Time passed like nothing, each of them shuffling through their separate and interconnected lives the way they knew by heart. Hyungwon could go through his routine in his sleep sometimes, and possibly even had. Continuing to walk forward was almost easier than stopping. The momentum had him, had all of them, and he found himself smiling at Minhyuk with dead eyes in the middle of events because he didn't know what else to do. Minhyuk would smile back, and if anybody noticed that something was off it didn't make a big enough impression to go anywhere.
It felt a little bit like only a few hours had passed (a little bit like a few years had passed) between when Hyungwon stepped out of the dorm with his suitcase and when he stepped right back in, but passing over the threshold in the opposite direction felt heavier. Thicker. Colder.
He needed to sleep for a year.
The members scattered through the dorm, mumbling to themselves like they were giving excuses, and what Hyungwon did was go straight to bed. There was already a banging noise coming from the kitchen, which meant Kihyun was working out some of his pent up tension on something that was about to be very, very clean. Hyunwoo had vanished immediately into the bathroom and maybe, just maybe, if Hyungwon walked quickly enough and quietly enough—
"Everybody in the living room in five minutes," came Hyunwoo's voice, raised a little to be heard over the toilet flushing.
"What?" That was Changkyun. "Why?"
"Family meeting," Hyunwoo said back.
Hyungwon had assumed that Hyunwoo hadn't seen him in the dimly lit corridor but when he looked away from Changkyun Hyunwoo made direct eye contact with him. "Attendance is mandatory," Hyunwoo said, and Hyungwon knew in no uncertain terms that that message was meant specifically for him.
Everyone was in the living room in under three minutes, quiet and awkward. Changkyun settled on the arm of the big black couch, one leg slung over Kihyun's lap, and together they were the only two people who looked calm. Well, Hyunwoo looked calm. Hyunwoo didn't know how to look any other way. It was quite comforting, really.
"Hoseok," Hyunwoo said, beckoning. "Come over here and sit down."
"There's no room on the couch," Hoseok muttered petulantly, but crept forward obediently regardless. He had his arms folded tight over his chest and despite being an objectively large person he somehow contrived to look pitiful.
"Yes there is," Hyunwoo said, pointing. "Right there between Minhyuk and Hyungwon."
The space on the couch between Minhyuk and Hyungwon yawned open like a chasm, a sinkhole in the earth, a whirlpool from Greek myth that sucked hapless adventurers into its gaping, insatiable maw. Hoseok looked at it. Hyungwon looked at it. Minhyuk looked at it. Then Minhyuk laughed— rude, brittle— and that was what kicked it over from awkward to terrible.
"I'd rather stand," Hoseok said, tearing his eyes from the empty cushion to shoot Hyunwoo a desperate, pleading look.
"You'd rather sit," Hyunwoo said.
"I'd rather sit," Hoseok croaked, and went to his assigned spot like an admonished kindergartener sent to the corner.
"Can't decide, huh?" Minhyuk smiled at him as he sat down. It was the kind of smile that showed all of his teeth. "Seems like that's going around."
Hoseok almost snapped something back, (Hyungwon could see the quirk at the corner of his mouth, that telltale twist in his eyebrows), but instead he crossed his arms over his chest again and clenched his jaw.
"I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here today," Hyunwoo said. He was the only one standing, the dorm empty of managers or staff, and the members clustered around him like ducklings.
"Yeah," Changkyun said, leaning forward. "I am, actually."
"Public hanging," Minhyuk said.
Kihyun sat forward. "Stop that. I'll call your mom again, don't think I won't."
"Would it kill you to let me have an ounce of fun?"
"Would it kill me? No. Somebody else? I'm not willing to take that chance."
"As I was saying," Hyunwoo said. He was getting better at wrangling them, but dealing with Kihyun and Minhyuk in an argument was like herding sixteen cats that are all on drugs. Even the diamond purity of Hyunwoo's meaty heart stood no chance in the heat of that much brutal fury. "I called you all here today for a reason. That reason is, uh, that stuff is weird."
"Well said," Jooheon piped up loyally. Hyungwon glared at him.
