see if they’re accusatory. Or even full of hate. He couldn’t handle that, too.

“You’re the alpha,” Myungsoo says after a moment, straightening from the locker, and Howon has to press his lips together to keep a ‘That’s not fair!’ from snapping out.

Because it is kind of fair, he admits to himself as they walk down the hall. As he lay in bed last night, he’d gone over and over in his head all of the words he’d spoken to the Kims. And he’d realized that the way he’d left it, they probably all thought that he was going to force Myungsoo to go with him to Seoul without any sort of consideration for what Myungsoo wants. That’s the kind of alpha behavior Howon has always loathed. But right now he feels exactly like that kind of alpha.

They end up in the old gym, Myungsoo looking around and not meeting his eyes. Howon closes the door behind him, ignoring the warning bell that says that they’re going to be late to class. This is more important than class.

He watches Myungsoo walk around, kicking at a few boxes, hands in his pockets, and he reminds himself that it’s fair that he be the one to start this. He started it last night, after all. “That was a dick move, last night,” Howon says into the silence between them, and he sees Myungsoo twitch. “I didn’t mean to drop that on you—I hadn’t thought through what they might ask and—“ He stops, starts again. “I should have talked to you first.”

Myungsoo shrugs listlessly. He’s clearly trying to look bored, but his face is far too wan and exhausted for that. It makes Howon’s chest ache. “What’s there to talk about?”

Howon flips through his thoughts, decides to try it a different way. “I’ve been trying really hard not to think about the future.” His voice sounds overly formal, like he’s making a speech to an audience. But Myungsoo doesn’t look like it touches him. He swallows and keeps going. “I knew, in the back of my mind, that you and I probably had really different ideas of what we want.” He wishes Myungsoo would look at him. That would make this harder, but it would make it easier too. “I haven’t been letting myself think about that or about how we would come up with some sort of compromise.”

Myungsoo makes a face that’s the equivalent of a snort, and Howon swallows hard. “I’ve wanted to be a performer since I was a little kid. When I started dancing, it was like—“ How can he possibly explain it? It was like he hadn’t been alive till that moment and then he was. It sounds cliche and melodramatic even in his own mind, but it’s so true he can’t even wrap his tongue around the words. “It was like I never wanted to do anything else. Ever. I would watch the older dancers at the clubs or the idols on TV, and all I could think was, ‘That’s going to be me one day.’ I haven’t ever wanted anything else.”

Myungsoo’s shoulders have drooped and Howon wants to go over to him. But he needs to get this out first. And then he has to make sure that Myungsoo wants him to touch him. He’d promised.

“I’ve worked really hard. And I know that people think it’s a long-shot, but I’ve known since I was a kid that I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t try. My dad thinks—“ He stops abruptly, not willing to go there, especially not now. Myungsoo’s eyelids flutter, but Howon ignores them. “My parents don’t like it that this is what I want,” he finally settles on. “But I never considered anything else. And then—“ He raises an empty hand. “And then there was this. And everything’s changed. And I feel like I don’t know anything anymore.”

Maybe it takes Myungsoo a moment to figure out that Howon’s run out of words. But he finally says, voice trying to sound annoyed but mostly only sounding tired, “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I’m scared.”

Myungsoo flinches, his eyes darting up to Howon’s and then away again, and he looks unsettled. Howon makes himself stay still. “I’m really fucking terrified that the one thing I’ve wanted my entire life, I won’t get. I got scared sometimes before, but I just told myself to work harder and become better and I focused on things I could control. But there’s so much more I can’t control now. And it’s really fucking scary.”

Myungsoo licks his lips, and for once Howon can’t even be distracted by the gesture. But Myungsoo doesn’t say anything. Howon wants to just walk out and go back to class, but—no. Sungjong is right. He fucked up, and he has to fix this.

“Tell me what you want.”

In his surprise, Myungsoo finally looks at him dead-on, eyes wide, and it’s all the encouragement Howon needs. “I want to know what you want. For your future. What your dream is.”

The conflict is so clear on Myungsoo’s face—torn between answering and continuing aloofness.

“Your mom said you and Sungyeol want to go to university together,” Howon prompts.

Myungsoo finally sighs, a long sound, a balloon deflating. “Yeah. In Seoul.”

“The best schools are there.” It’s a stupid thing to say, everyone knows that, might as well say ‘Grass is green,’ but Howon feels like it’s his job to keep Myungsoo talking. They have to face this. We don’t have any choice. And isn’t that the story of everything between them?

“Yeah.” Again, Myungsoo licks his lips, straightening just a little. “We were gonna find a school with a good drama department and a good photography program.”

That sounds about right. “And live together?”

Myungsoo looks so very wistful. “Yeah.”

“And you were going to be a photographer and he was going to be an actor?”

“Yeah. We had a whole plan about what I’d do to make sure I didn’t mate and—“ Myungsoo stops abruptly, looking like he’s going to cry, and Howon has to reroute this conversation before it goes in that direction.

“That’s a good future.”

The tears don’t fall, but the smile curving Myungsoo’s lips is cynical. Howon’s never seen him look like that and decides abruptly that he never wants to see him look that way again. “Yeah. It was.”

Howon hears the past tense, sharp in his ears. “I care about what you want.”

The words sound abrupt, and Myungsoo blinks at them. Howon wishes he had some of Woohyun’s finesse when it comes to choosing the words people want to hear, or some of Dongwoo’s talent for always saying the right thing. Or even Sungyeol’s way of wrapping humor around his honesty so the bluntness doesn’t cut. But that’s not who Lee Howon is. This is all he is, and it’s all he has to offer Myungsoo.

“What?” Myungsoo’s voice is barely audible.

“I care about what you want,” Howon repeats and shoves a hand through his hair. “I’m not—I’m not just going to ignore it and do whatever the fuck I want. If we’re going to try this, I want us to make decisions together.”

Myungsoo looks at him very steadily. And Howon was right--having Myungsoo looking at him makes it better and worse, all at the same time. Somehow that’s how it’s been between them from the beginning. “Together.”

“Yeah.”

Howon watches Myungsoo’s Adam’s apple bob. “And if we can’t agree?” His throat sounds dry.

“I don’t know,” Howon answers honestly. “But it’s your life, too.”

For a while, both of them are still, and then Myungsoo moves forward, jerkily, a step or two at a time, and by the time he reaches Howon, Howon’s arms are open to meet him.

The cold leaches right out of Howon’s bones, tension falling out of his body, and he presses his nose against Myungsoo’s neck and breathes him in, a smell more comforting than his mom making his favorite dishes for dinner. Myungsoo’s hair is thick against Howon’s fingers, and his skin is warm and smooth. There’s something about the way both of Myungsoo’s hands are clinging to fistfulls of the back of Howon’s shirt that makes Howon’s heart break. We’re too young for this. We’re too young for forever. It’s true, maybe, but forever doesn’t care. It’s here, whether they want it or not.

“We’ll figure out a way to both be happy,” Howon murmurs into Myungsoo’s hair. “We’ll figure it out.”

It’s not a promise. More like a hope. But Howon holds onto it tight.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a very long day, even for a Monday. Everyone in the school is talking about what happened in the gym last Friday, a constant buzz of speculation and reenactment. Sungyeol had suggested hopefully on the way to school that maybe something had happened over the weekend to distract everyone, but instead, the gossip has been even more intense than usual, like it built up over the weekend and is bursting out now that all the students are back together in one place. Even the conversations everyone must have been having over kakaotalk haven’t taken the edge off of it.

But Myungsoo actually doesn’t notice. Last Friday seems very, very long ago, and he’s too busy going over and over in his mind about the things Howon had said—yesterday, today—trying to figure out if he really believes him, trying to figure out what they could possibly do to both get what they want, trying to figure out if he can live with the uncertainty.

The only conclusion he comes to is that he has to. Live with the uncertainty, that is. The only other option is the treatment, and that would waste a year of both of their lives, too—if he was going to do that, he might as well just tell Howon they should leave for Seoul today. No, he won’t consider the treatment unless he decides he can’t live with Howon himself. It’s always there in the back of his mind, an escape hatch waiting if necessary, but it’s not necessary, not yet.

What is necessary is for him to figure out a way not to worry about this. It doesn’t do any good now: Sungyeol tells him as much when Myungsoo briefly explains what happened in the old gym. “Worry about it when you two are talking about it,” Sungyeol says. “That’s the right time to dwell on it. Right now, just ignore it. Focus on other things.”

Easier said than done, of course, and Sungyeol knows that, so he tries to provide Myungsoo with some distracting entertainment. Some of it really is funny, but Myungsoo is less easily amused than usual and the only time he really stirs from his brooding is when Sungjong informs him with great smugness that Bang Minsoo had been suspended because of the things he’d said.

Myungsoo still doesn’t know exactly what Minsoo said—he’s sure he could imagine if he wanted to, but he isn’t going to bother—and he doesn’t feel particularly angry at him, probably because he’s so distracted by his worries. But he sees the look of satisfaction on Howon’s face when the topic comes up at lunch, and he’s glad of the suspension for Howon’s sake.

“Do you want me to go with you?” Sungyeol leans over to ask Myungsoo as the final bell of the day sounds. “Jjongie and I could go and then we could get a pizza or something.”

Myungsoo shakes his head. “No, it’s okay. Dongwoo-hyung said it’s not a big deal.” Besides, he kind of thinks that he and Howon need to spend more time just the two of them if they’re ever going to get comfortable around each other. Not all of their time—he’s still really glad that the others are willing to hang out in a group so much, and just the thought of being alone with Howon all the time is enough to make his skin feel tight. But this, at least, they can do on their own. And it’s fitting, somehow, for it to be just the two of them, the way it was that night in the art room.

Howon smiles at him when they meet up in the parking lot. It’s not his fangy smile, but it’s still nice, and Myungsoo smiles back. The things they’d said in the gym feel very small in comparison to their problems, and yet they’ve smoothed the space between them, even if Myungsoo isn’t quite sure how. When he’d been laying on his bed all through the night staring up at the ceiling, he’d thought that nothing Howon said could make him feel safe again, but other than the future with no solution that they’re both aware is hanging over their shoulders, things between them feel just like they did before. It’s a minor miracle, and the only explanation that makes sense to Myungsoo is that Howon had said the magic words (‘I’m scared’ and ‘I care about what you want’ and ‘I want us to make decisions together’ and ‘It’s your life too’) that made Myungsoo realize that he wasn’t as alone in his fear and uncertainty as he thought he was. Somehow, it’s so much easier to be scared about the future when he knows Howon is scared, too, and that he’s not just scared for himself but scared for Myungsoo as well.

Myungsoo barely notices when Sungjong and Sungyeol tell them goodbye and stroll off with Sungyeol’s arm around Sungjong’s shoulder, and the two mates start walking towards downtown.

“Was it bad today? With everyone talking?” Howon asks, slipping his hand into Myungsoo’s. It’s so routine now that Myungsoo barely blushes at all at the contact.

“I didn’t really notice,” Myungsoo answers. “I was thinking about—other things.”

He can tell by Howon’s silence that he knows exactly what he was thinking about. “Will you apologize to your parents for me?” he asks after a moment.

Myungsoo thinks of the worried looks in his parents’ eyes last night, this morning before he left for school. “Yeah.”

Howon seems relieved. “Thanks. I like them. I wouldn’t want them to—“

Myungsoo’s hand feels a little damp, but he doesn’t pull away. “They like you, too. Other than—well, you know. They like you.”

Howon tilts his head to look at him. “Yeah?”

Myungsoo nods. “Yeah.”

The grin Howon gives him is a little too attractive, and Myungsoo jerks his gaze away. “My mom will be asking after you every five minutes.”

Howon laughs. “She’s really great.”

It’s nice, somehow, to hear Howon say those things about his family. “Yeah.”

“She really wants you to be happy. Both of your parents do.”

There’s something in Howon’s voice that Myungsoo doesn’t understand, something he’d sensed earlier in the old gym when Howon had stopped talking about his dad. “They’re my parents.”

The smile Howon gives him is strained, but the next minute he’s telling some story about the time he and Dongwoo-hyung snuck into an 18-and-older club and hit on some noonas until they got kicked out when one of Dongwoo’s own noonas walked in and recognized them. It’s a funny story, and Myungsoo feels himself relaxing as they go into the Department of Mating building.

It’s as undramatic as Dongwoo-hyung had said it would be. They only have to wait for about fifteen minutes in the waiting area--just like the waiting area at any doctor’s office, with magazines on the coffee table and a TV set to the news mounted up in the corner--before they’re called up to a counter to begin the paperwork and then it’s just a matter of answering boring questions. The only thing Myungsoo remembers about it later is that Howon stood so close to him, his hand at the small of Myungsoo’s back, and Myungsoo had to breathe slowly and remind himself that the sparks racing up his spine were just because of the bond. Oh, and he also remembers the blood test. He’s always dreaded shots, but maybe Howon senses his tension, because he takes his hand, and just like when his mom used to hold it when he was little, it’s easier when you have someone’s hand to squeeze.

They’re out thirty minutes later with a Pokemon bandaid on each of their left arms and a pair of papers that will serve as their mating identification cards until the real ones come through the mail. The woman they worked with had offered counseling and information about supplements and the treatment, but Howon had told her they’d come back if they wanted that.

“Well,” Howon says, looking down at his paper. “It’s official.”

“Yeah.” In movies and dramas, a lot of mated couples celebrate by going out for a meal or a drink. Myungsoo thinks about suggesting that they go to a restaurant, but it seems like too much. Myungsoo is become more aware by the day that his life is not a drama.

“What are you doing now?” he asks instead.

Howon raises his eyebrows. “I haven’t practiced in a while. I thought I’d go back to the old gym.”

Myungsoo thinks about the homework he has to do, gnawing on his lip and imagining sitting in his bedroom working on it. “Can I come?” He nearly winces as he hears himself ask the question, nearly does again when Howon’s eyebrows shoot up almost to his hairline.

“You want to?”

Myungsoo shuffles his feet, trying to hide how awkward he feels. “You said it’s your dream,” he finally says with a shrug that probably isn’t even slightly convincing.

Howon looks at him closely, his eyes going dark—but not in anger or annoyance or anything like that. In something Myungsoo can’t name, something that makes Myungsoo’s stomach do a slow somersault and sends shivers spidering up his back. “Only if you show me your pictures later.”

Myungsoo feels a pleased smile curving his own lips. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

And that’s how their new routine starts. They still spend a lot of time with Sungjong and Sungyeol and their other friends, but at least a couple of days a week they head to the old gym after school, sitting back to back as they do their homework. It’s much easier to concentrate when he’s touching Myungsoo, Howon has found, and he hadn’t realized just how distracting Myungsoo not being around is until now. He’s pretty sure that if Myungsoo could sit beside him when he takes his tests, he’d remember everything he studies. He tells Myungsoo this one day as they spread out their notebooks and textbooks, and Myungsoo laughs, that scrunch-faced laugh that makes something in Howon’s chest tighten.

 

It’s easy enough to fall into the pattern, Myungsoo helping him with math, him quizzing Myungsoo on Japanese vocab words. They finish more quickly than they would if they were working on their own, and then Howon ducks into the locker room and changes out of his uniform and when he comes back, Myungsoo is sitting with his back against the wall, his camera or his laptop or a sketchbook or a manhwa in his lap.

 

Howon’s not sure how Myungsoo can concentrate when loud hip hop is pumping through the room, but Myungsoo mostly focuses on whatever he’s brought to pass the time, silent and calm. Somehow, though, Howon never forgets that he’s there, even when he’s most immersed in the dancing. He’s always aware of Myungsoo’s presence, like a cat in the room, comforting just by being there. The sense of well-being he only ever feels when Myungsoo is with him relaxes Howon’s muscles and clears his head, and he doesn’t think it’s just his imagination that he’s improving much quicker than he ever has before.

 

He’s just better when Myungsoo is there. And on the occasions when Myungsoo is watching him instead of doing his own thing, it’s like Howon’s been infused with super powers. He can feel Myungsoo’s eyes on him, and it makes each move sharper, each stretch further, each muscle feel like it’s bursting with energy.

 

It isn’t just Howon’s performance that’s better when Myungsoo is watching him. When that intense gaze is focused on him, Howon can feel the energy crackling through the room, and he knows good and well that it’s sexual. He gets turned on when Myungsoo is watching him with those dark, steady eyes, and continuing to dance normally takes all his skills. He can feel Myungsoo’s eyes trace a drop of sweat running down his neck, focus on the muscles in his back or thighs. It gets Howon hotter than watching porn, having Myungsoo watch him, and he takes to taking a shower in the locker room after he’s done practicing, jerking himself to shuddering orgasm at nothing more than the memory of Myungsoo watching him. He’s stopped feeling ashamed about it—Myungsoo has to know that it’s happening, and he hasn’t said anything to Howon about it or acted uncomfortable around him, so Howon isn’t going to let himself worry about it anymore. They belong to each other, even if they aren’t in love.

 

Besides, he knows Myungsoo gets turned on, too, though neither of them ever acknowledges it. Howon can smell it, Myungsoo’s familiar omega scent taking on a muskier edge that Howon recognizes from that night in the art room even if it’s not nearly as overwhelming now as it was then. Maybe that’s what spurs his better performances—knowing that he’s turning Myungsoo on just makes him want to dip lower and spin faster. He knows Myungsoo slips out to the bathroom while he’s taking his shower, and he’s pretty damn sure he knows what Myungsoo is doing in there, but it’s surprisingly easy to ignore afterwards, to pretend that they both didn’t just masturbate to thoughts of each other.

 

Howon can’t deny that part of his mind keeps telling him it’s stupid for them to continue like this when they could just be actually having sex, but he ignores it. He knows without even having to ask that Myungsoo isn’t ready for that, and even though Howon knows he himself would enjoy it—more than enjoy it—and would gladly agree if Myungsoo wanted to, he’s okay with waiting till Myungsoo is more comfortable with him. This seems to be a good thing for Myungsoo, acknowledging that he wants someone while still exploring his own desire safely by himself. Howon won’t push him.

 

There’s almost no pushing now at all. Even their friends don’t have to remind them to spend more time together, though Dongwoo or Yejin sometimes drop Howon a bit of advice. He and Myungsoo walk to school hand in hand, sit with their sides pressed together at lunch, usually hug for a while when they get to the old gym before they sit down back-to-back to do their homework, then walk home holding hands before parting with another hug (and Howon has noticed Myungsoo’s mom peeping out of the window and smiling at them as they part).

 

Their friends were right: it is getting easier, the discomfort being siphoned away each day until they’re easy together most of the time. Howon still gets irrationally angry when Myungsoo pays too much attention to someone other than him, but each time it’s easier to control; and he knows Myungsoo falls into funks where he’s moody and withdrawn for no reason, though they don’t seem to last as long as they used to. Whenever the subject of the bond comes up, they both turn awkward, and Myungsoo pulls away whenever he has a reaction he’s ashamed of; one day Myungsoo cries in front of him about nothing and won’t say a word to him or meet his eyes for the next two days. That’s so frustrating Howon could scream, but he reminds himself that they really have made progress, lots of it. They could be making lots more if they had more full-on contact—if they slept in the same bed, if they actually cuddled instead of just sitting against each other. If they were having sex. But after the nightmare that was the first couple of weeks after they bonded, this new progress is such a relief.

 

The only time it feels as terrible as it did before is when, sometimes because of the topic, sometimes for no reason at all, Myungsoo’s eyes go shuttered and he seems to curl into himself. When he does that, Howon knows he’s thinking about the future, about how their dreams still seem to clash. Howon doesn’t mention it again, though, doesn’t even try to keep reassuring Myungsoo that they’ll work something out. It only makes Myungsoo stiff and aloof when he tries, so he leaves that task to their friends. Sungyeol informs him that they’re all doing what they can whenever anxiety takes over Myungsoo to remind him that Howon cares about what he wants. ‘If he hears it enough, sooner or later he’ll start to believe it,’ Sungyeol says, and Howon reminds himself that Sungyeol knows Myungsoo better than anyone.

 

Howon doesn’t let himself think about their looming problem when he’s with Myungsoo. It only makes him melancholy, and Myungsoo seems to pick up on that and become more so himself. Their moods are definitely feeding off of each other, and the more intense the emotions, the more the other is affected. So Howon keeps his worry to himself and only takes it out when he’s alone, lying in bed and turning it over and over again in his head like a puzzle toy whose solution he’s trying to figure out. It’s unpleasant, but at least it distracts him from how being alone in bed always leaves him aching for Myungsoo more than usual, memories of touching him and hearing him and smelling him crowding into his head. The ‘what are we going to do when the school year ends?’ problem is a great boner-killer.

 

The one thing Howon has decided for sure is that he has to help Myungsoo become a photographer. One evening a couple of days after they start spending most of their afternoons in the gym, Myungsoo tentatively invites him inside when they reach his house. Mrs. Kim comes out of the kitchen to hug Myungsoo and gives Howon one as well, and if he holds on a little longer than he probably should, she doesn’t say anything. It’s just such a relief to him that she’s still so warm and accepting, and he has to fight back a mix of emotions as he follows Myungsoo upstairs to his room.

 

It’s the first time he’s seen Myungsoo’s room, and he grins when he steps inside.

 

“What?” Myungsoo demands, defensively, but Howon can see the lurking insecurity in his eyes.

 

“Nothing. It’s just very…you.”

 

And it is. The room is very neat, but not in the spic-and-span way that makes it feel like a hotel room. It still feels lived in, with piles of papers and magazines here and there—though neat piles—and a couple of black hoodies on a hook on the back of the door. Myungsoo would have multiple black hoodies. And he’d also have a bookshelf full of manhwa and manga, the bright colors of their bindings vivid against the dark wood of the furniture and the black of the bedspread. There’s a desk with the neat piles of papers and a black cushion on the chair and a black desk lamp, and on the wall above the bed, there are lots of photographs arranged in a collage Howon wants to examine. But he makes himself wait while Myungsoo rolls his eyes and pulls a thick leather photograph album off the bookshelf.

 

Myungsoo holds it so his chest as he walks over to the bed, and Howon follows, settling down beside him in their now-familiar arrangement of side-by-side with arms-and-legs pressed against each other. Myungsoo’s hands seem hesitant as they unzip the album now in his lap, and Howon takes the moment to admire those hands. They’re really attractive, tapered but manly and Howon can’t help but want to suck at the veins rising on them. He’s been trying to find a flaw in Myungsoo’s physical appearance, just because he feels like there must be one, but he hasn’t had any luck thus far. Even Myungsoo’s bare feet and bony ankles are attractive. It makes it hard for Howon to keep his hands to himself. My mate is really handsome. And he’s really fucking hot.

 

“I don’t—“ Myungsoo’s voice sounds a little higher than usual, and Howon can feel how nervous he is. “Some of these are older, and I’ve learned a lot since then and—“

 

“I know how that is,” Howon says. “I thought the dances I learned in middle school were impressive, but now they’re so simple I can’t believe I ever thought they were hard.”

 

He feels Myungsoo slump a little in relief. “Yeah.” He’s still tense, though, as he opens the album, and Howon wants to press his lips to Myungsoo’s neck and whisper that he’s sure they’re all amazing, but he just waits, watching Myungsoo’s beautiful hands turn the pages.

 

Howon doesn’t know anything about art. His opinions on it about start and end with thinking Banksy is awesome and wishing he had the guts to explore the tagging part of hip hop life. But even he can see that Myungsoo is good. There’s talent in these pictures that even Howon can admire, and more than that, somehow something essentially Myungsoo comes out in them. Maybe it’s the subjects—there are landscapes and cityscapes, of course, but there are lots of Sungyeol and Sungjong and some of the rest of Myungsoo’s friends and tons of little kids at the park or shopping with their moms. Howon smiles; he doesn’t imagine most parents like people taking pictures of their kids, but he’s sure they must take one look at Myungsoo and realize he’s not a creep.

 

Howon’s lack of art vocabulary trips him up, but he manages to find some things to say—that the light in one is really cool or that he likes the way this building is centered or that the colors are amazing on that one or, when all else fails, that he really just likes this one. He keeps his voice calm, somehow sensing that effusiveness or trying to act like he’s some sort of authority would read as insincere, and with each page that Myungsoo turns, Hownon can feel him relaxing just a bit more.

 

When Myungsoo closes the last page, Howon tries to think of what to say. “I think you’re really good,” he settles on finally, and it’s about the lamest compliment ever, but it’s what he has.

 

Myungsoo doesn’t seem to mind that it’s a dumb thing to say. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know anything about art. But I liked looking at all of them. I didn’t get bored. All of them had something that—made me want to look at them.” One of the things Howon will never understand about himself is how he can be so quick-tongued when it comes to snark or teasing, but it’s so much harder when he’s trying to be sincere. He’s surprised he’s doing as well as he is.

 

He risks a glance at Myungsoo and finds that he’s still looking down at the album, a little smile on his face, but his eyes are shining in that way Howon has seen a couple of times that makes his stomach flip.

 

Myungsoo doesn’t look like he’s going to come up with any words in reply any time soon, so Howon decides to voice something he’s been wondering about. “I haven’t seen you taking many recently, though.” Myungsoo used to have his camera out at school, during lunch or between classes, quite frequently. He still carries the bag with him most days, but Howon hasn’t seen him take the camera out.

 

The smile has slid off of Myungsoo’s face. “I—I haven’t really since we….”

 

Howon knows. “Yeah. It took me a while to want to dance, too. But it’s like it’s…even better now. You should start again. You must miss it.”

 

Myungsoo is silent, and Howon knows exactly what he’s thinking. What’s the point?

 

Howon is quiet himself for a moment and then he turns so that he’s seated facing Myungsoo, who looks up at him from under his fringe, a little startled. “You’re going to be a photographer,” Howon says. Myungsoo’s face is very still, and Howon presses on. “No matter what happens to me, I’m going to help you make sure of that.”

 

Myungsoo shrugs and drops his eyes, looking very young. “I still have so much to learn.”

 

“And you’ll learn it at university.” At Myungsoo’s startled glance, Howon presses his knee more firmly against Myungsoo’s thigh. “No matter what happens,” he says again, “you’ll go there.”

 

“I don’t—“

 

“I don’t know if we’ll end up deciding that we both get our GEDs, but you can go to university if you get one. And I know you want to go with Sungyeol, but you can—at the very least you can take off a year or something, and—or I don’t know, maybe we’ll stay here till we graduate and then we’ll go to Seoul just like you wanted. But no matter what happens, you need to take pictures for the rest of your life. You need to do that like I need to dance.”

 

Myungsoo has his head down, but Howon can see the glint of tears on his eyelashes and that his hands have fisted up and Howon knows he’s feeling ashamed that he’s in the middle of another mood swing. I know you can’t help it. And whatever—it’s just crying.

 

“We’ll figure it out,” he says, repeating what he’s said before, what he tells himself over and over, sometimes multiple times a day. He stands, knowing he needs to give Myungsoo a moment. “I’m going to go talk to your mom, okay? I want to make sure things are okay with us.” He reaches out and awkwardly pats Myungsoo on the head before he leaves the room.

 

Mrs. Kim is so warm and calm that it barely even feels uncomfortable for Howon to assure her that he’s not going to use his power as the alpha to make Myungsoo just go along with what he wants. The way she smiles at him lets him believe that she believes him when he says he wants them to make decisions together, that he wants what’s best for both of them. She even—miraculously, if his experience with parents has taught him anything—doesn’t criticize his choice of career.

 

“Our Myungsoo has gone on and on about your dancing over the last few days,” she says with a grin that makes Howon flush. “If you’re half as good as he says, I’m sure a company will snap you right up.”

 

Howon can’t figure out how to react to that, because it kind of makes him lightheaded to think of Myungsoo talking to his parents about his dancing, but he’s also not sure he’s as good as all that. Good, yes. But good enough to beat out all the other thousands of wannabe trainees he’ll be up against? He just doesn’t know.

 

Thankfully he doesn’t have to say anything because Mr. Kim arrives home then, and after Mrs. Kim hurries out to greet him with a kiss, he greets Howon in a way that makes it seem that their tense dinner hadn’t ever happened. “It’s good to see you, Howon. You’ll stay for dinner?”

 

Howon does, sitting beside a Myungsoo who seems to have recovered—who seems to have become hyper, teasing his brother and telling stories about him and Sungyeol when they were little, his face crumpling up whenever he laughs. Howon can’t stop grinning all through the meal, and it’s really, really nice to be in this homey house with this family who so clearly adore each other so much. He almost feels like he belongs. He hasn’t felt that in a long, long time.

 

 

 

Myungsoo’s friends like to tease him about his lack of control. ‘If he thinks you’re great,’ Sungyeol likes to say with a grin, ‘he can’t keep himself from staring at you.’

 

‘Yeah, and he’s totally incapable of keeping his hands to himself,’ Woohyun will add with a laugh. ‘He’s like a little kid who just grabs whatever he sees that catches his eye.’

 

Their words are always fond, and the teasing doesn’t bother Myungsoo at all when it comes from them. He teases Sungyeol just as much about how he constantly feels sorry for himself for not having a girlfriend or about how much porn he watches or whatever. He even sneaks in a few sly remarks about Woohyun-hyung being too greasy with women. Teasing each other is just what they do.

 

But sometimes he can’t help but wonder if his friends know just how much control he does exert, day by day, practically minute by minute. Sometimes he wonders what they would think of him if they knew.

 

Because the truth is, Myungsoo only gives in to about twenty percent of his impulses when it comes to touching and showing affection. If it were up to him, he would always be pressed up against Sungyeol’s back or touching Sungjong’s face or sitting with his feet in Dongwoo’s lap. He would get hugs every time he saw Sunggyu-hyung and sit at meals with Woohyun-hyung’s arm around his shoulder and have them all be always beside him. He would live with all of the people he loved in one place and never have them go away. He would stare at them whenever he wanted to, even if it was far hours on end, and he would never, ever sleep by himself.

 

But Myungsoo knows that other people don’t want that. For some reason he can’t fathom, other people aren’t like him, and some of them don’t like to touch almost at all, like Sungjong, and even the ones who do, like Dongwoo, seem to get tired of it and want to be alone sometimes. His need is too intense, he knows that, a giant black hole in the center of him that just wants more and more and more and is never satisfied. He fights it down every day and pulls back when he feels Sungyeol’s shoulders twitch or stops staring when he sees Sungjong’s smile look a little forced. He can read them, and he compromises: even if they’ve never actually talked these things out, that’s how Myungsoo sees it: he showers them with attention less than he wants and they put up with more affection than they want, and that’s how friendships work. If it takes an extraordinary amount of control for Myungsoo to maintain that, well, his mom always says that relationships—any kind—are about curbing your own selfish impulses enough that other people can live with them and them doing the same in return. And Myungsoo has grown very good at curbing.

 

He’s never been so glad in all his life for that control as he is now, with Howon.

 

At first, he’d barely been able to look at Howon. Every time he did, he felt a crashing wave of self-loathing at what he thought of then—and still, sometimes, in his darkest moments, thinks of now—as his destroying Howon’s life. And then after that there was the fact that he kept embarrassing himself every five seconds, crying or falling asleep on him or whatever. Looking at Howon was the quickest way to make his cheeks turn scarlet and for him to want to run and hide under his covers forever.

 

And sometimes he still feels embarrassed, especially if he cries or acts pissy for no reason, even though Howon always treats it like it’s as normal as a sneeze. But since they’ve been spending so much time together, especially what Sungyeol calls their ‘mate-time’ in the gym in the afternoons, the embarrassment is ebbing away. He feels almost as comfortable around Howon as he does his other friends; the only thing that keeps him from relaxing entirely is a strange sort of awareness he doesn’t want to think much about. And then, of course, there’s the feeling of rightness that’s always there when he’s with Howon, like this is exactly where he’s supposed to be. It’s easier to feel now that the thick layer of shame and awkwardness is dissipating between them, and even if it’s mostly hormones, Myungsoo is getting used to just letting it be.

 

But being comfortable around Howon brings its own set of problems, problems he should have seen coming but somehow didn’t anticipate. Because now that he can look at Howon without blushing, he wants to keep looking. Now that he can fully enjoy Howon’s hugs without going tense, he wants them to never end. But he can’t do that, become the Clinging Koala Cuddle Monster Woohyun calls him, not with Howon. This thing they have is too fragile, and Myungsoo doesn’t know how he’d handle it if he scared Howon away. Not to mention that if he loosened his control any at all, he might lose it entirely.

 

Though he hadn’t really seen it coming, wanting to attach himself to Howon’s back or stare at him forever doesn’t surprise Myungsoo—it’s how he reacts to all the people he likes best, and he’s coming to like Howon a great deal. But it’s different with Howon, and Myungsoo is never more aware of that than when he’s watching Howon dance.

 

That first day, after they registered, as he really watched Howon dance for the first time, Myungsoo had been pretty sure that he was going to spontaneously combust. He’d seen Howon dance before—little dance battles with Dongwoo-hyung in the quad, glimpses of him on the dance floor the few times Sungyeol had managed to drag Myungsoo to a club, and then there was the night his feet had brought him to the gym of his own accord and he’d apologized. He’d been very admiring of Howon’s skills back when they didn’t really know each other, and then that night, he’d been mesmerized. But neither admiration nor fascination are anything at all like what he feels now.

 

It’s hot. So hot. Howon’s body is amazing and it moves with such control and he gets this look on his face and he’s covered with sweat and it’s like he can feel Myungsoo watching him and is showing off just for him and—well, Myungsoo is always very glad that he sits cross-legged with a notebook in his lap. That first time is so overwhelming that he starts bringing things with him to distract him when Howon dances. He’s not going to give up their afternoons together, but he also can’t spend them just watching Howon dance, no matter how much he would enjoy that, not when it makes him remember in vivid, almost painful detail just how that body has made him feel. Myungsoo had never realized before just how close dancing is to sex, but now he can’t help but be painfully aware of the connection.

 

And he knows Howon gets turned on, too, which is almost too much for him to handle. Thank God Howon never says anything about it, because Myungsoo is sure if he did, he’d melt into a pool of humiliation on the floor. It’s bad enough glancing up and seeing Howon move and the tightness of his pants, but it’s manageable as long as they both ignore that it’s happening. When Howon goes to take a shower after he’s done practicing, Myungsoo heads to the empty bathroom around the corner and slides his hand into his pants.

 

He’s never really done this at school. A few times in middle school when he first hit puberty and his body was going haywire. But it always felt dirty and wrong and he was always scared that someone would know, and so he tried to keep it for home—the shower, his bed. But now, after watching Howon, he can’t possibly wait. He still worries that someone will walk in and hear him gasping, though he knows the odds of that are extremely small since the school is practically deserted and the few rooms that are in use by various clubs or kids studying are on the opposite end of the building. It also feels disrespectful to be doing this at school, but Myungsoo knows he could never make it home.

 

So he jerks off to thoughts of sweat coating Howon’s body, of his muscles shifting under his skin, of his dark eyes and the curve of his mouth, and his orgasms, when he comes, are the most intense he’s ever had—except for the one he’d had with Howon. He’s never really fantasized about anyone in particular before; he hadn’t needed to. His body got horny and then vague images of sex and the touch of his hand was enough to please him. But now it’s so specific. It’s Howon, and it’s sex. He thinks about what he’d like to do, how he’d like to touch Howon and have Howon touch him. It’s new, this sort of mental exploration, and it’s not something he ever thought he’d be comfortable with. But it’s here.

 

He thinks he should feel guilty or ashamed, but somehow he doesn’t. Maybe it’s because he knows Howon knows and is clearly comfortable with it. Maybe it’s because he knows Howon is in the shower doing the same thing. He can’t let himself think about that too much: it’s too intense a thought for him, and if he dwelled on it, he thinks he’d be right back to blushing every time he sees Howon. But he knows it, deep in his bones, and somehow it just makes everything better—they’re touching themselves, thinking of each other, and it’s right. There’s nothing sexier in the world than the thought of Howon touching himself while thinking of Myungsoo.

 

The real surprise in all of this is how easy Myungsoo finds it to ignore that it’s happening at all. He would have been so sure that he’d be unable to meet Howon’s eyes after, but when they’re back together in the gym, Howon takes his bag from him and slings it over his shoulder and then takes Myungsoo’s hand and they walk home laughing about something Sungyeol said at lunch or silently lost in their own thoughts. We’re the same in this, Myungsoo thinks. He feels the same way, too.

 

Maybe that’s what makes the sexual undercurrent of their relationship something Myungsoo can deal with. But the same can’t be said for the other things he wants with Howon.

 

Because he wants to touch him and look at him—not in the sexual way, but in the way he’s always shown affection. He wants to curl up against him and give him back hugs and touch his face and stare and stare and stare. But he can’t. Howon isn’t demonstrative; Sungjong’s his best friend, and they don’t touch much at all, and when Dongwoo grabs his butt or slings an arm around him, Howon either endures it with an eye-roll or simply removes the offending limb. If Myungsoo suddenly started hanging all over him, wouldn’t that make him uncomfortable? If Myungsoo stared at him, wouldn’t Howon think it was creepy? Howon is already having to deal with so much because of Myungsoo; Myungsoo would never be able to forgive himself if Howon had to endure more things he doesn’t want because of him.

 

So Myungsoo holds himself back. He releases Howon’s hand or loosens his embrace as soon as Howon shows signs of doing the same instead of clinging like he wants to. He doesn’t look at Howon more than he has to because he’s pretty sure if he starts he’ll never stop. Myungsoo is quite sure that if anyone could see inside his head and realized just how much he wants, they’d be impressed by his control—if they weren’t scared off by his neediness.

 

He’s impressed by his own control, until the day he loses it for the first time.

 

“Have you been taking any pictures?” Howon asks him one day at his locker after school. The other students are loud and boisterous around them, the air thick with alpha and omega scent, but Myungsoo can pick out Howon’s smell easily. A few curious students eye them as they pass, but since nothing dramatic has happened since the whole thing with Minsoo—who’s back and constantly glaring at Howon and Myungsoo, but who hasn’t said a thing about them, at least where anyone who matters can hear—the rumor-radar of the student body has shifted away from them to one of the third years who got arrested for breaking into a convenience store. Eyes still rest heavier on Myungsoo than he’d like, but he can breathe again as he walks through the hallways. Things are better.

 

Myungsoo nods, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Yeah. Some on Saturday when we went to visit my grandparents, and yesterday Sungyeol and I went to the market.”

 

“Let’s go take some today,” Howon says, closing his locker. Myungsoo stares.

 

“You want to go with me?”

 

When Howon grins like that it makes Myungsoo’s heart speed up. “Of course. You watch me dance all the time. Where do you want to go?”

 

Myungsoo wipes his hands on his uniform pants. “But we were going to the gym.”

 

Howon waves that off. “We do that lots of days. Let’s do this today.”

 

“You need to practice,” Myungsoo points out.

 

“So do you,” Howon counters. “Come on.” And then he takes Myungsoo’s hand and starts dragging him down the hall, and Myungsoo tries to keep a grumpy expression on his face, but inside his stomach is tying itself into bows.

 

They end up at the park nearest Howon’s house. Myungsoo’s visited it before, but not as often as many of the others, and he’s happy to see how busy it is, lots of potential subjects. At first he feels self-conscious with Howon standing right beside him, looking at him, so he takes a few hurried snapshots of a dog playing with a Frisbee that he knows won’t turn out well. But Howon seems to pick up on his tension.

 

“I’m going to sit right there and go over my Japanese,” he says, pointing to a bench.

 

“I won’t be long,” Myungsoo says.

 

“You will if you want to be,” Howon corrects him. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

 

Myungsoo grins and scuffs his toe against the dirt as Howon walks away, but when he raises his camera again, his shoulders are looser and he can actually focus. Soon enough, he’s not thinking about impressing Howon at all, though he hasn’t forgotten about him—he’s still there, a presence in the back of Myungsoo’s mind, but a soothing one. Myungsoo’s hands feel steadier than ever, his eyes more discerning. Howon had mentioned that he danced better when Myungsoo was there (Myungsoo had lain in bed that night and replayed that moment over and over again in his mind, feeling like he was going to float to the ceiling), but Myungsoo had told himself that dancers dance primarily for an audience, so it was to be expected.

 

But now he’s not sure. Maybe he should do more research on the mating bond, because he’s pretty sure that he’s actually doing better work because Howon is here. He doesn’t linger on the thought, just sets it aside to ponder later.

 

He takes pictures of trees, leaves on bushes, the surrounding buildings, benches and water fountains, passing couples, an old man feeding the birds. And then he makes his way to the playground and asks the moms there if he can take some of their kids. A few of them look at him suspiciously, but then one of them recognizes him as his mother’s son—‘She plays Go Stop with me sometimes,’ she explains—and when she tells them that he’s studying to be a photographer, they relax.

 

He gets some really great candid shots of the kids running around and screaming in their brightly colored clothes, but soon enough they notice him and all run up to him asking to see the pictures. He shows them and takes some more of the ones who want ‘More of me! More of me!’ even though he doesn’t really do poses. The kids all seem to like him, a little girl letting him run his hand over her hair, a little boy hugging his leg. Myungsoo looks at their innocent eyes and open faces and he thinks that he’s never so happy as he is around kids.

 

But then he feels Howon behind him and he tells the kids he has to go, patting some of them on the head and waving goodbye to the rest, and when he turns around Howon is standing nearby, face solemn, staring at him with eyes that make it hard for Myungsoo to breathe.

 

But then Howon breaks out into a grin and waves Myungsoo over. “Did you get some good pictures?” he asks, when Myungsoo joins him.

 

Myungsoo is still flushing a little from the look Howon had given him. “Yeah.”

 

“I can’t wait to see them. Let’s go get ddukbokki. I’m starved.”

 

It’s only then that Myungsoo realizes the sun is almost through setting. He stows his camera safely in his bag and takes Howon’s waiting hand.

 

“We should do this every week, too,” Howon says casually as they walk. “We could go to the market or there’re some really cool churches in town that Sungjong has shown me. We could take a bus out to the country on the weekend or—” Howon breaks off, realizing that Myungsoo has stopped walking, and looks over at him with a sheepish grin. “We don’t have to, but I thought—”

 

Myungsoo can’t help it. He can’t. He launches himself forward, his camera bag smacking against his thigh, but he doesn’t notice, because he’s clinging to Howon like a vine around a tree trunk, and Howon is chuckling, puffs of breath that are warm against the shell of Myungsoo’s ear, and his arms come up around Myungsoo and squeeze him.

 

“What’s that for?”

 

You’re just really great, Myungsoo thinks, but he just shakes his head against Howon’s shoulder, feeling overwhelmed with how much he likes Howon. He gets this way sometimes, feels it for Sungyeol or Sungjong or one of the hyungs. It’s like affection for them is hollowing him out and then filling him up till he’s just a thin layer of skin holding together a giant surge of affection. That familiar feeling—that never gets less intense for how often he’s felt it—combined with the goodness he always feels when he touches Howon is so overwhelming that his head goes light, till it wants to float away like a balloon.

 

Howon’s arms are still looped around his waist, and Myungsoo can feel that Howon is expecting the hug to end at any moment, but he can’t pull back, he can’t, he wants to hug him forever and even if Howon doesn’t like hugs very much Myungsoo just can’t help it and—

 

And then the memory shoots through him: “Just—I’d rather not at school. Like, in front of anyone...I mean, in the future. I’d rather people not see. I’d rather it just be for…us.”

 

Myungsoo jerks back so suddenly that he loses his balance and he would definitely fall over if Howon’s hands didn’t shoot out and grab him. Howon looks confused, but Myungsoo just feels guilty, irritated with himself.

 

“I’m sorry—I’m sorry, I know you don’t like—in front of people—I’m sorry, I—”

 

“Myungsoo.”

 

Myungsoo goes very still. Howon’s hands are holding his face the way his mom does sometimes, but it’s very different when it’s Howon’s strong, slightly rough hands. It’s very different when Howon’s eyes are right there.

 

“Myungsoo, it’s okay,” Howon says. “I usually like it better when it’s just us, but you forgot, that’s okay, I’m not mad. Don’t worry about it.”

 

Myungsoo’s heart is pounding. What are you doing, you’re going to scare him away, what were you thinking, you have to try harder. “I’m sorry, I’m—”

Howon’s hands slide off his face, leaving the skin feeling very cold, but Myungsoo doesn’t have time to miss them because Howon pulls him back into a hug. “It’s okay,” Howon murmurs, rubbing his nose against the side of Myungsoo’s neck. “It’s okay, Myungsoo. It really is.”

 

Myungsoo’s heart stops thundering, slowly to a normal rate. But even as his hands fist in the fabric of Howon’s jacket, he still feels guilty.

 

“I promise it’s okay.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t know, Sungjong,” Howon says, switching his cell phone from his right to his left hand so he can type in the key code for his front gate. “He just gets really freaked out sometimes, like he thinks I’m going to get mad at him or like he’s angry with himself or something—I don’t know.” He shoves his hand through his hair as the gate creaks open, remembering the look on Myungsoo’s face when he’d pulled out of their hug earlier at the park.

“That’s typical for an omega, you know that, hyung.” The familiarity of Sungjong’s voice in his ear is soothing. “They have to deal with feelings of sadness, shame, guilt, fear the way alphas have to deal with anger, jealousy, possessiveness, things like that. He may be already feeling a bit guilty or worried, but the hormone fluctuations blow it out of control.”

“I know. I know that.” Howon walks up the walk slowly, reluctant as usual to go inside his house. He’d gone back to the gym after he and Myungsoo grabbed some dinner and then parted ways, hoping the dancing would exhaust him so much that it would rid his mind of questions. But after a few hours of practice, he still had them, and so of course he’d turned to Sungjong. “And most of the time he’s fine. Most of the time we have fun together or we’re like—quiet, but comfortable. But sometimes he looks like he wants to shrink into himself or disappear or—and it’s scary.”

“It is scary,” Sungjong agrees. He doesn’t sound impatient; he never sounds impatient when Howon wants to talk about Myungsoo or the bond, no matter how often Howon has whined about a particular issue before. Howon knows that Sungjong’s probably flipping through a magazine or doing homework while they talk, bored at hearing the same thing over and over again, but he doesn’t let it show. Howon is pretty sure that Dongwoo sat all their friends down right after the mating happened and made them promise to be there for him and Myungsoo no matter what. If Howon weren’t so thankful for it, he might feel guilty. “And if it’s scary for you, it’s even scarier for him. He may know that you aren’t going to take advantage of your alpha status, but his hormones don’t know that, and it’s not crazy that they’d be freaking out at every little thing.”

Howon plods up the front stairs, leans against the wall by the door. “I know. I know.”

“You could reject the bond and he’d end up killing himself or wasting away in a bed somewhere.”

“Nobody does that anymore!” Fuck, this isn’t some barbaric time when alphas still rejected the bond, uncaring that it would kill the omega sooner or later.

“A few of them still do. Even the threat of a lifetime prison sentence can’t keep every alpha from using his power. And even if you would never go so far, you could also easily make Myungsoo bend to your will, make him do whatever you wanted.”

“I wouldn’t do that.” The scratchiness of the brick against his back is the only thing grounding him.