"Stuff is weird," Hyunwoo repeated, stressing the syllables a little bit harder in an unspoken dare to anyone else to interrupt him. "And somebody is going to tell me why."
"Who?" Kihyun hazarded.
"Is this a riddle?" Changkyun asked.
"I'm good at riddles," Minhyuk said, leaning forward. "Lay it on me."
"This is giving me Last Supper vibes," Jooheon said, and then laughed. Unfortunately it was the high breathy laugh of desperate guilt, and so everyone looked at him. He might have survived had Hyunwoo not been one of them. "What?" he choked out.
Hyunwoo laid a paternal hand on Jooheon's shoulder. "Sport," he said, "you've been voluntold to tell me what's going on."
The blood drained out of Jooheon's face, collecting instead in his ears. "Voluntold?"
"That is not the way I meant you to use that buzzword," Kihyun said, pointing at Hyunwoo. "That's not what I meant," he said to Changkyun in a sideways mutter. "See if I talk business with Hyunwoo-hyung again any time soon. Warping my buzzwords..."
"He means tell him everything you know," Hyungwon said, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back against the couch cushions. The crown of his head just barely touched the wall and the plaster felt blessedly cool against his scalp. "The jig is up, Honey."
"Ha ha ha," Jooheon said. If a human being could be the physical personification of pants-pissing nervousness, Jooheon would be that human being. "Ha. Aha. What jig?"
"What the fuck is going on?" Hoseok asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I don't know," Jooheon protested.
Hyungwon picked up his head again. "This is up to you."
Jooheon glared at him, then he swallowed, then he said, "I know." Then he laughed and scrubbed at his scalp with both hands and said, "So we're pretty sure that one of us is writing fanfiction."
Hyunwoo closed his eyes, putting a hand to his forehead as though trying to fend off a total bastard of a stress headache, and Kihyun squawked, "Wait, so you've been reading it?"
"Who's we?" Wonho asked. "Wait— and who's us?"
"Me and Honey and Changkyun," Hyungwon said, and in that moment he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had been a huge fucking idiot this entire time. "And by 'us' he means, you know, us. The members."
Hyunwoo pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes. "Changkyun," he said.
"Hyung," Changkyun croaked.
"I have a vivid memory," Hyunwoo said, "of explicitly telling you not to be so obvious that you get caught."
"Kihyunnie-hyung and Minhyuk-hyung are really funny," Changkyun whined, "you can't make some of that shit up. It's not my fault, the readers love it."
Hyunwoo turned on Kihyun, who shrank against the back of the couch. "Really? That's how this happened?"
"I can't be expected to catch everything, even the best beta reader—"
"This is my fault," Hyunwoo said. "I'm being punished."
There was a terrible silence, like the inhale before a scream or the sucking void between a lightning strike and the subsequent thunder, and then Minhyuk opened his mouth. "Excuse me very fucking much?" he said.
"Look," Changkyun stuttered, throwing his hands up in a defensive position, "it's not—"
"You've been using my jokes and not crediting me? And people have been liking it? And you haven't shown me said praise?" He reared back, affronted. "I think of you as a brother and you repay me like this? Those are my jokes."
"That's the problem that you have with this," Jooheon said, shocked. "That's the problem? That he's quoting your jokes?"
"Kihyun writes his own imagines," Minhyuk said, shrugging. "Once you've read a couple of those there's not a damn thing left in the universe that can horrify you anymore."
"I do not," Kihyun hissed. "I do not write my own imagines, what the fuck is wrong with you."
"Oh please you were complaining about being plagiarized the other day and we both know you were talking about wattpad."
"It wasn't wattpad it was a mailing list," Kihyun said, going bright red, "and they changed my name to Hyungwon's. It was disrespectful. I was disrespected. You can't expect me to take that lying down."
"Hold on," Hoseok said, holding up both hands like a traffic cop. "Hold on. This doesn't make sense. How is Changkyun the person writing fanfiction and one of the people who thinks one of the members is writing fanfiction?"
"We thought it was—" Jooheon caught Hyungwon's eye and hesitated. "Uh we weren't, we couldn't figure out who it was."