“I know that, hyung.” Now Sungjong’s voice is edging on annoyance, the closest Howon has heard him come in all the time they’ve spent talking about the mating bond. “And Myungsoo probably knows that, too, at least intellectually. But you could, and that’s all the bond knows. It’s not as easy to get away with that sort of thing anymore because people would report it if they thought it was going on and then the legal consequences would be intense, but it does still happen. And even if it were wiped out entirely, omega’s bodies haven’t evolved enough to acknowledge that. All his body knows is that if he does the wrong thing, you could reject him, and he’d end up dying. The whole bond-settling period’s point is to teach his body that it can trust you, that you aren’t going to push him away for some small thing or find someone you want more than him. His rational mind is completely at war with his hormones, and those hormones are very good at playing off little existing worries and turning them into actual fear. Omegas’ bodies evolved so that their first priority is pleasing their mate so they won’t be rejected and their offspring can be taken care of. Humans overcome the way we’re wired by evolution, but it takes a lot of effort.”

“Fuck.” Howon blows a huge puff of air out of his mouth. “I just want him to feel comfortable with me, Sungjong. And he does, most of the time. And then it’s good. But sometimes….”

Any hint of annoyance is gone from Sungjong’s voice again. “The bond will settle soon, hyung. You two are doing much better. Just hold on for a week or two and then all of this will be behind you and you’ll go back to normal as long as you aren’t separated for too long. You can get through this.”

“Yeah. I know.” He sighs again. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”

Howon curses under his breath as he shoves his phone into his pocket. Most of the time things between him and Myungsoo are so easy now, but then sometimes it’s like a switch flips and Myungsoo turns into this small scared or sad animal and there’s nothing Howon can do about it but pull him close. He’s learned to anticipate some of the things that trigger that reaction, but today had been a new one. Sure, he’d told Myungsoo he prefers to keep their touching beyond hand-holding or an arm slung around a shoulder private, but he never would have thought that Myungsoo would think he’d get angry if he forgot.

He wasn’t angry. He was actually glad for the hug because when he’d put his Japanese book in his bag and gone to find Myungsoo and saw him with all those little kids, he was torn between his body’s reaction—make a baby of your own with your mate now—and Lee Howon’s reaction—that is the cutest damn thing I have ever seen. He’d held back out of fear of losing control, but by the time Myungsoo hugged him, it was easy for him to return it. And then Myungsoo had reacted like that and Howon had felt his heart drumming when he pulled him back against him again, and, yeah, Myungsoo had settled down pretty quickly and ten minutes later it was like nothing had happened at all, but those ten minutes made Howon want to scream or cry or beat someone bloody.

The bond needs to settle soon before both of them lose it completely.

Howon pushes himself off the wall and goes inside, slipping off his shoes and noting that his little brother is still playing video games in the living room. He’s about to drag himself up the stairs and into the shower when his mom appears around the corner. He starts to greet her with as sincere a smile as he can muster, but he freezes when he sees her face. Worry is a familiar look on her now; it haunts her eyes in ways he never could have imagined as a child when everything was so much simpler. But the starkness of her expression now is so worried it’s almost fear and Howon goes cold.

“Howon,” she whispers, voice wavering. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

His mouth falls open, but before he can say anything in response, there’s his father, holding a small plastic square in his hand and glaring at Howon so intensely Howon is surprised his eyes aren’t shooting out sparks. “What the hell is this?” his dad demands, and Howon doesn’t even have to look at it to know. Fuck. He should have had it sent to Sungjong’s house or something. He should have known his mom would open his mail. He feels a jolt of betrayal that she told his dad before she asked him about it, but then he reminds himself it easily could have been that his dad found her while she was gaping at it or maybe he even opened the envelope himself. And even if she had told him, Howon can scarcely blame her, not when he knows how cowed she’s become by her husband over the last few years. Just the thought makes him burn with guilt. He wasn’t like this before I ruined everything.

“What the hell is this?” his dad repeats, voice growing in volume, shaking the card emphatically, and Howon breathes slowly, reaches inside himself for steadiness. Getting angry back only makes him worse. Keep calm, Lee Howon.

“It’s my mating registration card,” he says, calmly as he can. He thinks he does a pretty good job.

His dad’s eyes narrow. “Don’t get smart with me, boy.”

Fuck, why does he always have to be like this? “I didn’t mean—“

“I can’t even say I’m surprised.” His dad’s voice is very loud, but Howon can hear that in the other room his brother has paused the video game. He’s probably gone up to his room and closed the door, too. Howon thinks yearningly of his own room. “Getting mated while in high school—why not? You’re bent on destroying your life, after all.”

Howon grits his teeth, almost more annoyed than angry. “It wasn’t like that.”

His dad’s laugh isn’t mirthful at all. “Oh, I suppose you were in love.” The word almost drips with disdain, and Howon has to keep his hands behind his back so his dad won’t see how they’re knotted up into fists. “That’s just like you, impulsive and irresponsible—“

Howon wants to snarl, but his mom is tugging at her husband’s arm. “Yeobo, please settle down, let’s talk about this calmly—“

Mr. Lee ignores her. “And of course you kept it a secret. You’ve always been a snake like that. Or maybe you were just too cowardly to own up to what you’ve done.”

“Yeobo, please—“

“At this point you’re just rebelling for its own sake, aren’t you? You enjoy giving your mother new things to worry about. You enjoy making her miserable.”

If there’s anything Howon hates about his father, it’s the way he always drags his mom into things, using her as a tool to guilt-trip Howon. It makes Howon feel sick. “You’re the one who makes her miserable.” He can’t keep the words from bursting out. “She has to walk on eggshells because of you and—“

The blow isn’t a surprise. It doesn’t even hurt all that much, though that’s more because Howon’s anger takes the edge off the sting than because his father was controlling himself. It’s not the first time his dad has hit him, and Howon’s pretty damn sure it won’t be the last. Each time, his mom sneaks to find him afterwards, pressing a package of frozen beans against his face and begging, ‘Howon, don’t provoke him next time. Don’t talk back, please, Howon. Just say “Yes, sir” and keep your eyes down, please, Howon, I can’t stand to see him do this to you, please.’

Howon tries, he really does, for her sake. When he’s in the house, he’s either eating silently at the table and answering in monosyllables any questions his mom works up the courage to ask, or he’s in his room. The key to avoiding these blowups with his dad is avoiding being in the same room as him, avoiding saying anything even slightly personal. His dad can turn the most innocuous topics into a fight about Howon’s selfishness; in response to one of his mom’s questions, Howon will say something about an upcoming test, and his dad will react with some passive-aggressive comment about how he doesn’t even know why Howon bothers with school at all. Sometimes Howon manages to funnel his anger into squeezing his chopsticks, but other times he’ll answer back, and then things always go down the same road. His dad doesn’t always hit him during these arguments, but he does it enough that the blows are never a surprise anymore.

Howon shifts his jaw, breathing through his nose and trying to block out the little whimpering noises his mom is making. This is why he hates his dad: the man has reduced Howon’s mom to this. His anger at what he perceives as Howon being pathetic has made his own wife exactly that.

“It was an accident,” Howon says flatly into the silence, broken only by the noises his mom is making and the game-paused music from the TV. “Nobody meant for it to happen.” He’s saying this for his mom’s sake. He doesn’t care about offering his dad explanations anymore. He never listens to them anyway. But he still wants his mom to know the truth of things. He still loves her so much it makes him feel weak. “But now we’re registered and we’re going to make it work.” That last, maybe, is more for himself than even for his mom. “He’s a good person.”

And then he turns and starts to put his shoes back on, his shoulders held in such a taut line that he feels like they’re going to snap, and his mom is crying behind him.

“Where the hell are you going?” His dad doesn’t sound sheepish or ashamed or abashed or anything he should feel after hitting his son and making accusations that turn out to not be true. He still just sounds angry.

“Out,” Howon says, reaching for the doorknob.

“Did I say this conversation was over?” And it’s so typically his dad that Howon almost smiles a cynical smile.

“I think when the hitting starts that always means the conversation is over,” Howon says, and then he’s out the door before his dad can launch into him again.

His cheek is throbbing and it takes him a full five minutes standing outside his gate, breathing deep and fighting down his anger, to relax the muscles in his shoulders. That had gone just exactly as Howon had known it would. It wouldn’t have been any better if he’d sat them down and told them himself; his dad would have reacted exactly as he had. Maybe his dad is right—about this one thing, only this—that he was a coward to put it off, but he doesn’t care. It was never going to be anything but ugly and maybe he just wanted to make it clear that his dad didn’t deserve to know, that Howon was done trying to keep them as a part of his life. I keep you clothed and fed and with a roof over your head, his dad has shouted so many times. And you show me nothing but ungratefulness. But Howon has seen what it’s like to have parents to be grateful for, and his dad is nothing like Myungsoo’s parents. It had been a long battle for him, but Howon has finally reached a place where he doesn’t even feel guilty anymore.

But he still hasn’t reached the point where he can stop caring altogether. Fuck, he wishes he could. His life would be so much easier if he could just not react to his dad, if even seeing his mom cry over the fights left him nothing but numb. But he still gets so angry and resentful and—

He takes off at a jog, as always feeling better when he’s in motion. He usually goes to Sungjong’s house after fights like this, sleeps on the floor by Sungjong’s bed for a day or two and returns to silence when he finally goes back home. But tonight he doesn’t want to see even his best friend, and at the turnoff towards Sungjong’s road, he turns the opposite direction, headed towards school.

The old gym is just the same as it always is, just the same as it was not even an hour before when he left it to head home, and there’s a punching bag in the corner, cracked red leather faded to brown with age, stuffing spilling out in more than one place, an unpleasant smell and clouds of dust that poof out whenever it’s hit. Howon doesn’t like to hit even inanimate objects, prefers to pour his angry energy into running or dancing or something at least marginally constructive. But there are times—only after fights with his dad—when the only solution seems to be to unleash his fury on the punching bag, slamming his fists and feet into it over and over, each slam chipping a tiny, tiny flake off of the slab of anger that sits heavy in his stomach. He can let his brain plunge fully into a red sea where there’s nothing but his anger, and the jerk of the bag when he strikes it, the whine of the chain and the gratifying smacks when he lets loose another blow are so satisfying that he thinks he’ll do this all night.

 

 

 

When the fury slams into Myungsoo out of nowhere, he shoots upright, almost dropping his camera. He’d just been lazing on his bed, flipping through the pictures he’d taken earlier with Howon, trying to remind himself that it had been stupid to flip out the way he had and that Howon hadn’t been angry. And then out of nowhere, he was feeling rage surging through his veins and he’d known it was Howon, but he didn’t know what was going on and—

He stumbles off his bed, setting his camera down as carefully as his shaking hands allow and jerking a hoodie on over his t-shirt. The creaking of the door seems very loud when he opens it, the whining of the stairs under his feet even louder, but when he passes his parents’ room, he can hear their quiet voices behind the closed door. He’s never snuck out before, never had any reason to, and it’s easier than he’d always thought it would be, though his heart is pounding as he stuffs his feet into the first pair of shoes he finds and eases the front door open.

Myungsoo isn’t a big one for running, mostly taking his time and liking it that way, but he falls easily into the motion now, his feet pounding against the pavement. It’s late, but not very late; the windows of a few of the houses he passes are still lit up with lights or television screens, but the streets are very still, and the quiet, with only the insects and the wind to interrupt it, feels like it’s choking Myungsoo. The run to school feels even longer than his usual morning walk there, and it takes him what seems like an eternity to jiggle the door open. When he finally does, he takes off at a dead run again down the hallways, and he almost slams right into the door of the gym before he manages to pull himself to a halt and throw it open without any hesitation.

Howon had been standing at an ugly old punching bag in the corner—no, not standing at it, punching at it—but he spins around as soon as the door flies open.

“What’s wrong?” Myungsoo rasps without even deciding to open his mouth, and Howon, his face transformed into a sculpture of alabaster and shadow by the light coming in through the high windows, stares at him.

Myungsoo’s lungs are burning, his pulse pounding in his ears and his cheeks and his palms, and he stares back before it occurs to him that he must look strange and wild-eyed standing in the doorway, in his ratty old black sweatpants with the rip in the thigh and a hoodie in a different shade of black, a pair of Moonsoo’s green tennis shoes on his feet and his hair all mussed.

But before he can start to blush—if it’s possible to blush when your cheeks are already flushed with exertion—Howon drops his hands from the ready stance he’d had them in and takes a half-step towards Myungsoo. “What are you doing?” he asks, sounding completely confused.

And now Myungsoo is confused. “You were—I felt—you were so angry and I didn’t know what happened so I—what?”

Howon just looks at him for another moment, and Myungsoo doesn’t understand—did he just dream it? Had he fallen asleep and thought he felt something he hadn’t? But no, he’d felt it when he was running here, too, had felt Howon’s anger burning up until the moment he threw the door open, when it had popped like a soap bubble and—

A subdued grin flits over Howon’s face, and it isn’t his grin when he thinks something’s funny; maybe it even looks…fond. “You ran the whole way here, didn’t you, dumbass?”

Myungsoo is quite used to being called any number of names by Sungyeol, some of them much, much harsher than ‘dumbass’ (though that one is Sungyeol’s favorite when he’s feeling particularly sappy), but Howon’s never done it before, so Myungsoo teeters on the line between being hurt and being comfortable with it, not sure which way he’s going to fall. But then Howon stomps over and grabs his hand, dragging him over to a big pile of wrestling mats, Myungsoo almost tripping over his own feet as he is pulled along. Howon pushes against his shoulder so that Myungsoo sits down hard on the mats and then he almost chokes because Howon is dropping to his knees.

“You didn’t even put your shoes on right, you hopeless little kid,” Howon says, and now Myungsoo is sure he hears fondness there, and his breath catches in his lungs as he stares at the top of Howon’s head, his chest aching. Howon’s fingers untie the laces Myungsoo hadn’t bothered with, pulling off one shoe and grabbing the tongue that had been scrunched down to pull it straight so that it’s lying flat where it should be before putting the shoe back on Myungsoo’s foot, tying it, and reaching for the other shoe. His hands don’t touch Myungsoo’s feet very much, but each touch feels far more intense than someone just touching his feet should. They’re feet. If anything, he should be giggling because he’s ticklish, but instead he just swallows hard.

Howon is shaking his head with that grin back on his face when he finishes tying the second shoe and raises his head. Myungsoo blinks, not knowing how to react, and Howon stands up and then flops down onto the mats beside Myungsoo, lying flat on his back and throwing an arm over one eye. “I can’t believe you ran all the way over here,” Howon says, and Myungsoo shifts, not sure what he should do. Howon’s not looking at him anymore, and he falls into silence, and Myungsoo wonders wildly whether that means Howon wants him to leave, whether he wants to be alone, whether he’s annoying Howon.

He’s jiggling his leg, fingers twitching against the slick material of the mat, when Howon raises his arm and looks at him, arching a brow. “What’re you doing?”

Myungsoo can think of absolutely no way to answer that question.

Then Howon’s other arm is reaching out and his hand is grabbing Myungsoo’s and he’s tugging it. “Are you going to sit like that all night? C’mere.” And Myungsoo lets himself be pulled down till he’s lying beside Howon, the two of them staring at the shadows swathing the ceiling. Myungsoo tries to make himself relax, but he feels oddly jumpy. They’ve never laid down together before. He immediately chastises himself for even thinking that—he lays down with Sungyeol and Sungjong on their beds all the time, has slept with them or with Dongwoo, that’s a thing friends do, and this seems pretty platonic; there’s no reason it should be any different than it is with any of his other friends, nothing he should even notice. And yet he can’t help it. It’s Howon, and so it’s different.

“My parents found out.”

“Oh.” It takes Myungsoo a minute to realize that the phrasing is significant. “Found out?” he says tentatively. “You didn’t…?”

“One of them opened my registration card.”

“Oh.” Myungsoo winces. That must have been a not-fun way for them to find out. “How did they…?” He isn’t sure if he has a right to ask about these things. Of course, he’s Howon’s mate, and it’s their mating they’re talking about, but still, he doesn’t want to intrude where Howon isn’t comfortable with him going, doesn’t want to force anything else onto Howon. And yet he wants to know. And more than that, he wants Howon to be able to talk to him. Howon has Sungjong, of course, and Dongwoo, and the other hyungs would listen to him if he had something he needed to work through, but Myungsoo can’t help but fiercely wish that Howon would want to talk to him. He knows he doesn’t have Sungjong’s practical maturity or Dongwoo’s strangely intense wisdom or the experience Woohyun and Sunggyu can draw on. He doesn’t feel like he has much to offer at all. But he still wants to offer whatever he does have, even if it’s just someone who will listen. He wants to be what Howon needs.

The little laugh Howon lets out is cynical. “Exactly how I thought he would.”

Myungsoo laces his fingers together over his abdomen to keep himself from reaching out to touch Howon. Their shoulders are touching, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

Another cynical laugh, and then Howon’s fist pounds against the wrestling mat just once, making Myungsoo jump. “It’s almost funny how exactly it was like I knew it would be. Of course it was all about how I’m immature and rebellious and want to make Umma’s life miserable and he didn’t even ask anything about it or you or how I was handling it—of course he didn’t.”

Howon is rambling, but he sounds more like he’s talking to himself, like he doesn’t even remember that Myungsoo is there. Myungsoo’s grateful Howon doesn’t expect him to respond, because he doesn’t think he could, not with his mind spinning the way it is. All the little clues he’s been collecting like following a breadcrumb trail over the past couple of months are coming together—the fact that Howon hadn’t told his parents, the way he stops abruptly whenever he starts to say something about his dad, how he’d seemed amazed that Myungsoo’s parents wanted him to be happy, a few comments from Sungjong or Dongwoo now and then about things being rough for Howon at home. Probably anyone else would have put the picture together already; probably Sungyeol already has and with half as many clues as Myungsoo has. Sometimes it takes Myungsoo longer.

But he’s beginning to see now, to see that things must be really ugly with Howon’s dad, and it makes his heart ache at the thought of how it must hurt Howon. But more than that it makes him angry. Immature? Rebellious? Does Howon’s father know him at all? How could that man even suggest that Howon would do something to make his mom sad? Howon doesn’t talk about his mom much, but from the few times he has it’s clear that he loves her, and even aside from that Howon is a good person. He only dislikes people he has reason to—like Bang Minsoo—and everyone else he treats with a laid-back respect that means that no one really dislikes him. How could Howon’s own father know him so little as to think he’d be like that?

“And then he acted like he wanted to talk.” Howon is still rambling. “Like it’s possible at all for us to have some sort of actual conversation after the hitting’s started. He didn’t really even want to talk, he just wanted to make it look like I was walking away from something actually constructive even though we both know it wouldn’t have been, but that way he could just have more ‘proof’ that I’m immature and it’s all my fault and—“

Howon breaks off, lifting his arm again, when Myungsoo shoots upright for the second time that night. “Myungsoo? What—?”

He looks confused, like he has no idea why Myungsoo would suddenly be trembling with emotion, but Myungsoo can’t even address that, because something is roaring in his head. “He hits you?” He doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice.

Something that isn’t quite embarrassment or shame but that contains elements of both flashes across Howon’s face. “Myungsoo, it’s not—“

“He hits you?” Without waiting for permission from his brain, Myungsoo’s body twists him so he’s hovering over Howon, looking down at Howon’s face, his hands gently touching Howon’s cheeks, and that is a red mark he sees on Howon’s left cheekbone, isn’t it? He’s not imagining that, it’s really there, and someone had hit Myungsoo’s mate, someone had done it on purpose, Howon’s own father had done it and—

“Myungsoo.” Howon’s hands close around Myungsoo’s wrists, stilling the movement of his fingers against Howon’s face. Myungsoo is so upset he almost doesn’t notice how good Howon’s hands feel against the sensitive skin of his inner wrists. “Myungsoo, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Myungsoo wrenches his hands free. “Not that big of a—“ He can’t even finish the phrase, finds himself lurching upright off the mats like a marionette. “He hit you. He hit you.” There isn’t any room for anything else in his head, and he’s shaking so hard, and he’s not sure if it’s from anger or heartbreak, but whatever it is, it’s got him by the throat and—

And then Howon’s arms close around Myungsoo from behind, pulling him back down onto the mats and turning him so that his chest is pressed up against Howon’s side, Howon’s arms tight around him. Myungsoo blinks at Howon’s eyes just inches from his, his anger faltering with surprise at the grin on Howon’s face. It’s that fond grin again, and there’s some sadness or wistfulness or something way back in his eyes, but mostly he just looks fond and amused, and Myungsoo’s heart is still pounding with emotion but it also flips over in his chest and Howon’s eyes are right there.

“Hey,” Howon says. “Where were you going?”

Myungsoo blinks again, taking a moment to process the question. “He hit you. I was going to go over there and—“

Howon laughs, his open-mouthed laugh with his sharp canines showing, and a hand moves up to cup the back of Myungsoo’s head, fingers burrowing into Myungsoo’s hair, and Myungsoo’s head is spinning again. “You were going to go over there and beat him up or something?”

Suddenly Myungsoo feels very stupid and childish. Because that’s exactly what he was going to do. “Uh…”

The arm looped around Myungsoo’s waist tightens. “Dumbass,” Howon says, still with that grin, and Myungsoo’s palms are damp, and he probably shouldn’t be reacting like Howon just called him a pet name.

“C’mere,” Howon says again, and he pulls Myungsoo so that Myungsoo’s lying half on top of him, his nose tucked against Howon’s neck, smelling his sweat and the alpha scent of him underneath, Howon’s arm still around his waist and Howon’s hand still in his hair. Myungsoo tries to convince his body to relax; this is something he’s fantasized about for weeks now, lying together with their legs tangled up and Howon’s fingers in his hair and it’s almost too much for Myungsoo, it makes him feel like his heart is about to burst.

“If I wanted him to be beat up, I’d do it myself,” Howon murmurs into Myungsoo’s hair, and Myungsoo tries to keep himself from shivering at the feeling of Howon’s fingers scratching lightly at his scalp.

“He shouldn’t hit you,” Myungsoo mutters into Howon’s neck, the sound of his voice almost suffocated by closeness. “I hate him.”

The arm around Myungsoo’s waist tightens again. “Sometimes I do, too.”

“You should hit him back next time,” Myungsoo insists, and he knows he sounds petulant, but he doesn’t care, because this feels too good, being wrapped up in Howon. It almost makes him forget his anger.

“There’s no point. It won’t change anything. And he’s still my dad.”

Myungsoo wants very much to say something about how any time a parent hits their child, they’ve ceded all right to respect, that it doesn’t matter that this man is Howon’s dad, not if he’s acting like that. But he doesn’t think that will do any good, so he clutches at Howon’s shirt and snuggles closer, determined to enjoy every bit of this closeness while he has it.

“I don’t want him to hit you anymore.” The words come out slurred, and Myungsoo realizes that he’s drowsy, being lulled by Howon’s warmth and the rightness he feels whenever they’re touching. “Don’t let him hit you again.”

Howon chuckles a little, his chest rising and falling, his fingers still moving in Myungsoo’s hair. “Okay, Myungsoo.”

“Don’t let him hit you again,” Myungsoo insists again. He’s serious about this. “Come to my house instead.”

“Okay, Myu—“

“No, promise,” Myungsoo says, and he feels Howon laughing again.

Okay, Myungsoo. I promise.”

Chapter Text

It’s the third time he’s woken up beside Myungsoo, and just like every time before, Howon finds that he likes it more than he’s really comfortable with. He’s not a cuddler, has never been one, and yet waking up to Myungsoo wrapped almost completely around him doesn’t annoy him as he would have expected. Even on a pile of old wrestling mats in a musty gym, it feels good, Myungsoo’s body against his, warm and breathing.

Hormones, he knows. The kind of refreshed I-can-take-on-the-world energy he’s feeling right now is because he spent the whole night touching Myungsoo and the bond likes that, sending endorphins flooding through him in response or something. He wants to pop right up off the mat and start choreographing a new dance or something, but he stays where he is, careful not to jar Myungsoo as he slips his hand into his pocket and wiggles his phone out. 5:02, his phone informs him, and the hints of pink and gold in the sky through the windows confirm it. The janitors will start coming in soon, and he and Myungsoo have to get ready for their school day. But he takes just a moment to remember how he’d felt last night when he’d looked up and saw Myungsoo standing in the door—when he realized Myungsoo had run the entire way to school without even putting his shoes on properly—when Myungsoo’s eyes had gone wide and angry and heartbroken and his hands had been gentle and searching on Howon’s face—when Myungsoo was wrapped up in his arms and pouting about how he didn’t want to Howon to get hit again. Howon isn’t sure how to label those emotions, isn’t sure they all have names even if he could sort them out, but he knows they were overwhelming and more vivid than any he’s ever had when he’s not dancing.

 

Setting them aside for now as best he can, he wriggles himself out of Myungsoo’s clutches and leans over to look at Myungsoo’s sleeping face. He looks like some sort of classical statue like this, a young god captured in repose, and yet instead of the shades of awe that Howon sometimes feels when he looks at Sungjong’s equally impressive beauty, he just feels a fuzzy fondness at the sweep of Myungsoo’s eyelashes against his cheek and the slight pout of his lips. He finds himself grinning as he slides his fingers into Myungsoo’s hair and scratches lightly.

“Hey. Myungsoo. You need to get up now.”

There isn’t any response, so Howon raises his voice. “Myungsoo, it’s time to wake up.”

This time, Myungsoo’s face scrunches up in a way that looks very displeased, though his eyes don’t open, and he lets out a little whine. Howon’s grin grows. “Kim Myungsoo. Do you want to be caught in the school with me by a janitor? I don’t think your mom would like it very much if you got in trouble.”

Myungsoo’s face crumples again, but after a second of Howon massaging his head, his eyes finally blink open, bleary and with sleep-gunk in the corners. He looks at Howon without comprehension.

“Hey.” Howon lets his voice sink quieter again. “You need to get home before your parents wake up, okay?”

Myungsoo shakes his head, and Howon isn’t sure whether it’s in disagreement or incomprehension. His eyes drop closed again and he goes to bury his face back in Howon’s chest.

“Myungsoo!” Howon grabs him by one shoulder, laughing. The giddiness he feels at Myungsoo’s cuteness is probably only half hormonal aftermath of last night. Probably. “I’m serious, you need to get up now!”

It takes two or three more minutes of blinking and face-scrunching and yawning before Myungsoo finally drags himself upright and looks around. His hair is a mess and the cheek he’d been sleeping on is red, the sleep is still in his eyes and he looks absolutely adorable. Howon can’t hold back his smile. “Are you actually awake?”

Myungsoo very slowly turns his head to look at him, like it takes great effort, and then shakes his head. Howon laughs, standing up.

“C’mon.” Myungsoo allows his hands to be taken so Howon can pull him to his feet, and docilely lets Howon lead him towards the door, though he stumbles more than once over nothing. It isn’t until they’re outside and walking through the school parking lot to the street that the spring morning air clears the cobwebs enough that Myungsoo seems to register where he is.

“We fell asleep,” he says, and his already deep voice is deeper than ever. Howon really likes the sound of it. He’s always liked the sound of Myungsoo’s voice, but he’s only recently started letting himself think about it.

“We did.”

Myungsoo nods slightly, still looking around like he’s taking the time to digest that. “What time is it?”

“It’s almost quarter after 5. Will your parents be up yet?”

Again, it seems to take Myungsoo some time to process Howon’s words. “At 5:30.”

“Then we might just make it. You can go get back in bed when you get home, okay? Sleep till your alarm goes off.”

Myungsoo drags a bleary hand over his face, but he’s walking at a reasonable pace, so Howon assumes he’s waking up a little bit. They don’t say anything else for the rest of the way, but Howon slides his arm around Myungsoo’s shoulder, and Myungsoo arches his neck down to press his face against Howon’s shoulder. Because of the height difference, it’s probably awkward for Myungsoo, but Howon enjoys the feeling of it too much to care, slipping his fingers back into Myungsoo’s hair and rubbing his scalp.

“Hey. We’re here,” Howon says when they reach Myungsoo’s house, and Myungsoo finally raises his head, blinking like he’d fallen asleep again as they walked.

“See you in a couple of hours, okay?” Howon says, pretty sure Myungsoo’s going to walk inside and fall straight onto his face on his bed. Myungsoo nods distractedly, and Howon ruffles his hair affectionately before he watches Myungsoo stumble up to the gate and punch in the code. Howon is chuckling as he turns away.

He ends up outside Sungjong’s house, texting for Sungjong to come down and let him in. He has a key, but he doesn’t like to use it unless it’s the middle of the night or he knows the house is empty. Sungjong only looks mildly annoyed at having his sleep interrupted when he opens the door. “Isn’t it a bit early?” he says, and Howon understands the implications. When he shows up at Sungjong’s house at odd hours, it always means he’s been fighting with his parents, which has been known to happen rather late at night, but Howon can’t think of another time it’s happened this early.

“I slept in the gym,” Howon answers, toeing off his shoes and following Sungjong towards the stairs. One of Sungjong’s parents is awake already; he can hear the shower running.

“You could have come here,” Sungjong points out, clearly not understanding why he hadn’t.

Howon shrugs self-consciously as they go into Sungjong’s room and shut the door behind them. “Myungsoo came over.”

Sungjong’s eyebrows rise. “You called him? Good for you, hyung.”

“No, I—my parents found out.”

Even this early in the morning, Sungjong puts it together quickly and doesn’t pursue the obvious question of how Howon’s dad reacted. Sungjong knows. “He felt how upset you were?”

Howon shrugs again, but he’s fighting back a grin. “He ran over without putting his shoes on right.”

Sungjong’s smile is more of a smirk. “And you two spent the night together?”

“We just fell asleep on the wrestling mats.”

Sungjong is still amused. “Well, no wonder you look so bright-eyed. Do you feel like conquering empires?”

Howon snorts, but it’s true enough. Right now, he feels like he could do just about anything. “But I thought us sleeping together was supposed to make us both feel great, not just me.”

Sungjong gives him a questioning look. “Myungsoo didn’t feel well?”

“It took me like five minutes to get him to sit up, and then he barely said anything the whole way home.” He doesn’t mention that Myungsoo spent the whole walk with his face pressed against Howon’s shoulder. That’s just for the two of them. “I’m pretty sure he walked directly to his bed and won’t be getting up again for a while.”

Sungjong’s catfish grin spread across his face. “Five minutes? Hyung, do you have any idea how long it usually takes to get Myungsoo to even open his eyes?”

“What?”

Sungjong laughs and pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, hyung. I’m pretty sure when we meet him later, he’ll be as energetic as you.”

Howon is skeptical, but it turns out that—as usual—Sungjong is right. A couple of hours later, showered and with bellies full of breakfast, he and Sungjong walk to the stop sign where they meet Myungsoo and Sungyeol, and this time Myungsoo is jumping and scrabbling at Sungyeol’s back, trying to get on it.

“Give me a piggyback ride!” Myungsoo is whining to a deeply unimpressed Sungyeol. Howon grins and hears Sungjong snort beside him.

“No! You weigh more than an elephant because you eat everything in sight! There’s no way in hell I’m carrying you.”

Yeeeeollie!”

“No! Get the fuck off me, Kim Myungsoo, before I smash your face in!” Sungyeol is twisting and shoving, trying to get Myungsoo to stop trying to climb up him, but his face breaks into relief when he sees Howon and Sungjong. “Look, your mate is here,” Sungyeol says, grabbing Myungsoo’s hands and slinging them off of his back. “Go climb all over him instead.”

Howon tries very hard to fight off the flash of heat he feels from the mental image Sungyeol’s words inspire, and he almost manages it, but then Myungsoo looks up at him, and though he flushes, his face breaks out into that crinkled, dimpled grin that makes Howon’s palms go damp. He’s never had it aimed at him before; Myungsoo gives that smile to Sungyeol, to Sungjong, to the hyungs on occasion. But he’s always been too shy to give it to Howon—or at least that’s what Howon tells himself. Now that he’s the one eliciting it, it seems even more overwhelming than it usually does.

“What the fuck did you do to him, Howon?” Sungyeol demands, breaking the moment between the mates. “His mom said it only took her like ten minutes to get him into the shower—do you have any idea what kind of record that is? And he has not stopped jumping around since I got to his house holy fuck it’s annoying.”

Howon just grins at Myungsoo in response; apparently Sungjong was right.

“It seems Myungsoo takes really well to sleeping beside his mate,” Sungjong says dryly. “Just think of how much better they both would have felt if they’d been doing that all along.”

“You mean we wouldn’t have had to deal with the Moody Couple from Hell? Fuck, now I’m pissed at you both for putting us through all that,” Sungyeol says, glaring at his best friend.

Myungsoo has looked away from Howon’s eyes, cheeks pink, but the grin is still on his face, like he can’t fight it back. Howon’s head feels light.

“Okay, so, Myungsoo, saddle up,” Sungyeol says, slapping Howon’s back and Howon blinks, attention jerked away from Myungsoo.

“What?”

“You don’t want to give him his piggyback ride, hyung?” Butter wouldn’t melt in Sungjong’s mouth, and Howon has always hated his best friend’s ‘I’m perfectly sweet and innocent’ act.

Myungsoo’s eyes are huge and his whole body looks flustered, cheeks flushing darker than before. “No, that’s okay, I didn’t—”

Sungjong arches a brow at Howon, a clear challenge, and Howon gives him a hard look. Sungjong thinks he won’t do it?

“No, it’s okay. Hop on,” Howon says, turning his back to Myungsoo. Sungjong rolls his eyes, but Sungyeol graces Howon with an impressed nod even as a shit-eating grin spreads across his face. Howon is more concerned with the flash of surprise across Myungsoo’s face, then his hesitance.

“I thought you wanted a ride, Myungsoo-hyung,” Sungjong says, voice still completely innocent. “Hyung gives really good rides.”

Howon’s going to have to strangle Sungjong later (in his dreams), but after a moment he feels Myungsoo move behind him and then his weight is right there and Howon’s arms automatically slide under Myungsoo’s thighs (Myungsoo’s thighs) and Howon has given piggyback rides before, gives them to Sungjong often (Sungjong smacks his shoulder and calls him ‘slave’ and gives him orders like he thinks he’s a king or something and Howon doesn’t know why he lets him get away with that), but this feels different. Having Myungsoo so close when they’re out in public, his warmth so intense and his arms looped around Howon’s neck—it’s—well, Howon likes it. Myungsoo is taller than him, his feet almost scraping the sidewalk at first, but Howon is used to making up for the size difference because of Sungjong, so he just hitches Myungsoo higher and starts off towards school.

Both Sungyeol and Sungjong have looks on their faces like they want to start a round of very intense teasing, but maybe they can tell from Myungsoo’s sudden silence that he wouldn’t take that very well, because while they toss smirks at Howon, they don’t actually say anything about it, instead talking about other things. Howon is grateful; he’s not sure he could figure out a way to soothe Myungsoo’s embarrassment if they teased him too much, not when he’s so distracted by having Myungsoo on his back. He’s heavier than Sungjong, more solidly built, but Howon’s in good shape, so he doesn’t struggle. All of the distraction comes from the feeling of having Myungsoo so close, from the rightness surging through Howon’s veins, from the goosebumps that rise on his neck when he feels Myungsoo’s breath against his skin, of his awareness that he has Myungsoo’s legs around him.

And yeah, he’s getting turned on, and he’s pretty sure if he focused and shifted Myungsoo just a bit, he could feel that Myungsoo’s getting turned on, too, and he should be used to this by now, of how much Myungsoo can stir him, but it’s still so much more intense than it’s ever been with anyone else. He wishes Myungsoo’s legs were wrapped around him from the other direction, wishes Myungsoo’s thighs were bare and covered with marks from Howon’s mouth and fingers, wishes they were alone together in a bed with nothing between them at all. He wants Myungsoo with an intensity he’s never wanted anyone else, and it’s so hard for him not to run his fingers along the hem of Myungsoo’s pants that seems to create a perfect line running up the inside of his thighs. I could make you feel good, Howon thinks. Even without the heat, I could make you feel so good.

But Myungsoo hasn’t ever even kissed anyone, and they’re walking with their best friends to school, and even if the bond doesn’t have any respect for things like that, Howon knows he can’t just turn around and run till he’s back at Myungsoo’s house, up the stairs to Myungsoo’s room, dropping Myungsoo onto the black jersey sheets and climbing up beside him. Even if they didn’t have to go to school, Myungsoo isn’t ready yet. So Howon keeps his hands still, and tries to focus on their friends’ conversation instead of how good it is to feel the rise and fall of Myungsoo’s chest against his back.

The walk to school feels so much shorter than it usually does, and when they reach the driveway, Howon lets Myungsoo slide down to the ground, feeling bereft once his warmth is gone. Myungsoo looks completely torn between embarrassed and pleased, and Howon half expects him to rush off, but instead they walk all the way to their lockers together, Myungsoo reaching out without looking at Howon to link their pinky fingers together. When they’ve got their books and Myungsoo and Sungyeol head off to their class, Sungjong snorts as he watches Howon watch Myungsoo walk away.

“You’ve got it worse than I thought,” Sungjong says.

Howon shakes his head. “It’s just the hormones.” It’s just the hormones mixed with liking Myungsoo so damn much. It’s a heady combination. And it’s enough, now, for him to know that they’ve done the right thing, giving this a chance. They’re starting to make it work. It feels really good.

“Whatever you say, hyung.”

Howon has a very hard time concentrating during class.

 

 

“Oh my God, you are so fucking annoying. Honestly, I think I prefer moody Myungsoo brooding over everything in the world and crying whenever Howon looks at anyone else to this. For God’s sake, shut up!”

Myungsoo just grins at his best friend. “Whatever. You just don’t like hearing the truth. But I know! You can’t hide it from me! I’m your best friend and I know everything! You like Minyoung!” He sing-songs the last sentence, and yeah, he knows he’s being annoying, but he doesn’t care. Not when he feels this good. It feels like years since he’s felt this way, so giddy and full of energy—maybe he’s never felt this way at all. Obviously he’s got to take out his good mood on Sungyeol via torturing him about the girl he has a crush on. What else are best friends for?

“For fuck’s sake, I do not. I mean, yeah, she’s hot and her hair is—but she’s like a dude. Do you see the way she sits? And she’s always slugging people and she’s weirdly strong and she eats more than you and I think she talks about video games more than Woohyun and—stop laughing, Kim Myungsoo. Do you want to die?”

But Myungsoo can’t stop laughing. Sungyeol is so obvious and Myungsoo loves him so much and it’s hilarious how he’s trying to convince himself that he isn’t completely gone over Minyoung when he’s still her lab partner in chemistry even though Myungsoo had talked their teacher into letting him switch if he wanted to and he keeps trying to light the ends of her hair on fire like he’s in elementary school and Myungsoo knows good and well that Sungyeol never used to frequent that one corner store before a certain Kim Minyoung started a part-time job there. It’s adorable, really, and Myungsoo likes Minyoung and her ready smile and her mental breakdowns—“Of course he’s into her,” Woohyun says at lunch, sending Myungsoo into another fit of laughter. “After being friends with you for so long he’s used to mental breakdowns and she’s the only person I’ve ever met who has them more than you.”—and he thinks she and Sungyeol would be cute together and he wants Sungyeol to be as happy as he is.

“Do you wish it was you she was slugging, Yeol? Is that why you’re into her? I didn’t know you were that kinky. What kind of porn have you been watching?”

“I am going to kill you—“

And then of course comes the scuffle. The final bell has rung and they’ve both gathered their things out of their lockers and the passers-by don’t look particularly pleased to be jostled by Myungsoo and Sungyeol’s wrestling, but Myungsoo, usually so conscious of politeness, can’t bring himself to care. He’s been practically wriggling like a puppy with excess energy all day, and it feels good to let it out. He’d felt it tingling through him as he showered this morning, jerking off and thinking of Howon waking him (of Howon letting him sleep wrapped around him all night), but it had bubbled up even higher after the piggyback ride to school. Myungsoo can’t think of anything better than being completely wrapped around Howon like that—well, yeah, he can, but it’s not something he’d discuss with anyone else—and he’d given into the impulse and pressed his nose against the back of Howon’s hair, breathing in the scent—shampoo and alpha and the smell of someone’s head.

His awareness of Howon’s strength—his awareness of how gentle Howon has always been with him when he has so much strength—the shift of the muscles in his back and of his arms under Myungsoo’s thighs as he walked, the smell of him and his warmth: it all turned Myungsoo on so much that he thinks that if Howon had slid him around and pressed him up against a tree or something, Myungsoo would have let him do whatever he wanted, right there. The thought had made him blush furiously, but it had also felt good, and he cradled it in his mind where it’s warmed him all day.

“Okay, that’s it.” Sungyeol’s face is red as he finally extricates himself from Myungsoo’s headlock. “You are not allowed around Howon anymore. Go back to being Mood Swing King.”

Myungsoo smirks at him. “Too late now. You complained about how we weren’t spending enough time together, and now we are, so you just have to deal with it.”

Sungyeol runs a hand over his head, trying to make his hair lie down flat as he glares at Myungsoo. “If you’re like this now, I can only imagine how bad it’s going to be once you two start fucking.”

Myungsoo flushes and turns away, starting to walk towards the front doors, and this time it’s Sungyeol’s turn to smirk as he catches up behind him. “Oh, you want him bad, don’t you?” he teases, sliding up beside Myungsoo. Myungsoo isn’t so embarrassed that he doesn’t notice that Sungyeol is pitching his voice low, not wanting anyone else to hear. Sungyeol is a really good friend, even if it’s hard to remember that when he’s teasing him like this. “So bad.”

This is the one thing they haven’t talked about when it comes to Myungsoo and Howon’s bond. They’ve discussed almost everything else, in various degrees of labored lightness or awkward earnestness. But Sungyeol has steered completely away from the sexual component, and Myungsoo has been thankful. He knows that Sungyeol knows how hard it was for him to have his first time be the way it was, and probably Sungyeol had thought that any mention of sex would remind Myungsoo of that and set him back. But he seems to have lost all compunctions now.

“Go away, fuckface,” Myungsoo says, trying to shake Sungyeol’s hand off his shoulder.

“It’s not fair. You two can start banging each other’s brains out whenever you want and even your parents won’t say anything to you except to be safe! If I even kissed a girl my parents would flip.”

“I don’t think you’re going to be kissing anyone any time soon if you can’t even admit you like Minyoung,” Myungsoo mutters under his breath. Sungyeol ignores it.

“Like being mated sucks in a lot of ways, but at least you get to have all the sex you want if you want it. And then you can just blame it on the bond! ‘Sorry, Mom, Dad, but we’re mated now and it makes me super horny for my mate!’”

Myungsoo snorts and keeps walking.

“Like you two must be going out of your minds trying not to touch each other and—hey.” Sungyeol must have picked up on Myungsoo’s change in mood, because his voice suddenly sobers and he grabs Myungsoo’s shoulder, turning him so they’re facing each other. His half eyebrows dip in concern. “It’s okay to want him, you know.” His voice is still quiet, quiet enough that no one else can hear it.

Myungsoo shifts. Sungyeol’s hand feels very heavy on his shoulder. “I know.”

Sungyeol is searching his face. “He wants you too.”

Myungsoo flushes again, dropping his eyes.

“If you want—I’m sure he’d want it, too.”

Myungsoo can hear the bit of a strain in Sungyeol’s voice that says it’s awkward for him to talk about this too. He shrugs, tangling his fingers in the straps hanging down from his backpack. “We’re not—I’m not ready,” he finally says.

He does want Howon, more than he ever imagined he could want anyone, and sometimes when Howon is touching him—like this morning with the piggyback ride—he feels ready to throw aside all his concerns and just do anything and everything. But when they’re not touching, when Myungsoo’s head can clear a bit, he knows that he hasn’t reached that point yet. He’s always, always associated sex with love, and even though he likes Howon so much, is so very attracted to him, feels safe with him and knows it would be good with him, he still hasn’t reached the point where he can set aside his romantic ideals. Maybe he will, eventually. Maybe he’ll decide that liking and wanting is enough without the loving mixed in. That will probably happen. But for now, it hasn’t.

“Then wait,” Sungyeol says simply. “It’s okay to wait, too.”

Myungsoo knows that, but it’s nice to hear it, especially since he doesn’t know of any other mates who didn’t start having sex right away after they mated. Sometimes he feels like waiting isn’t fair to Howon, but he knows it would be even less fair to himself if they moved faster than he’s ready for.

Sungyeol’s face clears, and he pushes Myungsoo so that he stumbles into a walk again. “And if he tries to pressure you, I’ll make sure that Sungjong destroys his life completely.”

It’s a joke, because Myungsoo knows that Sungyeol doesn’t believe for a second that Howon would pressure him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. But he also knows that Sungyeol would never stand for anyone pressuring Myungsoo that way. What else are best friends for?

He’s glad that Sungyeol seems to have dropped the topic, though, because when they get to the front doors, Howon is waiting for them, standing with his knee bent and one foot up against the wall, and Myungsoo doesn’t think anyone should look that good in the cheap fabric of the school-issued uniforms. He smiles when he sees Myungsoo, and Myungsoo feels his own smile spreading across his face in return.

“Okay, so I’ll leave you two soppy kids alone,” Sungyeol says, smacking Myungsoo’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go do things,” he adds, wriggling his fingers.

“You mean you’re going to go hang around the convenience store and hope Minyoung will actually look at you instead of kicking you out for being annoying?” Myungsoo offers, and his smile grows into a grin when he hears Howon laugh.

Sungyeol gives him a dirty look. “Like you can say anything, Mr. I’m-Going-to-Go-Cuddle-in-the-Gym-with-my-Mate.”

Howon laughs at that, too, and when Sungyeol is gone and the two of them have reached the gym, he throws his arms around Myungsoo. “I don’t think I can do homework right now,” he says, resting his chin on Myungsoo’s shoulder.

Myungsoo relaxes into his arms, letting his eyes sink closed. “It would be hard to concentrate.”

Howon pops back and swipes his bag up off the ground. “Dancing first, and then we’ll clear out of here. Go take some more pictures or something.”

“Okay.”

It’s hard for Myungsoo to concentrate on the manhwa he brought, too, so he ends up pulling out a sketchpad and doodling while Howon dances. He isn’t as good at drawing as Sungyeol, but he likes it, likes the way it calms and grounds him. It keeps his eyes away from Howon’s flexing body, at least, even if he does end up covering the page with small dancing figures with very thick eyebrows. He knows that if he actually watched Howon dance today, he might not even make it to the bathroom before he has to touch himself. He’s half-hard just knowing Howon is here and dancing. Better not to look up at all.

So he’s startled a while later when Howon drops down in front of him and he barely manages to shove the notebook into his bag before Howon’s head falls into his lap. Myungsoo swallows hard—Howon’s head is far too close to his crotch for him to be entirely comfortable—but Howon just grins up at him, face sweaty and strange from this upside-down angle. The music is still pumping loud through the room.

“Want to learn how to dance?”

Myungsoo is so shocked by the words coming out of Howon’s mouth—not to mention so distracted by the fact that Howon’s head is in his lap—that it takes him a second to process the words. And then he snorts. “Yeah, right.”

“Why not?”

“I’m the worst dancer ever,” Myungsoo says, and it’s the truth. Everyone says so.

“Well, maybe that’s because you haven’t had as good of a teacher as me.”

Howon’s eyebrows look even more prominent from this angle when he waggles them like that. Myungsoo can’t help but laugh. He wants to tunnel his fingers through Howon’s hair so badly, sweatiness be damned, to have Howon’s eyes close as he arches his back in pleasure. But he keeps his hands to himself. “I don’t think the greatest teacher in the world could help me at all.”

“We’ll have to test that theory,” Howon says, and Myungsoo is so sure that he’s about to insist they start lessons right here and now that he shoves his hand into his pocket and pulls out the neatly-folded paper there and hands it to Howon, just to distract him.

“What’s this?” Howon asks, unfolding the paper.

Myungsoo shrugs, suddenly hesitant about it. He hadn’t been sure he was going to show it to Howon at all, but now—

Myungsoo holds his breath as he looks down at Howon’s face. It’s hard to read his expression when it’s upside down like this, but he can see Howon’s eyes moving as he scans the flier Myungsoo had printed out in the computer lab earlier today.

“I just saw it and I thought of you. I don’t know if it’s even something you’d want to—I think they’re really small, and they’ve never had an idol group before, but Epik High is with them, so—“ He realizes he’s babbling and grinds his teeth closed so more words won’t come out. He’d thought of Howon instantly when he stumbled upon the flier while he was mindlessly web surfing this afternoon. The small company advertising auditions for trainees isn’t one he’d heard of, but he’d looked them up and found out about their connection with Epik High, a group he knows Howon admires a lot. And the smallness is some of the appeal; Myungsoo has heard horror stories about the ways some of the bigger companies operate, and he hates the thought of Howon having to go through that kind of torture. Surely at a smaller company he’d be better treated, right?

Howon is quiet for a long moment. “This is in a couple of months. Right before the end of the school year.”

His voice is very hard to read. Myungsoo swallows. “I know.”

Again, Howon doesn’t say anything, and Myungsoo has to stop himself from shifting in discomfort. He’ll feel it if you do. He’ll know you’re nervous. You shouldn’t pressure him about this, one way or the other. “I know we haven’t really decided anything yet,” he begins, stumbling over his words. “But you—but it seemed like a good opportunity, and even if you didn’t—it could still let you know where you stand and that could help you, right? Like to know what you need to work on? And—“

Howon sits up, making Myungsoo’s words peter out, and he turns so that he’s sitting right in front of Myungsoo, eyes on his face. This time Myungsoo can’t help but shift awkwardly, no matter how hard he tries to stay still.

“Myungsoo,” Howon says, and maybe Myungsoo’s throat shouldn’t close up at the sound of his name spoken by Howon’s voice, but it does anyway.

“Yeah?”

Howon’s eyes are so dark and steady on his face, and Myungsoo’s breath catches, and he isn’t sure if the leaning forward Howon is doing is just intent-conversation leaning forward or if it’s getting-closer-to-your-lips leaning forward, but he really, really, really wants it to be the latter, and his heart must too, because he can feel it beating in his ears and—

And then Howon’s phone rings, tinny hip hop filling the silence and when did the music from the stereo go off? Myungsoo shakes his head to clear it but he can’t remember at what point the song had ended. He feels dazed as Howon fumbles in the pocket of his uniform and pulls out his phone.

“Hi, Umma,” Howon answers, and his voice is unreadable. Myungsoo looks down at his lap and knots his hands together, trying not to wonder what would have happened if the phone hadn’t gone off.

“I’m sorry, too. No, no, I should have told you. I just didn’t want—“ Myungsoo is trying very hard not to listen, but it’s really impossible. Besides, Howon could get up and move to the other side of the room if he didn’t want Myungsoo to hear, right? “I didn’t—yes, I know. What? Tomorrow? I’m not sure that’s such a good—no, I know. I just don’t think that—“ The sigh Howon lets out sounds defeated. “Okay, Umma. I’ll ask. Yes, I will. No, I’ll try not to. I—okay. Okay. I’ll see you later. Yeah, I’ll be home pretty soon. Bye.”

Myungsoo is trying not to imagine Howon leaning into him, kissing him deep and pressing him up against the wall behind them. He’s not having any luck, fingers flexing as he imagines sliding them into Howon’s hair, but the fantasy fades away when he sees the look Howon is giving him as he slides his phone back into his pocket.

“What is it?” Myungsoo can’t really read Howon’s expression, but it’s enough to make him feel a bit alarmed.

The smile Howon gives him is cynical, but Myungsoo knows that cynicism isn’t directed at him. “I guess it has to happen eventually. Might as well get it over with. Want to meet my parents tomorrow night?”

Well. That was the last thing Myungsoo was expecting.

Chapter Text

As they pause at the front gate of Howon’s house, Myungsoo wonders if Howon was as nervous meeting his parents as he is meeting Howon’s. Howon had only looked a little bit nervous that night, but Myungsoo can’t keep his shoulders from twitching and his hands are sweating so much he has to keep pulling his right one out of Howon’s to wipe it on his pants. Howon smiles at him encouragingly, but it doesn’t really help.

 

“I made my mom promise to get him to promise to be on his best behavior and to let my little brother go over to a friend’s house, so maybe it won’t be—I—“ Howon takes a deep breath, and a wave of protectiveness surges through Myungsoo. He wants to pull Howon by the hand all the way back to his own house that they’d left just a few minutes before after Myungsoo had changed into some nicer not-school clothes while Howon had chatted downstairs with his mom. He knows Howon feels comfortable at his house now, and it warms him, and right now, he’d really like Howon to be in a place where he’s comfortable. He shouldn’t feel like this when he’s going to his own home. “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

 

Myungsoo hates a world where Howon has to say that. “It’s okay,” he says, unsure of how to reassure Howon that he doesn’t blame him for his nervousness. How to reassure him that even if this is awkward, he still wants to do it because it’s part of Howon’s life, which means it’s part of his life. How to reassure him that no matter how this goes, it won’t change how Myungsoo looks at him. “It’ll be okay.”

 

Howon doesn’t look convinced, but he smiles at Myungsoo anyway, and as he punches in the key code at the gate without releasing Myungsoo’s hand, Myungsoo is really glad that he only had one day to worry about this meeting. If Howon’s mom had invited him a week in advance, he’d probably have had a nervous breakdown by now. As it is, he doesn’t remember one single thing that happened at school today other than Howon’s arm around him at lunch. Myungsoo had kept twisting so he could press his nose to Howon’s shoulder and breathe him in, the familiar scent of him, alpha-general and Howon-specific, steadying him in ways he couldn’t explain. The others have always teased him when he does that to Woohyun-hyung or Sungjong, but none of them had said anything about it today, picking up on Myungsoo’s mood and trying very hard to be entertaining. It wasn’t their fault that Myungsoo was too distracted to appreciate their efforts.

 

He lets Howon lead him up the walk, and they pause when they reach the front door. Howon pivots to face him and jerks him into a quick, hard hug. “Okay,” he breathes out when he releases him—far too soon for Myungsoo’s tastes. “Let’s do this.”

 

Howon’s house looks and smells like any other house when they step inside. Myungsoo can hear a TV somewhere in another room as he follows Howon’s example, toeing off his shoes. Howon takes his hand again and leads him down a hall lined with family pictures—Myungsoo only catches a glimpse of one or two of three boys at various ages, but he sees enough to note that Howon is more handsome than either of his brothers. He’s pretty sure he’s not just biased.

 

“Umma, we’re here,” Howon says when they reach the kitchen, and his voice is gentle but guarded. Myungsoo’s heart clenches.

 

The woman who turns away from the stove and hurries over to them has Howon’s nose and mouth, but her build is slighter and her eyes not as dark. “So you’re Myungsoo,” she says, running her eyes over Myungsoo as she wipes her hands on her apron. She’s pretty in a middle-aged way and her eyes are kind but they’re rimmed with deep worry lines and there’s something in the way she holds her shoulders that makes her look—cautious. “You’re such a handsome boy.”

 

Myungsoo is used to comments like that, but somehow they make him feel self-conscious in front of Howon. They always send his mind spinning off in a frustrating direction: he knows Howon wants him, but the hormones would see to that no matter what, and what he really wants to know is whether Howon himself, hormones aside, thinks he’s attractive. But he couldn’t possibly ask, so he shoves the thoughts away as he bows deeply.

 

“It’s very nice to meet you, ahjumma,” he says sincerely. He can tell that Howon loves her very much and so he likes her even though he doesn’t know her.

 

“Would you like to come sit down? Dinner should be in just a few minutes—Howon’s father will be out shortly. I’m afraid our oldest is at university and our baby has a study group tonight, but I think Howon thought it would be best if it was just us four at first?” Myungsoo notices the way she turns the last into a question.

 

“I’ll look forward to meeting Howon’s brothers another time,” he says, because he feels like he should say something, and from the smile she gives him, he thinks he said the right thing.

 

“Yes, yes, there’s plenty of time. Let’s sit down, all right?”

 

Myungsoo looks around the simple but well-furnished living room as they sit down around the low table. It’s not that different than his own living room, actually, or Sungyeol’s or Sungjong’s. For some reason, he had expected it to be different.

 

“You’re in the same year as Howon at school, aren’t you Myungsoo?”

 

“Yes, ma’am. But different classes.”

 

“And Howon told me that you’re friends with Sungjong?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he answers again, glad she hadn’t asked him to call her eomeoni. If she had, he’d have to call Howon’s father abeoji, right? And can’t imagine ever offering that word to the man who would hit Howon.

 

He tries to make himself relax, but he can’t, not when he’s wishing so desperately that it could be just Howon’s mother at this meal. He knows from the tension coiling in Howon’s body beside his that Howon is wishing the same thing. Myungsoo hasn’t let himself think about how he’ll react to Mr. Lee, other than reminding himself over and over of what Howon had said in the gym a couple of nights before: ‘If I wanted him to be beat up, I’d do it myself.’ Just be as polite as you can, he tells himself. You don’t have to be warm, but you can be polite. Just don’t think of what he says about Howon.

 

It’s of course that minute when Mr. Lee walks into the room, and Myungsoo scrambles to his feet as the others rise, too. Mr. Lee is built just like Howon except that he’s thickened a bit with middle age, and he has the same thick eyebrows that on Howon appear mysterious and charming. On him they just look menacing. But maybe that’s because of what Myungsoo knows about him. Maybe if he met Mr. Lee without knowing anything about him, he wouldn’t think so.

 

“It smells excellent, Ilhwa,” Mr. Lee says to his wife as he moves into the room and Myungsoo notes the small smile that flashes across her face. Mr. Lee comes to a stop across the table from Myungsoo and his gaze falls heavy on him.

 

“Abeoji,” Howon says, his voice perfectly polite. “This is Kim Myungsoo. He’s my mate.”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t want to bow at all, so he ends up overcompensating and bows lower than he probably should. “I hope you are well, ahjussi.” I’m not glad to meet you. But I can wish anyone good health.

 

Mr. Lee’s eyes are very intense. They aren’t kind, but they also aren’t burning with hate like Myungsoo imagined them. ‘He’s not a monster,’ Howon had said last night as they walked home. ‘I know you think he must be, but he isn’t. He’s just a jerk sometimes. And he’s not very good at keeping control of his anger.’ Myungsoo’s hands had clenched in fists as he listened to Howon, wanting so much to spit out that anyone who would hit their child is definitely a monster, but Howon had seemed like he really meant it. ‘He wasn’t bad when we were young. I mean, he got angry sometimes and we had to stay out of his way. But it wasn’t that often and he only spanked us when we’d done something—’ Howon had paused, his eyes far away, and Myungsoo’s heart had ached as he crossed his arms to keep from reaching out and wrapping them around Howon. ‘Things got worse when I told him I didn’t want to go to university.’

 

Howon had said something else about a lot of anger coming from fear and that his dad must fear losing control above all—’And me telling him I wanted to become a dancer was the first time any of us ever told him that we wanted something different than he wanted for us’—but Myungsoo hadn’t been able to pay much attention, far too focused on keeping his thoughts from popping out of his mouth. Move in with me. No one will hit you, ever, and they’ll wish you luck before you go to auditions and Umma will hug you if you want hugs.

 

But he’d known that Howon wouldn’t accept the invitation. It isn’t pride, exactly, that makes Howon stay where he is, nor is it really stubbornness. Myungsoo isn’t sure what it is. Maybe it’s just loyalty. This is my family. The end. Whatever it is, Myungsoo hates it even as he can’t bring himself to wish it away. That loyalty may just be the flip-side of how good Howon always is to his friends, of how dedicated he is to his dream. Who would Howon be without it? Myungsoo doesn’t want him to be any different than he is.

 

“I find out Howon has a mate and then two nights later, here he is for dinner.”

 

Myungsoo has a hard time reading Mr. Lee’s voice. That voice could be angry or it could be amused, but all Myungsoo can hear is hardness. He wonders if that hardness is really there or if what he knows of Mr. Lee is making his mind manufacture it.

 

“Thank you for inviting me,” Myungsoo says, because he can’t think of anything else to say, and because he does want to express gratitude towards Howon’s mother.

 

Mr. Lee spreads his hand, inviting them all to sit down, and Myungsoo bites his lip to keep from gasping when he bangs his knee against the table as he settles on the floor. He feels the side of Howon’s hand brush against his before everyone reaches for their chopsticks, and just that tiny touch is settling.

 

“An accident, Howon says,” Mr. Lee starts as he accepts a bowl of greens from his wife. “You don’t hear about so many accidents nowadays.”

 

Myungsoo stuffs a bite of rice into his mouth to buy himself a minute to think of how to respond to that. The details of their mating are the last thing he wants to talk about with Mr. Lee. He can feel the heat rising in his cheeks already.

 

“Myungsoo’s family goes into heat late,” Howon volunteers, voice steady, and Myungsoo is grateful. “It was very unexpected for him to—he couldn’t have known.”

 

Mr. Lee doesn’t react to that last.

 

“And you two weren’t friends before?” Each time Mrs. Lee says something, she sounds like she’s offering up her words, equally prepared for them to be accepted or rejected. It knots Myungsoo’s stomach.

 

“No, ma’am,” he answers, because he doesn’t want Howon to be the only one talking. It would be so, so easy to stay silent this whole night until he thanks them for their hospitality and leaves. But that wouldn’t be fair to Howon. Not when Howon had done most of the talking the night he met Myungsoo’s parents. “We didn’t really know each other. But we have a lot of the same friends.”

 

“That must have been hard,” Mrs. Lee says, and Myungsoo can see why Howon still loves her so much. But it must be very hard loving someone so fragile. Myungsoo has never been so aware of his own mother’s quiet strength.

 

“It was easy to make friends with Myungsoo,” Howon says in that same calm voice, and Myungsoo squirms, because it sounds like he means it. Like the awkwardness and the mood swings were completely irrelevant. Like they’re friends now, such good friends they can take it for granted. Myungsoo wishes he had the nerve to say that it was easy to make friends with Howon, too. Howon is really easy to like.

 

“And I suppose you kept your parents in the dark, too?” Myungsoo wishes desperate that he could read Mr. Lee’s tone. Is that some kind of black joke? He thinks maybe it is, but he doesn’t like it. “Is that what kids do these days when they mate?”

 

Myungsoo can feel Howon stiffen beside him, so he shifts his foot until the bottom of his sock is pressed up against Howon’s thigh. “Um, no, sir. I, uh—I told them the next day.”

 

Mr. Lee doesn’t respond to that, but Mrs. Lee leans forward over the table. “How did your parents take it?”

 

Myungsoo thinks of his mother crying, of his father’s sad but hopeful eyes. He thinks of the two of them giving him space, inviting Howon over, always being so glad to see their son’s mate. “They really like Howon,” he settles on.

 

Myungsoo can’t bring himself to look at Mr. Lee’s face, so he doesn’t see how those words register with him, but Mrs. Lee smiles, sunshine through clouds. “Do they? How kind of them to invite him.”

 

“They like it whenever he comes over.” Myungsoo isn’t sure where his own words are coming from. But he knows he wants to say them. “My little brother says our mom likes Howon more than him.”

 

Mrs. Lee looks so simply happy that Myungsoo wants to get up and hug her.

 

“I don’t suppose they’ll like him so much when they find out what their son’s mate is planning to do with his life.”

 

This time, Myungsoo thinks he can hear the dark humor in Mr. Lee’s voice. He’s trying to make out like it’s a joke, but Myungsoo knows the sincerity behind it. He lifts his chin.

 

“They already know. They think Howon will be a great idol.”

 

Mrs. Lee’s gaze skitters towards her husband, then to Howon, back to her husband.

 

“Do they? I suppose it’s easier when it’s not your son wanting to throw his life away.”

 

Again, that tone like Mr. Lee is making a joke but with something lurking underneath it, and Myungsoo can feel the tension in Howon’s leg against his foot.

 

“Howon will be a great trainee,” Myungsoo says, not sure how his own tone is coming across, but believing his words to his core.

 

Mr. Lee doesn’t look impressed by Myungsoo’s words. “And what do you want to be? An actor? A circus clown?”

 

Myungsoo blinks, because now it really does sound like Mr. Lee’s making a joke—a flat-out joke with nothing angry behind it. A joke like Sungyeol’s dad would make, or Sunggyu would. He’s not sure how to react to it.

 

“Myungsoo is a photographer.” The suddenness of Howon speaking beside him makes Myungsoo jump. “A very talented one.” Howon’s voice is tightly controlled, but Myungsoo still feels warm at hearing Howon say it.

 

“A photographer.” It’s clear that Mr. Lee isn’t sure how to react to that, whether it’s something he should approve of or not. It’s definitely not something he anticipated, Myungsoo can tell. “Can you support yourself doing that?”

 

“Oh, of course you can, yeobo!” Mrs. Lee says hurriedly, voice eager. “Like the man at the mall who takes our family pictures—or the ones who take the school photos!”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t say that he really isn’t that interested in doing those sorts of pictures, that he wants to take pictures for luxury magazines or maybe for a newspaper or something—that he wants to travel and take pictures of beautiful places and interesting people all over the world—that he wants to put out photobooks full of his pictures and maybe even his thoughts—that he wants to have his own gallery where he can sell pictures of whatever he wants and people will buy them from him and take them home and display them on their walls—that he wants to make art that people want in their lives, art that will make people smile and feel at peace. He knows it might be some time before he can work to a career like that. Maybe he will have to take school pictures first, to make ends meet. Who knows? Myungsoo wouldn’t be ashamed to do that. And he likes kids.

 

“Is photograph something you study at university?” Mr. Lee asks. “Are you planning on going?”

 

Myungsoo has to stop himself from looking over at Howon, swallows a bite of food instead. Just be polite. Just be polite and get this over with and then the two of you can leave and forget all about it. “Yes, sir.”

 

“That might be hard to do, mated to this one, when he’s ready to run off to Seoul any day.”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t know why those words make him so angry. Maybe it’s the implication that Howon would just drag him around and not let him go to university. He knows that he himself jumped to that conclusion at first, but he had the hormones to blame, typical omega overreaction, not to mention the suddenness of the revelation. Mr. Lee doesn’t have that excuse. Myungsoo is about to open his mouth and say that Howon is a good person and cares about what he wants, but Howon cuts him off before he can even start.

 

“Myungsoo is going to university.” Howon’s voice brooks no argument. “We haven’t figured out yet where the best photography program is.”

 

Howon has said that to Myungsoo, more than once: ‘No matter what, you’re going to become a photographer. And if you need to go to university to do that, we’ll make that happen. No matter what.’ It still sends hot sparks through Myungsoo to hear it, though, makes him want to say ‘No matter what, you’ll be able to dance and audiences will love you.’ He wants to guarantee Howon that just as much as he wants his own dream to come true.

 

Mr. Lee’s mouth twists and he looks like he’s about to retort, but Mrs. Lee speaks up briskly. “Myungsoo, would you like some more of this? Pass your bowl here.”

 

Myungsoo does as he’s bid. He hasn’t paid attention to a single bite he’s put into his mouth, though he’s been eating steadily. For once, he doesn’t even taste the food.

 

But the distraction wasn’t enough for Mr. Lee. “So Howon,” he says, and Myungsoo thinks that Howon’s voice sounds ugly in Mr. Lee’s mouth. “Does that mean you’ve decided to actually graduate? I suppose even an ‘accidental’ mating has an upside—forces you to grow up fast and act responsible, right? I guess I should thank your mate here.”

 

Myungsoo has to put down his chopsticks and flatten his palms against the floor, pressing on the wood in an attempt to funnel the surge of anger he feels out of his body so that it doesn’t burst out another way.

 

“We haven’t decided yet what we’re doing,” Howon answers stiffly, and Myungsoo wants nothing more than to grab his hand and pull him out of the house. Take him back to their own little private world in the darkened gym, where he can dance or relax or lay with Myungsoo on the mats till all the negative emotions flow right out of him.

 

“‘We’? I must say, I’m surprised you’d say that. Nothing comes between you and your dream, right?”

 

Anger arches through Myungsoo, and he’s rocked forward to demand if Mr. Lee knows his son at all, but before he can speak, Howon’s hand latches onto Myungsoo’s thigh. It’s a soothing gesture, a reigning in, but it still takes all Myungsoo’s control to force himself to sit back.

 

“My mate’s name is Myungsoo.”

 

Mr. Lee is very good at ignoring things, Myungsoo notes distantly as he stares down at his lap, his whole attention focused on the tension he can feel passing from Howon’s body into his.

 

“I guess we should just be glad you’re the alpha. You’ve got the failsafe built right in. Your way or the highway, isn’t that right, Howon?”

 

Myungsoo risks a small glance at Howon, sees a muscle throbbing in his jaw. He wants to scoot over next to Howon, press his body against his mate’s, absorb every negative thing he’s feeling so Howon doesn’t have to carry it. But all he can do is sit there.

 

“Myungsoo and I will make the decision that’s right for us.” Myungsoo has to marvel at the degree of control Howon has over his tone. “I promised him we’d decide together. I would never force him to do anything.”

 

Myungsoo peers up at Mr. Lee from under his bangs, drops his eyes immediately. The older man is exuding the kind of intensity Howon gives off when he’s dancing, only it isn’t shot through with satisfaction the way Howon’s is.

 

“Ah, so you got a true omega. Going to go along with whatever you say, just because he wants to? Your accident was a lucky one, Howon.”

 

Howon’s iron hand around Myungsoo’s thigh tightens lightning-fast, to the point of pain, and then it’s gone as Howon shoots to his feet. “Don’t you dare talk about him like that.”

 

 

 

Howon is aware of Myungsoo staring up at him with round eyes, of his mother’s pleading, cringing expression. But mostly he’s aware of his father’s face and how much he wants to punch it in. Even the times when his dad’s hit him, Howon has never wanted to punch him back. If there’s anything positive his father has given him—besides the bare essentials of food on his table and a roof over his head—it’s that his anger has made Howon hate violence and refuse to consider it in all but the most extreme cases. When his dad lashes out at him, Howon wants to yell back, to scream, to let loose everything he keeps locked away inside. But he doesn’t want to hit back.

 

But right now, hearing him make those insinuations about Myungsoo—that he’s weak, that he’ll submit to whatever Howon wants him to do, possibly even that he’s cock-whipped—those bigoted stereotypes of omegas that polite society likes to pretend have been stamped out forever—Howon wants to hurt him. And he doesn’t think it’s just because of the bond.

 

“Settle down, Howon.” His dad’s voice sounds almost lazy, but there’s nothing lazy in his eyes. “I just don’t understand how this is going to work, otherwise. Making the decision together?”

 

“That’s right.” Howon’s holding his body so tense that it’s hard to get the words out.

 

“Well, where does that leave you? The boy needs to graduate to go to university—”

 

“His name is Myungsoo.”

 

“—and you won’t ever bend when it comes to your dream.” It’s poison, how much irony his father can put into that last word. “That seems like a stalemate to me. The only way it won’t be is if your mate just agrees to go with you.”

 

“I could stay here till we graduate.” The words taste like ashes on his mouth, but that’s better than the poison his father is spewing. “And his name is Myungsoo.”

 

“But we both know you well enough to know you’d never do that.” And then Mr. Lee tears his eyes away from Howon’s long enough to glance at Myungsoo. The surge of anger Howon feels is as potent as it would have been if his father had reached out and touched Myungsoo. “Or—have you convinced him you might? Made him think you’re actually considering it? That wasn’t very kind, Howon.”

 

Howon turns his neck stiffly till he’s looking down at Myungsoo, and through the haze of his anger, he almost can’t see those wide eyes, that face lifted up to his. Don’t believe him. He tries to send the message from his mind straight to Myungsoo’s, through sheer force of will. I don’t know what we’ll do, but I care what you want. We’ll decide together. We’ll make it work. We will.

 

But he can’t loosen his jaw enough to move it, and his dad is still speaking. “You should at least be honest with the boy. He can decide to get the treatment, then. Though I suppose that’s why you had to convince him you were actually considering waiting—if he got the treatment, you wouldn’t be able to do your dancing for months, right? Might as well stay here and graduate by that time.”

 

The words, so very close to the ones he himself had spoken to Sungjong the day after he met Myungsoo’s parents, but with completely different emotion behind them, lance through Howon, and he reaches down and grabs Myungsoo’s hand, remembering at the last minute to keep his grip looser than his anger wants it to be so he doesn’t hurt Myungsoo. He pulls Myungsoo to his feet, pulls him closer so that their shoulders are almost touching. He can feel the anger holding Myungsoo’s body taut.

 

Howon speaks the words very carefully, spitting each one out, hard and distinct, like a pebble. “Myungsoo and I will decide what’s best for us.” He’s said it so very many times, and meant it every time, but this time it’s different. This time he’s so aware of the power of those words, of what they really mean. From here on out—really, from the moment he stepped into the art classroom and saw Myungsoo’s desperate eyes—neither one of them get to make individual decisions. Now there’s only the two of them, and everything one of them decides will affect the other. They have friends who support them, who ease the way for them, family that loves them, Myungsoo’s parents who will give them advice. But when it comes down to it, it’s just Howon and Myungsoo and the choices they make.

 

From the moment Howon had looked at the panting half-stranger and realized what was going on, he’s felt out of control, buffeted by hormones and emotions that seemed so much bigger than anything he could fight, swept away in a tsunami of circumstances beyond his control. And in a way, that’s true: so much has happened that he hasn’t had any choice in, that Myungsoo didn’t get to decide, that the two of them just had to bear.

 

And yet now he’s seeing the side of their situation he’d been blind to up until now: that now all they have is decisions, choice after choice, a whole life of them, binding them together in ways that even the mating bond can’t touch. Some of them will be easy and others will seem impossible, but all of them, once they’re made, will be theirs. And from those choices, they’ll construct their lives.

 

The thought is so big, so overwhelming, that he can only touch a small part of it, aware of the full implications lurking beyond like the bulk of a glacier under water, something he’ll have to explore later, maybe alone or talking with Myungsoo. Or maybe he won’t ever look at it fully, but just accept it and carry on. Either way, he can’t wrap his mind around it now, and he also can’t do what he really wants to do: pull Myungsoo towards him, wrap him tight in his arms, and whisper fierce promises in his ear. He would never let his father see something like that. He doesn’t even want him looking at Myungsoo anymore.

 

Enough of this.

 

Howon turns to his mother, who’s sitting helplessly on the floor, eyes welling, looking very small and fragile. He tries to modulate his voice, to let the wistful love he has for her show through. “Thank you for dinner, Umma. It was excellent.” Then he squeezes Myungsoo’s hand. “Let’s go, Myungsoo.”

Myungsoo hurriedly bows low to Howon’s mom, and his voice doesn’t reveal any of the anger Howon knows he’s feeling. “Thank you, thank you for dinner, thank you for inviting me—” He barely has the words out of his mouth before Howon tugs on his arm, pulling him towards the door.

 

But then there’s his father’s voice, striking like a snake.

 

“Don’t let him fool you, Myungsoo.” Howon hadn’t thought anything could be worse than hearing his dad talk about Myungsoo like he wasn’t even in the room. But somehow hearing him speak Myungsoo’s name is even worse. “No matter what promises he makes you, you won’t get what you want, not if it stands in the way of what he wants. He always has to have his way.”

 

The second before Howon spins around, he feels Myungsoo’s hand tighten desperately around his, like he’s trying to hold Howon—or himself—back, but it can’t stop Howon. He knows all the contempt he feels for this man must be showing on his face, full and vivid in a way he’s never allowed himself before, but he doesn’t care. Let his father see how much he’s destroyed the respect Howon used to have for him. Let him see.

 

You’re the one who always has to have things your way,” Howon says, the words gritting out harsh-edged. “You’re the one who’s so threatened by me wanting to do something different with my life than what you think everyone expects. You’re the one who turned this house into a place Umma doesn’t even feel safe in just because of your anger. All I ever wanted to do was make my own choices.”

 

Somehow his father is around the table and in front of him, and his hand is raised, and Howon feels Myungsoo coil beside him, like he’s about to launch himself forward, and all Howon can think is I’m glad he’s the omega, because if he had the alpha temper, he’d have killed my dad by now, but when his father’s hand strikes out, Howon’s is there waiting for it.

 

His father blinks at Howon’s hand wrapped iron-tight around his wrist, keeping his strike from connecting.

 

“Not. Anymore,” Howon says very clearly. I promised Myungsoo.

 

And then he slings his father’s hand away and he’s pulling Myungsoo outside and they’re both standing in front of the house in the pleasant night air, but Howon still sees his father’s face in front of his, still reels from the realization of just how small a man his father has become. He could almost feel sorry for him. Maybe he will, one day. He lets his eyes sink shut.

 

He doesn’t know how long he stands like that, feeling the pulse of anger and grim satisfaction and something that feels far too close to heartbreak course through him. He lets his mind go as blank as it can, and all he feels is the streaming of emotion as it passes.

 

And when it’s passed, all that’s left is the almost imperceptible breeze against his face, Myungsoo’s hand still in his and his mate-smell in Howon’s lungs.

 

His muscles loosening is like a baby bird chipping its way out of an egg, bit by bit, until his arms are dangling by his side and his legs feel like they might not support him much longer. Last of all, he makes himself unclench his jaw, and when he opens his eyes, he’s looking at Myungsoo.

 

Howon just looks at him, not seeing his beauty, but seeing just those eyes staring back at his. Eyes that had been waiting.

 

“I’m sorry,” Howon says, and his voice feels different now that all the anger is gone.

 

Myungsoo shakes his head, a half-formed motion, and somehow Howon understands: Myungsoo doesn’t think he has anything to be sorry for.

 

“I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be anything like—” Howon breaks off with a mirthless little laugh.

 

“You’re not going back there.”

 

Howon’s eyebrows shoot up at the firmness of Myungsoo’s voice. “What?”

 

“You’re not going back there. You’re coming home with me.”

 

Howon hasn’t ever seen Myungsoo like this. He’s so used to calm or laughing or embarrassed Myungsoo, but he’s never seen him so matter-of-fact like this. It’s not that Myungsoo hasn’t drawn a firm line—he has, a time or two, like that first day when he told Howon he wasn’t allowed to touch him unless he wanted him to and that he was going to touch Sungyeol if he wanted to, like that night at dinner when he’d told his parents they were going to get registered the next day. Howon’s known that there was a strength beneath Myungsoo’s soft warmth, but it’s always been surrounded by a certain tentativeness, a bit of him holding back out of embarrassment or fear of Howon’s reaction or just because he didn’t think he had the right to make firm decisions. Howon has never seen that strength laid bare like this—he’d almost say it was steely, except that it’s so calm and steady that that word doesn’t fit. He doesn’t know how to explain it. But it’s Myungsoo.

 

His mouth twitches in an almost-smile. He’s too tired for more. “I usually stay with Sungjong. But yeah, we can go to your house.” It’ll be nice, being at the Kims’. It’s a quieter house than Dongwoo’s or Woohyun’s, but what’s really great about is the peace that pervades it. Howon had forgotten what that felt like. He likes it.

 

“No.” Myungsoo is still making statements, speaking them like there’s no way they won’t be obeyed. His face is very calm. “I mean, you’re not going back there at all.”

 

Something knots up in Howon’s throat, and maybe it’s something pleased. “Myungsoo—”

 

“You’re not going back there,” Myungsoo repeats, and now emotions are starting to bleed into his expression, part coaxing, a little bit desperate, resolute and even a little bit abashed. He looks more like the Myungsoo Howon recognizes. “You can’t go back there. You can have the guest room—Umma always keeps it ready. And we’ll send Sungjong to get your stuff—nobody can scare Sungjong. And your mom can come visit if you want—Umma will like her, they can play Go Stop or something.” By the end of the little speech, Myungsoo looks like a beseeching kid and he’s tugging on Howon’s hand, and the transformation from rock-steady man to pleading boy is so absolute that it almost makes Howon’s head spin. How can one person be so many things? And how can every one of those things captivate Howon equally?

 

“Myungsoo, that’s really not nec—”

 

“Yes, it is. It is! Howon—” Myungsoo’s voice breaks and press himself up against Howon so their faces are inches apart, and somehow Howon always forgets Myungsoo is taller than him till he sees him like this. His eyes are very dark. “Howon, please. I can’t handle it if I know he—” Again, his voice breaks, and he drops his eyes for just a moment, and when he raises them they’re more pleading than ever. “Please.”

 

Howon thinks dizzily that he should never let Myungsoo know just how appealing he looks when he says that, asks something with that tone of voice, with his eyes that beseeching. He should never let Myungsoo know that it makes his knees go a little weak, that it reminds him of the first time Myungsoo pleaded with him, that he thinks he’d agree to anything if Myungsoo asks him and looks at him like that.

 

And here’s their first decision, the first stone in the foundation of decisions he’d seen like epiphany just a few minute ago inside the house he’d grown up in. “Okay,” he says.

 

Myungsoo’s face breaks out into a grin, and he shifts his hand till their fingers are interlaced, tugging Howon towards home.

Chapter Text

Living with Myungsoo is…well, it’s easier than Howon thought it would be. At first he’s overly polite and careful like he always is when staying at someone else’s house—asking before he eats anything, thanking Mrs. Kim formally for dinner, standing and bowing whenever Myungsoo’s parents enter the room. But it isn’t even a week before he relaxes into his new home, lulled by Mrs. Kim’s sweetness and Mr. Kim’s steadiness, by Moonsoo’s sense of humor and by Myungsoo’s presence.

 

Soon enough, Howon is grabbing a glass of juice whenever he wants it, plopping down on the sofa beside Moonsoo to play videogames, laughing with Mrs. Kim as they snap peas, even hanging up a few of his hip hop posters on the walls of the guest room—’Howon’s room,’ everyone starts calling it without any hitch at all. Howon still tries to make sure that his bed is made when he leaves in the morning and that he always hangs up his wet towels to dry, but he stops feeling guilty if he forgets one morning, and the first day he follows Moonsoo and Myungsoo’s example and kisses Mrs. Kim—“Eomeoni, Howon, please!”—on the cheek on the way out the door, she looks so pleased he can’t even be embarrassed, even when Moonsoo teases him about it.

 

It’s just so very easy to settle in, to arrange all his things—collected by a steely-eyed Sungjong, just like Myungsoo had said, and Howon has to grin at the mental image of Sungjong leveling that frightening gaze on his dad—in his new room, to pad down to breakfast in the morning still in his pajamas, to jostle the brothers for room at the sink to brush his teeth. To live in a place that smells like Myungsoo. To see Myungsoo’s half-asleep face across the breakfast table, to chuckle at Myungsoo’s eyes going wide when he finds some of Howon’s underwear mixed up with his in the clean laundry basket, to have Myungsoo sneak into his room to cuddle on the bed for a while before he heads back to his room to go to sleep. So easy.

 

Honestly, it would be just as easy for Myungsoo to not leave at all, to just slide into bed beside him, maybe to find new things to do in a bed beside cuddle, and Howon knows from some dropped hints that the Kims would be fine with them sharing a room. But while Myungsoo buries his face in Howon’s neck and clings to him with a ferocity that seems exhausting to Howon—how does Myungsoo carry all that around inside him without it crushing him?—he always eventually pulls away and heads back to his room. And Howon just reminds himself not to push, even if he’s ready for things to be...not so easy between them. In a new way.

 

Sometimes he thinks that Myungsoo wants it as much as he does—sometimes that clinging lingers a little too long, or Myungsoo turns back to look at him as he goes out the door and his eyes are so very dark. Or Howon will look up at him suddenly during a meal, and Myungsoo will drop his eyes immediately, flushing like he really hasn’t for weeks now, and Howon doesn’t think it’s just his imagination that make him think he sees what he does in Myungsoo’s eyes. In those moments, he thinks Myungsoo would let him reach out and touch him with intent, that Myungsoo would be fine with him turning to him in the gym after dance practice instead of them heading off to separate bathrooms like they always do. At the very least, he thinks Myungsoo would let him kiss him, but he isn’t sure, and he can’t risk asking Myungsoo for something he isn’t ready to give. So Howon waits.

 

Life becomes routine again, even if the routine is new. There’s school, which is the same as always, afternoons spent either with their friends or in the gym, meals with the Kims, mini trips around town for Myungsoo to take pictures, laying on his bed with Myungsoo against his chest while they watch a movie on his laptop or Howon studies his Japanese. There’s Mrs. Kim’s soft smiles and Sungjong’s dry humor and Sungyeol’s antics and Dongwoo’s laughter and Moonsoo’s rolling his eyes at his brother. Sometimes there’s meeting his mom, hugging her gently in a coffee shop or a park—she seems reluctant to come visit the Kims’ home, like her husband would be able to sense that she’d been there, and so she meets Howon fleetingly, about once a week, while she’s pretending to do grocery shopping. There isn’t anything from his father—no phone calls, no texts, and Howon doesn’t see him; even his mother doesn’t mention him when they meet. There’s the looming end of the school year and the questions he and Myungsoo haven’t addressed about what they’ll do then. And there’s Myungsoo.

 

Howon spends almost every waking hour when he’s not in class at least in the same room as Myungsoo. Howon would have thought that his constant presence would make him feel confined, chained, irritable, but he adjusts so easily that he doesn’t realize how much time they spend together for quite some time. Howon’s always needed alone time, but somehow that alone time has morphed from ‘completely alone’ to ‘alone but with Myungsoo in the corner doing something else.’ Howon had never thought that he could get the aloneness he needs with someone else present, but when Myungsoo goes into his own little world—reading or looking at his pictures or drawing or just zoning out—his presence is as unobtrusive as a cat’s. There are different intensities of ‘together,’ Howon discovers, and while he wonders if this has more to do with their personalities or the mating bond—if it weren’t for the bond, would he need to escape even from Myungsoo sometimes?—there isn’t any answer, and so he mostly lets it be.

 

Just because they’re together doesn’t mean they’re interacting, other than the pleasant but decreasing-in-intensity buzz of rightness that Myungsoo’s presence always brings. Sometimes when their friends are with them, he and Sungjong will migrate to one end of the room and Myungsoo and Sungyeol will end up at the other, having two separate conversations, and there are weekend nights spent in the Kims’ living room where Myungsoo is curled up on the couch and Howon is sitting on the floor and they don’t talk much. A lot of the time they spend together is silent, actually, and Howon finds himself desperately glad that Myungsoo, while having the capacity to be extremely loud and silly when he wants to be (mostly around Sungyeol), is by nature given to quietness. Howon isn’t sure how he’d deal with being mated to Dongwoo or Woohyun or Sungyeol. He doesn’t even want to think about that.

 

Sometimes Myungsoo wanders into Howon’s room and lays on the bed doing his own thing while Howon does his homework or listens to music or web surfs or whatever. Most of the time Myungsoo will have at least his feet touching Howon’s—he always wants to be touching whoever he’s with, especially Howon, and Howon laughs to himself every time he has the thought that that isn’t really the bond: that’s just Kim Myungsoo—but he never tries to start a conversation if he sees Howon is busy with something else. Howon’s hand will sometimes fall to rest on the back of Myungsoo’s neck or he’ll let Myungsoo lean against his arm, and Myungsoo seems perfectly content just to be doing his own thing. It’s endearing and utterly Myungsoo.

 

One night, about a week after Howon moves into the house, he’s studying dance videos on youtube, sitting cross-legged and staring intently at the moves of the dancer, one earbud in to hear the music, the other dangling down his chest, when Myungsoo wanders in with his camera. Howon has taken to leaving his door cracked when he doesn’t mind being disturbed, and Myungsoo knows now that it means he can walk in without knocking. Howon had always kept his door firmly shut when he was in his room at home, not because he had anything to hide but because he wanted to keep the rest of the world out. He doesn’t feel that need here.

 

Myungsoo closes the door behind him and climbs up on the bed, stretching out his bare feet—Howon is momentarily distracted by them before returning to his viewing—and resting his head on Howon’s pillow. He’s flipping through the pictures on his camera, and every once in a while Howon can hear him delete one. Howon has teased him about how he prefers to view them on the camera’s small screen instead of the large one his laptop, but Myungsoo had just insisted that he likes to look at them on the camera better, and Howon’s sure it’s more about the symbolism of the camera, the weight of it in Myungsoo’s hands, than it is about the picture quality and size, which would undoubtedly make pictures on his laptop easier to examine.

 

Howon relaxes into the silence between them, calm in the warmth of Myungsoo beside him even though they’re not touching. He’s had time to watch three or four videos, mentally taking all sorts of notes, before he becomes aware that Myungsoo isn’t just flipping through his pictures anymore. He doesn’t turn to look at Myungsoo, but he shifts his focus from the music to the sounds of Myungsoo’s camera, and sure enough, after a moment he hears a little click that he knows isn’t a picture being deleted.

 

He yanks the earbud out of his ear, turns to stare at Myungsoo, who’s lowering the camera with an innocent look on his face. “Are you taking pictures of me?” Howon asks incredulously. Myungsoo has started snapping them of Sungjong all the time again, of Sungyeol less frequently but still noticeably, of the others now and then, but Howon hasn’t seen him take any of himself.

 

Myungsoo’s cheeks are pinking a bit, but he sets the camera in his lap and holds Howon’s eyes, defiant. “You have a good profile.”

 

Something’s buzzing in Howon’s head and hands, and he realizes that he’d been waiting for this and hadn’t even known it. He hadn’t let himself think about why Myungsoo doesn’t seem to take pictures of him. He understands why Sungjong is Myungsoo’s main model—Sungjong is so flawless that every single picture ends up looking like a high-fashion shoot—and Sungyeol had been Myungsoo’s very first subject and has a body like a runway model that seems to scream out for pictures to be taken of it. But Dongwoo’s face is of a kind that doesn’t translate as well to still photographs—Howon has seen film recordings that almost capture Dongwoo (nothing could capture the intensity of his energy), but still pictures are always lacking that quicksilver expressiveness that makes Dongwoo so arresting. Woohyun’s a good-looking guy, but his photogenicity varies widely from day to day, and Sunggyu looks like a hamster in half the photographs taken of him. Howon knows he himself isn’t as arresting as Sungjong or Sungyeol, but he thinks he at least rates as high as Woohyun on the desirability of potential-photograph-subjects list (and if he’s honest, he thinks he should be right below the model Lee brothers). He hasn’t allowed himself to feel hurt that Myungsoo hasn’t taken many pictures of him—and the ones he has are candids with others in them—but he could have felt it, easily.

 

So maybe he shouldn’t feel a strange, relieved giddiness at catching Myungsoo taking his picture, but he can’t deny that he does, though he decides to hide it. “Have you been taking pictures of me all along?” he demands. Myungsoo doesn’t answer, just gives him a suspiciously guileless look he must have learned from Sungjong. “You little sneak!”

 

Myungsoo turns the studiously innocent expression back towards his camera, his hands shifting it, and Howon is sure now, sure like Myungsoo had just come out and told him, that Myungsoo has been sneaking pictures of him for some time now. It takes a lot for him to smother his grin. “I didn’t agree to this! Don’t I have to sign some sort of release or something?”

 

Myungsoo snorts, his mouth contorting strangely, clearly trying to hold back a smile of his own. Howon must be doing a bad job at pretending to be angry.

 

“Why can’t you at least take it when I’m not in my pajamas?” The ratty old tank he’s wearing is not the most flattering thing Howon owns, though he doesn’t hate the way it shows off his muscles and how Myungsoo stares at his arms whenever he’s wearing it. “And I’m wearing my glasses!”

 

“I like you in glasses!” Myungsoo shoots back suddenly. “And you’re living in my house not paying rent. I’ll take pictures of you if I want.”

 

“Why you little—” Howon sets his laptop down on the floor and telegraphs his movement; Myungsoo must understand because he hurriedly sets his camera on the bedside table, pulling his hands back just as Howon reaches for him.

 

The roughhousing/tickle fight that ensues is almost like the ones Howon used to have with his brothers—well, the ones they had when they weren’t honestly trying to beat the shit out of each other—only there’s a frisson of something that’s decidedly unfraternal about it now. Howon tries really hard not to take advantage of the unexpected touching to cop a feel, but he can’t miss how solid Myungsoo’s body is, how smooth the skin of his arms feels under Howon’s palms, and the way he shrieks and laughs through gasps and the twitching of his body to try to escape Howon’s fingers has overtones that captivate Howon more than they should. Myungsoo launches his own attack, and for a minute they’re a mess of limbs tangled together and laughing in panted breaths, Myungsoo’s laughter almost shouts, Howon’s own chuckles rumbling through his chest, fingers seeking out sides and hands grasping for the bottoms of feet, and then, suddenly, Howon finds that he’s pinned Myungsoo to the bed by one shoulder, and Myungsoo is staring up at Howon as he hovers over him, laughter falling off of Myungsoo’s face.

 

The laughter dissipates in Howon’s chest, too, and he’s sure his eyes, riveted on Myungsoo’s, are going as dark as Myungsoo’s are. Where Myungsoo had been twisting and wriggling just seconds before, he’s now so still that it’s hard to believe he’s ever moved in his life, and Howon finds that he’s grasping Myungsoo’s shoulder so tight it must be hurting. He makes the effort to loosen his grip, so aware now of the loudness of his own breathing—faster and raspier than usual because of the recent exertion and because Myungsoo is looking at him in a way he can’t possibly talk himself into reading as anything other than waiting.

 

Howon lowers his head slowly, still trying, even now, to give Myungsoo time to move away if he wants to, but when he feels the brush of Myungsoo’s breath against his lips, Howon lets out a groan and closes the distance between them.

 

Even as his eyes want to roll back in his head at how good Myungsoo’s lips feel under his, there’s a distant voice in Howon’s head reminding him that this is Myungsoo’s first kiss. It seems absurd for that to be the case—the sex they’d had in the art room hadn’t felt at all like a first time in anything but the revelation that comes only from something newly discovered—but this is Myungsoo, and so Howon doesn’t unleash the desperation he feels: he’s been wanting Myungsoo for so long, with such intensity, that it would be all too easy to ravish him now, and he can’t let that happen.

 

It’s too much to ask for him to be soft, gentle, though, so Howon doesn’t try, and Myungsoo’s lips, though inexpert under his, are anything but hesitant: just as eager as Howon’s own, pressing closer, seeking more. It’s so Myungsoo—innocent in experience, but so, so eager, so enthusiastic, so intense—that Howon can’t help but fist his hand in the fabric of Myungsoo’s shirt sleeve in a desperate attempt to keep some sort of control. He almost loses it completely when Myungsoo makes a small, helpless sound in the back of his throat. Fuck. Myungsoo.

 

It’s dizzying, warming as alcohol, but without the bite of soju—like wine, maybe. Myungsoo’s scent, Howon’s favorite smell since the day they mated, is even more vivid than it usually is, and the part of his chest pressed up against Myungsoo’s feels like it’s going to overheat at any moment.