"Is that why you've been spending so much time together?" Minhyuk said. He said it lightly, like a joke, bapping Jooheon affectionately on the shoulder, and if relief were perfume they'd all be dying of asphyxiation from the way it rolled off of him in waves. "You sly dogs, off scheming somewhere. That's so cute."
"No," Hoseok cut in. "I wanna know. Who did you think it was?"
Hyungwon felt Jooheon's eyes bore into the side of his head, but he didn't turn to look back. He heard Jooheon say, "We really didn't know," at the same time Changkyun sheepishly said, "They thought it was you."
There really should have been another portentous moment, solemn and quiet and heavy, but instead Hoseok just turned even pinker than he already was and spluttered, "What? Why?" He glared at Jooheon. "Tell me right the fuck now."
"Because you're in love with Hyungwon," Jooheon said.
The words ascended into the air in a bubble. Hyungwon could almost see it, shimmering like oil and holding something he hadn't known yet was real.
It's one thing if there's nothing, he thought dreamily to himself.
"What?" Hoseok asked after a few seconds, voice creaking.
"In the fanfiction," Jooheon stuttered.
Hoseok turned toward Changkyun. "In the fanfiction?"
"That's why?" asked Changkyun, staring at Jooheon. "You said you thought it was because he's a pisces."
Hyungwon was pretty sure that he hated absolutely every single aspect of this conversation, but he was also pretty sure that his soul had separated from his body and soon he would be in... probably not heaven, but hopefully at least purgatory. Purgatory would be all right. He'd read somewhere that it was for people who kinda sucked but, like, not that much, and they got to have an okay eternity not being super happy but not being poked with flaming pitchforks, either. (Come to think of it, this was probably a memory from some ancient cartoon. It seemed very vintage Looney Tunes. Why was he thinking about this now? Probably because his soul was trying to escape.)
Jooheon shot Hoseok back a confused look before glancing back at Changkyun. "But— I mean dude, the subtext is really heavy—"
"I just write what happens," Changkyun said. "It's not like I actually ship, I just—"
Hoseok cleared his throat and the room went quiet. He turned very slowly toward Hyungwon. "That's why you thought it was me?" he asked.
"Well," Hyungwon said. His soul tragically remained anchored in his body, the root of it twisting in his guts like bad shrimp. Then he said, "Hmm." Then he'd run out of things to say, so instead he said, "I'm gonna go out for a little while. Don't wait up."
Then he got up off the couch and left. Nobody tried to stop him.
When the door closed behind him Hyungwon couldn't remember where he thought he was going but he didn't stop, he walked down the corridor to the elevators, pressed the button, rode down to street level, and walked out into an early April afternoon thick with crackling monsoon humidity. Later he would remember that there were flowers scattered over the pavement, the soft, translucent pink petals crushed against the rough concrete under god knew how many feet. Was that what collateral damage meant? Something being walked over to achieve some sort of end?
The biggest problem, Hyungwon thought to himself, was that he couldn't actually blame Changkyun. He couldn't say he wouldn't do the exact same thing, and he knew in his heart of hearts that if he didn't it would only be because it didn't occur to him. In the grand scheme of things it was one of the kinder pranks they'd pulled each other, and it wasn't like... it wasn't like Changkyun knew.
I just write what happens, Changkyun had said.
Because you're in love with Hyungwon, Jooheon had said.
The biggest problem wasn't Changkyun, or even the question of who to blame. It was Hyungwon, unable to look himself in the eye.
His phone had been ringing for the last couple of minutes and when he glanced at the screen he had four missed calls already and Jooheon's name flashing urgently at him on a fifth. Hyungwon rejected the call, turned off his phone, and took the stairs down to the subway station.
The flower petals had made it down here too, tracked in on thousands of soles by thousands of souls, and Hyungwon was just one more; invisible in a big crowd with his hair dark again, his hood up, his mask on. He'd never had a problem being seen before— fuck, being seen was his job— but just right then he wanted to dissolve gently into the ether and spend a little bit of time being somewhere other than here and god, please, as someone other than himself.