 

When their lips part, Howon uses his first breath to sigh out, “Myungsoo,” but Myungsoo makes a little hungry sound that Howon feels in his dick, and he tilts his head back up to capture Howon’s lips again, his hand clutching the low neckline of Howon’s tank.

 

Dizzily, the thought comes to Howon that now that they’ve started this, Myungsoo is going to want to explore it completely: that’s just who he is. And so when they part for breath again, Howon quickly shifts himself so that he’s lying alongside Myungsoo instead of leaning over him, and Myungsoo makes an approving sound as he pulls Howon back to his mouth.

 

Howon couldn’t possibly say how long they spend like that, exploring each other’s mouths, Myungsoo making unreasonably appealing noises each time Howon does something he likes, Myungsoo imitating each new thing Howon does as though repeating a lesson to learn it well. It occurs to Howon that he’s teaching Myungsoo to kiss, but it’s as satisfying as any kissing he’s ever done in his life—more so, maybe, though he can’t think about that now. Myungsoo clearly doesn’t know what to do, but he’s a fast, intent learner, and Howon isn’t surprised that the curve of those lips and that heart-shaped tongue he’s been fantasizing about for months now are every bit as amazing as he always thought they would be.

 

Howon has hardened in his pants, and he’s sure Myungsoo has too: after two months of unspoken commitment to keeping their touching as platonic as possible, even this level of sexual contact is overwhelming. But this is just the first step, and even if Howon didn’t know that, he’d be able to feel from the kind of kissing they’re doing that this is making out—kissing for its own sake, its own pleasure, not as a prelude to something else. He hasn’t done that in a while, and it’s more satisfying than he remembers it being.

 

Howon thinks he could stay here for the rest of his life, kissing Myungsoo, listening to him and smelling him and feeling him and tasting him, relishing these long, slow, deep kisses, but after a while he hears the sound of Myungsoo’s parents’ door down the hall and he knows they must be heading to bed. He reluctantly pulls back, finding that his hand has been cradling Myungsoo’s jaw, and at the sight of Myungsoo’s swollen lips and blown-out pupils, Howon has to press his hips against the bed.

 

“You should go to bed,” Howon manages to rasp, and his lips feel strange now that Myungsoo’s aren’t against them. He rubs his thumb against Myungsoo’s jawline.

 

“I’m on a bed,” Myungsoo answers, voice husky, and Howon honestly can’t tell if Myungsoo knows how teasing that sounds. He could be innocent enough that he doesn’t, but Myungsoo is sometimes audacious in ways that surprise Howon.

 

“I want you to—” Clearing his throat doesn’t help much. “Any time—you can—any night—but not tonight, I don’t think—” Howon can’t quite get the words out, can’t bring himself to say that he needs Myungsoo to leave so he can jerk off, that he would never be able to just cuddle Myungsoo tonight if they shared a bed, not after what they’ve just shared. He’s been hoping since he moved in that Myungsoo would share the bed with him at least now and then, but tonight—tonight he wouldn’t be able to handle it.

 

A slow, light pink rises in Myungsoo’s cheeks, but he doesn’t break Howon’s gaze. “Okay,” he says. And then he raises his head to take one last kiss, and when he reluctantly pulls back, he picks up Howon’s gaze just as he’d left it.

 

“Goodnight.”

 

Having Myungsoo pull away from him and climb out of the bed is excruciating, but Myungsoo’s eyes steady on his hold Howon. “Goodnight, Myungsoo.” His voice sounds throaty and unfamiliar to his own ears.

 

Myungsoo holds eye contact for so long that Howon thinks he’ll back up all the way to the door, but he eventually does turn towards it, flipping off the light switch as he opens it and glancing back at Howon just once before he disappears into the darkness of the hall.

 

Howon twists himself stiffly till he’s lying on his back and then drops his head back against the pillow and lets out a groan.

 

 

 

“What the fuck, Myungsoo?”

 

Sungyeol looks as worried as he does amused as he closes the door to the empty classroom behind them and rounds on Myungsoo. Myungsoo notes with distant amusement that it’s the one he and Howon had talked in the Monday after their mating.

 

“What’s wrong?” he asks Sungyeol, not all that concerned about the answer. If something was really wrong, Sungyeol wouldn’t have been able to hold it in the whole way to school.

 

“What’s wrong?” Sungyeol is so dramatic. It’s endearing. “You, like, floated to school on a fucking cloud! You didn’t say anything and it was like your eyes were totally empty—like you were somewhere else—and Howon kept sneaking looks at you like he wasn’t allowed to look at you fully and—did you two finally bang?”

 

Myungsoo snorts, but it’s a distracted sound. Silly Sungyeol. “Of course we didn’t.”

 

“Then what the fuck is wrong with you two?”

 

“We kissed.”

 

It sounds so simple, so small, and Sungyeol’s face is incredulous with the anticlimax. “That’s all? And you’re acting like this?”

 

Myungsoo rummages around in his head for better words to describe what had happened the night before. He hasn’t had to use words till now; this morning, his and Howon’s eyes kept meeting, but neither of them said anything about it, not with Moonsoo bursting into the bathroom and Umma sitting across the table. And then they’d met Sungyeol and then Sungjong on the way to school and though Sungyeol kept throwing them looks through the whole walk—Sungjong, on the other hand, looked smugly like he knew exactly what had happened, though how could he?—they hadn’t talked about it then.

 

But Myungsoo has been thinking of nothing else, waking up on his own and all at once, staring at the ceiling till it was time to get out of bed and reliving over and over again how it had felt—and wondering impatiently when he would get to do it again.

 

“We made out.” That sounds better, a little, more substantial, but still juvenile and not nearly as significant as the experience actually was. Maybe it was just making out, technically. Twenty or thirty minutes—at least—of Myungsoo learning how to kiss and showing Howon just what a good student he could be, maybe it all boils down to making out. Even if it doesn’t at all.

 

Sungyeol looks at least slightly mollified. “Oh.” Then a wicked glint appears in his eyes. “Finally.” He lowers his voice and raises his eyebrows, though there’s no one in this classroom but them. “And?”

 

Sungyeol is so dramatic. But Myungsoo can’t keep the smile from spreading across his face. “It was really fucking good.”

 

That doesn’t even begin to describe it, but then nothing could, and it makes Sungyeol’s face break out into a grin, so it’s good enough for now. “Finally!” Sungyeol crows again, and then he slaps Myungsoo’s back. “Lucky bastard. I’d do anything to be making out again. It’s been so long.” The face he makes is melodramatically pained, and Myungsoo can’t help the half-snort, half-laugh he lets out.

 

“So ask Minyoung out and maybe if you feed her enough she’ll get, like, food-drunk and forget you’re a loser and actually kiss you.”

 

The jumbled mess of indignant and denying and careless that is Sungyeol’s expression is quite a feat. Myungsoo doesn’t think anyone else could manage it. “Shut up, dumbass, unless you want me to go tell Woohyun what you just told me. I’ll make sure Kibum is standing right there.”

 

Myungsoo shoots back something else about Minyoung, but he’s already checked out again, barely hearing Sungyeol repeated mutter of “finally” as they head to class.

 

And okay, so he floats on a fucking cloud through the whole day, not paying attention to any of his classes, though he’s usually a conscientious student. But how can he be expected to concentrate on school when there’s kissing in the world? He’d known it would be good, but he had no idea that—the rush he gets from it is like the one he gets from hugs, only more so, and even though he knows he was right to wait—well, maybe not quite as long as he did, but at least till they knew each other better—he wishes now he could have been spending the whole time since the mating making out with Howon.

 

The feeling that had surged up inside him when Howon froze above him and then started to lower his head was very much the emotional equivalent of Sungyeol’s finally. He was sure he’d been ready for a couple of weeks now—since the day Howon’s mom’s call had interrupted them, definitely since the night of dinner with Howon’s parents when Myungsoo had realized how important Howon was to him and how badly he needed to be sure that Howon was safe—but he knew that moving out and settling in with the Kims was a big deal for Howon, and Myungsoo didn’t want that to get overshadowed by their relationship. Not that he thinks Howon would have been reluctant, but Myungsoo is a big fan of enjoying each thing as it comes, not letting one event overtake another.

 

And he’s sort of glad, because that meant that last night was all about the two of them, not about a reaction to Howon’s dad at all or comfort for Howon’s unexpected break from his family. It hadn’t even been about the sex that (Myungsoo is sure now) they’ll eventually have or really about the bond at all. It was about nothing more than their intense desire to kiss each other, their (mutual, Myungsoo hopes—Myungsoo thinks) desire to get closer, to take the next step to the couple they’ll be. And everything about it had been worth the wait.

 

He’s surprised that when he left Howon’s room to go back to his own—to jerk off, sure, but mostly to dreamily think of Howon till he finally fell asleep—that he didn’t immediately start feeling insecure, worrying about his own lack of experience in comparison to Howon’s—and in comparison to whoever Howon has kissed before. But something about the way Howon had touched him, the way he’d fisted Myungsoo’s shirt in his hand and held his body so tense against Myungsoo’s at first, the way he’d eventually relaxed and his hand had slid up to cup Myungsoo’s cheek, the way he sometimes breathed out Myungsoo’s name during the brief intervals when their lips were parted, the way his eyes had been dark but shining when they finally separated—all of it made Myungsoo sure that Howon had enjoyed it just as much as he himself had. Somehow, he just knows.

 

Maybe that’s why, as soon as the bell rings and he throws his things into his locker and hurries down the hall to the old gym, he doesn’t even pause in the doorway when he sees Howon setting down his book bag. Maybe he should hold back—they haven’t talked about this yet, haven’t said one word about what happened the night before—but he can’t, and besides, what is there to talk about? They both clearly wanted it, and they’re bound for the rest of their lives. What could there possibly be to discuss?

 

So Myungsoo rushes across the room, and Howon’s arms close around his waist like he was waiting for him, and then there are Howon’s lips again and—fuck, kissing is amazing, the best thing in the world. Myungsoo thinks he’s addicted to it already, to the taste and feel of Howon’s mouth and lips, to the hardness of Howon’s body against his, to Howon’s hand dragging up his back and Howon’s fingers pushing into his hair.

 

You can do this every single day of your life if you want. The thought floats up into Myungsoo’s consciousness like a bubble rising, and Myungsoo could almost cry at how happy it makes him. Fuck, being mated is the best thing in the world.

 

They don’t separate even as Myungsoo shrugs out of his backpack, their lips still connected as they help each other struggle out of their uniform jackets. They stumble over to the mats and probably more trip and fall down on them than settle themselves, and the jar of it makes Howon bite down on Myungsoo’s lip perhaps harder than he should have, but it doesn’t matter when their legs are tangled together and they’re kissing like this. Nothing else matters.

 

“Fuck,” Howon breathes however long later when they finally pull back for more than a quick breath. His hair has been rumpled by Myungsoo’s fingers—it’s not silky like Sungjong’s or Sungyeol’s, but Myungsoo loves the thickness of it—and his mouth looks even better than it did before.

 

Myungsoo can’t think of a thing to say. ‘Thank you’ flits through his mind, because one of the emotions snaking through him has to be gratitude. But that’s stupid—it’s not like Howon is doing him a favor. Either way, Howon takes a breath and speaks again, and the way it burns through Myungsoo—a good burn, the best burn—would render Myungsoo speechless anyway.

 

“I’ve been thinking about that all day,” Howon says, and it feels almost as good as the kissing, knowing that Howon had been thinking about it too, wanting it, that they’re the same in this. “You learn really fast.”

 

Proud pleasure zings through Myungsoo, igniting a grin on his face. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Howon confirms. He reaches over and brushes the fringe back from Myungsoo’s forehead. Myungsoo’s grin widens at the gesture.

 

“It’s because I have a teacher as good as you.”

 

Howon’s smile shows his canines; he clearly remembers their dance discussion a week or so ago. “Just think how well you could dance if you learn from me.”

 

“I want to learn more about kissing,” Myungsoo says instead, tugging Howon down by the collar again and starting up another round.

 

It takes them a long time to separate enough to actually do their homework. Howon doesn’t say anything about changing for dance practice, so Myungsoo doesn’t bring it up either, trying to concentrate on his English workbook as he sits back to back with Howon. He’s pretty sure all his attempts are half-hearted and his teachers will be unimpressed, but he just can’t bring himself to care enough, and when they finally slap their books closed and shove them in their backpacks to head for home, Myungsoo promptly forgets all about them.

 

“I’ve wanted to ask you,” Howon says, arm around Myungsoo’s shoulder as they head out of the school, voice a bit hesitant—or as hesitant as Howon’s voice can be.

 

“About what?” Myungsoo is kind of punch drunk off of closeness; he drops his nose to the collar of Howon’s shirt to smell him.

 

“About that night—about what my dad said.”

 

Oh. So that’s the reason for the hesitance. Myungsoo doesn’t want to think of Mr. Lee ever again for the rest of his life, but he knows that’s unreasonable. If Howon is talking about it, Howon needs to talk about it. “I don’t care about anything he said,” he assures him, and it’s true. Nothing Mr. Lee had said had changed anything at all, except to make Myungsoo hate him more and vow to never let Howon be under his power again.

 

“That’s just it.” Howon sounds almost frustrated now, though clearly not with Myungsoo. “He talked about you like you weren’t even there—or like you were a child, or a piece of meat or—” Howon breaks off, shoves his free hand through his hair, starts again. “Doesn’t that bother you?”

 

Myungsoo falls into silence, considering this. He knows what he feels, but it’s hard for him to articulate it sometimes. Writing it would be easier. “That would hurt,” he allows slowly, mind ticking through thoughts like a machine. “If somebody else talked about me like that, it would hurt. But I was so angry.”

 

Howon’s arm tightens around him. “But after? When you weren’t angry anymore?”

 

Myungsoo bites his lip, looking down at their feet walking in unison. “It still doesn’t hurt. Because it’s him.”

 

Howon laughs a little laugh, incredulous or something like it. “Myungsoo, that doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“Yes, it does,” Myungsoo insists. “I thought about all the things he said about you, that night and the things you’d told me before and—anyone who could say things like that about you doesn’t really see anything. He sees only what he wants to see, and it isn’t anything like reality. So why should I care about what he says about me?”

 

Howon is quiet for a long moment, and Myungsoo can almost feel him thinking. Then his hand releases Myungsoo’s shoulder and sneaks up into his hair, ruffling it. “You’re something else, Kim Myungsoo,” he says, and the words are simple and don’t really mean much on the surface, but they make Myungsoo go warm all over as Howon’s hand falls back to his shoulder. He’s grinning to himself as they continue walking, reveling in the feeling of Howon right up against him.

 

“I’ve been thinking,” Howon says after a while. “About that flier you gave me.”

 

A month ago, Myungsoo would have tensed up at those words. Maybe even a week ago. But now all he says is, “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.” Howon’s voice sounds thoughtful, but not nervous or even conflicted. “I want to do it. There’s probably no chance anything will come of it, and even if it did, I don’t know what it’d mean for us, but you’re right—it can’t hurt to do it, and I’ll see what an audition is like, and hopefully figure out some things I need to work on.”

 

Myungsoo agrees. He’s been thinking about it, too, and he wants Howon to at least try. “I think you should.”

 

“You’re not going to be stressed about what’ll happen if they…?”

 

Howon trails off, but Myungsoo shakes his head. “We’ll worry about that if it happens. We should just not think about it now.”

 

The grin Howon gives him makes it clear that he’s good with that plan. “So I’ll go to Seoul, a month from now.”

 

Myungsoo snorts. “We’ll go to Seoul a month from now.”

 

Howon’s grin is the best thing in the world. Except for probably kissing. “Right. We.”

 

Okay, so kissing is the best thing in the world, and Howon’s grin is second best, but that word—‘we’—has to be at least third place.

Chapter Text

Howon really intended to immediately start focusing on preparing for the Woollim audition, but it’s proving more difficult than he’d expected. He’s never in his life had a problem with something distracting him from his dancing; it’s always been the most important thing in his world and everything else was checked at the door when he got ready to dance. But now, suddenly, there’s Myungsoo, and he’s always there, and he’s always staring at Howon with these eyes that say he wants to be kissed, and for the first time, Howon has found something that he wants just as much as he wants to dance.

 

He does get some work done, practicing in the gym in the afternoons, but it’s far too easy to glance over at Myungsoo and see the seam of his lips or his tongue darting out to lick at them and to be overcome with the need to be kissing him right then and then nothing else gets done for the rest of the afternoon. How can it, when Myungsoo’s collarbones need to be traced by Howon’s tongue, his neck marked by Howon’s mouth, his Adam’s apple nipped at by Howon’s teeth? Howon feels like he’s mapping out every inch of Myungsoo from the shoulders up with his mouth and every inch of his torso and arms with his hands. Myungsoo returns the favor, hands sliding up Howon’s back and fingers biting into his biceps, sucking on the sensitive spot just below Howon’s ear, mouth lingering all over Howon’s jawline. It’s a new way of getting to know each other, and it’s fucking amazing. Howon is quite sure they spend more time making out on the mats in the corner of the gym than he does practicing. And yet Howon doesn’t resent Myungsoo for that at all.

 

He’d resented his first girlfriend. He hates that about himself, but he had. He hadn’t been nearly as distracted by her as he is by Myungsoo, but the distraction had been enough that when it cut into his dance time, he’d felt that resentment growing. Maybe it hadn’t been directed at her, exactly—she was nice and funny and pretty and there was really nothing to dislike about her at all, which was why Howon had asked her out in the first place—but he’d undeniably felt it towards their relationship, and she hadn’t been surprised when he broke up with her after only a few months. ‘I don’t think you were ready to be a boyfriend,’ she’d said, and her eyes were red even as she smiled, and he felt terrible knowing she’d go home and cry, but he didn’t regret his decision. ‘You care about dancing so much that there’s no room for anything else.’ Her smile had taken on a wry quirk. ‘At least you didn’t hurt my pride. It would have killed me if it’d been some other girl. But who can hate your dream?’

 

Howon had wondered—only now and then; he definitely didn’t dwell on it—whether he would ever be ‘ready to be a boyfriend.’ He wasn’t the kind to want a relationship for its own sake; if he was going to be with someone it would be because he wanted to be with that person. And yet he couldn’t imagine anyone he wouldn’t resent for distracting him from his dancing.

 

Hyorin had seemed like the solution to all his problems. She was a good friend, someone he was always happy to spend time with, and the sex was great, but she was also perfectly aware that she was always in second place—third, really, behind Sungjong and Howon’s other friends. Most important of all, she was fine with that position: she didn’t cling or try to push him for more than he was willing to give. At first he’d been nervous that she would start asking for more, that she’d thought he would eventually give in if she lulled him into comfortableness and then wore him down. But it turned out that Hyorin simply wanted exactly what he did: good sex with a good friend and no pressure. They hadn’t discussed the boundaries of their relationship after the beginning except one time when Howon brought it up. ‘I’m not ready for commitment,’ she’d shrugged. ‘There’s school and getting ready for university and my friends and figuring out what I want for my future. That’s plenty without adding a real relationship on top of it. I’m sure I’ll want that sometime. But for now, this is good.’

 

And it had been. Nothing but good. Howon had entertained the idea that that was how his entire romantic life would go: finding someone who was on the same page as him and having fun together, and then when it ended, parting amicably and moving on to another person. It wasn’t that he was opposed to the idea of commitment or even of getting married and having kids. That could be pretty great. But he never wanted those things as much as he wanted to become a dancer, and the two didn’t seem compatible to him.

 

So why isn’t he worried about reconciling them now?

 

Myungsoo is, absolutely, distracting him. And not just with their physical attraction, but with how much Howon just wants to share everything with him. They end up spending more time than he can afford going around the city so Myungsoo can take pictures; Myungsoo protests again and again that he doesn’t need Howon to do that, that he can go on hiatus with his photography for a month until after the audition or at the very least that he can go out and shoot while Howon is practicing. But Howon is determined that Myungsoo will never think that his career goals are less important to Howon than Howon’s own, and, besides, he just really loves watching Myungsoo take pictures. Myungsoo has stopped feeling self-conscious when he knows Howon is watching him, and so Howon trails after him, watching with a smile as Myungsoo’s face goes calm and his eyes calculating—but still warm, somehow; Myungsoo is not a cold person. Myungsoo looks transcendent during those moments, and Howon can’t get enough of watching him.

 

And he also wants Myungsoo around when he’s dancing. He’d insisted that Myungsoo not go off on his own to take pictures but come to the gym whenever he’s there. ‘I’m better when you’re there,’ Howon had said, and Myungsoo’s eyes had gone dark (and of course there was kissing). It isn’t just psychological, how Myungsoo’s presence improves his performance. He knows he’s better. He couldn’t explain why—something to do with the bond, of course—but he doesn’t question it. He just makes sure Myungsoo is always there.

 

Which is part of the problem, of course. Myungsoo being there means that Myungsoo is there to be kissed, and no matter how determined Howon is, sometimes that fact ends up being too much for him. It’s not that he doesn’t get lots of practicing in. It’s just that he breaks it off more often than he should to go and press his mate up against a wall. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll develop more self-control any time soon. And self-control is the one thing Howon has always had in abundance. This is where the resentment should come in, but it doesn’t, only a sense of annoyance with himself.

 

When a solution finally occurs to him, he can’t believe it took him so long. He catches Dongwoo in the hallway between classes.

 

“Hyung, are you really busy right now?”

 

“I’m going to class, Hoya,” Dongwoo answers with a grin. “But I can walk and talk at the same time.”

 

“You can walk and talk and dance and sing at the same time, but that isn’t what I was talking about. I mean in the afternoons.”

 

Dongwoo looks intrigued. “I’ve got homework and everything. Studying—graduation’s in a month. But I could make time for you. What’s up?”

 

Howon’s already told his friends about the audition; Dongwoo had been the most visibly enthusiastic, and for the millionth time Howon had had the ridiculous thought that Dongwoo really ought to have a tail to wag when he gets that excited. Sungyeol and Woohyun had been very encouraging, and though Sungjong hadn’t said much other than, ‘That’s a great idea, hyung. I know you’ll do well,’ Howon knew him well enough to know how approving and proud he was. Everyone seems to be behind him in this, and after all those years of strain with his family over his dream, it feels really good, having people on his side.

 

“Would you mind coming by the gym some afternoons and helping me practice? I could use your eyes. Any advice, really.”

 

Dongwoo, of course, agrees without hesitation, and after school that day he starts showing up to the gym almost every afternoon. Myungsoo looks surprised to see someone enter the room that had been exclusively theirs, but he tells Howon the first night as they head home that he thinks it’s a really good idea.

 

“Dongwoo-hyung knows a lot. And he’s a really good dancer.” The curve of his mouth when he smiles that way is really tempting. Howon just manages to keep from kissing it. “And his being there will help you stay...focused.”

 

That’s how Howon discovers that Myungsoo is aware of how distracting he is. Howon sometimes still falls into the mistake of believing that Myungsoo is oblivious to most of the world around him, but he knows that’s not true; Myungsoo definitely does zone out, and some things go over his head, but he’s also more emotionally intuitive than he’s given credit for.

 

“I know I should feel bad about distracting you,” Myungsoo says, ducking his head a bit. It’s a shyer gesture than he usually makes around Howon now, and Howon has sort of missed it. Not the awkwardness—he’s nothing but glad that Myungsoo is comfortable with him now. But shy Myungsoo is awfully cute. “I should apologize or something.” He glances up at Howon through his eyelashes, and again Howon wonders if that sort of thing is a conscious gesture or if Myungsoo does it without knowing how appealing it makes him look. “But I really don’t want to.”

 

Thankfully, no one is around, so there’s no one to see Howon push Myungsoo up against a tree and kiss him senseless.

 

His tactic works, and making out breaks definitely drop in number after Dongwoo starts helping him practice. Myungsoo still sits against the wall doing his own thing, and his presence still energizes Howon more than he’d thought possible, but now when he glances over at Myungsoo, it’s so much easier to control himself, knowing Dongwoo is in the room. It’s not like they’re going to make out in front of anyone. Howon knows Myungsoo wouldn’t mind—Myungsoo doesn’t seem to have a concept, at least internally, of inappropriateness regarding public displays of affection—but Howon certainly would. Dongwoo’s presence steadies him.

 

And Dongwoo is also really helpful in other ways. Howon knows people who don’t know him well might have a hard time believing it, but Dongwoo is so mature when he’s serious, and he’s seriously committed himself to helping Howon improve. He watches Howon closely, isn’t afraid to criticize or correct. Howon feels Myungsoo stiffen a few times at some of Dongwoo’s comments, but they don’t faze Howon at all: he thrives on constructive criticism, and he’s never hurt by anything Dongwoo says. They have a couple of disagreements, but most of the time he knows exactly what Dongwoo is saying—and that he’s right.

 

Howon is entirely self-taught, other than sporadic advice from other local dancers, but Dongwoo has both taken and taught lessons for years, and having a real instructor for the first time is something Howon relishes. He would have liked to have had one all along, but of course his dad was never going to be willing to spend the money on something frivolous like that and if he’d taken on a part-time job to raise the money on his own, he’d never have had time for the lessons. So this is the first time he’s had access to this level of feedback, and his talent is flourishing.

 

“Your instincts are really good,” Dongwoo says one day, watching Howon move through a pop-and-lock sequence. “Usually with kids who teach themselves, there’s stuff they taught themselves wrong, and they have to unlearn those things before they can learn them right. But you figured out almost everything right all on your own.”

 

It’s extremely high praise, though it probably wouldn’t sound like it to outsiders. But it doesn’t make Howon feel proud or flattered, just more focused. Praise can be a distraction, too, and although he likes it, he prefers criticism that helps him improve. And he’s definitely improving. Dongwoo’s technique is very different than his own, but integrating some aspects of it gives Howon’s moves some spice that adds a depth to his style.

 

He wouldn’t have thought that Myungsoo would notice that, too, not with how ignorant he’s always seemed about dancing, but Howon should have learned by now not to underestimate his mate.

 

“Dongwoo-hyung dances really different than you,” Myungsoo says one night as they lie on Howon’s bed. “Like it’s more...fluid.” Howon has to agree; Dongwoo’s flow is uniquely his own, and Howon admires it fiercely. “Yours is like...power. But controlled.” When Myungsoo realizes he’s been thinking aloud, he looks a little sheepish, like he isn’t sure if he should have said that. “Does that make sense?”

 

Howon slips his thumb under the hem of Myungsoo’s shirt and rubs it over Myungsoo’s hipbone, making Myungsoo arch a little against his side. “It makes perfect sense. You’re dead on.”

 

Myungsoo looks very pleased at this and, obviously encouraged, he continues. “I like them both, your styles. Dongwoo-hyung looks like he’s one with the music. But you look like you’re reacting to it. Or using it. I don’t know. Like it’s your partner instead of an extension of you.”

 

Myungsoo can be surprisingly eloquent at times, but mostly when he’s writing—Howon has looked over a few of his essays for typos and been really impressed with Myungsoo’s way of using words. But it’s rarer for him to articulate things like that verbally, and Howon finds it really sexy. “You’re hot when you talk about dancing,” he says, voice sly, eyeing Myungsoo.

 

Myungsoo shifts a little, flushing, but meets Howon’s eyes. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

And so of course Howon has to roll over on top of him and kiss him until it’s time to go to bed.

 

Howon had hoped they’d start sharing a bed a few nights a week—which is weird, because Howon has never had the slightest desire to share a bed with anyone, but that’s the bond for you—but Myungsoo always head back to his own room because they always end up making out before they go to bed, and it gets them too worked up to be that close to each other. Howon is more than ready to start having sex—or at least to slip his hand down inside Myungsoo’s sweats and touch him through his underwear—but he knows Myungsoo has always associated sex with being in love. He really needs to ask Myungsoo how he defines ‘sex’—some people only count penetration, but oral counts just as much to Howon. He needs to figure it out so they can go as far as Myungsoo is comfortable with. Howon can admit to himself that he’ll take anything Myungsoo is willing to give him.

 

 

 

 

“Hey. You should show me how you develop your pictures. It sounds cool.”

 

Myungsoo eyes his mate sidelong as he shoves some of his books into his locker. “I don’t really know that you’d find it cool.”

 

“Why not?” Howon is really handsome when he smiles like that, especially when he’s leaning against the locker beside Myungsoo’s, arms crossed and forearms bared where he’s rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “You take plain white paper and dunk it in some chemicals and a picture appears. It’s like those invisible ink things little kids do. How is that not cool?”

 

Myungsoo laughs. “It’s not really plain white paper.”

 

“But it looks like it is.”

 

Myungsoo pulls out the books he’ll need for his homework and pauses to decide if he wants to lug his chemistry notebook home. Will he really need those notes? “Okay, after your audition, I’ll show you sometime.” Eh, he’ll leave the notebook. His back will thank him.

 

“But after my audition school will be out on break. We could sneak in, but the art room will be locked and you’ll have turned your key in already. Show me today.”

 

Myungsoo turns to stare at his mate. “Today?”

 

Howon shrugs easily. “Why not?”

 

“But you need to practice.”

 

“I’ve been practicing every day for three weeks. Even on the weekends. It’ll be good for me to take a day off. Come on.” Howon pushes Myungsoo’s locker closed and grabs his hand, leading him down the hall. Myungsoo shakes his head; he’d never have guessed that Howon was impulsive, but he seems to get ideas in his head sometimes of ways to spoil Myungsoo and Myungsoo has found it’s better just to go with it. Well, truthfully, Myungsoo’s never been opposed at all to being spoiled. In some ways, it feels like he’s been waiting his whole life for someone to spoil him. Besides, it’s been a long time since he’d developed any of his own pictures, and he’s missed it. And he does personally find it really cool.

 

He hasn’t minded at all, though, spending every afternoon in the gym. He can watch Howon for longer lengths now without getting painfully turned on the way he did at the beginning—that’s the bond settling, Dongwoo had said. ‘Soon enough you won’t get turned on at all.’ Then his face broke out into a grin and he laughed at himself. ‘Or you’ll only get as turned on as you would anyway without the bond.’

 

Howon had laughed and shaken his head at that, but Myungsoo’s pretty sure he’ll always get at least a little hot watching Howon dance, even though it’s nice to be able to do more of it now without immediately having to rush to the bathroom. Howon’s dancing is sexy and impressive at the same time—powerful, like he’d told Howon, but that power completely under control and all the more intense for it, the discipline only heightening the precision of each move. His style is so much sharper than Dongwoo’s, and though Dongwoo’s is amazing, Myungsoo’s prefers Howon’s. He seems to remember that before the mating, when he didn’t really know Howon and had only seen him and Dongwoo dancing a few times in the quad at lunchtime, that he’d liked Dongwoo’s better, but that time seems very far away.

 

Dongwoo’s been a really big help to Howon, too, coming almost every single afternoon to help him practice. Myungsoo has to admit he had pouted a little at the intrusion of an outsider into his and Howon’s private world, but there was no real annoyance. Dongwoo is an excellent dancer, good enough that he teaches others, and Howon trusts his skills and taste more than anyone. Even Myungsoo’s ignorant eyes can see that Howon is getting better with Dongwoo’s help.

 

Myungsoo’s excitement about the audition is growing with each day, too. His stomach does sometimes lurch when the question of what could happen if the company wants to take Howon on as a trainee, but he’s grown skilled at shelving that worry, and mostly he’s just beginning to get anxiously excited about Howon showing how good he can be to other people—to professionals. Myungsoo has no idea if Howon is good enough to be a trainee—though when he watches idols on TV now, he pays attention to their dancing, and he doesn’t see any of them doing things that Howon couldn’t do—but he knows without a doubt that Howon is good enough that he won’t be embarrassed by his performance. Even if they don’t want to sign him, they’ll have to tell him he’s good. Myungsoo is certain of that much.

 

Howon really shouldn’t take a day off, not now that the audition is just a little over a week away, but Myungsoo knows that it’s important to Howon to show that he prioritizes Myungsoo’s dreams, too, and arguing about it would be a waste of time, so Myungsoo decides to indulge him just this once. But after this: practice every day. No days off. Myungsoo will make sure of it.

 

The art teacher is leaving when they reach the room, and she greets Myungsoo cheerfully and invites him to bring by some of his latest pictures one day during lunch so she can look at them. Howon grins at her even more widely than Myungsoo does himself, and Myungsoo rolls his eyes at his mate as scans the room, flushing at the memories being reignited now that he and Howon are back in this place where it all started. But he tries not to think about that, pulling Howon over to the dark room, hearing the teacher close the door behind her as she leaves.

 

“Your eyes have to get used to the dark,” Myungsoo says, switching on the safelight. He grabs some film out of his bag—he usually does digital now, but he does still use actual film occasionally, just for the fun of it of its unique challenges. He beckons Howon to follow him into the small room, and Howon closes the door behind him.

 

“I want a pair of infrared glasses like in movies,” Howon says as they wait till their eyes adjust.

 

“Wait till our military service. Then you can ask for them.”

 

Howon groans at the idea. “I am so not looking forward to that,” he says as Myungsoo reaches for some developing paper and pulls several sheets out of the envelope. “But at least they’ll let us stay together.”

 

Myungsoo swiftly cuts the paper into smaller pieces on the cutting board; by now he can make them just the right size without really paying attention. “I feel bad for Yeol and Jjongie and everybody who’ll be alone. I wonder if they’ll let Dongwoo-hyung have Yejin-noona stay with him or if they’ll let him give him a waiver and not make him serve at all.”

 

“Depends on how many mated couples they need to house, I guess,” Howon answers, moving closer as Myungsoo pulls the film out of its canister.

 

“If he doesn’t have to go, I’m going to be so jealous.” Myungsoo holds up a length of the film to the light, eyeing it to remind himself of what roll this is. Oh, yeah—the ones of the kids in the park the first day he and Howon had gone to take pictures together. It feels like a long time ago now, though it’s only been about a month.

 

“Somebody should do a study on how many guys mate just to get out of military service and how many of them have it come back to bite them in the ass—which do you think is worse, the ones who do it and end up having to serve anyway or the ones who do it and end up stuck with someone they can’t stand?”

 

Myungsoo turns to give him a look. “Is that really a question?”

 

Howon laughs. “Not really.”

 

“Okay, come here.”

 

Howon moves behind Myungsoo so that he can see over his shoulder as Myungsoo puts the developing paper on the enlarger’s easel and straps the film into the film carrier, sizing the image appropriately with the elevation knob and then focusing it for clarity. He can do it all without really reading the measurements anymore, knowing instinctively how to adjust the machine to get the size and sharpness he wants, and it’s a good thing because Howon is very warm against his back.

 

“Watch your eyes, I’m turning on the light now,” Myungsoo warns, and he feels Howon wince as he flips on the light that exposes the film on the paper. He mentally calculates how long he needs to leave it on to achieve the exposure he wants, flipping it back off again and blinking his eyes.

 

“Okay, chemicals now.” He usually makes sure there are some waiting in the trays before he prepares the paper, but he’d gotten distracted today. He pulls them down from the shelf, measuring the appropriate amounts in the tops and pouring it into the trays, the sharp, familiar smell filling the room. He’s glad it’s too dark for Howon to see his cheeks flushing, because they’re definitely warming up at the memory of the last time he’d smelled this smell. When he reaches for the picture waiting to be developed, Howon’s fingers brush down his arm, and Myungsoo shivers at the touch, intense even with the thin material of his school shirt between their skin.

 

“Here’s your invisible ink stuff,” he says, holding his voice as steady as he can as he slides the paper into the tray. He picks up a pair of tongs as Howon moves behind him again, resting his chin against Myungsoo’s shoulder. He’s breathing very deep, almost like he’s trying to breath in the smell of the chemicals—or the smell of Myungsoo? or both?—as deep as he can. Myungsoo focuses very hard on moving the picture around gently with the tongs, and after a second or two, a ghostly image starts to rise on the white.

 

“See?” Howon whispers, breath warm against Myungsoo’s ear. “Very cool.”

 

And it is pretty cool, Myungsoo can admit as the shadows resolve themselves into a little girl in a flowered hat swinging from monkey bars. He’s always thought it’s really cool himself, been entranced at the way the images he chose days or weeks before come to life before his eyes on the page. But right now he’s a little more focused on the way his shoulder blades keep brushing against Howon’s chest, even as he moves the picture to the stop bath and then the fixer.

 

“Now I need to—” He clears his throat. “Hang this up.”

 

“Hmm? Oh, okay,” Howno says, backing up and away from him so that Myungsoo can hang the picture up on the line with a clothespin.

 

“Next one,” Myungsoo says, moving to expose more film and hoping Howon won’t stand up right against him. But even as he wishes it, Howon’s front presses into his back, and Myungsoo’s fingers fumble as he feels the hardness of Howon’s chest against his back.

 

“Howon,” he huffs out, steadying his hands so that he can do this right. “You’re distracting me.”

 

Howon’s hand falls to Myungsoo’s hip, and why is his mate such a tease? “No, I’m not. I’m helping,” he exhales against the back of Myungsoo’s neck.

 

Myungsoo grits his teeth as he flips on the exposure light and almost doesn’t get it turned off in time to save it when Howon’s arms slide around his him—looping low around his waist, and Myungsoo can’t let himself think about what parts of him Howon’s hands are close to now. “You call this helping?” The picture will be too dark now. Not ruined, but darker than he’d wanted it to be. “Howon!”

 

“What?” Howon asks innocently, not releasing Myungsoo as Myungsoo struggles over to the developing tray. “This isn’t helping? I’m pretty sure it’s helping.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes sink shut and he lets out a little growl as he reaches for the tongs. “It’s really not.” Howon’s lips are brushing teasingly against the side of his neck, and Myungsoo jerks the picture around in the fluid instead of moving it smoothly as he always does.

 

“I’m pretty sure it is,” Howon whispers again, this time latching his mouth onto Myungsoo’s neck and sucking hard.

 

“Howon!” Myungsoo can’t even remember what they were arguing about. How can lips on a neck feel so good? It takes all his concentration to get ahold of the picture with the tongs and fish it out of the tray, to move it into the other two trays at the appropriate times.

 

Howon detaches his mouth, his chin bumping against the skin as he says, “Hmm?”

 

“I need—I need to hang this up.” Myungsoo’s voice sounds huskier to his own ears than it does when he has a cold.

 

“Okay, hang it up. I’ll help.”

 

Apparently in Howon-language ‘help’ means staying wrapped around Myungsoo’s back and making it hard for him to raise his shaking hands to hang up the picture. It’s a miracle Myungsoo doesn’t drop it.

 

“So you’ve seen the invisible ink stuff, maybe we should be done for—fuck, Howon!” Myungsoo almost trips and falls on his face when one of Howon’s hands slides up over Myungsoo’s abdomen and to his chest, a finger brushing against the edge of one of Myungsoo’s nipples through his shirt just as Howon starts kissing his jawline. But Howon’s arm is so firm around Myungsoo’s waist, his body so steady behind Myungsoo, that he’s not sure he could fall over even if he tried. Not with Howon holding him up.

 

“One more,” Howon says, voice vibrating against Myungsoo’s jaw, before immediately going back to mouthing at it. “Let’s do one more.”

 

Myungsoo can barely get the developing paper and the film into place, and he’s sure the picture isn’t going to be quite even on the paper, but that’s the last thing he’s concerned about, especially when Howon’s hand moves firmly up and down Myungsoo’s torso again right as Myungsoo flips on the light.

 

“Ho—Howon.”

 

Howon’s tongue curls around Myungsoo’s earlobe, his hand slipping under the hem of Myungsoo’s shirt to rub a spot low on Myungsoo’s abdomen. The feeling of Howon’s slightly rough fingers on Myungsoo’s skin—on a place no one’s ever touched him before—makes Myungsoo’s legs buckle. But Howon’s firm arm holds him upright. “Shouldn’t you turn that light back off, baby?” Howon’s voice seems to come not out of his mouth but to rumble from his chest directly into Myungsoo’s body. It takes Myungsoo’s fumbling hands a few seconds to switch the light back off.

 

“It’s—it’s ruined now.” Myungsoo can hear the thickness in his own voice, feels the sweat breaking out along his hairline and low on his back. Howon’s mouth should be illegal. “There’s no point in developing it—it’ll all be black.”

 

“Let me do it this time,” Howon says, sliding his hand back out from under Myungsoo’s shirt and taking the paper out of Myungsoo’s hand, then guiding Myungsoo with his body to the counter with the trays on it. Myungsoo can’t concentrate on anything at all except how cold the place Howon was touching him now feels and how hot the rest of him is. But he manages to note that Howon’s hands are trembling a little too as they slide the paper into the tray and pick up the tongs.

“This smell.” Howon breathes the words against the damp skin of Myungsoo’s neck, and Myungsoo takes advantage of the fact that Howon’s lips and hand aren’t torturing him for the moment to slump back against Howon’s firm body. “I’ll never be able to smell it without thinking of that night.” Over the sound of his own harsh breathing and Howon’s behind him, Myungsoo can hear the gentle liquid sound of the paper being swished through the chemicals. “It smelled just like this—the chemicals—” Howon drops his head down and Myungsoo feels his nose pressed to his shoulder, feels Howon’s chest expand against his back as Howon takes a deep breath. “—and you.”

 

“There was—” It’s no use, trying to keep his own voice steady. No use. “There was the heat.” It isn’t here now. It won’t be here again for almost another year, and next year when Myungsoo enters it, he’s pretty sure they won’t be having sex in an art room again. They’ll be in a hotel somewhere, one of the special ones for mates with the soundproof walls and the big beds.

 

“Yeah, but the heat-smell was really just you. Only more so.”

 

And then Myungsoo lets out a little whimper because he realizes that Howon’s hips are moving gently against his ass, a steady, circling rhythm that’s almost unnoticeable and— “Howon.” His own voice sounds helpless, desperate, and he cranes his neck, lips seeking blindly for Howon’s.

 

He finds them, and as soon as he does, he hears the thunk as Howon drops the tongs—probably right into the tray—and then Howon’s strong hands are pulling Myungsoo around so they’re face to face, and then Howon’s body is pressing Myungsoo’s up against a filing cabinet, and the air is full of chemical smell just like it was last time and Howon is kissing him so deep it feels like he’s touching every cell of Myungsoo, and this is all more than anything Myungsoo has felt before.

 

They haven’t—this is going to be more than anything they’ve done before, Myungsoo can already tell. And okay, so last week Dongwoo had something else to do one afternoon and they were alone again and after Howon was through with practice, he had said he wanted to ‘teach Myungsoo to dance’ and dragged him to the middle of the gym, his hands on Myungsoo’s hips. He’d tried to guide Myungsoo’s hips in a roll, but Myungsoo had been terribly awkward at it, and pretty soon Howon had pressed himself to Myungsoo’s back and was using his own hips to move Myungsoo’s. Myungsoo hadn’t been able to keep back a groan at the feeling of Howon hard against his ass, and when Howon had spun him around and jerked him back into his arms, he’d started to move his own hips against Howon’s just as readily as he fell into the kiss. They’d kissed sloppily, clutching each other, one of Howon’s legs moving in between Myungsoo’s, moving their hips against each other in a tight rhythm till—okay, they’d dry-humped each other till they both came in their pants, which just sounded stupid and juvenile, but in actuality had been easily the hottest thing that had ever happened to Myungsoo up to that point, mating aside.

 

But this is hotter—literally, because this small room is filling up with their body heat and the rasping of their breaths whenever they break apart, and Myungsoo’s whole body is breaking out into a sweat, and somehow the almost-darkness just seems to enhance everything, enhance the biting scent of chemicals mixed with the now so-familiar smell of Howon, enhance the taste of Howon’s mouth and his skin under Myungsoo’s tongue, enhance the feeling of Howon’s hands—both of his hands, now—sliding back up under Myungsoo’s shirt and against the skin of his back, the feeling of Howon’s hips rocking against his, the rub of the fabric of Howon’s shirt against the place on his belly that seems to have been sensitized by how Howon was touching it earlier.

 

Myungsoo doesn’t even realize he’s fighting with the buttons of Howon’s shirt until Howon breaks apart from him long enough to finish taking it off and then there’s Howon’s chest, all of it, skin and muscle and Myungsoo’s seen it, more than once, stared with hot eyes as Howon walked back to his room after a shower with only a towel slung around his waist, and Myungsoo has pressed himself up against it so many times he would have thought that there’s nothing left for him to learn about it, but it turns out there is, there’s more for his fingers and the palms of his hands to learn, especially when Howon’s thumbs are dragging up Myungsoo’s sides from his hips upward then down again in an almost hypnotizing motion, and Myungsoo doesn’t hear the eager noises he himself makes into Howon’s mouth as his fingers acquaint themselves with Howon’s abs and pecs. What if we were naked, Myungsoo thinks, What if we were naked and could actually look at each other, and his legs almost give out at the thought, and then he feels one of Howon’s thumbs slide beneath the waistband of his pants—in the front, right near the button—and he pulls back with a gasp.

 

“Myungsoo?” Howon’s voice is so husky, it’s so hot, and so is the way he’s looking at Myungsoo. Myungsoo knows it, even if he can barely make out Howon’s features. “Myungsoo, is this okay?”

 

It takes Myungsoo a moment to process that Howon is asking him something, then a moment more to figure out his meaning, and then he gasps, “Yes—yes,” leaning in to find Howon’s mouth again, but Howon evades him.

 

“You’ll tell me if—?”

 

“Yes—yes!” Myungsoo will definitely tell him if there’s something he doesn’t want, but right now he wants more and he wants Howon to stop talking and go back to kissing him and also—yes, he wants Howon’s fingers to pop open the buttons of his pants, to slide down the zipper, just like that, just like that, and then—

 

Myungsoo is not a virgin. He reminds himself of this sometimes, because he still feels like he is, the mating like something out of a particularly vivid dream. It changed his whole world, but it didn’t change him, at least not in the ways he’d thought sex would, and the couple of times since then that he’s caught glimpses of Sungyeol’s porn, the thought ‘I’ve done that’ has echoed hollow in his mind, unreal even as it’s undeniable. He has had sex, really good sex, and it changed his whole world, so how does he still feel like he’s completely inexperienced?

 

Because the feeling of Howon’s hand around his cock feels like something entirely new, like something that has never existed before in the whole world. He’s been jerking himself off daily ever since the mating, and it’s been more intense than it ever was before, but this—Howon’s hand on him—feels like even more than that, and Myungsoo would not be able to even begin to describe the sound that makes its way out of his own throat at the feeling.

 

“Is this okay?” Howon whispers in his ear, “Is this okay?” and all Myungsoo can do is let his mouth fall open and thrust his hips against Howon’s hand in response.

 

Howon is moving his hand in a little pulling movement, but it’s too small for Myungsoo, and it occurs to him that it’s because there isn’t enough room in his pants for more, so he lets go of Howon long enough to hastily shove his pants and underwear down further so that Howon’s hand can speed up. Fuck yes.

 

Myungsoo holds onto Howon’s shoulders helplessly as Howon’s hand moves in a faster but just as steady rhythm. His upper body falls forward, collapsing against Howon’s, and Myungsoo mouths at the skin of Howon’s shoulder mindlessly, wishing it was Howon’s mouth, but not focused enough to actually raise his head for a kiss. Every bit of him is focused on holding onto Howon to hold himself up and on the feelings Howon’s hand is coaxing out of him.

 

Myungsoo’s hips are moving in a small but desperate circle, and Howon chuckles, his breath brushing past the side of Myungsoo’s neck. The smell of chemicals and sweat suffuses the room. “Is that good, baby? Does that feel good?”

 

Myungsoo’s entire body is so rigid with tension that he can barely make a sound, and all that makes its way out of his lungs is a gasp, but Howon must understand it, because he’s laughing softly.

 

“I’ve been wanting to make you feel good for so long now.” Like earlier, it feels like the words are moving from Howon’s body directly into Myungsoo’s. His fevered mind, pushing desperately towards the end, can barely latch onto the words long enough to figure out what they mean. “I’d think of you in that bathroom, touching yourself, and I wanted to be the one touching you so bad.”

 

The little wail Myungsoo lets out sounds pained even to himself, and a very distant part of his mind knows that his fingers, the nails biting into skin, must be hurting Howon’s shoulders, but he couldn’t detach them for anything.

 

“You don’t have to do that anymore, if you don’t want to.” Howon’s accent is coming out thicker now, and the movement of Myungsoo’s hips is becoming even more frenzied. “Any time you want to feel good, baby, I’ll make you feel good, I promise.”

 

His orgasm grabs him so hard that it paralyzes every bit of him except for his cock, except for the pleasure exploding through his body, and he is suspended at its mercy for a fathomless moment, and when he jerks back into his body, he’s shaking, shaking all over as he comes back to himself, still clutching desperately to Howon, whose hand is still around him, almost tender now instead of firm, and Myungsoo’s lungs feel like tissue paper as he tries to breathe.

 

“Howon—Howon.” HIs voice is barely audible, shaking as hard as his body is, but Howon must hear it, because he releases Myungsoo’s cock and then his lips are against Myungsoo’s, kissing him back into control, somehow grounding Myungsoo, pulling him back away from the trembling till Myungsoo’s muscles go limp and all that’s left is his heart sinking back into a reasonable rhythm and his lungs still gasping for breath.

 

Howon laughs when they part, a quiet, breathy sound, and his hand is brushing Myungsoo’s sweaty hair back from his forehead; he must have wiped it off already. “Was it good, baby?”

 

Myungsoo realizes for the first time that Howon’s been calling him that this whole time, an endearment he’s never used before, and a shiver of pleasure shakes him, like an aftershock. “Good,” he breathes, and Howon’s arm around him tightens.

 

Howon holds him while Myungsoo rests against him, trying to put the pieces his mind back into place now that they’ve all returned to him. Fuck, Howon is amazing, and he’s Myungsoo’s mate, and how the fuck did he get so lucky?

 

It slowly dawns on him that he can feel Howon hard against his thigh and Myungsoo finally lets go of Howon’s shoulders, his fingers stiff as he pries them loose. Howon lets out a little sound, and yes, Myungsoo must have hurt him, holding onto him like that, and he’s still hard against Myungsoo’s leg, and Myungsoo’s fingers seem to have lost all their dexterity as he grapples at the buttons of Howon’s pants, wincing at the damp beginning to crust on the fabric and on the bottom of Howon’s shirt—the damp from Myungsoo’s release. Howon had made him feel so good and now—

 

And now Howon’s hands are catching his, pulling them away from his buttons. Myungsoo’s mouth moves soundlessly in protest, as he fights to go back to what he was doing.

 

“It’s okay, Myungsoo, your hands are—you’re all worn out, it’s okay.”

 

Shouldn’t Howon sound pained or something, not so very, very heart-droppingly fond? Myungsoo is more determined than ever to make Howon feel good, wrenching his wrists out of Howon’s hands, though Howon immediately catches them again.

 

“Myungsoo, it’s okay.”

 

“But I want you to—” Myungsoo’s voice is scratchy, strained, maybe higher-pitched than usual. “I want you to feel good, I want you—”

 

“Okay, okay.” Howon forces Myungsoo’s hands down to his sides and then wraps his arms tight around Myungsoo. “But I don’t need you to do that right now, okay? You haven’t ever—you can do it next time.”

 

Myungsoo still-dazed mind translates: Howon knows Myungsoo’s never touched anyone else before, and he doesn’t want to make him do it in a dark, chemical-scented dark room where he can’t see, especially not when he’s still weak in the aftermath of his own pleasure.

 

“I’d do it good.” Myungsoo might not have any experience, but he learns fast. Surely Howon must know that but now. “I’d do it good.”

 

Howon laughs again, a sound so quiet his body barely moves with it. “I know you would, baby,” he says, and he doesn’t sound like he’s just humoring Myungsoo; he sounds like he means it. “But I don’t need that right now, okay?” He shifts his leg so that one of Myungsoo’s is between his, pressing his hips against Myungsoo’s thigh. “Right now, I just need you.”

 

A haze drops around them, like a dream, as they kiss long and slow and deep and Howon moves his hips against Myungsoo. Myungsoo is recovering his strength, and now even though Howon’s arms are so strong around him, it feels like Howon is leaning on him, that Myungsoo is holding him up. He likes that, likes the sounds Howon makes whenever they pull back for air, little grunts and gasps, likes the feeling of Howon’s solid body against his. Myungsoo doesn’t know how long they stand like that, Howon’s kisses become sloppier as his hips speed up, and then Howon stiffens and lets out a low, long sound, and Myungsoo holds him as tight as he can as he feels Howon’s pleasure move through him.

 

After, there’s rapid breathing and cooling sweat and the smell of chemicals, just like there was the first night. But nothing else is the same at all.

Chapter Text

“Where’s Dongwoo-hyung?” Myungsoo asks, once he pulls back from his greeting kiss. That’s pure Myungsoo, Howon’s discovered over the past month or so: kissing first, then whatever else. Howon can’t say that he minds.

 

“I told him he didn’t need to come today,” Howon answers, watching Myungsoo put down his book bag and shrug out of his uniform jacket. He loves when Myungsoo takes that jacket off, loves the way Myungsoo looks in his white button-down, the way the well-fitted fabric shows off the strong lines of his body. He wishes Myungsoo could wear the tight black jeans that he lives in on the weekends to school; the bulky fabric of the uniform slacks obscure his thighs and the curve of his ass, which, in Howon’s opinion should be a criminal offense. Myungsoo has the best thighs and ass Howon has ever seen. Then again, maybe it’s a good thing the uniform isn’t that flattering. Howon’s not sure he could make it through a whole day without touching Myungsoo in some very inappropriate ways if Myungsoo could wear those jeans to school.

 

Myungsoo narrows his eyes. “It’s the last day before we leave for Seoul. Your last chance to practice. Don’t you want him here today especially?”

 

Howon shrugs, easy. Sunday is the audition, and tomorrow they leave for Seoul, and he knows that once they’re on their way, his body will begin to buzz with energy—not exactly nervous, but anticipating. But right now, he feels loose and confident, sure that all his weeks of hard work, hours spent going over and over the moves, of listening to Dongwoo’s every tiny critique, of running through the steps in his mind as he waits for sleep to take him (and when he’s bored in class, too) have sharpened his skills to the point where he knows he’s better than he’s ever been in his life.

 

“We went over the last-minute stuff yesterday. Today I want to show you my routine.”

 

Howon doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the way Myungsoo’s eyes shine when they look at him. “The whole thing?” Howon knows Myungsoo’s been watching more and more of his practice as the days pass. ‘Your bond’s almost settled,’ Dongwoo had said, slapping Howon on the back, and it had surprised Howon. He’d sort of thought that the bond settling would be more dramatic, but he hasn’t really thought about it much over the last month or so. Now that he does, though, he realizes that he hasn’t gotten angry for no reason and that Myungsoo hasn’t fallen into one of his funks or cried or pulled back from him for several weeks, that he barely blushes anymore—except when Howon deliberately teases him. Howon hasn’t dwelt on any of that, but if he had, he probably would have assumed it was because they were becoming so used to each other, but maybe that’s what the bond settling really is: their bodies getting used to each other in the same way their minds are. Either way, it feels good.

 

“If you think you can handle it,” Howon answers, grinning evilly. Another good thing about their relationship being firmer now: he can tease Myungsoo all he likes. And he likes a lot.

 

Myungsoo’s cheeks tinge with pink, but he doesn’t drop his eyes or his chin. “Whatever you can throw at me,” he says, and if his eyes are still a little disbelieving at his own daring, his voice is steady.

 

“Great.”

 

Howon runs through a couple of stretches as Myungsoo settles himself against the wall, rolling his neck as he heads over to flip on the music. His eyes brush over Myungsoo’s briefly—Myungsoo’s gaze is heating up already, running over Howon’s t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and the sweatpants Howon may have chosen specifically for their fit—and then he positions himself in the middle of the floor, eyes on the ground, concentrating on his breathing as he waits for the cue to kick in.

 

He’s choreographed his own routine, not wanting the panel to have to watch some kid do the same routine fifteen other guys have already done, and though Dongwoo had given him advice on shuffling some moves around or on ways to transition from one to another, it’s mostly his own work. He doesn’t flatter himself that it’s anything extraordinary, but he knows it shows off his moves well, which is the point, and somehow just knowing that each step is determined by his own choices makes him feel steady in a way he doesn’t think another person’s work could. He doesn’t intend to make a big deal of it to the judges—in fact, he’s not going to tell them at all that he choreographed it—but if they happen to ask, well, Howon hopes that will show them that he’s got other skills that could be good for a company. Myungsoo had agreed that it was the best plan.

 

Don’t look at him, Howon reminds himself in the split second before the silence gives way to the first bass pulse of the music. You’ll get distracted.

 

And so he doesn’t. But as his body explodes into motion, he’s as aware of Myungsoo’s eyes on him as he would be of Myungsoo touching him, Myungsoo’s attention somehow radiating heat across the space between them, heat that slithers into Howon’s pores and electrifies his movements, imbuing each one with a snap and a spark that are undeniable. He hates that Myungsoo can’t be in the room when he auditions; he’s pretty sure if his mate was there that he’d be so good that they’d snatch him right up. But Myungsoo has insisted on coming to the venue, and he’ll be right out in the hall and that’s the next best thing, and besides, Howon is mentally recording each heated moment of this performance, presented just for his mate, and he knows that when he’s standing in front of the panel, he’ll flip it on in his mind and the memory will lightning through him, warm and good in a way only Myungsoo can give him.

 

Maybe it’s the bond that lets Howon knows right where Myungsoo’s eyes are focused for each move, or maybe it’s his own knowledge of which part of his body each shift is showcasing, or maybe Myungsoo has some sort of superpower that makes his gaze tangible, but the reason doesn’t matter: Howon can feel it. He can feel Myungsoo’s gaze shifting from Howon’s ass in this move to Howon’s feet for that step to Howon’s hips for this roll, and it just makes Howon ratchet up his energy another notch, knowing that Myungsoo is admiring his body. He meets each step with an energy as calm as it is crisp, and he doesn’t falter: each movement is precise and controlled and exactly how he wants it to be. In the weeks after the mating, he’d felt like his body had betrayed him, like it didn’t listen to him anymore, but he knows that’s not true now: what he’s doing right now is proof that he still controls it, that perhaps it listens to him even better than it did before.

 

Fuck, dancing is so satisfying, like nothing else in the whole world—except, perhaps, making Myungsoo’s eyes shine or his mouth drop open in gasps or his face go taut with pleasure. But this satisfaction has been with him longer, since he was a little boy imitating H.O.T. in front of the television, and it’s never left him, not through years of secret dreams and tension at home. It’s like he can feel all those years in each motion: every flex of every muscle or pivot of every joint constructed out of years and years of practice, smooth and sharp from all those long hours of pushing himself just a little bit further. It’s all coming together, right now, in this routine, in this performance of it, and Howon thinks that he might never be this good again, but somehow it’s enough that he’s reached this. And that Myungsoo is seeing it all.

 

When the music climaxes and Howon’s body snaps into the final position, a surge of well-being fizzes through him; it’s so intense that the only thing he can compare it to is that feeling the first Monday after the mating when he’d looked down the hall and seen Myungsoo. Like everything in Howon’s whole world was exactly the way it needed to be; like he had nothing more to ask of the world. It’s not true, really—he has so much he’s asking of life, so much he wants to accomplish and he wants to help Myungsoo accomplish—but maybe for just this moment, it is.

 

Howon hears his own heavy breathing in the silence after the music is gone, feels his muscles slacken into rest, and then he raises his head, shaking his sweaty hair out of his face and his eyes magnet straight to Myungsoo’s. Heat flashes through him, heat straight from Myungsoo’s gaze, and then Myungsoo is hurtling at him, and Howon barely has time to brace himself before Myungsoo slams into him, like he’s trying to meld their bodies together, and there are Myungsoo’s hands sliding all over his arms and shoulders and back and there’s Myungsoo’s mouth, hot as his eyes.

 

“Fuck, you’re amazing,” Myungsoo grits out when they pull back, gasping, out of that first fervid kiss, and Myungsoo doesn’t cuss often, which only makes it hotter. Howon grins into Myungsoo’s mouth as they kiss again, intense kisses, but not harsh, and Howon wraps his arms around Myungsoo and lets Myungsoo do his own exploring. It’s like Myungsoo’s tongue wants to touch every centimeter of Howon’s mouth, like Myungsoo’s hands want to touch every inch of his body, but the urge to be touching the next bit is too much—when he’s touching one place he’s already yearning to be touching another.

 

It’s overwhelming, the force of Myungsoo’s attack, and Howon just has to ride it out, conscious of the hardness pressing against his thigh and feeling each word Myungsoo pulls back to deliver like a brand. “That was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

Howon laughs a little into their next kiss, feels Myungsoo moan in response, and when their lips are parted again, tingling and already moving back to each other, he manages to gasp, “So you liked it, then?”

 

It takes them a few minutes before Myungsoo can pull back long enough to manage a few words. “Fuck, you’re so—every company in the world’s going to want you, they’re going to fight over you, I can’t—” Apparently Myungsoo can’t get more than a few sentences out without needing to kiss Howon again, and Howon follows his lead, body warming up even more as Myungsoo’s hands don’t stop their restless touching.

 

He lets Myungsoo push him over towards the mats, and when they fall down onto them, Myungsoo just scoots closer to him—then immediately pulls back a bit, as if he’s changed his mind, to start to jerk Howon’s shirt off, which makes Howon laugh.

 

“I thought the bond was supposed to be pretty much settled now,” he exhales as Myungsoo’s fingers, slightly rough from the guitar he’s teaching himself to play, slide all over his chest. “I thought we were supposed to be in control now.”

 

Myungsoo shakes his head even as his mouth follows his fingers down Howon’s torso, licking in a way that makes Howon’s hips rise up off the mats. “Isn’t the bond,” Myungsoo mutters between sucks and bites. “Just want you.”

 

The words make Howon moan long and low, and maybe he should be embarrassed, but he so totally isn’t, not when Myungsoo’s tongue is dipping into his belly button, Myungsoo’s fingers playing with the trail of hair below it. They haven’t gone this far again since last week in the darkroom—there hasn’t been time, not with Howon practicing for the entirety of the afternoon and almost all of the evening, squeezing in studying when he can, and the two of them only taking a few minutes to kiss on Howon’s bed before Myungsoo insists they need to sleep. ‘You have to be well-rested,’ Myungsoo repeats, over and over. ‘And eating right, too,’ and he’s taken to scolding his mom when he feels that the meals she makes aren’t healthy enough. Howon can do nothing but shake his head and laugh fondly at Myungsoo’s seriousness—it’s just so Myungsoo, and Howon likes him so fucking much, and it’s also strangely hot, but Howon hasn’t told him that because Myungsoo has limited them to kissing so Howon won’t get ‘distracted.’

 

But apparently Myungsoo has just jettisoned that rule completely, and Howon can feel it stirring, the pressure that’s been building in him since the darkroom. That had been one of the hottest moments of Howon’s life, even if it had been all about Myungsoo and showing him how good he could feel—and one of his best orgasms, even if he’d just ridden Myungsoo’s thigh and hadn’t even felt Myungsoo’s hand on his dick. It hadn’t mattered: he’d been waiting so long to be that close to Myungsoo, to feel his skin again and listen to those noises he makes, and it had been worth the wait.

 

But they hadn’t really talked about it much afterwards—though they’ve been exchanging grins at each other whenever they think about it—and even as Howon feels Myungsoo’s fingers tugging at the drawstrings of his sweats, he suddenly remembers that, and he reaches down and grabs Myungsoo by the shoulders, pulling him up to face him.

 

Myungsoo blinks blankly at him, and how can he be so fucking cute and so fucking hot at the same time, those big wide eyes completely at odds with his swollen mouth and his mussed hair? “Myungsoo, we need to talk,” Howon makes himself say, even though it’s pretty much the last thing he wants to be doing with his mouth. Myungsoo’s eyes go so big Howon wouldn’t be surprised if they rolled right out of their sockets.

 

Now?” Incredulity thickens Myungsoo’s voice.

 

“Yeah, Myungsoo, I—we need to talk about how far you want to go.”

 

Myungsoo blinks again, but his eyes have returned to their regular size and Howon can see that he understands. Myungsoo swallows, Adam’s apple jerking and drawing Howon’s eyes before he snaps them back up to Myungsoo’s face. They really need to.

 

“I didn’t ask you before—before in the darkroom. We didn’t talk about it and—”

 

“You asked!” Myungsoo argues. “You asked and I told you I‘d tell you if—”

 

“I know.” Howon tries to keep his voice steady, tries to ignore the fact that Myungsoo is lying half on top of him and how much his dick likes that. “I know you did. But it would have been hard to stop—I mean for you, if you wanted to, because it’s so easy to get carried away, and I didn’t want you to want it then but realize later that you wish you hadn’t.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes narrow, but he still looks like he knows what Howon is talking about. “I don’t regret it.”

 

“I know.” Howon can’t stop his hands from reaching out to comb through Myungsoo’s hair. He loves the way the real texture of it is being coaxed out by the sweat at his hairline. “But you might have, because we didn’t talk about it, and I know you wanted to wait until you were really in love, and I know that we’re comfortable now, we’re mates, and that means a lot, but if you still want to wait on something—anything—I need to know what it is. Okay?”

 

Myungsoo is quiet for a minute, and then he flushes and drops his head to Howon’s chest, and Howon keeps running his fingers through Myungsoo’s hair, the gesture fond and soothing. “It’s easier not to talk,” Myungsoo says, voice a little muffled, breathing warm against Howon’s chest.

 

Howon laughs. “I know. Trust me, I know. But it’s better if we do.”

 

Myungsoo keeps his head down for another moment, then raises it, cheeks still a little pink, and shrugs uncertainly. “Maybe—maybe everything but what we did the first time?”

 

Howon understands. Penetration like that has cultural weight, meaning that’s so ingrained it almost doesn’t matter if it makes any sense. Keeping it as sacred, in a way, might not actually be reasonable, but it doesn’t need to be, not for the two of them. They can set this boundary, if it will keep Myungsoo’s mind at peace. Besides, as Dongwoo had said with a grin one day when the two of them were not discussing Myungsoo and Howon’s sex life: ‘There’s lots you can do with hands and mouths. And it’s just as good.’

 

“Okay,” Howon agrees. “Everything but that.” Then he lets an evil grin spread across his face. “That’s a lot of stuff.”

 

Myungsoo’s cheeks are still pink, but he doesn’t drop his eyes from Howon’s. “Will you teach me?” he asks, and the innocence of the request is totally at odds with how deep his voice is, and the juxtaposition drives Howon crazy.

 

He takes Myungsoo firmly by the hips and flips them over so he’s the one looking down at Myungsoo. “Baby, I’m going to teach you everything,” he promises. “Fuck, I’m going to learn new stuff just so I’ll have more to teach you.” There’s nothing better in the world than Myungsoo’s face scrunching up with laughter. How can one person be so gorgeous and also so adorable?

 

“I’m a quick learner,” Myungsoo says, dimples deceptively innocent in his cheeks.

 

“You’re the best student ever,” Howon agrees, before dropping his mouth to Myungsoo’s.

 

Myungsoo seems never to tire of kissing. Every time, his mouth is as eager and yearning as it was the first time, even as his technique improves. Howon can say at this point Myungsoo has definitely mastered kissing, and yet he doesn’t seem to have viewed it as a lesson to check off his list, but as an essential one to master and to build everything else around. It would be just like Myungsoo if he was always like that: if for the rest of their lives, he treats kissing like it’s some brilliant new thing he’s just discovered and wants to explore completely. Howon had wondered, now and then, how it was possible to stay happy being with just one person for the rest of your life. But if that person is Myungsoo, he thinks there’s no real mystery.

 

When Myungsoo has decided he’s been kissed thoroughly and finally pulls back for good, Howon gives him a grin and starts unbuttoning his shirt.

 

“You make button-downs look so good,” he says, fingers moving swiftly over the buttons.

 

“You make them look better,” Myungsoo retorts.

 

Howon snorts, pushing the shirt off of Myungsoo’s shoulders. “I don’t know about that.”

 

“You do!” Myungsoo insists stubbornly, and Howon decides it isn’t worth arguing over, smoothing his hands over Myungsoo’s bare chest.

 

“You look better in tight jeans,” Howon says, leaning down to tongue at Myungsoo’s chest.

 

Myungsoo lets out a little gasp, then, “You look better in tanks.”

 

“I can live with that,” Howon says, popping open the button to Myungsoo’s pants and revealing his black—of course, all his underwear is black and ninety percent of his other clothes are too—underwear. “Shoes,” he says, and he hears the thumps as Myungsoo kicks them off and they hit the floor, Howon pausing for just a moment to do the same. “I bet you look better naked,” he says, peeling the pants down Myungsoo’s long legs and then pulling off his socks to drop them on the pile of clothes at the end of the mats.

 

He glances up to see that Myungsoo is flushing a little, now that he’s only wearing his boxer briefs, but he lifts his chin defiantly. “There’s no way.”

 

Howon feels his mouth twitch; he can’t deny that he likes knowing that his mate likes his body. He knows he has far more defined musculature than Myungsoo, and according to a lot of people, that probably does mean his body is better. But there’s something so—well, beautiful, even if Howon isn’t used to using that word for men who aren’t Sungjong—yeah, beautiful about the way Myungsoo’s body is shaped. Howon would rather look at it than all the ripped bodies in the world.

 

“I better check and see,” Howon says, and it’s his way of asking ‘Can I?’ Myungsoo must understand, because he lifts his hips and holds his breath as Howon pulls off his underwear.

 

Howon hasn’t seen Myungsoo naked since the night in the art room—and even then, his pants had been bunched around his legs, so he wasn’t really naked. Sure, all the ‘private’ parts had been revealed, but the pants had ruined the lines of his legs, not to mention that Howon hadn’t exactly been checking him out at the time, much more concerned about what the fuck had just happened and how the fuck he was supposed to react to this boy’s terrified eyes. Since then, he hasn’t let himself think much about what he’d seen of Myungsoo’s body; for some reason, his conscience told him it was okay to think about the sex they’d had, but Myungsoo had been so vulnerable as soon as it was over that Howon has felt guilty thinking of what happened after. So the thought of Myungsoo completely bare has been a forbidden one, even if it’s one that keeps trying to sneak out of the dark corners of Howon’s mind.

 

But it’s official now: his mate is entirely perfect, head to toe. There’s nothing about him that isn’t gorgeous, the long lines of him and his flawless skin, darker than Howon’s, and the soft curves of his muscles in his chest and arms and calves and the straight strength of his limbs and shoulders and—fuck. Howon has the most perfect mate ever.

 

Myungsoo lets out a little uncertain sound that sounds kind of like a whine, and when Howon raises his head to look at his face, Myungsoo’s eyes dart away, face red like it used to be back after they first mated. His hands are fisted up at his side and Howon sees how tense he’s holding himself—this is definitely not the first time Myungsoo has been naked in front of someone (Howon is quite sure that Sungyeol has seen everything there is to see, in a completely different and completely not-sexual context), but Howon knows it’s the first time he’s been naked in front of someone he wants to want him, and Howon hasn’t said anything, and—and he really needs to say something.

 

So he says the first thing that pops into his head, and it’s, “You’re the most fucking gorgeous thing on the planet.” Which isn’t exactly a Howon type of thing to say, and it also doesn’t really sound like something you say to another guy, no matter how much you want him or that you’re bound to him for the rest of your life, but Myungsoo face goes even redder and the blush rushes down his neck and tinges even the top of his chest, and it’s true.

 

Howon can’t keep his hands off of Myungsoo’s perfect thighs, reaching out to get a firm hold on one of them and sliding his other hand up and down the other. “Your legs should be illegal,” he says, and, again, it’s not something Howon ever though he’d say, but he knows how much hearing things means to Myungsoo—Myungsoo communicates most of his feelings through touch, but Howon has noticed that compliments, kind words, anything positive someone says to him makes Myungsoo nearly burst with happiness, and Howon loves seeing that. So he guesses he’ll be saying lots more things he never thought he’d say, just for Myungsoo.

 

He drops his head to press his mouth against the impossibly smooth skin at the inside of Myungsoo’s thighs, breathing in the musk of him, and runs his hand down the curve of a calf to his ankle. It’s one of his favorite fantasies, inspired by months of eyeing Myungsoo in those tight jeans: leaving marks all over Myungsoo’s thighs. It feels primitive, that impulse, marking his mate as his, and at first Howon had thought that it was the bond spurring it, but now that it’s settled almost completely, Howon finds the impulse is still there, as strong and vivid as before. So he gives into it, sucking red splotches onto perfect skin, and Myungsoo gasps and whines and his legs jerk and his body wriggles and Howon presses his hips against the mat, thinking that he could spend years here, covering every inch of those thighs with his marks.

 

But after just a few minutes, Myungsoo is already gasping so much and his cock is straining upwards, the head red and impatient, and Howon thinks, I have the rest of my life to mark his thighs, and his hips jerk against the mat at the thought. He makes himself breathe through his nose, raising his head to find Myungsoo’s face just as red as it was before, though this time he can’t figure out whether it’s from embarrassment or arousal. Howon takes Myungsoo’s cock into his hand, stroking it firmly, and watching his mate’s body twitch in response.

 

“You ready to learn something new, baby?” he asks, and pet names have never been a thing for him. He thinks they probably never will be, definitely not in public, probably not even when the two of them are alone but clothed. But somehow when Myungsoo is helpless in his arousal, the word just drops off Howon’s tongue; it just seems to fit. And from the way Myungsoo gasps every time Howon says it, he thinks it’s safe to say that his mate likes it. “Baby? You ready?”

 

Myungsoo finally seems to realize that Howon is waiting for an answer, and he nods his head emphatically till it looks like it’s about to roll off his neck. Howon grins at him reassuringly, and then he lowers his head.

 

Myungsoo keens when his feels Howon’s mouth around him, and Howon has to use an arm to hold down his hips to keep them from flying off the mat. Howon’s only done this once before, after his first girlfriend but before Hyorin, with another dancer he’d met at a club. The guy had been a year or two older, from a town an hour or so away, just visiting to see what the dance scene was like. He’d taken Howon back to his cheap hotel room and blown him on the bed, and Howon had inexpertly returned the favor. That’s been over a year ago now, and no practice since then, but he’s been thinking so much about doing this for Myungsoo that he feels like he’s had all sorts of practice. And most of it’s by instinct, anyway, and everyone’s always said Howon has good instincts.

 

If Myungsoo’s response is any indication, Howon’s instincts are just as good in this area as they are in any other. Myungsoo pants so hard, so helplessly, head thrashing back and forth as Howon sucks and licks and cups him, feet jerking and hands scrabbling against the mats. Howon keeps looking up the length of Myungsoo’s body to see his face—he looks almost miserable, but the helpless sounds he’s making tell another story. Howon’s jaw aches and he keeps having to press his hips against the mat below him because he’s so turned on, but he keeps going, and when Myungsoo lets out another keening sound and Howon sees the pleasure transform his face, it’s worth it.

 

Myungsoo looks wrung out when Howon pulls back and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, crawling up to flop down beside him. His hand moves automatically to stroke the hair away from Myungsoo’s face, the impulse of the tender gesture impossible to fight. His chest is tight with affection so intense it almost hurts, especially when Myungsoo opens his eyes and lifts them, wet and limpid, to his.

 

“Was that good, baby?” They’re nonsense words, spoken without any thought other than to soothe; he can tell by the way Myungsoo is still panting—by how hard Myungsoo had come in his mouth—that it was good. Howon wants to grin with pride, but he holds it back, not wanting Myungsoo to think he’s laughing at him.

 

“Howon,” Myungsoo breathes after a moment, and then he lifts his arms—slowly, like they’re heavy—and drops them around Howon’s neck and pulls him down for a kiss.

 

Howon feels Myungsoo’s lips falter when he gets a taste of Howon’s mouth, feels them curl for a moment, but Myungsoo must decide he can ignore the taste, because he kisses Howon long and deep until Howon can feel the strength entering Myungsoo’s body again.

 

Myungsoo lets out a long sigh when he lets his head drop back against the mat, and he just looks up at Howon for a long time. His eyes are so intense, so dark and deep, and Howon has heard some of the students who don’t know Myungsoo talking about them being creepy, but Howon sees nothing but warmth in them. He rubs Myungsoo’s cheekbone with his thumb, feeling like he can rest in Myungsoo’s gaze.

 

He doesn’t get to rest long, though, because Myungsoo suddenly pushes him over onto his back and moves over him. He grins down at Howon’s surprised expression, and there’s a hint of self-consciousness to his expression, but he starts to move down Howon’s body, punctuating the journey with his mouth and his fingers until he reaches the waistband of Howon’s sweatpants.

 

He glances up at Howon through his eyelashes, and Howon’s hand reflexively grabs at Myungsoo’s shoulder, squeezing probably harder than he should, but fuck, Myungsoo is so tempting when he looks like that. “My turn to check,” Myungsoo says quickly and immediately drops his eyes, and it takes Howon a dizzy moment to realize Myungsoo is saying he wants to check whether Howon’s body is better than his.

 

Howon’s sweatpants come off perhaps easier than Myungsoo really wants them too—Howon knows there’s something steadying about the time it takes to remove someone’s clothing, and sweats’ access is almost too easy. But Myungsoo doesn’t display much nervousness when he grabs the waistband of Howon’s underwear, though Howon catches the brief hesitation, the almost-hidden intake of breath before Myungsoo’s hands move.

 

Howon has never felt self-conscious about nudity. He knows when to be appropriate, of course, but he’s never one to duck into a stall to change in the locker room or to head to the bathroom to get into his pajamas when he’s staying the night at a friend’s house. He’s proud of his body, more because of what it can do than because of what it looks like, and he’s always figured since people all have the usual things under their clothes—one set of genitalia or another, most of the time—there really isn’t anything to get worked up about.

 

He’s not self-conscious now, either, not in the usual sense of the word but he’s...conscious of himself in ways that he usually isn’t. Not in a negative way. Just...very aware that he isn’t wearing anything and that Myungsoo is looking at every bit of him.

 

Myungsoo’s cheeks are pink again, but there isn’t any tentativeness in his eyes as they move over Howon’s body. Howon can see his fingers twitching like he’s wanting to touch, and Howon would tell him he can touch all he wants, anywhere he wants, any time he wants, except he doesn’t want to make Myungsoo uncomfortable. So he just waits, and after a moment he’s rewarded when Myungsoo lifts his eyes again and says, “I think you look better.”

 

Howon can’t help it; he has to reach out and grab Myungsoo and pull him into his arms. The kiss he gives is fierce, but he’s distracted by the feeling of Myungsoo’s skin against his for the first time, nothing in between, nothing but skinskinskin. His cock slides against Myungsoo’s lower abdomen, and it feels so good Howon has to groan into Myungsoo’s mouth. Myungsoo’s lips are more swollen than ever and he’s panting when they pull back, but his eyes are shining. “I want to make you feel good this time, too,” he says, breathless, his shining eyes so intent, and Howon is gripped by a feeling of such fondness that he doesn’t know how to respond. “Please, Howon.”

 

‘Please, Howon,’ he says, like Howon’s going to say no. Howon brushes at Myungsoo’s fringe, and smiles. “You owe me from the darkroom, I guess,” he says, and Myungsoo flushes, but he looks so damn pleased, and it’s either the cutest or the hottest thing Howon has ever seen. Probably both.

 

Howon lays back and lets Myungsoo examine his body—with eyes, with mouth, with hands—and with an intensity that’s entirely Myungsoo: Howon’s seen him stare at Sungjong like that, seen him laugh at Sungyeol like that, seen him absorbed in a meal or a manhwa that way, and he’s seen him take pictures with that complete focus that’s almost frightening in its intensity. It’s flattering—no, gratifying—for Howon to have it focused on himself, and it just adds to the pleasure that Myungsoo’s mouth and fingers are coaxing from him. Myungsoo seems intent on leaving no part of Howon unexamined, and Howon wants him to see and touch anything he wants to. Myungsoo fingers and mouth feel amazing on his body, of course, but there’s something more to having Myungsoo pay attention to him like this, looking at him and touching him like nothing in the world has ever been so fascinating, that feels good in a way Howon is pretty sure isn’t just about nerve-endings. The pleasure of Myungsoo’s fingers tracing the landscape of his musculature or Myungsoo’s mouth sucking at the skin above his ribs makes Howon hot enough, but it’s the way Myungsoo does it, so completely intense and focused in a way that’s only heightened by his inexperience, that has Howon’s hips lifting off the mat.

 

If anyone else avoided the place between Howon’s legs, moving from torso down to thighs and skipping where they meet completely, Howon would swear they were being a tease, but he understands why Myungsoo’s doing it. Myungsoo clearly wants to get to know every part of him, but some parts are easier to face than others, and Howon knows that delaying what he really wants will just make the pleasure better later. Still, he groans with frustration as Myungsoo showers his legs and ankles with attention, caught up in how hot Myungsoo’s mouth is and how good the skin of Myungsoo’s hands feel on his body.

 

But when Myungsoo is finished biting at Howon’s ankles, Howon feels him hesitate, and he knows what to do. He reaches down and pulls Myungsoo up by the arm, pressing Myungsoo’s chest to his so that their whole bodies are touching. “Want me to show you?” Howon asks, voice raspy and almost painfully turned on from Myungsoo’s attention.

 

The line of Myungsoo’s mouth twitches, but he just says, “You’re the teacher.”

 

Taking Myungsoo’s hand in his own and guiding it down between his legs is hotter than Howon had imagined. He’s never been one to care either way about a partner’s previous experience—he’d been his girlfriend’s first, but Hyorin had probably more experience than he did when they started and he hadn’t bothered to ask about the details—knowing that there’s always a learning curve to figure out each other’s preferences anyway. He’s always found the hangups some guys have on virgins gross, but he also hasn’t avoided them the way other guys do. He just doesn’t care. But still, knowing now that Myungsoo’s never touched anyone else before, that Howon’s going to be his first (his only, his mind reminds him) in everything, is really hot. Not because of how Howon feels about experience or lack thereof, but because he knows that this means Myungsoo trusts him, and that, after the way their relationship started, is a very big thing. Howon had never known how that level of trust could heighten everything.

 

The first brush of Myungsoo’s hand against his cock has Howon groaning, and he feels more than hears the small intake of breath Myungsoo lets out in response. Howon focuses his eyes on Myungsoo’s face as he wraps Myungsoo’s hand around him, and he finds that Myungsoo isn’t looking back at him, but down at their hands, staring at them as if mesmerized. Howon looks down too, and there’s something incredibly sexy about his wider, blunter fingers against Myungsoo’s longer, slender ones.

 

Howon falls onto his back, setting an easy pace, his hand guiding Myungsoo’s through the motion, but soon enough he lets his own fall away, Myungsoo’s continuing to move without pause. “You can—” Howon clears his throat, but it doesn’t help the huskiness of his voice. “Tighter, if you want.”

 

Myungsoo’s hand does tighten, but the rhythm holds steady, and yeah, Myungsoo is going to learn this well, too. I’d do it good, he’d said in the art room, and that had been almost too tempting for Howon to resist, because he’d known it was true. But he’s glad, now, that he insisted on waiting, because that means that here, in full light, he gets to watch the riveted look on Myungsoo’s face as he watches himself stroke Howon. Howon had thought that Myungsoo would want to see what he was doing, would want to be able to study it from all angles, and his instincts were right: Myungsoo has thrown himself into this lesson just as he had kissing. Howon is so glad he gets to see it.

 

Myungsoo’s thumb brushes experimentally over the tip of Howon’s cock, and it feels so good that Howon’s head thumps back against the mat, eyes falling closed with a groan as he lets the pleasure wash over him. Then there’s Myungsoo’s other hand on his balls and—fuck, yeah, Myungsoo is such a fast learner. He hears every hint Howon gives him: gasp, moan, whine, Myungsoo seems fluent in all of them already. At first each new touch is tentative, but Howon can feel Myungsoo’s confidence growing as his hands grow firmer, and approaching pleasure bubbles in Howon’s veins. He lets himself get caught up in the feeling of Myungsoo’s hand, in the friction and the rhythm and how long he’s wanted this, how many weeks he’s spent touching himself while pretending it was Myungsoo, knowing that it would feel so much better when his mate finally touched him—and he’d been right. Even his most vivid fantasies hadn’t come near to this.

 

When Howon gets himself under control enough to open his eyes and lift his head again, he finds that Myungsoo is sitting up now, curled up right next to Howon’s body, so that he can get closer to see what his hands are doing, practically hunched over Howon with that focused, intense look on his face as he stares at his own hands moving on Howon’s cock. The sight is more than Howon can handle, and when Myungsoo rolls Howon’s balls in one hand and rubs the thumb of his other over the tip of Howon’s cock again, Howon comes with a moan of Myungsoo’s name, feeling like the pleasure is being tugged out of his fingers and toes to shake its way through his body, leaving him limp and gasping when it finally ebbs away.

 

When he feels Myungsoo release him, he pries his eyes open again just in time to see Myungsoo lift a spunk covered hand to his mouth and reach out a tentative tongue to taste it, and Howon groans again, his body feeling like it wants to plunge into orgasm all over again. Myungsoo tilts his head, considering the taste, then shrugs and wipes his hand on Howon’s abandoned shirt.

 

He crawls back up to Howon, looking half-pleased, half-nervous. “That was fast,” he says, letting Howon reach out and pull him up against him.

 

Howon lets out a breathy laugh. “Of course it was fast. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for you to touch me?” Myungsoo goes red at the words even as his eyes shine, and Howon has to laugh again and run fingers through Myungsoo’s hair. “And then the way you looked at my cock—baby, nobody could have held on longer.”

 

Myungsoo snorts, rolling on top of Howon to bury his head in Howon’s collarbones. “It’s different when it’s not myself.”

 

Howon is pretty sure he could get hard again very quickly if Myungsoo is going to talk about touching himself. “Yeah, it’s different. Different people like different things.”

 

“I just like you,” Myungsoo mutters, breath warm and damp on Howon’s neck, and Howon wraps both his arms around Myungsoo as tight as he can. Myungsoo lets out a little grunt at being squeezed.

 

“I just like you, too,” Howon says, and he’s never meant anything more in his life, his voice husky with truth.

 

Myungsoo raises his head, and his eyes are still shining and fuck he really is the most gorgeous thing on the planet. “I learned good?”

 

Howon lets go of him so that he can hold Myungsoo’s face in his hands. “You always learn good. And even if you didn’t, you’d still be enough. I just need you.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyelashes dip down, cheeks heating under Howon’s palms, but then he looks back up at Howon with those dark, dark eyes. “I just need you too,” he says, and Howon feels something expand in his chest almost to the point of pain.

 

“It’s a good thing we have each other, then, right?” Howon rasps, voice barely audible.

 

Myungsoo drops his head back down, Howon’s hands sliding away, and wriggles his body down a bit so that he can tuck his head under Howon’s chin. Howon doesn’t think he’s ever felt anything as good as Myungsoo’s skin and warmth against him. He puts his arm back around Myungsoo, holding him firmly to him. “A good thing,” he hears Myungsoo whisper against his chest, and Howon presses a kiss to the top of Myungsoo’s head. A good thing.

Chapter Text

III. Periapsis

 

“We’re only going to be gone for a couple of days, you really didn’t have to come see us off.”

 

Sungjong arches a brow at Howon’s words. “You didn’t want to see me, hyung?”

 

Howon rolls his eyes, glancing across the bus station to where Myungsoo is taking pictures of a colorful mural painted by local school kids. Count on Myungsoo to find something to photograph even in a bus station. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

 

He doesn’t mind Sungjong coming with them at all, but it’s funny how everyone’s been acting for the last couple of days: like Howon and Myungsoo are going on a months-long trip or moving away for good. His mom had cried in the living room of the Kims’ house as she hugged him and wished him luck. It had been an overwhelming moment for Howon, especially since he wasn’t sure whether his mom was crying because she was nervous for him or because she missed him or because she was finally seeing the house Howon now called home and the woman who made his breakfast. Mrs. Kim had been very welcoming, thrilled to meet Howon’s mother, but Howon could see that even though his mom was polite, she was holding back. He understood. If it weren’t for his dad, Howon would still be at home with her. He just hopes that the two mothers will get a chance to bond, because he thinks they could be really good friends. And his mom could use a really good friend.

 

“I wanted to wish you luck,” Sungjong says, swishing his hair out of his eyes. “I’ve barely seen you the last couple of weeks, you’ve been so busy.”

 

Howon winces at the truth of those words. He’s been so entirely focused on preparations for the audition—and when he’s not doing that, on Myungsoo—that he’s only seen Sungjong on the way to and from school and occasionally at lunch, when Howon hadn’t spent it squeezing in more practice.

 

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, hyung. I know how hard you were working, and I’m glad. I just wanted to make sure I got to tell you that I know you’ll be great.”

 

“I sure hope so.” He’s been trying not to let himself think about the audition, or at least the company’s reaction to it, instead focusing all his mental energy on the dance itself. It’s better that way: keeping his mind on what he can control instead of the results he can’t anticipate.

 

“You will,” Sungjong says simply, and it’s better than any effusive compliment. Sungjong’s clear-eyed faith in his abilities has always been more of an encouragement to Howon than anything anyone else could say. “Have you and Myungsoo-hyung talked about what you’re going to do if they make you an offer?”

 

Howon shrugs. “No. We’ve been avoiding it on purpose. I think Myungsoo has ignored it to the point where he barely even remembers it’s a question he could ask.”

 

“Whereas you think about it too much and just haven’t come to any actual decisions.”

 

That’s Sungjong: shrewd and insightful into all of Howon’s mental processes. “There’s no point, is there? The odds are against me, and if it turns out that they don’t want me, it would have been stupid for me and Myungsoo to dredge it back up again when we’ve been doing so well. We’ll figure it out if it happens.”

 

It’s Sungjong’s turn to look over at Myungsoo, who’s turned his attention to the stand of pamphlets and is trying to figure out the best angle to shoot them. Howon can’t figure out why they’d even be worth taking a picture of, but then he’s a little too focused on Myungsoo’s ass and legs in those jeans to really care.

 

“Things have been going well with you two, haven’t they?” Sungjong observes, a fond smile quirking his lips as he watches Myungsoo crouch to get a different perspective on his subject. “Really well. I knew you two could work out if you tried, but even I was surprised by how quickly you fell for each other.”

 

“‘Even you,’ o omniscient one?” Howon can’t resist teasing, grinning at the sour look Sungjong gives him in reply. “It’s not falling, really,” he continues, shrugging. “We just figured out that we really like each other.” And the sex is great, too.

 

“Oh, yeah, you two ‘like’ each other,” Sungjong scoffs. “That’s definitely what it is.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Howon asks, but distracted: Myungsoo has glanced up from his camera and waved his weird little wave at Howon, a dimple popping up in his cheek. Howon grins and waves back. Fuck, Myungsoo is cute.

 

“It means that your understatement when it comes to serious feelings has never fooled me and it doesn’t fool me now,” Sungjong answers, crossing his arms and shaking his head at the exchange between the mates. “You can say you ‘like’ each other all day, but I know what I’m seeing, hyung. You’re head over heels for him, and even someone who doesn’t know him would be able to tell he’s just as gone over you.”

 

This drags Howon’s attention away from Myungsoo and his eyebrows furrow as he focuses on his best friend. “Sungjong, that’s not—that’s not what it is.”

 

Sungjong lets out a laugh, but when he sees that Howon isn’t smiling, it falls away. “What the hell, hyung? Do you really believe that?”

 

Howon shrugs again, uncomfortable for a reason he can’t put his finger on. This is Sungjong, and they’ve always been honest with each other, even when it’s not easy. He’s talked to Sungjong about things he had never imagined being able to tell anyone before they became friends. He’s not sure why he doesn’t really want to talk about this now. But there are too many years of friendship and truth between them for him to avoid it.

 

“I went into this with my eyes open, Sungjong.” His eyes rest unseeing on Myungsoo, who’s now making a halmoni smile by requesting to take her picture. “When we decided to give it a chance, I mean. I knew we could get to like each other. Love each other, even, the way you love family. That seemed like enough; I wasn’t going to ask for anything else, not when the whole mating thing...complicates anything else. Sorting out bond-feelings from real feelings…even if I feel like I’m in love with him, I know it’s not that simple. I know part of what I’m feeling probably isn’t really me. But that’s okay.” He turns back to look at Sungjong, whose eyes look strangely horrified. “I really do like him so fucking much, Sungjongie. And being together forever...the thought doesn’t freak me out like I would have thought it would. I kind of like the idea.”

 

“Hyung—” Sungjong chokes out, but Howon cuts him off.

 

“And that’s a hell of a lot more than most people get, right? Even if I can’t point to it and say, ‘Yes, I’m in love,’ all the rest is more than enough for me. I never really thought I’d get even that. Hell, I never really thought I’d want it.”

 

“Hyung.” Sungjong’s voice is insistent, as close to panicked as Howon has heard it. “Hyung, that’s not how it works. Hyung, you love him. I know you do. I know it.”

 

“I do,” Howon agrees. “We’re a family now, which is fucking crazy, but it works. And I feel like I’m in love with him, too, and so what if that’s the bond? It still feels pretty great. Oh, that’s our bus,” he adds, hearing the announcement come over the PA. “Myungsoo!” he calls, waving his mate over.

 

“Hyung, no.” Sungjong grabs him by the arm, voice and fingers sharp with some urgent emotion. “Hyung, that’s not how it works, haven’t you done any reading at all, that’s not how it—”

 

“I got some good shots,” Myungsoo says, hitching his camera bag further up on his shoulder and smiling as he comes up beside Howon. “Did you see that halmoni’s eyes? They were amazing.”

 

Howon grins at him. “I can’t wait to see them. Come on, we need to get going.”

 

“Hyung!” Sungjong suddenly grabs him by both shoulders, startling Howon and Myungsoo. Howon blinks at his best friend, taken aback. “Listen to me. The rest of us decided we’d leave you two alone this weekend so you could have your honeymoon or whatever.” Sungjong’s so intent that he doesn’t notice Myungsoo flushing at his words. “But I need you to call Dongwoo-hyung when you get a chance, okay?”

 

Howon has no idea what Sungjong’s going on about. “What? Why?”

 

“It doesn’t matter—I need you to promise me you will. Soon. Do you understand me, hyung?”