Hyungwon got onto a train without looking at the line or the direction and rode it for two stops before getting off again. There was no because. A tiny piece of him thought it was funny how even now he knew that they'd look for him first in his workroom, he knew it even with his head full of static and his stomach full of vinegar, and so he took a subway two stops going literally anywhere else.
Anywhere else, according to his feet, was the cafe.
The cafe. The place where Hyungwon had noticed all those small things. The place where Hoseok had kissed his hand. That cafe.
He stood in front of the big front window for a few seconds, pretending to linger over the sign on the door in order to check the faces of the people behind the counter. None of them looked the same and anyway he was dying for chocolate cake so whatever. He decided he didn't care.
When you're somewhere else, your body in one place and your mind in another, you can go through the motions of a normal life without your brain ever consciously observing your actions, let alone controlling them. Hyungwon could almost swear that he teleported from the front door to a seat by the window, with the only sign he'd ordered anything the little stand with a number 6 on it so the barista knew which table was his when they came out with his order.
He drank iced americanos most of the time, they all did, but when the barista showed up she set down a stoneware mug and a plate containing one doily, one piece of white cake, one hot-house strawberry, and one impossibly delicate fork. "Breve mocha," she said, bobbing a quick bow as she set it down. "Enjoy, sir."
Last time he was here the place had been empty, or nearly. Today it was practically busy, people clustered around almost every table, laptops out, college students arguing loudly over Kant, and it was better like this. Being in a crowd was easier than standing out.
"That's not an iced americano."
When he looked up the person who'd spoken was Hoseok, and the lights in Hyungwon's head flickered.
"Well spotted," Hyungwon said. "Good job. You're so right."
Hoseok stood there for a second, hands in his pockets, lips pressed tight together. Hyungwon wanted him to seem angry, but the twist of his mouth was just... maybe it was confusion?
"Can I sit down?" he asked.
"Dunno," Hyungwon snipped back, viciously slicing off a bite of cake. "Can you?"
"May I sit down?"
"It's a semi-free country."
Hoseok pulled out the chair on the other side of the table and sat down gingerly. "So," he said after a minute.
"So," Hyungwon said back. Whatever a breve mocha was it tasted almost exactly like what gaining five kilos felt like. In the absence of a manager Hyungwon drank it with fervor. "I don't have anything to say, all right? It's just weird and awkward and tomorrow it'll be nothing so I'm skipping ahead, all right? I'm skipping ahead to when there's nothing again."
"You know," Hoseok said, the words coming out slow, "Jooheon was pretty sure you'd be in your work room."
"Shows what he knows."
"Yeah," Hoseok said, and the single syllable seemed heavier than it should have been for how small it was.
"Yeah," Hyungwon said. Then, because he was stupid and self-destructive and just had to know, he said, "But you're here."
"Just a guess." Hoseok looked at his hands, folded together on the table in front of him.
Hyungwon didn't look at Hoseok's hands because he knew that they were thick and square and perfect like the rest of him, the shape of something that's exactly what it should be; no more, no less. Instead of looking at Hoseok’s hands he looked at his cake, spearing the strawberry on top.
"Penny for your thoughts," said Hoseok.
"Sorry,” Hyungwon said around the sweet and sour strawberry, words slurring. “Bidding starts at 50,000 won."
"Clever. Could you just play along for a minute?" Hoseok smiled, as best he could, eyes curving in the narrow strip between the ends of his bangs and the facemask he wore. "I know explaining things isn't really your idea of a good time."
"There's nothing else to explain," Hyungwon said. He looked at his own hands, thoughts hopskipping over every detail he could think of, anything that might have been left out. "Jooheon pretty much covered it all."
"Then how about this: why did you think it was me writing the fanfiction?"
When Hyungwon glanced up Hoseok was looking at him again, brow furrowed slightly in cautious curiosity.
"It was just Honey who thought that," Hyungwon lied. "It's one thing if there's something, but since there's nothing—"
"There's something," Hoseok interrupted.
Hyungwon sat there in stricken silence for a full thirty seconds. The breve mocha was getting cold. "That's not a good idea," he said, voice low. Not weird. Not gross. Not even it would never work. Just: that's not a good idea.