 

“Is Dongwoo-hyung okay?” Myungsoo asks, sounding concerned.

 

“He’s fine, hyung,” Sungjong answers distractedly, his whole attention still focused on Howon. “Hyung. Promise me?”

 

Howon doesn’t know what this is about, but he suspects it’s that Sungjong wants Dongwoo to convince him not to think about the bond the way he has. He appreciates that Sungjong wants him not to have the mental baggage of always knowing in the back of his mind that his feelings are manufactured, but Howon would rather be honest with himself. It’s not like with Dongwoo and Yejin, who were in love before they bonded and so know which of their feelings are genuine. He knows he likes Myungsoo more than he’s ever liked anyone, and he knows that, at least, is all himself. The attraction? Well, Myungsoo is fucking hot, and he’d thought so even before the bond, even if only in the abstract way you notice an attractive stranger on a train platform, so at least part of that is him, too, only on steroids because of the mating. But the love thing? He’s not going to try to convince himself that that’s all pure Howon, not when he knows just how powerful the feelings the bond foster can be. Howon doesn’t believe in lying to himself.

 

“Sungjong—”

 

Promise me.”

 

Of course he relents. Sungjong never asks him for anything, not anything serious, and with as much as Howon loves him, he can do at least this for him. He smiles into Sungjong’s intense eyes, pats his shoulder. “Okay, Jjongie. I promise.”

 

Sungjong only looks partly relieved, but their bus is being announced again, so he lets go of Howon’s shoulders. “Okay.” He takes a deep breath, then makes himself smile. Howon can always tell when Sungjong’s smiles are effortless. “Good luck, hyung. You’ll do great.”

 

Howon and Sungjong aren’t the affectionate type of best friends, but they aren’t uncomfortable touching each other, and the hug Sungjong gives him feels right. Howon squeezes him hard. “Thanks, Sungjong.”

 

“Have fun, hyung, okay?” Sungjong says to Myungsoo, hugging him as well—you can’t hug around Myungsoo and not include him in the hugging.

 

“We will.”

 

Howon takes Myungsoo’s hand and with a final wave goodbye leads him towards the terminal. They’ve barely gone two steps before Howon’s phone dings, alerting him to a text. When he fishes it out and sees the message from Woohyun—it’s on. 4:00.—he grins and squeezes Myungsoo’s hand.

 

“Don’t forget your promise, hyung!” he hears Sungjong calling after him.

 

Howon glances over his shoulder to acknowledge his friend with a wave, then turns back to Myungsoo. “You ready?”

 

Myungsoo smiles at him, and Howon thinks the vividness of his happiness is more beautiful than the sculpture of his face. “Let’s go.”

 

 

 

 

“I have a surprise for you,” Howon says once they’re settled into their seats and the bus is fully on its way to Seoul. Myungsoo raises his head from Howon’s shoulder to look at his face. He never gets tired of looking at it: it’s handsome and expressive and, most of all, it always, always looks fond when it’s looking at Myungsoo. Myungsoo’s never really liked the way his own handsomeness draws eyes, doesn’t relish being the center of attention because of it, but he could bask in Howon looking at him forever.

 

“What is it?” Howon hadn’t mentioned anything special as they’d packed the night before, back home after their—amazing—time in the gym. They’d been going back and forth between their rooms, reminding each other of things not to forget and deciding who was going to take the toothpaste. It had been so domestic it made Myungsoo’s heart throb, and he’d decided that when they got back home, after the audition and everything, he wants to talk to Howon about sharing a room. He’s wanted it for weeks now, to fall asleep beside Howon, with Howon touching him and the scent of him all around, but he’s kept his lips firmly shut: his first priority has been to help Howon prepare for the audition, and that means distracting Howon as little as possible. Not that he’s been entirely good at not-distracting-Howon, not with the darkroom and last night in the gym. But he’s tried his best.

 

The corners of Howon’s mouth start to twist, and Myungsoo can tell he’s trying to keep himself from breaking into a grin. “You know how Woohyun’s uncle is a photographer?”

 

“Yeah. He met with me once. He told me my pictures were good.” Myungsoo probably wouldn’t have added that last if he was talking to anyone else, but this is Howon.

 

Howon’s mouth curves more. “Well, he has a good friend who’s also in photography and a guest lecturer at a university, and Woohyun’s uncle got him to agree to meet you, to talk about your photographs and where you might want to study.”

 

Myungsoo can feel himself gaping at Howon, but he’s too surprised to care. “What?”

 

Howon’s grin breaks free entirely, and it’s so blinding it only adds to the vertigo Myungsoo is feeling. “You’re going to meet with him this afternoon.” He points towards their bags, stowed in the rack above their heads. “I brought the album of your best stuff along.”

 

Myungsoo sits frozen for a moment before he launches himself at Howon, startling his mate into laughter that Myungsoo cuts off by fastening his lips on Howon’s. Howon chuckles into the kiss, hand moving to the back of Myungsoo’s head to card his fingers through Myungsoo’s hair, and Myungsoo fists his hand in Howon’s shirt, trying to keep himself from really jumping his mate right here. They’re in the back seat, thankfully, so probably no one’s noticed the kissing, but they definitely would if it went it any further, so Myungsoo keeps himself under control, doing his best to make Howon melt into the kiss.

 

But then he pulls back abruptly and punches Howon in the shoulder. “You asshole! You should have told me days ago so I could have time to pick out what pictures to show him! I’m never going to be able to decide in time!”

 

Surprise flickers across Howon’s face before it morphs into fond amusement. Myungsoo is too excited to notice that this is something new: he’s never done the roughhouse-and-name-calling thing with Howon the way he does with Sungyeol. But Howon doesn’t seem to mind the new way of interacting. “That’s exactly why I didn’t tell you, dumbass. I knew you’d be a nervous wreck and spend the whole time until the meeting changing your mind a million times about which ones to show.”

 

Myungsoo snorts, crossing his arms and flopping back against the seat, ignoring how Howon slides his arm around his shoulders. “Asshole,” he insists.

 

Still laughing, Howon reaches up with his other arm and fishes down his bag, pulling it into his lap and jerking the zipper open with one hand before pulling out a familiar black leather album. “I’ll help you pick, how about that?”

 

Myungsoo keeps up his indignant act for a while longer, but he can admit to himself that there’s nothing better than sitting here with Howon’s arm around his shoulder, hearing him say good things about Myungsoo’s pictures as they flip through them and pick out the best ones, getting to rest his head on Howon’s shoulder. Myungsoo’s always liked the forward motion of cars and trains and buses, liked being able to glance out the window and see the landscape flashing by, the feeling of rushing towards something. He feels warm and safe cocooned in the back seat with Howon, and he wishes they could just keep riding forever.

 

But he’s also anxious to get to Seoul, to have the audition behind them. He’s pretty sure he’s more nervous than Howon is, not because he doesn’t believe in Howon’s abilities, but because he’s anxious about whether the panel will appreciate Howon the way they should. Myungsoo had been blown away when he finally saw Howon’s full routine. Yeah, it had turned him on more than anything else ever, but more than that he’d just been impressed. The routine was so good, Howon’s performance so sharp and precise, that even Myungsoo’s untrained eyes could recognize the skill level enough to realize just how impressive it really was. Howon had been incredible, twisting his body into moves Myungsoo hadn’t known were possible, his energy so infectious that if Myungsoo hadn’t been paralyzed with admiration—and lust—he probably would have wanted to jump up and dance, too. Howon had had that totally determined, professional look on his face, so unlike the almost sexual level of euphoria Myungsoo has seen on Dongwoo’s when he’s dancing. But somehow even without the visible passion for movement that Dongwoo displays, Howon had made Myungsoo crave the possibilities of dancing, made him want to see what his own body could do. Which was ridiculous, because Myungsoo’s body could never do those things. But Howon made them look easy enough—natural enough, like the human body had been created just for those moves—that it inspired something in Myungsoo. He’s pretty sure that that ability to inspire is what real talent is. If only the judges will see that.

 

Howon had told him last night as they brushed their teeth before bed that he wasn’t sure his performance would be quite as good for the audition. ‘I’m better when you’re there,’ Howon had said again, and though Myungsoo’s heard it multiple times by this point, he still gets chills when Howon says it. He understands it, though; he could almost feel an electric connection between them while Howon danced, and he wants nothing more than to be in the room with Howon at the audition, giving him strength through that connection again. But it’s not possible, and that’s probably a good thing: Myungsoo had been powerless over his own desire once the music stopped; he wouldn’t have been able to hold himself back from jumping Howon if he tried. Myungsoo’s pretty sure the panel would not be impressed by a horny mate making a scene. So yeah, it’s for the best.

 

But it had been really, really good, the jumping. Myungsoo hadn’t thought anything could feel better than Howon’s hand on his cock, but his mouth was even more incredible, and then there had been the other things—the things Howon had said, his words that made Myungsoo feel so desired, the little touches that felt so heavy with affection, the way Howon left him with no doubts that Howon really wanted him. Myungsoo is addicted to Howon’s touches, any of them, and they’re going to have a hotel room to themselves for two nights, and they’re going to get to touch each other and there will be a bed and they’ll sleep together and—well, Myungsoo just has to remind himself that he has to keep at least some level of control: Howon needs to be well-rested enough to dance his best tomorrow.

 

And now there’s this thing with the photographer, too, and when Myungsoo thinks to ask Howon who it is, he nearly comes out of his skin when he hears the name. He knows that name. He isn’t the most recognized or celebrated photographer in the country, but he’s highly regarded enough that Myungsoo has studied his work, and he’s certainly more accomplished than anyone Myungsoo ever thought he’d get to talk to.

 

“I’m going to embarrass myself,” he moans, burying his head into his hands and feeling Howon’s body jerk with chuckles beside him.

 

“He’s going to think you’re great,” Howon counters. “Woohyun’s uncle wouldn’t have set it up if he thought you weren’t good enough to meet with the guy.”

 

“I’m going to say stupid stuff and trip over my own feet.” Myungsoo pulls his face out of his hands to bury it in Howon’s shoulder instead. Yes, that’s better: Howon smell.

 

And Howon hand in his hair again, more comforting than anything else could be. “I’ll make sure you don’t. I’ll be right there with you.”

 

Well. That will help, yeah. He always feels more confident when Howon is beside him. “I’m better when you’re there, too,” Myungsoo mutters into Howon’s shoulder. He hasn’t admitted that before, no matter how true it is. But he wants Howon to know it.

 

Howon doesn’t answer, but his hand keeps playing in Myungsoo’s hair, and Myungsoo keeps his face where it is, pressed up against Howon’s shoulder. He can feel the bus moving, the vibrations moving up from the tires and into the seats and through Howon and Myungsoo and back again. And yeah, Myungsoo could stay right here forever.

 

But the ride to Seoul is only a couple of hours, and soon enough they’re pulling into the city, grabbing their things and hurrying to find the city bus that will take them to their hotel. Seoul buses are always so crowded, and they have to stand because there aren’t any seats, but Howon manages to maneuver them so that Myungsoo’s back is against a partition and Howon is right in front of him as they hold onto the overhead straps and hold their bags between their legs, and with the partition against his back and Howon against his front, Myungsoo feels secure. Not to mention that he likes having Howon’s face just inches from his own, so that he can look at it as much as he likes and Howon can look back and every once in a while when there’s a bump, Myungsoo can press his lips against Howon’s quickly and claim it’s an ‘accident.’

 

The hotel is nice without being luxurious, which is exactly how Myungsoo likes it. They head up to the counter to check in, the concierge pulling up their reservation quickly, and Myungsoo catches Howon’s wrist when he tries to hand over his card.

 

“Dad gave me theirs,” he explains, pulling out the one his father had slipped into his hand when he dropped them off at the bus stop.

 

Howon’s face tells Myungsoo he’s going to resist. “Myungsoo—”

 

“He and Umma wanted to,” Myungsoo interrupts, then drops his voice, glancing at the concierge to make sure he doesn’t hear. “She said because we didn’t get time together right after the mating.”

 

Howon looks like he wants to argue—he’s always so determined to do things for himself—but he relents when he sees Myungsoo’s stubborn face, and when the concierge asks for some identification to prove how old they are—only seedy places would let teenagers get a one-bed hotel room by themselves—Howon’s the first one to pull out his mating registration card. “We’re mated,” he says unnecessarily as Myungsoo offers his own as well, but the concierge just smiles at them and makes a note in the computer, handing over their keycards.

 

The room is clean and nice and there’s just one queen-sized bed and just the sight of it sets Myungsoo’s mind careening to what they can do in it. Howon looks over at him and waggles his eyebrows, clearly thinking the same thing, and Myungsoo laughs, throwing his bag at Howon’s face.

 

“I’m meeting up with the photographer in a couple of hours, and we should eat first.”

 

Howon makes a fake disappointed look, tossing Myungsoo’s bag onto the bed, but then he walks over to Myungsoo, sliding an arm around his waist and breathing, “Later, then,” hot against Myungsoo’s ear, making Myungsoo shiver.

 

“You know,” Howon says later when they’re both cleaned up and flopped down onto the bed looking through their smartphones to find someplace to eat. “I don’t think I would have thought to try Woollim if you hadn’t suggested it.”

 

“Of course not,” Myungsoo answers, scrolling down through restaurant listings and rejecting most of them as too unhealthy. Howon needs to be in top form tomorrow. “They’ve never had an idol group before. You wouldn’t know to check them out.”

 

“No, that’s not what I mean.” Howon shifts beside Myungsoo, the mattress under Myungsoo’s elbow dipping with the motion. “I mean, even if I’d found the flier.”

 

Myungsoo looks up from his phone, cocking his head. “Why not?”

 

Howon shrugs. “I was going to try the big companies first. JYP, YG—you know.”

 

Myungsoo nods slowly. “Not Woollim at all?”

 

“I was going to start at the top and work my way down.” There’s a wry curve to Howon’s lips now. “I was sure I’d get rejected at the top, but I’d find someplace eventually if I kept lowering my expectations.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyebrows furrow. “It’s not like that, though. Just because they’re bigger doesn’t mean their groups are better. There’s lots of good groups at smaller companies.”

 

“Yeah, but the big companies have a leg up. They have the money, the power. Groups debut all the time and end up being a huge bust and wasting their company’s money. But if you’re at one of the big ones, you’ve got a way better shot. It’s not about quality. It’s about connections.”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t like that. That’s not the way the world should work. “I’m not sure I’d want you at one of the Big Three. I’ve read some stuff and they treat idol-making like factory production. I know some of the smaller ones are bad, too, but I think they might treat you better at a smaller one.”

 

“I don’t care as much about how they treat me as I do about whether or not they’ll get me a real career.”

 

Myungsoo drops his phone, reaching over to thump Howon on the shoulder. “I do! I care! I don’t want you at some place where they’ll treat you like you’re trash or—or like you’re just there to make them money! A place like that isn’t good enough for you!”

 

Howon laughs. “The industry isn’t really a soft place, Myungsoo.”

 

Myungsoo scrambles up onto his knees, pushing Howon over onto his back and then settling himself so that he’s straddling his mate, resting on Howon’s pelvis. A month ago—maybe even a week ago—he would blush to do something like that, but now it just feels natural. “I don’t want you to be somewhere where they treat you badly,” he insists again, knowing he probably sounds petulant, but not caring. Just the thought of anyone treating Howon badly makes Myungsoo’s body tense up, his hands fall into fists.

 

“I’m pretty used to not being coddled, Myungsoo,” Howon says, voice softer, his eyes dark as he looks up at Myungsoo, hands moving to hold onto Myungsoo’s hips.

 

The words dig a shard of pain into Myungsoo’s heart. He can’t erase the way Howon’s dad treated him the past, but he wants more than anything to make sure that no one does that to Howon ever again. “I don’t want to see you hurt,” Myungsoo whispers, voice a bit raspy. “Not ever again.”

 

Howon removes one hand from Myungsoo’s hip, reaching up to brush the hair out of Myungsoo’s eyes. His eyes are very soft on Myungsoo’s face. “Will you listen to me when I say this? Without getting overprotective?” He chuckles softly at the look on Myungsoo’s face. “You know, it’s pretty distracting when you get all pouty like that.” His hand moves down from Myungsoo’s hairline so that he can brush a thumb over Myungsoo’s bottom lip. Myungsoo wants to let his mouth fall open and pull that thumb inside, but he can see by the seriousness of Howon’s expression that it’s not the time for that.

 

“The idol life isn’t easy,” Howon says, eyes solemn. “It isn’t. They work you too hard and you never get enough sleep and you have to pretend like you’re happy all the time even when you want to scream.” When Myungsoo shifts in discomfort, the hand still holding his hip clutches harder. “There will probably be a lot of things that I just have to grit my teeth and bear, no matter how unfair they are.” Myungsoo opens his mouth to answer, but the thumb against his lip is replaced with a finger telling him to stay quiet.

 

“It sucks, but I’ve always known that. I mean, sure, yeah, at first when I was a little kid, I thought it was all dancing and making money and being famous. But I’ve known for a long time now that it’s not that way—I’ve read all the message boards. I’ve done my research.” Howon’s eyes go very dark with seriousness, and he slides his thumb under the hem of Myungsoo’s shirt, rubbing calming little circles on the skin there. “But I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I’ve decided it’s worth it. It’s worth going through all that stuff if it means I get to dance for a living.”

 

“But you shouldn’t have to!” Myungsoo isn’t stopped by the finger over his lips this time. “You shouldn’t have to put up being treated like shit just because you want to dance!”

 

“I know that,” Howon interrupts firmly. “And I think things will change, eventually. It would be awesome if I could be part of that. But for now, it’s the way things are, and if this is what I want, I’m going to have to make sacrifices to make it happen.” His hand rests on Myungsoo’s cheek, his lips quirking a bit at Myungsoo’s still-stubborn expression.

 

“I made this decision a long time ago. That I’d be willing to go through that to reach my dream. But here’s the thing. I have a secret weapon now that I didn’t have before that will make my life a whole lot better than it would have been otherwise.”

 

Myungsoo narrows his eyes at him. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 

“I’ve got a mate now,” Howon says with a grin.

 

Myungsoo rolls his eyes. “What does that even mean? Secret weapon? Is this going to be a stupid joke?”

 

Howon laughs. “Not even. I’m serious. Because I’m mated, they’ll have to make certain accommodations for me.”

 

Okay, now Myungsoo’s interested. “Accommodations like what?”

 

“Like I won’t have to live in a dorm. I can live with you. An apartment somewhere, the two of us, with the company paying for it. That alone will give me freedom most other idols can’t have. There aren’t very many mated idols in the industry, but there are a few, and the law makes sure they’re treated like any other employer has to treat them.”

 

Myungsoo feels his shoulders relaxing a bit. “Well, at least there’s that.”

 

“Yeah. So if they need me to be out of the country or something for more than a week, they have to bring you, too. And groups with mated members usually have slightly less-crazy schedules so that the mates can spend some time together.”

 

All that sounds pretty great, but totally against what Myungsoo knows of the entertainment industry. “But why do they even pick mated trainees, then? Isn’t it better for them just to pick trainees who aren’t mated? So they don’t have to deal with the accommodations?”

 

“There are compensations for the companies who risk it—sometimes it pays off big if the mated trainee has a story they can spin. You know how teenage girls love mated idols.”

 

Myungsoo considers this, thinking of how he’s heard girls in his classes at school sigh over the eternal love of idols and their mates. And, okay, maybe he’s sighed over a few himself; even if he isn’t really into idol groups, he likes a romantic story whenever he hears it. “Huh.”

 

“Yeah.” Howon raises a brow. “And you know what the other part of my secret weapon is?”

 

“This is where the bad joke comes in, right? There’s going to be a pun?”

 

Howon’s grin grows even wider and suddenly his muscles tense, then flex, and he flips them over in one smooth motion, pinning Myungsoo to the bed and hovering above him, dipping his head to brush his nose against Myungsoo’s for a second. “I get to come home to you.”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t know why he’s holding his breath, but he tilts his head back a bit against the mattress to meet Howon’s dark eyes more fully. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean,” Howon says, dropping his head again to drag his nose across Myungsoo’s cheekbone, breath warm on Myungsoo’s skin. “That 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.” His nose nudges against Myungsoo’s earlobe, his jawline, and Howon breathes the words against Myungsoo’s skin. “I get to come home to you, and you’ll make me forget about every awful thing in the whole fucking world.”

 

“You mean sex?” Myungsoo breathes out, feeling hot all over.

 

Howon’s chuckle puffs more warm breath against Myungsoo’s cheek. “That, too. Most idols are watched so closely they don’t have any time for relationships. But no. I just meant you.” Howon raises his head, staring down into Myungsoo eyes from only centimeters away, and Myungsoo feels like he’s falling into Howon’s eyes and he’s pretty sure he could fall there forever. “Just seeing you or touching you or hearing your voice. That’ll be enough.”

 

It takes Myungsoo’s overwhelmed mind a moment to instruct his body to reach for Howon, but then Myungsoo’s arms shoot up and loop themselves around Howon’s neck and pull him down for a fierce, long kiss. How does Howon do that, make him feel like he’s going to explode with happiness, with rightness? It’s so much that Myungsoo wants to cry or laugh or jump around the room with joy or something. Instead, he funnels all of those emotions into the kiss, moaning into Howon’s mouth when his mate kisses him back just as fiercely.

 

When Howon says things like that, things Myungsoo knows he’s not entirely comfortable with but that he says anyway because he knows how badly Myungsoo needs to hear them, it makes Myungsoo feel like the future is theirs. That they’ll get everything they want, that nothing will be able to stop them, that complicated problems and conflicting dreams will give way to simple answers and the right decisions. The realistic part of Myungsoo knows it won’t be that simple. But that part of him is very small, and right now, he almost can’t hear it at all.

Chapter Text

“I’m such an idiot,” Myungsoo moans, dropping his forehead against Howon’s chest. Howon stumbles back a half-step in surprise, but steadies himself immediately, arms wrapping themselves around Myungsoo.

 

“It wasn’t that bad,” he says with a chuckle. “It was just a little trip.”

 

“I was doing so good! I’d made it through the whole thing without saying something stupid or dropping anything and—urgh!”

 

Howon has to laugh at the frustrated noise Myungsoo expels, and maybe a little bit at the memory of Myungsoo tripping over the doorjamb as the two of them left the photography professor’s office. Myungsoo had done great up until then; he hadn’t said a lot, but nothing he had managed to get out was cause for embarrassment, and though he held his body stiffly with nerves, that didn’t result in any mishaps. Howon had leaned against a far wall silently as he watched Myungsoo watch the photographer flip through his pictures, holding himself still even though he wanted to yell at the guy to just say something before Myungsoo turned himself inside out in suspense.

 

Myungsoo’s eyes were beginning to glaze over in what Sungyeol calls his ‘zoning-out self-defense’ and Howon was about to step forward and take his hand or something to ground him in the moment when the photographer looked up. “You’ve had no training?”

 

That, at least, reminded Myungsoo of where he was. His eyes lost their far-away haze and he swallowed hard. “Just our art teacher at school, but she’s more of a painter. And what I could teach myself from books and online and stuff.”

 

Howon could hear the slight tremor to Myungsoo’s voice, but he was pretty sure the photographer couldn’t, that Myungsoo just sounded polite if a bit stiff. Howon had slumped in relief when the man nodded, a small smile on his lips, and said, “You show promise.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes widened in that disbelieving way they have. “Sir?”

 

“Sometimes it’s easier for me when the students have no formal training—I can tell what’s real talent and not just tricks and memorization of techniques. And you have talent.”

 

Howon didn’t bother to hide the grin that broke across his face at those words; the other two weren’t paying any attention to him, anyway, and Myungsoo had reached out to grab the edge of the desk to hold himself upright. I could have told you that’s what he would say, Howon thought, and okay, the thought was a bit smug and proud, but Myungsoo is his mate and he has talent, and Howon doesn’t feel any guilt over being proud of that.

 

“Thank you, sir,” Myungsoo choked out as the photographer looked back down, flipping through the pictures again, quickly this time.

 

“There’s a lot you have to learn. I can see your lack of guidance in some of these, a few tendencies that stick out to professionals, some immature composition and lighting, but that’s to be expected—do you develop the film yourself?”

 

Howon hadn’t seen Myungsoo look that dazed since the day after they kissed for the first time. “Sir? Oh, yes, when I use film I develop them.”

 

“Excellent. A photographer should be able to know every step that goes into making a picture, even if they themselves don’t develop regularly. And your digital work is very good as well.”

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

“Have you selected the schools you’ll be looking at yet?”

 

“I—” Myungsoo sounded breathless, and the gobsmacked look on his face was the cutest damn thing ever. Howon wanted to rush over and grab him, but he stayed where he was. There’d be time for that later. “I haven’t really narrowed things down yet, sir.”

 

“Well, you should consider coming here. The department’s program is excellent and I feel I can safely say that with this kind of work in your portfolio, if your test scores are decent you should be accepted.”

 

Howon knows Myungsoo well enough to tell that he wanted to immediately promise to only even think about this university, but he restrained himself, only inclining his head with a respectful, “I will definitely consider it, sir.”

 

“Good, good. I’ll keep an eye out for your name when the applications come in—next year, correct? You have one more year of high school?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“If you can keep improving as steadily as you have up until now, you should get in, no problem. Let me write down some names of people whose work you should look into, maybe a few books to check out, all right?”

 

Myungsoo had nodded so eagerly that he looked like a bobblehead, but the photographer was already bent over a notebook scribbling. Myungsoo, standing over the man, was staring down at him with that shining, disbelieving gaze that Howon knew so well, even if it was completely different in this context. Myungsoo was clearly completely enthralled by the man, and Howon couldn’t really blame him—the pictures adorning the walls of the tiny office were amazing to even Howon’s eyes. He himself would probably look at Usher the same way, as much as he’d try to play it cool.

 

It meant a lot to Howon, getting to see Myungsoo’s passion for photography in a different way. Back at home, everyone takes it for granted that Myungsoo is talented, but none of them know much about the medium and they don’t really have anything to compare Myungsoo’s pictures to. But this man was a professional, good enough that the university had begged him to teach for a few semesters—at least, that’s what Woohyun had said—and Howon could tell from the set of his mouth and his sharp eyes that he wasn’t the type to flatter. He meant what he said. And Myungsoo had clearly been sincere when he told the man as soon as they had greeted each other that he was a fan of his work—if he hadn’t been celebrated, Howon could tell he wouldn’t have believed Myungsoo’s words, would have written them off as fawning, but Howon knows the man’s reputation is solid enough to deserve Myungsoo’s compliments. He had accepted them graciously before asking to see Myungsoo’s work, jumping right in with no lead-in, probably because he didn’t have time for anything more. Howon was really glad there’d been some criticisms in the professor’s words, too; he’s always been a big believer in being realistic about what you need to work on, and if the man had only had good things to say to Myungsoo, Howon wouldn’t have taken his words nearly as seriously. This meeting was exactly what Howon had hoped for when he’d asked Woohyun if he could ask his uncle to find someone at a university program to talk with Myungsoo. Balanced but encouraging. Just what Myungsoo needs.

 

Howon watched with a grin as Myungsoo bowed to the man and shook his offered hand, and he had to keep himself from chuckling when Myungsoo turned toward him with those still shining, dazed eyes. Howon had fallen into place beside him and taken the album from Myungsoo’s hand, tucking it under his arm—and it was a good thing, too, because half a second later as they walked out the door, Myungsoo tripped and almost went sprawling out into the hallway. Howon managed to catch him before he did, but Myungsoo’s face had been horrified and scarlet as Howon led him down the hall of the art building and outside.

 

He’s still moaning about it now, rolling his forehead against Howon’s chest, and if it weren’t so cute it might even be annoying. Howon scratches his fingers through Myungsoo’s hair. “Everybody trips, Myungsoo. I promise that didn’t ruin his opinion of you.”

 

“Why do I have to do stuff like that all the time, though?”

 

“Because you’re too busy thinking about other things to pay attention to your surroundings. Come on, forget about it. The whole thing went great.”

 

Myungsoo raises his head, a lopsided grin on his face as he looks at Howon. “It did, didn’t it?”

 

“He thought you were good.”

 

“He did, didn’t he?”

 

Howon has to laugh as Myungsoo throws his arms around him for a rib-cracking hug. When Myungsoo finally releases him, Howon grabs his hand and leads him down the stairs of the art building. “Want to check out the campus? This may be where you’ll be in a year or so.”

 

The words only make Myungsoo grin wider, hand tightening around Howon’s as they head down a walkway. It’s a beautiful campus, lots of trees and green spaces in between respectable buildings, and on this late spring evening with the air still warm even as the sun starts to think about setting, there are students studying at picnic tables and tossing frisbees and hacky-sacks around, looking casual and collegiate. It looks exactly like a university should, really, but Howon enjoys watching Myungsoo look around more than he does looking around himself. After all, he doesn’t belong here; he’s known that for years. But Myungsoo could—Myungsoo does, here or somewhere like it, where he can learn from masters of his craft and study in the library with Sungyeol and make new friends in the cafeteria. Howon would feel boxed in here, constrained and chafing against expectations, but Myungsoo has always liked more structure, and once he gets over his initial shyness, Howon is quite sure he could thrive in a place like this, especially if he has Sungyeol beside him.

 

Howon is more sure of that than ever as they walk across campus, Myungsoo looking delighted by every detail. “Do you really think I could get in here?”

 

“You heard him,” Howon says. “He wouldn’t have said you could if he didn’t mean it.”

 

“It’s just weird to think about,” Myungsoo says, shaking his head. “It looks like something out of a drama, and Seoul’s so big and it’s weird to think this is where we’ll be soon.”

 

‘Soon’ snags on Howon’s ears, even if Myungsoo doesn’t seem aware that he’d said it. ‘Soon’ could mean anything from next week to a year or more, and the fact that Howon still doesn’t know which it’ll be sometimes gnaws at him, and all the more now that he’s actually in Seoul. Even as they’d been jostled on the bus earlier, he’d luxuriated in the energy of the city moving around him, sure that this is where he needs to be. Things happen here, it’s the place people go to chase after their dreams, a global hub and the center of everything in the ROK. Their own town will seem sleepy and small after this, and Howon is already chafing at the idea of going back to it. He feels so close to everything he’s worked for here; going back home will feel like retreating, like taking a step in the wrong direction. He knows he has to do it—even if the two of them decide to skip out on Myungsoo’s last year and come here next week, they still have to go home to get their things and say goodbye and make arrangements. And it’s just as likely they’ll decide to stick it out at home for another year. Howon doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but he knows that he will be coming back to Seoul, for his dream and Myungsoo’s.

 

“This place is perfect,” Myungsoo says suddenly, and Howon laughs at how emphatic he is.

 

“Is it?”

 

“Yes,” Myungsoo answers. “It is. And it’s in Hongdae! Hongdae’s so cool!”

 

Howon doesn’t point out that it’s near Woollim’s offices and dorm, too; there’s every possibility that he’ll be with a completely different company anyway, once he’s finally accepted somewhere. But still, it’s kind of cool to think about.

 

“Look, there’s a waffle stand,” Howon says, nodding towards the one just across the street. They’ve come to the edge of campus without even noticing. “Want one?” he asks, knowing good and well that Myungsoo would never say no. Myungsoo gives him a look, and Howon laughs. “I’ll go get some. Snag that bench before someone else steals it.”

 

Myungsoo hurries over to the bench that’s being abandoned by a group of girls and sets down his stuff beside him as Howon jogs over to the crossing. There’s a line at the waffle stand, as there are at all places serving ice cream on a night this warm, but Howon doesn’t mind waiting, taking in the street fashion of the passing students. People are dressed so much funkier here than at home, and Howon wishes that he had Myungsoo’s camera so he could show Sungjong and Dongwoo the outfits. The thought of wearing his school uniform even one day more when he could be dressing like these people every day suddenly seems intolerable, and he swallows the thought down as quickly as he can. We still haven’t decided anything. We don’t know what we’ll be doing. We need to wait till after the audition, anyway.

 

The audition is tomorrow, which seems both terrifyingly close and far too far away to be real. Howon has tried to clear his mind of it today, to focus entirely on Myungsoo, but the thought that by this time tomorrow he’ll know what a real company thinks of his moves—it keeps creeping in. He shoves it away again as he steps up to order, making sure to get Myungsoo’s favorite and paying the kind ahjumma before heading back to Myungsoo.

 

And of course Myungsoo has his camera out, snapping pictures of anyone who passes by; he’s so Myungsoo. Maybe he’ll get some of the street fashion shots Howon had wanted to take.

 

The thought disappears from Howon’s mind when a tall girl with her arm draped around the waist of an even taller guy stops just beside Myungsoo. The couple is very good-looking, in a sharp-edged way—Sunggyu-hyung would drool over that girl’s eyeliner—and Howon knows exactly what this is going to be even before it happens.

 

“You’re sitting in my seat, omega.” The girl’s voice is lazy, but Howon can hear the steel underneath it. He hurries his steps.

 

Myungsoo lowers his camera, looking up at the girl in surprise. “Excuse me?”

 

The guy is staring off across the street like nothing is happening right beside him, but the girl leans closer to Myungsoo’s face, and Howon feels a growl rumbling through his own chest. “I said, you’re in my seat, little omega. Why don’t you get out of it before you get hurt?”

 

Howon sees the firm set of Myungsoo’s jaw, the way Myungsoo looks at her dead-on. “I was here first,” he says, and Howon’s eyebrows fly up. At home, on the rare occasions when an alpha says something like that to him Myungsoo just silently obeys—not bowing his head or acting submissive, but just doing as he’s told because it’s not worth it to make a scene. Howon knows that Myungsoo’s careless obedience sometimes infuriates the other alphas more than defiance would, but it hasn’t ever led to bad things there, because almost everyone they could run into knows Myungsoo is friends with Sunggyu and Sungjong and then mates with Howon, and none of the other alphas want to mess with them. Maybe Myungsoo’s gotten complacent because of that, because Howon isn’t sure why he’s talking back—it would be one thing back home where everyone pretty much knows everyone else, but here with a stranger? Sure, she probably won’t actually hurt him in public for fear of getting arrested, but she could and if the damage wasn’t that bad, the passersby might even look the other way.

 

The girl makes a disbelieving sound at Myungsoo’s words, leaning in to draw a finger along his jawline. “What, you think because you’re pretty, you can talk to me like that? Because your face is handsome, you don’t have to listen to an alpha?”

 

Myungsoo jerks his head away, and Howon sees his eyes narrow and the girl’s eyes flash, and things are about to blow up, but that’s the moment when Howon reaches them.

 

Just in time to catch the girl’s wrist as her hand rises.

 

“You weren’t going to hit my mate, were you, noona?”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes snap to Howon’s face, and Howon can’t blame him; he almost doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice, either: lazy but curling with threat, a half an octave away from a growl.

 

The girl wrenches her hand out of Howon’s grip. She’s strong. Howon keeps his face impassive as she looks him up and down, then flicks her eyes away, dismissively. “You should train your mate better. He’s disrespectful to his superiors.”

 

“He doesn’t have any superiors,” Howon snaps back. He can feel the passersby bristling and holding themselves tense, can smell the distinctive scents of each passing alpha or omega, their musk thickening at the energy of the standoff. He’s sure they all know that this probably won’t actually become violent, not with the criminal repercussions when such things in public, but instinct is older than law, and he knows the omegas are cringing and hurrying away, the alphas watching with interest. For the millionth time since he was old enough to understand their stratified world, Howon wishes they were all just betas.

 

“Well, aren’t you progressive,” the girl says. Her boyfriend is still looking around absently at everything but them, but Howon can see how quickly he could explode into action if he wanted to. He’s strong, too.

 

It would be so easy for this to turn physical, Howon knows, for her to launch at him or him at her. She’d touched his mate; Howon could easily let his anger take over and rip into her. That’s what their instincts are screaming for.

 

But Howon hates this. He’s always hated it, learned to hate it more after his own mating, but he’s never hated it as much as he does now when a stranger just implied that Myungsoo is inferior. What the fuck does she know? Myungsoo is amazing and kind and stronger than anyone gives him credit for. He’s funny and sweet and smart in ways that Howon doesn’t understand. So what if his reproductive role is different than an alpha’s? What does that matter to anyone who isn’t Howon?

 

Howon isn’t going to give in to this kind of primitiveness. He’s better than this, and Myungsoo sure as hell deserves better than to be fought over like he’s a shank of meat. So, not moving his gaze from the girl’s, Howon holds out his hand to his mate. “Come on, Myungsoo. Let’s go somewhere with better people.”

 

He hears the girl make an infuriated noise as he turns away, but now Myungsoo’s hand is firm in his and they’re turning their backs to her and Howon is ready to forget she ever existed. In the old days, it would have been dangerous to turn his back to another angry alpha—or in this case, two angry alphas, because Howon knows if it’d come to blows, her boyfriend would have snapped out of his disinterest—an invitation to be attacked. But there are laws now, and he’s got a dozen witnesses, and if she attacked him after he walked away, she’d be the only one charged with assault for reasons of mating roles. She wouldn’t do it.

 

Howon suddenly feels really tired.

 

 

 

Howon’s hand is tight around his, but Myungsoo doesn’t complain. He’s still angry himself and his grip is just as strong. Fuck, they’d been having such a good time and—

 

“Here. The ice cream’s starting to melt.” Howon sounds nothing but calm as he hands Myungsoo the waffle, but Myungsoo can feel the tension still lingering in his muscles.

 

Myungsoo takes a vicious bite of his waffle, but even the sweetness and the coldness of the ice cream doesn’t melt his anger. “We should have stayed. I was there first.”

 

“I didn’t want a fight and—why did you talk back to her? She was an asshole, couldn’t you tell she wouldn’t let it go?”

 

Howon looks half concerned and half confused, but Myungsoo looks away. “She doesn’t have the right to push me around just because she’s an alpha.”

 

“No. Of course she doesn’t. But walking away is better than a fight and—Myungsoo?”

 

Myungsoo still keeps his eyes averted as Howon comes to a standstill, not looking at his mate even as Howon positions them face to face. “Myungsoo?”

 

Finally Myungsoo sighs and looks at him. He forgets, most of the time, that Howon is a couple of inches shorter than him; it seems irrelevant. But he notices now. “What?”

 

Howon is looking at him steadily, a hint of concern in his eyes. “You’re not one to try to start something. What happened back there?”

 

“What, I should just let people run all over me like they’re better than me?”

 

Howon’s eyebrows furrow at the bite in Myungsoo’s voice. “No. But is it worth a fight? Alphas are strong, Myungsoo. She could really have hurt you if she wanted to. You’re strong for an omega or a beta, but alpha strength is something else altogether, and you know that.”

 

He knows everything Howon is saying is true and coming from a place of not wanting to see Myungsoo hurt, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound patronizing enough to annoy when Myungsoo’s already angry. “That’s not fucking fair!”

 

Howon looks so young when he’s surprised. Normally that expression would make Myungsoo laugh or go all melty with affection, but it doesn’t touch his anger at all now. “Myungsoo….”

 

Myungsoo takes another angry bite of his waffle, chomps it up and swallows hard. “It’s not fair that some people can push other people around just because they’re stronger! This whole mating role division stuff is bullshit.”

 

Howon’s hand settles firm on Myungsoo’s shoulder, and Myungsoo’s anger makes him want to shrug it off—Howon would let go if Myungsoo indicated that he didn’t want to be touched, but it just makes everything worse to know that if Howon didn’t want to let him go, Myungsoo wouldn’t be able to get away. It hasn’t been a factor in their relationship, Howon’s strength, not in the way that the other power imbalances—the fact that Howon could reject him, the fact that Howon could make him do what he wants no matter how Myungsoo feels—has lurked in the background and occasionally caused friction between them. Myungsoo had known, perhaps by instinct, perhaps by observation, that Howon is gentle in the way that only the truly strong can be; he’s never once used his strength against someone weaker—it would have gotten around school if he had, the gossip mill doing its job. But Myungsoo is suddenly aware of it, of how much stronger Howon is by virtue of being an alpha, and it makes him want to scream.

 

But Myungsoo lets him leave his hand there: this is Howon, and Howon is a good person and good to Myungsoo, and Myungsoo likes him more than anyone else in the world, and it’s not him that Myungsoo is mad at. It’s the fact of alphas and omegas, the fact that they exist at all. He’s not mad at Howon, because Howon’s never used his role to do anything wrong, but he is mad that Howon could. He’s mad that other alphas do. He’s mad at this whole fucked-up situation. Who cares if it’s natural? It’s still wrong.

 

“You’re right,” Howon is saying quietly but not at all softly. “It is bullshit. That’s why we passed laws. If she’d tried to hurt you, more than just a little, she’d be locked up.”

 

“But she could still do it anyway! People break the law all the time! They steal and drive without a license and even hurt their children. They know they’ll probably be punished for it, but they do it anyway. And she could do it anyway. Any alpha could. Any alpha could hurt me whenever they want to, and I wouldn’t be able to stop them.”

 

I would stop them,” Howon says, and it’s a growl, like nothing Myungsoo has heard since the early days of their bonding.

 

“That’s not the point! It’s still unfair! And what if you weren’t there? I hate this! Fuck!” He adds that last when his waffle falls to the ground. Great, now he can’t even eat his dessert.

 

“Myungsoo.” Now Howon’s holding him by both shoulders, and Myungsoo drags his eyes up from the ice cream already beginning to form a puddle on the ground. “Myungsoo, what’s this really about?”

 

It’s Howon, and so even though Myungsoo is still trembling a bit—with anger, with something close to tears—he can’t not tell him. He wants to tell Howon everything, be honest with him always. But it takes him a minute to get the words out without tears coming with them. Damn it, he’d thought he’d left the crying behind him now that the bond has settled. “I thought it would be different here.”

 

His voice is raspy and helpless, and Howon’s hands tighten even as he still looks confused. “What do you mean?”

 

Myungsoo makes an abrupt gesture. “In Seoul. I thought—it’s a city, the capital, and people are supposed to be so much better here, but it’s just like home only more so because you don’t know everybody and—”

 

The line of Howon’s lips goes straight and Myungsoo knows he understands. Miserably, Myungsoo looks back down at the waffle floating in an ever-growing lake of ice cream at his feet. When he’d thought of Seoul, he’d thought of possibilities and learning and fun. And yeah, getting stressed out by exams and not having enough time to do everything he wants and being homesick for his family and the friends he’ll leave behind. It hadn’t been all sunshine and daisies, his vision of what his future held. He’d been realistic in a lot of ways, even if most people wouldn’t suspect that of him.

 

But he’d really, really thought that things would be different for omegas in Seoul. That alphas wouldn’t act like assholes and polite society would just ignore the differences completely. That’s the world they supposedly live in, and whenever anyone hears about alphas abusing others or someone saying prejudiced things about omegas, everyone acts shocked. Things like that don’t happen anymore! they all say. We’re past that. That’s what people say, and though Myungsoo knows from experience it isn’t true in his hometown, he’d believed without question that it would be reality in Seoul.

 

Ever since Howon made his promise that they’d make decisions together, it’s been so easy for Myungsoo to forget all about alphas and betas and omegas. His world has pulled in tight: his family, Howon, their group of friends. And in that tiny world, no one cares about mating roles. Alpha, omega, beta—they all treat each other the same. The only time Myungsoo’s even thought about his own status since the gossip at school died down was when he paid attention to how Howon was reacting to the bond differently. But those differences—Howon’s possessiveness, Myungsoo’s own tears—Myungsoo could deal with, choosing to compare it to how some people have different reactions to medication or things like that. They didn’t offend Myungsoo’s sense of justice. And so as long as the gossip mill wasn’t paying attention to Myungsoo, it was easy for him to pretend like his being an omega didn’t matter. And even before his mating, on the occasions when he was reminded of his status, he would just cling to his future plans and tell himself that in Seoul things would be different, that there people would be more open-minded and see him as Myungsoo, not just as an omega. To be shown in such an unpleasant way that things in Seoul are just like things at home—that felt like a slap in the face, a hiss of, You’re different and people look down on you for it. You’re vulnerable and other people think that means you’re weak. It makes Myungsoo want to throw up. All he wants is for it to not matter.

 

The thoughts are trembling their way through Myungsoo’s body when Howon grabs him by the hand and pulls him down the sidewalk. Myungsoo lets himself be pulled, head down and lip between his teeth. He only looks up when they stop and he finds that they’re in a little alleyway between two buildings, quiet and alone.

 

Howon sighs deeply, and Myungsoo’s eyes flicker to his face. He looks very tired, and a spear of guilt stabs its way through Myungsoo’s anger; the last things Howon needs the night before his audition is to be worn out by Myungsoo’s temper tantrum. But Howon’s voice isn’t impatient when he speaks. “Myungsoo, look. The world is fucked up. It is. It isn’t fair that alphas are strong than everyone else or that most men are stronger than women or that adults are stronger than children. It sure as fuck isn’t fair that the people who are stronger hurt the ones who aren’t as strong. We’ve made progress in making it shameful for them to do things like that and we at least lock people up for it now, but it’s not gone. And Seoul isn’t really different than anywhere else because people are always people. Some of them are assholes or selfish or don’t have consciences or whatever. And the only difference with a big city like Seoul is that when there are more people, that means that are more bigots, too. It’s just numbers.”

 

Myungsoo drops his eyes, stubbornly staring at the ground. Howon’s right, of course, but that just makes Myungsoo angrier. It shouldn’t be this way.

 

Howon sighs again, and then he’s pulling Myungsoo up against him, and the familiar solid warmth of his body against Myungsoo’s is a comfort, but a different kind than it used to be when the bond was still new. It feels like the comfort of his mom’s hug, of Sungyeol’s laugh, of Dongwoo’s scent. Only more, because it’s Howon. “I can’t make the world fair you. I’d fucking do it if I could, but I can’t. But…it is getting better. And we can choose our friends and make sure we’re around good people as much as possible.”

 

“That’s not enough.” He feels like a petulant child, but he doesn’t really feel ashamed of it. Not when he’s with Howon.

 

“It’s not,” Howon agrees, and just hearing him say it makes Myungsoo feel a little better. “And we should…find a way to make the world more fair, if we can. Until we find it, though, take care of yourself, okay? It would kill me if something happened to you.”

 

It’s probably exaggeration, that last; that’s just the kind of thing people say. But the sound of those words in Howon’s voice sends shivers slithering down Myungsoo’s spine, the good kind, the kind only Howon has ever given him.

 

It’s not enough. It’s nowhere near enough. The world is still fucked-up and not fair and sometimes Myungsoo hates it so much he feels like he’s going to shatter. But he can’t change it all in one sweep and neither can Howon, and his pouting about it doesn’t help anything, and tomorrow is Howon’s audition.

 

He raises his head and his lips are seeking out Howon’s before he can even instruct them to. It’s weird how kissing has taken on the comfort of the familiar now, even as he hasn’t lost its thrill. It’s easy to set aside his anger for just a while when Howon is kissing him.

 

The anger comes back when they separate, but diffused this time, and Myungsoo sighs and sets it aside as best he can. “I’m sorry,” he says.

 

“I’m not,” Howon answers, pressing another quick kiss to his lips. “She was a bigoted asshole. Of course it pissed you off. It pissed me off, too.”

 

That makes something occur to Myungsoo. He tilts his head, scanning Howon’s face. “But you didn’t—“

 

“Didn’t what?”

 

“You didn’t lose it,” Myungsoo clarifies. “You just walked away.”

 

“Yeah, I was in control the whole time.” Howon looks thoughtful. “I was pissed, but it was like…regular pissed. I wanted to smash her face in, but I knew I wouldn’t.”

 

“Does that mean the bond is settled completely?”

 

Howon shrugs. “I guess it does. I don’t feel out of control anymore. And I haven’t gotten irritated at nothing in a long time, have I?”

 

“No.” Myungsoo mentally runs through his own emotions over the past week or two. “I haven’t been moody for no reason or anything, have I?”

 

“No,” Howon answers, a smile breaking out on his lips. “Sungyeol’s a shit-ton moodier than you now.”

 

Myungsoo snorts, feeling humor stir inside him. “Yeah. It’s a good thing he’s not an omega. He’d be the worst omega ever.”

 

Howon laughs, showing his canines, and as usual Myungsoo is a little dazzled by how handsome he is. “I would feel so sorry for his mate. I would lock them up somewhere far away and make them bang and not let them out until the bond is completely settled. I’m not sure the world could handle Sungyeol with omega bonding syndrome.”

 

Myungsoo’s face crumples into a grin at the thought. “But if he got out, Sungjong would stop him from destroying the world completely. Sungjong would save us.”

 

“Yeah, it’s a good thing we’ve got Sungjong to be our overlord,” Howon agrees, hooking an arm over Myungsoo’s shoulder and steering him out of the alley and back out into the street. Howon places his hand over his heart and pulls a face so serious it just looks ridiculous. “He’s as benevolent as he is beautiful.”

 

Myungsoo chokes back a laugh. “Sometimes I think you like him better than me.”

 

“Of course I do. He’s a much better dancer than you. He doesn’t look like a drunk grandma marionette when he dances.”

 

“Ya!”

 

They’re both still pretending not to laugh when they come upon a circle of a crowd, most of them swaying in time to loud hip-hop coming out of a beat-up stereo on top of a trash can, and Myungsoo shuffles over so he can see a couple of guys decked out in big jackets and sagging pants breakdancing in the middle of the circle. He pauses, knowing Howon will want to see them, and sure enough, Howon’s watching them in the way he always watches good dancing: sharp-eyed, focused, absorbing everything and sorting through it to find what he can learn. Myungsoo studies them, too, and though they’re good, he’s pretty sure he’s right in thinking that they’re no better than Howon.

 

Myungsoo nudges Howon with his hip. “You should go in there, too.” Howon looks over at him, raising a brow. “You street dance all the time at home, and you’re just as good at them. Everybody will love you.”

 

Howon eyes the dancers for a minute, and Myungsoo can see the temptation in his eyes. Finally he shrugs. “Might as well get warmed up for tomorrow, right?”

 

Howon breaks through to the middle of the circle, and the dancers pause to look him over but seem welcoming enough—Myungsoo knows it’s tradition that anybody can join the dancing, though anyone who does better hope he’s good if he doesn’t want to be humiliated. But of course Howon is good, and the other dancers break out into grins as he starts to move, nodding their heads appreciatively and making Myungsoo beam. Howon keeps that totally focused look on his face, like he doesn’t even hear the watchers ooh and ah, like dancing itself is all the reward he needs. Myungsoo always feels when he watches Howon dance that he’s seeing his mate do exactly what he was born to do, but he hasn’t seen him in a crowd of strangers before, and seeing them clap and laugh and gasp over what Howon’s body can do makes Myungsoo more sure than ever that Howon will be an idol someday.

 

Myungsoo feels more than a little smug when Howon finally stops—to mixed applause and sounds of disappointment that he isn’t dancing anymore—and jogs over to him, sweaty and grinning as he reaches up to pull Myungsoo’s head down for a fierce kiss. Myungsoo’s always liked it when Howon kisses him in public, rare though it is, liked everyone knowing that Howon belongs with him. Sungyeol says he has a disgusting kink, but Myungsoo thinks he has every right to be proud.

 

“That was fun,” Howon says, taking Myungsoo’s hand again as they leave the crowd behind them. “I think I needed that to unwind so I can sleep tonight.”

 

Myungsoo pouts. “I thought I was going to help you unwind.”

 

Howon gives him a darkly suggestive look. “Trust me, baby, I’ve got plenty of unwinding left to do.”

 

Myungsoo feels his neck heating up; that’s the only time Howon’s ever called him that when they weren’t fooling around. He actually likes that Howon keeps the pet name for their intimate times, but he certainly doesn’t mind it slipping out into the rest of the world now and then.

 

“C’mon, let’s get you another waffle,” Howon says, pulling him back towards the stand from earlier.

 

“You already got me a waffle,” Myungsoo points out.

 

“Yeah, but you only ate like three bites of it. Besides, I didn’t get any of it.”

 

“I wouldn’t have let you have any anyway! If you wanted a waffle you should have gotten your own! I don’t share!”

 

“I knew you’d go all, ‘Howon, you should eat healthy now, think of your audition tomorrow!’ on me if I did.” The voice Howon makes to mimic Myungsoo is ridiculous.

 

“I do not sound like that!” Myungsoo protests, trying not to laugh and aiming for appalled.

 

“You do, you sound just like your mom.”

 

“Ya! Let’s see if I help you do any more unwinding at all now!”

 

Howon’s laughing face looks even more amazing in the neon lights of Seoul.

Chapter Text

“Are you nervous?”

 

Howon finishes mentally running through a few more steps before he opens his eyes to look at his mate. Myungsoo’s face is pale, his bottom lip red from where he’s been biting it, and he’s fidgeting nervously with the strap of his camera bag. “Yeah, some,” Howon answers with a grin. “But I think you’re more nervous than I am.”

 

He is nervous, but he isn’t the type to show it. He hadn’t had time to get nervous last night: after they got back to the hotel, he and Myungsoo had explored the new world of shower sex and then ended up on the bed, fooling around some more and talking about nothing for a while; when they switched out the lights and Howon had pulled Myungsoo to him, he had fallen asleep too fast to even have time to appreciate the novel feeling of Myungsoo in his arms. He’d slept deeply and woke feeling refreshed, but the anticipation started building almost immediately. He did as much of a warm-up as he could do in the hotel room—it actually had a decent amount of space—and then they’d made their way here to the Woollim building to stand in line.

 

Howon doesn’t fidget when he gets nervous, his hands don’t sweat and his face doesn’t pale or flush. He keeps any anxiety he might feel inside, and it only pops out in the form of terrible jokes—when he talks at all. Myungsoo, in contrast, usually zones out when he’s at his most anxious, as though he thinks he can detach from the world entirely. He isn’t that far gone now, thankfully, but he’s definitely broadcasting his emotions far more than Howon is.

 

“What if they don’t see how good you are?” Myungsoo demands, and Howon can tell that he doesn’t have any idea that he’s gripping the hem of Howon’s t-shirt.

 

“If they don’t, they don’t. There will be other tryouts.”

 

Myungsoo does not seem convinced by this platitude and flops back against the wall he’s sitting against with his arms crossed. “If they don’t, they’re blind and I bet their idols will suck,” he mutters.

 

Myungsoo is really adorable when he’s fierce, and if they were alone Howon would kiss that fierceness away, make it melt right off Myungsoo’s face, but he doesn’t think this crowded waiting area is the best place for that. He isn’t sure whether there are more wannabe idols with numbers pinned to their shirts than he’d expected for such a small company or if there aren’t as many as he would have thought considering it’s open auditions. Either way, the space feels full: several dozen hopefuls—all male, as the girls’ auditions will be held on a different weekend—running through dance moves at half-speed or singing quietly (or in a few cases, not-so-quietly) and vibrating with tension while waiting for their numbers to be called. A few parents and friends or boyfriends or girlfriends have come along for support, and the room is full of their scents, though it’s significantly different than in school or on a public bus: in those situations, there’s an even mix of alpha and omega smells, even if scentless betas form the majority of the group, but here, though there are definitely a number of betas, the overwhelming musk of alphas fills the room and Howon can only catch a few whiffs of omega-smell other than Myungsoo’s beside him.

 

Myungsoo must notice, too, because he scowls. “There are only like five omegas here. I bet there are lots of omegas who want to be idols.”

 

“Yeah,” Howon acknowledges. “But I’m sure some of them don’t think they can compete with alphas at things like this.”

 

“That’s such bullshit. Just alpha privilege—they aren’t all better at everything than everybody else.” Myungsoo pauses, irritation momentarily falling away. “Well, you are,” he says, and Howon laughs. “But there are lots of betas and omegas who are really good singers or dancers—Dongwoo-hyung is amazing. And the stereotype that alphas are more charismatic is the stupidest thing ever. Woohyun-hyung’s got loads of charisma and he’s a beta!”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Howon says, sitting down beside his mate. Myungsoo can be quite sensitive about stereotypes about mating roles, and Howon had been reminded of that the night before. “But old beliefs die hard. Think about how few omegas become CEOs or whatever. It isn’t because they wouldn’t be just as good at it as an alpha is. It’s just taking people a while to get over all that shit.”

 

Myungsoo still has a sullen look on his face and he looks like he’s about to say more when his phone dings. He fishes it out of his pocket and looks surprised when he sees the text.

 

“Your mom?” Howon asks. They’d texted both their moms the night before when they got into Seoul to let them know they were safe, and he’d had a sweet good-luck message from his own this morning, but probably Mrs. Kim is just wanting to check in again.

 

“No, it’s Yeol. Look.”

 

what does it mean when a girl punches your shoulder and calls you a dumbass but then makes you buy her lunch?

 

Even as Howon’s looking at the message, another arrives with a ping. never mind it’s not like you know anything about girls anyway why did i even ask you? i’ll ask jjongie.

 

Howon laughs. “Sounds like things are developing with Minyoung.”

 

“Yeah, I—” Myungsoo bites his lip and looks conflicted. “I know we said we wouldn’t be talking with everybody at home all weekend but—”

 

“Go call Sungyeol,” Howon interrupts him with a wave. “I’m not up for a while anyway.”

 

Myungsoo grins as he scrambles to his feet. “I bet he’ll say something stupid and she’ll dump her ddeokbokki on his head and then make him buy more. Hey—did you ever call Dongwoo-hyung?”

 

Howon had forgotten all about his promise to Sungjong at the bus station. “I’ll do it when you come back, okay?”

 

Myungsoo nods and heads out the door, already dialing Sungyeol, and Howon has a moment to look around the room and take in the competition. He’d been trying not to do that earlier; he isn’t one to compare himself to others, and the only person he’s ever really cared about competing with is himself, pushing himself to do more, to be better. But he can’t help scanning the others now. He doesn’t know how many trainees Woollim is looking to take on, but it’s possible he’ll be good but not quite as good as someone else and a spot won’t be offered to him. There are some guys whose half-formed moves make it clear that they know what they’re doing, and he’s heard a few really good singers, too, as well as a couple of rappers who don’t sound half-bad. The majority in the room are clearly out of their league, and he feels bad for them: their voices aren’t as good as they think they are, their dancing is awkward or their looks are all wrong. There’s at least one or two really good dancers and singers who Howon knows will never make it because of how they look. It’s bullshit, like Myungsoo would say, but it’s not a soft industry. The demands are ridiculous, but they are what they are.

 

Howon thinks he’ll do okay as far as looks go; he’s on the short side, yeah, but he keeps his body well enough and Sungjong had flat-out told him that he’s handsome enough to make it, so he’s not too worried in that regard. It does strike him as amusing that his omega mate is more handsome than anyone else in the room, though.

 

“He’s trying to pretend he’s not totally freaking out about having lunch with her,” Myungsoo announces as he returns, dropping to the floor beside Howon. “He’s going to make such an ass of himself.”

 

“How is that any different than usual?”

 

“I hope he doesn’t totally screw it up. Minyoung’s just about the only girl I can imagine who could actually put up with him.” Myungsoo shoves his phone back into his pocket. “I’ll keep your spot, you go call Dongwoo-hyung now.”

 

Howon runs his hand over Myungsoo’s shoulder as he rises and heads out of the room, pulling his phone out on his way to the front door. He really hasn’t spent much time wondering what Dongwoo’s going to say; because of the way Sungjong reacted, he’s sure it’s got something to do with mating, but Howon’s happy enough with the way things are that he doesn’t really care to think about mating rules and that sort of thing. He and Myungsoo work, and he doesn’t want to bring unnecessary shit to worry about into their relationship. He doesn’t really want to have this conversation right before his audition, either, but he’d promised Sungjong, and at least it will distract him so he doesn’t get too tense. He steps out into the spring sunshine and leans against the wall of the building, phone pressed to his ear.

 

Dongwoo answers on the second ring. “Hoya! I’ve been waiting for you to call me—but shouldn’t you be at auditions now?”

 

Howon is, as always, amazed at the level of enthusiasm Dongwoo can bring to anything. “I’m waiting right now. There are still some guys in front of me, though, so I came outside.”

 

“How do you feel? Nervous? How’re the rest of them? You’re going to kick ass.”

 

“I’m feeling okay,” Howon answers with a chuckle; Dongwoo’s excitement is endearing. “Some of the other guys are good, but I didn’t see any that are too much better than me. I think my chances are decent.”

 

“You worked hard and your routine is really strong.” Dongwoo sounds so sure. “You’re going to kick ass.”

 

“Thanks, hyung.” The encouragement is nice, but there hadn’t been that many more guys in front of him in line, so he wants to get to the point. “But why did Sungjong tell me to call you?”

 

“Oh, yeah.” Dongwoo’s quiet for a beat. “Sungjongie came over to my house right after he left you at the bus station. He was pretty worked up.”

 

Howon winces as he picks at the brick of the building. He knows Sungjong wasn’t angry with him and they’ll be fine, but he doesn’t like it when there’s any kind of tension between them. “Yeah, I know. He wasn’t too happy about some of the stuff I was saying.”

 

“He told me. About what you said. And he was right to be upset, Hoya.”

 

Howon rolls his eyes to the sky. “Not you too, hyung. Look, it’s sweet that you two are all concerned about my relationship, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for how much help you gave us at the beginning when things were rough. But we’re okay now. We’re good, me and Myungsoo. So you don’t need to worry, okay?”

 

Howon’s words don’t seem to soothe Dongwoo; if anything he just sounds more concerned. “That’s just it, Hoya. He told me what you were saying about feeling like you’re in love but it just being the mating bond and how that’s good enough and—”

 

Fuck, why did Sungjong have to run off and tell all this to Dongwoo? Sungjong never tells anyone about what he and Howon talk about, so why did he have to go and do it now? “It is good enough, hyung. Myungsoo is….” He trails off, not finding a word that fits. Something like ‘amazing’ sounds trite, and he knows Myungsoo isn’t perfect, but just saying ‘great’ or ‘good for me’ would be understating too much. Better to head in a different direction. “We’re happy. And we’re going to stay happy. I mean, I know we’ll have fights and stuff and we still have to decide about whether to stay in school, we can work through that, because he’s such a good person and I care about him. We’ll make it, hyung. That’s all I can ask, and that’s what I’ve got. So I’m good.”

 

Somehow the beat of silence that follows sounds incredulous. Then: “Lee Howon, you’re an idiot.”

 

“What?” Howon pulls back his phone to stare at it; he almost can’t believe he’s still talking to Dongwoo. Sure, Dongwoo calls his friends names for fun when they’re goofing off, just like most guys. It’s not the first time he’s called Howon an idiot. But he’s never done it in seriousness before, and Howon wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told him that it would happen.

 

Something about Dongwoo’s tone makes Howon picturing him yanking at his hair. “Have you done any research at all into the mating bond? Like, anything? Run a basic internet search, talked to the counselor at school for ten minutes? Even asked your mom?”

 

Howon hasn’t. At first the whole thing had seemed too huge and unbelievable; he’d needed to disengage from the gravity of what he was going through as much as he could, and finding out more details would have just increased the pressure. And once he got more comfortable with the idea, he figured that between what he remembered from health class and talking with Yejin sometimes, he knew all the basics, and the basics are all he’s interested in anyway. He hasn’t run into any problems so far. “Hyung—”

 

“Because if you had, you’d know what you just told me isn’t even true. Anyone who’s read a book about mating would know, Howon—you didn’t even ask Sungjong?”

 

Defensiveness sharpens Howon’s voice; he doesn’t usually get worked up at things other people say to him, but this is starting to get to him. “What did I need to ask him, hyung? What was he going to tell me that would actually make my life better instead of just making things more awkward? I know what I need to know, and Myungsoo and I are doing fine. So what could he possibly have told me—”

 

“That the bond can’t make you fall in love, you idiot!”

 

Howon freezes, mouth open, and has to remind himself to close it again. “What?” Where the hell is Dongwoo getting this? He’d never said it could.

Dongwoo sighs deeply. “The bond exists to try to keep you from taking off before a baby is born. To ensure that the baby will grow up with two parents because that makes it more likely for the baby to survive. It’s nature.”

 

Howon has to grit his teeth. Dongwoo had thrown him for a moment, but this is just basic human biology you learn in middle school. “I know that, hyung.”

 

“So the bond sends certain hormones through your body that trigger reactions that will foster bonding,” Dongwoo continues as though Howon hadn’t said anything at all. “Possessiveness and protectiveness on your side, more neediness on Myungsoo’s. And it heightens your sexual attraction, too, of course. But the point is the same: it wants you to feel like you need to stay with him, that you can’t possibly live without him, that everything is good when you’re with him.”

 

Howon can still feel all of that when he thinks about it, the sense of rightness he felt at the beginning when he was with Myungsoo, touching him, just standing near him; the overwhelming fury whenever anyone was threatening his mate. Those emotions have mostly faded now that the bond has settled, like his body knows he doesn’t need those feelings anymore. He still feels right when he’s with Myungsoo, still feels angry at the thought of someone hurting him, but those reactions are natural, like how he’d feel about Sungjong or his little brother, only more so. “I know that, too, hyung. I lived that.”

 

Again, Dongwoo continues like Howon hadn’t interrupted him. “But that’s really just at the beginning. Once your bodies have time to figure out that you aren’t going to take off, the bond is secure and it doesn’t freak out anymore. It really only shows itself if one of you were to cheat on the other or if you’re separated for too long. Otherwise, it doesn’t do much.”

 

Again, all stuff Howon knows. Why the fuck is Dongwoo insisting on giving him a biology lesson now? “Okay, hyung. Are you going to get to the point anytime soon?”

 

“Hoya, the point is that that, yeah, the bond makes you feel a lot of things at first. And it was probably hard to tell what was the bond from what you would have been feeling anyway—like you end up wondering if you really want him so much you can hardly stand it or if that’s all just the bond. It’s confusing. At first. But then it settles.”

 

Howon is so sick of this conversation. All he wants is to go back inside and feel Myungsoo’s eyes watching him as he warms up for his audition. He can’t believe Dongwoo is making him talk about this now. “Hyung, I’m going to hang up on you if you don’t tell me something I don’t know soon.”

 

“You can’t hang up, you promised Sungjong.” Dongwoo doesn’t wait for Howon to concede the point, just continues talking, voice low and almost pleading in its seriousness. “It’s settled now, Howon. Anything you’re feeling now, that’s just you. And that’s the other thing—the bond may make you feel like you need your mate or like you’ll die if you can’t touch him...but it can’t make you feel like you’re in love.”

 

Howon goes very still. His throat feels like it’s closing up, and he has to swallow hard to be able to croak, “Hyung?”

 

Dongwoo’s voice is gentle now, soothing. “Hoya, anything you feel right now? That’s not the bond. That’s you. The bond can’t make you love anyone. It can’t even make you feel like you love him. Even before it settled, the bond has never been about love, only connection. Any love you feel, that’s just from you. And if you feel like you’re in love with Myungsoo...Howon, you really are.”

 

When Howon remembers to breathe again, he finds that he’s braced one arm against the wall, his forehead pressed to the brick, and he’s clutching his phone so hard it cuts into his hand. It’s too much—it’s too much to process. He’d been so sure that at least some of what he felt was just hormones and the bond all tangling up together with how much he likes Myungsoo, how fucking fond of him he is. He’d made his peace with the idea that he would never truly know what he would have felt for Myungsoo if they hadn’t mated, if they’d just been introduced by their friends and dated like regular people, if they lived in a world without alphas and omegas. He’d told himself not to dwell too much on that question, just to embrace what he felt without worry about what its roots are. He’d decided he could live with not knowing.

 

But this—this is rewriting everything he’s believed about his relationship with Myungsoo from day one. This is—

 

This is too much to process right now.

 

“Hoya—Howon are you okay?”

 

Dongwoo’s voice sounds far away and worried, and Howon shakes himself back to the moment. “Yeah, hyung, I’m okay.” He knows what he heard Dongwoo say, he knows what it means. But he still needs to…. “The bond never makes you feel in love at all? Ever?”

 

Worry turns to eagerness in Dongwoo’s voice. “Not love, Hoya, no. Possessiveness or attraction or a sense of belonging. But not love.”

 

Howon pushes himself off the wall, very aware of each shift of muscle and ligament, and stands straight. “Hyung, I need to go now.” He doesn’t have time for this now. Not now. Not when the audition that could decide his future is just moments away.

 

“What?” Dongwoo sounds taken off-guard. “Hoya, what—”

 

“They should be calling my number soon. Thank you for telling me this, hyung. I’ll talk to you when I get home tomorrow, okay?”

 

“But Hoya—”

 

Hoya ends the call and shoves his phone into his pocket. He flexes his hands, shifts his shoulders, rolls his neck and listens to it pop. Takes a deep breath of warm air and listens to the passing traffic for a moment. And then he walks back inside.

 

Myungsoo meets him at the door, bouncing on his toes with anxiousness. “They just called number twenty-eight, you’re up next, I thought you were going to be out here forever—” He breaks off suddenly, eyes going worried. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

 

Howon allows himself a moment to look at his mate, to take in the familiar face with its perfect features and intense eyes that always display so much emotion when they’re looking at Howon. Affection surges up inside him, but that’s nothing new. He feels exactly the way he’s felt for a while now whenever he looks at Myungsoo. Nothing’s changed. “I’m fine, Myungsoo.” Myungsoo’s name still tastes the same on his tongue, and Myungsoo’s hand grabbing his feels just how it always has.

 

“Are you sure? Is Dongwoo-hyung okay? And Yejin-noona?”

 

Howon steers Myungsoo down the hall back into the waiting room. “They’re fine, everybody’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

 

Myungsoo shakes his head slightly, unconvinced. “But you look—”

 

Howon squeezes his hand. “I’ll tell you after, okay? Don’t worry about it.” But Myungsoo still looks troubled and the sight tightens something in Howon’s chest just like it has for the past however long. Fuck that they’re in a public place; Howon kisses him, trying to soothe his mate’s worries away. And just like they have since that first time on Howon’s bed, Myungsoo’s lips go pliant under his, but eager and warm and better than any kiss Howon’s ever had.

 

He distantly hears someone yelling, “Number twenty-nine!” and so he pulls back, giving Myungsoo a smile. “That’s me.”

 

Myungsoo’s face transforms from the worry of a moment before to tense excitement. “Kick ass,” he says urgently, and Howon’s smile widens.

 

“I will.” He squeezes Myungsoo’s hand and then releases it, striding over to where the staff member is standing by the open door.

 

“I’m twenty-nine.”

 

“Lee Howon?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Music?”

 

Howon hands her the CD he’d brought along.

 

The woman takes it, running her eyes over Howon briefly, and then waves him inside. “Go to the center of the room.”

 

Howon hears the door click closed as he walks to the center of the large empty room, then the sound of the staff member heading over to the player and putting his CD in. There are three men sitting at the table in front of him, younger-looking than he expected. He bows and greets them formally.

 

“I’m number twenty-nine, Lee Howon.”

 

The man in the center is looking at the paperwork Howon had filled out earlier with all his information and the headshot he’d clipped to it so they could remember his face even if they didn’t remember his name.

 

“Eighteen, alpha?” the man asks.

 

Howon feels a pulse of annoyance—what does his alpha status have to do with anything?—but puts it away. “Yes.”

 

The man is silent for a moment and Howon thinks his eyes are lingering on the paper, but then he looks up and sets it aside. “All right, Lee Howon-ssi. Let’s see what you can do.”

 

Howon glances over at the woman at the CD player to let her know he’s ready, and she nods. In the moment before she presses the button, Howon moves into his starting position and looks down at the ground and thinks about two days before in the gym, standing just like this right before showing Myungsoo his routine. He’d felt so much for Myungsoo then, but no different than what he feels for him. He feels the way he’s felt for weeks now, without ever having—or needing—a word to describe it.

 

I love him. I love him so fucking much and that’s just me. That’s not the bond. It’s just me.

 

And then the music starts.

 

Howon’s breathing hard when the music stops and he hits his final position, right on beat, sweating lightly in the too-warm room. But he barely notices; all he can feel is the energy surging through him, the white-hot memory of the way it had felt to dance in front of Myungsoo and the lightning-strike moment of looking up and see Myungsoo staring at him, his eyes intense with more than Howon would be able to name. Time had seemed to blur just now as he danced, like he was here in front of the panel but also dancing just for Myungsoo in the old gym at the same time, the smell of this room mixing with the smell of the gym and of Myungsoo, and threaded through the music Dongwoo’s voice saying, The bond can’t make you love anyone….Any love you feel, that’s just from you. And if you feel like you’re in love with Myungsoo...Howon, you really are. And weirdly, in the time it took to dance his routine, he's processed that and made his peace with it. He's in love with Myungsoo. And he has been for longer than he knew.

 

Howon raises his eyes to the panel and brushes some sweat off of his hairline, feeling more insistently than usual the beat of his heart as it slowly returns to its resting rhythm. The adrenaline is seeping slowly out of him, and anticipation is streaming in to take its place, fueled by the knowledge that he’s about to be judged by people who could offer him everything he’s worked so hard for all these years. And even if they don’t want to make him a trainee, just knowing that they think he has the talent, the skills, would be an affirmation of a kind he’s never had before.

 

But Howon is realistic, so he also knows they could also just nod and say, ‘Thank you for your time,’ and direct him out of the room. He’s prepared himself for that. That won’t break him. If that’s what he gets, it will just make him more determined to succeed, just fuel his desire to work harder. He’s ready for whatever they say to him.

 

At least, that’s what he thinks. But he wasn’t ready at all for what the man in the middle says.

 

“It says on your form that you’re mated?”

 

Howon hadn’t been worried about his own ability to be cool and professional. He’s always been able to stay calm in the moment when he needs to. But as the words connect, his jaw drops open and he ends up gaping at the man. When the man raises both his eyebrows, Howon quickly shuts his mouth. “Uh. Yes.”

 

“Does your mate have any interest in becoming a trainee as well?”

 

Howon’s mind is spinning at the unexpectedness of the conversation, but he still has to bite back a laugh at the thought of his clumsy, introverted terrible-dancer of a mate in an idol group. “He really doesn’t.

 

Howon isn’t sure why he thinks the man’s answering, “Hmmm,” could be translated, “Too bad.” The man glances at the two men on either side of him. “Is he supportive of your wish to be a trainee, your mate?”

 

What the fuck? Why won’t these people just tell him whether his dancing was any good or not? Why the hell do they care about Myungsoo? “Yes, very supportive.”

 

Again the man exchanges looks with the other two. “Is he here with you today?”

 

Howon is half a second from just demanding that they tell him what they thought of his dancing and why they’re asking him this. But he forces himself to answer politely. “Yes.”

 

“Well, why don’t you invite him to join us?”

 

What? “Uh. Why?”

 

The man looks amused. “You’re mated, Howon-ssi. You had to know that that would be a disadvantage in seeking to join a company unless you can spin your mating status as a plus for a potential group. We’re a small company, Howon-ssi, and we’ve never had an idol group before. Taking on a mated trainee, no matter how talented, will almost certainly be more trouble than it’s worth for us. But the ‘almost’ is key. I want to give you a fair shot. So, again, why don’t you invite him to join us?”

Chapter Text

“Myungsoo?”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes fly open and his head jerks back to look up at Howon even as he scrambles to his feet. “Is it over already?” His hands have been shaking a little for a while now, and he has to reach out and grab Howon’s to still them. “What did they say?”

 

Myungsoo searches Howon’s face eagerly for a hint about how the audition had gone, but he doesn’t see any expression that makes sense. Not elation or pride at being selected, but not the grim determination to do better than Myungsoo would have expected if he was rejected. Instead, Howon just looks...confused. And still tense, maybe even tenser than he was before he went into the room. Myungsoo shuffles a little closer to him, wishing he could press his body up against Howon’s. It would make him feel better. The anxiety that has been churning through him since Howon disappeared through the door has morphed into something tinged with sick worry.

 

“They want to see you.”

 

Myungsoo stares at him. “What?”

 

“The panel. They want you to come in, too.”

 

Myungsoo now understands Howon’s confusion, because he’s feeling it, too, but it does nothing to drown out the worry. He clings to Howon’s hand harder. “Why?” he asks, not even noticing that his voice is a little breathier, a little whinier than usual.

 

Howon squeezes his hand. “They want to see if our mating is something they can use to their advantage. But you don’t have to go in if you’re not comfortable with it. I’ll just tell them to fuck off and try out at the other companies.”

 

Myungsoo is very much uncomfortable, but he dislikes the idea of Howon rejecting an opportunity to attain his dream far more than the idea of being uncomfortable in front of the panel. “No—I want to—I mean, it’s okay, I’ll come. But Howon—what did they say? About your dancing? Did they like it?”

 

Howon shakes his head a little. He’s beginning to look more settled. “I don’t know. They didn’t say anything about it.”

 

“What?” Myungsoo’s hand flexes around Howon’s in anger. “How could they not say?” They got to watch Howon dance his amazing dance and then they didn’t even say anything about it? Who are these people?

 

And suddenly there’s Howon’s hand on his cheek, Howon’s lips quirking with fond amusement. “Are you angry, Myungsoo? Should I tell them to fuck off?”

 

The soft gesture leaves him a little dazed, even more than he already was by the whole situation. Howon usually doesn’t touch him like that in public.

 

Fuck, public—Myungsoo glances hurriedly around and notices that every person in the waiting room is staring at them, even if some of them are trying to pretend like they’re not. A shudder passes through Myungsoo, memories of those first few days at school after the mating. He hates feeling like a bug under a microscope, and the idea of being stared at by however many people are on the judging panel is suddenly far more appealing than being stared at by these people out here.

 

“No. No, let’s go,” Myungsoo answers hurriedly, and Howon studies him for a long moment, then squeezes his hand again as he guides him towards the door. Myungsoo focuses his eyes on the floor in front of him instead of on all the eyes looking at him, trying to think of nothing but Howon’s hand in his and Howon’s warmth and scent beside him.

 

“It’ll be okay,” Howon says under his breath as they reach the door. “We can walk out whenever you want.”

 

And that’s so Howon it makes Myungsoo want to jump on him and wrap himself around him, but he reminds himself that this is for Howon’s future, and so he squares his shoulders and lifts his chin as they walk into the room.

 

Having only three sets of eyes staring at him is a relief after the waiting room, but it still makes his skin prickle enough that he’s glad that Howon doesn’t show any signs of letting go of his hand as they stop in the center of the room. Myungsoo wants to zone out, to ignore those eyes and think about pictures he’d like to take and forget he’s in this room altogether, but he makes himself bow and greet the three men and keep his eyes on them the whole time.

 

The man in the center’s eyebrows twitch as he looks at Myungsoo. “This is your mate?” he asks Howon, and Myungsoo doesn’t have to be able to read Howon’s mind to know he’s thinking something sarcastic. No, he’s just some guy I grabbed out in the waiting room, jackass.

 

“Yes, sir. Kim Myungsoo.”

 

The man in the center exchanges looks with the two other men, then looks back at Myungsoo and gives him a small smile. “You’re very handsome, Myungsoo-ssi.”

 

Myungsoo had thought he was used to the way that people seem unable to stop themselves from saying that the first time they meet him, but he blinks in surprise—and barely-controlled annoyance. So what if he’s handsome? This isn’t about him, it’s about Howon—but Howon is still beside him, holding his hand, so he just says, “Thank you.”

 

“Your mate wants to be an idol. You don’t want to be one, too?”

 

Doesn’t this man know that if Myungsoo wanted to be an idol he would be trying out, too? Is he stupid? “No, sir.”

 

“You’re absolutely sure?”

 

Myungsoo usually doesn’t have a hard time being polite; he likes being polite. But right now he has to hide his impatience. “I’m very sure.”

 

Something Myungsoo thinks might be disappointment flickers across the man’s face. “But you support your mate becoming one?”

 

I support anything Howon does. “It’s his dream,” he answers, maybe a bit stiff in his attempt to keep his annoyance in check. “He supports my dreams, too.”

 

“And what are your dreams?”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t really feel like he owes this man an answer, but he gives one anyway. “I want to be a photographer.”

 

He can’t decipher the expression on the man’s face as he pauses in acknowledgment, then says, “You’re very young to be mated. You’re not eighteen yet, Myungsoo-ssi, but your parents approved?”

 

He can feel Howon about to answer beside him, but the question was directed at him, so Myungsoo speaks up. “It wasn’t planned.”

 

The man’s eyebrows fly up again, and Myungsoo can tell he’s intrigued. Almost all matings are planned these days, so Myungsoo’s not surprised that he’s interested. “An accident?”

 

Myungsoo hasn’t thought about it like that in a long, long time, but he can’t argue with the phrasing. “Yes.”

 

“You two seem quite close for an accidentally bonded pair. You’ve made the best of things?”

 

Myungsoo is trying to think of a way to answer that—he supposes the words are true enough, but somehow it gives him a bad taste in his mouth to think about it that way—when Howon shifts beside him and says, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

 

Myungsoo goes warm all over and he hears the man on the left let out a small noise that he can’t quite interpret. The man on the right covers his mouth with his hand as though hiding a cough or a laugh, but the man in the middle is still unreadable. Myungsoo wants to turn away from them and press his flushed cheek against Howon’s shoulder and just think about Howon saying It was the best thing that ever happened to me, over and over.

 

“How is that, Howon-ssi?”

 

Howon’s hand flexes around Myungsoo, and Myungsoo knows he’s uncomfortable with this, with talking like this, but still he says, “If it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have ended up together.”

 

“So you two didn’t know each other before the mating?”

 

Howon shrugs the shoulder furthest from Myungsoo, a small sharp jerk. “Barely.”

 

“But now he’s the best thing that ever happened to you?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Howon answers shortly. Myungsoo feels like his skin is on fire.

 

“Well, aren’t you a romantic,” the man mutters, and he sounds like he’s talking mostly to himself, but Howon answers anyway, voice tight.

 

“Not really, sir.”

 

The man looks back at Howon. “What do you mean, Howon-ssi?”

 

“I’m not a romantic, sir.” Howon’s voice is throaty, but he keeps talking steadily, and with each word Myungsoo feels more like he wants to combust. “The only time I dated, my girlfriend broke up with me because she could tell I didn’t care as much about her as I did about dancing.” Myungsoo hadn’t heard that before, but it sounds right, sounds like Howon. “I figured that would just be the way it is. I wasn’t sure I even wanted a relationship, not the way I wanted to dance. I’m not a romantic at all.”

 

The man tilts his head in interest. “And yet here you are saying that your accidental mating with a boy you barely knew is the best thing that ever happened to you.” It isn’t phrased as a question, but it still is one.

 

“Well, tied with dancing,” Howon allows, and Myungsoo feels a giggle bubble up inside of him. That’s so Howon, and it makes Myungsoo wish they were alone somewhere so he could get as close to Howon as possible and never move away.

 

“I see. And you, Myungsoo-ssi. Would you say the mating is the best thing that ever happened to you?”

 

The question makes Myungsoo’s head spin, a dipping, vertigo sensation. It slams back into him, the devastated way he’d felt when he realized what had happened in the art room, the way he’d cried all over Sungyeol, mourning how he would never have the great romance he wanted with the getting to know each other slowly and falling in love and kissing and—eventually—marrying or mating or both. And he’d been sure that his plans for the future had been shattered and lost to him as well. It had felt like the worst thing that he could imagine, the mating. A nightmare.

 

But now he sees everything that’s happened between then and now, stretching out in front of him, and he feels another wave of dropping dizziness when he realizes that, actually, the mating has been…well, everything he’s ever wanted. With Howon, he has everything he’d dreamed about—Howon is everything he’d dreamed about when he thought of who he might fall in love with. Howon is strong and kind and funny and talented and handsome and he lets Myungsoo cling and he thinks Myungsoo’s dorky laugh is cute and he likes to look at Myungsoo’s pictures and he wants Myungsoo to have everything he wants and he touches Myungsoo in a way that makes Myungsoo lose all control. If back before the mating Myungsoo had made a list of the qualities he wanted in his future mate or spouse, those would have been what he’d have written. He sees now that somehow he has the drama kind of love without having had the drama kind of story to go with it.

 

Or—no—he did have the drama story. He had that too. And okay, it was all out of order, not the way these things are supposed to go, not the way they go in manhwas, but—but it’s all there. The getting to know each other and the amazing first kiss and the learning how to take care of each other and the sex—it’s all there, just so jumbled up that Myungsoo hadn’t even seen that it was happening because he’d been too busy living it.

 

Myungsoo has always thought that it can’t be really falling in love if the love story doesn’t unfold in the right way, but it’s all happened without him noticing it, and that means—does that mean—he feels so much for Howon, so much more than he feels for anyone. And he feels so much for Sungyeol and his family and Sungjong and the hyungs and his friends, more than he thinks is normal sometimes, and—but what he feels for Howon is so much more even than that, and if it’s that much, does that mean that that feeling is...

 

Myungsoo could laugh, or sob, but doesn’t bother with either. Because he’s the one who knows every detail of love stories, but somehow he fell in love without even realizing it.

 

“Myungsoo? Myungsoo?”

 

It feels like coming back into his body again, hearing Howon say his name, and Myungsoo lets out a little gasp at just how present he is in the room again. He pulls himself together quickly, glancing at Howon to give him a reassuring smile before focusing on the man again.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. What did you ask me?”

 

The panelists are all watching him closely, and Myungsoo suspects the man in the middle might ask why Myungsoo just zoned out in the middle of the conversation, but he just repeats, “I asked you if the mating was the best thing to ever happen to you, too.”

 

Myungsoo clears his throat. “Yes, sir. It was.”

 

He feels Howon tense beside him, and he wishes more than anything that they were alone, back in the hotel room, back in the old gym, somewhere where he could hurl himself into Howon and tell him what he feels, what he’s just realized he feels, but they’re here in front of strangers, and so Myungsoo fights the overwhelming realization back, breathing in deeply so he can fill his lungs with the smell of Howon and focusing on the moment. They still haven’t said whether they want him yet. You have to focus on this now. You can’t get distracted. This is too important for Howon.

 

The man in the center looks from one of his companions to the other, and both of them nod, and then he looks back at Howon and Myungsoo. “Howon-ssi, you’re a very talented dancer.”

 

Myungsoo can’t stop the grin that breaks out across his face at the words, but he smothers it quickly. Of course Howon is talented. That’s exactly what they should say. “Thank you, sir,” Howon says beside him, but he doesn’t relax as much as Myungsoo would have expected him to.

 

“If your singing or rapping is decent, we might have a spot for you as a trainee.”

 

Myungsoo wants to jump up in the air or attack Howon with kisses or dance or something equally awkward, but he forces himself to hold still and stare at Howon’s profile instead. Howon is still tense all over, even in his hand that’s holding Myungsoo’s. “Might, sir?”

 

“I wouldn’t have thought we’d ever take on a mated trainee. We’d discussed the possibility before and dismissed it. But your story is touching enough—and, frankly, your mate is handsome enough—that it could create some good attention for our company.”

 

For the first time in his life, Myungsoo feels thankful that he’s handsome. He’s never much cared about it before either way but if it means Howon—Howon who he loves—getting a place at the company….

 

“You know, of course, that becoming a trainee is no guarantee that you will ever be an idol. The majority of trainees never do debut, and many of the groups that do never get off the ground and end up being a waste of their company’s money. But we can offer you a chance. We’ll have you rap or sing in a moment, and if we think we could work with your abilities, we’ll put you on our consideration list and get back to you within the next few days about whether we’re offering you a position as a trainee.”

 

Myungsoo has to clap his free hand over his mouth to keep his smile from bursting out, but he still feels Howon holding himself motionless beside him. “I’m very honored, sir,” Howon says, but his mouth doesn’t twitch from trying to hold back a smile, and Myungsoo doesn’t really understand.

 

“Is that not a good enough offer for you, Howon-ssi?”

 

Myungsoo sometimes forgets how formidable Howon can look when he’s serious, with his thick brows and manly face radiating toughness. “I just have a few questions, sir.”

 

“All right, ask them.”

 

Howon lifts his chin a little, and Myungsoo lowers his hand, his grin fading away. This looks serious. “When you say that Myungsoo is handsome enough to be of use to you. You make it sound like you expect something of him.”

 

The man sits slowly back in his chair, and Myungsoo stares at Howon, not sure where he’s going with this. They just offered to make him a trainee.

 

“That’s not all right with you?”

 

Howon shifts his jaw. “I want to know what that would entail. I’m the one who wants to be an idol. Myungsoo just told you he doesn’t want to be. I want to know what you would expect of him.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyebrows furrow; he hadn’t thought of it like that. Do they want him to do something, too? He likes to sing, is teaching himself to play guitar, wouldn’t mind performing. But he has his photography, and he isn’t going to get distracted from it, and more than that, he knows that omega idols aren’t held in as high regard as others: he doesn’t want to put himself out there for the whole country to stare at him like the kids at school had done after the mating. He doesn’t think he could handle that.

 

“I see,” the man says, but he doesn’t sound displeased. He and the other two panelists take a few moments to exchange looks, and then he turns his attention back to Howon and Myungsoo. “We’d be willing to work with what the two of you are comfortable with, up to a certain point.”

 

“What does that mean?” Myungsoo finds himself asking. He hadn’t considered any of this. He’d known, intellectually at least, that if Howon debuted as an idol that he’d become famous by extension, but he hasn’t spent much time thinking about this. Now he kind of wishes he had.

 

“It means that if you are willing, we can use you extensively were Howon to debut—interviews about what it’s like to be an idol’s mate, variety show appearances as a couple, that sort of thing. The romance would sell incredibly well, especially with two attractive young mates to sell it.”

 

Howon makes a small sound beside him; Myungsoo guesses it might be because of the word ‘use.’ “And if he doesn’t want to do all that?”

 

“We would take a more subtle approach. Allow the story of your mating to get out, use the rumors to build interest in the run-up to debut. The netizens would do the rest, digging up pictures and contacting your classmates. As soon as Myungsoo’s face starts floating around, people will be interested. Then just have him show up at a few performances and concerts—not even onstage, but just present, letting those there catch a glimpse of you now and then—maybe one small couple interview every year or two. Use your story without seeming to do so.”

 

Myungsoo isn’t sure what to make of all that: on the one hand, the manipulation of it all makes him uneasy; on the other, it doesn’t sound so bad for him to have to deal with. If Howon really does debut, people will find out about their mating anyway. There will be nothing he can do to keep from being a person of interest. He needs some time to think this through, to process this, hopefully talking about it with Howon, though he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to tell Howon that he isn’t comfortable with all that, to ruin Howon’s dream even if he knows Howon would want him to be honest with him.

 

But Howon has more questions Myungsoo didn’t see coming. “What if you offer me the place in the next few days and I don’t take you up on the offer now? How will that affect my chances next year?”

 

Again, the man’s eyebrows rise. “Is that what’s going to happen?”

 

Myungsoo bites his lip as he watches Howon closely, but Howon seems as imperturbable as he has all along. “Myungsoo and I haven’t decided yet what our plans for the immediate future are. We still have a year left before we graduate.”

 

“Is that an issue for you?” the man asks, an edge of surprise in his voice. Myungsoo understands: there are loads of trainees who dropped out of high school; most of them wouldn’t let anything get in the way of their dreams. “You would have time to study for the GED as a trainee, or you could transfer to a school here, though with your trainee schedule it might take you longer to graduate than it would a normal student. And of course your mate would have no trouble enrolling at a new school.”

 

It isn’t anything Myungsoo has turned over and over in his head before, but hearing it stated like that makes him feel like there’s no reason for Howon not to accept, for them not to move to Seoul as soon as possible. Myungsoo could easily transfer to a school here; his grades are good enough that it would be easy to find one. And yet, the thought of a whole year of school without Sungyeol and Sungjong and the rest of their friends—without even Howon, who he knows wouldn’t transfer but would take the GED instead—all by himself…he feels a little cold at the thought.

 

“I’d like for Myungsoo to be able to graduate with our friends,” Howon says, still calm as ever. “To be able to stay with his family for another year. That’s what he wants. If I can figure out a way to make that happen without hurting my chances to become an idol, then that’s what I want to do.”

 

“But we haven’t talked about it!” The words burst out of him, and he isn’t even sure why—Howon is talking about what he wants, so shouldn’t Myungsoo be happy? But the thought of Howon making this decision, to postpone his dream just for Myungsoo, it isn’t okay with him. “We said we wouldn’t talk about it until after the audition, we’d decide then.”

 

Myungsoo’s heart is pounding as Howon turns to look at him full-on for the first time, taking Myungsoo’s other hand in his and focusing on him like they’re the only ones in the room. His voice is quieter now, but it somehow fills up the space between them better. “I know that. And we can talk about it, but if there’s a way you can graduate with Sungyeol and I can still become an idol, isn’t that the best way?”

 

“Well—yeah,” Myungsoo answers lamely. “I—yeah. But we haven’t talked about it. You said we’d make the decision together.”

 

“But I already know what you want.” Howon’s eyebrows dip down; he looks confused like he did out in the hall. “And this works out for both of us, so—“

 

“But I want us to talk about it together!”

 

“Gentlemen.” Both of their heads swing around at the word to find the man and his fellow panelists watching them in what might be amusement. “If you recall, I didn’t answer Howon’s question.”

 

Oh. Myungsoo’s mouth snaps shut and he and Howon drop their hands as they turn to look at the panel again.

 

“I’ve never heard of a trainee being offered a place and then asking for a postponement,” the man says dryly, and Myungsoo can’t tell if he’s entertained or offended. “Most potential trainees are eager to start as quickly as they can.”

 

“Most trainees don’t have a mate, sir,” Howon points out, and of course he would.

 

Myungsoo is leaning towards that being amusement on the man’s face. “A fair point. Of course there are no guarantees, and we’re not going to reserve a spot exclusively for you, Howon-ssi—you are good, but you aren’t that good.” Myungsoo starts to bristle, but Howon just nods his head as if in agreement, so Myungsoo makes himself relax. “Still, if you continue to work hard at your dancing and improve, I don’t see why we wouldn’t offer you a spot should we have another round of auditions next year.”

 

“Do you think you will? Have another round of auditions?” Myungsoo asks.

 

“I can’t say for sure. We haven’t been through everyone who’s waiting in the hallway yet. We might become overloaded with trainees and not have room for one more. But then again, we might not. And trainees drop out or are let go quite frequently. I would say you have a decent chance at having an opportunity to try out again next year.”

 

Howon nods once, sharply. “Thank you, sir. Is there anything else I need to do?”

 

Now Myungsoo is sure the man is amused. “Ready to be done with this, are you?”