He'd be lying if he said he'd never... that he'd never thought about something, (just for a few dark private moments in the dead of night, everyone snoring around him, only a cold quilt and a flattened pillow for company), that he'd never looked over at Hoseok on stage and heard people scream and wondered what it was they saw. None of the fanfiction, none of the fans, none of it had told him anything he didn't already know about Hoseok. He already knew the shape of his hands and could recognize over a dozen of his different smiles. He could already look out over a crowd and know which person in the milieu was Hoseok just from the way he stood and walked and turned his head. He knew what Hoseok smelled like, both fresh out of the shower as well as after a long day, or even days.
What the fanfiction had told him was that he already knew it all, knew Hoseok, knew all his small quirks and mannerisms. That he'd noticed it, and when he read about it he knew when it wasn't right. He hadn't thought it was Hoseok who'd written it any more than anyone else, in hindsight. The fanfiction Changkyun had apparently written wasn't particularly romantic but Hyungwon had read it with the same mindset he'd had when reading anything else, he'd seen similar adjectives and echoed verbs and had done something stupid: permit himself.
When he looked at Hoseok now Hyungwon realized that he'd spent the last few weeks letting himself, for once. Allowing himself to look at Hoseok the way he always had, the way that was a bad idea. That's not a good idea, he'd said.
It's one thing if there's nothing.
"Is it?" Hoseok said. It sounded like a challenge, but the look on his face was nothing more than a question mark.
"A bad idea?" Hyungwon laughed despite himself— he didn't want to but he did anyway. Lungs do what they like in the absence of common sense. "Don't be stupid. What about any of this—" He looked out the window because it was that or keep looking at Hoseok. If this were a fanfiction, Hyungwon thought to himself, then everything would be fine all at once. They'd hold hands across the table and no one would see them even though they were right there in front of god and everybody. Maybe they'd even kiss, (Hyungwon squeezed his eyes shut), maybe they'd go somewhere to spend some time with just the two of them. "It just isn't," Hyungwon finally said. "It's not a good idea. We should just forget it."
"You're skipping ahead," said Hoseok, "to when there's nothing."
"Yeah," Hyungwon said.
Hoseok moved slowly, arms almost jerking in hesitance as he reached up with both hands to pull his cotton face mask down until it tucked under his chin. (Hyungwon watched him, and wondered if that mouth tasted like a hot-house strawberry.) Then he asked, "Again?" but this time he didn't make any sound, he just formed the word with his mouth.
Was there even a nothing to go back to? The worst thing, the absolute worst thing, was that Hyungwon knew now what all those fans saw when he and Hoseok looked at each other on stage and made the audience scream. If this were a fanfiction everything would be fine all at once but it was real life, he was alive and Hoseok was alive and they'd both signed their lives on the line and part of what that meant was this: giving up something for nothing.
Hoseok was asking if he had any something to give up, so Hyungwon opened his mouth and took a deep breath and licked his lips and said, "No." There couldn't be nothing again, because there'd never been nothing. There had always been something. They'd looked at each other for the first time years ago, and Hyungwon had read enough fanfiction by now that when he looked back through the mists of time he recognized that moment as that one bit, you know the bit, the bit where they look at each other and one of them thinks:
It wasn't a fanfiction. They were in public. They couldn't hold hands, or kiss, or— hell, they weren't even supposed to look like themselves. Hyungwon had returned to the scene of the crime. He wasn't supposed to be here at all, let alone like this.
"We can go somewhere," Hoseok said. "Talk about it a little, or hang out, or whatever."
"Yeah," Hyungwon said. He decided then and there that they would talk and hang out and they'd both agree it was a bad idea and something should be nothing—
On the pavement outside Hoseok caught hold of the strap on one sleeve of Hyungwon’s coat and steered him down the street, down the stairs, into the subway again. He didn’t pay attention to the line or the direction, just looked at Hoseok’s thick square fingers tangled up in the coat he’d bought him, and decided there would be nothing.
Little did he know just how soon he'd discover that Hoseok's mouth— pink and shy and yet (somehow) almost vulpine— tasted sweeter than any strawberry, hot-house or otherwise.