 

“That’s not it, sir. But I don’t want to take up any more of your time when you have more people to see. And you said you would be considering your offers over the next day or two, and Myungsoo and I need time to talk, too, to decide what we’re going to do if you do offer me a spot.”

 

The man smiles outright. “Just sing us a few bars, then.”

 

Myungsoo knows Howon likes rapping better than singing, so he isn’t surprised that Howon picks a song by some American artist that combines the two. Myungsoo’s heard the song before—Howon listens to it a lot—though he couldn’t name the artist and doesn’t know what the lyrics mean. But he hasn’t heard Howon sing them, and while he knows that Howon isn’t as talented of a singer as the original artist, he still gets shivers at the sound of Howon’s voice. He’s biased, of course, but he thinks anyone would find something appealing about that voice, and the rap seems pretty good to him, too.

 

When Howon’s done, the man in the center nods and says, “We can work with that,” and then waves his hand dismissively. “We have your information; we’ll be in contact in the next day or two. You two go on, then.” As they bow and turn to go, he catches them with another word. “Oh, and Myungsoo-ssi?” They pause and look back at him, and Myungsoo isn’t surprised by what he says next. “Should Howon not end up as a trainee at this time, if you change your mind in the ensuing year, we might just have a spot for you, too.”

 

Myungsoo wants to say something smart about how for all they know he’s the worst singer in the world—and he is the worst dancer—but he just mutters a quick word of thanks and turns to leave. He’s feeling more than a bit overwhelmed as he and Howon head out of the room, so focused on his own tumultuous emotions that he doesn’t notice the curious looks they get from the other wannabe idols as they head out of the building. “Howon—“ he starts as they walk out the door, but Howon cuts him off.

 

“Let’s wait till we get back to the room to talk, okay? We both need time to think, and we can talk better there.”

 

Myungsoo can’t argue with that—both of them are the kind who prefer to think things through from every angle before they start to talk, unlike Sungyeol or Woohyun, who work things out by talking about them. Besides, public transportation and the many pedestrians in this area of the city don’t make discussions easy, so Myungsoo just lets Howon lead him onto the bus and down the street, paying no attention to the warm day and the passersby, instead letting everything that just happened wash over him.

Chapter Text

The door closes with a click and a heaviness that’s unique to hotel rooms, shutting them into a small world of their own. The room is cool and quiet and it seems like the perfect place to have a serious discussion—except that it’s almost too much, too solemn, an atmosphere close to suffocating. Myungsoo is sitting on the end of the bed, hands between his knees, and Howon has to smile when he remembers that Myungsoo had insisted on making it before they left this morning, no matter what Howon said about housekeeping. That seems like a very long time ago now. The room is so quiet.

 

Myungsoo’s laptop is sitting open on his desk, and Howon walks over to it, dragging his fingers across the touchpad and making it whir back to life. He opens up itunes and scrolls through it—there’s a bunch of Howon’s hiphop and some of Sungjong’s girl group dances and some of Woohyun’s Stevie Wonder and Sungyeol’s Michael Jackson; unlike most of their group, Myungsoo doesn’t have specifically defined tastes in music, listening to a mishmash of genres, mostly things he’s been introduced to by their friends. Howon finds Nell’s entire discography—Sunggyu-hyung would be proud—and pulls it up, clicking on the first track of Separation Anxiety and relaxing a bit as music seeps into the room. It isn’t the type of thing Howon usually chooses to listen to—even when he wants something more relaxing than his usual upbeat hip-hop, he typically goes for the production-heavy smoothness of R&B—but it’s unobtrusive enough not to hinder conversation even as it dissolves the sober air hanging in the room. Throwing open the heavy drapes and letting sunlight stream in helps, too.

 

Howon turns back to Myungsoo and finds his mate’s gaze waiting for him. Howon looks back at those dark eyes and tries to sort out everything that’s going on in his mind. So much has happened since they left this room hours ago, and he’s not sure of where to start. It’s so much.

 

“What did Dongwoo-hyung say?”

 

The suddenness of the question catches Howon off-guard. He blinks. “What?”

 

“Dongwoo-hyung,” Myungsoo repeats. “On the phone. He wanted you to call him all weekend and you looked strange after you talked to him and you said you’d tell me afterwards.”

 

Okay. If that’s where Myungsoo wants to start. Howon kicks off his shoes—Myungsoo’s already removed his—and sits down on the bed, back against the pillowed headboard, and motions for Myungsoo to join him. Myungsoo’s shoulder and side press against his as they settle into place, just like all those days right after the mating that they sat side-by-side against the tree while they ate lunch, and that’s why Howon had chosen to sit like this: they’re used to this position and it gives Myungsoo the stabilizing skinship he needs without the touching being so intimate that it’s a distraction or so *overwhelming that Howon feels confined. The downside is that they aren’t face-to-face, but honestly that might make it easier to have this conversation.

 

“What Dongwoo-hyung said,” Howon murmurs, and his lips quirk in amusement; Myungsoo had no doubt asked because he was hoping they could talk about something lighter before they get into a real conversation about their future. But the talk with Dongwoo was even heavier than that.

 

“You said he’s okay?” A hint of worry has crept back into Myungsoo’s voice.

 

“Everybody back home is fine.” Howon hesitates, and he can feel Myungsoo shift beside him. He can be an impatient kid, but he holds his tongue, waiting for Howon to volunteer more. “He had something about the mating bond he wanted to tell me.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyebrows dip. “And it couldn’t wait till we got home?”

 

Howon snorts. “I think it was killing him and Sungjong, the thought of me not knowing.”

 

“What was it?”

 

It would probably be best just to face this bluntly, and that’s usually Howon’s preference anyway. But this is so big, he wants to ease into a bit. It’s not that he’s worried about how Myungsoo will react—they’re mated, they’re forever, so at the very worst Myungsoo will feel guilty about not returning his feelings if he doesn’t feel the same way, and Howon can live with that. It’s not like he’s going to be confess and be rejected or something. But still. They’re mated, they’re forever, and he wants Myungsoo to understand how he reached this point, how sure he is now. Somehow it seems important.

 

“Remember at the beginning, when we felt almost sick when we weren’t together and then when we saw each other, it just felt right?”

 

Myungsoo nods; there’s a trace of confusion on his face, but he seems willing to follow Howon wherever this is going.

 

“And there was the crying and me nearly killing Bang Minsoo, and the one thing I really understood was that I was feeling a shitload of stuff that wasn’t really me, that was my hormones—and you were, too.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes seem to see everything inside of Howon. “I hated it because I was embarrassed. Because I felt like it was annoying. Because I was worried you’d hurt someone even if you didn’t want to.” He licks his lips, the nervous gesture familiar. “But you hated it because it wasn’t you, didn’t you?”

 

It shouldn’t surprise him, the way Myungsoo understands him—they’ve had time to reach this place, and it makes sense. But he had thought that Myungsoo was so tangled up in his own misery and confusion at the beginning that he wouldn’t really have the time to think through why Howon disliked their situation, too. A wave of warmth breaks over Howon, and it reminds him of that rightness he would feel when he saw or touched Myungsoo back then. Except this time he knows it’s all him. “I don’t like being out of control,” Howon confirms. “I like knowing what I’m doing or feeling is because of the choices I made. I didn’t resent you, not ever. But I resented the bond, and the way it made me feel and how I couldn’t control myself. A lot.”

 

“I know,” Myungsoo says simply, and the bond really has settled: at the beginning, insecurity had flared inside Myungsoo all the time, and that fear that Howon resented him had always been lingering in the back of his mind, Howon knows. But now Myungsoo believes him, and from the calmness in his eyes, Howon can tell that faith is complete.

 

“I’ve spent a lot of time, trying to sort out what I feel versus what the hormones made me feel. I know all feelings are because of hormones, but like...what I would be feeling if the bond weren’t there, you know?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And I figured that anything really strong I felt was because of the bond, and I started to figure out how to live with that. I made my peace with it.” It feels strange, talking about these sorts of things out loud to anyone but Sungjong. He’s not used to being introspective in quite this way; he usually doesn’t have to be, because Sungjong can see right through him. But it feels right now, and even though Howon can’t bring himself to look at Myungsoo, he can tell that Myungsoo is listening with everything he is.

 

“And I said something to Sungjong at the bus station about that, and Dongwoo wanted to talk to me about what kinds of things that the bond can’t make you feel. The things I thought were from the bond but really weren’t.”

 

“Like what?” Myungsoo asks when Howon pauses. His fingers are twitching in his lap, and Howon reaches out to take one of his hands, holding it in his. The feel of Myungsoo’s palm against his, their fingers intertwined, is so familiar now. Natural as a dance move he’s been doing for years.

 

“Like how I feel about you.” He watches their hands as his thumb bumps over the mountain chain of Myungsoo’s knuckles, not daring to lift his eyes up to Myungsoo’s face. Not yet. “Like if I feel like I’m in love with you, that I really am.”

 

Myungsoo doesn’t move. He doesn’t go stiff and frozen all over, but he doesn’t move. Howon had expected something a little dramatic—shock of some variety or another. But Myungsoo just lets out a long, long breath.

 

“You’re in love with me?” he asks finally, and Howon doesn’t hear any kind of emotion in his voice, but it doesn’t sound flat either. Just...normal. He raises his eyes and finds that Myungsoo is staring down at their linked hands, too. His face is very calm.

 

“Yeah,” Howon says, throat rough. “I think I have been for a while, but I thought it was the bond. Dongwoo told me it couldn’t be, and I realized...I have been for a while.”

 

There’s another moment of quiet, Kim Jongwan’s voice crooning quietly in the background, and then Myungsoo shifts, releasing Howon’s hand and sending confusion pinging through Howon’s mind before Myungsoo moves to straddle Howon’s legs, sinking down in Howon’s lap so he can look down into his face. He’s grinning.

 

“I’m in love with you, too,” Myungsoo says, dimples showing, and Howon understands now why Myungsoo wasn’t shocked, because he isn’t shocked himself. He’d known. His conscious mind hadn’t acknowledged it, but a part of him that’s deeper than that has known for weeks now—for what seems like forever—that he loves Myungsoo and that Myungsoo loves him back. Hearing it now doesn’t feel like a shock or even a surprise. It just feels right.

 

Something good—not joy or happiness, nothing as showy as that, but more vivid than contentment; a rightness that’s nothing at all like the bond-manufactured kind—is spreading through him as he stares back at Myungsoo. And he realizes he’s grinning back.

 

“Is that right?”

 

“Yeah.” Myungsoo’s grown more confident in Howon’s affection, has reached the point where he’ll say what he feels or what he wants without too much hesitation. But up till now he always still flushed or his eyes went shy when he did it. But in this moment, he’s not blushing at all, and his eyes are nothing but shining. “It wasn’t like a manhwa or a drama, so I didn’t recognize it. We didn’t...we didn’t do everything in the right order.” It’s a ridiculous thing to say, naive, almost childish, but Howon understands. That’s just Myungsoo. That’s why Howon loves him. “But I am.”

 

Howon’s hands sneak up to cup the back of Myungsoo’s head, fingers sliding into his hair, and he brings their foreheads together. Myungsoo’s breath is warm on his lips, and his weight is warm in his lap, and this is right. “It’s a good thing we have each other, then,” he says, the same words he’d said Friday—a thousand years ago—in the gym, and then he brings Myungsoo’s lips down on his.

 

Myungsoo lets out a long sigh against his lips when the kiss is over, neither of them really moving back, lips hovering against each other. Howon thinks Myungsoo will want to stay like that for a while, and while it isn’t Howon’s style, he doesn’t mind. But Myungsoo sits back suddenly, face creasing.

 

“Dongwoo-hyung told you that right before your audition? About how you were really in love and it wasn’t the bond?”

 

Howon blinks. “Uh, yeah. That was what his phone call was about. I told you.”

 

“Yeah,” Myungsoo says dismissively, eyes losing that shining look. “But right before your audition?”

 

Howon laughs suddenly, understanding. “Yeah.” He’d been frustrated with the timing, too. But maybe...maybe it turned out to be for the best. Maybe he wouldn’t have danced that well, danced like he had Friday at the gym just for Myungsoo, if he hadn’t just had that conversation.

 

“But you thought you probably wouldn’t ever be in love! And you’d decided to be okay with what the bond made you feel! So how—” Myungsoo breaks off in frustration, then huffs out a breeze that lifts his bangs off his forehead. “How could he do that when you—”

 

Howon’s laugh rings out again, and he can’t help but lift his head up again to press a kiss to Myungsoo’s lips. His mate is the cutest thing in the whole world. “Yeah, bad timing, right?”

 

Myungsoo thumps frustrated fists against Howon’s chest. “But how could he do that to you? Make you think about stuff you hadn’t thought about before and—”

 

Howon’s hands come up to rest on Myungsoo’s waist. “He wasn’t thinking, Myungsoo,” he says, still chuckling. “He was just so freaked out at the idea of me thinking what I felt wasn’t real that he needed to talk to me then. Our friends were worried about us, because they want to make sure we’re happy.”

 

“But—”

 

“But it’s okay,” Howon interrupts, hungrily eyeing the little pout on Myungsoo’s lips. Now’s not the time for that. Later. “It worked out okay. I would have thought that I’d need a bunch of time to process it, but when I thought about it, I realized that nothing had really changed. I just had a new label for what I felt.”

 

“When did you even have time to think about it?” Myungsoo demands. “You went in to audition right away and—”

 

“I think I worked it out through the dancing.” Howon hadn’t planned to say those words, hadn’t been aware he was thinking them, but there they are, and Myungsoo falls silent, hands lowered to his lap and frustration dropping away. Howon stretches his neck back to glance at the ceiling, trying to figure out a way to put this into words. He’s never talked about how he dances, has always felt that if he could say it in so many words, then it meant that it wasn’t a very good dance. But he’s going to try now.

 

“It was important to me, to develop the choreo myself,” he says, focusing once again on Myungsoo’s waiting face. “I mean, Dongwoo helped me with, like...editing. But it was all me, right?” Myungsoo nods, and Howon continues. “I didn’t think about why it was important, I just knew it was. I kind of thought it was so I could tell them at the audition, so they’d know I had skills there, too, that maybe it would give me bonus points when they were considering whether to accept me.”

 

He takes a breath, laying out his thoughts carefully. “But I don’t think it was that. I think it was that I was...working out our relationship. In the dance.”

 

He can’t tell by Myungsoo’s face whether he understands or not, so he keeps going. “I choreographed it when we were finally getting closer. And until then, I hadn’t been dancing much since we mated. I think when I was working on the choreo, I was working through all the stuff I’d gone through since we mated.”

 

Myungsoo’s nod is barely perceptible. “I didn’t know you did that.” His nose scrunches briefly, and then he corrects himself. “I mean, I knew you used what you were feeling to...fuel your dancing. But I didn’t know you used your dancing to….” He trails off, not finding the words, but Howon doesn’t need him to.

 

“I didn’t either. But you were there with me every day when I worked on it, and you really did make me better. And when I showed the whole thing to you on Friday, it felt right dancing it for you in a way it hadn’t before, even though I’d been through it seven thousand times by then.”

 

“Yeah,” Myungsoo says, and Howon knows he knows exactly what he means.

 

“And then today when I suddenly had all this dropped in my lap, the dance was there waiting for me.” That sounds sentimental in ways Howon doesn't usually let himself be, but it’s the truth, and this is Myungsoo, and he can say it to him. He has to say it to him. “Everything was waiting there in the dance for me to accept it. I know it doesn’t make any fucking sense, but that’s what happened. It was so much, and then I danced it, and then I could fit it inside me.”

 

Myungsoo’s eyes aren’t quite shining now, not like they were early, but there’s something glowing in them, like an ember, maybe, something steady and sure. “Sometimes I look through my camera at something I’ve looked at a million times, and I realize I never saw it before. Like I’m learning how to see it. Like I’m seeing it for what it really is.”

 

Of course Myungsoo understands. His relationship with photography is different than Howon’s with dance, but it’s equally deep, equally a part of who he is and how he connects to the world. “Yeah.”

 

Myungsoo’s mouth curls up at the corners. “That’s why they wanted you.” Off Howon’s confused look, “That’s why your audition was so good. That’s why they thought you were worth taking on as a trainee, even though you’re mated. They saw it, what you were dancing. They didn’t know what it was, but they had to have seen it. And nobody would have rejected you after that.”

 

Howon lets out an incredulous laugh. “Myungsoo, you weren’t even there.”

 

“But I know,” he says stubbornly. “I know that’s what happened.”

 

More disbelieving laughter. “Myungsoo—“

 

“They’re going to call you in a day or two. They’re going to ask you to be a trainee. I know it.”

 

“Myungsoo—”

 

I know it.”

 

He’s so cute when he’s so certain that Howon has to kiss him again, laughing into his lips. This kid. This man he’s in love with, this man he’s mated to. He’s so different than anything Howon’s ever known, so different than anything Howon ever would have thought he’d want.

 

“So when they call, what are we going to tell them?” Myungsoo asks when they part, his face still held in Howon’s hands, Howon’s thumbs still caressing his cheekbones.

 

“I guess we have to decide,” Howon says, dropping his hands down. “It’s weird—before we mated, I couldn’t imagine anything that would make me hesitate for even a second to accept a spot as a trainee.”

 

“Before we mated, I couldn’t imagine having to make any choice about my future but which university Sungyeol and I should go to.”

 

“It changed everything.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I think they gave us our answer, though,” Howon says. “That if they offer me a place—”

 

When they offer you a place,” Myungsoo interrupts, looking stern.

 

If they offer me a place,” Howon emphasizes, smiling at Myungsoo’s displeased expression, “I can delay it for a year. We can graduate, you can apply to universities, I’ll come back and audition again and sign on as a trainee, and we can live here in Seoul while you and Sungyeol study. We both get what we wanted.”

 

“There’s no guarantee,” Myungsoo argues. “That’ll only work if they have a spot for you. And they might not.”

 

“They probably will, Myungsoo. They’re a small company, and people drop out all the time.”

 

“‘Probably’ isn’t ‘definitely,’ though. What if they don’t?”

 

Howon sighs. “Then I’ll start making the rounds of the other companies.” When Myungsoo just looks at him, Howon shoves a hand through his hair. “Look, this is the best solution we could hope to find. It’s the closest to us both getting things to work out the way we want them to. No, there’s no guarantee of me getting a place, but there’re no guarantees in life anyway. A huge meteor could hit Seoul tomorrow and destroy every entertainment company in the country. Sungyeol could decide he wants to be a monk and not go to university with you.”

 

Sungyeol?” Myungsoo starts laughing so hard he almost tumbles right off of Howon’s lap, and Howon holds onto his waist, fondly amused, as Myungsoo flaps his hand around in mirth. “I think the meteor is more likely,” he gasps out.

 

“The point,” Howon says, still smiling as Myungsoo recovers control, “Is that ‘probably’ has to be good enough this time.”

 

Myungsoo sobers completely, eyes dropping to his lap. His eyelashes look very dark against the curve of his cheeks. “Would it have been good enough before?” he asks quietly, and Howon feels his chest tighten up.

 

“No,” he answers, throaty. He’s never going to lie to Myungsoo. “No. But things are different now.”

 

The twist of Myungsoo’s mouth is dry. “Yeah.”

 

Howon doesn’t like seeing that kind of cynicism on his face. He’s not going to let it stay there. “Things are different. And I couldn’t have imagined a time when ‘probably’ would be good enough, no, but that’s life, isn’t it? Shit just keeps flying at you and a lot of it you don’t see coming? And sometimes it turns out to be something really good? My life is different and I’m different because of what happened to us, and it sucks that I have to make do with ‘probably,’ but in exchange I get you. And I wouldn’t give you up for anything.”

 

Myungsoo raises his eyes, ember-glowing again. “Even if you could?”

 

“Didn’t you hear me when I said you were the best thing that’s ever happened to me? Fuck it, Myungsoo, nobody gets every good thing in the world. Even if they told me I could debut tomorrow with the greatest group ever put together, I wouldn’t trade you. Don’t you fucking know that?”

 

There’s still a twist to Myungsoo’s lips, but it’s less cynical now. “You’d tell them to shove the offer up their asses and then you’d work so hard you end up debuting with a better group.”

 

Fuck, Myungsoo does know him so well. Nothing feels better than knowing that. “Right. I do things on my terms. Our terms. And I’m am going to be an idol and I’m going to make sure you get what you want. Both. I’m not settling for less than that. If I have to wait longer to do one or the other, I’ll live with that.”

 

Myungsoo shakes his head, still stubborn. “But don’t you worry that you’re giving up your chance? Doesn’t it hurt to think of saying no?”

 

“Of course it fucking hurts.” It does. Every time he thinks of it, being offered what he wants and turning to down—or delaying it for a while or whatever—it hurts so bad he wants to cry. But the thought of making Myungsoo move here right away, far away from his family and friends, months of walking alone through some unfamiliar high school, shoulders slumped—that hurts even more. He can’t do that to Myungsoo. No matter how much the other choice hurts. “But it’s not my only chance. I won’t let it be. I will visit every company in the city until one of them breaks down and takes me and then I’ll be so fantastic that they’ll have to let me debut. And, fuck, if all else fails, I’ll convince Sunggyu-hyung to start our own company with me. We’ll do his moody rock music and my hip hop and do them both better than anyone else.”

Myungsoo’s mouth quirks into a grin again. “Woohyun-hyung could sing ballads.”

 

“And Sungjong could bully the radio programs into playing our music and the TV networks into having our idols on all the programs.”

 

“And Dongwoo-hyung could dance with you. He can rap, too. And Yejin-noona’s got a great voice.”

 

“You can shoot the cover of all our albums and do all our photoshoots too.”

 

“And Sungyeol—when Sungyeol’s a famous actor, he’ll say that your group is his favorite in every interview and get you all kinds of publicity.”

 

They’re grinning like loons at each other, now, and Howon feels the tightness in his chest start to ease. “We’ll make it work. No matter what happens, we’ll make it work.”

 

Myungsoo’s smile fades a little bit. “But I don’t want you to resent me if it doesn’t,” he says, voice subdued, gaze dropping again.

 

“I would never resent you. Not ever.”

 

Myungsoo raises his wistful eyes back to Howon’s. “But it would break you. And I’d hate myself for making you give it up.”

 

“I’d hate myself for making you give up your plans, too. This is the best shot we have. We have to take it.”

 

“I know,” Myungsoo says quietly.

 

“And I’m not going to let anything stop me. I’ll be an idol. Don’t you believe in me?”

 

Myungsoo rolls his eyes. “Duh.” But the way he looks at Howon makes it clear: Myungsoo does believe in him, with a kind of faith that makes Howon feel like he can take on the whole world.

 

“Right, so it’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.” The thought of giving up this chance still does make him sick. But the thing is, the words of assurance he’s speaking to Myungsoo...he’s starting to believe them. Starting to believe that he really can make the world bend to the way he wants it to be through sheer force of will, starting to believe that he’ll be able to work so fucking hard that there’s no way he won’t get what he wants. It makes no sense, but somehow he feels more confident now that he’ll get it than he did before the mating. Back then, nothing could have distracted him from his dream, nothing could come anywhere close to it in importance. But now there’s Myungsoo, and somehow Howon has made room in his life for something every bit as important, and yet even with other priorities, other concerns, other things he wants so badly he’s sure it’s what’s keeping his heart beating, Howon still feels more certain than he ever has. Maybe it’s perspective, or growing up, or something about Myungsoo. Howon doesn’t know. But that certainty is filling him up, steeling his will and kindling his desire to work, and he won’t accept anything less than he and Myungsoo, together, and both happy.

 

“We’ll be okay,” he repeats, seeing that faith glowing in Myungsoo’s eyes. And he believes it.

Chapter Text

Myungsoo snuggles closer to his mate, tucking his nose into the curve of Howon’s neck and breathing deep. Howon’s scent is always essentially Howon and alpha, but Myungsoo can pick up subtle shifts depending on Howon’s mood and the circumstances, and he likes the way Howon smells after sex maybe most of all: musky and content. Dongwoo had told him that no one else would be able to notice those small differences, and whenever he remembers that, Myungsoo fills up with warmth. All the nuances of Howon’s scent are his and no one else’s, and they’re his forever. His mouth curves into a smile against Howon’s skin.

“I’m glad we waited to do that,” Howon says, voice still a little gravelly. His hand is splayed out on Myungsoo’s back, holding Myungsoo close to him, and Myungsoo can feel the vibrations in Howon’s chest as he speaks.

“Really?” He had thought that Howon was ready for them to have sex—real penetration, which Myungsoo can’t help but still think of as “real sex” even though he knows all the other things they’ve done are just as real—all along. He had thought that they were waiting for him.

“Yeah.”

Myungsoo considers this, trying to work it out in his mind. He can’t quite do it. “But...you’ve had sex before, right? With Hyorin?” And maybe with others, Myungsoo doesn’t know. He isn’t upset at the thought of Howon having sex with other people—they didn’t even know each other back then, and Howon has made it more than clear that Myungsoo doesn’t suffer in comparison to any others he might have experienced—but it doesn’t make sense to him that Howon would sleep with someone he wasn’t in love with with no hesitation but want to wait with Myungsoo.

“Yeah, but…” Howon trails off, and Myungsoo knows him well enough to know that he’s trying to figure out how to put into words something he'd never thought he’d need to verbalize. “Sex can be for different reasons, right?”

Well, not so much for Myungsoo. Other than the initial mating, which he hadn’t had any choice in, sex to him is pretty much only for making love. But he knows other people aren’t like him. Other people do it just for fun or because they feel like they need to. For revenge or money or because they’re bored. Because they feel like they should or they want to make the other person happy. All sorts of reasons. “Yeah.”

“With Hyorin, it was just because it felt good. I liked her—I still like her. She’s great.” It’s a testament to how much the bond has settled that Myungsoo doesn’t feel even a pang of jealousy at Howon’s words. Howon loves him and had pretty much said it in front of a group of strangers and has done a million little things over the past months to prove it. Myungsoo has no reason to feel insecure. “But it was...a fun thing. It wasn’t only physical, because we were friends, but it wasn’t anything deep, either.”

Myungsoo’s chin bumps against the slope of Howon’s shoulder. “Mm-hm.”

“That’s not the way it is with you.”

Myungsoo knows. But he can still feel his cheeks heat up a little at the words—not in embarrassment, but because of how happy it makes him to hear Howon say that.

“With us, it would have hurt you if it was anything less than…this,” Howon says, and Myungsoo can feel the sweep of that last word taking in what they just did, what they are doing now. The intimacy of peeling each other’s clothes off and the heated, unrushed foreplay and Howon using almost too much lube out of fear of hurting Myungsoo and the weird way it had felt to have Howon’s fingers entering him in ways nothing else ever had and the way that weirdness intensified when Howon slid in and the strain on his face above Myungsoo’s and how gentle he’d been and then how it had felt good—so good—and how easy it was to lose himself in Howon.

Myungsoo hadn’t anticipated having sex like that for quite a while, but it had seemed right, to do it now, and it was so different than it had been the first time. No terrifying desperation and helplessness, no sharp smell of chemicals and suffocating scent of heat, no fear and guilt roiling in Howon’s eyes or building up in his own chest. Last time, it had been so fast and desperate—and terrifying, afterwards—that everything from Howon first touching him to the moment they both came seemed like one blur of pleasure so intense it barreled straight over the line into painful. It had just been so much.

Today was so much, too, only there was time to breathe and to relish and to notice each sensation as its own kind of pleasure, distinct and sharply outlined. And it had been so easy to feel that Howon really does love him, each touch unmistakable in the feelings behind it.

And now there’s this: Howon letting him cuddle up beside him, Myungsoo’s arm wrapped tight around his waist and Myungsoo’s legs tangled with his, and Myungsoo’s face up against his neck where the smell of Howon is most intense. Howon might not be as physically affectionate as Myungsoo is, but he lets Myungsoo be as demonstrative as he wants to be, and it just makes Myungsoo love him more. Howon doesn’t touch him now because he needs to for the sake of the bond. Howon touches him because he wants to—because he knows Myungsoo needs it just because he’s Myungsoo.

“And if it hurt you,” Howon continues, voice pitched low, “It would have hurt us. And that would hurt me. And you even more.” Howon’s quiet for a moment, his thumb caressing the skin of Myungsoo’s back. “It was right to wait.”

“Yeah,” Myungsoo breathes out against Howon’s skin, and he feels Howon shiver in response. It makes him grin.

They’re quiet for a while, Myungsoo just enjoying the heat and solidity of his mate’s body, lulled by the quiet and the rise and fall of Howon’s chest. Then something Myungsoo had meant to say earlier floats up into his consciousness. “You were really great with the panel.”

Howon lets out a little laugh. “You didn’t even get to watch me, dumbass.”

As ridiculous as it is, Myungsoo likes it when Howon calls him dumbass almost as much as he does when he calls him baby. It just feels comfortable. “No, I mean afterwards, when I was there. Asking them questions and...negotiating.”

“Oh.” Howon is quiet again for a while, then says, “Yeah. I hadn’t anticipated that. I always thought if I had this chance, it would be yes or no, you’re in or you’re not.”

“Take it or leave it,” Myungsoo suggests.

“Right. Exactly. They could have just said no off the bat because of the mating thing.”

“I kept waiting for them to tell you you were crazy and to get out. When you asked about what I would have to do. And whether you could delay being a trainee for a while.”

“Me, too.” Howon’s laugh is edged with incredulity, as though he’s just realizing what had happened in that practice room at the Woollim building. “Wannabe trainees don’t just do that. And if they try, the companies don’t just let them.”

“You aren’t just some wannabe trainee. They wanted you,” Myungsoo says, pride in his mate’s talents curling through his fingers and toes.

“I guess they did.” He still sounds like he doesn’t entirely believe it.

“Now do you see why I keep telling you they’ll definitely make you an offer?”

Another little laugh. “Yeah. I see.”

“And you’ll have another year to keep getting better. When we come back to Seoul, you’ll be able to bargain with them even better.” The thought makes Myungsoo wriggle against Howon with happiness. “You’ll be able to tell them what you’re willing to do.”

Myungsoo can’t see Howon’s face, but he knows his canines are showing in his grin. “Not quite. I’ll have a bit more leverage, but they’re still in charge. I may have more control over myself going in than other trainees, but the company will still have the upper hand. No matter how good the trainee is, they aren’t really in charge of their own careers, not at the beginning.”

“But eventually,” Myungsoo insists. “If you get good enough and big enough—you could break off and start your own company or at least write your own music and do your own choreo and take vacations when you want to.”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” Howon says, and he says it like Myungsoo has been telling him he’s definitely going to be accepted by Woollim. Sure and steady and unwavering. “I’m going to get good enough that I’ll be the one with the upper hand.”

“So you can do things on your terms,” Myungsoo says, and yes, that’s what he wants for Howon—to be so secure in his own position that no one will ever be able to take advantage of him or hurt him or make him do things he isn’t comfortable with.

“Our own terms,” Howon corrects absently, like he doesn’t even realize how much the plural means and how it sends a thrill sparking through Myungsoo. “I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. Idol life is idol life, and you deal with all of it if you want some of it. Package deal. But—”

“But you’re good at negotiating,” Myungsoo finishes, understanding now what’s finally sinking in for Howon. “You didn’t know that before. But now you do.” Myungsoo had been too overwhelmed by emotions in the moment to see it, but it’s clear now: it was sexy, the way Howon had fallen so easily into the negotiations, how he’d risen to the challenge and hadn’t been overawed. Where Myungsoo had been caught up in the idea of Howon’s dreams coming true, Howon had been clear-eyed, and had proved that he could hold his own. Myungsoo’s eyes are beginning to clear, too, and he sees what Howon had felt instinctively in front of that panel, even if he’s only now beginning to understand it: he will have good chances come his way, but he also has to fight for how he wants to work, because people are not going to hand it to him. But the thing is, now Howon knows he can do it. And Myungsoo does, too.

Howon’s right, though: it’ll be years before he has built up the kind of clout that will give him the agency he really wants. But nobody works harder than Howon. He’ll get there. He may have to compromise on the way, but eventually he’ll be able to do it on his—on their terms.

“Yeah, I know what I need to work at now,” Howon says. He nudges Myungsoo with his chin so that Myungsoo raises his head and they can look at each other. “And you—I almost forgot about your meeting with the photography professor. What are you thinking about that?”

Myungsoo bites his lip, considering. “He said I had potential. I thought I did, but it was good to hear.”

“And now?” Howon prompts.

A smile spreads across Myungsoo’s face. “That means I can do it. Wherever Sungyeol and I decide to go to university, I can get in.”

“Don’t you need to start figuring out where that is?”

Myungsoo dismisses that. “Eventually. But just—knowing now. I have a year and we can figure it out and we can go...wherever we want.”

“Wherever your scores are good enough to get in,” Howon corrects, and Myungsoo almost rolls his eyes. How can Howon always be so practical?

“That’s not the point. I mean it is, but later. Right now….” He takes a deep breath, thinking. “Right now, the point is that….” It’s right on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t wrap his mind around it, a word that will describe what it is that he now has.

“Right now, the point is that you’re free,” Howon says quietly, and his eyes are so steady and intense. “You don’t have to give up on what you want because you’re the omega. You get to choose.”

Myungsoo flops down on top of Howon, cheek pressing to Howon’s chest as his arms squirm under Howon’s body and wrap tightly around him. How does Howon always understand him? “Yeah,” he whispers. The word burns in his throat, around the edges of his eyes.

“I was never going to make you give everything up. I would never have made you do anything at all.” Howon’s voice is so, so quiet, but Myungsoo can feel it moving through him.

“I know.” He does. He’s known that for a long time. But there’s a difference between knowing and knowing. Knowing that he can take his time, figure out what university, what kind of photography he wants to focus on. Figure out what kind of job he wants after he gets his degree, what kind of person he wants to be. Yeah, there will be limits because by that time Howon will be with a company, so Myungsoo can’t just decide they should move to Prague and take artsy shots of the architecture to sell to tourists on the Charles Bridge. But everyone has limits, everyone has to figure out how to work out their life within those limits. As long as his limits are because of his choices, his and Howon’s, and not because he’s an omega...he can live with them. Whatever life he and Howon have, it will be because they choose it and they work hard to make it real. And that’s all Myungsoo asks for.

He feels Howon press a kiss to the top of his head and rolls his cheek so he can return the favor, kissing Howon’s chest as Howon’s fingers slide into his hair.

“When the company calls you later—” Myungsoo starts, but Howon cuts him off.

“—I’ll tell them what we decided together.”

Together. Myungsoo likes the sound of that. He smiles against Howon’s skin, and he knows even though he can’t see it, that Howon is smiling too.

 

 

 

“So you still don’t know whether they’ve picked you yet?” Woohyun asks, balancing a plate of snacks on top of a bowl of popcorn in one hand while carrying three bottles of beer in the other. “You still don’t know?”

Howon rolls his eyes, extricating a bottle from Woohyun’s grip and hitting it on the side of the coffee table to knock the top off. He wouldn’t do that to any of his friends’ parents’ nice furniture, but here in Sungjong’s spare-bedroom-turned-hangout-for-teenagers, the furniture is beat-up enough that no one cares. After all, they’d basically assembled this room themselves with finds from second-hand stores. It’s pretty much their turf.

“I told you already, I’m still waiting for the call.”

“Well, when are they going to call?” Woohyun demands, squeezing himself in between Howon and Dongwoo on the battered couch as Dongwoo takes the plate so that it doesn’t end up face-down on the floor. “Seems to me like they’re just jerking you around.”

“It’s really not that uncommon for the smaller companies to take a couple of days to talk over potential trainees to figure out how well they’d fit with the company and what it’s trying to do. The big companies can turn away people on gut instinct or take people on for a while that they’re really not sure about and get rid of them later, because they’ll always have loads more talented people coming in to beg them for a job, but the smaller ones have to be a bit more careful.” That’s Yejin, balancing on the arm of the sofa with Dongwoo’s arm looped around her waist.

“Oooh, noona, do you know this from personal experience?” Woohyun demands, batting his lashes at her with an overly interested expression. He’s so melodramatic sometimes. “Is there something you’re not telling us?”

Yejin rolls her eyes at him. “I’ve read up on the audition process, yeah. I like to sing. I figured at least being knowledgeable about the possibilities might prove useful one day.”

“Amy has an amazing voice,” Dongwoo speaks up, sliding his fingers under the hem of her shirt and beaming up at her adoringly. “She could be a superstar.”

“You are really good, noona,” Howon agrees. “I’m sure you’d go far if you wanted to.”

She flips a hand dismissively. “Not in the cards right now. I’m happy with what I’ve got. Maybe someday.”

“You still haven’t told me when they’re actually going to call you,” Woohyun says, turning his attention back to Howon. “Aren’t you going crazy waiting?”

Myungsoo, who’s sitting between Howon’s legs with his back against the couch, pulls himself away from the conversation he’s been having with Sungyeol, Sungjong, and Minha, also on the floor. Howon’s pretty sure they were discussing how Sungyeol could win Minyoung over without making a huge fool of himself.

“They’re going to offer him a place,” Myungsoo says firmly, just like he’s said it dozens of times since they got back home that morning. He’d said it just like that to his parents, to his brother, to Sungjong when he dropped by, to his mom’s friend who had stopped in to visit, and had even taken the phone from Howon’s hand to repeat it to Howon’s mom. It’s over the top, the way he keeps voicing his absolute faith that Woollim will choose to take Howon on, but it’s also undeniably endearing, and Howon can’t help but ruffle Myungsoo’s hair in affection. Myungsoo tilts his head back to smile up at him, and his grin looks even funnier and more crinkled upside down. There’s nobody cuter on the planet.

“But you’re still planning on turning them down?” Sungjong asks, entering the conversation, too. Minha’s still talking quietly to Sungyeol, saying something that makes him grin and shake his head. Howon’s glad she’s giving Sungyeol advice; he’s clearly more into Minyoung than he wants to admit and Howon really hopes it will work out for him. Sungyeol is occasionally terrifying is his weirdness, and his moans about how he’ll die only having known unrequited love get a bit old, but he’s really a great guy. Weird to think that only a few months ago, Howon didn’t really know him at all. Didn’t know Myungsoo at all.

“More like delaying my acceptance,” Howon answers. “So we can graduate here.”

Woohyun looks very much like he’s going to say something pointed about the lack of guarantee the spot will still be there in a year, but Yejin speaks up before he can. “I’m really glad you figured out a solution that works for you. And hey—a year of time to practice on your dancing and rapping, you’ll be able to blow them away once they do take you on. Maybe they’ll make you leader.”

Howon snorts even as Myungsoo and Dongwoo say at the same time, “Howon would make a great leader!” Sungjong, though, just looks amused. “Do you think Howon-hyung would really want to do that, though?”

“It would take time away from all the time he can dedicate to making himself better,” Sungyeol pipes in, his conversation with Minha apparently through. “Proving that he’s good at everything. There’s no way he’d do that.”

“Well, we’ll see,” Howon says, kicking Sungyeol’s ribs. “I’m not really thinking about that now.”

“It might be better than the other options, though,” Woohyun says, taking a swig of his beer. “What if you got stuck with an asshole in charge?”

At that moment the door pops open, causing everyone (except for Sungjong and Minha, who seem inhumanly immune to such shocks) to jump, and Sunggyu barrels in.

“Hyung!” Dongwoo shouts joyfully in greeting. “I didn’t know you were coming down!”

“Never mind about that,” Sunggyu dismisses, stomping his way over to Howon to glare down at him. “ I can’t believe you didn’t fucking tell me that the company you were trying out for was Woollim.”

Howon looks around at the others, but all of them are still looking up at Sunggyu in surprise. “Uh...the company I tried out for was Woollim?” Howon says, not sure why Sunggyu is fuming like he wants to beat Howon up.

“That’s Nell’s company!” Sunggyu says in a voice somewhere between a wail and a growl. “Nell’s!”

“I...know?” Howon likes Sunggyu, but sometimes he doesn’t understand him at all.

“I could have tried out at Nell’s company if I’d known they were having auditions!”

Oh. Well. But….

“But, hyung, you don’t want to be an idol singer,” Myungsoo says, craning his neck so he can look up at Sunggyu. “And the auditions are for a potential idol group.”

“It’s Nell’s company,” Sunggyu repeats again, and Woohyun, who’s been sniggering under his breath, laughs out loud.

“C’mon, hyung, settle down and sit down,” he says, taking Sunggyu by the hand and trying to lead him to a spot next to Sungjong. But Sunggyu snatches his hand away.

“I’m maddest at you! You were the one who told me Howon was trying out, only you failed to mention the most important part!”

“Hyung, I’m pretty sure the most important part is that Howon was trying out,” Woohyun counters, still looking amused. “You know, pursuing his dream? Working towards his goals?”

Sunggyu’s face twists in chagrin at that. “But…” And then his bottom lip pops out in a pout. He’s definitely not suited to be an idol, musically or in temperament, but he does have the aegyo for it. “But Nell.”

Laughing again—actually, most everyone in the room is laughing or shaking their head now—Woohyun again takes Sunggyu’s hand and this time manages to get him to sit down. “Hyung, you know good and well that you don’t want to be an idol. Keep working with your rock band and get good enough that Woollim notices you for that.”

“Thank God nobody told him,” Sungyeol stage whispers. “Can you imagine if he got accepted? Kim Jongwan would have to take out a restraining order within days!”

“Ya!” Sunggyu shouts, raising his fist, but Myungsoo shoots forward from between Howon’s legs and wraps his arms around Sunggyu in a hug.

“Hyung! Howon did really well and they’re going to call him and offer him a spot any time! We’re all here waiting!”

Sunggyu keeps his dirty look fixed on Sungyeol for another minute, then turns his attention to Myungsoo, patting him on the head. “That’s great, Myungsoo.” He looks up at Howon. “You haven’t heard from them yet?”

Howon picks up his phone from where it’s balanced on his knee, wiggling it to show the black screen before putting it back down. “Still waiting.”

“You nervous?” Sunggyu has tried out for various things before, including to be the vocalist of the band he’s with now. He asks the question in a way that implies he knows exactly what Howon’s going through.

“They’re definitely going to accept him, hyung,” Myungsoo says, finally releasing Sunggyu from his typically-Myungsoo-enthusiastic hug and sitting back, warm and solid between Howon’s legs. Howon feels Myungsoo’s hand sneaking up to hold onto a fold in his jeans.

“Not really,” Howon answers, fingers moving absently through Myungsoo’s hair in a way he knows his mate likes. “I thought I would be, but….” He shrugs.

“So you’re not just playing it cool so we won’t know you’re freaking out inside?” Minha asks playfully, leaning against Sungjong’s back.

“I’m really not nervous,” Howon says. “I don’t know why, but I feel like if they say no, it’ll be okay.” He doesn’t mention that the way the panel had been willing to negotiate with him makes him pretty damn sure he’ll get the offer. Myungsoo is vocally confident enough for the both of them. “I’ll just work harder for another year and try again with them. And if they still say no, I’ll go to every company in Seoul till one accepts me. I don’t know why I’m suddenly fine with that.”

Except he sort of does know why. It’s because of Myungsoo, nestled in between his legs, glowing with his unwavering faith in Howon. Because of the camera Myungsoo had stored upstairs in Sungjong’s bedroom so that it wouldn’t get hurt in the crush of all their friends into one small room. Because of those friends, together and all around him, scents of alpha and omega and themselves mingling till it’s impossible to distinguish one from the other, the people who had gotten him and Myungsoo through the first devastating panic after the mating and who have never treated each other any differently according to mating roles. Because of the Kims’ house, smelling of rice and laundry detergent and Myungsoo, and the kindness Myungsoo’s family has shown him. Because of the call with his mom earlier, where she told him she was proud of him and that she was going to be coming to see him at least a couple of times a month because even if Howon and his father don’t need to be part of each other’s lives (“right now,” his mom had said, and Howon heard the hope in that, though he isn’t sure how much he believes it himself. But that’s okay. He has time to figure it out), she’s not giving up her son for anything. Because of the texts from his brothers, half-insult and half-congratulations in that way only brothers can pull off. Because of this town where he taught himself to dance, and Seoul, endless in size and possibility, waiting on the other end of a bus ride.

He has this right now—the friends he chose and the family who chose him, music and dance. His dream, the same one he’s built his life around since he was a little boy, but shifted slightly now, coming into focus in ways that are different than he imagined but more realistic and—somehow—more potentially rewarding. And there’s Myungsoo, too, and his dream, and how it’s become part of Howon’s dream as well, their life together since they mated a long process of figuring out how to graft those dreams together. And now they’ve become one dream, and he and Myungsoo will keep fighting for it. And they’ll do it together.

Dongwoo reaches around Woohyun to elbow Howon in the ribs, jarring him out of his thoughts. “Hey, another year gives us another year to work. I’m going to be teaching classes at the studio above the Chinese restaurant. I’m pretty sure I can get you some time on the schedule to use the space.”

The studio Dongwoo is talking about is nice—clean, modern, well-lit, top-of-the-line flooring and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. It would be a nice place to practice. But there’s still the old gym, the sight of Myungsoo sitting on a pile of mats and working on his homework, and Howon knows he won’t want to give that up altogether. It means too much to him.

“Thanks, hyung,” he says, knowing that he’ll definitely get Dongwoo’s help in the future, allowing his friend to push him further than he’s gone before. Dongwoo’s done it before, without asking for anything in return, and he’ll do it again.

“And I’ll help you with singing,” Yejin adds, smiling over at him.

“Yeah, me, too, when I come back home to visit,” Sunggyu chimes in.

Because that’s what they do, his friends. They give, freely, and make his life better.

Fingers squirm against Howon’s knee, and he looks down to find Myungsoo’s hand searching for his. Howon intertwines their fingers, smiling down at Myungsoo when Myungsoo again drops his head back and rests it on the seat of the couch, looking up at him.

“Yeollie and Sungjong and Minha are going to model for me, Howon,” Myungsoo says as Howon’s thumb bumps over the ridges of his knuckles. “I want to work more on figures and faces.”

Howon snorts. “You’re lucky you have friends who look like super models.”

“Right?” Myungsoo’s upside down beam is as cute as his right side up one. It still makes Howon’s chest tighten. “Every picture of Sungjong is perfect anyway. I’ll learn a lot working with them.”

“When you get tired of supermodels and want to work with regular uglies, call me,” Woohyun says, thumping Myungsoo on the shoulder.

“What are you talking about, hyung? You’re handsome!”

“Who would notice, though, underneath all the grease?” Sunggyu asks wryly, which of course makes Woohyun launch himself at him, and the next minute they’re tussling, and Dongwoo is laughing at them and Yejin is laughing because Dongwoo is, and this is the kind of chaos that seems to flare up whenever all of them are together.

“Another year with these losers,” Howon says with a sigh. “I don’t know how I’ll survive.”

“Whatever, hyung, you love it.” Sungjong flips his hair out of his eyes in his superior way, making Minha cover her giggle. “You’re lucky we deign to spend time with you.”

Myungsoo laughs, pressing his face against Howon’s leg and squeezing Howon’s hand. In the bouquet of their friends’ scents, Howon can still pick out Myungsoo’s, warm and comforting and enticing and right. Yeah. He’s lucky. And he knows just how much.

The phone on Howon’s knee rings.

Chapter Text

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.”

“What?”

“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.